I am fortunate to live in a parish where, by and large, the homilies are very well done. Even the quiet weekday Mass is typically an occasion for words from the preachers which are thought-out, prepared, profound and explicative of the Scripture or the feast day being celebrated. It is not so everywhere and that is a tragedy.
The Mass I attended today, for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, benefitted again from a wonderful homily. In my small way of adding my voice to the project of encouraging good preaching, I thanked the homilist for his efforts this morning. I wanted to let him know that his hard work is much appreciated. I know it has to be hard work that is put into the homilies because they are so finely crafted and intricately balanced. The words are delivered with passion. None of this “just happens.”
When I returned home today, however, I realized my words of gratitude to the homilist were inapt. Although he may enjoy a metaphorical “atta-boy” pat on the back as much as anyone, the thanks I offered, albeit entirely sincere, were misdirected and failed to articulate what I experienced during the homily and, indeed, the rest of the Mass.
This good priest strikes me as a devout and holy man who knows that his homiletic role at the Mass is miniscule, compared to the infinite mercies and miracles being worked on the altar in front of and in the midst of the congregation. Although I thank him for his words, to think that the homilist’s artistry (however elevated it might be!) is appropriately measured against the infinite scale of the Sacrifice of the Mass is to cross into absurdity. I believe it was from Cardinal George that I first heard the expression “a category mistake.” No measure of exalted homiletic words can compare with what happens by God’s grace at the Eucharist. It is participating in “a category mistake” to offer words of gratitude about a homily when the homily is only the human effort to try to articulate the ineffable.
Rather than praise the homilist’s efforts today, I should have mentioned to him that one could have heard a pin drop during the pauses in his delivery. The congregation was hanging on his words, hungry to hear how the Incarnation expresses Gods love for us. I should have said to the homilist that it seems he knows this hunger first hand and he shared some of what he knew about satisfying that hunger. I am reminded of the old line about evangelization—evangelization is one beggar telling another beggar where the bread might be found.
Father, thank you for telling us where we might eat. You know where we can find what we need—because you must have been there first.
I was at the library yesterday picking up some DVDs (I had to return the Shogun series to Netflix and thus wanted some movies—does anyone agree with me that Shogun is interminably long, simplistically anti-Catholic (those cursed Jesuits!) and, did I mention boring?). I am tempted to say that in the unlikeliest of places, grace abounds. However, grace abounds always. It is my eyesight which is only periodically functioning.
As I was checking out the DVDs, a mother and father and a little girl, maybe six or seven years old, were in front of me. Mother asked the librarian, “Is this where we pay our library fines for overdue books?” The locution struck me as a bit verbose, formal. Father added, “We have four overdue books,” as if to highlight the magnitude of the transgression by emphasizing the word “four.” Thereupon, I heard the little girl offer to the librarian an emotion-filled, “I am sorry.” The little darling, unprompted, was seeking pardon for what apparently was her crime. Do we hug her or simply advise, “Go forth and sin no more”?
I do not know if mother and father were exaggerating the moral dimensions of the overdue books to teach the little girl. I do not know if the lesson was one which should have been taught in those particular circumstances. All I can do is wonder what the world would be like if we followed the little girl’s lead. Can you imagine sending a note of apology to the IRS along with our penalty for underpayment of estimated taxes? Who would think to apologize for a parking ticket for an expired meter. Would we be floundering in false guilt or would the world be a better place if we were to imitate the little girl? Her innocence touched my heart.
The 10:30 A.M. Sunday Mass was treated to another of Father Steve’s usually fine homilies. This Sunday, however, he seemed particularly passionate. He made the case, convincingly, I think, that the image of who we call “the Good Shepherd” ought not evoke complacent, warm, tender feelings about Our Lord.
Perhaps it is helpful to illustrate my reflections with the images I discover from scouring the internet (at least, the images amuse me). If these images facilitate mulling over Father Steve’s thoughts, consider that Father Steve dismissed the soft image of the Good Shepherd and introduced us to the true Good Shepherd, a force to be reckoned with. This intense Shepherd is more like the gentleman pictured at the top of this post.
Father Steve called to mind for us that the Gospel’s shepherd image is from, among other places, the Old Testament’s book of Ezekiel (in particular, chapter 34). There, the righteous God is imaged as a shepherd who will call to account the defaulting priests and kings of Israel. They failed so utterly that the Lord will be the new shepherd. He will be the one who will take charge. The shepherd then of which Jesus speaks is Christ himself who will be and who is Ruler and Priest for all. Rather than triggering bucolic visions of frolicking sheep, the Good Shepherd has arrived in judgment to call us, to lead us to where he wants us to go. The Good Shepherd is the master and ruler of this new order of creation, as well as being the lord of our lives. The Good Shepherd will show us how to worship him and help us reject false shepherds. Our lives are not our own; they belong to the Shepherd. Our faith is not, to paraphrase Father Steve, something we might cobble together according to our own fancy, taste or predilections. Our faith is about submitting to the Shepherd.
Father Steve’s reading of the passage is bracing and it leaves one ready to ask, where do I sign on for this tour of duty? Yes, Lord, I am ready to be led by you and, yes, Lord, I have been away too long from your guiding staff.
Even as I willingly submit to the Shepherd, and after all the stage-setting preliminary words above, the point of this blog posting finally surfaces—Why does the Shepherd care what happens? Where is he leading me?
The grace of listening to the homily is that it led me to see that the reason the Shepherd cares whether I know him to be the one, true Shepherd is that the Shepherd cares about me. If the Shepherd’s sometimes stern messages cause me to listen intently, the messages are phrased so that I will understand the seriousness of what is at stake. It makes a difference not only to me how I live my life. It matters desperately to all who love me. All who love me seek the best for me. The Shepherd calls my name vigorously to alert me to the need to follow him to a place of truth and, where truth is, freedom is also at hand. The urgent message of the Shepherd is entirely a message of love which calls me to a place of life where I can “live abundantly.”
There is no threat here. There is, rather, an insistent call by one who loves me.
The Lord, a book written by Romano Guardini in 1954, is a most excellent meditation on Scripture. Guardini leads the reader from one acute psychological and theological insight to another. For example, in a chapter entitled “The Forerunner,” John the Baptist is compared to Moses. Moses stood at the threshold of the Promised Land, looking down from Mount Nebo into the land given to his people. But, because of an earlier failure of Moses, he was not to enter “the land flowing with milk and honey.” He could only look and dream and resign himself to God’s edict. Had Moses been faithful at all times, it would have been otherwise. John, on the other hand, was never intended to witness the fullness of Jesus’ mission. John was always Forerunner. That was his mission--to prepare the way for the Lord. John was always to be left out of the completion. What bitterness he must have been tempted to, as he saw his life ended by the weak-willed Herod whose moral spine collapsed under the demands of Herodias. John deserved better than this we want to protest.
We lament Moses’ failure to enter Israel but that is what God had ordered and we admire the strength of John who would suffer for a cause and not see its fruition. We applaud the faith of John, his willingness to prepare for the Messiah in accordance with the call John had heard. There is, however, something bittersweet, indeed something evoking pathos, in John’s life which gave love without apparent benefit. It is heroic for John to devote himself on the strength of faith alone. There is no hint that John was other than faithful, open-hearted Forerunner.
Is it too bold to ask, might we claim the mantle of John in some small way? Are we, each of us, not like John too? Our fondest, most precious hopes are in our children and, if it is our time in life, our grandchildren as well. Perhaps for the parish priest, his offspring is the parish he has labored to lead or the souls of those who more deeply convert their lives to Christ. However, neither we as parents or grandparents, nor the priest, will ever see the fulfillment of the work we have begun. We turn over the future to the Lord. Like John, we only prepare the way. We do our best in the present but we neither witness nor control the future. That is in God’s hands. We rejoice today at having been allowed to come this far. We give thanks for the opportunity to prepare the way for those we love.
This past Sunday’s Gospel from John about the man born blind led Fr. Mike’s homily to focus on the fact that the formerly blind man suffered a double loss of home. Not only have his parents abandoned him as they stand before the Pharisees, but also he is ejected from the synagogue and now shunned by his religious home.
The parents distanced themselves from their child, in order to safeguard their standing in the community. Perhaps it had been extraordinarily difficult to have had a sightless child, with the imputation of sin such condition brought. To have the sightless child now with vision focuses the community’s prying eyes again on the family’s awkward status—was the punishment lifted? What caused the change in their fortunes? Where did this power come from? Was it from good or evil? Not only would the parents have to revisit the connection between sin and disability, they were placed in the compromising posture of needing to admit that it was this Jesus who had changed their son. This was an admission it was impossible to make without loss of their religious community and, so, the son was sacrificed.
Of course, the son himself took the step of acknowledging Jesus and this one admission was sufficient to wipe away in a moment the years of being part of the clan. This one declaration of the son was sufficient to cross beyond the boundary of membership. Many things might be remediable for the community, but not this acceptance of Jesus. It is cut and dried, “You have acknowledged Jesus; you are out.”
As difficult as it might be to lose one’s religious community, that pain is surpassed by the pain of parental abandonment. Indeed, the interaction of defaulting parent and abandoned child is acutely painful for both child and parent. On the one hand , the son now knows that his parents (or did his father alone do the speaking?) are too weak to resist the power of the crowd. Any illusion about powerful parental authority evaporated. The man born blind must now see, and all must now admit, that the parents are not made of the stuff which can withstand the bullying will of the community. The child knows that he is now and will be hereafter on his own, whenever the stakes are high for the parents.
On the other hand, this is a loss experienced by the parents as well. The parents can no longer imagine themselves to be those who would protect their young. Moreover, the shame must have been mutual. How could father look at the son again without the blaze of embarrassment coming to the father’s cheeks—“I have failed to protect my son. I am weak.” And so too the son—“I lament that my father has to admit that he was too weak to defend me. Do I want to be my father’s son?”
In the midst of gladness over being able to see, that joy must have been tempered by the question whether the new sight was worth it—yes, sight is a wonderful thing, but what is the identity of the blind man now? He has no parents, he has lost the faith community he knew and his former occupation of street-side beggar is gone. The Gospel passage tells us that Jesus looked for the man to reach out to him, as it seems the newly-sighted man has no home except the one offered by Jesus.
This turn in the story to narrate Jesus’ active missionary venture to find the man offers hope for us. Perhaps it is the case that we, in our lives, have acted as the blind man’s parents. Perhaps there have been times when we were not faithful to our own children, as the demands of keeping up our own appearances or comforting ourselves have caused us to slight our children. Perhaps it is the case that some other interest of ours caused the family to be moved out of first place in our priorities. Perhaps it is the case simply that we blame ourselves for the times when we could have been better parents and perhaps it is the case that our children have an inkling of how weak we are. Nevertheless, just as in the story, the outreach of Jesus teaches us what we might do. We too can search out our children and offer to them a return to our hearts. We can carry them home again and perhaps both parent and child will learn to see anew.
The past does not have to be prologue to the future. We have the example of Jesus to teach us other possibilities.
We have no idea what is in store—no idea of how loved we are and how loved we will be for all of eternity. The Scripture the past Sunday, the Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time, on November 6, spoke of the next life, the eternal life. In that existence, we “neither marry nor are we given in marriage.” What will be, aside from love, we do not know. “Eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has planned for us.”
These thoughts of the hereafter bring to mind a discovery I made several years back while I was considering one of Father Anthony De Mello’s meditations. Fr. De Mello was a Jesuit priest from India who died in 1987. Although criticized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, he did nevertheless write some intriguing suggestions for meditation. One of his typical invitations was to consider what I would say or do today, if I were to know with certainty that my life were soon to be over. He invited prayer about the hereafter. Knowing of the Church's posthumous critique, I was always mindful of discerning where some De Mello writing I had in front of me might have run afoul of Catholic orthodoxy. It kept me alert and, in so doing, I think it deepened the opportunity for prayer. I truly needed to be and wanted to be mindful of the theology.
The discovery I made in one of De Mello’s guided meditations involved his suggestion that, as we deepen our relationship with God in the next life, we gradually disappear. I recollect the image that we are like a drop of water entering into the ocean. Quite immediately, there is nothing more of us. Our personalities, our souls and identities become merged into God’s.
Although there is indeed no reason to think that my puny self has any great claim on eternity, the fact is that De Mello’s idea seems to ignore the fact that God in fact loves me for who I am. Undoubtedly insignificant in earth’s history, undoubtedly to be forgotten by my descendants in one hundred years from now (if not many decades earlier than that), I am nevertheless more important than a drop of water in the ocean. I am important because God loves me.
No matter how weak or small or insignificant from the world’s view a child (or today, a grandchild) of mine is, the child is valued—beyond measure—because of who the child is. One of De Mello’s own phrases would ask if I think I were a more complete lover than God. If I can love a child who is “insignificant,” surely God in his infinite mercy will love me forever more. I can see why De Mello, despite his many good works, can be said to have, on occasion, gone astray. In his humility, perhaps he forgot that God “is not God of the dead but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
The Story of Zacchaeus. Luke 19:1-10. Thirty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time.
Is there a touch of the comedic in the story of Zacchaeus? Do hard hearts smirk at a man so short that he had to climb a tree to see Jesus? Our better angel suggests the Gospel writer is inviting us to accept Zacchaeus as someone who is like us—deficient in some respect, “short” on some virtue. Overcoming deficits and responding to grace, Zacchaeus becomes a man of action. He “wants to see who Jesus was”—but surely this is more than curiosity to see a celebrity. Zacchaeus runs, climbs a tree and responds to a call to “come down quickly.” Despite the grumblings of the crowd, Zacchaeus and Jesus stand their ground. Overtaken by love, Zacchaeus changes the direction of his life. Ill-gotten gains are returned with a bonus and one-half of his wealth is given to the poor.
Now a man of grace-filled action, his life and likely the life in his household are changed. If there was a “Mrs. Zacchaeus,” how did she take the news of her husband’s new faith? Could she join in celebrating that one who was lost had been saved? Had she been waiting for him to know Jesus or was this a shock? What of those who worked for the “chief tax collector” Zacchaeus?
The story raises questions for me to ponder: Do I play the role of Zacchaeus? Is there something about me that is lost too? Am I willing to accept the motivation of grace to run and climb obstacles to find out who Jesus is and come quickly at his beckoning? Am I willing to endure the smirks of others as I chase after Jesus, despite my own deficits? Can I accept how a decision to learn Jesus’ identity will affect my other relationships?
Just as God’s grace moved Zacchaeus, so too does God seek to enkindle a spark in my heart—and in yours, as well—to come see who Jesus is.
With grace upon grace, Lord, boost me now into the tree. Bring my loved ones with me.
The title of the blog comes from a phrase in a T. S. Eliot poem. He writes of grace: "the unattended moment, the moment in and out of time...the wild thyme unseen or the winter lightning...the gift half understood is Incarnation." The grace that we do not always attend to remains nevertheless. The joy is to be startled awake by the winter lightning and become aware of Grace.
I am a husband, a father, a grandfather, a deacon for the Archdiocese of Chicago, a director of a retreat house and a lawyer.
It is my hope that everything I offer in this blog and everything that I say is consistent with the views of the Catholic Church. If I ever fail in that regard, it is not because of any willfulness on my part. It is because I do not understand or I have not submitted to sufficient prayer or study.