The Gospel for Sunday, June 25th, 2017

The Gospel for June 25th, 2017: “Courage Under Persecution”

Matthew 10: 26-33

Reflection: Seeing Jesus in Our Enemies

Last night I saw a regional theater production of Sister Act: A Divine Musical Comedy. The production is inspired by the highly successful, Whoopi Goldberg movie from the nineties, and both tell the story of Deloris Van Cartier, a lounge singer who witnesses her gangster boyfriend commit murder and seeks witness protection by hiding among an order of nuns in a run-down, neighborhood parish. The show is noticeably different from the movie version in many ways. One is that the musical develops the internal conflicts of some of the nuns in greater psychological depth, including that of the Mother Superior (played by Maggie Smith in the movie version), who struggles to accept that the arrival of Deloris, which rejuvenates her sisters and their parish through her musical talents as the new choir director, is a blessing, not a curse. As the choir adopts a more ostentatious, less modest, look and sound, which draws new parishioners and financial support to the sagging church, Mother Superior questions whether the changes are really better for her order. The tension reaches a climax in the second act when she admits to the Lord in prayer she is afraid in the song “I Haven’t Got a Prayer.”

It is this poignant moment, the emotion of which musical theater often captures so well, that comes to mind as I read today’s gospel, which thematically focuses on fear. The reading begins with Jesus preparing the twelve apostles to go forth to preach and heal. In anticipation of them encountering those who will persecute them for their counter-cultural message, He tells them, “Fear no one…do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy
both soul and body in Gehenna” (26-28). Precisely speaking, Jesus is not referring to the kind of enemy Deloris Van Cartier represents to the Mother Superior in Sister Act. Instead, He was addressing the religious and political authorities who would object to their ministry and have the power to imprison or harm them. And while such enemies still exist to Christians in this day and age, for those of us who live in countries with freedom of religion and reasonably safe conditions, the enemy like Deloris, who threatens Mother Superior’s authority and faith with her secular ideas that are so appealing to the other nuns, is perhaps more likely the kind of enemy to be feared. She threatens the Mother Superior with loss of autonomy and ego-death, two of the five most common fears cited by Karl Albrecht, PhD, in “The (Only) Five Fears We All Share.” This is why Deloris strikes fear in Mother Superior and why she is just as formidable an enemy to the head nun as the men of the Sanhedrin or Pontius Pilate were to Jesus and the early Christians.

One of the remarkably refreshing aspects of the musical Sister Act is that it is rather explicit about the fact that God is at work in the character of Deloris. Mother Superior’s struggle is to see Jesus in this unlikely and unwelcome intrusion into her life. Indeed, the pastor, Monsignor Howard tells her as much when he says, ‘God has answered your prayers. You just don’t like the answer.’ It is so easy to forget that every perceived enemy has been created by God for a specific purpose and worthy of our love and attention. The fear they strike in us is a challenge for us to realign our lives with God’s plan and move away from our own willful understanding of how things should be. If we truly have faith, we will remove the mental label of enemy from over the head of all those people in our life who challenge us to be unselfish and faithful; instead, we will be grateful for their role in helping us grow in humility and to live without fear. To miss Jesus in our enemies, to miss the hand of God in their existence, is to deny Jesus, who said “love your enemies” (Matthew 5: 43-48). We must not give in to fear and go down this path. In faith, we must surrender our fears to God and trust He will provide for and care for us. Eventually His wisdom will make sense to us and show the foolishness of our fear. “Nothing is concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known” (Matthew 10: 26).

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The Gospel for Sunday, March 12th, 2017

The Gospel for March 12th, 2017: The Transfiguration

Matthew 17: 1-9

Reflection: Rest on Faith and Listen

The Transfiguration gospel speaks to my need for control and familiar routines. I have spent years trying to strategically respond to and ultimately control the circumstances of my life with a highly self-centered focus. When the unfamiliar comes, do I see God’s gentle hands at work? No, I am terrified by that which I don’t understand and desperately try to first, wrap my mind around it, and second wrap my arms around it to hold and control.

I see Peter react similarly at first in his experience with Jesus, James, and John high on the mountain. In this rarified air, Jesus reveals more of His divine presence than Peter is ready to understand based on his previous experience. Jesus’ appearance is magnified by a brilliant light, and He manifests His fulfillment of Old Testament law and prophecy by appearing to converse with Moses and Elijah (2-3).

Peter, in his disorientation, grasps on to this glimmer of recognition and tries to react with a familiar plan. He suggests to Jesus, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (4). There is nothing wrong with this plan from a logical standpoint. It is rooted in tradition. His intentions are honorable and respectful. And yet, it is not God’s will that he try to tame this moment within the limits of tradition. Peter, James, and John are in the midst of genuine encounter with their God in the person of a fully divine Jesus the Son. If they watch and listen, they will grow closer to their salvation.

So God the Father intervenes and tells them, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased, listen to [H]im” (5). Now if the transfiguration of Jesus was overwhelming, a direct encounter with God in heaven is terrifying.  They “fell prostrate and were very much afraid” (7). In this moment of distress, Jesus comforts them, and when they look up, “[T]hey saw no one else but Jesus alone” (8).

Just like the Transfiguration, our encounters with God may manifest themselves as disorienting, frightening experiences, ones we mistakenly try to avoid or end quickly. If we let go of the natural desire to control these experiences—“to listen—“we too may hear God and be comforted by Jesus in those moments. May the deprivation of comforts of Lenten fasting and almsgiving open our hearts to such experiences, instead of  trying to fear and control them. It may be that deliverance from sin and death lies in resting on faith and listening for the voice of Jesus.

The Gospel for Sunday, June 18th, 2017

The Gospel for June 18th, 2017: The Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ

John 6: 51-58

Reflection: The Beautiful Mystery and Logic of the Eucharist

I am quite sure when I was a younger man I did not appreciate the awesome power of the Eucharist. Perhaps if I had, I would not have fallen away from the Church for a number of wasted years. I thought I could make myself happy through the pleasures of the world and could not appreciate the need to commune with my savior, to become one with Him in this holy meal. The peace I experience these days directly after communion is the best part of my week. All the passions and appetites of my body are in order, and I feel Christ’s love in my heart. I also feel saved at that moment from life’s troubles and filled with the hope of eternal salvation.

That Christ should come to us in this way is a deep mystery. When we speak aloud the fact we eat the body and blood of Jesus in order to join with Him, it either stretches belief into faith or causes one to reject the whole premise of Christ as our savior. John’s gospel makes it clear the latter is a natural reaction by including this detail: “The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’” (52). It simply cannot be understood by the logic of our previous experience. It has to be believed and tried to experience its truth firsthand. It is a beautiful mystery.

And yet once experienced, it has a beautiful logic. If God’s people are to be gathered up with Him in eternity, we need to be purified of sin. Divinity cannot be conjoined with sin. Furthermore, we cannot remove sin on our own. So what greater expedient could there be to removing sin than to become like the one who lived without sin, than to bring Christ himself into our bodies and hearts to heal us? It makes perfect sense. The Eucharist is a sacrament not to be missed. We need this joyful union to transform our sinful lives and find the peace of God’s love. I like the wording of Jesus in this gospel: “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him” (56). The phrase “remains in me and I in him” is about as close as I can imagine to capturing in words a perfect state of existence, the place where sin is no more, the state of salvation.

Jesus saves.

 

The Gospel for Sunday, June 11th, 2017

The Gospel of June 11th, 2017: “The Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity”

John 3: 16-18

Reflection:

When I was a teenager watching sports on television in the 1980s, occasionally the camera operator would scan the crowd and pause on a fan holding up a sign that read John 3:16. Looking back I have great appreciation for those particular acts of evangelization because they planted seeds in me. Granted, they took a long time to sprout and take root. I was unfamiliar with this verse then and did not go to a Bible to look it up. However, the strangeness of placing a verse citation on a sign stuck with me and when I became an avid reader of scripture many years later, I paid special attention to this verse when I encountered it.

John 3:16 begins today’s gospel on the feast of the Holy Trinity and reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”

The wisdom of those sign-holding fans is apparent to me now. There may not be another verse in scripture that so pithily captures the depth of God’s love for us and the beauty of His salvation plan for humanity. There is, however, a contingency that must be met before one can appreciate the profound implications of these words: one must accept that he or she needs saving.

The objection has been raised by many a non-believer and believer alike that asks why we should all have to pay for Adam and Eve’s original sin? If I am trying to be a good person now, why should I still be responsible for an act that had happened eons before my birth? Furthermore, if my sinfulness is inherited, it is not really my fault that I am a sinner anyways. Why should I be punished for it?

These are reasonable questions about deep mysteries. If I may inadequately purse them in this blog and others, I pray that it be for God’s glory only. To suggest a starting point for this answer, I would like to share a long excerpt from one of the great interpreters of theology for us non-theologians, C.S. Lewis. In The Problem of Pain, he explains our need to accept our sinfulness with the powerful analogy of the damaged foster child:

“Theoretically, I suppose, we might say ‘Yes: we behave like vermin, but then that is because we are vermin. And that, at any rate, is not our fault.’ But the fact that we are vermin, so far from being felt as an excuse, is a greater shame and grief to us than any of the particular acts which it lead us to commit. The situation is not nearly so hard to understand as some people make out. It arises among human beings whenever a very badly brought up boy is introduced into a decent family. They rightly remind themselves that it is ‘not his own fault’ that he is a bully, a coward, a tale-bearer and a liar. But none the less, however it came there, his present character is detestable. They not only hate it, but ought to hate it. They cannot love him for what he is, they can only try to turn him into what he is not. In the meantime, thought the boy is most unfortunate in having been so brought up, you cannot quite call his character a ‘misfortune’ as if he were  one thing and his character another. It is he—he himself—who bullies and sneaks and likes doing it. And if he begins to mend he will inevitably feel shame and guilt at what he is just beginning to cease to be” (Kindle edition, pgs. 82-83).

Now I hope this quote is not taken literally as an indictment of all foster children, especially boys, by myself or C.S. Lewis. The foster child who is “a bully, a coward, a tale-bearer and a liar” due to his unfortunate upbringing is you and I, male and female alike, sinners all of us. The instructiveness of this analogy is not because Lewis found another way to point out we are all fallen creatures, but rather in his ability to help us attempt to see things from God’s point of view.

God is love, which is to say He wills His goodness to others. He created us not because He needed us, but because He acts with this love always. However, to share the gift of love with His creation, He gave us free will, so that we too could will the good of others and fully participate in His eternal love. For God the Father to create us without free will would be like parenting robots who could only simulate love through algorithmic programming. Such cyborg children would know no choices other than those permitted by their programming; therefore, they could not choose to love unselfishly because they would not know they had a choice to choose their own selfish desire instead. In such a state, they could never experience God’s love of choosing the others needs first.

Given this, we were created with free will. And once our ancestral parents chose their own will over God’s in the garden of Eden, the possibility of choosing selfishly, to deny God’s love, was born into the world where it became an option—or better yet, an irresistible temptation. And with each surrender to temptation,  our hearts harden a little more to God’s love, creating the downward spiral of sin.

So what is God to do? Remember, He is the father of us damaged foster children who wills our good always. He must change our behavior so that we act like Him, with unselfish love, which is what we really want anyways because it is the only reality that will not disappear like other temporary pleasures. Only God is eternal. So He sends us Jesus, the perfect union of divinity and man, who loves unselfishly His entire life. He accepts it; He teaches it; and He models it perfectly.  Jesus’ forgives His executors, conquers sin and death, and then sends us the Holy Spirit–the manifestation of God’s love—so that we may have hope for redemption and salvation. We cannot save ourselves because that would be a willful rejection of God’s gift of love to us, which is His son. In this awesome, mysterious theo-drama, God warms our hearts to choose His love, to choose His will that others may be only treated with good intent. In those moments in this life and after our deaths when we surrender to this will, we find peace and happiness with the perfect harmony of God’s love as it is manifest in the Holy Trinity. This is the Kingdom of Heaven that is at hand.

And so what are we to do? Accept the gift. To do anything else is to choose unhappiness. We were  born in God’s love and  our only peace is to participate in it. The fact the Jesus already came means it there for us now and it is there for us in the future, even after we forget that God’s way is the best way and choose selfishly. This inheritance of sin is not a set-up or an excuse to reject the Christian life. It certainly is not a sign of an uncaring or vengeful parent. It is simply a necessary reality so that we may be saved. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3: 17). There is such peace in that knowledge. The burden is no longer on me to save myself. I just have to surrender to God’s love.

The Gospel for Sunday, June 4th, 2017

 

The Gospel for June 4th, 2017: Pentecost Sunday

John 20: 19-23

Reflection: Hole-Hearted to Whole-Hearted

For Pentecost Sunday, when we celebrate Jesus sending the Holy Spirit to His disciples after His ascension, I am going off my usual script of close, analytical reading of the gospel followed by carefully cited, evidence-based reflection. The reason is I had a moment of inspiration in the last two weeks that could very well be grace for this humble blogger. I was with a colleague who was playing the “I heart 90s” radio channel. The song “Hole-Hearted” from the group Extreme came on, which was vaguely familiar and musically intriguing. I remembered their song “More than Words” and how I thought it was kind of pretty, but that I didn’t like their long-haired, 80s rock look. I consciously did not jump on the Extreme bandwagon in the early 90s out of snobbery. Consequently, I missed the clever pun of the title of their other popular song, “Hole-Hearted,” due to unabashed snobbery. Depending on the spelling, “whole-hearted” or “hole-hearted” could mean could a sense of complete and sincere commitment or a state where that completeness is not possible due to flaw or absence of a necessary ingredient. A romantic reading suggests the missing piece of this life that yearns to be filled with love is a girl, the “you” who is the only one to fill the hole in the troubadour’s heart. He sings, “There’s a hole in my heart that can only be filled by you.” Once he has the girl, he will be whole-hearted and happy. This is quite original word play even at face value.

However, the reason I have not been able to get this out of my head is I kept thinking the “you” could just as precisely refer to the Holy Spirit. For that substitution to work, I think I need to be clearer as to what the Holy Spirit is, and if it can function to fill a hole in the heart. I prefer to use the rather theological definition used Bishop Robert Barron in his June 1st, gospel reflection. He describes the role of the Holy Spirit in the Trinity this way:

“[T]he paschal mystery is intelligible only in the light of the doctrine of the Trinity. This acrobatic act of love is possible only if there is, in the very being of God, a sender and one that he can send, only if there is a Father and a Son. The Father and the Son are united in love, and this love is itself the divine life. And thus there is a spirit, co-equal to the Father and the Son, which is the love shared between them.”

So what is the Holy Spirit? It is the spirit of divine love, sent directly to us, to provide us with the gifts of knowledge, wisdom, counsel, understanding, fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord. It is what we need in our hearts to love God and all His creation unselfishly.

Let’s revisit the lyrics of the Extreme song with this definition in mind as the meaning of “you” in the refrain.

“Hole Hearted”
Life’s ambition occupies my time
Priorities confuse the mind
Happiness one step behind
This inner peace I’ve yet to find

Rivers flow into the sea
Yet even the sea is not so full of me
If I’m not blind why can’t I see
That a circle can’t fit
Where a square should be

There’s a hole in my heart
That can only be filled by you
And this hole in my heart
Can’t be filled with the things I do

Hole hearted
Hole hearted

This heart of stone is where I hide
These feet of clay kept warm inside
Day by day less satisfied
Not fade away before I die

Rivers flow into the sea
Yet even the sea is not so full of me
If I’m not blind why can’t I see
That a circle can’t fit
Where a square should be

There’s a hole in my heart
That can only be filled by you
And this hole in my heart
Can’t be filled with the things I do
There’s a hole in my heart
That can only be filled by you
And this hole in my heart
Can’t be filled with the things I do

Hole hearted
Hole hearted
Hole hearted
Hole hearted

Does this substitution aptly describe our need to call on the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts? I think it does. This insight did lead me on quick cyber-search to see if this non-sexual, double entendre in the song was intentional by the artists. The best I could come up with is a “maybe.” It really doesn’t matter. The usefulness persists either way. In general I enjoy humming and singing popular songs as a tonic for difficult moments. What an incredible gift to be able meditate on these words as soaring prayer to the Holy Spirit. Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, fill the hole in my heart punctured by sin. “There’s a hole in my heart that can only be filled by you. And this hole in my heart can’t be filled with the things I do.” While I don’t expect this song to be grace-filled prayer or mediation for everyone, the larger takeaway is there is so much divine beauty in the world—in the arts, in nature, in people, in relationships—where we can see the Holy Spirit, know its fulfillment, and act with the love of Jesus when we leave the four walls of the Church and go forth to proclaim the good news. We just have to seek and welcome the spirit of God’s love in our hearts. It’s everywhere that sin is, offering us a better choice for our happiness.