Monday, March 25, 2019

3rd 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. On first reading it seems odd that Moses had to ask God's name. However, the Jewish Study Bible explains that Moses was not raised with his people. He knew nothing of their religion. (Kind of like too many children today whose parents fail to give them any religious instruction so as to "empower" them to choose on their own when they are older. Ignorance is not always bliss, sometimes it is pathetic). Moses had to undergo a conversion, he had to learn, if he were to become the leader of the people. When he asked to whom he was speaking he was told the somewhat odd name: 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 nature did indeed become evident. Alas, the people didn't always get or appreciate that nature. 
The gospel narrative is unique to Luke's gospel. What are we to make of it? 
We have to ask the questions: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do good things happen to bad people? The problem is that of theodicy. There is a breathtaking arrogance inherent in the assumption that one can explain the problem of "theodicy," that one can explain why or how a loving God permits or allows evil, disaster, death and suffering. 
The angry WHY? the desperate WHY? have circled the globe since God formed it. It will continue to circle the globe until time ends.
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 home and possessions through fire or flood, or the confrontation with mortality upon realizing: I am dying. 
Jesus' examples of bad things happening to good people are challenging because there is no historical record of them. Yes, Herod was a crazed megalomaniac who did evil sadistic things so as to maintain absolute control. True, towers did collapse and kill people. Lust for power and construction collapse continue today. But, scholars cannot agree what the Tower of Siloam was. There is no historical record of a sacrifice of Galileans at worship--though today there are too many examples of Christians martyred at worship, and, based on recent history, there will be others. 
Jesus' examples were used to illustrate that evil, disaster, suffering, and death happen to both the bad and the good, the just and the unjust. The saying "only the good die young" is as appalling, inappropriate, and inaccurate a statement as was ever invented. Appalling is also applicable to the Billy Joel song of the same title but that will be the topic for a different homily. 
Jesus repeats: "If you do not repent " twice in this short passage. That demand implies conversion of heart as well. Repentance and conversion are two sides of the same coin. Repentance is an interior act. Conversion is evidenced in the external 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 simple cleansing. As detailed by Josephus, John's baptism was to be accompanied by conversion of life. Thus Jesus calls us to repent and open ourselves to the conversion that follows. 
Will bad things still happen in the world if we repent? Without a doubt.
Will we still suffer? Of course, it is part of being human. 
Will we still experience pain, despite conversion of heart? Absolutely. 
The risk is not that bad things will happen to good people. The risk is the temptation to defiance toward God when bad things, pain, and suffering do happen. The risk is adopting the attitude, "God, if you don't shape up I'm shipping out." 
The reading from Paul's Letter to the Corinthians is a challenge on at least two levels. First, it is edited. Chapter ten, verses 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 marked by: the odd idolatry of celebrity worship, the immorality of sex-change mutilative surgery and abortion. The testing of God through greed, and lethal materialism. 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, and the frustration it engenders, is part of the human condition. Faith will temper pain and sorrow somewhat. Prayer will soothe the soul a bit. But in the end we will never know the answers. Despite that uncertainty we are called to sing with the psalmist in faith and hope, 
"The Lord is kind and merciful,
He pardons iniquities,
heals all ills,
redeems lives from destruction,
secures justice,"
There is nothing we need add to that. 

Got this posted a bit late.  Made an up and back trip to Manchester, VT yesterday, leaving after the 8 AM Mass where this homily was given and returning home by 6 PM.  That represented about 7  hours in the car.  I stopped a few times on the way up to take photos (and get gas).  There was still ice fishing outside Brattleboro, VT along rt. 30.  Getting a bit late in the season for me to consider even walking on the ide to say nothing of sitting in a bungalow on it. 

One of the shacks taken off the ice.  They are moved on runners attached to the bottom.  If you look closely you can see the tracks from other shacks that have been removed. 

Not being an ice fisherman, or even a non-ice one, it took a bit to realize that the two things lying on the ice are borers to create the hole.  

A guy bicycled down to fish.  I was fascinated the the juxtaposition.  Thus two phots taken a few moments apart, one converted to black and white.  Some different shooting parameters.  I stooped to get this.  Getting up proved to be a challenge.  

Shooting through the weeds along the shore.

Start 'em off young. 

I pushed the processing on this rather far.  Like the effect. 

Thirty miles further along the road I stopped for gas.  The huge parking lot for the gas station/convenience store was shared with an sports outfitter.  The kayaks and colored Adirondack chairs against the snow called out to be shot.  I was happy to oblige. 

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Lent

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, challenges that begin with the first reading. 
The ritual described in Genesis is odd, even bizarre. It does not resonate with modern sensibilities. It would send the domestic terrorist group known as PETA into spasms of indignation, protest marches, and a few assaults.
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 the narrative into both historical and covenantal contexts. Its commentary on this episode is as follows: “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.” 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 through this symbolic ritual. 
Paul is emphatic when he writes that Jesus will change our lowly bodies to conform with His glorified body. This transformation, however, cannot be effected through a ritual or a magic incantation. 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, was like us in all things but sin. And every year on the Second Sunday of Lent we hear the narrative of the Transfiguration. The Transfiguration appears in the three synoptic Gospels. There are some minor differences across the three accounts but the main actors and the content are consistent. 
Jesus’ Transfiguration simultaneously points us towards and draws us into a mystery. It is a mystery beyond the reach of historical reconstruction, scientific explanation, or geographic specificity. That is not much of a problem because these factors are irrelevant. Demanding that the Transfiguration fulfill modern historiographical criteria is a smokescreen to obscure a 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, in conversation with Jesus. The apostles were confused and frightened. To say that any of us would have responded differently would be absurd to the point of 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 to snap pictures, take a selfie with Elijah, or 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 confessed him to be: The Christ of God. The Anointed one. Then, the apostles, and by extension each of us, received the mandate: "Listen to Him."
"Listen to Him."
We are to listen to the teaching of His words. We are to listen to the teaching of His actions. We are to listen to and meditate on scripture. And, we are to 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. 

The holy oils (catechumens, infirm, and chrism) at the Cathedral of St. Matthew in D.C.  This was the site of JFK's funeral in 1963.  The interior was cleaned and restored in the early 2000s.  

The monstrance at my home church, St. Mary's, in Plymouth, PA.  It had been placed on the altar in error while preparing for Holy Thursday night Mass.  Before moving it back into the sacristy for when it would be needed much later, I shot through the opening for the luna containing the Precious Body or Our Lord, showing the tabernacle door behind it.  
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Homily for the 1st Sunday in Lent

10 March 2019
Lk 4:1-13

“Come let us worship the Lord who for our sake endured temptation and suffering.”  The Divine Office, or the Liturgy of the Hours, begins with this antiphon during Lent. 

Temptation and suffering define what it means to be human; they characterize the human condition.  The antiphon describes how Jesus was like us in all things but sin, in all things but giving in to temptation.  But, it is important we are clear what temptation is.

Though the word temptation generally suggests something negative, illicit, something that is synonymous with sin, or something we should not be doing (e.g. I'm tempted to have a second chocolate mousse) the Latin, Hebrew, and Greek  roots of temptation are morally neutral.  Those roots include “trying,” “testing,” or “proving.”  Indeed, some versions of the Our Father pray 'do not put us to the test' rather than the familiar, 'lead us not into temptation.'

Each of the temptations satan dangled in front of Jesus were tests of his trust in God the Father.  Each tested Jesus’ obedience to his Father, who is our Father as well.  Unlike Adam, who disobeyed God’s command, Jesus, the New Adam, was obedient to the Father’s will in all things, even to accepting death on the cross. Satan tempted Jesus, who was hungry from fasting, tired from prayer, and disoriented in the desert.  Satan tests us in the same way when we are in the same condition.  Those temptations dance in front of our eyes and frolic in our minds when we are hungry, tired, or disoriented and confused.  They are the temptations we must confront when dissatisfied with the status quo or more concerned with things of the world.

In the first test Satan tempted a hungry Jesus with bread.  “C’mon, take care of yourself.  You can be self-sufficient.  Aw Jesus, just do it.”  It is more than bread at issue here.  The temptation is to arrogant self-sufficiency, to taking care of number one to the exclusion of everything and everyone else.  Me, myself, and I.  That temptation looms large in our lives in ways that are unique to each of us.   

The third temptation was to put God to the test. “Hey Jesus, it’s quid pro quo. You jump and the Father saves you. If he don't . . . welllllll, guess you was wrong dude.”  God is not a divine marionetteer.  God does not pull our strings to make us dance.  God does not quotecause unquote things to happen for the entertainment value of watching us struggle. "Why did God give me cancer?"   Nor is God a marionette that we control with strings made of prayer.  “If this happens I will no longer believe in God.”  Both statements are appropriate to a three year-old but not an adult.

How often do we test God in this way?  How often do we demand that God answer our prayers in a very specific way, according to a highly detailed script of which we hold the only copy? The late Jesuit Father Stanley Marrow,  accurately 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 second, and in some ways most fascinating, 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.  They drive both major political parties, and all of the minor ones.  Those idols have contributed mightily to the diminishment of the quality of our lives, to say nothing of the sad incivility that now marks public discourse and discussion.  That Faustian bargain is summarized in the pathetic bumper sticker:  "He who has the most toys when he dies wins."

All of Jesus' replies to the evil one's tests were direct quotes from the Book of Deuteronomy, the Torah, the Old Testament, the only scripture he knew.  Throughout all of the temptations Jesus chose to obey the will of God the Father. He freely chose obedience.  In so doing he made it possible for us to imitate Him in our own exercise of free will, the gift that, along with the ability to use words in speech, sets humans high above all lower animals.  

The meaning of freedom is wildly misunderstood.  Freedom is not a release from restrictions, rules, or responsibility. That may be the freedom for the college student away from home for the first time but it is not true freedom.  Freedom is not the opportunity to choose anything whatsoever, whenever, and without consequence.  Dogs and monkeys can do that.  Lower animals have no will, free or otherwise. They only have instincts.  Freedom is not the ability to adopt individual and highly idiosyncratic attitudes toward life or morality.  Human freedom is freedom for.  It allows us to say yes or no.   As we see in Jesus' example it gives us the opportunity to say yes or no to one's self.  Freedom allows us to decide for or against ourselves.  It allows us to decide for or against God.  Humans alone have the opportunity to choose or to reject sin. 

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.

Jesus,  the Way, the Truth, and the Life is our model.

For this reason the office will begin in the same way for the next weeks: “Come let us worship the Lord who for our sake endured temptation and suffering.”  

The photos are of three crosses that I took over the past two years in Europe.  

The churchyard at the parish in Preddvor, Slovenia.  About thirty minutes or so north of LJ.  This was All Saints' Day 2016.

The cross on the summit of sv. Višarje, which is in Italy on the border of Slovenia and Austria. 
 The daily Mass and cold weather chapel at sv Jože in LJ.  It is much too cold in the large church to heat during the winter.  The English Language Mass also meets here.  It was a challenge to get this lined up right. 
+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Homily for Ash Wednesday

Joel 2:12-18
Ps 51
2 Cor 5:20-6:2
Mt 6:1-6; 16-18

The imposition of ashes marks the beginning of Lent, our 40-day procession through a season described as penitential.

Besides being penitential, a time during which we acknowledge and atone for our sins, Lent should also be transformational.  Any lenten discipline we choose, should effect how we live our faith for the rest of the year, not just during the season of 'give ups.'   We can see the roots of Ash Wednesday in the first reading from Joel.  He called for an assembly. He decreed a fast as part of a liturgy.  Blow the trumpets.  Gather all the people. 

As in those ancient times, we come together today to listen to the word of God.  We gather to receive the ashes that remind us of our mortality and call us to undergo a change of heart so as to live more closely in accord with the Gospel.  We are assembled here to receive the Sacred Body and Blood of Our Lord whose passion, death, and resurrection we will recall and celebrate at the end of these forty days. 

Lent isn't just for “give ups” of the usual suspects: smoking, chocolate, beer, desert, meat, and so on.  It is a time of taking on: taking on time to meditate on the Gospel, time for spiritual reading even for just a quarter-hour per day, for taking time to attend Mass one or two additional days per week.

Rather than focusing on 'give ups' lent is a time to heed the advice of St. Jane Frances de Chantal, foundress of the Visitation Order of nuns,  “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 a more difficult mortification than giving up desert and beer for the next forty days, if not for life.

Lent is a time to heed the advice of St. Clement from this morning's office of readings:  “. . . be humble, putting aside arrogance, pride and foolish anger. . . . Be merciful, so that you may receive mercy. . . . Forgive, so that you may be forgiven.  As you treat others, so you will be treated . . .” 

There are two formulae for the imposition of ashes. The first reminds us of our common mortality: “Remember, thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return.”
The second is advice for living: “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospels.”
As we begin this holy season of Lent we are called to meditate on the first and to live according to the second. 

The photo below is from Ash Wednesday several years ago when I was living at Campion Center in Weston, MA.  I was the celebrant for the Ash Wednesday Mass.  Went into the chapel a bit early to check on the ashes etc.  The ashes and holy water had been set up by someone else.  This just screamed to be a black and white photo.  So it is.  

+Fr. Jack, SJ, MD

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Homily for the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sir 27:4-7
Ps 92
1 Cor 15:53-58
Lk 6:39-45

The readings from Sirach and Luke echo each other.   Both ask the same question. Both arrive at the same answer.  Both offer the same warning. 

From Sirach:  "Praise no one before he speaks, for it is then that people are tested."

From Luke:  " . . . from the heart the mouth speaks."

Sirach uses images from daily life, a sieve or pottery, to emphasize that the results  give the measure of person.  It isn't the publicity. The chest-thumping bravado matters little.  And good looks?  They should be ignored.  None of these indicate what emerges--or will emerge--from the heart. The proof of what lies in our hearts is found in what we say, what we do, and how we say or do it. Say is the key word. 

The power of speech is unique to humans.  No lower animal has the power of true speech.  Each species has a repertory of squeaks, squawks, shrieks, growls, grunts, and other primitive sounds that allow for a type of communication. But only humans have the gift of words, words that can be combined into sentences and  paragraphs, poetry and prayer, words that can explain difficult ideas or ease a grieving heart.

In scripture speech is frequently indicated by the use of the word 'tongue,' the extraordinary organ that gives humans the ability to form words consistently and intelligibly. Both Sirach and Jesus advise control of the tongue, control of what one says, and how one says it. 

There is a scene in Babette's Feast, the 1988 Best Foreign Film Oscar film and one of the most perfectly made films of all time.  Though wrongly misinterpreted by many as a semi-comedic food movie, it is a profound meditation on the Eucharist, its importance in creating a community, maintaining that community, and, most critically, healing the rifts that inevitably develop in any community. In one scene just before the titular feast, one of the women explains to the community that is falling apart as the result of long-held grudges, unkind words, and resentments: 

"The tongue, that strange little muscle, has accomplished great and glorious deeds for man.  But it's also an unruly evil, full of deadly poison."  There is nothing one can add to describe that description of the power of human speech, the effect of what we say, how we say it, and to whom we say it. 

That strange little muscle, can caress the words of prayer, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the many formal prayers of the Church, and the uncountable number of prayers that we utter in times of distress and sorrow as well as celebration and joy.  That strange little muscle can also destroy the happiness of another or ruin a reputation in moments.  

We are, and will be, known by our words, the words we say and those we withhold, the emotion behind the words and the emotions they call forth from others.  The words we say go a long way in determining our reputations.  Our words represent the fruit of our lives, particularly as we age. 

The psalm assures us: 

"The just one shall flourish like the palm tree,
like a cedar of Lebanon shall he grow. . . 
They shall bear fruit even in old age;
vigorous and sturdy shall they be . . ."

We are two days away from Ash Wednesday. Lent gives us an opportunity to look at our lives, to evaluate our deeds, and to reconsider our words, those things that tell the world what we are, who we are, and how we are.  Those things that reveal the stores of goodness in our hearts.  The gospel antiphon gives us all the instruction we need: 

"Shine like lights in the world as you hold on to the word of life."

Getting ready for the beginning of Lent.  A busy time to say the least.  Will spend Holy Week at the Abbey of Regina Laudis making my retreat and saying all of the liturgies.  The challenge with preaching int he same place for a week is that of being consistent.  As I am not in a parish, I have a lot of latitude with homilies. 

Took the photos a few weeks ago up in Vermont.  The sanctuary lamp is a real candle, not an electric one made to resemble something real.

The weather was mostly hideous.  I thook this with a focus on the condensation rather than the view outside the window.  There are sun-catchers scattered throughout.  On my next trip I am going to systematically photograph all of them, assuming there is reasonable sun.

During Mass

 +Fr. Jack, SJ, MD