11 April 2008

"Blessed are the cheese makers..."

3rd Week of Easter (F): Acts 9.1-20 and John 6.52-59
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Irving, TX

Standing before the confused crowds of Jews and disciples, Jesus makes an astonishing claim. Maybe the wind blew his words away, or perhaps the crowd swallowed the essential point, but most heard him say something like: “…I will raise him on the last day.” During this sermon, he teaches this particular heresy multiple times. If you had heard just this bit, just this last part about how he will raise someone on the last day, you might find yourself among those who heard Jesus say during the Sermon of the Mount: “Blessed are the cheese makers.” And then you might find yourself having to explain why cheese makers will be raised on the last day, and then defending the broader notion that Jesus obviously meant that all of those in the cheese-making industry would be raised, or something else equally ridiculous and confusing. And just to toss another wrench into the works, let’s add the barely heard but nonetheless frightening phrase, “…unless you eat the Flesh of the Son of Man…” Did we hear that correctly? What bits did the wind blow away? Who’s this man that we are supposed to eat…? And why will eating his flesh and drinking his blood result in the raising up of some guy on the last day?

The strangeness of Jesus’ sermon on the Bread of Life might have been caused—partially—by the bad acoustics in the synagogue or crowd-noise drowning him out or maybe even some translation problems. No doubt the primary difficulty had to do with the what most hearing him preach would say is his blasphemy against God. Here we are two-thousand years later, after centuries of solid Church teaching on the nature of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, and we hear this gospel preached, and we think to ourselves: “Yea, of course, bread and wine become the Body and the Blood. Jesus is the Bread of Life. OK? Now what?” What we have missed is the raw, stinging smack in the face that Jesus delivers to those listening to him in the synagogue. Already infamous for his claims to be the Son of God, Jesus is compounding his blasphemy by claiming to be—flesh and blood—not only the only son of the Father, and not only the Father himself, but also—in his person—he is claiming to be, personally, meat and blood, the one whom they must eat in order to live. Can we blame them for quarreling? For believing that they have misheard or misunderstood? Is it unreasonable that we should think that we have had a Monty Python moment and simply got the phrasing, the words wrong?

Once the full text of Jesus’ homily was released on the web, everyone could see that, yes indeed, Jesus says, “Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my Flesh is true food, and my Blood is true drink.” There it is in black and white. No way to mishear a written text. But what does it mean? Is Jesus speaking symbolically? Metaphorically? Is he just being cryptic again? Is this some sort of test? Jesus means what he says. He is with us.

The key to this difficult teaching, I think, is found in the phrase “remains in me and I in him.” Think about “remaining.” Think about abiding, staying put, bearing under, and even more interesting, don’t we sometimes use the verb “to stomach” as a way of describing how we might endure? “I will just have to stomach it.” To remain with is to stand beside, linger with and live near; it is the opposite of abandoning, leaving, disposing of, deserting. Jesus is telling us that if we eat his Flesh and drink his Blood he will abide, remain, linger with, endure with us. If we stomach him now—literally—, he will not vomit us out on the last day; he will stand by us because as a part of us he can do no less. He says plainly enough: “…I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life…because of me.”

Don’t mishear this. Don’t let the dead desert winds of the world blow his words away from you. Don’t flee in confusion to the easily swallowed notion that Jesus is preaching metaphorically or symbolically. He is with us. He remains with us. Not as divine residue or a godly leftover; he abides, Flesh and Blood for our eternal lives.

10 April 2008

That they may all be One...

3rd Week of Easter (R)Acts 8.26-40 and John 6.44-5
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

Jesus says to the crowds: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him…They shall all be taught by God…Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.” Simple question for us: who does Jesus believe his Father to be? The Buddha? Krishna? A Jewish manifestation of Mother Gaia? Sophia, the spirit of wisdom? Or maybe the “Father” is just a time-honored, culture-bound image and name for the collective Jewish experience of the otherness of the Divine. No, Jesus understands his Father to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of the First and Last Covenant, the Creator of all Things, revealed on Mt Sinai, the Passover, the exodus, in the flood, through the prophets, and finally in the Incarnation of his Son as a man in human history. And Jesus understands himself to be “the living bread that came down from heaven.” If you want to live eternally you must eat this bread, believing that the Father sent him to us for us.

This very simple, nearly universally proclaimed truth of the faith is regularly challenged by a sub-disciple of systematic theology called “theology of religion.” The central, operating claim of the theology of religion goes something like this (very roughly put): there is One Divine Being that individuals, groups of individuals, religions, cultures, ethnic groups, etc. all encounter through various “lenses” of culture, language, etc. and then these folks shape their experience into a religious revelation. So, when a Buddhist encounters the One, he sees the Buddha. When a Christian encounters the One, she sees Jesus. When a Hindu encounters the One, he sees a billion-billion deities in a billion-billion shapes and colors. The upshot of this argument is that there is no one right way to believe, no one right way to describe God; no religion is closer to God nor does any religion have any special hold on sacred scriptures: one mountain, many paths. The Buddha, Jesus, and Krishna are essentially the same since they are all merely culturally determined experiences of the One. And anyone who insists on the exclusive use of his or her path to salvation is a religious bigot, a barbarian, a knuckle-dragging buffoon. I’m reminded of the poet, William Carols Williams, who argued that using a close analysis of a poem’s formal structure to determine the poem’s quality is like trying to figure out the nature of a crab by cutting off its legs and stuffing it into a box. It would seem that our “theologians of religion” are really looking for a box into which they will stuff a brutally mangled divinity.

It is fairly easy to see how the mere description of a plurality of religions in the world has become a prescription for mandatory plurality—“there are many religions in the world” quickly becomes “all of these religions are right.” Keep in mind here the core mistake of religious pluralism as it is practiced in the academy and in the Church: religious pluralism turns a description of natural religious diversity into a prescription for enforced, artificial religious diversity. Is this what Christ is calling us to in John’s gospel?

No, it isn’t. We have in Acts the model of Christian evangelization. The eunuch is reading scripture. Along the road out of Jerusalem, the eunuch meets Philip. Philip sees that the eunuch is reading Isaiah. He asks the eunuch: “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch says no and asks for help. Philip does just that and ends up baptizing him. Notice that Philip doesn’t try to convince the eunuch that the “lamb led to slaughter” in the Isaiah passage is, for the eunuch, a manifestation of some sort of Ethiopian deity, or some sort of tribal spirit, or something religiously akin to something the eunuch thinks of as divine. Philip proclaims Jesus to the eunuch! And the eunuch asks for baptism. Once brought to the Lord in the waters of baptism, the eunuch “continues on his way rejoicing.”

In the face of every attempt to spread our Lord thinly across cultures, we must respond (with the psalmist): “Bless our God, you peoples, loudly sound his praise! He has given life to our souls…!” One faith, one baptism, one Lord.

09 April 2008


UGH! We talked about Nietzsche's "will to power" and nihilism last night in the theology seminar.

Reading and discussing Herr Nietzsche reminds me why I would rather be a poet than a theologian or a philosopher.

CELEBRATE NATIONAL POETRY MONTH! Send me a book. . .(cheesy grin). . .

08 April 2008

B16 to America!

Full-text of Pope Benedict's "Message to the American People":

Dear Brothers and Sisters in the United States of America,

The grace and peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with all of you! In just a few days from now, I shall begin my apostolic visit to your beloved country. Before setting off, I would like to offer you a heartfelt greeting and an invitation to prayer. As you know, I shall only be able to visit two cities: Washington and New York. The intention behind my visit, though, is to reach out spiritually to all Catholics in the United States. At the same time, I earnestly hope that my presence among you will be seen as a fraternal gesture towards every ecclesial community, and a sign of friendship for members of other religious traditions and all men and women of good will. The risen Lord entrusted the Apostles and the Church with his Gospel of love and peace, and his intention in doing so was that the message should be passed on to all peoples.

At this point I should like to add some words of thanks, because I am conscious that many people have been working hard for a long time, both in Church circles and in the public services, to prepare for my journey. I am especially grateful to all who have been praying for the success of the visit, since prayer is the most important element of all. Dear friends, I say this because I am convinced that without the power of prayer, without that intimate union with the Lord, our human endeavours would achieve very little. Indeed this is what our faith teaches us. It is God who saves us, he saves the world, and all of history. He is the Shepherd of his people. I am coming, sent by Jesus Christ, to bring you his word of life.

Together with your Bishops, I have chosen as the theme of my journey three simple but essential words: "Christ our hope". Following in the footsteps of my venerable predecessors, Paul VI and John Paul II, I shall come to United States of America as Pope for the first time, to proclaim this great truth: Jesus Christ is hope for men and women of every language, race, culture and social condition. Yes, Christ is the face of God present among us. Through him, our lives reach fullness, and together, both as individuals and peoples, we can become a family united by fraternal love, according to the eternal plan of God the Father. I know how deeply rooted this Gospel message is in your country. I am coming to share it with you, in a series of celebrations and gatherings. I shall also bring the message of Christian hope to the great Assembly of the United Nations, to the representatives of all the peoples of the world. Indeed, the world has greater need of hope than ever: hope for peace, for justice, and for freedom, but this hope can never be fulfilled without obedience to the law of God, which Christ brought to fulfilment in the commandment to love one another. Do to others as you would have them do to you, and avoid doing what you would not want them to do. This "golden rule" is given in the Bible, but it is valid for all people, including non-believers. It is the law written on the human heart; on this we can all agree, so that when we come to address other matters we can do so in a positive and constructive manner for the entire human community.

Dirijo un cordial saludo a los católicos de lengua española y les manifiesto mi cercanía espiritual, en particular a los jóvenes, a los enfermos, a los ancianos y a los que pasan por dificultades o se sienten más necesitados. Les expreso mi vivo deseo de poder estar pronto con Ustedes en esa querida Nación. Mientras tanto, les aliento a orar intensamente por los frutos pastorales de mi inminente Viaje Apostólico y a mantener en alto la llama de la esperanza en Cristo Resucitado.

[I cordially greet Spanish-speaking Catholics and manifest to you my spiritual closeness, especially to the young, to the sick, the elderly and those experiencing difficulties or who are most in need. I express my great wish to be present with you in this dear nation. In the meantime, I ask you to pray intensely for the pastoral fruits of my imminent Apostolic Voyage and to keep high the call of hope in the Risen Christ.]

Dear brothers and sisters, dear friends in the United States, I am very much looking forward to being with you. I want you to know that, even if my itinerary is short, with just a few engagements, my heart is close to all of you, especially to the sick, the weak, and the lonely. I thank you once again for your prayerful support of my mission. I reach out to every one of you with affection, and I invoke upon you the maternal protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Que la Virgen María les acompañe y proteja. Que Dios les bendiga.

May God bless you all.

Text Source: Whispers

07 April 2008

Answering the question asked...

3rd Week of Easter (M): Acts 6.8-15 and John6.22-29
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory

It would make a fascinating study to look closely at the way those who follow Jesus around in crowds often utterly fail to understand what he is saying and doing. Once again, Jesus finds himself performing a miracle in order to teach and then being very disappointed when no bulbs go bright. Jesus uses this failure to instruct. When the recently fed crowd find him in Capernaum, they are puzzled and ask him, “Rabbi, when did you get here?” Jesus being Jesus, he doesn’t answer the question put to him, but rather he answers the question the crowd should have put to him but didn’t. They question they should have asked of him is: Jesus, why are we following you around like a gang of lovesick stalkers?!

What does Jesus know about those in the crowd that they probably don’t know about themselves? Looking at the answer he gives to the question about why the crowds follow him, we can say that Jesus understands human motivation with a great deal of clarity and depth. Not surprising given who he is, but perhaps a little frustrating given that he often doesn’t connect with his students or the crowd with his odd-ball parables and cryptic sayings. We know that we must have ears to hear and eyes to see.

How does Jesus answer the question about why the crowds follow him around? Ignoring the question actually put to him—“when did you get here?”—Jesus says, “…you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.” In other words, you aren’t here because you believe I am who I say I am, but because I’ve proven that I can fill your bellies. What’s interesting here is that Jesus doesn’t seem at all put off by this rather pedestrian motivation for stalking him across the sea. He moves blithely on to attempt again to teach them the truth of why he multiplied the fishes and loaves for them. He says, “Do not work for food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life…” I can see most in the crowd nodding their heads at first. . .and then getting this look on their face something like, “Uh?” And it might have been the last little bit of that sentence that confuses them: “. . .[the food of eternal life] which the Son of Man will give you.” Again, “Uh?” To their credit they overcome their initial confusion and manage to ask a sensible question: “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”

We don’t want to be too hard on our Lord so early in the morning, but can we really say that we know what to do with his answer: “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one He sent.” OK. Do they understand this answer? No. Tomorrow we will hear them ask for a sign so that they might believe! Here’s a suggestion: how about, oh I don’t know, maybe Jesus could fed five thousand grown men with five loaves of bread and two fish!? Seems like a good start to me. That they are still clamoring for signs is a sure sign that they are willing not to believe in the face of one mighty work after another.

So, what’s going on here? Jesus is teaching but his students aren’t getting it. The students are listening but Jesus seems to be teaching them cryptic gibberish. Like most of us, probably most of the time, those in the crowd are looking for physical proof, “scientific evidence” that Jesus is the Son of Man sent by the Father. They want to understand before they believe. Most of Jesus’ post-resurrection teaching falls on the tired and frightened ears of the disciples. But here he is still with the crowds and yet they cannot see, cannot hear. Much like those in the Synagogue of Freemen who hear Stephen witnessing to them, “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.” And we are left again with the question: why not?

Why not? Jesus is appealing to their hearts of flesh, that is, the Law of desire for God gifted to us all at our creation. They are listening with their hearts of stone, that is, hearts trained in the Law of Moses. What they must do, what we must do, is crack that stone and fling open the gates that guard the beauty of God revealed through us. Until they can do this, until we can do this, Jesus will always speak cryptic gibberish, utter nonsense. So, to quote my father when there’s work to be done: “Come on, boys! Let’s get crackin’!”

06 April 2008

Follow the map, ask for directions!

3rd Sunday of Easter: Acts 2.14, 22-23; 1 Peter 1.17-21; Luke 24.13-35
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Paul
and Church of the Incarnation

What road are you on this morning/evening? What road do you travel? To get from here to there, from now to then we walk, ride, run, fly, swim, and sometimes crawl. From Point A to Point B we move across the earth, clocked by time and measured by distance. Along the way there are potholes, detours, undertows, and turbulence. There are those who would stop us, delay us, give us false directions. And there are those who would travel with us, offer us their support, provide us with what we need to survive, to thrive. Do you travel just to travel? Walk just to walk? Or, do you have a destination in mind? A time and a place in mind to be? Our life together in Christ, as we move closer to God, is a pilgrimage, a holy procession, a long traveling parade to an end, to just one spot. We are not here to wait. We are not here to dally and fidget and linger; we are not here to ponder what we have and cry over what we are lacking. The Church is charged with moving, going out, spreading out and away from the cross and the empty tomb, marching with conviction and purpose into the world. We are measured by the hour and the mile. And our engines are fueled by the Spirit! Where are we going? What we are doing? And why?

Our Lord is risen! We know that both the cross and the tomb are empty. The witness of his resurrection spreads from his gravesite like a bomb-blast—fast, hot, loud, and wild. And for a while his people wait for the coming of the Spirit. He appears in the locked room to his friends and breathes his spirit on them, charging them by sending them out just as his Father sent him out. His peace settles on them like fire. Everything but the Good News is burned away. Acting like the spirit-possessed students that they are, the disciples run wild through the countryside, spreading the Good News. And they find themselves standing before judges, kings, priests, standing in front of both gospel-hungry crowds and angry crowds. This is where they are: in their world, the sighted and hearing among the deaf and the blind. What road are you on this morning/evening? What road do you travel? And why?

These are Easter questions. We need these answers because the answers are our roadmap. We watch and listen as Peter and the Eleven stand before their fellow Jews and remind them of who Jesus is: “Jesus the Nazarene was a man commended to you by God. . .[a man commended to you] with mighty deed, wonders, and signs, [deeds, wonders, and signs] which God worked through him in your midst. . .This man […] you killed, using lawless men to crucify him. But God raised him up, releasing him from the throes of death because it was impossible for him to be held by [death].” We read Peter’s letter, “. . .conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning, realizing that you were ransomed from your futile conduct […] not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ […].” And so, you must know: What road are you on this morning/evening? What road do you travel?

Do you really need to be told about the dangerous paths available to you? Is there anyone here who hasn’t stepped off the Way and found himself/herself in a briar patch, a mud hole, or a heading toward a cliff? When we strike out with Christ to give witness to his gospel we are immediately tempted with a whole host of alternative roads, attractive shortcuts and by-ways. Some are more subtle than others, some are obvious frauds, others are weak imitations, off-brand knock-offs—cheap but glamorous. Dressed up in contemporary fashion, they are all as old as the Tree in the garden, as old as the serpent himself. Like silver and gold they are perishable, mortal, temporary. . .and deadly. There is one path to God, one road to abounding joy, one Way, one Truth, one Life. Jesus Christ. And him alone.

On the road into Emmaus, two of Jesus’ disciples lament the death of their Master and wonder when he will return. They tell the stranger who has joined them that they were hoping that “[Jesus] would be the one to redeem Israel” but that “it is now the third day since [his execution] took place.” Already they are pondering a different road, a wayward path. And this despite knowing that the Lord was not found in his tomb on the third day! Jesus, risen and with them on the road, scolds them: “Oh, how foolish you are! How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!” Do you see the road? From the first instant of creation, through the garden to Moses and the Law, and on to Abraham and the prophets, with the kings of Israel and John the Baptist and the Blessed Mother, to the arrival of the Messiah himself in Bethlehem and his public ministry in the land, to his mighty deeds and words of power, to his betrayal, arrest, trail, humiliation, execution, and resurrection, through it all our Lord has been our navigator, our lighthouse, all the road signs along the Way! And he remains our map to the Father, the only map for our peace.

What does it mean to travel the road with Christ? At its most basic, we are obliged by the vows of baptism to take up the apostolic charge to teach and preach the gospel in season and out. To live for others as Christ died for us. Our road does not lead to personal enlightenment, earth-consciousness, cosmic assimilation, or the fulfillment of “felt-needs.” Our road is not paved with dollars or gold; haute-couture fashion or academic novelty; intellectual prowess or religious athleticism. Along the way, we are not to exit at those stops that tempt us with political utopias, spiritualist oasises, or philosophical escapes. Our road is not a virtual paradise of motherboards, WiFi connections, or cell-phone towers. We are a pilgrim people in route, on parade, in procession with one another to our perfection in Christ. Anything or anyone that/who tells us or tempts us to believe that the road is a lonely, solitary way; or that the road we travel is straight and downhill all the way; or that we travel for our health, wealth, or the building up of community; these, all of these voices, we must shut out, and listen carefully to the Lord: “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer. . .?”

A hard question. And one we might take to heart and refuse to answer because the answer frightens us. Of course, it is terrible to think that Jesus had to die for us. That one man was sacrificed for our sins. But this is a truth we have to face head on, a truth that millions have died to affirm. Putting aside all strained traveling metaphors, let’s say what we mean to say plainly: Peter and the Eleven before the Sanhedrin, Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus, Peter again in his letter, and Simon and those gathered with him, proclaim one truth, one Easter answer for all our questions of faith: God, our Father, commended to us the man, Jesus of Nazareth, with mighty deeds, works, and signs, so that we might receive the promise of the Holy Spirit, our eternal lives in him. Our response, the way we walk the Way of Faith, is best expressed in our psalm: “Lord, you will show me the path to life, abounding joy in your presence forever!” There is no other Way, no other Truth, no other Life but the way and truth and the life of Jesus Christ.

Let me ask you again those Easter questions: Where you we going? What you are doing? And why?