Power is Made Perfect in Weakness… The Beauty of Rome Crucified

Yesterday I celebrated Sunday mass for the first time at St. Mary Mother of God in DC.  It was a great day… with WAY too much to unpack in one blog post, but I’ll offer one reflection.  It my first Sunday celebrating mass in the Extraordinary Form (EF)… that is, the mass as experienced before the Second Vatican Council.  Donning the vestments, whispering the Latin prayers, inhabiting ageless silence, I was reminded of a line from Fellini’s Dolce Vita, when a church musician speaks of the “ancient voice that we’ve forgotten.”  What follows are some thoughts integrating readings from both the EF and Ordinary Form (OF) masses I celebrated.

In this week’s OF Sunday readings, St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that “power is made perfect in weakness.”  He’s referring to the experience of suffering under a constant “thorn in the flesh.”  All of us have them; sometimes they are easily removed, sometimes these problems become constant life challenges… But Paul discovers what we are all called to: acceptance of our mortality.  Be it a habit hard to break, or an annoying neighbor, or the ultimate thorn, death itself, Christians are called to live in the real world… to embrace their weak humanity and hand it all over to Jesus for resurrection grace.  

In the EF readings, Paul speaks to the Romans of slavery to sin… which may free us from the rigors of justice, but gains us only pain and death… vs. slavery to justice, whose fruits are eternal life.  I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to propose that Paul’s words can also refer to the things we love/value.  When we are immature, we want freedom from rules and constraints.  We love the easy win, instant gratification.  Over time, however, we find that these fruits quickly spoil in our hands.  Hopefully, our taste develops such that we appreciate the fruits of hard work and self-sacrifice instead of easy gains and self-service.  The more we love those quality fruits, the more happily we will enslave ourselves to their prerequisites, including justice.   Power, happiness, true satisfaction is made perfect in weakness, self-gift, sacrifice.  

With regards to practice, we can look at this lesson at a few levels, global, local and individual.  

Globally, the “power is made perfect in weakness,” argument played itself out beautifully in the history of ancient Rome, the history of the Church.  Rome was a great power, to be sure.  The cry we all remember from Gladiator, “Roma victa!” (Victory for Rome!) is appealing.  Who could fail to be impressed: in her might, Rome unified the entire Mediterranean world (and more) for nearly a thousand years.  No one’s managed it since.  But impressed by her own achievements, Rome changed over time.  Victories once driven by commitment to philosophy, public service and divine worship became self-serving and self-referential.  By the Imperial period (44BC – AD476), every Roman town had at its center a statue of Divine Rome.  The city had become so self-referential that she deified herself!  This is the Rome that ultimately fell.  Her only currencies were power and earthly achievement, each only as strong as the mortal beings wielding them.  But a new Rome would rise, Christian Rome whose motto would not be “Rome Victorious,” but “Rome crucified” because her builders recognized that “power is made perfect in weakness.”

Today, I’m aware that the Church observes the Memorial of St. Augustine Zhao Rong and his companions, martyred by another Empire, China, in 1815.  Today, like Rome, China has become very self-impressed… and perhaps reasonably so, but can the achievements of atheistic communism – ironically now fused with capitalist consumerism – stand up to death?  They can only last as long as coercive strength is applied to the human spirit… and that can’t last forever.  

More locally, I look down 5th Street NW to the dome of the National Gallery, and across the rooftops to Judiciary Square.  DC’s Classically inspired architecture strives to make her a new Rome.  It’s worth noting that the Founders were huge fans of the literature of the Republic… the great legends of communal service set to paper by Livy, Virgil and Cicero… Merging those ideals of civic identity and service to their own Christian background they built Washington, and by extension the U.S. But are those still our guiding principles?  On the right, slogans like “Make American Great Again,” tempt us toward self-aggrandizement and selfishness.  On the left hyper-individualism, and the exaltation of personal pleasure over all else likewise threatens to pull us apart.  Nations rise and fall, personal pleasures fade and sour over time… By their fruits you will know them: the fruits of slavery to sin are death, the fruits of slavery to justice are eternal life… Power is made perfect in weakness.

At an individual level, I’d obviously say that I want to be like St. Paul, I want to be part of Rome crucified instead of Rome victorious… I prefer paradise!  But living it… that’s another very mixed matter…  

Lord, I want to give you all!  But what if you ask for more than I was expecting?  To further complicate things, Lord, which would you prefer: a brief blaze of sacrificial glory? Or a lifelong slow burn?  Your saints seem to fall on both sides… Lord, I know you want me to carefully discern spirits, to live and love prudently… or am I using virtues like prudence as an excuse for my own cowardice and selfishness?  As so often seems to be the case, Lord… help!  Whatever my own limits, Jesus I trust in you.  Amen.”

Divine Physics, St. John the Baptist, St. Philip and the source of real Fortitude

Some weeks ago, I attended a great seminar on evangelization in the present cultural moment.  The Speaker used a phrase that really stuck in my mind, “divine / spiritual physics.”  The idea is that because God has placed certain systems in place in Creation… and because he is always faithful to his own Word, there is a divine physics in place to which we are subject (as created beings), and to which God voluntarily subjects himself in fidelity to his own Word.  So, for example, God gave us free will.  We must live with the consequences of that… and so does he (albeit by his own choice).  God does not enslave us.  To do so would go against the divine physics of Creation.  

Often enough, I think we focus on the negative (for lack of a better word) consequences of divine physics: “Why did my relative get cancer?”  “Why did disease break out in that village?”  “Earthquakes… really God??”  Each of these things is a consequence of humanity introducing sin into Creation.  They’re not God’s fault any more than it’s his fault I can’t breathe under water… It’s just the way things are.

There is however a more positive approach to divine/spiritual physics.  These laws of Creation establish an objectivity… a floor on which we can stand… something we can lean on with absolute certainty throughout life.  Consider the words of Jeremiah at tonight’s mass for the Vigil of the Nativity of John the Baptist:

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I dedicated you,
a prophet to the nations I appointed you.

“Ah, Lord GOD!” I said,
“I know not how to speak; I am too young.”
But the LORD answered me,
Say not, “I am too young.”
To whomever I send you, you shall go;
whatever I command you, you shall speak.
Have no fear before them,
because I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.
(cf Jer. 1:4-10)

The would-be prophet makes a reasonable argument… the same one Moses made in fact… “I’m not good a public speaking; and you want me for your Prophet?”  Jeremiah was forgetting about divine physics.  Eloquent or not, it’s not about him… or you… or me.  God’s plan is about God’s will, not ours.  Relying on this, Jeremiah goes on to become not only a prophet, but one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament.  

Celebrating his nativity, it’s appropriate to look to the Baptist’s parents.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were unable to conceive a child.  Nonetheless they remained faithful to their relationship with the Lord.  God rewarded them, sending them not only a son, not only a miracle, but a son who would be the greatest of the Prophets and point the way to Jesus himself!  Keeping it all about God became their strength.  John, their son, was no different.  Whether it was his ascetic life in the desert, his preaching repentance, or his courageous witness in the court of Herod (cf Mt. 14) John was able to let go of this life by being totally focused on what God wanted.  This was his strength.

I also think of St. Philip Neri (whose patron saint, as a Florentine, was John the Baptist… and who often preached in the church of San Giovanni Battista dei Fiorentini in Rome).  God performed many miracles through St. Philip including one very much related to divine physics.  A certain Gabriele Tana was dying in Rome.  Calling for St. Philip, Gabriele told him, “I do not want to die.”  The man was tormented by this desire to hold on to earthly life, even as heaven called him.  Philip, embraced Tana and asked him, “My son, do you trust me?”  He responded to his confessor, “Of course Father.”  “Then give me your will… and I will offer it to God at holy mass.”  Gabriele surrendered this spiritual gift to St. Philip who immediately offered mass, lifting up the dying man’s will to God.  When Philip returned from the chapel Tana was preaching to everyone around him how peaceful he felt.  Suddenly, a terrible vision locked Gabriele’s attention.  The devil was tempting him to hold on to life, but Tana replied with great peace, “You cannot tempt me because I have no will of my own anymore; God’s will be done.”  He died having made a great witness to all those around him.  Gabriele’s problem was the disconnect between what he wanted and the reality (i.e. divine physics) in which he found himself.  Once he surrendered himself to that reality, peace… and death… came quickly, as did Eternal Life.

Great challenges can plague us, none greater perhaps than our own self-centered willfulness (e.g. Gabriele Tana).  More commonly however, we prefer to play the victim.  “I don’t trust the government anymore.”  “It’s all the president’s fault.” “If only Congress would…” etc., etc…  In the life of the Church we find this (sadly) all too frequently: “My priest stinks, so I don’t believe the Gospel.”  “This leader set a bad example so I’m not buying all this ethics business.”  etc., etc… While the credibility of a teacher, a leader, even a priest may make belief easier or harder, Truth is not dependent on the messenger.  Truth is dependent only on God it’s author, His witness, His power, His beauty, His miracles.  Truth is a matter of divine physics.  And in times of great sadness and struggle, those divine physics become a pillar of strength for me.  I hope it may be that way for you too.  

The Gifts of the Holy Spirit

With the return of Ordinary Time, it can feel like the Church is returning to business as usual.  But as many catechists will repeat around the world, “There’s nothing ordinary about ordinary time.”  It’s really a period of Mission in which the Church takes what she has received from the Advent-to-Pentecost season and brings it into the world.  Consequently, it’s appropriate to meditate on the gifts of the Holy Spirit, given at Pentecost, that launch us – as it were – into this long stretch of Ordinary Time.

Sunday Homily for Corpus Christi – Spirit’s Gift of Understanding

The meeting I didn’t attend

I recently received the minutes of a meeting I couldn’t attend… Actually it’s not so much that I couldn’t attend it as I didn’t.  More on that in a minute…

In today’s mass readings, Isaiah (49:1-6) speaks about his beginnings as a prophet.

“from my mother’s womb he gave me my name.
He made of me a sharp-edged sword
and concealed me in the shadow of his arm.
He made me a polished arrow,
in his quiver he hid me.
You are my servant, he said to me,
Israel, through whom I show my glory.”

He also points out that the mission of a prophet is not simply to be God’s lackey, but to be a gift to the whole world.

“It is too little, he says, for you to be my servant…
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

Beautiful… but an odd pairing with today’s Gospel (Jn 13) in which Jesus identifies Judas as his betrayer.   Then the Lord gave me a clue as to what he wanted me to hear in today’s Scriptures.  Asking the Lord who would turn on him, Jesus replies to the Apostles,

” ‘It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it.’
So he dipped the morsel and took it and handed it to Judas,
son of Simon the Iscariot.
After Judas took the morsel, Satan entered him.”

Wasn’t Jesus offering Judas an out here?  All he had to do was say, “thanks but no thanks; I don’t want the morsel.”  and the moment might have passed by.  Indeed the Apostles themselves were so dumbfounded that even when Judas left the table they thought he was leaving to get the money bag or give alms.  Jesus gave Judas an out, but rather than receive his gift, his opportunity, Judas took the morsel, “and Satan entered him.”

It’s telling.  Isaiah was receptive and became and instrument of God’s light.  Judas took matters into his own hands and became an instrument of darkness.

Back to my meeting…  It was a meeting of good people, all of them well intentioned, talking about good things.  After attending many such meetings as a priest, my prayer antennae perceive something: a distinct flavor of frenzied activity.  …and beyond that, something more… a corporate flavor.  People throw around slogans, lingo and logos.  It’s all very nice and very well meant… but what I don’t perceive (and believe me I’ve tried) is the flavor of the Church.

In trying to take back lost ground in he cause of evangelization, do we sometimes risk taking the morsel instead?  Pushing our version of the Gospel instead of the version we know Jesus gives us?  I think Judas may well have thought he was doing a good thing, jump-starting the “kingdom process” that Jesus seemed to be doing so slowly… but in the midst of all his activity he missed the point.

Think about it: who do parishioners love more, the Pastor who leads them in meetings, or the pastor who leads them in prayer, family life, and service of the poor.  Think of the most successful parish you know.  Is it characterized by endless meetings, posters and peppy slogans?  or is it characterized by people who adore the Blessed Sacrament, visit the sick, and teach their children the faith at home?

A representative of the USCCB once said to me and a group of priests, “If you want to help your parish evangelize, do away with all programs that require posters.”  Of course there was some humor, some sarcasm in his words, but there was also truth.  I asked him afterwards if he’d ever said that to his bosses at the Conference… and there was silence.

The Church is so tempted by the society in which she finds herself to be  corporate instead of a convivial… litigious instead of canonical… sincere instead of sacred.  It’s an understandable temptation; I feel the tug myself.  We want so much to rebuild and to restore… but unless that effort begins with silence, Scripture and Saints… unless we begin by being receptive like Isaiah, we risk becoming acquisitive like Judas.  The proof is there.  “You will know them by their fruits.”  Have any meeting/poster-oriented Church efforts resulted in more baptisms, marriages, confessions?  In ten years as priest I haven’t seen it.  What I have seen is parishes and movements flourishing where there is a receptive attitude and a family spirit present.  Pray this Holy Week that we not take the morsel.

Encountering Gardeners: How do I treat the Body of Christ?

I can’t believe it, but it was almost fifteen years ago… Fifteen years; where does time go?  I was a seminarian living in the city on summer assignment.  Then as now, I loved taking long urban treks to clear my head, work out ideas, relax.  One such trek I was walking along P Street in Georgetown, not far from Rose Park.  It was hot, and -as if the heat wasn’t enough- the low angle of the afternoon sun contributed to an overall sense of fatigue.  The day itself was tired.  It wasn’t any surprise then to see a gardener packing up supplies outside an elegant townhouse.  Looking at the front yard, I’d guess he spent most of his day bagging last year’s wood chips and laying down a fresh layer.  The workman was clearly exhausted.  Long sleeves protecting his arms from the sun’s glare didn’t help preserve them from the heat.  Dust and splinters sat in suspended animation in the sweat on his face.  Even the heavy pants he wore to guard against the rough ground or the weed whacker’s detritus seemed to have surrendered, wilting on his frame.  Drawing closer to the scene, I noticed there was more happening than just end-of-the-day cleanup.  Another man, presumably the owner of the house, came into view.  He was livid.  In sharp contrast to the gardener, the homeowner was rigid with fury.  “Clean it up!  You call this finished?! I am NOT pleased.”  With these and other shrill critiques, the homeowner registered his displeasure.  I tried to look as casually as I could at the gardener’s work.  Some stray chips, a thin veneer of potting soil were strewn across the front walk; hardly a crisis… But there was no telling that to the owner… particularly since it became clear that the gardener didn’t speak English.  I was furious.  Who was this privileged prince to speak to another human being like this?  But for all my indignation, I did nothing.  I kept walking, much to my shame.

The story came back to mind yesterday (Palm Sunday) as we read the Passion narrative of St. Mark (14:1-15:47).  The first thing to strike me was a moment that usually gets passed over.

“When he was in Bethany reclining at table

in the house of Simon the leper,

a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil,

costly genuine spikenard.

She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on his head.

Elsewhere in the Gospel (Jn 12:1-11) this is the moment when Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of Jesus and dries them with her hair.  It got me thinking, “How do I treat the Body of Christ?”  In the Passion, there are two other examples of treating the Body of Christ.  There’s the soldiers/temple authorities, who treated it as an object, a thing, an inconvenience to be cleared away.  And then there’s Judas who kissed Jesus only to betray him.

We do – all of us – engage in all three ways of treating the Body of Christ.

When prayer is inconvenient, when we just don’t fee like genuflecting in Church, when there’s so many other things that need to get done rather than taking time for a personal encounter with someone…we turn the Body of Christ into an object.  He becomes something limited, controllable, something that can be easily set aside while we get about the truly important work of doing what we want.  We become like the Jews in the desert who made the golden calf: God will conform to this image, my image, of him and no more.  I see this in so many moments of my own life.  I also see it as a real possibility in wider Church life.  Anytime we want to put aside Jesus’ teachings to accommodate our soooo much more enlightened contemporary views/issues we risk objectifying Jesus.  We protest, “No, surely the Lord will understand.”  Only to hear Jesus reply, “Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. (Mt 5:18)” …and suddenly, with the wicked, we may find ourselves saying (quite to our own surprise), “Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us; he sets himself against our doings, he reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. (cf. Wis. 2:1, 12-22)”

We can be smarter than this…and more cunning.  Never doubt the genius of concupiscence.  We say, “No, no, no… I’m with Jesus.  I’m one of his followers.  I’m just trying to live out a more relevant version of his plan.”  We wear the outward appearance of disciples, even apostles, only to betray him to the Enemy… like Judas.  Many have written that Judas just wanted to prompt Jesus, to goad him into throwing off the sham of humility… to force him, as it were to bring about an earthly Kingdom.  So it made sense: betray him, have him arrested and he’ll call down the angels to defeat his/our enemies.  But Judas’ version of providence was not God’s.  As a priest I know that this happens anytime I hide behind… or better yet, “lean” on my collar.  I don’t think it’s often, but I know it happens. “I can cut a corner liturgically.  I can speed through my breviary.  I can delay confession.  It’s ok, I’m a priest.  I know what I’m doing.”  Did you notice that Jesus’ name didn’t enter into that consideration?  In families we sometimes see this when/if we invoke how “right” we are.  “If the poor would just work like the rest of us everything would be fine.”  Or… “I knew bad things would happen to that family.  They deserved it.  Look how they lived.” Or… “I could’ve seen that one coming a mile away, but she got what she deserved.”  We fake to one side and kiss the cheek of Jesus… a momentary nod to righteousness… only to leap toward our real goal: judgment, keeping our fellow man “in his place” based on our vision of things.  How odd that such a lack of empathy should come under the guise of an intimate kiss.

Then there’s Mary… who in a moment of seeming madness anoints the body of Jesus.  She loves him absolutely.  It must’ve looked crazy.  In John’s account, though she’s in her own home, she doesn’t even stop to get a towel.  So crazed is she with love of the Lord she must dry his fee with her own hair.  She doesn’t care about other people’s plans.  She doesn’t think of her own reputation.  She simply loves.  And when the world protests, “Why has there been this waste of perfumed oil?  It could have been sold for more than three hundred days’ wages

and the money given to the poor.” Jesus himself defends her… because the encounter is not about efficiency it’s about love… and love, real love, doesn’t exist on a scale of the efficient or the meritorious.  Love, in its purest form, is utterly gratuitous.  Such love is the only way of treating the Body of Christ with any sort of worth.  Do I treat Jesus like this?  I hope so… not only in the Blessed Sacrament, but it my fellow man: in my family, in strangers, and especially among the poor.  He desires all to be part of him one day in heaven, so all are worthy of that love.  “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me. (Mt 25:40)”

In another week, we’ll hear about Mary Magdalene encountering a gardener.  When she realizes it’s Jesus she throws herself at his feet.  I can’t walk down P Street without thinking of that day fifteen years ago, of the miniature human drama I saw play out in front of me and of my silence, which made it not just a drama, but a tragedy.  Lord, grant that the next time I see you in a gardener… or in anyone… I may throw myself at your feet, in your defense, in love of you.  Grant that I may treat your body well.  Amen.

A New Restaurant Dedicated to an Ancient Way of Life

Yesterday I made my quarterly trip to Annapolis to get my oil changed. “Why,” one might ask, “do you go all the way to Annapolis to get your oil changed?” When I first bought my car, a friend of a friend connected me with a dealership out there. Aside from the fact that they do great service work, this particular dealer offers free shuttle service into the heart of Maryland’s historic capital, and I’ve gotten into the habit of making a day of it. Drop the car, ride into a charming town, enjoy some sights, the water, some lunch, and then head home when the car is ready. Truly, it’s the nicest oil change experience one could hope for.

Yesterday, I stopped in for lunch at a relatively new restaurant on Main Street, Preserve. Outfitted in proper HGTV style, Preserve is contemporary in so many ways… [supposedly] reclaimed wood adorns the walls, punctuated by various objects d’art meant to make you think they were casually dropped there by longtime residents, when actually they were picked with careful study. Faux industrial-style lighting gives the place a pleasant glow and the front windows are ingeniously installed to look classic, for the winter, and then completely open like a garage door to the street in summer. In so many ways, the place is millennial to the core. And yet…

At the core of Preserve’s dining experience is something very ancient: pickling. As the name indicates, Preserve is all about food that has been carefully kept and even enhanced by various processes long after harvest time has passed. For centuries, this classical practice has used vinegars, oils, and other liquids to forestall death and rot so that families could have nutritious foods through the cold months. As I say, it’s an ancient process, but ever new. Rock star Swedish chef Magnus Nilsson (Featured in several wonderful foodie documentaries like, Netflix “Chef’s Table”) has put the practice back on the map as he strives to introduce the world to traditional Scandinavian cuisine… and given the climate in his native land, one can easily imagine how important preservation of food from the growing months is.

As with so many dimensions of culinary culture, preservation is not just about the utilitarian act of keeping food for the winter. People attach to it all the joys that humanity can bring so that the experience, like the nutrients in the food, remains fresh and invigorating. In my family’s ancestral home of Capua, for example, families will have whole block parties for canning summer tomatoes. Songs are invented, poems recited, family histories passed on while children play and those old enough to work all help each other extend summer life through the canning process.

Looking at Preservation through eyes of faith doesn’t take too much imagination. The New Testament is replete with examples of this preservation process which the Church calls, “tradition.” From the Latin tra-ditio, it literally earns “to pass across or hand on.” In II Timothy 1:6 Paul advises his disciple to fan into flame and hand on the gift he received when Paul laid hands (i.e. ordained) him. Jesus likewise never bashes the old, but preserves and fulfills it for the purposes of the New Covenant. He himself observes Mosaic law and practices. Indeed today, though there was no need for it, he is presented by his parents to the Father in the Temple (Lk 2:22-40). At several points he cures people by the grace of the New Covenant then tells them to go and observe the rituals of the Old (e.g. “Go show yourselves to the priests.” Lk 17:14. Or “therefore all that they say and tell you, do and observe…” Mt 23:3).

Popular culture tends to abhor the idea of preservation. Our inborn American sense of progress (which sometimes suffers from the heresy of progressivism) suggests that the old must always burn to fuel the new. We chalk it up to our revolutionary foundation, but even here, careful examination may reveal the faint odor of vinegar… and the preservation process. What is our Constitution based on if not the Magna Carta. When James Madison locked himself in his library to begin drafting the document, he was accompanied by 2,000 volumes of Greco-Roman and English law. Even the most revolutionary progress owes something of its substance to preservation and handing on of what came before. Perhaps what we as modern Americans, and modern Catholics, need to do is rediscover the JOY of preservation… like those families canning tomatoes back in Capua. Or… to give another more contemporary example… like St. John Paul II quietly handing on Polish music, drama and poetry in secret student meetings even as the communist guards tried their best to squelch all remnants of Polish identity.

Preservation of culture, or of law or of faith doesn’t have to be a musty museum process; in fact it shouldn’t be. It can be a joyous event that hands on the light of life and defeats death! Think about that this week, or the next time you munch on a pickle… or if you happen to be in Annapolis getting your oil changed.