Saturday, November 21, 2020

MY PROBLEM WITH THE KING

 

Sunday, November 22, is the Solemnity of Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, or more simply "The Feast of Christ the King." The U.S. Bishops have published a bulletin insert for the feast that takes about five minutes to read and is certainly worth the time.

The bishops' message begins this way: 

Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 with his encyclical Quas Primas ("In the first") to respond to growing nationalism and secularism.  He recognized that these related societal ills would breed increasing hostility against the Church.  His encyclical reminds the faithful that while governments and philosophies come and go, Christ reigns as king forever.

I'd been assuming that my post for this feast would be built around the idea that even in the midst of this pandemic (as well as other issues that frighten or discourage us) Christ is still in total command, the Master of the Universe who wields boundless power over everything that is. The post was to be about Power, specifically that Christ's Power is greater than any coronavirus or any political upheaval. But as I followed the news from Washington  this week I got exhausted with listening to all the jockeying for political Power. So I decided not to go the route that celebrates Christ's infinite Power (making him the winner in the ultimate Power game). So I set out in search of an alternative view of Christ the King.

My search was over almost as soon as it began, as I opened the lectionary and saw the first scripture reading assigned for the day. In it the Church presents us with the image of God as a Shepherd! In Ezekiel Ch. 34, the prophet first condemns Israel's leaders for not properly shepherding God's Chosen People, and then (in our first reading) God announces that He is personally taking over the job.

Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep. 

As a shepherd tends his flock

when he finds himself among his scattered sheep,

so will I tend my sheep.

I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered

when it was cloudy and dark. 

I myself will pasture my sheep;

I myself will give them rest, says the Lord GOD. 

The lost I will seek out,

the strayed I will bring back, the injured I will bind up, ... (Ez. 34:11-12)

[The passage continues, but we'll stop here.]


What a beautiful image for us in these troubled days: Comfort, assurance, hope, and joy! Since this image of a shepherd-God will be used by the gospel writers to refer to Jesus as the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost sheep and carries it back on his shoulders, I was expecting to find this much-needed comforting image reflected in the day's Gospel passage. What I found instead began this way:


Jesus said to his disciples:

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory,

and all the angels with him,

he will sit upon his glorious throne,

and all the nations will be assembled before him.

And he will separate them one from another,

as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. (Mt. 25:31-31)


My face fell as I realized that the theme is not Jesus' love for the world, but rather Jesus as the supreme judge whose role is to "separate them one from another." In fact, the final verses of the first reading contain the same threatening message:

The lost I will seek out,

the strayed I will bring back,

the injured I will bind up,

the sick I will heal,

but the sleek and the strong I will destroy,

shepherding them rightly.

As for you, my sheep, says the Lord GOD,

I will judge between one sheep and another,

between rams and goats.


I don't know about you, but over the past several months I've had more than my fill of scenes of two groups separated by a chasm. So I'm not attracted by the image of a God whose power is shown by his separating and dividing people into two opposing camps. Artists, however, especially in the Middle Ages, loved to portray the dramatic scene of the Last Judgement: Christ the King seated in the center, while the good guys are standing in a throng to his right (trying not to look too relieved?) and an equally large throng of bad guys on His left are being tortured and devoured by demons as Christ and the redeemed look on impassively.

This is not the image we need today: The ultimate "us-versus-them," with Jesus presiding over the division, with us good guys on this side and "them" on the other side of the chasm; "they" being, of course, the bad guys and therefore our enemies. And most likely there are angry insults being shouted back and forth across the divide.


I know that there is always a message for me in any passage of scripture, even in passages I find distasteful or obscure. Often these passages turn out to hold a message for me that I particularly need to hear. But today I'll concentrate on the assigned Responsorial Psalm: Ps. 23 "The Lord is my shepherd," which seems completely out of sync with the main theme of God's Final Judgement.


I have two songs playing themselves in my head today. The first, by Bob Dufford, S.J is entitled "Like a Shepherd." Here are the words:

 

Like a shepherd He feeds his flock and gathers the lambs in His arms,

Holding them carefully close to His heart, leading them home. Say to the cities of Judah: Prepare the way of the Lord. Go to the mountaintop, lift your voice: Jerusalem, here is our God. I myself will shepherd them, For others have led them astray. The lost I will rescue and heal their wounds and pasture them, giving them rest. Come unto me if you are heavily burdened, And take my yoke up on your shoulders. I will give you rest. Bob Dufford, SJ © 1993 Robert F. Connor, SJ New Dawn Music Published by OCP Publications.

The second song I'm enjoying is a poetic version of Psalm 23"The King of love my Shepherd is, Whose goodness faileth never; I nothing lack if I am his And he is mine for ever."

Yes, if you're looking for Christ to be King, remember that from the beginning he has always been "The King of LOVE."


Again, I encourage you to read the entire message of the U.S. Bishops for today's feast.

May Christ, our Shepherd King, bless all of us with whatever gifts we need to build up His Kingdom and become one flock with one shepherd.






Saturday, November 14, 2020

BLESSING THOSE SIX FEET

"Distancing" has become a common word in our daily speech in the past eight months or so. Medical experts seem to agree that  "social distancing," keeping six feet away from others, is a powerful tool in fighting the spread of the covid-19 virus. They present us with the principle "The farther away we stay from one another the better."

At the same time, the presidential election campaign has highlighted the huge, seemingly uncrossable distance between two factions in our country. While a few voices keep crying for unity, many others, including those in high positions of leadership, keep encouraging us to think in terms of "us" versus "them." "They" are a dangerous enemy who cannot be trusted. 

Ironically, some leaders who make fun of the pandemic protocol of social distancing, encourage us to apply that very principle on a civic level: "The farther away we stay from one another the better." To propose compromise or search for some middle ground that you and your fellow legislators can agree on is now considered political suicide. Politics was once considered to be the art of the possible. But now the legislator has to remember that many of the people who voted for him have now become fanatical believers in "political distancing:  "The farther away we stay from 'them' the better." If you compromise "our" position. then you're going over to the enemy's side, and we won't vote for you the next time.

Into this atmosphere of "distancing," both physical and political, comes the gospel reading yesterday, in which Jesus reveals a timely truth about the Kingdom of God that he has been preaching. In response to some pharisees who ask when the Kingdom is going to come, Jesus replies, "The Kingdom of God is already here," that is, "The reign of God is already in your midst" (Lk 17,21).

I like the translation of the original Greek preposition ente as "among" or even "between" you. I picture the Kingdom as existing not inside of you and me, but rather in the spaces between us. What characterizes the space between me and a certain brother? Is it charity? Respect? Jealousy? It's up to me to fill that space with either Kingdom virtues or earthly values. The notion of the Kingdom existing in the spaces between us evokes the title of John O'Donohue's book of blessings, "To Bless the Space Between Us."   Remembering that I had referred to O'Donohue's book and the spaces between us in a previous post, I just went and found that post. Guess when it was? The Saturday after the 2016 presidential election! Why not read that post from four years ago and see what, if anything, has changed over the four years?

 


Meanwhile, please excuse me, as I have to prepare for Br. Francis Woodruff's mass of Solemn Profession as a monk later this morning. Making solemn (perpetual) vows surely blesses the space between all the monks of Newark Abbey and of our larger communities. 

I invite you to pray for Br. Francis on this special day, and to pray that the Lord will indeed bless all of us and help us fill the spaces between us with charity, optimism, empathy, humility and patience!




Saturday, November 7, 2020

THE GOSPEL FOR THESE DAYS

Beginning this Sunday, November 8, 2020, the mass readings turn our attention to the "last things," and speak of final judgement, the end of the world and such sobering things. This theme fits well into our country's current events: the presidential election, the impact of the covid-19 pandemic, the unrest around matters of racial justice just to name the big ones. Reflecting on the end times and on our own deaths can help us to critique our outlook on the world. 

 'ASK YOURSELF..." Political candidates say "Ask yourself, am I better off than I was four year ago?" (I presume that the word
"economically" is understood in there.) The gospels ask a completely different set of questions:'"Am I more patient than I was four years ago?" "Am I more loving and accepting of others than I was four years ago?" "Am I more charitable than I was four years ago?" There's nothing in the Gospel that asks "Are you economically better off than you were four years ago?" 

SELF-INTEREST: ENLIGHTENED OR NOT? It seems to me that in recent years we've been offered and have settled for a very self-centered way of relating to everyone and everything around us. A car ad urged me to "Get the luxury you deserve." I was baffled the first time I heard that -- I had no idea that I deserved luxury! There's a philosophy in ethics called "enlightened self-interest" that states that people who act to further the interests of others (or the interests of the group or groups to which they belong), ultimately serve their own self-interest. It's an interesting phrase, and has worked well in lots of contexts. But I'm noticing that more and more people are practicing the "self-interest" part but dropping the "enlightened" bit. The more centered we become on our own wants, the less able we are to see or care about the needs of others. Where I live, this kind of a blind spot can have real consequences. I was reminded of this earlier this week when I received the following email that had been broadcast to our entire staff:
As you know, many families in our community are struggling even more than usual due to COVID job losses and illnesses. Sr. Linda is working to help us help the families of our students who are in this situation. If you would like to contribute towards food for these families for Thanksgiving and Christmas, the best way to help is via Shop Rite gift cards. This allows Sr. Linda to get food that is needed to round out what is donated, and they can also be given directly to families. Any amount helps! I will be collecting gift cards from now until Thanksgiving. If you’d like to contribute, please drop your card(s) off at my office for safekeeping. 
 The light of Christ and the message of the Gospel tell me that feeding the hungry is in my "enlightened self interest." I'm made in the image of God, who is Love itself. Jesus calls me to imitate his self-sacrificing love. On Nov. 22 the gospel passage will feature Jesus welcoming his followers with the words "For I was hungry and you gave me to eat." There's the gospel shining a light on my life. 

FEAR NOT: THE LORD IS KING
Or, here's more food for thought. Much of our politics today is based on fear. You can make the list better than I. People are trying to manipulate us by preying upon our fears (often ones that they've created!). The gospel passages over the next few weeks, culminating with the Feast of Christ the King on Nov. 22, assure us that God is in charge and the Christ our brother is King of the Universe. The glaring light of that belief scatters the darkness of fear -- if we truly believe in almighty power of God and of his son. 

 So, we would all do well to pay close attention to the gospels that the Church offers us over the next few weeks during this time of confusion, unrest, pandemic, divisiveness and so on, and count on Christ and his Gospel to guide us through the darkness.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

FEAST OF ALL US SAINTS

The Pantheon today
 

On Sunday, November 1, we celebrate the ancient "Solemnity of All Saints." The earliest observance of a feast in honor of all the saints is an early fourth-century commemoration of "all the martyrs." Then in the early seventh century, after several waves of invaders plundered the catacombs, Pope Boniface IV gathered up twenty-eight wagon loads of bones and reinterred them beneath the Pantheon, a Roman temple dedicated to all the gods. The pope then rededicated the shrine as a Christian Church. (The preceding notes are from page 291 of the revised edition of "Saint of the Day," by Leonard Foley,  a book you will find extremely informative and edifying.)

In today's chaotic world of pandemic, presidential election campaign rhetoric, racial unrest, and economic uncertainty, we could do well to reflect for a few minutes on this feast and on the notion of "saint," remembering that the central idea of the feast is summed up in a single word: LOVE. 

The feast began as a celebration of the martyrs. These people were, by definition, "witnesses" to Christ. They're models of selflessness, the very opposite of what our culture prizes -- putting yourself as "number one" and demanding by right that the world around you arrange itself for your comfort and convenience. 


Later on, the feast broadened to include other holy people, including those who devoted their lives to caring for the poor, the hungry, the forgotten members of society. Most of these "saints,"  who were known only to a few people, announced the Good News of the Kingdom by their lives of faithfulness, kindness, and joyful service to their brothers and sisters. They stand as an encouragement to you and me, while also pointing accusing fingers at a selfish country that, while enjoying a huge proportion of the world's wealth, professes little or no obligation to share those blessings with others, whether with poor individuals within its borders or with the poorest nations. May they intercede for us that we may overcome all the influences of our culture that run contrary to Christ's message of self-giving love. Egocentrism is a great anaesthetic.

One of the most predominant characteristics of today's world is fear. There is, certainly, a legitimate fear of the covid-19 pandemic, but there is also the manufactured fear used by politicians and leaders to manipulate us into believing that there's a "they" who are the sworn enemy of "us" and of everything we hold dear. (This trick was old even in Aristotle's day, hundreds of years before Christ, and it still works!) When you find yourself feeling afraid, you might think about the thousands of martyrs we celebrate on November 1. They were afraid, too, you would think. They make good patrons to pray to these days.


We could go on, of course, listing the virtues of the various members of the great "white-robed army," traits that serve as models, as encouragements and challenges for us present-day Christians who are on our way to becoming saints as well.

If you sometimes get the feeling that you no longer know which way is up, think about the saints, each one of whom is praying for you, and each one of whom has shown by his or her life the way to the Kingdom.

Happy All Saints' Day!

Saturday, October 24, 2020

JOHN PAUL'S VISION

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Thursday, October 22, the church celebrated the feast of St. John Paul II, who served as pope from 1978 until his death in 2005. In his memory I would like to offer this except from Incarnationis Mysterium, his proclamation initiating the "great jubilee year of the year 2000." Of course, as pope he must have had many "dreams" for the church and the world. But the following excerpt, which I offer with no further comment, seems well worth our attention twenty years later. I invite you to spend some time reflecting on what it means for you personally as well as for our country and the wider world.

Let us therefore look to the future. The merciful Father takes no account of the sins for which we are truly sorry (cf. Is 38:17). He is now doing something new, and in the love which forgives he anticipates the new heavens and the new earth. Therefore, so that there may be a renewed commitment to Christian witness in the world of the next millennium, let faith be refreshed, let hope increase and let charity exert itself still more.

12. One sign of the mercy of God which is especially necessary today is the sign of charity, which opens our eyes to the needs of those who are poor and excluded. Such is the situation affecting vast sectors of society and casting its shadow of death upon whole peoples. The human race is facing forms of slavery which are new and more subtle than those of the past; and for too many people freedom remains a word without meaning. Some nations, especially the poorer ones, are oppressed by a debt so huge that repayment is practically impossible. It is clear, therefore, that there can be no real progress without effective cooperation between the peoples of every language, race, nationality and religion. The abuses of power which result in some dominating others must stop: such abuses are sinful and unjust. Whoever is concerned to accumulate treasure only on earth (cf. Mt 6:19) “is not rich in the sight of God” (Lk 12:21).

There is also a need to create a new culture of international solidarity and cooperation, where all —

particularly the wealthy nations and the private sector — accept responsibility for an economic model which serves everyone. There should be no more postponement of the time when the poor Lazarus can sit beside the rich man to share the same banquet and be forced no more to feed on the scraps that fall from the table (cf. Lk 16:19-31). Extreme poverty is a source of violence, bitterness and scandal; and to eradicate it is to do the work of justice and therefore the work of peace.






Saturday, October 17, 2020

WHAT BELONGS TO GOD

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The gospel for tomorrow, Oct. 18, 2020 tells of one of those famous showdowns between Jesus and his enemies who keep "trying to trap him in his speech." This episode concerns whether a pious Jew should pay taxes to the pagan emperor. If Jesus answers no, then he'll get in trouble with the Romans, but if he answers yes, then he'll be going against God's law.  

Tell us, then, what is your opinion:

Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?"

Knowing their malice, Jesus said,

"Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?

Show me the coin that pays the census tax."

Then they handed him the Roman coin.

He said to them, "Whose image is this and whose inscription?"

They replied, "Caesar's."

At that he said to them,

"Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar

and to God what belongs to God. (Mt. 25:15-21)


Jesus'
clever response avoids the trap that had been laid for him, but points up a challenge to us his followers. It's easy enough to see what "repay to Caesar" means: Living in the everyday world of making a living, of buying things and providing ourselves with practical necessities (not to mention taxes of all sorts). Even the Pharisees bought into the Roman economic system. Notice how easily someone came up with a Roman coin when Jesus asked to see one.


But what about the second part, "repay to God what belongs to God?" I may be wrong about this, but I suspect that many people today would be at a loss as to what the expression means. Their answer would be a blank stare or a statement such as "I'm not religious"; "I don't think much about God"; "I don't consider God part of my life." Others, though, might say it means to go to church on Sunday or give alms to the poor. Or pray a lot, or avoid sin.



But my more immediate concern right now is my own personal response to the challenge to give God what belongs to God. What does it mean for me? I've been reflecting on this for much of the morning. The problem is that what belongs to God is everything. So if I want to try to respond seriously to the Lord's demands and ask myself "What does the Lord want of me?" the answer is "Everything." Yikes! Am I prepared for that? I had in mind something more limited. You know, like being charitable to everyone, avoiding vices, praying often, things like that. But "everything" seems a little extreme.

GIVING IT ALL TO GOD


In a few minutes, our novice brother Robert Islas is going to profess his vows as a Benedictine monk. Here is the vow formula he'll read aloud and sign:


+ In the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. I, Brother Robert of Molesme Islas, of CaƱada de Islas, Jalisco, Diocese of San Juan de Los Lagos, promise with vows valid for three years, before God and his saints, in the presence of our Father in Christ, Abbot Melvin J. Valvano, O.S.B., and the monks of this monastery, stability in this community, conversion through a monastic way of life, and obedience according to the Rule of our Holy Father Benedict and the law proper to our Congregation. In witness whereof I have prepared this document and signed it here at The Benedictine Abbey of Newark in the year of our Lord 2020, on the seventeenth day of October, the feast of St. Ignatius of Antioch. 


This starts to sound a lot like "giving to God what belongs to God." 

Let's all pray for our new twenty year-old monk, that the Lord will bless him with a long and joy-filled life in the monastery!




Saturday, October 10, 2020

ON SEEING AND SEEKING GOD

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I spent the past four days at the abbey's property in the wooded mountains of Sussex County on a retreat preparing novice Br Robert for his profession of simple vows on Oct. 17, 2020. I gave him a few conferences based on chapters from Flowers in the Desert by Demetrius Dumm, O.S.B. The following post is based on material from that book, but I haven't used quotation marks. So, consider the whole thing a citation from Fr. Demetrius -- except for the errors, of course. (Please excuse the masculine pronoun for God from the Old Testament.)

The weather for the retreat days was perfect: Bright sunshine, a light breeze, mild October temperatures. One of the more memorable experiences was a drive we took through the nearby valleys, marveling at the wide vistas and the subtle fall colors decorating the mountainsides. I kept thanking God for the beauty all around us. This was God showing himself in a way that's comprehensible to us: The God of beauty, goodness and order in the world. How easy it was to sense God's presence in Walpack Valley!


But during the silent times or while praying Vespers in the little chapel the Lord challenged me to go beyond the simple children's paradise of the visible and very understandable world of the autumn beauty of Sussex County. I found myself praying for a couple of friends who are very sick with serious illnesses.  These are such good people, the question naturally arises: Why does God stand by while these loved ones suffer? The God of the autumn sunshine suddenly disappears and is no longer present in ways that I can understand and appreciate. Actually, he seems to be absent. The bible is full of experiences of the apparent absence of God. For example, the fall of Jerusalem when the Babylonians took so many Jews into captivity. Jesus, hanging in agony on the cross, borrows David's words from Psalm 22: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" 

At these times in our lives, God no longer conforms to my human understanding of what divine

goodness should mean. He asserts his freedom and uniqueness and sovereignty; he becomes mysterious, apparently absent. These are the prophetic moments when the prophets would appear and assure us that, in spite of contrary appearances, God still loves us. God, they say, is now asking us to live in trust, to believe that faithfulness and perseverance will lead to a much better presence. There is a gift in the mystery, hidden in the incomprehensible experiences of illness, pandemic and so on..

God's true and most gracious presence will be on his terms. The Lord has not left us, but has changed the manner of his presence. He is actually more present and more loving now than ever because he is now present as he always intended to be, in his own preferred way. It is we who must change,be converted, be opened up to receive and entertain  the new, better presence of the Lord.

This turns out to be a more beautiful and powerful experience than even the view in Walpack Valley.