01 May 2016

Our Aboriginal Vicar

6th Sunday of Easter
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Maybe it's just me, but I get nervous when Jesus starts making promises. Of course, most of the time he's promising Good Things. Like forgiveness of sin and eternal life. But on occasion he promises things that cause me give him a squinty-eyed glare. Things like persecution, torture, and death. Then there are the promises that seem – I dunno – odd. Maybe. . .unclear. Like the promise he makes this morning: “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you.” This promise seems straightforward enough, but what does it mean exactly? I mean, he'll send the Holy Spirit to teach us and remind us. OK. But how will the Holy Spirit teach us and remind us? Do we each get a tutorial with the Holy Spirit when we need to be taught and reminded? Is there a class somewhere? Or a maybe a C-SPAN call-in show where we can ask the Holy Spirit questions? No, nothing so complicated as all that. Jesus promises, “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.”

What Jesus is telling us here is how the Holy Spirit will teach and remind us. It's rather straightforward process: 1) love Christ the Son and keep his word; 2) the Father loves those who love Christ and keep his word; 3) the Father comes to dwell with those whom He loves; 4) Christ the Son comes to dwell with those whom the Father loves; and 5) where the Father and Christ the Son dwell, so too dwells the Holy Spirit! So, the Holy Spirit teaches and reminds those who love Christ and keep his word. As I said, this is a straightforward process; however, we might wonder why we need the on-going presence of the Holy Spirit. After all, we have Scripture and Tradition, why do we need the ever-present Spirit to teach us and remind us? Scripture and Tradition are invaluable history, priceless records of how our ancestor's in faith lived out God's Self-revelation. However, neither Scripture nor Tradition can address every moral decision each of us must make on a daily basis. We need a way to access the wisdom of God when we are confronted by those difficult situations that the inspired authors of Scripture and Tradition could never imagine. We need a mechanism that allows us to participate in Christ's living love and word so that his wisdom can guide our moral choices toward holiness. We call this mechanism: conscience.

Many of our centuries-old Christian concepts have been beaten and abused in the last 50 years or so. None more so that the nature and purpose of moral conscience. For example, every Disney movie produced in the last 30 yrs pushes the notion that any moral difficulty is solved by “just following your heart.” For decades, faithful Catholics have been told by bishops, priests, religious, and theologians that conscience simply means “doing whatever you want,” so long as you claim you're doing it in “good conscience.” Conscience has come to means something like “the inalienable right to invent my own invincible truth.” To put it bluntly: this is the Devil's definition of conscience. The Church teaches us that “moral conscience. . .enjoins [us]. . .to do good and to avoid evil” (CCC 1777). Good and evil here describe objectively knowable standards of behavior not just subjective beliefs or wishes. Conscience does not invent the truth; it discovers the truth and urges us to do what is right. “[Conscience]. . .bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking”(CCC 1777). The prudent person knows and loves the teaching and reminding presence of the Holy Spirit.

Blessed John Cardinal Newman writes: “Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.” While Pope Francis is the current Vicar of Christ on Earth, your conscience is the primordial vicar, the first representative of Christ appointed to you by your Creator at your creation. This means that we are all gifted with the divinely assisted ability and moral duty to seek out and obey the truth. Not to invent the truth as we wish it to be. Not to claim authority over the truth b/c we find the truth unpleasant or inconvenient. But to uncover the truth, and use it to do the good. To accomplish this task, your conscience must be well-formed in right reason; grounded in the moral law revealed in Scripture and in nature; and docile to the legitimate authority of the Church to interpret both Scripture and Tradition. Our “aboriginal vicar” is first, but it is not last, and without the proper formation, it cannot be final. Christ comes to live with those who love him and keep his word. And with him comes the Holy Spirit. . .to teach us, to remind us, to strengthen and confirm us in the faith. Our Lord promises us both great rewards and difficult futures. But with the Holy Spirit dwelling in us and among us, nothing merely difficult or troublesome or even terrifying can move us from our Father's love and His promise of mercy.


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29 April 2016

Lord, I'm tired!

St. Catherine of Siena
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

Our Lord doesn't ask much of us. Love one another. Trust one another. Believe in one another. Correct one another. Remain in his love. Write our papers. Keep his commandments. Receive his peace. Take our final exams. Teach and preach all that he has taught us. Baptize in his name. Remember him. Forgive. Show mercy. Serve. Write evaluations. Keep his word. Feed the hungry. Visit the sick and imprisoned. Mourn the dead. Bless the poor. Grade exams and papers and turn in the grades. Drive out unclean spirits. Heal the blind and crippled. Complete faculty evaluations. Deny ourselves. Pick up our crosses. Finish up paperwork for accreditation. Compose syllabi and book orders for fall of 2016. Follow him. Oh, and, at last. . .die for the love we have for him.
O Lord! I am tired. My knees are swollen! My back aches! I have calluses on both my typing fingers! My eyes itch. I haven't slept well in four days. And I'm breaking out like a high school freshman. My room looks like a FEMA camp after Katrina. And I've not done laundry since the third Sunday of Lent. . .2014. I've forgotten how to read and I can no longer do basic addition or long division. I'm tired, Lord. I'm tired. What do you have to say, Lord? “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you.” Well, thank you, Lord. One thing: can you unchose me?

The answer, of course, is no. He can't. Or, he won't. He knows our limits. And the limits beyond those limits. And he knows all that we give and all that we hold back. When we've given everything we have, all that we've held back. . .he gives us a new limit and the strength to reach it. The strength he gives is not some sort of magical grace-dust or a boost of sanctifying merits. He gives us himself. He's the limit. Not as an example, or a model, or a roadmap. He is the Limit. The Omega of all our striving. Think about it. Our end, our goal – Christ himself – comes to us in our soreness and sleepiness and crabbiness and hands himself over to us so that we might be made perfect as he is perfect. The Perfection we seek surrenders himself to us, the Imperfect, and dares us to surrender ourselves to him in return. How do we accomplish this astonishing task of surrender? “This I command you: love one another.” And forgive, show mercy, preach and teach, deny yourself, and follow him. 
Looking for answers, or maybe just some small consolation, I've searched the ancient libraries of the world – Oxford, Cambridge, Rome, London, Beijing, Ole Miss. . .and I've read hundreds of books and manuscripts. Talked to masters, professors, mystics, seers, soon-to-be saints, and quite a few sinners. How do I surrender? How do I hand over my life, everything that I am to God? I found the answer. My guide: a diminutive mystic of the Thomistic kind, a fellow renowned for his wisdom, patience, and kindness. I asked him my desperate question. He hefted his walking stick. Climbed a chair. And locked his eyes with mine and said, “Do, or do not. There is no try.” Expecting further distinctions or a citation from the Summa, I hesitated for a moment before breaking into tears. Love, or do not love. Forgive, or do not forgive. Believe, or do not believe. There is no try. Surrender, or do not. There is no try. There is no limit to surrender in love. Love one another as Christ loves you. He will not unchose you to complete the work he has given you to do. Therefore, with sore knees, cramping fingers, grouchy disposition, blurry eyes charge head long and recklessly into the work you have to do. . .knowing, knowing that Christ is your end, and he is always with you.

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24 April 2016

Our most difficult task

5th Sunday of Easter
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Of all the difficult tasks our Lord leaves us to accomplish in his name, one stands out as the most difficult. He says to his disciples, “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Our Lord commands us to love one another in his name. Given that he also commands us to forgive those who offend us; to show mercy to and pray for our persecutors; to stand ready to give public witness to the faith; and to give our lives as a sacrifice for another – how is his command to love another the most difficult task he leaves us to accomplish? Loving one another is not a discreet act, a one-time deal where we rouse ourselves into action and obey his command start to finish in a single movement. Forgiving a sinner can be done in a single act. Showing mercy, praying for our enemies can be done in a single act. Dying for love of another is certainly a singular, unrepeatable act. And even if we must repeatedly forgive, show mercy, and pray for our enemies, we do so individually, serially. But loving one another cannot be accomplished so easily. Loving one another is an on-going, life-long, habit of living with your brothers and sisters in the same sort of love that Christ himself shows us. The same sort of love that leads him to the cross. . .for your sake and mine.

And what sort of love is this. . .exactly? Pope Benedict XVI writes, “By dying on the Cross. . .Jesus 'gave up his Spirit', anticipating the gift of the Holy Spirit that he would make after his Resurrection. . .The Spirit. . .is that interior power which harmonizes [believers'] hearts with Christ's heart and moves them to love their brethren as Christ loved them, when he bent down to wash the feet of the disciples and above all when he gave his life for us” (DCE 19). To obey our Lord and love as he commands, we must set aside whatever it is that prevents us from washing our brothers' and sisters' feet; whatever forbids us from serving them as the least among the Lord's children; whatever stops us from seeing in them the Christ who died for love of us all. Jesus isn't talking here about the casual acts of charity that we all do everyday. . .a dollar for the homeless guy on West End and Veterans; a bag of shirts to St. Vincent de Paul; or the extra $5 at the register for Habitat for Humanity. He's talking about the extraordinary transformation of our hearts, minds, bodies, souls, and all our strength into a life-long habit of self-sacrifice for the salvation of the world. IOW, to be and do who and what he himself is and does for us. 
Without any doubt – this is our most difficult task. One we are well-tempted to avoid. One that I myself am well-practiced at avoiding. For example. My mom is a neat freak. Her house is as organized and as clean as any Swiss museum. When my younger brother and I were in our teens, mom insisted that we make our beds before heading to school. We hated making our beds. An utterly pointless chore! So, what did we do? We half-made the beds – lumpy, crooked, creased. Mom would see the beds, sigh dramatically, and then make them up for us. Worked every time. Because of this laziness, I never learned to make a bed. I never learned to fold a fitted sheet or how to do a sharp hospital corner. To this day, my bed is a more like a pile of laundry than a proper bed. When we avoid loving one another, when we succumb to the temptation to let others love for us, or when we love thoughtlessly, causally, we deprive ourselves of the practice we need to grow in holiness, to mature into truly self-sacrificing witnesses of God's mercy. Our Lord demands of us that we take up his cross and die to self, die to selfishness, and rise again to a new life in perfect charity and peace. Christ gives us all the help we need. However, he will not make our beds for us.

Lest we fall into despair at the difficulty of our task, remember John's vision, “[God] will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them as their God. . .The One who sat on the throne said, 'Behold, I make all things new.'” We never love alone, forgive alone, show mercy alone, heal, pray, sacrifice, or hope alone. He is always with us. He is always the source of the love and mercy we share among ourselves. His demands on our generosity are his due b/c we can only be generous at all b/c he was first abundantly generous with us, giving us his life on the cross and eternal life through his empty tomb. As we approach the birth of the Church on Pentecost, give thanks and praise to our Father for the gift of His Son, for the gift of His Spirit, and practice-practice-practice the difficult task of loving one another. He will always help us. But He will do it for us. He will not do it without us.

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17 April 2016

Who belongs to the Good Shepherd?

4th Sunday of Easter (A)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Who belongs to Christ the Good Shepherd? Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice.” Who are these sheep? What does a flock belonging to Christ look like? John – in the Book of Revelation – describes his visions: a great multitude of people from nation, race, people, and tongue crowding the throne of God. These are all the saints who have survived the Great Distress. They certainly belong to the Good Shepherd! Paul and Barnabas in Acts tell the Jews who have not converted and who are hounding the apostles in fits of jealousy that they have rejected the Good News and now it’s time for them – the apostles – to turn their evangelical efforts to the Gentiles. Apparently, some of the Jews do not want to belong but the Gentiles now have a shot at belonging to the God Shepherd, and they are delighted. Who belongs? Who can enter this house? Who is worthy? Better: who can be made worthy? What does it take to be made a member of the Body of Christ, a member of the flock? And how is it done? And once done, what does a member look like? 
These are serious questions on the fourth Sunday of Easter because we are rapidly approaching the birthday of the Church at Pentecost. Some fifty days after the Resurrection, the Holy Spirit sweeps down on the desolate and deserted disciples to swiftly kick them in their collective behind, motivating them to step up to the challenge of giving their lives to the infectious spreading of the Good News. This is the Church. This is what the Church does: spread the Good News. Infectiously. This is what Paul and Barnabas are doing in Antioch. This is what the great multitude crowding the throne in heaven did before they died. This is what those given to Jesus by the Father are grateful to do. Belonging to Christ then is not about possessing a genetic trait or a political history or an attitude. Belonging to Christ is not about the mere intellectual assent to a theological formula or a philosophical worldview or knowledge of a wisdom tradition. Belonging to Christ means following Christ. Those who belong to him – know him, hear him, and follow him. And that can be anyone. Anyone at all. Any nation, any race, any people, any tongue. Anyone. Anyone given to Christ by the Father. . .

Wait! Anyone given to Christ by the Father? You mean we have to be given to Christ in order to belong to Christ? Yep. We are gifts to Christ from our Father, given to him for our salvation and the Father’s glorification. God the Father created each of us to desire Him before all things. And for our exclusive benefit we are made to worship Him. Our God has no need of our praise. Our longing to praise Him is His gift to us b/c in praising Him we are perfected in His love. We know the itching need to praise God only because He has graced us to do so. Our creation is a grace. Our desire to belong is a grace. Our need to worship is a grace. Our enduring existence is a grace. Our ability to say YES to God is a grace. Our capacity to obey, to be holy is a grace. And we ourselves are a grace to Christ, a gift to the Son from the Father in the Spirit. And all we need do is know him, hear him, and follow him. When we refuse to do these things, when we contradict the Word, disobey the Body, we do violence to ourselves as gifts, and we do not belong. . .by our choice.

To be clear: sin does not hurt God. Sin ravages the sinner. Abuses the Church. And defies every baptismal promise. Sin is the enemy of belonging, the adversary of a graced communion. When we sin, the longing we feel for God turns to loneliness. When we sin, the emptying-of-self that imitates Christ turns to abandonment. When we sin, the humility we rightly feel at our brokenness turns to shame and guilt. In sin, our longing for God becomes a rejection of Him and we end up living lonely, empty, and restless lives – not just imperfect but broken and lost. When we disobey – fail to listen to the Shepherd – our desire for holiness becomes a destructive appetite for material satisfaction that tempts us away from Christ. We cannot belong to Christ while rebelling against his Word; while rejecting the life of the Spirit he offers us.

Who can belong to Christ? Anyone, anyone at all. Who belongs to Christ? Those given to him by the Father who know him, hear him, and follow him. Why would anyone want to know, hear, and follow the Son as a gift from the Father? So that they might be perfected in their vocation to become Christ for others. Why would anyone abuse themselves as gifts to Christ by rejecting his saving Word? This is an ancient desire, one whispered by the Serpent in the Garden, the desire to become god without God, to be perfected through ungraced efforts, to be made holy by pious works alone; and this inordinate desire is named Disobedience b/c it is the willful refusal to listen to Christ in his Body, the magisterial witness of the Church, a refusal to listen to the Good News that your life is a gift, your progress in holiness is a gift, your life eternal is a gift. All just given to you freely, without charge or interest, handed over to you, an open-handed donation from God through Christ in the Spirit. 
Now, the hard question: what does a life that belongs to Christ look like? You belong to Christ, does your life look like a gift from God, a freely given grace, or does it look like an expensive debt that will never be paid off? If you live your life in Christ like an expensive debt, exactly who is it you think you owe? Christ? The Church? Who? Who among the saints, the Blessed Trinity, or the souls in purgatory has sold you something on credit? Is there a Jesus Christ VISA card I don’t know about? And even if you can identify your creditor, how are you paying off this debt? Good works? Prayer? Mass attendance? Donations? All perfectly good things for a Christian to do, of course; but if you are doing these things out of a sense of indebtedness, then you are not answering Christ with an excited and blessed YES. Instead, you are answering with a begrudging, “Here, Lord, take what's owed you.” This is not the Spirit that crashes into the disciples, creating the Church at Pentecost! This is not the Spirit that drives Paul and Barnabas to risk their lives for the joy of the Lord. This is not the Spirit that excites the elders around the throne to worship the Most High. And this is not the Spirit that seduces us, pulls us toward the Lord so that we may know him, hear him, and follow him. The fear of being a joyful Christian is a stake to the heart! Fear joy at your peril. No sheep of the Good Shepherd will live long trembling in the shadow of death. Know him, hear him, follow him, and walk free and clear of every fear, every limit, and belong to the only One on whose name we rely for help: Christ the Good Shepherd!

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14 April 2016

Our transubstantiation into Christ

NB. A Vintage Fr Philip homily from 2007. . .ah, the memories. . .

3rd Week of Easter (F)
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Irving, TX

SECRET DOOMSDAY CULT CANNIBALIZES EXECUTED MESSIAH, CLAIMS IMMORTALITY! The talking-head TV version of this newspaper headline opens with this talking-point: “Religious fanaticism in America today: are your children safe?” Then the talking-heads parade a line of Three-ring Circus Clowns who all demand that the Supreme Court ban religion as a public-safety hazard. The state-owned regulatory nannies and ninnies start squawking like geese frightened on a pond by a gator and before you know it Congress is holding hearings during which otherwise intelligent men and women are asking asinine questions like: “But Bishop, with all due respect, given the recent scandals of the Church, is there a way to tone down your body and blood rhetoric here?” 

Maybe we can forgive the routine ignorance of the media and its oftentimes sensationalistic and even hostile portrayal of religious folks, especially Christians in the U.S. Our faith is not easily understood even by those who have been initiated into it and strive with God’s grace to live it day-to-day! And surely we can forgive those in the Church who would have us curb the enthusiasm of Christ’s Eucharistic teaching in today’s gospel. I mean, are we really helping ecumenical efforts at the international and national level by insisting on all this blood and guts imagery? Wouldn’t it be better to focus rather on the more genteel and less violent imagery of bread and wine? These are great symbols of earth and home and harmony and human work. Besides bread and wine helps to keep us focused “down here” on the domestic community rather than “up there” on an inaccessible Big Scary Father-God. Aren’t we here really just to learn to live together and help each other and be at peace with the environment? 

No. No, we’re not. We’re here to be saved. We’re here to find the Way and walk it. We’re here to eat the body of Christ, to drink his blood and to share more and more intimately in the workings of the Blessed Trinity in human history. We are here…more literally…”to gnaw” on Christ. Not to nibble daintily or to consume politely but “to gnaw.” That’s the Greek. Gnaw. Now, let me see you gnaw symbolically. For that matter, let me see you gnaw a symbol. Let me see you gnaw on a memory, a memorial, a representation. Let me see you gnaw on an eschatological sign, a prophetic image, a metaphor for “making-present things past.” 

The quarreling Jews may have understood better then than we do sometimes now: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” This question actually belies substantial understanding! They understood Jesus to say “flesh.” Meat. Body. And blood. True food and true drink. Not mere symbols. Not just memorial signs. Not mere representational action in history. Not just an “absence of forgetting.” Real food, real drink for eternal life. And this is why they are shocked to hear Jesus teaching what can only be called cannibalism. I don’t think Jesus eases their fears any in the explanation of his baffling claim: “Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me and I in him…the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.” This is astonishingly clear and simple. And outrageously scandalous! 

From the beginning we have had immediate access to Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. His real flesh and real blood. We will not eat the bread of our ancestors this morning. We will eat the bread of life from the banquet table of the Father. We will eat…we will gnaw!...as children, heirs, as a people loved, we will feast on immortality so that we may become him whom we eat. There is no other reason for us to be here this morning than this: our transubstantiation into Christ. Just ask Paul: we will not all die, but we will all be changed!

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13 April 2016

Joy in persecution

3rd Week of Easter (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Christ's church in Jerusalem is under persecution. Peter and the Apostles are arrested twice and brought before the Sanhedrin to answer charges of heresy and sedition. Both times they are sternly warned to stop preaching and teaching “in THAT name.” Both times they defy the authorities and continue doing what they were sent by Christ to do. B/c the Apostles must obey God rather than men, the persecutors are turning violent, and the Church is scattered “throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. . .” Saul is dragging Christians out of their homes and putting them in prison. By the standards of the time, none of this is particularly noteworthy. What is noteworthy is the reaction of the persecuted Church. We read in Acts: “Now those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.” Also of note is the reaction of those who hear and benefit from this apostolic preaching: “There was great joy in that city.” How does the persecuted Church defy the threat of prison and violence? How do we answer religious rejection and secular condemnation? We do the ordinary: We go about preaching the Word.

The ordinary? Well, we can only consider our response to persecution extraordinary if we fail to understand our purpose as a Church. If we believe that the Church's purpose is to create and defend a particular version of western culture, then preaching the word in defiance of violent secular repression seems extraordinary. If we believe that the Church's purpose is to support the platform of a particular political ideology, or promote a particular economic system, then preaching the word in defiance of persecution seems extraordinary. If we believe that the Church's purpose is to provide us with a ready-made network of like-minded friends, business contacts, or just something to do on a Sunday morning, then preaching the word in defiance of the law, in defiance of all social pressure to stop seems more than just extraordinary; it's socially suicidal, even downright dumb. However, since the purpose of the Church is to preach the word, preaching the word – even in defiance of persecution, esp. in defiance of persecution – is the most natural thing for us to do. Why? B/c when the word of God is preached, there is always great joy. The Good News of God's mercy to sinners always brings with it the blessings of freedom, healing, and peace.

It is the nature and purpose of the Church to preach the word “in season and out.” If that's not enough to explain her defiance of persecution, then let this be enough: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Where would the hungry go to eat the bread of life if not the Church? How could anyone come to believe if there were no witnesses giving testimony? The Church is in the world to be the living sacrament of Christ, to point to and make present his saving power among the nations. Jesus says, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life. . .” How does anyone in 2016 “see the Son” and come to believe in him? Through the teaching and preaching and sacraments of his Body, the Church – alive and well 2,000 yrs after his resurrection. In defiance of persecution, social ostracism, ridicule, corruption, scandal, exile, and occasional defeat, alive and well for 2,000 yrs, living in his resurrection to preach the Good News of God's mercy to sinners. Our purpose is not victory over our enemies. God has always, already won. Our purpose is to tell the world that He has won, is winning, and will always win, and that He wants us all, everyone to share in that victory through Christ, His Son.

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12 April 2016

You know that I love you

3rd Sunday of Easter 2016
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary

Our Lord asks Peter a question—The Question, actually—the question that makes Peter squirm like a worm on a hot rock: “Simon [Peter], son of John, do you love me more than these?”* We can't help but wonder what went through Peter's head at hearing this question. He must've flashed back to the time Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And he answered, “You are the Son of the living God.” He must've remembered rebuking Jesus when the Lord revealed that he would die in Jerusalem, and Jesus yelling at him, “Get behind me, Satan!” He must've remembered Jesus' prophecy that he would deny knowing him three times in the Garden. That memory must've made him blush in shame. His betrayal. Fleeing arrest. Outright lying. Now, the Risen Lord sits with him on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias and asks, “Simon [Peter], do you love me more than these?” Of course, Peter says that he loves the Lord. Could he say anything else? Truly, sitting there in the presence of the Risen Lord, could he confess to any other passion but the love btw friends, friends who willingly die for one another? “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” 

This first answer to the Jesus' question tells us that Peter is confused. “You know that I love you,” so why are you asking me if I love you? All those memories of rebuking Jesus, betraying him, denying him; all those chances to live out the radical love btw friends willing to die for one another; all those flashes of revelation into his teacher's true nature and ministry, the entirety of his short but intense life with this extraordinary man of God—they all collapse into this single, profoundly intimate meeting btw a sinner and his Savior: “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” No, Peter isn't confused at all. He's feeling awkward, spiritually clumsy. He wants this moment to end. What can I say to get this over with? Or maybe he's hurt that his teacher thinks he might not love him. He has every reason to doubt that he does. Or maybe Peter is offended by the question, “You know that I love you, Lord,” why do you ask? Why does Jesus interrogate Peter this way? Not once or twice but three times he asks. And three times Peter gives the same answer. By the third time, John tells us, Peter is “distressed.” He's worried. Does the Lord really think that I don't love him? Peter is “grieved” by the possibility, so he answers, a little desperately, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” 

This seaside scene btw Jesus and Peter brings to harvest a number of seeds planted by Christ in the hearts and minds of his disciples. Though Peter is the focus of this interrogation, the other disciples bear their own spiritual wounds and fruits as a result of Christ's teaching. Since he first said, “Follow me” to these fishermen, Jesus has taught them in word and deed to forgive one another, to be at peace with one another, and above all, to love one another. He's taught them to surrender themselves to God by taking up their crosses and bearing up under whatever burdens must be carried. He's taught them to remember him in the breaking of the bread, in daily prayer, in fasting and in taking care of the least among them. He's taught them that being first in God's kingdom means being last in the Enemy's; and that if they love him, if they are truly willing to die for love of him, they will feed those who follow him. Feed my sheep. Feed them with the bread of life. Feed them with the Word. Satisfy their hunger for heaven, their thirst for the truth. This seaside scene btw Peter and Jesus is not only Peter's reconciliation with his Lord, it is also his final exam, his last test as the Lord's favored student. 

As students of Christ, how would you and I do on this final exam? If the Risen Lord were to appear to us and ask, “Do you love me?” how would we react? Would we be confused by the question? Hurt? Offended? Embarrassed? Distressed? Or would we jump at the chance to tell the Lord that we do love him? Would there be that split second btw the question and our answer when we remembered that time when we had the chance to bear witness to God's mercy and didn't? That chance to forgive we let slip away. Would we recall all the times we've denied knowing Christ by failing to love as we should? Those times when we let our pride stand in the way of our humility? Would our failures to give God thanks for our blessings cause us to stutter an answer? Would we blush at our lack of growth in holiness? Our spiritual clumsiness when disaster strikes? Yes, probably; yes, to all of these. And then we'd remember what Christ taught from his cross: all is forgiven; every sin, every flaw and fault, every failure to love is washed away. And we'd say, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” And he'd say to us, “Feed my sheep.” 

When Peter and the other Apostles are arrested by the Sanhedrin, did they remember this profoundly intimate meeting with the Risen Lord? They must've. The high priest accuses them, “We gave you strict orders, did we not, to stop teaching in that name? Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching. . .” Before he responds to the accusation, Peter must've heard Jesus saying, “Feed my sheep.” So, he says to the priests, “We must obey God rather than men. . .” Rather than obey men, we must feed the Lord's sheep. Rather than bowing to your worldly power, we must bow before the glory of God. Rather than surrender ourselves to this world's hatred, we must teach others to surrender themselves to God's love. Peter must've smiled a little, recalling the grilling Jesus gave him by the Sea of Tiberias. Three times he had to confess his love for Christ. Three times Christ ordered him to feed his sheep. And now, here he is, standing before the powers of men, and he understands why Christ put him to the question. Jesus knew that he, Peter, could not feed his sheep if he himself would not be fed. The Lord absolved Peter of his sins, gave him a word of mercy so that when the time came to defy the world, he can so ready to die. I imagine Peter in front of the Sanhedrin, whispering, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” 

You know already, brothers and sisters, that we must obey God rather than men. We know this, but can we do it. More often than not, there is no conflict btw what we must do to satisfy the world and what we must do to satisfy God. But when a conflict arises, do we think immediately of Peter before the Sanhedrin? Do we think of him at the seashore with Jesus? Or do we think instead of all our failures and flaws, all of our sins and then excuse ourselves again from the obligation to put Christ first in our lives? Our failures and flaws cannot serves as excuses. After the death and resurrection of Christ, our sins are forgiven. We can no long demur in our duties to God b/c we are unworthy, or b/c we imagine ourselves to be too irresponsible to love properly. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” If your answer is, “Yes, Lord, I love you,” then hear him say to you, “Feed my sheep.”

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08 April 2016

No fear in Christ!

2nd Week of Easter (S)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

In traditional iconography, St. Catherine of Siena is often portrayed carrying a ship on her shoulder. That ship is the Church. It reminds us of Noah's Ark, those who were saved from the flood. Most of us here this morning are sitting in the nave of the church. “Nave” derives from the Latin word, navis, which also gives us our word “navy.” So, the symbolic connections btw a ship on the sea and the church in the world are easy to draw. The disciples get into a boat and head out over the sea to Capernaum. A storm is brewing, the wind is kicking up, and the disciples are worried about capsizing. In response to this imminent danger, the disciples nominate a Task Force to address the crisis. The Task Force appoints a commission to study the problem. The commission selects a committee to hold hearings, and the cmte recommends that a working group issue a report. Eventually, the disciples vote on a draft of the report and release the document under the title, In navi durante tempestas, “On a Boat during a Storm.” Unfortunately, all the disciples are tossed overboard and drowned. In another version of this story, Jesus appears to his frightened disciples and says, “I Am. Do not be afraid” and the boat arrives safely on the shore.

My irreverent version of John's gospel story is meant to be a little cheeky and a little telling. When the Church confronts a contemporary crisis, whether its a crisis in the Church or with the world, how do we normally proceed? There's really no way to answer that question fully, of course, b/c each crisis presents its unique problems, thus requiring unique solutions. Maybe a better question would be: from what resources do we draw when a crisis confronts us? Even better: to whom do we turn when a strong wind blows up a storm? We humans are designed and built to solve problems, and we manage quite well considering our fallen nature. But the same instinct to solve problems often leads us to cause problems as well. When we flounder around trying to solve spiritual problems with secular tools, we invariably arrive at secular solutions that worsen the original spiritual problem. Jesus' last- minute appearance to the near-drowned disciples shows us the best way to deal with every crisis we encounter: look for the Lord and expect to hear him say, “I Am. Do not be afraid.” In other words, we are reminded again that we, the boat, the sea, the storm, all belong to God. Fear in a crisis is not only futile, it can be deadly—spiritually deadening.

Fear has its natural uses. Being afraid for our lives discourages us from doing all sorts of dangerous things. Leaping out of planes. Swimming in Lake Ponchatrain. Driving in New Orleans. Fear even has its supernatural uses. It makes us wary of sin. Using occult means for achieving our goals. But fear can also prevent us from doing the holy work we've been given to do. It can discourage us from risking our time, talent, and treasure in the pursuit of holiness. We are not baptized to seek spiritual safety, to cuddle close with our devotions and watch the world burn. We are baptized to go out and proclaim—in word and deed—the freely given mercy of God. We are baptized to go out and preach and teach and heal and forgive and be forgiven. BXVI, introducing the Year of Faith, teaches us that we must propose again to the world an encounter the Risen Lord. How? He writes, “. . .we need to renew our preaching with lively faith, firm conviction, and joyful witness.” Filled with faith, conviction, and joy, there is no room in any of us for fear. Leave no room for fear. And if fear should blow your way, stop, look for the Lord, and expect to hear him say to you, “I Am. Do not be afraid.”


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Thanks & Prayers

My Mendicant Thanks and Shout Out to W. Clement for browsing the Wish List and sending me an early birthday gift. . . 

As always, my Book/Paint Benefactors are in my daily prayers!


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03 April 2016

Are you unbelieving???

2nd Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

What do we know about Thomas? He's one of the Twelve disciples chosen by Christ to serve as apostles. He's called Didymus b/c he has a twin brother. And we know that he is absent on the night that the Risen Lord appears to his apostles. Oh, and we know that despite having lived and died more than 2,000 years ago, he's a thoroughly modern man. What makes him modern? When told by his friends that Jesus—dead and buried for three days—appeared to them, Thomas proclaims a thoroughly modern standard of truth: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks. . .I will not believe.” Modern philosophers and scientists would congratulate Thomas for demanding such a sensible and obviously right-thinking empirical standard for assenting to the truth of a claim. Jesus, on the other hand, isn't impressed. Appearing among his apostles a week later, Jesus allows Thomas to test his empirical standard. Now, Thomas believes. Jesus, far from praising his student's rigid need for proof, says, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” No one here has seen Jesus as Thomas did. Do we believe? And what difference does it make if we do or do not believe? 

It might seem strange for a Catholic priest to ask a church-full of Christians attending a Sunday Mass whether or not they believe in the Risen Lord. Why would any of us be here if we didn't believe? Let me suggest that there is a difference btw “believing that the Lord is risen” and “believing in the Risen Lord.” Simply believing that the Lord is risen is a matter of assent, saying, “Yes, I believe that” when asked. Believing in the Risen Lord is also a matter of assent—saying, “Yes, I believe that”—but saying Yes to the Risen Lord entails a commitment far more intimate and demanding that merely saying that he is risen. When prompting Thomas to explore his wounds, Jesus says to him, “do not be unbelieving, but believe.” How does Thomas respond? He doesn't say, “I retract my earlier statement of disbelief and now assent to the claim that you are risen.” No. He exclaims, “My Lord and my God!” Believing in the Risen Lord commits us to submitting ourselves to the rule and measure of Christ as the source and summit of all that we are. A church-full of Christians can easily assent to the fact that the Lord is risen w/o ever committing themselves to being ruled by the Risen Lord. Doubt about the mechanics of the resurrection is the smallest obstacle we face when it comes to bending the knee to Christ our King. 

How does Thomas overcome his disbelief? Through Christ's mercy. It is b/c he is merciful that Jesus allows Thomas to satisfy his doubts on his own terms. We know that this is an act of mercy b/c Jesus says to Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” Our Lord could've very easily left Thomas stewing in his doubt, left him outside the company of the blessed, and w/o the benefits of genuine belief. Instead, Jesus shows him mercy. Thomas is charged with the sin of disbelief, found guilty, and then pardoned; pardoned for no other reason than for the sake of the Gospel. The Gospel needs Thomas. And Peter and John and James and you and me. So, it is vital that we are not unbelieving but believing, that we are committed—heart, body, mind—to living under the rule and measure of Christ; thinking every thought, speaking every word, doing every deed for the sake of Christ and the spreading of his Good News. What is the Good News of Christ? That God freely offers His abundant mercy to all sinners. With repentance, we receive all that He generosity provides through the once for all sacrifice of His Christ on the cross. His mercy is our freedom from sin and our license to tell the whole world that Christ is Lord and God! 

Not too long after this meeting btw Jesus and Thomas, the apostles find themselves consumed by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and set upon the world to preach the Good News and accomplish mighty deeds in Christ's name. Luke tells us in Acts that “many signs and wonders were done among the people at the hands of the apostles. . .the people esteemed them. . .more than ever. . .great numbers of men and women, were added to them.” What were these signs and wonders? What exactly were the apostles doing and saying to bring so many to Christ? We know from Acts that the apostles were preaching God's mercy; baptizing those who repented; healing the sick and injured; freeing souls from unclean spirits; teaching the Word and breaking bread in memoriam. They were establishing the Lord's household among those who answered Christ's call to follow him. Why did they do these things? So that all may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief they may have life in his name. When we come to believe in the Risen Lord, when we come to trust in his name, we too accomplish mighty deeds, preach his Good News, and strengthen his household for all who answer his call to repentance and holiness. 

Do you believe? And what difference does it make if you do or do not believe? Do you call on his name in faith? And what difference does it make if you do or do not? After appearing to Thomas and some of the other disciples, Jesus reveals himself again at the Sea of Tiberias. To this group of disciples, Jesus not only reveals himself as the Risen Lord, he also reveals to them why it is necessary to listen to and obey his commands. The disciples are fishing and not having any luck. Jesus—disguised—tells the Beloved Disciple to cast his net over the right side of the boat. He obeys. The catch is so large that they can barely haul it in. At that moment, the B.D. recognizes Jesus and says to Peter, “It is the Lord!” Note that Jesus is unrecognizable to the disciples until the B.D. listens to and obeys his commands. The miraculous haul of fish is a sign for the B.D., and he instantly sees his Risen Lord. What difference does belief make? Belief in Christ makes it possible for us to see his words and deeds speaking and working in our lives. Belief in Christ gives us the courage and strength necessary to repeat his words and deeds, to put his words and deeds to work in building and fortifying his royal household. 

Belief in the Risen Lord means submitting ourselves to Christ as our only rule and measure. The disciples do not recognize the Lord on the road to Emmaus. Nor when he visits them on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias. Nor will Thomas believe that he is risen until he appears in the flesh for inspection. Doubt, worry, fear, pride—all of these cloud the disciples' eyes and plug up their ears. Btw Easter and Pentecost the disciples find it difficult to recognize the Risen Lord b/c they have yet to make Christ the rule and measure of their hearts and minds. Here we are btw Easter morning and Pentecost. Does Christ rule our lives? Do we measure our holiness against his? What does anxiety measure? What does fear demand of its subjects? The Risen Lord gives us one last command before he ascends to the Father, “Peace be with you.” Be at peace. If our hearts and minds are torn apart by dread, or frightened by the unknown, or troubled by our past, then we cannot rest in the sure knowledge that Christ died for us b/c he loves us. And if we cannot rest knowing this truth, then we cannot come to believe in the Risen Lord. Be at peace. . .and come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life eternal.

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Mendicant Thanks to E. Menezes for hitting the Wish List and sending me Kim Holmes' The Closing of the Liberal Mind: How Groupthink and Intolerance Define the Left

I've read the first few chapters of this book, and it's great. Holmes traces the decline of classical liberal thought through the fascistic progressivism that currently dominates our cultural and political discourse. 

Get a copy! 

E.M., I'm praying for your discernment. . .

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27 March 2016


NB. No Mass at OLR this evening, so here's an Easter homily from 2014.

Easter Sunday
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

No one sees him rise. The grave stone is rolled away. His tomb is empty. The burial shroud neatly folded and left behind. Our Lord is nowhere to be found. Mary Magdala finds all this, evidence of theft, evidence of sacrilege and runs to Simon Peter, reporting, “They have taken the Lord from the tomb, and we don’t know where they put him.” Mary did not see him rise. Neither did Simon Peter nor John the beloved disciple. No one sees him rise. No one who visits the tomb that morning knows what happened. Why? Because “they did not yet understand the Scripture that he had to rise from the dead.” He had to rise from the dead. And because he emptied his tomb that morning, rising to new life with the Father, we too are raised to new life. His resurrection from an ignominious death gathers us all up and treats us to the possibility, the promise of deathless lives lived in the unfiltered presence of God the Father Himself. And so, Paul declares, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above. . .Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.” Seek what is above, and ask yourself: where have I put Christ?

Where is Christ? Mary finds the tomb empty. Peter and John find the tomb empty. Their Lord's body is missing, and they do not know where the grave robbers have taken him. These three disciples believe that Jesus' body has been stolen b/c they do no understand – yet – that he had to rise from the dead. Do we understand this any better? We do, but then we have a 2,000 year advantage: centuries of personal testimony, libraries jammed with theological treatises, the sanctifying assistance of the Holy Spirit, the magisterium of the Church. We certainly understand the resurrection better than Mary, Peter, and John did back then. But understanding is not believing. Understanding is not trusting. When we believe in someone, trust someone that someone becomes for us the measure and means of how we live. Not just the center but the very foundation, the whole structure of our being. Knowing this, Paul writes, “If then you were raised with Christ, seek what is above. . .” If you truly seek what is above, then you can answer the question: where have you put Christ? Where is he in your life? Have you set him aside as a decoration? An observer? Have you placed him on a shelf to be seen but not heard? If we believe in, trust in the Risen Lord, he must be more than a necklace charm, more than a dashboard saint. He must be the Lord of our lives. The means and measure of our everyday thoughts, words, and deeds. Everything we have and are is his and his alone.

What does all this mean? The resurrection is all about new life, new beginnings, a fresh start in an old world eaten through with corruption and bitter disobedience. The resurrection is all about leaving behind our old ways and taking up The Way in Christ, following after him toward the perfection of holiness. Yes, all of that. But more. Much, much more. You see, if you believe in, trust in the Risen Lord; if you give everything you are and everything you have back to him for his use in bringing the Kingdom to fruition; if you follow him, sacrificing for love of him and giving that love a body and soul in this world; then, you become Christ. Not just a follower. Not just an attendee. You fulfill your baptismal vows and become Christ. Paul says it, “For you have died [in baptism], and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” To hide your life in the life of Christ means that you have placed Christ above you, over you, hiding within his life so that yours is indistinguishable from his. The resurrection makes it possible for us to hide in Christ. Our human nature is made new in the resurrection. We have joined him in death, now we can join him in life eternal.

That promise – eternal life – is our Easter promise. We hide our lives in Christ so that his work is our work, his mind is our mind, his body is our body. In faith, we are bound to him. So much so that Paul says, “When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.” But to be bound to him takes more than understanding. It takes much more than just knowing the story of the resurrection, knowing the details of the tale. The resurrection gives us the authority and the power to act, to speak, to think with the heart and mind of our Risen Lord. Until he comes again, we are his Body. Until he comes again, we are his hands and feet. We are not Pilate, fidgeting over politics, making carefully crafted decisions with an eye on our reputations. We are not the crowd in Jerusalem, frothing for blood and easy victory. We are not the Roman soldiers at Golgotha, just obeying lawful orders. And neither are we Mary, Peter, or John, despairing at the loss of Christ b/c we do not yet understand. We know what has happened. We know what is happening. Christ is risen. With the Father, he lives. In his Church, he lives. And if we hide ourselves in his risen life, he lives in this world. No one sees him rise. But everyone is watching to see if his Church will rise. Show the world the Risen Christ. In your words and deeds, show them Christ!

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21 March 2016

Are you ready for a kenosis?

Monday of Holy Week 2016
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Yesterday, Palm Sunday, we read a portion of Paul's letter to the Philippians, “[Christ] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness. . .he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” The Son of God empties himself to become the Son of Man. As the Son of God and the Son of Man, the Christ is both human and divine. He poured out his divinity to come among us in flesh and bone; now, this holy week, he pours out his humanity to rejoin his Father, taking with him all who will follow. The first prophetic sign of this kenosis—this emptying out—occurs in Bethany at the beginning of Passover week during a feast thrown in Jesus' honor. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anoints Jesus' feet with a pint of expensive spikenard, a funereal oil used to prepare corpses for burial. Though no one else at the feast seems to understand what Mary is doing, Jesus does. She is anointing his living body before he goes to die on the cross for the sins of the world. This week, he will go to the Place of Skulls, anointed with the stench of the grave.

From today until we shout our first alleluias on Easter morning, we will witness the second kenosis of our Savior, the second time that he freely empties himself out for us. When Mary anoints his feet with $10,000 worth of funeral oil, Judas insincerely objects to the extravagant waste, “Why was this oil not sold for three hundred days’ wages and given to the poor?” Jesus answers, “Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” We will not always have the Son of God and Son of Man with us; we will not always have the Christ, flesh and bone, among us. Thus Jesus begins his second kenosis, leaving behind body and blood, accepting the necessity of his death for the salvation of the world. Tomorrow, he will accept the necessity of a double betrayal. Judas will sell him to his enemies, and Peter the Rock will deny him three times. Each day this week, Jesus will accept another detachment from this world, another moment of “letting go,” and loss. By the time he reaches the Place of Skulls, nailed to the cross, he is emptied of life, friendship, loyalty, promise, hope, all that we ourselves—even in our sinfulness—receive as gifts from his Father. Good Friday is good b/c, come the day, we are no longer bound by sin. 

What does Jesus' second kenosis mean for us? How do we follow him in emptying ourselves of all that binds us to this world? First, we must ask: what binds us to this world? Family, friends, plans for the future, the stuff we have and want more of? All of these can and will be lost. None of these is eternal. Are we bound by promises, vows, a determination to live? Also, impermanent, all are fleeting. If you were to be anointed this morning with funeral oils, prepared for burial, what would you need to be freed from in order to enter your grave unattached? Possessions? Sure. Relationships? Yes. How about your sins, your transgressions against God, self, and neighbor? Definitely. How do you follow him in emptying yourself of all that binds you to this world? Surrender, as Christ did, to the inevitability of death, and pour out all that keeps you away from God. Pour out whatever lives on your heart and mind as a parasite. Scrape it off. Rid yourself of obstacles, distractions, accumulated junk, and make room—plenty of room—for the coming of God's Holy Spirit. Empty yourself out by dying to self and find yourself filled with life eternal.


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13 March 2016

Is your name written in the dirt?

NB. I was asked to celebrate and preach the 7.30am Mass for the nuns.

5th Sunday of Lent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Monastery of OLR, Summit, NJ

Standing before him in the temple area is a woman accused of adultery. Standing behind her are her accusers, the scribes and Pharisees who hope to trip him up with a tricky legal question: should this woman be stoned to death according to the Law of Moses? The woman's accusers present their bear-trap case to him and then wait for his reply. What does he do? He bends down and writes in the dirt with his finger. Befuddled by this strange behavior, the woman's accusers continue to press their questions and demand answers. Finally, he straightens up and says to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then, he bends down to write again in the dirt with his finger. The woman's accusers drift away, leaving Jesus and the woman alone. This is what happens when the demands of justice collide with the need for mercy; or rather, what happens when our need for justice collides with God's demand that we freely grant mercy. Justice—to be truly just—must flow from righteousness, a righteousness that no man or woman possesses. The best we can do is imitate Christ and grant mercy. 

Jesus and the adulterous woman are left alone in the temple area. Her accusers have fled b/c they know the Law as well as Jesus does. They know that their accusations against her—though true—are also incomplete. According to her accusers, the woman was “caught in the very act of committing adultery.” Where is her accomplice? The Law requires that a man caught in adultery be stoned as well. Since the woman was “caught in the act,” why is she not being accused by those who caught her? The Law requires that the witness to a capital crime throw the first stone. When Jesus challenges the accusers to carry out the death sentence, “in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.” Pouring salt in their wounded pride, Jesus publicly accuses the accusers of being sinners themselves and forces them to acknowledge their sinfulness. He knows the Law as well as they do, so he publicly humiliates them all by exposing their hypocrisy under the Law. How can they accuse this woman of violating the Law when they themselves violate the Law by accusing her as they have? Justice—to be truly just—must flow from righteousness, a righteousness that no man or woman possesses. 

Jesus shows the accusers that they are unjust by challenging them to follow the Law. They can't. Doing so would condemn them under the Law. To underscore his own accusation, Jesus writes in the dirt, following the Sabbath Law that forbids the work of writing on paper on a holy day but allows writing in the dirt. Though John doesn't tell us what Jesus is writing in the dirt, tradition tells us that he is alluding to the prophet, Jeremiah. Jeremiah cries out, “O Lord, all who forsake You will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, because they have forsaken the fountain of living water. . .” Another translation reads, “The rebels shall be enrolled in the netherworld.” To have your name written in the dust is to be enrolled in the netherworld as a shameful rebel against God. The woman's accusers watch Jesus writing in the dirt; remember Jeremiah's righteousness cry to God; and then ask themselves: are we prepared to be consigned to the netherworld as rebels against God? “In response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.” Confronted—even subtly—by their own failures in holiness, the scribes and Pharisees simply fade away to plot another trap for the Lord. 

The story of the adulterous woman and Jesus' merciful response to her sin can be a trap for us. Has been a trap for us. When finally left alone with the woman, Jesus asks her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She answers, “No one, sir.” Jesus is the only one left to pass judgment, the only one truly qualified to condemn her for her sin. He says, instead, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” The trap for us here is to read Jesus' challenge to the accusers and this final act of mercy as a judgment against calling out sin. In other words, b/c Jesus shows the accusers to be sinful themselves and b/c he does not condemn the woman, we're to believe that no one should ever call a sin Sin. When the Pope or our bishops challenge abortion or same-sex marriage, how often do we hear the culture respond, “They shouldn't throw stones given their track record on sexual abuse”? Somehow Jesus' challenge to the righteousness of the woman's accusers has been perverted into a blanket denial that sin can be named Sin. What's missing here is Jesus final word to the woman, “Go and sin no more.” He grants mercy to the person while naming sin Sin. 

And that's the difference btw man's justice and God's mercy. Man's justice condemns both the crime and the criminal. God's mercy passes sentence on the sin and forgives the sinner. By forgiving the sinner, God does what God Is: Love. Forgiveness of sin, showing mercy to the sinner is in no way an admission that sin isn't sin. The righteous do not need mercy, therefore, only the unrighteous may receive it; that is, only those found guilty of sin require mercy in the first place. It's vital to our growth in holiness that we understand how God's mercy relieves us of the burden of sin. The weight of disobedience is crushing. Under the heavy load of sin, we cannot follow after Christ; we cannot complete our mission “to go and do likewise” if we are suffering in slavery to our disobedience. This is why the Father sent to Son to lift this burden off our backs. Christ has removed the yoke of sin and we are now free to follow him. When Jesus refuses to condemn the adulterous woman all he is doing is freeing her so that she might choose to take up his yoke and do the joyous work of witnessing to God's mercy. Adultery is still adultery. But no sin—not even adultery—can forever chain a soul in servitude when the Father's forgiveness is freely offered and freely received. 

Lent is our time to stare intently at the dirt to see if our names are written there. But the time for watching the dirt is almost over. We are rapidly approaching the empty tomb on Easter morning. Ahead of us, drawing us in, is the emptied cave where Jesus went to rest. But for our sakes, he didn't rest. Instead, he rose; he rose to the Father and sent his Holy Spirit to dwell among us, strengthening us along his Way, encouraging us in our temptation to despair for a lack of holiness. Lent is a time set aside for us to search the dirt for our names. It's that time in our lives when we set ourselves against ourselves to fast, pray, give alms; to acknowledge our total dependency on God; to give Him thanks and praise for His blessings; and to generously share those blessings. If it seems that we pay too much attention to sin during Lent, remember: God's mercy frees us; His forgiveness unburdens us. But without the confession of our sins, without acknowledging our sins, we cannot receive His mercy. No man or woman possesses the righteousness required to free themselves from sin, or to dispense others from the rot of their sins. Christ alone is able to say, “I do not condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”

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