Father and Mother in Faith

We Catholics call Abraham “our father in faith.” Abraham, that we read about in the Bible, in the book of… Genesis.

dore_abraham_isaac471x600Our first reading at Sunday Mass, from Genesis chapter 22, illuminates how Abraham became our father in faith. Namely, by establishing the People of God. And by obeying God with complete self-abandonment.

Abraham had received his long-awaited child, the son through whom he was to become the father of countless descendants. Sarah had given birth to Isaac, and the child had become the joy of Abraham’s waning years.

Then, the God Who had given the child demanded: “Offer the boy to me as a sacrifice.”

Our father in faith responded: “Thy will be done, Lord.”

Actually, Abraham didn’t say anything at all. He simply did as he was told. He believed in the providence of God, who could give, and take away, as He determined to give and take away.

As they walked up Mount Moriah, Isaac asked Abraham, “Father, where will we get the lamb for the sacrifice?”

We can well imagine that only Abraham’s immense emotional strength enabled him to answer. By strength of will, he held back his tears. With his humble, saintly faith, he answered his boy, “God Himself will provide the victim for the sacrifice, son.”

Now, Abraham uttered an unwitting prophecy here. Not only did God send an angel to tell Abraham to stop, after he had lifted the knife to slaughter Isaac. Not only did God provide a ram with its horns caught in a thicket. God eventually provided the Victim for the ultimate, genuinely pleasing sacrifice: His only-begotten Son, the joy and glory of the eternal Father. God’s Son became the Victim for our sins on the wood of the cross.

So when Abraham answered Isaac, he unwittingly uttered a prophecy about the coming of Christ. Abraham spoke not with knowledge and understanding of what was to come, but rather with faith.

By doing so, by reaching out in pure faith to God, Abraham did the thing that seems, on the face of it, to be impossible for mankind to do. Abraham, a humble human being, a man with a limited lifespan, limited knowledge and experience, an eater of bread cakes and other such grainy delicacies of nomadic life, a man with plenty of calluses on his feet: Abraham did what seems impossible. By his own act, he touched God.

Now, Abraham did not touch God with his finger. God cannot be touched like an elevator button, or a guitar string, or an iPad. In fact, we could go through all five of our senses, and we would find no means by which we could connect immediately with God Himself.

bl-virg-detailOur tongues can taste wonderful things, like deep-fried fresh whiting, slathered in tartar sauce. Such experiences make us declare, Blessed be God! for His work of creating delicious fish. But a breaded filet of whitefish is not God.

We can smell fabulous odors, like rosewater, or the bouquet of aged Kentucky whiskey. And smelling such things can make us declare, Blessed be God! for giving us oak to make barrels to hold such concoctions. But the smell of fine potpourri, or fine spirits: these smells are not God.

Not only did Abraham not smell, taste, feel, or see God. Abraham didn’t have any clear thoughts about God. Abraham did not conceive a picture of God, or come to conclusions about Him. Abraham did not know God. He certainly did not understand Him. He held no idea in particular about Him.

Abraham simply believed: God, the great, the almighty, the unknowable—He provides. He provides. Abraham reached the transcendent God by the most sublime act of which we humble, dusty human beings are capable: faith.

The most sublime human act, which countless washer-women, farmers, grease-monkeys, line-cooks, convicts in prison, truck drivers, and obscure high-school band teachers accomplish each day: believing in God.

When we believe, we reach God. We reach Him the only way we can, during this pilgrim life. By faith we have contact with the reality that is greater than this entire universe. By faith, we “touch,” so to speak, eternity. Which means that faith truly involves eternal life. Our faith is the beginning of our eternal life with God.

We call Abraham our father in faith, and we venerate and love him for it. But our mother in faith is of course even more important. No one lived the faith of Abraham more purely, with more total self-abandonment; no one is more truly a “daughter of Abraham” than the Blessed Virgin Mary.

From her earliest days, Mary gave her Yes to God. Without knowing, without understanding, without seeing. She touched God with her total faith. She held fast to Him with such a firm grip, in fact, that she became a completely open vessel of His graces and gifts.

Abraham stood ready to see his son sacrificed. But in the end, Abraham did not have to endure that. Our Lady, on the other hand, stood courageously and lovingly by the cross while her son became the Paschal Lamb, shedding His Precious Blood for us.

Lord, we believe! We believe in You! Help us to share the faith of our father Abraham and our mother Mary.

Skillful and Helpless

Queen Esther by Andrea de Castagno

Queen Esther by Andrea de Castagno

Ask, and you will receive. Seek, and you will find. Knock, and the door will be opened.

The door in question here is the door between heaven and earth. The Omnipotent One sits on the other side of it.

Many of our first readings at daily Mass during the first part of Lent teach us this: God is in charge. Always. Therefore, for us, the most genuinely prudent, clever, and wise course always involves praying like the desperate, helpless creatures that we are.

Lord, help us! Have mercy on us! If it be Your holy will, may this be Winter 2015’s last punch. Or, if not, give us the grace to make good use of our snow days. And help us overcome our parish-budget problems somehow. Since we seem to be looking at two budget-busting icy Sundays in a row here.

The thing that makes the prayers of Queen Esther, and the king of Nineveh, and Daniel, and Naaman the Syrian, and Azariah so beautiful is: the childlike confidence with which they trust in the goodness of God.

Now, our own human devices and schemes have some value, to be sure. God made us reasonable and resourceful. We can’t renounce our capacities to accomplish constructive things. Like pre-treating roads with brine before a snowstorm, etc.

But our human skills and capacities do not compare with the power of God. Our greatest skill and our most powerful capacity will always be: urgent, confident, desperate prayer.

No, we are not altogether helpless. Compared to puppies, and deer in headlights, and baby pandas, we are downright masterful.

But compared to God? Helpless.

So let’s beg His help always. Knowing, with the certitude of divine faith, that He will always help us, in the best-possible way.

Ninevites Loving Themselves

The Palaces of Nimrud Restored by James Fergusson

The Palaces of Nimrud Restored by James Fergusson

You may recall that three years ago we discussed the Ninevites and their love for themselves. We don’t know much about them, the ancient Ninevites and their king. But we do know that, when Jonah came to them as a messenger from God, they listened.

The king of Nineveh listened, and he loved himself for the first time in his life. The king loved himself enough to decide then and there to live in the truth. He threw off the empty pomps of his courtly grandeur and humbled himself before his Maker.

For the first time, the king loved his people. He declared that everyone should heed the words of Jonah. And for the first time ever, the Ninevites truly loved themselves. They turned to God, their Creator and their Father. With confidence in His patient love, they begged His mercy, and they received it.

confessionalWe may be late, too, in coming to love ourselves. But as long as we draw breath, late is not too late. Today the Lord loves us, and longs for us, and stands ready to forgive any and all sins that we have the courage to acknowledge to Him. And He wills to give us the courage and the insight that we will need to confess.

What is sin #1, of which we are all probably very guilty? Not going to Confession anywhere near enough. Do we love ourselves so little? When the Lord waits in the confessional to forgive, to restore, and to refresh us? And we leave Him waiting?

#2: Do we pray anywhere near enough for the people closest to us–the annoying, tedious people with so many objectionable habits?

The Lord constantly wills that the people we dislike the most will get to heaven. He wills it constantly. The Lord Jesus wills that the greatest villains on earth will get to heaven, by repentance and renewal of soul. Christ stands ready at all times to forgive the sins of the greatest killers and terrorists, once they repent. And He offers the grace of repentance and contrition to all of them, and weeps in His Heart if they are stubborn. Just like He weeps in His Heart when we are stubborn.

Are we anywhere near to seeing other people the way the Lord sees them? With such love and desire for them to love themselves and live in the truth?

Now, before we get discouraged and decide that we are miserable losers without an ounce of real charity in our hearts, let’s remember Jonah. He had no love for the Ninevites. He wanted to see them burn.

But the Lord basically forced Jonah to obey; the Lord more or less forced Jonah to preach repentance to the people he hated. God willed the salvation of that deplorable cesspool of a city. And Jonah was to be His preacher, and convert the Ninevites to true faith. And God saw it done.

So: we do not have to have pure divine love in our hearts. We don’t even have to obey God willingly. We just have to obey Him. Even if we sullenly and grudgingly do what the Lord asks, He will bring good out of it.

Can we doubt that He asks us all to go to Confession during Lent? Even if we go to Confession grudgingly and will sullen obtuseness, like Jonah went to Nineveh grudgingly, with sullen obtuseness–even if we go to the foot of the Cross to confess our sins grudgingly and sullenly, He will forgive us and bring good out of it.

Lent and the Ancient Flood

noah-covenant

Seems like history repeats itself. Almost the same gospel reading as at Sunday Mass four weeks ago. This time, to begin Lent, let’s focus on the first part of the reading.

The Spirit drove him out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him. (Mark 1:12-13)

The Lord Jesus fasted for forty days, sequestered from the world, totally isolated in the desert. In His solitude, He entered into spiritual combat with the Enemy of our human nature, the corruptor of creation.

Our first reading this Sunday reminds us about the covenant between God and Noah after the ancient flood. As we read in Genesis, when God Almighty had decided to flood the earth completely, He did so with divine sadness. He had made the world to be beautiful. But Satan had befouled the earth with so much sin and degradation that only a fresh start could get things back on-track.

The flood didn’t mean the obliteration of the earth. The same human race that God had created originally—and the same laws of nature, same animals, etc.–all would survive, and provide a new beginning, after the flood. But only one ark-full. One isolated, solitary ark, on the surface of an endless sea. Everything else had to be washed clean altogether.

noe's arkNow, we Catholics love the world. We do not despise anything that God has made. We know that He made everything to thrive, to course with vigor, to flourish.

God made the cosmos—gave it a beginning. But not an end. He made the world to endure forever, as an eternal temple of His light. He even made the devil good, beautiful, powerful, vastly intelligent. God willed that Lucifer would endure forever as a vessel of divine glory.

Lucifer, however, willed otherwise. The Enemy wills destruction. And he wills the degradation of the world with such skill and such dexterity that the world, which we love, which belongs to eternity—this world, at one point, justly got submerged under an endless sea. God covered the earth with enough water to drown everyone and everything that didn’t make it onto the ark. Not because God wills destruction. But because Satan wills destruction so well. All his destruction had to be destroyed, so that life could thrive again.

I said we would focus on the first part of the gospel reading, instead of the second part, which we just read four weeks ago. But we have to consider the second part of the reading a little bit. We cannot just skip over the most decisively important reality of life, namely the Kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:15).

To begin Lent, we have to ask the question: Where do we find the Kingdom of God? In this world, or in another world? Here, or somewhere else?

Yes.

The Lord Jesus went out into the ark of His total solitude for 40 days. He turned His back on the world, as if it were covered with an endless sea of water. Not because He hates the world that He made, but precisely because He loves it the way He does. He loves it enough not only to lay its foundations, but also to redeem it and make it new, even after the Enemy had laid waste to it.

champagneWe Catholics follow Christ into the ark of Lenten solitude, into the ark of self-denial. We turn our backs on things like ice-cream and champagne. We get into the ark of Lenten separation from the normal comforts of this earth.

The ark doesn’t have wifi or cable. The berths on the ark do not have featherbeds. But our Lenten observances do not involve self-loathing, nor world-hating. We get onto the ark of Lent for our own version of Christ’s divine reason for fasting during the original Lent.

We don’t hate ice-cream or champagne. At least I don’t. We don’t hate the world. We don’t hate ourselves.

But the fact of the matter is: The Enemy has enough power to just about ruin the world. He has enough power to just about ruin us. And He’s clever enough to ruin us with things so apparently innocuous as tvs, phones, ice-cream cones—even apparently harmless snacks, like donuts.

We do not undertake our Lenten penances with glee. God did not gleefully flood the earth in the days of Noah. God wouldn’t have flooded the earth at all, except He knew that, after forty days and forty nights of endless rain, He would set the rainbow in the clouds again. Everything would start fresh and happy, with all the creatures from the ark standing on the fertile ground. Birds singing and flowers starting to grow, like they had back in the Garden of Eden.

We undertake our Lenten penances because we love ourselves enough to hate how weak we can be. We love the world enough to hate how it can lead us to make big mistakes in it.

The world needs a big wash-down. We need a big wash-down.

The world will never grow into the Kingdom of God, unless we love it enough to turn our backs on it for 40 days. And we ourselves won’t make it to the divine Kingdom that this world will one day be, unless we deny ourselves and take up our crosses during Lent. With the same kind of loving courage that led the Lord Jesus Himself out into the desert.

Computus and My Brother’s Birthday

full_moon_2Week after next, we will have a full moon.

The Purim moon, which precedes the Passover moon.

Easter always falls on the first _________ after the first _____ _____ after the _________ _________ (March 21).*

If you’re looking for an extra-hard Lenten penance to do… How about: Determine whether or not a period exists during which the dates of Easter repeat exactly. If so, determine what the period is.

Now, I know that Easter occurs with some regularity on March 31, since that’s my dear little brother’s birthday. He had an Easter birthday two years ago, and thirteen years ago.

I know that Easter sometimes occurs on March 23, since Easter Sunday, March 23, 2008, will remain forever etched in my memory as the miserable, cold day when the Georgetown Hoyas got knocked out of the NCAA tournament by Steph Curry and the Davidson Wildcats. It just didn’t seem to me that the good Lord Jesus had risen from the dead so that Roy Hibbert’s college career could come to such an abrupt and painful end.

Painful Easter

Painful Easter

Easter occurs somewhat frequently on March 27, which means that Good Friday and Annunciation Day are the same. I remember that happened in 2005. And it will happen again next year.

The most frequent date of Easter? April 19. But we are living through a 75-year period during which Easter never falls on April 19.

Turns out that the mathematicians of the Middle Ages devised a science called Computus, by which to determine the date of Easter in any given year.

And there is a cycle of Easter dates. They repeat exactly, according to form, in a perfect pattern, very regularly.

Every 5,700,000 years.

______________

* Sunday full moon vernal equinox

22 + 22 and the Kneeling Church

St Matthews Cathedral

St. Matthews Cathedral, Washington DC

 

Kinda cool for me to think about how exactly 22 years ago, I began the Lent that prepared me for the Sacraments of Initiation in the Catholic Church.

At that time, I was 22 years of age.

On the afternoon of the first Sunday of Lent, 1993, we sat in St. Matthew’s Cathedral on Rhode Island Avenue. We waited for our little group to be called for acknowledgement by the archbishop. It seemed like we waited forever, and then we were called, and it all happened in a second.

Looking back: There were so, so many things about the Church that I didn’t understand then. I actually had a very hard time keeping my eyes open during that particular ceremony. I worked all-night shifts on Saturday nights then.

I just believed with everything I had that This is My Body, This is My Blood is true. And that Christ Crucified is the one thing that truly makes life worth living.

I guess maybe I have come to understand a thing or two about the Church in these ensuing twenty-two years. But it still feels like a good idea to start Lent acknowledging that I don’t understand much.

Deny yourself. Take up your cross daily. And follow Me.

Twenty-two years ago, I was dying to belong to a church where people knelt. Knelt before the Blessed Sacrament. Knelt before the Crucified. Knelt befort the Awesome Majesty that we do not understand. The Majesty Who loves us unto death.

May He give us the grace to be that kneeling Church together, during Holy Lent 2015.

Pope Francis Ash Wednesday procession

Pope Francis Ash-Wednesday Procession yesterday

 

Bad at Lent

One great thing for us to keep in mind: Lent contains graces, in and of itself, simply by virtue of what it is. Lent can mean many different things for many different people. But the one thing which Lent is, in and of itself: Our share in the graces won by Christ’s forty-day fast in the desert.

christ-fastingThis consoles me, anyway. Since I have never been particularly “good at” Lent.

You might say, ‘No surprise there, Father! You’re not particularly good at anything.”

True enough.

But that’s the beauty of the absolute fact of the grace of the forty days. We receive special divine help during the forty days of Lent, whether we have any “Lent skills” or not.

My biggest problem is: I am prepared to fast from food, sleep, talking, even e-mail. But don’t ask me to fast from Big-East basketball during Lent. Because I can’t do it.

Seriously, though: The Lord Jesus Himself consecrated these forty days for us by His fast. He won us Lenten graces by which we can overcome bad habits. He won us Lenten graces by which we can pray more, meditate more, intercede more for people who need our prayers.

Most important of all: By His fast—which He undertook for one reason, namely because He loved the Father—by His fast, kept out of love, Jesus won Lenten graces for us, by which, between now and Easter, we can learn to love better. We can love God better and love our neighbor better.

And we don’t even have to be “good at” Lent. He gives us these graces whether we are good at Lent or not.

Globalization of Indifference

pope-francis_2541160k

St. Paul exhorts us: Let brotherly love continue. (Hebrews 13:1)

In his message for Lent, our Holy Father Pope Francis writes, “One of the greatest challenges I would like to address is the globalization of indifference.

“Usually, when we are healthy and comfortable, we forget about others. We are unconcerned with their problems, their sufferings and the injustices they endure. Our heart grows cold. As long as I am relatively healthy and comfortable, I don’t think about those less well-off. Today, this selfish attitude of indifference has taken on global proportions, to the extent that we can speak of a globalization of indifference.

“As individuals, too, we are tempted by indifference. Flooded with news reports and troubling images of human suffering, we often feel our complete inability to help. What can we do to avoid being caught up in this spiral of distress and powerlessness?”

Holy Father goes on to explain the mission of Mother Church:

“Her mission is to bear patient witness to the One who desires to draw all creation and every man and woman to the Father. Her mission is to bring to all a love which cannot remain silent. The Church follows Jesus Christ along the paths that lead to every man and woman.

“In each of our neighbors, then, we must see a brother or sister for whom Christ died and rose again. What we ourselves have received, we have received for them as well. Similarly, all that our brothers and sisters possess is a gift for the Church and for all humanity.

“Dear brothers and sisters, how greatly I desire that our parishes and our communities may become islands of mercy in the midst of the sea of indifference!”

Islands of mercy in a sea of indifference. Islands of warm-heartedness in a world with a cold heart.

We must take the risk of loving everyone who comes anywhere near us. We must take the risk of turning off every electronic thing and loving actual people who live nearby.

No one has the guts to take such risks without the confidence that comes from living in communion with Christ. How do we live in communion with Christ? There is only one known way: the sacraments of the Church. And the sacraments of the Church are not available on facebook or anywhere on the internet or on tv. They are not available in anyone’s own flipping comfortable house. Available only in church!

One simple way to fight the power of globalized indifference. Simple, courageous, and consummately loving: attend Mass every Sunday.

Living by Faith

amoeba

“Is not a man’s life on earth a drudgery?” So asked holy Job, in the deepest throes of his agony and despair. “Is not a man’s life on earth a drudgery?”

Exactly three years ago, when we read the same readings at Sunday Mass, we reflected a bit about what the word “life” means.

Is ‘life’ something that amoebas, cornstalks, jelly fish, chickens, and we human beings all have in common? Is life simply a certain arbitrary confluence of atoms, set in motion randomly by the Big Bang? These particular atoms could have wound up constituting my flabby body, like they do—or they could have wound up somewhere in the Andromeda Galaxy. It’s all just a matter of chance.

That’s one interpretation of the word ‘life.’ Which could make it feel like a drudgery, to be sure.

Then there’s the interpretation of the word ‘life’ which our Lord Jesus came to the earth to give us. As we read from the first chapter of St. Mark’s gospel, Christ lovingly healed the bodies of many sick and suffering people. But His first priority was to preach the truth that heals the soul.

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Homily for Latin Mass

pentecost_with_mary

John 14:23-26: Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words; and the word that you hear is not mine, but is from the Father who sent me.

I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. (gospel for Votive Mass of the Holy Spirit)

The earth has her many cultures, her many languages. To my mind, it does not make sense to speak of “culture” as something abstract, as if anyone could understand the idea of “culture” without having a commitment to one form of culture in particular. “Catholic culture” is not some abstract thing. Catholic culture is the way we try to live our lives, striving to obey God. And of course a Catholic culture is a “Culture of Life,” a culture that embraces the gift of life for what it is: something sacred, to be venerated with religious devotion.

We have our languages. No matter what vernacular language I try to say Mass in, there will always be plenty of people who don’t understand what I am saying. So having Mass in Latin is the “great equalizer:” no one understands.

The important thing is that we believe in Christ, in His promise to send the Holy Spirit. The idea that people who don’t speak the same language very well could actually make up a living spiritual family, working together, praying together, loving each other—that would be hopeless, if it weren’t for one thing: Jesus Christ, His Holy Spirit, His living Church.

People say that the international language is the language of love. That’s perfectly true, provided that what we mean by ‘love’ is: The Mass.

When people use the word ‘culture,’ my eyes generally glaze over immediately. Instead of talking about it, let’s just build our lives around the Mass.

Anyone who centers his or her life around the Mass really shares the same fundamental culture, the culture that we have all received as an inheritance. That is, being Catholic. Different vernacular languages are secondary; socializing is secondary. Praying comes first; praying truly unites. We have that in common. Hoc est enim corpus meum.