Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one about whom Moses wrote in the law, and also the prophets, Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.”
But Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” John 1:45-46
There’s something about seeing– experiencing– a thing first-hand that is more compelling than having someone tell you about it. Philip was prepared to tell his brother Nathanael all about Jesus, but this wasn’t enough to overcome his brother’s suspicion or cynicism. Philip’s response was an invitation to come and see for himself.
When a man is contemplating a vocation to the priesthood or religious life, most of the discernment is internal work: prayer, reading, prayer, spiritual direction, and prayer. This is a good and necessary process. But it can also feel a bit isolating, as if no one else is wrestling with these issues and questions. And it can also take on a hypothetical and imaginative quality. What will life in the novitiate be like? Is the seminary a strange place where I’ll feel uncomfortable? Will I be out of place, surrounded by people who are so much holier than I am? Can anything good come from Nazareth?
Come and see. That’s the invitation that the Paulist Fathers make three times each year. Come for a visit. See and experience our common life. Pray with us. Dine with us. Come to class. Come to the chapel. Have a soda or a beer, and ask your questions.
These come and see weekends (and the annual Paulist Plunge at St. Mary’s on the Lake in Lake George NY) are a chance for prospective vocations to get an extended look at the community, and see if they feel like we’re a good fit. (And, of course, they are an opportunity for the Paulists to make the same assessment!) Fears about what the seminary might be like can be replaced with facts and informed perspectives. Relationships can be forged with seminarians and other inquirers. And through all this, the Holy Spirit can work to deepen one’s insight into the nature of vocational discernment.
Inevitably at the conclusion of these visits, some participants will tell me, “This was a great experience for me, and I’m so grateful for the Paulists’ hospitality. I feel like I’m being drawn in other directions, but I’m glad I came.” This is good news: it means the process of discernment is working to bring clarity! To realize, “this isn’t for me,” is fine, and we thank God for the clarity.
But there are also men who tell me at the end of the visit that they’d like to continue the conversation, and work toward applying to the Paulist novitiate. This is also cause for rejoicing!
In either case, I know that those who come and see are drawing closer to God and deepening their discipleship.
If you (or someone you know) would like to attend the next Paulist Fathers Come & See Weekend or Paulist Plunge, please contact me, and we’ll set it up. If you’d like to help support Paulist Vocations by underwriting the cost of these events or sponsoring a prospect’s visit, contact the Paulist Fathers’ Development Office– they’ll be glad to assist you.
I’m often asked by inquirers if their career– either the one they’re currently working, or the one they’re in school for– can fit into religious life and the Paulist Mission. It’s a complicated question, and one that really has to be answered on an individual basis. For someone who has a career and skills that the community needs (or might need), then the answer is “maybe.” For example, a man with a JD (a law degree) might find that the Paulists, like any large organization, could use his knowledge and experience when dealing with a whole range of legal issues: real estate, financial development, liability, contracts, etc. But that doesn’t mean he’d be practicing law as a Paulist. As priests our primary works are preaching, administering the sacraments, reconciling, teaching the faith, and doing all the administrative tasks that go along with pastoral ministry. Someone with a law degree could be a great asset, but he’d serve as a priest, not a lawyer.
That doesn’t mean that the Paulists aren’t interested in men with degrees in biochemistry, computer science, Spanish literature, or petroleum engineering. We’re looking at prospective vocations as whole people, not as skill-sets or academic degrees. We need men with a wide range of life experiences and knowledge. Even if you’re not working as a pharmacist, physician or philosopher, the Paulists need men who can relate to scientists, engineers, artists and chefs.
I started my college career in Computer Science. When I realized I was headed to the Paulists and the seminary, I switched to a liberal arts degree that would supply the philosophy prerequisites I’d need to study theology. But throughout my Paulist career I’ve worked in communications- especially computer-based communications. Those interests and skills have served me well, whether I was working as a radio producer, a pastor, in administration, or as vocations director.
And this is the amazing thing about responding to a vocational call: nothing goes to waste. When God calls someone to ministry, he calls the whole person, along with all their interests, experiences, education, and skills. Nothing goes to waste.
Why is it so hard for us to do the right thing? Sure, there are occasionally situations where we’re faced with some moral ambiguity, but most of the time, we make it harder than it is. If you ever listen to those founts of all modern wisdom, Dr. Laura Schlesinger on the radio or Judge Judy on TV, you know what I mean. Dr. Laura and Judge Judy take no prisoners. People will call up Dr. Laura, or appear befor Judge Judy, and explain their problems, and Dr. Laura of Judge Judy will say, “This is your mess, clean it up.” Or, “you promised to do this, now do it.” These people are complicating their own lives, because they either don’t take responsibility for their own lives and choices, or they’re not honest with themselves or their partners. It’s not moral complexity that trips people up most of the time, it’s our own sinfulness and weakness.
This is what Moses is trying to explain to his people in our first reading from Deuteronomy. He has told them in plain terms what God wants them to do, and not to do. There are no secrets. There’s no mystery. God himself has revealed the Law, and it’s as plain as can be. It’s easy. Of course, we know the history. The Israelites found that they couldn’t keep the Law. They followed other gods. They murdered the prophets. They build idols. Was there some nuanced moral argument that let them believe that these things were OK? I don’t think so. They knew it was wrong. And they did it anyway.
St. Paul wrote about this. He said, “the good that I intend to do, I don’t do, and the evil that I don’t intend, I do.” It’s human sinfulness, and we all suffer from it. We all suffer because of it. So, it’s not really surprising that Jesus had to confront it when he was teaching.
It starts with this lawyer. Insert lawyer joke here. He asks Jesus what he has to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus responds by saying, “You know what’s in the Law. Do that.” It’s perfectly clear. Love God with your whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. It’s that simple. But wait! The lawyer wants to make it more complicated. Let’s narrow down who’s a neighbor.
And look at the response Jesus makes! It’s the parable of the Good Samaritan. Does this literary form sound at all familiar? Take off the pious glasses for a moment, and what is the parable of the Good Samaritan? It’s a joke! It’s one of the oldest joke forms in the world. You know: A priest, a minister, and a rabbi are out playing golf. An American, a Frenchman, and a Polish guy are up in an airplane with only one parachute. A priest, a Levite, and a Samaritan are walking down the road. You know how the joke’s gonna end, even before the punch line. And all of Jesus’ listeners know how it’s going to end, too. The point of the joke is to make the Samaritan look foolish. The Jews of that time hated the Samaritans. They wanted nothing to do with them. And you can bet that they used ethnic jokes to poke at them, just as people do today.
But what happens? The same thing that happens in all the parables. Jesus turns their expectations upside down. Remember, this began with the question, “Who is my neighbor.” Everybody seems to think that the poor guy by the side of the road is the “neighbor.” So when Jesus asks, “who was the neighbor to him,” and the answer came back, “the one who showed compassion.” There’s the real answer: The Samaritan is your neighbor. It’s not about the guy who was robbed. It’s about the hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans.
This is the point that Jesus is making. “My neighbor” cannot any longer be limited to my family, my ethnic group, my country, my sexual orientation, or my anything. If there’s anyone we’re still feuding with, or excluding, or reserving just a little hatred for, then we haven’t heard the message of the Gospel, and brought it into our hearts. As St. Paul writes to the Colossians, “It pleased God [by means of Christ] to reconcile everything in his person—everything, I say, both on earth and in heaven.” If there is anyone we’re willing to leave unreconciled, then we are still not loving God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.
The difficulty, of course, is that we want to make this complicated. We have very good reasons for hating, or excluding, or avoiding the people that we do. We can construct elaborate rationalizations, and find arguments for extending God’s reconciling love to less than everyone. Most of those reasons and rationalizations have to do with our own perceived victimization, our fears, or our need for revenge. But where does that get us? Ask the good Christians of Kosovo, or Northern Ireland, or Rwanda. or Sudan. No, it’s really simple. God’s love is unbounded. God’s desire for reconciliation isn’t limited. And our responsibility as followers of Christ is to love in the same way. Do this and you shall live.
Homily 12th Sunday C – 96
Because I lived in Washington, DC for 15 years, I would often go to those mass demonstrations on the national mall. Pro-life marches annually from 1990 – 2001, marches for housing and employment in 1996, the Million Man March in 1995, even the Promise Keepers in 1997. I was something of an equal-opportunity marcher, although truth be told I was usually just watching everyone else march. I somehow missed the Million Mom March against Gun Violence, the Over 9000 Anonymous March protesting the Church of Scientology, the Million Puppet March, which drew only 1500 people not counting the puppets, and the famous 2010 March to restore Sanity and/or Fear, sponsored by John Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Since the year 2000 there have been more than 100 mass gatherings on the national mall. Every one of these marches complained that the National Park Service underestimated their attendance (something they haven’t actually done since 1995), and the media– obviously in the pocket of whoever seems to be running things in Washington– didn’t give them enough coverage. Another thing that all these crowds had in common was that they were so pleased with themselves for being there, that they were completely uncritical of who was marching with them, and of what their speakers were saying. There wasn’t any information being exchanged. Each of these gatherings was a more-or-less well-ordered mob, having a good time, feeling important and empowered, with utterly no critical thinking going on. That’s the way crowds work.
Today’s Gospel isn’t so much about who Jesus really is, as it is a warning about following the crowd. Jesus asks the disciples who the crowd says he is. And the crowd gets it wrong. When Jesus asks who the disciples themselves say that he is, he’s reinforcing the idea that their own experience and knowledge of him is more important, and more to be trusted, than the crowd’s changing—and incorrect—opinions. These two questions are immediately followed by a prediction of his own suffering and death. Why? Because Jesus knows that the same crowd that doesn’t really know who he is, will be the crowd that screams for his execution. They are going to get it wrong again.
And then Jesus tells the disciples that to be his follower means following him to the cross, and being willing to lose one’s life. He knows this will be true, because the crowd that doesn’t really know him is still going to be out there.
And they are still out there. If you are depending on the crowd to tell you who Jesus is, you’re going to get a wrong answer. If your knowledge of him comes from the media, or from our cultural appropriation of Christ, then you’ll have the wrong answer.
If you look at what passes for our national religious leaders, what kind of Jesus would you know? The preachers on television, the ones with the big, national ministries, gathering all the political power they can, will show you a Jesus who judges and divides people. They’ll show you a Jesus who sends special blessings to big financial contributors. They’re selling a Jesus who’s love is conditional. And they’re wrong.
We need to count on our religious leaders—even our own bishops—to bring us together, and not to divide us. In Christ these divisions should be irrelevant. In Christ there is no Jew of Greek, no slave or free, no man or woman. There is no black or white, no rich or poor, no gay or straight. In Christ there is no Democrat or Republican, nothing that divides us from each other. All are one in Christ Jesus.
But somehow, the most prominent religious voices in our country seem to be the ones that pander to the crowd, sowing division and intolerance. Where is the spirit of grace and petition that Zechariah talks about in the first reading? Where is the Christ that draws us together, that Paul writes about?
I think one of the reasons that Pope Francis is so popular, and is having such an effect on so many people, is that he has emphasized the mission of the Church to reach out to the marginalized, to draw people together, and to bring to the Church a deeper sense of discipleship.
The question still hangs in the air: Who do you say that Jesus is? If the answer you give leads people to the Jesus of the Gospel, you’re on the right track. If your answer compels you to lead a life of compassion, reconciliation, and service, then you’re headed in the right direction. If your answer to this question leads you to the cross—your cross– then you know you are a disciple. If your answer to who Jesus is leads you to power, or to division, then you are still hearing the voice of the crowd.
The world still needs to hear who Jesus is, and what he has done for us. Like Peter and the disciples, we have to answer based on our own experience of Jesus. The healing, grace, and compassion we have received, are what the crowd out there needs. If we are fearful, and constantly worried about self-preservation “saving our lives,” then we’ll lose them. But if we can let go of our fears and our need for power, being willing to lose our lives for the sake of Christ, then we’ll find salvation and live in peace. It’s a hard message to hear over the din of the crowd.
Homily 10th Sunday C – Miracles!
Our readings today are about healing, but not just the regular, run-of-the-mill, standard-course-of-antibiotics healing. We’re talking about miracles. Dead-one-minute, walking-around-the next miracles. Even the epistle is about miracles, as St. Paul explains that his deep understanding of the faith came directly from God by a miraculous revelation. It’s as if he’s standing there saying, “I didn’t need to go to a seminary for six years, and I wasn’t taught by Jesus’ apostles– although I’ve met them. No, God told me all this personally.” Well, excuse me!
Miracles are difficult, slippery things. We believe that miracles happen, but also believe that it’s not appropriate to presume upon them. Faith shouldn’t rely on proof, or it’s not faith, exactly. At the same time, God does give us inexplicable experiences that at least subjectively appear to be miraculous. So, just for fun, and without having to explain anything, how many of you believe that you, or someone close to you, has experienced a miracle? [show of hands] OK. I wish I could listen to your conversations in the car on the way home!
Science can demonstrate our tendency to see miracles where they aren’t. All those reports like the face of the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich, or the image of Jesus in a rust stain on a highway over-pass? These are examples of paraidiola and apophenia: our brains are hard-wired to see faces in random visual data, and we appear to be similarly hard-wired to ascribe meaning– some times deep, religious meaning, to such perceptions. That doesn’t disprove the existence of miracles, nor does it mean people are easily duped. It just means we’re interesting.
Jesus himself seems to have been suspicious of miracles, even as he was performing them. He often asked, to no avail, for people to keep their healing quiet, knowing that when the word got out, the situation would rapidly become unmanageable. Which is exactly what happened.
So, just to be thorough, what does the Catechism say about miracles?
- “What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe ‘because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived’. So ‘that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit.’Thus the miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church’s growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability ‘are the most certain signs of divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all'; they are ‘motives of credibility’ motiva credibilitatis), which show that the assent of faith is ‘by no means a blind impulse of the mind’.”
Isn’t that surprising? The Catechism says that miracles– which appear counter to physical laws– rather than being irrational, are actually a gift from God that allows us to use our reason and intellect to perceive the credibility of God’s truth. The difficulty here is that this introduces a potential counter-argument. Specifically: the absence of a miracle, with the presumption of a God who loves us, might lead one to conclude that God does not exist. What might the widows of Zarephath and Nain have concluded if these holy men had not managed to resurrect their sons? Suddenly we’re out in the deep end of the pool, theologically speaking.
One way of backing away from this potential problem is to fall back on subjectivity, and say that miracles are in the eye of the beholder. It might seem pretty miraculous that the car speeding through the red light just missed you by this much. It may seem considerably less miraculous to the person in the car behind you that just got t-boned.
Or, we can broaden our categories to say that miracles happen all the time, and we just take them for granted, or don’t pay enough attention. A baby born three months prematurely who grows up to become an olympic athlete is a miracle. Antibiotics are a miracle. Those little snickerdoodles filled with caramel you can get at Whole Foods? Totally miraculous! The very existence of life itself is miraculous. Of course, if everything is miraculous, then ultimately nothing is.
Many of us, much of the time, pray for miracles. When we pray of world peace, or even a sane, functional political system of government, we are praying for miracles. If we’re approaching prayer with any level of maturity, we know that such hoped-for miracles don’t diminish our responsibility to work for these things. “Trust in God but tie up your camels” is still a wise aphorism.
Miracles are also part of how the Church discerns sainthood. To be declared “blessed” and “saintly” require miracles– usually documented, medically inexplicable healings, as proof that the saint is present in God’s kingdom, interceding for us. As the Paulist Fathers pray for the canonization of our founder, Fr. Isaac Hecker, we are asking people to pray for his intercession, so that his holiness can be recognized by the universal church. And we have had some reported: one was the healing of an infant that while joyous, didn’t rise to the level of proof. Another might have, but was reported anonymously, forestalling any investigation. Please, if you’re reporting a miracle, sign your name!
Miracles do happen. Some times it may be a private little reminder of God’s care for you. Some times it may be an occurrence that supercedes natural laws, something literally supernatural. But our faith tells us that these are all glimpses of God. Not just God’s power, but God’s compassion and love.
So last night I went to see the revival of Pippin at the. Music Box theater. A reworking of the 1970s classic, this version is directed by Diane Paulus (Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess). I’ve always been a huge fan of Pippin, coming as it did at a time in my life when the character Pippin’s search for an “extraordinary” life appealed very strongly to my high school sensibilities. “Corner of the Sky” virtually got me through my first two years of high school, including a move from New York to Pennsylvania. I never saw the original production with Ben Vereen and Bob Fosse’s choreography, but to say that I had it playing in heavy rotation would be something of an understatement.
This new reimagining of Pippin pays significant tribute to Fosse’s choreography. But there is so much more! Paulus has collaborated with some very talented acrobats, jugglers, and magicians to bring to life a Pippin that is sort-of Fosse-meets-Cirque-du-Soleil. The result is a production filled with incredible acrobatics, trapeze work, stage magic, knife throwing, and hysterical quick-change routines.
Guiding the cast through the pandemonium is Patina Miller (Sister Act) as the Leading Player. Her adaptation of Ben Vereen’s iconic role is gleeful, sharp, and at times even menacing. As Pippin works his way through war, politics, revolution, lust, and ordinary life, she’s hovering around him like an evil hummingbird, egging him on to try new experiences he hopes will fulfill him, but which only leave him feeling vacant.
Another standout in the cast is Andrea Martin, who, as Pippin’s grandmother encourages him to live in the moment, taking what joy he can from life’s simple pleasures. “Time to Start Living” sails way, way over the top with Martin leading the entire audience in the song’s rousing chorus, then finishing while performing a languid trapeze routine with Player Yannick Thomas. This number’s standing ovation was well-deserved.
Coincidently, Pippin was nominated yesterday for 10 Tony Awards, including best revival of a musical, best director, best actress in a musical (Miller), best featured actress in a musical (Martin), and best featured actor (Terence Mann as Charles).
I loved Pippin, even more than I thought I would. Diane Paulus and her phenomenal cast have brought us a Pippin for the 21st century, with plenty of magic yet to do.
Our language is full of expressions that reward individual initiative, and see that as a model of leadership. The early bird catches the worm. Take the bull by the horns. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. God helps those who help themselves. (That last one isn’t in the Bible, by the way. It’s from Benjamin Franklin.) Our culture values the go-getter, the entrepreneur, and the self-starter. These are the sorts of people you want it charge, right? But our Christian faith asks us to consider a different set of values, and a different kind of leadership.
You may remember—at least I hope you remember—last week’s Gospel, with the Rich Young Man, who found it difficult to follow Jesus, because he had many possessions, and couldn’t let them go. This week’s Gospel presents a different obstacle to discipleship: the desire for power and authority. Like the Rich Young Man last week, who ran right up to Jesus to find out how to get his share of God’s Kingdom, James and John approach Jesus to ask a little favor. Remember, along with Peter, these two were on the inside track with Jesus. Often when something important was going to happen, Jesus would take along Peter, James, and John. They were clearly his favorites. So, they probably felt like they had a unique opportunity to position themselves for whatever kind of revolution was in the offing. So they ask for the front-row seats, on the right and left. You may remember this story from Luke’s Gospel, which puts the question in the mouth of their mother, kind of letting them off the hook.
This scene of the banquet of God’s Kingdom reminds me of another banquet this past week: the annual Al Smith Dinner in New York, which raises funds for Catholic charities. Power and authority were very much in evidence, with Cardinal Dolan in the center, and President Obama and Mitt Romney on his right and his left. Although it got virtually no coverage in the secular media, I think the most important speech of the evening was Cardinal Dolan’s. After the good-natured jibes and self-deprecating humor from the candidates, the cardinal reminded them both not to forget the marginalized and powerless: the unemployed, the uninsured, unwanted, unwed, unborn, the undocumented, unhoused, unhealthy, unfed, and under educated. It was a great moment; reminding the two candidates of their ultimate responsibility as leaders. It was a great moment; reminding the two candidates of their ultimate responsibility as leaders.
In the Gospel, James and John fundamentally misunderstand both what they’re asking for, and what it’s going to cost them. The very fact that they’re seeking power means that they don’t understand what Jesus has been trying to teach them. They are apparently expecting that God’s reign, when it comes, is going to be like every other empire, but with themselves in the driver’s seat.
Unfortunately, that’s what most people expect. Whenever we’re in the disadvantaged position, instead of imagining a world that is significantly re-structured to eliminate the injustice we’ve experienced, we simply want to be in charge, and to mistreat someone else. History is full of examples of this: When the pilgrims came to America to escape religious persecution in England, the first thing they did was prohibit any religious practice different from their own. Think of how the Israelis treat the Palestinians. Once we’re in charge, we tend to have a very short memory for what persecution feels like.
Jesus challenges his disciples to see the Reign of God in a different way. The last will be first, and the first will be last. The one who is the ruler of all is the one who is the servant of all. All our expectations of power and authority will be overturned when God’s justice is established.
James and John do, indeed, have the inside track. But it doesn’t lead to those nice chairs on the right and the left. Their inside track leads to the cross. They’ll get to drink of the same cup that Jesus drinks. For the people of ancient Israel, a full cup was a symbol of abundance and blessing. That this particular cup would be filled with suffering would be another overturning of their expectations. But when God’s reign restructures the world, those who suffer will find fulfillment and joy.
Don’t be alarmed if this leaves you feeling somewhat uneasy. But don’t worry. Every one of us has ample opportunity to serve. We have plenty of chances to lead by serving, to put aside our egos and our natural desire for power and authority, and instead to seek humble service. And we will all have our encounters with the cross. But through all of that, we will be moving toward the reign of God, if we can keep focused on establishing justice and peace for the least of our brothers and sisters, instead of worrying about sitting in the seats of power.
Every once in a while we get a set of scripture reading for a Sunday that make it really hard to croak out that “Thanks be to God” at the end of the reading. It can be a real challenge to search out some good news in a set of readings that seem so rigid and unbending. But that’s where we are today, so here goes.
Let’s start with Genesis. Today’s reading is the creation story from Genesis 2. You probably already know there’s a different account of creation in Genesis chapter 1. In Chapter 1, humanity is created last, as the crowning achievement of God’s creation. In chapter 2, much of creation is brought into being in response to the needs of humanity. In Genesis 1, male and female are created at the same time; in Genesis 2, man is created first, and woman second. That might seem, at first, to be establishing a hierarchy of some sort, with the man in charge because he was created first. But look again. In the beginning of the story, the man names all the creatures as they are created. They are unsuitable companions because they not his equal. The woman, who is made from the same stuff as the man, is a suitable partner, specifically because she is his equal. It is only after the Fall, when their relationship has been disrupted, that he gives her a personal name.
Let’s look next at this Gospel. It’s hard to understand what Jesus is getting at here, without a little background. Until the time of Moses, the Israelites had no formal divorce. There was no possibility of terminating a failed relationship. And so, because of the people’s stubbornness–their refusal to reconcile– Moses let them divorce. By the time of Jesus, divorce was easy. The man would say I “divorce you” three times, and the woman would be put out on the street. In a culture in which women had no economic possibilities and no social standing apart from her husband, this easy divorce was terribly abusive of women. And so, Jesus appeals to the story of creation– Genesis 1, by the way– and tells them that marriage isn’t something they can dissolve. It is forever. Furthermore, in the time of Jesus, because women had no legal standing, your could only commit adultery against a man. So for Jesus to say that a man commits adultery against a woman was a whole different way of thinking. The context of this Gospel makes it clear that Jesus is talking about protecting the marginalized. In his society, and in ours, that means especially women and children.
This saying prohibiting divorce introduces a whole new set of problems. We still have to deal with the fact of failed relationships, and how to resolve them. The way the church deals with this is through the annulment process. It’s pretty widely misunderstood and misrepresented, so let me say a few words about it. We have these difficult words from Jesus in the Gospel about in permanence of marriage. So, the church reasons that what he is talking about is sacramental marriage. If we can determine that what a couple had was not a sacramental bond, then we can declare the marriage annulled. The only way we can say the sacrament didn’t occur, is if there was something wrong with the form of the wedding– basically a technical problem of some sort– or if there was something that prevented either or both of the parties from making a full and complete commitment at the beginning. An annulment, when it’s granted, doesn’t say there was never any relationship, and it doesn’t make children illegitimate. It just says that this was not a sacramental bond; not what we mean when we say “marriage.” The purpose of an annulment process is to make a pastoral response to a difficult situation that will allow someone to try again. It’s an imperfect response to a difficult situation.
My mother once proposed a different approach. She reasoned that since Jesus told his disciples “what you hold loosed on earth is loosed in heaven,” we need to have a ritual in which we can say “we’re declaring this one loosed.” Yet another reason, I guess, why my mother will never be elected pope.
These words of Jesus about marriage are one of the few places in the Scriptures where the Church takes him quite literally. Oddly enough, other churches, who claim to take the whole of the scriptures literally, don’t seem to have as much of a problem with divorce.
All of us have promises to keep; many of us have relationships that challenge us to fidelity and permanence. The hardest thing for us is to remain faithful– to our relationships and to the Gospel– without buying into closed systems. All of us fall short of the ideal of perfect loving relationships, so it’s not a huge surprise that even the Church struggles to respond to these issues. Our ultimate goal is still the building up of God’s reign as an inclusive community that acknowledges the gifts, and the beauty, and the presence of God’s Spirit in every human being, especially the marginalized. The Gospel establishes the ideal of marriage as a commitment to love, for life. The fact that many of us fall short of that ideal isn’t a reason to change the ideal, but it does challenge us to respond with compassion, and to see marriage as part of the Gospel’s call to live his love in ways that draw all people closer to Him.
I had a discussion recently with a group of people, after a Sunday mass, and they were trying to decide how long the season of Lent is. The obvious, traditional answer is 40 days. But is that exactly right? Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and concludes with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday. So Good Friday and Holy Saturday are not part of Lent. And only part of Holy Thursday is. And what about Sundays during Lent? Several people have ventured the opinion that Sunday aren’t really part of Lent, and therefore their Lenten discipline—usually dietary—doesn’t have to be followed on Sundays.
Well, not so fast. True, every Sunday has the character of Easter, as a commemoration of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. But look in the Sacramentary, and these liturgies are called “The First Sunday of Lent,” and “The Second Sunday of Lent” etc. I’m seeing a lot of purple vestments for days that people think aren’t really part of Lent. My considered opinion is, Sundays count. So, From Ash Wednesday, to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday, I get 43.5 days. If you take out six Sundays, you still don’t get 40 days.
40 days is a symbolic number. In the scriptures, whether it’s the Israelites wandering in the desert for 40 years, or Jesus fasting for 40 days, the point isn’t the precise number of days. It’s symbolic of a long time, the time of a significant and life-changing journey. That’s what Lent is supposed to be. Whether it’s 37 days, 40 or 43.5, the point is to make it a time of personal transformation, through prayer, fasting, and works of charity or almsgiving.
I have to say, just between you and me, that I sometimes have a problem with the people that
get all up in arms about the secularization and commercialization of Christmas. You know the ones I’m talking about: the folks who get all worked up over “Xmas”, despite the fact that it’s been
used for centuries because the Greek letter chi is the initial for Christ, and looks like an X. Or the
folks who think they’re being radical and countercultural with campaigns that say, “Keep Christ in
Christmas.” The problem I have with these things isn’t that they go to far, but that they don’t go
Keeping Christ is Christmas is a fine idea as far as it goes, but it just doesn’t say enough.
What about Christ are we keeping in Christmas? The fact of his birth? That’s not enough. I want
to keep his compassion and sacrifice in Christmas. I want all of us to keep in Christmas the
humility of his birth, and the willingness of everyone around him: his parents, shepherds, angels,
wise men and all– to seek God’s will in the extraordinary circumstances of his Incarnation.
That is the central message of Christmas, after all. It’s all about the incarnation: God choosing
to become human like us, re-directing the course of human history by his birth, his teaching, and
eventually by his death and resurrection. Peace on Earth is the hoped-for and still not-quite realized by-product of his coming. “Joy to the world” is the consequence, several steps down the line, of “away in a manger.” Christ became human, to mend the rift between God and humanity caused by sin.
Christmas is the feast of the Incarnation. And every time that starts to sound overly theological, and disconnected from people’s real lives, I spend a few moments looking behind the
Holy Family in the nativity scene, and focus on the shepherds. They, together with the angels, are
the real stars of tonight’s Gospel reading, and they are the ones who make the Incarnation real and important, and connected to people’s real lives and real struggles.
Shepherds work 24 hours a day, guarding the sheep– sheep that probably belong to someone else. At night they keep watch for predators. A shepherd’s life is simple, dirty, smelly, and hard. Although their work provided the lambs for sacrifice in the temple, it’s unlikely they’d be allowed in for worship.
How strange is it, then, that when it was time to announce the Incarnation, to proclaim to the
world that the cosmic balance between good and evil has just shifted forever, and that God himself has become human– how strange is it that God sent his angels not to the Temple, not to the priests, and not to the king, but to the Shepherds. Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace, has been born and is waiting for you, not in a palace or a temple, but in a barn, and is sleeping in the animal’s food trough. It’s no wonder the shepherds were afraid. They probably thought they’d lost their minds.
But this is how Christ came to us. This is how our salvation was accomplished. And this is
why Christmas is, generally speaking, the feast day we love the most. Because it’s a foretaste of
God’s Kingdom. It’s a peek in the door of heaven, when there will be peace, and when injustice is
overturned, and mercy becomes the new law of the land. Christmas is when we’re the most
generous, the most gracious, the most reconciling. It’s when all the world is decorated with lights
that banish darkness, and we endulge in the richest bad-for-us foods. It’s all a peek into the door
of heaven, when shepherds are the first to know the good news, because in his Kingdom, they will
inherit the earth.
Limited, sinful creatures that we are, it’s too hard for us to keep Christmas all year. Still, this
is the time to celebrate and strive for the ideals that are the best of who God calls us to be. By
tomorrow, or maybe next week, we’ll be back to tending the flocks and mucking out the barns.
But we’ll return to that everyday life with the knowledge that Jesus Christ has become one of us,
we are his sisters and brothers, and we’ve had a brief glimpse of his Kingdom.