The Law, the Prophets, and Grace

Occasion: Second Sunday of Lent, Year C

You can find the full readings here. This Lectio is based on the Gospel reading, Luke 6:39-45.

Reading

Jesus took Peter, John, and James
and went up the mountain to pray.
While he was praying his face changed in appearance
and his clothing became dazzling white.
And behold, two men were conversing with him, Moses and Elijah,
who appeared in glory and spoke of his exodus
that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.
Peter and his companions had been overcome by sleep,
but becoming fully awake,
they saw his glory and the two men standing with him.
As they were about to part from him, Peter said to Jesus,
“Master, it is good that we are here;
let us make three tents,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
But he did not know what he was saying.
While he was still speaking,
a cloud came and cast a shadow over them,
and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.
Then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”
After the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone.
They fell silent and did not at that time
tell anyone what they had seen.

Stand-out words and phrases

overcome by sleep, up the mountain, his glory, they became frightened, did not at that time

Reflection

One of the refreshing aspects of the gospels is how ordinary the apostles behave. Anyone who has tried to pray more than a few words knows how difficult it can be to remain focused on the prayer. Take comfort: even the apostles, who have a “greater than Solomon” present, have a hard time staying awake during prayer! It is not only on “the mountain” that sleep overcomes them; it will overcome them anew in the Garden of Gethesemane. Only our Lord maintains prayer at such times.

Despite their sloth, God grants them a magnificent vision, where Moses and Elijah join our Lord in brilliant glory and speak of “his exodus that he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.” Jesus is the new Moses, leading us out of a land of slavery — slavery to what? slavery to the lord of this world, a pharoah who oppresses us routinely. Christ is our liberator; to follow him is to pass out of our spiritual Egypt — and where to? Not immediately to the land flowing with milk and honey, but rather through the desert. The apostles themselves will have to pass through his Passion before they can see the glorious resurrection.

For some, the supernatural character of this vision serves as a sign that it is a fiction, but several aspects suggest otherwise. First, all three evangelists report an identical story. It is “a” mountain — no particular mountain is named. Both Moses and Elijah spoke with God face-to-face, and we know the names of these mountains: Moses on Mount Sinai, Elijah on Mount Horeb, which the Book of Kings curiously calls “the mountain of God.” An invented story would certainly deserve a name of significance, associated with God’s presence. Instead, the evangelist offers us a nameless mountain somewhere in Palestine.

Also curious is the choice of personages: why Moses and Elijah? Moses makes some sort of sense, as he is the giver of the law, and Christ gives a new law. We observed above that Christ is also a new Moses on account of the spiritual exodus that he leads.

But Elijah? Of course he symbolizes the prophets, but why choose him? Unlike most other prophets named in the Bible, Elijah left no writings. Isaiah’s writings, for instance, point so clearly to the Messiah that some have called his book “the fifth gospel.” Yet the evangelists name Elijah — Not David the King, nor Abraham the father of the people, but Elijah, a man hated by kings, clerics, and countrymen because he revealed the lies of the followers of a false and foreign god.

Another observation: while all the evangelists speak of a blinding brilliance in Jesus’ clothing, and both Matthew and Luke relate that his face became more blinding than the sun, Luke makes the specific point that this glory is Jesus’ glory, pointing thereby to his divinity. Peter speaks, but is so overwhelmed that he hardly know what to say (again, two evangelists attest to this) — and then the Father reveals his relation to the Son, in a manner even more awesome, or frightening, than what came before.

It overwhelmed them, so much that they said nothing to anyone at that time. We often see this in true encounters with the divine: the experience can be overwhelming, reducing one to silence. How can one communicate to others what one has just experienced? Some things are best communicated when people see that your life has changed for ever.

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Embrace Extremism!

Occasion: Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time

You can find the full readings here. This Lectio is based on the reading from Luke 6·27-38.

Reading

Jesus said to his disciples:
“To you who hear I say,
love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
To the person who strikes you on one cheek,
offer the other one as well,
and from the person who takes your cloak,
do not withhold even your tunic.
Give to everyone who asks of you,
and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
For if you love those who love you,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners love those who love them.
And if you do good to those who do good to you,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners do the same.
If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners lend to sinners,
and get back the same amount.
But rather, love your enemies and do good to them,
and lend expecting nothing back;
then your reward will be great
and you will be children of the Most High,
for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give, and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you.”

Stand-out words

love your enemieswhat credit is that to you?, stop, give

Reflection

“Religious extremism” is considered a bad thing these days, but what does a Christian extremist look like? Judging by this Gospel, a Christian extremist is no one to fear!

Consider one of your enemies. It should be someone near you, with whom you interact regularly. If you think you have no enemies, then think instead of someone who makes your life difficult, someone whose success you envy, or someone whose failings you disdain. This could be a parent, a child, a spouse, a coworker, a pastor, a government official. Whatever the case, it should be someone you actually know.

Now, suppose this person suffers a serious setback. He needs help. He doesn’t Continue reading “Embrace Extremism!”

Thrice-blessed who bears the Lord

How does Elizabeth know of Mary’s pregnancy?

Occasion: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Reading: Luke 1·39-45

Mary set out
and traveled to the hill country in haste
to a town of Judah, 
where she entered the house of Zechariah
and greeted Elizabeth.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting,
the infant leaped in her womb, 
and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, 
cried out in a loud voice and said, 
“Blessed are you among women, 
and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
And how does this happen to me, 
that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
For at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, 
the infant in my womb leaped for joy.
Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”

Standout words or phrases

traveled in haste, blessed, leaped for joy

Reflection

While praying the Rosary some years ago, I arrived at the second Joyful Mystery — the one described here in the Gospel — and somehow got it into my head that perhaps Mary traveled to Elizabeth’s home in order to escape the curious eyes and gossiping lips of her neighbors — perhaps even to escape her parents’ own knowledge. From Matthew’s Gospel we have certain knowledge that not everyone was inclined to believe that her pregnancy was brought about by God; Joseph himself sought to divorce her quietly. The situation for Mary was certainly dire; she could have been stoned. So, thought I, perhaps this was something akin to the situation in contemporary times where a prominent family discovers a pregnant teenage daughter, and has her travel to another location to bring the child into the light.

These days I have been imagining that that was simply a hyperactive imagination, but perhaps not. Consider Elizabeth’s greeting:

Blessed are you among women … blessed is the fruit of your womb … Blessed are you who believed…

This is no mere greeting, for the evangelist tells us that the Holy Spirit himself fills Elizabeth. The words she cries out are divinely inspired, and echo through the millennia in the prayers of the faithful!

Thrice-blessed is Mary, and we repeat the first two blessings word for word in the Hail Mary. In poetic fashion, the second blessing reflects Mary’s unique role in salvation by bringing forth our Lord, the fruit of her womb. Her mere arrival in Elizabeth’s home brings joy, because she bears our Lord. Even John, the infant in Elizabeth’s womb, leaps for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice. (An aside: One wonders if Luke was inclined to make note of this on account of his possible familiarity as a doctor with the close connection between a mother’s senses and emotions and her unborn child’s.)

Notice also when this leap occurs: at the moment Mary’s greeting reaches Elizabeth’s ears. Reflect on this: When Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, he foretold John the Baptist, but not Jesus. Some months later, he reminded Mary of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, which by now would have been well-known. It seems likely that Mary was already aware of this miraculous pregnancy, and Gabriel was reminding her; while it is also possible that she was unaware, the fact that it was Elizabeth’s sixth month makes this rather unlikely.

But how does Elizabeth know of Mary’s pregnancy? I imagine two possibilities. One is that the news has spread; as Elizabeth is Mary’s relative, this is not unlikely. Luke writes that Mary traveled “during those days” that followed the angel’s announcement, so there was not much time at all for news to spread. Joseph himself probably did not know yet. Mary’s parents may well have arranged a quick departure, as I wondered way back when. Another, of course, is that, when the Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth, she was enlightened. This would not seem entirely unreasonable; after all, she was a holy woman herself.

In the end, it is not for us to know. What does matter are the blessings that come to us from God, through Mary, the New Eve, on account of the cooperation she gave him, which we ourselves owe him every day, through whatever angel he announces his plan for us. We, too, might thus be thrice-blessed: blessed among humanity, blessed for the fruit of God’s grace in us, and blessed for our belief.

Beware that your hearts be not drowsy

Do you wish, fellow Christian, to keep vigil? …prayer takes but a moment; we need merely turn our hearts to God.

First Sunday of Advent, Year C

Reading: Luke 21·25-28, 34-36

Jesus said to his disciples:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.
People will die of fright
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
But when these signs begin to happen,
stand erect and raise your heads
because your redemption is at hand.

“Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy
from carousing and drunkenness
and the anxieties of daily life,
and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.
For that day will assault everyone
who lives on the face of the earth.
Be vigilant at all times
and pray that you have the strength
to escape the tribulations that are imminent
and to stand before the Son of Man.”

Standout words or phrases

perplexed, die of fright, stand erect and raise your heads, do not become drowsy, surprise, be vigilant, tribulations

Reflection

It has been 2000 years, and our Lord has not returned.

This may well have surprised the evangelist and his first readers; they dwelled in a world where it may well have seemed that these predictions were being fulfilled. Some scholars believe that one reason Nero’s savage persecution of the Christians was popular among Romans was the open rejoicing of many Christians who concluded wrongly during the fire that Christ’s return was imminent. Jerusalem itself was besieged by armies and dismantled, with the leader of the rebellion claiming to be the Messiah. Earthquakes are a commonplace of the Mediterranean world.

Ancient Christians who fell prey to this temptation have good company today. Many of us are familiar with a certain breed of Christian who pays constant attention to earthquakes and other natural disasters. In my youth, one local realtor used his office billboard on one of the two major arteries through town to advertise that the “Rapture [would be the] major event of the [19]90s.” Certain sects have their origins in the conviction that Jesus was about to return during the 19th century; the Millerites even assembled on a mountain to await his return and subsequently referred to this as The Great Disappointment. One group publishes a tract that, for many decades, insisted that the world would end in some way connected with the year 1914.

It is easy to laugh at those who are wrong, decade after decade. On the other hand, what makes people loyal to such organizations? Surely some of it is that they have a reputation for taking care of each other, whereas mainstream Christianity seems to have lost that reputation, at least if we judge by how the mainstream culture’s attitude has changed incredibly.

Have we become drowsy? The roll of those the media terms “devout Christians,” whose devotion to carousing and drunkenness is essentially indistinguishable from that of devout non-Christians is unadmirably long. Others, by contrast, may act superficially pious, but a consideration of their obsessions with the anxieties of daily life make it plain that they are more content with these than with genuine faith in God and Providence. All too many seem to prefer not so much the churches that enshrine prayer and worship as those that enshrine sedation and entertainment, in the form of a carousing and spiritual drunkenness that disdains faith with serious content, but focuses almost exclusively on the concerns of this world; i.e., the anxieties of daily life.

And we laugh at those who would keep vigil. It is, perhaps, no more certain a sign of Satan’s smoke in the Church that we allow him to use us to mock those who try, however incorrectly, to keep vigil for the Lord whom we should desire more than life itself. What reflects love more accurately: so great a desire to be reunited with the Beloved that we mistake His coming? or not to long at all, and to live as if we do not desired to please the Beloved?

The dilemma is false, of course, but that is beside the point.

The Gospel suggests that our attitude should be otherwise. Early Christians frequently rose at night to keep vigil, a practice preserved by monks even today in the service called “Matins”. Thomas Merton writes of this in his poem, The Quickening of St. John the Baptist, memorably adapted by John Michael Talbot:

Those who by vow lie buried in the cloister or the hermitage;
The speechless Trappist, or the grey, granite Carthusian,
The quiet Carmelite, the barefoot Clare,
Planted in the night of contemplation,
Sealed in the dark and waiting to be born.
Night is our diocese and silence is our ministry
Poverty our charity and helplessness our tongue-tied sermon.
Beyond the scope of sight or sound we dwell upon the air
Seeking the world’s gain in an unthinkable experience.
We are exiles in the far end of solitude, living as listeners
With hearts attending to the skies we cannot understand:
Waiting upon the first far drums of Christ the Conqueror,
Planted like sentinels upon the world’s frontier.

Do you wish, fellow Christian, to keep vigil? There is no need for so great a work; prayer takes but a moment; we need merely turn our hearts to God. When words are wanting, the spirit’s groans will do — though a Psalm or two can also help. But we are to keep watch and to pray ceaselessly, as our Lord  tells us in the Gospel above and the Scriptures tell us elsewhere and repeatedly. Though we may not see the end times in our lifetime, our own death will surely overtake us in due course, and the best way to welcome them is to await them with the confident joy of faith.


The days are evil

Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret…

Occasion: Twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

You can find the full readings here. This Lectio is based on the Epistle, Ephesians 5:15-20.

Reading

Brothers and sisters:
Watch carefully how you live,
not as foolish persons but as wise,
making the most of the opportunity,
because the days are evil.
Therefore, do not continue in ignorance,
but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.
And do not get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery,
but be filled with the Spirit,
addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts,
giving thanks always and for everything
in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.

Stand-Out Words and Phrases

the days are evil, debauchery, giving thanks always and for everything

Reflection

“The days are evil.”

St. Paul wrote these words roughly two thousand years ago in reference to the culture of the Roman Empire, but they seem to hold in every age. The Church seems darkened by a shadow of evil, and while many of the clergy have been forthright about it, some of the more influential ones can’t be bothered even to name it as evil. Perhaps, when they read this passage, they hear the same thing I once heard one homilist state: that St. Paul is “just telling us to relax.”

I beg to differ. “Telling us to relax” has led to a sanctuary darkened by yet more smoke. Bishops and cardinals appointed by Pope St. John Paul II himself not only knew of this darkness, they hid it or embraced it. Tell me again how we should relax in the face of this evil.

It would be worth our while to review some of the verses that precede today’s reading:

Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.

“Expose them.” Those who fight to expose the misdeeds of clergy do us all a favor in bringing their works of darkness into the light. To the contrary, certain bishops threatened such people — including fellow clergy — with legal action, or referred to them in internal correspondence as “squealers”. It is not at all unreasonable to demand that McCarrick’s close associates, whose careers the current Pope has favored, speak a little more honestly about the gravity of his debauchery.

Is there hope in this, or should one give up on the Church, possibly on Christianity itself, and join the swelling ranks of the Nones who actually desire spirituality?

I would answer no, and point to the following signs of hope.

  1. Unlike previous scandals, McCarrick was not exposed by the media. The Church itself exposed McCarrick to shame and announced the problem. This is an enormous improvement over fifteen years ago, when the Boston Globe began its series of articles on the scandals in the Boston archdiocese. Instead we have learned that at least one prominent media publication had at least one opportunity to expose him, and elected not to do so.
  2. The Church’s history shows repeatedly that She rises from scandal to renewed life. Things have been worse in the past! Yet God’s light triumphs over darkness. St. Paul himself frequently battled those who wanted to reduce Christianity to a flavor of Judaism, and at one point told the Corinthians in regards to an open, unrepentant adulterer to “purge the evil” from their midst. (Would that we had more bishops who felt this way, rather than in the thrall of a false sense of mercy that hesitates even to name evil for what it is.) Similarly, Dominican Laity can take inspiration from one of their own, St. Catherine of Siena, who had no qualms taking clergy to task for their misbehavior.
  3. Much of the despair is accompanied by the recitation of rumors regarding the situation in American seminaries. I’d like to address this from personal experience. I spent the better part of a decade trying to find my vocation in consecrated life or diocesan ministry, and never quite succeeded. I visited abbeys, priories, houses of formation, and inner-city missions, and managed to do rather well academically in one year at one of the largest seminaries in the nation. Eventually I found my vocation in a wife and children, in a manner that I had never really expected.

    That seminary seems to have a bad reputation among many orthodox or conservative Catholics, perhaps because a 2003 book named it as having an open, “dominant culture” of unchastity. In the year and a half that I attended, I never once saw any of the activities the book describes as routine. If they were there, they certainly weren’t open. To the contrary, one of my most vivid memories is that of the formation director pointing out to us that, twenty years after he was told not to worry about celibacy because it would be removed as a requirement “any day now,” it was still a requirement. He related that he and many of his classmates had to struggle with poor formation on both celibacy and developing a prayer life, a mistake the seminary had no intention of repeating. Many of his classmates had left priesthood because on that account, and he concluded along these lines: “Get serious or get out.”

    Near as I could tell, most of us were glad to hear the seminary would take this seriously. I heard of only one exception, and even that through the rumor mill. If true, I know he didn’t make it to ordination, not at our seminary anyway. (Then again, neither did I.)

The days are evil: they always are. What is St. Paul’s suggestion to us who live in evil days? The same as a good priest’s suggestion to me after I left seminary: pray! Address one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; to sing and play to the Lord in our hearts; to thank God always and for everything. No matter how dark the world is, Christ’s light is still there, waiting to shine on us if we but turn to it — and the Hours, the “official prayer” of the Church, make this readily available.

Life in the flesh or life in the Spirit?

Do we live according to the flesh, or according to the Spirit? and how could we discern this?

Occasion: Fourteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time

You can find the full readings here. This Lectio is based on the Epistle, Romans 8:9, 11-13.

Reading

Brothers and sisters:
You are not in the flesh;
on the contrary, you are in the spirit,
if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.
Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,
the one who raised Christ from the dead
will give life to your mortal bodies also,
through his Spirit that dwells in you.
Consequently, brothers and sisters,
we are not debtors to the flesh,
to live according to the flesh.
For if you live according to the flesh, you will die,
but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body,
you will live.

Stand-out words

flesh, Spirit, dwells, debtors

Reflection

This excerpt comes from St. Paul’s exposition in Romans of the relationship between law, sin, and grace. These include the passages where St. Paul points out that sin was at work in the world before God gave Moses the Law; that we were dead because of sin; that sin is only accounted in the presence of Law; that the Law cannot give life, only grace can; that the flesh is hostile to God and concerns itself with death; that those who life in the flesh cannot please God. It would be a mistake to think too deeply of it without keeping that context in mind.

So, how do we live? Do we live according to the flesh, or according to the spirit? Do we seek out rules to follow, identifying a metric of “acceptability” by barely meeting the minimum standards for some distant, lawyerly judge? or do we offer our bodies as a spiritual sacrifice, looking for opportunities to receive and share God’s grace, to please the one with whose complete self-giving we have fallen desperately in love?

And how could we discern this, anyway? While St. Paul does not provide precise guidelines here, he offers a few in the Epistle to the Galatians. Inasmuch as the two treat of similar themes, it seems reasonable to reproduce that here: Continue reading “Life in the flesh or life in the Spirit?”