Is Heaven like Grandma’s Apple Pie?

last supper

Year A Ordinary 28

I have to admit something to you all. I am a food snob. I bring my own beer to the Men’s Club meetings because, and I know this might be a dangerous thing to admit in St Louis, I don’t really care for Bud Light. I don’t drink just any old coffee. No, I hand-roast my own fair-trade, organic beans and then use a french press. They say that on the 7th Day God rested, but I know that Days 1-6 were all coffee. By the way, we’ll have a big, coffee related announcement coming up in a week or two here…how’s that for a teaser? Anyway, I’ve come a long way from the days when I would microwave slices of american cheese onto saltines for a snack.

Food is interesting, because at one level, it’s just stuff we put into our bodies to burn as fuel. In that view we settle for the cheapest but most nutritious options, you would eat, I don’t know, a bunch of kale and protein bars or something. But food is so much more than that, right? Think back to the last family gathering you had, the last wedding anniversary, the last special night out – that event involved food. Even more, that food was probably special. Your favorite restaurant, grandma’s apple pie that she only makes once a year. Maybe there we candles on the table. Maybe you wore your best clothing. Wives, maybe you were even successful in getting your husband to wear a tie…miracles do happen, you guys.

St. Thomas Aquinas teaches (how’s that for a 180?) that the created world is God-shaped, shot through with grace. When we talk about grace and the Christian life, we’re talking about a heavenly gift that unlocks the mystery and beauty of creation. As Christians, we don’t try to escape the world, we seek to redeem it, and grace completes what is lacking, it doesn’t destroy it. What this means is that food isn’t just food, a meal is a special event that goes beyond simply attaining calories to survive. A meal, in the proper frame of mind, or with the people we love, or shared with a person in need becomes a banquet, full of memories and bonding.

There’s this movie I love called Babette’s Feast, about a woman named Babette who is a refugee in a small village. In the village there are the typical human dramas – people who have hurt each other, people who are lonely – and one day Babette wins some money in the lottery, more money than she has ever had. She decides to spend all of that money on food. She used to be a great french chef, and she painstakingly prepares a great, costly feast which she then shares with the villagers who have never eaten such good food before. As they eat, they begin to tell stories, to marvel at how delicious the food is, to open up to each other. By the end, they emerge from the house to dance around the town square singing a hymn. The look up. The stars seem closer. The feast has changed them.

Now, think about those words of Our Lord, “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a king who gave a wedding feast for his son.” Think back to the best meal you ever had, the last time you were gathered around a table with family or friends and you wished the night would never end, when you truly felt how precious each and every moment is, when the creatures of this world, as humble as they are, cracked open and became a conduit of God’s grace. That banquet is a sign of the life to come, a token of God’s desire for us to be happy. When you dream of what heaven is like, retrieve that memory.

The early Church realized the importance of eating together and the implications of heaven as a wedding feast. St. Augustine connects these moments with the Mass, writing, “You are at a great table…for the banquet is none other than the Lord of the banquet himself…though host, he himself is both the food and drink.”

The guests at her feast didn’t know that Babette had spent all her money on them, that she had poured her whole self into it. Even unbeknownst to them, perhaps it is her sacrifice that makes the banquet so beautiful. The Eucharist is simply a piece of unleavened bread, a cup of wine – but the sacrifice! The sacrifice is everything, the Lamb of God immolated on the altar. He has put all that he is into this feast to make it more than mere food. He himself is our life and our sustenance. In consuming him we are spiritually strengthened, yes, in the same way that food gives our bodies strength, but we are also drawn into his very life, to share his joy, to participate in the mystical communion of the saints. This is a feast that changes us. No matter how hungry you feel in this world, come to the altar and find in Jesus your sustenance.

One of Babette’s feastgoers, General Lorentz, is converted by the banquet and seeks out his long lost love. He tells her, “I shall be with you every day that is granted to me from now on. Every evening I shall sit down to dine with you. Not with my body, which is of no importance, but with my soul. Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.” Every meal a feast, every life redeemed.

O Lord, you spread a banquet before us.

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We cannot steal what God has already given

vineyard

Year A Ordinary 27

Winston Churchill during his time as a politician had a number of disagreements with other public figures, that much is true. He is often quoted as delivering various one-liners, and those quotes may or may not be true. But never let the truth stand in the way of a good quote for your homily, right? Churchill once quarreled with George Bernard Shaw, who then sent him two tickets to the opening night of his new play with the message to “bring a friend, if you have one.” To which Churchill replied that he couldn’t make it on the first night but that he would come to the second night, “if there is one.” In another exchange, he was upset with a politician who Churchill claimed had a much too high-opinion of himself. As this politician walked by, Churchill said, “There but for the grace of God goes God.” We might say the same of the vineyard workers in the parable that Our Lord tells – they want to be their own gods.

We know from our reading from the Prophet Isaiah that, “The vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel,” and that’s the key to understanding what’s going on in the parable. The owner of the vineyard is God the Father, the tenants are the Israelites (and it bears mentioning that the vineyard metaphor is inherited by the Church, the new Israel), the servants sent to redeem the harvest are the prophets of the Old Covenant, and the Son is Jesus. The tenants desire to take God’s place, to rule over the vineyard and all its profits and produce, and their plan to do so is to murder the rightful heir. This, of course, predicts exactly what will happen to Our Lord, that even though prophet after prophet had been sent, they were all rejected and some even murdered, such as Isaiah himself who is thought to have been sawn in half, or John the Baptist, who had only a short time before Our Lord told this parable been beheaded.

But God never gives up. Try as we might, we cannot intimidate him out of his vineyard. We cannot steal his possession from him. You may be thinking that you didn’t murder Jesus, so what does this have to do with us here today? The thing is, the reason Our Lord willingly went to the Cross was to redeem every sin, past, present, and future. Those sins are an attempt to seize the vineyard and they are the cause of his death, so you and I are not innocent in this whole affair.

The result of our sins, and we should be clear about this even though it isn’t fun to think about, the result of our sins is death, it is eternal death in hell. So don’t mess around with sin, don’t talk yourself out of confession or get lax about it. I will “confess” to you right now that I am way too lax about going to confession, so I’m preaching to myself here. Sin isn’t to be taken lightly and we can’t shrug our shoulders about it. Our Lord makes clear that it is deadly serious. But he doesn’t tell us this parable to guilt us. He tells it because he wants to impress on us a fundamental, life-changing truth. We cannot steal or murder or sin our way into control of the vineyard…because God freely gives it to us.

And that is the twist in the story. It isn’t a straightforward morality tale about how we all need to behave or God will punish us. We know this because when his audience says that this is what should happen to the tenants in the vineyard after they murder the Son, Our Lord quotes Psalm 118, “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” Those who reject God may find that their dream of assuming ownership of the vineyard is a fantasy, but even their rebellious actions God is capable of turning to the good. The Cross seems to be a place of defeat but in fact it is God’s victory over sin and death.

The vines in a vineyard at harvest time are already in the process of being shorn of their fruits, and their leaves are preparing to wither and fall to the ground. To all appearances, the vineyard is already dying. Any attempts to violently wrest from it life are doomed to fail. This world, we know, as beautiful as it can be, is broken and dying, marred by sin, natural disasters, terrorism, family quarrels, sickness, depression, and disappointment. The vineyard is on its way to the grave, but the Beloved Son, Our Lord, gets there first.

Through his death, a new sap begins to course through our veins, and the grapes are no longer mere wine but are capable of bearing the marrow and meaning of the earth, the blood of Christ. Death is awakened into life, and the resurrection of Our Lord reaches to the furthest ends of creation. Von Balthasar hears the word of the Lord speaking to him in this terrible event, “Do you grasp this mystery? You live, work, suffer; and yet, it is not you: it is another who lives, works, suffers in you. You are ripening fruit…I live in you, and you live in me.”

God’s work is destined to be completed in you, for you are entirely his, and he is entirely yours. In him you are fruitful no matter how it appears when you survey your life, whether it has gone as planned or not, whatever setbacks or blessings you have experienced, you are fruitful, and each small act of kindness, each act of mercy, each prayer merits for you eternal life, because you are vines in the vineyard. You are cherished, and God freely gives to you his very life-blood for your redemption.

O Lord, may your sun shine upon your vineyard.

We really don’t want life to be fair

life-isnt-fair

Year A Ordinary 26

When I was a kid, if my brother got a cookie I would scream bloody murder until I got a cookie, too. If I got caught sneaking an extra one from the jar, I would immediately inform my parents that my brother had taken one, too, and he should be punished just like me. If I was told to clean my room, I would insist that it was only right and just that my brother clean his room, too, and refuse to begin until he did. Now, I have may have been more incorrigible than other children, I’ll leave that judgment up to my mother, but based on my experience most children share those sensibilities. We’re all born with a highly sensitive antennae that is modulated to fairness and justice. If I’m going down, I’m taking everyone else down with me, and if someone else gets a special treat you better believe I deserve one, too! To this day I still remind my parents that when I was in college, they bought my younger brother a jet ski and I never got a jet ski (I had a hard life!).

As adults, we’ve probably (sort of) grown out of this but I know that when I find myself jealous of another person, or upset that I didn’t get something I thought I deserved, that sense of grievance over fairness comes right back out. This might surprise you (or not), but even priests end up comparing ourselves to other priests – Why did he get that wealthy, west county parish? Why did he get elected for the personnel board and I didn’t? Why was he invited to speak at a conference when I know so much more than he does on that topic? Even if we don’t stamp our feet and cry fair and foul like when we were kids, we adults still have issues. We want what we deserve and are only satisfied if everything appears to be fair.

This can be a real problem, for one because it cause dissatisfaction. Instead of joy and gratitude for what we have, we always feel cheated and wanting more. It also proceeds from a premise that, in reality, we don’t really want to be true. We say we want life to be fair, but if it was it would be pretty terrible. I cannot count the number of times that people have treated me unfairly and I couldn’t be more grateful. People have encouraged me when I didn’t deserve it. They have sent me thoughtful notes and cards, given me gifts, and listened to me when I was in need of counseling. My parents dedicated their whole lives to caring for me and I have given them shockingly little in return. My life has not been fair – I have much more than I deserve.

I would encourage you to take time to consider all the blessings and undeserved benefits you have received. You’ll find that when you practice gratitude you’ll be reminded that you are a blessed, happy person.

And that’s kind of unfair. What we forget so easily in our drive to achieve total fairness is that none of us really deserve anything. St. Paul makes this clear in his letter to the Romans, “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” It can be very frustrating in the Church when it seems as though things are unfair. Of all places this should be a place where we don’t have to worry about that. But it happens. The priest forgets to thank you for volunteering, or he’s standing at the other door and doesn’t see you to say hi after Mass (sorry, everyone!), or even worse, the priest thanks someone else and forgets you! Or someone else has a spiritual gift that you wish you had – you can’t sing like the choir, or are too nervous to be a reader…all the glamorous spiritual gifts are already taken, and that’s not fair. Maybe something’s going on in your life and you prayed and prayed for a certain outcome but God just doesn’t seem to be listening and that’s not fair.

When the Israelites begin to complain in this way, claiming God has not treated them well, they’re quickly reminded that, no, life is not fair and, yes, they should be grateful for that fact. They desire the blessings of God even while they refuse to change their lives, even while they sin and break his commandments, even while they second-guess him. This is kind of par for the course for all of us, we constantly break our end of the bargain with God, and what we deserve is not heaven.

We demand of God what is not actually fair, we want to sin and do our own thing and then to go to heaven and be happy forever. We actually think we deserve it! That we are pretty good people, that no just and reasonable God would keep me out of heaven because everyone knows I’m really great, and if the Church ever says that anything I ever do or think is maybe, actually, kinda wrong, well the Church needs to mind her own business. It isn’t fair that she would try to tell me how to think about marriage, or immigration, or abortion and euthanasia. It isn’t reasonable for her to say to me, you are a sinner in need of the sacrament of confession. You need not justice but mercy.

Here’s the key to the whole problem of fairness, to think in these terms is to have it exactly backwards. St. Paul reminds us, “Regard others as more important.” It isn’t about me, and what I can take or get, or what I think I deserve. He tells us to put ourselves in the position of Christ – was it fair to him that he would die for my sins? That’s not how he thinks, though. For Jesus, and that means for me and you, it’s about how much love we can give.

This is an action, not a feeling, not something we only talk about. St. Paul says to look out for the interests of others. That’s an active, intentional way of not only thinking but also behaving. This goes to the deepest part of what it means to be religious, it’s a matter of the heart. I can’t help but notice that Jesus says sometimes people who seem less good at this whole religion thing are actually in front of us in the line to heaven. I can’t rest easy just because I’m a priest and I wear a collar. You can’t assume anything, either. Life isn’t fair, and we don’t earn our salvation. We rest in God’s love, and we are judged by the mercy with which we extend that same love to others.

St. Therese of Lisieux, whose feast day is today, when she was living in a Carmelite convent, had the realization that she didn’t really deserve all that much, that she didn’t have a ton of gifts or talents, that in fairness she ought to be quite humble. But then she had a startling realization. She says, “I desired to distinguish myself more favorably within the whole body. Love appeared to me to be the hinge for my vocation…I knew that the Church had a heart and that such a heart appeared to be aflame with love… that this same love embraces every time and every place. In one word, that love is everlasting.”

Therese understands that concepts such as fairness and self-interest burn away like ash when confronted with the fire of divine love. Nothing is more important, nothing will bring you more happiness than to be purified by God’s love, to be held close to his heart. She concludes, “In the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love, and thus I will be all things.”

Why we cannot know everything about God

thoughtsYear A Ordinary 25

God’s thoughts are not ours. St. Dionysius says that God, “is…as no other being is. Cause of all existence, and therefore… transcending existence.” God alone can say who he is. We cannot. This is why Job stands speechless before the whirlwind, why Moses hides his face before the Glory of Yahweh, the high priest in the temple only entered the Holy of Holies once a year to approach the Mercy Seat.

Have you ever been totally confused by Church teaching? I remember my eyes glazing over when I sat through a 2-hour lecture on the nature of the Trinity in seminary. Or has there been a traumatic event in your life and you wonder why God allowed it to happen? Or is it just plain frustrating that you can’t understand everything?

I know when I first read the Catechism of the Catholic Church, it opened up my eyes and made our beliefs seem so complete and simple. I thought I knew everything, then I read it again, then I read St. Thomas Aquinas, and then I realized that I know nothing. God is a mystery and none of us will ever fully understand Him! Or, even though I’ve been training for years, I still learn new facts about some symbolic action that takes place in the mass. I’m a priest I’m supposed to know this stuff!

For instance, I recently learned about how to hold the fractured host in one piece again at the “Behold, the lamb of God. The reason is because when the priest breaks the bread over the chalice, he puts a small fragment into the wine itself, which symbolizes the reunification of the Body and Blood of Christ in his resurrection, so when the Eucharist is held over the chalice right after that the visual symbol of the whole host put back together is fitting.

The Mass is mysterious, the Scriptures are living and active and always seem new and fresh, God himself has endless depths. None of these will ever be fully explored by us or completely mastered. I suppose that’s why faith is described as a pilgrimage. We seek the end of the journey but there’s always one more step to take.

That’s a good thing.

It means that the God we worship is not the product of our own minds, he vastly exceeds our imagination. By definition he will be a mystery. God is not held captive by any philosophy or definition. He is as high as the Heavens are above the earth.

And yet, the Catechism itself begins with the question: “Why did God make you?” The answer: “God made me to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this world, and to be happy with him for ever in heaven.” To say that God’s thoughts are not like ours isn’t to say that we know nothing, or should stop studying and seeking him.

Here’s how it works, this entire universe is an analogy. Have you ever done those tests where you have to answer, “ROCK is to mineral and BIRD is to ________? That’s what we mean by analogy. Another, maybe simpler example of analogy is present in the way we speak every day. People tell me all the time I’m a pain in the neck. Now that isn’t a literal statement, but it might be a true one, because I am like a pain in the neck. People are simply assuring me that I’m annoying.

We know that the world is full of beauty, and hope, and love. That the sacraments bring us new life, and grace, and holiness. These virtues are analogies, showing us that all of these come from God, they are a part of him, and show us what he is like. They are true insights and participations in his very nature, they make us one with him, and somehow the part contains the whole.

This is why St. Paul says that life and death don’t really matter to him. He has God here in the fullness of the sacrament, he has God in the life to come in the fullness of the beatific vision. Or why Our Lord describes heaven in the context of a story or a comparison to something like a vineyard. This is why the sacraments are so simple and yet so profound. The Eucharist shows us a meal, and it truly becomes our spiritual food, our source of life.

We may not know everything, but that’s because we are in God’s story, right now, as he’s telling it. We are precious thoughts in the mind of the divine, and what we experience here on earth is but a foretaste of the heavenly kingdom. So when you’re struggling with how strange his ways can be, or totally baffled by a Scripture passage, or sometimes we even begin to think that we know better than God, we remember that his thoughts are higher than ours, and signs of his love are all around. Sometimes knowledge is lacking, but that’s because he has reached down from a higher realm, he has come close to us, taken on our flesh and redeemed us, and is guiding us toward a destiny beyond anything we can dream or imagine.

The Lord is near to all who call upon him

How forgiveness and your last days are related

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Year A Proper 24

In 1994, the genocide in Rwanda kicked into high gear. An estimated 1 million people were murdered that year. Now, over 20 years later, the marks of that event remain, but they are slowly being healed. They aren’t merely fading with the passage of time (it isn’t always true that time heals all wounds), but through the active and difficult work of forgiveness. One example is a photographer named Pieter Hugo, who works for a charitable organization, and whose job is to take a series of photos, each depicting just two people. Seems easy, right? But getting the two sort of people he has in mind together is a miracle, because each pair is made up of a past killer and someone who has been affected by that person’s violence.

In one photo, a woman rests her hand on the shoulder of the man who killed her father and brothers. In another, a woman poses with the man who stole all her property and whose father helped murder her husband and children. Part of the process of putting the two together for a photo is that the victim agrees to forgive. The one in need of forgiveness often brings an offering of a food basket and they seal their reconciliation with a ritual song. If you look at the resulting photographs, they depict tender moments of human vulnerability in which the sadness of past mistakes, of the destruction and violence of the past, remains etched into the look in their eyes. Sins against each other can never be completely erased because what has happened has happened. Many of the victims seem tense and perhaps want to run away, and yet there they are. They have forgiven their enemies.

Why? One of the survivors explains, “When someone is full of anger, he can lose his mind. But when I granted forgiveness, I felt my mind at rest.” Holding grudges and nurturing hate is a prison.

I read this story in the New York Times and contrast it with my own lack of forgiveness in smaller situations, like if someone sits by me at the movie theater and starts loudly eating popcorn, or takes the last donut out of the box, and I wonder why forgiveness is so difficult, and why it feels so good to cut someone out of our lives with a sense of righteous indignation.

There are so many times when quarrels or perceived wrongs become long-running opportunities to cultivate enemies and withhold reconciliation. Someone did something I don’t like, or said something about me, or someone said someone said something about me, or they voted for the wrong politician, or whatever. There’s always that person at work who seems to be undermining me with the boss, or the group of people who form a clique and separate themselves at family gatherings. The list goes on. It doesn’t take a genocide for lack of forgiveness to infect our lives.

But if it feels so good and justifiable to refuse forgiveness (because of course, I’m right and they’re wrong!), why does Our Lord insist that we forgive? In fact, that we forgive as many times as we are hurt. Every. Single. Time?

06rwanda_ss-slide-CIF0-superJumboThe story he tells clues us in, the man who refuses to forgive ends up discovering that he is locked out of the Kingdom of Heaven. Sirach echoes this, saying, “Remember your last days, and put enmity aside.” This is why the Rwandan man describes forgiveness as putting his mind at rest. He was being driven to distraction by the responsibility of maintaining his hate for his enemies. Even if that hate is well-placed, it eventually affects us when we give in to it. It warps our sense of who we are and why we are here on this earth.

Anger, hate, and grudge-holding is about more than that other person, what they deserve or don’t deserve. Look, let’s face it, forgiveness is never deserved or earned. God doesn’t demand that we earn his forgiveness, so we shouldn’t demand that anyone else earn ours. Lack of forgiveness is far more serious and fundamental to the human soul than we think it is. It’s a distraction, blinding us and causing a total loss of perspective. We get wrapped up in the here and now, in maintaining our own control of the situation and power to dispense mercy (or not) on another person so much that we forget who we are and to where we are heading.

Remember your last days, and forgive. The connection is clear. Do you remember that caricature of a Hamlet, holding a skull and declaiming, “To be, or not to be,” as he questions his whole existence? That skull is a Memento Mori, a reminder that everyone someday will die. Steadfastly refusing forgiveness to another is a species of selfishness that functions as a sort of denial of death. It’s a way of claiming my reality is centered on me alone, there is nothing more important than what I desire or want right now. I do not feel like forgiving, I have a right to not forgive, so I won’t. Technically, I may even be within my rights to think such a way, but at what a cost! I have turned my eyes from the life after this one and judged that what happens here and now is more important, that it is more important for me to have satisfaction now than to forgive and allow God to judge in the last days.

Whatever is going on in your life, whether you feel you have been treated unfairly or have been taken advantage of, if someone has done you harm or offended you, remember that it is all in God’s hands. He has made a covenant with us, to always forgive us when we ask, to always love us, and to bring us safely to Heaven. Sirach says, “Remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults.”

There are already so many distractions in life that keep us from finding our true purpose, don’t let lack of forgiveness become another, to take your eyes away from what truly matters. Obviously, when we’re not at peace with someone it causes stress and uncertainty. Consider Our Lord hanging on the Cross, surrounded by chaos, the life ebbing out of him, and he uses that very moment to forgive. He is calm, compassionate, unafraid. The universe, says the poet TS Eliot, is always in movement and there is no solid ground on which to find ourselves, but there is always a fulcrum, a still, quiet place around which everything revolves. Our Lord is that still place at the center. No matter who or what is vexing you, know that Jesus is right there with you, holding you close, and he will be your resting place.