BRING ON THE REFRESHMENTS . . . The Gospels are full of hard words. Take it as poetry, it's still very serious stuff. Jesus is not fooling. Pity the poor preacher who has to stand there and announce this hard message: Woe is he or she for this or that, woe is us who have to listen. We have to relax in the sense of not panicking. It's part of the message, not the whole thing. At the same time, this Christianity is hardball.
Nonetheless, sometimes there is balm in Gilead. On the 30th Ordinary Sunday, last 10/26, for instance, Jeremiah 31, 7-9 makes much of the promise to bring “the [dispersed] remnant” back from "the north," gather them from "ends of the world." (Never say once what you can repeat immediately in other terms. It’s the Semitic, or “Oriental” way, as below.) The remnant will return as an "immense throng." (Very messianic, end of the world-ish.) They will be led to "brooks of water . . . none shall stumble."
Indeed, chapters 30 and 31 comprise a small book of consolation, part of the 26-35 segment that is more cheerful than the rest of Jeremiah and may have been written not by him but by his disciple, Baruch. It’s a book of comfort, says Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary (Abingdon, 1971). Embarrassed by doom prophecies, the writer sought to balance things out, the argument goes. Can't knock people down all the time, no matter how bad they are. A little consolation, please. Yes.
FAR FROM HOME AND WORRYING . . . The whole Christian Scripture tries to be transitional, from old to new (testament, covenant), but none more so than the Letter to Hebrews, addressed to a Jewish-Christian community, probably about 67 A.D. It was written after Paul’s imprisonment in 63 but before the destruction of the Temple in 70. Who wrote it has never been clear. A disciple named Apollos is suggested. It makes its argument (for Jesus as Savior and Messiah) entirely on Biblical (Christians’ Old Testament) grounds.
The readers, recently turned Christian, yearn as it were for the spirit-pots of Jerusalem and Temple worship. The letter presents Christian life in Old Testament terms: The Promised Land is heaven. Christ is a priest like Melchizedek. His sacrifice works (achieves something). He is higher than the angels.
The letter offers theological and Scriptural explanation cum exhortation. It’s very "oriental," says Jerusalem Bible commentary. It shows how the early Christians "conceived the harmony" of Old and New Testaments, that is, of the Bible and the message of Jesus. "Deep intuitions" abound here, says Jerusalem B.
Hebrews may be a warning not about backsliding but Judaizing, however, the imposing of Jewish laws and regulations, says W.A. Quanbeck in Interpreter's Bible. It may also be an exhortation to make Christianity available to all, not just for Jews, which was an issue in those days, as we know.
* Holy Thursday: To get the proper impact, we must attend to the night's anti-hero, Judas, a true rat who turned in the nicest guy who ever lived, for money. Disloyal, venal, devious, scheming, a collaborator with evil men, he saw his opportunity and took it. Jesus could tell what was happening. But he did what he had to do anyhow.
* 6th Sunday "of" (that is, after) Easter:
-- 1st reading, Acts 10, big news is the Spirit descending on non-Jews in the house of one, the centurion Cornelius. But we're used to that; if we don't get it by now that Christianity is open to the uncircumcised, where have we been the last 1,930 or so years?
Secondary news is more to the point: Cornelius, greeting Peter, dropped to his knees, but Peter told him to get up. "I'm only a man," said the first pope. So much for genuflecting before prelates. Or kissing rings. They are only men.
-- 2nd reading, 1 John 4, re-makes the point that love is essential. We're used to that too, but should note that it's not we love God and are loved, but the other way around. This is consoling, because lots of times we don't feel lovable and probably aren't.
-- Gospel, John 15.9-17: Jesus' love for us is modeled on his Father's for him, which is worth packing away for further repeated consideration. Not that the Father was so good to Jesus in the short run. In fact, if Jesus had ever shown he was capable of irony, we might see a certain threat here.
We are Jesus' friends, picked by him, the passage says. Again, the first move was his. He spotted us in the crowd and came at us with a big smile, hand out for shaking. Furthermore, when we go to the Father for something, we should say Jesus sent us.
* 7th of Easter:
-- 1st reading, Acts 1: Can we imagine picking a pope this way? By drawing straws, as the 11 do to pick Matthias as the 12th apostle, to take Judas's place? It was their way of letting God decide. (The Romans had "auspices" discerned in entrails.) We don't do it that way. Should we?
-- 2nd reading, 1st John 4: "God is love" here. Not eros, but the other kind, altruism, caring for the neighbor. The good pagan stumbles into God this way? Why not?
-- Gospel, John 17, has Jesus praying for us, because we are to be hated for our allegiance to him. How does that work? Rather, in our day in the U.S., who of us feel hated as Christians? Depends what you mean by Christian, but in general we aren't. Of course if we're stubborn about it, people's irritation shows. Maybe that's how it works.
Not so everywhere else, however. The pope was clearly so worried about disturbing the Iraqi status quo for fear of stirring up anti-Christian activities among the Shiites.
SHE DOES NOT LIKE US . . .
Ranking litterateur Margaret Drabble, disgusted with the U.S. as Iraq-war victor, says we have "regressed into unimaginable irresponsibility [and] must be insane." ("I loathe America, and what it has done to the rest of the world," London Telegraph
However, she has not exactly loved her native England either, on another occasion calling it "just a mean, cold, ugly, divided, tired, clapped-out, post-Imperial, post-industrial slag heap covered in hamburger cartons."
She does go on.
BISHOPS SPEAK . . . Meanwhile, N.T. Wright, soon to be Bishop of Durham (Church of England), holds to the resurrection of Jesus as fact, contrary to the Durham incumbent whom he will replace, who recently referred dismissively to "a conjuring trick with bones." If this isn't diversity in one of Christendom's oldest offshoots, I'm a Darwinian monkey's uncle. I mean nephew. Grand nephew.
The Wright point is from a review of his The Resurrection of the Son of God (SPCK) by A.E. Harvey in TLS 4/18/03. Harvey, once canon and subdeacon of Westminster, wrote books about Jesus and the New Testament that were published in 1970, 1980, 1990, and 1991. (6/2/03)
A BANNER DAY . . . At least two OP churches had banners Sunday 3/16, saying, "Peace is the church's business." How about "Truth is the church's business"? Naaah. Truth is a dirty word. You have to be a fanatic to think you have it. "I am the way and the life" is what Jesus says now.
KING IN THE SANCTUARY . . . Mainline liberal RC church #1 in my book, St. Catherine-St. Lucy, OP & Chi, has the annual draped picture of Rev. Dr. ML King Jr. on a stand next to the altar, tomorrow being the big day. After mass we pledged allegiance to the principle of non-violent behavior, renewing our vow as a churchful. Very good idea: Learn of me because I am meek and humble of heart, said Jesus.
Nothing was said, of course -- nothing is ever said -- of MLK Jr. as adulterer, which he was in spades, according to his (sympathetic) biographer, David Garrow, or as plagiarizer of another's doctoral thesis at Boston U. School of Theology, accepted as true by Michael Eric Dyson. So what? The weak-kneed King as regards wedding vows had balls in another respect: he stayed at his dangerous crusade and got shot dead in the process by a very bad man.
He had stirred the hell out of us as a nation with his speeches and the rest. It's another case of God writing straight with crooked lines (old saw from RC devotional literature). But that straight-crooked part gets overlooked, and a very important piece of instruction it would be for us great unwashed in the pews.
Lots of us look in our hearts and don't like what we see, but that doesn't mean we can't contribute. So RC preachers should mention King's sideline as a stickman, especially in light of priests' lately publicized molestation of boys and others, though mostly of boys.
Indeed, priests might be less inclined to circle wagons and more inclined to be forthright about horrible things that have been revealed. Instead, "sacred silence" envelops pulpits, to use the title of Fr. Donald Cozzens's latest book, subtitled "Denial and the Crisis in the Church," published by Liturgical Press.
Cozzens is a veteran priest and long-time Catholic seminary rector. He has training as a psychologist and an eye for what ails the clergy. In Sacred Silence he notes a "crisis of leadership" not only among bishops but also "in most diocesan presbyterates," or groups of priests serving a diocese.
This is a going term for priest, by the way. He is a "presbyter" in Worship magazine, the influential monthly also published by Liturgical Press. Protestants who used to quote Scripture to their anti-papist purposes, "Call no man father," seem now partly vindicated. "Call no man priest" is close enough.
The point by Cozzens us that not just bishops but also priests dropped the ball, being overly accommodating to their fellow priests who deserved exposure. Their club is as restrictive as any other.
As for MLK the adulterer, today's readings are too close for comfort to that problem, including as they do this from that embarrassingly straight talker, Paul, to his friends the Corinthians:
"Shun lewd conduct. Every other sin a man commits is outside his body, but the fornicator sins against his own body. . . . a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within . . . You are not your own. You have been purchased, and at what a price! So glorify God in your body."
If Martin Luther King Jr. had made that part of his working version of Christianity, he would have been a much better model for us. [1/19/03]
PULPIT . . . Christian preaching in Oak Park on the Sunday after Xmas included (a) a mainline-liberal RC man proclaiming Jesus a revolutionary and saying that if the government knew what was being preached in that church, they would "bar the doors"! (b) an Episcopalian shooting down the RC notion of guardian angel, quoting a child asking why we need one when we have the Good Shepherd, and (c) a Latin mass traditionalist driving home a "Do penance" message and asking for complete focusing on God in personal conversion known to the Greeks as "metanoia." It takes a whole village to preach the word of God.
Neri penance (11/19/02) . . . A woman confessed malicious gossip to St. Philip Neri. He gave her a penance: Open a pillow and let the feathers fly about, then come back. She did so, said now what? Find the feathers and put them back in. Impossible, she said. Right, said St. Philip, neither can you undo the damage you did by your gossip. Right, added the Latin Mass priest in his sermon on gossip. Return to the people to whom you passed on the juicy bit and say you were wrong, they won't believe you.
There's room for sermons like that, about a sin, if it makes a point that sticks in memory, like that pillow story. They aren't lectures, like half the Bible lessons masquerading as sermons in our day. ("Now in Jewish law, you didn't do this sort of thing, and the Roman centurion wore this helmet whose feather bobbed when he talked," etc.)
From the Bible this priest took another item, about Moses' sister Mary, who badmouthed him. God gave her leprosy for that, relieving her of it only when Moses interceded for her. It's another tale that sticks, even if you don't think God did that to Mary. Point is, it comes from the Good Book, which has God's endorsement one way or another. Most could not care less how literally it's to be taken. If the preacher uses it to make a point that stands by itself, it works.
And it certainly beats a long drawn-out disquisition on the evils of capitalism or something else you can hear at the local bar with equal edification.
THE ART OF PREACHING . . . . (9/2/02) -- In a recent sermon, Father John looked the day's gospel passage in the eye -- about Jesus saying you had to love him more than your parents if you wanted to be on his side -- and blinked. The fear in these quarters was that he would water it down, and he did. Jesus had the 12 Apostles in mind, he said, not anyone else -- least of all, us.
He didn't even allow for religious-order members with their vows of poverty (own nothing), chastity (keep a lid on it), and obedience (keep a lid on whatever's left) and their presumed forswearing of all things nice and beautiful. Instead he talked about "ordinary" people doing ordinary things and holding the world together in the process.
Good point, to be sure, but what about the Gospel? We had his word for it that Jesus meant only the Twelve. But Jesus must have meant others, including saints, who we used to hear are heroes, even the damn few married ones. And what of this preaching ordinary virtues without reference to extraordinary? Is this an example of the Spirit of the Age that shrinks from the extraordinary, except in sports, where we have heroes galore?
And what of the problem of Jesus as fanatic, even if divinely inspired? You're with me or against me, he said, my way or the highway. Now that's intolerance. But you'd never know it from this day's sermon or lots of others given coast to coast, all this year and probably next year too. Jesus the all-encompassing can't be presented that way, so Scripture must be bowdlerized. That can't be right.
SOCKING IT TO THE LAITY . . . Same church, Father Dan the pastor recently devoted his Sunday-bulletin column to well aimed comment about corporate evildoing, as in falsified bookkeeping at WorldCom. Well aimed but an example of seeing motes in the eye of The Other while missing the beam in your own.
Very young (mid-30s) for an RC pastor but hard-working and apparently well received, Father Dan cannot resist this age-old temptation. Of corporate behavior he said (and who can gainsay it?), "lies, lies, lies at the service of power and greed." But he said nothing like that about sexual abuse by priests and cover-up by bishops. No "lies, lies, at the service of power and greed" in that direction.
But as a priest, he is bound to know far more about clergy sex abuse than about WorldCom accounting, if only from poring over news accounts, which surely have more drawing power for priests than WorldCom stories. Other pastors in other bulletins, by the way, have been properly abashed by the clergy-sex scandal. One of them, the stout-hearted William Keneally at St. Gertrude's parish on Chicago's North Side, assured readers that the church would survive but said he was not so sure about the priesthood!
Such commentary by our WorldCom critic is also a case of trying to be relevant by mimicking newspapers and TV. This is an occupational hazard for clergy people, especially young ones, who find themselves in no position (for lack of experience) to recommend moral behavior on a personal level except on the same old, same old Jesus-says model. Better, yea easier, to recommend moral behavior in the social and economic realm, in which they join the crowd, echoing editorials coast to coast.
AN ORDER OF PREACHING (11/05/02). . . Friday night preaching at St. John Cantius was old-style and very professional. Rev. Brian Mullady OP did the honors, using the Scripture of the day, Feast of All Saints, as jump-off point without feeling he had to give us the latest from the Society of Biblical Literature on the subject. It was a sermon not a lecture.
So it was 144,000 saints (a perfect #, he noted, giving a nod to its figurative nature) in the Apocalypse (Book of Revelation), 12G from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. He called it a perfect number and let it go at that, making instead the tried and true point that those are people who have no day named after them, folks like you and me who do what we have to do with the hand God dealt us.
He quoted a nun novice some years back who watched holy monks chanting the divine office (Psalms for the most part, back and forth, as monks have done for 1,500 years, give or take a few) and gushed youthfully, "Oh, I could be holy if I were part of that." No, he replied predictably (but necessarily), they have troubles in their community as you do in yours, be sure of that.
So a married couple looks happy and maybe they are, but not without trouble or stress. It goes with the territory marked out between birth (conception) and death, he might have said. There's stress and trouble to spare, anywhere you look.
He quoted the Jesuit de Caussade (18th century) and his "sacrament of the present moment," a sort of "carpe diem" for the spiritual set: Look (he might have said) you only have one life, so live it to the hilt but without the hedonism of a beer commercial. Do what you can when you can, and don't forget the people you live with and bump into in the course of a day.
THE MASS IS THE THING . . . The rest of the mass was rewarding for its (a) predictability -- the Tridentine mass allows for no improvisation by frustrated thespian in priest's clothing, its (b) low-level requirement of worshipers, who actually had a chance to pray as the spirit moved them without a stream of interruptions, shaking hands and grinning across a crowded church and the like, and its (c) space -- the church is baroque-rococo-gusto with lots of room between pews and a beautiful restored non-creaking wooden floor.
Fr. Mullady was in the vestibule after mass greeting people in his white robe, much as a vote-seeker greets people. You could tell him you appreciated his comments and then move on and out on to Carpenter Street just east of Ogden just north of Chicago Avenue. Very Chicago scene all-around. Kitty corner is a lit-up Osco, down Carpenter to the south is Gonnella Bakery. Lots of traffic, even the pedestrian kind, thanks to this holy day 7:30 mass at St. Jn C.
YOU HAVE TO KNOW THEOLOGY TALK . . . There's shop talk in an America magazine article 10/14 reference to not realizing "what it means to be church." Article is "Another Generation Gap: Some Younger Theologians Seem Uncomfortable," by Thomas P. Rausch SJ of Loyola Marymount U. Reading it, my friend Jake said to his wife: "Hey wife, let's you and me be church. You be church, me be church, all God's chillun be church. Yeah!"
CATHOLIC PREACHING (10/27/02) . . . Today to St. John Cantius church, a Latin mass church on the legit, in contrast with Oak Park's Our Lady Immaculate, which the Vatican has declared ecclesia non grata. The St. Jn C. mass was in English (they mix them up), but you could smell the incense as soon as you walked in the door, and a small army of altar boys (no girls) trooped up the aisle ahead of the mass priest (not the pastor), whose demeanor was top-grade reverential.
But he preached as if he were in a classroom, not in the pulpit of a magnificent old Immigrant Ordered & Paid for Splendid church with very high ceilings and refurbished pews and wood flooring beneath a panoply of statues and stained windows. It's baroque, rococo, and all-around head-turning. The church has lots of worshipers from all over as dues-paying members, and the place is a far cry from what the Resurrectionists sent Fr. Frank Philips as pastor to close some years back.
Philips didn't and instead went with his gut enthusiasm for Latin liturgy and classical music. One of his early calls for advice was on Fr. Jack Wall, founder of the new Old St. Patrick's church, with its emphasis on Irish immigrants' heritage. Philips's emphasis is on that old-time worship experience. He's made St. Jn Cantius a place to pray directly to God. Wall met one market, he's meeting another. So it goes in a free-enterprise society.
But that sermon today, 10/27. Rather, that lecture, full of references to today's bad educational scene -- dumbing down, a taking over of schools by the "secular, pagan world," etc. -- and jumping all over the place. There was one aside after the other, with the lame recovery beginning "Anyway . . . " Or the killer, "To make a long story short." Back and forth we went with the vagaries of Father's undisciplined lucubration.
So the reform or counter-reform of liturgy continues apace but not reform of preaching?
For a look at how a responsible preacher prepares, see this from Crisis Magazine, about Fr. Bill Parent, of St. Mary's Church in Washington, DC, who says, "Preparing a homily is . . . a very tedious process that demands a routine."
CATHOLIC PREACHING II . . . Last week, St. Peter's in the Loop, where on entering you meet the day's greeter, a genial brother in brown robe and rope belt, with neatly manicured white handlebar mustache which must require a fair amount of attention. He served the mass for a priest also from central casting, with beautifully trimmed beard and pipes to beat all. Indeed, where was first-class radio announcer-turned priest, but alas with a script that bounced around and lacked an ending except in length.
A revolution is in order, and it has to do with preaching.