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.