26 January 2020

The Kingdom is at hand!

3rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

The King Cakes are baked. The beads and doubloons are collected and ready to throw. The parades are parading already. Mardi Gras is in full-swing. Exactly one month from today we will be smudged with ash and reminded that we come from dust and to dust we will return. Then, 40 days of Lent. Forty days of fasting, prayer, and alms-giving. We know the drill: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” This is Jesus' cry to the people. It's his cry to us. How do we hear his cry? We could hear it as an oft-repeated churchy cliché. We could hear it as a piece of history, a slogan long-past its expiration date. It could be a warning, a prophecy, a threat, or all of the above. How do you hear it? “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” I hear it as an invitation, as a sort of seductive suggestion, one that entices me back onto the straight and narrow, back to the glorious adventure of growing in holiness. Mardi Gras takes us into the world to remind us that we are flesh and blood – eating, drinking, dancing. Jesus' cry for repentance brings to mind again the truth that we are more than flesh and blood; the truth that we are made for heaven. Never forget: the Kingdom of God is at hand.
As followers of Christ, we live with a certain weirdness. Several weirdnesses, in fact. But the most difficult to grasp is the weirdness of what it means to live as if we were already in heaven. The big theological phrase for this notion is living eschatologically, living in this world during this time as if the Kingdom of God is complete, as if we have already reached our supernatural end in Christ. Of course, we haven't reach that end – not while body and soul are still united – but when we strive for holiness we are doing so towards that end, towards the perfection that will see us complete in Christ. Jesus announces that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. Is at hand. Meaning right here and now within reach, close enough to grasp and hold if only we will. Your cell phone is at hand. Your car keys are at hand. The missalettes in the pews are at hand. There they all are. . .ready to be grasped and held. So is the Kingdom of Heaven. If the kingdom is so close, why don't we reach and grasp? Part of the answer is: sin. . .sin clouds the eyes and ears, preventing us for seeing and hearing the Word spoken to us by Christ. Thus, the Lord prefaces his announcement of the Kingdom with the invitation, “Repent.” Turn away from sin and see and hear how close the Kingdom really is.

Now, I know all this talk of repentance from sin sounds terribly old-fashioned, so pre-VC2 and all that. The thought of it might be enough to give you the willies, or maybe even keep you away from OLR Masses in the future. But please understand a simple truth: in the spiritual life of the Christian there is literally nothing easier to do than repent. Why do I say that? Easy. B/c God wants us to return to Him when we stray. He wants us to grow in holiness and thrive as His sons and daughters. He wants this so much that He gives us everything we need to recognize sin, to confess, to repent, and to come home again. He leaves nothing out. All we have to bring to the table is our desire for holiness (which is also a gift from Him) and our will to repent, our choice to turn away from sin and receive His mercy. This simple act brings into sharper focus the Kingdom as it is unfolding before us. With gratitude and humility added to the mix we have the perfect formula for continuing along the straight and narrow path. So, repent. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. It's right there in front of your eyes!

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Will you be the Word of God?

NB. This is a "children's Mass."

3rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Anthony's Church, NOLA

The Word of God reveals to us more than just the history of our faith – the stories of the prophets, the heroes of the OT, the life of Christ. The Word of God is more than a collection of wise sayings and calls to righteousness. When we use the phrase “the Word of God” we are saying a number of different things all at the same time. We're saying “the Bible.” We're saying “the Son of God.” We're saying “Christ Jesus.” We're saying “the living Church.” In fact, as followers of Christ, baptized with water and confirmed in the Spirit, we are also saying “us.” Yes, we too are the Word of God sent out into the world to be Christ for others. In the beginning God the Father breathed with the Spirit one word – Christ – over the void and all things that are came to be. We are – down to the molecular level – participants in the Divine Word, who is life and life eternal. When we hear the scripture read at Mass, we listen to God's voice. When we hear the Mass prayed, we listen to God's voice. When we do all that we ought as followers of Christ, we listen to God's voice, and we rejoice b/c who we are rings true when we turn from sin and live in His Kingdom. 
Jesus begin his preaching with a simple call: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” This probably sounds like a churchy cliché to you, or maybe a threat – “Turn or burn!” But it's actually an invitation, an invitation to return to God and participate fully in His kingdom. We're not to Lent just yet – we have exactly one month from today – but the need for repentance is never far off. Repenting of our sins can seem a bit old-fashioned, maybe even a little scary but there is nothing easier. Everything we need to return to God is given to us by God. He helps us turn b/c He wants us to return to Him. We need to return b/c we are not whole without Him. This is why He has given us His Word – in the scriptures, in His Son, in the sacraments, and in His Church. . .us. And b/c we exist as both sinners and saints we sometimes have difficult lives. When we stray as sinners, we lose our way and the darkness makes it hard to find our way home. But when we are saints, the world constantly tempts us off the narrow way, and we struggle to find His peace. BUT if we listen, listen carefully, His Word will speak to us and guide us back to Him. We all have great teachers in our lives, people to show us how to listen to God. Our parents, our grandparents, our school teachers, our priests and deacons and religious. And most importantly, God's saints! They know Him personally, and they want to do everything they can to keep us on the narrow path. 
We are celebrating Mardi Gras right now – King Cakes, beads, doubloons, parades – all the stuff that makes our hometown of New Orleans famous all over the world. This is a time for us to celebrate with our family and friends, and it is also a time for us to remember that God made us – flesh and blood – to live in this world. But He also made us live with Him in heaven. Whether or not come to live with Him in heaven is our choice. He gives us everything we can possibly need to make the right choice. So, when Jesus says, “Repent,” he's telling us to look carefully and closely inside and, if we need to, turn away from sin and return to him. We are – each one of us – a word of God sent into the world to become Christ for others. So, I ask you: will you be Christ for your family and friends? Will you be Christ for those who do not yet know him? Will you choose to the loudest, brightest, most colorful Word of God you can be? You have everything you need! Go! Be Christ and speak his Word!

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19 January 2020

Be holy!

2nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

If you feel that things are tumbling out of control, that things are spinning apart faster than they used to; that what was true yesterday is now false; what was good and beautiful last week is now ugly and evil; that nothing we say or do seems to stop the wrecking of this roller-coaster we call daily life. . .welcome to the club. For the older folks like me, we've been watching this flaming circus for some time now. The younger folks have never known anything but the gleeful destruction of truth, goodness, and beauty by our Cultural Betters. We can blame the Sexual Revolution of the 60's; the horrors of the WW's and Vietnam; we can blame Obama and/or Trump, the Marxists and/or the Nationalists; why not blame “climate change” or social media and the internet, or blame those dodgy NFL refs? Doesn't matter who we blame. What matters – the only thing that matters – is what we, the followers of Christ, do while the wheels fly off this merry-go-round. Paul reminds the church in Corinth and the church in NOLA that we have been sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy. That's what we do: be holy. And we do that by knowing Christ.

We need to make an important distinction here. There's knowing about Christ and there's knowing Christ. We all know lots of stuff about Christ. Historical facts. Mary, his mother. Joseph, his father. Born in Bethlehem. Crucified at 33yo by Pontius Pilate. We know facts. BUT do we know him? Do you know him? This question tends to make Catholics a little uncomfortable b/c it sounds Protestant – all that “having a personal relationship with the Lord and Savior” stuff. But our Protestant brothers and sisters don't enjoy a monopoly on having a person-to-person relationship with Christ. Where they tend to describe that relationship in purely emotional terms, we tend to talk in terms of sacrament, of liturgy. What can possibly be more person, more person-to-person than taking into your own body the body and blood of Christ? What can more personal, more person-to-person than meeting Christ in the confessional and having your sins absolved? But even these sacramental meetings with the Lord can become routine, stale, and haphazard over time, leaving you and me with what seems like a merely ritualistic relationship with the One who saves us. We need to come to know Christ so that our meetings with him always lead to our growth in holiness.

I said earlier that our job as followers of Christ during this tumultuous time is to be holy. Being holy includes being morally good but it's not limited to moral goodness. Scripturally, holiness entails “set apartness;” to be readily distinguishable from the world in word and deed; to be identifiable as belonging to Christ and not to the world. Think of this way: if one of those reality TV shows followed you around 24/7 for a week, would the footage reveal you to be a follower of Christ? Could an audience point out those times that you revealed Christ to others? Those times that you defied the world and choose Christ? Those times that you visibly loved, forgave, showed mercy, healed, and stood up for truth? OR would the footage reveal just another middle-class American doing nothing more than what all the other middle-class Americans do day-in and day-out? I described our world as a burning circus and a teetering merry-go-round. Our job isn't to fix the world. Or to put out the fire. We couldn't if we wanted to. Our job is to be holy, to be set aside for the preaching and the teaching of the Good News. To offer to those who are exhausted by sin and death the freely given mercy of God. We are the anchors, the strong points, the life-preservers for anyone who's dizzy enough to want to jump off the carousel. 
Now, you might be thinking: “Father, I'm not stable enough in my own faith to be offering help to anyone else!” Maybe not. But have you considered the possibility that your faith would be strengthen by offering to help someone in trouble? If you wait until your faith is good enough to be of help, you'll be standing in front of Father in heaven. Your imperfect faith can add to the imperfect faith of another and create a faithful bond that strengthens you both. How do you come to know Christ? You find him in others. Each one of us imperfectly participates in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, but we all participate in slightly different ways. Those billions of differences snap together like jigsaw pieces and create a more perfect Christ here on earth. But you and I must be willing to find one another in Christ and be the anchor for others. Holiness is contagious. Like fire, it spreads and consumes. It burns away falsehood and reveals the raw truth underneath. The Lord promises us, “I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” It's time for you to become that light.
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13 January 2020

Fishing can be disappointing

1st Week OT (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Dave Barry, a comedian and columnist, says of fishing, “[It's] boring, unless you catch an actual fish, and then it is disgusting.” All wet gills, slime, and lidless eyeballs. I couldn't agree more. Besides being disgusting, fishing requires the one virtue that eludes me like a Weight Watchers coupon: patience. Like hunting and shopping (which is just the indoor version of hunting), fishing tests one's ability to sit still, concentrate, and suffer disappointment. . .repeatedly. I have enough self-inflicted disappointments in my life without going around trying to find more. So, when Jesus tells Simon, Andrew, James, and all of us – “Follow me and I'll make you fishers of men” – my first thought is, “Who needs that kind of disappointment?” I might've asked the Lord, “Lord, could you make me a teacher of men, or a spiritual director, or something like that?” Unfortunately, for those of us with little patience, we're fishermen. Fishermen of men. Fishing for souls can be boring, disappointing, even disgusting work. But. . .it's the work we are called to do and it's the work we all have vowed to do. “This is the time of fulfillment.The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” 
Lest you think I am casting aspersions on my vocation, allow me to clarify: my lack of patience in the holy work of fishing for souls is my principle fault. The Lord provides daily opportunities for me to practice patience, and I'm getting better. Without my vocation as a Dominican friar , I would've exploded (probably literally) years ago. What the Lord sees in Simon, Andrew, James, in me, and in you is the potential to be a world champion fisherman. Despite our failures, our frustrations; our many, many excuses and attempts to minimize our gifts, the Lord sees clearly that we have everything it takes to be great fishermen. Some of us have the patience to sit quietly for hours, bobbing tackle, bait, and hook in the water, waiting for a bite. Maybe just one bite in a lifetime of fishing. Others – like me – are tempted to dynamite the lake and drag the stunned fish into the boat before they recover. Ah ha! Too late! You belong to Jesus now! Whether we bait a hook or light a fuse, we do the work of the Lord when we follow him. This life in Christ isn't about comfort, clarity, or convenience. It's about the often disgusting, disappointing, and even boring work of leading others to his mercy. Even as we ourselves depend on that mercy. So, practice patience when you fish for souls. After all, someone fished your soul out of the muck. “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”

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05 January 2020

Why give gifts?

NB: deacons preached today. . .this one is from 2019. 

The Epiphany of the Lord
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Gift-giving in my family during the holidays is ever the practical art. Rarely do any of us receive sentimental gifts or anything merely decorative. We get “what we need.” I'm the easiest to shop for. CASH. Always the right color. One size fits all. Another example, over the years, my dad has given Mom as Christmas gifts – renovated bathrooms; fiber-cement siding for the house; and demolished a fireplace they never used. Mom was always genuinely delighted with these gifts. Had the three magi showed up in Mississippi and given Mom frankincense, gold, and myrrh she would've thanked them politely and then found a way to sell the stuff so she could replace her washer and dryer. Now, there's nothing particularly wrong with giving practical gifts. Gifts tell us something important about both the gift-giver and the gift-recipient. We know that the magi give the Christ Child frankincense, gold, and myrrh b/c they recognize him as the newly born King of the nations. Their treasures, and their homage tell us that they see him for who he is: the universal Savior. When we give our gifts to Christ we are also recognizing him as our Savior. But here's the thing: we belong to Christ. Everything we have already belongs to Christ. So, what's the point in giving him gifts? Gift-giving unveils the mystery of salvation.

Bear with me here. Paul explains to the Ephesians what the Magi's visit to the Christ Child means: “. . .the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” That is, when we hear and receive the gift of the gospel – given to us by Christ and his apostles – we become members of the Body, the Church, and coheirs to the Kingdom. With the birth of Christ, salvation is no longer exclusive to the Father's chosen people, the Jews. Everyone else – the Gentiles – can now be part of the family of God too. God's family is catholic (universal) b/c the Magi (who were Gentiles) paid homage to Christ and gave him the gifts that a king would receive. This is the epiphany we celebrate this morning, the revelation that anyone and everyone can be a coheir to the Kingdom. The gifts of the Magi unveil the mystery of Christ's sacrifice – his own gift to us – and make manifest the truth that no one is excluded from the possibility of redemption. If you will to be a coheir, you will be a coheir. Christ's gift from the cross and the empty tomb is the primordial gift of re-creation – we can be made new in him.

So, what does any of this have to do with giving gifts to Christ? If Christ's gift to us is the primordial gift of re-creation, then – as new men and women in Christ – everything we are and everything we have belongs to him. When we return our gifts to Christ – the much mentioned time, talent, and treasure – we participate in a holy exchange that expresses our gratitude, deepens our humility, and prepares us to better receive those gifts from God we have yet to receive. In other words, we become pipelines that pump God's love and mercy into the world, unveiling again and again and again the mystery of salvation: anyone and everyone can be a coheir to the Kingdom. Our faith is essentially an exchange of gifts – a cycle of giving, receiving, expressing thanksgiving, growing in humility, being ready to receive more and more gifts from God, and all the while freely giving His gifts away so that His Christ might be better known to the whole world!

The lesson of the Magi and their epiphany reveals to us how we can renew the Church, bring her back from exile as a glorious nation of priests, prophets, and kings. To the degree that we have grown comfortable and complacent, we must once again become anxious for the salvation of souls. To the degree that we have grown mean and stingy with our gifts, we must once again become generous. To the degree that we have grown distant from God, apathetic toward sin, and proud of our religiosity, we must grow in gratitude and humility, acknowledging our faults and freely receiving God's mercy. The Church will be brought out of exile one soul at a time. The Magi show us the way. Bring gifts to Christ. Pay him homage. Give yourself in the world as a grace, a witness to the One Gift of Christ's love from the cross.

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02 January 2020

Death has a job to do

Funeral: Fr. Dan Shanahan, OP
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

While we live, death has a job to do – an unpleasant but necessary task: to keep front and center in our minds the hard truth that the when and where of our living has a limit. We come into the world – body and soul – at a particular time and a particular place. We live for a number of years, moving toward our end: the natural limit of our time. At the appointed moment, the soul separates from the body and goes on to its judgment. For those of us left behind – the still living – death calls us together then to remember. And if those left behind are followers of Christ, death demands that we do more than merely remember the dead. We are to pray for them; more specifically, we are pray for them in the hope of the resurrection. Jesus answers his opponents, “Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life.” On December 21, 2019, here at OLW, Fr. Dan Shanahan, 85yo, and 56yrs a Dominican friar, passed from life to death. We are here to pray that he will come to rest in the Lord. As followers of Christ, we pray in the hope of the resurrection that he will find his end: life eternal.

Well, death has done its job. Here we all are. Gathered together to remember a brother, to pray for him, and to set firmly in our hearts and minds the witness he bore to Christ's mercy while he lived. Dan has taken on a new ministry, the strange ministry of the dead to the living. Though he is absent from our daily lives, he is always present in our lives of prayer. We won't see Dan at table ever again. Nor hear him sing the Cream of Wheat commercial jingle. Nor listen to him recite one of his favorite soliloquies from Shakespeare. We will, however, know that he is with us when we pray. He heard the Word of God and he believed in the One who sent the Christ into the world. Knowing this, each time we pray, Dan bears witness, reminding us that there is a limit to the when and where of our living. Reminding us to look beyond the “witchery of paltry things that obscure what is right” and find our purpose, our telos, in the doing of God's will, in the doing of all that we vowed to do at baptism. 
Paul asks the Romans the question every Christian should be asked at every funeral: “Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” When we speak of the dead we often say, “He has passed” or “She passed peacefully.” We mean “passed from life to death.” But the Christian has already died in baptism. So, in one sense, a Christian cannot die. What is dead cannot die again. In another, a Christian cannot die b/c he has has been reborn to eternal life, rising from the waters of baptism a new creation, a creature who shares in the Divine Life of Christ. Just as we rose from baptism as new men and women, so we hope to rise again from our passing from this world, placing our faith and love in the hands of the Just Judge to see us brought to the wedding feast. We lift our brother Dan before the throne of God and pray that on the last day he comes fully into the light. And we earnestly pray that we will be standing next to him, looking into the face of the God he served, and say along with him, “Marvelous!”*

*This is the only word Fr. Dan would say in the last two years of his life. 

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15 December 2019

I say again, "Rejoice!"

3rd Sunday Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Patience is the good habit of knowing that you are not in control. . .AND acting like you know that you are not in control. Moms tell me that patience is learning to watch a toddler tie her shoes w/o helping. ER nurses tell me that patience is trying to get an EDP to lie still for an IV. As a professor, I can tell you that patience is waiting for a student to give you the answer you've repeated in class at least twelve times that week. New Orleans traffic requires patience, a supernatural God-given patience that elevates one to near sainthood if you manage it w/o taking a tire-iron to your fellow drivers. However, none of these examples of patience truly illustrate the strength and persistence in virtue that Christian patience requires. The Church has been waiting for 2,019 years for the Second Coming of the Christ. That's 24,248mos. 736,935 days. Genuine Christian patience is fed by hope and grounded firmly in joy. Without hope, we wait in vain. Without joy, we reach for that tire-iron and start swinging. James says, “You must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.”

Since the coming of the Lord is at hand, we need to know how to make our hearts firm. We know that hope feeds our patience. And that joy fends off the temptation to despair while we wait. Hope is the good habit of expecting the Lord's promises to be fulfilled AND knowing that they have been fulfilled. Joy is altogether something different. Joy is not a habit or an emotion. Joy isn't what we normally think of as glee or gladness or delight. No, joy is something far more fundamental to the Christian, something deeper and wider than just a good feeling. Joy is the child of love, the daughter of charity. So, when we rejoice, as we do knowing that the Christ Child is coming, we commit an act of love – for God and for one another. IOW, to rejoice is to almost perfectly participate in Divine Love Himself. To know joy fully, our desire for God must be fulfilled, and that cannot happen until we see Him face-to-face. But rejoicing now, right here and now, we come as close as we possibly can this side of heaven to knowing and loving Him as He knows and loves us. So, until we meet Him, our desire for Him remains unfulfilled, not-quite-full. . .and, while waiting, we rejoice so that we may come closer and closer to heaven. Joy firms the heart. 
Our Lord asks the crowd a vital question about John the Baptist: “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind?” Did y'all go all the way into the desert hoping to find a flexible, supple teacher who easily bends the truth with every breeze that comes along? No? Did you go out there to find a man wearing fine robes like a prince? “Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” They go out into the desert to find a prophet, a prophet with a firm heart, a clear vision, and a motivated message. They find Christ's herald, his forerunner; and they find a straight and level path to Christ. They find that the lame can walk, the blind can see, the deaf can hear, and the dead can live. They find forgiveness and mercy, and they find eternal life. And so do we when we bring our sins, our diseases, our faults, our disabilities, our hatreds and pains, our mourning and weeping, and anything else that clouds our hope and joy. We find eternal life. Not a pie-in-the-sky promise from some long dead teacher. . .but the living, breathing promise of a Savior who is himself life. Are you here this evening looking for a promise that bends with the wind? Or you looking to have your hearts firmly established in the truth, goodness, and beauty of God Himself?

If you are looking to have your heart firmly established in the truth of the Gospel, then you will wait patiently on the Lord. And while you wait, you will strengthen your feeble hands, firm up your weakened knees, and you will “say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.” What tragedy or crime or disaster made in this world can steal the hope and joy of a Christian who knows and loves God? What temptation to sin can overcome the promise of eternal life? What fear or anxiety or hatred can kidnap a Christian's peace in Christ? With your heart and mind firmly grounded in the truth of the Gospel nothing and no one can move you from your place at the wedding feast. . .unless you want to be moved. Patience, courage, persistence, fortitude – endure, endure, endure. And never fail to rejoice in the coming of the Lord. Rejoice always! I say again: REJOICE!

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08 December 2019

Show Christ your face

2nd Sunday Advent 2019
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

How long do you think John the Baptist would last in parish ministry? With his poor wardrobe choices, his unprofessional hygiene standards, and his aggressive preaching, I'd give him a week, maybe two. And that assumes he makes it out of seminary. I can just see the truckloads of letters pouring into the bishop's office even now. And while no self-respecting Catholic wants a slovenly, smelly pastor. . .his clothes and his hygiene are not his worst offense. Far, far worse than the animal skins and pungent body odor are the content and style of his preaching. Where are the jokes to put everyone at ease? Where's the pastoral concern spoken in a soft tone? Where are the cute stories to illustrate his homiletical point? Where are the reassurances of God's niceness? What we get instead is this: “Repent, you brood of vipers, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees and very tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” If you listen, you can hear John's bishop sobbing quietly in the background.

We could spend some time this evening exploring all the reasons John preaches the way he does, but one reason is immediately obvious: he believes what he preaches. He believes that repentance is necessary for salvation. He believes that God's judgment on the His people is imminent. He believes that unrepentant sinners will burn in hell for eternity. AND he believes that the long-promised Messiah is coming and will come again. Now, we don't know if John took any special joy in yelling at people or cursing them for their stubbornness, but we do know that he worked tirelessly to herald the arrival of Christ and to ready God's people to hear his saving Word. Why did he do this? Again, the answer strikes me as obvious: he loves God's people. In his mother's womb, John encounters the Christ Child, receiving his prophetic mission to go ahead of his Savior, preparing his way, making straight his paths. From that first meeting with Mary, and Jesus in her womb, John fiercely, steadfastly loves God's people and desires nothing more for them than their salvation. So, if telling them that they must repent hurts their feelings, well. . .so be it. The consequences of unrepented sin will do far, far worse than hurt their feelings. And no letter to the bishop will change that.

Once a semester I assign my seminarians the task of preaching what I call a “revivalist” homily; that is, a fire-breathing, pulpit-pounding homily that will jolt people into doing what they need to do to get to heaven. Since most of my guys are not converts from Evangelical Protestantism, the results are usually. . .tame. But still pretty aggressive by Catholic standards. As a class, we'll discuss why Catholic preaching doesn't follow John the Baptist's example. It used to. Think: Savonarola, Vincent Ferrer, the old-school Redemptorist mission preachers. But in the last fifty years or so, Catholic preaching has become limp, flavorless, and weak. Why is this? For me, it's an easy answer: the US Church became professional and middle-class. Professional, middle-class people don't take to being told to repent, or face eternity in hell. Catholic preachers got the message, and stopped. Besides it's easier to preach the Gospel of Nice and receive the applause of those who don't want to hear the Gospel in all its fullness. Living out our baptism vows on the way to holiness is hard work. We can do it b/c we have God's grace to nudge us along. But – as Jesus himself says – the gate is narrow. And a soul bloated on sin ain't gonna squeeze through.

So, on this second Sunday of Advent, ask yourself: have I repented of my sins? Have I been to confession? Where am I on the way to holiness? We have these days and weeks of preparation in order to clean house and ready ourselves to receive the Lord at Christmas. On a larger scale, we have our whole lives – long or short – to ready ourselves for his second coming, for his coming again in glory and judgment. Standing before the purity of the Just Judge your unrepented sins will feel like anger and wrath and sorrow, and you will find yourself self-condemned. Or upon arriving at the throne, you will show Christ his face in yours, and you will welcomed to the eternal wedding feast. All the niceness in the universe; all the professional middle-class values in the world; all the theology, university degrees, and investment portfolios on the planet can't get you into heaven. What will get you into heaven is to go to the Lord on your last day and show him how much you resemble a child of the Father. Show him how you bore witness to his mercy. Show him how you loved the unlovable and forgave the unforgivable. Show him that you became a Christ for others.


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24 November 2019

Who rules your heart?

Christus Rex
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Every year on this solemnity I ask you the same question: who or what sits on the throne of your heart? Who or what rules you? Someone or something has always ruled you and will always rule you. Christ sacrificial death on the cross, his resurrection and ascension makes it possible for us to choose who or what that someone or something is. We are free to choose our master. My annual question may seem an odd one to ask of a church filled with Catholics for a Sunday Mass. Isn't it obvious, Father, that we have all chosen Christ? We're here, aren't we? Well, in my long experience, even Mass-going Catholics can choose someone or something else to rule them when their lives in faith become too easy, or too difficult, or too routine. Christ can easily become second, third, or even fourth fiddle when the powers of this world offer us shinier, newer, cheaper, better-looking options. Therefore, the Church – in her wisdom – gives us this solemnity to reawaken in us the zealous need to place no one and nothing on the throne of our hearts other than Christ Jesus, and him crucified! He is the King of the Jews, and King of the Universe!

What does it mean to say that Christ is the King of the Universe? Turn to Colossians: “. . .in [Christ] were created all things in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible [. . .] all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” IOW, Christ is the principle of creation, the design; he is the blueprint and the final result; the logic, the reason, and the Word of reality. He is king not just in terms of power and influence but king in terms of fundamental matter and energy, of space and time; the Alpha and the Omega, first and last. Choosing Christ to rule from the throne of your heart is much more than just a moral choice or a religious/spiritual choice; it's a metaphysical choice. That is, to choose Christ is to choose to accept and live in a universe created to reveal God to human reason; a universe created to be observable, knowable, and explicable; it means understanding yourself as a person, a rational animal, a body+soul composite gifted with a supernatural end; it means accepting freedom from sin and death so that you can grow in holiness toward that end. Most importantly, it means choosing to become Christ for others by choosing to live and die in sacrificial love.

What does it mean to say that Christ, King of the Universe, rules from the throne of your heart? While Jesus hangs on the cross btw two thieves, the Roman soldiers mock him, saying, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself.” One of the thieves reviles Jesus with, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.” What the soldiers and the thief fail to understand is that Jesus can save himself. . .but he chooses to save us instead by dying on that cross. That's what good kings do. They not only rule justly and wisely but they die for their people if necessary. They die to protect, preserve, and give their people whatever they need to flourish. Christ died to free us from sin and death, giving us the choice of who or what will rule our hearts. He gave us the apostolic faith, the Church, the sacraments. He gave his life – body and soul – so that we might have life eternal with his Father. He gave us the Holy Spirit to bind us together as One Body, offering one sacrifice through his priests to bring heaven to earth and to show us what's possible in faith. How do you choose Christ to rule your heart? Remember the Good Thief and repeat after him: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

I could spend a solid week listing the someones and somethings that we regularly choose to rule us: food, drink, sex, politics, careers, revenge, despair, cynicism. The big ones: pride, envy, wrath, you know the rest. Any one of these or some combo is deadly to the follower of Christ precisely b/c – given your permission – it will usurp Christ from his throne in your heart and corrupt everything you think, say, and do. And we know: we become what we worship. If you worship a created thing, an idol – alcohol, porn, food, a movie star/athlete, a politician – if you worship an idol, you become that idol, a thing of this world. . .blind, deaf, mute, and, inevitably, dead. For good dead. The way you keep Christ on the throne of your heart is simple: daily prayer; regular fasting; good works done for the greater glory of God; regular and worthy celebration of the sacraments, esp. confession and Mass; reading the Scriptures and other good religious books; and making sure that every morning upon rising and every evening going to bed, you give God abundant (extravagant) thanks and praise for all of the blessings He poured out on you that day AND for every blessing He is going to pour out on you tomorrow. “Today, Lord, I want to be with you in Paradise.”

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17 November 2019

On Being Hated in Christ

33rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Jesus makes us an ugly promise. We will be betrayed by brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. We will be arrested and persecuted; tried before courts and governors; sent to prison and even executed. We ask Jesus, “Why, Lord?” He answers, “Because of my name.” Because you have heard his Word and answered. Because you have repented and received his mercy. Because you have seen and heard and because you bear witness. His name – Christ Jesus – causes this world to recoil in disgust. This world cannot bear to hear the name of Christ b/c the ruler of this world cannot love or forgive or hope or trust. Power and the corruption power breeds is the lifeblood of this world. Christ, who preaches surrender to God and sacrificial love for others, is deadly poison to those who cannot bear to see their will thwarted. “The day is coming, [says the Lord], blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch.” But before that day comes, those who claim the name of Christ will be sorely tested. Those who persevere will pass the test; “not a hair on your head will be destroyed.”

Now, if all this sounds a bit dreary, a little too much doom and gloom, we can find some comfort in the fact that these prophecies have been coming to pass since the Resurrection. That is, Christians have been persecuted, tortured, and executed all over the world by the world since the first Easter morning. None of this new. We aren't waiting for the Last Days to arrive. They're here. And they've been here since the stone was rolled away from Jesus' empty tomb. Our fundamentalist Protestant friends see the “Last Days” as a future event, happening sometime soon, so they spend a great deal of time looking for biblical clues and matching those clues to world events in order to find out when the Big Day will happen. The Church has always known that Christ's resurrection marks the beginning of these Last Days. So, rather than waste our time with dodgy biblical timelines, we look to history and find that the Church always survives when the world decides to try her. The Church survives b/c her members persist in holding tight to the name of Christ Jesus. When the world offers power, prestige, and applause, those who persevere in Christ respond with fidelity, hope, and sacrificial love. When the world persecutes us, we respond by testifying to Christ's saving power. 
We could call this testimony a form of bearing witness. By word and deed in our daily lives we reveal the saving power of Christ to others. We might also think of our testimony as a form of spiritual warfare. By word and deed in our daily lives we battle the worldly powers to expose their emptiness, their hopelessness, and their death-dealing schemes. Lest we come to think that this spiritual warfare is conducted between a great army of Good and another of Evil, remember: the only spiritual battle that matters in the end is the one you conduct within yourself. This kind of war isn't nearly as sexy and exciting as going up against the Forces of Evil with nothing but a rosary and a crucifix, but, alas, Jesus didn't consult any Hollywood producers before he prophesied how the world would treat his followers. We will have to be content with battling our own demons internally, and do all we can to help our brothers and sisters do the same. And this is where perseverance comes in. It ain't about winning the war. The war is won. On the cross, Jesus won the war. My battle, your battle is to persevere in faith, hope, and charity. To hang tough against every temptation to sin. Against every offer to betray your supernatural end in Christ.

“You will be hated by all because of my name but [. . .] By your perseverance you will secure your lives.” We were warned more than 2,000 years ago. We wear the name of Christ Jesus. We are branded his and belong to him body and soul. Because of this, the world hates us. And the world loves nothing more than to watch us hate ourselves. If it can convince you to forget or compromise or dilute the Truth Christ died to give you, then it has a victory. Not a cosmic victory. Just a victory over you. The great servant of Satan, Screwtape, says that his boss' best weapon against the Christian is “contented worldliness,” an attitude of self-assured, self-satisfied preoccupation with the passing stuff of this world. What better way to tempt you into forgetfulness or compromise than to tempt you into being fully satisfied with what cannot endure. Anchor your life in this world, and you will pass when it passes. Remember that you belong to Christ – body and soul – and when the tests come, and they will, you will persevere.

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12 November 2019

God is in control. . .not you

32nd Week OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic, NOLA

Jesus tells the apostles that they must forgive their sinning brother, even if he sins seven times in one day. How do the disciples respond? They plea, “Increase our faith, Lord!” I live with nine Dominican brothers. . .so, what's 9x7x365??? So I hear and feel the desperate cry of the apostles. I would add to their cry, “Increase my patience, Lord! And my prudence. And my fortitude. . .oh, and my peace.” And I am confident that each brother in the priory feels the same way about dealing with my sins against them. But the point of this Gospel is not calculating the required number of times we must forgive a sinner. This Gospel is about how deeply and broadly we trust in the Lord's promises to make all things right. It's about how much of our own strength and energy we invest in trusting that God the Father has both the first and last word on who receives mercy. When Jesus assures his despairing apostles that faith the size of a mustard seed can uproot a mulberry tree, he's not telling them that faith can be measured in pounds and inches; he's telling them that even the smallest faith is invincible when wielded with absolute confidence.

How can one's faith be invincible? Faith is not a magical power. It's not a means of manipulating God. Nor is it something that can be accumulated and counted like money. BXVI tells us that faith is the good habit of trusting in God's promises. He writes, “. . .faith is a habitus, that is, a stable disposition of the spirit, through which eternal life takes root in us and reason is led to consent to what it does not see.”* So, faith is a stable disposition of the spirit. Firmness. Solidity. Consistency. Stability of temperament. The question of one's faith is NOT: how much faith do I have right at this moment? But rather: how stable/strong/consistent is my trust in God's promises over the long haul? When the inevitable storms of life beat me up, how strong is my foundation in Christ? Are the walls and roof of my relationship with Christ well-built? You can forgive a sinner 7x's a day or 77x's a day b/c you trust that God – as the infinite source of mercy – is doing the same for you. You can dole out forgiveness freely and easily b/c you are strongly disposed, permanently bent toward trusting that God is in control, and that His promises have been kept. Woe to you who cause another to sin. Woe to you who will not forgive. 

*Spe salvi, 7. 
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10 November 2019

Do you belong to Christ?

32nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

What does marriage and re-marriage have to do with the resurrection of the dead? Nothing, as it turns out. But Jesus' opinion on marriage and re-marriage was never in dispute. The dispute is about his teaching on the resurrection of the dead. The Sadducees are practicing a time-honored form of argument – the reductio ad absurdum. Take an absurd but possible real-life scenario and challenge your opponent to explain this scenario using his beliefs. The goal here is find what's called a limiting principle, some rule or boundary that helps to define the reach of your opponent's position. If there is no limiting principle, then your opponent's beliefs explain everything, meaning they explain nothing thus making his beliefs useless. The Sadducees are probing for the limits of Jesus' explanation for what happens to the righteous after death. More specifically, since they do not believe in the resurrection of the dead, they are trying to refute this novel theological teaching. But Jesus doesn't play their game. Instead, he teaches them (and us): “. . .the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob [. . .] is not God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.” All who are alive in Christ are alive forever. Even in death there is no death in Christ.

Here's what the CCC teaches us: “Christ is raised with his own body. . .but he did not return to an earthly life. So, in him, 'all of them will rise again with their own bodies which they now bear,' but Christ 'will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body,' into a 'spiritual body'” (nos. 999-1000). How does this happens? It starts at baptism. When you were baptized your “lowly body” was started on the path that leads to a “glorified body” and you were made a member of the “spiritual body,” the Church. In other words, all that you are – body and soul – was initiated (started) in the process of becoming Christ. If you remain in the body of Christ, the Church – through the sacraments, prayer, and good works – then, like Christ, you will, at your death, be raised like he was. So, even in death there is no death in Christ. The life you are living now is not your own. You belong to Christ. Your death belongs to Christ. And your life eternal belongs to Christ. The question to ask yourself at this point is: am I living my life as if I belong to Christ? If not, what can I do to change course?

Staying in the Body of Christ is a matter of consistently and worthily celebrating the sacraments, esp. confession and Mass; diligent and devoted daily prayer; and doing good works for the greater glory of God. As Catholics, we gather weekly (daily) to participate directly in the divine life of the Blessed Trinity. When we gather to celebrate the Eucharist, we gather as One Body to partake in a sacrificial meal, a meal where Christ is made present in the bread and wine, where we eat and drink his body, blood, soul, and divinity, where we take into ourselves everything he is for us and anticipate our own transfiguration after death. In the 2nd century, St. Irenaeus wrote, “Just as bread is no longer ordinary bread after God's blessing has been invoked upon it, the Eucharist is formed of two things, one earthly, the other heavenly: so too our bodies, which partake of the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, but possess the hope of resurrection.” Living in the hope of the resurrection is not just an intellectual exercise — it is living a Eucharistic life, one moment of thanksgiving after another, one instance of praise after another, taking into ourselves all that Christ is for us so that we might become Christs for others.

We find our strength and energy to be Christs for others in diligent and devoted daily prayer, receiving the graces that the Father pours out on us, clearing away any obstacles to reception and sharpening our ability and willingness to say, “Thank you, Lord!” Gratitude builds humility; and humility builds holiness. The further we are from the world while still living in the world, the closer we are to being perfected in the Christ who owns us. The closer we are to Christ, the more like him do we speak, think, feel, and act. And the closer we are to speaking, thinking, feeling, and acting like Christ, the readier we are to do the good works we are vowed to do. The old-school corporate works of mercy still apply: feed the hungry; give water to the thirsty; clothe the naked; shelter the homeless; visit the sick; visit the imprisoned; and bury the dead. The spiritual works of mercy apply as well: instruct the ignorant; counsel the doubtful; admonish the sinner; bear patiently those who wrong us; forgive offenses; comfort the afflicted; pray for the living and the dead. All who are alive in Christ are alive forever. Even in death there is no death in Christ. Are you living your life as if you belong to Christ?

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27 October 2019

Praying to Yourself

30th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Anthony/OLR, NOLA

The tax collector prays to God. The Pharisee prays to himself. What difference does this difference make? Self-righteous prayer attempts to change God, while righteous prayer changes the one praying. In our desire to gain and maintain control of our lives – lives that do not belong to us in the first place – we can forget a basic theological truth: Nothing we can do, say, feel, or think changes God. We live and move and have our being in Him. He does not live and move and have His being in us. We are His creatures; He is our Creator. Prayer is one way that we align our will with His. Therefore, Christian prayer is not a form of persuasion; a way of bargaining, or a means of pestering God into giving us what we think we need or want. Christian prayer is not a magic spell, or a spiritual recipe, or a religious formula that can bend God to our will. We cannot trick God with novenas or litanies, nor can we browbeat Him with adoration or processions. None of these forms of prayer are designed to change God's mind or influence Him in the least. Jesus shows us that prayer changes the heart and mind of the one praying. And that righteous prayer is always prayed in genuine humility.

The first step in praying with genuine humility is coming to know and love God as His creature; that is, acknowledging and accepting that we are made beings, beings made in His image and likeness and re-made in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Man was created from dirt with the breath of God – body and soul. Remembering that we are dirt and that we will return to dirt, and living out that memory, is what it means to be humble. Genuine humility makes it possible for us to get out of our own way and receive all that God has to give us. We set aside our wants, our perceived needs. We set aside the need to control our lives and the lives of others. We give up the lie that we know what's best for us and ours. Above all, we accept that our end – our target – is not in this world or of this world. We are here temporarily, and nothing we do, say, think, or feel will last long after we die. So while we are here, our task is bear witness to the mercy of God, giving testimony from our own lives how He has made us His heirs, His children, through Christ Jesus. Our adoption into the Holy Family is a gift not a reward for good behavior or right-thinking. But a freely offered gift that we freely receive or freely reject. Prayer is our means of giving thanks and growing in humility.

The second step in praying in humility is coming to know and love all of God's creation, especially His sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters in Christ. The self-righteous Pharisee fails to love the tax-collector, judging him to be “greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” How does the Pharisee make this judgment? He says, “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.” In our self-righteousness, we might say, “I attend daily Mass. Go to confession once a week. Pray the rosary twice a day. And serve on the parish council.” So??? None of this makes you or me righteous. If we attend Mass, go to confession, pray the rosary, and serve on the parish council in order to be seen, to be noticed by the greedy, dishonest, and adulterous sinners who don't deserve God's mercy, then our humility is suffocated by self-righteousness, and we pray to ourselves not to God. To know and love all of God's creation, especially our brothers and sisters in Christ, is not about calling sin good. It's about seeing in them and ourselves the desperate need for God's mercy and offering to them (and ourselves) the witness we all need to come out of sin and to surrender ourselves to Divine Love. The humble pray knowing they are sinners.

The last step in praying with humility is coming to know and love ourselves as redeemed sinners; that is, as loved and saved creatures of Love Himself. Genuine humility is never about self-degradation. It's never about torturing ourselves into believing that we are worthless. Remember: we are made from dirt with the breath of God. Genuine humility requires that we remember both elements of our creation: the dirt and the divine breath. When we forget that we are dirt, we end up believing ourselves to be god w/o God. That's pride. That's the lie the Serpent whispered to Eve. But when we forget that we are also of the divine breath, we end up believing ourselves to be just dirt. That is also pride. We leave God out of our lives, living as if He has no part to play in how we came to be or where we need to go. The balance is struck when we genuinely humble ourselves and exalt God. God doesn't need our exaltation, but we need to exalt Him in order to remain humble. This is why Jesus teaches us, “. . .whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Pray like the redeemed sinner you are.

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19 October 2019

Be a Bullheaded Pray-er

Audio File

29th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Pray always. Pray always without ceasing. Pray always without ceasing, AND do not grow weary. Is there anything we can do always and without ceasing that doesn't make us grow weary? Even those things that we love to do will eventually grind us down, so why should prayer be any different? Why wouldn't a ceaseless conversation with God wear us out? The intense focus required. Memories stoking conscious thought. Fingers counting out beads. Bowing, kneeling, standing, maybe even crawling, only to stand again and genuflect. Why doesn't a ceaseless conversation with God wear us out? Maybe it should. But it doesn't. Perseverance in prayer – always, without ceasing – cannot weary us b/c prayer is our direct line to the source and summit, the center and ground of our being: God who is Love Himself.

Pray always, without ceasing and do not grow weary. Be persistent, persevering in prayer. That sounds good. It sounds like the sort of advice we want to hear from the pulpit. We want to hear our preachers exhort us to be persistent, to be persevering, but let's be frank with one another. Words like “persistent” and “perseverance” are just the polite substitutes we use to disguise a vulgar truth: a successful prayer-life requires a bull-headedness. I mean something akin to the sort of stubbornness that we expect from a rented mule. If you will live a life in God's blessing, weariness is not an option. Why not? B/c the stakes are too high. B/c the costs of laxity are too great. Consider: prayer does nothing to change the mind of God. Prayer changes the one praying. If we cannot or will not recognize the blessings that God has poured out for us, it's likely b/c we have failed to be stubborn enough in using prayer to open our own eyes to see. His gifts never stop coming; they never cease flowing. If we will to see and receive His gifts, our prayer can never cease. Gratitude must always be on our lips.

Writing to his disciple, Timothy, Paul urges, “Remain faithful to what you have learned and believed. . .I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus. . .proclaim the word; be persistent. . .” Remain faithful; be persistent. Why this focus on endurance, tenacity? Aren't we called as Christians to be tolerant and flexible? Aren't we supposed to be willing to compromise in conflict? That's what “love your neighbor” is all about, right? I mean, how do we love others and at the same time remain faithful to what we have learned, if what we have learned conflicts with Christ's command to love? When we love our neighbors, we participate in Love who is God Himself. He is also Truth and Goodness, so we can only love in the presence of the True and the Good. Paul's admonition to remain faithful and to persist in the Truth is a warning to us not to forget that we are vowed to proclaim the Word. We can only fulfill our vow if we stubbornly refuse to surrender our direct line to Love Himself, only if we tenaciously guard against the temptation to compromise what we have learned and believe.

How do we keep the weapon of prayer honed and well-oiled? By using it. What happens when we become distracted in prayer? Those aren't distractions you're experiencing. That's the Holy Spirit showing you who and what needs prayer. What about those dry periods when it appears that God isn't hearing us? He always hears us. Dryness comes when we aren't listening. The surest way of ending a dry-spell is to turn your prayer to gratitude. Gratitude grows humility and humility unplugs the ears. What about finding the time to pray? If you are still breathing, there's time to pray. Talk to God about washing the dishes; driving the kids to school; paying the bills; cooking dinner; mowing the yard. Keep a running conversation going about whatever it is you're doing. What if we grow weary of prayer? Ask yourself: am I tired of being loved? Am I exhausted by being forgiven? If you grow weary of prayer, then tell God that you are weary and give Him thanks for being alive to feel weary! If all you have to say to God is “O Lord! I am so weary!” then say that. Say it until you're no longer weary and then give Him thanks for the gift of being able to tell Him so.

NB: prayer is not a technique or a method. It takes no special training, no weekend seminar, or bookshelf full of How-To guides. You don't need to learn how to pray b/c God taught you to pray the moment you were conceived. He engraved into each one of us an indelible desire to seek Him out and live Him forever. In other words, in the great game of life, God made the first move and He continues to make the first move with every breath we take. If we're to be stubborn in prayer, then all we need to do is make each and every breath an exhalation of thanksgiving and praise. Breath in His gifts, breath out our gratitude. If you grow weary of prayer, then I must ask: have you grown weary of breathing? We live, move, have our being in the enduring presence of Love Himself. Prayer is no more difficult than seeing, hearing, touching, feeling His presence as we live and move. Stubbornly refuse then to be moved from His loving-care and just as stubbornly give Him constant thanks. 

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