Death on the Sixth Commandment

We read at Holy Mass: A man shall cling to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh…No human being must separate what God has joined. (Mark 10:7-9)

Such ringing clarity about marriage comes as a wonderful antidote to news reports about transgender bathrooms. Economic and social revolutionaries can and do find inspirations in the words of Christ. But sexual revolutionaries run into a brick wall. Because Jesus of Nazareth was death on the sixth commandment.

marriage_sacramentBetter to pluck out your eye than look at a woman lustfully. Better to cut off your hand than use it to sin. Lord Jesus revealed that when God spoke from Mount Sinai condemning adultery, He condemned every sexual thing—except the one, honest act that makes marriage marriage, through a lifetime of fidelity.

Now, we would be fools to think ill of sex. Our churches would be empty without it. The Lord’s severity hardly proceeded from fussy prudishness on His part. He was celibate, but no prude. To the contrary, when He spoke about sex, He evoked the Garden of Eden, where the original divine command resounded: Be fruitful and multiply!

But when it comes to the union of man and woman as one flesh, the holiness of Christ utterly prohibits anything cheap, anything fleeting or libidinously selfish. He chose us for ecstasy and communion that lasts forever; He offered His celibate body on the cross to consummate our everlasting marriage with God. There’s no room at the foot of His cross for anything other than chastity.

Doesn’t mean He won’t forgive our falls. He knows what Adam’s sin has done to our human powers of self-control. When we succumb to temptation, He picks us up and gives us a fresh start, helping us to pursue again the serenity of perfect sexual honesty. Christ never gets tired of pardoning us weak sinners when we repent.

But the idea that any fruitless, short-term sexuality could peacefully co-exist with the holiness of Christ? His own words utterly anathematize this. Following Jesus means believing wholeheartedly that sex is only for marriage, and marriage is for life.

Chair-of-Peter Homily

mount-kilimanjaro

Mount Kilimanjaro

Jesus: “Who do you say that I am?” Peter: “You are the Christ.”

An old saw in the Catholic world has it, “The Church is not a democracy.” Indeed, a King rules: our Lord Jesus, the Christ, enthroned in heaven. St. Peter declared it on the first Pentecost: “Jesus is exalted at the right hand of God.” (Acts 2:33)

Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. True enough, when it comes to running affairs pertaining to this world: democracy seems like the best choice from a bad lot.

But Holy Mother Church cannot operate as a democracy, because She exists solely to love and serve Her heavenly King. The Church cannot operate as a democracy for the same reason that creation itself, the cosmos, cannot operate as a democracy. The Creator rules creation, and the Creator rules the new creation–the Church of the Christ.

Copy work for the Telfair Museum of Arts and Sciences

From Moneterrey Square, Savannah, by West Fraser

We need a shepherd. I mean, our souls.

Democracy may offer the greatest prospect for a nation’s prosperity in this world. But if we try to worship democracy as something sacred, we will wind up with a handful of dust.

If we worship the “sacred democratic nation,” the politicians will just wind up looking at each other uncomfortably and asking themselves, “Are these people bowing down? Yeesh! We’re not the worst bounders in the world, but we are egomaniacs who love the sound of our own voices. These people are worshiping a dirty business.”

St. Peter declared the bedrock of all truth, “Jesus is the Christ.” With that declaration, the Lord established the Chair from which Peter and his successors govern the pilgrim Church on earth.

Here’s an analogy. If we can honestly bring ourselves to believe that all the atoms in the universe democratically organized themselves into things like Niagara Falls, or Adele’s vocal chords, or Mt. Kilimanjaro; if we think that the oceans, and the planets, and the sun and moon, arrived at their state of harmonious motion through consensus among themselves—then we can say that religion ought to involve democracy.

But, since the idea that the Hudson River found its course by taking a poll; or that Shakespeare got his genius through a fair election in Stratford upon Avon; or that the city of Savannah, Georgia, has such beautiful trees in its squares because the voters elected them—since these ideas are patently absurd, let’s just rejoice in the fact that the hierarchical organization of our Church makes the same amount of sense as the beautiful, hierarchical organization of the universe.

Giving and Getting It All

The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise. That they are vain. (I Corinthians 3:20)

The wise of the world. Like Oprah Winfrey or Mark Twain. Like Socrates. Like the framers of the US Constitution–Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Co. Like the entrepreneurial geniuses–Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk. Or the gray eminences of Hollywood–Samuel Jackson, Shirley MacLaine, Denzel Washington, or Meryl Streep. Even the the sage of the ultimate mystery, NCAA bracketologist John Lunardi.

joe-lunardi[Click HERE to read in Spanish.]

All their thoughts–about who will get into the tournament, or about how to make money, or write a book, or please an audience, or govern a country–all of those human brainwaves: completely vain, saith the Scriptures.

Let’s go a step farther. Who’s the wisest Christian who ever lived? Gotta be St. Thomas Aquinas, right?

Near the end of his life, someone asked him about all his voluminous writings of wisdom. He said, “It’s all straw.”

Something transcends it all. By comparison with its wisdom, the deepest thoughts of men mean nothing. And that something is Christ crucified.

St. Paul went on to write: “So let no one boast of human beings, for everything belongs to you…the world, or life or death, or the present or the future: all belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God.”

Wow. But how to understand this? How do we understand St. Paul telling us that everything–as in: the whole cosmos–belongs to us? To try to understand, let’s work our way down, in order to work our way up. We have to let the commands of Christ humble us utterly, so that His sacrifice can utterly exalt us.

In the gospel at Sunday Mass we hear Jesus tell us: “Offer your left cheeck to the one who strkes your right. Love your enemy. Pray for the one who persecutes you. Do all of this to live as children of your heavenly Father, Who makes His sun rise on everyone, and Who loves everyone perfectly.”

Mark TwainNow, Who must this man be, Jesus, to issue such commands? No human being ever made the sun rise, or prevented its rising. No human being has ever known better than God when it should rain, or when it should stop raining.

When Jesus speaks, we hear the voice of the One Who owns and operates everything. He knows every human mind, and He knows that not one of them contains enough knowledge to judge a human soul. If I think so-and-so is my enemy, I may have my human reasons for thinking that. But it could be that God gave me so-and-so as a friend. What I know for sure is that God made so-and-so to be His, God’s, friend.

The doctrine of Christ utterly humbles us. Because Christ’s wisdom is not human wisdom. It is divine wisdom. Jesus is something other than a wise sage, something completely different from an “expert.” Jesus is a man with God’s Mind in His Head. God owns and operates the cosmos, whole and entire. And everything that God owns and operates, Christ owns and operates. And everyone that God loves, Jesus loves. And that’s everyone.

Now, does everything that Christ owns and operates belong also to us? Including His universal love?

Lord Jesus stretched out His arms on the cross not just for those who love Him, but also for those who hate Him. They took His cloak, His tunic, and His sandals. They beat and battered Him. They scourged Him and spat on Him, and yet He peacefully offered more. He opened His Hands and relaxed His Feet for the nails. And, as the hammer fell, He loved the very men who pounded the spikes into His flesh. He gave everything and held nothing back for Himself. He gave His very life’s breath to His enemies.

An utter fool, the Uncreated Divine Wisdom. An utter fool for love, His Blood dripping to the ground below, as He said, “Father, forgive them,” about the men who at that moment mocked Him and spat with contempt on His wounded ankles.

But the Fool for Love reigns. Even hanging on His Cross, Christ our God owned and operated everything, with His infinite divine power and knowledge. And at that moment, He handed it all to us. The cosmos. And His infinite Love.

For free. For nothing. As a gift.

He made this gift to both those who love Him and those who hate Him. God gave to sinners the gift of His loving friendship. All things work to the benefit of the friends of God, by His power and grace. Not because we are good, or wise, or cute–but because He is generous: We have it all.

Morning Run in Charleston

west-fraser-charleston-harbor

West Fraser paints Charleston and environs with a native son’s love

(from the “On-A-Little-Vacation” file…)

The sun rose high over Colonial Lake through the crisp, semi-tropical-winter air, dappling the reflecting-pool waters. Orange light warmed the bricks and stones of Broad Street. Beyond the austere statue of William Moultrie in the Battery’s White Point Garden, James Island saluted from across the Ashley River.

The Gibbes Museum of Art has a gallery of 18th-century Charleston portraits and furniture. The wall placard refers to “the abhorrent economic system” that built this stylish little peninsular metropolis. On the cobblestones around the 250-year-old Customs House, your blood runs cold imagining manacled men and women bought and sold on this spot.

In the distance, Fort Sumter reigns, like a ghost king, over this whole little watery realm. Yes, the 2005 Ravenel Bridge over the Cooper River asserts the 21st century, jutting a pair of concrete tire-jack colossi into the sky. And on the suburban bank of the river, the USS Yorktown evokes the 20th century.

But, in my mind, Charleston belongs to Mary Chesnut and the 19th century. Here’s a selection from her diary, April 12, 1861:

Anderson will not capitulate…I do not pretend to go to sleep. How can I? If Anderson does not accept terms at four, the orders are, he shall be fired upon. I count four, St. Michael’s bells chime out and I begin to hope. At half-past four the heavy booming of a cannon. I sprang out of bed, and on my knees prostrate I prayed as I never prayed before.

There was a sound of stir all over the house, pattering of feet in the corridors. All seemed hurrying one way. I put on my double-gown and a shawl and went, too. It was to the housetop. The shells were bursting…I knew my husband was rowing about in a boat somewhere in that dark bay, and that the shells were roofing it over, bursting toward the fort. If Anderson was obstinate, Colonel Chesnut was to order the fort on one side to open fire. Certainly fire had begun. The regular roar of the cannon, there it was. And who could tell what each volley accomplished of death and destruction?

The women were wild there on the housetop. Prayers came from the women and imprecations from the men. And then a shell would light up the scene…

 

Light in R-Rated

I hesitate to get into this. But it’s time to acknowledge a true leader. I know these debates can get quite emotional. I for one have seen a lot of hate spewed in recent days–about a man who is a constant winner and overachiever. He’s out there proving his haters wrong time after time. Some people get jealous of such a consistent winner. Throw in a beautiful foreign model for a wife, and people hate him even more. Maybe you didn’t want him in the role he has today, but there’s nothing anyone can do about it now.

Like it or not, Tom Brady is in the Superbowl again.*

Stations of the CrossBefore the game, though, let’s turn inward. Who calls him- or herself a disciple of Christ?

Therefore we must listen carefully.

Last week He taught us where we can find true blessedness. Christ’s Beatitudes describe a kind of happiness that lies hidden from the world’s eyes. Poor in spirit, meek, merciful, pure-hearted, longing for justice and truth–there we find the invisible happiness of inner communion with God.

Today at Holy Mass we hear the Lord command us to let a light shine that will move people to glorify God. “You are the light of the world,” He tells us.

In a month, Lent will arrive, and we will celebrate the Stations of the Cross on Fridays, as we customarily do. We have lovely, evocative stations at St. Andrew’s in Roanoke. We can use them outside of Lent, too, of course. A unique light shone from Christ throughout His pilgrim life. But when we imagine His bitter Passion and crucifixion, we see that light at its purest.

Theologians debate the question of whether Jesus had the virtue of faith during His earthly life. St. Thomas Aquinas says No, because Christ had the beatific vision from the moment of His conception in the Virgin’s womb. In His mind, Lord Jesus always beheld the glory of God. What we believe, and hope to see, Jesus always saw interiorly and knew.

In the end, I think the debate on the the question of Jesus’ faith doesn’t serve much of a purpose, because the essential fact for us is: The strength and serenity that Jesus possessed during His Passion. We have faith–we have faith precisely in that inner source, the life of the soul of Christ, which gave Him the love by which He offered Himself to the Father, for us, on the cross. We believe that the inner source of Christ’s perfect life is God. The source of Jesus’ strength and serenity during the Passion is the God in which we Christians believe. Feel me?

As we gaze at the fourteen Stations, we see light. An intense paradox draws us into the true meaning of our lives: These bas-relief sculptures depict a hideously dark sequence of events. If we didn’t hold the Christian faith, we wouldn’t want our children exposed to these images. When Mel Gibson made his Passion movie, people complained about the violence. But Good Friday–the real, original day–it was an R-rated movie. If they gave a rating to our Stations of the Cross, it would have to be R.

Tom BradyBut we see light. At Mass at St. Andrew’s, we find ourselves in a shiny, sparkling, gaudy building–and right in the center, with every architectural line converging on it–is the rendition of a crucified man. And to us, this is the brightest light of all, the shiniest part of the beautiful building. This is our God. His light, altogether invisible to every eye but the eye of faith–His light shines brighter than any other light. The Passion, darker than any Hollywood horror movie–and yet we see the Light of the World shining.

And that makes us the light of the world. It’s good to be nice, but being nice doesn’t make anyone the light of the world. It’s good to be smart, but being smart doesn’t make anyone the light of the world. When does our light shine before others and make them glorify our heavenly Father? When they see within us the same light that shone within Jesus on Good Friday.

The world needs our Christian interior life. We need a Christian interior life. How did Jesus give heaven to the human race? By living from the deep secret within Himself, His secret divine union with the Father.

Which means that we need to wall-off a sancutary in our souls. We need an inner tabernacle that no e-mail, no facebook, no Superbowl, no President, no news media can touch. We need to cultivate the interior life. The world needs us to cultivate the Christian interior life.

How? How about at least fifteen minutes of absolute silence per day? If we wonder, What do we need to survive life in the USA in 2017? let’s listen to this. St. Francis de Sales said, “I pray an hour a day, except when I’m really busy. Then I pray two hours a day.” Or Martin Luther: “I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours praying.”

What’s Christian meditation? It’s as easy as walking quietly from one Station of the Cross to the next. Or just trying to pay attention at Mass. Or opening up the New Testament and starting to read from Matthew 1:1.

Our light will shine. When we let the light of Christ crucified shine inside us. Through daily silent prayer.

————

* Thank you, David “Dutch” Massingham, for this joke.

Groundhog Day with No Variables

memling-presentation

Our Lady and St. Joseph took the Lord to the Temple on the fortieth day after His birth. They fulfilled an ancient law. “You shall redeem your firstborn by offering sacrifice to the Lord, because He slew the firstborn of the Egyptians to liberate you from slavery.”

The Passover. The angel of death passed over the households marked by the blood of the sacrificial lamb. The holy nation marched to freedom. Simeon saw the Lamb, God made man, ready to shed His Blood for His people. So the old man declared our Christian faith: “My own eyes have seen the light of salvation! Peace!”

Whom has God Almighty liberated from slavery? On whose heart has He daubed His own most-precious Blood? Upon whose faces has the undying Light shone?

candlemas…What is Candlemas all about? Why do we light the same little tapers we use only today and at the Easter Vigil? Why does the Easter candlelight fill our temple today?

We are the people. God Almighty, Lord of heaven and earth, master of times and seasons, governor of history—He has made Himself our kind Father. In the covenant consecrated by the blood shed on the cross, the Precious Blood of our Mass.

Frickin’ Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow. But we set no store by such frivolous superstitions. Shadow/no shadow does not concern us.

For us, in our temple, February 2nd has no variables. Light wins. God is light, and His light wins. We are the People God has chosen to be His own. Not because we were good. He has chosen to form His people from the great mass of sinners.

We will march to freedom, because Jesus Christ is our God. In this world we will have troubles. But we rejoice because He has overcome the sin of the world.

Amoris Laetitia on Grandparents

amoris-laetitia-coverIn his letter to us about family love, Holy Father urges nice long talks with grandma and grandpa…

The lack of historical memory is a serious shortcoming in our society. A mentality that can only say, “Then was then, now is now,” is ultimately immature. Knowing and judging past events is the only way to build a meaningful future. Memory is necessary for growth: “Recall the former days” (Heb 10:32). Listening to the elderly tell their stories is good for children and young people; it makes them feel connected to the living history of their families, their neighborhoods and their country. A family that fails to respect and cherish its grandparents, who are its living memory, is already in decline, whereas a family that remembers has a future…

Our contemporary experience of being orphans as a result of cultural discontinuity, uprootedness, and the collapse of the certainties that shape our lives, challenges us to make our families places where children can sink roots in the rich soil of a collective history. (Amoris Laetitia 193)

Pope Francis on Always Being a Child

ily-repin-raising-of-jairus-daughter

Raising of Jairus’ Daughter, by Ilya Repin

Jairus the synagogue official loved his little daughter. So did the Lord Jesus. St. Mark narrates well in his gospel how much fuss and bother the Lord had to endure, just to get to the little girl’s bedside. But we know how much Christ loved little ones.

St. John Bosco died 129 years ago today. He loved little ones, too. In our Collect to begin Holy Mass today, we call him “father and teacher of the young.”

Pope Francis wrote something that I find very captivating in his letter to us about love and family life. In explaining the fourth commandment, the pope wrote:

Even if one becomes an adult, or an elderly person, even if one becomes a parent, if one occupies a position of responsibility, underneath all of this is still the identity of a child. We are all sons and daughters. And this always brings us back to the fact that we did not give ourselves life but that we received it. The great gift of life is the first gift that we received. (Amoris Laetitia 188)

The eternal Word of God gave us all our lives in the first place. Jesus gave Jairus’ daughter her little life in the first place. Then, to remind us of this sublime truth, Jesus gave the little girl her life back again, after she had succumbed to her illness.

We forget sometimes that God has given us our lives, as a loving Father lavishing His goodness upon His children. So Lord Jesus worked a miracle to remind us.

We are children. No matter how old or “wise” or important or knowledgeable or “professional” we become. We are our parents’ children, and we are God’s children. We did not give our selves to ourselves. God gave us us; God gave me me, through my parents.

When we remember this, I think we can continue to count ourselves—indeed we must continue to count ourselves–among the young. We need fathers and teachers. And our heavenly Father and Teacher will make sure we have the fathers and teachers we need in this world, provided we always remember how much we need them.

Clean of Heart

Sermon_on_the_Mount_Fra_Angelico

Blessed are the clean of heart. (Matthew 5:8)  [click HERE for Spanish]

First, what does the Lord mean by heart? Does He mean the muscle? If you suffer from coronary artery disease, or mitral valve prolapse, or atrial fibrillation—does that mean that you have an unclean heart?

No. In the Bible, ‘heart’ means more than just the muscle. As the Catechism puts it, in the Bible the word ‘heart’ means the seat of moral personality. The heart has a spiritual dimension, involving our human search for truth and God.

That said, our hearts do, in fact, beat in our bodies. The Bible does not teach that we human beings have ethereal souls that just happen to find themselves trapped in clay. No. me, my heart, myself—it involves a mind and a body.

“Blessed are the clean of heart.” What then does He mean by clean? A ‘clean’ heart must mean: a mind and body perfectly united, and united with God.

Over the course of one 24-hour period this past week, I had a couple notable experiences which maybe will help illuminate this.

last-ritesFirst: I marched for life, in Washington, D.C. Like all of us who made the trip, I wanted to bear witness to God’s love for every human being. Pregnancy and birth might sometimes cause a lot of pain, and they always involve a mess of some kind. But pregnancy and birth are never ‘unclean,’ in the spiritual sense.

Sometimes babies get conceived after people make wrong decisions, even evil decisions. But a baby him- or herself comes to the world with nothing but pure divine love. There’s never been a baby that God didn’t want. That fact, that love—it trumps all judgment when it comes to any pregnancy. A baby, and the baby’s mother, always demand our pure love.

The judgment we can make involves recognizing abortion for what it is. The words “reproductive rights”—they’re nothing but an empty, purely hypothetical slogan. But abortion involves real, brutal violence. A pure heart doesn’t judge a mother for being a mother, nor a baby for being in the womb. But good judgment always excludes abortion.

I bring this up because it teaches us this: Our being alive, our being ourselves—it’s fundamentally clean. The all-pure God has willed that we exist. Therefore, to obtain Jesus’ promised blessing for the clean of heart—it can’t mean that something gets erased, as if it never was. Like a mother suffers through a painful, bloody mess to give birth, Christ suffered a terrible, bloody mess, nailed to a cross with thorns in His temples and scalp—so that we could be made clean, without being erased.

Which brings me to the second thing I did. I gave a little talk explaining the Catholic rituals that accompany death. Yes–a day in the life of a parish priest, my friends: the March for Life and a talk about death.

The most-important concept for understanding our ceremonies for the dying and the dead is this: Jesus Christ died and then rose in the body. So we will rise in the body, too. Right now we find ourselves, mind and body, in a sinful and mortal state. But undying bodily life awaits us, on the other side.

unbornJust one thing separates us from the clean, immortal life of the resurrected Christ. Purification, cleansing. Our dying and our death, when united with Christ through the sacraments, do not mean destruction. The Last Rites purify us as we prepare to die. Then after we die, the funeral Mass and the prayers and sacrifices of everyone grieving for us, and all the prayers we make for all the souls in purgatory—these help clean us up, to make us like Christ risen from the dead.

My fundamental point is this: God made us for purity of life, for the cleanness of a mind and body perfectly united–a heart living, loving, beating, united with God’s love. He did not make us for violence, nor death, nor oblivion. Who we are—fleshy creatures, walking around on two feet, male and female, full of life, guided by truth and love for everything really beautiful—who we are is clean.

But we live in this world under the sway of confusion, violence, and death. And all that confusion, violence, and death ultimately stems from our own human sins.

So we need purification; we need to be cleansed. We need discipline. We need to choose the more difficult and challenging path, to take up our crosses and follow the Lord. Let’s accept the plan that God has to purify our hearts, as it unfolds day by day. Because the path God leads us down is ultimately the path to pure love.

An Open E-Mail to Cardinal Dolan

Your Eminence,

I’m sure you won’t remember me; we met for two seconds at the North American College in Rome in the spring of AD 2000, when you kindly expressed your wishes that we seminarian visitors from Washington, D.C., had enjoyed our spaghetti. But I have admired you for two decades; I devoured your rector conferences when they were published in Priests for the Third Millennium.

priests-for-the-third-millenniumAnyway, yesterday I found myself crying for joy from one eye, and for sorrow from the other.

There I stood, at the rally beginning my 19th March for Life, having just greeted an old friend from a former parish with his 13-year-old son, who was born between my sixth and seventh Marches—and here was the Vice-President of the United States speaking to us in person. The vice-president of the United States is one of us. And another one of us is “Counselor to the President!” Tears of euphoria. We can reasonably hope for an end to Roe v. Wade!

On the other hand, right beside me stood, among the fifty people on the bus from my parish, a little group of undocumented Mexican immigrants, marching for life here with me, with us—dedicated pro-lifers whose fruitful presence in our blessed land our pro-life president seems hellbent to do away with. Bitter, miserable tears of fear.

Anyway, I just want to tell you that, having admired you for two decades, I have never admired you more than during your Sanctuary Homily at the Basilica. I thank you for it, dear brother, from the bottom of my heart.

–Fr. Mark White