25 March 2021

On being greatly troubled

Annunciation of the Lord

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP

St. Dominic Priory, NOLA

It is no easy thing to know and do the Father's will. Jesus had the advantage of being the Word Made Flesh, so he knows the divine will intimately. Mary too has an advantage – Gabriel announces the Father's will to her. But even in knowing His will both Jesus and Mary find themselves terrified, anxious. Jesus, near despair, will cry out on the cross, “Why have you abandoned me?” Mary, “greatly troubled,” contemplates Gabriel's strange message. Both know the Father's will and both will do the Father's will. But only Mary is comforted in her fear. Why? Jesus goes to the cross as a Victim, a sacrifice. He makes holy, surrendering to the Father, every human sin so that we might be free of sin. To accomplish this, he must take on our sin and die fully human/fully divine – as he is. Mary is a human girl, perfectly free of sin from her conception. And though she is afraid, she is also faithful and obedient to the Word. She says Yes b/c she knows the Lord is with her. When we come to know the Father's will and resolve to do His will, we too can be afraid, troubled, anxious, terrified. But if we say Yes – in faithful obedience – we can bring His Word into the world when and where we are. We may not hear Gabriel say to us, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” Nonetheless, we can be consoled in knowing that we are indeed servants of the Lord.

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21 March 2021

Killing the Self

5th Sunday of Lent

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


Audio File

Last Sunday we celebrated Laetare Sunday. In Advent, we celebrate Gaudete Sunday. Rejoice! Rejoice Sundays! Priests wear the distinctive rose vestments on these solemnities to signal that we are taking time away from our penitential preparations for a little liturgical partying. This Sunday, we should be wearing black instead of violet vestments b/c today could be properly called Morere Sunday, or Die Sunday. Jesus says, “...unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Dying is the seed of living. Dying is the way to eternal life. Without death to this world, there is no life in the next. For Americans living in the 21st century there is probably no more difficult teaching in all the Gospels. Here and now self is god. Self is All. Self is the Way, the means, and the end of being alive. Self is the living center, the source and the summit; Self is King, councilor, and minister. Self is the teacher, the student, and the subject to study. Self is the priest and the altar but never the sacrifice. Whoever wants to live must die. Whoever wants to live eternally must die to Self.

We could reduce “dying to Self” to “don't be selfish.” The sort of thing parents and teachers say to kids when they don't want to share their toys or candy. “Don't be selfish” means “sharing is caring” or “think of others sometimes.” As far as it goes, it's fine. Nothing wrong with encouraging kids to develop a habit of sharing. But what happens when that habit fails to develop into sacrificial love? What happens when sharing is taken to be enough to achieve eternal life? I'm still a Self doling out what's rightfully Mine to Others. Even if I'm sharing what's Mine willingly and gladly, I'm still thinking: It's Mine. Me. I. Myself. Mine. And is it sharing if I'm doing it b/c mom and dad said I have to? Is is sharing if my teacher made me do it? Or if the Church or my boss or the gov't made it mandatory? Maybe I'm motivated to share – or to be seen sharing – b/c I think my business will benefit; or b/c I'm running for office, and I need some good PR; or my therapist said that sharing helps me combat my narcissism. Sharing may be caring. Sharing might combat selfishness. But sharing isn't dying to Self. And sharing isn't the Way to eternal life. Whoever wants to live must die. Whoever wants to live eternally must die to Self.

Why is dying to Self so difficult? I said earlier: Here and now self is god. Self is All. Self is the Way, the means, and the end of being alive. Self is the living center, the source and the summit of the modern Unholy Trinity: Me, Myself, and I. Since the dawn of the western modern age in the 16th c. the Self has been the sole focus of all our human works. In philosophy, the Self is the inerrant subject. In theology, the Self is the source of truth. In psychology and medicine, the Self is both the patient and the doctor. In law, the Self is the autonomous legislator. In literature, the Self is the author, the main character, and the plot. What we have forgotten is the spiritual art of humility and the necessity of sacrifice for the Other. What we have forgotten is how to be Christ for one another; how to see and believe that nothing is truly ours; that nothing truly belongs to you, including you. Nothing truly belongs to me, including me. If you will have eternal life, you must come to terms with the fact that you are wholly owned and operated by Christ Jesus. We all are. Belonging to Christ is not a cultural identity or social statement or a family legacy. You choose to belong. And when you do, you become a new creation, a new man, a new woman. . .AND. . .you die to Self.

Are you dead to the world and alive in Christ? How can you tell? Watch and listen during your day. Who or what moves you to act? Are you moved by the movers of the world – TV, talk shows, internet influencers, celebrities, politicians? – or are you moved by the Word of God? Who or what shapes how you see and understand the world you live in? Do you see other people as little more than competing stomachs and mouths? Are they just “in your way”? Do you see political power as a means of achieving true justice in this world? Are you worshiping a politician, an athlete, an actor, some created thing as your god? Perhaps your favorite sin is being celebrated by the world as a sign of liberation! And now you think that God must surely change His mind and celebrate with you? Perhaps you think your opposition to the world celebrating the favorite sins of others gets you off the hook for committing your own favorite sins! Mote, meet eye. Eye, meet plank. Do you think loving another in Christ means the unconditional acceptance and approval of anything they feel is right for them? Do you expect unconditional acceptance and approval for any and all of your choices? And play victim when you don't get it? Are you dead to the world or alive in Christ?

Whoever wants to live must die. Whoever wants to live eternally must die to Self. We die to Self by drowning the Self in the waters of baptism and rising up a new creation. You were given a clean white gown at your baptism and told to bring that gown fresh and bright to your judgment at the end of the age. Maybe your gown is little tattered. I know mine is! Maybe its smudged, stained, frayed in a few places. Perhaps your gown looks like you wore in a Wrestle Mania match in the bayou! Doesn't matter. Anytime that Deadly Self re-emerges and tries to take your eternal life from you, you have recourse to the Church and the boundless graces of Christ's sacrificial love in the confessional. Yes. Dying to Self is difficult b/c the very air we breathe rewards us for thinking and acting as though the Self is the only thing that matters. But dying to Self is made easy by Christ, his Church, and your supernatural desire to find your place at the right hand of the Father. Deep down you know you long for Christ and his mercy. Don't let another day pass w/o coming to him and allowing him to give you eternal life.

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