14 April 2016

Our transubstantiation into Christ

NB. A Vintage Fr Philip homily from 2007. . .ah, the memories. . .

3rd Week of Easter (F)
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Irving, TX

SECRET DOOMSDAY CULT CANNIBALIZES EXECUTED MESSIAH, CLAIMS IMMORTALITY! The talking-head TV version of this newspaper headline opens with this talking-point: “Religious fanaticism in America today: are your children safe?” Then the talking-heads parade a line of Three-ring Circus Clowns who all demand that the Supreme Court ban religion as a public-safety hazard. The state-owned regulatory nannies and ninnies start squawking like geese frightened on a pond by a gator and before you know it Congress is holding hearings during which otherwise intelligent men and women are asking asinine questions like: “But Bishop, with all due respect, given the recent scandals of the Church, is there a way to tone down your body and blood rhetoric here?” 

Maybe we can forgive the routine ignorance of the media and its oftentimes sensationalistic and even hostile portrayal of religious folks, especially Christians in the U.S. Our faith is not easily understood even by those who have been initiated into it and strive with God’s grace to live it day-to-day! And surely we can forgive those in the Church who would have us curb the enthusiasm of Christ’s Eucharistic teaching in today’s gospel. I mean, are we really helping ecumenical efforts at the international and national level by insisting on all this blood and guts imagery? Wouldn’t it be better to focus rather on the more genteel and less violent imagery of bread and wine? These are great symbols of earth and home and harmony and human work. Besides bread and wine helps to keep us focused “down here” on the domestic community rather than “up there” on an inaccessible Big Scary Father-God. Aren’t we here really just to learn to live together and help each other and be at peace with the environment? 

No. No, we’re not. We’re here to be saved. We’re here to find the Way and walk it. We’re here to eat the body of Christ, to drink his blood and to share more and more intimately in the workings of the Blessed Trinity in human history. We are here…more literally…”to gnaw” on Christ. Not to nibble daintily or to consume politely but “to gnaw.” That’s the Greek. Gnaw. Now, let me see you gnaw symbolically. For that matter, let me see you gnaw a symbol. Let me see you gnaw on a memory, a memorial, a representation. Let me see you gnaw on an eschatological sign, a prophetic image, a metaphor for “making-present things past.” 

The quarreling Jews may have understood better then than we do sometimes now: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” This question actually belies substantial understanding! They understood Jesus to say “flesh.” Meat. Body. And blood. True food and true drink. Not mere symbols. Not just memorial signs. Not mere representational action in history. Not just an “absence of forgetting.” Real food, real drink for eternal life. And this is why they are shocked to hear Jesus teaching what can only be called cannibalism. I don’t think Jesus eases their fears any in the explanation of his baffling claim: “Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me and I in him…the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.” This is astonishingly clear and simple. And outrageously scandalous! 

From the beginning we have had immediate access to Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist. His real flesh and real blood. We will not eat the bread of our ancestors this morning. We will eat the bread of life from the banquet table of the Father. We will eat…we will gnaw!...as children, heirs, as a people loved, we will feast on immortality so that we may become him whom we eat. There is no other reason for us to be here this morning than this: our transubstantiation into Christ. Just ask Paul: we will not all die, but we will all be changed!

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13 April 2016

Joy in persecution

3rd Week of Easter (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Christ's church in Jerusalem is under persecution. Peter and the Apostles are arrested twice and brought before the Sanhedrin to answer charges of heresy and sedition. Both times they are sternly warned to stop preaching and teaching “in THAT name.” Both times they defy the authorities and continue doing what they were sent by Christ to do. B/c the Apostles must obey God rather than men, the persecutors are turning violent, and the Church is scattered “throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. . .” Saul is dragging Christians out of their homes and putting them in prison. By the standards of the time, none of this is particularly noteworthy. What is noteworthy is the reaction of the persecuted Church. We read in Acts: “Now those who had been scattered went about preaching the word.” Also of note is the reaction of those who hear and benefit from this apostolic preaching: “There was great joy in that city.” How does the persecuted Church defy the threat of prison and violence? How do we answer religious rejection and secular condemnation? We do the ordinary: We go about preaching the Word.

The ordinary? Well, we can only consider our response to persecution extraordinary if we fail to understand our purpose as a Church. If we believe that the Church's purpose is to create and defend a particular version of western culture, then preaching the word in defiance of violent secular repression seems extraordinary. If we believe that the Church's purpose is to support the platform of a particular political ideology, or promote a particular economic system, then preaching the word in defiance of persecution seems extraordinary. If we believe that the Church's purpose is to provide us with a ready-made network of like-minded friends, business contacts, or just something to do on a Sunday morning, then preaching the word in defiance of the law, in defiance of all social pressure to stop seems more than just extraordinary; it's socially suicidal, even downright dumb. However, since the purpose of the Church is to preach the word, preaching the word – even in defiance of persecution, esp. in defiance of persecution – is the most natural thing for us to do. Why? B/c when the word of God is preached, there is always great joy. The Good News of God's mercy to sinners always brings with it the blessings of freedom, healing, and peace.

It is the nature and purpose of the Church to preach the word “in season and out.” If that's not enough to explain her defiance of persecution, then let this be enough: “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.” Where would the hungry go to eat the bread of life if not the Church? How could anyone come to believe if there were no witnesses giving testimony? The Church is in the world to be the living sacrament of Christ, to point to and make present his saving power among the nations. Jesus says, “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life. . .” How does anyone in 2016 “see the Son” and come to believe in him? Through the teaching and preaching and sacraments of his Body, the Church – alive and well 2,000 yrs after his resurrection. In defiance of persecution, social ostracism, ridicule, corruption, scandal, exile, and occasional defeat, alive and well for 2,000 yrs, living in his resurrection to preach the Good News of God's mercy to sinners. Our purpose is not victory over our enemies. God has always, already won. Our purpose is to tell the world that He has won, is winning, and will always win, and that He wants us all, everyone to share in that victory through Christ, His Son.

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12 April 2016

You know that I love you

3rd Sunday of Easter 2016
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary

Our Lord asks Peter a question—The Question, actually—the question that makes Peter squirm like a worm on a hot rock: “Simon [Peter], son of John, do you love me more than these?”* We can't help but wonder what went through Peter's head at hearing this question. He must've flashed back to the time Jesus asked the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?” And he answered, “You are the Son of the living God.” He must've remembered rebuking Jesus when the Lord revealed that he would die in Jerusalem, and Jesus yelling at him, “Get behind me, Satan!” He must've remembered Jesus' prophecy that he would deny knowing him three times in the Garden. That memory must've made him blush in shame. His betrayal. Fleeing arrest. Outright lying. Now, the Risen Lord sits with him on the shore of the Sea of Tiberias and asks, “Simon [Peter], do you love me more than these?” Of course, Peter says that he loves the Lord. Could he say anything else? Truly, sitting there in the presence of the Risen Lord, could he confess to any other passion but the love btw friends, friends who willingly die for one another? “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” 

This first answer to the Jesus' question tells us that Peter is confused. “You know that I love you,” so why are you asking me if I love you? All those memories of rebuking Jesus, betraying him, denying him; all those chances to live out the radical love btw friends willing to die for one another; all those flashes of revelation into his teacher's true nature and ministry, the entirety of his short but intense life with this extraordinary man of God—they all collapse into this single, profoundly intimate meeting btw a sinner and his Savior: “Peter, do you love me?” “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” No, Peter isn't confused at all. He's feeling awkward, spiritually clumsy. He wants this moment to end. What can I say to get this over with? Or maybe he's hurt that his teacher thinks he might not love him. He has every reason to doubt that he does. Or maybe Peter is offended by the question, “You know that I love you, Lord,” why do you ask? Why does Jesus interrogate Peter this way? Not once or twice but three times he asks. And three times Peter gives the same answer. By the third time, John tells us, Peter is “distressed.” He's worried. Does the Lord really think that I don't love him? Peter is “grieved” by the possibility, so he answers, a little desperately, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” 

This seaside scene btw Jesus and Peter brings to harvest a number of seeds planted by Christ in the hearts and minds of his disciples. Though Peter is the focus of this interrogation, the other disciples bear their own spiritual wounds and fruits as a result of Christ's teaching. Since he first said, “Follow me” to these fishermen, Jesus has taught them in word and deed to forgive one another, to be at peace with one another, and above all, to love one another. He's taught them to surrender themselves to God by taking up their crosses and bearing up under whatever burdens must be carried. He's taught them to remember him in the breaking of the bread, in daily prayer, in fasting and in taking care of the least among them. He's taught them that being first in God's kingdom means being last in the Enemy's; and that if they love him, if they are truly willing to die for love of him, they will feed those who follow him. Feed my sheep. Feed them with the bread of life. Feed them with the Word. Satisfy their hunger for heaven, their thirst for the truth. This seaside scene btw Peter and Jesus is not only Peter's reconciliation with his Lord, it is also his final exam, his last test as the Lord's favored student. 

As students of Christ, how would you and I do on this final exam? If the Risen Lord were to appear to us and ask, “Do you love me?” how would we react? Would we be confused by the question? Hurt? Offended? Embarrassed? Distressed? Or would we jump at the chance to tell the Lord that we do love him? Would there be that split second btw the question and our answer when we remembered that time when we had the chance to bear witness to God's mercy and didn't? That chance to forgive we let slip away. Would we recall all the times we've denied knowing Christ by failing to love as we should? Those times when we let our pride stand in the way of our humility? Would our failures to give God thanks for our blessings cause us to stutter an answer? Would we blush at our lack of growth in holiness? Our spiritual clumsiness when disaster strikes? Yes, probably; yes, to all of these. And then we'd remember what Christ taught from his cross: all is forgiven; every sin, every flaw and fault, every failure to love is washed away. And we'd say, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” And he'd say to us, “Feed my sheep.” 

When Peter and the other Apostles are arrested by the Sanhedrin, did they remember this profoundly intimate meeting with the Risen Lord? They must've. The high priest accuses them, “We gave you strict orders, did we not, to stop teaching in that name? Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching. . .” Before he responds to the accusation, Peter must've heard Jesus saying, “Feed my sheep.” So, he says to the priests, “We must obey God rather than men. . .” Rather than obey men, we must feed the Lord's sheep. Rather than bowing to your worldly power, we must bow before the glory of God. Rather than surrender ourselves to this world's hatred, we must teach others to surrender themselves to God's love. Peter must've smiled a little, recalling the grilling Jesus gave him by the Sea of Tiberias. Three times he had to confess his love for Christ. Three times Christ ordered him to feed his sheep. And now, here he is, standing before the powers of men, and he understands why Christ put him to the question. Jesus knew that he, Peter, could not feed his sheep if he himself would not be fed. The Lord absolved Peter of his sins, gave him a word of mercy so that when the time came to defy the world, he can so ready to die. I imagine Peter in front of the Sanhedrin, whispering, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” 

You know already, brothers and sisters, that we must obey God rather than men. We know this, but can we do it. More often than not, there is no conflict btw what we must do to satisfy the world and what we must do to satisfy God. But when a conflict arises, do we think immediately of Peter before the Sanhedrin? Do we think of him at the seashore with Jesus? Or do we think instead of all our failures and flaws, all of our sins and then excuse ourselves again from the obligation to put Christ first in our lives? Our failures and flaws cannot serves as excuses. After the death and resurrection of Christ, our sins are forgiven. We can no long demur in our duties to God b/c we are unworthy, or b/c we imagine ourselves to be too irresponsible to love properly. Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” If your answer is, “Yes, Lord, I love you,” then hear him say to you, “Feed my sheep.”

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