Defenseless and Fearless in Church

martyrs of abitene
The martyrs of Abitine

 

Invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind; blessed will you be because of their inability to repay you. You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Luke 14:13-14)

When Christians come together to worship God, everything transpires peacefully—almost always. But not absolutely every time.

The ancient Romans sometimes prohibited celebrating Mass, and martyrs lost their lives as a result. Forty-nine Christians were arrested and ultimately executed in Abitene, Tunisia, in AD 304, during the persecution of the Emperor Diocletian. When the proconsul asked them why they defied the law and had Mass anyway, one of them replied, “We cannot live without Sunday Mass.”

Where Christians come together and worship God, the doors stand open. Everyone is invited. The poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, the outcasts and weirdos, the creeps and hateful people, the atheists and the nihilists. When Christians come together and worship God, it’s not a club with a clear list of members and non-members. It’s a sprawling, teeming, open public place.

So we have accept this fact: We cannot defend ourselves against cruel and random acts of violence. We can’t do it any more than anyone else can, anyone who wants to have an open, public place where people can come together, like a shopping mall or a public park. If a church isn’t an open, public place where people can come together, then it isn’t a church.

But: We have a totally different point-of-view on our bodily safety anyway. We love life, to be sure; we Christians have no death wish. But the fear of death can’t scare us away from church.

To the contrary: the fear of death scares us into going to Church. Being a Christian means sobering up to this inconvenient fact: we’re all going to die sooner or later anyway. What really matters is what’s going to happen then.

And the Lord clearly said: When you welcome everyone, even the one who would shoot you for absolutely no good reason, then you will receive a reward. We Christians do not fear the Devin Kelleys of the world. May he, and everyone he killed, find God’s mercy.

We will keep our doors open. We cannot live without Holy Mass.

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Facing Death, and the End of White Christian America, with Dignity

The corruptible body burdens the soul, and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind. (Wisdom 9:15)

Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple…anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:27, 33)

“Naked I came forth from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Who knows who said these words? Holy Job.

We Christians do not despise life in this world. We do not despise our mortal bodies.  But mortal they are. Our lives on earth will end. Following Christ means exercising humble realism about the earth and our earthen bodies. When we recognize that this pilgrim life will pass, then we can embrace the truth about the divine life that Christ offers, through His own bodily death.

I recently read a thoughtful essay about death, and a review of a book about the end of an era. First the essay.

Jones End of White Christian AmericaThe essayist laments the “indignity” of dying in a hospital. Wearing one of those pathetic gowns that never stay closed in the back. Grim fluorescent lighting. Tests and tubes and aches and pains and cruel anonymity. Family members hunched in uncomfortable chairs.

A grim scene, no doubt. But then the proposal: we need to take control. We need to approach death like consumers who get to choose options and decide the time and place. The so-called “Death with Dignity” movement. Also known as physician-assisted suicide.

This whole school of thought misses the great elephant in the room. Death itself. You can die in a hospital bed, or you can die in your favorite boutique hotel, surrounded by bagpipes and accordion players, with rosewater and peonies beside your canopied bed. When it’s over, you’re still dead. Hospital gowns are a bummer, sure. But death’s the part that really sucks.

When it comes to “death with dignity,” what about the dignity of Christ’s death? On the one hand, it makes suffering in a hospital look like a walk in the park. But who could die with more dignity than the suffering servant Who trustingly commended His life into the hands of the Almighty Father? Nailed to a cross, He exercised royal power, forgiving the penitent criminal and saying to him, “you will be with Me in paradise.” Unjustly tortured and killed by evil men, Christ prayed for them: “Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.”

Sovereign dignity. Lord Jesus exercised no control, made no consumer choices about his death. Yet no one has ever died more beautifully.

The parables of the tower and the king preparing for battle teach us to exercise this humble realism about our mortality. Dying with dignity does not mean controlling all the external circumstances. No: we live with dignity, and we die with dignity, when we share in the triumph of Christ. When we have a spiritual life. When we have divine faith, hope, and charity. When we humbly receive from God all that He gives. Yes, He gives us life in this world, and bodily death is no picnic. But life in this world is just the beginning.

parable towerWhich brings me to the book. The End of White Christian America. It’s a new book which analyzes population trends and religious affiliation. Newsflash: White Christians no longer constitute a political majority in these USA.

Now, I’m a white Christian. I wish I could call myself a good Christian. But the mirror tells me I’m white, and my baptismal certificate proves I’m a Christian.

We could stay here all day long talking about how America has operated as a Christian country, or failed to do so, over the course of 240 years of history. But the idea of the book is that the hegemony of white Christians has now ended. Meaning that we white Christians must feel all petulant and defensive about it.

I, for one, don’t quite see it that way. Demographics can change. Polls change. How many white Christians does it take to change a light bulb? But tribal allegiances, based only on externals, have no enduring claim on our souls. Christ, on the other hand, does not change. The Gospel does not change.

And the Gospel neither offers nor denies political hegemony. What the Gospel offers is eternal life. Not earthly power, but meaning and beauty for our otherwise dangerously inscrutable existences.

When St. Peter first preached Christ on Pentecost Sunday, no one had any thoughts at that moment about political control. After all, the Romans weren’t counting votes in Palestine in those days. It wasn’t a democracy, even in name. But the Apostles and the first Christians burned with zeal for souls anyway. They longed to share their supernatural joy.

Brothers and sisters, we must never underestimate the difference we can make in other peoples’ lives simply by bearing faithful witness to Jesus Christ and the communion of His Church. What we Catholics have—not because we are so great, but because Christ has given it all to us—what we have to offer is the one real, living solution to the problem of human mortality. And to the problems of human loneliness, and conflicts between races and peoples. Jesus Christ is the real, living answer to all this.

In American history, and in world history, this year—2016—has pretty much sucked, and it continues to suck. But it is our moment. It is the moment when we can give up the pursuit of shallow comfort and silly emotional excesses and embrace the mission that the Lord Jesus has clearly laid before us.

Be My apostles! Be fishers of men! The worst thing that can happen is that they will kill you. And that would be death with dignity.

The Hammock

Casablance Bergman Bogart

Blessed indeed will you be in their inability to repay you.  You will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Luke 14:14)

This statement, “Blessed will you be because of their inability to repay you” sounds crazy, at least in the business world.  But the Lord Jesus teaches us to see things from a different perspective.

In the Sermon on the Plain, the Lord had said, “If you love them that love you, what reward will you have?  Sinners love those who love them.  If you do good to them that do good to you, what reward will you have?  Sinners do as much.  If you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what reward will you have?  Sinners lend to sinners, and receive as much in return.

“But you, My disciples:  Love your enemies.  Do good. Lend.  Hope for no benefit thereby, and your reward will be great.  You shall be children of the Most High.  For He is kind to the ungrateful and to the evil…”

When God became a man and offered His life on the cross for the sake of the sinful human race that nailed Him there, that was no radical departure or change of character on His part.  That is Who He is—Who the Creator is, Who the Lord and Master of all things is.  He gives.

He never needed there to be a world or a universe.  He didn’t wake up one day, and think to Himself, ‘I am bored, and I am hungry, I just can’t take it anymore!’ and therefore He created Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, so that He could watch Casablanca, and then created peanuts and caramel, so that He could have a Snickers.

snickersNo.  The Lord God enjoys perpetual and perfect blessedness.  Always has and always will.  With or without Bogie.  But:  from His unimaginably wonderful state of perpetual and perfect blessedness, God generously gives.  He gives everything.  He gives existence.  He gives beauty.  He gives meaning and hope in life.

At every Sunday Mass we declare together, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”

In this pilgrim life, in the fallen world, we do things like ask for and keep receipts.  We get bills and invoices.  We have bank accounts.  Sometimes we have to pay lawyers.  None of us has unlimited material wherewithal.  We must exercise prudence, and we must deal justly with others, as we expect them to deal justly with us.  We have to think of our own well-being, and the well-being of those who depend on us.  We must make provisions for legitimate self-defense.

But none of this is absolute.  Sometimes people take out a loan on one set of provisional terms, then re-finance for a 30-year-mortgage.  But, actually, it’s all provisional.  Even 30-year-mortgages.  Because the world as we know it is passing away.

The one absolute thing is:  God.  Generous God.  Certainly, nothing about God is in any way unjust.  But to say that God is “just” does not really capture Who He is.

His way of measuring has to be our fundamental way of measuring. And His way of measuring is: not to measure at all.  He just gives.  The love of God is like a colossal hammock in which the whole cosmos and all of history rests.  The hammock holds it all, and it could hold a million universes and a million histories of the world if it had to, and still have a million more good things to give.

So He says:  Do not worry.  Can you make yourself any taller by worrying?  Can you grow more hair, by your own will?  No.  Your Father will take care of you.  Just love.  Now.  With everything you have.

Ever heard the sports expression, “to leave it all on the court?”  “At the Olympics, Carmelo Anthony left it all on the court.”  Or, “Gosh, that girl really left it all on that soccer field!”  In other words, she spent all her effort and all her skill trying to win the soccer game.

Well, God says:  Leave yourself, child, on the court of love.  Love the people who don’t like you. Love the people who drive in an annoying manner.  Love the rude and the ignorant.  Love the snide and the petty.

Love them all, because your heavenly Father loves them all.  If He didn’t love them, they wouldn’t exist.  We all exist only by His love.  And if He didn’t want us to love all the people in front of us, then He wouldn’t have made the world turn in such a way that they cross our path.  But He did make the world turn this way.  So we must love them.  Like a 14-year-old striker on the soccer team wills with all she has to score a goal, so must we love our neighbor.

Jesus gives our lives their true, eternal horizon.  The true horizon of our lives involves His divine kingdom—a divine kingdom in which the only bank is the infinite storehouse of God’s love.  And the only lawyer is the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, pleading everyone’s cause.  And a gun can do no harm nor good.  And no one needs health care.  No one ever gets sick.  Or lies.  Or does anything mean.  And the reward for every little act of love we have ever made will be God loving us back forever.

Tower and King, Great-Banquet Vocation Invitation

If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple…Which of you wishing to construct a tower does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if there is enough for its completion? Otherwise, after laying the foundation and finding himself unable to finish the work the onlookers should laugh at him and say, ‘This one began to build but did not have the resources to finish.’ Or what king marching into battle would not first sit down and decide whether with ten thousand troops he can successfully oppose another king advancing upon him with twenty thousand troops? But if not, while he is still far away, he will send a delegation to ask for peace terms. (Luke 14:26-32)

Lord Jesus Himself explains these little parables of the tower and the king preparing for battle: They have to do with becoming His disciple.

Everybody reading this Catholic? Maybe a couple interested visitors—and you are very welcome, of course. Otherwise, we are Catholics here. Which means… 1. We believe the Nicene Creed. 2. We pray the Our Father. 3. We celebrate the sacraments. 4. We acknowledge the authority of the Ten Commandments and the Church’s laws.

parable towerDo these four fundamentals make us disciples of Christ? Well, yes, actually. Or maybe we should say: the four fundamentals keep us close enough to Him so that we can become His disciples.

Then comes the sweet agony, day by day, of marching to Mt. Calvary. Accepting Christ as our living teacher, guide, and master—that’s not some abstract theory of life. He died, and now He is alive. He knows all and governs all. And to follow Him means marching directly to one place. Golgatha.

A lot of people think Christianity means being nice, which it does. A Christian is a kind person. But Christianity is not itself “nice.” Christ Himself, as master and lord: not particularly “nice.”

Christianity entails being nice to other people. But for a reason. Christianity means being nice to other people because we are all going to die. We are all going to die. What good will it do us to fight over the toys on the floor? Some of us look better than others right now. But, over the course of the next 500 years or so, mostly we will look like skeletons.

What answer do we have for this, other than Jesus Christ Himself, the actual Person? He is the only truly practical answer to the inevitable oblivion that stares us all square in the face.

Therefore: We love father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters—and our own lives—because Jesus loves them. But we hate, despise, shun, and reject anything that gets between us and Him.

“Blessed is the one who will dine in the kingdom of God!” (Luke 14:15)

Our invitation to dine in the Kingdom of God has a special name. Starts with a ‘v.’ Vocation.

The Lord invites us all to His feast precisely by giving us our unique pilgrim life to lead. He made each of us and equipped us perfectly to reach heaven. How? By doing His will 24/7.

But, Father! How can I know whether or not I am doing His will all the time?

Christ told a parable by way of an answer. Let’s look and see what made God mad, in the parable…

A man gave a great dinner to which he invited many. When the time for the dinner came, he dispatched his servant to say to those invited, ‘Come, everything is now ready.’

But one by one, they all began to excuse themselves. The first said to him, ‘I have purchased a field and must go to examine it; I ask you, consider me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have purchased five yoke of oxen and am on my way to evaluate them; I ask you, consider me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have just married a woman, and therefore I cannot come.’

The servant went and reported this to his master. Then the master of the house in a rage commanded his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame. (Luke 14:16-21)

One invitee had said he would come to the great dinner. (If he hadn’t already RSVP’d in the affirmative, the servant never would have gone looking for him.) But then the invitee didn’t come, because he had to plan out the good use of his land for farming.

Now, farming hardly qualifies as a sin. Doing good things in this world for the benefit of others, so they can eat: admirable work. But even good deeds aimed at other people’s physical health do not trump God. God comes first.

yoked oxenSecond invitee said he would come, but then he didn’t, because he wanted to evaluate his oxen.

Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. This man might be the most expert oxen evaluator in the Holy Land. He might be the Steve Jobs or Bill Gates of oxen in Palestine, an absolute genius entrepreneur capitalist.

But God comes first. I might be the smartest man on the face of the earth. But if I disobey God, how smart am I, really?

Third invitee was all set to break bread with the Lord. But then he decided to get married instead. Hardly evil to get married. None of us would be here without it. But God comes first.

Our vocations involve the deepest mysteries of our own souls. And God’s plan. Lots of things that we do not now understand.

But obeying God, obeying His law: that is not exactly hard to figure out how to do. The Ten Commandments are not vague. The law of charity and kindness is not vague.

Maybe that’s the greatest mystery of all, about our vocations: If I want to follow my vocation faithfully, let me just obey the law of God today. Next thing I know, I will be sitting at the banquet.

Hating People, Secularization, and Suicide

If any one does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)

The Lord apparently put this another way, on a different occasion. In Matthew, we read that He said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me, or son or daughter more than me, is not worthy of me.”

No contradiction between these two statements, though. If we consider family loyalty of the utmost importance, which we naturally do. To put our family ties even in second place, after God, after Christ—doing that can seem, to family members who would insist on having first place, like hatred.

elgrecochristcrossBut let’s keep going: If anyone comes to me without hating even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

At yet a different point in His pilgrim life, the Lord Jesus predicted His Passion, and the Jews listening to Him asked, “He is not going to kill himself, is he?”

Whoever does not carry his own cross, and come after me, cannot be my disciple.

Seems to me like we have long since reached the point where successfully interpreting all this is way above my paygrade. So let me quote St. John Chrysostom:

“He means not that we should place a beam of wood on our shoulders, but that we should ever have death before our eyes.”

Always have death before our eyes.

Listen, I love to stay up late and watch election returns as much as the next guy. At the same time, I’m also just as much against “rampant secularism” as the next religious guy. But I think we need to pause and think about what “secularization” really means.

St John Chrysostom in St PatricksThe saeculum, the century, the current age, involves: elections, smartphones, getting married, having children, cars, college basketball seasons, hamburgers, turkeys, Thanksgiving-dinner arguments, highway construction, tv shows and movies, e-mail and appointments, traveling for work and/or pleasure, having a job, sleeping, buying and wearing clothes, catching colds and getting over them.

By all the same tokens, the saeculum, these years in which we live, also provides us with our one and only known opportunity to: praise God, be kind, welcome strangers, help people who need help, seek the truth and stand up for it with courage, learn, read, see beautiful things and listen to beautiful music, grow, expand our minds and hearts by seeking and loving the Good and the True.

To live for this life only is a kind of suicide. By this time next century we will all be dust and ashes. No one will remember even a single one of all the fascinating comments we made.

That said, committing suicide is also a clear form of suicide. These days we have now–they come from God, out of His infinite love. Even the hardest of them–especially the hardest, most painful days—they come as the most precious gifts.

Every second of every minute of every day He gives us serves a purpose: We can love Him and our neighbor right now. Thereby transforming ourselves, little by little, into something that can actually endure forever, like God.

Religion, Pharisees, and the Genuine Well-Being of Man

da Vinci "Head of a Pharisee"
da Vinci “Head of a Pharisee”
“Who among you, if your son falls into a cistern, would not immediately pull him out”—no matter what day it is? (see Luke 14:5)

Pretty safe to say: We would. If we lived in a place where there were a lot of cisterns for our sons to be falling into. And we would pull our oxen out, too—if we had oxen.

We wouldn’t say to ourselves, “Lordy, it’s the Sabbath! That ox of mine, that son of mine will just have to wait in that cistern ‘till tomorrow. If he drowns? Well, can’t be helped.”

No. We would rescue. Because sons, and even oxen, and other capital investments, pertain to something that takes priority: the genuine well-being of man.

The genuine well-being of man takes absolute priority. It must be the center of religion. Because God—Whom we worship by our religion, Whom we obey by our religion—He wills the genuine well-being of man above all. He made the constellations, and the mountains, and the rainbows, and the chickens, and the dogs, for one reason: to delight us.

I don’t think we can doubt that Jesus was mocking the Pharisees and scholars in His exchange with them about healing on the sabbath. You guys are utterly ridiculous to turn religion into something that thwarts the well-being of man! That is absolutely backwards and ludicrous.

Maybe this is the key to untying a particular knot, when it comes to interpreting the Lord Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees.

We see and hear Him mocking, criticizing, excoriating the Pharisees and scribes for their ‘traditionalism.’ But Christ Himself embraced tradition with unswerving fidelity: He insisted on the Ten Commandments, on the Passover observances, on the authority of the entire Law and Prophets.

“Pharisaism” does not equal ‘traditionalism,’ simply put. Pharisaism, in the bad sense, is: Religion that thwarts the genuine well-being of man. Religion that thwarts the genuine well-being of man is actually a form of irreligion, a form of self-worship, of idolatry, of paganism.

Now, don’t give me credit for this insight, brilliant as it may be. The idea that religion must serve the genuine well-being of man is the heart of the ministry of the Vatican II popes, namely Paul VI, John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis.

(Not to mention the ministry of a lot of other people, too, like: Pope Pius XII, Pope St. Pius X, Pope Leo XIII, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Augustine, St. Peter, St. Paul…)

Pro-Life Pro-Immigrant

Senate passes immigration reform

Which one of you, wishing to construct at tower, does not sit down and calculate the cost? (Luke 14:28)

Building anything requires deliberation, reflection, informed decision-making. We don’t need the Lord to tell us that; common sense tells us. But it helps when higher authority spells things out.

Now, I do not claim to know much about politics. I do know that politics involves the art of building up the nation. And I also know that when the American Bishops instruct us priests to preach on a certain political topic on a given Sunday, I had better try to do it.

parable towerIn a republican democracy like ours, politics begins with our reflecting on a question like this: What kind of country do we want to live in?

We know we want a country that respects the gift of life. We want to live in a country where babies don’t get killed in the womb. We want a country where no one’s life gets snuffed-out arbitrarily. Where people get treated fairly under law.

[You may recall that we already discussed the topic which we are under orders to consider. I gave a little sermon on this subject on the Sunday before Independence Day.]

We want to have the kind of country that other people want to come to—a free and decent and honest country, a nation of humane laws and wholesome customs. And when people come here, we want to welcome them. We want to open our communities up to them. A community that can welcome new people is a strong community. A community obsessed with border-fences is not.

Continue reading “Pro-Life Pro-Immigrant”

Can You Build the Tower?

For which of you having a mind to build a tower, doth not first sit down, and reckon the charges that are necessary, whether he have wherewithal to finish it: Lest, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that see it begin to mock him, saying: This man began to build, and was not able to finish.

Or what king, about to go to make war against another king, doth not first sit down, and think whether he be able, with ten thousand, to meet him that, with twenty thousand, cometh against him? Or else, whilst the other is yet afar off, sending an embassy, he desireth conditions of peace. (Luke 14:28-32)

St. Ignatius Loyola drew up a procedure for young men who thought of joining his religious order. The procedure applies for anyone who wants to become a religious or a priest. Maybe this same procedure should apply to anyone intending to serve as President of the United States, too.

Seclude yourself completely. Then meditate for three days on these two little parables of the tower and the king going into battle…

What exactly is it going to take for me to pull this off? (Whatever “this” might be.) Do I have what it takes? Am I meant to do this?

Now, maybe we wonder: Isn’t the Lord contradicting Himself here? What about the Sermon on the Mount? What about Let Go and Let God? What about the flowers of the field, who neither toil nor spin, yet the heavenly Father provides for them? What about, “Tomorrow will take care of itself?”

Can’t a Christian pray his way through anything—even an unrealistic, grandiose scheme? Even if I get too big for my britches and bite off more than I can chew?

Well, the Lord is merciful, even towards fools who rush in.

But I think what He is trying to say is:

I have bountifully provided you with a certain amount foresight. You don’t have all the foresight I have, of course, but you have some. I will take care of tomorrow, you can be sure of that. But sometimes your job for today is to think about tomorrow with ruthless realism and humility. Don’t decide to become a big shot, and then pray for me to get you through. Pray now about whether or not you are cut out to be a big shot.

St. Ignatius commends the person who takes the measure of what he has in mind–and then admits that it’s too much for him. Let the probationary novice go in peace, with a blessing, if he decides to leave the novitiate after these few days of meditation on the parable of the tower.

On the other hand, even more sobering would be: To take the careful measure of the difficult task and come to the humble conclusion that, Yes, I guess if anyone is meant to do this, then it’s probably me. May God help me.

Which calls to mind another famous saying of St. Ignatius. Work as if everything depended on you. Pray as if everything depended on God.