Monday, November 23, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 21, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 5, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 2, 2009

11-01-2009: All Saints (B)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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