Saturday, June 13, 2009

6-14-2009: Corpus Christi

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

6-7-2009: Trintiy Sunday (B)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

5-31-2009: Pentecost (B)

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

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

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

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

12-30-2007: Holy Family (A)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11-11-2007: 32nd Ordinary Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

11-4-2007: 31st Ordinary Time (C)

Wisdom 11:22-12:2/Psalm 145/2 Thessalonians 1:11-23/Luke 19:1-10
It’s strange how often the gospel focuses on the bad guy. It’s a hallmark of good writing, fiction or not, that gives to the antagonist of the story a depth of character that refuses to let us dismiss him as just plain evil - he’s more important than that. Truth is, we’re all pretty complicated characters and full of surprises – even to ourselves.

I wonder if they called him Zach for short – or just shortie because of his stature? Probably they used the Aramaic equivalent of that little squirt with a few expletives thrown in that we can’t repeat here. No doubt the most despised man in Jericho, Zacchaeus made his fortune off the suffering of others. Zacchaeus was the Jew turned government-tax-collector, the Jew who had long before ceased to observe the rules and rituals of his religion. He was a man without a country, a man without religion; worst of all, Zacchaeus was a man without friends. Despite wealth and comfort, his shortness in stature mirrored his miserable life. Climbing the sycamore tree that day, to catch a glimpse of the preacher from Galilee entering Jericho, was Zacchaeus' last chance at some semblance of joy.

It’s hard for us to appreciate the scandal Jesus engendered when he chose to spend the night at Zacchaeus’ house. While our translation has the crowd grumbling, another has it murmuring, which connotes a deeper dissatisfaction, a conspiratorial undertone of sorts, as if a taboo had been broken, a violation incurred that was irreparable. What could have caused Jesus to breach that taboo and risk all for a traitorous Jew, a public sinner?

Perhaps it was the utter sadness he saw in Zacchaeus’ eyes, even from behind the leaves of the sycamore from where he was looking down; or maybe it was Zacchaeus’ tears that fell to the dusty ground that first caught Jesus’ attention. A sadness born of an aching loneliness which would have weighed heavily on Zacchaeus – no wonder he was so small of stature.

In the opening scene of the Oscar winning film Crash, the viewer sees two drivers screaming at each other after a minor accident. A cop is observing them from his car, and we hear his voice-over: “In LA nobody touches you behind the metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much we crash into each other just to feel something.”

Zacchaeus had crashed into people his whole life, receiving their hatred as a substitute for any human affection. But when Jesus calls him by name, and eats and sleeps in his home that particular night, Zacchaeus’ whole life turned around.

Biblical scholars don’t consider this a miracle story, but perhaps they should. Although Zacchaeus neither became an observant Jew, nor quit his government job -- and although he didn’t sprout a few inches overnight -- joy entered his miserable heart that day and transformed a paucity of spirit into magnanimous generosity. More miraculous is the fact that we all possess this power. The power to touch another life with even a modicum of mercy can heal the deepest wound and create consequences immeasurable in goodness and infinite in scope.

10-28-2007: 30th Ordinary Time (C)

Sirach 35:12-14,16-18/Psalm 34/2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18/Luke 18:9-14
It’s hard to imagine where we English speakers would be without the indefinite article, or should I say without an indefinite article. The indefinite article, a/an, really does help us focus on what we wish to emphasize – or, more to the point, de-emphasize. For Catholic girls growing up in Queens, for example, there’s a big difference in saying I go to a high school in Jamaica Estates and I go to the Mary Louis Academy (with the use of the definite article, the, you don’t even need to mention geography). Lots of languages don’t use articles at all, definite or indefinite – like Russian, resulting in Russian emphasizing the bigger picture while forsaking details. For instance: Give me a glass of the Stolichnaya Vodka becomes simply Give me vodka. As if to say, let’s not worry about particulars.

Ancient Greek, the language in which Luke’s gospel is written, possesses definite but not indefinite articles. In other words there’s a lot of the’s, but no a’s or an’s. So, in today’s parable of the Pharisee and the publican (tax collector), the translators forsake literal translation for fluidity, robbing us of an added nuance, or perhaps the nuance, of the story.

Pharisees get a bad rap in the gospels. Jesus seems to always use them as examples of what we shouldn’t emulate. But, truth be told, they weren’t so bad. The Pharisee in today’s parable might have been too proud of the fact that he was fasting and praying more than everyone else – but, God knows, he wasn’t lying. And, even though most of us are reluctant to pay taxes, we wouldn’t shun someone just because he worked for the IRS. (Remember, those Jewish tax collectors were working for the occupying Roman government in the Palestine of their time.) To update the contrast implied in the parable, maybe we’d have to change the tax collector to, say, a pedophile – or better yet, a priest-pedophile. That might provide the shock value Jesus conveyed when he told his listeners that God justified one over the other.

But that’s not quite the whole story. The English translation has the tax collector pray: "O God be merciful to me a sinner." But, as you now know, there’s no indefinite article in ancient Greek, the “a sinner” is the product of the translator’s judgment. Literally, the tax collector prays: "O God be merciful to me, the sinner." Now that’s emphasis for you. In the parable the tax collector (or pedophile) not only acknowledges his failings and weakness, but admits his great need for divine assistance. The use of the definite article might help us appreciate the depths of his deprivation, his definite sense of alienation -- his need for forgiveness and, above all, acceptance.

By the way: some might argue that comparing first century Palestinian tax collectors to contemporary priest-pedophiles is a libelous analogy, since it was the tax collector’s profession and not his moral behavior which rendered him ritually impure (i.e. sinful). The tax collector might have been judged ritually impure, but that didn’t mean he was morally perverted. Granted. But I would bet his sense of alienation would have been just as acute. And it’s precisely this sense of alienation, of exclusion, of aloneness, that is at the heart of prayer. A need for this or that might urge us to mutter a prayer now and then, but the need for acceptance permeates everything -- no matter who we are or what we’ve done.

10-21-2007: 29th Ordinary Time (C)

Exodus 17:8-13/Psalm 121/2 Timothy 3:14-4:2/Luke 18:1-8
I met Maureen McMahon when I was just ordained. She was the embodiment of Jesus’ injunction in today’s gospel to pray always. Maureen never seemed to stop praying. Early to church to do her morning bit, she’d have to get all of the standard prayers in by lunchtime or she’d fall behind and have to stay up late trying to catch up. If you were talking with Maureen, she’d even manage to slip in an ejaculation or two in mid-sentence, as she gasped to catch her breath. Her lips never stopped moving. Her biggest problem was she’d be so consumed with her rosaries and novenas that she’d forget to take her anti-depressant medication and end up in the hospital for a week. I suppose Maureen could have had it worse; her addictive bent could have attached her to alcohol or drugs. In this sense she was the proof of that Marxist adage, saying her prayers as if she were shooting up -- religion being the opium of the people. Prayer was her whole life but, truth be told, it wasn’t a life any healthy person would want.

God doesn’t come off looking very noble in today’s readings. Every time Moses lets his arms drop, after being told by God to keep them uplifted in prayer, the enemy begins to win the battle. And in the gospel parable Jesus compares God to the unjust judge who only does what he’s supposed to do when the old widow won’t stop badgering him – so badger God with your prayers, Jesus seems to suggest. You get the impression that it really does depend on us to get what we need and are desperate to have – because God is oblivious at best; or worse, just simply capricious and cruel.

Carl Jung, on an early trip to America, visited the Taos Pueblo where he met the Anasazi chief Mountain Lake. Jung was fascinated by the religion of this ancient people and would carry on a correspondence with Mountain Lake for decades. Jung learned from him that his tribe believed that their prayers actually caused the sun to rise each day and travel its path across the sky. Mountain Lake told Jung that if they could no longer pray, the sun would eventually cease to rise and the world would end. Mountain Lake believed that the survival of the earth itself was the responsibility of the Anasazi people. Not much different from that basic message of the Bible itself: that God chose a specific people to receive his law and fulfill the responsibilities he had placed on them – they would be his chosen people. And so, if Moses did not fulfill the command to pray in a certain manner, the enemies of Israel would win the battle. Such notions cause a people to consider themselves quite important in the scheme of things – thinking yourself chosen tends to do that.

But once you begin to wonder why a good God would act in such a manner, you begin to wonder about the role of prayer itself. Could an omnipotent God really care less about how many words we mutter addressed to him? And if prayer can effect changes in events and reverse outcomes what does that say about God’s immovable will, his supposedly loving nature – he seems a fickle deity indeed. The temptation is to abandon faith for magic -- the perceived ability to control nature and history by incantation: to think our trivial mumbling really can change God’s mind.

When C.S. Lewis’ wife was dying from cancer, a friend saw him praying in the chapel at Oxford. “Don’t be too despondent,” a friend said. “I’m sure God will hear your prayers.” Lewis replied: “I don’t know if he does or not. You see, I’m not praying to change God’s mind; I’m praying to change mine.” Although it seems a part of every religion, including Catholicism, to believe that we owe God our prayers and worship, it doesn’t make much sense to think he gains anything by them. But if indeed prayer somehow makes our minds and hearts more akin to his mysterious nature, more at ease with life and its challenges, more free than less -- then prayer might be something to consider.

As far as changing outcomes: if God exists outside of time then the way we think of things – cause and effect -- might not really apply regarding prayer. Lewis’ wife had a miraculous remission of her cancer which Lewis attributed not so much to prayer but to the healing touch of an Anglican priest. She would not live all that much longer but he was grateful for the extra months: a gift not so much for her, but for him. Perhaps, despite the experiences of Moses, Mountain Lake and Maureen McMahon, prayer is more about freedom than anything else. As Shakespeare would have it
Now I want Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
and my ending is despair,
unless I be relieved by prayer,
which pierces so that its assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.

10-14-2007: 28th Ordinary Time (C)

2 Kings 5:14-17/Psalm 98/2 Timothy 2:8-13/Luke 17:11-19
Jesus seems a bit miffed in today’s gospel when nine of the ten miraculously-cured lepers never turn up to say thanks. After all, you’d expect a semblance of gratitude from someone cured of an incurable disease. When I had an attack of kidney stones a few years back, I couldn’t stop thanking the nurse who was injecting me with morphine. In fact, after the morphine took effect, I wanted to thank everybody, including the guy who discovered morphine in the first place – he really should be canonized. As for those nine ungrateful lepers: What’s their problem?

Leprosy (as I understand it) is bad, not because it causes pain, but because it takes it away. As leprosy causes the body’s extremities to numb, the infected person ceases to feel all sensation, including pain, making him unaware of wounds received and the subsequent infections from those very wounds, often resulting in the loss of limbs and worse. The absence of pain for the victim of leprosy is the symptom of his disease -- a precursor to decay and death.

Maybe those ungrateful lepers knew that once they were cured and their numbness worn off, they would begin to feel again -- a scary prospect indeed. Or maybe they were just so used to being numb, they couldn’t remember how to be grateful.

Sorokdo is a small island off Korea’s southwest coast. It was founded as a leper colony in 1916 by the then-occupying Japanese military government. Its establishment was meant to isolate victims of leprosy (Hansen’s disease) from the general population, causing a stigma which may have been as debilitating as the disease itself. In 1984 I was invited to Sorokdo by a young man who, as a peace corps volunteer and nurse (he would later become a Maryknoll priest), had been living on the island for several years helping to care for its two thousand inhabitants. Most of the lepers lived in one room shacks. They were never permitted to leave the island. And if they had children, their children were taken from them and placed in an orphanage on the mainland. Those children, however, were permitted to visit their parents for short intervals throughout the year. The summer I was on Sorokdo, ten-year-old Johann was there too, visiting his parents.

Johann would serve daily Mass in the village chapel before going off to spend the day with his parents. Johann’s parents were in their early thirties, though they seemed much older. The disease had taken its toll: Johann’s father was blind; his mother had already lost both her legs.

One might argue that the numbing effect of the leprosy had alleviated their pain. But I don’t think even a steady dose of morphine could numb the heartbreak of seeing their only child leave them once again for the orphanage. In Confucian culture family connections determine everything. Johann’s parents would have known that even as an adult their son would not be able to hide the fact that his parents were lepers, seriously jeopardizing his chances for gainful employment and his prospects for marriage.

Last month the Korean government completed the building of the bridge which will connect Sorokdo to the mainland, indicating perhaps that the stigma of leprosy is at long last lifting from the popular imagination. For it was the stigma – and not the disease – which forced Johann and his parents to be separated (leprosy can be controlled with antibiotics). Their endurance of that hardship proves that though they may have been robbed of physical sensation, their hearts could still break with a cruel ferocity.
Leprosy, thankfully, may soon become a conquered disease. But as a metaphor it remains pandemic for so many of us who feel alienated, alone, abandoned and downright numb. When Jesus cures the ten from leprosy he doesn’t guarantee them freedom from pain – that, leprosy has already guaranteed -- but rather he makes them vulnerable once again to life’s pain and its pleasure, to all the joys and the sorrows which define us as human beings, imprinting upon us such a noble dignity that not even the ravages of leprosy can disfigure.

10-7-2007: 27th Ordinary Time (C)

Habakkuk 1:2-3; 2:2-4/Psalm 95/2 Timothy 1:6-8,13-14/Luke 17:5-10
Jesus scolds the apostles in today’s gospel -- for having less faith than a measly mustard seed. Having just finished Mother Teresa - Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta,” I wonder if Jesus should include her in his reproach as well. “In my soul,” Mother Teresa wrote, “I feel that terrible pain of loss…of God not really existing…(t)he loneliness of the heart that wants love is unbearable – Where is my faith?...there is nothing but emptiness & darkness.” Powerful words these, and quite an admission of doubt, coming from someone most thought of as the embodiment of a serene faith and confident assurance. She wasn’t. And I’m glad.

And so is Christopher Hitchens, militant atheist and author of god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. In his recent review of Mother Teresa’s revelations (Newsweek, September 10), the acerbic Hitchens speaks in persona Christi as it were, echoing Jesus’ words to his faithless apostles, welcoming Mother into his lair of atheists for her honest admission of doubt. For Hitchens, Mother Teresa has paid the price of admission summed up in his rather neat tautology: “the absence of evidence is the evidence of absence.”

If you could forgive Hitchens his caustic pen and condescending arrogance for a moment, you might well grant him his point about Mother Teresa being a veritable doubter. It seems to me, though, semantics clouds perception. What does Mother Teresa really mean by faith – hard to say from these letters. And what does Hitchens really mean by doubt? And do the rest of us think that doubt and faith are polar opposites? Perhaps poetry offers an insight into the dilemma:

And now with truth clothe all about
and I will question free
the man who fears to doubt O Lord
in that fear doubteth thee

None of this would be interesting at all, of course, if it weren’t for the nagging fact – a fact of inestimable significance that neither defender nor attacker of Mother Teresa can ignore – “the work” as she called it. The personal and selfless caring for tens of thousands of horribly distraught, dying, maggot-ridden human beings from the world’s worst slums, along with the countless lonely and abandoned souls -- “the work.” “The work,” a living monument to personal responsibility, the caring for the poorest of the poor, was born of her search for the lover she thought had abandoned her and left her in darkness, feeling nothing but emptiness. She came to see, in those for whom she cared, her beloved in distressing disguise; and she found solace, not in prayer or religion, but in their humble company. It is hard to acknowledge that such extraordinary work by such an ordinary woman could be the fruit of atheism, realized or not, though it may indeed have been born from a harvest of doubt.

What is not so important but nevertheless intriguing is why someone like Christopher Hitchens is so obsessed with Mother Teresa. He claims to want to uncover hypocrisy but, perhaps, it is the intrigue itself which captivates him. For what is intrigue, anyway, but the veneer of mystery? “If I ever become a Saint,” Mother wrote, “I will surely be one of ‘darkness.’ I will continually be absent from Heaven – to light the light of those in darkness on earth.”

For those of us who stand in darkness and struggle with doubt, those words are strangely assuring coming as they do from a now self-confessed doubter. And, who knows, maybe that’s why Christopher Hitchens can’t let go of Mother either, as her legacy lights a path which he rapaciously follows. He best be careful though, lest in following that path he suddenly find himself inside the door of the very institution he has spent a career degrading. Christopher Hitchens – Catholic convert. Now that would be a headline to catch your attention, making any miraculous cure from terminal cancer or the like seem small-time indeed. And it wouldn’t be bad for Newsweek either.

6-10-2007: Corpus Christi (C)

Genesis 14:18-20/Psalm 110/1 Corinthians 11:23-26/Luke 9:11-17
Religious illiteracy is more widespread than you might imagine. In a recent survey of one hundred Catholic twenty-somethings most thought Corpus Christi was just a town in Texas, having no clue to its import as signifier of the great mysteries of Incarnation, Eucharist and Church. Don’t be surprised though. A few years back the U.S. government wanted to name a new submarine, complete with nuclear missiles, the Corpus Christi – after the town in Texas, one supposes, and not for the Body of Christ.

It’s no coincidence that the term Body of Christ applies both to the bread and wine that becomes the body and blood of Christ at every Mass and to the Church, the communion of those baptized into Christ and linked one to another in an invisible yet eternal bond. Receiving the Eucharist means to come into holy communion with the Lord’s body which in turn brings us into a holy communion with other bodies, revealing our solidarity, in joy and sorrow, with all humanity.

I’m reminded here of a little known memoir by Brian Power. The son of Irish Catholic parents, Power grew up in the China of the 1930s. Among the many glimpses he gives us into his displaced life is his poignant experience of receiving his First Holy Communion in Notre Dame Catholic Church in Tientsin – a place name which, in translation, serves as the title of his book -- The Ford of Heaven.

“I did not think or feel anything,” Power writes of his communion day. “Instead, a sensation of belief overwhelmed me. This sensation filled me with a happiness which no thought or feeling had ever done, and I remember hoping it would never end.”

But it quickly did. When he left the church compound and turned the corner of the Banque de l’Indo Chine he saw a Chinese man and woman with a young girl about his age. Sickly thin, their bare feet caked in mud, they made up part of China’s endless reservoir of peasants. The woman was staring at the ground while the girl sat beside her whimpering. The man looked about wildly and, grabbing his daughter by the wrist, cried out to all who passed: Will you buy? Will you buy? Having nothing to eat, they were trying to sell their daughter. “That night I knelt at my bed,” Power wrote, “and tried to recapture that sensation of joy I had felt upon receiving my First Holy Communion, the Body of Christ. But I could only see the man selling his daughter on the street.”

In the end it doesn’t matter if we know the literal meaning of Corpus Christi or not. But it does matter, immensely, whether we are open to the experience of solidarity -- communion with others, and with the Lord himself, in joy as well as in sorrow.

On today’s Feast of Corpus Christi we are reminded that it is no coincidence that we use the same words to describe the Eucharist and the Church: both being the Body of Christ; both, holy communions with the divine; both, mysteriously, invitations to ford heaven.

6-3-2007: Trinity (C)

Proverbs 8:22-31/Psalm 8/Romans 5:1-5/John 16:12-15
In grammar school religion class, whenever a question about the Trinity surfaced the reply inevitably was: It’s a mystery. The implication being it was impossible to understand, so why bother questioning. Frank Sheed (of Catholic publishing fame) took exception to that line of thought, saying that a mystery wasn’t something you could know nothing about; it was just something you couldn’t know everything about.

Jehovah Witnesses will tell you that there’s no mention of the Trinity in the scripture. And, apart from a few forced interpretations, they’re quite right. The theology of the Trinity couldn’t possibly have arisen within a Hebraic world-view. It would take centuries until that initial Jewish experience of Jesus translated itself through Greek philosophy and concluded that the one true God could indeed be three persons in one divine nature.

In Pope Benedict’s just-published book, Jesus of Nazareth, he attempts to unravel some of the mystery surrounding the two great truths of Christian revelation: Incarnation and Trinity. The pope makes solid arguments for the traditional understanding that Jesus’ unique impact on others did not stem from his political stance but rather on his claim to divinity. What the pope doesn’t fully address, however, is the how of perceiving that truth. Without the philosophy of Greece how could Jesus’ Jewish followers have understood Jesus’ unique identity without forsaking their Judaism? How could monotheism survive while still acknowledging the divine identity of Jesus?

There is a reticence in Catholic circles to acknowledge the development of doctrine. On the one hand, truth is eternal; on the other, how we translate that truth from generation to generation and from culture to culture can and must change. The Trinity is a case in point. The apostles’ experience of the uniqueness of Jesus’ identity could only be expressed within the framework of their language and culture. It wasn’t until that faith found a new language that perceptions could shift. And that’s why the scriptures are open to various interpretations – they are bound by history. If they were not – if, for example, an evangelist recorded that Jesus declared, I am the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity – then we would rightly be suspicious of the authenticity of such a claim. But the ways by which Jesus is identified in the gospels – even when the term son of god is used – remain ambiguous precisely because they are a part of Jesus’ Hebraic culture and not a product of a later interpretation based on Greek philosophy.

Truth may indeed be eternal, but the ways in which we perceive those eternal truths and express them change with time -- they develop, they evolve, they translate. Accepting things on faith shouldn’t keep us from questioning the mysteries we encounter. Rather, genuine faith demands we continuously seek to unravel those mysteries even if we cannot now, at this moment in time, know the whole story.

5-27-2007: Pentecost (C)

Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11/Psalm 104/1 Corinthians 12:3-7,12-13/John 20:19-23
The reading from Genesis on the eve of Pentecost recounts the story of the Tower of Babel – the story of the descent of man into confusion; the Ur-language, if you will, devolving into mutual unintelligibility. It’s ironic (or perhaps prophetic) that the Tower of Babel, that premier symbol of chaos, is traditionally located in modern-day Iraq, where chaos mangles and maims daily life. In the biblical account, language itself becomes the metaphor in which sin and grace interface.

There are still some linguists who hold to the mostly abandoned theory that there was, in the beginning, only one language. These linguists, however, seem more influenced by religion or patriotism than by scholarship. So, Sanskrit and Hebrew are regarded as sacred – as if the gods, or God, speak thus (some traditionalist Catholics want to add Latin to the list). And it was mainly Soviet linguists who came up with the notion of Nostratic – the proto-language of humanity -- originating, of course, in some Slavic hinterland. At the end of the 19th century, in an effort to foster world peace, linguists created an artificial language called Esperanto (one who hopes), which sought to bring humanity together. It has had, virtually, no success – and there are those of us who believe that if Esperanto were indeed spoken by most, humanity would still be no nearer peaceful coexistence.

I wonder if Esperanto employs irregular verbs. It seems that since irregularity adds to the difficulty of understanding another language, a language-inventor might make all verbs regular – if he could. Yet, those irregular verbs give a language its unique beauty and create a sense of intimacy among those privy to its secrets. Irregular syntax and grammar and, especially, irregular (might we say, illicit) conjugation form the playground of poetry in a language. How boring and bland it would be if everything were regular; agreeing, as it were, in number and person.

Linguists, today, do not believe language has devolved (a pejorative word implying decadence) as if the once-pure language of our ancestors in Eden has degraded into disparate vernaculars. Perhaps the same can be said of the Babel story. The Tower of Babel was built by a humanity which spoke a common language. But perhaps the lesson is this: uniformity is not unity. Uniformity, while giving the appearance of commonality and camaraderie, is ultimately the path to confusion and chaos and worse. Conversely, a wholesome unity embraces diversity and helps us hone our self-understanding.

The reading from Acts on the Feast of Pentecost recounts the descent of the Holy Spirit as antidote to that confusion, as universal translator, enabling all to understand regardless of language difference. Yet Acts acknowledges that those who heard the apostles preach retained their diverse identities as Parthians and Medes and Elamites – and still understood. One glove does not fit all, the bible might be saying; uniformity may not be the most desirable development in language or culture. Irregular conjugations, on the other hand, produce a depth of nuance and beauty we can only call poetry.

Whoever thought western democracy a universal aspiration may have fallen to that same temptation. The ruins of the original Tower of Babel, emblematic of those mistaking uniformity for unity, have invited chaos and confusion and destruction all over again -- in that very same place.

5-20-2007: 7th Easter (C)

Acts of the Apostles 7:55-60/Psalm 97/Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,29/John 17:20-26
From the Latin it comes into English in ablative case, literally meaning “on the edge.” When I was young they named a dance for it. And it got some headlines a few weeks ago after the Vatican’s International Theological Commission published its obituary or at least consigned it to…well, limbo.

Yes, Limbo has been given the boot. The Commission’s report wished to convey the sentiment that a good God would not consign unbaptized babies to hell and, therefore, Limbo (that “place” on the edge of paradise) should go. All well and good, you might agree, save for the irony that Limbo, as a theological construct, was created to do just that – alleviate the perception that God could be so cruel. Limbo was a theory created in the Middle Ages to counter St. Augustine’s long-held conclusion that, because of the absolute necessity of baptism for salvation, those unbaptized though innocent babies did indeed end up in hell -- though they suffer, according to Augustine, only the “mildest condemnation” (what a relief to know there’s compassion in unjust punishment).

Ultimately Limbo is but a symptom of an immense theological problem: the necessity of Christ for salvation and the role the Church plays in mediating that grace of salvation through the sacraments. Why the Church would seek at this time to revisit Limbo is something even more mysterious. Perhaps Pope Benedict’s intent is to reinforce the platform of his papacy: the absolute necessity of Christ for salvation amid the threat of relativism. However, by abolishing Limbo, the Church invites argument on those very questions while simultaneously acknowledging that the answers seem to change with history – admitting, if you will, that truth is expressed in absolutely relative ways.

Perhaps such discussion means little to most. But the interplay between absolute and relative plays out in very practical ways. Take the on-going abortion debate as we approach the 2008 presidential election. While to be against abortion seems an absolute for Catholics – it is anything but, when pro-life and pro-choice forces interface in a democracy. And it’s an especially complex question for politicians and lawmakers. If a presidential candidate says he’s pro-choice does that excommunicate him, even when he can do virtually nothing to change the current practice? If a lawmaker votes funding for abortion does that make him “materially cooperative” in the act of abortion, equivalent to the doctor who performs the abortion? And is the citizen who votes for a pro-choice candidate also “materially cooperative” in the act of abortion even when he’s voting for the candidate for reasons other than his pro-choice stand? From my point of view, these are all relevant and relative questions, having no clear-cut, absolute, answers. While it might be desirable to have everything in black-and-white, we find ourselves, well -- in limbo -- as to the answers. But, alas, now that Limbo’s been misplaced, we may feel forced to go to extremes – the very thing that a reasoned religion would want to avoid.

5-13-2007: 6th Easter (C)

Acts of the Apostles 15:1-2,22-29/Psalm 67/Revelation 21:10-14,22-23/John 14:23-29
This Sunday we celebrate Mothers’ Day. One would think it might be difficult to find a culture, community, or church that didn’t honor motherhood. But, as a matter of fact, our church and culture tend to honor only acceptable examples of motherhood. Those not measuring up to the criteria set by religion and society -- we openly disdain or secretly brush under the carpet.

At a conference on Open Adoption a few years back, adoption reformers came together from across the country to celebrate the fact that it had been twenty years since Open Adoption became a viable option in this country, placing children with adopting families who seek to maintain relationships with their children’s families of origin, especially with the women who gave them birth. Certain social workers and religious bureaucrats gasp in horror at revealing what they think are dark and dirty secrets. But children of open adoption have only benefited by the truth and honesty inherent in the practice. After all, many of us now belong to non-adoptive blended families where there are often more than one set of parents involved in a child’s life. Don’t get me wrong: Open Adoption doesn’t mean that birth parents parent the child -- the adoptive parents are the only parenting parents. But the adopted person grows up knowing where he came from and the names of those who gave him birth. If all work hard for the best interests of the child (not a bad definition of parenthood by the way), the adopted person can have a relationship not only with his birth parents but their other children (i.e. his siblings) as well -- and with grandparents and extended family too.

At that Open Adoption conference I had the privilege of meeting Jennifer Huntsberry. Jenny told me she first became pregnant at 13 years old. She knew she could not parent her baby, but with uncommon tenacity would not surrender her son Aaron into the secret world of closed adoption. Through Open Adoption Jenny chose the family with which her son was placed. Jenny and Aaron have maintained a close relationship through these years, seeing each other and their respective families on a regular basis. Aaron knows Jenny is not his parent -- he has two wonderful parents who have given him and his two adopted siblings much love and a good home. But through Open Adoption Aaron can know Jenny and her husband Chris, as well as their three other children who, of course, are Aaron’s half-siblings. Lest you think I’m telling stories out of class, I’m not. Jenny and Aaron’s story, as well as the stories of 23 other people touched by adoption (yours truly included), are available to all in a beautiful book called Sacred Connections by Mary Ann Koenig and published by Running Press (2001).

It’s time our culture and church own up to the platitudes often spouted on the sacred character of motherhood – which, if indeed it is sacred, remains so no matter how it came to pass. Aaron told me he’d be remembering both his moms on Mothers’ Day. Some say that’s terrible – you shouldn’t share your affection like that. But thanks to the Open Adoption movement Aaron, at only 14, discovered the wisdom many of us seldom learn: that love is never diminished by our loving – its demand welcome, its supply limitless.

As we left the conference Aaron said to me: You know, Father Tom, I’m not really a religious person -- but I thank God for Jenny. And thank God, too, for all those who have struggled so long to make all those nasty secrets and lies, inevitable in the practice of closed adoption, a thing of the past.

5-6-2007: 5th Easter (C)

Acts of the Apostles 14:21-27/Psalm 145/Revelation 21:1-5/John 13:31-35
Even St. Augustine questions the passage in today’s gospel where Jesus tells his disciples that he is giving a new commandment: love one another -- as if no one ever loved before Jesus told them to. You could, of course, also understand the passage to mean that anyone who loves is already a disciple of the Lord – whether he knows it or not.

For certain, everyone participates in love in some way. Even though we have had the habit of calling our enemies evil, I don’t think anyone really believes that Russian Communists didn’t love their children during the Cold War, or that, these days, Islamist-terrorists don’t love theirs. The appeal of the television drama The Sopranos seems in large part due to the fact that even the lives of Mafia bosses and hit men have a semblance of normalcy – they love their children too.

On the other hand, love can be the perceived motivation behind actions and events that, in hindsight, seem to have little to do with love at all. An unrequited love can lead to a broken heart, or worse. Love of country can lead to devastating war and love of religion can lead to inquisitions and crusades, not to mention suicide bombings.

If Jesus is offering a new insight into love it might be the idea that we are meant to love as he did – selflessly -- without expecting anything in return, loving even to the point of forfeiting that which we love. The mystery of love is that it is never diminished by our loving. This kind of love beckons us to love even those who are not part of our family, tribe, religion or nation, so we might begin to understand that ultimately we are all a part of the same family. Perhaps this is what St. John’s mystical vision means in the Book of Revelation when he sees a new heaven and a new earth come down from the skies and the One who sat on the throne making all things new. Maybe this new world St. John foresees rests -- a lot -- on how we choose to love.

4-29-2007: 4th Easter (C)

Acts of the Apostles 13:14,43-52/Psalm 100/Revelation 7:9,14-17/John 10:27-30
The Church designates today, Good Shepherd Sunday, as World Day of Prayer for Vocations. For the past few decades we have been told that the Church is experiencing a vocation crisis. Although this is far from true in the emerging churches of Africa and Asia, there has been a significant decline in the number of priests and Religious in the West. Some would argue God has stopped calling young people to follow him in what these critics believe is an outmoded vocation grown obsolete in its exclusivity. Others feel the problem has more to do with us – we’re just not listening.

Discovering Jesus as Good Shepherd, according to the gospel, has a lot to do with voice recognition (My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they know me). This phenomenon of hearing disembodied voices, long relegated to the study of abnormal psychology, has recently been reexamined by evolutionary biologists trying to explain religious phenomena as having a biological basis. Not that I fully understand the neuroscience of it all, but what I think these scientists are saying is this: Before a certain point in human evolution – and some would definitively mark that date by the invention of writing – a synapse (so to speak) was bridged between the two hemispheres of the brain. Disembodied voices that were once experienced as external to the person were now heard as originating interiorly. Voices once attributed to the gods were finally recognized as coming from within. It was (to use a crude analogy) like the first time you heard your own voice being played back on a tape recorder – it took some time till you realized it was you that you were hearing.

In G.B. Shaw’s St. Joan he has the English judge berating the Maid of Orleans for insisting the voices she heard told her to lead the French army against the English. “Don’t you realize,” he tells the illiterate Joan, “these voices come from your imagination?” And Shaw, realizing what he was doing or not (good art seldom does) – has framed the whole modern dynamic of vocation in Joan’s simple response: “Of course.” Of course the voices come from her imagination – but does that make them any less real?

Philip Gröning’s recent documentary Into Great Silence has become a phenomenal and unexpected success in parts of once-Christian Europe (it’s still playing at the Film Forum here in New York). The filmmaker spent six months living and filming the life of Carthusian monks at the Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps - according to many, the most austere monastery in the western world. The monks’ lives are enfolded in the day-to-day drudgeries of life. There are no displays of joyous ecstasy, no instant discoveries of the divine. Whatever temptations the monks may experience, whatever doubts felt, questions thought – all that doesn’t seem important. It is the silence to which the audiences, inexplicably, are drawn.

Monastic silence (one might say, a science of silence) has touched a longing in an agnostic and materialistic West suffering from technology overload. In our world of discordant noise, the sound of silence yearns for a hearing. Perhaps in our evolutionary history silence will do for us moderns what the invention of writing did for our ancestors – create a new paradigm, open up a new frontier where the young in their innate curiosity and desire for adventure will flock to explore. Science has helped us understand that disembodied voices are indeed heard in imagination and may, at first, seem to be only our own. But silence can help us discern in those very same voices that faint trace of a foreign accent, the occasional change of word order, a distinctly misplaced marker for stress – hints of origins not completely rooted in our subjective experience but coming from places wholly unfamiliar. Are you listening – are you up for the adventure?

4-22-2007: 3rd Easter (C)

Acts of the Apostles 5:27-32,40-41/Psalm 30/Revelation 5:11-14/John 21:1-19
Our identity is defined by intersecting and overlapping communities – where we choose to belong says a lot about whom we perceive ourselves to be. The early followers of Jesus defined themselves as a group by their invocation of Jesus’ name in express disobedience to the demands of the established community. In St. John’s mystic vision of heaven from the Book of Revelation, all the saved find themselves a part of one enormous community singing their praise for the slain Lamb of God.

The call to community seems to have been the theme of the convocation at Virginia Tech this week as students and faculty, clergy and politicians tried to garner a semblance of sense from senseless slaughter. The thousands who attended were encouraged to find solace in the embrace of community. Solidarity in suffering was held up as a source of strength and character. Now they could add their names to the list of victims of violence on planet earth (including orphaned elephants). The convocation ended more like a pep rally for a football game than a wake for the slaughtered as all in the audience stood to chant the school theme: We are the Hokies.

I suppose ending such mass meetings on a positive emotive note makes some (especially those running the event) feel better for the moment – though I don’t think I’d want to bank my suffering on my identification as a member of the Hokie community. The irony of it all, it seems to me, is that the very community into which the bereaved were being encouraged to lose themselves is the very community from which the murderer had also emerged. The deeper irony still is that the deranged and lonely young killer was probably more acutely aware of the need for community than most others, since he perceived himself excluded from it -- whether justified in that perception or not.

While religion in general, and Christianity in particular, seek to incorporate individuals into communities of the like-minded, I’m grateful that the drama of the individual is persevered as well. In today’s gospel Peter is called as an individual, apart from the group, to accept the Lord’s invitation to follow him down a rather lonely road. The community mentality, propounded by religion or the Virginia Tech convocation, for all the good it does, despises loneliness and inadvertently encourages the one who experiences it to denigrate himself for possessing those very feelings. It is the rare community which can face the truth that, as much as each of us wants to be accepted by the group, there are places in each soul were we remain alone and, yes, lonely -- and that that truth doesn’t have to be so bad: loneliness is as much a part of life as everything else, even joy. If only Cho Seung-hui had learned that important lesson, perhaps he wouldn’t have given vent to the fury born of his mistaken conviction that those whom he killed weren’t, deep down, feeling just the same as he.

4-15-2007: 2nd Easter (C)

Acts of the Apostles 5:12-16/Psalm 118/Revelation 1:9-11,12-13,17-19/John 20:19-31
One of the conclusions the Church draws from reading today’s gospel of the Doubting Thomas as he explores the crucified body of the Risen Lord is that Jesus not only retains his humanity in corporeal form for all eternity but, with it, the marks of his crucifixion as well. The glory of resurrection does not expunge the wounds of suffering; the spiritual doesn’t eradicate the physical. The body is not a disposable commodity but the sacrament of the soul – our scars serving as an eternal testimony of how we have intercoursed with history.

In the beginning Christian piety seems to have shared the Jewish and pagan aversion to the depiction of crucifixion not only because of its gruesome reality but for its personal humiliation as well – Jesus’ scourging is inseparable from his being stripped naked for all to see. It wasn’t until the Black Plague of the Middle Ages that Catholic piety embraced the image of the crucifix as an object of veneration. Perhaps it was the hopelessness of the situation (one third of Europe was decimated by the plague) that allowed people to see in the humiliating image of the suffering Christ a sense of solidarity. But the Protestant Reformation would once again reject the crucifix for the bodiless cross – a sign, perhaps, of Protestantism’s rejection of the sacramental nature of reality itself. Veneration of the crucifix remains a particularly Catholic piety though the depiction of Christ on the cross has spanned the spectrum of interpretation from extreme gore to peaceful acquiescence to majestic glory (a matter of taste, perhaps). There were, however, objections to some depictions of the crucified. Orthodox Catholicism rejected the Jansenist depiction of Christ’s arms being nailed too close to his torso suggesting he might not have died for all but only for the few.

One might surmise that the recent objection to the exhibition of the crucified Christ in chocolate was orthodoxy’s triumph over irreverence (but don’t equate the bombastic William Donohue of the Catholic League with Catholic orthodoxy too quickly - even if he does have a cardinal or two on his side). From what I read it was never clear to what precisely Mr. Donohue was objecting: the fact that the image of Christ was made from chocolate or that it was naked. If the objection was to the chocolate, fair enough -- I hate edible art too. But, then, shouldn’t we take offense at all those Easter crosses made of chocolate as well, and not be buying them as Easter gifts? And what about the Slavic tradition of molding butter into the Lamb of God at Easter – why isn’t that considered an offense against Christian sensibilities?

If the objection is to Christ’s nakedness, it’s more understandable. Though there are great works of art considered worthy of veneration that do depict the naked Christ, I’m not familiar with any which employs full frontal nudity save for the countless renditions of Jesus as a baby. Yet it seems reasonable to assume that Christ’s complete nakedness during his scourging and crucifixion was more likely than not. When we pray the Stations, meditating on Jesus being stripped of his garments, isn’t that precisely what we’re saying – that nakedness in suffering is a humiliation. While it might not be “tasteful” to depict a naked Christ, should it be judged offensive and irreverent, if indeed it was more than likely an historical fact?

Finally, more than chocolate or nudity, it is the inferred intention of the artist which seems most objectionable to Mr. Donohue. I do not know if the artist intended to make light of the crucifixion, or worse. But even if he did, it remains a very dangerous thing to judge a work offensive based on the subjective intention of the artist and not solely on the object created. For if we start down that road (and we’ve traveled it before) then get ready to burn all those beautiful depictions of the Annunciation painted in the Quattrocento since many of the girls who posed as the Virgin had highly dubious reputations. And whitewash the Sistine Chapel while you’re at it, for who knows what lascivious thoughts Michelangelo, as homosexual, must have been thinking when he painted all those male nudes.

Mr. Donohue and his allied prelates demand censure of expressive art because they feel it an offense to religious sensibilities, but do they do Catholicism any lasting service? By all means they should express their opinion and convince us, by reason, why they believe something should be deemed offensive. But screaming that a chocolate, naked Jesus is offensive simply because it is chocolate and naked or even because the artist hates Christianity -- without giving reasons why any of those realities turns the work itself offensive -- makes these bombastic apologists for Catholicism not so different from their Muslims counterparts who threaten (in mob-like fashion) anyone who even draws a picture of the prophet.

4-8-2007: Easter (C)

Acts of the Apostles 10:34,37-43/Psalm 118/Colossians 3:1-4/John 20:1-9
When Peter and John ran to the tomb on that first Easter morning the gospel records that they saw Jesus’ burial cloth -- but claimed the body was gone. Please note: there is no mention of bones.

A few weeks ago the Discovery Channel released a “documentary” on the discovery of Jesus’ family tomb and an ossuary said to have contained the bones of Jesus himself. Adding to the intrigue was the claim that another ossuary was found purported to have contained the bones of Mary Magdalene and, yet another, with the supposed remains of Jesus’ and Mary’s child. Curious that the writer/director, and his theological advisor, did not seem to appreciate the fact that if the first claim were true, the second should really be no big deal.

Even more curious was the follow-up discussion between Ted Koppel and some representative theologians, one of whom was Father David O’Connell, President of the Catholic University of America. Koppel posed a hypothetical to Father O’Connell: if it were true that Jesus’ bones had indeed been found, how would it affect you? O’Connell’s response implied that it wouldn’t matter at all since it was his faith that was most important. An astounding answer, to say the least. Astounding because it implies that faith has nothing to do with reality. In other words, when Peter and John entered the tomb that first Easter it wouldn’t have mattered if they saw the dead body of Jesus lying on the slab – their wishful thinking was equivalent to truth.

If faith is not based on reality, non-verifiable though that reality may be, then it remains just wishful thinking – nothing other than illusion. If Jesus did not physically rise from the dead in his human body then Christianity must be judged a sham. I’m sure Father O’Connell might have been overly concerned not to give the wrong impression on national TV, but I would have been more encouraged in my faith if he said something like this to Mr. Koppel’s hypothetical: Well, if Jesus’ bones were really found, then I would have to take off this Roman Collar, resign my presidency of CUA, not bother about praying, and find a wife.

In fairness though, Father O’Connell is just like the rest of us -- rarely concerned with what we profess to believe. After all, religious practice can be quite satisfying whether or not it is founded on a reasonable faith – and it could be argued that Christianity has accomplished quite a bit in its long history whether its claims are true or not. Sadly, religious practice without at least an occasional critique, can be the very thing that protects us from the challenges of faith and the pursuit of truth. As manipulative and downright deceptive as that Discovery Channel documentary was, it at least raised the question of the importance of what Christians believe – and if it really matters.

4-1-2007: Palm Sunday (C)

Luke 19:28-40//saiah 50:4-7/Psalm 22/Philippians 2:6-11/Luke 22:14-23
There’s a lovely and revealing line in the old Irish ballad “Farewell My Derry Love” about one man’s memories of a former lover, reminiscing about how they once walked hand in hand in the lovers’ rain when passion graced their forms. Merging passion and grace may seem irreverent to the more pious among us, especially when reflecting on the Lord’s Passion this Palm Sunday -- but English speakers have long maintained the dual meaning of the word passion as bespeaking both erotic love and redemptive suffering.

It’s no accident that movies are judged un-viewable according to the level of both their erotic and their violent content – it seems an appeal to the visceral in order to convey meaning should be circumspect. So in the realm of religion is it correct, permissible, proper to assert that both bloody suffering and erotic love can be conduits of divine grace? In Pope Benedict XVI’s Lenten Message he wrote that “…eros is part of the very heart of God” maintaining with the mysterious Pseudo-Dionysius of the fifth century that “eros is that force which does not allow the lover to remain in himself but moves him to become one with the beloved.” While disinterested charity (agape) may be a lofty ideal, it’s passion (eros) which fires the soul and, for a lack of a better phrase, turns us on. What the events of Holy Week point out is that love cannot be contained, or judged futile, when it finds its expression in passion as distinct from charity.

In today’s famous second reading from Philippians there’s a hint why this must be so. Because, if it is indeed true that the invisible God chose to become fully human, then grace cannot be limited to the expression of the intellect alone but must spill over into the sensual as well. Christ emptied himself of divinity, the passage states, and took the form of a slave, making himself susceptible to the vagaries of suffering as well as love. We seem to have no problem accepting that Jesus suffered physically (though Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ can still make us squirm) but we find it difficult in accepting that divine love has an erotic element.

But that, perhaps, more reflects our own prudishness than God’s. For he seems to have a surprising lack of prudence when it comes to love, suggesting that love -- of whatever variety – always conveys the divine.