09 December 2006

Some Hard Advent Questions

2nd Sunday Advent: Baruch 5.1-9; Philippians 1.4-6, 8-11; Luke 3.1-6
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation

Time to ask some hard Advent questions: what is suffocating God’s good work in you? What is strangling His gift of joy, His grant of mercy to you? Who or what serves as the false focus of your spiritual vigor, your soulful oomph!? Shall I list the ways? Are you: nursing a petty hurt? Anxious about a roommate’s apparent immorality? Dodging your parents over money matters? Slowly rotting in lies or pretense or illusion about your achievements, your love life, your future? Are you wasting your material gifts on decadence, frivolous diversions and attempts at escape? Are you betraying a husband or a wife or a child or a friend by being someone you cannot be for them forever? Are you serving alien gods? Who or what rules your heart? Ambition? Money? Accolades? Public attention? Are your gods named Stomach, Ego, Career, and Sex? If you cannot love God, yourself, or your neighbor, why? It’s in you to do so. What can’t you say to God? What won’t you pray for that will spring open your heart? What do you fear? And, finally, who is it that you are really angry at?

Yes, these are Advent questions b/c Advent is our time to make clean the way of the Lord, to sweep the road to our hearts, to polish the stone path to our minds, and to prepare for questions deeper, brighter, more passionate than anything I can ask you from here! Oh, one more question: has your love increased more and more, knowing what is good and true and beautiful, so that when Christ returns, you can stand before him pure and blameless and filled with the fruit of righteousness? If not, now’s the time to start.

John the Baptist visited us this Advent week as a jumpy fetus, banging around in Elizabeth’s womb, jumping and rejoicing in the presence of the Blessed Mother, and our Savior, Jesus Christ. In vitro, he knows the power and majesty of the Anointed Son, not yet born and he bows before the One who will come and hang on the cross freely and finally, for all. What John knows, even before he breathes, is that his purpose, his reason for life has come and what better event, what more glorious person to honor by jumping and rejoicing than the coming of the Promised One of God. He is the One Who has begun in us a good work and continues to complete that good work until he comes again. This season of purple begs us to wait and wait and anticipate and anticipate and hope and hope. Waiting, we must repent of our sin. Anticipating, we must turn from the slavery of disobedience. Hoping, we must call on mercy and the promise of eternal rescue. John points the Way. But he will not drag us, kicking and screaming, to our repentance. Your life must be freely given in sacrifice or not at all.

Paul is quite confident that God’s good work is seeded, sprouted, and growing furiously in each of us. I wonder, are we as confident? Are we as sure as Paul that we carry a good work in us and with us and that our Lord works to complete that good work? Advent is a season for repentance, for turning around and coming back, for surrendering to the Father, and letting Him do His work in you. If we fail in our confidence, in other words, if we succumb to cowardice, we deny that God has done anything good for us at all! I’ll be more pointed: if you believe that God has not begun a good work in you; if you deny Paul’s confidence and hold that you are basically evil, incapable of pursuing the Good, or unlovable even by Love Himself, then do not recite the Creed with us, do not offer your prayers, do not walk the aisle for communion or cross yourself at the blessing! For all purposes that matter, you are excommunicated, formerly in communion…now in denial. You are the one John was sent to rattle!

John’s job is to herald the coming of the Christ, to run before and warn and rejoice and make aware and to shout: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths!” Clearing a path through any crowd, John walks ahead, pulling the attention, the allegiance, and even the ire of those who come to see Jesus. He preaches, teaches, pronounces judgment, corrects error, gives good example, and, for all his hard work, he loses his head to a dancer. But for that time he called out his warning and his joy, he was a voice crying out in the desert, the one we know from Isaiah and the one we know who first knew that the Christ was among us. He preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

So, we honor John the Baptist by asking: what is suffocating God’s good work in you? What is strangling His gift of joy, His grant of mercy to you? Do you believe that God has made you a good work? Or do you wallow still in the Devil’s lie that you are the sum of your sins? Do you believe that God has forgiven your sins, raised you up as His preacher and witness, and made you a prophet to shout out his praise in the markets and the schools and the offices? Or do you persist in the false modesty of being a “little one” below His notice, too meager to be loved and charged with an apostolic mission? Do you believe that God will restore all creation to His just ways, putting everything there is under the rule of his Son, and subjecting each of us to His mercy? Or do you still need to hold on to the illusion that God is angry and cruel and just waiting to leap out from behind his Throne and yell, “GOTCHA!” Isn’t this about our self-righteousness and a demonic spirit of judgment than it is about who God really is?

You see, joy is not about bouncing around smiling, laughing, and having a good time. Of course, we can express joy in these ways. But joy as such is about peace. A quiet stillness in our hearts, a stony trust that electrifies our soul to reach and grasp the offered hand of God, to stretch and strain for the fingers of our Savior who put his body and soul on the cross for us. Joy is sure knowledge, passionate assurance, and the gift of a life swimming in the light of our final end. We en-joy Christ when we take him in, make him welcomed as King of our hearts, and move and breath and do and speak everything necessary to show out what he has done for us.

John announces that Christ will fill every valley, make low every mountain and hill. His arrival will signal that all flesh shall see the salvation of God. Therefore, breathe! The Holy Spirit comes among us as mighty wind, a desert whirlwind and an ocean tumult. Breathe in the fire of Father’s love for His Son and watch your love increase more and more, knowing what is good, true, and beautiful so that you may then stand before God, pure and blameless, filled with the fruits of righteousness. Prepare yourself in repentance. Turn from disobedience and toward humility. From petty hurts to generous helps. From alien gods of the earth to the One God of Heaven. From your choked life of spiritual disappointment to deep breathes of the Spirit. From the coming of the Lord to his arrival.

The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy!

08 December 2006

Mary's YES is our mission

Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception of the BVM:
Gen 3.9-15, 20; Eph 1.3-6, 11-12; and Luke 1.26-38
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory and the Church of the Incarnation

Our first Mother, Eve, willfully participated in an act of disobedience against God and lost our just relationship with Him in so doing. Her NO to God gave reign to sin. Our only Mother in Christ, Mary, obeyed God and participated willfully in the ultimate act of sacrifice to win back for us the possibility of a just relationship with Him. Her YES to God gave us a King to reign in our lives. Adam and Eve’s sin lost for all creation its righteousness before God. Jesus and Mary’s sacrificial offering of their bodies to the Father’s will restored all creation to righteousness. Today we celebrate our Blessed Mother’s clean beginning, her immaculate conception, and honor her for her fiat: “Lord, may it be done to me according to your word.”

Our family of salvation, the Church, has done an amazing job over the centuries of preserving for us a proper understanding of Mary and her place in our history of faith. The dual temptations of worshipping Mary as a goddess or ignoring her as a necessary means have haunted our magisterial duties w/o possessing the machines of dogma and doctrine, and possibly distorting who she was and is for us and to us: Mary is our first and only Mother in Christ. She said Yes to the Holy Spirit and bore the Word of Creation and Re-creation into the world. She carried that Word, witnessing in her body the humanity of our Savior, giving him flesh and blood, and participating, free from sin, in our salvation. The honor due Mary is never the worship due the Blessed Trinity, but the love and honor we pay our natural mothers, the love of children for the one who gave us life out and nurtured us to maturity.

Mary is the Mother of our salvation and she is the apostle of our mission as daughters and sons of a loving Father. At our baptism we picked up the mission of bearing the Word to the world. We became preachers of the Word. We picked up the perils of resisting all that the world worships as True, Good, and Beautiful. Preaching the Truth against the Lie stirs up the worst bitterness and the most violent passions of those who resent Mary’s Yes, who resent the gift of the Infant Jesus, and who will not to participate in their perfection in the Divine Life. We are imperiled by the threat of social and physical violence, but more problematically we are imperiled by the temptation to see the people threatened by us as hopeless or deserving of divine punishment. This second temptation—our judgment of others—is scandalously common and unworthy of the virgin-child who made our own Yes possible.

Our Mother’s Yes to bearing the Word in her body to us contains no taint of selfishness, anger, vengeance, malice, or arrogance. Her Yes was and is spoken purely, spoken willingly and eagerly, without irony, pretense, or sarcasm. Free from the swill of Adam and Eve’s original disobedience she sees cleanly, hears immaculately the call of the Spirit to be a willing vessel, a co-worker, a handmaid for God, with God, and to God. And because of her chosen and accepted labor of love, we honor her mission and ministry by doing what she did: by saying Yes to God, by bearing His Word into the world, by living lives of mothering grace, by walking with him to the cross—following his Way—, and by dying and rising with him.

Honor our Mother Mary, her immaculate conception, by saying with great conviction: Lord, let it be done to me according to your Word!

04 December 2006

Faith, Authority, Redemption

1st Week Advent (M): Isa 2.1-5 and Matthew 8.5-11
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

Let’s get a clear picture in our minds of what’s happening here…Jesus gets to Capernaum and a Roman officer approaches him b/c the officer’s servant is in need of healing. The officer asks for Jesus’ help but acknowledges that as a Jew Jesus is not permitted to enter a Gentile’s home. This is what the officer means by “I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.” The officer goes on to say to Jesus, “…only say the word and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me.” The officer is using an analogy to explain to Jesus why he believes that Jesus’ word alone is enough to heal his servant. He is saying: in the same way that I am subject to military authority and those under my command are subject to my authority, the diseases and injuries of this world are subject to your authority as the Son of God. Your authority, your rule can be exercised anytime, anywhere without the limits of time and space. What happens next is the joy of Advent!

Matthew reports that Jesus is amazed at the officer’s faith in his authority. Turning to those following him, Jesus says, “I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven.” How do we understand this puzzling statement? The Council Fathers of Vatican Two write in Gaudium et spes that the Christian will die and rise again with Christ and that this promise of resurrection gives hope to those who suffer trials and tribulations for Christ’s name. They continue: “All this holds true not only for Christians, but for all men of good will in whose hearts grace works in an unseen way. For, since Christ died for all men, and since the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, and divine, we ought to believe that the Holy Spirit in a manner known only to God offers to every man the possibility of being associated with this paschal mystery”(n 22). Christ died once for all! The joy of Advent, therefore, is the coming of the Lord to the whole world!

The proper understanding of Christ’s authority as the Son of God will mitigate against what appears to be an argument favoring the heresy of universalism. Notice two essential elements of the exchange between Jesus and the centurion: 1) the centurion acknowledges Jesus’ authority by requesting his help, and 2) he submits to Jesus’ authority by trusting him to do what is right. It is the centurion’s acceptance of Christ as the Son of God and his trust in Christ’s authority that moves Jesus in amazement to say, “…in no one in Israel have I found such faith.” And then he makes the statement that gives us such joy in Advent: “many will come from the east and the west” and take part in the King’s banquet.

Many will come. Not all. Many will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Not all. Many will acknowledge his authority as the Son of God. Not all. Many will submit to his authority and ask for his healing touch. Not all. What is universal here is the invitation. Christ died once for all. And many will come. The centurion’s faith in Christ’s authority is evidence that anyone may be moved by mercy to seek out the Lord and say, “I am not worthy, Lord, to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and I will be healed!”

Rejoice! Your salvation is at hand.

03 December 2006

Advent is scary!

1st Sunday of Advent: Jer 33.14-16; 1 Thes 3.12-4.2; Luke 21.25-28, 34-36
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul Hospital and Church of the Incarnation

Be vigilant at all times and pray! Stay awake and pray! Look alive and pray! Be prepared and pray. The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my promises, when I will give to my people the king they long for, the Son they need. Be vigilant against sloth, stand guard against vanity, beware of deception, easy compromise, weakened trust, diluted teachings, unjust law, and comfortable prophets preaching comfortable prophecy to comfortably bloated ears. If Advent doesn’t scare you, you ain’t paying attention!

Pay attention: “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill my promise…” Over the horizon, yet to arrive, are those days ahead of us when the Lord will make good on His promises to bring us back to Him, to rescue us from darkness and make us into children of the Light. He sent his prophets and His Law. We killed the first and violated the last. And grew no holier for our trouble. And the Lord grew no more patient. He promised Abraham children as crowded as the stars and He promised those children that He would never abandon them, never exile them, never punish them, never again start from scratch, hoping to replace them. Instead, He promised them a King and a Savior, a Lamb and a High Priest. He promised them a Son of Man and a Son of God, a single rescuer for all creation. One for us who is like us and who will make us like him, one with him, one like him, a single heart and mind, a single path, one goal, one road, two feet, and a promise from the mouth of God Himself: the days are coming when I will fulfill the promise I made.

Jesus says to his disciples: “There will be signs […] and on earth nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world…” What is coming upon the world? What, exactly, are we waiting for? If we wait for the Lord to fulfill His promise to the house of David to send the nations a savior, then we want for the arrival of the Messiah at the nativity feast. We wait for the coming of the Anointed One. If we wait for the Lord to give us a few more clues on the time and location of the Apocalyspe, then we wait in vain. In fact, we wait only anxiously—unbelieving and fretful—doubting the Lord’s promises and growing increasingly hostile and weak. The acid of impatience eats away at vigilance and loosens the ties that bind us together in love. Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy! Be vigilant at all times and pray. The trials and obstacles wait for us. But so does the Lord. He is what is coming upon this earth, He is what we await.

Just getting through a day w/o adding one more anxiety, one more problem, one more distraction—how difficult! Does it seem to you that you collect worries and stress like couches collect dust bunnies? One more thing to burden you, one more thing to blow into your life and gather tension. You scramble, dodge, work fretfully, but one task done usually leads to two more that cause even more hassles! No doubt, “doing stuff” makes us feel productive. Being busy seems to add value to our lives, to give us a powerful feeling of accomplishment. In fact, and I hate to say it, I get more done when I am busy. But I’m all that much less peaceful. Not all that closer to God b/c of my scurrying around. Perhaps we should begin each task with this question: how will doing this job and finishing this job get me closer to God?

What does “be vigilant” mean in Irving, TX in the year 2006? At the very least it means handing over to God everything you have to worry about, everything you have to do, everyone who demands your time and attention, everyone who needs you now and tomorrow. It means consecrating your life to the service of the little ones—the poor, the abandoned, the neglected, the forgotten. It means watch the signs of the times and hope in Christ’s return. This is not about guessing games and biblical numerology—trying to figure out the date of Christ return. It is about paying attention to world events and watching for the providential hand of God in the events of the world.

If you were asked to note the Devil’s work in the world, could you identify it? Could you point to God’s work and tell us all how he has gifted you to contribute to the work of this Body, the Church? How much easier it is to read the papers and point out Satan’s victories—abortion, the destruction of marriage, terrorism, inter-religious competition and hatred, oppressive anti-Christian governments! Too much, too much. And, then again, not too much. Behold, I am coming soon!

We have one job in the Church: to be Christ for one another and for the world. We all do that job differently. Some as students, some as religious, some as priests, some as teachers, mothers, fathers, etc. Being Christ for one another and the Church is simply the practice of charity in all things, the activity of love and fertile joy. Not judgment or cruelty or moral nitpicking or gossiping or envying another’s gifts. Charity in all things—not always an easy job, right? Absolutely right! But vigilance in prayer and perseverance in faith will keep us awake and waiting for the coming of the Lord!

Paul writes to the Thessolonians: “May the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all…” Here’s what’s scary about Advent: yes, the Lord is working to fulfill His promises, but the promise He made is the promise of change, of purification; He promises to love us regardless and we are radically transformed by Love focused in our souls. The advent of transforming Love is frightening…we will not be the same. Ever. And if we will come to Christ as children ready to be transformed, we will strengthen our hearts against the seductions of pop-culture, popular opinion, celebrity, the temptations of material excess, and the temptations of spiritual impoverishment. Our movies, our newspapers, our stars, our stuff, and the lightweight, spiritual-ly junk that we carry around will seduce us, reel us in and leave us disheveled, broke, embarrassed, and dirty. Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy! The day of the Lord will surprise you like a trap.

Here’s how you can prepare for the coming of the Lord—ask yourself as you begin and complete each task of your day: how will doing this job and finishing this job get me closer to God? How will keeping to this hectic schedule get me closer to God? How will eight meetings, three appointments, two errands, and a flat tire get me closer to God? How will saying YES to every request for help, every demand for my time, every plea for collaboration get me closer to God?

Be vigilant at all times and pray that you have the strength to endure until the coming of the Lord. And when he does: stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand!

Excellent Spiritual Reading

I picked up a copy of The Best American Spiritual Writing 2006 a few days ago and it is great! I was surprised by the number of essays from First Things and Christianity Today, and the number of excellent poems, including my new favorite poet, Franz Wright. Over the last few years this series has tended to select pieces more appealing to the Sleep In on Sunday Morning Read the Times and Listen to NPR crowd than your more consciously religious reader. I think the 2006 edition, though certainly not a Catholic apologetic, will appeal to religious folks who want a little more out of their faith than a cultural tag and who generally look for that More in literary sources.