Monday, December 11, 2017

The Crown (Season 2)

I first subscribed to Netflix almost a year ago in order to see The Crown, the projected six-season series spanning the 60 years-plus reign of Britain's Queen Elizabeth II. Since then, I've seen lots of other great things on Netflix (not least the French series The Churchmen), but The Crown remains for me the Netflix star attraction. So, along with lots of others, I have been eagerly watching season 2 since its release last week. The wait between seasons has been long, but the result did not disappoint!

If season 1 (1947-1956) was about Elizabeth's accession to the throne and her growing into her role as sovereign (and the toll that took on her and on her husband and on her sister), season 2 (1956-1964) shows her growing both as a person and as a sovereign and in the process allowing herself to re-imagine certain dimensions of her role. Meanwhile her husband and sister find their own way, while society changes dramatically. Through it all, Elizabeth remains a woman defined and determined by her role - a role defined not by what she wants but by what everyone else wants her to be (expectations which vary from person to person and change from place to place and time to time).

Monarchy is meant to be mysterious. Even more than season 1, season 2 is preoccupied with imaginative attempts to understand the inner familial dynamics of such an ostensibly - and deliberately so - mysterious institution. Meanwhile, as the 1950s fade into the 1960s, the Queen and her family find themselves grappling with unprecedented societal change, while Britain's post-war decline as a major power is amply demonstrated by failure at Suez and post-colonial Ghana's flirtations with the Soviets.

Although always the one who holds it all together, Elizabeth shares the spotlight in season 2 with Philip (whose at times petulant behavior finally gets him some of the recognition and behind-the-throne power that the palace's army of stuffy and increasingly out of touch courtiers had hitherto tried to deny him) and Margaret (whose dabbling in non-courtier society finally gets her a husband, unlike any her family would have picked for her, played perfectly by the glamorous Matthew Goode).

If there was one weakness in season 1, it was certainly its somewhat sympathetic portrayal of the utterly undeserving Duke of Windsor, whose self-centered abdication of duty has likely always been the Queen's alternative model of what kind of monarch - and person - not to be. Season 2 sets the record straight about the Duke in one devastating episode that highlights his disgraceful behavior before and during the war.

Politics plays more of a real role in season 2 as well, reflecting the Queen's maturation in her role and the replacement of Winston Churchill by less accomplished successors. Elizabeth's successful visit to Ghana is historically accurate, although the suggestion that she was motivated by jealousy of Jacqueline Kennedy's celebrity seems somewhat bizarre and demeaning to both women. But the episode does highlight how the essence of royalty really is the opposite of the fragile ephemera of celebrity. Fittingly, the episode unmasks the vacuousness of much of the Kennedys' celebrity while highlighting the Queen's dignity (even while allowing her to show some human resentment, jealousy, and competitiveness).

It has generally been believed that one of the ways the royal marriage has worked has been by allowing Philip to take charge of his children's education - with disastrous effect upon the present Prince of Wales, who was forced to endure the terrifying experience of Gordonstoun, where his physically and emotionally very different father had once thrived. That episode (for which the audience has been prepared with background information on Philip's childhood revealed by a questioner during a disastrous interview he foolishly allowed a few episodes earlier during his Pacific tour) does dramatically and effectively - and even somewhat sympathetically - recall Philip's childhood as a dispossessed refugee prince, with dysfunctional parents, abandoned to the rigors of a school which in turn became his substitute for a family (along with the famous "Uncle Dickie" Mountbatten, whose patronage of course would prove so significant for Philip and whose friendship would matter so much for Charles). 

Whatever sympathy Philip wins in that episode, however, is largely cancelled not just by the effect on his son but also by his continued behavior in ways which threaten to throw suspicion on his fidelity to  his marriage.. The series may be taking too much liberty in its suggestions, but it serves the dramatic purpose of highlighting how the continually dutiful Queen is constantly surrounded by seemingly much more flawed people - like Philip and Margaret, and of course the politicians.

The Profumo scandal that titillated me and my high school friends in 1963 was a tragic episode that did a lot to undermine what was left of Britain's governing class's legitimacy. Starting with Suez and ending with Profumo, the series frames the loss of the governing class's capacity to govern - paving the way for the greater changes of the 1960s. That final episode fittingly has a little bit of everything that the Queen has to cope with - another government crisis, tensions within the extended royal family exacerbated by Margaret's willfulness, and of course the perennial mystery of how the royal marriage works. 

The season is bookended by the personal and political failures of two Prime Ministers - Eden and Macmillan, both of whom resign in poor health and political disappointment. Their failures give Elizabeth one of her greatest lines in the season. After accepting Macmillan's resignation, she says of her three Prime Ministers in 10 years: "Not one of them has lasted the course. They've either been too old, too ill, or too weak. A confederacy of elected quitters."

The Queen, of course, is neither elected nor a quitter, and that captures the essence of her role and its success. Across the pond, as we watch our American political system deteriorate further and further, its moral rot in significant measure due to its elevation of celebrity over seriousness and self-interest over duty, we may have more and more reason to envy the stabilizing, unifying, and moralizing power of the mysterious magic of monarchy.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Be Eager!

Almost two weeks ago, midway between Thanksgiving and Advent, I went to Louisville for the annual meeting of the bishops and priests’ councils of the Louisville Province. Like any American city at this time of year, Louisville - or, at least the little bit of downtown that I saw - was all bright and beautiful with Christmas trees and lights and other holiday trimmings and touches. It’s that so very special time of year, when the world really brightens up and seems even to cheer up – or at least it tries to.

In our commercial, capitalist culture, of course, there is profit to be made in manufacturing holiday cheer. For the rest of us, how cheerful we feel may depend on what kind of year we have had and what kind of year we believe it has been for the world. Imagine, for example, what it was like preparing for Christmas 100 years ago, in 1917, in that terrible final year of World War I, the war that pretty much ruined everything for the 20th century. Still, Christmas came, as it always does in both good times and in bad. Silent Night was sung in the languages of the different combatants. And soldiers and civilians alike did their best to find comfort where they could.

Times were tough too in Israel – her capital in ruins, her Temple destroyed - when Isaiah spoke the consoling words we just heard. Just when everything seemed so hopeless, the prophet proclaimed glad tidings and good news. It’s enough to make you sit up and pay attention. Here comes with power the Lord God. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. Power and glory are good, but when you’re hungry – and we are all hungry for something – the promise of being fed, as a shepherd feeds his flock, that’s good news indeed!

On this 2nd Sunday of Advent, the good news comes to us in three voices. First, we hear Isaiah’s prophetic announcement. Not for nothing is Isaiah Advent’s pre-eminent prophet. Then comes the actual voice of one crying out in the desert, John the Baptist’s New Testament prophetic fulfillment - calling out to us to elicit our response. Sandwiched between them and so easy to overlook, we hear Peter, speaking for the Church, proposing our response.

And like the Israelites in exile and like those early Christians to whom Peter wrote, we wonder what this all means. Both Isaiah and Peter had to respond to the tension – the personal and social stress – of being in-between, of being between the challenging and perplexing present in which we still find ourselves and the promising future for which we have been taught to hope.

If anything, living in the in-between may be even harder for us that in was for those early Christians Peter was addressing. Our contemporary way of life with its ultra-fast pace and information overload is sort of like a collective case of attention-deficit-disorder. Like our ancestors unexpectedly caught up in a catastrophic world war a century ago, we are also a civilization in distress, but we are, if anything, even less able to see our way through, thanks to our technologically induced impatience.

But God is patient with us, Peter assures us, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. And so, he asks us to ask ourselves, what sort of persons ought we to be, here and now, in this in-between time, while we wait not just for Christmas morning and the presents we expect to find under our tree, but for that endless Christmas dinner our entire life is a preparation for?

Advent asks more questions than it answers. The answer, of course, is Christmas, which even now has the power to light up the world because Christ came into the world a long time ago. How much brighter will the world be when we respond fully to Advent’s invitation to become Christmas people and recognize Christ’s coming among us in the here and now, living in his Church which continues his presence and action in the world? When the full reality of Christ’s coming finally makes a difference for each one of us. Meanwhile, be eager, as Peter says, to find him - and to be found by him.

Homily for the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 10, 2017.

Friday, December 8, 2017

"Our Hope in the Terrible Days We Live in.”

Last week, while in Louisville for a meeting, I stopped at the historical marker commemorating a major moment in the life of the famous 20th-century American monk Thomas Merton, who was one of the four famous Americans Pope Francis mentioned in his address to Congress in 2015.

On March 18, 1858, at what was then the corner of 4th and Walnut, Merton suddenly realized that no one could be totally alien to him. It was, he said “as if waking from a dream.” Suddenly, he realized that he could have no “more glorious destiny” than as “a member of the human race … since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!”

I am reminded of Merton today also because a decade earlier he had written that the definition of the Immaculate Conception “was a turning point in the modern history of the Church,” for “the world “has been put into the hands of our Immaculate Lady and she is our hope in the terrible days we live in.” [November 10, 1947]

Anticipating Merton’s hope a century earlier, in 1846 the Bishops of the United States had proclaimed Mary the patroness of the United Sates under the title of her Immaculate Conception. So today, already an especially grace-filled day the entire Church, is even more especially so for our country and for our own local parish community, under the special patronage of the Immaculate Conception since 1855.

The Immaculate Conception is the Church’s belief that, thanks to the salvation accomplished by her Son, Mary was preserved from all sin from the very beginning of her earthly existence and thus came into the world completely holy – thus most fully exemplifying that “glorious destiny” of the human race, thanks to her Son’s membership in it.

The story we just heard from the Old Testament [Genesis 3:9-15, 20] highlights the unity of the human race and already points ahead to God’s becoming one of us to salvage our “glorious destiny” from the damage Adam and Eve and the rest of us have done to ourselves and to the rest of the world, through our alienation from God. Mary, however, holy Mary, represents the healing effect of God’s far-greater power, empowering Mary, as we just heard in the Gospel [Luke 1:26-38], to say Yes to God where Adam and Eve and the rest of us have repeatedly said No.

The story calls Eve the mother of all the living, because in spite of everything the human race continues toward its “glorious destiny,” which Mary’s holiness exemplifies for us.

Homily for the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 8, 2017.

Photo: Immaculate Conception Window, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Sunday Shopping

Anyone as old as I am will remember when Sundays (and holidays) were really Sundays (and holidays) - in other words, when stores were closed, and the one thing one absolutely did not expect to do on Sunday was to go shopping. I don't remember exactly when the change occurred. It was probably gradual as laws changed, and more and more stores opened for more and more hours, depriving workers and customers alike of their traditional day of rest. The transformation must have been in full swing by the 1990s, because I remember visiting London at the end of 1992 and remarking how refreshing it was that stores there were still closed on Sunday and that the main noise on Sunday morning was that of church bells! 

Recently, Poland's Parliament has taken a courageous stand for the restoration of Sunday. This humane, anti-capitalist measure was supported by both the Catholic Church (still strong enough in Poland to matter socially) and Poland's still strong labor movement (which still prizes its identity as a movement in the interests of workers rather than business). The new legislation restricts Sunday shopping in the new year, restricts it further in 2019, and then outlaws it almost completely (with just a few exceptions) after that.

The U.S. is probably too far gone down the path of total surrender to predatory capitalism ever to hope to see such a reform here. (Witness the growing phenomenon of stores opening on Thanksgiving Day!) 

And, of course one of the biggest casualties of the corruption of Sunday in this country has been church attendance!

The U.S. is not likely to imitate Poland. But what the Polish example reminds us is that these are choices that we have made and continue to make. There was nothing inevitable about  the choice to make consumerist predatory capitalism our highest cultural value. It was a choice we as a society consciously and deliberately made. And what a world of far greater value we have lost as a result!

Monday, December 4, 2017

Novitiate (The Movie)

The film Novitiate follows the story of Cathleen, raised in rural Tennessee in the 1950s by an irreligious single mother, and her experience as a postulant and then novice in a cloistered convent in the mid-1960s. It focuses on what was going on inside her and inside the convent - but also on the complicating consequences for religious life of the Second Vatican Council, simultaneously taking place in the world outside. Movies made about religious life by those outside the experience inevitably suffer from secular society's incomprehension and misunderstanding. This film also displays more than its share of historical errors and implausibilities. Still it captures something about the mystery - and romanticism - of discerning a religious vocation in any era and especially in the confusing late 20th-century.

Although irreligious, Cathleen's mother exposes her daughter to religion and eventually sends her to a Catholic girls' school, where she comes under the influence of the good Sisters and discovers a religious vocation - not, however, to a teaching order but to an enclosed contemplative community. Her actual grounding in the faith seems somewhat ambiguous, but she is clearly captivated by the idea pf being in love with God. She is also a loner, from a dysfunctional family, searching for stability and - as she describes her first childhood experience of Mass - peace.

The film portrays Cathleen's mother's reluctance to see her daughter do this as well as the seemingly incomprehensible (to a secular mentality) practices of pre-conciliar religious life. Presumably it serves the plot's purpose to emphasize those aspects and merely to mention - but seldom to illustrate - any of the "joys" of religious life. There are some scenes of "normal" behavior among the postulants, who are, after all, teenage girls, and there are expressions of kindness and care among the Sisters, but they are subordinated to an overall impression of archaic and inhumane religious observance that seems to have become an end in itself - especially in the hands of a difficult Mother Superior. (Likewise, the presentation of the celebration of the community's Mass is consistently inaccurate and reflects little familiarity with how it would have actually been celebrated or much understanding of how it would actually have been experienced by its contemporary participants.)

That said, the Mother Superior's seeming obsession with religious observances provides a distinctive context within which Cathleen (and her sister postulants and novices) struggle to discern their vocation, struggle to translate their natural human neediness and romanticized image of being a "Bride of Christ" into some kind of actual lived reality, which, as the Mother Superior tells them on the first day, requires "work." Like any young person seeking to live a holy life, Cathleen has to struggle with what faith means, what love means, and what community means, while still growing up to become an adult woman - with all that that process entails.

Meanwhile the outside world impinges on the convent's enclosed life through the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The Mother Superior is portrayed as extremely resistant - to the extent that she tries to hide the Council's prescriptions from the other Sisters. It is only due to the intervention of the local archbishop - unattractively portrayed as a stereotypical ecclesiastical careerist out to enforce what he sees as the company line - that any changes come to the monastery. In fact, however, only two changes actually occur in the course of the movie - Mass celebrated versus populum in English and a significant departure of nuns from the convent - the first not actually prescribed by the Council and the second certainly not intended by it. There is no serious grappling here with the what the Council actually did prescribe or the renewal of religious life which it in fact intended - something that really existing religious communities actually did experience with varying mixtures of good, bad, and confusing consequences. There is certainly a real story that could have been told about the disruptive effect of the Council and its unintended consequences.  But the movie only alludes to that reality. 

In her resistance to the supposed mandates of the Council, however, the Mother Superior's character is more deeply revealed. Her fetishizing of religious observances turns out to reflect her own quest for identity and belonging. She had, she admits in a crucial scene, no family, no home, and had come to the convent in search of precisely those things - an identity and sense of purpose which the seemingly oppressive observances of religious life had given her. So it turns out that she and Cathleen are a lot alike. She is, I suspect, what Cathleen would have been 40 years earlier, and Cathleen is probably what the Mother Superior would have been if she were a novice 40 years later. Both sought in religious life the identity, sense of purpose, and experience of community and belonging that their secular lives failed to provide. In Cathleen's case, the convent was her alternative to her mother's chaotic life. To a modern secularist ideologue, her mother's dysfunctional life may represent liberation. For Cathleen, however, it was something to escape from. The final credit announcing that 90,000 nuns left their convents in the immediate aftermath of the Council may be meant to suggest liberation for Cathleen and many others like her. In fact, if the convent proved to be a different kind of trap for Cathleen from the home life she escaped from, then perhaps the message is not how that dysfunctional home life was any less a trap, but rather how elusive freedom really is - at least for most people in this world.

A better, more nuanced presentation of the pros and cons of traditional religious observances might have better illuminated not only the real and tragic toll which the obsessive preoccupation with religious observances may have imposed on Religious, but also the benefits an ordered, structured, purpose-filled life may have provided them. The movie makes clear the Mother Superior's fear that the letting go of such observances might spell the end of religious life - at least as she knew it - and thus the end of the stability, sense of purpose, and community belonging she had found. The massive departures of nuns and sisters which the film seemingly celebrates would seem to confirm the Mother Superior's intuition. But what of those that remained - or future Cathleen's that might subsequently come in search of something? The movie does not ask or answer that question. If the Mother Superior's model of religious life had made a pagan idol of religious observances, what would eventually take their place? In today's world, an over-obsession with religious observances may be replaced by an over-obsession with work. For some, perhaps, work would fill that gap and replace the idol of religious observances with an alternative, catch-all, alternative idol of "mission."

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Be Alert!

A couple of weeks ago, in one of his regular weekday morning homilies, Pope Francis reminded us that, although no one knows when “the call will come,” nonetheless, “the Church says to us these days: stop a while, stop to think…stop, stop, every day will not continue like this. Do not get used to thinking of it as if it were eternity … think that our life will have an end.”

The season of Advent, which we begin today, originated as an annual period of repentance focused on preparation for Judgment Day. So this Sunday continues and further highlights the end-of-time, Judgment Day themes of the last several Sundays, summing them all up in the warning: “Be watchful! Be alert!”  Like the servants in today’s Gospel [Mark 13:33-37], we have been left with work to do, while we wait for the lord of the house to return.

Meanwhile, of course, there are many distractions that get in the way of our being attentive. What are some of those distractions? “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism,” Pope Francis wrote in his programmatic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel, “is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life gets caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades.” [Evangelii Gaudium, 2]

So, Jesus said to his disciples, “Be watchful! Be alert!” Be on guard against whatever distractions dull our senses and lull us into sleeping!

In the darkness of the winter night, when sleeping seems so natural, Advent yanks us out of our ordinary, secular time into what we might call liturgical time - by looking back, to get to the future. Thus, the 4th Sunday of Advent will recall Jesus’ conception in his Virgin Mother’s body. The 2nd Sunday, however, will recall the adult Christ’s public appearance on the historical stage as announced by John the Baptist. Then, on the 3rd Sunday, we will hear John’s challenge to recognize Jesus, here and now, in the present. Meanwhile, this 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 this Sunday’s somber tone. What we see and observe are autumn’s withered leaves, winter’s barren branches, and the imminent end of another year. What we feel and fear is the end of ourselves. As Isaiah laments in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 63:16b-17, 19b; 64:2b-7]: 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 enveloping winter darkness of a dying world and the dawning brightness of Christ’s coming to save us. As Saint Paul assures us in today’s 2nd reading [1 Corinthians 1:3-9]: God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Advent challenges us to slow down and take stock, and, above all, to pay attention. Of course, everything about the way we live nowadays conspires against slowing down – let alone taking stock of ourselves and paying attention to anything.

The older one gets, however, 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 (and that’s the Christian spin on what is an otherwise universal human experience) 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 claim as Christians to be waiting.

Advent is not, therefore, some irrelevant, vestigial interlude on the way to Christmas. Much less is it some artificial exercise in make-believe. 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.

Advent recalls Christ’s 1st coming to 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 increasingly fear–filled present be transformed into that hopeful future promised us already by Christ’s coming in the past. That present has plenty of problems, as we all know and all have experienced in different and challenging ways. The challenge of Advent is to recognize something even more wonderful than shopping and presents and parties, to recognize something really new and wonderful, pointing us hopefully into the future, by the bright light of Christmas past.

In his 2008 book, Why Go to Church: The Drama of the Eucharist, the former Master General of the Dominican Order, Timothy Radcliffe, recalled how one of the first things the Irish immigrants did when they settled in cities like Liverpool during the Industrial Revolution was to build big churches. Radcliffe writes: “it was a sign that they were not as they might seem, mere members of the urban proletariat, but citizens of the kingdom. They were fellow citizens of the saints whose statues filled their churches, God’s own children. Their houses might be slums, but their home was heaven.” Similar sentiments undoubtedly characterized the immigrant Catholic community that founded Immaculate Conception parish and built our parish church – a visible sign not just for them but for the whole world of the Kingdom of God present and active here in East Tennessee.

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

Homily for the First Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, December 3, 2017

Saturday, December 2, 2017


Tomorrow is the First Sunday of Advent. The distinctive liturgical features of Advent include the omission of the hymn Gloria in excelsis and the use of violet or purple vestments. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) prescribed black as the color to be used during Advent, but violet had become the preferred color by the end of the 13th century. Before the liturgical changes of the late 20th century, the solemnization of marriage with Mass and Nuptial Blessing was not permitted out of respect for the seriousness of this season. In the same spirit, the placing of flowers and relics of Saints on the altar and the playing of the organ also used to be excluded during this time.

Why such seriousness? Nowadays Advent is hardly noticed amid all the frivolity of our increasingly extended, commercialized American Christmas season. Actually, Advent is a continuation of the liturgy’s end-of-time and judgment themes that have predominated these past several Sundays. The continuity between the final weeks of “Ordinary Time” and Advent is obvious, and we need to think of Advent that way - as being in continuity with the messages about the end and Christ’s coming again as judge, which we have been hearing these past several weeks. (The modern notion that Advent "begins" the liturgical year is an inference from the fact that printed Missals and Breviaries have to start somewhere.)

Looking forward to Christ’s coming to judge the word at the end of time, Advent recalls Israel’s hope for the coming of the Messiah. As Christians, we remember his First Coming among us (which we will celebrate formally at Christmas) to focus on his coming into our lives in the present, his coming to each of us at our death, and his final advent when he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. Thus, the magnificent hymn Dies Irae, which for so many centuries was part of the Church’s liturgy of intercession for the dead was originally composed as a sequence for the first Sunday in Advent. We would do well to meditate on its somber sentiments to help us to recover the authentic spirit of Advent amid the frivolity, selfish commercialism, and materialistic extravagance of our American Christmas season.

Advent is, I think, the most counter-cultural of all the liturgical seasons. It is about slowing down, whereas we are always busy. It is about patience, whereas we are always in a hurry. It is about waiting patiently, whereas we are always in a rush. And it is about judgment and accountability, whereas we are all about affirmation and self-actualization.

Recalling the world’s preparation for Christ’s 1st Coming to focus our attention on Christ’s 2nd Coming, Advent captures the experience of where we are now – in this in-between time – between Christmas and the End. Jesus’ instructions "Be watchful! Be alert!” are about what we need to be doing now in order to be the people we hope to be at the end.

Friday, December 1, 2017


December, my favorite month, gets its name from the Latin word decem (10) because it was originally the tenth month of the year in the original Roman calendar, which began in March. It retains its ancient name even though it is now obviously the 12th month of the year.

Two ancient Roman holidays have given December a distinctive legacy. Saturnalia, a week-long festival in honor of Saturn, the father of Jupiter (the Greek god Kronos, father of Zeus), was celebrated December 17-23 by gift-giving and the contravening of Roman social norms. The Latin poet Catullus famously called it optimo dierum ("the best of days"). Saturnalia's season of festivity and gift-giving has continued in the customs surrounding the Winter Solstice, Christmas, and New Year's.

Another Roman holiday, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti ("the Day of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun", was celebrated on the Julian Calendar's Winter Solstice (December 25), the shortest day of the year, immediately after which the days being to lengthen. It may - or may not - have been a major factor in the choice of that date for the celebration of the Birth of Christ. Regardless, the symbolism of the Solstice has long been incorporated into the liturgical celebrations of the Advent and Christmas seasons. Likewise the imagery of the winter light festival has long been incorporated into the secular celebrations of the season. (Similarly, the Jewish feast of Hanukkah, although the historical event it commemorates - the rededication of the Temple by the Maccabees after its profanation by the Gentiles - itself has nothing to do with winter or wintry darkness, in the holiday's manner of celebration fits in perfectly with the winter light festival theme.)

So December is nature's darkest month but has been turned into the brightest by massive festive illumination, both indoors and out. It is my favorite month, ending the annual cycle on its most hopeful note. 

Among the many wonderful and historically significant things that have happened in December, on December 19, 1843, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. Within a week it was sold out, and charitable giving had gone up! Perhaps no other single individual has done so much as Dickens to help our capitalism-ravaged society rediscover the transformational possibilities revealed in the story and message of Christmas.

(Photo: December from the famous Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, an early 15th-century prayer book, which is generally considered perhaps the best surviving example of medieval French Gothic manuscript illumination)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Marriage Gap

The great Walter Bagehot (the author in the 1860s of The British Constitution) famously described a royal wedding as "the brilliant edition of a universal fact." Hence, for example, the world-wide interest in the latest British royal engagement! Yet marriage, as all sorts of authors and commentators have been warning us in recent years, has increasingly become less universal and more class-based. It is an evident social fact that in today's society marriage - and its manifold benefits - is much more likely to be an upper-class experience, almost a luxury item. This trend is both the result of growing inequality and a further contributor to it. It is also in part a result of the value of marriage no longer being upheld and propagated precisely by those who benefit from it the most. Sociologist Charles Murray famously challenged our upper classes to "preach what they practice."  Certainly their failure to do so has been catastrophic for those at the other end of the socio-economic hierarchy, who would benefit enormously from living in a society whose leaders articulated the values and promoted policies which would further the social stability, which previous generations benefited from and which the better off are still largely able to benefit from.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Christ the King

On this annual celebration of Christ the King, the Church challenges us to contemplate Christ’s return in majesty - his coming again “in glory” (as we say all the time in the Creed) “to judge the living and the dead.”

Traditionally, we speak of two judgments – the general and the particular. Like Michelangelo’s famous fresco in the Sistine Chapel, today’s gospel portrays a final, general judgment, which we associate with the end of time. Yet, that final, general judgment will just ratify and confirm the particular judgment of each one of us at end of our individual life. Likewise, that particular judgment just confirms each one of us individually in the kind of life we have been living on earth - in the kind of person you and I have become over the course of our life.

Around the end of World War II, the British author C.S. Lewis wrote a short story, The Great Divorce, a fantasy, in which the narrator finds himself at a bus stop in what resembles a rather dreary 1940s English town in apparently perpetual drizzle. There he joins a group of quarrelsome, grumpy ghosts on a bus trip to the outskirts of heaven, where they are to be offered yet one more opportunity to leave behind the sins that have kept them trapped outside.

The narrator then listens in on a series of conversations between the bus passengers and some representatives from heaven - people they previously knew in life, who now try to persuade them to change. One of them poignantly pleads with one of the visitors: “Could you, only for a moment, fix your mind on something not yourself?”

Overwhelmingly, as in the Gospel account we just heard, the visitors obstinately seem to remain forever focused only on themselves. As one of heaven’s residents explains to the narrator (who is understandably perplexed by the visitors’ behavior): “There is always something they insist on keeping … There is always something they prefer to joy.” That is why each one becomes, as one of the heavenly figures explains, “nearly nothing,” that is “shrunk, shut up in itself.”

Lewis was just writing a novel, of course, a work of fiction. But, like the Gospel’s judgment story, it illustrates the connection between what we believe and how we live. And it dramatically captures how my own choices and actions here and now can either unite me with others or cut me off from others. Both the novel and the gospel illustrate how the person that I am going to be forever is the person that I am presently in the process of becoming – by how I am living here and now. What I do with others, how I live with others, my actions, my relationships, my whole life matters. Each one of us is the story of a lifetime. And it is, of course, a process – a lifelong process, in the course of which each one of us experiences his or her own particular set of challenges and opportunities. And, just like with the servants in the parable we heard last week, the gifts God has given us to work with can be multiplied many times over by going beyond ourselves and joining with others here and now in this world, which we have been entrusted to love and care for, and in our life together as his Church. As Pope Francis has reminded us, defeatism stifles [Evangelii Gaudium 85], whereas God’s love summons us to mission and makes us fulfilled and productive [[Evangelii Gaudium 81].

Homily for the Solemnity of Christ the King, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, November 26, 2017

Photo: Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci, the only one of his paintings still remaining in private hands, recently sold for $450.3 million.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Over the River and through the Wood

Last night, my mother and I watched A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, which first aired in 1973 and, while perhaps not quite so classic as the famous Charlie Brown Christmas and Halloween specials, has since become a Thanksgiving TV tradition. This morning, we are watching the even more traditional Macy's Thanksgiving Parade.

Virtually everyone in my generation, who went to school when we still routinely memorized poetry, remembers Lydia Maria Child's 1844 Thanksgiving poem that begins, Over the river and through the wood, To grandfather's house we go. While the familiar narrative of the Pilgrims and a lot of the language associated with the holiday highlights giving thanks (thanks to whom being increasingly less clear), the holiday is at least as much about being together. Even if it means traveling over the river and through the wood - or nowadays on the road and through the air - the holiday is increasingly about wanting a place at someone's table, actually belonging at someone's table, wanting to be and to feel connected with others. All this is happening, of course in an increasingly individualized and fragmented society, in which belonging at someone's table can be less and less taken for granted. Indeed, even the existence of a dinner table to belong at is problematic for many in our society.

Norman Rockwell's familiar March 3, 1943, Saturday Evening Post cover was intended the depict one of FDR's recently proclaimed Four Freedoms - in this case Freedom from Want. Undoubtedly the original Pilgrims' Thanksgiving celebrated their newly found freedom from want, and for many in our world - even sadly in our own society - that is still an elusive goal. Still, what has characterized our recent history - at least since the catastrophic election of 1980 - has been the widespread propagation of a perverse freedom from community, which for so many has turned out to be the  ultimate un-freedom. Wrapped in sentimentality though it may be, the traditional Thanksgiving trek Over the river and through the wood continues to attract in spite of - or perhaps because of - its radical rebuttal to our officially sanctioned individualized way of life. On Thanksgiving, we ritualize what human beings by nature seek, but which our prevailing political culture (both Right and Left) has successfully sought to liberate us from. 

Monday, November 20, 2017

Thanksgiving and Tax Cuts

Speaking in New York's Madison Square Garden in October 1936, President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously reminded Americans of the dangers posed by "business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering," which "had begun to consider the government of the United States as a mere appendage  to their own affairs." FDR reminded his audience "that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob." On that occasion, he expressed his hope that in his Administration those "forces of selfishness and lust for power met their match."

As Americans prepare for our annual Thanksgiving holiday, 81 years after that famous speech, we see instead the sad spectacle of a Congress, whose majority remains committed to further enriching and empowering those very "forces of selfishness and lust for power."

Tax cuts can be thought of as a form of congressionally authorized theft from the public interest and the common good in favor of private and special interests. Obviously it would be possible to craft tax policies in ways which, by serving the special interests of the middle and working classes, could thereby promote the public interest and the common good of society as a whole. The tax policies presently in the process of being enacted by the Congressional majority, however, are evidently intended to do the opposite.

Fittingly, before it was even passed (by a 227-205 vote in the House of Representatives), Bishop Frank Dewane, Bishop Oscar Cantu, and Bishop George Murry, representing the USCCB's Domestic Justice and Human Development Committee, International Justice and Peace Committee, and Catholic Education Committee, spoke in opposition to this terrible plan, noting how "this proposal appears to be the first federal income tax modification in American history that will raise income taxes on the working poor while simultaneously providing a large tax cut to the wealthy. This is simply unconscionable." 

Thanksgiving is the quintessentially American holiday, and we do well this Thanksgiving to recall what the settlers who founded this feast aspired to accomplish in this new land. As John Winthrop memorably expressed it in his 1630 sermon, A Model of Christian Charity:

We must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities. We must uphold a familiar commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality. We must delight in each other; make other's conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labor and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in the work, as members of the same body.  …For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us.

Prosperity and the passage of time may make us feel more secure and contented than befits a truly pilgrim people  In the great ongoing struggle for the heart and soul of America, the pilgrims’ legacy recalls an important dimension of our life together. 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 requires a real community in which we all recognize our mutual dependence upon one another in a single society - a value ill served by privileging those who are already far too wealthy.

Sunday, November 19, 2017


Today’s Gospel [Matthew 25:14-30] reports one of the very last parables of Jesus’ public life. Obviously, we are meant to apply this (and similar parables) to ourselves, as we anticipate Christ’s final coming to judge the living and the dead at the end of each of our own lives and at the end of human history.

This familiar parable portrays two good and faithful servants, and a wicked, lazy servant, who seems to value caution above all else.

Now, obviously, in our ordinary day-to-day world, some degree of caution usually makes sense. These parables, however, are not about our ordinary day-to-day world, but about the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God, the wicked, lazy servant is condemned as much for his fear of failure as for his actual failure to accomplish anything - for his cautious inactivity and passivity.

The two good and faithful servants, in contrast, are praised and rewarded. They too were prudent - in their own way (which turned out to be the right way). Presumably, they also knew that their master was demanding, but, (like the fear of the Lord, which, as the psalm says, makes people blessed), their master’s expectation that they accomplish something with what he had given them, his determination to hold them to account and to judge them accordingly, instead of immobilizing them, inspired them actually to do something bold with what he entrusted to them.

Now, since this is a parable about the kingdom of God, the master’s expectations of his servants suggest God’s expectations of us – expectations which, when the time comes to settle accounts, end up being most threatening precisely to the servant who seems so determined to keep his life unthreatening.

But to the other two, their master must seem incredibly generous. Surely, he is the most imaginative and adventurous person in the parable, the one who risks treating his servants as partners and rewards them with greater responsibility and greater closeness. So cautious, however, is that wicked, lazy servant that he fails to see what the other two see so well. He cannot see what he is being encouraged to make of his life, what he is being personally empowered to become. As Pope Francis has reminded us, it is defeatism, which stifles boldness and zeal [EG 85], whereas God’s love summons us to mission and makes us fulfilled and productive [EG 81].

With which of the servants do we identify? What do we see when we think about God and when we consider his expectations of us? Do we feel threatened by God, who (we fear) is really just out to get us? Do we - like the wicked, lazy servant - imagine that the challenging situations in which we find ourselves in life are just traps God sets for us to catch us in failure to fulfill his will? Or do we recognize, in his will for us, an unprecedented opportunity - to live a new and abundant life of moral responsibility, and an invitation to a life of ever increasing closeness with God? 

With which of the three do we identify? Notice that we have three possibilities here, and the older I get (and maybe it is because I am getting older) I am more and more appreciative of the one in the middle, the one we are more likely to overlook, as if he were just a weaker version of the servant with the 5 talents. The reality of, of course, that, even at our best, we don’t all have 5 talents, and we are not always at our best. Over time we all tend to feel we can do less, not more. The servant with only 2 talents might easily give in to the same temptation as the servant with only 1 talent, focusing on his limitations instead of his opportunities But he doesn’t, and so ends up feeling more like the one with the 5 talents!

Like the three servants in the parable – and like the worthy wife, extolled for her endeavors in today’s 1st reading – each one of us experiences his or her own particular set of challenges and opportunities. And, just like with the servants in the parable, the gifts God has given us to work with can be multiplied many times over by being boldly invested in getting outside of ourselves and joining with others - in this world, which we have been entrusted to love and care for, and in our life together as his Church, whose mission it is to share our master’s joy with all the world.

 Homily for the 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Anne's Church, Walnut Creek, CA, November 19, 2017.