21 December 2007

Where's your Christmas face?

3rd Week of Advent(F): Zeph 3.14-18 and Luke 1.39-45
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Serra Club & Church of the Incarnation

Joseph is worried because his wife, Mary is pregnant. They have yet to consummate their betrothal. An angel appears to Joseph is a dream and says, “Do not be afraid to take Mary into your home.” Zechariah, while serving his allotted time before the altar of incense in the temple, is greeted by an angel. The angelic greeting troubles him and “fear came upon him.” The angel tells him that his elderly, barren wife, Elizabeth will conceive and bear him a son, John. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and says, “Hail, Mary! Full of grace. Blessed are you among women!” And Mary ponders what sort of greeting this might be. Mary travels to the hill country of Judah. She enters the house of Zechariah and greets Elizabeth. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting she is filled with the Holy Spirit, and the infant in her womb leaps with joy. Elizabeth must have pondered what sort of greeting might cause her child such joy. She asks, “How does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” What better place for our infant Lord to be than with his infant herald, John? Elizabeth concludes her greeting: “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Joseph worried and then believed. Zechariah doubted, at first, but he came to believe. Mary, afraid and anxious, not only believed but gave her body so that the Word might gestate within her womb and be born from her. And Elizabeth believed in virtue of her infant son’s witness to her: “For the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped with joy.” Each of our gospel witnesses were greeted and given a revelation. Each received the revelation. And each obeyed the Lord’s message. Notice this difference: Joseph, Zechariah, and Mary were all greeted by an angel of the Lord. At first they were anxious and afraid. But the angelic message soothed their fears. Elizabeth, however, was greeted by Mary, who carried our Lord in her womb. No angels here. No fear or anxiety. No doubting or hesitation. The direct testimony of infant John’s leaping in her womb told Elizabeth what she needed to know: she and her child were in the presence of the Son of God. Before John is born, Mary serves as the Lord’s herald, announcing with her presence—not by any word or any deed—just by merely being there with Elizabeth and baby John, Mary announces the coming of the Lord. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”

Let me ask you: how are you arriving at Christmas? I mean, Christmas is just four days away…in what state will you greet the birth of our Lord? Will you stumble into the manger loaded with shopping bags? Cookbooks? Will you glide in, smooth and sleek like a reindeer? Will you fall on your face, exhausted and mean from all the work you think the holiday requires? Will you greet the Infant Jesus smiling, laughing; pinched and grimacing; eagerly, sullenly, joyfully, reluctantly? Will he look back at you and ponder what sort of greeting you have given him? Will he think: “I am welcomed here!” Or, “Geez, I landed at the wrong barn.” Will it be: “These people love me.” Or, “These people fear me.”

To be on the safe side, use the words of the prophet Zephaniah to greet our Lord: “The Lord, your God, is in our midst, a mighty savior; He will rejoice over us with gladness, and renew us in his love!” How odd that our Lord should rejoice over us. Not really, no: “Blessed are we who believed that what was spoken to us by the Lord would be fulfilled.”

Our Lord is coming! Prepare your face so that when you greet him, he might see himself in you.

20 December 2007

A new blog. . .

Suppl(e)Mental. . .a new blog!

I created this blog for my seminar on post-metaphysical theologies. . .

My students and I will use this blog to post short essays, reflections, critiques, musings about the reading assignments for the class.

Posting on the site will be a regular part of the seminar, so these ventures into the truly weird world of post-metaphysical theology will be ad experimentum.

19 December 2007

Empty out to be filled up

3rd Week of Advent (W): Judges 13.2-7, 24-25 and Luke 1.5-25
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

[One of the novices said that this homily is "kinda blah." I agree. My insomnia is catching up with me. . .]

Zechariah is troubled, and fear comes upon him. Gabriel, the archangel, is telling him that Elizabeth, his barren wife, will conceive a son and that that son will grow up to become the prophet, John the Baptist, whose mission it will be to herald the coming of the Christ. For one second, just a flash of small wonderment, Zechariah, almost whispering, asks the angel, “How shall I know this?” The price for his passing doubt, his lapse in trust is the loss of his ability to speak. He is struck mute. His tongue will be untied when Gabriel’s announcement comes to pass, when John the Baptist is born. Why is silence the proper punishment for Zechariah’s anxiety?

You might wonder at Zechariah’s doubt. Here he is in the temple, chosen by lots to offer the sacrifice of incense, and the archangel, Gabriel, appears to him with a message from God. Gabriel calmly delivers the message with some detail and then pauses for Zechariah’s answer. And what does the priest do? He asks for a sign, something like a confirmation code! Let’s see: how about an archangel materializing out of a cloud of incense in the holy of holies! Zechariah’s desire for a confirming sign is taken by Gabriel to be a sign of the priest’s weakness. Neither John or the Christ will be best served by a weak heart or a weak tongue. This is a time for strength, conviction, and prophetic zeal! So, the angel silences Zechariah’s doubting tongue to keep him from speaking foolishly about God’s plan.

The 14th century Dominican mystic, John Tauler, preaches: “God cannot leave things empty; that would be to contradict his own nature and justice. Therefore, you must be silent. Then the Word of this birth can be spoken in you and you will be able to hear him. But be certain of this: if you try to speak then He must be silent. There is no better way of serving the Word than in being silent and listening. So if you come out of yourself completely, God will wholly enter in; to the degree you come out, to that degree will he enter, neither more nor less.” Perhaps Gabriel’s judgment on the priest was medicinal, that is, Zechariah’s involuntary silence was actually an opportunity, as Tauler argues, “to come out of [himself] completely,” so that God might wholly enter in. It seems impossible that one tongue could speak both doubt and belief, dissent and allegiance. By silencing his doubting tongue, Gabriel gave Zechariah a chance to cultivate his belief and his allegiance. How much more powerful then is his witness when John is born!

Advent is winter’s Lent. To the face of Christmas abundance and extravagance we must show some measure of austerity, make some small challenge to be less full, closer to empty. When we empty self, God fills up. And the power and conviction and prophetic zeal of our witness to Christ is charged with the Holy Spirit, a fiery tongue for proclaiming the coming of the Kingdom! Live just today with this austere fast: fast from doubt, fear, anxiety, and make your hope in the coming of Christ known—word or deed, but known and known well.

17 December 2007

Root to trunk to branch to flower

3rd Week Advent(M): Genesis 49.2, 8-10 and Matthew 1.1-17
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Beyond tongue-tying dyslexic presiders at 7.00am, what purpose does this genealogy serve? Over your many years as Catholics you have heard many explanations. The genealogy establishes Jesus’ lineage as David’s heir to the throne of Israel. The genealogy shows us Mary’s place in the long history of a male-dominated culture. The genealogy reaches back and back into the graying mist of near-legend and story to retrieve a solid rock of evidence that Jesus is the Christ. The genealogy begins the gospel of Matthew as a way of giving legitimacy and authority to a gospel told to the Jewish people about their long-awaited Messiah. None of these is wrong. And there many more. What these explanations have in common is a singular notion of genealogy—tracing back a familial line through history in order to show a person his or her origins. Bear with me while I give you a slightly different definition of genealogy and provide another theological interpretation.

Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, opens his 1977 essay, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” with the following, “Genealogy is gray, meticulous, and patiently documentary. It operates on a field of entangled and confused parchments, on documents that have been scratched over and recopied many times.” Towards the end of that essay he writes, “The purpose of history, guided by genealogy, is not to discover the roots of our identity but to commit itself to its dissipation.” At the risk of taxing our morning brains with French philosophy, let’s say that what Foucault is proposing here is that genealogy is really about dispersing one’s identity rather than firming it up; in other words, we trace a family line not to find our where we’re from but rather to find out how large we’ve become, how scattered (like seed) we are—as a family, a tribe, a nation, even as a person firmly glued within a history.

Now, back to Jesus. As Christians, we read out Jesus’ familial genealogy this time every year to show again where Jesus came from, to show that he has the basic qualification to be the Christ—he is heir to the throne of David. But as Christians we do not doubt this bit of history. Even without the genealogy we have experienced Jesus as the Christ and struggle to live our collected lives as his followers, as his body. We are, however, more than just followers. And we are more than just members of his body, the Church. We are on our way to becoming Christ himself. If Foucault is right about his notion of genealogy in general, then we have in this particular genealogy a record of the dissipation of Jesus’ identity into the body: “Of [Mary] was born Jesus who is called the Christ.”

Why does this matter? It matters to us b/c as we approach the birth of our Savior, we are forced to remember our own nativity and more than just our own births: we are forced to remember our rebirth in Christ, our coming again into the world as Christs. Jesus’ lineage is our lineage; his history is our history. And what’s more, we are charged, commissioned by Christ himself to live lives of dissipation, not decadence or debauchery, but lives of active dispersal—going out, growing deeper, spreading further, blooming more, producing more and better fruit, grafting others onto Jesse’s branch, and branching and branching up until he comes again and claims his orchard harvest. This bit of genealogical knowledge is not wisdom in itself, but surely it is wise to know that each of us and all of us together are heirs to David’s throne—priests, prophets, and kings, all given the delicate but arduous task of being the Father’s Christ in the world.

May his name and ours be blessed forever!

16 December 2007

Impatient? Rejoice!

3rd Sunday of Advent(A): Isa 35.1-6, 10; James 5.7-10; Matthew 11.2-11
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
and Church of the Incarnation

Parched lands can wait on an abundant flowering; deserts can wait to rejoice—shouting joy, exulting in bloom. Those who cannot see, wait to see. Those who cannot hear, wait to hear. The lame wait to leap and the mute wait to sing. If your heart is frightened, anxious; if you fret because you cannot wait: “Be strong, fear not! Here is your God…He comes to save you.” But first, you must wait. And you must wait with the rest of us…

I made the mistake of going to WalMart on a Saturday. Walking into the store, I was immediately confronted by my mistake. Wall to wall people. I sucked up my frustration and more or less bullied my way in. The aisles were packed with people and carts. Families buzzing around baskets of goodies for Christmas. An older couple slowly pushing an empty cart. College students on cell phones loudly cursing and laughing. I heard spoken Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Hindi, English, and Teenager. The building throbbed with the pain of crowded impatience. And I must confess, I brought no joy to the suffering herd. Rather, I threw in with the rest of the cattle and MOO’ed and shoved my way in to get my way out. Leaving, I felt oily and smelled of sulphur.

“Be patient,” James writes, “until the coming of the Lord.” The farmer can wait for the fruit of his labor, receiving in due time the harvest promised by his hopeful sowing of spring seed. The early rains will come early. And the late rains will come late. As always. Being patient with what will come, the farmer waits and receives. Therefore, James writes, “You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.” Isaiah prophesies the healing of the blind, the deaf, the mute, and the lame at the coming of the Lord. They wait in affliction for their wholeness. The farmer waits with his need; his annual labor of joyful hope—planting seed, tending crops, harvesting the fruit. Can we wait on what has been promised to us?

I’m getting better. Yesterday in traffic, I only wished twice that my 1995 Honda Accord came equipped with phasers and photon torpedoes. Today will be hard though. The Cowboys play at Texas stadium (just two blocks from the priory). Here my dream vehicle morphs into a 40 ton stone loader with a sweeping steel wedge on the front. I’ll save the phasers for the boneheads who jump the light and block the intersection! Then my impatience reminds me of the woman at WalMart who juggled her many purchases, a baby, and her purse while trying (unsuccessfully) to use the self-service checkout station—apparently the friend she was talking to on her cell was no help at all. Then there were the fourteen Boy Scouts in line at my favorite fast food place. The creeping internet service of Starbuck’s WiFi. The hours it takes for my friends in Europe to respond to an email. The Fred Flintstone copying machine in campus ministry—I swear there must be a literate squirrel in there, pen and paper in paw. And then I think, “You must be patient!” And then I think things that I can’t share with you, and then I remember the Psalm: “the Lord thwarts the ways of the wicked; He shall reign forever!”

John the Baptist, waiting in prison, heard about the ministry of Jesus and sent his disciples to ask Jesus a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” Do we hear a bit of impatience in this question? Is John getting anxious? Surely, John the Baptist, the herald of the Father’s Christ, knows that Jesus is the one to come! Why this question then? Notice how Jesus answers: “Go and tell John what you hear and see…” John, knowing that Jesus is who he says he is, sends his own disciples to Jesus so that Jesus can make them preachers of his Good News. Go and tell what you hear and see. That’s what preachers do. And notice what Jesus highlights as the content of their witness: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are clean, the deaf hear, the dead live, and the good news of God’s mercy is preached to the poor. In other words, the wrecked world of sin is righted and the righteous reign of God is at hand. Preach that and take no offense!

Jesus then turns to the crowd remaining and extols John as his herald, as the one-who-comes-before. Lifting him up as his messenger, Jesus quotes Isaiah, “he will prepare your way before you.” No 40 ton stone loaders with steel wedges will be necessary. Hold your phaser fire. Unload the photon torpedoes. John has come and baptized with water for repentance. Christ has come and baptizes (even now!) with fire and Spirit for eternal life. John preached in the desert and baptized in the Jordan. Jesus asks the crowd, “What did you go out to the desert to see?” The things of the desert? A prince or king? “To see a prophet?” Yes, of course, you went into the desert to see a prophet! But why? We must be prepared to hear and see the Word. We must be told that the Word of God is coming. We must be reminded that he is among us already. We wait for his coming. And we rejoice because he is here! Be strong, fear not! Here is your God…he comes to save you.

Impatience is a vicious habit, a routine way of butting your head against the inevitability of having to move through space and time toward a goal that has already been reached. If Christ is fully God and fully Man, then it must be the case that we, all of humanity, that we have arrived at our redeemed destination. But we experience life here as an anxious separation, that worried gap between what we know is our perfection and what we know our sinful selves to be: broken, unfulfilled, and driven by a hazardous annoyance to be done with it. Impatience is our blindness, our deafness, our disability. Impatience is the public profession of our doubt in the providence of God, an abject failure to trust that every second is a moment graced by God to bring us back to Him. We feel that gap so intensely because our desire, our longing and hunger to be with God is greater than any product WalMart has for sale, greater than any merchandise Amazon.com might offer at a discount. But the emptiness in us can be vast, night-black, suffocating. Patience then is nothing more than our living prayer of gratitude, our lived lives of praise for the God of promises fulfilled.

Can we wait on what has been promised to us? The bone-crushing pressure of final papers, exams, travel home, plans for next year, holiday shopping, cooking, visiting, family feuds, parental expectations, sibling rivalries, disappointments, anger; the stifling hurts of long histories, money problems, failed marriages, successful friends; a looming horizon and no where to go, no one to see—these are not the promises made to you. Nor were you promised reprieve from them. You are promised, we are all promised that no matter what may come, our Lord is already here and nothing made can stand against him. And so, we rejoice! If cannot rejoice or will not rejoice, then let me ask you: what did you come here to see? Why are you here if not to have your hands strengthen, your back straightened, your head cleared, and your heart filled?

Be strong, fear not! Here is your God!