Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Holy Family

So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful.
Colossians 3:12-15 NASB
. . .
'Do you have children?' I asked. It was the staff Christmas party, and I'd been talking about the preparations around our house. Just small talk, you know, the conversations with folks you like (if you're me, anyway), but hardly know. Hence the question. I was wholly unprepared for the response: 'We had four children, but our eldest child died...' Four years ago, I think he said, and continued about the other three in a way that directed the conversation toward the living.
I thought to myself afterward that it is true, that saying that everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle. There is always more to be known, more experience and complexity than we think. I think this especially with folks my age and older, but I remember my teenage and young adult years vividly enough to recall the anxious and vast interior landscape I inhabited then. It's only in retrospect that those years are carefree. In the moment--at least I think for many--there are cares enough.
Becoming a mother shifted that landscape like a movement along the mother of all fault lines. (No pun intended.) All the geographical features of my inner life had to trade places, and make space for the Big, New Reality: a child. And aftershock follows aftershock, as my heart and mind adjust to the new terrain. Before children, I might have been accused from time to time of wearing my heart on my sleeve. More than once, I have been called a 'bleeding heart' liberal. But now? To keep my heart as close as my sleeve would be a great accomplishment: it has left my body and gone outside to kick a football; it naps in the next room; it plays downstairs with tanks and dolls.
I cannot imagine living without it; can't imagine what life would be like were a part of my heart to die. But that's motherhood, after the example of the Mother of God; that's family. Sometimes I think I see what it is that is so special about families, why God chose a family to be the space in which to come among us. If I have glimpsed it, I've not managed to find the words for it. Something about the way our hearts get parceled out and mingled together; something about the company one so needs in battle; something about the way we learn to bend and straighten, as we must, to make space, to give strength.
I know I am a long way, we are a long way, from that familial holiness that Mary and Joseph and Jesus display. Praying for more grace in 2013...

Monday, December 17, 2012

8th day before Christmas

"Judah is a lion's whelp;
From the prey, my son, you have gone up.
He crouches, he lies down as a lion,
And as a lion, who dares rouse him up?
Genesis 49:9 NASB
. . . . .
'It's always like that,' says the magician, Coriakin, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. 'You can't keep him; it's not as if he were a tame lion.' The lion in question is Aslan, of course, who has just vanished. Someone working on some Bible studies to accompany Rowan Williams' recent book on Narnia asked this week what passage I might use to illustrate the idea that Aslan is not a tame lion. My first thought (which is apparently the consensus) was to use the description of Jesus cleansing the temple.
But this Sunday in church, as I looked around at the images of Christ and watched my own children fidget, as children do, I thought, why not the story about Jesus being found in the temple? What about Jesus the strong-willed child? Not unruly, perhaps; one wouldn't want to ascribe unruliness to the Messiah, after all. There is, however, a strength of character that might present itself as a stubborn streak, or a tendency to wander.
I find myself increasingly resistant to images of Jesus that depict him as nice, anodyne. 'He went around doing good,' and that's pretty much the extent of it. No. I am just not convinced that Jesus came that we might be nice to each other. He came that we might have life abundantly, and he never shrank back from the purpose for which he came. Perhaps he wasn't an unruly child, but he was at least a tad unpredictable--there was no expectation that he would wander off. If he'd been prone to such things, Mary and Joseph surely would have kept a closer watch on him. (I know something about this, having a daughter who is prone to just this sort of wandering: she keeps you on your toes.)
He is not a tame lion. He tries our patience and sometimes frightens us; he refuses to stay in the habitats we build for him. And just when we think we've nabbed him (as the disciples did in the breaking of bread after their conversation on the road to Emmaus), he vanishes. 'Gone!' said the magician. 'And you and I quite crestfallen.' Indeed.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Second Saturday in Advent

O shepherd of Israel, hear us,
shine forth from your cherubim throne.
O Lord, rouse up your might;
O Lord, come to our help.
Psalm 80 [79]

. . . . . .

'Hear us.' What more is there to pray, when the world is upside down? Darkness has visited--death has invaded. Hear us, author of life; rouse up your might, you who have triumphed over the grave. You are the One who makes all things new, help us.

I confess that my geography is not that good; I don't know whether I am halfway between Connecticut and Syria. But I do know that whether I look to the east, or I look to the west, I see parents grieving the loss of their children. I see violence--terror on every side--and I cannot believe that any of us is safe. The world appears to me as a place of suffering and pain. Why there, O Lord? And why the children?

I am a theologian by inclination and by training; I know that's not one we can answer. I pray for those grieving, and those standing beside them: 'O shepherd of Israel, hear us, shine forth from your cherubim throne.' Speak peace, speak comfort, and bring light where it seems darkness has overtaken us. 'O Lord, rouse up your might; O Lord, come to our help.'

Thursday, December 13, 2012

St Lucy

I, the Lord, your God,
 I am holding you by the right hand;
I tell you--do not be afraid;
 I will help you.

Do not be afraid, Jacob, poor worm,
 Israel, puny mite.
I will help you--it is the Lord who speaks--
 the Holy One of Israel is your redeemer.
                                                 Isaiah 41

.        .        .

'Do not be afraid...puny mite.' These words fall on anxious ears today. Some days I find it easy to identify with the 'poor worm' or 'puny mite'--today is one of those days. I should no longer find it odd that on the days when I feel most crushed, most empty, that I am least likely to stop by the well and drink. Against my desire to keep striving, I pause. And I am struck in these verses by the repetition of two things: the reassurance that it is the Lord who is speaking, and the admonition 'do not be afraid.'

I am a small and weak creature, though some days I may deceive myself into thinking otherwise. But it is precisely in realizing this truth about myself--poor worm--that I am reminded that my size and strength are not at issue. The Lord speaks, and speaks the truth: 'I am holding you by the right hand' and there is nothing to fear. Whatever it is that speaks fear is not the Lord speaking, for the Lord speaks peace and courage, the Lord speaks help and comfort.

Come, Word of God, and speak light into my darkness.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Blessed Virgin of Guadalupe

The trust you have shown
shall not pass from the memories of men
but shall ever remind them
of the power of God.
Judith 13: 19
. . .
My first encounter with the Virgin of Guadalupe was historical and cultural rather than religious. Since I grew up in Southern California and studied Spanish, I was bound to come across the "legend" of Juan Diego and the appearance of the virgin. That account of the event has always been dominant in my memory--but today I saw it a bit differently, thanks to the verse from the book of Judith.
The trust Mary showed, the confidence that made it possible for her to say yes to the angel Gabriel, isn't her possession at all. If Mary is an example for us of discipleship, what she shows us is that the grace of God always precedes the opportunity to say yes. It is the power of God that makes obedience possible. And the experience of Juan Diego, as it is remembered this month, should remind us of the power of God. The fact that Juan Diego encountered the Blessed Virgin is not about Juan Diego, or even about Mary. The miracle of the imprint and the roses is about God, still reaching through our disbelief and fear.
Deo gratias.

Monday, December 10, 2012

St John Roberts, and others

Strengthen all weary hands,
steady all trembling knees,
and say to all faint hearts,
'Courage! Do not be afraid.'
                            Isaiah 35

.     .     .

Courage! I am struck by the admonition to courage, partly because it seems to me that what the weary hands need is strength, or even rest. Perhaps, though, that says more about my own tiredness than it does about this bit of Isaiah 35. The verse above is from the famous bit (to my mind, anyway): the eyes of the blind will be opened; the ears of the deaf will hear; the chains of the lame will be broken, and streams will flow in deserts of fear. So it will be when God's kingdom comes.

But why courage? I suppose that I have always read this verse in Isaiah 35 with its echo in Hebrews 12 in mind. There the strengthening is paired with making level paths for the feet of the one who is lame, so that 'what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather may be healed.' To keep on the road when it seems impossible to go any farther requires courage as well as strength, though, doesn't it? We need faith that God will heal, will provide, will give rest and peace in the midst of turmoil and difficult work.

And my road is not actually as hard as all that: When I think of the martyrs, I am often reminded of the verse from Hebrews 12, which exhorts us to persevere, as we have 'not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood.' Today's 'others' include a St Edmund, St Eustace, and St Swithin--all of whom were Catholics martyred for their faith on this date (St John in 1610, the others in 1597). May perpetual light shine on them, even as their light marks the way forward for us.

Monday, December 3, 2012

St Francis Xavier

O House of Jacob, come,
 let us walk in the light of the Lord.
                                       Isaiah 2:5


The sun never gets very high in the sky these days. Advent brings late sunrises and early dusk, and 'the light of the Lord' in this verse from Isaiah reminds me of the warm light that glows in windows in the early evening. It beckons, and promises comfort.

But that isn't all, is it? Advent is a penitential season, a time of preparing our hearts for the Lord's appearing. Walking in the light of the Lord means transparent honesty as well as safety, letting the Holy Spirit search our minds and hearts, dispelling the darkness in which I, at least, often hide. There is no room for despair in Advent, no room for sin.

I needed to be inspired by St Francis Xavier today. I breathed a sigh of contentment and relief as I noted that it was his feast day today. He gave his life, spending it in preaching the Gospel and bringing the light of Christ to the nations. And as I remember him today, that same light falls on me as well. Let me walk in that light always.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Monday after Christ the King

Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
 and who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
 who does not lift up his soul to what is false,
 and does not swear deceitfully.
                                         Psalm 24 [23]: 3-4

.           .            .

So the RSV renders it. But the Jerusalem Bible glosses verse 4b: 'who desires not worthless things.' I know that the RSV is generally more accurate as is the NASB, my other go-to translation. Neither captures the ordinary, everyday misdirection of our hearts as straightforwardly as the Jerusalem Bible. It was 'desire' that caught my attention (as I read the daily Mass readings on universalis). How often I find myself desiring 'worthless things'.

I can't help but think about this in the time that often becomes the "run-up to Christmas". Not Advent proper, but the time of decorating, buying, wrapping and meal-planning that occupies mind and body so much of the time between mid-November and the 25th of December. Probably because I have four children, I am less apt to be setting my heart on the treasures and trinkets that might delight me on Christmas morning. But shifting the focus to what will delight them on Christmas morning doesn't turn my heart fully in the right direction: what delights me most on Christmas morning is their delight, and I find myself thinking about the trinkets and toys that will guarantee it. Telling myself "it's not about me; it's about the children" doesn't change the fact that I am looking to that momentary delight and focusing on how to obtain it.

Not, of course, that their delight is improper--and it is certainly a step in the right direction for my own heart to wish for that more than for anything else. I hope, however, that in the midst of the shopping and wrapping, the cooking and tree-trimming, that I will find my heart yearning to see Christmas because of the One whose coming we celebrate, and whose presence will delight our hearts for all eternity.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

St Cecilia

Let them praise his name with dancing
  and make music with timbrel and harp.
For the Lord takes delight in his people.
  He crowns the poor with salvation.
                                         Psalm 149: 6

Yes, a time is coming when your enemies will raise fortifications all round you...they will leave not one stone standing on another within you--and all because you did not recognize your opportunity when God offered it.
                                        Luke 19: 43-44

                                                   .            .             .

I remember reading an (unpublished) essay by John Howard Yoder when I was in graduate school. Since the two other theology students in my year group were both Mennonites, reading some Yoder was inevitable, and I benefited from my encounter with the Mennonite tradition. On the particular occasion these readings call to mind, however, I was troubled by the bit of Yoder I was reading. Although I hesitated to say so, I thought he was making a theological mistake. So I mentioned it to the friend I considered the most gentle and least likely to take my disagreement with Yoder as a personal affront. The problem was, I explained, that Yoder made it seem as if God's mercy had a boundary, and that we might test God's patience and find the place where it ends and his wrath begins. That's not what God is like, at least the God I believe in. I don't remember the conversation that ensued, really; I expect my friend tried to unpack this bit of Yoder for me, gently and irenically. He also suggested that my objection was actually a theological point and not pure affect. I will always be grateful for that affirmation, as I was very unsure of myself at the time.

The passage from the gospel reminds me of that encounter with Yoder because it seems here that God's mercy has run out. The same God that the Psalms celebrate and call us to praise for his faithfulness and steadfast love seems to abandon his people for failing to see clearly. Surely not! I think...but then it is Jesus who is speaking, and he ought to know. It's perplexing. How can the one whose mercies are "new every morning" allow our enemies to triumph? And, more importantly, will God really abandon me if I get it wrong, if I don't see which way he's directing me? Is there just one opportunity?

Of course Jerusalem is razed, the people go into exile, and then God restores the city and makes possible the rebuilding of the temple. God doesn't abandon his people forever. So I am right, in a sense: God does work all things together for good; in the end, all will be well. (If it's not ok, so the saying goes, it's not the end.) But that does not mean that we shouldn't work hard to see, and to allow God to clear the obstacles to our vision, so that we don't miss opportunities for blessing, or worse, go blithely into devastation because we weren't paying attention. God redeems. God restores. God will make all things new. We can trust that. And yet, as Rowan Williams points out, 'grace will remake, but will not undo.' Grace does not restrict our freedom, nor does it allow us to shirk our responsibility. Grace assures us that when we fail God, for lack of faith or vision, God will not fail us.

As 2 Timothy 2:13 has it: "even if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself."

Deo gratias.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

St Frances Xavier Cabrini

[Jesus Christ] sacrificed himself for us in order to set us free from all wickedness and to purify a people so that it could be his very own and would have no ambition except to do good.
                                                         Titus 2: 14

If you trust in the Lord and do good,
 then you will live in the land and be secure.
If you find your delight in the Lord,
 he will grant your heart's desire.
                                                        Psalm 37 [36]: 3-4

.           .          .

' ambition except to do good.'

I suppose it is no accident that this passage from Titus is set for today, when we remember St Frances Xavier Cabrini: her only ambition seems to have been precisely that. And her life shows the fruitfulness of that ambition. Refused admittance to two different convents, she persevered and ended by founding her own order. The desire to do good is born in a heart that delights in God, and it is just the sort of desire that the Lord grants.

My ambitions, I fear, are multiple and varied. Not that I am a particularly ambitious person, really. It's just that my to-do list (a bucket list, you might call it) consists of the things I'd like to accomplish, rather than being a catalogue of the ways I hope 'to do good.' Maybe I have it backwards. Maybe I ought to set my heart on doing good, of seeking the good works the Lord has prepared, that I might walk in them, rather than allowing my interests to lead and hoping that some good comes of what I choose to do.

To do that, I think, will require more grace. Fortunately the supply of that is endless.

Deo gratias.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Thursday in Ordinary Time

Consider the Lord and his strength;
 constantly seek his face.
Remember the wonders he has done,
 his miracles, the judgements he spoke.
                                             Psalm 104

.          .          .

'Constantly seek his face'. Sounds like good advice, but perhaps a bit hard to follow. it is difficult not simply because 'Practicing the Presence of God' is a serious spiritual discipline, nor just because sin wreaks havoc sin in our consciousness. It is difficult because God doesn't tend to show the face of God. Moses' famous glimpse was of the Lord's back, not his face.

So seeking the Lord's face challenges us (me!) in several ways at once. It does require of me an attentiveness that is difficult because of my frail and fallen human nature. I am not as strong as I think I am (thanks to Rich Mullins for pointing that out), and sin gets in the way, to complicate things further. And then there is the elusiveness of the one I seek. Gregory of Nyssa reflects on the Lord's elusiveness in his homilies on the Song of Songs. Like the lover in the Song, who pursues her beloved until she is certain she's nearly caught him, fully expecting to find him when she opens the bedchamber door, we grasp for 'the one whom [our] soul loves' and fail to catch hold of him. Seeking the Lord's face means reaching out into the darkness--sometimes through grief or despair--and knowing that what glimpses we get will not disclose it. Like the disciples who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus, we find that the Lord is revealed to us for a moment, in the breaking of the bread, and then vanishes from our sight.

Sigh. 'And you and I quite crestfallen,' as the Magician says to Lucy in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Crestfallen, perhaps, but not without hope: we 'remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, the judgements he spoke', and especially the promise that he will be with us always. So seek him we do, and must, in the confidence that although we may not 'find' him, he is always already here.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

St Marcellus

Husbands should love their wives just as Christ loved the Church and sacrificed himself for her to make her holy. He made her clean by washing her in water with a form of words, so that when he took her to himself she would be glorious, with no speck or wrinkle or anything like that, but holy and faultless. In the same way, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies...A man never hates his own body, but he feeds it and looks after it; and that is the way Christ treats the Church, because it is his body -- and we are its living parts.
                     Ephesians 5

                                                 .                      .                        .

I know Ephesians 5 often makes us squirm. This business about husbands and wives draws too near to Timothy's prohibitions on women speaking and teaching that vex us, or some of us. (As a teacher of theology in a co-educational setting, I find the text puzzling, but not inhibiting.)

But that isn't what interests me about the passage. What interests me about the passage is how it shows up later, in the writings of St Ignatius of Antioch. Ignatius wrote of the relationship between the bishop and his people in language reminiscent of this intimate connection of Christ and the church, or of husband and wife. The bishop ought to love the people as Christ loved the church, and the people ought to respect the bishop. There is a mutuality of love and care that seems far from the experience of the ecclesiastical hierarchy. St Ignatius even goes so far as to say that he had 'seen' the people, because the bishop and some of the church elders had visited him. The bishop--the clergy--and the people likewise are one flesh.

The unity of the church is no less mysterious or elusive as the unity of spouses in marriage. How are we 'one flesh'? I wonder this especially when we seem not to be of one mind, or when I trip over my spouse's shoes. How does this fumbling co-habitation, joint rearing of children, and attempt to dream a future together reflect the kind of unity Ephesians describes? And even more, how does this language used in the letter to the Ephesians and St Ignatius' letter to Smyrna describe the fractured community whose fumbling attempts at discipleship, evangelism and care for the poor fall short and sometimes fail completely? We are not spotless, not individually and not together.

We might say that the spotless bride of Christ, without 'speck or wrinkle' refers to the church in the eschaton. Of course that isn't how we are in a world in bondage to sin. I wonder, though, whether we take our corporate holiness as seriously as our own discipleship. I know that I do not (most emphatically) take every thought captive to Christ. I know that I often fail even to try to do that. But I know that I should, and I endeavour, however fitfully, to do so. About the church, I am less vigilant. I think of the church--the big, institutionalized church--as the responsibility of someone else: priests, bishops, cardinals. But that's not how Ephesians sees it, nor how St Ignatius imagined it. Taking my part means living my holiness not just for myself, but for the church, as a part of that holy body.

Well, now there's a shock: it's not about me, after all.

Deo gratias.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

St Antony Mary Claret

I have cried to you, God, because you will listen;
   turn your ear to me and listen to my words.
Pour out your kindness till men are astonished,
   you, who keep safe from attack
   all who trust in your strength.
                                           Psalm 17
I was so struck by this pair of verses from one of the psalms of the day that I have deviated from my usual practice of reflecting on the Mass readings (especially the psalm). 'I have cried to you, God, because you will listen.' The psalmist is out of options, it seems. Nobody else will listen. It reminds me of the verse from Psalm 27: even though father and mother have abandoned me, the Lord will take me up. God is the last, best hope, the One who will always listen, and never abandon us.
What the psalmist asks of God is equally striking, I think. 'Pour out your kindness till men are astonished.' (I admit this may not be the most accurate translation, but stay with me.) It makes me think of unlikely, seemingly impossible, flourishing: those who wait on the Lord will renew their strength. I love the evangelistic flavor of the verse, too. It is not only for myself that I ask, but for others: the others who hope in God, and the others who do not yet hope in God.
Once again, I find the old wisdom rings true: it's not about what we do, it's about what we allow God to do in and through us. What does God ask of us? 'Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, /and pay your vows to the most high;/ and call upon me in the day of trouble;/ I shall rescue you, and you will honor me' (Psalm 50 [49]: 14-15). Cry to the Lord, because he will listen.
Deo gratias.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

St John of Capistrano

Faithfulness shall spring from the earth
    and justice look down from heaven.
                                                   Psalm 84

.     .     .

I have known of 'San Juan Capistrano' for many years. First it was a place name, then the name of a mission I visited in California. Until today I hadn't pondered the reason for naming a mission for this St John. But it isn't terribly difficult to guess: he was a missionary. Best to leave it at that, for now. (You can look at the legacy he left behind on the universalis website, or on wikipedia.)

'Faithfulness', like the faithfulness of the martyrs and saints, 'springs from the earth.' How so? I have reflected before on the Christological flavor of this psalm: Jesus is faithfulness, a human being perfectly faithful to God. Sometimes I think we get a bit too hung up on our faith, the idea that our faith somehow belongs to us, like our knowledge of physics or our commitments, to children, spouses or causes. 'Faith' becomes something we can lose, like we might forget something we learned, or go back on a promise we made. Faith in God isn't quite like that, though. As St Thomas Aquinas teaches, faith is a theological virtue, infused by God and ours by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, not by learning or by force of will. Our faith, and our practice of the faith, is a participation in the faithfulness of Christ. And fortunately even 'if we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself' (2 Timothy 2.13).

Deo gratias.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

St Ignatius of Antioch

Thn angel of the Lord is encamped
  aeound those who revere him,
  to rescue them.
Taste and see that the Lord is good.
  He is happy who seeks refuge in him.

Psalm 34 [33]


St Ignatius, about whom I knew very little until the day before yesterday, was martyred in AD110. I learned a bit about him some fifteen years ago in an early church history class, but didn't pursue him further then. This week, though, I found myself drawn into his writings. Initially, I was looking for some material for a lecture. But the way he talks about the faith, and his insistence on the full humanity and full divinity of Christ (more than three centuries before the council of Chalcedon) and the intimate union of the members of the body of Christ, struck me, and I kept reading. Sometimes the lives of the saints inspire by their deeds or by their faith--as it is the story of St Francis's conversion that inspires me. St Ignatius, though, inspires me as a theologian: keeping our doctrine faithful matters now as it did then, and I shouldn't be shy about insisting upon it.

The psalm for today, chosen for St Ignatius' feast, points beyond the life of the world. St Ignatius certainly sought refuge in the Lord, and the Lord rescued him in 110 not by delivering him from the lions but by receiving him into his kingdom. How far I am from the faith that sees the opportunity to suffer for the gospel as a privilege! I pray that I will be able to taste and see the Lord's goodness in all that life brings, and to seek refuge in him always.

St Ignatuis, pray for us.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

St Canice of Ireland

'the bottomless mercy of our God...'
. . .
Today's psalm is an excerpt from the Benedictus, used at morning prayer. Since I say morning prayer with the Anglicans and Methodists who are my colleagues and students, I see this particular translation of the Benedictus less frequently these days. Still, it is firmly etched in my mind, such that when I say the line--translated elsewhere as 'the loving-kindness of the heart of our God'--I always remember this rendering. To me, it is much more evocative. I know I test the patience of those around me; I am certain that if God's patience can really be 'tested', I test it. And even when I try really hard to do and think and say what I ought to do and think and say, I fail to get it right. So I am glad that God's mercy is bottomless: I will never find that well of grace has run dry. Never ever.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

St Paulinus of York

Praise the Lord, all nations;
 laud him, all peoples!
For his lovingkindness is great towards us,
 and the truth of the Lord is everlasting.
Praise the Lord!
                  Psalm 117 [116]

.           .          .

That's it. That's the whole psalm. Usually I read through the psalm a couple of times, and a verse catches my attention. And usually, there are a number of verses from which to choose. Today I reached for my Bible, assuming that there was more to the psalm than the daily reading--in spite of the still, small voice telling me that was enough: the bottomless mercy and eternal truth of God are enough for a day's reflection. Indeed so.

Too often, I find myself looking for the clever bit, for the interesting connection or what strikes me as the deeper meaning, or the surprising meaning. I want to find something that makes me (and perhaps others) say, 'A-ha. Now that's [interesting/profound/smart/significant]. I never thought of it that way before.' Not that there's anything wrong with that on the face of it. A new or renewed insight can go a long way on a busy or difficult day, and by the grace of God I sometimes stumble upon a refreshing thought. Praise God for that!

But the ordinary truth of the gospel should blow me away: 'His lovingkindness is great towards us, and the truth of the Lord is everlasting.' It is that basic truth that inspired Job to say (from the short reading in morning prayer), not just in spite of his misfortunes but in view of his misfortunes, 'Blessed be the name of the Lord.' Because no matter what the circumstances are on any given day, God's love is still certain, God's truth still secure. So hope is well-founded, and joy will come again.

Praise the Lord!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Monday in ordinary time (week 27)

Great are the works of the Lord;
 they are studied by all who delight in them.
                                      Psalm 111 [110]: 2

.          .         .


I reached for my NASB this morning, finding the translation on the Universalis website uninspiring. Honestly, I think my old NASB inspires partly because the feel of it in my hand is so familiar and associated with many years of psalm-reading. And, I suppose, with a certain sort of delight: a delight in drinking in these words, in praying with the prayer book of Israel and the church, in finding my sorrows drowned in the vast and eternal love of God. "Delight yourself in the Lord," says the psalmist (Ps 37 [36]), "and he will give you the desires of your heart." Learning to take delight in the Lord is a long, slow process, and one I know I have only just begun.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Wednesday in ordinary time

I call to you Lord, all the day long;
 to you I stretch out my hands.
Will you work wonders for the dead?
 Will the shades stand and praise you?
                                           Psalm 87 [86]

.              .               .

Just as I think that I am finally getting it together, I find myself struggling to hold on. 'I call to you, Lord, all the day long.' Indeed: because the little things threaten to overwhelm me. The small catastrophes and minor disasters of car trouble and technological glitches, the feeling that there are too many things to do in too short a space of time: these are the things that, taken together, inspire despair. 'Will the shades praise you?'--in other words, if you don't help me out here, Lord, I will go down into the dust.

Not really. I am just prone to that drowning feeling. The thing is, God doesn't mind calming the storm of little things, but longs to bring peace to our souls. So our dramatic calling upon the Lord may be a bit of spiritual histrionics--God answers just the same. God is not sitting in heaven accusing us of making mountains out of molehills, thankfully, but looks tenderly on us, and reminds us that though 'the mountains quake' yet 'the Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.' So, mountains or molehills, there is nothing to fear.

'Cease striving, and know that I am God;
     I will be exalted among the nations,
     I will be exalted in the earth.'
                                          Psalm 46 [45]: 3, 7, 10

Monday, October 1, 2012

St Therese of the Child Jesus

Job rose and tore his gown and shaved his head. Then falling to the ground he worshipped and said:

  'Naked I came from my mother's womb,
   naked I shall return.
   The Lord gave, the Lord has taken back.
   Blessed be the name of the Lord!'

In all this misfortune Job committed no sin nor offered any insult to God.
                                         Job, Chapter 1

From you may my judgement come forth.
  Your eyes discern the truth.
You search my heart, you visit me by night.
  You test me and you find in me no wrong.
                                       Psalm 17 [16]

.               .             .

I know what to say about the Psalm: this is a picture of Christ's righteousness.

Or is it? Job appears (in the first reading) in much the same way. If we begin at the beginning of Job, we find that his righteousness is so significant that it becomes a topic for discussion in heaven. Before he lost everything, he had a great deal: great wealth and a large family. He made regular sacrifices to God, for himself and for his children, to maintain that famous righteousness. He had a great deal; he had a great deal to lose. How would Job behave toward God if he had nothing to lose? Exactly the same way: righteously.

Job stands as a reminder that holiness is not merely the province of the Word made flesh. Although the righteousness of Jesus is the source of our own, we are urged to 'put on Christ'. And the good works have been prepared for us, not so that we may sit down on the sofa and put our feet up, but so that we may walk in them. Finding ourselves in Christ's righteousness, so to speak, is what makes it possible for us to get up and walk. Without the knowledge that the voice of the psalm is Christ's, and we pray it only as we stand in Christ, we would miss the point, to be sure.

The knowledge that our sins are covered over, that our righteousness comes from Christ, and not from us, truly is healing balm for the sin-sick soul. My soul, so restored, does not continue to lie, as it were, by the waters of Bethsaida, however. I rise, and try again to maintain that cleanness of heart that is mine by God's gift, Christ's work, and the presence of the Holy Spirit within me.

Saint Therese points the way forward: to take my place in the company of pilgrims, and to love. Knowing that I may stumble should not cause me to take my eyes off the goal; knowing that Christ has already raised me up again gives me the confidence to keep going, to endeavor to make my own righteousness in the image of Christ's, to say with the psalmist, 'You test me and you find in me no wrong.'

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, Archangels

On the day I called, you answered;
you increased my strength of soul.
Psalm 137 [138]
. . .
This morning before looking at the Mass readings, I read the excerpt from a sermon of Pope Leo the Great, which was set for the office of reading, paraphrasing the bits about St Gabriel for my 5-year-old son. His middle name (one of his middle names) is Gabriel, so this is his feast day. We talked about Gabriel's Very Important Message to Mary, and Gabriel being the strength of God. If it had been possible, I would have taken him to Mass. Probably it is just as well: sitting still and paying attention don't seem celebratory when you're five. Better to have a treat at your favourite bakery to mark the day. But I was glad for the moment for a conversation, to remind us why we were marking the day.
Rich Mullins wrote a song called 'Boy like me'. The chorus goes something like this: 'Did they tell you stories 'bout the saints of old, / stories about their faith? / They say stories like that make a boy grow bold / stories like that make a man walk straight.' It strikes me that one of the key ways that our souls are strengthened is through those stories, the stories that identify us with 'the saints of old'. One of the most important lessons I have learned through those stories--especially in the Psalms, perhaps, but elsewhere in the scripture also, as well as in the lives of the saints--is that the shape of my life as a Christian should follow the very basic plot outlined in the above verse from Psalm 137. In times of need, call on God. God will answer, and God will increase my strength of soul--sometimes through the stories (and the prayers) of those very saints.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Our Lady of Walsingham

Lord, who shall dwell on your holy mountain?

He who walks without fault;
he who acts with justice
and speaks the truth from his heart.
He who does no wrong to his brother,
who casts no slur on his neighbour,
who holds the godless in disdain,
but honours those who fear the Lord.
He who keeps his pledge, come what may;
who takes no interest on a loan
and accepts no bribes against the innocent.
Such a man will stand firm for ever.
Psalm 14:2-5

. . .
My reading of verses such as these has changed greatly over the years. Psalms in which the psalmist protests, proclaiming his innocence, ranked fairly low on my top-of-the-Psalms chart in my teens and twenties. Eventually I came to the realisation that the "one who walks without fault" is Christ. The rest of us can make no such claim. For a time I hoped and rested in the righteousness of Christ. But that isn't an adequate response, either.
While there is certainly no sense in pretending that we can walk "without" fault, it is equally true that we cannot "ride" on Christ's righteousness without regard to our own faults. Christ's righteousness may be imputed to us (I know my Calvin and Luther just well enough), and with good reason: we are not able to attain such righteousness for ourselves. But we cannot stop at the recognition of our weakness. For as much as Christ's righteousness is an imputed righteousness, it is also a participatory righteousness. That is, part of the sign that Christ's righteousness has been imputed to us is our own desire to live out that righteousness.
I suppose I have found it far too easy to hide myself in Christ in a way that has not pressed me toward the imitatio Christi that is at the heart of conscious Christian living. Living in Christ doesn't spare us the hard work of struggling against sin, even though Christ's victory secures our own. No easy triumphalism there, but returning again and again to the Holy Spirit who joins us to Christ's body. Sometimes the hardest work is in the asking, admitting that even receiving the grace of God isn't something we can do apart from the Spirit.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Saturday in ordinary time: 'the heavenly [person]'

I am bound by the vows I have made you.
O God, I will offer you praise
for you have rescued my soul from death,
you kept my feet from stumbling
that I may walk in the presence of God
and enjoy the light of the living.

Psalm 55 [56]: 13-14

. . .

I was glad to hear Msgr John's reflections on the readings for today, from 1 Corinthinans ('the heavenly man') and Luke's gospel (the sower parable): believe and persevere. Believe in the change that only God can work, and keep on the road toward it. Not often have I heard such a clear, direct and concise homily.

Interestingly, though, there is this other reading: the Psalm. Usually it seems to go under the radar, and yet there it is today, perfectly connecting the heavenly orientation of 1 Corinthinans with the perseverance of the 'good soil' in Luke's gospel. The obedience, or perseverance in God's Word (yep, I mean the Word of the Father), originates in the saving act of God and looks to the presence of God as its destination. Pressing forward with a good heart and a steady will requires both memory and hope. The soul who knows the salvation of God, who has experienced God's rescue, anticipates God's presence in hope. What strikes me about the Psalm is the way in which it subverts any inclination to think that either the belief or the perseverance comes from ourselves and not from the God who rescues us. It is the Lord who 'rescue[s] my soul from death and [keeps] my feet from stumbling'.

I still find the mystery of the heavenly person vexing: it seems I see not so much in a mirror dimly, but rather remain in darkness. Fortunately it is a mystery, and not a complicated algebra problem I simply lack the intellectual skill to solve. Because in the end it is, after all, grace.

Friday, September 21, 2012

St Matthew

The heavens declare the glory of God...
                                   Psalm 19 [18]: 1

Go, and learn what this means: I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.
                                   Matthew 9: 13

.             .             .

I am glad I will not be called upon to give a homily today. Although I am certain that a clever preacher would easily find common themes in the readings for the feast of St Matthew, I am not that clever. Psalm 19 is a particular favourite, partly because it begins with the witness of nature and ends with the testimony that is the law. God reveals.

And what does God reveal? God, of course. In the person of Jesus, who says such provocative things as 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice'. If I were writing a homily (or even if I were simply less tired) I would chase down the places where that sentence is repeated in Matthew's gospel, and show how it subverts the usual uses to which the most famous bit of Matthew 18 has been put. The richness of creation, the glory of the heavens, the beauty of the Word made flesh, all point much more certainly (or so it seems to me) to the plenitude of the seventy times seven than to the exclusion of anybody.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

St Andrew Kim Tae-gon and companions, martyrs

Give thanks to the Lord for he is good,
 for his love has no end.
Let the sons of Israel say:
 'His love has no end.'
                      Psalm 117

.                 .                .

I don't suppose considering the endless love of God two days running counts as monotony. After all, it is pretty amazing to ponder. I did a lot of listening to a number of people talking about theology (some even about God's love) today; By far the most interesting thing I heard was the idea that forgiveness is like love. Seems obvious, when you think about it, doesn't it? The point that the speaker was making was that if we conceive of forgiveness as an event, we're bound to be frustrated when it doesn't happen in an over-and-done-with way. If, instead, we understand forgiveness as analogous to love, we see immediately that it isn't that sort of thing. Yesterday I reflected that all love comes from God. It makes sense to think of forgiveness in the same way: as coming from God and not, ultimately, from ourselves.

I'm not at all certain that makes forgiving any easier. But it does give me hope that it is possible, not because I think I can do it but because it doesn't matter that I can't. Dwelling on the memory of wrongdoing or staring into the face of the wrongdoer (if only in my mind) and trying to conjure up 'forgiveness' will not do. Only the One whose love has no end can supply it. My task is to turn again (and again and again) and receive forgiveness, until my broken heart overflows.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

St Januarius

For the word of the Lord is faithful
and all his works to be trusted.
The Lord loves justice and right
and fills the earth with his love
                                Psalm 33[32]: 12

.                   .                        .    

Love. The Lord 'fills the earth with his love.' I have spent a lot of time lately wondering about God. When my mother died last summer, the boundary between heaven and earth (however we might imagine it) moved like the San Andreas fault. Everything shook for a while, and some things fell down. A few things broke, I think, and I still experience aftershocks from time to time. When the immediate shaking died down, I read some physics (and I don't really do science, but my mother did). After I put a few things back in place (or found new places for them), I turned back to the Scriptures. And I wondered a lot about God.

The answers I had for my children did not satisfy me. 'Nana is in heaven,' I heard myself say. But what did it really mean? Who (or what) was God, anyway? I was walking along the river one day, and the words of this Psalm (from the Mass readings for today) came alive for me. The Lord 'fills the earth with his love.' God is the One who gives us love, who loves us and who is the love we share. Without God, we would not have love. However uncertain I may be, however distant I may feel, I can know with certainty that God is near: God 'fills the earth [and that includes me, and you, and my husband and my children] with his love.'

Thanks be to God.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Our Lady of Mount Carmel

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord;
  I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts;
  I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of he-goats.
Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean;
  remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
  cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, correct oppression;
  defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.
                Isaiah 1: 11, 16-17

Mark this, then, you who forget God,
   lest I rend, and there be none to deliver!
He who brings thanksgiving as his sacrifice honors me;
   to him who orders his way aright
   I will show the salvation of God!
                  Psalm 50 [49]: 22-23

                    .                     .                       .                        .                        .                      .          

Somehow, until today, I had not connected the feast of Our Lady of Mount Carmel with Elijah's fantastic defeat of the prophets of Ba'al. But, of course, that was Mount Carmel. I owe the link to the Office of Readings for today: the readings for feast days are always rich and instructive. Occasionally, as was the case today, there is also overlap with the Mass readings. Psalm 50 [49] occurs in both (though only in abbreviated form in the Mass), weaving together Elijah's famous duel with the opening gambit of the book of Isaiah.

I must admit that I overlook, sometimes, the scolding and threatening verses in the Psalms and the prophets. My reading of the Lord's victory at Mount Carmel focuses on God's prevenient grace; God is a God who rushes to save, who waits for the prodigal son and runs out to meet him; God is a God who is 'abounding in steadfast love.' We are called not only to rely on God's love, however, but to display it, to share it, to live it constantly and fully, always and everywhere. That obligates us, as Isaiah reminds us, to the powerless and all those in need. It also demands that we forgive, as the Lord's prayer (and Matthew 18) show so clearly. Not only that, though. God's love draws us further up and further in, as CS Lewis described it, and the only way forward is in holiness: 'to [the one] who orders [her] way aright I will show the salvation of God.'

To do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God--so simple, all-inclusive, and difficult. It really does require our attention all the time: love, forgiveness, thanksgiving, humility and see where the Lord is leading, to respond to our neighbors (spouses, children, colleagues, students, teachers, friends) in love and humility, to forgive when it hurts, and to thank God anyway. Not an easy task, and one at which we are all bound to fail at one time or another. (Ok, so I admit I fail often.)

That's why we depend on grace: for the strength to carry on, and to raise us up when we have fallen.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Friday in Ordinary Time

Have mercy on me, O God,
 according to thy steadfast love;
according to thy abundant mercy,
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
 and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in thy sight,
so that thou art justified in thy sentence,
and blameless in thy judgment.

.                       .                      .                      .                       .                          .                           .

Anytime I read Psalm 51 (50LXX), I immediately hear it, and see myself in a very small room-cum-chapel so full of incense it looked like a smoky bar. I probably found more peace there, in that tiny room, than anywhere else on campus during the years I studied at the seminary. My Greek teacher, as it happen, was also a priest in the Orthodox church (OCA). Every morning, he would sing morning prayer with a handful of students to whom the practice appealed. And so it was that the child of a Roman Catholic first learned to cross herself from right to left, careful to press the first two fingers of the right hand against the thumb, to symbolize the Trinity.

Something happened there, in that chapel, that would forever alter me. As much as it was connected to the chant and the incense (I am a huge fan of the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei), it was shaped by my regular reflection on this Psalm. Each day, morning prayer began with this psalm--quite a different invitatory than those I find in my breviary. I found it humbling and refreshing to begin with two reminders: that I needed God, and that what God desired from me was to admit it.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
   righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness with spring up from the ground,
  and righteousness will look down from the sky.
Yea, the Lord will give what is good,
  and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
  and make his footsteps a way.
                                     Psalm 85.10-13

                          .                     .                     .                      .                     .

This is one of my favorite images from the Psalms. The Psalms have been my refuge since my youth, truly. I have no idea how I might have survived adolescence without having recourse to the songs of exile and lament that often voiced my own anxiety and sense of not-belonging. Among my favorites, though, this Psalm is a relative late-comer and reflects a slightly different perspective on the Psalms. Different, I say, not more mature. It may well be that I have grown up (by God's grace) since I pleaded with God to 'have mercy on me, because I am lonely and weak...' (the Good News Bible's rendering of Psalm 25.16), but I know full well that I am as prone to stumbling as the next person.

My fondness for the image centers on the love that is integral to peace and justice in the Psalmist's description. I imagine faithfulness and righteousness gazing at one another in intimate love: something intrinsic to each draws it to another. The unity of God's love and righteousness draws from creation a faithfulness that displays recognition of its source and destiny. And it isn't just in the abstract, either. I cannot read the final verse without seeing John the Baptist making the way for Jesus. In Jesus steadfast love and faithfulness meet, the creation responds appropriately to the Creator.

For all my romantic portrayal of the scene, I could have done worse than to read the Gospels. In Jesus the Lord has given what is good: Himself. And the fruit of His coming still grows, by the grace of the Spirit. But that's another story.

Friday, June 29, 2012

St Peter and St Paul

Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee:
in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.
Acts 3

. . .

Just in case I had forgotten that today is a holy day of obligation, I received a text message from my sons' school earlier in the week, reminding me that there would be Mass in the school hall on this feast. Indeed. And so, as it was also the first time Thomas, my 8-year-old, would be receiving communion at school, I went.

This perhaps explains my rendition of this bit of Acts: it is from the song that taught me this story when I was a child. On hearing Peter's words, the man 'went walking and leaping and praising God.' Now I look at the story differently. The man who used to beg at the city gates has to find a new occupation. Healing means change, sometimes big and radical change; sometimes the healing, however miraculous, is not the whole story of restoration.

But that isn't what I was thinking about today during Mass. No, today in Mass I was reflecting that these are the stories that pass on this peculiar faith, the church's faith, handed down from generation to generation. My mother handed it down to me (both at home and at church, and I am certain that she taught me the song based on Acts 3), and I am, with the help of my children's school and our parish church, handing it down to my children. Sometimes I think I don't do a very good job. I can't understand how all that the Bible says about God is true. Heaven remains a concept too big and elusive for me to get my mind around it. Anticipating the questions my children would ask about where Nana (my mother) went when she died last summer, I froze. Where, exactly, would that be? And how, exactly, is it that 'she' is 'with God' or 'in heaven' when her body was there, in the funeral home? It all seems pretty far-fetched and utterly inexplicable. The answers that might do for my children would not do for me.

Somewhere along the way, though, I realised that the kind of answers that might satisfy the children shouldn't satisfy me. It is, as I often say in teaching my theology students, a mystery. The fact that I can't imagine it, that it all seems implausible, is not troublesome but appropriate. Wasn't it Augustine who said that if we understood, what we understood was not God? My failure to comprehend, to answer the 'how' questions satisfactorily, is a difficulty, not a doubt. I should not expect to comprehend.

Standing now at the beautiful gate, having risen from the pallet and left the crutch behind, we--the healed man and I--have to learn a new way of being in the world. The healing, the realisation, is only the beginning, the first small step into the abundant life promised and offered to us by Jesus.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Monday of week 12 of the year

...But they would not listen, they were more stubborn than their ancestors had been who had no faith in the Lord their God. They despised his laws and the covenant he had made with their ancestors, and the warnings he had given them. They pursued emptiness, and themselves became empty through copying the nations round them although the Lord had ordered them not to act as they did.

       2 Kings 17.14-15

Will you utterly reject us, O God,
  and no longer march with our armies?
Give us help against the foe:
  for the help of man is vain.

      Psalm 59.12-13

Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Do not judge, and you will not be judged; because the judgements you give are the judgements you will get, and the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given. Why do you observe the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the plank in your own? How dare you say to your brother, “Let me take the splinter out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own? Hypocrite! Take the plank out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.’
      Matthew 7.1-5

.               .             .


The RSV translates emptiness as 'false idols' that make 'false' those who worshipped them. But I prefer the Jerusalem Bible's rendering, though the RSV may be more faithful to the Hebrew. We are so used to Old Testament references to 'false idols.' We remember the golden calf and the unfaithfulness of the people, who turn aside to false gods. That language applies to ancient Israel, we think. We--I at least--tend not to see how it applies to us.

But we know emptiness. We know what it is to be spent, to be worn out and alone. We know about pursuing what does not really satisfy us. This language speaks to the deepest recesses of my soul in its most tired moments. I must admit that I tend to do precisely what the Hebrews did in the time of the kings: I pursue emptiness. Sometimes my emptiness is vanity, sometimes popularity or importance. Why can I not be the indispensable one or the lucky one? When I set my heart on being liked or being valued in the little circles, I am often disappointed. Empty.

The gospel reading for today reminds me what I ought to do. I find fault with others for not regarding me as they ought. But do I really see so clearly? Perhaps not. I have mistaken the covenant that gives life for the idols that drain my soul. I can neither fill myself nor clear my vision, and there is only one thing left to do. With the Psalmist I must plead with God, 'Give me help against the foe: for the help of man is vain.' I will call upon the Lord in the day of trouble--even such petty, insignificant and selfish trouble--and he will answer me.

Let me see clearly and love rightly and give praise to the God who saves.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

St Aloysius Gonzaga

The prophet Elijah arose like a fire,
his word flaring like a torch.
How glorious you were in your miracles, Elijah...
designated in the prophecies of doom
to allay God's wrath before the fury breaks,
to turn the hearts of fathers towards their children,
and to restore the tribes of Jacob.

Ecclesiasticus 48

Jesus said to his should pray like this:
'Our Father in heaven...
And forgive us our debts, as we have forgiven those who are in debt to us...'
Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours, but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you either.

Matthew 6

. . .

The list of Elijah's miracles is much longer than what I have quoted above, of course. How could the writer not include Elijah's amazing display of God's power in the face of the prophets of Ba'al? Or his raising a widow's son from the dead? Elijah's miracles are impressive, to be sure. But the list culminates with what seems to be the purpose of all these miracles: to restore the tribes of Jacob, by the miracle of turning the fathers' hearts back to their children. This is a miracle? Are not the hearts of the fathers turned naturally toward their children?

No. The hearts of the fathers, and of the children, too, are turned away. It seems to me that the hearts of the fathers being turned away signals the breakdown of human community as God intended it to be. All our hearts are turned the wrong direction--away from God, and away from those closest to us, those whom we are expected naturally and instinctively to love. But we fail: it takes a miracle to turn our hearts in the right direction. We need to be re-oriented to give and receive love as we should.

This helps, I think, with what seem to be the harsh words following the Lord's prayer in Matthew's gospel: if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven, and that means, well, the 'doom' prophesied in Elijah's day. We need a miracle to allay that wrath. Fortunately, God seems well-disposed to offering just that sort of miracle. And so we have Jesus to mediate and the Spirit to inspire and to strengthen. And that is very good news indeed.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

St Anthony of Padua

Answer me, O Lord, answer me,
that this people may know that you are God
and are winning back their hearts.
1 Kings 18

. . .

The whole passage is worth reading, if you haven't already heard it or read it today, verses 20-39. It is one of my very favourite narratives from the Old Testament. (Yes, I was taught to refer to the first 66 books as the 'Hebrew Bible' and I do in academic settings. But this is the Mass reading for today.) As a teenager, I enjoyed the show of power: the Lord vs. the prophets of Ba'al. Elijah is heroic, the display of God's attention towards God's people is amazing, and one wonders how the people ever doubted after that.

But that's not all there is to it, obviously. One of the most memorable sermons I have heard in the past several years examined the difference in the characters of the deities being entreated. On the one hand, there is a god who asks people to mutilate themselves, to inflict self-harm. Pleading with Ba'al involved the shedding of people's blood. On the other hand, there is a god--God, the Lord is Israel--who gives freely, who asks nothing of the kind. We learn elsewhere in the scripture, especially from the psalms, that the main thing this Lord asks of the people is to trust him: 'call on me in the day of trouble; I shall rescue you, and you will honor me.'

The character of the God of Israel is more interesting even than that, though. What, exactly, was it that the Lord did that made it necessary for him to win back their hearts? The passage doesn't say, and the general plot of the Old Testament involves God saving and forgiving his people. Once again, here, God makes the first move, trying to win back the hearts of his people purely out of love. It is they who must repent, not the Lord. Like the Father who runs down the road to meet his wayward son, God goes out to bring his people back to himself.

So it is: the grace of God, running out to meet us, winning back our hearts. And all we have to do is receive him, to give in.

Monday, May 14, 2012

St Matthias

'His office let another take.' (Acts 1: 20)

* * *

Today we remember the 'calling' of the apostle Matthias, who took Judas' place with the eleven following the Ascension. Normally, I would not reckon that drawing lots was a good way to choose a church leader. How do we know it was the Spirit choosing? How do we know?

I spend a considerable amount of time thinking about that question. My theology students ask it, often, and in a variety of different ways. I wonder about it myself: I have a daughter with Down Syndrome and have walked a pretty crooked and uneven road. How do I know that God has anything to do with any of this muddle? I wonder how what I believe is of any real help--how does Jesus help the mother who lost a son a couple of weeks ago in a cold, swollen, and muddy river? How do we know that Jesus is still around? How do we know that the Spirit still works through actions as random as drawing lots?

Sometimes it doesn't seem to make a lot of difference. And today I don't have any answers. I just have this bizarre story about the apostles drawing lots. All my teaching about God doesn't seem to have gotten me very far: I still don't get it. At the end of the day I am just as short of theodicy as anyone else.

I guess some days are like that. Might as well just say so.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

St Joseph the Worker

'The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice;
I know them and they follow me.
I give them eternal life;
they will never be lost
and no one will ever steal them from me.
The Father who gave them to me is greater than anyone,
and no one can steal from the Father.
The Father and I are one.’
                          John 10.27-30

It was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.
                          Acts 11.26

*       *       *

Today I read and shared two different articles (thanks to friends who posted them on facebook). The first described a minister's 'loss of faith.' The second commemorated the 79th anniversary of the founding of the Catholic Worker Movement. I posted them consecutively on my wall, as the two items seemed to me to be related, and also to offer an example of the way in which the profession of the faith and the practice of the faith sometimes miss each other. The abstract questions about God, the puzzle of evil, and the like do not admit of answers. The best 'answer' I can find to the philosophical problems is not a philosophical one: it is Dorothy Day and countless examples of faithfulness like hers. We may not grasp God--as the despair of the former minister shows--but we do see Jesus. He continues to bring light and life through the work of his disciples. 

I know that doesn't convince those who doubt. I have taught enough seminary students with these same questions (even in the relatively few years I have been teaching) to know that doesn't 'answer' the question. There was a time when I would have interpreted the spiritual journey of the former minister as a 'loss of faith.' But I don't think of faith as something to be lost: faith (as I commented on the original post) is something the church holds, and God gives. For that reason, and that reason only, I live in the hope that I 'will never be lost'--not because I am strong enough to hold onto God. Certainly not. It is because God is strong enough to hold onto me. 

Monday, March 12, 2012

Monday of the third week in Lent

I will praise you, Lord my God,
with all my heart
and glorify your name forever,
for your love to me has been great:
you have saved me from the depths of the grave.
Psalm 85 (LXX)
* * *
As I look back over the last couple of years of my life, these verses ring especially true: by grace I have been brought back from the edge, as I tottered self-destructively along. An unexpected pregnancy forced me to grow up all over again, and embrace the vocation that God has given me. I have been surprised to find that in the midst of sleepless nights and the juggling that is the way of life of any working mother, I have discovered energy and enthusiasm for writing, and I am slowly working on various things in odd moments.
But Psalm 85 is not about me, I realize as I read the verses again: the only path back from the grave for me is the way of the cross. I am saved not so much in this life, for this life (though I am grateful to have been restored to hopefulness), but in Christ, for eternal life. These verses are about the One who went down into the depths of the grave and rose again: in him we are all saved.
If Lent is about remembering and embracing the desert temptations and the way of the cross, it is also about looking forward to Easter.
Lord, give our bodies restful sleep; and let the work we have done today be sown for an eternal harvest.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Fifth Sunday in ordinary time

Remember that my life is but a breath
   and my eyes will never again see joy.
                                           (Job 7)

The Lord...heals the broken-hearted;
    he binds up all their wounds.
                                           (Ps 146 LXX)

.     .     .

I found the dissonance between these two readings quite striking at Mass this morning. The reading from Job ends with the verse above, which reflects utter despair. Job's life is pain and sorrow, and he expects no reversal of his fortune. The words of the Psalmist counter that hopelessness with the promise of God to restore Israel, to build up Jerusalem.

And it occurred to me that the two come together in Jesus. Like Job, he experiences pain and sorrow, as sense of abandonment and the descent into hell. Jesus is the first to experience in its fullness the redemption that the Psalmist describes. In his flesh, God binds up all our wounds; in his heart our broken hearts are healed.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

St John Bosco

It's worth checking out the universalis website to read a little bit about St John Bosco. He cared for hundreds of boys and young men, and founded an order that would carry on his work--the Salesians, named for St Francis de Sales. Whatever might be going on with me in the 21st century, I find the lives of the faithful inspiring. In the rough patches, I may be frustrated with God, but I never tire of the lives of the saints. So their service to the body of Christ continues long after they have gone from among us.


.     .     .


Give joy to the soul of your servant, 

   for I have lifted up my soul to you, Lord.
For you are sweet and mild, Lord, 

   and plentiful in mercy to all who call upon you.


                                         Psalm 85 (LXX)


.     .      .


I've been reconsidering my attitude toward David. After the encounter with Nathan, David experiences all the terrible things the prophet predicted. He doesn't get off so easily. And yet we remember him as the Beloved of God, the one from whose line the Messiah would come. 


Oddly, that makes me think that there's hope for me, after all.

Friday, January 27, 2012

St Angela of Merici

Have mercy on me O God, 
   according to your steadfast love;
 According to your abundant mercy,
    blot out my transgressions.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
    and done what is evil in your sight. 

                                   Psalm 50 (LXX)

.     .     .

I heard a homily once on the pair of readings (from 2 Samuel 11 and Psalm 50) that did a wonderful job of describing God's mercy to David. Despite David's sin, the Lord is faithful.

No doubt. And that God is faithful to David after he commits adultery and murder is good news. With this I have no problem. But the homily left me with the distinct impression that because God forgave David, everything was all right. I wanted to ask, 'but what about the girl?' The working of redemption and grace in her life is hidden from us. All we see is that she is shuffled around at the king's command, and after he has her husband killed, the king takes her as his own. The sin is David's; the loss is hers. Yet there is no mention in the story that David ever asked for her forgiveness.

I ask too much, perhaps. David was a man of his time, and women were not recognized by the establishment as we are today. But it does make me think about the wrongs committed in our own day that seem irredeemable. I suppose that covers the big, political wrongs, though that's not what I have in mind. I think about the betrayal of one friend by another; breaking a promise made to a brother, a daughter, or a son; or the careless comment that causes more hurt than we could have imagined. Whichever side of the wrongdoing we happen to be on (this time), we have to trust that the making-right is God's work, and not ours. We offer our contrition or our hurt up to God, and hope for the One who makes all things new to heal and to save. Only the One who brought everything into being from nothing, and turned the darkness into light, can turn our mourning into dancing. 

And so we pray that He will.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

St Agnes

O shepherd of Israel, hear us,
  you who lead Joseph's flock,
Shine forth upon your cherubim throne,
   upon Ephraim, Benjamin, Manasseh.
O Lord, rouse up your might,
   O Lord, come to our help. 
                              Ps 79 (LXX

.      .      .

I am somewhat behind: this, i think, is the way of things if you are me, with four children and a job as a lecturer in theology and ethics. Other people might well be able to manage to keep up.  

Several days ago I mused about the whereabouts of the Almighty God. Anyone would have expected that when the ark of the covenant was brought into the camp, that would do it. God would surely save his people, given that demonstration of their confidence in him.  But no. Somehow, the leper seemed to have done something Israel hadn't. Or had he?  

Wednesday's reading from 1 Samuel gives us the resolution of the conflict With the Philistines. David appears and offers to take on the champion of the enemy's army. What?!? Don't be ridiculous, Saul seems to say.  You're only a boy. Yes, says David, but the Almighty is on my side. (We would be forgiven for thinking 'yep, that's what the Israelites thought, and look where it got them.') Whatever it was the leper had, David seems to have had it too: the Lord gives him the victory over Goliath and through David the Israelites overcome the army of the Philistines. The Philistines had been worried by the presence of the ark in the camp; the defeat of their champion melts their courage entirely, and they flee. So also in the gospel reading for Wednesday  Jesus heals the man with the withered hand...on the Sabbath. Jesus doesn't do what is expected; God seems to have his own way of doing things.

If there's one thing I have learned from these readings from 1 Samuel and the accompanying Psalms, it is that 'happily ever after' is not a biblical concept. In Hollywood, maybe; in Scripture, no. After David experiences victory in battle and the joy of deep friendship, he returns to defeat and loss (2 Samuel 1). 

But if it is true that in the Bible we don't tend to find 'happily ever after', it is also true that the moment of defeat Is never the end of the story. David defeated Goliath, and Jesus came out of the tomb: however dark the scene appears, it cannot prevent the dawn. 

 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

St Aelred of Rievaulx

Yet now you have rejected us, disgraced us;
    you no longer go forth with our armies.
You Make us retreat from our foes;
    our enemies plunder us at will. 
                                     Psalm 43 (LXX)

.   .   .

The Psalm reflects the story related in the first reading, from 1 Samuel. The Israelites had the Ark of the covenant brought into the camp, and the army gave a shout. When the Philistine army heard the noise, they were afraid. 'Who will save us from this mighty God?' they cried; but they took courage, engaged the Israelites in battle, and won a decisive victory. The Israelites lost a great number (30,000), including the two sons of Eli who had brought the Ark into the camp. 

Some days are like that: where is that mighty God, anyway? The Israelites put their trust in God, and were terribly disappointed. It is the most frustrating theological question: where is God when the enemy is bearing down hard on us? We have trusted in the Lord, and answered his call faithfully. Why then does he not save us? Why does he not deliver our enemies into our hands, instead of letting us be trampled? 

I don't know. But the gospel reading stands diametrically opposed to the experience related in 1 Samuel and Psalm 43: Jesus heals the leper. For no particular reason. Mark just tells us that the leper said to Jesus, 'If you want to, you can heal me' (a loose rendering!). 

Why doesn't God always want to save us? I don't think we can say. But we can say that Jesus did heal that leper (and a great many others), and we can say that eventually the Israelites defeated the Philistines (but not in a way anyone would have anticipated!!). And we can--therefore--hope. 

So goes the next Psalm: 'Hope in God, for again I shall praise him, my help and my God.'