Sunday, May 31, 2009

3-25-2007: 5th Lent (C)

Isaiah 43:16-21/Psalm 126/Philippians 3:8-14/John 8:1-11
You could say, from reading today’s gospel about the woman about to be stoned to death, that adultery used to carry a bit of a stigma. Down the centuries that stigma became encoded in the sixth commandment which eventually extended beyond the technical definition of adultery per se (illicit sexual relations between two people, at least one of whom is married to someone else) to include all illicit sexual relations, even those sexual acts within marriage determined illicit because they are not open to procreation. You could argue there’s little stigma attached these days to any form of sexual behavior, save, of course, for sexual relations with a minor (which, if some had their way, stoning would be back in force).

Stigma can be a powerful catalyst for keeping people from rocking the boat, upsetting the cultural mores that seem to keep a society knit together and functioning somewhat successfully. But it can also be a catalyst for inflicting terrible pain and engendering cataclysmic decisions in an individual’s life.

I’m thinking here of my mother, my birth mother, who became pregnant with me back in 1952 when the stigma of being pregnant, unmarried, and white was at its peak (black women in the same circumstances kept their children far more often than white women did). Class and race played a big part in the efficacy of the stigma, but religion was the powerful catalyst behind its enforcement, portending a solution to “the problem” as well. If the unmarried woman went into a maternity home, names could be changed, babies adopted out to “more-deserving” parents, and records sealed, effecting, in essence, an un-bloody abortion: no evidence of the sin -- no suffering of the stigma.

Religion fueled the stigma. Americans were, by and large, more observant of religion’s prohibitions from the ‘40’s through the ‘60’s than they are today or than they were prior to World War II. A case in point: back in the ‘20’s a young woman -- agnostic, educated, liberal, having already had one illegal abortion, and unmarried – found herself pregnant again. She was white. She was not religious. She became part of the beginnings of the Communist movement here in New York. She was a writer by profession. And she decided to keep her baby, not to give her daughter up (either to abortion or adoption), which placed her on a strange road that would eventually lead to her being declared Venerable by the Catholic Church. Dorothy Day is on that road toward sainthood, one might conclude, because she didn’t care if she were stigmatized as being pregnant and unwed, a bohemian-adulterer with Communist friends. After she and her daughter were baptized she lived the rest of her life as a devout Catholic, a chaste woman, an obedient daughter of the Church – but she never, in all her many years, ever denied Tamar, her illegitimate daughter, or ever ceased being friends with the man with whom she had broken that sixth commandment which, in the mysterious workings of Divine Providence, gave her the gift of her child.

Goes to show, it seems to me, that when religion swaps stigma for forgiveness, those wonderful surprises – blessings all -- which the Divine Providence has in store even for us who break the rules, are too easily overlooked or tragically lost.

3-18-2007: 4th Lent (C)

Joshua 5:9,10-12/Psalm 34/2 Corinthians 5:17-21/Luke 15:1-3,11-32
There are many ways to read the gospel parable of the Prodigal Son; family-constellation psychoanalytic theory contributing much to our understanding of the narrative’s meaning. Take the older son in the parable, for example; he’s extremely jealous of his father’s show of affection for his younger brother. As I read his reaction, one image that comes to mind is a flashback of the TV show The Smothers Brothers and Tommy Smothers feigning jealousy and rage as he listens to his brother’s reminiscence of Mom liking him best.

One of the great myths that the parable of the Prodigal Son exposes is one which seems sacrosanct in today’s analytic culture. It’s a myth that lurks just under consciousness demanding that parents love all their children the same. The more subtle illusion created by the myth is that most parents actually believe they do love all their children the same.

I once knew a couple who chose to adopt a child internationally after they had given birth to their first son. When the adopted boy was into his teen years, he went through some pretty rough times. His parents were good and loving people who wanted what was best for their son. Yet the mom would inevitably begin any story about her adopted son with the words: I love both my sons equally. In my eyes they are just the same. I’m certain this well-meaning mom was being quite honest and really believed what she was saying. Yet, the very fact that she would feel it necessary to say it, to verbalize her egalitarian love, meant that it wasn’t really true. Her sons were quite different, not only in race, but in temperament and personality as well. My question to her was not so much how could you treat them the same, but why would you want to.

This dynamic of the distribution of parental love is present in all families, not just adoptive ones. Children are just different. They have different needs and desires. Treating them the same, loving them in the same way, is not necessarily a desirable thing. As for the quantity of that love – how can you ever measure what is in essence immeasurable?

In these days of egalitarian hysteria, we have forgotten the truth that being equal is not equivalent to being the same. The prodigal’s father really did seem to love his younger son more, or better put: at that moment, given those circumstances, he did what love demanded even though his actions unintentionally hurt his other son. The prodigal’s father, who himself was prodigal in mercy, did not shrink from love’s demands even when faced with the heart-breaking accusation: you love him more than me. Being prodigal in the affairs of love means not shrinking away from acting prodigally, even when that hard accusation might well be true.

3-11-2007: 3rd Lent (C)

Exodus 3:1-8,13-15/Psalm 103/1 Corinthians 10:1-6,10-12/Luke 13:1-9
There’s perhaps no more important Old Testament revelation than the one recorded in today’s first reading from The Book of Exodus (known in Hebrew as The Book of Names), when Moses encountered the burning bush from where God revealed his sacred Name. So sacred is the Divine Name, in fact, that it has not been uttered licitly for nearly two thousand years – since 70 A.D. -- when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple wherein the High Priest, and he alone, would enter the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement and, in the presence of the Ark of the Covenant, invoke the Name. So unique is that Name that no one, for certain, really knows how it should be correctly pronounced -- if ever it would be (though Jehovah is a decidedly mistaken attempt).

Although the revelation of the Divine Name concerns God’s identity, there’s another revelation which precedes it (and on which it is based) that reveals Moses’ true identity. The drama of Moses’ identity is revealed not in words but in a pregnant pause, an ah-ha moment if you will, when God gives Moses the gift of self-knowledge after a lifetime of ambiguity. How that pregnant pause is conveyed has largely been lost in translation -- a matter of linguistic technicality.

It’s called an ảthnah in biblical Hebrew and is rendered much like our grammatical colon (:) but appearing above the last letter (in the Hebrew) rather than after it. In linguistic jargon it’s called a disjunctive and is understood as a wedge of sorts, a silent in-between, allowing time for the words preceding it to register in the listener’s consciousness.

It happens -- the pause that is -- just when the voice in Exodus is about to identify himself in his divinity. The voice pronounces: “I am the God of your father…” And it’s there, right there at the end of the word “father” that the ảthnah (:), those two little dots are placed, indicating a pause in the written text, (perhaps reflecting a pause in the original dialogue between God and Moses) and, definitely, giving Moses pause.

Remember Moses was born of Hebrew parents but abandoned to the river for fear his birth would only bring him death. Adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter and raised Egyptian, Moses would have worshipped Egyptian gods. Thus, at the moment of the ảthnah (:), when divinity is identified with Moses’ “father”, the truth remains ambiguous: which father Moses might have wondered. Are you the God of my Egyptian father or my Hebrew father? Then the moment of the two-fold revelation when both God’s and Moses’ identities are revealed: “I am the God of your father…the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.” After a lifetime of wondering, Moses is affirmed in his true identity as a Hebrew raised Egyptian. The divine voice reveals both identities at the same time, allowing us to infer that relationship with the divine is contingent on self-identity, on self-knowledge.

Lent is an ảthnah. It’s a pregnant pause in our busy lives when we stop to take stock of who we are, where we’ve come from, and where we’re going. Just as the silence between the notes is what makes the music, Lent is a pregnant pause, helping us appreciate what’s really important, birthing us into self-awareness. The lesson is simple: every authentic encounter with divinity begins with an honest look in the mirror -- which should be enough to give anyone pause.

3-4-2007: 2nd Lent (C)

Genesis 15:5-12,17-18/Psalm 27/Philippians 3:17-4:1/Luke 9:28-36
The scriptures can be dangerous – especially when we take them literally. The seemingly endless rift between Jew and Arab in Israel/Palestine is founded on scriptural claims. In the first reading today from Genesis God promises Abraham both progeny and land. “To your descendents,” God says to Abraham, “I give this land.” The problem is, of course, that God never says which descendents; and Abraham was the father of both Ishmael and Isaac, ancestor of both Arab and Jew. So, in religion’s name, Arabs are evicted from their homes and Jews killed in suicide bombings. For God’s sake (so it’ said), hatred is nourished and vengeance enacted in escalating and endless violence.

Abraham is hailed by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike as our father-in-faith, but let’s be a bit honest: the Bible employs major spin when presenting Abraham. Using God’s promise of progeny as an excuse, Abraham sleeps with the maid; and Genesis is a bit disingenuous when continually referencing Isaac as Abraham’s only son. If his faith was credited to him as “righteousness,” as St. Paul says, then “righteousness” cannot be synonymous with moral rectitude. Faith in a promise, in other words, does not guarantee that we’ll make the best or the right choices in life.

Faith seems a necessarily murky affair, despite the claims of certitude oft expressed by biblical literalists and quranic fundamentalists. If we could take a trip in time back to that fateful night when Abraham heard the divine voice beckoning him to come out of his tent and look up at the night sky, we might be surprised, and perhaps shocked, to note that it was an especially cloudy night, making the hoped-for promise of progeny overcast with doubt and straining those old eyes to seek an opening in that cover of cloud be it ever so tiny, in order to glimpse the slightest twinkle of light, so not to be left in the dark.

2-25-2007: 1st Lent (C)

Deuteronomy 26:4-10/Psalm 91/Romans 10:8-13/Luke 4:1-13
There’s a lovely way in which the Revised Standard Version puts a certain adverb when, in Chapter 13 of the Letter to the Hebrews, it suggests that one shouldn’t neglect hospitality – “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” William Blake uses that adverb in the same odd way when he says, somewhere in his own scriptures, “to bless him unawares.” A few years back the unsuccessful film about the life of Dorothy Day was fittingly titled Entertaining Angels – Miss Day spent her life entertaining. The danger (as Dorothy Day knew so well) is that the more you practice entertaining, the greater the possibility your guests will be more unsavory than not, and the angels who drop by might very well be of the fallen variety.

I suppose that’s one way of looking at today’s gospel when that fallen angel who goes by a legion of names (Satan, Lucifer, Be-elzebul, to cite but a few) makes himself Jesus’ guest in the loneliness of the Judean desert. And here’s the all-important point of that beautiful and revelatory intercourse, of which we as Christians are too often unawares: Jesus entertains him. Call the Inquisition if you must; inform the Holy Office by fax or even e-mail, but there’s just no getting around it -- Jesus entertains temptation.

Temptation can be the greatest instructor on our pilgrimage of self-awareness for it shows us where our real desires lie. Evil and sin, remember, are not antithetical to the human condition, but merely corruptions of the good. Jesus was destined to be Messiah and King, but not the kind of Messiah and King everyone wanted. The temptation for him was to embrace what everyone wanted, something good in itself -- a manifestation of majesty, a kingly role to liberate the oppressed and feed the hungry. But that would have been a corruption of the higher good – his vocation as suffering servant, his destiny as innocent victim and perfect sacrifice.

Lent’s aim is to “turn things around” – the very definition of “conversion.” How Lent advances that conversion in us has a lot to do with our attitude toward temptation. If we entertain temptation, if we give the devil his due, so to speak, and listen to where his promptings point, we may learn who we really are and which turn on the winding path of self discovery we need to avoid, which lesser good we need to forfeit, so we might embrace that proper destiny.

The Lenten Season urges us not to neglect hospitality and thereby entertain angels unawares, in whatever form those angels may come -- even in their fallen state. So as we begin Lent, this desert of forty days, let it be said for the record: temptation can be a friend and even Satan’s prompts can bless us unawares.

2-18-2007: 7th Ordinary Time (C)

1 Samuel 26:7-9,12-13,22-23/Psalm 103/1 Corinthians 15:45-49/Luke 6:27-38
In today’s second reading St. Paul offers a view of our origins and destiny, differentiating between the natural and the spiritual: human beings as bearers of both an earthly image and a heavenly one. Although he wouldn’t have had a clue, St. Paul offers a segue into the on-going debate between science and religion, reason and faith and, more specifically, between evolutionary theory and so-called “creationism.”

Last week (thanks to the kindness of Hermine McQuillan) I had the opportunity of attending a lecture by Cardinal Christoph Schönbron, Archbishop of Vienna, who was the center of controversy last year when he penned an op-ed piece in the New York Times on the current debate vis-à-vis evolutionary theory and religious faith. His topic: “Faith, Reason and Science – Supplementary Notes on the Evolution Debate.”

One of the Cardinal’s cardinal points was that the debate between science and faith continue – but without retreat into ideology. Evidence of ideological infiltration might be seen in referencing “-isms”. Can’t Darwinian evolutionary theory be engaged without resorting to “Darwinism”? Can’t the biblical creation accounts be studied without resorting to a literalist “Creationism”? In other words, is it so improper for science to admit the reality of the immaterial, i.e. the spiritual. Or, to use the Cardinal’s analogy: one can study the letters of a text ad infinitum, but it’s only when the letters are read as a text – in context – does meaning emerge. What makes the individual letters into an intelligible whole? That intelligibility seems to be what science sometimes ignores. Likewise, religion need not hide behind a pseudo-science like Creationism. The notion that the earth is only 6,000 years old is simply unacceptable: Schönbron used the word ridiculous. One could argue that strict Darwinists and fundamentalist Christians have more in common than they would like to admit; ignoring the elephant in the living room, they just can’t permit themselves to think outside the box.

Schönbron’s critics would have you think he was arguing against any evolutionary theory. Not at all. I believe he simply wants to challenge the notion of an evolutionary theory that is based solely on chance – blind luck -- the chance amalgamation of certain chemicals and proteins from which humanity emerged. Perhaps he simply wants us, whether believers or not, to start to read between the lines of the text, to try and see the bigger picture. Although there might be only a one-percent differential between human and chimpanzee DNA, it’s the human being, and not the chimpanzee, who seeks to understand why. On the one hand, religion cannot ignore the material reality inherent in that scientific fact; and science should not ignore the “immaterial” reality likewise implied.

Over fifty years ago Pope Pius XII declared evolutionary theory was not inimical to Catholic Faith and, quite recently, Pope John Paul II restated the same. Cardinal Schönbron seems to be pushing us to delve further into this great mystery of human origins and destiny, challenging the believer in random evolution as much as he challenges the creationist. Science and religion speak two different languages in regard to human origins – they each require translation.

Listening to the Cardinal reminded me of something Simone Weil once wrote that seems apropos to the debate. “Christ likes us to prefer truth to him,” Weil said, “because, before being Christ, he is truth. If one turns aside from him to go to the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.” Not bad advice, that.

2-11-2007: 6th Ordinary Time (C)

Jeremiah 17:5-8/Psalm 1/1 Corinthians 15:12,16-20/Luke 6:17,20-26
Today’s gospel of beatitude (being blessed) and the approaching Valentine’s Day (being loved) might prove to have a lot in common if we learn to read between the lines.

“While upon the shop and street I gazed,
My body of a sudden blaze;
And for twenty minutes more or less,
So great it seemed my tenderness,
That I was blessed and could bless.”

It was Yeats, I think, who wrote those lines. They might serve as a meditation for today’s Gospel of Beatitude – a word we often translate as blessed. It’s a strange word, blessed. Filled with ambiguity, we’re never quite sure what it means. Is blessing or being blessed simply a matter of saying a word and making a gesture? Perhaps the key to meaning lies in the poet’s use of tenderness.

Tenderness can connote kindness, gentleness. But it also can signify vulnerability, a soreness of sorts. In French there is a word blessure which, oddly, translates not as blessing but wound. Blessing as joy is born of tenderness, of vulnerability, of wounded-ness. Pop art celebrating Valentine’s Day has long pictured a cherubic Cupid shooting his arrow into hearts to awaken romantic love. It’s a quaint cartoon image. But beneath the layers of saccharine sentimentality lies something very true – that love is born of a broken heart. The myriad of young people who suffer emotional depression, I would wager, suffer because no one has told them that Cupid is indeed the reason for their misery. But the real Cupid is no pudgy toddler giggling as he flings his dull-pointed dart in fun and frolic. Rather, he is a fierce and flaming angel whose pointed steel sears and melts both heart and soul. The feelings that result are spelled out in today’s Gospel of Beatitude: poverty and hunger, sadness, rejection and loss.

The power of today’s gospel is radically revolutionary: the unexpected truth that it is precisely from those “negative” feelings that blessedness is born. Wounds make the body (and the soul) tender, and tenderness makes way for blessing. But there’s a very thin line between sadness and joy, between sickness and health. What the world judges a curse, Christ claims as a blessing.

2-4-2007: 5th Ordinary Time (C)

Isaiah 6:1-2,3-8/Psalm 138/1 Corinthians 15:1-11/Luke 5:1-11
Sylvia Brown is in a lot of trouble these days. She’s the self-proclaimed psychic who told the parents of Shawn Hornbeck, abducted years before, that he was dead -- and they should move on with their lives. A few weeks ago Shawn turned up alive and well. Sylvia Brown claims she’s just God’s instrument devoted to bringing spiritual solace to the hopeless and it’s unfair to expect her to be right 100% of the time. Psychic debunkers point out that even when Sylvia (and those like her) seem to be right, their success lies more in the perceptions of those desperately looking for some connection with the dead or missing than in actual fact.

Those of us who wouldn’t pay the likes of Sylvia Brown a nickel of the $700 per half-hour she charges are not quite so judgmental when it comes to more au currant eastern practices like feng shui. Although feng shui (Chinese for wind and water) has caught on with the interior design set, its roots lie in Taoist geomancy and remains in great demand among Asians looking for an auspicious plot of land to bury their deceased relatives -- underground water being very inauspicious for the dead looking to rest in peace. In fact geomancers are regularly hired to determine the best place to bury the dead – just ask the management of any Queens’ cemetery if you don’t believe me. Another example: While I lived in the Korean church in Flushing, a newly-arrived Korean priest was finding it difficult to sleep. A geomancer was quickly summoned who walked around the priest’s bedroom with two sticks crossed in his hands. “Of course you can’t sleep,” he told the priest. “Your bed lies directly over an underground stream.” The priest moved his bed to the other side of the room and slept soundly then on.

In today’s gospel Peter has had a very unsuccessful night of fishing. “Put out into the deep,” Jesus tells him and fish over there instead. Straight away Peter hauls in so many fish his nets tear. One might ask: Did Jesus, using divine power, make the fish come to Peter’s net? Or was Jesus, as geomancer or psychic, just seeing what others could not and offered Peter the benefit of his in-sight?

Whether you believe the extrasensory perceptions of psychics or geomancers are real or imagined; whether you believe the miracles of Jesus sprang from supernatural or just natural origins – you might agree with me that their power lies more with the meaning we attach to them than with the acts themselves (after all, is underground water or a few extra fish on the dining room table really that important?).

“Art attracts us only by what it reveals of our most secret self,” the French director Jean-Luc Godard said. For the Christian believer as well, miracles may serve a similar function, being but metaphors whose power attracts us by what they reveal of our innermost selves. Obeying the command to put out into the deep is an invitation to uncover the secret treasure yet to be found within each human heart. There are many who claim to hold the key to help us unlock those secrets, but whom should we follow? Sylvia Brown’s record, for sure, is not one you might want to bank on. As for geomancers and practitioners of feng shui: Don’t forget that happiness may indeed lie not only in knowing where the underground water runs, but relying on the One whom wind and water obey to lead us past the many obstacles that stand in the way of uncovering those yet-to-be-revealed treasures of the human heart.

1-28-2007: 4th Ordinary Time (C)

Jeremiah 1:4-5,17-19/Psalm 71/1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13/Luke 4:21-30
Last Sunday we read of Jesus’ return to his hometown of Nazareth: how he entered the synagogue, read from the scriptures, and asserted that he was the fulfillment of the Messianic promise made by God through the prophet Isaiah. Today’s gospel reports the reaction of those listening -- and it wasn’t pleasant.
It’s interesting to note how Luke’s and Mark’s gospels ever so subtly differ in recording this event. In referring to Jesus Luke writes, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”; while Mark says ”Is not this…the son of Mary?” In Hebrew and Aramaic a person is identified by the patronymic -- the suffix added to his given name meaning the son of his father (e.g. James, son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:2), or Joshua, the son of Nun (Deuteronomy 1:38). Jesus, then, should have been addressed: Jesus, son of Joseph.

Some scholars, fearing unpleasant speculation, tell us that Mark’s account presumes Joseph’s early death, thus the appellation son of Mary. Others wonder whether the passage doesn’t betray the probability that among those who knew Jesus’ family well (as the townsfolk of Nazareth certainly would have), it had long been understood that Joseph was not Jesus’ father. Indeed, in John’s gospel (John 8:31) it is quite clear that the appellation son of Mary, used of Jesus by his enemies, was an intended insult categorizing him as illegitimate, his father putative, his paternal ancestors unknown.

This is all to say that names bear an enormous weight. They signify the soul, where inner spiritual realities encounter the external world: in other words, names are sacraments. I believe, as ancient and arcane cultures did and do, that names do indeed carry a certain power, contributing (for better or worse) in forming the character of the person they signify.

Today is my name day, the feast of St. Thomas Aquinas with whom I share very few qualities. My mother would often tell people that she named me for her father, a Thomas, and not for the great theologian-saint. What she meant was that she kept the name I had already been given and with which I had already been baptized by my birth mother who had named me before giving me up for adoption. When I met my birth mother she told me she named me after her brother, Thomas -- a Jesuit priest whom I never met but in whose steps I have mysteriously followed. “We are linked by blood,” Joyce Carol Oates once wrote. “And blood is memory without language.”

In following orthodox teaching Catholics may infer that the only blood running through Jesus’ veins was the blood he inherited from the Virgin Mary. In insulting him as they intended to do when they called him son of Mary, Jesus’ enemies inadvertently served the truth. By their hateful denigration they unwittingly opened the way for the world to come to know the rabbi of Nazareth as Son of God.

1-21-2007: 3rd Ordinary Time (C)

Nehemiah 8:2-4,5-6,8-10/Psalm 19/1 Corinthians 12:12-30/Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21
When I was in seminary we read, or were supposed to read, a lot of the German theologian, Karl Rahner. One of the difficulties in reading Rahner (and there were many) was his German penchant for never ending a sentence – by the time the period popped up at the end, you had completely forgotten what he said at the beginning. Rahner also coined a lot of words we now use in theology, which could be as obscure as his endless clauses. One catchy phrase that leaves you scratching your head is gnoseological concupiscence. Concupiscence is nothing new in theology -- just a polite way of talking about lust. As for the other word in Rahner’s invention, it comes from the Greek gnosis, where we get our word gnostic (as readers of The DaVinci Code might recall); it means knowledge. Rahner coined the phrase to describe the difficulty modern theology faces in trying to cope with what he called “an insurmountable pluralism.” In other words: there’s just too much to digest. So, if you really desire knowledge, if you really want to discover what’s true, you’re going to have to be increasingly discerning about what you choose to read or study.

Gnoseological concupiscence is a lust for information, confusing information with knowledge or wisdom or even truth. It’s the need to survey absolutely everyone’s opinion in the name of democracy, to believe that something might be morally acceptable simply because the majority says so. It’s an insatiable desire to try everything before committing to something. You know you’ve got it when you find yourself spending half the day on the internet, or when you realize you’re hopelessly addicted to opening every e-mail you receive.

Good old-fashioned lust is not detrimental because it seeks pleasure; rather, it’s detrimental because it tricks you into believing the pleasure you seek will indeed satisfy your desire. Gnoseological concupiscence is likewise detrimental, not because it seeks information; but because it deludes you into believing that information, in itself, is the same as knowledge or wisdom or even truth.

The antidote to information-overload, this lust for information, might be found in today’s gospel – where Jesus stands up in the synagogue and is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to read. The gospel implies that he searched for the passage he wanted to read. In other words, Jesus was inner-directed. He did not have to read Isaiah in its entirety to express the truth about who he was, but rather searched for the right passage which would convey his conviction. His intention helped him focus. His decisiveness helped him uncover truth in those few verses of Isaiah he did read from the thousands of possible biblical verses he might have read.

Gnoseological concupiscence has gotten a lot worse since Rahner coined the phrase just thirty years ago; it will only get worse still. Just as the hedonist within each of us can waste a lifetime pursuing pleasure for its own sake, in the mistaken belief that it can satisfy all our desires, so the information-junkie could spend a lifetime surfing net and cable, tragically mistaken in the belief that information equals wisdom or truth.

1-14-2007: 2nd Ordinary Time

Isaiah 62:1-5/Psalm 96/1 Corinthians 12:4-11/John 2:1-11
A news item of no major significance caught my eye last week, reporting that a small object crashed through the roof of a house in Freehold, New Jersey and became embedded in the wall. Experts soon determined it was not (as first expected) a piece of broken aircraft, but a meteorite. Thankfully no one was hurt, but the family who lived there must have wondered …why us.

Historians do not know how long before 621AD another meteorite landed in the Arabian Desert, but they do know that the black stone, about an arm’s length, was soon being venerated by the local tribes who believed it to possess magical and divine qualities. A structure was built around the stone and, eventually, images of the many local gods were brought into the structure, sharing the space with the stone. The structure was called the Kabbah.

It was here, at the Kabbah in Mecca, that Muhammad would organize Islam -- the religion of submission. He would eventually succeed in defeating the tribes who refused to join him and would purge the Kabbah of all graven images of deities. He would, however -- in a flash of religious genius -- leave the black stone within the Kabbah. Muhammad had already conveyed to the faithful how they were to pray and then, in yet another flash of genius, ordered Muslims to cease facing Jerusalem when they prayed and turn right round to face Mecca where the Kabbah which housed the black stone was located. Every year millions upon millions of Muslims make the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, to circle round the Kabbah and venerate the meteorite inside. It was a remarkable feat: how Muhammad was able to use this non-religious object as a vehicle to convey the heart of Islam -- the absolute transcendence of God.

There are, as of yet, no pilgrims making the hajj to Freehold, New Jersey. But why not? Since similarly, every so often, the Blessed Virgin is reported to have appeared in a tree limb or on someone’s bathroom window. Some interest is usually manifested by the ardently devout (they seem to see the Virgin everywhere), but it soon dies out. What’s missing from the story of the Freehold meteorite or the tree-limb Virgin is an interpreter like Muhammad – someone who will tell us what it means. In the case of the Freehold meteorite, science has told us what it means – there is an accepted natural explanation. Similarly, the Virgin’s ubiquitous appearances, by and large, can be explained as natural phenomena. Once we accept the explanation from nature, the event ceases to hold any mystery for us. And without the element of mystery, there can be no religious experience.

Much of what was inexplicable to the ancients can now be readily explained by modern science. And, although I believe that there are things that will always remain inexplicable, it doesn’t seem wise to bank your faith on what might or might not be proven of natural or supernatural origin. What intrigues me, though, and which I believe lies at the heart of a rebirth of religious awe in the twenty-first century, is the expected response voiced by the family from Freehold: why us. Mystery, perhaps, is no longer experienced in external objects but in the interior meaning we ascribe to them. The event at Freehold could then have the makings of an authentic religious experience, because the question, why me, is the first step on the pilgrimage, on the hajj to the Kabbah within. It’s all in how you approach the burning (and as yet unanswered) question which lies beneath the why me: Am I here by chance, landing like a meteorite in Mecca or (God forbid) Freehold, New Jersey; or is there a destiny to my existence. Or, perhaps even more mysteriously, is my life an interplay of both?

1-7-2007: Epiphany (C)

Isaiah 60:1-6/Psalm 72/Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6/Matthew 2:1-12
The vagaries of the calendar rob us of a week of the Christmas Season this year. This Sunday we celebrate the Epiphany but conclude the Christmas Season the very next day as we celebrate the Baptism of the Lord (usually celebrated on the Sunday following the Epiphany). The Epiphany marks the manifestation of Jesus to the world through the eyes of the Magi not long after his birth. Jesus’ Baptism, though, didn’t take place till he was thirty or so -- a lot of years to cram into a liturgical twenty four hours. But maybe there’s wisdom to be discovered in this accident of time. After all, there’s only one episode recorded of Jesus in the canonical gospels between the Epiphany and his Baptism: when an adolescent Jesus, while on a visit to Jerusalem, runs away from his parents to hang out in the Temple. The gospel spin makes the case for a precocious Jesus as he debates the old lawyers with panache. His mom wasn’t nearly as impressed, and scolded him for causing her and Joseph so much worry – typical teenager…

Imagine if the canonical gospels had recorded scenes in the life of the teenage Jesus (maybe they’re canonical precisely because they didn’t). What, do you think, might we see? Did teens in ancient times struggle like teens do today, with issues about belonging and loneliness, sexual awakening, self-esteem…acne? How would the gospels convey Jesus’ unique identity amid adolescent confusion? Or would they insist that Jesus was above the fray, totally in command of his person, no doubts or fears, worries, or the like? Perhaps the evangelists were particularly prudent in omitting stories from those who might have known Jesus when. God, for certain, was quite wise to send his Son before the invention of home movies.

The bookend feasts of Epiphany and Baptism encapsulate -- in deafening silence -- the life of Jesus as teen and young man; but highlight, nonetheless, the question of identity. Despite humble circumstances, the Magi recognize in Jesus the birth of a king -- and pay homage. And during his baptism the divine voice intimately claims Jesus as his own: “You are my beloved Son…” Recognition of one’s identity by external sources, however, does not guarantee a parallel recognition by the subject himself. But, here, I venture onto thin ice (heresy lies in the frigid waters just below), musing about Jesus’ self-consciousness vis-à-vis his identity.

Silence in biography invites speculation; it fuels imagination. Ever wonder, for example, what happened to that gold, frankincense and myrrh? Did Joseph use them to pay for the flight to Egypt or buy that new shop in Nazareth? Or did Jesus find them one day hidden in the back of the closet or under his parents’ bed, leading to a lot of teenage questioning about origins and destiny? Textual ambiguity in biography also leads to questions. For instance, why do Mark and Luke differ from Matthew in recording God the Father’s words spoken at the Baptism? Matthew records: “This is my beloved Son”; as if he were writing solely for our benefit – that we, the onlookers, might recognize Jesus’ true identity. But Mark and Luke posit: “You are my beloved Son”; as if Jesus needed the affirmation.

Both the Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord are feasts affirming Jesus’ identity; accomplished though in different ways. At the Epiphany the Magi shower Jesus with material gifts; while, at the Baptism, God his Father bestows the gift of loving affirmation. There’s a lesson for all of us here amid the gospel’s silence and its ambiguity: parents need to provide the best they can for their children, but the greater gift given by parents to children (and, especially, by fathers to sons) is the simple but intimate affirmation: You are my beloved…

12-28-2008: Holy Family (B)

Genesis 15:1-6; 21:1-3/Psalm 128/Hebrews 11:8,11-12,17-19/Luke 2:22-40
When facts are unknown, fantasies flourish, a wise old social worker once told me as he mused on the debilitating effects family secrets exert on the integrity of the family. Today, on this Feast of the Holy Family, we might admit we know virtually nothing about the relationship shared by Jesus, Mary and Joseph during Jesus’ formative years at Nazareth. So we fantasize and idolize the Holy Family, projecting onto them, as a family, the perfection we so obviously lack in ours.

We think: since Jesus was God, and Mary so pure, and Joseph quite quiet – there would have been no fighting or yelling, no outbursts of anger or tears, no childish pouting or teenage rebellion, no vengeful rebukes or nasty comments. In other words, we might conclude, that Holy Family was nothing like mine. We are constrained, of course, by the facts of our faith: that at least two of the members of that family were incapable of sinning. Thus, if the above mentioned “negative” characteristics are indeed sins, then they would have not occurred in the Holy Family; or, on the other hand, we might consider the possibility that if they did occur, then they may not be sins.

“The family is that privileged setting where every person learns to give and receive love…enabling men and women to grow to the full measure of their humanity.” Such a definition of family (as Pope Benedict has put it) could apply to any and all families – even the Holy Family, because Jesus too had to learn to grow in his humanity (you can’t grow in divinity – by definition). The church, and other religious bodies, have become a bit testy of late regarding how that privileged setting might be achieved however. That’s too bad, really. Making distinctions about what kind of family is best – two parents; two parents married only once; two parents: one male, one female; two parents of the same race; two parents of the same religion…etc., does no one any good. Just because families are formed in different ways doesn’t exclude them from being a family and, more importantly, doesn’t preclude them from achieving that privileged setting. Difference doesn’t necessarily mean better - or worse; it can simply mean different.

I recently heard a story of a man orphaned as a young child and raised in an orphanage. He grew to become increasingly aware that he had lacked much of what a traditional family could have provided, but he was nevertheless immensely grateful for what he did receive. His lack, he came to understand, did not prevent him from experiencing the essentials of being part of a family. He knew he had had that privileged setting despite the deprivations of his particular experience.

Dwelling on what could have been can be a fruitless and even debilitating endeavor. And it’s not unrelated to idolizing. Using current criteria for what constitutes the ideal family, we might wonder about the Holy Family as well. Let’s see: Mary was pregnant when she married Joseph – but not with his child. Joseph was probably considerably older than Mary. Mary and Joseph never had conjugal relations which, according to current church teaching, would probably invalidate their marriage. Mary conceived Jesus without the assistance of any man – a condition shared by not a few women who have become pregnant by current reproductive technologies. And Jesus, raised an only child, would have lacked for sibling relationships. According to so-called traditional ideals, the Holy Family doesn’t quite make the mark.

But building families into privileged settings, where each learns to give and receive love, has no set formula; it relies almost completely on the desire of each to sacrifice for the other. And the commitment to do just that can be achieved to some degree by anyone, whether in a traditional family or not; one created by natural or artificial means (by ordinary biology, enhanced biology, or adoption); where there is only one parent (due to divorce, death, or choice); where all might even be of the same gender (funny, we never questioned that criterion when we praised same-sex church orphanages in their caring for children).

True, families sometimes fail. Some do not seem to achieve any semblance of that privileged setting. But those failures occur in all types of families, not just non-traditional ones. And families that endure just can’t be fit into pre-conditioned categories. They are made up of human beings, diverse and creative, incredibly adaptive, struggling with all kinds of weaknesses and debilities but nevertheless capable of giving and receiving love on some level which need never be quantified or compared.

12-21-2008: 4th Advent (B)

2 Samuel 7:1-5,8-12,14,16/Psalm 89/Romans 16:23-27/Luke 1:26-38
The Christmas story, the story of Incarnation, is the heart of Christianity, how divinity came to dwell among us: first within Mary; then within the Holy Family; then within the Church; and now within each and every soul. It’s the story of seeming contradictions, the essence of paradox, the coincidence of opposites.

The Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor, once remarked that many come to the church by ways the church does not allow. That’s a hopeful thought in light of the recently issued document by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas personae (The Dignity of a Person) on current issues in bioethics which, at best, might be judged paradoxical--if you can get past the outright contradictions. The document wishes to augment a pro-life agenda: the sanctity of human life and our responsibility to approach new reproductive technologies from that fundamental point of view. All well and good. But once you leave the realm of broad fundamental principles and enter the intricacies of modern medical procedures (and the church’s prohibitions regarding many of them), things get a little murky. It’s important, meanwhile, to remember that those to whom these prohibitions are issued are no modern Doctors Frankenstein but, by and large, ordinary folks who are looking to become parents, and the ill and incapacitated looking for cure and healing.

Take the problem of frozen embryos and, more to the point, the problem of what to do with them. The document reiterates the prohibition against in vitro fertilization but recognizes that these human embryos must be accorded the dignity afforded to all human beings. Now, one might ask, what would the acknowledgment of that dignity call for--and up pops a contradiction. The document seemingly forbids anyone, including married couples, to prenatally adopt those embryos, by implanting them into the surrogate (adoptive) mother and gestate that embryo to term, and then raise the born-child within the already-created adoptive family. While the document praises the practice of adoption for born-children in need of parents, it seemingly prohibits prenatal adoption of frozen embryos as illicit. Why? As I read the document it does so on two counts: that surrogacy itself (the implanting of an embryo in the womb of a woman not the biological mother of that embryo) is illicit; and since the act of fertilization was not the result of conjugal relations between the couple seeking to adopt the unborn child, it would be illicit to implant an embryo not the result of their conjugal activity. Procreation, it seems, can never (never!) be separated from the conjugal act. Thus, the document implies, those embryos must remain in their cryonic limbo until they die. So, the very reason the document was issued – to promote a pro-life worldview -- seems to forbid a definitively pro-life action (prenatal adoption) and so consigns these individuals to a very cold fate indeed because, through no fault of their own, they were not conceived in the normal, “natural” way.

Between Humanae vitae (which condemned artificial contraception) and Dignitas personae, the church has settled into a neat and unfortunate tautology: the conjugal act must always be open to procreation, and procreation must always be the result of the conjugal act. All else is illicit. But here’s the catch: while artificial contraception involves only the practitioners, in vitro fertilization involves not only the practitioners, but their children as well. It seems, the gospel notwithstanding, the sins of the fathers are indeed passed down to their children.

The document’s emphasis on the absolute necessity of the conjugal act in relation to procreation is mired in irony, declaring human life to be a sacred value while permitting unborn children to die in frozen storage all because their parents did not have sex. The absurdity is more keenly felt on this particular Sunday of the year when we read of the Virginal Conception of Jesus by Mary. The very heart of Christian revelation assures us of this truth: that (a) Jesus’ conception was not the result of a conjugal act between Mary and Joseph (nor of any other sexual act), but accomplished with the express permission of only one human agent, Mary, who, having agreed to the divine request, would carry a son who was not the child of her husband; and (b) that Joseph, in obedience to the instruction of the angel, agreed to the prenatal adoption of Jesus. Good thing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wasn’t around then or the Incarnation itself might have been judged illicit. On the other hand, maybe it should be judged so; and then all those practicing illicit conception, as well as all those illicitly conceived, might come to the church by the very ways the church does not allow – and find there, a welcome home.

12-14-2008: 3rd Advent (B)

Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11/Luke 1:46-54/1Thessalonians 5:16-24/John 1:6-8,19-28
I have never really understood why we classify stories as fiction and non-fiction. If fiction were merely the same thing as falsehood or untruth, why would we make it the determining category in relation to other works of literature? In other words we start with fiction and then designate everything else non-fiction. Would we say that non-fiction, then, is something not not-true; or is fiction something quite different from the mere category of untruth or the more pejorative designation: false, fake, unreal?

Something akin to the relationship between fiction and non-fiction is a part of the recent brouhaha in the state capitol building in Washington State where a sign was placed by a group of committed atheists opposite the Christmas crèche. In the interests of an egalitarian ethos the atheist “credo” (so to speak) states: there is only the natural world…religion is but myth that enslaves the mind. Prescinding from the obvious issue of bad taste and sour grapes, the statement nonetheless challenges Christians – and, indeed, all religious people -- to give reason for our faith. Because if the accusation is true (if religion does indeed enslave the mind), then the atheists have made a point to which any self-respecting rational human being would have to acquiesce. But whose mind is really closed?

The atheists’ position is that religion is but myth. The believer might answer: Of course…so what? The atheists’ position might counter: Since myths are legends, and legends are fairy-tales, religion is a fairy-tale and thus untrue, false, fake. But the believer might muse: Just because something uses the elements of fiction, is it untrue? When you read a good novel, knowing full well the story was created from the author’s imagination, does it stop you from crying when the heroine dies or from laughing over an all too human foible? I suspect we laugh and cry precisely because, no matter what the incidentals of the story might be, it is completely and utterly true.

The atheists argue that there is only the natural world: case - and mind - closed! The believer might suggest that the natural world is itself a myth, the overlay to a still mightier and wondrous dimension of reality. Cardinal Newman once mused that the hills and valleys are but the hems of the garments of those (angels) who see the face of God.

Permitting oneself to wonder what might lie beneath, or above, or somewhere beyond that which our eyes so poorly behold is the essence of a good myth and of all true religion. It may not lead all to faith, but it’s at the heart of religion and, yes, science; opening the mind and freeing the imagination to contemplate the possibilities which the natural world can only suggest but never prove.

In the end it seems quite right for the atheists to choose to make their case against the backdrop of the Christian nativity story – the virginal conception. It was, after all, a young girl who entertained the possibility that, if she listened well to the strange voice that came to her one day long ago, she could actually hear God’s finest whisper and the invisible world might make itself visible to human eyes and mercy be made manifest in this world, here and now.

Christian apologists have long ago ceased to argue that the stories of the Bible are not myth; they simply suggest that a myth might be truer than facts and that perhaps once - and only once - the supernatural and natural world touched in such intimate intercourse that both fiction and non-fiction were found on the same shelf.

12-7-2008: 2nd Advent (B)

Isaiah 40:1-5,9-11/Psalm 85/2 Peter 3:8-14/Mark 1:1-8
The writer Flannery O’Conner was once asked why she created such bizarre characters who did such grotesque things. She said that “for the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large, startling figures.”

John the Baptist seemed to have been doing a lot of shouting in his day as well, not to mention all the locusts he went around eating. He would have done well on the Sunday morning TV religion circuit, shouting loud and long about sin and repentance. His job was to remind all those nearly deaf and blind that they were looking for something, in case they had gotten lost in other pursuits; to help them recognize that divinity was not something only out there and up above, but in the things we take for granted – the ordinary and even profane things of life. Without the Baptist, would people have been ready to recognize in that wandering preacher from Galilee the Lamb of God, such extraordinary grace in so ordinary a man?

Although Advent is often described as a time of waiting --waiting to commemorate Christ’s birth, waiting for his return again at the end of time – it’s perhaps better understood as a short course in the art of recognition. Because we moderns have been rendered half deaf and dumb by technological distractions which occupy every spare moment, it seems increasingly difficult to recognize God-with-us in the ordinariness of life; the Baptist’s shouting only adds to the din of today’s noise and demand. The Prophet Elijah’s experience, on the other hand, might offer a better way.

After slaying the pagan prophets of Baal, Elijah ran away to seek God in the mountains – not unlike the pagan prophets themselves who sought to identify divinity completely with nature. That’s why Elijah’s experience is so moving in a backwards sort of way. He sought God in the powerful wind, then in the mighty earthquake, then in the blazing fire -- but all to no avail. Instead, the Bible tells us, Elijah found God in the still small voice. The literal translation from the Hebrew renders the phrase -- a slice of silence. Then, in that slice of silence, Elijah covers his eyes for he knows he is in the holy presence of God. Surprise – the upset of anticipation – divulges a secret: recognition often comes when and where we least expect.

Being silent amid the cacophony of modern life is not easy: every ring of a cell phone seems to demand our attention; every e-mail requires an immediate response. Advent invites us to be silent. (If we jumble the letters in the word silent we discover the word listen). Advent, the art of recognition, is practiced when we listen in silence. Once long ago, we Christians believe, a young girl did just – silently listened. And a still small voice pierced her being while a slice of silence became the divine word, making his home in her womb. We also believe that the rest of us, through baptism, are no different than she. I suspect recognizing that would indeed come as a surprise.

11-30-2008: 1st Advent (B)

Isaiah 63:16-17,19-64:2-7/Psalm 80/1 Corinthians 1:3-9/Mark 13:33-37
The calendar pages turn and Advent is upon us once again. Some say Advent is meant to teach us how to wait. But wait for what? Can you wait for something that’s already happened: like the coming of Christmas, the birth of Jesus? The readings today tell us we should be waiting not for Jesus’ first coming but for his second: his coming at the end of history, at the end of time. But who, besides the fanatically religious, really wants to wait for that?

Near the end of his life, Albert Einstein’s biographers tell us, he was neither upset at the loss of his closest friend nor at his own approaching death. Although an atheist Einstein had an almost religious respect for the mysteries of the universe he had attempted to unravel and understand. In his theory of Special Relativity Einstein concluded that Time -- what appears to be one of the most complex of constructs – is not an absolute. He would assert that the “distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion – however persistent.”

Fifteen hundred years previous St. Augustine had also talked about the mystery of time in his Confessions – an account of his own ”special relativity” with the Divine Providence. Augustine wrote that “time comes from the future which does not yet exist, into the present which has no duration, and goes into the past which has ceased to exist.”

Today we begin a new year of grace, as the church calls it, preparing to recall the events surrounding the birth of the Savior as well as his coming at the end of time. Predicting that date of future demise or impending glory (depending on your POV) has been the hobby of those who take the Bible literally when speaking of the world’s end as well as its beginning. Charles Russell started the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the nineteenth century by predicting a date of demise. The fact that the date has come and long gone, while the world remains, does not seem to have deterred the faithful -- then or now. Back in the seventeenth century James Ussher, the Anglican archbishop of Armagh, studied the scriptures and determined with uncanny exactitude the date of the world’s creation: October 23, 4004BC … at dawn. That would’ve been news to the Neanderthals, not to mention all those wooly mammoths. Many, though, still hold to this chronology.

Ignoring scientific fact about origins, as well as predicting Armageddon, is ultimately a waste of time, as sometimes waiting can be. Because if time is an illusion, so may be waiting. Misappropriating Advent – getting sidetracked by silliness, even if it’s religious silliness – can be a pitfall for the believer.

Back in the twelfth century Bernard of Clairvaux taught his monks about Christ’s third coming: when he is born in each human heart. Although the comings of Christ are made distinct for us who are encased in time through tense – past, present and future – they are, in reality, sacraments of eternity. Each moment, from future through present to past, is a coming of grace, an ever present reality to all. Advent helps us transcend the illusion of time and see, as if from above, the powerful hand of Providence guiding us throughout our lives. Advent is but a short course (relatively speaking) in the art of recognition, opening our dull eyes to the continuous, unfolding glory of Emmanuel: God-with-us.

11-23-2008: Christ the King (A)

Ezekiel 34:11-12,15-17/Psalm 23/1 Corinthians 15:20-26,28/Matthew 25:31-46
Anyone would be impressed upon entering the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel and seeing Michelangelo’s interpretation of today’s gospel of the Last Judgment with flailing bodies dropping into the fiery flames of hell and faces melting into oblivion. Michelangelo originally painted those figures as nudes with exposed genitalia, causing quite a stir. Cardinal Carafa vehemently protested to Pope Clement VII that the painting seemed better suited for a bordello than serving as the backdrop for Mass. But Clement (who had commissioned the work) insisted that his jurisdiction didn’t extend into hell so the painting would remain as it had been created. It wasn’t till after the Council of Trent (1565) that the exposed genitalia were draped in fig leaves and the like, suggesting rather foolishly, that even hell might have a dress code.

From the apocalyptic parable in today’s gospel to Michelangelo’s Last Judgment to contemporary frenzy about global warming, we human beings have a penchant for drama especially when it mingles with the prospect of the end of things. And things did get a bit dramatic after Proposition 8 passed in California on Election Day, effectively doing away with same-sex marriage. Although passing because of the support of black and Hispanic voters, it was the Mormon Church which was accused of financing passage of the bill, drawing the ire of the gay opposition. Mormon temples and some churches became the object of protest and derision; some were defaced and damaged. Meanwhile the Knights of Columbus, in full regalia, marched in favor of the bill’s passing. On the other hand, those in favor of same-sex marriage (gay and straight) bitterly protested the passage of Prop 8, claiming homophobic prejudice. The fact that the proposition defined marriage as between one man and one woman, stressing gender and not number, was not lost on those who are familiar with Mormonism’s own difficulty concerning number if not gender.

Then there are those of us who just don’t see the issue as all that important or culturally defining in any significant way. If gay people are let to marry, does that really portend the end of the institution of marriage. And if civil unions are permitted nation-wide, duly protecting the rights of couples in a relationship, is it really that important they call it marriage. Both sides seem to think that if their side loses, the end of the world will most surely be next. Catholics should know that whether or not same-sex marriage is permitted or not in the civil sphere, it will have absolutely no effect in the religious sphere. As it is, Catholic marriage law doesn’t make it especially easy for anyone to marry. Two baptized Catholics, for example, can’t even validly marry in Crocheron Park -- whatever their gender.

The Feast of Christ the King marks the end of the church’s year and, by liturgical extrapolation, reminding us of the end of the world as well. There are many things infinitely more important than Proposition 8 which now cause a lot of anxiety about the future. If anything we need less fear, a less judgmental attitude, more calm and equanimity. Our daily prayer at Mass suggests a more fruitful direction as we face those formidable challenges ahead: Protect us Lord from all anxiety and grant us peace in our day.

Perhaps the Feast of Christ, King and Lord of the Universe, a bold and audacious feast, encourages us to face those daunting challenges with a bit more optimism and a bit less fear, embracing the future with a grounded equanimity rather than a free-floating anxiety. So, don’t get sidetracked by unimportant distractions. Take a cue from a renaissance pope like Clement VII who, though accused of many things, steadfastly refused to sacrifice beauty for a false modesty. When we end up fighting over fig leaves, we blind ourselves to the crisis. And did you know that the Chinese word for crisis is made up of two characters: one meaning “danger” and the other “opportunity.” Solutions to wide-scale problems and remedies for injustice depend on our awareness of both.

11-16-2008: 33rd Ordinary Time (A)

Proverbs 31:10-13,19-20,30-31/Psalm 128/1 Corinthians 5:1-6/Matthew 25:14-30
I wonder what the master in today’s gospel parable would have done upon his return if the servants he entrusted with his wealth had lost his money on bad investments rather than having returned it to him with interest. Would that unfortunate servant whom the master judged wicked and lazy - for not investing - have been held in any higher esteem for at least returning his master’s original principal? We’ll never know, of course. Besides, parables are not intended to be ambiguous but clear presentations of a moral lesson. And the moral in this one is no less ambiguous: don’t hide or squander your talents and skills out of fear but put them to good use. Like the worthy wife from the first reading who is praised precisely because she does not squander her talents but industriously, fearlessly, puts them to good use.

Life, though, is not as straightforward as a parable or a proverb; it’s not lived on an even playing-field. Life’s like a box of chocolates, the mother of that renowned philosopher of life, Forrest Gump, once said. You never know what you’re gonna get. Good investments and industriousness might work for some, but does the same advice hold for everyone. Fate deals us the cards, but our destiny lay in how we choose to play them.

Proverbs might hold a clue, though, on how we’re meant to play those cards. The worthy wife, we’re told, works with loving hands and her fingers ply the spindle. In Old German the word for spindle and fate are the same. In Late Antiquity, Boethius wrote that God “turns heaven like a spindle.” Our word spider comes from Old English meaning “spinner.” And how often is the Virgin Mary pictured spinning her wool as Gabriel makes his entrance to announce she has conceived divinity? This ancient archetype is not lost on us moderns either, especially the young, as we go on-line and embark on a daily adventure into the World Wide Web (www…). With all due respect to Bill O’Reilly, we are meant to be enmeshed in spin and, if there were an actual No-Spin Zone, it might prove to be a rather dull and boring place.

In contrast, the Spin-Zone (if we might call it that), is a holy place - where grace and imagination intercourse, where, as in the Incarnation itself, spin spawns divinity and salvation is had. If fate is but chance, then destiny is the chance we take on fate: where the likes of that proverbial lazy servant is judged wicked, not because of any particular moral flaw but because, from fear, he buried his meager but particular talent and refrained from taking a chance on life, missing his singular opportunity to put his unique spin on the unrepeatable life he was given.

Even in our complicated high-tech world the moral of the ancient parable holds true: fear is the biggest obstacle to a well-woven life.

11-9-2008: Lateran Basilica Dedication (A)

Ezekiel 47:1-2,8-9,12/Psalm 46/1 Corinthians 3:9-11,16-17/John 2:13-22
A paradigm, the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn once noted, is an entire worldview. And when that paradigm shifts, history changes tracks; new pathways are forged from the overgrown bush; and our collective destiny is perceived with a bit more clarity.

That’s what happened some 1700 years ago when the Emperor Constantine decided to favor the once-persecuted Christians and let them worship freely and in edifices reflective of their worldview. In this paradigm shift of inestimable significance, Constantine built a basilica in the part of Rome called the Lateran and dedicated it to Jesus as Savior (later that designation would change to honor both John the Baptist and John the Evangelist). It would be the first public Christian church to be built and would be called the Mother and Head of all the churches of the City and the world. Inscribed over the entrance to the basilica are the words: In all the world there is no place holier than this. Its doors were taken from the Roman Senate building, no doubt reminding the ordinary Roman citizen that things were indeed changing: allegiances shifting, the young jettisoning their parents’ old prejudices, baptism making slaves and citizens of equal stature in the body of the Church and within the walls of the Lateran Basilica in particular.

For more than a millennium the popes of Rome lived and ministered there and it remains, still, the cathedral seat of the bishop of Rome as pope. In its long history it has hosted some of the great ecumenical councils which, despite their penchant to pronounce anathemas, sought to bring the Church into dialogue with the wider culture as times changed and sincere people questioned -- as they always have – how divine and human should intercourse.

Whatever your political persuasion it would be hard not to acknowledge the paradigm shift which took place this past election day. Pundits on both sides argued that the election should not be about race – as if race were only a superficial element in the make-up of this campaign. I would suggest, on the contrary, it was all about race – thank God. Outward appearance can be immensely symbolic of more profound underpinnings. President-elect Obama is, in his physical make-up, in his genetic inheritance, the embodiment of America’s unique history of both prejudice and promise. He is the blend of race and culture which not too long ago would have been condemned as evidence of the sin of miscegenation, but now embraced as a sign of hope, the desired closure to America’s original sin – the enslavement of African-American peoples and the segregation imposed upon them even after emancipation. President-elect Obama’s victory, symbolic of a hard-won equality, is a visible reminder of where we’ve been and where we long to be. Slavery is America’s deepest wound and the scar that will eventually evince its healing will forever remain on the body politic. Perhaps such hurt can only be assuaged by someone who embodies and inherits both sides of the dilemma. The paradigm shift is immense: miscegenation, once the emblem of sinful and forbidden intercourse, has become, in the person of Barack Obama, a sign of hope and harmony.

That is no easy burden to bear precisely because it emerges out of Obama’s existence and not from his choice. Don’t misunderstand. I have no illusions about the new president’s humanity. He will no doubt make as many mistakes in office as anyone would. He is, in the end, a politician - a fact which probably disqualifies him from immediate canonization; but it doesn’t make him a bad person either. (Some historians consider Constantine’s conversion to Christianity as a politically savvy move and not the result of a heart-felt faith). Regardless of political allegiance, however, honest Americans will acknowledge this historic paradigm shift in America’s history and pray God will make much good of it.

11-2-2008: All Souls' Day

Wisdom 3:1-9/Psalm 23/Romans 5:5-11/John 6:37-40
The dead are always making their way into the lives of the living, whether through prayer or veneration of ancestors, belief in ghosts or acts of memory. Death and the after-life are usually subjects found within the domain of religion but even atheists sometimes pay attention. This year there’s close proximity between All Souls’ Day (November 2nd) and Election Day (November 4th); and if this election year is anything like previous ones, the reality of life-after-death might once again be proved true as hardened politicians acknowledge that in certain quarters of the body politic, the dead actually vote – and, sometimes, more than once.

The Feast of All Souls, together with its pagan antecedents like Halloween, focus our attention on the fascinating and disturbing subject of death and our imaginings of what ensues afterward. For Catholics, that imagining has morphed into a phenomenon called Purgatory. Most non-Catholics, and even many Catholics, aren’t too convinced about Purgatory (especially after the pope put the kibosh on Limbo). Everyone, though, seems intrigued by death and what might or might not lie beyond. For me the best argument for the premise of Purgatory has not been any learned treatise from some notable theologian but, oddly, two films: the little known 1998 film by Kore-eda Hirokazu, After Life and M. Night Shyamalan‘s 1999 The Sixth Sense – both definite worth-sees in any movie aficionado’s repertoire. Without giving away too much, let’s just say the underlying theme of both films is one of unfinished business. And unfinished business is precisely what’s at the heart of the doctrine of Purgatory.

Unfortunately the popular imagination has focused on Purgatory as a “place of punishment” for past sins which we must suffer before entering the divine presence. Overlooked, in this focus on sin, is the most important premise that belies Purgatory – that it is inhabited by the already-redeemed; and the suffering they endure is not a punishment per se, but a purification for glory and a preparation for joy. In The Sixth Sense, Bruce Willis’ suffering doesn’t come from any personal moral failure but, rather, from his inability to perceive the truth. When he finally comes to his senses, and can accept the truth, his unfinished business is resolved and he can move on to where he is meant to be.

The idea that Purgatory and its inhabitants are good (holy) and not evil (gravely sinful) first came to me years ago when I went searching for my birthmother. When I discovered her surname was the most common name of all -- Jones, I despaired of ever finding her. The only lead I had was that she had been baptized in a Catholic church with the unusual name: the Church of the Holy Souls in Purgatory. Because the name was so unique it did not take me long to obtain her baptismal certificate with the record of where she had married. I found her in two days.

Because I had long been attuned to think of the souls in purgatory as sinners, the fact that they should be designated as holy was confusing at first. But, of course, they must be holy because they are already saved – they simply haven’t realized it yet, they still need to come to their senses. Our prayers, we believe, help them do just that. And they in turn can intercede for us, offering up their “suffering” for us. Perhaps some of them were doing just that for me as I searched to find out where I came from – a journey I think which mirrors Purgatory itself, where coming to your senses means discovering who you are, where you came from and, most importantly, where you are meant to be.

10-26-2008: 30th Ordinary Time (A)

Exodus 22:20-26/Psalm 18/First Thessalonians 1:5-10/Matthew 22:34-40
Today’s exhortation from the Book of Exodus, about not demanding interest on a loan made to poor people, takes on an eerie applicability these days. Presumably the author of Exodus would have expected the poor person to at least pay back the principal. The bible is chock full of references to money, loans, usury, interest and debt. Those parables from the gospels, about being thrown into prison until every penny on a loan is repaid and those myriad references to debtors’ prisons in Victorian novels, help you appreciate that money demands responsibility – not only on the part of the borrower but for the lender as well. Loaning money to those who demonstrably cannot pay it back is sort of like the driver who stops at a green light to let pedestrians cross a busy boulevard. The driver thinks he’s being kind and charitable, doing a good deed, being christian and all that, until the poor pedestrian gets hit by oncoming traffic halfway across because the other drivers are following the accepted rules, trusting that both drivers and pedestrians are complying with the same accepted norms. It seems at this point in our economic saga lenders, whether acting out of greed or charity, decided to stop on green and go on red, effectively sentencing the rest of us to on-coming traffic and that proverbial debtor’s prison.

[Although the Church forbade taking interest on loans for many centuries – a practice originally called usury -- it was eventually judged to be a legitimate enterprise. The word usury fell into disuse and was reserved only as a pejorative term for those exorbitant interest rates charged on loans -- that twenty-percent interest rate charged by your credit card company might just qualify.]

It’s only relatively recently that we’ve begun to understand that money itself is a manifestation of the body politic, a measurement of the trust each places in the common good. Money, far from being the root of all evil, is in many ways a sign, a symbol (dare I say, a sacrament of sorts) of the collective trust we are called to place in each other as a community. That confidence has been badly shaken of late and no one seems to know what precisely to do.

Describing the situation as an economic crisis might miss the full import of the problem. But then again the word economy, coming from the Greek, refers to the management of a household. It is used in theology to describe the relationship within the Holy Trinity, the harmony between Father, Son and Spirit. When theologians cite the divine economy they aren’t referring to a heavenly budget, but to the relationship between God and his creation. Economics is ultimately a theological concern, because it’s all about community as the realm of responsibilities exercised by those who seek the common good. That common good will sometimes produce wealth, but sometimes demand sacrifice. Good government cannot avoid the demand for sacrifice or, indeed, guarantee wealth; but it can create the needed climate of trust by assuring, by persuasion or threat of penalty, that participants follow the basic rules: green for go, red for stop, tickets for jaywalking, and points on your license for blocking the box.

Theologians describe the essence of the divine economy as harmony. And harmony is just what we seek in our human economies as well. The first step on that long journey toward an ordered and harmonious society is the elimination of chaos which, sometimes, demands a firm hand exercised by an extraordinary leader. Let’s pray the next president will do and be just that.

10-19-2008: 29th Ordinary Time (A)

Isaiah 45:1,4-6/Psalm 96/Thessalonians 1:1-5/Matthew 22:15-21
“I am the Lord, there is no other.” So says God to Cyrus the Persian in today’s first reading. Whether Cyrus thought this a good thing or not, we do not know. Matter of fact, whether we should consider this revelation a relief or a disappointment is itself hard to tell.

One of the downsides to a strict monotheism is the fact that ardent adherers don’t have recourse to some other deity more sympathetic to their particular plight. Pagan polytheists of old could at least seek the help of an Aphrodite when Zeus seemed contemptuous of their pleas. And, although historical evidence is lacking, we might assume Cyrus was himself a Zoroastrian (the ancient religion of Persia). Historians attribute Zoroastrianism’s practice of religious tolerance as a reason for Cyrus’ benevolent gesture toward the Jews of his day – returning them to their homeland and permitting them to rebuild the Temple. We can infer, however, from Isaiah’s insistence that the Jewish God was behind Cyrus’ actions, that Isaiah feared grateful Jews might embrace the religion of such a benevolent infidel. Certain passages of the Hebrew Scriptures even designate Cyrus as Messiah. (In contrast to Cyrus’ practice of tolerance, his modern successor, Achmedinijad, a strict Muslim monotheist, wants to do everything possible to reverse the benevolent actions of his ancient predecessor by destroying Israel and scatter the Jews into a permanent Diaspora – no Messiah he.)

Catholicism, although claiming a strict monotheism, in reality is open to the manifestation of the divine presence through many venues. One of the great arguments evangelical Protestants pose against Catholics is our invocation of the saints and of Mary in particular. Salvation, for them, rests on acknowledging Jesus, and only Jesus, as our guide through this vale of tears on our way to heaven. But which Jesus one acknowledges is a highly speculative affair. The qualities and attributes we ascribe to the historical Jesus usually reflect our contemporary needs and desires. Besides, how many of us really still believe in the God presented in the Old Testament who, at times, seems so capricious and vengeful we have no choice but to run to the comforting embrace of Mary, Mother of Mercy.

In the end our adherence to the doctrines of a particular religion seems not as important as the actions we perform and the merciful and compassionate deeds we seek to accomplish in this life. Cyrus probably continued to worship Ahura Mazda and not the God of the Jews. So what! He did what was right and just, and didn’t even object when Isaiah ascribed his goodness to a God whose religion he didn’t follow.

And Jesus’ very clever rejoinder to the Pharisees in today’s gospel, about giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s, can be seen as yet another exercise of pragmatic religious toleration amid the rigid strictures of a monotheistic faith. A lesson hopefully not lost on us as we approach the upcoming elections. Bishops tell us we should vote according to a conscience formed by Catholic moral principles; but the gospel seems to imply that principles need at times bend to practicality and pragmatism if God is ultimately to be served well. Jesus’ clever response proves that giving Caesar what belongs to him doesn’t mean we cannot give God his due – in due time, though, and often by a rather circuitous route; proving the old adage that God writes straight with crooked lines. Lines that will always end up crooked, no matter how straight we intended them to be.

10-12-2008: 28th Ordinary Time (A)

Isaiah 25:6-10/Psalm 23/Philippians 4:12-14,19-20/Matthew 22:1-14
Demonstrative pronouns are meant to catch your eye, like in today’s first reading when the English translator of Isaiah repeatedly and poetically uses the demonstrative pronoun for emphasis’ sake: “On that day God will say; on this mountain he will provide; on this mountain he will destroy; on this mountain he will rest…” It works, that use of demonstratives, and sparks an interest in geography of all things. The reader wants to know which mountain is this mountain.

Mount Moriah is a good possibility where legend has it Adam himself was buried after living a long life east of Eden. Moriah is the mount on which Abraham sought to sacrifice Isaac (one wonders if Isaac had recurring nightmares about that place). Moriah is also the place from where Mohammad is said to have ascended to Heaven. In the seventh century, Muslims built the Dome of the Rock over that alleged port of departure. And, most significantly, it is the place on which the Jews built, and rebuilt, the Temple -- wherein the Holy of Holies was situated, a veiled room where the Ark of the Covenant resided and the glory of the Almighty was said to rest.

If you have ever visited Jerusalem you might have noticed a rather large sign written in several languages forbidding entrance onto the Temple Mount – you read it as you pass underneath in explicit defiance of the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem’s prohibition. Observant Jews obey the prohibition, however, and choose to pray at the Western (Wailing) Wall of the Temple Mount -- the closest they can come to the divine presence, or at least its residue, without accidentally desecrating it by coming so near. (Since no one knows the exact location of where the Temple stood before the Romans destroyed it in 70AD, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount is the closest but “safest” place you may stand without accidentally committing an act of desecration). Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (observed by Jews this past week) was the one day of the year, in Temple times, when the High Priest was permitted to enter the Holy of Holies and he alone permitted to utter the sacred name of the Almighty. It’s interesting to note that Pope Benedict has recently forbidden the utterance of the personal name of God during Catholic liturgies. The prohibition affects the singing of certain hymns and reading aloud from the Jerusalem Bible which, oddly, never substituted the term “Lord” for the Tetragrammaton.

The Temple Mount is a huge area on which the Temple itself occupied only a small percentage of space. One could argue that even an observant Jew might venture onto the Temple Mount without accidentally desecrating the place where the Holy of Holies was located. For example, he could walk the perimeter of the Mount relatively certain he would not be transgressing that invisible line separating the sacred and the profane. But he would rather play it safe, no doubt remembering the biblical accounts of those who touched the Ark of the Covenant (whether by intention or accident) and were immediately struck down by the Almighty.

Safeguarding the sacred by creating a wide parameter of space, a buffer zone so to speak, between the human and divine, between creature and creator, is a common practice among religions. But Christianity, that religion of Incarnation, invites us to cross that invisible but formidable barrier between sacred and profane, reminding us “the veil has been torn” and, through Christ, our very humanity has been divinized. We are no illegal aliens transgressing divine soil, but immigrants -- documented by baptism -- approaching that Holy of Holies; sojourners, in search of a long-lost home. The geography which beckons, however, is not the now built-over slopes of Mount Moriah but, demonstratively, that sacred space within -- that unexplored and mysterious terrain of this human heart wherein calling God by his name is not nearly as important as hearing him call us by ours.

10-5-2008: 27th Ordinary Time

Isaiah 5:1-7/Psalm 80/Philippians 4:6-9/Matthew 21:33-43
“Have no anxiety at all.” So says St. Paul, writing to the Philippians. Easy for him to say – he didn’t own any mutual funds. As of this writing the anxiety which surrounds the economic freefall is palpable. Legislators are losing their cool, left and right. Barney Frank looks even more sloppy than usual, Nancy Pelosi has pulled back her hair, and George Bush’s eyes are more crossed than ever. And though all is still up in the air, and economic security hangs precariously on a thin limb, our elected officials (mostly goys) have gone back home for Rosh Hashanah.

The deeply troubling thing is the ever-increasing awareness on the layman’s part that no one, absolutely no one, seems to know what to do or how to do it. This, the pundits say, is the epitome of a crisis of confidence in government. No emerging leader (not even in the wings) seems imminent; and the inherent weakness of democratic government becomes ever more evident. Far from dispelled, anxiety has become the very air we breathe.

In the midst of such chaos, how is it possible to heed St. Paul’s advice and dispel that anxiety from mind and heart? The answer he poses is counterintuitive: be thankful. Gratitude in the midst of scarcity seems pointless, but Paul insists it’s the only way. Being grateful for what seems to be less turns the less into more (Economics 101 according to Paul). At least it might help us begin to view the worth and wealth of our lives apart from our treasure, and even apart from the security which a treasured portfolio once provided. It’s certainly a challenge -- and greater challenges may be yet to come. But the hardest arithmetic to master, someone once said, is that which enables us to count our blessings -- especially in hard times. You might not need a calculator at first: fingers will suffice. Until you get the hang of it, that is – then, not even a brand new computer with mega gigabytes of memory would be able to enumerate the bountiful blessings bestowed on even one humble life freed of anxious worry.

9-28-2008: 26th Ordinary Time (A)

Ezekiel 18:25-28/Psalm 25/Philippians 2:1-11/Matthew 21:28-32
If evolution were viewed as a calendar year, Carl Sagen once said, humans would have appeared sometime after 11:59pm on December 31st. Now that’s a humbling thought, especially when you’re tempted to see yourself, and the species, as the center of the universe. It makes you suspect that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet – both the good and the bad.

St. Paul’s memorable hymn exalting Christ as Lord is the subject of today’s second reading. Often interpreted as testimony to Christ’s divine status, it’s an appeal to action as well: Follow Jesus, it seems to suggest, and come down to earth.

Biblical translators are old hands at political correctness. Christ humbling himself might just as well be translated as Christ humiliating himself by becoming human. In English, humility and humiliate come from the same Latin word for “earth” – humus (not to be confused, of course, with hummus, a Turkish word for that delicious chick-pea mash from the Middle East). Maybe the force of the poem is just that – a study in abject humiliation, made more acceptable to the listener when given a more ethereal and spiritual tweak: abject humiliation becoming the practice of humility.

That humility might be best practiced by pilgrims (a status somewhere between tourist and immigrant), because they often have to eat what they suspect they will not enjoy. This food metaphor comes to us as eating humble pie, giving up the comfort of the familiar to venture into the unknown. This forsaking of privilege for poverty (and, remember, privilege and poverty are always relative terms) is a recurrent theme in literature as well: from Dickens’s Great Expectations to Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper to a more recent film Gosford Park, a murder mystery set in the class-conscious Britain of the 1930s where the vocation of a servant is memorably put by Helen Mirren’s character: “I am the perfect servant,” she says. “Because I anticipate everyone’s needs.” Within the context of the story the ignoble status of the humble servant is revealed as true nobility, the same message, I suspect, St. Paul wanted to convey by his poetry.

St. Paul’s poetry turns things topsy-turvy, even for us who live in a more egalitarian world than our ancestors. Christ humbled (read humiliated) himself, not to raise us to a higher status but to sanctify the lowly condition in which we find ourselves. The beauty of the Incarnation is not so much (and here I realize I’m nearing the borders of orthodoxy) to save us from something, but to bring us joy no matter the conditions we must endure. Humility, that coming-down-to-earth – literally, making oneself dirt -- anticipating others’ needs, eating humble pie, is offered to all as the key to joy.

If pressed to define religion, many might say it’s all about getting from here to there, from earth to heaven. But with St. Paul’s poetry, connecting the essence of divinity to a humble human status, maybe we’ve got it all wrong and the goal of true religion is more about coming down to earth than living up in the clouds.

How do we practice humility, then? How best to imitate Jesus’ emigration from divine to human, from heaven to earth? St. Paul says “bend the knee.” An apt gesture in the face of the divine majesty, but maybe he just wants us to touch the earth with these bodies of ours, so we might be reminded of our rather humble place in the scheme of things. It’s not as scary as we might fear, though. Humble pie, like hummus, might seem unfamiliar at first but, with practice, can be savored with delight. Humility, too, is an acquired taste.

9-21-2008: 25th Ordinary Time (A)

Isaiah 55:6-9/Psalm 145/Philippians 1:20-27/Matthew 20:1-16
This weekend the Church commemorates the 103 Korean martyr-saints who represent some 10,000 Korean Catholics tortured and executed, for their faith and by their government, over the course of the nineteenth century. Their heroic witness, it is said, has given rise to the fastest growing church in the world, making true that ancient adage: the blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians. Though I wouldn’t want to take anything away from the martyrs’ heroic witness, one might still ask why these men, women, and even children, had to die. The answer would lead us into the very complex, three-centuries-long affair, known to history as the Chinese Rites Controversy.

An over-simplified synopsis: Koreans practiced the Confucian ritual of paying obeisance to their ancestors, a practice that some western missionaries called ancestor-worship. Over the course of three centuries some popes permitted the practice; others forbade it. During the rise of Catholicism in Korea, it was forbidden. The Korean government, during the Confucian Yi Dynasty, required as a matter of civic responsibility, that all Koreans honor their ancestors in this manner. Thus, the impasse. Korean Catholics were accused of civic disobedience, tantamount to treason, for their failure to fulfill their filial duties toward their ancestors. The would-be martyrs, however, claimed they were being obedient to a higher authority.

In hindsight a modern western observer wonders what all the fuss was about. Not bowing before the nameplate of your ancestors hardly seems treasonous, meriting torture and death. Conversely, wasn’t praying for the dead, as Catholics are required to do, virtually the same as respecting one’s dead ancestors by remembering them in a ritual manner? The controversy wouldn’t be finally settled until the 1930s when Pius XI accepted the argument that since the rites came under the jurisdiction of the indigenous government’s Bureau of Education, and not that of Religion, the rites should not be judged religious in nature. And so the bow of obeisance is now incorporated into the Catholic prayers for the dead.

One could argue, I suppose, that the martyrs died in vain; or that the higher authority they claimed to obey was quite fickle in its pronouncements, easily swayed by the politics of the time. Or perhaps, as in many life and death decisions, one accepts that the line you draw in the sand over which you decide not to cross may well be washed away by the tide; suggesting that it’s not where the line is drawn that matters most, but rather the decision to make your mark in the first place -- that’s what has eternal consequences.

Modern Korean Catholics might now practice what the martyrs refused to do, but it is their names – the names of those martyr-saints -- before which we all may now bow, praying for their merciful intercession before God.

6-15-2008: 11th Ordinary Time (A)

Exodus 19:2-6/Psalm 100/Romans 5:6-11/Matthew 9:36-10:8
Calling people by their name can go a long way in attracting followers. And so today’s gospel lists the names of the twelve apostles, of whom we know next to nothing – except their names. This being Fathers’ Day it’s fitting to acknowledge that one of the most significant things fathers give us is their name.

Last week at a young priest’s first Mass I heard him tell the congregation of well-wishers the reason he and his brother had different surnames – I was adopted, he said. This fact of his life was, for him, a defining reality. The actor, Alec Guinness, began his memoir Blessings in Disguise by admitting that although Guinness was the name of the man his mother claimed was his father, he came to realize it couldn’t have been true. He said the search for his father had been the constant, though relatively minor, theme of his long life. Born illegitimate and sensitive to his mother’s extreme discomfort in talking about the circumstances of his birth, he never pushed her for the truth.

Erik Erikson, whose work in psychology has framed the way we now think about identity, began his long life unsure of who his father was – his mother having lied about his father’s identity, not once, but twice. He would eventually take the situation into his own hands and name - create - himself: Erik Erik-son. When I found my birth mother she told me who my father was -- yet he still denies paternity. The man he in turn imputed was actually my father died last year (he too had denied paternity). As Erikson’s life and work attest, the journey of self-discovery never really ends.

Last year, after writing an op-ed piece on the role many American bishops play in preventing adopted adults from gaining access to their original birth certificates (forbidden them in most states), our bishop silenced me in my efforts to change the law which would permit adopted individuals the same right as any other citizen – the right to see their own birth certificate. I have since adhered to the bishop’s demand, but can’t help but wonder why he – or anyone – would want to deny this basic human and civil right to those denied such through no fault of their own. As the great American theologian, John Courtney Murray, S.J., acknowledged, “The complete loss of one’s identity is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell.”

The plight of searching-adoptees affects a very small number of people, but in their search for origins they symbolize, or even sacramentalize, the great human quest for lost identity and misbegotten origins, the pain for home (nostalgia in its literal meaning). From Odysseus’ journey in Homer’s Odyssey to Dorothy’s adventure in The Wizard of Oz, the return to home has been the hallmark of western consciousness. And that search for self, the return to home, is often synonymous with the search for the father – and, ultimately, with the search for the Father.

Remember: the heart of the Christian religion lies not in its moral teaching or its liturgical patrimony, but in the consequences born of the humble admission that Jesus was not Joseph’s son.