Time in the Aftermath

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Almighty ever-living God,
who when Christ had been baptized in the River Jordan
and as the Holy Spirit descended upon him,
solemnly declared him your beloved Son,
grant that your children by adoption,
reborn of water and the Holy Spirit,
may always be well pleasing to you. — Opening Collect for today’s Mass

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, and with this day we are ushered into the unhappily named liturgical season of Ordinary Time. The English word “ordinary” comes from the Latin ordinalis, a word meaning “an order of succession.” Ordinary, therefore, does not here mean “plain,” but days of counting after the Feast of Epiphany and then again after the Feast of Pentecost. It’s an extended opportunity to contemplate and realize the impact of the Incarnation and Pentecost on the world. In other words, Ordinary time is life in the aftermath of God’s definitive entry into history.

During Ordinary liturgical days, the major focus of the Scripture readings is on the three year public preaching-teaching-healing ministry of Jesus, as He inaugurates the coming of the Kingdom of God into history. If I could give a name to this season that better translates this idea, I’d call it Time in the Aftermath.

Which is why I am not on the liturgical committee that names seasons.

The Sacrament of Baptism is our own personal immersion into that Time in the Aftermath, our insertion into the volatile intersections of time-eternity, finite-infinite, heaven-earth, Creator-creation. In other words, into Jesus Christ. Baptism made me into a new creation, planting me as an immortal seed, freshly fallen from the Tree of the Cross, into the barren wasteland of a fallen world. Or said otherwise, Baptism established me as a fresh outpost of God’s Kingdom behind enemy lines, with a mission to knead into the culture of death the leaven of Life.

How? By a life of obedience to God’s mind and will, above all by imitating Christ who is God’s Mind-made-flesh. No, it’s even more intense than that: by allowing Christ’s mind into my own, allowing Him to take my “every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5). In Baptism, my thoughts and words are consecrated and so are no longer my own.

Allowing Christ’s mind to penetrate, shape, transform and inhabit my own mind is the end-game of prayer. Especially prayer with Sacred Scripture. Praying God’s Word is granting Christ permission to think in me, with me and through me in real-time, living color.

I wrote in my journal January 1, “My goal in the new year is to better allow Christ to think out His plan for me with me, not simply acting like a hollow cipher that has nothing to add to that plan, but creatively contributing. O Lord, I know your plan includes my contribution, that you want me to surprise you with something you cannot do without me. Something beautiful. May my Morning Offering be filled with the giddy joy of a child who wants to surprise his parent with the simple gifts he has made!”

As I was praying on this idea, another related thought occurred to me. This “unity of mind” not simply a bilateral deal, i.e. me and Jesus. It’s multilateral, i.e. us and Jesus. Jesus wants to harmonize His mind and my mind with my wife’s mind, my children’s minds, my co-workers’ minds, my adversaries’ minds. You see, He doesn’t just want an aggregate of duet harmonies, He wants a universal symphony unified in the love intoned from the cross.

Which means my vocation to “take on the mind of Christ” is to embrace the absolutely brutal struggle of becoming “of one mind and one heart” (Acts 4:32) with all those unruly people around me every day. The implications of this are vast. As a priest said in a homily once, “Most of us, if we’re honest, want Jesus but not the unpleasant people He brings along with Him. So when we receive the Eucharist, we too often receive Christ the Head, but spit out His members…”

Bishop John Smith, who celebrated our nuptial Mass, said to us at a lunch we had at Patti’s apartment one month before our wedding, “Tom, once you marry, you can’t ever fully know Christ without knowing Patti; and you can’t fully know Patti without knowing Christ. Patti, the same goes for you. In this Sacrament, Christ means business.”

And in this Sacrament of Baptism, Christ means the same business.

At the end of my new year’s journal reflection, I read Philippians 2:1-5 with all this in mind. And wow:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…

Being-taken

Sano di Pietro: St. Catherine of Siena drinking from the side wound of Christ, mid-15th century. wp.com

Beloved, let us love one another,
because love is of God;
everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God.
Whoever is without love does not know God, for God is love. — 1 John 4:7-8

In today’s Mass readings, this selection from the first letter of St. John accompanies the Gospel account of Jesus’ miraculous feeding of the 5000. What a remarkable juxtaposition of themes.

Years ago, I was asked to give a talk at a parish on the meaning of eucharistic transubstantiation. I called the presentation, “Extreme Presence.” As I prepared the talk, I was struck by the fact that Jesus chose food and drink to transform into Himself. Yes, the Passover meal context is a clear rationale, but somehow the radical “substantial” identification of God with the act of feeding and drinking — nourishing — jumped out at me. It seemed to me to provide a whole new language for rendering St. John’s defining of God as love.

One night as I thought on this point, preparing for the talk, it occurred to me that the words of consecration begin with verbs: take, eat; take, drink. I wrote in my notes,

The Real Presence is not an immobile rock, a steady mountain, but a perpetual earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a streaming fire, a gushing geyser. In the Eucharist, God reveals Himself as feeding and giving drink. No, even more! As Godbeing-taken. Given up, handed over, broken. As the Real Presenting.

My God.

God isn’t a static noun, God is a verb, is actus purus, “pure action,” an eternal act of loving, appearing under the form of being-taken as food for the hungry and drink for the thirsty. God is sating and slaking.

What a magnificently earthy manner God has chosen to manifest divinity, offering to make us “partakers in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4) by means of chewing, swallowing, digestion. Like a nursing mother, God is bonum est diffusivum sui, is “the good giving itself away.” God is not just Being, but Being-eaten, Being-drunk, Being-taken.

About six months after my return to the practice of the faith back in 1987, I was walking back to my apartment from Subway one evening with my footlong seafood sub. I had not eaten since breakfast and was really hungry. As I walked through the parking lot of my apartment complex, I saw a man in the dumpster rummaging about. I had seen him there before, and imagined he was looking for food. I felt the impulsion to give him my food, which he promptly scarfed down as we sat next to each other on the curb. I felt gratified by the exchange.

That night I had a hard time sleeping with the combo of hunger pains and an intense headache. The next morning I went to 7:00 a.m. Mass. After Mass I saw a friend of mine, and when he asked me how things were going, I said, “Well over all, but I feel like crap.” When he asked why, I told him the story about the homeless man, and ended by saying, “But man, I sure was hoping that God would have spared me the pain afterward since I did a good thing. Oh well!” David laughed, and said, “Isn’t that really missing the point?”

Theologians against logorrhea

St. John resting on the Heart of Jesus. pinimg.com

St. John the Evangelist’s Feast today introduces the reading of his magnificent Letters into the Christmas season liturgies. Today begins with the beginning of his first Letter,

What was from the beginning,
what we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we looked upon
and touched with our hands
concerns the Word of life —
for the life was made visible;
we have seen it and testify to it
and proclaim to you the eternal life
that was with the Father and was made visible to us—
what we have seen and heard
we proclaim now to you,
so that you too may have fellowship with us;
for our fellowship is with the Father
and with his Son, Jesus Christ.
We are writing this so that our joy may be complete.

Such depth. Such a profound outworking of the Prologue of his Gospel. I can never read this too many times, and I get pumped every year when these Letters appear this season.

But what really struck me this morning as I prayed this text was the last line,We are writing this so that our joy may be complete.” What a fascinating reason to write. That set me thinking about the writing vocation of theologians, whose calling is to explore the deposit of faith and communicate its riches to others. I thought, for those of us who dare to opine on the Mystery of Faith, St. John’s words offer three core goals that should animate all of our speech.

First, the pursuit of a living intimacy with the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. A theologian is one who knows, really knows the eternal Word. Who dares to speak of Him only after speaking with Him. Read again those opening words of this Letter. They claim the authority of first-hand experience of the Mystery of God, Jesus Christ.

Second, cultivation of the unity of love that is an outflow of, and inflow into God’s own Tri-unity. A theologian always seeks and serves unity, and where there is disunity, seeks reconciliation.

Third, the amplification and communication of joy. A theologian identifies, cultivates and removes obstacles to joy. In the words of Pope Benedict, their vocation “is beautiful and wonderful, because it is truly a service to joy, to God’s joy which longs to break into the world.”

Let me expand this out and say that any of the faithful who boldly dare to speak or write about the Mystery of Faith should exercise a holy fear, realizing God is not our personal possession, nor is His revelation an ideology. Rather, the living God has entrusted Himself and His deepest secrets to us for the purpose of drawing all creation into divine intimacy, fostering the unity of love and permitting His joy to enter the world.

If my intention in speaking of any aspect of the faith is divorced from any of these three things, I betray God’s own intention. Personally, nothing in life terrifies me more than the thought of exploiting for my own ends God’s own life and revealed mystery. As my dad often said, “I’d rather be an atheist than risk that.”

So I ask myself before (and after) I begin to type, write or speak of these Mysteries in a manner that will influence others (especially on social media): Does this flow from prayer and lead to prayer? Will this unify or reconcile? Will this bear the fruit of joy? If not, I should remain silent until I have become rightly disposed through repentance and prayer.

When we fail to act with holy fear, fail to carefully consider our words, rushing in where angels fear to tread, we can do great damage by marring the beauty of God’s Mystery entrusted to us. And we will have to answer one day before the Judgment Seat of Christ for the damage we inflict by our words.

I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter. — Matt. 12:36

My grandfather also used to say, “Be silent, or say something better than silence.” What’s better than silence? Well chosen words born of divine intimacy, leading into divine unity and divine joy.

With St. John the Divine, spread it around.

Of Christmas and Stoning

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Grant, Lord, we pray,
that we may imitate what we worship,
and so learn to love even our enemies…

This is the opening prayer for today’s Mass. What a way to celebrate the second day of the Christmas Octave! Joy to the world?! Just as dizzying is the thought of transitioning from the supernal joys of Christmas day to the next day’s bloody bludgeoning of St. Stephen with rocks. Note, the account in Acts ends with these words (that are inexplicably missing from the lectionary selection),

Then he fell to his knees and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

I’d never noticed till now how striking it is to say we worship love of enemy in that opening Collect prayer at Mass today. How all-too-easy it is to say, “God is love.” Such a warm fuzzy! But what Sacred Scripture teaches us is that God-made-flesh discloses to us a very concrete form of love, so we can say far more specifically, God is love-of-enemy.

.

This is the reason St. John locates his supreme name for God — Theos agapē estin — in his description of Christ’s reconciling love from the cross (read 1 John 4:7-12). So, God’s hidden nature is most fully revealed in His love for the most vile of human beings. He loves wretched humanity with an extreme intensity, with mercy. These words of Jesus apply to God Himself, most surely:

If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them…but love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return (Luke 6:32).

Yes, they apply to God first and above all. It is certainly Christianity’s hardest teaching to first embrace the truth that we are those enemy-sinners loved by God in this manner, and then to embrace the truth that we are to love in like kind.

Back in 1993, Fr. Anthony, my spiritual director, asked me during Lent “to take every experience you have of others’ rudeness, ingratitude, spitefulness, stupidity, malice as an opportunity to allow God to love them by means of you. First, allow Him to love in you, as the primary recipient of His love for the wretched. Then let Him love them through you, as His temple, still tentative, but with open gates. Finally, allow Him to love them with you, as one made capable of loving like Him. This is the surest path of sanctity. Taking these small steps every day will change you…”

St. Stephen, obtain this grace of change for me. Amen.

The misery and majesty of Christmas

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For many people, Christmas is a strange blend of pain and joy. It so often serves to spotlight difficult family issues, like loss, estrangement, grudges, hurt feelings, division, loneliness, financial distress, even as it can also shine into dark spaces a new and hopeful light.

But somehow, it seems to me, this gets at exactly what the Nativity of a Redeemer God is all about. Just think, Jesus was greeted at His conception with accusations of infidelity against His mother and the threat of divorce; was born far away from home, amid anxiety, fear, uncertainty and threats of violence; was welcomed by strangers and foreigners; was gifted with burial oils and then forced at once to flee into Egypt in the face of Herod’s massacre of innocent children.

The takeaway? God brings joy into our mess! This is indeed good news of great joy. But even more, His coming seems to agitate evil, to stir up trouble and exacerbate dysfunction, bringing what we’d rather hide away to the surface. The Redeemer isn’t interested in overlooking, incarcerating or covering up evil, but rather in overcoming it by exposing our festering wounds to the healing rays of His merciful gaze.

With such a vision, people of faith see in such challenges a precious opportunity to invite Jesus to be born again deep within our smelly stables. No matter where you find yourself, or how intractable the problem, remember to invite Him in and set Him loose. “Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother,” and this brother longs to be born into our miserable and majestic families.

But only if He is welcomed.

Maranâ thâ! Come, Lord Jesus! You are welcome. Amen.

BØRNS Theology of Baptism

Emerald Pool at Zion National Park. i.redd.it

Baptism does not relieve the disease of original sin: it cures it, leaving its scars like trophies. Baptism does not offer a better set of therapies to soften death’s inevitability: it destroys death itself. Baptism does not confirm bureaucracy and status quo: it dissolves the first and overturns the second. Baptism does not insulate us against reality: it throws back the covers and kicks us out to dance naked with the real in the light of the moon. – Fr. Aidan Kavanagh

I gave a presentation back in September at a local parish on the Sacrament of Baptism. As part of my talk, I played the BØRNS song, 10,000 Emerald Pools, at the very end and gave them a copy of the lyrics. I asked those present to reflect in silence on how the lyrics might help them reflect on the theology I had presented. The results were stunning.

I had decided to use this song in my teaching after going to the BØRNS concert with my daughters last year, as his performance of this song lifted me to another world in the midst of a body-to-body packed mosh pit. The sense I had there and then of the “secular liturgy” of life that arises from Baptism washed over me and stayed for weeks afterward. I saw that every action of life, religious or not, is suffused with the potential of immersing us more deeply in the mystery of God and drawing the world we touch down with us into the “depths of God” (1 Cor. 2:10).

I was not expecting the depth of reflections that followed that night. I had to stop us at 20 minutes because we had already gone overtime for the evening. One man wrote me an email the next day, “I just want to tell you that your presentation plus the song and then silence equaled my having an experience of prayer I have never had. I never think about my baptism in any way but now it’s all I think of. All of that in me?? Why in the world doesn’t every Catholic know this???…”

I am beginning to think if I just speak on Baptism and its effects, I can say everything I need and yet never have had sufficient time to say it all…

This pool is life
that floods the world;
the wounds of Christ
its awesome source…

I’ll dive in deeper, deeper for you
Down to the bottom, 10,000 emerald pools
Down to the bottom, 10,000 emerald pools
Under water
Time is standing still
You’re the treasure
Dive down deeper
Still, all I need is you
You’re all I need to breathe
All I need is you!

I’ll make a living, trying to get away
10,000 fathoms, under a tidal wave
It can never pull me away
No way!
Under water
Time is standing still
You’re the treasure
Dive down deeper
Still, all I need is you
You’re all I need to breathe
All I need is you!
You’re all I need to breathe
Down to the bottom, 10,000 emerald pools
You’re all I need to breathe
I’ll dive in deeper, deeper for you
You’re all I need to breathe

All I need is you!
All I need is you!
It can never pull me away
Time is standing still
Dive down deeper
Still, all I need is you
You’re all I need to breathe
All I need is you!

Mary the Poor

Conception of the Virgin Mary. Yes, that’s the elderly Sts. Joachim and Anne readying to re-enter the nuptial chamber… lauraclericiicons.webgallerydesign.com

Happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception!

Last night I gave a talk at a parish on Mary and Baptism. What a honor to have the opportunity to speak of the mysteries of God in her regard.

I was exhausted and ready to go to bed when the time for the talk came, as it had been a non-stop day. Though, to be honest, this is also the general sad state of my life in the “over 50 club,” I have found, as I am now ready for bed by 8:00 p.m.; just as my wife and kids are ready to party. Such a downer.

I mention this detail because it became part of the talk I gave — my exhaustion, that is. Oh, yes, and one other funny detail. My talk was right after Mass, and at the end of Mass I rushed to the cry room to use the restroom. Of course, there was a line. As I stood there waiting, I heard the pastor start introducing me from the ambo, only to then inform the congregation that I was delayed as I was relieving myself.

Mortifying.

I spoke on the Sacrament of Baptism as an immersion into all of the mysteries that the Mother of God embodied in a singular way. Mary is not the great exception, I argued, but the great exemplar of all we are called to be in Christ.

In Baptism we are reborn as an immaculate new creation, washed clean and re-created to be God’s sons and daughters. I tried to hammer home the point that we are “born of God” in, as it were, God’s broken bag of water and blood (John 1:13; 3:3; 1 John 5:6). Our very being is changed as we are adopted into most secret intimacy of God’s inner life. Mary also was conceived as a new creation, reborn in the very act of coming to be.

In Baptism we are made temples of the Trinity, a living Holy of Holies, the abode of God and divine Glory’s point of entry into the world. At the Annunciation, Mary also became a Temple of the Most High God.

In Baptism we are joined to Christ’s Body, made “one flesh” and “one spirit” with Him (1 Cor. 6:17), allowing us, by grace, to share in all He is by nature. At the Annunciation, we might say that Mary cried out, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this One shall be called Man, for out of Woman this One was taken” (cf. Gen 2:23).  At the foot of the Cross, she became “one flesh” with Him as He, the New Adam, called Mary “Woman,” the New Eve and mother of all the living in the new creation (John 19:26-27).

In Baptism we are plunged into Christ’s death and resurrection, dying to sin, living for God and being initiated into a divine pattern of self-sacrificial love. At her conception, at the foot of the Cross, and everywhere between, Mary died and rose with her Son. Yes, redeemed by her Son’s death before she existed. Here, we gawk in awe. O Time, swept up into the eternity of God, you are redeemed! Sing for joy!

Something like that. And I used a number of stories to illustrate my points.

Okay, so I gave this talk, but I can tell you it was not as clear as all that. In fact, I really don’t remember much of what I said. As I got into my car, I said a prayer of thanks and offered to God the frustration I felt over my exhaustion and the effect it had on my talk. I sat for a few moments in silence, and suddenly had a powerful phrase come to mind: “My greatest attribute is my poverty.”

I thought, whose poverty? God’s? Mary’s? And then I realized, it’s both. In her womb, Mary knew as no one else the poverty of a self-emptying God precisely because she was already poor. Empty of herself, i.e. sinless. Mary magnified the Lord because she, the lowly handmaiden, was created in the image of the God-Man who, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (1 Cor. 8:9).

It was as if God were saying to me, “Tom, only when you accept your absolute poverty, and join it to mine, can you magnify me, for my power is only made perfect in your weakness.” And then I wrote, “Yes, poverty is God’s supreme attribute because it is the nature of love to keep nothing for itself.”

Well, God, if weakness is what magnifies, my magnifying glass is immense. So please, Lord, feel free…

Mary the dawn, Christ the Perfect Day;
Mary the gate, Christ the Heavenly Way!
Mary the root, Christ the Mystic Vine;
Mary the grape, Christ the Sacred Wine!
Mary the wheat-sheaf, Christ the Living Bread;
Mary the rose tree, Christ the Rose blood-red!
Mary the font, Christ the Cleansing Flood;
Mary the chalice, Christ the Saving Blood!
Mary the temple, Christ the temple’s Lord;
Mary the shrine, Christ the God adored!
Mary the beacon, Christ the Haven’s Rest;
Mary the mirror, Christ the Vision Blest!
Mary the mother, Christ the mother’s Son
Both ever-blest while endless ages run. Amen.