14 March 2008

Belief is basic

5th Week of Lent: Jer 20.10-13 and John 10.31-42
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation

The Italian philosopher of religion, Gianni Vattimo, was once asked in an interview, “Do you now once again believe in God?” Vattimo, a scholar of Heidegger and Nietzsche and a proponent of Christian nihilism, answered, “I believe that I believe.” Unpacking this enigmatic response would take most of Spring Break, so let me get quickly to the point: Vattimo believes in belief, that is, he holds that believing in God is a desirable practice even if we cannot assert that believing in God is properly rational. Vattimo argues that science has done Christianity a huge favor by showing that most of what we call “religious belief” is nonsense. Why is this a “huge favor”? Because in a futile effort to prove itself “true,” Christian belief, Christian religious practice, has become weighed down by the excessive baggage of metaphysical philosophies, or ways of thinking that constantly add packages of myth, magic, and mystical gibberish to our basic commitment to God. His answer—“I believe that I believe”—is the first step to emptying out our belief so that we might simply love God and one another. Vattimo’s argument is most often linked to Philippians 2.6-8: “Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God,. . . emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. . .” Just as Christ emptied himself to become a slave, so our beliefs must be emptied of any metaphysical speculation that we might confuse with revealed truth—to believe is enough. Now, is this the commitment that Jesus urges on the Jews as they collect their stones?

Let’s see what Jesus is asking of them and us. Confused as to why the Jews want to stone him for doing good works, Jesus professes his relationship to the Father and urges the Jews to believe that he is the Son of God. He pleads: “…if I perform [these good works], even if you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may realize and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” What is he asking? Jesus is asking the Jews (and us) to “realize and understand” who he is, and we are to do so first by an act of belief, specifically an act of belief in his word or, if not his word, in his good works. Belief is prior to our understanding. Belief, therefore, is basic. And basic in this sense: belief constitutes the possibility of our understanding. Without prior belief subsequent understanding is impossible.

It should be clear that Jesus is not urging the Jews to believe in belief; that is, he is not pleading with them to trust in trust or to be convicted by conviction. Jesus is urging the Jews (and us) to trust him when he says that he is the Son of God. And by trusting that he is the Christ, we come to understand that he is the Christ. You may say that this is just blind faith. Maybe so. But if so, it is a blinded faith that finds itself brilliantly healed and gifted with every possibility of seeing Christ as he is for us: the only Son of God, betrayed, tried, convicted, humiliated, hung on a cross, dead and risen again for our redemption. Our philosopher-friend, Vattimo, is right about the need to empty ourselves out, but it is not metaphysical speculation that crowds our believing hearts. What stunts out growth in holiness is our desire to know before we believe; that is, our need to be sure before we trust, our need to be shown proof and evidence before we begin to hope; this need puts the work of human genius in front of trust and gives reign to the methods and prejudices and limitations of the human mind.

Our Lord says that we must first believe and then understand. In no way does he mean that all we have to do is believe. As creatures of intellect and will, we are also obligated to know, to comprehend. But we must pour out what we think we know, what we think we understand, and begin again in trust. Without this beginning in the divine, we start and finish as little more than stone-throwers, maybe even highly advanced, technologically superior stone-throwers; but without a heart for God’s love, you are just a smart monkey with shiny gadgets driven by your stomach.

Belief is basic. Trust God, seek to understand, grow in holiness. In that order.

13 March 2008

Demon possessed Samaritan?

5th Week of Lent (R): Gen 17.3-8 and John 8.51-59
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

We find ourselves this morning in the middle of an argument between Jesus and the Jewish leaders about who it is that Jesus claims to be. In the readings between yesterday and today, we miss out on part of the argument: Jesus asks, “’Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? He who is of God hears the words of God; the reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.’" The Jews answered him, "’Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?’" Jesus answered, "’I have not a demon; but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me.’” This is no simple fight among friends or a “back and forth” between a street preacher and his slightly amused audience. Remember: the disciple were quick to remind Jesus that the Jewish leaders were carefully stockpiling stones for his eventual execution. The stakes are high and the question is clear: is this Jesus guy who he says he is or not? If so, then all of Heaven is about to break loose. If not, he’s a public blasphemer and deserving of death. Jesus had already asked his disciples, “Who do they you say that the Son of Man is?” and, more pointedly of his friends, he asked, “Who do you say that I am?” The Jewish authorities turn the tables and ask Jesus the crucial question as plainly as they know how: “Who do you make yourself out to be?” Who, indeed?

When I say that this is the “crucial question,” I mean that quite literally: the Jewish question to Jesus is the question of the Cross (crucial, cruce, cross). Jesus stands before his heritage, his long tradition as a Jew and a rabbi; he looks at and through the men in front of him, and back down the ancestral line to Abraham, and responds with these shocking words, “Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day…Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM.” Who does he make himself out to be? God, the Father of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God of the ancestors, the One Who brought them out of slavery in Egypt and gave them their land and their descendants as numerous as the stars. Not surprisingly, the stones began to fly.

Why is the question of who Jesus is a question about the Cross? Modestly put, the Cross is an empty religious gesture if the man who dies on it is just a man. If the man on the cross is a teacher, we may learn some moral lesson. If the man on the cross is a preacher, we may see his end as merely exemplary. If the man on the cross is a rebel and a heretic, we may feel secure that rebellion and heresy are justly punished. But what if Jesus is telling the truth? What if he is “I AM,” and I AM is executed on a Roman cross? What now?

“What now?” is our crucial question, for us, right now—the question of the Cross that we must answer. For you, who hangs on that Cross come Good Friday? A demon possessed egoist? A mad rabbi with authority issues? A Jewish redneck from Nazareth the Cowtown, a bubba with delusions of grandeur? Or maybe a stylized first-century hippie who’s hit the bong one too many times? Or maybe he’s an enlightened teacher of peace who ran afoul of intuitional power and paid the ultimate price? For you, who will hang on that Cross come Good Friday? How you answer that question changes everything.

Most importantly, how you answer that question changes what Easter will be for you. Jesus doesn’t have to die to teach us a moral lesson, or to show us the way to peace, or to give us an example of love. He has to die so that we might live. If death is to be defeated, Life Himself must die and rise again. Only I AM can do this for us. Jesus says to his accusers: “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever keeps my word will never see death.” And our Lord remembers his covenant forever. . .

11 March 2008

It's "actual" NOT "active" participation

Fr. Jay Scott Newman, pastor of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Greenville, SC, Nails It! Every candidate for ordination for the next 75 years ought to be required to recite this article verbatim at his ordination to the priesthood BEFORE the bishop touches his head. Check out the parish’s website and give God thanks for all of the wonderful work Fr. Newman and his people are doing at St. Mary’s. I wanna be his Parochial Vicar. . .

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Dear Friends in Christ,

One objective of the liturgical reforms of the 1960’s was to encourage the active participation ["actuosam. . .participationem" means "actual participation" (SC14)]* of the Catholic people in the celebration of the sacred liturgy, in part by reminding them that they are participants in, not spectators of, offering the sacrifice of praise at the heart of all Christian worship. Unfortunately, in the years following the II Vatican Council, the Church’s desire that all the faithful participate fully in the sacred liturgy was too often rendered a caricature of the Council’s teaching, and misconceptions about the true nature of active participation multiplied. This led to the frenzied expansion of “ministries” among the people and turned worship into a team sport [precisely!]. But it is possible to participate in the liturgy fully, consciously, and actively ["actually"] without ever leaving one’s pew, and it is likewise possible to serve busily as a musician or lector at Mass without truly participating in the sacred liturgy. Both of these are true because the primary meaning of active participation in the liturgy is worshipping the living God in Spirit and truth, and that in turn is an interior disposition of faith, hope, and love which cannot be measured by the presence or absence of physical activity. But this confusion about the role of the laity in the Church’s worship was not the only misconception to follow the liturgical reforms; similar mistakes were made about the part of the priest [oh boy, were there!].

Because of the mistaken idea that the whole congregation had to be “in motion” during the liturgy to be truly participating, the priest was gradually changed in the popular imagination from the celebrant of the Sacred Mysteries of salvation into the coordinator of the liturgical ministries of others [i.e. "Fr. Hollywood"]. And this false understanding of the ministerial priesthood produced the ever-expanding role of the “priest presider,” whose primary task was to make the congregation feel welcome and constantly engage them with eye contact and the embrace of his warm personality [i.e. "Fr. Oprah"]. Once these falsehoods were accepted, then the service of the priest in the liturgy became grotesquely misshapen, and instead of a humble steward of the mysteries whose only task was to draw back the veil between God and man and then hide himself in the folds, the priest became a ring-master or entertainer whose task was thought of as making the congregation feel good about itself. But, whatever that is, it is not Christian worship, and in the last two decades the Church has been gently finding a way back towards the right ordering of her public prayer. In February 2007 Pope Benedict XVI published an Apostolic Exhortation on the Most Holy Eucharist entitled Sacramentum Caritatis in which he discusses the need for priests to cultivate a proper ars celebrandi or art of celebrating the liturgy. In that document, the pope teaches that “the primary way to foster the participation of the People of God in the sacred rite is the proper celebration of the rite itself,” and an essential part of that work is removing the celebrant from the center of attention [i.e., the liturgy is not about you, Father! Get out of the way!] so that priest and people together can turn towards the LORD. Accomplishing this task of restoring God-centered liturgy is one of the main reasons for returning to the ancient and universal practice of priest and people standing together on the same side of the altar as they offer in Christ, each in their own way, the sacrifice of Calvary as true worship of the Father. In other words, the custom of ad orientem celebration enhances, rather than diminishes, the possibility of the people participating fully, consciously, and actively in the celebration of the sacred liturgy.

Father Jay Scott Newman

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NB. There is nothing canonical or rubrical preventing the celebrant from adopting the ad orientum posture immediately. In fact, the rubrics of the Missal frequently assume an ad orientum posture on the part of the priest and the congregation; that is, the rubrics read in several places in the Missal, "The priest turns toward the people and says. . ."

*The idea here is pretty simple: full, conscious participation in the liturgy engages our God-given potential for becoming Christ and activates/actuates that potential. Your participation is necessary b/c God wills that His grace perfect your nature with our cooperation. So, you can be up and running around like Martha at Mass and fail utterly to fully and consciously participate in the Mystery. "Active participation" is about movement, speaking, singing, etc. ONLY insofar as these activities are signs of an interior disposition toward cooperating with God's grace to perfect you. "Active" here is used in the Thomistic sense of "making potential real" and not in the more modern sense of "acting out."

H/T to C.C.

09 March 2008

Let's say that you are dead. . .

5th Sunday of Lent (A): Eze 37.12-14; Rom 8.8-11; John 11.3-45 (revised)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
and Church of the Incarnation

[NB. My thanks to my regulars who pointed out lots of errors. I’ll do what everyone else is doing today: blame Daylight Savings Time!]

Let’s say that you are dead. Have been for some time now. It’s hard to tell that you are dead b/c you are still up and walking around. Talking, working, eating, sleeping. But you are dead. Though your heart pumps blood, it is empty—holding in a terrifying vacuum. Where your purpose should be, where your animating love should be, where your freedom should be—there is nothing. Dead quiet. Icy stillness. Nothing. . .nothing at all. Your bones dry. Your muscles wither. Your strength drains away. And you either cry in anger at the loss, or you die a little more b/c there is nothing to do. Let’s say that you are dead. Have been for some time now. But it is hard to tell b/c the circus of your life is choreographed to ballet-perfection, and your smile sparkles like a dead winter’s sky. Careful! Be very careful. Does that dead smile mean that you have strangled hope? If so, listen: “O my people, I will open your graves and raise you from them. . .you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from them, O my people!. . .I will put my spirit in you that you may live. . .”

This is who we are, People of God! We are those who live in the spirit of the Lord. We are not made to live with dry bones or poisoned blood; we are not made to rot in the ground or to be scattered like dust to the wind. The grave is a temporary place, a moment’s rest, just a quick stop on the way to a new heaven and a new earth. Our hope rests in the promise of the Lord to breathe into us again the first breath of creation, His Word of over the void, and to re-create us anew; from the drying bones and rotting flesh of death, we are made to rise, to be refreshed, to be brought up again so that we might dwell with Him, body and soul, whole persons with Christ. And this promise of re-creation in the Word is not a promissory note that we must wait on to mature, an account that we sit patiently by waiting to balance: we are raised up now, lifted up now, brought to new life in the resurrection right now!

We have spent four weeks allowing the desert heat of Lent to reveal our temptations. Once uncovered, we know our weakness, we know how we can fall, how our hearts are emptied. But if your heart—that is, the very root of your link with God—if our heart is dead and still, an icy void—no revelation, no divine showing will move you to live again. That link to the Father must remain alive, whole, undefiled, and free. So, what do we do when we feel the spirit in us failing? Think of Mary and Martha and Lazarus—those loved by Jesus. Lazarus is sick and dying. Martha and Mary send word to Jesus that “the one he loves is ill.” Jesus calms their anxiety: “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.” Jesus waits two days and then tells his friends that they must all go back to Judea. They protest: the Jewish authorities are trying to kill you! He says, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.”

If we walk in the darkness, we are blind. But since we walk in the light, we see: Jesus is going to Judea to lift Lazarus out of his grave, to bring him out of his tomb, and he does so so that his Father’s promise will be kept. Over his friends’ objections and despite their doubts, Jesus goes to the tomb and cries aloud: “Lazarus, come out!” And John reports to us: “The dead man came out. . .” The dead man walked out of his grave and lived. Because of “what he had done [many of the Jews] began to believe in him.” And because we too believe, there is no death for us, no grave to hold us, no tomb to jail us. Our ears are always open to hear the Lord cry: “Come out of your grave and live!”

Even so, how often do you feel the spirit failing you? How often do you feel the disbelief scratching at your heart? What is it that tells you to welcome the void? More often than not our faith in the Lord’s promises is challenged by sickness and loss. The very fact of our mortality, the reality that we will die, stands against His promise of life. There is nothing for us to do but die. And because our eyes are open and because we walk in the light, we see that this stumbling block litters our path. My death, your death is no death at all if we live and move and have our being in the Spirit. Paul writes to the Romans, “If the Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the One who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, through his Spirit dwelling in you.” Is this a wish? A fantasy? A dangerous gamble? No! It is our most precious hope, His most gracious gift—we live, and we live with Him forever.

Listen again to Ezekiel: “O my people, [you people here, right here, right now] I will open your graves and raise you from them. . .you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from them, O my people!. . .I will put my spirit in you that you may live. . .” That promise is made good here this morning/evening in the Eucharist, right here in this celebration of the Lord’s last supper with his friends. Gathering together in his name, repenting of our disobediences, listening to His word spoken and preached, we are offer on the altar of sacrifice not only our first fruits, our material goods, we offer ourselves; we make of ourselves a true and living sacrifice, an offering made acceptable to the Father by His Son through the Spirit. We are the Body and Blood of Christ offering Christ to Christ through Christ for Christ so that we might be Christ in the world for others! And when we do this, our opened ears hear loud and clear the voice of God say, “Untie them and let them go.”

Though the Enemy throws scandal in our way, we are our own worst enemy. How hard do you work against your own eternal life? How often do you create—from thin air and dust—obstacles for yourself? How many burdens do you pile on your back? On the backs of your family and friends? Do you bind yourself with the minutiae of the Law that Christ himself fulfilled for you? Do you properly credit yourself as freed from the necessity of sin and death? How much do you labor to untie yourself, to find your own way out of the prison of sin? You cannot free yourself. You cannot bring yourself back to life. You cannot lift your tombstone and walk out of the grave. Why not? You cannot do for yourself what the Lord Himself has already done for you. When Jesus tells Martha that he will raise Lazarus from the dead, Martha accuses him of being too late, too slow to arrive to help Lazarus. Jesus says to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha, ever practical, ever sensible, says, “I know he will rise in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus corrects her saying, “I am the resurrection and the life, whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live. . .” He says, “I AM the resurrection” not “I will be the resurrection” or “I was the resurrection.” He says, “I AM the resurrection. . .” Present tense. Right now, he is life for believers.

Let’s say that you are dead. Have been for some time now. But it’s hard to tell that you are dead b/c you are still up and walking around. It is time for you to get angry with death, time for you to get angry with your hardened heart; it’s time for you, looking at the Cross and hoping on the resurrection, it’s time for you to join Christ, get angry and cry out: “Take away the stone!” And it is time for you to walk out of your grave, let your bonds be untied, and walk freely in the Spirit of a Father who gave His only Son for you. It is time for you to show the glory of the Lord!