Wednesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

When the LORD smelled the sweet odor, he said to himself: 
“Never again will I doom the earth because of man 
since the desires of man’s heart are evil from the start; 
nor will I ever again strike down all  living beings, as I have done. 
As long as the earth lasts, 
seedtime and harvest, 
cold and heat, 
Summer and winter, 
and day and night 
shall not cease.” 

As we reflect on the challenge of otherness, we hear the conclusion of the story of the Deluge. The Lord has repented of the terrible destruction and resolved never again "to strike down all living beings, as I have done."
There is a "life-sized replica" of Noah's Ark in northern Kentucky, not far from Cincinnati. A religious theme park, it promotes a creationist version of Christianity. In response to this absurd display, some critics ​have described the God of Genesis 6-8 as an insane, mass murderer. They get a kick out of that sort of thing.
I'll let that controversy be and just reflect on the mystery of otherness. The Lord's repentance in Genesis 8 reflects a human reaction to emotional upheaval. Meeting disagreement and opposition, feeling angry frustration, we brand our enemies as evil and anoint ourselves as Avengers of Righteousness. But when the anger passes, as it always does, and we see our enemies wounded and overwhelmed with grief for the punishment we have exacted, we regret our hastiness.
Clearly that method of dealing with evil fails miserably and consistently. As tempting as it is to respond to opposition with violence, as "natural" and "necessary" as it might seem, it accomplishes nothing and must be undone. The destroyed city must be rebuilt, the orphaned children must be adopted. The dead must be buried and grieved.
We cannot overcome the otherness of other people with violence. Whether we use catastrophic flooding, confusion of languages or fire from heaven, the effort is counterproductive, disappointing and disgraceful.
We must finally do as God has done, befriend the enemy – even if “the desires of man’s heart are evil from the start.” But that judgement may also be too hasty. As we get to know our enemies we realize their concerns are real although their perspective is different. Their desires are not so diabolical. Neither, for that matter, are our desires so pure.
In Genesis 8 we learn the origin of the rainbow. It’s multiple colors remind us that people too come in many colors. Just as the arc in the sky stretches over all people as a sign of mercy, God’s church must be a rainbow coalition to cover every nation.

Tuesday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

When the LORD saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how no desire that his heart conceived was ever anything but evil, he regretted that he had made man on the earth,
and his heart was grieved.

Nihilists would agree with the LORD's assessment in Genesis 6, the Earth would be better off without this human creature. We seem only to make a mess. Where the 19th century nihilist saw economic and political forces wasting human life, anticipating the senseless carnage of the 20th century wars and 21st century terrorism, the modern nihilist wonders why we're on this planet at all. (Nihil in Latin means "nothing") 
If the 19th century nihilist was a philosopher, the 21st century nihilist is an alcoholic or drug addict. Or perhaps she just tweets, facebooks, games and watches mindless television shows hour after hour. The intro to "Big Bang Theory" raised the question: "Several billion years of evolution led to this?"
The question is not new. It's there in the Book of Genesis. God "regretted that he had made man on the earth and his heart was grieved."
But perhaps this vapidity is not the real issue. Perhaps this ennui is born of disappointment: "What's the point of life if I cannot have what I want? Why should I exist if I have to deal continually with other people who don't give me what I want?"
The God of Genesis 6 is disappointed with the way things are going with his creature. He expected something different and much better of molded mud enlivened by his breath.
In my meditation yesterday I concluded that Cain was not prepared to recognize the otherness of his brother Abel. Where Cain preferred to plow the earth, Abel tended sheep. Discovering that God inexplicably favored Abel, he grew impatient and jealous, and then vicious.
This challenge of otherness is continual; it is really the world we live in.
The Christian revelation, appearing many centuries after Genesis was written, reveals a Triune God who enfolds otherness into divinity. The Father is not the Son and is not the Spirit; nor are the Son and Spirit the same. Although they are not the same they embrace one another in perfect love and acceptance. (We don't suppose they love each other because they should. We have seen it in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.) 
Where human beings quarrel with one another, and the most quarrelsome pairs are those who most resemble each other, we meet a God who is one substance yet three persons. The only difference between the Father and Son is the Father is not the Son. But they are substantially the same.
What really bothered Cain was his own brother! They were like each other in every way, but Abel was a shepherd! A shepherd, for God's sake! How can any reasonable person want to be a shepherd? It makes no sense. And then when God favored the shepherd, that sent Cain over the edge.
There are as many ways to read Genesis 6 as there are people to read it; but I see in the story a developing understanding of God. This God is unwise; he has not yet learned that threats and punishment -- even catastrophic punishment -- change nothing in the human heart. If the experiment of a creature in his own image has gone badly, the punishment by deluge will go worse. Noah and his kin will be no better than their ancestors. Confusing the languages of Babel is mischief and the destruction of the cities of the plain by fire will be an exercise in futility. 
A new story, beginning with Abraham, represents another tack. God will stoop down not to flood the earth or to confuse the languages but to befriend a man and make of him a great nation. The birth of Jesus will go further -- God will be born of a woman and suffer at the hands of men. He will become totally subject to the otherness of this creature, allowing himself even to be despised, accused, judged, condemned and executed.
Our salvation begins when we accept the otherness of God. Although I am created in God's image, God is not me writ large. I am not god; I cannot have my way. There is no reason I should expect to have my way but I can expect to die like anyone else.
Nor should I be disappointed by this fate. Quite the contrary, I am delighted! I am not God! Thank God! I cannot have my way! Hurray! If I am saddened by the way things turn out, it's a healthy sadness, a full participation in the sorrow that accompanies pain and suffering. I will drink deeply of that cup even as Jesus did in the Garden.
But, fortunately, most of us embrace the monotony of daily prayer, sipping pleasure and disappointment in small amounts. We take shelter in prayer, looking through the psalms at this tragic, beautiful world which God has made. We don't pray for a deluge though we might fear one. We don't stand outside at night expecting an apocalypse, though we do hope for one -- in God's time.

Monday of the Sixth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 335

He sighed from the depth of his spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.”

With today's first reading we remember the tragedy of Cain and Abel. Genesis tells us that Cain was "resentful and crestfallen" because, "the LORD looked with favor on Abel and his offering, but on Cain and his offering he did not." This resentment was a variant of the original sin of Adam and Eve, an impingement on God's authority. Where the first couple had intentionally eaten of the forbidden tree, Cain apparently regarded God's favoring his brother Abel as unfair. 

But God did regard Cain and warned him about his attitude, "Why are you so resentful and crestfallen? If you do well, you can hold up your head...." 
Cain's sin begins with a lack of self-respect. He does not hold up his head. Cain has presented God with "an offering from the fruit of the soil." Why his gift is not favored should not be his problem. The Lord favors whom he will for reasons of his own, reasons that may involve future plans beyond anyone's imagination, or a thousand other reasons, or no particular reason. 
Created in God's own image everyone has preferences that need no explanation. One person is right-handed; another is left-handed. One person likes red; another favors yellow. Some people like baseball; others prefer football. Most people are heterosexual; some people are homosexual. Cain prefers farming; Abel raises sheep. There is rarely a scientific explanation for these preferences. Nor should there be. To each his own. Let it be.
This diversity represents a problem to some people. They don't understand it. They don't like it. They think it should not be. They would rather not consider it as they deal with other people. 
And yet this diversity is as fundamental as sexuality. Men are from Mars, women are from VenusAnyone who thinks all people should think, act and be alike will never find a home on this planet, although they may loudly insist that their neighbors should go back to Asia, Africa or Europe. Inevitably, their resentment turns violent, even as Cain murdered his brother -- because they lack self-respect. 
The Pharisees in today's gospel have enough information to know Jesus represents a new reality. And they can clearly see God's favor upon this new Abel. They resent him deeply. But there is nothing Jesus can say to relieve their distress or reassure their fears. "No sign will be given."
Those who are ready to let God be God, and others be others, who are willing to be confronted continually by the mystery of otherness will be saved.

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours.

Whether you study the Sermon on the Mount found in Saint Matthew's gospel or the Sermon on the Plain of Saint Luke, you must be challenged by Jesus' words. 

Christians are more familiar with Saint Matthew's beatitudes; Saint Luke's are markedly different. There are half as many blessings, only four; but these four are balanced by something not found in Matthew's list, four curses, "But woe to you...."
We often reflect upon the promises of the gospel, we don't reflect as often upon the threats:
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.”
If we suppose that God's promises are worthy of our faith, we should not dismiss his threats as old fashioned nonsense. 

Recently there is a family on trial for the manufacture and sale of opioids to unsuspecting citizens whose lives were wrecked by the "medicines." The story is necessarily complex but some people who suffered minor injuries or minor surgeries were prescribed huge numbers of pain-killing pills. Following their doctors' recommendations, they found themselves addicted. These were not criminals. They were law-abiding, tax paying citizens who suffered a minor mishap. Many worshiped in their local church. They suffered pain long after their injuries should have healed because the medication actually prolongs the suffering. Some have died of overdose, of suicide or of criminal violence.
People place blame in every direction: manufacturers, sales representatives, doctors, patients, insurers, federal regulators, and therapists who are moving into the field of pain management and opioid addiction. Federal courts will sort it out but only God knows who should be punished.

Here's my own particular contribution to the discussion: "If you hope to do well by doing good, be careful. Be very careful."

Many people in the pharmaceutical industry -- especially the manufacturers, sales personnel and doctors -- did very well indeed. They became extremely wealthy on the backs of suffering patients. Some of them have fled the country. A few will be prosecuted but most will be acquitted since no one forced the victims to swallow the pills or inject the drug. You can be sure the accused will have the best justice money can buy.
In today's gospel Jesus warns the rich, the content, the happy and the well-respected of their impending doom. They might argue they did nothing illegal and meant no harm. Most would not be accused of crime in any city, state or federal court; much less convicted. They only intended to do well in a system that rewards the ambitious and punishes the unwary.
If accused by a meddlesome stranger they could reasonably ask, "I sold pain relieving medicine. Isn't pain relief a good thing? Am I responsible for the patient who failed to follow precise medical advice? Am I responsible for the doctor who over-prescribed a medication that has been proven useful? Hospitals feared a loss of market share if their patients complained of pain! Is that my fault?
"Am I my brother's keeper?"

The Gospels reveal a God who rewards virtue and punishes wickedness. Human societies have been trying -- and failing -- to do that since prehistoric times. We have lawyer jokes that are nearly as old for we know every human system of justice is profoundly corrupt. It protects the powerful and punishes the weak. The Hebrew prophets railed against it even in the holy city of Jerusalem and could not prevail. But they believed what Jesus taught, that justice will prevail.

If you expect to do well by doing good, remember Hebrews 10:31
We know the one who said: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,”
and again: “The Lord will judge his people.” 
and “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

Saturday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Then, taking the seven loaves he gave thanks, broke them, and gave them to his disciples to distribute,
and they distributed them to the crowd.

This gospel story of Jesus feeding four thousand people with a few loaves of bread and a couple of fish must remind us of the Eucharist. Saint Mark gives us the four part formula we still use in our Mass: 1) he took the bread; 2) he blessed it; 3) he broke it, and 4) he gave it to his disciples. These four parts correspond to the Offertory, the Eucharistic Prayer, the Fraction and Distribution of the Eucharist. On a Saturday, with our traditional references to the Virgin Mother, we can suppose Jesus learned this four part formula from his mother. It was the tradition she and her generation had received since ancient times.

In our time, when one of every three meals is taken in a restaurant, we should reflect on the civilizing effect of Jesus' action. Despite the desperate circumstance of "seven loaves and a few fish" to feed four thousand people, we do not imagine a panicked rush when the food was distributed. Later, when the story reappears in the sixth chapter, we learn that, "he gave orders to have them sit down in groups on the green grass The people took their places in rows by hundreds and by fifties." Calm prevailed as they watched Jesus and waited upon the ministry of his disciples.

When human beings feed we should do it with ceremony. We are not cattle or savage animals that eat without awareness of the blessing of food and our need for it. When they eat they do so because their instincts tell them they must. They need no more ceremony than that. We eat with the realization that eating forestalls starvation and death.

But with our complex ability to think, we bring more than that existential desperation to our feeding. We have our cultural expectations of food (American, French, German, Italian, etc) each one representing a tradition with roots in antiquity. We have our nutritional concerns and habitual preferences. (I know people who won't eat vegetables despite innumerable recommendations from recognized authorities.) We have table etiquette and customs, including placement at the table and place settings. If someone were suddenly teleported from a table in the United States to a table in Asia he might not know what to eat or how! There is nothing simple about human feeding.

So, there in the wilderness, Jesus fed four thousand people with a few loaves and some fish. They had to notice how dependent they were on his mercy even as they found their places under his authority. We can imagine they were tempted to rush at the food. Even cultured people in tuxedos and high heels can get testy when the food is delayed, and when the doors are finally opened to the dining room they struggle to do it with decorum. This mob in the desert had no such pretensions. Only their respect for Jesus' authority could restrain them. Apparently it did for, "They all ate and were satisfied."
Of course, this meal also had its traditions as the four thousand must have known. They remembered the Lord had led their ancestors into the Sinai wilderness where they survived by God's mercy for forty years. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob provided manna, quail and water for their survival as they left it. Nor had they suffered the loss of essentials like clothing and sandals. More recently, only five centuries before, the prophets had described that desert sojourn like a honeymoon.
This day with Jesus augured a new beginning, a new marriage of God and his people, of Jesus and his church. We celebrate this wedding feast with every Mass, and take particular delight in his company.

Friday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

He took him off by himself away from the crowd.

Twice we hear in the seventh chapter of Saint Mark that phrase, "away from the crowd." Not everything that Jesus said or did was for public consumption. The man had secrets which he would disclose only to a select few. He told more to the seventy-two than he revealed to the crowds; and more to the twelve than to the seventy-two; and more to Peter, James and John than to the twelve. In the Gospel of John he whispered only to the beloved disciple, the identity of his betrayer. Plus, he often went apart, into the wilderness, to pray alone.
Many people have complained about our culture war on solitude. We seem to confuse public and private space so that neither is secure. Politicians, entertainers and clergy apparently have no right to privacy. If clergy and elected officials still expect a degree of privacy, entertainers recklessly squander theirs in a bid for notoriety.
When I demurred about a minister's ugly remarks about Jackie Kennedy he insisted the deceased widow had no right to privacy, since she had been married to a president.
I have seen media-weary Americans flock to the church for a moment of peace and quiet. Despite the opening collect, they cannot be collected into a congregation because they are so desperate for inner solitude. They find it nowhere else. Their homes are ablaze with advertising, their cars scream the radio, their restaurants maintain unwatched but noisy televisions; even their hospital rooms and lounges are flooded with distraction. Arriving in the sanctuary of a church, they cannot sing, they cannot hear the scriptures. They can only use the time to recuperate some personal energy.

Christians gather frequently to worship God as a church but our assemblies must be enriched by our solitary practice. The "feast" of our public liturgy requires a "postprandial" of  private contemplation as we consider the scriptures we have heard and the virtues we have celebrated. Without it the gathering is little more than cheap entertainment, a pep rally or a political demonstration.

"What a man is in God's presence," Saint Francis said, "is what he is, and nothing more." Our religious tradition cultivates solitary prayer and a sense of one's standing alone in God's presence. With practices like the daily examen, Lectio Divina, discernment of spirits and centering prayer the Christian discovers her identity in God's presence. We're often driven to these practices by a personal crisis but, having set out, we realize we cannot turn back. The knowledge of God is too precious to be ignored. His reassurance, even as we discover our sins, is too compelling to be dismissed.

Memorial of Saints Cyril, Monk, and Methodius, Bishop

The LORD God said: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.”

Several months ago there was a minor furor among the chattering classes about a virtual fellowship of men who believe they are unfairly denied their right to women. A "virtual fellowship," of course, is not real. It exists in the fantasy world of the Internet. These guys "meet" online to commiserate their loneliness and inability to engage with women in the real world. 
But illusions sometimes have real world consequences. One of the members, pursuing his dream, committed a heinous crime.

Americans are dying of loneliness. Just plug that statement into an Internet search and see how much documented tragedy you find. The nation that fancies itself to be "Christian" shuns community and companionship, preferring the loneliness of Facebook friends and channel surfing.
Many desperately hope their dogs and cats might be their friends, a work for which animals are entirely unsuited.  Because of that belief, which in another age would have been termed heretical, many pets suffer barbaric mistreatment. Their owners, disappointed because the animal could not provide "unconditional love" -- another absurd idea -- turn their frustration to violence upon the animals.
But that story is not new. Genesis records it as a comedy skit:
So the LORD God formed out of the ground
various wild animals and various birds of the air,
and he brought them to the man to see what he would call them;
whatever the man called each of them would be its name.
The man gave names to all the cattle,
all the birds of the air, and all the wild animals;
but none proved to be the suitable partner for the man.

Human community is hard work. When two human beings meet in an intimate space each must discover the mysterious depths of their separate existence, and the vast space between them. And then they must try to bridge the gap with little more than words and gestures.
A wife and husband meet as two rivers from separate mountain ranges. Each brings assumptions they have never challenged, and beliefs they have never doubted. If they are blessed their disparate stories will come together, becoming a shared history. But even yet they will have different memories of the same incidents, and very different opinions about them. Periodically one or the other will look across the table and wonder, "Who is this stranger?"
If they are wise neither will expect the other to satisfy all their needs for support, understanding and companionship. They still need a matrix of family, friends, neighbors, coworkers and a community of faith. They must still work for peace with their enemies. 

We're seeing in the United States the sad wages of that choice to live solitary lives. The automobile, a mobile hermitage, doesn't reach isolated individuals in rural counties. They cannot walk to the grocery store, the doctor's office or the community center, and they're too old to drive. Some people are homeless in our cities because they never learned the give and take of family life. Even in the cities people die alone, their mortal agony unnoticed. 
"It is not good for man to be alone." Religion provides the spirit, skills and give-and-take willingness to share life with other people.  

Happy Saint Valentine's Day

Wednesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

The LORD God then took the man and settled him in the garden of Eden, to cultivate and care for it.
The LORD God gave man this order: "You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and evil. From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die."

I find irony in the juxtaposition of today's first reading and the gospel. We have heard God's strict injunction against eating from the "tree of knowledge of good and evil," and Jesus' assurance, "Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person."
Apparently there was nothing inherently evil about the tree. The knowledge of good and evil is not a bad thing. But Adam, like every human being, is under obedience. He must not aspire to a freedom without responsibility or consequence. That fantasy is granted only to fascists and their demagogues.
The point of the gospel: we should recognize the source of evil. It is not in God's creation. It is not in the food we eat, not even in fats, carbohydrates, or gluten. Nor tobacco, alcohol or morphine. All have their purpose and their sacred utility.
If we use these things we should not suppose they cause good or evil; they neither set us free nor imprison us. We do that to ourselves, foolishly and responsibly and -- ultimately -- by choice.

There is great discussion among medical people today about MAT -- medically assisted therapy for substance abuse. The old school, represented by Alcoholics Anonymous, insists the only way to freedom is to quit cold turkey. No regrets, no looking back, no hesitation. Just say no.
However, actual experience of sobriety, relapse and eventual recovery -- as documented by statistics -- shows that more users successfully quit and stay quit with Medically Assisted Therapy. Certain drugs reduce the physical craving and with intensive counseling -- often residential counseling -- the user gets back on her feet and relearns what she had forgotten.

As a chaplain in the field I urge those in recovery not to suppose the medicine will fix all their problems. Most "users" (not all) had sorely neglected their spiritual life before they slipped into addiction. They were paying attention to other things -- relationships, career, education, hobbies and pastimes -- when the fascinating chemical entered their life. As dependence increased they neglected substantial relationships in deference to the intoxicating substance. They briefly knew life without pain; they thought, "This is how it should be! I have a right to this!" Who doesn't want a hassle-free existence where the best things in life come without cost? This tree of knowledge was alluring. And, in many cases, fatal.
This is an existential challenge, a struggle for existence. To be or not to be. We realize that it takes courage to be, and that includes a willingness to live with pain, disappointment, grief and hardship.

Christian imagery has often described Jesus in Gethsemane. An angel stands over the prostrate Christ, offering him a goblet as he prays, "Let this cup pass from me." But, despite his plea, Jesus drank at the LORD’s hand the cup of his wrath; (he) drained to the dregs the bowl of staggering!
The "cup" in both scripture passages alludes to alcoholic drink, a staggering potion. But the allusion is ironic, for this quaff of reality is entirely, deeply, painfully sobering. Where the foolish prefer their reality in small doses and laced with pleasure, Jesus drinks it neat and to the dregs.
I take no position in the discussion about MAT; but I am convinced that healing lies in the direction of that willingness not to be dissatisfied with one's will. My way is a highway to hell.
The way of the cross is a willingness to endure distress and to find oneself in a very dark place. But it's also a willingness to be raised up in a new reality, which may be far more challenging than anything one has known. At the end of the tunnel there is light. At the end of the light is another tunnel.

Tuesday of the Fifth Week in Ordinary Time

"You disregard God's commandment but cling to human tradition." He went on to say, "How well you have set aside the commandment of God in order to uphold your tradition!

I am reading a biography of Martin Luther, the Augustinian monk, priest and reformer. He is sometimes credited with single-handedly changing the course of history by defying the Roman Catholic Church. There is no doubt the Church needed reform, and still does. There is some doubt whether it can be reformed, ever. But it's good to keep trying.
Luther found a church which both failed to reassure his anxious heart, and didn't care that it had failed. If its methods of reassurance didn't reassure, why should it change a method that worked well enough for most people? It wasn't in the business of reassurance, anyway! It's only purpose was to glorify God, and if some prelates lived scandalous lives as they grew fat on the sacrifices of poor people, God was nonetheless glorified by their pompous ceremonies. The Church, like many governments, parties and businesses, had grown fat, lazy and stupid. It was ripe for reform and needed some healthy competition.
I think Jesus described the problem precisely when he rebuked the Pharisees for clinging to human tradition. Human beings create traditions where other animals have instincts. If something works well we do it again, and again. We teach our children these successful practices because they work! Eventually we can use these traditions mindlessly, like birds building their instinctive nests.
But old customs, like instincts, don't adjust to changing times and circumstances. Salmon kill themselves trying to swim through the turbines of a hydroelectric dam. They just don't get it! When humans refuse to adjust we cling to our traditions.
Alcohol, for instance. A good thing? A bad thing? Good alcohol tastes wonderful; its chemistry can relax an anxious body and soothe a troubled mind. Sharing its reassuring properties, groups of people can enjoy their fellowship when, without the alcohol, they might be tearing at each others' throats. Alcohol works so well we make a habit of drinking it and serving it to others! Many good liquors have deep historical roots, giving one a traditional connection with ancient ancestors.
But sometimes the habit, or practice, fails. People drink too much and the body gets sick. Sometimes drinking people say things that would have been better left unsaid. The bitter memory persists when the mellow glow has faded.
The foolish and unwary suppose that alcohol will fix most any problem, even medical! The story is told in my family of my great grandfather. The young cowboy in Texas, bitten by a rattlesnake, was treated for two weeks with huge amounts of whiskey. There was no serum for snakebite. Fortunately, he lived to tell the tale to my entranced uncles.
Beyond a certain point alcohol becomes addictive and lethal; a single bottle of beer can kill. And yet, even then, the addict will drink, thinking it might yet ease the mind and comfort the miserable body. A human tradition has become lethal.

Jesus challenged the traditions of the Pharisees; Saint Paul challenged the "super apostles;" Luther challenged Rome. Reformers challenge reformers and Christianity shatters into innumerable sects and denominations; each one looking for that habit, practice or protocol which will never fail.
With Luther and his imitators reform became an institution within Christianity, a persistent challenge to Roman hegemony. Of course, historians point out, Church history was already rife with reform movements, including institutionalized ones like the religious orders, societies, and congregations. They had not failed in a process that cannot succeed. They had made their contribution and, like all their predecessors, become fat, lazy and stupid. Or they had disappeared into the dustbin of history.

Jesus' scold in today's gospel ends with a cry of futility: "You nullify the word of God in favor of your tradition that you have handed on. And you do many such things.” Human words must fail to list all the grievances.
Is there a cure? Luther believed he was echoing Saint Paul when he taught sola fides ("faith alone!")
If I were to recommend a solution it might be "faith and a sense of humor." True faith knows what it does not know and that allows space for the ridiculous. As one fellow said, "I can't agree with everything you say; but I don't agree with everything I say."
Humor was especially lacking in that sixteenth century controversy. But humor is also abused both by those who have faith and those who despise faith.
What is the state of reform today? It's ongoing; still skeptical of tradition and still traditional. It's still gentle, sincere and well-intentioned; it's still barbaric, crude and malevolent. We still turn to God to save us and guide us through much perplexity.

Optional Memorial of Our Lady of Lourdes

Statue of Mary in
Friars' Cemetery
Mount Saint Francis, Indiana

When the wine ran short,
the mother of Jesus said to him,
"They have no wine."
And Jesus said to her,
"Woman, how does your concern affect me?
My hour has not yet come."
His mother said to the servants,
"Do whatever he tells you."

Today, February 11, is the 161st anniversary of the first apparition of the Immaculate Conception at Lourdes France. On that day "a petite damsel, in white, with a golden rosary and blue belt fastened around her waist, and two golden roses at her feet" invited Bernadette Soubirous, a thirteen year old girl, to pray the rosary with her. The obedient child, of course, had her rosary on her. A series of apparitions followed, climaxed by the woman's identifying herself as "the Immaculate Conception," a title the girl could not understand.
In fact, only recently, in communion with Catholic bishops throughout the world, Pope Pius IX had identified Mary's "immaculate conception" as an infallible doctrine of the Church. Shortly before that, he had decreed what many Catholics already believed, the infallibility of the pope. Perhaps he was giving his new authority a test run. Catholics were thrilled; Protestants were aghast; most people knew nothing about it.
Mary's immaculate status -- that she not only never sinned but had been born exempt from the guilt of Original Sin -- had been a controversial belief for many centuries. Franciscans (for) and Dominicans (against) had argued about it since the middle ages. On the one hand it seemed that Jesus deserved to be born of a sinless virgin; on the other, "How could she be saved from sin if she was not guilty of sin in the first place?" Doesn't Saint Paul say, "All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God?"
Protestants could rightly say that the scriptures say nothing of Mary's having never sinned. Nor, for that matter, is there a clear doctrine of Original Sin in the Bible. Catholics rejoined that both doctrines are suggested in many verses of the Bible and it has taken us many centuries to recognize them.
Although "Rome had spoken," there was still discussion in 1858. And so it was rather astonishing when a peasant girl in France said she saw and spoke with "the immaculate conception." Barely literate, the devout girl would not have known the expression.
Lourdes soon became an extremely popular pilgrimage site as millions of people came from all corners of the Earth to pray and to drink the spring water that appeared below Mary's grotto.
The Catholic Church does not presume to declare these apparitions as infallible signs of anything. If Mary wants to appear to people she doesn't need the Church's by-your-leave. However, we can be skeptical of stories and incidents that violate common sense and our reasonable faith. I would  guess there are tens of thousands of claims that she has appeared. Very few have not been suppressed or forgotten; only a few have been deemed harmless enough to be encouraged. Without much police authority priests and bishops mostly roll our eyes and hope the spurious ones go away. Belief in them is strictly optional. Caveat emptor!

When I think of Lourdes, I think of that mysterious title, "The Immaculate Conception." Certainly, Mary can be regarded as one set apart and isolated by this grace. But we should think of her privilege as a bond which draws us to her and to one another. Baptized, we enjoy the privilege of innocence which the Lord has given to us. Acutely aware of our sins and unworthiness, we nonetheless find ourselves in her company; and her in our company. As Isaiah said, "Who would believe what we have heard?"
Secondly, we can rejoice in the blessing God has given this woman. Clearly this is the work of the Lord and it is wonderful in our eyes. Why should anyone be envious who has personally known the forgiveness of sins?
Finally, as in today's gospel, Mary always directs us back to Jesus. She tells us, "Do whatever he tells you!" To obey him is to obey her. And then when he says, "Behold your mother!" what choice do we have but to "Take her into our homes." As Joseph did!
Arriving home with her -- in the home that is now hers -- who do we find there but everyone else! Mary opens her heart and our hearts to people of every language, race, tribe and nation. She never met a stranger, as the pilgrims discover when they arrive in Lourdes.
Holy Virgin Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.

Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 75

I am reminding you, brothers and sisters,
of the gospel I preached to you, which you indeed received and in which you also stand. Through it you are also being saved...

On this day when we hear of the Prophet Isaiah's staggering vision and Saint Peter's astonishment, we also hear Saint Paul remind you of the gospel I preached to you.
Isn't it amazing that we can forget the unforgettable? How often do we hear, and perhaps say, "I will never forget this as long as I live?" or, "I will always remember...?"
But we forget. Life goes on; the years pile up behind us. People with whom we shared major moments of our lives, who were there for us, have departed, sometimes forever.
Keeping faith means intentionally, deliberately remembering. It means stopping periodically and calling to mind what is nearly forgotten, lest it disappear altogether.
The human being is the only creature we know of that can remember not only things within their own life span, but also things that happened thousands of years ago. We can -- and must --remember theophanies when God appeared and spoke to our fellow human beings. That these interventions happened a long time ago, in a culture and geography that are practically alien to us, makes them all the more imperative.
If we forget Abraham's night of terror or Moses' burning bush or Mary's angel or Saint Paul's stumbling on the road to Damascus we will become strangers in a strange land. We will become strangers even to ourselves, unfamiliar with the face in a mirror.

And so we gather every Sunday to hear the Lord's command, "Do this in memory of me!" We come in obedience willingly because we fear what might happen if we fail to attend. It's not enough to study the Bible at home. It's not enough to watch a TV show about Jesus, or a movie about King David. These popular events will give us nothing more than what we want to believe about our faith, a palatable, sanitized version of God's demands, designed to sell products to gullible consumers. 
Returning to the sanctuary where our grandparents and their grandparents met to pray each Sunday, we feel the weight and the freedom of the past. The present does not vanish but it finds perspective. A government shutdown is not a civil war. We have seen much worse! An opioid plague is another scourge of God meant to drive us back to obedience, not to destroy us. 
Let us search and examine our ways,and return to the LORD. Let us lift up our hearts as well as our hands toward God in heaven! We have rebelled and been obstinate; you have not forgiven us.
Today's gospel assures us. The Lord will not go away from us although we are a sinful people. He has called us together on this Sunday morning to remind us of who we are, and what we must not forget. We must remember our destiny. The wounds we suffer will be healed; our present fears will vanish when the Risen Lord destroys even death itself. 

Saturday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 328

May the God of peace, who brought up from the dead the great shepherd of the sheep by the Blood of the eternal covenant,  furnish you with all that is good, that you may do his will.

The Letter to the Hebrews finishes with a reassurance of peace. On this Saturday in Ordinary Time, the Church receives that blessing with Psalm 23. We pray with our ancestors of four thousand years, "The Lord is my shepherd; there is nothing I shall want." 

Every Christian experiences grief, guilt and uncertainly; most of us suffer distress and anxiety. There is nothing unusual or wrong about those very natural, very human responses. But the Gospel assures us that we may enjoy peace. It is God's gift to his chosen ones. 
The Spirit of the Lord sometimes abandons us. Sometimes we are guilty of sin or have attached ourselves to a sinful course of action and the Spirit of God will not let us rest with it. Clinging stubbornly to our preferences we may suffer through long periods of grim determination to do it my way. Only when we finally relent of that foolish course of action does God's peace return to us. 
Sometimes, as the saints tell us, the Lord simply withdraws his consoling spirit to let us feel our helplessness without him. If I have ever prayed, "Okay, Lord, I can take it from here!" I soon discovered how foolish that was. Why would I want to go it alone? But I have, and I learned from it. 
In either case we have sometimes not known the peace that is normal for Christian life, especially because the Lord gives us that two-side coin freedom/anxiety. Faith alleviates anxiety, making it bearable, but it does not dissolve it totally. 
Historically, we have to admit, there have been periods when some Christian shepherds tormented us with exaggerated depictions of God's wrath and our guilt. We were warned not to presume on God's benevolence. "God owes you nothing!" we were told. 
That's true, but it's a poor starting point for any religion. The Gospel  greets us with Gabriel's word to Mary, "Do not be afraid. You have found favor with the Lord." 
We live in that. We move freely within that space, and show that same benevolence to our neighbors, friends, and enemies. 

Friday of the Fourth Week in Ordinary Time

Be mindful of prisoners as if sharing their imprisonment, and of the ill-treated as of yourselves, for you also are in the body.
Let marriage be honored among all
and the marriage bed be kept undefiled,
for God will judge the immoral and adulterers. Let your life be free from love of money but be content with what you have,

I love that little aside in Hebrew 13:3 -- "for you are also in the body." Human beings often forget that we are "in the body." Prelates, planning their new, modern churches, have been known to forget toilets. Campers forget blankets; travelers forget food; generals planning bivouacs, forget latrines. General Eisenhower is remembered for his logistical genius; he said, "An army travels on its stomach." 
If we remember these necessities for ourselves we may forget that others need them. We donate food to the poor but forget soap, diapers, and warm jackets. We provide television to prisoners and think that will satisfy their need for entertainment, education and community.
Speaking of prisoners, our Author reminds his people to share their imprisonment because we're all imprisoned by our habits, schedules and infrastructures. GPS tracking of millions of telephones has shown that most people go to the same places every day, every month, every year. How Boring!
The doctrine of the Incarnation celebrates that great mystery, that the Lord God willingly wrapped himself in all the infirmities, indignities and necessities of human life. We had seen God's humility in the Old Testament; in God's speaking to us with words, in human language, which can be so easily misunderstood and misinterpreted. People still complain about that. "Why doesn't God speak in our language, in modern 21st century American English? Why do we have to study ancient Hebrew words and Greek culture?"
With the birth of Jesus we are dumbfounded -- and further inconvenienced -- by his dependence upon Mary and Joseph and all the frail infrastructures that make human life possible. With every passing century the world of a first century rabbi becomes more remote. And yet we know nothing about God -- or salvation, or hope, or the purpose of human life -- if we forget that world altogether.
The Author of Hebrews finds grace in the quotidian, in the ordinary, flat, plain facts of life. You need not climb every mountain or ford every stream. There is adventure enough in honoring the marriage bed and being content with what you have. Heroism resides not in extremis but very close.
For this command which I am giving you today is not too wondrous or remote for you. It is not in the heavens, that you should say, “Who will go up to the heavens to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?” Nor is it across the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross the sea to get it for us and tell us of it, that we may do it?” No, it is something very near to you, in your mouth* and in your heart, to do it. Deuteronomy 30: 11