Sunday, January 30, 2011

A New People

The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. These are the founding documents of our country. They spell out how our country will be governed and what rights we will uphold. They define what kind of nation we are to be.

Today's gospel is the Beatitudes which forms the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is, for Jesus, the constitution of a new people and a new Kingdom. It's a founding document spelling out for us what kind of church Jesus intends us to be. It's a declaration of independence from a narrow view of religion as just a bunch of "thou shalt nots" to a living relationship with God the Father. Just as Moses climbed the mountain to receive the Law from God and deliver it to His people Israel, so Jesus, from the mount, delivers a new law for a new people.

What kind of people is God gathering? What kind of Church does Jesus intend to found? We hear about it in the Beatitudes. God's people are the poor and the lowly. They are those who have no power in the eyes of the world.

Human governments are formed and run by people with power, wealth and influence. They conquer through force, by gathering strong armies with fearsome weapons.

But God means to conquer the world in a different way. God means to conquer the world one heart at a time.

God whispers to the poor, "Let me be your wealth". The world's riches depreciate in value and are easily depleted, but God's wealth never loses value. God whispers to the sorrowful heart: "Let me be your consolation." The world offers empty words of consolation which cannot reach the heart. Only God can touch the unfathomable depths of the human heart which He created. God whispers to the hungry: "Let me feed you." The world's bread fills the belly for only a few hours. Soon, the stomach growls for more. But God's bread is free and satisfying beyond any nourishment the world can offer.

Jesus is gathering a new people, a new Kingdom. Jesus is instigating a revolution of peace and justice, not by means of armies and fire-power, but through simple people who seek to do God's will. Jesus is forming this new people out of you and me with our gifts, with our failures, with our limitations.

If we read the Beatitudes and hear in them a message of resignation before evil, then we really have not heard Jesus' words. Jesus is not saying to us that life is hard, but if we tough it out we'll be rewarded in heaven. The Kingdom of God which Jesus preaches about is not an event in some never-never land far off in the future. The Kingdom of God is today. It is here. It is now. Today is the day for the sorrowful to be comforted. Today is the day for the hungry to be fed. Now is the time for mercy and peace to be practiced. The Kingdom of God is among us and within us.

Neither are the Beatitudes something for other people to practice and live out. It is not something left up to the bishops, or nuns or other more "spiritual" people. It is for us to do. We are to practice mercy in our day-to-day lives. We are to make peace a reality. And, if necessary, we are to bear insults, ridicule and persecution for the sake of Jesus and the Kingdom which is breaking into our world. If we don't say "yes", if we don't let God conquer our hearts, then this Kingdom cannot be real and effective in the world.

We are gathered here today to witness something spectacular. It will go largely unnoticed. Katie Couric and Bill O'Reilly won't be here to cover it. Nonetheless, something revolutionary is taking place here today. Simple bread and wine will be transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. And, we will be fed by it. God will whisper to our hearts that He wants us for His own people.

Will we take this gift home with us? Will we allow it to transform us, transform our families, transform our work places, transform our world? Only then will this revolution of peace be underway.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Last Taboo

A professor conducted an interesting experiment with his class. He proposed to them the following moral problem and asked them to discuss it.

A brother and sister decided they wanted to have the experience of having sex with each other. They made sure to use birth control and promised they’d only do it this once. When they had completed the act, they found that the experience made their relationship stronger.

As can be expected, all the students condemned the act as immoral and repugnant. However, when asked to articulate why, they could only point to its potentially perilous consequences. First they said that the incestuous union could result in monstrous offspring. However, the professor countered that the pair had taken every precaution to avoid impregnation. They then declared that such an experience would make their relationship awkward and potentially ruin it. However, the professor countered that the experience in fact strengthened their relationship.

Finally, unable to get over the ick factor, the students could only declare, “It’s just wrong.”

The experiment, the professor claims, proves that our concepts of morality are taught to us by society and are “pre-rational”; that is, there are no solid, consistent principles behind them.

However, there are some problems with the professors logic.

First of all, does the fact that a classroom of college students is unable to articulate a moral principle mean that such principles do not exist? I’m sure the same students would not have been unable to articulate Einstein’s theory of relativity. Does that mean that the theory doesn’t exist or is a social construct? There are many things college students cannot articulate or are ignorant of. That’s why they’re in school!

Secondly, most likely the college students were unable to spell out any principle behind the injunction against incest because our society has reduced moral reasoning to managing the potentially harmful consequences of an action. It is interesting that the students immediately had recourse to the damage the incestuous union could have. No one reportedly located the immorality of the act in the nature of sexuality itself which is meant to be shared exclusively by a publicly committed man and woman open to bearing and raising children. This is the moral principle behind any sexually immoral act. Again, not knowing the constitutive moral principle or refusing to recognize it is not the same as saying it does not exist.

Thirdly, as entertaining as the case study may be, it is thoroughly hypothetical. It is extremely unlikely that an incestuous union would lead a brother and sister to have a closer relationship. Even if it did, it would not legitimize or justify the act. Furthermore, the case as it has been proposed has been totally scrubbed of any harmful consequences. It would be like asking if one man murdered another man but he did not really die and it made their relationship stronger, would the murder be wrong? Totally ridiculous.

But, we have learned something from the exercise. We must be able to spell out the moral principles and values behind our ethical judgments, not just recite their potentially harmful consequences.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Drawn to Jesus

Have you ever met someone with such a strong personality that you immediately felt drawn to him or her? When such people enter a room, all eyes turn to them. Everyone jockeys to be at their elbow to bask in their charisma. Such people inevitably draw others to them because of their wit and charms.

No doubt, Jesus was just such a person. He stood out. Whenever he spoke, a crowd would gather. He could fill a room merely by walking into it. Jesus never had any trouble getting attention.

We see an instance of Jesus’ commanding presence in today’s gospel - the call of the first disciples. His first followers were fisherman. Growing up along the banks of the Sea of Galilee, they would have known no other life. Chances are they worked hard and saved to buy or build their own boats. At the time Jesus called them, they would have had much equity tied up in their profession. Yet they are willing to abandon it all in what seems a whim - to follow an itinerant rabbi with no visible means of support and no home to call his own. It was at no small cost to them, financially and personally. But the magnetism of the man was powerful. They could not risk losing the opportunity to befriend him.

As a Church charged with keeping alive the memory and ministry of the God-Man of Nazareth, we must reflect this magnetism of Jesus. The more we are like him, the more we will draw people into the Church. This is good news! However, to reflect the light of Christ, we must repent. We must strip ourselves of all the trappings of worldly life - the hoarding of wealth, the ambition for status and the abuse of power. When those marks of a worldly life appear in the believing community, it repels sincere seekers of the truth. It tells them that they should be looking elsewhere for the Jesus of the Gospels. But when we are humble, generous and self-effacing, the face of Christ becomes evident among us and the spiritual magnetism of Jesus leads others to learn from us who have sat at the feet of the Master.

And so, the most effective way to revitalize the Church is for each of her members - beginning with me - to live the gospel message in a radical way through the power of the Holy Spirit. Then our churches will not be begin enough to contain all the worshippers drawn to them.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Fighting Distractions in Prayer

During Bible study this week, the topic of distractions in prayer arose. Apropos, I found this prayer in my breviary:

Lord, open my lips to praise your holy name.
Cleanse my heart of any worthless, evil or distracting thoughts.
Give me the wisdom and love necessary to pray with attention,
reverence and devotion.
Father, let my prayer be heard in your presence,
for it is offered through Christ our Lord.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

God Wants the Patriots to WIN!

With so many problems in the world, the outcome of a football game - even a post-season one - is no concern to Almighty God. Therefore, I would never presume to pray for my team to win.

However, this Sunday’s match-up between the New England Patriots and New York Jets is an exception.

It is clear that the Jets coach and players lack a quality without which no one can please God - humility.

Even before the season started, they boasted about being the best team in football. They crowned themselves the early favorites to hoist the Lombardi trophy before even a down of football was played.

After losing the opening game to the Ravens and suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Patriots with the AFC East title on the line, their bluster and bravado spewed forth unabated. It came to a head this weekend with the Jets coach calling the rivalry personal and Antonio Cromartie, sire of ten illegitimate children, using profanity to describe his hatred for Tom Brady.

It is clear, then, that for the salvation of their eternal souls, the Jets coach and players must suffer a humiliating de-feet this Sunday against the Patriots. It may help them reflect on their behavior, abandon their pride and turn to him for the gift of humility.

Therefore, it is a work of mercy to pray that the New England Patriots will win this weekend.

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Light of Revelation to All Nations

The twentieth century opened with one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history - World War I. Advances in science and technology made the slaughter of human lives possible on a massive scale. Airplanes could now drop bombs creating widespread destruction, and mustard gas burned the skin off soldiers.

Nowhere was the fighting fiercer than on the front lines along the Western front. British and German troops hunkered down in trenches along the lines exchanging gunfire and lobbing grenades. When the artillery failed to kill the troops, dysentery and dehydration succeeded in finishing them off.

.However, on Christmas day of 1914 at Ypres, Belgium, the hounds of war were called off for a brief time. To celebrate the holiday, German soldiers began decorating their trenches with lights and singing carols. The British troops responded by singing carols of their own and shouting Christmas greetings to their German counterparts. In a show of holiday spirit, they agreed to stop the shooting to allow each other to leave their trenches to collect and bury the corpses of their dead comrades. In the process, the British and German troops began talking. They exchanged gifts and, in some locations, even held joint Christmas services.

Sadly, these friendly exchanges were not enough to bring an end to the brutal war. The fighting eventually resumed as fiercely as it had before. But for a brief time the soldiers came to see each other not as enemies but as friends. They recognized their common humanity. They saw that they all had families they were anxious to return to and a future full of dreams they hoped to pursue. For a fleeting time, they experienced the gift which Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was born to bring to earth. Only Jesus, who could gather indigent shepherds and wealthy, world-wise Magi together in a stable in Bethlehem, can bring peace to a world rent by conflict and division.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Holy Name of Jesus

Today’s feast, Mary,the Mother of God, was traditionally celebrated as the Circumcision of Jesus. The readings of the day are a vestige of the old observance. It seems that, when the liturgical calendar was reformed, the powers that be (or that were) decided that it was too difficult for modern believers to relate to Jesus’ circumcision. So instead we are left with a feast to Mary, with readings for the Circumcision of Jesus when the people are celebrating New Year’s Day. Talk about a mess!

Why was Jesus’ circumcision celebrated in the first place and what meaning could it have for us as we begin the second decade of the twenty-first century?

On the day of his circumcision, Jesus became an heir to the covenant God made with Abraham. He was marked as a member of the chosen people. In doing so, he took another step toward fulfilling those promises and establishing a new covenant.

But, most importantly, on the day of his circumcision, he received the name announced to Mary by the angel Gabriel. He was called, “Jesus”, a name which means “salvation” and “victory”. Through this child, and in his name, God will conquer sin and death and bring salvation to those who believe.

We all know people who are name droppers. They talk about all the important people they know to make themselves look important. Or they use the names of powerful men to get access to employment or positions of influence. As baptized believers, we have the power to drop the greatest name of all, the name of Jesus. In his name we brag about our importance as children of God and heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven. In his name we have access to the throne of grace where we can find forgiveness of sin, strength in temptation and the love to lay down our lives for others. There is no other name given to us by which we are to be saved than the name of Jesus!

So, along with celebrating the motherhood of Mary, New Year’s Day could also be observed as the feast of the Holy Name, if that doesn’t complicate things further. In Jesus’ name we have victory over sin and death. He came born of a woman (taking on our sinful nature) and born under the law (subject to rituals and observances that could never sanctify or justify us) to purify human nature and elevate religion to a person, filial relationship with the Father. Through the name of Jesus we become sons and daughters of God and heirs to his Kingdom. Also, we are no longer children of Eve, subject to condemnation and death, but children of Mary, the Mother of God.

Maybe that - our sonship in Christ through Mary - is what ties this all together.