02 February 2013

Refiner's fire, fuller's lye

Presentation of the Lord
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

With the baby Jesus—just 40 days old—Joseph and Mary travel to the temple in Jerusalem to fulfill the requirements of the Mosaic Law. Since the birth of the Christ Child, the Blessed Mother has been considered legally “unclean,” that is, she has been deemed impure for the purpose of worship in the temple and restricted from touching anything considered sacred to the Lord. We must note here that her impurity is not moral or physical but legal. There is nothing morally or physically wrong about being a mother. The Law set this requirement—think of it as a 40 day fast—in order to emphasize the importance of offering a firstborn son to the Lord as a “first fruits sacrifice.” In the temple, Mary and Joseph meet Simeon, a devout and righteous man, and Anna, a prophetess. Both recognize Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah and acclaim him as the Savior. With Christ's presentation in the temple, we recall Malachi's prophetic questions: “Who will endure the day of his coming? And who can stand when he appears?” Are we prepared for the refiner's fire and the fuller's lye? 

Where Mary was required by the Law to seek legal purification by offering her first born son in the temple, and thereby regaining access to the holy of holies, we are granted access to God by the “once for all” sacrifice of her son on the Cross. Some thirty years after Mary and Joseph present the Christ Child in the temple, Jesus offers himself—as both priest and victim—for the salvation of the whole world. The Christ's birth and death as one of us brings all of us to the threshold of the heavenly temple and invites us to step into the holy of holies, to follow his excellent Way, and submit ourselves to what the prophet Malachi calls “refiner's fire,” “the fuller's lye.” To be purified of all impurities, to be bleached of every stain: so that we may be presented to the Lord as spotless sacrifices on His altar. What do we sacrifice? Nothing and everything. Nothing we have and nothing we are is ours to give. And everything we have and everything we are is given. Because Christ the Lamb precedes us to the altar, our sacrifices are his and his are ours. . .IF, if we follow his excellent Way and submit ourselves to a life- long fast in love: surrendering hatred, anger, vengeance, greed, lust, jealousy, and pride. Are you prepared for the refiner's fire and the fuller's lye? 

Please forgive me this image, but it is more than apt. Have you ever been prepared for a colonoscopy, or some other sort of gastro-intestinal diagnostic procedure? The doctor can't do his best work if you are—shall we say?—“unclean.” It is necessary to spend some time purging the impurities from your system before a proper examination can be done. Think of your sins, all your vices—great and small alike—and imagine them poisoning your soul, imagine them clogging your spiritual system, restricting your access to the Lord's blessings. What we need is a way to flush those impurities, a way to wash away all those habits of mind and body that prevent us from absorbing the divine nutrients of God's graces. In the same way that we can be prepared physically for a medical exam, we can be prepared spiritually for the final exam of our soul. We call this the sacrament of confession. 

Mary endures 40 days of fasting from the temple and all things holy so that she might exult in presenting her son to the Lord. Because Christ presented himself to the Father on the Cross as a once-for-all sacrifice for us, we do not have to endure 40 days of fasting from the altar, or from His graces. We have immediate and unlimited access. There is no good reason for us live with the impurities that sicken us. Step into the refiner's fire and the fuller's lye. . .and be made clean! 

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

01 February 2013

Big Faith not required

32rd Week OT (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary/St Dominic Church, NOLA

I was ordained to the priesthood in 2005 at St Peter's Church in Memphis, TN. Home of Elvis Presley's Graceland mansion. My first priestly assignment took me to Dallas, TX. Home of big oil, the Cowboys, and the Ewings. Big cars, big houses, big swimming pools, and, of course, big meals! Even living with Christ in TX was big. Megachurches and Christian theme parks. Christians in the south in general tend to live a large faith, an all-consuming preoccupation with the Bible and Jesus. But like the super-sized meals we love, a super-sized faith can be dangerous, especially when that faith is measured in terms of quantity. You can hear preachers telling the sick that they will be healed if only they have “enough faith.” Or that a new job or a real estate deal will come if you just “believe enough.” This idea that our faith is about quantity seems to be reinforced by this morning's gospel. From Mark, we hear Jesus tell the apostles that the Kingdom is like a mustard seed: small but packed with the potential to grow into “the largest of plants.” However, when it comes to our faith, our trust in God's promises, size doesn't matter. 

Now, you might say here, “Well, if faith the size of a mustard seed can grow into the Kingdom of God, then surely even the tiniest bit of faith could cure cancer and restore sight!” You could say that, but you would be missing the point entirely. In Luke's version of the Mustard Seed Parable, the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith so that they can accomplish a seemingly impossible task, i.e. forgiving an offending brother every time he asks to be forgiven. Jesus' answer to this request tells us plainly that it is not the size or amount of our faith that matters, but the intensity, the integrity with which we exercise it. A bigger hammer is not necessarily a better tool if it is improperly used. A smaller hammer expertly used can be an excellent tool. So, the question is not “how big is your faith?” but rather “with what degree of strength and skill do you wield your faith?” In the same way that good tools must be sharpened, oiled, cleaned, and properly stored, so our faith must be expertly honed and maintained. We have on hand the expertise of the Church Fathers, the saints, the sacraments, the magisterium, and we have one another. All of these are specifically designed to assist us in keeping our trust in the Father's promises brightly polished, razor sharp, and squeaky clean. When we make full use of them, use them regularly, sincerely, and with an eye toward our ultimate end, our faith can only be strengthen. The tallest tower can collapse with time. The biggest monument can erode away. But our faith—even faith the size of a mustard seed—is invincible, indestructible if we take care to use every godly gift we have been given. 

A finely honed and well-polished faith is also a good tool to use in building our confidence. In the Letter to the Hebrews we read, “Remember the days past when. . .you endured a great contest of suffering. . .you were publicly exposed to abuse and affliction. . .You even joined in the sufferings of those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, knowing that you had a better and lasting possession.” That better and lasting possession is eternal life through your faith in Christ. That faith—even the tiniest seed of faith—sustains, nourishes, and strengthens us when it's time for us to suffer persecution. “Therefore, do not throw away your confidence. . .You need endurance to do the will of God and receive what he has promised.” 

Living large with Christ doesn't require a Big Faith. Even the tiniest seed of faith can sprout into the Kingdom of God. 

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

31 January 2013

The Church is not a slave to fashion!

The Holy Father's Household Theologian, Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP explains the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood and responds to several common objections made against this reality. Good job, fra. Wojciech!

Hat Tip: Fr. Z.

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

30 January 2013

A ghost in my library?

Around 2.30 this morning I was awakened by a soft thump near my bed. 

I "heard" the thump as books falling from a nearby shelf.
Having a vivid imagination and a theological mind, I went back to sleep thinking that a demon/poltergeist/ghost was messing around with my library, trying to frighten me.

These sleepy ruminations turned into a dream where I awoke at my usual 4.30am to discover all of my books piled up in neat stacks on the floor.

When I actually awoke at 4.30am, I fully expected to see my bookshelves bare and my floor covered by teetering towers of books!

After a few seconds to get my glasses on, I saw three books on the floor, face down.  One written by BXVI on preaching; on written by de Lubac on interpreting scripture; and a third by Pelikan on the history of the BVM.

So. . .what's the demon/poltergeist/ghost trying to tell me?

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

Dangerous and inefficient

3rd Week OT (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Sitting in a boat at sea, Jesus teaches a crowd gathered on the shore. Instead of giving them a five-point lecture with a PowerPoint presentation, he “teaches them at length in parables.” Now, as we all know, parables are a terrible way to teach. They're vague. Easily misinterpreted. Often padded with useless information. And b/c they are basically just stories, the story itself sometimes obscures the lesson. Jesus would have done just as well (or even better!) if he had written out his lessons in a verse form like terza rima or a sonnet. Of course, storytelling was The Mode of instruction for teaching a largely uneducated audience at the time. Parables are memorable and the details are easily adapted to your listeners. But still. Highly inefficient and dangerous. This begs us to ask: why parables? Why use such an uneconomical and dodgy literary form to teach universal truths? Jesus understands that moving the human soul is all about moving the whole person not just the mind. Convicting the person—the whole person—of a truth requires providing food for both feeling and thought. So, Jesus says, “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.” Do you have ears to hear?

When he finishes telling the parable of the Sower, Jesus says that those with ears to hear ought to hear. He makes it sound as though there will be some in the crowd who understand the parable and some who won't. Those who understand will be saved and those who don't understand will be lost. Well, that hardly seems fair! If understanding the lesson he's teaching is so vital to salvation, then he ought to teach in a way that everyone can understand. You can't let souls be lost just b/c you prefer one method of teaching over another. You'd think that an educational expert in the crowd would point this out. To make things even worse, he pulls his brown-nosing teacher's pets aside and whispers the meaning of the Sower's parable to them. Why are they so special? Why not just tell the whole crowd your secret, Jesus? He answers, “Whoever has ears to hear ought to hear.” Whoever listens with faithful ears will hear the truth; whoever has ears obedient to God will hear the Word, nurture it, and harvest abundant fruit. 

The Sower's parable is a parable about listening to parables; that is, the Sower sows parables among the various kinds of souls. Some souls will hear but not listen. Others will hear and listen but not understand. Some will hear and listen, but they will also allow the thorns of sin to choke their understanding. And still others will hear, listen, and understand only to starve the sprouts of truth through prideful neglect. Jesus leaves the truth of his gospel hidden in parables in part to confuse his enemies. Those with ears to hear are those who understand that his arrival among us marks the coming of his Father's kingdom. We hear his parables and know their meaning b/c we listen with faithful ears. Good for us. Now what? If we hear, listen, and understand, do we then go on to cultivate, nurture, and harvest the fruits of his Word? Or do we allow the thorns of rebellion and disobedience choke his truth? If the seeds of sacrificial love, abundant mercy, and reckless hope fall on our souls, what do we do with them? Feed them to the birds? Starve them through neglect? Or do we expend ourselves making sure that love, mercy, and hope flourish, making sure that they always produce new seeds, new fruit, and new harvests? Parables are dangerous and inefficient. So is the Gospel. But wild and fierce is God's love for us, and His forgiveness will destroy generations of willful neglect and water the driest soul. 

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

28 January 2013

God, Being, and Mark

What are we discussing in class tomorrow (Tues), you ask. . .?

Well, we'll be delving into Anselm's Proslogion and the ontological argument for the existence of God. . .

And the Gospel of Mark.

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

Angelic Thanks!

On this Glorious Feast Day of the Angelic Doctor, St Thomas Aquinas, my deepest Dominican thanks go out to M.R. for sending me Goest and The Problem of Knowledge from the Wish List.

What better way for a Dominican to celebrate this feast than to cozy up to a Kantian critique modern science and a volume of postmodern poetry?

God bless, Fr. Philip

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

Once for all

St. Thomas Aquinas, OP
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews teaches us: “Christ is mediator of a new covenant. . .” The old covenant btw God and His servant, Abraham, was mediated—negotiated or worked-through—the Law. To be part of the old covenant meant following the Law: the purity codes, the dietary restrictions, the prescribed temple sacrifices made at the appointed times. This attention to religious detail assured that you were always conscious of our covenant relationship with God and it habituated you to living with a fundamental truth of human reality: as long as you were alive, you lived, moved, and had your being in God. The whole purpose of the old covenant was to keep you in right relationship with God—properly aligned with His will—so that you could prosper from His abundant blessings. The new covenant serves this same purpose. However, b/c the new covenant is mediated through Christ, all of our religious obligations under the old covenant have been fulfilled by Christ. In other words, he entered the temple of heaven and made of himself an eternal sacrifice, once for all. 

Just yesterday we heard Jesus read to the men of his synagogue an 800 year old prophecy made by Isaiah and announce to them that this prophecy had been “fulfilled in their hearing.” That prophecy foretold the arrival of a Messiah, one blessed by God with His Holy Spirit, one who would bring to His people liberation from the death of sin. Christ says (in effect) to those with him in the synagogue: “I am the long-awaited Messiah.” From that moment on, Jesus spends his days preaching the Good News of God's mercy to sinners and preparing himself to be the last sacrificial offering made to the Father. He prepares himself to enter the temple of heaven by praying, fasting, healing the sick and injured; feeding the hungry; freeing souls from unclean spirits; and releasing captives from sin. He did all these things to demonstrate that he is the Christ, the Son of God, so that we might come to believe in him and share in his once-for-all sacrifice on the cross. To be part of the new covenant means following the law of love: following Christ to his cross and loving one another sacrificially, loving one another all the way to death for the sake of love. 

Lest there be any misunderstanding about what it means to love sacrificially, let me spell it out. The love that Christ commands us to give is not the love that the world seems to hold so dear. Worldly love demands that we be indifferent to truth and goodness. That we ignore or sweeten falsehood and treat goodness as little more than opinion. What is truth? Who decides what's good or evil? It's all just depends on circumstance, or what your personal values happen to be. That's not love. We cannot love someone and lie to them. We cannot love someone while pretending that evil is good. Loving others as Christ loves us means leading them to truth and goodness, leading them into a right relationship with God. It means being willing to sacrifice whatever it takes to tell the truth, standing ready to proclaim the Good News, and living every minute of our lives as if Christ himself were standing right behind us. Love isn't about avoiding unpleasant conflicts, or “being nice.” Jesus entered the temple of heaven through his death on the cross and offered himself for us once-for-all. That's love. He gave his life so that we might live. That's love. As those who would live the new covenant, we are vowed to stand as Christs for others. Loving them all is our sacrifice.

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->

27 January 2013

Are you Christ?

NB. Been busier than a one-armed paper hanger (as Scuba Mom would say).  Below is a draft of today's homily from 2007.  It will be revised and re-posted by 6.00pm today.

3rd Sunday OT 2013
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

If I were to ask you this evening: who are you? How would you answer? Most of you would give me a name. Bob. Sue. Gladys. Some of you would add a job or career description: George, an accountant. Barbara, a nurse. Some of you might even throw in a relationship descriptor. Linda, clerk and mother of three boys. Harold, postal worker and grandfather. What else could you add? Your hometown; your parish; a bit of family history; maybe a quick medical run-down. All of these descriptors—name, job, relationships, history—all of those pick us out of the herd, I mean, they identify you as you. These are differences about us that distinguish us from them, you from me, me from them and so on. Oh, and you would likely throw in there somewhere that you are a Christian. So, let me ask: who are you as a Christian? How does this descriptor pick you out, make you different?

The reading from Nehemiah tells us something about what it means to be a faithful member of a faith-filled group. Ezra, a priest, brings out the book of the law and reads aloud. The assembly—men, women, children—listen to the law being read. We read twice in the space of four lines that the assembly is made up of men, women, and children old enough to understand. This group is picked out not by sex or age but by its attentiveness to Ezra’s reading of the book of law. They hear and listen. And then Ezra shows them the book, opening the scroll “so that all the people might see it.” They stand. And with one voice—as a people—they raise their hands, shouting “Amen, amen!” They bow. They prostrate. They fall to the ground on their faces. They weep. And then they receive instruction from Nehemiah himself. He tells them not to weep for today is holy; instead go feast because rejoicing in the Lord is their strength.

Pay careful attention! Those faithful people—men, women, children—gather; listen to the Word read aloud; receive instruction; accept an invitation to a great feast; and together they hear: to give glory and praise to the Lord, to offer Him rejoicing and thanksgiving must be their strength! Let me break that down for you: rejoicing in the Lord is how we must endure; giving God thanks and praise is how we must persevere. This is not muddling through til we die. This is not just one step after another until we drop. Today is holy to our Lord! Rejoice, give thanks, praise His name and continue on: persist, stick with it, keep going. Weep, rage, laugh, cuss, pitch a fit, flop around on the ground screaming if you must—but it is in rejoicing that you will find the strength to endure.

Those who survive while praising the Lord stand out. Those who succeed while praising the Lord distinguish themselves. But what does this have to do with being Christian? Paul writes to the Corinthians that the church is one body with many parts; one body made up of Jews, Greeks, slaves, and freed men who are no longer Jews, Greek, slaves, or freed men. Because they have all been baptized into one body and because all have drunk of one Spirit, what they were before is no more. Now—together—they are Christ’s body, working at Christ’s work, praising his Word, healing his people, feeding the hunger, finding the lost, enlightening the ignorant, together being the hands and feet of Christ. These former Jews, Greeks, slaves, and freed men survive and succeed b/c they stand out as living, breathing, fleshy machines of mercy and service, blood and bone engines of charity and freedom. They drink from one Holy Spirit, give body and soul to the only Son, and offer filial obedience to one Father. They know Christ and they know his will and they do his will to become Christ.

If I were to ask you this morning: who are you? How would you answer? Would answer, “I am Christ”? Can those words fall from your lips w/o blushing, w/o qualification? For you, for me, for any of us to admit—“I am Christ”—we must first know who Christ is. We must answer the question: who does Christ say that he is?

Luke’s gospel this morning teaches us that Jesus is the anointed one; the one upon whom the Spirit rests; the one chosen to bring joy to the poor, liberty to slaves, sight to the blind, and to set free those oppressed. We know this b/c Luke reports that Jesus goes to his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath and reads aloud from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah a description of the Messiah. When he has finished reading the passage, he sits down. All in the synagogue are watching him. He says to those gathered, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” He says to them (in effect), “I am the Christ, the Anointed One from the Lord.” Can you imagine the surprise? The anger? The shock and awe? The relief? What did those who heard this proclamation think? Here is a hometown boy who reads from Isaiah’s prophecy a description of the Messiah and then claims that in hearing the description read aloud that the prophecy is fulfilled! This man is the one promised by the prophets? Can you listen and not believe?

And notice that it is in hearing Jesus read the prophecy that the prophecy is fulfilled. Open ears. Open eyes. Listen, see. Remember the people gathered before Ezra to hear the law read, to see the book opened. They hear, listen, see, and rejoice, finding their strength in praise: Your words, O Lord, are spirit and life! They find their strength and we find ours.

Who are you? Will you say, “I am the Christ”? Does this identify you as a Christian? Does this proclamation pick you out as someone wholly given to God? Does it make you queasy to admit such a thing? It’s a big job being a Messiah. Huge job. But your part is one part in the Body of Christ. Your part is the one part you are alone are gifted to complete. You, like the rest of us, will shine out the face of Christ to all who will listen and see. You will do it uniquely. And in so doing, God’s love will be perfected in you. Will you get it wrong sometimes? Yes. Fail? Yes. Refuse to be Christ for others? Of course. And so will we. We will ignore the poor, teach falsehood, fail to free captives, leave the blind blind, the lame lame. We will embarrass the Church, dissent in order to commit our favorite sins, blow off our tradition and history, ridicule legitimate authority. We will sin. And when we do, we then become the blind in need of sight, the lame in need of healing, the captives in need of freedom, the oppressed in need of liberation. In sin, we become those for whom the Christ came.

There is one Body, many parts. One Christ, many christs. Who are you? Who will you free today? Who will you heal? Who will you feed, clothe, comfort, visit? The Spirit of the Lord is upon you because He has anointed you to do His work. Find your strength in praising the Lord. Stand out as men and women given wholly to God. And serve the broken, the lost, and the fallen. Be a Christian. Better yet: be Christ!

Follow HancAquam or Subscribe ----->