Monday, January 31, 2011
Saturday, January 29, 2011
Monday, January 24, 2011
In his monastic journal, The Sign of Jonas, Thomas Merton mentioned how a certain monk who had previously been sent to staff a daughter foundation in Georgia returned to Gethsemani in 1948 to participate in the election of a new abbot. The monk “sat in choir as though he were in heaven,” Merton remarked - and then added, “Afterward I gave him a good hug.”
I confess I’m feeling a little bit like that monk, being back at the Paulist Mother Church in New York (in my old room even) after almost six months. In fact, it will be exactly 6 months ago tomorrow that I celebrated my final Mass at St. Paul's - a joyful Mass of Thanksgiving for 10 blessed years as associate pastor. Now, tomorrow I am scheduled to celebrate Mass here again - for the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the patronal feast of this church, this parish, and the Paulist community.
In 1858 (three years after my present parish - Immaculate Conception in Knoxville, TN - was established), Servant of God Isaac Hecker and three other ex-Redemptorists founded the "Society of Missionary Priests of St. Paul the Apostle," known ever since as “The Paulist Fathers.” The Archbishop of New York assigned the new community the care of a new parish to be created on the west side of Manhattan – the parish, like the community itself, placed under the patronage of St. Paul the Apostle. For over 150 years, the Paulists have ministered here in this parish, the life and mission of both the Paulists and the parish being intimately tied together, and both blessed by the patronage of St. Paul the Apostle, the feast of whose Conversion we celebrate this week.
For 126 of those years, the spiritual center of this parish has been its big beautiful church. Within Stanford White’s golden dome above the High Altar is a verse from the Divine Office for St. Paul's feast: “You are a vessel of election, holy apostle Paul.” The response, “Preacher of Truth in the whole world,” is inscribed in the mosaic on the floor at the foot of the sanctuary steps.
For the 1st century or so of this church’s life, communicants coming to the altar rail would see that mosaic, designed in 1920 to highlight the symbols of St. Paul’s apostleship – the book, open to St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians at the verse, To me, the very least of all the holy ones, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the inscrutable riches of Christ, and the sword, the symbol of St. Paul’s martyrdom. Over at the west end of the south aisle, over the altar dedicated to St. Paul, is Robert Reid’s evocative painting of Paul kneeling calmly and confidently awaiting his imminent martyrdom. Above and below are the famous words from his Second Letter to Timothy: I have fought the good fight, I have finished my course. I have kept the faith!
The event we commemorate this week – the decisive turning-point in Paul’s life – is portrayed above the main entrance to the church in a monumental frieze by Lumen Martin Winter (who also designed the equally monumental tomb at the east end of the north aisle, in which Isaac Hecker was re-buried 52 years ago today). Commonly called Paul’s “conversion,” that event transformed Paul into a disciple of Jesus and an apostle on equal footing with the others, an apostle sent to evangelize, that is, to make disciples of all peoples and nations without exception. That mission is the theme of the other floor mosaic, at the main entrance of the church, which recalls Paul’s preaching outreach to the Greek world in 1st-century Athens.
Paul was not one of the original 12. He wasn’t there when Jesus said to his disciples: “Go into the whole world and proclaim the gospel to every creature.” But he absorbed those words as surely as if they had been addressed to him initially – as we also must do.
That’s what the Paulist Fathers are for, focusing on the Church’s evangelizing mission in an intentional way, continuing the work begun by Isaac Hecker to proclaim the truth of Christ and the Catholic faith throughout this country. The Annual Paulist Appeal (which I am here to preach this coming week) will enable today’s Paulists and the Paulists of tomorrow (whose seminary training the appeal helps support) to continue Isaac Hecker’s mission – here in New York, in East Tennessee, and throughout the North American continent.
Sunday, January 23, 2011
Saturday, January 22, 2011
More than just an occasion to wear violet vestments midway between Advent and Lent, this annual National Day of Penance is an opportunity to reflect on a wrong turn taken by our country in 1973. January 22 challenges us to speak truth to power – the truth of the inviolable dignity of every individual human being from the moment of conception. That we do this is essential to who we are. How we do it is also critical to our witness, for how we witness also expresses who we really are.
This anniversary always reminds me of another judicial decision with comparably catastrophic consequences for our nation’s history. I refer, of course, to the 1857 Supreme Court decision, Dred Scott v. Sanford, which ruled which ruled that no person of African ancestry could claim US citizenship. (It was to overturn that decision that in 1868 the 14th Amendment guaranteed US citizenship to “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof” – a guarantee now being challenged in some circles!)
The Dred Scott analogy easily comes to my mind – as it immediately did to one of my classmates on this day 38 years ago at dinner in Princeton’s Proctor Hall. Reflecting on that, I recently re-read President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. Delivered March 4, 1865, as the American Civil War was winding down and barely 6 weeks before his own assassination, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural articulated his attempt to reflect upon the tragic circumstances of the Civil War and to situate it morally in relation to the national sin of slavery.
Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. ... Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. …
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
It is always problematic to pronounce in moral terms about political events - and even more so to suggest a causal connection between bad things that happen in the Body Politic and some sort of divine judgment. All too often has that mistake too easily been made. It is perhaps a perennial temptation - if one takes seriously the fact that we do indeed all stand under divine judgment for our sins - to claim perhaps too much knowledge of the mind and judgment of God.
That said, there is something compelling about Lincoln’s analysis of God’s judgment on the sin of slavery – and something equally compelling about his appreciation of the complexity of the human predicament. In Lincoln’s analysis, consciousness of God’s judgment was coupled with a humble empathy not just for those most sinned against but for the perpetrators and indeed all parties caught up in the conflict. So Lincoln famously concluded:
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.
January 22 indeed challenges us to speak truth to power – the truth of the inviolable dignity of every individual human being from the moment of conception – and at the same time, like Lincoln, to strive to maintain the fragile human bond that unites us all, despite our disagreements.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
But there was something else – also quite currently relevant – that struck me as I watched the program. That was the sheer size and scale of the project, starting from scratch, quite literally creating a major research facility and an accompanying city (with all that entails) on what up until then had been Tennessee farmland. Of course, the entire American war effort in the 1940s was, by any standard, just such a monumental undertaking, mobilizing the resources and skills of an energized population. What struck me, of course, was how hard it would be to do something like that today – how hard even to imagine such an undertaking. Why should that be?
It’s tempting – too easily so - to answer that we were then an empire on the rise and are now an empire in decline. Even if that were unambiguously so, that still just begs the bigger question: why?
What is immediately obvious about Oak Ridge (and later great national projects like the 1960's Space Program) is that they were government-initiated. None of those projects would have happened had the resources and direction of the federal government not been available to energize a society still able to imagine undertaking great and visionary projects. That used to be the way it was in America. Going back at least to the construction of the 363-mile Erie Canal in New York State between 1817 and 1825, the United States was a nation of great undertakings, great public-works projects that built America and impressed the rest of the world. Today, however, as Paul Krugman lamented some weeks ago in the New York Times (reacting to New Jersey’s decision not to invest in a second rail tunnel under the Hudson River), we seem to have turned into “a nation whose politicians seem to compete over who can show the least vision, the least concern about the future and the greatest willingness to pander to short-term, narrow-minded selfishness.”
As a native New Yorker (and a train-lover), I was particularly saddened by that particular decision. The fact that it is a train tunnel at issue in that case is not just particularly poignant, however. It actually highlights what is a core component of the problem. The New York Review of Books recently printed an essay by the late Tony Judt (“Bring Back the Rails”) which emphasized the public character of railroads – as “decidedly public transport.”
The Erie Canal, victory in World War II, the space program, and countless other great enterprises of which Americans used to be justly proud were possible because of a vibrant public sphere – now sadly increasingly shrinking.
Sunday, January 16, 2011
If anything, the English-language version of the Church’s liturgical calendar curiously reinforces this - as the Christmas season concludes, and something oddly called “Ordinary Time” begins. Could anything have been more boringly named than “Ordinary Time,” this season that some have unflatteringly referred to as “the long green liturgical bore.”
Those of us who are above a certain age will, of course, remember when these green mid-winter Sundays were counted as “Sundays after Epiphany” – certainly a much more festive-sounding title, which also had the added advantage of more clearly connecting what we are doing here and now with Christ’s having revealed himself to the world. (Likewise, calling the green-colored Sundays of summer and fall “Sundays after Pentecost,” as we did for so many centuries, made the connection more obvious with the Church’s on-going mission in the present).
Traditionally, the idea of the Epiphany connected 3 important events – Christ’s manifestation to the non-Jewish world, symbolized by the 3 Wise Men; his manifestation as Son of God at his baptism by John; and the manifestation of his glory to his disciples at the wedding at Cana where he miraculously changed water into wine.
If Christmas was all about Jesus’ initial coming into the world, “Ordinary Time” – our time, our ordinary time day-by-day, here and now – is the time for us to continue to get to know him. Doing that is a life-long task – which fills the ordinariness of life with the most extraordinary possibilities.
Friday, January 14, 2011
Monday, January 10, 2011
Sunday, January 9, 2011
In today’s world, of course, Christmas has already long ago fizzled out (after having gone on almost non-stop since Halloween). So today’s celebration may seem simply like some vestigial post-Christmas afterthought. Actually, however, the intent is to highlight the baptism of Jesus as the event, which the whole Christmas season has been leading up to – a kind of glorious grand finale of the entire Advent-Christmas season.
Jesus did in fact come to John, blending into the mass of anonymous sinners that stand for all of us. By being baptized as one of them – one of us – Jesus showed the point of his being born in the first place, anticipating already at his baptism what his whole life and mission would be all about.
The entire Trinity manifested itself as Jesus began his public life being officially identified by the Father as his Son, anointed, as St. Peter put it in today’s 2nd reading, with the Holy Spirit and power [Acts 10:34:38]. Through the Sons’s gift to each of us of that same Holy Spirit, each of us has become identified with him, so as to share in an analogous way in Jesus’ relationship with his Father. Thus, the baptism of Jesus anticipates the baptism that has elevated each of us to a new status as adopted sons and daughters of God the Father, empowering us to continue Christ’s life and work in the world through his Church.
That said, today does invite us to ponder our own baptism – how we already share in the life of the Trinity even now, in our participation in the apostolic and missionary activity of the Church. A key moment in the ritual of baptism is the profession of faith, made (for most of us) on our behalf by our parents and godparents when they brought us to the baptismal font in fulfillment of their parental obligation to have their children baptized within the first weeks after birth. What was professed at our baptism, we continue to profess in the Creed and then go on to celebrate continually in the sacraments of the Church, empowering us to live a new kind of life based on our relationship as sons and daughters of God, whom we address familiarly as “Our Father.”
That Creed that we profess is good news for us – and good news for the world. The Creed is not just an identity badge. Much less is it a weapon for hitting other people over the head with. It is, in summary, the good news which we are commissioned as Church both to proclaim and to share with the world – and to do so with real confidence in its liberating power, the transforming power of God’s Holy Spirit, visibly present in Jesus, God’s beloved Son, through whom we too have become beloved as well.
Being beloved, of course, carries certain responsibilities. Today, the Church in the United States begins National Vocation Awareness Week, a week in which the Church highlights what we need to be doing all the time – praying for, promoting, and supporting the vocations of married and single people in all walks of secular life, the vocations of committed men and women who consecrate their lives as religious brothers and sisters, and, in a special way – if the Church in this country is going to be able to continue its mission and not shut down – the vocations of those who offer themselves to the Church and are in turn then called by the Church to serve as ordained priests and deacons.
Friday, January 7, 2011
Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Tuesday, January 4, 2011
Sunday, January 2, 2011
Entering our church today, one will have notice an alteration in the nativity scene, where the shepherds have been joined by the long-journeying magi. As our contemporary Christmas holiday has expanded to encompass all of December (and even November), Epiphany (to the extent it gets any attention at all) seems more and more like some sort of vestigial afterthought, a kind of out-of-sync-with-our-culture postscript to Christmas. In fact, however, Epiphany is actually the oldest festival of the Christmas season, older than Christmas Day itself, and still ranks as one of the principal festivals of the Church’s calendar. To add insult to injury, however, here in the United States, the already overshadowed feast has been bumped from its proper day on January 6 to the nearest Sunday – thus reducing the proverbial “12 Days of Christmas” this year from 12 to a mere 8!
In the Eastern Christian Churches, Matthew’s Gospel story about the magi is read on Christmas Day, and Epiphany is primarily a commemoration of Jesus’ baptism, the beginning of his mission as an adult. In the West, we will celebrate Christ’s baptism next Sunday, and focus today almost exclusively on the magi.
That said, the fact is the we actually know next to nothing about the magi themselves – not their names (although tradition has given them the familiar names, Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), nor their number (though tradition, based on the gifts itemized in the Gospel, has counted them as 3), nor their exact social status (though tradition, inspired in this case by Psalm 72, has crowned them as kings).
The Gospel tells us none of these things, but it does tell us what it is important for us to know about them. First and foremost, it tells us they were foreigners, that is, Gentile pagans. As such, they represent the multitudes of people – past, present, and future – armed with only natural knowledge, who seek the God who made the world and all that is in it and gives life and breath to everyone, as St. Paul put it in his only recorded sermon to a Gentile pagan audience in the Acts of the Apostles [Acts 17:24-25]. But then the story also tells us that, whatever varied paths different people may start out on, our paths must finally converge in Jesus, the one savior of the world, and that the interpretive key to the story of Jesus is God’s revelation of himself in the history of Israel. Thus, it was to Jerusalem, that the Magi came to learn the full significance of the star – a meaning revealed in the Jewish scriptures, which translated the natural light of a star into the revelation of a person. As Isaiah prophesied in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 60:1-6]: Nations shall walk by Jerusalem’s light, and kings by her shining radiance.
By way of warning, however, the story also illustrates how easily we may miss the point. When Herod heard the magi, he was greatly troubled and all Jerusalem with him. Notice, they were not overjoyed like the magi, but troubled! What troubled them? What made such good news seem like bad news? And then there were the scholars whom Herod consulted. They quoted the scripture correctly, but they just didn’t get it. For all their abundant academic knowledge of the subject, they seemed to lack any real knowledge of the kind that mattered. So none of them did they obvious thing – go to Bethlehem and do Jesus homage. Only the pagan magi did that!
Talk about missing the opportunity of a lifetime!
The magi, on the other hand, were overjoyed, not troubled, and so set out as true pilgrims – and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother and prostrated themselves and did him homage. In the old liturgy, everyone was directed to genuflect at those words – as if to bring the point of the story physically home and so cause us to identify personally with the pilgrim magi.
As for the magi, we never hear about them again. We know only that they departed for their country by another way. Nativity scenes sometimes seem, so to speak, frozen in time. Everybody stays stationary – at least until it’s time to put the figures all back in the closet. But the real magi didn’t just stay put, anymore than the shepherds did. They went back to wherever they had lived before, but they departed for their country by another way. They went back to whatever they had been doing before, but they would never be the same again. And, thanks to Christ’s coming into our world, we too must be different now from what we would otherwise have been.
Every January, after the holidays, we return, as we inevitably must, to our ordinary routines – at home, at school, at work, wherever and whatever. Like the magi, however, our challenge is to travel through our ordinary life by another way, because something so special has happened that makes everything different from what it would otherwise have been.
Before there were funeral homes to print parish calendars, Epiphany became the annual occasion in the Roman Liturgy to announce the date of Easter and other important dates in the coming year. None of us, of course, can even begin to foresee what this new year – the Year of Our Lord 2011 – will bring, whether for better or for worse. If this harrowing 1st decade of the 21st century has taught us anything, it should certainly have taught us at least that!
Yet, even as we navigate our way through an uncertain, but certainly challenging present, the Christmas star invites us to imitate the magi – to go on pilgrimage with them to Bethlehem and back again – confident that, whatever else may be the case, the Christmas star will precede us to illuminate every new day of this new year, and so will guide us, first to Christ, and then through Christ on that new way, which, like the magi, we are all of us being invited to find and to follow.
Homily for the Epiphany, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 2, 2011.
Saturday, January 1, 2011
The late comedian George Burns once wrote in The New York Times: “Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I always looked forward to New Year’s mainly because it was the only thing we could afford that was really new. And we always believed that things were going to get better during the New Year.”
Minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years – our fascination with time is itself apparently timeless. It may be one of our most distinctly human traits since probably one of the earliest things human beings became aware of was our own mortality – the fact that we live and die in a set period of time. Of course, most of that time is what we might call “Ordinary Time” – the day-to-day routine of work and family life, punctuated by those special moments, the highs and lows of life, most of which just happen when they happen, not particularly according to any calendar. Yet the calendar is always there, and never more obviously than on this day, when the simple act of changing the calendar makes us stop and wonder what it’s all about.
Sometime in the mid-1970s when I was a graduate student in New Jersey, talking with a friend a day or two before New Year’s, I recall saying something to the effect that, even if I had to be alone on New Year’s Eve, I would still look forward to it because New Year’s is always about hope.
A New Year is always an invitation to hope. Hope is everyone’s response to the desire for happiness, which is in everyone’s heart. Hope keeps us from giving in to discouragement and sustains us in times of difficulty. It takes us out of ourselves and unites us with others, who also live in hope, despite life’s daily difficulties and tragedies.
Our hope is founded on Jesus Christ, whose birth some 20 centuries ago is the very basis for our calendar. When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law [Galatians 4:4]. Jesus was born of a woman – Mary, the Mother of God and the Mother of the Church. He was born under the law – a member of the Jewish People, circumcised on the eighth day of his life, in fulfillment of God’s covenant with his Chosen People. God’s entry into the world in Jesus – born to a particular mother, of a particular nation, in a particular place, and at a particular time in human history – has (as the Christmas liturgy says) given our immortal nature immortal value. It has realigned all of time and given all of history a new, more hope-filled meaning, giving us a hope for the future which we would never otherwise have had.
Time is always precious – precisely because we have such a limited supply of it. By making himself a part of our time, however, God has turned our limited time on earth into a time of unlimited opportunity. So as we begin a new year, we do so not in fear and desperation, but with the hope that is truly one of God’s great Christmas gifts to us. As he himself has lived a fully human life among us in our time, he now enables us to live and love as he himself does – and so share both now and for all eternity in the divine life he has so freely shared with us.
Homily for New Year’s Day (Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God) at Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 1, 2011