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Lent Message Series 2017: ROOT CAUSE

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, hasn’t it? If I have any loyal readers, thanks for you patience.

I’ve been trying out an idea from the author of the book Rebuilt, Father Michael White. He is pastor of a parish that has become rather famous in the Catholic Church of the U.S. because of their seeming success in revitalizing their parish using many of the practices of the “mega-church” movement.  The leadership at the  Church of the Nativity in Timonium, Maryland (home of Rebuilt) think preaching using the organizing principle of a “message series” is an idea that will engage parishioners. So, the last few weeks I organized a “series” based on the Sermon on the Mount that the Catholic Church was reading in the Sunday Lectionary called “Turn On Your ‘Kingdom Positioning System’ Or Be Lost.” The Sermon on the Mount is a kind of “directional system” for how to navigate the Christian life, like a GPS guides your route in a the physical world. Parishioners did remember the theme but I’m not sure how much practical life-change as Fr. White in the link above describes in his reason for using the message series.

So for Lent I’ve planed out another series called “Root Cause.” I’ll be exploring the “root cause” of why humanity is in the mess it is and ultimately needs the redeeming work of Christ to save it. Hopefully I’ll give some practical ideas on how to experience life-change (conversion of heart is the goal of preaching and liturgy). I’ll try to post each week’s “Message,” here on the blog. By the way, apparently it’s called a “message” instead of a homily because folks don’t want to be preached to but get advice and teaching on how to live their life as a Christian. Hmmmm….isn’t that what a homily is?

Root Cause: From Tree to Tree (Lent Week 1)

Root Cause Message Series Poster

Readings for the First Sunday of Lent – Cycle A

Parents know children will ask questions about the world. Why is the sky blue? Why does it have to thunder? It scares me! Parents realize kids won’t understand all the technical science language of light refraction that produces blue so they tell a story of how God likes to paint the sky with His favorite color. As for thunder; how many times have children been told it’s the angels bowling instead of the difficult concept to explain to a 4 year old that electricity in lightning supercharges the molecules of air that produces a sound wave boom across the sky. Stories have always been told to make sense of serious questions.

I like to think that thousands of years ago children seated around a campfire in a middle-eastern desert while traveling to some proposed “promised paradise” were asking their parents why humans have to work so hard to survive and then die anyway? (Besides asking “Are we there yet?”) And so, because truth has to be told in ways that the children could understand, a story is told. The story uses images anyone could relate to. A tree full of delicious fruit would seem like heaven to people wandering around without anything sweet in the hot, dry desert. Snakes, ugh! The ancient dessert travelers probably had seen their share of illness and death caused by the slithery creatures the embodiment of danger. The Adam and Eve tree story reveals that humans had it perfectly good and then “the evil one” tricked men and women into thinking they could ultimately control their lives. So humans had to leave their perfect life. They rebelled against God and suffered the consequences. Now we’re doomed to our fate because humans make bad choices to reject the Law God gave us. Those choices perpetuate illness,  trap us in suspicion of others and cause death. Like a fairy tale about witches who build houses out of gingerbread and lure children in “for dinner” humanity was given the chance to choose the good, to love; or people can choose to fill their selfish bellies and believe the evil witch or snake or devil really has what satisfy their soul hunger that isn’t for food.

The truth revealed in the scripture story of the tree in Eden is this: evil is real. Evil tempts us with a false “world view” where humans don’t need God. Humans are tricked into believing in our own power to save ourselves, that the individual is the center of the universe and that other people who want what we have are obstacles to our happiness. Or to use the language of our present day national leaders the “evil one” presents “fake news” and “alternative facts.”

Our message series this lent will invite us to consider that the “Root Cause” of humanity’s sorry state is revealed in the human freedom to choose self-interest over self-offering of lives for the good of others. The evil one isn’t a snake, but evil is heard in the voices that tempt people to think they can or should be able to dictate how life should be lived instead of submitting themselves to the will of a God that doesn’t seem too be concerned enough to intervene. Ultimately the root cause of all things that deprive humans of a fuller life is the lie that took root in the human heart that God isn’t in charge, so humans can be.

Jesus, in his temptations in the desert comes face to face with evil. I suspect Jesus is wrestling with his human nature, the fact that every human being thinks they are the master of their life. In the desert with nothing to distract him Jesus must face the very human, deeply rooted sense of self-importance expressed in selfishness. This confrontation with the voice of evil reveals three roots that drink from deep veins in the soil of the human psyche of alternative facts about human relationships. The devil in the story tries to get Jesus to choose to believe disordered relationships can satisfy better than the perfect order of life God created.

One root reaches into the image we have of ourselves. Jesus is tempted to think of “me-first.” He’s invited to have a distorted sense of self-importance. We too hear the voice when our egos start to get the best of us. It’s been a hard day. Those kids have been a pain. My spouse has no clue about how much I give up to make her happy. I deserve a break. No body will notice if I spend a little of our money on myself. When ever we begin to think “me-first” or “it’s all about me” the evil one is probably whispering in our soul to choose to eat of the tree rooted in the bad soil of self-interest. Jesus rejects the suggestion of taking care of self before all others. He chooses to be a man who is concerned about the hunger for the Bread of Life that overcomes death that he alone can provide.

Another root branches out into the realm of the proper relationship between humans and God. Jesus is tempted to distort the relationship with his Father, to test God. When we tell God what to do instead of seeking his will we put down another root into soil that won’t produce good fruit. Thinking we can make God do something, thinking I know what I need better than the Father can lead to separation from the source of life. Negotiating with God in prayer, reminding him I took care of the poor or I’ll give so much money to the church if you grant me a favor, anytime we make the I in our prayer more prevalent than God the focus is off. God is in control and will always provide our daily bread. It’s our job to trust, to seek his will, to ask for his grace to persevere but never demand or to think we can manipulate the Father.

The third cause of root disease that Jesus is asked to prefer over a healthy root system to the tree of life is to see himself as ruler instead of servant. The devil promises what he can not give. Power to control the lives of people, to make them servants to Jesus’ desire. Christians who refuse to see themselves as servant to those who are  brother and sister in the human family are going to find themselves cut off from the fullness of life. When we use people to make ourself feel better, when we refuse the identity of servant in the image of Jesus we were baptized into, we let evil influence our free will. Christ chooses to be servant, not a ruler. So should we.

Trees will produce good fruit if planted in good soil with strong root structure. The root cause of the messed up human condition is a decision. Not a decision by characters in a story named Adam and Eve, but each individual’s decision to be swayed by the evil that whispers in our heart. You can do better than it seems God is doing for you. It’s my hope that our message series this Lent will help this parish confront that voice of temptation like Jesus did. Refute the fake news with Good News. Here’s the choice we confront once again this Lent. Do we put down our roots in bad soil? The soil of self-interest, making ourselves the center of the universe? Or, do we put our roots down in the promise of Jesus causing the tree of our life to become full of fruit that benefits the rest of humanity.

We children of God wander the desert land the limited span of the time our life will last asking questions. Why are things in this world such a mess? Why are humans constantly at war or making life so miserable for each other?  Lent begins with the story of a tree of life and knowledge at the center of a perfect garden. Lent ends with another tree, the tree of the Cross of Jesus which gives life and knowledge, the Good News. To chose to eat of the fruit of sacrifice of self that hangs on the tree of cross is how we “get back to the garden,” the perfect life God desires for all humanity. Choose to recognize the root cause of our troubles and be a part of the cause that roots out evil and produces the fruit that offers the fullness of life eternal to humanity.

A relief at Exterior of the Duomo (Milan) -Tree of Knowledge and Tree of the Cross of Christ By Yair Haklai (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

A relief at Exterior of the Duomo (Milan) -Tree of Knowledge and Tree of the Cross of Christ By Yair Haklai (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

Reflections on the Gospel of John Chapter 6: part 2


“It’s boring! Why Ritual?”

Readings for the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B
Exodus 16:2-4
John 6:24-35

Parents who take family car trips on vacation are familiar with the voice of children coming from the back sea,t, repeatedly complaining, “Are we there yet? Are we there, yet!” That’s a bit what Moses must have felt leading the Israelites on their trek through the desert. The folks loved to complain. Today in the first reading it’s “We’re hungry! At least in Egypt we had something to eat while they beat us!”  Then after Moses and God have a conference about the complaint, the solution is “mana” and “quail” everyday. I wonder if after a few weeks if the People of Israel began saying “We’re tired of eating Manna every day! The routine, the ritual of gathering quail and mana is boring!” (Yet this food provided by God, kept them alive!)

I’m giving a “Sermon Series” on getting more out of Mass by understanding better certain aspects of the Mass during August, since the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel we’re proclaiming for 5 Sundays may be a bit repetitious. Every Sunday we hear “I am the Bread of Life” and like dealing with the people of Israel and the children in the back seat of the car I am attempting to provide thoughts that are not repetitious each week that will not elicit “we’re bored!” The sixth Chapter of St. John’s Gospel is his “theology” of the Eucharist.

As I said in my first post in this series, I sought questions I could answer during my sermon series from parishioners through the bulletin but not many folks replied. Yet, the experience of the Israelites leads me to reflect on one of those questions. It’s something I often hear from some of our parents when I ask them to make sure their children get to Mass regularly.

“The Mass is repetitious, it seems like the same prayers are said over and over every week. The ritual get’s boring because it doesn’t change.” To a casual observer the order of the elements are always the same; gather, say I’m sorry of sins, a prayer, three readings, a too long (boring) talk, collection, a long prayer while we kneel, Our Father, shake hands, shuffle up to get communion, blessing and go home. But, why? That’s what I want to look at in my reflection, here.

Human beings need ritual. They always have. Ritual helps people navigate the unpredictability of the world, it gives a sense of predictability about life. In some ways it’s an attempt to order the chaos we experience. Ritual is also a way to get into the realm of deeper meaning, to make contact with that which is beyond the routine-ness of life.

We live in a culture that craves the “new experience.” People, nowadays think we need something new to excite us, stimulate us, to get us to notice something important. People spend hours in front of screens, where the images change every few seconds. Children are getting to a point where they get bored in classrooms or with books because it’s not stimulating enough. Attention spans are shrinking even in adults. So at first glance ritual seems “boring.”

But ritual is so much a part of other events in our life and we don’t object. Every culture has it’s rituals…It’s the way we identify having a connection with others, that we share an interest, we share meaning and purpose. How do most of us celebrate birthdays. It’s almost mandatory that family and friends sing “Happy Birthday.” Some sweet confection with burning candles signifying the number of years of life is presented, candles blown out and food consumed. Presents are given. If this doesn’t take place a person might feel “cheated” or like I didn’t really have a birthday. Maybe even the person might wonder if they were loved!

Or consider the “national pastime” the professional baseball game. It has it’s rubrics (rules) and no one stays away. The game must start with the opening hymn, The National Anthem. The 7th inning stretch is always observed and there’s the singing of another traditional hymn, almost always the same, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” There are “rules” (In church language rubrics) and a prescribed ritual form of 9 innings, 3 outs per half inning on a field that has proscribed dimensions. All this “ritual” enables teams to play together.

Family Christmas traditions are rituals, unique to family, and one invites criticism if the rituals are changed. How often do people feel like it wasn’t really Christmas if the family doesn’t gather, doing things “like we always” do. There’s a disorientation, a sense of loosing our connection with past family members and present relations.

Our secular rituals help human beings to “play together” and sense their commonality in a common purpose. So too, our sacred Catholic rituals actually help us experience our communion with one another as the Body of Christ. Ritual makes it possible for people to get below the surface and not have to worry about what’s going to happen next. It opens up a space, so to speak, where we can contemplate and encounter the mystery of God in our midst and what God does in our lives. It enables us to experience God’s love.

I am glad that I am a Catholic with a predictable liturgy! Please, understand I am not “putting down” or being critical about our brother and sister Christians of other denominations. But, to be honest, I always feel disoriented, almost on edge, at Protestant services…what’s going to take place next? Yet, when you go to enough non-Catholic liturgies I’ve learned even protestant services follow a ritual pattern most of the time. I just don’t know what the pattern is going to be, because it is somewhat flexible from denomination to denomination. The other thing that’s happening in many protestant churches is the appeal to the “surface need” (as opposed to a basic need, essential need) for stimulation and entertainment with the big screens flashing images during worship and music leaders “performing.” This isn’t a comfortable fit with the Catholic liturgy, by the way.

The beauty of Catholic ritual (or any ritual for that matter) is that a group or pastor doesn’t have to recreate the wheel each week. Ritual helps us experience being part of a long tradition, connected with our ancestors and our descendants. We’re family across the ages, brothers and sisters in Christ! (Sort of like that Christmas, Birthday experience I mentioned, earlier.)

And Mass isn’t always “the same” In each celebration: the words change, various options for certain prayers can be used. The music selections change (but a common set of familiar music is needed so the congregation is comfortable singing together, not feeling like they don’t know the songs). Yes, the “pattern” is the same, the music is familiar, but there are differences from Mass to Mass.

Even there, though, the words used are prescribed by the whole church, not the individual pastor. A ritual book approved by “the Church” (The Roman Missal) is used to pray from. That is so the congregation is assured that they are being asked to pray in an orthodox way, expressing the one truth the church holds to and not the opinion of an individual pastor. The ritual is your and my assurance we are not veering into heresy or something we don’t believe in common. The books the priest prays from, the scriptures we read are agreed upon by the whole church and therefore a sign of our unity now and across the ages in our belief.

The ritual pattern, since we’re not worrying about what’s going to happen next or what to say or do, this gift of ritual, enables us to listen more deeply to the words, to listen to what God is saying through the familiar actions, to speak to him in the silence and hear God’s reply. If we let the ritual carry us along, we’ll find ourselves transported to a place where we are guaranteed to meet Jesus Christ! It’s worked for 2000 years, so why throw it out?

The people in the Gospel, John 6:24-25, were like modern people whose attention span is shrinking and who want to be constantly stimulated by something new, are looking for the fast fix, the quick solution to a problem, getting food to fill their stomachs another day. Jesus offers them something more, to fill a deeper need. When we stop wanting to be entertained, when we cease looking for a new way to be stimulated, then we’re beginning to be ready to hear and receive what God wants us to experience gathered at the Altar-Table; that God loves us and wants to satisfy our deepest need. That need is to know God loves us ,that Jesus wants us to live in a new way, a way that is without the distractions of suffering and death, forever!

Reflection for 23rd Sunday Cycle C

Readings for the 23rd Sunday of Cycle C, Roman Catholic Lectionary
Philemon 9-10, 12-17
Luke 14:25-33

Beware of literal interpretation of Scripture. Beware, too, of reading contemporary societal values into an ancient biblical text! Both literal interpretation and imposing the values of your present day on a totally different culture will lead a person into false interpretation of the scriptures.

The second reading of the 23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, cycle C, in the Roman Catholic lectionary is a prime example of how literal interpretation and imposing contemporary societal values on the story of St. Paul sending a “slave” back to his “master” can be badly misinterpreted. This short letter of St. Paul to a Christian head of a household was interpreted as God’s Word approving of the practice of slavery of Negroes in the 19th Century United States before and during the Civil War! Society, for the most part, has since come to understand, or begin to understand such slavery of human beings as a timeless moral evil. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us just 50 years ago that our nation still held warped, immoral opinions about the relationship of races and needed a conversion of heart to God’s Kingdom ordering of relationships between humans.

Briefly, the letter of Paul to Philemon concerns a runaway slave (more of a kind of indentured servant member of household) who choses to divorce himself from the relationship with his master and the household without the consent of the other partner. He breaks a contract and violates a legal relationship that was entered into by both parties.

When Onesimus the “slave” meets Paul in prison, he becomes a Christian.  What seems odd to our modern sensibilities is that instead of helping the slave escape, Paul sends Onesimus back to his master! The master would have every right to abuse or discipline his runaway servant and so surely Onesimus was frightened of the prospect and needed some protection. Paul, in his “letter of recommendation” slyly informs the master that slave is still employee, still has household duties, still subject to Philemon’s rule and will but that the relationship is changed. The master is to respect slave in a new way and treat him as “brother,” as a person equal in value and dignity, not to be looked down upon or seen as a kind of possession or object to be used for the master’s benefit. In fact, the master must now serve the servant. Paul does this in a rather manipulative way and reminds Philemon that Philemon owes Paul a favor for saving his hide, so to speak, by enabling the master to come to know Jesus Christ and salvation. Philemon, the master is to serve Onesimus the slave as Jesus the master has served Philemon by dying on the cross and defeating death.

So, Onesimus the slave still has the same function or job description in the ordering of the household, but the members of the household have a new relationship as “equals.” Paul reminds his letter recipient Philemon that in fact he and the slave Onesimus are equals, both servants of Jesus the one master. Now they must serve each other, for Jesus the master served his slaves (disciples) by dying on the cross.

Here is a reminder that the church is a household of believers, of every different color stripe, talent and ability, every kind of job or lots in life that many continue even after their conversion to Christ but there is a new order of relationship that is different and beyond family bonds. All are equal members of the Body of Christ, different vocations, all empowered by the spirit to build up the household into a place where Christ is the head who has performed the work of salvation earning us salvation and who leads us to the Kingdom.

Jesus poses a question, then, in the Gospel of this Sunday, “Are you willing to take a chance on this new order of relationship of humanity? Are you willing to let go of being able to control others, be the powerful member of a relationship, the beneficiary of your power to control others and instead serve, too. Jesus, when he says a disciple must “hate” father and mother, he is not talking about an emotion where a child despises the parent and leaves the household severing the relationship. Again, there’s the literalism trap.

Jesus, by inviting us to take up the cross in this Gospel, is inviting us to die to those destructive structures of human relationship where one party has the power and the other is at mercy of the power holder, always in fear of being used and abused and taken advantage of, not in control of their destiny. The cross of Jesus ushered in a new ordering of human relationships as the story of Philemon and Onesimus exemplifies.

In the Kingdom of God, there is no slave or master. There is no powerful versus powerless whose worth is seen only in what the poor masses can provide the people on the top of the hill. In the realm of Jesus’ rule there is no first world using the third world where the more developed countries take the resources of the less developed to supply its comfortable lifestyle  while others can hardly gather what they need to live. There is great cost to be considered before living in the Kingdom of God here and now! We must view every human life as valuable. We might have to let go of some of our creature comforts. Nations and religions and ethnic groups will have to give up the illusion of superiority and violence as a solution to conflict. As a favorite author I discovered in the seminary, Frederick Buechner, wrote in the book called  Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC  describing what “Gospel” means (I’m paraphrasing since I don’t have the book handy as I write this), Gospel is Greek for Good News. It’s a bit like starting a story, “I’ve got good news and bad news…” The Good News of Jesus is always bad news for those in power! Or as Mary, the Mother of Jesus says in her song, the Magnificat, “God has lifted up the lowly and brought down the powerful.” (Luke 1:52)

Some readers might say, “Father, this sounds like socialism or communism at worst or pie in the sky dreaming of everybody sitting down holding hands, singing Kum-by-ya! It’s pie in the sky stuff.”

No, it’s the challenge of the Gospel, to live a life seeking to convert the world to the vision of Jesus by our participation in the household of practicing Catholic Christians and sharing in its mission to proclaim Good News in word and deed. It’s the world issued in by the master killed on a cross who was powerless, who inaugurates a whole new order of existence. Here is Good news, the way to a new life, even in this realm of time and space, the rehearsal room for eternity’s household.

All are servants to one master who serves all. Are you ready to risk your life and pay the cost to help his Kingdom come?

Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola

Ignatius of Loyola

Today, July 31, in the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Ignatius, who is from Spain, besides founding the “Companions of Jesus” as the order was originally known in Spanish, has given the church a wonderful approach to spirituality. I recommend this short video biography on You Tube by Fr. James Martin, S.J., a Jesuit whose books I’ve recommend in this blog, (My Lives with the Saints, Between Heaven and Mirth) as he tells the story of St. Ignatius.

St. Ignatius from “Who Cares About The Saints?” with Fr. James Martin, S.J.

Watching the video, I was reminded that much of my own spirituality and pastoral practice is formed by this great Jesuit, even though I never studied at a Jesuit institution. It’s just that my seminary spiritual director, a diocesan priest, was trained in Ignatian methodology, and so much of the training I’ve received in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, also, use the methods of Ignatius in “imagining” yourself in the scene of a Gospel story as part of the catechetical methodology of the Catechumenate, among other personal influences. If you listen to my preaching, teaching, and pastoral counseling you’ll hear echos of Ignatius’ dictum to “Find God in All things.” In my spiritual directing people and organizing parish life, you’ll hear echos of St. Ignatius’ concept that the disciple is to be a “contemplative in action.”

Of course the other great influences in my spiritual life are St. Benedict and St. Francis of Assisi. You wouldn’t guess that I was in seminary formation at Franciscan (Quincy University) and Benedictine (St. Meinrad Seminary) institutions, would you?

May everything you and I do be for “The Greater Glory of God.”

St. Ignatius of Loyola, pray for us.
and while you’re at it, pray for one of your spiritual sons, Pope Francis, who visited the Rome “headquarters” of the Jesuits, today, to preside at Mass and visit the tombs of Jesuit saints. There’s an English translation of a nice homily the Pope gave to mark the occasion at the link.

My alternative name day (not)

Traditional image of St. Joseph the Worker teaching Jesus carpentry

Traditional image of St. Joseph the Worker teaching Jesus carpentry

Today, May 1, in the Roman Catholic Church we celebrate the feast day of “St. Joseph, the Worker.” Pope Pius XII gave us this day back in the early 1950’s as a response to the “May Day” celebrations of Communist and Socialist governed countries. In those societies founded on the ideology of Marxism the worker was seen as contributing to the good of the state, essentially a cog in a vast equalitarian economic system. The dignity of the human person was subordinated to the good of the state. A person was important and valuable only in the sense they contributed to the collective.

Pius XII wanted to stress that there is a basic human dignity given by God to the individual as created in God’s image. Further, he was advocating the Church’s teaching that all human activity is a sharing in the creative nature of God and is directed toward building up the human community, not the state, awaiting the day completes the work begun in Christ of creating the new heavens and new earth.

I’ve discovered a couple of nice summaries about the feast and it’s meaning at these sites:
The Feast of St. Joseph the Worker and the Catholic View of Human Work at Catholic Online
St. Joseph the Worker, Saint of the Day at American Catholic . org (St. Anthony Messenger Press, the Franciscans)
St. Joseph Reminds Us that Workers Deserve Justice, an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that reminds us of the Catholic teaching that workers have a right to organize. (cf United States Catholic Conference of Bishops at Catholic Social Teaching).

The meaning of the feast day took on particular significance for me today, because I have been “supervising” (also known as watching) a new concrete drive being constructed next to our parish church and my rectory. For the couple of weeks, weather permitting since we’ve been having a lot of rain in Trenton, work has been progressing on the project. As I watched the crew doing what to me seems like back-breaking work of pouring, shaping and finishing concrete I realized a couple of things. One: I was watching the teaching of the church in action; men sharing in the work of creation of something new that will enhance the lives of others since there will be new handicapped parking spaces and safer access to the church. Two: I am definitely not the manual labor type and that I’m privileged to be called to the “work” of building up the community of faith into the City of God in the midst of the city of humanity. That’s why I’ve never claimed this day to be my patronal name day; I’m just not into manual labor and work that much!

God bless those who work with their hands, who teach, those who protect us as first responders and in the military, moms and dads who do the work of  raising children and all the laity who are the majority of the church whose work is to bring the Kingdom of God into the world. I pray that my work as pastor and preacher helps them do their work as members of the Body of Christ and affirms their dignity as partners with Jesus in the work of salvation.

The workers constructing our new driveway that inspired this blog entry. Perhaps here is the 21st century incarnation of St. Joseph, the Worker

The workers constructing our new driveway that inspired this blog entry. Perhaps here is the 21st century incarnation of St. Joseph, the Worker

O God, Creator of all things,
who laid down for the human race the law of work,
graciously grant that by the example of Saint Joseph
and under his patronage we may complete the works you set us to do
and attain the rewards you promise.
Through our lord Jesus Christ, your son, who lives and reigns with you
in the unity of the holy spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
Taken from the Roman Missal, Third Edition
Prayer for May 1, Feast of St. Joseph the Worker

Third Sunday of Advent – REJOICE!

Readings for the Day

Zephaniah 3:14-18A
Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6
Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:10-18

When a person receives good news, they usually show it by facial and bodily expressions. They can’t wait to tell someone about their good fortune. A person wins the lottery and wants to tell others. A young couple discovers that they are going to have their first baby. It’s difficult to keep the news to themselves. Smiles break across the face. Shouts of excitement escape the lips!

Yet, when we’re in church for Mass and hear “the Gospel (Good News in Greek) of the Lord” there’s little of the signs of excitement usually associated with the reception of good news. Generally, the people in the congregation just mumble “Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ,” sit down and with faces bordering on boredom almost challenge the homilist to “get on with it priest, let’s get the homily over with so we can get on to more exciting things back home.”

The recurring image, the word repeated many times in the readings of the Third Sunday of Advent is REJOICE! Be glad, show excitement, even dance for joy is the directive the Word of God gives us.

Joy is part of faith in Jesus Christ. But sometimes you’d have a hard time telling that by the solemn faces and “reverent” liturgies we Catholics supposedly “celebrate” Sunday morning with in our Eucharistic gathering. But, Listen to what is prayed in the opening prayer of the Mass of the Third Sunday of Advent. “Enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.” (Roman Missal Third Edition, English translation) Liturgy should be “solemn,” true. It should also reveal our joy!

Joy is part of Christian faith because we’ve been let in on good news. Evil does not triumph. Death is not the end of relationships with those we love. There’s more to life than violence, sickness and human misery. Christ who took on our human nature has redeemed that nature and made it possible for humans to live like God.

And, if you pay attention to the last sentence of the first reading of the day, God “rejoices in his people.” He’s happy we’re around. God delights in the humans he’s called into being like a parent can’t help but smile at their children when they do something cute or sleeping in their bed.
Joy is essential to being a Christian. Humor can be a part of that joy, of the Christian life, too. It can be a way we delight in the truth. It reminds us that while faith and liturgy are serious business, we’re delighted that God is among us, saving us from that which is evil through Jesus Christ.

One of the reasons it’s important for people of faith to be seen with a sense of humor and who express joy is so that we can attract others to faith in Jesus Christ. In my current parish, pastoral council members and other members of the parish often say we’ve got to invite back, get re-involved, the members who have left our church or become non-active. Parishioners say they want to welcome new members to our church and parish who don’t belong to another church. Well, would you want to join a group of people who are always serious, whose worship is always solemn, where no one smiles or expresses delight that you are in the pew with them? A joyful disposition attracts people to have a relationship with Jesus! Even Jesus wasn’t above making a joke or pointing out the absurdity of a situation.

I’ve been reading a book by a Jesuit priest, the Rev. James Martin, S.J. that explores the relationship of joy and humor to faith in Jesus Christ. In his book he gives many examples of how humor and joy were part of the spiritual life of the saints.

The author tells a couple of stories about Blessed Pope John XXIII. Once, before he was the Pope, he was at a diplomatic dinner in France. A woman is there whose dress is very low-cut revealing much of her breasts. A government official mentions to the future pope how scandalous her attire is and how everyone is looking at her! The future John XXIII replies, “No, everyone is not looking at her, but at me to see if I’m looking at her!” Another time, after becoming pope, John XXIII is asked during an official visit by an important dignitary, “Holy Father, how many people work at the Vatican?” Blessed John replied, “About half of them.” Such humor and what must have been a sense of joy that infused the Holy Father’s spiritual life made him a very attractive figure. People loved “Good Pope John” and felt closer to Christ who he was the vicar of to the world.

If we Catholics want to attract people to our message we need a bit of the spirituality of saints like Blessed John XXIII. Humor attracts. Poking fun at ourselves can speak of humility and a realization that the one we serve is a savior that’s good to know and spend time (and eternity) with. The Christ came to bring joy, not fear.

I am not speaking of a type of frivolity or silliness that is off-putting. I’m not suggesting that we never be serious and act immature. The Gospel is much too important to present ourselves in such a way that we are written off as to not be taken seriously. Yet, joy helps gets the point across, sometimes.

There are serious things in this world that must be addressed with a serious, sincere message. We are all aware of the suffering in this world that brings sadness. Evil exists and shows its might, trying to suck the joy out of life in Christ. We need only look at the events in Newtown, Connecticut this past Friday. It seems that evil has gotten the upper hand. There is so much sadness in the effects of one person’s actions. We grieve with those whose lives have been torn apart so violently.

Yet, we can face such evil, unafraid and undefeated because our lives, our faith, are grounded in Good News, joyful news that we are not afraid to let show in our expressions of faith that at times include humor and laughter and smiling faces that invite others to share the joy in our heart knowing Christ. He came among us in the flesh in order to defeat evil on the cross. He comes among us in this liturgy to lighten our fears about death and help us rejoice in God’s love. He will come again to finish the work begun in his incarnation when he will make right all that is wrong with human existence by joining it to his divine nature.

Our vocation is to witness to others, even with lightheartedness the joy that underpins our ability to not be afraid of evil. There was a deacon of the early church, St. Lawrence, who was put to death for his belief in Christ by being put on a spit over a fire to be burnt alive. At one point in his execution he taunted his executioners by saying, “Turn me over, I’m done on this side!” Such playful joy even in the midst of dying mocks death and proclaims, as another saint said, “I do not fear death, I believe in God!”

As it is proclaimed in the Communion Antiphon for the Mass of the Third Sunday of Advent;

Say to the faint of heart: be strong and do not fear. behold, our god will come, and he will save us.

A joyful attitude will take us a long way to getting the message out to those who are “faint of heart.”



Greet All Guests as Christ

Last week, in one day I had two cousins visit me at the rectory. Mary from mom’s side of the family and Brenda from dad’s side. St. Benedict writes in the Rule of St. Benedict, the document that describes his vision for the community life of his followers, that be received as Christ. In Chapter 53 Benedict says,

Let all guests who arrive be received like Christ,
for He is going to say,
“I came as a guest, and you received Me” (Matt. 25:35).
And to all let due honor be shown,
especially to the domestics of the faith and to pilgrims.

I was trained in the seminary by Benedictines at St. Meinrad School of Theology and Archabbey. So the spirituality of the Benedictines has always been a part of my life. I’ve always found the Order to be attractive and it’s members people I admire. Yet, the Rule needs to be read with some adaptions for circumstances. I don’t follow the instruction of a later passage. I have a feeling my guests would find it odd if I prostrated myself before them in adoration of Christ.

In the salutation of all guests, whether arriving or departing,
let all humility be shown.
Let the head be bowed
or the whole body prostrated on the ground
in adoration of Christ, who indeed is received in their persons.

My cousin Mary had called earlier suggesting we go out to lunch since she’d be in the area for the afternoon on other business. By the time she got to Trenton I’d decided to do the Benedictine thing and make lunch and serve it on the  pergola, since it was a beautiful day. (Oh, I did have some things in the refrigerator that I needed to eat soon or throw out. Wait…is that treating the guest as Christ, giving them food a couple of days away from going bad….opps!) Anyway, it was a lovely lunch.

Later in the day, Brenda arrived on her Harley Davidson motorcycle. I fondly call her my cousin, The Biker Chick, when describing her to parishioners when letting them know she’ll be staying at the rectory. Brenda was passing through town on vacation. She’s from New Jersey and on her way to join up with a Harley’s Owners Group®sponsored tour of the southwestern United States. Brenda spent the night at the rectory and we were able to catch up on each other’s life before she left in the morning for the next leg of her trip.

My cousin Brenda in her leathers ready for her day's ride

My Cousin Brenda ready for the road

Brenda is a lawyer who works for a legal services agency. That’s a agency that represents people in court and legal matters who otherwise could not afford legal representation. This is not the same as a public defender in a capital case. She deals with issues like landlord/tenet disputes and other civil cases. My cousin has always had a desire to defend the poor, needy and disenfranchised. Before she went to law school, she was a social worker. She is motivated by a strong sense of social justice. In a way, she is a minister of the Gospel, working to build up a more just life for the children of God, but in the secular realm instead as a minister of the church. She is doing what Vatican Council II’s DECREE ON THE APOSTOLATE OF THE LAITY says is the role of the laity in the church, to bring the Gospel into the secular world.

One of her passions is an organization she has begun called Tools for Justice. The organization is attempting to raise funds to support and promote the work of legal service agencies like the one Brenda works for. Most of these agencies are privately funded or struggle to support themselves. In order to raise funds, she took a leave of absence from her job to author and self-published a book, “Eavesdropping on Bar Talk”, that she and the organization Tools for Justice are promoting. A sizable portion of the sale of each book is sent to the legal service organization that serves the geographic area in which the purchaser lives. I recommend you check out the website and maybe consider buying the book. I’ve read it and the book gives you a good picture of what legal services lawyers deal with everyday. They provide a valuable service to the poor. More importantly they are proclaiming Gospel.

As Brenda travels on this trip, she’s displaying a sign on the back of her Harley advertising the web site for Tools for Justice. By the way, start seeing motorcycles and watch out for them while your driving your automobile out there. And, if you happen to see an adventurous women on one of those bikes with a sign for Tools for Justice, wave at her. (Honking is not good. It can scare the rider!) sign on the back of Brenda's bike

Sign on the back of Brenda’s bike advertising

Brother Love’s Traveling Reconciliation Show

With apologies to Neil Diamond (Yes, I’m old enough to remember his early performances in the 1960’s) who made a hit out of the song “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” one of my brother priests who was part of a group of us hearing confessions yesterday reminded me of this title. My parish is part of a group of four parishes that hold communal reconciliation liturgies in each one of our churches on Sunday afternoons during Lent. Two on one Sunday and two on the next Sunday, which requires a bit of quick travel between the two parishes to make it to the next church on time. My brother priest referred to it as the “Traveling Reconciliation Show” between yesterday’s two locations.

It is Lent, and many Catholics feel the need to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Many of them don’t for various reasons. I’m not here to judge, but I do find it a powerful encounter with Christ both as penitent and the minister of the sacrament. Sometime I’ll have to write more about my experiences. For now, I offer two poems by a favorite author, Scott Cairns, for your Lenten reflection that might help you prepare for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Take your time with them and ponder what they are revealing. The Sacrament of Reconciliation can stir in the heart the same thoughts and have the same effect as what is written of in the poems.

The Spiteful Jesus

Not the one whose courtesy
and kiss unsought are nonetheless
bestowed. Instead, the largely
more familiar blasphemy
borne to us in the little boat
that first cracked rock at Plymouth
petty, plainly man-inflected
—demi-god established as a club
with which our paling
generations might be beaten
to a bland consistency.

He is angry. He is just. And while
he may have died for us,
it was not gladly. The way
his prophets talk, you’d think
the whole affair had left him
queerly out of sorts, unspeakably
indignant, more than a little
needy, and quick to dish out
just deserts. I saw him when,
as a boy in church, I first
met souls in hell. I made him
for a corrupt, corrupting fiction when
my own father (mortal that he was)
forgave me everything, unasked.

philokalia: new and selected poems
 by  Scott Cairns

Page 11 © 2002
Zoo Press, PO Box 22990, Lincoln NE 68542

Adventures in New Testament Greek:

Repentance, to be sure,
but of a species far
less likely to oblige
sheepish repetition.

Repentance, you’ll observe,
glibly bears the bent
of thought revisited,
and mind’s familiar stamp

—a quaint, half-hearted
doubleness that couples”
all compunction with a p ledge
of recurrent screw-up.

The heart’s metanoia,
on the other hand, turns
without regret, turns not
so much away, as toward,

as if the slow pilgrim
has been surprised to find
that sin is not so bad
as it is a waste of time.

philokalia: new and selected poems
 by  Scott Cairns

Page 11 © 2002
Zoo Press, PO Box 22990, Lincoln NE 68542

Recommended Reading

I admit that I don’t read as much as I think I should. This is particularly true in the spiritual category. Reading is a recreational activity I enjoy. While on vacation I’ll bring along a couple of novels. There’s nothing more relaxing than sitting on a beach or by a pool in a warm climate while it’s snowing back home! When I was in the seminary I remember a favorite liturgy teacher telling our class that you could learn more theology, sometimes, from a good novel and poetry. Nathan Mitchell not only feed my hunger to know more about liturgy but turned me onto finding theology expressed in the works of authors like Flannery O’Conner. Yet, when I’m home I confess it’s just easier to turn on the T.V. and “veg out,” passively being entertained and not having to think too much. (My television preferences are more news, baseball/hockey, mystery/detective and PBS type watching, by the way. Definitely not so-called reality shows that exploit the participants and aim for the viewer’s baser interests.)

So, when leaving for my recent retreat at the beginning of January I decided to take along some reading of a more spiritual nature. I tend to buy books I might have read a review of in a professional journal I subscribe to, America, published by the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) or some other person whose opinion I respect. Then, the book gets put on my book shelf to be read “later.”

A retreat is a good time to pick up one of those books set aside for “later” I figured, so I looked at my choices and selected My Life with the Saints by the Rev. James Martin, S.J.

picture of the American Edition of the book by Rev. James Martin, "My Life with the Saints"

Father Martin has his own interesting life story, coming to the priesthood and membership in the Society of Jesus a bit “later” in life after growing up in a not particularly religious home, attending business school and working in the corporate world for a number of years. Perhaps that  personal background is what makes his telling the story of how the saints play a role in his life more accessible. This is not some super pious guy sanitizing the “holy ones” but showing how the saints can be both patrons and models for ordinary folks. Or can be a sign of hope for a priest  like me who self describes himself as “not quite right.” I certainly don’t fit the paradigm of many of what a priest should be like in my own self observation. According to many of the short biographies Fr. Martin provides of various saints, they didn’t fit in pre-defined mold of holiness, either. Father Martin, in each chapter weaves the story of the saint with his own bibliographical story and how each saint inspired him and became a part of his personal path to holiness at various stages of his life and vocational growth. His story telling helps the reader see that holiness and discipleship are not high in the sky pie ideals but down to earth everyday achievable experiences.

I’m glad I picked the book out of my unread books shelf to bring on retreat. It was a good companion to bring along and accompany me on my little sojourn to rest a while with the Lord. It pointed me toward the one who was the one all the saints put at the center of their lives and point us toward. Speaking of which, the picture on the cover (illustration above) is a detail from the tapestries hung in the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angles in Los Angeles, California. They are wonderful works of art installed when the Cathedral was erected in 1998-2002. The tapestries depict the saints (using for models ordinary people from Los Angels) in a posture of prayer, each one facing the front of the sanctuary where Christ is revealed in the Eucharist and depicted hanging on the Cross). How appropriate for the cover art. I suggest the book for your reading and reflection.

On a side note, Father Martin is an engaging speaker and interview, besides his writing skills. I had the opportunity to hear him speak in person and share lunch with him (although we didn’t get to talk much, there was a presentation taking place during a “working lunch”) at a convention of the National Federation of Priest Councils a few years, ago. At the time he was promoting another book he had written about humor, saints and their relationship to the spiritual life, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. I suspect I’ll end up buying and reading that book too. Martin has also made several appearance on t.v., too. He is described by Stephen Colbert as the official chaplain to the Colbert Report on Comedy Central, of all things! Actually, clips of Father Martin’s appearances are worth watching, for instance this one promoting his book, Between Heaven and Mirth. He is a good example of why Catholicism is a good place to be and seek out God in the midst of a world of other religious choices. By the way, Colbert is a practicing devote Catholic, so don’t let his persona get in the way of watching the clips you might find if you follow-up my suggestion to watch Fr. Martin on his show

Meanwhile, perhaps I should buy an electronic book reader like the Nook or Kindle. My habit of buying books and then putting them on display on a shelf and not reading them is killing forests for the paper they’re made of. There’s a moral dilemma; buy paper books and harm the environment or buy an electronic gadget that’s probably made by underpaid workers denied human rights in a factory in China. What’s a saint in training to do?

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