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.