Memorial of the Passion of Saint John the Baptist (August 29th, 2015)

Today the Church celebrates the Passion of St. John the Baptist. A popular understanding of the word “passion” is taken to mean intense, romantic affection, but the word passion really means suffering, and suffering of an extreme kind.

The sufferings of John of Baptist were not just associated with his death, which was particularly brutal and cruel, but with his life. John’s mission set him against the great powers of his culture- those of temple, priesthood and king, and because of his opposition to these powers, his life was one of self-imposed exile, a life on the margins.

From his exile he cried out for the great powers to repent, and announced an end to their reign. God was coming into the world to set things right and with him would arrive a new temple, priesthood and kingdom. Of course, power is rarely surrendered willingly, and the powers of the old order set themselves in as fierce an opposition to John as he had placed himself in opposition to them.

The passion of John the Baptist was fueled by his love for God, a love that he understood to be most often resisted and refused. The great powers of the world were manipulators of the people’s affection for God and a distraction that prevented their conversion. John had no patience for their pomp and pretense and proclaimed that their only option was to repent before God revealed himself to the world. With the revelation of God, the world of the great powers was coming to an end, and if they were to have a place in God’s new world, they would have to change.

Christ would be the revelation that John longed for.

John also perceived correctly that behind the great powers of the world were fallen spiritual powers, sin, death and the devil. These were not powers with whom it was possible to negotiate. Those earthly powers that had aligned themselves with these dark powers would face along with those powers the full opposition of God. John believed that now was the time for earthly powers to extricate themselves from their relationship with the dark powers no matter the cost.

Many of the earthly powers considered that cost and refused to abandon their commitment to the dark powers much to the dismay of John the Baptist.

John the Baptist, burned with a passion that the world be set right, and grieved that so many would choose to be ruined, rather than changed.

Today’s Gospel provides the grisly details of the murder of John the Baptist. It is truly a tale of terror.

There are profound levels of meaning that are enveloped in the succinct description of the events leading to John’s death.

John is the prisoner of Herod, the son and namesake of the tyrant Herod who murdered the children of Bethlehem. Herod has imprisoned John because John insists that Herod’s marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias, is a sham and an affront to God’s law. John sees in this sham marriage a kind of elitism, which insists that the wealthy and powerful are not held bound by the standards of decency that bind everyone else. John has the audacity to proclaim this truth publically and for this reason he is imprisoned.

Herod, who as king should be the great driver of the events proves in reality to be merely a pawn of his own and other people’s desires. In fact, corrupting desires are the real movers of the events. These desires are infectious, and their corruption comes to its terrifying fulfillment in the request of the daughter (Herod’s niece) of Herod’s lover, (Herodias, the wife of Herod’s brother) who asks her uncle for the head of John on a platter, a request that is has no motive other than to fulfill the vanity of the her mother, the awful Herodias.

Adding to this horror is a detail that is often missed (or ignored): The original language of the text, which is Greek, reveals that young girl who dances before Herod and his courtiers is not a sultry seductress, but a mere child. This makes the story all the more disturbing. A mother sends her little girl to perform a suggestive dance before her husband, the child’s uncle, in hopes of stirring up his perverse desires so that she can manipulate the situation to effect the murder of an innocent man.

Herodias is awful. Herod is despicable. The child is an unwitting accomplice in murder. Like I said, truly a tale of terror.

This story, which is as dramatic as the libretto for an opera, is a profound reflection on what happens when to serve our own corrupted desires, rather than God. It illuminates what happens when we try to use our willfulness to control and manipulate others. In these circumstances, the end always justifies the means, and the end is usually satisfying the desire for wealth, pleasure, power and honors.

Today’s Gospel is not just a tale of terror but a cautionary tale in regards to what happens when as a result of our desires, we abandon God’s will and seek instead the fulfillment of our own will.

When we are unreflective in our moral choices, enamored of our own egoism, caught up in the rapacious need to be admired or to get our own way- disaster will follow, and it will come not only for us, but also for all those around us.

When we connive and scheme to get our way, when the commandments of God are always met with an insistence that one is exempt or excused from responsibility, no one is safe, not even the innocent. In fact, it is the innocent who will suffer and the innocent who will die.

Attending to this story of the passion of John the Baptist we can understand better why he resisted the fallen powers of the world and so looked forward to the revelation of God who would come into this world to set things right.

What about our own passion to resist? What about our own passion for God to come into our own lives and set us right?

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Memorial of Saint Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church (August 28th, 2015)

Today the Church celebrates the life, legacy and heavenly intercession of Saint Augustine.

Saint Augustine is one of the Church’s greatest teachers, a master of theology and spirituality. He surrendered his prodigious intellectual gifts to Christ, who elevated and transformed them into instruments that would not only benefit the Church, but civilization. Though composed centuries ago, the spiritual treatises, cultural commentaries, scriptural exegesis and theological essays of St. Augustine remain fresh and new.

Born in the year 354 AD, Augustine was the son of a religiously indifferent father and a pious Christian mother. His path to the Lord was filled with obstacles, the most significant of which was his own pride. The story of Augustine’s struggle to know God and accept Christ as his Savior and Friend is told by Augustine himself in one of the greatest autobiographies ever written- an autobiography known as the Confessions.

The story of Augustine’s Confessions is that of a man for whom faith did not come easily and through careful consideration of Augustine’s testimony was can gain empathy for those who hold ideas that are contrary to God’s revelation in Christ, defiantly resist Christ, sadly leave him, or seem to have no faith at all. Despite all this in Augustine’s own life, he eventually came to accept Christ and share a relationship with him in the Church.

Augustine’s struggle and troubled path to Christ reminds us that faith is foremost, not just an act of the will, but a wondrous and deeply mysterious gift. God in Christ will fulfill his promise to draw all things, all people, into relationship with him, but how this is accomplished is unique for each person and the way in which faith “happens” cannot be forced, but must happen in accord with Christ’s will and purposes.

Faith, like a seed that is planted, cannot be compelled to grow by brute force. No plant would survive if out of concern to expedite growth, a person aggressively pulled on the stem of the plant to make it grow. So it is with the gift of faith.

Our own role in how the gift of faith is to nurture, to trust and to help, offering assistance in accord with our own charisms and gifts and leading the seeker to those who have the charisms and gifts that are needed, but that we might lack ourselves.

St. Augustine eloquently proclaimed “You O Lord have made us for yourself and out hearts are restless until they rest in you.” This restlessness of the heart is the condition of all of us, and it is God’s way of prompting us of the reality of his existence and of his interest in us.

That so many seem so restless in their faith should not be understood as merely an unwillingness to ever believe. If we learn anything from St. Augustine’s circuitous journey to Christ, it is that the Lord can very effectively use our resistance as the very means of drawing us into communion with his life and his love.

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Memorial of Saint Monica (August 27th, 2015)

Saint Monica was likely born in the year 331 AD and died in the year 387 AD. Her husband was a Roman of minor nobility named Patricius and with Patricius, Monica had three children- one of whom was named Augustine. Augustine would become one of the premiere converts to the Catholic Faith and his works of theology and spirituality are among the greatest of the treasures of the Church.

But the path from Augustine to Saint Augustine would not be clear and easy. Augustine spent much of his youth resisting Christ and the Church and this resistance caused his mother, Monica, much in tears and in turmoil

Monica petitioned the Lord for years that he might intervene in the life of her son. When this intervention finally did take place, and Augustine came to know Christ, and accepted a life as a disciple in the Church, Monica was overjoyed, but would not live long enough to see the full flowering of Augustine’s faith.

Petitionary prayer is the most common kind of prayer offered by the faithful and though common, it is perhaps the most mysterious.

The Lord knows our needs better than we do and nothing that we request of him comes as a surprise. Further, our petitionary prayer, no matter how eloquent or persistent, has no power to force God to act in accord with our desires. We ask God for many things in prayer, but the deepest purpose of our petitions is not to get what we want, but to discern what God wants. Augustine’s conversion to Christ happened, but it happened on the Lord’s terms, not Monica’s.

Saint Monica trusted that God in Christ would not abandon her son to a directionless life of faithlessness and dissolution. She trusted that God’s purposes for her son’s life were greater than what his narrow perceptions could conceive. It is this act of trust, which is truly a manifestation of the theological virtue of hope, which became the crucible through which Monica’s sanctity was accomplished.

God’s purposes were as much accomplished in Monica’s willingness to abide in hope that God ultimately loved her son, even though he resisted that love, as his purposes were accomplished in Augustine’s conversion to Christ.

It was not Augustine’s conversion that made Monica a saint, but her willingness to surrender her will to Christ’s and in this surrender to abide in hope that Christ’s purposes for Augustine would one day be fulfilled. Monica lived to see that day, but even if she had not, her sanctification would have been accomplished.

Hope is one of the least remembered and least understood of the great theological virtues. This is sad in so many ways as it is often because people are bereft of hope that they refuse to believe and refuse to love.

Hope is not merely optimism, but an act of trust that God who did not abandon Christ to the powers of sin and death and the devil, will also not abandon us. Hope dares to believe that God’s purposes will be fulfilled even if we cannot foresee how this will be possible or when such fulfillment will take place.

On this day that the Church remembers the witness of St. Monica, let us renew ourselves in the hope that is instilled in us by the promises of Christ the Lord.

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Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 23rd, 2015)

Our first scripture for today is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Joshua. The Book of Joshua details how the Israelites reclaimed their ancestral lands after suffering as slaves to the gods of Egypt and wandering for years as nomads in the wilderness.

After many trials and tribulations, the Israelites have been tempered like steel in a crucible, and they are now ready to go home. But first, they must make a decision- will they give their lives over to God or serve false gods? The Israelites must decide. There is no possibility of evasion or equivocation. It’s God or the false gods.

Idolatry, the worship of false gods, is the capital sin of the Bible. All other sin originates in idolatry. Idolatry happens when we elevate a finite reality, even a good thing, to our ultimate concern, and making some thing our ultimate concern, we make it into a god.

So, you need not worship mythological beings to be an idolater or participate in bizarre rituals. False gods can be constructed out of nearly anything and are most often constructed out of our desires for wealth, pleasure, power and honors.

The Bible insists that all those who would profess faith in the true God must abandon service to false gods. This is not just a matter for ancient Israelites, it is a matter of pressing urgency for all Christians.

The challenge laid down before the Israelites by Joshua is a challenge laid down before all of us- there is no possibility of evasion or equivocation.   It’s Christ or the false gods. Whom do we serve? Whom will we serve?

Our second scripture is an excerpt from Saint Paul’s letter to the Ephesians.

The Letter to the Ephesians is St. Paul’s testimony about the relationship of Christ to his Church and the Church to Christ and our relationship to both.

Today’s excerpt from the Letter to the Ephesians likens the relationship of Christ to the Church as akin to that of a marriage, in which the love of spouses is manifested in self-sacrificial love. Christ gives his life over as a sacrifice for his Bride, the Church and she in turn gives her life over to Christ, her Groom, as a sacrifice.

It is this mutual, self-giving, sacrificial love that expresses itself in the life of that the Church generates in the world. All the works of the Church are meant to be understood as expressions of the self-sacrificial love of Christ for the Church and the Church for Christ.

Without this self-sacrifice, there is no potential for creativity and life and the mission of the Church falters and fails. The conditions for the possibility of life in the Church are a disposition of love and willingness to make sacrifices.

St. Paul understood that that it was the mission of Christ to love the Church and the Church to love Christ and this love would demand sacrifice- each would mutually give their lives for the other.

If we think of Christ in impersonal ways, merely a figure of historical significance, lacking a relationship to him which manifests itself in genuine acts of faith, hope and love; and if we think of the Church as merely an corporation that provides services in exchange for a monetary transaction, we should not be surprised that our experience of the Catholic Faith lacks life-giving power.

Christ is a living, divine person, and his relationship to the Church, that is, to us, happens when we accept that he is a living, divine person who offers us a relationship with him. Acceptance of the relationship is not like a financial transaction that secures for us membership in a club, but it is more like the vows that a husband and wife accept as the conditions for their marriage.

A marriage without love will not endure and there is real love, authentic love, true love without sacrifice. Unfortunately, too many Christians attempt to have a relationship with Christ and his Church without either love or sacrifice. It is for these reasons that parishes decline, dioceses becomes distant and impersonal bureaucracies, and the mission of the Church falters and fails.

For the past few weeks the Church has presented the sixth chapter of the Gospel of John as the Gospel text for Sunday Mass.

The sixth chapter of the Gospel of John provides us with Christ’s own testimony about the Eucharist, what the Eucharist is and what it means.

Christ is clear- the Eucharist is the gift of his divine life and presence given to us as food and drink. The Eucharist is not merely a symbol of Christ or an expression of community values. Even less is the Eucharist a cultural or ethnic custom. If we approach the Eucharist in there aforementioned ways, we distort the gift Christ gives us into an idol.

The Eucharist is the life and presence of the Lord Jesus himself!

Christ gives us his divine life and presence as food and drink so that sharing in his life and encountering his presence, we might become ever more like him. Christ gives us his divine life and presence as food and drink so that we can be fortified and strengthened for the mission he gives us to accomplish- both in this world and heaven.

The Eucharist is called the Blessed Sacrament and I don’t know how many of Christians actually consider what it means to call the Eucharist the Blessed Sacrament, but the reason the Church refers to the Eucharist is directly related to today’s Gospel.

At the dramatic conclusion of today’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus insists that the Eucharist he gives will place the demand of a decision upon us- those who would be willing to participate in Christ’s Eucharist must decide whether or not they believe that the Eucharist is really and truly what Christ declares it to be.

Many refuse, and in their refusal, abandon Christ.

Christ insists that our reception of the Eucharist is always bound to a decision for or against Christ- are we for him or against him, do we profess to believe in him or not? No evasions or equivocations. We must decide. We cannot be simultaneously for and against Christ.

Sacramentum, the word from which “sacrament” comes from means “oath”. An oath is testimony, a profession of what we believe to be true. The condition for the possibility of an oath is a decision. That decision will reveal whether or not our oath taking is true or false.

The Eucharist is presented to us, and once presented and then we must decide whether or not to take the oath and receive. This is what our “Amen” made loud and clear before we receive is meant to signify.

If we receive, we are taking an oath, making a profession of faith, giving public testimony to what we believe to be true. If we cannot or will not do this, we should not receive. Receiving the Eucharist becomes dangerous to the soul if we construe it as a merely passive act without serious consequences.

Receiving the Eucharist is not a symbolic gesture of affirmation in regards to my membership in “Club Catholic”. Nor is receiving the Eucharist a matter of whatever an individual chooses it to mean.

Receiving the Eucharist is a serious decision. It is an oath we take. It is an encounter with the Lord Jesus in which we either give our lives over to Christ, the Holy One of God and the Master of Eternal Life or we return to the false gods and the former way of life we believed to be true before we knew and accompanied Christ.

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Memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary (August 22nd, 2015)

Today the Church celebrates the Queenship of the Mother of God. This is a curious, one might say, ironic title, given that Christ’s Mother likely knew little honor during her earthly life, let alone the honors paid to a queen. Though her Queenship was justified beyond that of any mortal sovereign, she lived her life uncrowned and mostly unknown.

There was no sign of regal splendor in her home in Nazareth. No monuments were raised to her greatness during her lifetime. She commanded no armies and presided over no governments.

In the eyes of the worldly, she would have appeared to be insignificant.

Yet she is the Queen of Earth and Heaven, and by the command of her Divine Son, no power in heaven or earth is her rival. Even the mightiest of the angels cedes to his place to her. She is the most profound example of the fulfillment of Christ’s promise that the last will first and first will be last. Why such honors?

Mary is the privileged bearer of Christ into the world. All the honors and titles that the Church acclaims as belonging to her are a proclamation of her mission as Mother of God.

The Church’s celebration of Mary as Queen is not an attempt to honor femininity in general or elevate her to the status of a goddess, instead, it is way of directing our attention to the great and mysterious revelation that makes our communion with God possible- the mystery of the Incarnation.

Remember, the Incarnation is the startling revelation that God has accepted a human nature and lived a real human life. This revelation happens in the real flesh and real blood of Jesus of Nazareth. We Christians believe that God has acted in such an extraordinary way so that he might share his divine life with us and elevate the dignity of our humanity. Because of the Incarnation, God shares kinship with us, making us members of his family- becoming his sons and daughters, his brothers and sisters.

The saints and sages of the Church testify to the Incarnation as a “marvelous exchange”- God accepting from us a share in our humanity so that he might give to us a share in his divinity. This “marvelous exchange” is really and truly what the Gospel is all about.

Christ who elevates us to share in his life and make of us his kin, chooses as his mother one who is lowly, and lifts her up to reign as Queen over earth and heaven.

Marvelous exchange indeed!

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Tuesday of the Twentieth Week in Ordinary Time (August 18th, 2015)

The Bible is a book of battles, both literal battles that take place on fields of combat and spiritual battles that take place in our souls.

Today’s scripture from the Book of Judges is about literal battles, wars that took place as the Israelites exerted violent force to reclaim their ancestral lands. The Book of Judges is about a warlike time, and it recalls both military defeats and victories. One of the heroes of these war stories is the warlord Gideon, who is not only described as a brilliant military tactician, but a man of charismatic religious intensity, chosen by God for the purpose of protecting the Israelites from their enemies.

The Israelites believed that God fought on their behalf and each of their military victories were credited to divine intervention. Defeats were correlated to their infidelity to God. The Israelites sincerely believed that they were justified in taking up arms against their enemies and also believed that their cause was justified by God’s command.

These beliefs might make us uncomfortable. But they are the reality of the biblical text.

The great saints and sages of the Church insisted that the war stories of the Bible be interpreted spiritually. They represent God in Christ’s resistance to the dark powers of sin, death and the devil. These are our true enemies. These biblical war stories instruct us that we make ourselves vulnerable to these dark powers if we are not faithful to God. God in Christ will act to defeat the dark powers, but we must let him, follow his instructions, and do what he asks us to do. And finally, God in Christ resists and ultimately defeats the dark powers, not through employing worldly weapons or political schemes, but through the overwhelming power of his will to love, his will to forgive, and his will to redeem. In his will to love, forgive and redeem are found the weapons of the spirit, weapons he employed to defeat the dark powers in the battle of his suffering and death- weapons that he has given to his faithful so that they can share in his victory.

Today’s scripture from the Book of Judges isn’t just about battles, it also portrays an extraordinary sacrifice in which the elements of a meal are consumed by heavenly fire in the presence of an angel.

This strange story is meant as a foreshadowing of the Eucharistic mystery, at which the elements of a meal are transformed by the Holy Spirit into the divine life and presence of the Lord Jesus. From our earthly perspective, this transformation is not perceived by the senses and we must make an act of faith that God in Christ has accomplished what he has promised. But from the perspective of heaven, from that of the angels and saints, the great transformation of the Eucharistic mystery looks very much like what is described today in the Book of Judges.

Christ warns us yesterday and today about our attachments to wealth and how such attachments can be a detriment to our ultimate purpose, which is to become ever more Christ-like, and in becoming Christ-like, become a saint.

His observation about a camel passing through a needle’s eye is about how our attachments to worldly attainments- like wealth, pleasure, power and honor, prevent us from being Christ-like. Rather than becoming like him, we become like them. Communion with Christ becomes impossible, for our attachments block our access to him.

Wealth, pleasure, power and honors are glamorous illusions and they can only be redeemed if they are surrendered to Christ and transformed by generosity, self-denial, service and humility. If this redemption is not accomplished or if we resist it, the risk to our souls is great. Eventually, these things will all be stripped away and if worldliness has been all that we are, what will remain?

In our attachments to worldliness, to wealth, pleasure, power and honors, we foolishly risk gaining the world and losing our soul!

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Solemnity Of The Assumption Of The Blessed Virgin Mary (August 15th, 2015)

On August 15th the Church solemnly celebrates the Assumption of the Mother of God. The Assumption of the Mother of God is the awe filled event (a revelation) in which at the end of the course of her earthly life, Christ’s mother passed both body and soul into the reality of heaven. This truth of the Catholic Faith was defined as a dogma in a rare exercise of the Bishop of Rome’s infallible magisterium by Pope Pius XII in 1950.

The Assumption does not mean that the Mother of God is divine or was made divine by a declaration of the pope. Christ’s mother is human through and through. It means that the fullness of the promises of the redemption of Christ have been accomplished for her. As Christ’s mother is now in heaven, we hope to be.

The mystery of the Assumption is illuminated by the Scriptures the Church assigns to be proclaimed at the Mass offered today.

First, an excerpt from the New Testament Book of Revelation likens the Mother of God to the Ark of the Covenant. Remember, the Ark of the Covenant was a container created by the Israelites as a receptacle for the tablets of the Law of Moses, the scepter of Aaron the priest and the heavenly bread called Manna.

The identity and mission of the Mother of God is suggested by the symbolism of the Ark of the Covenant. The body of Christ’s mother is likened to the Ark of the Covenant, for in her womb gestated God in Christ who is the New Law, the great High Priest, and the Heavenly Bread of Life.

Also, from the Book of Revelation, the identity and mission of the Mother of God is suggested by the great sign of the “woman clothed with the sun with the moon beneath her feet.” The cosmic symbols of light, sun and moon are all gesturing towards the Mother of God- she, like the moon, reflects of light of her Divine Son- Jesus Christ. In the radiance of the Mary’s reflected light, we see the glory of God in Christ.

The 12 stars which crown the head of the woman clothed with the sun indicate the 12 tribes of Israel, indicating the status of Christ’s mother as a faithful daughter of Israel, whom the patriarchs and prophets longed to see.

The dragon indicates the devil and the seven crowns he wears gesture towards his false claims to dominion over the earth. The stars which his beastly tail sweep from the heavens are the fallen angels. The Mother of God is the great enemy of the evil one and her appearance signals his defeat.

The Church also presents a scripture from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.

The Apostle Paul gives testimony to our faith in Christ’s resurrection from the dead as a precursor to our own resurrection.

We Christians believe that death has been transformed by God in Christ’s passage through it and has become by his divine power and grace not an end but a beginning. As we pass through death, Christ’s faithful make that passage sharing in the Lord Jesus’ victory over the power of death. The victory of Christ over death is not just about the soul, but also of the body- the resurrection is fulfilled in spirit and in flesh and as such, our bodies, glorified, perfected, restored and redeemed have been created by God so that they can share communion with God in heaven.

The Assumption of the Mother of God reveals the fullness of Christ’s promise of resurrection, a promise made not only to his mother, but to all his faithful disciples.

The Gospel of Luke reveals that the honor given to the Mother of God is a gift, a grace, that is manifested in her obedience to God’s will.

The Mother of God gave herself over to the will and purposes of God and in doing so, she is a model and exemplar of what it means to be a disciple of the Lord Jesus.

The way of a disciple is about giving ourselves over to the will and purposes of God. In doing this, we imitate Christ, who shows the humanity in its perfection is radically obedient to God.

Obedience to God is an act of trust. The Mother of God trusted in God, accepting the totality of her life’s experiences as imbued with the power and presence of God. Her trust was steadfast, even in the face of circumstances that were devastating and difficult, even in the face of death. The Mother of God trusted that God, who did not abandon her Son to the power of Death, would also not abandon her. This fidelity manifested itself in a life-giving fruitfulness that the power of death could not overcome.

May the Mother of God intercede on our behalf. May her witness of obedience inspire us to offer our own lives to Christ in acts of humility and love. May the Assumption of the Mother of God give us hope, that though this earth and all things in it pass away, God remains faithful, and in Christ, he will draw us through death so that we can she fully in the promises of his resurrection.

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