01 November 2016

Where we came from, where we are going

From 2012. . .

Solemnity of All Saints
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

“Beloved, we are God's children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.” So writes St. John. What do we know about what we will become? “We do know that when [what are to become] is revealed we shall be like him. . .” We will be like God. How is this possible? “. . .for we shall see him as he is.” To see God as He is, face-to-face, is to become like Him. John writes, “Everyone who has this hope [—to see Him face-to-face—] makes himself pure, as he is pure.” Those who lived with the hope of living forever in the presence of God's glory; those who have become all that they were made to be; those who have gone to see God face-to-face—these, we call “saints.” Both named and unnamed, both those still with us and those who rest in Christ—that “great multitude. . .from every nation, race, people, and tongue,” all the saints of God, testify before the throne in heaven and among us here and now that “salvation comes from our God. . .and from the Lamb;” therefore, we are blessed to exclaim along with them, “Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever!” 

“See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God.” So writes St John. And we are children of God. Made so by God so that we might become saints through Christ. First, we were loved into existence out of nothingness; then, we were loved into freedom through mercy; then, we were free to love so that Love Himself might be perfected in us; then, and only then, were we shown, if we will it, how to take a place among the blessed: die to self. Take up your cross. Follow Christ. The poor in spirit; the meek; those who mourn; the clean of heart; the peacemakers; all those who hunger and thirst for righteous—all are among the blessed, the saints, because they desired nothing and no one more than they desired Christ. Christ is who they all most wanted to followed, most wanted to be. And they died for love as a sacrifice for many. Whether they died by the sword, the firing squad, by poverty and obedience; by wearying service; or surrender to solitude, they died first to self. Picked up their cross. And followed Christ. 

We celebrate this solemnity for all God's saints. Those named and unnamed, that “great multitude. . .from every nation, race, people, and tongue,” both those still with us and those who rest already in Christ. But we don't celebrate their lives and deaths b/c they need us our prayers and attention. We celebrate all the saints of the Church b/c we need to. And not simply b/c they stand above us as examples of holiness; and not just b/c they are pioneers for us along the narrow Way; and not only b/c we need their heavenly help before the throne of God, but b/c they are now who we can become if we will to become more than children of God. What we will become has not yet been revealed. But we know this: whatever we become, we will be like God for we will see Him as he is, face-to-face. And in seeing Him face-to-face, we will be made perfect as He is perfect. We celebrate all the saints of God's holy family so that we never forget where we came from (dirt and ash) and where we might end (among the blessed). All the angels and saints, along with the Blessed Mother and our own St. Dominic, proclaim before the throne of God: “Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever!” If you will it. . .die to self. . .take up your cross. . .and follow Christ, you will stand among them.


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30 October 2016

Climb the Tree of the Church to see Christ

31st Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Zacchaeus is traitor. And he's short. He can't help being short, but his traitorous nature is the direct result of sin. As a tax collector for the Roman occupiers and their puppet king, he is charged with squeezing the conquered population of Judea for cash. He's not paid to do this. To earn a living he keeps a percentage of what he collects. So, the more he collects, he more he earns. Ta-collectors were counted among the scum of society along with prostitutes and lepers. Now, we could psychoanalyze Zacchaeus to figure out why he became a tax-collector. Maybe. . .as a smaller boy he was bullied. Ostracized. Teased for being short, he grew up angry, swearing vengeance on his childhood oppressors. How ever and why ever it happened. . .he's a rich traitor. Fortunately for him, he hears about Jesus and something inside him is set alight with the desire to glimpse this wandering preacher. When Jesus comes through Jericho, Zacchaeus gets his chance. But, alas, he is not only a sinner but a short sinner and he cannot see Jesus over the crowd. Having spent much of his childhood running from bullies, he's quite skilled at climbing trees. So, he climbs a sycamore tree and from its strong branches, he sees Christ. And, more importantly, Christ sees him. Without that tree Zacchaeus might have never found his way to salvation.

No doubt – we have a story about a sinner finding Christ. It's one we've heard many times. But this is perhaps the only gospel story where a plant aids in the preaching of the Good News. Zacchaeus finds among the branches of that sycamore a refuge from the throng surrounding Jesus, a perch from which to watch Jesus pass by. Obviously, this is no ordinary tree, right? The sycamore is a species of fig. It has heart-shaped leaves; grows only in rich soil; and produces fruit year-round. The ancient Egyptians called it the “Tree of Life” and used its timber for royal coffins. It was a measure of wealth and prestige. Is it any wonder then that Zacchaeus sights his salvation from its branches? 
Let's take some literary license here. Thinking of our 21st century world, what serves as our sycamore tree for the short sinner? Where can those of us who are stunted by sin go to climb above the crowd to see Christ? What thrives in the rich soil of the Word? What produces good fruit year-round? What grows among its strong branches a foliage shaped like a God-longing heart? Where can we climb so that Christ sees a sinner above the crowd? Is there a better place for the sinner to be than the Church? Among strength, fruitfulness, holy desire, and the richness of a firm foundation, Zacchaeus, a short traitorous sinner, clearly sees the one he will host in his own home, the one to whom Jesus says, despite the grumbling of the crowd, “Today salvation has come to this house. . .” 
We can draw and some have drawn the wrong lesson from this story. Some will say, “See, Jesus welcomes all sinners, therefore we cannot call a sin a sin.” But notice that it is not sufficient for his salvation that Zacchaeus sees Jesus from the sycamore. Christ calls to him, knowing who he is, and invites Zacchaeus to host him. Zacchaeus hears the invitation and immediately knows that all his thieving, all his traitorous behavior is just fine with the Lord. His sin is no longer sinful, right? Wrong. Zacchaeus repents and vows to do penance by repaying his thefts four times over. Then Jesus announces the redemption of his house. This is the gospel pattern: Christ comes. Christ is seen. He invites the sinner to table. Overwhelmed by this mercy, the sinner repents and does penance. His salvation is made manifest. The task of the Church is to be the sycamore, the refuge for any and all who long to see the Lord from her strong, fruitful branches. From among these heart-shaped leaves, the worst of us can see Christ and hear his call to a new life in him. To hear Christ's invitation and to receive his mercy, confession and repentance must come first. His invitation and mercy do not magically make sin into something good. But. . .once received – thru confession and repentance – his mercy makes us into something else, something, Someone new!

Rich sinners, poor sinners, tall, short, fat sinners, skinny, black, white, male, female sinners, gay, straight, in-between sinners, sinners in all the infinite variety in God's creation – climb the branches of Christ's holy tree – the Church – and he will ask to come stay with you. Accept his invitation and his mercy thru the confession of your sins and repentance. . .and you too will be set free.

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