Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Tuesday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

 Lectionary: 348

Concerning the salvation of your souls....
it was revealed to them that [the prophets] were serving not themselves but you with regard to the things that have now been announced to you by those who preached the Good News to you
through the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels longed to look.

Often, when we assess our own contribution in whatever field it might be, we admit, "We're standing on the shoulders of giants." As clever as we might be, we're always building on the discoveries, invention, genius, effort, and sacrifice of our ancestors.  

As the early Church tried to grasp the full dimensions of the Gospel, they too appreciated the gifts of the past. Christian evangelists, preachers, and teachers studied the Hebrew laws, histories, prophets, psalms, and proverbs which past generations had accumulated, pondered, refined, and cherished. They realized they were living the dream of their forebears. The promises of the prophetic tradition were fulfilled in Jesus for those who lived by his Spirit. As they practiced their faith amid a hostile, suspicious society, their joy and confidence astounded even them. Although their new life included much hardship, it was deeply satisfying and profoundly hopeful.  

The prophets had "searched and investigated the grace" centuries before, like miners working a seam, or scholars poring over their books. If their insight was not as clear and as compelling as the one the Church had received through the preaching of the Gospel, the ancients were nonetheless divinely inspired and zealous in their love of God. 

Whether I'm standing on the shoulders of giants or living the fullness of Christ's life, I confess that, "My life did not begin the day I was born." The sources of my faith are deeper and their meaning richer than anything I can appreciate or express. And that's when we turn to prayer and especially to liturgical prayer with others. 

I might not know the meaning of every word of the psalms or every gesture in the Mass. But I share each verse of every song with faithful men and women who lived centuries ago. Our prayers look forward also, and will be received and celebrated long after our day has passed. 

And, we should add, we share the same human anxieties. If we no longer suspect witches, smiths, and wizards like our Irish ancestors when something goes wrong, we call them conspiracies. It amounts to the same thing; there are forces operating in me and around me, I have no control of them. Like my ancestors and descendants, I turn to God for help. 

Finally, our prayers tell us that former generations faced more challenges and worse threats and that's why they remain with us. The martyrs and saints still pray with us, and we are grateful for their company. 

Monday, May 27, 2024

Monday of the Eighth Week in Ordinary Time

 Lectionary: 347

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
"How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the Kingdom of God!"
The disciples were amazed at his words.

In his novel Hawaii, James Michener recalled a Hawaiian expression about the first Christian missionaries from New England. "They came to do good, and they did very well." 

The married ministers raised their American children to expect the same opportunities and entitlements as their parents. Those who didn't become pastors became successful businessmen, bankers, and lawyers. And they prospered. If the first generation relied on God's providence and support from home, their children and grandchildren did very well without either.

That seems to be a truism of Protestantism in America. Catholicism has traditionally been skeptical of wealth, success, and prosperity; while the "Protestant work ethic" expects that virtues like hard work, efficiency, and dedication will be rewarded in this world and the next. 

As I have followed the headlines through the past several decades about the latest scandals, and remembered that Hawaiian aphorism, I have sometimes suggested, "If you hope to do well by doing good, be careful. Be very careful." 

Headlines about the pharmaceutical industry especially raise eyebrows nowadays. We'll be a long time recovering from the remarkable success of opioid sales. The manufacturers of these dubious cures for pain bought influence in state and national capitals. The Joint Commission, a nonprofit organization which oversees 22,000 health organizations in the United States, combed the hospitals and sounded the alarm about any patient who suffered discomfort. "No one should ever be in pain!" they decreed; and nurses and doctors were told to make sure it never happened. Many patients have never recovered from the addictive medicines their doctors pushed on them, and some have died. 

But the American pharmaceutical industry, salespeople, and pill pushing doctors did very well. 

The economic crash of 2008 was brought on by reputable banks who urged poor people to accept huge loans, and then sold their debts to shadier operations. (Who knew that their debts could be bought, sold, and traded?) And I remember when farmers were going bankrupt in the early 1980's after accepting fistfuls of dollars to buy more acreage and larger machines. 

I also remember when multinational institutions loaned money to corrupt national leaders in "third world countries." When the tinpot dictators absconded with the funds -- some like Idi Amin were rescued from "terrorists" and whisked to safety by wealthy friends -- leaving their impoverished nations leaderless and desolate. 

But isn't lending money to poor people and impoverished nations a good thing? And profitable for everyone? And isn't selling painkillers a blessed thing? 

If you expect to do well by doing good, be very careful. Be very careful. 

In his book Crazy Like Us, Ethan Watters reports that highly paid university professors who accepted enormous gifts as well as luxurious vacations from Big Pharma replied, when asked about the ethical dimensions of their giving advice, "If I had not done it, someone else would have." 

Wealthy, prosperous Americans may agree with that assessment. But God judges differently. 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. Isaiah 55:8

On this Memorial Day, we pray, 
May God remember, save, and raise up all those 
sacrificed to American wars. 
War, never again. Never again. 

Sunday, May 26, 2024

The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity 2024

The eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.

Only eleven disciples appeared on "the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them." One of the twelve is conspicuously absent. They are not as full of themselves and their accomplishments as they were before Judas's betrayal, Peter's denial, and Jesus's crucifixion. The Eleven are a wounded group – like the wounded, scarred Body of Jesus; and not unlike the Church. But the Lord commissioned them nonetheless, to "make disciples of all nations."

And they should do this by 

baptizing in the name of the Father,
and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,
teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

This word is powerful. The truth of the One God and Three persons is powerful. It is sometimes demanding and intrusive. The nations might not want to hear it. Especially those who are happy with the way things are. They're comfortable, they're content. Why rock the boat? 

But more people will welcome the truth, for they know that something is seriously wrong with the way things are. Our way is not working; our accomplishments accomplish nothing; and our satisfactions are not satisfying. 

What can the doctrine of God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit teach us? What can this wounded Church teach us? 

The Eleven tell the world that our God is supremely powerful. Our God is more powerful than even his own power. And power has no authority over him. God our Father can say no to power; he can disown it; surrender it, hand it over to another. Being supremely powerful, in God's eyes, is not worth very much. 

And so the Father cedes his authority to God the Son who not only receives all authority in heaven and earth; but is also more powerful than power; and in obedience to the will of the Father and the guidance of the Holy Spirit he renders himself powerless. If Jesus is not wrapped in tight, swaddling clothes, and lying helpless in a manger he cannot save us. He must go to Jerusalem, suffer humiliation, torture, and crucifixion. Obeying his tormentors, he must carry his own cross to Calvary. He must suffer himself to be buried in someone else’s grave for he has no money to buy his own. As Saint Paul said, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.' (Philippians 2:6)

We have never seen such authority. Our powerful people are possessed by it and cannot let it go; they are helpless before its demands. Threatened with a loss of authority and power, they fear death itself; and they make worse threats. Stripped of power they whine and snivel and say they've been cheated of what was theirs. They want their entitlements back. 

We would not believe that an all powerful God can and does surrender his authority if we had not seen it. We would not believe it if the Eleven had not obeyed the command of the Lord to baptize all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

The truth of God's humility is demanding and often intrusive to those who will not welcome it; to those who do not love it with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. But you cannot ignore a broken back; and you cannot suppress truth no matter how much you despise it. It may be intrusive, rude, and obnoxious. It may punish those who sneer at it; but it is never arbitrary. It is reasonable, patient, and merciful. It has more time than anyone. If the Lord does not direct our work, our greatest accomplishments will disappear and be forgotten. Neither the Great Wall of China nor the pyramids of Egypt can resist the eternity of God. 

The wounded Church went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them, humiliated by their own folly and by their misguided impulses. When they announced the Gospel they made no secret of their human failings. And they remain obedient to the Mercy of God. No one should believe in a Church that clings to power, as if it owns the truth; as if it's a private possession and privilege for select men and women who have neither sinned nor admitted that they sin.

We confess our craving for power, and surrender that craving to God’s authority. Where we are given authority as parents over children and pastors over parishes, we beg for that same humble Spirit which directed Jesus throughout his life. That Spirit is wiser, more compassionate, and gentler than anything we can manage. It sees the future, which we cannot imagine, and knows where we are going. 

Saint Francis told the parable of the corpse that is declared king and crowned with a golden tiara. When the corpse is stripped of that same crown, it sheds no tears and expresses no regret.  

But, because we speak the Truth, we cannot condone falsehood or encourage deception. We hear of doctors who affirm the misguided in their confusion, and counselors who assure their clients that if it feels right it must be right. We must not encourage fools to remain in their foolishness; or sinners to remain in their sin. That pseudo-compassion which promotes abortion, assisted suicide, and mutilation of one's sexual being is neither kind nor merciful. The Lord himself warned such advisors with terrifying language

As we ponder the beauty and mystery of the Holy Trinity, we hope we are owned by the Truth; and, like Jesus, obedient to it. The truth will always be a heavy cross for those willing to carry it, but those who bear it can expect to wear a crown of glory. 

Saturday, May 25, 2024

Saturday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 346

The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.
Elijah was a man like us;
yet he prayed earnestly that it might not rain,
and for three years and six months it did not rain upon the land.
Then Elijah prayed again, and the sky gave rain
and the earth produced its fruit.

Saint Paul urges us in the oldest document of the New Testament to Pray without ceasing. Our first and easiest duty as the People of God is to pray. Out of that blessed practice flows our patience, gratitude, generosity, courage, joy, and willing abstinence from the idle distractions of modern life. 

In today's first reading, Saint James also reminds us of the duty and privilege of our prayerful life. The first sentence describes three different human conditions: suffering, good spirits, and sickness. The response to suffering is prayer with songs of praise; and to suffering, we call in the elders of the Church to pray for recovery. 

We should pray especially for the forgiveness of sins. We cannot know the mercy of God without a keen awareness of our sins. Those afflicted with ignorance of their sins may salute God from afar, as if they are fellow beings in the universe who occasionally work together on a worthwhile task. They might even take their places in the Church, like the Pharisee in Jesus's parable, and remind the Lord of their extraordinary virtue. 

But repentant sinners know their need for God's forbearance and merciful help. They may be occasionally overwhelmed by the enormity of their sins, like the saints who are given visions of their prepared places in Hell. They consider the latitude, entitlements, and privilege they've enjoyed in God's presence and their carelessness about it. In all humility they turn to the Lord again and again, like Mary Magdalene who turned away from the empty tomb and then turned to the Lord. (Saint John emphasizes her turning by using the word twice in verses 14 and 16.)

Our responsorial psalm today, Psalm 141, has been described as the prayer of a penitent who knows the need for God's guidance and discipline. Four verses enumerate God's saving work: 

  1. Set a guard, LORD, before my mouth,
  2. keep watch over the door of my lips.
  3. Do not let my heart incline to evil, to perform deeds in wickedness.
  4. Let me not feast on the delicacies of the arrogant.
As serious as these disciplines might be, they are graced with a joyous invocation, "Let my prayer come like incense before you." And they agree with Saint James advice for those in good spirits, "they should sing a song of praise." 

If a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down in the most delightful way, our daily prayer makes our continual disciplines pleasant, satisfying, and effective. They assure us of our place in heaven even as we take our assigned places and fulfill our assigned roles on earth. 

Friday, May 24, 2024

Friday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

 Lectionary: 345
"...from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.
For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.
So they are no longer two but one flesh.
Therefore what God has joined together,
no human being must separate."

When we're caught up in controversies, the Holy Spirit often directs our attention back to the Scriptures and the fundamental principles of human life. In the Bible we find the same perennial questions although parts of it were written in prehistoric times. They were no less wise for being without advanced technologies and a written language.

Jesus, like rabbis, ministers, deacons, and priests of every age, was asked about divorce. "Must I stay with my nagging wife?" " Must I cling to my abusive husband?" He had come to fulfill the scriptures, not to change them; and could only repeat its teaching; "from the beginning, God made them male and female." Men and women need each other and obviously belong together. They do not and cannot exist apart. 

But restless humans challenge even our own human nature; we wonder if perhaps God made a mistake in our creation. They wonder if perhaps, after all this time, we can tweak some things, make a few alterations, repurpose genes, organs, impulses, and energies to serve more practical, attainable ends. 

Recently, in an effort to appease some elements of a troubled society, many people prefer to neutralize God talk. They avoid references to God the Father because it might invoke in some people the memory of a parent who failed his basic responsibilities. "Dad" was absent to his wife and children; and his occasional presence was violent. And so some ministers have neutralized the Father of Jesus, preferring the asexual word god to father and lord

Reducing Jesus and his Father to a neutral god suggests there is an antagonism between male and female; as if male and female are not complementary and have no need for each other. In this brave new world, women bear children without fathers as if children are pets one can purchase when the consumer is ready to buy one. They are taken as a parental right and not as gifts from God. But when adorable puppies or kittens age into adolescence they're often dumped into city streets or onto rural farms. And millions of grandchildren are being raised by their grandparents. 

Suddenly the beloved and universally known Lord's Prayer is a Statement about the disputed masculinity of God, and not the supremely generous progenitor who sacrificed his only begotten son for our salvation. 

Medieval scholastics taught that God's nature transcends human sexuality, for only a transcendent Creator could fashion the first humans as "male and female, in his own image." That insight is neither new nor controversial. 

But, injected into Jesus's prayer, god depersonalizes the God of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph; for we cannot imagine a person who is neither male nor female. God becomes only a principle, impulse, or energy without consciousness or concern. And we are already very familiar with impersonal forces, standard operating procedures, faceless bureaucrats, robotic voices, and thinking machines. They have no compassion; and care about nothing, least of all the sorrows and joys of men and women. 

Neutralizing God talk is intrusive, distracting the congregation from their prayer and its healing effects. I recently heard four verses in 1 John 3:21-24 reinterpreted eleven times in four verses. He became god and his became god's. It was a contortionist's performance without the humor.

The authors of scripture were very familiar with the uncaring, arbitrary gods of earth, sky, seas, and fire; and finally denied their existence: 

"I am the LORD, there is no other,  there is no God besides me." (Is 45:5)

Today we need men and women to represent the beauty, wonder, majesty, wisdom, and authority of God Our Father and his Son Jesus Christ. Marriage will always be the foundation of a stable society. Husbands and wives must demonstrate the irrevocable nature of the LORD's marriage to Israel, and Jesus's irrevocable covenant with the Church. Faithful couples raise their children to know the unearned, unmerited mercy of God. They assure them that God has not abandoned his people. His Spirit remains with us not as a vague idea but as One who directs our freedom. 

Divorce should never become normal; it is a great tragedy for millions of people. Women and children are not safer without husbands and fathers. It has led to open marriage, gay marriage, gay ideology, and finally to the absurd notion that some wicked person assigned my gender when I was born. (Whenever a Red Cross phlebotomist asks about my gender I assure her that I was male the last time I checked.)  

I believe in the Father of Jesus, but I am skeptical of anyone's "god." That was never the NAME of the One who spoke to Moses from the Burning Bush, nor was He the One whom Jesus called Abba

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Thursday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

 Lectionary: 344

"Everyone will be salted with fire.
Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid,
with what will you restore its flavor?
Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another."

Jesus uses an odd expression in today's Gospel. How is one salted with fire? If I would make peace with others and be desirable in God's sight, how can I be salted with fire? 

Certainly, we usually salt our food, especially meat, before cooking it to make it both palatable and desirable. Processed foods are made tastier with salt, and restaurant diners insist upon lots of flavor in their food. And most dining tables feature one or more shakers should anyone want even more salt on their food. 

And I suppose there are evolutionary reasons for that. We like sapid, salty food because

"sodium chloride (NaCl), is an essential nutrient that helps the body maintain fluid and electrolyte balance, blood pressure, and cellular homeostasis. It also helps muscles contract and relax, and nerves conduct impulses. The body needs about 500 milligrams of sodium per day to perform these functions." (Google AI)

However, "Adults should have no more than 6g of salt a day (around 1 level teaspoon). This includes the salt that's already in our food and the salt added during and after cooking. Babies should not have much salt, because their kidneys are not fully developed and cannot process it." (Google AI

For that very reason, many people have to avoid restaurants and processed foods: 

"The primary health effect associated with diets high in sodium is raised blood pressure, increasing the risk of cardiovascular diseases, gastric cancer, obesity, osteoporosis, Meniere’s disease, and kidney disease." (World Health Organization)

Pity the poor wife who desperately tries to keep her husband healthy while he complains incessantly about her unsalted, insipid food. 

The Lord's salted with fire apparently alludes to that dual process of preparing food with fire and salt to make it desirable and enjoyable. 

But we have a similar ambivalent relationship with fire. Naked creatures that we are, unless we live in equatorial zones, we need fire to keep warm against the cold. It's more of a necessity than a luxury. But we can't get too close to the flame. And everyone has been burned. 

We know burnout; we know the burning heat of shame. We may be once burned, and twice shy after disappointment or humiliation, but grace teaches us to desire love and be loved again. We also hear of that burning desire of the mystics who describe their burning desire for God's love and God's insatiable love for us. 

Jesus's expression, "be salted with fire," speaks of intense love with its longing, fearfulness, and occasional betrayals. I used to say to the Veterans in the Substance Abuse Program, "If you turn forty and haven't screwed up yet, you ain't even trying!" Everyone needs to be burned, and will be burned, on our way to salvation. And we may even need salt poured on our wounds to heal them. 

We learn the full dimension of the cross and it's Bearer as fiery salt teaches us, "It's better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." 

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Wednesday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time

 Lectionary: 343

There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name
who can at the same time speak ill of me.
For whoever is not against us is for us."

We hear in both readings today a warning against hubris, that easy assumption that we all make; that, "I know something. I own something. I have authority because I have this truth." 

I certainly notice my own habit. I take enormous pride in my Catholic faith, and listen impatiently to other teachings; I smoke out suspicious notions that might come from some foreign place. The arrogance is palpable. 

Jesus urges us in today's Gospel to keep an open mind as we hear of new ideas and the people who espouse them. We needn't immediately inform them that their inspirations have been around for centuries, and have a dark, complex history. The point is we should care more about the person than their ideas. 

We should be more interested in what this idea means to them. Do they find some relief, pleasure, vindication, or validation in it? Isn't that what my beliefs mean to me -- relief, pleasure, vindication, and validation? So who am I to strip their carapaces from them? Would I leave them naked, exposed, and vulnerable without the hope they've found in their beliefs. 

I used to visit the city and parish jails in Jennings, Louisiana. I often met young men who had found the Lord in their government-sponsored free time. They eagerly shared their joy with me. What could I say but, "Good for you!" as I listened to their fundamentalist interpretations and pentecostal misreadings? There would never be time enough to explain how Catholics read those oft-quoted passages of scripture. And even if they heard my interpretation and it made sense to them, would they find a community to support and encourage them in my way of thinking? (Most Catholics and my confrieres don't understand what I am saying!) 

Eventually they would leave the jail and return to their homes and neighborhoods, and some would find a nearby church and practicing Christians who would encourage neither my readings of the Bible nor theirs but their walk in faith. They would soon forget the ideas of a priest they met in jail, but they might remember the Gospel they shared with him. 

Whoever is not against us is for us.