All Hallows Eve (October 31st, 2014)

To profess the Catholic Faith requires public witness. It may be the case with other religions, even other forms of Christian faith, that their profession of faith is merely a private matter, but not so with the Catholic Faith. The Catholic Faith is a public reality that requires public witness.

To profess and practice the Catholic Faith as if it is meant to be a secret contradicts the very essence of the Catholic Faith itself.

Precisely how to best give public witness to the Faith entails multiple strategies. There is no singular way of giving witness to the Faith of the Church.

However, one of the overt ways the Church has proclaimed its Faith is through public festivity. These festivals are meant to surround the solemn liturgical celebrations of the Church, for example Christmas and Easter, but also, at least in former days, Halloween.

The popular culture celebrates Halloween with gusto- the Church less so. The popular culture considers the Halloween festivities to be a holdover from pagan times, an association that is used to justify the grim and sensual excess. The Catholic associations with Halloween have been muted and repressed in favor of a demonic reverie.

What has happened to Catholic Halloween?

For example, the practice of masquerade has little to do with honoring demonic influences, but is instead a form of play, that pokes fun at fallen spiritual powers and the excesses of human desire- showing these things to be, not so much frightening, but silly. The distribution of treats originate in the sharing of resources at times of festivity, an act of charity through which private stores of resources were given over to public use on festival days so that all could enjoy the party. The association of Halloween with the dead has to do with the liturgical celebrations of All Saints and All Souls Days. All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween) is the festival that begins two great days of solemn, Christian celebration.

No reference to paganism, ancient or modern, is needed to explain any of these customs. All of it wells up from the great reservoir of the Church’s public witness through public festivity.

A witness that has become more and more muted as far too many Christians have domesticated their religious practice, retreated from public life and sequestered the Church’s belief and practice behind closed and often locked doors. Within that closed space we celebrate ourselves, but that party is by invitation only and the guest list is quite exclusive.

Halloween is at its root a Catholic event meant to commemorate in fun, feasting and foolishness the great truth of the Communion of Saints and lead the culture to peer into the life of the Church- it was meant as an invitation to cross a threshold from the world into Church and see the holy mysteries the Church commemorates in the Feasts of All Saints and All Souls.

We Christians have surrendered that festival to the culture and they have made of it their own kind of celebration. We have lost Halloween in much the same way that we have lost Christmas and Easter. The public face of the Church in its evangelical, festival outreach of feasts and holy days has largely receded. As strategies of assimilation and accommodation have been employed in attempts to make the Church more palatable to the culture’s tastes, almost all of the character and charm of Catholic culture has disappeared. A holy day means 45 minutes in Church and then back to work- if even that!

The lack of bold public festivity, intimately attached to the feasts and seasons of the Church’s worship, has left the impression that the Church is in retreat and unsure of itself and that all it has to offer the culture is an argument and a stern “No”.

A wise man once observed that wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, there is music, food and good red wine.

It’s time for that Catholic sun of public festivity to rise again and cast the divine light of joyous life in Christ on a culture desperate for his warmth and light.

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Thursday of the Thirtieth Week in Ordinary Time (October 30th, 2014)

If we want to understand the Biblical witness we must be willing to move beyond the confines of our own experience and enter into the world of the Bible.

By this I mean that the biblical texts did not drop to earth from some heavenly realm but emerge from particular historical and cultural contexts- and these contexts can helps us to discern the present and the future, but the world of the bible is also embedded in the past.

Thus Saint Paul’s Letters are embedded in what we call the first century, the years immediately following the revelation of Christ and within the culture of what is called “Graeco-Roman”, which means the cultures of the Mediterranean that were influenced by the dominating powers of Greece and Rome.

(Alexander the Great had conquered the Mediterranean world and his empire was succeeded by the Caesar’s empire of Rome.)

Without this context in mind, much of what St. Paul has to say, indeed, much of what the New Testament has to say, is unintelligible.

Not only is ignorance of scripture, ignorance of Christ (as St. Jerome was so apt to say) but also, ignorance of history, usually results in ignorance of the scriptures.

Today St. Paul makes reference to the “armor of God” insisting that we put this armor on so as to be ready to resist supernatural powers.

The reference here is not simply “spiritual” but is meant to encourage Christians who were under the domination of the mighty legions (armies) of Rome. These legions in their armor were representatives of Roman power, they were the embodiment of Caesar’s will to rule and to dominate. Christians had every reason to fear this power. Roman power was aggressive, real and violent.

But Christians, have a stronger armor and serve a greater power and St. Paul explains what this armor and power are all about in today’s excerpt from the Letter to the Ephesians.

Worldly power scoffs at the effectiveness of the armor and power that St. Paul describes, but it is precisely the armor and power of God that Christ used to defeat sin, death and the devil- and in defeating these powers, showed himself to be a greater and more important king than Caesar.

Roman power was deeply suspicious of and persecuted the Church, not because it hated religion, but because of the claim that the Church made about Christ- that he was a power greater and more important than Caesar and that Christ, not Caesar was the world’s true king.

In the face of the Church’s claim about Christ, Caesar showed the power of his legions, and Christians had reason to be afraid. St. Paul’s words about the armor of God are meant to encourage the Church, and remind them that it is Christ’s Kingdom, not Caesar’s, that will ultimately be victorious.

What is the lesson for us?

Caesar is long gone, but he has many successors who want our allegiance. Wealth, pleasure, power, and honors… The elevation of our desires to god-like status… Submitting everything, including Christ and his Church, to the litmus test of our opinions, ideologies and personal preferences. These are the ways that Caesar’s successors rule and dominate our lives.

But we must resist.

And for our resistance to be effective, we will have to employ the weapons of the Holy Spirit and take off the fashions of our worldliness and put on the armor of God.

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Friday of the Twenty-ninth Week in Ordinary Time (October 24th, 2014)

The Apostle Paul reminds us this morning that the Church prioritizes over (and even against) any of our own causes, opinions, agendas, ideologies, ethnic distinctions, the fundamental unity of the Church that is accomplished by our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, our Baptism into Christ which incorporates us into the Church, and the sovereignty of God over not only the Church, but all of creation.

In other words, Christ is God, the Church belongs to Christ, and through the Church, and we belong to Christ. When we mitigate this way of understanding Christ, the Church or ourselves we inevitably introduce divisions into the Church, which then inevitably cause the Church to falter in her mission.

When the Church is failing in her mission, this failure is usually not because of something external to the Church, but because of divisiveness that exists from within. A divisive Church is a self-referential Church, one that has displaced the Lordship of Christ with mere worldly interests. A divisive Church does not attract and generates little, if any, life. It cannot inspire the radical commitment to the Gospel that is revealed in vocations to priesthood, religious life and matrimony and levels out the heroic, missionary zeal of discipleship through a bureaucratic institutionalism, replacing witness to the Gospel with mere commentary about the Church and how we can change policies to better meet our needs.

There is no life giving potential in the divisive Church because there is no longer one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God- instead there is only our ego, our ideologies, our causes, and the many gods of worldliness.

The best that a divisive Church can accomplish is maintaining faith-themed infrastructure- comfortably decorated, state of the art facilities, but these will only be skeletons without flesh, empty buildings without a living divine or human presence.

Which Church do we want? We are all faced with this decision.

Christ calls us to task, he judges us, for being distracted and pre-occupied. Where is our sense of urgency in terms of the demands of the Gospel?

Look how much attention and anxiety we can muster in regards to the weather, but what of the Gospel and the mission that Christ gives us?

Imagine the urgency and seriousness with which we would approach a court case or how we readily conform our lives to the demands of merely human laws and judgment. But does the reality of God’s judgment matter? Do we consider that even now God measures our love against his standard of justice, mercy and forgiveness? What of the law of Christ in his Gospel? In regards to Christ’s law are we willing to conform to a new way of life, or in this regard to we seek the exemption? Do we consider the Gospel merely as affirming us as we are or for what it really and truly is- an invitation to repent and live a different way of life?

The demand of the Gospel cannot be deferred. The demand of the Gospel presses upon us with great urgency in the present moment.

The day of the judgment of the Lord is not a matter of the future, but of today!

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Thursday of the Twenty-ninth Week in Ordinary Time (October 23rd, 2014)

The Church presents excerpts from St. Paul’s magnificent letter to the Ephesians as our first scripture for holy Mass this week.

On Monday, the Apostle Paul testified that Christ revealed himself for the purpose of forgiving our sins and through this forgiveness, he granted us a new way of life in which we would live in communion with him, and in sharing communion with him, we would share communion with God.

On Tuesday, the Apostle Paul spoke about the fulfillment of the Temple in Christ, assuring us that the Temple, did not simply cease to exist with Christ’s revelation, but was renewed and transformed in Christ. The new Temple is Christ’s Body and we enter into the sanctuary of Christ’s Body through the Mass.

Yesterday, Saint Paul testified that he had been given a mission to preach to the Gentiles, and through his ministry, bring the Gentiles into communion with Christ. Remember, the great revelation of the Church as the New Israel, is that God in Christ has transformed Israel, and in this transformation, invites all people to know and serve the one, true God. Paul has a mission to extend this invitation to those who were not physical descendents of the ancient family of Abraham- those people that the Israelites called the Gentiles.

And now today, the Apostle Paul reminds us that his Faith, the Faith of the Church, is not merely a matter of ideas, opinions, values, emotions, habits, ethnicity, culture, sociology, ideology- or any of the categories we impose on ourselves, Christ or the Church in order to make our religion palatable and easy. What the Church’s Faith is all about is a relationship, a relationship with Christ himself, who offers his life to us through the Sacraments of the Church. So, rather than being imbued or filled up with worldly powers- the powers of economics, politics, or ideology, we are filled with the power of Christ.

And this, for St. Paul, is what real power is all about- Christ’s power that is a love that gives itself to us even though we can’t earn it, a power of God’s love that is willing forgive us even when we don’t deserve forgiveness, a power of divine love that is greater than even the greatest of worldly powers- the power of death.

This power comes to us through our relationship with Christ, and without that relationship we just languish under the thrall of worldly powers, never knowing the freedom, the joy, the peace that comes from knowing and accepting Christ as Lord and Savior and sharing communion with his divine life through the Sacraments of the Church.

Faith in Christ is about a relationship with him. The Church is not simply an institution or faith based entertainment group. The Church is a relationship with Christ.

Finally, Christ in his Gospel, insists that he is fire on the earth and his followers will be the same.

Fire provides heat and light. It has both creative and destructive potential. It creates the conditions for the possibility of so many good things, but it can also unleash devastating destruction. The Gospel is not a self-help manual or a greeting card, it is a force to be reckoned with- and Christ, through his Church unleashes this force for the sake of the transformation of the world.

And further, Christ reminds us that the force of his Gospel will not mean that everyone will just get along, but it will also provoke divisions- some will accept the Gospel, others will refuse it, and those who accept it, will know opposition.

In other words, Christ’s way of life is not about getting easy comforts or being delivered from difficulty. Christ’s way of life is a mission that involves risk, and more often than not, saves and redeems us through a passage through difficulties, rather than in exemption from the real, raw facts of life.

This is the way that God in Christ went through and it is the way that all his disciples must be prepared to follow.

Feast of Saint Luke, The Evangelist (October 18th, 2014)

Today, the Church celebrates the witness of the great saint, Luke, one of the greatest evangelists for the Faith.

An evangelist bears the Gospel into the world in charismatic and extraordinary ways. The Gospel is “good news” and this “good news” is not just pleasant, friendly greetings, but testimony to the Lord Jesus- an evangelist testifies to who the Lord Jesus really and truly is and invites people to know him with the familiarity with which one knows a friend and to share a relationship with Christ in the Church.

An evangelist will direct attention away from themselves and towards Christ, for he is the living source of the message, the “good news” they share with the world.

Luke’s legacy as an evangelist exists today in two of magnificent texts that are included in the New Testament- a Gospel, that is credited to his name and a book called Acts of the Apostles, which is, in many respects, a continuation of his Gospel.

A Gospel is not just the good news about the Lord Jesus that is shared by an evangelist, it is also a specific literary style and genre. A Gospel text announces things of great importance about the Lord Jesus and takes eyewitness testimony to Christ and from that creates a story, a narrative. The purpose of this story is introduce us to the Lord Jesus and a Gospel offers this introduction so that we might come to believe that Jesus is the Lord and Savior of the world and having professed this belief, offer our very lives to him as disciples.

A Gospel is not just about imparting information about the Lord Jesus, but it is about inviting us to be part of a new way of life and this way of life is called the Church.

The Gospel of Luke offers as his master idea or organizing principle the significance of the temple as the way to understand who the Lord Jesus really and truly is. Christ the Lord makes himself for the healing and redemption of the world a new kind of temple. How so?

Christ is God, who accepts a human nature and lives a real, human life. He does this so that his very person, the body he accepts, can serve as the route of access to communion with God. God offers himself to us, not just in a building, but in a body. It is in the body of the Lord Jesus that he makes himself know and this body is the living source of a relationship with God. It is this body, the Gospel of Luke testifies, that is the new temple.

We come to know this new temple, the body of the Lord Jesus, through the Mass.

The mass is the temple worship of the new temple of the Body of Christ.

Luke also writes the New Testament book called the Acts of the Apostles. This text takes eyewitness testimony about the earliest years of the Church’s life and relates this information to us in the form of a great adventure story.

The primary theme of the Book of Acts is that there is a dynamic equivalence between Christ and his Church. The Church is in the world as Christ is in the world and the mission of the Church is the mission of Christ.

The Church is not just an institution that exists to satisfy our faith based needs, but the Church is a living source of encounter with the Lord Jesus himself. It is through the Church that the world comes to know Christ and share a life with him.

The mission of those who have come to know Christ in the Church is to go out into the world and take great risks to introduce Christ to others. This is what evangelization means- introducing people to Christ and offering them a relationship with him in his Church.

We know little personal details about Saint Luke, and this should not surprise us, because the saints will disappear into the Church, allowing Christ to increase as they decrease.

Tradition remembers Saint Luke, not just a one of the Church’s greatest evangelists, but also as a physician and an artist.

This seems fitting, for an evangelist offers Christ’s salvation into the world, a gift that we shouldn’t just reduce to meaning that you get to go to heaven when you leave this world. Salvation means healing. Christ offers through his Church healing to a world whose health has been broken by the poison of the evil one. The Church is meant to be a physician who offers the remedy of Christ to a world that has become soul-sick.

The image offered by Pope Francis comes to mind, that of the Church as a field hospital, into which the world is drawn to know Christ and experience the healing power of his mercy. Our mission is to go out into the world and bring the walking wounded into the field hospital of the Church. The identification of Saint Luke as a physician gestures towards this truth about our mission.

Saint Luke is also an artist, which means that he was capable of creating wonderful things of great beauty. Beauty is the privileged way that people are invited to know Christ by the Church. Indeed, Pope Francis speaks about the “way of beauty” in his letter to the Church entitled “The Joy of the Gospel.”

A joyous Church makes its joy known through works of beauty, and these works of beauty are a merciful gift to the world- a source of life and hope.

Beauty attracts people to Christ, introduces people to his truth, and offers to them the invitation to a new way of life.

So on this day when the Church celebrates the great saint Luke, let us give more attention to our mission of mercy, of healing and consider the ways we gather people into the field hospital of the Church. In this regard, what have we done or what have we failed to do?

But also let us ask how this parish employs the strategy of beauty as a route of access to the Lord. Is our way of life at all beautiful to those who stand outside and look within? It what ways does the beautiful way of life of the Church serve as an invitation to others to know Christ and be his disciple?

How is our way of life evidently beautiful, if at all?

May the evangelist Saint Luke intercede for us, and through his intercession may we come to offer our lives by taking great risks for the sake of the Gospel.

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Thursday of the Twenty-eighth Week in Ordinary Time (October 16th, 2014)

The Church turns our attention from Saint Paul’s Letter to the Galatians to his Letter to the Ephesians.

The Ephesians are the inhabitants of the once cosmopolitan city of Ephesus, located in a region of the country we know as Turkey. Ephesus was a great commercial and cultural center of the ancient Mediterranean world. A magnificent shrine to the goddess Artemis dominated the city. Outside of the temple complex of Karnak in Egypt, and the temple mount in Jerusalem, it was the one of the most visited religious sites in the world, drawing pilgrims and tourists from far and wide.

The once mighty temple of Artemis is gone now. Tourists can still visit the site where the city once stood, but what they see in its ruins are just the skeletal remains of what was formally a living city.

Ephesus was densely populated and the Christians of the city would have been one of many minority groups who lived there. The New Testament Book Acts of the Apostles records that the Christian faithful were a persecuted minority and the Apostle Paul suffered torture and was nearly killed because of his testimony to the Church’s faith in Ephesus.

The Letter to the Galatians is a polemic, which means St. Paul is presenting an argument against viewpoints to which he is strongly opposed. I spoke about St. Paul’s argument last week. He believes that God in Christ has created in the Church a new kind of Israel. The new Israel is what we experiences as the Church and this new Israel is supposed to receive both Jew and Gentile, and do so, not through adherence to the Law of Moses and the cultural traditions of the Israelites, but through reception of the Sacraments and through works of mercy. The Sacraments and works of Mercy manifest to the world the new law of the new Israel, which is the love of God in Christ.

St. Paul believes that there is no going back to Israel as it was before Christ. To do so is to oppose the will and purposes of God. St. Paul insists that everyone, Jew or Gentile, is now called into and to be made a part of the new Israel.

The Letter of the Ephesians is not so much a polemic or an argument about the Church, but instead, it is more like an essay about the Church- and an elegantly crafted, poetic essay at that!

St. Paul has beautiful things to say about the Church in terms of its identity and mission and relies on the power of the Church’s beauty to persuade and convince us of the Church’s truth.

His master image is that of Christ the Bridegroom and the Church as his Bride, and this image becomes the means by which Christians are to understand the mystery of the Sacrament of Marriage. The understanding of marriage as a Sacrament, rather than just a cultural or legal construct, would have been something new for the Christians of Ephesus and St. Paul is demonstrating to the Ephesians where this new understanding of marriage as a Sacrament is coming from- not from culture or from law- but from the revelation of Christ.

How Christ enters into his relationship with the Church creates the means by which Christians, who marry as husband and wife, should understand their relationship with Christ, the Church and with one another.

The Christian understanding of marriage as a Sacrament, greater than law or culture, would ultimately have a revolutionary effect on the culture of the ancient world. Men and women would find it not only novel, but also beautiful, and as it was beautiful, attractive.

Some people are attracted to the Church because they find the arguments in favor of its truth to be convincing. But for most, they do not come to the Church because of an argument, but because they find the Church’s way of life to be attractive in some way- they discover or discern something beautiful, and then learn something true and then commit themselves to doing what is good.

This is why the Church so often favors the beautiful as the route of access into the Church’s way of life. Christ reveals the glory of the Lord, which is always beautiful, and from the revelation of this glory, introduces the world to his truth and goodness.

So it is also with the Church. The Church is meant to show forth the glory of God in Christ, and from this beautiful revelation, introduce the world to his truth and goodness and invite people to accept as their own, the Church’s way of life.

And herein is the challenge for we who claim to be disciples of the Lord: are we leading with the Lord’s beauty? How do we show forth in our way of life the glory, the beauty, of the Lord?

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Monday of the Twenty-eighth Week in Ordinary Time (October 13th, 2014)

Last week, the Church presented as the first scripture readings for daily Mass select excerpts from Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

The Letter to the Galatians is about the Church, particularly the identity and mission of the Church, and the Apostle Paul testifies that it is best to understand the identity and mission of the Church as the new Israel- an Israel that has been transformed by Christ.

The mission of the new Israel (the Church) is to invite all the nations and peoples of the world to know the one, true God and to share communion with his divine life.

Saint Paul’s testimony might not seem all that controversial to us, but during his lifetime, the identity and mission of the Church as the new Israel was a vexing matter. If the Church was the new Israel, what about the “old” Israel? What was to become of the time honored customs and traditions of the Israelites? What was the place of the Law of Moses in the life of the new Israel? And perhaps most vexing was what did a Gentile, someone not born as an Israelite, have to do to become a full participant in the new Israel?

St. Paul is attempting to offer some clarity in regards to an article of the Apostolic Faith that has become controversial. But not only that, he is issuing a warning- and the warning is that there is no going back to the Israel before Christ. The revelation of Christ has changed Israel’s way of life forever. Nostalgia for way Israel was before Christ leads only to a dead end. Christ is God, and God has made Israel new. Christ does not propose a new school of thought in regards to Israel in the manner that the great rabbis and teacher of Israel did, but Christ who is God who brings to fulfillment the old Israel and transforms Israel into something new.

There is for St. Paul no middle ground to stand on between the old Israel and the new Israel. Everyone, whether or not they identify with the old Israel or new Israel, whether or not they are Jew or Gentile, are now, because of Christ, standing in the new Israel.

In today’s excerpt from the Letter to the Galatians, St. Paul uses employs biblical imagery from the Old Testament to make this point. If out of nostalgia, an Israelite who has come to accept Christ as Lord and Savior, resists the transformation of Israel in terms of its identity and mission, then the Law of Moses along with all the customs and traditions of the Israelites, will become a burden for themselves and for others, especially for the Gentiles.

This is not what Christ intends. The purpose of the new Israel is to introduce people to Christ, not propagate the Israelite way of life as it was before Christ’s revelation.

The historical particularities of this controversy do not press upon us with much urgency, but the identity and mission of the Church does.

We live in an era where, for many of the baptized, the identity and mission of the Church, if not unknown or unintelligible, has been reduced to our opinions or thought of in terms of how the Church can gratify our immediate needs.

The Church is here to be what I want it to be when I need it and to provide sanction to those goals towards which I aspire.

In other words, it is not Christ’s Church that we know or want, but a Church that we make up for ourselves.

A Church that is not Christ’s is a fake, it can only be a counterfeit- no matter how successful or popular, it cannot be or do what Christ intends.

There have been two variations of this counterfeit Church in recent memory, one that conceived of the Church as a nationalist or ethnic identity and one that conceived of the Church as a secular corporation. Both are expressions of what many people want from the Church, but they have little or anything to do with what Christ intends for his Church to be and do. If the baptized go the way of nationalism or corporation in terms of the Church, they will arrive at a dead end.

The baptized cannot know their identity and fulfill their mission is they do not first accept from Christ the identity and mission of the Church.

Christ the Lord speaks about the mysterious “sign of Jonah” through which the wisdom and power of God will be manifested to the world. The truth of this sign will represent God’s judgment, that is, the revelation of God’s Truth.

What is this mysterious “sign of Jonah”?

The “sign of Jonah” is the totality of the Paschal Mystery, which culminates in the resurrection of the Lord. It is in this Mystery that the wisdom and power of God are revealed.

But in addition to this, the “sign of Jonah” will be revealed in peoples and nations who come to know the one, true God in Christ. It will be these multitudes that, who hearing of the revelation of God in Christ and accepting him for who he reveals himself to be, manifest to the world the “sign of Jonah”.

The “sign of Jonah” is repentance and conversion to Christ.

Are we the living representatives of the “sign of Jonah” in the world?

If not, what “sign” do we reveal?

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