28 February 2018

Why is heaven "up"?

In my reading into all things Tolkien, I repeatedly found references to a little book by C.S. Lewis titled, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. The way the various authors mentioned this book intrigued me and so I looked for it in bookstores for more than a year, but never with success. Finally, I decided to simply order it online, and I am glad I did.

This book is a sort of summary of his introductory lectures on the mindset of medieval man, of how he looked upon the world. Lewis describes medieval man as
an organizer, a codifier, a builder of systems. He wanted 'a place for everything and everything in the right place'. Distinction, definition, tabulation were his delight.... There was nothing medieval people liked better, or did better, than sorting out and tidying up. Of all of our modern inventions I suspect that they would most have admired the card index [of happy memory] ([Cambridge University Press, 2013], 10).
It is an excellent and thought-provoking read that overturns the current common misconceptions of the medieval worldview. Take, for example, the medieval view of the universe.

It is a commonplace today to mock the medievals for speaking of heaven as "above" us and hell as "below" us. We find such a notion quaint and childish, altogether lacking in scientific reasoning, but Lewis demonstrates how this modern characterization is quite incorrect.

The medievals based their understanding of the universe on the understanding of the world as handed down by none other than Aristotle, no fool he. As Lewis summarizes:
So far as he could find out, the celestial bodies were permanent; they neither came into existence nor passed away [the first supernova was not observed until A.D. 185]. And the more you studied them, the more perfectly regular their movements seemed to be. Apparently, then, the universe was divided into two regions. The lower region of change and irregularity he called Nature. The upper he called Sky. Thus he can speak of 'Nature and Sky' as two things. But that very changeable phenomenon, the weather, made it clear that the realm of inconstant Nature extended some way above the surface of the Earth. 'Sky' must begin higher up. It seemed reasonable to suppose that regions which differed in every observable respect were made of different stuff. Nature was made of the four elements, earth, water, fire, and air. Air, then (and with air Nature, and with Nature inconstancy) must end before Sky began. Above the air, in true Sky, was a different substance, which he called aether. Thus 'the aether encompases the divine bodies, but immediately below the aetheral and divine nature comes that which is passible, mutable, perishable, and subject to death' [Metaphysics, 1072b]. By the word divine Aristotle introduces a religious element; and the placing of the important frontier (between Sky and Nature, Aether and Air) at the Moon's orbit is a minor detail. But the concept of such a frontier seems to arise far more in response to a scientific research than to a religious need (4-5).
From this conception of the universe, from their understanding of the world, this was  - and remains - a perfectly logical way of describing what was known.

Because this conception was all we could know for centuries, when we discovered more about the nature of the universe we simply continued speaking of heaven as being above us. We view such a notion as infantile only because we do not know medieval man as we should.

27 February 2018

Good News Stories, We Do What We Can Do

Yesterday I happily stumbled on two news stories that warmed my heart and reminded me why I enjoy working with young people, whose hearts - contrary to what is often bandied about in the media - are often very generous.

First, there is this story from my beloved hometown of the members of the St. Joseph of Arimathea Club at Quincy Notre Dame High School:
Quincy Notre Dame High School junior Harry Zhang refers to Scripture to help explain his motivation for serving others in a time of loss.
"In Bibles they said feed the hungry, clothe the naked, bury the dead," Zhang said. "We do what we can do."
When a family working with Duker and Haugh Funeral Home doesn't have people able to serve as pallbearers, students involved in QND's St. Joseph of Arimathea Society step into the role. 
"This is just a way to show our support and love and prayers to the family that is going through a hard time and show that they're not alone in this," QND senior Jenna Zanger said. "I just thought it was a great opportunity to share my faith with them."

"We do what we can do." I love that line! Can you imagine the impact we could have on the world if we all simply did what we can do, each in our seemingly small ways?
Second, there is this story from Edgewood, Illinois, just outside of Effingham where the organist at St. Anne parish began playing when she was just eleven years old:
Sunday morning, Cecilia Annable climbed into the choir loft of St. Anne Catholic Church and settled behind the organ. 
Cecilia, 14, has been playing organ for services at the church since she was eleven. She began playing the instrument with encouragement from her grandmother. 
“She got me taking lessons from a friend, and she taught me a lot of chords and how to play a melody with chords,” Cecilia said. 
Advocates for sacred music have warned that some congregations struggle to find organists. 
“It’s a sacred instrument, made for sacred music to praise a sacred God,” Cecilia said. “I took over (playing at St. Anne) when I was eleven, so I didn’t realize how much it meant, but I can’t really envision the place without me and my sister.”
She saw and a need and she stepped up to help. Let us follow her example!

25 February 2018

Homily - 25 February 2018 - The Second Sunday of Lent

The Second Sunday of Lent (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

What does it mean to be devoted to God? We heard a few moments ago how the Lord God called Abraham to “go to the land of Moriah” and how the Lord’s messenger said to him, “I know now how devoted you are to God” (Genesis 22:2, 12). To be devoted is to be dedicated by a vow, to have sacrificed oneself, and to promise solemnly.

Stjorn Manuscript, Arni Magnusson 227 fol., fol. 23v
It is not difficult to see how devoted Abraham was to God, even if it is difficult for us to understand his devotion.

Abraham trusts totally in God, to the point of being ready even to sacrifice his own son and, with his son the future, for without a child the promised land was as nothing, ends in nothing. And in sacrificing his son he is sacrificing himself, his whole future, the whole of the promise. It really is the most radical act of faith.[1]

It is the radicality of Abraham’s faith that gives us pause because our faith is not so radical; it is often more practical and pragmatic. We are devoted to God to a certain extent, but not fully; we are often unwilling to sacrifice everything to God and trust fully in his promise, his vow, to us.

God’s devotion to us is seen in that he “did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all” (Romans 8:32). He held nothing back, but gave us everything. As Abraham was willing to offer Isaac to the Father, the Father willingly offered his Son – and the Son willingly offered himself – for us. What more could God have done for us? The depth of his love for us cannot be doubted because while we were in sin “he first loved us” (I John 4:19). How can we refuse to give everything to him in return? Seeing the death of his Son, and his Resurrection from the dead, how can we not see the depth of his love for us? How can we fail to trust I his love? If God did not withhold from us that which he loves, how can we withhold from God what we love?

God proves his love and care for us – he proves his devotion to us - in a truly heart-wrenching way. Christ Jesus called his brothers and sisters – he called us – to repent of our sins and live. As proof of the truth of his Gospel, he healed the sick, he cast out demons, he fed the hungry crowds, and he raised the dead. He entrusted his ministry of healing and reconciliation to his Apostles. And for all of this he was mocked, tortured, stripped, and lifted high on the Cross as a sign of contradiction before the world.

As he endured such unthinkable mistreatment, he cried out to God, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). Even before he was crucified, when the two brothers asked, “do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume” a village that refused to welcome him, Jesus did not permit it (Luke 9:54; cf. Luke 9:55). So great is his love for us, so great is his devotion to us. “If at times, the flame of charity seems to die in our own hearts, know that this is never the case in the heart of God!”[2]

The strength of our devotion to him is seen in whether we gladly abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, or whether we do so with a grumble. The strength of our devotion to him is seen in whether we spend time in prayer each day, or only for a short time on Sundays. The strength of our devotion to him is seen in whether we participate in the Holy Mass every Sunday and holy day, or whether we do so when it is convenient for us. The strength of our devotion to him is seen in whether we speak the truth in love, or simply say whatever is easiest in the moment. There are many times each day that the Lord’s messenger can see how devoted we are to God; what does he see?

In his Message for Lent 2018, His Holiness Pope Francis reminds us that “Lent summons us, and enables us, to come back to the Lord wholeheartedly and in every aspect of our life.”[3] In other words, Lent summons us to a deeper devotion to the Lord and enables our love to be full. There are signs when our love is not what it should be, signs indicating our devotion to God is strong enough: “selfishness and spiritual sloth, sterile pessimism, the temptation to self-absorption, constant warring among ourselves, and the worldly mentality that makes us concerned only for appearances, and thus lessens our missionary zeal.”[4]

When the zeal and devotion of the Apostles began to diminish, Jesus took Peter, James, and John up Mount Tabor to reveal to them his glory. He had just told them “that the Son of man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). This was too much for them; they were grieved at the thought of losing their Master and Friend and so Peter said to Jesus, “God forbid, Lord! This shall never happen to you” (Matthew 16:22). Peter meant well, of course, but he did not understand or trust the promise of the Lord. Jesus allowed himself to be transfigured before them to give them a glimpse of his Resurrection, to give them a glimpse of his divinity and strengthen their devotion to him.

NAF 4515, fol. 34r.
In his description of how Jesus appeared during his Transfiguration, Saint Matthew includes a detail omitted by Saint Mark, namely that “his face shone like the sun” (Matthew 17:2). It was an answer to that great cry of every human heart voiced by the Psalmist: “You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, Lord, do I seek.’ Hide not your face from me” (Psalm 27:8-9). In that moment, the Lord Jesus allowed his Apostles to see him as he is; he allowed them to see “that Face which in the coming days of the Passion we shall contemplate disfigured by human sins, indifference, and ingratitude; that Face, radiant with light and dazzling with glory that will shine out at dawn on Easter Day.”[5]

Saint Augustine of Hippo called the Face of Jesus “the sun to the eyes of the heart.”[6] By this curious phrase, he indicated that the light of Jesus’ face illumines our hearts, shedding light upon our shadows and darkness that we would rather conceal. The more we allow the light of his Face to shine upon us, the more like him we become, which, of course, is the very purpose of Lent.

“Let us,” then, “keep our hearts and minds fixed on the Face of Christ” so our devotion to him may deepen.[7] By contemplating the beauty of his Face, let us hold fast to the promises we made in Baptism and learn to trust in the promise of the Lord’s own love. By contemplating his devotion to us in the mystery of the Cross, may he find us devoted to him in return and bring us to the full vision of his glory. Amen.

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 4 March 2012.
[2] Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2018.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, ibid.
[6] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 78.2. In Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament Vol. Ib: Matthew 14-28, Thomas C. Oden, et al, eds. (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter Varsity Press, 2002), 54.
[7] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, ibid.

20 February 2018

Homily - 18 February 2018 - The First Sunday of Lent

The First Sunday of Lent (B)

Dear brothers and sisters,

Have you ever noticed how people react upon seeing a rainbow? For those of us who do not often experience them, rainbows elicit a great excitement and a certain childlike joy as we see the colors stretching across the sky, and the fuller the rainbow, the greater our excitement.

A rainbow over the Kalaupapa Peninsula of Moloka'i
21 February 2010
We know perfectly well why the bow forms as sunlight passes through the droplets of water and yet still we pause to look at them. There is something about a rainbow that simply captures our attention. How often do we see through the rainbow - beyond the arc and the colors and the natural wonder - to the covenant the Lord made with us?

After the waters of the Flood receded, and after Noah built an altar to the Lord and offered sacrifice, God said to him: 
This is the sign of the covenant that I am giving for all ages to come, of the covenant between me and you and every living creature with you: I set my bow in the clouds to serve as a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  When I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow appears in the clouds, I will recall the covenant I have made between me and you and all living beings (Genesis 9:12-16). 
This covenant was first made with Noah and renewed with Abraham and then with Moses and fulfilled and perfected in Jesus Christ. It was this covenant that we received at Baptism, the covenant sealed in the Blood of Christ. If the Lord of heaven and earth recalls the covenant he has made each time a rainbow appears, should we not also recall this covenant? Too often we are forgetful of God, though he never forgets us.

Saint Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, tells us the waters of the Flood “prefigured baptism, which saves you now” (I Peter 3:21). Just as Noah and his family were saved through the waters of the Flood inside the ark, so, too, Christians are saved through the waters of Baptism in the Church, the Barque, the ship, of Peter. Baptism “is not a removal of dirt from the body,” Saint Peter says, “but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him” (I Peter 3:21-22).

When Jesus accepted John’s baptism “of repentance for the forgiveness of sin,” the Spirit “immediately impels him into the consequences of that decision – consequences that will eventually lead to the cross” (Mark 1:4).[1] Just as Adam and Eve were driven out of Paradise (cf. Genesis 3:24), so “the Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert” to be tempted for forty days (Mark 1:12), just as Israel was tested for forty years in the desert (cf. Deuteronomy 8:2). When he allowed himself to be driven out into the desert, he accepted the history of Israel. “Jesus relives the story of Israel, but as an obedient son who is totally faithful in his own trial in the desert.”[2]

When Satan tempted Jesus in the desert he was given the same choice as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the same choice as Israel in the desert. But unlike Adam and Eve, unlike Israel, Jesus remained faithful and obedient and now sits at the right hand of the Father, victorious over Satan, sin, and death, because he accepted his Messianic ministry from the Father in full obedience, docility, and love.

NAF 4508, fol. 23r
Jesus goes into the desert for one purpose: to be “tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:12). From ancient times the desert symbolized the realm of evil, which was represented by the beasts dwelling there. Jesus goes to be tempted by Satan, “the prince of demons,” whose very name means “adversary” (Mark 3:22). It is this adversary, this enemy, who seeks to thwart Jesus’ every move throughout the gospels.

When he enters into the desert, Jesus “enters into Satan’s territory deliberately, to begin his campaign against the powers of evil. He is looking for a fight! Yet he will confront Satan not with a blast of divine lightning, but in his frail human nature, empowered by the Spirit.”[3]

This battle with Satan that Jesus begins today is the very reason for his coming among us at Christmas, but why would he wish to fight the adversary in this way when he could easily fight him with his glory and majesty? Saint Lawrence of Brindisi says:

…in order that his victory might be the more glorious, he willed to fight Satan in our weak flesh. It is as if an unarmed man, right hand bound, were to fight with his left hand alone against a powerful army; if he emerged victorious, his victory would be regarded as all the more glorious. So Christ conquered Satan with the right hand of his divinity bound and using against him only the left hand of his weak humanity.[4]

He did so as an example to his disciples, as an example to us; he showed us how to overcome Satan and temptation by fasting, prayer, and complete trust and obedience to the Father.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the attacks of the adversary increase all the more after Baptism as Satan tries to steal us back. But we can be confident of victory if we follow the example of Jesus; if we fast, if we pray with patient hope, and if we remain attached to God in obedient trust, the victory belongs to us, or, rather to Jesus Christ, in whose victory we will share.

This is why the liturgical color for this season is violet. It is both the color of repentance and of royalty. The violet vestments call us to repent of our sins and to amend our life even as they remind us of the victory of Christ over Satan.

These, then, are the weapons that we take up in the battle against Satan: prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. The weapon of prayer enables “our hearts to root our secret lies and forms of deception, and then to find the consolation God offers.”[5] The weapon of fasting “weakens our tendency to violence” and “revives our desire to obey God, who alone is capable of satisfying our hunger.”[6] And the weapon of almsgiving “sets us free from greed” and allows us to “share in God’s providential care for his children.”[7]

These three weapons, these forms of penance, we call the Lenten discipline. The word discipline comes from the same root as the word disciple, a root that refers to a student. Discipline is always meant to teach; the disciplines, the weapons, of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving teach us to live more like Jesus; they teach us to be faithful to God even as they fight off the attacks of Satan.

This fight with the tempter is serious and one in which every Christian must engage.

Fighting against evil, against every form of selfishness and hate, and dying to oneself to live in God is the ascetic journey that every disciple of Jesus is called to make with humility and patience, with generosity and perseverance.[8]

Jesus’ example and victory in the desert show us how to live in this way. In the desert, as on the Cross, “Christ suffered for sins once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God” (I Peter 3:18).

Let each of us also enter into the desert this Lent and fight against our temptations, whether they be to pride or greed, to lust or anger or gluttony, to envy or sloth. Let us take up our weapons of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving and fight the good fight. As we do so, let us recall the covenant the Lord has made with us, seeking in these days of Lent to renew the promises we made at Baptism to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in order that the glory of Easter, the joy of heaven, might be ours. Amen.

[1] Mary Healy, Catholic Commentary of Sacred Scripture: The Gospel of Mark, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2008), 38.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] From A Word in Season: Readings for the Liturgy of the Hours (Villanova, Pennsylvania: Augustinian Press, 1999), 7:245.  Quoted in Healy, The Gospel of Mark, 39.
[5] Pope Francis, Message for Lent 2018.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 1 March 2006.