12 June 2023

Sermon on the Mount: a fable for sheep?

10th Week OT (M)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Albert the Great, Irving

Way back when I was a heathen grad student, one of the most damning criticisms of the Christianity that I'd ever heard was that belief in an afterlife dangerously focused the hearts and minds of the poor and oppressed on some promised “pie in the sky,” causing them to meekly accept their poverty and oppression in exchange for a better life after death. So, when my Marxist-feminist professors railed against the economic injustices of capitalism and the subjugation of women under western patriarchy, I knew that traditional Christianity was an accomplice to these crimes against humanity. The Church's promise of paradise was nothing more than a means of keeping po'folks and women in their places here on earth. And there was no better explanation of this scheme than the one found in the Sermon on the Mount. The whole thing reeks of Be Meek, Be Humble, and Be Quiet Right Now and Sometime After Death You Will Be Rewarded for Not Demanding Your Rightful Place at the Table Among Your Betters. Nietzsche was absolutely correct it seemed. Christianity is a slave's religion, a fable for sheep. 

This line of criticism is not easy to dismiss. After all, Jesus says, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. . .” After you have suffered persecution, trial, and death for his name's sake. Why can't our reward in heaven be great for just being who we are, for just being really nice to our neighbors and generous to our friends? It's good to know that the grieving will be comforted and that the clean of heart will see God and that the merciful will be shown mercy. . .but doesn't all that just mean that we'll be treated with the same dignity as everyone else? And, I'm sorry, but knowing that the prophets who came before us were persecuted is not all that reassuring. Misery might love company but given the misery involved, I'd like to request a different sort of company. Given the choice, I'd prefer to hang out with the Beautiful People: the wealthy, the well-educated, the talented; those who understand that being blessed is all about enjoying those blessings while they are still alive to enjoy them. All this talk of being blessed after I'm dead makes me wonder why anyone would buy into this system called “Christianity.” Why can't my reward be great right now? Why do I have to wait until I get to heaven, assuming I get to heaven and assuming such a place exists in the first place?

Our lives here on earth aren't just about living in the spirit, living for heaven as if we have nothing to do while we're “down here.” If living in ignorance of the spiritual world is dangerous, so is living as if the material world doesn't matter. We are rational animals who thrive in both the spiritual and the material worlds. As a philosophy, only Christianity offers a way of living fully as both material beings and spiritual beings. The Sermon on the Mount isn't a sermon about suffering now so that we might rejoice later on. Jesus is teaching the crowd that suffering is a hard fact of our material lives. Living in the spirit of charity with our eyes firmly focused on the hope of the resurrection isn't an escape from suffering, it's the only way to make sense of an otherwise senseless burden. Our suffering now has a end, a divine purpose. And that purpose is to encourage us to bring encouragement to others who suffer. Misery loves company, true. But the company of Christ who suffered for us can redeem misery in this life. Redeem it, not end it. B/c suffering is how we choose to experience and use our pain, our grief, our persecution. If we choose to suffer well for others, we are redeemed and those who suffer are comforted. So, yes, blessed are the poor, the grieving, and the merciful. For their reward is great both in heaven and here on earth.

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11 June 2023

Mysteries take time

Corpus Christi

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP
St. Albert the Great, Irving

You may not think of yourself as an empiricist. But if you were raised in the US or anywhere in the industrial West in the 20th century, then you have been trained to more or less trust the evidence of your senses as a guide to the truth. What you see, hear, taste, feel, and smell is real. What about all that stuff we think is real but can't see, hear, taste, etc? Stuff like souls, grace, God? That sort of thing? Well, being well-trained empiricists – and Catholics – we take a side-step into symbolism, into metaphor. Or, more recently, into psychology. Our non-Catholic peers are more and more abandoning even symbolism and metaphor for a newer religion, scientism – the false belief that material science is not only the best method for finding the truth but the only method. We can't go down that rabbit-hole b/c we know that there is no contradiction btw our faith in God and understanding His creation scientifically. Symbols, metaphors, sacramentals give us a way to hold onto the real that our senses cannot fully grasp. We can see, hear, taste with our imagination and at the same time understand that we do not create the real. That which exists beyond our senses and cannot be fully grasped by the imagination is Mystery. And Mystery takes time to reveal itself.

The Church – mother and teacher – gives us the Solemnity of Corpus Christi as a provocation, a gentle poke and shake to wake us up and dare us (again) to live and thrive in the Mystery of the Body and Blood of Christ. We've got the vocabulary down pat. Christ's Body and Blood are sacramentally present in the consecrated bread and wine. Body, blood, soul, and divinity. All there. The Real Presence. Not physically present. But substantially real under the accidents (the appearances) of bread and wine. Our senses tell us we are eating bread and drinking wine. That's true. Our imaginations conjure the deeper truth that we are eating his flesh and drinking his blood. That's true too. But both of these truths are only parts of the Whole Truth. Necessary but not sufficient parts of the Biggest Possible Truth. That Truth – the BPT – is that in the eating and drinking of his Body and Blood, we are becoming Christ. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. . .the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.” We heard the words. All in English. We know the definitions of all those words. The grammar is correct. Our imaginations can conjure the right images and put together a picture of what all this might mean. But the fullness of the Mystery reveals itself over time.

What happens “over time”? The words don't change. The truth doesn't change. Bread is always bread. Wine is always wine. The Body and Blood of Christ is eternal, unchanging and timeless. Over time, we change. We mature. We suffer loss. Victory. We give and receive forgiveness. We fall and get up. And fall again and again. We turn around and start over. If we are faithful, we see our trust in God confirmed and strengthened. Our hope is polished and shines more brightly. We love more fiercely and seek and find ways to show others the Way. Over time, we come to enjoy sacrifice; we find that sacre facere – to make holy – is less a deliberated choice and more of a virtue, a good habit of just living day-to-day. Then, one day, we are smacked by a truth that is so real, so concrete that we can feel it in our bones – I'm willing to die for my friends. I'm willing to die to bear witness to all the Good God has done for me. I am nothing if not Christ – Christ crucified, born again after death, and raised to the right hand of the Father. I am him whom I eat and drink. The Body and Blood of Christ. Body, blood, soul, and divinity.

And even here, at the moment of revelation, the fullness of the Mystery is just beyond sight. There's more, always more. Filled to the brim and spilling over, God expands our limits and dares us allow Him to burn away every fear, every worry, every hesitation we may harbor. Anything that can blind, deafen, or deaden our desire to know and love Him perfectly. If we will learn, He will teach our senses to perceive with our imagination. And He will teach our imagination to see and hear and taste the Really Real of His abiding presence in all that has ever been, is right now, and will ever be. Right here, right now, Christ says to us, each one of us, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. . .the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.” You and I live b/c he gave his life for us. When you are ready to give yours, the Mystery of his Body and Blood begins.

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