08 February 2008

Mourning and weeping and fasting...

Friday after Ash Wednesday: Isa 58.1-9 and Matt 9.14-15
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation

Maybe just an innocent question about spiritual practices, or maybe a “gotcha” question to prove Jesus a fraud, the question asked of Jesus by John’s disciple—why do we and the Pharisees fast, Jesus, but your disciples do not fast?—this question gets answered in a rather weird way. Jesus said, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” In other words, as long as Jesus the Bridegroom is with the wedding party, no one need mourn. What is the connection he’s making between fasting and his absence/presence? And what sort of fasting best honors Jesus’ “absence” until the eschaton?

I’ve heard it preached—not seriously, of course—that John’s disciples had grown weary of locust and honey and wanted to make a change to Team Jesus! All that fasting in the desert with God’s Bear was taking its culinary toll on their already unsettled stomachs. The question about why Jesus’ followers weren’t fasting while everyone else was fasting looks suspiciously opportunistic—both for those who might want to jump the Baptist’s strict ship for Jesus’ apparently more relaxed cruise liner, and for those who wanted to trap Jesus and see him taken off the preaching circuit a la execution. But the straightforward answer both groups were expecting to hear wasn’t spoken. Maybe they wanted to hear that the law of fasting had been revoked, or maybe that fasting this year was to be minimal. What they heard is that there is something about mourning the dead and fasting that go hand in hand.

It would be too simple to say that we fast to mourn the dead. We do, of course, but is this the point Jesus is making to John’s inquisitive and strangely hopeful disciple? No. The better question is: what do we do when we mourn; I mean, what is mourning that makes sense of fasting? Mourning is what we call the dulling pain of absence, the emptying out of one’s heart and spirit; mourning is the wail of a swiftly approaching reckoning, a brief, manic moment after a death to collect, solidify, and canonize a memory and then to witness that gathered-up portrait dissolve under the steady rain of consoling tears and begin to collect again in another entirely true (if wholly inadequate) picture of the dead. Mourning is the survivors’ reckoning of a life in friendship and love; it is an unswerving path to both remembering and forgetting. Mourning is what we do when we lose what we have been freely given: the gift of love in another.

If mourning leads us down the doubled path of remembering and forgetting, how does fasting follow so easily? What do we do when we fast? In the simplest terms, fasting is about removal, taking away from, moving out and leaving; fasting is about naming what is routinely Me, constantly Me, and waving to it “goodbye.” If we must “call to mind” and “pour out of mind” a love that can grow no more—a dead love, a departed eros—we fast in order to give our bodies to the public liturgy of remembering what we had in love and forgetting what cannot now be, the future of that love.

Jesus’ disciples cannot fast because they cannot mourn. Jesus is not yet dead. And at his death, they will mourn. Like anyone who has lost love in death, they will mourn, and how will they fast? Isaiah witnesses the Lord saying, “Would that today you might fast so as to make your voice heard on high!. . .This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own. Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!”

And there will be mourning no more. . .

Pic: Mourning

No, we can't. . .no, we can't!

This campaign video from the Obama Camp has been described variously as "creepy" and "cultish." I agree. It's a little too swooning, too "come join us we're way cool" jazzy-vibe. Freaky.

There is much to admire about the Senator. However, his unswerving record on voting for abortion--including partial-birth abortion--is horrifying. It leaves blood sticking to everything else he stands for. Of course, his opponent on the Democrat side, Darth Mistress, is no better.

Interesting stat: approx. 511,000 black children are aborted every year in the U.S.

Yes, we can! Yes, we can. . .NOT give the good senators a four-year window of opportunity to increase that shameful stat.

07 February 2008

When in Rome. . .?

For those who are still insisting that ashes on the forehead is somehow Divinely Ordained Sacramental Tradition and Therefore Ashes MUST Be Worn ON THE FOREHEAD All Day. . .I give you the Roman Tradition on the matter. . .

One of you guys had better let the Pope know that he's doing it wrong!

06 February 2008

Wash Your Face!


Here's the deal: the gospel for Mass this morning reports that Jesus unambiguously condemned as hypocritical the Jewish practice of marking oneself while fasting or doing penance, including rending garments, wailing, ringing bells, and (drumroll, please) wearing ashes on one's head. Please, please, please spare me the litanies of excuses: it's a public witness; it shows Catholic strength; its Tradition, ad nau. Your daily life in Christ is your public witness. Catholic strength is best shown in humility and love not numbers. If wearing the ashes all day is a ecclesial tradition, then why does the church put such an explicitly "do not wear ashes on your forehead" gospel reading on Ash Wednesday?

OK! Now, here's the second deal: buy me a book from my Wish List and I won't nag you about your smudge. COME on! I can't spend my Lenten season reading postmetaphysical theologies as my spiritual reading. . .I'm feeling the need to think/pray through how the Cross conquers nihilism. . .

H/T to Jeff Miller at CurtJester for the cool pic. . .

05 February 2008

Carrying death...

Due to the Zombiesque effects of several days without sleep I had to bail on celebrating this morning's conventual Mass at the last minute. . .here's the homily I prepared:

St. Agatha: 1 Cor 1.26-31 and Luke 9.23-26
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory

Paul writes to the Corinthians, “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise…” and so here we are, the Foolish, to hear Jesus say to us just one day before the start of Lent: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Fools, indeed. But Happy Fools if foolish in the wisdom of the Cross, what it means to haul such a thing onto one’s back and carry it about. One’s Cross is no daily burden, simple or large; it is death, the always shutting closed of one’s life. To carry your Cross daily is to daily carry the cross of your transience, your impermanence; your cross serves double duty as a sign of surrender to mortal being and as spit in the face of despair—on final foolish loogie spat in the Devil’s eye! Just think: at what point in Jesus’ life is he both Suffering Victim and Conquering King?

Carrying your cross is not a task like washing the car or doing the laundry. It is not a burden like taxes or visiting in-laws. Nor is the cross meant to be a sign of pride or shame, something we find a way to excuse or explain or something to brag about. A properly carried cross rests on the shoulder and pinches the skin just enough, rubs the bone just enough to keep vivid in our hearts and minds the ministry we do as we trudge along behind our Lord. We follow. That’s what we do: we follow. Doing as he does, preaching as he preaches, teaching as he teaches, healing as he heals. . .dying when he dies. This is not a job. It is a love. Paul reminds us, “Consider your calling, brothers and sisters. . .It is due to [God] that you are in Christ Jesus…” It is because we asked to carry our cross with Christ that we are allowed to do so.

What do we carry when we carry our Cross with Christ? Variously, “the cross” has been described as sin or physical disabilities or a bad marriage or some sort of addiction, something that unavoidably weighs on us, makes it difficult for us to walk a straightened path. This is too small. How will shouldering the “burden” of an addiction or a mental illness save my life for eternal life? How do I lose my life to save it if my cross is an inordinate love of Krispy Kreme Chocolate Filled Chocolate Covered doughnuts!? Our inordinate desires, illnesses, sins, disabilities—all of that and more attach to the Cross when we lift it to our shoulder. They will all die with us. None, however, will survive our transformation into the Christ—perfect God, perfect Man.

Jesus reveals four steps or movements in joining oneself to the Saving Cross. He says, first, “If anyone wishes to come after me;” second, “he must deny himself;” third, “and take up his cross daily;” and, fourth, “follow me.” Knowing what you know about the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, do you wish to go after him? If you do, then you deny yourself, renounce yourself; that is, surrender to an inevitable, mortal death; cease flirting with the temptation to become God without God. Now, pick up your death as a Cross like Christ’s and live daily with no fear of dying alone or without purpose. Freed from the suffocating burden of dreading death and what comes after, follow Christ! You have lost your life by embracing death. And whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake will save it.

04 February 2008

Fr. Philip's Ten Commandments of Confession

Fr. Philip Neri’s Ten Commandments for a Good Lenten Confession:

1. Thou shall know that thy presence in the confessional is the wondrous work of the Holy Spirit. That’s right. If you find yourself in the Box with Father, you are there first because the Holy Spirit prompted you to go. You agreed to follow that prompt, but like all forms of prayer and charitable work, the human person requires a little graced nudge. So, go into your confession confident that you are there by the grace of God to be reconcile to Him!

2. Thou shall not waste your time or Father’s time with obsessive-compulsive sacramental trivia such as, “OK, Father…so I was still a little drunk but I had to pee so I got up and I wasn’t all the way awake yet and I did it but is that a sin still?” Or, “Father, canon 1765.4 forbids X and I heard recently that Blessed Mary spoke to a woman in Mobile, AL and she said that X is OK and she has the bishop imprimatur!” Hint: if you find yourself discussing the distinction between a valid sacrament and a merely licit sacrament, you must RUN to the nearest park and lay in the sun.

3. Thou shall simply and clearly state your sins without excuse, explanation, or decoration. It is rather pointless to confess your sins with flourish or verbal decoration. Also, the priest really doesn’t need to know why you committed a particular sin. He’ll ask you if more info is needed.

4. Thou shall not use weasel words, dodges, or euphemisms when confessing individual sins. “Impure with self” is not a sin. Masturbation is a sin. “I watched inappropriate images on the computer and abused myself.” Do we confess inappropriate behaviors or sin? In other words, you watched porn and masturbated. Just say so.

5. Thou shall keep Penitent Drama to a minimum. Confessions can be quiet dramatic and even confusing. But confession time is not the right time to show everyone in line outside what a horrible sinner you have been and what a wonderful saint you are now. Also, Father doesn’t need to hear twenty-minutes of highly detailed narrative building up to the actual sin. This is attention-seeking behavior and a waste of precious time.

6. Thou shall not use the “face to face” option as an excuse to chit-chat with Father. Confession is not about story time nor is this option a chance to ask Father for advise on a complicated spiritual issue. Make an appointment with him for that. You have a whole lotta people waiting to see their confessor in the Box.

7. Thou shall confess thine own sins and no one else’s. This seems to be a particular problem among mothers and grandmothers of wayward children and grandchildren. Having failed to persuade said wayward child into the Box, mother or grandmother try to sneak the child’s sin past the priest. There is no vicarious confession in the church.

8. Thou shall not request of Father a confession only a few minutes before Mass begin. The time right before Mass is usually very chaotic in the sacristy and in the church. Father is preoccupied with setting up the sacramentary, placing his homily on the ambo; adjusting the speed of his fav fan, and just generally trying his best to prepare for Mass.

9. Thou shall ask questions about your assigned penance if you do not understand it. Do not leave the Box wondering what it is you are supposed to do for your penance. Just ask Father to clarify quickly his assignment. He will welcome this because it shows you are serious about the sacrament.

10. Thou shall not make a false confession in order to test Father’s orthodoxy nor record the sacrament without Father’s express approval. Yes, this has happened to me and it is a violation of just about everything we believe is holy in the Church, and I believe it constitutes a mortal sin.

Next time: Fr. Philip’s Top Ten Most Offered Pieces of Confessional Advice

UPDATE: I've added several books to the Wish List for my Lenten reading and reflection. . .this year I will focus my Lenten homilies on a "theology of the Cross."

03 February 2008

Beatitudes vs. Diabolicals

4th Sunday OT: Zeph 2.3, 3.12-13; 1 Cor 1.26-31; Matt 5.1-12
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
& Church of the Incarnation

In all fairness, we must equal time to the loyal opposition. Therefore, a reading from the Diabolical Litanies of St. Malefactor: “When our Infernal Lord saw the mewling crowds, he went up the mountain to get away from them, and after he had sat down and had drunk his fill of unwatered wine, his dark priests came to him. He began to teach them, saying: “Blessed are the vulgar in passion, for theirs is the kingdom of pleasure and vice. Cursed are they who mourn, for they will die wallowing in their own weakness. Blessed are the aggressive, for they will inherit the land. Cursed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be constantly disappointed in the fruits of slavery to morality. Blessed are the ruthless, for they will never be caught unawares. Blessed are those with cynical hearts, for they will never see entertain betrayal. Cursed are the peacemakers, for they will disrupt the business and fun of war. Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for they provide the ruthless with violent amusement. Blessed are you when they insult you and look down on you and utter every kind of vile lie against you. Celebrate and be bawdy, for they have joined us and their reward will be great in Hell.”

Much like the Beatitudes that these Diabolicals so obviously mimic, it is less than satisfactory to simply quote them and let them speak for themselves. It seems that commentary is necessary. Therefore, let me point out just a few features of this dark text. First, we have to note that the Diabolicals contain both blessings and curses. One might be tempted to conclude that the “blessing” statements are “good.” Not so. When evil blesses evil only evil results. Here “blessing” is the functional equivalent of “cursing” for those taken by evil. Also, you will note that many of these Diabolicals sound very familiar. In one form or another, our secular, materialist culture has adopted almost all of the Diabolicals as foundational to liberal democracy and capitalist freedom. You can, no doubt, find several books at Borders in the business section that seriously entertain and argue for 99% of the what the Diabolicals are teaching.

Sad though this may be, it is predictable for a society that sees its children as cut/gain investments; sees the elderly as bothersome and expensive and unwanted children as disposable; lauds aggressive competition even when it so obviously bruises our best relationships; adopts in the name of “fighting back” the inhumane tactics of war used by our worse enemies, especially torture; demands that the allegedly servile media show us only that which outrages us from Their Side; and, finally, the Diabolicals speak directly to our secular sense of justice and fairness: me and mine, first…then, you and yours…and then, maybe, just maybe, them and theirs. We always seem to think that justice is about equality. For those of us who have died with Christ and risen with him again, our Father’s justice is about the excessive overflowing of Love. In this case, keep your justice! And give me mercy!

Here is the single job of the Beatitudes as preached by Christ…Paul writes to the Corinthians: “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong…[He choose] those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something…” Why would we think to boast about this task? Why brag? Or why hold this task up as something to be envied? We do not boast before God. We not brag to God. Paul reminds us, “It is due to [God] that you are in Christ Jesus…”, so what could we possibly have to get all puffed up about? What righteousness we have, what sanctification we have, what redemption we have, we have because they were given to us, simply handed over to us and released by God. We have two jobs: 1) gives thanks to God and 2) share the wealth!

I noted in an earlier homily on the Beatitudes that there is a particularly powerful grammar at work in these sayings. The Beatitudes teach us that there is a pattern to justice and peace, a grammar, if you will, that begins right where we are. Where we are always results in where we will be. Just look at the text. Blessed ARE they who mourn, for they WILL BE comforted. Blessed ARE the clean of heart, for they WILL see God. All the way through the teaching, Jesus makes the practical, moral connection between where we are with where we will be. Blessed are, blessed are, blessed are. . .will inherit, will be shown mercy, will be satisfied. How easy for us to see that if we ARE NOT where we ought to be, or that if we ARE NOT who we ought to be, how easy is it to see that we WILL NOT receive the supernatural gift that comes with being where we ought to be and being who we ought to be. Let’s say this just a little more clearly. There are two pillars to Christian morality: The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. Together…together!...these two constitute the Thou Shall Not and the Thou Sall Be of our moral lives. Together, followed with a graced faith and earnest desire for holiness, together these two make up one gifted person. You. Me. And you and me together to make the One Body of Christ.

Remember what Paul wrote the always troubling Corinthians: “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many of noble birth…God choose the foolish of the world to shame the wise…to reduce to nothing those who are something…” The poor in spirit are poor b/c they know that they need God. Those who mourn are grieving b/c they know that only God can comfort them fully. The meek will inherit the land b/c they will rely on the Hand of the Father to inherit and not on their own craft and wiles. And those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, they will be satisfied b/c in their long hunger and thirst they have come to know that there is nothing that will squash their hunger and slake their thirst but God and Him alone.

We can be learned and wise and beautiful and rich by the world’s standards, but if we are not learned and wise and beautiful and rich in the Father’s gifts, then we are simply ugly and stupid. We are ignorant and poor. We are doing little more than hanging out waiting to be reduced to nothing by the fools of God. And, yes, we should be worried if the Diabolicals sound more useful to us, more practical and philosophically sound. The author of that litany will give us all we want. But his gifts vanish at the first sign of fire, flaming up into smoke and ash the moment it is too late to turn around. Then we will choke on our boasts.

This coming Wednesday fires the starting pistol for our forty-day race to Holy Thursday. At the sound of that doleful crack with the smell of ash still fresh in our noses, we will jump the starting line and run like cows with our tails on fire! Lent is something To Be Done and done quickly. This is what the world-wise believe anyway. For the poor in spirit, the meek, the mournful, and the hunger, the race is not against the clock or the calendar but against all of our collected temptations, against all those desires and vices and empty promises that long to drag us to Hell. If you will be Beautiful come Easter morning, spend your race-time in thanksgiving to God, spend your time being joyful, being glad, because if you do “your reward will be great in heaven.”