A kinder gentler look at the Parable of the Vineyard Laborers

This kinder gentler look brought to you by the Fathers of the Church…

Yesterday, Septuagesima Sunday, our brothers and sisters worshipping in the extraordinary form meditated on two powerhouse readings.  Paul wrote to the Corinthians (I Cor 9-10) about crossfit training for our souls: Those who would win the race need to train by disciplined self-denial.  In the Gospel (Mt. 20) our Lord instructs us with the parable of the vineyard workers being paid.  

So much has been said about both of these classic selections.  Analysis usually (at least in my experience) devolves into a rah rah encouragement (Paul)… and questions of fairness in the case of the Gospel reading.  For a different look…to keep my own eyes of faith fresh… I decided to consult the Fathers of the Church in the Cataena Aurea, particularly about the Gospel parable.  Here’s just a very few highlights from their approach:

St. Gregory the Great considers the several hours at which the workers were called to labor in the vineyard.  He identifies each hour as a series of Old Testament covenants!  I never would’ve thought of that!  …which may be why I’m not a patristic scholar… In this reading, the vineyard owner isn’t just calling workers off the streets to employ them, but because he has a lively concern for the salvation of all! 

Origen and St. John Chrysostom make an interesting observation: “The market place [from whence the workers are called] is anywhere that is outside the Catholic Church.”  “For in the world men live by buying and selling: and by defrauding each other to sustain their own lives.”  The market… the rat race of life without the Gospel… is always marked first and foremost by self-concern at best… and at worst self-centeredness.  Working in the Vineyard, it’s true, there will be a day’s wage for the workers, but the lion share of benefits accrue to the owner.  In other words: God desires to give us what we need, that we might work first and foremost for his glory and praise!  

Is this itself a slavish setup?  Certainly not.  When we live for others it lightens the load of our personal sadnesses and contextualizes the whole of life… gives it meaning.  Often enough, I find myself lamenting the administrative side of church life… but at the very least there is almost always kindness among colleagues… From what my people tell me, this isn’t always the case in the world.  

As a side note, I recently heard an interview (I think it’s a replay actually) between Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post and jazz great Winton Marsalis.  Over the course of an illuminating conversation, Marsalis laments the completely commodity-based culture that has developed around us, in which everything that art produces needs to be sell-able.  Consider having a listen HERE.

My favorite reading of this Gospel though comes, again, from Origen: 

He did not call the laborers of the third hour to a whole day’s work: whatever they were able to do he reserved to his own judgement to reward accordingly.  For they could do an amount of work equal to that done by those who had worked from the early morning, were they willing, in the shorter space of time, and not sparing their toil, to put forth a greater effort to the work at hand.

We always assume that the latecomers were lazy, but maybe the Lord knew they would work harder than the others.  Alternately, perhaps he called them knowing they would offer 100% of what they were able.  It reminds me of St. Philip Neri who “asks not our all, but only what we can spare him.” (cf Hymn: St. Philip and His School, by Faber).  In either case, the point is this: God knows how much each can work and what that person’s labor merits… NOT us.

A final thought… Some propose that God loves the first laborers more because they put in a whole day’s work, signing on with him from the beginning.  The later laborers may have made it into his good graces, but this is reckoned as some pure kindness on God’s part, keeping them in second-class status.  But consider the words of St. John Chrysostom:

Therefore God in rendering reward to all the saints (i.e. early workers) appears as just: but in giving to the Gentiles (i.e. late workers) He is seen as merciful, as the Apostle says ‘but the gentiles are to glorify God for his mercy.’  …Boundless mercy has not regard to order.

Our Lord’s justice and his mercy are equally beautiful gifts of his.  Who are we to try to make one look better than the other?

As I read these words this morning… these brilliant observations by the Fathers… I smiled.  Often we think of the ancient Church as a stoic cheerless time.  While they were certainly tough as nails compared to us, our ancestors in the faith were also deeply passionate and positive offering theological reflections full of color and nuance.  As we approach Lent, might we think the same about the Holy Season itself??

More to come…

Notes from Retreat

Dear Friends,

Yesterday I escaped… or thought I had escaped…  It’s time for my yearly retreat.  A week away from parish cares and woes to run to the arms of Jesus.  I’m staying at an Inn on the Chesapeake rising early to pray, taking cold walks along the water and trying to make my heart a little like the landscape: still very much alive, but scraped of all excess!

Why am I posting here?  Partially because I think/reflect best in dialogue… but also because of a great moment.  Yesterday I’d checked in to the inn.  I was so thrilled to be away from everything and everyone… also a little pre-cold (tired, stuffed up, achy). Stepping out of my room to get something warm to drink, I darn near crashed into a couple I had married two years ago!  It was a pleasant surprise but I can’t deny one thought was: “Can’t I ever get away from you people!”  Then the Lord stepped in.  He gently reminded me that the best way to run into his arms is not to run away from our people but to love them.  It’s true, every now and then we do need to take a break from working for each other… but we never take a break from loving each other.

So… Posted below, my homily (more or less) from yesterday (6th Sunday of OT).  My body is at rest on the Eastern Shore, but my heart is still on the clock for you!

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time
“What should I do?”

Throughout the month of February we’ve been meditating on questions related to: What are my goals for Lent (begins March 6)?  What needs to be purged if I’m going to be closer to Christ?  What do I need to magnify in my life?

This past Sunday (OF Calendar: 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time – EF Calendar Septuagesima Sunday) the Church proposed to us some more wonderful objects for our reflection.

In the Ordinary Form we heard a strong admonition from Jeremiah (17:5), “Cursed is the one who trusts in man…” And indeed, self-reliance will only get us so far in life.  In fact, isn’t this precisely what got us in trouble in the beginning?  Satan tempted Adam and Eve to break God’s command, and seize knowledge to themselves precisely so that they might become “like gods.”  Where do we go from here?  The readings direct us.  We are presented with the Beatitudes according to Luke.  It’s telling, really… 

You see, the Commandments tell us largely what not to do.  They are negative proscriptions… good, but negative.  They are also the highest fruits of human reason.  We didn’t need tablets from Sinai to tell us that lying isn’t good for human flourishing, nor murder, nor adultery, nor disrespecting our parents, etc.  Human societies across the world enshrined such truths in law long before and long after Moses climbed the heights.  Nonetheless, it’s great to have a divine confirmation… AND to know that there is a connection between Truths arrived at by reason, and divinity.  All that said, “Cursed be the one who trusts in man…”. The Commandments aren’t enough.  It’s not enough to say “no” to certain things, we must also have a “yes.”  And this shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, had the Commandments been enough to save us, Jesus wouldn’t have had a reason to come among us.

If the Commandments tell us what not to do, the beatitudes answer the question, “What must I do to have eternal life?”  Of course it’s the same question asked by the rich young man in Mt 19.  Jesus sums up everything for him, “Obey the commandments, give all you have to the poor and follow me.”  The Beatitudes are further explication of what it means to “follow” him.  Unlike the commandments, the Beatitudes are not self-evident.  Be meek?  Be humble?  Mourn?  Human reasoning flies from such realities!  And yet… If we can just trust Divine Revelation and try these out… what do we find?  

Meekness, humility, poverty… this is simply who we are.  Even the wealthiest/most powerful among us are one bad stock crash… one bad news cycle away from poverty.  Didn’t we see this in DC just recently?  Educated, well-employed federal workers, the very icon of the stable middle class, waited in food pantry lines during government shutdown.  Our wealth is ultimately an illusion… a pleasant circumstance that exists for some time for some people… but naturally, in our being, we are -all of us- poor.  Embrace that reality and learn to love it!  It’s healthier than the fantasy of wealth or power.  Another angle on this?  Wealth and power are exhausting.  The sheer energy it takes to “rely on man,” and ascend the ladder of high society is a process that usually leads to folks running on empty… or worse, stepping on others to keep their ascent going.  How many cultural Catholics I’ve met in our well-to-do suburbs who live this way and hide their exhaustion… or medicate it with alcohol, pornography… or flee from it and from their family responsibilities.  There’s an easier solution, and Christ gives it to us by his Revelation: Blessed are the meek…the poor… those who mourn… etc. 

As we roll on toward Lent, brothers and sisters, it seems two great questions are the ones we’ve been considering.  “Lord what must I do?” “Lord how can I rely on you and not solely on my own reason?

Where’ve we come from and where are we going?

St. Jerome Praying with the Scriptures – Mass. Ave, NW at the Croatian Embassy

A Review of Our Parish Catechetical Process

Last summer, amidst the craziness of moving into a new parish and new ministry, I realized that not only did my preaching need an anchor… I did too!  With everything going on in world, local and church news… it can be hard to focus, to focus in a way useful to ongoing personal growth.  So it struck me in a holy hour to undertake a year-long catechesis for the parish based on the seasons, the readings and on some catechetical guidelines recommended by our Archdiocese.

Where have we come from and where are we going in that process?  If you look back on the Homilies page (above) you’ll be able to listen to preaching on all these subjects in order…

Back in October we prayed on ways that God guides us… sign posts he uses to keep us moving on the road to heaven… namely:

The Rosary
Covenants and Sacraments
God does not guide us dependent on things
Our identity as priests (royal and ordained) guides us

In November, we asked the question, “What do we believe” and looked at select issues from the Creed:

What does it mean to say, “I believe”
What does it mean that “I believe in Jesus Christ”
What does it mean to believe in a Kingdom that will have no end
Who is Christ, the KING, in whom we believe

In December we recognized the belief inspires/commends us to worship… and we all need a yearly renewal of worship during Advent, if we’re going to be ready to receive Jesus at his Nativity.

Receptivity: the beginning of worship
Prayer: how do I grow in prayer after 8th grade?
Humility: the first step in worship
How can we offer our bodies in spiritual worship

Since December we’ve moved through the Epiphany season worshipping at the crib with Mary, Joseph, the Shepherds and the Magi… recognizing different facets of Christ’s divinity each weekend.

Now the question comes… what’s next?!?!

Well, Ordinary Time, or the “Sundays after epiphany” as reckoned in the Extraordinary Form calendar launches us on mission… but that mission requires some help and timely maintenance.  So we’ll spend these coming Sundays in February looking at just what kind of help we need… before actively seeking it during Lent (starts Ash Wednesday, March 6).  Here’s you can [I hope] look forward to:

January 27 – What is the nature of religion? Constant soul maintenance by re-reading the Law (i.e. re-legere… re-ligion)

February ⅔ – The Feast of the Presentation is Feb. 2… and on the 3rd we hear about Christ’s experience preaching in Nazareth: Like the figures in the Temple, like the synagogue members in Nazareth, do I need to refresh my eyes and ears to see the Lord?

February 10 – Duc in altum : What does it mean to “set out into the deep” with Christ

February 17 – The Beatitudes: a measure for our depth

February 24 – Loving our enemies: same topic, continued

March 3 – “Can the blind lead the blind?”  Turning always to Christ during, especially during the season of Lent… leaving behind self-rule and letting him rule in our hearts.

Stay tuned… it’s going to be a great few weeks!!!

Epiphany and the tools it gives us for life…

THOUGHTS FROM MY EPIPHANY HOMILY

Epiphany… a season no just of information, but of illumination… of the light and warmth that comes from worshipping Christ in his humanity – thoroughly established at Christmas – and now in his divinity.  Joining the magi on bended knee we find ourselves called to deeper conversion, and also mission… a mission to spread the good news in every dimension of life.  We’re also equipped with tools for mission.  Epiphany marks the beginning – in some senses – of sacramental economy… that is to say, the use of the things of this earth for the purposes of conveying divine life.  Let’s explore some of these tools and how they relate to our Epiphany mission.

Time and Knowledge Matter…

The magi were astronomers, masters of natural sciences from the East.  Unlike scholars today, engaging in siloed, categorized fields of inquiry, the ancients simply studied.  All higher knowledge was categorized as “philosophy;” literally the love (philos) of wisdom (sophia).  Scholars like the magi observed the stars to track the movement of seasons, plant crops, map geography, chart sea journeys and much more.  Now, for the first time, that natural, rational wisdom is turned by our Lord’s birth toward the purposes of evangelization.  Brothers and sisters the Church never fears knowledge or the Truth… she shouldn’t, anyway… because Christ is the Way the Truth and the Life… Like the magi we can and should always use natural reason to guide us to the author of all Truth, Jesus.  It’s interesting to note also that the first sin was the seizure of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil… and now among the first things to be redeemed is knowledge.  

There’s more thought… because it’s not just ephemeral knowledge that is baptized in this Epiphany season… Time itself is turned to Christ.  The magi’s astronomy was first and foremost about the movement of time… and now, in the fullness of time, they find themselves at the foot of the Infant Lord.  Like knowledge time is precious.  Its value only increases as we consider its finite nature.  Your life and mine will eventually end.  We have seventy years, eighty for those who are strong (cf Ps. 90:10).  Time itself will come to an end at the final judgment.  Time is precious… and we can use it for God’s eternal purposes or our own all too mortal ones.  

Matter Matters…

Time and knowledge are great… but epiphany also very definitely touches on stuff… matter.  How did the magi choose to worship God?  They brought him stuff… literally the stuff of the earth: gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Royal gold acknowledges Jesus as King.  Mystic frankincense proclaims him High Priest.  Embalming myrrh recognizes and prepares for his saving death.  

Matter begins to be sanctified when Jesus takes our humanity to himself… today’s feast marks the expansion of this mystery to the things of this earth.  The holiness of things culminates with the establishment of the seven sacraments.  Common water baptizes us into his death and resurrection.  Simple bread and wine become his body and blood.  Vegetable oil is given healing and blessing qualities for anointing.  Simple words are granted the power to absolve sin.  How amazing the uses of stuff!  There’s nothing wrong with having stuff.  What do we use it for??  Therein lies the critical question.  

We matter…

The final thing to consider in sacramental economy and missions is we, our very selves.  At some point, for all their knowledge and wealth, each of the magi had to make a decision, “I’m going to journey across the desert to an unknown destination, to worship and unknown king.”  That’s a massive personal investment.  It’s not just that they took a physically perilous trip across the desert… We can only imagine the cost of taking such a trip.  At a personal level did they risk their reputations on this trek?  And as if all that wasn’t enough, on arriving in Jerusalem they take their very lives in their hands as they unwittingly rouse the anger of Herod (cf Mt 2).  Ultimately, all of us need to make a personal decision… an investment of the whole of our lives into the Jesus experience.  It’s important.  

On the negative side, we’ve seen what happens when even a few of us walk away from Jesus, when we turn hypocrite.  I’m referring, of course, to the scandalous news that has rocked the Church since this past summer.  A tiny minority of individuals have brought the whole Church to it knees shaking the faith of us all.  The personal investment of individuals matters.

On the positive side, I think of an old colleague, Ed Sullivan.  Ed just died a few days ago.  He was an active Knight of Columbus serving others, praying, and befriending all those he met.  Mundane stuff, right?  But in the midst of these mundane exercises Ed met some college guys and invited them to found a K of C council at the Catholic University of America.  From that council have come vowed priests and religious… and ten times as many good faithful Catholic men who will be husbands, fathers of families and raise up a generation of faith and hope!  …all because one simple man was a friend to a few others.  The personal investment of individuals matters.  How will you invest yourself after the example of the Magi.

A season of epiphanies…

The Feast of the Epiphany may have happened this past Sunday, but the season of Epiphany is far from over.  On the old calendar there was a whole explicit season called “Epiphanytide”.  Remnants of this are still with us.  The second Sunday after Christmas is Epiphany when the magi worship Christ.  The Third Sunday after Christmas (now called the First of Ordinary Time) is the Baptism of the Lord, when the voice of the Father recognizes his Son and the Spirit descend on him in the form of a dove (Lk 3).  The fourth Sunday After Christmas (now reckoned as the 2nd of Ordinary Time) may appear non-descript as the priests dress in Green once more… but look at the Gospel… It’s the wedding at Cana (Jn 2) when Jesus performs his first public miracle and people begin to recognize his divinity… a third epiphany moment!  Spend these weeks absorbing the light and warmth of epiphany in all its forms… Like the Lord and the magi, start using the things of this world to convey his divine life to others.  

Family: It’s heights, depths, and everything in between

A few observations On today’s feast of the Holy Family, in which we rejoice at the mystery of the family.  

First, how does family come to be called a mystery?  When did family become a mystery… akin to the mystery of redemption, or the mystery of the Eucharist?  Family has always existed, at the very least, as a natural institution.  For the propagation of the species, family has always existed.  Because it’s easier to survive in groups, family has always existed.  Even Scripture confirms this basic reality:

“Two are better than one: They get a good wage for their toil. If the one falls, the other will help the fallen one. But woe to the solitary person! If that one should fall, there is no other to help.  So also, if two sleep together, they keep each other warm. How can one alone keep warm?  Where one alone may be overcome, two together can resist. A three-ply cord is not easily broken.” (Ecc.es 4:9-12)

With the birth of Christ however, family – like all other earthly elements – becomes sanctified as the Lord clutches it to himself elevating it to the level of something mysterious, an instrument of salvation.  The particular avenue of this elevation leads straight to the heart of God Himself. 

When Jesus is born he begins immediately revealing to us the fullness of God.  Existing as the Holy Trinity, God is a communion of loving persons eternally bound together: God the Father loves God the Son… God the Son loves God the Father… The love between them is so strong that it takes on its own personality in the Holy Spirit.  By entering the world in the context of a family, Christ draws our attention to this reality.  Family is no longer just an earthly reality.  It becomes a living, breathing icon pointing us to the image of the Trinitarian God Himself.  

The Trinity!  It doesn’t get higher than that.  Truly, there’s not much more the Church can do to exalt the family.  At the same time, the very height of our honor for the family also draws attention to its converse: our mourning when family doesn’t work.  Here, we find our second observation: We need to acknowledge, that family rarely looks -today- as it did in the manger 2,018 years ago.  Some families get started along what seems like a good path, and then break up.  Sometimes death or tragic circumstance creates great difficulty in families.  And sometimes, family is never even given a chance: parents walk out on kids, men and women have a hard time meeting the right person… you name it, there are all sorts of reasons the family process short-circuits today.  When this happens, it puts me in mind of that wonderful moment in the Gospel:

“When [Jesus] disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (Mk 6:34)

When you and I see families that have been so battered by the powers of the world, our hearts should be moved with pity.  All of us have the same yearnings for happiness, for fulfillment… and when a neighbor’s pursuit of those legitimate human goals is complicated by the world, our first response should be to aide our neighbors however we can.  I’ve seen so many examples of folks who, when the grace of (let’s call it “standard”) family life is challenged, find that grace anew through the extended family of the parish… a large group of persons bound together by love.  In the secular world too, we see this.  People find meaning through service of the community in government or civic organizations etc.

This brings us to our third observation: While I don’t know that we can truly say (if we’re using precise philosophical language) that there are many “kinds” of family.  I think we can say that there are various degrees of participation in the definition of family.  We’ve already noted one of them: the parish.  

It’s not quite what the Trinitarian definition of family points to in the manger scene, but it certainly participates in that mystery by extension.  Likewise, the many families I’ve encountered in the inner city where classical structure (mother, father, child) is missing, and replaced by grandmother, mother, children (often from different fathers).  This grandparent-centered structure is certainly a participation in the mystery of the Holy Family, but its members would be the first to tell you they wish it could’ve been otherwise, that the traditional structure of mother, father and child could’ve come together.  

Once I was approached by a couple.  I had just witnessed their marriage and they needed a favor.  Their tango instructor had died in a car accident, and the groom was asking if I would offer some words of comfort at a memorial service.  I was happy to… The instructor wasn’t of any particular religion.  His students came from backgrounds too numerous to count… and boy were they numerous.  This man, simply by being a great teacher had touched so many people.  They filled a local civic center hall for his memorial service.  They all knew, supported each other, and were there to comfort one another at the loss of a loved one.  Had you asked any of these folks, they would’ve affirmed in an instant that they were family to one another.  And in many ways they were right.  

But what guide do we have.  Surely we need more than merely the structure of traditional family if we’re going to talk about participation in its mystery.  Thankfully, St. Paul helps us out today in his Letter to the Colossians (3:12-21).  

Brothers and sisters:
Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another,
if one has a grievance against another;
as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.

And over all these put on love,
that is, the bond of perfection.

And let the peace of Christ control your hearts,
the peace into which you were also called in one body.

And be thankful.
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,
as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another,
singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs
with gratitude in your hearts to God.

He’s listing for us the virtues of family and reminding us to lift it all up to God, “over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.”  Insofar as we participate in these virtues, and come together in the “bond of perfection” we are engaging in some degree in the mystery of family. 

When it comes to preaching this in the world and to working with families, I think the Church faces many challenges of mis-perception from the outside world… and indeed from among her members.  

Far too often, Catholics fall into the old temptation (common to soooo many heresies) to adopt a strictly dualistic view: “It’s nuclear family or nothing!”  “If for some reason I can’t receive communion it must mean I’m out of the Church.”  “People are either good or bad.”  In most of Church life, there’s much more gray than these dualisms admit.  It’s not always easy to get that across in homilies, but one-on-one conversations with parishioners often allow for much deeper, more nuanced explorations of family situations.  

Outside the Church, the world usually applies this same dualistic vision to our teachings.  Lately though, another challenge has arisen.  One would think that our world would be happy to accept a Catholic understanding of the various degrees of family I’ve described.  But for popular culture it’s not enough.  The arbiters of culture seem to reject dualism (…Good…), but they also seem to reject what I’ve described.  They favor a sort of equal and universal celebration of every degree of family… or as they’d put it, “every type of family.”  The sincerity of each “family’s” belief in itself is the only criterion for its celebration.  

The challenge to this pan-familial celebration is that sometimes it celebrates as equal two things that are each other’s opposite.  A divorced family… a traditional married family… a polyamorous relationship… heterosexual families… homosexual families… open relationships… monogamy…all are to be treated the same even though they often outright contradict each other.  I’d propose that what society is exalting is not “family,” but rather sincerity, since that is the one common factor between the otherwise contradictory examples I’ve offered.  That’s another much more wide ranging philosophical discussion, for another time.  

For now, on this Feast of the Holy Family we’ll just wrap up noting how we’ve celebrated the heights to which family can ascend… We’ve grieved the depths to which it sometimes falls… and acknowledging the goods that can exist at every point in-between.  Pray for families!  Pray for them and support each other in seeking their many blessings wherever we find ourselves participating in this beautiful mystery.

Just Posted

On the homilies page (see above):

IV Sunday of Advent – Renewing our Worship by offering up our bodies… why the body matters to spiritual life.

Christmas – The unfinished work of building the manger: The Gospel of Christ vs. The Gospel of Caesar

Meditations in the Midst of Daily Life

advent week i – wednesday

Silence and Listening

Advent Week I – tuesday

The Sacred Act – How He Trusts Us!

In today’s Gospel, Jesus praises the Father:

“I give you praise, Father, Lord of heaven and earth,
for although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to the childlike.

And this is the crux of Fr. Guardini’s meditation on the nature of our sacred act.  Throughout natural history, man has responded to God action in the world.  In salvation history, more specifically, God takes initiative and invites man to build an altar of sacrifice after encountering him.  God has, throughout time, invited us to partake in covenants responding to him.  With the coming of Christ though, something changes.  The covenant tools he gives us, the sacraments, aren’t bound to a calendar date, but only to doing what we do in memory of him.  Jesus has given man the capacity to initiate a sacred act… He has made us, in the words of St. Paul, “stewards of the mysteries of God.” (I Cor 4).

Whether our role in these mysteries is as part of the ordained priesthood of the clergy or the royal priesthood of the faithful, what an awesome responsibility we have to engage in sacred actions well.  To use the words of the Second Vatican Council, we are called to engage in “full, active and conscious participation.” (“participatio actuoso”).  Now this does not mean being overly raucous or effusive in worship, but rather taking it seriously… engaging with our full selves, SEVEN DAYS-A-WEEK… since – after all – our sacred acts are not specifically bound by time any more…

Do I give worship my all?  Do I pray conscientiously, meditatively at home using Scripture and the lives of the saints to guide me?  Do I confess regularly to prepare myself for mass?  Do I attend mass fully engaged from my dress to my decorum to my attentive prayer and offering of the week’s work to the Lord?   Good questions as we engage in sacred action and renew our worship this Advent.

Advent Week I – Monday

Expectation as a starting point for renewing worship

Do I expect the Lord.  As Father Romano Guardini – a wonderful forerunner of the Second Vatican Council – points out in his excellent book Meditations Before Mass, expectation is a key component of worship.  Certainly, today’s Advent Scriptures bear this out (Is 2:1-5).  How often we hear Isaiah’s words, “In days to come…” or, “On that day…”. Throughout Advent, the prophets expect the coming of Jesus in time at Bethlehem.  We expect him in our prayer life, and in the sacraments.  BUT… do we look forward to and expect him at the end of our lives… at the end of time?  Jesus tells us the fullness of the Kingdom is coming… and that the Son of Man will return on that day, but do we really expect that?  The rapid fire Christian response is, “of course we do.”  But our lives don’t always bear this out.  

The first generation of Christians believed that Jesus would return in person, in their own lifetimes.  St. Paul’s letters testify to this imminent sense of expectation.  As time went on, our ancestors settled in for a longer haul.  Still, a deep sense of Jesus’ personal concern for us, and hope that he would be part of our future, deeply marked the experience of the early Church.  This sense was very much in display at the time of the Roman persecutions.  Only people who fully expect to see the Lord on the other side of death can readily walk into the arena and face the lions with hymns of praise.  Expectation was at the foundation of the Christian emotional experience when our ancestors worshipped.

As Fr. Guardini points out however, a subtle shift happened when Christianity became not only legal, but the official religion of the Empire after Constantine.  Suddenly, there was security… and the desperate need to look for Christ, the yearning to see him at the end of our lives and the end of time… it all began to cool.  To co-opt a contemporary ministry slogan: worship became a mater of daily maintenance instead of daily mission.  Going to mass became simply “what we do,” instead of a matter of life and death on which all hope rides.  

It’s a worthwhile question to explore: Do I expect Jesus… in my life? after my death? at the end of all time?  Looking to and renewing our worship this Advent can be a great way to check-in on this question, and begin to address is for the future.

Consider these words, the verses of the ancient Latin hymn for Monday Morning Prayer during Advent:

Hark, a herald voice is calling;
“Christ is nigh,” it seems to say;
“Cast away the dreams of darkness,
O ye children of the day.”

Startled at the solemn warning,
Let the earth-bound soul arise;
Christ, her sun, all sloth dispelling,

Shines upon the morning skies.

Lo, the Lamb, so long expected,
Comes with pardon down from heaven;

Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
One and all to be forgiven.

So when next he comes with glory,
Wrapping all the earth in fear,
May he then as our defender
On the clouds of heaven appear.

Honour, glory, virtue, merit,
To the Father and the Son,
With the co-eternal Spirit,
While eternal ages run.

Amen.

Receptivity: The Beginning of Worship

 

During the season of Advent, the Church prepares to worship the Christ Child in the manger with Mary, Joseph and the shepherds.  It’s fitting then that the Church traditionally turns an eye toward her worship practices during this holy season.  And I’d propose, as a start to our considerations, that worship begins with receptivity.

On our own, human beings don’t have much that God wants.  Throughout the Psalms the Lord reminds us that he made everything, so our earthly activities -unto themselves- don’t mean much.  The meaningful gift that we give to God in sacred worship must come from him, grow to perfection in us under his guidance and then be rendered back to him as a gift.  Put another way, in the words of St. John, “The Love of God consists in this, not that we have loved him, but that he loved us first and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” (I Jn. 4:10).

Certainly, receptivity marks Advent in a particular way.  On the coming feast of the Immaculate Conception, we recognize the gift of Christ received by Mary in anticipation of what he would do for us.  Throughout this month we’ll think about how Mary received the Word, the Son into her womb.  We might even hear a bit about Elizabeth and Zechariah who received John the Baptist in a miraculous conception during Elizabeth’s old age.  Aside from these births unto themselves, we also see in these figures people who were receptive of God’s plan, God’s timeline rather than their own.  …And by that receptivity they launched the New Covenant.

Our Lord himself, though he needed nothing, received loving kindness from God his Father all those times he “went off to a lonely place to pray.”  Receiving and doing the Father’s will was the Lord’s sustenance (Jn 4:34).  And as if to highlight this reality by contrast, at the height of his earthly ministry, the Passion, one of the most striking facets of the experience is precisely that Christ seemed to have lost all perception of the Father’s consolations, experiencing – as St. John of the Cross would name it – a dark night of the soul on the Cross.

Receptivity is the beginning of worship!

But here’s the challenge: Receptivity demands of us, has built into it, vulnerability.  In today’s first (EF) reading from Romans, St. Paul advises us to rise up and put on the armor of light (Rm 13:12).  He doesn’t tell us to put on the armor of steel or of silver, but of light.  What’s that supposed to do for us?  The armor of light is our ticket to Resurrection.  It means, like Jesus, we are called to be receptive to God’s grace… and to the nails, and to the thorns… and to the lance in our side.  Like Christ though, these wounds don’t have to stop us.  Resurrection isn’t just for the end of time.  We experience little deaths through life… we also experience little resurrections.  And with each new experience of the Cross, our confidence grows in the next resurrection… so that one day we’ll be ready to face physical death itself.  But we must let our hearts be vulnerable.  There’s the rub…

Human hearts, when wounded, tend to get hard, or “stony,” as the Gospel says.  Stony hearts are ok at fending off more wounds, but they never let in healing… and they never leave us open to wonderful new possibilities.  Overtime they end up hurting us more than protecting us.  We’ve all been there.  AND… thanks be to God , we have wonderful examples of the kind of hearts God wants for us: The Immaculate Heart of Mary, pierced by seven swords; and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, aflame with love, crowned with thorns.

In my own life I’ve experienced both a stony heart and a fleshy one.  Let me tell you, much as it hurts sometimes, the fleshy heart is better because it’s alive… it’s moving forward, pushing me on pilgrimage toward heaven.

So this first week of Advent, put a special emphasis on receptivity.  It asks a lot of us, but it promises a hundredfold reward.  Blessed Advent everyone!

The Thanks We Fear to Give

Thanksgiving was wonderful in DC!  One of the things I loved most this year was marveling at how the city empties out.  Walking home from dinner last night I past huge apartment buildings, normally packed with young adults, windows twinkling with signs of life… but last night almost every window was flat black.  The rare exceptions, those who stayed in town for the holidays, stood out like lonely sentinels keeping vigil over the quiet street.

Amidst all of my considerations about gratitude I thought about writing to some folks who’ve helped out a lot over the last few months here at the parish… and then a strange thought occurred to me, “What might happen next?”  I’m usually fairly effusive in my thanks, never more so than when I write to someone… and it’s an unfortunate sign of the times that the desire to express gratitude is sometimes squelched by the need to [potentially] cover your back.

It’s not just gratitude, actually… there’s all sorts of silences that have begun to pop up in Church life.  When a colleague… or even more so, a superior… asks me, “How are things going?” a flat “OK” or “Fine I suppose.” is sometimes the best I can manage… not because it’s actually how I feel, but because the neutral response can’t come back to haunt me later.  Right?  I mean when you answer, “Oh things are going great… couldn’t be better!” and then something blows up the reply comes back, “but Father we thought everything was just dandy and now this…”  And so I (and many priests I know) limit ourselves and our official correspondences as much as possible.

It’s painful on a number of fronts, mostly summarized in this: Limiting communication means limiting the good that may come, even as you limit liability.  And there it is… the word that has so come to dominate Church life, “liability.”  Priests are treated as potential liabilities instead of treasured resources… conversations with parishioners always have, “how could this come back to bight me?” hanging over them… not only from the chancery but from the parishioner himself/herself… So we adopt protective measures… insurance policies, ostensibly to protect the Church, ourselves, you name it… The irony is, we end up being less Church-like and more corporate.  Isn’t that one of the many overarching concerns about the deliberations of our leaders lately? Stuck inside our newly agreed upon silence, one begins to feel its limits more and more… its dehumanizing.

Recently I’ve been going back and forth over leaving the social media platform Twitter.  I’ve always wanted to be part of the positive digital evangelization, but there’s just so much negativity… and often so unfounded.  I’ve seen good people derided and squelched on Twitter… I’ve seen very dangerous and unorthodox people celebrated on all sides of all issues.  The limits of Twitter -as a medium- are something akin to the unhealthy silence I mused on above.  There’s another kind of silence: that of the official/public person.  As a priest I try to be VERY reserved on Twitter because of my official and public position in the Church… meanwhile I watch other priests and even employees of my own local Church spout off on all sorts of things… seemingly without any consequence… Is there a level playing field to be had?  The silence hurts.  It stands in stark contrast to the beautiful affirming silence Cardinal Sarah speaks about in his book, “The Power of Silence”.

Should I stay on social media?  If I do, should I be more vocal…? less?  A devil-may-care attitude has never really been my thing… but …well, I don’t know.  But it strikes me that when the administrative culture of the Church (under which I include not only the actual governance but also how we communicate) gets to a place where I am nervous about being grateful… that’s a problem.  And when good Catholics lambast each other online… that’s a problem too.  More questions than answers today I’m afraid.  But one mustn’t be afraid to confront them with eyes of faith.

Sometimes the sidelines are more interesting…

Earlier today I visited the National Gallery of art.  I took in a beautiful special exhibition, “The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy“.

Chiaroscuro is a printing technique utilizing wooden blocks, each of which carries the etching for part of a picture, and the colored ink that belongs to that portion of the picture.  When the block prints are layered one over the other, you end up with a complete image.  For the world of renaissance art this [then] new technique represented a huge leap in the ability to multiply images and sell them… or send them to far off markets.  What strikes me, however, is this art form’s ability to convey such pathos.

Take for example this Deposition From the Cross, printed by Ugo Carpi, a father of the technique.  The limp body of Christ, the strained bend of the figure over the Cross’ left arm… To convey such motion and emotion by carving in wood.  And to represent such depth through the application of successive printing blocks… It blows me away.

What’s equally moving about these pieces is how many “moments” they convey; not just the principal subject matter but the ancillary stories.  In the “Deposition,” you could spend an hour just meditating on the women ministering to Mary in her need (see detail below).

In a carving, no easy feat by itself, one can perhaps expect more motion… sculpture -after all- utilizes three dimensions.  In fact, elsewhere in the gallery I found this piece… same subject matter:

Monnot, “The Virgin Mary Swooning Over the Dead Body of Christ”
Monnot, -Detail-

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the “Healing of The Man at The Beautiful Gate” (Acts 3) you can see the surprise and excitement in the man as Peter and John restore him:

Likewise in the “Catching the Draught of Fish”(Lk 5)… the nets are heavy, the boats lie low in the water and you can almost hear Peter cry out, “Depart from me Lord for I am a sinful man!” (5:8)… It wouldn’t be the last time he needed to say it.

Just amazing… but back to the main theme: side themes…

Carpi, “Death of Ananias”

Several other prints had important side stories.  In the “Death of Ananias” (Acts 5) The Apostles stand in judgment over Ananias, who having lied to the Holy Spirit out his generosity (or lack thereof) was struck dead.  Certainly a cautionary tale about administrative life in the Church… but look at what’s going on at the right.

Carpi, -Detail-

While the Apostles govern, the other disciples are busy handing out charity to those in need.  Both are happening at the same time.

In “Martyrdom of Two Saints,” by Parmigianino, the swirling motion of the swords and the soldier’s cloak focus us on the main them, framing out the martyrs-to-be, but check out the juxtaposition of the Angel vs. the Imperial Eagle at the top: angel totally wins!  It’s a beautiful exercise to consider, “What are the side characters talking about among themselves?” Are there conversions about to happen among them because of the martyrs’ witness?

In life, there’s usually more going on than initially meets the eye.  Taking a contemplative moment to see things through eyes of faith can reveal so much more!  At the moment, the picture of the American Church would appear to be chaos, a horrific swirl of bad news and sadness.  But look to the side stories, especially in your own parishes.

Today a young man in my community gave thanks to God for helping him in time of deep mourning.  Another parishioner took a moment of pause in the midst of the midterms and had an epiphany about holy detachment.  A woman took special time out to pray for her grandson. Three simple but beautiful actions of grace… and they’re just what I heard about on my day off!  Is our central frame a mess… YES!  But it’s hardly the whole story.  Look to the sidelines!!