31 March 2007

Will you follow Christ to the Cross?

The Procession
Palm Sunday 2007: Luke 19.28-40
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Luke Church, St Paul Hospital, and Church of the Incarnation

“Who is that on the donkey?” Most of us are cheering. Most of us are waving palm branches and some few of us call out his name, naming him blessed. But some of us are unsettled by his celebrity and the praise he is receiving from the crowd. Is he truly the fulfillment of the ancient prophecy of the coming of the Messiah? “Who is this who rides into Jerusalem like a slave but is cheered like a king?”

He is the one given to Mary the Virgin by the Spirit of God. He is the one proclaimed by Simeon in the temple. He was baptized by the prophet John and was often found in the company of whores, lepers, tax collectors, and Gentiles. He healed a few, fed a few, and taught a few more the meaning of the Law. He confounded the Pharisees and scribes. He blasphemed by calling himself “Son of God.” His feet were perfumed by the woman in Bethany to prepare him for death. He is the one betrayed by his student and friend, sold for the price of a murdered slave—thirty pieces of silver. His blood is the new covenant, the new wine shed for the forgiveness of our sins. He is the one double-crossed, arrested, falsely accused, questioned by Pilate, and, finally, given to his executioners by the same crowd that had cheered him on the donkey earlier. Scourged, mocked, spat upon, and stripped naked, he is the One nailed to the cross, pierced by a spear, the one who dies so that we might live.

Who is this? We know now what the Roman soldier shouted aloud then: “Truly, this is the Son of God!”


The Mass
Palm Sunday:
Phil 2.6-11 and Luke 22.14-23.56
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Luke Church, St Paul Hospital and Church of the Incarnation


Paul says that Jesus, emptying himself, took on the form of a slave and became one of us to die as one of us for all of us. We can cheer all we want. Wave palms all we want. No one here will ask Jesus to let his cup pass. No one here will volunteer to hang on that cross and let Jesus go free. Are we cowards? No. We know that Jesus must die so that we might live. The certainty of his death is the only possibility of our eternal life. Only he is Son of God, Son of Man; fully human, fully divine. His death pulls us down into the grave and his rising again draws us up with him. Everything that needs to be healed will be healed. All repairs will be made. Nothing will be left broken or hurt.

But today, just today, knowing what we know about his journey from here to the tomb, even still we must cheer and whistle. And wave palms. And shout “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” And we want so much to grab the tail end of his departing scene and pull it back, just yank it back to the garden or the roaring sea or the mountaintop or the desert or to any of the dozens of place where we sat with him to listen to God’s wisdom, to see the radiant glory of his love for us.

We want him anywhere but here in Jerusalem. He rides to the cross, ya know? And we must cheer. We must cheer because later we will shout, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” What did we forget between our cheering him into the city and our heckling him to the cross, between our exuberant welcome and our jeering blood lust? To be Christ we must follow Christ. Who wants to follow Christ to the cross? Who wants their flesh torn and bleeding? Who wants the thorns of a mocking crown piercing their scalp? I deny him. I do not know him. No, I’m not his disciple. Never heard of him, never met him. Who? Who? No, sorry, doesn’t ring a bell.

We’ve come too far for that now, brothers and sisters! That desert was forty days long. Along the way we dropped coffee and tea, booze and cigarettes, TV and shopping, email and chocolate. We dropped gossiping, nagging, sex, meat, cussing. We picked up extra hours of prayer, daily Mass, weekly confession, spiritual reading, volunteer hours, being nice to little brother and sister, obeying mom and dad, obeying husband or wife, extra money in the plate on Sunday. The devil bought out his best temptations to show us our weaknesses and sometimes he won and sometimes we won. But he knows and you need to know if you don’t already: God wins all the time, every time, for all time! And He has given us Easter to prove it. But now…if you will be Christ you must follow Christ. Walk right behind him. Feel the stones. Wipe the spit. Hear the curses and jeers. Taste the salty iron of blood. See the cross on his shoulder. And know that he carries for you the only means of your salvation. The sacrificial victim carries his own altar to the church of the skulls.

How far will you follow?

28 March 2007

Eaten Alive or Freed in Truth?

5th Week of Lent (W): Dan 3.14-20, 91-92, 95 and John 8.31-42
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Albert the Great Priory


The drug and alcohol rehab vets I worked with years ago used to confront the dissembling obstinance of new members to the group with this pithy saying: “The truth will set you free…and sometimes really tick you off!” They knew first hand the empty promises, the false joys of slavery to sin. Not that their addictions per se were sinful, of course, but the lives they were required to construct around their dependencies were often ramshackled shanties shot full of holes, rotted and crumbling foundations, painted over obscenities, and there was always the lurking threat of collapse, the desperate gamble against discovery and disaster. More than anything their substance-slavery shackled them to lying, to illusion, and dumped them all alone in a world of recycling hopelessness and despair. When they would tell the newbie in the group that the truth would set him free, they meant that his life had to change radically. When they told him that the truth would tick him off, they meant that it would REALLY tick him off. Our chosen illusions comfort us even as they eat us alive. How often do we prefer to be eaten alive than awakened from fantasy?

Notice carefully who Jesus is teaching. Not the crowds. Not the scribes and Pharisees. But “those Jews who believed in him.” He’s teaching those who already confess his lordship, those who already know who he is and bow to his word. Beyond this initial profession of faith, Jesus is telling them that there is a state of true discipleship, an enduring friendship of obedience and love that rests on a simple progression of knowledge: remain in my word—know the truth—the truth will set you free. He says, “Everyone who commits a sin is a slave to sin.” Each act of disobedience then, each willful failure to hear and heed the Word is a link in a chain around your neck. This is not a punishment for a crime so much as it is a consequence of pride. We choose to depend on our own will rather than the will of the Father for us. Sin is surrender: to our passions, our logic, our prejudices and preferences; giving in to our delusions of perfection and the need for control.

You do not own your life. You are a slave to Christ!

So, when Jesus tells the believing Jews to remain in his word, to know the truth, and that the truth will set them free, what exactly is he teaching them? Our Holy Father answers in Sacramentum caritatis: “In the sacrament of the altar[…]the Lord truly becomes food for us, to satisfy our hunger for truth and freedom. Since only the truth can make us free, Christ becomes for us the food of truth[…]Jesus Christ is the Truth in person, drawing the world to himself” (SC 2). To remain in Christ’s word then is to meet him daily. To know his truth is to know him intimately as Lord. To be set free by truth is to be enslaved to Christ…daily. Our Holy Father goes on to teach: “Jesus is the lodestar of human freedom: without him, freedom loses its focus, for without the knowledge of truth, freedom becomes debased, alienated and reduced to empty caprice. With him, freedom finds itself” (SC 2). There is no freedom without truth. We cannot act freely as creatures without the frame and goal of truth. Without truth we merely act, creating illusion, building a powerful resistance to obedience, and preparing ourselves for the final scene of a terrible drama: slavery to our finite whims, our fixed choices. And hell.

Would you prefer being eaten alive by sin to being awakened from the fantasy that you can act freely without acting truthfully? Christ is our freedom. He is our truth. Remain in him and come with us to die with him in Jerusalem.

26 March 2007

Loved beyond death

Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord
Isa 7.10-14, 8-10; Heb 10.4-10; Luke 1.26-38
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX


A sign for us as deep as the nether world and as high as the sky! A sign as bright as the collective angelic glory and as generous as the bounds of the cosmos! Isaiah tells King Ahaz that the Lord’s sign of His favor, the seal of His loving covenant is this: He will come to us with meat and skin and bones by the womb of a virgin and she and her husband will name him Emmanuel, “God With Us!” And why do we need this sign? Isaiah reports that “[King Ahaz’s heart] and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” when they heard that their powerful neighbors were coming to wage war against them. Our God, wearied by their anxiety, showed Isaiah this sign of His enduring presence. Our God is always with us! And so we celebrate today the angelic announcement to Mary the Virgin that our Lord has fulfilled His promise and is here with us now. Christ has come into the world, and he has come to do the Father’s will.

John Paul II wrote in his letter to women, Mulieris dignitatem (1988), “Do we not find in the Annunciation at Nazareth the beginning of that definitive answer by which God himself ‘attempts to calm people's hearts’?” No one here will be surprised when I say that ours is an age of anxiety, an era of raw psychic upheaval and potentially deadly spiritual negligence. The truths of the faith that set us firmly on the Way often find us disbelieving, mistrusting, uncaring, and wearied by constant assault. The news that our neighbors might be arrayed against us, ready for ideological warfare, seems almost predictable and expected. Isn’t the culture circling us, moving in, coming closer and closer, strangling us, pushing us to the edge of irrelevance? Aren’t we seeing the end of the Christian West, the coming reign of Baal in America? And Mohamed in Europe? Surely, if we are not winning, we must be losing!

Truly, our hearts are anxious and wearied. But what we are anxious about? What wearies us? Maybe you are worried about the decline of the Christian West. This is U.D. after all! But if I had to bet my stipend I would say that most of us are wearied by trails slightly less dramatic than the collapse of the Enlightenment Project into postmodernity. Say, small things like money, relationships, children, family, work, health, spiritual well-being, academic success. These things will gnaw at our trust, nibble ever so gently at our peace, until we are weary and it looks as though our enemies are arrayed against us and God Himself is paying no attention.

The Annunciation of our Lord’s conception to Mary at Nazareth is God’s announcement to us that He is with us. Always with us. Always has been. Always will be. Our Lord did not write new laws for us to assure us of His presence. He did not send yet another prophet to preach His love, to proclaim His fidelity to His covenant. He came Himself. He came Himself to tell us that He loves us and to seal the deal of our salvation with His own body and blood. His wrecked body on the cross is our one sacrifice for all of us, for all of our sins. And his resurrection from the dead is our assurance that we will never be alone. He was born of a virgin and named Emmanuel, “God With Us.”

We can hear in the angelic annunciation to Mary the beginning of God’s definitive answer to our unsettled hearts. Where’s the rest of His answer? The Paschal Mystery! The rest of Emmanuel’s life as a preacher and healer; his teaching the truth of the Father’s mercy; his life with his mother and father and friends; his betrayal by those same friends; his trial before the priests and Pilate; the beatings, the ridicule, the pain and blood. Of course, the Cross. And the Empty Tomb. Here’s our answer: we are loved beyond joy, beyond truth, beyond family and friends; we are loved beyond Law, beyond pain and death; we are loved by Love Himself.

Gabriel said to Mary, “The Lord is with you!...Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.”

25 March 2007

The Art and Grace of Forgetting

5th Sunday of Lent: Isa 43.16-21; Phil 3.8-14; John 8.1-11
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Paul Hospital and Church of the Incarnation

[NB. This homily is a mess. Look for a revision later on...]

[P.S. OK, it makes a bit more sense now that I've preached it. Check out the Podcast and tell me what you think.]


I count everything as loss…

Everything: picking beans in our Mississippi garden; learning to drive at 12 and denting the Pontiac fender on a tree; my Boy Scout awards and their red velvet matte and frame on my dad’s office wall; the grocery store encyclopedias my mom bought one at a time week by week; that time in Mexico when fireworks woke us for prayer and we went instead to buy silver; climbing the Great Wall of China in August and making bead necklaces for Peruvian orphans in March; all those childish fits of impatience and anger b/c I would not see or listen; my hard head and the seventeen years I ran from God…I have accepted the loss of all things in Christ, but I can’t yet call them all rubbish. Like Paul, I have not yet attained perfect maturity, but b/c Christ has taken possession of me, I run after the hope that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and that once dead myself, I may rise with Christ! But for now, I strain forward and fail.

Paul teaches us to be conformed to Jesus’ death and to share his sufferings and count everything a loss b/c we have found righteousness in him. What do you count as loss? What have you lost in finding Christ? In Christ, in his righteousness, we see the impermanence of things, the instability of creation at its root and its inability to satisfy our greatest longing; in Christ we see and hear his Word seducing us with hope, rejuvenating us with faith, and giving us a final purpose, a reason to live, in love. What can’t we count as loss when held up next to “the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus”? What will you count as more important, grander, of greater value than the friendship, the love of Him Who made you? The Lord said to Isaiah, “I am doing something new!...In the desert I make a way…” And that way for us in this Lenten desert is the way of forgiveness and forgetfulness, the way of the Cross with the Cross as our goal. We must practice the art and grace of counting everything as loss so that we “may gain Christ and be found in him.”

Perhaps you have not yet taken hold of the hope of the resurrection? Perhaps you have not yet attained perfect maturity in living day to day our Father’s Easter promise? If not, why not? There have to be as many reasons out there as there are people to sin! But I wonder what light Paul and our gospel narrative can shine on this question? Notice that Paul admits his spiritual immaturity but suggests that the cure for his ailment is “forgetting what lies behind…straining forward to what lies ahead…” In other words, if he must count as loss everything he has b/c of Christ, then he must also forget everything he has lost and pursue, in righteousness, Christ Jesus. What is this “forgetting”? To forget is to fail to remember; to cease to ponder on or think about; to leave behind and to cease recalling mind. To forget someone is to remove them from your life as an influence, as a subject of thought; to forget them is to stop remembering them intentionally. They are history out of mind.

Do we see this forgetting in the gospel? Yes. But first we see what happens when we remember. The woman accused of adultery stands before the crowd. Once Jesus has heard the charges against her, he says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” You can see the men in the crowd stop and think. What were they thinking about? They were remembering their sins! They had not taken possession of the Word, the promises of the Father, b/c they were looking behind to their transgressions. Though the scribes and Pharisees came to test Jesus on a point of Law, they themselves were tested on a point of Love. They could remember their sins b/c they had not received God’s forgiveness; literally, they had not obeyed the Lord’s greatest command: love God, self, and others with all your being, everything you have and are. Jesus then teaches the woman (and us) what it means to forgive and forget: “I do not condemn you. Go, from now on do not sin any more.” Mercy and an admonition to be holy.

Earlier I asked you if you had taken hold of the Father’s promise of the resurrection? Do you believe His Word? If not, why not? Look at the scribes and Pharisees. They didn’t bring that woman to Jesus b/c they wanted her executed or b/c they abhor adultery and needed Jesus’ consent. They brought that woman to Jesus to test him. They wanted a word from him that would allow them to charge him with breaking the Law. And why did they think that the case of this woman’s alleged adultery would give them what they wanted? Simply put: they had heard that Jesus was forgiving notorious sinners their sins and they misunderstood his reasons for doing so. They suspected him of laxity, of being too wet and squeamish when it came to judging sinners. How wrong they were! They slinked away thoroughly judged and condemned by their own memories! They tested Jesus b/c they failed to hear his Word and to see him as the Christ. Their desire to test him—to exam him and put him on trial—that desire is both the dark that blinds them and the reason for the darkness. All they have is their loss and so they clamor after defeat as if it were a prize.

Is this why you are having difficulty taking hold of the Father’s Easter promises? Is this why you struggle and strain in despair and anxiety this Lenten season? Are you testing Christ? Are you holding up the sins of others for public scrutiny and all the while remembering your own? Will you forgive and forget? With stone in hand, how would you answer Jesus’ challenge? To throw the stone is a lie. To drop it is the truth. But to drop the stone while remembering your sin is a defeat. Drop the stone and embrace your loss in Christ.

There is an art and grace to accepting everything as loss in Christ. That long shadow you see on the desert sand is the Cross cast darkly against your sin. You’ve been here for a month now and all those Lenten temptations have set your weaknesses to ringing aloud like bells. What does the desert know about you that you don’t? What have you learned about your immaturity in Christ? About your growth in righteousness? What stones do you need to drop? What tests for Christ do you need to cancel? What have you lost in finding Christ?

If we will be conformed to his death and his resurrection, we must share in his sufferings and count all things as loss. The shadow of the Cross just touches our feet now. The prize is on the other side.