31 March 2006

Heretic. Blasphemer. Criminal. Rebel.

4th Week of Lent (F): Wisdom 2.1, 12-22; John 7.1-2, 10, 25-30
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory and Church of the Incarnation

Hear it!
How would you like to drive up to Plano, get out of your car at Central Market, and have the folks in the store point at you and yell, “Hey! Isn’t he, isn’t she the one they are trying to kill?” Now, me personally, I would forget the glories of bulk couscous and organic coffee beans and head back to the car! What could be more disconcerting, more disturbing than to find yourself among your own people and marked for death, truly reviled, and hunted? Of course, not everyone was out to kill Jesus for his alleged blasphemies, not the small people or the pushed-aside, but those in charge, those with the political and religious power had labeled him a cancer, a riotous tumor to be found, diagnosed, and cut out of the body of the State and the Temple.

Why? Heretic. Blasphemer. Criminal. Rebel. Take your pick. The problem, essentially, is that the Son of God has come and he is sweeping through history, grabbing the threads of creation, tying and untying the knots of everything that was, everything that is, and everything that will be. He is binding and loosing whatever is loose and bound, and quaking the foundations of the Way Things Are Done. But perhaps most importantly, Jesus’ public ministry points to the consummation of the people’s grandest story, their most fundamental cultural narrative: the prophetic birth of the Messiah, the coming of the Christ among them. Anxiety rules because God is about to make good on His promise to give them a Victim whose sacrifice will split the Temple veil and bring them back, again, out of exile, out of sin, and make them into a nation of priests, a prophetic family, and heirs to His kingdom.

For them and for us, to reject Jesus, to reject Christ’s ministry as our redeeming sacrifice is to reject a history of generous covenant with the Father, to reject a history of prophetic witness to His law given for us, and to reject in history His revelation, His manifest goodness and beauty.

To deny Jesus now, to deny Christ’s ministry as our redeeming sacrifice, is to deny the truth that we are forgiven our rebellions, to deny the truth that we are reconciled among ourselves—that we are a Church, a single Body in Christ—; it is to deny the truth that we are saved, once for all, by his sacrifice on the altar of the cross.

To fear Jesus now, to fear Christ’s ministry as our redeeming sacrifice, is to fear freedom from the slavery of sin, to fear a future set right for holiness; it is to fear the guarantee of our own divinity, our final Beauty, in Him.

To reject, to deny, to fear Jesus is to reject, deny, and fear our history, who we are now, and who God will make us to be forever. Jesus said to the trembling crowd, “You know me and also know where I am from.” He then claims to be from the Father, the one whom they do not know. And they try to arrest him…out of fear, denial, rejection. But his suffering was not due; his time of betrayal and pain was not yet.

His sacrifice and our redemption will wait two more weeks, two more weeks for us to witness his power, his glory.

It is two weeks before iron bites wood through his flesh and blood and we are free…forever free.

27 March 2006

Signs and wonders, signs and wonders

4th Week of Lent (M): Isa 65.17-21; John 4.43-54
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

Hear it!
Why do we flock to churches where an image of the Blessed Mother is allegedly weeping? Why do we thrill over stories out of New Orleans that entire churches were destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, yet the statues of Our Lady of Prompt Succor were spared? And more recently, our Catholic papers and blogsites were loaded with reports that a consecrated host in this very diocese was found bleeding in a glass of water.

Signs and wonders, signs and wonders. Why do we thrill at these reports? Why do seek to be shown that which we already know to be true? When Jesus says in this morning’s gospel, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you will not believe,” are we the “you people” he’s talking about? I can confess here and now that there are times when I find myself seeking signs and wonders, wanting something unusual, something otherworldly as a sign of God’s presence, as a signal that He is working in my life. In some ways this desire grows out of our very natural desire to be with God, to seek Him out and dwell with Him forever. But we cannot get away from Jesus’ exasperation: you will not believe unless I show you something miraculous, something wondrous. You can almost hear him sigh.

You can hear the impatience of the anxious father, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” Jesus is worried that the people of Israel aren’t hearing his word, that they aren’t hearing him as The Word, and thus clamoring for signs and wonders as proof that he is who he says he is. The father is worried about his dying child. Despite his fretting about the people’s need for miracles to prove his identity, Jesus heals the official’s child and the word of this miracle spreads.

If Jesus is worried that his miracles are a distraction from his gospel, why does he heal the dying child? Why reinforce this faithless clamoring for signs and wonders by performing more signs and wonders? Could Jesus look into the eyes of the terrified father and deny him? Could he sit there with this man and tell him, “I will not heal your child b/c all these signs and wonders are distracting you from believing in me”? No, of course not. Notice carefully that the father believes Jesus’ word before the miracle is confirmed. This man begs Jesus for the life of his child not for a sign that Jesus is God. And this is why Jesus gives him his miracle.

When we thrill at reports that consecrated hosts are bleeding, or that rosaries are turning to gold in the presence of a Marian apparitation, what are we asking of God? What need are we confessing when our hearts leap at news of the allegedly miraculous? Are we running after supernatural confirmation in order to ease some lingering doubts? Are we hoping to soothe some fear, some worry by investing our trust in a remote possibility, some off-chance wonder?

We do not have to run after signs and wonders—not the kind reported in the tabloids anyway—b/c, first, the greatest sign, the grandest wonder we have as Catholics will occur on that altar in the next ten minutes: the sacrifice of the Mass; second, we don’t have to run after signs and wonders b/c we ourselves are signs and wonders, we ourselves constitute revelations of God to one another. Incomplete individually, yes. More perfect together, absolutely. We are here this morning at the prompting of the Holy Spirit and gathered in Christ name, that’s hope, that’s faith!

Thrill then at being here in the presence of Christ as a sign of God’s love, as a wonder who unveils his mercy, who reveals all the possibilities of his fatherly grace to everyone you meet today. That’s what we do as a people of the Cross and the Empty Tomb.

26 March 2006

It's time to bathe...

4th Sunday of Lent 2006: 2 Chr 36.14-16, 19-23; Eph 2.4-10; Jn 3.14-21
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul’s Hospital, Dallas, TX & Church of the Incarnation, Irving, TX

Hear it!
I’ve been feeling rather proud of myself this last week! I got up early everyday and said my rosary. Spent thirty minutes in front of the Blessed Sacrament on my knees. Prayed the Divine Mercy Chaplet and the Forty Days Prayer for Lent. I did all this before breakfast, without food, in our unheated chapel at the priory. I don’t mean to boast, but you know, I feel really, really holy, like I’ve really managed to get God to love me a little more, maybe I got a little closer to convincing Him to let me into Heaven. One morning, one of the other brothers just popped into the chapel for a second. Just bopped through like a rabbit and grabbed one of those missalette things and ran off. Guess he’s not interested in saving his soul. Well, I tell you, not to boast, of course, I’m determined to earn some Heaven Points today. I’m saying the rosary two more times, praying the Stations, and doing a few prostrations before the Blessed Sacrament! That should top off my grace account for the day.

Man, you know, working for redemption ain’t easy! But at least I’m working, right? At least I know that God loves me when I’m working for His love. I’m not like those other friars in my priory—I can fast more often, kneel longer, pray louder (and in Latin!), I adore the Blessed Sacrament instead of the TV, spend time with the Blessed Mother instead of the computer, and I know I’m holier because my habit is cleaner, and I iron it too! Jesus loves me best and most because I deserve it. You know, I’ve earned it.

Have you ever had one of those moments when you’re absolutely sure that you’re holier than the guy kneeling next to you at Mass? That you are most certainly better loved by God, closer to redemption and better insured against Hell? Look right now at the people around you. Can you tell who God doesn’t love as much as He loves you? Who isn’t as close to Heaven as your hard work has gotten you? They’re just spiritually lazy, right? Don’t you have a solemn duty to let them know that they’re being spiritually lazy, that they need to work a little harder for their grace points? Don’t you, as one more loved by God, have a duty to monitor their spiritual progress and correct their faults so that they will earn as many points as possible? Don’t you have a responsibility to save them, to save them from themselves for Christ?

No. You don’t. And do you know why? Of course you do! Grace ain’t earned. God’s love cannot be worked for. Our salvation was accomplished 2,000 years ago on the Cross and out of the Tomb, and no amount of kneeling, fasting, praying, boasting of holiness, monitoring our brothers and sisters, correcting others’ faults, or walking the Stations during Lent will get us one more ounce of redemptive grace, not one step closer to the Father’s mercy. Listen to Paul again: “[…] by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.” His love for us is not our handiwork. We are the Father’s handiwork. We do not conjure His love. We can stand in awe. We can offer thanks. We can bend the knee in adoration. We can even fall flat on our faces in righteous humility. But we cannot earn, buy, beg, steal, or in any shape, form, or fashion bank God’s love.

You’re probably thinking: “OK, Father, why are you on about this again!? Didn’t you just prattle on about this recently?” I’m on about this again because I think we all need to be reminded, especially in Lent, that God loves us and that our redemption, the healing of the Original Wound, is done and nothing we can do now will make redemption more available or freer or easier to get. Lent brings us to a powerful recognition of our mortality, a kind of panic about the years left to us and the weight of the years behind us. Lent dangles before our eyes our lives of sin: our disobediences, our many failures to love. It is uniquely a season for us to pull out of our souls all the festering junk that poisons us and set it ablaze in the desert. That vulnerability, that nakedness can leave us open to alien notions about grace, ideas foreign to our tradition. Our bishops know this well, so we have today, in the middle of Lent, John’s gospel on Christ’s love for us. How fitting!

Any time we spend with God alone leaves us naked in His glory and every blemish, every smudge, every little imperfection in us shines like a beacon. God does not love us despite our blemishes and little imperfections—as if we will live with Him forever stained with sin. No! It is because He loves us first and always that He opens a way to cleanliness for us and then He leaves us to wash. We do not earn the invitation to bathe. But we must bathe to enter His house.

Whoever believes in him will be saved. Whoever refuses to believe in him is already condemned.

I said to you earlier that no amount of fasting, prayer, or kneeling, none of these, will get you one more ounce of God’s love. This is true. It is true because you have every once of God’s love right now. He sent His only Son to die for us. He loves us as Love Himself, caritas per se. There is no love for Him to hold back. No love held back for Him to reward those who work harder. Deus caritas est. God is Love. And God is a person, Jesus Christ.

Our Holy Father, Benedict, in his first encyclical, teaches us, “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” Perhaps too boldly, I want to elaborate on our Holy Father’s teaching: being a Christian is not the result of righteous work or well-earned grace, but the result of “bumping into” the love that is God, the person of Jesus Christ, the Christ who freely accepted his death on a cross for us, and in so doing, makes it possible for us to live with him everyday of our lives and with him always in glory.

Pray. Fast. Kneel. Fraternally correct. Prostrate. Confess. Do penance. It is Lent! Be repentant, absolutely! But know that your spiritual athleticism will not save you. If you pray, fast, kneel, and do penance to earn God’s love, you will not grow in holiness. If you pray, fast, kneel and do penance because God loves you, in the full knowledge that your redemption is accomplished, then your work will be a blessing and holiness will prosper. The temptation of this wonderful penitential season is to fall into the Devil’s trap of believing that the Father expects us to earn His approval, His love. This is evil. The truth is that we are loved now, always. And we are loved sacrificially.

By grace we have been saved, raised up with him. By the light of this truth may our works be clearly seen as done in Him, with Him, and through Him.

Brothers and sisters, it’s time to bathe!