Sunday, December 26, 2010

10-12-26: Feast of the Holy Family

Feast of the Holy Family
Sirach 3:2-7,12-14 / Psalm 128 / Colossians 3:12-21 / Matthew 2:13-15,19-23
One of the central icons that figure in the culture wars between secular and religious sensibilities of our time is the Christmas Crèche featuring Mary and Joseph gazing in love and wonder at the new-born Jesus. This image of the Holy Family has become an issue for some and a crusade for others; oddly, not so much because it’s deemed holy (a meaningless designation for atheists), but because it seeks to portray a family.

Sadly, it’s the very same image of family, and what family means, that has become a source of conflict among Catholics as well. Perhaps the pope’s recent reasonable remarks concerning intention and the moral use of condoms can serve, by analogy, to move the more morally intransigent among us when the issue of new human reproductive technologies arises; especially what to do with frozen human embryos is raised.

On the one hand, the church insists that human embryos should be treated as human beings: we should treat unborn human life as we treat already-born human beings, with the same dignity and respect, affording them the same legal protections. On the other hand, some moral theologians maintain that all procreation of human beings must take place in the “natural” way, through sexual intercourse between husband and wife. But note: the church does not insist that families be formed in this way. In fact, the church lauds families formed in “unnatural” ways, especially through adoption, where the adopted person is not related genetically to either parent.

Thus, in the view of these moral theologians, the implantation of human embryos by medical procedure rather than through sexual intercourse is immoral whether the gestational mother is genetically related to the embryo or not. And so, for those seemingly obsessed by the necessity of sexual intercourse, they find themselves in a theological catch-22, a conundrum that borders on the absurd. While vigorously defending human life against wanton destruction, they cannot morally sanction a couple to claim their genetic offspring or, if the couple has abandoned their embryos, for another couple to adopt those embryos by the woman becoming the gestational mother through medical procedure. For these intransigent moral theologians frozen embryos are consigned to an unborn fate until they slowly deteriorate over an extended period of time, or are quickly terminated by removing them from their frozen exile.

It seems reasonable then, as a matter of the exercise of common sense, to ask, that in the face of inevitable destruction, why it can be laudable to adopt these embryos if they were already born but immoral to do so while they are still in their embryonic state. The essentially un-catholic tendency towards fundamentalism concludes it better to leave all those potential human lives to waste away rather than give them a chance at life. It’s the same tendency that concludes it better not to permit indirect abortion on an unviable fetus, losing both child and mother, than to cause scandal to the faithful: someone incorrectly concluding that the church would permit abortion without being able to distinguish between direct (prohibited) and indirect abortion (permissible).

These days families are formed in many ways – not just the “natural” way. If families can be made in varied ways, not only morally sound but expressly laudable ways, why are some obsessed with insisting that, despite the advance of reproductive technologies, there can be only one morally permissible way to make a human being?

The Holy Family is holy not only because it is comprised of Jesus, Mary and Joseph; but it is holy because of the way in which it came to be formed - in the most unnatural way imaginable.

10-12-19: 4th Sunday of Advent (A)

Fourth Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 7:10-14 / Psalm 24 / Romans 1:1-7 / Matthew 1:18-24
Freud theorized that dreams are the fruit of our unconscious as we work through some conflict experienced with others, ourselves or, as the non-Freudians among us might suggest, even God. How many an inventor has claimed to have stumbled upon the insight that gave birth to his invention after waking from a dream. How many have found the solution to a problem only after a good night’s sleep. In today’s gospel Joseph’s dream led him to embrace a destiny that at first must have seemed fruitless, a dead end, an emasculating humiliation – protecting a would-be wife who’s carrying someone else’s baby. Yet, remarkably, he foregoes the divorce and marries. The honeymoon must not have been very pleasant.

[According to the then Jewish custom, once a couple was engaged, a divorce was required to break the betrothal though the couple would not yet have been living together].

In popular Catholic piety Joseph is often presented as a mild-mannered, milquetoast wimp, 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 bobbing 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.

Before his revelatory dream Joseph sees only two possible solutions to the problem: to divorce quietly or to divorce publicly. This initial dilemma 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: what’s the easiest way out?

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 more formal religious-type vows (the Promise Keepers’ movement). But perhaps Joseph’s story offers the best insight: men need to dream. Discipline, asceticism, self-denial, guilt - all may curb the male impulse for a while, but only inspiration respects that impulse as God-given and will ultimately be able to transform its raw power into a powerful creativity.

While, from theology’s point of view, it’s Mary’s consent, or “fiat,” 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.

Remember: Joseph became the father he was intended to be, not because he was virtuous or pious or even responsible, but because he listened to his dream and had the…well, you know…to follow that dream. Turns out, Joseph was a real mensch.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

10-12-12: 3rd Sunday of Advent (A)

Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-6,10 / Psalm 146 / James 5:7-10 / Matthew 11:2-11
Contemporary Moral Problems and that Slippery Slope (in two parts)
Part II

When Jesus hears that John the Baptist’s been arrested for his disruptive protest against the king’s marriage, he praises the Baptist as the greatest of prophets. But might we not read into this nuanced scene a bit of Jesus, not as zealous “Baptist,” but as consummate politician? Note: Jesus does not take up John’s protest; Jesus seems little concerned with the king’s marital arrangement; he lets that political quagmire go – he has other fish to fry. By lauding John without endorsing his message, Jesus gains the admiration of the Baptist’s disciples and many decide to follow him rather than continue the Baptist’s cause. It’s been my contention in these reflections that the pope’s recent remarks, vis-à-vis the use of condoms in certain situations, can serve as a corrective paradigm, resisting the increasing tendency on the part of some leading Catholics to adopt a more Baptist-type fundamentalism regarding contemporary moral issues. Life is often messy. The Church, in her two thousand years of experience, has become well acquainted with life’s ambiguities and has developed a nuanced way of dealing with thorny moral issues. The Church understands that in seeking to do the right thing, it’s not simply a question of what we do, but why we do it, and realizing that the circumstances in which we act are often themselves mitigating factors in judging the morality of our actions.

A few months back Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix issued a statement declaring that Mercy Sister, Margaret McBride, incurred automatic excommunication when she gave her consent, as head of a hospital ethics committee, to permit the abortion of an unviable fetus in order to save the life of the baby’s mother. Prescinding from the intriguing ethical question of how the bishop was privy to the confidential information that the abortion had taken place, what could have been the purpose of the bishop’s pronouncement? He said he wanted to avoid scandalizing the faithful by making evident the teaching of the church (as if we didn’t already know) that direct abortion is always immoral, always inherently evil. Yet, if there had not been an abortion, both mother and baby would have certainly died. Even the most conservative of moral theologians has suggested that in the case where a fetus is unviable and the mother would die if she attempted to carry the pregnancy to term, there might be ample reason to judge the abortion permissible. In fact, since this story first came to light, there has been significant medical testimony that, because of the mother’s particular medical condition, the abortion was indeed indirect and therefore permissible. The point, however, is not to argue medical particulars but to question the bishop’s wisdom in publicizing what he did. Remember: the excommunication, if there was one, would have been automatically incurred – and thus not dependent on the bishop exercising his judgment or his authority. I can’t help but think that, in a less extremist atmosphere, if a bishop was pressured into making a statement regarding this case he would have first expressed his sympathy to the parents for the loss of their unborn (though unviable) child, pronounced the abortion indirect (unfortunate, but justified) and encouraged the mom to rest assured she did all she could have done, but now it was time to go home and be a mother to her other children. Did Bishop Olmsted really think his pronouncement would win a slew of converts or make any of us feel more secure in our faith if no abortion had been performed, and both baby and mother had died, leaving those other young children motherless - all to avoid scandalizing the faithful? That slippery slope toward fundamentalism just got steeper – even if the terrain in Phoenix seems, at first, to be pretty flat.

There’s a slew of other moral issues that come to mind as worthy of discussion: frozen embryos, euthanasia, assisted suicide and advanced directives, not to mention Cardinal Burke and pro-choice politicians - but space for these reflections has run out. Let me know if you’d like me to continue...

10-12-05: 2nd Sunday of Advent (A)

Second Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 11:1-10 / Psalm 72 / Romans 15:4-9 / Matthew 3:1-12

Contemporary Moral Problems and that Slippery Slope (in two parts)
Part I

John the Baptist is the subject of today’s Advent gospel. We see him crazed, screaming and yelling, prophesying gloom and doom, calling for repentance on a national scale. Why? Because he’s upset the king married his sister-in-law! For John, this is emblematic of the moral decay into which his society has fallen – or, at least, it’s the first step on that slippery slope that (we’re often told) leads us into a moral morass. John is not simply being a conservative voice for a return to family values; he’s become the poster boy for religious fundamentalism. For the fundamentalist, as for the Baptist, morality is all black and white, either/or, yes or no. And, although the Church holds the Baptist in great esteem, it is important to recognize that we, like the first disciples, are called to follow Jesus - not John. Jesus was no John the Baptist; nor did he preach the extremism that the Baptist embraced.

Some ardent Catholic conservatives, seeking a modern-day Baptist to save us from that proverbial moral morass, are no longer looking to Pope Benedict to fill the vacancy. After the media blitz regarding the pope’s recently published remarks about condoms to a Swiss journalist, some would have us believe that the remarks make little difference in the church’s stand regarding the prohibition of condoms. But not so – at least not in ways we may at first think.

First, the pope is not changing the church’s teaching regarding the immorality of artificial contraception. But he is not pulling a John the Baptist either, raging (as some would want him to) against the immorality of all condom use. The pope is, in fact, being ardently conservative; calling for a return to basic principles of Catholic morality. He’s simply asking us to recall that morality is more than just what we do; it also depends on why we do something; and it likewise involves an evaluation of the circumstances surrounding our actions.

With the emergence of HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa, circumstances and intention may indeed be mitigating factors in the moral use of condoms. In the case of a married couple, for example, where one partner is HIV infected and the other is not, the use of condoms may be contemplated – not to contracept – but to prevent deadly infection. This classic Catholic moral principle of double-effect was long argued by certain African bishops but vehemently condemned by others – not out of principle - but from fear that it would place us on that slippery slope which would lead us into genuinely immoral acts. The pope’s recent suggestion may finally allow us to reasonably dialogue about such situations. The slippery slope the pope has perhaps helped us avoid is not the one that leads to a moral morass but, rather, the one that leads to a dangerous fundamentalism.

The pope’s off-the-cuff remarks (if they were that) may be but a small safeguard against the rush to ski that slippery slope towards uncritical dogmatism as recent events in the United States seem to indicate. I’m thinking of the speech Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville just delivered to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (which then elected him vice president). In his speech the archbishop made an extraordinary comparison. In a classic example of that slippery-slope mentality, the archbishop compared legislation allowing same-sex marriage with the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion. Now, whether you’re for or against gay marriage, does anyone really believe, in their heart of hearts, that permitting two men or two women to call themselves married is the equivalent of abortion? The slope the archbishop fears we’re slipping down is not the one leading so much to a permissive chaos, but rather the one leading into religious fundamentalism which, if history be any reliable judge, will end up doing more damage to the Catholic Faith than condom-use, gay marriage or marrying your sister-in-law.

…to be continued

10-11-28: 1st Sunday of Advent (A)

First Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 2:1-5 / Psalm 122 / Romans 13:11-14 / Matthew 24:37-44
As if you didn’t have enough to worry about, Jesus comes along in today’s gospel and tells you that the end will come when you’re not paying attention and take you by surprise. That’s the essence of worry, isn’t it? Caught unprepared when you’ve devoted all your waking moments trying to be exactly that – prepared. Forgetting to cross that “t” or dot that elusive “i” and, lo and behold, snagged. Getting that audit notice from the IRS when you did your best to file those taxes correctly. Having taught your kids all those wholesome values just to see them experiment with risky behaviors and not-so-wholesome lifestyles. What a thoroughly upbeat way to start Advent. Who’s the bright optimist in the Vatican’s liturgy office who decided this was just the right reading to prepare you for the joys of Christmas? Maybe he’s read one too many Tim LaHaye novels about the Rapture and the end-of-the-world horrors in store for the godless. Or perhaps he’s convinced that the ancient Mayan calendar portends the end of everything in December 2012.

I hate worry but I suspect I’m no different than most: I’ve become addicted to it. I’m not sure I’d get anything done if I didn’t worry I wouldn’t get it done. Worry is all pervasive, it seems. Even the moderately conservative New York Times columnist, David Brooks, is not immune. Last week’s column predicted economic and national catastrophe on a gargantuan scale with no hope for escape. And predictions by the presidential commission studying how to scale down the enormous national deficit are scarier than prophecies about worldwide earthquakes and asteroids crashing into the planet. It all goes to show you don’t have to be religious to have a monopoly on worry – we’re all affected. If the everlasting torment of hell doesn’t scare you, the prospect of losing your retirement savings certainly will.

Worry, though, seems to affect some more than others. If I remember right, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James attributes a lot of religious conviction – how we express belief - to personality type. Whether you are more optimistic or pessimistic by nature makes a big difference about how you perceive things and how you act on them. This theory seemed to be proven true last week with the election of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York as president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (a surprise, it seems, since he hadn’t been the sitting vice-president). And Archbishop Dolan is optimistic if he’s anything: a jovial, engaging, friendly, bigger-than-life type who exudes confidence. So it might not seem so surprising when in his acceptance speech he said something to the effect that, all in all, things are going very well. You might pause just there and think, let’s see: sex abuse scandal, closing of churches and schools (39 in his archdiocese alone), bankrupt dioceses around the country, the pope threatened with arrest in certain countries – things going very well – either the Archbishop is delusional, or his optimism gene is working overtime. But that assessment comes from someone more at home on the pessimism-side of the coin – personality dictates after all. At least the archbishop doesn’t seem to be worrying too much; he’s not exhibiting anxiety-override. Or maybe he’s just on drugs.

Then again, perhaps what’s needed is a certain resignation, a humble acceptance of sorts. In the face of problems that are so overwhelming maybe there comes a point when you just have to let go and let God, as they say. That’s easier said than done, though, because it’s really all about control and giving it up. Worry can fool you into thinking you still do have some control. But giving up control – completely - is something we all must do eventually. Perhaps danger and impending catastrophe, and all those small but significant losses along the way, help us practice - little by little - for that ultimate letting go and letting God. Most of us, after all, have been preparing since we were kids, whether we realized it or not: playing Hide-and-Seek and the kid who has been hiding his eyes and counting to ten finally finishes and shouts out: “ready or not, here I come.” Some hiding places seem more secure than others but, truth be told, we all really want to be found. Depending on your personality-type, though, some later than sooner.

10-11-21: Solemnity of Christ the King

Solemnity of Christ the King
Samuel 5:1-3 / Psalm 122 / Colossians 1:12-20 / Luke 23:35-43
With today’s Feast of Christ the King the liturgical calendar comes to an end and the new church year begins next week on the first Sunday of Advent. The end of a year, by whatever calendar, sparks a bit of nostalgia, and a little dread, as some of us become more aware of our own mortality. The church uses this as a timely reminder that, one day, this world will end as well. Evangelicals have taken to this idea of a fast approaching end-of-the-world over the past century with more than a little enthusiasm. Jehovah Witnesses, for example, are noted to have declared (on more than one occasion) the date the end would come, only to have to reevaluate when they woke up the day after. Recently, the evangelical group that runs Family Radio has declared the end of the world will occur on May 21st – next year!

It is unnerving to hear that the end will come so soon and, according to Family Radio, that it will not be an easy end. There’ll be a lot of terrifying horror, decaying corpses and, of course, gnashing of teeth - more promise of hell than heaven. This type of Christianity, this kind of religion, I personally despise and find untenable. It does make you wonder though. If I don’t believe Family Radio’s claim, or others of similar ilk, am I ultimately not believing the Bible itself and, by extension, not believing in an afterlife at all?

It is probably THE most vexing problem in Christianity, this end-of-the-world business. Jesus seemed to have predicted an immanent end; and St. Paul was quite clear the end would come before his generation had died out. But as St. Paul approached his own end, he must have realized the end wasn’t going to occur, at least not the way he had expected. Did he bank everything on that part of his faith, one wonders; or was he able to let it go? We just don’t know.

Through the millennia there have been many who, like St. Paul, preached an imminent end. They were, without exception, very enthusiastic in their preaching. But all wrong. None right. When they had to answer their critics the day after the day the end was supposed to have happened, they inevitably chalked it up to human error, a matter of arithmetic not faith. We somehow believed right, they seemed to suggest, but figured wrong.

But the notion that the world will come to an end is no longer solely a matter for religious believers. Scientists, atheists, agnostics all believe that the universe will one day end; and they present a far more horrible end than even Family Radio. It’s just a matter of time, they say. Time is, perhaps, the root of the dilemma. When Einstein discovered relativity, he remarked that past, present, future are all illusory: Time itself being an illusion, a human construct.

Time, then, is a relative matter. [Then is a very strange word itself. In English, then can refer both to the past and the future]. In today’s gospel of the crucifixion the Good Thief used his last moments to offer a word of consolation to a stranger; and Jesus, in turn, promised 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 ever so slightly, 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 – then - not fear, is then the present evidence of Paradise -- here and now, then and then.

10-11-14: 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Malachi 3:19-20 / Psalm 98 / 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12 / Luke 21:5-19
I wonder if there’s a direct correlation between people who buy lottery tickets, religiously, and those who take seriously predictions about the imminent end of the world. Both seem to bank heavily on very unlikely and improbable outcomes. You could say both have a lot of faith; but is it the kind of faith you would want to have?

Take the group who interpret the virtually undecipherable Mayan calendar as predicting the end of the world to occur on 12.12.12 - or was it 12.21.12? (I better get that right less I lose a week one way or the other). The recent end-of-the-world horror flick, 2012, did a lot to boost their bona fides. But certain evangelical Christians won’t be one-upped by a bunch of neo-pagan proto-Columbian indigenous Mexicans. The evangelical group that runs Family Radio has now made public the results of their long study of cryptic biblical references to the world’s end and have determined, without doubt, that 5.21.11 will be the day when the earth will be destroyed and the Rapture will take place. Of course, if asked to chose, I’d have to admit I’d skip the Rapture and go with the Mayans - nineteen months being nothing to sneeze at.

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or not but the Irish have a saint, dating from the 11th century, famous for his prediction about the end of the world. He shares the same-sounding name as the Old Testament prophet, Malachi, from whom we get our first reading this Sunday. The Irish Malachy, not unlike Nostradamus, wrote cryptically about the end of the world and when it would come. What’s clear from his prophecy (and there’s not much very clear) is that the last pope will be named Peter, though it won’t be quite that straightforward. Some ardent Malachy fans now hold that the current Pope Benedict is the next-to-last pontiff to reign before the end. At the very least this should encourage more of us to pray for Pope Benedict’s continued good health – whatever we might think of his theology.

The Old Testament Malachi – a name meaning “messenger” – is classified by scholars as the last of the "minor prophets." To be a minor prophet is something to contend with, but to be the last of the minors might explain his attempt to gain some attention, painting a rather scary picture of how the end will come. But if we look more closely at the book of Malachi we might understand his concerns in a different light.

Malachi had probably been part of one of those Jewish families that suffered the loss of everything when the Babylonians invaded and destroyed the Temple and all Jerusalem in the sixth century B.C. He might well have been born in captivity. Thanks to the Persian conquest of Babylon, and the largesse of King Cyrus, the Jews were permitted to return to their homeland where, even after fifty years, the ruined city must have been a palpable reminder of the slaughter and destruction endured by a people who considered themselves God’s Chosen. With Persian help they rebuilt a Temple, though it was probably rather shabby compared to Solomon’s masterpiece. And their morals were sorely lacking. A lot of illicit inter-marriage was taking place, not to mention complete disregard for the Law. It is in this milieu that Malachi calls for a return to religious observance. The “end”, you see, had already taken place. As far as Malachi was concerned, people had a choice: either make the “end” continue, by living in degradation and immorality, or seek healing, build anew – get your act together. Far from threatening people with what might happen, Malachi reminded them of what they were meant to be.

Instilling apocalyptic fear (whether promoted by devotees of the Mayan calendar or biblically-proficient evangelical Christians), for all its talk about sin, punishment and damnation, just makes people less responsible for their actions not more so. It diverts our attention from the pressing problems and challenges of the here-and-now, as we allow ourselves to sink into anxiety and worry about a possible but improbable tomorrow. To put it into more contemporary terms: buy a lottery ticket if you want – but don’t quit your job just yet.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

10-11-07: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
Maccabees 7:1-2,9-14 / Psalm 17 / 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5 / Luke 20:27-38
The Bible can be very relevant – even when it doesn’t mean to be. Take today’s gospel, for instance. Or, as Henny Youngman might put it: “Take my wife…please.” For those currently concerned about perceived threats on the institution of marriage - from gay marriage initiatives to Mormon polygamy (one man, many wives) - today’s gospel adds polyandry to the mix (one woman, many husbands). Those who pose the conundrum to Jesus aren’t really in favor of a woman having many husbands. Those Sadducees, ironically, are the conservatives in the debate; they’re fighting against the infiltration of foreign ideas and heathen practices into the lives of the ordinary Jew. Far from promoting polyandry in the next life, the Sadducees are arguing against the notion of any afterlife at all: no heaven, no hell – when you’re dead, the conservative Sadducees are saying, you’re dead. The Sadducees accepted only the first five books of what we call the Old Testament where there’s no mention of an afterlife. Matter of fact, the only explicit mention of an afterlife is found in the books of the Maccabees and Daniel, not part of the Jewish Bible – then or now.

Afterlife is something that you would assume to be a standard belief, across the board, from Egyptian pharaohs to Siberian shamans. Christianity, likewise, seems imbued with the notion of an afterlife, from the are-you-saved rantings of TV evangelists to old-fashioned Catholics lighting candles for souls recently deceased or long-ago departed. So, it’s more than a bit ambiguous why the notion of an afterlife wasn’t part of Israelite religion or mainline Judaism until a short bit before Jesus’ time. The Pharisees were into it, but the Sadducees thought it a pagan idea. That’s why the Sadducees pose the question to Jesus about the woman married seven times in this life: So, you can just about hear them say - with a bit of a proto-Yiddish inflection, whose wife will she be in the afterlife?

The Sadducees, ardently religious in their own rite, would ironically find modern day allies in the likes of Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, militant atheists who think religion, especially the bit about an afterlife, just part of a childish wish list. Yet, while there are a growing number of agnostics and atheists in this post-Christian era, there has never been such a persistent interest in the possibility of an afterlife. From Dinesh D’Souza’s just-published best seller Life After Death: The Evidence to Clint Eastwood’s recently released film Hereafter – fascination about what might happen to us after we die is not losing, but gaining adherents.

Jesus and the Pharisees were part of a movement that wanted to bring to Judaism a fascination with the afterlife, even though it may have been a foreign import (paradise, after all, is a Persian word). They were not afraid to entertain the possibility that God reveals his truth and his promises through other religions as well. While it may indeed be true, as some notable theologians have recently pointed out, that Catholics have abandoned talking about “the four last things” (death, judgment, heaven and hell) as tenets of the faith, we are as mesmerized as everyone else by those mysteries when they’re presented through the popular imagination. To my mind the best, most recent, case for the uniquely Catholic doctrine of Purgatory was made (albeit unintentionally) by M. Night Shyamalan in his 1999 film The Sixth Sense. Our adventure doesn’t end with death, the film seems to be saying: we still have things to do and places to go, our connections with each other may indeed be eternal.

November (from Halloween to El Día de los Muertos to All Souls’ Day) is the month when many are reminded of the dead and what might have happened to them. Those mysteries concerning consciousness and awareness after death continue to fascinate us and engage our imagination which, in the end, may be the realest thing of all. For instance, you might imagine that, at this very moment, in some other dimension of existence, those argue-some Sadducees are sitting ‘round the karaoke machine with John Lennon singing Imagine – as in “imagine there’s no heaven…” Still arguing against the notion of an afterlife unaware they’re in the midst of it. Sort of like many of us here and now, on this earth, in this life, remaining oblivious to the mysterious connections we share with those on the other side of that chasm we call death, unmindful of the many graces we have already received from that unseen yet merciful providence: having been blessed, as the poet put it – unawares.

10-10-31: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time
Wisdom 11:22-12:2 / Psalm 145 / 2 Thessalonians 1:11-2:2 / Luke 19:1-10
If I were to cast a movie of today’s gospel, I think I’d get Danny DeVito to play Zacchaeus – he’s short, nasty, and feisty enough to climb a tree. And he’s got the kind of face only a mother could love.

But it’s to Zacchaeus, of all people, that Jesus looks. There was no one in all of Jericho more despised than Zacchaeus, the tax collector who made his fortune off the suffering of others. And yet Jesus wants to stay in his house, he wants to eat and drink with him - the wretched scoundrel whom everyone talked about behind his back. You can just about hear them: “grumbling,” the gospel says. Traitor, thief, that miserable little squirt…

It’s just a coincidence (or is it) that this gospel falls on Halloween – but it couldn’t be more appropriate. Despite the warnings of British bishops of late, admonishing the faithful to avoid dressing up in Halloween costumes less the practice surreptitiously tempt a return to our pagan past, the observance of Halloween – All Hallows’ Eve, the Eve of All Saints – is an invitation to consider the astounding promise of the gospel: the genuine possibility of joy.

Halloween’s a paradox, it straddles two worlds. It’s fun, but scary. It’s make-believe, but all too real. It’s kids dressing up as vampires and monsters, playfully dallying with what they dread the most. Halloween happens at night when you can’t quite make out how ugly things might really be, whether life is a trick or a treat. But Halloween is a safe way to sneak a look at the dark side of life where monsters and vampires roam the earth frightening people to death. Dressing up, putting on a mask, so to speak, allows us to consider what life would be like as one of them. What we might discover in such an experiment is that behind the mask that instills fear and dread is the face of Zacchaeus, someone trapped in despair, isolated from human kindness, lonely and unloved. What’s so terrifying is the realization that the face behind the mask could be mine.

Halloween is about ghosts, disembodied spirits, souls who have lost their way, hovering in between the realms of life and death, unable to enjoy the one or rest in the other. Their misery turns bitter and they become ugly with rage, like werewolves. Their loneliness lashes out, jealous of the joyful, like bloodthirsty vampires. These lonely souls wonder if all of the sadness will ever end, if their broken hearts will ever heal. It’s into those souls that Jesus looks, as he looked into Zacchaeus, as he looks into us. Today’s gospel embodies Halloween, telling of the possibility of transformation. You don’t have to keep wearing that same costume, it says. You don’t have to play Zacchaeus forever. There’s a way out of the realm of sadness; misery can indeed be turned into joy.
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.

10-10-24: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sirach 35:12-14,16-18 / Psalm 34 / 2 Timothy 4:6-8,16-18 / Luke 18:9-14
God knows no favorites. So says Jesus. That’s Jesus - the son of Eleazar and grandson of Sirach - the author of our first reading today. That seems to be the point of today’s gospel parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple as well – told, this time, by the more familiar Jesus. The tax collector or publican, as he’s sometimes called, goes home justified while the Pharisee does not. Doesn’t that show a little favoritism? Of course the parable is meant to grab our attention, jolt us out of our smug complacency regarding religion and its expectations. And, perhaps most significantly, to invite us to entertain the unpleasant truth that deep down all of us are essentially the same when it comes to temptation and sin: we might succumb to different vices - some vices being more acceptable than others - but, make no mistake, we all succumb.

If you wanted a more modern version of the parable, at least for its shock value, you just had to tune into the recent gubernatorial debate at Hofstra University last week. The most comic line - and remember that comedy is funny precisely because it exposes the truth in an ironic way - came from the Freedom Party candidate, a convicted madam who ran the high-end brothel which provided prostitutes for the former governor. She claimed that she would be the best choice for governor precisely because of her past experience. It was all very logical: having run an efficient and successful brothel she would know exactly how to get the state legislature to work efficiently and successfully, since both the legislature and the brothel were composed of the same kind of employee. Who could possibly disagree? Pharisee and publican, politician and prostitute – have more in common than merely their initial consonants.

God knows no favorites could have been the subtitle of last week’s PBS documentary, God in America, attempting to explore the role of religion in American history – a herculean task that barely skimmed the surface. The piece on Abraham Lincoln, though, was extraordinary. Lincoln’s inner motivations concerning the Civil War have been the subject of more books than anyone could possibly read in a lifetime, and as many theories. The documentary suggested Lincoln underwent a conversion of sorts midway in the war, sparked perhaps by the unexpected death of his young son to typhoid. What began for him as a desire to preserve the Union turned into a struggle to make the dream of the founders - that all men are created equal - into a lived reality: the abolition of the practice of slavery and emancipation for all slaves held by Americans. The Civil War would be the most devastating war America ever engaged in, eventually claiming an astounding 625,000 lives. The program quoted a line from Lincoln’s second inaugural: “Both (sides) read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes his aid against the other,” Lincoln said. “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully.”

Prayer, then, is not intended to show God who is better than whom, which side is right and which is wrong. Prayer is not meant to change God but to change the pray-er, helping him realize in humility that he’s just as weak as the next, yet possessing the same dignity as his neighbor - and his enemy - in the eyes of God.

10-10-17: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Exodus 17:8-13 / Psalm 121 / 2 Timothy 3:14-4:2 / Luke 18:1-8
Taking a cue from Moses in today’s reading from Exodus we might conclude that prayer involves a lot of hard work: Moses must keep his hands raised in prayer for, if he lowered them, Israel would lose the battle. In the gospel parable Jesus suggests we imitate the widow who ceaselessly harangues the dishonest judge to get what she needs: pray in the same way, Jesus seems to be saying, and you’ll start to see results. It’s an airtight argument: not getting results? – you’re obviously not being persistent or perseverant enough. Keep at it and the answer will come.

But how do you know how long is long enough? And, besides, is God fair in all this – basing outcome on persistence? After all, some of us are just naturally less patient than others, suffering a kind of spiritual ADD. Back in 1915 when the Age of Doubt was gaining steam, W. Somerset Maugham wrote Of Human Bondage. The protagonist, Philip Carey, having been born with a club foot, decides as a young boy that, if he could pray hard enough, God would miraculously heal him of the physical deformity which caused him such heartache. One night he strips naked in the freezing cold, kneels besides his bed, begins to pray and eventually falls asleep. The next chapter begins: He woke and limped downstairs.

Did Philip not pray enough; had he not prayed hard enough? If not a full-fledged miracle, couldn’t he at least have expected a little less limping for his trouble? Well, it’s only a novel, after all – not real life. Besides, if he had been healed, the story would have turned out quite differently – and probably way less interesting. Life, though, is a lot like that: filled with more than a little suffering and a whole lot of unfairness. Prayer may be the only weapon available for many of us to try and even the playing field. Linking prayer with hard work helps turn what appears to be childish wish-making into something more substantial.

When C.S. Lewis’ wife was dying from cancer, a friend saw him praying in the chapel at Oxford. “Don’t be too despondent,” his 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 accepting of the challenges we face, more free than less -- then prayer may really be something formidable.

Philip Carey could have continued to wish that his club foot would heal, but it was his prayer (was it answered or not?) which brought him face to face with the reality of his life. Be careful what you pray for, the old adage goes, you might get it. The it often being the very thing we least expect, or want, or think we need. God plays, it seems, so we might pray: He tricks us into asking him to grant a wish; but, by prayer, helps us accept instead what we need to.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

10-10-2010: 28th Sunday Ordinary Time (C)

Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
2 Kings 5:14-17 / Psalm 98 /2 Timothy 2:8-13 / Luke 17:11-19
In today’s gospel of the ten lepers cured of their leprosy, Jesus seems a bit miffed by the fact that only one returned to say thanks – and he was a Samaritan to boot. Maybe it’s just the translation, but Jesus even sounds a bit dismissive of the grateful Samaritan, hoping in vain for thanks from his fellow Jews rather than the Samaritan. Gratitude, from those who are somehow different than us, can be a humbling corrective to our preconceived notions of how we think things ought to be.

The Church designates October as Respect Life Month in an attempt to turn our attention to the truth that life is a gift from God, to be treasured and protected. Over the past four decades Catholics have come to embrace that catchy sound bite that, you would think, clearly sums up the whole Catholic attitude: Respect life, the saying goes, from womb to tomb, from conception to natural death. With the tremendous advances in medical science, and reproductive technologies in particular, the sound bite might remain catchy but, if we be honest, needs some serious challenging.

The challenge couldn’t be more well-timed than the announcement this past week that this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine has been awarded to Dr. Robert G. Edwards, the developer of the in vitro fertilization procedure for treating human infertility. Dr. Edwards’ first success was the birth of the first so-called test tube baby, Louise Brown, in 1978. Since Louise’s birth, four million more human beings have been born of the same method. The Vatican has decried the Nobel nomination because the Church has condemned the practice of the in vitro method from the start, claiming the method involves immoral practices: the conception of the individual outside the mother’s body, the practice of masturbation to retrieve sperm, the discarding of embryos not used or the freezing of embryos indefinitely. It is always a part of the Church’s mission to question the morality and ethics involved in scientific endeavors, especially those involving human life. But in this matter (as in many matters relating to sex), the Church misses the forest for the trees: her studied examination of the means employed in reproduction has made her seemingly oblivious to the end which those means have produced – a human life – to whom, the Church reminds us this month, we owe respect and, for whom, we owe gratitude to Almighty God.

When Louise Brown was born in 1978, although the Vatican had already issued its condemnation of the in vitro fertilization method, Pope John Paul I nonetheless welcomed the birth of the new baby, claiming she was absolutely not responsible for the way in which she was conceived. In other words, Louise Brown was wholly innocent of the immoral means by which she entered the world. It was nice of the pope to point that out, but it doesn’t alleviate the fundamental contradiction inherent in the church’s position concerning means and ends – in this case, in vitro fertilization and the birth of a human being. The inherent contradiction is akin to the church’s annulment process in regard to the children of an “attempted marriage.” The church can annul an attempted marriage, claiming that the marriage never existed, while simultaneously claiming that any children born of that attempted marriage are nonetheless legitimate in the eyes of the church. It’s nice to say so, of course, but that doesn’t make the inherent contradiction any less real.

The crux of the contradiction rests with those of us who benefit from what the church considers immoral. Does the Church expect Louise Brown to be anything but grateful for the gift of life she has received; a gift she would not have received save for the practice of in vitro fertilization. It’s the same for me: being born illegitimate meant my parents had intercourse outside marriage. The church would expect me to be grateful for the life I was given – which I am. But how can we limit gratitude just to the result and not to the way in which the result was obtained? In other words, Louise Brown and I cannot be other than grateful for the perceived immoral means by which we have entered the world.

The conclusion can be simply put: the end does, sometimes, indeed justify the means. How can anyone expect Louise Brown, or people like me, to look at the origins of our lives and say to ourselves: I wish they didn’t do that. Impossible. Not only do we not not wish it, we rejoice that it happened – just the way it did. We’re like the grateful Samaritan whose gratitude Jesus reluctantly accepts. But even Jesus, when faced with the facts, seems to have no choice. After all, he holds the world’s record when it comes to conception stories.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

10-03-2010: 27th Sunday Ordinary Time (C)

Twenty Seventh Sunday Ordinary Time
Habakkuk 1:2-3;2:2-4 / Psalm 95 / 2 Timothy 1:6-8,13-14 / Luke 17:5-10
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life recently conducted a survey of some 3,400 Americans asking questions about the Bible and world religions; only half answered the questions correctly. Catholics fared worse than most. Mormons and atheists were the most knowledgeable. Matter of fact the president of American Atheists, Dave Silverman, stated that one comes to atheism as a result of knowledge not from a lack of it. When asked how are atheists made? Mr. Silverman replied, just give them a Bible.

Reading today’s gospel parable from that very same Bible, one tends to see Mr. Silverman’s point. In the parable Jesus tells his disciples that, if they had faith, they could successfully command a tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea. Huh?

Is this the purpose of faith? Is it a test of power, equivalent to magic - and just as arbitrary? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to test such power by exercising it over malignant tumors or breaking the cycle of poverty?

Never having seen a mustard seed I’m assuming it must be really, really small. And since I’ve never been successful at transplanting mulberry trees by command alone – I can only conclude that my faith must be infinitesimal, if I indeed have any at all. Yet, since I don’t know anyone else who has succeeded in uprooting trees by verbal command, I might conclude that an awful lot of us are in the same boat.

Scholars tell us that the original parable, recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, was altered by Luke – but no one is certain why. Matthew reads: ”If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to the mountain, Move, and it would move.” Maybe Luke felt that moving a mountain was a bit much and so lowered the bar, settling for the tree.

Then again, it is a matter of historical fact beyond dispute, that back in the fourth century the Emperor Constantine – who changed the course of history by favoring rather than persecuting Christianity - decided he wanted to build a basilica over the grave of St. Peter. After Peter was martyred, they buried him on Vatican Hill. The engineers pointed out to the emperor that it would be impossible to build the basilica on a hillside and they suggested he change his plans and build a few hundred yards away on flat terrain. But the emperor insisted that the altar of the basilica should stand exactly over Peter’s gravesite and so Constantine commanded his engineers to simply move the mountain – and they did. It was an extraordinary engineering accomplishment for the fourth century resulting in the basilica being built right where Constantine wanted it. That original basilica was destroyed by fire, but the present-day St. Peter’s Basilica stands in the very same place. The feat was accomplished - the mountain was moved - not by magical incantation but by a lot of hard work, making for the surprising possibility that real faith can be expressed in very tangible ways, measured by results rather than methods.

Approaching a challenge with the attitude that says “it can’t be done” will assure the outcome that it surely won’t be done. Approaching the same challenge with an attitude that says “it must be done” will conjure unexpected resources and abilities – sometimes quite inexplicable – that somehow assure that, indeed, it will be done.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

06-06-2010: Corpus Christi

Corpus Christi
Genesis 14:18-20 / Psalm 110 / 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 / Lauda Sion / Luke 9:11-17
Today we celebrate the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Body of Christ. From the beginning Catholic and Orthodox Christians have maintained the belief that, by the power of the Holy Spirit and the words of the validly ordained priest, ordinary bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ during the Mass. Thomas Aquinas would offer the word transubstantiation as a way to understand the mystery. Thomas taught that whatever makes the bread bread and whatever makes the wine wine -- that whatever -- is what becomes the body and blood of Christ. The bread and wine retain the appearances (“the accidents”) of bread and wine, they continue to look and smell and taste like bread and wine, but their substance, their essence, is what becomes the Body and Blood of Christ Himself.

It’s ironic, to say the least, that this most profound of mysteries should rest on a whatever, synonymous in teenage parlance these days with the unimportant; signifying that nonchalant, couldn’t-care-less attitude, usually embodied by your average teenager who shrugs his shoulders at the teacher who just threatened him with detention or at the suggestion he be more thoughtful of those less fortunate -- yeah whatever.

Whatever has become our contemporary expression of taking things for granted. It couldn’t possibly be what Thomas meant when trying to illuminate the mystery of transubstantiation. Or could it? Maybe that attitude that sees things as so ordinary and unglamorous is the key for us moderns to realize the import of the sacrament of Christ’s body and blood: a double mystery, if you will – for both Jesus’ divinity and his humanity remain hidden under the appearance of ordinary bread and wine. What could be so unspectacular, so ordinary, than bread and wine; so mundane, we necessarily take it for granted. One might wonder at the wisdom of Pope Pius X when, at the beginning of the twentieth century, he encouraged Catholics to receive communion as often as possible. Doesn’t the commonplace breed a whatever attitude? Just imagine asking the elderly lady sitting next to you in church on Palm Sunday if, given a choice, which would she rather receive: communion or palm? Is there any doubt what her answer would be? After all, she’d probably say, I can always receive next week – but the palm

A consumer culture, some would say, rests on the perceived necessity to satisfy a need immediately and often. Perhaps the Church has not been immune to such a culture either. Every major address offered by a bishop or theologian, of late, must conclude with a reference to the Eucharist as the be-all and end-all of everything. If it really was what they claim it to be, wouldn’t it be more obviously so and, thus, less a need to point it out constantly ad infinitum. When I used to say Mass for the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s nuns) there would be a placard in the sacristy meant for the priest to read before beginning Mass. Say this mass, the saying went, as if it were your first Mass, your last Mass, your only Mass. A nice, pious sentiment – but can anyone really do that especially since it probably will be but the first mass of several that very day. It seems to be just a fact of human nature that routine robs us of that feeling of awe. Let’s face it: if you had the means to eat at Peter Luger’s every night, wouldn’t it lose it’s ‘specialness’ regardless of how delicious the steak was?

On the other hand there’s something to be said for routine. Daily routines can become rituals which provide our lives with order. Studies have shown that rote recitation of prayers, like the rosary, can produce calm and a sense of well-being. The frequent reception of communion might also work in this way, inviting us to consider the possibility that the ordinary, the mundane, the commonplace of life has the propensity for just the opposite. Ordinary people at their most unattractive, average situations no matter how boring, possess the possibility of transformation. It’s like that aloof and ostensibly uncaring teen who seems not to be paying attention to anything or to anyone (especially his parents): we know, though, that his whatever is just a coy and clever cover-up for his intense desire to pay attention and be paid attention to - what St Thomas called an accident as opposed to a substance. The whatever of transubstantiation transforms potency into actuality. Bread and wine retaining the accidents of their once-nature, covering up the awesome and powerful possibilities of their now-nature: divinity in a sliver of bread, in a sip of wine, “heaven in ordinarie.” Yeah, whatever.

[N.B. It’s that time of year once again to sign off on these Pastoral Reflections and give the patient readers of this column a well-deserved break! Until September…tfb]

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

05-30-2010: Soemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity
Proverbs 8:22-31 / Psalm 8 / Romans 5:1-5 / John 16:12-15
In Mary Gordon’s just published Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter with the Gospels, she asked a priest-theologian friend of hers if he really thinks Jesus is God. “’I do,’ he said, ‘only I’m not quite sure what God is.’”

Disagreement on precisely that question has caused havoc, and not a little confusion, for quite some time. When the great Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci (who died 400 years ago this year), encountered the high culture of Imperial China he thought long and hard about what Chinese word he would use to identify the one true God. His predecessor, Francis Xavier, made a huge mistake when, in Japan, he relied on a Buddhist term to do the trick. Such difficulties ensued that Xavier decided to revert to using the Latin Deus instead. Unfortunately his pronunciation got him into more difficulty: the Japanese heard him exhorting them to believe in The Great Lie instead of The One True God. The difficulty is still evident today in Korea where, seeking to use pure Korean words and not co-opted Chinese terms, Korean Catholics and Protestants employ two entirely different words for God: a phenomenon that suggests how obscure God still remains – even for those of us who claim that the Trinitarian God is intimately closer to us than we are to ourselves.

The formulation of God as Trinity, the Feast we celebrate today, was long in the making and not really finalized until the fifth century at the Council of Chalcedon. Which begs the question: what might the first Christians have believed – how did the apostles really perceive Jesus? That famous verse from Matthew’s Gospel sums it up when Jesus asks his disciples, and Peter in particular: Who do you say that I am? Certainly the apostles could not possibly have understood Jesus to be the Second Person of the Trinity. As observant Jews it seems impossible that they could have understood or verbalized what the Church later realized was Jesus’ unique possession of both a divine and human nature.

Yet, it is clear from the gospels that the apostles saw Jesus as unique and were nothing less than mesmerized by his words and deeds. They were, literally, in awe of him. It took centuries until that feeling of awe – a term reserved for the sacred – could be verbalized in language attributable to the divine. What the Church insists we believe is that the initial feeling or perception of the apostles was eventually adequately rendered in language. What the Church does not, and cannot, insist is that the words of the Creed could ever fully express or exhaust that initial perception. In other words, for all the truth and beauty the Creed attests to in words, we still are not quite sure what the word God stands for. God remains a mystery despite our efforts to express who he is. But a mystery isn’t something we can know nothing about, Frank Sheed once said, it’s just something we cannot know everything about.

This means that the divine cannot be confined to defined categories or limited to certain actions. God can come to us in any way he wishes. In understanding God as a Trinity of Persons, the Church has left open for us an infinite number of ways to identify how the divine intimacy touches us. By defining the nature of God as Trinitarian, the Church reminds us that every time we experience the awe that the apostles felt when they encountered Jesus, we are, like them, standing before the divine.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

05-23-2010: Pentecost

Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11 / Psalm 104 / 1 Corinthians 12:3-7,12-13 / John 20:19-23
A few years back a woman needed a kidney transplant. In testing her sons as prospective donors, researchers discovered that the woman seemed genetically unrelated to either of her sons. It was eventually determined that the woman was a human “chimera,” possessing two different strands of DNA. Researchers concluded that the woman, while in utero, had absorbed into her body, the body of her dead fraternal twin.

Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists are currently debating how humans and Neanderthals might have related. Did they interbreed? Did Neanderthals possess language capacity?

Back in the 1950s Jean Bruller, under the pseudonym of Vercors, wrote a little known novel You Shall Know Them about the offspring of a human being and a monkey, an intriguing way of exploring what it means to be human. “All men’s troubles arise,” Vercors wrote, “from the fact that we do not know what we are and do not agree on what we want to be.”

Pentecost is about many things. It’s about big things: like providing the legend to explain the phenomenal growth of an obscure Jewish sect into a religion which today claims more than a billion adherents. And it’s about small things: like breath. Breath, so subtle a thing, that it’s at one and the same time absolutely essential for human life yet continually being taken for granted by all of us until something threatens to take it away. Breath, in its pushing out and sucking in, is also the fuel that propels human sound which, when passed through larynx and palate and tongue and teeth, forms a most remarkable thing – human speech expressed in a particular language. The story of Pentecost is bound up with human speech, its origin and its immense diversity through time and space. Which is to say that Pentecost is about one of the greatest of human endeavors: making yourself understood and, even more importantly, understanding yourself.

I once knew someone, advanced in years and, though highly intelligent, had received little education. When confronted with the necessity of receiving a blood donation because of her medical condition, she was genuinely intrigued, and not a little worried that, with the donated blood, she would also inherit the attributes of the donor. She wondered out loud, half-jokingly, if her skin would change color because of her donor’s race or if she would be physically stronger if her donor was male.

Perhaps human nature can be understood in the way we now view race – more as social construct than a biological one. Biologists insist we humans possess an animal nature; theologians claim we are made to receive a divine one, fitting like hand-in-glove, mirroring the mystery of Jesus’ unique identity as both human and divine. In the old days liturgists would spend a lot of time arguing about the proper mixture of water and wine the priest placed in the chalice at Mass, because it would represent the mixture of the divine and human in Christ - as if anyone could really know.

Pentecost, with its admixture of elements, admits us into that discussion about animal, human and divine natures. If language represents our capacity to make ourselves understood and, in turn, understand ourselves, then the gifts of the Spirit can lead us to better express who and what we are as human beings. Remember, though, that the Spirit chose to come to the apostles as a dove: God, as it were, using animal nature to convey a divine reality - perhaps because our human nature is so bound up with the animal world. What Pentecost reveals is that we human beings aren’t just the sum of our parts, that there’s an essential but ineffable reality we are drawn to – call it the divine. But it comes to us through our relationship to the animal kingdom and reminds us how essential that relationship remains in our pursuit of self awareness. An awareness that reveals what we are and what we would want to be.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

05-23-2010: Pentecost

Actis of the Apostles 2:1-11 / Psalm 104 / 1 Corinthians 12:3-7,12-13 / John 20:19-23
A few years back a woman needed a kidney transplant. In testing her sons as prospective donors, researchers discovered that the woman seemed genetically unrelated to either of her sons. It was eventually determined that the woman was a human “chimera,” possessing two different strands of DNA. Researchers concluded that the woman, while in utero, had absorbed into her body, the body of her dead fraternal twin.

Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists are currently debating how humans and Neanderthals might have related. Did they interbreed? Did Neanderthals possess language capacity?

Back in the 1950s Jean Bruller, under the pseudonym of Vercors, wrote a little known novel You Shall Know Them about the offspring of a human being and a monkey, an intriguing way of exploring what it means to be human. “All men’s troubles arise,” Vercors wrote, “from the fact that we do not know what we are and do not agree on what we want to be.”

Pentecost is about many things. It’s about big things: like providing the legend to explain the phenomenal growth of an obscure Jewish sect into a religion which today claims more than a billion adherents. And it’s about small things: like breath. Breath, so subtle a thing, that it’s at one and the same time absolutely essential for human life yet continually being taken for granted by all of us until something threatens to take it away. Breath, in its pushing out and sucking in, is also the fuel that propels human sound which, when passed through larynx and palate and tongue and teeth, forms a most remarkable thing – human speech expressed in a particular language. The story of Pentecost is bound up with human speech, its origin and its immense diversity through time and space. Which is to say that Pentecost is about one of the greatest of human endeavors: making yourself understood and, even more importantly, understanding yourself.

I once knew someone, advanced in years, and though highly intelligent, had received little education. When confronted with the necessity of receiving a blood donation because of her medical condition, she was genuinely intrigued, and not a little worried that, with the donated blood, she would also inherit the attributes of the donor. She wondered out loud, half-jokingly, if her skin would change color because of her donor’s race or if she would be physically stronger if her donor was male.

Perhaps human nature can be understood in the way we now view race – more as social construct than a biological one. Biologists insist we humans possess an animal nature; theologians claim we are made to receive a divine one, fitting like hand-in-glove, mirroring the mystery of Jesus’ unique identity as both human and divine. In the old days liturgists would spend a lot of time arguing about the proper mixture of water and wine the priest placed in the chalice at Mass, because it would represent the mixture of the divine and human in Christ - as if anyone could really know.

Pentecost, with its admixture of elements, admits us into that discussion about animal, human and divine natures. If language represents our capacity to make ourselves understood and, in turn, understand ourselves, then the gifts of the Spirit can lead us to better express who and what we are as human beings. Remember, though, that the Spirit chose to come to the apostles as a dove: God, as it were, using animal nature to convey a divine reality - perhaps because our human nature is so bound up with the animal world. What Pentecost reveals is that we human beings aren’t just the sum of our parts, that there’s an essential but ineffable reality we are drawn to – call it the divine. But it comes to us through our relationship to the animal kingdom and reminds us how essential that relationship remains in our pursuit of self awareness. An awareness that reveals what we are and what we would want to be.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

05-16-2010: Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 7:55-60 / Psalm 97 / Revelation 22:12-14,16-17,20 / John 17:20-26
One of the great things about fiction is its ability to focus exclusively on one particular trait found in any given character; something we can’t do in “real” life, simply because we are too harried by its haphazard complexities. In some works of fiction that particular trait can, itself, take on characterization. So it happens in the recently released film, Mother and Child, written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia.

The plot is a simple one: a fourteen year old girl gets pregnant by her boyfriend and must relinquish her daughter to a closed adoption. The film explores how that one particular experience affects the interconnecting lives of others in the near four decades that follow. The story explores how this one act is the abiding thread in the life of that birthmother who admits to a persistent suitor that everything she has done over the course of forty years always leads her back to that unalterable decision. We are taken into the fast-lane life of the adoptee, a high-powered lawyer, who uses sex as an instrument of power and an expression of anger. We enter the lives of an infertile couple seeking to adopt a child but who must swallow their pride and woo the prospective birthmother to choose them as the prospective parents of her unborn child. But none of these players is the protagonist of the story. The central character is not a person but an experience. And the experience is not one easily defined, but nonetheless concretized in the characters’ actions. Actions, not pleasant to witness, and ones we might determine selfish, cruel and downright ugly. Actions, and reactions, we might judge, at best, pathetic.

Pathetic is a word that possesses a sufficiently pejorative connotation to account for our negative judgments but still retains a sense of profound sadness that belies our rush to such a judgment. Although not cognate, the Greek word pathos is akin to pothos and gives an insight into its complex meaning. Pothos connotes desire, yearning. It’s used in ancient texts to describe the feeling Alexander the Great experienced which sent him halfway round the world in a kind of restless quest, resulting in conquest. Pothos has an erotic side, possessing a sense of yearning that could be translated as a “crying out for" or “pining for,” as when a young man cries out for his beloved to pine for him in return. Seen in this way, we might understand why the fifty-something birthmother in the film has hardened her heart over the years; or why the adoptee is so seemingly cruel and contradictory in using intimate things to avoid intimacy; or the apparent madness overcoming an infertile woman desperate to become a mother. Pathetic actions are understood in a different light when we see that anger is not so much an expression of hatred but of sadness, the reaction to a wound that never quite heals, a hurt that can never be totally locked away.

Perhaps that’s what we “celebrate” on this pivotal Sunday in the liturgical calendar, this Sunday between the Ascension of the Lord and Pentecost, when the Lord has vanished, physically disappeared from the lives of those who loved him and who are left with a rather vague promise of return sometime in the undisclosed future. In the last lines of the Bible, in St. John’s Revelation, the feeling is described as a thirst: a shared human experience that informs all truly religious experience.

Mother and Child doesn’t have a classic happy Hollywood ending, but it’s fundamentally positive in its resolution. While none of the characters gets what he initially thinks she wants, the film reveals to us by very graphic depictions, that there are certain things we have no control over - we cannot alter the past no matter how hard we try. The pathetic actions of each character remind us that, although absence might make the heart grow fonder, it often makes the heart grow cold as well, and bitter to its very core. But this pathos and pothos is the beginning of redemption. Realizing that something is missing from deep inside, that we all have a hole in our heart, that there’s a sadness at the very core of human experience is the first step in turning bitterness into something life-affirming; that, despite the vagaries of life - the cards we seem to have been randomly dealt - we ultimately do have a choice.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

05-09-2010: Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 15:1-2,22-29 / Psalm 67 / Revelation 21:10-14,22-23 / John 14:23-29
A cultural trait that seems universal in practice is the taboo of talking about sex and motherhood at the same time, even though (up until quite recently) there couldn’t be the latter without the former. The taboo carries over when (up until quite recently) the conversation turns to sex and the Church which, as metaphor would have it, is often called our mother. This Mother’s Day that taboo will be discarded, to a degree, as the revelations of sex abuse and cover-up continue to emerge from beneath the very tight lid imposed by that taboo, through the imposition of secrecy, on the recent history of Holy Mother Church.

The story of the founder of the Legion of Christ, Father Marcial Maciel, which has now been corroborated beyond dispute, is perhaps the most illustrative of how secrecy motivated by shame produces a far worse scandal than that which sought to be avoided in the first place. Father Maciel sexually abused underage seminarians for decades. He also fathered several children by different women and used his Order’s financial resources (some say the Legion has more than one hundred billion dollars in assets although its actual worth remains a secret as well) to support those families in Europe and Latin America. Father Maciel escaped being brought to task for decades because of his tremendous influence (read: financial) over high Vatican officials, including the former Secretary of State and current Dean of the College of Cardinals, Angelo Cardinal Sodano. It was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, however, who pressed for action against Maciel but was prevented, as has been alleged, by the intervention of Pope John Paul II himself. When Ratzinger ascended to the papacy, one of the first acts of his pontificate was to formally remove Maciel from any active ministry and consign him to a monastery. But secrecy, no doubt born of shame, continued to dominate the agenda right up until last week when the accusations against Maciel were finally acknowledged. One of the damaging effects of secrecy in this particular case was bringing into question the reputations and the veracity of those who brought the accusations. These priests and professional men had brought their concerns to the proper authorities decades ago, but their petitions to Rome, as well as the petitions of the bishops through whom they were brought, went unanswered - save for vehement denials and the slander against them made by members of the Legion of Christ. One might understandably ask why the good reputation of many were sacrificed – through the practice of secrecy - to protect the criminal behavior of one man now acknowledged as guilty of even more than of what he was initially accused.

Simone Weil may offer an insight: “Secrecy,” she wrote, “is everywhere the soul of bureaucracy. It is the condition of all privilege and of all oppression.”

A few years ago I earned the ire of our diocesan bishop by publishing an op-ed piece making an analogy between the secrecy employed by bishops in their handling of priest sex abusers and the secrecy employed by bishops as they falsified baptismal records of adopted persons. In both situations illicit sex resulted in a perceived shame which, if exposed, would result in scandal. Secrecy, it was thought, would save the birthmother the stigma of shame and the child the stigma of illegitimacy; while, in the case of sex abuse, secrecy would save holy mother church the shame of acknowledging the criminal sex committed by some priests and would thus prevent the loss of faith on the part of many. But secrecy always, without exception, necessitates the telling of lies and ultimately destroys the trust on which families, both nuclear and ecclesial, need to be based.

The right to truth should trump the need to avoid scandal. Certainly there is a need and a right to confidentiality: birth mothers have the right to privacy from strangers, but they do not have the right to privacy from the children they bore. Likewise confidentiality regarding accusers and accused should be employed at every opportunity but that right does not trump the right of innocent children to be protected from those already accused of sex abuse.

When my mother became pregnant with me in 1952 she told no one but came to a maternity home here in New York City where she gave birth and relinquished me to adoption with the guarantee of secrecy. The taboo about illicit sex and motherhood was at its peak back then. Sex and shame comingled and found a solution to the problem under the umbrella of secrecy. The need for secrecy, then as now, was confused with the right to confidentiality resulting in the rather offensive belief that a mother has a right to privacy from her own child and that right trumps the right of the child to know his/her own parents. The Church was, and remains, complicit in this deception in so far as bishops continue to permit falsified baptismal certificates to be issued. In fairness, bishops now insist that baptisms cannot be performed until adoptions are finalized so the certificate can reflect the legal reality if not the biological one. Yet it seems another scandal is looming if the Vatican eventually agrees with some bishops who insist that even after adoptions are finalized the adopted parents may not be placed on the baptismal certificate - if they are gay or lesbian. Wait till that gets out!

Secrecy is everywhere the soul of bureaucracy…the condition of all privilege and of all oppression. The desire to avoid what is perceived to be scandalous at the expense of truth seems inevitably to lead down a path that dead-ends in far greater scandal. The imposition of secrecy always, without exception, results in the telling of lies. And the telling of lies, according to St. Thomas, is nothing less than an act of violence committed toward the person about whom the lie is told.

05-02-2010: Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 14:21-27 / Psalm 145 / Revelation 21:1-5 / John 13:31-35
St. John waxes poetic, and prophetic, in his Book of Revelation. Today he’s telling of his vision of a new Jerusalem, a holy city, coming down out of heaven. When I think of Jerusalem, though, I don’t think of it as new, but quite old. In 1983 I volunteered to work on an archaeological dig at the City of David, the area in Jerusalem that borders the Kidron Valley as it slopes downhill from the Temple Mount. The excavation unearthed some important finds over the years and I happened to be there when they discovered a stash of ancient bullae that may have been made by the prophet Jeremiah himself at the time of the Babylonian invasion in 587BC. Just recently archaeologists found underground passageways beneath this section of the city that they believe served as hiding places for the Jewish populace as the Romans destroyed the Temple and most of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Jerusalem may be very old (at least 3,000 years old) but discovering its past makes things seem new all the time.

The Book of Revelation has long been the watering-hole for those anxious to make predictions about the future, especially as to when the end of the world will occur. One evangelical group that broadcasts on FM radio has recently been publicizing the date of the end – in just about a year - May, 2011 (sorry I can’t remember the exact date). Others, relying on the ancient Mayan calendar, have set the easy-to-remember date of 12/12/12 as doomsday. At the other end of the prophecy-spectrum I heard that some climate-change enthusiasts are now buying real estate in Greenland, so that when global warming really kicks in - they’ll make a killing.
It seems those that predict the end of the world as immanent always see themselves as crucial, essential to the prediction, the indispensable element in the history of a dispensable world. Old time religionists cite humanity’s terrible sinfulness (read: sexual immorality), as the cause for a violent end-of-the-world scenario. New greener religionists claim that, although earth is some four billion years old, we moderns of the last two centuries, because of our terrible sinfulness (now read: environmental rape), are therefore responsible for the soon-to-be-death of the planet. Talk about seeing yourself as absolutely essential…

Yet, prophecies can come true: they can be “self-fulfilling.” Like the Christian fundamentalists who have allied themselves to the State of Israel, provoking tensions between Israelis and Palestinians (and pushing for the building of a Third Temple) so as to ignite a conflagration in Jerusalem itself - a prerequisite, as they see it, for the Second Coming of Christ and the end of the world.

For all the foreboding that many attach to the Book of Revelation, it seems to me an essentially upbeat text. Beneath the doom and gloom lay the experience of beauty and fulfillment, joy and splendor. Its outlook is bright not dark and, far from the destruction of creation, St. John sees its splendor and fulfillment as the dwelling place of God. For God makes all things new, opening up history as an exciting adventure: sort of like imagining Greenland as the new Bermuda, though one might wonder why it was named Greenland to begin with. Could it be that the obscure future is mirrored, always, in the mysterious distant past? We humans are bound by tense and time: past, present and future. But God dwells in the eternal, making all things new, making all things present.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

04-25-2010: Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 13:14,43-52 / Psalm 100 / Revelation 7:9,14-17 / John 19:27-30
One might agree without need of statistics, on this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, that vocations to the priesthood and Religious life have been on the decline for decades. The current sex abuse scandal surely can’t help matters, but the decline was well under way long before the Boston Globe or New York Times (whatever their intent) started reporting stories that have exploded into a major crisis for the Church. Some argue that the decline in vocations is due to the simple fact that no one answers because - no one called. We’re being ushered into a new way of being church, priests and Religious Brothers and Sisters belong to a bygone age, past and passé. Others say that our modern world is just too noisy. Distractions abound and young people are stone deaf to the language of religion as a meaningful experience. We need a return to a more reverent silence, they say, where the voice of the Master can once again be heard. In a new book by George Prochnik, The Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, the author travels from noisy Brooklyn to the crypt chapel of a Trappist Monastery in Iowa, “a place so quiet,” a reviewer of the book notes, “that visitors sometimes find themselves physically unable to remain there.” An observation which raises the intriguing question of whether there is such a thing as complete silence, and further, if anyone would really want to experience it. The metaphor for vocation, meanwhile, comes from today’s gospel of the Good Shepherd: his sheep hear his voice and they follow him. Yes, there are a lot more distractions in our twenty-first century world than in the bucolic settings of a first century Palestine. Problem is: who speaks sheep anymore?

Noise as a metaphor for chaos, as the opposite of meaningful sound, may be somewhat if not wholly a cultural thing. At my last parish in the heart of Brooklyn my bedroom window was about fifty yards from the elevated J train. You would think that might have posed a problem in summertime when open windows were more preferable to the white noise of the air conditioner. But I had no problem with the J train; it was the rooster in the neighbor’s backyard that drove me crazy, until they found him dead one day - of mysterious causes.

I once had the opportunity of meeting Matthew Kelly, an Australian Catholic whose claims of having heard the voice of Jesus have gained him a wide international following. Out of curiosity, or maybe just plain skepticism, I asked him if Jesus spoke with an Australian accent. He couldn’t say. It seems disembodied voices do not come to us in the same way other sound enters our bodies. But Kelly, like others down the centuries who have claimed locutions, heard the voice speaking his (Kelly’s) English language and not the Aramaic of Jesus’ day. In other words, the experience – for all its mystical awe - is a translated event.

One of my favorite episodes from the original Star Trek series is the one where the Star Trek crew comes upon a long lost human who was thought to have perished long ago. The man has not aged but has lived, seemingly alone, on the forgotten planet for centuries. The crew soon discovers, however, that the man is regularly visited by a phenomenon he calls The Companion, an energy field that envelopes the man when he calls upon it and from which he emerges energized and at peace. By the time Captain Kirk and the crew find him, technology has advanced, and they use their universal translator when the man once again enters the field enveloped by The Companion. To everyone’s surprise, the universal translator translates the energy frequencies into a human voice – a woman’s voice. It quickly becomes obvious that The Companion is in love with the man; she has preserved him all this time not simply as an act of altruism or charity – but from attraction, affection and concern.

If, indeed, the Lord still calls, it should be the great work of the Church to act as universal translator of the ancient and ever-new revelation. The translation of Jesus’ call, the ruminations of divine love, will mean little to any of us if it is not grounded in a vocabulary of attraction: romantic in an adventurous sense, seducing us more subtly than the contemporary allurement of sexual gratification, more genuinely sensual than merely intellectual or doctrinaire. The Church fears such an undertaking, understandably so. It is safer, by far, to keep speaking sheep, using the vocabulary and cultural metaphors of bygone days and long-forgotten idioms which eventually ring hollow. The Church must experiment, change the frequency on that universal translator, as it were, so the bleating and bahs of the language of sheep will give way to the probing questions of the young (and the old) who, despite the din and drone, are still - and still listening for meaning in this world of noise.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

04-18-2010: Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 5:27-32,41 / Psalm 30 / Revelation 5:11-14 / John 21:1-19
Many years ago, when I was taking the test to become a lifeguard, we had to jump into a pool fully clothed and quickly disrobe in the water using our clothes as aides in the rescue we were attempting. Swimming in your clothes is a cumbersome thing, the weight of wet clothes impedes every stroke you try to take. It’s a heavy burden, one that suggests the evolutionary biologists must be right when they suggest we human beings – or our ancestors – emerged from the sea, initially free of the paraphernalia of culture. Remember, it was only in Eden we started wearing clothes; and only in community we began to know the weight of shame.

In today’s gospel, filled with anomalies, Peter does something baffling. He’s near naked in his boat, just finishing his fishing, when he realizes the once-dead-and-now-risen Jesus is cooking breakfast on the shore. We read that Peter first put on his clothes and then jumped into the water to swim to shore.

Some have argued that St. John is being a bit liturgical here, suggesting that a follower of the Lord pays him homage by how he presents himself; not poorly clad or, God forbid, naked – but clothed and reverent before the majesty. It’s the notion of putting on your Sunday-best before you get yourself to church. One could debate such an interpretation. What’s not debatable, though, are the feelings conveyed. Peter is like a bewildered teenager in need of love and forgiveness – he doesn’t realize what he’s doing and ends up doing just the opposite of what you’d expect. His last encounter with Jesus was the night he so coldly denied him to save his own skin. Here’s a chance, he’s thinking, to make things right and face the shame his actions had brought on himself. Three times Jesus asks Peter Do you love me, corresponding to his three denials a few nights before. He asks this in community, in front of everyone, highlighting that precise moment when guilt becomes shame.

Peter, realizing his cowardice and abject inadequacy, might have expected to be replaced at that point by someone more loyal like John, or gutsier like Thomas. But Jesus continues to choose Peter as the Rock on which the church would stand precisely because he failed so miserably, suggesting that the enterprise we call the church was not intended as empire or business, but as the matrix where our abject poverty and terrible inadequacy mixes with grace. Peter shows us that absolutely everyone can afford the cost of entry into this matrix of mystery, though it is a price few of us are willing to pay; the asking price being the very shame we wish not to acknowledge.

Today, Peter’s successor is feeling the weight of shame, the heavy burden of an unresolved past. News reports have been praised and criticized on many counts but few would argue that the pope can escape untainted. A supreme irony is now emerging where the evidence for Benedict’s genuine desire to reform the way the Vatican responded to the sex abuse crisis will inevitably show that his predecessor, John Paul II, was as genuinely desirous to cover it up, to save face, to fall into the inevitable temptation of believing secrecy the antidote to scandal when, in actuality, secrecy is scandal’s greatest ally.

No doubt many who call for the pope’s resignation do so out of a disdain for institutional religion in general and Catholicism in particular; others, genuinely concerned for the church, call for the pope’s resignation because they perceive it as the only way to save the church - by offering a fresh start. Of the two motivations the latter is more acceptable but far more sinister than the former, precisely because a fresh start is just what we don’t need. Peter was the Rock not because he was strong, not because he was innocent, but because he was weak and filled with shame. Grace doesn’t seek to obliterate the past but enables Peter to face it. As Peter’s successor swims toward that same shore, taking the next labored stroke, weighed down as he is by the paraphernalia of Vatican bureaucracy and Romanità, we can only pray that when, and if, he reaches that shore, at least some of that weighty and burdensome paraphernalia – the heavy yoke of secrecy - will have sunk to the bottom of the sea.