Saturday, October 19, 2019


Paul under house arrest in Rome

The book of the Acts of the Apostles, Luke's account of the growth of the early church, ends very abruptly, with Paul in Rome awaiting his hearing before Caesar. Here are the last words of the book:

"[Paul] remained for two full years in his lodgings. He received all who came to him, and with complete assurance and without hindrance he proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 28:30-31).

The abruptness of this ending raises a question that has vexed readers and scholars since the Second Century, namely, did the rest of the manuscript get lost, or is this the ending that was written by Luke? Does the writer really intend to leave us hanging like this?

Yesterday on the feast of his patron saint, our Fr. Luke preached a fine homily that included this way of answering the question: The author intended to leave the story unfinished, so that we, the readers, would get the idea that we have to continue the story ourselves. The inspired writer stopped at the end of Chapter 28, leaving the writing of Chapter 29 to the Christians that were to follow. I like that idea.

We, the church of today, are the renewed People of God, we are writing with our lives Chapter 29 of the continuing story of God's faithfulness. We are part of God's plan, we are the fulfilment of prophecies. In other words,we are each of us sacred authors, each adding our bit to the story through our actions, through imitating Jesus by the way we treat one another, the way we think and the way we pray. It's our vocation to advance the Kingdom and to move it towards its completion.

The normal way for us Christians to see our lives is as our struggle to get to heaven. Anything else is just a sidelight or irrelevant background noise. But the truth is much more expansive than that. It's not about my getting to heaven, it's about heaven coming to earth in Christ, about God's infinite Love showing itself in history through me, as it has been showing itself since the first "Let there be light." That's my rightful place in the story: My life gets its meaning from the fact that I'm part of God's overall plan for the world, and all my actions are part of the story of Chapter 29 of Acts, the ongoing task of cooperating with God's purpose for the world. Along with countless millions of sisters and brothers past, present and future, you and I are helping to write Chapter 29 every day.

Let's pray that we can continue to encourage one another as we move the story along together.

Saturday, October 12, 2019



On October 11 the Church celebrated the feast of Pope St. John XXIII. The date, Oct. 11, is the date in 1962 when the Second Vatican Council was first called into session by Pope John. I was a novice at the time, in an era where we had no radio, no television, no newspapers. So it was a little hard to keep up with what was happening in Rome. But the feeling of something new in the air was permeating even our novitiate wing. Yesterday's feast caused me to reflect on some of the earthquake-size effects of the Council, effects which are all the results of Pope John's inspired and courageous idea of calling an ecumenical council. The following are some thoughts I've been mulling over recently, and which seem to me to fit in nicely with the whole idea of Vatican Two.


When I was a kid in the 1950's it seemed to me that one of God's important tasks was to prevent people from getting into heaven. Mortal sin (eating a baloney sandwich on Friday, missing one mass on Sunday) would give God all the ammunition He needed to say "Gotcha! No heaven for you!"
You think I'm kidding? When the first drafts of the council documents were being drawn up, Cardinal Ottaviani, one of the most powerful men in Rome, insisted that the Church reaffirm the belief that a child who had died before receiving baptism could never go to heaven, but would be relegated to limbo. He got overruled by the theologians who were drawing up the documents, and then the council fathers overwhelmingly rejected the notion that unbaptized babies do not go to heaven (something millions of bereaved mothers had known all along anyway). This vote must have saddened God-The-Goalkeeper, who suddenly was required to allow innocent infants into heaven. It certainly saddened the good Cardinal, who held a grudge against certain theologians for the rest of his life.

In New Jersey, when you apply for a driver's license or a renewal, you have to produce several documents, such as a birth certificate, or a valid passport, each document being worth a certain number of points. When you show up at the DMV office with enough points in hand, then you can qualify for your license. God the Goalie is like a worker at the Department of Motor Vehicles: He checks to see if you have enough points to qualify for heaven. Think of it! First and foremost, you have to have a valid Baptismal certificate to get in! I realize that there are many theological nuances that the Church has come up with to allow God to let the largest possible number of people into heaven, but these fine distinctions have not always made it down into the pews.


In a post on this blog several years ago I suggested that when I'm singing the psalms at Morning Prayer, especially "All you nations sing out your joy to the Lord" and "All nations will come and praise you, O God," that I can feel the presence of millions of Buddhists and Hindus, Muslims and Jews. Well, one reader wrote in my comments column that this was "psychobabble" and an example of the sickness that was destroying our Catholic faith. I felt sorry for this guy who was so threatened by the thought that non-Catholics might be loved and saved by God. The fellow saw correctly that my image of all nations coming to worship on Mount Zion would mean that God had abandoned his role of Goalkeeper in favor of the role of a loving Father who loves all his creatures,,unconditionally with no bounds at all -- the "abba" God that Jesus presented to us.

It seems to me that there are plenty of people in my generation who still find comfort in the old certainties, where an infallible Church told you what to believe, and you didn't question things like innocent children being kept out of heaven because they were lacking a baptismal certificate. I think that Good Pope John did all of us a favor by asking the council fathers to take a long, loving but critical look at the Church's teachings in terms of our scriptural and historical roots but also through the lens of twentieth-century scholarship and theology. He was an optimist who believed that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the Church today. May he keep interceding for all of us, that we can keep deepening our understanding of God's unfathomable love for us and for all of creation.

Saint John XXIII, pray for us!

Saturday, October 5, 2019


I revised last week's post into a homily for the feast of the Guardian Angels on October 2. You'll find that it repeats last weeks post at first,at first, but you may find it worthwhile to read it through to the end.

For most of us, I suppose, the notion of "guardian angels" evokes images of winged figures watching lovingly over little children, like heavenly babysitters. I remember praying every day when I was a child:
  “Angel of God, my guardian dear
   To whom God’s love commits me here.
   Ever this day be at my side to light and guard,
   To rule and guide. Amen.”

At some point I outgrew my devotion to my guardian angel, who went the way of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. I’d like to take a moment on this feast, however, to reflect on the meaning, or better, the relevance of Guardian Angels.

Let's begin with the idea of the "Good News" that Jesus came to announce. Most of us suppose that the Good News announced was that in the end we believers will escape this vale of tears and all go up to heaven. But the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright says that if we think that the Good News is about going to heaven then we’re grabbing the stick by the wrong end. It's really the other way around: the Good News is not about our going up to heaven – rather, it’s about heaven coming to earth. The good news is that "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."

One of the central beliefs of Judaism at the time of Christ was, in fact, that heaven touches earth. For the Jews, heaven touches earth in two ways First, in the temple, where God comes down to be present among his people. And second, God is present in the Law, the Torah. This explains why we hear so often in the psalms this love of God’s Law. Remember, too, that the Hebrew God is a God of History, who gets involved in worldly events, to deliver his people through the Red Sea, for example, or guide them through the wilderness. These divine interventions are other ways that heaven touches earth.

The idea that heaven touches earth prepared the way for the incarnation when God would come down in person, and heaven would touch earth, and nothing would ever be the same, and it’s against this backdrop that we should understand the Judeo-Christian belief in angels.

Keeping this idea in mind, I invite you to look at these scripture passages with me:

- You remember how the Lord sends the angel Raphael to guide and guard the young Tobiah on his journey.
- During the entrance procession this evening we chanted“The angel of the Lord is encamped around those who fear him.”
- Then we heard in the first reading this evening, how God appoints an angel to guide the Israelites in the wilderness. "See, I am sending an angel before you, to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared." (Exodus 23:20).
- Following the reading, in the Responsorial Psalm we sang: "He has commanded his angels... to keep you in all your ways"
- And we heard in this evening’s gospel the famous passage that seems to be the basis for connecting the guardian angels with children: Jesus says: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father" (Mt 18:10).

As we look at these passages, we see that angels are sent to guard not children, but adults. This feast, then, has to do directly with US.

Ask yourself this question: Would it be so surprising if the same Lord who gave you the help of a guardian angel should ask you to pass that favor on to a brother or sister who is of the same high worth as you and who needs some help?

You remember Cain’s evasive response when the Lord ask him where his brother, Abel, might be: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Well, the Lord answers that question with a resounding “Yes, you are!” “Yes, you are your brother’s comforter.” “Yes, you are your sister’s helper.” “Yes, you are your brother’s encourager -- just as your guardian angel is for you.”

Our guardian angels remind us that just as the Lord sends each of them to us to be ministers of the Good News, to make heaven touch earth, so he sends each of us. And our Guardian Angels can us teach us by their example how to make heaven touch earth, how to be good news for one another: By imitating their loving concern for us, by imitating their spirit of humble service, by encouraging, comforting and protecting us. 

Imagine a world in which everyone worked as tirelessly as the Guardian Angels to make the Good News take flesh among us. Then indeed we could rejoice to see the day when the Good News comes to its glorious completion: heaven finally touching earth forever and ever. Amen.

Saturday, September 28, 2019


Wednesday, October 2, is the feast of the guardian angels. For most of us, I suppose, the notion of "guardian angels" evokes images of winged figures watching over small children, like heavenly babysitters. But, as is often the case, there is some deep theology going on in this traditional idea.

Let's start with the idea of the "Good News" that Jesus came to announce. We too often grab this stick by the wrong end, and think that it means that we fortunate ones can escape the earth and go to heaven. But it's really the other way around: the Good News is about heaven coming to earth. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us." Most people are holding the wrong end of the stick. But one of the central beliefs of Judaism is precisely this, that heaven touches earth. This happens in the temple, and also in the Torah, the Law. God comes close to us in these ways -- heaven touches earth. The Hebrew God intervenes in history to deliver his people through the Red Sea and guide them through the wilderness, and so on. It is against this backdrop that we should understand the belief in angels. Look at these texts: 

God uses an angel to guide the Israelites in the wilderness. "See, I am sending an angel before you, to guard you on the way and bring you to the place I have prepared. Be attentive to him and obey him. Do not rebel against him, for he will not forgive your sin. My authority is within him" (Exodus 23:20-21). 

In the Psalms: "He commands his angels... to guard you in all your ways" (Ps.91)

In the gospels Jesus says: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father" (Mt 18:10).

In the book of Tobit, the Lord sends the angel Raphael to guide and guard the young Tobiah on his journey.

Notice that these angels are sent to guard not children, but adults. Jesus refers to his disciples as "little ones" (in Greek, mikroi): "And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward” (Mt 10:42).

A footnote in the New American Bible says, "The high worth of the little ones is indicated by their being represented before God by these heavenly beings." But, then, think about it: WE are the "little ones," WE are of such "high worth" that each of us has his or her own heavenly representative before God, and who watches over us and who is sent by God to show us the right path. How cool is that!

So the feast of the "Guardian Angels" is not about God's care for little children as much as it is about God's care for us who are striving every day to live the gospel in our adult lives, and to hasten the arrival of the Kingdom, when for one last, definitive time, heaven will touch the earth.

Saturday, September 21, 2019


Yesterday (Friday), as I was looking at the first lectionary reading for mass, I came across an interesting Greek word in First Timothy 6:6. The context is a warning about the dangers of attachment to material goods, and the writer advises autarkeia, a noun meaning "contentment, being satisfied with what one has, with ones circumstances." It comes from two roots: aut- ("self"), and ark- (satisfaction, contentment, sufficiency). The basic idea is self-sufficiency, in the sense that ones needs are satisfied. It is used in a phrase which is not the easiest to translate, the first line of the following passage:

Indeed, religion with contentment is a great gain.
For we brought nothing into the world,
just as we shall not be able to take anything out of it.
If we have food and clothing, we shall be content with that.
Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation 
and into a trap
and into many foolish and harmful desires,
which plunge them into ruin and destruction.
For the love of money is the root of all evils,
and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith
and have pierced themselves with many pains. (1 Tim. 6:6ff)

 The "contentment" that should characterize our "religion," or "devotion" seems to me to refer to a lot more than simply the material temptations mentioned in the rest of the passage. My life in the monastery, for instance, is pretty simple on the material level -- no bank account, no paycheck, no bills -- not even any "possessions." But I still have plenty of temptations that can draw me away from devotion to the Lord. Worrying is a good one -- this draws me away from trusting devotion to God. Harboring unkind thoughts about others -- thinking ill of someone whom God loves infinitely doesn't
sound like a good way to build my relationship with the Lord. Or, how about impatience and upsetment over some trivial thing, over some tiny pebble in my shoe that starts to feel the size of a brick?  -- The virtue of "contentment, being satisfied with the circumstances of ones life" has flown out the window, and my devotion to the Lord has to be forgotten for the moment while I deal with the brick in my shoe.
So, you might think about that sentence, "religion with contentment is a great gain,"  and ask yourself if there are things in your life that leave you dissatisfied, distracted from your devotion to the Lord.

Don't forget, of course, that those very dissatisfactions can become the stuff of prayer when you "Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matt. 11:28).

consciously hand them over to the Lord: "Lord, I find this person so hard to put up with! Please help me to be less judgmental and help me to see her as you see her. Amen". Then, far from being a distraction, this "fault" becomes a subject of humble, intimate conversation with the Lord who invites you 

Saturday, September 14, 2019



Today, September 14, is the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. I'm sharing here some thoughts that I put together for a talk I'm giving later today.

There was this Christian missionary who found himself deep in the jungle, meeting with the chief ofthe village. The missionary asked him,  “Do your people believe in God?”The chief lowered his voice almost to a whisper, and replied, "In the evening we hear the sound of his footsteps in the treetops, but we stay away."  God is by nature unknowable to us humans with our limited intellects. So, the Lord has to reveal himself to us. 

One of the central beliefs of Jews and Christians is that God does this  through Sacred Scripture, “revelation.” So it’s obviously important to get scripture right; but unfortunately, we often don’t do so! I’d like to offer a couple of basic ideas to help us, when we’re reading or listening to the bible, to get from it the message that the Lord intended.

Firstly, the bible is a collection of 72 different books with various authors, written over a period of a thousand years, and, sensing that, we tend to read the books as stand-alone texts, rather than in their true context, as part of a unified sacred book. We seldom think of the bible as a single work, with a unified plot. But that’s exactly what it is: From the first verse of Genesis to the final verse of the Book of Revelation, the Bible is always heading in one single direction, toward love and unity.

One scholar said that the bible is “a document in travail.”  This means that we shouldn’t think of it as a book that is finished, and that we can just read it the way we read a cookbook or an automobile repair manual. We need to engage the Sacred Text and connect the dots, trying, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to find the direction, the momentum. We just need to keep remembering that the direction of revelation in the scriptures is invariably toward mercy, inclusion, forgiveness, non-violence and trust.

The first point, then, is that the Bible is a single work with a single, definite direction, leading us inevitably toward the fulness of LOVE: Mercy, inclusion, forgiveness, non-violence and trust.
The second point, the bible is written by human beings and is rooted in specific times and particular places, bounded by the writer’s specific culture.

And this is a crucial point: it means that like any human endeavor, biblical revelation doesn’t proceed in a nice, smooth straight line. Yes, it has a definite direction, a goal, and leads us toward the final fulfillment of God’s love, a New Heavens and a New Earth. But it proceeds toward that goal in typical human fashion by taking three steps forward and two steps back.

It’s important that we develop an eye for identifying the difference between scripture verses that are bringing us three steps forward, and those that are heading two steps back, and to know how to deal with each. Otherwise we can’t manage to connect the dots, and we miss the momentum, and the accidental things become central, while the essential points get buried.

Let’s look first at some “three steps forward passages:” Think, for example, of the beautiful readings at the Easter Vigil: God creating the world and seeing that it is very good, God delivering his people through the Red Sea, or bringing them into the promised land where they enjoy the first crops in the new country -- this is God being faithful. We see the story moving three steps forward toward the goal when the Word becomes flesh in Bethlehem, or when Jesus gives himself up to death out of love for you and me, thereby conquering death itself to save us. Clearly these are events that bring us three steps forward.

But its just as important to be able to spot the two steps back passages that lead in the opposite direction, away from the goal of love and unity. They’re easy to spot, too. They’re the ones in which God acts like a human! The God of vengeance, divine pettiness, form over substance, law over grace. These passages tell us of a God who keeps score so he can get back at people, a God of justice, who demands that justice be done. We can all relate to this God of the two-steps-back passages, because he’s just like us!

This God who punishes to the third and fourth generation, or who demands that towns be obliterated with women and children inside of the. This is the proprietor of hell.

Recently I read about the rioting that occurred in South Africa between rival tribes after apartheid was ended. Both sides practiced a cruel form of torture and execution called “necklacing,” in which people would hold somebody down and slip a tire over his torso, pinning his arms at his side, and then set the tire on fire.

When I read that I said to myself, “Oh yeah! That’s hell! That’s what our God does to us if we’re bad! " The passages in the bible that talk about this kind of a God, those in the “two steps back” column, are strangely attractive to lots of people. Plenty of good Christians are very reluctant to let go of this very understandable God.

We want God to mete out strict, blind justice to everyone: Divine justice is the same as human justice: “retributive justice,” for example, in which retribution is part of a carefully balanced system.

This idea of a perfectly balanced, reasonable system of justice was picked up by St. Anselm and then by Thomas Aquinas. They developed it into a theology of the cross, the theology of atonement: Original Sin was an offense against God, an infinite being, and therefore the only way for justice to be balanced would be that the sin must be expiated or atoned for by some infinite being. So, God’s Son, who shared in the divine nature, was sent to be crucified and die to satisfy the Divine demand for atonement. I picture God glaring angrily at us humans and growling, “Now look what you made me do!” But at least the scales of justice are balanced, and Jesus has thrown himself between us and His angry father whose wrath needed to be calmed.

We could call this “redemptive violence.” We make God very small, and draw him into our own ego-driven need for retribution and punishment. (Isn’t this circle of violence and retribution exactly what Jesus came to undo?)

There is another way, of course, to understand the mystery of the cross. It’s said in dozens of different ways in both the Jewish Scriptures and the Christian. God, out of pure, spontaneous love for his creatures, decided to come in person to set things right. By taking on himself our sins, by grappling with death itself, he overcame sinfulness and conquered death itself, and rode from the dead, bringing us along with him to live forever in the Kingdom of the New Jerusalem (see the final chapter of the Book of Revelation). When we gaze on the cross we should be seeing not the piece that the Father demanded for our sins, but rather the ultimate spontaneous act of God’s love for us. The cross is our gateway to heaven.

 Notice where all of this started: Not with God but with us humans. We made the first move by our sins, and God simply reacted, and was bound by the laws of justice and balanced scales and so on. Poor God is now subject to the limitations of the human mind, and is not completely free to act out of spontaneous, infinite love. But at least the system is comprehensible to us: It’s familiar and therefore comfortable, like a favorite pair of slippers. We’ve got God in our pocket.

This is why so many of us get nervous with the "three-steps-forward" God, such as the Father we meet in the parable of the Prodigal Son. We say to ourselves,  “I know what I would have done if I were that father.” But Jesus came to tell us, “Well, you are not that Father, his ways are far above your ways. His love overpowers every other consideration.”
Some of us are uneasy when Jesus pardons the woman taken in adultery, because he seems to be condoning sin.

Our headmaster has a phrase he uses when he’s in a one-on-one situation with a troubled student. Maybe the kid is struggling with a terrible home situation, and his grades are dropping, and the word is that he’s starting to smoke pot. So, here’s the scenario: The kid comes into Fr. Ed’s office and slumps into a chair and stares at the floor. Then after a few minutes of conversation about how bad things are, Fr. Ed says,
“Marcos, look at me.” The kid raise his head. The headmaster holds the kid’s stare for a second or two. The he says:
“Marcos, I want you to realize something. Listen, because it’s super-important: God loves you just the way you are, right now. In the midst of all your pain and struggles and sins, God loves you just the way you are.”
Marcos’ eyes start to fill with tears, and whispers,
“No one ever told me that before.”

Not surprisingly, we don’t manage to tell our kids about the three-steps forward God, since we’re not comfortable with Him. Instead we’ll fall back of the humanly understandable God of two-steps back; we say things like, “See, God punished you!”  “Your sins offend God.” (That’s an interesting concept, when you think about it -- a God who can be “offended.”) “God is watching your every move”. (Yikes! If I let myself think about that all the time, I’d go crazy pretty quickly, I imagine.)
The clear direction of the bible, as unmistakably set out by Jesus, is toward love, forgiveness, openness, as modelled by Jesus, who is introducing us to the Father who is all-loving and who is not bound by our predictable rules of retributive justice or our human wish for vengeance.
All a sinner needs to do is turn around (repent) and, like the prodigal son in the parable, show up at the father's doorstep. No necklacing, no getting out the account ledger to add up your sins.
And when someone objects, “Hey, necklacing is in the bible, and so is the fact that white people are superior to the sons of Ham, and that we should destroy people who don’t believe in our God!” Jesus gently urges that person to let go of the easily-understandable two-steps-back pages of the bible, and embrace the more difficult mysterious passages, the ones that reveal to us a God who is so loving, so beautiful that He's incomprehensible to us.

Let's all pray for one another, that the "three-steps-forward" passages in the bible may lead all of us together toward the final goal of infinite, everlasting all-inclusive Love, the Kingdom of God, where we hope to live together with Him as one loving family forever and ever.

Saturday, September 7, 2019


Sunday's gospel passage gives us Jesus' instructions to his disciples about the cost of following him. It includes these verses:

“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.....
anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:26, 27, 33)

The last verse interesting, especially the verb that's translated here as "renounce." In Greek, the word apotassomai means "to say farewell, to take leave of." In an earlier chapter of Luke, Jesus invites a man to follow him, and the fellow responds, "Let me go first and say good-bye to (apotassomai) my father." But in this Sunday's passage, the word is used in the extended sense of "to part with possessions."

This morning I asked myself, "What are the things that I need to say good-bye to in order to follow Jesus?" Each of us has his or her unique list, obviously, that may include worrying, trying to control other people, being preoccupied about material goods or money, and so on. The verb apotassomai  gave me pause: "unless you say good-bye to whatever you have..."  Okay, so let's say that I decide to give up my habit of trying to control everything, so that I can follow Christ. Let's say, further, that my resolution works and that I find myself walking across the wilderness with Jesus as a faithful follower. Then, I imagined the following scene this morning: As I'm following Jesus, I glance behind me and I see a little cloud of dust on the horizon, but I don't think anything of it. Ten minutes later, though, I look again and the cloud has gotten much bigger, and much closer. Clearly it's being caused by something travelling across the dusty wilderness -- something that's following us. I begin to wonder what it could be. The next time I look over my shoulder, I can make out what it is that's following us: it's my need to control all the people around me! The very thing that I left behind in order to walk with Jesus. The very thing that I "said goodbye to" not so long ago.

The problem is twofold: First, that although I had said good-bye to the habit, the habit hadn't said goodbye to me, and second, that I thought I was doing this all on my own, like spiritual a do-it-yourself project. Both of these are bad mistakes. Think of this image: You say goodbye to someone who you've come to realize is a bad influence on you; you leave them with a sigh of relief, not intending to see them ever again. But shortly thereafter, this person comes ringing your doorbell or starts texting you, clearly thinking that they're still part of your life. How frustrating! And you thought you were rid of this problem person! It seems that "saying goodbye" is not always enough to finish the job of separating from that other.

So, I've "said goodbye" to some practice or habit that could hold me back from following Jesus more closely. That's my "conversion" project. But then I begin to realize that one goodbye isn't enough: I need to keep repeating the same goodby every day, I need to be converted not just once but constantly.

Clearly this can get frustrating and tiring -- which is why Jesus tells me to keep walking close to him: After all, this isn't my project as much as it is his!

I pray for the gift of humility so that I can keep admitting that I depend on his help to keep converting every day of my life. I hope that I'll be able to accept his help and hear his words,"Do not be afraid. I am with you!"