01 December 2006

Pools of Fire lapping at unrepentant souls

Last Week OT (F): Revelation 20.1-4, 11-21.2 and Luke 21.29-33
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory and Church of the Incarnation

What are we to do with readings like this one from the Apocalypse? What are 21st century Catholics supposed to do with visions of Satan in chains, throngs of bloodied martyrs crowding the throne of God, a scary Book of Life, pools of fire into which damned souls are thrown and a new heaven and a new earth? Take it seriously? Literally? Literarily? With a big grain of salt and a weak apologetic grin? Take it historically or prophetically or humorously, but take it; take it all and read it as a maternal text, a paternal narrative that conceives and gives birth to an incredible faith-history out of which we rise as children set to inherit a kingdom. I mean, these vivid apocalyptic images and dire warnings about the consequences of betrayal and the need for fidelity do more than inform our theology, they haunt our imaginations; they are vigorous spirits populating our Catholic vocabularies—our language and art and worship and our dreams about who we are and who we will be forever. Never think that God leaves our imaginations bare. He persuades in Surroundsound and High Definition Technicolor. And…he awaits our repentance.

Being very much a Jew and a teacher, Jesus grabs hold of the End Times speculative mind of his listeners and gives them a hard warning: decisions about fidelity to the Lord cannot be deferred indefinitely; time ticks away toward an end and the End is nearer than skin: “…this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.” This is not a rhetorical scare tactic or Jesus fear-mongering. He is simple telling the truth about the human person—our completion as creatures of a loving God will take place. We will not left to rot in the ground or float randomly in voided ether. There is an end and an End—a stopping point and a resolution with purpose.

Jesus says, “…the Kingdom of God is near.” Be glad, tremble, cry, laugh, leap around like an idiot, do whatever, but, keeping all those fantastic images from the Apocalypse firmly in heart and mind, choose: health or disease, love or indifference, mercy or judgment, freedom or slavery, life or death. Be subject to the King of kings, the Lord of lords, or take residence in the former heaven and the former earth and pass away with the sea.

The kingdom of God is near, Jesus says; pay attention to your life, your choices, your graces, your service, and your faith. Pay attention to this moment, your history, your future; pay attention as if you will be called upon to account for each word and deed done and not done in Christ’s name. Does your prosperity witness to the generosity of God? Does your poverty give glory to God’s abundance? Do you speak the language of conclusion, of divine purpose: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth…I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of the heaven from God…” Do you believe that Christ’s word will never pass away? If so, have you chosen to make his Word your word?

What are we to do with crazy readings like this one from Revelation? Believe it. The Devil is defeated. But still loose to tempt us against one another. Faithful witness of the gospel may get you beheaded, especially when we refuse in Christ name to submit to an idolatrous culture. Our God reigns and all is well. Death does not relieve us of our responsibility to serve those who need us most. Refusing Christ burns. And everything and everyone we know now and everywhere we have ever been—all of it and all of us—will be changed. Made new. Completed.

We will, in the End, be loved into eternity.

29 November 2006

Sign up and die!

Last Week OT (W): Revelation 15.1-4 and Luke 21.12-19
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory

I’m afraid that Jesus would not last long in the advertising business. Look at his recruitment strategy in Luke: Join me and all those who oppose me will round you up, beat you, spit on you, put you on trial for treason and blasphemy, and then put you to death. Oh, and by the way, some of those who do these things will be your mom and dad and your little sister and the guy next door with the yappy dog. Can you imagine this recruitment campaign bringing in the crowds in 21st century America?

It is not immediately obvious to me why those who choose to follow Christ will be persecuted. What is specific or special about following Christ that enrages those who would persecute us? Jesus tells the disciples that they will be persecuted “because of my name.” Christ’s teaching on the fulfillment of the Law in Love seems to shock, but does it cause persecution? His willingness to violate pharisaical interpretations of the Sabbath rules for the sake of a lesson in mercy draws establishment ire but not systematic violence. He speaks to unclean enemies of the state and women! but it is not immediately evident that he is tried, convicted, and executed for this. Perhaps all together these transgressive acts against law and tradition add up to a criminal nature worthy of righteous anger. But notice: Jesus lists none of these as the reason for institutional and familial violence against his brothers and sisters on the Way.

Because of his name we will be persecuted. Have been persecuted. Are being persecuted. Christ name is who he is most fundamentally, most basically. His name draws out and highlights the most intimate relationship possible, the most intensely personal—person to person—joy possible, the most loving parent-child bond. His name is Anointed One, Messiah and his name is a brand, a sign, a sacrament, a rule, and a throne.

Christ is the friendship that lays the foundation of all other human bonds. Before husband-wife or brother-sister or mother-child there is Father-Son-Holy Spirit. Before state-citizen, before king-subject, before teacher-student there is Father-Son-Holy Spirit. And this is why we have been, are being, and will be persecuted: his name is the name above all other names and by proclaiming his name to be our own, we put him first and last and lay claim to an inheritance that not only shapes reality—social and otherwise—but also gives that reality a purpose, a point. His name and our claim to it testify to the kingship of Christ. And those usurped by his ascendancy in our lives have not been, are not now, and will never be happy about being demoted. Beware: you will be hated because of his name.

We have this: a promise of endurance in his name, a promise of perseverance—to hang on even in the face of the worst trials is testimony, faithful witness, and a guarantee of our eternal lives. We need not worry about a defense. He is there already. We need not worry about our stunted wisdom. He is there already. He has been there from the beginning and will be there in the end.

Listen again to the choir singing before the heavenly throne: “You alone are holy, Lord. All nations will come and worship before you…” All nations. Even those that, for now, curse his name. Baptize in his name, pray in his name, minister in his name and in so doing, ensure that his name is first and last in everything we do. If we are not his by his name, whose are we and by what name will be known—forever?

27 November 2006

NO flash photography at a wedding???

I was told once by a parish priest of many years service that there are three guaranteed things a pastor can say to a congregation to get them really, really angry:

1). "Folks, Mass starts at 11am. Could you get here on time, please. Arriving during the homily is just rude."

2). "Folks, this is the Lord's House...and that's not the name of a strip club. Could you make sure your teenagers dress for Mass and not for MTV's Spring Break Bikini Special?"

3). "Folks, of course we all want to make a joyful noise to the Lord, but your child has been screaming non-stop for fifty minutes. As amusing as you might think we think that is...we don't. There's a Cry Room for a reason. Use it."

OK. I added the dashes of sarcasm, but you get the picture: asking people to arrive on time for Mass, dress appropriately, and to take their crying babies out of the Church proper are all ways for the Pastor to lose ground in the polls.

I've found another one. Before a wedding or a Baptism, say this to the photographer: "No flash pictures of any kind once Mass begins. None. Never. Not even one." And then make sure that the people in the congregation know it as well. Otherwise, the entire Mass becomes a media event complete with flashing paparatzi and whirring camera lenses!

I'm curious about what other presiders out there do about flash photography at weddings, confirmations, baptisms, etc.
Fr. Philip, OP

26 November 2006

Who is the King of your heart?

Christ the King: Daniel 7.13-14; Revelation 1.5-8; John 18.33b-37
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation and St. Paul’s Hospital

Who or what sits on the throne of your heart? Who or what rules your mind, your body, your soul? Who are you as a subject of the Lord’s kingdom? Who are we together in his royal service?

The Solemnity of Christ the King celebrates the arrival and the coming of the Lord—his coming and going in disgrace in the beginning and his coming and staying in glory in the end. He has been given an everlasting dominion, eternal glory, and kingship in heaven and on earth. He is firstborn of the dead, ruler of the kings of earth, and he is the faithful witness to his Father’s accomplished promise: to us who love him, he has freed us from our sin by his blood, and made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father! He is prophet, priest, and king and we share in his prophetic ministry, his priestly duty, and his kingly rule. But we do not share these offices by right or reward; we share them by inheritance. In baptism we took on the mantle of the Anointed One and gave our lives to the work of giving the Living Word our hands and feet, our strong backs and big mouths, our determination and patience, and we gave all of our foreign allegiances to the sanctifying fire of Pentecost—no alien rulers, no sacrifices to false gods, no prayers to the elemental powers, no princes before The Prince, no king in our hearts but the King of kings, the Lord or lords.

His dominion must skate through your veins, flex your muscles, and draw your breath. His rule will accomplish in you the perfection of every gift, polishing every talent and treasure, and he will bring your will to bear on the need for renunciation and sacrifice, the need for surrender to the commands of love, the righteous orders of mercy and faith. The rule of Christ the King in your heart opens your ears: “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” That voice, his voice will not ask you, will not lead you to the worship of the idols of the market.

Who or what sits on the throne of your heart? Who or what rules your mind, your body, your soul? If you are not ruled from your heart by the Word Made Flesh, then you are ruled by some alien power, some foreign god. Let me name some them: there are spirits who would rule us—spirits of disobedience and arrogance; of narcissism and selfishness; of deceit and false witness; of judgment and self-righteousness; of confusion and syncreticism; of rage and violence. There are disordered passions that would rule us: lust posing as love; greed posing as desire; pride posing as self-esteem; envy posing as competition; gluttony posing as the entitlement; sloth posing as leisure; and anger posing as righteous indignation. There are fallen angels, counterfeit messengers, who would rule us with false information and corrupted wisdom: ancient seers, ascended masters, make-believe prophets, self-anointed messiahs, cults of personality, cults of scientism, cults of success w/no money down, churches of the Barbie Waistline and the Ken Pecs and Abs, and the demonic choirs of celebrities singing their own praises!

Who or what sits on the throne of your heart? Who or what rules your mind, your body, your soul?

Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you King of the Jews?” Jesus answers with a question, “Did you figure this out or did someone tell you?” Pilate says, “I’m not a Jew. Your own people gave me to you. What have you done?” Jesus responses to Pilate, but he doesn’t answer Pilate’s question. Instead he tells Pilate that he is a King, but not a king in this world or a king in the way the world thinks of kings. Jesus says, “My kingdom does not belong to this world[…]my kingdom is not here.” Frustrated, Pilate says, “So, you are a king then?!” Jesus simply says, “I was born and came into this world to testify to the truth.” And this is what he did from his debut at the Wedding at Cana up to and including this exchange with Pilate—Jesus has taught the truth of the faith, holding fast against expectation and convenience and popularity and betrayal and expediency; holding the truth of the Word so that that Word might be purely spread, pristinely heralded and heard.

There is no compromise here. No genteel dialogue btw individuals with competing but probably compatible interests. No exchange of heart-felt wishes and warm salutations. Jesus speaks the Word of Truth to Pilate. And says, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” What do those who belong to the truth hear? They hear: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come, the almighty.” They hear a proclamation of Christ’s rule, a declaration of his reign and sovereignty. Son of Man and Son of God. Faithful witness. Firstborn of the dead. Ruler of the kings of the earth. No election. No voting. No audience participation. No American Idol final four. Lord of lords, King of kings. Mighty God. That’s all! And that’s everything!

Who or what sits on the throne of your heart? Who or what rules your mind, your body, your soul?

The implication of these questions is naked: answer them honestly and know immediately the state of your spiritual life. I don’t mean to say here that you will get some sense of whether or not you are fulfilled or happy or content. Or that you will come to feel better about yourself or less stressed out or better able to cope. Jesus promised his disciples and us—all of his preachers and apostles—persecution, trial, betrayal, and death. He never promised us contentment or self-esteem in this life. This doesn’t mean that we won’t be happy here and now or that we can’t find some measure of peace. All it means is that being stressed out or unhappy or anxious or doubtful is not evidence that you are a bad Christian. All of those nagging spirits and draining demons are, however, a pretty good sign that something or someone else sits on the throne of your heart; something or someone else rules you—body, mind, spirit, all of you. What you feel is dis-ease, instability, the uneasiness that we all feel when we invite a foreign ruler, some alien king into our lives.

But know that these spirits are temporary gods, paper doll deities folded together with Elmer’s and plastic glitter. They are houses of leaves, Styrofoam rocks and magic marker paint, a fleet of cardboard ships in icy water sinking. They are the Sons of Noise and the Daughters of Wisps, passing through, clouds and rank breezes; loud, dangerous, yes; but powerless before a true king.

Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. Everyone who belongs to goodness sees his work. Everyone who belongs to beauty touches his face. Everyone who belongs to the Father welcomes his rule in their hearts. Everyone who belongs to the Son gives thanks for his sacrifice. Everyone who belongs to the Spirit rejoices in his gifts. And everyone, everyone who belongs to the kingdom serves One Faith, One Baptism, One Lord!

Is he lord of your heart? If not, who sits the throne and rules your life? He is the Faithful witness, the Firstborn of the dead, King of kings, Jesus Christ!