25 March 2014

Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae

     Today is the great Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord, commemorating the visit the Archangel Gabriel paid to the Blessed Virgin Mary, announcing to her the privilege she would have, given her consent, of bearing the Son of God to the world.
     I am captivated by the Great Mystery of the scene: a heavenly messenger visits a lowly young woman (girl, really) essentially to bring her laud and seek her cooperation with God--her permission, one might even say--in bringing about the Incarnation: the cardinal event of human history and the salvation of the world. The humble servant nature of God is revealed not only in the Word-made-flesh, but also in the very act of the Annunciation itself.  

Our loving Father seeks
our permission for,
our cooperation with, 
his work in our lives.

     And when that cooperation, that permission, is given, and the unbridled love of God is let loose in our lives, things happen! Redemption! Transformation! Salvation! Behold, New Creation! 
     So, if today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. Rather, fiat! ...be it done unto me according to thy word.

03 December 2013

The Unsettling Silence

There is a great deal of noise in my life. A small part of it is a welcome addition, such as the joyful shrieks of young family members, the playful growl of my dog as we wrestle, etc., but most of it clamors to steal my attention away from things of greater importance. What's worse, I not only put up with this noise, I actually invite it in—I use such noise as an escape from the pressures of job, school, relationships, responsibilities.

In yesterday’s Gospel lesson (Matthew 8:5-11), the centurion, upon telling Jesus of his servant who is ill, and Jesus expressing his willingness to come and cure him, says, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed.”

Only say the word.

Advent is a season of entreating the Word to say the word, of asking the Spoken to speak comfort and joy, health and life, love and mercy. But I fear that, with all the noise in my life, I may not be able to hear this word when it comes in a still, small voice, in the cry of a babe.

This Advent, my prayer is that I might bring personal determination to the centurion’s prayer, which the Catholic faithful claim for our own at each Mass just before receiving Christ, and that I may sacrifice the empty ease of noise for the unsettling silence—eagerly listening for the word, that my soul may be healed.

19 March 2013

A Life of Lent

I have heard from many a devout Catholic that Lent is their favorite liturgical season. At first, this assertion seems counter-intuitive. Why would one prefer a season of penitence, abstinence, and discipline (like Lent) to one of celebration, exultation, and abundance (like Easter)? After seeking to engage the practices of Lent ever more fully each successive year, I think I’m beginning to understand.

The season of Lent, with its discipline, is a time of intentionally, mindfully resisting the innate human tendency of pridefully casting God aside and humbly letting go of those things which inhibit our perfected relationship with God—bad habits and stubborn sins, yes! These should be the first to go. But also any obstacle, even “good” things, anything that would seek to take the life-giving place of God in our lives. This is the intent, the spirit, of Lenten fasting and abstinence.

To identify these obstacles in one’s life, one need only ask: What is it that I can’t live without? If your mind, like mine, is flooded with ideas (coffee, chocolate, ale, Netflix, Facebook, my car, my iPad…), indeed, if your answer is anything other than “God,” “Jesus,” or “the Most Holy Eucharist,” then God has graciously given us suggestions for Lenten abstinence.

This may seem extreme. It may appear as if I am saying that living Lent is tantamount to living like cloistered monks and nuns. If you are thinking that, let me reassure you: that’s exactly what I’m saying…at least inasmuch as religious sisters and brothers take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

By way of explanation, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what virtues we are cultivating through our Lenten abstinence. To be sure, there are many, but three that rise to the fore are detachment, holiness, and love…virtues which coincide particularly well with the traditional core Lenten practices of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. Now consider how religious vows coincide to these Lenten practices and to Lenten virtues:
·         Poverty – to eradicate the attachment to worldly goods. Money is not my Lord.
·         Chastity – to master one’s desires and direct them to God. My desires are not my Lord.
·         Obedience – to forsake the worship of the self-God and to learn humility. My will is not my Lord.

Hence, we have a diagram that looks something like this:
If the correspondence seems somewhat forced, I would argue it’s because of the intimate interrelation of each of the disciplines, vows, and virtues: they all work together to cultivate Christlikeness.

Scripturally, I find Hebrews 13 to be a great witness to all of this:
Hebrews 13: 1 Let brotherly love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3 Remember those who are in prison…and those who are ill-treated…5 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have …16 Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have… [almsgiving; poverty; love]
Hebrews 13:4 Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled…9…it is well that the heart be strengthened by grace, not by foods…14 For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. [fasting; chastity; detachment]
Hebrews 13:7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God; consider the outcome of their life, and imitate their faith ...17 Obey your leaders and submit to them; for they are keeping watch over your souls …Let them do this joyfully, and not sadly, for that would be of no advantage to you. [prayer; obedience; holiness]

So, why a post on Lenten disciplines on the brink of Holy Week, so near the end of Lent? Of course, monks and nuns do not take their vows only for Lent, any more than the author of Hebrews intended that his words be observed only during Lent! No. The author of Hebrews, those who take religious vows, and yes, my devout brothers and sisters who favor Lent above all—they all understand the Great Lent…which is none other than our earthly life! Just as Lent is the gestation period for the Easter Triduum, Lenten discipline practiced throughout our lives forms us, remakes us into the image of Christ, and thus prepares us to live in the eternal Kingdom of God—to live united, in Christ, with the God who is love. Spending our days here on earth in living out the disciplines of Lent is actually equivalent to receiving the life—life abundant!—that God gives. And this is exactly what God wishes for us and from us: an earthly life dedicated to God by gratefully receiving the life that God gives!

This is what Lent is all about.
This is what Catholicism is all about.
This is what a personal relationship with Jesus is all about.
This is what faith is all about.

Therefore the author of Hebrews can say:
…let us also [like those who came before us] lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

When Easter arrives, let us celebrate and feast, in anticipation of being eternally united with God through Christ. But throughout our earthly lives, let us cultivate the spirit of Lent in our thoughts, words, and actions, that we might humbly be incorporated into the pioneer and perfecter of our faith and thus receive life abundant.

20 November 2012

Black Thursday

Three years ago, I published this post on "The Liturgy of Black Friday," arguing how the practices (and underpinning ideology) of Black Friday essentially stand in opposition to the spirit of Thanksgiving, how the practice of giving thanks makes us more human, while Black Friday dehumanizes us.

Now, certain retail stores have opted to move the opening of Black Friday up to Thursday night, and frankly, I don't know what's worse--the fact that these stores encroach upon Thanksgiving Day in the name of higher profits, or the fact that we, the American consumers, will no doubt reward them with those same profits by hitting the stores even before Thanksgiving Day draws to a close.

This tragic situation is a microcosm of the deepening trend in our society of forsaking the appropriate exercise of our God-given relationality--with an acknowledgement of our need for others, our inter-dependence, and the humanizing practice of love--in favor of an ever more individualistic, autonomous existence that feeds on the immediate fulfillment of desires, often at the expense of others. To say it again, this latter way of life is actually the way of death--it makes us less human. Once it creeps into our minds and hearts, it steals away life and undermines genuinely life-giving practices. Just as Black Friday has now truncated our day for giving thanks, so our unchecked consumerism will eventually consume us, both as individuals, body and soul, and as a society.

The good news is, we have a choice. We can opt out of the mad rush of acquisition and humbly count our blessings. We can refuse self-serving, atomistic individualism and adopt postures of humility, mercy, thankfulness, and love. We can avoid rampant consumerism and seek to perform charitable acts that respect the dignity of others.

Please, at the very least, remember Thanksgiving and keep it "holy"--set apart--by taking the time to acknowledge how very much we've been given, how dependent we are on the generosity of God, our loved ones, and even those unknown to us. Then, give thanks. Shopping can wait 'til Friday.

For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? - Mark 8:36

26 September 2012

The Evangelistic Nature of the Joyful Mysteries

During my hour of Eucharistic adoration today, I opted to pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary (instead of the Glorious Mysteries, which are typically prayed on Wednesdays). Although I had stated an intention for the Rosary as I began to pray, it seemed the Lord had different ideas, for when I was but two decades in, I couldn’t remember what it was anymore. Instead, I found myself reflecting on how evangelistic the Joyful Mysteries are. Let me explain:

The First Joyful Mystery: The Annunciation.
Luke 1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end."

At the Annunciation, the Holy Spirit overshadows Mary, and Jesus is conceived in her womb. At the time of our Baptism, the same Holy Spirit of God makes us members of Christ, incorporating us into him. New life springs up inside of us, and this new life is Jesus Christ.

The Second Joyful Mystery: The Visitation.
Luke 1:39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a city of Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the babe in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord."

At the Visitation, Mary, with Jesus growing in her womb, goes to visit her relative, Elizabeth, in order to share with her the wondrous thing that has happened to her. When we are reborn with the life of Christ, we go and tell the wondrous thing that has happened to us. In presence, word, and deed, we bear witness to the new life at work within us.

The Third Joyful Mystery: The Nativity of Our Lord.
Luke 2:4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. 7 And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, "Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

At the Nativity, Jesus is born in the flesh for the salvation of the world. The Church’s witness to Christ in presence, word, and deed is the way Jesus and the salvation he offers is borne to the world today.

The Fourth Joyful Mystery: The Presentation in the Temple.
Luke 2:22 And when the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord") 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons." 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord's Christ. 27 And inspired by the Spirit he came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said, 29 "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; 30 for mine eyes have seen thy salvation 31 which thou hast prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to thy people Israel."

At the Presentation, Mary looks on as Simeon (and also Anna) encounters Jesus for himself and experiences the joy of knowing him. When we bear Christ to others through presence, word, and deed, we can expect that others (perhaps especially those seeking out consolation from God) come to see Christ for themselves, in their eyes, and in their hearts. And they also behold and participate in the joy of his salvation!

The Fifth Joyful Mystery: The Finding of the Boy Jesus in the Temple.
Luke 2:41 Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. 42 And when he was twelve years old, they went up according to custom; 43 and when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, 44 but supposing him to be in the company they went a day's journey, and they sought him among their kinsfolk and acquaintances; 45 and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, seeking him. 46 After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions; 47 and all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. 48 And when they saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been looking for you anxiously." 49 And he said to them, "How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?"

At the Finding of Jesus in the Temple, we find that even Mary, though sinless, learns that Jesus’ agenda supersedes her own. As we bear witness to Christ, we too come to realize that Jesus is the one who guides and directs our witness…and that his witness is relentless, sometimes taking precedence over our cultural and religious customs, even when they are good and holy in their own right.

Thanks be to God for the fruits of prayer, contemplation, and Eucharistic adoration. May we all follow our Blessed Mother’s lead in bearing Christ to the world!

25 September 2012

Argumentation in the Marriage Debate

As I have observed the debate over the upcoming “marriage amendment” vote in Minnesota continue and intensify, most especially (though not exclusively) through social media, I have become more convinced that, as each side (for and against) make arguments, we very often talk past each other. I am referring not only to the wealth of inflammatory comments from both sides, but more specifically, that arguments on one side address different issues than arguments on the other. Rhetoric on one side tends to target points that are minor, if not negligible, points on the other: not necessarily straw men (although there is plenty of that, as well), but simply points that at best fail to resonate, at worst, provoke strong and often incendiary reactions.

You will notice I say “we,” as I am far from without opinion on the subject. As a faithful Catholic—one who knowingly and, with God’s help, willingly embraces Church teaching on matters of marriage, family, those with same-sex attraction, etc. as of divine origin—I stand in support of the amendment. You will also note that I say “you,” as I presume you, too, are standing on one side or the other. Fence-sitters on this issue seem to be sparse, as evidenced by the growing number of lawn signs around our neighborhoods.

Nonetheless, in this particular post, I am not primarily about trying to put forth a pro-amendment argument. Rather, I am trying to convey the need for both sides to be more conscious of their rhetoric and more strategic in their argumentation.

I will attempt to refrain from making comments here that are overly presumptuous about the general stance of the “vote no” camp. I will speak from within the “vote yes” camp (specifically, the Catholic “vote yes” camp), as I am much more familiar with those arguments, and address both sides.

First, to the Catholic “vote yes” folks:
As Christ-followers, our greatest commandment is to love as he loved. We must never tire of striving to love. It should go without saying that this means remembering in all humility that we ourselves are sinners, and that hatred and defamation, in oral or written form, of another human being created in the image of God is absolutely prohibited. We should also practice compassion (literally, “suffering with”) toward those with same-sex attraction. We need to consider the numerous difficulties they have faced—interiorly, in relationships with family, and societally—and be models of Christ’s compassion to them. We also must bear in mind the immeasurable amount of abuse they have suffered, and how often fellow Catholics and other Christians have utterly failed to honor their God-given dignity. Our theo-logic means little if others perceive us as incapable of compassion. Because of this, we must be all the more quick to listen and slow to speak. we are To that end, we ought to consider how our comments, specifically those directly pertaining to people, would fall on their ears, before we make them. I think we also ought to be very careful about using sound bites and one-liners (think about tweets and facebook status updates). They often fail to respect the interrelated complexity of Catholic thought on the issues (see below). Worse, they also often fail to respect the God-given dignity and rational ability of those who oppose you, as well as shutting down avenues of legitimate discussion.

We also ought never to give up learning Catholic teaching on the issues influencing our position on this amendment. In addition to Sacred Scripture, the Church has given us numerous resources, perhaps especially Blessed Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. It’s worth (re-)familiarizing ourselves with these teachings, not as “ammunition,” but to note their inherent pastoral tone and seek to present and defend them compassionately.

Next, to the “vote no” folks:
Ideally, for Catholics, the pro-amendment stance is constructed on a number of interrelated prior Catholic perspectives, including primarily views of God and of love, and then (in no particular order) of anthropology, marriage, natural law, religion’s role in the public square, psychology, reason, hatred, the bases of morality, the “common good,” the role of government, ecclesial (Church) authority, divine revelation, family, sex, liberty, and yes, sexual sin. The formulation and structure of these issues are, to put it mildly, complex. But although they resist simplification, they are decidedly not rationally or philosophically bankrupt, nor can they be dismissed as such. Neither can they be easily dismissed as immoral, though admittedly, Catholics today can present them in immoral, disrespectful manners (see above).

Because of these things, accusations of bigotry and fascism close the door to further discussion altogether—not only because of their hateful tenor, but also because they reveal a wholehearted disinterest in legitimately learning about the opposing position. If you want to make real headway with us, a great way to start would be to familiarize yourself/ves with the teachings of Pope John Paul II called the Theology of the Body (no small task, admittedly!) and formulate challenges to the teachings he makes therein. Present your challenges respectfully, and you’ll have my attention.

As I mentioned above, I will leave it up to those in the “vote no” camp to suggest, if they wish, how we Catholics might better encourage respectful, legitimate discussion and debate.

In general, I would encourage us all to listen—both to what’s being said and what’s not—from both sides. I would hope we can both refrain from being dismissive, and actually seek to learn from one another, even whilst espousing passionately held positions. Surely this is the way to foster greater understanding and peace, even in the midst of strong disagreement.

14 May 2012

Denominational Relativism: the DR is in!

I was recounting to a friend of mine just last night how some Protestant friends, on hearing of my conversion to Catholicism, responded with something akin to, "Well, just as long as you're still a Christian/following Jesus..." Evidently, according to this point of view, the particular denomination (even if my "denomination" of my choosing unabashedly claims to be the "One True Church") one is part of is of little, perhaps no significance, in comparison with a life of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior.

While small parts of such sentiments may be commendable, I have an overall distaste to what I now call "Denominational Relativism," (DR) wherein one's membership in denomination x and denomination y is mostly a matter of personal taste for liturgy (or lack thereof), musical styles, etc., and of little to no importance in general. To be perfectly honest, I can remember explicitly touting DR when I was tinkering around with ordination in the PC/USA. My own views have changed significantly! Briefly, here are two of my primary objections to DR...you will note they are very much interrelated.

1. Denominational Relativism follows the modernistic impulse of dissociating the individual from his/her historical, social, and cultural context. In the Christian realm, this is especially tragic. Once one begins denying adherence to any particular tradition or denomination, one inherently convinces oneself that he/she has achieved the impossible: I have come to understand Jesus Christ, the Scriptures, and Christian faith on my own. In reality, none of us is capable of stepping entirely outside of our own context. Yes, as humans we have a unique ability to look at our context and both laud and critique, but even such activity is always from within that context.

This means that even the instinct to adhere to DR is itself born of a specific historical, social, cultural (and theological) context. Anecdotally, when I asked a former colleague of mine, who was training for priestly ministry in the Church of England, what would happen if the Anglican church went away, he basically responded, "I don't think it would make any difference." I guarantee you that response is born out of a particular context! (And not a traditionally Anglican one!)

2. Denominational Relativism exalts the individual over and above the community--in the case of Christians, the Church. This point is simultaneously more subtle and more destructive than the previous one. The more Christians begin to believe that their personal relationship with God stands outside of, even supersedes, that of the Church (however expressed through a specific denominational tradition), the weaker the Church becomes. The Mystical Body of Christ becomes relegated to the spiritual, the invisible, the otherworldly, and has less and less to offer to the lost, the suffering, the dying. Moreover, it easily succumbs to the fact/value split, placing faith squarely in the "value" sphere, and dissociating it from the public realm. Salvation becomes all about what happens to us after we die. Faith becomes "[hell-] fire insurance." Jesus becomes more "my personal Savior" and "my best friend" (which he is, to be sure) than "King of kings and Lord of lords," "Almighty God," "Prince of peace," "the Alpha and the Omega" (which he also is).

So what? I have many Catholic and Protestant friends who adhere--not uncritically--to their particular denominational tradition. I find that ecumenical dialogues with these friends is abundantly more fruitful, to a large extent because it quickly becomes clear where we agree and where the major points of disagreement are, and we are able to focus our discussions there. But I am intimately aware of the "non-denom phenom," i.e. the "in-ness" of not being burdened with denominational structures and hierarchy, and the tantalizing offer of not needing to learn and discover the scads of historical tradition that goes into the making of denominations, even "non-denoms." My appeal to those falling in this latter category would be: explore the tradition you inhabit, so that Christ-followers everywhere may continue the arduous work of Christian unity.

Ignoring denominational differences under the guise of the supposed primacy of faith in Christ is like ignoring the mold growing on your basement walls: little by little, it will erode the foundation of the house in which you live. On the other hand, becoming informed about one's particular denominational tradition, then dialoguing with those outside of said tradition, contributes to the building up of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.