I think most Christians have forgotten the controversies that gave rise to Protestantism, when it first started. One of the problems had to do with prayers for the dead. The Protestant thinking went like this: since sometimes Church authority has encouraged people to pray and make sacrifices for the dead in a way that seems un-Christian–like asking for money for indulgences–therefore it’s best not to pray for the dead at all.
That controversy has passed into the mists of history. Prohibiting prayers for the dead clearly runs contrary to one of the deepest inclinations of the Christian spirit. But a deeper question, which lay underneath the controversy, still has to be faced, now more than ever: What exactly is the point of a Christian funeral?
#1. Reason numero uno: We believe in the resurrection of the body. The Lord Jesus rose on the third day, in the body with which He had made His earthly pilgrimage, formed originally in the womb of the Virgin. Christ ascended into heaven bodily, flesh of our flesh. And He promised to come again, at which time all the dead will rise from their graves, just like He rose from His.
This is the Christian faith.
During the 20the century, some Christians decided to get fashionable and try to interpret the resurrection of the body, which we confess in our ancient Creed, in a ‘spiritual’ or ‘figurative’ sense. But, as St. Paul put it: that would make us the most pitiable of men. We believe in the promises of Christ more than we believe our own eyes—at least we should believe Christ’s promises more. The dead will rise. We rest in the earth after our bodily death, but not forever.
We have no choice, then, but to treat the bodies of our deceased loved ones with the most loving reverence. This flesh will course with life again. Arbitrarily to destroy the remains of our beloved dead—which is what pagans do—Christians do not do that. Certain things distinguish Christians from pagans—like loving the poor more than money, like having joy in the midst of suffering—and this one: We lavish love upon the bodies of our dead.
“Who among you, if your son falls into a cistern, would not immediately pull him out”—no matter what day it is? (see Luke 14:5)
Pretty safe to say: We would. If we lived in a place where there were a lot of cisterns for our sons to be falling into. And we would pull our oxen out, too—if we had oxen.
We wouldn’t say to ourselves, “Lordy, it’s the Sabbath! That ox of mine, that son of mine will just have to wait in that cistern ‘till tomorrow. If he drowns? Well, can’t be helped.”
No. We would rescue. Because sons, and even oxen, and other capital investments, pertain to something that takes priority: the genuine well-being of man.
The genuine well-being of man takes absolute priority. It must be the center of religion. Because God—Whom we worship by our religion, Whom we obey by our religion—He wills the genuine well-being of man above all. He made the constellations, and the mountains, and the rainbows, and the chickens, and the dogs, for one reason: to delight us.
I don’t think we can doubt that Jesus was mocking the Pharisees and scholars in His exchange with them about healing on the sabbath. You guys are utterly ridiculous to turn religion into something that thwarts the well-being of man! That is absolutely backwards and ludicrous.
Maybe this is the key to untying a particular knot, when it comes to interpreting the Lord Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees.
We see and hear Him mocking, criticizing, excoriating the Pharisees and scribes for their ‘traditionalism.’ But Christ Himself embraced tradition with unswerving fidelity: He insisted on the Ten Commandments, on the Passover observances, on the authority of the entire Law and Prophets.
“Pharisaism” does not equal ‘traditionalism,’ simply put. Pharisaism, in the bad sense, is: Religion that thwarts the genuine well-being of man. Religion that thwarts the genuine well-being of man is actually a form of irreligion, a form of self-worship, of idolatry, of paganism.
Now, don’t give me credit for this insight, brilliant as it may be. The idea that religion must serve the genuine well-being of man is the heart of the ministry of the Vatican II popes, namely Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis.
(Not to mention the ministry of a lot of other people, too, like: Pope Pius XII, Pope St. Pius X, Pope Leo XIII, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. Peter, St. Paul…)
Not sure if everyone knows that the city of Jerusalem sits on the brink of chaotic violence at this moment.
I laid eyes on the Dome of the Rock myself, up close, on Feb. 24, 2008. I wanted to see the place where Abraham obeyed God unto the edge of utter darkness. But: having a Roman cassock on gets you waved off by the Jordanian guards right quick…
This evening, on the PBS Newshour, Judy Woodruff misidentified the Dome of the Rock, calling it the Al-Aksa Mosque (which sits 100 yards south of the site of the near-sacrifice of Isaac). An understandable mistake. But at the same time, quite telling–when it comes to our utter ignorance, as Americans, of what we are dealing with.
If I might, an amateur’s dime-store history for you:
Abraham climbed the mountain with Isaac, but God wound up providing the lamb for sacrifice. Centuries later, Solomon built on this site, and the sweet scent of burning oblations began to ascend at the appointed hours.
After Babylon leveled the Temple, the Israelites rebuilt. Half a millennium later, Herod the Great enlarged the humble Second Temple and made it a wonder of the world.
Zechariah (of the New Testament) found himself struck dumb here, because he didn’t believe he could father John the Baptist. Our Lord frequented this site often, as we read. But the sacrifice of the new and eternal covenant took place outside the then-walls of the city. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher (which houses Golgatha also) lies west of the Temple Mount, a good twenty-minute walk through the maze of Old-City streets.
Thus, the journos’ claim that the Temple Mount is holy to Christians, just like Jews and Muslims: Not exactly, not exactly. It is exceedingly imprecise to refer to the Temple Mount as a Christian holy site. We have no particular designs on worshiping there.
Anyway, back to the dime-store history: Rome leveled Jerusalem in the first and second centuries of the Age of Grace. The western wall of Herod’s temple survived. After Constantine converted to Christianity, Jerusalem had a few centuries as a Christian city.
Mohammed consecrated the Temple-Mount site for his followers in some way that I neither know nor understand.
A millennium later, under Turkish rule, the Status Quo was established. I am in no way an expert on this, but I think I can safely summarize: On a certain date, about half a millennium ago, Jews of various kinds prayed in various places, and in various ways, and at various times of day (and week and year) in Jerusalem; Christians of different kinds did the same; Muslims of different kinds also. The way they prayed at that time was enshrined as the norm, and it cannot be changed.
The Status Quo enjoys the beautiful authority of having been established by none of the partisans, and–at this point in time–it also has history behind it. It is the delicate and precarious arrangement that keeps the peace in every holy place in the holiest city in the world.
If you have never visited, you cannot adequately imagine just how up-close-and-personal the realities of the Status Quo are. There is literally no elbow room, no room for error; the people on either side of the lines established by the Status Quo can smell each other, and I am not exaggerating. The first time I ever entered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, I wanted to pray in the Golgatha Chapel. For five minutes I could, but then I had to leave, since I am a Roman Catholic priest, and the Status Quo prohibits us being in that chapel when the Orthodox have their evening prayers. Muslims meditating among the trees between Al-Aksa and the Dome of the Rock literally stand on top of Jews praying at the Western Wall. “Cramped” does not even begin to describe the religious reality of Jerusalem.
To modern times… After the Holocaust, the Western world fully embraced the Zionist enterprise, and the nation-state of Israel received international approbation and support. But Jerusalem did not make up part of the original land. Jerusalem and environs remained in a unique category (I guess, like the Vatican). To this day, our official US policy does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the city. (Israel took control of Jerusalem in 1967.)
For some time now, Jerusalem has been a relatively safe place. No reasonable person would hesitate to travel there as a Christian pilgrim. That appears to be on the verge of changing. To read of an Israeli-Palestinian gunfight in the neighborhood that immediately abuts the site of the Last Supper (and the Assumption of our Lady; they are right around the corner from each other)–this is chilling news. The Israeli police disturbed the Status Quo by asserting authority (which, in fact, the sovereign of Jordan actually possesses) and shutting the Temple-Mount mosque today. Palestinians appear to be mustering for mischief.
Be watchful with all perseverance and supplication…that speech may be given…to make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel. (Ephesians 6:18-19)
Guess what begins precisely one month from today? Holy Advent.
In our parish cluster, Advent-Sunday afternoons mean: Vespers and spiritual reading with Fr. Skinny Crewcut![This Advent at St. Joseph, M’ville.]
Now, who is our newest beatified pope? Who wrote the original gameplan for the New Evangelization?
What kind of fools would we be if we didn’t read Evangelii Nuntiandi as our spiritual reading this Advent?
The presentation of the Gospel message is not an optional contribution for the Church. It is the duty incumbent on her by the command of the Lord Jesus, so that people can believe and be saved. This message is indeed necessary. It is unique. It cannot be replaced. It does not permit either indifference, syncretism, or accommodation. It is a question of people’s salvation. It is the beauty of the Revelation that it represents. It brings with it a wisdom that is not of this world. It is able to stir up by itself faith–faith that rests on the power of God. It is truth. It merits having the apostle consecrate to it all his time and all his energies, and to sacrifice for it, if necessary, his own life. (Blessed Pope Paul VI, EN 5)
The ancient term is pride. A 20th- and 21st-century way of saying it is: We have big egos. Pride, ego get in the way of communion, of the unity and harmony willed for us by the Lord. He has invited the human race to a table of unfathomable delights. The thing is: we have to take our places together, and the seats are small; big egos don’t fit.
I think we should pause and meditate for a moment on just what our parish buildings represent. The fact that the doors stand open. What a miracle of love and communion our parishes really are.
A parish church means: More than anything else, we need God. Jesus Christ gives us God, and the Catholic Church gives us Christ, and this place gives us the Catholic Church. We walk in, and, without a word, we join an unbroken chain of love and friendship that began when the Son of God walked the earth.
The world boasts many languages and styles of art, music, and architecture. Some of us have traveled widely and seen a lot of parish churches. They look and smell somewhat different. But the differences sit on top of a single foundation. Altar, crucifix, tabernacle, and the padrecito. From Timbuktu to Kathmandu, from Nawlins to Djibouti: altar, crucifix, tabernacle, priest—I see them, and I know, Church, Christ, God right here.
Anybody see “Babette’s Feast?” The chef had a past. She had no pretensions of being perfect. She arrived in the remote town a hard-luck case. But she could cook; she produced a feast for her neighbors. A cosmopolitan visitor to the town had eaten her dinners before, in Paris. But the self-righteous natives held themselves aloof, disapproved of her. They would not eat the sublime feast that Babette had set before them. The movie brilliantly succeeds in making these self-righteous townspeople look like perfect fools.
Now, for good or ill, I get to stand at the center of the glorious, living mess that our parishes are, in our humble little cluster. From where I stand, I have to say, this is what people who ‘leave the church’ look like to me. They look like the fools who won’t eat the delicious dinner.
St. Paul says: Children obey your parents. And parents, be kind to your children. Slaves, obey your masters. And masters, treat your servants with kindness and respect. Because, at the banquet table of God, we are all servants, we are all children. We are all small.
Our parishes have not come into being as the work of any single individual. No single individual can keep them going or sink them. Our buildings are beacons of the Blessed Trinity; our life in them shares in the power of heaven. We each take our small place; we mortify our foolish, judgmental, proprietary pride; we let our egos be cut down to their proper size by jostling against our brothers and sisters; and we rejoice in the goodness and almighty power of God.
St. Jude eventually wrote a letter to the Christian faithful, which can be found in the New Testament; it is the next-to-last book of the Bible.
In his letter, St. Jude tells us to avoid “Balaam’s error.”
[Imagine you’re in Catholic school and the priest is asking you…] Anyone ever been sitting watching t.v., or playing a video game, and mom says, “Time to do this!” or dad says, “Time to do that?” Anybody ever been in a group of friends, and someone starts talking about another person behind his or her back, making fun of that person? Anyone ever been working on schoolwork, and then suddenly a friend calls or shows you something, or you do a web-search, and suddenly there’s a quick and dirty way to print out something to turn in, even though it’s not really my own work at all?
Balaam was an ancient priest, way before Jesus came and gave us the Mass, way before the Temple in Jerusalem was even built. Balaam lived in what is now the Holy Land, before the Israelites came back from Egypt. One of the pagan kings wanted Balaam to sacrifice to the gods and then curse the people of Israel.
Balaam knew that it was not the right thing to do. He knew that God had chosen the Israelites to form a covenant with the human race. So, at first, Balaam refused.
But the pagan king tried to sweeten the deal. He put more pressure on Balaam. “Come on. Curse the Israelites! I will make it worth your while.”
So Balaam hedged. He knew it was wrong, but he thought, “Well, let me just go and see the king, and we’ll see what happens.” He thought maybe he could compromise between right and wrong, and that way he could have his cake and eat it, too. He could be holy and popular. He could be righteous and rich.
So Balaam got on his donkey to go to the king. But once they got on the road, the donkey kept swerving off to the side. So Balaam beat the donkey mercilessly. “Come on, animal!” Then the donkey kept lying down in the road. So Balaam beat the donkey more, and yelled at it.
Then a miracle occurred, and the donkey spoke, and more or less said, “Look, man. Even I, a donkey, know that you are not doing the right thing. When it comes to doing the will of God, and avoiding sin, you can’t compromise. I’m just trying to keep you out of trouble here.”
No compromises with temptation. Our own donkeys will have it over us, if we think we can please both God and the devil at the same time.
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” Matthew 22:36
Which commandment is the greatest, the most important, the one I have to think of first? God Himself may be perfectly simple, but He has given us a number of commandments over the years. And when we search our consciences honestly, we find not just one, but many demands. Sometimes the various demands throw us into a quandary, and we don’t know what to do.
So we can see how someone might honestly pose the question. Teacher, help me sort out my conscience. Tell me which commandment to think of first.
But these Pharisees in Sunday’s gospel passage were not really asking a question, per se. Asking a question means having room in my mind for an answer. It means using the word ‘teacher’ with real respect. ‘Teacher, you know more than I do, so illuminate my mind with something I do not yet know.’
Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.
He said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? …Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them–do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?…”
And he told them this parable:
“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply,
‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1-9)
Us: Fig trees that don’t bear fruit like we should. The gardener digs around the roots, fertilizes the soil—-to help us come into our own.
We have great potential, after all. Maybe not necessarily great potential to write novels or paint Mona Lisas. But great potential to love, great potential to worship the Creator, great potential to behold the Creator’s beautiful image in myself and in my neighbor.
–Is it just me, or are the two parts of the gospel reading (for tomorrow’s Holy Mass) really striking in the different pace in the images?
In the first part: swift, sudden death. Bam, bam, bam. Pilate kills Galileans. A tower collapses and kills everyone there.
Then the second part of the reading. The fig tree has no fruit. Okay, but let’s wait another year. Already waited three. An old, experienced gardener, who thinks of years as if they were passing days.
St. Paul tells us that our lives are: faith working through love. We believe. We hope for divine fulfillment. We patiently love.
Today might mean swift, sudden death for any of us. It might.
After all, today is all we really have. It has a sudden immediacy to it, of it’s very nature, it’s very today-ness. Yesterday has passed forever, and tomorrow…doesn’t exist.
But let’s try to look at it from the Lord’s point-of-view. He actually has all eternity, completely in His possession. All the yesterdays, all the tomorrows—He has them all, possesses all of that, and has infinitely more to boot. Yet He patiently doles out today for us, gives us a chance to take a step closer to the goal of bearing figs of love like we should. Every day He fertilizes, nutrifies our roots.
So let’s open up our leaves, take in the sun, and get a day closer to the fruit-bearing stage.
So much to reflect on this Sunday, it’s almost too much. Bear with me here.
1. Sunday we mark 368 years since the martyrdom of St. Isaac Jogues, who died in upstate New York.
And he was by no means the only Jesuit who died for the faith on this continent. In 1571, eight Jesuits died as martyrs here in what is now Virginia.
We salute these greatest of American heroes. Before George Washington’s great-great-grandparents were conceived in their mothers’ wombs, the missionary martyrs of America gave their lives so that the people of this land could know the Good News.
2. In Rome on Sunday, our Holy Father will declare Pope Paul VI to be among the blessed in heaven.
Some of us, maybe, remember when Pope Paul governed the Church, which was from 1963 to 1978. The Beatification of Pope Paul concludes the Roman Synod that has studied marriage and family life these past two weeks, and which some of us may have heard something about in the newspaper or on tv. We had better discuss the Synod. But I think the Synod we had better discuss is actually the Synod on Evangelization, which took place in 1974. Let’s come back to that in a minute.
3. In the middle of all this, we hear our Lord say to us with His quiet wisdom: “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
Maybe you remember us talking about this gospel passage three years ago. We considered the challenge of actually trying to give God His due. We start at the altar: praising Him; offering the perfect sacrifice given to us by His Son; offering ourselves, along with Christ, to the Father. It all starts with Mass, and our whole lives are directed to the glory we come into contact with in the Holy Mass.
But we have to give God His due outside church, too. And we give Him His due by following His solemn command that we love our neighbor. We truly love our neighbor by thinking of him or her in the exact same way that Christ thought of us, when he spread out His arms on the cross for us.
Which brings us to “repay to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” Our love for our fellowman means paying careful attention to our duties as citizens. Because we love God, we also seek, even in this fallen world, the great political goal known as “the common good.” And in a couple weeks, we who are of voting age have to figure out a way to cast a pro-life, pro-immigrant vote.
…But let’s go back to the memorable Synod of Bishops, which took place in Rome—in 1974, when Blessed Paul VI was pope. One topic on the table then was this:
Since we Catholics firmly believe that God is all-merciful and all-loving; since Jesus Christ, crucified for our salvation, has revealed the truth about God like nothing else ever could, we of course believe that God has a plan for absolutely everyone to be saved. This includes people who have never heard of Jesus or received the sacraments.
We ourselves know only one way to heaven—Holy Baptism, along with the other sacraments of the Church. But God knows more than we do, so we never despair about anyone’s salvation. The second Vatican Council re-echoed these truths, which can be found in the New Testament. God can find a way for anyone to get to heaven. How then do we understand our mission to evangelize?
Such was one of the pastoral problems posed by the Synod of Bishops which took place in the 1974. A good question. Allow me to quote what Blessed Pope Paul VI wrote:
It would be useful if every Christian were to pray about the following
thought: men can gain salvation also in other ways, by God’s mercy, even though we do not preach the Gospel to them. But as for us, can we gain salvation if—through negligence, or fear, or shame –if we ‘blush for the Gospel’–or as a result of false ideas, we fail to preach it?
For that would be to betray the call of God, who wishes the seed to bear fruit through the voice of the ministers of the Gospel; and it will depend on us whether this seed grows. [emphasis added]
…Anyone ever heard of Francis Parkman, the writer? He wrote the definitive history books about the two centuries when Europeans and native tribes both lived in what is now the United States, with each living according to their own long-standing traditional way of life. That is, the 1600’s and 1700’s.
Parkman was an amazingly smart historian and gifted writer. That said, in his books, Parkman has a clear bias against some of the Indian tribes. One group, though, he held in even greater contempt. The Jesuits. Parkman’s phrase for the Jesuits in North America during colonial times is: “Romish zealots.”
Seems to me that this lays a challenge on us. When biased historians look back on the 21st century, will they find a record of what we have done, and conclude: What a bunch of Romish zealots!
May God give us the grace to water this land with our blood, sweat, and tears, because we Romish zealots won’t be satisfied until everyone has a chance to share in the grace that we have received in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.