Saturday, March 25, 2023
Sunday, March 19, 2023
Saturday, March 18, 2023
The First Day of the World
Having one's birthday on one of the greatest feasts of the Christian year has always inevitably increased my interest in the Christian calendar and some of the unique concepts connected with the way some of the most important cosmic events have been dated. Obviously no one knows the exact date of the incarnation with any kind of certainty, but its celebration on March 25, the Annunciation of the Lord, has long been one of the high points of the Church's calendar. Whenever March 25 is also Good Friday (as happened most recently in 2016 but won't happen again until 2157), we are reminded that, at least since the 3rd century, March 25 was often thought to be both the anniversary of the Annunciation (and therefore of conception of Christ, the Incarnation of the Son of God as Son of Mary) and of the Crucifixion (because it seemed only appropriate that Christ's earthly life should have constituted a perfect circle with his dying on the same date as he had been conceived). Clearly that represents a kind of spiritual and symbolic thinking to which our ancient and medieval ancestors naturally gravitated, but which we spiritually and symbolically impoverished moderns inevitably find somewhat alien and incomprehensible. Hence, horrible ideas like a fixed date of Easter have acquired a currency in our rationalistic, modern world which they would never have had for our ancient and medieval ancestors.
In their mindset, it wasn't enough that March 25 frame Jesus' life and death from conception to cross. It also became in some calculations the symbolic "eighth day of creation," the beginning of eternity. In that case, of course, one could count back a week and identify each of the actual seven days of creation, starting with March 18, the first day when God's word Fiat lux separated the light from the darkness. While this was not the only scheme for calculating the date of creation (October competed with March in some alternative calculations), this one was very popular, so much so that some calendars identified March 18 as the first day of the world.
All this reminds us that time - earthly time, human time - has been sanctified by God's design and infinitely enriched in meaning by God's direct entry into our world and its time in the incarnation of his Son. In this ultimate sense, nothing is really random. Rather, the structures of the universe themselves reflect the Creator's purposes for his creatures. And we creatures, having been endowed with rational faculties, can exercise our human reason to discover in time God's purposes for us.
Tuesday, March 14, 2023
A Somber Anniversary
Twenty years ago this coming Sunday, on March 19, 2003, the United States launched an attack on Saddam Hussein's Iraq, upon the expiration of a March 17 U.S. ultimatum to Saddam to leave the country. The Iraq War (as we now remember it) was unlike its short and successful 1991 predecessor ("Operation Desert Storm"). This war (officially named "Operation Iraqi Freedom") was destined to be long and demonstrably less successful. The war was undertaken after Iraq was declared to be in breach of a U.N. Security Council Resolution which prohibited "stockpiling and importing weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).” But no such weapons were ever found. And, while Iraqi forces were overwhelmed quickly and Baghdad fell a mere five weeks after the invasion began, the U.S. quickly found itself involved in a long-term occupation, for which neither the military nor the American people were quite prepared. Whereas the 1991 war had been undertaken by - or at least with the support of - a significant coalition of countries, the 2003 war was, with some significant support from the U.K., nonetheless predominantly an American affair, and one which was widely unpopular outside the U.S.
Friday, March 10, 2023
Holy Oil Fit for a King
The earliest definite instance of a ritual anointing of a Christian monarch is generally thought to have been that of Pepin (the son of Charles Martel and the father of Charlemagne) in 752. Since then an anointing ritual, recalling the Old Testament anointing of Israel's kings, has been the religious centerpiece of the coronation rites of most Christian monarchs. While several such monarchs still reign in Europe today, only one kingdom continues to crown and anoint its monarch in a Christian religious service, a profound expression of the priestly and prophetic dimensions of human society and civil governance, in contrast to the pathological conceits of secularism.
In preparation for the forthcoming May 6 coronation of Britain's King Charles III, the holy oil to be used on that occasion was consecrated recently in Jerusalem. The ritual preparation of the sacred coronation oil is described (with commentary by Jerusalem's Anglican Archbishop) in a YouTube video, which can be watched at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=keawBNtB8BE.
The coronation oil was created from olives harvested from two groves on the Mount of Olives. According to the Archbishop of Canterbury, who will perform the anointing ritual on May 6 (as his predecessors have done for over one thousand years): “This demonstrates the deep historic link between the Coronation, the Bible and the Holy Land. From ancient kings through to the present day, monarchs have been anointed with oil from this sacred place. As we prepare to anoint The King and The Queen Consort, I pray that they would be guided and strengthened by the Holy Spirit.”
The choice of Jerusalem as the place to bless the oil and the participation of Orthodox prelates presumably also has personal resonance for the new king, since his own grandmother lived as an Orthodox nun and is buried in Jerusalem. (Born Princess Alice of Battenberg at Windsor Castle, she became by marriage Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark and thus the mother of the future Duke of Edinburgh, husband of Elizabeth II and so grandmother of King Charles III.)
The newly made coronation oil is based on a centuries-old formula, with some modern modifications. The oil used in 1953 to anoint Queen Elizabeth II included a mixture of orange, rose, cinnamon, musk and ambergris (whale) oils. The oil newly made for King Charles contains oils of sesame, rose, jasmine, cinnamon, neroli, benzoin, amber and orange blossom, but (unlike his mother's) is made without any animal ingredients.
Still today, even in this symbolically impoverished era of widespread ritual minimalism and informality, holy oil continues to play a central role in Christian liturgy. At the Holy Week Chrism Mass each year, Catholic Bishops bless the Oil of Catechumens, for the strengthening of those preparing for baptism, the Oil of the Sick, for the healing of those who are seriously ill, and the Sacred Chrism, oil mixed with perfume, for the anointing of the newly baptized, of those being confirmed, of those being ordained priests, of those being ordained bishops, and for the consecration of altars and churches. Thus, I myself have been solemnly anointed with the sacred chrism three times in my life, at my baptism, my confirmation, and my priestly ordination, and I was privileged to participate five years ago at the solemn dedication of Knoxville's new cathedral at which its altar and walls were anointed.
The word chrism connects the oil with Christ, the messiah anointed by the Holy Spirit. The use of chrism in the Church's rites celebrates the configuring of the one being anointed to Christ himself, in different dimensions and degrees in each instance. The anointing of a king - as Handel's glorious coronation anthem, Zadok the Priest, so powerfully expresses - recalls the anointing of David and Solomon and the priestly and prophetic dimensions of this mundane earthly existence.
Photo: Queen Elizabeth II being prepared for her anointing at her coronation, June 2, 1953.
Thursday, March 9, 2023
Tuesday, March 7, 2023
More Important Even Than Family
After the scriptures, the most popular Christian literature in the Church’s early and formative centuries was the narratives of the martyrs – their passion and death recalling and, in a sense, reenacting the passion and death of Jesus himself. Often, a local community composed such accounts, in the form of often highly stylized, edifying narratives. In the case of today’s 3rd-century African martyrs, SS. Perpetual and Felicity, however, Perpetua herself wrote her own account of her imprisonment and her dialogue with her father.
Actually, six people – four men and two women - were martyred on this date in the year 203, but it is the story of the two women which made the most impression on the ancient Christian imagination. Perpetua was a married noblewoman in her early 20s, nursing an infant son, when she was arrested, along with a pregnant slave, Felicity. Both were catechumens at the time. In the narrative, Perpetua’s aristocratic father tried to persuade her to recant her Christian belief, but she defied family pressure and was baptized before being martyred.
In American Christianity today, there is a lot of emphasis on “family,” so much so that it may sometimes seem as if family is what Church and parish life are mainly all about. Under ordinary circumstances, of course, family is important. The story of SS. Perpetual and Felicity reminds us, however, that, whatever importance family relationships rightly have in our ordinary lives, our call to be disciples challenges all our ordinary loyalties, affections and relationships, even the most socially significant and emotionally fulfilling.
Homily on the Tuesday of the Second Week of Lent, the Commemoration of SS. Perpetua and Felicity, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, March 7, 2023.
Image: SS. Perpetua and Felicity, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC.
Monday, March 6, 2023
Thinking about "Working Class" Politics
A perennial theme of contemporary political punditry is whether and how the Democrats, having lost the votes of the “working class,” could conceivably regain it. Related to this is the debate about whether and how the Republican party, having acquired the votes of the “working class,” could conceivably become permanently the party of the “working class.”
There are, of course, problems with the way this issue is typically formulated, the most problematic being how the “working class” is currently often defined. As Dylan Riley and Robert Brenner have recently argued in “Seven Theses on American Politics” (New Left Review, 138, November December 2022, pp. 5-27), “it is commonplace in the US today to equate the ‘non-college-educated’ with the ‘working class’.” But education does not equal resource ownership. That is, “the most highly educated worker, if she or he lacks assets, must enter into a wage relationship” and so “subordinate themselves to capital in order to gain a livelihood.”
Thus, the American “working class,” understood by Riley and Brenner as “those who do not own assets and therefore must subsist on wage income, make up between 68 and 80 per cent of all US households. But this class is profoundly split by education level, sector of economic activity and ‘race’.” The authors identify “credentialling” and “race” as key concepts defining divisions within this class, in which what they call “whiteness” or “nativeness” are “the BA of the non-college-educated,” while the BA is the “whiteness” or nativeness” of the college educated.
Obviously, any seriously competitive political party must appeal to at least some “working class” voters. And it is increasingly obvious which party appeals more to the credentialled wing of the U.S. “working class” and which increasingly successfully appeals to its non-credentialled (i.e., non-college-educated) wing. “As mass organizations, the two parties are therefore anchored in different parts of the working class: the Republicans in its less educated faction, and Democrats among the credentialled.”
Riley and Brenner quote Thomas Piketty’s observation: “If the Democratic Party has become the party of the highly educated, while the less educated have fled to the Republicans, it must be because the latter group believes that the policies backed by the Democrats increasingly fail to express their aspirations.” (More and more, I think we are seeing evidence of this in the voting patterns of, for example, some Asian and Latino voters. As the Democratic party has increasingly come to reflect the priorities of its wealthier, college-educated professionals, this upscale party has become less and less appealing to others, who in the past might have been more reliably Democratic voters – e.g., Asian and Latino voters more and more of whom since 2018 have supported Republicans.)
A key component of Riley and Brenner’s analysis is the transforming effect ton electoral politics of our current “persistently low- or no-growth environment,” called “secular stagnation,” in which “parties can no longer operate on the basis of programmes for growth.” In the past, political parties were able to appeal to “working class” voters by providing actual material gains (e.g., the Great Society), but this was possible because of sustained economic growth. Traditional “social-democratic politics,” Riley and Brenner remind us, is premised “on the prospect of economic growth. But the politics of the present period does not hold out even the hope of growth. It is a politics of zero-sum redistribution, primarily between different groups of workers.” The result is the two different coalitions we now have, representing our current two different “working class” strata: “MAGA politics which seeks to redistribute income away from non-white and immigrant workers, and multicultural neoliberalism, which seeks to redistribute income toward the highly educated.”
I have in the past commented on one form of this transformation away from traditional social-democratic politics in places like Spain. Unable to offer a traditional “socialist” progressive economic program, such parties fall back on the cultural components which are part of their ideological inheritance, which in a place like Spain means anti-clericalism and anti-Catholicism. Likewise, in the U.S. today each political party has fallen into its own distinctive form of grievance politics.
Those of us old enough to remember the post-war economic boom know that something other than the present impasse was once possible – and so, presumably, is still imaginable, although neither political party is presently capable of advocating, let alone achieving, it.
Sunday, March 5, 2023
Listen - like Abraham
A modern pilgrim, who has just made it to the Church of the Transfiguration at the top of Mount Tabor after a high-speed taxi ride up the narrow mountain road might well echo Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ transfiguration, “Lord, it is good that we are here.”
Peter presumably had walked up the mountain, but the experience to which he was reacting was anything but pedestrian. For what Peter, James, and John were being treated to was nothing less than an experience of the glory of God, an awesome peek into another world, so to speak, a glimpse of Jesus’ divine nature as Son of God and his fulfillment of the Old Testament (represented on the mountain by Moses and Elijah).
No wonder Peter wanted to stay there as long as possible – even to erect three shrines there, one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah – as if this were it, and he had finally reached where he ought to be. He didn’t understand that this was just the beginning – an invitation to join Jesus on his journey.
An ancient tradition dates the Transfiguration 40 days before the Crucifixion, which is one reason why, every year, this account is read early in Lent. In the actual narrative, however, the time sequence points back six days to Peter’s profession of faith and Jesus’ first prediction of his impending passion. This suggests that the two events (in both of which Peter plays a prominent part) are connected. In both, there is the revelation of who Jesus ultimately is and reference forward to his impending death and resurrection. And, in both, Peter is the spokesman for the others, the one most intimately associated with Jesus and at the same time the one who seems somehow to miss much of the point Jesus was actually making.
Paralleling Peter is the very different figure of Abraham, who makes his first appearance on the world stage in today’s 1st reading, when suddenly God intervened in human history in a new way – singling out one specific individual (and through him one particular family and eventually one specially chosen nation) – to be his human partner in repairing the damage done by human sin and so become a blessing for the whole world.
Abraham is considered the common spiritual ancestor of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in all three of which Abraham is revered for his faith, that summoned him - at an age when most of us are already retired – to go forth to a new land. But Abraham’s assigned destination was vague. We call Abraham our father in faith; but his story also reveals what real faith really requires. Abraham’s faith was his response to the ambiguous and complicated events in his life in a way that fully recognized God’s presence and action in those ambiguous and complicated events. His faith meant total trust in and reliance on God through whatever changes might be required and whatever challenges might have to be met.
Change is always challenging, which is why wise people avoid change as much as possible. I often like to quote the 2nd Viscount Falkland’s (1610-1643) famous observation: "where it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change." Human history has more than confirmed the wisdom of that statement. Still, sometimes change is necessary, and therein lies the challenge – first to know when, and then to know how. It may mean abandoning the familiar for the frightening. It may mean something totally new. Or it may not. Sometimes, the most challenging change may be to undo bad decisions and recent choices in order to return to a lost or forgotten or abandoned older and wiser path.
We all talk at times about making necessary changes in our lives. Sometimes we may even mean it. But we are just as likely to conclude that we have too much at stake to change course. Lent is our annual opportunity to let Abraham demonstrate the power of faith to overcome our cynicism, despair, defeatism, and spiritual inertia.
That this is possible is, of course, all because of Abraham’s greatest descendent, Jesus, who fulfilled in life and death his nation’s destiny and so made Abraham’s blessing fully available to the entire world.
Even so, our temptation will always be to do the opposite and to think (like Peter) that we are there already - without having to make the journey. But the same God who first called and challenged – and blessed – Abraham also continues to invite us, through Jesus, instructing us as he instructed Peter: "This is my beloved Son … listen to him."
Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, March 5, 2023.
Photo: Church of the Transfiguration Mount Tabor, Israel.
Saturday, March 4, 2023
FDR's Fab Four
In Unlikely Heroes: Franklin Roosevelt, His Four Lieutenants, and the World They Made (St. Martin's Press, 2023), author Derek Leebaert proposes a fresh way of looking at FDR's eventful presidency, paralleling the president's particular personality and governing style with the stories of four unique people - presidential adviser Harry Hopkins, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, Labor SecretaryFrances Perkins, and Agriculture Secretary (and then Vice President) Henry Wallace - who formed a sort of privileged inner circle within FDR's Administration and who remained key members of the Administration from the Depression-deep "First 100 Days" in 1933 through the whole of the New Deal and the Second World War until the president's death in April 1945. Leebaert credits FDR's complicated inner four with building the institutions and structures that implemented the New Deal and helped pave the path to victory in World War II.
Thursday, March 2, 2023
Praying with Queen Esther
The Old Testament reading at this morning's Lenten Mass [Thursday of the first Week of Lent], is part of the famous Prayer ascribed to Queen Esther, the heroine of the biblical book which bears her name, who, having head from her Uncle Mordecai the terrifying news about the impending threat to the survival of the Jewish People, Queen Esther, seized with mortal anguish, had recourse to the Lord. Next week, our jewish brothers and sisters will celebrate the joyful festival of Purim, which commemorates how God intervened in response to Esther's prayer to ensure the survival of the Jewish People. But, of course, when Esther made her prayer, she did not yet know what would happen. She could only hope, trusting in what she used to hear about God's goodness and reliability from the books of her forefathers.
To highlight the seriousness of the crisis, the context provided by the complete account in the Book of Esther tells us she took off her splendid garments (she was a queen, after all) and put on garments of distress and mourning.
Sunday, February 26, 2023
A Lent for Our Time
Today is traditionally known as Quadragesima Sunday, the ancient beginning of the 40-day liturgical season of Lent (in Latin Quadragesima). Of course, in the present Roman Rite Lent now begins on the increasingly popular Ash Wednesday, but Ash Wednesday and the four following days were a later (already more than a thousand years old) addition to the (now increasingly less popular) Lenten season, which actually still starts counting the 40 days today, ending on the Thursday before Easter. This Sunday’s importance in the liturgical calendar is highlighted by the fact that the Roman stational church for today is the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the “Mother Church” of Rome, the Pope’s official “cathedral.” Dedicated to Saint John the Baptist, Rome’s Lateran Basilica seems an especially appropriate place to recall Christ’s 40-day fast in the desert!
But before we get to the desert, the Church today takes us all the way back to the beginning – to the garden [Genesis 2:7-9; 3:1-7]. The Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and placed there the man whom he had formed – formed, incidentally, out of the clay of the ground, the same ground out of which God made the various trees and, a little later, the various wild animals and various birds of the air. The story is a familiar one, which we are apt to allow to gently pass over us (in one ear and out the other, as the saying goes). But its presence and prominence in this Lenten liturgy suggests that would be a mistake. It’s a story, to be sure, but more like a meditation, a study in story-form of who we are and where we've gone wrong.
In this story, that says so much, we learn that life itself is a gift. So too is the world, which we are not the owners of, but more like tenants. And, if our contemporary world environment is becoming, because of our greedy and destructive behavior, much less of a garden and more like a desert, the story has something to say about that too!
In the middle of that original garden grew a tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which the story suggests served as a kind of boundary, not to be touched, let alone eaten from. It is a reminder that we human beings didn’t make the world, we don’t own it, and we are not completely in charge.
Neither, for that matter, is the smart, cunning serpent, the tempter, who acts as if he were in charge and whom tradition treats as a figure for the devil – the same Satan who will tempt Jesus in the desert, pretending there to be in charge of all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence.
The devil is thus a liar, albeit a subtle, cunning liar, who lied to Adam and Eve as he will later lie to Jesus in the desert. Like the seductions of modernity and of our modern politics, the devil is indeed a subtle, cunning liar. Superficially, of course, what the serpent says to Eve is true. Adam and Eve will not die – at least not right away. And their eyes will be opened to know what is good and what is evil. But, when what the tempter promises actually happens, then we quickly see how well we have been deceived!
True they did not die right away, but die they eventually did. Through one man, Saint Paul says, sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all. The same ground we once came from, originally filled with the Creator’s breath of life, to that same ground we must, on account of sin, return now in death – as we were so dramatically, ritually reminded this past Ash Wednesday. (In case the ashes themselves weren’t clear enough as a symbol of death, we were wisely told: Remember, you are dust, and to dust you will return!)
As so often unfortunately happens with our limited Lectionary, the first reading ends abruptly. Adam and Eve try to repair the damage they have done by making themselves clothes – in effect hiding from one another. They will soon also try to hide from God, for the tempter has taught them to think of God as an enemy, as an oppressor. But, so the story continues, God does not desert them nor abandon them to their guilt. That’s good news. And it looks ahead, looks forward, to the even bigger and better news Saint Paul proclaims in the second Sunday scripture reading [Romans 5:12-19]. But the gift is not like the transgression. For if by the transgression of the one, the many died, how much more did the grace of God and the gracious gift of the one man Jesus Christ overflow for the many.
Unfortunately, far fewer will likely hear today's Gospel of the devil's lies to Jesus in the desert [Matthew 4:1-11] than probably received ashes four days ago. Yet I remain convinced that one of the (possibly many) reasons for the popularity of those ashes is in its shock value as a statement of the truth in a world dominated by lies and liars. Back when I used to preach on Ash Wednesday, I rhetorically used to ask what made those ashes so popular and answered my own question with some variation on the theme, "because it is true." In this “information age” when we are all bombarded on all sides with disinformation, with images and words we cannot even begin to sort out, in this politicized age of “alternative facts” and just plain old-fashioned lies, not to mention the infamous, political Big Lie about the 2020 election and all the lies which that has spawned, in this therapeutic age when we are routinely fed false narratives of human happiness and fulfillment, for once at least we are being told something that is simply and unambiguously TRUE.
We live in a world which prizes safety, comfort, and feeling good about oneself - three lies that are ubiquitous even in religion. Yet, each year, Lent, with its sobering message of mortality and fragility and its solemn challenge to repentance, somehow still cuts through the poisonous political platitudes and psychobabble of our age to speak spiritual truth against the powerful lie of our narcissistic self-absorption.
Thanks to Adam’s sin, the garden has become a desert. That is where we find ourselves now, and so where we encounter the devil – just as Jesus did. But because Jesus has himself not just encountered but defeated the devil, our own victory over Satan is already in sight. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.