22 February 2014

Becoming God with God's Help

NB. A 2011 homily using tomorrow's readings. I'm working a new homily!
7th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatula

One thing we know for sure about God: He ain't shy about demanding that we do great things. He ain't shy about demanding that we become a great people. But His demands for our greatness always come with an offer of help; He never simply demands perfection and then leaves us on our own. Since His help has often come in the guise of an invading army or a series of plagues or the mysterious puzzles of prophecy, we might think it better that He withdraw His help and let us do the best we can all by ourselves. But divine expectations are best met with divine assistance, especially if we are the ones who are expected to excel. Given our limits, our tendencies to falter, we know that the higher the expectation, the greater the need for help. If what God says to Moses in the Book of Leviticus is to be believed, then the only help for us is for God to make us gods: “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” Jesus repeats this demand, “. . .be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We are to be holy and perfect as God Himself is holy and perfect. Can you imagine what sort of help we are going to need to meet this expectation?! God will indeed have to make us into gods. And this is exactly the help He offered us when He sent His only Son to live and die among us as one of us. He's offered His help—once for all—on the cross. Are you ready to receive it?

The question I'm asking sounds a bit strange, so let me make it perfectly clear: you are ready to be made into God? This really isn't such a strange question. The idea that we “partake in the divine nature” is an ancient Catholic tradition; it's as old as Christianity itself. The idea that the divine can dwell in the human is even older. In the Word Made Flesh, Jesus Christ, we have one person with two natures—one human, one divine. If we can believe that the Son of God was born of a virgin and lived and died among us, then it really isn't all that difficult to believe that we are saved from eternal darkness by becoming one with the Father through the His incarnated Son. Writing to the Corinthians, Paul puts the question succinctly: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” What other work do we have as Christians than to allow the Spirit of God to be poured into us, overflowing into anything, anyone we touch? Our wisdom becomes His wisdom; our love becomes His love; our hope becomes His hope. We become holy and perfect in the only way we can: we become God. . .with God's help. Without His help, we fall into the same trap that fell Adam and Eve, that hapless couple who believed the serpent when he told them that they could become gods without God. What did the serpent tell Adam and Eve that they needed? Knowledge. Not divine knowledge but worldly knowledge. Having enough worldly knowledge would not only enlighten them but it would transform them into gods as well.

They fall for it. And so do we. Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool, so as to become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God. . .” Now, Paul uses “wisdom” rather than “knowledge” here. Knowledge and wisdom are not the same thing. Wisdom comes with the right use of knowledge. Knowledge is a tool; wisdom is an attitude. When Adam and Eve disobeyed God in their pride, they came to know the difference between good and evil. What they choose to do with this knowledge is what makes them wise or foolish. Paul is exhorting the Corinthians to reject the kind of wisdom that comes from worldly knowledge alone, that is, wisdom based on knowledge that ignores God as the world's creator. He is not telling them to reject knowledge about the world but rather to reject the idea that you can be wise all the while denying that God is the world's creator. True wisdom—godly wisdom—starts with a spirit overawed by the presence of God in His creation. Wisdom based on worldly knowledge demands that we start with the world and work only within our human limitations, leaving God aside. What God demands of us in our progress toward His holiness and perfection is that we see, hear, taste, feel, and think through our trust in Him. In other words, we start by acknowledging that we are His creatures, and then we see, hear, taste, feel, and think of everything we encounter as a revelation of God Himself. This is how we start. But it isn't how we finish.

The gospel set aside for today is a continuation of last Sunday's reading. That reading ended with “Let your Yes mean yes and your No mean no. Anything else is from the evil one.” Jesus showed us then and he shows again today the difference between worldly wisdom and the wisdom of his Father. He sets one side against the other: “You have heard it said. . .but I say to you. . .” You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, “Offer no resistance to one who is evil.” You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Why? Why would any sane person living in the real world offer no resistance to evil, love their enemies, and pray for those who persecute them? Jesus answers, “[so] that you may be children of your heavenly Father. . .” Worldly wisdom tells us that it is wise to fight evil, to hate our enemies, and to pray of their defeat. In a world without God, a world where there is nothing beyond death, nothing higher than the law of Might Makes Right, we would be foolish indeed to forgive, to show mercy, and to pray for our enemies. But we have vowed to pursue holiness and perfection with God's help. And this we cannot do if we are mired in the foolishness of the world. Think for a moment about the standard God has set for us. Jesus says that we must do these ridiculous things in order to be the children of our heavenly Father b/c “he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” If can't choose who gets God's sunlight and who gets His rain, how could we possibly decide who it is that He should love and forgive? And if we are saved by becoming God, then our love and forgiveness must fall on the bad and the good, on the just and the unjust alike. That's quite a demand. An extraordinarily high expectation. Thanks be to God that we have His help!

The question remains: are you ready to receive His help and become God? To be holy as He is holy? To be perfect as He is perfect? St. Thomas Aquinas, quoting St. Irenaeus, wrote, “God became Man so that Man might become God.” Our only hope of achieving the holiness and perfection demanded of us is to surrender ourselves to the wisdom of God, and follow His Christ in all things. At the end of the day, our surrender is sacrificial love, giving of ourselves wholly in love for the sake of another. At the very least, this means restraining your pride—hourly, daily—and giving God thanks for every chance you have to be loving, forgiving, and merciful. All of us belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ himself belongs to God.


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21 February 2014

Yoda says, "There is no try."

A 2008 homily for your edification on this windy/chilly Friday. . .someone I know -- ahem! -- might be able to use something here.

6th Week OT (F): James 2.14-24, 26; Mark 8.34-9.1
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Serra Club Mass, Church of the Incarnation

Is it possible to desire to follow Christ but fail to take up Christ’s cross? Is it possible to want to be a Christian but fail to follow after Christ? Jesus tells the disciples and the crowd, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” How do we deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow him? Good questions. The better question, for now, is: what does it mean “to wish to follow Christ”? And what does it mean to wish such a thing and fail to do what is required in order to see this wish come to fruition? James, in his oh-so-pointed manner clarifies this murky problem for us: “…faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” In other words, you cannot wish to be a Christian and refuse to trust God; likewise, your refusal to trust God is all the evidence we need to conclude that you do not, in fact, wish to be a Christian.

Jesus is a genius. What he understands better than we do is that it is impossible for us to desire what we lack and at the same time fail to do what is lacking. In our very desire to be Christ, we do what Christ did. To have faith in Christ is to do Christ’s faithful work. Think of the alternatives: faith without works, works without faith. Faith is the good habit of trusting God. How does one possess a habit without actually doing the habit? If I say that I have the bad habit of lying, you rightly assume that I lie. What if I then say, “No, I never lie.” You can justly accuse me of being very confused about what it mean “to have a habit.” If I say that I have the good habit of loving others, you rightly assume that I am a loving person. What if I then say, “No, I pretty much hate everyone.” Again, I am showing that I am very confused about the nature of habit. The same sort of confusion flows from the notion that I can do truly good works without faith. Let’s say that you catch me feeding the poor on a regular basis. You can justly say that I love the poor. If I say, “No, I really hate the poor, so I feed them on a regular basis,” you are again right to point out my confusion.

Christ denies himself, takes up his cross, and leads to Calvary anyone who wants follow. So, if you deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Christ, you are a Christian. You do what Christ did. Faith is a good work. Good works are always faithful works. However, we can neither trust God nor do trusting work without God Himself. Our desire to follow Christ and the works we do that mark us as followers of Christ are themselves gifts given to us by God. We do not want God until God Himself shows us what we lack without Him. And when we are shown what we lack, or more precisely “who we lack,” we are moved to desire Him and His perfection. This is not an Armchair Desire, a merely abstract wanting that we can safely rope off and hold at bay with appeals to practicality or common sense. Nor can we simply intellectualize this gnawing hunger as a delightful puzzle or amusing concept. Once the starving man is shown the feast, he must eat or die. And so it is with us: once we are shown the perfection of following Christ, we must follow or die…or rather, follow and die: for what good is it for us to be given the riches of the whole world and refuse to love the one, the only one, who gives us a life to live richly?

We cannot desire to be Christ without doing what Christ did. We cannot do what Christ did without desiring to be who Christ is. Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow. There is no wanting without working, no desiring without doing. To quote Master Yoda, “Do or do not. There is no try.”

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16 February 2014

Audio Link: 6th Sunday OT

Audio Link:  6th Sunday OT, Surpassing Righteousness

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Surpassing Righteousness

6th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Audio Link

Paul speaks to those who are mature a wisdom. Not the wisdom of this passing age, nor the wisdom of the rulers of this age. But “God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden. . .” To hear God's wisdom and understand, the hearer must be mature. Not elderly in age but mature in spirit, one whose life with God has ripened and produced good spiritual fruit. For those of us who are not yet ready to hear God's wisdom, not yet mature enough to understand, Paul notes a way in, a way into the hidden mysteries. God reveals. Through His Holy Spirit He offers us a revelation. And what does God reveal? He reveals all that the eye has not seen; all that the ear has not heard; all that has failed to enter the human heart. He reveals to those who love Him all that He has prepared. And we call this revelation Wisdom. Not the passing-away wisdom of this age, but the Wisdom of God, the Wisdom Christ is sent to fulfill. The Law and the Prophets revealed God's Wisdom in word and deed, preaching and teaching His ways to a wayward people. Christ reveals God's Wisdom in flesh and blood, preaching and teaching the Way back to righteousness. Jesus says, “. . .unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Since our places in the kingdom of heaven depend on our righteousness, it might be prudent for us to figure out how to surpass the scribes and Pharisees in righteousness. If we were try to surpass their righteousness on their own terms, we'd likely fail. Righteousness for the scribes and Pharisees was achieved through the meticulous observance of some 600+ regulations, animal sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple, and the daily recitation – in Hebrew – of a number of lengthy prayers. How do we surpass this sort of righteousness? We don't. We can't. What righteousness we can claim comes to us as a freely offered gift from God. We accept this freely offered gift, or we do not. If we accept the gift of righteousness, God makes us right through the death and resurrection of Christ. If we do not accept the gift, then nothing we can do will make us right with God. When Jesus says that he came to fulfill the Law, he means that he came to keep the promises of the Law and to make good on our end of the deal. So, we surpass the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees by placing ourselves among those who love God; who receive His Wisdom; and who strive to understand and live by His will. 
Loving God, receiving His Wisdom, and striving to understand and live by His will are each a sign of spiritual maturity. Taken together, they are signs not only of righteousness but holiness as well. Notice what Jesus is teaching the disciples in this formula: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors. . .but I say to you.” Our ancestors taught us not to kill, not to commit adultery, not to swear a false oath. That's the Law. Jesus came to fulfill the Law not to abolish it. Murder, adultery, and lying are still wrong. However, b/c Jesus has fulfilled the Law and revealed the first commandment – the Law of Love – we know why murder, adultery, and lying are all morally evil. They all violate love. In some way, each one offends the dignity of the human person, trespassing against the image and likeness of God that each one of us manifests. When we love God; receive His Wisdom, and strive to understand and live by His will, we see Him revealed in one another, and we love one another b/c He created us for love and loved us first. The spiritually mature hear and understand God's Wisdom: love is fundamental, grounding, all-defining, and absolute. Choose love and your faith will ripen and produce good spiritual fruit.

Choose love, I said. Choose. We hear this again from the Wisdom of Ben Sira, Sirach: “[God] has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.” Touch water, or touch fire. Choose. One soothes, the other burns. Sirach continues: “Before [you] are life and death, good and evil, whichever [you] choose shall be given [you].” Choose and your choice will be given. That's a frightening proposition. Not so much the choices themselves, but the very idea that we must choose, and that we are responsible for the choices we make. Of course, we know that we are responsible for our material choices. We get a ticket for speeding. We gain weight when we choose to eat that second King Cake. We get docked for missing a day of work. But do we understand that our spiritual choices – the choices we make to love, to forgive, to give God thanks, or not to do any of those things – do we understand that these choices also have real consequences for which we are responsible? Sirach says, “Choose good or evil, life or death.” One soothes, the other burns. If you always choose love – God's love – your choice cannot fail, the consequences can never be dire. “Immense is the wisdom of the Lord. . .”

The Law and the Prophets revealed God's Wisdom in word and deed, preaching and teaching His ways to a wayward people. Christ reveals God's Wisdom in flesh and blood, preaching and teaching the Way back to righteousness. Christ does not simply teach his Father's wisdom. He doesn't simply act out his Father's wisdom. Christ IS his Father's wisdom – given a body, a soul, a mind, and a mission. Christ is “what eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, and what has not entered the human heart.” And he is “what God has prepared for those who love him.” No, rather, he is “who God has prepared for those who love him.” Our choice is Christ. Not a what but a who – the person of Christ, his body and blood, freely given and freely received to bring you and me into righteousness, a surpassing righteousness. And our mission – the mission we have all accepted and vowed to complete – is to give our bodies, our souls, our hearts and minds to the enduring labor of being Christ out there. Christ fulfills the Law. Our obligations to the Law have been met. Now, having chosen Life – Life Eternal – we are responsible for maturing in God's Wisdom and seeing to it that the Good News of His mercy to sinners is given a voice, loud and clear. Therefore, “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.”

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Two Books for Faithful Catechists

For catechists, school religion teachers, home-schooling parents, Catholics who want to learn more:

Two book recommendations. . .


I am using these two texts in my Teaching and Preaching the Word of God course at NDS.

Both books indirectly critique the disastrous "Shared Christian Praxis" pedagogy of Thomas Groome, et. al. and urge catechists to adopt a pedagogy that actually reflects the way God Himself teaches us through scripture, tradition, liturgy, and the magisterium.

Using both the content and form of the CCC, the books show how our revealed faith reflects the reality of God, Who is truth, beauty, goodness, and unity. And how the catechist is to be formed as a teacher of the faith, i.e. not as a facilitator for a therapeutic deconstruction of revealed truths.

I highly recommend these texts as formidable remedies to the catechetical maladies that the Church has endured in the last fifty years.
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