Monday of the Thirty-first Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 485

If there is any encouragement in Christ,
any solace in love,
any participation in the Spirit,
any compassion and mercy,
complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love,
united in heart, thinking one thing.

I always hear this passage from Saint Paul's Letter to the Philippians as a preamble leading into his song. It's like that moment in "South Pacific" when you know the speaker is about to start singing, "Some enchanted evening...." 

Saint Paul's four clauses beginning with "if there is any..." are so beautiful and so demanding, they must lead into a song which will satisfy, at least artistically, this longing. It's a very personal exhortation. He is saying "If you love me, complete my joy...." And he speaks with great confidence to his Philippian friends, with the assurance of their affection. They would do anything for their Apostle. 

The demand might be too much to ask without the "Song of the Kerygma" that follows. We might be frustrated by his laying such expectation upon us but when we hear, "though he was in the form of God...." we know we are gazing with him into the depths of an unfathomable mystery. 

In fact, though he seems to speak to us about his expectation, he is actually peering into the Heart of Jesus and saying, "Look with me." He is not looking at us with an expectation of disappointment, as a parent might look upon an unruly child when he says, "Do this because you love me." Paul's satisfaction is flowing into him from the mystery of Jesus; he is not at all disappointed. He is simply thinking out loud about the healing, consoling, forgiving, empowering sacrifice of Jesus. He is saying, "Look what this mystery can do for you and me as we gaze on him." 

This is beyond comprehension and yet we comprehend it. "Yes," we say, "there are encouragement in Christ, solace in love, participation in the Spirit, compassion and mercy" if only we permit ourselves to be possessed and consumed by the humility of Jesus. 

Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Before the LORD the whole universe is as a grain from a balance or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth. But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things; and you overlook people's sins that they may repent. For you love all things that are and loathe nothing that you have made; for what you hated, you would not have fashioned.

Homer’s Iliad tells the story of Hera and Zeus neglecting their duties at Troy while they vacationed in Egypt. They wanted to attend a festival in their honor along the Nile River. But, travelling at the speed of thought, they returned when difficulties arose on the Trojan plain.

I was struck by this minor incident in the epic because the ancients seemed as fascinated as we are by cosmic questions: How fast can heavenly creatures travel? At the speed of light or thought? How vast is the universe? Are there other humanoid, sentient creatures among the stars? Today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom ponders the vast universe and God’s majestic rule of it.

In our time physicists claim sovereign knowledge of the Universe and decree that neither religion nor theology can say anything about it. But we do anyway. Their vision lacks color. Because they cannot measure, they cannot see in their physical universe beauty, wonder, generosity, courage or grace. We see these and other marvels everywhere. Indeed a universe without virtue would be incomprehensible; why would anyone study it, much less live there?

Jesus saw wonder when he discovered Zacchaeus in the sycamore tree. What was that prominent tax collector doing up there? In his eagerness to see the Galilean he had apparently forgotten the decorum of his public position.

Zacchaeus, in his turn, was wonder-struck by Jesus’ gracious friendliness. He had perhaps heard that the Christ had come to seek the lost and forsaken but he could not include himself among them. He was comfortable, respected and secure in his future prospects. If he knew men of his profession were despised he didn’t care; he found enough support in his own class. He could not even imagine what he might be missing – until Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’ home.

Suddenly his universe was invaded by grace; it was as if the sun had risen over a darkened plain. What had been obscure was revealed; what had seemed fascinating was utterly revolting; and that which lacked all appeal amazed and delighted.

The scriptures often remind me that I should look around with expectation and astonishment. If nothing else my lens-assisted, a-stymatic eyes with those persistent floaters see with such clarity! If God the Father can be pleasantly surprised with his Beloved Son, how much more should we who live in darkness and the shadow of death be delighted by the dawn of grace? God’s people see as God sees; it’s all good; it’s all grace.

Saturday of the Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 484 long as in every way, whether in pretense or in truth,
Christ is being proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.

The editors of today's first reading from Paul's Letter to the Philippians cropped his sentence in mid-thought and left a set of confusing words. We have to go back to the original text to understand it: 
Of course, some preach Christ from envy and rivalry, others from good will. The latter act out of love, aware that I am here for the defense of the gospel; the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not from pure motives, thinking that they will cause me trouble in my imprisonment. What difference does it make, as long as in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is being proclaimed? And in that I rejoice.

Saint Paul was reflecting upon his incarceration and trying to come to turns with the astonishing irony that certain Christians had plotted against him and had him arrested. 
That should be a bitter pill to swallow! 

Reading the text two thousand years later we might expect that kind of conspiracy in the last five centuries, especially during the early days of the Protestant Reformation. But there it is in the first years of the Church; Christian against Christian scheming and sabotaging one another. The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

Saint Paul, in the respite of his confinement, came to terms with it: "Christ is being proclaimed, and in that I rejoice." 

As the pastor of a parish in Louisiana I sometimes went to the church and prayed, "Lord, you've got some problems here! And you're going to have to work them out!" I felt helpless, like a man in jail. 

The key to any responsibility in the church, whether apostle, priest, bishop or parent, is not to let one's ego get in the way. 

A good idea is not my idea; a worthy project is never my project. Success or failure are silly words, unworthy of our attention. 

Saint Francis recommended to the superiors of his community they should have the attitude of the corpse. You can take the stiff out of his casket, set him up on a throne with purple robes on his shoulders, a crown on his head and sceptre in his hand; and he is no happier than he was than when he lie in the coffin. Likewise, you can take the crown and robe off him, the sceptre from his hand and lay him back in the box -- and he'll be no more satisfied. It just doesn't matter. 

Saint Paul must have wondered if he'd ever get out of jail as he wrote his letter to the Philippians. He might have supposed he'd eventually die of martyrdom. He did both, but the martyrdom came several years after he was released from that particular jail. He trusted in the Lord to guide him wherever he went; and if he happened to be cooling his heels in jail for a week, a month or a year, he was sure that the Holy Spirit had led him there. It was all good. 

Lord, help me to have the same willing spirit. 

Feast of Saints Simon and Jude, Apostles

Lectionary: 666

You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the Apostles and prophets,
with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone.

The whole world, it appears, was astonished when Pope Francis stepped out on the balcony of Saint Peter's Basilica and asked the cheering thousands before him for their prayers. And then, to demonstrate the seriousness of his request, he bowed down before the mob as they recited -- in many different languages -- the Lord's Prayer. 

Since the Second Vatican Council church authorities have spoken of "servant leadership" but rarely have we seen such a demonstration of that principle. It was all the more amazing, given that he had been known as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio only moments before, and that he must have been overwhelmed with the enormous authority given to him. 

How would I respond in such a moment? I might say, 'Woo hoo!" or "I knew it all along!" or even, "Dear God, now what do I do?" but Pope Francis of the new name knew that he must bow before the servants of God as their servant -- servus servorum dei

It was literally "underwhelming" in the sense that his demonstration of humility swept us like a rising ocean wave off our feet, from beneath us. His gesture did not come down upon us but lifted us up and reminded us of who we are, servants of a servant God. 

Today we celebrate the Apostles Simon and Jude. Scripture tells us little about these gentlemen but it does remind us we are "no longer strangers and sojourners, but... fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God." 

The Catholics and Christians I meet want to feel at home in their own churches. They do not enter as strangers and sojourners, nor even as welcome guests. They want to belong and claim membership. 

The Veterans I meet in the hospital often do not feel at home or even welcome upon entering the church. It's changed since they were last there. In some cases I have to wonder if the church they knew back in the 1960's wasn't a hostile place reserved for a select few. (Protestants and feminists need not apply!) 

But in more cases, upon initial entry, it seems "the neighborhood changed" and it takes a while to realize it changed very little. The Mass is virtually unchanged despite the vernacular language and the disposition of the altar. It is only more transparent and the mystery more inviting. The words "eat" and "drink" and "do this" actually encourage us to know Jesus as we hardly ever imagined him -- as one who serves. 

Thursday of the Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 482

For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness, with the evil spirits in the heavens. Therefore, put on the armor of God...

I found a coffee mug in the VA hospital, a "premium" offered by salespeople as they market their wares. On one side of the cup in prominent letters it reads: "The One to Start With; the One to Stay With." On the back side "Oxycontin."

I show this cup to the Veterans in our substance abuse  program to remind them that "our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness."

The marketing of Oxycontin has been controversial for several years. Many suspect drug manufacturers, marketers and doctors of exploiting patients as they push this opium-based pain relief. They manufacture not only the drug but also the research that proves it is safe, using tactics similar to those of the cigarette industry.

Many have made a fortune and retired -- in some cases to Canada -- before the inevitable consequences of drug addiction catches up with them. They have pursued the American dream of making money with opioids because it's not yet illegal. 

Permit me to quote myself, "If you think you can do well by doing good, be very, very careful!" Lots of people did well my marketing opioids; I'd hate to be in their shoes on Judgement Day. 

Should the United States be a moral country; should our laws strive to protect people from mischief? Most citizens would say yes but, when we're confronted with the marketing of "safe opiates" we have to wonder. Lawyers, of course, will assure us the law has nothing to do with morality. It's only a game of making profits while staying within the guidelines.

Jesus urged to be wise as serpents and innocent as doves in a world such as ours. It's not a safe place. Naiveté is neither innocent nor blameless. The "armor of God" includes God's wisdom, which requires the disciplines of caution and critical study in dealing with a corrupt world. 

Wednesday of the Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 481

Masters, act in the same way towards them, and stop bullying,
knowing that both they and you have a Master in heaven
and that with him there is no partiality.

One of our student chaplain at the VA, reflecting on the program and her experience, said, “All my training has told me not to be vulnerable; it came as a surprise that I should be vulnerable as a chaplain.”

Saint Paul voiced no opposition to the institution of slavery in his Letter to the Ephesians. The ancients knew their social institutions as “the way things are.” They had no formal study of sociology or economics. Slavery could no more be dismantled than they might imagine a fifth dimension or the space/time continuum. But the Apostle drove a stake through heart of slavery when he told Christian slave owners to stop bullying.

We’re still trying to imagine life without bullying. Can a government operate without bullying? Could a war be fought? Could a company be managed or children be reared without bullying? Can we imagine a society flowing like people during the Monday morning commute, watching one another and cooperating for the common goal of getting there alive and on time?

The United States was founded on bullying Native Americans out of their homelands, on imported slaves and indentured servants. We entertain ourselves with bullying games like football and hockey. Many people sport sidearms in public just to show how they're prepared to deal with conflict. 

And we tell our children "Don't bully?" You're kidding, right? 

Saint Paul's advice to slaves and their masters has been dismissed by most Christians in this country. They figure he gave this counsel to a strange people in another time and place; it has nothing to do with us. 

I think we should pay attention to his teaching. He urged Christian slaves and masters to work together so that they could demonstrate how God's people love one another. They do not bully one another; they do not take advantage of one another's vulnerability, as slaves are wont to do in dealing with the masters. 

They cooperate and communicate for the common good; they watch one another like dancers, moving gracefully and purposefully. They edify non-Christians by their harmonious relationships. Where there are different levels of authority -- as there always are among humans -- they never forget their standing before the Father of All, whose sunshine falls on the good  and the bad; whose rain falls on the mighty and the weak. 

Tuesday of the Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 480

Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.

I suppose many people, when they think of Saint Paul's letter to the Ephesians, think first of this controversial passage. They might overlook or dismiss everything else about the epistle, which would surely leave them poorer.

But the passage about marriage is controversial and that's good for two reasons: marriage has always been difficult and its basic foundations have been always challenged; and secondly, our religion never shies from controversy. Anyone who thinks Christian religion should always be reassuring can only expect disappointment. Caveat emptor!

The real challenge of this passage is probably not, "Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord." but the more general, "Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ."

True, there are some Christians and Christian churches who espouse the subordination of women, but I suspect they don't read this blog. Others might denounce Paul's teaching as chauvinistic, but they don't read this blog either.

That leaves you and me with the real challenge -- the "double-edged sword" -- that confronts us night and day, that readiness to be subordinate to one another.
Several years ago I was engaged in a protracted discussion about a particular course of action. Eventually someone told me, "Ken, we heard what you said; and we're not going to do that." I was stunned because: first I didn't think they were hearing me; secondly, I hadn't heard what they were saying; and finally, I had to agree with the plan "we" had developed over my objections.

Marriage, like religious life and the priesthood, is the place where you don't get your own will very often; it's where the best you can hope for is compromise.

It's the place where you can hope your needs, desires and dreams are heard by your spouse, honored, and then adjusted to make room for both parties and all the children involved. 

If it's true of life in general that Man proposes and God disposes; it's especially true when we are "subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ."

Eventually I realize that what I thought I wanted wasn't all that important. What I want most of all is communion with those I love and those who love me. I can toss up an idea and watch it get shot down like a skeet at a trap-shoot, and disclaim ownership of it. It's all in good fun because, in the end, we want only what God wants.

Monday of the Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 479

Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God for a fragrant aroma.

Saint Paul describes Jesus as “a fragrant aroma.”
Sometimes you can enter a room and be there quite a while before you notice a certain aroma in the room. In fact you might have visited the room several times before you noticed it. The smell might be pleasant or unpleasant.
Whether you notice it or not, it has its effect. Smells are associated with the limbic system of the brain, sometimes called the “lizard brain.” It’s real basic stuff where feelings and fears and pleasures and ancient memories are stored.
I live at Mount Saint Francis; it was formerly a seminary, closed in 1975. Every room in the compound of buildings has been repurposed since 1975. But a few years ago I stepped into a hallway which has seen little change; I was struck by a scent that took me back fifty years. I have no idea what caused that odor, nor have I noticed it again since then. But there it was. Neither pleasant nor unpleasant, it was powerfully evocative of – what? I am not sure. A seminary experience among a herd of teenage boys, with adult friars, rules, studies, regimented prayer, a rigid schedule, plots and conspiracies, eagerness and fear, rampaging testosterone, a long time ago.
I suppose we’ve all had similar experiences; they enrich an already fascinating experience of life.
Religion has always employed smells to evoke prayer, especially the aromas of incense. Although the economies of the ancient mid-east were mostly local, producing their own food and immediate necessities, certain luxuries items like incense were traded internationally. Camels, asses and galley ships were laden with perfumes, fine cloth, jewelry and incense. (“Gold, frankincense, and myrrh!”) Because the aromatic smoke was precious it was offered sacrificially to God even as the worshippers enjoyed it.
Saint Paul urged his disciples “as beloved children” to be a fragrant aroma to God and to one another. Every person brings a different presence into the company of others; each is unique and no one is replaceable. We might not notice some people until we miss their presence; they were subtle but nonetheless real. The more pleasant persons are like a fragrant aroma.
Some people come on like gangbusters. I suspect Saint Paul did not. He responded to one complaint that his letters were stronger than his presence, and he threatened that on his return he would certainly correct that misimpression!
He seemed to prefer that person who is like a fragrant aroma, whose presence is powerful but subtle, who allows people to be themselves and yet find comfort, direction, reassurance and instruction in their presence. His kind of people are not an overpowering stench but a subtle reassurance. They say you are welcome here; you are safe; you are honored and respected. You may speak your peace here.
Immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be mentioned among you, as is fitting among holy ones, no obscenity or silly or suggestive talk, which is out of place, but instead, thanksgiving….
For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light.

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 150

The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay.

“Black lives matter!” This cry has been heard in our country the last several months; and it has met considerable resistance.
Perhaps the first response was meant to be helpful – “All lives matter.” – but it missed the point. Certain people were saying Black Lives Matter and they would not be refused a particular hearing. 

Another response pushed back, saying that racial discrimination no longer exists in America. That was easy for some people to say since they weren’t the complainants. I’m old enough to remember a similar response of the 1950’s and 1960’s when Negros were told to "Wait awhile!" and “Know your place.”
Neither response reflects today’s scripture readings; they assure us that God hears the cry of the lowly regardless of what others might say about them; regardless even of the justice of their complaint. God will hear the plea and “judge justly and affirm the right, and the Lord will not delay.”

I suspect the fearful response to “Black Lives Matter” supposes that God might indeed hear the complaint and set things right, regardless of the disruption, upheaval or revolution that action might entail. It’s better, they suppose, to let sleeping dogs lie.

The Lord's justice will certainly come as a surprise, to both the poor and the wicked. The poor will be astonished that, after all this time, they will be shown mercy. The wicked will not even remember their crimes. 

I have personally seen this in the case of sexual abusers. They frankly cannot remember what they said or did; it wasn't that important to them! The victim was stunned, shamed, overwhelmed, humiliated, even traumatized; and the perpetrator never gave it a second thought! We're seeing this drama played out in public right now; it is painful, humiliating and deeply disturbing for everyone. 
The publican in today’s gospel models the response that Jesus would teach us. This poor man does not judge his own case nor that of the Pharisee in the front of the temple. He is profoundly aware of his own sin and has nothing to lose by admitting it before God. He is willing to hear the voice of his accusers; perhaps he has heard them already and that's why he is in the temple. 

We cannot live in community without rubbing, bumping and occasionally bruising one another. To imagine oneself as always innocent is to play the pharisee. 

Each Sunday we ask the Lord to show us our sins, especially our sins against one another. God proves his mercy by showing us our sins. 

Saturday of the Twenty-ninth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 478

Rather, living the truth in love, we should grow in every way into him who is the head, Christ, from whom the whole Body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, with the proper functioning of each part, brings about the Body’s growth and builds itself up in love.

In this passage from his Epistle to the Ephesians, Saint Paul pushes his analogy of the Body of Christ into metaphor. He sees in the Church's structures of authority the tendons and ligaments of a human body. Christ's "body" is not an amorphous blob of flesh but a complex organism which can grow and build itself up in love because it has a variety of charismatic offices  -  prophets,  evangelists, pastors, teachers and so forth. 

Modern philosophers especially of the Baby Boom and later generations search for their identity. "Who am I?" we ask. "Am I who others say I am, or someone else?" 

The modern answer has been existential, "I am whatever I choose to make of myself!" This option has been encouraged by the American myth, "You can be anything you want to be!" We routinely expose our children to the stories of Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Barack Obama and countless senators and congresspersons who betook themselves from poverty to power. 

My favorite songs in that self-made mythology are Frank Sinatra's "I gotta be me!" and "I did it my way." 

Theologian John Zizioulas, the Eastern Orthodox metropolitan of Pergamon, addresses this existential question with the resources of an ancient Christian tradition. He points to the mystery of the Holy Trinity as key to identifying oneself. We know the one God only as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There can be no Son without the Father, nor Father without the Son. The Holy Spirit is their love for one another and also a "person" with the equal rank and dignity of the Father and the Son. 

With that theological foundation, Father Zizioulas describes the Church as a hierarchical structure of persons who have been ordained first as baptized Christians within the communion of the Church. Among the baptized are bishops, presbyters and deacons. He recalls Saint Ignatius of Antioch teaching that the bishop images the Father to the Church, not lording it over them but caring for and serving each one. 

There are other ministries too, though not quite as permanent as that of the ordained: catechists, Eucharistic Ministers, choir, and so forth. 

In other words, I begin to answer the question of who I am by the "character" that was sacramentally given to me. I claim my identity as I take my place in the congregation, as I surrender to full and active participation in the communion. 

The Church also recognizes and honors the roles of husband and wife. They are assigned by one's sexual identity. Men may be husbands; and women, wives. Thus we recognize our own incarnate nature; these roles are dynamic and equal in dignity but not interchangeable. 

In Descartes' secular society, founded on his famous thought experiment, the cogito ("I think therefore I am.") one may become whatever one thinks one is. If my identity is rooted in my opinions or preferences it may flip around in any direction, now clinging to this idea, and then to that image. 

I read of one hapless young woman, feeling persecuted by her peers, complained, "I can't help it if I am goth!" Adrift in an infinity of choices and driven by the currents of fashion she was drowning in bathos

John Macmurray also explores the role of identity, showing how a person emerges from the infantile, animal level of existence in relationship to other persons. This can be a blessed journey as generous parents encourage and enable the child to grow to maturity, taking her place as a responsible adult. It can also be perilous if parents are missing or self-absorbed and the child must struggle to survive in her own house. In the latter case she may never attain personhood. 

That is why religion is so important. If the child learns to give and receive in an environment of mutual sharing and common sacrifice -- even in poverty where resources are scarce -- she may become the adult who is prepared to usher another generation into personhood. 

Saint Paul's vision of Church as the Body of Christ still challenges and invites us to find our identity in Christ and his Church. Within this communion we take our place before God's Throne and sing God's praises. 

Friday of the Twenty-ninth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 477

You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky; why do you not know how to interpret the present time?

One of the privileges of hospital ministry is hearing less about the “social gospel.” When the patients are well enough to argue politics or religion we send them home.
But we do have to argue politics and religion sometimes. Life is not all about weather and sports; there is also news, which we might call the signs of the times. Ever since the Lord promised Moses he would liberate the Hebrews from their slavery in Egypt our religion has been political. We honor Saint Joseph because he watched the political situation closely, intuited what might happen, and acted accordingly:
…when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go back there. And because he had been warned in a dream, he departed for the region of Galilee.
We might prefer a religion without politics. In the United States there are endless choices and consumers can buy any kind of religion they like. But our Catholic faith, with its roots in the body, history, geography and Jewish traditions, cannot dissociate itself from reality – and politics is very real.

In today’s gospel Jesus chides the crowds for watching the weather but ignoring “the present time.” What was happening at that present time that they were missing?
First there is the division we heard about yesterday:

From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

A fire has been set upon the earth in the person of Jesus. If you only want peace you don’t want Jesus. Families are often troubled by the peacemaker who first suppresses all quarrelling and arguing, and then disagreement and discussion. The Spirit of Jesus is going to stir up trouble as children and adults ponder the times and their response. Children must have a different reaction to the times, often to the disappointment of their parents who had hoped their offspring would mirror their own opinions, attitudes and beliefs.
I remember my own disagreements with my Dad back in the tumultuous 1960’s, but I also recall his encouragement when we quarreled: “Stick to your guns!”

An opinion which has not been challenged in discussion and argumentation does not merit the word opinion. Just as the steel of a good sword must be folded and hammered and heated and folded again, hundreds of times over, a useful opinion has been challenged in conflict.
We work out our salvation in the real world, not in the Lala-Land of our fears, preferences and dreams. The Bible does not describe a make-believe world like Tolkien's Middle-Earth; it was not found under a rock in New York State or recited to Muhammad by the Angel Gabriel. It was created, collected, edited and translated by the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit through a long, difficult, complex political process. 

Is the life of faith complicated? You bet! Can we live with that? "With God all things are possible." 

Thursday of the Twenty-ninth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 476

I have come to set the earth on fire,
and how I wish it were already blazing!
There is a baptism with which I must be baptized,
and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!
Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.

In less than three weeks the elections will be over and the president-elect will set about assembling a cabinet of secretaries. A new class of senators and congresspersons with their families will scramble for apartments in Washington, while new state senators and representatives will orient themselves to their state capitals. Lawyers will pore over new laws, studying their precise dimensions; judges will prepare to test those laws for their constitutionality. Civil servants will steel themselves for new priorities as appointed positions are filled by new officers.
This is how Americans do revolution. If it can be done peacefully we have perfected the process. We should never take it for granted; there is nothing automatic about the transition of power from one person or party to another. We’re not machines; we are human beings governed by laws, by which we have agreed to live -- so long as we don’t choose something else.

There will always remain a rebellious, refractory element among us that cannot abide any laws; that would set a fire upon the earth. These might be common criminals. They might be the “law-abiding NRA,” prepared to fight to the death to defend their guns. They might be our drug addicts and alcoholics who feel compelled to passively resist authority, who cannot accept direction no matter how well-intentioned. Or they might be liberal persons who perceive injustice and cruelty in the status quo.

Many Catholics oppose abortion in the United States. They cannot support anyone who is perceived to be pro-abortion. To vote contrary to their conscience would be a grave sin. As the nation adopts this “culture of death” these rebellious persons would dismantle the country to save the unborn, the elderly and other vulnerable populations, regardless of the strife and violence that might be unleashed. Other Catholics are less radical. They are willing to live with bad laws and hope they don’t get worse.
I hear in Jesus’ statement his affirmation of this dangerous uncertainty that must remain in human life. Good enough will never be good enough, not even close! The Prince of Peace has come to establish division. He suffers anguish until mercy incinerates every injustice.

Memorial of Saints John de Brébeuf and Isaac Jogues, Priests, and Companions, Martyrs


To me, the very least of all the holy ones, this grace was given,
to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ,
and to bring to light for all what is the plan of the mystery
hidden from ages past in God who created all things….


“Whodunit?” The mystery genre of literature intrigues and entertains the mind. I spent a vacation reading Agatha Christie novels; our rented cabin had a complete set and given more time I’d have read the entire collection.

But, unfortunately, the genre also confuses the meaning of the word, mystery. This is critical for Christians because Saint Paul uses the word so often. It’s vital for Catholics in particular because the word could be replaced by sacrament or liturgy. When we worship God with the formal rituals of our church we plunge like divers into the living mystery of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Mystery is not an enigma solved by clever insight; it is not satisfied by the answers to a catechism drill. Mystery is more like a place, perhaps a gothic cathedral with its high ceiling, vaulted undercroft, vast open space, scent of candles and incense, and windows casting living colors on floors, walls and people. To enter this space is to be changed forever, and no one enters unwillingly.

But it’s not a building either. It’s more like someone who is very old, who knew your great-grandparents when they were newlyweds; and yet appears to you like an innocent, defenseless child. Mystery is way of life; it’s a way of living confidently within the timeless Cloud of Unknowing.

Life within this mystery is framed by liturgy, sacraments and devotions. There are words, gestures, songs and silence. There are ancient texts, inexplicable traditions and continual adaptations. It is, as Saint Augustine said, ever ancient, ever new. This mystery belongs to no one but it claims its members and molds their life, drawing them out of isolation into communion.

Initiates of the mystery know they did not choose it and they had little choice upon entering it. Rather they were drawn by a call; it fell upon them with such delight they found no reason to refuse; even when it demanded great sacrifice they were eager for it. They were like the merchant of fine pearls who, finding one really valuable pearl, sells all he has and buys it. If it appears to be madness to others, that cannot be helped.

There were many French people who tried to persuade today's martyrs --Saints John de Brébeuf, Isaac Jogues and their companions-- that they were crazy to go off to the wilderness of America to initiate the aboriginals into the Mystery. Nor were they surprised when the news of their death arrived.

Almost five centuries later, their decision is still puzzling, an enigma to the uninitiated. a beautiful mystery to us.

Feast of Saint Luke, Evangelist

  Lectionary: 661

Into whatever house you enter,
first say, ‘Peace to this household.’
If a peaceful person lives there,
your peace will rest on him;
but if not, it will return to you.

The Hebrew word that Jesus would have used when he described our mission was shalom. Christians have a similar word in blessing. We habitually ask our clergy for a blessing; it’s a palpable gift; it descends from the giver onto the person or the sacred object. It may fill a house as the priest or deacon moves from room to room with his holy water sprinkler.
Shalom is also a palpable blessing with the extra dimension of peace, which might be described as the absence of interior conflict.

So long as we live in this world there will be conflict.  I’ve heard it said that every age and every place is violent. If there is a semblance of peace it’s only because the violence is held at bay by equally violent forces. In Louisiana I rode with the police for a while. We patrolled the thin blue line between danger and safety. Some people supposed that spiritual line lay between white and black people in the southern town; others saw it between middle and lower classes; or educated and illiterate. Those beloved opinions, however, miss the mark; violence knows no boundaries.
Jesus sent his shalom into a world that suffers ubiquitous violence; there is no place where his blessing is not needed. He did not promise to restore politeness or civility; they do not measure progress; they do not take root and flourish. They do nothing for the soul. If some speculators invest in that kind of peace the clever ones still put their money in war.

The only true peace passes from Christ to his disciples and thence to others. It is a gift we treasure within ourselves and offer to others.
When I hear Jesus assure us “your peace will return to you,” I think of martial arts like judo and karate; their first priority is balance. The black belt retains her balance even as she exploits her opponent’s imbalance. When I offer shalom to someone, I should not lean on the other, expecting his shalom to hold me up. Rather I offer communion which began in the Lord’s invitation to me.

If I expect the gift to come from someone else, as if I have a right to demand it; or if I expect reciprocation by the other when I make the offer, I may wait a very long time.  
Rather, communion, grace and shalom are offered from the cross of Jesus, without hesitation or restraint. They are offered as freely as an orchard tree offers its fruit to passersby, deer, birds, bugs, gravity, rot and the owners of the orchard.  Rooted in nourishing soil, patient through storms, droughts, floods, cold and heat, available to sunshine and wind, the tree – from which a cross is made – speaks of peace.

Memorial of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Bishop and Martyr

All of us once lived among them in the desires of our flesh,
following the wishes of the flesh and the impulses,
and we were by nature children of wrath, like the rest.
But God, who is rich in mercy,
because of the great love he had for us,
even when we were dead in our transgressions,
brought us to life with Christ…

Scripture scholars insist that we should read every word of the bible in context. Who is saying what to whom, when, where and why? Just as reading a newspaper article, a historical novel or fantasy fiction without context would be baffling, so is reading the bible without knowing something about its context.
The first think we should know about the writings of Saint Paul is his great affection for his fellow Christians. If we fail to notice his joyous, personal love we may bring the attitudes of inferior preachers, writers and pious persons to the reading, along with their suspicions, fears and prejudices. When Saint Paul speaks of the Church, for instance, he is not thinking about Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, or the National Council of Catholic Bishops, or the quarrels of Roman Catholics and Protestants. He is thinking of the small group of people who will hear his letter read to them in someone’s living room.  He is feeling their presence and seeing their faces even as he writes.
Paul’s letter to the Ephesians may be somewhat less personal than his letters to the Thessalonians, Corinthians and Philippians, but it is nonetheless warm with affection for his fellow Christians.
When he reminds them that “All of us once lived among them in the desires of our flesh, following the wishes of the flesh and the impulses…” he is not scolding them. Quite the contrary he is thanking God for the mercy He has shown to them. Saint Paul has no time for remorse; he does not wallow in regrets about his past; nor does he hold anyone’s past against them. If he remembers that “we were by nature children of wrath like the rest” it is to celebrate the Wonderful Works of God.
Aware of his joyous affection, I hear the Apostle declare that God has…
brought us to life with Christ (by grace you have been saved), raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
I am one of those introverts who wants to know my place and the space around me. Invite me to dinner and I’ll ask, “Where do you want me to sit?”
In his letter to the Ephesians I hear that we will sit with him in the heavens; and not  because I have won the prize or deserved an award but because the Lord wants to show the immeasurable riches of his grace. The Father especially wants to show the world how Jesus, the Son of God, stands in his presence. The one who was despised, mocked, humiliated and crucified by men is now honored by the One God and Father of us all.
He shows the world Jesus not with the standard vision of the sky opening and one appearing like a son of man coming upon the clouds…, but in our works of mercy.
Not you or I or Paul would believe it if we had not seen it. The truth of the gospel is not demonstrated with reason, logic and analytical persuasion but with mighty works: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, welcoming the alien and so forth.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast. For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.

Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 147

I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingly power: proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.

Each of today's three readings exhorts us in one way or another to persist. 

In the first reading we hear of Moses' persistent prayer before God as his homeless army of men, women and children withstood Amalek's assault. So long as he held the staff aloft in prayer his people had the better of the fight. When his arms grew weary and the staff came down, they were forced to retreat. Finally, Moses' aging lieutenants, Aaron and Hur, stood on his left and right, hold his arms; and the Israelites under Joshua's command, "mowed down Amalek and his people
with the edge of the sword.

The Gospel also urges us to pray without ceasing and Jesus gives us this comical story of the corrupt judge and the persistent widow. Jesus doesn't tell us the woman had a legitimate grievance; it doesn't matter. She got what she wanted because she was harassing the magistrate to an early grave. 

Finally, we should notice in the reading from Saint Paul's second letter to Timothy his charging us to 
"...proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.
His word "charge" is important. He speaks with the authority of a spiritual father who has mentored Timothy and appointed him as "bishop" of the Christian community. Twenty centuries later he speaks to us as an apostle whose word is the Word of God.

Hearing these three readings we should understand that persistence cuts both ways. We should be persistent in prayer, asking God continually for gifts and graces; and we should persistently stand before our neighbors and fellow citizens, "proclaiming the word." 

Persistent prayer is our vocation and duty, our privilege and our pleasure. It's what we do and who we are. In his first preserved letter -- the oldest document of the New Testament -- the same Apostle urged us to Pray Always. The Church of every age has honored that command with our daily Masses and the Liturgy of the Hours. 

If we do nothing else, we pray. If we don't pray, we do nothing else worthwhile. 

The Church is not powerful as we were during medieval times, and that's a good thing. We don't have the military, economic, cultural, intellectual and social power of Pope Innocent III. The great gothic cathedrals of Europe were built almost a millennium ago and we've never had that much artistic and spiritual license since. 

But that loss of power doesn't excuse us from persistent prayer before the throne of God and persistent calls for justice and mercy before the powers of this world. The Church mediates between heaven and earth, begging God for mercy and begging the powerful for mercy. 

Whether it is convenient or inconvenient; we should convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching. 

Karl Marx reminded the world that if you don't take care of the poor, they'll take care of you. And you won't like what they do for you. But Marx was only partly right; the power of righteous revenge is not with his "workers of the world," it is with the Lord who hears the cry of the poor. As Mary sang, "He brings down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly."

Predictably, the powerful will not want to hear our warnings, nor will they prefer our invitation to practice mercy, but they cannot ignore our persistence. We can pray they do not suffer the death of Nabal, whose wife Abigail interceded on his behalf before (the future king) David. In the end they will thank us for our persistence.