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.