Saturday, March 31, 2018

This Is the Night

This is the night, when once you led our forefathers, Israel’s children from slavery in Egypt and made them pass dry-shod through the Red Sea.

So sang our deacon a short while ago, beginning our Vigil with the stirring words of the ancient Easter Proclamation, commonly called the Exsultet (its opening word in the original Latin). 

America’s most famous, 20th-century monk, Thomas Merton, once called the Exsultet "the key to the whole business.” When it was his turn to sing it, he wrote, “I am going to sing the whole of theology. It is marvelous. … And the people who hear it are learning all theology, and the Holy Ghost, Who operates what is signified, throws light in darkness upon the whole meaning of Christianity.” [April 6, 1947, & April 15, 1949]

Merton wasn’t alone in his praise. The great 20th-century liturgical scholar Pius Parsch once called the Exsultet "a hymn that never ceases to touch the heart and mind." But now just how does it do that? It does so, I believe, by bringing us back to the very heart of the ancient Passover story, which we recall tonight with this Vigil, just as the Jewish People have for so many centuries celebrated the Passover night’s annual return each spring. In the Book of Exodus we are told: This was a night of vigil for the Lord, as he led them out of the land of Egypt; so on this same night all the Israelites must keep a vigil for the Lord throughout their generations. This they have done, generation after generation, in both good times and bad; and so also must we on this our own annual Christian Passover night.

On this night, when once God led Israel from slavery and brought them safely through the waters of the Red Sea, we too follow our own pillar of fire, our Easter candle marked with 5 grains of incense to signify the holy and glorious wounds of Christ’s passion, to relive that night when Christ broke the prison-bars of death and rose victorious from the underworld.

Throughout the entire Easter season, this Easter Candle, the symbol of the Risen Christ and visible reminder of his great victory, will stand in its place of honor in the sanctuary.

Also prominently displayed in our church throughout this Easter season is the icon of the Resurrection. This famous image portrays the Risen Christ standing over the broken gates of hell, lifting up Adam and Eve from their coffins – while, on one side, Moses, Isaiah and Elijah, and, on the other, the Old Testament kings and John the Baptist look on. 

In the centuries-old Passover ritual, it is said that “in every generation” every person should view him or herself as having personally come out of Egypt. Passover isn’t just some historical anniversary. It is something that happens in the lives of God’s People here and now. And so it is for us on this Passover feast of the Church. For, as the Exsultet says, this is the night that even now, throughout the world, sets Christian believers apart from worldly vices and from the gloom of sin, leading them to grace and joining them to his holy ones.

Tonight, having heard again the ancient Passover story - its full meaning now unlocked for us by Jesus’ triumph over death - the Church simply cannot contain her joy. Sadly silent these past two days, the bells now ring again with all the clamor they can muster. As far back as I can remember, the ringing of the bells has been my favorite moment of the Easter Vigil – a moment of sheer joy to be remembered throughout the year, and beyond. And no wonder! For what bigger news has there ever been? What better news has there ever been?

But before we got to ring the bells, we began this Vigil following the way led by that single candle - the symbol and expression of our community’s prayer, a community created by that candle’s glowing fired ignited for the honor of God. Now a candle, of course, is just a candle. The night is still dark, despite all our efforts to the contrary. Life is like that. Hence, the deacon’s prayer on our behalf: Therefore, O Lord, we pray you that this candle, hallowed to the honor of your name, may persevere undimmed, to overcome the darkness of this night.

Just as God once led his Chosen People through the threatening sea and the frightening desert by the light of a pillar of fire, so he continues today to lead his Church through the dangerous darkness of our world by the amazing brightness of the Risen Christ.

In centuries past, the faithful of Rome assembled at nightfall at tonight’s Stational Church, the Basilica of St. John in the Lateran, the Mother Church of both the City and the world, for an all-night vigil, while out of sight, next-door in the Baptistery, the newest members of the Church, solemnly renouncing Satan and all his works and all his empty show, passed through the saving waters of baptism - an experience meant to be every bit as transformative for them as passing through the Red Sea was for the Israelites. The Exsultet expresses how they undoubtedly would have experienced their emergence from that Baptistery in the dawning light of Easter morning: The night shall be as bright as day, dazzling is the night for me, and full of gladness.

And so again it must be for all of us, for whom this night is not an end but a beginning. Ritually this night is our entry to tomorrow’s solemn celebration of Easter Sunday - the Solemnity of Solemnities, as Augustine famously called it. More than that, it is our entry to an Easter life. Thanks to the fact that Christ has risen from the dead, the Christian faith offers an alternative to business as usual, offering instead an invitation to hope. It is the power of that faith and hope that has brought us, whether here and now or a long time ago, to the water of baptism, and that brings us back Sunday after Sunday to hear the rest of the story, to experience the presence of the risen Christ in the gift of his Holy Spirit and in the breaking of the bread, and to experience the presence of the risen Christ in the new people he is transforming us into and the amazingly wonderful things that we can now do with one another and for the world as a result.

As at the Passover, so on this most holy Easter night, we each of us experience coming out of Egypt. We each of us experience Christ breaking the prison-bars of death and rising victorious from the underworld. And, as his Church on this most holy Easter night, together we will each of us solemnly renounce Satan and all his works and all his empty show. Then, indeed, this night shall be as bright as day, dazzling and full of gladness.

Easter Vigil Homily, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 31, 2018.

Friday, March 30, 2018

The Passover of the Lord

It is Good Friday evening. All over the world, from the splendor of St. Peter’s Basilica to the smallest rural mission church, solemn ceremonies are bringing to a close this 1st of 3 days (beginning at sunset yesterday and ending at sunset on Sunday) when, united with Christians of every time and place, we contemplate Christ crucified, buried, and risen. It is the Passover of the Lord.

The Passover of the Lord! The whole story of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection is intimately wrapped up with the story of the Passover, which, by happy coincidence this year, begins tonight – just as it did then. Jesus died (as we just heard) on the afternoon before the Passover, even as the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the Temple, and was hastily buried because the festival was about to begin. His accusers would not enter Pilate’s headquarters in order not to be defiled so that they could eat the Passover.

Passover celebrates the most important event in Israel’s history – not just as something interesting that happened, once upon a time, a long time ago, but as something powerfully real and meaningful in the present, and a sign of hope for the future. In the words of the Passover ritual: In every generation let all look on themselves as having personally come forth from Egypt. … It was not only our ancestors, blessed be He, that the Holy One redeemed, but us as well did he redeem along with them. … In every generation they stand up against us to destroy us, and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand.
Being saved! That’s what this is all about! To prepare us, we heard last night how, at the exodus, the blood of the lamb marked the doors of the houses of God’s People. Later in history, the blood of the lamb was sprinkled on the altar of the Temple. Now, in Jesus, the great high priest who has passed through the heavens, the blood of the lamb has been shed, once and for all, on the altar of the cross – our doorway to salvation. Marked by the blood that saves us all, the cross has thus become the Church’s door.  A dreaded instrument of disgraceful death, the cross is now, thanks to this day, our gateway to freedom and new life, a triumphant sign of glory.

Of course, in our postmodern popular culture (so like Pontius Pilate in the caustic skepticism that simply dismisses the disconcerting possibility of something so serious and restricting as truth), the cross must seem a nonsensical failure. But the paradoxical power of the cross is that Christ’s true triumph lay precisely in his not dramatically descending from the cross (like some silly celebrity), but in ascending the cross as a condemned criminal – a paradox succinctly summarized by the prophet Isaiah: he was cut off from the land of the living, and smitten for the sin of his people … But … the will of the Lord shall be accomplished through him … and he shall take away the sins of many, and win pardon for their offenses.

It was this mysterious and strangely paradoxical text that an ancient Ethiopian court official was reading, when he met the evangelist Philip in chapter 8 of the Acts of the Apostles. I beg you, he asked, about whom is the prophet saying this? Philip, we are told, opened his mouth and, beginning with this scripture passage, he proclaimed Jesus to him. With Philip, the unanimous witness of Christian tradition has recognized - in Jesus crucified, buried, and risen - the one who perfectly fulfills the prophet’s paradoxical words.

As the thrust of the soldier’s lance into Jesus’ side certified, Jesus really died on the cross. Then, bound with burial cloths according to the custom, his body was buried – all of which should then have been the end of the story.

And yet this is not some sort of funeral service. We are not here today to mourn. If Jesus had in fact remained dead, if his body had indeed decayed in the tomb, then none of us would be here today at all. Nor are we acting in a play, pretending he’s dead until we see what (if anything) happens on Sunday. We are here, rather, because he really did die, but really isn’t dead anymore. And that is why we celebrate the cross of Christ.

As St. John Chrysostom expressed it, some 16 centuries ago:

Before, the cross was synonymous with condemnation; now it is an object of honor. Before, a symbol of death; now the means of salvation. It has been the source of countless blessings for us: it has delivered us from error, it has shone on us when we were in darkness. We were vanquished, yet it reconciles us with God. We were foes, yet it has regained God’s friendship for us. We were estranged, yet it has brought us back to him.

In a short while, we will solemnly salute the cross, on which hung the salvation of the world. In every generation, each one must personally look upon the cross of Christ and embrace it for oneself. That is what we acknowledge when we come forward to venerate the cross. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find help in our time of need.

We will venerate the cross, approaching it individually (imitating Mary, his mother standing by the cross) - for each one of us is challenged as a disciple to realign his or her life, to model one’s life on the mystery of Christ’s cross - despite the difficulties life puts in the way, despite the obstacles each individual sinner personally puts in the way. We will venerate the cross, approaching it together as the community of Christ’s holy Catholic Church - born on the cross in the blood and water which flowed out from Jesus’ side as a sign of the Church’s sacramental life and mission - because it is together as Christ’s Church (united with Mary, the Mother of the Church) that we continue Christ’s life and mission, effectively extending the reach of his cross into the whole world. That is why, momentarily, following one of the most ancient Church traditions of this day, we will pray for that whole world – for the Church, for its leaders, for those joining the Church, for those outside, for the Jews, for unbelievers, for our political leaders, and for all in any kind of need – for  the whole world without exception.

Passing through life this way, standing by the cross of Jesus and reborn as his Church in his blood and water, we will ourselves become Passover doorways, through which the Easter promise of salvation will flow, in a torrent, from his side to fill our entire world.

Homily for Good Friday, Liturgy of the Lord's Passion, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 30, 2018.

Photo: The 13.5 ft. Belgian granite and bronze corpus, 1897 "Hewit Crucifix," Church of Saint Paul the Apostle, NY, used in some years for the Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

3 Cheers for John Paul Stevens!

Some time ago I watched a Netflix series on Prohibition. I was struck by the confidence felt by the Prohibitionists once they had succeeded in getting the 18th Amendment passed. No constitutional amendment had ever before been repealed. So it was believed that once enacted prohibition was here to stay. History, however, did not quite work out that way, and if fact Prohibition became in fact the first - and so far the only - constitutional amendment to be repealed 

That said, amending the constitution is at best a legally difficult and politically challenging process. To succeed, most amendments have required considerable consensus to make it through the constitutional obstacle course that is the amending process. Even so, although the country remained quite polarized around Prohibition, repeal of the 18th Amendment proved possible in the end. The same might in time prove true of other harmful constitutional provisions - most notably the notorious Second Amendment, which (especially since its distortion into an individual "right" by the Supreme Court a decade ago) has become a major political and cultural obstacle to sanity and morality when it comes to the private possession of weapons of mass destruction (i.e., guns).

So three cheers for Retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens' op-ed in today's New York Times calling for an outright repeal of the Second Amendment! To read it, go to:

Appointed by Republican President Gerald Ford in 1975, Stevens became the third longest-serving US Supreme Court Justice, retiring in 2010.  He was among the four dissenters in the infamous District of Columbia v. Heller decision, which, he reminds us in his article, overturned  the "long-settled understanding of the Second Amendment’s limited reach by ruling... that there was an individual right to bear arms." Stevens continues:

That decision — which I remain convinced was wrong and certainly was debatable — has provided the N.R.A. with a propaganda weapon of immense power. Overturning that decision via a constitutional amendment to get rid of the Second Amendment would be simple and would do more to weaken the N.R.A.’s ability to stymie legislative debate and block constructive gun control legislation than any other available option.
Of course, as Stevens surely understands, repealing the Second Amendment would be far from "simple." Still, especially given the catastrophic consequences of the wrongly decided Heller case, what other course of action is there? As with Prohibition, which also pitted rural America versus urban America and the past versus the future, the obvious course - however difficult and challenging - is actually hiding in plain sight. Justice Stevens has done his country a great service by simply saying so!

Monday, March 26, 2018

Holy Excess

Counting forward from today, it is six days until Easter. Presumably that accounts for the choice of today’s Gospel (John 12:1-11) which begins: Six days before Passover Jesus came to Bethany.

Today's Gospel for this Monday of Holy Week does more than establish a chronology, however. It also sets a certain mood for this week. Famously, it describes how Mary of Bethany (the sister of Lazarus and Martha) anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. When her extravagance was criticized, Jesus defended her action by referring it to his upcoming burial. To me, this has always been a great introduction to what we do during Holy Week. Like Mary, the Church this week holds nothing back, so to speak. Instead she employs all the rich symbols of the liturgy to invite and enable us to enter as fully as humanly possible into the drama of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection, so that we may more fully participate in its benefits. 

Ritual, by its nature, is inherently somewhat extravagant. The great ceremonies of Holy Week are, however, even more so. They are intensely dramatic, emotionally affecting, over-the-top. They are extravagant in the best sense of the word. Not unlike Mary with her expensive perfumed oil, the Church practices a sort of holy excess. In this case, however, it is we who are the beneficiaries.

I am just old enough to remember the 1955 Decree Maxima Redemptionis Nostrae Mysteria, which initiated the modern reform of Holy Week - and the initial effect which that reform had in making the ceremonies of Holy Week so much more accessible. For ordinary churchgoers, the most significant change was the rescheduling of the principal Holy Week services to the afternoon and evening. For centuries, with the single exception of the Mass at Midnight on Christmas, Mass was always - and only - celebrated in the morning. Thus, prior to the Holy Week reform of 1955, the services of the Easter Triduum were all “anticipated” in the morning hours of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday. Changing the hours at which those services could be celebrated gave them a new kind of authenticity, but even more importantly it made attendance more widely possible on what were then otherwise ordinary secular workdays. 

For a few years at least, attendance notably increased at those services. As with all the 20th-century liturgical reforms, a lively debate continues in the Church about their intended benefits and their unintended consequences, whether for better or for worse. Other than changing the times, none of the other alterations in the ancient services added to their accessibility and so need to be judged by other criteria. But making the principal liturgical celebrations of the entire year more accessible for many more people to be able to attend was, I believe, in itself an evident benefit. While the liturgical enthusiasm of the late 1950s has long ago dissipated and can probably never be recovered, we would all still do well to take advantage as much as possible of the opportunity to participate in these extravagant sacred rites that are so filled with ritual power and symbolic meaning.

Sunday, March 25, 2018


On retreat in Algeria on Holy Saturday 1950, as the Easter bells were already ringing from Oran's Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, the future Pope John XXIII (at that time Apostolic Nuncio to France) wrote in his Journal

“When one is nearly seventy, one cannot be sure of the future. ‘The years of our life are three score and ten, and even if we are strong enough to reach the age of eighty, yet these years are but toil and vanity; they are soon passed and we also pass away’ (cf. Psalm 89:10-11). So it is no use nursing any illusions: I must make myself familiar with the thought of the end, not with dismay which saps the will, but with confidence which preserves our enthusiasm for living, working, and serving. Some time ago I resolved to bear constantly in mind this reverent expectation of death, this joy which ought to be my soul’s last happiness when it departs from this life. I need not become wearisome to others by speaking frequently of this; but I must always think of it, because the consideration of death, the judicium mortis, when it has become a familiar thought, is good and useful for the mortification of vanity and for infusing into everything a sense of moderation and calm. … As for my soul, I shall try to make the flame burn more brightly, making the most of the time that remains as it passes more swiftly away.”

Some sober and sensible thoughts to consider on my own 70th birthday today! Having reached the symbolic 70-year span of a human lifetime, what other kinds of thoughts would be appropriate? A lifetime treasury of memories dominates today - lessons learned from opportunities grasped, likewise lessons lost from opportunities missed, a whole mix of experiences that have somehow added up to the present.

Andrew Sullivan recently wrote that "humans in the last 500 years (and most intensely in the last century) have created a world utterly different than the one humans lived in for close to 99 percent of our time on the planet." What is so obviously true for the human race globally has had an analogue on  a more personal level in the course of just one lifespan. Thus, the world I was born into on Holy Thursday evening 70  years ago in 1948, while recognizably the same world, was also strangely different in so very many ways from the world I find myself in now.  In some ways, it was better then. In some ways, it was worse. In some ways, the present has improved upon the past. In other ways, not, thereby imperiling the future. But it has been the experience of all that change, challenging and threatening for both better and for worse, which has defined so much of my time. History happens. It has no right or wrong side, no mystical arc of meaning bending all before it. On the other hand, what anyone does during his or her history does have an abundance of meaning, as the rights and wrongs that have made up my history have made me who I now am and eventually will make me who I will be forever.

In the Introduction to his Memoirs, Louis Bouyer wrote: “the closer I come to the end the more I feel that there is a meaning to our life: the hand of God guides us, using all things for His purposes: the failures, the disillusionments as well as, nay rather more than, the successes, the happy times – or those that strike us as such – and, which is more surprising, even our glaring faults!”

So thankful today for all that has been, I am grateful to all those who have been part of my life for helping me get to where I am today. 

Friday, March 23, 2018


Alone among the Lenten weekdays, today's Mass for this last Friday of Lent provides a choice of two alternate collects. The second optional alternate is a vestige - the only visible vestige - of the old Feast of the Seven Dolors which used to be kept on this day, before being reduced to a Commemoration in the 1960 pre-conciliar liturgical reform (and then abolished completely in 1969). A duplicate feast, that of the Seven Sorrows on September 15, survived the reforms, although downgraded in rank and now renamed Our Lady of Sorrows (thus eliminating any reference to the number seven). 

Even so, whenever I think of Our Lady of Sorrows ("l'Addolorata"), I unfailingly recall the many popular portrayals of Mary pierced with seven swords! I remember too a beautiful church I once saw in a crowded urban neighborhood which had a statue of Mary pierced with seven swords standing atop its golden dome.

The illustrious 20th-century liturgist Pius Parsch, reflecting the antiquarian attitudes so prevalent in the pre-conciliar liturgical movement, contrasted "the older and more austere Lenten Mass" and the "newer, more spirited one devoted to Our Lady's Seven Sorrows." He suggested that, whereas the traditional weekday Mass presents Christ's passion prophetically, figuratively, and historically, in the festive Marian Mass "sentiment and emotion is strong." 

Such distinctions and discussions all seem so obsolete now in the light of an infectious contemporary sentimentality that would make the supposed sentimentality that pre-conciliar liturgists discerned in the old feast of the Seven Dolors appear austere in retrospect!    

It is, of course, quite laudable that the reformed Missal retains a Marian collect today. In actuality, however, I suspect that identifying with Mary in contemplating her Son's Passion (to which that collect refers) primarily occurs for most people, if at all, in such devotional contexts as the praying of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary and the Stations of the Cross. The many portrayals of the Pieta in Christian art testify to the enduring popularity of the image of the Sorrowful Mother in popular devotion - a devotion which renders the human dimension of the Passion story especially accessible.

Missing  today, however, is what was the liturgical highlight of the old Feast of the Seven Dolors (and the still observed September feast of Our Lady of Sorrows) - the (now optional) Sequence of the Mass, the great Stabat Mater, which Parsch acknowledged as "certainly one of the finest religious poems from the Middle Ages." Fortunately for the Stabat Mater - and thus for us - that Sequence has also survived as the most common and popular processional music for the Stations of the Cross. For many, surely one of the most memorable and traditional features of the Lenten Stations is the singing of verses of the Stabat Mater during the procession from station to station. The Stations just would not be same without it! The familiar and easily singable popular tune to which it is typically sung also lends itself, by its familiarity, to congregational participation even when the physical circumstances of the place preclude everybody actually joining in the walk from station to station. Well sung, it certainly captures the spirit of Passiontide particularly well, using our natural human sympathy for the Sorrowful Mother to guide us through the deeper mystery of Christ's passion.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

"Facebook Freakout"

So shocking was Donald Trump's election as President of the United States that it requires explanation - and assignment of blame. Vladimir Putin was clearly a major culprit in what appears to be an ongoing saga. But what about Facebook? More to the point, what about our current fixation on Facebook's multiple failures - what Ross Douthat, in today's NY Times, terms "our current freakout over Facebook"? 

Douthat is by his own admission "not a fan of Facebook." He considers social media "a cancer on our private lives and a source of derangement in our politics." He may be correct about that, especially the derangement part. Even so, I am one of the approximately 2/3 of Americans who are on Facebook, and I remain a fan of sorts. I appreciate the ability to keep in contact (however superficially) with people I would otherwise probably not be writing to or telephoning. And I especially appreciate the opportunity Facebook has provided to reconnect with people from previous periods in my life whom I would otherwise have forever lost any contact with. 

That said, I do not think of it as a legitimate source of political news. Recognizing that some may do so, I share the growing national concern with Facebook as yet another out-of-control corporate giant, which may also have contributed in some measure to the corrupting of the 2016 election. Having said that, however, I am reminded that it was not primarily the social- media generation that elected Trump president. So I must also agree with Douthat's larger point that the media format that made Trump president, the media format "whose weaknesses and perversities and polarizing tendencies he brilliantly exploited ... was that old pre-internet standby, broadcast and cable television, and especially TV news." Trump accomplished this in two steps, Douthat argues. the first was The Apprentice, which portrayed "a much-bankrupted real estate tycoon ... as a titan of industry, the for-serious greatest business man in the world." We who had seem Trump close-up in New York might have been immune to such illusions, but we now that many other Americans probably formed an impression of Trump as some sort of great businessman - a dangerous perception when combined with the erroneous but ever popular American notion that success in business ought to qualify one for political office (instead of being the disqualification that the conflict between private and public interest might suggest) 

More menacing than The Apprentice, however, was what happened once Trump became an actual candidate. "Step two was the use of his celebrity to turn news channels into informercials for his campaign." Douthat is referring both to the "more than $2 billion in effective advertising" Trump benefited from during the primary season and to his exploitation of "the polarization that cable news, in particular, is designed to feed." The former is essentially built into TV's business model. Trump's celebrity sold. It made money for networks and cable companies. The latter, however, is not inherent in TV per se, but political polarization has become TV's default way of covering the news, something that probably wasn't inevitable even if it now seems to be the natural state of affairs.

Everyone recognizes that, as those who get their information from newscasts die out, the failings of social media may matter more in the long-term. Meanwhile, however, any accurate accounting with what happened in 2016 needs to lay at least as much blame on old media as new.

At least since the 1960s, TV has been a decisive player in American politics - more often than not harmful. In the future, we should probably expect the same from social media.

Monday, March 19, 2018

7 Days in Entebbe

7 Days in Entebbe is a historical drama about a familiar event (familiar at least to those of us old enough to remember it), the terrorist hijacking of an Air France airliner in 1976 and the subsequent hostage standoff in Idi Amin's Uganda that lasted for a week until their heroic rescue by Israeli commandos. Since we know what is going to happen, the audience’s interest is inevitably focused on other elements in the drama. Personally I was particularly interested in the conflicts and debates within the Israeli government, in particular the back-and-forth between Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin and Defence Minister Shimon Peres. Another great drama is the debates among the terrorists themselves. Although it was ultimately the Palestinian Terrorists who took over and made demands of the Israeli government, the film focuses mainly on the German couple, members of the infamous Baader-Meinhof Gang, one of the bizarre European terrorists groups spawned by the political and social chaos of the Western world in the 1970s. (From our contemporary vantage point, with our contemporary “war on terrorism,” it may be easy to forget how much terrorist violence there was in the world in the 1970s – not just the obvious terrorist activities of the PLO and the IRA but also other groups like the German Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Italian Red Brigades, and the American Weather Undergound and the SLA.).
Terrorist groups like the IRA and the PLO were utterly reprehensible, but at least they had causes which one could comprehend and debate the possible merits of - or more likely their lack of merit, The actions of affluent Americans and Europeans who adopted a pseudo-Marxist world-view and a commitment to world revolution never made much sense, however. The film does a good job of highlighting the absurdity of the German terrorists’ revolutionary rhetoric and the pointlessly suicidal nature of their movement. Ultimately they are portrayed as the destructive fanatics that they were, but not in a way which excludes some appreciation of their complexity as otherwise possibly sympathetic individuals, absurdly committed to and warped by a crazy ideology.
The film also does a credible job of highlighting the tensions (personal and political) within the Israeli government and the fiddiculty - in a democratic society - of maintaining a necessary but inevitably unpopular policy of never negotiating with terrorists. Unfortunately, especially toward the end, the film seems to veer into an absurd, ideological linkage between that dilemma and the larger dilemma of how to deal in the longer term with the problem of Arab intransigence.
Where the film fails terribly, however, is in its bizarre attempt to give the events a uniquely creative, possibly symbolic, artistic feel. One of the commandos involved in the rescue is portrayed as having a girlfriend who is a member of an Israeli modern dance troop. For most of the film, this is just a distracting sub-plot. But then, when the long-awaited rescue sequence arrives, it is amazingly interspersed with a performance by the dance troop! Undoubtedly the dance was “creative.” Undoubtedly, interspersing the climax of the film with this distracting performance was also “creative.” Undoubtedly it also almost completely ruins an otherwise good film!

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Death and Life

Homily for the celebration of the 3rd Scrutiny of the Elect, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 18, 2018.

The altar crucifixes, statues, and other sacred images are all veiled in purple today. Until relatively recently, this 5th Sunday of Lent was called “Passion Sunday.” With just 2 weeks to go till Easter, today marks the beginning of Lent’s final phase, as the Church focuses our attention more and more on the final events of Jesus’ earthly life – and why those events matter for us today.

The gospel we just heard [John 11:1-45] recounts the last miracle of Jesus’ public life – miracles John’s Gospel calls “signs,” because they reveal Jesus and invite us to respond with faith. But the raising of Lazarus also had as a consequence the authorities’ decision to execute Jesus. So life and death are mixed together, as the same event that suggests the new life Jesus makes possible also results (on the part of his enemies) in a decision for death. The apostle Thomas’s somewhat surprising exclamation, “Let us also go to die with him,” is actually addressed to us, as the Church invites us to accompany Jesus in his final journey.

Meanwhile this story about the human friendship between Jesus and Lazarus - and the extension of Lazarus’ earthly life - becomes a story about our relationship now with the Risen Christ and his offer to us of a resurrection similar to his own.

Jesus’ friendship with Lazarus extended also to his sisters, Martha and Mary, who first sent him the news of their brother’s serious sickness, thus setting the stage for a series of conversations, the most important (and familiar) of which was for so many centuries read at Catholic funerals.

Listening in on their conversation today, we hear Jesus’ one-sentence answer to Martha, Your brother will rise, (and her rather matter-of-fact response) rather matter-of-factly ourselves. But there was nothing matter-of-fact about it! Whatever else might happen to people when they died, ancient people knew that dead people do not rise back to life from the dead. Among Jews, however, there was one group – the Pharisees (whose beliefs Martha apparently shared) – who held the view that, whatever else may happen to people when they died, a general resurrection of the dead would follow – in the future, on the last day.

Jesus’ surprising answer to Martha, I am the resurrection and the life, was intended to hint ahead to his own unique experience of resurrection – something neither Martha nor anyone else would have understood at the time, since no one was then expecting the Messiah (or, for that matter anyone else) to rise from the dead, all by himself, ahead of everyone else.
We, however, can follow the story backwards, so to speak. We start from the fundamental fact that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, and then we understand his death - and his whole life - in the light of that.

Lazarus was brought back from the tomb to resume his ordinary mortal life.  Jesus, however, would rise out of his tomb in order to live forever. Bystanders had to take away the stone for Lazarus to be able to come out, and Lazarus himself emerged bound hand and foot. But no one had to help Jesus rise up or had to untie him. The resurrected life of the Risen Christ is something altogether new and different and means death’s decisive defeat.
Hence the threat that this subversive belief in the resurrection posed – and still poses – to those who see only the familiar world we now know.

John’s Gospel goes on to tell how, as a result of this event, the political leadership decided to kill Jesus - and to eliminate the evidence by killing Lazarus too. It’s like that scene in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, when Herod, hearing that Jesus has been raising people from the dead, declares: “I forbid him to do that. I allow no man to raise the dead.”

Martha’s invitation to Mary, The teacher is here and is asking for you, is addressed to all of us, who are in turn invited to address it to one another - and to this world which so desperately needs to hear it, but which increasingly seems somewhat dead to hope.

After experiencing what Jesus had done for Lazarus, many believed in him, but others went to report him to his enemies. Jesus’ own resurrection, of which this was meant as a hint, likewise challenges each of us to respond - one way or the other.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

"Providing Religious Cover for Moral Squalor"

Once more, Michael Gerson had added his voice to the ongoing discussion about the relationship between right-wing religion and Donald Trump's presidency and its long-term consequences for American religion in general, what he fittingly labels "providing religious cover for moral squalor". (See "the Last Temptation," The Atlantic April 2018 -

A life-long Evangelical himself, Gerson recognizes the shocking incongruity between right-wing religion's past attitudes toward licentious language and behavior and right-wing religion's current embrace of President Trump. But he quickly moves on to the heart of the problem: "Trump's unapologetic materialism - his equation of financial and social success with human achievement and worth - is a negation of Christian teaching." Once there, however, we are really no longer speaking solely of Trump (however extreme an example he may be) but of the essential project of the Republican party (an institution to which Gerson still has a historical attachment).

That said, Gerson's portrayal of the statements and behavior of one-time opponents of cultural and moral decay, now turned court chaplains, their supposed moral convictions corrupted by partisan identification hits home. "Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can't see how they are undermining the causes to which they once dedicated their lives. Little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness."

Gerson recalls (in lengthy detail) the familiar history of American evangelicalism's "fall from a  great height" and how the resulting defensive stance against contemporary culture "was happily exploited by the modern GOP." Interestingly, he contrast evangelicalism's "lack of a model or ideal of political engagement - an organizing theory of social action" - with Catholicism's "coherent, comprehensive tradition of social and political reflection." Of course, Gerson well knows, "American Catholics routinely ignore Catholic social thought. But at least they have it. Evangelicals lack a similar tradition of their own to disregard."

In contrast, Gerson stresses how wholly "reactive" the evangelical political agenda has been. His own experience suggests the real potential for evangelical social engagement, but laments how "such concerns find limited collective political expression" in part, he argues, because of "the relative ethnic and racial insularity of  many white evangelicals." Here he makes another unfavorable comparison with the heavily Hispanic Catholic Church.

One result of this highly reactive dynamic has been an apocalyptic self-perception as "a mistreated minority, in need of a defender who plays by worldly rules." In this understanding,  "protecting Christianity" has become "a job for a bully." By giving political considerations "pride of place," evangelicals, Gerson argues, "have ceased to be moral leaders in any meaningful sense."

He is particularly troubled that Trump supporters' decision "that racism is not a moral disqualification" for the presidency "is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities." Acknowledging the presence of counter-examples in the evangelical orbit and the growing disenchantment of younger evangelicals with political negativity, Gerson remains, however, highly anxious for the future - for the evangelical religious tradition and - "because, religion, properly viewed and applied, is essential to the country's public life" - for America. he concludes by calling on evangelicals "to rescue their faith from its worst leaders."

It is edifying that Gerson remains inspired by his faith and motivated to recall it to a more positive relationship with civil society. Christian history, however, offers abundant examples of opportunities missed, with catastrophic consequences - for example, the amputation of a once vibrantly Christian North Africa and a thousand years later the religious partition of Europe, both of which weakened the Church for centuries and continue to do so today. It remains to be seen what will be the long-term legacy of the unholy alliance between right-wing religion and an unapologetically materialist partisan project.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Brigadoon Election

Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District - partly rural, partly suburban - has comically been called the "Brigadoon" district, because it will literally disappear at the end of this year. (The 1954 musical Brigadoon was about a Scottish village that magically reappears every hundred years, only to disappear again after a single day.) Yet, although this seat will only be occupied for just a few more months, the competition for it has garnered national interest - and tons of outside money, the sure measure of significance in politics. 

Donald Trump carried the district in 2016, as did Mitt Romney before him. For four years in the early 1990s it was represented by Rick Santorum; and since 2003 it was represented by another Republican, Tim Murphy. It was his resignation last October which triggered this special election in what had come to be viewed as a reliably Republican constituency..

(Last fall, Murphy's hometown newspaper reported that an early 2017 text message from the woman he was having an extra-marital affair with revealed that the pro-life politician had asked her to have an abortion during what turned out to be an unfounded pregnancy scare. The paper also reported staff allegations of "hostile, erratic, unstable, aggressive and abusive behavior." Hence his resignation and the ensuing vacancy.)

Then along came Conor Lamb as the Democratic candidate. More precisely, along came the Trump presidency; and the existential threat that Republican party dominance poses produced an energized and enthused Democratic electorate apparently willing actually to turn out and vote in a special election! That may well make the difference in Brigadoon!

As I write this, the election is still too close to call. Conor Lamb is leading by 641 votes. If he wins, it obviously won't be a landslide. But, compared with previous Republican wins in the district (which Trump carried by 20 percentage points), for what it says about electoral prospects in November nationwide, it might just as well be a Democratic landslide - even if Lamb loses closely in the final count! Given the district's imminent evaporation and the existing Republican domination in the current Congress, this election was always more about symbolism than any immediate effect on public policy - symbolism that may be prophetic, however, for the November election and the real political changes that could conceivably flow from that.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Kennedys and Popes

Such is our persistent fascination with the Kennedy family that, 50 years after Robert Kennedy's assassination, CNN has produced yet another series on the famous family. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that once again we have another scandalously rich, overly privileged and entitled, pseudo-royal family in the White House. Where John Kennedy had Bobby, Donald Trump now has Jared and Ivanka!

Most of those in that famous November 9, 1960, AP Photo (above) of the family on the morning after JFK's election are gone, but the fascination remains. While it is hard to imagine what new could possibly be revealed about this most famous of American families, this new series does a good job of retelling this old, familiar, but forever evocative story. Narrated by actor Martin Sheen, it includes commentary from some younger Kennedys as well as from various historians and family biographers.

Sunday’s first episode - appropriately titled "The Power of Wealth" - focused on President Kennedy’s (in)famous father, Joseph Kennedy, who apparently once wanted to be president himself – an unlikely ambition, which his disastrous performance as American. Ambassador in London before and during the first part of World War II put a well-deserved end to. The episode highlights the whole tragic pathology that followed from his feeling of not being appropriately appreciated as an Irish Catholic in Protestant America  and his lifelong need to compensate, which eventually took the form of his ambitions for his sons. In the process, we cover the familiar ground of the family's wartime tragedies - Joe's tragic decision to "cure" his daughter Rosemary with a surgery that backfired so terribly that it ruined her life, Jack's near-loss in the Pacific (cleverly repackaged and publicized to make  him a war hero), Joe Jr.'s death as a casualty of war, and Kathleen's marriage outside the faith and her later tragic death in a plane crash. The episode ends with only Jack left of the older children - a sickly war hero newly elected to Congress. (Regrettably, while focusing on the role of the Kennedy money in Jack's political ascent, the program ignores the importance of Rose's family political connections.)

Given the woefully inadequate state of many contemporaries' historical awareness, a well done series such as this at least has the advantage of situating its story in the actual historical context and thus hopefully expanding its audience's historical knowledge.

That same can less confidently be claimed about the other historical series that CNN premiered last night, Pope: The Most Powerful Man in History. The first episode of The Kennedys covered actually only about a decade of recent, 20th-century history. In the same amount of broadcast time, the first episode of Pope  tries to cover almost 12 centuries! So it is inevitably somewhat superficial. Still, someone with little or no knowledge of the subject would learn something from this rushed and inevitably simplified survey of the first half of the Church's history.

That said, the series starts well.  The first episode, "The Rise of the Pope," starts, appropriately enough, with Saint Peter himself, emphasizing the Pope's position as successor of Saint Peter. Without serious challenge, the program rightly recognizes the papacy as the link to and the inheritor of the apostolic generation - and also fully accepts the link between Peter and Rome. It highlights the significance of Peter's martyrdom and the early Church's hierarchical organization.

Just as the Church's fortunes changed after Constantine, so does the pace of the presentation - rushing from Nicaea and the division of the empire into eastern and western halves through the familiar account of western empire's decline and the Pope's emergence as the only source of stable, civil governance in Rome. (There is some silly commentary about how neither Constantine nor the popes believed in separation of church and state - as if that uniquely contemporary concept would have even been comprehensible to people in other times!) Meanwhile, the papacy's struggle to survive in a context of almost constant conflict quickly causes it to ally with a new Constantine, Charlemagne. Then it is the threat of Islam that endangers the Church, causing the Crusades. The program presents the background of the Crusades correctly as a consequence of Islamic conquest of Christian lands, although it soon starts to get bogged down in familiar, "politically correct" lamentation over the violence of the Crusaders and a perhaps overly enthusiastic embrace of Saladin.

Even so, the story is largely fairly told, but so much is inevitably omitted. Perhaps the next episode will backtrack, but there is nothing about what actually became of Catholic Europe in those centuries - nothing, for example, about what was probably the most significantly influential institution (both religiously and culturally) in medieval Catholic Europe, namely monasticism. 

All in all, however, for all its superficiality, it is not a bad rendition of the Church's story! Whether the Pope is really best described as "The Most Powerful Man in History" may be arguable, but it is certainly an interesting story that is being presented - more interesting even than that of the Kennedys! 

Sunday, March 11, 2018

God's Handiwork

God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes I him might not perish but might have eternal life [John 3:16]Thanks to televised sporting events, this sentence became for a while one of the best known in the entire New Testament. I guess that’s good publicity for the Gospel! God loved the world so much, he gave the world his only son, so that everyone who believes might have eternal life. The grammar of the sentence suggests cause and effect. So much does God love the world that this is what he has done for it!

Of course, it should hardly come as a complete surprise that God loves the world. He is the one who created it, after all! On the other hand, we may easily enough be tempted to forget just how much God loves the  world, when we see so much that seems so wrong with our world. Left to itself, the world can seem to be a dreadful place at times. With all the world’s natural calamities, to which must be added all the misery directly attributable to human behavior, the world must seem a horrible place indeed - if left to itself. 

Listening to today’s 1st reading [2 Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23], we sense how little seems to have changed in the world. The point of the story – certainly the point of including it in the Lenten liturgy – is to remind us of the long legacy of human sinfulness, which has been long and loud, and to remind us that the one piece of good news is that God has not left the world to itself. God’s compassion on his people and his dwelling place, led him to inspire Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire, to let the Jews return to Jerusalem. That same divine compassion ultimately led him to send us his Son – because, as Saint Paul assures us [Ephesians 2:4], he is rich in mercy 

Yet how easily tempted are we to escape from the burdens and responsibilities of this messed-up world which God loves so much? How many sects and cults have tempted people to try to avoid the messy, complicated burdens of society, work, and citizenship, the human burdens that define our life in the world – rather than accepting, healing, and renewing our relationships with others and with the created world [Cf. Placuit Deo, 2]?

In classical mythology, when Pandora opened the box that released so many evils into the world, she closed it just in time to trap hope in the box - thus effectively leaving the world to itself. The book of Chronicles, in contrast, highlights how the long cycle of human misbehavior and its consequences was broken by God’s not leaving the world to itself, by his surprising choice of Cyrus to be a beacon of hope in the midst of so much misery and wickedness.

The Good news of the Gospel is the hope God has offered us in Jesus his Son, who, far from leaving the world to itself, has become part of it. The hope he offers is thus not a license to abandon the world but a challenge to move forward with the task of living and working in the world. This Good news – which the Church is in the world as part of the world in order to proclaim to the world – is the hope offered us in Jesus in whom we have been transformed into agents of God’s grace for the transformation of the world which God loves so much.

For we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in him [Ephesians 2:10].

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday), Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 11, 2018.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Daylight Saving Time

In the 2001 British mystery and comedy of manners movie Gosford Park, there is a scene in which Maggie Smith (as Countess Constance Trentham), while dressing for some typically aristocratic outdoor activity, laments, "Why do we have to do these things? Of course, the fact that pretentious, overly rich people have to do certain things as part of the rich pretense that is their life is a presumption of the film, one which the audience presumably understands.  But there are a lot of things we all do in life which also merit Maggie's penetrating question. For example, why do we have to move our clocks forward an hour and so have to drive to work next week in deep darkness? 

In a capitalist society, the default presumption must be that some moneyed interest benefits from this absurd practice. One theory that I have heard is that it was stores that pushed for Daylight Saving Time, on the theory that with more afternoon daylight people would stay outside and shop on their way home from work. I don't know how true that is, but it is at least intuitively plausible. Of course, nowadays when more and more people shop online anyway, what difference does the extra afternoon daylight make, especially when one can now shop all day on Sundays and holidays even in stores? And the growing number of stores that are open late or even all night suggests that darkness is no longer such an obstacle to shopping, if it ever really was.

But Daylight Saving Time continues as part of the commercial capitalist pretense of our contemporary life. In fact Daylight Saving Time has expanded its reach, When I was a child, it began on the last Sunday of April and ended on the last Sunday in September. Now it starts on the 2nd Sunday in March and ends on the 1st Sunday of November! In the spirit of Constance Trentham, I guess it is just one of those things we just have to do!