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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