St. Margaret Mary and Friedrich Nietzsche

St. Margaret Mary* received the vision of the… Sacred Heart. The divine human Heart. Of Jesus. Beating right now.

St. Paul began his letter to the Romans by declaring the fundamental historical fact involved in the proclamation of the Gospel: the divine man Jesus died and rose again. The resurrection..

Lord Jesus Himself referred to this fundamental fact in our gospel reading at Holy Mass today, too: The sign of God’s saving work on earth is the sign of Jonah. The death of Christ; His burial; then His resurrection from the dead on the third day.

Mencken NietzscheIs Christianity something nice? Something good? Something helpful? Does Christianity make positive contributions to world history? Does it have beneficial psychological effects? Does it make people better citizens? More productive? Better educated?

Anyone ever heard of the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche? About 125 years ago, many European Christians lost confidence in the historical reliability of the gospels. These Christians decided they weren’t 100% sure that Jesus actually did rise from the dead on Easter Sunday.

Instead they started arguing things like: Our ancient Scriptures may not be altogether true, but isn’t Christianity good for mankind anyway? Hasn’t it contributed to the progress of the human race? Doesn’t it make people nice?

Nietzsche responded with a withering attack. Christianity has helped the human race? No! To the contrary. It makes people too weak and submissive. Too stoic about their difficulties. Too resigned to suffering. Christianity makes people too sympathetic with others and un-competitive. Christianity has hurt the human race worse than anything, Nietzsche argued, because we do better when we put our individual selves first and fight!

Now, to our ears, these sound like scandalous arguments. Selfishness is better? Contempt for the weak is better? Nietzsche’s ideas strike us as appallingly ugly.

Except that they tend to ring true in the world as we know it. The world is manifestly not nice. If the question is: Is being nice better, or is being competitive better? Or: Is being selfish better, or is being empathetic better? Or: Would the human race be more “advanced” if no one had ever heard of Christ? If those are the fundamental questions, we don’t have the answers.

Which is why we always have to stay focused on facts. The fact that Jesus rose from the dead. Selflessness, kindness, and being willing to suffer for true love are all better. But only because Jesus Christ rose from the dead.

That fact comes first. We can leave questions about the “advancement of mankind” to others. We’re not even sure that we ourselves are really all that nice. But we are Christians. Because Jesus of Nazareth is alive.

 

__________________________

*Died 327 years ago tomorrow.

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New Font

francis assisi rocky mount baptismal font

Christ did not drive out demons by the power of the prince of demons. He drove them out by “the finger of God,” the Holy Spirit.

We believe that Jesus of Nazareth possesses an utterly unique spirit within. He pours His spirit out on His beloved. Christ’s spirit is absolutely holy. It is, in fact, God.

Yesterday, by God’s grace, we blessed our new baptismal font at St. Francis of Assisi parish in Rocky Mount, Va. As part of the ceremony, we declared:

Over this font the lamp of faith spreads the holy light that banishes darkness from the mind… A stream of living water, coming from Christ’s pierced side, now flows.

We implored the Creator:

Lord, we ask you to send the life-giving presence of your Spirit upon this font, placed here as a source of new life for your people.

The power of your Spirit made the Virgin Mary the mother of your Son; send forth the power of the same Spirit so that your Church may present you with countless new sons and daughters and bring forth new citizens of heaven.

The baptismal font stands as the womb of Mother Church. It represents the faith that She holds. Mother Church holds the faith perfectly. All of us, Her sons and daughters, hold the faith imperfectly. We strive, with the helps that our Mother offers us, to hold it better.

We will discuss this more on Sunday. But nothing could illustrate it better than the blessing ceremony for this new font. Our faith in the fundamental institutions of the Church; our trust that God Himself has given these things to us, so that we might have communion with Him: that faith and trust is the deepest bedrock of our identity.

We have not been born naked and alone in this world. We have been born, through Holy Baptism, into the communion of the Church. Endowed with the inheritance She freely presents to us, each of us can come into our own as individuals, and give God glory by being the sons and daughters He made each of us to be.

Ask and You Shall Receive the good Holy Spirit

cropped-me-with-pope-jp-ii.jpg
on my way down to kiss the ring of the fisherman, 3/9/00

Seventeen years ago today, I assisted at Mass with Pope St. John Paul II. He welcomed seminarians into his little chapel in the papal apartment every morning. Room enough for about 30 people, with half of them standing along the back wall. I’ll never forget how we got ushered in there at 7am, hushed, after passing through a chintzy metal detector and going up an old elevator—and there he was, kneeling in front of the altar, preparing to vest for Mass. Afterwards, we got to meet him in the library outside the chapel, and he encouraged us in our service to Christ.

On that day–March 9, 2000–the sun shone through the crisp Roman air. Spring was springing–just like it is here, in what I like to think of as the second-most-beautiful city in the world, Roanoke, Va.

This weather reminds us of the ancient origins of our English word for the 40 days before Easter. The word comes from “lengthen,” because the days get longer. “Lent” literally means “springtime.”

Which is why, when the Lord tells us, “Ask, and you shall receive,” we immediately blurt out: “Please! No snow this weekend!” He promised that He would lavish “good things” on those who pray. Snow ain’t no good thing.

st john paul iiBut, speaking of those “good things:” again we must briefly contend with a slight discrepancy in what our Lord said on two different occasions.

As we read at today’s Holy Mass, St. Matthew recorded the Lord, during the Sermon on the Mount, promising “good things” to those who pray. But when St. Luke recorded Christ’s teachings on prayer, He quoted Him as promising the Holy Spirit to those who ask.

So is it “good things” or “the Holy Spirit?”

Come on, people. This apparent discrepancy hardly poses the kind of tricky challenge we faced yesterday, when we had to clear up what the “sign of Jonah” was. This one is easy by comparison. After all, what thing could be as good as the Holy Spirit? The original Goodness from which all things flow?

So, if it be His will that snow fall this weekend, on the very night when we lose an hour’s sleep, then so be it. We can take it. God’s will be done.

By the day seventeen years ago when I had the privilege of kissing the fisherman’s ring on his finger, St. John Paul II had grown old and thoroughly enfeebled. His vigorous youth–when he hiked, and camped out, and said Mass on the back of a kayak for his college students–had vanished.

But he rejoiced in the Lord nonetheless. He rejoiced in the divine will. He rejoiced in the great mystery of Christ crucified, in the springtime–the mystery by which a spring will come that will never fade.

 

What Exactly is the Sign of Jonah?

jonah sistine chapel
Jonah by Michelangelo

 

We might ask for a sign from God. But no sign will be given to this generation, except the sign of Jonah.

Okay. But what exactly is “the sign of Jonah?” There seems to be a slight discrepancy. After all…

a. We read in Luke that the Lord says that “Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites.” As we read in the book of Jonah, the prophet went to the huge city and preached repentance for their sins.

But:

b. we read in Matthew that the Lord says that “Jonah was in the belly of the whale three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.”

So is the “sign of Jonah” his preaching repentance in Nineveh? Or is it his little sojourn in his buddy the whale’s belly? Which is the sign, Lord?

Yes. The answer, as usual, is Yes. I think we touch the heart of the matter here—the matter of Lent, the matter of Christianity. The answer is Yes, when we re-phrase the question about the sign of Jonah. Namely, like this:

How are we supposed to repent? What stimulates repentance? Sometimes we repent because sin has unpleasant effects right now. For instance, dude repents of drinking too much last night, solely because he has a hangover. Or wife repents of being mean to her husband, because he won’t talk to her now.

But relying completely on this kind of stimulus for repentance exposes a soul to the gravest danger. Because the worst sins may not have unpleasant consequences in this pilgrim life. People might grow tired of Father’s tediousness during his sermons and decide to spend Sunday mornings somewhere other than church. Does this cause cold sores, or stiff knees? Does the house get struck by lightning? No, the tv works just fine. No immediate unpleasant consequences.

Charles Bosseron Chambers Sacred Heart of JesusWhat, then, can stimulate me truly to repent?

The one absolutely effective stimulus is: Contemplating Christ crucified and Christ risen.

Christ crucified and risen reveals:

  1. The extent and gravity of my sins and God’s divine love and mercy.
  2. The demands that God’s law makes on me and my ability to achieve a peaceful conscience when I put my faith in Him.

He would have had to suffer this much just for me, if I were the only sinner. And He would willingly have done so, because that’s how much He loves me. God’s justice demands nothing less than the sacrifice of the perfectly innocent Lamb. And He freely offers that sacrifice Himself, so that, when I put myself at His feet, I can rest my soul there, like a child.

Schoolhouse Rules and the New Testament

Roanoke Catholic School

Both our readings at Holy Mass today touch on “the Law.”

We might reasonably wonder whether or not the New Testament actually teaches us to obey the Law.  After all, St. Paul wrote to the Galatians, “You are separated from Christ, you who are trying to be justified by the Law.”  And we read in St. Luke’s gospel that “the Pharisees were amazed to see that Jesus did not observe the prescribed washing before the meal.”

Must we, then, follow the rules?  If we walk by pure faith, awaiting our blessed hope in Jesus, can we wear skirts above the knee?  Can we talk in class, even when we’re not supposed to?  Can we butt in line, as long as we believe in Jesus?

Here’s the thing.  We can read the New Testament from beginning to end, and nowhere does it say that the Ten Commandments are wrong.  The Law of God always demands our obedience.  And good school rules, laid down by good teachers and principals, serve a good purpose—namely, that everybody get a good education.

brunelleschi_crucifixSo: No talking when you’re not supposed to, no butting in line, and no short skirts.

But:  We can’t parade around like little Mr. or Miss Goody Two Shoes Pharisee, either.  Everyday we have to look at a crucifix and remember:  Our God and Savior died to save sinners.  He forgives sinners.

The Law of God demands a lot.  All of us fail sometimes.  When we admit the truth, God forgives.  Not only that, He gives us help from heaven so that we can do better.

If it were just us and The Rules, we would find ourselves hopelessly lost and alone.  That’s what St. Paul means when he writes that no one is justified by the Law.  But it’s not just us and The Rules.

God has a special plan for each of us, so that we can become exactly who He made us to be.  Each individual plan unfolds with its own unique beauty and glory.

He gave us His Law to help us find our way.  The Law is good.  But even better is the fact that He was willing to die so that we could always have a fresh start, no matter what.  A fresh start on the journey to becoming our true selves in Christ.

The παρρησία of Abraham and Christ

Church of Pater Noster Our Father Jerusalem
The Church of the Pater Noster on the Mount of Olives

Abraham negotiated with the Judge of the world.  About the possible innocent souls in Sodom and Gomorrah.  In the course of these negotiations, when Abraham had worked the Lord’s cut-off number from fifty down to twenty, Abraham acknowledged, “I have dared speak to my Lord thus.” [Click para leer en español.]

He dared.

Some people grow up scared of their fathers, afraid to ask anything, for fear of bad repercussions.  And some people grow up counting on both parents for understanding and compassion in every possible circumstance.  Abraham had begun to learn that pure prayer to God Almighty involves more childlike confidence than fear.

Ready for some Greek?  I wouldn’t put you through this, but Pope Francis throws this particular Greek word around fairly often.  It appears in the New Testament 41 times.  And it’s in the Catechism.  So we need to know it.

Parrhesia.  Childlike openness, frankness, confidence and boldness.  Speaking with the knowledge that the listener will understand and indulge you.  That the listener loves you.

When you pray, say “Father.”  Father.  In other words, speak with parrhesia.  The disciples had asked the Lord Jesus, “How do we pray?”  When you pray, children, say ‘Father.’  Dare to say, “Father.”

El Greco Christ in PrayerAfter all, Christ revealed in His own prayers and speech what parrhesia is:

“Father, I give You praise, because what You have hidden from the wise and the learned, You have revealed to the merest children.”

“Father, take this chalice from Me.  But not My will, but Yours, be done.”

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

“Father, into Your hands I commend my spirit.”

“Father, I pray that they might be one, that I might live in them as You live in Me, and that their joy might be complete.”

“Father consecrate them in truth.”

The incarnate Son spoke to the heavenly Father with consummate parrhesia.  Christ always took for granted the great truth:  the Father knows all, understands all, guides all toward the true good.  “The birds of the air and the flowers of the field neither toil nor spin, yet your Father in heaven provides for them.”

St. Paul expresses what parrhesia means like this:  “Christ pours His Spirit into our hearts, and we cry out, ‘Abba, Father.’”

The Roman Catechism of Pope St. Pius V explains:  We call God Father, with the bold confidence of beloved children, because:

  1. He made us out of nothing in His own image and likeness.
  2. He unfailingly provides for our needs by exercising His tender providence.
  3. He redeemed us from the condemnation we deserved through His Son’s perfect sacrifice, and He pours out heavenly grace through the ministry of the Church.

In other words, Almighty God has shown Himself to be the very compassionate, gentle, understanding, and indulgent Father that Abraham boldly talked down from wrath to mercy.  He has shown Himself to be the Father Who patiently waits for our repentance, longs for our reconciliation, forgets our iniquities, forgives the injuries we have done Him, and grants us an altogether fresh start in Christ.

All this makes parrhesia part of our lives in another way, also.  In prayer we speak to the Father with the boldness of beloved children. We also speak with the parrhesia of beloved children before the world, when we speak about the Father.  We exercise parrhesia in prayer and in evangelization.

Not two parrhesias, but one.  Because we know how generous and trustworthy God is, we have nothing to fear from this world.  No matter what we might see on CNN.  No matter what fears our beloved politicians try to stir up in us.  Through it all, we stride forward in confidence to fulfill our mission to make the Good News of the good heavenly Father known.

mac and cheeseChildren don’t imagine that they have to know how a car works.  They just say, “Daddy, can you drive me to the park?”  They don’t imagine that they must understand the chemistry of cooking.  They just say, “Mommy, can you make me some macaroni and cheese?”

Our heavenly Father does not require us to strategize extensively about how to gain souls for His kingdom through artful persuasion and clever tactics.  He can devise tactics a million times more cleverly than we can.  Our role is:  to bear witness.  To offer confident, childlike testimony, wherever and whenever we can.

Testimony that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is true.  That God is the loving and kind Father of the whole human race.  That He rules His kingdom of justice and peace with an open Heart.  That the Holy Mass contains all the riches and wisdom of God.  That the Church is a real family, to which everyone can belong.

Heavenly Father, we boldly ask You lovingly to give us boldness.  We securely petition You for confidence and serenity in prayer, and in all our interactions in this world.  We know that You know what we need before we ask You, and that You grant liberally all that we ask in the name of Your Son.  So we trustingly ask You in the name of Jesus to give us the grace of His unfailing, rock-solid trust in You.

Worldview Trajectory Reversal

El Greco Christ in Prayer

“If by the finger of God I cast out demons, then then Kingdom of God has come upon you.” (Luke 11:20)

After our First Parents disobeyed and fell from God’s grace, the “trajectory” of human life sloped inevitably towards death.

But Christ came, and He revealed that the heavenly Father’s love extends even beyond our disobedience.  Death looks to unredeemed man like a crashing end and a disaster.  But Christ has revealed that death, in fact, opens like a door to eternal happiness.

In other words, the Incarnation of the Divine Word has reversed the trajectory of our human pilgrimage.  Reversed it from deathbound to lifebound.  From fundamentally despairing to invincibly hopeful.  From collapsing inward to expanding ever-outward in love.

“Health,” “life,” “virtue,” “fulfillment”–these words, and words like them, find their true meaning only in Christ–in what He has done and continues to do.  He offers life, health, virtue, and fulfillment to a race that, without Him, lives on borrowed time, facing fearful prospects.

So I guess we could say that our believing in the Trinity and Incarnation gives us a “worldview”–a wordview of hope and of genuine communion with the heavenly Father and with each other.

But calling it a “worldview” misses the fundamental fact:  In Christ, the one true God has revealed Himself.  Our hope for eternal life rests on the absolute truth that Christ speaks the words of God and does the works of God.

When we have the courage to stand firm with the only immortal friend we have, with the real hope of the human race, Jesus Christ–when we stand firm with courage, we evangelize.  We have more than just a personal “worldview.”  We have what the martyrs have had:  love stronger than death.  Love which can conquer whole nations for truth, peace, and love.

Law vs. Mercy, Or Not?

As we speak, some of our dear bishops are participating in Part 2 of the great “Synod on the Family” convoked by our Holy Father, Pope Francis. We pray that the Lord pour out wisdom, fidelity, and mildness to guide the Synod fathers.

One of the famous distinctions some people like to invoke is: Law, on one hand, and Mercy, on the other.

Pacino Shylock
Pacino Shylock
In certain dramatic instances, this distinction carries powerful meaning. Like in The Merchant of Venice, when the hero owes the villain a pound of flesh—but then the heroine convinces the court that, since the villain won’t be merciful and forgive the debt, then he must take only a pound of flesh, and no more. Not to mention that he has no right to any of the hero’s blood, since that wasn’t in the contract. Very dramatic moment.

Generally speaking, though, I think this constant distinguishing between law and mercy can get pretty obtuse.

After all, “law” does not, in and of itself, mean “rigidity.” I myself understand ‘law’ as the opposite, not of mercy, but of chaos. The idea that we human beings invented law, in some fit of self-destructive self-repression—this idea does not really conform to mankind’s unmediated experience of the cosmos, as communicated so eloquently at the beginning of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. The cosmos possesses beauty precisely because laws order the elements.

We human beings do have to make laws to govern our lives together, to be sure. But, as Martin Luther King, Jr., put is so well, quoting St. Augustine: Law is only truly law insofar as it is just. And the justice of human law comes from its conformity with God’s design. So law is not fundamentally something we human beings invent; it is something to which we submit, for our own good. Our problem as sinners is when we do not act in accord with God, Who guides all things for the good.

Did the idea of Law, in and of itself, make the Lord Jesus angry? Don’t think so. What made Him mad at the Pharisees was this:

The Pharisees made it their business to preserve ancient Jewish customs, all of which aimed at keeping the pure faith of Abraham alive. Abraham’s faith, in a nutshell, consisted in trusting that God would give the people a future.

But now the future had arrived. Now the Eternal Law had taken flesh and was living a pilgrim life. The day to which Abraham always looked forward: that day had come. The Christ stood before them, inviting them into the kingdom.

But the Pharisees were hypocrites. They preached without practicing. They laid heavy burdens on others which they themselves never carried. It’s not that their doctrine was false; their lives were false. So they could not see the Christ; they would not accept His invitation.

Mercy doesn’t mean “forget the law!” Mercy means what Christ showed us that it means. Let me help you find a happier way of life than the one you’re living in now. None of us can do right alone. We need Christ’s help. And we need to help each other.

How Not to Be a Whitened Sepulcher

“You are like unseen graves over which people unknowingly walk.” (Luke 11:44)

Maybe you remember how we talked about this a little two years ago. All existing reality is divided into three sections: The holy, the clean, and the unclean.

God is holy and the source of life, vitality. Clean means adjoining God; it means vigor and the full-flowering of the gift of life; cleanness allows growth. Unclean means separated from God, squelching life, making growth difficult or impossible, impeding and thwarting the unfolding of God-given vitality.

Now, we are not talking about Ebola here. Though let’s certainly pray that the Lord will help everyone suffering from the disease, and that those who have died will rest in His peace.

thomas mertonWhat we are talking about is the severity of the imprecation that the Lord leveled against the Pharisees: Woe to you who spread the vigor-killing uncleanness of your self-righteousness, by covering it over with a cloak that makes it look clean!

St. Paul put it so beautifully: Against love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control there can be no law. None of these can be found in any unclean tomb; none of these can impede life. To the contrary, the fruits of the Holy Spirit are the sign of the greatest vigor, the cleanness of union with God.

Apparently, something came out in Rome on Monday, while I sat in the woods reading Merton, eating pb&j’s, and trying to pray a little. I think we should remember that the things the Church stands for don’t change at a Vatican press conference.

Problem is, there may be whitened sepulchers of self-righteousness both to the right and to the left, as we continue to tread the path the Lord has laid out for us in AD 2014.

–There can be no divine law against faithfulness and chastity. Kinda suggests that there is a divine law against both unfaithfulness and unchastity.

–By the same token, there is no divine law against patience and gentleness. Which kinda suggests that there is a divine law against both impatience and rudeness.

Breathless journalists tend to forget: there is only so far away that people can run from their consciences. Sooner or later, our consciences can and will do their work–if not in this pilgrim life, then at the moment we step into the next. And the human desire to make peace with death will keep the Church in business until way after USA Today folds.

The Lord Jesus ferociously imprecated the Pharisees for trying to burden other peoples’ consciences with burdens that they themselves couldn’t carry. Let’s make it our business to accept the rightful burdens that our own consciences legitimately put on us, and to help others carry the burdens that their consciences legitimately put on theirs.

And of course the best way to pursue this business is to go to Confession every month.

God’s UPS

Who paid attention to what St. Paul said to the Galatians? Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts. The only thing that counts:

Faith working through love.

Lord Jesus said that the heavenly Father made both the outside and the inside. Outside gets dirty, we wash it, take a bath, etc. Inside gets dirty—what do we do? Give alms.

ups¿Que indica eso? “Give alms.”

Not as hard to understand as we might think. Very straightforward in fact.

Anyone ever heard of St. Francis of Assisi? Little guy. Italian. Pope named himself after him.

St. Francis loved God, trusted God, wanted only God. Francis believed that everything the Lord Jesus said is true. The heavenly Father provides for the flowers of the field and the birds of the air, who neither toil nor spin, and He will certainly provide for us. The Father’s eyes are on the sparrow; He knows how many hairs are growing on our heads. Why worry? The Lord will take care of tomorrow; the Lord will take care of the rest of today. His will be done!

So St. Francis gave away everything he did not need. Then he gave away everything he needed. By doing all that, he cleaned his insides. Because all he wanted was God, and he did not want anything less than God.

stfrancisGod will take care of everything. Everything that I think belongs to me really doesn’t. It really belongs to the next person I see who could make good use of it. I am actually the UPS guy for all these people, employed by the Lord to deliver all the goods I have to the individuals who can make good use of them. Talk about logistics!

Let’s go one step farther. The most precious thing that I have is actually not a ‘thing.’ The most precious thing I have is my love. My genuine love for others: esteeming them, warmly engaging them, cultivating compassion for them, offering them true Christian friendship.

Guess what? None of this is ‘mine,’ either. True, constant, firm love comes from God, comes from the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ. It comes from Him into my heart for one reason: So that I will give it away. So that I will lavishly love, helping others bear their burdens, expecting nothing in return. Because indeed the greatest gift I myself can receive is to know someone worth loving. And every human being is worth loving.

Then the whole lesson about giving alms comes to its final conclusion. Because we discover that the more Christian love we give, the more we have to give. The Sacred Heart of Jesus flows like an inexhaustible fountain of love. Loving with Christian love is like making an investment that pays 1000% interest.

So, to summarize…’Give alms’ means: Love my neighbor, and give my neighbor everything I have, including what I need to survive. Then I will wind up as rich as poor St. Francis.