Friday, July 19, 2019

Plan B

Learning to embrace God’s plan of happiness

Exodus 3:13-20 Moses, hearing the voice of the LORD from the burning bush, said to him, "When I go to the children of Israel and say to them, 'The God of your fathers has sent me to you,' if they ask me, 'What is his name?' what am I to tell them?" God replied, "I am who am." Then he added, "This is what you shall tell the children of Israel: I AM sent me to you." "Thus they will heed your message. Then you and the elders of Israel shall go to the king of Egypt and say to him: "The LORD, the God of the Hebrews, has sent us word. Permit us, then, to go a three-days' journey in the desert, that we may offer sacrifice to the LORD, our God. "Yet I know that the king of Egypt will not allow you to go unless he is forced. I will stretch out my hand, therefore, and smite Egypt by doing all kinds of wondrous deeds there. After that he will send you away."
Human learning and education usually involved both a Plan A and a Plan B, an easy way and a hard way to learn the same life lessons that ultimately lead to happiness. And if your name happens to be “John Antony,” you need a Plan C, a Plan D and a Plan E. In other words, most of us – really all of us, except Jesus and Mary who never sinned – fail to learn what our parents try to teach us as small children (Plan A). We end up learning the same lessons through the school of hard knocks (Plan B). I’m reminded of that Tim McGraw song called “Next Thirty Years.” He sings: “My next thirty years I’m going to watch my weight / Eat a few more salads and not stay up so late / Drink a little lemonade and not so many beers / Maybe I’ll remember my next thirty years.” The singer’s first thirty years had been failed attempts to learn Plan A, where he squandered his life on loose living and too many beers. But he intends to make the next thirty years Plan B, and live according to a more rigorous regimen.
Perhaps the classical example of Plan B learning is Dante’s timeless poem called The Divine Comedy. The first lines set the stage where we read: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost.” Tim McGraw was about thirty when he decided to learn Plan B, and Dante was about thirty-five when he enrolled in the school of Plan B. In other words, instead of trying to figure things out on his own, Dante would let God guide him to happiness. And where does God lead him? First, Dante dives into the darkness of hell, then climbs slowly up the slopes of the mountain of purgatory, and finally soars like an eagle through the light and love of heaven. In the wild world of human learning and education, there’s always a Plan A and a Plan B and usually more for us slow students.
We read about the two-fold approach to education in happiness in the first reading from Exodus. Did you know God’s original plan was not necessarily to free the people from bondage and slavery in Egypt? That was not Plan A. We read what God originally intended in the words of Moses to Pharaoh: “Permit us, then, to go a three-day journey in the dessert, that we may offer sacrifice to the Lord, our God.” And what would the people presumably do after that three day spiritual sojourn? They would jaunt back to Egypt and happily submit to the yoke of slavery. Why? God’s real preoccupation was not the people’s physical bondage but their spiritual slavery.
After four hundred years in Egypt, the people had started to worship the pagan gods of the Egyptians, like Apis, symbolized by a bull, who represented wealth and virility. Plan A, therefore, was to go into the desert and sacrifice a bull to show that you do not serve the bull-god, Apis. But like Tim McGraw, and Dante, and you and me, the people failed to learn Plan A; they couldn’t do it, and Pharaoh wouldn’t let them. Therefore, it is commonly said: “You can take the people out of Egypt, but you cannot take Egypt out of the people.” Their bodies were free but their hearts were still enslaved. The rest of the Old Testament recounts how the people of Israel – the children of God – would need Plan B, and then Plan C, and then Plan D to learn the lessons of happiness, until God finally taught them in Jesus.
My friends, where are you in the lesson plans of happiness? Are you trying to live your next thirty or forty or fifty years a little differently than your last thirty, forty or fifty years? Who are the teachers and tutors who are coaching you to learn the lessons of human happiness? I would say our primordial parents, Adam and Eve, failed to live according to Plan A in the Garden of Eden, and the rest of human history is the slow and sad unfolding of learning Plan B. An astute psychologist once said: “We are our parents unfinished homework.” What lessons of human happiness they failed to learn they passed on to us. In a sense, we must finish their homework, and learn those lessons without their help. Of course, we have plenty of life lessons we fail to learn and pass along to the next generation. We are probably on Plan X, or Plan Y or Plan Z.
I believe we will continue to learn the lessons of human happiness even after we die and leave this earth, like Dante did, because we still haven’t figured out Plan A, like the people of God in Egypt. After death we may be physically free but we are still spiritually slaves to earthly desires. You can take the people of out earth, but it’s not so easy to take earth out of the people.
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Much Ado about Marriage

Seeing marriage as a sacrament of service

Psalm 103:1B-2, 3-4, 6-7
R. (8a) The Lord is kind and merciful.
Bless the LORD, O my soul;
and all my being, bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful.
He pardons all your iniquities,
he heals all your ills.
He redeems your life from destruction,
he crowns you with kindness and compassion.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful.
The LORD secures justice
and the rights of all the oppressed.
He has made known his ways to Moses,
and his deeds to the children of Israel.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful.
If there’s one thing people need to hear these days it is solid marriage advice. Whenever I mention marriage in a homily everyone’s ears perk up, and I get people’s undivided attention. See, you are all laser focused now. Here are three tips of the trade of marriage. A common adage teaches: “It’s the looks that get them but it’s the personality that keeps them.” That’s why I ended up in the priesthood – I’m limited in both categories. But true love has to be deeper than lovely looks or it won’t last. Another joke I heard recently was how to argue successfully with your spouse. The husband said: “I always get the last word in every argument. And those words are: ‘Yes dear’.” Those word will keep you together until death do you part. Or else death may come earlier than you think. I was speaking with the bishop recently and he said the best advice for a newly married couple is: “Be kind. No matter what happens, just be kind.” There’s a lot of wisdom in those words.
Have you ever thought about your relationship with God as a marriage? It may sound silly or maybe even scandalous to think we can marry our Maker and Creator. Who are we poor creatures to think we could attract the attention of God and make him fall madly in love with us like Romeo recklessly pursing Juliet? And yet, the marriage motif runs through the scriptures from beginning to end like a golden thread tying the knot between the primordial story of Adam and Eve’s marriage to the resounding conclusion of Revelation and the marriage of the Lamb and his Bride. No wonder marriage makes everyone sit up and pay attention at Mass. We could almost dare to say marriage even makes God get laser focused.
God seems to heed Bishop Taylor’s advice in Psalm 103, our responsorial today. We repeated hopefully: “The Lord is kind and merciful.” Our infidelity and our sinfulness certainly puts our Lord’s kindness and mercy to the test. But no matter what we do, God continues to be kind. Now that is some great marriage advice for both creature and Creator, two very unlikely spouses.
You know, I find a majority of my time as a priest is spent on marriage ministry. Either I am preparing young couples for marriage, or I am celebrating their marriages (every Saturday!), or I am counseling them in a troubled marriage, or I am working on annulments for failed marriages. And it’s not just me but the whole Church that makes much ado about marriage. Pope St. John Paul II said: “The Church perceives in a more urgent and compelling way her mission to proclaiming to all people the plan of God for marriage and the family” (Familiaris consortio, 3). In other words, if you get marriage wrong, you can’t get much else right. Marriage is like the precarious piece in the Jenga puzzle game that pulling it out causes the tower to tumble down. If we get marriage wrong the whole tower of society tumbles down. That’s why the Church makes much ado about marriage.
One reason so many marriages struggle is we tend to forget that marriage is a sacrament of service just like Holy Orders is a sacrament of service. We all know that ordained priests are called to serve their people. But did you know that marriage provides the grace to be of service to your spouse and children, and that specific service is to help them to get to heaven? The job of one spouse is to get the other spouse to heaven. That service is analogous to the service of priesthood: helping people get to heaven.
However, when spouses believe marriage is the “sacrament of happiness” instead of the sacrament of service, they get things backward. In other words, spouses should help each other to get to heaven first, and as a result happiness becomes the by-product. Spouses should be careful not to think: I want to marry in order to be happy first and getting to heaven is the by-product. If marriage is not first embraced as the sacrament of service, it will never become the sacrament of happiness. Can you see how getting marriage wrong makes it very hard to get much else right?
People always perk up whenever someone sermonizes about the sacrament of marriage. And it’s no surprise that they do because marriage holds the key to both happiness and heaven. And the secret to a successful marriage is to be kind, just like the bishop said, and the Responsorial Psalm sang.
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Friday, July 12, 2019

Turning Fifty

Keeping eyes on heaven and taking another step on earth
Genesis 46:1-7, 28-30 Israel set out with all that was his. When he arrived at Beer-sheba, he offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. There God, speaking to Israel in a vision by night, called, "Jacob! Jacob!" He answered, "Here I am." Then he said: "I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you a great nation. Not only will I go down to Egypt with you; I will also bring you back here, after Joseph has closed your eyes." Israel had sent Judah ahead to Joseph, so that he might meet him in Goshen. On his arrival in the region of Goshen, Joseph hitched the horses to his chariot and rode to meet his father Israel in Goshen. As soon as Joseph saw him, he flung himself on his neck and wept a long time in his arms. And Israel said to Joseph, "At last I can die, now that I have seen for myself that Joseph is still alive."
Here’s a little humor to help me as I turn fifty. I hope it may help you, too, no matter what your age. Here’s a poetic perspective: “I get up each morning and dust off my wits, then I pick up the paper and read the ‘o-bits.’ If my name isn’t there, then I know I’m not dead. I eat a good breakfast and go back to bed.” Here’s a more romantic reflection: “Dear husband, congrats on turning 50! What do you want for your birthday? Please do not say a tie that matches the hue of your eyes, cause it’s exceedingly difficult to find a bloodshot tie.”
Here’s a biological blunder: “First you forget names, then you forget facts, then you forget to pull your zipper up, then you forget to pull your zipper down.” I wasn’t sure I could use that one in church, but I guess I just did. When you turn fifty, you can get away with things like that. George Orwell, the brilliant British novelist and essayist, said: “At age 50, everyone has the face he deserves.” By the way, Orwell ironically died at age 46, so he never saw that face that he deserved. Let’s hope God’s mercy allows us all to avoid getting what we deserve.
Now, fifty is also a noteworthy number is the bible. Let me share two significant instances of the occurrence of fifty in scripture. First, we read in Leviticus 25:10, “You shall treat this fiftieth year as sacred. You shall proclaim liberty in the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to your own property, each of you to your own family.” What an extraordinary provision to protect the family property of the twelve tribes of Israel. Every fifty years – the jubilee year – debts were forgiven and the children of Israel returned to their patrimonial property. It was in this same jubilee spirit that in the year 2000 (a great jubilee year), Pope St. John Paul II urged first world countries to forgive the debts of third world countries. I don’t think too many people took him up on the offer. Nonetheless, that’s the bible’s teaching on the fiftieth year, a jubilee to celebrate.
The second occurrence of fifty, of course, is one we are all familiar with: “fifty days” after Jesus’ glorious resurrection. Do you remember what transpired? Pentecost – the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Blessed Virgin Mary and the holy apostles gathered in the upper room. Catholic Christians consider Pentecost the birthday of the Church, where the Holy Spirit, the soul, infuses Mary and the apostles, the body, of the Church. Pentecost, therefore, is the equivalent of the Incarnation, when Jesus, the divine Person, became flesh with a human nature. The word “Pentecost” literally means “day fifty,” and in Christian thought it has become synonymous with the Holy Spirit. Would you please pray that the Holy Spirit will inspire me as I turn fifty? Please pray that I will be more and more docile (obedient) to his peaceful promptings, like the whole Church should be.
But do you know what personally helps me not to fret or fear as I turn fifty? It is my hope that I am one step closer to heaven, our true home. Every year that passes, we take a sort of spiritual step closer to our home. In Genesis 46 (today’s first reading), God speaks to Jacob, who is about to depart for Egypt, saying: “Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt…Not only will I go down to Egypt with you; I will also bring you back here, after Joseph has closed your eyes.” Do you recall where Jacob settled his family in Egypt? It was in the rich, fertile area called Goshen, the best land in all Egypt. But as beautiful as that land was, though, God reminded Jacob to return to the Promised Land of Palestine.
My friends, we Americans live in one of the most picturesque, peaceful and plentiful places on earth, the United States of America. If the whole world were Egypt, then the United States would be modern-day Goshen. But we should not forget God’s command to Jacob that this is not out true home, but rather, heaven, the real Promised Land. In 1 Peter 2:11, we read that we are merely “strangers and sojourners” on earth, slowly making our pilgrimage, year after year, step by step, back to the Promised Land of heaven.
Every birthday we celebrate is one step closer to home, to heaven. And some of you look like you’re a little closer to home than me. A little bit of humor and a whole lot of heaven is how I deal with turning fifty.
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

My Brother Satan

Seeing and struggling with sibling rivalry
GN 44:18-21, 45:1-5 Judah approached Joseph and said: "I beg you, my lord, let your servant speak earnestly to my lord, and do not become angry with your servant, for you are the equal of Pharaoh. My lord asked your servants, 'Have you a father, or another brother?' So we said to my lord, 'We have an aged father, and a young brother, the child of his old age. This one's full brother is dead, and since he is the only one by that mother who is left, his father dotes on him.' Then you told your servants, 'Bring him down to me that my eyes may look on him. Unless your youngest brother comes back with you, you shall not come into my presence again.' When we returned to your servant our father, we reported to him the words of my lord. "Come closer to me," he told his brothers. When they had done so, he said: "I am your brother Joseph, whom you once sold into Egypt. But now do not be distressed, and do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here. It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me here ahead of you."
Are you familiar with the phrase, “sibling rivalry”? That’s th
e experience of brothers and sisters competing for their parents’ attention, love and approval. Each sibling tries to prove that he or she is better than the others. By the way, there is absolutely no sibling rivalry in my family because I am clearly my parents’ favorite child. If we’re honest, however, we will admit that our own families have all suffered from sibling rivalry, sometimes leading to bitter separations and never talking to each other. At the very extreme, it leads to murder. Psychologists tell us sibling rivalry can be caused, at least partially, by birth order, and by how parents treat their children. I was talking to one mother of five children recently, who said by the time she was trying to raise the fifth child she would say: “I don’t care what you do, but just do it quietly.”
In Genesis 44 and 45, we reach the climax of the story of Joseph the dreamer and the proud owner of the coat of many colors. If that story highlights anything, it shines a very bright light on sibling rivalry. Take a minute to recall who Joseph was. He was the youngest son of Jacob, who had twelve sons, and those sons would become the twelve tribes of Israel. But Joseph was the youngest, and Jacob’s favorite, and that’s why he got the coat of many colors in the first place. That coat was the mantle of superiority over his siblings, and why they wanted to kill him, but finally decided to sell him into slavery. Can you see how sibling rivalry, pushed by preferential parenting, leads to serious problems, and sometimes murder?
But I would suggest to you that sibling rivalry not only marks and mars the history of the family of Jacob – which is eventually the nation of Israel – but it likewise undermines all human history. What is human history if not the long sordid story of sibling rivalry, where we struggle with one another for superiority and try to win our Father’s favor? I am convinced that the deepest desire in the human heart is to hear our heavenly Father say, “I am proud of you.” But that desire becomes deformed and destructive when we want to hear him say: “I am more proud of you than your brother.” We may not know that’s what motivates us, but neither do most siblings vying for superiority.
The story of Joseph and the sibling rivalry of his eleven brothers also help s us understand who Jesus is and how we treated him. He is not only our Lord and Savior – he is certainly that – but he is also the highly favored One of the Father. On the Mount of Transfiguration described in Matthew 17:2, Jesus doesn’t get a “coat of many colors,” but rather we read: “his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” In other words, just like Jacob’s favorite was Joseph, so the heavenly Father’s favorite was Jesus, who is clothed in the mantle of superiority. And how did we react to that preferential treatment of our Brother? Eh, we murdered him.
But then comes the important part. Our Lord forgave us for that sin committed through sibling rivalry. Joseph’s merciful words to his brothers could be found almost verbatim falling from our Lord’s lips on the Cross: “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you once sold into Egypt. But now do not be distressed and do not reproach yourselves for having sold me here. It was really for the sake of saving lives that God sent me ahead of you.” If sibling rivalry is the great cancer of the human race, then Jesus Christ is the cure, and Joseph was like a vaccination.
I hope you can already see some of the practical applications of this reflection on sibling rivalry sparked by today’s scriptures. Here are three I can think of. First, humbly acknowledge that your family suffers from sibling rivalry and that your behavior is probably motivated by it, even if you do not know it. Pray for the grace to forgive your siblings and ask for their forgiveness. You’ll notice the rivalry when you try to do that. Secondly, try to see all human history, and especially the actions of world leaders today, through the lens of sibling rivalry. Whether we realize it or not, are we not all brothers and sisters trying to show we are better than each other, and win our Father’s approval? We want to hear him say, “I am proud of you.” And sometimes, we are even willing to kill each other for it.
And third, sibling rivalry is what motivated Satan to tempt Adam and Eve and to tempt us to fall. Satan is also our brother, who was created before us, sort of a first born. And he is jealous of how much God loves us, Satan’s little brothers and sisters, and he wants to murder us. And when we give in to sibling rivalry we behave like our older brother, Satan.
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Four Letter Word

Giving and receiving names from others

Genesis 32:23-33 In the course of the night, Jacob arose, took his two wives, with the two maidservants and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had taken them across the stream and had brought over all his possessions, Jacob was left there alone. Then some man wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When the man saw that he could not prevail over him, he struck Jacob's hip at its socket, so that the hip socket was wrenched as they wrestled. The man then said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go until you bless me." The man asked, "What is your name?" He answered, "Jacob." Then the man said, "You shall no longer be spoken of as jacob, but as Israel, because you have contended with divine and human beings and have prevailed." Jacob then asked him, "Do tell me your name, please." He answered, "Why should you want to know my name?" With that, he bade him farewell. Jacob named the place Peniel, "Because I have seen God face to face," he said, "yet my life has been spared."
One of the most intimate things two people can do is give each other a name. Can you think of the two instances in modern culture when we typically bestow a name on another person? Parents give their newborn babies a name, and husbands give their wives their own last name when they marry. In other words, to be given a name by another person indicates a relationship as intimate as family, two people who were strangers now sharing the same flesh and blood, in effect.
I have a kind of annoying habit of coming up with nicknames for my family and friends. I used to run with a group of friends in Fayetteville, and I bestowed nicknames on each of them as I got to know them. One man I dubbed “the Taxman” because his job is overseeing the tax accounting of a major corporation. Another lady I started calling “Blindside” because her voice sounded just like Sandra Bullock in the movie “Blindside.” And upon another lady I bestowed the name “Phonebook” because she literally used a phonebook to find a name for her baby while she gave birth in the hospital. Can you see how annoying this habit could be? But for me, and I hope for them, that name created an intimate bond of fellowship and even a feeling of family between us. That was my personal name for them and no one else called them that, and it touched something incredibly intimate between the two of us.
There are many instances of people giving a new name in the scriptures, and the first reading from Genesis 32 is a perfect example. Jacob wrestles with an angel all night and he apparently prevailed in the fight. But before the two part company, they sort of exchange names. And more than merely exchange names, they bestow new names on each other, because their nocturnal battle had built such a close bond between them. The angel changes Jacob’s name to “Israel” and Jacob bestows the name of “Peniel” upon the angel. Now, these names are not only personal, they are also profound, a little more profound than Taxman and Phonebook.
If you study the Hebrew meaning of the two names, you discover that Peniel means “face of God,” and “Israel” means “struggles with God.” As you probably know, Jacob had twelve sons, who became the heads of the twelve tribes of the nation of Israel. By the way, whenever you see the suffix “el” at the end of a name, like Peniel, or Israel, or Gabriel, or Michael, or Raphael, or Uriel, etc. that “el” means “God.” That is, these names are so charged with significance that they create a bond not only between two creatures, but a bond with the Creator, with God. To bestow a name and to receive a name is one of the most incredibly intimate things two people can do, perhaps the most intimate thing.
May I offer you three practical take-aways from this brief reflection on bestowing names? First, treat other people’s names with respect and even reverence, just like we hope other people will do the same with our name. When I wrote my first book, Archbishop J. Peter Sartain kindly wrote the Foreword. He also read the entire manuscript before publication and made several suggestions. One suggestion was that I be very careful about putting people’s name in print. If at all possible, I should ask their permission first, and avoid criticizing others by name or even by inference. Ever since then I have been careful about mentioning people by name in homilies and always ask their permission first. Names are previous commodities, like fine jewels, and should be treated with utmost respect.
Secondly, the Code of Canon Law, canon 220, reads: “No one is permitted to harm legitimately the good reputation which a person possesses.” When our bishop released the names of the clergy who had abused minors last year, I am sure he did so with great prayer and reluctance. But the needs of the many (for transparency) outweighed the need of the one (for his good reputation). Remember canon 220 before you say something negative about another person.
And thirdly, the name of God should be treated with the utmost respect and awe. Indeed, the third commandment of the Decalogue forbids “taking the Lord’s name in vain.” A whole commandment guards God’s good name. For Jews, the name of God was simply referred to as “the four letter word” – YHWH – the tetragrammaton, literally “four letter word.” God’s name is so holy, it should not even be uttered by devout Jews.
A friend of mine once told me that the sweetest word in any language is the sound of your own name. It is sweeter than the music of Bach or Beethoven, even if the name happens to be Taxman, Blindside or Phonebook.
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Monday, July 8, 2019

When Life Begins

Living between the already and the not yet
Luke 10:1-12, 17-20 At that time the Lord appointed seventy-two others whom he sent ahead of him in pairs to every town and place he intended to visit. The seventy-two returned rejoicing, and said, "Lord, even the demons are subject to uss because of your name." Jesus said, "I have observed Satan fall like lightning from the sky. Behold, I have given you the power to 'tread upon serpents' and scorpions and upon the full force of the enemy and nothing will harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven."
Every Christian experiences the Kingdom of God in a timeless tension – a sort of tug-of-war – where we’re caught between the “already” and the “not yet.” In a sense, the Kingdom is already present in the world, and yet at the same time it has not been made manifest in all its glory. Theologians typically divide all human history into three ages or stages. First, came the Age of the Law (the Old Testament period), second, the Age of Grace (the New Testament period), and third, the Age of Glory (heaven and eternity). We read in John 1:17, “While the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” You and I find ourselves in the intermediate Age of Grace, where God’s Kingdom is present sacramentally (that’s the already) but not sensibly (that’s the not yet). When we die, however, we will pass from the Age of Grace to the Age of Glory, with a little detour through the Age of Purgatory.
Let me illustrate this tug-of-war tension of the already and the not yet with a little joke someone sent me last week. A minister, a priest and a rabbi were discussing when life begins. The minister said: “Those of my faith believe that life starts when the heart begins to beat.” The priest replied: “We take a bit of a different view in that we believe life starts at the moment of conception.” The rabbi answered: “Well, it is our belief that life starts when the kids move out and the dog dies.” (My apologies to all you dog lovers.). What a great question though: when does life begin? Does it begin in the Age of Grace, meaning when we are conceived and born into this world? Or, does it begin in the Age of Glory, meaning when we are born eternally into the world of heaven? The answer is life begins in both. We experience the Kingdom of God – real life – in “the already and the not yet,” both in the here but also in the here-after.
Our three scripture selections today likewise touch on this tension and tug-of-war between the already and the not yet, the already of grace and the not yet of glory. Isaiah the prophet writes in the first reading: “Lo, I will spread prosperity over Jerusalem like a river, and the wealth of the nations like an overflowing torrent.” Isaiah lived in the 8thcentury B.C. when Israel was subjugated by Assyria and then Babylon. But his prophesies would not be realized until the 6th century B.C., two hundred years later, when the people were freed. The prophets reminded the people of God’s promises that had not yet been realized. They heard the good news, but they had not seen it made manifest.
St. Paul writes to the Galatians, saying: “May I never boast except in in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And what was that boast and cross? Paul explains a few verses later saying he had received the stigmata, the five wounds Jesus suffered on the cross. Paul saw in his sufferings the already and the not yet of the Kingdom, like a soldier boasts about his war wounds from a battle. And Jesus urges his apostles, who have just returned from an afternoon of rounding up evil spirits like Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray in “Ghostbusters,” saying: “Do not rejoice because the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice because your names are written in heaven.” That is, you have already seen the power of grace on earth, but don’t forget to long for the greater glory of heaven, which has not arrived.
Let me share three examples of this tension in our daily lives as Catholic Christians. We are called to live by grace but to long for glory. That is the quintessential characteristic of the Kingdom of God. Try to catch it. First, the Eucharist. Every time we come to Mass we are truly caught up into the eternal “marriage supper of the Lamb” described in Revelation 19:9, celebrated by all the saints and angels in heaven. If we closed our human eyes and opened our eyes of faith, that heavenly banquet is what we would behold already. And yet, we see only bread and wine, a priest and deacon and sleepy servers. That’s the not yet. Can you catch the kingdom there?
Secondly, holy matrimony. Every human marriage is supposed to foreshadow and be a foretaste of the eternal marriage between Jesus and his Bride, the Church. At every wedding rehearsal I tell the wedding party that all eyes should be on the bride, and the beautiful bride always blushes. But the reason we peer intently at the human bride is because she is a preview of coming attractions, the Bride of Ephesians 5:27, described as being “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing.” But all we see in most marriages is struggle and sacrifice and cold shoulders. Just ask the ex- spouses of the 250 annulments I work on every year. The wedding day feels like the “already” of glory, but the marriage feels more like the “not yet” of grace. Can you catch the Kingdom there?
And third, priestly celibacy. I know a lot of modern voices are growing more vocal to change the discipline of celibacy, and allow priests to marry. It’s true that discipline is a rule that could change. But I hope not. Why? Simple: celibate priests are another instance of “heaven on earth,” not because priests are perfect people, but because they are a preview of paradise. But don’t take my word for it, listen to Jesus in Matthew 19:12, where he talks about his future pastors: “They have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Celibate priests and nuns and religious embody the “already” and the “not yet” of the Kingdom of God. Could you catch the Kingdom there?
When I celebrate a funeral Mass, I explain: “One of the seven petitions of the Our Father is ‘Thy Kingdom come.’ Well, the Kingdom has come in a very personal and powerful way for our beloved dead. We pray they stand before the King of kings today.” That is, for them the Kingdom of God is “the already” and no longer “the not yet.” They have moved from the Age of Grace to the Age of Glory. And now they know when real life begins.
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Bargain Hunter

Learning how to negotiate with God

Genesis 18:16-33 While the two men walked on farther toward Sodom, the LORD remained standing before Abraham. Then Abraham drew nearer to him and said: "Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? Suppose there were fifty innocent people in the city; would you wipe out the place, rather than spare it for the sake of the fifty innocent people within it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to make the innocent die with the guilty, so that the innocent and the guilty would be treated alike! Should not the judge of all the world act with justice?" The LORD replied, "If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake." Abraham spoke up again: "See how I am presuming to speak to my Lord, though I am but dust and ashes! What if there are five less than fifty innocent people? Will you destroy the whole city because of those five?" He answered, "I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there." But Abraham persisted, saying, "What if only forty are found there?" He replied, "I will forbear doing it for the sake of forty." Then Abraham said, "Let not my Lord grow impatient if I go on. What if only thirty are found there?" He replied, "I will forbear doing it if I can find but thirty there." Still Abraham went on, "Since I have thus dared to speak to my Lord, what if there are no more than twenty?" He answered, "I will not destroy it for the sake of the twenty." But he still persisted: "Please, let not my Lord grow angry if I speak up this last time. What if there are at least ten there?" He replied, "For the sake of those ten, I will not destroy it."
All healthy human interaction, especially social intercourse, should be marked by both formality and familiarity. We should balance both and avoid extremes. That is, be careful you are not so familiar that you become crass, and not so formal that you are cold. I love watching old black-and-white movies because they beautifully balance both familiarity and formality. In the movie, “Casablanca,” for example, Signor Ferrari says to Victor Laslo, admiring his beautiful wife, Ilsa Lund (played by Ingrid Bergman), “I can see in one respect, monsieur, you are a very fortunate man.” When the couple prepares to leave Ferrari’s store, Ilsa returns the compliment saying: “I will miss your tea when we leave Casablanca.”
This past weekend, Msgr. Andrew Asa, a Laotian priest, stayed at the rectory. Every time we talked he would bow his head to greet me and it felt very formal. I tried to do the same but it only felt very awkward, like Danielsun with Mr. Miagi. But our conversation was very casual and very friendly. He loves to crack jokes. The Laotian culture has captured that rare balance of formality and familiarity in social interaction, and it’s something our American culture could use a crash course in soon.
In Genesis 18, Abraham also balances both formality and familiarity in his conversation with three mysterious guests. Tradition has often identified the three visitors not only as “angels” but also as a dim foreshadowing of the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Still, that inference is not made explicit in the Genesis text. Abraham first treats his guests with great hospitality and formality. But then he begins to bargain with one of them very familiarly, trying to save some of the people in Sodom and Gomorrah.
Abraham asks: “Will you sweep away the innocent with the guilty? Suppose there are fifty innocent people in the city; would you wipe out the place rather than spare it for the sake of the fifty innocent people within it?” And we know how Abraham’s bargaining drives the number down from 50 to 45, to 40, to 30, to 20, and finally to 10. Abraham knew “the art of the deal” long before President Trump wrote a book on the subject. Notice how in his conversation with a pre-figurement of a Person of the Trinity, Abraham avoids being so formal as to be cold, and also being so familiar as to be crass. That’s why Abraham enjoyed such great success in human interactions but also in his intercourse with the divine.
Folks, reflect for a moment on your social interactions with other persons. Do you tend to be very formal and stuffy, or do you find yourself being so friendly that you abandon all social graces? St. Thomas Aquinas, following the lead of the ancient Aristotle, taught that “in medio stat virtus” (virtue stands in the middle of two extremes) (Summa Theologiae, II-II, 146, i). I don’t know about you, but I really struggle sometimes with being too familiar with my own family (pun intended). I tend to take my parents and siblings for granted and speak to them in a way I would not address a perfect stranger. I need to confess that I am familiar with them to the point of being crass and cross with them.
On the other hand, when I address God, I run to the opposite extreme. I feel so deferential that I never ask for anything for myself but I am happy to pray for others. Do you ever feel that way? But that kind of deference was not the disposition of Abraham, the Father of Faith. In other words, we should not err on the side of formality such that we are cold in our dealing with the divine. There is a holy and humble way to bargain with God, and Abraham is both our model and our measure.
I don’t know if you have read the book The Art of the Deal by President Donald Trump. It may be valuable. But I do urge you to read Genesis 18, where Abraham shows us the true art of the deal. He helps us not only deal with divine beings, but also with human beings in a way that is both friendly and familiar but without losing formality and grace. And if you cannot do that, at least go back and watch “Casablanca” again.
Praised be Jesus Christ!