Monday, February 24, 2020

Decalogue for Dummies

Appreciating both Letter of James and Galatians
James 2:14-24, 26 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.
Today we find an apparent, but not an actual, contradiction in scripture. All students of the sacred page sooner or later will read and wrestle with what on the surface seems like a clear contradiction in St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the Letter of St. James (today’s first reading). St. James says forcefully and uncompromisingly: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?” And, as if to answer his own rhetorical question, James adds later: “faith without works is dead.” St. James articulates one side of the debate between faith and works.
St. Paul presents the other side in Galatians 2:16, arguing very ably as well: “We know a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” And to add further weight to his argument, he insists later: “by works of the law no one will be justified.” Reading and reflecting on Galatians 2, the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther uttered one of the two famous battle cries of the Protestant Reformation, namely, sola fide,” meaning “faith alone.” The other famous dictum was “sola scriptura,” or “by the bible alone,” (and not by tradition) do we know the truth faith and therefore know Christ. Indeed, Luther even criticized the Letter of James by calling it “an epistle of straw.” We know straw is worth little more than to be thrown in the fire.
Let me say two things about this apparent contradiction that fueled a blazing controversy that smolders down to our own day. First of all, St. Paul’s use of the term “works of the law” is distinctly different from St. James use of the same term when he says “faith without works.” Paul is referring to the hundreds of Jewish laws and liturgies, rituals and regulations, known as the “oral law,” or “halakha.” Paul was not referring to keeping the Ten Commandments as useless for justification. St. Paul did not believe you could profane the Lord’s Day (3rd commandment), or commit adultery (6th commandment) steal (7th commandment) or murder (5th commandment) and still be justified. That’s the Decalogue, you dummy! These are divine commandments, not human customs, and St. Paul was eliminating the second, not the first.
By the way, this is also why in Acts 15 the apostles, including Paul, under Peter’s leadership, decide that circumcision would no longer by required for Christians. Do you know what circumcision is? Would you like me to describe it for you? Just kidding. Circumcision was one of those “works of the law” that does not justify a person before God, and therefore the apostles abolished it. Archbishop Sartain once told me: “John, there are laws, and then there are laws.” That is, some laws you have to keep absolutely and others you can bend or break with impunity, like run red lights in Fort Smith. So, the contradiction between the Letter of James and St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians disappears. When the two apostles use the word “works” they mean two different things.
The second point I want to add briefly touches the second battle cry of the Protestant Reformation, “sola scriptura.” That is, the bible alone will lead us to Christ without the aid of tradition. Now, that sounds good on the surface, but it crumbles under closer scrutiny. We can simply ask one question: Why are some Christians called Lutheran and others called Presbyterian, and still others considered Catholics or Baptists or even non-denominational? The honest answer is that each denomination – even the so-called non-denominational – follows a certain “tradition” of interpreting scripture. In other words, scripture alone – sola scriptura – does not explain itself; someone must help us understand the bible.
By the way, I always love to read Acts chapter 8, where an Ethiopian eunuch is reading Isaiah 53 about the “suffering servant.” St. Philip is sent by the Holy Spirit to evangelize him. St. Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch’s answer is one that we can all share whenever we open and read the bible. He replied very humbly: “How can I understand unless someone instructs me?” In other words, no one can understand scripture alone, including me, unless someone instructs us. And that instruction the Philip provided the Ethiopian eunuch, and that I’m giving you now, and that Luther gave to his adherents in the 1500’s, is simply called “tradition.” Sola scripture is “an impossible dream.”
The Protestant positions of sola fide and sola scriptura sound good but don’t stand up to scrutiny. Keep that in mind as we continue to read the magnificent Letter of St. James, that “epistle of straw.”
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Bread and Circus Games

Seeking the eternal more than the earthly
Mark 8:14-21 The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. Jesus enjoined them, “Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” They concluded among themselves that it was because they had no bread. When he became aware of this he said to them, “Why do you conclude that it is because you have no bread? Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear? And do you not remember, when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many wicker baskets full of fragments you picked up?” They answered him, “Twelve.” “When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many full baskets of fragments did you pick up?” They answered him, “Seven.” He said to them, “Do you still not understand?”
                Yesterday, during our bible study on the gospel of Luke, I contrasted the Jewish leadership of the Old Testament with Jesus’ new leadership in the New Testament. Basically, our Lord wanted to replace the Levites, the Pharisees and Sadducees, the Sanhedrin and the scribes with the three-fold structure of bishop, priest and deacon. I provided three scripture passaged to support that hierarchical structure from Acts 6, 1 Peter 5, and 1 Timothy 3, so they wouldn’t think I just made that up.
That also reminded me of how our seminary professor explained the difference between a priest and a deacon. Our last year of seminary we were ordained as transitional deacons, and we were feeling pretty proud or ourselves. After all, we were about to receive the sacrament of Holy Orders. So, our professor answered our question saying: “Well, if the priest is like Jesus the Shepherd, and the people are like the sheep of his flock, then I guess that makes the deacons like the sheepdogs.” He knew exactly how to humble us proud seminarians.
In the gospel today, Jesus is preparing his apostles to be the future leaders of his Church. In a sense, their three years of living and learning from our Lord during his public ministry was their seminary training. Like me in the final year before ordination, the apostles, too, may have felt a little pride and ambition. So, Jesus teaches them a lesson in humility like our professor taught us. Jesus admonishes them: “Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.” That is, the future leadership of my Church, Jesus was insisting, must be humble and holy, not like the Pharisees and the Herodians who feign holiness but are full of the leaven of sin and selfishness. The apostles sadly missed our Savior’s point. They thought he meant literal bread they could eat, not the spiritual leaven of evil.
My friends, we too can easily miss the point of our Lord’s lessons by seeking the literal level of his words over the spiritual meaning, by preferring the natural goods over the supernatural goods of grace, by longing for earthly fulfillment rather than eternal bliss. Think for a moment about the things we typically pray for. We pray to be healed from a physical illness. We pray when we have marriage problems. We pray to win the lottery and have a lot of money. We pray for our children to get into a prestigious college (and also a scholarship to pay for it!). We pray when we have a big test and we did not study for it. Now, these are all good things to pray for, and we should ask God’s grace that all goes well and according to his will.
How often, though, do we pray for God to teach us humility? When did we last pray for God to increase our feeble faith? Can you recall the last time you prayed to be healed of lust and vanity and laziness and pride? Have you asked the Lord lately for a deeper love for his Word in the scriptures and in the sacraments? When did you pray to God to help you pray to God better – that is, in a way that pleases him more than it pleases you? Do you ask for the grace to carry you crosses, or only that god remove your crosses? When we pray in this way – a more spiritual and supernatural way – we do what Jesus commanded: “Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod,” and eradicate evil from your life.
Let me leave you with this quotation from the great Jewish Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel from his masterful book simple called The Sabbath. He wrote: “Two things the people of Rome anxiously desired – bread and circus games. But man does not live by bread and circus games alone. Who will teach him to desire anxiously the spirit of a sacred day?” The sacred day for Jews, of course, is the Sabbath, Saturday. For Christians the sacred day is Sunday. What do we do on Sunday? We come to receive the unleavened Bread of the Eucharist. We leave the leaven of this world outside, and say to Jesus: “You are the only Bread that I really need.”
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Adam's Dance

Being rebels and dancing with the devil
James 1:1-11 James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, greetings. Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. But if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and he will be given it. But he should ask in faith, not doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed about by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, since he is a man of two minds, unstable in all his ways.
In my spare time I love nothing more than picking up and perusing a volume of C. S. Lewis, and yesterday that volume happened to be The Problem of Pain. Lewis conjures up all his skills of common sense Christianity to wrestle with a question that has haunted humanity since the beginning, namely, why do we suffer? In chapter 6, called “Human Pain,” Lewis offer his readers two images that I found very helpful. First, he writes: “In the world as we know it, the problem is how to recover this self-surrender [to God]. We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved; we are, as Newman said, rebels who must lay down our arms” (p. 88).
This first image suggests that suffering comes our way to help us surrender our selfishness, and that is always painful and hurts. We are not neutral or innocent by-standers towards God. We harbor hostility toward our heavenly Father. We would wage war against him and heaven rather than lay down our pride, lust, gluttony, sloth, greed, envy and anger. The image of a “rebel” helps me understand one reason why I have to suffer.
The second image Lewis offers us that of dancing with the devil. We read: “In obeying [God], a rational creature enacts its creaturely role, reverses the act by which we fell, treads Adam’s dance backward, and returns” (p. 100). In the Garden of Eden Adam and Eve not only danced in perfect happiness with each other, but also with God, but the devil cut in on that dance. Ever since, all Adam’s sons and daughters, you and me, have been dancing with the devil. The Tempter has taught us his two-step of mortal and venial sins, and we have learned those dance steps very well! We could be on “Dancing with the Stars” except it would be called “Dancing with the Devils.”
Now God wants to cut in on our dance with the devil and teach us his two-step of holiness and humility. And it hurts because we don’t know this new dance and we stumble and look silly, as we “tread Adam’s dance backward.” The second reason humans suffer is because we stop dancing with Satan and start dancing with our Savior, indeed our Spouse, Jesus Christ. Notice Lewis’ underlying point in the image of the dance: we are not merely standing idly by when Jesus comes to dance with us. We already have a dance partner, and the devil does not want Jesus to have the next dance. And so we suffer when we switch partners.
When we keep in mind these two images of the “rebel” and the “dance,” we might understand why St. James writes in the first reading these strange and even startling lines. He says: “Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” St. James surprisingly suggests we should be happy – indeed even rejoice! – when we are diagnosed with cancer, when we lose a job, when our friends abandon us, when we feel dryness in prayer, when our vacation plans our ruined, when we are overlooked for a promotion, when someone cuts us off in traffic, when our chai latte is cold, when the homily is boring, and when a million other pains and problems occur in life. Why?
Because that is the moment we rebels lay down our arms and surrender our self-will to God, and let him conquer our pride. That is the moment when we switch dance partners from Satan to the Savior, and “tread Adam’s dance backward” learning the two-step of humility and holiness. That is why we should “consider it all joy when we encounter various trials.”
In 1981 Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a best-selling book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Rabbi Kushner’s reflection was sparked by the news that his 3-year old son was diagnosed with a degenerative disease which meant he would only live to see his teens. It is a profound book and well worth reading. The only caveat I would add to Kushner’s reflection is this: no one on earth is merely “good people.” Rather, we are all rebels in open war against God, and we constantly are choosing the wrong dance partner. God does not send suffering to merely “good people;” he sends it to his children so they lay down their arms, surrender to him, and learn to dance with him alone.
Praised be Jesus Christ!

A Sound of Thunder

Paying attention to small gestures of love
Matthew 5:17-37 Jesus said to his disciples: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
There’s a very old proverb that highlights how minor mistakes can have colossal consequences. It’s called “For Want of a Nail.” See if you can follow the sequence of cause and effect: “For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.” In other words, an entire kingdom could be overthrown by the lack of a little nail.
This proverb was placed in a more scientific setting by the science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury in 1953 in his short story called “A Sound of Thunder.” Bradbudy popularized the scientific theory called the “butterfly effect.” Have you ever heard of that? In the story, a group of explorers travel back in time, 66 million years, to the Crustaceous Period, when dinosaurs dominated the earth. The lead scientist explains to the group that they must not disturb anything in the past or else dramatic change would be unleashed and alter their own future. The expeditionary team is warned sternly to walk only on an elevated path to avoid contaminating the environment. At one point, however, one traveler trips off the path when he’s suddenly startled by a T-Rex. He steps off the elevated path and steps on a beautiful butterfly. When they return to their original year, they find a lot has changed: the people speak English differently, wear strange clothes, and even a recent election turned out differently. Because one traveler stepped on a butterfly, that small change snowballed down the years and created a very different future. Horseshoe nails and butterflies may seem like small things to most of us, but when they’re missing, they mess with the course of history.
In the gospel today, Jesus gives a spiritual application to the principle of the butterfly effect. He moves it from the natural to the supernatural plane; from the environmental to the ethical level. Notice our Lord’s concern with even the smallest commandments, when he teaches: “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus almost sounds like the scientist in Bradbury’s story warning his time travelers to take care not to disturb even the hushed beating of a butterfly wing. On the spiritual and ethical dimensions, therefore, the breaking of a commandment by committing even small sins can have decisive and dramatic consequences on much larger scales. In this spiritual case, the kingdom that is lost is the Kingdom of Heaven.
My friends, may I suggest three examples where minor mistakes and small sins can lead to catastrophic consequences? First of all, in marriages, and especially in spousal communication we see the significance of small things. Why do so many husbands and wives struggle to communicate effectively, and couple’s conversations collapse into a shouting match? Obviously, there are many factors, but a critical component is a failure to notice the small things: a deep sigh of sadness, the crossed arms of defiance, a slouching posture of resignation, eyes welling up with tears, a wince of pain and hurt, a hesitation to speak or a pregnant pause. In other words, successful spousal dialogue demands attention to what is not said every bit as much as to what is said. In a word, they must pay attention to the small things, or their marriage as a whole suffers the consequences. The butterfly effect can also be found in butterfly kisses.
A second example is Pope Francis’ recent apostolic exhortation on the Amazon region called “Querida Amazonia” which is Spanish for “Beloved Amazon.” The Holy Father does not overlook the smallest and most vulnerable inhabitants of the Amazon. He explains: “There is a crucial need to realize that ‘the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms’” (Querida Amazonia, 49). That is, the huge untamed Amazon jungle depends on tiny insects and worms for its equilibrium and even its existence. By the way, the pope was blasted by the president of Brazil for this document. The president said brashly: "The Pope may be Argentinian, but God is Brazilian.” Throwing shade at the pope – seriously?? The president apparently would not regret stomping on a butterfly or carelessly casting away a horseshoe nail. But the Holy Father believes such small actions can have oversized reactions, indeed not only affecting the fate of a kingdom, but that of an entire planet.
And finally, don’t ignore the small words and gestures of courtesy and care in your daily interactions with other people. My brother, Paul, has a happy habit of replying to people’s questions by politely saying: “Yes sir” or “No sir,” “Yes ma’am” or “No ma’am.” They are small words but carry significant worth. Spend a few extra minutes listening to someone instead of hurrying off to your next task. I’m embarrassed to say I have a horrible habit of doing that: always rushing off to something else. Give you full attention when you listen to someone, and don’t look at your phone at the same time, even if Millennials say that’s okay. It’s not okay: look everyone in the eye. Frequently utter the magic words “Please,” “Thank you,” “I’m sorry,” “I forgive you,” “You’re right.” Be aware of the appearance of your face, that is, smile more often. A simple smile and warm hello may be just what someone needs who’s having a hard day. These tiny tokens of love can be transformative tickets to peace and joy.
My main point today is that small actions can have both bad consequences but also good ones. Therefore, they are not to be overlooked or underestimated. A kingdom can be lost over a misplaced horseshoe nail or a smashed butterfly. And sometimes that lost kingdom could be the Kingdom of Heaven.
Praised be Jesus Christ!

You Need To Calm Down

Seeing inner intentions revealed in words and works
Mark 7:14-23 Jesus summoned the crowd again and said to them, “Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile.” When he got home away from the crowd his disciples questioned him about the parable. He said to them, “Are even you likewise without understanding? Do you not realize that everything that goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters not the heart but the stomach and passes out into the latrine?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) “But what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him. From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.”
Fr. Stephen Elser came back to Fort Smith on Sunday for a baptism and spent a couple of days here. Some of you will remember him as the chaplain of Trinity before Fr. Martin arrived this year. Do you know what Fr. Stephen did on Monday, his so-called “day off”? He visited Trinity so he could see many of you; he stood waving in the hallway. I hope you waved back. That’s not all he did. He visited the classrooms at I.C. School, where a group of students made a circle around him and tried to push him into a room so he could never leave. He also visited a bible study class, the Ladies Auxiliary meeting and went to lunch and dinner with various families.
Seeing how much people loved seeing Fr. Stephen, I texted him saying: “Everyone treats you like the conquering Julius Caesar returning from the Gallic wars!” I was not jealous at all, of course. All first year Latin students have to read the book written by Julius Caesar (in Latin of course) called “The Gallic Wars” about his extraordinary exploits in Gaul, or modern-day France. The book begins with this famous line: “Gallia est omnis divisa en partes tres” meaning “Gaul, as a whole, is divisible into three parts.” When Julius Caesar returned to Rome after conquering Gaul, he declared himself the “emperor” and the Roman Empire was born. I was worried that’s exactly what Fr. Stephen planned to do here in Fort Smith!
The real reason I made that comparison between Fr. Stephen and Julius Caesar is to show that the hidden intentions of our hearts can be seen in our words and actions. Fr. Stephen loves Trinity, I.C. and Fort Smith, and it’s obvious in his actions because he spent his day-off with us. Julius Caesar loved Rome and so he conquered other peoples and made himself her emperor.
The bible also teaches us that what lies hidden in the heart comes into the light through our words and actions. In the gospel today, Jesus says: “Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come from within are what defile.” A few verses later, Jesus gives some examples of what he means: “From within the man, from his heart, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” In other words, just like you can easily tell what’s in Fr. Stephen’s heart and in Julius Caesar’s heart by their words and actions, so what each person loves is easily seen on their lips (their words) and in their lives (their works).
Boys and girls, ask yourself today: “What is deep in my heart?” “What are the things I love and feel passionate about?” Sometimes we love things that are good and godly, like Fr. Stephen and Julius Caesar, but sometimes we love things that are unhealthy and unholy. Let me give you a couple of examples. On January 25 Trinity’s Science Bowl Team won first place in the Middle School Science Bowl. In April they will travel to Washington, D.C. to compete in the National Science Bowl. The boy Buffs Science Bowl team had another famous dictum by Julius Caesar on their lips as they returned to Fort Smith: “Vini. Vidi. Vici.” meaning “I came. I saw. I conquered.” Great job, boys, I’m very proud of you.
Sadly, though, sometimes negative and destructive intentions also lie hidden in the heart, like Jesus mentioned, “envy, unchastity, arrogance.” And today, the way we express those harmful feelings is through texts and tweets, through snapchat and Tic-Tok. Or, as Brian Charlton likes to joke: “Snapface.” Taylor Swift in her song, “You Need To Calm Down” said: “Say it in the street, that’s a knock-out / But if you say it in a tweet, that’s a cop-out.” She’s talking about something called cyberbullying, where our envy, jealousy, unchastity and arrogance is on public display. Boys and girls, I cannot tell you how deeply disappointed I am whenever I hear that any Trinity student makes another student feel belittled, bullied or badgered. There simply is not space for that in our school.
Jesus said it is not what goes into a person that defiles, but what comes out of their hearts. Today examine your hearts – and I’ll examine mine – and let only the light and love of holy intentions come out in your words and actions. And then, at the end of your life, you can look back like Julius Caesar and say: “I came. I saw. I conquered."
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Inner Teacher

Telling our story to our students
Mark 6:30-34 The Apostles gathered together with Jesus and reported all they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while.” People were coming and going in great numbers, and they had no opportunity even to eat. So they went off in the boat by themselves to a deserted place. People saw them leaving and many came to know about it. They hastened there on foot from all the towns and arrived at the place before them. When Jesus disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.
Last Monday I began our bible study class on the gospel of Luke with a word of thanks to the 80 participants. I said: “Thank you for letting me get in touch with my inner teacher.” I explained that before I wanted to be a priest, I wanted to be a teacher. Actually, I wanted to be a university professor of philosophy, marry a beautiful Catholic girl, and have 20 children. So, you can see my vocation to be a priest was virtually a “fait accompli” (a done deal in French), because I have yet to find a girl who would agree to those terms for a marriage. Now, however, my inner teacher has found his subject as well as his students in the bible study class, and I am profoundly grateful to those 80 guinea pigs!
I find myself surprisingly in the sandals of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. The ancient seer realized God had destined him to be a prophet before he was born. He writes: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations” (Jer. 1:4). Later when Jeremiah tries to refrain from prophesying, he explains it’s impossible to stay quiet: “I say I will not mention him, I will no longer speak in his name. but then it is as if fire is burning in my heart, imprisoned in my bones; I grow weary holding it in; I cannot!” (Jer. 20:9). In other words, Jeremiah also struggled with his inner teacher, an inner prophet, who would not be silenced, but rather was compelled to speak about the Lord and his love.
In the gospel from Mark 6, Jesus gets in touch with his inner teacher, too. Of course, it is silly to say Jesus “gets in touch with his inner teacher” like we might experience it. Jesus is Teacher not only with is words, but in his actions, in his miracles, in his touch, in his compassion, in his tears, and even in his sighs. Jesus is Teacher with a capital “T” while all the rest of us, even his beloved apostles, are teachers with a small case “t.” Jesus is Teacher par excellence.
But the same dynamic desire to teach burst forth from the lips of our Lord like it did in the great life of Jeremiah, and in the little life of Fr. John. Jesus and his apostles find themselves exhausted from a day of intense evangelization, and seek a little rest, trying to escape the crowds by boat. But what happens? We read: “When Jesus disembarked and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Like for Fr. John and for the prophet Jeremiah, Jesus inner Teacher couldn’t be confined or bottled up but burst for and “he began to teach them many things.”
My friends, may I suggest to you that we are all blessed with an “inner teacher”? Of course, you may not have any desire to teach philosophy and have 20 children. Still, I am convinced that we must find our subject and share it with our students. Furthermore, I believe that our subject matter is our own life, and ultimately, our relationship with the Lord, whether we are aware of that relationship explicitly or only implicitly. Have you noticed how political candidates these days all write autobiographies? Ronald Reagan wrote An American Life, Barak Obama penned Dreams From My Father, Bill Clinton’s autobiography was simply called “My Life,” and Richard Nixon wrote: “Six Crises.”
Admittedly, these presidents wrote these works for various personal motives: to defend their decisions, to make a little money, to find fame outside of the Oval Office. Nevertheless, they were also getting in touch with their “inner teacher,” and sharing their story, which ultimately is about their relationship with the Lord, whether or not they say a word about Jesus. Jesus is the Word of God that makes every word of man possible, just like we cannot say a word without the air in our lungs to utter it.
Try to find a form in which you, too, can get in touch with your inner teacher and share you story. Tell your children and grandchildren over lunch and dinner, write an autobiography, keep a dairy, record a Youtube video of you, gather pictures and put together a photographic history of your life. Like Jeremiah, God has created each of us in the womb to be a prophet to the nations, to share our story, our relationship with the Lord. If we try to ignore that divine mandate, “It will become like a fire burning in our hearts, imprisoned in our bones; we will grow weary holding it back.”
Praised be Jesus Christ!

Polemical Preaching

Defending the perpetual virginity of Mary
Mark 6:1-6 Jesus departed from there and came to his native place, accompanied by his disciples. When the sabbath came he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him? What mighty deeds are wrought by his hands! Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his native place and among his own kin and in his own house.” So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith.
I hope you don’t mind hearing a little polemical preaching this morning. “Polemics” means taking sides in a hotly controversial issue and marshaling the reasons your side is right. Today’s gospel from Mark 6 provides the point of the controversy when Mark mentions: “Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary, and the brother of James and Joseph and Judas and Simon?” And as if to turn up the heat a little higher, Mark adds: “And are not his sisters here with us?” Put simply, did Jesus have other biological brothers and sisters, or put differently, did the Blessed VIRGIN Mary have other biological children besides Jesus? Here, then, are the two sides of the controversy: some Protestants (though not all) deny the perpetual virginity of Mary, while Catholics devoutly defend that doctrine. After all, that is my Mother you’re talking about!
Let me list four reasons I believe the Catholic side is right in this matter. First, here’s the historical reason. For the vast majority of the 2,000 year history of the Church, all Christians have unanimously believed in Mary’s perpetual virginity. The Church Fathers believed it; all the ecumenical councils believed it; the Orthodox Churches believe it; and even the early Protestant reformers like Martin Luther, Thomas Cranmer, and John Wesley believed it. The fact that some Protestants today deny Mary’s virginity doesn’t mean they have to answer me in this debate. Rather, they must respond to the vast array of saints and scholars up and down the centuries who have believed in Mary’s virginity, including the key founders of Protestantism itself.
Secondly, the grammatical reason. We must take care not to interpret the scriptures too literally. Indeed, we hope people will not understand all we say in English in a literal way. For instance, if I say, “It’s raining cats and dogs outside today!” I hope you will not call Animal Control and make sure all the poor puppies and pussy cats are properly provided for. We know that is an idiomatic expression and not meant literally. Similarly, the Greek work for brother, “adelphos,” may mean a biological brother, but also includes the meaning of “cousins” or “half-brothers” or “step-brothers.” Grammatically-speaking, the Greek word “adelphos” has a much broader meaning than the word brother or sister does in English. We should remember that broader meaning reading Mark 6.
The third reason is a culture consideration. In Semetic societies, like in the time of Jesus, as well as in many parts of the world today, like my home country of India, or in Mexico, there is no notion of a “nuclear family” – merely mom, dad, the kids and the dogs. Instead, extended families frequently live under the same roof, where uncles and aunts serve as surrogate parents, and cousins are called brothers and sisters, because they all live together and play together. The Spanish term for cousin is “primo hermano” which literally means “first brother.” Hence, it’s entirely possible that Jesus’ extended family lived very close, maybe even under the same roof, where cousins were equivalent to siblings. Our American notion of the nuclear family can distort our appreciation of Semetic families like that of Jesus.
Lastly, a theological thought. Protestant theology tends to emphasize the finished work of Christ for the sake of our salvation. And that emphasis is both right and good: Jesus’ death on the Cross is indeed sufficient to save us. Often, however, they achieve that emphasis by simultaneously deemphasizing anyone else’s role in redemption, especially the role of Mary. If Jesus is to be the Savior, Protestants propose, then everyone else must be a sinner. As a result, they must show that Mary is like everyone else, like normal people who marry and have multiple children. Normal people are not virgins (like priests are not normal people!).
Catholics, on the other hand, believe Christ’s saving work is so super-abundantly sufficient that he can even include us in it as his partners, without diminishing a drop of his own unique and all sufficient role. Hence, Catholics accord to the saints and especially to Mary, and heck, even to me and to you, some share in the saving work of Christ. Don’t we help each other to salvation when we pray for each other? One way Catholics celebrate that spiritual sharing in salvation is honoring the perpetual virginity of Mary. Mary remains a perpetual virgin, as amazing as that sounds, because Jesus’ work in her is indeed “amazing grace.”
Once you weigh the historical, the grammatical, the cultural and the theological reasons for Mary’s perpetual virginity, maybe you can see why we Catholics believe we stand on the right side of this controversy. Of course, only in Paradise will we know whose polemical preaching was truly on point.
Praised be Jesus Christ!