Saturday, August 29, 2009

Religion

(22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

The readings we hear today invite us into a reflection on religious observance. Now this is an old-fashioned term, ‘religious observance.’ Nowadays people like to talk about ‘spiritual practice.’ But whatever we call it, we’re talking about the practices that we perform and the day-to-day habits we work on in trying to enshrine spiritual values in our lives. It’s all the stuff that we do with the specific goal of the worship of God and as a response to God’s loving initiative in our lives. In short it’s our religion. Indeed, one possible etymology of the word “religion” suggests that it derives from the Latin verb ligo, which means to tie or bind something. Acts of religion, religious observance, spiritual practice, these are all ways of talking about deliberate, concrete behaviors to which we bind ourselves so as to tie our lives more closely to the God we adore.

It seems to me that the Sacred Scriptures today help us to reflect on three points with this. First, why we observe religion; that is, the question of motivation. Second, what it is we ought to practice. Third, how we can discern, review, and judge our own religious habits or spiritual practices.

The first reading from the book of Deuteronomy addresses the question of why. Moses introduces God’s Law to the people, explaining to them that by observing it, they will give evidence of their wisdom, intelligence, and intimacy with God. Now you only have to look at the newspaper to see or go out into the streets to see how sorely wisdom and intelligence are lacking in our world. It’s because people have forgotten about the Source of Wisdom and Intelligence whom we call God. So by observing religion and doing our daily spiritual practice, we are serving not only ourselves but the world; we are missionary witnesses to the Truth—the truth of itself about which the world has forgotten.

Given this motivation, we are ready to renew or embark on habits of religion and spiritual practice. But what should we do? Exactly what will we observe? This can be a very delicate question, and it brings us to the gospel for the second point. Jesus and his disciples are attacked for the failure to observe. But are they attacked for failing to observe the Jewish Law? No; it’s the so-called “tradition of the elders” that they don’t observe. There’s the problem. These particular Scribes and Pharisees—at least according to St. Mark—were teaching their particular traditional practice as if it were the Tradition, which it wasn’t. This sort of thing goes on among religious people to this day. In Catholic Christianity we have a deposit of Sacred Tradition that is immensely rich, and full of many different spiritual practices and styles. But many times someone will find the little strain of the Tradition that works well for them, and then begin to teach it as if it were the Tradition itself. So you get one person who says that you’re not really praying unless you say the Divine Mercy chaplet every day at three in the afternoon. One says that the Extraordinary Form of the Mass is the only one worth offering, while another says that only the Ordinary Form is correct. If they’re real spiritual snobs they might say that contemplation is the only real prayer. And though all of these practices are beautiful and holy and dear to God, this line of argument is completely false and dangerous. Prayer is close to the heart and thus close to the temperament of the individual. In other words, there are lots of ways to pray in the tradition because we are the ‘catholic’ or universal Church, and there’s room for everybody. So pray in whatever way you are attracted, and be grateful—for this is the Holy Spirit within you.

The third point is about reviewing and judging our religious habits and our spiritual practice. This is important to do—if the gospels teach us anything about religion, it’s that it can go very wrong. So we always need to step back from time to time and examine ourselves as practitioners of the faith. But here’s the trick: we can’t evaluate our practice of religion by looking at the practice itself. Just because we attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and offer our prayers each day doesn’t mean we’re all set. To evaluate our personal—or even communal—practice of religion, we need to look at what comes out of our heart the rest of the time. Jesus lists for us all the evil that proceeds from our hearts: theft, unchastity, greed, arrogance, envy, deceit, and all the rest. If our hearts continue to produce all of these unabated, then our prayer and practice aren’t working. If we notice our hearts becoming more patient, gentle, chaste, and forgiving, then we know our spiritual practice is working by drawing is further into God. This is why we don’t judge the holiness of our religious observance by the observance itself, but by who we are during the remainder of the ordinary moments, relationships, and interactions of our days.

So let us take up the solid, spiritual food of the tried and true spiritual practice of the Catholic Tradition, and let us watch our hearts so as to rejoice to see how it puts us on the path to sanctity in this life and sainthood in the next.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Hard Saying

(21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

For the last four Sundays, we have been reading in the section of St. John’s gospel called the ‘Bread of Life discourse,’ and we have heard all the sublime and beautiful teaching of Jesus about how he gives himself to the world as the food of salvation we receive here at Mass. Today we arrive at the end of the discourse and its jarring and anti-climactic conclusion. After all of this encouraging and beautiful teaching, “many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.” They said, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

So it was with the first disciples of Jesus, as it was with the first hearers of the gospel of John, and so it is now. Our Lord’s gift of himself as the Bread for the life of the world, kept for us in the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist down through the centuries, remains a ‘hard saying.’ The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist "the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ is truly, really, and substantially contained.” (§ 1374) From the early Church until today, unbelievers have mocked, despised, and disregarded our Catholic teaching on the Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Even among us Catholics, public opinion polls have suggested that many of us don’t even really believe what the Church teaches about the Body and Blood of Christ we receive here at Mass. Not that they’re really to blame sometimes, because there is a lot of bad or at least incomplete doctrine and preaching out there. I remember one of my own teachers, a Catholic priest and professor of theology, taught us a certain analogy for understanding the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It seemed kind of fishy to me at the time, so imagine my surprise and vindication when I came across the same analogy—in the works of the protestant reformer Ulrich Zwingli!

That Jesus Christ, broken on the Cross and rising to new life as the first fruits of the Resurrection to come, should give that same broken and risen body to us as the Bread of Life here at Mass, remains a ‘hard saying,’ and even us who are believers can admit it. To me, I think this is a hard teaching on two levels. The first level seems hard at first but really isn’t, and the second level we don’t always think about, but it’s the one that is actually the hardest.

To believe that the bread and wine we offer here at Mass become the Body and Blood of Christ is perhaps not too hard. Since there is nothing to see, no observable change in the elements—God being way too humble a character for that—our belief is basically just an intellectual assent. But it’s also an assent we come to by our concrete experience. If we receive Holy Communion each week as devoutly as we can, making use of the sacrament of confession when we need to, we will see the fruits of the Presence of Christ we receive in our lives. We will be changed and set each day more on the path of spiritual freedom and sanctity. Thus we will come to believe more fully that we have actually received the Presence of Christ into our lives and we will have an ever easier time consenting to the truth of his Presence in the Eucharist we receive.

The really hard thing is to encounter the kind of God who wills to be revealed in this way. This, to me, is the truly difficult teaching, the ‘hard saying’ of Christianity. When God reveals himself to the world, what appears? On the one hand a newborn, vulnerable child, born of young, poor parents away from home. On the other hand, God reveals himself as a condemned criminal, tortured and in the midst of his execution. These are the mysteries of the Nativity and the Passion, the revelations of God in the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, and they reveal a God who is sublimely humble. Far from lording it over the world like a god we might create in our image, our God is one who places himself below us as our Suffering Servant.

This is not a god sitting on a lofty throne dispensing blessings to his friends and punishments on his enemies. This is not the landlord god who allows us to live in a state of grace as long as we behave. This is not a god who delights in controlling his creation. No. This is the living God who reveals himself in the humility of a vulnerable baby, in the humiliation of a tortured criminal, and who continues these sublimely humble and humbly sublime Presences among us by giving himself to us as our Nourishment. So let us receive the humble God into our bodies and our lives as devoutly as we can, and so become the mystery of humble service to the world that we receive in the Bread of Life.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Lady Wisdom

(20th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

In the first reading today from the book of Proverbs, we encounter one of the great feminine images of God in the Sacred Scriptures, Wisdom, is preparing her table for her dinner guests. This passage we heart today is part of a larger section in which two banquets are being prepared, one by Wisdom and the other by Folly. Whose invitation will we accept? Who will be our hostess in this life, Wisdom or Folly?

We who are Christians know this personification of divine Wisdom, the Lady setting her table, as one image of the second person of the Blessed Trinity. Let’s just review our theology of the Trinity: God is so good, such an overwhelming Love, that from all eternity God overflows into a perfect self-expression. We usually call this first procession of the Blessed Trinity the Word or the Son. It is through this Word that God makes the universe; i.e., ‘God said…and so it happened.’ This is the Word that becomes flesh for us in the humanity of Jesus Christ.

So we are talking about the self-expression of God. Word, Son, Wisdom, there are all ways of talking about the self-communication of God, revealing to us what God is like, what is God’s personality, if you will; God’s style, desire, and will. This is what the written Word of God is for us in the Sacred Scriptures, just as is the birth, teaching, passion and death of the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ; it is all the loving God speaking to us of his desire and will for the good of every creature.

And so it also with minor images from the Sacred Scripture of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, like the woman Wisdom we encounter in Proverbs today. She reveals for us something of what God is like. God is like a woman carefully setting a table and preparing a meal. She calls to her potential guests, inviting them to “forsake foolishness” and come into her wise Presence.

Jesus proclaims that the one who feeds on him will have life, just as he has life from the Father. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life.” This is the same invitation: to come to the table of Wisdom and receive the food of eternal life. Jesus says that the one who eats his body and drinks his blood has eternal life. Not, will have eternal life, but has eternal life. Now. So in our communion with the humanity of Christ in this Eucharist, the overflowing Love—which is God—comes to live in us in all its eternity.

In one of the quiet prayers of the priest during the Mass, our Holy Communion is called the remedium sempiternum, or as our new Mass translation will call it, a “healing for eternity.” Coming here to this altar, to the table that Wisdom has prepared, we receive our divine medicine, the antidote to the wisdom of this world.

For the wisdom of this world is just cleverness at it best or pride at its worst. The wisdom of this world is about getting for ourselves something that somebody else lacks. But the Wisdom of God is instead about letting go of ourselves that others might live and flourish. This is nothing more than to imitate the self-emptying Incarnation and sorrowful Passion of Jesus Christ, and to imitate and become like Christ is the work of us who are Christ-ians.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Get Up and Eat

(19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, B)

Elijah, in the course of fleeing for his life from Ahab and Jezebel, gets tired. He gives up. He prays for death, and goes to sleep under a tree. The angel comes to him, not with an invitation, but a command: “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you.” The food the angel provides strengthens Elijah to walk forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God.

Now when we hear this account of the man of God Elijah, right away we see ourselves in the story. We are in the same position. Our lives, like Elijah’s flight, can seem like a tiring journey. We are constantly threatened by sickness, insecurity, relationships that don’t work, and so many other hard things. The world around us isn’t very encouraging either; increasingly violent and aimless, a world without God or even respect for life or nature leaves us all a little more empty of motivation.

Now probably not a lot of us, faced with the terrors and troubles of this life, are going to totally give up and lie down and pray for death like Elijah did. Nevertheless, there are lots of subtle ways in which we can tempted to give up. Perhaps we see the social problems of our neighborhoods or our nation and they seem overwhelming, so we withdraw from our privilege of being active citizens locally and nationally. Maybe we notice here at Mass that there are a lot Catholics missing from the Lord’s assembly, but we don’t ask the Holy Spirit to show us opportunities to challenge the lapsed Catholics we know to be faithful to the promises of their baptism. In religious life or the priesthood we can tempted to just live our own journey as best we can, while ignoring the malaise and the decadence around us, and thinking that the scandal some religious and priests give to the world is somebody else’s business.

In the Lord’s own words, we Christians, no matter what our state in life, are meant to be light, salt, and leaven for the world. We are called by our baptism into Christ to be a force for the enlightenment and transformation of the world as it makes its way into the Kingdom of God.

This is a very tall order. It will not be easy, and left to ourselves and our own lights and strengths, of course we would give up. So God says to us, as the angel said to Elijah, “Get up and eat” and be fortified for your journey. This is God’s response to the mess we have made of our lives and this world: not a magical fix, but a desire to share with us his own divine life and power, so that we might take responsibility for ourselves. This is the word that comes to us here at Mass, “Get up and eat.” Here we receive the strengthening nourishment we need to fulfill our vocation of holiness and Christian leadership during our earthly journey.

In the Eucharist we receive the divine nourishment we need to let go of fear and walk boldly through troubled lives and a lost and violent world. As Jesus says, “the one who believes has eternal life.” Not, ‘will have eternal life,’ but has eternal life. Now. In our Holy Communion the eternal and indestructible Life and Creativity that is God himself comes to live in our hands, in our bodies, and in our lives. The fruit of this for us is twofold. First, our communion with Christ unites us to his dying and rising, and gives us the confidence that we will share in his Resurrection. “Whoever eats this bread will live forever.” Second, by receiving the Bread of Life we make a home for divine power and creativity in ourselves, and so far from giving up, we are empowered to become the light and leaven for this world, challenged to lead ourselves and all our suffering brothers and sisters out of darkness and gloom into the blessed light and peace of the Kingdom of God.

So if we are ever tempted to give up, let us listen to the words of the angel as we prepare to make our Holy Communion, “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you.”