Holy Week: Go to Church!

Pope Francis Palm Sunday

The Lord brings us together this week to share in His Paschal Mystery.

He went up to the holy city of Jerusalem to worship with His people, the Israelites whom God had spared from death and liberated from slavery. Jesus kept the Passover with His friends. He changed the ancient ceremony into the mysteries of His Body and Blood.

The original Holy Week of Christ’s Passion took place nearly 2,000 years ago, to be sure. But it is as real now as it was then. We are caught up in it. Our lives, our hopes, our faith in God–all of this is caught up in the events we hear recounted in church on Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, and Good Friday–and which we live out whenever we celebrate the Holy Mass together.

The Lord has given us the privilege of taking our part in all this. We thank Him that He has given us this Holy Week 2014 together to draw closer to Him.

More of John to Try to Understand

el greco st john evangelist“The One whom the Father has consecrated and sent into the world” (John 10:26).

Let’s try to understand the gospel reading for Holy Mass today by focusing on I Corinthians 15:23. “Each one in proper order. Christ the firstfruits. Then, at His coming, those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to His God and Father.”

Proper order:

el-grecost-paulGod is God. First. Pre-eminent. The Cause. The Goal. The All-in-all. Altogether transcending the world, sovereign Master of the world, superabundant Lover of all the good things He has made.

Man. A creature, limited, non-divine. Yes, the god-like material creature, spiritual, intellectual, free—capable of union with God, even now, by faith and love. But also the self-centered, self-indulgent, self-destructive sinful creature.

Christ. God. Man. The divine Creator and the suffering Redeemer. The Mediator.

So, the order by which the cosmos becomes full of divine glory: God, first and last. Christ, first among the human race. Then us, who, through Christ, receive God’s grace and become the beautiful children He made us to be.

God, origin and goal. Christ, firstfruits, uniquely consecrated, but consecrated for a purpose: to gather us, as the members of His divine Body.

Christus Marcius Coriolanus

“Now we see that you are possessed.” (John 8:52)

Leave it to our Passiontide readings from St. John’s gospel to bring us face-to-face with this particular fact every year: No reasonable person can regard Jesus of Nazareth as an unremarkable, nice guy.

What possessed Him?

He was, after all, a kind, attractive, intelligent, skillful man. He had a pleasant enough future ahead of Him, had He chosen to embrace it. Instead of provoking all the authorities in Jerusalem, He could have lived out His life as a respectable teacher in the relatively quiet precincts of the north; He could have found a sweet Galilean lass; eventually, He could have died in His bed, remembered fondly and with honor.

jerusalem-sunriseBut something possessed Him. So He stepped into the seething cesspool of petty jealousies and vicious antagonisms that was Jerusalem. Something possessed Him to say just enough about Himself, and at just the right times, to lead to His being mercilessly scourged and crucified during Passover, while He was still in His early thirties.

We can have no real doubt that He neither had a perverse death-wish nor was He so obtuse that He didn’t know what His words would lead to. He was neither suicidal nor naïve.

So what possessed Him?

Something in Him raged against falsehood, smallness, and death with such serene indomitability—a fire burned in Him that the close air of the fallen world simply could not contain, but only fanned. A zeal for conquest overtook Him. He became literally hell-bent on pulverizing every ounce of life-choking b.s. that the arrogant and hypocritical human race has managed to pile up on the surface of this earth, over the course of the groaning millennia that we have lived here.

Jesus would not back down. He came like a flaming battering ram at the twisted face of faithless deceit and selfishness. He cracked a hole in the fortress of Satan. And then He ran in by Himself, like Gaius Marcius Coriolanus charging the Volscian city of Corioli alone. The only weapon Christ held in His hands was His absolutely fearless willingness to open them up for the nails.

He was a man possessed. Possessed by the one power that actually can wash away all the evil in the world with one cleansing stroke. He was Personally possessed by divine Creator.

Freedom Inside

“You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:32)

James Dean New York

I think there is something about today’s gospel passage that might stun our American minds.

The Lord Jesus speaks of liberation. “Come to Me. Learn from Me. You will know the truth then. And the truth will make you free.”

Now, I think we Americans naturally imagine liberation as an escape from being inside to being outside, in the open. That’s what I spontaneously imagine, anyway. Free = outside. Maybe in the car. But definitely not inside.

Both the Lord Jesus and His interlocutors, however, clearly imagined ‘freedom’ in a completely different way, which makes the passage more difficult for us to understand. They did not think that free = being outside. To the contrary, everyone involved in the conversation imagined that ‘free’ meant: being safely inside the house, with no danger whatsoever of being thrown out. A slave must fear being expelled from bed and board, because he has no standing, no real foothold that binds him irrevocably to his home. A free person, on the other hand = someone who dwells securely in his house.

Now, I think this difference actually might be pretty important, when it comes to understanding a lot of the things that the Lord Jesus said. Our American idea of the autonomous individual is simply something that didn’t cross His mind. Christ has revealed to us that the cosmos, taken as a whole, is a household, governed by a loving Father.

It is actually impossible to leave this house. The image of gaining freedom by getting outside, out of the reach of any authority over me—this image of freedom is such a fantasy that it didn’t even occur to anyone in the conversation in the gospel reading.

The heavenly Father runs the cosmos as a bed and board for us, and we all have the absolute right of the freeborn child to our place in it. None of us are slaves who need fear expulsion. So teaches the Christ. ‘The flowers of the field neither toil nor spin, so why would you worry?’

The only way out of the household of God is not a real way, but a fantastical lie. Namely, being seduced by Satan into thinking that we are trash, and that by all rights we will be cast out to the curb sooner or later. Satan tricks us into thinking that the Father is not kind, but is actually a tyrant, so we’re probably better off at the curb. Such are Satan’s lies.

Christ does not set us free, then, for some errant adventure in the windswept, dusty wilds–no matter what our American imaginations might conjure up. To the contrary. Freedom = dwelling securely in this great household operated by God, where we live together, under His ineffably benign authority.

“Where I am Going…”

Passion of the Christ Today you will be with me

“…you cannot come.” (John 7:34, 8:21, 13:33, 13:36)

Lord Jesus said this multiple times, to different audiences.

At Holy Mass today, we hear Him say it to the Pharisees. He went on to tell them that they would die in their sins, because they did not believe in Him, did not believe in God incarnate, the only-begotten eternal Word made man.

The Lord also said the exact same sentence to another group of people, and then to one of them in particular. Anyone remember? “Where I am going, you cannot come.”

To the Apostles at the Last Supper. And then particularly to St. Peter. “Where I am going you cannot come.”

But Jesus did not tell St. Peter and the Apostles that they would die in their sins. Instead, He gave them a commandment, and then made them a promise.

Who remembers the commandment?

“Love one another.”

Who remembers the promise? ‘Where I am going, you cannot come now, but…’

“You shall follow afterward.”

En otras palabras: When we look upon Christ lifted up, skewered to the cross in agony, dereliction, and death–when we look upon Him with His arms outstretched between heaven and earth–when we gaze upon the crucifix and see not defeat and meaninglessness, but rather the burning light of God’s eternal love–when we see Jesus with faith, we do not die in our sins. No. We live for glory eternal.

Not Reincarnation, But…

wheel of samsara

One of the world’s great myths holds that our souls travel through many lifetimes in different bodies. People call this idea…Reincarnation.

To give the benefit of the doubt to all the people who have believed in this, and the millions who still do: I, for one, can see why the myth might arise. In fact, I can see two solid reasons why people might come to believe in reincarnation.

1. We human beings have a natural tendency to revere the perfect justice of Almighty God. But we live in a world which we clearly see is not perfectly just. Therefore, God must have a means by which He restores justice in the end. If I do not know about the sacrifice of Christ, which has reconciled the human race to God in one perfectly just act—if I don’t know about this, then I will inevitably try to imagine other ways in which justice might be restored. I will imagine some other means by which a human being might reach purity, uprightness, godliness. I see that this does not generally happen in the course of one given human lifetime. But I might imagine that over an enormous array of well-lived lifetimes, a soul might actually reach union with God.

But: Reincarnation is impossible, as many skilled philosophers have shown. St. Thomas Aquinas argues the point with characteristic clarity and simplicity.

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Prince and Other Particularities

“But we know where he is from.” (John 7:27)

Got me thinking about: Where am I from?

Upper-northwest Washington, D.C. I’m from Redskins fans. And from white people– the most well-meaning and well-mannered white people you’ll ever find. With every passing year, I admire my mother and father more, and I thank God more heartily that He brought me into this world from Kirk and Ann White.

princeI’m from Chevy Chase Playground, at Connecticut Avenue and McKinley Street, where I spent most of the 1970’s trying to learn how to play basketball. Speaking of the 1970’s: I’m from a time when people trusted each other more, and got along better, I think, than we do now.

I’m from the complicated East Coast. I’m from the United States. I’m from the English-speaking peoples, from the race of William Shakespeare. Praise God!

All of us have our own particular origins. None of us can altogether escape them.

In my limited experience I have learned that the greatest delusion a man can fall into is: thinking that there is some life for him to live other than being his father’s son. And the greatest delusion a woman can fall into is thinking she can live as someone other than her mother’s daughter. The Lord gives us each total uniqueness and sovereign free will, to be sure. But He also gives us particular origins, and to despise our origins is to despise ourselves.

They thought that the Christ must be a man of incomprehensibly mysterious origin. How wrong they were! They had it altogether backwards.

The Nazarene, Who was raised by a carpenter and his wife, Who learned from them how to speak and walk and make pilgrimages down the Jordan to Jerusalem, Who frequented the same synagogue for years, where everyone could remember when He first started showing signs of a beard—the dusty-footed Galilean has revealed the truth:

We all have one origin: We come from God. And God brings each of us into the world in such a marvelously particular way that only He could come up with it all.

God gave me a teenage experience in which I listened to the greatest musician any of us will ever hear of, and I lived the years of high-school during his prime. God gave me Prince and the Revolution to grow up with, in their prime, when Prince wrote music and put on a show like no one since.

Only God could do something like that, give me something like that. Praise Him!

Two Bible Wonders

El Greco ChristI think we can say that two wonders of the Bible actually go together.

Wonder #1: The Lord Jesus certainly lived a human life, with a human body like ours–and a human soul like ours. But we cannot successfully psychologize Him. Because His human soul enjoyed an interior communion with Almighty God that we cannot fathom.

He behaved like an admirable man in just about every respect. But: If He did not, in fact, know things about God’s plan that only His mind knew, then we would have to dismiss Him as a lunatic. The speech we hear at Holy Mass today: either the words of the uniquely knowledgeable prophet or the ravings of a madman.

So, to put Biblical Wonder #1 in a nutshell: Jesus of Nazareth possessed, during His pilgrim human life, divine knowledge.

Wonder #2. From the depths of this ineffable divine knowledge that Jesus possessed, He expressed this particular mystery, namely: All the dead bodies that fill the tombs, and cemeteries, and columbaria of the earth–all of them will rise.

ezekiel bonesNow, our own humble human knowledge allows us to detect the existence of God–the immeasurable power which has brought all things into being. But we see only a march of time that appears to end with death. Jesus, however, tells us what we don’t know and can’t see now: God wills not death and an end, but life and a glorious eternity.

The prophet Ezekiel foresaw it: Piles of bones, looking at first like so much wasted calcium strewn on the ground, suddenly rattling and chirping and forming again into the noble human body. The Lord Jesus confirms this with his divine knowledge: This rattling, and chirping, and re-forming will happen, not just in one boneyard, but in them all.

The two wonders go together. 1) Jesus’ oracular knowledge and 2) the mystery of life’s ultimate triumph over death. No co-incidence there. The Lord Jesus knows only what He Himself will bring about.

Papa on Faith and Abba, Father

Pope-Francis-Lumen-Fidei“Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35)

The Lord Jesus asked the man, who had been born blind, this question. Do you believe in the Son of Man?

Now, blindness of the eyes can sneak up on a person during life. The thickness of my own personal spectacles demonstrates how blindness has snuck up on me somewhat over the years.

But the Lord cured a man who had been born blind. The man had not grown blind by squinting at ancient Torah scrolls in dimly lit synagogues. He had not suffered an injury to his eyes in a battle or a fight or an accident. This man had been born blind.

St. Augustine interprets this in a mystical way: “The blind man here is the human race. Blindness came upon the first man by reason of sin, and from him all derive it.”

Whom can we not see? The most important Being of them all, our origin and the goal of all our striving. Can’t see Him. Can’t see the One upon Whom all the angels gaze, and it is all the food they need. We are blind from birth.

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