Martyrdom of the Best Man

Machaerus diagram.jpg
drawing of the Machaerus fortress, based on archaeology

St. John the Baptist died on August 29. Not in Jerusalem, but in what is now the Kingdom of Jordan, on the east side of the Dead Sea. (In New-Testament times, they called the region Perea.)

Herod the Great had rebuilt the fortress of Machaerus, after the Romans under Pompey had destroyed it in 57 BC.

head-platterHerod the Great died decades before John’s martyrdom. The Herod who ordered the execution was his son Herod Antipas, who received Galilee and Perea as his inheritance. (A different Herod, Jr.—Herod Archelaus—ruled Judea and Samaria, until the Romans re-organized it as a prefecture, governed for a time by Pontius Pilate.)

Anyway: St. John died outside Jerusalem, because he was not the Christ. He was the greatest of all the prophets, the greatest man born of woman, who served as the friend of the incarnate Bridegroom. St. John prepared the bride to meet her Husband.

He prepared the faithful remnant of Israel. That preparation involved his public condemnation of the marital infidelities of Herod Antipas and Herodias, both of whom had other living, royal spouses.

As the Lord Jesus put it: the coming of the Messiah meant the restoration of the law of lifetime marital fidelity. By His own offering of Himself on the cross for His bride, Christ consecrated the marriage bond as a sacrament of God’s fidelity to His people.

St. John died for bearing witness to this nuptial mystery of the coming of the Messiah.

Starting Fresh from Christ

He reigns in heaven. He sends out missionaries of divine love. Missionaries of His triumph over evil, ignorance, and death. Consecrated Christians who greet every person and every moment with the open Heart of Jesus Christ.

This is “the Church.” The Lord built His Church on a rock—that is, St. Peter, missionary apostle of Jesus’ divine love. St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, in all its splendor, sits on top of the little bones of a relatively short man who took no money and no second tunic.

El Greco St Peter keysThe year 2019 rumbles along. When will we get any good Church news? Seems like the wheels just spin and spin, stuck in a mud patch.

But there is Good News. Christ still trains and sends missionaries of divine love. That still is what the Church essentially is.

Yes, our Church finds Herself in a massive land war against multiple formidable enemies, with colonels who can’t read a compass. We can’t be naïve about “the brass.” We can’t fantasize that they know how to organize the war effort. They clearly don’t.

But we can still gladly die on the battlefield, so to speak. As missionaries of the divine love of Jesus Christ.

Fear and Judgment


Do not be afraid,” He said, as the wind whipped across the sea, and the boat tossed back and forth in the waves. “Take courage.”

We believe that the man who walked on the Sea of Galilee will judge everyone with divine justice. So Jesus saying, “Do not be afraid,” sounds like St. John exhorting us: “Have confidence on the day of judgment.”

Now, I think it’s fair to say: The disciples in that boat feared drowning. Because they feared the Day of Judgment. The full revelation of the truth convicts the guilty. Sinners legitimately fear that.

As we read, those disciples did not understand the miracle of the loaves and fishes. They did not understand the miracle of divine love. They feared, because they had sinned.

“Perfect love casts out fear.” This does not mean: presuming on God’s mercy, as if God will pretend that my sins haven’t happened, or that they aren’t sins. “Perfect love casts out fear” does not mean: Forget about God’s punishments for the real sins we have actually done.

But, by the same token: The greatest sin involves despairing. Despairing of God’s omnipotent loving kindness.

He got in the boat, and the waves calmed. The moment came for the disciples in that boat to begin to live in the truth. They had not understood before. But now they did. This is God, this man. God loving us, offering us infinite mercy and refreshment.

So we can honestly, fearlessly accuse ourselves. Yes, I have done this. Yes, I have failed to do that. A little Day of Judgment, conducted by my own conscience, which finally has a quiet moment to speak to me.

And I face it with confidence. Perfect love casts out fear. God knows the truth better than I do. He does not pretend that my sins never happened, or that my sins aren’t sins. But: He forgives me for them.

Precious Blood Here and Now

Everybody know that, during July, the Church reflects especially on the Precious Blood of Christ? Each month of the year has a theme for reflection. July is the month of the Precious Blood.

If I might, I would like to draw a stark contrast between two ways of understanding the world. I don’t intend to be divisive or un-ecumenical. But I think we might profit spiritually by meditating on this contrast.

First, let’s take note of this fact: human beings occupy the world in one way: locally. A human being always occupies a particular place. We may have a ‘globalized’ economy; we may have the world-wide web; we may have Facebook friends in other time zones. But no human being ever has, or ever will, exist in the world without being in a particular place. One particular town, or city, or borough, or farmhouse, or shack, or hut: one place.

tabernacleSo the contrast is this: Everyone, without exception, stands, or sits, or reclines, somewhere. Among all the billions of people, occupying all their particular locations, some of those people believe themselves to be near the Precious Blood of Christ, which brings salvation; some don’t.

And I don’t mean theoretically near, or “spiritually” near His Blood. I mean physically near, as in, “Right now, I stand approximately seven feet away from the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the tabernacle.” Or: “In a few minutes, I will actually hold a chalice full of the Precious Blood of Jesus Christ in my hands.”

Continue reading “Precious Blood Here and Now”

Familiarity with Human Nature

In the first reading at Holy Mass Sunday, we hear the Lord say to the prophet, “Behold, I am sending you to a rebellious house. They and their ancestors have revolted against me to this very day.”

Hard of face and obstinate of heart. That’s us, the human race.

Lord Jesus came to His native place, among His kith and kin. And the people said, “Who does he think he is? Homeboy has gotten too big for his britches!”

Big MacLet’s pause and take a look at the ceaselessly amusing thing called “human nature.”

Human nature involves: Bad breath, shaving nicks, stubbornness, going to the bathroom (both #1 and #2), snoring, cavities, forgetting stuff, sneezing and nose-blowing, chewing, earwax, singing off-key, foot fungus, armpits, nose hair, etc.

Lots of unflattering aspects, all-too-familiar. Can we doubt that even the Lord Jesus Christ, after sweating in the sun all day, might have exuded an aroma that some people found unpleasant?

The reality of human nature impinges itself upon us constantly. We reckon with it at every step of our life. We must reckon with it, in fact. Few pathologies prove more dangerous to our health and well-being, after all, than the delusion that the limits of human nature don’t apply to me. “I don’t need to eat or rest. I’m like Superman.” Next thing you know: back spasms, ulcers, facial tics, binge drinking, or worse. The wise among us, therefore, stay intimately familiar with the foibles of being human–and accept the limits which those foibles impose.

This very intimacy with the humble dimensions of human nature, though, can get in the way of the most important thing a human person can do. The most important thing we can do is: Believe. And not just believe in something vague. No. The most important thing a human being can do is believe in the incarnation. Believe that Jesus, the man, is God.

The Nazarenes could not do it, because of over-familiarity. Maybe our Lord’s b.o. smelled too much like their own.

The Nazarenes knew, like we do, that they were no angels. Angels, after all, don’t eat cheeseburgers. They never use mustard or pickle relish, under any circumstances. Angels have far-more-exalted things to do than chew on the flesh of cows, pigs, or chickens. The purely spiritual occupations of the angels, in fact, probably strike us as more beautiful than many of our pastimes—like burping contests, for instance.

king kongBut God took human nature to Himself Personally. At the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, I once had a very brief disagreement with a loud man in a yarmulke. He saw my Roman collar and yelled at me, “God is not a man!” “Forgive me, friend,” I replied, “but you’re wrong there. He is.”

Did our Lord Jesus ever have a bout of hiccups? Don’t know. But He could have. What we do know for sure is that he ate and drank, digested, etc. That some people liked Him, and some people didn’t. That He loved, wept, got angry. And that He died.

God united human nature—the lumpy, often inconvenient reality that we deal with all the time—He united it to Himself. He became as Personally familiar with it as all the rest of us are.

And, if we want to honor Almighty God as He deserves to be honored, we cannot let our own homey familiarity with our foibles as human beings get in the way of our believing in this mystery. Because: His very uniting Himself to our nature—this Incarnation that God has achieved: Not only does it not demean the inconceivable dignity of the Uncreated, Omnipotent Wisdom; not only does His having taken our nature to Himself not lower Him as a Being—to the contrary, like nothing else, it reveals just how genuinely majestic He truly is.

It is precisely because God reigns with such pure, untouchable, otherworldly transcendence that He can unite Himself to our stock, and disturb nothing by doing so. His Incarnation has not changed human nature into something else; God becoming man has not frazzled human nature, or subsumed it. Forgive the imperfect analogy, but it’s like the overwhelming power of King Kong, who had the strength to hold Ann Darrow in the palm of his hand, without hurting her. God has taken our nature, which is prone to farting, to Himself, in order to reveal the true glory for which we were created. Only someone so superior as God could do this: Lift the little fusty-looking creature from the earth, intact, up to the light that makes the creature appear truly beautiful.

If this sounds abstract, just gaze at the crucifix, and I will explain what I am trying to say.

El Greco crucifixion Cristo sulla croce

Here is the utter ugliness of everything that is shameful about human nature. Cruelty. Weakness of our flesh. And the ultimate reality of our race: death. All right here, as ugly as ugly can be.

Except: it’s beautiful. A crucifix is not ugly. A crucifix is beautiful.

The mystery of the Incarnation is not something abstract at all. It is simply this: the beauty of Christ crucified. Our crucifixes are beautiful because God is all-powerful. Powerful enough that, out of love, He united Himself with the race that has cookouts.

Divine Love for the Farting Race

Let’s try to take a lesson from our reading of the early chapters of St. Mark’s gospel. In the course of the first six chapters, we read about how not one, but two demons recognize Christ for Who He is. The demons speak out, through the men they have possessed, and call Jesus, “The Holy One of God.” We heard about one of these episodes in our gospel reading at Mass this past Sunday.

Then Jesus speaks to fellow human beings, the ones who knew Him the best, His hombeboys and homegirls in Nazareth. He graciously offers them them His sublime doctrine about the Kingdom of God.

styrofoam cup coffeeAnd they say, “Who does this uppity carpenter think He is? We know Him too well; we have seen His beard come in when He was a teenager. We can hardly be expected to believe in Him!”

You may recall that we discussed this a couple of summers ago: The great danger of our over-familiarity with human life getting in the way of our actually believing in the Incarnation.

When Adam and Eve grasped for the apple–we call that pride, and rightly so. To presume to be a law for ourselves, above the law laid down by God. But: Sin and estrangement from God involve a false pride about our human prerogatives by which we actually sell ourselves way short.

God esteems things like men getting their beards in adolescence. He esteems things like fixing breakfast and trimming toenails. Things like sweating on hot days and bundling-up on cold ones. He esteems our quotidian human things so much that He Personally embraced them Himself for 33 years.

Or even longer maybe. He is still altogether human, after all, in heaven. And maybe they make coffee and eat muffins and sweetbread up in heaven while they gaze at the face of the heavenly Father. They might, for all we really know about it.

My point is: the Nazarenes could not attain the Christian faith–they could not recognize what even the demons recognized, that God has fingernails now–the Nazarenes could not do it, because in their hearts they despised their own dirty fingernails.

But God loves our fingernails more than we can imagine. He loves it when we drink water, or burp, or blow our noses. When we see babies sneeze, tender affection overcomes us. That is like a tiny drop of the tender affection our Creator feels for us, even when we snore like lumberjacks and cut the cheese.

Surfing the Divine Will


Off and running, reading Mark 6 at Mass…

The Lord Jesus has grown up in a hurry. He has chosen His Apostles. They had already accomplished enough together that the Lord had in mind for them to make a quiet retreat and get some rest.

But the confused and hungry multitude followed them across the sea. Christ’s heart, of course, brimmed over with compassion, and He taught the people many things.

The sun began to set. Supper time arrived. 5,000 men and their families found themselves in a desolate place with nothing to eat.

mothertheresaWe learn that the Apostles had already started thinking ahead. They considered the well-being of the people and tried to exercise practical judgment.

‘Master, we have got to send these people on their way, so they can get back to town and order a falafel sandwich or something. Otherwise, we will have a humanitarian crisis on our hands.’

Okay. Good point. The people must eat. But, the Lord appeared to think: We have a golden opportunity here. This is no time for fretting. We can’t send them away. We came here to pray and commune with each other. We will do that, indeed. And these people, too, will join us. We will bless God and break bread together! Give them something to eat yourselves.

I think we can safely say that this was the moment when the Apostles showed their hardness of heart. If they really knew their Master; if they really knew what He can do, they would have smiled and started handing out bread. But, hard-hearted, they resisted. They feared that their Master did not know what He was doing.

Now, let’s analyze. Let’s consider the various approaches to be taken in trying to fulfill the will of Jesus Christ.

dont-worry-be-happy-bobby-mcferrin-cd-cover-artOn the one hand, we have the glib Bobby-McFerrin-Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy approach. This approach does not befit a reasonable human being. The Lord gave us minds to use, to observe and to confront problems. We cannot jigger-jagger blindly through life, without contingency plans for worst-case scenarios. If we do, unforeseen disaster will of course befall us, and we will have only ourselves to blame.

On the other hand, Blessed Mother Theresa built an enormous and successful international health-care enterprise. She never worried for ten seconds about rubber gloves, professional certifications, or universal precautions. She considered the hospital regulators of the world to be God’s problem, not hers. And she was right: He—God, the Lord, Jesus—He did have it all under control.

But then there’s also the famous story about the shipwrecked man waiting for God to rescue him, who refused a lifeboat and a helicopter. God will rescue me! At the pearly gates, he asks, Why didn’t You rescue me? And Lord says, What do you mean? I sent you a lifeboat and a helicopter.

January 2013, and things are different than they were in January 2012—though the differences may not be exactly what we might have imagined a year ago. God has done His work. But nothing has changed for good without its being someone’s idea and generous initiative, and nothing has changed for the worse without its being someone’s blameworthy neglect or bad decision.

Another year will see more change, very little of which we can distinctly anticipate now. May it all be for the good! We cannot know the plan of God ahead of time. But may He give us eyes to see and ears to hear, so that we can do our part with confidence, make good decisions, and leave in His hands the things that only He can control.

You want to know my favorite metaphor? Doing God’s will is like surfing. The surfer has to stay in shape, take care of the board, and listen faithfully to the weather radio. God provides the ocean and controls how it moves.

Proud? Maybe. But also pretty Awesome.

A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house. (Mark 6:4)

The usual picture of conflict between Creator and created puts Proud Man versus God. Pride caused original sin. Pride leadeth to a fall. The most deadly infection a human being can contract is: too-big-for-his-britches disease.

Okay. But could it be that the problem with our sinful pride is not that it leads us to think too much of ourselves, but that it actually leads us to think too little of ourselves? Could it be that, when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden apple, they sold themselves tragically short? That they under-estimated what God had in mind for them?

The people took offense at Jesus. “He speaks heavenly wisdom and works miracles! But isn’t he just a Galilean hillbilly like the rest of us? Where does he get off being so grand? Who does he think he is? God?”

The omnipotent One, infinitely above us: He suffered death as a man, so that we men could hope for heaven. The crucified is God. God made the earth His own native place; He made every home and hearth, every grimy street corner, every place where a human being can find him- or herself—He made them all his own house.

God grew up alongside other Galilean children. God had no-count cousins who some Nazarenes chose to avoid. God learned how to talk from a carpenter and a teenage girl. God got hungry and thirsty; His feet got dirty; He drank wine with irreputable people.

Continue reading “Proud? Maybe. But also pretty Awesome.”

Palliative Distractions, more Mark 6, and Father Maciel

Hoyas now a miserable 4-7 in the Big East
Hoyas now a miserable 4-7 in the Big East

Quick! Anything–anything–to distract us from the pain of Total Hoya Meltdown!

Continue reading “Palliative Distractions, more Mark 6, and Father Maciel”

Musings on Mark 6, the Martyrs of Japan, Etc.

A faithful reader has a nomination for best scene from “Prince of Egypt.” It is pretty cool.

Another faithful reader asked me what I thought about the “Bishop Williamson affair.” The prelate in question is also known as the Dinoscopus. (You can read an eloquent letter if you click the link.)

I already spilled a little ink on this business. It looks like our Holy Father may not have written the letter I wished he would.

If he didn’t write it, I certainly don’t hold it against him. He knows better than I do. No one’s job is more demanding than the Pope’s.

That said, “being media-savvy” is not really part of the Pope’s job.

auschwitzAbove all, the Pope has to be a prayerful, obedient priest–obedient to the sacred inheritance that he has received. Secondly, the Pope has to try to be a loving father to ALL his children.

Continue reading “Musings on Mark 6, the Martyrs of Japan, Etc.”