19 August 2006

Living wisely on the Bread of Heaven

20th Sunday OT: Prov 9.1-6; Ephesians 5.15-20; and John 6.51-58
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Paul Hospital, Dallas, TX

What does it mean for a Christian to live foolishly? It could mean living outside the church’s care, outside the historic embrace of the living tradition that guards and hands on the priceless arts of our faith’s lived-wisdom—the stories, the teachings, the creeds that we use to become saints. Living foolishly could mean buying tickets on one of the many inevitable cultural train wrecks that will litter our social landscape soon enough—the dilution of personal responsibility in a culture crazy for genetic causes; the multiplication of atomistic souls perpetually jacked into IPods, laptops, and cell phones; the ease with which death comes to be a reasonable reaction to daily inconveniences. Living foolishly could be something as “old-fashioned” as living in sin, living in defiance of the Father’s will for our lives, denying divine providence; or maybe something like living a life of unhealthy risk, constant stress and trauma, living outside rational deliberation, on the edge of chance and chaos.

We can live foolishly a hundred different ways, a thousand! But only one way to live offers us wisdom. Paul writes, “Watch carefully how you live, not as foolish persons but as wise[…]do not continue in ignorance, but try to understand what is the will of the Lord.” Living in ignorance of the Lord’s will for your life is what it means to live foolishly, to live without wisdom, without His guidance and care. A fool believes he wisely maps his life by considering all contingencies, covering all possibilities, insuring against all inevitabilities, but leaving the Father’s will off the map the fool guarantees that the biggest possible picture, the grandest scale of his life-campaign is missed entirely. Without God, without His grace we are nothing. Literally, “no thing;” we are not.

And here is where the arts of our faith’s lived-wisdom, handed on to us, are the most help. If you are Catholic, you simply cannot plead ignorance of the spiritual life. You cannot say with any integrity, with any expectation of being seriously believed: “I didn’t know about the life of wisdom! I didn’t know I had access to the treasures of our tradition!” If you make it to weekly Mass, you already have access to the priceless pearl of the Father’s revelation in the proclamation and preaching of the Word. You already have ready access to a communal life of prayer that lifts up praise and thanksgiving to God and petitions the Father with the indomitable intercession of the community of saints. You already have access to the living bread, the flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, given in sacrifice for us all and eaten at his command for our growth in holiness. You already have an open door to heaven, a cleared path to your final union with God, a greased shoot straight up to the Throne!

Living foolishly with this much wisdom just hanging around is near suicidal!

When you attend Mass, properly disposed, you eat and drink of the Lord’s body and blood, taking into your body and bloody the substance of the One who suffered, died, and rose again for our everlasting healing. True food, true drink he remains in us and we in him and we come, at our end, to Life because of Him. The foolish call what we do today—this sacrifice, this familial meal of his body and blood—they call it a “mere symbol” or a “simple memorial” without objective effect, without salvific consequences. Jesus says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life[…]the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”

My life, your life is caused—granted, given, gifted—by the life of Christ in this sacrifice of the Mass—not mere symbol, not simple remembrance, but Real Presence and efficacious sacrifice—the folding of history by the power of the Holy Spirit so that Then touches Now and the one death for many on the cross is Here for our thanksgiving and praise. We do not sacrifice Christ again—over and over each Mass—but re-present, make present again his single sacrifice of the cross, our only means of salvation.

The will of the Father for us, our life in wisdom, is that we live together praising his Name, eating at His table, forgiving one another, outdoing one another in charitable acts, teaching and preaching the truth of the faith in love, witnessing to His mercy by seeking justice, and, quoting Paul, by “singing and playing to the Lord in our hearts, giving thanks always and for everything” in the name of Jesus our Risen Lord!

Yoked to Love

St. John Eudes: Ephesians 3.14-19 and Matthew 11.25-30
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

We have two priestly prayers. Two prayers to the Father offered for the benefit of others by Paul the Apostle and Christ our only High Priest. Mediating between God’s people and God Himself, these two priests stand at the limit of their worlds, holding each fully, giving testimony to what will be out of what already is.

Paul, in his ministry as apostle, uses his prayer to draw the Ephesian church into the fullest possible in-dwelling of the Spirit, casting his people confidently and freely into the hands of Christ, calling upon them the sure knowledge of Christ’s love for them and looking well past the immediate moment toward their final end in a love that outshines, extravagantly exceeds mere knowing. They are, and we are, to be filled with the fullness of God!

Christ, in his ministry as Messiah and High Priest, uses his prayer to publicly praise his Father for the unique revelation of His power and mercy to the poor in spirit; speaking over the heads of the wise and learned, the Father opens the veil to show His face to the childlike—He “hands over” to His Son “all things” and Jesus announces that no one may come to know the Father except through the exclusive, the final revelation of His Anointed One, the Christ. And lest this appear to be a onerous condition, an illiberal prerequisite, Christ turns his prayer to the people and eases any anxiety about the weight of his singular Messianic revelation: “…my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” Why? B/c he’s done all the heavy lifting in the work of our redemption.

Paul prays that the Ephesians will be given the strength to understand the “breadth and length and height and depth” of Christ’s love. He prays that, in essence, that their Spirit-gifted understanding may be so complete, so completely absorbing that what is left of the human heart and the human mind is God. God alone. Love alone. Deus caritas est. God is love. This revelation of divine charity, the Father’s love for His children, is made singularly by His Christ, only by the Son, for the ultimate purpose of accomplishing in us our redemption. Along the way, we learn from his teaching and his example what it means to put on Christ’s yoke, to be guided in the rows of righteousness, to be lead into all the possibilities of peace and humility.

These priestly prayers put us squarely before the Father—ready or not!—to be taught the “hidden things.” If we come as the wise and learned to take on the yoke, that is, if we come to the field filled with information, stuffed with worldly wisdom, Christ’s yoke will only feel that much heavier. The childlike, the poor in spirit, come with a docility that radiates a readiness to be taught, an admission of holy ignorance yearning to be cured. (I can witness to the fact that this is not an attitude academics take on easily!) But it is exactly this meekness that imitates the Christ in his acceptance of the Father’s will for his life. Obedience makes his sacrifice on the cross possible and makes it efficacious. An unwilling sacrifice blesses nothing.

Ask yourself: what conditions have you placed on your acceptance of Christ’s yoke? What prerequisites must Jesus fulfill before you assent to his teaching?

What can be lighter than a meek heart yoked to Love?

18 August 2006

The Popular Kids

St. Jane Francis de Chantal: Prov 31.10-13, 19-20, 30-31; Mark 3.31-35
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Serra Club Mass

I won’t ask how many of you were popular in high school! I was fortunate enough to find myself slugging through high school at a time in our culture when we were all challenged to perfect postmodern irony—the glib rejoinder to hard reality, the smart-alecky twist to every serious situation. We were also challenged to match pink/green/blue/yellow plaid pants with burgundy and purple Izod button-downs…but that’s a different homily! My point is that I was reasonably popular in high school b/c I was gifted by my parents with a sense of humor, a sharp enough tongue, and something like the ability to seem set back from it all, away, removed somehow from the fray, being at once engaged and separated. At the risk of sounding too therapy-ish, I wanted to be a cool kid but being a cool kid meant being distant, untouchable. To be included was to be self-excluded, and ironically, welcomed.

Among the first hints from Jesus that his gospel will not be limited to the Jews is this short passage from Mark. Teaching a small circle of disciples, Jesus is interrupted by the circle with the news that Jesus’ mother and brothers and sisters are outside asking after him. Rather than jumping up to welcome his family into the circle, Jesus takes this awkward moment to demonstrate a key point of his gospel message: salvation is no longer about who your family is, no longer about one’s tribe, no longer about connections, money, race, gender, or social class. Salvation is about hearing the Word and doing the will of God.

He asks the circle: “Who are my mother and my brothers?” I wonder if we can hear that question w/o irony nowadays—I mean, can we hear that question w/o hearing an inflection, a rhetorical lilt? We can speculate that Jesus has just completed a homily on what it means to be a hearer of the Word and a doer of the Father’s will. To hear the Word and then do the will of the Father is to become a member of God’s house, a householder in His tribe, a beloved son or daughter in His family.

The question about who his mother and brothers are isn’t a glib question masquerading as a “moral lesson.” It is a test question, a convenient chance to say, “Well, just as I was saying a few minutes ago, brothers and sisters, who indeed are my mother, my brothers and my sisters?” Like any good teacher, he jumps at a chance to make a concrete point: “Here you all are! Right here! Because whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

It is the will of God that we be happy. That we be happy in Him. That we find our end, our reach, our peace, our life in His Way. Created by Him to be seduced by His love for us, we are prodded, quite nearly dragged to Him by desire—an erotic pressure, a craving barrenness for His love. We are most perfect as ourselves when we hear His Word—the Word of scripture, the Word of creation, and His unique and final Word, Jesus Christ—when we hear this Word and do His will for us.

There is no irony in our faith, no glib condescension, or knowing winking at ill-kept secrets. Who are the popular kids? Who’s in? Who gets to sit in the inner circle and catch the fireside teachings of the Messiah? Whoever does the will of the Father. And here you all are—the Lord’s mothers, fathers, his brothers and sisters. Here you all are!

15 August 2006

The BVM: Witness, Apostle, Preacher, Queen

The Assumption of Mary: Rev 11.19, 12.1-6, 10; I Cor 15.20-27; Luke 1.39-56
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Mary the Virgin Church,

The small metal crucifix I wore on the outside of my shirt drew stares. It was something foreign, inexplicable, vaguely pagan to my Baptist classmates. The bent catechism given to me by my grandmother, a life-long Methodist, was ever ready in my back pocket, a easy reach and whip of the wrist to answer the ridicule and the curiosity of my friends. Once, during a debate with my best friend about the necessity of baptism for salvation, the catechism became a weapon. When I tried to show my friend the relevant passages in the catechism about baptism, she grabbed it from me and whacked me upside the head with it!

After some few days of silence on the subject, we resumed our debate. But as a high school convert who knew little to nothing about the faith, my witness was weak, sputtering, mostly protests against anti-Catholic stereotypes and bigoted myths. The experience of being Catholic in community would come some fifteen years later. After a long, difficult stint in the Episcopal Church and after years of studying the various “-ism’s” of postmodernism in an English PhD program, at 35 I answered a call, heard as a teenager, to serve the Body of Christ as a priest. But I still needed to learn how to witness to the faith, how to be an apostle worthy of the message. School is still in session.

The assumption of our Blessed Mother into heaven is a promise kept, a vow made good by our Father. Marking this day not only reminds us of the promise of the resurrection, the promise of eternal life, it also brings us back to our baptisms and gives us a few thumps on the head to remind us that we have vowed to be witnesses to the gospel, apostles of the Word—to be those who go out and give testimony in word and deed to the power, to the mercy, to the love of Christ.

The assumption of Mary into heaven is a consequence of her obedience, her YES, her faithfulness. Elizabeth says to Mary, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” What is the engine of our witness, what pushes us out there to speak the Truth in Love? We believe what the Lord has spoken to us will be fulfilled. If we don’t believe this, we need to shut up.

If we are not witnessing to the Word, giving testimony to the power of Christ’s love and mercy, then what are we witnessing to? What is it that sits on your heart, dwells at the center of your soul, driving you to your chosen end? There is a supermarket of attractive alternatives out there. Have no fear that you will bored with the options.

On aisle two for Catholics frightened by orthodoxy we have a wide selection of Gnostic heresies, Greek inspired mystery cults updated for the postmodern Catholic soul—cryptic, kabbalahistic devices to plumb the wells of egotistical fantasy and distract the heart with sweet affirmations and pretty lies. On aisle six we have cases and cases of discounted secularism for those Catholics embarrassed by the transcendent—boxes of materialist dogmatism, doctrinaire scientism, and rigid moral relativism. Buy two and get a case of Political Correctness free! Then in the meat section we have for those Catholics tempted by worldly triumphalism fatty slabs of nationalism, militarism, partisanship, shelves loaded with the bloody idols of violence and death and oppression, plenty of raw hatred and scraps of vengeance for sale. Finally, on the candy aisle we have religious syncretism for those Catholics who think they are excluded by Tradition and Scripture—colorful bags of chocolate covered faux Native American rituals, creamy blends of Buddhist-Christian prayer wheels, honey-roasted Jesus avatars and bodhisattvas, and nutty Mother Goddess womanrites with glow in the dark Gaia rosaries! OK, a bit of fun…but these are the eclectic fascisms of hearts that remain unconvinced by God’s truth, unawed by His Beauty, and chilled by His Goodness.

What does your heart desire? What do you want? To what do you witness?

Elizabeth greets Mary, calling her blessed b/c she heard the Word spoken to her, believed that the Lord’s promise would be fulfilled, and in radical trust, gave herself to the keeping and birthing of the Word for the world. She is the Lord’s mother in history and our mother in faith. She is also an apostle of the gospel, a preacher of the Word, and in her maternal care for our Lord, a prophet—one chosen by God to show His people how to live in righteousness with the advent of His Kingdom. She is a sign of the Church and for the Church, a blessed creature given to a life of showing her Son to the world. She is who we should be now and who we will be eventually if we believe on our Father’s Word, witness to His healing mercy, and flourish in His grace to our perfection.

And I ask again: what does your heart desire? What do you want? To what do you witness? In her Magnificat-hymn, her homily of praise and thanksgiving to God, Our Blessed Mother witnesses to the crowding generations who will call her blessed, holding up for us the great things done for her by the Almighty; she witnesses to the mercy that flows from a proper awe of His glory, the strength of his justice; she witnesses to His love of the poor and His contempt of the proud and the mighty; she witnesses to His care of the hungry, His help for His promised people, and His ageless fidelity to Abraham and all his children. Our Blessed Mother’s heart desires the Spirit of the Lord; she finds food for her deepest hunger in His service, and with gratitude pours out a lasting witness, a testimony for the generations: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord!”

Perhaps the Assumption is not so much about what we have always known and always believed—that God took Mary body and soul into heaven—perhaps the Assumption is more about what we often need some goading to do: to believe that the Word of the Lord to us will be fulfilled, to believe His promises, and in this belief, this trust, offer our promised witness, honor our baptismal vows to be Christs in the world! If our Blessed Mother is who we should be now and who we will be eventually, then we will be prepared—intellectually, physically, spiritually, sacramentally—well-prepared to stand in the public square facing down the temptations of materialism, Gnosticism, relativism, violent nationalism, all the temptations that Good Catholics wrestle with, and we will proclaim the greatness of the Lord, rejoice in our Savior, bless His Holy Name, and refuse, always refuse, to offer worship to the idols of the culture.

What does your heart desire? What do you want? To what do you witness?

What do you need from the Lord to fulfill your promise to give Him witness? What strength do you need to weaken the temptations of a culture seemingly bent on social suicide? What gift can God give you to move you to offer Him praise and thanksgiving without ceasing? What do you need to bear His Word?

What will get you ready to be Christ for others?

13 August 2006

Knackered and needing a nap

19th Sunday OT: I Kings 19.4-8; Ephesians 4.30-5.2; John 6.41-51
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation and St. Paul’s Hospital

As the Brits say, “I’m knackered.” I’m tired. Done in. I bet you’re tired too, aren’t you? I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted by many things these days—constant attacks on the Church from anti-Catholic bigots in the media, in the government, even in the Church Herself! I’m worn bare by our own steady and often petty in-house bickering over questions of authority, liturgy, morality, Catholic identity, and on and on, ad nauseum. I’m weak and weary from wondering why some Catholic theologians refuse to teach the faith of the apostles; why some bishops and priests seem hell-bent on ruining the Church in one exorbitantly expensive zipper scandal after another; why some unsettled lay folks work so hard to turn the Roman Catholic Church into the largest liberal Protestant denomination in the US. I am worn out by the narcissistic guerilla tactics of self-appointed prophets and priests and delusional neo-pagans playing at being Catholic priestesses while the three-ring circus of 24/7 media coverage gives their self-serving twaddle all the light and sound any egomaniac would empty her trustfund to pay for….I’m knackered….and I bet you are too.

I think we need a nap. Something cozy with tea and a good book. Maybe some lulling classical Spanish guitar music or some traditional Japanese flute. A hammock or a daybed with cool sheets. Tinkling chimes fluttering in the wind, randomly ringing the day through…a light rain splatters the grass, cooling the air…ah, much better.

Waking from my nap, I read Paul’s letter to the Ephesians again and blush in embarrassment: “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God…all bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from you, along with all malice.” Like a prophetic voice in my stubborn ear, Paul says exactly what I need to hear, what we need to hear in these tumultuous times: when we entertain and nourish bitterness, fury, anger, contention, malice, and scorn we grieve the Holy Spirit, the spirit with which we were sealed for the day of our redemption. In other words, we violate, do injury to the love of God for us, the love that engineered and accomplished our redemption. Paul says, “…be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving of one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.”

Easily said, St. Paul. But the Spirit of Bitter Contention and Rebellion is just waiting behind our crystal wind chimes to whammy us again with anxiety and fear and wrath. We say with Elijah, “This is enough, O Lord!” How do we recover the peace of Christ, the assurance of his love, the promise of his mercy? How do we live day to day with the seduction of wrath born in disappointment? With the temptation of contentiousness born in self-righteousness? How do we flourish as holy men and women when the delicious lure of morose delectation, our love for the deserved misery of others calls to us so sweetly? What help is there for us!?

Exhausted and despairing in the desert Elijah surrenders to his weakness and cries out: “This is enough, O Lord! Take my life…!” Worn out, he takes a nap. And wakes to find food and water. An angel appears and orders him to eat and drink. He does. And naps again. A second time he wakes, finds food and water. The angel orders him, “Get up and eat, else the journey will be too long for you!” He obeys. And walks forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God. With angelic prompting and solid food, Elijah defeated his weakness—his exhaustion and despair—and made good on his promised pilgrimage to God.

What help is there for us as a Church when tempted by the spirits of contention, rebellion, wrathful condemnation, and bitter rebuke? What food and drink is there to relieve our exhaustion, nourish our souls, raise our spirits, and calm the dangerous waters for our safe passing? Jesus says, “I am the bread that came down from heaven […] Amen, amen I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life […] I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

Our help, our binding assistance, the support we need and seek is the Eucharist—the sacrifice of the Mass, the supper of God’s family. We will find in the local worship of the universal church the abiding presence of Christ—in his temple, in his people, in his priest, and, uniquely, in his Blessed Sacrament. He is not here to loiter or fuss about or merely occupy a beautiful space. He is here to possess our hearts. To own our minds. Ready as food and drink for our bodies, nourishment for the pilgrimage to God that we promised to take at our baptisms. He is here as his Father’s promise fulfilled to make us His children, co-heirs to the kingdom, adopted sons and daughters of the Most High. He is here to make us the living bread, the living flesh and blood of Christ so that we then can live day-to-day as sacrificial offerings to God.

We must first sacrifice our bitterness, our bile, our anger and shouting, our scorn and wrathful condemnation. We must make these holy by surrendering them to God’s transforming love, His enduring compassion. He will give back to us His joy, His delight in us, His ever ready forgiveness, and His peaceful voice speaking an empowering Word of truth. Jesus says, “Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.” We shall all be taught by God!

That we must be ready to remove from us the soul-killing voices of dissention, rebellion, bitterness, and contention does not mean that we must be ready to ignore or even coddle the Spirits of Deceit and Disobedience. Nothing about growing up to be Christs for others requires us to tolerate false teaching, listen to phony myths, or watch anti-Catholic bigots (both in and outside the Church) dismantle the Body given to us by Christ. Charity without Truth is not love; it’s merely lazy toleration. But Truth without Charity is mere accuracy, just fact—cold, hollow.

If we will imitate Christ as Paul exhorts us to do we will confront false teaching, phony myths and anti-Catholic bigotry with the Truth in Love—not sugarcoating the Truth of the faith with pretty platitudes or accommodating rhetoric nor failing to treat God’s children with respect, the dignity due them as the images and likenesses of God. We can witness to the faith, be apostles to the truth of our Catholic tradition without the exhausting work of putting on the spiky skins of bitterness, anger, and contention. We can make this pilgrimage promised so long ago with the food and drink of Christ Himself—our Eucharist, our sacrifice, our blessed supper and Who we will be in the end.

There is manna in the desert of our disappointments. There is cool drink in the dry wells of our bitterness: “I am the living bread come down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever!”