Sunday, September 06, 2015

Jesus Christ and the "Wonderful Exchange"

El Greco  1570

(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on September 6, 2015 at St. Rocco's Catholic Church in Johnston, R.I.; See Isaiah 35:4-7, James 2:1-5  and Mark 7:31-37)

There is a remarkable and beautiful short story written by Walter Wangerin, Jr., called “The Ragman” [Ragman: And Other Cries of Faith, by Walter Wangerin, Jr., HarperCollins Publishers.  This is an awesome book filled with great stories of life in Christ].  The story begins with a young man walking through the inner city, dragging behind him an old cart filled with all kinds of new clothes.  He makes his way through the streets, calling out in a sonorous voice, “Rags!  New rags for old!  I take your tired rags!  Rags!  He is strong, intelligent and vivacious, leaving the narrator of the story ultimately perplexed as to why a person of such quality would ever reduce himself to being a ragman in the inner city.

Suddenly the Ragman comes upon a woman sitting on her back porch, hunched over and sobbing.  Her shoulders are shaking as she weeps into her handkerchief.  The Ragman bends near her and says, with great compassion, “Give me your rag…and I’ll give you another.”   She looks up, surprised, not knowing what to say.  The Ragman places a bright, new handkerchief into her hands and takes her wet, worn handkerchief away.  He suddenly places it against his own face, and the narrator is astonished to see the woman’s tears completely dried up, while the ragman begins to weep! 

Without hesitation he moves on, deeper into the city.   Coming upon a woman with a bandaged head, he likewise asks her for her old rag and offers her a beautiful yellow bonnet; with loving concern he carefully removes her bandage and places it on his own head!  But the narrator notices a fresh wound has opened up where the Ragman has fastened his bandage, and a little trickle of blood begins to flow down his head! 

As the story continues, the narrator follows the weeping, bleeding Ragman, breathlessly, through the city.   Eventually, after several similar adventures and even greater ones, he comes to realize that the Ragman is the Christ, the Son of God. 

Jesus Christ is the redeemer who comes to take away the sins of the world and to give us His own divine life.  He takes on our sorrow, our own pain and suffering, and brings it to the cross.  He is willing to suffer and die so that we can gain new and everlasting life in Him!  In all of our readings for this weekend we see that amazing transformation that constitutes our new life in Jesus Christ, what the Father’s of the Church called the “wonderful exchange.”

St. James, in our Second Reading this morning, warns us not to show partiality to the wealthy at the expense of the poor.  When someone enters your assembly, he cautions them, be careful how you treat them!  He asks:

Did not God choose those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom that he promised to those who love him?
—James 2:5

In other words, we were all poor!  We were all impoverished by our sins and God has made us now heirs of His kingdom.  We have become rich in Jesus Christ; our lives should reflect that great mystery, not betray it.

In that beautiful passage from Isaiah, the prophet is describing what will take place when the Messiah comes.  It is a breathtaking transformation that will affect everyone and everything on earth:

Be strong, fear not!  Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.
—Isaiah 35:4

Then Isaiah goes on to describe how the eyes of the blind will be opened!  The ears of the deaf will be cleared and they will hear once again!  Those who are mute will begin to sing.  Even the created world will be transformed, as dry, arid deserts become pools of water (Isaiah 35:4-7)!

That “wonderful exchange” is something that happens quite literally in our Gospel this weekend.  People bring to Christ the deaf man with a speech impediment, and Jesus does the strangest thing: He sticks His finger in the man’s ear and then puts His own saliva on that person’s tongue!  Yet with that odd, physical encounter the man is healed; his ears are opened and he begins to speak once again.  Why would Jesus Christ, who can heal anyone, in whatever manner he chooses, heal a man with such obvious and even unnerving physical signs?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that Christ, who did that, and consistently reaches out and touches those who are broken and the hurting in the Gospels, continues to touch us in the sacraments in order to heal us (see CCC, #1504).   He has come to take from us our brokenness, our pain and sorrow, and to give us His own divine life.  Every one of us needs to be healed, touched by Christ and made well again.  All of us have failed to recognize Christ in the world around us and in our brothers and sisters each and every day.   We are the reason that He became man and suffered and died on the cross.  What He asks of us is that we open our hearts—Ephphatha!—to receive this great gift.

This morning Jesus Christ comes to us here on this altar, not the Ragman but the Christ.  He comes to give us not a handkerchief or a new bonnet but His own body and blood in the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist.  He comes to complete in us and in our community that “wonderful exchange” that has the power to transform our lives and the world around us.  May we truly open our hearts to Him, who continues to touch us in the sacraments of the Church in order to heal us.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

"Laudato Si" vs. Libido Dominandi

(20th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on August 15 & 16, 2015 at Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Central Falls, R.I.; See Proverbs 9:1-6 and John 6:51-58)

It is with joyful expectation that we await our Holy Father’s arrival in the United States in just a few short weeks.  Pope Francis is frequently in the news, and still being received in a favorable light from so many in the media and in popular opinion.  His most recent encyclical letter, Laudato Si, continues to generate many different responses and a great deal of attention.

Laudato Si, On Care For Our Common Home, is unique among papal teachings in that it is the first encyclical letter to be devoted to ecology, the environment and our care for the natural world.  It is concerned with such vital situations as climate change, pollution and the appropriate manner in which individuals and nations manage the earth’s natural resources.   These subjects are frequently featured already in the news and have been debated and discussed for years.  Our Holy Father reminds us how central these concerns are to the Christian Gospel.

While it may be true that there are dimensions of these important topics that require some level of professional competency, Pope Francis has also highlighted that some of the underlying causes for the problems we encounter today are actually quite common and basic.  At the root of so many of the ecological challenges we are facing is the age-old problem of human selfishness, sin and a blatant disregard for the Creator who made us and the world we live in:

The violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, is also reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.
—Pope Francis, Laudato Si, # 2 

§  With an insatiable greed we turn to the earth’s natural resources without regard for the due measure or appropriate balance necessary to sustain new life. 

§  We pour out our garbage into the world however and wherever we please, so long as we do not get caught. 

§  We treat creation and our fellow creatures as if there were no Creator before whom we will one day render an account.

There is actually nothing really new here.   It is the age-old drama of our fallen world that stands in desperate need of redemption.  St. Augustine, in his amazing treatise City of God, contrasts two very different scenarios and ways of life.  The City of God, he insists, is one predicated and founded upon the love and mercy of God.    It is a city that recognizes and exalts in the dominion of God.   The City of God embraces the virtues God instills in hearts that are open to Divine grace.  It is a city that begins here in this world but will be fulfilled ultimately in eternal life. 

The City of Man, however, is quite different:

Therefore I cannot refrain from speaking about the city of this world, a city which aims at dominion, which holds nations in enslavement, but is itself dominated by that very lust of domination.
—St. Augustine, City of God, Book I

The actual phrase St. Augustine uses in the original Latin is quite striking.  He says that this earthly city is dominated by the libido dominandi, the lust for power, the lust for rule.   This is the lust that drives the human heart to seek more control over others and over every outside circumstance.  Unchecked, it will demand dominion even over God Himself.  This is one dangerous city, not only in the time of St. Augustine but perhaps even more so in our own day!

“Never has humanity had such power over itself,” writes Pope Francis, reflecting on the current state of affairs, “yet nothing ensures that it will be used wisely, particularly when we consider how it is currently being used.” (Laudato Si, #104).  

There is nothing wrong with power in and of itself; in fact, power is a gift that can be used for the glory of God and the building of the City of God.  But when that same power is divorced from wisdom, the earth and those who inhabit it suffer.  Pope Francis names several circumstances where this libido dominandi can be found in contemporary society.

Firstly, Pope Francis mentions the power of technology, which can be a tremendous source for good in the world.  There is nothing wrong with owning an iPad, or a smartphone, and being able to text someone to say, “Running late for dinner.  Love you.”  To be able to send someone we care about an encouraging email halfway around the world or to post a homily online (even a relatively poor one) to proclaim the Gospel are all ways that technology can be used for good and for God.  Technology has been invaluable for individuals, corporations and nations in advancing society and culture in ways never before imaginable.  Thank God for that!

But Pope Francis also talks about the technological calamities of the twentieth century, from the nuclear bombs dropped in Japan to “the array of technology which Nazism, Communism and other totalitarian regimes have employed to kill millions of people” (Laudato Si, #104), as a clear sign that technology can be used for great evil.  The libido dominandi is still in full force today in the manufacturing of chemical and biological weapons that destroy both human life and the environment future generations will depend on for survival (Laudato Si, #57).

Secondly, our Holy Father reflects on genetic modifications.  Scientists are able to develop crops of wheat and corn, for instance, which yield a more abundant harvest and can be used to feed a much greater population than ever before.  Those are great achievements!  Nonetheless, Pope Francis reminds us “we need constantly to rethink the goals, effects, overall context and ethical limits of this human activity, which is a form of power involving considerable risks” (Laudato Si, #131). 

A clear example would be the genetic manipulation and modification of human beings for the purpose of “enhancement.”  In other words, seeking to modify or alter the gene pool so that future generations will be of our own liking and specifications: taller rather than short; more agile or stronger instead of “just average.”  But human beings are not wheat.  Children are not corn.  The libido dominandi, that lust for rule and power, can cause great harm through scientific means in the name of “progress.”

Finally, Pope Francis also writes about animal experimentation.  Animals can teach us a great deal about the body, about diseases and the therapies that can address them.  To experiment on such animals as monkeys or mice, for instance, could be quite valuable and productive for society.  Yet, Pope Francis also points out, “The Catechism firmly states that human power has limits and that ‘it is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly’” (Laudato Si, #130, quoting CCC, #2418). 

Furthermore, the Pope also highlights the inconsistency of those who would argue vehemently against this kind of experimentation on animals while at the same time having no problem at all with experimentation on human beings! 

He writes, “it is troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometime fail to apply those same principles to human life.  There is a tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries when experimentation is carried out on living human embryos” (Laudato Si, #136).

Adult stem cell research—which is ethically sound and makes use of cells from tissues donated freely by adults—has already yielded significant results and still remains the most viable and hopeful source for the healing of disease and illness.  Embryonic stem cell research, on the other hand, has yet to result in any such healing.  In fact, when stem cells are removed from a living human embryo, the human life is destroyed in every individual case.  Much more than monkeys and mice, as a culture we must learn to appreciate the overwhelming value and dignity of every human life.

While it is entirely possible that we may be ethically free from these negative realities that Pope Francis describes in Laudato Si, can we truly concede that the same “lust for power” is absent from our lives entirely?  If we search our consciences and look at our own experiences, is it not the case that we have sometimes insisted on having dominion and rule over the circumstances and people in our own lives? 

The libido dominandi is not only applicable to the Roman Empire in the time of St. Augustine or to Pope Francis’ cautions regarding ecology in 2015.  It can often wreak havoc in the family, in the workplace, and even in the Church!  It is not the way that God directs us to build up the City of God.  So what does God ask us to consider when it comes to building up that eternal Kingdom?

In the place of the lust for power and the thirst for rule and domination, the Scriptures this weekend direct us to hunger and thirst for God.  In our first reading, from the Book of Proverbs, Lady Wisdom, the very personification of that great divine attribute, invites us to her feast where we can drink deeply and be completely satisfied in the things of God.  We hear about how Wisdom “has built her house, she has set up her seven columns,” and she cries out to all who will listen:

Let whoever is simple turn in here…Come, eat of my food, and drink of the wine I have mixed!
—Proverbs 9:4-5

Drinking deeply from the wisdom of God and growing in a personal relationship with Him is the greatest antidote to the libido dominandi.  Jesus Christ, in the Gospel this weekend, invites us into that personal relationship by revealing Himself as the food that alone sustains us for all eternity.  He proclaims:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.
—John 6:51

Do we truly hunger for Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, above all other earthly things?  Are we able to admit that the lust for power, however “invigorating” or seductive it may be, is ultimately insatiable and never completely satisfying?  Do we dare to take God up on His offer this weekend and to seek the one necessary thing—indeed, the one Person, Jesus Christ—that alone satisfies and sustains us?

May the Bread of Life and the Blood of Christ strengthen us this week to work with passion and joy as we cooperate in building up the City of God, a city that begins here in this beautiful world, and that will culminate in an eternal life with God.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Are You a Grumbler?

Apse of St. Joseph Abbey in St. Benedict, Louisiana

(18th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on August 1 & 2, 2015 at St. Rocco's Church in Johnston, R.I.; See Exodus 16:2-15 and John 6:24-35)

Are you a grumbler?  Our readings for this weekend could prompt us to consider that question.  Do we sometimes find ourselves caught up in the negativity of grumbling, complaining and murmuring when things are not going well in our lives or in the world around us?

In our first reading for this weekend, from the Book of Exodus, we hear about the Israelites and their journey through the desert.  We already know that God has saved them from slavery and what would have been certain death in the land of Egypt.  He brought them out—with great power, tremendous care and unmistakable providence—in a single night.  He has promised to lead them through to the Promised Land.  But now, here in the desert, they have hit a low point.  They are hungry and thirsty, and suddenly they begin to grumble:

The whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron.  The Israelites said to them, “Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the Land of  Egypt…”
—Exodus 16:2-3

Moses will go on to explain to the people that they are, in fact, not grumbling against him or Aaron; when they say those things, they are actually grumbling against God! (see Exodus 16:8).  “Would that we had died at the Lord’s hand in the Land of  Egypt…”  It is as if they are saying, “We would be better off dead than to wait here in the desert for God to provide for us.”  Grumbling is an offense against God, who loved us into existence and sustains us each moment by that same love.

Thankfully, God does not begrudge us when we grumble.  He says to Moses, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites” (Exodus 16:12), and far from withholding His care from them, He desires all the more to give them bread from heaven and food that will satisfy them.  He says to Moses, “Tell them: In the evening you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread, so that you may know that I, the Lord, am your God” (Exodus 16:12).

If we are honest we can admit that grumbling and complaining are a perennial temptation for us.  Within the Church, in relationships on the human level, we can easily find things and persons to complain about.  Certainly in government—on a state and national level—we are confronted daily with frustrations and failures that are ripe for grumbling; not to mention the experiences among acquaintances, friends and family members that consistently irritate us.

But does grumbling and complaining ever solve anything or alleviate the problems we face?  Does it not, in fact, make things worse?  Isn’t it the case that grumbling can bring other people into that negativity which has already caused us sorrow and disappointment?

Grumbling is a nasty habit that serves no good purpose whatsoever, but have you ever considered that grumbling could actually be deadly?  There is a Benedictine abbey located in St. Benedict, Louisiana called St. Joseph Abbey and it is replete with magnificent murals and paintings.  All of those paintings—in the refectory where the monks eat and in the church itself—were completed by the same monk, Dom Gregory de Wit, OSB. 

Dom Gregory began his monastic life in Belgium, and as a young man he travelled to such places as Italy and Germany where he honed his skills as an artist.  Around the time of the Second World War, when it was obviously not safe for a monk to be traveling around Europe, Dom Gregory found himself in the United States by the providence of God.  It was then that he was commissioned to paint various biblical and religious scenes in St. Joseph Abbey.

In the apse, high above the altar, Dom Gregory painted Christ in glory, reigning in the new and heavenly Jerusalem depicted in the Book of Revelation.  At the place where heaven and earth meet, below the glorious Christ and just above the eight clear windows that pour down light into the sanctuary, are eight sheep representing the eight Beatitudes:  Blessed are the poor in spirit…Blessed are the merciful…Blessed are the pure of heart…(see Matthew 5:1-12).  Dom Gregory wanted to communicate that this is the way that leads to eternal life with God; these are the dispositions and the virtues that draw us into union with Christ.

Just below each of these Beatitudes, however, Dom Gregory painted the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, anger, lust, greed, envy, gluttony and sloth.  These are the things, embedded in an impenitent heart, which can lead to the loss of our eternal salvation.  He wanted to contrast those two very different paths.  But with eight Beatitudes  (plus eight windows), and only Seven Deadly Sins, Dom Gregory was left with one empty niche.  Into that niche he added what could be considered, according to Dom Gregory, the Eighth Deadly Sin: Grumbling!

Dom Gregory takes his inspiration from the Rule of St. Benedict, which denounces grumbling over half a dozen times!  St. Benedict knew that grumbling and complaining could ruin a community; that complaining and murmuring destroys relationships with each other and can even ruin our relationship with God.  He wrote, “Above all, let not the evil of murmuring appear for any reason whatsoever in the least word or sign” (Rule of St. Benedict 34:6).  While it is true that we are not all Benedictine monks, are we nonetheless able to recognize the kind of damage that can happen when we fall into the habitual sin of grumbling?

There is a remarkable book written by C.S. Lewis called The Great Divorce.  It is not about marriage and divorce but about the divorce, or separation, between heaven and hell.  The book begins with a rather unruly cast of characters who board a bus in a dingy, rainy, gray town and make their way towards the mountains way off in the distance.  The further away they get from that dreary town, and the closer they come to the mountains, with the sun coming up in the distance, the clearer and more beautiful things become.  That gray town was hell, and the place they are journeying towards, far up into the mountains, is heaven.

Suddenly the bus grinds to a halt about mid-way there, and the people get out on to the plain.  Persons that they knew on earth, as well as some strangers, come down from the mountains with the purpose of talking these travelers into coming back to heaven with them.  It sounds simple enough, right?  But amazingly many of them choose not to go because they insist on holding onto whatever it was that they were attached to on earth!  They cling tenaciously to those deadly sins, like the ones that Dom Gregory painted in St. Joseph Abbey.   They are angry, and refuse to let go of the unforgiveness that has kept them from God’s mercy; they are proud, and insist on seeing only themselves as the center of the universe; they are envious of all that they felt entitled to on earth, etc.

At one point, however, the main character sees a woman coming towards him, and she does nothing but complain.  After about a page and a half, the reader can easily see why she is referred to simply as “the Grumbler”!  Oh, the awful things that have happened to her; how little consideration she receives; no one understands her; and on and on it goes.

The main character turns towards the good spirit beside him, troubled, and says, “That unhappy creature doesn’t seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation.  She isn’t wicked; she’s only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling…”

The good spirit turns to him and questions whether, in fact, she is even now a grumbler.  The main character points out that, after listening to her ad nauseum, that should be perfectly clear!  Then, remarkably, the good spirit says:

“Aye, but ye misunderstand me.  The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble.  If there is a real woman—even the least trace of one—still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again.  If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it until the whole pile is red and clear.  But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever.  They must be swept up.”
—C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, Chapter 9.

The point that C.S. Lewis is making is that grumbling, like any of the sins that we let take control of our lives, can reduce us to something much less than what God created us for.  We become, somehow, less substantial, less human and very different from the image and likeness of God that we were created in.  In some of his other writings, Lewis insists that each of us has the potential within our human freedom to become either a glorious creature of unimaginable beauty or a monstrosity such as God never intended.  Grumbling can turn us in to the latter.

So what is the solution?  What would God have us consider if we are to avoid the sin of grumbling and to become the men and women God has always created us to be?  The answer is found in our Gospel for this weekend.  It was in last week’s Gospel, and we will hear it again in the Sunday Gospel Readings for the rest of this month.  For five consecutive weekends the Church listens to the Bread of Life Discourse from St. John’s Gospel.  Jesus Christ will announce, over and over again, that He is the Bread of Life come down from heaven.  As He announces this weekend:

I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.
—John 6:35

Receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ fills us and satisfies us, giving us that supernatural strength to fight against evil and to grow in the life of virtue and grace.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches of the awesome power of the Eucharist in the soul disposed and prepared to receive so great a gift.  For those who are in a state of grace (who have not committed any unconfessed, grave sins), the Catechism teaches, "Communion... preserves, increases, and renews the life of grace received at Baptism.”  It is that powerful!  Furthermore, receiving Holy Communion in a state of grace “wipes away venial sins” (CCC, #1394) and “preserves us from future mortal sins” (CCC, #1395).  What a tremendous gift God gives to those who long for this Bread of Life!

Therefore, this weekend, the choice is ours.  Will we grumble and complain, over and over again, about all the problems in our lives and in the world around us?  Will we allow that kind of negativity to consume us and draw us further away from God and those around us?  Or will we choose to unite ourselves to Jesus Christ, the Bread of Life, who alone satisfies and makes us whole?  Coming to Him this weekend and believing in Him, we discover the great meaning of life and the grace that leads us through this world with great passion, fervor and faith, and that will lead us, ultimately, to eternal life in the world to come.