Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 22nd, 2018)

The Church’s Gospel for today presents the Lord Jesus’ testimony to his identity and mission- who he is and what has he come to accomplish.

Christ the Lord tells us that he is the good shepherd.

What does this mean?

For many, the image of Christ the Shepherd evokes the image of green rolling pastures and a quiet bucolic countryside, free of care and worries. Christ is the Lord of a Christianized version of the Elysium fields, the master of a retreat and respite from the troubles of life, the gentle presider over a safe space of comfort and security. Such musings are coupled with an understanding of the Lord Jesus that is entirely meek and mild, very much like the lambs over which he watches.

However attractive this image of Christ the Shepherd is to us, it fails to capture the biblical imagery, which the Lord Jesus is calling forth in today’s scripture from the Gospel of John.

The image of a shepherd is, biblically speaking, coded language, it’s a metaphor, not simply for the gentle presider of a care free respite from the troubles of life, but for the leadership of the Israelites- the priests, prophets and especially the kings, who had a divine mandate to lead the Israelites along the paths of fidelity to God and righteousness in their daily lives. The ideal of the Good Shepherd was often contrasted with the reality of bad shepherds- the priests, prophets and kings of the Israelites repeatedly missed the mark, endangering the flock and leading the people into dark and dangerous situations.

Thus, then, we hear in the testimony of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah (Chapter 3) that Lord will act to give Israel good shepherds, but more than this, that he will become the Good Shepherd- no longer will the Israelites languish under thrall of wicked or incompetent kings, false prophets, and double-dealing priests, but God will come himself and lead his people as priest, prophet and king. The Lord will be their shepherd and they the people “shall not want”.

Christ testifies in his Gospel that this vision of the prophet Jeremiah is fulfilled in his very person- he is God the Good Shepherd. Remember who the Lord Jesus is- he is God, who accepts a human nature and lives a real human life and who reveals himself as fulfillment of the hopes of the prophets- one of those greatest hopes being that the Lord would be for his people their leader, their protector, their guide- their king.

Jeremiah, and other Old Testament references to the Lord becoming a shepherd to his people are not directly cited in today’s Gospel, but they are the texts behind today’s text. Today’s Gospel is unintelligible without Old Testament reference points. Indeed, trying to understand today’s Gospel without reference points in the Old Testament is why the image of Christ the Good Shepherd is often overtaken by flights of fancy about an otherworldly safety zone, rather than being a densely textured revelation about how God promises to act in this world, in the midst of the trials and tribulations of real world events and circumstances.

The Israelites were in their beginnings as a people shepherds, their longing for a homeland was not primarily for lands to cultivate as farmers, but as pastures for their flocks. The importance of having good shepherds and the consequences of bad shepherds was not lost on them. Good shepherds meant prosperity and peace. Bad shepherds meant sure and certain destruction. The founding fathers of the Israelites were shepherds, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were shepherds. Moses is purified for his mission by leaving the safe space of a palace and being forced out in to the wilderness to labor as a shepherd. And the greatest of the Israelite kings, King David, is introduced to us as a shepherd.

Christ’s testimony to being a good shepherd is not simply poetic musing, but a practical statement- God’s response to real world concerns.

And as I said, the promise of the Lord revealing himself as God the shepherd of his people had revolutionary resonance at a time when the Israelites were ruled by the corrupt Herodian kings, who themselves were controlled by a foreign power- the Roman emperor, with all this corruption propped up by priests and prophets who were in their thrall.

The words of the Lord Jesus, testifying that he is the Good Shepherd, would have been heard as an answer to the desperate cries of the Israelites for God to act as he had acted in the past to free them from the Egyptian pharaoh at the time of the Exodus or from their Babylonian overlords at the time of the great exile. The people longed for God to deal with the Herods and the Romans and everyone colluding with them as God had dealt with Pharaoh and the Babylonians.

So you see, Christ is not inviting the Israelites (or us for that matter) to lose ourselves in thoughts of a carefree existence beyond the trials and terrors of this world. But he is telling us that he has come into this world, the real world, to deal with the caprice and cruelty of men and women like Herod or Caesar and those who collude with them, like worldly priests and false prophets.

But most importantly, the powers that undergird tyrants and human corruption are not merely human agents, but the darker powers of sin and death and the devil. And the Good Shepherd, who is God in Christ, will face these dark powers down directly, he will not run from them. That’s what the cross is!

That’s the mission of the Good Shepherd, to stand athwart the dark powers that deprive us of the abundance of life that God intends for his people to enjoy- to stand athwart these powers and to fight.

The image of the Good Shepherd is not one of a retreat or withdrawal from the world but of confrontation of the dark powers who defy God and assert that this world belongs to them and it belongs to them to do with as they will. It’s not the mission of the Good Shepherd to withdraw his people, his flock from the world, but to assert that this world belongs to God and to take it back from those who would make the pastures for his flock into a wasteland. This is who the Lord Jesus is and this is what his mission is all about.

One more insight about Christ the Good Shepherd:

The shepherds of the Israelites were the heroes of the Israelites, but they were heroes who were so often unknown and unappreciated, and even maligned. The economy, and therefore the livelihood of people, depended upon their work, and bad shepherds could bring about catastrophe, starvation and death.

But, they were considered by polite society to be uncouth and unsophisticated. They lived apart from society, on the margins of settled towns, cities and villages.

Shepherding was for the most part the vocation of solitary males, who were dispossessed in some way, often times younger sons without inheritance or worldly prospects. Shepherds who were without property were also for the most part without wives or children and their way of life was nomadic and unsettled and isolated.

They lived on the peripheries and would have been rough, tough and physically strong. Fierce and capable in a fight and powerful enough to fend off attacks from wild animals, bandits and marauders.

If they smelled like their sheep it was not the smell of cleanliness or perfume but of hard work and danger. Shepherds would go into situations and places that most people would dare not go.

Shepherds were the first line of defense in times of trouble and the crook or staff they carried was not a scepter or a decorative accessory, but a practical tool and if need be, a weapon.

The lambs they protected might have been meek and mild, but the shepherds were most assuredly not.

When you think about Christ the Good Shepherd, think about all that…

I think at times we settle for an image of Christ that is limited to reassurance and comfort and that image can become not so much an icon of Christ, but an idol.

This idol hems in the risk and danger of the Gospel (of following Christ) and so whatever we gain in safety and security we lose in terms of reality and purpose.

The end result is a Church that retreats in the face of threats, pursues accommodation in the face of corruption, and assimilates itself into culture, rather than bearing witness to a unique way of life.

The opening prayer for today’s Mass invokes Christ as being “brave”. That should strike us, and perhaps cut us to the heart. Our reductions of Christ, our idols of Christ, are rarely if ever brave. But if Christ is not brave, what good is he? And if Christ is not our brave shepherd, than how will we ever muster the courage to do what he asks us to do.

 

christ-good-shepherd-icon-008332__20735.1519403141.500.659

 

Advertisements

Third Sunday of Easter (April 15th, 2018)

The Church’s three scriptures for today are magnificent, almost too much for a single homily to express.

So, one way of encapsulating the meaning of these sacred texts is to look for a “golden thread”- a single commonality that ties all three together and if you look carefully you find it.  What is it?  Sin.

Note in our first scripture the Apostle Peter insists that we “repent and be converted so that our sins may be forgiven.

And in our second scripture, from the First Letter of John, we hear that the purpose of this text is that it is written so that we “may not commit sin” but if anyone of us “does sin, we have an Advocate”- Jesus Christ.  And that he is “expiation for our sins”.

And then in our Gospel, Christ the Lord testifies that the purpose of his revelation, of his death and resurrection is “that repentance might be preached in his name for the forgiveness of sins”.

Now I know that preaching about sin is likely not “trending” right now.  It’s not considered positive and barely mentioning it evokes emotions of resistance.  Sin is not positive and isn’t the purpose of preaching to edify and lift us up, not weigh us down with guilt?

But if the scriptures, rather than our opinions or emotions are our guide for proclamation, we can’t ignore the “golden thread”.  The scriptures for today are identifying sin as a reality, a predicament and offering us the possibility of deliverance.  We can ignore this and rest in pious generalities rather than facing a reality of human existence or we can take our medicine, swallow the bitter pill and trust that the end result is hope and healing.

What is sin?

Simply put, sin is willfully and deliberately resisting the will and purposes of God, specifically God’s will and purposes expressed in his commandments.  Sin is a refusal.  God offers us a possibility for our lives and our answer is no.

Now with this refusal comes consequences, and sin initiates these consequences and we might think of the consequences of sin as a trap from which it is near to impossible for us on our own to extricate ourselves from and sin, our refusal of God, can be so insidious that we intentionally or inadvertently trap others in our predicament.  In other words, sin has a viral quality to it, and the misery of sin is rarely just our own, but it’s consequences are usually shared by others.

So, think of the commandments of God, not as a grim list of prohibitions, but God’s wisdom, a warning about the kinds of refusals that lead toward misery for ourselves and for others.  Through his commandments, God is not trying to seize our joy, but to maintain it.  He is not inhibiting our flourishing, but enhancing it.

God’s response to our sin is not, as many think, merely condemnation, but a rescue operation led by God himself- Jesus Christ.  Christ comes into the world as God’s response to our sin- our refusals of God.  This is clearly expressed at the very beginning of Gospel, in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, which testifies that the purpose of Jesus, expressed in his name is “to save his people from their sins”.

Now, the Gospels are clear that God’s rescue operation in Christ is not simply to reinforce existing commandments or offer us a self-help strategy that will guarantee us our best life now.  Instead of these, what God in Christ does is to enter into the human condition itself and confront the reality of our refusals with his will to love us.

He manifests this in his willingness to forgive us for our worst, our worst being manifested in the horror of the cross, and then through his death, enter himself into the deepest and darkest consequence of our refusal which is death.  He does this to reveal the extent to which God is willing to go to forgive us and to find us- our refusal can look like the cross and he maintains his power to forgive us for even that and we our refusal could go as far as far can go- even into death itself and even there we would come face to face with his will to rescue us.

In other words, God in Christ reveals that it might be our intention to live in alienation from God, but it’s not God’s intention simply to accept that situation as our status quo.  Our capacity for refusal is always met with God’s capacity for rescue.  That’s what God in Christ is all about.  That’s his mission.  That’s his purpose.  That’s the reason for his revelation.  God in Christ is the one who is strong enough to get us out of the trap.

God reveals in Christ that his response to our sin, to our refusals, is not merely to condemn us, but to rescue us from the trap and he does this by entering into the predicament that the consequences of our sin, our refusals creates.  This is what the cross and resurrection of the Lord reveal.

It’s also the reason for the joy of Easter. The joy of Easter is not our elation at the fact that winter has turned to spring or life proves itself to be resilient in the face of tragedy, or even that God is powerful enough to pull Jesus alive out of a grave, but that God in Christ has successfully enacted his rescue operation and in doing so demonstrated that sin, our refusals of God, need not be the last word or the final judgement.   God in Christ has in the revelation of his resurrection given us the most surprising and best of all possible second chances.

Now, in order for this to be true, it all has to have really happened.  And that brings us to a point the witness of the Gospel is making today that deserves our attention.

In today’s Gospel there is an account, an eyewitness account of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus and this testimony goes out of its way to insist that the resurrection of the Lord Jesus happened not in metaphor or in simply or as a matter of mind or emotions, but in the real body of the Lord Jesus.  The resurrection was and is a physical event, not some kind of symbol.  Note, only is the body of the Lord Jesus real, but he demonstrates how real his body is by eating.

The resurrection is so outrageous, so outside the realm of what we conceive possible that there is a tendency to make of it something other than what the scriptures describe- but the actual testimony is stubbornly insistent that none of our qualifications or equivocations of the dense physicality of Christ’s resurrection will do.  We can dabble in symbolism all we want, but none of that will save us from our sins.

Sin is not an abstraction.  It does not just happen in our minds or imaginations.  Our refusals of God happen in the real world and have real world consequences. The very fact that we are so uncomfortable hearing about sin is testimony to its power over us. Rescuing us from sin is not a matter or revealing metaphors or symbols, but of entering into the real world and this is what God goes in Jesus Christ.  Sin is a real world problem that demands a real world solution.

The forgiveness of sins is real because God in Christ is real- as real as his being born into this world, living in this world- as real as his death on the cross and as real as his resurrection.  The reality of his body is demonstrating this to us.  So, in regards to the resurrection, paraphrasing the words of the American writer John Updike “let us not mock God with metaphor”.

If Christ has not been truly raised then our refusals of God are the final judgment and there is no way out of the trap.

the-resurrection-of-christ-pietro-novelli

Second Sunday of Easter (April 8th, 2018)

Our first scripture for today is from the New Testament book entitled Acts of the Apostles.  The book of Acts is a companion piece to the Gospel of Luke, continuing Luke’s story of the revelation of God in Christ.

Remember what this revelation is all about: God has in Jesus Christ accepted a human nature and lived a real, human life.  The revelation of Jesus Christ is not just about ideas or feelings or metaphors, but that a living, divine person, the one, true God has out of love for his creation, become a man.

The Gospel of Luke presents the experience of this revelation by those who knew God in Christ personally and the book of Acts continues this testimony by presenting how God in Christ, who revealed himself in a real, human body, now reveals himself in a different way- Christ reveals himself in the Church.

In other words, the revelation of Jesus Christ hasn’t just disappeared into the past, into history, but continues now in the Church.

The Church is not just an institution, a non profit corporation, an ethnic identity, but the Church is the extension of the revelation of Jesus Christ in the here and now, in the present and in the future.

This morning’s excerpt from Acts of the Apostles testifies to signs of Christ’s continued revelation in the Church and these signs are evident in the manner in which Christians live, in their unique way of life.

And there is the lesson: The mission of a Christian is to live in such a way that the revelation of Jesus Christ is evident and not obscured.  Seeing us, the world should come to know Christ.  Is this actually the case?  Do we know the Lord Jesus well enough to manifest his life and presence to the world?  Remember, being a Christian is not like being a member of a club or political party, but being a Christian is the way of life that emerges from being in a relationship with Jesus Christ.

Are we so caught up in the institutional expressions of the Church that we rarely, if ever, manifest the living Christ?  Do we reduce the Church’s way of life to a private matter, never allowing the public character of being a disciple of Jesus Christ to emerge?

Are we a bridge to Christ or a blockade?  Do we attract or do we repel?  Do we encourage or discourage?  Are we disciples or merely playing a game with religion?

If the world does not see in us what is described this morning in the Acts of the Apostles, then we have our answers to these questions.

The second scripture for today is from the First Letter of John.

The testimony of the First Letter of John insists that our identity as disciples of Jesus is not just a matter of mind or emotions, but of concrete practices- of keeping the commandments.  In this way we reveal the sincerity of our claim to be a Christian.

The commandments of God are not merely interesting suggestions, but expressions of the Christian way of life.  The commandments are best appropriated and understood, not simply by enshrining them in monuments or reverencing them as legal texts, but in practicing them, by doing them.

It is through living as a Christian, practicing the commandments, that world comes to know the meaning and purpose of Christ’s revelation.  Seeing our unique way of life, practiced in the commandments, reveals who the Lord Jesus is and why his revelation is so important.

And so, if as Christians, we pay only lip service to God’s commandments, testifying to their value but not accepting their demands and practicing them as a way of life, we look to the world to be liars and we obscure the revelation of Christ.

Our identity as Christians is imparted not merely by birth or by culture.  Nor is our identity as Christians expressed because our papers are in order or because we matriculated through faith-based institutions.  Our identity as Christians is manifested in our way of life, and that way is not self directed or self determined, but it is expressed in whether (or not) we practice the commandments of God.

Finally, the Gospel of John presents one of the most compelling accounts of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Remember, the resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a metaphor or a symbol, it is a startling event that happened, not in minds or emotions, but in the real human body of the Lord.

God in Christ suffered, he died, and was buried and then he rose from the dead- all this happened in his real, human body.

God in Christ did not rise from the dead as a symbol or a metaphor.  He did not return to this disciples as an idea or a feeling.  What the disciples give testimony to is not about meeting a ghost or a zombie.

Christ rose in the flesh- in muscle and sinew, in skin and bone.  His disciples saw him.  They touched him.  He was changed, but he was Christ the Lord and he was real.

This kind of testimony highlights something important to us.

We Christians do not profess faith in a myth or a legend.  Our faith is in a living, divine person, Jesus Christ.  He is God, who has accepted a human nature and lived a real human life.  He revealed himself in real space, in real time, in real history.

He died in a real body and rose from the dead in a real body.

Believing this makes us Christians.  Faith is Christ’s resurrection is the measure of our faith.  If we do not believe in the resurrection, in all its strangeness and density as a real event, if we do not accept the Lord Jesus as being alive, if it’s only a metaphor, then as St. Paul aptly put it- then our faith is in vain.  Or to put it bluntly and appropriating the words of Flannery O’Connor- if it’s only a symbol, well then, to hell with it.

The story of Thomas and his doubts is about our own stark confrontation with the truth of the resurrection.  We cannot make of Christ’s resurrection something other than what it is.  And in our confrontation with the reality of Christ’s resurrection we cannot evade a decision- do we accept, do we believe?

Do we linger in our doubts or risk the great adventure of an act of faith?

thomas

Fourth Sunday of Lent (March 11th, 2018)

The Church’s first scripture for today’s Mass is an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of Chronicles. The Book of Chronicles is one of the historical books of the Bible, detailing significant people, events, places that shaped the Israelites for good and for bad. The great overarching theme of the Book of Chronicles, indeed all the historical books of the Bible, is that God is actively involved in the lives of the Israelites- they are not the simply makers of their own destiny. Human freedom is always in relationship to God’s freedom to act in the world. It is precisely in relation to God’s freedom that the mission and purpose of the Israelites, indeed the mission and purpose of our own lives, is revealed.

This particular scripture from the Book of Chronicles recalls one of the greatest catastrophes that overtook the Israelites and nearly destroyed them forever- the invasion of the Israelite kingdom and the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in the year 587 BC.

This event was truly apocalyptic- everything that the Israelites valued was lost- their land, their wealth, their culture, their king, their temple, and for many, their relationship with God.

The Israelites would languish for years in exile, clinging to whatever hope they could muster, hoping that what had been lost might one day be restored.

This reading from the Book of Chronicles hints at that restoration, briefly describing the circumstances through which the Israelites would return to their homeland and rebuild not only their lives, but their temple, and with that temple, their relationship with God.

Why is any of this significant to us?

Well, remember, the Church does not read and re-read the texts of the Old Testaments as an appreciation course in ancient literature, or to teach us a history lesson, but because we believe that inasmuch the Church continues the story of the Israelites, these Old Testament texts illuminate for us our own mission and purpose as God’s chosen people. In other words, hidden in the histories of the Book of Chronicles and the entire Old Testament are not just stories from the past, but our own story, the story of the Church.

(In regards to all this) Today’s particular excerpt from the Book of Chronicles reveals that our relationship to God through the Church is forged in a crucible of fidelity and infidelity- our willingness to live our lives in accord with God’s will or go our own way and position of own will, our own freedom in opposition to God.

The Book of Chronicles understands that it was infidelity, the willful positioning of human freedom, of choices, of decisions against God, that led to the catastrophe of 587 BC and it was only a radical conversion back to God, fidelity replacing infidelity, that opened up the possibility of restoration.

Note that the foremost sign of infidelity, of defiance of God, in today’s scripture is idolatry- elevating a worldly concern or preoccupation to an ultimacy or significance that properly belongs only to God. The great idols need not be mythological beings, that are most often constructed out of our desires for wealth, pleasure, power and honors, idols which in our own time are embodied in our preoccupations with celebrities, politicians, ideology and economics. These are elevated to the gods that will save us- but that is the same lie that doomed the Israelites in 587 BC and in this regard, this excerpt from the Book of Chronicles is a warning.

Will we be faithful to God or not? Will it be God or our idols? We have to choose. We have to decide. The future of the Church, indeed our own future, will be forged in the crucible of our decision.

In the Church’s second scripture for today, the apostle Paul reminds us that God has intervened dramatically in history. How so? Through Jesus Christ.

The revelation of God in Jesus Christ has changed everything and given us a possibility that we did not have before his coming into the world.

This possibility is communion or relationship with God, a communion or relationship that is not constructed by ourselves, but is, instead accepted as a gift from God himself. In other words, God in Jesus Christ offers us the possibility to be his friends, and those of us who claim the name “Christian” are the ones who have accepted this communion, this relationship, this friendship with God.

Any friendship that is authentic and true will change us, and friendship with God in Christ does precisely that- changes us. Friendship with God in Christ does not affirm us as we are, but, initiates us into a new way of life- changing the way we think, the way we feel, and the manner in which we behave.

The apostle Paul conceives of this change, this transformation through friendship with God in Christ as a movement from sin to grace. By this the apostle Paul means a life lived in defiance of God and in a refusal of his offer of friendship to a life lived in relationship with God in Christ, in which we accept his friendship and the new way of life this entails. This is what it means to be “saved” and being “saved” has profound implications for our lives in the here and now and into eternity.

What does being “saved” look like? Well look at your life, what you think, what you do, what you believe and ask yourself how much of all this indicates that you are a friend of God in Christ.

Being saved is not a “get out of hell free card”. Being saved is not an expression of some faith-based form of identity politics. Being saved is being a friend of Jesus Christ. Being saved is not indicated because you think pious thoughts or because you are a generally nice person. Being saved is indicated in the manner in which you accept the way of life Christ offers to you as your own- this way of life is called the Church, and it’s through that way of life, the Church, that you share communion with God in Christ, have a relationship with him and become his friend.

In his Gospel, the Lord Jesus makes reference to a strange and miraculous event detailed in the Old Testament Book of Numbers (Numbers 21:9) in which the Israelites are afflicted by the poisonous bites of snakes and in response to their pleading, the prophet Moses creates an image of a serpent and lifts it up on a pole- all those who look upon this image are healed.

Christ is using this strange story to illuminate the meaning of his death on the cross- his cross will be for all a sign of healing and of hope. The appearance of Christ on the cross, like the serpent on the pole will be off-putting, bizarre, an apparent contradiction, but to those who look upon it in their fears, their desperation, their pain, they will find a divine source of solace and consolation.

Christ the Lord then testifies that the reason for his revelation is not condemnation, but salvation, redemption- hope.

It is not his purpose or his mission to condemn the world. He will name directly and forthrightly the world’s truth, our truth, but his purpose in doing so is not to destroy us, but to save us from those destructive lies that hold us captive and prevent us from fully flourishing.

In other words, Christ comes to offer to us all a new possibility, the best of all possible second chances, a new way of life. This is his mission. This is his purpose. This is the reason for his revelation.

In this regard, Christ the Lord is very clear. But there is more to this Gospel than that.

Christ tells us what his mission is, but he also insists that we have to make a decision, a choice, (in regards to) what he offers (to us)- and we can still refuse (what he offers).

And our refusal is not without consequences.

Christ raises the prospect that while his purpose is not to condemn us, we can, through our refusals of Christ, condemn ourselves. As I said before, being a Christian does not mean that you are the privileged recipient of a “get out of hell free card”. Our refusals of Christ matter. Hell is our refusal of Christ. And our refusals create personal hells for ourselves and for others, not just in an eternity far from our day to day experience, but here and now.

Our willingness to accept from Christ a new way of life and truly live that way matters.

Christ wants to save us, but are we going to let him?

christ

Second Sunday of Lent (February 25th, 2018)

The Church’s first scripture is from the Old Testament Book of Genesis, the first text of the Bible. The purpose of the Book of Genesis is to present stories of origin, beginnings- of creation, of humanity, and God’s chosen people- the Israelites.

Today’s story from the Book of Genesis is, I think, best described as a tale of terror. God tests the faith of Abraham, the progenitor of the Israelites, by insisting that the patriarch offer to him as a sacrifice his son, his beloved son, Isaac. Abraham passes the test and in the last moment Isaac is spared.

What are we to make of this?

Saints, sages and scholars have racked their brains for centuries over this story, this tale of terror.

First, the story is what is called an etiological text, which means it describes how a particular and significant cultural reality emerges- in this case, why it was that the Israelites rejected a practice that was established in many cultures- the practice of human sacrifice to God or the gods. The meaning of the Genesis story is that God desires an act of faith, but not an act of human sacrifice, which is precisely how the story concludes. It is off putting for us to consider that humans ever believed that God desired killing another human being in order to please him, but it is true, and one of the great distinctions of Biblical religion, displayed in this story from the Book of Genesis, is how the Israelites came to understand that human sacrifice was not something God wanted us to do. In this respect the frightening story of Abraham’s sacrifice is meant to be read a subversive tale, simultaneously acknowledging God’s right to give life and take life, while at the same time indicating that the worship we will institute, while demanding a sacrifice, will not be a cult of human sacrifice. Again, while this will not seem to us as an extraordinary revelation, it was for the ancient Israelites and the fact that they worshipped a God that did not desire that they murder their children was strange to other culture’s that did- and in the ancient world there were many!

Second, the story is not simply about Abraham and Isaac, but it’s depth of meaning is revealed in Christ. The story is about God, with Abraham as a stand in for God the Father and Isaac as a stand in for God the Son- Christ. The demand of sacrifice is the demand of love, willingly accepted by Christ (Isaac). The story prefigures or foreshadows the Incarnation- God who in Christ and for the sake of his love for his creation, accepts a human nature as his own and lives, like us, a real, human life.

This dramatic revelation will inevitably lead to suffering and death, yet God accepts this, why? Because God desires a relationship with the totality of who we are, which means the totality of our humanity and to be human is to be mortal, vulnerable to the raw facts of life- facts like suffering and death. And so, God in Christ accepts the experience of suffering and death for himself, not because he has too, but because he loves what he has created and desires for his creation to know he is with us, not just in some things, not just in things that are emotionally satisfying, but in all things- even the inevitable facts of our existence- suffering and death.

Finally, the story is about the human condition itself and the often pain filled realization that to bring a child into the world is to give life, yes, but it also means that you set that your child on a path that inevitably leads towards death. Again, a harsh truth, a terrifying revelation, definitely not emotionally satisfying, but a necessary fact of human existence that we all must come to terms with, lest we linger in illusions and never come to terms with what is truly at stake in being a parent and how fragile and precious the gift of life we give to our children really and truly is.

Remember, the Bible is not a greeting card, a cartoon fantasy where everything is neatly and easily resolved in the end. The Bible is not a Book of platitudes. The Bible is a Book of Truth- truth about God, about the human condition and when we open up this Book of Truth, it tells us, not what we want to hear, but what is the truth. And it is this fact that makes the Bible so important to us.

Our second scripture for today is an excerpt from an New Testament text, St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans.

The Letter to the Romans is the apostle Paul’s tour de force, his magnum opus where he lays out with as much detail as possible what he believes the Lord Jesus has revealed about God and humanity, particularly the relationship of God and humanity.

God’s revelation in Jesus Christ must, St. Paul believes, change the way we think about God, how we worship, how we understand what God wants and what he wants us to do. As such, no one who gives their life over to Jesus Christ, can do so without the change of mind, of emotions, of will, that is called conversion. Concretely this means that our opinions and feelings about God and what we think is important, what we believe the meaning and purpose of life is, must give way to what God in Christ reveals about such things. To be in relationship with Christ means that we say, as St. Paul did, “it is not I who live but Christ who lives in me”- and if we can say that honestly and with integrity we are saying that it is Christ who is at the center of our lives, not our egos, not our opinions, not our feelings, and further if Christ is at the center of our lives, we will also be willing to say in response to Christ’s revelation- my life is not about me.

In this particular text, St. Paul is reminding us that inasmuch as God has accepted for himself a human nature and lived a real, human life, that he knows first-hand the difficulties we face and the struggles we endure, and because of this fact, we should view our relationship with God as something grim and frightening, but as friend to friend. God in Christ reveals he desires what is good for us, not our destruction and he is willing to suffer and die like us to show us the depth of his desire to save us from our sins, to redeem us from our death.

One day, we will all come face to face with God in Christ. Remember, God in Christ is not an idea or a feeling or cosmic force, but a living divine person, and as such we will meet him person to person and in this encounter with Jesus Christ he will be our judge.

God in Christ is our judge, but his judgement is not arbitrary and capricious accusation, but his judgement is the judgement that tells us our truth, what we have done and what we failed to do, and his purpose in telling us our truth is not to destroy us, but to set us free from the lies that inhibit us from flourishing as God intends.

St. Paul insists that as Christ tells us our truth that we will know that he understands the powers that have weakened us, he will know our fears and the desires that afflicted us. And inasmuch as he has lived as a man, he will understand us, and we will know in this that the truth he tells is not intended for our destruction, but to save and to redeem.

Finally, in his Gospel, the truth of Christ’s identity and mission is displayed to Christ’s disciples- who is Jesus- he is God, God who has accepted a human nature and has lived a real, human life. What is the mission of Jesus? To enter into the fullness of the human nature he has accepted as his own- to go himself into the hardest facts of human existence- to suffer and to die and in doing so demonstrate that neither suffering and death are stronger than his power to redeem us, to save us, to love us as his friends.

The disciples see this, but also fail to fully comprehend it. Why? Because it is a revelation from God, and no revelation from God is ever something easy.

The lesson here is about the Lord Jesus yes, but it is also a reminder to us about what Lent is about. Lent is preparing us to receive and understand the great revelation of God in Christ suffering and dying, a revelation we Christians remember with great solemnity during Holy Week. Lent is not merely a faith- based self-improvement program. Lent is preparing us for the events of Holy Week, where what the disciples of Jesus saw and experienced will be given to us and we, like his first disciples, will have to come to terms with a revelation that is not easy to understand and demands that we change our very lives.

623px-Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi)

First Sunday of Lent (February 18th, 2018)

Note: This homily was prepared to provide a basic catechesis regarding the meaning of Lent. 

Today the Church celebrates the first Sunday of Lent.

What is Lent?

Lent is a season of the Church’s year of prayer and worship, the purpose of which is to prepare Christians to appreciate and receive the great mysteries of Holy Week. Lent begins on a day called Ash Wednesday, known as such because the faithful are marked with ashes as a reminder of their willingness to undergo the penitential practices that will prepare them for Holy Week. The season of Lent includes 40 days of penitential practices.

What is Holy Week and what are the penitential practices of Lent?

Holy Week begins a week before Easter Sunday with the commemoration of Palm Sunday. At the Mass of Palm Sunday the faithful hear about Christ’s entry into the city of Jerusalem, where he is greeted with festivity, treated like royalty and surrounded by crowds bearing palm branches. Palm Sunday is also called Passion Sunday, because the story of Christ’s arrest, trial and execution is proclaimed to the faithful on this day. In the days that follow Palm Sunday, the faithful intensify their focus on and consideration of the suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, accepting and appreciating these events not simply as historical events that happened long ago, but as revelations about God. Holy Week culminates with the solemn celebrations of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, during which the faithful acknowledge their appreciation for three great gifts that Christ gives to us- the gift of his divine life in the Blessed Sacrament, the gift of the forgiveness of our sins and the gift of the transformation of death from a terrifying end, to a new kind of beginning.

Each of these gifts is revealed to us by God in an extraordinary way and this is why the Church refers to the mysteries of Holy Week, it means that God acted in Christ to do something important, extraordinary and unexpected. Our joy at receiving these gifts is displayed with exuberance at the Mass of Easter Sunday.

What are the penitential practices of Lent?

The penitential practices of Lent, as I said previously, are intended to prepare Christians for Holy Week. These practices are prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

What is prayer?

Most of us are familiar with what is called petitionary prayers, that is, asking God for something, and this type of prayer is a good thing, but we shouldn’t reduce the meaning and purpose of prayer to our petitions. Prayer is a disposition, a habit of attentiveness, availability and receptivity to the Lord. Through our prayer, we place ourselves, indeed our very lives, at God’s disposal and then we patiently wait for him to answer us. The answer is always a mission. This answer may come quickly or may come slowly, but this is not the concern of our prayer- the concern is to be ready and willing when the mission is finally presented to us. Prayer like this necessitates that we withdraw from our own projects and preoccupations, giving our time and attention to the Lord, demonstrating to him that we are ready and waiting and open to receiving from him a mission. Once we have received our mission, it will be our prayer, giving time and attention to the Lord, that will sustain us and help us to accomplish what the Lord asks.

What is fasting?

Fasting is depriving our bodies of food. Why would we do this? There are several reasons. One is that the experience of fasting prepares us for mission by signaling to us that whatever mission we are given will necessarily entail hardship and sacrifice. Fasting helps us to understand what kind of sacrifice we are willing to make and what kind of hardship that we can endure. The purpose of fasting also helps us to understand that there are greater things about life than just the satisfaction of our desires and they we are far more resilient than we often expect ourselves to be when we don’t get what we want.

And finally, fasting creates empathy in us for the sufferings of the poor, even if the deprivation of the poor is not food, we know from our experience of hunger, what it is to have to settle for less or even have little or nothing at all. Having had this experience of lack ourselves we hope to be more compassionate with others who suffer from hunger or deprivation or whose options have seemed to have run out.

Finally, what is almsgiving?

The word “alms” originates in a Greek word meaning “mercy”(eleemosune, eleemon). So, literally speaking, giving alms or almsgiving means giving mercy. Mercy is a gift of compassion, compassion that is needed, but not deserved. For Christians, mercy is not an idea or a feeling, but a practice or a work.

Thus, being a Christian means accepting as your way of life the practices or works of mercy- feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, caring for the sick, burying the dead. And counseling the doubtful, comforting the afflicted, bearing wrongs patiently, praying for one another, forgiving those who have wronged us, teaching others what is true, and warning others about the consequences of living in lies. All these works, these practices are fulfilling Christ’s command that we love our neighbor.

These are works of mercy or almsgiving, not just ideas or feelings or good intentions, but actions, practices, a way of life. These actions go beyond giving away surplus cash or donating to a favorite cause. During the season of Lent Christians undertake these works or mercy with ever increasing intensity, not just because they are good things to do, but because by practicing them, doing them, we become better Christians, we become the people that God in Christ intends for us to be.

You see, your Christian faith is not like an ethnic or racial identity, something that constitutes an identity that is “just there” because you were born into it. Instead your Christian faith is a way of life, a way that must be practiced for it to mean what it truly means, to be what it is supposed to be. Practicing your Christian faith is what makes us Christians rather than hypocrites.

This is what the almsgiving or the mercy giving of Lent is all about- becoming who Christ intends by doing what he asks you to do. The alternative is to claim to be a Christian, all the while knowing that that claim is a lie.

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the practices of Lent, and we do these things so as to prepare ourselves for Holy Week. These practices help us to better appreciate and understand what Holy Week is all about- and appreciating and understanding Holy Week is what Lent is all about.

Lent-FB

Ash Wednesday (February 14th, 2018)

This year, on February 14th, the celebration of a saint of popular interest and devotion and the beginning of Lent coincide. February 14th is the occasion (since 469 AD) for the commemoration of the martyr, Saint Valentine and it is also Ash Wednesday.

The Festal Day of Saint Valentine has not, since 1969, been part of the Universal Calendar of the Church (a calendar that assigns particular days in the course of year to honor the witness of the saints). This does not mean, as some continue to insist, that the Church has declared that Saint Valentine did not exist, but instead it means that the commemoration of the saint is not obligatory for the whole Church, but can happen locally on February 14th. In terms of his existence, Saint Valentine remains enrolled in the Roman Martyrology (which is an official list of saints recognized by the Church for liturgical celebrations and promoted for popular devotion). The historicity of the saint may be questioned, and the specific details of his life may be lost, but the Church continues to mark his martyrdom as worth honoring.

In terms of Saint Valentine himself, it has been hard to determine which saint bearing the name Valentine is the martyr being commemorated on February 14th (other than the martyr Valentine, there are at least a dozen saints with this name). There are three likely candidates for the February 14th designation- one a priest, the other a bishop, the other is a martyr, who the specific details of his life have disappeared into the past. The medieval text entitled the Legend Aurea (or the Golden Legend) has a priest by the name of Valentine killed by the Roman emperor Claudius the Goth in 269 AD. The story is that Valentine had the audacity to try to convince the emperor to accept the Christian faith and paid for this attempt with his life. It is a later text, the Nuremburg Chronicle, from 1493, that provides the detail that the priest Valentine was killed for marrying Christian couples when forbidden to do so by an imperial edict (ours is not the only era where marriage is a point of political tension, or where insistence on the Christian understanding of marriage is controversial).

It is the story of the priest Valentine, uniting Christian couples in holy matrimony that is likely where the association of the festival day with romantic gestures originates. Though some trace the practice of sending notes to one’s beloved on Saint Valentine’s Day with a miracle associated with the saint, his restoration of the sight of a blind girl, who is graced with a note from the saint on the day of his execution. Other scholars note the proximity of Saint Valentine’s Day with the pagan feast of Lupercalia, which was celebrated on February 15th. Pope Gelasius established the commemoration of Saint Valentine in the year 469 AD and it is surmised that he was offering a Christian alternative to the sybaritic and sexualized displays of Lupercalia, romantic, marital love sanctified by the Church rather than unrestrained desires running amok in the streets. It seems that if this is actually the case, Pope Gelasius’ calculated decision actually worked, though Lupercalia has of late made its own kind of resurgence in the popular culture.

Ash Wednesday commemorates the beginning of the Church’s Lenten observance. Lent is a season of the Church’s year during which the faithful are to prepare themselves to receive the mysteries of Holy Week, mysteries which recount through acts of worship and prayerful devotion the suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Preparation for Holy Week during Lent is threefold- prayer, fasting and almsgiving and to commemorate the beginning of these observances, the faithful receive ashes. In the United States the ashes are used to mark the foreheads of the faithful with a cross, creating one of the few moments in American public life when one’s identity as a Catholic is visibly displayed. In other parts of the world the ashes are sprinkled on the top of the head (which is a far gentler reminder, I suppose, than having the ashes thrown in one’s face).

The coincidence of St. Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday has resulted in several dioceses publicizing directives that are intended to remind the faithful that the observances of Ash Wednesday take priority over the celebration of Saint Valentine’s Day. This would not likely not be necessary should the date of Ash Wednesday coincide with most any other saint. Why? Few saints have the resonance in the popular culture that St. Valentine does. Customs that promote feasting and reverie continue to be celebrated on St. Valentine’s Day. February 14th is a day reserved by the culture to celebrate romantic love and affection. These gestures are usually expressed through gifts or celebratory meals. The actual relationship of these customs to the martyr Valentine are lost for most, but he is one of the few remaining saints whose feast day still has some cultural traction. It is for this reason that there is the concern that the preference for the customs of St. Valentine’s Day might supplant the penitential character of Ash Wednesday. It is believed, that most would prefer a party and a box of chocolates to a penitential sermon and forehead full of ashes. We will know on St. Valentine’s Day, I mean Ash Wednesday, which preference prevails.

While the cultural celebration of Valentine’s Day seems contrary to the practices of Ash Wednesday, the commemoration of the witness of the martyr Valentine remains in sync with the beginning of Lent. A martyr gives witness to his faith in Christ through an act of self-sacrifice, that is, an act of love. Love is not, contrary to the many of the pretenses of the popular celebration of Valentine’s day, reducible to romantic affection. Instead, love which is authentic and true, always demands a sacrifice, the gift of one’s very life for the sake of one’s beloved. This is what is supposed to happen in Christian marriage, indeed in every Christian vocation, and it is what the martyr displays par excellence in their willingness to suffer and die rather than to deny or repudiate their love for Christ.

The practices of Lent, though low key in their sacrifice, have the same intentionality, they are sacrifices intended as expressions of love for Christ and appreciations for his own self-sacrifice for our sake. A martyr does not need the practices of Lent to prepare them to receive the mysteries of Holy Week, for in their suffering and death they embody these mysteries in their flesh and blood. Making up in their own bodies for what lacked in the sufferings of Christ, as St. Paul testified, the martyr reveals that Christ’s Body in the world, his mystical body in his Church, continues the revelation of the Incarnation itself. This witness is in sacrifice and in suffering.

This Incarnation of God in Christ does not merely manifest God’s glory in heaven, but such radiance is still on earth embodied in the glory of the Suffering Servant, who because there is no love in this world without sacrifice, revealed the extent of his love for his creation in the sacrifice of the cross. The martyr recapitulates this sacrifice and this love, revealing that God’s glory in his Church is manifested in the willingness of Christians to accept, that for the sake of their love for Christ, they are willing to become like him, suffering servants, for the sake of the world.  It is in this way that the witness of the martyr Saint Valentine and the commemoration of Ash Wednesday will always coincide.

ash-wednesday-1