Every now and then comes along a news item that seems to justify Martin Luther’s conception of man as “snow-covered piles of dung.” To wit, British hospital trusts used dead babies’ bodies to heat their hospital buildings.
The bodies of thousands of aborted and miscarried babies were incinerated as clinical waste, with some even used to heat hospitals, an investigation has found. Ten NHS trusts have admitted burning foetal remains alongside other rubbish while two others used the bodies in ‘waste-to-energy’ plants which generate power for heat.
Even in “beyond the pale” stories like this one, however, the internal human orientation toward the divine law can be revealed:
Last night the Department of Health issued an instant ban on the practice which health minister Dr Dan Poulter branded ‘totally unacceptable.’
One hopes Dr. Dan finds the practice totally unacceptable on the basis of morality rather than on the basis of being newsworthy. Western culture is so far gone, we cannot know for sure.
The full story is here.
It was necessary for the people of Israel to endure dispersion and exile before they fully embraced the exclusivity demanded by their God. At the head of the Ten Commandments received as part of the Covenant established on Mt. Sinai in the desert after the Passover and flight from Egypt was the statement that “You shall not have other gods besides me.” [Ex 20:3] This was followed by an explanation: “For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God, inflicting punishment for their fathers’ wickedness on the children of those who hate me, down to the third and fourth generation.” [Ex 20:5]
It indeed took many generations for this understanding of exclusivity to be fully embraced by the people with whom the covenant had been established. We have read of the repeated patterns of embrace of Yahweh, admixture with local pagan worship, and decline into social and political disarray.
The difficulty in accepting the fullness of God was not unique to the Israelites. In my own life, I needed many blows before I understood that God was with me, and that He was the only thing on which I could really depend. My personal pagan admixture was alcohol, and my salvific exile was Alcoholics Anonymous.
My understanding of God was insufficiently developed as I lived the years of high school and college, grappling with all the social issues that accompany that stage of life. When I turned, as many do at that age, to alcohol to address my problems, my problems only increased. God was at that time something of a “Monday morning quarterback,” for his voice seemed limited to telling me what I should have done. He always seemed to speak in the past tense and with a tone of remonstration.
AA tries to avoid sectarian difficulties by speaking of a “higher power” instead of God, and this phrasing is often accompanied by a statement to the effect that one can have a doorknob be his higher power if that is what works for him. Given that blank canvas, I drew for myself a God who was with me on Saturday night when choices were being made instead of absent until Monday morning for the game of blame and consequences.
This higher power turned out to be the Triune God of Scripture and Tradition, who was, is, and ever will be with me. I could not see Him, however, without my own personal exile in the Babylon of bourbon and beer. Returning home, my relationship with Him has been ever-deepened and ever-expanded because I am no longer confused about what He looks like.
Today’s Gospel reading is Luke 10:38-42, in which we see Martha “who was distracted with all the serving and said, ‘Lord, do you not care that my seister is leaving me to do the serving all by myself?’” We are often called to consider what Jesus meant in his replay, “It is Mary who has chosen the better part; it is not to be taken from her.”
Jesus did not mean to prefer contemplative study over service work. He meant to convey that everything should be contemplative. Sweeping or sitting, we are in the presence of God. The connection we make with Him while we do whatever it is that we do is the purpose of our existence. We are made to be with Him. That is what Heaven is.
So do not fall into the either/or trap offered by a misreading of this vignette from Luke’s gospel. Be Mary while you are sweeping and be Martha while you are sitting. It is our hearts Jesus wants.
Music at Mass is such a challenge because for those involved in the music program it is their best prayer to God while for those in the pews it is anything from a deep prayer to just another noise during the liturgy. That being said, it seems to me the goal for the music team is to find that which is appropriately pastoral, reverent, and orthodox.
Pastoral means the music should be something the sheep in the pews can sing even though they did not go to Wednesday evening rehearsal or major in music at college. Many of the golden oldies are what they are because they march along in predictable fashion. One may or may not like the Eucharistic song, “I am the bread of life,” but one cannot deny that irregular hymn is difficult to sing when 700 folks are supposed to sing it together. Pastoral also means songs that resonate with the sheep in the pews, so some of the golden oldies are not so golden for the not-so-oldies. (Bread was an objectively inferior music group from the early 1970s, but even a Bread song is still an old friend to someone coming of age then. Perhaps Haugen’s “Gather us In” is an analog for Catholics of a certain age.)
Reverence is a combination of words and tune and rhythm. I noticed at a Presbyterian wedding that their hymnal included “On Eagles’ Wings” but chose to change the words from “I will raise you up” to “God will raise you up” because of the traditional reluctance to sing as though you are God. Tune and rhythm work together, with the challenge being that a song that reminds everyone of something they heard on the radio (e.g., the “Cat Stevens” hymn) or on Broadway may pull them away from the liturgy rather than into it. Part of the appeal of Latin and chant is that you will never hear it on SiriusXM and that “other-ness” helps you meet our entirely “other” God in the Mass.
Orthodoxy sometimes runs into poetic license, the most common instance that comes to mind is the objection to the “when we eat this bread and drink this cup” response to the mysterium fide. We, of course, will not eat bread but the body of Christ. Perhaps the writer wanted only one syllable; not every deviation from orthodoxy is fully intentional.
Pastoral, reverent, orthodox music can be played in a variety of styles and by a variety of instruments. My favorite hymn is “Let all Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” because I love the delicate tune, the ancient words and the poetic translation by Gerard Moultrie. But I also love a song written by a local composer who directs the modern music ensemble in our parish, an equally delicate tune tied to ancient words but set for guitar, piano and woodwind: “If a Single Grain of Wheat Shall Fall,” by Ken Macek. There is more than one way to direct the faithful heavenward through music.
Most of us when we read Luke 14:24 wonder how to respond to the words of Jesus because they sound so harsh. “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
Jesus left us no escape route. The Fourth Commandment is to honor your father and mother, but Jesus wants us to hate them if we want to be his disciple. We know that a man leaves his father and mother and cleave himself to his wife and they become one flesh, but we are now told to hate our wives. Jesus has told us if anyone should cause the little ones to fall, it would be better for him to have a millstone put around his neck and be cast into the abyss, but now we are to hate our children. The second great commandment is to love our neighbor as ourselves but now we should hate even our own lives.
What are we to do with this verse?
One thing a verse life this reminds us is that we must reflect on any verse within the context of the whole message of the Gospel as recorded in the scriptures, discussed by the Church Fathers, and guarded by the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church. If a single verse contradicts the totality of the Gospel, then we must consider it in a different light. We have not yet fully comprehended its meaning. In the case of this verse from the Gospel according to St. Luke, Jesus’ use of the word hate must not mean what we think of today when we use that word.
In fact, Jesus clarifies his intention in the next verse: Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.
Discipleship requires discipline. We know this to be true in earthly endeavors, but sometimes we are reluctant to apply it to our heavenly efforts. As the football season gets going in the U.S., we are sure to hear a coach after a game say something like, “The game was not won on the field this Friday night but in the weight room and on the practice field all those hot summer days.” Those of us who never played football just gape dumbfounded at the work football players put into their sport. But the players nod their heads knowingly.
Our lives in Christ have their own analogues to the weights and practice drills of football. Our weights are the cross, and like weights the cross comes in many variations. Our drills are the drills of self-control, and like the drills of football they come in many variations. We don’t do Oklahomas. We do “turn the other cheeks.” We practice patience even we have none left. We drill on acts of service and words of encouragement. These are the drills and routines that ensure we “win” in the game of Heaven.
Our win in the game of heaven will look like the change St. Paul marks in the man named Onesimus in the Epistle to Philemon. St. Paul sends Onesimus back “that you might have him forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you.” We are Onesimus. We were slaves to death. After a life of discipleship in Christ, Jesus sends us back to the Father as brothers, beloved brothers.
Our journey home will have been won in the hard slog of daily living, of discipleship in the life of Christ.
For the readings, please see this link: 23rd Sunday Ordinary Time Year C Readings PDF
Ordinary Time, the season in the Church calendar we are currently celebrating, is a chance to practice our faith and grow in Christ over a lengthy sequence of Sundays. We have Ordinary Time between the two sets of seasons that celebrate our faith’s two great claims: the Advent/Christmas time of preparation for and celebration of the claim that the Word became Flesh, and the Lent/Easter time of preparation for and celebration of the claim that God offered himself in a holy sacrifice that conquered Death and redeemed us. The ordinary time is there for us to digest the meaning and implications of those two great claims.
Christians generally understand the Scriptures as the inerrant word of God who inspired human authors, and we have in the three readings for this Sunday different authors and literary styles addressing different audiences on the same subject: humility and pride.
When it comes to the subject of pride or humility, we need many ways to learn because humility is so elusive and pride is so familiar. In the reading from St. Luke’s Gospel, Jesus advises his listeners to take a lower seat so that they might be asked to move to a better seat rather than assume a more prestigious seat only to suffer the humiliation of being asked to move down. He ties these acts to the final judgment in in pair of freighted lines: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Later in the story, Jesus tells his host to invite diners who will be unable to return the favor, and he promises, “For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews draws a sharp distinction between the two possible eternal destinations. On the one hand, “a voice speaking such words that those who heard begged that no message be further addressed to them.” On the other hand, “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” Our choices over minor matters do eventually add up to a choice for or against God. And He respects our choice.
Humility is a challenge for us because it is not something we can effect directly. Humility is a result of something else. That something else is a combination of gratitude and obedience. Pride is the opposite of gratitude and obedience, for pride says we deserve what we have and insists that we must not answer to any authority outside of ourselves. The Book of Sirach is one of the Wisdom books written in Greek a few hundred years before Christ. Sirach gives the good advice to not let your grasp exceed your reach. “What is too sublime for you, seek not, into things beyond your strength search not.” Humility is the man who accepts his limitations; pride is the man who does not. Humility is the man who is happy to be invited to the dinner; pride is the man assessing the status of his assigned seat. Humility is the host who invites guests who cannot repay him; pride is the host who expects a return invitation. Humility gives and accepts gifts; pride is all about trades.
If we spend our time in thanksgiving, we will develop an attitude of gratitude and be half-way to humility. The second half is obedience, something that is much easier when we are grateful. Obedience is an action step we can take, and we can obey even in those moments when gratitude has escaped us. God accepts the objective gift of obedience, just as he accepts the subjective gift of gratitude. How Heaven peals in joy when we offer both together.
Gratitude and obedience are habits we can form through practice. Something as simple as a quick list of things for which we are thankful that we can recite at the beginning and end of the day. The obedience of doing our daily prayers even when we are tired or in a hurry. Not every stallion took to the saddle and bridle easily, so we proud human beings should not be surprised if changing our habits to conform with God’s plan creates some internal friction. If we fight through it, we will discover we are changed people. Changing our habits changed us.
It is a changed us that Jesus calls to be with him in Heaven for ever.
For the readings, please see this link: 22nd Sunday Ordinary Time Year C Readings PDF
The readings this week remind us that Jesus brings the gospel to all who will deign to receive it with humility. The Israelites are warned by Isaiah that God will find other nations if Israel will not serve him, the letter to the Hebrews warns them not to disdain the discipline of the Lord, and Jesus warns his audience that many will attempt to enter the Kingdom of Heaven but will not be strong enough. Depending on how we read these selections from the Bible, we can react with hurt feelings that sweet Jesus doesn’t soften the words spoken by an Old Testament prophet like Isaiah.
So, let’s not read them as a harsh statement of how narrow the gate is and how many will turned away by a fierce judge who says, “depart from me, evildoers.” Let’s think back over the past thirty years of all the trophies we and our children won for participation. As much as the little children liked the shiny plastic baseball player swinging his bat atop a foot-tall pedestal, we knew it didn’t count for much. As the child grew older, the reality of the amount of effort began to be something we could not hide, and they had to face the reality that the varsity jacket in high school was given only to those who earned it. Along the way, we probably dealt with the reaction by the child, “But Mom and Dad, I tried!” Sometimes the complaint was not supported by the evidence.
There is trying, and then there is really trying. Sports is full of cliches to capture the difference: “the runner dug deep and beat the throw to first base,” or “the loose ball will be won by the guy who wants it more.” This is the message of the scriptures today. The Promise is given to all who really want it, to those who will remain faithful through thick and thin, to those who will accept admonishment and correction, to those who really want to get through the narrow gate. This is the message of Isaiah, of Paul, and of Jesus.
The message is not “woe to you all, it is just about impossible.” That is the distorted message being peddled by the Tempter. The message of Jesus and the prophets is “keep on keeping on.” Can we earn our way into heaven, as Pelagius suggested in the fifth century? No, St. Augustine explained, we actually depend on God’s love even for the impulse to do good, and only by his free gift of himself do we have any hope of salvation. But we are not jellyfish that just float where the current takes us. We have wills and we have control of our bodies and minds. As the deep thinker Dr. Seuss put it:
You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself any direction you choose.
Jesus stands athwart human history as a beacon to guide us as we make our choices and exert ourselves. He is the narrow gate. He has given us helps that will bring us back to the narrow path to the narrow gate. The Catholic Church understands in the Sacrament of Reconciliation the power of confession, absolution, and penance. Other Christian faith traditions have similar informal practices of self-reflection, sharing, re-commitment, and renewal. If St. Paul got knocked off his horse, who are we to think we won’t? So Jesus gives us a way to keep on keeping on, to understand what it means “to try.”
When we say something along the lines of “We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets” (Lk 13:26), Jesus will look at us as we looked at our children who claimed to be “trying.” He challenges us why we would be eating and drinking when in his Presence, he questions how seriously we listen when he is teaching in our streets. He once told busy, busy Martha that contemplative Mary had chosen the better part. Sometimes the Christian message is, “Don’t just do something, stand there!”
All of us have more than once been in a worship service while our minds wandered far from the subject at hand. A half-hearted effort is not going to make the cut. We have to give him our very best. We have to do it over and over, and this is how we will “make straight paths for our feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” (Heb 12:13) Our trophy is the Cross, and it is made out of Love rather than plastic.
For the readings, please see this link: 21st Sunday Ordinary Time Year C Readings PDF
If you ever run into somebody who tells you that Jesus is all about love, ask him to explain the love in Luke 12:51. Jesus says he comes not to bring peace but division. Where is the love in something like that?
We know that Jesus is all about love, so we need to find the love in what he said. Jesus comes to offer salvation to all, but he respects the freedom of everyone. His offer is really a choice. A choice involves selecting something less than the full option set. When a person says, “Have something from the dessert cart,” he is not really offering you the entire cart. There is therefore, a process of division inherent to choosing. We divide our choice into one or more statements of Yes or No. Jesus is coming to give us the choice, to choose life everlasting or the alternative.
Jesus lets us know beforehand this choice will be costly. Our intimates and family members may not support our choice, for reasons that may make sense to them alone. They may not express their disagreement with our choice in three kindest terms. We may hear ridicule and insults because of the choice we make to live with Jesus.
There is another agent active in the world offering us choices. He is known as the Devil or Satan, but his role is always the same. He is the tempter and he accuses us against our Heavenly Father. To us, he offers us choices that appear to have no cost or very little cost. There appear to be no strings attached, but it always turns out there are strings attached. Mankind’s first temptation was to ignore God’s instruction on what to eat and what not to eat. The tempter said we were being denied full knowledge, that we were being denied by God something we deserved. We gave in to the tempter and lost the blessed communion with God we had enjoyed.
Now that we are separated from God by sin and death, the tempter rules the world. He continues to pursue us, and he seeks us with greater concentration the more we show a willingness to choose God’s way over the world’s way. Jesus comes in love to remind us that there is no short-cut on the Way. We face temptation every day, and often many times throughout the day. We face temptation within our own families. A loving son will bristle against his father’s leadership. A son might even turn completely away from his family. A mother and daughter can lose sight of their love for each other as they respond to the choices put before them. Let’s not even look at what mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law will say and think about each other.
Every parent has had his heart broken as he watches his child make the wrong choice and suffer the consequences of that choice. God’s heart is broken when we choose foolishly, just as a parent’s heart is broken. We are God’s children, and he loves us better than any parent could love his child. God knows that we must learn from our mistakes, so he continues to offer us himself again and again. He wills that we choose Him. He honors the freedom he gave us, even when we choose the other path. But he never gives up on us.
If God never gives up on us, then we should never give up on ourselves. When we face a tough choice between doing what God wants and what our friends or family want, we might give in to the social pressure to conform. We should pick ourselves up after this stumble, pick up our cross again, and take one more step following Jesus. He was with us during our fall, he will be with us as we try again, and he will be with us always, even to the end of the age.
For the readings, please see this link: 20th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C Readings PDF
Last week we read of a time when Jesus reminded everyone to value the things that are truly valuable. This week, He wants us to be ready no matter how late he seems to be. Part of our life of faith is lived out on the edge of the world, where we live and work in the secular world but live for the next world. It is indeed difficult to keep on that edge the longer we wait for the coming of the next world. It hasn’t come for over two thousand years, yet it could come tonight. If we were to play the odds, the world will most likely end after our deaths, and perhaps it will not end for another two thousand years.
As the end of time keeps being put off another day, the daily things easily take priority. It is not what is supposed to happen, Jesus tells us, but it is what all too often does happen. It happens in the holiest places and circles just as it happens in the more secularized places and circles. Consider the plight of the Franciscans. Most people have heard some part of the story of St. Francis, a pious son of a rich merchant. Francis forswore earthly riches and pledged a life of poverty. His charism was such that he gained many followers and his holiness was such that people gave his order the very things the order had been formed to forgo. What does a Franciscan abbot do when a rich landowner leaves the manor to the abbey to atone for an impious life? All of a sudden, even a holy order focused on a life of poverty must deal with the temporal realities of assets and incomes.
If the Franciscans were weak when it came to handling earthly blessings, how much harder is it for regular folks in the pews of our local parish? We are just plumbers and lawyers and real estate developers trying to make a buck while we raise a family and life a good, Christian life. We are just putting some money away for our retirement, or for a rainy day, or even for a nice family vacation at the beach. There is nothing wrong with that, is there?
There is nothing wrong with any of that as long as we can walk away from it at any moment. We say we could give it all up for Jesus, but then try taking our cellphone from us. Try just taking the data plan away. It turns out we are deeply attached to so many of our earthly things, none of which will we take with us beyond our deaths. God gave us all these things, including the data plan, for his glory. We are his stewards of what we list as our assets. They are not ours but His.
For some of us, we do not have too much of these earthly blessings to care for in God’s name. For others, we are indeed given much, and of those much is expected. God does want us to have the Good Life, but the “goods” life can lead us to miss the signal that today is the day we are called to the Good Life for ever. Are we ready for that call?
To help us be ready, God allows change in our lives. What is the blessing in loss? The blessing is the chance to be reminded that we are not here for the Now but for the Forever. What we think of as loss might be a delay, such as the loss of a child or a parent that we will see again in eternity. What we think of as loss might be a healthy pruning, such as the loss of a job or an unaffordable house through foreclosure. In these troubles, we are invited to see anew what is truly important. God gives us another opportunity to trim the wicks in our lamps and get ready once again for the bridegroom to arrive.
Our willingness to wait much longer than seems reasonable, which Jesus puts in terms of the second or third watch of the night, is one way we show God we do trust him and will obey him. Life on the edge of the world is awkward, and it can be tiring. We endure that awkwardness and fatigue as a testament to our faith in a Lord who said, “before long, the world will not see me anymore” [Jn 14:19] and, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” [Mt 28:20]
He is coming back. So be ready. He is with us in the Spirit. So be joyful.
For the readings, please see this link: 19th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C Readings PDF
I live near a part of the city that my father in law once described as the finger-bowl district. When you drive past the gracious homes on large lots that are maintained to the standard set by glossy magazine spreads, the beauty of what Man can do with Nature is astounding. When you consider what the City tax authorities demand from those property owners as a yearly contribution, the amount of money they must earn each year is also astounding. The men and women I know personally who lively those neighborhoods are gracious and warm and hard-working, productive members of society. There is no basis for their condemnation.
Yet the readings from Scripture this Sunday are a warning to the residents, current or future, of the finger bowl district. Do they appreciate the ultimate worth of what they are accumulating or already have accumulated? Are they ever-mindful of how much of that accumulation they will take with them to face the final judgment? Do they see, as the Preacher from Ecclesiastes cries, “All things are vanity!” and direct their lives accordingly?
Many of Man’s greatest character strengths can be the very means of his own destruction. Perseverance and hard work are good things, but they are only Good when they are used for the glory of God. God wants us to have a roof over our heads, but we must ask ourselves how big a roof did He intend? God has no objection to a nice lawn, but we can lose our focus on Him if we let ourselves become too concerned with the yard and the flowers. And this applies equally to those of us who merely drive through the finger bowl district. We have to ask ourselves if we are condemning ourselves when we point the finger at the owners of these fine homes. God does not compare. I can live in a cottage with weeds for a front lawn and be just as far from Him if my heart is not directed at Him. It is not the stuff but the attitude towards the stuff that God sees and feels and judges.
Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, was in the news a few weeks ago with comments about his priests and the cars they drive. Even a poor parish pastor can get himself distracted by things, Francis was saying. We all must be watchful about the power of materialism whether we are rich or poor, whether we wear a clerical collar or not.
The story from the Gospel according to St. Luke in Chapter 12 highlights another misconception about how life really works. We are introduced to a successful businessman, portrayed to that agricultural culture as a farmer with productive land that returns a bountiful harvest. The man considers his future in light of his good fortune, admittedly something he earned through hard work. The man says to himself that he will build even larger barns to hold his savings and then say to himself, “As for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”
In this parable, Jesus points us to one of the great lies of this world. The work in this world is not the getting and spending of material results. We are invited on a great journey of growth in holiness, and the work of the journey ends at our death. Even a rich, successful businessman who has prudently saved for his retirement will find that the work, the true work of his life, is never done. The works we do for our Father who sees in secret are works of the heart. Our neighbors may see the works of our hands, but our Father sees the works of our hearts. He asks us every day right to our last day if we truly want to follow him and be with him in eternity.
The rich landowner’s great foolishness was thinking that he could stop working, for he misunderstood the real work to which he was called. He was called, as we are called today, to take his gifts and apply them so that his heart would grow and his eye would focus on what is true, on the deepest reality that we often miss because we focus on material things. He thought about his life in terms of time instead of timelessness. The deeper reality of this story is that we are free to do the work God gives us without regard to our material position.
Don’t let the good be the enemy of the best. Prudence, thrift, achievement, generosity, and industry are all good qualities. It is wonderful and appropriate that people work hard in the material activities of the world and save part of what they produce so as to build up savings for times when they cannot work as much. It is infinitely more important to pursue the best qualities: faith, hope, and love. None of these is inaccessible to the lowest person on earth, and all of these are required of the greatest person on earth.
Regardless of our material circumstances, we can be people of faith, hope and love as we follow our Lord. As such people, we will find in our hearts the desire to share what we have with those who have less. As such people, we will learn to see the difference between vanity and virtue. We will love the work even on those days when we do not love the labor and hardship that sometimes comes with the work. For we know why we work and for whom we work, and we know the true meaning of “rest, eat, drink, and be merry” is waiting for us beyond time.
For the readings, please see this link: 18th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C Readings PDF