Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Reflections, Pope's Resignation

It’s old news by now, but it is and will continue to be of great importance for the Church.  Pope Benedict XVI will step down as Pope on February 28, the first Pontiff to do so in more than 600 years.  I am sure there are many Catholics and others who could not even imagine that happening.  Others, while taken by surprise, consider it reasonable, even good, given the situation of the Pope’s health and the Church’s needs.  And there will always be some people, antagonistic toward the Church, who will rejoice at this as just another “nail” in the Catholic Church’s coffin.

What is clear to us whose faith is firm in Christ is that the Church won’t falter one bit by the resignation of this Pope.  The Church is the Body of Christ, with Christ himself as the Head.  Twenty centuries of history have seen popes, bishops, priests and faithful come and go for various, and sometimes very disturbing, reasons.  But the Church herself remains on mission and will do so until Christ returns at the end of time.  Pope Benedict has made a clear statement that the Catholic Church is bigger than her leader and will not lose her way with his retirement, any more than it did 600 years ago when another Pope retired.

Our Catholic community will now send its Cardinals into “conclave,” that experience of being prayerfully sequestered in the Vatican for the purpose of electing Benedict’s successor.  There will be days of black and, then, white smoke from the chimney high above St. Peter’s square.  But within a short time, to be sure, the new Spirit-chosen Pope will appear on the balcony of the Basilica to greet and bless us.  Then he and we will get on again with the urgent mission entrusted to us all, that of bringing the Good News and Christ’s saving grace to the world.

The Catholic Church has been one of—if not the most—significant institutions in the history of the last twenty centuries.  She has ministered to grave sinners and produced great saints.  She has been the inspiration and guide for every major development and human advancement in the history of the West, from universities to hospitals, from science to art, from liberating political systems to social justice.   Those who do not know this simply do not know history and speak foolishly about her.  True, the Church has not been a perfect mother, but a great mother nonetheless.  And she is all of us, with this or that Pope temporarily at the helm, but with all of us, the baptized in every age, drawing the human family forward toward the final Kingdom in fidelity to the Gospel.  The next Pope will be Catholic like that and we pray he will keep us like that, too.

Let us now ask for the descent of the Holy Spirit in the Sistine Chapel.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

TableTalk, First Sunday Lent 2013

What I see in the first reading of this Sunday’s liturgy from the Book of Deuteronomy is a little Jewish fellow tickled pink and humming his way toward Jerusalem and into its Temple.  He is obviously joyful.  He is remembering the history of his father, “a wandering Aramean,” who went down into Egypt, only to be mistreated as a alien, oppressed with hard labor and afflicted in every dimension of his life.  But God acted “with terrifying power, with signs and wonders.”  And his father and all his descendants thereafter came into the “land of milk and honey,” the land of promise.  It was all God’s doing and so the Jewish man, smiling, takes his little basket with the first fruits of his fields to offer them to God in the Temple.

When have you ever felt such joy?  Was it on your wedding day or at the birth of your first child?  What is when you finally made a big accomplishment or received the gift of a lifetime?  Was it when you knew you were finally delivered from some terrible tragedy?

In the Gospel reading from Luke today, Jesus must have felt real joy in the desert after his three temptations by the devil.  He flexed his spiritual muscles and won in a way the people of Israel failed to do in the desert after leaving Egypt.  We are told elsewhere in Scripture that God was sometimes joyful enough to sing over Israel like someone sings at a festival.  Joy was what David was feeling when he danced enthusiastically before the Ark of the Covenant.  And John the Baptist leapt for joy in the womb of his mother Elizabeth over the presence of Jesus, still hidden in his own mother’s womb.

This is what Christian life is supposed to be like:  a deep, abiding joy in the heart.  Christians know that the Death and Resurrection of Jesus smashed every dark power that would hold human happiness back.  This is the Gospel message.  He rescued our bodies from death, our minds from ignorance, our hearts from hatred, our spirits from despair.  Jesus’ Death and Resurrection put us permanently in the loving heart of God. 

The seed of this kind of joy was planted in us in our Baptism and it is that seed that we are asking Christ to water especially on this Sunday of Lent.  Joy is a fruit of the Spirit of Jesus that marks Christian life.  We Christians live joyfully because, as our second reading today from Romans tells us, “The word is near you, in your heart and in your mouth. . . . No one who believes in him will be put to shame. . . . Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”  So, no matter what happens in our life, no matter how negative things can get to be, we are able to cope.

Our Christian joy is meant to be catchy.  The world around us craves joy, our families, our businesses and our schools, our neighborhoods and society.  Even the U.S. Constitution declares to a searching world that one of our inalienable rights is “the pursuit of happiness.” 

Do you remember the Wendy’s commercial some years back, “Where’s the beef?”  That is really the world expressing its deep desire and hope for joy, whether it be the people of Africa or China, the people of Europe or Latin America.  Everywhere and always the human heart wants to celebrate.

And that is exactly what joy leads to:  celebration.  We Catholics celebrate everything—even funerals.  We celebrate especially at Mass.   We come here, each of us, with experience of the love of God in our lives this past week.  We have our stories.  We come to give thanks together and to encourage one another.  We come to celebrate what God has done in the Death and Resurrection of Christ and will continue to do in our Christian lives.  At Mass, we are like the little Jewish man carrying his basket of first fruits to the Temple.  We are like Jesus in the desert feeling triumphant in God.

How could Mass on Sunday not be a celebration, except that perhaps we have forgotten about or are not in touch with God’s activity in our own lives?  How could Mass be boring for people who have brought their saved lives to it?  This is a church full of “saved people,” who know it and are grateful for it.

The celebration in this “room” should catch the attention of the whole neighborhood.  The singing and praying should be heard beyond the walls of this church.  The neighborhood, indeed the world, needs to see us smiling at one another, greeting one another in peace.  It needs to see us eating and drinking the “heavenly food” of the Eucharist together.  Our celebration is about God and God with us, and the whole world should feel welcome to join us.

To be a Catholic is to celebrate both in church and outside church, in our personal prayer, in our family life, in our study and work, even in our difficulties.  Nothing will draw attention to the Church more than our celebration.

We celebrate Lent as a parish this year with the theme of Cana in Galilee.  We want it to be a time for asking Christ fill up our water jars as a parish with new wine as he did at Cana.  On this first Sunday of Lent, we at St. Joseph are asking Christ to fill the water jar we name “Celebration” with the new wine of joy.  We pray for wider smiles on our faces, lighter spirits as we live our everyday lives.  We pray for a deeper celebration in our liturgies.  As we prepare for Easter, we want to remind ourselves and show the world, too, why and how to celebrate.  

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

TableTalk, Sunday 5C

In a few days, on Wednesday of this coming week, Lent will begin.  In the spiritual experience of the prophet Isaiah that is recounted in the first reading of this Sunday’s liturgy we have a kind of template, a model for the meaning of Lent.  We see Isaiah first in the presence of the Almighty, acknowledging that he is a “man of unclean lips in the midst of a people of unclean lips.”  Then follows the angel touching a burning ember to his lips.  Finally, the experience ends with Isaiah saying, “Send me.”

Lent is first of all about owning up to having “unclean lips,” a symbol of the sinfulness of the whole person.  Lents begins with this confession.  The roots of Lent are found in the great debate in the early Church about whether a Christian who has seriously sinned after baptism could be reconciled to God and the community of the Church.  There were two groups in dispute.  The opinion of the first was “Absolutely not!”  The Baptismal vows were seriously broken and the offender was excluded forever.  The other group was more moderate, remembering the words of Jesus about mercy and forgiving, even seventy times seven.  The moderates won the argument in that period of the Church.

The proposed resolution was this:  the Christian sinner could be reconciled, but only once in his or her lifetime.  The path to reconciliation was to be a public confession (the sins involved were already public, e.g., adultery, idolatry, murder, etc.) in the presence of the Church community and its leader. This confession of sin is echoed in the second reading of the liturgy today in Paul’s admission to being the worst of sinners who persecuted the Church of Christ.  It is also reflected in the words of Peter in the Gospel, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.”  The public sinner was then “marked” by having to wear special penitential clothing and standing at the door of the Church to beg for the prayers of the faithful.   Here we see the beginning of the tradition of Ash Wednesday.

Lent is also about the touch of the burning ember to the lips of Isaiah. That represents the “ouch” of Lent.  The public sinner in the early Church was given a life-long, severe penance that in some way addressed the sin (e.g., never eating meat again, refraining from sexual relationship with the spouse, etc.).   The repenting sinner was given a period of forty days to “practice” the penance, to demonstrate sincerity.  This developed into the season of Lent.  (While the reconciliation process was occurring during this period, the catechumens were also preparing for Baptism at the Easter Vigil.)  The sinners presented themselves again to the Bishop and community for absolution on Holy Thursday, thus preparing the way for the Easter celebration as a kind of “second Baptism” for those seeking reconciliation.  But the penance continued until death.

Finally, Lent is about the “Send me” declaration of Isaiah.  Every purification from sin is really oriented to re-assuming one’s place in the mission of God in the world.  St. Paul refers to this today as the “hard toil of preaching” and the Apostles expressed the same when they “left everything and followed him.”

As our Lent begins on Wednesday, we are marked on the forehead with ashes.  This is much more than a simple act of Catholic piety and devotion.  It is a statement before the whole community that we recognize ourselves—and want everyone else to recognize us—as people of “unclean lips,” as sinners.   We impose a Lenten penance on ourselves that is more than a conventional gesture of mortification or sacrifice.  Giving up chocolates or TV is not bad, but the Lenten penance should be directly related to our sin.  It wants to repair our past in some way and equip us for a future that is new.  Our penance is the “ouch” experience of Lent.

Perhaps one or another of us wonders whether any real change is possible for us, whether we can be reborn again in God’s grace.  We need only to recall the words of St. Paul about the great grace of God to one who was the greatest of sinners and persecutor of the Church of Christ.  We need only to remember the fishing incident in today’s Gospel when Jesus asks a reluctant Peter to put down his nets into deeper water for a catch.  Peter was not inclined to do that because, to him, there were no more fish!  But there are always fish!  There is always the possibility of new life in God’s love for any of us.

Lent leads to Easter, to the renewal of the Baptismal promises, to recommitting to the work of the Kingdom given to each of us in his or her own life.  The celebration of Easter after the “ouch” of Lent sends us back into work for the Kingdom of God.

The quality of our Lent is meant to have enormous impact on my own person.  There can be important change in me.  But Lent also impacts the integrity of the Church and its mission.  Through the experience of Lent, I become more of my best self and, therefore, the Church becomes powerful for its work.  And the condition of the world is also changed my good Lent.  My sin deprived the world of some goodness.  My repentance gives it a better chance to know Christ and be inspired to love and justice.

So, Lent begins with the “Woe is me!” of Isaiah and continues with the “ouch” of the burning ember of penance to unclean lips.  Lent finishes, finally, with the renewal of Baptismal life and mission.

When any of us steps forward this Ash Wednesday to be marked with the ashes, this is its meaning.