Sunday, December 25, 2011

11-12-25: Christmas Vigil Mass

Christmas Vigil Mass

Isaiah 62:1-5 / Pslam 89 / Acts of the Apostles 13:16-17,22-25 / Matthew 1:1-25

At the Vigil Mass for Christmas we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ genealogy. Ever since I joined I’ve come to appreciate the gospel accounts of the genealogies of Jesus more and more. “Genealogies” is in the plural because there are two, one in Matthew and one in Luke; they both trace Jesus’ lineage through Joseph , not Mary - but they don’t match. This, even though Jesus’ virginal conception is explicitly attested to only in those same gospels of Matthew and Luke. So you might agree these accounts of ancestors pose a dilemma, not only for later Christian faith which claims the necessity for belief in the Virginal Conception, but also for the integrity of the gospels themselves. The anomalies they present to the curious call for someone the likes of a Hercule Poirot to solve.

As someone with two genealogies I think I can understand what Matthew and Luke may have been trying to accomplish. I remember as a teenager being pushed by my mother to make a family tree. I never got very far but, long afterward while on a vacation to Ireland, I found the town of my father’s ancestors and took a lot of pictures of storefronts and tombstones that carried the Brosnan name. All this, despite the fact that I was adopted and therefore not linked to these names by blood. Many years later I found myself back in Ireland, this time researching my birthmother’s family in a different part of Ireland – the North – a bit astonished to discover I was of Protestant ancestry, a fact which would not have sat well with my adoptive parents had they still been alive. Somewhere along the line, however, after emigration to America, my forebears became Catholic and paved the way for my unwed mother to baptize me Catholic before relinquishing me to adoption through a Catholic agency.

When I joined and plugged in all the names I knew from my birthmother’s background I allowed my family tree to be viewed by other on-line members. Within two weeks I was in contact with Bob, a gentleman who turned out to be my second cousin once removed (I think I’ve got that right): his great-grandfather was my great-great grandfather – who, it turns out, was murdered while a night watchman for a New Jersey Railroad and buried from the Catholic Church, though he’d been married in a Protestant one. A few months back Bob and his wife came to visit me all the way from New Mexico – they’re transplanted Pennsylvanians. He showed me some photographs of his side of the family as well as a very old photo of our common ancestor, Henry Jones, from the turn of the nineteenth century. It reminded me of the time when I had been searching for my birthmother but first found a trail that led me to a friend of her brother’s who had been a Jesuit priest at Georgetown and had long-since died. This classmate of my uncle’s, who had been his best friend, took out a photo album with pictures of him and my uncle. It was the first time I had ever seen a picture of someone related to me by blood. I know it sounds a bit superficial – but that was one of the most memorable moments of my life. Now, through Bob, and, I was seeing the face of someone who was indirectly responsible for me being alive.

Matthew and Luke needed to “prove” their theological point about Jesus being the fulfillment of human and Jewish history. They also were acknowledging indirectly the need for Joseph, the adoptive dad, to provide a name and a legal fiction for Jesus and Mary, saving them both from what would have been an impossible situation. The other aspect of such genealogies that can be quite comforting for someone like me born illegitimate, whose mother was not married and whose father was long gone, is the fact the names that hang on Jesus’ family tree are not unlike my own. Isn’t it significant, for example, that Matthew mentions David’s son Solomon, “whose mother was the wife of Uriah.” He could have simply said Bathsheba but he didn’t want people to forget that Solomon was the product of adultery mixed with murder. If these characters can be claimed as the ancestors of someone like Jesus himself, need any of us feel ashamed of the ancestral baggage we carry, or worry that the sins of our parents and grandparents make us – or them - any less worthy of God’s love and mercy.

Monday, December 19, 2011

11-12-18: 4th Sunday of Advent

Fourth Sunday of Advent

2 Samuel 7:1-5,8-12,14,16 / Psalm 89 / Romans 16:25-27 / Luke 1:26-38

It’s called the Virginal Conception by Catholics and the Virgin Birth by Protestants. It’s what we celebrate at Christmas, and it lies at the core of the gospel message: that Jesus of Nazareth was God incarnate, or as the new translation of the Creed would have it – consubstantial with the Father. Not a few people have complained about using consubstantial in place of the former translation: “one in being with the Father.” Consubstantial is the Latin term which attempts to translate the Greek “homoousion.” Maybe we should have went back to that, you think? This was the term by which the Council Fathers of Nicea (325AD) defined the nature of that baby born to Mary. It’s the stuff that doctoral students in theology spend a lot of time trying to figure out. Truth be told, its meaning, layered in Greek philosophical concepts, is lost on most of us, including myself, who know little of Greek philosophy.

Maybe though this controversy we now experience over translated words can help us appreciate the essence of the problem regarding the identity of that baby born to Mary. I don’t know if it borders on the heretical, but let me say outright that I don’t believe that Mary or the apostles would have known what you were talking about if you could go back in time and pray the Nicene Creed with them – even if you could translate it into Aramaic. It is no accident that the Creeds were written in Greek, centuries after the fact. The Creeds represent a development, an evolution if you will, in the way believers came to identify that baby born to Mary. Some say that’s a virtual proof the whole thing’s a sham; but I would think the opposite. It would be a sham, in fact, to think that Mary or the twelve apostles could have thought of Jesus outside the perimeters of their Jewish faith. They were good Jews. They prayed the Shema everyday: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” They did not have the Greek categories, later employed, to understand how that basic statement of faith could include Jesus of Nazareth. St. Paul, born and raised in the Greek-speaking world, would be the first bridge between those two cultures and would begin to form the understanding of Jesus in non-Jewish ways.

This incapacity to think of Jesus outside their own Jewish box (so to speak) adds more, not less, to how a first-century Jew came to perceive Jesus with awe. Jesus simply did not fit into their categories. What attracted them to him must have been so powerful on an emotional level that categories didn’t matter. Experience rendered creed irrelevant. How else can we explain the courage of a fifteen year old girl, pregnant, unmarried, sent to the hills to visit a distant relative (no doubt so the townspeople wouldn’t talk) to accept her role in this unfolding drama. And though, by marriage, Joseph would protect her and the baby from some ugly repercussions, there would always be those who mumbled behind her back, insinuating some unpleasant things about Mary and her son. The gospels themselves hint at such things whenever they refer to Jesus as “Son of Mary” (an odd designation for a Jewish man, to say the least). How else to explain why some left everything to follow him at his simple invitation. How else to explain why some would die rather than renounce knowing him. How else to explain why the acceptable Jewish term, Messiah, was simply not enough to capture his essence. What they experienced as unique, we have defined as divine. But what does that really mean – how does even that term define the depths of identity.

St. Augustine perhaps said it best in his argument against the Manichees: “Do you think you know what God is? Do you think you know what God is like? He is nothing you imagine, nothing your thought embraces. O God, You who are above every name, above all thought, beyond every idea and every value...”

Or, as Martha Graham once said after a reporter asked her what a dance meant: “Mean?” Graham said. “What did it mean? Darling, if I could tell you, I wouldn’t have danced it.”

In the end experience, not words, makes all the difference.

Monday, December 12, 2011

11-12-11: 3rd Sunday of Advent

Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 61:1-2,10-11 / Luke 1:46-54 / 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24 / John 1:6-8,19-28

In Fr. Robert Barron’s recent DVD series Catholicism each episode begins with the same footage. Watching all ten episodes, one after the other, you start to see a theme in those repeated clips of people from obviously different backgrounds doing something remarkably similar: they are all caught by the camera immersed in the same gesture of looking up and being startled. The series was very well done and highly commendable, but I confess to liking this repeated footage, without commentary, the best. In those startled, surprised faces, looking up at the incomparable stained glass of La Sainte Chapel or the gothic vaulted ceiling of Notre Dame Cathedral or Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel covered with naked human beauty, our desire for the good and the true and the beautiful is somehow captured; and we see in the faces of these pilgrims, tourists, voyeurs a surprised recognition of something wonderful - something we have come to understand as the divine.

Surprise is, perhaps, the only thing that comes anywhere near a “proof” for God in our modern materialistic society. And like its biblical precedents, surprise often comes to us with a dose of fear as well. As Fr. Barron points out, whenever God sends his messenger – his angel – the recipient’s initial response is fear. “Do not be afraid Mary,” the archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin. And then, out of the blue, from way-left field, comes the totally unexpected. Pregnant? How can that be? Our capacity for surprise may very well be the very measure of our faith. Is this what Jesus means when he says we must become like little children?

This week, on December 12th, we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Now there’s a story filled with surprises, overflowing with the unexpected. Beginning with the humble Aztec, Juan Diego, surprised by the rustle of birds on the side of the road, he encounters La Morena – the brown-skinned young woman, pregnant and clothed in a mantle of stars. Tell the bishop, she says, to build a temple here in my honor. Bring him these roses I place in your tilma as a sign. When Juan Diego unfurls his tilma, and the bishop drops to his knees, Juan Diego didn’t know he carried in his tilma not only roses but the image of La Morena herself. Within a very few years virtually the entire Aztec people were baptized and that tilma, still on display today, brings millions upon millions to see La Morena – the Virgin of Guadalupe. In this story surprise seems unlimited.

When the priests and the Levites confront the Baptist in today’s gospel: “Who are you – What are you?” He says he is no prophet, no Christ, but only a voice. Yet, with that voice he was able to identify the Christ for those who sought him. It was an important and necessary act since, once again, God would surprise us by sending someone just like us to be the image of him.

Advent is a time of preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas. But it cannot be simply a preparation for something that has already happened some two thousand years ago. If it is only that, it may well serve as an opportunity to gather as family and friends and enjoy each other’s company - all well and good - but that’s not the point. Advent is not meant to help us remember a birthday but to prepare as best we can for the unexpected, for yet another coming, an encounter with him in a yet more humble way. We have no idea how or where the encounter will occur and so we can only prepare to be surprised. In this way when it happens, when that encounter with the divine takes place, we might be a little less frightened and a bit more open to recognize in creation and in those we meet a reflection of all that is good and true and beautiful. Advent is not meant to prepare us for the past but for the future, for that which is yet to happen. Try to remember that the next time you catch yourself startled, surprised, looking up.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

11-12-04: 2nd Sunday of Advent

Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 63:16-17,19 / Psalm 80 / 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 / Mark 13:33-37

I’m not a political junkie but I admit to a strange attraction: I secretly like it when the presidential front runners mess up, lose their footing, get toppled. I suppose it might reflect how I see myself: in the background but yearning for the forefront, a second-class player looking for an opening to get off the bench. It’s not an especially attractive attribute. It doesn’t reflect a penchant for leadership or smack of genuine greatness; rather, it betrays a small-minded worldview, a narcissistic bent, a lingering unrealistic desire to be number one. Yet I’m sure, quite sure, I’m far from alone.

In contrast there are those few-and-far-between individuals who, perhaps after arduous interior struggle, have come to accept their lot in life - to acknowledge there’s someone more suited than they to be number one. It seems John the Baptist was one such individual. Today’s opening of Mark’s Gospel is about him telling everyone it’s not about him.

It’s significant that, though we really know very little about the Baptist, the synoptic gospels all emphasize his import. His prominence in our liturgical tradition likewise hints at a far more significant shadow he cast on the early church than we might at first realize. There is even one small religious sect (still extant, I think) that believes John, and not Jesus, was the Messiah. In other words John’s following was more than noteworthy – it was momentous. All of which means, of course, that John could have been number one - if he pursued it.

We read the gospels as if they were newspapers, journalistic accounts of events in the life of Christ from an eyewitness perspective. But, of course, they weren’t and could not have been. Written down decades after the events they record, and no doubt heavily influenced by the contemporary challenges they were immersed in, the evangelists made the events fit their narrative: they were theologians, not historians. And so, when Mark tells us that John the Baptist said he was not worthy to loosen the thongs of Jesus’ sandals, we can infer that these two charismatic figures may have vied for that number-one spot, until John stepped back. Then, in a move that seems to me more than a bit obscure, John manages to get himself arrested and beheaded by King Herod. The church went on to proclaim John a martyr, the first to witness to Christ by shedding his blood. But, in fact, he died objecting to the king’s breaking the Levirate law, not witnessing to Jesus. Jesus will praise the memory of the Baptist after his execution, but seems not much to care about the king’s marital status. It almost seems, dare I say it, John is committing political suicide in getting himself martyred. His death effectively removes any challenge to the centrality of Jesus in a movement begun by John but now about to be taken in a completely different direction by Jesus.

Perhaps we will never know the intricacies of the relationship between Jesus and the Baptist, or the real impact of the Baptist’s life and teaching on the early Jesus movement, but it’s clear from what the gospels say (and more so by what they don’t say) that John was a very important figure in the early history of Christianity, a genuinely “big man” – big enough, in fact, to swallow his pride and sacrifice his leadership so that his followers would feel free to leave him for the equally charismatic Jesus. John is that genuinely humble man who, though he knows he could have been number one, willingly and with great personal sacrifice, steps back. In that act of humility John achieved real greatness - and Christ could not have had a greater witness.

Monday, November 28, 2011

11-11-27: 1st Sunday of Advent

First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 63:16-17,19 / Psalm 80 / 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 / Mark 13:33-37

About face. An odd phrase that in military parlance means turn around, which is another way of translating the Greek word for conversion, which is what Advent’s all about – face.

Someone once said that the life of faith is like a game of hide and seek: God is constantly hiding and we’re always seeking. Isaiah says as much in the first reading today when he complains of God: “for you have hidden your face from us.” A theme echoed by the psalmist: “Let us see your face and we shall be saved.” Both Isaiah and the psalmist, I’d guess, would claim they were writing poetry here – how could God have a face? Christians, on the other hand, are tempted to see it more as prophecy than poetry, claiming that at a certain point in history God decided to stop playing hide and seek and reveal himself in the face of Jesus of Nazareth. God took a big chance, choosing to reveal himself in a particular face; not everyone has the same tastes. Maybe that’s why the Incarnation happened at that precise point in history – before cameras. Les Mis got it right, though, when it mixed poetry and the real: “To love another person is to see the face of God.”

A few years back, at The New School, I was taking courses in creative writing. One of my teachers, Lucy Greely, had written a bestselling memoir, The Autobiography of a Face. Lucy’s face was badly disfigured, having had most of her jaw removed after she was diagnosed with cancer at the age of nine. She remained quite disfigured even after multiple cosmetic surgeries. In her memoir she says that the pain of cancer was nothing compared to the suffering of being taunted as ugly. No doubt the acclaim she received for so brave a memoir helped ease that suffering – for a while. Lucy died of a heroin overdose in 2002. She was only thirty-nine.

I suppose someone like Lucy would very much have wanted Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to be a real possibility. Dorian retains his youth and beauty as those around him age and decay. Hidden in a closet is his portrait which, through a Faustian deal, receives all the ugliness of his sins and follies through the years, sparing his beautiful face. Wilde suggests Dorian is saved at his death when his face reveals what was until then hidden – what he was really like. A take on the psalm: seeing his face, he is saved. Humility is acknowledging truth, accepting the truth about yourself as you are and not the way you wished you were: it’s the surest way to heaven.

In the end, some fringy theologians claim, there will be no difference between hell and heaven – they’re the same “place.” In the center of this “place” is the living flame of St. John of the Cross, the Beatific Vision of St. Thomas – the face of God. The only difference between the sheep and the goats, the saved and the damned, is the fact that the saved love to look upon that face and the damned hate to. I wonder if Advent doesn’t invite us to think of ourselves in the same way. We cannot see our own face, except in the mirror or through the eyes of others. We learn to love or hate our own face early on in life. We hide our face, we wear masks, we camouflage our desires and anxieties, our fears and foibles. But in the end, salvation, happiness, lies in whether or not we can accept our face as an image of God despite, or even because of, the ugliness we first discern.

When I searched for my birthmother years ago I met a friend of her brother – my uncle. During our conversation this friend of my maternal uncle said he had some old photos of my uncle. Would you like to see them? It was an important moment for me. It would be the first time I had ever seen the face of anyone related to me by blood. I was disappointed at first, seeing no resemblance between me and him. But over time I began to see what others claimed to see: the shape of the eyes, the lines in the face, the way he smiled, or didn’t. I felt a certain realness I hadn’t before; as if this was proof, not only of his existence, but of mine. A friend of mine, also adopted, is a poet who searched and found her family of origin as well. Her father had been long dead but her brother – her father’s son – gave her a portrait of their father which hung in his living room. “This is what helped me love my face,” she wrote.

Isn’t that the meaning of redemption: to love ourselves as we are, to love our face, created in the image and likeness of God? Perhaps it’s also the meaning of Advent. We await the moment of divine birth, when God will be revealed. He comes to us, many often claim, in strange and mysterious ways; but none so mysterious as when we look in the mirror.

Monday, November 21, 2011

11-11-20: Solemnity of Christ the King

Solemnity of Christ the King

Ezekeil 34:11-12,15-17 / Psalm 23 / 1 Corinthians 15:20-26,28 / Matthew 25:31-46

The old Protestant hymn went something like this: “If Christ is not King of everything; then he’s not King at all.” The words of the hymn refer to the inner, spiritual horizon of the believer’s life and lay no claim to politics or the like. In 1925 Pope Pius XI instituted the liturgical feast of Christ the King or, more properly, Christ King of the Universe. Europe had just emerged from WWI, arguably the most devastating event in its history till then. The Bolsheviks were cementing their hold on the Russias, transforming them into the Soviet Union. And the tide of fascism was about to sweep on shore in Germany and Italy, right up to the doors of St Peter’s. Pius XI was certainly no Protestant. His idea of Christ, as King, was not limited to the inner world of the believer but had everything to do with the visible world of everyday life: politics, business, and religious liberty.

For centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire the Church, as Christendom, was equated with the Kingdom of Christ whose Vicar, the Pope, ruled in his stead. With the Reformation, the rise of the nation-state, and the scientific advances engendered by the Enlightenment, Christendom disappeared as a political entity and Christianity no longer could claim dominance in the culture of the West. It was not an easy death. We see in the pontificate of Pope Pius IX a desperate attempt to retain what once was. Pius IX’s thirty-plus year reign in the nineteenth century witnessed the dissipation of the Papal Sates, the last vestige of the former Christendom, when the Italian peninsula unified in 1870. Just as Italy was struggling to find its feet as a nation-state, Pius called the First Vatican Council; its most important and stunning teaching being that of papal infallibility. The pope might no longer possess the temporal power he once did, but now is deemed infallible in matters of faith and morals. Pius, who had started his pontificate much more liberally than he would end it, had already in 1864 issued the Syllabus of Errors. Under the axiom that “error has no rights,” Pius condemned the notion of religious liberty - where any and all religion should be given equal footing, and Catholicism seen as only one religion among many. For Pius IX there seems to have been no distinction between the spiritual Kingdom of Heaven and the very visible Christendom he desperately wished to retain.

A century later the Second Vatican Council would seem to either reverse or simply ignore Pius IX’s condemnation of religious liberty and promote the notion that all people have the right to follow their conscience concerning religion and that that right should be politically protected by the state. The Church realized, it seems, that it was no longer the dominant culture of the West; it had become just one of multiple worldviews. Last week that realization was voiced at the annual meeting of American bishops, where the bishops claimed their religious liberty was not being protected by the state regarding a number of social issues: from same-sex marriage to conscience clauses regarding insurance payments for contraception. It is perhaps one of the great ironies of history that the phrase which Pius IX heard with such disdain - religious liberty - is now invoked by his successors in defense of the Church.

The lessons of history are not easily learned. Apart from the ultramontane within the church – and the Traditionalists who have long denounced the teachings of Vatican II – there are few who would see the dissipation of Christendom, and especially the demise of the Papal States, as an especially bad development. No longer weighed down by the vicissitudes of secular government, the pope is freer to act as shepherd, pastor of the universal church. In fact one could argue that the loss of temporal power has enabled the Roman Pontiffs to become heralds of gospel values, challenging the disparate cultures in which the church exists – precisely because they no longer have the political or military means to enforce their point of view.

Of course not everyone will listen, and the obedience which was once got by fear or force must now be embraced by choice. The results may only be gradual and partial, tweaking the import of the words of that old Protestant hymn: Christ’s kingship need not be all or nothing, but the very thing that engenders the evolving nature of history. The recent Vatican document Toward Reforming the International Financial and Monetary Systems in the Context of Global Public Authority, calling for a “world political authority,” may or may not be a step forward in that evolution. For the believer there is no doubt that Christ’s kingship is a spiritual reality; as to its visible manifestation, we need be careful to assume we know what that might or should look like - even the doctrine of papal infallibility cannot claim to fathom that mystery.

Monday, November 14, 2011

11-11-13: 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Proverbs 31:10-13,19-20,31 / Psalm 128 / 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6 / Matthew 25:14-30

It seems that today’s parable of the good and wicked servants wouldn’t go over too well in Zuccotti Park, especially when the Master orders the one talent to be taken from the poorer servant and given to the richer servant who already has ten. So much for God’s view of the 99%. The master in the parable rewards a good investment but gets furious over a safe bet. Taking a lead from the parable, some of us who tend to take the gospel literally might be tempted to take that nest egg lying in the CD with near nothing in interest and put it in some venture capital scheme. The problem is the parable doesn’t record what would have happened to a servant who actually lost on his investment. Then again the world hadn’t yet heard of Bernie Madoff.

There’s a trend in Evangelical Protestantism these days that’s gaining wide popularity: some call it the gospel of prosperity. It takes today’s gospel quite literally, seeking to enable its adherents to see in prosperity and material wealth a divine mandate, evidence of salvation. It’s nothing new of course. The Puritans were into way back when. And in the nineteenth century American westward expansion – a giant land grab – was clothed in biblical allusions like Manifest Destiny. Today, the power of the media has made evangelists of the gospel of prosperity into contemporary icons: Joel Osteen is the number one TV evangelist and Creflo Dollar (is that really his name?) is on the air every night. I suppose there’s something to be said for their theological point of view; after all, God wills all to be saved – even the rich. But how then do we understand those, the majority of mankind, who live in poverty. Are they to be seen as abandoned by God? Is there poverty a sign of their sinfulness, evidence of their unsavedness? Something akin to the way the ancient world understood sickness and disease, as punishment for a person’s sinfulness or that of his parents. Those of us lacking in self confidence or a healthy self image, who thought God didn’t love us before, will now have proof – a depleted 401K or a mortgage worth more than the house itself.

The Catholic view of things vis-à-vis wealth has always been a bit murkier, viewing money as a necessary evil. Jason Berry, who’s written a lot about the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, turned his attention recently to the subject of money in his recent book, Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church. Not a very well-written, coherent account of things, Berry nonetheless offers juicy tidbits of contemporary corruption in the echelons of power in the Vatican and among the hierarchy. He delves into the recently reported but unconfirmed reports that the Legionnaries of Christ disgraced founder, Father Marcial Maciel, had long perpetuated a system of what amounted to bribery for the advancement of his young and highly successful order. No one less than the former Vatican Secretary of State figured in the alleged corruption. If Maciel hadn’t secretly fathered several families, and sexually abused young seminarians, his “bribery” might have been seen as a clever instrument of God’s will since the order he founded had been the fastest growing in the Church and much beloved by John Paul II. As coincidence, or providence would have it, I finished reading this chapter as we priests of the diocese were holding our bi-annual convocation at Our Lady of Thornwood – one of the many houses owned by the Legionnaries who, it must be admitted, treated us very well (Father Maciel’s name was never mentioned and his pictures long removed).

But let’s be honest – there’s nothing really new in all this. If you’ve ever visited Rome and taken a tour of the Vatican you might acknowledge that all the splendor and the inestimable treasures of the Vatican library wouldn’t be, save for a previous generation’s “corruption.” In this case the corruption of a certain Dominican friar called Tetzel who started taking too much money for selling indulgences back in the early sixteenth century. We still ”sell” such things like indulgences, masses, sacraments, and the like. We use other words, but money still must exchange hands. One new bishop, a few years back, no doubt in a first frenzy of episcopal zealotry, abolished all fees for sacraments in his diocese. But someone still had to pay for the electricity and heat for the church building, the paper work and record keeping still had to be kept, and the very meager salary of the priest still had to be paid. So they called the fee by another name and kept the bishop in blissful ignorance.

Money and what it buys seems always to be viewed as a means to an end or a necessary evil. Some think the more we try to control its flow will ensure a transparent and therefore honest result. They’re the kind responsible for such things as the federal budget and the U.S. Tax Code. Now, there’s transparency for you.

Monday, November 7, 2011

11-11-06: 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wisdom 6:12-16 / Psalm 63 / 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 / Matthew 25:1-13

Never before in the history of the world have there been so many educated men and women, schooled in varied disciplines, degreed and certified. The wise, though, seem few and far between. According to tradition, the Book of Wisdom is attributed to King Solomon whose judgment regarding parental rights of a baby claimed by two women is legendary. But the Book of Wisdom was written in Greek and conveys a school of thought which was more than likely foreign to Solomon and his Hebrew categories of thought. Wisdom is tinged by the best of Greek pagan philosophy and, thus, does not appear in either the Jewish or Protestant bibles as part of the canon of scripture. From the vantage point of the Book of Wisdom the wise and the noble are one-in-the-same.

In American literature there is perhaps no better example of such a wise and noble man than Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Finch is the educated lawyer, the stoic widower who, despite loneliness and challenges, is nobly raising two young children. Atticus Finch’s wisdom, though, is not born of organized religion. His implicit agnosticism seems basic to his courageous commitment to justice as he defends a black man accused of raping a white woman in a small town in the segregated South.

It’s not far-fetched, I think, to see in Atticus Finch (played by Gregory Peck in the film version) an uncanny resemblance to the very real Abraham Lincoln. The self-educated lawyer, also emphatically non-religious, Lincoln embodied that same wisdom, which sought justice despite enormous challenge and extraordinary sacrifice, and evoked a courage that continues to inspire.

Then there’s the story of the five foolish and five wise virgins of the gospel. Their foolishness and their wisdom are set against the backdrop of their awaiting the coming of the bridegroom, symbolizing the approaching end of the world and the inevitable judgment to come. As a tangential issue one might wonder if Jesus was alluding to the practice of polygamy when he teaches this parable about ten virgins awaiting one bridegroom. We might also wonder why the Church places this parable alongside the selection from that Book of Wisdom, attributed to Solomon who, tradition also holds, had a harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines! Depending on your point of view – a wise achievement or a very foolish mistake.

This parable about the end times, about the wisdom of being prepared, assumes something those of us who are religious seldom acknowledge – that the wise virgins lived their faith with a healthy dose of skepticism. The wise virgins were prepared in the event that the bridegroom didn’t come when he was expected. We could infer that their wisdom – which saves them in the end – is born of doubt and skepticism regarding their faith. Both Atticus Finch in fiction, and Abraham Lincoln in real life, were skeptical of human nature, doubtful of others’ intentions regarding justice and truth – in this, they were wisest in a very practical way.

What we learn from the Book of Wisdom, and the wise virgins of the gospel, is that wisdom is but a circumlocution for God Himself. Wisdom transcends religion - or the lack of it - and is available to all. Wisdom mixes faith and doubt, it’s both idealistic and eminently practical. Or as St. Augustine put it: Pray as though everything depended on God, but work as if everything depended on you.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

11-10-30: 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time

Malachi 1:14-2:2,8-10 / Psalm 131 / 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9,13 / Matthew 23:1-12

Clothes, especially clothes worn for rites and rituals, can be an outward expression of an interior attitude. That, at least, is what Jesus seems to be saying in today’s gospel. Jesus remarks that the elaborated ritual clothing that the Pharisees wear – their widened phylacteries and lengthened tassels – suggests their desire to be the focus of the religious limelight, the center of everyone’s attention, and their profound lack of humility. For all their widening and lengthening, the Pharisees had nothing on Bishop Edward Slattery of Tulsa, Oklahoma last year when he celebrated the Tridentine Mass at the National Shrine wearing the enormous cappa magna – a scarlet cape with a train of what was supposed not to exceed ten feet – it looked much longer.

No doubt it’s liturgical exaggeration such as this which causes a lot of gleeful mimicking on Halloween every year. In recent years evangelical Christians, among others, have objected to the celebration of Halloween since it has an obvious pagan origin. They forbid their children to don costumes less they somehow emulate the evil of a fictional fiend or invoke the presence of a hellish devil. They may be on to something here. Very few of us are immune to the dictates of dress codes. We dress not only to conform but to impress and even to protest. Costumes – indeed, all clothing – possess a symbolic value. But the costume does not so much invoke another personality as much as evoke those elements of our personality already present and waiting to be acknowledged which, I would argue, is a very good and healthy thing.

The late Steve Jobs, the subject of an intriguing piece by 60 Minutes last week, would wear black turtle necks consistently – and want his employees to do the same. In his younger days, while employed at Atari, Jobs would intentionally not bathe and wear the same clothes each day. His motivations in both instances are unclear, but his biographer, thoroughly intrigued by the fact that Jobs was abandoned at birth by mother and father and adopted, seemed to place his flawed personality as well as his unique creativity to these inauspicious beginnings – there seems to be some mystery to his history, as Cardinal Newman would put it.

I remember as a young boy being addicted to the Superman series on our black and white TV. I would come home from school every day to watch the reruns, hoping they would play that very first episode where Superman’s strange and mysterious origins would be alluded to before he was adopted by the kindly Kents. Although my parents would not tell me of my adoption for another seven years, I somehow knew Superman’s origins and mine were strangely similar, feeling at home in places we didn’t initially belong. Come Halloween I would choose his costume to wear – it fit so well.

Many years later, making a presentation at an adoption conference, I talked about Superman and my affinity for that particular costume. In the audience was a dad with his adopted son who would later tell me that, as a boy, his son would wear his Superman costume all the time. Clothes and costumes are outward signs of interior realities. Though it’s hard to imagine Bishop Slattery, as wonderful a man as I’m sure he is, possibly measuring up to that enormous cappa magna that trailed magnificently, and not so humbly, behind him down the aisle of the National Shrine.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

11-10-23: 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Exodus 22:20-26 / Psalm 18 / 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10 / Matthew 22:34-40

Exodus speaks loud and clear today: leave those aliens alone, don’t touch those widows and orphans! The Lord God really seems to get worked up about molesting and oppressing aliens and widows and orphans – especially since the Israelites were themselves considered aliens, oppressed and molested, before they made their way back to the Promised Land. It’s not a long leap from ancient Israel to modern America where the undocumented are also called aliens, readily encountered offering a manicure or mowing your lawn. Or to modern Ireland where unwed mothers (until 1996!), many deigned Magdalenes, spent their lives in convent laundries and were buried in unmarked graves; and where not a few vulnerable orphans found themselves oppressed and molested. For those blessed with a vivid imagination we might even understand aliens to refer to the extra-terrestrial sort. It’s not just a matter of science fiction but a deep theological conundrum, this possibility of intelligent life existing somewhere else in this vast universe. C.S. Lewis tried to tackle the Christological implications of such a scenario in his Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), That Hideous Strength (1945).

The problem of extra-terrestrial intelligent life for Christians rests on the doctrine that Christ is the Incarnate Word of God through whom the universe was created and by whom it is saved. There is no other Savior. So, if there are other intelligent life forms, are they created in the image and likeness of God; are they in need of salvation; and, most importantly, how have they come to know God if not through his incarnation as Jesus of Nazareth? The question isn’t just hypothetical. It was raised in other ways during the Age of Discovery when Europeans encountered Native Americans. Those “aliens,” together with black African slaves, were long judged not to possess an immortal soul – not to be considered human (making the molesting and oppressing that much easier). It was a long hard fight before those in authority accepted that Blacks and Indians were indeed human beings, created in God’s image, destined for salvation. Meanwhile, in Asia, Christian missionaries wrestled with the other side of the Christological question: the necessity of Christ, and Christ alone, for salvation. That’s still an open question for many (though, unfortunately for Catholic theologians, not a permissible one to ask).

And, of course, there is another possibility: that history did not play out the same way out there as it did here vis-à-vis Original Sin – a seeming prerequisite for the incarnation of Jesus to have occurred and for salvation to be wrought. C.S. Lewis raises this possibility and suggests that, regardless of sin or lack of it, God would have found a yet more humble way to make himself known: he is filled with surprises.

Raising such far-out questions, of course, can be engaging – like a game of chess. But it can also raise awareness, by analogy, that the same questions can be asked of our lives here on this earth in our own day. Are the vulnerable, like the undocumented, the widow, the orphan, deserving of salvation - not only in the afterlife but here and now? In today’s gospel when Jesus is asked, which is the greatest commandment, he echoes what the rabbis had already said: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. But who is my neighbor, where do I encounter him? When culture or language or life-circumstance renders someone “alien” to us, unrecognizable as neighbor, an extra-terrestrial if you will – it’s precisely then we need to step back and take another look. The gospel guarantees that if we look long and hard enough, despite the green skin, the three eyes, the strange smell and the undecipherable polyphony of sounds he calls his language, we will glimpse a reflection, be it ever so dim, of our very selves. Then, and only then it seems, is the alien recognized as neighbor. And, even more astoundingly, all that we dislike most about ourselves, our widowed and orphaned self – the alien within – can now be embraced as neighbor as well. In our very depths we are extra-terrestrial. The self, Chesterton wisely observed, is more distant than any star. The command to love God, neighbor, and self, is the great adventure of life – a star trek – taking us on an odyssey of light years, at warp speed – into inner space.

Monday, October 17, 2011

11-10-16: 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 45:1,4-6 / Psalm 96 / 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5 / Matthew 22:15-21

One of the most memorable lines in cinema comes from Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons. Parliament had just passed a law which demanded all subjects to swear an oath of allegiance to King Henry VIII as head of the Church, thereby severing the bond of unity with the pope – not an easy bit to swallow if you were a loyal Catholic. Thomas More’s daughter, Meg the young idealist, confronts her father with the news fully expecting him to nobly denounce this affront to religious liberty. But More, pragmatic and clever, sadly disappoints her when he demands to read the oath that, with his lawyer’s eye, he might find a loophole to squeeze through and so, literally, save his neck. Why, his daughter asks. Listen, Meg, he says. God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. Our natural business lies in escaping. If I can take the Oath, I will. Sadly Thomas More could not find that loophole but nevertheless remained true to his conscience and was executed for high treason.

In today’s gospel Jesus sounds a lot like the less-than-idealistic Thomas More when confronted with the hot political issue of his time – to pay the Roman tax or not. One might even interpret his words as a bit of a cop out. For an ardent Jew of Jesus’ time paying the Roman tax was sinful. Obviously, however, if Jews refused to pay the tax, the Roman government would impose increasingly severe sanctions on everyone. It was, for Jesus, a political quagmire. The beauty of Jesus’ response rests in its humanness – our natural business lies in escaping.

Thankfully Catholics in America do not live under foreign oppression, as did the ancient Jews. But we do live in a pluralistic society where differing values and political priorities will inevitably cause friction between church and state: not only in policies regarding abortion and government-mandated insurance coverage of contraception, but also in social issues like same-sex marriage, gay adoption, capitol punishment, and how we deal with illegal immigration.

Paul VI defined the Church as a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God. From our Catholic perspective the Church is, like Christ, both human and divine in her nature. Yet, it might be beneficial to note that although Jesus could have answered the politically charged question by invoking a divine mandate - no, never compromise, do not pay the Roman tax - Jesus rather responds from the tangle of his human mind and, for that moment, cleverly and coyly escapes the confrontation. In social and reproductive issues some bishops invoke the church’s divine-side, so to speak, and declare that we as Catholics cannot compromise on any or all of these issues. We must take our stand, draw the line, resist, separate ourselves from this messy pluralistic society where our pristine values are compromised; and so cease to engage the body politic, forfeiting our work for the common good.

Perhaps those bishops who see the confrontation between Church and State as inevitable will ultimately be proved right and we will all have to choose one side or the other. But, it seems to me, that we may have too quickly rushed to judgment regarding how we engage these important issues. Perhaps at this moment in American history we do not need bishops filled so much with idealism and blind loyalty as much as men quite human, clever enough to search out those loopholes in law, cognizant of our natural business of escaping confrontation, serving God and the Church in the coy and clever tangle of compromise. This side of heaven, we must still, after all, render to Caesar. Living the Christian life is not always about we ought to do but, sometimes, settling for what we are able to do.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

11-10-09: 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 25:6-10 / Psalm 23 / Philippians 4:12-14,19-20 / Matthew 22:1-14

Clothes make the man – so Mark Twain said. But, according to today’s gospel, clothes can be a man’s undoing as well.

How you dress, what’s considered appropriate or not in various situations, seems an issue that spans culture and geography. The thrust of today’s gospel about entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven, metaphor-ed as a wedding banquet, makes the issue transcend even time. The invited guest sans tux – or whatever was the standard dress of ancient Israel – finds himself not only thrown out of the party but bound hand and foot, and pretty severely punished for his lack of decorum.

But dress, like all matters of taste, changes with whim and fancy. What’s acceptable to one generation is rejected by the next only to be found again by the one-after-next. I have a shirt I bought twenty years ago that I’m getting compliments on only now (cool shirt – very in, young people tell me).

Many older folks complain that younger folks, and even their parents, no longer dress for church (black churches and their congregants remain a significant exception). Some say priests should enforce a dress rule for Mass; others, that we should just be grateful that people come – no matter how badly they might dress. I suppose we could try to enforce a dress code at Mass, sort of like dining at a rich friend’s private club – the only places these days that seem to have dress codes (for men, jacket and tie). When you arrive without, you’re given a jacket (usually too big) and a tie (well-used and stained). If you’re not wearing a collared shirt you must undergo the further humiliation of wearing the tie around your bare neck, looking wholly ridiculous and wondering what might be the point. Surely, the code exists to bring people into conformity – not to single them out as buffoons. At least that’s what I was thinking when it happened to me. I’m not going back to that club – ever - even if I’m sporting tails and a top hat. If we made an example of all those we thought were not dressed appropriately for church, I suspect they’d make the same decision and vote with their feet.

Nostalgia plays a big part in the dress-for-church debate. Those of us who remember the 1950s might recall buying a new hat or suit for Easter Sunday Mass. Those “good old days” are slipping further and further away. It’s only really old folks who actually know what those snap hinges on the back of the pew in front of you were there for – keeping men’s hats from being sat upon in a crowded pew.

The argument for dressing for church usually hinges on this comparison: If you were about to meet the president, or for that matter the pope, you wouldn’t wear jeans and sneakers or shorts and a halter top; so why do you dress that way when you’re at church worshipping God Almighty? Problem with that argument, though, is the fact that most of us know deep down God couldn’t care less about our taste in fashion – or lack of it. If you were making a visit to church in the middle of, say, a Wednesday afternoon, all by yourself, shorts and flip-flops would be no problem. That’s because, on Sunday, we’re really not dressing for God but for each other, for the community we’re worshipping with. That’s why, in beach communities, even in the 50s, ready-for-the-beach-casual was totally acceptable: the community approved.

If we want people to be more reflective about how they dress while attending Mass we have to start by acknowledging the fact that we don’t dress for God – who, after all, wears no clothes and, at any rate, could see right through them. No, we dress for each other – that’s why, dressing for Mass could indeed be a very good thing. But it’s good because it reflects the importance of the community, the centrality of the Church as the People of God, in our act of worshipping. At Mass we never worship alone but always with the Church. Our choice of what to wear may indeed reflect how much respect, or lack of it, we have or don’t have for the Church as community; but, as for God, I’m sure he’s above all that – though, at times, I wonder if even he might not do a double take.

11-10-02: 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 5:1-7 / Psalm 80 / Philippians 4:6-9 / Matthew 21:33-43

I know it sounds shallow but I think one of the reasons I became a priest was seeing, as a boy, the old 1944 black and white flick, The Keys of the Kingdom. In one scene an old Father Chisholm (Gregory Peck) is reflecting on his many years of missionary work in early twentieth century China and now, back in Scotland, he’s being evaluated by a representative of the local bishop about some seeming unorthodox things he’s said from the pulpit. The fastidious Monsignor (Cedric Hardwicke) quotes from his little black book that Fr. Chisholm preached one Sunday that some of his best friends in China were atheists and Confucianists. To which the priest replies: I think some were closer to God than I.

In 1984 when Pope John Paul II made his first pastoral visit to Korea to canonize 103 Korean martyrs he made the extraordinary statement in one of his homilies that Koreans were inheritors of a high culture. The culture to which he was referring was, and is, the most Confucian culture in the world. Note the pope was not identifying the Christian elements within Korean culture, but the pagan ones – those values and virtues that led the pope to identify it as “high”; the virtues that would make a young Father Chisholm, sent to convert the pagans to Catholicism, to see that some virtues were innately good, transcending one’s particular religion or lack of it.

St. Paul eloquently attests to the same insight in his Letter to the Philippians when he encourages the local church to recognize the divine presence, that is, the tangible experience of God, in whatever is honorable and just, lovely and true – whether that whatever is found in a Christian context or not. This has always been the prejudice of a Catholic view of the world: culture and nature are already engraced, prior to their encounter with the gospel, because the same Word that is the gospel is that through which creation came into being.

Some would claim that same-sex unions and, especially, the efforts to legally call those unions marriage are symbolic of a resurgence of a neo-paganism in western culture. It is no secret that many Catholic bishops have made strong efforts to derail attempts by state legislatures to enact same-sex marriage laws. Some have gone so far as to compare these laws to Roe v. Wade; permitting same-sex marriage, they seem to be saying, is equivalent to legalizing abortion-on-demand. Mark my words that this type of tactic will not only not prevent such laws from being enacted but will trivialize the effort to limit abortion-on-demand.

Claiming that marriage has been deigned by God to be the same always and everywhere (between one man and one woman) is stretching the truth more than a bit. Understood in that succinct definition, for example, is the prohibition against incest. Yet, if you hold to the belief that humanity descended from one set of parents, how could we have got here save but by incest – at least, initially. And you don’t have to be a Mormon to acknowledge that polygamy was the norm for quite a long time before it fell into disfavor. Not to mention that the Church has adjusted and readjusted marriage law down the centuries making substantial distinctions between sacramental and non-sacramental marriages. Try and explain why a Catholic can validly marry a Jew in the local catering hall but, if two Catholics do so, it‘s invalid – the marriage doesn’t exist.

The bishops are quite right to assume most people don’t really care about such canonical distinctions; most people are more concerned about doing what is right and just. Even those opposed to same-sex marriage on religious grounds will acknowledge that there is something unjust about denying benefits and familial access to same-sex partners. The bishops, once again concentrating on the sex rather than the relationship, seem blind to this concern that is slowly but surely winning over the majority of Americans.

Same-sex marriage may be understood as symbolic of a resurgence of neo-paganism in a post-Christian culture; not so different a milieu, perhaps, than the one St. Paul faced in writing to the Philippians, themselves dominated by the classical pagan culture of antiquity. His exhortation, nevertheless, to recognize whatever is just and honorable – no matter where it’s found, remains as valid today as it was then: it’s our Catholic duty.

Friday, June 3, 2011

11-05-29: 6th Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter

Acts 8:5-8, 14-17 / Psalm 66 / 1 Peter 3:15-18 / John 14:15-21

Back in grammar school days when the Mass was in Latin and, as altar boys, we had to serve the Wednesday night Benediction, it was always neat to be able to light the charcoal and watch it spark, first turning red than white. I loved the smell of the incense as the priest swung the thurible in front of the monstrance. Then we would all recite the Divine Praises which have remained the same despite the retranslations over the past forty or so years. Father Reilly, a stickler for proper observance and rubrics, would wait for us to mispronounce the epithet used for the Holy “Ghost” as we would inevitably invoke the parakeet instead of properly saying “Paraclete” as was written. Most of the congregation I’m sure did the same.

“Paraclete” is one of those words that is not translated, but simply transliterated, into English from the Greek. Commentators say it’s just untranslatable though today’s gospel makes a go of it and translates “Paraclete” as Advocate. If we were to attempt a literal translation it would be rendered “someone who is called to the side of (another)” in order to render assistance. This Paraclete we have come to know as the Holy Spirit whose presence, by definition, remains intangible. We know of this presence only by the effects it engenders. We might venture to “prove” his existence the same way scientists “prove” the existence of protons or gravity – by their effects, how they change the behavior of that which they touch.

All of us have had the experience of encountering this inexplicable phenomenon even if only as witnesses. Take the recent earthquake/tsunami in Japan or the tornadoes in America’s Midwest, for example. Horrific devastation, loss of all that one holds precious, and yet, people find some inner strength to help others, they muster up the fortitude to carry on. I saw it recently when watching a powerful documentary about a battle during the Korean War where veteran survivors of the battle recalled the heroism of one of their comrades in the face of horrendous suffering and utterly gruesome carnage as he kept going back into the fray to help his wounded friends. It’s witnessed as well in the determination a young couple just realizing their first born has Down Syndrome or the teenager rejected by his first love. How, one wonders, do they all stay afloat, not give up and fall into despair? It’s something, I think, reflected in the words of that old Protestant Hymn: “Help of the helpless, abide with me.” Or the poignant translation of the poem by the Persian mystic, Rumi. “Be helpless, dumbfounded,” Rumi writes. “Then a stretcher will come from grace to gather us up.”

Spirit, ghost, companion, comforter, stretcher, “parakeet”: it doesn’t matter what we call it, or him, or her, because this “one called to our side” doesn’t ask to be adored or worshipped but only invited. At the moment when all seems lost, when orphan hood, with all that that word conjures, threatens to become a reality - then he comes, like a hint of incense in the air or a stretcher from that place called grace, a hand on your fevered brow, an arm around your shoulder, or a smile that says – you’re accepted just the way you are. This Paraclete – for lack of a better term - can take any and many forms; and this seeming absurd name, reminding us of parakeets, marks our inability to define or clearly identify him as he makes his presence known through unexpected agents and surprising encounters and, as the poet attests, “blesses us unawares.”

[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, May 24, 2011

11-05-22: 5th Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts of the Apostles 6:1-7 / Psalm 33 / 1 Peter 2:4-9 / John 14:1-12

One of the wonderful but frustrating things about a good story is the fact that you can interpret it in more than one way; put your own spin on things, so to speak. So, in the reading from Acts today, some may focus on the fact that the diaconate was instituted as a ministry of service to help the nascent Christian community get on its feet. Others might see that the reason for the diaconate grew out of a lot of bad feelings based on class prejudice: Hebrews vs. Hellenists (i.e. Aramaic-speaking Jews vs. Greek-speaking Jews). Although scandalous, it’s somehow reassuring to know that, even from the very beginning of the Church, people weren’t perfect and often fought. Diversity was not always understood as a strength.

As centuries passed things only grew worse. The Great Schism that split the Church in the eleventh century formed along linguistic lines: the Latin-speaking West vs. the Greek-speaking East. The Reformation that would split the Western Church into Catholic and Protestant in the sixteenth century was largely about language, about translating and interpreting the Bible. To a much lesser degree but present, nonetheless, we are beginning to see the emergence of an us vs. them mentality over the new translation of the Roman Missal from Latin into English which will be implemented in churches in the United States this coming Advent. It’s significant, I think, that simultaneous to the disagreements about translations and methods of translations that surrounded this debate, was the motu proprio issued by Pope Benedict allowing priests to celebrate the “Latin Mass” without seeking permission from the local bishop. It seems that for some it is easier to avoid the whole issue of translation and just stick to the original Latin, regardless if intelligible or not.

One of the significant changes in the new translation of the Roman Missal affects the words of institution which the priest says during the consecration when the wine becomes the blood of Christ. In the current translation the priest says “for all”; in the new translation he will say “for many” reflecting the Latin “pro multis” literally. While Pope Benedict has already explained that the use of the word “many” does not take away from the truth that Christ’s sacrifice has indeed redeemed all, there will no doubt be a bit of confusion produced by this literal translation. In the pope’s recent book, Jesus of Nazareth (Part Two), he delves into this question in some detail without clearly explaining, let alone resolving, the difficulty. I was speaking to some priests at a recent meeting and asked them what translation they use when saying Mass in Spanish: one priest from Colombia uses the translation “por muchos” (for many); another uses “por todos los hombres,” (for all men). In an effort to be all inclusive the Spanish here has succeeded in doing just the opposite. The Korean translation says “for all,” as does the Italian and the German. So much for universality. In the attempt to be more literally faithful to the Latin, a Pandora’s box of ambiguity now emerges – and that’s over just one word.

In the gospel today Jesus makes the extraordinary claim: “the Father and I are one.” That notion, at the heart of Christianity, would be understood through Greek philosophical language and translated into Latin as consubstantialis. In the new translation of the Nicene Creed used at Mass, the term “consubstanial with the Father” will replace “one in being with the Father.” Less ambiguous, you think? Or intentionally meant to convey a notion laden with centuries of philosophical argument. Time will tell.

In today’s gospel Jesus also says the now famous phrase “I am the way the truth and the life.” I’m just wondering, since translation has been our theme, whether in the Chinese Bible Jesus says “I am the Tao (Way),” conjuring up that ancient and mysterious philosophy of Taoism (which some missionaries once called devilish superstition). No one claims Jesus knew of Taoism, but language is by necessity fluid and thus ambiguous, inviting us to entertain fanciful notions which, by circuitous route, may bring us to insight and truth. Feng Shui (literally, wind water) – that product of Taoist thought – which seeks harmony among diverse elements of reality may be more than a little helpful when trying to translate. Translation, after all, is but a road, a pathway between different cultures and worldviews, filled with unexpected insights and sometimes not so pleasant surprises. The new Roman Missal in English is just the latest example. It will be interesting to see its affect on the life of the Church in the United States: for better or worse - or not at all.

11-05-15: 4th Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts of the Apostles 2:14,36-41 / Psalm 23 / 1 Peter 2:20-25 / John 10:1-10

Well this might be the last Pastoral Reflection ever, since according to Family Radio, the Day of Judgment will take place next Saturday, May 21st. If I understand the scenario correctly it seems that there will be a worldwide earthquake and within twenty four hours the entire earth will be one vast ruin. Many people will die and the already-dead will be thrown from their graves. The elect or saved will have experienced “the Rapture,” having evaded this rather nasty conclusion to the human project. The rest of us – sinners and infidels – will suffer one horror after another for another five months until the world comes to a final end in October of 2011.

Family Radio is an evangelical fundamentalist Christian group that claims no church affiliation. Matter of fact they claim the churches are the problem, having given in to the evil of our times (the homosexual agenda and gay marriage in particular) and believe the Holy Spirit had already withdrawn from the churches way back in 1988.

Not to be outdone by some Protestant group, its Catholic equivalent has been hard at work spreading fear and dread by alluding to the third secret of Fatima. I was under the impression that the third secret confided to Lucia by the Blessed Virgin back in 1917, and kept secret by successive popes, was finally revealed a few years back by Pope John Paul II. This group claims, however, that the third secret predicts that the end of the world will come before the year 2012. The end will come by a huge earthquake, and horrendous suffering - described in gory detail by these followers of Fatima - will be suffered by all those who do not repent or who refuse to believe.

Of course for those not especially taken by religious prophecy, there’s always the mysterious Mayan Calendar which some claim predicts the end of the world on 12/21/12. And for the really non-religious, science-no-matter-what types, who don’t want to be excluded from all this end-of-world hoopla, a firm belief in global warming and its effects can certainly do the trick.

For all the disdain I have toward those whose sole purpose in life seems to wish for it to end, there’s something to be said for deadlines. They help you focus, eliminate the superfluous, get to the heart of whatever you’re in the midst of doing. When you know the semester ends in a week or two, you finally start to work on that overdue term paper. If you have no doubt the IRS will penalize you for late payment of taxes (or, God forbid, start an audit), you manage to mail in those taxes by April 15th. That film, Bucket List, seemed to be saying the same thing – life won’t last forever: prioritize!

Is it that we human beings need to be frightened, threatened with severe punishments, in order to get us to focus on the important things in life? Does God punish because we do not believe in him or believe in him in a certain way? These are the kinds of things that just don’t seem to jive with what we expect from a loving God who always wills our good. Then again, these apocalyptic groups (“millennialists” they’ve often been called) are constantly citing biblical references, or locutions received from the Mother of Mercy herself, regarding the punishment we deserve for all our sinfulness - the way a parent sometimes resorts to scolding and scaring a misbehaving child. Problem is: when you scold and scare too often, when you cry wolf repeatedly, you not only cease to scare and reprove, but the child no longer believes you. The objective of groups like Family Radio and these Fatima fatalists is to instill faith: I venture to think, when all is said and done and deadlines come and gone, they accomplish just the opposite.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

11-05-08: 3rd Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Easter

Acts of the Apostles 2:14,22-33 / Psalm 16 / 1 Peter 1:17-21 / Luke 24:13-35

I was thinking recently of quitting my job and running for president. For completely selfish reasons, of course, since I wouldn’t be very good at making instant decisions or bargaining deals in Congress. I’d just want Donald Trump, or some like-minded birther, to challenge the bureau of vital statistics so I could see my original long-form birth certificate. I’ve tried – but to no avail. They won’t release it to me as an adopted person; but with the likes of The Donald, they might give in just to shut him up.

Mother’s Day seems an appropriate time to bring up the delicate situation of privacy rights in regard to birth. Obviously, for Trump and the birthers, there’s no right to privacy when talking about birth sites vis-à-vis the presidency – everyone has a right to know. But, in the case of the adopted, original long-form birth certificates are sealed from view – even from those to whom the document pertains. Please don’t misunderstand: I do have a long-form birth certificate, an “amended” long-form birth certificate. What “amended” means in this case is that once my adoption was finalized by the court, an “amended” birth certificate was produced recording my birth surname as “Brosnan” and recording my adoptive parents as those who gave me birth. As far as I know, the time of my birth (3:00am on January 10, 1953) remained the same. And, as for the place of birth, that must have remained the same – Misericordia Hospital, then located on 86th Street east of York Avenue - a place, I think important to note, that my adoptive parents never set foot in. I know this fact was not changed since it was primarily that piece of information, a detail my adoptive parents hadn’t been told, which enabled me to locate my birthmother not long after I began my search. But who’s to say what might or might not be changed – I mean “amended” – by either order of the court or by some lazy or playful scribe. In the early seventeenth century, for example (an example not wholly irrelevant to my story), when the King James Version of the Bible had been completed and printers (pretty new to their trade) were turning out copies, someone – by mistake or design – removed the small but crucial word “not” from the sixth commandment, giving the world (at least until it was hurriedly corrected) the divine command to commit adultery.

It seems such basic facts, these very vital statistics, can be changed if there’s a supposedly good reason. In the case of the adopted, the purported reason is to protect the child from the stigma of illegitimacy. In effect, however, it has become a ploy to assure prospective adoptive parents a “guarantee” that there will be no interference from previous parents. This must be the logical conclusion of such a practice since the original birth certificate is sealed even from the person to whom it most pertains. The adopted remain the only American citizens who are denied the basic right of seeing the record of their birth and thus of knowing the identities of the parents who gave them life.

Because this practice is so widespread, it is obviously a practice that has many supporters, especially those who do not want adoptive parents to be put in a bind. But I believe that “amending” my original birth certificate - that is, deliberately altering the facts - that is, lying - not only robs me of my right to see my original record of birth, but insults my adoptive parents as well, placing them without their consent at the heart of a lie; a lie that has gained official approbation because the document, a work of fiction, is produced by an official government agency.

Over the past three to four decades there has been slow progress in overturning these offensive practices which legalize the telling of lies. Tennessee, Oregon, Maine, New Hampshire have recently allowed the adopted to retrieve their original birth certificates, but the majority of states’ legislatures have steadfastly refused to even allow to come to a vote any such measure to overturn existing practices. Important to note that the majority of Catholic bishops, especially in the northeast, have been some of the staunchest defenders of this abhorrent practice of secrets and lies. Indeed it has long been the practice of Catholic bishops to imitate the state and “amend” baptismal certificates as well. The effect, in some cases, is to issue “amended” baptismal certificates, having deliberately changed the baptismal name of the person baptized. It seems bishops (as evinced in the recent sex scandals) have a penchant for keeping things hush-hush. One can only wonder why.

I am not a birther; I do believe President Obama was born in Hawaii. But neither am I confident that government officials, nor even Catholic bishops, are as committed to preserving vital facts – adhering to basic truths – as you would want and expect them to be.

11-05-01: Divine Mercy Sunday

Divine Mercy Sunday

Acts of the Apostles 2:42-47 / Psalm 118 / 1 Peter 1:3-9 / John 20:19-31

“We brush against one another….touch. In L.A. nobody touches you behind the metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much we crash into each other just to feel something.” [The musings of a policeman observing the verbal tirade between drivers involved in a fender-bender in the opening scene of the Oscar-winning film Crash].

Touch has indeed become a very touchy issue. “In America these days,” one conservative Catholic pundit recently observed, “everything is permitted – but nothing forgiven.” Especially when the something involves touch.

Yet, touch is the very heart of today’s gospel. I won’t believe the Lord is risen, Thomas declares, without putting my hand into side. Only a few verses before, John’s gospel has Mary Magdalene weeping outside the tomb because the body she has come to anoint - with her touch - is no where to be found. The one she mistakes for the gardener calls her by name and the instant Jesus’ voice touches Mary’s hearing, recognition dawns. Yet, as Mary moves towards him, Jesus says: Do not touch me…yet. Could the gospel be suggesting that touch is even more vital for men than for women?

Touch -- or the lack of it -- plagues us as a people. If lack of touch evokes loneliness; touch itself symbolizes its antidote. Some contemporary spiritualities, like their ancient Gnostic antecedents, try to convince us that we need only transcend our physical selves (caress the aura around the body without laying a hand on anything solid) and we’ll find peace and contentment. But the revelation of Easter as presented in the canonical gospels does just the opposite, emphasizing the sensual reality of the Risen Lord who eats and drinks; who invites us, as he did Thomas, to touch his body; indeed, even, to consume it.

All touch has become circumspect of late -- and that’s a shame. I remember when I was in third grade and sent by my teacher to the eighth grade classroom to deliver a message to Brother Anselm. Brother Anselm seemed old to me at the time (though he was probably then no older than I am now). He commanded respect as principal of the boys’ school but always maintained a kindliness about him; his Louisiana origins coming through no doubt. He must have sensed my timidity at the time because he made a point of asking me my name and thanking me. Then, in front of the eighth grade (remember: all boys), he stood up and hugged me tight to his side. Strangely, I did not feel embarrassed by this gesture; rather, I felt welcomed, accepted. Even more strangely: all those eighth grade boys, usually eager to make a joke of everything, sat there silent, stunned really. If I were to guess what they were feeling at that moment, I would say it must have been …envy.

Puritanism is an American – and Protestant – legacy. It has had a long time to seep into our culture, preparing the way for new-age Gnosticisms to take root which abhor the body and assign perverted intentions to all manner of touch -- rather than recognizing touch for the sacrament it often is.

It seems those who have suffered most from these unfortunate vicissitudes of history are us men and boys -- who crave touch so much “we crash into each other just to feel something.”

11-04-24: Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday

Acts 10:34,37-43 / Psalm 118 / Colossians 3:1-4 / Victimae paschali laudes / John 20:1-9

The stunning thing about Christian belief in Easter – the assertion that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead in his human body – is that it makes a lie of the adage that nothing changes, least of all human nature. Remember that the revelation of Easter is not about the immortality of the soul but of the promise of eternity made to the human person comprising both soul and body. Easter is the story of both our origin and our destiny.

In Pope Benedict’s recently published Jesus of Nazareth (Part Two) he states that the “resurrection could be regarded as something akin to a radical ‘evolutionary leap,’ in which a new dimension of life emerges, a new dimension of human existence.”

I’m uncertain whether the pope intended to reference evolution as only a metaphor. In certain circles evolution is a tainted term that suggests a mindless change in nature, rather than what we might understand as a development – a moving toward, if you will. When discussing human origins some Christians reject any semblance of evolution and insist on what they call ‘special creation’ when referring to the advent of humanity. As Catholics we have the freedom to accept theories of evolution provided we acknowledge that, at some point in time, God breathed into man a soul; God creating us, at that particular moment, in his ”image and likeness.” I’d like to think that moment also included the dawn of self-consciousness, that somehow soul and consciousness are intimately linked one to the other.

If you’ve ever seen Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, you might remember the scene in the very beginning of the film when the camera closes in on a ape-like creature, a primate, who is hitting one stone upon the other. As the camera comes closer, the classical music in the background builds to a crescendo, and the viewer, without need for dialogue, understands that the creature who at first is mindlessly banging one stone upon another suddenly realizes what he is doing. The creature becomes aware, self-conscious, stepping across that chasm between the purely animal to what we have come to know as human, homo sapiens sapiensthe being who knows that he knows.

Ever since people started giving voice to their doubts about the historical veracity of the scriptures, particularly in the nineteenth century, what are called the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus have been called into question. What came to be known as the “Liberal Protestant” school of thought suggested that the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, as well as the resurrection itself, were but metaphors for psychological experience. This solved the awkward question, recorded in the scriptures, regarding the repeated inability of those who had known Jesus before his death to easily recognize him after his resurrection. But if that were true, and the evangelists were simply trying to make a psychological point, why include that awkward detail about not being able to recognize the risen Lord. It’s one of those anomalies that make you think twice, to step back and consider that it may well be indeed plausible that, after Jesus’ death and burial, the disciples did encounter Jesus; and the encounter was a physical one, involving at least four of the five senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, and touching). In other words, it could not have been simply a psychological event. Most of the pagan world already believed in the immortality of the soul: no big revelation there. What’s new about Easter is the startling revelation, not about soul or psyche, but about the body.

Taking the evolutionary metaphor (if it is that) a step further, we might fancy that there remains a fossil record as well. The famed Shroud of Turin, imaging a man badly beaten and having endured crucifixion, mysteriously and, thus far, inexplicably replicated onto the shroud. The story of Veronica’s Veil - what is literally called the true image of the suffering Christ – would be another missing link in the journey from time into eternity. And the Church, often called the Body of Christ, is that living fossil, possessing the power to guide each of us on this evolutionary pilgrimage from earth to heaven, from suffering to joy, from the mundane into glory.

11-04-17: Passion (Palm) Sunday

Passion (Palm) Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11 / Isaiah 50:4-7 / Psalm 22 / Philippians 2:6-11 / Matthew 26:14-27:66

Holy Week begins: the dread of every church sexton and not a few pastors. Holy Week can’t help but be overdone - too many symbols, too little time. While priests and participants blindly wade through a river of rituals feverishly anticipating an Amen that will signal they’ve reached the other shore, liturgists are in their glory explaining the ancient sources of these once-a-year practices and exhorting everyone about what is permitted or prohibited (How do you tell the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? the old joke goes. You can reason with the terrorist).

One thing to be said for the Holy Week liturgies, though: they evoke the gamut of emotion. From delight at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday, through the fear and dread as he’s arrested on Holy Thursday, to the gothic gore and suffering of the scourging and crucifixion on Good Friday, to the glorious surprise and joy at seeing the Risen Lord on Easter Sunday – Christians of all temperaments can find a place to feel at home. Some more maudlin Christians over-emphasize Good Friday and Christ’s suffering with almost orgiastic delight, mortifying themselves both figuratively and literally -- they’re the ones who find Easter blandly anti-climactic. Others fast forward to Easter Sunday and, like frenzied Pentecostals, sway to the Pollyanna chirps of an alleluia people – all year long. The less religiously-inclined buy a new hat and walk up Fifth Avenue.

Perhaps I betray my own temperament by admitting my prejudice for the theologian von Balthasar who aligned himself neither with the suffering of Good Friday nor the ecstasy of Easter but with the in-between – Holy Saturday: the day devotion is absent, the sacraments forbidden, churches empty of the Real Presence – God gone. And the curse, usually shouted as metaphor, becomes literally true: Jesus go(es) to hell!

Holy Saturday, the descent into hell, represents Jesus’ complete identification with us in our sinfulness – dead, helpless, cut off from God – Jesus, in the words of St. Paul himself, is made sin. Holy Saturday reminds us of those feelings of abandonment, our god-forsakenness. Such a theology suggests each of us will know this experience no matter how sinful or holy we may be. Just ask the alcoholic who’s hit bottom, or someone diagnosed with a terminal disease, or the parent who’s lost a child. Religion, as human invention or, in Freud’s evaluation, as illusion, usually seeks to protect us from the darkness of such feelings; but, at its core, deep in the throes of holy week, Holy Saturday beckons us to face the reality of a hell not filled with burning flame or numbing ice, but with… emptiness.

Holy Week may be filled with prayers and piety, rites and rubrics, but Holy Saturday turns things topsy-turvy. It happens at least once each year on Holy Saturday: the church is left open so volunteers can decorate for the Easter Vigil and Altar Servers can practice when, inevitably, someone will come in to “make a visit.” He’ll walk straight up to the empty tabernacle, still standing at the altar of reposition, genuflect, cross himself, and kneel in a most reverent manner. The nascent liturgist in me wants to go over and point out the fact that the Eucharist, the Body of Christ, is not there; it’s been removed, as the rubric demands. But I catch myself, remembering it’s Holy Saturday - when absence is what it’s all about. Maybe the one kneeling so reverently and praying so fervently in front of the empty tabernacle is on to something whether he realizes it or not. Maybe God’s apparent absence is a presence of sorts, reminding us that when all else fails, when religion’s most sublime symbols of faith removed, when we find ourselves in the darkest of places – precisely then – there comes something deeper than emotion, an intuition perhaps, hovering on a whiff of leftover incense or heard as a haunting lyric from the practicing choir; a mysterious assurance that, despite apparent absence, we are not alone – ever.

11-04-10: 5th Sunday of Lent

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Ezekiel 37:12-14 / Psalm 130 / Romans 8:8-11 / John 11:1-45

I suppose you could call the event recorded in today’s gospel (Jesus calling Lazarus from the tomb) a “near-death-experience” (NDE). For the past few decades many have claimed that, although they have been pronounced “clinically dead,” they became aware of their surroundings, feeling somehow outside their bodies. Many claimed they saw or heard the voice of Jesus, or at least some divine being, who called them into the light at the end of a dark tunnel. All of them, of course, did not follow the light but returned to tell their story. Lazarus was dead, the scripture says, for four days. I don’t know for sure but I don’t think anyone had been “clinically dead” for four days and then returned, but there have been a good number of people who were in “Persistent Vegetative States” (PVS) - in a coma for at least a year - who have woken up, have come back (literally) to their senses.

These phenomena prove that, for all our medical advancements over the past two millennia, we still do not know what death really means, because we don’t really know when death occurs. Some authorities determine death to occur when a person’s heart and breathing stop; others, only when brain activity has ceased. Theoretically, you could be pronounced “dead” in New Jersey, but still judged “alive” in Tennessee. In these conflicting perspectives, death is, well - arbitrary.

The predicament becomes even more acute when the “dead” person’s organs are needed by someone who is, literally, dying for them. The determination of the moment of death directly affects the viability of the donor’s organs. Transplanting vital organs a few minutes sooner rather than later can mean the difference between life and death for the recipient.

Religious and cultural differences play a huge role in how we react to a dying person: do we do anything and everything, even medical procedures we know to be futile, to prolong the moment when death is pronounced; or do we let the person die without administering “extraordinary” means of life support? Cases like that of Terri Schiavo will only become more common as medical technology develops further ways to prolong life – or the semblance of life – almost indefinitely. John Paul II’s pronouncement a few years back that artificial hydration and nutrition are to be considered “ordinary” and therefore morally obligatory - even when administered through a surgical procedure for persons in Persistent Vegetative States - will further complicate how families deal with a loved one in such a condition. The pope’s concern that the dignity of human life is not lost in PVS patients does not absolve from the inherent contradiction in the church’s position concerning what is considered “ordinary” and “extraordinary” means. Since food and water, the pope argues, are considered necessary for human life they must be offered even if they can only be offered by means of a medical/surgical intervention. On the other hand, the church has long taught that placing patients on mechanical ventilators when their lungs cease to function, is to be considered “extraordinary” and therefore non-obligatory. But isn’t oxygen as essential to life as hydration and nutrition? Why is providing one obligatory, and the other not?

If the Lazarus experience from the gospel could be classified as a NDE, an interesting irony arises. Those who claim to have experienced a NDE usually tell us that Jesus is calling them to leave this world and follow him into the next. But Lazarus hears Jesus calling him back to this world. And, apart from the miracle revealing Jesus’ power as divine, maybe that’s the most important lesson for us in the here and now. It’s all about what we do with the second chances were given in life.

It’s too bad we don’t have a follow-up to the Lazarus story. I’m imagining that someday, as a road crew is digging on the outskirts of Jerusalem to lay the foundation for some new building, they discover a long-lost manuscript telling us of what Lazarus did with his second chance at life. Did he put his extra time to good use? What did he accomplish? Did he leave his sisters and marry? Did he follow Jesus, albeit from a distance? After his NDE how did he use that precious gift of time? We could ask the same of many of our contemporaries who have gotten a second chance at life through some modern medical miracle, being called back from the dead. But ultimately the lesson is a universal one even for us who haven’t had a NDE. Each morning when we open our eyes after the darkness of sleep, and are called into the land of the living, we’re given another chance at life – another chance at making a difference, lending a helping hand, loving someone, sacrificing for someone who’s loved us. We’re all Lazarus: we’re all in the midst of a near-death-experience whether we’re on the operating table or performing our routine day-to-day tasks. Remember that even though Lazarus is brought back from the dead and given a second chance at life, he still must die again - same as us. The miracle of a renewed life is a wonderful gift, but it’s based on a solid certainty: this life won’t last forever – we’re all terminal.

11-04-03: 4th Sunday of Lent

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Samuel 16:1,6-7,10-13 /Psalm 23 /Ephesians 5:8-14 /John 9:1-41

Choosing kings seems never an easy procedure, as today’s first reading about the prophet Samuel anointing the young David makes clear. That’s no doubt why the crown was passed according to bloodline in most cultures, so as to avoid the mess involved in choosing an outsider. When the prophet Samuel is sent to anoint King Saul’s successor no one expected he’d end up anointing the youngest of Jesse’s sons, whose main claim to fame (according to the passage) was that he was young and handsome – so much for experience.

The British must have been just as shocked when Edward VIII abdicated the throne “for the woman he loved,” leaving his brother Albert, shy and heavily burdened by a pronounced stammer, to take his place. The recent Oscar-winning film, The King’s Speech, beautifully captures how an obvious deficit can surprisingly be transformed into unexpected inspiration.

I have a feeling those of us who’ll be watching The Borgias (beginning this Sunday on Showtime) might not walk away with as much admiration for the Church’s choice of St. Peter’s successor at the turn of the sixteenth century. The papacy, the oldest monarchy in history, is not dependent on bloodline for right of succession, though Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) may have indeed wanted to pass on the papal tiara to Cesare - one of his several illegitimate children.

There are some fascinating parallels in the lives of these three men, not the least being that George VI can trace his lineage back to one of Alexander VI’s illegitimate children. And, in each case, the underlying belief was that king and pope were ultimately chosen by God. Such a belief is not that hard to swallow when someone like John Paul II emerges from conclave as elected successor to St. Peter, but we tend to think there must have been a fly in the ointment when a cunning thug like Rodrigo Borgia emerges as a pope; or a lustful King David risks everything to sleep with a married woman, having her husband murdered in the process; or when a nation on the brink of war looking for a strong leader capable of rallying the nation by sheer force of words, hears over the air waves a shy, retiring man with a pronounced stammer. If we say we believe God is running the show, some things just don’t seem to make sense.

It may prove interesting to see how an exposé on “the worst pope in history” will pan out. Will it simply reconfirm some in their disdain for Catholicism? Or might it suggest, albeit unwittingly, the possibility that there’s always hope for redemption - even for the most corrupt and disreputable?

One theologian recently remarked that in our age of skepticism and doubt regarding matters of faith, surprise is virtually the only remaining “proof” for the existence of God. Surprise, the experience of the completely unexpected, the affirmation of something there that wasn’t there before, can shock even the most hardened materialist. That God chooses the weak both in body (like George VI) or in morals (like both Rodrigo Borgia and the handsome David) might be obvious to those who see a repeating pattern in revelation, but it’s nevertheless nothing less than scandalous to think God chose the one least expected, the one least capable or worthy from our point of view. God’s unforeseen choice catches us off-guard, throwing us off kilter. And that, perhaps more than anything else, is a reason to believe that God is somehow still in charge, still holding the pen and nudging us toward heaven as he writes our human history with crooked – indeed, sometimes, very crooked – lines.