Fr. Mike's Blog
The Inside Story of the Resurrection in St. Luke
I wanted to offer something to parishioners who want to go deeper than the time allowed in a homily can offer. This article is a suppliment to help you to understand more of the reality of the resurrection and the scriptural and theological connections that are implied in Luke’s description. I hope that it can be used to help the reality of the resurrection and its significance come alive a little more this Easter season:
There is a bit of a misconception that Luke is a Gentile Gospel because he was a Gentile writing to a Gentile audience. Although there is some truth that Luke was writing to churches that were predominately Gentile, Luke knows far too much to be simply an untrained Gentile writing a history about Jesus like he is often portrayed. He is constantly reaching back into the Old Testament and drawing upon subtle and profound points that will only make sense if one is well versed in the Jewish scriptures, culture, and historical tradition. To understand the inside story, we need to be able to get these assumed references that can easily go over our heads. This brief article is not intended to make every connection nor back up every assertion. Rather, it is intended to help you understand why the resurrection matters and what we are supposed to do about it.
I. “Daybreak, first day of the week.”
Why does Luke include “daybreak” and the “first day” of the week? It is true that it is the third day since Jesus died, and therefore a fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy that he would rise from the dead. But, technically, according to the Jewish calendar, the third day began on sundown the night before. It is more than just the fact that Jesus rose after three days. These words go back to the prophets, the Psalms, the history of Israel, and creation itself. Daybreak calls to mind a new beginning, an end to darkness where sorrow is overcome by joy, renewal of covenant, a time when God answers prayer, justice is rendered, deliverance is expected, and God is first praised in the Temple. More importantly, it speaks of creation itself. God created and rested on the Sabbath, but because of sin and death, God needed to recreate and restore the world. This would happen through the resurrection on the eighth day, or the “first day of the week”.
Jesus’ death and resurrection is the new creation that was predicted and prefigured. Ever since the sin of Adam and Eve there was a need for creation to be fixed and a “new creation” to be effected. This is why there was the flood of Noah. It was a first (and failed) attempt to get rid of sin and right the world. It is also implicit in the selection of Abraham and the people of Israel whose vocation was to restore the world and shed God’s light on all humankind. It is implied in Moses and the Exodus and Joshua’s entrance in the Holy Land. It is idealized in the Davidic monarchy. It was predicted in the prophecies around the Babylonian Exile and return. The theme of re-creating the fallen world is so evident that creation symbols are even threaded throughout the saving events present in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament.
God’s primary work in creation was to victoriously overcome chaos and bring order to his created world. Part of that bringing order to chaos is acted out through the ordering of water. God separates the water from the sea to the sky and brings order to it. This is not an entirely Jewish thought. The Mesopotamians, the Egyptians, and even the Hittites and Canaanites had the concept of chaos being overcome by making order of creation in general and water in particular. Read, for example, the Babylonian myth of the Enuma Elish and pay attention to Tiamat. This recreative use of water is present in Noah, the splitting of the Red Sea (Sea of Reeds), Joshua’s splitting of the Jordan River, and the connection with water to the return from Exile, the New Covenant, and the baptisms of John the Baptist and Jesus.
So “daybreak” and the “first day of the week” are intended to show the reader that the New Creation has begun. It is yet to be fully culminated in the “New Heavens and the New Earth”, but nonetheless, it has begun with Jesus’ death and resurrection. No longer would all the attempts to restore the world rely on the failed attempts of the past. Now, God himself has taken the initiative by destroying death and sin by the cross (where Jesus takes on evil, exhausts its power, and emerges victorious). This “new creation” that Jesus effects is why and how we worship on Sunday. More on that later.
II. The Women, the Anointing, the Angels, and the Message:
The land itself was considered God’s holy land, so there were strict rules on how burial was done so that the land remained purified. One of the jobs of the Sanhedrin was to make sure that the land was not defiled, therefore even criminals would need to be placed in a tomb after death. Typically, this would happen by placing a body in a tomb for a year before the bones would be gathered and permanently buried in a sarcophagus. This is why it would be considered normal that Joseph of Arimathea asked to bury Jesus’ body and was granted the request.
The women go to the tomb to complete the process of anointing Jesus’ body. It’s a way of showing their reverence to Jesus as well as performing a sacred duty. They needed to wait until the Sabbath was over so that they could be within the law. They see two “men” at the tomb. In the earliest times of the Old Testament such as the patriarchal age, angels were often described as “men”. Luke uses this image for now but will later identify them specifically as angels in verse 23.
The Angels give the first Kerygma, or Gospel proclamation. The initial proclamation is important. The angels say that Jesus is not to be found among the dead, he has been raised, and they need to “remember” what Jesus said before: that the Son of Man would be delivered over, crucified, and raised from the dead on the third day.
“And they remembered his words.” We think of remembering as calling to mind something from the past. We need to look at these words from the Jewish sense of remembering which means to remember and therefore make the sacred events actual in the present. This “remembering” of God’s saving events were part of how Passover was celebrated as well as common in prayer itself. Just as the Jews would look back at the Exodus from Egypt and how God intervened to save his people (and how they participate in those saving events by remembering them at Passover), now the early Christians are participating in Jesus’ saving events in the New Passover within the New Creation. Psalm 77, for example, ties remembering the Exodus to a prayer experience where creation is invoked and a New Creation is looked forward to.
“And they announced all these things.”
It is not enough for the women to merely experience the power of God and hear an angel’s message. This is a proclamation of the Good News that needs to be proclaimed. In the Roman world, when the Caesar would give out grain, win a victory, or call a feast as a sign of his generosity and care for his people, the news was shouted out in public. This is bigger. Yes, Caesar could give his people grain, protect them in battle, and call them to celebrate, but Jesus is on a whole new level. Jesus gives his people bread from heaven, protects them from permanent death, and proclaims a new creation in God’s Kingdom! They are to be evangelists like the angels themselves.
Luke says the women went to the disciples, but their story seemed like nonsense. One reason is that in that world and at that time, women were not considered to be reliable witnesses. Therefore, their testimony is suspect. This detail is important. If the disciples (and later, Luke) were to make up a story about the resurrection, they would not have said that the women were the first witnesses. The fact that the Gospels list this fact shows that it is a sacred history that must be retold accurately – and ironically gives credibility to the events.
At this point I need to explain the difference between ancient and modern people in their preferred way to come to know truth. In our postmodern world we are overly caught up in what is “provable scientifically”. Science is a great tool and an outgrowth of the Jewish and Christian belief that God’s creation is ordered, observable, and knowable. It is no accident that it developed in the West. But, we should remember that the scientific method wasn’t developed even in its most primitive form until 1,200 AD and wasn’t formalized in its current form until 1,600 years after the time of the resurrection. We should also understand its limitations, or we run the risk of being scientific fundamentalists – that is making the mistake of thinking that if something doesn’t fit into the empirical method it can’t be true or exist.
Ancients were not naïve, nor did they ignore facts of observation. Tomas himself wanted to “see to believe”. But, they did apply more weight to credible witnesses than we do. In many respects, we do ourselves a disservice when we do not consider the value of reliable testimony. What if, for example, a married couple both experience the risen Christ at the same time and in the same way. This event can’t be proven empirically because it is beyond the measure of the scientific method by definition. God is beyond space and time as is the spiritual world. Yet, both will have their experience verified by the credible witness of the other. And when such an event happens, the couple would retell the event and remember it as a sacred history of God entering in their lives.
In the time after the resurrection there were several reliable witnesses who had no incentive to lie. The disciples and followers of Jesus just saw him killed by crucifixion. They would not have expected him to “rise from the dead” any more than we would expect someone to rise from the dead. They were defeated, afraid, and in hiding. The women were more courageous because they would be far less likely to suffer death or persecution for being connected to Jesus. Yet large numbers of people would experience the resurrection and together make a consistent and credible testimony. Women, the disciples, St. Paul, and a large number of witnesses saw Jesus in his resurrected form. In 1 Corinthians, Paul mentions that more than 500 people saw Jesus risen from the dead and if they didn’t believe him, they could go to Jerusalem and ask around because many of them are still alive. It would be foolish for Paul to make a claim like that unless he was confident it could be verified by those who took up the challenge.
So far, we have observed that Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated the New Creation that begins the process of correcting the problem with this world. The angels proclaimed the initial message that Jesus is risen and is to be found with the living. The women who were performing their sacred duty received the message of Jesus’ triumph and proclaimed it to the disciples who eventually came to see and believe. In addition, hundreds of witnesses give credence to the events of the resurrection.
Two disciples, “on that very day”, were going to a village named Emmaus. The fact that it is still the first day of the week is important because of the Eucharistic overtones that will later be told in the story. This story is tied into the prior understanding of the New Creation but the celebration of the Eucharist with the Words of Jesus and Eucharistic Bread will be added to it.
The disciples were discussing the events and walking while Jesus approached and walked with them. The disciples were prevented from seeing Jesus. Often in resurrection scenes, Jesus is present but hidden until he reveals himself. There are several reasons for this. Jesus has a transformed and resurrected body. It isn’t exactly the same as it was when he was walking on the streets of Nazareth. His body is a real body that has the marks of his crucifixion, is touchable, eats, but it is not constrained by space and time like ours. It is also because faith is an element of insight and Jesus is strategic about when and how he reveals himself to his followers. So Jesus walks next to them and engages them in conversation.
The disciples begin offering the Kerygma (proclamation) even before knowing that Jesus really rose from the dead. They say that Jesus was a prophet, mighty in word and deed. He was handed over to death and crucified. He was the “hoped for” redeemer of Israel. It has been three days since he has died. Some women did not find his body and saw angels (here it makes the “men” explicitly angels). Others went to the tomb and verified the women’s story. Jesus continues to engage them and explains that things needed to happen in the way that it did. In addition, he explained all that referred to him in the scriptures. That must have been a long walk.
Again, Jesus pretends as if he is going to continue on, but they ask him to stay with him. These are invitations to discipleship. Jesus walked beside them, he engaged them, he helps them to understand, he gives them the opportunity to ask for him to stay. Jesus is not some passive person to believe in. God is not some distant and detached “unmoved mover” like Aristotle thought. Christianity isn’t a belief system or a set of rules to assent to mentally. Jesus is the God who breaks into our world and invites us to ask him to be a part of our world because we are part of his. Christianity is a lived-out experience where the God who made us walks with us, teaches us, and leads us and where Jesus’ reality is offered to us and lived out all around us.
While Jesus was with the two disciples “at table” he “took” bread, “blessed” it, “broke” it, and “gave” it to them. Then their eyes were “opened” and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. Notice the Eucharistic language. In the Eucharistic Prayer, at the altar, the priest takes the bread, blesses it as it is consecrated into the Body and Blood of Jesus, breaks it in the Lamb of God, and gives it in communion. It is no accident. This is what the Church has been doing for 2,000 years and Jesus is showing the disciples that in worship, he will be present. The fact that Jesus “vanishes” doesn’t mean that he “goes away”. Jesus is with them in the breaking of the bread and Jesus is in them after communion (therefore “vanished” from their “sight” but not from their inmost being). In overwhelming joy, the disciples take what they experienced and are compelled to share it. Christianity is not intended to be a private matter. Furthermore, no practicing early Christian would fail to see the eucharistic connection to this story as well as the call to worship where, in Luke’s words, “Jesus makes himself known in the breaking of the bread”. Finally, Jesus spoke and taught. His Word is essential. We cannot minimize the value of the Gospel, the word of God, when we worship at Mass. Both the Word and the Sacrament are necessary for authentic worship. Jesus’ words and presence have the power to transform us in worship just as they did to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. Jesus called them to the table and we are still called to that table.
IV. The Appearance to the Disciples in Jerusalem:
Jesus appears to the 11 disciples and says, “Peace be with you.” In Hebrew, shalom is a word that speaks of a type of peace where there is a harmonious relationship between God, the person, and creation. This is what is wished to the person being greeted. When Jesus uses these words, it is not just a pipe dream. Because he is divine, he has the power to create this reality by speaking it into existence as God did when he created the world in the first creation. Yet the disciples don’t understand the resurrection and believe him to be a ghost. They are troubled and afraid. Jesus reassures them by showing him that his resurrected body is a real body and it is his body. The fact that he still wears the marks of his execution shows that he is not whitewashing his death. It is a sign of his victory over it. The resurrected body transcends a limited earthly body that we (and Jesus before his resurrection) have. His transformed body, real as it is, is not constrained by space and time. It is not limited by the corruption and weakness we experience here on earth. His body is the future of all of our bodies and of creation itself. In the final days there will be a New Heavens and a New Earth where Jesus will fully complete what he has begun in the resurrection. In the meantime, his body is a foretaste of what is to come for our own bodies. We are literally “made in the image of God” in the new creation that Jesus brings.
Jesus tells his disciples that “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled. The key word is fulfilled. Jesus builds on the past and completes it. There is no “God of the Old Testament” and “God of the New Testament”. There is only God. Over time his covenant relationship is deepened and expanded. Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets, and the Jews could never fully accomplish what God wanted: to completely restore the world and his people according to his intention. The failures of the past, noble as they were, needed a divine solution that only Jesus could offer. Jesus fulfills God’s intention and promise from the beginning and explains how God’s plan was present at the beginning, built over time, and completed with his death and resurrection. The disciples are “witnesses” and will soon be sent out with the power of the Holy Spirit to proclaim this truth and act with his power. Finally, Jesus leads his disciples to outside the city, raised his hands, and blessed them. He does not abandon them, but blesses them for their future mission. They return to Jerusalem where they joyfully praised God as they waited. Joy, worship, and prayer are fundamental aspects of the disciples’ response to the resurrection. Jesus accomplished so much. Nothing is more important in human history. They knew what they needed to do and so do we.
A Response to the Latest White House Transgender Directives:
Last year I responded to the “Equality Act” and the directives that came from the President of the United States. I was concerned that it was presented as if we would need to be 100% in favor the bill or be labeled bigots in favor of discrimination. I still firmly believe that we can protect LGBT people from discrimination and also safeguard the common good while preserving religious liberty. And we can do this while NOT pitting the two groups against each other for political purposes. We can affirm the truth about human nature while also being compassionate, prudent, and fair.
Specific concerns I mentioned last year, 2021, were:
a. Similar to teenagers who can get abortions without their parents’ permission, this opens the door to hormone therapy and possible reassignment surgery to minors.
b. The Act says, “An individual shall not be denied access to a shared facility, including a restroom, a locker room and a dressing room, that is in accordance with the individual’s gender identity.” This would apply to “all public accommodations” and expands what the government considers “public” to include private institutions.
c. What is taught and encouraged in schools and society because of this law would place political ideology over and above more objective standards of truth.
Women would no longer be a distinct category. “Gender identity” is what one thinks one is rather than the reality and truth of human nature. Biology matters. Biological males not only pose an unfair competitive athletic advantage over women, but a real danger. No law should make what is factual subordinate to an arbitrary sense of self perception – especially at the detriment of real differences between the sexes.
3. Future Implications:
If “self identity” is the absolute measure of being, there is nothing to prevent future “self identities” to include other self-perceptions such as age, race, or anything else.
The US Catholic Bishops also responded showing concerns that there could be problems with men competing in women’s sports and sharing facilities, coercing medical professionals to support treatments and procedures associated with “gender transition”, and infringing on religious institutions to either violate their beliefs or close their doors to their charitable work.
White House Statements on “Trans Visibility Day”:
This Thursday, March 31, 2022, the White House commemorated “Trans Visibility Day” by releasing a series of statements and resources that include the promotion of “gender affirming care” for children and youth. This includes social affirmation, puberty blockers, hormone therapy, and sex change surgeries. A fact sheet with linked resources claims that gender reassignment surgeries in children are necessary, puberty blockers are reversible, hormone treatments in children are “partially reversible”, and social affirmation is to be encouraged. Additional resources claim that early transgender surgeries, hormone treatment, and affirmations are crucial for the health of kids and teens who identify as “transgender and nonbinary”.
Additional Concerns After the White House Statements:
1. Gender Theory:
Gender theory and ideology is being driven by political activism rather than objective truth and more specifically scientific truth. Resolving these issues should not be dependent on power and political affiliation. Rather, we should take a step back and approach them in a deliberate manner that transcends activist ideology and roots decision making in objective moral and scientific standards.
2. “Gender Affirming Care”:
Promoting and implementing procedures and ideologies under the umbrella of “gender affirming care” does unnecessary damage particularly to children and youth. For example, research has shown that 84-94% of children who suffer from gender dysphoria “grow out of it” by the time they become adults if nothing is done. Children are socially susceptible and not of an “age of consent” because of their limited developmental capacity. It is reckless to give life altering decision making to children and promote gender ideology to susceptible children who can easily confuse reality and fantasy.
3. Damage to Children:
The most cited reason advocating gender reassignment in children and youth is to prevent depression and suicide. Depression and suicide that might come from gender dysphoria are real and should be addressed, but surgical interventions have not been shown to have a measurable impact in overcoming these serious issues. Counseling and support that helps children and youth to come to accept who they are physically and mentally is much less intrusive and coincides with what the vast majority of children will become as adults without long term physical and psychological damage.
4. Truth Matters:
We are being told that we need to not only acknowledge that a woman who feels she is a man can consider herself a man (or vice versa), but we are being told that they actually “are” the opposite sex and we need to affirm that. In addition, we are being told that sex and gender are “malleable” and entirely dependent on the feelings of the individual. Those who do not affirm these theories are often labeled as discriminating bigots. This limits the pursuit of truth through free and open intellectual inquiry. It does not follow that affirming the reality of sex is discriminatory or hateful. Rather, affirming reality and truth is a public service. I still stand by the assertion that we can protect LGBT people from discrimination and also safeguard the common good while preserving religious liberty. Perhaps a quote from my blog last year can act as a summary of why the integrated human person is rooted in reality:
“Sex and Gender. Who we are as a male or female is not separate from who we are as integrated human beings. It makes no sense, from a Christian perspective, to separate our bodies from our minds. We are not Gnostics who believe that our bodies and our spirits are opposed to one another. We are not materialists who believe that we are merely physical beings. We are not spiritists who believe that there is no matter at all since this world is an illusion. The Christian perspective is that we are made, body and soul, in the image of God. Our sex, whether male or female, is an essential aspect of who we are as a person. One can believe his or her sex and gender is different than it is, but philosophically, that is no different than believing that one’s age, race, or physical characteristics are different than they actually are. It doesn’t mean that people who do believe these things are treated unjustly, but it also doesn’t mean that an integrated perspective is abandoned out of convenience or political expediency. Again, we can look to natural law and God’s restored intention to understand how our sex is not the enemy of our true self. Instead, God’s created ideal brings us to a fuller acceptance of a reality where we thrive as human beings.” – Fr. Mike’s Blog (Order and Chaos Matthew 19)
5. The One-sided Narrative:
As I considered writing this statement, I was amazed at how little objective information was available. The vast majority of articles simply repeated back activist talking points with no real discussion of opposing viewpoints. When gender theory is accepted wholesale and promoted in our schools, institutions, government policies, and culture, there is a real disservice to the truth and wellbeing of society. I hope that readers of this reflection will consider the impact of far reaching policies and parents will be especially attentive to the implications these might have on their children. The Catholic Church and St. James Parish and School will continue to affirm the integrated reality of the human person. We will oppose the errors of gender theory and policies which are an outgrowth from it. We will also continue to affirm the basic dignity of every human person and protect LGBT persons from discrimination and mistreatment as children of God – where we all find our true identity.
Why Being a Practicing Christian Matters
I was asked by a few people for a summary of last week’s homily about the Vine and the Branches allegory in John’s Gospel. As a reminder, it had to do with being connected with God and one another through Christ and how important that is for our spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental health. This summary will look at what the allegory means in context, the negative effects of isolation, the positive effects of being connected as an actively religious person, and its direct connection with the Mass.
To understand Jesus’ allegory of the Vine and Branches in John 15, we need to back up a bit and understand it within the context of the last supper where the speech occurred. In chapter 14 Jesus says that he is “the way, the truth, and the life” – and therefore, his disciples need to live according to that reality and keep the commandments out of love for him. He will, in turn, not leave us orphans, send the Holy Spirit, and give us a peace that the world cannot give. With that in mind, we look at the allegory.
The meaning of the allegory of the Vine and Branches is easy enough to understand. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and if we are connected in him we will have life and produce fruit (the works of the Kingdom) as well as be connected to one another. As great as this promise is, we are not living this way as a culture. More and more we are separating ourselves from an active life with Christ and we are more and more isolated with one another. We can see this with a falling religious participation and a deeper isolation and loneliness that began before the pandemic but has been exasperated by it. This isolation can be observed by dwindling religious participation, in the way we live, in our inability to engage with other people, and in our obsession with cell phones and technology. Statistics have also born this out. Keep in mind that these statistics are before the pandemic:
According to the CDC:
48% of youth from 18-22 feel lonely
33% of adults over 45 feel lonely
25% of adults over 65 feel lonely or socially isolated
Even worse, a Cigna study, using the UCLA Loneliness Scale, reports:
50% of Boomers feels lonely
71% of Millennials feels lonely
80% of Gen Z feels lonely
According to the CDC, loneliness and isolation leads to:
1. 30% overall increased mortality risk (comparable to obesity and smoking)
2. 50% higher rates of dementia
3. 33% higher rates of strokes and heart attacks
4. 400% rate of death from heart failure
What does religious practice bring to the equation? Quite a lot. A Pew Research Center study shows a strong correlation between active religious practice and overall happiness or fulfillment in life. Interestingly, the practice of the religion was the contributing factor. A mere belief without practice had little to no effect on outcome. Here are some of their findings:
1. 36% of actively religious consider themselves “very happy” verses 25% of inactive or irreligious – a 40% difference.
2. 58% of actively religious join other groups verses 39% of inactive or irreligious – a 40% difference
3. Actively religious have a 40% higher rate of charitable giving of money and a 50% higher rate of giving time to charitable causes than inactive or irreligious. This higher rate is also evident in non-religious charities. Interestingly, non-believing yet practicing (because they go to church with others) give at a rate comparable with practicing believers while non-practicing yet believing give at a rate comparable with non practicing non-believers.
4. Multiple studies have shown that being actively religious correlates with higher levels of happiness and civic engagement and are less likely to engage in depression, anxiety, and suicide. (As a side note, a survey or 2,482 priests report that 22% are lonely and 90% consider themselves happy, so don’t feel sorry for your priest. Clergy and other religious careers are among the happiest occupations on the planet.)
It is clear that active religious participation not only strengthens one’s connection with God and other human beings, but leads to overall happiness, group participation, and generosity. We could add that traditional institutions such as marriage are contributing factors as well. For example, according to a UK study from the Office for National Statistics, married couples are 10% more satisfied with their lives on average than single, divorced, or widowed. This is a much higher indicator of satisfaction than career, community, or money.
Now, let’s go back to the Vine and Branches allegory. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. If we are connected in him, we have life. In addition, if we are connected and living in him, we are also connected and living with one another through him. Because of this, we produce fruit (works of the Kingdom such as healing, forgiving, feeding, proclaiming the good news, restoring, caring, loving, true worship, etc.). Once we begin producing fruit, Jesus’ word “prunes us” so that we produce even more fruit. This is a recipe for success and Jesus knew what he was doing. Now let’s look a little deeper. What does a vine produce? Grapes. What do grapes produce? Wine. What do we use wine for? The Eucharist. What else did Jesus say connects us to the vine and produces fruit? His Word. What do we do when we go to Mass? Worship, pray, hear the word, receive the Eucharist, support one another, etc. Yes, our worship literally does what Jesus asks us to do by being connected in him and one another.
Our actively religious lives are good for us and for others and contribute to all of our wellbeing. Our culture, however, is pushing a very different set of ideals and says that say that you don’t need religious practice. Instead, you can be fulfilled by pursuing alternative religions such as career, materialism, personal identity groups, political causes, power, popularity, sports, passions, and secular goods. Hopefully we can understand that even when many of our secular goods and freedoms can be good, if they are divorced from the higher good, they cannot replace our innate desire to live in the way, the truth and the life that only God can give.
Of course, like all things, there are caveats. As Christians we follow Jesus, not because there is a psychological benefit, because it is “right and just” to do so. I have chosen to focus on some effects of religious practice, but even if there were none, that doesn’t take away from Jesus’ instruction that we should live and worship in a particular way. It is also true that being a practicing Christian is not magic. There will always be challenges, difficulties, tragedies, and the span of human suffering. The good news is that we are not alone and our work to stay connected leads us through it all as we follow our Savior who is our way, truth, and life.
Understanding the Clarification by the Vatican
Last week I saw a statement from the Vatican addressing the question of blessing same sex unions. The statement said that although the Church affirms the dignity of all people, it cannot bless same sex unions. It also said that “God loves every person and the Church does the same – rejecting all unjust discrimination.” Originally, I didn’t pay much attention to the story because it seemed like a non-story to me. The statement simply reaffirmed Jesus’ teaching on marriage that even predates Christianity. But it did become a story and, therefore, I think it would be good for me to clarify some areas around the discussion.
We live in an age of “rights”. We hear this language used all the time: Right to die, right to life, right to housing, right to medical care, right to abortion, etc. Not all of these are “rights” in the classical sense which come from God’s design and authority. Many of them are merely political positions expressed in a language of rights. Marriage in the Church is not a political right but an institution that is based in natural law (understood in a philosophical rather than biological sense) and given a sacramental nature by Jesus. To help you understand the difference, imagine if I said that I had a right to baptism. Can I demand baptism as my right from God? No. God doesn’t owe me baptism. Does the Church have an obligation to fulfill its duty and baptize me if the conditions of baptism are met? Yes, but who defines those conditions? God does, and more specifically Jesus does where sacraments are involved.
Marriage, and the sacrament of marriage in particular, has been defined by Jesus in a particular way that describes it as being between a man and woman going back to God’s original intention in creation. I touched upon this in more detail in my prior blog post on Matthew 19 which you can read below. A consequence of this is that other types of unions such as polygamous and same sex unions are outside of marriage. Since Jesus also taught that marital relations are to be confined to a man and woman in marriage, other sexual activity and other unions can’t be endorsed or “blessed” by the Church since they are sinful (that is, they don’t conform to Jesus’ moral teaching). This understanding is not unique to same sex unions. Cohabiting couples, divorced and remarried couples (who have valid prior bonds), and polygamous couples are also outside of the Church’s ability to bless.
The letter by the Vatican was reaffirming the nature of marriage within the context of natural law and revelation. It was not addressing what is legal, judging the state of individual souls before God, salvation, or intricacies of moral law such as culpability. They do not constitute rejection, discrimination, condemnation, or a lack of welcome. As always, we need to consider Jesus’ teaching within the comprehensive message of the Gospel which necessarily includes the dignity and respect of all people. Sometimes these teachings are difficult and can run counter to the popular culture. Nevertheless, the goal of a Christian is to seek to know and live His truth even while we so often fall short of its ideal. Hopefully we can keep these things in mind as we hear these and future clarifications that challenge us to transcend our political and sociological leanings while we genuinely try to understand and be faithful to what our Lord calls us to.
The Order and Chaos of Matthew 19:1-12 – And Why It Matters Today
The Pharisees asked Jesus about the conditions necessary for divorce to be legal. Jesus’ answer goes much deeper than divorce. Jesus answers by going back to God’s original intention with creation. People were created to live within the harmony that God built into creation itself. The sin of Adam and Eve (humanity) disrupted that ideal, but the Messiah will renew and restore humanity and creation. Therefore, divorce came about because of sin, but in the restored kingdom of God to come, relationships, and our very selves, match up with God’s created order and do not contradict it. Therefore, this future culmination is to be strived for in the present even while it hasn’t been fully realized. Those who are restored by the Messiah and live “in the kingdom” apply it to their lives not only in marriage, but in every aspect of their being and in all their relationships.
The Text (Matthew 19:1-12)
When Jesus finished these words, he left Galilee and went to the district of Judea across the Jordan. Great crowds followed him, and he cured them there. Some Pharisees approached him, and tested him, saying, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” He said in reply, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” They said to him, “Then why did Moses command that the man give the woman a bill of divorce and dismiss [her]?” He said to them, “Because of the hardness of your hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery.” [His] disciples said to him, “If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” He answered, “Not all can accept [this] word, but only those to whom that is granted. Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some, because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it.” (NAB-RE)
Jesus was asked a question about divorce. Jesus decided to answer the question by going back to God’s original intention in creation itself. When we understand how God originally intended the world to be, what went wrong, and how the Messiah is God’s plan to restore all things in the “new creation”, it helps us to understand why Jesus did and said what he did.
The question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?”
Among Jesus’ contemporary Jewish rabbis there was a division on the understanding of divorce. One school, Hillel, took the view that divorce was possible for virtually any reason. All that the husband needed to do was provide a written bill of divorce to make it public and official. The Shammai school was more restrictive. They said it was only for select reasons that it could be possible. The question is trying to get Jesus to take a side. Is divorce possible for a broad variety of reasons or only for select reasons?
Jesus’ response would have been shocking in his time. Not only is he not choosing to place his answer under the opinion of other rabbis of his day, but he seemingly contradicts Moses himself who was considered the human author of the Jewish Law that the rabbis were interpreting. Is Jesus claiming to have an authority above Moses? Jesus’ response is nuanced so that it doesn’t contradict Moses’ prescription for divorce. Divorce was “allowed” because of the hardness of the hearts of the people, but it was never God’s intention. To explain this, Jesus goes back “to the beginning” which would be the Genesis story of creation. What does this mean? In order to understand that we need to understand the creation story within its original context.
Creation as an ordered harmony between God, people, and creation.
Marriage predates Christianity and Judaism. For that reason, the Catholic Church has always maintained that it is a “natural” institution as well as a religious one. The institution of marriage is built into the way things were practically and morally designed. This is not merely for reproductive purposes, but also for the purpose of aligning our state of being with the way we were created in the first place. A fish will not thrive outside of water because they were created to live within the created order in water. Pack animals will not thrive if they are isolated individuals because they were created to live in a community of a pack. People were also created in a particular way and will thrive when they harmonize with that physical, spiritual, emotional, and sociological order. This concept is generally reflected in a biblical, philosophical, and theological concept called “natural law”. Natural law states that there is a natural moral order that can be known because it is built into creation and our relationship with God and one another. We do well when we conform to God’s natural law or order and we do poorly when we disengage from it or rebel against it.
So how did God create people? Jesus answers this as he says, “Male and female he created them. For this reason, a man leaves his father and mother, is joined to his wife, and the two become one flesh.” Therefore, people are created within a relationship that contains the uniqueness of the sexes which is also complementary and unifying. Harmonizing the social institutions according to God’s design in creation allows people the ability to thrive in a way that is not possible if people pursue behaviors and institutions that are not complimentary to this design. Now, let’s consider the story of Adam and Eve.
Adam and Eve:
For the scope of this reflection, I don’t need to explain every aspect of the creation story. There are a few built in aspects that should be understood though. First of all, the story shows how God brought order to overcome the chaos. Part of this order is the division of things such as air and water, light and darkness, birds and fish, plants and animals, etc. Male and female and the ordering of the sexes is part of this order. Secondly, human beings are different in kind, not merely in degree. That means that human beings aren’t just slightly smarter animals, but are in a uniquely covenanted relationship with God. Therefore, human beings have an obligation to be obedient to God and stewards of his creation. Thirdly, only after sin is introduced into the story is the harmonious relationship with God and his ordered creation disrupted. The effects of that disharmony will need to be overcome in the future. Some preliminary “renewals” will take place such as the story of Noah, and the system of purification that will be found in the sacrificial and dietary regulations of the Mosaic Law, but a complete restoration will only come about through a total restoration that God initiates through his Messiah.
With that in mind, we can look at the story of Adam and Eve before their sin. Adam was created but the design was not complete. Only after woman was created as an equal to man was that act of human creation complete. Two verses in particular help to explain this:
God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:27).
The LORD God then built the rib that he had taken from the man into a woman. When he brought her to the man, the man said: “This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; This one shall be called ‘woman,’ for out of man this one has been taken.” (Gen 2:22-23)
Man and woman are distinct, equal, and complementary but not identical.
The Question of Divorce:
When Jesus was asked the question about divorce, there was an assumption by the Pharisees that divorce was acceptable. The question revolved around the conditions necessary to make it morally permissible. When Jesus invokes the creation story, he reminds them that divorce is a consequence of sin and a fallen world, but it does not conform to the intention of God in the beginning nor is it the reality in the restored world. Jesus is teaching them that rather than settle for the reality of a fallen world, we would do well to strive for the restored reality that renews our lives and very being in accordance with the way that God designed us.
In today’s world where divorce is common, how are we to interpret this teaching? It can be tempting for many to brush it off as unrealistic or archaic. In the ancient world people didn’t live as long, there was a stronger social pressure, religious institutions instilled values more profoundly, and families were more interconnected. In today’s world there is abuse, a lack of love, pressure, infidelity, immaturity, inability to make commitments, selfishness, addictions, and multiple forms of issues. Yet, it would be a mistake to think that we are that unique. Divorce existed in Jesus’ world to a larger degree than many people realize, and he still told them to strive to live according to the resurrected and restored reality. In addition, his teaching isn’t only for married people. He reminds his listeners that there are also those who don’t marry, those who can’t marry, and those who are celibate for the sake of the kingdom. Everyone is told to strive towards God’s perfect ideal.
This teaching strikes to the heart of the gospel teaching. Jesus is much more than a savior who merely forgives us so we can go to heaven. His “good news” kingdom is one where we, by faith, enter into through his death and resurrection and live within even while we await the final culmination of the promise. In other words, we don’t need to wait for the second coming to live within the restored order that the Messiah brings. The Word, the sacraments, our worship and prayer, and living according to Jesus’ overall moral teaching enable us to live within God’s original and renewed creation. Therefore, Jesus’ teaching on marriage simply reflects that it should conform to the renewed reality that the Messiah brings.
Divorce is a part of our world and there are many reasons for it. What is our response to that reality? Is it defeat and hopelessness, or is it a desire to apply what God has given us so that marriage can be lifted up? We start where we are at and strive toward that heavenly ideal knowing that, even if we never completely fulfill those ideals, we are better off to the degree that we are able to. This is the teaching that Jesus is giving the Pharisees. They are looking down the wrong path. Instead of seeking how to divorce, they should have been seeking how to lift up and restore marriage within the messianic promise. This outlook applies to other areas of human vocation as well.
Extending the Message to the Full Context:
There are other lessons that can be made from Jesus’ reference to Genesis. Just as marriage should be ordered to the ideal of God’s intention, other areas of our cultural life can do likewise. Let’s briefly look at how our ordered existence helps us to evaluate some of our current issues:
1. Sex and Gender. Who we are as a male or female is not separate from who we are as integrated human beings. It makes no sense, from a Christian perspective, to separate our bodies from our minds. We are not Gnostics who believe that our bodies and our spirits are opposed to one another. We are not materialists who believe that we are merely physical beings. We are not spiritists who believe that there is no matter at all since this world is an illusion. The Christian perspective is that we are made, body and soul, in the image of God. Our sex, whether male or female, is an essential aspect of who we are as a person. One can believe his or her sex and gender is different than it is, but philosophically, that is no different than believing that one’s age, race, or physical characteristics are different than they actually are. It doesn’t mean that people who do believe these things are treated unjustly, but it also doesn’t mean that an integrated perspective is abandoned out of convenience or political expediency. Again, we can look to natural law and God’s restored intention to understand how our sex is not the enemy of our true self. Instead, God’s created ideal brings us to a fuller acceptance of a reality where we thrive as human beings.
A sad consequence of a disordered understanding of creation is a misconception that creation either doesn’t matter at all or that it is the only thing that matters. On one end of the spectrum, some Christians see creation as something that will be destroyed in the future. Therefore, they abdicate their responsibility to be good stewards of creation since they will be separated from it. On the other end of the spectrum there are the materialists who believe that only creation is important. Therefore, they see human beings and the spiritual world as enemies of the planet. The Christian perspective sees an integrated whole where God, human beings, and creation live together in an ordered and harmonious relationship. This is possible through the combination of natural law with gospel teaching. Therefore, our delegated authority as stewards should put us in the forefront of the environmental movement. Not because it is “above” human beings, but because it is part of our service to God and one another. In addition, since Jesus will restore all of creation in the new heavens and the new earth, we participate in the restored order now by how we steward, even while we await the full realization of Jesus’ restored order.
It can be dangerous to forcibly apply an overall perspective to every individual case. Not everyone or every situation is capable of the ideal. Abusive relationships are an obvious example. Yet, individual abusive relationships do not nullify the overall benefit of the family structure. The ideal of a healthy and unified marriage with children remains true even if there are individual situations where this is not possible. It would be a mistake to look at an exception to the rule as a reason to wholly abandon the rule itself.
The lesson of Jesus’ teaching is that we should pay attention to the way things are built into creation itself. In the very act of creation, God built his order into our world in a way that is knowable and accessible. Jesus, the Messiah builds on this order, restores it, and adds the dimensions necessary to complete it. Our participation in the life of Christ is a participation in the restored order that God completes in the Messiah.
Order and Chaos:
The ancient worldview of order and chaos is not irrelevant to our current situation. Some would say that those philosophies are merely cultural and don’t apply to our situation as enlightened people. I believe that is a mistake. As I have hopefully pointed out, directing our lives to a well ordered ideal is a constructive and helpful way to address many issues such our relationship between the sexes, family issues, environmentalism, personal psychological wellbeing, and spiritual integration. It’s not to say that there aren’t areas of nuance. We do need to be able to consider the human elements of these things and not be a slave to natural law in a way that is similar to material determinism. It does, however, give us the ability to see on a larger perspective that our worldviews matter. To the extent that we cooperate with the way that God created, the intention of his original creation, and the reality of the restored creation, we will be more integrated, healthier, and more likely to find ourselves in the harmony that God desires for us all.
George Floyd and the Larger Issues:
Like most of you, I’ve heard of what happened to George Floyd. What happened to him was horrible. How this could happen is beyond me. I am glad to hear that the officer was arrested and is awaiting trial. It has exploded into nationwide debate, protest, and even riots. It seems that everyone is expressing their view and I feel a certain pressure to give my thoughts as well. But, to be honest, I also have an inner voice asking me to be humble, considerate, and thoughtful. The narrow question is an easy one. George shouldn’t have died and the behavior of that particular officer was atrocious. But there is also a larger story. Some of it is obvious and some of it is more complex.
The obvious: racism exists and is evil, black people as a whole have not been treated well historically and they still have disadvantages for many reasons – and these reasons should be addressed, police brutality exists even if the vast majority of police officers are dedicated and good servants of the public good, the rioting is evil and the destruction and looting does no one any good, people are using these events for their own selfish ends, and we need to come together rather than be torn apart.
The more complex: How do we respond in a way that is constructive? How do we address the underlying issues in a way that moves all of us to work together to improve them? What laws and policies need to be changed or adjusted to bring about a more just treatment of all people? How can we get out from under the political divisiveness that uses people and stokes a sense of tribalism – all of which is counterproductive and lays the groundwork for worse problems in the future? How can we better empathize with those of opposing views so that we will be more interested in understanding one another, finding the truth, and seeing our common dignity?
There are many aspects to this whole situation so I hesitate to rush in and pretend I have all the answers. But, I do know someone who does have the answers that people would be wise to consider: Jesus. Jesus was very clear that every human being has a basic human dignity. We are children of God. We should be humble and be servants of others. We should confess our sin as well as stand up to injustice. We should love all people. We should forgive and pursue forgiveness. We should “be one” with one another like Jesus is one with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And we should pursue truth because it will set us free. His roadmap found in the Sermon on the Mount as well as other areas give us real food for thought. Why are we not feeding on that?
What I’ve noticed more than anything is that real Christian ideals are being buried under the hatred, rage, and political posturing. I am asking us to be more humble, considerate, and thoughtful. Let’s see what wisdom our God has to offer. Then, let’s move forward in a way that will accomplish what our hearts want more than anything: a restored world where we have that right relationship with our God, one another, and creation. And I’m still thinking about this because real long term solutions will also need real long term action, prayer, and sacrifice.
Religious Freedom, Worship, and Avoiding the Extremists in a Pandemic
“None of us lives as his own master and none of us dies as his own master. While we live we are responsible to the Lord, and when we die we die as his servants. Both in life and in death we are the Lord’s.” – Romans 14: 7-8
In early February I spent a little more than a week in Japan. It was around the same time that the Corona Virus was just beginning to make news. This is what I noticed in Japan:
1. People didn’t shake hands. As you probably realize, bowing is preferred. I’ll admit that they were really good at it. It was amazing to me the affection many of them showed in their bows. I was not nearly as good at it, and I’m sure I looked eager and awkward.
2. A lot of people wore masks. Our tour guide told us that they started wearing masks a while back and they were useful for allergies and keeping people from getting sick. I’d never seen so many people wearing masks who weren’t at a “WeedEater” convention. I thought, “This is a good idea even if I feel silly wearing one.”
3. The church used precautions. They had a stand up hand sanitizer, people wore masks, they bowed at the sign of peace, they used the size of the church to its advantage, they had other precautions, and they did all these things naturally.
Why am I talking about Japan? Because I really feel we have lost it as a country and how we are responding to the Corona virus. I especially believe this is true when it comes to our country’s response to religious practice. Therefore, I want to talk about a few things:
1. We are having a real issue with religious freedom whether it is intentional or not.
2. We can be responsible and accommodate religious worship in a reasonable way.
3. We cannot let hyperpolitical activists, Twitter and Facebook trolls, and the hysterical fringes on both sides speak for us.
Let’s look at these points:
1. Religious Freedom:
I remember when I heard that the Church cancelled Masses in Italy, I thought, “Can they do that?” Then when Governor Brown first put out the control on numbers at church, I thought, “Can she do that?” Well, the short answer is yes. It is prudent to be cautious in a pandemic. This is reasonable. If someone has the flu, they are asked to stay home and recover for their sake and the sake of others. A pandemic extends this logic: of course we should take necessary precautions even if the faithful might miss a few weeks at church. Our lack of good information made it necessary. The governor and the Archbishop responded rightfully to this situation.
After a couple of weeks it became apparent that things were shifting. Churches were being treated as “non-essential” and therefore, in practical policy, were “not important”. In fact, in the first mandates that came from the state, churches were not even specifically mentioned but were grouped as “nonprofits”.
These arbitrary distinctions made churches dispensable and, by extension, our First Amendment dispensable. This was a troubling concern of mine and I mentioned it to the Archbishop early on. Free exercise of religion is in a whole different category than nonprofits such as the humane society. I’m not saying we don’t have an obligation to act prudently, but I am not comfortable with any politician treating our First Amendment rights as less important than other “needs”. In fact, many categories of “needs” that are considered “essential” are not even necessary “bodily needs” while churches are still labeled as “unessential”. Even if some people believe religion is not essential, that should not infringe upon my right to practice my faith “essentially” – because that’s what the First Amendment guarantees. I do not think we should have special treatment but I am bothered that we don’t even have equal treatment. Americans should be concerned about this whether they are religious or not. If one fundamental right can be so easily overlooked, other fundamental rights are also at risk.
2. Responsible Worship:
I started off talking about my trip to Japan because I saw that they were taking reasonable measures. Even before anything was mandated, they were responding as prudent citizens. Ministers are concerned about the wholistic wellbeing of their people and so am I. We need good information so that we can apply the proper balance within our worship and safety concerns. We also need to empower others to accept their responsibility to do the same. Reckless behavior or obsessive risk aversion are extremes that most people do not want to live under.
So how can we find a balance in our religious practice? First of all, we need to admit that there is risk in life. Anytime I go out in public there is risk. A well-managed life is able to regulate that risk and keep them within a certain hierarchy of priorities. I drive, visit the sick, ride bicycles, eat out from time to time, and put myself out there with parishioners. For example, after each Mass (even more so in Spanish) I would literally shake the hands of all parishioners who reached out to me. I don’t do that now, of course, but in healthy times, personal connections are more important than the risk of a cold or flu. Secondly, we accommodate those who are sick, elderly, or compromised the best we can. We have always had parishioners who can’t come to church because of their health conditions. We bring them communion, pray with them, and give them the permission to do what they need to do to.
What I’m saying is that rather than take an authoritarian approach with mandates by the state that are arbitrary and inconsistent, we would be better served as people of faith to have the ability to express our religious practice prudently. We need good information and consistent guidelines to assist us so that we can minimize risk and maximize our ability to worship responsibly. We also need to help others to know their risk/safety ratio so that they can make good and prudent decisions. Some parishioners will need to be extremely cautious while others can still show concern for their fellow parishioners while expressing their religious faith openly.
3. Hyperpolitical Extremes:
A bell curve is a statistical graph, shaped like a bell, where a small number of people lie at the extreme ends, but most people lie within the larger center. It seems more and more that the people on the extreme ends have taken away the voice of the middle. There are many reasons for this. Politics, social media, the draw to sensationalism, fear, leveraging, etc. Unfortunately, policy decisions are also taking on these same trends. This does a huge disservice to our country as a whole and in particular to people who want the freedom to express their faith apart from unnecessary governmental or political intrusion. We need to guard ourselves against this trend and place God and people high above party affiliation and political agendas.
When the Corona virus first started being understood as a serious threat, I thought, “Well, fortunately this is a health concern and maybe politicians and Americans will come together.” After all, the virus isn’t Democrat or Republican. Yet, two months later the extremists have taken over. Think about it. How is it that wearing a mask or not wearing a mask should be a political statement? Why is it that the level of being shut down should fall upon party lines? Why is it that places of worship have fallen victim to the infighting of the extremes? And why is it that church goers have allowed themselves to be manipulated into feeling that they have to choose some extreme side between “stay in your bunker forever” and “jump in the mosh pit”?
As a church, we need to make good decisions. In order for that to happen we need to have good information that transcends the political extremists. We need to balance our freedom to worship with the safety of our parishioners. We need to look at a wholistic view of life where our spiritual and bodily needs are considered and preserved. We need to consider what Jesus actually said and instructed his Church to do in worship. We need to be people of faith who are prudent and faithful. And we need to be good citizens, good Christians, and good people who help one another to do it to the best of our ability. This is what I am asking of all of you and this is what I will try my hardest to do for all of you.
The Story of Guadalupe
The Aztec nation that was conquered had the largest scale of human sacrifice and cannibalism ever known. Although the exact number of how many were sacrificed cannot be known, the law of the empire required a thousand sacrifices for each town and subject town in the empire to their tribal god Huitzilopochtli. The total number was at least 50,000 a year and probably many times that number. The Aztec historian Ixtlilxochitl estimated it at one out of every five persons born would eventually be sacrificed. For conquered tribes, it often meant the entire population. The warrior king and religious leader, Tlacaellel, when he was 89 years old celebrated the dedication of the new temple in 1487 by sacrificing 80 thousand men in 4 days (15 seconds per person – day and night). The hearts would be cut out over an altar and then piled up. The sculls would be collected and stacked on racks. Limbs, blood, and other body parts would cascade down the steps of the pyramid style temple.
In 1519 Hernan Cortes arrived in Mexico, finding a society which was in some ways highly developed and civilized, yet also under the oppressive grip of paganism. Later during the conquest he saw his own men sacrificed as they were captured. One of the first things Cortes did after the conquest was forbid the sacrifices and destroy all of the temples. Although Cortes was a conquerer, he was also a religious man and placed limits on the oppression of the newly conquered Aztecs. Those who followed his leadership after he traveled back to Spain and south into Guatemala ruled more as tyrants with no regard for human rights.
Many Franciscan missionaries worked for justice and preached the Gospel, but with limited success because of the tyranny of the ruling leaders and the suppression of the clergy and others advocating for the Native peoples. Bishop Zumarraga was desperatly trying to reach the king of Spain in spite of the suppression of information by the leaders, even going so far to smuggle a letter in a side of ham. In particular, he greatly feared an uprising which would result in the death of many people and end any hope for evangelization. He earnestly prayed to Our Lady that war would be averted, and boldly asked to receive Castillian roses, then unknown in Mexico, as a sign that his prayer for peace was heard. His prayers would be answered through the apparitions to Juan Diego on December 9-12.
On December 9, 1531, Juan Diego, a poor 57 year old Aztec Native and Christian of less than seven years, was walking the 15 miles on his way to Saturday Mass in honor of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. He had to pass by the hill called Tepeyac where formerly had stood a temple dedicated to the Aztec mother-goddess, Tonantzin, her head of multiple snakes, and her garment full of serpents. Suddenly Juan heard beautiful music, saw colors emanating from a white cloud and heard a voice calling him from the top of the temple ruins: “Juan! Juan Diego! Juanito! Juan Dieguito!”
As he approached the top of the hill he saw a young Aztec maiden who was about fourteen years old and strikingly beautiful. She spoke to him in his native tongue and asked where he was going. When he said he was going to Mass, the beautiful maiden said, “Know for certain, dearest of my sons, that I am the perfect and perpetual Virgin Mary, Mother of the True God…I ardently desire a temple to be built here for me where I will show and offer all my love, my compassion, my help and my protection to the people. I am your merciful Mother, the Mother of all who live united in this land, and of all mankind, of all those who love me, of those who cry to me, of those who have confidence in me. Here I will hear their weeping and their sorrows, and will remedy and alleviate their sufferings, necessities and misfortunes. Therefore, go to the Bishop of Mexico City and tell him of my desire.“
Juan fell prostrate and stated he would do so. Although fifty-seven years old and fasting since sunset, he never-the-less ran the five miles to Mexico City. After waiting all day because of delays, he finally did give the message to the Bishop-elect who said he would consider it. It was almost sunset when Juan came to the hill on his way home. Although tired, he climbed to the top of the hill to give a report to the Virgin Mary saying he had done what she had asked and that the Bishop would think about her request. Even though the Bishop said he could visit with him again, Juan thought she should consider sending someone better qualified. She told him to go back to the Bishop in the morning.
Juan did just that. Although astonished he was back so soon, the Bishop agreed to meet with him. No matter how he was questioned or how often, Juan never contradicted himself. So the Bishop asked for a sign. Returning again to the hill; Juan reported to the Virgin the Bishop’s request. She told Juan to come back tomorrow for the sign.
However, because he had to attend to his sick uncle, Juan missed his Monday morning appointment with the Lady. When his uncle became seriously ill and wanted to receive the last sacraments, Juan decided to try to find a priest to administer the sacraments. Aware that the Lady would be waiting to give him a sign for the bishop and perhaps feeling a little guilty for not planning to take the time, Juan decided to avoid her by sneaking around the east side of Tepeyac hill. His plans were interupted, however, for he saw the Lady descending from the hill at an angle to intercept his path.
He knelt at her feet. She said, “Listen and let it penetrate your heart, my dear little son. Do not be troubled or weighed down with grief. Do not fear any illness, anxiety, or pain. Am I not here who am your Mother? Are you not under the shadow of my protection? Am I not your fountain of life? Are you not in the folds of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need? Do not be worried about your uncle. At this very moment he is cured.” Then she told him to go to the top of the hill, cut the flowers growing there and bring them to her.
He knew that no flowers could be growing on the top of a frozen rocky hill, but he went anyway and found the most exotic Castilian roses blooming. To protect them he put them in his tilma, an Aztec outer garment like a long cape, apron or serape. Made out of beaten cactus (ayate) fiber, the versatile clothing could be used as a coat, sleeping blanket, and tote-bag.
When he returned to the Lady she saw that he had dropped the roses randomly in the tilma, so she chose to arrange them very carefully herself. She said to Juan: “You see, my little son, this is the sign I am sending to the Bishop. Tell him now to build the church.” As far as we know, this is the last time Juan saw Our Lady or heard her voice. Also during this time, Mary appeared to his uncle, Juan Bernadino and cured him.
Holding the tilma closed so that no one could see what he carried, he reached the Bishop’s residence and was ushered in to find many of the household already there. He stood and told the Bishop exactly, word for word, what the Lady had told him. When he finished speaking, he let go of the tightly held corners of his tilma and the flowers fell onto the floor in a heap. Worried that the Lady’s carefully arranged sign was now a mess, he failed to see the Bishop rise from his chair and fall on his knees before him. The Castilian roses would be a powerful enough sign for Juan, but for the Bishop the Lady had left on Juan’s tilma a more wondrous sign: a heavenly portrait of the Mother of God. To this day it still remains vibrant and awe inspiring as it hangs in honor in a special basilica built for it in Mexico City.
The Image Is the Message:
Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico in 1519. By 1539, when Mary appeared to Juan Diego, an Aztec (Nahuatl) Native, the entire Aztec nation had been subjugated and conquered for the king of Spain. But only 200,000 Aztecs had accepted Christianity, which they perceived as the religion of the conquerors. After the appearance of Mary and the miraculous image on the tilma of Juan Diego, in just seven years (1532-38) over nine million Aztecs converted to Christianity. So many were baptized on one day that men had to hold up the arms of the exhausted Franciscan priests. Why did the Aztecs suddenly convert? There was basically no great “oral” message except that she was that the Mother of God and a church was to be built on the hill where she appealed. Why the sudden and massive conversions? Because the message is not oral. It is visual and symbolic!
The Aztecs had hieroglyphic writing in which symbols or objects represented words or sounds. When we look at the Image of Guadalupe symbolically we shall “see” the message and read it just as the Aztecs read it. The Image of Our Lady is actually a visual letter written in heaven. The pattern on the dress is not folded so that the hieroglyphic writing-art can be understood by an Aztec. The four petaled flower just below the black band on her waist is a symbol saying “almighty god”. The fact that it is on her stomach shows that she is carrying God within her. The little broach on her neck is a symbol of what the Aztecs worshipped as the “unknown god” This states in effect “I am proclaiming the unknown God you worship”.
It shows a young (14-16 year old) girl with dark skin, slightly flushed cheeks and dark hair, the model of an Aztec maiden. Her head is bent and her eyes are cast down, lowered. Therefore, she is not a goddess. Gods and goddesses look straightforward, proudly, in Aztec representation. As great as she appears, she is not a god and she is humble. Her oval face is the vision of compassion. Aztecs believed the face of a person was the window to the inner person and showed how a person would act. She reflects compassion and love. Her colors and features are not purely Aztec nor European – but of a mixed race. As a good Aztec woman she shows femininity in her face. Her hands are folded, not in the Western style of prayer, but in the Aztec manner of stating I have something to offer, indicating she bears a gift.
Her mantle is turquoise, the color reserved for the supreme Aztec god, Omecihuatl-the mother/father creator god and source of unity for everything. Therefore, she has the favor of the true and Supreme God. It has a border of fine gold and is full of stars. To the Aztecs stars are the sign of a new beginning for the nation. Her mantle is literally sprinkled with stars (46 golden eight-pointed stars) a glorious new beginning. Her robe is rose-salmon colored and apparently overlaid with lace woven with gold threads, one of the great achievements of the Aztec artisans reserved for nobility. The gold lace design contains many flowers and a “fruitful vine,” like a royal “fleur-de-lis.” Around the cuffs of the sleeves she has white rabbit fur. Only the princesses wore rabbit fur so she is royalty. She wears one piece of jewelry at her neck: a gold brooch with a black cross in the center.
She wears a black band around her waist. This is the Aztec maternity band worn by all pregnant women for the entire time of their pregnancy. It is a sign of pride for the women to wear it and say to the people: “I carry new life for the nation!” Her message is that she is bringing new life for the Aztec nation.
With the color white being “earth” and blue being “heaven” the little man (Juan Diego) acts as an intercessor between heaven and earth. The feathers are actually the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl which Mary is crushing (also in reference to Genesis 3:15). The clouds seem to have opened to show her coming out of the sun, the giver of life. She is not the sun nor does she obliterate its life-giving rays. She stands on what appears to be a crescent moon. It is the dark horns of the moon-god whose time has passed away.
The hill on which she appear, Tepeyac, was the site of a temple to the snake goddess. The message Mary gave to Juan Diego in Nahuatl was “Hehuazin ni Coatlaxupeah.” “Coatlaxupeuh” which means “I am she who crushed the serpent” (Rev 12- 1-6, 13-17), phonetically sounds like “Guadalupe.” Apparently the Spaniards understood the word as Guadalupe and associated it with their Spanish city, Guadalupe. Hence “Our Lady of Guadalupe.” Mary standing on this god thus effectively says, “I have conquered him.” Mary conquers death and human sacrifice by bringing new life to Juan Diego’s people.
The Science and the Unexplained:
There are a few supernatural points about Juan Diego’s tilma on which the image appears. It is made of beaten and woven vegetable fiber that normally decays after about 25 years. It has been intact, exposed to the elements, for almost 500 years. A 100 years of that time it was exposed directly to light and smoke from candles, the touching of millions of hands and lips, spilt nitric acid (used for cleaning the silver), and a bomb that was placed in a vase directly below the image. The bomb blew the glass out of the basilica church, tore chunks of marble and masonry from the altar, and bent a large brass processional cross, but the image was left untouched. The parts of the image that are peeling or flaking (the gold leaf and silver painted moon and a few retouched areas) were all later additions. The original image remains as bright and intact as it always has been.
Art historians point out that the image does not match up with any technology or practice that was available during the early 1500s. Even in our own day it is not able to be duplicated. It is remarkable how such an exquisite image was placed on this coarse agave fiber material, especially since part of the image appears like that of brilliant oil colors and other parts like delicate water colors. In 1963, Kodak Corporation of Mexico concluded that the image is photographic in nature. In 1979 an extensive study of the image was made with infra-red and computer-enhanced photography, which revealed no brush strokes, no under-drawing, no varnish or sizing, and no fading or cracking. The weave of the fabric is patterned to give depth to the face and also color variation through light diffraction.
Dr. Richard Kuhn, a German Nobel Prize winner in chemistry, examined some of the threads of the image in his lab in 1936. He concluded that dyes and pigments were not from a known source. The colors actually appear to float above the surface of the tilma. Subsequent investigations have still not explained the origin of the colors nor the nature of the image itself. Since then, a few other scientists have tested the image in 1947, 1943, 1979, and 1982. One had an opinion that some pigments may be of known origin while others differed. Currently, there is still no explanation of how they were done or why they remain so bright and well preserved to this day.
There are additional signs as well. For example, the stars on the tilma line up with the constellations that would have been visible on the Saturday morning of December 12, 2019. Decorations on the dress match up with a topographical map of central Mexico at the time. The eye was digitally enlarged and revealed people visible in the refracted light from the pupil.
The Subsequent History:
On December 26, 1531, the sacred image was processed from the cathedral to a newly erected chapel on Tepeyac, and Juan was made its custodian and spent the rest of his life repeatedly retelling the story. Because of thousands of pilgrims, the shrine was continually enlarged until a basilica was erected in 1709. A procession of three miles escorted the image into its new home. On October 12, 1895, the coronation of the Image of Our Lady of Guadalupe as Queen of Mexico authorized by Pope Leo XIII took place. Forty Bishops and thousands of people attended the coronation. On December 12, 1945, in a radio address to commemorate the golden jubilee of the crowning, Pope Pius XII ordered the sacred image to be crowned again and Mary formally proclaimed “Empress of All the Americas.” On October 12, 1976, the Image was transferred to the present Basilica which can hold 30,000 people. Juan Diego was beatified in 1990.
Exorcisms and Clericalism
I’ve never seen the movie, “The Exorcist,” but I’ve heard all about it over the years and still hear it referenced in many ways. I even remember a Far Side comic that had Linda Blair at the Louvre standing in front of paintings with a sign next to them saying, “Absolutely No Projectile Vomiting!” For most people, it, along with other similar horror movies, has become the standard image when most people think of exorcisms. The typical pattern goes like this: a person is possessed by a demon, they are powerless, the priest comes and does the exorcism, and they are cured. Woo hoo! Mission accomplished.
Although there is truth to the exorcism model above, there is also a danger in it. Priests are definitely supposed to be engaged in deliverance ministry, but the laity are too. Laity are not hopeless, powerless, and passive victims waiting for the priest professional to come in and save the day. They have to take ownership of their faith, and we priests need to make sure they are empowered to accept and take charge of that ownership. So now, let’s look at some of the factors involved in that happening:
The Power of God:
Satan and demons are creatures. They are finite. They can do nothing without God allowing it. Jesus is the Son of God and he cast out demons numerous times in his ministry. Even the cross and resurrection is a giant “casting out” of the power of Satan. Jesus’ death took on evil, exhausted its power, and overcame it with new life. Jesus is divine, equal to the Father, all was created through him and for him, and he is infinitely more powerful than any evil and always will be.
We have free will. What we do with it matters. If we fill ourselves with God’s goodness and act according to his will, evil has no place in us. If we invite evil into our lives, however, God allows it as a consequence of free will. In rare instances, there are some possession or oppression cases where free will is somewhat diminished, but for the vast majority of people, what we chose to surround ourselves with makes all the difference. Freedom from possession is directly related to our faithfulness and God’s grace. Even oppression (Satan being allowed to bother but not possess) will never overcome the faithful who chose God and his ways and have an active faith in Jesus the Savior.
Jesus’ Power Delegated to the Church:
Jesus chose to work through human beings. Yes, Jesus healed people and cast out demons in his ministry, but he also delegated that authority to the Church. Priests have a special commission to cast out demons in the name of Jesus and according to his power and will. It is part of our ministry. It is also part of the ministry of the baptized. In fact, we just had a healer, Bob Canton, come to St. James and teach, heal, and pray with our people. God bless him for taking his mission as a lay leader seriously!
The Danger of Clericalism:
There are various descriptions of clericalism. Pope Francis has been continually warning his priests and bishops that they must guard against clericalism. He has said that we are not to be princes, think ourselves better than others, or use our legitimate authority to keep people out of the Kingdom. I remember at a meeting once when a priest said, “Why is the Pope always telling us off!” He said, “I don’t yell at people in confession, I’m not lording anything over the people…” At the same time I thought, “I don’t usually do that, I really try my hardest not to, but I’m sure I have, I’m sorry about the times I have, and I need to try harder to never do that with God’s grace.” The point is, it does happen, it is sinful, and we priests can’t just pretend it isn’t a problem. The Pope is right, we need to be humble and listen.
Here’s how I see Clericalism: Jesus has all this work he wants to do. He wants to use all of us to do it. We are all unique and have various talents and gifts. There are some roles that priests have and there are other roles the laity have. The ideal is that we work together as God’s family, roll up our sleeves, and all do our part to accomplish the Great Commission of Matthew 28. We are not in competition but are collaborators in Jesus’ ministry! But, if I use my position to take over the legitimate roles of the laity, or worse, needlessly keep the laity out of ministry so I can pretend that I’m holier, better, more special, etc., then I am being clerical. I am creating a separation that Jesus does not want to exist. I am lording over other people. I am keeping them from owning their own faith and ministry. Finally, I am keeping the people down like an oppressive ruler.
Sometimes Clericalism is subtle. It can be excused away by saying, “I’m just teaching the hard truth, telling people to be perfect like Jesus before they can do ministry, keeping those sinners away, saving the Church (and Jesus) from those pagans! I need to keep the priest higher, holier, and separate from the people!” In the past couple of months I have seen priests grandstanding similar views. In this last week, I even read a priest’s article who told the Pope to quit criticizing him – and then went on to spend the rest of the article condemning the Pope in a holier than thou fashion!
I also believe that clericalism is a way to be lazy and it is a shortcut to ministry. If I anoint myself king and put everyone below me, I can easily do the minimum and congratulate myself with how holy I am. “Come to me, the professional, and I’ll fix it for you – you poor helpless victim!” I then redefine “holiness” according to superficial things such as appearance, ritual, or lofty words. This not only has a detrimental effect on the priest, but it keeps the people from accepting ownership of their faith. This is exactly the opposite of what Jesus did and what he commanded of his faithful.
This morning we had a great Gospel reading at our daily Mass. Jesus was dining at the house of a prominent Pharisee. While he was eating with the group, a “sinful” woman “anointed him with ointment, bathed his feet with her tears, and wiped them away with her hair”. Jesus commended her “because of her faith and love.” Notice that she took charge. She knew who Jesus was and knew she needed forgiveness. She put her faith into action by lovingly seeking out forgiveness, anointing him, bathing his feet with her tears, and didn’t stop even while being ridiculed. In other words, she owned her faith and did the work by repenting, converting, and putting it into practice. Jesus did his part by forgiving and restoring her. That is how it is supposed to work.
I can’t tell you how many times I have gotten “the call”. “Father, my child, my brother, my sister, my friend, etc. is having evil things happening. Father, I need the house blessed. Father, I need you to do an exorcism!” First of all, I do respond to those calls. But I respond in a way that I think they don’t expect. I say, “I will do what I can do, but you need to do your part.” Sadly, the majority don’t want to “do their part”. In their mind they believe that the priest just needs to come and do the magic. “Just say your prayers and fix it so we can go back to living like we always have!” This is the most disheartening thing in ministry, that people see conversion as “too much work.” They would rather live trapped in sin and suffer the chronic effects of it than assume ownership for their faith. I challenge them and invite them to do the work.
I don’t ask what is unreasonable. I simply ask them to assume the responsibility for their faith and practice it. I’ll tell them that I will come and pray with them and bless them, but they need to get rid of evil practices, false gods, superstitions, porn, drugs, etc. I tell them they need to follow Jesus’ teachings, go to Mass and worship the one true God, read the Bible, regularly receive the sacraments (confession), pray as a family, live in God’s truth, claim Jesus’ Messiahship, etc. I say, “Look, I can bless you or your place, but if you are not willing to take charge of your faith and live it, it will make no difference!”
So, what does this have to do with clericalism? I think people have been conditioned to treat God as a commodity. It is a reflection of our consumer culture. “I’ll keep God in the clouds until I need him, and after I’m done, I’ll push him back up there so he doesn’t bother me.” “If I need the Church, I’ll call the priest who will fix the problem, and afterwards, I’ll kick him to the curb so I don’t have to make any real changes in my life.” Now more than ever, if the priest is clerical and prevents the faithful from owning their faith, it reinforces the lie that they are helpless victims dependent on the “professional priest” with no personal call to conversion or faith. Not being clerical encourages people to accept the responsibility for their faith, put it into practice, and start thinking about others. What we need in the Church today is the opposite of clericalism. We need shared ministry, ownership of our faith, and a willingness to encourage all people to fully accept and live out their particular ministry and mission in life. This is the Gospel of freedom and action. This is why Jesus saves us and why he includes us in his plan to help save others.
Anti-Semitism and the Shooting in Pittsburg::
The shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg angers me and saddens me for many obvious reasons. Our elder brothers and sisters in faith should be prayed with and for and supported. Sadly, violence and intimidation against people of the Jewish faith has had a long history and it is still far too common a practice worldwide. We should do all in our ability to overcome such hateful practices. In addition, all people should be able to worship or carry on with their daily lives without violence and intimidation.
I would hope that we could set aside the political posturing and work together to come up with practical solutions to address the underlying problems that this tragedy and others like it come from. This is not a one dimensional problem and the solution will need to address many areas such as poor intervention with people with mental illness and drug addiction, the extreme polarization of politics and political action, the media’s making celebrities out of notorious murderers, poor prevention measures, the propagation of hateful language and information in general, the inability to discuss reasonable gun regulation, and the list goes on. We should be able to discuss and seek solutions to all these issues and more without the gridlock we currently have. Perhaps we can foster a spirit of mutual cooperation to address these issues understanding that the vast majority of Americans abhor these extreme views and violent actions. Then, we can hold our policy makers to the same expectation.
Meanwhile, our thoughts, prayers, and actions can go out to the Tree of Life Synagogue, our Jewish brothers and sisters, and all those who are suffering the effects of evil actions such as these. It might be impossible to stop every injustice, but we can do our part to be part of the solution. It starts with the way we interact with others and it continues with the way we hold ourselves and our leaders to a higher standard.
Concerning the Abuse in Pennsylvania:
Like many of you, I read some of the reports coming out of the grand jury in Pennsylvania. It was a report of over 1,000 pages and went back at least 80 years. What it showed is that over that time there were 300 predator priests who committed criminal or morally reprehensible conduct. There were patterns of abuse, denials, and cover ups. The stories of what people suffered because of this were horrible and disgusting. Let me just say that on a personal level it angers and sickens me to no end to think of these poor victims who suffered so much because of these evil and perverse people. It also angers me that it was so mishandled by so many people over so many years. I suppose that a similar study would show similar results in other areas of the country as well. It is sickening. What a betrayal of everything Jesus and his Body the Church stands for! It is just so infuriating. So what can we do about it?
1. Don’t make excuses.
It happened, it was evil, and there is no excuse for it. Sometimes people feel that they need to protect the institution at all cost. “I must defend the Church!” If we want to defend the Church, let’s be transparent and accountable and not allow the attitude that led to the coverups in the first place. If we want to defend the Church, let’s do everything we can to hold it to the standard that is Christ and expose evil for what it is before it infests us any more than it already has. We all need to live in the truth. Sure, the vast majority of Catholic priests, religious, and laity are great people and we are better off for doing our best to follow the faith we love. But it is also true that some abuse their position of trust and, whoever it is, it should not be tolerated, excused away, or covered up.
2. Address it in the parish.
At St. James, Good Shepherd, and St. Michael, we follow the Called to Protect protocols. Anyone who works with or does ministry with minors will need to follow the Called to Protect protocols. This includes the background checks, codes of conduct and policy, as well as the trainings. No exceptions. If we are falling short of our obligations in any way, let Fr. Zani, Deacon Raul, Engracia, Mike, or myself know. In addition, even before the Pennsylvania scandals became news, we had a plan to address the larger issue of abuse in all of its forms. In September we have dedicated a weekend to inform parishioners of the scope of abuse and offer resources to help with it.
3. Address it outside of the parish
We would be naïve to think that this is something that only occurred in the Catholic Church. Statistically abuse occurred at similar levels in other institutions and is still rampant in our society. Perhaps the embarrassment and shame we feel can be harnessed to promote a safe environment for children in all other institutions and in our society as well. We should have done better in the past. We need to do better in the future not only for our sake but for the sake of our own communities.
4. Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil by doing good
When I was ordained in 1999 I was two years a priest when the 9-11 terrorist attacks happened. For a few months there was a religious revival and at the time I was excited to see so many good things happening. Then, in January, the scandals in Boston under Cardinal Law broke out and it was apparent that there was corruption and abuse that was widespread. It was obvious that we needed to do something as a Church and take decisive action. We started the charter and began the “Called to Protect” trainings as well as required background checks and policy changes to proactively address the problem.
When I spoke to the parish in Coos Bay I told them that I was sorry and ashamed for the mishandling of the abuse and the abuse itself. I also said that I want to address it in a constructive way and do everything we could do to prevent such things in the future. Therefore, we implemented the Called to Protect protocols and followed them well. Thanks be to God, there were no accusations or indiscretions in the parishes I’ve been in. Since 2001 I can say that the measures taken in our archdiocese worked, although not perfectly.
No one says that because there was abuse in schools that education is not worth pursuing. No one says that because there was abuse in the entertainment business that music and film should be eliminated. Most people realize the value of a good education and of the beautiful arts. The ideals of both should be pursued while, at the same time, making a strong effort to remove any evil that detracts from them as a primary good. In a similar way, churches have not been spared the evil of abuse as we are well aware. Therefore, let’s promote the authentic Gospel while removing any evil that detracts from it. We are the Body of Christ and his authentic Gospel is worthy of being lived out and promoted.
I am still as angered and frustrated as you are. Maybe in some ways even more so since I have seen the priesthood dragged down by these acts of inexcusable evil. But I refuse to let these people speak for what the priesthood is all about. I refuse to let these people define who we are as Catholics. Thank you to all of you who have projected the authentic Gospel in your own lives. Let’s be faithful and continue to do our part to demonstrate what Catholicism is all about. Let’s follow St. Paul’s advice and overcome evil by doing good (Romans 12).
Another Look at the Immigration Issue:
A few weeks ago, the news story broke that children and parents were being separated at the border. The reason is that there was a law that prohibited incarceration of children after a certain period of time even if their parents were being held after trying to enter the US illegally. In the past, people seeking asylum who entered the country illegally would more often be given a court date and released until then. That policy changed so that asylum seekers who did not enter through official ports of entry would be detained. Detention centers were quickly overwhelmed, and new facilities were sought out. The decision was made to use federal prisons as well as the detention centers. This difference led to many more families being separated, which in turn, led to protests and later changes in the policy. As I write this, children are being identified and reunited with their families although it is still in process.
This all hit home here in the McMinnville area because the FCI Sheridan prison is a federal prison and 123 of these detainees are currently there. The prison was given little notice and they struggled to deal with the situation. To add to the complexity, the security situation in the prison meant that long time prisoners needed to be separated from the detainees and access to lawyers, advocates, and even clergy were even more limited than they would be at other detention centers. Meanwhile, local groups such as Unidos and an ecumenical clergy group struggled to respond in a compassionate and practical way. One thing that was apparent early on was that many of these detainees needed pastoral care. Since I had clearance because of the prison ministry we do at FCI Sheridan, I communicated with the chaplains and worked with the prison to schedule a couple of meetings with the detainees as well as the regular prisoners I usually meet with.
This Wednesday will be the third time I will have met with the detainees as part of the prison ministry at St. James. I thought I would take a moment to reflect a bit on the situation as I’ve experienced it and give you the opportunity to reflect as well.
1. Working toward a faithful application of our immigration policies.
I would like to refer you to the article I wrote about immigration that you can find scrolling down in the blog about four stories down. Please read it because it frames the rest of my thoughts. The main points are that: 1. People have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. 2. A country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration. 3. A country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy.
You might feel that these three principles are mutually exclusive, but they are not. They are ideals to work toward and it is entirely possible to do our best to balance them as we work out the best equilibrium that we can manage. Unfortunately, in the politically polarized climate that we live in and the gridlocked political process, it is no secret that we are not doing so well when it comes to managing our immigration system or policies. The all or nothing extremes are not serving the country or the immigrants well. So one practical thing we can do is communicate with our representatives and advocate that a fair, efficient, and well-constructed immigration policy is put forward that conforms to the broad principles outlined above.
2. Working for the long term.
When the story broke about the detainees being separated from their children, people responded and made their thoughts and feelings known. Changes in the policy were made as a result. I also know that nothing stays front of mind for long. Therefore, I would not be surprised if the news cycle moves on and the overall situation of the detained families gets pushed back or ignored as well as the longstanding immigration issue. We can do better. Jesus said that the poor are with us always. That means that there is always going to be an opportunity for us to apply the corporal and spiritual works of mercy that are required of us. This is more than mere political activism and it is more than prayer alone. It is a call to engage in a long term commitment and a hands on ministry.
3. The personal difference:
It can be easy to get caught up in causes, opinions, and philosophies. This keeps us at a distance and helps justify areas in our beliefs that need to be challenged or changed. It keeps us static and detached. If you look at how Jesus ministered, he rolled up his sleeves and got in there with the people. Meeting the detained immigrants, celebrating confessions and Mass with them, and preaching and talking with them changed me. I don’t look at them as nameless faces. They are people with real personalities, histories, ambitions, hopes, and gifts. I was impressed by the faith, courage, and hope that many of them showed. I was amazed that we could kid around and laugh with one another in such circumstances. I also sensed their fear, anxiety, and helplessness. To be honest, I can only do very little but there is a good life lesson in all of this. Get to know the people God put us with on this planet. I am a firm believer that it is hard not to love people that we get to know. Sure, there are the exceptions, but in general I have always found this to be the case. Sadly, with our identity politics we seem to be going in the other direction. We can’t get sucked into that manipulative political mind game. We are all part of God’s family. Let’s reclaim that by actively working to be in the lives of people who might be different than us in some way. It will change us and give us a better Christian perspective.
4. Some practical ministry opportunities:
Prison Ministry. We currently have prison ministry at the Yamhill County Jail and the FCI Sheridan Federal Prison. We are in need of a few dedicated volunteers who can assist us with the pastoral outreach there for a few hours on Tuesday nights and on Wednesday days. If you are interested, let me know so I can relay information to you on how you can help.
Outreach Ministry: There are many aspects to this and immigrant ministry is just one. What I would love to see is a team of parishioners who take our resources and put them to the best use to serve the community. This means continuing what we do and expanding our outreach to the elderly and shut ins. It means addressing addiction, abuse, homelessness, poverty, mental illness, charitable giving, and the host of need that is all around us. It means working with existing groups that need a helping hand. It means being advocates for peace and justice according to the well-defined principles that our faith and Church offer us. My dream would be to get a team together to guide this ministry in particular. If you are interested please let me know so we can incorporate that into the life of the parish in this coming year.
A Brief History of the Passover:
I have people ask me about the Passover and how it developed. A full explanation would take too many pages but what people mostly want to know is how was it celebrated and how did it develop over time. People also want it brief and readable, so here it is:
You will see variations on the history of Passover because of the sketchy historical documentation. The accounts given in the Old Testament include many details but they can be idealized and reflect later practices. In this brief outline, I realize there is room for alternative dates, theories, and practices but this is a generally accepted outline by historians and Biblical scholars.
Pre Moses (2000 – 1200BC): For herders, lambs were born in the spring. For farmers, the first crops would have been the barley harvest. Feasts developed to celebrate the new food and life sources that the new lambs and barley brought. First born lambs were sacrificed and eaten. Barley was unleavened because old stored grains were often exhausted and old leavening practices (similar to present day rye and sourdough) depended on living leaven. Besides, it took longer to leaven grain and barley didn’t rise much anyway.
Moses (1250 – 1150BC): There are various theories about the date of the Exodus and how exactly it happened, but the first Exodus Passover took place while the Hebrews were leaving Egypt. It celebrates the “passing over” of the Angel of Death, from slavery to freedom, and from Egypt to the Promised Land. Former feasts of lambs and unleavened bread are now combined with the themes of divine intervention and liberation.
Post Moses (1100s – 1000BC): The combination of the lamb and barley feasts and sacrifices with the telling of the Exodus story by household or clan takes place but varies to some degree depending on region and clan.
Monarchy (1000 – 587BC): The practices and celebrations became more unified among families from David to Josiah (1,000 – 622BC) because of stability and communication during the Monarchic Period. With the reforms of Josiah (622 BC), the Passover was moved from family celebrations to exclusively being done in the Temple. Pilgrimages took place to Jerusalem and the families would bring their pascal lambs to be sacrificed and roasted at the Temple. Unleavened bread was eaten for seven days following.
Babylonian Exile (587BC): Some remembrance of the Exodus happened but probably not celebrated with lambs and unleavened bread because they are outside of Jerusalem.
After edict of Cyrus the Persian and Jewish return to Jerusalem (538BC): After the second Temple was rebuilt, Passover resumed. Priests sacrificed lambs and the people would eat at the Temple grounds after roasting. People would eat unleavened bread for 7 days afterwards. It was possible to have everyone eat at the Temple because of the small Jewish population at that time.
After Hasmonean Reform (165BC): Head of households sacrificed their lambs at the Temple. Drinking wine and singing the Hallel praise songs were introduced. Eating still took place at Temple grounds followed by 7 days of unleavened bread.
After Herod the Great (37BC): Because there were too many people to have everyone eat in the Temple area, the laws were relaxed so they could sacrifice at the Temple but eat the meal anywhere in Jerusalem. This would have been the era where Jesus celebrated his Passovers and also the Last Supper. Christian transformation of Passover comes with the Last Supper which celebrates the Eucharist as the New Passover commemorating Jesus’ death and resurrection and beginning the New Creation. This is celebrated weekly on Sundays and commemorates freedom from sin and death while bringing his people to the Father and the Kingdom through him.
After destruction of Temple (70AD): When the Romans destroyed Jerusalem, the Passover needed to be revised according to the post Temple reality and the newer rabbinical reformulation of the faith. The Passover Seder meal is reformulated under Rabbis Gameliel II and Johanan as it is mostly celebrated by Jews today.
The Dodge Commercial and Leviticus:
I actually watched the Super Bowl this year. It was a good game. Because of my former “marketing” studies, though, I couldn’t help but analyze the commercials. This also led me to think about some themes that have been surfacing while I’ve been doing my slow read through Leviticus. Well, here’s what I came up with:
During the Super Bowl there was a Dodge commercial that quoted Martin Luther King talking about servant leadership. MLK was simply repeating Jesus’ teaching on servant leadership (see Matthew 20:20 or Mark 10:35). I wonder why Dodge didn’t just go to the original source and quote Jesus??? Well, anyway, let’s see what Dodge said about what Martin Luther King said about what Jesus said: “If you want to be important, wonderful. If you want to be recognized, wonderful. If you want to be great, wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That’s a new definition of greatness. … By giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. … You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know the theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.”
If you want to know what Martin Luther King was getting at, he wasn’t saying “buy a truck so you can help people move!” He was quoting Jesus’ teaching. For that matter, Jesus probably wasn’t too worried about trying to bring trucks into the African American and lefter-leaning sales demographic either. It’s about Godly service. So, how are we to understand Godly service? I could just say look at the sacrificial nature of Jesus who gives of himself totally in self sacrificial love. But, I want to go back to earlier sacrifices that set the stage? I also want to reflect on the connection of these early sacrifices to priesthood and ordination and more specifically what we priests are called to (just a simple “how it relates to me” thing). Finally, I want to give a quick lived out example of a priest who simply follows this call with probably no recognition that he is even doing anything so noble as being a servant leader. So, let’s go to Leviticus…
Ordination in Leviticus literally means to “fill the hands”. That’s because “the hands” are used to receive the food for sacrifice, are what offer sacrifice, and are what God uses to give back the priest’s portion. When a priest “elevates” an offering, the gesture in that time expresses a total giving over of ownership. Sacrificial giving is letting go completely of what is given with no expectation, strings, or residual claims being made. It is a completely generous gesture and action. In Leviticus 10, two of Aaron’s sons (Nadab and Abihu) just finished the 7 days of ordination only to both be killed by God because they offered incense that wasn’t required. They wanted God to miraculously light their own personal incense pans. It might seem harsh, but the lesson is clear. It wasn’t just their super piety that God was angry at, but that they were being selfish while “offering” sacrifice. They were the newly ordained priests after all! Shouldn’t they have special treatment? God should light their incense special – just for them! It also shows that instead of worshipping, they were trying to harness and control God rather than serve and follow him.
I was applying this principle of the Levitical priesthood to the priesthood of Jesus. Priests are to give and receive in a like manner. Primarily, this is applied to the Word (that is received and given) and the Eucharist (which is received and given) at the sacrifice of the Mass. Giving and receiving is a repeated pattern in worship. For example, in the Liturgy of the Eucharist: God gives us wheat and grapes, we make bread and wine and offer it to God, God gives us Jesus in His body and blood, we “lift up” Jesus to the Father in the Spirit during the Eucharistic prayer, God gives us the risen Jesus in communion, we offer the risen Jesus to the world after the dismissal. In other words, giving and receiving are both required. It means that if priests don’t know how to give (“lift up”), they are only living out one half of the priesthood – the receiving half – and are acting like Aaron’s sons. By extension, if priests don’t know how to be generous with what God gives them (for example with their own stewardship and tithing), they aren’t living the reality of the sacrificial system. Worse yet, if priests act like princes on parade that deserve to be spoiled by the people because they offer the Mass, they are demonstrating a clericalism that is far removed from the intention of the sacrificial system, the example and teaching of Jesus, and what MLK echoes in his preaching.
I find it ironic that priests who can obsess about the intricate details of the Mass can be the same ones that are most likely to be parasites with their people and the least generous with what they have been given by God and their people. I also find it heartening that most priests naturally follow God’s sacrificial system almost subconsciously. They are like the righteous of Matthew 25 who didn’t even realize they were following the way of the master. It is simply second nature. Let me give you an example of this: This last weekend we had first reconciliation at St. James and more kids than our vicariate priests could reasonably cover. I asked Monsignor Moys, a retired priest who continues to work full time, if he could help us out and he graciously agreed to come. Monsignor Moys drove an hour, interrupted his already packed Saturday schedule, and cut into his own parish fundraiser in order to come. I planned to pay him for his mileage and give him a stipend for coming but, before I could offer, he specifically insisted that I not pay him anything for coming. The golden boys of priesthood would never preemptively refuse money and even lose money (mileage, time, parish fundraiser) to attend. Instead, they would think it was owed to them and wouldn’t be grateful in the least. Monsignor Moys is a witness of the best of God’s sacrificial system in action. This underlies not only priesthood but Christian service. This is what MLK, Jesus, and Dodge were talking about all along. Well, at least MLK and Jesus.
Migraines and Marriage:
This last weekend I was invited to witness the marriage of Matt and Sarah. I have known Sarah and her family for more than 15 years and I was honored to be able to celebrate this day. I prepared and went down to Coos Bay for the wedding. It was great seeing the family again and spending time with them before the wedding. Unfortunately, at the exact moment that the wedding was starting I got a migraine headache. What you might not know is that I can get bad migraines even though I very rarely get them. I have had two in the last year. When I do get them, they are entirely random, have no known triggers, and I become almost totally incapacitated. I can’t see without blind spots, I can’t think and articulate speech, and I can’t even do some of the most basic things I usually take for granted like reading, remembering names, and basic thought. This initial period of time is called an “aura” and usually lasts about a half hour. I have pills that help, but if I am getting the first part of a bad aura, the best I can hope for is that I will be slightly less dysfunctional.
The wedding started at 2:00 pm and the migraine began EXACTLY at 2:00 pm. It could not be worse timing. I was angry and frustrated and felt helpless to change the situation. Luckily Fr. Robert Wolf was also present although he had just had a bad fall. His foot was in a boot and his wrist was in a cast. I warned him about what was happening and told him I might need him to take over. I was stumbling through the introductions, readings, homily, and vows. Finally I asked Fr. Wolf to take over. We must have looked like a comedy routine. One priest who couldn’t think and another who looked like he got in a bar fight! I can’t tell you how frustrating this was. Many of these people I haven’t seen in years and I really wanted to connect with everyone and help Matt and Sarah to have a great experience. I also knew I wouldn’t be able to remember the names of people I knew nor talk to people after the wedding like I wanted to. One thing was completely apparent. None of this was in my hands. In fact, it was a reminder to me that as much as I would like to think that I am in control, ultimately I am always one small event away from helpless.
At the time I had no idea why God would have allowed such terrible timing. Why did I not get the migraine just two hours later? This one began at 2pm exactly! What was important that day was not me but Sarah and Matt. In the end they were married and I’m sure God will bless their marriage. Somehow they will be more blessed because of it and in the big scheme of things it isn’t really that big of a deal.
After the marriage ended I decided to write out my homily that I would have given. When I am extemporaneous I will add humorous inclusions and draw it out. This written homily will just be the core of what I wanted to say. I am mailing the letter below to Matt and Sarah for them to read and ponder. In the meantime I will pray for them and all married couples so that God will bless them as he wills. His blessings don’t always match up with the way we would want it or plan it, but it is in the unplanned that he often works best. So, here’s the homily:
Homily on the Occasion of Marriage
Matt and Sarah Cuneo
July 29, 2017
Matt and Sarah chose the first reading from the Song of Songs. This is an ancient Jewish love poem that predates Jesus by hundreds of years. This book is unique. It describes in poetic language the attraction, the searching for, the finding, and the fulfillment of having and holding their beloved. It is almost like a game of hide and seek but with eternal rewards when they win. The language doesn’t fit our modern love metaphors, but the story is beautiful as it describes how they find their home and fulfillment in one another as well as being caught up in intimate relationship with their God and within his creation. This is the story of Matt and Sarah.
This Sunday’s readings are similar. Jesus gives two parables. One is a treasure that, once found, a man sells all that he has so he can possess it. The next is a pearl that a man was searching for all his life. Once he finds it he sells all he has so he can possess it. The wonderful thing about these parables is that the goal is not to use the treasure or the pearl to possess other things or to live in a wealthy manner. The goal is to simply have and hold that which was always sought after and that which brings ultimate satisfaction and completion. They found what their hearts were always looking for.
Today Matt and Sarah are coming together in the sacrament of marriage. They are promising to themselves and to everyone that they have found that pearl and treasure (and stag and dove) in each other. Their search and their longing have been fulfilled. But let’s also learn the lesson from the poem and the parables. The goal is not to suck the life out of the other but to cherish the entirety of who the other is, encourage the other to become fully who they were created to be, and explore the richness of the gift of the other for the rest of their lives. The question is not, “How can Sarah make me happy?” Or “How can Matt make me happy?” The question will always be, “How do I appreciate, allow to come fully alive, explore the richness of, and preserve this great gift I have been given by God’s love and generosity. The good news is that you have the rest of your lives to do just that.
The second reading simply says that God “lives in us and his love is made complete in us”. This continues the theme of the first reading. Matt and Sarah, you are not alone in your love. God has planted it in your hearts and he is there with you. Depend on him and see him as the essential character of your poem, treasure, and pearl. Continue to explore how his infinite love can help your love to grow always infinitely deeper. Look to him and his Son as your example of love. Jesus didn’t just come down to preach and then disappear. His goal wasn’t to be served, but to serve and give his life for his beloved people. This is the model for you as well. Ask, “How can I live so that my love, marriage, and faith will be strengthened each day?” Make it a point to reject any barrier or distraction that takes you away from that goal and seek and foster the support you will need from each other, your God, your family and friends, and all those who will move you towards it. You both have wonderful families and friends. They are God’s gift to you as well.
There is one last area that I need to discuss. The Beatitudes in today’s Gospel simply describe the lived out expression and experience of a properly ordered love. Your marriage is not all about you both. It is intended to be a gift of service to God and others. Fortunately, you already are generous and kind people. Your work and vocations are signs of that. It also shows in how you treat your families and bring them together. The spirit of this group supporting you today is no accident. You have helped to bring them together and care for them. God will continue to put opportunities before you where your love can overflow to those in need around you including many you won’t even know you touched. This is the missionary aspect of marriage and you both are in a great position to respond to that calling in your married life.
Finally, I am so proud and happy for you both. I am honored to be here as is everyone here. I want nothing more than for you to have an incredible marriage with blessings beyond imagination. I am not so naïve to think that it will just happen by accident. It will take a lot of hard work and dedication. But I can also see that you both have the desire, tools, and us – your most wonderful friends – to be with you and support you in it all. May God bless you and lead you always as you enter more deeply into the poem that was started long ago. May God bring this hope to completion in you so that you may find that ultimate fulfillment together with your God, your family, and your friends. And now, if you both are ready to enter into this reality, I would like to invite you forward to profess your promises before God, his Church, and your friends and family together with you…
A Different Path for Immigration?
For years I have been saying something that hopefully my parishioners will find familiar. Our starting point for our morals and values – and therefore our actions – comes not from our political affiliation but from the Gospel message of Jesus. Our real affiliation is not found in a political party but in our identity as sons or daughters of God. When we ground ourselves in something greater than the prepackaged deals of the two dominant political parties we are able to see the truth and the deficiencies of both. When we are grounded in the unchanging truth of Jesus’ words and actions we will find a voice that will affirm what is true and beneficial and challenge what is inaccurate and destructive. More importantly, when we ground ourselves in Jesus’ words and actions we become more concerned with people than ideologies and we are less likely to let agendas, trends, and political movements guide us rather than faith and reason.
This week I have been reflecting on various scripture passages that speak about a human response that transcends our current political discourse. St. James says to “Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you” and “Be doers of the word and not hearers only” and “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” The point is simple. St. James is saying that our religious practice needs to be concerned with the poor, powerless, and vulnerable regardless of whatever the “world” might say. In other words, the human factor takes precedence over ideologies and politics.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus speaks about how easily we can disregard God’s ways while at the same time cling to merely human inventions and ideologies. He further says that ultimately our actions start from within our hearts rather than from what is imposed on us from the outside. Therefore, Jesus is saying that our hearts should be grounded in and formed by God’s ways and our actions should reflect that.
There are many ways to apply this and I encourage you, if you haven’t already done so, to scroll down to the bottom of this blog and read “Knowing and Affirming Gospel Values”. For now, I will assume your familiarity with it because I need to get to the point: I have heard an increasingly aggressive rhetoric concerning immigration and an unwillingness to ask what our faith might have to say about it. Often times the aggression is directed against Hispanics in general and more often than not it is approached in political terms while ignoring the human component. Finally, there seems to be an underlying assumption that it is purely political and there are no Gospel values to apply to this issue. I think we can do better by working together to find a realistic solution that incorporates the wisdom of faith applied in a practical manner. I also think our faith has some important teachings that should not be ignored if we hope to move toward these goals.
What does our faith tell us about immigration?
The Bible is full of stories of migration and the ongoing challenge of countries who receive them to treat them justly and humanely. Abraham moved into Canaan (Israel) and his ancestors moved into Egypt where they later became enslaved. Then, with Moses, they moved back into Canaan. The Israelites were forcibly moved by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Finally, in the Persian Period, Israelites moved back home again. Even Joseph and Mary moved to Egypt for a while to escape the hardship and persecution of Herod.
Israel, remembering how they were treated in their history, was commanded by God to be especially concerned with being just and generous to the immigrant, the refugee, and the helpless. God and the prophets told Israel to “have the same love for the alien as for yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). Jesus spoke of love and care for the stranger, the weak, and the vulnerable as an aspect of how we will be judged: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35). St. Paul reminds us that as children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ, we are one in faith and equal before God. Again, our common humanity supersedes other lesser differences.
What we see above is a simple and consistent teaching. Any law, policy, or ideology that pertains to immigration should be rooted in love and compassion for the people who are migrating. This is simply because of the inherent dignity they hold as human persons and it is a straight forward and clear Gospel value. We can debate on how to carry that out in the best and most practical way, but our actions should clearly reflect compassion, care, and welcome. In addition, Catholic Social Teaching (that comes to us through Church documents as well as longstanding teaching) takes these general norms and makes them more specific. They can be summed up in three ways: 1. People have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. 2. A country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration. 3. A country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy.
Looking at these three principles listed above, it might seem that they can conflict with each other, but the teaching is intended to be harmonious. It all goes back to the question of how we best manage the situation based on what is possible. The US cannot just open up its doors and permit the whole world to crash the border in a free for all. At the same time, we are called to do what is reasonable to receive those who can migrate to the best of our ability. Then, when they do come, we are challenged by our God to receive them with compassion as brothers and sisters.
Some practical concerns:
Immigration laws have changed over the centuries to accommodate the plight of the immigrant as well as the wellbeing of the country. Our current laws are based on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. At the time it had support of both political parties but, as partisan politics became more divisive, adaptations of the law have not been made. There were moments such as the executive orders of Presidents Reagan and Obama, but in general no meaningful changes have occurred.
It is no secret that the US has a high number of emigrants that did not enter through legal channels. A Pew Research poll as well as most others estimates put the number at about 11 million. Of that number, about 80 percent of their children were born in the US and are (from the Constitution) considered US citizens. Many of the children don’t know the culture or the language of their parents and many of the parents have lived in the US for years or decades. Of the 11 million, 8 million are working and make up 5% of the US labor force.
My point in the brief description above is that there are serious sociological, economical, and demographical considerations. The overly simplistic, “If they are illegal send them home” is not practical, beneficial, or moral. The impact on millions of families not to mention the economic concerns tell us that there has to be a better solution. Our current political polarization isn’t serving the country or the immigrants well. I think we need to be realistic and look at problem solving rather than picking a party position to dig our heals into.
In my experience as a priest I am with immigrants in many ways. I have come to know them and love them over the years and have a father’s protective care for them. I have seen them shipped to Mexico while the rest of their family stays behind trying to survive. I have seen them fired without recourse because they needed to be replaced with a new batch of low wage workers. I have seen them discriminated against by renters and people with power over them. I have seen them abused and manipulated. I have also seen their faith, character, and strength. I have seen their love and their devotion and their desire to become good members of society. Finally, I see them as brothers and sisters in Christ and equal to me in dignity before God.
I realize this is a difficult task but we need a more positive approach. I go back to the three tenets that I listed before: 1. People have the right to migrate to sustain their lives and the lives of their families. 2. A country has the right to regulate its borders and to control immigration. 3. A country must regulate its borders with justice and mercy. Maybe this can be a starting point along with the Biblical call to welcome and care for the immigrant with justice and compassion. Perhaps we can find a better way to control the boarder, have a realistic path to citizenship for those who are here and those who wish to come, and a way to manage immigration in a just and humane way moving forward. It won’t be easy but I know that realistic solutions are possible. How can we find a reasonable solution while at the same time following the Gospel concerns for people and especially the stranger, the weak, and the most vulnerable as Jesus asks? That is the Christian answer. Perhaps we can do our part to persuade politicians that there is a third and better approach.
A Written Summary of the Christmas Homily:
Christmas 2016 – Come let us adore him: Christ the Baby!
Last week in McMinnville we had snow. I was in the church office when it started coming down pretty heavily. I went home and got settled in for the evening. I looked out the front window and admired the snow and the landscape. It was beautiful and peaceful. Everything was covered in white. I felt a bit of nostalgia and that sentimental feeling that can come from admiring the beauty of a first snow. Then the thought struck me that I had about an hour before the sun would set. I could go out in it and experience it on a fuller level. So I put on my jacket, gloves, boots, and hat and set out walking through the park. It was nice. I felt the snow creaking beneath my feet, the cold and wet wind on my face, the quietness of snow that absorbed sound, the creeks that were frozen in parts, and the stillness of the trees. I’m glad I left the house and set out to experience the snowy day on a deeper level. Later I thought about the difference between gazing at something through a window and experiencing the reality of something first hand.
During Christmas, there is a common feature called a manger scene. It is something we take for granted but I guess that the majority don’t know its history. St. Francis started manger scenes in 1223 in Greccio, Italy. He was concerned that people were becoming overly sentimentalized and materialistic around Christmas. He brought in animals, straw, and tangible representations of the birth of Jesus so people could more easily be drawn in to the reality of Christmas beyond the sentimentality of a cultural Christmas. It worked. From that point on manger scenes became a mainstay of Christmas celebrations. Unfortunately, the reason for St. Francis’ manger scene never went away.
In 2016 we have many traditions. Decorating the house, visiting family, exchanging gifts, taking time off, trying to be more generous, and listening to Christmas carols are some examples. The danger we have is that it is easy to overly romanticize, sentimentalize, and make it into something that is less than its reality. All of these traditions are good, but if we make this our full experience, we are settling for too little. We are standing behind the glass staring at the snow without experiencing the fullness of what Christmas has to offer.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke have the nativity narratives. They describe the story in historical and theological detail. Often overlooked is John’s Gospel’s description of Christmas. It is very short: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” I love John’s description because it gets to the heart of what Christmas is. John helps us to enter into the reality rather than keep it at a safe and sanitized distance.
Why is Jesus called the “Word”? There are many reasons. The first chapter of the book of Hebrews sums it up well: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son.” Jesus is the “Word” because he speaks to us. Think about how we know people. Isn’t it because of words more than anything? Let me give you an example. When I was a young child I used to play a game where I would make up a story around someone. I imagined who they were and what they did. There was one young woman who I saw quite a bit but never spoke to. I called her, “Mrs. Gillenputty.” That wasn’t her name but that’s what I called her. I imagined she was married, was a teacher, had a couple kids, etc. All I really knew was that she was a slightly tall woman who had brown hair and wore glasses. Why didn’t I know more? Because we didn’t actually talk. She didn’t have the time to reveal who she was.
The Good News is that God chose to reveal himself using words. If he hadn’t, we could know some things about him. We would know he created us, that he existed, and that we depend on him. We would never know who he really is though. We would be constantly looking at him through a window trapped in our own experience and making up a reality in our head. Once God chose to speak to us, there can be a new reality. Through his Word he is inviting us to experience that reality. You see, it is not enough that we know about God. He wants us to know him. It is not enough that we have sentimental feelings and mystical moments and call that “spirituality”. He wants us to know and be connected to the real and true God. And we see this in the person of Jesus who reveals himself to us. Too many are trapped by seeking God through a window. They try to prove him rationally and keep him in the head or experience him without his revelation in some romantic or sentimentalized feeling. If we want to get outside and experience God first hand, we need to turn to the Word who is God revealed.
The great thing about Jesus is once we allow him to speak to us by saturating ourselves in his word (The Bible), ponder his teachings, actions, claims, and the testimony about him, we see a life that is like no other life in history. It is no accident that at Mass we are called to enter into this life by a combination of hearing the Scriptures and experiencing his real presence in the Eucharist. This is where we experience the fullness of the Word made flesh. So as we come and approach Christmas this is our point of reference.
Now, let’s look at that first Christmas again through fresh eyes. Why did Jesus come to us as a baby? Pope Francis was speaking to the curia this week. The curia are the cardinals and particular clergy that work for the Church in the Vatican. He called them to reform but he also called them to consider the words of Pope Paul VI. I’ll put their words below:
“God could have come wrapped in glory, splendor, light and power, to instill fear, to make us rub our eyes in amazement. But instead he came as the smallest, the frailest and weakest of beings. Why? So that no one would be ashamed to approach him, so that no one would be afraid, so that all would be close to him and draw near him, so that there would be no distance between us and him. God made the effort to plunge to dive deep within us, so that each of us, each of you, could speak intimately with him, trust him, draw near him and realize that he thinks of you and loves you… He loves you! Think about what this means! If you understand this, if you remember what I am saying, you will have understood the whole of Christianity. God chose to be born a tiny child because he wanted to be loved.”
Again. Jesus doesn’t want us to know about him. He wants us to know him. To pick him up and hold him in our arms close to our heart.
The second part of John’s sentence is that the Word “dwelt among us.” The literal translation from the Greek says that God “pitched his tent among us.” Too many push God away and keep him at a distance. Too many, because they don’t know any better, assume that God is distant and detached from our experience. Nothing could be further from the truth. God has made himself close to us. He knows what it is to be human. He can relate to our poverty. He knows what it is to be born into a family. He knows what it is to be uprooted and move. He knows what it is like to be misunderstood, rejected, and betrayed. He knows work and he knows our human experience. He is a God who not only cares, but cares enough to humble himself in such a radical way.
There is one more detail about the Christmas story I would like to mention. Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The name, Bethlehem, means “House of Bread”. That manger that Jesus was born in was not a baby crib. It was a hewed out rock that was used as a feeding trough for animals. This is deliberate as well. He shows that he was born and gives himself to us completely even to his very life. He is the Bread of Life and food for us all. If we feed on him we will have joy that the world cannot give. If we feed on him we will have what we truly crave and will be filled. It also is a sign to us of what we are called to do as a Church for others. As Jesus feeds us, we have a calling to offer his gifts freely to others. Our faith is not about what God gives us, it is about investing in him and his plan to bring all the world into one in him. He feeds us so we can feed the world and he can work through us as his Church. This is how the birth of Jesus dwells among us, becomes real, and is not just a sentimental thought that remains in the past and really doesn’t change us. It is a reality that changes everything. The first snow, St. Francis, and Pope Francis all remind us that we need to enter into Christmas and experience it for what it truly is. How? I have five simple suggestions but you can add to them as well:
1. Honor life – unborn, babies, elderly, even bad drivers – make it a habit to try to see everyone as God sees them.
2. Pray every day. Maybe just 5 minutes a day to start. Tell Jesus what’s going on in your life. Listen to him in your heart. Add more time as you grow more comfortable praying.
3. Participate in the Mass and in the sacraments – It was Jesus idea to have us connected and growing in faith together in the church. Come back weekly so we can grow together in knowing Jesus.
4. Read about Jesus in the Bible and in the Gospels. This year we will spend a lot of time in the Gospel of Matthew. For example, if you read just a chapter a day, it will only take a month. This is not hard and we can do better than a chapter a day. As you read ask, “Who are you really, Jesus? Speak to me!”
5. Finally, do one simple thing for Jesus each day. I noticed that in my confessions I have been giving a lot of the same penances: Pray for your family. Do something kind for a family member, but do it for Jesus and because of your love for him. Doing acts of love and service for Jesus can only help us to know why he did what he did for us and demonstrates our love for him.
Today we celebrate Christmas and it is a time to rejoice. The Lord of the universe was born for us as a baby. Do what you need to do to make it real. This is not just some sentimental and sappy story. It is a reality that is meant to change us forever.
Let’s hear again what was proclaimed in today’s Gospel and bring it home:
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy;
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David;
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you:
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes;
and lying in a manger.”
Does Prayer Work? How Does Prayer Change Things? What About Evil?
Prayer does a few things: It connects us with our God, it prompts God’s intercession to act in some way, and it helps us to know and accept God’s will in our own lives. Prayers are answered in a few different ways: 1. Yes. 2. Yes, but later. 3. I need to do something differently. Sometimes prayer is applied in ways we don’t see or even know about. For example, When the Holy Spirit prompts an assassin to not kill and he changes his mind, no one would know that prayer worked. When God softens the hearts of people and forgiveness is given and revenge isn’t sought, no one would know. When God works through the natural laws of nature, those acts can easily go unnoticed. When God works beyond the laws of nature (supernatural miracles for example) even those can be undetected or excused away. The point is that God does act and enters into the world but it can easily go undetected, especially to those blind to God’s action or those who are stubbornly refusing to acknowledge God’s presence. To those of us who have experienced God’s action and miracles because of prayer, however, its effects are obvious.
The biggest issue is free will. God acts in a way where free will is respected. No one is forced to choose good. For example, if I want to do some evil act, I can even if it is against God’s will. Our gift of free will is so valuable that the evil that may come from it is a necessary consequence. Why that is the case is another point, but it is the case. If God prevented all evil from happening there would be no choosing good or choosing God. God respects our free will to choose good and choose him, and as a consequence, bad things will happen by those who choose evil.
There is the additional question of natural disasters. Why didn’t God create the world in a way that bad things never happened? Well, it’s tied to what is necessary for life to exist in the way that human beings came to exist. For example, a molten earth’s core and tectonic plates are necessary to move continents and continents are necessary so that life would have developed where human beings can exist. Earthquakes happen due to the movement of continents. So in a way there are side effects to our life here on earth. The Bible and our faith address this by including the fact that the world is not quite what it should be. That’s an effect of sin (Adam and Eve’s sin) entering the world. So you have a combination of bad things being a consequence of 1. free will and sin and 2. what is necessary for our life to exist.
That being said, only God has a real answer for making things right. Jesus’ death and resurrection says that even a tragedy like death can be corrected. Also, in the end there will be a “New Heavens and New Earth” where all of creation will be perfected and there will no longer be sin or death (thus no bad things). In the meantime, we can enter into God’s positive answer now by praying and living according to his will. Prayer and Gospel action bring about his solution one way or another. If not in this life, then in the next. Prayer and Godly living move the world closer to the ultimate solution that God will bring about and helps us to enter into that reality even here on earth. Think about it. Without God, prayer, and action, there is no answer but only a world that has constant random evil. With prayer, action, and God there is a positive answer in this life and in the next – and ultimately at the end of time, when Jesus brings all things onto himself, there is a New Heavens and New Earth.
Prayer works because it plugs us into God’s Kingdom where he is and acts even if we don’t always see it. Prayer moves us to a perfection that only God can accomplish. Prayer also helps us to know how to act within the Gospel message of Jesus. The combination of prayer and action is our partnership with God’s plan to overcome what we naturally detest. Jesus’ death and resurrection show us the plan and bring us into that Kingdom. The caveat is that free will and the necessary consequences of our life on earth are preserved in the meantime. The real question is not “why” there is suffering and evil. The real question is whether we are willing to do something about it by prayer and living the Gospel message of Jesus so our God can do what he wants to do.
Fr. Kapaun’s Story for Veteran’s Day Weekend
In 2013 Fr. Emil Kapaun received the Medal of Honor for his sacrifice and service as a US Army Chaplin from 1944 to 1951 where he died as a Prisoner of War. His story is a great witness to his serving his God and Country. He is being considered for sainthood as well as his many awards including the Medal of Honor, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, and Combat Infantryman Badge. Here is the official citation as he received the Medal of Honor Citation:
Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun, while assigned to Headquarters Company, 8th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Cavalry Division, distinguished himself by extraordinary heroism, patriotism, and selfless service between Nov. 1-2, 1950. During the Battle of Unsan, Kapaun was serving with the 3rd Battalion of the 8th Cavalry Regiment. As Chinese Communist forces encircled the battalion, Kapaun moved fearlessly from foxhole to foxhole under direct enemy fire in order to provide comfort and reassurance to the outnumbered Soldiers. He repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire to recover wounded men, dragging them to safety. When he couldn’t drag them, he dug shallow trenches to shield them from enemy fire. As Chinese forces closed in, Kapaun rejected several chances to escape, instead volunteering to stay behind and care for the wounded. He was taken as a prisoner of war by Chinese forces on Nov. 2, 1950. After he was captured, Kapaun and other prisoners were marched for several days northward toward prisoner-of-war camps. During the march Kapaun led by example in caring for injured Soldiers, refusing to take a break from carrying the stretchers of the wounded while encouraging others to do their part. Once inside the dismal prison camps, Kapaun risked his life by sneaking around the camp after dark, foraging for food, caring for the sick, and encouraging his fellow Soldiers to sustain their faith and their humanity. On at least one occasion, he was brutally punished for his disobedience, being forced to sit outside in subzero weather without any garments. When the Chinese instituted a mandatory re-education program, Kapaun patiently and politely rejected every theory put forth by the instructors. Later, Kapaun openly flouted his captors by conducting a sunrise service on Easter morning, 1951. When Kapaun began to suffer from the physical toll of his captivity, the Chinese transferred him to a filthy, unheated hospital where he died alone. As he was being carried to the hospital, he asked God’s forgiveness for his captors, and made his fellow prisoners promise to keep their faith. Chaplain Kapaun died in captivity on May 23, 1951. Chaplain Emil J. Kapaun repeatedly risked his own life to save the lives of hundreds of fellow Americans. His extraordinary courage, faith and leadership inspired thousands of prisoners to survive hellish conditions, resist enemy indoctrination, and retain their faith in God and country. His actions reflect the utmost credit upon him, the 1st Cavalry Division, and the United States Army.
Knowing and Affirming Gospel Values
I have been talking a lot about basing our decisions and grounding our lives in the Gospel. I began to think about how someone might understand that and realized that I needed to explain a little more about the process to help that to come about. It seems to me that more and more, Christians are being told to keep their faith to themselves and if something is of faith that it has no value to society as a whole. I strongly disagree with this assessment and strongly believe that the Gospel is something that adds life and joy not only to us but also to society as a whole. That being said, what is the Gospel and how can we know we have the true Gospel? What steps can we take so that we foster Gospel values in our own lives? How do we balance those elements of our faith so that we don’t force dogmatic beliefs on others yet we do unleash the Good News of the Gospel so that it can have a positive effect on our society? These are all good questions and they are worth exploring. It is my hope that this reflection (about six pages) will be a help to at least get you started so that you will find the positive and life giving aspects of the Gospel and the values and morals contained within as something that will give life to you and those around you.