(Saturday following Sacred Heart)
Today's readings (Thurs after VII Sun of Ord II; Jas 5:1-6; Ps 49; Mk 9:41-50) are not pleasant ones.
First, James excoriates the rich indifferent: "Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded, and that corrosion will be a testimony against you; it will devour your flesh like a fire." Their crime was that they "lived on earth in luxury and pleasure," gaining their wealth from the backs of laborers whose cries for justice have "reached the ears of the Lord of hosts." Thus they "have stored up treasure for the last days," as if gold could bribe God, as if money would appease the Maker of Heaven and Earth.
In the Gospel reading, our Lord gives us hard advice: if something of us causes us to sin, then we are to get rid of it, even going so far as to rip out an eye or cut off a hand, if it becomes for us an occasion of sin. People often say that our Lord is being metaphorical or hyperbolic on this point. He is not, and makes it clear by saying that it is better to lose a body part than to risk damnation. We can disagree only if we overvalue our possessions (even body parts) and do not understand how horrible hell is. Think about it: if we found we were holding in our backpacks a bottle of deadly poison gas, we would be very careful to distance ourselves from it. If such care is taken to protect the body, then why not the soul?
The message gains an added dimension if we recall the martyrdom of the widow and her seven sons, recounted in the Second Book of Maccabees (2 Mac 7). In that story, each of the sons willingly parts with hand, tongue, scalp, feet, or more, rather than betray the laws of God. The first brother expresses the hope of resurrection at the end of time. The second brother, disregarding his maimed limbs during his martyrdom adds: "It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disdain them; from him I hope to receive them again," (2 Mac 7:11).
If we are really serious about avoiding sin then we must be willing to sacrifice the things that lead us into sin: wealth, comfort, friendships, love of self - all good things in their own right, can become inordinate and lead us away from God into disregard for our neighbor, greed, addictions, sexual immorality, and worse. We must take measures against these occasions for sin. Parting with wealth to avoid disregard for the poor; ridding ourselves of comforts to avoid sluggishness; parting with friends to avoid being tempted by them - none of these should be beyond our thinking, beyond our willingness. Whatever we cling to, even at the price of our relationship with God, will certainly drag us down to hell. Whatever we sacrifice for the love of God, we have good reason to hope will be restored to us in a glorified way at the resurrection. We have to be willing to go all the way for Jesus.
Easy now - don't go apoplectic! Usually, intermediate steps are possible between our current sinful state and a total disposal of all worldly goods. We need not break off all ties, or give away all wealth, at once. Rather, we should prudently examine ourselves. We should ask if it possible to avoid the occasion to sin by taking steps in the relationship, or parting with a chunk (but not all) of the wealth.
If a particular friend encourages me to use narcotics, might I meet with him only in safe situations? If that works, so much the better - I might end by being a good example to him. But if I think that by falling into sin with him I will somehow be a good example, or lead him out of it, I am only fooling myself. Better to cut him off than to go to hell with him. It is not my job to save others' souls, and pride alone can convince. Jesus will take care of him - perhaps seeing his good friends leaving is just the medicine needed. I cannot know. I can only do my sincere best to avoid sin at all costs, and that I must do.
Likewise, it may be that by developing a habit of tithing, I learn generosity as a virtue and begin to give to all who ask, as our Lord commands (Mt 5:42). In such cases, perhaps it is wise to keep a stock of wealth, especially if the firm intention is to invest it ethically and wisely to multiply its usefulness to God's purposes. But if I find myself obeying the commandment to tithe and then feeling self-satisfied and disregarding the vital needs of my poor brethren - well, better just to get rid of the wealth, flush it down the toilet even, so that I will be unable to help them, than to hold onto it and refuse to help them.
Prudence is the virtue of knowing what is most valuable and the best way to gain it. Heaven is more more valuable than a fat wad of cash, cool friends, or even two working eyeballs. The prudent thing is to be willing to go all the way for Jesus, to whatever sacrifice is needed (He did!), and to do it one solid step at a time.
Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
This past Sunday was the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity. The Trinity is one of those things that most Christians accept, few think about, and none understand. That's a shame, really, because then we can't work Him into our lives and consequently come to think of Him (God!) as irrelevant to us. That's a real pity, to say the least.
Why does It matter? Well, to understand why It matters, we have to understand a bit about It, first. And the first thing to understand is that we cannot understand It fully. That's because God is infinite and most of our brains are a just a bit bigger and, relatively speaking, more intelligent than softballs. God is infinite and we are not. We can understand sooo many things, and fit them into our mind's rational framework, but we cannot do that with God. If we could, He would less than us and not more.
For the ancient Greeks, a mysterion isn't a problem to solve, but an interaction between the human and the divine. It helps to think of mystery in that sense: not something to figure out, or something that can't be figured out - rather, it is something to interact with, something that we cannot finish figuring out. Like my grandpa. After over 50 years of married life together, I distinctly remember hearing my grandma, who knows him like the back of her hand, "Well John, I didn't know that about you!" Each human person is a mystery - how much more God! How little we know Him even after all He has taught us! Knowing a mystery is not about knowing facts, or knowing about a person, but knowing a person - God. It is also like seeing the sky. Lying on our backs on a clear blue day, we can only see bits of pieces of the sky at a time. We know all the bits of vision fit together somehow, or else the sky would crack up, as it were, in our vision - but we cannot see the thing all at once. It's too big. God is something like that. No wonder we look to the sky when we think of heaven.
So, the Scriptures tell us that Father, Son, and Spirit are all God. They are distinct from each other, and address and refer to each other in their speech, and are not the same. Yet they are all one - perfectly united. Thence the formula that the Church has handed down: the Three Persons of the Trinity are perfectly united in their innermost being, but never confused or conflated in their Persons - never mushed together or mixed up, as it were. On the other hand, they are completely distinct in their Persons, their "who-they-are," but never divided or separated in their innermost reality. They are not three sides or faces of the one God, but three full-fledged persons. Their distinct personalities do not divide Him. Nor does His unity eradicate their distinctiveness. What distinguishes Father from Son is that the Father begets and the Son is begotten, sired, from all eternity. The Father gives all that He has to the Son, Jesus tells us (Jn 17:22; Jn 6:38-40), and the Son surrenders all that He is to the Father (Lk 23:46), each in a co-eternal, co-existing act of love. The love between the Father and the Son is so intense, so immense, so real, that cannot be thought of as a thing, but is Himself a Person - the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit eternally issues forth from the union of the Father and the Son, and eternally returns to them. It is in this way that we can say not, "God loves," but "God is love," because from all eternity God is unchanging, and His nature has ever been to love. Love needs and object, but God needed nothing else, because being Three Persons, He could love Himself without being selfish, but rather, always self-sacrificing.
Heaven, then, consists in this: to enter into the life and love of the Most Holy Trinity, to experience a joy so complete and intense that words fall away and wonder overpowers. The greatest and most intense joys and pleasures of this earth are only foreshadows of the glory and life that God has in store for those who love Him (1 Cor 2:9). After the general resurrection of the dead we will experience it bodily as even now our Lord Jesus Christ experiences it in His Resurrected Body.
Everything that exists is ordered to helping us get "there." Society's purpose is to help the individual get to heaven. The ordained priesthood is to help the priest and his parish to get there, and to bring more people, the outside world, with them. A marriage's purpose is to help the husband and wife each help each other to get there, and to bring more people, their children and neighbors, with them. In fact, the human family is supposed to be a little school in which love is taught, practiced, and shared.
Oh, but how badly we fall short! Is your family a perfect school of love, a perfect image of the Trinity, showing the outside world the beauty and goodness of God wherever it goes? Is your family and community like a blueprint for how to live the Life of the Trinity? It certainly isn't if the Blessed Trinity isn't even your model, your blueprint for life. I know my family isn't perfect, and neither am I. Even trying to be good and holy, it's really, really hard.
We cannot experience heaven while there remains inside us anything that will block out love: fear, selfishness, pride, envy, rage, sluggishness, and the rest. We must be purged.
Good news: God wants to help us. Whenever we act, we act by our nature - I eat in the way humans eat, speak as humans speak, and so on. But it is not my nature that acts - it is me, my who-I-am, my being. Same thing with God. When God acts, He acts by means of His nature - divine and spiritual, and ever since the Incarnation of the Word in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, human and material as well. But it is not JUST the Father or JUST the Son who acts - whenever He acts, He acts out of His being, His whole who-He-is. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, never do anything separately, even if it is convenient to speak of things that way. So when we receive Holy Communion by eating the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of the God-man Jesus of Nazareth, we receive not only Him, the Son into our stomachs and thence our hearts. We receive with Him also the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Whole Trinity comes into our heart.
The Gospel of John is instructive on this point: "So Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me," (Jn 6:53-57). Again, "Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you," (Jn 15:4-7).
So it is that this unfathomable Love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that we are called to imitate and conform to, to enter into and to enjoy, that is so far beyond us that we cannot imagine it - this same love will be enter into our hearts and change them, filling them with Faith, Hope, and Charity, cleansing them of fear, despair, and selfishness, providing the motor force to impel us into an eternity of joy and blessing. The Holy Trinity and His Heaven are not some abstract dogmas and distant, philosophical pipe-dreams - they are a new Life that can at least begin right here and now. But they are not unattainable and remote - He wants to be intimate and near us. In us. He wants to be our rocketship to bring us to Him, the nuclear reactor in us generating His life for the world, our blueprint for joy and the builder of the house He wants to give us.
"Unless the LORD build the house, they labor in vain who build. Unless the LORD guard the city, in vain does the guard keep watch. It is vain for you to rise early and put off your rest at night, To eat bread earned by hard toil-- all this God gives to his beloved in their sleep," (Ps 127:1-2).
And when we get there, we won't be disappeared like drops in the ocean, our personality lost in a cosmic soul ocean, as the Buddhists say. We will be, like the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, more perfectly ourselves than we ever have been before. Our union with Him and each other will no more lose us in the mix than they lose each other. And our distinctive individuality will no longer be a source of selfishness or separation as it is hear on earth, but a magnification of glory without ever dividing us one from the other again.
Is there a better way? I can't think of one.
Last year in his letter of 27 May 2007, Holy Father Benedict asked all Christians to pray for Church in China on 24 May 2008, which is the feast of Mary, Help of Christians. The day commemorates the return of the Pope Pius VII to Rome after being abducted, held prisoner, and tortured by Napoleon.
The day was suitable because of the captivity in which so much of the Church in China is kept by its government.
After the recent catastrophes there, and the Church's attempt to respond vigorously, it seems all the more imperative that we pray not only for the Church there, but for the whole nation.
Mary, Help of Christians, pray for us.
The Count of Ourem, when he had driven the Moors from Abdegas, took one of their daughters to be his bride in about 1158. She was converted by his love, and in her honor he renamed the town for her: Fatima, a name beloved to her former coreligionists because it was borne by the daughter of Mohammed. Almost eight centuries would pass before the name of Mohammed's daughter would become beloved to Christians as well as Muslims. We still await the day when the name of God's mother will be as beloved to them as it is to us. Fatima holds the key, the Servant of God Fulton Sheen insisted, because the place named for Mohammed's daughter, or at least for one named for her, is the place that God's mother has made her own.
On May 13, 1917, when Mary first appeared there, though the little seers who saw her did not know it, all hell was breaking loose. Russia wasn't settled down from its democratic March Revolution and was already poised for the coming communist October Revolution. Mexico had just ratified its rabidly anti-Catholic and anticlerical Constitution of 1917, aiming all its government's powers toward the destruction of Holy Church. The forces of godless communism began to ravage the East and the Americas. At the same time, Europe, the heartland of Christianity, suffered under the Great War's slaughter so enormous that soon the entire continent would be scandalized from the Faith, and this under its hypocritically "Christian" leadership. It was in this context that the Blessed Virgin, the Holy Mother of God, brought a message to three little shepherds.
The Blessed Virgin taught the little children what Holy Church has always taught her children: pray and fast for the conversion of sinners. She encouraged them to do penances in reparation for the many insults to our Lord's Sacred Heart and to her Immaculate Heart. The forces of Satan, threatening then to overwhelm the world, could not be turned back by tanks and planes, for "For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places," (Eph 6:12).
This basic message was taken seriously even before our Lady gave it to the children. It was by praying the Rosary that Don Juan of Austria and Pope St. Pius V turned the Muslim armies out of Christianity's heartland in 1571. Though that battle was fought with fire and iron, it was won with wooden beads.
Some generations later, in 1984, the bishop of that place gave a speech in Vienna in which he said, "The Secret of Fatima speaks not about atomic bombs, nor about nuclear warheads, nor about SS-20 missiles. Its contents concern but our faith. To identify the Secret with catastrophic announcements or with a nuclear holocaust is to distort the meaning of the message. The loss of faith of a continent is worse than the annihilation of a nation; and it is true that Faith is continually diminishing in Europe."
Europe, it seems, has suffered a spiritual nuclear holocaust. We must wonder if the Faith in the US has not also been gutted, for all our churchgoing piety, when our divorce rate is so high and so many pregnancies end in abortion, when pornography has become a staple in our spiritual diet, and violence is such a popular form of entertainment that children now post on the internet videos of themselves beating each other up. Around the world the power of our Western practical, if not proclaimed, atheism struggles to legitimize every form of immorality conceivable. And it is not only the forces of godlessness that threaten to overwhelm humanity, but, as in 1158, Islam itself wages war on Christ, or at least those who used nominally to call themselves Christian.
The world now, as in 1917, very much needs the message of Fatima. We are surrounded on all sides - godless atheism and anti-Christian Islam. In a world awash in war and rumors of war, we have the same hope that accompanied the Count of Ourem, the little seers of Fatima, the martyrs of Mexico and Russia and China. Against their swords and terror, threats of bodily harm and spiritual nihilism, we have the Great and Holy Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, who charges into battle firing not shells but beads. Whether we are on the front lines against the devil, or living well within his conquered territory, we can be sure that she hears the clicking of our beads and the murmur of our prayers. She hears and transmits the distress signal to the Commander-in-Chief. Her Son, the Just Judge of the Living and the Dead, responds.
Pray, fast, do penance.
So, Pentecost done, we resume of Ordinary Time. Ordinary sounds so, well, ordinary, plain, drab, boring. Why would the Church call it "ordinary." That's hardly inspiring.
I want to propose an alternate understanding for this time of year. At Pentecost the Church received the wind its sails that it needs to live out the comission it received from our Lord at the Ascension: to set out into the vast horizons of the world, preaching the Good News and baptizing the whole world. The Church has just re-presented that initial descent of the Holy Spirit in the Pentecost liturgies. Now it is time for us to turn our minds back to the task of evangelizing the world. We are like Jesus' army, or navy perhaps, and we have grown into quite a massive fleet. As St. Paul notes in his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 12) we cannot all just do whatever we like, but we must each find our role in the broader Body of Christ. Having found our role, we need our marching instructions for how to conduct ourselves. If we were all feet, who would think? If we were all eyeballs, who would walk? Likewise, if we were all teachers, who would pray? If we were all contemplatives, who would defend the teachings and reputation of Holy Church? Our leaders, the successors to the Apostles, have over time developed a set of methods, or procedures, or "ordinances" for figuring out who does what. Some are very exact: Everyone goes to Mass every Sunday and on other obligatory observances, unless grave circumstances intervene. Some ordinances are more vague: "Teach all nations," and we are left a great deal of discretion in determining how to work them out in our day-to-day lives. These ordinances are where we get the name Ordinary Time, I suspect. It is the time when the ordinary Ordinances, without special fasts or feasts, disciplines or dispensations, apply. It is these ordinances that structure our day-to-day life as Christians.
But the work of the apostolate is hardly boring - at least, not if we are putting our hearts and minds into it. Every apostolate has dimensions of prayer, service, and evangelization, although each apostolate will have varying proportions of each, and some dimension may be mostly implicit. Work at a soup kitchen is primarily about feeding the poor, though our love for them should draw them to Christ, and we should saturate all our work with prayer. Printing apologetic tracts is primarily about evangelization, but will be of great service to teachers of the Faith, and should be saturated from beginning to end in prayer. The apostolate is the outward mission of the Church, and is to be conducted primarily by the laity, in cooperation and guided by their pastors.
The apostolate is to be grounded in the spiritual life of each Christian, and every Christian is called to participate. Our spiritual lives, infused with the Faith, Hope, and Love of Jesus by the sacraments, are to be nurtured by solid time spent in prayer, healthy Christian community, and immersion in the Sacred Scriptures. Out of this soil grows a solid plant of apostolate: intercessory prayer, service, evangelization. There is a world out there in dire need of Christ, and only Christians can bring Him to it.
To aid us in our task, the Vatican II Council produced a document Apostolicam Actuositatem, on the apostolate of the laity. I highly recommend reading the medium-sized but easy document. Some people feel awkward about looking for ways to share their love of Jesus with others. Fair enough, and I don't want to judge them because I used to feel that way too. They might even rationalize it by saying that all religions are equal or that they don't want to force their beliefs on someone else yet. They might consider this point, though. If you don't want to share it, you probably don't get it, either.
I have a little bedside daily devotional that I read sometimes, called Mary Day by Day. Here's today's entry, which caught me particularly.
"A glad heart makes a cheerful face, but by grief of mind the spirit is broken. The wise of heart seek knowledge," - Proverbs 15:13-14.
Reflection: "The most holy Heart of Mary is the treasure of holiness, the furnace of Divine Love, the throne of all virtues, and the sanctuary of the Trinity. May that Heart be forever blessed and celebrated throughout the universe!" - St. John Eudes
Prayer: "O Immaculate Heart of Mary, may my heart be ever united with yours. Grant that I may hate sin, love God and my neighbor, and reach eternal life together with those I love."
The Missionaries of Charity (I think) have in one of their houses in DC a sign that reads, "Christ is the head of this House, the unseen guest at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation."
Those words recall those of Joshua, son of Nun, "As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD," (Jsh 24:15).
This morning, during my preparation for Mass (I got to church somewhat earlier than usual - refer to the previous post), I finished (finally) reading Transformation in Christ, which I started last year in April at the advice of a good friend. The last pages contained this thought, related to those above, "We must, then, lose our soul so as to find it. In other words, we should renounce all vain effort to incorporate Christ into our life, but endeavor wholeheartedly, with the full sanction of our central personality, to transpose our life into Christ and entrust it to Him; indeed to be possessed by Him."
"If you are madly in love with Christ, you will beget others madly in love with Christ. If you thirst, you will become a wellspring, if you are hungry, you will become nourishment for your brothers.You will not say you are the wellspring; on the contrary, you will say: 'I am not the wellspring, it is greater than I am. It is permeating me, flooding over me, spilling over my heart, it is drowning me and I am proposing it to you. I am drowning, do you want to sink with me? If so, do as I do: eat the flesh of Christ, drink his blood and, especially, pray in contemplation,'" Jean Lafrance, Give Me a Living Word, 9.26.
St. Joseph the Worker (1 May)
In 1955, probably as a response to the Labor Day celebrations in communist countries, Pope Pius XII declared 1 May to be the memorial of St. Joseph, as a worker. In writing this piece, I came more and more to see how Joseph's work, marriage, and fatherhood were all deeply enmeshed with each other.
We can learn about Jesus and St. Joseph by considering St. Joseph's practical paternity of our Lord. While he was not our Lord's biological father, he was very much our Lord's father in other ways. He was foster father and protector, but also godfather and mentor to our Lord. Growing up, our Lord needed a trade, and like almost everyone else in the broad scope of history, he took the trade of his (foster) father. Our Lord was a construction worker, a carpenter. While our Lord would not have physically looked especially like St. Joseph, there is every reason to expect that he acted like St. Joseph. Jesus might not have had the same eyes as Joseph, but he had the same look in them, you might say. He might not have had the same physical structure, but he probably carried himself in very much the same way.
We can learn a lot about St. Joseph by looking at how Jesus turned out. For instance, our Lord was very terse in speech. Words mean things, and every word that our Lord used was handpicked, as it were, for its purpose. All the words of our Lord recorded in the Scriptures can fit onto a single newspaper page - but how filled with meaning! St. Joseph wasn't divine, and wouldn't have quite the natural ability for imbuing meaning into words, but we can expect that he would have something of the same as a gift. In fact, the Scriptures even point to this gift because they record no words of St. Joseph at all! Yet, each of his responses to Mary and to God are loaded with decision, purpose, and strength.
As another instance, we see our Lord unflaggingly at work for others' benefit. He wouldn't have learned that only by watching Mary working in the kitchen, but by watching Joseph in the woodshop.
Our Lord's defense of the poor and the weak, especially against the sophisticated wiles of the Pharisees and temple priests, is a blossoming of what was present in St. Joseph as well. Recall that St. Joseph took Jesus and Mary into exile in Egypt to protect them from Herod's wicked plan.
We can assume that our Heavenly Father, in selecting a spiritual father for His Son, would have picked a good one, the best available. St. Joseph raised another's Son, and did it with as much vigor and dedication as if He were his own. St. Joseph would probably have been muscular even if not big, with a solid work ethic, and a love of his family - putting them first under God. While Catholic tradition doesn't insist that he was a virgin, it does insist that he was chaste from the time of his betrothal to our Lady; this implies that he had some practice in chastity beforehand as well, even if he was a widower. His chastity, or "most chastity" if you will, implies a tremendous focus and purpose of character. As the vices dissipate our character, the virtues, especially the virtues related to temperance, tend to gather and collect our character, our energies, our attention. St. Joseph had a single, all-encompassing mission: to serve God. In his life's vocation, that meant protect, provide for, and nurture Jesus and Mary. In his daily circumstances, that probably mostly meant working hard, being home as much as his work allowed and whenever there was need, and spending lots of time with his Wife and Kid.
St. Joseph shows us that honest work, however lowly or boring, is not just a drudgery, but a calling from God. God has made us, alone among animals and angels, to aid Him in the work of creation, to create on his behalf. The most supreme case of this procreation, is of course the begetting of new human beings in the image and likeness of God. But St. Joseph, to our knowledge, never did procreated sexually (although he may have with a wife before his marriage to our Lady). Did his chastity render him sterile? Far from it. In his life's work, St. Joseph was far more fruitful, more procreative, than any husband and father before or since. In hammering and nailing, in teaching and guiding, in protecting and providing, St. Joseph prepared our Lord for His great work. Mary's virginity was essential to birthing our Lord, and Joseph's chastity must have been essential to bringing up our Lord. So it is that we, when working with grace, also join into God's great work. St. Joseph, the best human father who ever lived, shows us this fact: Every child is ultimately God's, and every human father is ultimately a foster-father, and even those without legal charges of their own can spiritually adopt the fatherless children that they meet.
St. Joseph has something to teach us all, whether one's paternity is biological or spiritual; whether one is married, presently single, or permanently celibate; whether one works with one's hands or mind. He is an excellent role model for priests and dads, and especially for foster-, step-, and adoptive-fathers. He is an excellent role model for fathers working for their families, and for the single and celibate who consciously work for God's family.
I once made a spiritual exercise of reading every mention of St. Joseph in the Gospels (they are all in the early parts of St. Matthew) and deduced from them a list of 19 character traits. I highly recommend the exercise. See how many you can discern in that discerning man. (Hint, hint!)
St. Joseph, Holy Worker, pray for us.