Monday, February 24, 2014

Christ Enjoins Not Impossibilities But Perfection

Homily for the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, 2014

There is a certain….  well we might call it satisfaction, that many of us might find ourselves feeling when someone gets their just deserts.  The internet is full of these little anecdotes today, isn’t it?
Someone cuts off a driver, and then runs into the back of a tractor trailer.
Someone says something mean and then smacks into a cupboard door.
Someone is rude to a waitress and then gets a pitcher of cold water in the lap…

And there is something that seems right about many of these things - it is as if God intervened to make sure that evil did not go unpunished.  When I was a kid, it seemed like many times when I did something bad, something bad would immediately happen to me.  Tease my sister - slip on the ice and fall on my face.  Say something mean - get my zipper stuck…  My mom used to call it instant karma.

In the ancient world, retaliation for wrongs was often swift and extreme.  A kind of instant karma.  If someone stole, their hand was severed.  If someone lied, their tongue cut off.  If they committed adultery they were stoned.  And many times retaliation was carried out against whole households, even down to three generations.

This kind of extreme retaliation was understood to be important and necessary in order to discourage sin and evil.  It makes sense: if you want to keep people from doing evil, make sure that the penalties are so staggering that no one will even attempt it.  If good will does not control them, at least fear will, right?

Now, some may think that we are far from that kind of a cruel world.  But I don’t think we really are.  Recently I saw the movie “Ender’s Game,” and in the movie there is a scene in which the main character gets into a fight with the bully and not only defends himself but goes a step further to seriously injure him.  Why?  Because, he explains, he wanted to make it clear to the bully and to everyone else that he was not weak, so that he would not have to deal with bullying again.  Weakness invites aggression, right?  Or in the first Harry Potter movie, you might recall that Harry’s horrible and abusive adoptive family is turned into pigs, and Harry and all the good people laugh and are satisfied that they received their just deserts.  How many times in movies today are we encouraged to sympathize with those who retaliate with extreme violence?  As if by committing a crime a criminal somehow is no longer human – as if they have forfeited their rights and dignity and can be treated like an animal.

Just look at what is going on in the Central African Republic as we speak.  Mobs of men who claim to be Christian are going out slaughtering Muslim men, women, and children in retaliation for the violence and torture that they endured in recent years.  And I don’t think that we are so much better.  It is the fallen human condition: it starts with us when we are even very young.  “He hit me first!”  We are so quick to think that violence is justified against the wicked, and that God himself must approve.

That was what we first thought of God: that he himself must hate the wicked and wish to destroy them.  But over time God began to show us the truth about himself and about his will for all of us.  In the first step in this revelation, Moses taught what most great civilizations and rulers have thought reasonable: that a just retaliation must match the severity of the initial crime.  Only an eye for an eye – not a life for an eye.  Only a tooth for a tooth, not a hand for a tooth.  When retaliation for a wrong exceeded this proportionate response, Moses taught that the people were falling into revenge and hatred and were doing evil in God’s sight.

And I think that this is where most of the world is today – what they think.  If someone kills, then you can kill them.  If they punch you, you can punch them.  If they are irresponsible, sue them, but the amount has to be reasonable.  Seems fair.  Seems the way that God would want things.

But Jesus shows us that God is not like this at all.  He is not the God of instant karma, of retaliation, even of proportionate retaliation.  Instead, Jesus says, our heavenly Father makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.  If we wish to be his children, Jesus says, we must follow his will, his way.  When someone strikes us on our right cheek, we should turn the other one as well.  And we should love our enemies as God loves them and pray for those who persecute us.

In a commentary on today’s Gospel, St. John Chrysostom writes beautifully about the path that Jesus leads us on through this gospel passage:

“Note through what steps we have now climbed, and how God has set us on the very pinnacle of virtue.
The first step is, not to do wrong to another;
the second, that in avenging a wrong done to us we be content with retaliating equally;
the third, to return nothing for what we have suffered;
the fourth, to offer one’s self to the endurance of evil;
the fifth, to be ready to suffer even more evil than the oppressor desires to inflict;
the sixth, not to hate him of whom we suffer such things;
the seventh, to love him;
the eighth, to do him good;
the ninth, to pray for him.”

By the progressive steps of this teaching, Christ leads us along the way of the cross, the way of perfect charity, that leads to eternal life.  He shows us how to be freed of the slavery that comes from hatred and retaliation and how to find the peace that comes from perfect charity.

And as we are about to say that this is too much, that ordinary men and women cannot possibly follow where Christ has trod, St. Jerome tells us: “Many, measuring the commandments of God by their own weakness, not by the strength of the saints, hold these commands for impossible, and say that it is virtue enough not to hate our enemies; but to love them is a command beyond human nature to obey. But it must be understood that Christ enjoins not impossibilities but perfection. Such was the attitude of David towards Saul and Absalom; the Martyr Stephen also prayed for his enemies while they stoned him, and Paul wished himself anathema for the sake of his persecutors.  Jesus both taught and did the same, saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

“Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect,” Christ instructs us.  We are not made for imperfect love, we cannot be satisfied with it.  In a world that all too often claims that violence and revenge are necessary, justified, or at least understandable, you and I must teach our children the truth: that our God is not a God of karma, that revenge is never his way, and it can never be the way of the Christian.  Our Heavenly Father is perfect love, he always wills the good for all people.  And so, with his grace, may it be for us.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Love Does Not Recognize a Right to Privacy

Homily for the Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, 2014

This weekend we hear probably one of the most challenging teachings that Christ has given us.  He speaks to us very concretely about the law of love, and he gets very specific, doesn’t he?

Our Lord is specific, I think, because he knows that it is tempting for us to let the words “Love your neighbor as yourself” and “Be good to those who persecute you” run over the surface of our hearts but not really sink in, not let them convict us.  When our consciences start to sting a bit, how easily we can find ourselves saying things like “Well, I’m basically a good person.” or “I’m not as bad as so and so.”  Whether it is our pride or fear of condemnation or reluctance to change – how quickly the defenses can go up, and soon we start thinking about all the other people who Jesus must be talking about in this teaching.

So before we go any further, I think we need to let our guard down.  And we can because we remember that Jesus Christ comes not to condemn us but to save us.  He comes that we might have life and have it abundantly.  He comes as our redeemer and our creator – he knows what we need, he knows how we are made, he knows what will bring us peace and happiness and blessing.

With confidence let us open ourselves to this teaching today praying, asking:  “Lord, we want to stand in the light of your truth, in the light of your teaching, even when that means that our failures and our sins will be revealed.  Show us how to examine our consciences well, so that we can leave behind anything opposed to your will.  We want to follow your commandments.  We do not want to settle for the ways of this world, we want to learn your ways, we want to follow your law of love. ”

Now, with prayerful trust, we are ready to hear what Jesus teaches us about the stunningly high moral standards that are required by the law of love.  What does he tell us?

It is unacceptable, Christ says, to write anyone off.  No one can be dead to us.  Is there anyone with whom we are not on speaking terms?  Maybe they injured us, or maybe we injured them.  There was a break: maybe it was sharp and immediate, maybe there was just a slow parting of ways.
So many families and friends are divided.  People just decide that they are done with one another.  They move on, pretending that another person does not exist.

Now this does not mean that we should submit to behavior that does harm to our spiritual, psychological, or physical health.  But only the behavior can be rejected.  Never the person.  As followers of Christ, as Christians, the law of love requires we can never disown or repudiate another person.  We always must seek reconciliation.  That is the bar, that is the standard that we are all, as followers of Christ, called to uphold.

Further, Christ teaches us that it is a serious sin to be spiteful, scornful, or malicious toward one another.  To say “you fool,” he says, is a grave sin!  To think of ourselves as superior to others, to look down upon them.  To think ill of others – or to wish any ill upon them.  To be happy or content when they suffer.  To be harsh and cruel in our thoughts when they do not do as we would like or as we think they should.  To not give people the benefit of the doubt, to make harsh assumptions about their motives or intentions.  The law of love, Christ says, forbids any uncharitable thoughts and actions.  As St. Paul says so beautifully in another place “Love is patient, love is kind, it is not jealous, it is not pompous, it is not inflated, it is not rude, it does not seek its own interests, it is not quick-tempered, it does not brood over injury, it does not rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Further, Christ is clear in his teaching that the law of love requires that we not use or manipulate others in our fantasies for our own pleasure.  Jesus teaches us that we injure others when we imagine actions or words or circumstances that would be harmful to them, or turn them into mental slaves of our desires.

So yes, it is wrong to fantasize about bad things happening to our bosses or people who cut us off on the road, or anyone for that matter.  It is wrong to fantasize about romantic encounters that don’t respect the dignity of the other person or the commitments of our lives such as marriage or holy orders.  And yes, it is wrong to spend time consumed with angry and resentful imaginings about another person, beating up on them and yelling at them and punishing them, thinking of all the things we would say to them and how we would tell them off.

The law of love, the command to love your neighbor, does not cease to be a command inside the privacy of the mind or heart.  No. Jesus teaches us that the law of love applies with greatest rigor within the mind and heart, since it is in the mind and heart that all actions find their origin.  The law of love requires of us a purity of mind and heart, a consistent and persistent willing of the good for all those we meet throughout the day.

The bar is so high.  So high!  Does that mean that we freak out and go to confession every other day?  No, of course not.  But maybe once a month.  We know that God is merciful and loving and patient, but we also know love is the law for us!

Fr. Robert Barron recently described Catholic moral teaching so well.  In an article titled Extreme demand, extreme mercy, he wrote:

“The Catholic Church’s job is to call people to sanctity and to equip them for living saintly lives.  Its mission is not to produce nice people, or people with hearts of gold or people with good intentions; its mission is to produce saints, people of heroic virtue.  Are the moral demands… extravagant, over the top, or unrealistic?  Well, of course they are!  They are the moral norms that ought to guide those striving for real holiness."

"The Church calls people to be not spiritual mediocrities, but great saints, and this is why its moral ideals are so stringent.  Yet the Church also mediates the infinite mercy of God to those who fail to live up to that ideal (which means practically everyone).  This is why its forgiveness is so generous and so absolute.  To grasp both of these extremes is to understand the Catholic approach to morality.”

Which, I think we could add, is the approach that is patterned on the teaching of Christ himself.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Salt and Light: the Beauty, the Goodness, the Sting.

 Homily for the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A, 2014

Salt and Light.  These are two images that Our Lord uses to describe his disciples in the Gospel today.
At first blush these two realities might seem to be universally appealing.  Who doesn’t like salt and light?  Salt makes things tasty, and light – well do we really even need to say why light is good?

But wait…it’s not that simple, is it?  How do you like salt in a wound? Hmmm?  Not so much.  You ever mix up the salt with the sugar and put it in your coffee?  Not so great.

And light – beautiful light – that is, until you are driving down the road on a rainy night and trying to see where you are going.  Then it seems downright dangerous.  Or what about a neighbor’s really bright security light shining through the bedroom window when you are trying to sleep?  Fun.

A little salt brings out the taste, too much obscures it.  A little light helps us to see, too much light blinds.

Fr. Seamus, why are you trying to ruin this parable?  We like our nice warm and fuzzy light and our yummy salty popcorn.  Me too.

You may know, or may have heard, that today has been designated by the Church “World Marriage Day,” and this coming week “National Marriage Week.”

And today I don’t think any term illustrates what I am saying about salt and light better than this word: Marriage.  Is there any issue in recent years that has seemed more like salt in a wound?  That has seemed more like a security light beaming through the bedroom window?

“Why go there, Father?” you might ask.  Why not just stick with warm candles and popcorn?  Because I think we need to talk about this.  I don’t think we have really as a Church processed what happened around the whole marriage debate here in Maine.  Our Church has taken a very public stance and really caused a firestorm.  There are many Catholics who left the practice of the faith over the issue, and my sense is that there are many more who are still sitting in the pews but who feel more distant - whose identification with the Church has been weakened.

If you are not one of these men or women, certainly you know them, right?  And how many of you have been a part of the very difficult and tense conversations in recent months and years… around dinner tables, after Mass, at the workplace, and in so many other places?

Do we just pretend that none of this happened?  That the Church lost the marriage battle and so now its on to other things…  Let bygones be bygones?  I don’t think we can.  If we have any love for our brothers and sisters in Christ, if we have any love for the Church we can’t just move on.  We have to find a way to move forward.  We cannot let the impression stand – especially with younger generations – that salt and light are too harsh and intolerant for polite society.  That taking faith too seriously, living faith too publically, is a kind of social bullying.

Some might suggest that we just put the light under the basket for a time, let the salt mellow for a bit.  I think that is a natural response after such a contentious period.  Not to take such a public profile.  Let some of the memories fade with time.  Don’t say “Catholic” quite so loud.

But Christ clearly teaches against this move in the gospel today.  And I think we can see why on multiple levels.  First, to withdraw from society would not really address the issue.  Instead, it could seem like a ploy, like a kind of tactical retreat.  Instead of mending bridges or healing injuries, to withdraw from the discussion would only perpetuate an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust.

Furthermore, there is a great need for salt and light today.  People are hungering for it, craving to hear the good news of the Gospel.  They need to encounter Christ in us, tangibly and visibly.  We need to be Christ to them, for them.  And despite what some might like to pretend, you and I can’t do that if we don’t publically associate ourselves with Christ and his Church.

And finally, you can’t keep light healthy under a bushel basket – it needs oxygen.  And salt gets all clumped up and hard and useless if it is not used regularly.  Faith that is not alive, that is not active, atrophies and dies.  You cannot be salt, you cannot be light unless you are shared with the world.  Faith must be love in action.  By definition faith is relational, it is shared.

So we cannot retreat from society and become our own little walled city on the hill.  We cannot just do our own thing and let everyone else do their own thing.  Jesus did not do that, the apostles did not do that – and they had a lot more to lose.  They lost their lives because of it.  Christianity has never been a private religion, an individualized or customized faith.  We must live out our faith in the world, we must be salt and light for the world.

Yet let us be clear: Jesus did not ask his followers to go dump truckloads of salt on people or shine spotlights on them.  We cannot be blundering, haphazard or callous Catholics.  We will cause more harm than good.  That is why our faith, our Catholic tradition, has always underlined the necessary wedding of faith and reason.  Faith seeks understanding.  It is not irrational.  And so you and I cannot be true witnesses to our Catholic faith if we are not sure of the reasons for what we believe.  On this World Day of Marriage, I want to underline how important it is that all Catholics really strive to understand and know what the Church teaches about marriage, and to not be afraid to have conversations or read more if they have difficulties understanding the teaching.

But a correct understanding of Catholic teaching is not enough.  To be salt and light for our world, faith must be rooted in a life of virtue.  Genuine faith requires prudence, fortitude, justice, and temperance.  It requires fasting and abstinence, it requires long hours of prayer, it requires a community of believers, it requires sacramental grace.  To be salt, to be light for the world is not a thing that any of us can afford to be flippant about.  These are poignant realities - salt and light.  You don’t just trot them out on a whim.  Catholic faith requires deliberate, informed, and prayerful action.  Only then will we know how to be salt and light for the kingdom.

Pope Francis has communicated this well, hasn’t he?   Unlike what some media outlets have opined and some fearful Catholics have criticized, the Pope has not changed the teachings of the Church.  He has not put the light under a bushel basket, he has not lessened the flavor of the salt.  But he has shown a deliberateness and thoughtfulness in his words and actions that I think can guide us as we try to be salt and light to the world in which we find ourselves today.

Pope Francis has taken the path that is spelled out so beautifully in our first reading: “Thus says the Lord: Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.  Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall be quickly healed.”

Salt will always sting those who are wounded.  Light will always blind those who dwell in darkness. Some will turn away.  Some will refuse to be seasoned and will reject the light.  But please Lord may we not needlessly cause any to be lost through our superficial or lukewarm or haphazard witness to the Catholic faith.  Instead, by the grace of the sacraments and through our diligent efforts to grow in wisdom and virtue, may we be persistent in our witness - yes, to the sting - but also and especially to the beauty and goodness of salt and light.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Refining Grace

Homily for the Feast of the Presentation, Sunday Feb. 2nd, 2014

Spotless, immaculate, unblemished, impeccable, untarnished, unsullied, pure.
These words seem old fashioned today, don’t they?  Or at least in reference to a person.  They are words we might use to describe the state of a house, or of a thing.  An antique car might be untarnished or unsullied.  Water is pure.  A painting is unblemished or impeccable.  And a kitchen is spotless or immaculate.

But a person, a soul?   The only person who I think most Catholics would comfortably speak of in these terms is the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Immaculate Mary.  She’s not a person, she’s a saint, right?

But even attributed to her the language sounds archaic today – remote, almost like a fairy tale, some far off distant place.  Can you imagine saying to someone “Christ is at work purifying me so that he can present me as an offering to God, holy and blameless in his sight.”
“He’s doing what!?”  “Are you sure that you don’t have psychological problems?”

Instead, we so often speak and hear about God’s activity in the world in reference to evil and sin.  Either he is condemning and punishing, or he is forgiving and healing.  He’s the good cop or the bad cop.  But he’s the cop.

But today he is not the cop.  He is not the law.  He is not turning over tables and driving out sin and evil from the temple.  Instead he is presenting to God the reward of diligent and persistent effort, he is nourishing and building up, he is giving strength and vitality, he is bringing to fulfillment hopes and promises.  Today Christ enters the temple as a builder, as an artist.

In our first reading, the prophet Malachi speaks of Christ in these terms, in the terms of a craftsman: he is the goldsmith who through fire refines ore into a precious metal, he is the fuller who with lye cleanses wool to prepare it to be dyed and spun into cloth.  In other places in the scripture I’m sure you recall the descriptions of God’s activity in similar terms: the potter who shapes and molds clay into a vessel; the gardener who plants and tends his vines so that they produce good fruit.

But how often we think of God as a janitor, not an artist.  Instead of someone who takes what is good and refines it and purifies it and makes it beautiful, we think of him as someone who goes around mopping up spills and fixing broken windows and cleaning toilets.

We lose the sense of a long term and committed and covenantal relationship, of patient and dedicated effort on his part.  Instead, God is portrayed as one who comes in at the last moment and condemns or cleans.  As if all of his activity and involvement were concentrated at the moment of conception and the moment of death.

But that is not the way of an artist.  An artist is persistent – through trial and error, over years of different experiments and interactions, working in harmony with natural tools and materials, an artist creatively weaves them together, purifying and strengthening, sifting and intensifying: honing to a sharpened edge, burnishing to a bright luster, pruning to a bountiful harvest.  Over years, over decades, with sweat and tears and blood.  Through joys and struggles, setbacks and victories, working diligently to prepare, to build, to create beauty, to reveal truth, to nourish goodness.

Who were Simeon and Anna if not the fruits of these labors?  The Gospel tells us that the Spirit was upon them.  They were temples who had been purified within the temple.  Year after year the Lord had worked with and in them, diligently perfecting and strengthening them, helping them through trial and error, preparing them for the day when they would be present and Christ’s presentation, as members of his body, the Church.

What did Simeon say:  “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace, according to your word.”  Now your work in me is complete.  This is the final brush stroke, the pinnacle.

Simeon and Anna are the image and the sign of what we are all meant to be in Christ: offerings to God who have been purified and refined and built up in the Spirit.  The presence of Simeon and Anna in the temple today prefigures the final day when Christ will enter into the heavenly Jerusalem and present all of us, the work of his hands, to our heavenly Father.

As we come together let us ask Christ to help us cooperate with and be open to the work of his creative and purifying Spirit.  May we not shy from our divine sculptor’s chisel, or the Master gardener’s pruners.  May we be docile in the hands of the potter and submit to the honing file.  We are being purified.  We are being molded and shaped and transformed in Christ, an artist who is gentle yet firm.  As Hebrews tells us in our second reading, “Because he himself was tested through what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.”

We are being prepared by the mysterious workings of God’s grace alive in us.  The grace we receive here at Mass and in the sacraments is fundamentally a constructive and refining grace, a grace that is at work to build us up, purify us, and make us fully human.  May we trust in the skillful hands of Christ, in the steadfast and never-failing efforts of the Divine Artist, who is at work to make of us, his Church, a pure and holy masterpiece revealed in all her splendor in the final presentation.