Sunday, September 27, 2009

Not merely us, but Christ in us

Michelangelo's Pieta, St. Peter's Basilica in Rome

(26th Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on 27 September, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Numbers 11:25-29 and Mark 9:38-48)

One of the most beautiful and certainly well known works of Christian art is Michelangelo’s Pieta located in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. What makes that masterpiece of sculpture remarkable is that Michelangelo completed it while he was still a young man in his twenties.

He was present on the day they unveiled that exquisite statue and certainly the people there would have heard of Michelangelo, but it is unlikely that they would have recognized his face. Unbeknownst to so many of them he was mingling among the crowd when he heard two men speaking about the Pieta. One of them was asking who made it. Upon hearing the reply, that Michelangelo was believed to be the artist, the person expressed his doubt that the young Florentine could have accomplished something that grand. Perhaps, he suggested instead, it was done by Solari (Cristofero Solari was a contemporary of Michelangelo and an extremely gifted artist in his own right).

Upon hearing this conversation Michelangelo was so offended, his pride so wounded, that he later took a chisel and hammer and stenciled into the sash which Our Lady was wearing the following words: Michelangelo Bunarroti the Florentine Made This.

Obviously you cannot take back something like that. It is said that he was so ashamed at having acted that way, out of pride and self importance, that he vowed never to sign another work of art again.

Can you imagine how different that is from the culture we live in today? People do not accomplish anything at all without making sure their name is all over it (take this blog, for instance!). If you go to the bookstore, look at the bestsellers and the most gifted writers of our time. What you will discover are hundreds of books with the title on the front cover, maybe in small letters at the top or bottom of that book; then you will find the author’s name, usually in the middle, in enormous block letters and bold print!

Please do not misunderstand me; we should be recognized for the work we do. There is nothing wrong with putting our name on the works we accomplish or being recognized as the ones who do something beautiful. It is just that for the Christian artist that cannot be the final goal. The main purpose of the Christian artist is to put the other in touch with the sacred.

One of the things I find striking about the writing of icons—which Fr. Paul Czerwonka teaches so well here at the American College—is how the icon is never signed by the artist upon its completion. The reason, again, is because the role of the iconographer is not to put another person in touch with the artist himself or herself, but with the living God. Icons are a window to heaven and the person who prays before one of these sacred images should be able to communicate with God; they should be placed in a deeper communion with the saints; they should be able to draw closer to Our Lady and to her Son, Jesus Christ.

But that is not only the goal of Christian art and iconography. It is, in fact, the goal of the Christian life. We are all called to surrender our lives in such a way that we can be an avenue through which other people can “travel” in order to draw closer to God; an avenue through which God can move and operate in such a way that He can draw closer to the people around us. His dream for each of us is that we fully cooperate in that endeavor. We have to be willing to see more than just our own individual lives but to truly be open to the way God is working and active everywhere in the world around us. The focus has to move away from us and back to God. St. Paul says it best:

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.
—Galatians 2:20

In other words, it is no longer about Paul and his gifts and abilities, his selfish individual projects, however noble they may be. It is about Jesus Christ and the way He is living in St. Paul. We surrender ourselves in such a way that God is living and moving in us and through us. Paradoxically, this does not inhibit our freedom in the least. We become more free and more ourselves as we live in the very way God created us…but it doesn’t come easy!

That is the struggle we find in the First Reading and in the Gospel this weekend. In that compelling story from the Book of Numbers we hear of God’s plan to take “some of the spirit that was on Moses,” and give it to the seventy elders of Israel. Obviously the burden of leadership was far too much for any one man to accomplish. God is bestowing a blessing upon Moses by granting him other persons will help him carry the load.

Yet two of the elders were not present with Moses when this spirit was given; apparently they were out to lunch that day. Nonetheless they received it anyway. Suddenly it is Joshua, who has attended Moses all his life, who becomes offended:

“Moses, my Lord, stop them.”
—Numbers 11:28

Moses, no doubt with great love, assures Joshua that there is no offense here. “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets,” he says. “Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” Moses knows that the blessings of God and the graces God pours out on His people cannot possibly take away from the good things He is already doing in us. For another person to be blessed by God in no way diminishes me. Moses understood that clearly. Do we?

We find that same struggle in the Gospel this weekend. Christ has chosen twelve Apostles to follow Him and to do a particular work in the Church. They will be the foundation on which He will build His Church. He has already sent them out to do miraculous things and they have shared in the very power and authority which He has exercised in their midst.

Suddenly they discover that another person, not from their own group, is also accomplishing great things in the name of Jesus. St. John, again with the same misplaced love which we saw in Joshua, turns to Christ and says:

“Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”
—Mark 9:38

Christ has to correct him: “Do not prevent him.” This was a work accomplished in the name of Jesus; albeit not in the manner St. John had expected and not within the parameters that he was accustomed to. Jesus draws him away from his own individual focus and tries to show him the broader scope of what God is doing: “Whoever is not against us is for us” (Mark 9:40).

This is such an important lesson for the Church, not just in St. John’s time but perhaps even more so in our own. Competition, rivalry, jealousy; these are the very things that diminish, frustrate and suppress the work of God in the Church. It is something that happens in seminaries, in Catholic universities, in parishes and in dioceses. Even the domestic Church, the family, is affected by the jealousies, rivalries and competitive spirit that are not from Christ.

We become so wrapped up in our own little world, our own projects, that we fail to recognize or even begin to inhibit the way God is working in the people around us. How very much we need to learn the lesson which Joshua and St. John were taught in our readings this weekend!

St. Paul, again, tells us distinctly that we have nothing to lose and everything to gain when another member of the Body of Christ is blessed by God. He says that if any one of the members of the body are honored, then all of the members of the body rejoice with it (see 1 Corinthians 12:26).

I would suggest this week that we choose three people in our lives, any three people who are fellow members of the body of Christ, and ask God for the wisdom to recognize the beautiful work He is accomplishing in them; ask God to show you the masterpiece, the icon He is writing in their daily lives. Seek to be a part of that great work by your encouragement, your charity, and especially by your prayers for those three people. This week let us ask to see less of our own individual lives and more of what God is accomplishing on a much larger scale, and may we all be able to say, with St. Paul:

It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.
—Galatians 2:20

Sunday, September 06, 2009

Proofs for God in the Year for Priests

Christ the Great High Priest

Icon writen by Iconographer Marek Czarnecki of Seraphic Restorations in Meriden, Connecticut.

(23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B; This homily was given on 6 September, 2009 at the Chapel of The American College of the Immaculate Conception in Louvain, Belgium; See Mark 7:31-37)

I am sure you are at least somewhat familiar with the common arguments or proofs for the existence of God. For instance, there is the argument from the order or structure of the universe. We come to see that the sun rises each day and sets every evening; the planets do not crash into each other; there is unity and order, and so there must be one who created that order and maintains it: God.

Then there is the argument from beauty. We look at a breathtaking sunset in the spring or gaze at the ocean on a cool summer afternoon; the leaves change into dazzling colors in the fall. There must be someone who created all that, someone who is even more beautiful than creation itself, and that someone is God.

Yet there is a situation found in the Gospel this weekend that could be considered as an argument against the existence of God! How is that for disturbing? It is the deaf man with a speech impediment.

“Well,” you might be thinking, “that does not sound like a very convincing argument to me!” But do not be too hasty. That deaf man with a speech impediment has experienced what the philosophers and theologians of antiquity define as evil. The philosophical and theological definition of evil is "privation"; it is a lack of a proper good where a good ought to be.

We ought to be able to hear sounds in the world around us. We ought to be able to listen to a majestic symphony or hear the sound of our own mother’s voice calling our name. We ought to be able to communicate and speak with the people in our lives we love most. All of those things have been denied that deaf man with the speech impediment.

I assure you there is no more common or convincing argument used down through the ages to deny the existence of God than the experience of evil. The atheist is seldom the one who has sat down and read the Scriptures and the Summa Theologica; It is not often the one who has studied theology extensively and then come to the sad conclusion that the idea of God is simply untenable.

It is the man or woman who has looked at the Holocaust in the face and experienced a living hell here on earth that will sometimes say, “I cannot believe that God exists.” It is often the person who has encountered a tragic or sudden loss or the one whose life seems to be falling apart without any rhyme or reason; that is the one who will say, “I refuse to believe in a God who has allowed this to happen.”

Even as people of faith we are often at a loss for words when confronted with an argument like that. But St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa contra Gentiles, uses that same line of reasoning to argue for the existence of God. He says, rather shockingly: Quia malum est, Deus est. Because evil exists, God exists.

If evil is a privation or lack of the good, then it can only exist in relation to the order of good; there would be no order of good if not for the supreme good who is God (see Summa contra Gentiles, III, 71).

But more importantly, we could not live in this world another day if there were no possibility of God’s existence. We could never go on as a people of hope if, when all is said and done, this world is all that there is; if there is not a final recompense for something as atrocious as the holocaust. There must be a God who will respond to the violence, racism and discrimination that occurs in the world we live in. There must be one who will set things straight and bring about justice after all the injustice that has taken place from the beginning of time. Quia malum est, Deus est.

As people of faith we believe that even now God is beginning to do just that. He is—even now—beginning to restore the order, unity and beauty to the world that we live in. We see that clearly in the Gospel this weekend. Jesus Christ meets evil—that privation of the good—head on…and heals it. Yet, He does so in a rather peculiar way.

Christ not only speaks the words of healing to this person but He also touches him. We are body and soul, spiritual and physical, and thus Christ heals this man physically and spiritually at the point of his greatest need. He not only speaks to the depths of that man’s soul: “Ephphatha!” that is, “Be opened!” (Mark 7:34). He also sticks His finger in the man’s ear and spits on his tongue. Have you ever considered how strange that is?! Jesus Christ is literally reconnecting this man—physically and spiritually—to the source of healing, power, and life that is Himself! He reconnects that man and restores all that he had lost, opening up the possibility for an entire spectrum of experiences and relationships, both human and divine.

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). Thanks be to God for the Church that Christ founded! Thanks be to God for the Sacraments by which Christ continues to reach out and touch this world so effected by evil and so much in need of healing and wholeness! Quia malum est, Deus est!

But I would borrow from that argument of St. Thomas Aquinas just a bit this weekend, and say not only “Because evil exists, God exists.” Following from that I would also say, “Quia malum est, sacerdos est!” Because evil exists, the priest exists!

If God is to continue to reach out to this broken world through the Sacraments of the Church, then there must be some who are called by God to surrender their bodies and their souls in love so that God may say through them:

This is my body given up for you…this is the cup of my blood. Take it and receive it. Be reconnected to the source of life and the source of healing that is Myself.

There must be some, called by God, who will surrender their bodies and their souls in love so that God may say through them, to the broken and those filled with sorrow for their sins:

I absolve you from your sins.

There must be some, called by God, who will receive a small child and pour water over that child’s head—or receive an adult, converted inwardly by faith and the Holy Spirit—and say “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Because there is such a lack of the good in so many places of society and life and because there is such a need and so many hunger and thirst for the living God, there must be at least some who will make Him sacramentaly present in this world. That is why Pope Benedict XVI has asked us all to focus on this year as the Year for Priests. Because evil exists, God must exist, and so, too must the priest.

There are 16 men here at the American College in Leuven preparing for priesthood. In this Year for Priests I plead with you to pray for them, intercede to God for them. Pray that they will be as connected to Christ as the man who was healed in the Gospel, that they will be physically and spiritually touched by Christ in the Sacraments of the Church and opened up for all that He wills to do in their lives this year. Pray for those of us entrusted with their formation, for their professors and all who will be a part of their preparation for Holy Orders. There is indeed a lack of the good in the world we live in, and these men have said, “Yes,” to God because they have understood that He wants to use them to do something about it.