19 June 2009

"Who, if I cried out. . .?"

12th Sunday OT: Job 38.1, 8-11; 2 Cor 5.14-17; Mark 4.35-41
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Aquinas Institute of Theology, St Louis, MO

However wise his heart, Job stands before the glory of God and pitches one question after another to his creator. Anguish and hope race one another on the battlefield of his confusion and despair, and all his suffering explodes into a single, bellowed question: “Why?!” Why have I lost? Why am I in pain? Why have those I love most been made to suffer? We may ask along with Job, “I stand under the weight of my cross, trusting that it will not break my back so long as Christ is with me, but why must its load fall so heavily on my family, friends, and neighbors?” Surely it is enough that I labor in hope against the inevitable scores of loss and retreat. Surely my eager willingness to play this game, to fight this battle is proof enough that living well with God is worth the effort. And even as we protest against the cosmic injustice of death and desolation, we know that all of our complaints, all our questions, all our doubts are dissolved on the Cross, dispersed by iron nails, and exhausted not by a cry of “Why?” but by a bloodied surrender, by sacrificial forgiveness. Do we as children of the Father suffer well? What does it take to transform the anguish of our losses, our retreats into joy?

In the first elegy of his Dunio Elegies, the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke asks, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?” Against the background noise of stars giving birth and dying away, against the din of whole galaxies colliding in the void, who “up there” can hear our questions? Who would glance our way? For that matter, who cares enough to bend an ear? Knowing the odds, Rilke notes the smallness of his cry, “Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies? and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart: I would be consumed in its overwhelming existence.” In the face of such superabundant Being, do we dare protest our suffering? Do we risk annihilation for the small pleasure of complaint? The risk of asking any question is that the answer itself will be an occasion of suffering. He writes, “For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we still are just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.” Why? Because “every angel is terrifying.”

Let’s risk the questions and pray that the answering angels are not so beautiful: do we as children of the Father suffer well? What does it take to transform the anguish of our losses, our retreats into joy? First, there is suffering and then there is suffering well. That we will know pain and loss is as inevitable as the tides. So long as we live, we will feel the cuts, the bruises, the breaks. We will mourn and count our defeats. We will betray and be betrayed; sell into slavery and be sold. We will grow bent, blind, deaf, and addled. We will hear NO when YES is the only way to flourish, or to survive. And we will endure injustice, refused our rightful due for no other reason than that someone more powerful, more prominent wants what is ours. Despite our protests, despite our righteous cries, that we will suffer is a cosmic given. There is no question about this. The question for the Father’s children is: will we suffer well? And if we long to suffer well, how do we do it? How do we transform our anguish into joy?

Out of the storm God answers Job: “Who shut within doors the sea, when it burst forth from the womb […]?” Who made the sea? Who fashioned the tides? Who said to the raging waters, “Thus far shall you come but no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stilled!” At the beginning of everything, who was it that took nothing, and with a word, made it all? Including you. Job dared his questions and his answering angel terrified him with the beauty of this truth: you are a creature, a being fashioned from dust and breathed into life. That you exist at all is a gift. Especially loved though you are, before you ever existed there was light and darkness. There was birth and death. There were stars and planets and animals on the land and in the sea and birds in the air and plants by the billions in uncountable varieties. Especially loved though you are, you have come late to this creation, be humble and know your place in the order of things, trusting always that I AM is with you.

In the midst of a violent storm all their own, and like Job, fearful of chance and accident, the disciples cry out to the Lord for rescue: "’Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’" Jesus woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, "Quiet! Be still!" The wind ceased and there was great calm. Then he asked them, "’Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?’" Jesus is not telling them that their faith alone could calm a violent storm. He is not rebuking them for their failure to wield a magical power. Rather he’s telling them that their lack of faith is the source of their terror. The violent storm they have failed to calm is the tempest found in every faithless heart. With the storm calmed “they were filled with great awe and said to one another, "’Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?’" He is the one who breathed a word over nothing at all and brought everything into being. He is the one who is with us always.

When the violent storms of sickness and mourning crash against our vulnerable bodies, we cannot be faulted for wondering why we are being made to suffer so. As rational creatures gifted with compassion, we naturally question the accidental nature of creation and wonder why it could not have been made differently. When we ask “why?” we want to know the cause of, the reason for. And even though we know that our bodies randomly break down, that our machines often fail, that our loves sometimes go unreturned, we desire purpose; we desire a rationale. To say that this or that disaster was accidental is not enough. It is too much to believe that we suffer by probability, by random chance. It is too much to have our doubts dismissed as wishful thinking. So, we ask why, and we expect an answer. And while we wait, we hope that our answering angel is not too beautiful to bear.

Paul does not answer us. Instead, he teaches us a awesome truth: “[…] whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” As creatures of dust and divine love destined to be dust again, we live and move and have our being in a newer creation, a newer cosmic order that sets chance and suffering and death against our Father’s promise of eternal life. In the order of things we sit above the angels as sons and daughters of the King, heirs to His dominion. We are wholly loved by Love Himself, created and re-created in His Divine Word, Christ Jesus. When we suffer, we suffer best when we faithfully set our pain and loss among the promises already fulfilled by the dying and rising again of our Lord.

God answered Job by showing him the whirling universe in all its created glory, the material expression of His divine majesty. What pain or loss would not be blinded by His light? As creatures remade in Christ, can we experience a loss that was not offered in sacrifice on the altar of the Cross? Is there a way for us to suffer that Christ himself has not redeemed into joy? Our faith in the Father’s promises is not a talisman that protects us from the vagaries of daily living. Our faith gives suffering a purpose beyond the aches and hurts that come with being embodied souls. With Christ we have died already. And with Christ we will rise again. No loss, no pain, no retreat can stand against a ever living joy. In all humility, suffer. But suffer well, knowing that you are a new creation in Christ Jesus.

14 June 2009

Corpus Christi 2007 (repost)

Since I am traveling today, a repost seems in order. . .

11 June 2007

Deep fired Sacramentum Caritatis with pork gravy

Corpus Christi: Gen 14.18-20; 1 Cor 11.23-26; Luke 9.11-17
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

These are a few of my favorite things: Buttermilk dripped and deep-fried chicken. Butter beans with bacon and onions. Garlic mashed potatoes and chicken gravy. Greens with fatback and vinegar. Squash casserole, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole with pecans and brown sugar crust. Deviled eggs. Warm biscuits with honey butter. Homemade, cast-iron skillet cornbread with real butter. Fresh yeast rolls. Pecan pie. Chocolate pie. Mississippi Mud Cake. Bread pudding with whiskey sauce. Can you tell I’m a true blood Southerner?!* Each of these and all of them together do more than just expand my waistline and threaten the structural integrity of my belt—each and all of them together make up for me a palette of memories, a buffet (if you will!) of powerful reminders of who I am, where I came from, who I love, who loves me, and where I am going. Second perhaps only to sex, eating is one of the most intimate things we do. Think about it for just a second: when you eat, you take into your body stuff from the world—meat, vegetables, water, tea—you put this stuff in your mouth, you chew, you taste and feel, you smell and swallow, and all of it, every bite, becomes your body. This is extraordinarily intimate! You are made up of, built out of what you eat.

What does it mean then for you, for us to eat the Body of Christ and to drink his Blood?

Thomas Aquinas answers: “Since it was the will of God’s only-begotten Son that men should share in his divinity, he assumed our nature in order that by becoming man he might make men gods.” God became man so that we all might become god. In Christ Jesus, we are made more than holy, more than just, more than righteous; we are made perfect. Wholly joined to Holy Other, divinized as God promised at the moment of creation, we are brought to the divine by the Divine and given our participation in the life of God by God. We are brought and given. Brought to Him by Him and given to Him by Him. We do not go to God uninvited and we do not take from Him what is not first given. Therefore, “take, eat, this is my body, which is given up for you…” And when you take the gift of his body and eat and when you take the gift of his blood and drink, you become what you eat and drink. You become Christ. And together we are Christ for one another—his Body, the church.

Thomas calls the Eucharist the “sacramentum caritatis,” the sacrament of love. The Eucharist is not a family picnic or Sunday dinner. We’re not talking about a community meal or a neighborhood buffet. All of these can and do express genuine love for God, self, and neighbor. But Thomas is teaching us something far more radical about the Eucharist here than the pedestrian notion that eating together makes us better people and a stronger community! The sacramentum caritatis is an efficacious sign of God’s gift of Himself to us for our perfection. In other words, the Eucharist we celebrate this morning is not just a memorial, just a symbol, just a community prayer service, just a familial gathering, just a ritual. In Christ, with him and through him, we effect—make real and produce—the redeeming graces of Calvary and the Empty Tomb: Christ on the cross and Christ risen from the grave. Again, we are not merely being reminded of an important bible story nor are we being taught a lesson about sharing and caring nor are we simply “feeling” Christ’s presence among us. We are doing exactly what Christ tells us to do: we are eating his body and drinking his blood for our perfection, for our eternal lives. And while we wait for his coming again, we walk this earth as Christs! Imperfect now, to be perfected eventually; but right now, radically loved by Love Himself and loved so that we may be changed, converted from our disobedience, brought to repentance and forgiveness, and absolved of all violence against God’s will for us.

Thomas teaches us that God gave us the Eucharist in order “to impress the vastness of [His] love more firmly upon the hearts of the faithful…” How vast is His love for us? He gifted us with His Son. He gave His only child up to death so that we might live. And He gave us the means of our most intimate communion with Him. We take his body into our bodies. His blood into ours. We are made heirs, brothers and sisters, prophets and priests; we are made holy, just, and clean; we are made Christ and being made Christ, we are given his ministries, his holy tasks: teaching, preaching, healing, feeding. This Eucharist tells you who you are, where you came from, where you are going. It tells you why you are here and what you must do. And most importantly, this celebration of thanksgiving, tells you and me who it is that loves us and what being loved by Love Himself means for our sin, our repentance, our conversion, our ministries, our progress in holiness…

Do not fail to hand on what you yourself have received: the gift of the Christ. Walk out those doors this morning and present yourself to the world as a sacramentum caritatis. Walk out of here a sacrament of love—a sign, a witness, a cipher, an icon—walk out of here stamped with the Holy Spirit. Preach, teach, bless, feed, eat, drink, pray, and spread the infectious joy of the children of God!

A Southern blessing: as your waist expands to fill the limits of your belt, so may your spirit grow to hold the limitless love of Him Who loves us always.

*NB. To answer a question asked after Mass about my menu, "Yes, I can cook every dish listed here!" Oh, and I forgot "grits."