Freedom is not what you think

St Augustine in esctasy

Year B Easter 3

In Henry VI, Shakespeare writes, “Ignorance is the curse of God; knowledge is the wing
wherewith we fly to heaven.” Ignorance and the refusal to modify an opinion can, in fact, lead to a 100 year long war, at least that’s what King Henry teaches us.

In medieval theology there was a long-running debate over which was more important: knowledge or love. Of course, we know that love is the greatest of the virtues and without it we are nothing. I could be a walking, breathing encyclopedia of theology but if it’s all up here in my head only, I won’t be a saint. The debate was more subtle than that, though, it was about which we must acquire first, or which leads to the other. Does knowledge come first or does love? Must we think first, or act first? St. Bonaventure and the Franciscans argued that it was an act of the will, it is our decision to love, that was most important, but St. Thomas Aquinas and the Dominicans said otherwise. In the end, Aquinas was correct. The summary of his teaching is this – you cannot love what you do not know.

If you don’t know any better, you can go out and love all the wrong things. When I was a teenager I died my hair blond and had an eyebrow ring, and I loved how I looked. I could love all my vices and not know any better. Shakespeare subtly makes this point himself in the play Romeo and Juliet. Those two knew nothing, absolutely nothing. They were, like, 13 years old, fell madly in love, and ended up more or less ruining their lives because they had no clue what that love meant or how to positively direct their feelings.

St. Peter explains to the people in the Temple that, in their ignorance, they helped murder the Son of God. They freed a murderer instead. And they did all this thinking that they were doing good because they didn’t know any better. This is the extent to which ignorance can lead us astray.

There’s an interesting passage in the Catechism that says, “Conscience must be informed and moral judgment enlightened…the education of conscience is indispensable.” Each of us has a conscience, but we are not infallible and our own judgments can and do go astray. This means that we have a duty to ourselves to feed our minds, to keep learning, to struggle with Church teaching that seems difficult, because we want our minds to have all the material they need to make wise decisions. We want to love the right sorts of things.

St. Paul, in his letter, is desperate that we not sin! He says that helping us form our consciences is the very reason he is writing. This is the job, too, of the priest as a spiritual father, to tell you the difficult truths, not so the priest can judge you – because God knows I’m a sinner too – but for precisely the opposite reason. Your faith is yours alone, and you deserve all of the information available so you can best love God. Personally, I tend to shy away from controversy, so I probably let you down to some extent, here, but if I never talk about abortion, or marriage, or immigration, or even smaller things like eating meat on Fridays or how we receive communion, I’m failing you.

In his ministry, Our Lord speaks difficult truths. He talks about sin and the final judgment and hell. He opens up the scriptures with his disciples and helps them to gain knowledge about what is contained in them. He helps them to understand what their duty is to God and their fellow human beings.

Parents, this is also your duty to your children. To teach them what it means to live a valuable, meaningful life, to discern right from wrong, how to rise up to the challenge of life and emerge victorious and independent, unafraid to stand up against the whole world if need be to defend what is good and noble and pure. This will at times cause your children to become angry with you, because the road less traveled is challenging. Don’t worry about it. They’ll get over it. In fact, they’ll thank you for it, because within the boundaries of the knowledge and teaching you provide them, there is great freedom.

This is the scourge of our times, the idea that freedom is the same thing as choosing whatever we want with no limitations. But look at our society right now, it follows this philosophy and it’s in ruins, because if we reject knowledge in favor of unfettered choice to do whatever we want – and a species of this is to claim I have my truth and you have yours, which is just code for I’ll do whatever I want – when we reject knowledge, then the people who talk loudest and carry the biggest stick will control us. The bullies take charge, the politicians, the global corporations. When we choose sin, we seem to have made a choice that isn’t available if we follow God’s commandments, but we don’t find freedom by doing so. We actually limit ourselves and become less than what we could be, because we have given a piece of ourselves over to a vice and have closed a piece of ourselves off from the infinite. All of the sudden, what seemed so liberating is revealed to be slavery.

So, it is not limiting to acknowledge sin, and it is not limiting to try to live a life guided by a conscience that is formed by the light of Church teaching. This is freedom, because now you can make up your own mind with all possible information, now you are free to love God.

We are witnesses of these things, that ignorance is not bliss, that to know and love God is the greatest, most life-giving opportunity offered to the human soul, the wing wherewith we fly to heaven.

Lord Jesus, open the Scriptures to us that we may know you.


The awkwardness of receiving Communion

Padre Pio Receiving Communion
Padre Pio receiving the Eucharist

Year B Divine Mercy/1st Communion

I would like to extend our warmest greetings to our 1st communicants. This is such a beautiful day and we know that you have been working hard to prepare for it. Although none of us ever earns the love of God or the right to receive his Body and Blood, it is a gift that he freely gives, and the effort you have put into this day, all your practice, all your studying, honors God very much.

You might notice an interesting detail when our 1st communicants receive. They are all going to have the Eucharist placed directly on their tongues. There are a few reasons for this: 1) Cardinal Sarah, the head of the congregation for worship in the Vatican, has recently encouraged us to maintain this devotional practice because it is a sign of receptivity and humility, 2) it helps us to safeguard against dropping any particles of consecrated host on the ground, and 3) it is fairly unusual to allow yourself to be fed, my guess is that the only experience of this is for those of you who are married and may have had a piece of cake shoved into your face at your wedding reception. You do it, and everyone laughs, but it’s really a sign of love and trust, as way of declaring I don’t mind being vulnerable with this person.

I was thinking about the way that brides and grooms so willingly embarrass themselves. It’s silly – except it really isn’t, and the laughter and joy is all part of it. The liturgy of the Church is also odd in this way. The priest wears funny clothes, and we have traditions that, without any context, seem very strange. For instance, last week I walked down the center aisle and threw holy water all over you – even if it doesn’t show on my face I was laughing on the inside while doing it. The signs and symbols of the Church are big and brash. When a bishop is ordained an entire jar of chrism oil is poured over the top of his head. When you come for Ash Wednesday, if Father is holding a secret grudge against you he might carefully smear a massive black cross onto your forehead. At confirmation, the Bishop slaps you on the cheek. I tell the 8th graders that their spectacles are going to fly off. There is so much good humor and whimsicality that surrounds Catholic culture. I really love it. And simply because talk about it with a smile doesn’t mean that it isn’t serious. We can do penance and practice devotion while, at the same time, maintaining a healthy sense of joy.

Every time I’ve taught children to receive the Eucharist on the tongue, they giggle and see how wonderfully awkward of an action it is. But here’s the thing, it’s just like a bride and groom, because it’s part of this great wedding feast that we call the Mass. Now, I’m not telling you what to do, and if you receive reverently on the hand that shouldn’t cause anyone else any heartburn.

The point is – almost everything we do here at Epiphany is ridiculous. We gather to sing some songs, we even say a few things in Latin, the priest harangues you for a bit about some topic and inevitably quotes a poem or something at you. Then we pray at an altar with bread and wine and consume them. Then we go home. To an outsider, this seems madness. And it is – Unless it is true.

Think of it like a child at play. There is no purpose because the playing itself is the purpose, and it is good and beautiful simply for what it is. It is ennobling and worthy simply to be here in the presence of God together. The very first words the priest says at the foot of the altar are, “I go to the altar of God. To God who gives joy to my youth.” There is an innocent joy that is connected with our worship such that we become like little children before the face of God.

Fr. Romano Guardini says that the liturgy unites us to a supernatural reality, a childhood before God. When I was a child, I played baseball with my friends in the park. The fence of the tennis court was the backstop and we would tape a strike zone to it. First base, which was frisbee, was carefully laid out. Second and third base were both baseball gloves of whichever teams was batting. A line of pine trees was a homerun. We had elaborate, serious rules about every detail of the game. We were earnest and so intent on the rules that we spent most of the time arguing balls and strikes. This may seem ridiculous and I’m sure our parents all laughed at us, but this game was a vital part of our growing up, the way we negotiated with each other, the ups the downs, and the moments of delight when we had a perfect afternoon and played until the cicadas came out and the voices of our mothers called us home to dinner. The liturgy, too has laid down the serious rules to a sacred game.

Now, as an adult think about those times a child has guilted you into playing. Chesterton says that “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.” How many of you wish Dr. Seuss had never written a single word? Here’s the thing, though, God loves doing it again. Each morning he says to the sun, “Do it again.” Each evening he says to the sun, “Do it again.” “He has the eternal appetite of infancy,” says, Chesterton, while “we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” The Mass is the same, every, single, day. In that repetition we are made young. Each time you worthily receive the Eucharist you are made young.

St. Thomas, like a good cynical adult, needed to see before he would believe. We are not able to see, or what it is that we do see is the Eucharist, so it takes faith, it takes a childlike trust. St. Bernadette when she encountered the Blessed Virgin, says “I looked, and I looked as much as I could.” It is a simple act, but it is the most pure act of devotion of which we are capable, to simply look to Our Savior and believe. In the Mass, when the Blessed Sacrament is lifted high, imitate Mary from the foot of the Cross and, behold, Jesus is our fair, most pure, most lovely, strongest, faithful Savior.

We may not always have the eyes to see, but Jesus sees you. His gaze has never left you, not even for a minute. He sees you, just as you are, and he loves you.

1st communicants, today you are mighty in the faith. Parents, don’t quench this gift that your children receive today, bring them regularly to mass, because the greatest gift you can give them is the presence of God in their lives. We all have doubts sometimes, we all forget to pray, or feel like we sin too much, or are unsure of how to behave as we grow up, but through it all God is with us, feeding us with his own life. This is true riches, to come and consume the God of the universe, to be seen by Him, to see him, and be drawn into the eternal youth of heaven.

As we receive you, O Lord, may we be made worthy of you.

What is the purpose of the resurrection?

Disciples_running_by_EBYear B Easter

There’s a painting by Eugene Bernand, painted in 1898, that shows the disciples Peter and John running to the empty grave on Easter morning. Bernand was a master of facial expression and clear as day in the eyes, the set of the jaw, and the wrinkled brow of these two men is fear. Mingled with that fear is hope, but it’s mostly fear. This is because they had no idea what was going on.

From two-thousand years away, we in our best Easter dresses and fanciest ties may lose this detail, but the disciples had no conception of the Resurrection. They’d never even heard the word before. To them, the empty grave sparked a vague memory of some earlier sayings of their Lord about dying and rising again, so there is some hope there, but those earlier teachings are still dark in their minds.

The culture in which they lived was somewhat doubtful about life after death. The Sadducees, the main priestly culture in Jerusalem, very much did not believe in Heaven. The Pharisees did, but didn’t teach anything like a bodily resurrection. The Greeks believed the soul to be eternal, but also didn’t have a concept as clearly defined as Heaven. Some of the eastern philosophers who may have had contact with the disciples at some point or another may have believed in re-incarnation, the idea that we are recycled into a new body on earth. Today, we are still stuck with many of these misconceptions, but the Resurrection of Our Lord is none of these. It is entirely new. This is why Bishop Robert Barron says, “On practically every page of the New Testament, we find a grab-you-by-the-lapels quality, for the early Christians were not trading in bland spiritual abstractions or moral bromides. They were trying to tell the whole world that something so new and astounding had happened that nothing would ever again be the same.”

We have an advantage the disciples did not on that first Easter morning. We know where Jesus went. We know that he descended to hell and harrowed it, that he cracked open the gates holding in the dead and carried them home. We know that he asserted his power over the bondage of death and burst forth from the grave, that the boulder holding his body in the tomb was rolled away, that the body was not only resuscitated but resurrected, meaning that with a flash of light and a trembling in the marrow of the universe he was made new, still very much himself and yet fitted to live not on earth but in heaven. This is the great event that Dante, as he walks the paths of Hell, sees has shaken the underworld to its very foundations.

What does it mean? We can talk about the Resurrection all day, but how does it affect you and me? The disciples figured it out. We can too. It means that Our Lord returns in triumph and his re-entry into life is like the ripple in a pond when you drop a stone in it. It pierces the veil between two realities and its effects spread to the entire creation. If human sin made a wreck of creation – and which of has not felt that? Which of us has not known sadness, or grieved the loss of a loved one, or felt the sting of a friendship rupturing, or found ourselves lonely, or self-conscious, doubtful, disappointed, or wishing we were somewhere and someone else? And trust me this is a universal human problem, after all as John Cheever says, the main emotion of the adult…American who has had all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment – If human sin has wrecked us, and made a desert of a garden, God is not content to leave us in our misery. Easter is the miracle of God redeeming all of it, body and soul.

God sees this world, the sky, the trees, the lakes and rivers, and he loves it. The animals, the music, the art, and he loves it. He sees you, your family, all your glorious foibles, and he loves you. He not only dies for you, but he lives for you. Because the Christian life is, first of all, about life. It is being set free to discover how happy you can become. It is purpose. It is meaning. This is why J.R.R. Tolkien says, “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth.”

We need not fear. Whatever new life God is calling you to, even if as you hear his voice you are frozen in fear in gaping into the darkness of an empty tomb, uncomprehending and confused, Jesus is now in your heart, and out there, calling you to follow onwards to a heroic adventure.

The poverty of Christ

jasinski-palmowa niedzielaYear B Palm Sunday

Our Lord entered the Holy City riding on a donkey, which is the way royalty would traditionally enter the city in times of peace. It was also a gesture of solidarity, since the donkey was a symbol of the simplicity of the villagers who made up the vast majority of the population. Christ chooses this ancient symbol as a sign that his kingdom rejects worldly wealth and will not expand through armed warfare. Compare, for instance, how a Roman Emperor might ride in triumph through the city of Rome surrounded by gold treasures plundered from other civilizations while riding on a warhorse. Christ chooses to borrow a donkey that doesn’t even belong to him. He has nothing.

Later, after his death and resurrection, the disciples realize that through his actions Jesus has fulfilled the words of the prophets. In particular, St. John notes the words of Zechariah, “Fear not, daughter of Zion; behold your king is coming, sitting on a donkey’s colt.”

What St. John doesn’t quote, though, is equally helpful for us. Zechariah goes on to say, “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.”

Here is the shocking truth, the Kingdom of God is universal, it is open to all wish to join it. It isn’t only for the devout, or the intellectuals, or the saints, or the priests – it is for all people. It is for those who have spent the majority of their lifetimes rejecting him and only found him at the last moment, it is for the divorced, those who have made terrible mistakes, those who are embarrassed and ashamed of their past, for converts, for eccentrics. There is only one requirement, to bring our palms and lay them down at his feet in adoration.

Christ is, first of all, a king to the poor. He himself has not a donkey to ride into town with, not a roof under which to lay his head, not even a pillow of his own.

Anyone who comes to Christ must first become poor. Note that we are not talking about money, here. We are talking about money, and poverty of spirit, and a heart humble enough to bow down before God. We are talking about how it is possible to be materially wealthy but be overcome by pride and so have no place in the Kingdom. We are also talking about how it is possible to have very little money but to have a heart full of jealousy for wealth and power. This envy shows that even those of us who are poor or middle class are still of one mind with the rich.

No, we must all become poor. In our poverty, there is no discrimination, which is why Dorothy Day says, “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” We are all equally empty-handed when it comes to what we can do to earn God’s love. We have nothing with which to bargain for forgiveness of sins and eternal life. So what’s the solution? We don’t bargain at all. Instead, we leave behind all pretension of how spiritually rich we are, so that we may throw ourselves on the mercy of Jesus.

By this, Our Lord intends to give us interior freedom so that we may purify our hearts by overcoming the desire for power and wealth.

We have a perfect example for how to do this. Our Lord, while being rich, gave up everything so that he might walk among us, and his path along the palm lined road that day was leading him to his ultimate impoverishment – he gave away everything to save us.

O Lord, may you become the treasure of our hearts.