Easy Yoke on the Narrow Way

Heinrich Fueger Prometheus
Prometheus Stealing Fire by Heinrich Fueger

Lord Jesus said that the way is narrow, the way that leads to life. Those who find it are few. Also, He said that His yoke is easy, and His burden is light, and everything has been revealed to the little ones. [O bien: español]

Does He contradict Himself? First let’s ask this question: What makes the way to life narrow?

Well, no one ever said keeping all ten of the Commandments, all the time, is easy. Keeping like six or seven at a time–maybe even eight–that wouldn’t take a whole lot of trouble. But the Lord never said, Be 70 or 80% holy! He said, Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.

moses_ten_commandmentsThe way of life narrows even more: You have to honor father and mother, but you can’t love father, mother, son, or daughter more than Me, He said. You not only can’t kill your brother, even when he behaves like a total dork–you can’t even think mean thoughts about him. You not only can’t break the marriage bond, you can’t even think about marriage-bond-types of things, without total honesty and fidelity. In fact, it’s better not to think of marriage-bond-types of things at all, He said.

Not only can’t you lie, but you have to die for the truth, if it comes to it. Don’t swear false oaths; in fact, don’t swear at all. Actually, just listen; speak as infrequently as possible. And not only can you not want what belongs to your neighbor, you had better actually give away everything that belongs rightfully to you.

Don’t have any false gods. So go to Mass every Sunday. Or more often. Pray every day. Multiple times. Pray always.

So… You think it’s hard batting 1000 in the Major Leagues? Try batting 1000 with the Ten Commandments, as interpreted by God incarnate.

But He also said: Come to Me, all you who are weary, overburdened–because I am meek and humble and don’t make demands.

Don’t make demands? Whaddya call the Sermon on the Mount, O gentle Jesus?

On Wednesday we briefly discussed Prometheus. According to the ancient Greeks, the gods never gave fire to mankind. Prometheus went up to heaven and took fire from the gods, then brought it back to earth.

Fire is one thing; holiness is another. Holiness is divine fire. If we think that we can obtain holiness the way Prometheus obtained fire, we will discover the inconvenient truth that we can’t.

But the Lord Jesus never commanded us to steal holiness from God. He came to give us the holiness that we could never obtain on our own. He came to give it to us freely; He came to give Himself to us freely, holding nothing back, expecting nothing in return. In fact, He knew we would crucify Him. But He came to give us the Fire of God anyway.

He knew we could never obey the commandments, and get ourselves together for a worthwhile life, without His Gift. Following the commandments without Jesus isn’t “difficult.” It’s impossible. Following the commandments with Jesus? Easy!

confessionalWell… Easy for the really holy people. The rest of us have to stumble along, relying on mutual support from each other and constant infusions of heavenly assistance. We need to build up the basic habits that keep us close to Christ. And we need His help, and each other’s help, to cultivate those good habits, and stick to them. St. Benedict put it like this in his Rule for Monks:

We must establish a school for the Lord’s sevice, in founding which we hope to ordain nothing that is harsh and burdensome. But if, for good reason,… there be some strictness of discipline, do not at once… run away from the way of salvation, of which the entrance must needs be narrow. But as we progress, our hearts shall be enlarged and we shall run with the sweetness of love in the way of God’s commandments.

One habit we need: Going to confession once a month. Oh, yeah; that’s easy, Father! Talk about His yoke being easy and His burden light! What an easy priest!

Really? Shall I ask for a show of hands? From the people who have gone to confession twelve times since July 8, 2016?

Nothing makes following the commands of Jesus easier than going to confession regularly and admitting that I have failed to follow them. Maybe that sounds counter-intuitive. But it’s a documented fact of the spiritual life. My yoke is easy and My burden light for the little ones who humbly go to confession regularly.

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Matthew 11 Commentary

raising-of-the-son-of-the-widow-of-nain
Lucas Cranach, “Resurrection of the Youth of Nain”

Here’s a question to ask about our gospel reading at Holy Mass tomorrow:

Why did John the Baptist, languishing in prison, send an investigative team of his disciples to determine if Jesus is the Christ?

After all, at the Visitation, John leapt while still in Elizabeth’s womb, because he recognized Christ in Mary’s womb. And, at the Jordan River, John had more or less recruited Christ’s original disciples for Him, by declaring, “Behold, the Lamb of God.”

So John knew Jesus’ identity perfectly well, better than anybody. To answer our original question, let’s keep two things in mind. 1) John knew that he himself would soon die at Herod’s hands. So his disciples needed to come around to the truth about Christ now. And 2) The way the Lord Jesus answered the question shows that He, too, knew He was answering not for John’s benefit, but for John’s disciples’ benefit. Which means He answered for our benefit, also.

Lord Jesus actually made three points in His response.

First, “Am I the One Who is to come? Well, what do you hear and see?” Great miracles of healing, all the way up to the raising of a dead man. Namely… whom did Jesus order to get up and come out of his own tomb? Right! Lazarus. And He also raised the son of the widow of Nain and Jairus’ daughter.

So, Christ is saying to John’s disciples, and to us: Am I the Christ? Don’t you have rock-solid testimony to the great miracles that I have worked?

Second: “the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” Jesus makes a subtle, but crucially important transition here. It’s not just that the poor believe in miracles, whereas the rich tend to cynicism. It’s that the work of the Christ benefits everyone in the same way—rich or poor, tall or short, Republican or Democrat, Redskins fan or Eagles fan.

speed bump reaperLord Jesus worked miracles of healing to help us grasp Who He is. But even miracles as wonderful as giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, or sure-footedness to the lame, all pale in comparison to the gift that Christ came to give to everyone, namely eternal life.

Some people have more money than others; some people have better eyesight than others; some people sing more euphoniously, or speak more mellifluously, or play cards more dexterously than others. But in the face of the ultimate reality, we all stand on equal footing.

None of us gets out of this alive. We all have in common the most decisive quality we possess: mortality. The tall, the short, the dexterous and the ham-handed, the good singers and the bad singers: we’re all mortal.

Which makes us all ‘the poor,’ if only we have the humility to face it. I don’t care how many times Alec Baldwin or anyone else barks orders at a fancy gadget that can automatically turn on your lawn sprinklers or give you traffic reports. If he, or anyone else, asks Siri or Alexa, or whatever, and says, “Ok Google, give me life after death,” the poor little machine will only say something pathetically inadequate, like “Searching the internet for LifeSaver breath mints.”

Which brings us to the third point in Jesus’ response to John’s disciples. “Blessed is the one that takes no offense at me.”

To understand this, let’s remember St. Peter. Unlike the disciples of St. John who came asking their question, St. Peter believed unequivocally that Jesus was the Christ. “Who do you say that I am?” “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

But St. Peter at first took offense at the details of the Christ’s mission. Lord Jesus told the Apostles, ‘They will condemn and crucify your beloved miracle-worker, like a common roadside criminal. They will scourge me and spit on me and treat me like the lowest scum of the earth.’ To which St. Peter replied, ‘Oh no! That’s offensive. No way, sir!’

The Christ—the one and only–the single known option when it comes to a miracle-working Savior Who has backed up His words with deeds for 2,000 years–the only real Christ won immortality for us by drinking the cup of our lowly and impoverished mortality to the dregs.

There’s actually only one way not to take offense at Christ. After all, what happened to Him is crushingly offensive. That the babe of Bethlehem wound up dying of asphyxiation, nailed to a cross, with a crown of thorns cutting into His temples, forehead, and scalp—that offends every sensibility a decent human being has.

Not taking offense at Him requires squarely facing our own desperate poverty. We need Him. We need Him like… like a desert needs rain, like a town needs a name… like a drifter needs a room…like the heat needs the sun…like rhythm unbroken, like drums in the night, like sweet soul music, like sunlight…

When we know we need Jesus, we take no offense at Him. None at all. He willed to get born in poverty and take His first breaths lying in the animals’ feeding trough. He accepted His horrifyingly ignominious death, to win eternal life for us. We welcome it all with joy, every detail of His Gospel, because He is the one true hope we have. John the Baptist knew that, and he spent his life helping others to see it.

 

Friendship or Fire and Brimstone

El Greco Christ blessing croppedFor the third time in ten days of gospel readings at Holy Mass, we hear the Lord Jesus give us this warning:

On the day of judgment, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for those who reject the Gospel.

The Lord Jesus Christ offers the Gospel, and is Himself the Gospel.

Our pilgrim lives in this world make sense when we make Christ’s triumph over death the central fact of all our thinking.  He lives, and He gives eternal life.  He gives us His life by drawing us into an ever-more-intimate friendship with Him.  He makes great demands as a friend.  Also, His friendship offers us the only true peace we can find, and the only truly enduring joy.

The people of Sodom lived in a darkness of crushing moral ignorance.  They lacked clear principles to guide their lives; they had received no education in discernment and self-restraint; and they had no true religion, and no grace and mercy from on high to help them.  They fell into grave evils, and they deserved condemnation for it.  After all, deep down, we all know right from wrong.

But the people of Sodom did not have what we have.  They did not have the hand of God extended to them, in the flesh, like we do.

The more intimate we grow with Christ, the more He demands of us morally.  He raises His standards for us.  Intimacy with Him means we will face a more rigorous judgment.

But it also means having a Friend Who makes this whole burden light.  It means interior joy and peace more profound and delightful than any fleeting self-indulgence.  It means a life of love—love that shuns sin, most of all because it is boring.  Boring and beneath the notice of a friend of God’s.

The incarnate Son of God offers us His friendship.  Let’s take Him up on it.  It is a million times harder, and ten million gazillion times more fun and rewarding, than any of the alternatives.

Falafel, Faith, and Mystical Fraternity

No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father, except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal Him. (Matthew 11:27)

The bush burned, but the flame did not consume it. Moses grasped immediately: I am looking at something divine. I think we can understand the burning bush as a symbol of: the other human being. Any other human being. Any human being with whom I come into contact.

Amsterdam FalafelshopAll of us have mysterious, practically unfathomable depths. I know that, within me, mysteries dwell. Ugly ones, and beautiful. The same goes for every other burning bush of a human soul.

I was reading a little essay by an interesting college-educated young man. He wanted to see “how the other half lived,” so to speak. So he got a job at a falafel joint not far from where I grew up.

Problem is, the young man could never quite relate to his Honduran co-workers as fellow human beings. To him, they simply represented a “class.” The young man was stuck in his own vision of the world, in which two fundamentally different species dwell, namely 1) Privileged white boys like himself, and 2) Other. So he gave up his experiment and concluded that the class divide cannot be bridged.

I give the young man credit for his honesty. What did he lack? What could have given him real success in his endeavor to get to know a fellow human being, a fellow human being who speaks Spanish and makes his living frying falafel? The young man never went down the one avenue that really does lead into another person’s soul: God. Revealed by Christ.

Our Holy Father Pope Francis practices a particular kind of spiritual life: the mysticism of the other person. He wrote in Evangelii Gaudium:

The only way is to learn how to encounter others with the right attitude, learning to find Jesus in the faces of others…a mystical fraternity, a contemplative fraternity. It is a fraternal love capable of seeing the sacred grandeur of our neighbor, of finding God in every human being. (91-92)

God will unfold the mystery of Himself before me, if I let Him move me to love my fellow human being, as a true brother or sister, to be loved as I love myself. Faith in the infinite mystery of God is the key. Faith in the eternal, mutual gaze of love that the Father and the Son exchange, the Holy Spirit.

Truly knowing another person, and truly knowing God, then, go together. If I want to know God, I must let Him meet me in my neighbor. And if I want to know my neighbor, I must abandon myself to the full, mysterious reality of the person who God made that neighbor to be. Which means simultaneously abandoning myself to the full, mysterious reality of who God made me to be.

Breathing and Weeping

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Georgetown

“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.” (Matthew 11:12)

If we find this sentence, uttered by the Prince of Peace, hard to understand, we won’t be the first. Thankfully, we have people like Blessed Pope Paul VI to explain this verse to us. In our humble parish cluster, we read the following paragraph together this past Sunday afternoon:

The Kingdom of God and our eternal salvation, which are the key words of Jesus Christ’s evangelization, are available to every human being as grace and mercy, and yet at the same time each individual must gain them by force–they belong to the violent, says the Lord, through toil and suffering, through a life lived according to the Gospel, through abnegation and the cross, through the spirit of the beatitudes. But above all each individual gains them through a total interior renewal which the Gospel calls metanoia; it is a radical conversion, a profound change of mind and heart. (Evangelii Nuntiandi 10)

Interior change brought about by struggling and striving against our profound tendencies toward evil.

My beloved Georgetown Hoyas took the court last night wearing warm-up shirts emblazoned with the phrase “I Can’t Breathe.” If I were coach JTIII, I would have told them, “Once you can hit 50% from the floor on a consistent basis, then you can make political statements…”

But I am not the coach. And center Josh Smith put it like this: “We weren’t saying the cops were wrong…We wore the shirts to show our condolences to the family. You don’t know who is right or wrong, but they still lost somebody, and they won’t get that person back.”

Now, in my book, there are probably better ways to express one’s condolences. But the pain is real. There are families who have lost someone in a fast-moving, violent scene, involving police firing their weapons.

mlk-jailTwenty years ago, I was sitting in a restaurant on 18th St., N.W., Washington, D.C., and a squad of police officers entered with guns drawn. It was genuinely insane. In their pursuit of two punks hiding in the bathroom, the police risked the lives of a roomful of innocent people. Thank God, no one was hurt.

That said: Is this country racist like it was fifty years ago? More than half of the police officers involved in the episode I just mentioned were black. In those days, I was a middle-school teacher with a classroom full of black boys. And the joke among them, after the trial of the decade, was: What did O.J. say after the not-guilty verdict was read? “Can I get my glove back?”

A large group of Catholic theologians have released a statement about the ‘racial unrest’ our country has experienced these past few weeks. I give these professors credit for getting organized and giving us something thoughtful and substantial to consider. Especially the proposal that, since local prosecutors and police can and should work so closely together on a day-to-day basis to keep the peace, someone other than the local prosecutor should instruct grand juries when charges arise against police officers.

These theologians have pledged to abstain from meat on Fridays as a sign of penance for the sin of racism.

Their statement, however, opens itself up to charges of ivory-tower foolishness by…

1. invoking Dr. King’s letter from a Birmingham jail in an anachronistic way.

2. citing the Greensboro, N.C., “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” as a precedent for a similar nationwide effort. I know some Greensborians, both black and white. I think I can say that the work of that Commission, such as it was, only confirmed the ancient axiom: “Exercises in conspicuous self-righteousness rarely accomplish anything.”

But exercises in friendship and kindness accomplish a great deal. Exercises in sharing the experiences of another human being.

The great evangelist St. Paul wept with those who wept. Laying down in the street to cause traffic jams seems stupid to me. But to weep with those who grieve a dead brother, or nephew, or son—and to hope and pray like Dr. King did, looking to Jesus to help us find a better day: we should do that.

Submission & Mt. Carmel

St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face
St. Therese of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face
At that time Jesus exclaimed: “I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike.”

Third time in a month we have read the same gospel passage at Mass. We read it on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, two Sundays ago, and now, again, today. Just as well. We could read this passage every day.

Jesus reveals the Father. He reveals the Father to the simple and humble-hearted. In other words, He reveals the Father to contemplatives, like Elijah, and the Blessed Mother, and St. Therese, and all the son and daughters of Mt. Carmel.

The Father, Almighty God, the Source of all–not easy to know, not easy to see. Impossible, actually. But Jesus reveals the heavenly Father’s face, the inscrutable divine face. The Son of Mary reveals the inaccessible mystery.

In our reading from the prophet Isaiah, the Lord reproves the tool that forgets that it’s in someone’s hand. “Will the axe boast against him who hews with it? Or the saw boast against the one who wields it?” (Isaiah 10:15) In His human nature, the Son reveals, above all, submission to the will of the Father. What any child knows: I find myself on earth because of a greater power and mind, creator of all this beauty. What can I do other than take it in, and try to obey His grand design as best I can?

Click HERE for a two-year-old homily on Isaiah 10, involving St. Ignatius Loyola and Mother Teresa.

No Leeks and Melons. But Worship.

Moses found himself at Mt. Sinai. The Lord gave him a daunting mission. Lead my people out of Egypt!

Moses did not believe himself to be capable of executing this task. That troubled him.

el_greco-sinaiBut Moses did not have to trouble himself on another subject. The Lord made the answer to one important question perfectly clear.

Moses did not have to ask the Lord, “Lord, why should I lead Your people out of Egypt? I mean, sure, our life in Egypt involves bitter slavery. But if we march away, things will probably get even harder. We will leave behind the cucumbers and the melons and the leeks. Sure, we don’t have a whole lot of material resources these days. But if we march out, we will have even fewer.”

In these or similar words, Moses could have found himself asking the Lord, “Lord, why do this?” –if the Lord had left him in any doubt on that subject.

But the Lord left Moses in no doubt whatsoever as to why the Hebrews should march out of Egypt. The how was murky and daunting. But the why was clear. You will march out of Egypt and worship me here on this very mountain, saith the Lord.

I give you thanks, Father, Lord of heaven and earth. You have hidden the great mystery from the wise and the learned, and revealed it to the merest children. (Matthew 11:25)

Why should a parish church have four walls? Why should we heat and cool the building? We don’t show movies. At least not usually. We don’t peddle entertainment of any kind, really. Why pay the water bills, and gas and electric? Why keep the parking lot lined and paved? It’s no Wal-Mart. No merchandise lines the shelves. And no one teaches get-rich-quick-schemes, or yoga classes, or health-food diets.

FoAIn other words, we can’t find an earthly reason for all the fuss and bother over keeping a parish church going. Experts of all kinds could certainly teach us more efficient ways to run a community center, or a food pantry for the poor, or a support group.

But we keep the doors open and the lights on for one fundamental reason: Because we worship the Lord here. In Franklin County, Va.,* the good Lord made Scuffling Hill into the local Mount Sinai. This is where we are to worship God Almighty.

And when we do that, everything else falls into place. We who worship the living God can actually teach the “experts” a few things about coming together as a loving community, or about helping each other and the poor; we could teach the support-group facilitators a few things about supporting each other through thick and thin.

In Henry Cty, Va., Mount Sinai is located at 2481 Spruce St.
* In Henry County, Va., Mount Sinai is located at 2481 Spruce St.

Because we do this: We do the most beautiful, most wonderful, most intimate thing that people can do together: We worship the one true God in the manner in which He Himself has directed us to worship Him.

The merest children know that everything begins with worshiping God. God is first. Everything comes from Him; everything is for Him. We worship Him; we worship Him alone; we do not worship anything else.

We do not worship money. We worship God; and God provides us with the money we need.

We do not worship each other. We worship God, and He gives us each other as brothers and sisters.

God first. The merest children know to put God first. When God comes first, everything else follows, just as it is meant to.