19 November 2016

Ruling from the Cross

NB: from 2013 for the Vigil Mass. . .I'll have a new homily ready for the Our Lady of the Rosary Mass tomorrow.

Christus Rex
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic/Tulane Catholic, NOLA

Take a moment to consider the crucifix—a cross made of wood with a dead body nailed to it. What's so special about Jesus' crucifixion? In the world ruled by the Roman Empire, slaves, pirates, and rebels against the empire were routinely crucified. It was considered a dishonorable way to die. In 71 B.C., the Roman general, Marcus Licinius Crassus, finally defeated the gladiator army of Spartacus the Thracian, crucifying 6,000 rebellious slaves along the Appian Way. Just 17 years before this, the King of Judea, Alexander Jannaeus, crucified 88 Pharisees who opposed his rule, and five hundred years before this, King Darius I of Babylon crucified 3,000 of his political opponents. So, Babylonians, Jews, Romans all nailed or tied men and women to wooden crosses as a form of torture and execution. Why then make such a big deal about Jesus' execution? What's so special about a cross with the body of Christ hanging on it? Ask yourself on this Solemnity of Christ the King: how does Christ rule as a king while hanging dead on a cross? How does he rule in your life, your heart and mind?

How does Christ rule as a king while hanging dead on a cross? We can start an answer by turning to Paul and his letter to the Colossians. Paul tells us that God delivers us from the power of darkness – from ignorance, sin, and death – and then transfers us from this world's domination over to His kingdom – to the rule, the governance – of His beloved Son, Jesus Christ, in whom and through whom we have redemption. And what is this redemption? The forgiveness of our sins. So, by forgiving our sins – apart from our good works, apart from our good intentions – God grants us absolute amnesty, free reign to abide in His kingdom as citizens and not only as citizens but as heirs as well! If we accept, if we receive his freely offered amnesty, we are “transferred” to another jurisdiction, to another governing power: the rule of Christ the King. And under his rule, we are brothers and sisters in the Holy Family of God. We live under a new dispensation, a new and eternal law of charity in hope with an abiding faith. Paul says, “. . .the Father who has made [us] fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light.” And that is what we are here to do: share in the inheritance granted us by the death of Christ on the cross and by his resurrection from the tomb.

But this is only a partial answer to our first question. Christ rules a kingdom from his cross and an empty tomb, a kingdom to which we are heirs. But how does he rule? Who is he that he can do such a bizarre thing? We turn to Paul again. He writes, “[Christ] is the image of the invisible God. . .in [Christ] were created all things in heaven and on earth. . .all things were created through [Christ] and for [Christ]. He is before all things, and in [Christ] all things hold together. . .” Through Christ, for Christ, and in Christ “all things hold together.” All things. Including me and you. If “all things” hold together in Christ, then it follows that Christ serves as the organizing principle, the center, the underlying structure for all of creation. He was “at the beginning” with the Father; he is with us now, and he will be with us always. All of this tells us that Christ is God, so when we look at the crucifix, we see God hanging there. Dead. For us. And b/c Christ was both human and divine, we see humanity hanging there as well. Human nature. What you and I are are most fundamentally. But you and I aren't dead. We're alive. How does Christ rule from the cross? He rules through the redeemed human nature that you and I share. He rules – at least for now – through our free reception of his sacrificial love. We are his body and blood, his hands and feet, moving through creation, doing the work he gives us to do.

That's who are we: the body and blood of Christ, his hands and feet, moving through creation, doing the work he gives us to do. That is, that's who we are if and when we freely receive his sacrificial love and make that love manifest in our work. Look at the criminal on a cross next to Jesus. The sign above Jesus' bloody head reads, “This is the King of the Jews.” Luke tells us, “Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, 'Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us.'” In other words, prove your worth, King of the Jews! Prove that you are who you say you are! He almost dares Jesus to rescue them from their fate. The other criminal, traditionally named Dismas, somehow understanding who hangs next to him, rebukes the first, saying, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation?. . .we have been condemned justly. . .but this man has done nothing criminal.” Seeing the scandal of Jesus' unjust execution, Dismas freely receives Christ's sacrificial love: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” In these two condemned men, we see all of humanity: those who dare Christ to save them from death and those who receive his salvation into eternal life. To the latter, Jesus says, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Earlier, I asked you: how does Christ rule in your life, your heart and mind? One way to answer this is to think of yourself as Dismas, hanging next to Christ on your own cross. You have accepted death as punishment for your sins, and yet, seeing Christ dying unjustly, innocent of any sin, you call out, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He turns to you and says, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” From that moment, you are “transferred” to another kingdom to live under another law, the law of charity in hope with an abiding faith.

You are pardoned, freed from the sentence of death, and let loose to thrive as an heir to the heavenly kingdom. Christ rules in your heart and mind as the sovereign of your every thought, word, and deed; as the sole ruler of everything you are and everything you do. In you, we see the hands and feet, the body and blood, the face of Christ. Through you, we witness the reign of Christ the King on earth. And with you, we live to bring to the fallen world the Good News of God's freely offered mercy to sinners through His Christ. How does Christ rule in our lives, our hearts and minds? If we receive him, he rules by teaching us to be servants, serving in sacrifice.

By a show of hands, how many of you have a crucifix? At home? On you? A rosary, a necklace? Good! When you look at that crucifix, you see Jesus hanging dead on a cross. From now on, see a king on his throne, ruling your world, ruling you. See the prince of peace, dying to bring his Father's peace to your world, to you. See your Savior throwing open his arms to show you the vistas of Paradise, to guide you through to your inheritance. See the Judge of the Last Judgment showing you his Father's justice and then granting you His mercy. Imagine yourself on a cross next to him. And imagine all the steps you followed to get there. Look down, to the foot of your cross, and take every step back to the beginning, back to the very first time you said to Christ, “Remember me, Lord, when you come into your kingdom.” From that moment on, Christ has ruled you and through you. He has served you and through you he still serves. “Amen, I say to you, today you [are] with me in Paradise.”

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15 November 2016

Don't do the angels' work for them

St Albert the Great
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

My family used to spend our Sundays hanging out at an old water-filled gravel quarry somewhere down near Chalmette. We would boat in, find a nice sandy beach, and settle in for the day grilling hamburgers, swimming, and fishing. Our last outing to what we called the Duck Roost ended rather dramatically. My 8 yo brother and my 11 yo old self were swimming at dusk. My dad – in a boat nearby – speared his spotlight across the pond. He called our names and yelled, “We've got company!” I turned around and saw three sets of red, flashing gator eyes creeping through the water towards me and my brother. Some forty years later, we refer to this as “The Day the Powell Boys Learned to Run on Water”! I think that this is one of reasons I became a Fisher of Men. . .rather than a fisher of fish. Fishing for fish in LA's bayous can be dangerous. But fishing for the souls of men and women in the world can be just as dangerous for the fisherman, if not more so. We throw the net of the Gospel into the world and pull in every sort of soul. At the end of the day, fishers of fish keep the good and toss the bad. But at the end of the age, it is the angels – not the fishermen – who parse the catch.

To the fishers of men listening to his parable, Jesus asks, “Do you understand all these things?” They reply, “Yes.” And with fear and trembling at getting it wrong, we too must reply, “Yes.” Why fear and trembling? Sirach says, “Whoever fears the Lord. . .will come to Wisdom. . .[Whoever fears the Lord] will lean upon [Wisdom] and not fall; he will trust in her and not be put to shame.” When the Church's fishers of men understand – truly grasp – the Good News, they take upon themselves a wisdom firmly rooted in humility – a habit of heart and mind that bows to the truth of Creation: we are all creatures wholly dependent on our Creator and His mercy. A wise fisherman of souls does not separate the good from the bad in his net. That's the work of angels at the end of the age. The work of the fisherman in this world is the heavy-lifting, time-consuming, always frustrating work of hauling in as many souls as the day will allow. What's so dangerous about this for the fisherman? The temptation to do the work of angels, forgetting humility and wisdom. The temptation to court foolishness and shame. None of us is an angel. So, do your work in this world with joy and gratitude, announcing the Good News, pulling in the net. . .and let the Lord and his angels do the wiser work of parsing the catch.

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13 November 2016

Do NOT be deceived!

33rd Sunday OT(C)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
It was a Friday afternoon after school. We were right outside the Ms Shear’s house – she had an indoor pool with that the glass roof. She would open her gates and let us run our bikes down her driveway into the dead-end cove. At the bottom of the driveway that Friday just as I was spinning around to ride back up, my best friend, Teddie asked me, “Do you know Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior?” I stared at him for a second, mildly embarrassed, murmured something unintelligible, and headed back up the hill. He followed and asked me at the top, “Have you ever heard of the Tribulation?” No. “The Second Coming of Jesus.” No. “The Rapture?” No. “The war at Armageddon?” No. He stared at me, open-mouthed. I felt like a circus-freak – one of those werewolf boys or eight-legged cows you read about in F. O'Connor short stories. And just as I was starting to think Teddie was going to slap a sign on me and start selling tickets, he said, “You need to come to Vacation Bible School at Fremeaux Ave. Baptist Church.” I distinctly remember his tone. He pronounced this possibility like a highly-effective cure for a particularly ugly disease, like suggesting radical plastic surgery to the eight-legged cow or laser-hair removal for the werewolf boy. Vacation Bible School will fix ten-year old-Jesus-stupid-Philip. 
Jesus knows how to get and hold the attention of a crowd. Pointing to the temple, the very heart of the Jewish people, he says, “All that you see here – the days will come when there will not be left a stone upon another stone…” And the people wonder, “Teacher, when will this happen?” Notice how Jesus answers. Typically, Jesus doesn’t answer the question asked of him; rather, he answers the question we would ask if we were less clueless! Rather than tell the crowd who or what destroys the temple, or how the temple is destroyed, or even when it is pulled down, Jesus says, “See that you are not deceived, for many will come in my name, saying ‘I am he’ and ‘The time is come.’ Do not follow them!” This isn’t an answer. And neither is any of the rest of his response. War. Famine. Earthquakes. Awesome sights and mighty signs. Persecutions of the church. These have been going on since the beginning of the Church. Before the Church even. And not only that, but the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans some seventy years after the resurrection of Christ, making this passage from Luke’s gospel essentially an interesting but ultimately pointless historical curiosity for us in 2016, right? Wrong! Jesus’ response to the crowd is an answer for the ages. To us. He is speaking to us right now.
You see, our faith, done right, is a dangerous thing. It is a worm in the shiny apple of the world. A pest that buzzes ‘round the emperor’s head. Our faith is a still small voice that never stops whispering for the Lord’s justice. Never stops praying for the world’s sick, hungry, lonely, oppressed, sinful. Our faith, our firm trust in the Lord and our sure hope of resurrection, annoys; it burns to clean; it names those who would set themselves on the altar of the temple, and it pulls down the idols of the appetites. Through our faith we see clearly, hear cleanly the chaos and racket of a world infused with the spirit of the Now and the New. Easy salvation. Cheap grace. No-challenge Church. Invent as you go, believe as you wish, do as you please. Please yourself, please me! Here’s a new prophet, a new priest to tickle our ears, to scratch our curiosities. I am he. The time has come. I am he. The time is now. The time is new. I am he who comes in the name of the Lord. I am he whose time is now and I come in the name of a new Lord! 
Do not be deceived. Do not follow him. Or her. Or it – a spiritual program, a method, a style or a fashion, a theological trend, or a “new thing in prayer,” the latest thing to demand your allegiance, your time and energy, your soul. Do not be deceived by easy fixes, quick cures, elaborate models of living the faith, or fanciful devotions that take your eyes from Christ. Do not be deceived by the shiny, flickering world of cable-TV commerce or media-born politics or the brain-rotting candy of cultural relativism. Your faith is old. But your trust in the Lord is always brand new. For us, Christ is the wisdom of the ages. Always fresh, always innovative, always the original.

So, ten-year-old-Jesus-stupid-Philip went to Baptist Vacation Bible School. A week of verse-memorization, macaroni art, disciple-tag, fevered altar calls in church, intense pressure to “come to Jesus.” On the last day, I caved. I walked the aisle to the rail. In a Baptist version of confession, I muttered a few sins to the preacher. He asked me if I accepted Jesus into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior. I said, “Yes.” But I thought, “Sure. Anything to get outta here!” Later, Teddie asked me if I felt different. I said, “No. Not really.” Again, he stared at me like I had grown a third eye. He said sadly, “Well, you didn’t get saved then. You would feel it.” All I could do was shrug and say, “Maybe next time.” He showed me the Book of Revelation where the blood of those killed in the war against the Beast flowed as high as a horse’s bridle. He pointed to the whore of Babylon and told me that was really the Catholic Church. He read out to me the parts about the angels and the seven seals and the ten-headed dragon and the number 666. And he managed to scare Jesus into me. Or maybe he scared me into Jesus. 
Jesus warns us that we will be persecuted. Arrested and executed for our faith. This was made clear to me by Teddie when he showed me the chaos of the apocalypse. The energy, the fervor of his belief propelled me to seek out, to question, to look more deeply into the faith. I didn’t stop at the fundamentalist vision of the end times. I kept reading, praying, asking questions. And I found the Church…eventually. Before that though I let every alien philosophy out there, every puny little god with a creed and a priest tell me how to live. We are the Church, the Body of Christ. We are his Body and Blood. The blood of the martyrs’ faith. The faith of our ancestors in covenant with the Father. And a Father who has not abandoned us to novelty, to trendy religious nonsense, or worldly saviors. We are given the word of wisdom against whom no adversary can stand. We are given the trust of the Creator and His recreating Love. On these, we endure. With these, we persevere. And what promise we do have? This one: “You will be hated b/c of my name, but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.” Nothing cheap or easy about that!

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