Sunday, January 25, 2015

Repentance and the Call

This gospel has two distinct parts to it. It has the first part about Jesus preaching about the kingdom of God, and the second part where Jesus calls his first disciples. Even if we take the two parts separately, there are powerful messages in each of them for us. But if we take them together, we encounter a call we can't avoid.

Let's look at the second half first, where Jesus calls his disciples. This is probably the most classic story of a call and conversion in all the gospels. Jesus calls, and these four men leave everything behind to follow him. It really is an impressive story. Ever since ancient times, biblical scholars have been fascinated by what the apostles saw in Jesus, that he could just say, "Come after me," and they did it. St. Jerome, an ancient biblical scholar and the first one to translate the bible from its original languages into Latin, the common language of the people, said,

"There must have been something divinely compelling in the face of the Savior, Otherwise they would not have acted so irrationally as to follow a man whom they had never seen before. Does one leave a father to follow a man in whom he sees nothing more than he sees in his father? They left their father of the flesh to follow the Father of the spirit. They did not leave a father; they found a Father. What is the point of this digression? To show that there was something divine in the Savior's very countenance that men, seeing, could not resist."

St. Jerome asks a good question: "Does one leave a father to follow a man in whom he sees nothing more than he sees in his father?" No! You don't! So there must have been something truly compelling in the person of Jesus. Not that there was anything wrong with their own fathers and their old lives, but we have to deal with the facts of the story. Something about Jesus made these men, and men and women over the next 2000 years, turn their backs on all the good things of their lives in pursue him. Back in high school when I was discerning seminary, I was pointed to this gospel passage on several occasions to pray with the radical surrender that these men showed when Jesus called them. In seeing how Peter, Andrew, James, and John  left everything to follow Jesus, it helped to give me courage to try to respond to Jesus' invitation the same way. And what did I find? That just like Jesus never let  the apostles down once they decided to follow him, he has never let me down either.

Each and every day, this compelling man, Jesus Christ, extends an invitation to you, too. "Come, follow me." And he will not let you down either. He is the most trustworthy person to ever live. But to understand this invitation in our lives, we need to understand the first half of this gospel, "The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." If the kingdom of God is at hand, it must have a king. And if there's a king, then this king must have a throne. The king is Jesus himself. And the throne, we could identify a couple different things, but the first and most important throne that we must never lose sight of is the Cross. God's kingdom has been established by Jesus claiming the throne of his Cross. And to be a member of this kingdom, Jesus immediately gives us the criteria: "Repent, and believe in the gospel."

Repenting and believing go hand in hand. Believing something with your head or your heart means very little if it's not reflected in your life, so repentance is crucial. But repentance doesn't just mean to stop doing bad things. The Greek word for repent, μετανοέω, implies a new or more complete understanding. Μετά means after, and νοέω means to understand. So the Greek word for repent means an "after-understanding" or a more complete understanding. Sin points to a misunderstanding about the love of God, so repentance is not just giving up your sins and getting rid of them, but repentance means replacing your sins with a more complete way of understanding, so after you give up the sin you understand God in a new way.

And this makes sense if we think about a small example like bad habits. Whatever your bad habit might be, smoking, swearing, or whatever, you usually can't give it up by just stopping. You have to replace it with something else. Similarly, Christian repentance, the repentance that Jesus commands us to do today, is not just giving up sin and vice, but replacing them with the virtues that draw you closer to God. So if your sin is hatred, it's not enough to just stop hating, because that's not how the human spirit works. You have to develop the opposing virtue of patience. If your sin is sloth or laziness, you can't just say you're going to stop being lazy, you have to actually work at the virtue of diligence. When it comes to vice and virtue, sin and repentance, there is no middle ground. When it comes to Jesus' command to repent and believe in the gospel, there is no middle ground.

So you have to ask Jesus, "Jesus, what do I need to repent of?" Don't ask yourself, don't be introspective and say, "Where does Jesus want me to repent?" because then you've already excluded Jesus from the conversation. You're thinking about him instead of talking to him. Because if I ask myself what I need to repent of instead of asking Jesus, I come up with an answer like "Jesus is asking me to repent of my alarm clock and sleep in every day" or "Jesus is asking me to repent of my diet and eat the whole refrigerator." Ask him what he wants you to repent of, don't ask yourself. Ask him where he inviting you to follow him.

And then, once you ask him, don't settle for a vague answer from him or a vague plan from yourself. If you want to follow Jesus closer it takes concrete steps. So don't settle for, "I need to be nicer to others" because how do you measure that? Rather, your repentance should take the form of, "I need to forgive this specific person." Don't settle for, "I need to pray more" because again, how do you measure that? Rather, your repentance, your plan for following Jesus, should be like, "I'm going to pray fifteen minutes a day, at the very beginning of the day before it gets busy."

This call to repentance, this call from Jesus to follow him, it's urgent my friends, because the kingdom of God is at hand. This kingdom is coming when Christ comes again in glory, and it's already in our midst, through the Church and through the Sacraments. So the call to follow Jesus is not something we can put off until tomorrow. Take the apostles as your example. When Jesus called them, they didn't know what the end was going to be, they didn't even know what the next day was going to hold. They just knew the next step. They knew they couldn't stay where they were at, they knew they had to drop their nets, stand up, and start walking. Just the same for you, you don't have to know the end, you don't have to know where Jesus is taking you years from now. You just need to ask him what that next step is, and then do it. Don't settle for mediocrity, don't settle for "I'm ok as I am," but constantly strive to follow him closer. Repent, and believe in the gospel.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

St. Andrew the Awkward

We often like to describe the Christian life as a journey. We do it so often it kind of makes me gag a little. I feel like Christian literature is all too full of journey metaphors. I'm sure you all know the story about  one or two sets of footprints in the sand, and although I think the footprint story is a bit overused, it is important to notice that it wasn't buttprints in the sand, it was footprints. In our life as Christians, we are going somewhere, and it's not here. The Christian life is about a constant movement closer to the most Holy Trinity, it's not about standing still. Jesus is going to accept you wherever you're at, as long as you are trying to move from where you are at towards him.

I'm talking about movement for a reason, because it's important to notice how John is using the actions of standing and walking in our gospel today. It says John the Baptist is standing with two of his disciples. So they're still, they're stationary, they're not going anywhere. Following John the Baptist couldn't take you anywhere. John couldn't save you from your sins. But then when John points at Jesus, who is walking, they begin walking and following, they become followers of Christ. Jesus is going somewhere. Being a disciple of Jesus requires action, it takes work to follow him, but he can take you somewhere, he can take you to heaven, and all that is symbolized by John the Baptist standing still and Jesus walking by.

So Jesus walks by, John points at him as he walks and says, "Behold the Lamb of God," and the two disciples, one of whom is Andrew, the brother of Peter, they leave their stationary position, their position of stillness with John that wasn't taking them anywhere, and they start doing the hard work of following Jesus. But then, Jesus sees them following, he turns and says "What are you looking for?" Now, this is not a light question like, "Oh, did you lose something on the ground?" No, this is a question loaded with weight, like "What do you seek?" And St. Andrew, let's call him St. Andrew the Awkward, does he rise to the occasion? Does he answer the heavy question with a worthy answer like, "I seek truth," or, "I seek the Messiah"? No, St. Andrew the Awkward responds to Jesus' deep question with, "Uh, where are you staying?"

St. Andrew in St. Peter's Basilica
He's not ready yet to respond fully to John the Baptist's revelation or Jesus' demands. He's not even sure what the revelation or demands are. But when John points to Jesus, something in Andrew's heart responds, and even though he doesn't fully understand, he knows that that guy walking by, that guy who is going to make demands on me, that Lamb of God, is who I want to follow. I don't know where he's going, I don't know where he's taking me, if he asks me a question I don't even know what the right answer is, but none of that matters. I want to follow him.

Andrew's example is helpful for us here, because he shows us that we don't have to have everything figured out in order to follow Jesus, we just have to be brave enough to take the next step. Jesus doesn't reprimand Andrew for his less-than-stellar answer, but rather he responds with an invitation: "Come, and you will see." Jesus meets Andrew right where Andrew is, but he doesn't leave him there, he takes him further.

And in that is an important realization. The Christian life is not about standing still, it's about moving forward. Again, it's not buttprints in the sand, but footprints. We don't have to have it all figured out, we don't have to be free of all sins, we don't have to perfectly understand God or what he wants from us, but we have to keep trying. We have to follow our Lord with all of our awkwardness and cluelessness like St. Andrew the Awkward and just keep trying.

Even if your prayers aren't well composed like the beautiful prayers of the Mass, even if they're more like, "God, can you help me with that thing I screwed up? Yes, again? Thanks, bye," God can handle it! As long as you keep trying!

No matter how awkward you may be, God can handle it! The important thing is that you keep moving forward. Every day you should be striving to love God and his people more than you did yesterday. Because even more than the Christian life is a journey, it's a friendship, a relationship. It's the most important relationship in your life. No saint ever became a saint by saying, "I love God enough now." They became saints by constantly searching their lives for how they could love God better and more completely, and finding new areas of their lives to surrender to Him.

If you settled in the other relationships in your life, if you said, "Yes, I love my wife enough now, I don't need to find new and better ways to love her," I promise you, you wouldn't be married for much longer. God deserves the same. And it starts with the basics. Daily intentional prayer, not a daily passing thought towards God, but time set aside every day for God. Working on the sins that separate us from God. Mass every Sunday. And not just going to Church, but praying the Mass, following attentively with your mind and your heart through all the beautiful motions of the Mass. Never just "go to church." Confession every month. We can never settle for "good enough." Never ever settle in this Christian life, in this relationship with Jesus, but constantly strive to move forward. The reason for this is love. All the relationships in our life nourish us, and if our relationship with Jesus doesn't nourish us at least as much as every other one does, then it's clear our relationship with him needs a lot of work. Jesus doesn't want to give you a life of obligations, but a life more full of love and joy than you could ever have on your own. But to have that, you can't sit still. No matter how imperfectly, you have to follow Jesus.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

An Interview and a Reflection

His Eminence Cardinal Burke recently gave an interview to the folks at New Emangelization, a group of people trying to restore an authentic Catholic masculine identity. In the interview he hit on issues of masculinity and femininity, and in that has caused a minor uproar (everything he says seems to cause an uproar) because as a man he is apparently unqualified to speak on feminine issues, and therefore he is anti-woman.
This is the state of debate in our country: If you are a man you can't speak about feminine issues (the "no uterus, no opinion" position), if you are heterosexual you can't speak about homosexuality. Logically, if you don't use cocaine then you aren't qualified to speak about it and if you haven't tried slamming your hand in the car door then you can't tell me it's a bad idea. That is the hysterical state of public discourse in this culture.
Fine. I'm willing to accept it for the moment, because Ragazza Cattolica has written a beautiful reflection on His Eminence's interview, so I thought I'd let her speak on this one. She calls the Mass manly, but I dont think you can call her anti-woman, it's in the title of the blog for Pete's sake (Google it). But before you read her reflection, read the original interview. Trust me. She'll just guilt you into doing it when you get over there anyway.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Baptism of the Lord

Today we celebrate the Baptism of our Lord, so let's start by placing Jesus' baptism in its context in Jesus' own life and in our own calendar. Although Jesus' baptism was many years removed from his birth, the Church wants us to celebrate it during the Christmas season, so today the Baptism of the Lord wraps up the Christmas season. This also falls shortly after last week's feast of the Epiphany. So the Epiphany commemorates primarily the wise men finding and worshiping Jesus, but an epiphany is a manifestation or a showing, so last week we also remembered Jesus' baptism, where the Father's voice came from heaven to identify this man as his beloved Son, and we also remembered the wedding at Cana, where Jesus worked his first miracle and by that began to reveal himself to the people. So the wise men, the baptism, and the wedding feast are all wrapped up in last week's feast of the Epiphany, and then we pull the baptism out for special consideration today.

So if we turn to this event for special consideration, we see so clearly how Jesus wants to identify with sinners, how he wants to identify with you and with me. Jesus Christ, Son of the Most High God, Second Person of the Trinity and God himself, existing with the Father and the Spirit before time began, chose to become man. But then he went further, because by being baptized he identified himself with sinners. Though he was going to bring a baptism of the spirit, he submitted to John's baptism of repentance. He basically said, "Their fate will be the same as mine, what happens to them happens to me." That's love. To willingly submit yourself to the trials of another, even though you don't have to, is a beautiful love indeed. The only love more beautiful is to die for another, and he did that too.

But his coming death is symbolized here. Baptism is always a symbol of death you die to sin and rise to new life. So when the sinless Son of God undergoes this ritualistic death to sin, it's clearly not his own sin he's dying to, it's our sin. He is beginning now the work that will be finished on the cross, the work of putting to death our sins. So what happens when after Jesus is baptized here? Our gospel tells us, "He saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him." Don't picture a gentle parting of the clouds here. The Greek word for torn here is schizomenois or schismeno, and it means a violent or forceful ripping. From this we get the word schizophrenic, a personality split or torn into two. So here we see the heavens being ripped open forcefully, almost violently. The separation between heaven and earth has been ripped apart because the uncreated, sinless God has identified with created, sinful humanity.

This word schismeno, ripped apart, will reappear at the crucifixion and death of Jesus, when Jesus takes this identification with sinners to its logical conclusion and suffers the death of a sinner, and then we read that the veil of the temple is ripped in two, schismeno, from top to bottom. This veil separated the Holy of Holies inside the temple from the sinful world outside. Began at his baptism and finished at his death, the veil that separated us from God has been destroyed.

So at the baptism, the heavens were ripped asunder and then, peace. The Holy Spirit in the form of a dove came down from heaven, and the dove always symbolizes peace and blessing. Here we have present the whole Trinity. The Son is being baptized, the Holy Spirit is coming upon him, and the Father is speaking from heaven, "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." All of this together is a clear sign for Mark's reader that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who will save us. Two thousand years later, the message should be no less forceful for us, but we have gift of hindsight. We've had two thousand years to reflect on these events, so we can see exactly who Jesus was and what he did to be our messiah.

What do we do with this? If Jesus was willing to be identified with sinners for our sake, then we have to make sure we identify ourselves as sinners as well. If Jesus himself has identified himself with sinners, then we have no business saying otherwise about ourselves. Because what do we like to say when we consider our own sin? We like to say, "I'm an ok person, I mean, it's not like I've killed anybody." I love that line, "it's not like I've killed anybody," as if murder is the marker of who goes to heaven, as if murder is the dividing line between a good and bad person. Jesus chose to stand in line with sinners, so we have to make sure that we see ourselves as sinners as well. We can't settle for "I"m an ok person." We have to proclaim that we are sinners, and that Jesus came to save us. Pope Francis, in one of his many interviews, when he was asked, "Who is Jorge Bergoglio?", he responded, "I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon." If the pope calls himself a sinner, then you and I really can't say otherwise.

We have to proclaim that we are sinners, this is really not an option, but then we have to do something about it. Go to Confession! We can't say "I'm an ok person, I'm probably going to go to heaven," as if this is something we want to take a chance on. You don't want to take chances with your immortal soul, the consequences are too high. But more importantly than fear, go to confession out of love. We get tired of bringing the same sins to Confession, I know, but Jesus never gets tired of forgiving us. It's almost unbelievable that God could be so good, surely he must get a little annoyed with all my stupid little sins, right? No! He doesn't, he loves meeting you in confession, no matter how big or small the sin. In confession, the heavens are ripped open so that so that God can meet you right where you're at, so go to Confession

At his baptism, Jesus identified himself as a sinner even though he didn't have to. He did this because he loves you, in order to heal you and save you. Turn to him with your sins, let him heal you and save you. The heavens have been ripped open for you. The Holy Spirit has come down for you. Let Jesus heal you and save you in the beautiful sacrament of Confession.