Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Ok, So It Was REALLLLY Windy Out There

My roommate and I went for an eight-mile run this afternoon. It was in the low thirties (Fahrenheit) with gusts of wind that you cannot imagine. I saw the gusts pull off small branches from trees. It was fun to fly on the tailwinds, but the headwinds were almost impenetrable. It was a challenging, yet nonetheless a fun run.

I think that is very different from how God works. Grace, God's way of acting in the world, isn't on-again, off-again. No, rather it is constant. Nor is it overpowering or overwhelming. On the other hand, it is gentle and guiding. It prepares more than controls; coaxes but never coerces; woos and waits, but does not force or dominate. Without end or limits, His love (for lack of a better phrase) still respects our boundaries. What is inexorable about grace is God's horrible patience, how long He willingly suffers our neglect while he woos and waits, whispers and beckons. What is dominant in His love is that He will strip us of everything He has given us so that we can see our own naked neediness; but He will never compel us to come to Him to be filled. And His love is indeed a terrible thing: many have spent their lives squandering it in addictions, lusts, ambitions, and greeds. A lesser love, the less singular loves we mortals have, would walk away at some point from such wanton wretches as we. But even at the end of our life on earth, there He is, waiting patiently, to see if we will turn back to the gentle, implacable love that knows no end.

Make a New Year's Resolution. While not religious, it is one of the better contributions of our secular culture to our religious life. Maybe resolve that in the year of Our Lord 2009, you will make each Sunday a special, refreshing day for worshipping God and loving your neighbor without cost or profit. Maybe resolve to get back into better shape, not for yourself, but because your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19). Maybe resolve to confess your sins more frequently, say once a month, and bear in mind that each confession of our own sinfulness is also a confession of God's godliness, of Jesus' lordship.

And God bless you with a happy New Year.

The Birth of the Word that Made the World

When God created the world, according to Genesis 1, he did so by speaking a word. "Let there be light," He says, and again, "Let there be a firmament," and so on. The world that He made "very good," (Gn 1:31) quickly fell away from Him. It might be more accurately stated that Man, His finest creation, was seduced into a rebellion against Him by an evil spirit. Man, in his turn, brought the greater part of the material world with him.

God promised through the prophets to create a new creation, a new heavens and a new earth (Isa 65:17; 66:22), where justice and peace would "kiss," (Ps 85:10). Genesis recounts what we might consider a "false start" of sorts in this new creation: God floods the earth as if to wash away sin. The same account, of Noah and the flood, tells how the flood killed most human beings, but failed to kill sin living in each human being. A mere bathing of the world would not suffice - in this new creation, in which we would have not stony hearts, but soft hearts of living flesh (Ez 36:26), we would need a bathing of conscience (Heb 9:13-14).

The new creation would start with a new Man (Eph 2:14-16). And just as the first creation began with a word, so would the new creation. The new creation began when the Word became a man. So it is fitting that the first mass on Christmas day, at midnight, starts with an antiphon the first words of which are, "The Lord said..." The eternal Godhead, the divine origin of reality, the transcendent unmoved Mover became a little baby in the womb of a little woman in a little corner of a little province. And that virginal conception was the hidden beginning of the new creation. When He emerged from her womb, leaving intact her virginity unruptured by His miraculous conception therein, the new heavens truly made their first appearance on an earth being recreated by Him as His mother swaddled Him in her arms. The event was so momentous that heaven could not contain itself. Angels burst forth from heaven to celebrate and announce the fact.

St. Peter, after our Lord's death, resurrection, and ascension made more clear what sort of thing this new creation would be, continued speaking about it (2 Pet 3:13), echoing the very words of the prophet Isaiah before him. From the time of our Lord's ascension and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Church, we have in the Church the means to share in our Lord's new way of existing, in the new creation. Baptism, firstly, is the sacrament by which we are scrubbed more deeply clean than the flood could manage. It washes us in the sacrificial blood of Jesus that wins the forgiveness of sins. Confirmation seals us and ratifies this new life in us. Penance restores that purification when we squander it, and the holy Eucharist sustains and strengthens it, and most perfectly unites us to Him. Marriage draws the otherwise-natural union of a man and woman into this supernatural way of living. Holy Orders configures men to represent Christ more perfectly to the rest of the Church. Anointing prepares us for the final transition from the last stages of this life, to the fullness of the life that Baptism begins in us.

This new creation in Christ, that every baptised person carries about in his soul, necessarily overturns the existing world order of sin, or else is overturned by it. The two cannot coexist forever. We must be standing with God and waging war, even if slow and faltering, against sin in our hearts and around us; or else we are standing in sin, and sinking, even if slow and faltering, into deeper and deeper sin until we can stand no more.

Christmas presents to us more than a new baby boy. It presents us with a challenge to choose between that Baby and all that He came to undo: sin, suffering, and death. We do ourselves a great disservice if, as we pay homage to the King, we neglect to mind His Kingdom.

That said, it's only a heavy thing if we do not want to choose Jesus. If we love goodness and are even willing to suffer a bit rather than sin, having God in our corner is very, very good news indeed. Merry Christmas.

Some Words from Cardinal Dulles

Cardinal Dulles, shortly after September 11, was asked by his society to speak on the catastrophe. The New England province of the Society of Jesus has printed his words in America magazine. They are reproduced below:

"It was suggested to me that I should use this occasion to say a few words about hope, since this virtue seems in short supply in these dark days.

Our hopes tend to fade whenever we cease to be in control. For the moment we Americans seem to have lost control of our destiny. We are afraid because our future does not rest in our own hands. On September 11 two great symbols of our security collapsed, or at least suffered grave damage. The World Trade Center towers looked very solid, as did the walls of the Pentagon, but both proved to be paper thin. The growing likelihood of biological warfare raises our anxiety yet further. Not only our wealth and military power, but also our health is at risk.

It will be for others to address the economic, military, and medical problems. As a theologian, I have to recognize that Christian hope never rests on material things. As individuals we try to follow the teaching of Jesus, who reminds us that rust corrodes, moths consume, and thieves break in and steal. Jesus instructs us to build treasure in heaven, the one bank that can never fail. The only thing that counts in the end is whether or not we hear the greeting of the Lord, “Well done, you good and faithful servant.”

Jesus Christ is not only the personal hope for each one of us. He is also the hope of the world. If the world turns away from Him, it goes terribly astray. The pursuit of riches produces massive poverty; the pursuit of freedom begets slavery; and the pursuit of peace ends in destructive violence. But with the strength and generosity that comes from the Lord we can take part in building here on earth what the liturgy calls “a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love, and peace.”

As I reflect on the past half century and more, I am immensely grateful for my vocation to share in the apostolate of the Society of Jesus. As Jesuits, we are dedicated to the gospel of hope. We seek to place our own hope in God alone and to help others to focus their hopes on Him. This apostolate of hope is immensely relevant today, when many people are on the brink of discouragement and despair. But you, at least, are not. Seeing so many of you, I am reminded that we Jesuits could achieve nothing without friends such as yourselves, who support our work and do it with us. You are as important to our work as any Jesuit is. Whatever the future holds, we can only be assured of this: that nothing we do together in the service of the Lord will be done in vain."

If you've never had the pleasure of meeting the late Cardinal, who among other things was the first future Cardinal to have served the U.S. under arms in time of war, I recommend you do meet him by reading one of his many books or articles.

It's Official

Man, it was really easy and fun to make that. If you want to make one like it, follow this link:

A Threaded Heart

He bows his head quietly and listens to the words of the priest at the altar. The priest never seems to speak especially slow, yet somehow things stretch out as Mass progresses. He thinks to himself, "I have walked away from You so many times... so casually... my heart doesn't lift that easily anymore." It is hard for him to feel grateful, even though it is right, and his praise feels leaden. The choir begins to sing the "Holy, Holy, Holy." In a single motion he hooks and lowers the kneeler with his ankle and sinks to his knees without lifting his head. It is a familiar motion, and strangely the weight of his heart helps his mass to sink down between the pews. The names of the saints rise up from the altar and begin to surround him. He doesn't feel special today, when the priest mentions St. Matthew. In fact, it has been years since that first thrill at hearing the priest say his name. He keeps his head bowed down through the time when the priest says Jesus' words. "Christ has died, Christ is risen," he hears the people recite, but hardly greets the fact, and forgets to rise with the faithful. The words, "though we are sinners," roll down from the altar and over his head. "I confessed," he thinks, and, "I didn't leave anything out." It never worked, though. Around him people are standing up, and over his bowed head people begin shaking hands and kissing each other's cheeks. "Peace," he hears. But the words cannot enter his laden heart. At last he hears words that hook into his heart like a threaded needle through cloth. As the needle pierces him and pulls through, he feels a rub or drag inside him: "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word..." He straightens his back a bit and lifts his eyes from the bench of the pew in front of him until he can see the priest in front, over the heads of his coparishioners. The thread pulls and he feels his heart lift with a gentle jerk. "You, also," he hears so clearly that the words cannot quite come from inside where he hears them. The thread pulls more, gently now, but firmer all the more. He watches as if something wonderful is passing by, something he can grab, if only he'll reach out and grab it, like the sleeve of someone famous. And he rose and followed Him up the aisle.

Resquiat in Pacem, Cardinal Dulles

The Reverend Father Avery Cardinal Dulles (b. August 24, 1918; d. December 12, 2008) passed to his eternal reward yesterday. If you haven't heard of Cardinal Dulles, he was a remarkable man for his brilliance and sanctity. The Wikipedia article on him is gives a nice summary. Fr. Dulles was created a cardinal in 2001 by Holy Father John Paul II, in view of his immense theological contribution to the Church and for his personal role in drawing together diverse factions within the Church. He died on the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. I bet he'd like that.

shlem suryaya

That means, "Syriac is finished."

At least, until next semester. Except I am supposed to learn another script (really, almost a new writing system, rather than just a new font) for Syriac over the break.

A New Conception of Humanity

We shouldn't think that any of the graces given to the Blessed Virgin Mary are weird, or out of place, even if they are singular and just for her. Everything that God has done for the Blessed Virgin in a particular way, He wants to do for us in a general way; everything for her in a miraculous way, for us in a progressive, natural way.

The Immaculate Conception is a perfect example of a grace that we shouldn't find odd. He spared her from the curse of Original Sin and all its effects from the moment of her (immaculate) conception in the womb of her mother, St. Anne. By our baptism he cleanses us of all sin, including original sin, the sin we inherit from our origins, and its effects upon us are loosened for now, and eventually, at the resurrection, obliterated entirely. Mary was granted the particular grace of the Immaculate Conception so that she would be a fitting mother to bear God into the world. We are baptized so to receive God when He comes to us, and by virtue of our baptism, are able to bear Him to others in the world. God gave Mary the grace never to go near death. He gives us daily the grace to walk away from it.

Because of her Immaculate Conception she never needed, nor ever did, taste death. She was a living challenge to sin and death, just by her manner of living and being. As the culmination to a sinless life, she was brought bodily into the realms of light before death yet scarred her. We who, unlike the Virgin of Virgins, are born into the sinfulness of the human family, taste death in our daily life - anger, hatred, mockery, violence, malice, sickness, suffering, warfare - and will finally taste death in its fullness; but not in its finality. By living a life structured by the sacraments and soaked in the Sacred Scriptures, in unity with our Christian brethren, and in as nearly constant prayerful union as we can manage, we ourselves will push back the domain of sin wherever we go, undoing hatred, suffering, and even death. Since the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, we have a hope that the world just doesn't get, doesn't understand - the hope of resurrection for ourselves. Because of this great hope, we can even freely embrace life's sufferings and so will not be cowed by them into sinning. Death, which does us in, is undone by Christ. This process begins for each human in baptism; it begins for humanity in the Immaculate Conception.

Don't forget that today is a Holy Day of Obligation. Yes, you just went to Mass yesterday. Sweet! We all get to go again, and praise and worship God at the Sacrifice of His Son, today for the great gift He has given us in His Mother.

Populus Sion

Today is the Second Sunday of Advent. We're getting closer. Last week, as a Church we cried out to God, "To Thee I have lifted up my soul," and this week God gives us His reply: "Populus Sion, ecce Dominus veniet ad salvandas gentes." People of Zion, He says through His prophet, Behold the Lord comes to save the nations.

We call out to God and He responds. His entrance into the world is, of course, the fullness of this response. The Lord came to the world to save the nations. That's you and me, our neighbors, our families, our towns, our country, the whole world. The work of God in this respect has clearly not yet been brought to its fullest fulfillment. He will return to finish the job, though. In the meantime, when He returns, He expects to find us busy helping to get things ready. Let's pray and get to work.

The Path from Mecca to Rome

This past week, Magdi Cristiano Allam spoke with students at the Roman university students. In case you've forgotten, the former Muslim is one of the chief editors at Italy's most important daily newspaper and was baptized in St. Peter's this past Easter Vigil by the Holy Father. Highlights from his talk can be found by clicking here.

His insight is pretty poignant. He links his path to conversion to a variety of other factors: his education in Catholic schools in Egypt, the witness provided by some practicing Christian friends and of our Holy Father, his philosophical maturation, and his desire for integrity of ideas and living. He also sees a genuine return to a genuine practice of the genuine Christian faith as key to the survival of Europe as a socio-cultural entity, to the survival of Europe as Europe. The same might really be said of the entire Western Civilization that has had Europe as its seedbed and mother.

A Couple of Notes

Today is the feast of St. John Damascene. Last year on this date, I wrote a piece about him, and rather than repeat myself, I will just provide a link to it. Click HERE.

For now, I will just share a brief thought I had this morning after Communion.

What a blessed people are we Christians, who may break our nightly fast by feeding on the flesh of God himself! What an amazing mystery.

"For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the LORD our God is in all things that we call upon him for?" (Deut 4:7, KJV).

"You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the LORD your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. And my people shall never again be put to shame," (Joel 2:26, RSV).

"He has not dealt thus with any other nation," (Ps 147:20).

The Merest of Babes

The Mass readings for today (Tuesday after 1st Sunday of Advent, year B1: Is 11:1-10; Ps 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17; Lk 10:21-24) are really nice. The first one, from the prophet Isaiah, is fine, and the second one from Luke is one of my very favorites. It articulates the topsy-turvy logic of the Gospel in which the whole thought of the city of man is turned upside down. Below, I've copied it out of the RSV translation because it sounds a bit nicer to my ears than the lectionary.

In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, "I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will. All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him."

Then turning to the disciples he said privately, "Blessed are the eyes which see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it," (Lk 10:21-24).

Think about that, folks. Children! Your kids understand Jesus better than you do. At another place, Jesus says that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom ahead of the pharisees. To us, pharisee is a bad word. Not so for them. We often compare the pharisees to lawyers, politicians, or priests. None of those is comparable though, because they have bad connotations in our ears. Maybe expert is a better way to think of them. Jesus is basically saying that tax collectors and prostitutes are finding peace of conscience, joy of life, and the faith, hope, and love that leads into eternal life. And we're not. We don't get it, or else we're getting it pretty late.

We think we're good, we think we know how Jesus thinks and works, we think we've got life under control. Children know that they need help. "Daddy, can you tie my shoe?" A drug addicted prostitute lying in a gutter knows that she needs help. She might even know that help's name is Jesus (it literally means "salvation" in Hebrew!). But we are smug and sit in the train station thinking that we are conducting the salvation train, and so it leaves the station without us. How many of us, perhaps unbeknownst to even ourselves, feel that we are somehow doing Jesus a favor by going to church. It makes me think of the ancient pagan idea of feeding the gods with sacrifices of the flesh of goats and bulls.

Lol. But we have a God who wants to feed us with His own immortal flesh. Are we humble enough to just listen, like a little child? Or are we, in our smugness, going to say, "Lord, Lord!" while harboring an attitude that blinds us to His love, Him who the prophets yearned to see? Lol. And when we see Him, will we be too concerned with what others thing, too cool and sophisticated and mature, to let ourselves respond wholeheartedly? Children are better than adults again in that they are more naive, and simpler. It was fun to watch even some very sophisticated and hip sixteen year olds' jaws drop when we brought them to the forest for a hike, to see them climb trees and play on the rocks. Are we too sophisticated and "mature" to enjoy the Kingdom of God?

Most of the Evil in the World

It occurs to me that most of the evil in the world is not mass-murdering and other "sociopathic" behavior. It's little things that we minimize or rationalize: corner-cutting, white lies that aren't so white, fierce tempers indulged and left unchecked. Of course, there are bigger "little" sins, "little" only because socially acceptable in moderation: fornication, petty embezzlement, misrepresentation of oneself, etc. These sins only become socially unacceptable in gross quantity or grotesque manifestations: prostitution, multimillion dollar graft, defrauding droves of workers of their retirement funds, etc. These bigger sins, it should be obvious, have littler sins as their stepping stones, and often times are no more than conglomerations, sum totals of "little sins." After all, Enron executives didn't swindle anybody in one fell stroke, but by a thousand signatures on little documents that few people bothered to read.

When we read of these "bigger" sins in the newspapers, we run the risk of self-righteousness because we would "never do such a thing," we think. We fail to realize that those big sins aren't the sins of bigger sinners than ourselves, but only of slobs like ourselves with bigger opportunities to sin. In self-righteousness we also fail to realize that the seeds of sin, fully sprouted and flowering in another, are also planted in our soul. "So-and-so cheated on his wife. What a creep!" we think. Oh, really? Our Blessed Lord said, "You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that every one who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart," (Mt 5:27-28). Many of the sins we blame in others, we care about in our own heart.

Beware of "little" sins.