Is the Ascension the most painful miracle?

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Feast of the Ascension

 

The poet Walt Whitman, as he looked back and narrated his own life, saw his first departure from the town of his birth as his chance to escape the past, to “strike up for the New World.” The poet Ezra Pound, in the beginning of his Cantos, imagines sailing away from home, writing, “And then went down to the ship,/Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea.”

 

These poets describe the common human experience of departure, the way in which it seems we are always being forced to take leave of someone or someplace, either because of death, or a new job, or growing up and moving out to go to college. Certainly, at Holy Infant, we’re no strangers to departure in our own lives but also in the life of the Church. Priests come here, fall in love with all you wonderful people, and then are stolen away to serve in other parishes where God desires us to serve. Now imagine that, instead of a humble, and let’s face it fairly replaceable priest (because the heart of the parish is actually out there in the pews), imagine that that you had Jesus Christ himself in the flesh as your priest, your teacher, your friend, everyday with you spending time with you and teaching you – and suddenly, in the blink of an eye, he’s gone.

 

The Ascension of Our Lord, which we celebrate today, is a miracle, but for his friends it was a painful one. In the sacred art tradition of the Church, the scene is often depicted as the disciples gathered about gazing mournfully into the sky and all that is visible is a pair of feet still hanging through the clouds. The miracle itself, the God who had risen from the dead and was now ascending bodily to heaven, this very miracle seemed to be taking him away from them.

 

As I contemplate my own departure from Holy Infant, I think back to the other changes in my life that have left a mark on my psyche. How, after college graduation, I left New Haven Connecticut where I’d made so many friends during a formative period of youth, knowing that as I left for the last time, there would be no going back to the place I remembered because each return would find my old friends gone and the places I had been, in a way, alienated and foreign to me. I remember how, after I converted to the Catholic faith, I quit my job as an Anglican pastor on Cape Cod and had to say goodbye to the parishioners I loved so much, sell my home, and drive away for the last time at the wheel of a rented truck full of my earthly possessions, full well knowing that I was driving away from everything that mattered.

 

This, at least, is how those moments feel – Each change an added scar, each departure an exodus into a strange land. Perhaps this is why Matthew tells us that, even as the disciples worshipped… they doubted. Would this Risen God who stood before them turn out to be a permanent reality in their lives, or would he vanish again into the silence of the tomb? Would he stay with them forever, or would he, too, eventually move on as all of us do to different pastures. And as they struggled with their inner turmoil, he ascended. And he was gone.

 

Matthew almost seems traumatized by it. He doesn’t even record it! For that, we must consult Luke’s historical book called the “Book of Acts.” Matthew, though, simply records the last words of Jesus almost as if they’re a last will and testament. To him, the loss of Jesus feels like a death.

 

We don’t tend to think about the Ascension in this way, but I think it’s helpful because we too struggle with these departures, these feelings that maybe God has abandoned us, doesn’t hear our prayers, or that he isn’t as real as he was to those first followers who actually saw him in the flesh.

 

At least partly, this feeling of departure is a longing for a permanent home, a desire for the Garden of Eden, a perfect reality where no one is left behind and God walks with us. Knowing that there is no return to the paradise of Eden, we begin to see that sin, which caused Adam and Eve to be exiled, is a sort of departure from ourselves. It alienates us from our own souls, injures our will to seek our true home, and puts us in a situation where we do bad things we don’t want to do and have trouble doing the good things that we do want to do.

 

Against this backdrop, we begin to glimpse the logic of the ascension. We cannot stay here. Jesus cannot stay here. This life is too marred by sin, and as we are redeemed we find that the heavenly reality connects with this one but slowly and steadily is replacing it through redemption. They somehow connect but are yet completely different (that’s my incredibly technical and precise definition of sacraments). Jesus is with us yet, as Pope St. Leo says, “Our Redeemer’s visible presence has passed into the sacraments.” But his presence had to be changed so that it might be perfected.

 

The ascension is necessary to bring us home. It allows Our Lord, from his vantage point in heaven, to be present in the hearts of all, closer to us than we even are to ourselves. Closer than he ever would have been if he had remained on earth, meaning that the Ascension might feel like a departure but it is actually an arrival. It’s the endpoint of a magnificent journey.

 

Pope St. Leo says, “The Son of Man was revealed as Son of God in a more perfect and transcendent way once he had entered into his Father’s glory; he now began to be indescribably more present in his divinity to those from whom he was further removed in his humanity.”

 

What new path is God opening up before you? What are you being called to leave behind that is holding you back? Set before yourself Our Lord’s miraculous Ascension and take hope that every change no matter how painful, every small act of death to self through Christian sacrifice, every sinful habit conquered and left behind, every halting step you take is not a step away from your youth or your memories but it is one step closer to God.

 

O Lord, as you ascend bring us home to you.

 

What do we talk about when we talk about love?

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Year A Easter 6

 

Love is difficult to talk about, right? If you had to get up here, right now, and announce to the world exactly why you love your spouse, or your mom or dad, or children, you could probably say some wonderful things about them, the sparkle in their eyes, their laugh, how they are the very apple of your eye. But let’s say all that good stuff disappears. Say you’re in the position of God and you love even the sinners of the world, those ungrateful, vice-ridden, all-round difficult people who seem to have no good qualities to speak of – how then would you describe your love? What is love, and why do we bestow it on the people we do? It goes deeper than affinity, or what someone can do for you in return, and so any attempt to describe the qualities of someone that makes them loveable can be helpful, but ultimately falls short of the reality of what love really is.

 

This is as it should be, because Love is the greatest virtue in the universe, the very stuff of which God is made. It has no upper limit but grows on boundlessly into eternity, always expanding within our hearts the further we allow it to direct our course. This is why, when Dante in the Paradiso is taken to see the Celestial Rose, the great mobile of orbs that make up the heavenly hierarchy, some saints are actually closer to God than others. The close ones who see more of God are the ones who have loved greatly in this life, who have displayed the virtue of charity in heroic amounts. It isn’t that those who are further out in orbit are unhappy. No, they are perfectly happy and full to perfection with the virtue of love, it’s just that those who are closer are more perfectly happy and more full to perfection with the virtue of love (remember, there’s no outer limit). And how does this love of the saints manifest itself? In a full, still, silence, a manifest gaze of devotion – God beholds his beloved saints and they behold him. This is what the Church speaks of when she references the Beatific Vision as the very substance of our afterlife. It is to see clearly the face of God, a face which here and now is veiled and mysterious.

 

St. Paul encourages us always to be ready to explain our love for Jesus. Hopefully we are all able to live our lives in such a way that people every now and then become curious – why are you so different? Why don’t you cheat at school, or badmouth the boss at work? Why are you so honest with your timecard when you punch in and out, why do you have such a good marriage? Why do you seem so happy even when you ought to be frustrated, or have such respectful children? When these sorts of questions arise, it is our responsibility to be ready with an explanation. In this day and age, it helps simply to be able to say what your faith means to you and how it has given you a reason for hope and a sense of purpose; a non-confrontational, simple declaration of happiness. This is the sort of witness that is winsome. We’re all part of a story – it’s your task to point out that it has a happy ending.

 

But ultimately, when we talk about faith it isn’t about an idea or a philosophy or a community organization; we are referencing the greatest expression of love in the history of the universe, how God made us out of nothing simply to share a life with us, how he showed up on earth to find us and rescue us, how he meets us in the grace and power of Holy Communion in a fragile and vulnerable state under the shadow of mere bread. In the Eucharistic host he is at our mercy, powerless, but is thrilled to do so because it is the way in which he joins with us in our very physical selves and shapes our souls to his own. This is pure love – How do you talk about that?

 

I’m reminded of being back in high school and, when there was a girl I liked how intensely tongue-tied I would get. I never talked to girls I liked, that would’ve been terrifying, no, but I would try to be nearby. Being a teenager is hilarious, I’m sorry guys, it’s true, and all of those emotions and warm fuzzies get your head turned around and you can’t think straight because you are in love with this girl you’ve never talked to and can’t talk to and can’t you can’t even admit it to your friends because they will mercilessly troll you about it. The problem isn’t new, and 200 years ago Jane Austen wrote in her novel Emma, “If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”

 

This is why St. Paul doesn’t leave his advice merely at telling us to be ready with explanations; he first insists that we must sanctify Christ in our hearts. No explanation in the world, no intellectual commitment can fill the place that would be left empty without Jesus. He is not merely an idea. He is a person, and people are meant to be loved.

 

Jesus says something pretty challenging, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Don’t hear those words as a moral rulebook or a contingency, as in, if you really loved me you would do this for me. Jesus isn’t passive aggressively guilt tripping or blackmailing us into being good people. What he is saying is, you say you love me and that is really great, but true love goes beyond words. True love is an act of the will, embodied in a million tiny little actions every day, the faithfulness and commitment of a life lived sacrificially for another person.

 

Jesus goes on to assure us that we aren’t left alone in a struggle to earn his love. That’s not the way grace works. The way grace works is that God tells us how great we can be and then he helps us actually achieve it. Jesus says that God the Father “remains with you, and will be in you.” The two shall become one.

 

Pope Benedict XVI says, “The love-story between God and man consists in the very fact that this communion of will increases in a communion of thought and sentiment, and thus our will and God’s will increasingly coincide: God’s will is no longer for me an alien will, something imposed on me from without by the commandments, but it is now my own will, based on the realization that God is in fact more deeply present to me than I am to myself.” (Deus Caritas Est) In other words, love is deeper than words alone. It shows itself in visible acts of Christian devotion, in keeping the law, and treating our neighbor as ourselves.

 

This will only happen when we give ourselves totally to God. Benedict goes on to teach, “the ‘commandment’ of love is only possible because it is more than a requirement. Love can be ‘commanded’ because it has first been given.”

 

All of this is a gift. Our lives, our families, the Church, deep conversations at the coffee shop, the stippled spots on a trout’s shining side, the smell of a baby’s head, finches’ wings in flight…all of it is a gift of love poured out upon us by God the Father. He says not a word; his creation does the speaking for him. And if it wasn’t clear enough, the death of Our Lord on the Cross, the silence of his tomb, and that quiet moment when you receive his precious body onto your tongue in Holy Communion speak the loudest word of all.

 

Dear Jesus, may we love you beyond all words.

 

 

 

 

Mary, our mother in the spiritual house of God

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Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Fatima, who appeared on May 13 to three small children and insisted, among other things, on the startling revelation that, “My Immaculate Heart will triumph.”

 

How amazing is that?

 

Think about it, this past year was the deadliest year ever for Christians, who are being martyred indiscriminately all over the world. There is violence daily in the news. Various nations are threatening to send nuclear bombs our way. In our daily lives we contend with road rage, family problems, and stress at work. At school there is peer pressure and bullying. For some of us, life is going great, but for others each day might be a struggle right now. Even in the Church there is contention about something the pope said, or I said…

 

And here is what’s amazing. Over it all, the powers and principalities of this world, more powerful than our sinful actions, our jaded cynicism, stronger than world leaders and violence and hatred – Our Lady and her Immaculate Heart will triumph.

 

Our Mother, our pure and maternal Mary will hold our charred, wrecked world in her lap and she will squeeze us tight and never let us go no matter how much we kick or scream. It’s kind of how, kids, when your mom drops you off at school and yells I love you out the car window while you desperately try to scurry away because she is embarrassing you in front of your friends, but secretly you really like it. Or even as an adult how when I go to my parents house and my mom grabs my face and all but forces a kiss onto my cheek but in a quiet sort of way I’m perfectly fine with it.

 

Nothing will stop the love of Our Lady for her Son Jesus, or for her spiritual children, for you and me. This isn’t a meaningless phrase, either. A mother’s love is the strongest force in the universe, because it becomes one with the outpouring of God the Father’s grace and participates in his nurturing, world-creating activity. In 7 days God made the world. For 9 months Mary carried Christ within her womb. Which is the greater miracle? Honestly, it’s hard to say.

 

Such is the awe inspired by Our Lady that the poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins compares Mary to the very air we breathe, referencing the way in which she is fundamental to our very spiritual existence.

 

“Wild air, world-mothering air,” he writes. Every breath he takes is a reminder that Our Lady’s love is fierce and untamed, it is procreative and daring. It is such, Hopkins writes, that she is, “Mary Immaculate,/Merely a woman” and yet through her flows all of God’s mercy. He goes on, “I say that we are wound/With mercy round and round/As if with air.”

 

There is this famous color in medieval painting that I call Marian Blue. It is the most expensive, most saturated and gorgeous color there was, and painters lavished money on painting Our Lady’s cloak Marian Blue. This is the mantle of Our Lady, and it is of great significance. It covers the globe, and we are covered by her protecting presence, which is how we can be assured that the air itself is saturated with God’s mercy. Mary is in charge of dispensing it, and we must always remember that the ministry of Jesus begins at her prompting and that he continues to minister to us through her because she is our Mother the Church. Her vocation begins with her Son Jesus but soon enough her motherhood extends to all of us. She chooses to be mother to everyone. No one is left out.

 

And what mother would choose differently? What mother would abandon one of her children? What mother would play favorites? Mary, writes Hopkins, “holds high motherhood.” And in reference to her mantle he writes that it will, “Fold home, fast fold thy child.”

 

There is this whole dimension to the visible Church that we see front and center every day: the hierarchy, the pope, the bishops, the priests and deacons. This is our home, the Body of Christ. It is a beautiful reality and I love being a part of it. St. Peter encourages us all to do so when he writes, “Let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.” The problem is that, sometimes, it can be hard to see where we fit. What gifts can I bring? Of what use am I? Am I even worthy of being here with all these people who seem so devout and holy? I know I feel those doubts myself sometimes, especially as a priest when I’m expected to stand up here and say meaningful, profound things to you but my own heart is capable of so much waywardness and coldness towards God. It’s one thing to be told that we are in the house of God, another to actually live that reality.

 

So how are we built into the house of God – through the mediation of Mother Mary. The Body of Christ is received from his Mother, and there is this whole other, even more important spiritual reality by which we approach God, and that reality is Marian. She folds us into her mantle and thus into the Body of Christ our true home.

 

So when it comes to your faith or any of the worries of this world, don’t worry, take a deep breath, and pray.

 

Immaculate Heart of Mary, may our hearts be ever united with yours

You never return home the same

 

Year A Easter 4

The Russian novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who wrote the book One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch describing one day in the life of a prisoner in the communist prison system, knew what he was talking about. As a young man in the 1930’s, Solzhenitsyn was a dedicated Marxist, but it turns out that in spite of how much he loved Marx, he didn’t quite love Stalin enough (Stalin by the way, is probably responsible for upwards of tens of millions of deaths so he isn’t really very lovable). For the crime of not loving Stalin enough, Solzhenitsyn was sent to slave labor in a prison system called the Gulag for 8 years.

While he was imprisoned, he recalls that his wife sent him a letter that dreamed of, “When you come back…” He later wrote of his despair at reading those words, “The horror was that there was no going back. To return was impossible… Although the man who came back would have the same surname as her husband, he would be a different person, and she would realize that her one and only, for whom she had waited fourteen lonely years, was not this man at all – he no longer existed.”

Many of us know the feeling. For instance, when I return to a place where I used to live, like New Haven Connecticut, I feel as though I am accompanied by the ghost of past memories. The people I knew have changed or moved on, and although it’s a place I spent a part of my life, it isn’t the same – not at all. What we experience when we return to a place we’ve been, or look at old family photos, or go to the art museum and gaze at the beautiful Ecce Homo painting by Titian, is nostalgia. Which of us has not experienced a sudden, seemingly random moment of feeling homesick for a past time and place? From nowhere it arrives and just as suddenly moves on. This is a natural, common experience, this nostalgic longing so intense that almost seems to hurt. It creeps up and causes a moment of reckoning at the oddest moments: driving your car alone at night with music playing, waiting in line at the checkout, driving by the old school…

Nostalgia is a positive sort of heartbreak, a sense that life is pretty wonderful and yet we are never able to linger in the places and with the people with whom we want to linger, because in the attempt to return we find that we are not the same and those places are not the same. This longing for a permanent home is actually a sign that we are not made for this world. We are made for eternity. The heartbreak is the overflow of a dreaming soul. If human beings are mere animals only made for this physical world, we would not dream, would not hope, and we would not suffer from nostalgia.

To borrow from and slightly amend the philosopher Aristotle (don’t tell my philosophy teacher from school that I’m butchering everything he taught me), our longing for heaven is the longing for what might be and what should be. We’re not there yet, though, and so cannot help but proceed except by a sideways glance. Pope Benedict says, “The arrow of nostalgia pierces man, wounds him, and in this way gives him wings, lifts him upwards toward the transcendent.”

When we feel nostalgia, it creates the thirst to know God more and to love him better, to seek the home beyond the homesickness. Our longing for are Heaven remains an enigma – inexpressible, nameless, and yet it is the romance that precedes nuptial bliss itself.

This is the sort of longing that creates great poetry. That Aristotle quote I mangled earlier is actually about how poetry is the language of possibility, what might be and ought to be. If you’ve ever wondered why the Church loves poetry like the Song of Songs and the Psalms, and why we use poetic, elevated language during our prayers, this is because poetry is the language that addresses the God beyond our everyday words. Today specifically, we prayed the most enduringly beloved of the Psalms, which begins, “The Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want.” The ending is beautiful, too, “Only goodness and kindness follow me/ all the days of my life;/ and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD/ for years to come.” In other words, God is Our Shepherd leading us to new places of rest. The reality we yearn for when we are nostalgic, that is where Christ leads us – He is the fulfillment of our dreams.

Our Lord fulfills the poetic wonder of Psalm 23. He makes this clear by teaching, “I am the gate.” He is the way, the only way, by which we will find our way home. The difficulty that Alexander Solzhenitsyn encountered was that nothing could ever be the way it was before he went to prison, and he felt that as a lack. And it is true that none of us can ever quite remain the same, but as we follow Our Lord, our Good Shepherd, the ways in which we change don’t make us less ourselves but help us to come home to our true selves. Jesus gives us our lives back and although he changes our lives forever, he leads us and guides us to our true resting place, where our souls can find the true purpose of our creation.

We might ask ourselves, do I belong to his flock? Have I walked through that gate? Have I made my home with Jesus?

I am the good shepherd, says the Lord;

I know my sheep, and mine know me.

7 short homilies explaining misunderstood parts of the Mass

Below is a series of homilies that look closely at some overlooked or not clearly understood parts of the Mass.

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  1. Who is the audience?

 

I thought I might take the next few mornings to talk through some theology of the Mass with you. To begin, we ask ourselves who is the audience at a Mass? It might seem to be you in the pew with me as the actor, but this is not actually fitting with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that each and every person here is a full and active participant. In any case, and this might damage my vanity a bit, but Pope Benedict XVI says, “The priest himself [is] not regarded as so important.”

 

The Trinitarian God is entirely involved in the Mass. The Holy Spirit blesses the gifts at the first ringing of the bell in what we call the “epiclesis” while the priest stretches out his hands. The priest is the sacramental icon of Our Lord, who actually offers the Mass as our great high priest, which is fitting because he is the celebrant of the very first Mass and each mass after that participates in that first mass because the sacrifice of our Lord is once and for all. He continues to be the priest at work in every Mass, and his prayer is a sober, reverent prayer of offering to his Father. His words, especially during the Eucharistic prayer, are directed towards heaven, not towards the pews specifically, meaning that the audience of the Mass is God the Father.

 

This, in fact, allows each and every one of you to, in the silence of your heart, join in the prayer of the priest either by memory, by looking at the book, or simply by silently preparing yourself for the consecration. Much like the Blessed Virgin wondered in silence while Our Lord remained in her womb, we too anticipate his arrival in the sacrament with reverence, awe, and silence. This is the point that Pope Benedict makes when he teaches, “What matters is looking together at the Lord. It is not now a question of dialogue but of common worship.”

 

You have a priestly duty at each and every Mass to join your sacrifice and prayer to that of Our Lord. My job is to give you breathing space, and your job is step into that space and fulfill that duty.

 

O Lord, pray in and through us and may our sacrifice be pleasing to God the Father.

 

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  1. Why Latin?

 

Why pray in Latin if this is a language that we do not speak and do not understand? There are a few reasons.

 

Latin is the Mother tongue of the Church and is a language that no matter where you are in the world, you might hope to share with any Catholic praying the Mass. The Church is her own society and her own culture, Latin is a sign of her unity. This is why in the Second Vatican Council, we are directed to preserve the use of Latin in the Mass, particularly in what are called the “Ordinary” parts of the Mass. The Ordinary parts refer to – the Kyrie (which is a slight exception because it is Greek), the Gloria, the Nicene Creed, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, and Dismissal. To me, the explanation can be as simple as, this is what the Church asks of us.

 

But there is always more to the story than blind obedience. To answer the question, “Why Latin?” we can refer back to our discussion from yesterday about how it is God the Father who is our audience. When we speak in Church it is to the God of the universe, so it is commendable that our language would be different than our ordinary language. It is meant to be set apart, a holy language for a holy God. This same principle extends even to our English prayers. The words and phrasing are slightly different than everyday use, pointing us to the fact that we are addressing our words not to an everyday God, but the one supreme God who is beyond our imagination and beyond the ability of words to describe.

 

O Lord, give us your words so that we might praise you.

 

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  1. Why the silence?

 

There are a number of moments in the Mass that are silent, although not as many as you might think. In specific, there are a number of prayers that the missal instructs the priest to pray quietly, and if you watch during mass you’ll catch him in the act. These aren’t prayers that are too holy for you to hear or meant to be kept a secret from you, but are instead acts of quiet devotion on the part of the priest. We must always remember that the priest is not performing for us as audience but instead is praying the mass. Your own active participation in the mass is not held hostage to what the priest might say or do.

 

Another moment of quiet is at the elevation of the Eucharistic species after the consecration. This is so that we might gaze upon Our Lord together without distraction. He is the God beyond words, and the silence is a full silence, a moment in which we are reminded that all of the swirling bustle and maddening change of a transitory life in which we are assaulted by noise and busyness, that all of that is not our proper reason for being here. In the center of it all, there is a still place at the center of the universe, and in the stillness we find God. The fulcrum and anchor of our existence, and our resting place.

 

Cardinal Sarah, who is the head of the Congregation for Worship at the Vatican, teaches, “God is silence, and this divine silence dwells within a human being. By living with the silent God, and in Him, we ourselves become silent. Nothing will more readily make us discover God than this silence inscribed at the heart of our being. I am not afraid to state that to be a child of God is to be a child of silence.

 

It is the prophet Habakkuk who says, “The Lord is in his holy temple: let all the earth keep silence before him”

 

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  1. Why the vestments?

 

Priests, you may have noticed, don’t wear jeans and t-shirt to celebrate Mass. We have a specific attire that is required of us that comes down through history from the same attire that the high priest was instructed to use by God in the Temple worship in Jerusalem. This attire also fits with the descriptions that St. John gives us of heavenly worship after his vision of the throne room of God. Here, he says, the saints wear long white robes, chant the sanctus, and use lots of incense.

 

Because we are not at complete freedom to choose our attire, it is clear that a priest is not representing a private person but rather is standing in place of Christ.

 

The human body itself is meant for resurrection, meaning that what we do with it and how we clothe it matters. When we clothe ourselves in beautiful garments, particularly for attendance at mass, we anticipate this future glory.

 

Pope Benedict XVI applies this theology of clothes specifically to vestments when he recalls how the Prodigal Father calls for the very best robe to be put on his son who has returned. The robe, he says, is symbolic of the return of our human dignity after Adam had lost it with the original sin.

 

O Lord, may we daily clothe ourselves with your presence.

 

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  1. Purifying the Vessels

 

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that, after the consecration, what looks like a bread crumb to the naked eye is still the Body of Christ and what looks like a drop of wine is still the Blood of Christ. This is why priests are so careful to hold their fingers together after the consecration and only release them after they’ve been washed. It is also why the sacred vessels are purified at the altar so deliberately and carefully and the corporal is spread out to collect any errant crumbs. Our Lord on no account should be suffered to be disposed of down a drain. It is our responsibility to protect him in his humility.

 

This is reminiscent of how our Blessed Mother and the other women carefully washed Our Lord’s body after the humiliation of his death. The time spent washing the vessels isn’t wasted, no time during Mass is, and you can use it to quietly meditate on a private devotion, or you may see in the way the priest treats the sacred vessels an encouragement towards that tenderness and faithfulness that Our Lord truly inspires in those who love him.

 

O Lord, may we be worthy guardians of your humble graces.

 

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  1. Our Lord Whole and Entire

 

In a pattern that all his priests follow, Our Lord takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it. The completion of these sacramental actions in what is, I believe, only the second recorded Mass, accomplishes the revelation of Our Lord. He was known to them in the breaking of bread, meaning he is known as both the broken, or crucified, Lord as well as the Risen Lord. And this is what the catechism teaches us about the real presence in the Eucharist, it is Our Lord in his entirety – body, blood, soul, and divinity. It isn’t that he remains broken by our sins so much as that he has folded the evil of that moment into his greater goodness. A God with nail pierced hands is a God who loves us even more fiercely than a God who disdains such humility. And once he is revealed, he continues to love us, and makes of himself a gift to us, that we might consume him and so be united with him.

 

If you are looking for God, look no further than the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

 

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  1. Sign of Peace

 

Our Lord says, Peace be with you, and he speaks with lips that have only recently exhaled the final breath of a dying man. The peace he offers is dearly won at the Cross.

 

Throughout history, Christians have offered the sign of peace. For instance, saints Felicity and Perpetua, as they are being led out from prison to their martyrdom, help to arrange each other’s clothing so that they can preserve their modesty even in suffering. They then bade each other farewell with the kiss of peace. This offer of peace, like Our Lord’s takes place in the shadow of the Cross.

 

Some people ask me why I omit the sign of peace at Mass. The answer is that I don’t. The act of turning and shaking a neighbors hand is an option in the Roman Missal, but if a priest doesn’t choose to use it, the sign of peace is still exchanged between priest, who stands in place of Christ in the Mass, and the Church, all of you. Our peace with each other came at great cost, and we are bound up together in a covenant sealed with blood. This moment isn’t merely a chance to greet each other, so what own particular habit is for the purpose of keeping our eyes focused on him. His presence among us is comforting and beautiful, but it is also startling and terrifying, and as St. Maximilian Kolbe says, when we pray, may it be in such a way that others are able to understand to whom it is that we kneel.

 

May your peace remain with us, O Lord

 

Edith Stein and the cure for loneliness

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Year A Easter 2

St. Luke records that in the aftermath of Easter, the followers of Our Lord, “devoted themselves to the breaking of bread [meaning, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass] and to the communal life.” He goes on to describe how they share among each other and develop their friendships as they find solidarity and peace within the Church. St. John paints a similar picture, describing the Apostles as spending time together trying to figure out what in the world is going on in the aftermath of the Resurrection. They have no idea where Jesus is, where he’s going, or what it means for their future. But notice the one fact they do not doubt – they have each other. And as Jesus appears in their midst and extends his peace, the source of that brotherhood is revealed. It is from Our Lord that peace flows and through him we return it not only to him but to each other. He is our source of unity.

 

As Thomas reaches out his finger to touch the nail scarred hands of his Savior, he is at the same time reaching out to every other human being, because when we come close to Jesus we come close to all those he holds close. He is the source from which life flows, the very meaning of our existence. Thomas touches Jesus, and he touches the ground of his being, the divine essence through which we are made one with each other. There is a profound truth, here, that our souls are made to live in relationship with other souls, and in the Body of Christ we transcend our own, isolated existence through supernatural communion.

 

Now, compare that strong image of human solidarity with the world outside of the Church. We are told to find ourselves through competition, inevitably resulting not in satisfaction but in envy. Our surroundings encourage us to care for ourselves first and maybe if we have enough energy to then think about others. The symptoms of this isolation manifest all around. We mutter imprecations at people we don’t even know from our cars during traffic. We stare at our phones while waiting in line at the grocery store and barely even see the other people in line. Entire months may go by before we remember to visit our elderly relatives who are stuck at home, who are lonely and bored. Friendships atrophy, relationships have no room to survive, and our secular culture is profoundly unhappy. The result is that many seek false empathy in the comfort of television and the internet, which author David Foster Wallace warns us are broadcast by people who don’t love us and only want our money. When that becomes our steady diet, he says, in a very meaningful way, our souls die.

 

 

To use a familiar word, the root cause is that we suffer from a lack of empathy. When we dethrone Jesus from our lives, we lose even very basic human virtues along with him. The word empathy may be familiar, and it’s still common enough, but we actually have no idea anymore what it means. Empathy is mistakenly defined as the ability to walk a mile in another’s shoes, meaning that, if we are to comfort someone in a difficult situation we would first have needed to experience that specific situation. This view would have it that, if I have not had cancer I cannot comfort you when you find out you do, or if my mother has not died I cannot understand how you feel when your mother dies. This definition of empathy is common, and it is devastating. It is isolating, and means that we are, each of us, alone with our pain.

 

It means, for example, that Doubting Thomas cannot be understood by Jesus or the other disciples because they don’t doubt in the way that Thomas does. This isn’t what happens, though. Instead, Thomas is invited to reach out his hand. His feelings are understood, they are accepted, they are shared. The early Christians all had different experiences of the death of Jesus. Some ran away, some denied him, some stayed by his side, some were simply confused – but no one was left alone.

 

The problem of loneliness and isolation isn’t easy to fix, because we cannot simply will ourselves to being empathetic. We can, however, practice empathy. Edith Stein, also known as St Teresia Benedicta, has a lot of wisdom to share on this topic and she offers her suggestions.

 

  • The first step is to be convinced that it is possible and that there is value in sharing the experiences of others. If the example of Our Lord, who gives up everything to share our experience isn’t enough motivation, it also helps to point out that when we enlarge our experience in this way, we become better people. It will make us more perceptive, able to see more of the universe than we are capable of seeing on our own.

 

The rest of the steps are fairly simple:

  • Pay attention and actually notice what other people are feeling and experiencing. This means, look at the phone less, remember to stay in touch with family and friends in person, notice if something is going on.

 

  • Extend the virtue of love to others and in learning to love them better we will come to appreciate even their foibles. We won’t judge them so much as accept and love them.

 

  • Once we combine attention and love, we will learn to see people themselves as people. The secret to all Catholic moral teaching, the key to loving people the way Christ would have us love them, is to treat them at all times like human beings. Not as objects, or social groups, or political parties, or co-workers, but simply as wonderful, messy, unique human beings.

 

Edith Stein, in her own life, provides a good example. One of her sisters in the monastery says, “I was feeling depressed, it was Edith Stein who, as inconspicuously as possible, did everything she could to cheer me up. She found all kinds of opportunities for doing me favors or whispering a word of encouragement.” Edith paid attention and she loved her sister in Christ. She refused to leave her alone.

 

This is how we in the Church are called to minister to each other both in life and in death. This is why in the mass we invite the saints to pray with us, or sing the litany of saints at the vigil for those who are to be confirmed or baptized. The grace that we find in the Mass we are commissioned to dispense to others in our daily lives. Take time this week to reach out to someone, maybe a person you’ve been meaning to call for a while and keep forgetting. Find out how they are feeling and extend to them the gift of empathy, of being present for them. This is the human connection by which we find fulfillment, and that which connects us to God.

Children, by the way, you can do this too. You can talk to your parents at dinner, really talk to them. Notice the person who is excluded and bullied at school and talk to them, you may be the only person that talks to them all day.

 

A human soul isn’t itself until it is in relationship with other souls. Situate yourself in the bosom of the Church, the mystical unity of the Body Christ, and remember that you are never alone.

My Weight Is My Love

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Year A Easter

Charles Dickens’s book A Tale of Two Cities begins with that famous line, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…” This morning, Our Lord has emerged from the darkness of the grave and into the light of the resurrection, and he is lifting us up with him. Even when our lives seem dark, when we don’t know what’s coming next and we’re anxious, the light is but a stone’s roll away.

 

Dickens describes Paris during the upheaval of the French Revolution, which was a terrible moment in human history. Blood flowed freely in the streets as power-hungry would-be tyrants attempted to impose their will on the rest of the populace. There were so many public executions that a new killing device was invented – the guillotine. In a moment of black humor, Dickens refers to it as the National Barber, and this is the situation in which he creates a fictional character named Sydney Carton. He is a deeply flawed man who fears that his various transgressions have disgraced his name, he is a sinner sunk to far down to be redeemed, but even the worst of us are still capable of great acts of charity. Sydney has his secret virtue, too – he is passionately and selflessly in love with a woman. She is married to another man but, to Sydney’s credit, his love remains chaste. The purity of his love ultimately becomes his redemption, because the husband of the woman he loves is scheduled to be executed and Sydney contrives to change places with him, thus fulfilling his love – Even if he has to die to do it, he will save the husband of his beloved so that she will remain happy. As he is led to his appointment with the National Barber, his mind harkens back to the words of Jesus Christ: “I AM the resurrection and the life, says the Lord; he that believes in me, though he were dead, yet shall live.” And then he puts his head on the butcher’s block and the blade does its work.

 

This is a re-imagining of the scene at the Cross and the way in which darkness makes the light of the resurrection shine even more brightly. One man dies and his death is not meaningless, it is so that another might live. Light has folded darkness into the divine goodness, and nothing, not even sin or death can withstand the brightness of sacrificial love.

 

Jesus died in your place, so that, even after you die, yet you shall live. It is important that we revisit this fact even on a morning as joyful as Easter, precisely because it is this very fact which makes Easter so joyful. Death has been defeated! Easter isn’t just some fable about easter eggs and bunnies, it is about salvation dearly bought. Jesus isn’t an example for us unless he is first a Savior for us. At the Cross; he shows what God promises to do for us and he also does what he shows us. He is both the one who throws open the gate of heaven and he is the gate of heaven.

 

For this reason, Easter is such a happy day. It is like the rising of the Sun after a long dark night, a ray of light that pierces the shadows and gives color and shape to the world. United to the Our Lord and his resurrection, it is as if we can see clearly for the very first time.

 

In our gospel reading, we encounter a clear example of this in Mary Magdalene while she walks to the grave of her Lord. She is alone and undoubtedly wracked with grief. Mary is one of the few who remained with Jesus through the darkness of the Cross, never left his side. I imagine the sense of loss she felt as this man who had changed her entire life now gave his own up. This is how John pictures her, every detail confirms it – It’s dark, she’s alone, in a graveyard. What does she find when she gets there? An empty tomb, even the dead body of her Lord has been stolen from her.

 

She is a momentary example of a life from which Jesus has been taken. If we do not have Him, then all we have are tears. His absence is like a great void at the bottom of everything. Sure, we can entertain ourselves with other pursuits and muddle through life, after all entertainment and diversion is all around us, but the darkness is always there. The absence of the Light of the World, the one who illuminates and makes life beautiful? It is like living in a graveyard.

 

Now for the good news. This doesn’t have to be you. Indeed, this doesn’t have to be anyone. Jesus died for sinners, not just those who naturally seem to be saints. The sinners, in case you’re wondering, are you and me. Jesus died for us so that we might allow our old selves to die along with Him. He calls us each by name out of darkness and into the light.

 

St. Augustine says, “Pondus meum amor meus – My weight is my love.” The darkness of the Cross shows us true love. The brightness of the resurrection shows us our true weight. He goes on, “Weight does not always tend towards the lowest place, but towards its own place. A stone falls, but fire rises. They move according to their own weights, they seek their own places…things out of place are restless. They find their own places, and then they rest. My love is my weight. Whithersoever I am moved, I am moved there by love. By thy gift, O Lord, we are set on fire, and are borne aloft: we burn, and we are on the way.” God’s love is like a fire in the heart, it burns as bright as the sun on Easter morning, and there can be no other result from the Cross other than the total and complete victory by Jesus Christ.  A fire by its very nature rises, and the fiery love of God that has set our hearts ablaze it, too, lifts us up out of the grave and to our proper place. The human soul is made to live forever. We do not sink into darkness, but united with the death and resurrection of Our Lord, we are raised up to heaven.

 

Sydney Carton sees ahead to the future after his own sacrificial death, “I see the evil of this time…wearing out. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy …It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

 

Our lives are formed to the Cross, and faith can be demanding, occasionally it must make its way through shadow and darkness, but it always finds its true weight. Look to the Resurrection, for it is our future. It is our hope and our joy.

 

Death Daily Before Our Eyes

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A Good Friday homily

In meditating upon Our Lord on the Cross, we also meditate on the inevitable end of ourselves. The way in which life slowing but relentlessly inflicts suffering upon us and the way that disease, old age, and death close in upon us as our horizons seemingly narrow. It isn’t a happy thought, and I know that in my own life, I put myself at great risk of mid-life crisis when I look back at photos of years gone by and realize that they are gone forever. I am left with memories and pictures of family when we were younger, of friends from my college days who are now scattered around the country with families and careers of their own. When I decided to become Catholic and move back to St. Louis from Cape Cod, I remember the melancholy and difficulty of packing up my things, of seeing an empty house that only a few days before been the center of my whole world, saying goodbye to my friends and parishioners, and as I drove over the canal bridge that separates the Cape from the mainland for the last time I cried, because change hurts. Each moment that slips past is an encounter with the Cross, and the heartbreak of knowing that on this earth we cannot be truly at home in all the places and to all the people for whom want to be at home, it pierces the heart.

 

Life is change, and every change, as the monks at Silverstream Priory say, “even the smallest…are, in some way, a preparation for death. Every change, every detachment, every relocation, is a portent of death…In the Christian perspective, change is the price of life.” As far as I know, in this universe, whatever does not change is not alive, and even if change is uncomfortable it has a purpose. It is the engine of growth and progress, it is our process of becoming. This is why we shouldn’t fear it, and why it is a life-giving habit, as St. Benedict says, to “keep death daily before our eyes.” Our willingness to contemplate our own end is the measure of our willingness to meet that death head on, unafraid, and prepare to meet it. In other words, it is the measure of our willingness to advance and embrace the Cross.

 

Life isn’t all change and loss and then death, though, because once we abandon ourselves at the Cross, a miracle is achieved, because we have placed ourselves at the place of Passover through which the very destiny of the human soul is transformed and our souls, which are eternal, find a true resting place from the whirlwind of life. The Cross is the place of ultimate change but also the place of true rest – the one, quiet, still place around which all else circles. It our home.

 

Brace yourself for the struggle and don’t fall into complacency. You are made for eternity, this we know, but the question is, how will you meet it? It is all too easy to distract ourselves with the pleasures of this world, to allow the white noise to keep us from contemplating the quietness and solitude of our death. We must fix our eyes upon it and ready ourselves for it.

 

The monks at Silverstream teach, “Death is not improvised. One dies as one has lived. To die loving, I must love always. To die praying, I must pray always. To die forgiving, I must forgive always…to die gratefully, I must live in gratitude. To die peacefully, I must live in peace. To die humbly, I must life humbly.”

 

Our task is made especially clear on a day such as Good Friday. If we desire to adore Our Lord in heaven, we begin now, by gazing upon his death and seeing the pattern by which we may peacefully accept our own death as well. His death is the moment of victory, and as he is raised high it is a coming into the complete vision of our beloved Savior, and it is transformative.

 

Don’t wait until it’s too late. Live your life the way that you want to die. This is the only path that we can take to redeem the relentless changes in our lives, to redeem them, turn them into acts of love, and so find ourselves gifted with the supernatural rest of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who is our true home, and the one whose appearance in our hearts changes us forever.

 

O Lord, be our example and our strength as we die daily to ourselves.

 

Year A – Palm Sunday

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Each day is a procession to the object of our love

 

On Palm Sunday, we are reminded of the infamous procession of Our Lord into Jerusalem, when he rides on a donkey and palm fronds are waved as he advances. I say “infamous” because although it is a moment of triumph as the crowds shout Hosanna, it is also the path by which Our Lord makes his way to his death. It is a procession that is only made complete with his crucifixion. This is its goal and destination.

 

Processions are interesting to think about, and there are a lot of them in the Scriptures. There is the procession of the Israelites through the Sinai desert, following a pillar of cloud. There is the procession of the Israelites around Jericho before its walls fall. In the Temple worship, there are processions during celebrations and feast days. These processions have been maintained in the Church, as we process on certain days like Corpus Christi or Palm Sunday. In rural villages in generations past, there were processions in the fields on Rogation Days when the priest would bless the crops. If we have a full complement of altar servers at Mass, there is a procession that imitates the march of the Israelites through the desert, as the incense leads the way like the pillar of smoke, candles are reminiscent of the pillar of fire, and the crucifix is like the snake that was placed on the Cross as a sign of healing.

 

These processions aren’t simply meaningless tradition. We know that everything in life, no matter how insignificant, is an avenue of God’s grace. Every natural thing is created by Him and called good, everything is blessed by the presence of God within and upholding its existence. For a Catholic, the world is enchanted, and processions, not least amongst all of creation, are a natural means by which grace is poured out.

 

Here is the spiritual link; the Psalmist writes, “They have seen Your procession, O God, The procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary.” When we process, we do so in imitation of God, who processes not only within his very own nature as the Son is eternally begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit in turn processes as a pure act of love, but God also processes from heaven to earth and then back again. Here is what St. Paul says when he quotes this very ancient Christian hymn in our reading today, “[Our Lord] emptied himself…coming in human likeness.” Jesus makes his way down from heaven, and his movement is marked by humility. He goes from the higher to the lower, and he is motivated, as most processions are, by love. He marches towards the object of his affection. For the Israelites it was to the promised land. On Palm Sunday it was towards the redemption of the Cross, but even before that there is the procession of the Incarnation, when Our Lord removes himself from Heaven and arrives in the womb of the Blessed Virgin. There are more. After his death, Our Lord marches in triumph to the waiting place, gathers all of the faithful who had died, and led them straight to the gates of heaven which he threw wide open for them. And there is one, final procession, as Our Lord ascends to the right hand of the Father. This again, is a movement towards the object of his love. He goes to his Father, and he also assumes a place in Heaven where he can be closer to all of us.

 

When we process, or even simply consider a procession such as that of Palm Sunday or as you watch the priest approach the altar before Mass, it isn’t wasted time. We are reminded of the spiritual meaning of our entire lives, for what is life if it isn’t a pilgrimage? We are on a journey. The question is, what is it that motivates us, what causes us to put one foot in front of the other, what is it that we love?

 

A procession reminds us that this world is not our permanent home. Through the streets of earth we make our way to the streets of heaven, and as we make our way through the life that God has planned for us we are changed, because we draw closer and closer to the source of our truth and the object of our love.