Monday, November 29, 2010

Advent Again

Tonight, I will be going over to the local University parish to help with Advent confessions. It will be the first of several such confession evenings in various parishes in the next couple of weeks. Definitely, the serious side of Advent.

This is a supremely festive, celebratory time of the year. But Advent is also intended to be taken seriously as a quasi-penitiential time. Indeed, this season of autumn turning into winter gives this holiday time a distinctive feel, a somewhat solemn and reflective mood, which the Church’s annual cycle tries to capture in its observance of Advent.

Advent originated as an annual period of repentance focused on preparation for Judgment Day. It has even been suggested that the liturgical hymn Dies Irae, that magnificent masterpiece which was for so many centuries sung at funeral Masses, may perhaps have been originally composed for use in Advent - its somber sentiments intended to concentrate our attention of Christ's final coming at the end of time as judge of all the world.

In any case, Advent continues the end-time, Judgment Day themes of the preceding several Sundays, summing them all up in the warning. Like the servants in the Gospels, we have been left with work to do, while we wait for the Lord’s return.

We will do that waiting - in what we might call “liturgical time” - by looking back, to get to the future. I sometimes think of Advent as an ecclesiastical version of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which ends with Santa Claus, thus formally introducing us to Christmas. Thus, the 4th Sunday of Advent will recall Jesus’ conception in his Virgin Mother’s body. The 2nd and 3rd Sundays, however, will recall the adult Christ’s public appearance on the historical stage as announced by John the Baptist, challenging us to recognize Jesus, here and now, in the present time, between Christmas and the end. Finally (but at Advent's beginning), the 1st Sunday puts past and present in perspective, focusing on Christ’s final coming, when (as we say in the Creed) he will come to judge the living and the dead.

Hence the somber tone. What we see and observe are autumn’s withered leaves, winter’s barren branches, and the end of another year. What we feel and fear is the end of ourselves. As the prophet Isaiah laments, we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.

Yet, while Advent starts out being about fear, it is also about faith and hope – both the passing of an old year and our hopes for the new, both the ever enveloping winter darkness of a dying natural world and the dawning brightness of Christ’s coming to save us. As Saint Paul assures us, God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

In the true spirit of winter – winter as it used to be experienced when people actually lived according to the rhythm of the seasons – Advent challenges us to slow down and take stock, to pay attention. Of course, everything about the way we live nowadays militates against slowing down – let alone taking stock of ourselves and paying attention to anything. If anything, in our work-obsessed society we all brag about being so busy.

The older I get, the more I think I begin to appreciate how much sense Advent makes. The older one gets, the more aware one becomes that time is running out, and thus the more one appreciates the importance of the present.

Time – this time, our time – is so precious, precisely because it is limited, but also because it has a future. Advent annually ritualizes for us our ongoing present reality, where we actually are right now, living and waiting between Christ’s 1st coming at Christmas and his final coming for which we say – as we pray every day at Mass – we wait in joyful hope.

Advent is not, therefore, some irrelevant interlude on the way to Christmas. Much less is it some artificial exercise in make-believe, created by ecclesiastical kill-joys to compete (as if one could complete) with the joyful Christmas season being celebrated all around us. In any case, the liturgy isn’t a play. We’re not reenacting God’s entry into our world a long time ago, or pretending Jesus hasn’t already been born, so that we will be somehow surprised on Christmas morning - as if Jesus were Santa Claus.

The point of Advent is to let the anniversary of Christ’s 1st coming concentrate our attention on his coming again, while we, meanwhile, recognize his action on our behalf in the present. The challenge of Advent is to let our anxious and fear–filled present be transformed into that hopeful future promised by Christ’s coming in the past.

Advent is a wake-up call to respond to Christ’s coming and so live as people for whom the Christmas story really matters enough, to make everything different from what would otherwise be in a world without the presence of its Savior, Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, "God with us."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Between Christmas and the End

Lo! He comes with clouds descending.
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
God appears on earth to reign.

So begins Charles Wesley’s well known and popular Advent hymn. As Wesley’s words make clear, this season we call “Advent” is about the Lord’s coming. Wesley’s 2nd verse (based on Revelation 1:7) highlights people’s reactions to his coming:

Every eye shall now behold Him
Robes in dreadful majesty;
Those who set at naught and sold Him,
Pierced and nailed Him to a tree,
Deeply wailing, deeply wailing, deeply wailing,
Shall the true Messiah see.

Every Advent, we remember Christ’s 1st coming, which we commemorate at Christmas. That 1st coming challenges us to recognize and respond to Christ’s presence and action among us here and now, which in turn prepares us for Christ’s promised return. Christ has come; Christ is coming; Christ will come. Christ yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Ostensibly the most future-oriented of seasons, Advent us actually a sort of symbol for the entire Christian life, lived (as it inevitably must be) in the present – between the 1st coming of Christ and his hoped-for final advent. As Christians, we live our lives literally in this interval between Christmas and the end. And that is what Advent is all about.

Jesus’ warning words to his disciples in the Gospel (Matthew 24:37-44) and Paul’s parallel challenge to the Christians in Rome (Romans 13:11-14) reflect this fundamental fact. Their point was not when Jesus will come but being prepared for his coming – not as something to be put off to some far away future, but as our proper preoccupation, here and now, in the present. The future will indeed come – at its own time and on its own terms – but our task is the present, which is what in fact will determine who we will be in the future.

Now this liturgical Advent, as we actually experience it in the present, relies heavily in the seasonal experience of darkness what so defines this time of year in our northern hemisphere. Advent wreaths and candlelight all attempt to tap into that natural imagery, at the risk almost of making Advent some sort of folkloric, seasonal pageant. The Christian life, however, is not a play. The world was really in darkness before the coming of Christ. At his final coming, darkness will be destroyed. Meanwhile, in the interim in which we live – between Christmas and the end – darkness and light coexist in constant conflict.

We are all familiar with Jesus’ famous image of his disciples as the light of the world, a city set on a mountain. Modern electricity has made darkness a mere inconvenience for us. Today, one can illuminate an entire city with a single switch. (It takes a lot more than that, of course, but that’s the part we see and so is how we think about it). To light a fire, however, and then to illuminate a city by spreading that fire’s light from street to street and house to house, that takes work. That work is the mission of the Church in every generation – to let the light of Christ shine forth from and through his Church and so truly to illuminate our world.

Unlike natural darkness, however, the world’s alienation from God is not some abstract natural force. Aren’t we – the men and women of the world, the ones whose actions have contributed (and continue to contribute) so much to the world’s darkness? For this reason, Advent has traditionally been a penitential season. Pope Innocent III even prescribed black as the liturgical color for Advent – although purple successfully beat black to become the season’s official color. Conveniently, purple simultaneously suggests both royalty (Christ the king coming in glory) and repentance.

But what is the penance appropriate to Advent? St. Paul tells us to throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. So, I need to be asking myself, exactly what is it that keeps me in darkness? Why isn’t the light of Christ shining forth from me –and through me – to light up the entire world around me? Paul’s words challenge us to pay attention to what is happening right now. Living as we all do in a culture of institutionalized irresponsibility, Advent’s message is a radical wake-up call to face up to our responsibility to mean what we say – really to throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.

Most of us aren’t very good at waiting. We want to know as much as possible in advance, so we can rush into the future. The good news of the Gospel, however, is that is precisely the present that matters. Jesus’ warning about the days of Noah reminds us how common, how universal, our present experience really is. We are still eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage – just as it was up to the day that Noah entered the ark. The fact that the present time is limited just makes it all the more precious, makes it matter that much more. So, stay awake, Jesus warns, be prepared – now – because what I do now, the way I live now, the kind of person I am becoming here and now, that is the kind of person I will be when the Lord comes, and so the person I am going to remain for all eternity.

Whatever surprises any of us may be hoping to fund under the Christmas Tree this year, the coming of Christ is not one of them. Christ has already come. If he hadn’t, the world would not be celebrating Christmas and none of us would be here at Mass today! The issue is whether his presence in our world today matters enough to make a difference in the way we live and what we care about – whether and how we are making the most of our limited but precious time to become now what we hope to be when he comes again.

Homily at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN., November 28, 2010

Saturday, November 27, 2010


A common, pre-Christmas custom is the "Advent Calendar," a 19th century German cusotm especially popular with children. Advent calendars count the days to Christmas. As each dat eis uncovered, a picture or "treat" is revealed. Somewhere I still have an old Advent Calendar given to me more than half a century ago.

As a liturgical season, the Church’s Advent, which begins tonight, is part of the Church’s larger, annual cycle (the “Liturgical Year”), within which we commemorate the mysteries of Christ’s life from his incarnation to his ascension, celebrate his continued presence in the Church through his gift of the Holy Spirit, and express our joyful hope for his coming again. The commemoration of Christ’s incarnation, birth, and revelation to the world is the focus of the Christmas-Epiphany season now beginning. These four preliminary weeks of Advent are intended as a time when the remembrance of the world’s waiting for Christ’s 1st coming at Christmas focuses our attention on his 2nd and final coming “to judge the living and the dead,” while meanwhile directing our awareness of his presence in the present. The “great lesson of Advent,” Evelyn Underhill once wrote, “is the many-side truth of God’s perpetual coming to His creatures in secret and humble ways; the nearness of his saving care and energizing grace.”

Here in the northern hemisphere, Advent corresponds to the period of the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year, when the days are the shortest and the nights the longest. The now widely popular custom of the Advent Wreath may have originated in the old northern European winter practice of decorating a wagon wheel (not in use during the winter pause) with evergreen branches and lighted candles. In its present form, the four candles represent the four weeks of Advent. As the solstice approaches, an additional candle is lit each week, counteracting the increasing earthly darkness with the growing brightness that symbolizes the coming of Christ, the light of the world.

In recent decades, Advent has been increasingly eclipsed by secular society’s celebration of Christmas. Just as the Church spreads out its celebration of Christmas across Advent and Epiphany-time, so too our society spreads out the Christmas season starting in early November (or even October). Some seem to want to lament this, as if Advent and Christmas were in some kind of competition (a competition in which Advent can obviously only be the loser).

The plain fact, however, is we are participants in both of these cycles. If we completely neglect the Church’s calendar, the Church’s way of celebrating the Incarnation, then we risk missing the whole point of Christmas, failing (as the old saying goes) to see the forest for the trees. But, if we ignore – or, rather, pretend to ignore – the Christmas season as it is actually being experienced by most people in our world, then we also miss the point, because we ignore the world Christ has come into, which is, after all, the point of the Incarnation. God did not become human just for himself, but for us – propter nos hominess et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis (“for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven”).

Rather than helplessly lamenting (and scolding) the world we live in, I believe we can best appreciate Advent as an opportunity to enrich our contemporary celebration of Christmas, without negating the joy and festivity (and gift-giving) that make this such a special time of year. After all, at no other season does the busy, secular world seem so open to the Good News that is the Church’s story. Thus, Advent can be an opportunity for enriching all the joy and festivity around us with that sense of explicit longing for God’s kingdom which Advent highlights so well, and which is supposed to be what Christian life is about all the time in this interval between the first Christmas and the end.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Airport Travel and its Discontents

All this week, while I was in California for Thanksgiving (complete with freezing temperatures to accompany a week long festa of pasta, prosciutto, and provolone and other good things), I have repeatedly been asked by people about my experience of security at the airport. At Knoxville’s small, user-friendly airport, there was (not surprisingly) nothing out of the ordinary. Returning home Friday from San Francisco International Airport, on the other hand, I would not have been surprised to have had to go through the newest body scanning machines, etc. In fact, the only thing outstanding about my experience leaving from SFO was the enormous crowd – more than one might have expected on the day between the holiday and the weekend.

Judging from the news coverage (or, rather, hype), this latest development in airport security screening is, to put it mildly, controversial. On this, as on almost all other subjects of controversy, there is certainly plenty of room for legitimate differences of opinion and appropriate debate. Are these particular procedures really the best ones available to meet our security needs? Is this particular equipment really as safe as is being claimed? Have the screeners really been adequately trained to deal with people in an appropriately respectful manner? Etc. On all these matters, there is obviously room for debate. And, indeed, in a free society there should be debate. But, of course, what we have been hearing on this subject recently is hardly debate at all, but more of the same polemics that have poisoned our political culture and are tearing apart our social fabric.

To me, what we are hearing these days about this latest development in airport security screening seems to be just more of the same sad approach to our public life that has become the norm especially in the past decade or so – and shows no sign of diminishing. Americans want to be safe and secure in the air. Indeed, some seem to hold society somehow responsible if they are not – at least in the sense that they feel entitled to compensation from the state if they are victims of terrorism. At the same time, however, they don’t want to have to endure the slightest inconvenience, let alone anything resembling so old-fashioned a concept as “shared sacrifice.”

We see this, of course, not just in regard to the momentary controversy du jour of airport security. Rather, we run into it across the board in almost all aspects of our national life. Recall the immediately dismissive response from the ideological Left to some initial proposals floated by President Obama’s bipartisan deficit-reduction commission. Does anyone really doubt that entitlements will have to be curbed eventually if we are to get the deficit under control? The Right speaks eloquently about the crime of generational theft that the deficit really represents, but who on the Right is any more ready to bite the bullet on Medicare? And forget about tax increases! Again, what intelligent person really cannot understand that revenue must be increased to control the deficit? As a society, we are increasingly like those Californians, who (as one commentator has pithily put it) want to subsidize themselves like socialists, while taxing themselves like libertarians.

Is there no end to this nonsensical substitute for intelligent political discourse?

The solution certainly is not rallying for sanity or any other such self-righteous conversation among yet another niche group listening to itself in its own self-constructed cable-TV echo chamber. If anything, the solution likely lies with those who do not watch cable-TV news (or listen to talk-radio). People who do not watch cable-TV news, who do not nourish their prejudices on the ideological posturing promoted by MSNBC or FOX, are in fact the majority of Americans. Theoretically, in a well functioning democratic republic, it ought to be possible for the majority of Americans to influence our national “debate” and take it in a different direction.

There are, admittedly, structural dimensions to the way American politics is set up that may hinder such an outcome. The bigger problem, however, is that perennial problem of intensity. Some people perhaps disdain cable-TV news and talk-radio because they find its polemics unattractive. Most people, however, do not listen to cable-TV news or talk-radio primarily because they are less interested in politics than those who do. They are also less likely to be registered members of political parties and vote in party primaries. Indeed, they are less likely even to vote at all. Meanwhile, those who care the most intensely about politics are, not surprisingly, the most ideological and the most partisan. In the narrow world of political activism, they are the ones who matter most and set the tone.

Since most people are not avid consumers of political news, the need for effective filters to help people make sense of public policy issues is evident. Historically in the US, this essential filtering function was performed at election time by political parties – and performed fairly well. The gradual transformation of our political parties from broadly based, social coalitions into narrowly based, ideological interest groups has correspondingly altered the content of that filtering process. Meanwhile and more significantly, the diminished role of political parties in the nominating process, the greater openness of the process to more narrowly ideological candidates empowered by access to the media (and the money which enables independent candidates to get access to the media) has created alternative filters, more powerful in many cases than political parties. The result is that even those who are not enough interested in politics to pay a lot of attention to cable-TV news and talk radio are likely to be directly or indirectly influenced by those sources when they are processing information to form opinions and/or to vote in elections.

Meanwhile, we wait in vain for someone (our President, perhaps) to explain to us that Americans might actually have to accept some level of disruption and inconvenience if we want to fly safely.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Eating Together

The Thanksgiving holiday is not exactly about eating, but it is incomprehensible without eating – and not just any eating, but eating together. According to the Pew Research Center’s most recent study (The Decline of Marriage and Rise of New Families, p. 53), the typical host this Thanksgiving “will be setting places for 12 family members.” (My California family’s Thanksgiving dinner will be just half that. On the other hand, my New York relatives’ holiday dinner together will be at least double the average.) For most of human history, most meals (and not just “holiday” meals) were, when possible, eaten with others. And for most people, throughout most of human history, the ordinary shared meal was most often a family meal. At Thanksgiving, people (myself included) travel thousands of miles not to eat turkey, but to eat turkey with others – typically family members or others with whom one is comparably close.

The contemporary popularity of restaurants and of eating out (to the extent that it is a real meal and not just food eaten quickly, impersonally, and alone) may well reflect not just the obvious convenience of not having to cook for oneself but also may reflect a recognition of a real desire to commune with others over food. Those who resist the fashionable temptation to eat at their desks and actually take time for a real lunch hour with colleagues or friends may be expressing as much about their need and desire for human community as they are about how they prefer best to meet their nutritional needs.

Of course, there are all sorts of factors which get in the way of the classic common meal. Economic necessity forces many people to work too many hours. Many more work too many hours because that may lead to their feeling more validated in certain – particularly professional - circles. Families find themselves prisoners of individual members’ conflicting schedules. All these extrinsic factors impinge upon community (even religious communities), breaking bonds which might otherwise be stronger. Sometimes, competing schedules are less a consequence of economic necessity than they are a product of our greater individual freedom. Given the pervasive power and appeal of individual liberty today, I suspect that the only kind of human community that can seriously survive the assaults of our fixation on individual freedom is one which accepts and respects individual freedom and can negotiate new communal relationships and rituals. Herein lies perhaps the great practical challenge for the future of the common meal – that of transforming its present predicament of being in competition with our individual freedom (symbolized by our separate schedules) into a positive reinforcement of human freedom by furthering its fulfillment in relationships. If the common meal as an obligation is a thing of the past, shared meals as opportunities for genuine mutuality may be increasingly necessary.

In the life of Jesus, shared meals played a visibly important part in his ministry. Jesus’ practice of eating with all sorts of people, particularly with those he might otherwise not be expected to eat with, was widely recognized as a genuine sign of something new. A new kind of connectedness was created among people who, in that society certainly, would probably never have otherwise socialized together. Not just at Thanksgiving, but always, those committed to continue Christ’s work of healing and reconciliation would do well to keep in mind the memory of those early Christians who shared meals together “with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46 NRSV).

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christ the King

83 years ago this week – this coming Tuesday, actually – a 36-year old Mexican Jesuit priest, Miguel Augustín Pro, was executed on the orders of Mexico’s President. Educated abroad because of the Mexican revolutionary government’s persecution of the Church, Pro had returned to Mexico, after his ordination in 1926, to serve in the underground Church, baptizing, hearing confessions, celebrating Mass – until his arrest and execution. On November 23, 1927, as the firing squad pointed their rifles at him, Padre Pro famously extended his arms in the form of a cross and proclaimed: “¡Viva el Cristo Rey!” (“Long live Christ the King”).

With those powerful words and his even more powerful martyrdom, Padre Pro reminded the world that there is a king greater than any earthly government or secular society. Just 2 years earlier, Pope Pius XI had made much the same point in an encyclical letter on the kingship of Christ, which established this feast of Christ the King, which we are celebrating today.

Now, obviously, the image of Christ as king was not some novelty of the 1920s. On the contrary, it is actually quite ancient – reflected, for example, in early Christ depictions of Christ on the cross, dressed in priestly vestments and wearing a kingly crown, as if the cross were his throne, which, in fact is precisely what today’s Gospel reading seems to suggest.

Most modern monarchs – for example, the 10 currently reigning European monarchs we are most familiar with – have ascended their thrones rather peacefully, usually as a matter of inheritance according to established constitutional rules, ritualized by suitable ceremonies. Once enthroned, a king acts as a kind of social glue that binds a people together and helps create a powerful bond of political unity and community.

That’s not always been the case, of course. For King David, the tribal warrior who successfully united Israel around its permanent new capital, Jerusalem, some 3000 years ago, the process, reflected in today’s 1st reading (2 Samuel 5:1-3), was less predictable – except in retrospect. To us in retrospect, King David personified Israel’s new national identity. His royal rule was a sort of earthly manifestation of God’s presence and power, binding separate tribes into one unified national and religious community.

This Sunday celebrates Jesus, David’s descendant, as the ultimate messiah-king, complete with all the symbolic and religious resonance the word “king” conveys – a king, however, who has obtained sovereignty, not through shedding his rivals’ blood but his own, making peace, as we have just heard St. Paul say (Colossians 1:12-20) by the blood of his cross.

In today’s Gospel (Luke 23:35-43), the title “king” is initially applied to Jesus as an insult. Throughout his entire public life, Jesus had been challenged about the nature and significance of his power. Nobody doubted that he did powerful deeds – driving out demons, healing the sick. The question at issue was always the source of his power and its significance, whether it was a good power or a bad power, a saving power or a threatening power.

On the cross, of course, Jesus appeared powerless. Yet with serene confidence in his power, Jesus unlocked the kingdom for one of those executed with him, thus revealing himself as a king of a kingdom of mercy. Mercy, of course, has traditionally been one of the virtues considered particularly proper for a king. It is, as Shakespeare famously said, enthroned in the hearts of kings. Jesus has gone even further and has revealed that mercy is, in fact, what his kingdom is all about.

The “good thief” (as he is traditionally termed) here represents all of us, whose only hope lies in God’s mercy – all, who recognizing our need and dependence, accept Christ as king. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” St. Paul speaks powerfully of how we have been delivered – just as the “good thief” was – from the power of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light.

The strong Father-Son language St. Paul employs is not so much family language here as it is royal language, the image being that of the heir who inherits the crown. What is so striking about this kingdom, however, is how the succession is not confined to just one heir. In Jesus, God has overcome the great gulf that separates us from God, has identified himself with us sinners, enabling us sinners to identify ourselves with Jesus and so inherit the kingdom with him.

Like an earthly monarch, Christ the king binds his people together and creates a powerful bond of unity and community. What makes this community so uniquely powerful, however, is that the whole point of this kingship is that it be shared – and shared widely. Christ is most completely a king in conferring a share in his crown on all who seek salvation in the power of his cross and acknowledge his kingship for all the world to witness – and experience.
Homily at St. Anne's Church, Walnut Creek, CA, November 21, 2010.

Friday, November 19, 2010


Tomorrow, I fly to the West Coast to spend Thanksgiving week with my mother and celebrate Thanksgiving Day with her and my sister and her family. As Perry Como used to sing every year in anticipation of Thanksgiving, “there’s no place like home for the holidays.”

Thanksgiving harvest festivals are, in various forms, quite common across the world, but the American Thanksgiving is quite uniquely an American holiday, our foundational feast, our ritual reenactment of our origin as a people. In my six years stationed in Canada, I missed any number of things about the United States, and Thanksgiving Day was certainly high on that list. Thanksgiving is a civic celebration of who we are, by remembering who we have been, and so is also a symbol of who we hope to be.

Few of us, of course, are descended for the original Massachusetts Pilgrims. Most of us are more recent immigrants (or immigrants ourselves). I, for one, owe my American citizenship to that great wave of immigration from Sicily and southern Italy that inundated the Port of New York some three centuries after the Pilgrims had made their mark. Each immigrant group has added something significant and distinctive to our country’s cultural mix. Yet it was surely those hardy New Englanders who, early on, first gave our nation its soul, which is what we celebrate at Thanksgiving - in that most Christianly soulful of ways, by giving thanks through the sharing of a meal.

Most of us live lives of quiet caution. It is hard for us even to imagine what it must have been like to have embarked upon so hazardous an enterprise as did the Pilgrims (although the memories of immigrant relatives and the ever-present witness of immigrants in our country should help us to appreciate the awesomeness of the experience). Certainly, something so vast and mysterious (as the New World must have seemed) was bound to arouse all sorts of complex emotions among the settlers – both their brightest hopes and their darkest fears. Interpreted in the light of faith, the unknown of the ocean crossing became for the Pilgrims something known, as they recalled God’s Chosen People’s crossing of the Red Sea and the Jordan River. Good Calvinists that they were, those early immigrants to New England recognized the religious and political community as a creative force, part of what went into the development of a good human life.

Prosperity has a way of dulling our senses, making us feel more secure and contented than befits a truly pilgrim people. In the great ongoing struggle between virtue and narcissism for the soul of America, the pilgrims’ legacy recalls an almost forgotten concept of community – not as an abstract principle but as an experience akin to friendship. Our New England forefathers knew only too well what we as a nation forget only at our peril - that what is worth hoping for in our individual and collective lives as citizens requires real community and a kind of feeling for one another akin to that found among people who are friends. Whenever great things are at stake, they remind us – as Thanksgiving Day itself was originally intended to remind us – that we are all ultimately dependent upon one another and upon God.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

An Election in Alaska

After yet another siege of vote-counting, Alaska's incumbent (Republican) Senator Lisa Murkowski has been pronounced the winner in that state's senatorial election - defeating the official Republican party candidate and "Tea Party" favorite, Joe Miller. Murkowski thus becomes the first senate candidate in more than half a century to win a write-in campaign.
In a political culture which historically has favored a two-party monopoly - the last time a "third-party" candidate captured the White House, it provoked a Civil War - Murkowski's win will certainly stand out. Of course, as an incumbent, already previously elected to the Senate and an heiress of an Alaskan political dynasty (initially appointed to the Senate by her father when he became governor), she hardly counts as an "outsider," however apt (and convenient) such a label may have appeared after her having been dumped by the Republican party's primary.
Indeed, whatever significance her victory may have may lie precisely in her insiderness. Of course, as in any election, particular circumstances and strictly local considerations undoubtedly played their part, thereby mitigating the election's larger or national significance. One such local consideration may have been the bad history between Murkowski and Alaska's potential 2012 "Favorite Daughter," Sarah Palin, who threw her considerable standing behind Joe Miller. Of course, any setback for Palin presumably has larger and national implications - not just for her own possible presidential ambitions, but for her long-term star-power and how that translates into real power, ideologiclaly and politically.
In any case, I think it is possible to see in the Alaskan results yet another example of the long-standing practice of the American electorate of first rewarding but then restraining extremist elements. Think back a few years to Connecticut Senator Joseph Liberman's political near-death experience - first his defeat in a left-wing primary coup and then his General Election victory as an "Independent."
In modern American politics, party primaries have become a principal vehicle for rewarding extremist elements - both left and right. That's what made Murkowski's primary opponent's candidacy possible in the first place. Murkowski's write-in win was a reminder of the sober side of American political culture which regularly pulls toward the middle - or at least back from the brink.
When political parties surrendered their control over nominations to primary election voters, they surrendered an important part of what had been one of their main historic funcitons in American politics - producing capable candidates and creating coalitions capable of actual governance and not just permanent political campaigns.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Living untl the End

“Not a hair on your head will be destroyed” [Luke 21:19]. I’m not so sure whether I am supposed to be encouraged or discouraged by this particular prediction of Jesus!

Of course, Jesus’ message in today’s gospel is not about hair at all, but about time. As anyone who’s ever tried to juggle a busy schedule knows, time is the great controller of our lives – if anything even more so now, with the advent of that great contemporary curse, multi-tasking.

In the 18th century, the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously threw away his watch and claimed it was the most liberating moment of his life. Well, most of us don’t have that luxury. We live in a world determined by time. Deadlines dominate our lives. Clocks control our activities, which is why we have that great 19th-century invention the Time Zone. Years ago, when I was serving at our Paulist parish in Toronto, Canada, I became very conscious of being in a country with 4½ time zones from listening to the radio announcer say: “It’s 6:00 in Vancouver, 9:00 in Toronto, 10:00 in the Maritimes – and 10:30 in Newfoundland.” Out there in the mid-Atlantic, half-way to Ireland, Newfoundland’s time-zone even inspired a cartoon, which showed a man with a sign which said, in big letters, “CHRIST WILL COME AT MIDNIGHT,” and below, in small letters, “12:30 in Newfoundland.”

Well, sooner or later, Christ will come, that awesome dies irae, “day of wrath,”when, as we say in the Creed, Christ "will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead." Exactly when he will come, however, is not so certain, despite what the person in that cartoon may have thought and despite what many Christians throughout history may have thought – going all the way back to those 1st-century Thessalonian Christians whom St. Paul wrote to [2 Thessaonians 3:7-12].

Many of them, apparently, had gotten so enthusiastic about the prospect of Christ’s coming again that they were eagerly expecting his arrival any day – or even may have thought that he had already returned and that the kingdom had already come. So, they figured, normal, routine stuff – like working for a living – didn’t matter any more. It was Paul’s task to tell them they had gotten it wrong and should go back to work. Paul’s practical advice was to stay focused in the present, which is, of course, where we actually are at any given time. Even more, the present is, in fact, what connects Christ’s 1st coming (soon to be commemorated again at Christmas) and his final return (for which we claim, at least, to be waiting – as we say every day at Mass – in joyful hope).

For the same reason, Jesus in today’s Gospel wanted his disciples to understand that Jerusalem’s impending destruction in the Roman-Jewish War would not signal the end of the world. In retrospect, of course, that all seems eminently obvious to us, but it was evidently much less obvious in the 1st century. That was, after all the age of the pax romana, when (as we say in the “Christmas Proclamation” from the Roman Martyrology) “all the world was at peace.” Thanks to the Romans' military conquest of the entire Mediterranean world, that part of the world was in fact enjoying one of history’s rare periods of peace. Israel, under Roman rule, was also relatively peaceful in Jesus’ time. But that would change a few decades later in the catastrophic blunder of the Jewish Revolt that would lead to the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. It was only natural to see such a calamity as some sort of portent of even greater woes to come.

Jesus’ words were addressed to all centuries: “When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for such things must happen first, but it will not immediately be the end.” As with the pax romana, calm, peaceful, untroubled times have generally been the exception in human history. Hardly any era has lacked its share of wars and insurrections. Certainly the past 96 years have been among the bloodiest in all of human history! Yet, however strong our desire to control time by ascribing special significance to our problems and our calamities, Jesus warns us not to mistake them for the end. Such things happen in human history – for ordinary human reasons – and are not necessarily signs of anything else.

In effect, Jesus is telling us that it’s basically not our business to know when the kingdom will come or to worry whether this or that is some sign of its coming. What is our business is to work while we wait – not just the ordinary working for a living to which St. Paul referred, but the work of Christ himself, the work of the kingdom we hope will come and in which we are already citizens – with all of citizenship’s benefits and obligations.

We do the kingdom’s work when we live as disciples of Jesus, even when that leads us into difficulties and opposition, even when it means following Christ’s own path of suffering and rejection. Of course, one can quite easily live a life of carefree cultural conformity, attracting no attention and having no impact. But those who live in no way at odds with the world are constantly being challenged by the Gospel to examine that attitude and rediscover what this faith and hope of ours are all about.

Of course, it is easy to become disillusioned. For sure, there is a lot to be disillusioned about. That’s why it is so important to have a clear vision of our destiny – of God’s kingdom. Far from being signs of the end, our troubles, be they great or small, are calling us to perseverance. Our challenge is precisely to go on believing and hoping and loving even when God seems hidden or absent, when so much seems to get in the way of our experiencing God’s presence in the present.

Ultimately, what this is all about is the fact that, in Jesus, God has given us his Son, the sun of justice [Malachi 3:20], sent to save us - and that, thanks to Jesus, God is near, not far; he is here, not just there. Hence, the cares and concerns that characterize our daily lives, and the crises and calamities that characterize our economic and social and political life, far from being obstacles to our experience of God or just distractions on our merry way to the kingdom, are really where God is actually acting and where he can be found (as this season’s Christmas story will again remind us). Meanwhile, like St. Paul, we need to keep focused on the present, getting ready for the final coming of the kingdom by letting it put down roots in us – in who we are becoming by how we live, what we do, and how we do it.

Homily at Imaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 14, 2010.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Immigrants Then and Now

Growing up in the Bronx in the 1950s, I was never unaware of my Italian immigrant background - not because I lived in one of the various versions of "Little Italy" then extant in New York, but because my grandmother, who lived with us, spoke only Italian (specifically Sicilian). Above and beyond that day-to-day immigrant reality, she was a living treasury of stories both about life in the "old country" and the immigrant experience. And at least once a year, she would nudge us to make the short pilgrimage across the Harlem River to Washington Heights to visit the mortal remains of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917) - "Mother Cabrini" as we always referred to her - one display for public veneration under the altar of the chapel of a high school named after her.

A great missionary, Mother Cabrini founded the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart. At the direction of Pope Leo XIII, she came to America and undertook the critical and timely task of serving the spiritual and temporal needs of Italian immigrants - at the very period when Italian immigration to the US was at its height. Over a period of 28 years, she founded some 67 schools, hospitals, and orphanages in the US and in Latin America. A decade or so before her death in Chicago on December 22, 1917, she became an American citizen. Thus, when she was canonized in 1946 she became the first American citizen saint. Proclaimed patroness of Italian immigrants, her patronage is now more generally claimed by all immigrants to the United States.

The story of 19th & 20th century Italian immigration to the land of opportunity is one of America's great success stories. In short order, a poor and pretty desperate population entered the mainstream of American society and prospered, preserving in the process their strong sense of family that had served them so well. Over time, American society as a whole has recognized and appreciated both Italian-Americans' attachment to family and the quality of their food. While unfortunately under-represented historically in the American Catholic hierarchy, as a group Italian-American Catholics have also been a major payer in the story of the flourishing of American Catholicism.

We have never ceased to be a land of immigrants, and many of the same challenges that faced earlier immigrants in assimilating to American life - and faced American society in assimilating to its immigrants - persist today. Now as in the past, so many immigrants come from traditionally Catholic countries. Today's immigrants from Latin America (and elsewhere) augment (an otherwise shrinking) American Catholic population and enrich the American Church with the rich treasures of their spirituality and culture. And, as in Mother Cabrini's day, they come with spiritual and material needs, responding to which, is an ongoing challenge to the Church's perennial mission and identity.

For several decades, the Catholic percentage of the population has remained fairly constant - thans almost entirely to immigration. Catholics continue to constitute about one-quarter of the US population, representing the largest religious "denomination" in the country. We have, however, been losing members the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of earlier immigrants) at an alarming rate - so much so that "lapsed" Catholics are sometimes called the second largest "denomination" in America. That these losses are being compensated for by new immigrants is a great grace. Among other things, however, it means that the contemporary challenge facing the Church in the US is less one of assimilating immigrants to a static model of American Catholicism and more a matter of responding well to the inevitable transformation of American Catholic life into a largely Latino reality.

Meanwhile, the loss of so many of the heirs of the earlier evangelizing efforts of Mother Cabrini and other heroic missionaries constitutes a crisis calling for yet another "new evangelization" of our society.

"If our words have lost their power, it is because there is no power in us to put into them. The Catholic faith alone is capable of giving to people a true permanent and burning enthusiasm frought with the greatest of deeds. But to enkindle this in others we must be possessed of it first ourselves" (Isaac Hecker in a letter to Orestes Brownson, September 5, 1851).

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Holiday Cups

I went to Starbuck's this morning and noticed they were using ther red "holiday" cups. It reminded me of a similar November day in 2004 (probably even earlier in the month) when I went to a Starbuck's in New York City. Upon being served my drink, I commented - just a comment, no value judgment intended - "I see you're using your holiday cups." Apparently my comment induced in the barista something similar to what in the Roman moral traditon is sometimes warningly referred to as admiratio. Literally, admiratio is a 3rd-declension Latin noun normally translated as wonder, amazement, surprise, etc., and is accordingly used to refer to behavior which, while not precisely scandalous, may be perplexing to people, inducing wonder and amazement (but not in an admirable sense). Apparently, that's what my comment must have done for that barista, who, appropriately amazed at my apparent ignorance of the calendar, proceded to point that it was, after all, already "after Halloween."
Now, I repeat that I really meant no criticism aty all - then or now. It was just an observation on the passing of the year. As anyone who knows me should know by now, I really like Christmas, and I welcome the arrival of the Christmas season. From his response, I take it the barista interpreted my comment as suggesting that perhaps it was still a bit too early for Christmas paraphernalia. And, while again it wasn't my intention to criticize, some such sentiment certainly was reflected in my otherwise offhand comment.
Obviously, in many places, the "holiday season" has already been in full swing since at least Halloween. But there was a time - in my living memory - when the "holiday season" really did begin with Thanksgiving Day, which all things considered probably did represent a better balance. One paradoxial consequence, I think, has helped highlight Thanksgiving even more. as Thanksgiving has accordingly become a brief but welcome pause in the increasingly hectic pace of the season.
Regretably, I do know a handful of people who don't like Christmas very much - sad, depressed folks, whose reaction to the almost universal joy around them is to try to exclude themselves from sharing in it. But, to be honest, I really can't think of anyone I know who doesn't like and look forward to Thanksgiving Day. Perhaps it helps that Thanksgiving really is just a day - not a prolonged season of multiple social obligations. (In an increasingly secular society, it may also help that, although obviously religious in its origin and in its literal meaning, Thanksgiving Day is now such a universally American holiday that it unites more than it divides us along religious lines).
In any case, Thanksgiving is apparently the most travelled holiday in the American popular calendar. Almost universally, people seem eager to go "home" for the holiday - whether "over the river and through the wood to grandfather's house" or some more contemporary equivalent. In my line of work, in which going "home" for Christmas is, of course, completely out of the question, going "home" for Thanksgiving is an especially attractive alternative. The first year of my assignment to Toronto, I took a morning flight to New York on Thanksgiving Day. I remember being greeted by US Immigration and Customs with "Coming home for Turkey Day? Welcome home!" So, although it's still only Veterans' Day today, I salute the first signs of the arrival of the holiday season, starting with looking forward to my own forthcoming "over the river and throuigh the wood" family reunion on Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 8, 2010

What Is a Church?

Some 25 years ago, when I was a seminarian in Washington, DC, my best friend in seminary one day jokingly kidded me about my rapidly diminishing hair, to which I responded by chasing him down the hall and up the stairs, finally cornering him when he took refuge in the chapel, where he grabbed hold of the altar and confidently declared, “You can’t hit me here. This is a church!” (P.S., I didn’t hit him, and we remain good friends to this day).

Churches are indeed special places. Just this past Sunday, the Pope went to Barcelona, where, in the presence of the King and Queen of Spain, he consecrated Antonio Gaudi’s monumental church (now a basilica) Sagrada Familia. The Pope called Gaudi (1852-1926) “a creative architect and a practising Christian who kept the torch of his faith alight to the end of his life, a life lived in dignity and absolute austerity.” The Pope went on to quote the architect as saying: "A church [is] the only thing worthy of representing the soul of a people, for religion is the most elevated reality in man".

I have never been to Barcelona and so have never seen Sagrada Familia, but I have certainly been to many other famous (and not so famous) churches - rugged Romanesque churches, their interior vaults shielded by exterior towers, great gothic cathedrals, their long naves forming frames for wide windows of stained glass through which light is totally transformed and whose pointed arches just lift one to another world where gravity seems gone, beautiful baroque churches, whose florid magnificence invites one to identify with the mystery so powerfully portrayed in their architecture, and also, sadly, sterile modern churches, whose ugliness speaks volumes about the spiritual impoverishment of our age. (And, of course, I have served as parish priest in two amazingly beautiful historic churches – St. Paul the Apostle in New York, the “Mother-Church” of the Paulist Fathers, and Immaculate Conception in Knoxville, the Victorian Gothic “Mother Church” of East Tennessee).

From time immemorial, people have had special places – hilltops, sacred springs, stone temples – to which to go to worship. The true God, of course, is personal, not local, not confined or tied down to any one special place. Still, as human beings we can only operate in space and time, which is why God himself became human – in a particular place and at a particular time in human history. So it’s no surprise that, through the ages, God has continued to inspire his people to set aside special places in which to assemble to worship him. So Solomon built the Jerusalem Temple to be a holy house of prayer and praise. So too did the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great when he converted the Lateran Basilica in Rome into a church – the Pope’s church, and hence “the mother and head of all the churches of the City and the world” – the anniversary of whose consecration and dedication on November 9, 324 A.D. the Church solemnly celebrates tomorrow.

It’s no accident that in the classic Roman liturgy, the Gospel reading for the Mass for the Dedication of a Church was Luke 19:1-10, the story of Zacchaeus the Tax Collector. Zacchaeus famously climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus. But Zaccaeus did not make a church out of his tree. Rather, Jesus called him down from his tree – “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house” – in order to create a church out of his house – “Today salvation has come to this house … for the Son of Man has come to seek and save what was lost.”

Before we build beautiful shrines and temples, God has first acted upon us. So it is not because we build buildings that we have churches, but because God has made himself the God of those buildings by first of all making himself the God of the builders – by building us, together with his crucified and risen Son, into a consecrated and dedicated people, whom we also call a Church (this time with a capital “C”).

Built by God himself into his Church, we then build earthly churches in whihc to assemble and worship - great and beautiful churches which testify to the fullness of our faith, the height of our hope and the depth of our love. (We may also build ugly modern churches, which testify in their own way to the sterility of a culture in the process of losing its faith and hence is increasingly bereft of hope and lacking in love).

And so we pray in union with the whole Church: “Your house of prayer is also the promise of the Church in heaven. Here your love is always at work, preparing the Church on earth for her heavenly glory as the sinless bride of Christ, the joyful mother of a great company of saints.” (Preface for the Anniversary of the Dedication of a Church).

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Remembrance and Resurrection

This coming Thursday is Veterans Day, the 92nd anniversary of the end of the First World War and now a day dedicated to the memory of all who served our country in the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries. North of the border in Canada (and in other Commonwealth countries), it’s called Remembrance Day. In the 6 years I served at our parish in Toronto, one always knew Remembrance Day was coming when one started to see practically everyone wearing an artificial poppy. Poppies, parades, the laying of wreaths – all these rituals are ways we remember those who have died.

I was a seminarian in Washington, DC, when the Vietnam War Memorial was dedicated. People come constantly to that wall of names to find and honor the name of someone they knew. They’re just names, of course, but there is still something very special about them, because someone has written them – and someone remembers them. I also recall how, in the weeks and months after September 11, 2001, something similar happened in New York – in makeshift shrines in front of firehouses and other places – names and pictures of people being remembered.

Surely, our ability to remember is one of the things that makes us most distinctly human. When we remember those who have died, we recognize the humanity we share together. We remember that, like us, they also lived once, and that, like them, we too will surely die. That is why the regular rituals of remembrance – for example, the Rosary we will recite together at our parish cemetery this Sunday afternoon – are so important – not so much for the dead, but for us, the living, and indeed for the very fabric of society.

The famous story in today’s 1st reading [2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14] about seven brothers and their mother, who would rather die than disobey God’s law, was written to remember those heroes from the great war which Israel fought for its freedom in the 2nd century BC, against all who advocated accommodation to the dominant secular culture of the time. But, in remembering those martyrs, the story also celebrates their faith that God would raise them up to live again forever.

Two centuries later, there was still a group in Israel – the cultured elite known in the Gospels as the Sadducees – who lived without any hope of future resurrection, just as there are many people today, who live their lives believing that this is all there is and all that there will ever be (for, as St. Paul pointedly acknowledges in today’s reading from his 2nd letter to the Thessalonians [2:16-35], not all have faith).

If, in fact, this life is all there is, then, of course, one’s only immortality will be one’s children. So, in such a world the worst thing that could happen would be to die leaving no one behind to continue one’s name. Hence, the special provision in the Law, that required the brother of a man who had died childless to raise up descendants for his brother. The Sadducees used this practice to ridicule even the very idea of a future resurrected life [Luke 20:27-38].

The Sadducees’ problem, however, was precisely their inability even to imagine anything at all different from this present life – a life limited, indeed defined, by death. It reminds me of something Richard Goodwin wrote in the magazine The New Yorker back in 1967. Regarding the assumed rules of politics, Goodwin wrote “The rules are only a summary of what’s happened before. The trick is in trying to see what’s going to happen next.”

As Jesus quickly pointed out to the befuddled Sadducees, in the resurrected life the original reason behind that Mosaic marriage law will no longer apply, because there will be no more dying, no need to continue one’s name from generation to generation. We will still be ourselves. We’re not going to change into somebody – or something – else, as reincarnationists, for example, falsely allege. We will, however, be living a new and completely different kind of life, no longer limited and defined by death.

The Sadducees’ question warns us what can happen when we try to imagine in too much detail what life after death will be like, because, of course, the only life we, here and now, know - the only life we, here and now, can really imagine – is the life we live here and now.

Jesus, however, has already been raised from the dead and is now living that new life. In the Risen Christ – and in our own experience of the Risen Christ, who comes to us in his Church in the Eucharist – we get a glimpse, a sort of fast-forward, into the new life God has in store for us, not as some mere continuation of the way things are now, but as something totally new.

Like the Maccabean martyrs of the 2nd century BC, the great army of Christian martyrs – from the ancient martyrs who grace the windows of our church, like St. George in the east aisle and St. Catherine of Alexandria in the west aisle, to the Church's many modern martyrs, like the 117 19th-century Martyrs of Vietnam, whom the Church honors annually on the 24th of November, and the 20th-century Mexican martyr, Miguel Augustín Pro, whom the Church honors on November 23 – all give us a glimpse, as witnesses (which is what the word “martyr” means) to the transforming power of the future already at work in the present.

In our experience of the death and resurrection of Jesus, we recognize that he is alive and that, because of him, we too can hope to live his new life with him forever.

And so we pray with St. Paul that the Lord may direct our hearts to the love of God and to the endurance of Christ [2 Thessalonians 2:35].

Homily at Immaculate Conception Church , Knoxville, TN, November 6-7, 2010.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Morning After

The 2010 elections are over. Not all the results are in yet, and undoubtedly some races will require more time to be definitively decided. But the general picture seems clear. As with Bill Clinton in 1994, the voters have rather resoundingly repudiated if not the President himself then certainly at least the overall direction of his administration. The GOP has picked up more than enough seats to wrest control of the House, foreshadowing not the gentlemanly "divided government" of the 1950s but even more polarization and gridlock.

Two years ago, the Paulist on-line magazine The Catholic World (http://www.thecatholic invited me to contribute my impressions of the 2008 election ("The 2008 Election: Tracking the Trends and Speculating the Future," January/February 2009). Looking at Barack Obama's impressive 2008 win against the background of voters' shifts in ideological and party alignment over the course of the 20th century, I made four general sets of observations.

First, in 2008, the economic crisis clearly trumped other considerations (e.g., Obama's obvious lack of experience, especially in foreign affairs), as voters opted to reject an increasingly discredited administration. Second, Obama in 2008 created among younger (typically the less politically committed) voters a constituency personally committed to him, which, if it could be transformed into a generation of regular voters with a habit of voting Democratic, could signal potential Democratic dominance for decades. Third, the contemporary "religious divide" in American politics persisted, with those who attend church more frequently being more likely to vote Republican than those who never or only occasionally attend church. Finally, campaigns matter and money matters in campaigns. Obama in 2008 ran a disciplined and strategic campaign (in contrast with his opponent's unfocused and disorganized one), had a lot of money, and spent it lavishly.

None of these observations were particularly perceptive or brilliant. Nor need one be particularly perceptive or brilliant to recognize their continued relevance to this most recent election.

"It's the economy, stupid," James Carville supposedly said in 1992. That may not always and unequivocally be the case, but one can hardly escape the conclusion that the same economic crisis that helped propel the Democrats into power in 2008 has hurt them in turn in 2010. The same generalized discontent with the way things are (accompanied by a corrosive cynicism about government and politics) - if anything, more so - set the tone for this election campaign and its outcome. Whether the Democrats realistically could have done a better job at improving the economy is debatable. FDR certainly did not end the Great Depression in his first two years, but he did project concern and inspire confidence, injecting a much needed sense of hope into a depressed society - something the supposed prophet of hope and change proved curiously incapable of doing. Admittedly, the globalized world of today may be less responsive to 1930s-style encouragement. Even so, did the President have to surround himself with an economic team of millionaires like himself, reinforcing his image as an elitist liberal, who really doesn't get it about unemployment and the concerns of ordinary people?

Early estimates put the under-30 voter turnout at about 11% (significantly less than the 18% in 2008). If the Obama-centric coalition of younger and "independent" (i.e., traditionally less politically committed) voters wasn't there for the Democrats in 2010, then that too is another respect in which Obama has turned out not to be another FDR (whose personal charisma created a generation of long-term Democratic voters). In the end, Obama's "post-partisan" appeal to many "Independents" proved no more effective at creating the partisan Democratic voters that were needed than his "post-partisan" approach had helped him govern in a polarized, partisan Washington.

Cultural and moral issues were less front-and-center in this election, but that doesn't mean they don't still matter. Two years ago, I thought the President could succeed in governing if he positioned himself in the center on social issues, which to a surprising extent he did. My impression now, however, is that the Republican monopoly on religious and moral values may by now have become so entrenched that even voters whose original motivation was mainly moral rather than economic issues have by now so come to identify the Republicans with their moral concerns that they are more willing to adopt the larger package of Republican economic and social values. Admittedly that needs more confirmation, but to does seem to make sense of the data.

Finally campaigns really do matter. It may have been a mistake to have done Health Care when the country wanted something done about unemployment. Be that as it may, it was still quite an accomplishment - one that had eluded four previous Presidents (Truman, Johnson, Nixon, Clinton). The only effective way to respond to Republican opposition to the Democratic legislative record would have been to defend it, which the Democrats seemed so timid about doing. They ran as if they were embarrassed by what they had accomplished. Having let their opponents define the agenda, they had nothing positive to run on - not the best recipe for a successful campaign.

As a populist corrective to liberal over-reach, the 2010 election can be seen as another 1994 - or another 1966. In 1994, the Republicans regained control of the House, but Bill Clinton was re-elected anyway two years later. In today's polarized, partisan climate Obama could learn a lesson or two from Clinton and could well be safely re-elected two years from now. Another scenario, however, might be 1966. In that election, the Democrats still retained control of Congress, but the Republican resurgence that year sounded the death-knell of the Great Society and foreshadowed the era of Republican dominance in Presidential politics that began in 1968.

In The Liberal Hour: Washington and the Politics of Change in the 1960s, the authors made the telling point that when the Democrats lost their solid southern base, they also lost an important intra-party restraint on the party's liberal wing. With the south gone, liberals lost that counterweight and were able to push the Democratic party far to the left of the nation as a whole - with predictable electoral consequences. Once again the Democrats may be paying the price for that. The interesting question today is whether, with the accession of the Tea Party movement, something analogous may be happening to the Republicans. Will we, for the foreseeable future, be saddled with two dysfunctionally ideological parties, alternating in power - and overreaching when in power - producing more popular discontent and cynicism about government and politics?