Feel truly **responsible** before the bread that gives life to the world

A priest friend of mine texted me this quote yesterday,

I read this from a homily on this Sunday’s reading by Oscar Romero, whom I’m becoming more convinced was fruit of Vatican II truly lived out: “Jesus, the Eternal Priest, celebrated the first Mass and shared communion with his Apostles but then told his followers: Do this in my memory. Thus the priesthood came into existence and the priests were entrusted with maintaining the Eucharist. This is our principal mission, but we must give the Eucharist its **fullest meaning**. This means that we do not simply distribute the hosts but must understand what it means to **redeem** people, to **save** people so that when they come to communion they feel as though they have truly been **developed**. It is for this reason that we insist that the sacraments must be celebrated with a greater awareness and that no one should come to communion unless they feel truly **responsible** before the bread that gives life to the world.”

This priest friend works with people who live on the edge of life, on the margins of society. They are people who more often than not were born into desperate situations and have tried to cobble together a life out of the chaotic rubble around them.

He and I met in a coffee shop not long ago and talked for a long time about his ministry. Near the end of the conversation, I told him about a course I am teaching this Fall on theodicy, the problem of evil and suffering, and how priests can minister in a redemptive manner to the suffering by bringing the power of the Cross to bear in their lives. I said, “The motto of the course is the last petition of the Our Father, ‘deliver us from evil.'”

He paused, seemed a bit surprised and was clearly moved by something I’d said. “My word,” he said, “that phrase is remarkable. It’s exactly what I hope for [named a man he was working with].”

We ended our conversation. As I drove home I thought on our exchange, and on those words from the Lord’s Prayer. They contain within them, in compressed form, all of the lamentations, all of the pained and desperate cries of humanity to Heaven, cries that are woven throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. I thought of those remarkable words of Exodus 3:7-8,

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians…”

I have observed, heard, know. I have come down to deliver them. Running down the ages to pick us off the ground.

That is the exodus from Egypt, the Passover of the Lord. That is the Incarnation and the Cross, the God who became a condemned slave to rescue us slaves from our plight. That is the Eucharist, the Passover meal, the Slave’s self-offering to deliver us from evil, from the Evil One.

So when we eat the torn Flesh and drink the spilled Blood of the Deliverer, we receive our rescue and we pledge — Body of Christ. Amen. Blood of Christ. Amen. — to become His rescue to those enslaved around us. To live for the life of the world.

Like my priest friend, who loves these broken, spilled children of God so well.

Take Courage, It All Matters

There’s a yes in our hearts
And carries through eternity
Simple obedience changes history — Lindy Conant & Circuit Riders

When I give talks on discerning one’s vocation, I love to speak about the butterfly effect. As Wikipedia describes it, the butterfly effect is

the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in which a small change in one state of a deterministic nonlinear system can result in large differences in a later state.

Here’s a brief example:

So it means that small actions in the present can lead to immense changes in the future. In physics, in life. Rachel Platten expresses this so poetically,

Like a small boat
On the ocean
Sending big waves
Into motion
Like how a single word
Can make a heart open
I might only have one match
But I can make an explosion

But why is all of this so important in thinking about one’s vocation?

Well, I think it’s important in part because we tend, at least in Catholic culture, to think of “vocation” as really about the Big Decisions, e.g. state in life, career choice or any major life decisions. But vocation — the idea that our life in this world is enveloped in God’s ever-present invitation to freely cooperate with Him in His project of re-creating the world to become an eternal home for God to dwell with the human race — suffuses every nanosecond of our life. From the grandest public act to the tiniest secret movement of the heart, every human action has the graced potential to spin up an eternal beauty or an immortal horror.

Jesus Himself, in obedience to His own vocation from the Father, carried out the whole of this divine-human plan in principle, above all on the Cross. Hanging there, rendered supremely helpless to “do” anything of seeming worth, He birthed a new creation by hidden acts of love and mercy offered upward and outward toward the Father and toward His enemies. As the soldiers spat on Him, deep within His Heart, Jesus was preparing for them rivers of eternal mercy.

Completed in principle, in nuce, Jesus’ “it is finished” redeeming work is only in fact finished when we, who become His Body in Baptism, complete His vocation by our mostly teeny Yesses, repeated to the very end.

So for us it is those unnoticed, unappreciated, forgotten and hidden acts of love, trust, forgiveness, mercy, kindness, patience — obedience — given to Christ in the Eucharist, that progressively unleash His all-sufficient power to make all things new.

Every day you wake up and, in spite of a thousand reasons not to, press on in fidelity to what you have been called by Jesus to do at each moment, you spin with Him into existence a thousand imperishable beauties that will forever splash new colors on this world and become the joy of all redeemed humanity for endless ages in the Age to Come.

So, Take Courage…


[Thank you Amy Holtkamp for sharing this song with me]

Shaking off the dust as we arise
Awake awake our generation cries
Salvation’s song will ring throughout the earth
And every eye will see your matchless worth

And I can feel the drum of your heart beat
Calling us to be Your hands and feet
Rising up with courage in our hearts
To carry out Your love to the hardest and the dark

Take courage the harvest is ripe
Lift up your voice because Jesus is alive

My king has conquered every mountain top
With scars that prove that He cannot be stopped
And history was changed upon the cross
With victory you rescue all that’s lost
And silence will be broken with our lives
As we live out the love of Jesus Christ
What our eyes have seen our hearts cannot ignore
We’ll lead this generation to the glory of the Lord

Jesus is alive, Jesus is alive
Jesus is alive, Jesus is alive
Jesus is alive, Jesus is alive
Jesus is alive, Jesus is alive

There’s a yes in our hearts
And carries through eternity
Simple obedience changes history

“Allow yourself to be at the Jordan River.”

“Allow yourself to be at the Jordan River.”

The Confessor I went to on retreat said this to me, in his thick German accent, after I had revealed my sins. He expanded on his words,

You are working so hard to please God, and this is good. And you have failed, and have shared this openly with God. Now you can know His mercy, and when you know His mercy you know something about God even the angels cannot know — the Father’s tender compassion for you as His son. Remember before anything else, you must always go down with Jesus into the water of forgiveness and receive the Father’s tender words, ‘My beloved son.’

Jesus went to the Cross to allow you to hear these words.

But if you don’t allow these words to enter you and define you, you will cling to other identities that will leave you wanting. No matter what happens, no matter how you fail, no matter how others fail you — the Father always, always loves you.

Then he told me to allow St. John the Baptist to take me down to the Jordan, to lead me to Jesus. “He is the forerunner, he prepares the way and is a great saint for leading us to the Father by leading us to Jesus.”

I did, and my takeaway was this: “Become a more loving father by knowing your identity as a beloved son, by allowing yourself to be loved by the Father.” So simple, so basic, so fundamental, so profound, so easy to forget. All I could think of throughout the afternoon was a line from St. Ignatius of Antioch’s letter to the Romans,

There is within me a water
that lives and speaks,
saying to me inwardly,
‘Come to the Father.’

That water of baptism, first sanctified in the Jordan, contains within it the whole mystery of life and death. St. John the Baptist, lead me in to taste there of the Father’s tender mercy. There I can learn to be the father my children deserve.

Heaven in a Wild Flower

Cathedral vault

My cathedral

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. — William Blake

I am on my annual retreat this week at a new location for me, somewhere in the Heartland. Whenever I choose a place to retreat, it is always a spot lost in meadows, forests or otherwise uninhabited seashores. Preferably far from noise and light pollution. Always a silent retreat, with time governed only by liturgy, meals and the Spirit’s unforeseen surprises.

Yesterday the rain came. Heavy, sustained. Low rumbles of thunder. Once the ground even shook. A man on retreat took a long walk in the rain and returned, drenched. I saw him coming in the door and said, “Caught in the rain?” He replied with an impish grin, “Nope, singin’ in the rain! Makes me feel alive again.”

After Vespers, I walked along the rural road straddling the monastery and saw an enormous rainbow in the east as the black clouds retreated. I sprinted up a grassy bluff to watch it blaze, then fade away. I could almost hear the words whispered,

I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.– Gen. 9:13

Last night I went out in the middle of the night to catch an earful of the nighthawk’s rhythmic cry descending and the ceaseless chorus of crickets rising. I was not disappointed, as both filled my soul beneath a softly waning moonlight that broke, now and again, through the racing altocumulous clouds. Out in the dark night, prayer is so easy.

I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel,
who even at night directs my heart. — Psalm 16:7

This morning shortly after sunrise I went out into a grove of spruce trees to pray my rosary and sat down on a still-crispy bed of damp needles. I dubbed it ‘my cathedral’, built on an altar of sodden earth and splintered boughs, with the highest soaring vault one could imagine. It is my favorite space to offer the logikē latreia, “rational worship” (Rom. 12:1) of my body, readying for the Holy Sacrifice which followed.

I found myself surrounded in this cathedral by the most marvelous avian menagerie — among them, robins, wood thrushes, house sparrows, phoebes, mourning doves, chipping sparrows, a catbird, a flicker and barn swallows deftly navigating the sky above catching (hopefully) all the mosquitoes bloated with my blood. All these gave each Glory be a whole new sacrificial power.

Even the sparrow finds a home,
and the swallow a nest for herself
in which she sets her young, at your altars,
O Lord of hosts, my king and my God. — Psalm 84:4

And the spruce fragrance was totally overwhelming. Made me breathe deeply and regret exhaling. Reminded me of when I was a child and would sit in the white pine patch near our home each Spring just to smell the fresh sap oozing from the enlivening trees and feel the soft new candles shooting heavenward. Actually, I put my hand on a white pine today and my hand was sticky from the sap. Hallelujah!

After the rosary, I joined the monks in their chapel for the morning Divine Office. It was all so seamless. Daniel 3:57-88 came to mind as I left the chapel, stirring in me the fire to extend again my priestly duty throughout the day.

Let the earth bless the Lord;
let it sing praise to him and highly exalt him forever. — vs. 74

The flowers here are endless in variety. Both cultivated and wild. Too many to name, but I especially love the expanses of white clover covered with industrious honeybees and the sprawling crownvetch dotted with sprightly skippers.

Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. — Matt. 6:28-29

Then there are these enormous black ant mounds, streaming with worker ants excavating the earth and bringing in fresh catch for the queen and her brood. Like a sacrament, the mound conceals deep within a vast hidden world teeming with a common life marked by selfless giving, each living for the sake of all.

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. — Acts 4:32

This is, in fact, what transpires ever-always in the recesses of the Holy Trinity. I felt it pulsing in that mound.

Eucharistic Prayer IV was used at Mass, “…with them we, too, confess your name in exultation, giving voice to every creature under heaven…”

Okay, I must stop as it’s time to pray again.

But when is it not?

Filthy, Smelly, Sweaty Liturgy

[re-post 2015]

The liturgy is nothing more nor less than the Body corporate of Christ Jesus, suffused with his Spirit and assembled in time and place, doing its best by doing the world as the world issues constantly from God’s creating and redeeming hand. What the liturgical assembly does is the world.

This is a frightful ministry carried on with trembling hands and a dry mouth, for the world stops being cute when told it is morbid.

In [Jesus], and according to his example and no other, the Christian assembly is obliged to do its best. It was in the doing of his own best that he laid down his life for the life of the world–not in cynical disgust or in limp passivity before the Human Problem, but for love of those who caused the Problem in the first place. His Church can do no less. — Fr. Aidan Kavanagh

“Doing the world God’s way,” this is liturgy. From lēitos, “public” and ergos, “working,” liturgy is God’s public invitation for is to join His working of creating and redeeming. Liturgy is doing the world with God-with-us. In fact, we could succinctly say that Liturgy is Christ, who is God doing the world His way, with us, by sending His Spirit into the world, synthesizing our labors with His.

The liturgy is Mass, the Sacraments, the Hours. And going to church to do such things is deadly serious business, as is being Baptized, which makes you a portable and wholly unpredictable liturgy.

Liturgy is where we priestly people transact between heaven and earth, effecting with power what we agree to under oath — “Amen!” — to execute by our lives every time we pray the Our Father:

Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.

This prayer Jesus have us is an extended covenant oath, and is especially daunting when we consider that earth, shackled by the Enemy of God, is not at all happy about heaven’s full-scale invasion. Of which we, the laity, stand as the front lines.

If we go to Mass on Sunday thinking, “What can I get out of this?” — we settle at best for mild inspiration, warm feelings, pleasant fellowship and light entertainment. Consumer liturgy.

But if we go to church thinking, “How can I drag as much of the dross-laden gold of this world into the blazing Furnace of the God-Man’s heart, drenching it in Spirit, so it can be refined, prepared as worthy material for the construction an everlasting Kingdom?” — imagine the difference in approach not only to the Mass itself, but to the whole week we spend assuring heaven’s conquest in dredging up the contents of creation for up-Offering — by “doing our best.” Divine liturgy.

And, per Kavanagh’s above quote, “best” refers always to Jesus’ exemplary sacrificial death in the face of the worst the world had to offer Him, i.e. hatred, brutality, death.

A naked and dying God, gurgling out words of pardon and love, is humanity at its best.

The Orthodox priest at my Dad’s Russian church back in 1989 celebrated a 2.5 hour Divine Liturgy on a sultry summer day when the AC in the church was not working properly. His hair and beard were dripping with sweat, and he smelled ripe. Afterward, my Dad and I commented to him, with admiration, on the hardships of that celebration. He said without hesitation,

Yes, yes, I’m completely exhausted. But this is meet and right! Divine Liturgy is divine labor that overthrows the Powers and Principalities, redeems the cosmos. It’s supposed to leave me worn down. The Son of God’s liturgy left Him filthy, smelly and sweaty! But us? Clean and new.

Ah! Toiling and laboring unto exhaustion through every future liturgy, let’s give the world our very best — with God, God’s way…


The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ


[this is a wildly meandering meditation on the Eucharist, so brace yourself]

When [Jesus] wanted fully to explain what his forthcoming death was all about, he didn’t give them a theory. He didn’t even give them a set of scriptural texts. He gave them a meal. — N.T. Wright

Tomorrow we will continue to contemplate the aftermath of Pentecost as we celebrate the Mystery of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Last week’s Trinity Sunday was a liturgical proclamation of who God, fully revealed in Jesus and His Spirit, is. Tomorrow, though, we are confronted by God’s unimaginable invitation to masticate and swallow the Flesh and Blood of the slain and risen Son of God. Invited to ingest the One in whose resurrected body creation has passed over (been trans-substantiated) into an entirely new order of existence, i.e. the new creation.

Yes, the One who says, “See, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

The Eucharist is the divine invitation to participate even now in this new order of existence by consuming bread and wine that have, by God’s re-creating power, been “made new” in the new creation. Transubstantiation is neither a bizarre logic puzzle, “it’s bread and not bread,” nor mystic chemistry, nor an imperceptible magic trick. It is a re-creative act of the same Redeeming God who raised the lacerated corpse of Jesus to a new and immortal bodily life. Jesus’ disorienting resurrection appearances reveal a Eucharistic logic, displaying both a radical continuity and a radical discontinuity between the old and the new creations. The fact that He is not recognized by His closest friends until He makes Himself known shows that His risen body has become something of a sacramental sign that requires faith’s interpretation, as it now signifies, contains and communicates something absolutely new.

The transubstantiated bread and wine, having been assumed into Jesus’ risen mode of existence, “behave” like the Jesus’ risen body appearing during the 40 days. Already wholly defined by the law and order of the new creation — transubstantiated — they remain accessible, under the form of mystery, to us who live within the first creation.

In the liturgical celebration of the Holy Mass, the material elements of bread and wine pass over from this world to the Next as a transfiguring extension of the power of the Resurrection into our time and space. In the words of 1 Cor. 5:17, “the old has passed away (archaia parēlthen); see, everything has become new!” In the Eucharist, this is true here and now as the Spirit of Jesus changes the substance of this world, presented as a sacrificial offering, into the substance of “a new heavens and a new earth” (Rev. 21:1) that has arisen from the risen Jesus.

In this sense, the Eucharist is future glory crashing back into the present in order, is a reverb of the Resurrection’s Big Bang bathing the cosmos in lux aeterna, “eternal light.”

In the words of an Orthodox hymn, you “taste the Fountain of Immortality” when you eat and drink the “new wine” (Matt. 26:29) of the Kingdom. That’s utterly breathtaking. But what is even more amazing to me is when I consider that this wildly destabilizing dynamism we call transubstantiation (better a verb than a noun) was planted in me, in seed form, at Baptism (cf. Rom. 6-11; 2 Cor. 5:17).

The implication? The transformation wrought in bread and wine is meant to happen in me as well, as I become a new creation, drawn by the Spirit to be progressively sanctified, consecrated and empowered to join St. Paul’s crazed audacity: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). The relics of the saints are material remnants of the wedding of heaven and earth that has been consummated.

The Eucharist exists not primarily to be adored as an object of veneration, but to be eaten and drunk by the Bride who longs to become one flesh and one spirit with her Bridegroom.

A last thought. The new creation is made of love, so how fitting it is that the Son of God chose to fuse His own self-sacrificial love for us with food and drink. Bread and wine are transformed beneath the force of the re-creative words of the God-Man as He inaugurates the second Genesis…. and God said,

Take this, all of you, and eat of it:
for this is my body which will be given up for you.
Take this, all of you, and drink from it:
for this is the chalice of my blood,
the blood of the new and eternal covenant.
which will be poured out for you and for many
for the forgiveness of sins.

The Eucharist is a stunning sign that the transubstantiation of this world into a new creation comes to pass under the form of sacrificial love. When humanity co-labors with God in feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty, in being merciful, creation reaches its completion in being ‘divinized.’ Formed by the logic of Eucharist, we boldly profess that God is food and drink, which is simply a more concrete way of saying, “God is love.”

We say in the Creed that Father and Son are “consubstantial,” as the infinite divine substance of each Person wholly belongs to (an for) the other. That is the dynamism of love, the vocation of humanity.

Which all makes sense of why feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty — deeds of mercy — are the criteria for entrance into the life of the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt. 25:31-46; cf. 1 Jn. 3:17).

At a baptism I attended, the priest said to a deeply divided family, “If you do not plan to love each other, stay away from this water [pointing to the baptismal font] and do not eat from this table [pointing to the altar]. In these we partake of a Kingdom where love is the final word.”

I now gladly allow Annie Dillard the last word:

Why do people in church seem like cheerful, brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute? Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us to where we can never return.


Most Holy Trinity

“Holy Trinity,” El Greco. allart.biz

In making the sign of the Cross, therefore, we not only remember our baptism, but we affirm that liturgical prayer is an encounter with God in Jesus Christ, who became incarnate for us, died and rose in glory. — Pope Francis

[re-post 2016]

Today’s feast of the Most Holy Trinity celebrates, in the wake of last week’s feast of Pentecost, that God has been fully revealed to humanity in the death and resurrection of the Son of God and in the coming of the Holy Spirit.

What about God has been revealed?

That God is One, but not solitary. That in divinity, unity is found in an eternal community of Persons-in-relation, because “God is love” (1 John 4:8).

But the fact that this mystery of divine love was only fully revealed to us in and through the Paschal Mystery, above all on the Cross, tells us something else about God. Something absolutely stunning. It tells us that to-be-God means emptying, outpouring, expending oneself for sake of the beloved. Belief in the Trinity is belief in a God who is eternally emptying, outpouring, expending.

We can easily think of the Creed as a static snapshot of God who is frozen in an eternally changeless irrelevance. But in fact the Creed has us profess belief in a living, infinitely volatile, overflowing divine dynamism that is ceaselessly boiling, and over-boiling, in God. In fact, when we profess the Creed in faith, we cliff-dive in a free fall into the limitless Mystery of God.

In our Creed we profess belief in a God from whom the visible and invisible creation, vast beyond measure, exploded in a wildly excessive divine choice of pure giving: “Let there be!”

In our Creed we profess belief in a God in whom a Son is eternally being begotten as “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” who took on human nature “for our salvation,” emptying Himself out in the most extreme manner, to the point of violent death on a Roman cross.

In our Creed we profess belief in a God in whom the Holy Spirit is eternally, like an infinite fountain, “proceeding from” both Father and Son; and is being poured out without measure to give life to the world.

So it is no mistake that whenever a Christian invokes the threefold Name of God, he or she traces that most extreme symbol of the divine self-emptying: the Sign of the Cross.

But note well, we trace this sign not outward up into the sky, pointing heavenward, but inward onto our bodies, pointing heartward. For the self-emptying God longs to dwell both in us and through us out into the world, by conforming our lives to Their emptying, outpouring, expending love.

My God.

So making the Sign of the Cross not only invokes God’s Name, but is the baptismal invocation of our oath to live lives worthy of the divine Name by living lives inscribed by the finger of our self-emptying God, whose love is strong as death, whose passion is fierce as the grave (cf. Song of Song 8:6).

May it be so in us this day and to the Day of Eternity. Amen. Amen. Amen.