Friday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 345

Do not complain, brothers and sisters, about one another,
that you may not be judged.
Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates.
Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters,
the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
Indeed we call blessed those who have persevered.
You have heard of the perseverance of Job,
and you have seen the purpose of the Lord,
because the Lord is compassionate and merciful.

Hearing once again Jesus' teachings about marriage and the Apostle James' exhortation about judgement, I can't help but remember Pope Francis' widely quoted quip, "Who am I to judge?"
I'm sure that remark can be correctly interpretted in one or two ways and misinterpretted in thousands, but I find it helps to keep an open mind. The challenge of homosexuality is not going away. Lawmakers and judges are reading it as a civil right comparable to that of African-American civil rights. The struggle for recognition of homosexual marriage -- which still sounds like an oxymoron to me -- is surmounting legal, social and religious barriers.

I am not one to fight to the last man or to keep firing until I've run out of ammunition. I prefer to retreat, wait and see. I don't expect anything good to come of it, but marriage has been "in trouble" for a very long time, apparently since Adam blamed Eve for what he had done. I will watch as the Gates of Hell storm against it to see what happens.

Certainly, the Catholic Church will not redefine marriage to include same-sex couples. There is nothing in the Scriptures to indicate Jerusalem was anything but the feminine betrothed of God, and the Church is the female bride of Jesus.  The scriptures cannot be rewritten to accomodate the latest Newspeak. The life-long, committed, faithful covenant of a man and a woman -- who are willing to conceive, though not to manufacture, children -- will stand above our moral landscape like gleaming alabaster cities, undimmed by human tears.

This watchful, hopeful posture will require "the perseverance of Job." We can do this because we have seen "the purpose of the Lord" who teaches us that a man and woman are bound together in marriage as Jesus is bound to his Church. Divorce is inconceivable, despite innumerable challenges. God will not abandon us. He has bound himself to us by a bond that can never be broken, the resurrected person of Jesus Christ.

In the VA I meet a lot of divorced Veterans. Many of them are in daily contact with their ex-wives, who care for them in their sickness. There is the truth of Jesus' teaching, "What God has joined together cannot be put asunder."

I attended a meeting of friars many years ago. It was during the first decade after the Second Vatican Council and there was a lot of discontent in the community. I was only a new member but I had my own list of grievances to add to the pile.

After several days of unmitigated grumbling, one of the friars -- who was no model of patience -- reminded us that we expected a cross when we made our vows, so "Why are you complaining? Anyone who puts his hand to the plow -- or to the cross -- and turns back is not fit for the Kingdom of God. Get over it!"

We did. It took a while.

Marriage, like all the other sacraments, is about the cross.  It is a two-edged sword penetrating between soul and spirit, joints and marrow. Those who want marriage without the cross will find only heart-break and divorce. Those who willingly bear the cross will know everlasting joy. 

Marriage is a thing of beauty, a joy forever, as the poet John Keats said,
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.

Thursday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 344

You have stored up treasure for the last days.
Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud;
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.
You have condemned;
you have murdered the righteous one;
he offers you no resistance.

In her book, Behind the Beautiful Forevers,  Life, death, and hope in a Mumbai undercity, Katherine Moo describes the methodical exploitation of the helplessly poor, their resistance and their despair. Much of the poverty is the direct result of political and economic corruption, a situation not unfamiliar to anyone who reads the scriptures. 
The scriptures' suspicion of the wealthy is palpable; it appears in the laws, the prophets and the wisdom writings. It's assumed they fix scales for cheatingjuggle books, gerrymander districts, stuff ballot boxes, and enacts laws that guarantee both their privilege and their long-term maintenance of privilege. 

It's also assumed both poor and wealthy "will always be with you." As long as there is sin there will be inequity. At times depravity will be so outrageous it will shamelessly flaunt itself without challenge in public -- until the day of judgement. 

In her book about the slums of Mumbai, Moo sees occasional efforts by the national and civic leaders to amend their ways. After the Pakistani-sponsored terror attacks in the finest hotels in 2011, they saw how corruption had paralyzed both the military and the police. A response that should have taken minutes took hours and days. She writes: 
Rich Indians typically tried to work around a dysfunctional government. Private security was hired, city water was filtered, private schools tuitions were paid. Such choices had evolved over the years into a policy: the best government is the one that gets out of the way.
The attacks on the Taj and the Oberoi [hotels], in which executives and socialites died, had served as a blunt corrective. The wealthy now saw that their security could not be requisitioned privately. They were dependent on the same public safety system that ill-served the poor.
Ten young men had terrorized one of the world's biggest cities for three days -- a fact that had something to do with the ingenuity of a multi-pronged plot, but perhaps also to do with government agencies that had been operating as private market-stalls, not as public guardians. The crisis-response units of the Mumbai Police lacked arms. Officers in the train station didn't know how to use their weapons, and ran and hid as two terrorists killed more than fifty travelers. Other officers called to rescue inhabitants of a besieged maternity hospital stayed put at police headquarters, four blocks away. Ambulances failed to respond to the wounded. Military commandos took eight hours to reach the heart of the financial capital -- a journey that involved an inconveniently parked jet, a stop to refuel, and a long bus ride from the Mumbai airport. 
After the attack, when foreign tourists found other, safer places to visit, even wealthy Indians concluded honesty might be a better policy. 

This tragic scenario can happen any place where people take a certain amount of sin for granted. Many people dislike a religion that speaks of judgement, but even the atheist must agree that every act has its consequence and none more certain than evil. 

Wednesday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 343

Come now, you who say,
“Today or tomorrow we shall go into such and such a town, spend a year there doing business, and make a profit.”

You have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow. You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears.

The spiritual life is that quest to make of oneself more than a puff of smoke. We seek eternal life, something which has more weight than the immortality of a vampire or zombie.

Immortal life doesn't sound attractive to me. I’m only sixty-five and I think I have already seen too much change. The older I get the less I know about anything. Why would anyone want to live in an indefinite future of endless change and ebbing familiarity? At the VA I see intense, beautiful young people preparing to serve as doctors, nurses and technicians. I am quite willing to turn my sorry world over to them.

In the meanwhile I look for that substance which is not a puff of smoke. I find evidence of it in our creed, in that mysterious word consubstantial. We are created in God’s image and called to be holy as God is holy. We find in the person of God that substance which does not perish by sin or corruption.

Our religious tradition insists, profit, money, security, fame, influence and luxury are insubstantial. Ownership is an illusion. One’s claim on property vanishes like a puff of smoke at the moment of death, if not sooner. I’ve been around long enough to see billions of dollars vanish overnight. (Fortunately I owned none of it.) Even as we speak the worth of money fluctuates; it might tank before the day is out.
I don't look for immortality but for eternity, which is now. As Saint Francis learned to see the beauty of all creatures through the lens of poverty, I want to know the goodness of life through such simple acts as breathing, walking and drinking water. Just listening to another human being speak pays homage to everlasting life. 

Saint Francis saw Eternity in water, so useful, lowly, precious and pure. This is the same water of the rich and the poor, of animals and plants, of animate and inanimate life. It is more substantial than wealth; its contemplation touches God. 

Tuesday of the Seventh week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 342

They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, he began to ask them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they remained silent for they had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest.

Even before God speaks to us we have a sense of right and wrong. If we cannot exactly find the right way, we usually know when we’re wrong. The disciples in today’s gospel argue about which of them is the greatest, as if any of them can hold a candle to Jesus! When he asks them about their conversation they are ashamed and cannot answer.

At this stage of their training Jesus had already chosen twelve to be his apostles. He wants them to be “with him.” He led three of the twelve up the mountain to witness his transfiguration. Simon Peter, chosen by The Father, has stepped forward as spokesman for the group. Organization and rank is starting to appear among Jesus’ disciples, but it doesn’t come from their internal squabbling. 

Yet, there is tension among them. Perhaps some feel overlooked. Others feel more loyal to a rival of Simon Peter. In any case, by its restlessness, the group challenges Jesus’ authority to delegate. They have much to learn about the cost of discipleship. They do not realize that leadership is nothing but a cross.

To aspire to leadership in the Church is not sheer idiocy, but it requires a specific calling. One does not take this upon oneself out of ambition or avarice or the latent desire to prove one’s self-worth. Nor should one aspire to represent an ethnic group or oppressed minority. As compelling as those motives might be, they fly in the face of the Lord’s authority to choose whom he will.

In today’s gospel, in the privacy of “the house” Jesus quietly teaches his disciples about authority. The leader must be the “last of all and the servant of all.” One of my colleagues in the VA told me recently how the white Veteran had accepted the visit of an African-American female chaplain. When she presented herself, he did not dismiss her, nor did he welcome her. He seemed to want her attention but not right away. In the meantime, she could stand over there, reach for his jacket, and hand him various items, while he took care of some other business. Then, when he was ready, he permitted her to offer a prayer on his behalf, and leave.

She laughed about his rudeness. It’s the sort of thing people in the service industry have to get used to. My friend’s self-esteem is anchored in her confidence that the Lord has personally called her to this ministry, and she will have to abide rude people.

Secondly, in today’s gospel, Jesus shows how the leader must care for the least in the community; for instance, the child. On occasion the leader will ask the adults to step aside while he listens to the child’s whispered request. That might not seem terribly challenging to us; we make a cult of doting over our entitled children. But in occupied Palestine, when Jewish adults had to endure the contempt of Roman soldiers, deference to little children made no sense at all. It was not the road to success or power. 

The Lord gives a measure of authority to every Christian. It is an authority with roots in their temperaments and abilities. It may flourish as an ability to lead others, or to compose music, or to maintain buildings. Grace animates those gifts making them useful for the Church and for others. The chosen might enjoy that facility -- the ease with which their talents bear fruit for others -- but they are not to be used for personal advancement. 

In this Gospel story, Jesus' question exposes the scheming of his disciples; they retreat into shameful silence. The day will come when each will serve the Lord and the Church with extraordinary grace, but in the meanwhile they will learn humility. 

Monday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 341

Immediately on seeing him,
the whole crowd was utterly amazed.
They ran up to him and greeted him. 

There's a lot of energy in today's gospel from Saint Mark. First we notice the crowd is "utterly amazed" when Jesus and his disciples appear. They have just come down from the Mount of the Transfiguration. The suggestion is that Jesus is glowing like Moses, who had been to the mountain and seen the Lord. This may well have been the emotional high point of Jesus' life. Perhaps it equaled only his baptism in the Jordan. It would be, of course, infinitely surpassed by the Resurrection, but that remains in the indefinite future. 

Jesus' landing back in the banality of this world after the high of the Transfiguration is a hard one. He is greeted by a crowd who want a healing. Or perhaps they only want a spectacle, another sign. 

Worse, the disciples, who should have learned something by now, cannot effect a healing. In chapter 6 he had sent them out on mission with the authority to cast out unclean spirits. They seem to have lost it already. He expresses his exasperation with his disciples and the unruly crowd with,
O faithless generation, how long will I be with you?
How long will I endure you? Bring him to me. 
Finally, he heals the boy, but not before rebuking the child's father, Jesus said to him, “If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” 

The story concludes with Jesus withdrawing to "the house." This house seems to appear from time to time in Mark's gospel. It is a place of quiet, rest and private instruction. There he can explain to his disciples, without the fevered rebukes of the earlier hours, "This kind can only come out through prayer.”

As Christians we expect a lot of ourselves and are often disappointed. We cannot drive the demons of sloth, lust, greed, envy and so forth out of our churches, neighborhoods, families or personal life. 

Jesus the Coach assures us, "You can do this!" but it will take much prayer. 

My day in the VA Hospital begins with a half hour in the chapel and the Liturgy of the Hours. There I remember that the Church prays continually, in obedience to Saint Paul's command. If I am not glowing when I leave the chapel, I am better prepared to face the day. 

I don't claim to effect healing but I often see it, especially with those Veterans who have remained faithful to their upbringing. As sick as they might be they find solace in the prayers of the Church, their family and loved ones. Some too are ready to "turn away from sin and live by the Gospel." That is wonderful to behold. 

In the Gospel of Saint Mark we meet Jesus' energetic, sometimes exasperated, determination to save us. Immersed in prayer, we feels his grace delivering us from fire and water. 

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 79

You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove your fellow citizen,
do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD.”

The Book of Leviticus is called "the holiness code." Its essential command is "Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy." The Chosen People understand their covenant with God, "Ever present in your midst, I will be your God, and you will be my people." 

The penultimate chapter (26) lists the assured blessings when the people remain faithful to the Lord, reflecting the holiness of God (verses 3-13). To emphasize the advantages of these blessings Chapter 26 lists in even greater, and more horrific, detail the curses for failure to live in this manner (verses 14-45). 

Reneging on the covenant is not an option. The Lord will always remain faithful to the Covenant and will always hold the people to it. They will enjoy blessings for their fidelity and suffer curses for infidelity. They will not be able to walk away from it. 

Perhaps this is why some Christian adults deny Baptism to infants and small children. They want the young adult children to decide for themselves if they will enter the bonds of Baptism. They should know the terms of the covenant. 

Our Catholic tradition assumes that the blessings of the covenant are so extremely attractive and the penalties for sin are so dreadful that no sane person would not choose to accept the privileges of Baptism, Eucharist and Confirmation. They will as eagerly attend Mass, study the scriptures, and enter the sacred bonds of Marriage, religious life or the Priesthood. Even the single life without a life-partner is more attractive than life without God's covenant. 

Our culture and civilization has been deeply influenced by our Jewish-Christian heritage. 

I have been reading a "documentary novel" by Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers. She combines the observations of a journalist with the skills of a novelist to create a book worthy of Charles Dickens or Sinclair Lewis. She describes a Mumbai slum, neglected and exploited by the wealthy and powerful, religiously rooted only in anachronistic Muslim and Hindu religions. 

I read the book, of course, as an American Catholic priest and I look for traces of religion. I am only half-way through the book (precisely 59%) but it seems their spiritual traditions offer little hope for the future or satisfaction in the present. There is only survival and its demands. Religious traditions like the dowry, burka and purdah are ill-suited and too burdensome for life in the slum. If they offer a vague connection to a happier past, they cost far too much in the present. 

I wonder how much hope a Catholic or Christian missionary might bring to such a place. Would this person attempt to build a church or chapel there, only to have it shredded by recyclers who sell it piece by piece to the scrap industry? 

The essential gift of our western religious tradition would be our friendly, optimistic vision: God is good. God will bless the people who live by faith, trusting that in his will they will find reasonable prosperity and realistic optimism. 

America was built on the belief that honesty in business and government, solidarity with one's neighbors and fellow citizens, hard work and education could erect a stable economy. Some parts of the nation are still plagued by corruption, illiteracy, racism and poverty; a tightly-braided rope that anchors them in despair. God is not good to them; the curses of Leviticus lie heavily upon the land. 

Boo's book describes a world that never knew anything but corruption, illiteracy, racism and poverty. Religion and culture have disappeared. In the slum, as on Wall Street, Greed is Good. Therein lies the link between our world and theirs. 

Last Sunday and today, we have been hearing Jesus teach a new way of life, "You have heard that it was said...; but I say to you...." 

God's way will always be peculiar. It will always represent a choice to us and our children. The promises of Greed will lure us and our children to the glitter of Wall Street and the grime of the slum.  
Yet even so, even while they are in their enemies’ land, I will not reject or loathe them to the point of wiping them out, thus making void my covenant with them; for I, the LORD, am their God.
I will remember for them the covenant I made with their forebears, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt before the eyes of the nations, that I might be their God. I am the LORD. (Leviticus 26: 44-45)

Feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, Apostle

Lectionary: 535

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father.
And so I say to you, you are Peter,
and upon this rock I will build my Church,
and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.

This passage from the Gospel according to Saint Matthew is dense with meaning to our Roman Catholic Church. It is not the only scripture passage that denotes Saint Simon Peter as the first of the disciples and, hence, "the first pope," but it is the most important of them.

First we should notice, "Blessed are you...." Simon's role is not simply his election by the church or a college of cardinals. God has singled him out for a particular blessing. The word doesn't mean just happy or fortunate; it means chosen for a singular dignity. 

Then we notice the word revealed. Our secular culture usually wants to ignore or write off the role of God in human affairs. Divine intervention seems to violate somebody's rules. But Jesus insists that "my heavenly Father" has revealed the truth of Jesus Christ to Simon. He didn't figure it out. He didn't know the scriptures so well as to assemble all the prophetic clues of the Old Testament and conclude that Jesus is the Messiah. Rather, the Father has revealed this truth to Simon through an intervention of the Holy Spirit. 

Peter's exclamation seems to reveal to Jesus who should be the leader of the disciples. I may be reading something into our English translation but the phrase, "And so" suggests that Jesus recognizes the Father's intervention. Clearly the Holy Spirit rests upon this man.  

The word Peter is Latin for rock, as in petrified and petrescence. A city or a house built on stone has a lot of advantages. Not only does it rest solidly on an immovable foundation -- unlike its neighbor built on sand -- but it cannot be undermined by enemy sappers. It would take a Year of Sundays to chip away at that foundation. The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.

(We can make this claim not only for the Church but also for all the sacraments. The gates of hell cannot prevail against the Sacraments of Penance and Marriage, despite whatever the Supreme Court might say.)

From its earliest days the papacy took on some of the trappings of the Roman empire. The pope has the title of pontifex, meaning bridge-builder, one of the emperor's titles. The laws and customs of the Church were modeled on the philosophical and legal precedents of ancient Rome. The title vicar of Christ is recent and might one day be dropped into the dustbin of history. 

But the pope's leadership does not have to be like that of a Roman emperor. Pope Paul VI started making significant changes in the style of the papacy back in the 1960's; our Holy Father Francis is making further changes. For that we are grateful.

Pius IX's doctrine of papal infallibility has proven to be less than useful. If modern pope's don't declare a teaching as infallible, people don't take it seriously. And then there is creeping infallibility, the tendency of cardinals, bishops and pastors to make their own infallible remarks to a skeptical church. 

The Church rightly claims an infallible understanding of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. Historians, psychologists, sociologists, novelists and others may write their own interpretations but only the spirit-guided Church can speak with authority about Jesus, and only the Pope can speak for the entire Church. 

Nevertheless, Catholics the world over and many Protestants recognize the need for one person who is "blessed" with the burdens of the papacy. 

  • First he speaks for the Church to the world. His is the voice of doctrine for both theological and moral issues. 
    • No one may be interested in the Immaculate Conception but the Pope's condemnation of abortion raises ire the world over. 
    • Many Catholics denounce his right to be a spokesman. Witness the spate of break-away catholic cults since the Vatican Council, both conservative and liberal. 
  • Secondly, he speaks with authority to the Church, demanding that we continually reexamine our thinking and prayers in the light of the Gospel. 
    • Recently, at the Pope's behest, the English speaking world has adapted to a new translation of our liturgy.
  • Finally, he governs the Church by the appointment of bishops who have demonstrated their fidelity to the Gospel. By this authority the Holy Father honors the heart-felt prayer of Jesus, that all may be one. 
    • This is no easy chore, especially because he has so little secular power. He might defrock a bishop but in most countries the bishop can still wear his frock with impunity. 
On this feast of the Chair of Saint Peter, we pray that God continues to reveal to Peter the truths that the Church and the World must hear. 

Friday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 339

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the Gospel will save it.

It's often said, "You should be careful what you ask for because you might get it. Some of the saints, presumably in the blush of first fervor, asked God for suffering. They ardently wanted to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. The hagiographers assure us, they got what they wanted. 

In our own decadent times most of us are willing to let the misery come when it gets here. There's really no hurry. We also pray for the willingness to take up whatever cross the Lord sends us. 

The story is told of the itinerant tinkers who gathered at the crossroads hostelry for news and gossip. Each of them grumbled about the heavy burden of his tools and cutlery. But when someone shouted fire each grabbed his own bag and ran for the door. We prefer our own crosses to those of others. 

The trick is to find the blessing in my cross. It's there; it may take a long time to find it. Perhaps that journey begins with a simple word of thanks. "I don't know why I have to endure this, and if I had my druthers "I druther not"; but, Lord, let me carry this cross with your own gracious spirit." 

Sometimes a cross introduces us to others who share similar burdens. You might suffer a disease you've never heard of, but no sooner is it diagnosed than you meet people who suffer the same condition. Diabetes, COPD, congesive heart failure, alcoholism, Crohns Disease: each has its community of sufferers who bear one another's burdens. 

Our crosses introduce us to goodhearted souls who have embraced the life of Christ, including some who have never been inside a church, synagogue or mosque.  They choose not to be overwhelmed by hardship. Like G.K. Chesterton's angels, they take themselves and their challenges lightly.

Crosses deflate the egos that want recognition, honor and privilege. They isolate us from the company we prefer and surround us with people like ourselves. We meet people who accept us readily because the cross has given us a home and made us family. 

Crosses open our eyes to the beauty that aesthetes cannot imagine. We see them in the light of Christ and thank him for the privilege of walking with him. 

Thursday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 338

He began to teach them
that the Son of Man must suffer greatly…

In Saint Mark's Gospel of sixteen chapters, this eighth chapter marks a turning point. The disciples have seen and heard enough to know that Jesus is “the Christ.” Their knowledge may be rudimentary but it’s a good foundation for what they must yet understand.

They should have noticed two things: that Jesus is extraordinary like no one they have ever met or heard of; and that opposition to him is mounting. As early as the second chapter there were questions about his authority to forgive sins. By the third chapter enemies are plotting to kill him. Jesus is like a lion who has come up out of the wilderness to take the sheep of the scribes, lawyers, Pharisees and Herodians; and there is nothing they can do about it. Wherever he goes the people flock to him while the erstwhile pastors stand by fuming and helpless.

As of the eighth chapter Jesus begins to complete the picture of the Messiah. He will not mount a defense against the rising tide of wrath; he must suffer…. Precisely because he is the Christ, the Son of God, he must suffer greatly. 

When Saint Paul learned that his gentile disciples in Galatia were being circumcised he was horrified. He railed against that effort to justify themselves, declaring, 
As for me, my brothers, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? If I did that now, would there be any scandal of the cross?
The scandal of the cross -- of suffering and death -- is as hard to accept today as it was at that time. And yet our religion is empty without it. We must never surrender it. 

The suffering of the Son of Man, even on its most basic level, confronts our suppositions. Why should anyone suffer and, more specifically, why should I (or my loved ones) suffer? Remembering that our salvation depends upon our willingness to identify with the suffering of the Messiah, each of us will ask, “Why must I suffer with him?”

Many of the Veterans I meet in the VA are stoic about pain. They face surgeries, amputations, debility and death. They say “I haven’t any choice.” Some will say, “Why me?” or “Why now?” 

Occasionally I meet the patient who says, “Why not me?” That is certainly Jesus attitude, “Why should I not suffer as a human being, like any other human being?” Saint Paul understood:

…though he was in the form of God, (Jesus) did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:7-8)

In every Catholic church and (hopefully) in every Catholic home we hang a crucifix in a prominent place. Our eyes should gaze upon its mysterious beauty often. Why the Lord must suffer cannot be explained in a flood of words but we know it is necessary. We see that and know that in the vision of the cross. It is the narrow gate through which we see eternal life – and joy and beauty.

Wednesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 337

Know this, my dear brothers and sisters:
everyone should be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger
for anger does not accomplish
the righteousness of God.

Recently, I listened to an audio presentation by a Christian scholar about anger. The professor drew a sharp line between our tradition and modern psychology. He was adamant that anger is a sin; wrath, as it’s traditionally called, is one of the seven deadly sins. There is no justification for it. But he sounded like a very angry man.

Sin is ordinarily understood as an act done by one who is fully conscious of the decision and its moral dimensions. He or she knows it’s wrong. The professor did not touch upon unconscious or unacknowledged anger and how it plays havoc in our lives.

There may be people who take pleasure in consciously, intentionally working themselves into anger. Some people go to weepy movies to cry; others attend comedies to laugh and horror movies to be afraid. There are people who love to be angry; they favor propaganda like talk radio and racist, sexist or homophobic stories. When they cause a lot of unnecessary hurt and distress for themselves and others, they commit sin.

Most of us don’t enjoy anger; our Christian tradition has taught us to be wary of it. But, like the other emotions – glad, sad and scared – it is not intrinsically evil. If I throw a brick through a show window in sheer joy because my team won the championship, it’s just as wrong as if I had done the same in anger. Sometimes a healthy individual needs the pure energy of anger to deal with conflict.
The question is, “Do I use my anger only for myself or do I place it at the service of God?” Sometimes I get angry enough to clean my room, though it's only been four months since the last time! We may need that energy to draw the boundaries between myself and others, or around my family and the demands of school, work and society.

It takes a measure of anger to step out of my routines and change things. There are serious injustices which must be challenged. We have only to think about abortion, sexual exploitation of children or political corruption to think, “I should do something. I can do something.”
Our faith teaches us to let the Holy Spirit use our sacred energies of joy, sorrow, fear and anger in God’s service. We must be wary of self-righteousness in our struggle --  and anger has a way of justifying foolishness -- but we should be ready to do battle for righteousness. 

As Saint Paul says,
Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For our* struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these,* take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Tuesday of the sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Rather, each person is tempted when lured and enticed by his desire.
Then desire conceives and brings forth sin,
and when sin reaches maturity it gives birth to death.

I am not well-versed in Eastern Religions – Hindu, Buddhism, Sikh, Zoroastrianism, Tao or Confucius – but since this is my own blog and the imaginary setting is a weekday homily before a small congregation of friends I don't have to be an expert to offer a thought.

The issue is desire. As I understand, Buddhism teaches that desire is the root of all our problems. The “Four Noble Truths” of Buddhism teach: 1) life is painful, 2) our pain is born of our desire, 3) pain can be alleviated by the lessening of desire, and 4) there are “noble paths” that help to lessen desire.

Watch a child in the candy section of a grocery store and you will see a human being in agony. She wants it all; she can have so little. Taking a child to the store seems like a form of punishment, but they want to go! The child’s desire is acutely painful and yet she cannot turn away from it.

Unlike the Buddhist tradition, our Christian tradition does not renounce desire; it refines it. There is a purpose to desire beyond inducing pain. Jesus asked the blind Bartimaeus, “What do you want?” When the beggar responded, “I want to see!” he didn’t tell him to "be content with your blindness."

Many counselors believe alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse are born of the spiritual desire for satisfaction. The alcoholic may be the most spiritually sensitive person in the family. He finds dissatisfying what everyone else considers good enough.

Faith offers a kind of answer to that desire. It gives a reason to hope for satisfaction, which is found in the present moment by the act of love. We don’t live simply for heaven, a place that might exist after we die. Rather, our eternal life begins in the moment that we love; and it continues forever. Ardent lovers – most of us – remember seemingly endless moments when we shared time with the beloved. Heaven seemed to come to earth for an achingly brief visit. It was beautiful and yet it hurt because we knew it could not last long in this troubled world. The hurt was our desire expressed; “I want more; I want it all!”

The Christian learns to keep that desire, living with it, refining and treasuring it. We will not attempt to  satisfy our longing with anything less than God. Saint James teaches us what to desire:
Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers and sisters:
all good giving and every perfect gift is from above,
coming down from the Father of lights,
with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change.

Unlike the Buddhist who renounces desire and, in effect, erases the self; the Christian desires perfect desire. Let me burn with my craving for God and never be tempted by anything less than God.

Monday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 335

Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials,
for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.
And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

In Christian life Saint James’ invitation to “Consider it all joy” may be the punch line of much humor, as is the story of Saint Francis’ “perfect joy.” Sometimes you just have to laugh; otherwise, you'll cry.

Joy, laughter and humor are closely connected; they are the gifts God gives us when we desperately need perseverance. "When you reach the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on!" So that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.

My readers may have noticed I tend to be a pretty sober person. My mother -- God rest her soul -- nicknamed me “old sober sides” at some point of my childhood. Perhaps for that reason I like to find the humor in scripture and religion. Where serious commentators look for deep meaning in every biblical verse, I notice first the comical – including Saint James’ opening statement.

Philosophically, I believe humor is a meeting place for the secular and religious. We can share a good laugh over our differences and permit others to laugh both at and with us. Humor admits there is more to life than anyone can comprehend or control. Much escapes us.

My mother always found great humor in slap stick. Jerry Lewis, who destroyed his back with his pratfalls, was outrageously funny to her. So one summer night we were coming in to escape the mosquitoes. My brother Bob and I assisted her up the porch stairs. When I opened the screen door the dog bolted through first and she tripped over him. She slammed to the floor and then laughed out loud. I wanted to kill the dog. A few minutes later she flopped down on the bed and banged her head on the headboard. She was shaking so hard we feared she’d had another stroke, but she was just laughing at the comedy of it all.

Consider it all joy….

A lack of humor betrays a lack of faith. Some religious people desperately need everyone to agree with them; they cannot allow space for other points of view, much less disagreement. They fight desperately to make something true which, they fear, is not true.

A sense of humor allows truth to reveal itself in its own time and to those chosen to see it. For both gifts we are grateful.

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 76

I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses
that of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

As I waited to escape a crowded parking lot I had to watch a perplexed driver remove an obstructing, enormous SUV from the roadway. This perplexed driver (henceforth known as PD – I will not identify the gender) was clearly unaware of the dimensions of said vehicle. Was it too close to another parked car? Was there room to navigate? Where are my fenders and bumpers?

I kid you not! PD got out of the car at least six times before moving it six inches each time, when there was still plenty of room for maneuvering. I should have gotten out of my own vehicle and coached PD but I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Surely PD knows there is more room to back; but no, “Let’s get out and check again -- and again -- and again.”

Managing difficult or challenging circumstances is like parking a car in a crowded parking lot. “Where exactly are my boundaries, my bumpers and fenders? Am I close enough or too close?” Athletic teams have coaches because the players do not know their own capabilities.

It’s not easy to know yourself from within yourself.

God knows of what we are capable. That should be obvious since God created us in God’s own image and likeness. Male and female God created us. We are capable of divine activities – if we only believed it.

In today’s gospel Jesus surprises us with our capabilities:

  • “…go first and be reconciled with your brother.” In this context reconciliation is the alternative to murder. They seem polar opposites, light years apart, but they are actually very close. Can I be reconciled with someone I wish did not exist?

Jesus’ instruction doesn’t begin with that question because he knows it doesn’t have to come to that. His scenario begins with your approaching the altar and there remembering your brother has something against you. Well, for Pete’s sake, go and be reconciled with your brother first! Your sacrifice can wait. Go! Go! Don’t hesitate, just do it!

There are skills involved. Reconciliation takes practice and it’s good to have experience. Sometimes we need a little coaching. When I was in a leadership position one of the staff told me of her conflict with another member. She was paralyzed with fear of his gruff exterior. I told her, “He’s a puppy dog! Go talk to him!” It took a while but she finally went to him. They became best of friends! It was almost comical how she loved the balding old chihuahua.

How much of this world’s conflict would be avoided if we only took that initial step of going to be reconciled? The Coach knows.

  • “You have heard that it was said, / You shall not commit adultery. / But I say to you, / everyone who looks at a woman with lust / has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Sometime after World War II pornography went main stream. Looking with lust became socially acceptable, a harmless entertainment. When some people objected they were challenged, “Scientifically prove that it’s harmful.” The spiritual link between lust and sexual violence could not be demonstrated and so it’s supposed to be harmless.

Is pornography harmful? Given the lack of “scientific proof,” one can as easily conclude that it is. My experience is definitive for me. Pornography scalds the imagination and one’s ability to see others as God sees them. Rather than seeing brothers or sisters, the afflicted see objects of desire or disgust. Even animals are distorted through the vision of lust.

Healing after exposure to pornography requires very deliberate prayer and meditation. I find it helpful to gaze upon images of Christ Crucified and his Most Blessed Mother. This gazing can eventually cover over and erase the undesirable images.

  • Finally, the Coach says, “Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.” 

I have found that it’s better not to swear. In fact, it’s better to say something only once, without a whole lot of emphasis or exaggeration, and certainly without claiming the endorsement of a third party – God or someone else.

If the truth of what I say is not obvious to my interlocutor, perhaps its time has not yet come. There’s no point in getting upset about it. When the disciple is ready, the teacher will appear. Perhaps someone else will say it and be given credit for it. I don’t need to invest myself in any particular idea or insight. I don’t own ideas.

God knows we are capable of living by these and all his teachings. Jesus has set about proving that to us. God’s ways are reasonable, beautiful and desirable if only we open our hearts to the Spirit that is willing. "With God all things are possible."