Parable of the Wedding Feast

 

Jerusalem_Dominus_flevit Tears of Christ
Apse window in the church of Christ’s Tears, on the Mount of Olives

The king gave a wedding feast for his son. The marriage in question involves the Lord Jesus Christ and my soul, our souls. [Click por español.]

God made me, and He exercises ultimate control over the entire course of my life. Every day—every moment—involves an invitation. The loving, almighty hand of God lavishly arrays everything that I experience. And for one reason: to communicate love. To give life. To open up the infinite horizon of friendship with Him.

When did Jesus weep? He wept at the tomb of His friend Lazarus. But that wasn’t the only time. Once, as He approached Jerusalem as a pilgrim, He paused on the hill overlooking the Kidron Valley and the Temple Mount beyond, and He wept. “Jerusalem! Jerusalem! You kill the prophets and stone those whom the Lord sends to you. How many times have I longed to gather your children together, like a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!”

Now, what could possibly demand my attention more urgently than my friendship with my Creator? Who has more of a claim on me than He does? Who has more of a right to expect my devoted love?

–But, Father! God… He’s invisible. And so confoundedly silent. He seems aloof. Intentionally mysterious. Is He really, you know—there?

Now, let’s not forget about the banquet in the parable, the “calves and fattened cattle” that the king prepared for his guests. We do not seek friendship with God in an arid wasteland. We don’t have to live like twentieth-century existentialist philosophers. If we had to invent our own way to have a friendship with God, based on our own clever insights—forget it! But that is not the situation. We seek friendship with God at a fully stocked banquet table that He has prepared.

Model trainHe became man. He gave Himself for us on the cross, and then rose again to minister in heaven as our High Priest. He founded a Church and endowed Her with holy writings and sacraments. He has given us a way of life—a religion—which allows our friendship with Him to grow through the whole course of our humble lives on earth.

When we practice the religion Christ gave us, we grow in friendship with Him, even in spite of ourselves. All we have to do is regularly make use of the spiritual help that the Lord gives us in His Church.

My faith doesn’t have to be perfect. My religious knowledge doesn’t have to be perfect. And I don’t necessarily have to grapple with angst and uncertainty, like a philosopher, just to have a relationship with God.

All I have to do is: show up for Mass on Sundays, go to confession at least once a year, stay faithful to my commitments, and slog on into the future.

God has prepared the banquet of divine revelation. The banquet of grace operating through specific sacred ceremonies. He made the great, undefinable “thing” that is Christianity, Catholicism. He made it; I didn’t. It’s not for me to understand it all, just like it’s not for wedding guests to know all the recipes for every item on all the banquet tables. My job—our job—is to show up and partake. With gratitude.

Nothing wrong with trying to understand the rich treasures of our religion. We have to try to understand—but that entails the work of a lifetime.

My point here is simply that if I make my own understanding the measure of my friendship with my Maker, I have no hope of getting close to Him. But if I accept that He has indeed intervened in history, and founded a Church according to His designs—if I accept that the Catholic Church’s fundamental institutions deserve my trust and devotion, because they are the means by which I receive God’s grace—then I can do like my forefathers and foremothers have done before me. That is, partake of the banquet of heaven on a regular basis, even while I live my little life on earth. A little life that might involve things like oil changes, baseball playoffs, and maybe even school boards.

Because the king of the parable is utterly demanding in one way, but perfectly chill in another. He invites us to the wedding banquet of His only Son. Our lives, and the whole history of mankind, are nothing other than the wedding banquet of the Son of God. If we fail to recognize this basic fact, we are utterly lost. Because we have no other hope for finding meaning in life.

But if I do recognize that my first obligation is to show up for this wedding banquet that my God has prepared for me, then the king lets me have all kinds of other things besides. I just have to avoid breaking the Ten Commandments.

God calls a few people to the rigorous existential difficulty of being a monk or nun or philosopher. But for most of us, He allows things like going to movies, or playing golf, or watching cooking shows, or gardening, or collecting model trains–while meanwhile faithfully practicing the religion God gave us.

He demands that we show up at the banquet He Himself has prepared. Then He throws the world wide-open for us. This is a feast worth showing up for.

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Not Presumption, Not Despair. Hope.

El Greco St. Paul in St Louis

In our second reading at Sunday Mass, from chapter four of St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we hear St. Paul tell us to “have no anxiety at all.” Philippians 4:6: “Have no anxiety at all.[CLICK por español.]

Now, far be it from us to question the holy Apostle, when it comes to the consistency of his teachings. But any diligent Bible reader knows what St. Paul wrote, two chapters earlier, in Philippians 2:1. “Work out your salvation with… fear and trembling.”

Work out your salvation with fear and trembling. Philippians 2:12.  Have no anxiety at all. Philippians 4:6.

Did our beloved Apostle Paul contradict himself?

Let us try to understand.  Maybe when he said, “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” St. Paul was thinking about us, the human race–weak sinners that we are.  When he said, “Have no anxiety at all,” he was thinking about our loving and generous Father in heaven.

Okay. Quiz. Haven’t had one in a while. Everyone knows that God helps us get to heaven by infusing three theological virtues into our souls. Right? What is the second theological virtue? Correct! Hope. By hoping in God every day, trusting in His Providence, we become the people He made us to be.

Now, the world throws plenty of stress at us. Fear and trembling come naturally enough.

But that’s not quite what St. Paul means–fearing and trembling about the economy, or Kim Jong Un, or lone-wolf shooters, or any of the other bogeymen of the world. Things can get bad, but one way or another, God will always provide for us in this pilgrim life. Even death can’t do us any harm if we die in God’s friendship.  So when we get right down to it, there is really only one thing for us truly to fear.

hell

The one genuinely frightening thing is:  H—E—double hockey sticks.  When we seriously consider the possibility of winding up there, we really do tremble.  Not a good prospect.  Not at all.

And hell is a real possibility.  We sin against holy hope if we presume on God’s goodness.  Hope is hope, not certainty.  During this pilgrim life, I cannot know for sure that I am going to heaven. I have to get to purgatory first, to know for sure.  Heaven isn’t automatic for anybody.  So my job is to strive every day to do good and avoid evil. I have to confess my sins and beg for mercy.  Being presumptuous with a friend is rude; being presumptuous with God is a sin.

On the other hand, St. Paul also wrote, “Have no anxiety about anything.”  Pray, make your requests known to God, and “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” The peace of God means no despair and no discouragement. Living the virtue of hope means trusting with confidence.  If it really were all up to us, we would be in trouble, serious trouble.  But it is not all up to us.

The good Lord has a perfect plan to get us all to heaven.  He has a plan to get each of us there, starting right now.  No matter what we have done or failed to do, up till now. Until the moment you and I draw our last breath on this earth, the Lord always has a plan to save us.  He will always forgive us our sins, if we ask Him.  He will give us what we need to persevere.

Pope Francis Mass consecrationAll we have to do is ask.  That is why St. Paul urged the Philippians to pray, right after he told them to have no anxiety. Pray with hope, in the peace of Christ.

And the Lord Jesus has given us the perfect way to pray.

We read a rough parable in our gospel reading on Sunday. But at the heart of that rough Parable of the Tenants, we actually find our greatest consolation, our greatest source of holy hope.

The vineyard owner sent his son to collect the fruit of the vineyard. He sent his son, in peace—even though the tenants had already killed the owner’s servants.

Was this father living in some kind of dream world? ‘Oh, they killed my servants, so they must be vicious murderers. But let me send my son, my heir, my one and only. He won’t have any problems.’

No. The owner knew the danger. That’s precisely why he sent his son. He wanted to make peace with these dangerous tenants. He thought that he could make peace by respecting the tenants and believing in them. But he also knew perfectly well that his son went to them as a lamb ready to be sacrificed.

This is our consolation and our hope, in the face of everything that life can throw at us; our consolation and hope in spite of all our own incorrigible weaknesses: The Lamb of God has been sacrificed for us. The Lamb of God came among us, ready to die, to overcome all our evil. His sacrifice for us is the perfect prayer of Christian hope. And that sacrifice is: The Holy Mass.

In the Mass, we ask for exactly what we need to get to heaven.  And in the Mass, the Lord gives us everything we ask for, and then some:  He gives us Himself.

If we want to learn how to hope in God and how to pray with hope; if we want to learn how to avoid presumption and avoid despair–all we have to do is ‘tune ourselves in’ to all the prayers of the Mass. All we have to do is make the prayers of the Mass our own.  To pray the Mass is to hope in Christ.

People Don’t Change, Except When They Do

In the second reading at Holy Mass on Sunday, St. Paul tells us to have the same attitude as Christ. [CLICK por español.]

paulprison12
St. Paul in Prison by Rembrandt

Which attitude, exactly? He emptied Himself. He humbled Himself. God Almighty–the Creator, eternal Wisdom–became obedient unto death, in the holy Incarnation. The attitude of humble devotion to the will of the Father.

Now, speaking of attitudes–what’s one rule of thumb that a wise observer of human nature lives by? People don’t change.

The bride who imagines that her obtuse, self-centered, thuggish fiancee will miraculously change into a prince, by virtue of marrying her–that’s a woman living in a dangerous dreamworld.

Or the employer looking to hire someone who thinks: Well, her old boss says she’s lazy, and a complainer, and a gossip–but if she could work here, she could become diligent and creative and motivated! That’s a self-deluded boss asking for misery.

People don’t change. Except…

They do. The prophet Ezekiel:

If he turns from the wickedness he has committed, and does what is right and just, he shall surely live. (Ez 18:27)

Catechism puts it like this:

The human heart is heavy and hardened. God must give man a new heart. Conversion is first of all a work of the grace of God, who makes our hearts turn to Him. God gives us strength to begin anew. When we discover the greatness of God’s love, our heart is shaken by the horror and weight of sin and begins to fear offending Him… [paragraph 1432]

Interior repentance is a return to God with all our heart, an end of sin. Conversion entails a desire to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy, and trust in the help of His grace… [paragraph 1431]

The same Holy Spirit who brings sin to light is also the Consoler who gives the human heart grace for repentance and conversion. [paragraph 1433]

People don’t change. But God does change people. By His holy Incarnation, and the Redemption He won for us, by humbly doing the will of the Father.

We encounter an exquisite irony here. Certainly, beyond a shadow of doubt: God does not change. What He is, which is the all-in-all: it’s eternal. We might think grandpa is stubborn and stuck in His ways. But that’s nothing compared to the immovable-rock-like permanence of the divine Being.

That said, what St. Paul declared did, in fact, happen: God took upon Himself an attitude, the attitude of humility and self-sacrifice. God didn’t change by doing this. He did, however, touch our stubborn and weary human nature with His grace by doing it. He touched our stubborn and weary human nature with His grace in order to overcome our stubbornness and weariness. The Unchanging entered the human race to change us–to change us back from bad to good.

So let’s never kid ourselves. Imagine you were the father in the Parable of the Two Sons (which we will read at Holy Mass on Sunday), and you had a son with such a sullen attitude that he simply spitted out No! whenever you asked him to help you. If you had to contend with such a miscreant son, you would want to tread very lightly when it comes to investing such a brat with any real responsibilities. People don’t change.

But: On that particular day, the day of the parable… On that day, this person did change.

Catechism-of-the-Catholic-CHurchThe punk made his usual petulant reply. “Help? No.” But then he thought better of it. Some new vision of things entered into his mind. The son saw what he had never been able to see before: His stubborn self-centeredness was wronging his good and kind father. Not to mention the fact that he was condemning himself to shiftless misery by being too arrogant to take a risk.

For the first time, the son perceived: I don’t have to live like this. It would be better; it would be happier; it would even really be easier, for me just to get up and walk out into the fields and see what’s going on. Let me see what contribution I can make. Maybe I could learn how to do something helpful.

So the son strode out into the field…

God’s grace can convert even the hardened sinner. Because the life that Christ embraced in His incarnation–the humble life, dedicated to obeying the heavenly Father–that life alone offers a human being genuine happiness. Whenever, by God’s gift, we catch a glimpse of the Christ-like life, we want to live it. We want that peace–the genuine, unshakable joy of co-operating with God.

Young ladies–give up the idea that you’re gonna change your man by your own magic arts. It won’t happen.

But may none of us ever give up on the idea that Christ can change people. Christ can, and does, turn sinners into saints.

The Gift of Time

alarm clock

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Monks pray. They chant psalms and canticles to give God glory. [Click HERE por Spanish.]

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Nurses in hospitals see to their patients’ medications. Make notes. Change shifts.

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Worksite managers drink coffee out of big tumblers and plan, supervise, order equipment and materials. Chew the fat with customers, architects, engineers. Talk football.

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Rehab patients and nursing-home residents contend with their aches, their pains, and their loneliness. They await their meals, their p.t. and o.t., their baths and their showers, and their meds. They tune into their tv shows. They hope someone will come visit. Maybe they read their Bibles and pray.

Rembrandt Laborers in the VineyardDawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Students arise, eat cereal or pop-tarts, heft their backpacks, maybe stress-out about the homework they haven’t done. They get on and off the schoolbus, talk to their friends for a few fleeting moments. They get called-on. They get bored. They fall asleep at their desks after lunch. They get home and play video games. But hopefully not for too long, because there’s homework!

Dawn. Nine a.m. Noon. Three p.m. Five p.m. Depressed people suffer, suffer–with every tick-tock minute poking the scalp like sixty little needles, one second after another… Landscape workers sweat in the sun, dirt grinding into the skin of their fingers… At Waffle House, they sling the hash; at Mickey D’s they drop the fries. In malls, salespeople at boutiques with light foot traffic endlessly fold and re-fold the merchandise… Drug addicts desperately hustle on the streets for cash… Young professionals in Nissans and Hyundais make quick stops at drive-thru carwashes and then vacuum their floormats… Truck drivers look through the windshield down the highway and plan their next bathroom/coffee stop… Soccer moms cut oranges, fold laundry, and show up for drop-offs and pick-ups… The unemployed wait in agony for e-mails to come…

How could we get through life without the daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly rhythms? Five minutes can drag on like an eternity of torture, when you’re off your rhythm–or never had a rhythm to begin with. And for some of us–blessed with a good, healthy rhythm of life–1994 seems like yesterday.

Why do you stand there idle all day? (see Matthew 20:6) The rhythm that makes the passage of time endurable always involves some kind of work. For some people–sick people, incapacitated people–just to get through the day means a job well done. Twenty years ago, when I taught middle-school boys for a living, I had the motto: if everyone’s still alive when it’s over, it was a success. Other, super-productive people–like cooks, and moms, and bus drivers–they accomplish more before noon than most of us do in a month.

Ora et LaboraBut whatever my particular work may be, it does one great thing: it makes time a friend, an ally, a partner. On the other hand: when you’re idle, time becomes a mud patch, an enemy, a dark confusing cloud of frustrated non-possibilities. That’s the greatest torture on earth.

What exactly does the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard teach? Gosh–a lot. But the main thing is: the owner of the vineyard is generous. “I am generous,” he said.

We earn our daily bread by the sweat of our brows. We get to sleep the sound sleep of the just by busting it from dawn to dusk. But did we earn these brows, upon which we sweat? Did we earn these hands we use? Do we receive 24 hours every day to fill with our comings and goings because we pre-paid for their delivery?

No. A huge gift came first. We have what it takes to build up a rhythm of life because God gave us us. The idea that I deserve even to exist: that idea is the gravest enemy my spiritual life can have. Because if I start kidding myself that I, me, gave myself the morning sun, or a roof over my head when I was a baby–if I start tallying all the benefits and perks that all my illustrious efforts deserve, then I run a grave risk. I will find myself standing there with just one pitiful little denarius in my hand at the end of the day. When I frown, the Lord will ask me, “Are you envious because I am generous?”

Some people live in run-down, drafty double-wides, and some live in mansions with wall-to-wall carpet and tropical fish tanks. Who really deserves either one? I could fight all my life to win the esteem of men, or to experience vast international travels, or to consume daily gourmet meals, or rack-up professional accomplishments and little performance-review trophies. I will still die as naked as I was born.

God gives. For free. We will all die wretched and miserable deaths unless we spend the rest of our lives trying to grasp this one simple fact. God gives. God gives the dawn. And 9am. And noon. And 3pm. And the evening.

He gives it all, to everyone, freely.

The Mass is the Oil

Pope Francis Patriarch Bartholomew Holy Sepulchre
Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew together at the tomb of Christ

In the parable of the ten virgins, five of them had something, and five did not. Having that something made a great difference—all the difference. The five who had it entered the wedding feast. The five who did not found a locked door, and they heard God say to them, “I do not know you.”

Oil. Oil for the lamps. This is a parable. What does the oil represent?

Pope Francis and the bishops have made today the World Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. The Holy Father issued a joint statement with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. A brief, penetrating, and captivating statement. Come to my Vespers talk on Sunday, and we will study every word of it [4:30pm, St. Joseph’s, Martinsville, Virginia. Parish dinner to follow!]

Right now let’s focus on one sentence. The statement of course exhorts all Christians to pray: to pray that all things in heaven and on earth will be restored in Christ, to thank the Creator and pledge our commitment to care for His handiwork. Then the Pope and Patriarch Bartholomew write:

An objective of our prayer is to change the way we perceive the world in order to change the way we relate to the world.

The oil in the parable is: prayer. And not just any prayer, but prayer in the Holy Spirit; prayer in which I, me, myself truly speak and communicate and open my heart, but not unilaterally. Rather: when I pray in the Holy Spirit I am myself only in co-operation with God.

So we can be even more precise: The oil is our regular celebration of the Holy Eucharist. When we participate in Mass, we pray—we ourselves, thanking God, asking Him for help, begging His mercy. But as much as the Mass is our work, much more so is it God’s. After all, in the Holy Mass, the triune Lord continues the Incarnation, and unites us to the mystery of His infinite love bodily. In the Mass, God makes our co-operation with Him as physically intimate as physical intimacy can possibly be. As Pope Francis put it in his encyclical on Mother Earth:

It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation…The Eucharist is the living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life. Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God. Indeed the Eucharist is itself an act of cosmic love… The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation. The world which came forth from God’s hands returns to him in blessed and undivided adoration. (Laudato Si’ 236)

This is the oil we need.

Parable of the Unforgiving Servant

How many second chances ought we to give, Lord? Seventy times seven second chances.

In the parable we read at Holy Mass today, the servant owed the king a huge amount. After the servant begged for mercy, the king forgave the loan.

Shawn Lauvao Redskins 77
77 pardons in honor of Shawn Lavao?

We want to relate to the magnificently magnanimous king. But can we deny that some debtors really do push us too far? Everyone knows somebody who simply doesn’t know how to stay out of debt, and won’t learn. Black holes of the good will of everyone around them, helpless and incorrigible. They try the patience of good people beyond the breaking point.

So: Let’s give the first servant in the parable the maximum benefit of the doubt. Let’s say that he had borrowed from the king only this one time. Meanwhile, his fellow servant had borrowed from him, without repaying, over and over again. Let’s acknowledge that any of us, driven to the extreme by such a deadbeat relative or friend, would long since have let him or her rot in jail, rather than swoop in with an “emergency” loan again.

All this may have been true in the scenario outlined in the parable. But still the king faulted the first servant for his lack of mercy.

Now, is this a reasonable judgment, considering the genuine limitations of human generosity? I’ve had to say it myself; after all, it is true: “Look, I want to help you. But I am not made of money.”

So, to understand all this, I think we need to keep in mind the context of this exchange between St. Peter and the Lord. Peter asked how often he must forgive his brother immediately after the Lord Jesus had explained a particularly amazing power that the Church possesses. The Church, a living family with duly appointed authority figures, has the power to bind and to loose, in the name of God. The living authority of the Church keeps the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

peterjesusBoth to bind and to loose. Holy Mother Church can and does bind. She can and does impose penalties–penalties with potentially horrifying and everlasting effects. There are things we have to stay far away from, if we know what’s good for us. Sacrilege, apostasy, abortion.

But the Church, when she binds someone with a penalty, always binds with the hope of ultimately loosing. Church penalties aim at correction and then restoration of communion. She never tires of forgiving the miscreant who repents. No one ever runs out of second chances with the Church. Everything the Church has belongs to everyone who humbly seeks Her goods, even if it’s a deadbeat who has confessed the same terrible sins too many times to remember.

So it doesn’t necessarily make any of us a bad person if we conclude that such-and-such cousin or nephew or old college roommate or former co-worker has come asking for help just one too many times. We individuals on our pilgrim way have our limits.

But what we can’t do is judge anybody any more harshly than Holy Mother Church does. And the Church is always ready to start over, as if today were the first day of a brand new friendship.

The Suddenness of the Seine-Net

Seine net fishing.jpg

The kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea, which collects fish of every kind. (Matthew 13:47)

Anyone know what that kind of net is called? The technical term for a dragnet for fish? Seine. Purse-seine, Danish seine, drum seine—whichever precise kind.

What seems worth meditating on is this: The utter suddenness of capture in seine-net fishing, from the point-of-view of the fish. It’s not like bait or fly fishing, where the fish perceives something and then follows its curiosity/hunger, only to discover that this item actually means bad news for me, then a struggle ensues.

No. When a fish gets caught in a seine net, it’s like: Do-ta-do, swimming along, la la la, here in the ocean, along the colorful shoal, in the dappled sunlight, the happy life of a fish, with my friends in a nice big school, tra la la. Then: yank! The hydraulic power block that pulls the purse line pumps. And you, fish, are on the deck before you know what hit you.

With just such disorienting instantaneousness might our moment of judgment come. Do-ta-do, here I am, sunny day, easy life, texting my buddies, la la. Then: Yank. Crank. On the deck.

Good ones go into the cool, refreshing ice. Bad ones, as the Lord said, into the fiery furnace.

Redemption and Original Sin

devil sewing tares

In everyone, the weeds of sin will be mixed with the good wheat of the gospel until the end of time.  The Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation, but still on the way to holiness.

This is a quote from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (paragraph 827)

The parable of the wheat and the tares ends with some drama:  The bundled weeds burn; the sifted wheat fills the barn with the restful smell of harvest-time. And the parable injects drama into our gathering here.  Right here, right now, some of us are good guys, and some of us are bad guys. [se haga click for spanish]

But we don’t wear jerseys to identify which team each of us is on.  Because we are all on both teams.  Good guys, raise your hands.  Bad guys, raise your hands.

God made Adam and Eve good, and He set them up well.  Even though they were made out of nothingness and susceptible to death and decay, God filled them with divine life and made them immortal.  They never would have died; they never would have experienced any evil—if they had not sinned.

the-fallBut…

And they sinned before they conceived their children.  Therefore, when they did have children, the children were born in the precarious state into which their parents had fallen.  Human nature gets handed down in this precarious state. We all received human nature in this precarious state.  In a nutshell, the precarious state is:  We are born mortal and selfish.

Since we sin all the time, it is easy for us to lose sight of just how enormous the guilt of sin is.  If you play in the NBA, and you mutter a bad word at a referee, you can be fined the cash equivalent of a brand-new Mercedes-Benz.  For offending a basketball referee.

What, then, is the penalty for offending God?  The infinitely good and powerful?  The Almighty? Well, the penalty is:  Infinity dollars.  You offend the infinite, you owe an infinite debt. And we don’t have infinity dollars.

So God became man and offered a peace offering of infinite love on our behalf. On the cross, Christ the man offered His divine love to the Father.  Behold:  the fine is paid, by the love of the Son for the Father.

Having redeemed mankind as a man, God continues to move history forward by the birth of succeeding generations of men—born in the way we have always been born. But now we can be adopted into the household of God by the blood of Christ.  Holy Baptism brings about this adoption.

God, being God, could receive us into heaven immediately upon our being baptized.  But, usually, He graciously wills otherwise.  He wills to make us partners in our own salvation; He leaves us on earth into adulthood, under the power of our own free will.  He gives us time to do battle with the lingering effects of original sin. By doing so—by fighting the battle—we come into our own and grow into the people He made us to be.

So: as baptized Christians, we are children of God.  As children of Adam, we are craven sinners.   We know we have been consecrated to become saints of Christ, but nonetheless we are moved by strong desires to do things like plop down in front of the t.v. for hours scarfing down an entire bag of Doritos.

The struggle against the residual effects of original sin sounds difficult, and indeed it is.  But getting a grip on the situation is half the battle. When we know what the battle is, we can fight it.

The Lord in His parable reserved to Himself the right to judge the souls of men on the last day.  It is not my business to condemn my own soul or anyone else’s. As long as we still have two feet above ground, harvest time has not yet arrived for us.

What I must do is weed out of my own interior garden while I still can.  And that is precisely what we are here to do.  We are here in church to praise God for the good in us. And to work to remove the bad. We all know that our own individual souls are gardens where good plants and evil weeds both grow.

And another important lesson of the parable is this: when we reach down into our souls to pull out a weed, we don’t have to worry that we might pull out too much earth and ruin the seed-bed.  Inside us, the good lies deeper than the bad.  The weeds might seem like they go all the way down to the bedrock. But, in fact, they do not. The bedrock of a human soul is God.

First and foremost, I am a beloved child of God; He made me good, and He died on Calvary to save me from condemnation.  He poured out His Precious Blood to pay the price for all my sins.  I need not be afraid, then, to confront them. I can acknowledge that this particular beloved child of God is also a weak and depraved son of Adam—a sinner who relies on divine mercy.

Where sin abounds—and it abounds in me—grace abounds all the more.

λόγον τῆς βασιλείας: Weeds No, Coffin Yes

Sermon_on_the_Mount_Fra_Angelico
Sermon on the Mount by Fra Angelico

In ancient Palestine, you had to have a path through your fields to keep people from treading all over your seedlings, because everyone had the right to walk anywhere. And rocky patches dotted all the arable Palestinian hillsides. And thistles would germinate and sprout as weeds in your fields, no matter what you did. [Click por español.]

So seeds really did face the perils that the Lord described in the Parable of the Sower. He went on to explain that the seed in the parable represents “the word of the kingdom,” λόγον τῆς βασιλείας. Like the third luminous mystery of the Holy Rosary: the proclamation of the kingdom and the call to repentance.

Thistle seeds carried on the Palestinian breezes, and farm fields had weeds. As Jesus went on to explain: worldly anxiety and the lure of riches can grow like weeds in a soul, choking the word of the kingdom, so that it bears no fruit.

Now, how would that be? we might ask. Since λόγον τῆς βασιλείας means the full fruition of human life in God. As the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council put it: “To carry out the will of the Father, Christ inaugurated the kingdom of heaven on earth. The Father’s will is to raise up men to share in his own divine life.” (Lumen Gentium 2-3) To raise up men to share in His own divine life.

In exactly three weeks, we will keep the Feast of Christ’s Transfiguration. The boundless light of His divine nature shone through His human flesh. For a few moments on Mount Tabor, Peter, James, and John saw the divinity of Jesus.

Christ’s union with God, the inner permeation of His being by God’s infinite glory: such a union is precisely what awaits us. In the kingdom of heaven, our entire human personality will receive God’s warm and loving light–everything about us permeated by Him. Such is the meaning of λόγον τῆς βασιλείας, the word of the kingdom.

st-francis-contemplating-a-skullSo, we wonder: how could the weeds of worldly anxiety, or the lure of riches–how could anything ever choke out the fruition of something so wonderful? What success or satisfaction in this life could ever hold a candle to the glory that Christ promises us with God? Nothing can compete with God!

Wouldn’t it make more sense, we think–wouldn’t it make more sense intentionally to renounce the comforts of the earth, if they could ever interfere with us reaching heaven, like weeds interfere with the growth of good plants? Hard to believe that anyone would prefer a fancy life for sixty or seventy years over an eternity of divine happiness. Better just to become a monk who sleeps in his coffin and passes the few short decades of this pilgrim life in prayerful simplicity!

But people do make such a nonsensical choice, the choice of short-term, low-budget satisfaction over an eternity of divine communion. The danger of weeds choking the holy word–that danger exists.

Usually it doesn’t happen all at once. It happens gradually. Over time a soul can lose the taste for spiritual things, for the life of faith. One little compromise with a clear religious duty here, a little flim-flamming with the truth there, an unwholesome self-indulgence (for this once!) there…

Next thing you know, I haven’t prayed in a long time. I haven’t meditated on the inevitability of my own death and burial. I haven’t made a decision to sacrifice something, to forego a pleasure or comfort for the sake of spiritual gain. All I do is seek the approval of others, or sit around and watch tv, or over-eat, or swill liquor like a lush.

In The Lord of the Rings, Gollum spent so much time in his cave with his Precious, eating raw fish, that he forgot the taste of bread. A human soul can spend so much time staring at a little phone that it forgets the taste of silent prayer.

But: As long as we still draw breath, it’s not too late. The word of the kingdom can and will bear fruit. The wonder of Christ’s free invitation to us, to share in our Creator’s eternal and utterly beautiful Being: the wonder of λόγον τῆς βασιλείας never fades. It never tarnishes with time. It always comes as fresh and new as if today were the first day of creation.

Yes, we have let wordly anxieties and the lure of shiny trifles choke the growth of our friendship with the Lord. Lord, we are sorry! Forgive us, and give us a fresh start!

We can pray. We can cultivate our taste for the life of faith and meditation. We can grow in union with the undying light that shone in Jesus. We can live holy lives and bear fruit for the heavenly kingdom.

If we can get ourselves to Mass,  there’s hope for us yet. May the Lord help our souls grow.

Hamlet and the 77 Pardons

Shawn Lauvao Redskins 77

Lord, how often must I forgive my brother? Answer: No less than 77 times.

Now, the Lord didn’t use the number 77 because Washington Redskins starting guard Shawn Lauvao wears jersey #77. Christ used 77 as shorthand for: always forgive the penitent brother.

Anyone ever seen Hamlet? That play would seem to have the opposite moral. Instead of “always forgive,” Hamlet focuses on revenge.

The evil uncle killed the good father, secretly, in cold blood, to steal the throne and the queen. The dead king’s ghost visits young Prince Hamlet, demanding revenge. Young Hamlet devises a stratagem by which to test the ghost’s story. Turns out the ghost speaks truth. So here comes revenge. At the end of the play, everyone winds up dead. No forgiveness; just brutal revenge.

Except: Young Hamlet and his nemesis Laertes forgive each other before they die. And the evil uncle Claudius tries to beg God for mercy. And the queen admits to Hamlet that she has done wrong in marrying her dead husband’s brother. And Ophelia begs mercy from God for everyone…

ASC HamletChrist told the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant to illustrate his 77-pardons theme. In the parable, the king intended to settle accounts. When he did so, no one quibbled with the accuracy of his records. His accounts showed his servant in debt to him. The servant did not deny it. To the contrary, the servant, presented with the truth, humbled himself before its very accuracy.

‘Yes, yes! I owe you big time! Just give me another chance.’

And the king took a haircut, as they say in the banking world—he faced the fact that he wasn’t getting the money the servant owed him. Then the king gave the servant a fresh start.

Thus do we see mercy and righteousness kiss: Everyone faces the full, ugly truth. Then everyone starts fresh. Mercy does not mean: no reckoning. It doesn’t mean running away from the truth; skip the facts; just pretend everything’s fine and nice!

No. Forgiving happens when the parties agree on the painful, evil, unpleasant facts. And then start over.

Prince Hamlet did not exactly proceed down the path of Christian mercy. He did a fair amount of stabbing with his rapier. On the other hand, there was something rotten in the state of Denmark. It would hardly have been merciful for the prince to pretend otherwise.

In fact, the greater the evil, the more merciless the truth feels to the conscience that, deep down, knows it’s guilty. Mercy does not come in the form of a goose feather pillow. It comes as a bracing, cold bath. But nothing can refresh the soul more. Facing the truth. And getting a fresh start. With all the dials set back to zero.