Sunday, November 28, 2010

Beginning a New Church Year

Governance Skills?
          Would you believe that the First Sunday of Advent has brought me (among other things) to reaffirm in my own life one of those common sense pieces of wisdom that just about everyone seems to know? Not that I didn’t know this before, but I guess I am appropriating it to myself in a new and different way, as never before.
The basic issue could be treated as theological; it certainly has something to do with canon law. It is the question of the importance of “governance skills” especially as a prerequisite for those to be entrusted with the office of bishop in the Church. My new insight, on this 28 November 2010, has to do with the superiority of law to governance skills. The governance of a small group, as an association of like-minded people in the private sphere, as if the Church were a club of hobbyists, does not fit the Catholic Church; it is not and cannot be the Catholic Church. We as Church are by nature expansive; we are and must be public; we are governed not only by by-laws but (and not only in the moral sphere) reflect eternal verities, which should have been clear to Adam and Eve in the Garden, but will certainly be clear when all, from least to greatest, stand before the Judgment Seat of God. Law, social order and commonly held values cannot be dispensed with for “multi-“ anything; it is not so much that I choose my destiny this side of the grave, but our world has an ultimate destiny as willed by the God Who made us for happiness forever with Him in heaven.
          Multiculturalism, as a strategic refusal to bend to this truth, if it is not already totally discredited and branded (obs.) in all dictionaries then it should be yet in my lifetime. This silly notion will certainly merit no more attention in history books than does the politically correct, non-judgmental German term V√∂lkerwanderung, as opposed to the Latin and English notion of barbarian invasion, which renders better the devastating effect these movements of peoples had on the Roman world and civilization as it was known up until that time.
The fact that there is such a thing as the truth which is objective absolutizes truth and makes it what only truth can be. Truth as true takes things out of the dominion of my persuasive skills. Objectivity as idea places truth under the protection of the law and takes law out of the realm of social compromise; law is exalted in its possibilities to more than the least common denominator or other such folly, which can do little more than keep cattle, sheep and little children from sauntering onto busy super highways.
          This “appropriation” of something familiar but in a new and different way started this morning as I read for maybe the 36th time in my life the passage assigned as the 2nd Reading for the Office of Readings for the First Sunday in Advent, from St Cyril of Jerusalem, entitled “The twofold coming of Christ”:
“We do not preach only one coming of Christ, but a second as well, much more glorious than the first. The first coming was marked by patience; the second will bring the crown of a divine kingdom…
  At the first coming he was wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger. At his second coming he will be clothed in light as in a garment. In the first coming he endured the cross, despising the shame; in the second coming he will be in glory, escorted by an army of angels…
  The Saviour will not come to be judged again, but to judge those by whom he was judged. At his own judgement he was silent; then he will address those who committed the outrages against him when they crucified him and will remind them: You did these things, and I was silent.
  His first coming was to fulfil his plan of love, to teach men by gentle persuasion. This time, whether men like it or not, they will be subjects of his kingdom by necessity.”

What struck me as new, at least for me this year, was Cyril’s point in expressing the distinction between the two comings: the first as he says being aimed at teaching by gentle persuasion and the second at establishing Christ’s kingdom by necessity. I remember our canon law professor’s lecture in the basic seminary course on the law talking about the authority of Church law being rooted not in its power to punish but in its basic merit, reasonableness or (to borrow from St. Cyril) its persuasiveness. Later, doing the license courses and seeing the 1983 Code just as it came out with even less possibility of punishing the disobedient than the 1917 Code had had, the point was again made about the authority of the law stemming not from its coercive force but from its reasonableness and sublime purpose. Once again the professor’s argument in favor of a law without a penal code failed to convince me in my youth and zeal of its adequacy for the task of defending the truth and keeping order within the body Catholic. Although I certainly would not have welcomed a return to a situation where the recalcitrant were turned over to the secular arm of the law for the added “persuasion” that corporal punishment could provide, I guess I was skeptical about the truthfulness or rightness of an argument winning the day. The sublimity and rightness of a law did not seem to be enough to command respect or obedience. No doubt my thought, not much different from the reasoning of a righteous teenager, might have been summed up in the maxim: “Fear, once burnt twice shy, is also common wisdom”.
Perhaps I, like so many, have simply turned my back on the law as the primary servant of the truth. From then until today, consciously or unconsciously, I’ve always sort of despaired of the efficacy of the law and hoped for the best from people’s good will and believed that without the “courageous standard bearer” to rally the troops, all is lost. Needless to say, the bishop or parish priest who refuses to take a stance, who gives no directives at all, cannot be: those without principle and the courage to assert and stand up for their beliefs need not apply for positions in the hierarchy. Shepherds must shepherd. But shepherding is not a free creation; it has a physionomy; it is governed by principles.
My point is that, for leadership and Church order in the service of truth as something real, charisma (a persuasive or convincing aura) is not enough. Here and everywhere society, now and always, civilization and Church flourish on the basis of law. Old Testament or New, it is the Law which provides the sheltering Temple near to the altar of the Lord of Hosts, where even the sparrow and the swallow find a home.
In this sense, not only St. Cyril but also the 1st Reading from the First Sunday of Advent – Year A (Isaiah 2:1-5) started me off on what was a new and different meditation for me starting my Church Year:
“The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In the days to come
the mountain of the Temple of the Lord
shall tower above the mountains
and be lifted higher than the hills.
All the nations will stream to it,
peoples without number will come to it; and they will say:
  ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
  to the Temple of the God of Jacob
  that he may teach us his ways
  so that we may walk in his paths;
  since the Law will go out from Zion,
  and the oracle of the Lord from Jerusalem.’
He will wield authority over the nations
and adjudicate between many peoples;
these will hammer their swords into ploughshares,
their spears into sickles.
Nation will not lift sword against nation,
there will be no more training for war.
O House of Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.”

          When Isaiah prophesied that the Law would go out from Zion and that the Lord would wield authority over the nations and adjudicate between many peoples he was promising something right, true and good. Peace is the fruit of the rule of God’s Law, of the Law as Truth. In the Coming of Christ Isaiah’s hope was fulfilled as promise. In freedom, we can choose to place ourselves under His Kingship; there are no other options or choices out there in some imagined supermarket of ideas. Ultimately, it is Christ Who will be all in all; it is Christ Who will come on the clouds of heaven. St. Francis Xavier, the great patron saint of the missions, understood the urgency of the task and would have done his best to coerce all those university students he had known in Europe to put themselves to the task of proclaiming this Law of Love. While not condemning others who do not see it as we do, we certainly cannot be complacent about their ignorance of Christ or fail to do our best to preserve those we know and love from having to live the utter chaos of a society from which the Gospel has been excluded or reduced to something it is not, something less than truly good news.
Thinking of past precedents and of how bad things got after the fall of the Roman Empire where reasoned discourse no longer seemed to have its place and St. Benedict, the Father of Western Monasticism and one of the Patrons of Europe, withdrew from regular social intercourse and founded bastions of work and prayer (Ora et Labora), I guess I’m hoping we’re not yet that far gone. I’m hoping that the prayer on the street in front of abortion mills, that the Vespers and Holy Hour before the Blessed Sacrament in favor of life by the Holy Father in St. Peters will have a transformative power on life. I would hope that a genuine monastic renewal would be one of the factors, but that perhaps despite tragedies like Louvain which no longer wishes to be Catholic, there might be yet Catholic Universities where the truth is served and people still think the great thoughts.
Not wanting to give up hope in the viability of the diocesan structure and presbyterates as colleges surrounding their bishop with counsel and support, I think that it would be good if, as happened early in the 20th Century and even earlier in modern times, bishops and clergy would organize law-based synods both on the diocesan and provincial levels, which would publish and seek to implement a precis of the law already on the books aimed at countering for our day and time those errors and challenges which are most acute.
In 2008, I expressed the hope that other bishops would follow the example of the Bishop of Tulsa, Oklahoma and give ad Orientem worship a try, as well as inviting priests to adhere to the rubrics for the celebration of Holy Mass as they presently exist on the books. A precis of rubrics, guidelines for sacred music and the like, elaborated for a specific diocese in the context of a diocesan synod, while at the same time touching on the full spectrum of topics which embrace Catholic life as lived today (laws of fast and abstinence, sanctification of Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, education of children in the faith, marriage law, etc.) would be closer to my wish or hope now two years later.
Be it far from me to want to dot the Holy Father’s i’s or cross his t’s, but good example and ordered discourse are the provenance of theologians. As a canonist, I wish to do my part not only for the reform of the liturgical reform but for the sake of the truth. Pope Benedict XVI eloquently appeals to men and women of good will and not only in Europe for a return really to civilization. My point is that he’s doing the part which Pope St. Leo the Great did to save Rome and the Western Empire or at least to slow their demise. I think the barbarians are once again at the door. They may not be on horseback, but it’s getting dangerous just the same for a good christian man or woman to be out and about. Reasoned discourse certainly flourishes under the aegis of law. Let the multi- be banished and the truth reign supreme this Advent!
 All the nations will stream to it,
peoples without number will come to it; and they will say:
  ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
  to the Temple of the God of Jacob
  that he may teach us his ways
  so that we may walk in his paths;
  since the Law will go out from Zion,
  and the oracle of the Lord from Jerusalem.’
He will wield authority over the nations
and adjudicate between many peoples;
these will hammer their swords into ploughshares,
their spears into sickles.”

Isaiah is the inspired word of God for then and now.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Sound Bites

This morning I couldn't help but think of the Holy Father and this latest media stir after the presentation of the Seewald book interview when I read the 2nd Reading from the Office of Readings for Thursday of the 34th Week in Ordinary Time, which is a quote from a homily by St John Chrysostom,  bearing the title:
       "If we are sheep, we overcome; if wolves, we are overcome"
St. John observes:
As long as we are sheep, we overcome and, though surrounded by countless wolves, we emerge victorious; but if we turn into wolves, we are overcome, for we lose the shepherd’s help. He, after all, feeds the sheep not wolves, and will abandon you if you do not let him show his power in you.
  What he says is this: “Do not be upset that, as I send you out among the wolves, I bid you be as sheep and doves. I could have managed things quite differently and sent you, not to suffer evil nor to yield like sheep to the wolves, but to be fiercer than lions. But the way I have chosen is right. It will bring you greater praise and at the same time manifest my power.” That is what he told Paul: My grace is enough for you, for in weakness my power is made perfect. “I intend,” he says, “to deal in the same way with you.” For, when he says, I am sending you out like sheep, he implies: “But do not therefore lose heart, for I know and am certain that no one will be able to overcome you.” 
Yesterday and for the umpteenth time I read somebody somewhere criticizing the Holy Father and his aides for not properly managing sound bites so as to get their message across. It would seem people can no longer be expected to read critically or to think on their feet. With reference to St. John, I think that this sort of criticism binding everything to media marketing strategies is a "wolfish" calculation. While we must be zealous about communicating I don't think that anyone's, imagined or real, less than brief attention span necessarily condemns all discourse to the tyranny of trying to master the fine art of sound bites in order to "sell" your product.
Regardless of how sophisticated some of us have become at twittering our way unto what is supposed to be knowledge through dynamic communication, reading complete sentences and paragraphs should be part of analyzing anything that is truly of value.
Timing is important for lots of things but it cannot silence me or stop the presses from rolling until I can catch that perfect wave. We print things so that people can read them when they are ready.

Why would anyone lend credence to a news headline, regardless of the paper, channel or source, if it glibly touts the opposite of all that common sense and teaching has held us to our whole life long?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Remember Me in Your Kingdom

Last Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Universal King
21 November 2010, Chapel at Patience Hill, Tobago
2 Samuel 5:1-3
Colossians 1:12-20
Luke 23:35-43

          What is the nature of the kingship of Jesus? How does saying that the Messiah, that the Christ, that God’s Anointed, His Chosen One is Universal King change or color things for us? What difference does it make in our lives if we proclaim Jesus as ruling over all? What is in it for us, you might ask?
This year’s Gospel passage taken from St. Luke has the leaders of the people and the soldiers jeering at Jesus, mocking Him as He hung upon the Cross: “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” One of the two men crucified with Him does the same, but the other whom our tradition refers to as the Good Thief says, “…Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
          For us who don’t generally have much to do with kings or queens, we tend to look first and foremost upon the hereditary part of the thing (nobility by birth and your placement as a prince or princess in the line of succession to the throne), whereas a big part of the Scriptural message for today has to do with the people choosing their king, subjecting themselves to him, accepting him as their leader. After the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan, Saul’s heir apparent to the throne, David’s own relatives made him their king in Hebron; he was made king over his own tribe, over Judah. The passage from 2nd Samuel (today’s 1st Reading) recounts how the other tribes of Israel then came down to him in Hebron and made a pact with him and anointed, singled out, chose David as the king of Israel. That’s the choosing part: the people designate their king.
          The other part, about Jesus’ royal pedigree, is there too. It is spelled out in our 2nd Reading from St. Paul to the Colossians. “Now the Church is his body, he is its head. As he is the Beginning, he was first to be born from the dead, so that he should be first in every way; because God wanted all perfection to be found in him and all things to be reconciled through him and for him, everything in heaven and everything on earth, when he made peace by his death on the cross.” Jesus, as God’s only Son, is given the kingship over everything by God, His Father.
          What is the nature of the kingship of Jesus? It is summed up in His rule over us and for our benefit, for our salvation. King is who He is as the Christ of God, God’s Chosen One, the image of the God we cannot see; in Him and under His Kingship we inherit the light; we are taken out of the power of darkness; we find love, freedom, dignity and joy. And for some folk to say that is just to string together words isn’t it?
           Is Jesus our King really good news for us and does He speak to our world? Does Jesus in some way come up new and important for our day as He should, as the answer to all our prayers for relief and release from the chains which bind us? Is He our refuge and our strength? Can we convincingly present Him as such to family and friends, to all who cross our path?
          Not long ago, an older woman, a friend of mine over in Trinidad, told me about a conversation she had had at the market with a young lady she hadn’t seen at Mass in a long time. She asked the young woman if she had been off island or in the hospital and this lady responded by saying that she had changed churches and found a community of prayer and praise around the corner from her home which she liked better than her Catholic parish church. She liked the music, she liked the friendly atmosphere, she liked the fact that if she missed a Sunday people from the congregation came to check on her and see how she was. After telling me this my friend kind of just looked my way and waited for my reaction; she told me she had told the young lady that there is more to faith than that, but saw no reason to insist with her or to take her on.
The word is that in the rural areas of Trinidad and Tobago of today we can count fewer and fewer Catholics. Where are people going, what are people looking for and why are they going elsewhere? Is one prayer meeting or group on a Sunday as good as another for declaring our choice of Jesus as King over us? Why does the Church bind us under pain of mortal sin to assist at Holy Mass on all Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, if we are able? Why does the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass take precedence over any other religious ceremony on Sunday? The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “2181 The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice.” “2182 Participation in the communal celebration of the Sunday Eucharist is a testimony of belonging and of being faithful to Christ and to his Church.” Simply put, the Church teaches that nothing can come close to substituting for Sunday Mass.
The Catechism quotes the Second Vatican Council to explain the importance of the Sacrament of the Altar:
“1323 At the Last Supper, on the night he was betrayed, our Savior instituted the Eucharistic sacrifice of his Body and Blood. This he did in order to perpetuate the sacrifice of the cross throughout the ages until he should come again, and so to entrust to his beloved Spouse, the Church, a memorial of his death and resurrection: a sacrament of love, a sign of unity, a bond of charity, a Paschal banquet in which Christ is consumed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.”
King David waited in Hebron after the death of King Saul for Israel to come to him and designate him king. Once supported by all of Israel David went up with his army and took Jerusalem and made it his capital, it was there that he set up the Meeting Tent with the Ark of the Covenant inside, the symbol of God’s favor, of His willingness to live among His people.
Jesus went up to Jerusalem, too, not with an army but meek and riding on a donkey. That was Palm Sunday, when the people of Jerusalem and those who had come to town for Passover hailed Him blessed and coming in the name of the Lord. By Friday of that same week they were mocking and jeering the Holy One Whom they had nailed to the tree of the Cross. In John’s Gospel Jesus prophesied that once lifted up He would draw all to Himself. Jesus dictated that the choice of Him as King would be made in choosing the One pierce through for our deliverance and hanging on a tree. Sunday Mass, Sunday Eucharist is our time to stand at the foot of the Cross with Mary His Mother, St. John and those few who did not run away and choose the Crucified One as our King.
Be encouraged in the practice of your Catholic faith; be encouraged to make the sacrifices necessary to assist at Holy Mass, to really stand at the foot of the Cross every Sunday you possibly can. Choose the Crucified One as King and Lord of your life. Be thoughtful and theological in your outlook; don’t kid yourself in thinking that music and emotion will call down the heavens upon you. It is the Lord Himself, God Almighty in the Person of Jesus Christ, who invites us to choose Him above all else, to place ourselves under the banner of the Universal King, Whose throne is Calvary and Whose crown was woven from the thorns of rejection, neither of which kept Him from breaking the bonds of hell, setting the captives free, winning once and for all the victory over sin and death in the glory of His Life, Death and Resurrection.
Let us choose Jesus as our King and no one else. Let us place ourselves in a position to be able to repeat with the Good Thief: “…Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Monday, November 8, 2010

A reflection on Liturgy celebrated "ad orientem"

A reflection on ad Orientem worship published by a very articulate parish priest stirred some thoughts about what I firmly believe to be the heart of the worship crisis in the Catholic Church  today, namely the confidence issue (the confidence of parishioners in the liturgical leadership of their parish priest) which stems from the more profound issue of a general disspiritedness or demoralization of the people in the pews brought on by the logic of caprice which has characterized the way we have worshiped for over 40 years. How do you convince people that Father is not making it up as he goes along even when he opts for ad Orientem worship or chant instead of hymns, given the "stuff" to which now grandparents, parents and children have been subjected over four decades. I can remember as a boy serving Mass when the first temporary altar suddenly appeared front and center in our cathedral, plywood finished in aquamarine (turquoise?) Formica right on top of the Persian rug upon which generations of men to be ordained had prostrated themselves during the litany of the saints. Was it not caprice when a priest, now long dead, opened a grave at the cemetery of his little country parish and smashed into that grave all the pretty plaster statues along with the decorative stucco of the high altar he tore out of a once pretty little church now stripped bare and white-washed? Who can you trust?

There are some descriptive elements in Father's reflection that deserve the largest possible diffusion. His outline of the basic rubrics to be followed by the priest celebrating Mass is particularly well done. Take a look at the article and the comments! Reverend Know-it-all: A reflection on Liturgy celebrated "ad orientem"

 Even so, Father is a captive of this logic of caprice. It seems from his post that he also has parishioners who bristle and hunch their backs at a change to ad Orientem worship suspecting that it comes by order of the Holy Father; if that be so well we really are in a mess! I don't necessarily think that Father was wrong to stop at the back of church after Mass and say, "Well, what do you think?", but he is bending to the same logic which has Californians processing in with dancers and giant puppets... caprice! It's all made up, isn't it? Where is God? What does He have to do with the dictates of a liturgy committee, or a willful little musical combo that likes to stand up front and direct or a most engaging priest who commands our attention and draws the focus toward himself.

How can a reform of the liturgical reform take place if people can't sort out the rightness of something from a simple predilection for lace and gold brocade? Were the burlap banners wrong?

At home last summer, I watched The Journey Home on EWTN one Monday evening, where the guest who described his journey to Catholicism had come from a Protestant church where he himself was pastor. When he entered the Catholic Church he brought most of his parish with him. During his own discernment process, he was moved at a certain point to share the faith experience he was preparing to embrace with his parishioners. He did it outside their Sunday worship time; he did it sincerely by making himself available to them. Not all appreciated his discovery of what he perceived to be the fullness of truth in the Catholic Church. It should come as no surprise that the same might occur when the parish priest discovers the sublimity of a liturgical experience in conformity with the rubrics which have always been there and in continuity with the worship experience of the past.

How do you take the caprice out of my choice of a worship experience not plinka-plinked along "on Eagle's wings" or without a "gather us in... all are welcome in this place"? If you have the credentials, there should be no worry; some may object, but those who walk away will be few and perhaps good riddance. Especially if they had been lording it over their fellow parishioners Sunday after Sunday.

St. Paul in his letter to Titus gives the criteria for the selection of elders to lead each community. He sums up by saying: "... and he must have a firm grasp of the unchanging message of the tradition, so that he can be counted on for both expounding the sound doctrine and refuting those who argue against it."

Father seems to me to be grandstanding a bit when he regrets the consoling experience of once having worshiped ad Orientem as the rubrics provide. Most men and women of good will would eagerly trade the caprice which has left them far from the sublimity of worship in spirit and in truth. They're just looking for that elder chosen according to the criteria Paul gave Titus for choosing the kind of leaders the Church needs to carry out its mission.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Allegiance to the King of the World

The Resurrection from the Dead and the Life of the World to come

“Some Sadducees – those who say that there is no resurrection – approached Jesus and they put this question to him…” (Whose wife will she be?)
          There’s little doubt where the Sadducees were coming from and where their hopes or expectations for this life resided. No doubt as well they have their counterparts in our day and time! One possible read of the message for this Sunday (Luke 20) would have less to do with critiquing those who can’t get beyond the here and now, and more with inviting us to choose or to express more clearly or decisively our allegiance to the Lord of Life.
          I have to admit that I always shudder when I read the Maccabees passage which is assigned as the first reading for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C. The gory details of the entire passage describing the torture and death of all eight come vividly to mind each time I read even a part of it. Such brutality against these seven young men, boys some of them, and their mother, just because they would not abandon the traditions of their ancestors and eat pork! They chose sacrificing life and limb, literally, for their hope in God’s promise to Israel and they clarify the content of that promise: life forever with God in the glory of the resurrection.
Here we have an Old Testament book witnessing to the faith in the resurrection of the dead (in B.C. times certainly a controverted article of faith which the Sadducees refused to accept), the faith we profess, which took on substance and clarity in Jesus’ teaching and in His victory over sin and death (A.D.). It is in this sense that the Letter to the Hebrews certainly has also in mind the heroism and faith of this mother and her sons and how by faith they saluted from afar the Risen One (Heb. 11:13-16; 32-39):
 “Inhuman fiend, you may discharge us from this present life, but the King of the world will raise us up, since it is for his laws that we die, to live again for ever… Ours is the better choice, to meet death at men’s hands, yet relying on God’s promise that we shall be raised up by him; whereas for you there can be no resurrection, no new life.” (2nd Maccabees 7)
          The mother and her seven sons suffered brutal torture and death confident that their victory was in the hands of the King of the world whom they worshipped. For them nothing was to be gained by winning the favor of any worldly king or potentate who cannot restore life to the dead or preserve himself from that obligatory passage through the gates of death. St. Paul (as we read this Sunday in his 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians) likewise knew all too clearly that ultimately at issue in the fight were not custom, usage or moral message, but that sure hope which comes from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ himself. He is God of the living, not the dead, for in Him all are in fact alive.
          Father Robert Barron of Word on Fire just reviewed a recent Clint Eastwood film called “Hereafter”. It would seem that the object of the movie is to make a statement about “life” or “something like existence” beyond the grave. It would seem the movie tries to do so without reference to God. The mother and her seven sons from Maccabees, St. Paul and we too must stand speechless and sad that anyone, including Clint Eastwood, would make an effort to comfort people as they face the big existential question, while denying the power and presence of the King of the world.
O Comforter, to Thee we cry, Thou Gift of God sent from on high, Thou Font of Life, Thou Fire of Love, and sweet Anointing from Above…
Hollywood has once again shown its allegiance and opted for the favor of worldly potentates, opinion makers, of those sad creatures skulking about, hell-bent on poisoning the well, or as it says elsewhere: seeking the ruin of souls.
          “Jesus replied, ‘The children of this world take wives and husbands, but those who are judged worthy of a place in the other world and in the resurrection from the dead do not marry because they can no longer die, for they are the same as the angels, and being children of the resurrection they are sons of God.”
          The Sadducees opposing Jesus saw nothing except the here and now; even today and beyond Hollywood there are many who live only for the moment. I can remember as a young priest in the late 1970’s hearing some writer or prominent Catholic speaker promoting a more serious or committed approach to marriage preparation as an antidote to divorce. He held the opinion that the ordinary form of marriage preparation back then in the U.S. was a bad first marriage. The problem is not so simply described. With time and experience we have learned that only exceptionally does the second attempt net better results than the impetuous first try. Marriage preparation, no matter how long or how excellent, cannot always supply the deficiencies of a faith upbringing cut short, or cope for the lack of support most couples and families have to face when trials or hardships come their way. Nor does it successfully confront a lifestyle bent on a measure of quality which does not surpass the moment or the celebration of the here and now.
The Sadducees are as good a reminder as any that our own day and time has no corner on the market of short-sightedness or the urge for immediate gratification. Many would insist that faithfulness in marriage, for instance, is imposed from outside; few people are convinced of the overarching value of “sticking it out”, of really living the marriage vows as recited. Common parlance would insist that the law and social pressure kept my grandparents (for whom wedding bells rang over a century ago) together a whole life long. The longer I live the more I see the half truth in all of this. The mindset of the Sadducees is what is really telling. Faith in the resurrection from the dead, hope in the sovereignty of the King of the world, love for Christ, Who gave Himself up for all of us, it is in such that the everyday heroism of faithfulness in matrimony and much more is grounded. Too bad there aren’t statistics concerning O.T. divorce among Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, as opposed to Pharisees, who did!
          Many out there would insist that more believing does not necessarily mean more faithful, whether it be to a partner in marriage or to Christ Jesus Himself. But that is not really the point. The point has to do with perspective and where my hope lies. Most places in the world fewer young people are presenting themselves for marriage. Some hastily tack a signboard on the phenomenon which reads: FEAR OF COMMITMENT. More accurately perhaps we might be said to find ourselves standing speechless before the general tenor of a society worse than that of the Sadducees, who at least attempted to live on in their progeny, children and grandchildren, who before dying and returning to dust brought them the joy of seeing themselves young again or at least their same color of eyes or their dimples or the way they gimp along repeated, the spitting image of his dad or of her mom even as different as we snowflakes are from one another. The notion of a culture of death makes many bristle, but what is it when you encounter so many today who without God in their world or hope of a world to come go one worse than the Sadducees and also deny themselves the joy of seeing themselves in their children.
          In a sense, there is no crossover or reconciliation between the mother and her seven sons and their executioners; there can only be contrast between the Sadducees and Jesus: “Jesus replied, ‘The children of this world take wives and husbands, but those who are judged worthy of a place in the other world and in the resurrection from the dead do not marry because they can no longer die, for they are the same as the angels, and being children of the resurrection they are sons of God.”
          In both cases, however, we as third parties, as witnesses have the choice of choosing whether to rally to the standard of the King of the world or to conform our lives to the dictates of the movers and the shakers for whom there is no resurrection. It’s too easy to make a desperate attempt to cling to the glitter and the fanfare; the invitation is to choose life really, life in its fullness.
The month of November, which commends to our prayers the Poor Souls in Purgatory, reminds us of the choice which is ours as well, that life is much more both here and now and in the glory of the resurrection:
“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. And so, with all the choirs of angels in heaven we proclaim your glory and in their unending hymn of praise…”(Preface of Christian Death I)
          The clarity and determination of the mother and her seven sons from the book of Maccabees might be a rarity in the face of social pressure, but this does not excuse us from striving to enter by the narrow gate, of opting for the road less traveled, of throwing in our lot with the King of the world.