28 February 2024

Fakin' it ain't makin' it

2nd Week of Lent (W)

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

One day during lunch at Notre Dame Seminary I was passing around an Ignatius Press catalog. One of the seminarians glanced at the address label and asked how I go the title “Very Reverend.” I said, “Because I'm prior at St. Dominic Priory. They probably got it from the Catholic Directory.” Seminarians being seminarians, they started calling me “Very Rev Philip Neri.” I countered with, “That would be 'the Very Rev. Fr. Dr. Prior' to you peons!” We got a good laugh out of it. But my underlying – and formational point, I hope – was that fancy ecclesial titles tell us nothing about the holiness of the title's bearer. They tell us nothing about the bearer's actual relationship with God. Father, Sister, Brother, Your Eminence, Your Holiness – none of these is descriptive of the person beyond his or her place in the hierarchy. In fact, I'm almost convinced the Lord allows these titles to test his vowed and ordained servants for humility and obedience. But Catholic Officialdom is not the only place where religious theater can quickly overtake one's earnest striving for holiness. By virtue of baptism, we are all priests, prophets, and kings. Everyone of us is vowed by baptism to be Christ in the world for the world. Here's your Lenten challenge: are you Christ in the world for the world? Or, are you an actor in religious theater?

It's a question for me as well. After all, the preacher preaches to himself first! So I'm not just being rude. The temptation is real. Very real. The rewards of appearing to be holy can be seductive. I get to be thought well of. I get all the public benefits of being holy w/o the bother of actually being holy. Who knows? Acting religious in public might actually rub off on me a little! The best part though is thinking of myself as holy, appearing holy, and getting to judge those who are not as holy as I am. The problem of course is that I could start to believe my part in religious theater is real and mistake faking it for making it. The only audience member clapping at that point is the Devil. When the sons of Zebedee ask to be elevated above their fellow disciples, Jesus asks a pointed question: Can you drink the chalice that I am going to drink?” They answer: “We can.” A suicidal Hamlet says offstage: “Ay, there's the rub.” The sons of Zebedee have no idea what that chalice is or what it means. Besides, Jesus says, places of honor are not his to give. If he can't give them to us, we certainly can't give them to ourselves.

What the sons of Zebedee don't know and we do it is that the chalice Jesus drinks is the chalice of sacrificial love. It's not a cup of power or a cup of wealth and influence. It's the chalice of service and surrender; a slave's cup, leading to the Cross, the tomb, and – in hope – the resurrection. We are in a time of examination. Look hard at your religiosity. Look hard at your public holiness. Make absolutely sure that the inside matches the outside. Make sure that the depth of your love goes deeper than a finely tailored costume and a few scripted lines. Christ has handed you his chalice. Before you take and drink, ask yourself: am I Christ in the world for the world? Or, am I faking it so as to be seen making it?   

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26 February 2024

Why do we love God?

2nd Sunday of Lent

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

    God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Abraham goes up the mountain and begins the sacrifice. He's willingly, obediently about to kill his only son b/c God has ordered him to do so. We can stop here and ask: does Abraham love God more than he loves Isaac? No, he doesn't. But his obedience to God shows that he loves God first; he loves God before he loves Isaac, therefore, Abraham loves Isaac b/c he loves God first. At the very last second, an angel stays Abraham's knife and God provides a substitute sacrifice in the form of a ram. What we love most can only be loved through the love God has for us b/c He is love itself. That God loves us is never in question. He is love. Love is who He is and what He does. No question. But there is a question about God and love that we must ask, and ask daily: do I love God? If so, what purpose does my love for God serve? On Mt. Tabor – in the presence of Peter, James, and John – the transfigured Christ tells us why we love. We love God for the same reason He loves us: so that we may be made holy. And in holiness we live out sacrificial love.

So, how do we help God make us holy? That is, what do we do/think/say/feel on a day to day basis that assists God's love for us so that we are actually growing in holiness? Loving God, yourself, your family and friends, your neighbors, and even loving your enemies is easy in the abstract. It is far more difficult to get out there and perform loving acts; to perform forgiveness; to show mercy; to treat everyone you meet – at church, at the bank, at the office, in traffic – to treat everyone you meet as another soul deeply in love with God and eternally loved by God. This is why the Church has always bound faith and works together: our loving works demonstrate our trust in God and our trust in God is made real in our loving works. When we fail to love, we confess these failures as sins in thought, word, and deed. So, how do we help God make us holy? Well, first, we understand that loving God and those He loves is not simply an abstract, intellectual exercise; next, we understand that love is a behavior – like driving or walking or getting dressed. To love is to see, hear, think about, and treat yourself and everyone else the way God Himself treats us all. With kindness, compassion, dignity, patience, and forgiveness. Do this and you grow in holiness. You become more like Christ – set apart. You are transfigured.

Becoming more like Christ is we have vowed to do. But we need to hear this: loving God, self, and everyone else – becoming more like Christ – is dangerous. Dangerous how? Besides Jesus' promises of persecution, trial, and death for those who follow him, we can point to the forty days he spent in the desert being tempted by Satan. We too are tempted to play the Devil's Games with sin and death. The Devil always takes God's gifts and tweaks them ever-so-slightly and then presents them to us infected with his poison. God's love and His command to us to love is no different. With God's love and His command to love comes His truth and His command to obey the truth. Love and truth cannot be separated. When we love intensely, we dwell intensely in the truth. And when we tell the Truth we always express love. The Devil plays on our desire to love by pointing out all the ways we appear to fail at love. He accuses the Church of not loving women b/c we truthfully name artificial contraception, abortion, and sterilization evil. He accuses us of hatred b/c we truthfully call sex outside of a sacramental marriage evil. He accuses us of not loving orphans b/c we cannot place them in homes with two fathers or two mothers. He accuses us of not loving non-Christians b/c we truthfully teach that Christ is the only name under heaven through which all are saved. What Satan is tempting us to do, want us to do, is sever truth from love and then love without truth. This we cannot do b/c our Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. We follow him so that we may be transfigured.

Satan and the world he rules teaches that “Love” is to be practiced without Truth. Love w/o truth is nothing more than tolerance or indifference, an emotion that feels good to emote but ultimately leaves those who live it living a lie. Godly love is always true. Never a lie. True love is always gives the glory to God. Never to man. Love always carries us to goodness; never to evil. Love always binds us in obedience; it never frees us to be disobedient. Godly love always heals, always cleans, sometimes hurts, sometimes cuts away. Love never winks at sin, shrugs at injustice, or ignores the poor. Love always looks to Christ, his church, and his Mother. Love never uses the bottom-line, the convenient, the practical, or the efficient to destroy God’s creatures, especially His unborn children. Love always encourages spiritual growth from faithful experience. Love never gives license to novelty for novelty’s sake nor does love trust innovation for the sake of excitement. Love can be a terrible whirlwind, a bone-shattering blow, a heart-ripping loss. But love always builds up in perfection, grows in wisdom and kindness; love attracts questions about eternal things, and discourages attachment to impermanent things. The love that Satan and the world he rules wants to settle for is a passion for indifference, permissiveness, choice w/o consequence, and, ultimately, death.

Will you be made holy? Let's ask that differently: do you will to be made holy? If you will to become a transfigured instrument for God’s Word, you will love as He loves you. You will speak the truth and only the truth; you will spread goodness and only goodness; you will honor beauty and only beauty; you will correct error, confront sin, expose lies, forgive all offenses; and you will build up his Body with works of mercy and open the doors of your faith to the stranger. And you will remember – if you will to be made holy – that you are not alone. God is with us, and who can stand against Him?

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