Coming Soon to a Church Near You

“Left Behind: World at War,” the third movie based on the Left Behind series of novels about Armageddon and the Second Coming of Jesus, will open tonight on 3,200 screens across the country. But it will not be shown in a single commercial theater.

Maybe it’s because the premise is fundamentally flawed?

Thirtieth Sunday of Ordinary Time

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
He said to him,
“You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

First of all, I’m sorry this reflection is late. I know some of you check this blog out frequently for lectionary reflections, and I appreciate that … you’ve been keeping me honest! So with that in mind, and my sincere apologies, let’s look at last Sunday’s scriptures.

Jesus quotes with all of the ease of being a good Jew the greatest commandments. He has been taught them from his youth, as all Jewish children would have been. (We’ll just let go for now the special knowledge he may have of these based on his divinity…) But the important part is his last sentence: The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. With all the skill of a good rabbi, Jesus sums up the scriptures in one call to action: love of God and love of neighbor.

It’s simple. As we dedicate ourselves to God and one another, we fulfill everything the law and prophets always tried to do. The Gospel, though, gives us the mechanism to really do it: freedom. God always meant for us to be truly free, and that freedom does not equal “license” or lawlessness. It does not equal doing whatever we want or expressing any thought that crosses our minds: our freedom cannot trample the rights and freedoms of others, or we have lost sight of the goal of the greatest commandments.

True freedom is ridding ourselves of the attachments that keep us from loving God and neighbor fully. Everything that holds us back and drags us down must be cut away mercilessly or we cannot love God and neighbor freely. And ironically, when we do not love God and neighbor freely, we are never really free.

The hard part is cutting away the attachments: the relationships that are not healthy; the entertainments that do not edify; the concern for self that does not let us reach out to others; the desire for success that manifests itself in greed. The list can get long, and it can be hard to identify those attachments in our lives. But the Psalmist today gives us the criteria:

I love you, O LORD, my strength,
O LORD, my rock, my fortress, my deliverer.

Whatever takes our eyes off this truth, this praise, this love of God who is our Savior, that must be cut away. Mercilessly.

This is painful, yes. But the payoff is great: true freedom.

It’s a small world, after all…

This is kind of an inside joke from CPE. We had a running thing about which songs would set off the various staff chaplains because it would be impossible to get them out of their heads. For M, it was … well, I can’t remember what it was; for William it was “It’s a Small World.” You get the idea, we all have those kinds of songs.

Well, I got to thinking about that again this week. On Monday, our Polish Schola sang for Mass. Of course, I couldn’t understand any of it, let alone pronounce any of it from the music given on the worship aid. So I just pretty much sat there and let the music happen.

But later in the day, the melody of one of the songs wouldn’t get out of my head. I realized that it was because I couldn’t sing the song in its entirety (heck, I couldn’t sing a word of it). So I just had to “enjoy” it all day long. Grrr.

The Burglar who Painted Like Mondrian

The Burglar who Painted Like Mondrian

This one, obviously, I read for pleasure. Lawrence Block’s burglar series, featuring ex-Burglar Bernie Rhodenbarr, is always good for a laugh and some light but often complicated whodunit action. The Burglar who Painted Like Mondrian is no exception. Bernie, his pal Carolyn, cop Ray Kirschmann, and the whole host of others are all colorful and well, colorful pretty much sums it up!

On the cultural side, this book also introduced me to the paintings of Mondrian, and his particular geometric style, which I had otherwise not heard of.

But the best part of reading books like this is that I read them for my own enjoyment, when so much of my reading is really other-directed. Not that I want to be selfish, but we’re all entitled to some recreation, and reading a mystery novel now and then (or even more often than that) is food for the soul in that it keeps us joyful about what we do.

Now I’m off to read a Blackie Ryan mystery. Don’t tell anyone at the seminary that!

The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

I just finished reading The Power and the Glory for my Theology of Priesthood class. I must say that I enjoyed the novel, and found it to be a quick read.

Quick as it was, though, there was a lot in there, of course. It was about failure, and how that failure can impact a community. It was about the dignity of priesthood, and how that can be lost or won, and what it really means. It was about pain and suffering, and how we need to fearlessly enter into it and move through it to redemption.

The story is of a priest in early 20th century Mexico, a time when in Mexico priests and the Church were forbidden. Priests were forced to marry, or were shot. The protaganist of this story is a priest who did not marry, and is now on the run from the law.

Was the priest a sinner or a saint? Well, probably the answer is the “Catholic Yes:” he was both/and … both a sinner and a saint. Throughout the story, he had a sense of his duty as a priest, and a concern for the souls entrusted to him. In the end, he gave up what he saw as his only salvation — a chance to confess his own sins — in order to possibly save someone else. Most of all, though, he looked back on the days when he wasn’t a wanted man to see that those were the days of corruption for him, and his journey to eventual martyrdom in his last days was the one that brought about his true conversion.

I still haven’t figured out why, but the theme of pain really stood out for me, especially at the end of the book. The pain of Mrs. Fellowes’s sick headache, the pain of the jefe in the dentist chair, and the pain which the priest himself feared as he went to his execution. Maybe there’s been enough pain and sadness in my own life lately, with all that’s happened this quarter at the seminary, that this theme really grabbed me. As I learned on CPE, the pain doesn’t go away — and it is largely unresolved in the book — but you cannot be afraid to enter into it and be in it. Redemption happens for those who enter into the pain; we just have to enter it fearlessly and trust the grace of the God who loves us and calls us; the God who lived and died for us; the God who offers us everlasting life.

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time

At that he said to them,
“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God.”

Whose image is this?

I think this statement begs the question, “What doesn’t belong to God?” I think I’ve often missed this irony on Jesus’ part.

After all, Jesus certainly wasn’t preaching that we should compartmentalize our lives: every part of our lives belongs to God, and we owe it all back to Him. Every moment of our time, every earthly treasure we may own, all of our talents and gifts, our health and well-being, our very breath … all of this belongs to God. And all of it has been given to us as a great trust.

We are stewards of all that we are and all that we have. We need to get it right, and to live every moment as though we were borrowing these great treasures from our generous and giving God.

The thought occurs to me that these words may seem empty to those who have comparatively little. Those who don’t have great health, or great wealth. The unemployed and those with financial troubles. The aged and lonely. So many have what seems to be great poverty. Yet many of those who might be considered very poor can teach the rest of us how to get it right. So many who have comparatively little give what little they have, knowing it belongs to God.

Because with God it doesn’t matter whether we’re wealthy or not, healthy or sick: what matters is that we use what we have for God’s purposes and that we sing with the Psalmist:

Give to the LORD, you families of nations,
give to the LORD glory and praise;
give to the LORD the glory due his name!

28th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Wedding Garment

“But when the king came in to meet the guests,
he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.
The king said to him, ‘My friend, how is it
that you came in here without a wedding garment?’
But he was reduced to silence.
Then the king said to his attendants, ‘Bind his hands and feet,
and cast him into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.’”

Deacon Bob at my home parish today spoke of this parable as a case of someone wanting the Kingdom of heaven, but on his own terms. That really struck a chord with me. I had been thinking about the whole idea of the wedding garment as I lived with this Scripture this week. It’s a colorful detail that’s really hard to overlook in this parable, and I think it has to be explained homiletically.

It probably stands out because it can be seen as an example of Jesus being unfair. If the man was poor, as we can perhaps surmise from the fact that he was brought in off the street, how could Jesus have expected him to be in a proper garment? But we’re told by scholars that at the time, when someone threw a wedding feast, they provided the regal garments for their guests to wear. So Jesus wasn’t expecting the man to do anything difficult: he was invited, he presumably knew the custom, he was provided with a proper and beautiful garment, but he refused to put it on. He wanted to be at the feast, but on his terms, not those of the host.

The feast foreshadows the great wedding feast in the Kingdom of heaven to which we are all invited. Jesus goes so far as to have his servants call people in off the streets, from the highways and biways; he has his servants bring people in from wherever they are. And that’s the wonderful thing about the heavenly banquet: all are welcome, indeed, all are brought in, no matter what kind of garment they are currently wearing, because our God longs to meet us where we are.

And we are provided with a beautiful garment: in baptism we can clothe our souls in a garment that is regal and perfect. Our task is to put on that garment, to preserve the beauty of that garment and bring it unstained to the heavenly banquet. That’s the part that calls for our response: we have to accept the invitation, put on the garment, and preserve its beauty until the day that we are called to the banquet.

But there are so many problems that enter in. We are tempted in so many ways to accept ways of life that stain that garment, or even cause us to take it off completely. We may think we’ll have time to put it on and clean it up later, whenever later may be. We still want to be at the banquet, but we want to get there on our own terms. And it doesn’t work that way.

God forbid that we would arrive without the proper garment. God forbid that we would arrive with that garment in horrible condition. We have been given so much: the free invitation, the free garment, and all it takes is our own response. We have to accept it all on God’s terms, whose ways are not our ways, and whose thoughts are not our thoughts. So may we all accept the Kingdom on God’s terms that we might exclaim with the Psalmist:

You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
for years to come.

Guardian Angels, Watch Over Us

Guardian AngelsIf this hadn’t been Sunday (not that Sunday is bad mind you … the Resurrection is the summit of all our feasts), this would have been the feast of the Guardian Angels. I remember being very young (four or five, maybe) and mom teaching me the prayer:

Dear angel of God, my guardian dear,
to whom God’s love commits me here,
ever this day be at my side,
to watch and guard,
to rule and guide.

This prayer got me through things even in my adult life when I didn’t know what else to pray. I remember being not so young (thirty maybe) and getting ready to have my tonsils removed, of all things. That prayer got me through the pre-op procedures that had me just a little scared.

Who doesn’t need a guardian angel these days?

27th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Finally, brothers and sisters,
whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious,
if there is any excellence
and if there is anything worthy of praise,
think about these things.
– Philippians 4:8-9

One of my favorite passages of Scripture today. It always makes me think twice about what I’m thinking about. A lot of the stuff we let ourselves see, well, we weren’t created to see. God wants nothing for the best for us, and He provides that. But we have to open our eyes to it and close our eyes to the false, the dishonorable, the unjust, the impure, the ugly, the ingracious, the mediocre and everything not praiseworthy. That’s a decision we have to make every day … every moment of every day. Those decisions get us a little closer to the Kingdom all the time.

Blessed are your eyes

Turning to the disciples in private he said,
“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see.
For I say to you,
many prophets and kings desired to see what you see,
but did not see it,
and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”

During my CPE experience, this was a quotation of Scripture that greatly consoled many of us. We saw a lot of nasty stuff in those days, but we also saw some things that were really holy. People who died after a wonderful old life, ready to go to the kingdom; families who rallied around a sick or injured member; spiritual growth in our fellow chaplain interns. It was a blessed time, and I think we always knew that, even in the crazy times.

How true that is in everyday life. We see a lot of things that we would rather not see, but if we are looking and attentive, we see a lot of God’s grace at work as well. And blessed are we to see it.

The question for me right now — as difficult as it is to be at seminary now with the grief of our tragedies and the craziness of the Apostolic Visitation — is what is it that I am seeing that blesses my eyes; what is it that I am hearing that blesses my ears? That will be the focus of my prayer in these days.

Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, pray for us.