03 March 2006

Here I am

1st Friday of Lent 2006: Is 58.1-9; Psalm 51.3-6, 18-19; Matt 9.14-25
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Serra Club & Church of the Incarnation, Univ. of Dallas

Hear it!
A homily in three parts:

I. Psalm 51

We pray for mercy, God’s compassion. Relying on His goodness, we acknowledge our sins, the guilt of our disobedience, and beg His mercy. Asking for mercy, begging to be cleaned from our sins when we deserve punishment for them is audacious. Or is it? Audacity requires risk, a gamble of sorts. Audacity is a kind of daring against the probability of failure, a cheeky, swaggering bravery that risks one’s life, one’s reputation. We dare God’s mercy and ask for it with humble and contrite hearts. There is no audacity there. Without doubt, knowing with trembling hope that we will receive mercy, we ask nonetheless because asking is how we are changed, how we are perfected. Animal sacrifices are vain gestures, blood offerings poured over deaf stone. The Lord hears our sacrifice when the victim offered is our heart humbled, a heart that knows that He is our Only One, and when the victim is our contrite heart, repentant and turned to Him. We know that we will not be spurned. But we ask so that we will be changed. Ask, be changed, and hear the Lord eagerly say, “Here I am!”

II. Isaiah

Fasting simply to fast is pointless. Fasting with a quarrelsome heart, with selfish goals is not fasting. When we fast for reasons other than to glorify the Lord in our mortality, we fail to fast, fail to sacrifice. Oh, we may give up something, we may deny ourselves all kinds of things. But fasting is fasting only when we do it to glorify the Lord, when we do it to set aside a day and make that day acceptable to the Lord. And what makes a day acceptable to the Lord? A day acceptable to the Lord starts by making our righteous voices heard, heard on high. Without holding back, with full-throat, we are to cry out our sin. Bending our heads like reeds and putting on sackcloth and ashes is not what the Lord wants when we fast. What does He want? The fasting He will see and reward is the loosing of those unjustly held, “untying the thongs of the yoke” of those who are enslaved. Sharing what He has given us with those who have no homes, no clothes, and taking gentle care of our own. On this acceptable day, this day of righteous fasting, will we be healed, our wounds dressed and nursed, with our absolution going ahead of us to announce the mercy and love of the Lord. Fasting is holy service and not merely mortal deprivation. True fasting makes it possible for us to call out to the Lord for help and hear him say, nearly breathlessly, “Here I am!”

III. Matthew

What do you mourn? What have you lost and now long for? Who do you mourn? Who is it you have lost and now grieve for? To fast is to mourn, to lament passing life, impermanence and passing days into passing nights. Fasting brings to mind again the lack, the absence of what is necessary, what is needed for joy, for flourishing. So fasting is a kind of memory, a way to remember what is lost, who is lost. And a way to remember that who and what is lost is necessary, very much needed. Fasting is not always ash and tears and torn clothe. It is a way to recover, to regain. It is a way for us to cry out to the Lord, to wail his name in distress and hear him, gently, with confident comfort, say: “Here I am.”

01 March 2006

The pride of dust

Ash Wednesday 2006: Joel 2.12-18; 2 Cor 5.20-6.2; Matt6.1-6, 16-18
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

Hear it!
Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning. Rend your hearts! Not your garments.

Where do we begin this pilgrimage of forty days? How do we get this time away, this time apart from worldly obsession started?

What jumpstarts our Lenten pilgrimage is first an awareness of our dependence on God for absolutely everything. That we exist at all is contingent, totally conditioned on the goodness of God. Our lives are gratuitous, freely given, radically graced.

Begin this Lenten trek, then, in humility and give God thanks for your life.

If your Lenten pilgrimage is going to produce excellent spiritual fruit you cannot spend these forty days wallowing in sorrow, self-pity, and mortal deprivation. We deny ourselves always if we would grow in holiness, but this isn’t the kind of denial that looks like the public posturing of the Pharisees. Our Lenten denial is the self-emptying of Christ, that is, our best work at doing what Jesus did on the cross. Lenten denial is about making our gratuitous lives sacrificial. We sacrifice when we give something up and give it back to God.

Therefore, turn your heart over to God. Give your life back to Him. Repent of your disobediences, rejoice in His always ready forgiveness, and then get busy doing His holy work among His people.

If your Lenten trek is going to be about little more than pious public display, don’t bother with Lent this year. Jesus teaches his disciples that performing righteous deeds for show—fasting, giving alms—will win you nothing from our heavenly Father. He calls those who strut around showing off their piety hypocrites. It’s a show, pure theater. Nothing but thin drama for public consumption. He says, “[…] when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting[…].”

Jesus’ admonition here is about our tendency to think that we’re doing something substantial when really all we’re doing is something very superficial. Does that rosary around Madonna’s neck really mean she venerates the Blessed Mother? Does the cross of ashes most of us will wear today mean that we’re truly humble before the Lord? That we’re wholly given over to repentance, to a conversion of heart, and a life of holy service? If that cross of ashes is going to be a mark of pride for you today or a temptation to hypocrisy, wash it off immediately. If that cross of ash is going to be the sum total of your witness for Christ today, wash it off immediately. In fact, when you fast, wash your face.

Our Lord wants our contrite heart not our empty gesture. Our Lord wants our repentant lives not our public dramas of piety. When you pray, go to your room and close the door. When you fast, wash your face. When you give alms, do so in secret. Rend your hearts not your garments.

The Lenten pilgrimage we begin today is an excursion into mortality, a chance for us to face without fear our origin and our destiny in ash. It is our chance to practice the sacrificial life of Christ, giving ourselves to God by giving ourselves in humble service to one another. Lent is our forty day chance to pray, to give alms, to fast and to do it all with great joy, smiling all the while, never looking to see who’s noticing our sacrifice.

Remember, brothers and sisters: dust is never proud.

26 February 2006

New and Improved with Fresh New Scent

8th Sunday OT: Hos 2.16-17, 21-22; 2 Cor 3.1-6; Mark 2.18-22
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

Ladies and Gentlemen! Welcome one and all to the Newest, Happiest, Shiniest Show on Earth! Welcome one and all to the Latest, Trendiest, Freshest philosophies available on the planet. We offer you the most innovative, the most original, the most novel means to perfect happiness, total freedom, ultimate satisfaction, AND shiny and more manageable hair! Our colors are brighter, our aromas are sweeter, our textures softer, and our sound, WELL, our sound is louder, sharper, and clearer than ever! We work around the clock to insure that no opportunity to improve, to change, to revolutionize our finest products is ever missed. We have research facilities packed with the best-educated people in the universe, working 24/7 on ways to make your contentment a ready, easy, and inexpensive reality in a SNAP!

Ladies and Gentlemen, you are tired of being tired, run down from being run down? Are you exhausted by the work of enlightenment, holiness, and just plain ole Being Good? I have right here the Secrets of the Ancients! The Keys to Total Fulfillment! And the Elixir of Eternal Life! It’s new, it’s shiny, it’s the Latest Thing, and, boy, does it smell good! Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you:___________________! And it can be yours for the low, low one time price of your soul, or you can pay in installments over your lifetime with just one Big Sin a month. That’s right: just one Big Sin a month! How easy is that? All you need to do is surrender your reason to intellectual and media fashion; surrender your will to herd and flock morality; rent out your body to the cosmetic, diet, and pharmaceutical industries, and worship at the altar of celebrity politics, and VOILA!, you’re a vacuous, trend-following, bubble-headed neo-pagan just like the rest of us! Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Hell!

Hear the Lord this evening: I will lead you into the desert and speak to your heart. You will be espoused to me in fidelity, and you shall know the LORD. The letter of Christ is written not on tablets of stone but on your hearts of flesh. The letter of the Law brings death, but the Spirit gives new life. Therefore, He says, new wine needs to be poured into fresh wineskins.

Newer, shinier, and fresher, the Spirit of the Lord moves over His creation to renew, to polish, and to refresh. He moves over His creation to bring to life again the desire to seek after, to find, and to live the good life of holiness in Him. He speaks to our hearts with a voice spilling over with love and mercy, with a voice steeled against swift judgment and vengeance. His is an eternal voice, a Word spoken long ago and right now, at the beginning of all things and at their end. He renews life b/c He is Life. And He touches our place of covenant with Him, our hearts. He touches them as the One Who gives us tempo and blood, pulse and breath. We are espoused forever, espoused in right and justice, in love and in mercy. And we know the Lord!

The pimps of pop-culture and academic fashion need for you to believe just one thing in order to hook you, just one thing. They need for you to believe that YOU can make yourself new. They need for you to believe that you are deficient, incomplete, all so that you run to them—the purveyors of fashionable thought and ever-evolving philosophies. They feed on our anxiety, our firm suspicion that something isn’t right, something is missing and deeply wrong about our lives. We could be better, more productive, more energetic, more alive! Sure we could! But how? Building on these small worries, they create larger worries, bigger anxieties by constantly dragging in front of us the new and improved, the latest and brightest.

And we buy it. Over and over again, we buy it. And the more we buy it, the more they sell it and we become a culture more and more enslaved to the lie that I alone can make myself new; I alone can bring renewal to my sadly inadequately, shamefully deficient life. The fact that I alone, just like everyone else, have to sell my soul to celebrity and fashion in order to be this renewed individual is missed entirely, hidden in the sparkle, the electric rush of novelty. We cannot renew ourselves. Sure, we can shine ourselves up, trim down, brighten our teeth, wear new clothes, and get all our fat and sagging parts sucked thin and tightened up, but we cannot renew ourselves.

We cannot pour the new wine of our espoused spirits into the old wineskins of fashionable lies.

Though we cannot renew ourselves, we can be renewed. We can find ourselves remade, refashioned, and completely redone for the Kingdom. But this transformation is the work of God through His church not the work of the cultural prostitutes who would sell us anything to get their hands on our Everything—our souls, our reason for being here, our covenant with the Father. We are espoused, promised to God by God, in righteousness and justice, in love and mercy, so that we might know Him, so that we might have as the foundation, the rock bottom foundation, of our lives His fidelity, His faithfulness, and…Him—His presence among us, the Spirit of Life, the Bridegroom of this wedding feast. And it is in being with us that He renews us, in the sacraments, in the Word proclaimed and preached, in His creation, and in one another through charity and service, covenant and ministry.

Standing in stark contrast to the gospel of self-renewal and suicidal individualism is the gospel of the renewing Spirit preached by Christ and his apostles, handed down in promise to their children, and given to us in the faithfulness of the Lord’s Church. You can nip, tuck, suck out, work off, rethink, revision, plan, work out, project, and self-actualize and still find yourself restless, bored, exhausted, hungry, empty, and weak. You can retreat, study, massage, align, and mediate and still find yourself craving, needing, searching and not finding. There is nothing to discover. No secret to reveal. No exercise program or diet to follow. There is God’s mercy, His invitation to us to share with Him His divine life. There was our first Yes and our everyday Yes, our first fast and our everyday fast.

There is the temporary and the eternal, the passing and the permanent. We are free to attach ourselves to fleeting illusion or graced presence, to the refundable moment or to the renewing foundation. We can listen to and heed the seductive voices of our culture’s carnival barkers, spending our divine gifts on ideas and movements and celebrities that will sour, dry up, and blow away like old wine. We can gather around and gawk at the shiny new toys, the bright new ideas and innovations, eagerly entertaining the temptations of alien philosophies, the spurious promises of faked prophecies, borrowed spiritualities, and tourist religions. Or we can remember who we are: espoused of God forever in love and mercy, in right and justice; ministers of the new covenant commended by the Spirit and given new life. We are disciples of Christ, new wine poured into fresh wineskins. Forever beloved. Always forgiven. And again and again made new. Always new.

Will you live your life commited to one faith and one Lord? Or will you live as a marketing stat, a poll demographic, a victim of novelty’s populist cult?

The Spirit alone give life.