03 November 2007

MacRae/Austin Wedding

Nuptial Mass: MacRae & Austin
Song of Songs 2.8-16, 8.6-7; Apoc 19.1, 5-9; John 2.1-11
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Ann
Catholic Church, Coppell, TX

We are just before that moment when the bride and groom knot their love together in a sacramental vow—a tremendous instant of joy, long-anticipated and hope for, a moment of bright glory for Michael and Melissa, and for us all. What better moment then to preach about death? The singer of the Song of Songs sings to her beloved: “Set me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is strong as Death, jealousy relentless as Sheol.” Love is as strong as death. A primitive fact, a most basic conclusion, death is beyond common; it is necessary. We must die. Death’s strength lies in its inevitability, its relentless coming to us, coming at us, and always finding us to win against all of our hesitations and anxieties and fevered denials. Death wins. For a little while, anyway. Love’s strength is as primitive, as basic and common and just as inevitable. Love comes to us, at us, and always wins against all of our doubts and fears and foolish dissents. Love overwhelms our sensitive passions, consumes the mind’s virtues, converts the emotions, and lays permanent claim to any soul strong enough to stand up in its lightening “flash of fire.” How much stronger, how much more powerful and dangerous and unrelenting then is that same love found twice and tied together for a lifetime?

“Love no flood can quench, no torrents drown.” As strong as death, love endures.

If you are here this afternoon for a fairy-tale wedding or a good sentimental cry or to get your romantic memory stoked until the next nuptial Mass comes along, I truly hope you are deeply disappointed. Nothing we do here this afternoon is fairy-tale, or sentimental, or romantic. Nothing we do here is about catalogs or invitations, caterers or florists, family or friends, not even the choir or the priest! What we do here this afternoon is about Christ and his Church. We are here to witness, to see with our own eyes, Michael and Melissa’s determination to be for us a sacrament of Christ’s love for his bride, the people he has won for the Father. We are here to say “amen” again and again in support of their ministry to one another as husband and wife, and to us as brothers and sisters in Christ. We are here to stand with them as they begin their lives together as apostles and priests, prophets and kings. We are here because we are happy to be invited to this wedding feast, the feast of this union and the feast of the Lamb who redeems us all.

At Cana, Mary reports to Jesus that the good wine of the wedding feast has run dry, “They have no wine,” she says. Jesus, being the good son, says, “Woman, why turn to me? My hour has not yet come.” Now, you can just see the look on Mary’s face. That look mother’s get when a son gets a sassy mouth. No doubt she pinched her lips just a bit, took a deep breath, and said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Jesus proceeds to change six stone jars of water into high quality wine and thoroughly impresses the steward of the house. He says to the bridegroom, “…you have saved the best wine till now.” You have to wonder why this scene from John’s gospel is suited for a Nuptial Mass. Other than its setting at a wedding feast, what makes this episode pertinent to a wedding? John notes: “This was the first of the signs given by Jesus: it was given at Cana in Galilee.” To mark his entry into a public ministry of teaching, preaching, and healing, our Lord chooses a wedding feast, the party after the formal liturgy to stake his claim on divine sonship. What does he do? Yes, he changes water to wine. Yes, he shows everyone his power. But what do any of these have to do with a wedding? Jesus announces his public ministry, staking a claim on his divine sonship by changing that which we need simply to live into that which we need for living well. He transforms the law of stone into the law of love; he transforms the temple sacrifices into the one sacrifice of the cross. The nuptial celebration is transformed into a sign of his coming into his Sonship and serves as the inauguration of his wedded life with the church! This is what makes what Michael and Melissa do here today a sacrament, a sign that points to and makes present the salvific love of Christ for his Church.

In love, Christ says to his Church as Michael says to Melissa, “Come then, my love, my lovely one, come…show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet and your face is beautiful.” And Melissa, in love, says to Michael as the Church says to Christ: “My beloved is mine and I am his. Set me like a seal on your heart, like a seal on your arm. For love is strong as Death…the flash of it is a flash of fire, a flame of the Lord himself!”

Though Michael and Melissa are obviously the first beneficiaries of this sacrament, their benefit is a boon for the rest of us as well. We do nothing alone in the Church, we do everything with everyone else. Besides being well-dressed and pretty, our task this afternoon is to say “amen,” it is so. Yes, it is so. And by saying “amen” we bind ourselves in service to this marriage. The newly baptized have a sponsor. The newly confirmed do as well. Priests and bishops rely heavily on the support of those who witness their ordinations. And we offer our company to the dead as we send them on their way. Michael and Melissa do not need us to make perfunctory liturgical noises. They do not need us to drink up their wine and eat their food. They need for us to see them as married, bound together in one flesh; they need us to support them as one flesh and offer ourselves in service to their ministry as husband and wife among us. Therefore, say “amen” and mean it!

Michael and Melissa, remember: Deus caritas est. God is love. Nothing overwhelms that Majesty. Nothing overtakes that Glory. There is nothing created that commands the power of re-creating love, nothing created that quenches the fire of His Holy Spirit. There is no one in this chapel this afternoon who will tell you that marriage is easy, that marriage is trouble-free and simple. No one here is going to guarantee you that you won’t go to bed angry or get up some morning disappointed or that money will be plentiful and that the children always be bright and happy. No one here is that foolish. But we are foolish enough to tell you that when you put Christ’s love first and then love one another through his love for you, you will endure. Mussed up, maybe. A bruise here and there. A few wounded feelings perhaps. But you will endure. And you will endure because you will cling to one another in the storms, even when you yourselves are the tempests. One storm does not a weather pattern make.

Let this verse from the Song of Songs remind you of what you have, what you have given today: “Love no flood can quench, love no torrents can drown.

02 November 2007

The end(s) of death

All Souls: Wis 3.1-9; Romans 6.3-9; John 6.37-40
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Serra Club Mass

Nothing created can haunt our dreams or peak our curiosity or awe our spirits with the same deep horror and dread as a single thought of death. Well beyond our immediate fears of pain or trauma—the mechanics of dying—there is that dark point of closing away a life: shutting off the lights of feeling, thinking, acting; the dimming eclipse of memory, intelligence, passion; that unknotting of a body-soul in death that frees us for our final flight to the Father. To surrender to our end, to yield our time (such a small portion to cling to!), to die—releasing, unburdening, freeing—is our last act of peaceful trust; this moment is the Must of our dying well: you will die. But how? Not “by what mechanical means”? But “by what grace, what gift”?

The souls of the just are in the hands of God and no torment shall touch them…they are at peace.

When the foolish look upon those who rest in the hand of God, the Book of Wisdom says, the dead seem dead; their passing from life to death looks to be an affliction, utter destruction. The foolish are not foolish because they fail to understand our best arguments for the immortality of the human soul. The foolish are not foolish because they cannot see beyond their methods, their labs, their experiments. Not even are the foolish foolish because they simply refuse to assent to the revelation of God. The foolish are foolish and believe and teach foolish notions because they will not trust the Lord; they will not to begin in His love and come to wisdom as a destination through love: “Those who trust in Him shall understand truth, and the faithful shall abide with Him in love…” The foolish will not trust; they will not abide in love, and so, the unknotting of the body and the soul in death can to them be nothing more than a disease, an affliction, some dread occasion to be avoided.

If the foolish “know” death to be a disease, utter destruction, what do we as the trusting family of the Father know about death? Paul reminds the Romans that long before our body-souls unknot, we are washed in the waters of baptism and in being so washed, we are also “baptized into [Christ’s] death.” My death will not be my own. Neither will yours. Our deaths will be Christ’s death. Indeed, “we were…buried with him through baptism into death…” But we were not baptized just to die. We were baptized into his death, buried with him, “so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.” What the foolish will not to see, not to trust in and therefore fail to understand is that “we have grown into union with him through a death like his, [so] we shall also be united with him in the resurrection.” That which leads the foolish to see death as disease is done away with: our slavery to sin. We are absolved and freed and brought to die not a natural death, but a Christ-like death, a death that can only bring us to live with him forever.

Jesus teaches the crowds: “Everything that the Father gives me will come to me, and I will not reject anyone who comes to me…this is the will of the one who sent me, that I should raise [what has been given to me] on the last day.” For us to die then is not a matter of leaving life behind but a matter of coming to Christ in trust as the Father wills us. His gift to us is not necessarily a painless end, a joyful end, a quiet or even a celebratory end, but an end to Ending; that is, his gift to us is a death like Christ’s death, both a conclusion, a drawing closed and a start, a beginning again. Or, even better: death for us is our lives in Christ now extended into the Father’s perfect, glorious love. Jesus says that it is the will of his Father “that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may eternal life…” What disease, what affliction or trauma or grave misfortune can bring you in love to a life in Beauty and Truth? None can. Only the fool believes otherwise.

Remember the faces of your dead today, but do not mourn them. They are not here with us. They do not live in your hearts or in your photo albums or even in your most vivid memories. What is left of them for you here and now is merely a haunting, an afterimage, the thought of a ghost. Their immortality has nothing to do with hard won glory or infamy or trial. Like you and me, they were made for immortality, called to live beyond the death we live in the unknotting of body-soul. Their immortality, our immortality is the Father’s gift, a grace He gives to any of us who sees and hears His Son, believes in him, dies and is buried with him; anyone who nurtures holiness, avoids evil, spreads his gospel, does good work in his name, and trusts; anyone who stores up faith in the promises of the Father first and lives in Him, anyone who dies like Christ dies, Jesus says of him, “I shall raise him on the last day.” Today, children of God, is that last day. What then do you fear? What do you hope for beyond what God Himself as promised? His grace and mercy are with us, His holy ones.

Mimi Jaksic-Berger: Photo credit

31 October 2007

Polish Your Mirror!

30th Week OT(W): Romans 8.26-30 and Luke 13.22-30
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

[Click Podcast Player to listen]

Along with “are you saved?” and “have you accepted Jesus Christ into your heart as your personal Lord and Savior?”, I grew up hearing, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where your soul will spend eternity?” As a religiously indifferent teenager and an Episcopalian college student, I found these questions more than just annoying; they were intrusive, simplistic, and downright insulting. Not only did these questions pry into my spiritual life, but they presumed the truth of an entirely alien theology as the judge of my spiritual destiny! With solemn indignity, I would answer these religious-bottom feeders: Yes, I’m saved; I’m baptized. No, Jesus is not my personal Lord and Savior; he is the Lord and Savior of the whole Church. Then I would glare for a moment and stalk off…quickly stalk off before they realized that I had left the last question—the question about the destiny of my immortal soul—unanswered. That question got too close to the preening heart of my superficial Gen-X Episcopagan spirituality.

On his way to Jerusalem, someone asked Jesus, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Let’s notice a few features of this question: 1) it is addressed to Jesus as “Lord”—the questioner is recognizing Jesus’ authority to answer questions about salvation; 2) rather than asking “how many will be saved?” or “will great numbers of people be saved?”, this Someone sets up the question so that Jesus can use the image of the Narrow Gate—not all will have the strength to make it through; and 3) by using the word “saved,” this Someone is prompting us to ask: “saved? saved from what?” This word always evokes for me images of life jackets being thrown to passengers who were swept off the deck of the cruise ship during a storm, or all those news stories from the 90’s where puppies or kittens or children were rescued from wells or sewer drains—the helpless shown mercy in their peril and freed from impending doom by those who dwell in safety. Not a bad way to think of being “spiritually saved,” but are we painting on the largest possible canvas in the shop here? No, we’re not.

Jesus is teaching us that his salvation is more than mere rescue from eternal peril. By offering us his saving hand, Christ is doing more for us than simply offering to pull us back from the edge of the devil’s bottomless Pit; he is, in fact, making it possible for us to be returned to the Father as perfect creatures, freed from sin, wholly and entirely renewed and refreshed, and intimately bound in the flesh and blood of His Anointed One, the Christ. Our rescue reclaims us for the Father, but we are not simply returned to our pre-disaster state; we are made new, given new garments, washed clean, and welcomed as guests at the wedding feast. So, we strive to enter the Narrow Gate…

. . .and the question arises again: who gets through? Jesus does not describe the person who gets through nor does he number those who get through nor does he issue a password or a secret handshake. What he does do is send his Holy Spirit to the Church,. Paul teaches us, “The Spirit comes to the aid of our weakness…” Why? “…[Because] we do not know how to pray as we ought…,” so the Spirit advocates with God for us. How? “…the Spirit himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” When we ourselves are unable to pray, the Spirit prays for us (instead of us), interceding for us before the Father. We are guaranteed then that when we pray in the Spirit, all the Father sees in our hearts, while searching us with His divine light, all the Father sees in us is His Spirit and His intentions for us shining back at Him. Though we ourselves do not shine out His glory, we polish the mirror that reflects it back. That mirror is the baptized Christian, living faithfully by grace, striving for holiness in good works, loving as Christ loved us from his cross, and coming to the fruition of a life soaked in mercy.

The brighter your mirror, the wider the gate to the Party. Your name is on the Guest List. Therefore, the more you look like Christ in this life, the less chance there is of the Heavenly Bouncer bouncing you into the street when your turn in line comes. Primp, perm, powder, and preen—above all, polish, polish your mirror, so that nothing from you shines back to the Father but His beautiful face.

29 October 2007

No slave to fear

30th Week OT(M): Romans 8.12-17 and Luke 13.10-17
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

[Click Podcast Player to listen]

Though surely Paul is correct when he says that we are not “debtors to the flesh to live according to the flesh,” we cannot be living, breathing creatures and ignore the illnesses, injuries, and infirmities that invade our bodies, cripple our bones, and leave us vulnerable to more and worse disease. When asked about a traumatic memory, most people recount a childhood injury or illness. When asked about a deep-seated fear for one’s future, most people point to a debilitating illness or accident, something that leaves them paralyzed and helpless, potentially lingering for years as a dependent patient. The common cold is common enough but now we have MSRA—a drug-resistant strain of staph—, E-bola outbreaks, Mad Cow Disease, and several viruses with much longer histories—HIV/AIDS being the most prominent among the bunch. Viruses, accidents, violence, medical disasters—and Paul says, “…if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” How is this the right medicine for us?

Jesus demonstrates the healing power of mercy by ridding a crippled woman of her crippling spirit—an eighteen-year burden that had bent her over and made it impossible for her to stand erect. How exactly is this merciful? He heals her on the Sabbath. Rather than obeying a strict interpretation of the law, Jesus obeys the dictates of mercy and relieves the poor woman of her burden. Predictably, someone objects to this violation of the Sabbath law and calls Jesus out as a lawbreaker. Jesus’ own indignant retort to this charge humiliates his critic: hypocrite! Why shouldn’t this daughter of Abraham be set free on the Sabbath from Satan’s bondage? The gathered crowd “rejoiced at all the splendid deeds done by him.” And so they should: Jesus lifts from this crippled woman’s back the burden of Law without Mercy. And he has done the same for us.

If we make ourselves debtors to the flesh and live according to the flesh, we bind ourselves inordinately to the flesh, attaching ourselves to the material world in a disordered fashion. Is it any wonder then that when we become virally infected or bodily damaged or fatally diagnosed, we fall back into the slavery of fear, that spirit of panic and dread that sharpens our heart and mind with the file of mortality and stirs in us a desire to live in the flesh forever as if the flesh alone made us completely human. So, we die with fear—though perhaps not yet dead in body, we die in hope and are dead for lack of trusting. However, if we receive the spirit of adoption, calling on God as Father, the Holy Spirit Himself will testify to our inheritance, killing our fear, lifting from our bent backs the burden of this world’s merciless Law.

The healing we receive might be a physical cure, or a psychological reorientation, or even a spiritual booster. Whatever the actual, measurable result of the healing, our healing is first a declaration of freedom from fear, a reminder of our heritage as children of God, a slap in the face to wake us up to our power over panic and dread. Jesus’ merciful healing of the bent woman tells us again that we live both here and now AND then and there; we live as creatures being perfected now and as perfected creatures with Christ in the Beatific Vision. And there, with God, even the flesh is perfect for the beloved heirs of our heavenly Father. If you suffer with him—infected, injured, infirmed—know that you are also glorified in him—beautiful, good, perfection in process.

Pic credit

28 October 2007

Happy Priesthood Sunday

Today is PRIESTHOOD SUNDAY! Be sure to thank your Pastor for all his hard work. . .wouldn't hurt to slip him a $20 on the way out the door! :-)

Will you be humble or kitty poo?

30th Sunday OT: Sirach 35.12-18; 2 Tim 4.6-8, 16-18; Luke 18.9-14
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul
and Church of the Incarnation

[Click Podcast Player to listen]

The self-righteous Pharisee brags about his prayer life, his almsgiving, praying to himself in the temple area: “O God, thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity—greedy, dishonest, adulterous…” If the Pharisee were magically transported to Dallas in 2007, he might come to church and pray something almost exactly like our first-century Pharisee; or he might pray something like this: “O Parent, thank you for calling me to help you live your dream for me; thank you that I am not like these other people—theologically unenlightened, politically inactive, carnivorous and ecologically ignorant, wasting time with devotionals and sacramental pieties; thank you that I am not these others—non-inclusive, prejudiced, rigid in my thinking, closed to the spirit of the day.” Self-righteousness is sold in a variety of packages, under a number of different brand names. Surely we can be self-righteous in lauding our faux piety, our public displays of sanctity. We can also be deeply, terribly self-righteous in patting ourselves on the back for our self-serving acts of enlightened politics, social justice, and “work for the poor.” Lobbing Zip-Loc bags full of fake blood at George Bush’s motorcade is as self-righteous and attention-seeking as throwing yourself on the floor in front of the Blessed Sacrament during public Adoration and wailing for your sins. Both are great performances for an audience. Both produce piety for consumption. Both call attention to behavior as a way of affirming belief. And both can be all about me and my need for recognition. What distinguishes SELF-righteousness from GOD-righteousness is the claim I make about the source of my righteousness.

At first glance, Paul, writing to Timothy, sounds very much like the Pharisee from Luke’s gospel: I am poured like a libation; MY departure is near; I have fought well, I have finished the race; I have kept the faith; MY crown of righteousness awaits ME; no one came to defend ME, everyone deserted ME. I, I, I, me, me, me. Look at what I did, am doing, will do. It’s all about ME! You can almost hear Paul, the former Pharisee, praying out loud in the temple area: “Thank you, God, that I am not like THEM!” So, what about Paul’s apparently attention-seeking confession is God-righteous rather than merely self-righteous? He freely admits, several times, “…the Lord stood by me and gave me strength…I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil threat and [He] will bring me to His heavenly kingdom.” And the kicker, the cinch on Paul’s God-righteous prayer: “To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen!” Clearly, publicly, eagerly Paul gives full credit, full attention to the Lord. Not his own unaided efforts. Not his own good works. Not even his meager contribution to the ministry of his witness. But to God does he loudly give thanks and praise: “[It is] the Lord, the just judge, [who] will reward me on that day…” Only him? Paul will be the only one rewarded? No. He goes on to give God thanks for rewarding “all who have longed for [God’s] appearance.” And not only that but he forgives those who deserted him in difficult times.

Because we must cooperate with God’s graces in order to grow in righteous, it becomes all too easy for us to fall into the trap of believing that we are loved by God because of our good work. God loves us as our pay for doing good. When we have accumulated enough Love Credit in payment for “being good,” we are saved from Hell and whatever change is left over goes to someone else’s salvation. The nasty corollary of this lie is that we come to believe quite easily that the more good work we do, the more righteous we are. And it is not a huge leap then for us to come to believe that we do all these good works b/c of our own innate goodness, our natural kindness and compassion. There is no Bigger Lie in Christendom. Jesus says quite clearly, “I tell you, the [tax collector] went home justified, not the [Pharisee]; for whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The Pharisee believes himself to be righteous as a result of his own good works. While the tax collector stands before God and prays, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” And that is where we find our righteousness, our rightness with God: His mercy and His mercy alone. We are made just, saved, redeemed by nothing other than God’s freely chosen act of making us just, of saving us, of redeeming us. We don’t deserve it. We can’t earn it. All we can do is accept or reject it and behave accordingly. Good works then are those works that result from our experience of the divine in God’s gift of Himself to us—in the sacraments, in prayer, in one another. Like Paul, our response is to pour ourselves out in sacrifice, to give ourselves over to others wholly and without condition, to love as God Himself loves. No easy thing. No simple matter of passion or sentiment.

Perhaps the most direct route to understanding what it means for us to love one another—and I mean here the “love of the righteous” not the sappy passion of telenovellas and romance novels—the most direct route of understanding charity is to understand its shadow: apathy—the state of “not-loving.” You might think that hate is the opposite of love. No. Hate is its own kind of passion. The opposite of love is apathy. Not loving, not caring, failing to desire the best, to will the best for another. Apathy is spiritually dangerous precisely b/c there is nothing here to convert, nothing there to turn around. Hate can be converted. Envy can be turned around. Apathy is cold, desolate, malignant. Its center is a dead heart of black ice. And when it motivates the body and soul of a child of God to act, those actions are predictably destructive. A heart devoid of love gleefully pronounces judgment on others, quickly trying, convicting, and executing offenders on little or no evidence; such a heart looks at the spiritually weak with dead eyes, seeing only fault and lack of good will; such a heart loathes true piety, God’s justice, and any authority but its own; such a heart beats against the Body of the Church, building its own altars, its own tabernacles, its own scriptures, honoring no one who walks in the way of its self-righteous self-importance. The apathetic heart is its own script, its own stage, its own star, and its own critic. And like any good prima donna imagines itself to be beautiful, well-loved, and always right in its convictions.

GOD-righteous love is antithetical to this monster. The charitable heart is painfully aware of it shortcomings, its lacks and needs—the truth of our faith freely flows through its muscles. Such a heart yearns for company, wants to be corrected in the faith, longs for holiness through obedience to the Word and the Church. A heart governed by love wants to be wanted, needs to be needed, seeks out the sinful so as to be of use to them in their working toward God. The loving heart never compromises the true, the good, or the beautiful for the impermanencies of the half-truth, the so-so, or the merely functional. Finally, the heart filled with God-righteous love never exalts itself but constantly gives thanks to God, pointing always to the Father, His Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Our self-righteousness can take the form of public liturgical pieties or public political pieties; private acts of religious judgment or private acts of secular judgment. Laying claim to righteousness based on my deeds, my words, my thoughts is the surest way to separate myself from the only source of true rightness. If you will be rescued from the lion’s mouth, cry out to God for rescue. You can run. You can hide. But the lion is faster and sneakier. It is far better to end up humbled than it is to end up in the kitty litter.