Party Over?

prince 1999

It didn’t occur to me until yesterday that Prince was a mortal man.

I know that sounds funny, coming from a Christian believer.  And one who aspires even to Thomistic clarity.  We Christians don’t believe in any immortal God-men, other than Jesus.  And you don’t need the rigor of St. Thomas Aquinas’ mind to grasp that all men die, even the apparent demi-god behind Anotherloverholeinyohead.

But life is a dance.  Lord Jesus taught me that early on.  And He used Prince to teach me–and a lot of other people I love, too.  So I’m kind of a weepy mess today.

Especially when you throw in the fact that our gospel reading at daily Mass is the funeral gospel, that I have read and preached on in the company of more dead people in their caskets than I can count.

What did St. Paul say to the Pisidian Antiochians?  Not “I’m your Messiah and you’re the reason why.”  St. Paul said:  “But God raised the Messiah from the dead, and for many days He appeared to those who had come up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem.  Those are now His witnesses before the people.”

It ain’t over.  The Lord is risen.  We are His witnesses.  Music is music because death doesn’t win.  Sometimes I wish that life was never-ending.  Two thousand zero zero party over oops out of time?  No.  The chords of I Wanna Be Your Lover will resound forever.  Let’s dance.

Shepherd Communication

Ghent Altarpiece Adoration of the Lamb

The Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them. (Revelation 7:17)*

St. John received a vision of heaven.  Christ sits on His throne, surrounded by countless saints and angels.  From there, our brother the Nazarene carpenter shepherds His entire flock.

Now, a shepherd usually has to wander the hills and dales with his sheep, keeping long, cold night watches, for fear of wolves.  An enthroned shepherd, sitting in the middle of unimaginable splendor, guiding a flock of countless multitudes—pretty amazing that this shepherd can do that.  But, indeed, He can.  As He said, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

Christ knows us.  He formed us in our mothers’ wombs, according to His design, the design He conceived before the foundation of the world.  He knows us better than we know ourselves.  We could say that our pilgrim lives consist precisely in this: the adventure of coming to know ourselves, over time, as Jesus has known us for all eternity.

elgreco_holy-family“My sheep follow Me.”  You bet we follow Him.  He has blazed the trail to true, undying happiness; to peace that nothing can disturb; to the fulfillment of every human longing and the satisfaction of every human desire.

Yes, we must follow the path of humility, chastity, patient endurance, and self-sacrifice; we must follow our shepherd to Calvary.  But what did St. Paul say?  All the sufferings of this life count as nothing, compared to the glory that will be revealed.

So, yes:  We sheep willingly follow the divine shepherd.  When we hear His voice.

He insists that we do hear His voice, all the way from His heavenly throne.  Let’s meditate on how.  How do we sheep on earth hear the voice of our divine shepherd, Who has ascended to heaven?

Some specially chosen souls hear what we call “locutions,” direct speech from heaven, internally audible.  But getting into that is above my pay-grade.

Most of us do not receive locutions.  But each of us has a conscience.  I have within me the capacity to think clearly and make decisions based on the truth.  Often this involves me challenging myself, when some particular desire wants to drive me in a direction that my better judgment can see means trouble.

Christ our Shepherd gave us this capacity to take responsibility for our actions, precisely so that He could communicate with us through it.  When I think something through, in order to make a morally sound decision, the divine Shepherd speaks to me.

Now, we all have our consciences ‘built-in,’ so to speak.  But:  all the knowledge we need in order to use our consciences well—all that knowledge is not “built-in.”  We need to learn.  We need to learn from the Lord Himself, if we want to make good, moral use of our power to think.  How do we learn from Him?

goodshepherdAt Mass this Sunday, we read how the Lord made Sts. Paul and Barnabas “a light to the Gentiles, an instrument of salvation to the ends of the earth.”  When the apostles went to Pisidia, what happened?  “The word of the Lord spread through the whole region…all who were destined for eternal life came to believe…the Gentiles glorified the word of the Lord.”

Now, no one can deny that, at times, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church looks like a pretty goofy band of semi-clueless knuckleheads.  But:  We have these things that we do…

We obey Christ’s command to celebrate Mass.  We read and listen to the Bible, according to an illuminating annual routine of feasts and seasons.  We perform other ceremonies that Christ Himself laid down.  We build houses of prayer and make it our Catholic business to pray like mad in them.

In spite of our fecklessness as individuals, therefore, we take part in the on-going life of an organism with divine qualities.  One of the divine qualities of Holy Church is this:  When we listen and participate in the Church’s on-going life, we learn what Christ our Shepherd has to teach.

Hopefully you know that our Holy Father Pope Francis recently has given us an Exhortation on the subject of marriage and family life.  He had gathered a large number of bishops in Rome for two month-long sessions the past two Octobers.  Now he has written to us with the fruits of those meetings.

Maybe this summer we can have a study session to go over the Exhortation.  It contains teachings that can and will challenge us all.  Right now, though, I’m running out of time for this particular sermon.

Let’s boil down the pope’s message to this, for now:  Everybody knows about the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, right?

Well, Holy Father says that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph can and will help guide every family to real happiness.  The divine Shepherd lives, and Mary and Joseph sit by His side in heaven.  They share an undying family love.  Their love can fill our homes, too.


*Discovered something interesting about various ways to translate Revelation 7:17.  Where our Lectionary has that the Lamb will “shepherd” them, the New American Bible has that the Lamb will “shelter” them.  Shelter would appear to be the far-more-common contemporary translation for σκηνώσει in this context.  Literally, the Greek verb means: “to spread a tabernacle over.” Vulgate has habitābit.  Mexican Lectionary has protegerá.

Not sure why our Lectionary stuck with what seems to be a traditional exegetical interpretation as a translation.  But it’s beautiful!

St. Barnabas Miscellanea

Raphael Sacrifice at Lystra
Raphael, Sacrifice at Lystra

You probably remember that, six weeks ago, we read from Acts, chapter 13, as part of our Easter-season Scripture reading at Mass. We heard the narration of Sts. Barnabas and Paul setting sail from Syria to begin their first missionary journey. We paused to venerate that beautiful and decisive moment.

That moment also led to the most comical episode in the New Testament. Barnabas and Saul eventually reached the pagan town of Lystra, in Asia Minor. Paul healed a crippled man who believed the Gospel. The townspeople then decided that Barnabas and Paul must be… the gods Zeus and Hermes. The priest prepared oxen to sacrifice to them.

“Men, why are you doing this?! We are human beings like you! We proclaim the good news that you should turn from your idols to the living God, Who made heaven and earth and sea and all that is in them.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church quotes St. Barnabas on two important points…

1) “Do not live entirely isolated, as if you were already justified, but gather instead to seek the common good together.”

2) “You shall not slay the child by procuring an abortion.”

St. Barnabas loved his native Cyprus. He returned there after his many journeys to see to the Christian education of his people. Barnabas lived to be an old man, but eventually enemies of his from Syria came to Cyprus and conspired to have him killed. Barnabas suffered martyrdom by stoning.

Pray for us, holy apostle Barnabas! Give us a share in your majestic humility and zeal for souls!

Two Antiochs

Every year during the Easter season, Mother Church has us read Acts 13. The Apostle Paul has sailed to Cyprus, and now to Asia Minor. Then he traveled inland to Antioch in Pisidia.

antiochs-mapSidenote: There are two kinds of people. People who clearly understand the difference between Antioch in Syria and Pisidian Antioch, and people who can’t even spell Antioch or Pisidia or Syria.

The two New-Testament locations named Antioch were separated by the same distance that Martinsville, Va. is separated from Cincinnati, Ohio, which is a little further than the drive from Phoenix to Los Angeles.

One of the ancient Antiochs was a major commercial and cultural center, one of the great cities of the world. Namely, Syrian Antioch. The other was a small outpost, high on a plateau, a retirement village for pensioned Roman centurions. Pisidian Antioch.

No offense to anyone, but people who want to be taken seriously as readers of New Testament are required to be in Category #1, when it comes to knowing about the two Antiochs.

Because: When Paul arrived in Pisidian Antioch, it was a place where people had heard of God. A lot of them had heard of Moses and King David. Some of them had even heard of John the Baptist. But no one knew that the Christ had come. So St. Paul told them.

My point is that this is where we live. In the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, St. Paul gave a nice straightforward speech. He explained what had come to pass–namely the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. He explained how this affected his audience, namely that now they had a chance to repent and believe. Some of them did.

We live under similar circumstances, and we have the same opportunity. St. Paul, pray for us! That we might have the same zeal for souls as you had. That the Lord might use us, like He used you, to help souls find Christ and get to heaven.

Setting Sail from Syrian Antioch

Sent forth by the holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia and from there sailed to Cyprus. (Acts 13:4)

Speaking for myself, I feel a fairly deep sense of reverence for the verses of the Acts of the Apostles that we read at Holy Mass today. Barnabas and Saul sailed from Antioch on the Orontes, and they made for Salamis, on the east end of the isle of Cyprus. And thus began…

The missionary journeys of St. Paul. The one whom St. Thomas Aquinas calls “The Apostle.”

Anyone ever heard of Odysseus and Aeneas, the heroes of the ancient pagan epics? Crafty, brave, muscular warriors, irresistible to the ladies. Odysseus and Aeneas sailed like Barnabas and Paul sailed, hoisting canvas in the Mediterranean wind, putting their future entirely into the hands of higher powers, into the hands of destiny.

But the drama of the ancient heroic pagan epics does not hold a candle to the adventure lived by the Apostle, the bookish Pharisee from Tarsus. Odysseus and Aeneas had wind, wit, will, and wanderlust. St. Paul had the Gospel of salvation and the power of the Holy Spirit. Odysseus and Aeneas left the legacy of successful sons of fortune. St. Paul built up the Church of God.

What the Apostle bequeathed, time has not erased. And I don’t just mean his letters–written in the throes of complicated circumstances, the particulars of which we can only begin to grasp–letters which nonetheless deliver to us the enduring Word of God.

No, not just his letters in the New Testament. St. Paul’s amazing adventure across the Mediterranean gave birth to Christian communities, to local churches, flowing with the sap that gives life to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ.

Even though St. Paul lived a celibate life, he became a father in a way that Aeneas never did. Aeneas was revered by the ancient Romans as their father. But the chaste Apostle makes the lady-killing Aeneas look less-than-virile by comparison.

The Apostle sailed the Mediterranean in order to give to the poor the Good News of Jesus Christ. He hardly did it by swashbuckling, dashing gallantry. He made extra money by spending his days making tents. Not exactly romantic.

But, sailing hither and yon across the Mediterranean, St. Paul lived the adventure of divine love. Every day he grew closer to Christ, by sharing what he knew of Christ with others. And what greater adventure could there be?

Don’t we want to be on the boat, setting out from Antioch, with Barnabas and Saul? The wide sea opening before us, with the prospect of souls on all the father shores, with whom the Lord is asking us to share His love?

That adventure awaits us even now. That ship is sailing even now. The adventure that St. Paul lived is by no means over. In truth, it has only just begun.

Welcome to the New Age

St. Peter explained it, as Acts 2 and 3 recount. St. Stephen also, as Acts 7 recounts. And St. Paul, too, as Acts 13 recounts–not to mention his own letters, preserved in the New Testament.

Explained what? How to understand history.

The ancient Israelites knew one very important thing, namely that Almighty God reigns over time and unfolds it according to His plan. Time, in other words, moves toward a goal.

"I feel it in my bones..."
“I feel it in my bones…”
Other ancient people also grasped this, and they joined the Jews in waiting for the fulfillment of history. The synagogues scattered around the Mediterranean Sea held Jews and non-Jews who acknowledged that the Almighty had indeed already revealed Himself to Moses, but that another, more powerful and conclusive revelation was yet to come.

The Apostles addressed the hope of these Jews and God-fearers with the decisive declaration: The Messiah has come, and He has consummated history by conquering death. We can see how everything that came before happened to help us to recognize and understand the Christ. Now the New Age has dawned, the age of grace and fulfillment. Eternity has touched history in such a way that we who live in time can look forward to eternal life.

2014 A.D. Anno Domini. Year of the Lord, our Lord.

Now, of course, every year since the very dawn of creation has belonged to the Lord, has been a year of the Lord.

But 2014 years ago, the Lord made the years His own in a new way. Or, maybe the better way to say it is: He made the years truly ours, in the sense that we can gather them up into the fulfillment of eternity, rather than just watch them fritter away towards oblivion.

Praise You, Jesus, for turning time itself into a doorway to God. Now we see why the Almighty Father started this whole thing in the first place. History leads not towards death, but towards life.

A Career Begins

Roman lark
Roman lark

This is still St. Paul’s year. As of late, we have been ignoring him shamefully.

Today at Holy Mass we read the beginning of the Apostle’s first missionary sermon. (Tomorrow we will read more of it.)

Or, rather, we should say: Acts 13 contains his first recorded missionary sermon.

Continue reading “A Career Begins”