Sunday, December 27, 2009

12-27-2009: Holy Family (C)

Feast of the Holy Family
Samuel 1:20-22,24-28/ Pslam 84/ 1 John 3:1-2,21-24/ Luke 2:41-52
All you lovers of the Rosary will recognize today’s gospel story as the Fifth Joyful Mystery of the Rosary - the Finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple. It’s a bit of a misnomer, though, if we read the story with honest eyes. After all, for whom is it joyful? Mary and Joseph, having come from rural Nazareth, cannot find their teenage son in the vast, sprawling metropolis that was Jerusalem. They were probably past frantic, and more than a little miffed, when they finally locate him hobnobbing with the hoi polloi in the Temple precincts. [I’m using hoi polloi, here, the way someone from Brooklyn (or Nazareth) would – not in its literal sense].

This is the only story, in the canonical gospels, of Jesus as a teenager – the only mention of his adolescence. Not to be too judgmental we might read today’s gospel story, or meditate on it as the fifth joyful mystery of the rosary, marveling at Jesus’ precociousness while overlooking his seemingly obvious insensitivity to his parents’ feelings. Talking about Jesus “growing up,” or growing in wisdom, age and grace as the gospel tells us today, does present problems for us Christians, especially for those of us with too static a notion of the hypostatic union.

Now there’s a phrase. Hypostatic union is that technical term used for the unique presence of both a divine and human nature in Jesus of Nazareth. We seldom hear the phrase anymore; probably because it makes Jesus sound, to our modern science-fiction-sensitive ears, more like a space alien (Klingon or Romulan perhaps?) than anything else. But then again, when we’re trying to figure out why teenagers do the things they do, maybe it’s as apt a description as any. “Ordinary” teenagers, not in possession of a hypostatic union, usually act like they’re aliens from another planet, speaking an unintelligible gibberish, clumsily awkward, inordinately sensitive and, ultimately, so mysterious they could have a decade of the Rosary named for them.

When Mary and Joseph finally find the teenage Jesus, spouting off with the priests and scholars in the Temple, Mary’s frustration comes across loud and clear when she rather sharply rebukes her son: “Boy, why’d you do this to us?” Of course, what would be most telling would be the ability to hear Mary’s tone of voice – that is, if she weren’t screaming at the top of her lungs. And you parents of teenagers might just be wondering how Mary and Joseph decided to punish Jesus when they got him back home where, the gospel tells us, he was obedient unto them.

All this comment is said with tongue and cheek, of course; but, hopefully, causing us to pause to consider Jesus’ unique identity and how he interacted with those closest to him. Some insist that, because Jesus was God, he planned the whole episode, intentionally running away from Mary and Joseph in order to teach them and everybody else that he was indeed the Son of God; staging the Temple scene so he could dramatically deliver the revelation that the Temple was his real Father’s house. But this kind of interpretation invites more than a little skepticism because it doesn’t honor the greater revelation – that of the authenticity of the Incarnation itself. If the Incarnation means that Jesus is truly human than he must be just as human as we are, especially in adolescence - when planning anything long term just doesn’t seem possible.

The beauty of today’s gospel passage is that it’s such a relief. Despite the fact that within the Holy Family both Jesus and Mary were free of original sin, their family still experienced stress and friction, even a little bitterness and, most certainly, hurt feelings. When the teenage Jesus runs away from Mary and Joseph, leaving them distressed and filled with anxiety, wasn’t he acting just like most other teenagers who know exactly how to press their parents’ buttons and cause the same reactions. And the fact that Mary “lost it” in front of the hoi polloi - all those scholars and priests in the Temple - shows her human frailty as well. And what is considered by some to be the main import of the passage - Jesus’ claiming divinity by suggesting God is his real father - is perhaps the cruelest cut of all, at least from Joseph’s perspective. By Jesus claiming he was in his “Father’s house,” he was telling all those important people in the Temple that poor old Joseph, the blue-collar carpenter standing embarrassed before them, was not his real dad.

The Holy Family is often (and unfortunately) held up as the perfect family, whose perfection our families should emulate. But if the Holy Family was indeed perfect, we may safely conclude from today’s gospel that perfection doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. In fact, it seems that being conceived without original sin (Mary), as well as possessing a divine nature (Jesus), doesn’t make you immune from emotions that all human beings are subject to; some, not so nice.

Perhaps, though, I was wrong. Maybe today’s gospel passage, as a mystery of the Rosary, is indeed joyful – showing us that Jesus is less alien than his unique hypostatic reality would make him seem, having more in common with “ordinary” teenagers than we first expected. Teenagers’ actions and words may sometimes cut a parent’s heart to the quick, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t love and respect you enormously – somewhere, way down deep, in their mysterious nature, which the more prayerful among us have long ago discovered to be joyful.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

12-20-2009: Fourth Sunday of Advent (C)

Fourth Sunday of Advent
Micah 5:1-4/ Psalm 80/ Hebrews 10:5-10/ Luke 1:39-45
The exhortation to keep Christ in Christmas has the ring of modernity about it. As if to say we, as a culture, have forgotten the real meaning of Christmas while indulging ourselves in all of its tangential concerns and pleasures. Reading between the lines in the gospel, though, might suggest that trying to keep Christ in Christmas has been a challenge from the very beginning.

In today’s gospel, what serves as John the Baptist’s unborn debut hints at a perhaps darker dilemma that the teenage Mary had to face. We are told that Mary arose and went with haste to the hill country to visit her kinswoman Elizabeth who, seemingly past childbearing age, was miraculously pregnant as well. Reading between the lines a more apt translation might be: throwing a few things together, Mary headed for the hills – with all the danger and intrigue such a phrase conjures.

It makes sense though, doesn’t it? Who could blame Mary’s parents if they tried their best to salvage what must have seemed a no-win situation, figuring out a way to get their pregnant and unwed teenager out of town before she began to show. Heading for the hills is the classic solution to this most perennial of problems. We might even surmise that, all things being equal, no one thought Elizabeth at her age would be able to carry her child to term and, if something should happen… well, kinship adoption would seem the perfect solution to a very thorny problem.

Up until fairly recently unwed mothers bore an inordinate amount of shame brought on by culture, religion and societal mores. When Ingrid Bergman became pregnant out of wedlock (playing Sister Mary Benedict in The Bells of St. Mary’s when she began to show), she was denounced from the floor of the United States Senate. Bergman then headed for the hills – of Europe, until her public forgave her with her performance in Anastasia. [It’s a bit uncanny that the name Anastasia, in Greek, literally means arise – the very word that opens today’s gospel account: Mary arose and travelled to the hill country…]

Perhaps it was the ugly way in which Bergman was shamed that caused another actress in the same predicament, Loretta Young, to head for the hills – of Italy. After she gave birth to her daughter in secret, Young returned to the U.S. claiming she had adopted the baby girl in Italy. Not only did she avoid the ugly denunciations of such a prestigious (and shameless) institution as the U.S. Senate, but was praised for her selflessness - saving the poor waif from a cruel fate. Young, noted for her devout Catholicism, no doubt had that burden to bear as well as she continued the lie for nearly three decades.

When my mother, unwed and living in Baltimore, became pregnant with me she also arose and headed for the hills – of Manhattan. It’s both comforting and unnerving to think that, if she had chosen to head to some other hills, how different my life would have been. While our genetic make-up certainly seems to be the dominant feature of who we are, the “accidents” of environment, twinged here or tweaked there, can determine to a great degree who we become.

Keeping Christ in Christmas has always been a challenge; Advent helps by bidding us arise and head for the hills. We need to get some distance, see things from a different and, perhaps, higher perspective; figure things out, make decisions, accept our destiny, and then return from the hills to embrace it.

For Mary, things didn’t work out the way they might have: Elizabeth carried to term and Mary returned home - very pregnant. The hills didn’t offer Mary an easy out, but strengthened her in her resolve to accept her situation as she promised she would when the angel had first come upon her. Keeping Christ in Christmas might be a challenge these days, but having kept Christ in that first Christmas was indeed a major miracle, made possible by God’s grace no doubt, but also by the resolve of a young mother who arose to accept her situation. Who knows: if Mary hadn’t first headed for the hills, she might not have been able to do just that.

12-13-2009: Third Sunday of Advent (C)

Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-18/ Isaiah 12:2-6/ Philippians 4:4-7/ Luke 3:10-18
It would be quite a coincidence if one day archaeologists would uncover evidence that Jesus’ birth really did take place in the darkest weeks of winter, deep in December. Perhaps finding something akin to our church baptismal registers, listing date of birth, the name of the young mother, and as for the father, the Latin designation - pater ignotus - a not so subtle attempt to protect from the shame that such births seem always to engender.

A coincidence, precisely because no one knows when Jesus was born. It took the Church centuries before she began to celebrate Jesus’ birth, celebrating instead his manifestation to the Magi – the Epiphany – Little Christmas. When the church finally did settle down for the birthday celebration, she chose this dark time of year, near the winter solstice, when days are shortest and the darkness of night seems way too long. Then, recalling the star of Bethlehem, a slice of light and the longed-for dawn appearing on the horizon, became the theme of Christmas. It’s an obvious use of metaphor, alluding to that primal human need to see – or at least to glimpse – so we might hope and not despair.

The metaphor is likewise applied to that inner darkness where loneliness and a sense of abandonment can do terrible things to people; or make them into something extraordinary. One of the mysteries of Christianity is that it isn’t so simple. It promises light, while steadfastly refusing to curse the darkness. If you’ve read the recent biography of Mother Teresa, Come Be My Light, you might agree that she knew of that darkness, intimately:

"The darkness … surrounds me on all sides…no light enters my soul. Yet deep down somewhere in my heart that longing for God keeps breaking through the darkness…I have come to love the darkness."

Notice she doesn’t say that God breaks through the darkness; it is her longing that makes the breakthrough. Christmas, the mysterious way in which divinity made itself manifest, started in darkness, not light. Remember: Mary’s initial reaction to the angel Gabriel was one of fear, and the dilemma that her unexpected pregnancy provoked must have been a very dark time for all involved. Christmas, though celebrating the coming of divinity, is in a real sense the sacrament of absence as well.

In our most skeptical age, when faith has been relegated to the back room of daily experience and the practice of religion considered a remnant of an unenlightened past, surprise is perhaps the only “proof” that still has the power to melt away doubt and despair. Surprise is the manifestation of the unexpected with all its awe-ful terror and awe-filled wonder. Most of us are not in the same league as the Virgin Mary who accepted Gabriel’s proposition, or Mother Teresa who claimed to receive a call within a call on her fateful train ride to Darjeeling in the 1940s; but we can be surprised nonetheless. One of the earliest documentaries of Mother Teresa’s life and work recorded an interview with a Loreto nun who lived with Mother Teresa for some twenty years when she taught Geography at a girls’ high school in India and before she left the convent to begin picking up the dying on the streets of Calcutta. The old Irish nun recalled that Mother Teresa was no different from any of the other sisters in the convent; matter of fact, the nun said, we thought she was a bit on the delicate side.

Can you picture the delicate Mother Teresa as she picked up the maggot-ridden bodies of the dying and the dead, washing their putrefying bodies, cleaning their open sores – for fifty years. Delicate indeed. But that’s the kind of surprise that makes you step back and wonder, despite (or is it because) the darkness seems at times so deep, how such things can happen.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

12-06-2009: Second Sunday Advent (C)

Second Sunday of Advent
Baruch 5:1-9/ Psalm 126/ Philippians 1:4-6,8-11/ Luke 3:1-6

Both the prophet Baruch, as well as the great John the Baptist, echo the same images from the Hebrew scriptures as they suggest in today’s readings that salvation is somehow akin to heavy construction, redevelopment or, perhaps, urban planning. Make those crooked paths straight, lay those mountains low, fill in those deep valleys; then we’ll all be able to see our salvation when it appears.

Mountains and valleys might block your view of the uninterrupted horizon, but they too can be beautiful in their own way; and, as beauty, serve as a conduit of that very same salvation. Even crooked paths can lead to the same desired end, albeit the journey be a bit longer. Salvation, then, may be a matter of perspective; in the end, a completely subjective and totally personal experience. The bottle always smells of the wine it once held, St. Augustine would write about his own conversion experience.

For a class I teach at St. Joseph’s I was re-reading a few things from the extraordinary life of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker and recently proclaimed by the Church a Servant of God on the road to canonization. Dorothy Day had a jaded youth, to say the least. But it would be a huge mistake to think that she might be a saint despite her past, rather than because of it.

As a young journalist in the roaring ‘20s, she was way ahead of her time vis-à-vis women’s liberation and the sexual revolution. After being jilted by a live-in lover by whom she became pregnant and because of whom she aborted her baby, Dorothy would descend deep into that very low valley called despair where, some suggest, she may have attempted suicide. She would rebound though and, a few years later, ascend a high mountaintop, when she found herself deeply in love with Forster Batterham, a fellow radical and Communist, by whom she would became pregnant once again. But now she was filled with delight and gratitude and, overcome with joy, began to pray in thanksgiving for such a gift. Dorothy would attend Mass at a nearby church close to their cabin in the Spanish Camp section on the Staten Island shoreline. It was there she decided that she would baptize her daughter and, in that decision, find herself at the crossroads of her life, because the agnostic Forster had told Dorothy that if she baptized their daughter he would leave her. It was the hardest decision of her life, she would later write. But she baptized her daughter and, at the same time, became a Catholic herself.

The rest, as they say, is history. For the next fifty years Dorothy Day lived and worked with the poor and outcasts of New York City. She founded the Catholic Worker and opened houses of hospitality where the corporal works of mercy could be practiced for anyone, by anyone. It seemed that Dorothy had laid those mountains of her past low, she had filled in those deep valleys, straightened all those crooked paths. But it also seems significant that she always kept in touch with Forster, filling him in over the years on their daughter’s life and, then, on the lives of their many grandchildren. When Dorothy died in 1980 Forster attended her funeral. He, the onetime anarchist-communist who would not countenance religion of any kind, received Holy Communion that day. “It was Forster’s way of expressing his love for Dorothy,“ an old friend of Dorothy noted. “Those loves don’t disappear.”

Dorothy Day may have filled in those valleys, razed those mountains and even straightened out some very crooked paths – but never completely so, thank God. Salvation it seems is custom-made; one size doesn’t fit all. It’s utterly personal: transforming our past not obliterating it - grace building on nature, never annihilating it. No matter how sordid you might think your history is, it is precisely that history that will be saved, that history which becomes the foundation for your eternity – an eternity made up of all the highs and lows and crookedness that is part of your unique journey.

Monday, November 23, 2009

11-29-2009: First Sunday of Advent (C)

First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16/ Pslam 25/ Thessalonians 3:12-4:2/ Luke 21:25-28,34-36
November is National Adoption Awareness Month. Being adopted, I couldn’t let the month pass without a word…or two. Adoption has long been a solution for two groups of people facing difficult situations: parentless children and childless couples. In the past, well-intentioned professionals thought that you could solve the problems of both groups through adoption; that once the baby was placed in the arms of the adoptive family the problems of both would be resolved and no one need look back. Only in recent decades have we become more aware that adoption is a complex phenomenon involving fundamental issues surrounding self-identity and self-awareness. Adoption may make childless couples into parents (and sometimes into the best of parents) but it doesn’t cure their infertility – that pain never completely goes away. Adoption, likewise, may provide a loving family for relinquished children, but it doesn’t remove the curiosity, desire and need (sometimes long denied) to know where you have come, who are your ancestors, and why you needed to be placed with another family to begin with. This is why, today, most professionals would ascribe to practice open adoption where the prospective adoptive family knows the mother of the soon-to-be adopted child. In our present culture of increasingly blended families where children may have multiple sets of step parents, grandparents and siblings, knowing one’s birth family can be understood as just another way of being a blended family.

In today’s first reading the prophet Jeremiah reflects on the import that loss of family and identity can have. He is writing in that turbulent sixth century B.C. at the time of the Babylonian invasion when Solomon’s Temple was destroyed, Jerusalem laid waste, and untold numbers of her citizens underwent deportation from Jerusalem to a fifty-year exile in Babylon. In that forced migration much was lost; but much was also gained. The Babylonian Talmud was produced, Jews regained a sense of their ethnicity, and they revisited the notion of their unique covenant with the true God: precisely because they had been separated from their origins, they began to value what they had lost. Then the Persians conquered the Babylonians and King Cyrus repatriated the Jews to their ancestral home. Although an act of justice on the part of the Persians, I wonder if it were not perceived, by some at least, as another forced migration of sorts. After all, fifty years had passed; many of those repatriated had been born in Babylon – it was the only home they knew. It must have been complicated, a mixed-bag so to speak, and the young especially must have felt pulled in two directions.

Pulled in two directions is often how the adopted describe themselves, whether or not they’ve searched for their families of origin. It’s the heart of the adoption experience and it’s always a bitter-sweet experience. That’s why secrecy found its way into adoption practice some seventy or so years ago, the thinking being: what the adopted person doesn’t know, can’t hurt him. But secrecy always hurts, precisely because it never works: those kinds of secrets are impossible to keep. Sadly, though, secrecy and sealed records continue to be the practice in most states of the union, keeping vital information from the very persons to whom the information pertains.

November is also the month when we remember those close to us who have died. We commemorate All Souls’ Day and pray for the eternal rest of family and friends long, and not so long, gone. When I began to search for my birthmother nearly thirty years ago I discovered that her maiden name was Jones and she subsequently married a man named Brown. Not knowing where she had been from, you can imagine the odds of finding a Jones-become-Brown from anywhere in the United States. I did know though the name of the church where she was baptized: Our Lady of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. It was a unique dedication for a church and perhaps the only church in the United States with such a name. I found her in a matter of days.

Those holy souls may need our continued prayers, but they provide us a favor or two as well, investing themselves into our lives in surprising ways. The mysteries of Divine Providence leave clues for us to follow when we find ourselves in the darkest of times. True religion is not so much the pious routine of rubric, the theologian von Balthasar would say, but the realigning of previously separated parts. We may not be potential parents in search of children or relinquished waifs in need of a family – but we are all pilgrims, journeying toward the home we will only fully recognize when we’ve arrived.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

11-22-2009: Christ the King (B)

Solemnity of Christ the King
Daniel 7:13-14/Psalm 93/ Revelation 1:5-8/ John 18:33-37
If you’re as old as I, or older, you remember precisely where you were and what you were doing forty-six years ago today, November 22nd. I was sitting in my sixth grade classroom (which was the school auditorium since there were near seventy boys in our class – too many for your normal classroom) when the only phone in the school rang and the news came that President Kennedy had been fatally shot. I suppose if it had happened on November 23rd the effect on memory would have been the same, but it was November 22nd. That’s 11/22 which, as numbers go, is especially convenient to remember: the second number being the product of the first doubled. The whole number, 11, is special because it’s a prime number; 2 is even more special because it’s the only even number that’s prime - which makes it the oddest even number, so to speak.

Daniel Tammet suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and is a savant where numbers are concerned. In his 2006 memoir, Born on a Blue Day, he recounts how, in his mind’s eye, he experiences the beauty of numbers as different shapes and colors. Tammet set a world record a few years back by reciting 22,514 digits of pi without error in a little over five hours. When asked why he would want to do such a thing, he told reporters that, for him, pi is an extremely beautiful and utterly unique thing – like the Mona Lisa or a Mozart symphony. The renowned physicist, Freeman Dyson, when asked about evolutionary theory, responded that it was the best way to understand the development of life; yet it can offer no explanation why we human beings get such pleasure out of contemplating something so abstract as numbers.

Numbers have always had a dual effect; a binary purpose, so to speak. On the one hand they are solid and scientific, offering concrete proof for the existence of order as scientists explain the laws of nature, develop technology, predict outcomes. But numbers have also been understood by magicians and mystics as clues to unfold long hidden secrets, revealing one’s fate and, again, predicting the future. Numerology has long played a part in mystical Judaism where Hebrew consonants have numerical value in their biblical exposition, possessing the key to unraveling divine secrets (The Bible Code by Michael Drosnin, about hidden prophecies written into the text of the Hebrew Bible, was a best seller just a few years back). The recently-released apocalyptic blockbuster, 2012, works along the same lines. It seems that on December 21, 2012 (that’s 12/21/12) the ancient Mayan calendar will end (or, at least, a particular cycle of it will end) and, oops, so must the world. It seems those same numbers, 1 and 2, are at work again forecasting apocalyptic doom and gloom.

With today’s feast of Christ the King our liturgical year draws to a close and the readings sound an apocalyptic air, reminding us that just as another year comes to a close so, one day, this world will draw to an end as well. The Books of Daniel and Revelation are prime examples of apocalyptic writing meant to frighten the listener into taking account of his life before it’s too late. It’s an appeal to our baser instincts, it seems; a scare tactic meant to work best in dire circumstances, appealing to that elemental fright-flight mechanism inherited from our distant ancestors. Hopefully, after the initial scare, we’ll see through the tactic of apocalyptic fright and glimpse the underlying message: that, when our number is finally up, we will possess an eternal destiny of glory, where fear has long been banished. As for any occult numerological value attached to the readings from Revelation and Daniel: they were written in Greek, not Hebrew – thank God.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

11-15-2009: 33rd Ordinary Time (B)

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Daniel 12:1-3/Psalm 16/Hebrews 10:11-14,18/Mark 13:24-32
If you ever get a chance to visit St. Petersburg, the former Leningrad of Soviet Russia, you might venture into the large square before what is now the Hermitage Museum. Previous to the Communist Revolution the museum was the Czar’s Winter Palace where serfs and soldiers would shout their disdain for the Romanovs and the injustices of an obsolete imperialism – all this a decade before the Bolsheviks took power. Perhaps they felt emboldened (though they must have known they would be crushed under the Czar’s powerful guard) by the high column that stands in the center of the square. Since atop that column was the bold statue of the patron of St. Petersburg – the Archangel Michael - sword in hand, about to slay Satan who lay writhing under Michael’s foot.

The Communists never got ‘round to dismantling the column with St. Michael atop. It continued to stand in the middle of the square in front of the old Winter Palace of the Czars in St. Petersburg-turned-Leningrad. By the time the great prince, Michael, was thought to have heard the cries of his people and come to the aid of those entrapped behind the Iron Curtain, the injustices of the Czars seemed mild in comparison to those of the Communists.

In the Book of Daniel, Michael is the great prince, the guardian of God’s people. He fights the dark forces of evil; evenly matched, as it were, against another Archangel, Lucifer, who through a mutation of history had become one with Satan. Satan had made an earlier appearance in the Book of Job where he was God’s emissary, not an evil independent entity. I plead ignorance concerning the evolution of Lucifer into Satan, but there’s no doubt he has mutated in many minds into the personification of evil, that fire-breathing, dragon-like, reptilian devil who many accept as equal to God. Thus we slip into that dangerous dualism where all is either black or white, good or evil.

Despite the temptation to embrace this kind of apocalypticism (would everything be so clear), I tend to think life’s a lot more nuanced. Read C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, for instance, and you walk away with a healthier fear of evil precisely because the devil does his most effective work in the ordinariness of daily decisions than in any threat of a global Armageddon. Or take a look at another gem from C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, where the devil – this time an actual lizard – is rather endearing. More like a pet who tries to convince his host to see things his way through gentle persuasion than full-fledged scare tactics. After much inner turmoil the man gives the angel permission to remove the lizard from his shoulder. Both the man and the lizard fall to the ground, near dead by the powerful touch of the fiery angel. But then, both are transformed, both redeemed; reminding us that God had indeed initially created all things good – including Lucifer. Pope John Paul II in Crossing the Threshold of Hope came very close to embracing an old, near-heretical belief that argued that God’s powerful mercy would eventually save all – even the devil.

Despite prophecies and predictions to the contrary, we aren’t yet at the end - and worrying about it can’t be an especially good thing. Until the moment when everything becomes crystal clear, we’re left to figure things out with a bit of faith and a good deal of reason. Prudence, perhaps, is our most important weapon in the battle.

For all the depictions in art of the Archangel Michael holding the sword close to Satan’s throat – I’ve yet to see one that depicts Satan actually dead. Maybe Michael sees - even in Satan, in his most ardent enemy - a glimpse of goodness, a vestige of love that hasn’t been completely lost. Maybe that’s why Satan squirms, as we all do when confronted with the beauty of the gospel: despite our sins and our selfishness, we’re loved and valued just for being us.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

11-08-2009: 32nd Ordinary Time (B)

Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
1 Kings 17:10-16/Psalm 146/Hebrews 9:24-28/Mark 12:38-44

As of this writing, Election Day ’09 has just come to a close and, no doubt, both winners and losers are loosening their collars and putting up their feet. So is Sacred Heart’s rectory staff after two days of constant calls with questions and complaints – mostly complaints. That’s because my Pastoral Reflections of November 1st concerning the religious beliefs of the Republican candidate was copied by the Democrat candidate and sent by his campaign to registered voters in District 19 (it appeared, however, to have been sent by Sacred Heart – which was not the case). In addition to publishing these Reflections in our Parish Bulletin, I also post them on a blog site ( with other pieces and presentations I’ve written over the course of a number of years. I have always considered my writing, once posted or published, as part of the public domain, so to speak, and have never copyrighted nor restricted its further publication. Thus ensued the distribution of last week’s Reflections to a lot more people than usual. The onslaught of calls which, if we had taken a tally, were probably 9 to 1 in favor of the Republican candidate, suggested that the Democrat Party’s strategy may have indeed backfired.

Permit me to take this opportunity to congratulate Mr. Halloran on his victory and to let you know that Mr. Halloran had called me the day before Election Day to express his concern about my views regarding his religious adherence but, nonetheless, state his intention to serve the best interests of all members of his district if elected. Not knowing what the outcome would have been on the Monday before Election Day, and perhaps concerned about the effect of my Reflections on his prospects for victory, I was humbled by Mr. Halloran’s especially gracious words and manner. I believe him to be most sincere in his stated desire to serve the best interests of his district and all here in our parish -- despite the published misgivings of your pastor.

There remains, though, a broader question which many of the (more angry) callers expressed in one way or other: namely, the relationship of religion to politics and the perceived parameters within which clergy are allowed to maneuver. The underlying assumption seems to be that religion is a private affair and should not crossover into the public forum. The clergy’s right to a private opinion is one thing; their public expression of it, another. The exception being Afro-American clergy who can endorse candidates seemingly willy-nilly, invite them to speak in their churches, instruct parishioners how to vote, and do it all for the television cameras. Yet, no one even blinks an eye: it’s the accepted exception. Perhaps it has do with the way in which the black churches emerged from slavery, embracing the “Social Gospel” with its inextricable link to the public square; all the while unconcerned about the separation clause, since poor churches had little to lose if their tax exempt status were revoked. Truth speaks to power best, it seems, when there’s no vested interest.

I see the wisdom of caution, though, regarding the application of overt religious intentions spilling into politics. The separation clause, after all, was intended to protect the church more than the state – religious institutions should be grateful for its existence and keen for its longevity. Yet the issue of the relationship of religion to the public square remains. And it remains, I believe, because religion itself is a component of human experience that is not reducible to any other category: like culture, race, language and ethnicity, religion cannot be compartmentalized either. At least not in a healthy way, as if it were simply a phenomenon of party affiliation or membership in this club and not that one. But religion is also a complicated phenomenon precisely because it carries with it aspects of culture, language, race and ethnicity. Discussion of its applicability to the public forum would be an immense undertaking. And so, it’s easier to compartmentalize: politics here, religion there – and never the ‘twain shall meet. Except, of course, when both merge into one and politics – more precisely, party membership - becomes a religion in itself. Then when someone challenges your candidate, the angry response takes on the flavor of a holy jihad. Grandma’s admonition about not bringing up politics or religion in polite conversation reflects a wisdom no doubt born of repeated, and unpleasant, experience.

Politics, as they say, makes for strange bedfellows. Whether Mr. Halloran’s gracious phone call the other day was born of that political pragmatism or his religious convictions or a combination of both, I do not know. Winners are often routinely gracious: it’s good to know someone can be that gracious – even before he knew how the game would end.

Monday, November 2, 2009

11-01-2009: All Saints (B)

Feast of All Saints
Revelation 7:2-4,9-14/Psalm 24/1 John 3:1-3/Matthew 5:1-12
Halloween’s association with the Catholic Feasts of All Saints and All Souls affords an opportunity to examine the relationship between paganism and Christianity in the ancient past as well as the emergence of Neo-paganism in our Judeo-Christian culture today. Halloween, the ancient pagan feast of Samhein, was perhaps the pre-Christian Celtic New Year, when the dead were believed to cross over into the world of the living as summer gave way to winter and nights grew longer and colder; the voices of the dead crying out on the deserted bog, as it were, inculcating dread and fear while demanding appeasement from the hopeless. When the Church co-opted the pagan feast, in effect baptizing it, the fear that was the hollow heart of pagan Samhein was converted into a hallowed hope for peace and joy.

There is more than one kind of fright. One that inspires a hopeless dread and another that despite its initial scariness, evokes - from children especially - laughter and near glee because they intuit that what at first frightened ultimately holds no danger. That’s why we no longer call it Samhein but Halloween – the eve of All Hallows, the eve of All Saints’ Day which, on an older liturgical calendar, was celebrated with that of All Souls. The co-opting of this pagan feast by the Church no doubt sought to capitalize on the remnants of pagan practice among the Celts but, much more significantly, upturned the dread of darkness and death into a hope sprung from the conviction that death no longer held sway. Jack-o-lanterns, witches on broomsticks, ghosts and goblins gave way to the holy souls of the faithful departed who were not out to frighten us, the Church revealed, but to be our friends united with us in prayer on our journey toward heaven.

Neo-paganism, as a religious movement in the West, has slowly emerged through the twentieth century and has now gained a respectability of sorts. In our democratic society it claims equal footing as one religion among many. And, indeed, its practitioners can and do enjoy the benefits of citizenship in a free society; they even run for public office. In fact, the Republican candidate running for the City Council from District 19 (Bayside), once a Catholic is now, by his own admission, a practicing pagan, claiming the title “Lord” of his own religious “Tribe.” He, like any other citizen, has the right to run for elected office. All well and good. But when the tenets of his particular cult or religion expressly condemn the beliefs of many of his hoped-for constituents as evil, constituting “the crime of warlockery,” then questioning him on such beliefs should not be off limits but made public, if the interests of democratic governance are to be upheld.

The Republican candidate for City Council from our district, not a lapsed Catholic as some say, but a professed pagan, not only rejects Christianity but calls Christian Baptism a “molestation” and “a treason against the Gods,” as well as a personal affront against his person as “Lord of the Tribe” - that is - a personal affront against the Republican candidate for City Council himself. One wonders how, if elected, he can fairly represent the interests of his Christian constituents when he holds their faith in such disdain. No wonder the Republican candidate has dismantled his “tribal” website and, with duplicitous intent, flaunts his Catholic education. Some say it’s a private matter and should not be part of the public debate. Yet, wouldn’t an African-American constituency want to know if the candidate running to represent them were a member of the KKK, or a Jewish constituency have the right to know if a candidate was a member of a neo-Nazi bund?

There is no doubt that the Republican candidate for the City Council in District 19 despises the faith of the Catholic Church. Without open discussion on the matter of his religious convictions, one can only conclude he must despise her members as well. The fear and hopelessness that was once the hollow heart of pagan Samhein, so long rendered powerless by the promise of hope, now rears its head again: Voter Beware!

10-25-2009: 30th Ordinary Time (B)

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Jeremiah 31:7-9/Psalm 126/Hebrews 5:1-6/Mark 10:46-52
Pope Benedict has designated this the Year of the Priest and this weekend as its focus. The Holy Father asks us pray that our priests strive for spiritual perfection. I’m very grateful to the Holy Father that he was kind enough to include the word “strive” in his request, implying that we priests are not quite there yet (some of us aren’t even sure if we’re going in the right direction).

The past half decade has witnessed what will no doubt be recorded in later history as a very low point in the history of the Catholic priesthood. The sex scandals involving priests and minors have rocked the church in the West in substantial ways. From the psychological damage suffered by victims to the rather cowardly behavior of bishops toward their priests to the financial damage whose end is, as of yet, nowhere in sight and which will cause not a few dioceses in the United States to ultimately go bankrupt. Being a priest I am, admittedly, biased in my evaluation of how the scandals are reported when compared to similar scandals in other parts of the culture. A recent article – not page one of any major publication – reported on how certain members of the orthodox Jewish community were taking the issue of sex abuse of minors to the civil authorities against the wishes of their religious leaders. The estimated number of incidents is astounding yet the “cover-up” by both religious and elected officials (especially in Brooklyn) has produced little or no public outcry or expression of outrage, serving as a gauge on how obviously prejudiced that reporting and public reaction has been. Likewise the much greater number of sex abuse cases in the public school system is a convincing argument that the problem isn’t limited to religious affiliation or marital status. Most of those accused teachers, because of their strong union, remain on salary. Accused priests, on the other hand, are immediately removed from ministry and, in some cases, quickly laicized: all accomplished without even the semblance of due process (this is admitted by many bishops – off the record, of course).

An elderly priest of our diocese recently died. The priest had been accused of inappropriate behavior with a minor decades ago. Nothing was ever proven. As per diocesan custom, an internal memo was sent to pastors announcing the priest’s death and his funeral arrangements. Conspicuously lacking in the memo was the usual reference to the man as a priest - diocesan policy, we were told. Perhaps an insignificant incident within the larger picture but indicative, nonetheless, of a desire to distance ourselves from any guilt by association. The man may or may not have been guilty. Refusing to acknowledge that he was a priest – especially to those who obviously knew him – speaks more about the power of shame than any appeal to justice.

In the Letter to the Hebrews we are told that the priest is able to deal patiently with the erring, for he himself is beset by weakness. We may not all be beset by the same weakness; but we are all beset by some weakness. When that weakness spills over into the arena of crime and punishment, scandal becomes of paramount importance to the institution. And scandal is a very dangerous thing - because it is a two-edged sword. One edge highlights the weakness, the sin, and perhaps the crime that caused the scandal; the other edge - our reaction to it - and the very great temptation to disavow the sin by forsaking the sinner. The threat of scandal will always be with us because weakness will always remain an essential element of the priesthood – thank God.

Catholic piety has long reverenced the crucifix as the premier symbol of our faith. Yet, if we were really honest, we might admit that the crucifix is the essence of scandal. The representation of the agony of the crucifixion has been the subject of recent renditions: Pope John Paul II’s crosiered-crucifix, for example, or Mel Gibson’s vivid attempt to authentically portray the violence of the crucifixion in his Passion of the Christ. But, for all attempts at authenticity, the most authentic - and most humiliating - detail of the crucifixion is seldom if ever portrayed: Jesus’ nudity on that cross. Jesus’ nakedness is itself emblematic of the humiliation that was at the heart of his death. No one – no one – who looked upon the cross on that first Good Friday could possibly have imagined God was on Jesus’ side. On the contrary, his crucifixion revealed the naked truth: shame was at the heart of Jesus’ death.

We Catholics, perhaps absent-mindedly, display the crucifix with pride, forgetful of the deep shame which it embodies. Scandals are by definition shame-filled; but it is the shameful scandal, the naked externalization of weakness - more than any pious platitude or spiritual perfection – that enigmatically has the power to convert hearts and minds to the mystery of God in surprising and revolutionary ways.

10-18-2009: 29th Ordinary Time (B)

Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 53:10-11/Psalm 33/Hebrews 4:14-16/Mark 10:42-45
Suffering and honor seem mysteriously related. The gospel today has the sons of Zebedee seeking a place of honor near Jesus. Can you endure what I will endure, asks Jesus. No problem, they seem to answer rather nonchalantly. How bad could it be, they seemed to be thinking.

The link between suffering and honor, patient-endurance and redemption, is often understood through military metaphor: “soldiers of Christ,” we Catholics once called ourselves in Confirmation. And even the Buddhists are not immune: to become a “bodhisattva warrior” is no affront to the doctrine of do-no-harm. To live with awareness, some might say, is to be immersed in the heat of battle. Dorothy Day, the Catholic pacifist who protested all things military, would enigmatically claim Joan of Arc, the girl-general, her favorite saint. She kept a statue of St Joan, clad in military armor, at the side of her bed.

When Mark Twain completed his novel, Joan of Arc, he claimed it his best work and declared Joan to be “the greatest woman who ever lived.” (And that, despite Twain’s deep-seated anti-Catholicism and fervent disdain for Old World majesty). Twain repeats a phrase throughout the novel – perhaps a direct quote from Joan – that helps us see Joan’s take on suffering and honor. In obedience to the voices she claims to hear, Joan successfully leads the French army against the English and enables Charles, the Dauphin, to be crowned King of France. At the Mass of Coronation, when the nobles and generals have placed their banners in the sanctuary near the altar, Joan insists on placing her banner there as well despite her obvious lack of noble blood. The others object but Joan continues to insist, claiming “it has borne the pain; it has earned the honor.”

Suffering, never sought for its own sake but nevertheless endured for a great cause, engaged for love of something beyond oneself, borne for love of another, is what makes the ordinary life extraordinary; and, for which, we can only employ the language of glory, majesty, honor, nobility. It seems a universal archetype, a human conviction that transcends culture and language. There’s a hint of this truth found in, of all things, historical linguistics: the discipline of tracing connections between disparate peoples and cultures through shared language. It sounds at first a bit far-fetched but here’s how it goes: some 4,000 years ago the ancient Aryan peoples left their homeland somewhere on the great Russian steppe and migrated both east and west. Before Hitler co-opted the name Aryan for his warped racial policies (forcing subsequent scholars to re-designate the Aryans as the Indo-Europeans) the name Aryan was discovered to be both the root of the name “Iran” in the East and “Eire” or “Ireland” in the West. I wonder (and here I am only guessing) if it were not also connected to St. Joan’s birthplace as well -- that village of Arc where she first heard those ancient voices inviting her to embrace a remarkable destiny. Because, you see, the root “ar” of the name Aryan means ‘noble’; sometimes translated “noble-warrior.” A linguistic proof, so to speak, for the innate connection between the patient endurance we call suffering and the nobility of the human spirit which, by engaging life’s inevitable sufferings with courage, is lifted into the realm of majesty.

Like James and John, filled either with illusions of grandeur or promises of glory (who really knows) - and some old-fashioned chutzpah as well - we too might entertain the possibility of suffering and hardship for the sake of that glory or that grandeur (euphemisms for the encounter with the divine) which attract so powerfully.

10-11-2009: 28th Ordinary Time (B)

Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 7:7-11/Psalm 90/Hebrews 4:12-13/Mark 10:17-27
Sometimes you wish those gospel writers had taken a basic course in journalism before they sat down to pen holy writ. Like in today’s gospel, for instance, where we hear the story of the rich young man whom Jesus looks on with love. Now there’s a detail worth noting - the Greek literally reads: and Jesus looking at him loved him. And yet, despite the endearing intimacy of this detail in the young man’s encounter with Jesus, the gospel writer neglects to mention the rich young man’s name. Had the rich young man did what Jesus asked, had he sold his possessions and given the proceeds to the poor and had he, indeed, followed Jesus - he well might have been counted as one of the Twelve Apostles, displacing a would-be later recruit. That might have changed our shared cultural history a bit. Instead of a Thomas or a James, we might have had an Isaiah or a Seth. Just think: little Irish kids with freckles answering to Shlomo; Mexican Iras paying homage to the Virgin of Guadalupe; Italian Yehudas eating pasta and pork.

But, then again, maybe the gospel writer purposefully omitted the name: the mystery man having decided he couldn’t do what Jesus asked. The rich young man’s face fell, we are told, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Not only is his name lost to history, but his story is lost as well – not worth the words – mediocrity doesn’t merit a mention it seems.

Remember: the rich young man wasn’t a bad person. He obeyed all the commandments: he practiced his religion, he didn’t harm anyone. But in the end, Jesus seems to be saying, that’s not what it’s all about. In the end it’s not the riches or the poverty that counts, but how we respond to that love that comes to us in unexpected ways, in a passing glance, in that brief encounter where we know intuitively and with a certain certitude that our destiny lies on the line.

Perhaps religion prepares us for that moment. Perhaps it was because the rich young man observed his religious duties and obeyed his religion’s precepts that he was attracted to Jesus in the first place. But ultimately it didn’t afford him the courage to embrace his destiny – religion failed him at the crucial moment. Sometimes, Carl Jung once said, religion is the very thing that protects us from the experience of God.

Yet, maybe the rich young man’s anonymity serves another purpose. Maybe it fuels imagination, allowing us to suppose other outcomes. Although the rich young man walked away from Jesus at that decisive moment, he might have turned around somewhere down the road. It’s possible, isn’t it? Who knows? Perhaps someday they’ll unearth a long lost gospel in which we discover that the rich young man of our story turns out to be someone like Joseph of Arimathea whose wealth provided both shroud and tomb for the crucified Jesus; or, perhaps, one of the wealthy supporters of St. Paul on his expensive missionary travels. Who knows - might we each have more than one possible destiny, more than one way to respond to that experience of being looked on with love? Love changes everything, the popular song says, maybe even the way we read the bible, the way we hear what’s being said. Camels passing through needles’ eyes - a warning about wealth or a metaphor for possibilities – endless, rich possibilities.

10-04-2009: 27th Ordinary Time (B)

Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Genesis 2:18-24/Psalm 128/Hebrews 2:9-11/Mark 10:2-12
The revelation, mythic in nature though it be – that woman was created from “the rib of man” – remains a bone of contention these many ages since it was written. Although the author’s intention is to demonstrate that both male and female share the same nature, the underlying implication is that woman proceeds from man, rather than having been created simultaneously. (Just the opposite seems to be the actual case from biology, however – if I understand embryonic development in utero correctly).

In today’s gospel Jesus, despite gospel claims to the contrary, does indeed abolish the Mosaic Law and forbids divorce, citing the Genesis account of the shared nature between male and female. One might, sardonically perhaps, have reminded Jesus that there were, after all, not many post-divorce options for Adam and Eve, they being the only show-in-town at Eden’s opening curtain.

Only the Catholic Church has maintained the gospel injunction against divorce through the ensuing centuries (even the Orthodox Churches permit divorce, albeit with limitations). Yet, despite the injunction, divorce rates remain virtually the same for American Catholics as the general population. The church has responded by dramatically increasing the granting of annulments over the years; though, for many, the distinction between divorce and annulment is merely, and solely, a semantic one.

While many, religious or not, might agree that the practice of divorce has taken its toll on the American family, few would suggest outlawing the practice. Perhaps we all know too well that people make mistakes and we find it near impossible not to allow them another chance. But this is nothing new. Insinuations of “re-marriage” are hinted at even from the beginning.

As with much of the Bible, the Book of Genesis is filled with anomalies. The creation of Eve from Adam’s rib, for example, takes place in Chapter Two; but the creation of man and woman has already been noted in Chapter One. Ancient writers noticed this seeming contradiction and gave us the extra-biblical account of Lilith – Adam’s first wife. Lilith, unlike Eve, was created from the clay of the earth just as Adam was. The accounts of Lilith in Jewish mystical works illustrated the ensuing difficulties between Adam and Lilith by describing their competing sexual proclivities (best left to the reader’s imagination than endangering this writer’s future). The implication being that Adam, with divine assistance, ditched Lilith for a more submissive Eve. Through the ages the legend of Lilith, told from the male perspective, will embody the continuing struggle for power between men and women.

Marriage as indissoluble, as permanent, is an ideal that possesses immense value and its failure can have tragic consequences for spouses and children. Yet, the ideal of its indissolubility remains just that – an ideal. Jesus’ injunction against divorce may clarify the ideal but it doesn’t make the ideal a reality. There will always be those who fall short. Church and society must accommodate or run the risk of forsaking the real world for a mythical Garden of Eden which, when examined, might not have been as ideal as we would like to imagine.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

6-14-2009: Corpus Christi

Exodus 24:3-8/Psalm 116/Hebrews 9:11-15/Mark 14:12-16,22-26
Logistics is often the hinge on which even great events turn. Reading today’s gospel, it seems the Last Supper was no exception. The disciples want to know from Jesus where they’re going to meet for that Passover meal – they’re concerned about accommodations (How’s the service? What about parking?). It seems a bit silly, such concerns, when weighed against the import of what will eventually take place that night: Jesus offering his body and blood, his very self. He will (in that unfortunate choice of words) “institute the Eucharist” – mutating ordinary bread and wine into his body and blood. Such things require of us huge leaps of faith; but we, like the disciples, tend to get lost in the details.

But it is an intriguing detail – the logistics of the Last Supper, the origins of this feast of Corpus Christi. “Go into the city,” Jesus says, “and a man, carrying a jar of water, will meet you. Follow him.” And here’s the catch: men should not have been carrying jars of water in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day. In practical terms this aberration of cultural mores is a way for the disciples to identify the right person to follow in order to be led to their desired destination. But it’s also an inversion of accepted norms, what today we might call a trans-gendered act. Jesus entices his disciples with this mysterious detail of inversion, whetting their appetite for inversions of more profound kinds, later on, in the Upper Room where, in that cenacle of intimacy, God will wash men’s dirty feet, bread and wine will be made flesh and blood, and the drama of love and treachery be played out.

These days we are inundated with the politics of gender equality. Contentions arise between so-called conservative and liberal: the clichéd rhetoric of old vs. new, family values vs. emancipation. But I wonder if these hackneyed arguments don’t camouflage a deeper problem to which both sides fall victim: the faulty assumption that equality must mean sameness, that uniformity should be the mark of equivalence.

Perceptions about sex and sexuality seem an especially American problem, rooted in our Puritan past: that any inversion of desire or behavior is necessarily a perversion of nature. We should tread lightly here for inversion is the very atmosphere where faith learns to breathe, where we learn to see reality from shifting perspectives and thus fall upon the wonder of insight and the possibility of miracle.

Do we really believe that sexual realities are so superficial, and so immune to interpretations of culture, that they can be so easily classified as normal or abnormal? The man carrying the jar of water -- the man acting as a woman in today’s gospel -- was pivotal in the disciples’ journey of faith. Their willingness to follow that inversion would lead them to conversion, enabling them to see beyond the normal reality, to see in ordinary bread and wine the body and blood of Jesus, the visible image of the invisible God – the inversion of nature par excellence. Not all inversions, you see, are perversions; but rather invitations to view things topsy-turvy, from another perspective, from the inside out, entertaining the imagination and making insight possible.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

6-7-2009: Trintiy Sunday (B)

Deuteronomy 4:32-34,39-40/Psalm 33/Romans 8:14-17/Matthew 28:16-20

The ineffable mystery of the Trinity, not quite the cocktail hour topic of conversation, has made a big hit of late with the phenomenal success of The Shack, by William P. Young, a novel about forgiveness and the triune nature of God. Unlike the typical Renaissance depiction of the Trinity as the conventional Jesus seated below the white dove and old-white-man-with-flowing-beard, The Shack characterizes the Trinity as Black woman, Hispanic male, and androgynous Asian.

Readers remark that they were drawn by the shock of the unconventional, surprising characterization of the Trinity in this way. I wonder, though. I suspect these readers were anything but shocked: the characterizations appealing to them precisely because they met with certain preconceived stereotypes. The black grandma, as God the Father, sufficiently obese; the Hispanic male, as God the Son, sufficiently macho; and the androgynous Asian, as God the Spirit, either sufficiently feminized or emasculated depending on which profile you prefer emphasized. And the protagonist of the novel, Mack, as the devastated and, of course, slow-to-get-it white male (you can nearly hear the southern drawl) around whom the world turns and the Trinity saunters.

Reading The Shack made me better appreciate the Old Testament injunction forbidding graven images of God, if not for fear of apostasy than at least for embarrassment sake. But we mere mortals inevitably make such images of God, even if we don’t write them into novels or paint them on the Sistine ceiling or characterize them in movies. (As for me, I’ve long preferred George Burns as God in those Oh God movies, betraying my preconceived stereotypes, I suppose - though George Burns, being Jewish, did seem to add some authenticity to the mix). We carry those images around with us from childhood and become comfortable with them for better or worse. It’s when those ingrained images are somehow upset, overturned, demolished that we begin to seriously enter into that dialogue between the natural and supernatural, between us and the Other, between us and the nothing - what Hemingway called Nada.

At the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity (I think) is the notion of vulnerability: the perfections of divinity discarded for the flaws inherent in becoming human. The reason I believe The Shack just doesn’t work is because we no longer perceive these particular ethnic/racial identities as flawed or inherently less worthy of emulation.

The Trinity, whatever it is, is meant to make us more human, more aware of how vulnerable we are. Evidence of its ineffable presence is always residual: the awe, surprise, or shock we feel when long-held convictions are overturned. While promoting Blacks, Hispanics and Asians to the divine pantheon (or the United States Supreme Court for that matter) has not quite yet been totally achieved it certainly can now be imagined and, thus, doesn’t leave us especially shocked or surprised. What would really be shocking and perhaps awe-ful would be to picture a Mid-Eastern al-Qaida type as the Spirit; or some loathsome pedophile Irish priest as the Word Incarnate; or, go all out, and let George Burns as God the Father keep Gracie as his wife. Even better: take that obese black grandma and make her into the Blessed Virgin. I suspect that would raise quite a few eyebrows: not because she’s black – but because she’s fat.

The ancient description of the Trinity where each person of the Godhead is equal in majesty and power yet distinct in person reminds us that equality is not the equivalent of sameness, nor is unity mere uniformity. The ineffable nature of the Trinity, which we can only describe by analogy, suggests that God cannot be limited in the ways he seeks to touch us, and how that divine touch will always leave us vulnerable: to shock one moment, to awe in the next, but to peace at the last.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

5-31-2009: Pentecost (B)

Genesis 11:1-9/Psalm 104/Romans 8:22-27/John 7:37-39
The famed Tower of Babel from Genesis – the thing, if you will, which Pentecost corrects – is the source of the myth of language devolution, of global incomprehension, of contention and enmity born of misinterpretation. It’s also the source of our word babble which, in the case of the babbling fool, connotes the nonsensical and ridiculous. A better contemporary example of babbling might be the current penchant for cable news 24/7, bringing us the latest -- ad nauseum: the result being we are less informed than ever precisely because there is too much information. E-mailing and texting, rather than fostering better communication, only seem to aggravate misinterpretation: the text, paradoxically, lacks the texture necessary for reading it rightly – the spoken word being a quite different creature than its written equivalent.

How did those foreigners listening to St. Peter preach on that first Pentecost understand him though they didn’t speak his language? Was there some kind of universal translator present (like on a Star Trek episode) or were his words perceived as a sort of interior locution? Was Peter able, despite his lack of education, to offer simultaneous translations of his Aramaic sermon in Greek and Latin and Farsi like his modern successors, or was his meaning conveyed simply by tone of voice and fluidity of gesture?

If anything, the miracle of Peter’s speech reminds us that words require texture for us to understand their deeper meaning. A baby’s babble might not be understood in a literal sense but can convey, by the texture of the sound, feelings of either contentment or frustration which every good parent learns to translate with fluency. A babbling brook, far from an annoyance, instills in the listener a sense of harmony rather than discord, peace and not contention.
The Bible, God’s revealed Word, his written-down words, is ultimately only second-best. That’s why, at Mass, someone reads the words aloud – so we might hear a spoken voice. In the ancient world people didn’t read silently to themselves but aloud even when alone. The heart of Christianity is the belief that the Word became flesh. God spoke the Word; he didn’t inscribe the Word. That’s not to say that the written word is not important or essential – it is. It preserves what was once spoken. It safeguards, for posterity, the living and sometimes even babbling words which God speaks and wishes us to hear.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

12-30-2007: Holy Family (A)

Sirach 3:2-6,12-14/Psalm 128/Colossians 3:12-21/Matthew 2:13-15,19-23
Many say the reason why bad things happen, why the world is in such a mess, why morality seems to have disappeared in our permissive society, is that people don’t pray anymore. We heed the incessant lament of religious gurus who tell us: pray the rosary, pray the Psalms, pray in front of the Blessed Sacrament, pray the Mass, pray before meals, pray after meals … And why should you do any and all these things? Because, they say, you need to nurture your relationship with God. Just as you dialogue with someone to build a friendship, so you must do so with God. Fair enough. But for most of us (I would venture to guess if we’re honest) that hoped-for dialogue amounts to a well-rehearsed monologue with an occasional echo of our own voice.

Truth be told, many of us don’t want any real dialogue with the Almighty. Voicing our concerns, verbalizing our needs and desires – that’s what we want. We don’t really – I mean really – expect an answer. Nor do we want one. We already know the answers we want. We just need God to agree.

Joseph, the near dead-beat dad who wanted to divorce Mary (she being pregnant with someone else’s baby) was a man who took his dreams seriously. It's through a dream, after all, that he decides not to divorce but marry Mary, and give her child the protection of his name. And it’s through a dream that he receives the warning to leave Bethlehem for Egypt before Herod murders all those new-borns; and through a dream that he is told to return and settle in Nazareth of the Galilee. Joseph is a holy and wise man because he doesn’t tell God what he needs – he really wants to hear what God has to say. Most of us, pray-ers or not, really don’t want to know what God wants; most of us have no interest whatsoever in accepting any other solution to our problems than the one we’ve already set our minds to. Our prayers already contain the answers we seek and so the only thing left for us to do is repeat them over and over again (somehow imagining God to be a bit deaf or, at least, forgetful); repetition, we think, will assure the hoped-for outcome.

Dreams, though, are outside our control. Some have suggested we may be able to summon dreams, but most admit we cannot control their content or the scenarios in which they play out. Dreams are powerful because they surprise us; and the messages they offer can be ingenious solutions to the problems we face. (How many a scientific discovery was the result of a hint discerned from last night’s dream?) The only difference between us and St. Joseph, between the sinner and the saint, between the foolish and the wise, is that the wise listen to their dreams -- as if they were entertaining angels. And angels, we should remember, are but messengers from a place outside space and time: some call that place Eternity; some, the Unconscious.

Developing a prayer life, as the religious gurus tell us, may be a very helpful thing, offering discipline and ritual, providing a certain routine that gives order to our lives which, as human beings, we desperately need. But for those times when things seem to fall apart and you need direction more than comfort, an answer more than that feeling of tranquility which ritualized prayer can bring, the lesson of today’s gospel is simple: take a nap!

12-23-2007: 4th Advent (A)

Isaiah 7:10-14/Psalm 24/Romans 1:1-7/Matthew 1:18-24
Mothers no doubt bear the burden of birth in far greater ways than fathers do, especially when a pregnancy is unexpected, most especially when it is unwanted. A hint of that gender dichotomy is made evident in today’s gospel which focuses our attention more on Joseph than Mary.

In popular Catholic piety Joseph is often presented as a mild-mannered and milquetoast chap, devoted to Mary as if she were already an apparition. So docile is Joseph’s stance toward Mary in this kind of hagiography, you could almost picture him saying the rosary or snapping his head up and down like a hungry chicken each time she called Jesus by name. And while some would argue that the gospel account of Jesus’ origins amounts to the same pious whitewashing of some hard realities (an apt definition of hagiography), there is evidence of refreshing honesty as well – as the admission in today’s gospel of Joseph’s initial desire to wash his hands of the whole mess.

Joseph’s reaction to the news of Mary’s pregnancy presents a paradox, rooted perhaps in our lack of precise knowledge of Jewish marriage customs of that time and place. Though not yet married, Mary’s betrothal to Joseph seems to have been far more binding than a modern engagement, divorce being necessary to break the arrangement. This backdrop highlights the paradox: Is Joseph’s desire to divorce evidence of his virtue, or is it indeed his way of escaping an unpleasant situation?

If there’s any virtue to ascribe to Joseph’s initial intentions, it’s his willingness to divorce quietly, presumably saving Mary from the accusation of adultery and the stoning that might follow. What emerges as an unintended, and therefore authentic, historical conclusion is that Joseph clearly knew he wasn’t the father of the child - a fact which might challenge those Christian denominations who do not accept the Virginal Conception as historical, with the inevitable conclusion that the father must be an unnamed third-party.

Before his revelatory dream Joseph sees only two possible solutions to the problem: to divorce quietly or to divorce publicly. This initial reaction might not portray Joseph as especially virtuous but it does make him a thoroughly believable historical figure, as he offers a typically male response which echoes through the ages in every man’s heart: where's the nearest exit?

While, from theology’s point of view, it’s Mary’s consent on which hung the salvation of the world, the practical reality is that Joseph’s dream made all the difference. His choice to marry Mary and give the child the protection of legitimacy cannot be underestimated when we consider the possible outcomes if he hadn’t.

Men, these days, are often chided for their lack of responsibility, their penchant to embrace a dead-beat status as dads or anything else. Suggested solutions range from military induction (the Marines’ll make a man of him) to formal religious vows (the Promise Keepers’ movement). But perhaps Joseph’s story offers the best insight: men need to dream. Discipline, asceticism, self-denial, guilt may curb the male impulse for a while, but only inspiration respects that impulse as God-given, able to transform its raw power into a powerful creativity.

Remember: Joseph became the father he was intended to be, not because he was virtuous or pious or responsible, but because he listened to his dreams.

12-16-2007: 3rd Advent (A)

Isaiah 35:1-6,10/Psalm 146/James 5:7-10/Matthew 11:2-11
Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another? So ask John the Baptist’s disciples of Jesus in today’s gospel. A question which you well might hear repeated these days in places like Iowa and New Hampshire as those wanna-be presidents present themselves as nothing less than mini-messiahs.

Religion has become one of those amorphous but important issues in the presidential campaign as demonstrated last week by Mitt Romney as he offered an apologetic for Mormonism and the American presidency. Arguing at first that it was not his place, as a presidential candidate, to explain or defend the tenets of Mormonism, Romney then felt the need to declare that he believes “Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the human race.” The skeptical among us may judge that need to have surfaced more by Mike Huckabee’s rise in the polls (he’s a Baptist preacher after all) than by Mitt’s genuine belief. It was, no doubt, a premeditated political risk: Romney must play to Christian evangelicals and so declare the standard kerygma. But, here’s the catch: if Mormonism actually held that view, Romney would not have had to declare it. When John the Baptist’s disciples asked Jesus who he was, Jesus did not feel the need to declare: I am the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of the human race. His response, more clever by far, implied that they should judge for themselves by what they see Jesus doing rather than what they hear him saying: the sick are made well and the poor attended to… (not a bad domestic policy – then or now).

Apart from the expectations of ardent evangelicals, is it really important what theological doctrines a presidential candidate holds? What the candidate proposes to do is more in line with the pragmatism that has comprised the greatness of America – whether that candidate is Christian or not, whether he believes or doesn’t. The separation of church and state, despite the views of either a Mitt Romney or the Conference of American Catholic Bishops, has been demonstrably a great blessing for both church and state in the American experience.
That being said, Romney’s shameless pandering to bible-belt evangelicalism may be a sign of his solid presidential credentials after all. Because, whatever Governor Romney may really believe, his speech suggests that he’s willing to sell anything, including his faith, for a vote or two – and, in presidential politics, you can’t get more American than that.

12-9-2007: 2nd Advent (A)

Isaiah 11:1-10/Psalm 72/Romans 15:4-9/Matthew 3:1-12
Judging from his appearance and strident message, John the Baptist brings a bit of an edge to religion. If he were born a few centuries later and a little more to the south he might have been leading the crowd calling for the death of that British school marm who let her kids name their teddy bear Muhammad. Yet the Baptist is given a prominent place in Christianity. He rates a number of high-placed feasts and he dominates these weeks of Advent. But, truth be told, he belongs more to the Old than the New Testament; truth be told, he probably wouldn’t have sat through the lecture on the Beatitudes. And if he were around when Jesus convinced those other johns not to throw the first stone at the adulteress, this John would have already begun the pelting.

Religion seems to constantly shift between the extremes of divine justice and everlasting mercy, between judgment and forgiveness, the threat of hell and the promise of heaven. The Baptist represents one extreme of the pendulum; modern relativism, that anything-goes approach to life, the other; the truth -- somewhere in between.

Religion can take itself too seriously at times. It has the potential to become idolatrous, making itself into the divine when it is meant only to point us in that direction. Muslims running around the streets with machetes, ready to cut someone’s head off because a teddy bear was named Muhammad, is an obvious case in point. But members of the Westbrook Baptist Church in Iowa, parading at the funeral of a fallen soldier with signs saying God hates you, thank God for dead soldiers, thank God for 9/11, is an example of the same, the exact same, sentiment – just without the machetes (proving that fanatics, too, can be culturally conditioned). Perhaps a good dose of that feared modern relativism might be a healthy antidote to Muslim and Baptist alike. Catholics are not immune to the same danger - the antics of the bombastic William Donohue of the Catholic League come to mind here – but don’t quite measure up to the extreme absurdity of the above examples.

But perhaps John the Baptist serves an important purpose. His dour extremes help highlight the brighter Messianic promises which Jesus reminds us of in the gospel: the blind will see, the lame walk, and the deaf hear. Jesus is echoing Isaiah, of course, who promises that and more: the wolf, Isaiah says, will be the guest of the lamb; the cow and the bear will be neighbors. And, we might hope: even teddy bears named Mohammad.

12-2-2007: 1st Advent (A)

Isaiah 2:1-5/Psalm 122/Romans 13:11-14/Matthew 24:37-44
Today’s gospel reads like a promo for Tim LaHaye’s best-selling Left Behind series about the so-called Rapture. You know the scene: two men out in the field - one taken and the other left; two women grinding at the mill - one taken and the other left. Evangelical millennialism, with its prophecies of immanent doom and gloom, is an especially American phenomenon, bursting on the scene a couple times a century. The popularity of the Left Behind series attests to that. The end-of-the-world mantra embroidered with the especially evangelical Rapture-theme fits in well with some secular currents as well, like alien abduction and global ecological disaster. What boggles the mind though is the fact these millennial groups always predict a fast-approaching end - which never happens; yet people still join up. The Jehovah Witnesses, for instance, got it wrong more than once about the approaching end, but they’re still witnessing (one wonders about what). The Left Behind series has been predicting an immanent end for fifteen years now but those two guys are still working the field and the girls, both of them, still grinding away at the mill.

This week Israelis and Palestinians meet in Annapolis, Maryland to talk peace. No one gives the process much hope; and some actively oppose having any talks. These believe there should be no Palestinian state, taking the biblical promise of The Land as a God-given deed to that particular piece of Mediterranean real estate. Some evangelical Christians (those big into the Rapture) are against the creation of a Palestinian state as well. They’re actually praying the Israeli government will knock down the Dome of the Rock and replace it with the Third Temple. It’s not that they’re keen on the sacrifice bit; they're just looking forward to Armageddon, believing it will fulfill some prophecy or other and usher in the Second Coming.

All this literal adhesion to the biblical text would seem just silliness if it didn’t produce such hatred and intransigence. If America were to agree with the fundamentalism of those who believe God wants Israeli settlements on the West Bank because it was part of a biblical promise (God as the primordial Century 21 agent) then, to be consistent, we should give the Indians back what we, or our ancestors, took. Does anyone really believe that Israel’s security will be enhanced, even in the slightest, by refusing to let the Palestinians have a home? Refusal and intransigence vis-à-vis a Palestinian homeland is a guarantee of endless violence. There doesn’t seem to be much hope in the face of such intransigence – an intransigence fueled by a supposed biblical mandate and an instilled fear.

Fear is a great ingredient in fiction as well. It’s most successful when it remains invisible and undefined, letting our imagination supply all the scary details. Take, for instance, another rapture-themed fiction as film: the 1956 science-fiction thriller Invasion of the Body Snatchers, where aliens abduct humans, duplicate them, and send them back to infiltrate the human community. Many have commented that the invisible aliens stood for the communist-threat that plagued the American imagination during that post-war period. So fearful were we, in fact, that we dutifully followed the rules during those air-raid drills. You remember: siren sounds, put down your pen and crawl under your classroom desk. Fear convinced us that such inanity would save us from the effects of an atomic attack! Fear will make us do most anything.

Preventing Palestinian and Israeli from talking with each other, face to face, assures an invisibility that feeds that same kind of fear – a fear that is entertaining when experienced as science fiction, but deadly when engendered by religious fictions; whether those fictions be about rapturous abductions or ancient real estate deals.

11-25-2007: Christ the King (C)

2 Samuel 5:1-3/Psalm 122/Colossians 1:12-20/Luke 23:35-43
On this Feast of Christ the King we mark to the end of the church year and, by analogy, we are reminded by the somber tone of the readings that all things will someday come to their end; indeed, this world will someday end as well. Today we hear the Gospel of the Good Thief and how Jesus promises him Paradise as he hangs upon the cross. It is a fitting reading as we contemplate the end times, a subject which captivates the imagination of many and preys upon our personal and collective fears.

Despite the fact that talk of the world’s near end seems to have been with us from the world’s very beginning, the fear of immanent demise has never lost its force of persuasion in religious circles and even carries over into the secular sphere as well. Indeed, it seems to have a universal relevance, almost as if that fear were hard-wired into the human psyche, like an evolutionary hold-over from a prehistoric flight-or-fight mechanism. Every time the Stock Market drops, analysts explain the fears which spurred the sell-off. The fear of Armageddon seems constantly with us as difficulties flair in the Middle East. Evangelicals, in their literal adherence to the Bible, actually pray that Israeli and Palestinian might more hurriedly kill each other because it would be a sign of a more immanent return of Christ. And with all that talk of global warming and its impact on the planet, those who long ago gave up on organized religion have found a suitable substitute. The Green Revolution, quickly becoming a quasi-religion in itself, now incorporates into its world view the fear of immanent destruction, the imposition of personal as well as collective guilt, and the promise of salvation with a zeal that borders on the fanatical (with no need to refer to the supernatural). Ironically, such beliefs demand a lot more faith than any religious creed.

Whether suggesting the near end of the world by insinuation or barefaced bravado, biblical literalist or planetary alarmist (a Pat Robertson or an Al Gore) play on our fear and dread. The reason they’re so successful, the reason they get results, is because they’re right. It is a probability approaching a certainty which holds that this world will indeed one day end – whether God exists or not, whether or not there’s too much carbon in the atmosphere. But insisting that the end is going to happen tomorrow, next week, or on March 12th, is a well-tested way to get people to focus on their dread and fear, thereby missing out on the import of their lives right here and now.
I remember a few years back; a Korean boy-preacher mesmerized the Korean-speaking world with his prophecy of a fast-approaching Armageddon, citing day, date, and hour. Fearing the worst, many sold their homes (handing him the cash, of course) and high school seniors didn’t bother taking the SATs. The day came and went, and the prophesied end didn’t happen – though a few sad souls brought their own lives to a quick end by their own hand.

Time, we now know, is a relative matter. The Good Thief used his last moments to offer a word of consolation to a stranger, and Jesus, in turn, offered him Paradise. The way the gospel phrases the promise is interesting to note. Remember the Greek in which the gospel was written didn’t employ punctuation – that was added (arbitrarily) with translations into the modern vernacular. Thus, in English orthography, you can read the promise either of two ways. First possibility: “Jesus replied to him: ‘Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’” But if we move just one of those commas, we read Jesus saying: “Amen, I say to you today, you will be with me in Paradise.” Moving that arbitrary comma throws the immediacy of the promise of Paradise completely out of whack, suggesting perhaps that God’s eternity does not translate well into our time-bound existence; and that attempts to discern the date and time of Armageddon is a foolish diversion. The essence of Christian faith is not fear but love; and love, not fear, is evidence of the presence of Paradise -- here and now.

11-18-2007: 33rd Ordinary Time (C)

Malachi 3:19-20/Psalm 98/2 Thessalonians 3:7-12/Luke 21:5-19
Thanksgiving is a myth ever in the making. Some look to it as the founding myth of the nation, evoking at one and the same time the contradictory notions of mutual tolerance (Pilgrim and Indian sharing turkey sandwiches – with mayo) and Manifest Destiny (Pilgrims as Israelites in a new Promised Land – heads up, you American Canaanites!).

"A city set upon a hill," as the Puritan John Winthrop saw the American adventure, would be a theocracy of the cruelest sort. Pilgrims, that radical wing of the Puritan party, might have parleyed with native Indians to ensure their own survival but they didn’t hesitate to punish, by extreme measures, those in their own colony who didn’t tow the line. Nathaniel Hawthorne exposed the hypocrisy of his Pilgrim ancestors in The Scarlet Letter, the novel that cast adultery as the main character. As with theocracies in general, Hawthorne seemed to posit, control of sexual behavior is the ultimate test of power.

We look back at the Pilgrims and claim that America was founded on the desire for religious freedom, though the Pilgrims were less tolerant of religious difference than any modern-day mullah. We look back and claim that brotherhood was found that first Thanksgiving when colonist and native sat down at dinner, though once dessert was finished it got pretty ugly. Pilgrims left their native England because they felt the Anglican Church was becoming too Catholic in its ritual (they probably would have starved to death before sitting down to dinner with a Catholic). And, as with the religiously maniacal, it was their conviction they were God’s chosen people and this new land was theirs by divine right.

The American experiment, however, has been a success in so many ways. The values of self-sacrifice, industriousness, charity and, above all, personal freedom have given light to that "city on a hill" not so much because of the Pilgrims, but despite them. Every culture needs a foundation myth, an archetype that embodies its notion of itself; someplace in time to conveniently hang its historical hat. Pilgrims, turkey, and Plymouth Rock have become just that for America. But history, like life, is a complicated and murky affair. The greatness that is America owes as much to those business-minded, shrewd New York colonists as to the rigid Puritans; and the waves of Catholic emigrants from the poverty-stricken Europe of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did far more to forge American ideals than any judge at the Salem witch trials.

And did you know that before the Pilgrims reached Plymouth they first landed on the very tip of Cape Cod in a place to be called Provincetown which, in one of those delicious historical ironies, would become a mecca for gay vacationers who at times pay homage to their Puritan forerunners by dressing up in Pilgrims’ wear (cross-gendered for sure) with a big scarlet letter on the breast. But even parody expressed with disdain is an imitation of sorts - flattering - in spite of itself. And so the foundation myth morphs and continues – a hopeful sign in an aging culture. Something to be thankful for.

11-11-2007: 32nd Ordinary Time

2 Maccabees 7:1-2,9-14/Psalm 17/2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5/Luke 20:27-38
John Lennon was no doubt reflecting a sort of Buddhist mantra when he wrote Imagine, as in

Imagine there’s no heaven/ it’s easy if you try
No hell below us/ above us only sky.

But he could easily be also placed in that camp of long-defunct Sadducees who make mockery of any belief in an afterlife when they confront Jesus in today's gospel, about the woman who buried seven husbands, with the question: Which one will she be spending eternity with? (Though there’s the real possibility that a woman who buried seven husbands may not want to spend another day with any of them).

We know so little about the Sadducees, save for the fact that they made up the bulk of the priestly class – an inherited priesthood. The conservative party in the Judaism of Jesus’ time, they sought to preserve the status quo less anyone upset their monopoly on the Temple sacrifice, which made them wealthy and powerful – even in an occupied land like Palestine. Their Bible was limited to the Torah, the first five books of our Old Testament. And since there was no mention of heaven in those scriptures, the Sadducees scoffed at the thought of an afterlife. This, in sharp contrast to Jesus and the Pharisees who believed in the unseen world of spirits and preached reward and punishment in a life to come.

Despite John Lennon, imagining there’s no heaven didn’t bring the Sadducees much peace or tranquility, nor did it lead them to transcend their national identity. In fact, the Sadducees embodied Jewish nationalism, especially in the person of the High Priest who wielded more direct power and authority than Emperor or magistrate.

Those with power and wealth, who exercise influence and authority over others, are precisely the ones who don’t need to believe in a heaven, and certainly don’t want to acknowledge a hell. The disenfranchised on the other hand are the ones who need something more than this life to place their hope in. In this sense Karl Marx was on to something when he claimed that religion was the opium of the people, suppressing the need to revolt against the establishment with the promise of heavenly recompense.

This scenario might apply to many in today’s third world, though for us there’s another aspect to heaven besides retribution or recompense - the longing for loved ones we miss, reunions with parents, spouses, and children who have gone before us in death. Heroin might be a more apt metaphor than plain old opium in expressing the power of this promise - it’s just so understandable. It’s what plays out at funerals and when we remember the dead as we do during the month of November. Every culture seems to express this hope, even Buddhists – especially Buddhists – though, according to Hoyle, they shouldn’t be focusing on an afterlife at all.

And for us Christians? Karl Rahner, theologian, suggested that until Christian theology discovers a more meaningful way to talk about the Last Things, few will genuinely believe, though most will give themselves over to fantasy. After all, how does Jesus respond to the Sadducees in today’s gospel? He doesn’t say the woman will be with any of her husbands, but will be like the angels with no need of companionship (that wouldn’t go over big with Islamic suicide bombers seeking to spend eternity with the promised seventy-two virgins). But, then again, Jesus is sparring with his opponents. By answering their sarcastic scenario with recourse to angels – something the Sadducees likewise denied – Jesus was sticking it to them. But perhaps he is doing the same with us, replacing the appeal of a saccharine eternity with a genuine sense of adventure. Imagine all the people/ living for today, à la John Lennon. Or William Blake’s take on seeing a world in a grain of sand/ and a heaven in a wild flower/ hold infinity in the palm of your hand/ and eternity in an hour. Imagine. Can you?