Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-18

Lent begins today with the ancient custom of the imposition of ashes. It is a time of fasting and abstinence, a time of alms giving, and a time of prayer.  Lent is, or should be, more than forty days of penance and self-chosen deprivation.  It is also be a time of transformation and consecration.

The first reading from Joel puts today into context.  He calls for a gathering and a fast in the setting of a liturgy.  Blow the trumpets.  Call an assembly.  Gather the people.  Everyone from the youngest to the oldest.  And so we gather as a congregation to listen to the word of God.  We gather to receive the ashes that both remind us that we will die and call us to undergo a conversion of heart so as to live more closely in accord the Gospel.  We gather to receive the Sacred Body and Blood of Christ  whose passion, death, and resurrection we will recall at the end of forty days.

Lent is not simply a season of give-ups: smoking, chocolate, desert, television, and so on.  It should be a time of take-ons: time to meditate on the Gospel, time for  spiritual reading, more time for prayer, or more frequent attendance at Mass.
It is a time to follow the advice of  St. Jane de Chantal, foundress of the Visitation Order: “We cannot always offer God great things but at each instant we can offer little things with great love.”  Offering little things with great love may be more difficult than giving up both chocolate and beer for the next forty days.

St. Clement, pope gave us a road map for Lent as found in the second reading in today's Office of Readings  “we should be humble in mind, putting aside all arrogance, pride and foolish anger.”   He reminds us, “Recall what the Lord Jesus said when he taught gentleness and patience.  Be merciful, so that you may have mercy shown to you.  Forgive, so that you may be forgiven.  As you treat others, so you will be treated . . .”  Lent is a time to challenge ourselves to be more fully what Jesus wants us to be.  Lent is a time to seek to be more fully what we want to be but may not know how to become.

There are two formulae for the imposition of ashes. The first is a reminder of the reality of all life: "Remember, thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return."
The second is advice for Lent and every day of the year: "Turn away from sin
and be faithful to the Gospels."

As we begin the holy season of Lent we are called to meditate on one and act according to the other.

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Saturday, February 25, 2017

8th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Is 49:14-15
Ps 62:2-3, 6-7, 8-9
1 Cor 4:1-5
Mt 6:24-34

Today's Gospel raises the topic of free will and priorities. Our priorities determine the choices we make. They decide what we hold closest to our hearts.  Our priorities determine how we live and how we treat those with whom we live and work. 

A young father who plays golf sixteen hours every weekend and ignores his three children, can be accused of misplaced priorities.  A woman who complains she has no money but puts a ten-day cruise on her credit card, can be accused of misplaced priorities.  A university student who spends the weekend drinking rather than studying for the organic chemistry final, can be accused of misplaced priorities. We all need an occasional reality check  during which we ask ourselves,  “What ARE my priorities?”  Ideally we ask ourselves this question  before someone--a parent, a spouse, a teacher, or a friend--is screaming it at us.  

In the first reading Paul is expressing his indifference to the opinions others have of him and his work.  Their opinion is not going to force him to change his priorities to suit their needs.  They can't exert enough pressure to make his priorities fit with their ideology. He is confident in his role as a steward of God’s mysteries.  He knows he will be judged at the appointed time.  Paul was never one to confuse his priorities.  He knew them. He held them firmly.  He was unwilling to compromise in the face of criticism.  He did not waver at the threat of prison.  He was indifferent to all things except the saving act of Jesus on the cross.  That was his first priority. It determined all of Paul's other priorities.

There is nothing subtle about the gospel.  Some of the images are wonderfully poetic.  The comparison of Solomon’s clothing to that of a lily is particularly fine. These images make an important point that supports what Jesus is teaching.

“You cannot serve both God and mammon”—mammon written with a lower case m rather than upper case.  Mammon is a problematic word.  Mammon is not a personification of satan.  Mammon is not an independent small g 'god.'  The word mammon comes from the ancient Chaldean root meaning confidence or trust.  “What do you trust in?”  “Where do you place your confidence?”  It requires little linguistic manipulation to rephrase the questions as, “What are your priorities?” 

Love and hate represents another translation problem in this Gospel. As used here 'love' and 'hate' do not indicate the emotions with which we are familiar. They are used in the biblical sense, a use that means 'to choose' and 'not to choose,' or, 'to choose' and 'to reject.'  Here love and hate indicate the difference between what we pay attention to and what we ignore.   We can only give undivided attention to one master.  We cannot split our affection or devotion.  It is one or the other.  Once more we confront the question of priorities.

Jesus’ advice, “do not be anxious” about what you eat or what you wear is not only for the wealthy. The poor are as capable as the wealthy of misplacing their priorities, of being overly concerned with how they look, how they dress, and what they have or don’t have.  They are simply working within a smaller budget. 

Jesus is telling his listeners to adopt the Ignatian characteristic of indifference. 
St. Ignatius wrote the following about it: “Therefore, we must make ourselves indifferent to all created things as far as we are allowed free choice . . . .we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life.  The same holds for all other things. . . ” 

Can we become indifferent to what we eat?  Can we maintain indifference toward  our bodies?  Can we be indifferent to the car we drive even when our neighbor has a brand new Mercedes? 

Shortly after entering the Society a Jesuit novice learns the Suscipe.  Ideally it is part of his daily prayer and gives shape to how he lives, works and spends his free time.

“Take Lord, and receive,
all my liberty, my memory,
my understanding, my entire will;
all I have and call my own.
You have given all to me, to You, Lord, I return it.
Everything is Yours, do with it what You will.
Give me only Your love and Your grace.
That is enough for me." 

The Suscipe brings us back to the psalm.

“Only in God is my soul at rest;

from him comes my salvation.

He only is my rock and my salvation,
my stronghold;
I shall not be disturbed at all.  . .
Trust in him at all times, O my people!

Pour out your hearts before him."

Today was the Carnival Parade in LJ.  It is going to take many hours to go through the 800 photos I took.  Many will be discarded of course but many others will get processed.  Others will be kept but not worked on just yet.  I was out for three hours on one of the most beautiful days we've had.  Friday was heavy rain that changed into snow.  When I woke this AM the sun was glorious.  Temp went to mid-40s F but with no wind and full sun it seemed warmer than that.  Town was packed for the parade.  The photos below are all of flowers.  

Slovenians love flowers.  There are multiple flower seller stalls in the outdoor market regularly.  Most of the are clustered around the cathedral.  I shot most of these looking straight down into the bundles. After what was a prolonged period of gray, rain, fog, and mist the color was most welcome.  

No need to describe.  Simply meant to be enjoyed. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Saturday, February 11, 2017

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sir 15:15-20
Ps 119 1-2, 4-5, 17-18, 33-34
1 Cor 2:6-10
Mt 5:17-37

Free will.  Choice.  Options.
Past.  Present.  Future.
Decision.  Action.  Result. 
Fear.  Love.  Consequences.       

These are only some of the layers in today's readings.  They can be meditated upon to great depth without being exhausted.  They can also be the source of much discomfort as we consider what they mean for us.  Choice is the great gift of free will.  Choice is also the greatest challenge it presents.  The ability to make a choice among options, to understand the reasons for that choice, and to intuit how that choice will affect us in the future, sets us apart from all animals.  All lower animals function on instinct. They are driven only by a combination of instinct, memory traces of past experience, and immediate need.  But, they can never know the long range effect of a choice. 

The human brain is many orders of magnitude more powerful than that of any animal.  Only humans can combine  past memories and knowledge to make decisions in the present, while having some idea of the future consequences of those decisions, which in itself may influence the final choice or decision.  Animals do not possess that skill.  They never will. 

Our choices rarely involve just us.  Most of them affect others in ways we can't always know when we make them.   Only humans have free will.  Only humans are free to make choices.  Only humans can take into account, past, present, and future when faced with a choice.  The brain function involved when we make a choice, are more complicated than can be fully explained or described. 

We heard in the first reading from Sirach, "If you choose you can keep the commandments . . . "  That is a strong statement that places a significant  burden on us.  "IF you choose you can keep the commandments."  The logical conclusion from that is, 'if you choose you can violate the commandments.'  Free will allows us to choose to sin. It allows us to choose death.  It allows us to choose evil.  Free will allows us to reject God.

"The eyes of God are on those who fear Him." 

Fear of the Lord.  Fear of God.  The word fear is the problem in the English translation.  Fear sets off an automatic train of thought that includes anxiety, terror, panic, punishment, pain and physical sensations, such as rapid heart beat and sweaty palms.  But fear has other meanings. 

Fear is a critical part of love.  Without fear there can be no love.  This meaning of fear in the context of love is different.  It is a reverential fear.  It is a fear that grows out of awe.  It is a fear that moves a person to seek and follow God's will. It moves a person to seek God's will not to avoid punishment but because of love for Him.  How often has fear of hurting someone we loved kept us from sin?  How often have we chosen the good instead of evil because we did not want to disappoint someone who loved us, a parent, a spouse, a valued teacher or mentor, or even the memory of another?  How often have we chosen not to sin because we did not want to violate another's trust or because we didn't want to break someone's heart?   That is reverential fear of the Lord.  It is not fear because of punishment, hellfire, and gnashing of teeth. It is fear of offending the One who loves us.

Today's Gospel continues the Sermon on the Mount. Unlike the comforting images in the beatitudes we hear some hard truths.  It is difficult to feel comfortable after hearing this Gospel.  The poor, those who mourn, the peacemakers, the meek those who were declared blessed in the beatitudes, are now given instruction in what it means to follow Jesus.  Those who were declared blessed are reminded that even if poor or mourning they  have responsibilities.  Sin is not mitigated by poverty.  Sin is not excused because of powerlessness or meekness.  Jesus is telling his hearers that there are no actions free of consequences.  Nothing is done in a vacuum.  Every action has an effect, every action has a reaction.  Every time we choose for something we choose against other things.  Every time we choose a course of action we close the other options.

In the United States the lawsuit is as much a weapon of mass destruction as any nuclear warhead.  The situation has reached a point of absurdity that cannot be easily described.  Many lawsuits are settled out of court as Jesus suggests in his discourse.  But . . . . many many more are thrown out of court because they have no merit, because they are deemed frivolous, or to put it bluntly,  are nothing more than money grabs.  

Editorial comments aside, why would calling one’s brother, or anyone else, a fool merit the fires of Gehenna?  Why is anger so strongly decried in this Gospel?  Because, just as it is easier to settle a case out of court than to go to trial, it is easier to stop anger when it is a thought than it is to interrupt a murderous impulse when one’s hands are around the other’s neck.  It is easier for an alcoholic not to drink when he or she does not enter a bar or hold a cold beer on a hot day than it is to spit out the glorious amber liquid so as to remain sober. 

Jesus is telling us to be alert to the first signs of temptation if we wish to avoid sin.  He is telling us this because there is a point of no return, particularly when we choose evil over good,  when we choose death over life, when we choose to follow satan rather than Jesus, the Good King.

The Psalms were written many centuries before Matthew's beatitudes.  We just heard a beatitude from Psalm 119:

"Blessed are they who observe the Lord's decrees,
who seek him with all their heart."

We can only pray using words from the same psalm:

"Give me discernment,
that I may observe your law

and keep it with all my heart."

Now that Fr. Damjan is back we are doing one on and one off for celebrating and preaching at Mass.  It has been a busy couple of weeks.  Some editing.  Celebrated one Mass in Slovenian.  It goes well.  The people here are tolerant and patient, something I appreciate a great deal.  

The photos below are of a different type.  They are a form of 'light painting.'  There are several ways to do it.  Some photographers do a long exposure while moving around a laser or other colored light source.  I chose a different tack, beginning with a light source and moving the camera.  

There is a phone store that seems to sell only plans rather than the phones themselves.  It is one the corner of a block of stores and thus has two plate glass windows.  The walls are perforated with regularly spaced holes that have a translucent or opaque cover.  They are backlit with lights that change color in an irregular pattern.  

After the first photo of the store, what I call the canvas, I took a bunch of longer exposures from 0.8 to 3 seconds.  During each exposure I moved the camera in as straight a line as possible.  I like the effect.  It is difficult if not impossible to predict the result.  I've done it a few times in other settings.  Not all light works as well.  When it warms up a bit more will try to do some in other places here at night.  

The store itself.

One of the 0.8 second shots.  Moved the camera fairly fast.  I suspect pedestrians observing the scene were wondering what in the . . . 

A longer exposure, probably two seconds.  

I like the effect this had with the lucite tables.  You have to choose the starting point for the movement before pushing the shutter.  

Went from left to right on this one.  I think the vertical seem to work better overall, at least in this setting.

Every time I look at this it reminds me of 'ribbon candy' from Seras' candy shop when I was a kid.  Stuff was pure sugar, shiny, with stripes more or less indicating the flavor built into it.  Biting one piece of that was enough to seal the jaw for hours.  
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD