2,011 Years of an Uncommon Era

Last Sunday after Mass someone said to me, “Father, it’s too bad we had to have the Diocesan Appeal. I missed your homily, because I could not make any sense out of that parable about the vineyard and the wicked tenants.”

Perhaps some people are saying to themselves right now, “The parable about the wedding guests makes no sense to me, either. But what are the chances that this joker will be able to explain it?”

Before we get to these parables, I have a couple questions for you.

What year is it?

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The Lapsed

During the third century A.D., the Roman emperors repeatedly persecuted the Church. The Emperors Decius, Valerian, and Diocletian ordered that all Christians must renounce the faith and offer pagan sacrifices. Registries of compliance were to be kept in all provinces. Recusants could be punished by forfeiture of property or death.

Human beings being human beings, a mad whirlwind of attempted scams ensued.

By the third century, the Empire was home to many well-to-do Christians. These did not relish the prospect of offending God. But neither did they want to be impoverished or executed.

So they paid their slaves to offer pagan sacrifices on their behalf. Or they bribed officials to produce false certificates, saying they had sacrificed, even though they really hadn’t. Or they lent their identification documents to a pagan, who would then offer sacrifices under the assumed name.

The Christians who employed these stratagems to save their hides came to be known as “the Lapsed.”

The persecutions of the third century came in fits and starts; they lasted for a time, but then the Church would enjoy a few years of peace. St. Cornelius was Pope, and St. Cyprian a prominent bishop, through a couple of these cycles.

During the intervals of peace, a question inevitably arose: Could the Lapsed be forgiven? They had failed to exercise the heroic faith and courage of the martyrs. But, at the same time, they had never stopped believing in the Trinity and in Christ.

Now, of course, neither Cornelius nor Cyprian ever lapsed. Both of them eventually went to their deaths as martyrs. But, before they themselves were killed, they had to deal with the question of what to do with the conniving Lapsed who wanted to go to communion.

Perhaps we might think that, since Cornelius and Cyprian proved to be heroic martyrs themselves, that they would have insisted on Christian heroism. But the opposite is the case. Both of them were roundly criticized by other bishops for being too lax.

Cornelius and Cyprian both taught: We believe in the forgiveness of sins. Let the Lapsed confess their sins, do penance, and be reconciled. The martyrs are our heroes. The Lapsed do not pretend to have been heroes. But they are our brothers nonetheless. Let’s gather around the altar together, so that we can all learn to be heroes next time.

The Really Rich King

[Click HERE to read the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.]

In the ancient Near East, monarchs and potentates employed provincial officials to manage government revenues. A free-handed king might allow one of his collection officers to borrow from the treasury. The official could use royal funds to build up a lavish household of his own and carry on like a little potentate himself.

But the royal accountants kept track of the money.

If someone in the imperial bureaucracy began to suspect that a particular official had borrowed more than he should from the king’s coffers, then a day of reckoning would come.

Our translation of the gospel parable refers to the debtor owing “a huge amount.” The Greek reads “ten thousand talents.”

The current U.S. dollar equivalent would be: $225,000,000.

In the royal throne room, the indebted official groveled pathetically before his master. Again, to translate literally from the Greek: he did the king homage by kissing the royal hands and then prostrating himself on the floor.

Now, this king possessed stunning power and largesse. The extent of his resources made this particular IOU seem small. He knew this poor little spendthrift would never be able to pay him back.

‘Come on, get up, old boy! What’s $225 million among friends? Go home, and give your wife and kids a kiss for me.’

Here’s the question: What kind of king is this? How did he manage to amass so much wherewithal that he could wave off a quarter-billion-dollar debt with an indulgent smile? Who has the power, the confidence, and the resources to act with such otherworldly magnificence?

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Prospero’s Books

Now that I am growing old, I was thinking of changing my motto to “33 until I die.” But then the band played Van Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” and I changed my mind back again to 18…

John Geilgud starred in a weird movie-version of The Tempest called “Prospero’s Books” in 1991. But that is not our subject matter here. Our subject is Prospero’s actual books.

Ironically enough, Prospero suffered miserable misfortune.

Prospero reigned as Duke of Milan, exercising his power with a philosopher’s detachment. But his ambitious brother conspired to set Prospero adrift on the sea.

The King of Naples, too, had betrayed Prospero.

But his old friend Gonzalo saved Prospero’s books and devised a means to get them to him on the deserted island upon which the exiled Duke made his home.

Like the Bard himself, Propsero grew, by reading, to godlike power. The spirits served him. The one enemy he had on his island was Caliban, the son of a witch.

When a boatload of Italians were shipwrecked on the island, Caliban tried to convince some of them to murder Prospero.

Why, as I told thee, ’tis a custom with him,
I’ th’ afternoon to sleep: there thou mayst brain him,
Having first seized his books, or with a log
Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake,
Or cut his wezand with thy knife. Remember
First to possess his books; for without them
He’s but a sot, as I am, nor hath not
One spirit to command: they all do hate him
As rootedly as I. Burn but his books.

Our godlike power comes from books. And, of those books, the best teach us about the sweet pity of God.

Prospero’s old enemies are among the shipwrecked. He visits mild chastisement upon his brother and the King. But then he forgives.

Prospero’s reading has filled him with the greatest of all powers: perspective.

He invokes the spirits to bless the betrothal of his daughter to a prince.

But then he admonishes the young man with this speech from the “We-Love-Weddings-But…” sub-folder of the Sister Death file:

You do look, my son, in a moved sort,
As if you were dismay’d: be cheerful, sir.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

At the end of the play, Prospero reliquishes all his magic powers.

This is as close as we get to Shakespeare the man. He was bidding farewell to the stage. He never wrote another play after “The Tempest.”

Prospero hopes that he has pleased his audience. We have seen him use his frightening power with kindness and mercy.

Then he begs for our prayers and exits.

May God Lay Aside the Violence

Jonah by Michelangelo

Jonah went to the enormous city of Nineveh and informed the people that the Lord intended to destroy the place in forty days. In other words, the prophet presented himself as a sign to the Ninevites, a sign of the transcendent justice of Almighty God.

The king of Nineveh saw the sign and believed. Speaking on behalf of the whole city, the king repented of his injustice and declared that all the Ninevites would lay aside the violence that each had in hand.

The king took for granted that he and all his people had violence in hand. This was a fair assumption. One does not like to generalize, but we can safely say of ourselves that we sinners generally have some kind of violence in hand. Maybe not shedding blood. But violence to someone’s good name, or violence to someone’s vulnerable feelings, or violence to good order and someone’s rightful place. Our egos are voracious; they make us do violence, often under-cover.

So, talk about a good thing to do for Lent: to recognize the violence I have in hand for what it is, and lay it aside. Because look at what happened next in the Book of Jonah: When the Ninevites laid aside the violence they had in hand, the Lord laid aside the violence He had in hand.

We know the Lord is meek and gentle. But we also know that He is unfailingly righteous. He is perfect peace in Himself. But His omnipotent truth and justice destroys evil and deceit. Do we think the tsunami in Japan was a formidable force? The truth of God will roll like a tsunami over all lies, and it will make the north of Japan look like a kiddie pool. God does not will violence, but His willing of peace does violence to disorder, selfishness, and pride.

So, dear brothers and sisters, let us lay aside the violence we have in hand—the jealousy, grudges, turf wars, one-upmanship, gossip, selfishness, pettiness, meanness—let’s lay it all aside and beg God with desperate hearts:

Easter time. Something to look forward to.
Lord, we know that in justice we deserve condemnation, but have mercy on us anyway, forgive us, and help us!

…In the first game of the NCAA tournament, four players fouled out. Sportscaster lingo: “DQ” for disqualified. Five fouls? Dairy Queen.

By the by, the Dairy Queen density of southwest Virginny crushes the DQ density of metro Washington. Not even close. At this moment, there are 16 DQs within twenty miles. (Total number of Dairy Queen in the Archdiocese of Washington? Five.) Cannot wait for Lent to be over.

Me, God’s Priest, and God

His mercy endures forever. (Psalm 118)

The Solemnity of Easter lasts for eight days–a week and a day, from Sunday to Sunday. It is the biggest feastday of all, too big for just twenty-four hours.

On the eighth day of Easter in the year 2000, Pope John Paul II declared that this day is ‘Divine Mercy Sunday.’ He declared this while he was canonizing St. Faustina Kowalska, the nun who had seen the vision of Jesus with rays of merciful love pouring out from His Heart.

When the Pope declared that the eighth day of Easter is Divine Mercy Sunday, he noted that none of the prayers or readings of the Mass needed to be changed. From the beginning, from the first eight days after our Lord rose from the dead, the Solemnity of Easter has been the feast of divine mercy.

When the Lord Jesus spoke to the Apostles after He rose from the dead, He commissioned them to preach His message. The message is: Repent of your sins, and be forgiven!

The Apostles obeyed. When St. Peter preached to the citizens of Jerusalem, he addressed the very people who had stood in front of Pontius Pilate’s praetorium and clamored for Christ’s crucifixion. St. Peter spoke to these enemies of Christ and said, “You denied the holy and righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. The author of life you put to death…Repent, therefore!”

Dear brothers and sisters: If we want to keep this holy feast, the feast that lasts for a week and a day, the feast of the Lord’s Resurrection, the feast of Divine Mercy—if we want to keep this feast in sincerity and truth, then we must acknowledge that we are the very citizens to whom St. Peter spoke.

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Courtroom Drama

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery.

They said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”

“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

They went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him.

Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

She replied, “No one, sir.”

Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” (John 8:2-11)

Let’s step into this gospel passage. Let’s get into it ourselves, like a scene on a stage. Where do we fit into the scene? Let’s find ourselves in it. The Lord Jesus, the Pharisees, the adulteress, the bystanders…where are we?

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Parable Comparison

A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them…(Luke 15:11 and following)

Did you know that there is also a Buddhist parable of the Prodigal Son?

Let’s compare the parable of Buddha with our beloved parable of Christ.

In the Buddhist parable, there is only one son. The son departs from the father’s house, but he does not take any money with him when he goes.

In the Lord Jesus’ parable, the wealthy father gives his younger son his inheritance, even though the son has no right to it until the father’s demise.

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Punishment May Be Slow, But…

Roman poet Horace
Roman poet Horace
I neglected something very important in my earlier account of the martyrdom of the prophet Zechariah, son of Jehoiada.

(By the way, it is not the same person as the prophet Zechariah who has his own book in the Old Testament, or the priest Zechariah, father of John the Baptist. There are three different Zechariahs in the Scriptures.)

Anyway, I failed to recount Zechariah’s dying words, which he uttered as King Joash’s henchmen were killing him in the Temple:

“May the Lord see and avenge.”

Just in case you don’t remember Horace’s Third Ode word-for-word, allow me to call these lines to mind:

raro antecedentem scelestum
deseruit pede Poena claudo

“Although punishment may walk with a lame foot, she rarely allows the guilty man to run ahead.” (Tip of the hat to Fr. Haydock.)

May God give us the grace to repent of our sins and escape liability for the blood of the prophets! May His mercy allow us to run ahead of the punishment we deserve!

Also: If you missed it last year, click here for a message on the occasion of the Memorial of St. Margaret Mary Alacoque.

Seeing Eye

learSelf-knowledge eludes us.

In “King Lear,” Regan remarked about her father:

He hath ever but slenderly known himself. (Act I, Scene 1)

Regan said this after Lear disowned Cordelia, the daughter who loved him the most, in a fit of rage.

Cordelia had refused to pay Lear lavish compliments like her sisters. “I love your majesty according to my bond; nor more nor less.”

“He hath ever but slenderly known himself.”

st basilOur eyes cannot see themselves.

In commenting on Luke 6:41, Saint Basil pointed this out.

In truth, self-knowledge seems the most important of all.

For the eye, looking at outward things, fails to exercise the sight upon itself.

Our understanding also, though very quick in apprehending the the sin of another, is slow to perceive its own defects.

Accusing oneself of sin is painful and difficult. It is also the most liberating thing we can do.

Once we have accused ourselves of sin, we can cry out to God for mercy. He will forgive.