Sunday, May 30, 2010

Ordinary Time, Still Extraordinary Grace

This past Monday, May 23, as I walked into the chapel for daily mass, I was struck by something that I don't recall ever having taken such particular notice of before.  Everything was green.  The white of the Easter season was gone, and had been replaced with the green that will decorate the sanctuary for the next 27 or so weeks, until the beginning of Advent season.  Sure I've noticed the color change before, but the full spiritual significance of it never captured my attention like it did six days ago.

The white of Easter tends to draw our eyes upward to the joy and the glory of Christ's Resurrection and conquering of the plague of sin and death.  It is the most joyous season, and rightly refocuses our attention toward Heaven, and what God has in store for his faithful ones.  It can be tempting for us to want to stand with our gaze fixed on the promise of eternal glory, and, like Peter, James, and John before the Transfigured Christ, to want to pitch a tent there and forget about the work that remains to be done in the world: "Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah" (Matthew 17:4).

But, the Easter season has passed, and the shift into Ordinary Time echoes the words of the angels who drew the Apostles' attention back down from the sky after Christ's Ascension: "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come again the same as you saw him go into heaven" (Acts 1:11).  The promise is unchanged and always remains with us, but our attention is now refocused on the gravity of the immediate task ahead.  Now we have to take the same spirit of worship, joy, and blessing with which the Apostles returned to Jerusalem (cf Lk 24:52-53) and, armed with the grace and power of the Spirit that we have witnessed, to go out into our world and do what the color green traditionally reminds us to do: to get to work growing the Church by spreading the Gospel into the world, so that when the Master returns we can present him with a bountiful harvest.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"God is not dead. He isn't even tired." Christendom College Commencement Address, May 15, 2010, by Dr. Charles Rice

This an incredible commencement address by Dr. Rice.  Our society stands at the crossroads of a stark choice, to turn back toward God and be spared like Nineveh, or continue unrepentant and be destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah.

"God is not dead. He isn't even tired."

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Right Tools for the Job

"It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Acts 1: 7-8

Anyone who has ever done any work with tools (which is, more or less, everyone) knows that the first step is to make sure you have all the tools for the job.  Trying to plane wood with a drill or turn a screw with a hammer simply won't get done what you need to get done.  The same is true of us.  When it comes down to it, we are created to "know God, to love him, and to serve him."  To serve him means to allow ourselves to be used as he would use us; in other words, on his terms, not on ours.

Jesus knew that we could not accomplish the work on our own.  We are simply too weak-willed, too stubborn, too selfish, and too fearful to take up the mission that he commanded the Apostles to take up.  That fear started with the Apostles themselves, who first abandoned Jesus in his hour of greatest trial, after the whole ordeal locked themselves in a house for fear of the Jews (cf Jn 20:19), and then after he had ascended and they selected Matthias to replace Judas, they sat in waiting, not really sure what to do or where to go from the whirlwind of the past 50 days in Jerusalem.  I don't blame them; any of us having gone through the same events and now left without our leader, would have been afraid, lost, and confused too.  They were workers, sent out to do a job, but they didn't yet have the right tools.

Today we celebrate the day when Christ fulfilled his first promise, that even as he was leaving to return to the Father, he would remain with us and give us what he knew we would need: his Spirit, with all of his power and authority, to mark us, seal us in faith, and be for us "the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God's own people" (Eph 1:14).  It is easy to forget the fact that this is the same Spirit that brought Christ to earth as a man in the great mystery of the Incarnation, and the Spirit that raised him from the dead back into eternal life and glory, is now ours for the claiming.  That same Spirit comes to us now and gives us the very same power, transforming us from being slaves to our human nature and living in fear of our mortality; it "joins with our spirit to bear witness that we are children of God."

While giving us the ability to look to the Father as Christ did, the Spirit also gives us the "spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline" (2 Tim 1:7) that we need to persevere during our life here on earth. It gives us the gifts that the prophet Isaiah (11:2) foretold would come to rest on Christ and his Church: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord (CCC 1831).  He possesses them in their fullness, and in sending his Spirit now shares them completely and unreservedly with us to join him in loving obedience as sons and daughters of a loving Father; a Father who, as in the story of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32), sees us from far off, is filled with compassion, and is already preparing a celebration beyond our wildest imagination.

I like receiving gifts, especially tools.  To have been given such a complete "package" of gifts as we are given in the Holy Spirit is beyond any capacity I have to be grateful in return.  The best way to show our gratitude, as with any gift, is to use the gifts as they were intended.  So, let us do that.  Let us live as beloved children, and be "witnesses to the ends of the earth" of his unimaginable love and plans for us.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Identity Crisis

As I watch the news lately, I find myself thinking, what is happening to us as a society?  Where are we going (or not going)?  Though I generally discount the media's tendency to sensationalize sex, violence, and whatever else brings in ratings, I can't help but thinking, is there something more beneath the surface?

The short answer is, yes, there is.

We, as a society, are in the midst of an identity crisis.  Despite what the media would have us believe, it is nothing new; the identity crisis has manifested itself more than I care to count in various places and times since the beginning of human history.  However, it is only recently that global interconnectedness has allowed us to see all of the recent instances of the crisis occuring together, and in near real time.  The question is a question of the human condition in general, but churns at the same time in the hearts and minds of each of us individually as we grasp for meaning in life, and pain and suffering in particular.

The question is, what does it mean to be a human being?

This question has been asked since the day our ancestors turned their backs on God and were forced from the Garden.  Before the fall, they walked with God as friends, and knew only to turn to the source of all life--their Creator--for the answer to that question.  However, by turning their backs on Him and separating themselves from Him, as we do every time we sin as individuals and as a society, they distanced themselves so that the only place they were left to turn was to look within themselves and their own brokenness and sinfulness: "Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked" (Gen 3:7).

However, God, having known what happened, immediately condemned the deceiver and promised a remedy to be able to return to that face-to-face relationship that he destined us for. "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head, and you will strike his heel" (Gen 3:15).  He promised us an answer to the crisis that our ancestors found themselves in, and that we continue to struggle with in the present day.  That answer would be his very own Word, and not only spoken as it was in the creation, but come among as as a flesh-and-blood human being.  As he always does, he made good on his promise, and in the most sublime and humble way imaginable: he became one of us to show us who we are and why we are created.  Christ came not only to tell us, but also to show us, that we are beloved sons and daughters of the Father.  He demonstrated by his life, death, Resurrection, and Ascension, how we are to live as beloved children and what unimaginable good the Father has in store if we do.

So what roll does obedience play in all of this?  To put it simply, it is the only way to reclaim and return to that identity.  Unfortunately, it is also our biggest stumbling block.  Because of that original sin, as discussed in the previous post, we have a sort of default toward disobedience.  Because of the choice of our original parents, and carried down in the sins of every parent since, we are conceived in its twistedness.  So, we must make a choice, first in baptism (as our parents and Godparents chose for us) but also in the gift of each day and each moment, whether to obey or disobey.

When we humble ourselves to obey, we don't have to continue to grovel and grasp for our sense of identity.  We are freed to recognize that it has already been given to us, and in the greatest way imaginable.  Christ himself became our identity, and as St. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4-5, allows us now to live in a relationship of faith and trust in the Father through him, in the sure knowledge that if we do we will see him face to face:

So we do not lose heart.  Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.  For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.

For in this [earthly] tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.  For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.  He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.

2 Corinthians 4:16-18; 5:2-3,5, 21
That is our identity.  There is our worth, not in being productive or wealthy or influential or any of the other dozens of false identities that this world would have us believe that we have to earn, but that in short time will pass away like the wind.  Our identity is the eternal and unfading righteousness of God, which can only be found by humbling and denying ourselves, and looking instead to the Other.

Turning away from that in disobedience can only lead us in one direction: back down into the dregs of groping for who we are, and being unable to raise ourselves from where we began and where the world continues to struggle.  If we reject Christ, we will continue to struggle with questions of life and death, the value of human life, and the choice to love and serve God in freedom or to become enslaved to the demands of society and who it tells us we ought to be, instead of resting secure in the identity that Christ himself has already given to us.

Monday, May 3, 2010

From the Mouths (or Attitudes) of Babes

We do not need to look any further for concrete evidence of our own tendency to disobey than our own children.  Before I get any further in I must say, my wife and I have not been blessed with the gift of children yet.  However, she has always had a knack for identifying and shaping childrens' spirits.  Those skills were fine tuned during the several years she spent as an elementary school teacher, so when she speaks or points out anything child-related that I as a hopeful dad need to know, I do my best to listen.

One trait that she identified and first pointed out to me a couple of years ago was an innate tendency in the vast majority of young children to pursue their own narrow-sighted will over the protective and broader-scoped will of their parents.  Any of you who have children know exactly what I'm talking about: insistence on sticking metal objects into unprotected electrical outlets, ingesting harmful substances that happen to look like Kool-Aid, and turning just about any manner of household tool into an implement of danger and destruction, sometimes over and over again with the same less-than-pleasant effect.  As we've observed our friends and loved ones begin to raise  their children, sometimes we cannot help but stand in puzzled awe wondering exactly what must've been going through that child's mind.  Little children need nearly constant protection from themselves.

We can also probably remember in our own not-so-distant pasts, well into our teens and young adulthood, instances where we defied our parents' loving cautions because, ultimately, we thought we knew better.  It's not until we reached the age of having kids ourselves that we realized, for the most part, mom and dad were usually right.  Of course there are exceptions to the rule: negligent or unloving parents who seriously faltered in their responsibility of shepherding children into responsible adulthood, but for now I'm just focusing on the well-meaning, "normal" (as much as I generally abhor the use of that word) parents that most of us had.  As a child and teenager, my dad's punishment often seemed to be an unreasonable, arbitrary, and autocratic laying down of the law.  One day, though, that all changed.  I don't remember the exact date, but I do remember the feeling when when God gave me a serious adjustment in perspective.  Looking back now as a bona fide grown-up, I realize that without the discipline he and my mom gave, there's at least a fair chance that I wouldn't be here writing this post today.

Now let's apply the illustration to a bigger parent-child relationship, between our heavenly Father and we, his adopted children.  (Yes, I stress adopted; more on that in a later post).  Does it often seem that God--and his representative body, the Church--lay down a bunch of arbitrary, unfair "thou shalts" and "thou shalt nots"?  It did for me, until a few years ago, right about the same time that my perspective of my earthly Father's discipline changed.  Coincidence?  I think not.  It is not until we ask for and willingly receive the grace that God freely offers, to see things more and more from his perspective, that we're ever able to rise out of our rebellious, sinful, and ultimately self-destructive tendencies.  Until we invite him in, we remain ignorant infants in faith, blinded by our own headstrong willfulness and unable to understand why he put so many rules in place, first on the two stone tablets given to Moses, later in the laws handed to the Levites, and finally by sending his own Son--his very Word--to live among us, speak to us, and show us the way back to the Father as our brother and fellow human being.  He gave us all of those rules and commandments for one reason: because he loves us as any parent loves their child, except infinitely so, and in that love decided to save us from ourselves.  If we do not follow them, we are like the headstrong child who, left without parental intervention, would eventually do themselves in, all the while thinking, "I know better."

Christ, the God-man, died for us and in the process of his living and dying on earth.  He obeyed, even though his humanity led him to dread fear of the horrible death that he knew he was being led to so much that "his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground" (Lk 22:44)  Yet in the end he surrendered, as he always had, to the Father's will; "not my will but yours be done" (Lk 22:42).  In the process, he gave us the perfect example of how to live as obedient children.  If we join him, we can be assured that our all-powerful and infinitely loving Father will reward us with the eternal glory of Easter Sunday.