18 May 2007

Who are you to hope?

6th Week of Easter (R): Acts 18.9-18 and John 16.2-23
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Irving, TX

If God leaves us, who are we then? Let’s say: God is dead. What now? Anything goes: might makes right; money rules; power corrupts; the weak suffer at hands of the strong; the poor will still be blessed but they will be hungry first…wait a second! All of these are true now! And we don’t believe that God is dead. Do we believe that He has left us? Let’s say: God has left us alone. What now? We can wait—for His return; for the return of His Christ; for some sort of End to All This; we can just Wait and let waiting be who we are and what we do until…when? It’s over? We can grieve—that He has left us; that He might have died but we’re not sure; over our now fading memories or the fading memories of those who knew someone who knew someone who knew Him once upon a time. We can weep and mourn. Or we can hope. Or we can weep, mourn, and hope. But hope alone is best.

The most radically transforming activity we can engage in given Christ’s Passion, Resurrection, and his coming Ascension is hope. No other labor, no other “thing to do” right now, given our history and given the signs of these darkening times, nothing else remotely makes sense but Hope. Seeing his disciples in anguish over his impending departure, Jesus says to them: “…I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” If this is comforting—and maybe it is—here’s a question for us: who are we until then? Who are we to be until Jesus comes back? We are his disciples, his students and his brothers and sisters. And then he leaves. Now, who are we? Are we mourners? Weepers? What do we do? Huddle in locked rooms wishing away adversity and pain? Retreat into a closed world of private spiritual practice and increasingly gnostic and ultimately useless religious arcania? Are we anxious hand-wringers? No. Do we fear the world and draw the shades? No. We are men and women of the Spirit! And before we do anything else—pray, worship, serve, sacrifice, fast—before we do anything else, we hope! When we fail to hope, we join Jesus’ accusers, calling him a liar and fraud.

What do we do, then, when we hope? We invest in Jesus’ promises; we place that which is most valuable to us “at risk,” believing completely that his Word is trustworthy. We hear his vow to return and we know that he will. No guessing or gambling. No probabilities or chance. Knowledge. We know he will be back. If we hope with any integrity at all, then it follows that we live the lives he left us to live: lives of eager holiness, exhaustive service, constant conversion, far-flung evangelization, prophetic witness, and priestly sacrifice. If you truly believe that he is returning to us, your hope, your passion for seeing his promises fulfilled, will propel you out, kick you out there and give you the shining face of Christ, his healing hands, and powerful tongue. Ask, then, what you will and receive what the Father gives.

If God leaves us, who are we? We are not orphans nor are we homeless. We are not abandoned or sold, traded or bought. We are not strays to be collected by some other god or some other teacher or philosopher or devil. We are not children left alone nor grown-ups warehoused, conveniently stored until his return. We are children of the Most High. Brothers and sisters of Christ. A people raised up. A royal priesthood and a mighty kingdom. And though we may anguish now, though we may flounder now in some small darkness, our grief will become joy—must become joy—because anything less than hope, anything cheaper than full-on hope from us tells the world that Jesus is a liar. And there is nothing left for us but despair.

Contrast: who are you when you hope in Christ? Who are you when you despair of his hope?

14 May 2007

Joy, Joy, Joy down in my heart...

St. Matthias: Acts 1.15-17, 20-26 and John 15.9-17 (Propers)
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory


Here are the headlines from Yahoo! News this morning: Al-Qaida claims to have 3 missing U.S. troops; Strikes hit Pakistan after violence; Brazilian rancher on trial for slaying of American nun; Warmer winters threatens migratory birds. We could easily add our own Catholics headlines here as well: Declining trust in God’s providence hurting vocations; Hard hearts and harder heads leading Catholics to legalism, alien philosophies; Scandal of dissident clergy and Catholic politicians undermining Gospel of Life; and on and on. Let’s not get into the personal headlines we could add! In all this upheaval and rolling chaos and clamor and clang, where do we find joy?

Jesus tells us to remain in his love and keep his commandments to love. Then he tells us that he is telling us this so that his joy might be in us and our joy might be complete. Complete Joy? How about we start with something small like plain ole joy? We have: delight, elation, bliss, and happiness. We know the word “joy” and we could rattle off a few examples if we needed to. So what does Jesus add to our Christian understanding of joy? At least three new elements: 1) Jesus says that he wants us to be infused with “my joy” not a generic joy of a worldly type but “his joy;” 2) to be infused with his joy completes “our joy,” meaning that our joy and his are different but compatiable; 3) joy is that sort of thing that can be experienced in degrees—joy has an perfect and imperfect form.

Jesus is leaving the disciples to join the Father. His joy is rapidly approaching completion. His joy is the delight, the bliss, the elation and happiness he feels as he returns to his Father and directly experiences again perfect being, Being Himself. As the only Son of God, the joy Jesus experiences is unique to him; joy’s fullness in Christ overflows, abounds and diffuses, adding to and flooding the joy we feel as we approach the perfection that awaits us in Christ.

Our joy here and now is incomplete b/c we still long for God. Aquinas teaches us: “…joy is full, when there remains nothing to be desired. But as long as we are in this world, the movement of desire does not cease in us, because it still remains possible for us to approach nearer to God by grace” (ST II-II.28.3). He compares desire and joy to movement and rest. Desire moves. Joy rests. We love imperfectly. We are at peace imperfectly. And our imperfections are pushed and pulled by Christ’s love, Christ’s peace, looking confidently forward toward his joy. Fortunately, in Christ, we are not slaves to desire—our incomplete longings—but his friends, his beloved, and we know that our joy will be complete in him. When we keep his command to love one another—knowing our hunger, knowing our emptiness—we love ourselves into his perfect joy. Complete happiness. Total elation.

Dire headlines. Dark warnings and calamitous predictions. Terrible stuff. And it’s not going away. Jesus commands us to love another—commands it!—b/c he knows what we know all to well: despite our longing for God we end up all too often settling for some-thing, some-one that cannot, who cannot make us whole. And in discovering this unhappy truth, we despair. The temptation against joy is bleak: to believe that this is all there is and all there is is dismal and grim. We are unfinished. Believing this is simply an act of assenting to the truth. To believe that we are unfinishable is a sin against joy—an act of disobedience; it is a refusal to listen to the plain words of Christ: if you remain in my love, your joy will be complete in me.

Listen again: Remain in my love. Keep my command to love God and one another. And your joy will be complete in mine.

13 May 2007

WARNING! Christ's Peace Ahead

6th Sunday of Easter: Acts 15.1-2, 22-29; Rev 21.10-14, 22-23; John 14.23-29
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Paul’s Hospital and Church of the Incarnation


You can stop running and hiding now. There is nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. You are no longer our own; you no longer work for yourself alone. You are possessed by a spirit! Wholly owned and operated by the Holy Spirit. And if this causes you noticeable delight—Good!—but let me add a dire warning that will likely creep you out: you have, we have in virtue of our possession by the Holy Spirit, we have inherited (are you ready?)…the Peace of Christ! If this doesn’t give you the heebie-jeebies, you weren’t listening to the gospel. Jesus says to the disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.” Easy enough. Then, he adds: “Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” Now that’s just wrong! He had a good thing going there and then he messes it up by telling us that this Good Thing he’s giving us isn’t exactly the Good Thing we thought it was. And that changes everything. Except this: there is nowhere to hide, nowhere to run. You are no longer your own.

You would think that as heirs to the peace of Christ, we would be rejoicing in his serene calm, a well-balanced spiritual harmony. You would think that we would never argue, never fight, never become angry or frustrated with one another. You would think. And you would be wrong. Why would we assume that Christ’s Peace has anything at all to do with spiritual serenity or psychological wellness or bodily stillness? Given Jesus’ tumultuous life and his violent end on the cross; the oftentimes bellicose history of the Church on earth; given the sometimes painful, purifying work of the Spirit’s Fire in us and among us; and the ebb and flow of our pilgrim-holiness, why would any Christian believe that Christ’s Peace is about peace at all? Shalom I leave with you; my shalom I give to you.

Inasmuch as “love” has come to mean “that warm-fuzzy feeling we get that tells us to accept and approve anything and everything that comes our way,” so “peace” has come to mean something like “that permanently numbed pause in our heart and mind that deflects all conflict at the expense of the truth.” Biblically, of course, peace (shalom) means “prosperity,” “security,” “success,” and even “salvation.” My research tells me that the best English translation of shalom is “well-being,” but the shading of the word leans heavily toward wishing someone material success or worldly security. This is perhaps more like the Vulcan greeting, “Live long and prosper” than it is the Buddhist idea of “eliminating suffering by eliminating desire.” Jesus leaves us his peace, true; but, he explicitly notes that this is not the peace of the world. His peace is something else entirely.

Jesus says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.” My peace. Most certainly not the World’s Material Peace or the Empire’s Political Peace or the Temple’s Religious Peace. But the Peace of Christ. What sort of peace is this? Christ’s Peace comes with the Holy Spirit. Notice the sequence of events in the gospel: Christ is leaving the disciples to go to the Father. He says he is sending the Advocate in his place to teach them everything and to remind them of all that he has taught. Being reminded of Jesus’ teachings, of everything he has said, and then remembering his teachings—this is “Christ’s Peace.” Does being reminded of Christ’s teachings and then remembering Christ’s teachings bring you that pleasantly numbed feeling that we often associate with a material “peace”? Let’s hope not! In the same way that welcoming Christ’s love into your life requires a commitment to conversion and service—“whoever loves me will keep my word”—so accepting his peace means settling your troubled heart into the truth of his teachings—“Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.” You are no long your own.

Being heirs to Christ’s Peace, then, is first about being heirs to his teachings; being the recipients of his Word and the certainty we have in the truth of his witness. This is the peace we live knowing that Christ reveals the Father and that the Spirit dwells among us as their Love for one another. Again, there is nothing numbing or tranquil about this fundamental fact of the faith—it bears on our souls to live this truth fully in the world. We must give flesh and bone to this truth; we must incarnate Christ’s love, and in doing so, accept his peace. How? We live Christ’s triduum—in his betrayal, his humiliation, his beatings, his Cross, and his tomb—we live these as Christ himself did: trusting in God’s care, His plan, His blessings and abundance, and then giving our lives freely for others. Isn’t this is the courage of the martyrs? Their witness to the barebones power of Christ’s promises? They took on Christ’s Peace and their question to us is clear: will you follow…if called upon, will you follow?

Now, knowing that Christ’s Peace might require a Red Witness, does the thought of receiving his peace make you a little nervous? If you love him, you will keep his Word, preach his Word, teach his Word, obey his Word; you will make your dwelling with him, and follow him always; you will fall, fail, rise again and peak; you will stumble and crash and you will jump and fly; you will believe and doubt and hide and find; and you will come to a passionate obsession, a loving fascination with the movement of the Spirit, the leadership of Christ’s Peace in your life. But expect no peace of mind. Rather welcome the intellectual turmoil that follows the sword of truth. Expect no peace in your body. Rather welcome the tension that comes with making your flesh a daily sacrifice. Expect nothing balanced or harmonized or gentled to rule you. You are ruled by the Prince of Peace, the One Anointed, whose reign requires you to serve against your best instincts, to submit against your greatest perceived needs, and to follow into hell and on to heaven a dead Jewish rebel who was killed on a tree. How absurd! And yet, the Spirit burns, with tongues of fire, the Law of Love into our hearts: to die for a beloved friend is the greatest gift.

When you exchange the peace this morning/evening, remember: you are not wishing your neighbors worldly well-being or cheerfulness or a pleasant day/tomorrow. You are reminding them (and you are being reminded in turn) that Christ’s Peace is more threat than promise. Think: “Peace be with you” means “You are Christ. Have you suffered, died, and risen again? For whom did you sacrifice yourself today?” Perhaps you will skip the exchange of peace altogether! Don’t! Why? Jesus said, “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words…” There is no dwelling place with the Father for those who do not keep Christ’s words. So, love Christ, keep his Word. And take on his Peace with fear and trembling; take it on only when you are grateful enough to him for dying for you that you are ready to die for someone else.

Then, only then, you are truly at Peace. Christ’s Peace.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
For U.D.: This is our last Sunday Mass at 7.30 until September. I want to send you off into your summer with a priestly admonition: Love one another as Christ loves you. Sounds easy. It isn’t. There are two temptations here that need to be named and given to God for His judgment. First, the temptation to love one another in a way that levels all beliefs, all behaviors, all intentions and motivations and then judges them OK in the name of “tolerance of difference.” This is not love. It’s an indifference to sin dressed up to look like love. This faux version of love is actually an abdication of charity, a surrendering of our obligation to fraternally correct ourselves and one another. The second temptation is powerful as well. In the name of love, we set out to root out sin, spiritual corruption and vice. We appoint ourselves surveyors of purity and monitors of intention. And we scrupulously scan the crowds for a dark heart or a muddled mind to charge with spiritual treason. All the while forgetting to turn the scanner inward, refusing to check the well from which these alleged pure waters flow. It is cowardly to pretend that we can see into the heart of another, judge intention, and pass sentence. This is not love. It is self-righteousness. And it denies the most basic principle of Catholic spirituality: we are being perfected in Christ. We are not perfect yet.

I chose these two b/c you are headed back home. Out of the U.D. “bubble.” And these two temptations are particularly insidious for us b/c they represent prevalent tendencies in our larger culture. The tendency to idolize “tolerance” to the point that nothing can be called evil, just different. And the tendency to find evil motive and vile intent in those whom we find objectionable—foreign or domestic enemies, political opponents, academic rivals, or cultural foes. Both of these temptations are rooted in the Devil’s illusion that we can fully know another’s heart and that we are free to adjudicate what we find there. Here’s the important questions for those who fall to either temptation or both: why do you think that you are especially privileged to know the hearts of others? And second, who are you—literally, “who are you?”—to weigh those hearts and find them worthy of tolerance or deserving of punishment?

Love tells the truth. All the truth. Not just those parts that bolster our social esteem or satisfy a bitter need to judge. Love tells the truth. All the truth. And by this truth we will all be judged.