23 February 2008

Drowning in Well-Water

3rd Sunday of Lent: Ex 17.3-7; Rom 5.1-8; John 4.5-42 (Vigil Mass)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
, Dallas, TX

[NB. This homily is something of an experiment for me. . .so, I am very eager to hear comments!]

Here’s what we are supposed to learn from this gospel reading: the preaching of the Good News is to go out to everyone, excluding no one not even those with whom we have significant religious differences. The Living Water of God’s grace is immeasurably deep and awesomely wide. We receive this Water as a gift, given without price or debt, liberally handed-over in love, and dipped from the well of Christ Jesus himself.

The Living Water of God’s saving grace flows easily and freely over the dirtiest feet, into the foulest mouths, through the most unclean hands, and washes away any and all afflictions.

The Living Water of God’s grace waters the cruelest heart, softens the hardest head, and tames the most passionate stomach. No dam or pipe or bucket or cloud is strong enough, high enough, deep enough or empty enough to hold the gifts that our Father has to give us.

The Living Water of God’s grace is the Bridge between blood enemies; the Way across all anger and pride; the Means of health and beauty; the only Gate to truth and goodness. Built on the confession of Peter and guarded against Hell itself, the Church floats on its ocean, unsinkable, unshakable, His Ark.

The Living Water of God’s grace wets everything it touches, stains anything it falls upon, and indelibly marks for eternal life anyone who will say with the Samaritan woman, “Lord! Give me this water.”

We learn from this gospel reading that we cannot worship I AM THAT I AM on any single mountain; in one church and not another; nor can we pray in Jerusalem alone, Rome alone, Paris alone, or Dallas alone. We learn that we are to worship the LORD in Spirit and in Truth, not with spirits and lies, but in His Spirit and His Truth; alone with Him and all together, we pray where we are, when we are, and we ask for one gift: voices eager to praise His glory, voice set afire with the Word of God’s mercy.

Jesus says to the woman, “I am [the Christ], the one who is speaking with you.” When she tells her neighbors this truth, they come to Christ and listen to the Word. For two days they listen. When the time for him to leave comes, the Samaritans say to the woman, “We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world.” If she had held her tongue, quieted her voice and failed to speak the Truth, they would not have heard. Where then would they find hope?

Paul writes to the Romans: “…hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” If we are not disappointed in the grace we have received, how much more passionate are we then about speaking a simple truth, just one word to our neighbors about the gift of life we have received. There is no hope on the dry land of secular religion or science; no hope in the mouths of politicians or professors; there is no hope in test tubes or books. No hope that lasts. Our hope, our one hope is the depth, the breadth, the width of our Father’s immeasurable mercy--the sky-wide and valley-deep well of His free flowing and ever-living Water. Walking this desert of Lent to the Cross, let Paul remind you: “…only with difficulty [do you] die for a just person, though perhaps for a good person [you] might even find courage to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners [still sinners!] Christ died for us.”

Wasting Love on Sinners

2nd Week of Lent (S): Micah 7.14-15, 18-20 and Luke 15.1-3, 11-32
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

The Pharisees hate sinners. Jesus loves them. For the Pharisees, Jesus’ love of sinners is more than just annoying; it’s downright dangerous. Any sensible person can see that loving sinners—even while hating the sin—can easily lead the sinner to think that his or her sin is somehow OK. We can’t have sinners thinking, “Well, I’m a sinner but folks seem to love me anyway, so my sinning must not be so bad after all…” This is a dangerous way to think. True, Jesus loved sinners. But surely there are seriously practical limits on which sinners get loved. Just random, gratuitous, free-for-all loving Everybody just seems so untidy? So messy and free! Where’s the cost of sinning when we just love everybody all the time regardless? Isn’t love all about rewarding the Good?

Fortunately, we have the Parable of the Prodigal Son to answer this question! The standard parsing of this parable goes something like this: the younger son is the Sinner. The older son is the self-righteous Do-Gooder. And the father in the story is God. The Sinner sins. The Father welcomes the Sinner home. The Do-Gooder whines about not being rewarded for being a do-gooder. The moral of the story: no matter how sinful we are we are always welcomed home by God our Father—even over the objections of the jealous prigs in the church. Nothing wrong with that. It occurred to me, however, that if we focus on the prodigality of the younger son, his adventures in squandering his inheritance, we might see, through slightly squinted eyes, another, fruitful way to parse the parable. Bear with me.

We call the younger son “prodigal” because he wastes his inheritance on wine, women, and song: “…on a life of dissipation…[he] freely spent everything.” There is no good reason, however, to limit the notion of prodigality to useless waste. Why can’t we think of prodigality as useful waste, or as the extravagant giving of gifts without regard to merit or the possibility of repayment? The younger son took his share of his father’s property and bestowed it freely on prostitutes, bartenders, waiters, and hookah baristas. I doubt these folks saw his largesse as wasteful. He expended his treasure, and his “wastefulness” benefited others. In fact, his generosity brought him very close to death—the last sacrifice he could make. In the rank humility of his destitution, he calls out to his father for help, pledging himself to yet another prodigal enterprise: conversion, confession, contrition, and penance. He is received by his father, who is “filled with compassion,” and his return is abundantly celebrated.

In one very important respect, our prodigal pal looks like Christ. What could be more extravagant, more over-the-top, more excessively unnecessary and wasteful than giving your life away on a cross because you find yourself in love with billions and billions of sinners. What is more ridiculous than squandering your very life to love sinners. . .some of whom will never love you back, will never love anyone at all. Is there a less efficient means of loving sinners than sacrificing your life for them. . .just on the off-chance that some of them, maybe most, maybe just a few, on the off-chance that some will come to love perfectly with you. The Prodigal Son wastes his inheritance on sinners. So does Jesus. The Prodigal Son finds himself hungry, alone, and near death. So does Jesus. The Prodigal Son calls out to his father in the last moment, surrendering himself to his father’s will. And so does Jesus. One lives and one dies but both are welcomed home by an exceedingly compassionate father. One lives as an example to sinners. The other dies as a sacrifice for sinners. Living and dying, both did so copiously, richly, prosperously.

The moral of this telling of the parable? It is impossible to love sinners too much; impossible to spread your love too thin; impossible to sow the seeds of mercy too wide; so long as you love because God loves you, it is impossible to exhaust the harvest of the Cross; so long as you love because God loves you, it is impossible not to be Christ.

22 February 2008

You are the Christ

The Chair of Peter: 1 Peter 5.1-4 and Matthew 16.13-19
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Univ of Dallas

[NB. Confession time: I don't like this homily...]

Preachers like to point out that today is the only day on the Church calendar when we celebrate a piece of furniture. Of course, we aren’t celebrating a piece of furniture, we are honoring the shepherding office given to Peter by Christ and held today by our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. Even so, some would claim that the office of Peter—as it is currently understood by the Church—is a kind of furniture: a decorative chair, too pretty to actually use; a chair sealed in the plastic of tradition, away from the grubbiness of life; a chair moved out of the museum of the grandma’s sitting room only when important guests show up, but otherwise kept hidden away; a chair, in other words, too delicate to sit on, too fragile to clean up, and in much need of a good repair job. Let’s see what the connection is between Peter's confession and the teaching office of Peter.

In a scene that we have come to recognize as a “teaching moment,” Jesus sits with his students and asks a thunderclapping question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples give a variety of answers, covering all the bases: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or some other prophet sent by God. You can almost see Jesus nodding, slightly amused by the answer but very understanding. Notice that the first formulation of this question asks who the Son of Man is. Once the disciples have shouted out their answers, Jesus changes the question, “But who do you say that I am?” Jesus answers his own question by changing the terms of the question the second time around. He is the Son of Man! Peter, obviously the eager-beaver leader of the student group pipes up immediately and says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Notice something else here. All of the disciples are implicated in the initial, incorrect answers. Only Peter answers the second question. Alone, he answers correctly. And like the good professor he is, Jesus praises Peter by saying, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah…”

What does this extraordinary exchange tell us about the commission Jesus gives Peter when he, Jesus, calls Peter the Rock and gives him the keys to the kingdom? The most basic revelation here is the direct link between the truth of who Jesus is for us and the teaching office of Peter. It falls to our Holy Father to constantly put before the Church the reality of the God-Man, the truth of the Incarnation; it falls to our Holy Father to call us back, to always call us back to the essential confession of every Christian (Catholic or not!) that the man, Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, is the promised Messiah of the prophets, that he is the Anointed One of the Father, that he is the Lamb, who upon the Cross, makes it possible for us all to participate in the divine life.

The Chair of Peter will be a piece of furniture when we look back from the Throne of God; but for us now, looking forward to Throne, the Chair of Peter is a compass, a roadmap, an infallible guide. Notice that we do not celebrate the Popes as a category. We celebrate this or that pope as a saint. We celebrate the office of the papacy. But we do not lift up and honor The Popes as men incapable of error or sin, as men separated from their ministry as Peter’s successors. The reason for this is simple: no man is above sin. We know that this or that pope made it to the Throne of God as a Saint. And the Chair of Peter itself sits in honor near the Throne. But as we all know, our history is spoiled with the avarice, lusts, pride, and arrogance of men who have sat in that Chair. This is precisely why Peter’s confession—“You are the Christ!—must remain on our lips as we pray, as we work, as we play, as we live and die.

Today’s feast of the Chair of Peter is not a celebration of Joseph Ratzinger or Karol Wojtyła or Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli or even Peter himself! Today we celebrate that teaching office of the Holy Spirit that shouts from first century Judea all the way to twenty-first century Irving, TX: “Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ!"

19 February 2008

Sand for Water

Lenten desert? YES! Sand in the fonts? NO!

After the 7.30pm Sunday Mass on campus, a woman approached me and asked, "Father, why is there water in the baptismal font?" Used to esoteric questions from my U.D. students, I took a breath and geared up to give a ferverino on the sacramental uses of water and the first known uses of fonts in the patristic period. . .before I could say a word, she grumbled, "There's not supposed to be any water in there. . .it's supposed to be sand!" I stared at her for a sec and said something like, "Well, that was an unauthorized innovation from the 80's. Trendy nonsense. We don't renounce our baptisms in Lent." She turned and walked away. I was prompted to find this little piece of liturgical arcana. . .

Prot. N. 569/00/L

March 14, 2000

Dear Father:

This Congregation for Divine Worship has received your letter sent by fax in which you ask whether it is in accord with liturgical law to remove the Holy Water from the fonts for the duration of the season of Lent.

This Dicastery is able to respond that the removing of Holy Water from the fonts during the season of Lent is not permitted, in particular, for two reasons:

1. The liturgical legislation in force does not foresee this innovation, which in addition to being praeter legem is contrary to a balanced understanding of the season of Lent, which though truly being a season of penance, is also a season rich in the symbolism of water and baptism, constantly evoked in liturgical texts.

2. The encouragement of the Church that the faithful avail themselves frequently of the [sic] of her sacraments and sacramentals is to be understood to apply also to the season of Lent. The "fast" and "abstinence" which the faithful embrace in this season does not extend to abstaining from the sacraments or sacramentals of the Church. The practice of the Church has been to empty the Holy Water fonts on the days of the Sacred Triduum in preparation of the blessing of the water at the Easter Vigil, and it corresponds to those days on which the Eucharist is not celebrated (i.e., Good Friday and Holy Saturday).

Hoping that this resolves the question and with every good wish and kind regard, I am,

Sincerely yours in Christ,


Mons. Mario Marini Undersecretary

18 February 2008

An opened hand is your measure

2nd Week of Lent (M): Daniel 9.4-10 and Luke 6.36-38
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Tit for tat. Quid pro quo. Scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. We understand these colorful phrases to mean one thing: you do me a favor, I do you a favor—an equal exchange of labor and good will. Implied in the exchange is the possibility of indebtedness, that if I do you a favor now, but you can’t do one for me immediately, you owe me. The longer I hold your debt the more unequal the exchange is going to be. Eventually, I will end up asking you to do something way out of proportion to the favor I did for you. The difference between favors at this point is to be found in my gentle patience, my all-too-human generosity in allowing you time to repay the favor. You end up repaying the debt and rewarding me for not calling in the favor before you are ready to repay. We call this interest…even if it isn’t strictly calculated as a percentage of value.

In Luke’s gospel this morning, Jesus is teaching his disciples two lessons about forgiveness: 1) forgive always so that the one you forgive will be obligated to forgive you when the time comes and 2) be as generous as you possibly can so that your generosity will be repaid in kind. The key to both these teachings is the last sentence of the reading: “For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.”

Jesus tells his disciples to be merciful as their Father is merciful. Not an easy job! Our God is more than merciful. He is Mercy per se. How do mere creatures imitate that? We stop judging others. stop condemning others. This means that we are to stop formulating final decisions about the guilt or innocence of others in sin. We are to stop passing sentence on their sins, drawing conclusions about the state of their souls. This does not mean that we are to close our eyes to sin and refuse to call sin Sin. “Judge not lest ye be judged” is not a biblical way of saying, “Mind your own business and I’ll mind mine!” We know this because our interpretative key—the measure you use to measure will be used to measure for you—this key tells us that we do not want our “business” ignored…I want my business measured in mercy and forgiven! Therefore, I had better be ready to repay that measure of mercy with an equal measure of my own.

The clear intent of Jesus here is to point us to the boundless generosity of the Father’s love and mercy. There is no room for stinginess in a heart once cleansed of sin by divine forgiveness. His grant of redeeming grace through the death and resurrection of His Son is the monumental gift of creation restored to right relationship. How do creatures repay that favor? How do we stand under that gift, accept its benefits, and prepare ourselves to repay the favor? We don’t. We can’t. And in creaturely terms, our debt to the Father grows every minute, every second we fail to repay. Fortunately, our Father calculates interest on debts in divine terms, in terms of limitless abundance, boundless generosity—He has paid the debt for us. No interest accrues on our divine favors, so the measure with which we are measured is no measure at all but the open hand of God pouring gifts in love.

So, be merciful as your Father is merciful.

17 February 2008

Fear Nothing!

2nd Sunday of Lent (A): Gen 12.1-4; 2 Tim 1.8-10; Matt 17.1-9
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul Hospital and Church of the Incarnation

“Rise, and do not be afraid!”

Are you wondering yet why you decided to take on a Lenten fast? Why you chose this or that bad habit to surrender to the desert? Are you finding yourself counting the days maybe, just waiting it out, maybe twitching a little now and then, maybe standing up and marching right into that Chinese buffet or right into that Marble Creamery or right into that tobacco shop? Is your tongue itching to tell someone off? Or maybe your credit card is keeping you up at night softly sobbing from loneliness? Imagine calling the whole thing off. Right now. Just stop Lent and get off. Stop the fasting, the abstaining; stop the extra prayers and just break those promises of weekly confession and daily Mass. Just stop. Just say NO to Lent. And get off this purple-hazed roller coaster of a liturgical season! I mean, really now…is Jesus coming back in 2008? 2009 even? Who knows?

Imagine the disciples for a second. There they were WITH Jesus, their beloved teacher, and they are having trouble understanding all this cryptic talk of suffering and dying and coming back to life again. The disciples! The guys who know him best, the ones who have known him face-to-face are struggling with this whole desert-thing. Here we are 2,000 years later and we’re trying to understand, to believe, to obey, and to benefit from the lessons of his own temptations among the sand dunes. Sure! You had better believe I would conjure up some bread after forty days without food. Not to mention a case or two of good German beer! Of course, I would call down angels if the Devil appeared to me and started talking. And, yes, ruling the world seems like a heady vocation. But I, like you, must do what Christ did and will do again. And in case we’re scared out of our minds, frightened at the very idea of what’s ahead, we have Christ on the mountain with Peter, James, and John. And we have his promise: “…his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as white as light.” What sort of promise is this? What are we to make of the transfiguration?

The disciples, gawking in fear at the sight of the transfigured Jesus, Moses and Elijah with him, fall flat on their faces in the dirt. Jesus touches them and says, “Rise, and do not be afraid!” When they rise, Jesus alone remains standing before them, brilliant bright, shining clean. He stands there for a moment. Moses and Elijah are gone. The joyous light dissipates. All he says to the dumb-struck disciples is: “Do not tell the vision to anyone until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” That’s it. That’s his explanation of what just happened. So, what just happened? What are we to do with this theatrical revelation now that we have it?

Let’s go back to Paul and his second letter to Timothy. Paul writes to this friend, “[God] saved us and called us to a holy life, NOT according to our works but according to His own design and the grace bestowed on us in Christ Jesus…” What makes this holy life we are called to possible? Nothing other than the gifts we have received from God, the grace “now made manifest through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus…” Paul, writing long after the revelation on the mountain, is reminding Timothy that he must “bear [his] share of hardship for the gospel…” How? “…with the strength that comes from God.” Jesus’ transfiguration, his transformation before Peter, James, and John is our Lord’s seal on an ancient promise: endure with my strength, endure with the gifts you have been given, endure with one another, and you too will be transfigured; you too will shine like the sun, white as light.

What do we do ‘til then? Jesus touches his frightened disciples and says to them, “Rise, and do not be afraid!” We can hear echoed here all of the promises our Lord made to Abram: “I will make you a great nation…I will make your name great…I will bless those who bless you…All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.” None of this is ours by right or inheritance. It is ours in faith by the promise of He who blesses His creation with His presence. We cannot lay claim to a single blessing, not one gift from our Lord if we are face down in the dirt…frightened by our promised future. Or if we will not look up into the eyes of Christ; or if we refuse in our sinfulness to be transfigured, to be changed into He Whom we adore. So, rise and do not be afraid! Do not fear small sacrifices or large ones; do not fear little fasts or days of abstinence; do not fear that the Body of Christ is sick beyond healing, or that the Word is mute against the world’s unbelief and violence. Meet your temptations for what they are: lies. Meet the Devil for who he is: a liar. And rejoice that you have been given a seal on the promise of your salvation! A bright shining promise made by he “who destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.”

What awaits our Lord in Jerusalem is an ignoble death on the Cross. He knows this. Yet he rides into Jerusalem like a slave on a donkey. And though he is cheered as a king, he is abandoned like a beggar to beg for his life. . .even as he dies. His face shone like the sun on the mountain. But it bleeds on the Cross. His clothes become white as light on the mountain. But when he is lifted up on the Cross, he wears a king’s purple red with his own blood. And when he stands before the disciples shining and bright on the mountain, he stands with Moses and Elijah, the Law and the Prophets; yet in the garden he is alone. On the Cross he is among thieves, a criminal. He knows all of this. And he appears to his disciples to seal an ancient promise of mercy. He appears, transfigured, to ease their doubts, to strengthen their resolve, to bolster their lagging faith.

Are you ready yet to abandon your Lenten fasts? Your desert sacrifices? Are you ready to chat with the Devil and shop among his illusions of wealth and glory? Are you ready to stop this crazy ride and get off? If so, hear this one more time: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Listen to the emptying Cross. Listen to the crash of the temple veil as it falls. Listen again to Paul: “Beloved, bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” Listen to Jesus say as he touches your hand, “Rise, and do not be afraid!”