02 December 2015

Idolatry and Injustice

1st Week of Advent (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

If we were to draw a graph representing the history of our collective relationship with God, this graph would be a long undulating line with very high peaks and very low valleys. When we are right with God, things are good, very good. However, when we are on the outs with the Lord, we are really, really out. Few Old Testament prophets articulate this riotous relationship btw Creator and creature better than Isaiah. For example, we heard read this morning Isaiah's description of one of those historical moments where God's blessings are being poured out on His faithful people. Isaiah delivers what has become the Father's cardinal promise: “. . .the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples. . .” What will He provide? Rich food and choice wines to celebrate our restoration to righteousness. And more importantly: “. . .he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples. . .he will destroy death forever. The Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces. . .” Not only does the Lord promise to care for the daily needs of His people, He promises to defeat Death and end forever the agony of our grieving. This promise is fulfilled in the advent of Christ Jesus, the food and drink of eternal life. 

If we were to think too long and too hard about the miseries of the human condition, we'd probably spend most of our days in tears, crying out to God for His justice against disease, hunger, and violence. Our supernaturally augmented ability to love one another makes it difficult for us to endure peaceably the savage injustices that nature inflicts on the least of God's children. Add to this misery the human talent to injure and kill, and we are sorely tempted to close our eyes and ears to the suffering that demands justice. The problems are so big, so deep, so vile that we are overwhelmed with their stench. What can we do to put an end to this madness? When we try, our efforts almost always seem small and useless. One reason for our apparent failure is that we often misdiagnosis the disease and apply the wrong remedies. Rather than treat the root cause of the problem, we choose to dabble in treating the presenting symptoms: poverty, social injustice, and ignorance. But what lies rotting at the heart of the disease is not a lack of wealth or racial inequality or inadequate education. The evil men do flows from the sin of pride, the hardening of his heart against God, and needful acts of loving-care and mercy we are commanded to perform.

When God's people in the Old Testament fell from grace, they fell for two reasons: 1) idolatry, a form of adultery committed by worshiping alien gods; and 2) injustice, the oppression of those most in need, a sin produced by idolatry. It should come as no surprise that when we commit adultery with alien gods, we also end up oppressing the least of God's children. What better way is there to express our willful independence from God than to offer praise and thanksgiving to our own creations? So, pride drives us to our knees before the idols of our own making. These gods never tell us anything we do not want to hear. They never demand anything from us that we do already want to give. In fact, they are nothing more than images of our own defective wills: the will to power, to succeed, to accumulate, to dominate, to control. It's just one tiny step from worshiping ourselves to oppressing the least among us. If I must worship me, then so must you. How then do we treat this disease? We come to believe that we are all creatures of a loving God who has commanded us to love one another in the same way that He loves us: sacrificially. He gave us His only Son in death so that death is no longer to be feared. Freed from this awful fear, and knowing that this world is always passing away, we can let go of our pride and receive the Lord's gift of bountiful mercy. This is how He cares for us: by making us like Him, like His Christ, and bringing us—if we will—to the perfection of His love.


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01 December 2015

A more perfect knowledge of God

NB. From 2009. . .
1st Week of Advent (T)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Rejoicing in the Holy Spirit, Jesus gives thanks and praise to his Father for hiding the divine truth from the wise and learned, yet revealing this same truth to the childlike. He says to the disciples, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. For I say to you, many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, but did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” So, along with the wise and learned, prophets and kings are left in darkness, left to grope at the truth in their ignorance. As Dominicans and students studying at a Dominican university maybe we should be worried about this imposed darkness, just a little anxious about the glee with which Jesus consigns the learned to their adult cloud of not-knowing. Wasn't it our brother, Aquinas, who taught us how to treat theology as a science? Didn't he bring the pagan philosopher, Aristotle, into the mind of the Church and shape our faith with his metaphysical wisdom? Take a quick look at the courses we offer here at the Angelicum and decide if we—professors and students alike—belong to the wise and learned. Dialogical Theologies of Religion. Contemporary Philosophies of Theology. Nietzsche and Christianity. Gadamer's Hermeneutics. Heidegger's Essays. Whew! That's a lot of learning! But where are the courses on being childlike? Where do we learn the wisdom of a child's love for her mom and dad? Jesus prays, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.” Our childlike wisdom starts with God's revelation.

In case you are worried that your preacher this morning is preaching Christian anti-intellectualism, let me quote Aquinas, “We have a more perfect knowledge of God by grace than by natural reason” (ST I.12.13). Limited as we are in understanding our finite world, imagine the limits of what we can know about the infinite divine! Relying on reason alone—the learning and wisdom of this world—we can glimpse some small portion of the divine in creation. But it is only through a divinely-graced intellect that we can achieve a more perfect knowledge of who God is. Through Christ our Father reaches down to lift us up so that we might see what the childlike already see: true wisdom, the knowledge that passes all understanding, begins and ends in His love for us. This is not anti-intellectualism; this is an intellect super-charged with the grace of revelation.
Jesus tells the disciples that they are blessed b/c they see and hear what prophets and kings long to see and hear but do not. What accident or disease has left these pitiable prophets and kings deaf and blind to God's truth? Is it that they are simply stupid, intellectually ungifted? Maybe they are stubborn or just lazy? No, none of these. Jesus says that he reveals the Father to those whom he chooses. And no one else sees or hears except those chosen. Among the disciples are tax-collectors, fishermen, even a physician but no prophets, priests, kings, or professors. Jesus reveals the Father to the Average Joe's of Judea, knowing that it will be they who make the best witnesses, knowing that the faith gifted to them would flourish in the hard world of work, persecution, and scarcity.

If this is true, surely then, students and professors have nothing to say to the world about Christ. No, we have our own work, our own forms of persecution and scarcity. But what we say about Christ and what we do in his name begins and ends with the love he reveals from the Father. Philosophy, theology, science can all show us some small portion of the truth if and only if our most basic assumptions and methods rest firmly on the knowledge that we are creatures, made in the image and likeness of our Creator. From this knowledge we can unravel the truths of our purpose and love both freely and recklessly.

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29 November 2015

Keep Judgment in Advent!

NB. OK. My excuse for this one: still on allergy/cold meds.

1st Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

We begin this evening our month-long waiting. Waiting for the birth of the Christ Child at Christmas, and waiting for his coming again as Christ the King in judgment. This year – like every year for the past 2,000 years – we will remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth to the Virgin Mary at Bethlehem. And – as we always have – we will observe a season of anticipation, a time before the celebration to prepare ourselves to receive Mary's child as he should be received. This season of expectancy also prepares us to wait in faith on the second coming of Christ as King and Judge. We know the date of Christ's birth among us. We know when it's time to welcome him with feasts and gifts and time with family and friends. So, we are always ready. . .just in time. However, we do not know the date of his return as King, when we will “see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” So, we must always be ready. . .just in case. Therefore, we cannot let our hearts become drowsy; we cannot allow our minds to be numbed. We have four weeks to practice patient waiting. Stir-up your hearts and minds and prepare yourselves to receive him – the Christ Child and Christ the King!

We know Christmas is close. All the signs are there. Decorations. Carols. Black Friday sales. Sign-up sheets at work for the Christmas pot luck. Plans made with family. It's hard to miss these signs. Everywhere we turn, Christmas is standing right in front of us. Red, white, green. Santa Claus. TV specials. Gift lists. The signs of Christmas' coming are obvious, glaringly obvious. And b/c Christmas' imminent arrival tends to push Advent aside, we tend to forget that Advent is a season of expectancy for BOTH Christmas and the Second Coming, Christ's return to judge the living and the dead. If I were the Devil, I wouldn't change a thing about our current treatment of the post Thanksgiving/pre-Christmas season. I wouldn't shed one tear for poor little Advent's terrible plight. Why? B/c while God's children are focused almost exclusively on celebrating Christmas, they aren't getting ready for the Second Coming. Let them exchange gifts. Go to parties. Decorate til their hearts burst. Anything to keep them from seeing the signs of and making preparations for receiving Christ their King. Anything to occupy their hearts and minds other than their final judgment and eternal disposition.

Now, lest I sound like some crazy old priest who hates Christmas, let me say: I'm not suggesting that we turn Advent into a Lent-like dirge of weeping and gnashing of teeth. Advent is about preparing for the joys of Christmas! BUT it is also about preparing ourselves for the Second Coming of Christ. And if you think about it, this makes sense. He comes at Christmas as a child to save us from sin and death. He will come again as King to sit in judgment of our faithfulness. Our salvation deserves celebration, and our judgment requires preparation. We know how to celebrate. How do we prepare? Jesus warns his disciples, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and [the day of judgment] catch you by surprise like a trap.” Carousing, drunkenness, and anxiety – all three of these are distractions produced by the world to lull our hearts and minds into a spiritual coma. They are each designed to take us away from our careful preparations, away from our duty to be vigilant against sin and death. Is it enough to avoid carousing, drunkenness, and anxiety? No. It's a good start. A very good start. But our preparations for final judgment must be more substantial, deeper, more serious than simply avoiding sin.

While we avoid sin, we also turn ourselves toward God and receive every grace He has to give us. This means being awake, alert to His voice as He calls us to service. It means listening with the ears of Christ to those who long for God's mercy, who desperately seek His love; those who – for whatever reason – cannot or will not hear Him speak. At one time or another in our lives we have probably all deafened ourselves to God's voice. Why? He is telling us something we do not want to hear. He telling me that my favorite sin is in fact a sin. He's telling me that my preferred opinions are false. Maybe there was a crotchety old priest who said something dumb in the pulpit. Maybe your parents are horrible Catholic hypocrites. Maybe the Church takes a public stand against some issue you fervently support. Whatever it is – your ears close. If you can be here this evening, giving God thanks and praise, imagine those out there who can't or won't be here b/c they have stopped listening for God's voice. How will they hear about His love and mercy? How will they know that they no longer have to live in sin and suffer death? Our preparations for judgment must include being the merciful voice of God to those who cannot/will not hear Him speak.

Avoiding sin and being God's voice of mercy to the world are excellent starts on our Advent preparation. But there's something more we need to do. Paul writes to the Thessalonians, urging them “to be blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus. . .” We're in trouble here if we think that “holiness” has to do exclusively with moral goodness. Holiness leads to moral goodness, but moral goodness does not exhaust the meaning of holiness. To be holy is to be “set apart” from the world's influence and power. Not physically set apart, necessarily, but spiritually separated. Think about the daily decisions you make. How do you decide? Do you consider costs, consequences, and usefulness first? Or do you think first about how this decision will affect my relationship with God? Do you think about your needs first, your wants first? Or do you first think about others – family, neighbors, God? To be set apart from the world means to be separated from the way in which the world understands itself – as an independent accident of the universe with no dignity or purpose. We are holiest when we think with the mind of Christ; when we understand ourselves, all of God's creation as possessing inherent dignity and divine purpose.

If we will stand blameless in holiness before Christ the King on judgment day, we will prepare ourselves now, tomorrow, the next day, the next, and so on. . .until he returns. This doesn't mean giving up the joys of Christmas, but it does mean moving into the Advent season keenly aware that we are making ready for BOTH the Christ Child and Christ the King. Our hearts and minds can be made drowsy by the flashing lights and excessive partying and exhaustive shopping and family tensions. We can be swallowed up by the rip-tide expectations of the world and left rung out and beat up by the demands of secular culture. As children of God and siblings of Christ, we are freed from any expectation, any worry, and anxiety that moves us away from our faith; anything or anyone that demands that we put Christ in second-place behind whatever the world thinks belongs in first place. Spend these next four weeks cleaning out your heart and mind, removing whatever keeps you from receiving all that God has to give you. Prepare yourself for the birth of Christ and his coming again.


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