Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

How many second chances ought we to give, Lord? Seventy times seven second chances.

In the parable we read at Holy Mass today, the servant owed the king a huge amount. After the servant begged for mercy, the king forgave the loan.

Shawn Lauvao Redskins 77
77 pardons in honor of Shawn Lavao?

We want to relate to the magnificently magnanimous king. But can we deny that some debtors really do push us too far? Everyone knows somebody who simply doesn’t know how to stay out of debt, and won’t learn. Black holes of the good will of everyone around them, helpless and incorrigible. They try the patience of good people beyond the breaking point.

So: Let’s give the first servant in the parable the maximum benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that he had borrowed from the king only this one time. Meanwhile, his fellow servant had borrowed from him, without repaying, over and over again. Let’s acknowledge that any of us, driven to the extreme by such a deadbeat relative or friend, would long since have let him or her rot in jail, rather than swoop in with an “emergency” loan again.

All this may have been true in the scenario outlined in the parable. But still the king faulted the first servant for his lack of mercy.

Now, is this a reasonable judgment, considering the genuine limitations of human generosity? I’ve had to say it myself; after all, it is true: “Look, I want to help you. But I am not made of money.”

So, to understand all this, I think we need to keep in mind the context of this exchange between St. Peter and the Lord. Peter asked how often he must forgive his brother immediately after the Lord Jesus had explained a particularly amazing power that the Church possesses. The Church, a living family with duly appointed authority figures, has the power to bind and to loose, in the name of God. The living authority of the Church keeps the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

peterjesusBoth to bind and to loose. Holy Mother Church can and does bind. She can and does impose penalties–penalties with potentially horrifying and everlasting effects. There are things we have to stay far away from, if we know what’s good for us. Sacrilege, apostasy, abortion.

But the Church, when she binds someone with a penalty, always binds with the hope of ultimately loosing. Church penalties aim at correction and then restoration of communion. She never tires of forgiving the miscreant who repents. No one ever runs out of second chances with the Church. Everything the Church has belongs to everyone who humbly seeks Her goods, even if it’s a deadbeat who has confessed the same terrible sins too many times to remember.

So it doesn’t necessarily make any of us a bad person if we conclude that such-and-such cousin or nephew or old college roommate or former co-worker has come asking for help just one too many times. We individuals on our pilgrim way have our limits.

But what we can’t do is judge anybody any more harshly than Holy Mother Church does. And the Church is always ready to start over, as if today were the first day of a brand new friendship.

The View from Mount Nebo

Pope Benedict Mount Nebo

If two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted. (Matthew 18:19)

If two of you agree. Sounds pretty easy. But if you think so, you’ve probably never attended a parish council meeting. And you’ve definitely never been married.

As we read at Holy Mass today, Moses stood on Mount Nebo and saw the entire Holy Land, from Dan to Beersheba, from Naphtali to Idumea. To be sure, the view from Mount Nebo is majestic, like the view from McAfee’s Knob, or Moore’s Knob in Hanging Rock State Park, NC. But no human eye could see the entire Holy Land from Mount Nebo. The Lord must have given Moses a share in His own divine vision, in order for the prophet to see the whole expanse of the land.

Then Moses died, and Joshua assumed his office. Now, two popes have stood at the same place on Mount Nebo and taken in the same view as Moses, at least the part that can be seen by the human eye.

At Holy Mass a week from Sunday we will hear the Lord speak about the Church’s authority to bind and loose (we hear about that at Holy Mass today, too). Our spiritual Mother, the family formed by God through the sacrifice of Christ, governed by Christ’s Vicar on earth: She possesses the holy concord, the agreement, the harmony of spirit which the Lord promised to reward. She teaches us how to pray and how to live.

We human beings rightly cherish our sacred personal independence. But this does come as good news: our Creator has not left us on our own to seek Him. He has not made us religious free agents.

Yes, we only truly find Him when we have the courage to enter into the depths of our consciences to find our true selves, the saints He made us to be. But our true selves never stand alone. We always belong to the family God forms from the flesh of His only-begotten Son.

The Day Our Lady Went to Heaven

st mary major mosaic
apse mosaics in Santa Maria Maggiore, Roma

We keep the feast of our Lady’s immortality. Not just her immortality of soul, but also her immortality of body. Today her earthly pilgrimage ended. Her flesh, rather than facing the corruption of the grave, entered right into heaven.

Blessed is she who believed that what was spoken to her by the Lord would be fulfilled (Luke 1:45). St. Elizabeth said this about the Blessed Mother.

Now, at the particular moment when Elizabeth pronounced that beatitude, the Lord had spoken but few words to Mary. Only that she would have a son, who would reign forever on the throne of David. How? By the Holy Spirit.

Mary learned only this much information from Archangel Gabriel. You will give birth to the Messiah by the power of the Holy Spirit. Very simple. No extra details. –She believed it.

But what about later on? Did she learn more during the course of her life? More about the great mystery of the Christ–the mystery in which she had believed, when the Archangel visited her? Had she learned more about those original promises by the time her earthly life neared its end? What more had she learned?

Whatever more she learned about the Christian mystery in the time between her conception of her son and her last earthly breath–whatever further aspects of the great promise had been revealed to her–certainly Mary believed it all, with a heart full of love.

We humble sinners really can’t even begin to speculate about all the intimacies that passed between Jesus and Mary during their pilgrim lives on earth–both before and after He suffered, died, and then rose from the dead. We can hardly doubt that the Blessed Mother became a thorough expert regarding Christ’s promise of eternal life in the flesh. She saw Him, of course, during the forty days He spent on earth in His risen body. Mary, first among all Christians, saw the resurrected Jesus. And she believed that He had risen, not for His own sake, but so that she, too, and all the faithful, could conquer death in the flesh, as well.

Which means that this feast of our Lady’s bodily entrance into heaven is the feast of our immortality of body, too. Until August 15 arrived, in the year she finished her earthly life, Mary participated in Christ’s mystery like we do: by faith. We do not begrudge her the privilege of having seen Jesus during the forty days after Easter. We don’t begrudge her because, now that Jesus reigns in heaven, we can, by faith and prayer, achieve our own intimacy with Him, too. After all, as Mary’s cousin put it: “Blessed is she who has believed.” Not she who has seen. She who has believed. Believed in the Christ, and His triumph over death–which He accomplished for the sake of all mankind.

So we stride on towards the inevitable end of our own pilgrimage with vivid assurance. The luminous assurance with which the Virgin herself faced the end of earthly life. That, by the power of Christ, our bodily death will get swallowed up Jesus’ victory.

Resurrected Agility

Before we get into reflecting on Jesus walking on the waters of the Sea of Galilee (which we read at Holy Mass this Sunday), let’s remember how, last Sunday, we kept the feast of the Transfiguration. The glory of God shone through Christ’s body, before the eyes of Saints Peter, James, and John. The Lord offered these Apostles this glimpse of heaven to help give them strength to endure His subsequent Passion and death. [Click HERE for Spanish.]

Now, as things turned out, it seems like only St. John really took advantage of that help. He alone, of course, among the Apostles, got through Good Friday without abandoning Jesus. Did the Transfiguration not help Saints Peter and James? Well, the Lord always knows what He’s doing. Maybe Peter and James would have fared worse, and perhaps never repented of their cowardice in abandoning Christ, had they not seen the Transfiguration. As we know, the human heart is a complicated thing.

sophia lorenBe all that as it may, when the Transfiguration occurred, the truth about Jesus became evident to those three Apostles. They saw on earth, at that moment, what Jesus looks like in heaven now.

Therefore, in one sense, Jesus’ Transfiguration didn’t exactly involve a “miracle.” He is the God-man, after all. He always had the glory of God in Him, from His first moment in the Blessed Mother’s womb.

But the Transfiguration does count as a miracle, in the sense that the Apostles got a glimpse of Christ in heaven ahead of time. They saw Christ as He looks now, having risen from the dead and ascended—they saw Him that way before He had completed His paschal mystery, before He rose from the dead. Therefore, the Transfiguration was a bona fide miracle.

Now, why do I bring all this up today? Because what we just said about the Transfiguration, about how it was a glimpse of heaven, ahead of time–we could say that about Christ walking on water, too. Both events have to do with what a resurrected body is like.

The holy Body of Christ, risen from the dead, makes Superman and Spiderman look like nothing. As we know, Christ, in His risen body, ascended by His own power, not to the top of the Empire State Building, but to heaven. It’s not just that He can leap tall buildings in a single bound. His soul, communing perfectly with God, can move His body with an agility that we cannot even fully imagine—since our own bodies still bear the effects of original sin.

In other words, the human body, when united perfectly with God, is not limited by time, space, and gravity—like our bodies are now. Maybe that sounds odd. But we are talking about the heavenly life prepared for us by God, in which we will commune with Him bodily, without ever growing tired, or hungry, or hangry, or running late and risking a speeding ticket. A supersonic Google self-driving car will have nothing on us, once our bodies rise from the dead.

dq blizzardHence the “miracle” of Jesus walking on water. Yes, certainly, He defied gravity. He traveled across the Sea of Galilee with mysterious alacrity. As the disciples in the boat put it, He showed Himself truly the Son of God.

So yes, it was a miracle. But it was no magic trick. Christ did then, on the Sea of Galilee, nothing more physically amazing than what He does now, when He makes Himself simultaneously present in every tabernacle on earth, without ever leaving His throne in heaven. That’s no magic trick, either. It is simply the supernatural, glorified prerogative of Christ’s Body in its resurrected state.

This is what awaits us, in the life to come. We believe in Christ’s resurrection. We commune with His immortal Body and Blood through the power of the Holy Spirit. And we confidently hope that, by His gracious gift, our bodies, too, will rise to share in His immortal, bright, and indescribably agile life.

We know very little about heaven, if by “knowing,” we mean: we can picture it or understand it. We can’t. But that’s because heaven is actually better than anything we can imagine, whatever it might be. Better than somehow being at a Dairy Queen, and at the Redskins’ season opener, and at Sophia Loren’s 29th birthday party, all at the same time. It’s better than all of that rolled into one, if all of that could be rolled into one.

So we don’t really “know” about heaven. But that does not mean that heaven is something vague. Nor does it mean that heaven in something “totally spiritual.” Heaven is where Jesus is. And where Mary is. Our bodies ultimately belong in heaven, just like our souls.

To finish this subject, let’s briefly recall one other bodily marvel of Christ’s life. Blessed Mother gave birth to Him without losing her virginity. Jesus grew in Mary’s womb, just like we grew in our mother’s wombs. Then it came time for birth. The man who eventually walked on the water of the Sea of Galilee, and whose flesh allowed the divine light to shine through on Mount Tabor—He, as He traveled through the birth canal as an infant, emerged without any strain or strife on the part of His mother.

Again, a miracle, yes–but not a magic trick. And not something vague. Our bodies will have that same quality of not straining or disturbing anything they touch, when we rise from our graves. All our klutziness will be gone.

Which is good, since the church will be very crowded then, please God. When we praise God together in the temple in heaven, we will not crowd or jostle each other; we will not have to fight each other for our favorite pew. No–our bodies will move together, dance together, like the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit dance together for all eternity.

Basilicas of the Patron of Comedians

Titian Martyrdom of St. Lawrence
Titian’s Martyrdom of St. Lawrence

St. Lawrence died for the faith 1,758 years ago today.

Rome has at least two grand basilicas of St. Lawrence. But we have one, too—a basilica of St. Lawrence, here in the Appalachian mountains.

Why did they erect a basilica in honor of St. Lawrence in Asheville, North Carolina? Is it because Lawrence exercises a special patronage over brewers? But the basilica came before the craft-beer movement…

St. Lawrence loved the faith, and the Mass, and the poor. He went to his martyrdom so fearlessly that he made his famous joke, as they burned him alive: “Turn me over. I’m done on this side.” At that moment, he became the patron of both cooks and comedians. The Perseid meteor shower occurs on or around St. Lawrence’s feast day to remind us of the sparks from the fire that burned him into heaven.

Anyone visited the basilica in Asheville? It’s no St. Andrew’s—just like Asheville is no Roanoke. But you don’t visit a church with a soaring elliptical-dome roof every day. It’s like the peaceful and prayerful Oval Office of God.

Good St. Lawrence, pray for us.

75th Anniversary of a Holocaust Death

Exactly seventy-five years and two weeks ago, the Catholic bishops of the Netherlands issued a statement condemning the Nazis for deporting all Jews from the country.

Seventy-five years ago today, the Nazis killed a German Jewish philosopher in the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, as an act of retaliation against the bishops’statement.

St. Edith SteinNow, how’s that? Kill a German Jewish philosopher to retaliate against Dutch Catholic bishops? Well, this Jewish philosopher had become a Catholic nun. Edith Stein had become Teresa Benedicta of the Cross.

The sisters of her convent had escaped Germany, and made it to the Netherlands. But the Nazis caught up with them. And when the Dutch Catholic bishops had the gall to call the Nazis the vicious racists they were, the Nazis proceeded to arrest and deport all Jewish converts to Catholicism. As we know, the Nazis were efficient. They only needed two weeks to get their revenge, in the gas chamber.

Pope St. John Paul II declared that we must remember the Holocaust on St. Teresa Benedicta’s feast day. Nazi racism justified the systematic killing of millions of innocent people—racist killing carried out with scientific coldness. My departed grandfather participated, as an American G.I., in rescuing people from one of the concentration camps. What he saw horrified him so much, he could never talk about it.

But we must. We must acknowledge the fact that man can, and does, inflict such evil upon man—and for no good reasons other than his own profound spiritual delusions.

On the other hand, man can, and does, also love his fellow man. St. Teresa Benedicta died for love. “Come, let us go for our people,” she said to her sister, who had also become a nun, as they walked to the gas chamber.

Pope St. John Paul II put it like this, when he canonized St. Teresa Benedicta, “We must stand together for human dignity. There is only one human family.”

Miraculous Signs

tabgha loaves fishes multiplication mosaic

They all ate and were satisfied. (Matthew 14:20)

This verse, perhaps more than any other, has given rise to the widespread misconception that Jesus Christ was Italian.

But let’s rejoice in the wonderful God-incidence that sees us reading about the Feeding of the 5,000 at Holy Mass today. We would have read this passage at Mass yesterday, had not August 6, and the Feast of the Transfiguration, come along and supplanted the readings for the 18th Sunday of Year A. Which might have proven vaguely awkward for us this coming Sunday, when we will read the sequel, Matthew 14:22-33.

…Why did the Lord Jesus work miracles, like multiplying the five loaves and two fish?

To show us that the Father had sent Him as the promised Messiah. To inspire us to believe in Him, and in the Kingdom of Heaven that he has brought to the earth.

In other words, Christ did not work magic tricks; he made miraculous signs. Signs of the greatest miracle of all, namely that we mortal and sinful lumps of clay can look forward to eternal bliss.

The particular miracle of the multiplication of the loaves signified something in particular. We read: “He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves, He said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to His disciples.”

He said the blessing, broke the bread, and gave it to His disciples. Sounds familiar. Sounds like…Holy Mass/the Eucharist/the Bread that does not, cannot, and never will run out.

Listen to Him

transfig-ext
Church of the Transfiguration, Mount Tabor

This is my beloved Son, listen to Him. (Matthew 17:5)

So spoke the Lord of heaven, the Ancient One who sits upon a throne of divine fire. He judges all things—all of history and every soul. And He said to Peter, James, and John, about Jesus: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him.” He says to us: Listen to Jesus.

[Click for spanish.]

Listen to His parables of the coming of the Kingdom of heaven and His call to repentance. Listen to the Sermon on the Mount. Listen to His discourse to Nicodemus about being born from above, His Bread-of-Life discourse, His teachings about Abraham’s freedom, the sabbath rest, the faith of the little one, and the resurrection of the dead. Listen to Him describe the Good Shepherd. Listen to His Last-Supper discourses and His descriptions of the final judgment. Listen to His prayers: the Our Father and His priestly prayer in John 17. Listen to His commissionings: His instructions to St. Peter, and to all His apostles. Listen to His promises: the Beatitudes, His promise to send the Holy Spirit, His promise of peace—peace which the world cannot give. Listen to the Word made flesh.

St. Peter put it like this:

We did not follow cleverly disguised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses to His majesty.

We do not deal in myths. We do not deal in merely human doctrines. We listen to the Lord Jesus.

What do we need? We need the four holy gospels and the other writings of the apostles. In other words, we need the New Testament. And since the New Testament constantly refers to the Old Testament, we need the whole Bible. We need the seven sacraments Christ gave us: His Body and Blood, the waters of His baptism, the priesthood of the New Covenant He established. We need each other, the great family of the Church, governed by St. Peter’s successor in office and the bishops in communion with him.

Gerard David TransfigurationEquipped with all this, we can hear Christ. We can hear the beloved Son of the eternal Father. We can hear Him speaking. The words to which God Almighty commands us to listen—we can hear them and take them to heart, here in the bosom of the Church.

Do not be anxious or afraid. Let the children come unto Me. Love your enemies. Pray that you might persevere through temptation. Baptize all nations in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Give your cloak and tunic to the one who asks, and settle with your opponent before the judge throws you both in prison. Beg for mercy before you place your gift on the altar. Fear the one who can send you to fiery Gehenna, where the worm never dies. Have faith in God; have faith in Me; in My Father’s house there are many dwelling places. Let your light shine, so that men might give glory to My heavenly Father. Do good; avoid evil. Ask the Father to send the Spirit of truth.

Listening to Jesus, in the heart of the Church, turns life into something worth doing. The words of Christ turn life into the adventure it was meant to be. The adventure of holiness and eternal salvation.

Why are we here? To serve God and make our way to heaven. What must we do? Give. Love. Sacrifice. Give God the glory and praise. Make peace with your neighbor.

The Transfiguration is real. And it’s not just Jesus on Mount Tabor. Yes, at that moment, the divine light transfigured His appearance, and the apostles saw His glory. But the transfiguration also involves us. When we listen to Christ in the heart of the Church, we change.

We no longer skate on the surface of things. We stop thinking everything revolves around me, me, me. Our perception deepens, and Access Hollywood becomes intolerably boring. Our souls begin to grow like redwoods.

We stop carping and gossiping and tearing people down, because now we see the good in others. We talk less and listen more. When someone suffers, we care. And when we suffer, we offer it to God for the salvation of souls.

The words of Christ hang in the air, in the Church, like shimmering tapestries that beautify the inside of our minds. But, of course, Christ spoke most eloquently without any words at all, when He serenely submitted Himself to His bitter Passion and stretched-out His arms on the cross. All the spoken words of Christ lead to the silent word of the crucifix.

God gives us wisdom. He wills to teach us, so that we can share in the full clarity of His mind. And He teaches us His wisdom one way, as He declared on Mount Tabor: Almighty God speaks to us through His beloved Son, Christ crucified.

When we hear that silent word, and take it in, in the heart of the Church, then our transfiguration truly begins.

Exaggerated Reports of Death

Apparently the latest sociological findings hold that “religion” has entered into a death-spiral in the Western world. The studies show that religion will inevitably end. There’s a Ted talk about this.

I tried to watch it, but I couldn’t quite grasp what sociologists mean by “religion.” Our first reading at Holy Mass today prescribes the yearly routine of the religion of the Old Covenant. But that seems more precise and specific than what a sociologist means by “religion.” To be honest, I got so bored watching this Ted talk that I almost doused myself in frying-pan grease, just to ease the tedium.

Anyway, plenty of people in and around Ars thought that religion had entered a death-spiral in their town. When their new priest, Monsieur John Vianney, arrived, few people ever darkened the door of the town’s church. They considered themselves too modern for such things. Only old ladies went to Mass.

But, by the time the Curé died, 158 years ago today, the train company had to run a special line from Lyons, to accommodate the crowds who came to the little parish church in Ars to go to confession to the living saint.

st-john-vianney-confessionIn other words, reports of religion’s death in Ars had been greatly exaggerated.

Now, granted: nothing could be more boring than a sociologist’s idea of “religion.” Nothing could be less attractive. That is, I guess, except for sociology itself.

But, on the other hand: For St. John Vianney, and for Saints Peter, James, and John, and all the Apostles; for the martyrs and all the heroic pastors of the Christian centuries—for all of them, nothing—no one—could be more interesting than: Jesus Christ. And His Blessed Mother. And His heavenly Father. And His Holy Spirit at work in His Church.

You can have “religion.” “Religion,” as understood by sociologists, is a thin nothingburger that I wouldn’t feed to any animal.

But give us: Christ—studied religiously, obeyed religiously, loved religiously.

“Religion,” understood as a phenomenon that doesn’t depend on the truth of particular facts; “religion” that could be Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Hinduism, or Buddhism, etc., etc.—chuck it. We don’t need it. We Catholics don’t like it any more than atheists do, or hippies, or Millennial “Nones.”

But give us the holiness of Jesus. Give us the fulfillment of all the prophets’ ancient promises. Give us the Body and Blood of the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world. Give us the joy and hope of the saints and the common bond that holds the great family of the Church together. Give us our holy Catholic religion, and we will gladly die for it, even if we and the pope were the last Catholics left on earth.

The Suddenness of the Seine-Net

Seine net fishing.jpg

The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. (Matthew 13:47)

Anyone know what that kind of net is called? The technical term for a dragnet for fish? Seine. Purse-seine, Danish seine, drum seine—whichever precise kind.

What seems worth meditating on is this: The utter suddenness of capture in seine-net fishing, from the point-of-view of the fish. It’s not like bait or fly fishing, where the fish perceives something and then follows its curiosity/hunger, only to discover that this item actually means bad news for me, then a struggle ensues.

No. When a fish gets caught in a seine net, it’s like: Do-ta-do, swimming along, la la la, here in the ocean, along the colorful shoal, in the dappled sunlight, the happy life of a fish, with my friends in a nice big school, tra la la. Then: yank! The hydraulic power block that pulls the purse line pumps. And you, fish, are on the deck before you know what hit you.

With just such disorienting instantaneousness might our moment of judgment come. Do-ta-do, here I am, sunny day, easy life, texting my buddies, la la. Then: Yank. Crank. On the deck.

Good ones go into the cool, refreshing ice. Bad ones, as the Lord said, into the fiery furnace.