Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Priest's Representational Role

Mass of Thanksgiving – Ordination Class of 1985

Chapel of the Regional Seminary

of St. John Vianney and the Uganda Martyrs

6:30 p.m. Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Acts 12:24-13:5
II Cor. 4:7-15
John 12:44-50
            “One day while they were offering worship to the Lord and keeping a fast, the Holy Spirit said, ‘I want Barnabas and Saul set apart for the work to which I have called them.’ So it was that after fasting and prayer they laid their hands on them and sent them off.”
            It is almost legendary what is recounted about how Pope John Paul II fasted and prayed in preparation for ordinations at his hands. The rector of the North American College in my days was then Bishop and later Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, DC, James A. Hickey; he too fasted in preparation for ordinations. I haven’t as yet ordained anyone in my five+ years of Episcopate, but I probably would fast too out of the awareness that I am sending someone out in the name of the Holy Spirit. There may have been times in history when people set value on being ordained to an estate, a class or a caste, but mission, sending out in the name of the Holy Spirit is the thread that connects us over time going back to Christ Himself.
            We’re joining the Class of 1985 in saying “Thank you, Lord” for 25 years of being “sent out in the name of the Holy Spirit” as men called and consecrated to share in the priesthood and the mission which sets it and them apart.
Excuse me a stray thought at this point, but what is all this business about priests in recent years suffering from an identity crisis? How can you have doubts about who you are when in the process of solemnly creating you, the Church has fasted and prayed and laid hands on your head unto priesthood? Through the laying on of hands by a successor of the Apostles we confer a clearly delineated mission in the name of the Holy Spirit. Thanks be to God, we know who we are and what we are about. It has ever been so and so it will be until the end of time.
Although it may be somewhat inappropriate to speak about each priestly ordination as a risk or an investment, there is a sense in which the Church from the days of the Acts of the Apostles has certainly treated ordination and especially unto priesthood as just that. Priesthood is not a point of arrival, a decoration for somebody’s lapel; it is a point of departure. Hence the prayer and fasting by which we turn over to the Lord our choice and the man upon whom we lay our hands! The Church continues after ordination day to accompany him with our prayers as well. Priesthood is a life-long adventure and although we are never “home free” this side of the grave, there is certainly a sense in which after 25 years we can rejoice in the yield of the harvest, so to speak. We thank the Lord for these men and all the good which has come to the Church in the region at their hands. In well-founded hope, we pray that the next 25 years will be even more fruitful to the greater honor and glory of God. Life for a priest only gets better as you enter deeper into the mystery of fulfilling God’s Will and of cooperating with the grace bestowed.
            Pope Benedict XVI sums up very nicely in his address at the Wednesday Audience of April 14th what we are about as priests. He formulates it under the heading of a series of talks he has started on the tria munera, teaching, governing and sanctifying, to be delivered as the Year of the Priest draws to a close:
“Hence, the priest, who acts "in persona Christi Capitis" and in representation of the Lord, never acts in the name of someone who is absent, but in the very Person of the Risen Christ, who makes himself present with his truly effective action. He really acts and does what the priest could not do: the consecration of the wine and the bread so that they will really be the presence of the Lord, [and] the absolution of sins. The Lord makes present his own action in the person who carries out such gestures. These three tasks of the priest -- which Tradition has identified in the different mission words of the Lord: teach, sanctify, govern -- in their distinction and in their profound unity, are a specification of this effective representation. They are in reality the three actions of the Risen Christ, the same one who today teaches in the Church and in the world and thus creates faith, gathers his people, creates the presence of truth and really builds the communion of the universal Church; and sanctifies and guides.” {ZENIT translation}
            These days I’m reading a novel by John Henry Cardinal Newman, whom the Holy Father will beatify in September during his visit to Great Britain. The Newman novel I am reading is entitled: “Callista, A Tale of The Third Century”. The author does a fabulous job of describing the character of a young Christian, Agellius, baptized at age 6, orphaned and entrusted to the care of pagan relatives. Now a young adult contemplating his future, in the midst of a Church which has literally rotted away around him, Agellius by the grace of God comes to terms with the principal temptations of his young life and makes an adult choice in favor of the faith of his baptism. Skeptics might ask how Cardinal Newman dare speak about the life and psychology of a young man back in the third century. That is not the point, now is it? The Cardinal has written something universal about youth in uncertain times: third century North Africa, his own day and time in England or today here in our region; you choose! The point is that by the grace of God youth endangered (most certainly), but youth noble in its aspirations and search for God, triumphs. Ideals, timeless values, truth triumph in and through the Risen Christ. Has it gotten any harder today than it was 25 years and more ago for you to respond to God’s call? Is there any reason to despair of God’s will to raise up priests today as well after the heart of His only Son? I think not.
            We have a special Second Reading, not assigned for today but chosen for the occasion: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us… For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.”  As priests especially we are “Christophers”, “Christ-bearers” not for our own sake but for your joy, in order that you might better give thanks to God.
            The Holy Father explains how this works in his same audience talk, with reference to our Gospel for today:
“This fact -- that the priest does not invent, does not create and does not proclaim one's own ideas inasmuch as the doctrine he proclaims is not his, but Christ's -- does not mean, on the other hand, that he is neutral, almost like a spokesman who reads a text which, perhaps, he does not appropriate. Also in this regard Christ's example is applicable, who said: I am not of myself and I do not live for myself, but I come from the Father and I live for the Father. That is why, in this profound identification, the doctrine of Christ is that of the Father and he himself is one with the Father. The priest who proclaims the word of Christ, the faith of the Church and not his own ideas, must also say: I do not live from myself and for myself, but I live with Christ and from Christ and because of this all that Christ has said to us becomes my word, even if it is not mine. The life of the priest must be identified with Christ and, in this way, the word that is not his own becomes, however, a profoundly personal word. On this topic, St. Augustine said, speaking of priests: "And we, what are we? Ministers (of Christ), his servants, because all that we contribute to you is not ours, but we bring it out from his storeroom. And we also live from it, because we are servants like you".”
There is a moment in the blessing found in the rite of infant baptism where the priest speaks to and about the parents and the mother in particular as giving thanks for the gift of her child. Our jubilarians give thanks for the gift of their priesthood of 25 years. They talk in the world about “self-made men” (Rockefellers and the like), but there are no self-made priests. Thankfulness is not and cannot be for us a pharisaical pat on the back; thankfulness from the bottom of our hearts is pointed to the other, to the Church who called us and set us apart, to Christ Who lives and works in us. I can remember that one of the hallmarks of my own father’s faith when he was alive was a healthy pride in his family, yes, but more than that a profound gratitude to God for the gift of his wife and children, a gift he was convinced he had not merited. To the extent that I as a priest am not entirely my own man, I too give thanks just like a believing husband or father in his quiet and pensive moments gives thanks for his wife and children, who complete him and are really the only worthy source to claim for his joy in life. Fair or not, I think we priests, completed as we are by Him in Whom we live and move and have our being, have even more reason to give thanks. Our gratitude, profound gratitude for the representational role bestowed upon us in union with Christ, is certainly mysterious but not esoteric. Believing folks have appreciation for what this means and how important priesthood is both for the Church and for the life of the world. If parents of small children don’t dream about a son of theirs becoming a priest they don’t have the faith; they have somehow missed out on where joy lies this side of heaven.
A homily is not meant to be the last word on anything. Let us be today like the beloved disciple was for Peter in the boat on the lake. Let us point and say “It is the Lord” and be happy. Thanks be to God for 25 years of priesthood, for 25 years of standing in the place of the Risen Christ, the only true Mediator between God and men! May the Lord grant you many more years in His service! May we fulfill our sacred trust and open our arms to receive a new generation of men called to teach, govern and sanctify in the Name of the Lord!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

World Day of Prayer for Vocations

Yes, He is the Good Shepherd,
Who never leaves His Flock untended!
          “I, John, saw a huge number, impossible to count, of people from every nation, race, tribe and language; they were standing in front of the throne and in front of the Lamb, dressed in white robes and holding palms in their hands… These are the people who have been through the great persecution… and the One who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them… and God will wipe away all tears from their eyes.” (Apocalypse – II Reading for the 4th Sunday of Easter)
            Apart from its being an obvious choice, I don’t think a better Sunday could have been chosen for the annual world day of prayer for vocations. Beyond the intention “Lord, grant us more and better vocations to the priesthood and religious life”, inspired by Jesus’ own words about the harvest being great, the laborers scarce, and his command to pray the Lord of the Harvest to send workers into His vineyard, there is so much consolation in the image of the Good Shepherd, Who never leaves His flock untended. This just had to be the Sunday; it is the only Sunday optimal to provide the backdrop for this prayer commanded by Jesus Himself.
            Many people today speak gravely of an insufficiency of vocations, one which goes beyond the shortage mentioned in Jesus’ command to pray the Lord of the Harvest to send workers. In some places in our world an atmosphere of panic or despair seems to hold sway. Is the Lord indeed in charge and what is His will for His Church? Scholarly authors often write about how consoling the Book of Revelation, The Apocalypse, was to the early Church in times of persecution. I find it to be so today as well. Besides holding out hope for eternity in the face of an “in-time” which is anything but consoling, the Apocalypse shows us the ultimate implications of the glory foretold by Jesus of Himself and seen by His disciples, the glory of the Risen Christ tangible in His Exaltation upon the Cross. Life this side of heaven is truly washed and saved in the Blood of the Lamb. “Unless the Lord builds the house they labor in vain who build it.” No one but no one is going to steal the sheep out of the hands of the Shepherd to whom the Father has entrusted them. Our prayer for vocations finds its perspective in our expectation of the Dawn from on high which will break upon us. In a sense then, it almost seems folly to speak of a vocations crisis. A given person or generation may be marked by faithlessness, and thereby by a certain sterility or lack of fruitfulness, but the Lord continues to gather to Himself those who hear His voice and obey Him, even in adversity.
A territory is never evangelized once and for all time. I can remember years ago hearing from Franciscans in the Holy Land of their gratitude to the King and the Royal Family of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, which had permitted and even supported the archaeological digs that uncovered countless mosaic pavements from early Christian churches buried under the sands of time throughout that land. The king was willing to allow an early chapter in the history of his territory to come to light and to be shared with the majority Moslem population of today. He was willing to find ways to avow Christianity as a part of Jordan’s national heritage. Thanks to his magnanimity the Christian minority was allowed to marvel at the glory, in a sense, which was once theirs. Monuments and milestones, however, are not what make the Church. In no sense would it be reasonable to rebuild all those churches and provide each one with a priest if there are no communities of Catholics to benefit from the reconstruction and from this ministry. You can’t measure the need or scarcity of vocations by the number of square feet of once sacred ground no longer occupied. It reminds me of a pilgrimage stop our bus group made in Galilee at Naim at the little Franciscan shrine recalling Jesus’ raising from the dead of the only son of a widowed mother of that town, a town where no Christians at all lived when we visited and where the empty little church was usually kept locked. Thinking of our First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul and Barnabas understood clearly, as has the Church in every day and time, what it means to fulfill the Lords command: “I have made you a light for the nations, so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.” There is something fortuitous or Spirit-driven about the way the faith sprouts and grows. We can turn our backs on rocky soil and weed-choked plots, while rejoicing in the rich soil attentive to God’s word and command.
“I, John, saw a huge number, impossible to count…” The bottom line is always the same, namely to bring everyone we can before the throne and before the Lamb. We want as many as possible to share the Lord’s joy. Faith might flag for a time in a given territory or even throughout extensive parts of the world, but the seed planted grows even while the farmer sleeps. Nonetheless, we cannot remain idle. Priests and priestly vocations are a sign of the vitality of the faith; where they are lacking, so unfortunately is faith, so is the hunger for truth. St. Monica spent her whole life trying to bring her son, St. Augustine, to the saving waters of baptism. The Lord heard her prayers and granted also her husband’s conversion before his death. Her faith brought forth an abundant harvest. As much as we have a right to lament the shortages, we have a call to pray the Lord of the Harvest. May He touch hearts and lives, may those destined to be saved be drawn to our number and by the grace of God persevere!
I’m beginning to dread willfulness, that stubborn refusal to be led by God, more than any other defect. Coaches for team sports lord it over their charges and in the course of hard practices and much shouting, sort of like in the drilling of soldiers, mold a group into a team which functions as one man, as a fine-tuned instrument. There is something to be said for that kind of esprit du corps within the Church. I won’t use that image, however, because while adequate to describing the route to winning and achievement, it lacks all of the subtlety and care, the nurturing implied by the figure of the Good Shepherd. We could go on about all the shepherd does for the good of the flock, but just as important is the way he fosters the life of each and every single one of his charges.
We pray today for an increase in vocations; we do so with unbounded confidence in the Good Shepherd, Who never leaves His flock untended.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Why such a Storm?

An Hypothesis

          Regardless of one’s attitude toward the Catholic Church, interested or disinterested, family, friend or foe, there are questions which come to mind these days: “Why such a storm of protest or critique and directed so insistently against our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI? Why so many awful revelations from different countries, lots of them (as in the case of the United States) raked up from the past and not without rancor? Why now, why in Holy Week, why at Easter?
          I have read some explanations by authors of a scientific bent who attribute the whole stir to a phenomenon they classify as “moral panic”, which they say occurs more often in our media-driven age and is fed by the machinations and hatred of God’s enemies, the traditional enemies of His Church. Others would say that things are finally coming to a head and they would blame this mess on an unprecedented level of corruption in the Church. This corruption stems mostly from a bunch of folks who have held The Second Vatican Council and the Church hostage for over 40 years with all their “spin” on what they call the “spirit of Vatican II”. I won’t throw my lot entirely with either one of these hypotheses, but the atmosphere does seem to be poisoned and something is radically wrong. There are days when one even wonders if we don’t find ourselves again in a period comparable to that on the eve of the appearance of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic, where by the mercy of our God reaching out and touching these two young men in particular the Church was pulled from the jaws of Hell almost by itinerant bands of poor, mendicant friars.
          Why so much anger and emotion these days? Obviously we are too close to the situation to be able to do other than hazard a guess and, given the rapid evolution of some situations, perhaps we might be the wiser within a generation. That is to say, I may or may not live to see better times. I may or may not live to read the historian who offers a definitive interpretive key to the ambiguity all around. I do not think just anyone today has the words either to explain away the crisis or to cast light in all of the dark corners which still might need to be swept clean, not by, but after the storm.
          Why were so many atrocious things shoved under the rug, if you will, up until not all that long ago? My closest attempt at an explanation comes from a look at modern warfare and its consequences for the lives of the returning veterans of the various conflicts. World War I is probably the best example for the point I would like to make, but it is too far in the past. Distant as it is, perhaps more folks remember the phenomenon of the suffering Vietnam veterans. Apart from physical damage done by “agent orange” or other chemical weapons, countless veterans of that conflict were scarred psychologically or spiritually because of what they witnessed or because of the role they were forced to play in the atrocities of that war. I can remember in the midst of a nation’s soul-searching asking myself why so much of this was coming out, seemingly for the very first time in the history of armed conflict. We didn’t have to wait long for an answer to a question which was not to the point, as the process of working through Vietnam empowered veterans of the Korean War to speak of their desolation in the face of moral quandaries and more, which had been churning within them without release for decades. Subsequently, we learned that veterans of World War II were carrying more than their battle scars as well.
          Did all these youngsters and young adults now grown up, old and older only discover their problems with soldiering in retrospect? Did they really come home serene from battle and only subsequently suffer from memories of things which have brought them nightmares over the course of a lifetime? Did they truly feel absolved as young returnees from war by the reassurance that they were only following orders? I think that most of them had their inner conflicts and unresolved issues from day one, but felt alone and somehow ashamed. More than anything else, even when they had the courage to ask why, I think they were confounded by the inadequacy of the responses from their elders to their questions, both hypothetical and personal. Most of those who were Catholic either distanced themselves from the institutional Church or carved out a niche for themselves with the help of folk on the fringe, even priests and nuns, who sought to level the playing field, to be morally non-intrusive or “open” in the sense of anything goes. In the case of WWII and Korea, nobody seemed ready to deal with them, least of all Father in his blue jeans and flannel shirt who insisted you call him Jimmy. Most of these veterans got their “hug-for-the-day” but precious little else to free them from their anguish and despair.
          Whether we are talking about the consequences of armed conflict, of various forms of domestic violence or of the abuse of minors by members of the clergy, it is clear that these are hurts which do not go away like that skinned knee which Mommy could kiss and make all better. Another world which is long since history knew that too and seemingly sought refuge in silence and in turning away. Are we any better today for wading into these problems instead of saying I don’t have an answer and I don’t know how to make the nightmare go away? Neither approach yields much this side of Heaven.
          Let me return to those couple hypotheses mentioned at the beginning. There is something to be said for the “moral panic” theory. Why all of a sudden now are we coming out in the open with some of these atrocities, especially those committed by priests? Forms of abuse have been around for most of the Church’s history. Our church furnishings, most notably the confessional in its traditional form, tell us this. For almost as long as individual confessions have been heard in the form popularized by the missionary monks from Ireland, who brought the faith back to continental Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire and the devastation of the civilized world by the various barbarian invasions, confessionals with a grate to separate the priest from female penitents have been in use. Men’s confessions normally were heard up front in church and in the open where all could see the priest and the penitent. Caution is always born of prudence and the hard lessons won from unfortunate experiences. Have we simply failed to use the precautions of a bygone era? In part we certainly have, but the death-dealing fruit borne by the rancor and the angry sense of betrayal also draw sap from a major faith crisis in our day and time.
          The people are not sustained by what often amounts to no more than a caricature of the great Ecumenical Council and seeks to pass itself off as its “spirit” and continuation. Even yet today you’ll find faith-filled lay people embarrassed by the Church’s refusal to regulate precisely their penitential practice. You are more apt to run into nominal Catholics, who don’t go to Mass with any regularity, who observe fasts and fish days which haven’t been on the official calendar for fifty years. The Sunday Mass goers, on the other hand, have been deprived of their penances with vague exhortations to do something constructive for the poor. This year during Lent I heard all sorts of talk about “carbon fasting”, which sounds weird, has nothing to do with a voluntarily assumed penance, and certainly cannot be limited to just healthy adults.
           I am convinced that the rancor and the angry sense of betrayal over the abuse of minors in particular also have roots in a major faith crisis in our day and time. While a great ignorance of the faith is evident straight across the board in people less than fifty years of age and the various catechumenal programs have rightly intuited that the issue is not purely intellectual, I would insist that the scandal which feeds this faith crisis is crass disregard yes for God’s Law starting with the Ten Commandments and the Precepts of the Church, but perhaps even more experientially stemming from the de facto elimination of the Divine from worship. If we do not quickly reform the “renewed liturgy” and bring it back into continuity with the Mass of all times, we will be guilty of depriving the storm-tossed faithful of a port in the storm. Arbitrariness and frivolity, informality and continuing experimentation with new forms and expressions expose what must be a construct and which cannot come from God. Victims of pre-Conciliar times, both of the devastation of war or abuse at the hands of those to whose care we are entrusted, could indeed turn to God. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was not something “made up”; it was handed down to us. Where do you turn today when your parish church and Sunday Mass seem to have been delivered into the hands of frustrated artistes looking for a stage? “Moral panic” also sets in when you feel very much abandoned.
          Those are brutal, fighting words really. I think they strike at the heart of the problem. If every priest and bishop would sit down quietly with the missal, make an examination of conscience concerning the liberties he has taken with the liturgy, and proceed to learn the rubrics and put them conscientiously into practice, the recovery through an act of humility on his part would already be begun. In those churches where the return to ad Orientem worship can be done without another round of iconoclastic interventions (capricious in the 1970’s and not to be repeated simply out of willfulness), the priest himself would be liberated from a goodly part of the temptation he feels to perform on the altar.
          Turning to the Lord in worship will not solve the abuse problem. The abuse problem and its history must be dealt with in other ways. I think that we need to give back to people in the Church their home with God. We need to give people a place to turn with weighty problems not easily resolved or healed. Counselors and psychiatrists can only do so much.
Within the community of the Church, I think we have to respond to God’s invitation to St. Francis: “Francis, rebuild my Church!” The multipurpose building fad passed as quickly as it appeared on the scene. Space for God is space for me amidst all my joys, hopes, sorrows and pains. A new age of temple builders, not in brick and mortar, but after the heart of St. Francis is needed to draw people back to God or to enable them to gain access to His footstool. Sobriety in worship in conformity with the priceless tradition handed down within the community of the Church is more than a start.
Go figure, but this year on Easter Sunday the prophet Joel comes to mind:
“Who knows if he will not turn again, will not relent, will not leave a blessing as he passes, oblation and libation for the Lord your God?”

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Alleluia! He is Risen!

Holy Saturday – The Easter Vigil
3 April 2010 – Rosary Monastery, St. Ann’s
Vigil Readings from the Old Testament
Romans 6:3-11
Luke 24:1-12
Part of the prayer which is said as the Easter Candle is prepared for lighting goes as follows:
“By his holy and glorious wounds
may Christ our Lord guard us and keep us.”
            I think it was way back when among the old Fathers of the Desert in Egypt where they reminded the monks and hermits to look attentively at the figure should they think they were seeing a vision of the Risen Christ. They just like St. Thomas the Apostle, who said …unless I can put my finger into the nail marks in his hands and put my hand into His side, I will not believe…, were admonished by their teachers in the spiritual life to look for His holy and glorious wounds before trusting the vision. You and I may not have such concerns, but the lesson from the Desert Fathers is a key one. The mystery of faith, as proclaimed in the words “Lord, by your Cross and Resurrection, you have set us free. You are the Savior of the world,” is just so: we can only know Christ in His resurrected Glory if we recognize Him in His suffering and death.
            This is the whole point of the passage from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans assigned for tonight: “When we were baptized in Christ Jesus we were baptized in his death; in other words, when we were baptized we went into the tomb with him and joined him in death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father’s glory, we too might live a new life.”
            Alleluia! How do you wish somebody “Happy Easter”? What do you say? How do you mean it? Maybe the focus on His holy and glorious wounds provides that sure anchor to keep us from reeling off into space somewhere? For as much as Easter eggs, Easter bunnies and baby chicks dyed pink with your choice of harmless food coloring might be part of the symbolism, what warms or lightens hearts on this great feast is something which goes beyond the best of feelings that can be inspired by thoughts of the kite flying competition scheduled for tomorrow on the Savannah.
Jesus, the Lamb once slain who lives forever, is the only one who counts and can give our Easter Greeting its proper content. “I find God in nature” she says! “Great!” I say, “I have it easier. I look on the face of Christ; I see His hands and His side pierced through for my deliverance; I share His victory!” A pink or a yellow poui, a perfect sunset, and on and on are all His handiwork, but give me Jesus Himself! Give me Jesus first and foremost! Give me the Risen One! Springtime in the temperate zones and the first great rains after a hard dry season in the tropics always work their wonders (green, what a wonderful color!), but I have been baptized into the death of God’s only Son and I rise with Him to Glory. I rise with Him to Glory, not to sprout new leaves, not to bloom and grow, not for a season, but for always, unto everlasting life, happiness and peace.
            So let’s say it with all the meaning and weight intended! Let’s say it with the only sense which counts!
Alleluia! Happy Easter! He is risen as He said and goes before us!
“By his holy and glorious wounds
may Christ our Lord guard us and keep us.”

Friday, April 2, 2010

through his wounds we are healed

Good Friday of the Lord’s Passion
2 April 2010 – Rosary Monastery – St. Ann’s
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1-19:42
“On him lies a punishment that brings us peace,
and through his wounds we are healed.”
            Just think of the centuries of Good Fridays that have been spent pondering Isaiah’s prophecy and the events of Jesus’ sorrowful Passion! This is so and rightly so because today is not a simple day to remember and honor a fallen soldier no matter how heroic his personal sacrifice can be imagined. Isaiah vaguely and we clearly contemplate God’s self-offering for our redemption, such that sin and death might be destroyed and the promise of everlasting life with God, lost through Adam’s sin, might be restored.
Not that long ago, I was listening to a speech by a man who does not come from our Judeo-Christian tradition or background. A part of his talk was a tribute to one of the founding fathers of his country in which he expressed gratitude for this man and the sacrifices he had made for the sake of his country, but who in death had passed into oblivion, as he said. As far as my speaker was concerned, one of the founding fathers of his country had passed with death simply into oblivion. The observation brought me up short and reminded me of the blessed revelation which is ours in Christ, so eloquently formulated in the first preface for funeral Masses:
“In him, who rose from the dead, our hope of resurrection dawned. The sadness of death gives way to the bright promise of immortality. Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven.”
            Oblivion? No, with death we do not dissolve, also because Jesus did not.
            Jesus’ suffering and death on the Cross to save us from our sins was not just a blip on the radar screen of history. That figure of speech (the radar blip), just like those of the pebble dropped in the still pond, sending out its little concentric waves wider and wider across the surface of the pond, or of the flutter of a butterfly’s wings (insignificance or non-intrusion if ever there was), does not render properly the idea or mystery we celebrate in Christ’s death. His birth, His life, His suffering and death demarcate time; they are cosmic in their earthshaking importance. We rightly call Jesus the “New Adam”. The “Old Adam” chose death for himself and all his descendants by choosing a lesser good than life with God through obedience to His command. The “New Adam” opted to be swallowed up in death, destroying death and restoring life.
“On him lies a punishment that brings us peace,
and through his wounds we are healed.”
            In binding ourselves to Christ, we take on responsibility for the life of the world. The scribes and Pharisees sought to destroy Jesus because they could not deal with the implications, of whom He claimed to be, of who He is for the life of the world. As we just heard Jesus say to Pilate in the Passion account we read from St. John’s Gospel:
            “Yes, I am a king. I was born for this, I came into the world for this; to bear witness to the truth, and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.”
            Good Friday’s somberness, its sobriety, comes not from our remembrance of the tragic loss of life in the midst of unspeakable suffering. We are sobered, we are moved on Good Friday rather by the fact that it was God’s only Son, Whom He did not spare, but delivered up for the sake of all of us. On the Feast of the Annunciation and on Christmas we bend the knee as we contemplate the mystery of God becoming Man. On that happy occasion we are confounded by God’s stooping down to us and taking on our nature. Here, today, we find ourselves as a human race caught up in something truly confounding: despite our choice of a brigand Barabbas, handing over the Holy One of God to an ignominious death, “…through his wounds we are healed.”
            Today we bend the knee before His Cross and rightly so. I wish you a quiet rest of today to give thanks for God’s love; the awareness of the part your sins played in nailing Him to the Cross should be allowed free play in your heart and in your thoughts today. Gratitude is the only proper sentiment.
“On him lies a punishment that brings us peace,
and through his wounds we are healed.”

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Blood of the Lamb, All Price Excelling

Holy Thursday – 1 April 2010
Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper
Rosary Monastery – St. Ann’s
Exodus 12:1-8, 11-14
I Cor. 11:23-26
John 13:1-15
            Two weeks ago today, I found myself saying “Whatever happened to those long Lents of my childhood, where we panted almost from Sunday to Sunday, waiting for a bit of relief from the hard penance we were doing all week long of giving up candy?” Where did the time go this year? How is it that we find ourselves already here this evening entering into the Sacred Triduum? Not only time, but life is rushing by! Must it be so? Must life be so hectic, or depending upon your perspective, must it be such a drag, such a burden? Personally, I think not; I think we can seize the moment so to speak, and then time does in a sense stand still for us; it opens up for us; it blossoms and bears fruit; we can take stock, catch our breath, focus or contemplate.
            This is how I imagine the very first Passover in Egypt, as God was working something new for His people leading them out of slavery, and in this spirit I think the children of Israel even yet today can celebrate their yearly Feast of Passover, where they are taken out of life’s mix for whatever time it might take to read the passages, taste the bitter herbs and eat the Passover lamb. It is a time out of time.
In terms of the Christian life, I think there is some real value to seeing Holy Thursday, The Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, in that same way. Tonight time stands still as maybe it should every Sunday when we are at Mass, “…that on the same night he was betrayed, the Lord Jesus took some bread…” The Sunday Eucharist and Holy Thursday are time which should open up for us, time that should blossom and bear fruit for us. I don’t think it is exactly right to describe life, time and eternity, as either a straight or a curved line with highlights or signposts like pages from a photo album; no, life to the full is repetition, like the seasons which come and go, round and round, year after year. Life is also and more importantly those moments which come and are timeless really, moments, each one unique, which are rendered multidimensional by reason of our memories and experiences. These moments out of time are unforgettable; they stay with us always. We have them in ordinary life too. I can remember, for instance, the first time as a child learning to read, when I made the association with a word I had spoken out in conversation a hundred times, but then one day discovered the way it looks there on the page of a book: “between”, that’s b-e-t-w-e-e-n, “between”. Who would have guessed? That is the word, there it is, I’ve said it many times and now I see it… between. I know it is a poor comparison, but it is my best attempt to help you understand how worship here this evening can be for you, such that time stands still and you have an experience not only of the hour of Jesus’ Passion but of you abiding with Him for a moment at the table of the Last Supper, focused and with no thoughts of what comes next.
            The Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper, this moment in and out of time, hits me each year as I wash feet. Maybe it has hit you while having your foot washed? Or maybe it has been during the First Eucharistic Prayer when for the one and only time in the year the words just before the Consecration change: “The day before he suffered to save us and all men, that is today, he took bread in his sacred hands…” Maybe it is the moving of the Blessed Sacrament to the Altar of Repose that sets your mind and heart free within a space which for you normally doesn’t exist, as you rush from one task, one challenge, one duty to the next? “And the Blood, all price excelling, shed by our Immortal King…” Take time this evening; cast the hectic out of your life if ever so briefly; rise above the everyday; listen and behold!
This thought about a timeless space opening up in time (let’s call it time and space set aside for meaning in life, or better, time and space for God and me) came to me as a result of a light-hearted exchange with a friend whom I suspect was laughing on the outside but crying on the inside, if you understand my meaning. I think he was feeling trapped in the relentless rolling on of time, not so much out of breath as just plain frustrated. To tease a bit and try to understand better what he was driving at I mentioned to him that our new dogs at the Nunciature seem to thrive on sameness, on regularity in their schedule. They are happy if there are no surprises or if you don’t want to say that a dog is happy then say that they certainly are at ease when everything comes their way in the same order and at the same time, day after day after day. Lots of terribly worldly folk seem to think that the element of surprise is what makes our lives as human beings different and better than our pets. For them extreme sports, sky diving and racing, may have a certain rush, which can be addictive, but I think has to do with chemicals like adrenalin more than it has to do with really being happy.
Where is happiness and where is life to the full to be found? I think it is in moments of focus and contemplation. I read a book recently, “Born of the Eucharist: A Spirituality for Priests”. It is a series of witnesses to the power and presence, to the importance of the Eucharist, of Jesus truly present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Blessed Sacrament. One of the articles was written by an older priest, who over 40 years ago had accompanied his bishop to the last session of the Second Vatican Council. His bishop sent this young priest by train from Rome down to southern Italy to experience Padre Pio. Being a priest, he was ushered toward the front of the church and had a close-up and clear view of Padre Pio as he celebrated Mass that morning. Mass took approximately two hours that day, but the young priest had no notion of the time as he assisted at the wonder of Padre Pio living the Mass with Christ. You and I are not in Padre Pio’s league, but there is something of his experience, the way time at the Altar opened up for Padre Pio that ought to be our experience too individually at Mass anytime, but especially on Sundays and most certainly on Holy Thursday.
            Years ago, families in the U.S. could be distinguished by whether they took vacation or not. I think this difference originated in whether you came from a rural or a city background. The rural model, in the case of my family background where on both sides our roots were in subsistence farming, was that we never went on vacation. When I was a child, we as a family, although we lived in town, followed that pattern. Other families, not from the farm, would scrimp and save all year long to go off somewhere, drive some place like to the Grand Canyon and back. I suppose the reason I never felt deprived or disadvantaged as a child without a yearly vacation trip was because I didn’t know any better. Moreover I think I was more than content, happy, at ease with the special moments in my life, moments out of time and out of the program, especially moments together with Mom and Dad. Most of these moments were not conversations; lots of them clearly etched in my child’s mind were kneeling next to them in church; sometimes it was doing a chore together. That is how all our lives are meant to be. The quality of life comes from interpersonal exchanges and not necessary ones filled with talk. The same is true of our relationship with the Living God, Who has revealed Himself to us in Christ. That is simply so because of who we are, made by God and loved by God, in communion with the Lord.
            To enjoy life only one thing is necessary. I need but enter into the mystery of God’s love. I can do it with a personal reflection during quiet time; I can make a visit to the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament; I can pray the Rosary together with the Blessed Mother as she recalls the great mysteries in the life of her Son, which brought about our salvation. I can actively and attentively participate at Sunday Mass. I can confess my sins and live aware of His Blood, the Blood of the Lamb, All Price Excelling, shed for me.
            Get unstuck with me in time for a moment or two this evening, as we wash feet, as we pray the great Eucharistic Prayer, as we receive Jesus, True God and True Man, in Holy Communion, and as we watch and pray with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane. It may be Holy Thursday again before you know it, but this one might be a milestone for you, a powerful moment with the Lord of your life, a moment out of time.