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Some thoughts from Dom Helder Camara, “The Bishop of the Slums”

2012/07/02

We are told that Abraham and other patriarchs heard the voice of God. Can we also hear the Lord’s call? Isn’t it pretentious to say this? Dangerously presumptuous?

We live in a world where millions of our fellow men and women live in inhuman conditions, practically in slavery. If we are not deaf we hear the cries of the oppressed. Their cries are the voice of God.

We who live in rich countries, where there are always pockets of underdevelopment and wretchedness, hear, if we want to hear, the unvoiced demands of those who have no voice and no hope. The pleas of those who have no voice and no hope are the voice of God.

Anyone who has become aware of the injustices caused by the unfair division of wealth, must, if they have heart, listen to the silent or violent protests of the poor. The protests of the poor are the voice of God. If we look at the relations between the poor countries and the capitalist and communist empires, we see that today injustice is not only done by one man to another, or by one group to another, but by one country to another. And the voice of the countries suffering these injustices is the voice of God.

In order to rouse us God makes use even of radical and violent rebellion. How can we not feel the urgent need to act when we see young people—sincere in their desire to fight injustice, but with violent means that only call down violent repression—show such courage in prison and under torture that it is difficult to believe that they are sustained only by materialist ideals. He who has eyes to see and ears to hear must feel challenged: how can we remain mediocre and ineffective when we have our faith to sustain us?

Are we so deaf that we do not hear a loving God warning us that humanity is in danger of committing suicide? Are we so selfish that we do not hear the just God demanding that we do all we can to stop injustice from suffocating the world and driving it to war? Are we so alienated that we can worship God at our ease in luxurious temples, which are often empty in spite of all their liturgical pomp, and fail to see, hear, and serve God where he is present and where he requires our presence, among human beings, the poor, the oppressed, the victims of injustices in which we ourselves are often involved?

It is not difficult to hear God’s call today in the world about us. It is difficult to do more than offer an emotional response, sorrow, and regret. It is even more difficult to give up our comfort, break with old habits, let ourselves be moved by grace and change our life, be converted.

Dem Helder Camara, The Desert is Fertile (1974), pp. 18-19.

Lack of Christian online civility

2012/04/12

Fr. James Martin, S.J. has a very good piece on the abhorrent lack of online civility among many Catholics. Of course, this is an inter-denominational scourge; no church is immune to the problem. I noted in an earlier post that the notion of not bearing false witness seems completely abandoned in cyberspace. Christians evangelizing by example (“preach the Gospel; if necessary use words”) is pitted against the anonymity of the internet – and far too often, the Gospel message of love and respect is ignored, replaced by a quick release of wrath and self-righteousness.

Sermon for Easter Sunday

2012/04/10

Resurrection Sunday

St. Mark 18:1-8

This is truly the day that the Lord has made! This is truly the feast of victory for our God! Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen!

The goal toward which God’s holy Church strove for the forty days of Lent, the goal outlined for us already at the beginning of Advent, has finally been achieved: the triumph of Love and Light over all. Easter is the Feast of feasts and the climax of the Church’s year of grace. It has always been a time when joy and jubilance is unrestrained. Not only literally outside, but also spiritually in our hearts, the sun beams. Our God of Light has beamed into our lives, with warmth, with clarity and with eternal assurance of salvation.

Give thanks, says the apostle, to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. (Col 1:12-13) The dire, fallen and lost state of mankind that we have reflected upon during lent mercilessly and directly to Christ’s death on the cross at Golgotha. Self-righteousness, ambition, hatred and pride led to the murder of Divine Love and the extinguishing of Divine Light. To symbolize the humiliation of Christ, we stripped the altar on Maundy Thursday. To symbolize the death of Christ and the end of his earthly ministry, we closed the Book of Life and performed the Office of Shadows, which is what tenebrae means, for Good Friday. Today we have adorned the church as gloriously and beautifully as we are able—and many thanks to those who have made that possible—because today we celebrate that the Father has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption.

There could be no greater sign of God’s love and grace than this. In a world of darkness, light triumphs. In a world of hatred and enmity, love is victorious. In a world of death and decay, life itself is crowned with glory. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, (John 10:11) Christ told his disciples. Today we reap the undeserved fruits of the selflessness and sacrifice of our good shepherd.

Our Paschal mystery, our Easter mystery has two aspects: by his death, Jesus Christ freed us from sin; and by his resurrection, he opened for us the way to eternal life. These go together, liturgically, theologically and spiritually. You cannot have one without the other; we cannot have the joy of Resurrection Sunday if we did not also have the misery of Good Friday. Every day is Good Friday, every place of Golgotha. Every day is a day of lamenting the state of the world, and every place is the place of Christ’s torment by sin and evil. But this morning we are assured that every day is also Resurrection Day and every place is also the empty tomb—where we know that all the prophecies of Scripture; all that was spoken by God’s holy prophets Isaiah, and Jeremiah and Hosea, Zechariah, and by King David and others—all their words about what lay ahead came true.

This, however, is what is called objective salvation. These are the spiritual realities that are there for us, independent of us. They require a response – subjective salvation. God offers these truths, we have the responsibility to respond, as subjects, as individuals, to that reality. How do we do that?

“For I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe-that unless I believe I shall not understand.” This statement by the patron saint of this parish has no greater applicability than when it comes to the death and resurrection of Christ Jesus. I believe in order to understand.

Faith is prior to understanding. Revelation precedes reason. In this day and age, and in the past too, for that matter, religious faith is somehow thought to be unpalatable if it does not conform to reason. We see it in the arguments of those who despise religious faith, but we also see it in many of the arguments of those who claim to defend it. Faith is refashioned so as to appear rational, even scientific. Whether it be the efforts, that have gone on for almost as long as the Church has existed, to conform faith to Greek philosophy, or the more recent attempts to pretend that Biblical narratives are, in fact, 100% literal, chronological history that are threatened by scientific advances—both these involve abandoning the primacy of faith and accepting that faith must conform to some other body of thought in order for it to be true and relevant.

Consider for a moment the three women on whom the Great Dawn of the Resurrection cast its first rays if divine light. They looked at the empty tomb, they were told by the angel that Christ had risen and would fulfill his promises—yet they ran away trembling and afraid. Why? These were devoted followers of Christ, and the life of Christ in almost every single one of its aspects had been prophesied in great detail: The Messiah will be the seed of a woman, we read in Genesis (3:15). He will be born in Bethlehem, said Micah (5:2), by a virgin, according to Isaiah (7:14). Jeremiah (31:15) foretold Herod’s slaughter of the holy innocents, the firstborn, and Hosea (11:1) prophesied that the holy family would flee to Egypt. Zechariah foretold that he would enter Jerusalem on a donkey, and that his betrayal would come at the price of thirty pieces of silver (9:9; 11:12). In Psalms we read how he the Messiah would be accused by false witnesses (27:12), hated without reason (69:4), and that his garments would be divided and they would gamble for his clothing (22:18) We read detailed accounts of how his hands and feet would be pierced (22:16), how he would agonize in thirst (22:15), given gall and vinegar to drink (69:21), how he would be abused, but that none of his bones would be broken (34:20). Zechariah (12:10) tells us how his side would be pierced and that his followers would scatter and desert him (13:7) Isaiah prophesied that he would be crucified with villain (53:12) And all this came to pass.

Yet as each of these things happened, no one, not one, put the pieces together. No one drew the right conclusions. It would have been easy for the disciples, the followers, these women at the tomb, to employ some logical deduction and, when they arrive at the empty tomb, say “yup, he is risen, Alleluia!” Instead they ran away in fear. They looked at the empty tomb, they were even told by the angel that Christ had risen in fulfillment of his promises—yet they ran away trembling and afraid.

Reason, intellect and the power of deduction are not what reconcile us with our heavenly parent.  Faith reconciles, devotion to Jesus reconciles. We know that these women were devoted to Jesus. They mourned his death, and even in the face of the utter disappointment that his death must have been to them, they were devoted to him. They came to honor him. They loved him. Even though they had given up hope and possibly even faith; their immortal savior being dead and all. This devotion and love for a dead activist who claimed immortality and divinity was, frankly, irrational. At the very least, it was confused.

And in the midst of this hazy mixture of love and devotion, something happens: they encounter an angel. We speak of angels often, and in popular culture these rosy-cheeked, winged creatures are thicker than flies. In Scripture, however, angels are actually rare. In St. Matthew’s account, an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and to Jesus as he rejects the temptations of Satan—and then, a third time, to the women at the empty tomb. In Mark, the only living person said to have encountered angels—except the women at the tomb—is St John the Baptist. In Luke, there are a few more: the righteous priest Zacharias, the Blessed Virgin, and the shepherds in the field are visited by an angel. Jesus was strengthened by an angel from heaven as he underwent torment in Gethsemane. And then, as in the other gospel accounts, the women at the empty tomb. In John, the one and only appearance of angels is—you guessed it, at the empty tomb.

Why are they there? Well, what is an angel? There is a lot of theology surrounding this, much of it not very useful, including taxonomies and divisions into categories, their nature and essence, and so forth. The Greek word angelos, just like the Hebrew word malakh, means quite simply a messenger. In both the old and new testaments, those referred to as “messengers” are sometimes human beings, sometimes not. When they are not, they are messengers of God; messengers that communicate God’s truth or offer God’s comfort.

So let us disregard all the accumulated theology for a moment. As the women, in their devotion, came to the tomb and found it empty, they were met by a messenger of God who proclaimed to them that Christ is risen. This is how we know the truth of our faith—revelation from God. Not logic, not reason, not deduction, not science—but revelation. In Christ, every single prophecy of the Old Testament was fulfilled and completed, yet even his most devoted friends thought he was dead.

Isaiah, roughly seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, wrote this: Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:4-5). Yet not one of his friends saw it as it happened before their very eyes. Hosea, who also prophesied a about seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, said this of the Messiah: After two days will he revive us: in the third day he will raise us up, and we shall live in his sight (Hos 6:2). But the devoted women expected him to be dead nonetheless. Why? Well, what happened is not a regularly occurring phenomenon, it is not expected. Statistically, it is an aberration. In terms of biology, chemistry, and every type of material cause and effect and can think of, dying and rising are not commonly sequential. The women relied on their experience and knowledge of the material world and therefore expected him to be dead. It took a messenger from God to jolt them into understanding. Again, the words of St Anselm: I believe in order to understand, not the other way around.

One of the Church Fathers (Severianus) wrote “Your breast was darkened, your eyes shut, and therefore ye did not before see the glory of the opened sepulcher.” The Venerable Bede wrote of that “the rolling away of the stone means mystically the opening of the Christian sacraments, which were held under the veil of the law; for the law was written on stone.” Many of the Church Fathers understood the tomb to be an image of the human heart, and an image of human salvation. Severianus wrote that the women “entered the sepulcher, that being buried with Christ they might rise again from the tomb with Christ. They see the young man, that is, they see the time of the Resurrection, for the Resurrection has no old age…”

They beheld an image of the Resurrection, timeless, ageless; they were allowed to peek at eternity, at eternal life in the midst of a tomb. Truly the tomb is an image of our hearts: it is within our hearts that our devotion to Christ must be real. It is within our hearts where all that is earthly must die. It is within our hearts that Christ must rise, and reconcile us with the Father.

Christ is risen! Indeed, He is risen! Alleluia! Alleluia! Amen.

Sermon for Palm Sunday

2012/04/10

Palm Sunday

St. Matthew 27:1-54

Matthew and Mark report that Jesus cries out from the cross, Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani—“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” after which he lets out a loud cry. One of the fathers at New Camaldoli recounts various explanations for these words, a recitation of the first verse of Psalm 22. One explanation is that Jesus was simply saying the prayers that a devout Jew would say as he was dying. Bede Griffiths, a Benedictine monastic, explains it by saying that even Jesus’ own image of God was taken from him. That all his ideas about God were revoked; a similar kind of death that we have to undergo in our prayer lives as we let go of all names and forms that we hold on to for comfort. But the Camaldoli father, Fr. Cyprian Consiglio, suggests another, “more chilling, literal, scriptural explanation” for these words of Jesus: that the Father really does abandon Jesus!

The Greek word paradidonai appears quite a few times in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ death. It means “to hand over” or “to betray.” Judas hands Jesus over to the temple guard, the temple guard hands him over to the court, the court hands him over to Pilate, and Pilate hands him over to his final execution. All using the same word. But, in reality, none of these people an institutions are handing over Jesus – it is the Father who hands him over. The Father hands Jesus over to those who would scorn, torture and kill him. The others are, well, bit players; instruments of God. My God, My God, why have you handed me over? As Fr. Cyprian points out, this is why the other lines from Psalm 22 are so poignant: He trusted in the Lord, let him save him and release him if this is his friend (Ps 22:8, Mat 27:43). But God doesn’t save him or release him. He has handed him over.

There are some severe implications of this reading. If God does not save Jesus from all of this, what about the rest of us? Could God abandon us too? Martyrs have sealed their faith with their blood throughout the history of the Church. Good Christian folks are attacked. Those who work for peace and justice are murdered. Countless people are killed in earthquakes, or simply starve quietly to death due to no fault of their own.

There is a tendency among Christians to think of prayer as incantation, reducing God to a genie that is hauled out at our convenience. Some time ago, a friend told me that God had showed them a piece of jewelry that had been lost. They couldn’t find it, they prayed to God, and God answered prayer by letting them find it. My response was perhaps not very diplomatic. Do you really think that God cares about jewelry, I asked? And if this is how prayer works, why does he not direct those who starve to some food, when they pray for it?

God is not a genie, prayer is not incantation, we are not magicians. The abuses of prayer are dangerous to the souls of Christians, and to the reputation of Christianity. Prayer allows us discernment. It is our means to get to know God and his intention for us. It aligns us with God’s plan, not the other way around. And that was, indeed, what happened on the cross. Luke tells us that Jesus spoke another verse from Psalm 31: Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. Jesus aligns himself fully, finally and perfectly, with the plan of the father and hands himself over; he abandons himself. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus stated that No one can take my life from me, I give it freely (Ps 31:5, Luke 23:46). Here, on the cross, that comes to pass after Jesus, having prayed and reflected and agonized over his fate—abandoned by the father—aligns himself with that abandonment.

Palm Sunday is a beginning. A beginning of fulfillment of prophesy in all its majesty and splendor and victory… and bitterness and humiliation and degradation. In the first Gospel reading from St Mark, we met the victorious Christ who enters into Jerusalem to the acclaim and praise and adoration of the people. In the second Gospel reading, taken from St Luke, we meet our Christ as captive, as accused, as ridiculed, as a torture victim condemned to death. How brief the cheering and clapping and public displays of reverence and adoration for Christ! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David! Hosanna in the highest! (Mark 11:9-10) is turned into those words that should send chills down our spines and bring tears to our souls; that thrice repeated Crucify him! Crucify him! Crucify him! (Luke 23)

But what had happened? How did the crowd turn against Christ in such a dramatic way? How did the blessings and adoration as he entered Jerusalem turn into these curses and this hatred? Knowing human nature, we have good reason to suspect that some of those who were present at the entry of Christ into Jerusalem were also among those who cursed him before Pilate. Old Adam is nothing if not a turn-coat. Even among the closest friends of Christ, there were those who abandoned and betrayed him.

The light is among you for a little while longer. Walk while you have the light, lest darkness overtake you. The one who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light. (John12:35-36):

“While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become sons of light.” This is not a story about other people in distant country at another time in history. This is about us, each and every one of us here today. This is not a story about the Jews and the Romans, it is a story about us. We have to absolutely reject, not only anti-Semitic readings of Scripture—which most certainly have been recurrent throughout the history of the church—but also the charge that our readings of the Passion of Christ, when guided by the Holy Spirit, even can be anti-Semitic. Only if we believe that the original sin of Adam tainted no one but the Jews can we blame it on them. Only if we believe that Christ came to save only the Jews can we blame rejection on Christ on them. Only if only the Jews can be saved by faith in Christ can we read the Passion of our Lord and point a finger to the Jews, and say “they did it!”

We did it! Christ was mocked and beaten and crucified for all of our sins. This is precisely the point of the New Testament, written in the blood of the righteous one. This is precisely the point of the crucifixion and the resurrection, with which our entire Christian faith stands and falls. All of us are saved by faith in God through Christ; all of us share in responsibility for humanity’s rejection of him. You and I, every day, through our sins great and small, continue to condemn him to death. When we read in the Gospel according to St Matthew that all the people answered ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ (Mat 27:25), this applies to humanity. His blood is upon all generations of humanity, which is why all generations of humanity are in need of salvation and reconciliation with God through him whom we have crucified. A short but powerful prayer ascribed to the 16th century saint Philip Neri captures this realization. It is just a one-line prayer, but it packs a punch: “O Jesus, watch over me always, especially today, or I shall betray you like Judas.”

But our Gospel reading from St Luke also points to the way forward; the way to reconciliation with God.

One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23:39-43)

This must surely be the most powerful statement of salvation through faith in Christ. No works reconciled this man to God, no penance of fasting, no church membership, not even baptism. Christ did not ask him what his crime was, he did not ask him what sect or nationality he had identified with. Based simply on his faith, Christ told him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” The man believed, and that was enough, even on the cross. The man, whatever he had done, had come face to face with not only the harsh temporal law of the Roman authorities, but also the Law of God—and the Grace of God. Even on the cross, Christ was able to reconcile a repentant and contrite soul with God. Faith alone. Christ alone. The cross alone.

May Jesus watch over us always, especially today, lest we shall betray him like Judas. Amen.

Sermon for Passion Sunday

2012/04/10

Passion Sunday

 John 8:46-59

Today the Church enters into the period of mourning over her divine Bridegroom. Passiontide, which begins today, marks the third stage of our preparation for Easter. Pre-Lent was an introduction and the past four weeks a time for conversion and spiritual renewal. Passiontide commemorates Christ’s suffering in a special way. The crosses are draped as an outward sign of inward sorrow. The Gloria Patri is omitted for the same reason – to underscore the despair at the sin that is the cause of Christ’s suffering and sorrow.

The Lord’s suffering is the real theme of Passiontide, and I am not so sure that it ought not to be the theme of every day of every week of the year. We are called to reflect on Christ’s suffering in greater detail than at any other time. We are called to reflect on our part in that suffering. It is a time for sobering reminders of our nature. The time for feel-good happy clappy is behind us – what, really, are we doing here? What, rally, are we doing with our lives? Does it not matter to us that the way in which we lead our lives are direct causes of the suffering of Jesus? That the way we lead our lives accuse Jesus and torment him, as sure as if we were pelting him with stones ourselves?

But, surely, not. We lead virtuous lives, don’t we? We love Jesus and try, for his sake to be righteous and virtuous and do good? We dutifully and reverently go to church, we read Scripture, we pray earnestly. Friends, these are the means of sanctification, not justification. These are natural outcomes, ought to be natural outcomes, of receiving the saving grace of God. But they are not means of receiving the saving grace of God. There are no means of receiving that grace other than repentance, contrition and conversion. And without these, as we hear God say through the mouth of the Prophet Isaiah, our worship and everything else we get up to, is worse than useless; it is an offence before God. Such worship, we are told, will be punished severely. No matter how correct and esthetically pleasing, without repentance and contrition, it is useless.

As we draw ever closer to Easter, that most joyous of celebrations, we are called upon to pause and reflect on the content of our hearts, as opposed to the content of the liturgy; whether our Sunday finest conceals the white robes of salvation, washed in the blood of the lamb, or whether they conceal a spiritual decay that we desperately want to hide from others. On Easter Sunday we rejoice in the risen Christ and the fulfillment of his promise of eternal life to all those who believe in him and follow him. On Passion Sunday, we ask ourselves if we are among those believers to whom that promise is given – or if our part in this cosmic drama ends on Good Friday, when the Jews, as our proxies, as the proxies of humanity, call out for his crucifixion.

In this demand, in this unrestrained desire and urge to kill the Christ, we find the accumulated rottenness of all human nature. Of you and me—not of others. In today’s reading, mankind stands before us at its farthest point from its original communion with God in the Garden of Eden. Faced with God the Son; the Christ to whom all Scripture had pointed and whom all the prophets had heralded; faced with him who was sent to us because God so loved the world that our need for a Savior prompted his tender heart to supply us with one. Faced with God himself—the people of God not only reject him, but they are already picking up rocks with which to stone him. They are fed up, they can take no more – virtue and tradition demands that he be killed. And we know how it ends.

Crucifixion was not only retribution, but also a deterrent. The bodies of the crucified were left up, first to writhe in agony and then, after they had expired, for good measure, to demonstrate what happens to those who were considered evildoers. In the case of Christ, the message was clear: his crime was to have offended their sense of chosenness by preaching the boundless love of the Father. By preaching his own divinity. His crime was to fulfill prophecy in a way that didn’t suit them. His crime was to question our righteousness before God. Let his agony and death be an example to anyone who dares do the same!

Human pride and self-righteousness placed Christ on the cross. But what had happened? How did these people turn against Christ in such a dramatic way? Only recently, he was doing well. He was saying the right things, and folks loved him. The great intellectual hero of the American Revolution Thomas Paine talked about “summer soldiers and sunshine patriots”; those who are faithful to the cause as long as the going doesn’t get tough – those who are faithful to the cause as long as it doesn’t demand that we step too far outside our comfort zone. We know from the Gospels that even among the closest friends of Christ, there were those, like St Peter, who pledged undying allegiance to him, only to turn around, when the mob got riotous, to flatly deny ever having known him. And there was Judas, truly one of the twelve, truly one of the chosen, and truly the one who epitomizes what we ought to fear in ourselves. If those we call saints are capable of such turn coat behavior, surely members of the crowd that greets Jesus were and are capable of the same deplorable, but all too human behavior.

Among God’s people, there are a number of religious feasts and celebrations, some of which are instituted by man, others by God. Among the latter were the Feast of the Tabernacles, the Feast of Weeks, and Passover. These were instituted in commemoration of particular instances of goodness and grace shown by God to His people, and were occasions intended to unify and educate the elect, worship God, and point to the coming of Christ. In the New Testament we come across feasts—Easter and Pentecost—that were not instituted at the direct and express command of God, but nevertheless begun within the first Christian congregation, which was “under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit” (Schartau, Bref, p. 431).

Easter, the fulfillment of the Passover, celebrates the boundless love of God for humanity in all its gory details. Resurrection Sunday makes no sense without Good Friday – but how many folks these days, when church attendance is no longer compulsory, do not choose to show up for the joy of Resurrection Sunday without bothering with the grief and agony of Good Friday? This is like celebrating recovery without admitting that you’re an alcoholic. Celebrating one’s pardon without admitting that one has committing a crime. And how do we accomplish this contortion? By relying on virtue.

I worry that Easter seems to have gone the way of the feasts of the Hebrews: corrupted and abused, they became occasions of self-righteousness, greed and gluttony. We heard the prophet Isaiah talk about such celebrations. Similarly, God through the Prophet Amos tells us:

I hate, I despise your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities. Even though you bring me your burnt offerings and grain offerings I will not accept them; Your stall-fed communion offerings, I will not look upon them. Take away from me your noisy songs; The melodies of your harps, I will not listen to them. Rather let justice surge like waters, and righteousness like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:21-23)

Justice and righteousness must be our unwavering focus. Christ must be our unwavering focus because he is the one who brings justice and righteousness. The value of any and all outer manifestations depends on where our heart is, or rather, what the state of our heart is. Are we allowing the celebration, ostensibly of God’s love and generosity, to distract us from the implications of God’s love and generosity? The Lord is a merciful God, and he will not let those perish who rely on the virtue of his Son, the righteousness of his Son, and who accept the justice of Lord – a court of law in which we are always, by our own merit, sinners, and criminals.

As we gather around the precious gifts of Christ’s body and blood, let us keep this reality in mind. That it is not the outward garments and finery that God looks to, but the content of our hearts – at our repentance and contrition. May the Lord have mercy on us. Amen.

Sermon for Fourth Sunday in Lent

2012/04/10

Fourth Sunday in Lent

 John 6:1-14

This morning’s gospel reading is not only a reading about a mystery, the reading itself is a mystery.  The feeding of the five thousand is an event that is recounted in each of the canonical gospels.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all include it, so we know that it matters; we know that it is an event of significance. But what is it that actually takes place? That is not at all clear from any of the accounts. Something happens by the very fact of Jesus’ presence and we don’t know exactly what it is. A miracle is performed, to be sure, but is sort of just happens.

What I mean is this: in other accounts of miracles, we are told explicitly what happened—what Jesus did—and sometimes even given the process and specific word or phrase spoken by Christ, by which the miracles were made to happen. For instance, at the wedding in Canaan, Jesus is asked by his mother the Blessed Virgin to turn the water into wine. Jesus instructs the servants to fill the stone jars with water and then to draw some out and take it to the master of the feast—and by the time the master of the feast tastes it we are told that is has turned into wine (John 2:7-9a). We are told what happened. Elsewhere, the miracle working is even more obvious. For instance, when Jesus heals a deaf man with a speech impediment, he took him aside from the crowd, put his fingers into his ears, spat, touched the man’s tongue, looked up to heaven, sighed, pronounced the word “Ephphatha,”—“be opened”—and then the man was able to hear and speak properly again (Mark 7:33-35). The process of the healing is described to us, we are told exactly what happens and even the specific words associated with the miracle. This is the norm throughout the gospel accounts.

Here, however, we are not told what happened, or what Jesus did to make it happen. Biblical art through the ages have shown images of the disciples lugging big baskets overflowing with fish and bread around to hand it to the people, but that is an assumption that is not found in Scripture. Listen again, carefully, to the reading:

Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?” Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted. And when they had eaten their fill, he told his disciples, “Gather up the leftover fragments, that nothing may be lost.” So they gathered them up and filled twelve baskets with fragments from the five barley loaves left by those who had eaten. When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” (John 6:5-14)

Do you see what I mean? We are so loaded with Bible illustrations that we assume an image that is not necessarily there.  What, exactly, happened? When did this miracle take place? Once the five thousand were done eating, there were many fragments left over. That is really all we are told—that all were filled and that there were twelve baskets worth of fragments gathered up afterwards.

St Augustine, true to form, tells us what happened. “He multiplied the five loaves in the hands of them that broke them, who multiplies the seeds that grow in the earth, so as that a few grains are sown, and whole barns are filled” (Hom. 80). All we are told is that all five thousand were filled and that there were twelve baskets worth of fragments gathered up afterwards, but St. Augustine’s statement is a spiritual truth, rather than a historical explanation of this miraculous event. The breaking of the bread multiplied it. Keep that thought in abeyance.

In the same homily, St Augustine says something else that is of utmost importance. “We shall not wonder much at what was done, if we give heed to Him That did it” (Hom. 80) Elsewhere, he says that

He has, agreeably to His mercy, reserved to Himself certain works, beyond the usual course and order of nature, which He should perform on fit occasion, that they, by whom His daily works are lightly esteemed, might be struck with astonishment at beholding, not indeed greater, but uncommon works. For certainly the government of the whole world is a greater miracle than the satisfying of five thousand men with five loaves; and yet no man wonders at the former; but the latter men wonder at, not because it is greater, but because it is rare. For who even now feeds the whole world, but He who creates the cornfield from a few grains? (Tract. 24)

In Jesus actions, then, we see the full creative and sustaining divinity of God. That’s the point. Forget the other stuff. The historicity, the historical description and its various explanations, are distractions from the truly important implications. “Let us not only be delighted with its surface, but let us also seek to know its depth” (Tract. 24).

The Lord on the mountain has been understood by church fathers as an image of the Word on High. Indeed, the Word on High feeding the multitude is the core of the story. Jesus saw the multitude, he knew them to be hungry, and he mercifully fed them. Not only because of his goodness, but also of his power.  Goodness on its own does not suffice—a good person who has nothing to share has nothing to share. Had he not also had creative power, the power of God to create, then the crowd would have remained hungry. The Word on High is good and powerful, it sees the needs of people, and serves them.

The disciples, in this account, were also good—they too wanted to feed the people—but they were neither powerful, nor did they have knowledge. Jesus asked Philip where they might buy bread to feed the multitude. He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Why? What other reason than to show the disciple’s ignorance? That in itself does not seem very useful. What is the point of throwing Philip under the bus? I will return to it in a moment.

The five loaves are understood to signify the five books of Moses. Today we have become accustomed to thinking of it as Jesus—who is, after all, the bread of life—but that is not the point in this particular miracle story. St. Augustine, again, noted that this interpretation of the loaves as the Books of Moees would fit with the fact that the loaves are said to be made from barley, rather than wheat, because “barley is so formed that we get at its pith with difficulty; for the pith is covered in a coating of husk, and the husk itself tenacious and closely adhering, so as to be stripped off with labor. Such is the letter of the Old Testament, invested in a covering of carnal sacraments: but yet, if we get at its pith, it feeds and satisfies us” (Tract. 24). These five books of Moses are brought by a boy who is understood to signify the people of Israel. The people of Israel who carried the burden of the books until they were opened by Jesus, fulfilled by Jesus, and given to all by Jesus.

Jesus broke the loaves, and in that breaking of the loaves, they were multiplied. This is a central truth and an important image; the core of the miracle. In the breaking the loaves are multiplied. When those five books of Moses are opened—expounded, fulfilled and shared in and through Christ—they are transformed from the law that no one is able to fulfill—no not one—into the gospel of the one divine man who fulfilled it for all. Multiplied from five books for one people into boundless grace for all people.

Salvador Dalí, The Veiled Heart

In the nourishing but hard-husked barley of the law, the understanding of the Israelites was incomplete, veiled. We read in 2 Corinthians, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts(2 Cor 3:15). At the time of this miracle, the veil was not yet removed—it was not removed until Christ hung on the cross in fulfillment of the law and the te

mple veil was rent asunder; a powerful image of the removal of the veil of ignorance. This is where Philip’s ignorance comes in, and the reason why Jesus asked him a question in order to demonstrate his ignorance: Philip did not know about the multiplication, the transformation that was about to take place, because he could not know. Jesus himself was the only one who knew what lay ahead.

Augustine continues: “And what were those fragments, but things which the people were not able to eat? We understand them to be certain matters of more hidden meaning, which the multitude are not able to take in. What remains then, but that those matters of more hidden meaning, which the multitude cannot take in, be entrusted to men who are fit to teach others also, just as were the apostles? Why were twelve baskets filled?  These signify the twelve apostles, whose task it was to guard and transmit the mysteries if the faith. To continue to feed the multitude.” (Tract. 24)

When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world! They did not fully understand that he was the Lord of the prophets, the fulfiller of the prophets, the sanctifier of the prophets. But they were right to the extent that Jesus was also, indeed, a prophet. It was said to Moses, I will raise up for them a prophet like unto thee (Deut 18:18). That this promise of the Lord is to be understood concerning Christ Himself, is clearly stated in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 7:37). Also, the Lord says of Himself, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country” (John 4:44).

This is how the Lord feeds his people. In this miracle story we find the fullness of his grace and mercy. It was served as a mystery, it remains a mystery—a mystery at the heart of our faith. May the Lord continue to have marcy on us. Amen.

Sermon for first Sunday in Lent

2012/04/09

Quadragesima, First Sunday in Lent

Matthew 4:1-11

We have now entered into Lent, and are headed for Easter. Lent is a period of repentance, contrition and review. It is a period of self-denial. It is a period in which temptation and asceticism are placed in focus. It is a period in which we are expected, required, to ask of ourselves some searching questions about our life with God and with our fellow human beings.

Lent is a period of fasting, and fasting is about dying to the world. The Lententide readings over the next several weeks tell us about how Christ went up to Jerusalem to be captured, tried, judged, scourged, and crucified by the world, for the world. Our Christian tradition in Lent is to symbolically crucify our own flesh, so that, on resurrection Sunday, as St Paul writes, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life (Rom 6:4).

But there is more than mere symbolism involved, there is a profound spiritual dimension to fasting that has been considered salutary and edifying from the very foundation of the church. In the Old Testament, the psalmist talks about fasting as a way to humble (Ps 35:13) and chasten (Ps 69:10) the soul. We heard in the reading from Joel how the Lord demanded of the people, return to me with all your heart with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning and then added rend your hearts and not your garments (Joel 2.12-13). Christ himself not only fasted before going up to Jerusalem, but talked about prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29)—always those two together—as means of spiritual strength. In Acts (19:29) we read about how the appointment of new elders in the congregations was sealed, so to speak, with, prayer and fasting.

St Josemaria Escrivá wrote: “I am going to tell you which are man’s treasures on earth so you won’t slight them: hunger, thirst, heat, cold, pain, dishonor, poverty, loneliness, betrayal, slander, prison…” Why? Because the “savory fruits of the mortified soul [are] tolerance and understanding toward the defects of others; intolerance toward his own.” (Escrivá, The Way, §§ 194, 198)

Indeed, prayerful fasting in Christ aids us spiritually in two main ways. In part, it fosters neighborly love and compassion by putting our slight discomfort in perspective. It really is a time when we ought to read the news every day, and look at the state of the world. 850 million fellow human beings across the globe—created by God each and every one of them—go to bed every night on an empty stomach. Every 3.6 seconds someone starves to death, three out of four of them are children under the age of 5. In the one hour that it takes to complete mass this morning, 1,000 people will have starved to death, including 750 children. A wise man once said: “Only a hungry man can truly understand the cries of a hungry man.” Fasting should open up our hearts to those who literally have nothing to give up for Lent.

This neighborly compassion and the various realizations that should spring from that—of our responsibilities toward suffering neighbors, everyone a creature of our heavenly father, wherever they may be—is the happy byproduct of putting our relationship to God in right perspective. If we reflect on the Lententide readings, praying and fasting, it is virtually impossible to not compare our own pitiful sacrifice and discomfort to the passion and sacrifice of Christ Jesus. The liturgical set up in the next six weeks is such that we are forced to realize that the suffering of Christ surpasses anything we can ever imagine. We are then called upon, by this insight, to humble ourselves; to submit ourselves to God’s mercy without reference to our own merit, achievements, or, above all, to our own suffering. As we wait for Easter, we lift up the Son of Man, he who redeemed the ash heap that is the world, in order to raise us all in fullness of life in and for him. Remember always: Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh… great is your reward in heaven (Luke 6:21b, 23a).

In today’s gospel reading, we see a clear and important pattern; a method to the way in which the tempter goes about his craft. So let’s start there this morning: with the ways in which temptation came to Christ in the desert, and let’s then look at how he triumphed, and at what this may mean to us and our own struggles with sin today.

We read in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians that God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it (1 Cor 10:13). This is the good news about the tailor-made nature of temptation—the measure of it allowed by God is determined by our own strengths—something that God knows better than we ourselves do. The bad news about the tailor-made nature of temptation is that it is crafted by the enemy according to our individual weaknesses and dispositions. Temptation, the inclination to veer from God’s word, latches on to different sorts of things in each of us. What I mean is this: for a rich person it may be greed—hoarding money without regard for the poor. For a poor person it may be envy—griping about what he doesn’t have rather than rejoicing in the things he does have. For a military man it may be pride—it is in the nature of the military profession. For a preacher or pastor it may be self-righteousness—dealing “professionally” with God’s Word every single day is a great blessing but it also presents a very specific set of challenges. This is how temptation and sin works: it finds our weak spots and strikes when our defenses are down; when we’re preoccupied or caught up in something else.

With Christ, this was clearly a more than average difficult challenge, but the tempter tried his best. There is a little phrase in the reading, three wordsthat make a lot of difference to how we must understand the text. It is the mention, almost as a throw-away phrase, that after Jesus had fasted for forty days and nights, he was hungry (Luke 4:2). This tells us two very important things. First, that we are reading about Jesus’ human nature. We confess him to be fully God and fully man; true God from true God, and also taking flesh in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. If you read this gospel passage, and many other for that matter, thinking only of Jesus as God, as one of the persons of the Holy Trinity, then the meaning is lost. Satan tempts God and God withstands the test—big whoop. Of course he does—he’s God! But this little sub-clause—he was hungry—calls our attention to Jesus’ human nature. Like us, like we would be, he was hungry. He is not going into mortal moral combat with Satan as God the Son, but as the Son of Man, as one of us; as our proxy.

He was hungry. Since this means that he had bodily needs he must have also been thirsty and tired. Fatigued. The mention of his hunger is immediately followed by: the devil said to him… At his lowest, at the ebb of his human strength, the tempter struck. And how? By going after the very things that make Jesus, Jesus the Christ.

He starts out by questioning Jesus’ status as the son of God. If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread (Matthew 4:3). It must always start with doubt. “Are you really God’s son? Do you really need to worry so much about what God wills for you? Are you sure—are you really sure—that you are the one meant to die horrifically and gruesomely in Jerusalem in a few weeks time? Well—if you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread.” If…if…

“If” is a powerful word, one of the most fearsome in any language. There is a story from ancient Greece that is too good not to tell. When the Macedonian king, Philip II (the father of Alexander who would go on to become “the Great”), had subdued all key Greek city states, he turned his attention to Sparta, an awesome warrior society and a very dangerous enemy. Philip felt he was on a roll and wrote to the Spartans: “You are advised to submit without further delay, for if I bring my army into your land, I will destroy your farms, slay your people, and raze your city”. The Spartans sent back a note with a one-word reply: “if”.

Neither Philip nor his son Alexander the Great ever tried to pick a fight with Sparta again. Sparta’s answer had brought doubt into the equation and this doubt terrified the Macedonian king. All that was needed was “if.”

“If” is what we get, too, when we struggle with the temptation to wander astray. What if we’re not redeemed by Christ? What if we’re not God’s children? What if the Jehovah’s Witnesses are right? What if its not really a sin to—fill in the blank? What if I only try it once? What if… For a lot of people around the world this is no mere academic musing, but a life and death decision; for those who are imprisoned for their faith in China, or executed for their faith in Saudi Arabia, or persecuted for their faith in other parts of the world, “if” is real. “What if I am about to be executed and the Lord really isn’t God and I am not really his child?” “What if it is all falsehood and all this perseverance-to-the-end business is simply pointless?” “What if…?” The enemy of souls knows when to strike for maximum effect and it always starts with doubt.

As Matthew renders the encounter, the second effort by the devil is to quote Scripture back at Christ. But of course, he misquotes Scripture, mangling Psalm 91 by removing a key part of it to suit his purpose.Having failed to introduce doubt and knowing how closely Jesus clings to Scripture—he goes on to try to tamper with Scripture itself. This is of course something that we, too, encounter as a last ditch effort by folks who are somehow and for some reason offended by classical Christian faith. How often don’t we hear these sorts of things: “surely Paul writes that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter” (Rom 7:6). “How can you be so certain—doesn’t Scripture say that God is love, and also that love does not insist on its own way” (1 Cor 13:5). Or the reverse; “surely Scripture has no specific prohibition against…” fill in the blank with a modern word describing whatever whomever wants approved by God. People, when you hear this sort of thing, stand fast and remember: It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test’ (Luke 4:12).

In our Gospel reading, Jesus is finally tempted to idolatry, another way of perverting all that he is about. Showing him the whole world, Satan tells him if you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours (Luke 4:7). After sowing the seed of doubt, and after seeking to pervert Scripture, he seeks to trick Jesus into idolatry: worship of the dazzling attractions of the world. “Wouldn’t you much rather have all these other things; all this instant, material gratification?” This choice is one that a lot of people have to make every day, deciding whether it is more important what the world thinks of you, or to remain true to the end. Tension between the world and the Word is not limited to struggles against authorities in China or Saudi Arabia, but takes place in our places of work, in our social life, everyday. This is why Christ tells us, All men will hate you because of me, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved (Mark 13:13).

But none of these temptations stuck to Christ. The tempter didn’t even get past “if”. Christ never took the bait and therefore he never dangled on the hook. How? First, knowing what was going on, that he was being offered ideas and powers and tempted to act contrary to the will of the Father, he rejected them outright without so much as a brief debate. There was no argument or discussion. Christ knew that it was wrong and simply said “no.

He did explain his rejection, though. Notice that every reply begins with the words it is written. Christ himself stood on the foundation on Scripture. In fact, in fending off temptation he clung solely to the written word. It wasn’t a question of whether he disliked this or that, if it didn’t suit him in some way; there was no cost-benefit analysis—but exclusively a matter of whether it accorded with God’s will, which is revealed to us in Scripture. It is written

How do we know if something is right or wrong? We too look to Scripture. This is what Christ did, this is how he averted the dangers of temptation, and we really must not try to imagine ourselves cleverer or more advanced, or more socially Enlightened than he was—although a lot of churches seem to be making that argument these days, that they understand the world better than folks did back in the time of Christ. That is a temptation to which we must answer: it is written, a disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master (Mat 10:24). As we move toward Easter, may the strength and victories of Christ be also our strength and final victory.  May the lord continue to have mercy on us. Amen.