12 February 2011

Bread, fish, and the sacramental imagination

5th Week OT (S)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatula

Those of us who have grown up in the Protestant South have heard all our lives that Catholics do not revere the Bible. Catholics prefer performing strange rituals, marching around in elaborate costumes, lighting candles and incense, and muttering to statues in a dead language. Even today, my Protestant friends distinguish between “Catholics” and “Bible Christians,” using the two words as if there is no connection between the two, no overlap. What my friends fail to grasp is the concept of the sacramental imagination. In an interview, George Weigel, the biographer of Pope John Paul II, offers a description of the Catholic way of seeing God's creation. He says, “. . .the world has been configured by God in a 'sacramental' way, i.e., the things of this 'real world' can disclose the really real world of God's love and grace. The Catholic 'sacramental imagination' sees in the stuff of this world hints and traces of the creator, redeemer, and sanctifier of the world. . .” This morning's gospel reading from Mark—the well-known story of the feeding of the 4,000—gives us a chance to hear Jesus himself teaching us how to view his Father's creation sacramentally. A few loaves of bread and a few fish, blessed by Christ, feed a huge crowd. The unexpected generosity of God miraculously feeds the bodies of those who follow His son. Those fed have witnessed the love and grace of God in an otherwise ordinary, everyday activity: eating dinner. The Catholic sacramental imagination turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, revealing God's presence in His creation.

We have no reason to believe that the miracle described by Mark didn't happen exactly like Mark describes it—four thousand people are fed with just a few loaves of bread and a few fish. But let's read the story as a story about the everyday lives of Christians struggling to faithfully live out their baptismal vows. Jesus sees the trials of those who follow after him. He hears all about how we are alienated from God by sin; how we suffer from temptation, disease, persecution; how we hunger and thirst for righteousness and truth; how we strain to be merciful, loving, true to all his commands. Watching us day to day, Jesus says, “My heart is moved with pity for [you]. . .If I send [you] away hungry to [your] homes, [you] will collapse on the way. . .” We've come a long way out of the world to join the crowds that follow Jesus. He's never pretended that following him is easy. He's never lied to us and told us that being faithful is as simple as performing a few rituals or lighting a few candles or muttering prayers before a statue. We have chosen a very difficult way of living in God's creation. But He will not leave us tired and hungry. He takes the bread, blesses it, and gives it to us to eat. 

One piece of bread becomes two. And two becomes four. Four, eight. And because this bread is also his body—both human and divine—we are fed physically and spiritually. The things of the “real world” (bread, wine, oil, water) can reveal the really real world of God's love and grace. The sacramental imagination is a biblical way of living in God's world—seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling His presence, and gaining strength in body and spirit as we notice Him and give Him thanks for being with us always. 

The Psalmist writes, “In every age, Lord, you have been our refuge.” Hungry, thirsty, blind, deaf, afraid—we take refuge in God and find all that we need to succeed in His Christ.

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10 February 2011

Be grateful, dog!

St. Scholastica
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatula

Let's start this homily off with a rather blunt assertion: No, the Greek woman in this evening's gospel does not teach Jesus a lesson about inclusivity nor does she “open his eyes” to the needs of the Gentiles. To believe that the woman somehow enlightens our Lord with a clever retort assumes that Jesus—the incarnated Son of God—doesn't know about or understand his universal mission as the Messiah. It makes more sense—given what we know from the other gospels—to conclude that Jesus slowly reveals the fullness of his mission over time. He repeatedly orders those whom he healed to keep their healing a secret. He also refuses to perform miracles on occasion and sometimes takes his disciples off to teach them in private. These examples seem to indicate that though Jesus wants his identity widely known, he also wants to keep the exact nature of his ministry something a mystery. . .at least until his earthly ministry comes to an end on the cross. If all of this is true, then what are we to make of his exchange with the Greek woman? Like in the story of the centurion with the sick slave, the story of the Canaanite woman, the story of the man born blind, and many others—Jesus is challenging the Greek woman to publicly declare her faith, to lay claim to her inheritance as a child of God.

And what is this inheritance? Generally, she has inherited the privilege of prayer, that is, the grace to approach the Father through His Son and ask for what she needs for herself and her family. As a member of God's family, she has access to the Father. She has been gifted with the desire to praise Him, to thank Him, and to grow spiritually while doing so. By openly, freely acknowledging her trust in God's promises, the Greek woman openly, freely acknowledges God's power to accomplish in her life and the lives of her loved ones every good they need to thrive as holy creatures. We know all of this to be true b/c the moment she says to Jesus, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps,” the demon is exorcised from her daughter. 

Let's take note of not only the woman's admission of faith but also how she characterizes herself and her fellow Gentiles—all of those who need God's mercy through Christ. Rather than rear up in righteous indignation at Jesus' apparent insult—calling them “dogs”—the woman takes on the derisive label and admits to Jesus that “even the dogs” get scraps! This isn't exaggeration or just plain ole self-effacement. She is confessing genuine humility. Had she been playing word games with Jesus or trying to teach him a lesson, her confession of faith would have been emptied out and her daughter would not have been freed from the demon. What our Lord hears in the woman's plea is authentic love, authentic faith, and authentic humility—all gifts from the Father. These are what make her a member of God's family not her tribe or race or nation. 

The Greek woman recognizes and publicly acknowledges her need for God's blessings. As children of God, we too have access to the Father through Christ. When you pray, do you pray with genuine love, faith, and humility? Do you receive God's blessings with gratitude, openly and freely acknowledging your dependence on Him? When blessed by God as a child of God, do you multiply your blessings by sharing them with others? Let's hope so. Remember: even the dogs eat the children's scraps.

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09 February 2011

Confession App is NOT a Substitute for the Sacrament

Is there anything iPhone apps can't do?  

Recently, an app appeared on the market that helps Catholics make a thorough confession.  I've not seen the app. . .mostly b/c I don't have an iPhone.  But Fr. Z. has posted a review.  He notes that the app is "useful but flawed."  

My worry about the app echoes his:  media reports of the app confuse the fullness of the sacrament of reconciliation with the necessary preparations one makes in approaching the sacrament.  Headlines all over the web blare out nonsense like "Vatican Approves iPhone App for Confession" and "Can't Make It to Confession?  There's an app for that!"  

No.  There isn't.

The app is nothing more than an aid for preparing one's conscience for making a good confession and completing the assigned penance.  It cannot substitute for the sacrament b/c only a validly ordained priest can absolve sins. 

Of course, Catholics who regularly make use of The Box know this.  But some might easily be deceived into thinking that checking little boxes on their iPhone and reciting the appropriate prayers will substitute for sacramental confession.  It will not.

So, if you need help examining your conscience and remembering the prayers associated with confession, get a copy of the app.  Use it.  Then find a priest and finish the job!

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08 February 2011

Coffee Cup Browsing

Suckers! Lib bloggers betrayed by HuffPo.  "Who knew that the website devoted to a living wage and moral imperatives actually managed to get liberal bloggers to work for free to make money for the boss-lady and her investment banking investors." 

Anti-capitalist "filmmaker" sues to get a bigger piece of the profits. 

Zzzzzz. . .  German theologians get all edgy and relevant while floundering in the tar pit of 1973.  MCJ has a little fun with the dinos before they go under.

Still Zzzzzzzz. . .Anne Rice belches out some anti-Catholic bigotry that's mistaken for enlightened discourse.  My guess:  she's still talking/writing about the Church b/c she knows she belongs in the Church.  Come on, Anne!  Join the rest of us freaks and lunatics and really mean it this time!

Prophets in their minds. . .NB.  About 99% of ecclesial dissidents describe themselves as "prophetic."  Yea, the Devil thinks of himself as a prophetic too.  Turns out, he is. . .just not in the way he thinks.

Teen Angst:  "The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s."  I blame Helicopter Parenting, social networking, and Starbucks.

Horseman of the Apocalypse?  Naw.  Looks like a smear from the camera. 

The "sacred values" of sociologists, psychologists, and anthropologists:  social scientists form a "tribal-moral community" around leftist ideology.  He could've included theologians in his conclusions.

Height matters at the local Mexican restaurant.

What normal people will do during the Upcoming Zombie Apocalypse

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07 February 2011

Icon of the Goodness of Creation

5th Week OT (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatula, LA

What do we hear when we hear read together the opening verses of the Bible—“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. . .” and Mark's account of Jesus healing the sick on the shores of a sea near Gennesaret? On first hearing the two read together we might think that the lectionary cycle had been spun like a roulette wheel and these two very different readings just happened to land on this day's Mass schedule. How else could the Bible's best known chapter end up paired with a few innocuous verses from the smallest gospel? While pondering this mystery, it would help us to remember an ancient Catholic principle of biblical interpretation: the New Testament fulfills the Old; each of the Bible's testaments to God's covenants explains the other. When Jesus heals the sick in the land of Gennesaret, he heals his Father's creatures, returning them to their originating goodness. As many as touched the tassel of Jesus' cloak were healed, and he saw that it was good. God did not create us to suffer nor did he create us to die. And when we return to Him through Christ, we are healed and the goodness from which we were created is restored to us.

There's another connection between the creation story of Genesis and Mark's account of Jesus healing the sick in Gennesaret. The Jewish historian, Josephus, describes the land of Gennesaret as "wonderful in fertility as well as in beauty." Ancient readers and hearers of Mark's gospel story would immediately associate Gennesaret with images of the Garden of Eden, the original paradise of creation. Josephus writes, “[Gennesaret's] soil is so fruitful that all sorts of trees can grow upon it . . . for the air is so well tempered that it agrees with all sorts. Thus the palm-tree, which requires a warm atmosphere, flourishes equally well with the walnut, which thrives best in a cold climate. . .” This is exactly the sort of fertile balance that we would expect from a land undefiled by sin, from a place unmarked by the imbalances of sickness and death. Knowing that Gennesaret in Jesus' time was known to be a paradise of fertility and fruitfulness, we can easily imagine that the goodness Jesus restores in healing the sick is the original goodness of his Father's creating love. 

If Adam, the first man, lost God's original goodness by an act of disobedience, then Jesus, the first and only God-Man restores that goodness by an act of obedience. Jesus restores us not only by freely dying on the cross for us, but also by living among us as an icon of the goodness of creation, as a window through which we see and hear God's creating and re-creating love. He arrives in Gennesaret—fertile and fruitful—and his presence, just being there, heals, makes whole again, the broken and diseased creatures that his Father created to be good. Christ fulfills God's promise—made at the moment of creation to all that He has created—that His love will endure to the very end. Though we may suffer now and die later, we are not made so that we might suffer and die. 

Jesus is the icon of the goodness of creation. We, his Body, the Church, live as that icon now. Healed of our disobedience, restored to our originating goodness, wherever we go, we too are charged with making whole again everyone we touch, everyone who touches us. May the Lord be glad in His works. And when He looks at His people, may He say again, “It is good.”

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06 February 2011

On homilies & books

Been getting good feedback on my Ponchatula Homilies.  It's something of a challenge to craft useful homilies for a parish audience, but I'm enjoying it immensely. 

Mille grazie to Jenny K. for the Kindle Book!  I'm learning all sorts of great things about the Roman Empire.
Also, the Wish List has been updated with a strange mixture of poetry, continental philosophy, and theology.  My reading list for the summer has shifted somewhat more toward 20th century literature.

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