Sunday, January 28, 2018
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
One of the most unusual depictions of the Stations of the Cross is in the Chapel of the Rosary at the Dominican Convent in Vence, France. The chapel, designed by Henri Matisse, features a back wall on which the Stations are one large mural. At first, one has the impression that it is unfinished: it resembles black and white chalk drawings one might find in an artist’s sketchbook. After spending time with the artwork, though, one begins to appreciate its inherent logic. The lack of realism is, ironically, more painful for the viewer than a realistic creation would be. It is chaotic. It disturbs us. It is too simple. It makes no sense. We begin to understand how disturbingly ordinary the crucifixion itself was, how simple, how senseless by any human calculation. “The drawing is rough, very rough,” Matisse confirmed in [a letter], “God held my hand.”
“L’exactitude n’est pas la vérité,” explained Matisse about his approach to art: “Exactitude (or precision/accuracy) is not the truth.” Precisely because we are forced to think about the meaning of the representation, we enter more deeply into meditation on the passion and death of Christ. Two ingredients are blended here. First, the representation is completely familiar. We quickly identify the story. We recognize its movements. We know it by heart. This makes the second action possible. By rejecting some pieces of the tradition (e.g. separate “stations” requiring a pilgrimage through the church, and artistic realism), Matisse moves us from recognition to contemplation. In doing so, he prevents the tradition from becoming stale (Are we not desensitized by the too-familiar? Don’t we walk by Stations on a regular basis with barely a notice?) and allows it to surprise us with its ever-fresh revelations and requirements.
This, it seems to me, is a basic liturgical rule. We must balance continuity—that which never changes, which is familiar and known by heart—with that which provokes us to “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium #14). The Psalmist invites us: “Come, let us sing joyfully to the LORD… Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving… Come, let us bow down in worship; let us kneel before the LORD who made us.” If we are to fulfill the Psalmist’s requirement, we must be careful about continuity and change.
For example, scholars have given us multiple translations of the Bible, and the bishops wisely mandate a specific one for the sacraments. However, because the lectionary changes to accommodate scholarly developments, Bible passages we memorized as children may already be unfamiliar to us as adults. For example, the Magnificat read from the pulpit nowadays is not the same wording many of us memorized as children. The same may be said for the 23rd Psalm and others. Have you experienced this? We must ask, is the alteration worth it? Does it, like Matisse’s Stations of the Cross, provoke deeper contemplation and “full, conscious, and active participation,” or does it needlessly disrupt the tradition? Perhaps a familiar, albeit lesser quality, translation would serve the Church better. Is it not still The Word of God? Do we imagine that God’s living Word depends (apart from egregious distortion) on the accuracy of the translation? L’exactitude n’est pas la vérité.
Likewise, Pope Francis has suggested that the English version of the Lord’s Prayer should be changed to be more theologically accurate. Instead of praying “lead us not into temptation”—which sounds as if God is the one doing the tempting—the pope suggests praying “do not let us fall into temptation.” If the pope makes the change, I will certainly follow his lead, but as long as it remains an open question, I turn again to Matisse. Will changing the words lead to deeper contemplation and “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgy, or will it distract us? Whether in our prayers, our Scriptures, our Missal, our music, or our liturgical art and architecture, we must carefully balance the need for familiarity and continuity with legitimate change. Although a development may be technically correct, it may not be spiritually beneficial. L’exactitude n’est pas la vérité.
For the faithful Catholic, changes in wording that has been familiar and beloved may feel like a loss or a theft even. I suggest we take Matisse as a model and allow the disruption to lead us into deeper contemplation. By balancing—with faithful creativity—the demands of continuity and change, Matisse effected a spiritual masterpiece. He may very well be the liturgical mentor the Church needs most right now.
Sunday, January 14, 2018
The Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
In a paper I read recently, one of my students talked openly about growing up with an abusive father. As she reflected back on those years, she was especially upset by religious people who offered cheap maxims such as “Everything happens for a reason” and “God always has a plan.” I have heard these same expressions so many times in life, and I consistently find them lacking. While they may provide comfort for some people, they do not sufficiently account for human freedom, agency, and sin.
Extending “sympathy” to another person with these saccharine sayings leads them to question God’s goodness (or even existence, for how could THIS be part of God’s plan?) and to doubt the wisdom of the Church. We effectively become like Job’s friends, offering words that lack understanding and fail to comfort. In my student’s experience, the sayings led her to blame herself. She must have done something to deserve this treatment if a good God was allowing it. Worse, she began to think God didn’t love her. This, of course, re-victimizes the victim. What she needed, and fortunately found, was compassion—a word that means to suffer with. Genuine compassion doesn’t have easy answers; it simply refuses to leave another person alone in their suffering. It offers assistance when assistance is possible. Through compassion, we suffer together, and lessen the pain. As my student wisely noted, she was helped not by words but by one person who extended compassion through an “enduring show of solidarity.”
The reading this weekend from 1 Samuel is a familiar one to us. Samuel hears God’s voice but thinks it is Eli calling him. “Here I am. You called me,” he says to Eli. Samuel, after all, did not know what to make of his experience because “At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD, because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet.” I am moved by the quality of advice that Eli gave to Samuel, after discerning the experience correctly. At first, he did not recognize what was happening in the young man’s life, but “Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth. So he said to Samuel, ‘Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’’”
Isn’t this the case with so many of our young people? God is certainly moving in their lives, but they are not yet familiar with the ways of God. They need mentors. They need teachers who are patient and wise in discerning what is happening in their experiences. What a tragedy if all they receive from us is the trite expression, “Everything happens for a reason.” How much better if we respond as Eli did, teaching them to discern the voice of God, and to assume the posture of a loving disciple: “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”
Sunday, January 21, 2018
Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
“Repent, and believe in the Gospel!” We hear these words on Ash Wednesday, and they are the heart of the readings today… and of the entire Gospel. We need to hear them again and again, echoing in our hearts, prodding our consciences, and upsetting our complacency. “Repent” means to turn our life around, establishing it firmly in God’s will and uprooting our own selfishness, stubbornness, and sin. “Believe” means not only to give intellectual assent to the Gospel, but to give our whole heart, mind, soul, and strength to it, with complete trust in God’s providence. “Gospel,” of course, means the Good News of Salvation. What is impossible for us to accomplish alone, Christ accomplishes for us, with us, and in us by His grace. The whole summons, then, requires a “yes” to grace, to Christ accomplishing the will of the Father in us by the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not “cheap grace,” though, as theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once noted. The “cost of discipleship,” he reminded us, is the cross, a dying to one’s own selfish will and an embrace of God’s will with absolute trust.
Jonah, looked at through the lens of Christ, is a wonderful example of the cost of discipleship. God sent Jonah to preach to Nineveh, and today’s reading focuses on God’s mercy to the people for their repentance. What is left out is that Jonah didn’t want them to repent! Jonah would gladly have watched God smite them for their sins. He ended up in the belly of a large fish, after all, because he was trying to avoid going to Nineveh in the first place. He knew that if he preached repentance, they would repent and would find God to be “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).
Jonah, himself, needed to repent and, quite literally, to turn around and do God’s will. Afterwards, sitting under a bush that God provided him for shade, Jonah sulked about God’s mercy to Nineveh. God then caused the bush to wither and reproved Jonah for his attitude. It was a powerful lesson on the nature of God’s grace and God’s universal salvific will. It was also a lesson on the absolute necessity of loving our enemies if we are to love as God loves.
We are all a bit like Jonah, though, I think. We know where God is sending us, but sometimes we want to go the other way. Loving our enemies seems too difficult. On occasion, we would rather see justice than mercy. We are willing to love good people, but to love our enemies appears foolish, stupid even. It takes a lot of faith to believe that loving our enemies does any good.
Nevermind enemies. We have trouble even with people who just annoy us or whose opinions differ from ours. Look at how vitriolic the debates on social media have become. The comment box, as Fr. James Martin has noted, is one of the most un-Christian places in our modern world. The anonymity of the internet seems to bring out the worst qualities of many people. This is certainly the case with cyberbullying, as our young people, especially, understand. Pope Francis recently spoke about bullying as sin, saying, “When we realize that we harbor within ourselves the desire to attack someone because they are weak, we have no doubt: It is the devil. Because attacking the weak is the work of Satan.”
Here, then, are three challenges that today’s readings pose to us. First, in any ways are we running away from God’s will as Jonah did, preferring our own will to God’s? Second, are there cases where we prefer justice (conceived of as vengeance) to mercy? Third, whether in person or online, are we yet loving our enemies—i.e., wanting for them what God wants for them—or are we engaging in the vitriol and cyberbullying? As we examine our consciences, we find our hope in the Gospel, the Good News that God is always seeking our conversion and is ready to forgive, just as God once forgave all of Nineveh. We are called to live in the Kingdom of God. To get there, with the assistance of divine grace and mercy, we have only to repent and believe in the Gospel.
Fourth Sunday of Advent/Christmas Eve
Here is a link to this week’s readings
As we enter the Christmas season, many of us think about family. For some, this brings warm feelings of comfort, peace, and joy. For others, the thought of family brings heartache, either because of loss of loved ones, which becomes poignant this time of year, or because of longing for a loving family that we have not genuinely experienced. There are also those who have families that don’t match the Church and society’s ideal, or who feel hurt by prejudice or the lack of recognition: blended families, interracial families, families headed by gay parents, families headed by grandparents, single-parent families, families affected by divorce, etc.
People often say things like, “Blood is thicker than water,” “Family first,” and “Family above all.” Although well-meaning, these expressions can represent an unhealthy “cult of the family” that turns family itself into an idol. If, for example, these sayings indicate an insular understanding of family, then they stray from the Church’s teaching. Family, to the Church, should be the great symbol of God’s family. It should lead us not inward, into seclusion from the world and narcissistic tribalism, but outwards into the family of God.
Pope St. John XXIII said “the family is the first essential cell of human society.” No cell in a human body exists for itself; it exists for the good of the body. Likewise, the Second Vatican Council called the family the “domestic Church,” (Lumen Gentium #11) and, like the Church universal, it cannot be self-referential, concerned only about itself and looking out only for its own best interests. It must have an ad extra orientation—a recognition that it has received blessings in order to share them, and a commitment to the common good. The family, as the domestic Church, is inherently evangelical. It exists to bring the Good News of salvation and mercy into a world that desperately needs to hear this message of hope, the Christmas message.
In the Gospels, we see that Jesus rejected the “cult of the family.” He challenged it, sometimes shockingly so. For example, when his own mother, the “handmaid of the Lord who was “full of grace,” arrived with other family members to speak with Jesus, he said, “‘Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.’” (Matthew 12:48-50). It’s not the only time he surprises us with his views on family. Faithfulness to Jesus, he himself said, would lead to a situation where “Brother will hand over brother to death, and the father his child; children will rise up against parents and have them put to death” (Matthew 10:21). Loyalty to Jesus is clearly more important than loyalty to family in his teaching: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Blood is not thicker than water. It is not family above all. This is why Jesus said, “…if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?” (Matthew 5:46-7). He teaches us to think of all God’s creation as family, “the bad and the good” alike (Matthew 5:45), and to call God “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9).
The reading today from Second Samuel says that David’s descendent, the Messiah, will himself have God as a Father: “I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me.” The Psalmist echoes this theme: “He shall say of me, ‘You are my father, my God, the Rock, my savior.’” St. Paul begins his writing with words we are so familiar with that we easily overlook their significance: “Brothers and sisters…” Taken together, these serve as a reminder that our relationship with God and one another is always in Christ Jesus. Every human family imperfectly symbolizes and points toward this perfect relationship between the Father and the Son, in which we share by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of love and unity. In other words, family points to God’s family, which, in turn, points to the inner life of the Trinity.
As we remember and celebrate the Holy Family of Bethlehem and Nazareth—itself an unconventional family by any estimation!—we remember that individual families exist for the good of the whole human family and are meant to draw us into the life of love that is the Trinity. Whether family brings us comfort, or pain and loss, or longing during this season especially, the Christian approach is to turn our gaze outwards, and to see sisters and brothers everywhere, all children of the same Father. The beautiful Christ child will ultimately shed his blood for this family out of faithfulness and love for the Father and for us. This blood is our salvation. This Precious Blood alone is thicker than water.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
Third Sunday of Advent
Here is a link to this week’s readings.
At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, he opened the scroll in the synagogue to the passage from Isaiah that we hear today in the first reading:
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.”
Luke reports slightly different words (cf. Luke 4:18-19), but the passage is the same. Jesus claimed, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21), which caused his own local people to become indignant and angry. Jesus responded with his famous saying, “Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place” (Luke 4:24). This infuriated the people even more, so much that they intended to kill Jesus: “When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But he passed through the midst of them and went away” (Luke 4:28-30).
Do you think Jesus would be treated any better today? Let’s reimagine the passage with an internal dialogue added in. I think we might recognize that Jesus’ words are just as radical now as they were then. We might be provoked to kill him too! If we don’t recognize that, then we are either blinded to our own sin, individual and social, or we have not taken the radical nature of his words seriously. We have domesticated Jesus. For, the Jesus of the Gospels threatens the social order that makes us feel safe and secure; he threatens our sense of justice; he threatens our sense of who’s in and who’s out. There is a reason he got crucified. It wasn’t because he was always just so nice, making everyone feel good and never rocking the boat! He challenged—and continues to challenge—the social order with the values of the Kingdom of God.
So here’s the internal dialogue for our reflection on this third Sunday of Advent. I’ll use both Isaiah and Luke:
“The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me”—Indeed, You are the Son of God!
“because the LORD has anointed me”—Yes, the Christ (So glad I’m not a Jew or a Muslim).
“he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor”—Well the poor are poor because they are lazy, have broken homes, and don’t value education, so let’s not get carried away; and don’t forget the rich and the middle class with Your glad tidings. We earned it after all!
“to heal the brokenhearted”—Yeah, I’m good with that, just not those whose hearts are broken by deportation and having their families split up, or whose hearts are broken by racist violence, or whose hearts are broken by being driven from their own native land.
“to proclaim liberty to the captives”—Let’s not get carried away. They got what they deserve.
“and recovery of sight to the blind”—CONSERVATIVE!! I’ll follow science not your faith healings, thank you very much.
“and release to the prisoners”—LIBERAL!!
“and to let the oppressed go free”—Oh, here we go about “the oppressed!!” Everyone’s a victim nowadays and I’m to blame, right?
“to announce a year of favor from the LORD”—Yes, finally, God favors US!!
“and a day of vindication by our God”—Now we’re talking, smite THEM, Lord!!
“I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half years and a severe famine spread over the entire land. It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon. Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian”—Wait, wait, wait!! Charity begins at home. Us first! There is no salvation outside our faith community!! Heretic!! Kill this man!!
As we approach Christmas, it is important to remember why this baby’s life was threatened right from the start. The Kingdom of God threatens every other kingdom, political party, government, and ideology. St. Ignatius of Loyola said there are only two standards, or flags; and ALL our loyalty must be with either Jesus and His Kingdom or with the powers of this world.
Second Sunday of Advent
At a conference recently, I brought an acorn along with me and kept it in my pocket. When the appropriate point in the talk arrived, I took out the acorn and reminded the audience of one of my favorite sayings: “There are two ways to get to the top of an oak tree: climb to the top, or sit on an acorn and wait.” To me it always suggests that we have work to do. Sitting around and waiting doesn’t make much sense.
Advent, of course, is a time of waiting: “…we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace.” In the past, I have written about this theme, remembering that the word patience comes from patior, meaning to suffer. We endure the period of waiting with faith and with a firm anchor in hope, because love demands it, and love is worth the wait!
Still, Advent is more than just sitting on an acorn. There is some climbing to do! For us, though, it is not an oak tree but a mountain we must climb:
“Go up on to a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God! Here comes with power the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him.”
We are climbing that holy mountain so that like John the Baptist we might “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” For as surely as Christ came as a helpless little baby in Bethlehem, so too will He surely come as the All Powerful King and Judge. The Church is the “herald of glad tidings” and the “herald of good news!” The very nature of the Church is to proclaim the Gospel, the Good News, to all creation until Christ comes again. This is why Pope Francis has so clearly reminded us that as Christians we are “missionary disciples.”
Most of us, I imagine, focus more on the “disciples” part of that equation. We are familiar with the demands of discipleship, even if we fail to live up to them. We recognize the need to grow in virtue and to deepen our prayer lives and our commitment to the works of mercy. “God must be served first,” St. Joan of Arc said, and we agree, though we struggle with sin and temptation.
Still, we have that “missionary” part of the equation that Pope Francis wants us to take seriously. We are the Church, the “herald of glad tidings” and the “herald of good news!” Last week, we focused on God’s pedagogy of incrementally preparing us for Christ and the Kingdom through gradual Divine Revelation. This week, perhaps we can think about ways to adopt that same teaching technique in our attempts to evangelize. I am sure you have ideas and experiences of your own for doing this. For what they are worth, here are three of mine:
First, we should remember that the focus is “joy” and “good news.” The Peter Maurin character, played by Martin Sheen, in the 1996 movie about Dorothy Day Entertaining Angels says it well: “We must be announcers, not denouncers!” Second, the pope calls us to “accompany” people on the journey, smelling like the sheep, embodying God’s unconditional love in all the messiness of life and in all the brokenness of the human situation. Accompaniment, though, involves sacrifice of time and emotional energy. It means witnessing to love even when we may not be loved in return. After all, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Third, as we accompany people, let’s not expect that people get it all at once, or that their salvation depends on our depositing the entire treasury of Catholicism into their lives in one fell swoop! In the words of the religious education scholar Tom Groome, “It is better to bring people along than to turn them away.”
It’s already the Second Week of Advent… and this year there are only three (the Fourth Sunday is Christmas Eve). It’s time to start climbing the oak tree, “the rooftops” (Matt. 10:27), and “the high mountain” to prepare the world for coming of the King! There’s work to do. We can’t just sit and wait passively. We are not just disciples; we are missionary disciples! It’s time to get off our acorns.
First Sunday of Advent
Several years ago, when I was teaching middle school math, I learned an important lesson about curriculum. There are larger goals and objectives that may not be immediately obvious in any given lesson. For example, when learning about fractions, a student may solve a problem by converting the fraction to a decimal and then performing the required computation. Although fraction-to-decimal conversion is an important skill, it may not be the point of the lesson. A math teacher may ask the student to correct their work by demonstrating knowledge of working with fractions as opposed to decimals. Occasionally, a parent gets upset about this, arguing that the student reached the correct answer and shouldn’t be required to do the work over. It takes patience to explain that in the big picture of the curriculum we are not concerned right now about computing the correct answer so much as demonstrating knowledge about working with fractions. This skill will become critical when students begin working with algebraic equations involving fractions. In those classes, they will no longer be able to convert the fraction to a decimal because the fractions involve variables and not just integers. In short, getting the right answer now with the wrong skill set will end up hurting them later on.
In educational theory, we often talk about scaffolding—a process of helping students to develop in knowledge and skill over time by gradually introducing them to new challenges as they are ready. When they become secure in a new skill, we remove the scaffolding, so to speak, and build upwards, allowing for incremental growth.
Advent gives us an opportunity to reflect on what the bishops, in the General Directory for Catechesis, call “the pedagogy of God.” Like the classroom teacher, God, it seems, takes time to prepare us for each new stage of growth and revelation. God promised a Savior at the very beginning of Creation, immediately after the original sin. We call Genesis 3:15 the protoevangelion, or first Gospel, because it contains this promise of redemption. Yet, Advent reminds us that thousands of years passed before Christ was born. The Incarnation would be an astounding event, and it would require that we be prepared for it. God did not “delay,” but instead began immediately to ready us for the Redeemer.
In today’s reading we hear Isaiah ask, “Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” St. Paul’s answer, reflecting on the long period of time leading up to Christ, was to recognize God’s pedagogy. God gave us the law, in part, to help us to see how desperate for a Savior we were. We could not save ourselves. We could not be righteous, fully obedient to God’s will, even when it was spelled out for us in the law. And so Paul wrote, “the law was our disciplinarian for Christ” (Gal. 3:34). Everything that came before was preparing us for Christ, including the law and God’s willingness to “let us wander.” As we await the Second Coming, it may seem again that God is delaying, but this, too, is the pedagogy of God. St. Peter spoke about it this way: “The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard ‘delay,’ but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
With God, the pedagogy is Divine Revelation over time, incrementally forming a people ready for the Redeemer and prepared for the Kingdom of God. In some sense, this learning process will go on forever. Even in Heaven, we will not be capable of grasping fully the immensity and glory of God. Instead we might imagine ongoing revelation of the depth of the mystery of God, a revelation that never ends, an eternal sharing of God’s self with us, a spring that never runs dry (cf. Is. 58:11). Each new unveiling fills us anew with wonder and awe, and evokes the depths of love that are the proper response to a God who is Love (1 John 4:8). Heaven will be anything but static and boring. It will be the very essence of loving dynamism. We will be caught up in Love itself, ever new, ever exciting, ever creative, ever faithful and true, ever beautiful, ever good, and ever worthy of praise and thanksgiving!
Learning, especially when it is learning about someone we love, is life-giving and exhilarating, isn’t it? We always want to know more. We always want a deeper intimacy. With God, as the mystics teach us, we have already begun this eternal joy and ecstasy of learning about our Beloved, of falling deeply in love. “Because Christ is the Way,” said St. Catherine of Siena, “all the way to Heaven is Heaven!”
Sunday, November 26, 2017
The Solemnity of Christ the King
Today is the Solemnity of Christ the King. Our Gospel reading is taken from Matthew 25, where Jesus describes the Last Judgment, a scene that many artists have rendered over the years, most famously Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Our own age, though, may need to reflect on Matthew 25 anew. In the age of social media, the scene changes. I offer my worried, exaggerated interpretation below.
When I was hungry, you thought about the surprised and the angry emojis, but settled on the sad emoji. When I was thirsty, you commented that you were praying for me. When I was naked, you didn’t report me for inappropriate content. When I was sick or in prison, you were one of my 5 friends who copied and pasted my status. And when I was a stranger, you accepted my friend request.
When I was hungry, you took my picture and posted it with an appropriate social justice quotation from Gandhi. When I was thirsty, you added me to your story. When I was naked, you covered me with a location indicator and an embarrassed emoji. When I was sick, you came up with the best hashtags. And when I was a stranger, you got me over a hundred likes.
When I was hungry, you tweeted about it. When I was thirsty, you tweeted about it. When I was naked, you tweeted about it. When I was sick, you tweeted about it. When I was in prison, you tweeted about it. And when I was a stranger, you retweeted from someone else’s account.
Of course, there is still the world outside of social media (although the lines are blurring). So let’s look at one last contortion of Matthew 25.
When I was hungry, you zoned me out of view. When I was thirsty, you stole my water and bottled it for profit. When I was naked, you arrested me. When I was sick, you made healthcare too expensive for me. When I was in prison, you dehumanized and forgot about me. And when I was a stranger, you scapegoated me.
These caricatures of social media, politics, and corporate culture are hyperbole and satire, of course. Social media, for instance, can and has been used to generate genuinely caring responses that bring direct relief to victims of disasters, illnesses, and the like; and many business people operate with concern for the common good. But is there an element of truth in the caricatures? Have we become so accustomed to responding in virtual space or with political and market ideologies that we have grown weak in our basic human ability to see the personal need right in front of us and to care? Have we felt powerless to do much more than to click on a sad emoji?
Akin to our social media responses that lack real human contact and genuine care, St. James admonished the first Christians (and us), saying, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:15-17). It is not enough to comment that we are praying for someone. We must also find ways to act. In the words of the African proverb, “When you pray, move your feet.”
The Last Judgment scene as Jesus described it is full of (or neglectful of) genuine human interaction and caring:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me,
in prison and you visited me.”
Our job as Christians is to evangelize our culture and to convert our own lives, by God’s grace, so that all the tools and technologies of our society (social, print, and broadcast media; internet; political, educational, and business institutions; etc.) are employed in nurturing human relationships and caring for basic human needs. In short, we have become much more aware of all the suffering in the world because of technology, but unless we find ways to humanly act, we are not yet ready for the final judgment.
Sunday, November 19, 2017
33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
The weather in Massachusetts has been unseasonably warm this fall, and so it was perfect for a boat ride with a friend last month, even though it was a mid-October Sunday evening. In fact, this is a great time to be on the water, since the foliage is beautiful. But something strange happened while we were out on the lake, watching the sunset. I noticed several figures dressed in black in my friend’s yard. “Who’s at your house?” I asked her. “Nobody should be there,” she said with anxiety. “Well, it looks like there are a bunch of ninjas in your yard!” There were several strange men, all dressed in black as if they were part of a bank heist. I immediately put the motor full throttle and headed towards the house. The men, it turned out, were wearing black wet suits because they were hired to take her dock out of the water. Luckily, we arrived at the shore before they disappeared, and although they were unable to reassemble the dock, they did help tie down the boat so that it wouldn’t drift off during the (very windy!) night.
This incident gives me a new perspective on Paul’s words that “the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.” Concerning the dock removal, any reputable company would have called the house first and made an appointment. They certainly wouldn’t show up on a Sunday evening without any warning and remove the dock while the customer was still out on the water! They came like thieves (and they looked like thieves too!) and we were entirely unprepared for their arrival. (Needless to say, my friend ended her business with them. The Lord might arrive unannounced, but the guys in wetsuits had better make an appointment!)
The interesting thing about the men who came to remove the dock is not that we didn’t expect them, but that we didn’t recognize them. In fact, if they had made an appointment, then we would have recognized who they were precisely because we expected them. All this makes me think about Christ’s second coming a bit differently. Perhaps the point of an unexpected arrival has to do with recognition. If we knew when Christ would come again, we would expect him and would surely recognize him. Not knowing when he is coming, though, makes it less likely that we will recognize him in this superficial way. We will have to know him deeply in order to recognize him.
Here is another way of thinking about it. When I travel, I send for an Uber or a Lyft, and a driver whom I don’t know is dispatched to me. Yet, because I expect him/her and they expect me, we recognize each other. I know this is my ride. They know I am the customer. With Jesus, we do not have an appointed time and place. We won’t be able to get by with such a cursory and impersonal knowledge of him. Only those who really know him will recognize him. “I know my sheep,” he said, “and my sheep know me” (cf. John 10:14).
This gives us a different sense of how to be prepared for his coming. Instead of thinking, “Have I been good?” or “Have I been bad?” (the Santa Claus questions, I like to call them), we might begin to examine our consciences this way: Do I really know Jesus? Am I getting to know him better through prayer and the sacraments? Am I becoming familiar with him through Scripture, especially the Gospels? And, perhaps most of all, do I recognize him in the people around me?
What if Jesus comes back and looks nothing like our statues, paintings, and holy cards? Will we recognize him? Will we recognize him in his “most distressing disguise,” as St. Teresa of Calcutta referred to his presence in the poor and rejected? Colin Raye asked in a song, “What If Jesus Comes Back Like That?” where he imagines Jesus returning as a homeless person or a crack baby. He asks, “will we let him in or turn our back?”
When Jesus comes as a thief in the night, we won’t be expecting him. Perhaps that doesn’t refer to timing at all. Maybe it refers to recognition. If Jesus comes back as that panhandler whom we ignore and try to avoid, we won’t be expecting him that way, so will we recognize him? If he comes back as that family member we no longer talk to, will we recognize him? If he comes back as that boss or that ex whom we can’t forgive, will we recognize him? Picture your worst enemy or the person you look down on the most. If you and I are not learning to acknowledge and love that person, to see Christ in that person, then we might not recognize Christ when he returns!
Theologian Johann Baptist Metz refers to the “apocalyptic goad” of these end-of-time Scripture passages. They should give us a jolt towards greater conversion. In other words, we had better learn to love more completely, so that we don’t completely miss Love when He comes again.
Sunday, November 12, 2017
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
As a ninth grader, I encountered the story of Romeo and Juliet for the first time. Of course, I had heard the names Romeo and Juliet applied to teenage couples caught up in the romance of young love, and so I was prepared for a love story. I had no idea how tragic the story would become. My tender teenage heart was traumatized! I still think of Romeo and Juliet not as a tragedy, but as a love story gone tragically wrong.
I prefer the story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame) called “How the Brigadier Saved the Army.” In that story, the French Colonel Etienne Gerard accepted a mission after other junior soldiers failed—being captured, tortured, and killed by Portuguese militia. The mission demanded going through the dangerous territory where the Portuguese were positioned in order to get to the high ground and light a beacon at midnight, which would signal to the French army to retreat. Without this signal, a contingent of French soldiers would be left surrounded by the enemy and helpless.
The story describes the great adventure that ensues as Gerard made his way to the mountain peak. At last, though, like the aides-de-camp before him, he is captured. He is brought to the chief of the Portuguese militia, a man known as Manuelo “The Smiler,” whose cruelty was known and struck fear into the French and English armies alike. The meeting, it turned out, took place on the very mountaintop where the colonel was supposed to light the beacon. The Portuguese had already claimed the high ground. Manuelo sentenced Gerard to death, and with his death, the French army itself would fall. Thus, Gerard bargained with Manuelo, asking that he at very least be allowed, as a sign of respect towards an officer, to choose how he would die. Manuelo agreed, and so Gerard requested that he be burned at the stake. Thus, by his death, the signal fire was lighted on the mountaintop and the French army escaped destruction.
What is the difference between the two stories? In Romeo and Juliet, a love story goes tragically wrong; but why? The plan seemed perfect: Juliet would take a potion that made its seem like she was dead, but which would wear off and allow her a new life, one in which she and Romeo would live happily ever after. It was supposed to be a story of resurrection and new life! She sent a messenger to get the word to Romeo, but the messenger failed. Romeo thus found Juliet and thought she was dead. Grief-stricken, he took his own life, only to have Juliet do the same when she awoke from her slumber and found him dead. The love story went tragically wrong for only one reason: the messenger failed!
In contrast, the Brigadier saved the army and prevented a tragedy precisely because he got the message through. Even at the cost of self-sacrifice—a willingness to give his own life out of love for others—he made sure the fire was ignited on the mountaintop that would alert the French army to the danger and allow them to escape. When the messenger succeeds, the story shifts from being a tragedy to being a heroic tale of unselfish love.
This is the Christian mission. Even at great cost, perhaps even martyrdom, we are entrusted with Good News that absolutely must be delivered to the world. Saint Paul, one of the first great messengers, wrote to the Thessalonians, “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep.” Yes, hope!! That is what we bring to a desperate world. God does not intend that the love story should go tragically wrong; yet, God does entrust a lot, like the story of Romeo and Juliet, to the messenger. How well are you getting that message out there? How am I doing? Are we willing to risk it all so that the fire on the mountain gets ignited? There is no time to waste. Jesus warns us, “Therefore, stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” In the time that we have left, before midnight approaches, we must get that fire kindled in the world, even if the fuel is—as it very often is—the very wood of the cross.