Category Archives: Religion

Baby Love

When we kiss a baby’s soft cheek, we are loving that baby.

Everybody can see that.

But love is more than one kind of expression.

When we wipe the meconium from our newborn’s bottom, we are loving that baby.

When we get up out of our warm bed and sit with the colicky baby in our arms because that is the only way he can fall asleep, we are loving that baby.

When we put the baby in his crib and shut the door and don’t go back in while he cries – sometimes bawls – himself to sleep, we are loving that baby.

Love is warm affection, but that’s not all love is.

Love is acts of service, but that’s not all love is.

Love is giving of ourselves to help another, but that’s not all love is.

Love is discipline when we need it even if we don’t like it, but that’s not all love is.

Love is infinite because God is infinite, and God is Love. The Infinite is coming soon to live with the finite. Love is on the way. The Baby arrives in four weeks.

Be ready!


Necessary Exile

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.

Mary is Martha and Martha is Mary

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 sister 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.

Rules vs. Revelation

For the readings, please see this link: 10th Sunday Ordinary Time Year C Readings PDF

I found a new way to make my morning commute a bit easier, as the stoplights and people moving from parking decks to office buildings in Midtown Atlanta can make the last quarter mile an enervating finale to what otherwise is an easy commute. (I do like easy.) My new wrinkle is to turn left on a back street and approach my office parking deck from what is hardly more than an alley. My left turn is easy because the turn is from a one-way street to another one-way street/alley. Sometimes, however, I find a car facing me on my one-way street/alley. A fellow has decided to take his own shortcut out of his parking lot or office building, and he is facing me as I head to the office.

As the Apollo astronauts said, “Houston, we have a problem.” My shortcut and his shortcut conflict with each other. It is at points of conflict we turn to someone for justice. When we were little children, it was our parents. In civics we turn to the judges sitting on the benches of the various court systems. There we find rules, rules of behavior that our parents teach us and rules of law that our governments created for us. The rule that applies to my shortcut is that the street is clearly marked as a one-way street, and I am the party that is conforming to the rule. The other driver has violated the rule. This brings me to a dangerous place: I am right and I am in the right.

What should I do upon arriving at this position of moral and legal rectitude? If I apply the rules, then I could just wait for him to acknowledge his error and back up until he is safely off the road and I can proceed in the legal direction. I can bend the rules but add a dash of vinegar to the situation: wave my finger at him and begrudgingly give him just enough room to let me squeeze by verrrrry slooooowwwly while he hangs his head in shame. This is the moral rectitude trifecta, in which I was right, I was magnimous, and I taught that jerk a lesson.

God offers an entirely new way to approach the problem of misbehavior. It is an offer of supernatural justice, something that we cannot reach on our own but can accept and adopt in whole as a free gift from him and a gift we freely share with his other children. We innately turn to God for justice because for justice, as in all things, our hearts were made for him and are restless until they rest in him. Jesus made this offer plainly to his disciples when he said, “Abide in my love.” [Jn 15:9] This love and this justice are entirely beyond our comprehension but not beyond our sensing or our reception. While we cannot fully understand them, we can see them and believe them.

The widow of Zarephath knew where true justice was to be found when she challenged Elijah for bringing God’s judgment upon her house and causing the death of her son. She saw something in Elijah that spoke of God and justice. She saw in herself someone deserving judgment. So she asked, “Why have you done this to me, O man of God? Have you come to me to call attention to my guilt and to kill my son?” [1 Kings 17:17] She had been hosting Elijah and feeding them from a jar of flour and jug of oil that he promised would not run out until the end of the drought. During this period, her child became sick to the point of death. She was experiencing God’s love, yet she could not work herself logically to a point of acceptance of her child’s death. Her heart cried out for justice, which she at some interior level understood is synonymous with God’s love and mercy. She knew what she deserved – death – but she wanted more – life.

God hears our wants. He hears our prayers. He loves us. When Elijah prayed for the child, life returned to him. St. Luke tells a similar story of God hearing our prayers and loving us in chapter 7’s story of Jesus responding to the cry of a widow in the city called Naim. St. Luke tells us, “When the Lord saw her, he was moved with pity for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep.’ He stepped forward and touched the coffin; at this the bearers halted, and he said, ‘Young man, I tell you, arise!’ The dead man sat up and began to speak, and Jesus gave him to his mother.”

Like the widow of Zarephath, the widow in the city of Naim saw and believed. These miracles are miraculous because they override the rules of physics and medicine. We, caught in the net of rationalistic approaches to everything, cannot see how such rules could be overridden and we discard miracles as foolish superstitions and self-delusions. But miracles are real, just as real as God’s love. Miracles are God demonstrating his love for us to the point of violating the order he established for the universe he created. Just as a painter can dab a bit of red in a place where blue “ought” to go, God can dab a bit of life in a place where death “ought” to go. Why did he do it? Because he willed that it be done. The artist chose red instead of blue, and it was so. God chose life over death for these two men, and it was so. The witnesses to these miracles know the truth more deeply than they can ever know any logical truth. They know it in their hearts, which find rest in this Truth, the Truth that is Jesus Christ.

St. Paul was visited by this Truth on the road to Damascus, which he recounts to the Galatians at the beginning of his letter to that church. He did not receive the Good News from a human; God “was please to reveal his Son to me” and through Paul reveal the Good News to the Gentiles. Subsequent to the revelation of Truth, Paul was able to see that much of what he believed to be true in his former life was in fact no longer true. He could not reason beyond the rules which he had learned from his youth. He had to receive the gift of revelation from God, and with that Truth he also received Mercy for his past persecution of the Christian Church and strength to be the Apostle to the Gentiles and endure his own persecution and martyrdom.

You and I are offered the same gift. Many of us have experienced miracles directly or we know people who received them directly. There is no sufficient explanation; it is just a gift. We see things as they really are, and we accept them. We are, like St. Paul, asked to share the gift. Where the rules might lead us is not necessarily where God wants us to go. Having seen the Truth, we are invited to respond to the Truth. Having received Love, we are asked to give Love. When a person does somthing deserving of judgment, we are invited to offer mercy and compassion. This applies to little things as well as big things. It applies to drivers going the wrong way on a one-way street. It applies to you. It applies to me.

Judah breaks the cycle

The story of Genesis from the Fall in Chapter 3 to the discovery of a silver goblet in Benjamin’s bag in Chapter 44 is one of brother against brother to the point of theft and murder. Abram and Lot’s herdsmen quarrel over grazing (Gn. 13:7), there is rampaging war between the four kings and the five kings in chapter 14, and then the contesting becomes intra-family as the story turns to Abraham and his descendants.

Isaac, who lost his relationship with Ishmael because of Sarai’s jealousy, is the father of sons who contest in the womb even before they are born. This sets the stage for deception and dissension at the end of Isaac’s life, when Jacob obtains a blessing meant for Esau (Gn. 27:29).

The pattern of fraternal enmity and violence continued in the sons of Jacob, as Joseph’s dream drives his brothers to consider killing him before choosing the kinder path of slavery when they sell him to travelers on their way to Egypt. Years later, Joseph’s dream does come true, and through a series of deceptions on his part, all his brothers are together with him without knowing it is Joseph to whom they bow (Gn. 42:26). Joseph lays a trap for his brothers, so that the youngest, Benjamin, will be found with stolen goods in his possession.

The cycle of wickedness, deception, and killing stops when Judah offers himself in place of Benjamin (Gn. 44:33) in an act of filial devotion to Jacob and his special love for Benjamin. Judah’s act of sacrificial love heals the fracture and is the first step in establishing the nation of Israel. It is also a foretaste of the sacrifice by Jesus to heal the fracture of the relationship between Man and God.

In Judah’s offer, we see that God has a plan for salvation, for us, and he works it out over time inviting us to co-operate with his will and his plan. In Judah’s act, we are reminded that what looks like weakness is often really strength, that sacrifice is noble and good, that brothers are each others’ keepers, and that communio is what we were made for. In our daily lives, we can follow the path that Judah followed, and in so doing we can break the cycle of pain and division. If we love our Heavenly Father, as Judah loved his earthly father, we will be strong enough to display our weakness and overcome the strength of the world with strength beyond the world’s comprehension.

The Law and Love

I have said more than once that it is possible to condense the entire message of the Bible into two words: “love” and “obey.” The Jewish people regularly recited the “Shema” (Deuteronomy 6:5): “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” And Jesus connects love with obedience in the Olivet discourse when he tells Phillip and the others, “If you love me, keep my commands.” (Jn. 14:15) He says later to Judas (not Iscariot), “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching.” (Jn. 14:23). Love is a state as much as it is will or emotion. Obedience is the means to that state. Somewhat related is a maxim often heard from oldtimers at a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous: “bring the feet and the head will follow.” Sobriety is a state; to not drink and to go to meetings is the means to that state.

After the Fall, man does not see clearly. St. Paul acknowledges this difficulty when he says, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully.” (1 Cor. 13:12) Not able to discern perfectly, we need the helps that are the laws of the Church just as the Hebrews needed the Law of Moses. Truth and love are a Person, the one who declared, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (Jn. 14:6) If we practice obedience to what we accept despite lacking full comprehension, we will find ourselves living the Shema and seeing less dimly. Pope John Paul II wrote in his encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, “Truth enlightens man’s intelligence and shapes his freedom, leading him to know and love the Lord.”

Frank Sheed opened his magisterial masterpiece Theology and Sanity with a beautiful summary of the importance of seeing clearly in order to act in accordance with what ultimately is our heart’s desire: to be in communion with our Creator and Redeemer:

The soul has two faculties and they should be clearly distinguished. There is the will: its work is to love — and so to choose, to decide, to act. There is the intellect: its work is to know, to understand, to see: to see what? to see what’s there. (p. 3)

The law reminds us what is reality. It is there speaking for reality even when we are dominated by our subjectivity and cannot find the positive motivations for which we were made. Using Sheed’s terminology, our will is impaired. Despite an impaired will, burdened by sin, we still have a path back to relationship with our Lord. Obedience is seeing – truly seeing – and then submitting to the truth we see. It does not depend on our subjective condition for its efficacy. This is the great gift of obedience: it does not depend on our current state of holiness to move us toward our intended state of holiness. We can obey even when we don’t want to. We can obey even when we are not “feeling it.” Repeated obedience will inevitably reform our will and lead us to know and love the Lord.

The place for modern Biblical analysis

Since the late 18th century, and particularly from German Lutheran universities in the 19th century, Bible scholars have developed advanced techniques of analysis to apply to the canonical writings of Jews and Christians. Historical critical analysis, in which we examine the historical context of the human writer and his contemporary human audience, has helped modern readers more fully understand the world in which the people of Israel and the people of Hellenic Palestine lived. Literary criticism, in which the words chosen by the author are drawn out to demonstrate distinct themes and perspectives, helps make sense of Biblical writings that otherwise might be repetitive or contradictory. Source criticism helps the reader better understand how the various books in the Bible are connected. Form criticism, which analyzes structures for communication, illuminates the ways in which the Biblical teachings are communicated. And redaction criticism considers how the oral stories were transferred to written media.

These powerful tools help the serious student of the Bible see the connections that stretch through the centuries as well as the phenomena that were limited to particular groups or periods in time. A thorough understanding of the post-Alexandrian Hellenization of the land of Judah, for example, helps the reader understand the motivation of the Maccabeans as he reads in the books of the Maccabees about religious uprising and revolt. Likewise, redaction analysis spurs the reader to notice and then consider why quotations of the Old Testament in the new Testament are not necessarily direct and contiguous but sometimes separate verses patched together.

As powerful as these tools are, the carry with them a risk that must be acknowledged and considered by the Catholic student of scripture. These tools are the tools of the empiricist; they examine evidence and draw inferential conclusions about books the Catholic Church holds to be the Word of God. These tools are those of the rationalist; they apply reason – and only reason – to books the Church teaches contain some truths attainable only through revelation. The new methods introduced by the Germans are a blessed counterpoint to believers who read the scripture literally with no appreciation for the other ways the words can be examined. The authentic Catholic is not limited to this either/or choice. Believing in a transcendent God who is being itself rather than a being, who by his will alone binds up all existence including time and space, the authentic Christian student of scripture will use the new methods while not losing sight of the deeper realities and the a priori truths of Church doctrine.

We are not limited to evidentiary approaches, we are not limited to what we can reason to by our own efforts. We claim a God who is truth, who is beyond our vocabulary and beyond definition. Our scriptural study and our preaching on scripture should use the full range of analytical tools to communicate the Good News to the faithful. We must speak to the head and the heart, reading the scripture as family history, literature, poetry, and a call to our deepest interior. Assisted by knowledge of the times, the form, the words and the edits, we read and preach scripture to meet a Person.

Shroud of Turin

From the Vatican Insider we hear news of more scientific testing of the Shroud of Turin. The cloth seems to be roughly 2,000 years old, based on the average of a battery of testing approaches.

New scientific experiments carried out at the University of Padua have apparently confirmed that the Shroud Turin can be dated back to the 1st century AD. This makes its compatible with the tradition which claims that the cloth with the image of the crucified man imprinted on it is the very one Jesus’ body was wrapped in when he was taken off the cross. The news will be published in a book by Giulio Fanti, professor of mechanical and thermal measurement at the University of Padua’s Engineering Faculty, and journalist Saverio Gaeta, out tomorrow. “Il Mistero della Sindone” (The Mystery of the Shroud) is edited by Rizzoli (240 pp, 18 Euro).
Source: Vatican Insider

The Shroud of Turin speaks to us or repels us as we embrace or reject the Catholic orthodoxy of an eternal God incarnate by the Holy Spirit. If Jesus Christ was just a man, then the Shroud of Turin could be the burial cloth of any number of 1st century Jews beaten and crucified by the Roman governors of Palestine. It is the claim that Jesus is also God that makes the Shroud such a challenge.

According to the Christian scriptures, nothing was found in the tomb but the burial cloth. If that is a true account, as orthodox Christians believe it to be, then it is entirely possible that the followers of Jesus Christ would preserve such a holy relic. We don’t doubt the authenticity of the scrolls found at Qumran 2,000 years after the death of Jesus, but we quickly discount as excessive credulity the discovery and testing of the burial cloth of the Christ risen from the dead.

The Christian claim is doubly mysterious: God is transcendent and immanent. He is eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, creator of heaven and earth, of space and time. Yet he is present in the person of Jesus Christ so intimately that even before we were formed in our mothers’ wombs he knew us. He gives us the freedom to be remote from him, but he constantly seeks an intimate relationship with us. He is beyond history yet operates within history. The Shroud of Turin is a stark reminder of that mysterious claim: fully Man and fully God, who died and on the third day was resurrected.

The Tree of Life

I just noticed another nice little connection between the Fall in Genesis 3 and the Passion of Christ. Verse 22 of Chapter 3 in the book of Genesis reads (from the NIV):

And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.”

From the prayers and intercessions for Morning Prayer in the Breviary today, there is this:

By your decree, the cross has become the tree of life:
give its fruit to all who are reborn in baptism.

Thus, in his mysterious Providence, God does not allow us to reach out and take from the tree of life but gives it to us through his own loving sacrifice.

Our relationship with God must be one of obedient humility rather than prideful presumption, and we have only one thing to do:

Accept the Gift


The Fall and the entrance of Sin

The story of the Fall of Man told in Genesis 3 relates to us how sin entered the world and the effects of sin. A simple tale, it also explained to the people of the time it was written why they had a visceral aversion to snakes and why there were nomadic peoples and settled peoples rather than just one cultural construct.

The essential decision freely made by Adam and Eve is to believe and obey Yahweh, the Father of Truth, or to believe and follow the Father of Lies, the tempter that is presented as a serpent in this chapter. Having made their choice, they discover the consequences. The most immediate consequence is the shame they feel upon being “like the gods who know what is good and bad [Gn. 3:5].” They see their nakedness and make loincloths to cover themselves [Gn. 3:7]. Where they had blissfully lived in the presence of the Lord (prefiguring Jesus’ instruction to approach God as children), Adam and Eve suddenly see the consequences of disobeying their Father, and they hide from him [Gn. 3:8]. Having recognized their sin, they seek to evade accountability. Adam’s response to Yahweh’s question in v. 12 is the gold standard for the correct assessment of blame: the woman – or Yahweh himself because he gave Adam the woman – is the responsible party in the transgression, but it certainly not Adam.

God responds with perfect respect for our free will and immediately intimates that he will repair the breach between Man and God. He enforces discipline (“I will intensify the pangs of your childbearing” [Gn. 3:16], and “By the sweat of your face shall you get bread to eat” [Gn. 3:19]) but he interposes a promise in v. 15 when he tells the serpent that the woman’s offspring “will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel.” God shows in the first act of justice after the Fall that, in Him, “Love and truth will meet; justice and peace will kiss” [Ps. 85:10]. Banished from the idyll of Eden, we lost the full sight promised by the serpent, and we would from that point forward see (in the words of St. Paul) “dimly, as through a mirror.”

The story of Cain and Abel points that the full effect of sin is death, and we see that the first recorded death was a murder borne out of resentment against accepting divine Providence [Gn. 4:5-8]. Unable to see clearly the mind of God, Cain gives in to the temptation to let resentment grow. A temptation becomes a sin of the mind (malice) and finally a sin of commission (murder). Again, God responds with true justice: Cain is banished to live a nomadic life but his life is protected by God [Gn. 4:15]. God chooses life over death, and he gives the family of Man another opportunity to return to him when he gives Eve another son, Seth.