Hey, Puffs of Smoke

Daily Masses of Ordinary Time arrive, and we go barreling into the middle of St. James’s letter to the Catholic world. Kind of a shock to the system.

On sweet Pentecost Sunday, we heard the Lord commend us with these words: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Today God’s Word says to us: You are a puff of smoke that appears briefly and then disappears.

St James the Less El GrecoSt. James wrote a “tough love” letter. A few years ago, I went through it and picked out fourteen sayings worth keeping in mind, like…

“Consider it all joy when you encounter various trials.”

Or: “Judgment is merciless upon one who has not shown mercy.”

Or: “Pure religion is this: care for orphans and widows, and keep yourself unstained by the world.”

Severe. St. James wrote some severe things to us—altogether true things; eminently helpful things–and severe.

But let’s not forget how St. James begins. He reminds us evanescent puffs of smoke: “The Father of lights, with whom there is no alteration or shadow caused by change, willed to give us birth by the word of truth.”

The idea that we human beings come and go from the stage, like puffs of smoke—that is wisdom in many religions and philosophies. We stare at the ocean, or at the Grand Canyon, or Mount Kilimanjaro, or Niagara Falls, and we think to ourselves:

“Gosh, I am small, in the grand scheme. Maybe I really don’t need to get quite so upset when my DVR malfunctions. Or when people in front of me drive slower than I would want them to.”


But this very same wisdom, when meditated upon by a baptized Christian, has a completely different meaning. To a Christian, the smallness of a single human life in this cosmos does not mean: ‘I am basically nothing.’ It means: ‘Life as I know it on earth is small and short. So let me get my own ego-maniacal nonsense out of the way. No sense in getting distracted from the eternal life that the Creator of the earth has in store for me in heaven.’

A puff of smoke dissipates, like our mortal flesh will dissipate in the grave to which it will inevitably come. But God has given us puffs new birth through baptism into Christ—new birth in the indestructible life of the divine Son.

For now, during our brief pilgrimage of seventy years, or eighty if we are strong—for now, we share in Christ’s life by humble, obedient faith. As St. James puts it to us in his extended tough-love sermon: Say to yourself, you puff of smoke, ‘If the Lord wills that I should live until tomorrow, great. If not, great.’

We have nothing to fear either way. Not because everything is ultimately meaningless. But because we have enduring life held in store for us in heaven, where Christ our Head has gone before us to prepare our place.

Ambition and Death

You do not know what you are asking. (Mark 10:38)

Lord Jesus told James and John that they did not know what they were asking, when they requested thrones adjacent to His at the coming of the kingdom.

The two Apostles did not know what they were asking. Probably the greatest understatement ever. After all, as we confess in our Creed, Christ, risen from the dead, sits at the right hand of the Father. To sit at Christ’s left, then, would mean taking the place of the heavenly Father Himself. Even a zealous and holy Apostle cannot possibly do that.

But the Lord did not despise His friends’ request. He recognized their love for Him, the love that moved them to want to sit close. If it’s wrong to want to be close to Christ for all eternity, then we’re in big trouble.

participant trophyNo, the Lord did not despise James and John for their ill-informed request. Nor did Jesus pedantically point out that He had put St. Peter in charge, not them.

No, in responding to James and John, Jesus did not get into the matter of hierarchy at all. Rather, He said: Yes, you will share my baptism and drink my chalice.

The Church has her hierarchy, just as the world has hers. We all have our particular lot in life. Envying someone else’s position never really did anyone any good. But, by the same token, ambition for success is hardly a sin in and of itself. Like the football dad in the Kia ad who changes his son’s trophy to ‘champs’ instead of ‘participant,’ because the boy’s team won every game. “Are we gonna end football games with hugs? No. No. No.”

It’s no sin in and of itself to have ambition. It’s no sin in and of itself to want to compete. But the Lord has provided a great leveler, when it comes to success in this world. Almighty God drives a kind of existential bulldozer, which always moves towards us, drawing closer with every passing day. Someday this great leveling bulldozer will knock down all the hierarchies of this world. Right now, the angels see the heavenly hierarchy; they can see the holiness of people’s souls. Someday the hierarchy of holiness will be the only pecking order left, because the great bulldozer will have plowed us all into the grave.

One of Christ’s shortest parables: A man grew rich and planned to expand his barns to hold all his vast treasure. That night, he died. And the Lord had only two words for the smug, successful entrepreneur, who had been on top of the world: “You fool.”

Even after Jesus told James and John that they would share His baptism and drink His chalice, the brothers still did not fully grasp what the Teacher meant. After all, the Jewish rituals of that period involved a lot of ‘baptisms’–ritual cleansings prior to religious observances. And the Passover Seder involved the drinking of multiple ceremonial chalices.

speed bump reaperJames and John did not grasp that Christ’s “Baptism” was not a ritual ablution. The Lord meant His entire Paschal Mystery. Christ’s ‘chalice’ was the shedding of His Blood during His bitter Passion and death.

To try to understand what Jesus meant when He said that James and John would indeed share His baptism and His chalice, we ourselves have to grasp that the word “Passover” does not fundamentally mean a ritual meal involving unleavened bread. No. The word “Passover” means: Christ passing over from mortal life to immortal glory. The true Passover is made through the door of death. None of our self-importance in this world ever fits through that door.

“You do not know what you are asking.” Quite the understatement, because: We do not know the glory that has been prepared for us. We do not know the joy and peace that even the lowest place in heaven affords. We do not know what resting for good really means–what it means to cease from striving, from struggling, from competing. We do not know what it means simply to flower fully forever. Heaven lies beyond our knowledge.

But not completely. Because Jesus has revealed heaven to us. We cannot see heaven from the inside, so to speak, but we can see it from the outside. Because Christ’s Sacred Heart is full of heaven. In Christ, we see what heaven does to the human soul. The Lord’s Jesus’ heavenly interior life made Him mild, humble, ready to serve. It made Him love others. It moved Him to give His life for the ones He loves.

It’s not that Christ didn’t fight during His pilgrim life; it’s not that He had no ambition. To the contrary, at crucial moments in His journey, we see His stern determination. He just doesn’t fight for low stakes. He doesn’t fight for the silly trophies of this world.

No. Christ’s ambition always was and always will be: life, eternal life. He has fought not for earthly glory, but for the everlasting glory of God. Let’s strive for a share in that glory. We can leave it up to our heavenly Father where exactly we ought to sit.

Go First and Be Reconciled with Your Brother

The anger of man worketh not the justice of God. (James 1:20)

What does worketh the justice of God? The crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Christ is the justice, the righteousness, the wisdom of God. Christ became our righteousness, our sanctification, and our redemption—by being God’s righteousness, God’s holiness, God’s eternal truth.

Our souls move with anger when we perceive injustice, just like they move with hunger when our stomachs are empty. To be human is to experience anger. No one can live on earth without experiencing anger at least once or twice.

But, weak and feeble vessels that we are, we must in conscience pause to answer this question: With whom, really, do I have a right to be angry? Who truly deserves my particular wrath?

I think we can say, upon reflection, that the only person who truly deserves to feel the heat of my anger would be the person for whom Christ did not die. When I meet someone for whom Christ did not die, then let me vent my spleen. Then let me blow my top. Then let me holler and caterwaul and go ballistic and rip someone a new you-know-what.

In the meantime, while I live out the rest of this pilgrim life among fellow sinners, let me try to remember that Christ died for each of us and for all of us. We have that in common, all these brother sinners and me. We all have that in common, that we each needed the atoning sacrifice of Christ–in order for us to have any hope whatsoever for anything other than everlasting hell.

Let me remember that I myself have no righteousness, other than the righteousness of Jesus–which Jesus wants everyone to have. And then let me try to take another look at whatever situation strikes me as so offensive. Let me try to see it from the Christian point-of-view. Let me try to see it as Jesus Himself sees it. From His throne, the cross, where He suffered excruciating agony for all of us and for each of us.

Loving Losers

Show no partiality. (James 2:1)

He makes the sun rise and the rain fall on the bad and the good. He commands us to love your neighbor as yourself.

DismasSo: He commands us to love ourselves, by the light of God, since He loves each of us, by His own glorious light.

He loves the losers who don’t make any sense, by His glorious light of perfect sense.

So even us losers are supposed to love ourselves by the light of God.

And He commands us to love the neighbor just as much.

Which neighbor? The sweet-smelling one? Yes. The bad-smelling one? Yes.

And Who is it Who commands all this? The Triune God. The crucified Christ. He identifies Himself especially with people who smell bad, and mumble, and can’t quite get it together.

“Lord, remember us, even though we deserve to die, when You come into Your kingdom.”

He says, “Don’t despair. For this one moment of love, you win an eternity of paradise.”

Law of Freedom

The perfect law of freedom. James 1:25

Our readings at Holy Mass this past Sunday focused our attention on the Law of God. Now we read from St. James’ letter about this law.

St. James had written, “The Father of lights willed to bring us to birth by the word of truth, that we may be a kind of firstfruits of His creatures.”

‘The word of truth.’ Sounds like this word could very well be a law. Do our readings give us nothing but moralizing about keeping the Law? Duty. Submission. Law, law, law–maybe makes us think, ‘I don’t want to. But I will.’ Grudging obedience to the Big Man.

resurrectionBut let’s reflect a moment. We come to birth—spiritual birth, birth ‘from above,’ as the Lord Jesus put it—we come to this birth not by our own obedience, but by hearing the news that Christ has triumphed over death.

The ‘word of truth,’ the fundamental law, is Christ’s gracious gift.

For us that means liberation—the freedom for which He has set us free by His death, that we might share in His undying life. He won eternal life for us while we still languished in sin. His loving mercy, His indomitable will—not that we submit to limits, but that we thrive without limit in the kingdom of heaven—all this comes before we do anything. This is the word of truth by which we come to spiritual birth: Christ is risen.

Of course, to hear this word and to believe means submitting. It means saying to the wounded Jesus, Who loved us to the cross, ‘My Lord and my God.’

And we want to do good in return. We want to return love for love. So the Law, the perfect law of freedom, is: To love as Christ has loved us and given Himself up for us.

James’ Letter’s Message

Our first reading at Holy Mass today comes from the letter of the Apostle James.

How many of the twelve Apostles had the name James? We talked about this in the fall.

St James the Less El GrecoOne of the St. Jameses had a brother among the Apostles, namely…John.

The other James wrote the letter in the New Testament. He served as the first bishop of a very important city, the capital of the Holy Land…Jerusalem!

In his letter to us, St. James teaches us to have faith and put it into practice.

We believe in a good God, a God Who will help us when we ask Him to, Who will help us see the difference between right and wrong, and Who will give us the strength to do good.

When temptation comes—when we grow impatient, or angry, or cowardly, or deceitful, of self-indulgent—the Lord will help us overcome our weakness and act in the way that reflects who we really are, namely His beloved children.

What we have to do is pray. Spend time every day praying. When we pray regularly, the Lord trains us to love the right things.

Lord, help us to serve You faithfully! We want to get to heaven and love you forever. Give us the wisdom and strength to make the right choices, and build the right habits, that will lead us to the ultimate goal.

New-Evangelization Sayings of St. James

St James the Less El Greco

Getting ready to launch-out on some prolonged meditations regarding the New Evangelization. Several sermons on the subject will be coming your way, for at least the next month.

But the words of one of the Holy Apostles will do us much more good than anything I myself could come up with. So, in honor of his feastday, I have culled fourteen sayings of St. James, which I think might help us, as we strive to do our part to bring about the New Evangelization.

1. All good giving and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights…He willed to give us birth by the word of truth, that we might be a kind of firstfruits of his creation.

2. The wisdom from above is first of all pure, then peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits, without inconstancy or insincerity. And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace for those who cultivate peace.

3. Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials.

4. Be patient until the coming of the Lord.

5. You have no idea what your life will be like tomorrow.

6. If anyone thinks he is religious, and does not bridle his tongue, his religion is vain.

7. Let your ‘Yes’ mean yes, and your ‘No’ no.

8. Confess your sins, and pray for one another.

9. Do not speak evil of one another.

10. Judgment is merciless upon one who has not shown mercy.

11. Just as a body without a spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.

12. Pure religion is this: care for orphans and widows, and keep yourself unstained by the world.

13. Show no partiality.

14. Whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and cover a multitude of sins.

Citations: James 1:18, 3:17-18, 1:1, 5:7, 4:14, 1:26, 5:12, 5:16, 4:11, 2:13, 2:26, 1:27, 2:1, 5:20

Apostles Child-Like and Rabbinical

Two quick points on the two Holy Apostles, Ss. Philip and James.*

1. Maybe you remember how we spoke 2 ½ weeks ago about St. Thomas, about how child-like and straightforward he was in his conversations with Christ. St. Philip was equally as intimate with Jesus and also wore his heart on his sleeve.

When the Lord asked Philip about feeding 5,000 men and their families, the no-nonsense Apostle quickly calculated how much money it would cost. 200 denarii.

Then, at the Last Supper, Jesus told the Apostles that they now knew and could see the Father. Philip broke the solemn silence. “Show us!”

2. St. James, who was a kinsman of Christ, became the first Bishop of Jerusalem. Now, here’s a question: What was the difference between a rabbi in Jerusalem and the first Bishop of Jerusalem?

The people called Christ “rabbi.” Rabbis made other rabbis by gathering disciples to themselves and teaching them over a period of three years or so. All the rabbis in Jerusalem had become rabbis by studying under rabbis. St. James also was a rabbi who had studied under a rabbi.

See my point?

One thing Jerusalem rabbis did was to write letters to Jews in other parts of the Roman Empire. These letters encouraged diaspora Jews and helped them to stay faithful.

Now, obviously, the first Christian Bishop of Jerusalem would never write such a letter! Except that he did. It’s the twentieth book of the New Testament.

Rabbi-Bishop James’ letter to the Diaspora does not, however, urge the observance of the Law of Moses. It makes no mention of Temple sacrifices. Instead, St. James interprets and applies the Sermon on the Mount.

So…what do both these Holy Apostles teach us? What do all apostles teach us? This:

You want God? You want religion? Keep it simple. Look to Jesus Christ.

*a.k.a. James “the Less,” to distinguish him from St. John’s brother James, who is called “the Greater.”

Want a Seat? Stand. (Also, turn on the tv)

Most exciting sporting day of the year, my friends.

Why do you tarry here? You should be watching ESPN.

(I do not approve of playing hooky for the ridiculous NCAA tournament. But for the Big East tournament? Um…)

…I don’t see how we can find fault with Mrs. Zebedee. When the Lord originally summoned her sons to go with Him, she let them go. They left home, and no one knew if they would ever come back again.

When the mother came to Christ, she approached Him with admirable faith. She acknowledged that He would reign one day as king.

What loving mother doesn’t want her children to succeed? What Christian mother doesn’t want her children to succeed in getting to heaven? May they reign with You, O Christ. May they be close to You, closer than anyone else.

What mother doesn’t go to the Lord every day and make this very request for her beloved children?

What kind of priest would I be if I didn’t pray every day that all of you would be on Christ’s right hand in the kingdom of heaven—with all my dear parishioners who don’t know how to turn on a computer on His left hand?

But the Lord laid down a condition. Be baptized with the baptism with which I will be baptized. Drink the chalice I must drink. Submit to the will of the Father. You want to get to heaven? Don’t worry about where you will sit when you get there. You will sit where the Father wants you to sit.

Don’t worry about when or where you will sit at all. Worry about where the people who spend all day on their feet will sit. Offer your favorite chair. Stand up and wait on someone who spends the day waiting on other people.

Just stand up and take care of everyone in sight. The Father will let you know when to sit down.

The Ambition of James and John

As Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, he took the Twelve disciples aside by themselves, and said to them on the way, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and hand him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and scourged and crucified, and he will be raised on the third day.”

Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee approached Jesus with her sons and did him homage, wishing to ask him for something. He said to her, “What do you wish?” She answered him, “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus said in reply, “You do not know what you are asking. Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” They said to him, “We can.” He replied, “My chalice you will indeed drink, but to sit at my right and at my left, this is not mine to give but is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.”

When the ten heard this, they became indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus summoned them and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:17-28)

I think the most remarkable thing about this famous exchange is the gentle way in which the Lord deals with the whole situation.

We know that James and John were as close to Christ as any of the Apostles were. Along with St. Peter, James and John accompanied the Lord up Mt. Tabor, as we read on Sunday. And, as we will read in a few short weeks, these three accompanied Christ into the Garden of Gethsemane. And, of course, it was St. John, alone among the Apostles, who stood with our Lady at the foot of Christ’s cross.

We can assume from all this that the desire which James and John had to sit beside Jesus in His kingdom was not crass ambition. James and John were not worldly men. They had heard their Master declare that He was going to assume His throne by way of a cruel and ignominious death. When Christ asked them if they were prepared to drink from the same chalice, they proclaimed that they were ready to do so. We have no reason to doubt that they meant it.

So I think what we have in this episode is not so much the jockeying of advantage-seekers as it is the craving of genuine love. James and John loved their Master; they wanted to be close to Him always. Christ recognized the love that motivated their ambition.

When the other Apostles became understandably angry that James and John were seeking preferment, we see not just the sons of Zebedee, but the whole lot of the Twelve, in a state of confusion. The Lord Jesus had to calm them all down and set them all straight.

The truth is, it is perfectly natural for us to want to be preferred by those whom we admire. The more we look up to someone, the closer we want to be, and the more we long to be special in his or her eyes.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to be at the right hand of Jesus Christ. Quite the contrary: It is the best thing for anyone to want.

What Christ teaches His Apostles is not to want something other than this. Rather, what He teaches us is how we can actually get what we want.

“Your places have been prepared for you by My Father, just like My place has been prepared. You long to sit at My right hand; I long to sit at My Father’s right hand. How will I take my place there? By hanging on the cross.”