Thursday, January 26, 2012

12-01-29: Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Deuteronomy 18:15-20 / Psalm 95 / 1 Corinthians 7:32-35 / Mark 1:1-28

There’s a powerful scene in the film The King’s Speech when King George VI is sitting with his family watching a newsreel of Hitler delivering a speech (in German, naturally) with consummate emotion filled with fury and determination. Princess Elizabeth looks at her father, whose greatest weakness is his inability to speak without a stutter, and asks what Hitler is saying. “I don’t know,” the king answers. “But he says it well.” It will become a great irony of history that George VI will be able to rally the British to victory precisely because he faced that personal weakness and made it a strength.

Yet, there is little doubt that the content of words often plays back seat to the manner in which they are conveyed. The gospel today is a case in point. St. Mark makes the seeming important point that Jesus taught “with authority,” something obviously lacking in the other religious leaders of his day. But St. Mark neglects to tell us what precisely Jesus was teaching that day in the synagogue. I would bet that by the time Mark was writing his gospel, Jesus’ words and teaching were long forgotten, but not the impact they produced – that made an indelible mark. What was remembered was the exorcism that followed his teaching. That emotionally charged scene could not have been easily forgot and has become inseparable, in Mark’s memory, with Jesus’ teaching – whatever that was. Jesus’ words produced a physical effect. His words carried an emotional impact. And emotion, not talk, is what seals the memory.

You can’t read anything Catholic today without coming across the phrase “New Evangelization.” At the risk of sounding a bit disrespectful it has begun to sound, to my ears anyway, more like those meaningless “five-year-plans” the Soviet Union used to issue over the course of seven decades rather than the saving message it’s supposed to embody. Although those that employ the term are always quick to tell you that the “New Evangelization” is not about programs, they inevitably follow up their presentation with program after program on how to get young people to church and lapsed Catholics back into the fold; the result being no different than those Soviet five-year-plans. Others, like some newly ordained clergy, see in the “New Evangelization” a call to return to more solid Catholic teaching. They seem to think if people only knew what the Catholic Church teaches about abortion, contraception, embryonic stem cell research, same-sex marriage, divorce and remarriage, they would enthusiastically follow. Ah, there’s a bridge I know of that’s up for sale…

Teachings, doctrines, rules of religion are all-too-soon forgotten or, if not forgotten, relegated to the realm of the less-important for most people, believers and non-believers alike. In today’s gospel it’s interesting, to say the least, that it is the unclean spirit who does the evangelizing: “I know who you are – the Holy One of God.” St. Mark is trying to reveal what the unclean spirit already knew: that Jesus of Nazareth was an engaging, charismatic, compelling individual whom people would want to get to know, whom you had to get to know. Perhaps the “New Evangelization” is meant to be no different from the old: an invitation to engage in an encounter that involves the heart more than the head, emotion more than doctrine, experiencing rather than cogitating. All other things, like tenets of faith, sexual mores, and rules of behavior are always - always - of secondary significance. The encounter is what remains of greatest importance. Or, as Alec Guinness had engraved on the pocket watch his mother told him once belonged to the father he never knew: “The readiness is all.”

12-01-22: Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jonah 3:1-5,10 / Psalm 25 / 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 / Mark 1:14-20

This Monday, January 23rd on our solar calendar, is New Year’s Day on the Chinese lunar calendar ushering in the very auspicious Year of the Dragon. According to the lunar calendar I was born in the Year of the Dragon, though in the solar calendar 1953 is usually associated with the Year of the Snake. Since I was born in the first half of January, before the Chinese New Year, my sign carries from the previous year. So I’m a dragon and not a snake. I take pride in acknowledging this fact unlike someone who might be in a similar position teetering between being a rat and a pig. Labels do matter.

Here in the West dragons have gotten a bad name. They’re usually associated with the bad guys who use them to conquer the good guys. There have been exceptions, of course. Like when Peter, Paul and Mary, back in the smoky sixties, gave us their endearing Puff, the Magic Dragon – sometimes it takes a little herbal supplement to recognize the good in what is presumed bad. In the East, though, dragons are auspicious. But they’re just mythical you might say. Not really. In Chinese (if I remember right) the word for “fossil” is literally dragon bones. It’s not a very big leap in imagination to understand that ancient peoples discovering dinosaur fossils – skeletal remains of huge dinosaurs - would enflesh those dry bones in the bedrock of their imagination and uncover some pretty impressive dragons. Matter of fact, a tremendous number of fossils were lost because the ancient Chinese (and not so ancient Chinese) would grind the fossils into powder to be consumed as a remedy for some significant ailments. Paleontologists cringe at the thought of so many dinosaur fossils having been lost to herbal medicine. Some of us just want to know if they work.

Whether you think of dragons as mythical or as just an alias for prehistoric dinosaurs, you have to admit they’re impressive creatures. Being so big they instill fear, as well they should; but we can learn a lot about nature, creation and ourselves if we let our curiosity take over and lead our imagination into unchartered territory. The renowned paleontologist, Stephen Jay Gould, said that his fascination with evolutionary biology began when, as a child, he first stepped into the Museum of Natural History and saw the giant skeletal remains of Tyrannosaurus Rex in the main lobby. And the famed Jesuit-paleontologist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin followed his curiosity all the way to China in 1929 to be a part of the historic and controversial discovery of the fossil remains of “Peking Man.” Although argued by creationists to be just an ordinary ape, a good number of scientists regard the find as an authentic one, representing our hominid ancestor. Teilhard would suffer greatly for his curiosity and search for truth, but remained steadfast to the end.

Knowing where we came from can help us understand where we’re meant to go. In the search for truth, especially truth about what it means to be a human being, we are called to dig down into the past whether we’re uncovering fragments of bones or fragments of myths. Facing the fears that those bones and those myths represent is key, C.G. Jung would say, to discovering who you are and what you’re supposed to do with this life. In today’s gospel Jesus’ call to his first disciples, “Come follow me,” is echoed in every endeavor to uncover truth. Sometimes the cost is dear, leaving everything to follow that call wherever it may lead. That’s why you need to be a dragon - no matter what year you may have been born – to explore the mystery that’s you.

12-01-15: Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time

1 Samuel 3:3-10,19 / Psalm 40 / 1 Corinthians 6:13-15,17-20 / John 1:35-42

Vocation Awareness Week is upon us and we pray that more young people may “answer the call” to follow the Lord as priests and Religious. No doubt this time of year is chosen because of the readings chosen for Mass: the gospel stories of Christ calling his disciples to follow him, to “come and see,” as St. John puts it. And then there’s the Old Testament story of Samuel, the boy-seer and later prophet, who is called by the Lord to become his voice as judge and prophet of Israel.

Coincidentally we’ve just passed the six hundredth anniversary of another seer’s birth. Joan of Arc is thought to have been born on January 6th of 1412. Although separated by millennia and geography, Joan and Samuel have quite a lot in common. Both live in times threatened by violence and familiar institutions are falling into ruin. Both see themselves as instruments of God in “crowning” a king. And both have come to their remarkable vocations in life through the experience of hearing voices they attribute to the divine.

Although the Church might celebrate the likes of Samuel and Joan as hearers of the word, the Church would be the first to turn away any young man or woman today who claimed that they wanted to become a priest or Religious because they heard voices. And it’s important to remember that it was the Church, albeit corrupted by the politics of the time, which would condemn Joan to be burnt at the stake.

Joan’s voices were judged to be real, but demonic. With Freud and the birth of psychology, the phenomenon of hearing voices was consigned to the realm of psychic illness and insanity. But there’s been interesting developments of late in the field of neurobiology. One theory suggests that the invention of writing, more precisely – the invention of the alphabet, had somehow changed the hard-wiring of the brain and what was once perceived as the external voices of the gods became interior locutions and the birth of consciousness. Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind is obviously more than a mouthful and not a little beyond my understanding but hints at an intimate connection between what we understand as conscious awareness and what has traditionally been understood as the realm of the divine. Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet and the Goddess is a fascinating read, suggesting that a leap was made in human evolution when humanity invented the alphabet. It is interesting to note that many of those that claimed to hear voices or see visions were either pre-literate children (Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, the children of Fatima) or illiterate adults (Joan of Arc, Mohammad). In Muses, Madmen and Prophets, Daniel Smith presents many of these famous voice-hearers and respectfully evaluates their claims. All these works are not apologies for religious experience - quite the opposite; but they make the phenomenon of voices and visions a relevant topic and not one submerged in Freud’s view of them as psychic illness and illusion. William James, that psychologist of religious experience, argued that mental instability might be a necessary precondition for revelation. And it was C.G. Jung who said that “confrontation with the unconscious eventually leads to the recognition of an alien ‘other’ in oneself, the objective presence of another will.” Jung would claim that it was “a vocation that destines a man to emancipate himself from the herd and from its well-worn paths.”

Whatever you may conclude about divine-voice hearers, you have to marvel at what some of them accomplished, from the likes of Samuel and Joan of Arc who crowned kings, to the work of Mother Teresa who confessed in her posthumous memoir, Come be My Light, that the voice she had once heard that invited her to care for the poorest of the poor had never again returned, she nevertheless continued to do such extraordinary work with joy.

Maybe this Vocation Awareness Week our prayer shouldn’t be so much about the young choosing a specific life-path, but that they will simply listen a bit harder: the ear as it were, being the primary organ of the spirit, according to the Jesuit Walter Ong. And it was St. Augustine who insisted that’s precisely how Mary conceived Jesus – through the ear – tilted, as it were, toward Gabriel’s angelic voice.

Monday, January 9, 2012

12-01-08: The Epiphany

The Epiphany

Isaiah 60:1-6 / Psalm 72 / Ephesians 3:2-3,5-6 / Matthew 2:1-12

In the history of biblical criticism one of the first stories to become a casualty of what’s called demythologization was that of the Magi. In fairness we have to admit it was a big target. Hard to envision three kings leaving some precious gifts in a stable in front of a manger where a young teenager has placed her baby with some shepherds mulling round looking more unkempt than the animals. Besides, how does a star come to rest?

Demythologizing is what the Broadway hit, The Book of Mormon, seems to be all about as well (my friend had two tickets and I couldn’t disappoint him when his wife refused to go). She had good reason, too. The play is utterly irreverent and makes you laugh – a lot - at some of the fundamental beliefs of Mormonism. I know I shouldn’t have, but I did like it; it was, as they say, very well done. No doubt if they had chosen Catholicism as the theme there would be no end of hearing from William Donohue and the Catholic League. (Makes you wonder why the Mormons don’t have a Bill Donohue and a Mormon League). The audience was overwhelmingly young and attuned to the type of humor and overly-numerous scatological allusions that the creators of South Park (the writers of the play) are known for. Yet, the thing that shocked me was not the material but the fact that there were a good number of children, pre-teens and teens, in attendance. I don’t believe too many would disagree that The Book of Mormon is not for kids. I wonder though if that’s not precisely why they were there – parents wanting to de-mythologize their kids, like a vaccine, against what they understand to be the illusions and delusions of organized religion, exposing them to some memorable sarcasm and satire that highlight hypocrisy and absurdity as religion’s twin bookends.

Yet, in the end, the African villagers in the story all become Mormons despite their wise acknowledgement that the founding story of Mormonism is a myth or, as the play puts it, metaphor. And all the ulterior motives for joining a western religion are more than present, offering more than a few materialistic benefits to converts. But the play seems to leave the door ajar to a mystery here: that religion, for all its many faults, not only serves a basic human need but proposes the possibility that the divine is somehow real and continues to allure us in ways unexpected.

The story of the Magi has survived and thrived these two millennia – but never more so than when its authenticity has been challenged. The story that scholars might gladly give up to the axe of demythologization is the very story that evokes awe and wonder even in this most skeptical of ages. “The self,” G.K. Chesterton wrote, “is more distant than any star.” And our journey toward and beyond that star makes us all magi, in one way or another, carrying our expectations and our gifts in search of something or someone to whom to offer them and with whom to share them.

I wouldn’t be surprised – really – that, in twenty years or so, if those teens and pre-teens who saw The Book of Mormon were interviewed about their attitude toward religion and the divine and one or two of them might say they came to an appreciation of religion, and maybe even to belief, because they experienced The Book of Mormon. Irreverence serves to make religion, if not believable, at least relevant – a subject worthy of attention and discussion. Believers have nothing to fear from irreverence. It’s but a back-handed compliment to belief; because irreverence, served with gusto, opens the door to questioning what is relevant and sometimes we realize, shockingly, that the answer lies not in the practical but in the mysterious. And the mysterious almost always comes to us through metaphor and myth.

12-01-01: Solemnity of Mary Mother of God

Mary, Mother of God

Numbers 6:22-27 / Psalm 67 / Galatians 4:4-7 / Luke 2:16-21

One of the lines in the revised translation of the Mass is heard in Eucharistic Prayer II when the priest prays for the dead: “Welcome them,” he asks the Lord, “into the light of your face.” I’m guessing that whoever wrote that line was thinking of today’s first reading from the Book of Numbers citing what is known as the priestly blessing. “The Lord let his face shine upon you…the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

About thirty years ago an archeological discovery was made in the environs of Jerusalem when a silver amulet was unearthed containing these words of blessing. The amulet dates back to the eighth century BC, predating the Dead Sea Scrolls by more than half a millennium. Perhaps this is where St. Thomas received his inspiration to describe heaven, eternal joy, as the Beatific Vision – looking upon the face of God.

For the ancient believer in the one true God, there was surely an awareness that the author of the priestly blessing is speaking in metaphor: God, being God, does not have a face. Yet the whole import of Christmas, the Incarnation, is to attest that in Christ the divine has become human: God has taken a face. And, of course, not only a face but an entire human body with all its limitations and sensations. At the risk of sounding crude, Christmas is all about bodies and body parts.

The short gospel we read on this feast of Mary’s motherhood mentions a number of body parts. The shepherds saw the infant with their eyes and then used their voices to proclaim his praise. Mary, we are told, kept all these things in her heart. Before he was conceived in Mary’s womb, the child is named Jesus. And the child undergoes ritual circumcision; his foreskin becoming the source of numerous legends of miracles throughout the Middle Ages. In fact, not too long ago we used to celebrate this day as the Feast of the Circumcision, reminded that in such a ritual, blood inevitably flows from the wound.

One of the greatest threats to true Christianity came, and continues to come, from those who profess some sort of Gnosticism in which the human body and the material world is considered superfluous or downright evil. In the famed Gnostic gospels (the Gospel of Thomas, I think) we read that Christ did not blink and never left footprints when he walked: evidence that this insipid heresy abhors the human body and all its functions. Death is seen as the spirit’s release – finally cleansed from the dirtiness of human existence to soar pure and unhindered. Christmas offends this type of thinking: Jesus is born in a stable surrounded by smelly animals and shepherds (who probably smelled worse). He’s laid in a manger – the trough from which the animals ate. Far from an unshackled existence, Christ binds himself forever to our human existence with all its limitation and difficulty.

We’re often reminded, this time of year, that it’s good to have the Christmas “spirit,” meaning that it’s good to cultivate the practice of lending a helping hand to those in trouble, making sacrifices big and small for those we love and, especially, for those we don’t. In these ways that Christmas “spirit” becomes embodied through our words and actions. That embodiment of spirit is the key, the calculus if you will, to understand the mystery that has taken place at Christmas: not that we are spirits with a body but that we are embodied spirits - temples of divinity. In Christmas the temple of this human body has been sanctified in all its parts. Everything Christ assumed, the Church Fathers would write, has been redeemed – all is good, all is holy, all is grace.