30 December 2018

Mary, Theotokos, Mother of God

The Solemnity of the Mary, Mother of God, celebrates the decision taken at the Council of Ephesus (431) against the teaching of the Patriarch, Nestorius, who held that a human person could not be said to have given birth to God. The Patriarch of Alexander, Cyril, argued that Mary, as the chosen instrument of the Incarnation, conceived and gave birth to the Word, Jesus, fully human and fully divine, one person with two natures. Mary, then, is properly understood to be “Theotokos,” God-bearer.

Cyril wrote (in part) to Nestorius:

"And since the holy Virgin brought forth corporally God made one with flesh according to nature, for this reason we also call her Mother of God, not as if the nature of the Word had the beginning of its existence from the flesh.

For In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God, and he is the Maker of the ages, coeternal with the Father, and Creator of all; but, as we have already said, since he united to himself hypostatically human nature from her womb, also he subjected himself to birth as man, not as needing necessarily in his own nature birth in time and in these last times of the world, but in order that he might bless the beginning of our existence, and that that which sent the earthly bodies of our whole race to death, might lose its power for the future by his being born of a woman in the flesh. And this: In sorrow you shall bring forth children, being removed through him, he showed the truth of that spoken by the prophet, Strong death swallowed them up, and again God has wiped away every tear from off all faces. For this cause also we say that he attended, having been called, and also blessed, the marriage in Cana of Galilee, with his holy Apostles in accordance with the economy. We have been taught to hold these things by the holy Apostles and Evangelists, and all the God-inspired Scriptures, and in the true confessions of the blessed Fathers."

Cryril published twelve anathemas against Nestorius. Cyril's letters and his anathemas became the primary texts from which the council fathers drew up their canons for the council.

The first anathema reads: “If anyone will not confess that the Emmanuel is very God, and that therefore the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God (Θεοτόκος), inasmuch as in the flesh she bore the Word of God made flesh [as it is written, The Word was made flesh] let him be anathema.”

The fifth anathema reads: “If anyone shall dare to say that the Christ is a Theophorus [that is, God-bearing] man and not rather that he is very God, as an only Son through nature, because the Word was made flesh, and has a share in flesh and blood as we do: let him be anathema.”

As is the case with all Marian dogma and doctrine, we are immediately directed back to Christ as our Lord and Savior. No Marian dogma or doctrine is declared or defined in isolation from Christ. She is always understood to be an exemplar of the Church and a sign through which we come to a more perfect union with Christ. Though our Blessed Mother is rightly revered and venerated, she is never worshiped as if she were divine. She is rightly understood as the Mediatrix of All Graces in so far as she mediated, through her own body, the conception and birth of Christ, who is Grace Himself. In no sense are we to understand our Blessed Mother as the source of grace. Rather, she was and is a conduit through which we benefit from the only mediation between God and man, Christ. In her immaculate conception and assumption into heaven, our Blessed Mother is herself a beneficiary of Christ's grace. As such, she cannot be the source of our blessedness, our giftedness in Christ.

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24 December 2018

Becoming a Child of God

NB. from 2012. . .

Solemnity of the Lord's Nativity (Day)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

We start: “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth—and the earth was without form or shape, with darkness over the abyss and a mighty wind sweeping over the waters—Then God said: Let there be light, and there was light.” Let there be day and night; let there be water above and water below; let be sky and earth; beasts wild and tame, birds, and crawling things; and let there be Man, male and female, created in the image and likeness of their Creator. With God, at the beginning, when He created everything that is, was the Word, and “all things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” It is this Word-at-the-beginning that we come together this morning to honor, adore, and welcome. Not the Word in majesty and splendor; not the Word in his brilliant glory, but the Word-given-flesh: the child, Jesus Christ, the infant son of Joseph and Mary. His birth among us reveals a narrow path, a way and a means back to God's glory and truth. To those who receive him he gives power to become children of God. 

We honor, adore, and welcome Christ-dwelling-us; we accept and receive him as Lord so that we may become children of God. Of all the ways available to God to make us into His children, why did He choose to send His only-begotten Son among us as a child? The complete answer to this question won't be available to us until we see God face-to-face; however, our Holy Father, Benedict, gives us a glimpse, a partial answer. In his Midnight Mass homily in Rome yesterday, the Holy Father said, “. . .it astonishes us that God makes himself a child so that we may love him, so that we may dare to love him. . .It is as if God were saying: I know that my glory frightens you. . .So now I am coming to you as a child, so that you can accept me and love me.” We must remember that the incarnation of the Son was not the first time that God had tried to bring His human creatures back to Him. He appeared in glory to Moses. He guided His people out of slavery in Egypt as a pillar of fire and a pillar of smoke. He sent one prophet after another to accuse His people of spiritual adultery and injustice and preach repentance. He sent the Law and demanded obedience. And over and over again, His people misheard, misread, disobeyed, rebelled. And over and over again, He forgave them and restored them to His grace. What we needed was a permanent solution. 

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews notes this turbulent history and points to just such a solution: “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he has spoken to us through the Son. . .” All that had been revealed by God before the birth of the Christ is partial, incomplete. Just quick glimpses behind the veil that separates the Creator from His creation. With imperfect knowledge, and using broken human nature, we were unable to come fully back to God, unable to achieve—even with the help of the Law and the Prophets—we were unable to attain the perfection we were made to enjoy. Having willed that we once again enjoy the original justice of the Garden, God saw that it would be good for us to have perfect knowledge of His plan and a mended human nature to use this knowledge. To achieve this, He made the unique and final revelation of His plan for our salvation into a flesh and bone human child. Not only would this child show us the way back to God, he would be the way back, the only way back to our Eden. The key to His plan is the Christ Child and the virginal teenaged girl who gave him birth. 

What does the Christ Child reveal to us? John writes, “From his fullness we have all received, grace in place of grace, because while the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” From the fullness of Christ—from this one divine person with two natures: one human, one divine—from his fullness, we have been given one gift upon another, one grace after another. We have been given perfect human knowledge of God's plan for our salvation from sin and death. We have been given a map to follow along the Way. We have been given the Truth of this world and our place in the world to come. We have been given Life and life eternal. And we have been given all this for no reason than that God loves us as His children and wills that we live with Him forever. All there is to do is to freely receive all that He has freely given and then dwell as Christ does among the living and the dead. To make our reception of these gifts both fearless and complete, God sent His only-begotten Son to live among us as one of us. And he gifted us with a Blessed Mother who bears us up to His throne as one of her own to commend to us to His mercy. Christ and his mother bring into this world the unique and final revelation of God. 

We start again: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . .All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” His light shines in the darkness of sin and death, showing all who choose to see a Way to Truth and Life. For those who choose to see, and in seeing choose to follow, he makes a promise of life eternal. And so, we gather here this morning to honor, adore, and welcome him among us as one of us. And in eating his body and drinking his blood, we pledge ourselves to leave this place, taking him out into the world as a wonder and a revelation. God the Father through the Holy Spirit placed the Son in the virginal womb of Mary. She is our mother and our model when she says to Gabriel, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” Leave this place then with your heart and mind left open to her example; leave here knowing, feeling, and believing that God loves you and wants you to live with Him forever. Leave here with the Blessed Mother's surrender resounding in your body and soul. And come back—again and again—to give Him thanks for His Christ, to give Him praise for His plan to bring you home.

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16 December 2018

Scandal? Rejoice! Despair? Rejoice!

3rd Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

After so many months of bad news for the national and international Church, it's about time we rehearse some of the basics of the faith. I don't mean basic doctrines or moral precepts but the even more fundamental attitudes and dispositions that our status as heirs to the Kingdom should provoke in us. Even as we contend with scandal, betrayal, persecution, and trial, our best hope for surviving and growing in holiness is to remain joyful. Paul writes to the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! [. . .] The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all. . .” What is there to rejoice about? Is Paul aware of what's being going in the Church lately? Does he know about the confusion, the secrets, the backstabbing and abuse? Does he know about the declining number of regular Mass-goers? Doesn't he know we have a priest shortage and that the number of sisters and nuns are in a free-fall? No, he doesn't. He wrote to the Philippians from prison while under the threat of the death penalty for preaching Christ. From prison. Preparing to die. For preaching Christ. Paul says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! The Lord is near!”

Why should we rejoice in the middle of this mess? Because the Lord is near. He's near to being born on Christmas Day, and he is near to coming again as our Just Judge, and he is near to us in the Blessed Sacrament, and he is near in one another as the Church. He is never far away. And we rejoice b/c – whatever the world throws our way, whatever disaster we face – we are his brothers and sisters, heirs to the Father's Kingdom. The proper attitude toward our situation –whatever that situation might be – is always joyfulness. Thomas Aquinas teaches us that joy is an effect of love. When one loves the result is joy. To experience joy and share that joy is a sign not only that we are loved but also that we love in turn. And I want to be clear here: I'm not talking about love and joy in worldly terms – warm fuzzies and butterflies and being goofy and giggly all the time. When we love, truly love, we love within the Love Who is God Himself. We participate in the divine nature of God Who is Love. Our joy, then, is what happens when we love as God loves us. Sometimes divine love looks like the creation of the universe. Sometimes it looks like Christ on a cross. What's the effect? Joy. Our joy at being saved from the darkness of sin and eternal death.

When Paul tells the Philippians to rejoice and to rejoice always, he also tells them to pray with thanksgiving “so that the peace of God that surpasses all understanding [may] guard [our] hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” What are our hearts and minds being guarded against? Anxiety. Hopeless expectation. Despair. Praying in thanksgiving guards against those attitudes and dispositions that lead us to surrender our inheritance in exchange for. . .well, nothing. Nothing at all. Is your place at the Wedding Feast worth a life of anger? A life of disappointment and despair? The third Sunday of Advent serves as the Church's way of bringing our hearts and minds back to their most basic orientation: we are heirs, children, brothers and sisters, and nothing this world – or anyone in the Church – can do anything to change that. . .if we rejoice and rejoice always! So long as there is joy, there is love causing that joy. And whatever scandal or deception or crime that pops up must be seen through the eyes of joy. This too will pass. But God's love and our joy never will. We can thwart the Devil by giving God thanks for our trials. Has there been a perfect time for us to practice forgiveness? To show the world God's mercy? To love radically in the face of the Devil's best efforts to tempt us into self-righteous anger and despair?

God's prophet, Zephaniah, says, “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you. . .” God is with us. He rejoices at our rejoicing. And He sings joyfully b/c we belong to Him. Nothing and no one can spoil this joy. Nothing and no one can turn our joy into mourning. As we wait on the Christ Child at Christmas and the Just Judge at the end of the age, we pray with thanksgiving; we ask and we receive; we rejoice and we love. And we sing with Psalmist: “I am confident and unafraid. My strength and my courage is the Lord!”

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09 December 2018

Preparing the Way of the Lord

2nd Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Lent reminds us that we are anointed priests – sacrificing, interceding, sanctifying. Ordinary Time reminds us that we are anointed kings – ruling by serving, ransoming ourselves for others. Advent – especially the 2nd Sunday of Advent – pushes us to remember that we are anointed prophets of the Lord. We are reminded that, like John the Baptist, it is our mission to “prepare the way of the Lord, [to] make straight his paths.” Our mission as prophets begins with baptism and continues uninterrupted day-to-day until we are called home. Paul writes, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it. . .” So, we do the good work of preparing the way of the Lord in this world “until the day of Christ Jesus.”
What does “being a prophet” look like in 2018? Look to John the Baptist. He comes out of the desert, a desolate place, a place devoid of life. He finds his voice there. Outside family, friends, culture, and civilization, John finds a voice to proclaim the Coming Christ. He doesn’t use this voice to promote himself. He speaks of Another. He doesn’t prepare the way for his own celebrity. He celebrates Christ. He doesn’t try to make his own life easier by claiming some sort of divine connection. He makes the paths straight for the Lord. He doesn’t try to “fit in” or blend in. He preaches against the cultural grain, against the dominant powers of the world. He is not concerned about being comfortable with his role or finding satisfaction in his ministry or being a team player. His is a lonely voice. He does not coddle the establishment or the revolutionaries, the elite or those who claim to speak for the oppressed. He calls them all – every one – to repentance, to baptism, and to a life of good fruits. He points again and again to Christ, the mightier One, the One Who Comes to baptize in the Spirit. Always pointing toward Christ, always toward Jesus. And he dies without regret, refusing to compromise, refusing to speak a lie just “to get along.” That is what a prophet does. Two thousand years ago, last week, today, and tomorrow.

Now, if all that sounds like I'm pushing you to become soldiers in the culture war that's currently consuming western civilization, I'm not. I'm not saying that to be a prophet of Christ you must don hair-shirts and march about, protesting this or that cultural abomination; or fling yourself at public sinners, or stand on street corners with poster board signs that read, “REPENT! THE END IS NEAR!” In fact, most of that kind of behavior damages the credibility of our faith, making the Church look like some kind of doomsday cult. Pope Benedict XVI likened the contemporary Church to the Church as she existed in first two-hundred years after the resurrection – out of favor with the dominant class; politically weak; crippled by internal conflicts and scandal; floundering in her efforts to evangelize; and attacked from all sides by paganism, worldliness, and government suspicion. This is when he noted that the Church of the future would be smaller and more faithful. As the dominant culture withdraws its favor from the faith, those in the Church who no longer see any social advantage to belonging to the Church will leave. What's left will be those who truly believe. The Church the martyrs' died to nourish.
I believe we are seeing this papal prophecy come to pass in our lifetimes. How do we respond if we choose to remain faithful? First, we hold firmly in our hearts and minds the message of Advent: Christ has come; Christ will come again. We wait patiently for his coming at Christmas, learning how to wait patiently for his Second Coming at the end of the age. Second, while we wait, we grow in holiness by faithfully attending to the sacraments; praying daily; completing works of mercy; being vibrant witnesses for Christ in our schools, workplaces, and homes. This doesn't mean shouting at sinners, throwing Bibles at the heathens, or forcing others to endure our religiosity. It means speaking and behaving like Christ wherever we are. It means never compromising the faith for popularity. Never accommodating the world for mere convenience. Third, and here's where my Dominican training comes to bear, how well do you know your faith? Do you study scripture? The Church Fathers? Do you own a copy of the Catechism? If so, do you read it? Do you know something of the Church's 2,000 year old history? If pressed, can you explain to your children, grandchildren, your neighbors why the Church teaches against abortion, artificial contraception, same-sex “marriage,” and encourages us to help the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized? And lastly, remaining faithful in these turbulent times requires that we have a clear, unsentimental view of the Church herself. She is always one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. The men and women who manage her earthly affairs are sometimes none of these. There will be times – and we are in one right now – where the Church herself must be confronted by her own prophets. This too is part of the difficult reduction our future holds.
So, after all that, are you ready to be a prophet? You are ready to be a prophet if you are ready to acknowledge your sin. Repent. Turn around. Face God. Produce good fruit first and then expect it from others. You are ready if you can call out injustice; condemn oppression; defend the weak and helpless; stand firm on God's Word, preaching and teaching His truth w/o compromise or accommodation. We are ready if we can live waiting on the Lord, at peace while proclaiming with our every word and every deed: “Prepare! Christ is coming”

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08 December 2018

A Most Dangerous Greeting

NB. Adapted from a 2006 homily preached at Madonna Hall, Univ. of Dallas.

Immaculate Conception
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Mt. Carmel Academy, NOLA

“Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” What sort of greeting is this? A dangerous one, a very dangerous one. The angel Gabriel, sent by God to Mary, greets the virgin by telling her that she is most graced, wholly blessed, chosen, and attended to by the Lord. And Mary knows the greeting is dangerous: “But she was greatly troubled…” Troubled…and wise. Mary pondered the angelic greeting with dread. She understood that this particular, unique grace picked her out of all God’s creatures. She understood that receiving an angel from the Lord meant a mission, a purpose beyond her mortal end, a life for her of singular graces, an honored life of doing the Father’s will for His glory. Dangerous indeed!

Mary is being asked by the Lord to serve as bearer of the world’s salvation, the vessel of the Word, and the Mother of a redeemed nation. Saying yes to this places her at that moment in time, that instant of human history where the Divine takes on flesh, sets out toward selfless sacrifice, and heals us all. In her ministry to all creation, the virgin gives her body, her will for the rest of us so that the Infinite Word might speak Itself as a Finite Word and gather us together into a single heart, a single mind, one voice in witness to the mercy and forgiveness of the Lord. She is the mother of our salvation, the perfected vessel of our eternal healing. Mary is a preacher of the gospel, the first preacher of the Word – the most dangerous job there is in this world.
When we took on the responsibility of bearing the Word to the world – when we became preachers of grace – we took on the dangers of opposing all that the world worships as good. Speaking the Word of Truth against the Lie riles up the worst resentments and the most violent frustrations of those in the world who resent Mary’s Yes, who resent the gift of the Christ Child, and who turn their faces against his invitation to participate in the Divine Life. The danger for us here is twofold: 1) that we are punished as the source of the resentment and frustration among those who reject the Word and 2) that we succumb to the temptation to see these people as hopeless, beyond reach, and deserving of temporal punishment. The first – that we are blamed – is common enough in history and even now. The second – our judgment of others – is scandalously common and unworthy of the virgin-child who made our own Yes possible.
The Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception is first a celebration of the Incarnation of the Son of God as man. Mary’s dangerous Yes to God prepares the way of the Lord, make possible his advent in creation, and establishes her as the first preacher of the Word. Her clean conception in the womb of her mother points us unerringly to God’s mercy, unerringly to God’s invitation to bear His Word to the world with unyielding charity, steely will, and the mercy of truth.
We can meet the dangers of violent opposition and avoid the dangers of judging others by submitting ourselves in both cases to the ministry of the handmaid: “Lord, let your will be done in me according to your Word.”

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05 December 2018

With the Devil in the Desert

NB. A recent discussion in one of my homiletics classes prompts me to repost this 2006 effort. . .

1st Sunday of Lent 2006: Gen 9.8-15; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.12-15
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

I find him sitting with his back against a rock, staring at the heat waving above the dry-cracked river bed. He smells of hot cedar smoke, burnt bees’ wax, and drying sweat. When my shadow touches his bare feet, he moves them away and turns as if to look at me, then stops and stares again at the blistering sand. I wave my hand to greet him, my shadow again touching his feet and legs. This time he doesn’t move. It’s always the same with him. He knows I’m here. Right here with him. But he stubbornly ignores me or moves away at my dark touch. I take a deep breath, gather my silk robes around my legs to sit, and as I fall into place in front of him, he sighs and begins to pray aloud. Scratchy, mumbling nonsense. Groveling little bits of spontaneous poetry and half-remembered words and phrases stolen from thin, crumbling scrolls. I just listen and wait. Most days we sit together in silence like this, waiting on one another.

When the sun touches the tallest mountain, he stops muttering. The dry burn of the desert wind eases a bit. There’s a promise of wet air, of moisture from somewhere out of the north. I clear my throat. I see a small smile on his lips. Just as I open my mouth to argue again, wild beasts begin to gather near us. This happens every night about this time. And I am surprised again, always surprised, by the fierce brilliance of the crown of angels that seems to float miles away behind his head. Tensed to fight, they just hold there radiating His glory—a sky crowded with angelic mirrors flashing His beauty. How very servile of them to pose so. How very grand it all is. A perfect waste of power.

I catch him watching me watch his ministers. You see, he knows that I know that he won’t call them. He could. No doubt. But he won’t. It’s a matter to pride with him. That’s my secret weapon: his pride. He’s the favored Son. I’m the fallen Daystar. He’s the Anointed One. I’m the Marked One. He is Righteousness and I am Rebellion. And I’m here, again, to show him the error of his Way, to offer him something far better than a life wasted on dumb humility, unrequited love, and pointless sacrifice. I am here to tempt him away from his self-destructive path, away from the terrible, bloody death that those dirty little apes he loves so much will give him. I will show him riches, power, and his own pride. I will tempt him to resist me on his own, without those shiny angels coming to his rescue!

I gather myself for the show, for the theatre of the absurd that will surely wake him up to his desperate folly. But before I can collect myself fully, he starts to chuckle. Just a small laugh at first. Then he burst out with a deep guffaw! A belly laugh from the Son of God. I just stare at him. Surely the heat has driven him mad. He stops. And he opens his eyes, looking at me, through me, right to the center of the goodness that is my very existence. I fumble for an excuse, some reason to protest the invasion of my privacy, but I can only stare back at the fullness of beauty, goodness, and truth that He Is.

Without moving he says, “Perdition, you are here again to lie to me, to put between me and our Father a temptation. Do it then.” I swallow hard and plead, “My Lord, can’t you see that the course laid out for you is disastrous? Can’t you see the possibilities for us, the potential of our rule if you would turn to me for help? Can’t you see your ignominious end? The scandal of it!” He chuckles again, “You are worried about scandal? Try another one, Deceiver. Put yourself behind me so that I may go forward. You are dust and wind.” He gently waves his hand toward the cooling desert. I grow angry at his dismissal, “Wow! You really are stupidity itself, aren’t you. Wasted power, wasted opportunities.”

I sputter for a while longer, hoping that my indignity at his rudeness will move him to talk to me again. Nothing. I conjure images of wealth—jewels, fine horses, palaces. Nothing. I conjure images of power—a throne for the worlds, slaves, armies. Nothing. Finally, I conjure images of personal dignity—his freedom from the trails ahead, the esteem of his rabbinical colleagues, the love of the crowds cheering him. Nothing. Again, nothing.

I gird my silk robes, bracing myself for one final assault on this mulish Nazarene. I shout at him: “You’re proud! It’s pride that makes you think you are better than my gifts, too good to pick up what I give you. Pride!” He shifts his feet under him, rises to stand before me. He looks over my head as if reading a text behind me, “You are nothing, brother. Shapes, shadows, quick glimpses, and shallow sighs.” My indignity is unmatchable! “I am Lucifer, Morning Light! I am First Chosen of the Angels! I know who I am!” His eyes move to focus on mine. He squints against a finally setting sun, “I will teach you who you are. Fallen creature. Sinner. Liar. Killer of Hope. Tempter. I know your true names: Perdition. Chaos. Betrayal. You cannot win with me because I am driven here by the Spirit of our Father to fast and pray and to prepare myself for what I am about.”

Panicked, I reach for what I have, anything at all, and say, “They won’t love you for your sacrifice, you know? They will not come to you after you are betrayed and convicted, and sent into the dead ground. They will deny you. They will run and hide and waste time pointing fingers and accusing one another. I will make sure that they forget you.” If anything he looked calmer, “Yes, I suppose you will. But they like me will have their forty days in the desert, their time and place apart to burn away the excess, to trim the burdensome and ridiculous, to pray and serve, and to remember that they are dust—dust given life by our Father’s breath and made holy in His love for them.”

What arrogance! The man is insane. I have to ask, “You came into this dead waste to pray and serve and to remember that you are dust? You? The favored Son? The Messiah? You fled to this place? Why? Why would you do such a stupid thing?” Again, he smiles slightly at me, at my vehemence, and says, “I will teach you again, Satan. I am in this desert for forty days to remember the journey of Moses and his people out of slavery. I am in this desert for forty days to teach those to come how to live with our Father. I am here to survive with Him alone, to live stripped of pretense, theatre, guile, and luxurious want. I am here so that those whom you will tempt tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will know that they need only to call upon the Father’s mercy, to repent, believe the gospel, and then know that they are free of you forever.” His eyes blaze for a moment, then calm again.

I give up! My time with him is up anyway. My time with him is wasted breath. You, you however, well, you’re just beginning, aren’t you? What, day five or six, now, of the forty? Come, let me show you to my favorite rock and the riches I can offer you. Let me show you my toys, my little inventions, and help you choose a Way more to my…I mean…your liking.

So tell me, little ones, what tempts you?

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02 December 2018

Yes, I'm an Advent Nazi

1st Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

This time of year, my family and friends call me The Grinch. The seminarians will call me Scrooge. I'm not grouchier or any more mean-spirited right before Christmas. . .I just happen to enjoy Advent, and I want us all to anticipate the Lord's birth at Christmas. I want us to truly wait for him, not rush head-long into the gift-grubbing and cheap marketing tricks. So, I'm not the Grinch nor am I Scrooge. I prefer the term “Advent Nazi.” No Christmas decorations before Dec. 24th. No tree, no bells, no gift-wrapping, no Santas! No hymns about Baby Jesus – “Silent Night,” “The First Noel,” “Away in the Manger.” None of that! I don't even want to see the colors red, green, and white in close proximity before the vigil Mass on the 24th. Advent colors are purple, purple, rose, and purple. In that order. Oh, and while I'm ranting, Christmas concludes with the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th not December 26th. Why is all this important? Because I am convinced that we have lost the art of waiting, the fine art of anticipation. We no longer know how to “look forward to” anything, so we are constantly made anxious by what's coming.
Or, in the case of Advent, we are made anxious about who's coming. We can't avoid the fact that Luke's gospel description of the Lord's coming has a strong sense of foreboding about it, “. . .nations will be in dismay, perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will die of fright in anticipation of what is coming upon the world. . .” We know that the Lord has been born. And we celebrate his birth every year at Christmas. But we also know that he will come again. We just don't know when. The idea here is to warn us, to get us ready for an event that we know is coming, but we don't know when it's coming. That tension btw knowing and not-knowing can make us anxious. Unless! Unless, we have properly waited; that is, unless we truly anticipate this coming event. How do we properly wait, truly anticipate? One way is to set aside a time every year during which we emphasize the expectation of his second arrival, during which we sing and pray and read about him coming among soon as a child. Advent prepares us for his second coming (date unknown) by teaching us to wait for his birth (Dec 25th). If we will not celebrate Advent properly, we will not be ready for his coming again.

So, why do we start celebrating Christmas the day after Halloween? Lots of reasons. Most of them have to do with worshiping the demon, Mammon. Money. Sales. Profit-margins. Staying in the black. Consumerism. But I think there's an even deeper, spiritual explanation for our rush: living with anticipation feels like deprivation. Waiting patiently feels like we are “put upon,” made to feel unimportant or small. I want what I want and I want now! If I don't get what I want right-this-second, then I am being deprived of something I need. I'm being denied, refused! What used to be eagerness becomes impatient entitlement. What used to be genuine joy, waiting for the coming of Christ, becomes bored cynicism. Jesus says of his coming again, “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life, and that day catch you by surprise like a trap.” “That day” – his coming again – can catch us by surprise and trap us only if we have forgotten how to wait, forgotten how to expect and anticipate. We can be prepared to welcome the Christ Child at Christmas AND Christ the Just Judge at his coming again by properly celebrating Advent, by paying careful attention to the traditions of this season.

If we do this, if we are “vigilant at all times and pray that [we] have the strength to escape the tribulations that are imminent,” Christ's second coming will be no surprise to us. If we allow the Advent season to teach us how to be patient, we will “see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory,” and we will not be anxious or afraid. Every year I watch videos of Black Friday shoppers mauling each other for Christmas deals – cheap TV's and limited edition toys. And every year I imagine that I can hear the demon, Mammon, laughing at his own worshipers. How many of those people elbowing each other in the face for a on-sale blender will patiently wait for the birth of the Christ Child? Do they believe that Walmart sales and coupons will help them when the Just Judge returns? I don't know. But I do know God the Father fulfilled His promise to send us His Son in the flesh. And I know that He will fulfill His promise to send us His Son again in judgment. If you know the first, then believe the second, and wait. Wait ready. Wait patiently. Wait as if your eternal life depends on it.

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25 November 2018

We cannot belong to this world

Christ the King
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Every year on this solemnity I ask you (and myself) the same question: who or what sits on the throne of your heart? Who or what rules your life, my life? You might think that a priest and Dominican friar wouldn't need to ask himself this question, but you'd be wrong. It's a question that needs asking every day, every hour of the day by every man and woman who claims to follow Christ. Who rules me today? Who will rule me in the next hour and the next? We get to choose. And who or what we choose to rule us defines us, tells us who we are and where we are going. As men and women vowed under baptism and bound together in the Holy Eucharist there is only one answer to the question of who rules us: Christus Rex! Christ the King! And you know and I know that b/c we are not yet the saints we were made to be – loudly proclaiming Christ as our King and living under his rule as subjects are two very different things. Shouting to him “Lord, Lord!” may feel like enough to get by, but to be ruled, to be weighed and measured by his Word and Deeds, well, that's something else entirely. Jesus says to Pilate, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” And if we are to be subject to his rule, neither can we belong to this world.

So, what does it mean not to belong to this world? What does it mean – right here and now – to belong to God's Kingdom? At the very least it means that we live for another kingdom, another citizenship that transcends the powers of this world. It means that we look far and beyond the daily cares of being in the world and see these cares in the light of another Kingdom that far surpasses this one in glory and splendor. It means that all we do and say are judged against the perfection of God's final end for us, His Kingdom of Heaven. It's not that all we do and say here and now is useless but that we bear up under the obligation to bear witness to His perfection while we are here. What does it matter if we are rich and beautiful and successful and talented, and die without Christ? All that wealth and beauty and success and talent goes into the grave with us. It is wasted on a six-by-three foot hole in the ground. Never to rise. Lost to the tides of time and rotting in place. But if we place Christ on the throne of our hearts, if we put him over us to rule, then our God-given gifts will bear infinite fruit, eternal rewards. You are created and recreated to be vessels of Christ, carrying his Word and Deed into the world to bring his sacrifice of mercy to sinners.

Our question this evening – who sits on the throne of your heart? – isn't a rhetorical question. It's not just a way to start a homily. It's a deeply serious question and demands an answer. Right now, in 2018 America, you and I are being called out by the world. We are put against a wall and ordered to choose. Serve Christ or serve Mammon. This sounds a bit overwrought, I know. But it is nonetheless true. In centuries past, our ancestors in faith were ordered to choose Christ or the Roman Emperor. Choose Christ or the King. Choose Christ or the State. Choose Christ or Capitalism or Socialism or Relativism or the Mob or Ideology or Being on the Right Side of History. The choice is always the same for us. Choose Christ or choose something or someone else – Diocletian, Cromwell, Napoleon, Mao, Hitler, Republican, Democrat. Whatever. Fill in the blank. Blindfold in place, hands tied, back against the wall, gun to your head – who sits on the throne of your heart? Who rules you? You don't have to tell me. I'm as obligated as you are to answer the question. Christ the King wants to know. He's not interested in punishing us. We're free to choose. But our choice defines us. Are you a Christ in the world for others? When Christ the Just Judge stares through you on Judgment Day will he see himself in you?
Talking about the stark opposition btw Christ and the world may make you uncomfortable. A little nervous. That's understandable. We've become accustomed to accommodation and compromise with the powers of the world. Many in the Church – clergy and laity alike – have traded their right and responsibility to bear truthful witness for the temporary comforts and glories of position and power. This is nothing new. Judas was the first. But he wasn't the last. Even now, we are living through a betrayal of Christ – the scandals consuming the Church. We can plainly see what happens when the followers of Christ place the things of this world on the throne of their hearts: deception, secrecy, corruption, and treachery. How do we recover? A new policy? A new procedure? Some new committee made up of perfect human beings? No. We re-enthrone Christ in our hearts and recommit ourselves to preaching, teaching, and living the Truth of his Word – the Whole Truth, not just the parts that get applause from the world but everything he has taught us. We must rededicate ourselves to becoming Christs for others.
We do this by turning again to Scripture and Tradition. What does Jesus say and do in the Gospels? What has the Church taught since her founding at Pentecost 2,000 years ago? What wisdom have the great saints and doctors of the Church given us? The Early Fathers? The medieval mystics and theologians? The bloody witness of our Body's martyrs? What about the practical wisdom of Christian family life we've received from our mothers and fathers? The practical holiness of our monks and nuns? We can reorient and rededicate ourselves to Christ by placing ourselves squarely and forthrightly upon the foundation stone of the Church – “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” If Christ rules your heart, you listen to his voice. You hear his truth. And you are unafraid to proclaim, “The Lord is king; he is robed in majesty!”

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18 November 2018

What is Jesus waiting for anyway?

33rd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
Watching the news these days, I can't help but hear behind reports of war, riots, famine, & economic collapse, the rhythm of Yeats, reading his visionary poem, “The Second Coming”: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” Yeats wrote this in 1919. Just one year after 16 million soldiers are killed in WWI. And just 13 years before a former corporal in the Austrian army is appointed Chancellor in Germany. His reign will end in 1945 with the deaths of more than 70 million in WWII. Yeats, again: “Surely some revelation is at hand;/Surely the Second Coming is at hand./The Second Coming!” Jesus assures his disciples that he will come again. He came to us first as a Child, and he will come next as Judge and King. When? “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” So, as we prepare to wait for his birth in Bethlehem, we wait for his coming again in glory.

No, it's not yet Advent. But we celebrate another sort of Advent this evening, a Second Advent. Jesus warns his disciples that after his death, “False messiahs and false prophets will arise and will perform signs and wonders in order to mislead. . .the elect. Be watchful!” And despite this warning, many of his disciples through the centuries have been misled. Some by a Roman emperor. Others by Greek heresies. Many by charismatic monks and holy women. Millions were led astray by clever theological argument. And millions more by atheistic science, utopian fantasies, murderous political ideologies, and the temporary treasures of Mammon. How many have been duped by New Age gibberish, or 21st century humanism? Jesus calls this long, painful falling away from the apostolic faith, a tribulation; that is, the threshing of a harvest to separate the wheat from the chaff, to separate those who are strong in the faith from those who practice an easy, convenient faith.

After this centuries-long tribulation, he says, “. . .the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky. . .” And as nature convulses, we “will see 'the Son of Man coming in the clouds' with great power and glory. . .” His angels will “gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.” Jesus answers his disciples' unspoken question: “When [the fig tree's] branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that [the Son of Man] is near, at the gates.” When is the Christ coming again? When will the Son of Man be near the gates? When we see the sun and moon eclipsed and stars shooting through the sky. He will come again when “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned.” In other words, he is always prepared to come again, so we must always be ready to receive him. When “the best lack all conviction,” and “the worst/Are full of passionate intensity,” his Church must be passionately convinced of her faith, waiting for his arrival with a burning hope.

Obscure apocalyptic passages like this one from Mark serve a specific purpose in the life of the Church. Rather than tempting us with the useless task of figuring out the hour and day of Christ's return, these passages urge us to hold firm in the faith and live with the hope that Christ's resurrection promises. Rather than scaring us silly with tales of the imminent destruction of the world and threats of eternal damnation, these passages report events that have already taken place in history; or events that are occurring at the time the passage was written; or events that recur in history over and over again. Their purpose is to reassure us that there is nothing particularly unusual about the social, economic, religious turmoil that we are living through. Has there been a century in 5,000 yrs of human history w/o a solar or lunar eclipse, a meteor shower? A decade w/o by war, plague, poverty, or natural disaster? We don't need to know when Christ will return. All we need to know is that he will, and that our task is to be ready: free from all anxiety, utterly at peace – we wait. But are we ready?

We might wonder: what’s Jesus waiting for? Surely the world cannot be a bigger mess; surely we cannot become more self-destructive, angrier, greedier, more hostile to peace and the poor! Can the world's political upheavals get any worse? Can we really survive any more natural disasters? Things seem to be falling apart and the center isn't holding. What's Christ waiting for? He’s waiting on you. On me. On all of us. He waiting for us and our repentance. Before the angels are sent to collect the elect from the four corners of the Earth, Christ gives us every chance to repent and return to him. He says to us, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” His words are: repent, believe the Gospel, and join my Father and me at the Wedding Feast.

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11 November 2018

True Sacrifice

NB. A revision of the homily posted below this one. . .

32nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Mt Carmel Academy, NOLA

Assume for a moment that the story Jesus tells about the Widow and her two mites is not a story about being a cheerful giver but rather a story about prayer. Her two mites aren't coins; they're prayers. She's not dropping coins into the temple treasury but offering her small prayers to God. Why are her prayers better than the prayers of those who pray out of their “surplus wealth”? Jesus tells us, “. . .she, from her poverty, contribute[s] all she ha[s], her whole livelihood.” OK. But why does contributing from her “whole livelihood” make her prayers somehow better? Prayer is a form of sacrifice. We often say that we offer “sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving” to God. We might think that we are “giving something up” when we sacrifice, and there is some truth to this. Parents sacrifice for their children. Priests and religious sacrifice the possibility of having their own children to serve God exclusively. However, true sacrifice is the transformation of the ordinary into the holy; it is to make something or someone holy – set apart – by surrendering the thing or person to God for His exclusive use. Essential to true sacrifice is total surrender, giving your “whole livelihood.”

The Widow's Mite is true sacrifice b/c she is throwing herself fully into the providential care of God. She's not praying out of her leftovers, what's left when she's done with her to-do list, done with her job, done with paying the bills. Those who pray out of their “surplus wealth” are holding back enough – plus just a little more, just in case – holding back enough to make sure that all of their needs are met and then some. Being the good, middle-class Americans that we are, we instinctively understand and sympathize with those who pay the bills, put some in savings, and use a little for fun. . .then give our time and attention to God from what's left over. Prayer becomes for us our charity work, the “extra thing we do if and when there's time.” What does this sort of prayer life do for us and to us? Well, not much. It's better than nothing, I guess. But “better than nothing” isn't what Christ is asking from us. He wants it all. All of us. All of our time, talent, and treasure. He wants everything we have and everything we are 100% of the time. He can make this ridiculous demand precisely b/c he bought us on the Cross. He gave himself – all of his time, talent, and treasure; his body and blood – in sacrifice for us so that we might have life and live it most abundantly. We belong to Christ.

Jesus praises the Widow's sacrifice b/c she puts her livelihood right where it belongs – in the hands of her loving God. She publicly demonstrates her willingness to be a subject of His care, trusting fully that her needs will be met. Her generosity isn't to be measured in terms of “how much money does she give?” but rather in terms of “how much does she trust God to provide?” That's a measure wholly different from what we are used to, wholly different from what many of us would be comfortable with. But that's the measure Jesus praises. That's the measure he's calling us all to use. Total sacrifice. Make everything you have and everything you are holy. . .by surrendering to all to God.
How do we do this? First, God gets His first. In terms of prayer, this means He gets most of our time by being the focus of our time, even when we are working, playing, or resting. Second, our talents and treasures are His before they are anyone else's. In practical terms, this could mean volunteering for the Church before looking for something fun to do. It could mean, giving to the Church before buying a newer model car or upgrading to a better cell phone or taking a vacation. It could mean giving to a charity before paying the bills. Third, if every moment of every day we belong to Christ – and we do – then every moment of every day should be spent doing his work. Teaching the truth, preaching the Good News, helping those in need, healing broken relationships, forgiving sins against us, searching for ways to be a witness to our Father's mercy. And pray, pray, pray for those who most need your prayers – the souls in purgatory; persecuted Christians around the world; mothers contemplating an abortion; first responders and our military men and women and veterans; doctors and nurses; seminarians and religious novices; and most especially those who need your prayers desperately: politicians and the clergy! Trust me: you can't pray for politicians and priests enough.

For those who follow Christ there is no such thing as “surplus wealth.” Whether we talking about our time or talent or our treasure, it all belongs to God first. He gives to us what we need, and the more He gives the more He looks for us to be generous. If you would be wealthy in grace, give out of your “whole livelihood.”

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10 November 2018

The Widow's Prayer

32nd Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

What if we read the story of the Widow's Mite as a lesson about prayer? We already know the lesson of the widow who gives her last two pennies to the temple. Jesus pretty much tells us the moral of the story outright: the widow has given much, much more than all the wealthy alms-givers b/c the wealthy “have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” Who sacrifices more? Who is made holier in giving away what they have? The Widow, of course. However, what if we think of the two coins she gives to the temple as prayers prayed to God? And what if we think of the thousands and millions of coins given by the wealthy as their prayers to God? The moral of the story doesn't change. Because the Widow prayed all she had to pray in loving sacrifice, her prayers far outweigh the thousands and millions of prayers offered out of surplus by the wealthy. They banked their graces, save them up, and now they expect a dividend, a cash-out. The Widow gives herself totally to prayer. She throws herself completely on the mercy of God's providence. When we pray well, we pray with everything we have, everything we are, holding nothing back for later, trusting (knowing) that God will provide.

So, how does this all work? First, the first beneficiary of prayer is the pray-er, the one praying. Even if you are praying for someone else, you benefit first b/c God's response to your prayer changes you to better receive His gifts. Second, the whole point of prayer is make it possible for you to better receive God's gifts. Our prayers do not and cannot change God. They can and do change us. Third, what we put into prayer is made holy (i.e., sacrificed) and given back to God. If I put nothing more than my surplus time and energy into prayer, then I am making holy only what's left over of my time and energy. I spend most of my time and my energy on me. And then I give the leftovers to God. However, if I put everything I have and everything I am into my prayer, then everything I have and everything I am is made holy in sacrifice. Even one small prayer, prayed with my whole livelihood is worth more than a thousand or a million prayers prayed as leftovers. The logic is inescapable: if I am the first beneficiary of my prayers, and I put everything I have and am into my prayer – no matter how small – then my sacrifice can outweigh the leftovered prayers of millions!

Now, of course, the goal here isn't to Win the Prayer Race, or Out-pray the Spiritually Wealthy. The goal is to improve my prayer life so that I might grow closer to Christ, becoming more and more like him. To be more like Christ we must pray like Christ. And how did Christ pray? Often and intensely. In fact, his whole life was a single prayer, one thirty-three year long prayer of sacrifice. From the moment of his conception in Mary's virginal womb to his ascension into heaven, Christ offered his life and death as an on-going sacrifice. Sure, his sacrifice culminated on the cross, and the effects of his sacrifice exploded out into the world at his resurrection, but every step, every breath, every act he performed while he was among us was a prayer. Everything he had, everything he was – wholly given over to the Father as a witness to His mercy. If we will pray like Christ, in order to become more like him, we will make every step, every breath, every act, thought, word, everything, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, bearing open and courageous witness to the Good News that he lived and died to bring us.

Does this sound like an enormous task to you? Well, it is. . .and it isn't. If you see your work in Christ as a burden or a duty or as something to just get done so you can get on with all the stuff you really want to do, then bearing witness to God's mercy will be an enormous task. You will likely store up your gifts and pray your leftovers. And who's hurt by your Leftover Prayer Life? You are! You might be giving huge amounts of time, treasure, and talent to the Church. . .but still praying out of your leftovers. Thousands could be benefiting from your material generosity. . .but you could be starving to death spiritually b/c you give God your surplus time and energy in prayer. However, if you see your work in Christ as a means of working out your holiness, as a way to grow into his likeness, then bearing witness to the Father's mercy will be anything but a burden; it will be a joy, a bonus. You will immediately give away (sacrifice) your God-given gifts and pray with everything you have and are, and soon find yourself swimming in blessings. Remember: the more you share God's gifts to you, the more gifts He gives you to share. Holiness is polished into us by the act of exchanging of gifts: from God → me → you, from you → me → God, and so on. Each exchange polishes our perfection a little brighter.

When you leave here tonight, take some time to consider your prayer life. Not just which prayers you pray, or how long you spend in prayer. Consider the quality of the time and energy you devote to prayer. Ask yourself: am I like the wealthy who pray a lot out of my leftover time and energy, or am I like the poor widow who prays a little but prays her entire livelihood every time? If your prayer life is dull, rusted, kinda broken down, consider a renovation: for a couple of months limit your prayers to giving God thanks and praise for who and what you already have in your life. Don't ask for anything. Just say “thank you” for what you've got. If you have stopped praying alone with God altogether. . .well, you may now know why nothing is working out for you and why everything seems to be so pointless. Reintroduce yourself to the Father and welcome Him back into your life. Remember: it's not the size or shape of the prayer but what you put into it that tips the scale. The Widow gives everything she has. And everything she has – two small coins – outweighs the alms of millions. She gives her entire livelihood in one prayer. Do you have the courage of the Widow to do likewise?

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01 November 2018

Getting through the Christ-shaped Gate

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

To become a saint, you must find the strength to squeeze through the Narrow Gate. To squeeze through the Narrow Gate, you must burn away anything and everything about you that is not of Christ. And to do that, you need Christ and his Church. Those we remember this evening – all the saints in heaven – found the strength, the courage, the perseverance, and the humility to make it to the other side of the Gate. Where did they find all these necessary virtues? In Christ. Through the hard work of burning away anything and everything that is not of Christ. They became Christs for others. But they did not do this work alone. They received the graces God the Father poured out for them and used those graces to show His love at work in the world. Whatever gifts they were given – teaching, preaching, healing; tending the poor and outcast; enduring persecution; bearing witness with their holy lives – whatever gifts they were given were used to announce the abundant mercy of God and to give Him glory. The Gate to heaven is narrow not b/c God wants most of us to go to Hell. . .but b/c that Gate is Christ-shaped. If we hope to enter through it, we too must be shaped by Christ. 
What does being “Christ-shaped” look like? And how do we become like him? John writes, “. . .we are God's children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him. . .” He goes on to write, “Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure.” Those who entered through the Narrow Gate were pure. Pure in Christ. As pure as Christ. They were – while living among us – purely Christ. Nothing that was not-Christ clung to them in this life. And in death they fit perfectly through the Christ-shaped Gate to heaven. How do we accomplish this? John writes, “. . .whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with him; whoever claims to abide in him ought to live [just] as he lived.” Live just as he lived. Preaching God's mercy. Teaching His truth. Healing with His forgiveness of sin. Feeding, clothing, visiting those in need. Pouring ourselves out in sacrificial love so that nothing is left in us but the Christ who gives us the grace to pour. Only then will we be Christ-shaped, fitting perfectly through his heavenly Gate.

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31 October 2018

Don't Be a Heaven Nazi

30th Week OT (W)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Contrary to the often-preached pablum that “All People Go To Heaven,” Jesus preaches the possibility of being left behind. Rather than the all-inclusive gospel of therapeutic deism, Christianity acknowledges the fact that God will honor a choice not to join Him at the heavenly wedding feast. This truth rubs against our modernist grain precisely b/c it places the choice of where you will spend your eternal life squarely where it belongs. On you. Not your parents. Not your culture. Not your genetics. On you. And that kind of responsibility harshes the emotional buzz that Doing It My Way is supposed to produce. Maybe it's not exactly pastoral to say so, but truth is truth. And the truth is always pastoral. A corollary to this hard truth is this: I don't get to decide whether or not you go to heaven. That judgment comes when God stares into your soul after death and asks Himself, “Do I see Christ?” Whether or not he sees Christ looking back at Him is up to you. . .while you still live. Jesus tells us that the entrance to Heaven is a Narrow Gate. Some see it as door. Others see a window or maybe a slip-and-slide. Mrs. Turpin sees it as a bridge.

Mrs. Turpin, that paragon of middle-class Caucasian Christianity created by Flannery O'Connor, believes that the social order she occupies is God-made and absolute. As it is here on Earth, so it shall be in Heaven. Meaning that the first – and possibly only – ones through the Narrow Gate will be the respectable, law-abiding, tax-paying, property owning white folks who keep the divine order in order here on the ground. She has a revelation when a acne-plagued girl bounces a sociology textbook off her head, jumps on her chest, strangles her, and yells, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog!” After the crazed girl is drugged and restrained by a doctor, Mrs. Turpin returns to her pig farm. There she watches the pigs gather around an old sow, “a red glow suffused them. They appeared to pant with a secret life.” In a moment of odd ecstasy, Mrs. Turpin sees a bridge form, connecting the ground and heaven, and on that bridge, marching straight through the Narrow Gate were all of those people she believed would never make it. The white trash. The Negroes. Freaks and lunatics. And bringing up the rear were Her Kind of People. She watches them process upward, and sees “by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”

Rather than spend our sparse time imagining who will get through the Narrow Gate and who won't – like Mrs. Turpin, we could carefully consider our own relationship with the Just Judge and his Church. What can I do now to strengthen myself for the trip through the Gate? What can I do now for others to help strengthen them? Well, first, you can't lie to yourself and others by teaching that the Narrow Gate is actually a Celestial Slip-and-Slide. Everyone makes it through! Second, you can't believe that getting through the Gate is about race, class, tribal allegiance, or good intentions. Third, what we call virtue may be nothing more than social convention – cleanliness, ambition, hard work, saving money – these are the “virtues” that crossing into heaven burns away. Lastly, Jesus wants to know where you are from before he opens that Gate. Are you from his Body, the Church? Do you “do it your way,” or his Way? More importantly, did you make yourself the servant of all? The last to be first? That Gate is narrow. To fit through: burn away anything and everything that is not Christ.

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