Sunday, January 31, 2010

Hometown Boy Makes Good

Every Sunday, RAI Internazionale, broadcasts a Mass in Italian from one of that country's many beautiful churches. This Sunday's Mass was celebrated at the Sanctuary of Saint Blaise in Cardito near Naples. The pastor preached the following fine homily which I have taken the liberty to translate. It is a bit rambling and in need of a good editing job, but the content is excellent.

The public ministry of Jesus begins at Nazareth. He finds himself in the synagogue reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is the prophet who foretold what the time of the Messiah would be like. He prophesied about hope, consolation, communion, peace, light and blessings for Israel. But, above all, Isaiah is the prophet who speaks about the people's return from exile.

Last Sunday, Jesus ends his reading of the scroll by proclaiming, "Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." Jesus affirms that he is the one who brings the good news. Rather, HE himself is the good news. We would expect that those present would have leaped for joy, embraced one another and rejoiced. Instead, Jesus hears murmurs. "Isn't this the carpenter's son?" Jesus replies by telling them how difficult it is to prophecy to ones own people. Only foreigners like the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian were able to recognize the prophets Elijah and Elisha. At this point, the people become outraged. Who does he think he is? The people cannot accept that the son of Joseph, the carpenter, can be a prophet.

The reasons for rejecting him are clear. Jesus is not the Messiah they were expecting. He is not spectacular enough.

The same thing happens to us today. We ask ourselves, "What can a God made man do for us?" A severe God would do a better job of convincing us of his existence. A God who intervenes directly in our lives would be better able to inspire our adoration and devotion probably because we would expect him to do a miracle for us. However, Jesus eludes triumphalistic expectations. Why? Because he prods us along toward the truth. Because by his word he goads us to plumb the depths of our human experience. Jesus does not offer easy solutions to the inevitable sufferings of life.

We are held prisoner by our ideas of what Christianity is such that we are unable to see the true face of God. We ask ourselves, "What does the Church have to tell us about God? What does the gospel have to say about the pressing moral and ethical problems of our day?" And many continue to be scandalized by the fact that God entrusts his word into our fragile hands. He entrusts his word to us who are so often unfaithful, who are so often in need of forgiveness and continuous mercy. We run the risk of getting fixated on the messenger all the while overlooking the message - the Word, the Word which became flesh among us.

Today's gospel is not only for those who are far off, for those without faith. It is directed also to us, the faithful who go to church every Sunday. We also have to be careful not to lose the meaning of the role of prophecy in our lives. We must allow ourselves to enter into dialogue with the Word of God and to acknowledge our need for ongoing conversion otherwise we run the risk of also throwing Jesus out of the synagogue.

We live in a world which is full of paradoxes. It is a world which is satiated but at the same time desperate. It is a world which acknowledges God but at the same time does not allow him to be found. It is a world in which there is much uneasiness and dissatisfaction, but which does not allow it to be discussed. This is a world which so often accuses God of being disinterested in humanity and yet, in the face of hunger and poverty, promotes materialism and opulence.
And so, brothers and sisters, the Church, when confronted with such a world, is always in need of prophets. The Church must always be prophetic. We can never forget that, at the moment we received baptism, we were anointed and given the three-fold dignity of priest, prophet and king. The Church needs to take challenging, counter-cultural positions on the issues of the day in order to keep alive and fruitful the charism of the gospel. In the Christianity we live which too often becomes rote and confused we must discover how to become women and men who seek and accept the role of prophet. We cannot accustom ourselves to a privately held faith which consoles but does not challenge, which provokes emotions but does not change lives. And if we ask the Holy Spirit to come and actualize in us our prophetic vocation, if we are called to be witnesses to the gospel, if we are called to proclaim with not only our words but with our actions that Jesus is the Lord and that he must be the center of our lives, we should not fear because as God said to the prophet Jeremiah in today's first reading: " You will become a fortress, and I will be within you."

Jesus leaves us free to accept his challenge, to welcome the good news of a God who really and truly loves us. We are also free to be limited by our own opinions and points of view. He leaves us free to respond seriously to his offer of love. Or do we prefer to throw Jesus over the cliff because he fails to tell us what we want to hear?

Sia lodato Gesu' Cristo!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hard to Love

I preached the following homily on this day back in 1992.

I find the story of the cleansing of the leper the most dramatic and touching of the gospel healing narratives.

Consider the leper's situation. Society completely ostracized him. He could not be touched. He could not enter the city. He could not worship in the Temple.

Worse yet, he was considered a sinner. That was the only way they could imagine such a hideous diseas afflicting someone. Considering them sinners also justified not treating them as members of God's chosen people. Treating lepers as sinners made it easier not to feel compassion for them and so lock them out of view.

But Jesus takes this mentality and turns it on its head. In cleansing the leper, Jesus shows that being diseased and being a sinner were not reasons to shut others out but all the more reason to reach out to them.

I have never met a leper, but I once met a young boy who caused as much disgust in me. He was a camper one summer at our diocesan youth camp. His skin was pale - almost yellow - and his eyes were red and reptilian. I didn't like the way he talked or walked. I didn't even like his name. In short, he embodied everything I find repulsive.

One evening I was venting my loathing of him to another counsellor when she remarked, "Yes, he is hard to love."

That response stung me. Her comment turned my perception of the situation on its head. I was using my personal feelings of disgust to justify avoiding him and treating him harshly, while she saw it as a reason to love him all the more.

Any authentic healing is rooted in reconciliation. Jesus has called each of us to be ministers of that reconciliation. But the reconciliation that is of primary importance for our ministry is probably not that sinners be reconciled to God - though that is certainly important - but that we reconcile ourselves with sinners. Unless we get over the personal disgust or antipathy we may feel for them, we will never care enough to reach out to them with the good news of forgiveness. For those whom we find "hard to love" are the ones who are in most need of our love and the ones God seeks most desperately.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Another lesson from the past week

Can a devout, pro-life Catholic ever in good conscience vote for a pro-choice candidate?

This week's Senate election in Massachusetts offers an interesting case in point.

Though Massachusetts has the second largest Catholic population by percentage, a serious pro-life politician never reaches the ballot. The Democratic candidate for Senate, Martha Coakley, stuck to a staunchly pro-choice platform including opposition to parental notification when minors seek abortions and to the right of individuals to protest outside abortion mills. The Republican candidate, Scott Brown, is also pro-choice but accepts the need for limits and regulations on abortions including a ban on partial birth abortions and conscience protections for health care professionals. Joe Kennedy, the Independent candidate, does not articulate his views on abortion on his website. However, given his permissive views on same sex marriage and other cultural issues, one may assume that he is solidly pro-choice.

Does this sad state of affairs mean that the pro-life voter has no choice in conscience except to boycott the election or write in a candidate? By no means. In my opinion, because Martha Coakley's views on abortion are so extreme, Scott Brown's position - though deeply flawed - ensures that important measures such as conscience protections for medical professionals and the ban on public funding for abortions would stay in place. So important are these issues in my opinion that even if the third party candidate were pro-life, a vote for Scott Brown could still be morally justified. The possibility of the third party candidate actually winning would be too small to entrust him with our vote. And it could result in the more extreme candidate being elected. Therefore, keeping in place the important restrictions on abortion achieved to this point makes a vote for Scott Brown a good one in conscience despite his pro-choice views.

It should be noted, however, that this is a good moral choice because the only other viable option was a candidate with such extreme views. Were her views more moderate or if there had been a viable pro-life candidate, the moral reasoning would be quite different.

Nothing convinced me more of our need to oppose Martha Coakley's candidacy than an interview she gave prior to the election on her opposition to conscience protections for medical professionals. Pushed on the issue by the reporter, she finally conceded that individual consciences should be respected. However she quickly added that devote Catholics then should not work in emergency rooms. This raised the specter of religious litmus tests for health care workers and emergency rooms staffed by Doctor Mengele's.

I suspect that, like the issue of conscience protections, none of her other extreme views, spoon-fed to her by Planned Parenthood and Emily's List, would stand up to logical scrutiny or be palatable to the people of the Commonwealth. Yet she would be willing to impose them on the health care community, and by extension, to their patients.

If those of us who value life had boycotted the election, she may have won and carried her radical, anti-life agenda to the Senate floor. For all his flaws, Scott Brown was the only choice against even further erosion of the right to life.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Revenge of Big Blue

The night of the special election which witnessed a Republican upstart take the Senate seat vacated by the liberal icon and "Lion of the Senate", Ted Kennedy, felt much like the night the Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years. The euphoric feeling that a curse had been dispelled coursed through the so called "bluest of blue" states (an insufferable cliche). A house fell on the Wicked Witch of the West, and the ruby slippers have passed on to another. A sense of relief and liberation has taken over fifty plus seven percent of the population of the Commonwealth.

How to explain this Indigo Revolution? One of my Facebook friends summed it up best: "For the first time in my life, I feel as though my vote counted for something."

Most Massachusetts residents most of their voting lives have gone to the polls knowing the result was already a foregone conclusion. No matter whom they voted for in presidential elections, the state's electoral votes would go to McGovern, Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Gore, Kerry or Obama. In local elections, there are never serious Republican or Independent challengers to the rubber stamps offered by the Democratic "machine". We might vote for the Republican candidate if there is one or pencil in "Mickey Mouse" as a protest vote, but, no matter what, our vote was cast into a melting pot of solid Democratic goose-stepping party loyalists.

With this election, things changed. At first, few paid attention to the special election or planned to vote. But the public began to take notice of Scott Brown. Though he started off as a 30 point underdog, his political ads and performance in the debate made us stand up and take notice. When he rebuffed the debate moderator, uber talking head, David Gergen, with the words, "It's the people's seat!", an anthem was born which rallied the Commonwealth's residents. The people believed that the government could once again echo their voice. They did not have to accept the anointees of unknown backroom power brokers. For once, our vote was going to matter.

Hear this now. This election was not a referendum on health care. It was no expression of buyer's remorse on Obama's agenda. If that is how it comes to be understood by the rest of the nation, then so be it. But it was nothing more than the people feeling empowered to make a choice that was not in lockstep with the Commonwealth's official political party.

We threw dirt on the Kennedy legacy. May it rest in peace. Long live a new era of accountability in the Massachusetts body politic.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bride of Christ

In 1974, when Avery Dulles published his famous book, Models of the Church, it became mandatory reading for every Theology 101 course. As the title suggests, the book explores many of the common images and paradigms used to explain the mystery of the Church. They included the Church as Institution, Mystical Communion, Sacrament, Herald, Body of Christ and Community of Disciples. If I may be so bold as to criticize such a classic work of theology, I feel that there is one important model which Dulles fails to consider. That is, the Church as the Bride of Christ.

Already in the Old Testament, the relationship of God with his people was described in marital terms. The act of circumcision as a symbol of the covenant was taken from the marriage rituals of ancient Near Eastern societies. Today's first reading from the prophet Isaiah echoes the theme:

As a young man marries a virgin,
your builder shall marry you;
And as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride,
so shall your God rejoice in you.

In keeping with this metaphor, idolatry was considered akin to infidelity (e.g. Is.1:21) and sin described as harlotry (e.g. Jer.3:1).

On the other hand, the messianic age when God would be forever reconciled to his people was described in terms of a wedding banquet (e.g. Is.25: 6).

The New Testament picks up this theme of the union between God and his people as a marriage. However, Jesus is identified as the bridegroom and the Church as his bride. That Jesus understood himself in this way is evident from his response to the Pharisees on why his disciples did not fast: "How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? (Mk 2: 19). Furthermore, many of the parables he told showed that he conceived of the end times in terms of a wedding feast (eg. the parable of the virgins in Mt. 25 and the parable of the king and the wedding guests in Mt. 22).

The early Christians, in the light of Jesus' death and resurrection, developed the theme even further. Saint Paul articulates this mystery in his second letter to the Corinthians when he writes: "I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him (2 Cor.11:2). However, it is in the book of Revelation that the Church as Bride of Christ is given its most explicit treatment in the context of the end times. When the enemies of God have been vanquished and the blood of the martyrs avenged, all heaven erupts in a song of praise, "For the wedding feast of the Lamb has begun and his bride is prepared to welcome him (Rev.19: 7). And then Saint John reports this mystical vision: "I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully adorned to meet her husband (Rev. 21: 1-2).

Understanding the Church as the Bride of Christ and the reconciliation of God with his people as a wedding banquet sheds much light on Saint John's story of the Wedding Feast of Cana. That Jesus' first miracle (or "sign" as Saint John calls it) takes place at a wedding feast is not an insignificant fact. Though he is not literally the bridegroom, he is presented as the one who, by turning the waters used for ritual cleansing into the wine of the new covenant, brings to completion the reconciliation prefigured in the Old Testament prophecies.

Neither is it insignificant that Jesus responds to his mother's request by saying, "My hour has not yet come". For Jesus, his "hour" is the cross: "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.... Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say, 'Father, save me from this hour?' No, it was for this very reason that I came to his hour." (Jn. 12 23 & 27). This ties the wedding feast at Cana with Jesus' death on the cross. The first sign of the changing of water to wine was so that his glory could be revealed and the disciples could believe in him. The hour of Jesus' glory in the gospel of John is precisely the cross through which all people will believe in him: "But I, when I am lifted up, will draw all men to myself" (Jn. 13: 32).

Through the cross, Jesus consummates the marriage between God and his people. Jesus' last words from the cross are, "It is finished" (Jn.19:30), which is translated in Latin as "Consummatum est" or "It is consummated". And when the soldier pierces Jesus' side, blood and water rush out (Jn. 19:34). The blood and water (an echo of the water and wine of Cana) are understood to represent the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist. Just as God created Eve from a rib taken from Adam's side, so God created the Church, the Bride of Christ, from Jesus' side.

Reflecting on the Church as the Bride of Christ offers a dimension to our understanding of ourselves as believers which no other model be it Sacrament, Herald or Mystical Communion can convey. Simply put, Christ loves the Church. It explains why he did so much to deliver us from sin and works so diligently to preserve us in his grace. Furthermore, no other model better exemplifies the future glory that awaits the Church when God will be forever united with his people in a bond of love which can never be broken.