Sunday, February 28, 2016

Third Sunday of Lent

Ex 3:1-8a, 13-15
Ps 1031-4, 1-8, 11
1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12
Lk 13:1-9

The narrative of Moses and the burning bush is a familiar one.  It is one of many theophanies, or manifestations of God, in the Old Testament.  It seems a bit odd that Moses has to ask God's name.  The Jewish Study Bible explains that Moses was not raised with his people.  He knew nothing of their religion.  (Kind of like the kids today whose parents are fail to give them any religious instruction.  In this case ignorance is not bliss.)  Moses had to undergo a kind of conversion if he were to become the leader of the people.  Thus we have the somewhat odd name for God, I AM.  The Jewish Study Bible translates the Hebrew as "I Will Be What I Will Be."  It goes on to explain that this means "My nature will become evident from My action."  That translation leaves a lot of questions unanswered.  They are questions that will never be answered. 

The gospel narrative is unique to Luke.  What are we to make of it? 

A number of years ago Rabbi Harold Kushner published the book  When Bad Things Happen to Good People.  I chose not to read it then and have no intention of doing so.  The reason for this decision is that it is arrogant to assume that one can explain the problem of "theodicy," the question of why a loving God permits, allows, or, as some choose to believe, causes evil, disaster, death and suffering.  Theodicy asks "WHY?"  Theodicy shouts the angry WHY? that has circled the globe since God created us.   

One can hear Eve screaming WHY? after Cain killed Abel. 

One can imagine Noah shrieking WHY? when he surveyed the damage after the flood. 

If we listen closely we can hear ourselves groaning WHY? at the illness or death of a loved one, the loss of a home through fire,  or the need to confront mortality  when I realize I am dying. 

Jesus' examples are challenging because there is no historical record to confirm them.  Yes, Herod did evil sadistic things so as to maintain absolute control.  True, towers did collapse and kill people.  But, scholars cannot agree what the Tower of Siloam was.  There is no historical record of a sacrifice of Galileans at worship.  But the examples do illustrate that evil, disaster, suffering, and death happen to both the bad and the good. Indeed, the saying "only the good die young"  is as appalling and inaccurate a rationalization as was ever invented.

Jesus repeats "If you do not repent " twice in this short passage. Though he does not use the word, conversion is implied.  Repentance and conversion are two sides of the same coin.  Repentance is an interior act. Conversion is the exterior change in behavior that grows from repentance.  

In His call to repentance Jesus is echoing the words of the prophets: Amos, Isaiah, Micah, and Ezekiel, each of whom preached repentance for sin and conversion of heart.  Their message was reinforced and amplified by John the Baptist whose baptism was not meant as a cleansing but was to be accompanied by conversion of one's life and action.  Thus Jesus calls us to repent and to open ourselves to the conversion that follows. 

Xavier Leon-Dufour pointed out the uniqueness of Jesus' call to repentance and conversion. "When He called for conversion, Jesus did not make any reference to penitential liturgies and customs.  He distrusted signs that were too showy.  What really counted was the change of heart . . . " 

Will bad things still happen in the world if we repent?  Will we still experience suffering and pain despite conversion of heart? 


The risk is not that bad things will happen to good people.  The risk is the temptation to defiance of and hardness of heart toward God when they do happen.  The risk is the attitude, "God, if you don't shape up I'm shipping out." 

The reading from Paul's Letter to the Corinthians is a problem on at least two levels.  First, it is edited.  Chapter ten, one to six and ten to twelve.  The four missing verses are important. They describe the kind of sin that called down punishment: idolatry, immorality, testing God.  Sounds like twenty-first century American life sex-change surgery, abortion, celebrity worship, and greed.  Second, there is no accounting for the fact  that both those who are good and those who are evil undergo the same tests: suffering, death, and pain.  I'm not sure Job would, or could, have taken much comfort from Paul. 

We will never know WHY bad things happen to good people.  We will never know WHY good things happen to bad people.  That not knowing is a part of the human state.  Faith will temper pain and sorrow. Prayer will soothe the soul a bit.  But in the end we will never know the answer.  Despite this uncertainty we are called to sing with the psalmist in faith and hope,

The Lord is kind and merciful,
He pardons iniquities,
He heals all ills,
He redeems lives from destruction,
He secures justice,

The Lord is truly kind and merciful.


Jet lag is faded.  I hope.  Just when I thought it was resolved there were a few nights when by 8:00 PM (4:00 AM in Ljubljana) my head looked like a bobble-head doll in a car traveling on the Mass Pike.   

Things continue to look good that I will celebrate Mass and preach on every Sunday of Lent.  In two weeks I go to Regina Laudis for a few days to copy the prefaces and chants I need to learn for the Triduum.  Last year I was trying to learn some of the chants the morning or afternoon of.  I"d rather have the leisure to do that at home so as to enter more comfortably into the magnificent liturgy that extends from Holy Thursday night to the end of Mass on Holy Saturday.  

My classmate Barry who got me started in photography made an interesting observation.  For someone who has said he doesn't do street photography, "you've been doing a lot of it lately."  I guess I have.  Part of the reason is having a very fast lens for night photography.  Had some very good long walks at night in both Ljubljana and Maribor with the camera.  The streets are very safe. The only place I felt as safe on the streets alone with camera equipment late at night was Taipei.  It is hard to do good photography while looking over your shoulder for danger.  Or a mugger. 

I took all of these in central Ljubljana, a very short walk from the community, on Ash Wednesday.  I went into the Franciscan Church.  It was filling up quickly.  

Men going into the Franciscan Church for the imposition of ashes.  The church facade is very brightly illuminated.

The Franciscan Church overlooks the canal that runs through the center of the city.  It extends well past our community.  

An outdoor cafe that is empty but at the ready.  Slovenians eat and drink coffee outdoors in any kind of weather.  I am eager to see what it looks like on a nice summer evening. 

The canal is lined with outdoor eating options.  The top of the Franciscan Church is visible in the background.

Sometimes the outdoor eating area is only a few tables.  The two women on the right had blankets over their legs.  The blankets were supplied by the restaurant.  

The colonnaded area is part of the outdoor market that appears to function daily except for Sunday.  

And empty shop window. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Second Sunday of Lent (I think I'm going to make it this year)

Gn 15:5-12, 17-18
Ps 27
Phil 3:17-4:1
Lk 9:28b-36

The readings for this second Sunday in Lent include significant interpretive challenges beginning with the first reading.  The ritual described in Genesis is very odd, even bizarre.  It does not resonate with modern sensibilities.  It would send the domestic terrorist group known as PETA into spasms of indignation, though maybe Planned Parenthood could gather up the parts and sell them.

What does it mean to slice several animals in half and place the halves, along with some birds, on the ground opposite each other?  What about the passage describing the movement of a smoking pot and a torch between the pieces? 

The Jewish Study Bible puts things into both historical and covenantal contexts.  It notes in the commentary on this episode:  “The ritual of cutting animals in half and passing between them is found in both the Bible and in Mesopotamia. . . . It is likely that the meaning of this ritual is calling down a curse upon oneself such that those walking between the sacrifices will be like the dead animals if they violate the covenant.”  It is the ancient equivalent of the old playground invocation, "If I'm lying may God strike me dead."  Since the smoking fire pot and flaming torch symbolize the Lord, the Lord is invoking a self-curse should He violate the covenant.

Oddly enough, the reading says nothing about Abram’s obligations under the covenant.  This covenant is pure gift.  It is a reward for past loyalty.  There are no obligations placed on the recipient.  Abram—who had not yet been instructed to change his name to Abraham—is given two promises.

First, his progeny would outnumber the stars.

Second, he would possess the land.  

Thus, his question “How am I to know that I shall possess it” is answered in the starkest most definitive terms possible. 

Paul is emphatic when he writes that Jesus will change our lowly bodies to conform with His glorified body. This transformation cannot occur through a ritual or a magic incantation, or even through the modern secular liturgies of going to the gym or eating vegan. This transformation can only be effected through Jesus who first conformed His body--and His life--to ours.  Our lowly bodies can only be transformed through Jesus who was like us in all things but sin. 

Every year on the First Sunday of Lent the Church tells of Jesus' temptations in the desert.  She does so to remind us that Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary, is like us in all things but sin.  And every year on the Second Sunday of Lent we hear the narrative of the Transfiguration of Our Lord.

The Transfiguration appears in all three synoptic Gospels.  There are some minor differences across the three accounts but the main actors and the content are consistent.  Jesus’ Transfiguration both points us towards and draws us into a mystery.  It is a mystery beyond the reach of historical reconstruction.  It is beyond modern scientific explanation. There is no geographic specificity.  That is good because all of these factors are irrelevant.  Demanding that the Transfiguration fulfill criteria of modernity is simply a smokescreen to obscure one's lack of faith.

“While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.”   Imagine the scene. Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets, standing and conversing with Jesus.  The apostles were confused and frightened.  To say that any of us would have acted differently would be absurd if not delusional.  Despite the vogue for apostle bashing in some theological circles, none of us would have responded any better than Peter.  Most likely, we would have acted worse, perhaps grabbing the Ancient Near East equivalent of a cell phone and snapping pictures, or taking a selfie with Elijah, to tweet to the rest of the apostles at the bottom of the mountain. 

As the tension mounted the voice of God the Father confirmed Jesus as the one who Peter brilliantly confessed him to be earlier in this same chapter of the Luke: The Christ of God.  The Anointed one.  Then, the apostles, and thus by extension each of us, received  a mandate:

"Listen to Him."
Interpreters do not agree on the specifics of God’s command to listen to His beloved Son.  Does it refer to Jesus' earlier prediction of his passion and death?  Does it refer to his teaching?  Today that mandate is unmistakably clear.  We know that Jesus suffered and died.  The historical reality removes any ambiguity.  We are to listen to his teaching through His words.  We are to learn through the teaching of His actions.  We are to pray and meditate on scripture and avail ourselves of the sacraments.  As we listen to Jesus, as we take His teaching to heart and allow those teachings to transform us, we move closer to the glory foreshadowed in the transfigured Jesus. 

"I think I'm going to make it this year."  No, it has nothing to do with not eating chocolate during Lent, which wasn't a "give-up" anyway.  It has to do with the desire to give a homily for every Sunday of Lent.  Every year since I've been ordained there has always been at least one Sunday during Lent when I was unable to celebrate Mass.  This year I think I have it nailed.  I won't be in the same place every Sunday.  Seeing as last week I was in Ljubljana that is a given.  In a few weeks I will be at Regina Laudis getting together the chanted prefaces etc. that I will have to learn for the Triduum.  


I you didn't hear the homily Father Paul Scalia gave at the funeral of his father Justice Antonin Scalia, find it on You Tube.  It is one of the best funeral homilies I've ever heard.  I was enthralled.  It was not long, no more than ten minutes, but it was powerful.  Indeed it proved that if one is careful with words and ideas a great deal can be included in a rather short homily.  


Got home from Slovenia on Tuesday night.  It was 24 hours between waking up in Ljubljana to get ready to go to airport (4:00 AM there, 10:00 PM EST)  and falling into bed here (10:00 PM).  The travel back home was as good as it could have possibly been.  It was a short flight from Ljubljana to Munich.  Munich is a much nicer airport than Frankfurt.  It was rather like being dropped down into the middle of a luxury mall.  I was drooling over a 36,000.00 Euro Rolex (I lust after very fine watches).  Had a very good breakfast.  It was an 8 hour layover.  If you must have a long layover in Germany go to Munich and not Frankfurt.  

Life got even better on the plane when I had both of the seats on the left side of the plane to myself.  Had three seats on which to stretch out on the trip over.  How did that happen twice?  It took an hour to get through passport control and customs (nothing to declare).  Even the T from the airport to BC was not bad.  The last thing I remember was crashing on the bed and pulling the blankets up around my shoulders.  That was it for the next seven plus hours.  


The last Saturday in Ljubljana was great.  We had rain Friday.  It turned to snow on Friday night.  Saturday turned into a brilliantly sunny day (for a while) with perhaps two inches of wet snow.  Grabbed camera at 8:30 and headed out.  

The first four photos are the Butcher's Bridge.  It is a new bridge either built or reconstructed  in 2010.  Shortly after it was opened lovers began to put padlocks on the cable supports in imitation of a bridge in Paris.  

And one taken at night.

The Ljubljana market early Saturday.  A few hours later when I was on the return trip (with a completely used battery.  Like a fool I forgot to put the backup in my coat) the area was parked.  The hill in the background leads up to the castle that overlooks the city.  I did not get up there with the camera for multiple reasons, most of which were weather related.

One of my favorite photographic subjects in Slovenia was the cobblestoned curving streets and alleys lined with stuccoed buildings.  The fading and flaking of the stucco adds to the texture and feel.  

The view from the Three Bridges in front of the Franciscan Church.  This is a very large plaza that is a crossroads.

Saturday was Valentine's Day Eve.  Valentine's Day is celebrated but it isn't the hysterical deal that it has become in the U.S.  That is refreshing.  One can only tolerate the sight of so many red hearts.   The young couple were walking under the train tracks to a large park. 

It was unlikely that this particular outdoor seating area in a cafe near the community was going to see any use that day.  It definitely did not get used on Valentine's Day as the rain was steady. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Last Homily in Ljubljana

1st Sunday of Lent
Lk 4:1-13

“Come let us worship the Lord
who for our sake endured
temptation and suffering.”  

Every morning during Lent the Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours, begins with this antiphon. Temptation and suffering  are two critical words that define what it means to be human.  They characterize the human condition. Temptation and suffering describe how Jesus was like us, like us in all things but sin. Though the word temptation generally suggests something negative and almost synonymous with sin, the Latin, Hebrew, and Greek  roots of the word temptation are neutral. They suggest “trying,” “testing,” or “proving.”  

Each of the temptations satan dangled in front of Jesus were tests of his trust in God the Father.  Each temptation tested Jesus’ obedience to his Father.  Unlike Adam,  who was disobedient to God’s command, Jesus, the New Adam, was obedient to  the Father’s will in all things.  He was obedient even to accepting death on the cross.  Satan held up temptations front of Jesus, who was hungry from fasting, tired from prayer, and disoriented from his long time in the desert.  They are the same temptations satan presents to us.  They are the same temptations that dance in front of our eyes when we are hungry, when we are tired, or disoriented. They are the temptations we must confront when we are dissatisfied with the status quo, when we are more concerned with being of the world rather than simply in the world.

In the first test satan tempts a hungry Jesus with bread.  “C’mon, take care of yourself.  You can be self-sufficient.  Aw Jesus, just do it.”  Sound familiar?  It is more than bread here.  It is the temptation to self-sufficiency,  the temptation to taking care of number one:  me, myself and I. That temptation looms large in our lives.  

The second temptation is to put God to the test.  “Hey Jesus, it’s a quid pro quo.  You jump and the Father saves you.  If not . . . welllllll.”   God is not a divine marionetteer who pulls our strings to make us dance.  Nor is God a marionette that we control with strings or with prayer.  “If this or that happens I will no longer believe in God.”  That is the type of thinking characteristic of a three year-old.  An immature three year-old at that.  How often do we try to test God in that way?  How often do we demand that God answer our prayers in a highly specific manner?  The late Jesuit Father Stanley Marrow, was accurate when he wrote that,  '. . . our appetite for signs is insatiable.  We are forever testing to see if God is still there, to check whether our prayers are getting through.'

The third temptation is the classic Faustian bargain.  “Sell your soul.  Worship me. I will give you great power.”   Power.  Prestige.  Money.  Control.  These idols have replaced God in too many lives.  Just read the papers.  Or if you really want to become repulsed, follow the campaign for president in the U.S.  At the moment taking Slovenian citizenship seems like a good idea. 

All of Jesus' replies to Satan are direct quotes from the Book of Deuteronomy.  Jesus freely chose to be faithful. He freely chose to be obedient to God the Father.  And in so doing he made it possible for us to imitate Him in our own exercise of free will. 

Human freedom, the gift of free will, is generally misunderstood.  It is not a freedom from.  It is not freedom from restrictions, rules, or responsibility. Freedom  is not  the opportunity to choose anything whatsoever.  Dogs and monkeys can do that.  They have no will, only instincts.  Freedom is not the ability to adopt an individual attitude towards this or that. 

Human freedom is freedom for.  Human freedom, our free will,  is the possibility of saying yes or no.  As we see in Jesus' example in the Gospel human freedom is the possibility to say yes or no to one's self, one's real self.  Free will grants us the ability to decide for or against ourselves, to decide for or against God.  Freedom is the opportunity to choose or to reject sin and to act on that choice.  Think back to Adam and Eve. They chose and acted on their choice.  They chose wrongly. But they were and remained free.  We have the same freedom.  Jesus had that same freedom.  He is our model, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

“Come let us worship the Lord
who for our sake
endured temptation and suffering.” 


It has been a rewarding and deeply consoling three weeks here in Ljubljana and Maribor (I spent half me time there).  The Jesuit community has been warm and helpful.  As I've come to see the work they are doing here I am having the opportunity to see the Society at its best.  They are taking risks, beginning some new apostolates and working very hard.  

Most consoling has been meeting the college students, mostly those from other countries (Czech Republic, Slovakia, Netherlands and Italy to name a few) who are studying here for a semester.  We met at Mass on Sunday and Bible study on Friday evenings.  The last Bible study for many of the students this past Friday began at 8 PM as usual.  It ended at midnight.  Also met a few Americans while here.  Approximately 50 people attend the English Mass at 11 AM on Sunday.  

The weather has been interesting.  Thursday was glorious.  Will include some photos of going with Fr. Joze (little mark over the z) to his family farm in the mountains about thirty minutes from here.  Then to Maribor.  Snow began as we returning from Maribor at noon on Friday.  It began to rain Friday night.  The rain changed to snow.  LJ (Ljubljana) got about 2 inches of wet heavy snow.  Saturday dawned spectacularly sunny.  Yeah, I was out with the camera for several hours.  Fortunately I brought some water-resistant construction boots with me.  It was no time for a pair of canvas Chucks.  

I fly home on Tuesday.  Leave LJ at 7 AM (one of the men will drive me to the airport at 5 AM and I will owe him dinner should he come to Boston) for a short flight to Munich.  Seven hours in Munich and then direct shot to Boston.  This is not bad.  The other option was LJ to Geneva.  Geneva to Paris-Charles de Gaulle, an airport I hope to never visit again.  Then, and this is the kicker, CDG to JFK arriving in New York at 9:15 PM with a flight to Boston at 7:00 AM.  Nine hours overnight at JFK.  No way.  I could drive from NYC to Boston in four hours but not at that time of the night.  Munich will be fine.  

Thursday in the mountains was tremendous.  Frs. Joze and Vili and I hiked at a slow pace for about an hour.  I lagged behind a great deal.  They were good humored about it.  The first photo is a house just up the street from Father's family home and farm that his brother and sister still run.  Wonder if it is recycling day. 

This is the view from the back door of the family home.  Indeed, I took this as I was getting into the car for the short drive back to LJ.  These mountains are visible from parts of LJ including a little bit from the skylight in my room. Hope to return.

The parish church in the town.  The priest was very welcoming, it seems to be a characteristic of Slovenians.  Tea, cookies, cheese, bread on no notice whatsoever.  He also had a dog.  Glad he was tied up on a short leash.  There are thousands of them.

The two below are from the cold room or root cellar in the family home.  We had some of the kielbasa for lunch.  It was great.  Father came to call me to lunch and saw me taking photos of the kielbasa curing.  He found it rather funny and, I suspect, bizarre.  This evening I showed him the photo and told him that in my eyes it is the Mona Lisa.  Then he lost it.  
We have many dozen of eggs in the refrigerator.  It turns out that they come from Father's family.  He took a handful of empty cartons out with us. 

The next two photos are from the Butcher's Bridge in LJ.  A number of years ago it became the custom for lovers to place a padlock (mostly, there were a few very large bicycle locks.  Was wondering what the stories were behind those) that is sometimes inscribed with names and dates.  

Back in LJ we see a man shoveling snow to clear out a sidewalk cafe for business.  Slovenians are prone to sitting outdoors for their coffee in weather that would rule out the possibility for most Americans.  This one included.  When offered the chance to do so on a day in the fifties I declined. 

The view from the plaza in front of the Franciscan Church.  Ljubljana seems to be a mixture of wide public spaces and narrow streets and alleys. 

A narrow cobblestoned street.

Slovenia appears to celebrate Valentine's Day though it seems with less hysteria compared with the U.S.  The photo of the nearby cafe, again with outdoor seating, was probably not going to be using it today.  The snow is gone.  But it poured all day long. 

Wonder if they had plans to today? 

And finally Fr. Peter who invited me over.  We were at Georgetown together while he was doing his PhD.  Social paranoia was a part of a paper he was writing.  It was obvious that his understanding of paranoia and delusional thinking was not much better than the popular understanding.  We had a very long conversation that night.  I gave him some papers, and subsequently quite a bit of what he wrote.  Slovenian does not have the articles 'a' and 'the.' He is quite the athlete and has participated in triathlons.  He ran by me in the plaza in front of the Franciscan Church.  Couldn't resist a few photos.  Oh to be able to run again.  But that ain't gonna happen.  Ever.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD