Monday, December 23, 2013

Advent Meditation, Week 4, 12/22/13

Isaiah 7:10-11,14--
"The LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying: 
Ask for a sign from the LORD, your God; 
let it be deep as the netherworld, or high as the sky!
...Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: 
the virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, 
and shall name him Emmanuel."

Matthew 1:18-24--
"Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit.  Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.

Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of The Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.  She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means “God is with us.”

When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home."

Romans 1:1-2--
"Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised previously through his prophets in the holy scriptures."

So, here we are--God-with-us, a time of signs, dreams and promises. The maiden betrothed becomes Virgin Mother becomes God-Bearer, Theotokos.  The Maker of the story writes his place into the story, altering not the story's logic (God always loves us), but the trajectory of events, so that all of Creation will be restored--the vision of Paradise as the place where God might walk with all His creatures in the cool of the afternoon.  This sort of reunion is not a third-party affair.  The Creator becomes the creature.  God chooses to live the drama, so that nothing is abandoned.  As Pope Francis said in his recent Wednesday audience, "Jesus is consubstantial with God, the Father, but also consubstantial with his mother, a woman."  

Has the mystery of the Incarnation become so trite to us that we lose sight of its arrival and too-quick passing?  Why meditate on the mystery of Emmanuel?  Two reasons:  one is personal and experiential and the other is, naturally, theological.  Perhaps it states the obvious to suggest that a hope for a worthwhile answer to the question involves something which must unite the two.  

There are certainly enough things that we can't fail to pay the dues on:  our spouses, children and grand-children; earning our pay and dealing as best we can with our domestic management; work issues and personal advancement as we try to follow our calling; political and social concerns that we follow because they make us fret over the future.  For those of us who teach or manage in schools, as I was reminded when I looked back at what I wrote last year when the violence at Newtown was fresh in our minds, there are other cares that darken the atmosphere and weigh on us, and these seem to recur with unpleasant regularity these days.

Others have felt the busy-ness, weariness and preoccupation that often erode our lives, from the ancient existentialist of Ecclesiastes to the poet Hopkins.  First our friend Qoheleth:  
"Again I saw under the sun that the race is not won by the swift, nor the battle by the valiant, nor a livelihood by the wise, nor riches by the shrewd, nor favor by the experts; for a time of misfortune comes to all alike. Human beings no more know their own time than fish taken in the fatal net or birds trapped in the snare; like these, mortals are caught when an evil time suddenly falls upon them." (Ecclesiastes 9:11-12)
Then we have Gerard Manley Hopkins, the quiet scholar-convert and Jesuit, a career Latin   teacher whose notebooks revealed riches of language and insight that place his poetry in the highest esteem.  First from “God’s Grandeur:” 
    "Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
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 from the difficult “Carrion Comfort:”
"Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist — slack they may be — these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee."
That we suffer anxiety and frustration does not make us different; it places us in the long procession of humanity whose company Jesus specifically joined, and meant to.  

There are many ways to be among those whom Jesus called "the poor" and for whom the prophets were advocates, as "the widow, the orphan and the stranger at the gate."  Even those born into privilege are challenged--and it maybe harder for these--to find God-with-us.  Ahaz, king of the Southern Kingdom of the fatally divided Israel, is challenged by Isaiah to dream an outside-the-box kind of dream, a new hope for his reign.  Judah is threatened, and he lacks the imagination to rally his own people because he trusts in conventional alliances with perfidious neighbors.  So Isaiah, inspired, dreams for him, a vision of the true power of God making its silent, graceful entrance into some obscure backwater of the old kingdom--a birth that will make the concerns of Ahaz and all who think that nothing ever changes quite irrelevant.  

But the acts God do not just address the concerns of rulers.  A young couple, Mary and Joseph, also received the Word, announced by the Angel and realized by the Spirit and power of God.  Each in a unique way said yes to something that was truly outside the normal expectation.  How their affirmations must have changed things for them!  Mary’s life might have might have taken some very unfortunate turns, had her family and neighbors seen in her only a possibly promiscuous young woman, now with an unexpected and “marked” child.  Joseph could have been the stern young carpenter resting on his legal and social station, had he made the fateful decision to “expose” Mary to the Law.  But they held their Messianic secret closely, and walked the path of their own covenant to raise this child.  The dreams they dreamt truly reached to the 
netherworld--and beyond.

How is our response to God-with-us to be evaluated in this personal-theological light?  Do we move in the closed circles of our own narrow expectations, limited by today’s weighty concerns?  Do we instead dream Isaiah’s dreams, or Mary’s, or Joseph’s?  Do we fear to jeopardize our quotidian safety-net?  Or, does our path invite the greatness of the Love that came to the Holy Family, with all its risks? Saint Paul, with the persuasion of the deep transformation that began on his “road to Damascus” where he would meet the infant Church, chose to be “all in” with a new mission and a new identity--a “slave of Christ Jesus called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God.”  We understand that he could have done otherwise.  

We will, whether we partake in the event or not, ultimately be part of the great events that our doctrine of the dynamic, loving God and God’s entry into our personal and cosmic history affirms.  The glory of Christmas is not only that God is with us--that much is given.  It is what will happen when we meet God-with-us.  We will meet Emmanuel, and we do meet Emmanuel.  As Hopkins says, “Christ plays in ten thousand places.”  Will our dreams be great enough so that we can say yes, I will play too?

Prepare well; open your hearts; have a blessed Christmas!

Advent Meditation, Week 3, 12/15/13

James 5:8-10--
You too must be patient.
Make your hearts firm,
because the coming of the Lord is at hand….
Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters,
the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

Isaiah 35: 5--
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened… 

Psalm 146: 7--
The LORD gives sight to the blind.

Matthew 11:2-6--
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ,
he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question,
“Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?”
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Go and tell John what you hear and see:
the blind regain their sight,
the lame walk,
lepers are cleansed,
the deaf hear,
the dead are raised,
and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.
And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”

Three of the four readings from the Third Sunday of Advent make their centerpiece a powerful metaphor in literature and religion, blindness.  For our purposes, the healing of blindness is one of the amazements of God's promised reformation of the cosmic order.  All manner of healing will take place:  from the restoration of our wounded bodies as we live to the raising to new life of our mortal bodies at the end of time, to the restoring of nature itself, a new heavens and new earth. 

The first basis of faith is to find a way to be open to the literal value of the hope of Salvation working in the world, God-with-us one hundred percent.  Christians do not believe that their story is a metaphor, not even a good one.  The essential mystery of the Incarnation, affirmed in each Sunday’s recitation of the Creed, is that God showed up and walked among us, doing every last little thing that we have to do to get through a human life, however long or short, and transported our human nature to Heaven.  True, Jesus did not sin.  But sin is by definition something that  none of us HAS to do, so Jesus’ not sinning is not a disqualification from his dual nature as True God and True Man.  The story of Salvation is, as Tolkein and Lewis would put it, a fact--the one True Story.

John the Baptist, from his prison cell, expresses a doubt:  “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?"  Momentarily, at least, he seems blinded and needing to look for some assurance from Jesus.  This Gospel reading is from a portion of Matthew that is full of quarreling. There is uncertainty, resistance and the beginnings of dissonance as his followers and other parties begin to awaken to the implications of His call. Jesus is about change, metanoia, “motion of mind and heart.”  As much as we might hope to see the truth about our need for renewal, doing so may be uncomfortable. 

The extreme, even exaggerated case of quacking before truth is alluded to in the Gospel passage. John’s plea comes from the prison cell where he has been placed for his humiliating criticism of Herod the Tetrarch, a petty despot of shameless concupiscence who had adopted the worst behaviors of the Greco-Roman aristocracy and recognized no boundaries of filiation in the exercise of his lust.  John had, as we know, called Herod out for his public adultery with his brother’s wife. John was imprisoned--probably in the vain hope that he would recant his accusation.  Ultimately John would be killed when Herod was backed into a corner by his equally impudent paramour who used her daughter to beguile the drooling Herod into handing over John’s head.  In the test of real manly character here, John wins hands down.  No one is more blind to the truth of his own acts than Herod.  His continued blindness when faced with Jesus, who would also be brought to his seat of judgment, is foreshadowed here, also. 

We have to hope that we can avoid being Herod.  The first step out of blindness is to affirm that God works in us and with us. Our job is to form ourselves, our wills, our relationships, and our world according to the messianic vision in its fulness. Jesus reminds John about these messianic signs.  The readings of all the weeks of Advent provide us with images of what God wants for us, and will bring to fruition in us if we allow God’s grace and power to work. 

But we have to know ourselves and we have to know God by knowing God-with-us.  St. Augustine, author of the first self-conscious spiritual autobiography in Christian history, wrote a poem-prayer whose first line is “Domine Iesu, noverim me, noverim te,”  “Lord Jesus, let me know myself, let me know you.”  The only way to get it right is to see ourselves in all honesty as we are, and as we are illuminated by God’s “kindly light.”  This is frightening to many, of course, for we all have a little bit of the stupid, gullible Herod in us.  Truth intimidates us.  At the same time, the Gospel truth is that we are the beings that God reaches for and suffers to save. 

The mission of Jesus is to bring to reality the prophetic vision of our restoration to wholeness within Creation and at the same time to guide us to wholeness of soul.  Our danger is that we will dismiss the literal reality of God’s full self-disclosure through the human Jesus because we hesitate to meet the life of God that exists within our own person.  Perhaps this realization is  part of what led John to ask his question--can this be true?  Isn’t it easier to wait?  Won’t we be let down if we commit with the fullness of our hearts and souls to the Kingdom that is at hand?  Having already made his very complete and dramatic witness, John experiences that sour note.  We don’t hear the rest of John’s story except second-hand, so we don’t know if he hears and accepts Jesus’ answer before his untimely death. It’s up to us to answer for ourselves.

The dramatic element in this story is Jesus’ challenge to John the Baptist:  Open your eyes in order to believe.  The truth has arrived. We must, as the wise elder James offers, “be patient” with ourselves, yet “make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.”  In so doing, we also prepare to greet the Christ-child, who would be with us, grow with us, walk with us and love us with all of God’s being. 

A blessed third week of Advent!

Advent Meditation, Week 2, 12/8/13

Matthew 3: 7-9--
When he [John the Baptist] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees
coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
And do not presume to say to yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our father.’
For I tell you,
God can raise up children to Abraham from these STONES.”

Romans 15:5,7--
May the God of endurance and encouragement
grant you to think in harmony with one another…
Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you,
for the glory of God.

Psalm 72:1-2
O God, with your judgment endow the king,
and with your justice, the king’s son;
he shall govern your people with justice
and your afflicted ones with judgment.

Isaiah 11:5-8
Justice shall be the band around his waist,
and faithfulness a belt upon his hips.
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
the calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.

"Peace be with you, Samwise Gamgee, here at the end of all things."

Next week the Advent readings will begin the True Story of the Savior's birth, thereby introducing the yearly telling of the Drama of Salvation that focuses the cycle of the Sunday readings.  Today belongs to John the Baptist. Urgency and dissonance again turn up in the readings for the week, especially the Gospel.  Matthew ties the Old Regime with the New in the person of the Baptist.  So this part of his Gospel just as easily belongs to the ancient law of piety and justice as to the joyful post-Resurrection awareness that illuminates the Gospel as a whole.

So John the Baptist is the last in the line of the Prophets, and he meets the standard.  He is inspired by God to speak difficult truth to those whom the people fear. The Men of the law and the men of the Temple wield both worldly influence and religious self-righteousness in first-century Palestine.  They feel no compulsion to be nice about it.  Nor do they feel compunction about what was apparently a shameless level of hypocrisy, so for show they come to the Baptizer who proclaims the prophetic message of metanoia:  change your mind and change your heart, for God is near and God's judgment is upon all.  John's swift condemnation of these characters exhibits not only the pure model of the Biblical prophet, but the gift of discerning the truth of human character, that which the rest of us hope and think is not so visible.  John has risked everything for God; he is formed in the fierce and lonely Judean wilderness, has felt the Hand of God clutch his innermost being, and has surrendered to Yahweh.  His recompense is to see his world and its justice as Yahweh does.  He knows with the mind of God where the poor stand and where the Pharisees and Sadducees stand.

John the Baptist proclaims a standard not one of us can meet.  As described by St. Paul, "all of us have sinned and fallen short of God's glory."  It is the truth.  We SHOULD fear God's gaze.  All the prophets proclaim judgment.  But the same Mind of God that caused each of them to wince at the ability of the human soul to harbor a thousand faces of genuine ugliness also teaches a truth that is even harder to see:  that God's Covenant Promise stands strong still.  Even in the old regime Isaiah contemplated a vision of a world not only healed but brought to an impossible goodness.  Isaiah's metaphor is powerful, but it is the exact counterpoint to John's "brood of vipers"--"The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair."  God fashions a regime that is safe for those who will risk the return to original innocence and original justice.  This is the true and only metanoia.

Hence, Jesus comes and will come to teach the knowing and the living of the reign of God.  Both John the Baptist and Jesus preach the At-Hand-ness of God's work around us and in us.  It's appropriate for Paul to wish the saints of the ancestral Church, "May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another."  If we don't know and admit human sinfulness, we don't know much by anyone's standard.  At the same time that each of us ACTS the Pharisee, each of us is also called to LIVE the welcoming, harmony, gentleness and transforming charity of Emanuel, God-with-us and God-who-will-be-with-us.

A blessed Second Week!

Advent Meditation, Week 1, 12/1/13

Isaiah 2:4--
He shall judge between the nations,
and impose terms on many peoples.
They will hammer their swords into plowshares
and their spears into sickles;
one nation shall not raise the sword against another,
nor shall they train for war again.

Psalm 122:8-9--
For the love of my brothers and friends
I will say, “Peace be within you!”
For the love of the house of the LORD, our God,
I will pray for your good.

Romans 13:13--
Let us then throw off the works of darkness
and put on the armor of light;
let us live decently as in the light of day,
not in orgies and drunkenness,
not in promiscuity and lust,
not in rivalry and jealousy.

Matthew 24:43-44--
Be sure of this: if the master of the house
had known the hour of night when the thief was coming,
he would have stayed awake
and not let his house be broken into.
So too, you also must be prepared,
for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.

It’s about Time!  Is it good to speak about time when you’re late?  The Advent First Sunday readings for this year have a rude urgency to them: tension, conflict, dissonance, change, beating the swords, throwing off works of darkness, breaking into the house.  And for those of us who work in schools--aren't we anxious and conflicted enough already, especially now?  This isn’t relaxing at all.

For that matter, nor is the Gospel; nor the reign of God as lived at the heart of the Church through the centuries by the Proper Saints and the ordinary saints.  Saint Paul really is emphatic about the conversion he wants to see in the community of the Church, making its way as Christ’s witness in pagan Rome, not only in contrast to the saturnalian character of life in the empire, but in its own internal being--throwing off rivalry and jealousy, which have not gone out of style among believers like ourselves.  Maybe we can be smug about having grown out of the “worldly” temptations he names, but today dissension within the Body of Christ continues to be the thousand cuts which cripple the Body.  None of us needs to look far to see it; it is in every family, workplace and political body, the embodiment of Augustine’s City of Man.

Isaiah’s passage is eerily “modern” in its sensibility as well, warning us not to accept the world’s “training for war” by its standards--games of intrigue, the manipulation of proxies, the inaction of international agencies, the weapons trade and the persistence of ideology continue to simmer even as real progress continues on the dismantling the Cold War arms repositories.  The state of the world is not at peace, and won't be, until human hearts are readied for genuine hospitality, the ability to say with the Psalmist, "Peace be within you," and to pray for one another's good and mean it.  I am reminded of some family members of my grandparents' generation, now long deceased, who bore a grievance that separated them quite senselessly for more than thirty years.  Finally one showed up--completely unexpectedly--to restore the relationship.  You know what everyone said:  "It's about time!"

All of us know innately that things work toward natural conclusions--or better, resolutions.  Some of these are more satisfactory than others. Why?  Taking a cue from the New Testament readings, we might be able to propose a couple of reasons.  The first is awareness:  "if the master of the house had known the hour when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake."  The Socratic version of this is Nosce te ipsum, Gnothi seauton, "Know Thyself" or, better still, Know Your Human Nature And Its Destiny, which might be close to what the old Stoics would say.  Jesus, for his part, is discussing our destiny as individuals and the destiny of all persons as part of the order of Creation and Redemption. 

The old Catechism told us that we were made to know, love and serve God in this life and be happy with Him in the next.  Our job is not to be distracted from the long-term view.  There are some basics we need to attend to now--"throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light."  So, maybe the second reason why things conclude themselves either ambiguously or awkwardly in human affairs is that we fear being light, especially to ourselves.  Those dark rooms, stuffy closets and cluttered corners in the mansions of our souls keep us tied down by a skulking, earthbound gravity and make us unable and often unwilling to surrender freely to Grace, the armor of light. 

Advent must be about advancing the judgment to which all must eventually submit.  When we were told as little children to make room for the Baby Jesus in our hearts, the metaphor was not just for our child selves.  Isn't it about time for some house-cleaning?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Summer reading

Finished Daniel Pink's Drive. Working on The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.  Professional development. A book can be a two-edged sword--the person to whom the book is recommended may have a very different reading and application of the author's argument than the original reader.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Impressions of the new Regnum

Things seem finally to have settled into a pattern, but most definitely the new Pope's pattern. The post-Francis Church will be different. Whatever template of mercy he wants to teach the Body of Christ, assuming he has his way, will be transformative. But that's the pattern for popes in the last century--strong personalities and each with his own devotion to Christ and vision of the Kingdom.

And Francis' address to the world is certainly a contrast with Pope Benedict's high patristic theology. From the Osservatore: "The Pope then recounted a personal experience linked to his memory of a man, the father of eight, who worked for 30 years in the Archiepiscopal Curia of Buenos Aires. “Before going out, before going to do any of the things he had to do”, the Holy Father said, “he would always whisper to himself: 'Jesus!'. I once asked him 'But why do you keep saying “Jesus?”'. 'When I say 'Jesus', this humble man answered me, ‘I feel strong’, I feel able to work because I know he is beside me, that he is keeping me'”. “And yet”, the Pope said, this man “had not studied theology: he had only the grace of Baptism and the power of the Spirit”. And “his witnessing”, Pope Francis then admitted, “did me so much good. The name of Jesus. There is no other name. Perhaps it will to do good to all of us”, who live in a “world that offers us such a multitude of 'saviours'”. At times, “whenever there are problems”, he noted, “people do not commend themselves to Jesus, but to others”, even turning to self-styled “magicians”, “that they may resolve matters”; or people “go to consult tarot cards”, to find out and understand what they should do. Yet it is not by resorting to magicians or to tarot that salvation is found: it is “in the name of Jesus. And we should bear witness to this! He is the one Saviour”." (

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Impressions of the Interregnum

A couple things, distilled from Mr. Palmo's incredible Whispers in the Loggia.

First, the text of Benedict's remarkable final address to the assembled Cardinals and other members of the papal household.  I think what's important here are his brief assessment of the Church's pilgrimage of the last eight years, the two thoughts from Romano Guardini that mark the center of his brief remarks, and his affectionate comments toward his former brother Cardinals with the oath of fealty to his successor at the end.  The likelihood, of course, is that successor is in the room.
Dear beloved brothers,

I welcome you all with great joy and cordially greet each one of you. I thank Cardinal Angelo Sodano [dean of the college], who as always, has been able to convey the sentiments of the College, Cor ad cor loquitur [heart speaking to heart]. Thank you, Your Eminence, from my heart.

And referring to the disciples of Emmaus, I would like to say to you all that it has also been a joy for me to walk with you over the years in light of the presence of the Risen Lord. As I said yesterday, in front of thousands of people who filled St. Peter's Square, your closeness, your advice, have been a great help to me in my ministry. In these 8 years we have experienced in faith beautiful moments of radiant light in the Churches’ journey along with times when clouds have darkened the sky. We have tried to serve Christ and his Church with deep and total love which is the soul of our ministry. We have gifted hope that comes from Christ alone, and which alone can illuminate our path. Together we can thank the Lord who has helped us grow in communion, to pray to together, to help you to continue to grow in this deep unity so that the College of Cardinals is like an orchestra, where diversity, an expression of the universal Church, always contributes to a superior harmony of concord. I would like to leave you with a simple thought that is close to my heart, a thought on the Church, Her mystery, which is for all of us, we can say, the reason and the passion of our lives. I am helped by an expression of Romano Guardini’s, written in the year in which the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council approved the Constitution Lumen Gentium, his last with a personal dedication to me, so the words of this book are particularly dear to me.

Guardini says: "The Church is not an institution devised and built at table, but a living reality. She lives along the course of time by transforming Herself, like any living being, yet Her nature remains the same. At Her heart is Christ. "

This was our experience yesterday, I think, in the square. We could see that the Church is a living body, animated by the Holy Spirit, and truly lives by the power of God, She is in the world but not of the world. She is of God, of Christ, of the Spirit, as we saw yesterday. This is why another eloquent expression of Guardini’s is also true: "The Church is awakening in souls." The Church lives, grows and awakens in those souls which like the Virgin Mary accept and conceive the Word of God by the power of the Holy Spirit. They offer to God their flesh and in their own poverty and humility become capable of giving birth to Christ in the world today. Through the Church the mystery of the Incarnation remains present forever. Christ continues to walk through all times in all places. Let us remain united, dear brothers, to this mystery, in prayer, especially in daily Eucharist, and thus serve the Church and all humanity. This is our joy that no one can take from us.

Prior to bidding farewell to each of you personally, I want to tell you that I will continue to be close to you in prayer, especially in the next few days, so that you may all be fully docile to the action of the Holy Spirit in the election of the new Pope. May the Lord show you what is willed by Him. And among you, among the College of Cardinals, there is also the future Pope, to whom, here to today, I already promise my unconditional reverence and obedience. For all this, with affection and gratitude, I cordially impart upon you my Apostolic Blessing.
 Now how about some bells: