15 January 2017

The other half of your soul

2nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

John the Baptist says about Jesus twice tonight: “I did not know him.” How does John the Baptist not know Jesus? When John was still in Elizabeth's womb, he leaped for joy in the presence of Jesus – who was still in Mary's womb. John spent most of his adult life wandering the wilderness as a prophet for the Christ, occasionally venturing into civilization to preach repentance and baptize sinners. We know from Luke's gospel that John was reluctant to baptize Jesus b/c John knew who Jesus was. However, tonight we read that the Baptist doesn't know him. . .until the Holy Spirit reveals who he really is. We could say that John didn't recognize Jesus as Jesus. Like we don't recognize an old friend who's gotten fat and bald over the years. But it would seem strange that the Holy Spirit would be needed to help John recognize the man, Jesus. John recognizes Jesus as Jesus. But with the grace of the Holy Spirit he comes to know Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. Thus, he says, “I did not know him [then], but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” John's mission then is our larger mission now – to make Christ known to world.
To make Christ known to the world would seem to be an easy feat during this technologically advanced age. How easy is it to get on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. and send out thousands of messages about the Father's freely available mercy through His Christ? Very easy. I see it everyday. We have EWTN; international, national, and local Catholic radio; dozens of Catholic magazines, journals, newspapers; literally, thousands of Catholic blogs, websites, businesses. Not to mention diocesan publications, book publishers, university presses, parish bulletins, bookstores. The Word is out. If you were ask random people in random cities, “Who is Jesus?” I bet you that they would say, “The Christ” – or something similar. Even if they know nothing else about him, they would know that the two words “Jesus” and “Christ” go together like a first and last name! So, our job is done, right? We can all go home. Not just yet. Notice: John recognized Jesus as Jesus. But he did not know him as the Christ. . .until the Holy Spirit revealed to him who Jesus really is. I would recognize Pope Francis on the street. But that doesn't mean that we are friends. Much less best friends. Willing to die for love of one another.
When I teach CCC to the seminarians, we always discuss the relationship with reason and revelation. Human reason and divine revelation. For Catholics, these two form the foundation of all human knowledge. They cannot contradict one another b/c they share the same source – God Himself. We know from Thomas Aquinas that reason can tell us only that God is and what God is. If we want to know who God is, we must rely on divine revelation; in other words, only God can tell us who He truly is. You may recognize Jesus, but do you know him as the Christ? Better yet: do you know him as a friend? I don't mean like a drinking or a fishing buddy, or a girlfriend to go lunch with. I mean as a true friend. Aquinas tell us that “a friend is called a man's 'other self',” quoting St. Augustine, "Well did one say to his friend: Thou half of my soul” (ST I-II.28.1). A friend is the other half of your soul. We might imagine the not-yet-born John leaping in the presence of his not-yet-born friend, the other half of his soul, Jesus. Can you imagine yourself leaping with joy in the presence of the other half of your soul? Christ promotes his disciples from servants to friends before his death on the cross. He wanted to die knowing that his former students would go out into the world as his friends – his other half – making the Father's mercy known to all the nations.

How do we come to know Jesus the Christ as a friend, a true friend? First, we have stop thinking of friendship in purely worldly terms. Acquaintances aren't friends. Co-workers may be friends, but they aren't friends because they are co-workers. Think for a moment: who in your life right now possesses the other half of your soul? If you are married, I hope you thought of your spouse! Who do you trust to die for you, if necessary? That's the kind of friendship Christ offers to us. Second, true friendship is about intimacy – closeness, familiarity, affection. We can become better friends with Christ though the sacraments, of course, especially confession and the Eucharist. But we can also grow daily in our affection for him and with him through the intimacy of prayer. Not just ritual prayer but the sincere outpouring of our hearts to him in silence. No secrets. No dark corners. Just pour it all out to him. Lastly, we can become better friends with Christ by becoming better friends with one another. Jesus himself says that we cannot claim to love him if we hate our neighbor. We serve him when we serve one another without counting the cost. He did not count the cost of his friendship with us when he went to the cross. He just went. And died for love of us.

The Holy Spirit revealed to the world that Jesus is the Christ. We know this about Jesus. But do we know Jesus? I mean, are you friends with Jesus? True friends? John recognizes Jesus but doesn't know him. At least, not until the dove appears in the sky and the Father's voice reveals who Jesus really is. John had a dove and a voice. We have the advantage of 2,000+ years of tradition, Church teaching, philosophical and theological investigation, and all the saints on the calendar bearing witness! Do you recognize Jesus? Or do you know him? And if you know him, do you count yourself among his friends?

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11 January 2017

Recent Paintings

A selection of recent paintings. . .all but the last one are 18x24, acrylic, canvas board.

 Accidental Rainforest
 But You Did Not Dance (SOLD)

 Finding Lost Sheep

If the sin is not deadly

I heard a sound from heaven (SOLD)

His star at its rising

I remain in the flesh

Rejoice in His Light (SOLD)
Power came forth from him (SOLD)

Remain faithful to what you have learned

A Great Cloud of Witnesses (SOLD)


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08 January 2017

Prostrate. Open Treasures. Offer Gifts.

Epiphany of the Lord
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Upon seeing the Christ Child, the magi do something remarkable. Matthew tells us that they “. . .prostrate themselves. . .do him homage. . .open their treasures and offer him gifts. . .” This threefold reaction to the Child tells us all that we need to know about who the magi believe the baby Jesus to be. It also tells us how we as followers of Christ best prepare ourselves to be better followers. Our exemplars are astrologers, probably priests from a Persian religion called Zoroastrianism, fire-worshipers. They travel to Bethlehem b/c the stars tell them that a history-changing king has been born. When they find him, they know that the Child before them is both the King of the Jews and the King of the Gentiles. In other words, king of all humanity. So, they prostrate themselves and do him homage, open their treasures, and offer him gifts; thus, placing themselves at his service, making of themselves his servants. They follow a star to the Christ Child. We follow the Christ Crucified. Why would our response to him be any different than theirs? Why would we – who claim his name – do any less than the magi?

To be better followers of Christ, we must become better servants of Christ. The magi prostrate themselves before the Christ Child and do him homage to demonstrate their subservience to him, their surrender of themselves into his service. When we enter the Church, we genuflect before the tabernacle to show our respect to the presence of Christ. Whether we genuflect consciously or perfunctorily (out of habit), we give an outward sign of our subservience to Christ. But outwards signs are easy. What about the true subservience the outward sign is suppose to mark? As followers of Christ, we are vowed to not only show Christ respect as our teacher and Savior but we are also vowed to become Christ for the salvation of the world. Meaning? We are vowed to move beyond respect and obedience toward taking on the mind of Christ. And from taking on the mind of Christ to becoming Christ for others. Our worship of Christ in this church this evening is nothing less than an outward sign of our desire to become him whom we eat and drink. His body. His blood. His soul and divinity – to the very limit of our own humanity. Prostration for us is not just a posture for your body. Paying homage to him can never be perfunctory. These are the surrender of your intellect and will to the Way, the Truth, and the Life who suffered for you, died for you, and rose from the grave for you. To put this in the form of a question: when you go out there tonight and tomorrow and the next day, are you – in thought, word, and deed – an epiphany of Christ for others? Do you reveal the Father's mercy to sinners?

Our Father's mercy is given flesh and bone in the gift of the divine person of Jesus Christ born among us through Mary. We are given mercy in the form of a man. The magi confess the divine kingship of this man, this child, by opening before him their treasures, showing that they know and understand and accept who and what he is and what he has been sent to do. At our baptism, we receive the gift of divine mercy. Freed from original sin and made members of the Body, the Church, we are charged with living out our lives in mercy. As followers and servants of Christ we have a single, priceless treasure we can open before our king, a treasure he himself died to ensure we would receive – the treasure of limitless forgiveness, boundless mercy. The magi offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And we too can offer our time, talent, and worldly treasure to the work of the Church. But there's a limit to gold, frankincense, myrrh, time, talent, and worldly treasure. To put on the mind of Christ on the way to becoming Christ, we must offer the one treasure we possess which possesses no limit – our freedom to forgive. If we cannot forgive, we cannot love sacrificially; if we cannot love sacrificially, we cannot become Christ for others.

Finally, the magi offer their gifts to the Christ Child. Gifts are freely given and freely received. No strings. No conditions. No expectations. Freely given means freely given. Freely received means freely received. The Father sent His Son to become one of us so that His mercy might live among us in flesh and bone. He – the Son – was freely given. Now, we must freely receive him. Without strings, conditions, or expectations. Freely receiving Christ means freely receiving the Father's gift of forgiveness. What gift can we offer back to the Father in thanksgiving? Gold, incense, and myrrh? No. We offer back in daily sacrifice the one gift that the Father deems worthy of His Son's own sacrifice: our lives. We offer before our king our hearts and minds and give to him our daily work and words so that the Good News of His mercy is made known by our hands and mouths. When we offer our daily work and words in the name of Christ, we already know that these gifts are freely received by the Father b/c Christ sits at His right hand ready to intercede for us, his servants and friends.

To be better servants of Christ, we follow the example of the magi at Bethlehem. We prostrate our intellect and will in homage and in defiance of pride, striving to become Christ for others. We open our gifts, especially the gift of mercy, and forgive sacrificially. And we offer to the Father the one gift that He sent His Son to save – our very lives.

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25 December 2016

Notes on the Homily

NB. I was asked recently by the Office of Worship to write three bulletin inserts on preaching and the homily. I found this post from December 2005, and thought I share it again!

Q: What is a homily? 

 A: Let’s start with what it ISN'T. . .

* several stories of dubious humor strung together with a “moral” tacked on

* a pep talk, an appeal for money, an update on parish construction, or a book review

* a report on Father’s last visit to his shrink/therapist/spiritual director

* a stump speech, a rousing call to political arms, a psychology/sociology lecture

* an academic essay on Things Theological-Philosophical-Scriptural

* a love-letter to big money donors

* 8-15 unscripted minutes of the Mass where Father gets to show the crowd what a great guy he is by blowing off the homily! 
* and, finally, a 2016 addition for NOLA: homily time isn't a pep rally for the New Orleans Saints or the LSU Tigers!
. . .so, what IS a homily?

* a liturgical device of Speaking the Word, giving the Word of God voice for today

* authentic, authoritative instruction in the living faith of the Church

* an exhortation to communal and personal holiness, encouragement in the face of despair

* an “unpacking” of the readings in a way that addresses real problems of faith

* a liturgical device for raising questions, suggesting answers, stirring up trouble, getting into fights

Q: How is a homily prepared/written?

A: Every preacher is different, of course. I can give you a brief outline of how I do it:

I read the lectionary readings about a week ahead of time to see what strikes me. I usually mumble to myself about how dull the reading is or how I’ll never squeeze anything out of THAT text or how we just had that reading two weeks ago, etc. Then I will read it again a few days later—having forgotten it by then—and something will strike me as odd/weird/brilliant/curious. I will grab a commentary to check on any cultural references or historical oddities, and then I will begin to pose a question or a problem to tackle. I will locate the readings in a Bible (I own five different English translations!) and look at “where” the readings are in the larger narrative. This almost always gives me something to work with in the homily. All this time, I am praying for inspiration, for insight. I don’t write a word of my homily until the morning of the day it is to be preached. I am a morning person, so I’m up at 4:30am, coffee in hand, ready to roll! Weekday homilies are 550-650 words, Sunday homilies are twice that. [I've recently reduced the word counts by half]

What’s basic, I think, to any good homily is an application of the readings to real, contemporary problems. I don’t mean to suggest that the homily needs to be a “fix-it” talk where the priest gives the assembly quick and easy DIY solutions to complex problems; however, the homily can be a great way for the preacher to raise issues, questions, problems that are common to his parish/ministry and show how the readings and the tradition might help to address them. This means, of course, that a good preacher is listening, listening, listening to what’s troubling God’s faithful.

I always try to do the following in every homily. . .

* preach the gospel in front of me, not the gospel I think the congregation wants to hear, or the gospel that will get me the fewest complaints, or the gospel that will get me the most compliments!

* include a humorous story if there’s one that’s truly relevant (I’m a Southerner born and bred, so I exaggerate like I breath—loudly and on a regular basis.)

* use an image, a phrase, or a line from ALL four readings; the Psalms, sadly, often get shortchanged [This practice turned into an occasion of pride for me, so I don't do this much anymore]

* preaching is an oral form, so I write for oral presentation: lots repetition, alliteration, “unpacking,” and frequent use of language from the readings, the liturgy of the day, and the tradition

* say something truly challenging and maybe even unnerving! (I’m a Dominican, so I am not particularly inclined to spoon feed folks religious pabulum or feel-good psychobabble just to keep things sweet.) [If anything, I'm even more unwilling to spoon-feed eleven years later]

* I am downright tenacious about preaching the following: a) the universal call to holiness; b). our salvation understood as our divinization; c) our salvation as an undeserved, unmerited, totally FREE gimme from God; d) our responsibilities to the Body of Christ as members of the Body of the Christ; e) the need for true humility before the authority of the Church to teach the authentic faith; f) the absolutely indispensable necessity of a powerful private and common prayer life (cf. CCC Part IV), and g) our responsibilities in revealing Truth, Goodness, and Beauty to one another!

Q: What needs work?

A: I read my homilies from prepared texts. This will never change. It can’t. I am tied to language as a writer, a poet, an English teacher, etc. I just can’t let go of the text and preach “off the cuff.” I will ramble, jabber on for an hour, wander around until someone chunks a hymnal at me. I need to practice more so I can be more engaging with the assembly and not so glued to the paper [I'm much better at this!]. I’ve been told that I talk too fast—and I’m a Southerner [Gotten better here too, I think]! And that my homilies are too complex for just listening, thus the blog site for those who want to read them [Improved some here, still need more improvement]. I’m always wrong about my homilies too—just about every time I think I’ve preached a real dud, I get lots of great feedback. And when I think I’ve preached a real winner—nothing, nada, crickets chirping. [I know when I've preached a dud. Still can't tell when I've done a decent job].
Oh well.

Comments? Comments from other preachers particularly welcomed!!

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18 December 2016

Real Faith, Real World, Real Christ!

4th Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Thinking abstractly is one of the ways we mark a child's cognitive maturity. Adults think in terms of general principles and concepts all the time. We use symbols, signs, metaphors, parables; concepts related to numbers, motion, time, space, etc. We learn to think abstractly partly b/c we need to think about the things of the world as they all relate to us and one to another. But there's a problem with abstract thinking when it comes to our lives in the Spirit. Ideas, concepts, principles are easily manipulated, undermined, and changed precisely b/c they often have no tangible referents in the physical world. The names of concrete things – books, keys, glasses – these are all meaningful b/c we can point to the thing and verify the name. However, terms like love, freedom, sin, health, goodness – all of these get matched and re-matched with their abstracted concepts, and it is nearly impossible to decide what they really mean b/c we can't check their meaning against concrete reality. This basic glitch in our humanity can cause problems with our relationship with God. Therefore, he sends His Son to us in the flesh, so that there can be no mistaking His meaning: Christ is the Father's mercy given flesh, blood, and bone
We know that ours is not an abstracted faith. We do not offer our praise and thanksgiving to an idea or a concept. We don't pray to Peace or Justice or Truth or Goodness. Christ did not die on the cross as a symbol or a sign or a metaphor. I mean, who gets dressed on a Sunday, goes to church, and worships Being Itself? Who here has prayed to Existence or the Universe for a favor? As strange as it may sound, over the centuries, including the last few decades, many Catholic theologians, priests and bishops among them, have advocated exactly that. That we stop thinking of God in human terms. That we cease addressing God as “Father” and call Him “parent.” That we no longer say “Son of Man” but “Child of Humanity.” That we refer to the kingdom as “the community.” Besides being horribly clumsy and just plain silly, these attempts at changing the language are also attempts to redefine the truth of the faith. And it's nothing new. Early heresies in the church denied the divinity of Christ. Some denied his humanity. Still others taught that he was just an illusion, not real at all. What they all had in common was their denial of the apostolic faith, specifically, the Church's teaching on the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity – Christ Jesus, who's birth – who's birth – we celebrate next Sunday!

St. Matthew couldn't make the point any clearer, so he quotes the prophet, Isaiah, this evening, Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “'God is with us.'” Emmanuel. God is with us. Here with us. Right here among us. As a man. As a divine person with both a divine nature and a human nature. Like us in every way except sin. Concepts do not weep. Ideas do not eat flame-broiled fish. Abstract nouns do not die covered in blood on a cross. Emmanuel, God-is-with-us, was flesh and blood and bone so that we might have a saving friendship with a man, a real person. So that our eternal lives will not be left in the ever-shifting definitions of culture or popular opinion or corrupted power. We eat real bread and drink real wine. We light real candles with real fire. We come together shoulder to shoulder and hear real music and sing real hymns. Our worship is real, concrete, and makes use of the ordinary things of the ordinary world. And by the invocation of the Holy Spirit all of these, all of us are taken up and made into a holy sacrifice for the salvation of the world. This is the Father's mercy made manifest. 
God-is-with-us. Emmanuel. Christ Jesus. Both God and man. Born in the flesh and risen in the flesh and set to return again in the flesh. We wait for him during Advent b/c flesh and bone needs time to come together. To gestate. To grow and take full form. If Christ were merely a notion, an idea, then there would be no need for us to wait. Ideas are easy to conjure up. We could all stay at home, synchronize our clocks for 6.00pm, and just think about Jesus for an hour or so. We could think about Peace and Joy and Happiness. No need to get out in this messy weather. But our Father wants real communion for us in real time. This is why we celebrate His son's birth into the world. To reset our faith in Him. To remember our hope from Him. And to reinforce our love for Him. Joseph welcomes the pregnant Mary into his home b/c he knows that she carries the living Word of the Father. We too carry the living Word into the world. We're not always welcomed. But we have said Yes to the Spirit. And there is nothing else for us to do but to show the world God's mercy and love. In thought, word, and deed. . .to be the body and blood of Christ in sacrifice for the whole world.

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11 December 2016

Is Jesus the Savior you're looking for?

3rd Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

What are we waiting for? Better yet: who are we waiting for? Of course, we're waiting for Christ. Born on Christmas and coming again at the end of the age. We wait for both his birth and his return. But waiting for his birth is the easier of the two b/c we know the day and time of his arrival as an infant from Mary. When will he come again? At the end of the age? We don't know. James says to us, “Be patient, brothers and sisters. . .see how the farmer waits. . .You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm. . .Do not complain. . .Take as an example of hardship and patience. . .the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” Patience and hardship. The example of the prophets. That's what we're to do while we wait. Be patient. Endure hardship. Not exactly a cheery Advent message. But probably one we can all stand to hear. John the Baptist, perhaps a bit impatient himself, sends his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” And in his usual way, Jesus gives an unexpected answer: “Go and tell John what you hear and see. . .” Healing, raising the dead, freeing the possessed, preaching to the poor. Is Jesus the Messiah you're looking for? Or are you looking for, waiting for another?

Please don't take offense at the question! I know it's weird to ask a church filled with Catholics if they are looking for a Messiah other than Jesus! But hear me out. The history of the Church is littered with false Messiahs – self-appointed prophets, trendy gurus, and unsavory saviors. And even when no one in the Church is publicly chasing after a personality or a philosophy opposed to Christ, many are still privately putting something or someone on the altar of their heart. Someone or something other than Christ. Who or what are these idols? You've heard them listed all before, no doubt – money, stuff, power, sex, popularity, knowledge, all these things that can be good. . .but they can never be God. None of these can ever be the Messiah. Not your spouse, your children, your job, your friends; not your pastor, your Pope, or your President. None of these is the Christ. And the waiting of Advent, the patience and the endurance of hardship, graces us with all that we need to see and hear the Good News that Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem to the virgin, Mary, is our Savior and King. We are looking for and waiting for no other. Like John the Baptist, we have found and been found by the Only Begotten Son.

Having found him and been found by him, we turn again to our waiting for him to come again at the end of the age. Waiting around patiently and enduring the hardship of living in this world may not seem worth the wait. But if we truly believe that he will sit in judgment of our lives, separating the goats from the sheep, and taking to himself all who remain in his love, then the choice to endure is easy. Jesus asks those who went to listen to John: “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing?” He wants to know why they ran after the Baptist. What were they seeking? “Then why did you go out?” he asks, “To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” They went into the desert to seek out the one who would herald the Christ. Why? Because they know that the Christ will call the unrighteous to repentance and the unjust to justice. He will suffer and die for their sins and see them reconciled with the Father. And on the last day, he will sit as Judge to weigh their convictions and dole out abundant mercy to all who have confessed and turned to him. Whatever impatience makes us angry or anxious or depressed, and whatever hardship we must endure while waiting. . .we wait, and while we wait, we grow in holiness for that last day, that last day before the judgment seat.

The third Sunday of Advent is always called Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice Sunday! All this waiting can be a bit wearing, so the Church gives us one Sunday in the season to lift up our praise and thanksgiving to God for His sending us His Son. This week – make your daily prayer one of rejoicing, giving God thanks for the joy He has brought into your life. Name those blessings. Count the gifts. Raise each one up to Him and pledge its use to His greater glory. Moms and dads, teach your children to give God thanks for you, for their siblings, for their family and friends. Teach them true humility before their Maker, and they will see the spiritual dangers of pride and entitlement. And while we all wait, never forget: “Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save [us].”

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04 December 2016

A Fearful Prediction

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

Humans respond to fear. This is both a good and a bad thing. If fear prevents us from doing something incredibly dangerous – that's good. However, if fear drives us to do something incredibly stupid – that's bad. Politicians, media talking-heads, religious leaders – they all understand that fear can motivate human action or forestall it. So, they make liberal use of predictions to paint for us a picture where our only response can be one of fear. Fortunately, reality intervenes and their predictions are shown to be little more than scare tactics in a strategy to dominate us. Economists predicted the financial collapse of the UK if that nation left the E.U. Didn't happen. Climate scientists predicted a New Ice Age in the 70's if we didn't cut pollution. Didn't happen. Religious leaders of all stripes regularly predict the end-of-the-world on some specific date if we don't donate. Hasn't happened yet! Now, we read that John the Baptist is predicting the coming of the Messiah and the destruction of sinners if they do not repent. “Even now,” he preaches, “the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Is he trying to make us fearful? Absolutely! But his fearful prediction is about freedom from sin and not worldly domination.

So, if politicians, scientists, religious leaders use predictions of doom and gloom to scare us into obedience, why should we believe John the Baptist when he predicts the coming of the Messiah and eternal fire for unrepentant sinners? One simple reason, really: he is right; that is, his prediction – or better named – his prophecy is fulfilled with the coming of the Christ Child. The Messiah has come, and he will come again. This is a fundamental truth of our faith. Not a truth meant to dominate us in the world, or to frighten us into religious submission. But a truth that sets us free from our slavery to sin and death. The coming of the Messiah is prophesied in the O.T. Some 800 years before the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. Isaiah writes, “On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious.” We know that the Gentiles – the Magi – followed the signal – the North Star – to seek out the Infant Christ and found him glorious in his shepherd's hut. Recognizing him as their King, they prostrate themselves and give him the gifts due a priest, a prophet, and a king. John the Baptist's prophecy – his prediction – that the Messiah will come is fulfilled. 
If we believe that his prediction concerning the Messiah comes true – and we do – then why would we doubt the second part of his fearful prediction? The part where he says, “[The Messiah] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” We shouldn't doubt this b/c this is precisely why the Messiah comes in the first place. Not to condemn. But to gather to himself those who have repented of their sins and followed after him in love. The “unquenchable fire” isn't so much a punishment as it is a consequence, the inevitable result of declining to live fully in the light of Divine Love. As I have preached to you many times over the years: we choose hell for ourselves. By living apart from God's love and His will, we choose to live outside His mercy forever in death. He will not force Himself on us. We must freely choose and then live out our freedom with good works. John the Baptist warns the Pharisees and us that our repentance must produce good fruit to be secure. He preaches, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” Where is my good fruit? Where is yours?

I am thankful everyday that I am not left alone to produce the good fruits of repentance. I shudder to think what I would choose on my own. I have my Dominican brothers; the seminary faculty, staff, and seminarians; friends and family. I have a great cloud of witnesses bearing me up, and dozens of faithful Catholics praying for me. And it is this unity of purpose – the one heart and one mind of the Church – that holds everyone of us up. Paul writes to the Romans, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” With endurance and encouragement we think in harmony! With one voice we give glory to God! That's how we begin to produce the good fruits of repentance – by staying close to the heart and the mind of the Church, giving thanks and praise to God, and doing everything that we do, and saying everything that we say, and thinking everything that we think for no other reason than to give God the glory. Do this. . .and you will bear the most excellent fruit. 
We await the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas. And we await his coming again at the end of the age. While we wait, we prepare. We prepare by remaining in good spiritual shape. By exercising our sacraments. By fasting and prayer. And by remembering always: our God has given us every encouragement to endure in peace until His Christ should again appear. Remain one heart, one mind, in the service of one Lord.

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26 November 2016

THE Final Exam

1st Sunday of Advent (2016)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic/OLR, NOLA

The prophet, Isaiah demands that we “walk in the light of the Lord!” St. Paul urges us to “throw off the works of darkness!” And our Lord warns us to “stay awake!” Walk in the light. Throw off darkness. Stay awake. Sounds like someone is studying for final exams! Or maybe pulling an all-nighter on year-end tax preparation. But, we know, that today is the first Sunday of Advent – our season of waiting – so walking in the light, throwing off darkness, and staying awake are all imperatives for preparing ourselves to welcome the birth of the Christ Child a month from now. Why do we need to prepare? If you are at all like me while waiting, your attention lags. You get anxious. Twitchy and frustrated. You begin to wonder if the cashier is napping. Or if the guy at the head of the line is trying to order lunch in Swahili. While waiting, I begin to experience myself as the center of the universe. I am the only one with important things to do and important people to see. I am busy, rushed, running late. IOW, my pride comes raging to the surface, and the possibility that I am being taught some humility only makes me angrier. With pride comes serious temptation to sin. The spirit of Advent is right behind me, whispering, “Walk in the light. Throw off darkness. Stay awake.”

If I manage to resist punching the spirit of Advent in the face, I take a deep breath and imagine myself walking in the light. There are no shadows. Not even my own. No dark places. Nothing not shining with the light Christ offers. “Walking in the light” can sound a little too much like a Star Wars proverb. But it's the biblical way of saying “live with the Lord,” “follow His commands,” “walk the path of righteousness.” We can prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ Child by getting up in the morning and going to bed at night with a single prayer on our lips: “Lord, you are my light; make me your light to the world.” If we see and hear ourselves as conduits for Christ's light, as a means of shining out Christ's light to the world, then we can more easily resist pride and the temptations pride entertains. Waiting becomes more than just a trial in patience. Waiting becomes our way of bearing witness. Just being still in Christ and letting him convert us into his peaceful presence – no words, gestures, or signs from us. Just Christ radiating out. Scripture calls this “countenance.” One's bearing – encouraging, patient, peaceful. If we are in Christ, then there can be no darkness in us. Our countenance is Christ.

If Christ is our countenance – our manner of appearing and being in the world – then we have already thrown aside the works of darkness. The phrase “works of darkness” always makes me think of the many sci-fi/fantasy novels I've read over the years. I immediately see Dark Lords and Evil Knights ravaging the land for power. Paul is thinking a little smaller here. The works of darkness he urges us to throw off are the works of our disordered passions – rivalry, promiscuity, drunkenness, and jealousy. Not exactly the rioting armies of Orcs from Mordor but nonetheless all fatal to our relationship with Christ. Every work of darkness, every act willed from a disordered passion twists the human person toward folly, turning him or her into a fool. We become used to sin; we come to see and hear disobedience to the Father's will as normal; and, finally, we run out of time, and God honors our faithlessness by faithfully allowing us to live apart from Him forever. While we wait on the birth of the Christ Child, while we walk humbly in his light, the works of darkness appear as stains, as shadows on our Way. We can overthrow these dark works by turning again and again to Christ. In the sacrament of confession, in personal and public prayer, and in works of charity. We can stay with Christ by staying awake in his spirit.

When Jesus warns us to “stay awake,” he means to warn us against spiritual complacency, against the bad human habit of “feeling secure” while living outside the will of his Father. We may feel secure in our homes, our jobs, our personal relationships, but we are not truly secure until we are “awake in Christ,” until every aspect of our lives is fully alive to the reality and power of Christ to bring us to the Father. It's one thing to know about Christ; it's another to know him. It's one thing to love the idea of Christ; it's another to love him. Being “awake in Christ” means being fully, actively conscious that you and all that you have belongs to Christ – as your freely offered gift to him. When we take his yoke and follow his Way, we become his. Wholly owned, if not always wholly operated. By walking in the light and throwing off the works of darkness, we can be both wholly owned and wholly operated by Christ and therefore always awake to his coming, always awake and waiting on his coming again. Advent is our time to wait on his birth at Christmas and to anticipate his coming again at the end of the age. He comes once to free us and again to judge us. Sitting on the judgment seat, he may ask you: “Did you walk in the light? Did you throw off the works of darkness? Did you stay awake?” These are your questions for the season of Advent. Prepare your answers well. . .this will be The Final Exam.

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19 November 2016

Ruling from the Cross

NB: from 2013 for the Vigil Mass. . .I'll have a new homily ready for the Our Lady of the Rosary Mass tomorrow.

Christus Rex
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic/Tulane Catholic, NOLA

Take a moment to consider the crucifix—a cross made of wood with a dead body nailed to it. What's so special about Jesus' crucifixion? In the world ruled by the Roman Empire, slaves, pirates, and rebels against the empire were routinely crucified. It was considered a dishonorable way to die. In 71 B.C., the Roman general, Marcus Licinius Crassus, finally defeated the gladiator army of Spartacus the Thracian, crucifying 6,000 rebellious slaves along the Appian Way. Just 17 years before this, the King of Judea, Alexander Jannaeus, crucified 88 Pharisees who opposed his rule, and five hundred years before this, King Darius I of Babylon crucified 3,000 of his political opponents. So, Babylonians, Jews, Romans all nailed or tied men and women to wooden crosses as a form of torture and execution. Why then make such a big deal about Jesus' execution? What's so special about a cross with the body of Christ hanging on it? Ask yourself on this Solemnity of Christ the King: how does Christ rule as a king while hanging dead on a cross? How does he rule in your life, your heart and mind?

How does Christ rule as a king while hanging dead on a cross? We can start an answer by turning to Paul and his letter to the Colossians. Paul tells us that God delivers us from the power of darkness – from ignorance, sin, and death – and then transfers us from this world's domination over to His kingdom – to the rule, the governance – of His beloved Son, Jesus Christ, in whom and through whom we have redemption. And what is this redemption? The forgiveness of our sins. So, by forgiving our sins – apart from our good works, apart from our good intentions – God grants us absolute amnesty, free reign to abide in His kingdom as citizens and not only as citizens but as heirs as well! If we accept, if we receive his freely offered amnesty, we are “transferred” to another jurisdiction, to another governing power: the rule of Christ the King. And under his rule, we are brothers and sisters in the Holy Family of God. We live under a new dispensation, a new and eternal law of charity in hope with an abiding faith. Paul says, “. . .the Father who has made [us] fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light.” And that is what we are here to do: share in the inheritance granted us by the death of Christ on the cross and by his resurrection from the tomb.

But this is only a partial answer to our first question. Christ rules a kingdom from his cross and an empty tomb, a kingdom to which we are heirs. But how does he rule? Who is he that he can do such a bizarre thing? We turn to Paul again. He writes, “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God. . .in [Christ] were created all things in heaven and on earth. . .all things were created through [Christ] and for [Christ]. He is before all things, and in [Christ] all things hold together. . .” Through Christ, for Christ, and in Christ “all things hold together.” All things. Including me and you. If “all things” hold together in Christ, then it follows that Christ serves as the organizing principle, the center, the underlying structure for all of creation. He was “at the beginning” with the Father; he is with us now, and he will be with us always. All of this tells us that Christ is God, so when we look at the crucifix, we see God hanging there. Dead. For us. And b/c Christ was both human and divine, we see humanity hanging there as well. Human nature. What you and I are are most fundamentally. But you and I aren't dead. We're alive. How does Christ rule from the cross? He rules through the redeemed human nature that you and I share. He rules – at least for now – through our free reception of his sacrificial love. We are his body and blood, his hands and feet, moving through creation, doing the work he gives us to do.

That's who are we: the body and blood of Christ, his hands and feet, moving through creation, doing the work he gives us to do. That is, that's who we are if and when we freely receive his sacrificial love and make that love manifest in our work. Look at the criminal on a cross next to Jesus. The sign above Jesus' bloody head reads, “This is the King of the Jews.” Luke tells us, “Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, 'Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.'” In other words, prove your worth, King of the Jews! Prove that you are who you say you are! He almost dares Jesus to rescue them from their fate. The other criminal, traditionally named Dismas, somehow understanding who hangs next to him, rebukes the first, saying, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation?. . .we have been condemned justly. . .but this man has done nothing criminal.” Seeing the scandal of Jesus' unjust execution, Dismas freely receives Christ's sacrificial love: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” In these two condemned men, we see all of humanity: those who dare Christ to save them from death and those who receive his salvation into eternal life. To the latter, Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Earlier, I asked you: how does Christ rule in your life, your heart and mind? One way to answer this is to think of yourself as Dismas, hanging next to Christ on your own cross. You have accepted death as punishment for your sins, and yet, seeing Christ dying unjustly, innocent of any sin, you call out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He turns to you and says, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” From that moment, you are “transferred” to another kingdom to live under another law, the law of charity in hope with an abiding faith.

You are pardoned, freed from the sentence of death, and let loose to thrive as an heir to the heavenly kingdom. Christ rules in your heart and mind as the sovereign of your every thought, word, and deed; as the sole ruler of everything you are and everything you do. In you, we see the hands and feet, the body and blood, the face of Christ. Through you, we witness the reign of Christ the King on earth. And with you, we live to bring to the fallen world the Good News of God's freely offered mercy to sinners through His Christ. How does Christ rule in our lives, our hearts and minds? If we receive him, he rules by teaching us to be servants, serving in sacrifice.

By a show of hands, how many of you have a crucifix? At home? On you? A rosary, a necklace? Good! When you look at that crucifix, you see Jesus hanging dead on a cross. From now on, see a king on his throne, ruling your world, ruling you. See the prince of peace, dying to bring his Father's peace to your world, to you. See your Savior throwing open his arms to show you the vistas of Paradise, to guide you through to your inheritance. See the Judge of the Last Judgment showing you his Father's justice and then granting you His mercy. Imagine yourself on a cross next to him. And imagine all the steps you followed to get there. Look down, to the foot of your cross, and take every step back to the beginning, back to the very first time you said to Christ, “Remember me, Lord, when you come into your kingdom.” From that moment on, Christ has ruled you and through you. He has served you and through you he still serves. “Amen, I say to you, today you [are] with me in Paradise.”

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15 November 2016

Don't do the angels' work for them

St Albert the Great
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

My family used to spend our Sundays hanging out at an old water-filled gravel quarry somewhere down near Chalmette. We would boat in, find a nice sandy beach, and settle in for the day grilling hamburgers, swimming, and fishing. Our last outing to what we called the Duck Roost ended rather dramatically. My 8 yo brother and my 11 yo old self were swimming at dusk. My dad – in a boat nearby – speared his spotlight across the pond. He called our names and yelled, “We've got company!” I turned around and saw three sets of red, flashing gator eyes creeping through the water towards me and my brother. Some forty years later, we refer to this as “The Day the Powell Boys Learned to Run on Water”! I think that this is one of reasons I became a Fisher of Men. . .rather than a fisher of fish. Fishing for fish in LA's bayous can be dangerous. But fishing for the souls of men and women in the world can be just as dangerous for the fisherman, if not more so. We throw the net of the Gospel into the world and pull in every sort of soul. At the end of the day, fishers of fish keep the good and toss the bad. But at the end of the age, it is the angels – not the fishermen – who parse the catch.

To the fishers of men listening to his parable, Jesus asks, “Do you understand all these things?” They reply, “Yes.” And with fear and trembling at getting it wrong, we too must reply, “Yes.” Why fear and trembling? Sirach says, “Whoever fears the Lord. . .will come to Wisdom. . .[Whoever fears the Lord] will lean upon [Wisdom] and not fall; he will trust in her and not be put to shame.” When the Church's fishers of men understand – truly grasp – the Good News, they take upon themselves a wisdom firmly rooted in humility – a habit of heart and mind that bows to the truth of Creation: we are all creatures wholly dependent on our Creator and His mercy. A wise fisherman of souls does not separate the good from the bad in his net. That's the work of angels at the end of the age. The work of the fisherman in this world is the heavy-lifting, time-consuming, always frustrating work of hauling in as many souls as the day will allow. What's so dangerous about this for the fisherman? The temptation to do the work of angels, forgetting humility and wisdom. The temptation to court foolishness and shame. None of us is an angel. So, do your work in this world with joy and gratitude, announcing the Good News, pulling in the net. . .and let the Lord and his angels do the wiser work of parsing the catch.

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13 November 2016

Do NOT be deceived!

33rd Sunday OT(C)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
It was a Friday afternoon after school. We were right outside the Ms Shear’s house – she had an indoor pool with that the glass roof. She would open her gates and let us run our bikes down her driveway into the dead-end cove. At the bottom of the driveway that Friday just as I was spinning around to ride back up, my best friend, Teddie asked me, “Do you know Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” I stared at him for a second, mildly embarrassed, murmured something unintelligible, and headed back up the hill. He followed and asked me at the top, “Have you ever heard of the Tribulation?” No. “The Second Coming of Jesus.” No. “The Rapture?” No. “The war at Armageddon?” No. He stared at me, open-mouthed. I felt like a circus-freak – one of those werewolf boys or eight-legged cows you read about in F. O'Connor short stories. And just as I was starting to think Teddie was going to slap a sign on me and start selling tickets, he said, “You need to come to Vacation Bible School at Fremeaux Ave. Baptist Church.” I distinctly remember his tone. He pronounced this possibility like a highly-effective cure for a particularly ugly disease, like suggesting radical plastic surgery to the eight-legged cow or laser-hair removal for the werewolf boy. Vacation Bible School will fix ten-year old-Jesus-stupid-Philip. 
Jesus knows how to get and hold the attention of a crowd. Pointing to the temple, the very heart of the Jewish people, he says, “All that you see here – the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone…” And the people wonder, “Teacher, when will this happen?” Notice how Jesus answers. Typically, Jesus doesn’t answer the question asked of him; rather, he answers the question we would ask if we were less clueless! Rather than tell the crowd who or what destroys the temple, or how the temple is destroyed, or even when it is pulled down, Jesus says, “See that you are not deceived, for many will come in my name, saying ‘I am he’ and ‘The time is come.’ Do not follow them!” This isn’t an answer. And neither is any of the rest of his response. War. Famine. Earthquakes. Awesome sights and mighty signs. Persecutions of the church. These have been going on since the beginning of the Church. Before the Church even. And not only that, but the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans some seventy years after the resurrection of Christ, making this passage from Luke’s gospel essentially an interesting but ultimately pointless historical curiosity for us in 2016, right? Wrong! Jesus’ response to the crowd is an answer for the ages. To us. He is speaking to us right now.
You see, our faith, done right, is a dangerous thing. It is a worm in the shiny apple of the world. A pest that buzzes ‘round the emperor’s head. Our faith is a still small voice that never stops whispering for the Lord’s justice. Never stops praying for the world’s sick, hungry, lonely, oppressed, sinful. Our faith, our firm trust in the Lord and our sure hope of resurrection, annoys; it burns to clean; it names those who would set themselves on the altar of the temple, and it pulls down the idols of the appetites. Through our faith we see clearly, hear cleanly the chaos and racket of a world infused with the spirit of the Now and the New. Easy salvation. Cheap grace. No-challenge Church. Invent as you go, believe as you wish, do as you please. Please yourself, please me! Here’s a new prophet, a new priest to tickle our ears, to scratch our curiosities. I am he. The time has come. I am he. The time is now. The time is new. I am he who comes in the name of the Lord. I am he whose time is now and I come in the name of a new Lord! 
Do not be deceived. Do not follow him. Or her. Or it – a spiritual program, a method, a style or a fashion, a theological trend, or a “new thing in prayer,” the latest thing to demand your allegiance, your time and energy, your soul. Do not be deceived by easy fixes, quick cures, elaborate models of living the faith, or fanciful devotions that take your eyes from Christ. Do not be deceived by the shiny, flickering world of cable-TV commerce or media-born politics or the brain-rotting candy of cultural relativism. Your faith is old. But your trust in the Lord is always brand new. For us, Christ is the wisdom of the ages. Always fresh, always innovative, always the original.

So, ten-year-old-Jesus-stupid-Philip went to Baptist Vacation Bible School. A week of verse-memorization, macaroni art, disciple-tag, fevered altar calls in church, intense pressure to “come to Jesus.” On the last day, I caved. I walked the aisle to the rail. In a Baptist version of confession, I muttered a few sins to the preacher. He asked me if I accepted Jesus into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior. I said, “Yes.” But I thought, “Sure. Anything to get outta here!” Later, Teddie asked me if I felt different. I said, “No. Not really.” Again, he stared at me like I had grown a third eye. He said sadly, “Well, you didn’t get saved then. You would feel it.” All I could do was shrug and say, “Maybe next time.” He showed me the Book of Revelation where the blood of those killed in the war against the Beast flowed as high as a horse’s bridle. He pointed to the whore of Babylon and told me that was really the Catholic Church. He read out to me the parts about the angels and the seven seals and the ten-headed dragon and the number 666. And he managed to scare Jesus into me. Or maybe he scared me into Jesus. 
Jesus warns us that we will be persecuted. Arrested and executed for our faith. This was made clear to me by Teddie when he showed me the chaos of the apocalypse. The energy, the fervor of his belief propelled me to seek out, to question, to look more deeply into the faith. I didn’t stop at the fundamentalist vision of the end times. I kept reading, praying, asking questions. And I found the Church…eventually. Before that though I let every alien philosophy out there, every puny little god with a creed and a priest tell me how to live. We are the Church, the Body of Christ. We are his Body and Blood. The blood of the martyrs’ faith. The faith of our ancestors in covenant with the Father. And a Father who has not abandoned us to novelty, to trendy religious nonsense, or worldly saviors. We are given the word of wisdom against whom no adversary can stand. We are given the trust of the Creator and His recreating Love. On these, we endure. With these, we persevere. And what promise we do have? This one: “You will be hated b/c of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.” Nothing cheap or easy about that!

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07 November 2016

A truly seamless garment

We're told by many of our Catholic brethren who lean to the left that the Church errs in focusing too much on teaching against abortion. Of course abortion is bad, they say, but we can't be "one-issue voters." There are many important issues for Catholics to consider in the voting booth. 

True. There's racism, poverty, immigration, medical research using human embryos, human trafficking, and probably a dozen others.

But here's my question: why does the Church teach against sins like racism, violence, human trafficking, etc.? 

Racism violates the innate dignity of the human person.
Violence degrades the innate dignity of the human person.
Trafficking defiles the innate dignity of the human person.

The dignity of the human person is rooted in the imago Dei that each and every human person embodies. 

Is there a more horrific violation of the imago Dei that each person embodies than to be dissected with scissors in your mother's womb and sucked out through a tube?

The normalization of abortion as a simple medical procedure has made it possible for many of us to believe that killing is a viable (!) solution to most problems. 

Abortion is rotting our national institutions and destroying charity in the nation's heart. Abortion gives us permission to hate the Other -- the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the refugee, the poor, the crippled, the veteran. It gives us license to look at those we are charged with loving and think, "You're a nuance. A useless eater. It would be better if you were dead."

The fabric of the Church's seamless garment is the sanctity of human life. Every other issue hangs on this.

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