Friday, November 27, 2015

For Everything There is Season; Even Waiting

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The Liturgical Calendar of the Catholic Church
This past Sunday we celebrated the Solemnity of Christ the King, the last Sunday in Ordinary Time.  In the secular world, it was the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  Thanksgiving is perhaps my favorite secular holiday for it celebrates the very Catholic practice of offering thanks for the blessings which we have from God.  (The word eucharist, we must remember, means "giving thanks").  

As I was driving home from Mass with my dad on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, we noticed several of the neighbors putting Christmas decorations on the outside of their home.  Other homes were already decorated.  I commented to my dad that when I was growing up, it would have seemed really strange to have Christmas decorations out before Thanksgiving.  Some families decorated for Christmas earlier than others, but "decorating early" meant early December. 

My dad and I shared some ideas about what might be the cause of this change in custom.  I suggested that it has to do with the amalgamation of what we call "the Holiday Season."  That term may have entered our lexicon as a convenient way of describing the time toward the end of December when people of different faiths and cultures celebrate Christmas, New Years, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice, and the birthday of Muhammad.  "Holiday Season" is a generic way to reference this time of year in a pluralistic society.

However, it seems to me that now when people use the term "Holiday Season" to mean that broad span of time that stretches between Thanksgiving and New Years -- and for some the "Holiday Season" starts as early as Halloween.  Blame The Nightmare Before Christmas if you will. Whatever the cause, the whole months of November and December constitute a new season of the year, the Holiday Season, which comes between Fall and Winter.  The distinctive holidays have become amalgamated into one giant celebration, and so we have Christmas trees on Thanksgiving and no one bats an eye.

By celebrating "the holidays" generically, we miss the benefits of celebrating each particularly.  One of the many gifts we have from the Catholic Church is our liturgical calendar.  Over the course of the year we review and relive the saga of salvation history.  We celebrate Christ's birth, life, death and resurrection on an annual cycle.  The Church gives us times of fasting and feasting, times of celebration and times of preparation.  The cycle of the liturgical year teaches us not only to appreciate the time we have today but it teaches us what it means to wait with anticipation.

We enter into such a time of waiting now.  It is how we begin each liturgical year.  Advent means "coming," but this season is so much more than a preparation for the coming of Christmas.  We await the future coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  One of the great things about the different seasons in the Church is that each highlights for us an aspect of reality that we live all the time.  For example, Easter is the great celebration of the Resurrection, but we celebrate the Resurrection every Sunday, and as Christians we are a Resurrection people.  We live in the light of the Resurrection all the time, but we celebrate it in a particular way on Easter.  So with Advent.  We are an Advent people.  Ever since Jesus ascended into heaven 40 days after the Resurrection, His followers have been waiting for Him to come again.  We pray in the Lord's Prayer that "Thy Kingdom come."  At Mass we sing, We proclaim Your death, O Lord, and profess Your resurrection until you come again.  We pray marana tha, "Come Lord Jesus!"

Advent begins not by looking back to an event that happened more than two thousand years ago.  Advent begins by having us looking forward, as the Church always looks forward, to that final coming of Jesus in all His glory at the end of time.  This is made evident by the readings and prayers offered at Mass, all of which look forward to that coming.  The Collect prayer from the first Sunday in Advent asks God for "the resolve to run forth to meet your Christ with righteous deeds at His coming."  The first Preface of Advent looks back to the Nativity only to direct our gaze once again forward: "He assumed at His first coming the lowliness of human flesh . . . that, when He comes again in glory and majesty and all is at last made manifest, we who watch for that day may inherit the great promise in which we now dare to hope."

The readings from the Second Sunday in Advent admonish us to be prepared for this coming.  We hear John the Baptist telling us to "prepare the way of the Lord, make straight His paths" (Lk 3:4).  We read Paul telling us to increase in love, knowledge and discernment so that we "may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ" (Phil 1:10).  The message is clear -- we need to prepare ourselves now for Christ's coming; today, not tomorrow!  We should be prepared now to welcome Christ into our hearts.  The Collect prays to God that "no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son."  There is a sense of urgency about these Advent prayers.  We are urged to make ready -- not just make ready our homes for holiday guests, but make ready our souls to be suitable homes for the Lord.

The third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, after the entrance antiphon for that Mass. Gaudete in Domino semper. . .  "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.  Indeed the Lord is near" (Phil 4:4-5).  The penitential mood of the season of preparation is lightened a bit, and so the liturgical color lightens from violet to rose.  Our gaze now turns more toward the coming celebration of our Lord's Nativity, that first coming of Jesus in the flesh.  The Collect refers to the Church as the people who "faithfully await the feast of the Lord's Nativity."  We still wait for the coming of Christ in glory at the end of time, but we also rejoice because we know that our Savior has already come to us at that very first Christmas, inaugurating a season of salvation in the world, a season in which we now live.  And so we look forward in anticipation to the coming celebration of that feast.  But it is not here yet.  As John the Baptist proclaims in the gospel for the day, "One mightier than I is coming" (Lk 3:16).

As we come to the fourth Sunday in Advent we sense that the end of our waiting is near.  Something big is about to happen in our collective religious memory.  The Mass begins with the entrance antiphon from Isaiah 45:8, "let the clouds rain down the Just One; let the earth be opened and bring forth a Savior."  Our Collect prayer now speaks openly of the Incarnation, in words familiar to any who pray the Angelus prayer: "Pour forth, we beseech You, O Lord, Your grace into our hearts, that we, to whom the Incarnation of Christ Your Son was made known by the message of an Angel, may by His Passion and Cross be brought to the glory of His Resurrection."  Our gospel reading now has Mary with child.  It is Luke 1:39-45, Mary's visitation to Elizabeth, the gospel passage that gives us these words of the Hail Mary prayer: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb."  The communion antiphon is Isaiah 7:14, "Behold, a Virgin shall conceive and bear a son; and His name will be called Emmanuel."  The memory and imagination of our faith is focused now on the events of that silent night over 2000 years ago.  But that night is not yet upon us.  Like the pregnant Mary in the Mass readings, we wait patiently for the coming of the child.

From Dec. 17 to Dec. 24, those who pray the Church's Liturgy of the Hours encounter what are known as the "O Antiphons."  These are prayers which date back to the fourth century, each addressing Christ by a different Messianic title from the Old Testament.  They serve to build our anticipation of our coming Christmas celebration even further.  Christ is called O Widsom, O Lord, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Rising Dawn, O King of Nations, and finally, on Dec. 24, O Emmanuel -- God is with us.

And so our time of waiting and preparation is brought to fulfillment with this celebration of the Incarnation on Dec. 25.  Our joy is so great that we cannot wait until sunrise to celebrate.  According to old Jewish custom, the day ends at sunset and a new day begins, so on the eve of Dec. 24 we begin our festival with a Vigil Mass in honor of Christ's birth.  The Church celebrates a special Mass at midnight, a Mass at dawn, as well as a Mass during the day.  We cannot stop celebrating.  Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth to men of good will.  Unto us a child is born!  Unto us a son is given!  He is God-with-us, Emmanuel!  He is Jesus Christ our King!

While the secular world is packing away their tinsel and lights, our celebration is just beginning.  We celebrate Christmas not just with one day but with a week of days -- more than a week -- an octave, an eight-day celebration of the one feast of Christmas.  The octave of Christmas includes such feasts as The Holy Family and Mary, Mother of God, to remind us that our God was born to a woman, and born into a family.  We also celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents (those children who died at the hands of Herod in his quest to kill the Christ-child) and the feast of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Church, to remind us of the cost of worshiping this babe born in Bethlehem.

We celebrate the Epiphany on Jan. 6 (often transferred to a Sunday), recalling when the wise men from the east came to give homage and worship to the Christ-child, the first manifestation of His kingship to the Gentiles.  This concludes the "12 days of Christmas," but still not the Christmas season.  That does not end until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord (Jan 10 this year), marking the beginning of Jesus' public ministry and the revelation of the Holy Trinity, as the Holy Spirit was seen descending upon Jesus while the Father's voice was heard saying, "This is my beloved Son, with Him I am well pleased."  Only then does the Christmas season end.  Only then do we enter back into Ordinary Time, made so extraordinary by the fact that we now live in the age of Incarnation, the age of the Church, when Christ's grace makes possible the reconciliation of sinners to God.

But before we enter that season of celebration, we wait.  We prepare.  We learn what it means to make ready.  Just as there is a time of examinations before graduation, a time of engagement before marriage, a time of pregnancy before birth, there is a time of Advent before Christmas.  "Good things come to those who wait," or so the saying goes.  Perhaps this is because only those who know how to wait can truly appreciate the good things.  Advent is a gift to us, a gift from the Church to help us make our hearts ready to welcome Christ, in the manger at Bethlehem, and in our hearts this day and hour.  

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Once & Future King

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We come to the end of the liturgical year in the Church. Next Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent, that time of preparation for the coming of Christ.  Advent is both a looking ahead (to the time when Christ will come in glory) and a looking back (to the time when Christ came in the nativity).  So it is fitting that before we begin the Advent season the Church celebrates this great feast which reminds us that Jesus Christ reigns as King right here and right now among us.

It may not seem that way when we look at the world around us.  ISIS terrorists destroyed more than a hundred lives in Paris and Beirut last weekend. Thousands are fleeing from their home countries and other countries are afraid to take them in.  How can we say that Christ is King?  People lose loved ones every day.  People suffer broken hearts.  How can we say that Christ is King?

Is the Kingdom of God something that exists now or something we only hope for in the future?  When we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "Thy Kingdom come," we pray for a future reign of God where justice and mercy will prevail. We pray marana tha because we know the suffering of the world around is not God's kingdom.  We long for that perfect reign of God where we will know unending love and peace.

In that respect, the Kingdom of God is a future event.  We await the final coming of Christ in glory when His reign will achieve perfection.  But we cannot lose sight of the fact that the Kingdom of God is also a present reality. Jesus did not come 2000 years ago in the Incarnation to tell us what He was going to do in some distant future.  He came to inaugurate His Kingdom then and there.  The Kingdom is not yet fully manifest in this world, because it is not of this world.  But God's Kingdom is present to us now and we are called to be citizens of it.  It is vital that we understand this.

It is Christ, not King Arthur, who is the real "once and future king," whose reign is both present to us now and enduring through all time.  "The Kingdom of God lies ahead of us.  It is brought near in the Word incarnate, it is proclaimed throughout the whole Gospel, and it has come in Christ's death and Resurrection.  The Kingdom of God has been coming since the Last Supper and, in the Eucharist, it is in our midst" (CCC 2816).  All those who belong to the Church are citizens of the Kingdom of God here and now.  "The Church is the Reign of Christ already present in mystery" (CCC 763, LG 3).

The Kingdom of God is not identified with the world, but with the Church -- yet the Church is called to serve the world and be present in the world.  The Church acts as a leaven, infecting the world with the glory of God's Kingdom until that day when Christ comes in glory.

In John's gospel Jesus tells Pilate, a mid-level administrator of the Roman bureaucracy, that His kingdom is not of this world.  But He, the King of the Universe, entered into this world to testify to the truth.  Christ entered the world, and His Kingdom entered with Him.  Wherever the King is, the Kingdom will also be.

"The Kingdom of God means Christ Himself," St. Cyprian said.  "For as He is our resurrection, since in Him we rise, so He can also be understood as the Kingdom of God, for in Him we shall reign." The Kingdom of God is not a place, but a Person.  To know Christ now is to know His reign in your heart.

So yes, as Christians, we await the fullness of the coming of His Kingdom.  We pray marana tha as we look forward with hope to His final manifestation.  But that does not mean we are do not live under His reign right here and now.  Christ reigns from eternity, which is not some future time, but an ever present time.  And so we pray "Thy Kingdom come," into our hearts right now, this day, O Lord, and reign within our lives.  To be a follower of Christ is to be a citizen of His Kingdom, both now and for all eternity.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Giving From Your Poverty

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A few weeks ago, in a reflection discussing temporal vs. spiritual goods, I made the point that those who have the least are often the most generous.  The example I used was that of a CEO who donates 1% of his income to charity compared to a homeless man who only has two dollars giving one dollar -- half of his wealth -- to a friend so each can buy a sandwich.  The rich CEO may have given a higher dollar amount, but the poor man has made a much greater sacrifice by his gift.

Like most of the insightful points I make, this one is not my own!  Jesus was the first to make this point, in today's gospel (Mk 12:38-44).  He contrasts the rich people putting a lot of money into the treasury with the poor widow who only gives a few coins. Our Lord says, "this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood."

It is easy to see that the poor man who gives away half of all he has gives a higher percentage of his wealth than the person with $100 million who gives $1 million away (50% vs. 1%).  But Jesus' point is not just about percentages.  It's about giving from your surplus vs. giving from your poverty.

If I asked how much the $1 million gift cost the multi-millionaire, the obvious answer is "$1 million."  But that is not the correct answer.  The correct answer is "nothing."  Because the multi-millionaire did not need that $1 million.  He is not hurt by the loss of it and so to give it away costs him nothing.  He gives from his surplus.

By contrast, how much did the $1 gift cost the poor man?  That $1 represents a sandwich off of the dollar menu.  It represents his next meal.  Food in his belly.  To give it away means he has to accept the very real possibility of going hungry.  So what does that $1 gift cost him?  It costs him dearly because he gives from his poverty.  That's what makes his gift an act of sacrifice.  That's what makes his gift an act of love.

This is the model of giving that the scriptures hold up before us.  In our first reading (1 Kgs 17:10-6), another poor widow gives the prophet Elijah bread that, practically speaking, she could not afford to give.  But because she made the sacrifice, God rewarded her and she and her son were able to eat for a year.  The people of Israel were expected to tithe 10% of their income and produce to God.  The 10% was to come from their first fruits, not what they had left over at the end of the year.  In other words, they were commanded not to give from their surplus.  They were to offer their first and best to God.  These lessons are there to teach us how to give as God gives, which is totally and completely, even when it comes at great personal cost.

Our second reading (Heb 9:24-28) mentions the priest of ancient Israel sacrificing "blood that is not his own,"  in reference to the animal sacrifices intended as atonement for sin.  This is contrasted with the sacrifice offered by Christ, who offers His own life's blood.  This is the ultimate example of giving from your poverty, for Christ's gift cost Him dearly.  Jesus gives from His poverty because He loves without counting the cost.  He loves fully and so He gives fully.

This is how Jesus wants us to give, because this is how Jesus wants us to love.  The poor widow contributed more to the treasury than any other because her gift was more than monetary.  She gave her love.  If we only give to others when it costs us nothing -- if we only give from our surplus -- we do not truly love them.  Love demands that we give even from our poverty, even when it costs us dearly.  Love requires sacrifice.  Likewise when we give to God -- whether that be treasure, time or talent -- we must give from our poverty.  If we truly love Him we cannot hold anything back.  Like Christ, we must offer God our very lives.

How much of yourself to you offer freely to others?  How much of yourself do you offer freely to God?  And what of yourself are you holding back?  Let us follow the example of the poor widow, and give from our poverty.  Let us follow the example of Christ and give ourselves in love.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Saints & Heroes

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The Saints are often thought of as the heroes of the Catholic Church -- and rightly so.  To be recognized as a saint means that person has "made it."  They have "run the race" and "fought the good fight," as St. Paul puts it (2 Tim 4:7), and now reside with God forever in heaven.  They are our inspiration and our intercessors.  They are the Catholic superheroes, with one important caveat.  We can fall into a trap of sorts when we think of a saint as a hero in secular terms.

What most often comes to mind when we think of a hero today?  The superhero genre is currently popular, so we might think of the Avengers, Spider Man, Superman, or the Fantastic Four.  These fictional characters all have special abilities which they use to save lives, help others, and make the world a better place.  There are often good lessons to be learned about sanctity in the stories of superheroes -- lessons about self-sacrifice and putting the good of others before your own concerns.  But in the end, these are fictional heroes.  We may look up to them in a way, but we know we will never be able to fly, have super-human strength, or run at lightning speed.

Thankfully, not all heroes are fictional.  There are plenty of real life heroes to emulate.  For too many, however, their heroes are famous athletes, singers or movie stars.  Don't get me wrong; a lot of hard work goes into singing, acting and athleticism, if any of these things are to be done well.  It is right to admire these skills that take much discipline to develop.  But the fact that someone has honed their craft doesn't necessarily tell us anything about their moral character.  All too often we hear of celebrity break-ups and break-downs, athletes landing in jail, or succumbing to drug use.  When we make heroes out of the famous, we will be disappointed more often than not.

Then there are those that might be called true heroes.  These are the everyday people that make sacrifices for the good of others.  The doctors who perform life-saving surgeries.  The fire fighters who pull accident victims from a burning vehicle.  The police officers who keep criminals off the streets.

A common thread that runs through all these types of heroes is a sense that they are somehow exceptional.  The super-heroes have special abilities that we can never have.  The celebrities all have special skills that we know, realistically, most of us cannot attain to.  Even the true heroes are recognized for their above-average bravery and dedication.  We are not all cut out to be first responders.  We admire these people, but see them as the exception rather than the rule.  They stand out because they are not the norm.  Most of us will never be like them.

The saints are Catholic heroes, but with a difference.  They are exceptional, but not for any special skill or ability.  They are exceptional for their sanctity.  The word "sanctity," like "saint," comes from the Latin word sanctus, which means "holy."  When we call someone a saint, we proclaim their holiness.  In a manner of speaking, that is their "superpower."  But unlike the special powers or skills of secular heroes, the superpower of the saints is one we can all possess.

The Church speaks of the universal call to holiness (CCC 2013).  Several times in the Bible God tells us to "be holy, as I am holy" (Lv 11:44; 20:26; 1 Pt 1:16).  God would not command us to do anything we are not capable of doing -- or that He would not make us capable of doing.  So we know each of us can be holy because God tells us we can; not just that we can, but that we should.  It is expected of us.  Holiness should be the norm, not the exception.  We should all be saintly superheroes.

So what is holiness?  How do we become holy?  By cooperating with God's sanctifying grace.  "Grace" is a gift from God, and so "sanctifying grace" is that gift from God that makes us holy.  The Catechism defines sanctifying grace as that grace which heals and perfects our soul.  In other words, it does not give us any super-human ability that is outside of our nature.  Rather it perfects our nature and makes us who we are supposed to be; sanctifying grace reveals our true selves, without sin.

This is why the saints are so different, and so interesting.  Each one is unique.  When we look upon a saint, we look upon a perfected human being -- someone living just as they are meant to live as they were created in the image and likeness of God.  A saint can be a little French nun who spent most of her 24 short years in a convent (St. Terese of Lisieux).  A saint can be an ornery old abbot who was so strict his monks tried twice to poison him (St. Benedict of Nursia).  A saint can be a young man who enjoyed mountain climbing and hiking and was concerned with social reform (Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati).  A saint can be a mystic who receives visions and writes great works of music and poetry (St. Hildegard of Bingen).  A saint can be a husband or a wife who suffer the loss of four of their children and who struggle to deal with a rebellious daughter (Sts. Louis and Zelie Martin).  In other words, a saint can be anybody.  A saint can be you.

The Church honors the saints because they are Catholic superheroes.  They serve as our role models in the faith.  They show us what it is like to be holy.  They show us how to grow closer to God.  They show us how to love more perfectly.  But more than simply being examples to emulate, they are people we can be in relation with.  And so we invoke their intercession and ask them to pray for us and help us on our own journey toward sanctity.  For we can follow the same path they have chosen, the path to our true and perfected selves.

Get to know the saints.  Become friends with them here in this life, so that you may be united with them in the Beatific Vision of perfect love in eternity.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Standing on our Heads

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It seems to me that everyone who denies the existence of God does so for the same reason.  Oh, they will give different reasons, some intellectual, others emotional.  But when you dig down beneath the surface and examine the heart of their argument, it usually boils down to this: If I were God, things would be different.  Things are not different, therefore there is no God.

We are told that God is omnipotent (all powerful) and omniscient (all knowing).  We are also told that God is perfectly good and perfectly just.  Yet we look around and see suffering in the world.  Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.  How can a God who is both all-good and all-powerful allow this?

Philosophers have been addressing this problem for ages. Perhaps God is not good.  Perhaps He is indifferent.  Or perhaps God is not omnipotent and is powerless to stop suffering.  But if God is not good then where does goodness come from?  Why do we even have a sense of goodness and what does it point to if not God?  And if God is not omnipotent then how did He create the universe?  It takes an infinite power to create something out of nothing.  Perhaps God does not exist at all, which is the position the atheists take.  In that case we are the most pitiable of all creatures, with a finite, pointless existence that means nothing to an uncaring universe.

But we approach the question wrongly by thinking this is a problem with God.  It is not.  It is a problem with us.  We look at the world around us from our limited perspective and declare it unjust.  But what do we know of justice?  We suffer and complain it is not good.  But what do we know of goodness?  We have a limited understanding of these concepts but God created them.  So if God fails to live up to our expectations, which is more likely; that God is wrong or that our expectations are wrong?

God has a way of defying our expectations.  Throughout the course of history, anyone who has had a direct encounter with God has been completely changed by the experience, from Moses and Job, to Peter and Paul.  God changes our perspective.  He shatters our assumptions.  He stands us on our heads.

We demand explanations from God and expect Him to give us an answer.  But God does not answer to us.  It is we who must give answer before God.  This is why Jesus never seems to give a straight answer to any question He is asked.  He turns things back to the questioners in a way that demands a response from them.

In this Sunday's gospel (Mk 10:35-45), James and John, two of Jesus' closest disciples, tell Him, "We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."  Isn't this how we often approach God in our prayers?  Do for me whatever I ask of you!  And when we do not get the answer we expect, we find fault with God.

What  James and John ask for is to share in Christ's glory, which indeed is a good desire.  But Christ shows them that they have no idea what that means.  For His glory is not in His greatness and power, but in His meekness and weakness.  His glory lies not in majesty but in humility.  Of course Christ is great and powerful and majestic.  But his greatness lies in His love, and lovers sacrifice themselves for their beloved. Christ loves more than anyone and so He suffers more than anyone.  He is greatly humble.  He is powerfully meek.

Christ turns our expectations on their heads.  He says, "whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant," and, "whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all."  He says He "did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life."  When James and John ask to share in Christ's glory, they are asking to share in His sacrifice.  When we pray to become more Christ-like, we ask for the same thing.

When we ask God, "Why is there suffering in the world," God turns the question back on us.  If He were to look down upon you from the cross and ask you why He is suffering, would you have the guts to admit that it is for your sake?  That it is because He loves you?  He shows us that we are worth suffering for.

God's answer to our big questions is not a formula or an argument or an equation.  God answers us in a way that we never could have imagined, and certainly do not deserve.  He offers us not an answer.  He offers us Himself.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Earthly vs Spiritual Goods

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Earlier this week I had the privilege of attending a talk given by two economists, one Catholic, one Protestant, on the topic of whether free market economies are compatible with Christianity.  Pope Francis has criticized the negative aspects of capitalism, and some of these criticisms were addressed during the presentation, including the oft-quoted passage from Evangelii Gaudium at right.

Does Christianity endorse the ownership and free exchange of private property?  On the one hand we have the example of the first Christian community described in Acts 2:44 as having "all things in common," selling their property and dividing it evenly among themselves according to need.  On the other hand we have the prohibition in the Ten Commandment against stealing (Ex 20:15), which presumes and affirms the right to private property.

The presenters at the talk highlighted the good that has been brought about by free market economies, most notably the overall reduction of poverty and the increase in beneficial goods and technologies including medical advances.  They made the argument that a free market economy is the best way -- or at least one good way -- to love your neighbor and minister to the poor and hungry, as Jesus commands.

If that is the case, then why does Jesus seem to have such a problem with wealth?  In this Sunday's gospel reading (Mk 10:17-30), Jesus tells the rich man to, "Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."  We are told that the man went away sad, because he had many possessions.  Why was it so hard for this man to do the one thing Jesus asked him to do?  Why does Jesus say that it is "easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God?"  Is money truly the root of all evil?

In showcasing the benefits of the free market, the economists focused on earthly goods -- things such as food, land, money, housing, medicine and all the other things we human beings may need or desire to help us along in this world.  The Church is also concerned with earthly goods.  She wants to make sure, as a matter of justice, that the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, the homeless are sheltered and so forth.  But the Church is primarily concerned with spiritual goods.  Earthly goods are temporary and fleeting, whereas spiritual goods are eternal.  So the Church rightly teaches that earthly goods ought to be at the service of spiritual goods.  Elsewhere in the gospels (Mk 8:36), Jesus asks, "What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world and lose his soul?"

This distinction between earthly and spiritual goods is the key to understanding this Sunday's gospel.  The rich man has not sinned simply by being rich.  Indeed, we are told that he has kept the commandments his entire life.  Moreover, he's asking the right question ("What must I do to inherit eternal life?") and asking the right person, Jesus.  By all appearances he's well on the way to sainthood!  In fat, Jesus tells him that he lacks only one thing -- and no, it is not simply to sell all that he has.  He must sell all that he has and follow Jesus.  In other words, given the choice between his wealth and his Savior, the rich man chose his wealth.  He valued earthly goods above the greatest spiritual good of all.  Therein lies his fall.

People say that money is the root of all evil, but this is a misquotation of 1 Tim 6:10, which actually reads, "the love of money is the root of all evils."  It is the disordered love of a lesser good over a greater good which corrupts.  Rather than condemning wealth per se, St. Paul instructs Timothy on how to advise the rich.  "Tell the rich in the present age not to be proud and not to rely on so uncertain a thing as wealth but rather on God, who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment.  Tell them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, ready to share, thus accumulating as treasure a good foundation for the future, so as to win the life that is true life" (1 Tm 6:17-19).  In other words, the rich ought to use their earthly goods at the service of the spiritual good.

It has been observed that the most generous people tend to be those who have little.  The homeless man who has two dollars freely gives half of his wealth to his friend so that they can both enjoy a sandwich.  Meanwhile the corporate CEO donates 1% of his income to charity and makes sure that a flattering press release is issued to improve his public image.  The CEO may have donated a higher dollar amount, but the homeless man has gained more treasure in heaven.

I wish the speakers at the talk I attended had mentioned spiritual goods -- but they are economists, not theologians.  Using the lens of spiritual goods, I would argue that a free market is compatible with Christianity for the simple reason that it is free.  Two scenarios will illustrate my point.  In each, I have two sandwiches and my hungry neighbor has none.  In the first scenario, in solidarity with my neighbor and out of love for him, I give him one of my sandwiches to eat.  In the second scenario, a man with a gun tells me, "I see you have two sandwiches and your neighbor has none.  That does not seem fair.  Give him one of yours."  I comply out of fear of punishment.

In terms of earthly goods, both scenarios seem to have the same result -- my neighbor and I each have a sandwich to eat.  In fact, one could argue that the second scenario is the more reliable way to ensure everyone gets a sandwich, because it is not dependent upon on my free will choice.  But from the perspective of spiritual goods, the first scenario is superior.  By freely choosing to share a sandwich with my neighbor I have engaged in an act of charity.  I have grown in love, and thereby grown in holiness.

Freedom is a prerequisite for love.  This is the answer to the perennial question, "Why is there evil in the world?"  It is because the same free will that allows us to do great evil is the only thing that allows us to love.  

Jesus is, of course, correct when He says it is hard for the rich to enter heaven.  The more wealth you possess, the greater the risk that it will come to possess you.  Greed can make you a slave to your wealth, just as every sin can make you a slave to something less than God.  But greed and generosity have more to do with the size of your heart than the size of your bank account.

Wealthy or not, we all face the same choice Jesus offers the rich man.  Stay bound to your treasure on earth, or bind yourself to Christ and gain eternal treasure in heaven.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

What Pro-Choicers Must Deny

לא תרצח׃ ס

Those Hebrew words above are from Exodus 20:13, which is generally rendered in English as "Thou shalt not kill."  Many modern English translations more accurately translate the text as "You shall not murder."  There is a difference between murder and killing.  Killing someone in self-defense or while involved in a military engagement may sometimes be morally permissible.  Murder never is.

The original Hebrew word means unlawful, violent killing, and so "murder" seems to be a more precise translation.

Those who are pro-life believe abortion to be wrong because abortion is equivalent to murder.  Both involve killing an innocent human being.

Those who take the pro-choice position must disagree with at least part of the preceding statement.  They must deny either that abortion ends a life, or that the life it ends is human, or innocent.  Let's look at each of these three points in turn.

1. Does abortion end a life?
If the unborn fetus is not alive then it either is dead, like a corpse, or made up of some non-living matter, like a stone.  But a dead corpse or a non-living stone cannot magically turn into a living human being.  The question of when life begins in the womb is surprisingly simple to answer.  There is always life!  A man's sperm cell (which is alive) unites with a woman's egg cell (which is alive).  The DNA of the two are combined to form a brand new zygote, which from the very moment of conception is also alive and growing.  Abortion ends that life -- that is the whole point of abortion, after all.

We end life all the time.  Whenever we swat a fly or pull a weed from the garden, we kill something that is living.  Neither of these actions is murder, because murder involves the taking of a human life. Many pro-choice advocates claim abortion is no more immoral than swatting a fly or pulling a weed. So our next question is important.

2. Does abortion end a human life?
If the unborn fetus that is killed by abortion is not human, then it must be something else.  It must either be some other species that somehow becomes human at birth, or some sort of non-differentiated bio-mass that morphs into a human baby at some point.  Both of these positions are easily proven false with basic science.  When a human male and a human female reproduce, they form a human child.  From the moment of its conception, that child is identifiably human.  Its DNA can be identified in a lab as that of a human being.

Some may argue that even a fingernail clipping has human DNA -- and indeed some say abortion is no more immoral than getting a hair cut or clipping your nails.  But this argument is absurd on the face of it.  A fingernail -- or even a finger or a hand -- is but a part of a human being.  Removed from the whole it withers and dies.  A fetus, though small, is a whole being.  Yes, it is smaller and less developed than a baby, just as a baby is smaller and less developed than a toddler or a teenager.  We are talking about human beings at different stages of development, not different species (although teenagers can sometimes seem like a different species).

3. Does abortion end an innocent human life?
The first two arguments for abortion -- that the unborn either is not alive, or is not human, and therefore it is permissible to kill it -- are easily dismissed.  It is a matter of science that the unborn fetus is a living human being in the earliest stages of development.  It would seem obvious that the unborn fetus would by definition be innocent.  After all, what could be more innocent than an unborn baby?  The unborn can commit no crimes, no offenses.  They have done nothing deserving of the death penalty.

Yet some pro-abortion advocates argue this precise point. They recognize that abortion means ending an unborn human life, but argue this is permissible because the fetus is not innocent.  They take the position that the fetus is an unwanted aggressor, a parasitic invader in its mother's body that can legitimately be killed in self-defense.

This is best argued against by appealing to common sense.  An invader is someone aggressively inserting himself where he does not belong.  But where else does a human fetus belong but in the womb of its mother?  Indeed, the womb is the fetus' place of origin.  The womb is where the new human being was created. The womb is its home.

The female reproductive system is designed for gestation.  It is precisely where new human life is meant to develop and grow.  So rather than being an aggressor fighting against the mother, the fetus works with the mother's body to carry out the purpose of engendering new life.  Yes, pregnancy can sometimes lead to complications (as can any function of the human body).  In only a tiny fraction of a percentage of all cases do those complications endanger the life of the mother.  There are approximately 4 million births in America each year.  According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, about 600 women die each year in America from childbirth or pregnancy related complications.  In other words, in 0.015% of cases does pregnancy end in maternal death.  In fact the true percentage is even lower, as the above calculation is based on number of births in America.  The number of pregnancies would be much higher as many pregnancies end in miscarriage or -- tragically -- abortion.    It is estimated that about 20% of all pregnancies in the US end in abortion.

To return to our question, is the developing human life innocent?  Or to phrase it another way, what crime has the fetus committed?  She is exactly where she is supposed to be, and doing exactly what she is supposed to do -- growing and developing in her mother's womb.  Her only offense seems to be her existence.  To allow abortion for this reason is to allow one human being to say to another, "Your existence offends me; therefore I can kill you."  This is the justification for every holocaust or genocide ever committed.  Is this really the argument anyone wants to make for abortion?  Yet it seems to be the only honest argument.

The Fourth Denial
Sadly, there is one other position the abortion advocate can hold. The pro-abortion advocate can understand and admit that abortion means killing an innocent human being, but deny that killing an innocent human being is always wrong.  All but the most hard-hearted sociopaths recognize the fact that killing an innocent human being is evil.  Even most murderers have to first convince themselves that their victims somehow "deserve" it in order to justify their violent crimes.  But this is exactly the position of all those who are "personally against abortion" but feel the decision needs to be left up to individual choice.  It is the relativist position that says, "it may be wrong for me, but it may be right for you."  It is a tacit acceptance that it can sometimes be legitimate to choose to end the life of an innocent human person.

That, my friends, is never permissible.  As Mother Theresa once famously said, "If abortion is not wrong, then nothing is wrong."

October is Respect Life month.  I encourage anyone who holds the pro-choice position because it seems non-judgmental or compassionate to reexamine their beliefs about abortion this month.  Look at it honestly, with open eyes, and see it for what it truly is.  Don't be fooled by euphemisms such as "terminating a pregnancy" or "product of conception."  Abortion means killing an innocent human life -- every time.  To be pro-choice means shutting your eyes to this reality.  October is a good month to open your eyes.