Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Advent 2012 Week 4

All things great and small--and looking ahead.

"But you (Bethlehem) Ephrathah, the least of the clans of Judah, from you will come for me a future ruler of Israel whose origins go back to the distant past, to the days of old....
He will take his stand and he will shepherd them with the power of Yahweh, with the majesty of the name of his God, and they will be secure, for his greatness will extend henceforth to the most distant parts of the country." Micah 5: 1-4.

"He says first You did not want what the Law lays down as the things to be offered, that is: the sacrifices, the cereal offerings, the burnt offerings and the sacrifices for sin, and you took no pleasure in them; and then he says: Here I am! I am coming to do your will. He is abolishing the first sort to establish the second.
And this will was for us to be made holy by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ made once and for all." Hebrews 10: 9-10.

"Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could into the hill country to a town in Judah. She went into Zechariah's house and greeted Elizabeth.
Now it happened that as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leapt in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. She gave a loud cry and said, 'Of all women you are the most blessed, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. Why should I be honoured with a visit from the mother of my Lord? Look, the moment your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Yes, blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.'" Luke 1:39-45.

Week 4 of Advent finds us hearing a theological message of reunion and renewal. Micah's words anticipate a remaking of the terms under which we partner with God, and the passage from Hebrews moves this remaking forward to the Messianic era--our time, the time of the Kingdom now established among us. What does this vision of transformation mean for us?

The temptation is to understand the transition of the Covenants as a point of triangulation in history, clarifying where we are in time and human progress. Yet, we have to be careful lest we make ourselves arrogant about being "over" so many of our more primitive behaviors. The great philosophical debates of modernity are conditioned by the "historical fallacy." Since we are moderns, how could we not be so much better and so much better off than those ancient people?

The truth is, history is only useful if we will learn some lessons. The consequences of sin are ever present, as last week's tragedy in Connecticut shows us. We aren't far removed from the event remembered just three days after Christmas as the massacre of the holy innocents. At Christmas, when we celebrate a rise in our solicitude for one another, it is the most dreadful of ironies to worry that there are those among us whose pathologies render them devoid of empathy and subject not to some new sort of perversity but to powerful, atavistic malice. The wounds of humankind are deep, abiding, transmitted from one generation to the next in a dystopic metaphor of DNA transfer.

But the near approach of the birth of the Messiah, laid out with a serious tone in today's first two readings, challenges us to consider the vision of a new kind of society under a new authority. The nearness of God is for Christians the foundation-stone of all the inner riches of our spirituality. But somehow we must find here the elements of a renewed social edifice as well, beginning with the webs that tie us to family, school and work, and political community. Note how Micah ties the arrival of the "future ruler of Israel" to a time when God's people "will be secure." This is not an isolated or obscure strand of prophetic thought in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. The same medieval Jewish mystic and poet, Yehuda Ha-Levi, who could write the fervent, "O Lord, where shall I find Thee?/All-hidden and exalted is Thy place," also authored the formidable treatise called the "Kuzari," which gained an influential role in the great conversation of his day on natural right and just polity. There is a tie between the quality of our personal faith and life and the life of the nation.

The author of Hebrews also binds the great with the humble, the noble with the mean, the universal with the particular: "this [God's] will was for us to be made holy by the offering of the body of Jesus Christ made once and for all." The Creator becomes a singular and exemplary one of us and everything is made new. The invitation is received and accepted, or not, within the intimacy of the personal encounter.

And the family of God, the Son, is suddenly present in that most intimate familial setting, the mother's womb. Depicted by St. Luke, this presence is accompanied by the haste and excitement of a family assembling joyfully--preparing for Christmas! There is the divine calling to the human will, and Elizabeth's child "leapt for joy." A miracle forces us to make a decision about the Nature of things, their sensory and public dimension, and that is what Elizabeth acknowledges, joining the new community consisting of Mary and Joseph and the unborn Savior.

So this Christmas birth points beyond as its power moves within. It is a miracle, by definition. We pray that our hearts will open to receive the newborn King, but the marks of the King's presence within are rightfully accompanied by contagious excitement, communication and the transformation of family and community. Peter Maurin, no friend of the "frozen chosen," calls these energies the "dynamite of the Church" that needs to be detonated. This means something for parents--to think seriously about the community of the family, to consider lovingkindness when patience is in short supply and openness to new circumstances when we discover that our children have minds of their own and aren't following the script we thought we wrote. Truly the script we didn't write invites us to explore God's will and the fuller dimensions of our acceptance and compassion.

For those of us who teach there is also a challenge to move toward the model of Jesus, who did not teach like the others: His lessons were vivid and honest, his manner consistent, his relations with students comfortable and democratic.  He was their delight.  He let His Truth speak for itself, pleasing some and angering others. Finally, and with significance for us considering the events of these weeks, he was empty of self-will--able to truly give the substance of his life for those in his care.  The behavior of the teachers and administrators, those who died and those who lived, in the public school in Connecticut is an example to all.

Finally, let us note that there is very little about the liturgical calendar that is accidental. The Masses of Advent and the Christmas season open a full jar of rich connections. Following Christmas Day, we find the memorial of the Holy Innocents and then the feast of the Holy Family. What greater contrast--from the utter loss of human-family sensibility caused by pathological solipsism, to the Gospel image of its hoped-for perfection of unity and loving-kindness now that the Kingdom is at hand and God is truly with us. The miracle of Christmas, the Incarnation, invites us to make the choice every day in favor of the glorious reality at the true heart of things.

We turn last to Father Gerard Manley Hopkins:
"And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things."

It's Christmas. Eat richly, read richly, contemplate richly. Find the richness of family things, literal and metaphorical, in all your comings and goings this season.

Advent 2012 Week 3

On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!
The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a mighty savior;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
and renew you in his love,
he will sing joyfully because of you,
as one sings at festivals. Zephaniah 3,17-18.

The Lord is near.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4,6-7.

"What should we do?"
"Teacher, what should we do?"
"And what is it that we should do?"
Now the people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ. Luke 3, 10-18.

The readings for Week 3 are a festival of anxiety and expectation, but also an opportunity for some grown-up soul-searching. Their message is especially true this weekend, when we once again see the cycle of evil become a part of our national experience. We will hear a multitude of explanations about the many factors that contribute to such manifest horror as the face-to-face murder of close family and of innocent children. The world awaits words that will suffice as wisdom: "What should we do?"

In the Gospel for Week 3, Jesus' earliest public advocate, John the Baptist, does his seeming best with the questions of the day, reminding the inquirers that they have moral duties that they have been taught: to be generous, to be modest in their desire for worldly wealth, and to give others the benefit of the doubt in day-to-day exchanges. It's the truth, but almost on the level of platitudes, like the speeches of Polonius in "Hamlet."

Like John's "everyman" portrayed by Luke, we also have a tendency to seek simplistic answers for what troubles us. As teachers we find so much blame to pass around for why things aren't easier: "I'm not paid enough. I have too much to do. The administrator and department chair don't get it. The parents (a) don't care, (b) spoil their kids and never say no to them, (c) think they can buy a diploma, (d) are conspiring to get me fired. My peers have done such a poor job teaching that I have to fix what they did wrong. The culture is full of negatives. The students today have it too easy and won't work. Their priorities are all wrong. They think they will become billionaire athletes, performers or celebrities, so their sense of entitlement knows no bounds." This, and much more, is our conventional wisdom, the easy answer-set addressing our everyday question, "What should we do?" We have all these impossible fixes to carry out, so who can blame us for living at the edge of despair no matter how hard we work.

We who have answered the teacher's vocation, and who take our hearing of the Scriptures seriously, are challenged to consider how the conventional wisdom is not enough to satisfy us in the roles of teachers, members of families and persons looking for a level of Truth capable of drawing us forward with joy from day to day.

John the Baptist really is a good teacher who knows that much. When pressed, he risks more--after all, he is also a seer, a prophet. Zephaniah and the others of the fellowship of the prophets had already dared to push the boundaries of the conventional and simplistic outlook on the world. These visionaries seek News that liberates heart and soul.

Platitudes are not enough, Zephaniah says, we must push past these to the mystery of God's work, not ours--in ourselves, in our students, in our world. Zephaniah is the prophet of the Day of Yahweh. He warns about its coming, but he also invites: "When that day comes, the message ... will be: Zion, have no fear ... Yahweh your God is there with you ... He will renew you by his love." (New Jerusalem trans.). In other words, raise your vision higher so that the ultimate and truest hope becomes the shaper of your attitudes and our deeds.

One of the daily prayers from the past week talks about our anticipation of an end to "the long night of Advent." St. Paul is able to say "The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all...." While he praises the Philippians for their kindness and good sense, the thing that matters is their trust in "the peace of God, which surpasses understanding."

Back to John the Baptist: Luke's recounting of the episode recalls how John, in the role of Prophet, tells that "One mightier than I is coming ... To clear his threshing floor, to gather the wheat into his barn ... And burn the chaff in unquenchable fire." This might make us apprehensive rather than lessen our fears and insecurities. Luke understood the Christian truth of the matter, for he concludes that John, in this and "in many other ways, ...preached good news to the people." Good news? The Day of God?

We're invited this week to sober up and see things in the right perspective. It's not our everyday complaining, our focus on minutiae, important as attending to many of our daily duties and being good stewards in our field of responsibility can truly be, that will allow us to find God with us on Christmas and every other day. It is this arrival of Heaven "within the geography of the heart," as Pope Benedict has said, that allows us to work to be a fellowship of hope. One of the TV priests, Fr. Jonathan Morris, interviewed about the Newtown tragedy, asked by the news anchor what those who are hurting should do, began his answer by saying "It's all about Heaven." When we model this hope--truly a Christmas Gift--for ourselves, our students, our peers, our supervisors and employers, and our society, then our ears will open to hear and our hearts will prepare to do the Good News.

Advent 2012 Week 2

"I pray always with joy in my every prayer for all of you, because of your partnership for the gospel from the first day until now I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus. God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
"And this is my prayer: that your love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that you may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God." Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11.

In the first reading for the second Sunday of Advent, St. Paul 's message almost casually ambles into the theme of discernment raised by the Responsorial Psalm of last week. From knowing ourselves in humility we are directed to know what is important and what is not. It almost sounds like a platitude, but is another stiff challenge to us. We--teachers--like to think we are good at discernment.

After all, we read student papers, assign grades, prepare what we think are necessary and appropriate presentations, lectures and activities, and discuss and correct student behavior so that these young people might be shaped into knowledgeable, worthwhile and contributing adults. We create lesson plans, follow the assigned curriculum, work with our administrators and peers to help the school be worthy of its stated mission and worry about how all of this will serve the needs of today's student, about whose abilities, study habits and inclination to learn we often have serious doubts. All of these genuine concerns press on our consciences and cause us a degree of day-to-day stress. It's part of being a teacher who cares, but it's a burden to carry.

St. Paul seems completely aware that those to whom he is writing are in need of the prayers that he offers for us. We should be thankful! He knows perfectly well that God's good work is only just begun in us, or he would congratulate us on having achieved perfection. But he gives us some time to get it right: "until the day of Christ Jesus." We're in our grace period, maybe even our extended time, and we must honestly acknowledge that we genuinely need every minute to even begin to exercise Gospel charity for those in our care in the same manner that St. Paul cares for his apprentices, for whose good and whose presence he longs "with the affection of Jesus Christ."

St. Paul's community has something to learn and a goal to achieve if they will be worth something in their vocation as partners for the gospel. The content of the curriculum is "knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value." The goal of our teacher-formation program is to "be pure and blameless" and "filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ." Kierkegaard, the pastor's boy and an astute, if odd, reader of Saints Paul and Augustine, understood that the category of true Christians was a finite set of one: Jesus. (I know he wasn't Catholic, and so did not avail himself of Marian doctrine, etc.) The point is well taken. We need help.

Let's remember that Advent is the "grace period" par excellence. The Creator has extended our time and our expectation forward into the fulfillment of all history. Let's pray this Advent that we continue to receive St. Paul's prayers and that we be open to his teaching. Let's pray that we learn our calling and our craft better. Let's pray for perception--to find and acknowledge the person of Jesus newly born in every one of our students, because that is "what is of value" for each student and for each of us as well. Let's pray for discernment, that we receive the grace to speak of what is best in our students (and our peers) and know and live what is best in us. Finally, let's be encouraged that our teacher for this week, St. Paul, expresses "confidence ... that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus."

Advent 2012 Week 1

Today's Psalm (25) is striking:

Your ways, O LORD, make known to me;
teach me your paths,
Guide me in your truth and teach me,
for you are God my savior,
and for you I wait all the day.

Good and upright is the LORD;
thus he shows sinners the way.
He guides the humble to justice,
and teaches the humble his way.

All the paths of the LORD are kindness and constancy
toward those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
The friendship of the LORD is with those who fear him,
and his covenant, for their instruction.

There ought to be a book about the "education Psalms." Certainly the whole trajectory of Scripture is aimed at the making explicit the content of the revealed truth that God is with us--by virtue of the primordial history of Genesis, the Patriarchs, the liberating events of the wondrous flight from Egypt, the desert wanderings, the up-and-down history of the Israelites, the powerful witness of the line of the Prophets, the endlessly fascinating mixture of the Writings, and the "new primordial history" of the first community of the Church. But there is contained here also an invitation to a reflective dimension describing how God teaches, in addition to what God teaches.

Our job, especially as teachers, is to consider what kind of students we are, to examine our readiness to learn, and to consider what kind of students God considers us to be. Do we examine ourselves with the same kind of clarity and compassion with which we see the young persons who assemble before us at each class period? How deeply do we consider that we are also learners as we expect the students to be. Think about it: God teaches not only the avid, friendly and hard-working souls. As the Gospels witness, God teaches and shows an infinite caring and adaptability facing the reluctant, closed-minded and hardly-working folk in the community of the Church as well.

Take it a little further: we say, as Thomas Aquinas does, that learning happens "according to the capacity of the receiver." Do we consider that God approaches us in deference to the style that is effective for us? Are we the readers, the doers, the actors, the can't-sit-down types, the shout-it-out types? If the attribution is correct, St. Francis' much-quoted advice must apply to us as well: "Preach always; if necessary, use words."

So I invite each of you, theologians, to use this first week of Advent as a mini-retreat to consider yourselves God's literal learners. We all must grow in self-awareness so that our pedagogy and our lives are more truly "with God."

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Quotes 3

"If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing." --C. S. Lewis

Monday, December 03, 2012

Quotes 2

For everything that is not God is unable to fulfill my desires. It is you alone I seek, that I may have you. O Lord, open my heart. Jesus Christ, my Savior, the express image and character of your essence is that image and likeness I desire. --Blaise Pascal

Sunday, December 02, 2012

A series of quotes, 1

The simple desire for God is already the beginning of faith. All of us have doubts. They are nothing to worry about. Our deepest desire is to listen to Christ, who whispers in our hearts. --Brother Roger of Taizé

Friday, June 29, 2012

The Chief Justice's Gambit

My little machiavellian mind yesterday told me that John Roberts is far too smart to fall into some kind of naive ideological mistake and instantly forsake the idea of judicial restraint.  I also don't think he's in love with Obama.  Here's my theory:  He definitely seems to have taken a very "big picture" view of what's going on with the American political system.  I think he has in mind that the Court can't just keep being called on to absolve the politicians from their stupid actions.  Now the only solution is a political one.  If "the people" aren't attentive enough to the way the ACA tyranny has been foisted upon them, they deserve what they get.  Roberts has handed it to Romney.  The now-official definition that this bill is a new set of taxes of unprecedented proportions is the case that Mr. Romney has to develop, and I think he has smart enough people around him to seize the opportunity.  Roberts "called out" Obama's administration on their unceasing LIE about this during the approval process of this legislation.  That's what it boils down to, I think.  The very peculiar nature of this 4-4-1 decision contains a "poisoned pill."  The opposition needs to figure out how to get the electorate to administer the medicine.  Roberts saves the Court, saves the  political process, and plays big-time hardball. 

At any rate, I finally found someone who agrees:

By the way, since it's a tax, the House of Reps is already working on using the spending authority vested in that chamber, according to Paul Ryan this morning.

And one more thing--he didn't have a seizure... and he didn't wake up to the horse's head in his bed.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

So that we shouldn't forget

I'm saving this, because it has now returned to the news.  I hope other parties see fit to remind the voters of it during the campaign.

Speaking of which, the campaign ought to be a systematic analysis of those policies and legislative initiatives proposed or enacted--not to mention the "executive orders."  Just saying--there is no lack of material here, a great deal of which simply is odious to most voters.  Let's remind them, politely but firmly.  We've got months to work on this and get it right.

No excuses for failure!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Who would have thought....

....that on May 11th the Astros would have a better record than the Red Sox, and be higher in the standings.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Crossing paths

Gallup poll shows Romney now ahead, 48-43.  I think somehow this change in trends on the Gallup polling at this time marks a turning point.  Either the country's sense of what's going on has made a shift, or simply it's the realization that the battle is now on for real, and so there is some serious soul-searching going on.  It's a pretty dramatic move.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Super Bowl

The heart wants a Patriots' win.  What the eyes see is that the Giants are really overpowering right now, and Eli is really in a good rhythm.  This is the key:  Brady must execute perfectly in order to score enough points for a victory. 

Classroom talking points

  1. Faith is not blind.
  2. God is not random.
  3. Scripture has to be read with intelligence.
  4. The world's religions seek truth and hold to it as they see it; Catholics understand that the heart of wisdom is within Jesus' teachings, preserved and protected by their Tradition.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The NFL Playoffs

The scenarios thus far are interesting:
  • Texans-Ravens:  This game shapes up to be living proof that the modern NFL game is often an exercise in violence and the ability to overcome the attrition of forces.  You have to like the Ravens, but I think the Texans are underrated.  Can they overcome, eke it out, squeak by?  
  • Packers-Giants:  On the face of it, it seems that the team that scores last will win.  The Giants are on a hot streak.  The Packers have somewhat the better offensive package, but a suspect defense.  It's in Green Bay.  Will the weather decide?  No, the Packers' defense, or the lack of it, will decide the game.
  • Saints-49ers:  The Saints are battle-tested and have Drew Brees.  That's got to be enough.  Although SF has won a number of critical games, you have to like Brees until the Saints offense prove they can't do it against any defense.
  • Broncos-Patriots:  The Patriots are overwhelming favorites.  Belichek and Tom Brady have had time to prepare against Denver's very tough defense.  What will decide will be Tim Tebow and the Denver offense can score significant points against the Patriots' underachieving defense.
If it winds up to be Patriots-Saints in the Super Bowl, what will the over/under be?