Sunday, August 30, 2009

Catholics Called to Change or Not?

Readings for Today
In homilies and retreats, we sometimes hear that we are already perfect, that God is already pleased with us, and likes us just as we are. Perhaps these speakers grew up watching Fred Rogers on television, but we are no longer small children in need of comfort only, but adults in need of both sustenance and growth. Certainly, God may be pleased with some of us, as we are pleased when we pass a familiar point on the road that indicates we are getting closer to home. But some of us are on the right road, and some are not. To those on the right road, the Scriptures say "beware of corruption, stay on the road." To those off the road, "get on the road before it is too late." To tell people they are fine, as a blanket statement to a thousand at once, is to call Christ a liar. The argument might be that our perfection was achieved by the cross and resurrection, and we no longer need to hear warnings and correction, but this is not Catholic, and it is not human. We are not yet complete and humans change constantly: we call it aging. We grow complacent at times and need to wake up; we go astray at times and need correction. Jesus gives us a wake-up call and our leaders hit the snooze button.
At the same time, God does love us just as we are, because He loves us -- period. This love provides defense against discouragement, comfort when we fail, and incentive to rise up to try again. Some voices claim this love means we have no reason to exert ourselves, and there is no heroic effort to be made, yet when we read about the Saints we see heroic effort, and past writers have told us that to live an ordinary life well takes extraordinary effort. Perhaps this is why we read about the disciples falling asleep while Jesus prayed? And perhaps Samuel Beckett was thinking of this when he wrote Waiting for Godot:

Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be?
(Estragon, having struggled with his boots in vain, is dozing off again. Vladimir looks at him.) He'll know nothing. He'll tell me about the blows he received and I'll give him a carrot. (Pause.) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on.

Let us not sleep on, but awake and begin the work of growth and change, starting with ourselves.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Catholic Marriage Teachings Too Hard

Readings for Today
Look at the alternate reading from Ephesians today and you will see that the part about wives being submissive to their husbands can (and probably will) be omitted. As the omitted verses are not long, it appears to have been removed from the scripture to avoid offending women. Ironically, the gospel reading begins with "many of Jesus’disciples who were listening said,'This saying is hard; who can accept it?'” There is a serious concern when the readings are censored to avoid offense, and even more serious when a group in the Church is exempted from hearing a hard saying of Paul's.
But is submission a bad thing, and what does it mean? Paul was not redefining marriage, but showing us what it was intended to be all along: a Sacrament, a sign of Christ's love for the Church. The fullest meaning of marriage only became evident after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, which is why it is a Sacrament and why a priest or deacon presides. Recently, we had to attend a class given by the bishop's representative, and when she talked about marriage we were asked "what is the outward sign of the sacrament of matrimony?" Of course, the answer came back "the married life, lived in unity and love." And the sister teaching the class said, "No, it is the rings and candles." This is entirely wrong, but it shows the level of confusion in the Church.
Paul reminds us, or would if we would let him, that the wife is submissive to show what our attitude to Christ should be. C.S. Lewis likens marriage to a play about God and His people, and Hosea did the same. Submission is not saying the wife is less than the husband, but that she contributes to the sacrament by playing the role of the Church, and the husband plays the role of Christ. For modern people, who have long since rejected the idea of being submissive to Christ, uxorial submission is a silly, outdated notion. Marriage is seen as a contractual arrangement, not really necessary, a piece of paper, but also a way to legitimize sex. Dorothy L. Sayers said that marriage used to support the State by ensuring the smooth transition of capital, and this is true. She also said that when the State no longer required it, the support would vanish, and she has been proven right. Perhaps the leaders of the Church are no longer interested in supporting marriage, and so they teach it is all about rings and candles, and not about being living sacraments.
The concerns about bad marriages where the husband is domineering and abusive are valid, but that is the opposite of what Paul writes. When a perfectly submissive wife is coupled with a perfectly loving husband, the acts of submission are few or zero, and perhaps this is the greatest lesson of all: that when we are perfectly submissive to Christ, we are not downtrodden or abused, but get everything we really want and more. The real irony is that the more we unite ourselves to the will of God, the more or own will is strengthened and the more we get what we really want.
It is too bad that lesson will be kept from the Catholics at Mass today where the alternate reading is used.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Readings for The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ

Readings for Today
The core beliefs of Catholicism, and indeed Christianity, are being abandoned in ever increasing numbers. Today's readings are about sacrifice and saving actions that make no sense to most people, even Catholics. The vision in the first reading of blood being sprinkled on the people is repulsive to most tastes and seems primitive. And it is. Some scientists and their promoters say that the human race must outgrow religion and embrace science as the replacement, and they have it partly right. Humanity must grow, and that implies a less-mature state in the past, in the same way that children must mature from a conceptus in the womb to adulthood. Diapers are messy but we accept this as appropriate at a certain stage. There is no stigma attached to having been an infant, yet we may regard early religious development as an embarrassment. From a time before history, God was calling us. From a time when we were little more than upright apes, He was calling and we responded the best we could, often as poorly as a child first responds to potty training. He called us to come away from the beasts and become an image of God, to embrace the spiritual and intellectual life, to put aside mere instinct and know virtue and love. Moses prepared the people for Jesus in a way they could barely understand, and lifted them higher than they had been before. It is like the steps in Maslow's hierarchy of needs, where we must move from the basics of survival up to greater levels of living. Without the sprinkling of blood in the past, we could not make the leap to Holy Communion, where our senses see no blood, and only our intellect and spirit can understand it. The meaning is communicated in a new way, but we must respect the way we arrived here. Each of us started as a baby, but we must not ridicule babies now that we have grown.

The question is what is next along this line of growth. The Church teaches that the faith is complete and no new revelation is to be expected. In nearly 2,000 years, we have yet to rise to the level of the Gospel: the world is still full of violence and stupidity, and those in the Church are doing no better than the ones outside. There is room for much growth and maturity, and if we finally decide to live the Gospel, we can then ask God, "What is next?"

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Sunday Readings - Sixth Sunday in Easter

Readings for Today

In all the homilies on this gospel reading, I cannot remember hearing any mention of the conditionals included. "If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love" and "You are my friends if you do what I command you." We get assurances that God is our friend, that He will put up with our abuse, just as any good friend does, and that He is a kindly, indulgent old man who just wants us to be happy. And the implication is that being wanton children is what will make us happy.
But these "ifs" remain. Is God's love inconstant? God's love for us stands steady, but we do not, and Jesus sees this. It says elsewhere that Jesus knew men's hearts, and "he needed no one to tell him about human nature." His love is constant, but we can and do wander out into the cold. We freely choose to not remain, to go our own way and congratulate ourselves on it. We expect God to accept our behavior even though we have these "ifs." This is consistent with other areas of human behavior: buying things we need not, with money we have not. Our desire for a thing overrides all sense, ignoring our lack of money, time, discipline, and even ignoring our experience, so that we make the same stupid mistakes repeatedly. We want the perceived benefits but are shocked to learn the price.
Quite possibly, we do not believe at all. The words of Jesus are full of promises, and perhaps we do not believe him. This would explain why we continue to go our own way and ignore the teachings of the Gospel, and comfort ourselves (with help from the clergy) that all is forgiven or that we are not all that bad. As a side note, it is not that forgiveness is not real, but it requires repentance. We justify ourselves and grant absolution to ourselves.
These "ifs" are a challenge. Can we see that a response is required, and that we cannot expect to live in a love that we have rejected?

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Sunday Readings - Fourth Sunday in Easter

In the first reading, we see the apostles following the command of Christ, and the consternation of the religious professionals who thought they had eliminated a problem, only to find they have more problems than before. The rejected stone has now become many stones, enough to build the city on the hill, and too many to be disposed of easily.

The psalm echoes one of the patterns of the Hebrew Scriptures, that is it not the first-born son who inherits, but the one society and convention would reject: Isaac inherits, not Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, David over his elder brothers. In the Magnificat, Mary notes this as well. In Acts, the religious professionals note that the apostles are "men of no standing," echoing the objection of the guild prophets to Amos, the "amateur" prophet. The second reading explains the worldly rejection as a rejection of God, for God is not best represented by the survival of the fittest, but rather by an arithmetic entirely outside our ken. We are only called to recognize and embrace the fresh, new things God is always doing and reject the status quo when called to do so.

In the Gospel, we are reminded again that in our Good Shepherd alone is there someone worthy of trust. As was said elsewhere in the gospels, many came before, and indeed are still coming, who are in it for the immediate rewards. A major pitfall in business, as we have seen, is the favoring of short-term gains over stewardship, and it is the same here. Jesus is in it for the right reasons, simply doing the will of the Father, loving us with no reason but love, and by that love making us more than we have been. We do not seem to hear his voice as well as we must, and this is a mystery, for it is in our best interest to listen for him. Perhaps even the sheep are suffering from myopia and are too caught up in the short term to see past the next grassy hill?

Readings for today
Acts 4:8-12
Ps 118:1, 8-9, 21-23, 26, 28, 29
1 Jn 3:1-2
Jn 10:11-18

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sunday Readings - Third Sunday in Easter

Perhaps one benefit to Jesus having died a brutal, public death toward the end of an extended public spectacle is that it left no doubt that he had, in fact, died. Those who walked with him loved him, albeit imperfectly, but their reaction is unexpected to us. In movies, a beloved relative's ghost visits and a character often seems to accept it as normal, and at least some of us have met someone who claimed to have such a visit before. Their reaction never seems to be terror, provided the ghostly visitor was known before and loved. Perhaps this says something about our antiseptic approach to death, where we are rarely present when the beloved stopped breathing and took on that final, staring countenance reserved for those facing immanent eternity. Few of us have closed the eyes of another, and so the reality of death is less, and it seems less of a jolt when the departed appears to have returned. Perhaps it is because we are less alive than our forebears, so we underestimate the distance between life and death.

As with the visits of angels, Jesus' first word is "Peace." Like the angels, this is not a visit from the grave, as the disciples seem to fear, but a visit from God, more immediate than they had experienced before. It was well that some of them had seen Moses and Elijah with Jesus before, because these two prophets from of old had a similar experience of God, one that made both hide their faces in fear and reverence. Unlike these older times, Jesus emphasizes his humanity and physical presence, inviting them to touch him and offering to eat with them as he had done before, a thing unthinkable before the Incarnation.

Jesus wastes no time in getting down to business. Before their pulses can return to normal, he tasks them with their mission, and the First Reading shows Peter in the act of carrying it out, with a call to repentance in Jerusalem, and we know he will eventually make that appeal in Rome. We have forgotten that mission, and we no longer carry out the command of Christ, neither by explicitly preaching repentance nor by living in a way that proclaims the gospel. Jesus traveled from the grave to the living in order to give the disciples their mission; he will have to come to a dead Church to call us today. Peter's hearers had the excuse of ignorance, but we who have received the Eucharist, heard these readings, been baptized and anointed, sacramentalized, have no excuse. We appear to have no expectation of Christ's return, and will be far more surprised than the disciples were at his coming, because although we were warned, we have been having quite the merry time while the master was away.

Perhaps we had better wake up?

Readings for today
Acts 3:13-15, 17-19
Ps 4:2, 4, 7-8, 9
1 Jn 2:1-5a
Lk 24:35-48

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sunday Readings - Second Sunday in Easter

My son reported that his English teacher said last week that St. Thomas More, in the novel Utopia, espoused communism. Today's first reading might seem to support her, if we ignore the anachronism and confusion of communism with collectivism. "No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own."(Acts 4:32) What More described fit well with this, but such a unique individual, and one so devoted to the person of Christ, could scarcely advocate the loss of individuality inherent in collectivism (or socialism, communism). The Catholic faith reconciles both collectivism (of a sort) and individuality, for we celebrate the diversity of the Saints who each expressed the same Faith in different ways, yet all were responding to the same call. This is not a Faith which requires the loss of self, but understands that as each individual approaches perfection, they become both more unique and more like Christ. It is a paradox, not a contradiction.
Is it possible to order a society along lines close to Acts 4? To paraphrase the Gospel, for us it is impossible, but not for God. The key is found in Acts 2:42, and details the response of the early community to the inrush of the Holy Spirit: "They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers." (Acts 2:42)
This describes the right response to the gift of salvation and the Holy Spirit, and it is a requirement for the way of life known in the early Church. Without such devotion to truth and prayer, the communal life breaks down, and this can be found in the Hebrew Testament as well, forbidding sowing a field with two kinds of seed, plowing with ox and ass, or even cloth with two kinds of thread. (cf. Deut 22:9-11) Unity is required for community to work, not a forced unity aimed toward social justice, but a unity of love for God that has social justice as an inevitable outcome. The byproducts of love are sustained only when the love is divine, and cannot be manufactured or forced on their own.
So what Luke describes today must be seen as the result of the early Church's response to Pentecost, made possible by God's love, giving the community the power to unite in faith, worship and prayer. Everything good we find in that community is a consequence, not an ideology pursued or forced.

Readings for today

For another view of this, see Donne's Meditation 17.