“Otherwise God’s name will be ill spoken of…”

The end of this week brings us to the end of I Timothy, Paul’s beautiful and practical letter to one of his successors, St. Timothy, about how to be a bishop.  Chapter 6 picks up on some themes I considered two posts ago from Philippians 4:

I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.  I can do all things in him who strengthens me.

 But I Tim 6 touches on these themes in a way that may not makes us very comfortable.

Those who are bound to slavery must treat their masters as entitled to all respect; otherwise God’s name and our doctrine will be ill spoken of.

Is this a tacit endorsement of slavery?  By no means… Ironically, it’s actually Paul and the early Christian community laying hold to true freedom!  

Paul knows that whether the issue is slavery, food, physical health, persecution… whatever, wide open… there will always be something making this world a valley of tears.  In the end it must be so.  Even if we built a perfect city on earth, there would still be death.  And if that basic axiom of science, “All living things die,” is to be believed, then the larger issue is, “how do we deal with death?”  And that is what Christian doctrine is all about.  That is why Paul admonishes slaves to treat their masters with respect: because in their given state of life, however horrible it may be, that is the ultimate sacrifice and thus the one worthy of being joined to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, the path to true eternal freedom in heaven.  Paul speaks to his heavenward orientation a little further on.  He warns us about false preachers who puff themselves up, using “speculation and controversy”  and lose track of the truth (cf I Tim 6:3-5).  Religion, they think, will provide them with a living.  And indeed, religion is ample provision for life, though no more than a bare sufficiency goes with it.” (I Tim 6:6-7).  That distinction between making “a living,” (read “salary”) and providing for “life,” (read: “the existence of the soul”) is what it’s all about.

If Jesus is indeed, the Risen Lord… and he is… and if that’s is the kernel of what he came to achieve for us: Resurrection.  Then whatever our state in life (no more Jew or Gentile, no more slave and freeman, no more male and female; you are all one person in Christ Jesus Gal. 3:28), we are called to embrace total sacrifice with him, “otherwise God’s name and our doctrine will be ill spoken of.”  Or, put another way: we will have made a liar of God… Material circumstances, the world, the saeculum, will have won; and our souls, and the souls of many others, will fall for lack of belief in his Hope.  Preferisco Paradiso!

Which people will I be part of today?

Washington has been abuzz this week with talk of the MLB Playoffs.  Our Nationals played, and lost, against the Chicago Cubs.  It was a fine series by any account, and there’s no shame losing in game five.  All the adversarial talk that has come up… all the “Us vs. Them” conversations… and of course the larger context of, “Is DC as championship team?”… All of this comes to mind as I read the first reading for today’s mass.  It’s from the first two chapters of the Book of Joel.  As a plague of locusts ravages the Kingdom of Judah, Joel sees in their arrival portents of a larger struggle: the end of the world.  A brief excerpt from Chapter 2 follows:

Blow the horn in Zion, sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming! Yes, it approaches, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of thick clouds! Like dawn spreading over the mountains, a vast and mighty army! Nothing like it has ever happened in ages past, nor will the future hold anything like it, even to the most distant generations.

What struck me was the simile at the end, “Like dawn spreading over the mountains, a vast and mighty army.”  Now, that’s the Lectionary translation.  The New American Bible says, “a mighty people,” closer to the Latin, “populus multus et fortis.”  Who are these people?

Normally when we read prophecy, we associate ourselves with the prophet’s audience; a natural association given we are listening to him.  But… there’s nothing to say we can’t change… or better yet, convert.  Indeed, isn’t that what every prophet dreams of: that his listeners should listen well and convert?  Will we be part of the conquered, destroyed, judged, people on whom this “populus multus et fortis” marches like the dawn?  Or will we be on God’s side today?  

I asked the same question in prayer about two weeks ago when the Church was listening to the words of another prophet, Ezekiel… in the Office of Readings I think, it was… the prophet warns the wicked shepherds of Israel about their selfish neglect of the sheep.  Paralleled by St. Augustine’s Sermon on Pastors warning the priests of the Church, it’s hard to read such prophecies, such warnings and not feel accused.  To be sure, a priest, a shepherd has to tend his flock… must always grow in that vocation… But then I read Ez. 34:11-12 “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will look after my sheep.  As a shepherd tends his flock when he finds himself among his scattered sheep, so will I tend my sheep.”  On the one hand I am a shepherd, but I’m also one of God’s sheep… and he promises to support me, care for me, just as much as any of the rest.  AND… if I recommit myself to being one of his sheep, maybe, just maybe he’ll give me what I need to be a better shepherd.

Reading the Old Testament prophets, it’s worthwhile to ask the question, “Which people will I be part of today?”

Paradise and the missing verses

Gospel simplicity and poverty have been on my mind lately.  A few significant expenses in September reduced our operating account to a level that… well, let’s just say it doesn’t inspire much confidence.  Over and over, in conversations with the parish accountant, both of us utter the refrain, “There’s really not much more we can cut.”  Meanwhile, a parish employee has indicated a need to step back from work for a time, throwing the delicate balance of our rectory’s functioning into a degree of uncertainty. It’ll sound strange, but the thing that worries me the most about this employee’s absence is, “who will be here to receive UPS packages.  It may seem odd, but sometimes these are essential items, documents etc. that require signatures lest they go back to their senders.  On how little can a modern parish function?  There are some good things beginning to happen here: the growth of our outreach to the poor, students in our school are doing well, as it enrollment… so much potential that, with just a little more help might come to great fruition.  

Lord, is this a test?  Not just of me your poor servant, but of our community… of the very concept of trusting in you, rather than in our own plans??  …and yet Lord, you have made us cooperators in your own plans.  Surely our thoughts and input must figure in to the mix somewhere?!?!

Preparing for Sunday’s masses (28th week, Ordinary Time) I read from Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20.  I wondered what the missing verses said.  Here is the whole quotation, with verses 15-18 included in italics:

I know indeed how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.  I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.  Still, it was kind of you to share in my distress.  You Philippians indeed know that at the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, not a single church shared with me in an account of giving and receiving, except you alone.  For even when I was at Thessalonica you sent me something for my needs, not only once but more than once.  It is not that I am eager for the gift; rather, I am eager for the profit that accrues to your account.  I have received full payment and I abound. I am very well supplied because of what I received from you through Epaphroditus, “a fragrant aroma,” an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God.  My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.  To our God and Father, glory forever and ever. Amen.
For me, this morning, the missing verses do a few things.  First, they intensify the sense of Paul’s total reliance on and confidence in God.  Second, these verses educate us all about what generosity is all about… It’s about taking part in making an “acceptable sacrifice to God,” that, “accrues,” as Paul says, to our benefit in heaven.  
Whether it’s my own people giving, or a new revenue stream/donor being found, today’s missing verses remind me that ultimately, keeping our parish up and running (in the traditional sense) is only a means to a larger end: getting to heaven.  And if those revenues don’t materialize, and I need to do with less staff, less AC/Heat in the Rectory, or whatever the case may be be, then that too will become a gift, a “fragrant aroma,” acceptable to God for the salvation of parishioners’ souls… and maybe even my own.  

So Lord, it’s all in your hands.  And we forsake all other possible destinations and stops along the way, preferring a direct road to heaven itself.  “Preferisco paradiso.”

Morning Prayer Musings

Some thoughts from morning prayer before the Blessed Sacrament today…

“O praise the Lord, Jerusalem!  Zion, praise your God!  He has strengthened the bars of your gates, he has blessed the children within you.  He has established peace on your borders, he feeds you with finest wheat.  He sends out his word to the earth and swiftly runs his command.” (Ps. 147:12-ff)

Lord, what is a parish but this: a place of your presence and praise… A place where your priests and people set up firm boundaries through teaching and prudence so that the children within may indeed be blessed and fed with finest wheat before bringing your words and commands to all the earth.  Lord, help our parish to be that for SE DC today and always.

Jesus reconciles “both of us to God in one body through his cross which put [our] enmity to death.” (Cf. Eph. 2:13-16)

Lord, in the identity of your Church as a place of healing for all, divisions fade.  Your medicine is the Cross that we all need to accept… not just our crosses, which can inspire continued division, but YOUR cross, uniquely present to us in the Mass.   …and because, Lord, our healing is never complete until we reach heaven, ALL must be humble helping each other to look up and see you raised on that tree… “made sin” that we might be made whole (Cf. II Cor 5:21).  In that humility… the humility of our common neediness, the medicine of your cross: penance, virtue, doctrine… becomes a sweetness, a cause for joy as the way to the more glorious self in the Resurrection.  
Amen.

Following Mary, Martyr of Charity

Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote – of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin – “It is a pious belief that she died from love. This alone could kill that body. It was a contest between body and soul. The body so strong, the soul so desirous to see God.” If in this month of August we want to follow Mary’s example all the way into heaven, how great it is for us to consider her identity as one killed by love… a martyr to Charity. Most of us will never be asked to offer up a martyr’s gift by blood, but like our Lady, we can so give ourselves over to loving Christ that one day, when God allows it, our body will yield to our soul’s desire to be with him forever; and our journey to him will be swift. How do we do it?

Let’s consider three moments from Mary’s life: The Annunciation, The Visitation, the Way of the Cross.

At the Annunciation we know that Mary first and foremost received the Love of God, both in his words and in his Word. “Hail full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women… you have found favor in the sight of God. And behold, you shall conceive in the womb and bear a son, and shall call him Jesus.” (Lk 1:28-ff) As St. John tells us, “the love of God consists in this, not that we have loved him, but that he loved us first.” (I Jn 4:10). And having received that love, having perceived it, she contemplated it, “she cast about in her mind what she was to make of such a greeting.” (Lk 1:29). Contemplation of the love received is always a first step in the Christian life because, as St. Jean Vianney tells us, “we can love what we have perceived.”  

Having received the Love of the Father in the Spirit, and having contemplated that Love, Mary decides how to reply to it in the Visitation. Her response is two-fold: first, she sets off to the hill country to serve her cousin in need (Elizabeth) (Lk 1:39-ff). It’s at this point that she utters Scripture’s most beautiful hymn of praise, the Magnificat. It’s the song of a young woman’s love: excited, exultant… and like all young love, it is desirous. Service, sharing what God has done for us, and fanning the flames of desirous love; I see this so beautifully on display in our high school and college campus ministries. When young people begin to contemplate the Lord just a little bit, they want to jump up and serve him in their neighbors… and as they do, as I hear their laughter, their praise at Eucharistic Adoration, their trust in confession/counsel, what I hear is an every-day form of the Magnificat. Like Mary, they run after God, they pursue him with ever greater intensity… sometimes almost recklessly… but always in love.

Finally we come to the Way of the Cross. All Christian experience must lead through the Cross, and Mary’s was no different. No longer an excited teen, Our Lady’s love, like the rest of her, has matured. The desire for God is still there, but strong, focused, persevering… and thank God for that mature love. This love is a love of choice, not convenience. As she watches her son take the abuse of the crowds, Mary feels every blow, winces at every mockery, weeps with every drop of blood that he leaves on the road. In an experience totally devoid of consolation, like Christ, she chooses to keep on loving… chooses to believe that the source of her love is still there, supplying her heart with the grace to go forward and attend Jesus in all things.  

In the long years that followed, Mary’s love, proven to the utmost, would be a strong support to the nascent Church and the Apostles… and one day, when the Lord allowed, the fruits of her contemplation, desire, and gift were finally realized. She passed on, directly into the glory of the Father who had loved her first and the Son she so desired to see again.  

Take time each day to perceive and contemplate God’s love for you… Fan the flames of that love by sharing its story with others and serving them… And choose each day no matter what to persevere. We are all capable of becoming martyr’s to Charity and sharing in Mary’s eternal reward. We return to where we began, Newman’s reflection:

“It was surely fitting then, it was becoming, that she should be taken up into heaven and not lie in the grave till Christ’s second coming, who had passed a life of sanctity and of miracle such as hers… Who can conceive that God should so repay the debt, which he condescended to owe his mother, for the elements of his human body, as to allow the flesh and blood from which it was taken to molder in the grave?”

Lord, my house is sinking.  What am I to do?

So… my Rectory is sinking. Well, not the whole house actually, just one corner of it. Nothing quite so dramatic as say… the sinking of Venice, mind you. That kind of drama would at least add an aesthetic quality to the whole experience. No my situation is much more banal. It seems that for several years an unnoticed downspout clog has caused water to collect under the corner of the Rectory, softening the soil. As Jesus himself pointed out, houses don’t do well when not built on solid rock. Hence, the half inch crack in my basement foundation wall, and the gentle (but menacing) bowing of a steel I-beam running under the length of the Rectory.  
I’m neither an architect, nor an engineer… the experts with whom I’ve spoken tell me the situation needs to be addressed, but it’s safe… for now. That last little phrase, “for now” runs through their assurance like a half-inch foundation crack… tiny, but menacing.

The day after the engineer’s visit, I went downtown to check in with the Finance Office at the Chancery (i.e. “local church headquarters”). I wanted to review the coming year’s budget with the powers that be and make sure they are well aware of this developing engineering situation… Anytime the word “engineering” is involved, count on the solution being expensive. And the thing is, we don’t have the money. Few parishes do these days and mine is among the tiniest of them. We get by remarkably well – all things considered – but slight upsets threaten disaster.   

Whether it’s little old me as Administrator of this lovely parish, or the whole Church trying to survive in the circumstances of the world… or you in the drama of daily life… we are, all of us, in a boat that constantly threatens to take on water (c.f. Mk. 4:35-41). Our situation isn’t actually that unusual, if you think about it… Human beings are always in a fragile state. A tiny clot in our blood can kill. The smallest fraying of the thinnest membrane in our hearts can mean death. A priest from Northern Nigeria told me last year that -there- people fear to sleep…because they never know when a team of militants may come to burn their church and village to the ground. Even in peaceful Edens like central Italy, one never knows when an earthquake may strike. So really, fragility shouldn’t shock us.

Prayer over the last two days reminds me of what Jesus told the Apostles in the boat that stormy night, “Why are you faint hearted? Have you so little faith?” In today’s morning prayer we read from Psalm 57, “in you my soul has taken refuge till the storms of destruction pass by.” and later, “They laid a snare in my path… but fell in it themselves.” The Divine Author speaks in the indicative… He is making a statement, confident. These surges of worry, that are -ultimately- about our lack of control don’t have to entrap us… We are safe in God’s hand… certainly no worse off than people anywhere in the world. In his book, “The Power of Silence,” Cardinal Sarah writes beautifully about how we tend to drag the noise of the world (i.e. these worries) into our prayer life, but they are only surface noise… they need not distract us from the grand silence of God which can claim and renew our souls. “Claim me once more as your own, Lord, and have mercy on me.” This is the Church’s confident refrain (c.f. Evening Prayer).  

Lord, remind me today that I… and ‘you-and-I’ are more than the mere circumstances of daily work, daily responsibilities…Remind me Lord that such circumstance, such noise doesn’t need to disturb the ever developing Grand Silence in which you are my refuge. “The light from on high shall break upon us…to guide our feet in the way of peace.” (Lk 1:68-79). Amen.

Read the Psalms: God loves you EVERY day!

I’m writing from my little house chapel.  When I first sat down, my mind was anything but focused.  I’m traveling later in the day… need to pack, meet with some facilities management folks, say two masses and about a dozen other things before hacking my way up the BW Parkway to fly to my niece’s baptism.  So, yes… distracted.  Unto itself, that wasn’t a problem.  BUT… in the midst of that distracted state thoughts of my own foolishness, sinfulness, inadequacy all started flooding my consciousness, and this distinct phrase, “You not worthy to pray this morning.”  Forcing myself, I opened the psalms for Morning Prayer and began to read slowly aloud.  By the time my prayer concluded, I felt so much better.

The Psalms of the Divine Office go on day in and day out.  No matter how we feel, no matter what we have done or failed to do.  The constancy of their praise, of their rejoicing in the Lord reminds us that it’s really not about us.  Mother Angelica once said, “Do you know that God sees everything that you do?  .. and he loves you and wants you to be happy.”  Even the greatest saint is, unto him/herself unworthy of prayer, praise, happiness and glory.  That’s not the point… HE, the Father, loves us anyway and invites us to rejoice in his love and care.  

Read the Psalms… follow the Divine Office day in and day out… it’ll put your focus back on the Lord.  And should you ever hear a little voice saying, “You’re not worthy to pray this morning.”  Reply back simply, “You’re right, but it’s not about me.”

A Prayer for the Start of Lent

O Jesus, my Saviour and my Lord,

during this Lent, I want to unite myself to you,

praying and fasting in the desert, 

to you who suffered and humbled yourself for me.

By your solitude and your silence,
detach me from the things of this world and draw me to yourself.

By your hunger and your sacrifices,
open me to your grace and enlarge my desire for you.

By your temptations and your sufferings,

fortify me in my struggles.

By your return to public life, teach me to live with you and in you, so that amidst the world and its trials, filled with you and your life,

I may shine only with you and your joy.

Amen.
Pierre Cardinal Berulle

Founder of the French Oratory. 

Epiphanies Big and Small and in Every Age

 

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Today, the Church in the US marks Epiphany, that beautiful day when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem to adore the Infant Lord.  Libraries of books could (and have) been written expounding on the meaning of the event.  For myself, one dimension sticks out this year: Epiphany is a sign on earth that points us to the heavens.  ‘makes sense, really for isn’t that what the ministry of Jesus was all about?  He came as a man to conduct men to the heavens.  Such is also the meaning of each of the miracles.  In Gospel Greek, the “miracles,” were called “semeia,” “signs” in English… and a sign never points to itself, it points to a destination yet to be reached… The sign keeps us going on the way.  We’ve encountered a number of these signs in the readings lately.

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Detail from the Sanctuary of St. Francis Xavier Parish (Photo by Rev. James Bradley)

Earlier in the week John the Baptist pointed Andrew to Jesus, “Behold the Lamb of God.”  Andrew then leads Peter to Christ.  Together Andrew and Peter lead Nathaniel.  Each becomes a sign pointing to Jesus… and Jesus points us to the Father in Heaven.  Friday we read about the Baptism of the Lord, when the Father and the Spirit testified to the Son, “You are my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased.”  Saturday, Jesus testifies to himself by performing his first miracle at Cana.  So many signs, all telling us, “There is something more to this world than meets the eye.  Keep going.”

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St. Francis Xavier Parish, DC

I’ve arrived at my new parish assignment, St. Francis Xavier Parish in Southeast DC.  The first three days have been VERY full, exhausting actually.  Priests have to move into wholly new surroundings, learn the lights, locks and locations of a new property all while shepherding the life of that new place forward without missing a step.  The devil tempted me to despair at several points.  Before arriving I found out that the music program had been cut.  The day I arrived I discovered that my 3-day-a-week volunteer secretary had decided to retire, the organ doesn’t turn on and… well, you get the idea.

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Sanctuary of St. Francis Xavier Parish, DC (Photo by Rev. James Bradley)

I prayed in chapel first for music.  The Church teaches that music is a constitutive part of the mass… it’s not really an option.  “Lord,” I said, “you want music at your mass.  Help me.”  and he did!  My friend Luca came forward and announced out of nowhere that he is a classically trained organist / pianist.  “Lord,” I said, “I need an electrician to make the organ work.” Sure enough, a parishioner came forward in conversation and revealed that his brother is an electrician!  He’ll be here Tuesday.  Finally, I asked the Lord for someone to answer the phones in the office, and sure enough, a woman presented herself to volunteer hours at the desk.  Finally, just today, I woke up without a voice… a developing sore throat turned into laryngitis just in time for my first Sunday mass.  kneeling before the altar, I begged the Lord to make mass happen… and wouldn’t you know it… I got to my chair, opened my mouth and found my voice again!  It promptly cut out again after the last mass.

Small signs, perhaps, but for me they’ve done the trick… they’ve kept me walking, sacrificing on the way to heaven.  Another thing about these Epiphany signposts is that they tell us “Jesus is here, not there”  In a unique way, Christ is fully present in the Catholic Church.  That’s a message worth sharing with others.  That’s truly Good News.  There are so many in my new parish who need the hope of that message, who need an epiphany.  So I’m inviting all of the parishioners to work toward that goal… to announce the Good News to everyone we know… but particularly to all the homes of our neighborhood.  How we do that will be a subject of discernment over the coming months, but the epiphanies I’ve received so far are enough to convince me that we can do it together in Christ.  Happy Epiphany!

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Stained Glass Window of St. Jean Vianney, St. Francis Xavier Parish, DC (Photo by Rev. James Bradley)