Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Ash Wednesday

There is no island, no continent, no city or nation, no distant corner of the globe, where the proclamation of Lenten Fast is not listened to. Armies on the march and travelers on the road, sailors as well as merchants, all alike hear the announcement and receive it with joy. Let no one then separate himself from the number of those fasting, in which every race of humankind, every period of life, every class of society is included.

So said Saint Basil the Great (330-379) preaching about Lent in the 4th century, at a time when the Lenten Fast was taken much more seriously than we do today. In fact, because we no longer observe anything resembling the traditional fast, Lent has lately acquired a bit of an identity crisis. Hence our strange preoccupation with what to do differently, or special, or extra, or less of (as in "giving something up") for Lent.

Ash Wednesday didn’t even exist yet in Saint Basil’s time.  The custom of everybody flocking to church to get ashes was a relative latecomer to Lent. But, unlike the fast, it has survived – and thrived. It seems almost everyone wants ashes on Ash Wednesday. In my 10 years as a priest in midtown Manhattan, we distributed Ashes, more or less non-stop, from 6:00 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. Perhaps 2000+ people passed through the church that day to get their ashes. I remember once when the parish office got a call asking whether we would start giving ashes at midnight, which made me wonder whether the caller was confusing Ash Wednesday with Christmas. From a marketing point of view, I suppose, offering ashes at midnight might be a great attraction. Who knows how many might respond to the chance to be the first on one's block to get ashes?

For many of those who come to get ashes on Ash Wednesday, it is a deeply, religiously spiritual experience. For many others, who can even guess what multitude of complex meanings and imaginings the reception of ashes may have? On the other hand, who can deny the power of God's grace that must surely be at work in drawing so many to church to get those much desired ashes?

The use of ashes, the Church reminds us, “symbolizes fragility and mortality, and the need to be redeemed by the mercy of God.” Remember, The Church tells us today, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. What is it about having dirt smudged on one’s face and being reminded that we are going to die that is so amazingly attractive?

Every year, I ask that question, and always come up with the same answer: because it is true. In this “information age” when we are all bombarded on all sides with images and words we cannot even begin to process, in this politicized age of “alternative facts” and just plain old-fashioned lies, for once we are being told something that is simply TRUE.

We live in a therapeutic age which prizes comfort and feeling good about oneself.  Yet somehow, Ash Wednesday with its sobering message of the reality of human limits and its solemn challenge to repentance somehow still cuts through the poisonous political platitudes and psychobabble of our age to speak spiritual truth against the powerful lie of our self-affirmation.

Today, the Church invites us to break our routine and do something we usually seem so reluctant to do – to take an honest and critical look at ourselves - at where we are, where we are going, where we would like to be going, and how hope to get there.

Homily for Ash Wednesday, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville TN, February 26, 2020.

Monday, February 24, 2020

The Lent We Have Lost: Fasting

For many, Lent (about to begin this week with Ash Wednesday) remains the high point of the Church year, the season of most intense religious practice and involvement. For some that Lenten experience practically crests on Ash Wednesday, but for many Lent is still experienced as a genuinely sustained religious renewal throughout the season. In this they are assisted by a plethora of Lenten practices the Church has over the centuries mandated, encouraged, or just tolerated. Sadly so many of these have disappeared - quite quickly in recent decades. Before they are forgotten forever, however, their memory may yet be invoked to sustain and renew our contemporary Lenten experience.

The first and most obvious of those lost practices is, of course, the Lenten fast - the very thing that gave Lent its most distinctive character, that extended its observance into the ordinary world beyond the church building, into the very heart of every individual's and every family's daily routine.

There is no island, no continent, no city or nation, no distant corner of the globe, where the proclamation of Lenten Fast is not listened to. Armies on the march and travelers on the road, sailors as well as merchants, all alike hear the announcement and receive it with joy. Let no one then separate himself from the number of those fasting, in which every race of humankind, every period of life, every class of society is included.

So said Saint Basil the Great (330-379) preaching about Lent in the 4th century, at a time when the Lenten Fast was taken much more seriously than we do today. In fact, because we no longer observe the traditional fast, Lent has acquired a bit of an identity crisis. Hence our obsessive preoccupation with what to do differently, or special, or extra, or less of ("giving up") for Lent. 

It is true, of course, that fasting laws and customs have varied according to time and place. Already a century ago, the fasting laws in the Latin Church had been massively mitigated compared with earlier Western practices in and with the even now, still significantly more challenging practices in the Eastern Churches. Yet what happened 50+ years ago was less a mitigation than effectively an abolition. (Maintaining a vestigial, already much mitigated "fast" on two days of the year has only further highlighted the de facto disappearance of fasting, self-denial, and the very notion of Lent as a season of asceticism.)

This "reform" came not as a result of protest and non-compliance from the bottom up but as a mandate from the top down - a gratuitously self-inflicted wound.

Now, while I can well remember the Lenten fast, I myself never actually had to observe it. It didn't bind until age 21, and I was only 17, when Pope Saint Paul VI effectively abolished it. That said, some (perhaps even more mitigated) form of lenten fast would be an asset to each of us individually and to the wider Church as a community.

In the first place, while the external forms may vary, some dimension of self-denial seems inherent in the life of a disciple. That has always been the case and may be especially essential for us today, inextricably immersed as we all are now in this sinfully rich, consumerist, capitalist culture. 

Second, for both each individual and the community from which each individual is inseparable, it is good to do important things together. A commonly and communally observed Lenten fast could be beneficial for our life together as Church, much more so than individuals fasting on their own.

Third, discipleship requires religious practices which extend into the ordinary world beyond the church building, into the very heart of every individual's and every family's daily routine.The traditional Lenten fast did that, and a renewed form of it could do so again.

Of course, there is virtually no chance of anything like that happening again in my lifetime . So it is literally a case of "The Lent We have Lost."

Sunday, February 23, 2020

'I Say to You'

These last Sundays before Lent, the gospel readings have been taken from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” which is all about the “kingdom of God” and what it takes to become a committed citizen of that kingdom.  The passage [Matthew 3:38-48] we just heard today has enjoyed more than the usual amount of attention this year because it was referenced by the keynote speaker at the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this month – and because the President of the United States, departing from the event’s traditional tone, took a notably different approach in his response. Not long ago, dramatically disagreeing Jesus was not considered good politics, but times have obviously changed!

The keynote speaker was responding to what he called “the biggest crisis” we face today, what he called “the crisis of contempt … that is tearing our society apart.” His response was to invoke Jesus’ words which we just heard: I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

He then went on to tell a story about how he was invited to speak to a particular partisan group and tried to offer his hearers an alternative approach about how to relate to those they disagree with. As he put it, “if you want to persuade them – which should be your goal – remember that no one has ever been insulted into agreement. You can only persuade with love.” It was, he noted, “not an applause line.”

It may not have been an applause line for Jesus either!

And, of course, if we are to be totally honest, we all have trouble at times with Jesus’ demands – not just loving our enemies but so many other or Jesus’ “hard sayings, as commentators commonly call them. That is one reason we preachers are sometimes accused of preferring to preach platitudes, rather than those “hard sayings.”

Jesus’ message on that mountaintop in Galilee was meant to challenge (and continues to challenge) not just you and me and anyone else who claims to be Jesus’ disciple, but a whole way of life - that of his 1st-century contemporaries then, and our own way of life today, our entire way of life today. You may have heard something different, Jesus says, but I say to you! At the same time, Jesus also assures us that his message is not an idiosyncratic invention, but based on who God is and how he acts toward us – a God who blesses both good and bad, just and unjust, with his refreshing rain.

Ours is a society increasingly organized around, that is, divided by, mutual contempt. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a challenge to our common human tendency to focus on ourselves and our feelings – particularly strong feelings, like resentment and anger. But, in that new kingdom, to which Jesus is inviting us, anger and hatred, resentment and contempt have no proper place. Jesus challenges us to confront the powerful subtlety of sin within ourselves and our seemingly infinite capacity to focus on ourselves and thus close ourselves off from others, whoever they might be – from our neighbor next door, to refugees and immigrants from far away.

Jesus in today’s Gospel is telling all of us that, if we want to respond effectively to his challenge to full Christian commitment, then we have to look at ourselves – at all our feelings and emotions and experiences – in the light of what God has made us for and how he expects us to get there, and then stretch ourselves by accepting the Lord’s invitation to full membership in the community of his disciples, who care for and support one another to be – not just what we want to be, but what God himself is inviting and enabling us to become.

Lent, which will begin in just a few days, is the Church’s invitation to reexamine where we are, where we are going, where we would like to be going, and how hope to get there.

Homily for the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, February 23, 2020.

Friday, February 21, 2020

That Debate

My former Mayor, Mile Bloomberg, made his much anticipated first appearance on the debate stage Wednesday night, and the result by all accounts was disastrous for him. Perhaps that should not have been such a surprise. He hasn't had to do this since the last time he ran for mayor in 2009. Maybe more to the point, in private life as a rich person he probably has seldom had to deal with anyone directly disagreeing with or challenging him. Voters should be grateful that the rules were changed to make him eligible to debate. Otherwise all most voters would have to go on would be his very attractive ads, which undoubtedly deserve much of the credit for his surprisingly high standing in the polls. 

Like most mayors, Bloomberg's record was mixed. He should have been better prepared to answer the inevitable questions about the negative aspects of that record - e.g., Stop and Frisk. That he was so ill-prepared to do so and to deflect the discussion to the more positive aspects of his record, as well as to his commendable contributions to the campaign against guns and climate change, speaks at minimum to his unpreparedness to compete against other candidates who have been already campaigning seemingly forever. 

The terrible irony of the debate was that, if Bloomberg was supposed to be the party's savior from Sanders, his presence on the debate stage and the fact that most of the others' attacks were directed against him, instead of against Sanders, seems only to have strengthened Sanders' position as the putative front-runner - an outcome desired by no one else, except Sanders' fanatical followers. 

Pete Buttigieg was almost alone in seriously challenging Sanders, not that it did Sanders much harm or Buttigieg much good. He did effectively summarize the party's dilemma with both former-Republican Bloomberg and Independent Sanders, when he suggested that the party ought to nominate a Democrat. Of course, in the good old days when conventions functioned as they were intended to, and candidates were selected there by real party leaders, this would not have been a problem.

So, far from saving the party from Sanders, Bloomberg has just become one more divisive figure among the would-be 'moderates' all competing against each other instead of uniting against Sanders - in effect, replicating the error Republicans made during their nominating process in 2016, when they competed against each other instead of against Trump.

Of course, candidates' records need to be challenged. But our seemingly perpetual obsession with finding faults in candidates' pasts and minor mistakes in the present gets in the way of offering voters the attractive alternative needed to inspire them to vote. There really are more important tests of a candidate than knowing the name of every foreign leader.  

Above all, the greatest failure of the debate was its inward-looking focus. A proverbial space alien watching the debate would hardly have become aware of the threats posed by the incumbent Republican President to everything from election security to the rule of law to accessible health care, all of which the candidates should be talking more about and offering an attractive alternative to.

Monday, February 17, 2020

George Washington

“How in the world did we get from the Federalist Papers to the edited transcripts?” That famous question, by a member of the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, reflected the bizarre sense of political decline that accompanied the tragic presidency of Richard Nixon. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Karl Marx famously wrote that "Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce," Nixon was a truly tragic figure. Since then, however, we have moved on to the farce. Well we might ask today, on the Father of our Country's official birthday, "“How in the world did we get from George Washington to the 45th President of the United States?” 

In observance of Washington's Birthday ("Presidents Day"), the History channel is offering a 3-part miniseries, dramatizing the story of our first president.  I watched the first part last night, which dealt with what we might call Washington's pre-history, his development as a colonial soldier and as a Virginia farmer and businessman, including some early lessons about the flaws of the mighty British Empire's officials. 

George Washington (1732-1799) was obviously a man of enormous talent and corresponding ambition. A man of his time. however, he was constrained by 18th-century mores to camouflage his ambition. Sadly we no longer inhabit such a society, and instead we reward and honor narcissism in our prominent persons, including our political leaders.

Likewise, Washington as Commander-in-Chief and later as President embodied a kind of quasi-kingly restraint in his personal and official behavior - a style that has long-since given way in American political culture to a Caesarist populism, with correspondingly predictable consequences.

The US Senate still observes the Washington's Birthday tradition of having one Senator read Washington's famous "Farewell Address" to the full Senate. If only they/we focused on the content as well as the ritual form of that famous "Address."

Among other things, Washington warned:

In contemplating the causes which may disturb our Union, it occurs as matter of serious concern that any ground should have been furnished for characterizing parties by geographical discriminations, Northern and Southern, Atlantic and Western; whence designing men may endeavor to excite a belief that there is a real difference of local interests and views. One of the expedients of party to acquire influence within particular districts is to misrepresent the opinions and aims of other districts. You cannot shield yourselves too much against the jealousies and heartburnings which spring from these misrepresentations; they tend to render alien to each other those who ought to be bound together by fraternal affection.

Apparently, Washington could foresee the harm done to our national life by the kind of geographical-cultural cleavages (e.g., urban vs. rural, coast vs. "flyover") which now so divide our society.

Washington was not alone in the founding generation in an unfortunate under-appreciation of the almost necessary role of political parties in facilitating democratic governance. (In 1950, the American Political Science  Association famously called political parties "indispensable instruments of government" that "provide the electorate with a proper range of choice between alternatives  of action.')  Even so, Washington's familiar critique of party politics retains a certain relevance, as we contemplate the dangerous extremes contemporary hyper-partisanship can take us to - and the very real, resulting temptation to populist despotism, which we can observe increasingly taking hold right now:  

I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally.
This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy.
The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.
Washington's warning could clearly foresee the danger of such despotically oriented partisanship colluding with foreign influences, another harmful development we see so strikingly at work in the present crisis of our institutions.
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.
It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.
Finally, we should not forget Washington's challenge to the problematic attempt to try to build a successful society on a purely secular foundation:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. ... And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.