Thursday, January 31, 2013

Moving Beyond the Therapeutic Society

On the 40th anniversary of Freud-scholar Philip Rieff's 1966 classic, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud, Stephen L. Gardner observed: "The rise of democracy and equality, the loss of authority and hierarchical order that has defined the modern world, have produced not just a change in regime but a virtual transformation in human character." Some of the more striking effects of this revolution, he listed were "a corrosion of the distinction between public and private spheres; an 'ethics' of entitlement and victimology; and a popular and consumer culture dedicated to explicit sexuality and to an equally obsessive cult of violence, as if they were twin paradigms of freedom." 
Rieff anticipated much of this 47 years ago - before Facebook, Twitter, and the 24-hour news cycle, before confessional TV and post-modern identity politics, before internet hookup sites, violent video games, and our present epidemic of guns in private hands. 
I first read Rieff's non-nostalgic analysis of the decomposition of Western (and thus Christian) culture as a graduate student in the 1970s (and later graduated to his earlier volume Freud: the Mind of the Moralist). I have been rereading it this week (in the 40th anniversary critical edition published in 2006). The effort (and it is an effort ploughing through Rieff's erudition) has been well worth it.
Rieff understood culture as "a design of motives directing the self outward, toward those communal purposes in which alone the self can be realized and satisfied." Such a culture survives principally "by the power of its institutions to bind and loose men in the conduct of their affairs with reasons which sink so deep into the self that they become commonly and implicitly understood." Freud famously "emphasized coercion and the renunciation of instinct as indispensable elements in all culture." 
That this is so was the traditional Western understanding, and the role of elites traditionally reflected this understanding. Traditional elites "were predominantly supportive rather than critical of culture as a moral demand system. Admonitions were the expectable predicates of consolations; that is what is meant, nowadays, by 'guilt' culture." The historic function of intellectuals was "to assert the authority of a culture organized in terms of communal purpose." Instead, however, "large numbers of the cultivated and intelligent have identified themselves deliberately" with a rejection of instinctual renunciation, resulting, according to Rieff, in "the most elaborate act of suicide that Western intellectuals have ever staged." Indeed, a culture begins to die "when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves."
And that's obviously been going on now in the West for quite some time. The 40+ years since Rieff wrote have, however, witnessed the widespread popularization of that elite loss of faith. As for elite culture itself, as Rieff predicted emerging elites "are being trained in terminologies that have only the most tenuous relation to any historic culture or its incorporative self-interpretations."
Nowhere has the process of cultural unravelling been more obvious - and, especially in recent decades, more rapid - than in regard to religion itself, western culture's traditional symbol system. To me, having lived through the recent phases of this process of cultural and religious dissolution - and having in a certain sense actively participated in it as an academic and as a religious professional - the question becomes whether and how religion can recover the internal resources and external confidence to undertake a rehabilitation of culture.
By that I certainly do not mean returning to or restoring a world we have lost. If history has taught us anything it has taught us that such reactionary projects are ultimately unsustainable. In any case, the actual benefits to humanity of modernity are simply too many, too real, and too obvious to allow for such a stance to be credible. Few of us have retained our ancestors' capacity for instinctual renunciation, and - to the extent that such renunciaiton is actually less necessary today - that is not altogether a bad thing.
What is problematic, however, is our increasing incapacity to subordinate private satisfaction to any larger common or public purpose. This incapacity permeates all aspects of social life. Rieff rightly recognized modern art as "unpleasant and ugly." The fundamental problem with modern art, however, is its lack of public purpose - existing only as its author's self-expression, created only to be exhibited. Of course, most people are indifferent to modern art - except insofar as it is inflicted upon them by ugly architecture. But the inability to subordinate private satisfaction to any larger common purpose is omnipresent nonetheless. Prescinding from the big political and economic issues that rivet our attention, consider the increasingly universal phenomenon of casual dress, which (whatever else it may suggest) signifies the collapse of the boundary between what is public and important and what is private and trivial. The issue is not discipline per se and instinctual renunciation for its own sake, but recovering a longing for a common purpose and relearning enough self-disicple to pursue any common purpose.
Religion is very much about a common public purpose. Despite its image in this respect, it is only instrumentally about disicpline and renunciation. As Rieff realized, Christian asceticism was positive not negative - "aimed fundamentally at a liberation of the highest powers of personality." Recovering an ability as an individual to prioritize the public and the common - and so salvaging society in the process - is not primarily about maintaining (much less restoring) old prohibitions, but about redirecting moral energy.
Here Christianity has something specific it can contribute. The truly grievous weakness of post-modern, accomodationist Christianity is how it has transformed faith in salvation by and through God's gift of grace into a therapy of unconditional self-acceptance. But, of course, salvation by and through God's grace is an experience not of acceptance but of mercy - God's mercy. Unconditional acceptance takes away the fundamentally human tension of sin and guilt and reduces mercy merely to an incomprehensible instance of vestigial liturgicla language with no real reference int he actual world. Mercy, however, or more precisely the God who is mercy, is at the core of the Christian story, It is our hope in the God of mercy, revealed by the life, death,and resurrection of Jesus, that provides consolation int he face of our moral lapses and failures, making it possible for us to keep on striving in the public realm while making peace with our personal contradicitons in the private realm.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

All Together

The Gospel story [Luke 4:14-21] we just heard took place in the otherwise ordinary setting of a Sabbath service in the synagogue in Jesus’ hometown, and it was as an ordinary member of the community that he took his turn reading the scripture (just as members of this congregation did here moments ago).

The passage Jesus read was familiar enough.  They had probably heard it many times, and had no reason to suppose that this time would be any different – any more than many of us, coming to Mass Sunday after Sunday, expect anything extraordinary to happen. The surprise was not what Jesus had read, but rather his unexpected announcement that the prophet’s words were being fulfilled then and there: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Our reading today ends on that somewhat upbeat note, but the rest of the story [Luke 4:21-30] (which we’ll hear next week) tells how Jesus’ audience were first amazed at his words, but then turned against him and, filled with fury, drove him out of the town, and tried to throw him off the hilltop on which Nazareth was built. But Jesus, we are told, passed through the midst of them and went away.

Jesus’ audience’s amazement really shouldn’t surprise us, since surprise is one thing we usually least expect. And, since human history probably produces more bad news than good news, genuinely good news (if and when it comes) usually comes as a surprise. It doesn’t fit our ordinary expectations, and it is those ordinary expectations that govern our reactions most of the time. For the congregation at Nazareth to have expected Isaiah’s words to be fulfilled in their hearing, that would have been surprising. Hence their amazed reaction to Jesus’ surprising invitation to them to change their expectations!

For us today, too, the contrast can be quite as upsetting between Jesus’ amazing message and our present situation – natural and human-induced disasters of all sorts, political fights, economic failures, and polarization and conflict even (sadly) within the Church itself. Hence the understandable skepticism of those who have a hard time reconciling the good news the Church proclaims with the ordinary old news of our day-to-day world.

We all know people who, tragically, are no longer actively involved in the life of the Church. There are many reasons this happens – getting married, moving and not quite getting settled, being bored, a personal quarrel with a parishioner or priest, or (increasingly in our sadly post-Christian society) not having really learned what being Church is all about in the first place.

Then again, it seems to me, many active, faithfully practicing Catholics often share some of those same circumstances, difficulties, and questions. In that sense, there might not be a whole lot of difference between the two groups – any more than there was between those who spoke highly of Jesus in the Gospel story and those who were all filled with fury at him. If anything, the story seems to suggest they were really the same people – speaking highly of Jesus one minute, then all filled with fury the next – just as any one of us can be very committed and devout, but then something happens to make us angry or indifferent.

Ultimately, for us now as for them then, the difference comes down to Jesus himself – Jesus who clearly made himself the issue, setting the stage for everything that followed. Ultimately, what solidifies our commitment and makes the Church effective in the world is how our expectations of life have been changed by Jesus himself, who in turn challenges us to share those changed expectations with the world.

Jesus’ hometown triumph-turned-rejection anticipated what would happen soon enough on the big-city stage of Jerusalem, where having again entered in triumph, Jesus would end up driven out of town to be executed on a hill. Risen from the dead, however, Jesus has once and for all passed through our midst – not to leave us, however, but to remain with us in his Church, where life’s ordinary old news has become God’s good news.

In that Church, we are all, as St. Paul says [1 Corinthians 12:12-30], baptized into one body – Christ’s body – Christ’s face for the world to see, God’s word for the world to hear. Who and how we are as a living, active, united, and effective Church community is how the Scripture is fulfilled and the kingdom of God becomes present in the here and now. That is why our life together as Church is at the center of our mission to continue Christ’s life and work in our world.

Whether at the worldwide level, centered around the ministry of our Holy Father the Pope in Rome or at the local level, centered around the ministry of our diocesan Bishop, the Church’s mission is a communal effort, as in different ways and at different times we come together with our many different experiences and needs, our joys and sorrows, our hopes and anxieties, to form a community of faith, hope, and love to continue Christ’s life and work in our world. We all share in that mission – from which we benefit and to which we contribute according to our circumstances.

Contributing to the mission of the Church is about more than money, of course; but (as long as we live in a world in which resources are limited and things cost) money is a part of it. And so, as your pastor, my special task today is to ask you (if you have not done so already) to make a pledge next week to this year’s Annual Bishop’s Appeal. Your participation in the annual Bishop’s Appeal will assist our 47 existing parishes and enable the diocese to open new ones (as it has been doing in areas which have not had any parish previously). Your participation in the annual Bishop’s Appeal will help support the essential (but expensive) work of training our 19 seminarians along with the next generation of deacons and other parish leaders, will enable essential diocesan programs for sacramental preparation and religious education, and will continue to make possible the Church’s vital social outreach to the 64,586 clients who have been served through our Catholic Charities. Now none of this happens automatically. It’s up to us to make it all happen.

As St. Paul put it so directly: God has so constructed the body so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.

Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time and the Announcement of the Annual Bishop’s Appeal, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 26-27, 2013

Friday, January 25, 2013

27 Years

Freezing rain is covering everything in ice - the porch steps, the sidewalk, the street, my car.  It's a day to do nothing, and I accordingly closed the parish office and cancelled the noon Mass for everyone's safety - including my own. (I think I've already had enough stress for one week!)
The icy weather reminds me - warningly - of the pre-Christmas ice storm two years ago in my first Knoxville winter, when I slipped on the totally iced front steps. It also reminds me of the sloppily wintry weather in Washington, DC, 27 years ago today, on the day of my Final profession as a Paulist.
In our contemporary divorce-based culture, individual fulfillment matters more than socially constructed obligations. In a world in which lifetime commitments are increasingly not seen as really about being lifelong, perhaps an anniversary of such a commitment for the duration of one's life seems at best culturally out of sync. Of course, religious life - even as it has always inevitably become itself a part of the larger landscape, socially and culturally - has always retained at least a nod to its counter-cultural origins.
In an individualistic society, where one sets one's own priorities and lives according to one's own schedule, what must it mean to reject that and to "commit myself for life to membership" in a community? 
The Baptismal vows famously incorporate three rejections - Satan, his works, and his pomps - prior to the three affirmation of faith, that are the basis for the Apostles Creed. Perhaps, the formulas of religious profession - and, analogously, marriage vows - should also be preceded by explicit rejections of the individualistic alternatives that define our current culture and that will always tempt us to alternative redefinitions of community that really aren't community at all.
In the 3rd episode of Season 3 of Downton Abbey, Earl Richard laments not having a more "normal" family, to which his mother, the Dowager Countess, replies "No family is ever what it seems fromt he outside." 
Like real family, religious community can be challenging and frustrating. But, like being in a real family, it invites one into something bigger and fuller than oneself. 
And for that - for these 27 years - I am greatly grateful.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Health Scare

It happened late Monday morning while I was watching the President's Inauguration. All of a sudden, I felt something. It wasn't pain, but I knew right away something was wrong, as my left arm suddenly felt cold and my left hand became weaker than usual. Nothing else was obviously amiss. Maybe on a busier day, it might have passed with less notice. But it was a holiday. I was at home. I probably would have gone into the office later that afternoon, but there was nothing that really had to be done, nothing to distract me from the suspicion that something might be going wrong and the mounting anxiety I was feeling about it.
By the time the President's inspirational inaugural address was finished, I was ready to make my decision. The choice was between staying put and fretting the rest of the day about what might or might not be wrong, or going to the ER to get checked out (even though that would almost certainly mean imprisonment in the hospital overnight).
Well, I went to the ER, and I wasn't over-reacting or being a hypochondriac after all. While the EKG was ok and so was the CT scan, an MRI confirmed a small "mini-stroke." Fortunately, subsequent ultra-sounds of the heart and the neck revealed no further problems. So it's aspirin and new medications from now on!
I'm happily back at home now after two days in the hospital. Being hospitalized is no fun. It's boring, but one can't get much sleep (at least I can't). And one gets repeatedly poked and prodded and stuck. Still, I want to acknowledge the good care and the genuinely kind treatment I received. It's a true tribute to the Sisters of Mercy's legacy in Knoxville, that the hospital they founded is still so suffused with their spirit! 
The whole experience was a scare - perhaps never more so than in that initial hour when I had to decide how seriously to take it and how to respond. The tests and waiting for a final  diagnosis were frightening too, of course, although at least I had no more immediate personal decisions to make!
It is also a reminder of the limits of "health" and the ultimate challenge of aging, of bodily limitation, and also of the relative transitoriness of so much of what one does and aspires to do.
The soon-to-be repeated invitation of Ash Wednesday that we are all dust and to dust we will all return wil be that much more vivid for me this year, as I pronounce those ancient words over and over again that day!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Inauguration Day

Since the adoption of the 20th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1933, January 20 has replaced March 4 as Presidential Inauguration Day. (Because it falls on a Sunday this year, the oath of office will be administered privately in the White House, then repeated with the usual public festivities tomorrow, as has been the traditional practice whenever Inauguration Day falls on a Sunday - a reminder that once upon a time at least we really were a Christian country where the Lord's Day was taken seriously).
My earliest inaugural "memory" is of President Eisenhower's 2nd Inaugural in 1957 (like this year's also done privately on Sunday and then publicly on Monday), but the only thing I actually remember about it was watching the parade. John F. Kennedy's Inaugrual in 1961, on the other hand, I can recall in detail as vividly as if it were yesterday. The East Coast had experienced a severe snowstorm the night before, with the result that we had no school on Friday, January 20, 1961, which meant I was home and got to watch the whole show - from Kennedy's attendance at Mass at Holy Trinity in Georgetown to his trip to the White House for coffee with the Eisenhowers, the official ride of the outgoing and incoming presidents up Pennsylvania Avenue, the multiple prayers at the Capitol (including Cardinal Cushing's famously interminable invocaiton), Robert Frost's poem, the oaths of office, Kennedy's "pay any price, bear any burden" inaugural address, and the lengthy parade that followed it all. I've watched all or part of most inaugurations since, but none made the impression which that one did on an admittedly impressionable 13-year old looking for a world bigger than the Bronx.
As a celebration of democratic governance, the Inauguration ceremony is the most impressive distinctly American civic ceremony. An elaborately scripted ritual, sanctioned by longstanding American tradition, prescribes how the President and the Vice President travel in procession from the White House to the Capitol for the swearing of the oaths of office, Hail to the Chief, the 21-gun salute, and the President’s Inaugural Address, followed by the parade back to the White House – an elaborately choreographed civic ceremony intended to celebrate American democracy and constitutional government and to remind us of  our serious common vocation as citizens and the particular vocations of those we have called upon to undertake public office on our behalf.

In his 1st Inaugural Address, on April 30, 1789, George Washington said to the assembled Senators and Representatives:

"Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge. In tendering this homage to the Great Author of every public and private good, I assure myself that it expresses your sentiments not less than my own, nor those of my fellow-citizens at large less than either. No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted can not be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage. These reflections, arising out of the present crisis, have forced themselves too strongly on my mind to be suppressed. You will join with me, I trust, in thinking that there are none under the influence of which the proceedings of a new and free government can more auspiciously commence."
The Roman Missal contains the following prayer for the President: O God, to whom every human power is subject, grant to your servant our president, Barack Obama, success in the exercise of his high office, so that, always revering you and striving to please you, he may constantly secure and preserve for the people entrusted to his care the freedom that comes from civil peace.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Water into Wine

Weddings are, almost by definition, designed to be big, happy occasions. A wedding is, after all, the principal ritual by which a society celebrates its commitment to the next generation and its hope that the human race’ will have a future. Weddings, however, can sometimes be a burden – financially, logistically, and especially emotionally. Several years ago, I read an article by some grumpy twenty-something, complaining about all the weddings those in his age group had to attend and what a burden such marathon celebrations had become. In Jesus’ world, however, as in almost all human societies that have ever existed, one’s family was one’s most important community, and hardly anything could rival a wedding as an occasion of genuine joy and festivity. That is why the wedding celebration has served, for centuries, as such a useful symbol for the kingdom of God. In the Old Testament, moreover, the uniqueness of the marriage bond made it a favored image for the relationship between God and Israel, his Chosen People. Likewise, in the New Testament, Christian marriage became a sacramental sign of the relationship between Christ and his Church.
That said, the Gospel for this Sunday [John 2:1-11] – in the good old days the gospel reading for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany every year - this Gospel about a certain 1st-century wedding at Cana in Galilee, at which the number of guests seems to have overwhelmed the resources of the hosts, is only incidentally about marriage. Of course, there are no coincidences in the Gospels. So the fact that Jesus’ 1st miracle occurred at a wedding is hardly insignificant. Even so, the primary point of the story certainly is what John the evangelist himself said it is, in his own editorial commentary at the end: Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs … and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.
Cana is considered the third of Jesus’ epiphanies – after his manifestation to the Gentile magi and the manifestation of his divinity and messianic anointing at his baptism. At Cana, Jesus revealed his glory – an echo of John’s Gospel that was proclaimed on Christmas Day: and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. No one has ever seen God. The only son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him.
Well, that was Christmas – an eternity of 3½  weeks ago, when the vestments were gold (an appropriate color for glory), not the boring, drab green outfit of this equally boringly named season of Ordinary Time.
Yet, isn’t ordinary time most of the time - the time when most things actually happen? Isn’t ordinary life where most of us actually live, so to speak? For that matter, aren’t most of us really rather ordinary people? The sky may have space for an almost infinite number of stars, but the earth has room for only a few at any one time. Most of us are really rather ordinary people, living for the most part ordinary lives.
Yet wasn’t the point of Christmas precisely that ordinary life in this ordinary world isn’t just ordinary anymore? Into this ordinary world, the invisible God has entered, in God’s visible Son, so that, in the language of the liturgy, he might love in us what he loved in Christ, giving our mortal nature immortal value.
That was what was being revealed at Cana, the invisible God made visible and turning the water of ordinary life into the good wine of God’s kingdom. So, insofar as the Cana story is about marriage, it is about how something so natural and ordinary, something men and women have been doing in some form or other since Adam and Eve, can now become an effective sign – a sacrament – of Christ’s presence and action in his Church, forming the Church in miniature in the family unit itself.
The extent to which that actually happens, at our end, depends upon our following the instructions given in the Gospel – first, Mary’s direction to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you,” and, then, Jesus’ command, “Fill the jars with water.”
With loving care for the bridegroom and his bride, Mary turned to her Son for help & told the servants to follow his command. Mary leads us to Christ, the one and only savior of the world, the one who makes our life complete.
Jesus, in turn, tells us to “Fill the jars with water.” “Fill the jars,” Jesus says. Jesus invites us to make the most of the water of this ordinary life - the gift of life itself, and life’s opportunities for love and work, and the multiple networks of human relationships without which we cannot thrive. Jesus challenges us (if I may borrow from the words of the Paulist Prayer Book) to hear each other’s concerns and help carry each other’s burdens, to grow in our commitment to family, community, and society, faithfully living out our promises and commitments to one another and to our world.
Not only in marriage, but in all the sacraments and through the sacramental life we live together as Christ’s Church, we are meant to experience God animating our ordinary world through Jesus his Son, who reveals God’s glory to us, transforming the ordinary water of our day-to-day lives into the good wine we all hope to drink together in the kingdom of God, beginning right now.

Friday, January 18, 2013


A couple of days of rain finally turned into snow yesterday - the thick wet kind, but beautiful nonetheless. This morning, the bright sun made it all sparkle - even as it signaled the start of a rapid melt as the temperature climbs up to the 40s. (My first "snow day" since the two Roman blizzards I lived through last February!)
Besides being beautiful to look at, the snow did what snow is supposed to do. It slowed everything down. We gave the cook the night off, and I cobbled together a bit of dinner for three of us, and we even had some actual community time. The sattelite TV signal was out. So actual conversation was possible.
And it was all a great distraction from Te'o and Lance Armstrong and other celebrity silliness.As a member of the minority of Americans that really couldn't care less about either football or cycling, I've tried my best to ignore our national obsession with the personal foibles of celebrity athletes.
Does that mean I am incurably disconnected from popular culture?
Does it matter?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Civilization and Sanity

In Book I of his magnificent History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides famously noted that the ancient Athenians were the first to give up the habit of carrying weapons and to adopt a more civilized way of life. The epic battle between barbarism and civilization which has characterized much of human history has been a back-and-forth series of advances and setbacks. States - whether classical or Rennaisance cities or ancient or modern empires or post-Westphalian national states - all states serve many functions - from organizing irrigation in ancient Mesopotamia to guaranteeing universal health care in modern democracies. But inherent in the nature and purpose of any State deserving of the name is certainly the provision of order, internal and external security, and some modicum of justice. One step in that direction, which (at least accoridng to Thucydides) the Athenians were among the first to pursue systematically, is the reduction and control of private violence, which can only be achieved by ensuring that the State alone exercises force legitimately. This monopoly of legitimate force is exercised domestically through the State's police power and internationally through the State's military, naval, and air forces.
Cities (hence "civilization") emerged in human history to provide ordered security and to promote prosperity. All too often, however, the presence of private weaponry has inhibited the achievement of this essential purpose. The United States has long been the envy of the world for its political liberty and economic abundance. Its remaining deficiencies, therefore, seem all that much more glaring and cry out all that much luder for remedy. Other societies have their serious deficiencies too, of course; but most modern democracies have long been way ahead of the United States in the provision of universal health care, for example, and in restricting the legitimate use of violence to a State monopoly. The peculilar American practice of tolerating widespread private gun ownership and its resulting social dysfunctions has long been a negative mark against our aspiration to civilization - and social sanity.
To make advances in the struggle for civilization - and sanity - even modest steps, such as those finally being proposed by the President to get some control over the perennial American plague of guns - are to be commended. It's rather late in the day, but late is still better than never.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Savior Appears

Traditionally, churches were built facing east, and the standard location for the baptismal font became the northwest corner. For various reasons, Immaculate Conception was built facing a different direction, but the traditional internal alignment was followed - with the font in what would be the northwest corner if the church did actually face east. Two years ago, we restored the original font and returned it to its original place.
Traditional baptisteries often include an image of the Baptism of Jesus by John – suggesting a connection between our baptism and that of Jesus. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries, before dying and rising with Christ became the popular western image for it, baptism was mainly about being born again of water and the Holy Spirit – one reason Epiphany became the baptismal feast in the East, as Easter eventually became in the West. At Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan River [Luke 3:21-22], God the Father identified Jesus as his Son, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him. At our baptism, through the gift of the same Holy Spirit, we in turn are now identified with the Son, and so share in an “adoptive” kind of way in his relationship with his Father. Thus, Jesus’ baptism does actually anticipate the baptism that has elevated us to a new status in relation to the Father and so empowered us to continue Christ’s life and mission in our world though his Church.
That said, the theme of today’s celebration of the Baptism of the Lord is primarily about Jesus’ baptism, not ours, - and really not so much about Jesus’ actual baptism as about what followed after Jesus had been baptized and was praying, when heaven was opened for a revelation (in other words, an “epiphany”) of his status as the eternal Son of God. While God the Father’s words themselves seem to have been addressed directly to Jesus alone, the event itself has been recounted for our benefit. In this revelation, in this “epiphany,” we get a glimpse of the hitherto hidden, inner life of God, now suddenly revealed in what God is doing, for us, through Jesus’ mission as messiah.
Something really new and wonderful is happening here. Heaven has opened. The barrier between heaven and earth, between God and us, has been breached, and the (until now) invisible God has not only spoken, but through his Word has become visible for us as his Son, who has revealed God to us in a way we would not otherwise have known. What is being revealed in Jesus is nothing less than what St. Paul, writing to Titus [2:11-14; 3:4-7], called the kindness and generous love of God our savior. We are invited to accept God’s kindness and generous love ourselves, as his own people, prepared to be transformed, or – as St. Paul put it - eager to do what is good.
So it is no accident that these are the very same words of St. Paul, which were heard on Christmas itself. Although the cycle of Christmas-related festivals doesn’t completely conclude until we celebrate the Presentation of the Lord on February 2, today celebrates the fulfillment of the Christmas season. Measured by the secular time by which we rule our lives, today’s feast may seem like some sort of post-holiday afterthought. Actually, however, the identification of Jesus as the Son of God and the revelation of the kindness and generous love of God our savior in Jesus’ public mission are what the whole Advent-Christmas season has been leading up to.
Those wiser than I about such things say that Isaiah’s words, typically translated as speak tenderly to Jerusalem [Isaiah 40:2], may more literally mean “to speak to the heart” – as in, “to convince.” The human heart was understood by Isaiah’s contemporaries as the organ of thought and reasoning, God is here being spoken of as trying to convince Israel of the reality of his concern.
It wasn’t just ancient Israel that had a hard time and so needed convincing, of course.  Even the most cursory look at the state of the world belies any credible “happy days are here again” fantasies. If things really are changing for the better, if something new and wonderful really is happening here, it is going to take some convincing. It requires nothing less than the kindness and generous love of God our savior appearing personally in God’s Son.
In my opinion, the biggest stumbling block to faith is not so much science or evolution or any of that those things (important though those issues may genuinely be), but rather the all-too vivid contrast between what we actually experience and what we profess to believe - between the seemingly endless cycle of human suffering so many actually experience and this seemingly contrary-to-fact belief in a future full of hope, between our ordinary somewhat self-absorbed lives and being a people eager to do what is good, the belief that something new and wonderful really can happen and is happening, that the kindness and generous love of God our savior really have appeared. The fact is that we would never have had any reason to believe in such a thing or even hope for such a thing, we would never have known any of this, if God himself had not told us, if God’s Son had not actually shown us - by becoming one of us, which is what the Christmas season celebrates so seriously. We would never have known this, had it not been for the mission which the Son of God began on our behalf at his baptism, the same mission he continues in our world today – for us and among us - through his holy Church.
Homily for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 13, 2013.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

And the Nominations Are ...

The Oscar nominations are in at last! Nine movies made the list for Best Picture. Of them, I have only seen two so far - Lincoln and Argo, both of which well deserve their Oscar nod. I hope to see Zero Dark Thirty sometime soon. But that's still only one-third of the nominees! (Of course, in the good old days, when there were only 5 nominess, 3 out of 5 would have been a good percentage. And it's highly likely that, if the Academy still had the disicpline to confine the number of nominees to 5, those 3 would all be on the list).
Of the two I have already seen, I guess I'd probably give the nod to Lincoln, although if Argo won I would not think it undeserved. As for the actor categories - Daniel Day-Lewis for Best Actor, Sally Field for Best Actress, and Tommy Lee Jones for Best Supporting Actor, all nominated for their outstanding performances in Lincoln - my guess is that they could all win, resulting in a real Lincoln sweep this year.
Film considerations aside, I think there is an added aspect  to Lincoln's appeal  - and perhaps Argo's as well - and that is the evocation of a government that worked (and, perhaps more pointedly, political leaders who worked the way political leaders ought to work). The lame-duck House of Representatives Lincoln dealt with in the film may not have been as completely ineffective as the recently expired 112th House, but it was certainly no model of high quality governance. Yet, committed and effective leaders - like Lincoln and Stevens - men who cared about what they most fundamentally believed in (in their case, abolition) and also cared to engage the process to make something happen were actually able to succeed. If President Obama cares comparably about reducing inequality, resolving immigration, and doing something serious about the pestilence of private gun ownership, he too must be effective (much more so than he has been) in making those beliefs the nation's agenda, and he must engage the levers of social power to translate that wish list into political accomplishments. The first three weeks of January have given us a new year and a new Congress and will soon give us the start of a new presidential term. A good time for a fresh start!

Sunday, January 6, 2013


In 2005, I attended World Youth Day in Cologne with a group from St. Paul the Apostle parish in New York. The great Gothic Cathedral in Cologne was originally built to house the supposed relics of the magi, who, we just heard [Matthew 2:1-12] came from the east to do homage with gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Entering the church today, one will have noticed an alteration in the nativity scene, in which the shepherds have been joined by the magi. (In the actual story, of course, the shepherds left the same day and so were probably long gone by the time the magi arrived.) 

In the United States, sadly, Epiphany now seems almost an add-on or some sort of vestigial postscript to Christmas. Historically, however, Epiphany is actually the oldest festival of the Christmas season, older even than Christmas Day itself, and it still ranks as one of the principal festivals of the Church’s calendar. In the Eastern Christian Churches, Matthew’s story of the magi is read on Christmas Day itself. Epiphany in the East is primarily a celebration of Jesus’ baptism, the beginning of his mission as an adult. Here in the West, we postpone the commemoration of Christ’s baptism until next Sunday, focusing today almost exclusively on the story of the magi.

That said, however, the fact is that we really know next to nothing at all about the magi themselves – not their names (although tradition has given them the familiar names Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar), nor their exact social status (though tradition, inspired in this case by Psalm 72, has crowned them as kings), nor even their number (though tradition, based on the gifts itemized in the Gospel, has counted them as three, which in time came to represent the three then-known continents - Africa, Asia, and Europe - and the three ages of human life – youth, maturity, and old age).

The Gospel tells us none of these things, but it does tell us what it is important for us to know about the magi. First of all, it tells us that they were foreigners, Gentiles, that is to say - pagans. As such, they represent the majority of the human race – past and present – in a world in which (as we just heard from the Prophet Isaiah) darkness covers the earth, and thick clouds cover the peoples [Isaiah 60:2]. The magi were armed, in other words, with only human, natural knowledge, and sought, as St. Paul said in his speech to his pagan audience in Athens, the God who made the world and all that is in it and gives life and breath to everyone [Acts 17:24-25]. In his new book about the birth of Christ, Pope Benedict XVI has written that the magi “represent the inner dynamic of religion toward self-transcendence, which involves a search for truth, a search for the true God.” He calls the magi “forerunners, preparers of the way, seekers after truth, such as we find in every age” (pp. 95-96).

But, next, the story tells us that, whatever varied the paths that different people may start out on, our paths must all finally converge in Jesus, the one and only 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: Nations shall walk by Jerusalem’s light, and kings by her shining radiance [Isaiah 60:3].

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 – troubled, not overjoyed like the Magi! What troubled them? What made such good news seem to them like bad news? The same Christmas star that filled the magi with hope somehow seemed like an evil portent to those who somehow sensed the threating challenge it posed to their power and priorities.

And then there were the scholars whom Herod consulted. They correctly quoted the scripture, but they didn’t get it either. It was as if they had an abundant academic knowledge of the subject, but lacked any real knowledge. So none of them did the obvious thing – go to Bethlehem and do Jesus homage. Only the pagan magi did!

Talk about missing the opportunity of a lifetime!

The magi, on the other hand, were overjoyed, not troubled. The magi set out as true pilgrims – and on entering the house they saw the child with Mary his mother … prostrated themselves and did him homage. In the old liturgy, when these words were read or sung in the Gospel everyone was directed to genuflect. It was the liturgy’s way of physically bringing the point of the story home, helping 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 activities – at home, at work, whatever and wherever. 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.

Long before there were funeral homes to print parish calendars, Epiphany became the annual date which the Roman Liturgy assigned 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 will bring, whether for better or for worse. Yet, even as we navigate our way through an uncertain and challenging present, the Christmas star invites us to travel with the magi – to go on pilgrimage with then 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, thanks to Christ, on the new way, which, like the magi, we are, all of us together, being invited to find and follow.

Homily for the Epiphany of the Lord, Immaculate conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 6, 2013.

Friday, January 4, 2013

What's in a Name?

What's in a name? Well, as we all well know, actually quite a lot. Still, I never expected to read a story like this one which a friend pointed out to me yesterday about an Icelandic girl who can't legally use her given name because it is not on the government's approved list of names! (To read the full story, go to:

Let me stipulate up front that I am not totally unsympathetic to efforts to protect children from the capriciously ridiculous names that their narcissistic parents might choose to inflict upon them. In the good old days, in the Church we were fairly strict about insisting on a saint's name when a baby was brought for baptism. Contemporary laxity in regard to saints' names not only means that children may go through life without proper patrons and role models but it also contributes to the secular tendency to choose vanity names. But, by any standard, the Icelandic situation  (at least as described in that AP article) seems beyond ridiculous. It is, I suppose, a libertarian's nightmare. Or, rather, it can be construed as a gift of sorts, since its sheer ridiculousness reinforces libertarianism's hostility to human community and its constraints.

Iceland (like its mother country, Denmark, and Germany, according to the article) has official rules about what a baby can be named. The  state's "Personal Names Register" is a list of 1,712 male names and 1,853 female names that fit Icelandic grammar and pronunciation rules and that officials maintain will protect children from embarrassment. In this particular case, the issue is not potential embarassment but grammar. The name in question requires a masculine article, and has therefore been deemed unacceptable as a girl's name - this despite the fact that it was used as a name for a female character in a novel by Iceland's revered Nobel Prize-winning author Halldor Laxness!

Personally, I'm a big believer in strong, effective government that marhsalls the resources of society to meet the community's needs - a Hamiltonian model, if you will. But one can have strong, effective government without the kind of creeping totalitarianism the modern liberal, "nanny state" seems determined at times to inflict upon society.
By coincidence, I read this article on the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, a feast finally and formally restored to the Roman calendar after a regrettable absense of several decades (although, oddly, none the three orations of the Mass mentions the actual name of Jesus!). regarding the importance of that name, Peter proclaimed: There is no salvation throuogh anyone else, nor is there any other name under heaven given to the human race by which we are to be saved (Acts 4:12).

So names certainly are important!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

How Many More Cliffs?

Once again our "post-partisan" President may have snatched an at least partial long-term defeat out of the jaws of victory. Instead of sticking with the demand that marginal tax rates return totheir pre-2001 levels on all incomes over $250,000 - the position he campaigned on and what the American people elected him to do - he caved in to the hyped-up myth that the "fiscal cliff" needed to be averted at all costs, even at the cost of allowing the rich to get away with lower taxes. Of course, everyone makes promises which cannot quite be fulfilled, and compromises are necessary and legitimate. The problem is that the media-induced national obsession with not going "over the cliff" on January 1, led to a deal which will in the end produce less revenue than is actually needed to run the kind of government American needs and the voters elected the President to facilitate. Since the Washington elite's obsession with the deficit (as opposed to, say, unemployment - an issue we heard a lot about in the campaign, but which has since been largely forgotten) is certain to continue, the pressure will remain strong to reduce more spending on important programs to compensate for the revenue lost by not rasing more taxes.
Actually the more just outcome might have been simply to go "over the cliff" and let all taxes rise to pre-Bush levels. I understand the argument that taking such a bite out of people's incomes all at once might have imperilled the current recovery, and I think the idea of exempting those who need the money most (and also are most likely to spend it in the economy) makes obvious sense. To reduce the shock to the economy, certainly the marginal rates could have been raised on an even more graduated scale in the middle at at the lower ends - and also phased in much more gradually than the rates at the extreme upper end.
Anyway, practically the only leverage the President now has left is that, if the draconian domestic spending cuts go into effect on the new "cliff" deadline, so will defense cuts, which the opposition is less happy about. But, of course, the President is probably not happy about them either. So the absurd disposition to be "post-partisan" will play a part again as we play out another drama leading up to the next artificial deadline in  just another couple of months. At least the Mayan calendar sent the media into a frenzy only once in so many centuries. This silly operetta will undoubtedly continue over and over - until and unless we get over our addiciton to the false excitement of deadlines and demand real substantive progress.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A New Year!

New Year’s always reminds me of something the late George Burns once wrote in The New York Times: “Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan,” Burns wrote, “I always looked forward to New Year’s mainly because it was the only thing we could afford that was really new.” Burns was a lifelong, professional comedian, of course, and that was his laugh line. But then he added: “And we always believed that things were going to get better during the New Year.”

Historically, different peoples and cultures have marked the passing of the year with many different customs and even on many different dates. When, for example, George Washington was born on February 11, 1731, in colonial Virginia, it was already February 22, 1732, in Catholic Quebec and Latin America. Just 10 days ago, all sorts of people preoccupied themselves (in a somewhat silly way) with the ancient Mayan calendar. Our preoccupation with the computing of time, the movements of the sun and the moon, the changing of the seasons, and the repetitive cycle of years, however, has been universal. Whether celebrated in spring, summer, autumn, or the dead of winter (as we do), the end of an old year and the beginning of a new one have universally been seen as a special moment in time, when past and future meet.  Before anyone ever exchanged Christmas presents, people were giving each other New Year’s gifts.  The Chinese even had New Year’s greeting cards – over a thousand years ago.

Seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years – our preoccupation with time is itself apparently timeless. It may be one of our most distinctly human traits, since one of the earliest things human beings became aware of must have been our own mortality – the fact that we live and die in a set period of time. Time is truly precious  - precisely because we have just a limited amount of it.

Of course, most of that time is what we might call “Ordinary time” – the day-to-day routine of work and personal life, punctuated by those special moments, the highs and lows of life, most of which 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 date makes us stop and think about what, if anything, it all means.

If history has taught us anything, it has taught us the fragility of some of the things we want to pin our hopes on. All over the world, people are beginning a new year with worries and anxieties about basic, important things - our country’s economy, far away wars and close-to-home violence, and, of course, the perennial worries about one’s job, one’s career, one’s family, in other words the future. It’s not for nothing, after all, that we pray every day at Mass that we may be safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Yet we still come to this new year with hope. Like George Burns, we want to believe that things may be better in this new year, better for ourselves, better for the world. Hope is everyone’s response to the universal human desire for happiness. Hope keeps us from giving in to discouragement and sustains us in times of difficulty. Hope takes us out of ourselves and unites us with others.

Our hope – the hope that brings us here to this church today – is founded on Jesus Christ, whose birth some 20 centuries ago is the very basis for the calendar we are so conscious of today. When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law … so that we might receive adoption. In those familiar words from his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul expresses two fundamental facts. First, Jesus was born of a womanthe woman whose motherhood we celebrate at the beginning of each new year.  In other words, Jesus is a real human being, born as one of us. 

Second, he was born under the law. In other words, he was a member of a particular people - the Jewish people – and so circumcised on the 8th day in fulfillment of God’s ancient covenant with Abraham.

In an 1870 Christmas sermon, Servant of God Isaac Hecker said: “In the creation God made man like Himself.  In the Incarnation, God made Himself like man. … Christ is our brother who we can approach with feelings of confidence and affection. … The invisible became visible.  God became Man. … The Almighty God a helpless infant.  O folly of Divine Love, thus to stoop and win human hearts.  God has made Himself of no account for our sakes.”

The birth of Christ – to a particular woman, part of a particular nation, in a particular place, at a particular time in human history - has realigned all of time and given all of human history a new significance. The birth of Christ – to a particular woman, part of a particular nation, in a particular place, at a particular time in human history - has offered us a hope for the future which we would never otherwise have had.

By becoming part of our limited human time, God has turned this limited human time into a time of unlimited opportunity. Today, he invites us to enter this new year – this year of our Lord 2013 – not in fear or desperation, but with the hope that is one of God’s greatest Christmas gifts to us.    

Happy New Year!
Homily for the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, January 1, 2013

(Photo: Santa Maria in Trastevere, the Roman Stational Church for January 1)