Friday, January 29, 2016

Shadows on the Wall

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Our gospel for this Sunday picks up right where last Sunday's gospel left off.  Jesus has just proclaimed that He will liberate captives, restore sight to the blind, and free the oppressed.  Those who hear Him respond by trying to throw Him off a cliff.

When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury.  They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away (Lk 4:28-30).

What is going on here?  Why such a violent reaction to Jesus' words?  Freedom is a good thing--why try to kill the one offering it?  Is this just a case of a prophet not being accepted in his own land?  That is certainly part of it.  Jesus is too familiar to His neighbors.  The people in Galilee respond to Jesus' words with, "Isn't this the son of Joseph?" (v. 22).  In other words, "Who does he think he is? We know him. We've seen him grow up. What does he know?"  The hardest people to evangelize can often be your own friends and family.  They know you too well.

But there is more going on with Jesus' rejection than over-familiarity.  You might not listen to Jesus because, "Oh, he's just the carpenter's son."  But that doesn't make you want to toss him off a cliff. Something more is in play.

Last week we said that the truth can set us free, but the truth can also hurt.  The offer of freedom is only welcomed by those who know they are in prison.  If you don't already know you are being held captive by sin, it can be very disquieting to have it pointed out.  It feels insulting.  It makes you uncomfortable.  It can challenge your very sense of self and your place in the world.  

Think about how uncomfortable it is to be sitting in the dark only to have someone suddenly turn on a bright light.  Your first instinct is to shut your eyes and look away.  So it is with Jesus.  The light of His truth shines too brightly for some.

If you are unfamiliar with Plato's allegory of the cave, look it up.  It's the example par excellence of how the truth can be rejected by many.  Plato describes people who spend their entire lives chained inside of a dark cave.  Just beyond them is a fire.  The prisoners in the cave cannot see the fire, but they can see the flickering shadows cast by it on the wall in front of them.  These shadows on the wall are all they know of reality, so they presume that is all there is.  These shadows, for them, are the real world.

One day one of them manages to break free from his chains.  He finds his way out of the cave, past the fire, and into the sunlight beyond.  He is initially blinded by the light, but eventually he begins to see -- blue sky, white clouds, green plants.  He is amazed at the richness, depth and beauty of the world.  He runs back into the cave to tell the others about his discovery.  They don't believe him.  In fact, they think he is mad.  They reject the truth.  They prefer the shadow.

This sudden and violent reaction to Jesus reminds us of just how shocking a figure He is.  We tend to think of Jesus as a bringer of peace and comfort. He is, of course, but only for those who receive Him.  For those who reject Him -- those who prefer the shadows -- Christ is a threat to be dealt with.  His being cast out of Galilee in today's gospel reading is but a foreshadow of the crucifixion.  

It is no accident that this gospel account is paired in our readings for Mass with St. Paul's beautiful testimony to love (1 Cor 12:31-13:13).  "Love bears all things, endures all things, believes all things, hopes all things..."  To speak the truth is an act of love.  Love endures all things, even rejection and dispersion. Christ loved those who tried to throw him off the hilltop, even as He had to hide from them.  Christ loved those who nailed His hands to the cross, even as He prayed for their forgiveness.  

As those who encounter Christ today, we need to do two things:  First, we must not be afraid to accept Him, even if His light might at first seem too bright for us to bear.  Second, we must be ambassadors of the light, letting it shine in our lives.  And if the world rejects us as it rejected Christ, we must emulate His example of mercy and never cease to love those who persecute us.  I have no doubt that many in that crowd who threw Jesus out of Galilee were later baptized into the Body of Christ.  Eventually they realized that they had chosen shadow over light, sin over holiness, and came out of their cave to embrace the Sun.  

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Truth Shall Make You Free

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The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.

These are the words from the prophet Isaiah that Jesus proclaims to the assembly in the synagogue; words which He says are fulfilled in their hearing. Jesus identifies Himself as God's anointed one (Christ means "anointed"), who brings liberty by giving sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed.

Like all scripture, these words contain layers of meaning.  They of course have their literal meaning.  Jesus does miraculously restore physical sight to blind men.  But this prophesy also has a deeper spiritual meaning.  Jesus frees us from the oppression of sin.  He restores our sight by shining the light of truth on the darkness of our lives.  

Many today look upon religion in general, and Christianity in particular, as being restrictive of freedom.  If I don't believe in God, the thought goes, then I am free to do as I wish.  There is no one other than myself to tell me what is right and wrong.  To such people, the idea of finding liberty in Christ may seem paradoxical.

Providentially, I have this past week been re-reading St. John Paul II's great moral masterpiece, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth).  In this encyclical, the Holy Father shows that the purpose of freedom is to allow us to pursue that which is true and good.

It is possible to misuse freedom.  The fact that a falsehood is freely chosen does not make the falsehood into a truth.  I can freely write on my math test that 2 + 2 = 5, but I will still fail the test. So it is with the moral life.  Individual autonomy is necessary for the moral life -- John Paul II asserts, "there can be no morality without freedom" (VS 34) -- but that autonomy is not itself the highest good. This is the lie behind the slogan "Pro-Choice."  It suggests that mere freedom to choose supersedes all other concerns, even if that freedom is being used to choose death and destruction. This is the trap suffered by all those who choose behavior which leads to addiction (drugs, alcohol, pornography).  They discover, to their dismay, that they have chosen slavery.

The Catholic Church reminds us that freedom has a higher purpose, which is to allow us to choose the good.  "Although each individual has a right to be respected in his own journey in search of the truth, there exists a prior moral obligation, and a grave one at that, to seek the truth and to adhere to it once it is known" (VS 34).

How are we to know what is good and true?  Certainly we can and should make use of our reason. Just as the purpose of our eyes is to see and the purpose of our ears is to hear, our intellect has a purpose.  We have rational minds so that we can seek out the truth.  But our reason is imperfect.  Our intellect is limited.  Our freedom to choose the good is hampered by our own fallen nature.

This is precisely why Jesus is the great liberator.  Jesus not only possess a perfect human nature, untainted by sin, but He is also fully divine, one in essence with God the Father, "who alone is good, knows perfectly what is good for man, and by virtue of His very love proposes this good to man in the commandments" (VS 35).  God made us and knows perfectly what is good for us.  His laws therefore are not put in place to satisfy some arbitrary whim of the Divine, but to lead us toward our own ultimate good.

Our psalm for this Sunday's Mass acclaims, "The law of the Lord is perfect... The decree of the Lord is trustworthy... The precepts of the Lord are right... The command of the Lord is clear... The ordinances of the Lord are true..." (Ps 19).  St. John Paul II likewise affirms, "God's law does not reduce, much less do away with human freedom; rather it protects and promotes that freedom" (VS 35).

There is no better guide to help us use our freedom in pursuit of truth than Jesus Himself.  The psalmist says, "The command of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eye" (Ps 19:8).  The light of Christ brings sight to the blind, just as He promised, by allowing us to see more clearly the good, the true, and the beautiful.

"By submitting to the law," John Paul II writes, "freedom submits to the truth of creation.  Consequently one must acknowledge in the freedom of the human person the image and the nearness of God, who is present in all" (VS 41).  When we freely follow the good, we become like God; we allow ourselves to be formed more perfectly to His image.

To follow Jesus is to be led out of captivity and into freedom -- true freedom to become what you were meant to be.

"You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" (Jn 8:32).

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Extravagance of God

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The wedding feast at Cana is well known as the occasion of Jesus' first public miracle.  The name of the couple who were married has been lost to history, but people are still talking about their party two thousand years later!

The fact that Jesus chose such a celebratory moment to manifest His glory tells us something of the character of God.  This is worth considering when one encounters the phenomenon of the "dour Christian."

I don't mean a Christian who just has a sombre personality.  I mean those who are theologically opposed to having a good time.  There are plenty of examples both in history and today.  The old Calvinist Presbyterians in Scotland for a time banned Christmas (no wonder they were called "the Frozen Chosen").  Jehovah's Witnesses don't celebrate birthdays.  In some counties here in the south it is impossible to buy alcohol due to the political influence of certain Baptists.

When asked what they think of Jesus and His disciples drinking wine, they maintain that it was really unfermented grape juice.  But can anyone imagine the psalmist singing of "grape juice to gladden the heart of man" (Ps 104:15)?  I've had good grape juice in my day, but it's nothing to write poetry about.

We Catholics know how to enjoy ourselves, because we understand that sin lies not in the enjoyment of God's creation, but in the abuse of it.  Drinking is not a sin, but drunkenness is.  Eating is not a sin, but gluttony is.  Sexual union is not a sin, but abuses of it, such as fornication and adultery are.  (As an aside, this helps answer the question: why did God create evil?  God did not create evil.  Everything God creates is good; it is only the abuse or perversion of good which is evil.  St. Augustine once defined evil as "the privation of good.")

Catholic weddings celebrate the great good of a man and woman coming together to become one flesh in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, and thus become a living symbol in the world of God's love for the Church.  If you've ever been to a Catholic wedding, you know what a joyous occasion it is.  Most of my family is Protestant, and so when my wife and I were married, they were a bit overwhelmed.  Our nuptial Mass took an hour and a half, and the reception following went on past midnight.  There was feasting, dancing, singing and toasts.  I recall some family members having to excuse themselves half way through dinner, saying, "We told our babysitter we'd be home an hour ago... we didn't expect all of this."

I imagine that a lot of us will say the same thing in heaven -- "I didn't expect all of this!"  God's extravagance knows no limits, and we see this in Jesus' first public miracle.  The hosts of the wedding feast run out of wine to serve their guests.  All they have left to drink is water.

Water is a good thing.  It's refreshing, cleansing, and good for you.  Water is necessary for life.  That's why it is fitting that we use water to baptize.  Baptism is the sacrament through which we are brought to new life in Christ. The waters of baptism wash away our sins.  We all need water.

But God is not content to give us only what we need.  His love goes beyond.  When Jesus transforms the water into wine, it is a sign of the superabundance of His grace.  No one needs wine.  Wine is a luxury.  We toast with wine to celebrate joyful events.  We share it with friends and family over meals.  The wine that Jesus offers is choice -- as the headwaiter says in the gospel, "You have kept the good wine until now" (Jn 2:10).

God gives us what we need in the waters of baptism to cleanse us of our sins, fill us with His grace, and become adopted children of God.  But God is not content to give us only what we need.  He pours a superabundance of grace upon us through the choicest wine -- the wine over which He spoke the sacred words, "Drink from it, all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many..." (Mt 26:28).

God gives us more than we need, because God is Love.  The gift of love is the gift of self, and this is what God offers us under the species of bread and wine at every Mass -- nothing less than Himself.  The gospel acclamation for this Sunday's Mass says that God has called us "to possess the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ" (cf. 2 Thes 2:14).  God's glory is in the extravagant superabundance of His gifts.  You have been invited to the wedding feast.  Come, drink deeply of this wine that the heavenly Bridegroom offers.
Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs at Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him (Jn 2:11).

Friday, January 8, 2016

With You I Am Well Pleased

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The celebration of the Baptism of the Lord marks the end of the Christmas season. But before we draw the season to a close, I'd like to look back to the beginning of the season, to midnight Mass on Christmas.  At this Mass we heard the gospel of the angel announcing Christ's birth to the shepherds.  "I proclaim to you good news of great joy... for today in the City of David a savior has been born for you..."  And then a multitude of heavenly host sing, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests" (Lk 2:1-14).

That last line is familiar to us as the opening words of the Gloria, one of the oldest Christian hymns, sung at Masses around the world on Sundays and solemnities.  You could say that the Church has not stopped singing this song of praise ever since it was proclaimed by the angels on that first Christmas night.  Astute readers may notice a shift in translation from past days.  The former English translation is "peace to men of good will."  Why the change?

In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI talks about the meaning of this line.  "The literal translation of the original Greek," he writes, can be rendered either "peace to men of good pleasure," or, "to men with whom He is pleased."  The Pope Emeritus poses the question, "Who enjoys God's 'good pleasure'?  And why?"

There are other times the scriptures speak about those with whom God is pleased.  In the prophet Isaiah we read, "Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased" (Is 42:1).  The verses following speak of this one bringing about justice, "the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor" (CCC 1807).

We hear the same words in this Sunday's gospel.  After Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan river, "heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon Him in bodily form like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my beloved Son; with You I am well pleased" (Lk 3:21-22).

Jesus is the one with whom God is "well pleased."  Why?  Because He is the perfect Image of the Father.  This means He is completely oriented toward the Father.  He is completely focused on Him.  He is in complete union of will with the Father.  Everything Jesus thinks and does is in right relation with God and neighbor.  By definition, everything He does is an act of justice.

Jesus pleases the Father as no one else does.  He is the only begotten Son.  He alone is the Holy One (as we sing in the Gloria).  Christ's pure and perfect life can please God in a way that our fallen and sinful lives never can -- on their own.

But now we return to the angels' words that announced His birth.  "Peace to those with whom He is pleased."  These words are not directed at Jesus, but to the shepherds and by extension all of humanity.  Jesus is the beloved Son in whom God is well pleased.  But with His arrival in our midst we, too, can be pleasing to God.  Those "with whom God is pleased," writes Pope Benedict, "are those who share the attitude of the Son -- those who are conformed to Christ."

When we are baptized we are conformed to Christ.  Through the sacramental waters we join ourselves to the mystery of Jesus; His passion, death, and resurrection.  But being conformed to Christ is a life-long task.  Throughout our lives as Christians, infused by His grace, we should be molding ourselves after the pattern of the One in whom God is well pleased.

If nothing else, Christmas is an opportunity.  It is an opportunity to enter into communion with God who has become man for us.  It is an opportunity to become one of those in whom God is well pleased.  We do so by conforming ourselves to His beloved Son.  As we enter into Ordinary Time, let us continue to allow God's Spirit to conform us to His Son each day.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The Heavens Declare the Glory of God

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The feast of the Epiphany celebrates an event rich in theological significance.  The arrival of the magi from the east to worship Christ demonstrates that Jesus is not only King of the Jews but King of us all. Even the Gentile world rejoices at the birth of Christ.

Some doubt whether this theological event was an historical event.  Was this perhaps just a story Matthew created to make a point about the universality of Jesus' reign?  Those who claim that it never happened have only their suspicion as evidence, centered mainly around doubts as to the existence of the star the wise men followed on their journey.

What was the star of Bethlehem?  Some theologians maintain that it was a miracle -- no other explanation is needed.  Certainly this could be the case.  The idea that God would miraculously create a star to lead the magi to Jesus is no more difficult to believe than the Incarnation or the Virgin Birth.

Nevertheless, others have looked for a scientific explanation for the star of Bethlehem.  People have suggested everything from comets to a super nova in an attempt to find an explanation.  The most likely explanation is a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation Pisces which occurred around the time of Jesus' birth.  We don't need to go into detail, but the cultural meaning that these planets had to the Babylonians would have suggested the birth of a powerful king in the land of the Jews.  Furthermore, such an astronomical conjunction would have only been noticed by astronomer sages looking to the sky for such signs.  This would explain why the star would have led the magi to the Christ-child while going completely unnoticed by King Herod and others.

So it is certainly plausible that the star of Bethlehem was a natural phenomenon.  But saying that there may have been nothing miraculous about the star is not to say that it was not caused by God.  There is an unfortunate assumption today that science and religion must be at odds: that faith in God is only necessary to explain the explainable, and that once we discover the natural cause God becomes unnecessary.

This conflict between faith and science (and in particular the Catholic Church and science) is largely fabricated.  The silliness of the supposed conflict between the Christian faith and science can be illustrated with an example.  Suppose I were to spend months disassembling a car and studying its parts until I knew absolutely everything about how it worked.  Would this in any way disprove that the car was designed and assembled by a team of engineers and auto-workers?  Of course not.  Going even further, suppose I proved that the car was not in fact assembled by people, but by automated machines.  Would this disprove that the car was created by men, or would it only suggest that the machines were created by men for the purpose of making the car?

In a like way, even if we knew everything about how the universe works down to the smallest sub-atomic particle, it would in no way disprove that the universe -- with all of its physical laws -- was created by God.  It would only help us understand more about God's creation and our place in it.

Pope Benedict XVI, in his book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, writes:
If the wise men, led by the star to search for the king of the Jews, represent the movement of the Gentiles toward Christ, this implies that the cosmos speaks of Christ, even though its language is not yet fully intelligible to man in his present state.  The language of creation provides a great many pointers.  It gives man an intuition of the Creator.  Moreover, it arouses the expectation, indeed the hope, that this God will one day reveal Himself.  And at the same time it elicits an awareness that man can and should approach Him.
Ancient man believed that the stars controlled our destiny.  This is why they named the stars and planets after gods.  But the stars which foretold the birth of Christ were not controlling His destiny --Christ was controlling the stars, as He has from the beginning of all creation.  How marvelous to contemplate that from the first moment of the Big Bang, natural laws were set into motion that would lead the sky itself to herald the arrival of the Creator into His Creation.  "The heavens declare the glory of God" (Ps 19:2).

The Creator of the world has taken on human nature in Christ, and so through Christ humankind is elevated.  The eastern Church speaks of this as divinization, man being made like God.  The western Church calls it sanctification, or being made holy.  In either case, the next time you gaze upon the night sky, remember this thought: God humbled Himself to be born of a virgin so that we may be made higher than the stars.

The Helix Nebula, image captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.  Source Reddit.