Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Virtuous Donkey

As we're confronted with this mystery of Palm Sunday, we have to set it in its proper context. Palm Sunday can only be understood in the context of Easter Sunday. The joy of Easter is so huge that it can't be contained in a single day, so we pray through the events that lead to Easter in a three day celebration that starts the evening of Holy Thursday. But even that's not enough so we celebrate the Easter season for fifty days after Easter. But even that's not enough so a little bit of the joy of Easter bleeds over into Palm Sunday as we sing, "Hosanna to the Son of David, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." Our king is coming home to claim his throne, and he's taking us with him. That's what we celebrate on this Palm Sunday.

I want to look at the under-appreciated character of the donkey from the gospel we used at our entrance procession. Now, the gospel tells us that it was a donkey on which no one had ever sat. So it was an unbroken donkey. Now, you and I know well enough that an untrained or unbroken animal is not the kind of animal you want sit on for a triumphal entry. And yet, how did this donkey respond? This donkey recognized perfectly well that the God of the universe had just walked into his life, and he behaved accordingly.

But how do we respond when Jesus walks into our lives, when he wants to depend on us for some special task? If we get called on to do some special task through our prayer or through the circumstances of our life, how do we respond? For example, if God calls us to care for the poor or to take on some suffering at work or at home for his glory, what do we do? Do we respond like this donkey, and overcome our natural inclination to rebel, or do we kick in protest against this task because we didn't ask for it in the first place?

I suspect that for many of us, this dumb donkey responded better to the Lord's tasks than we often do. But when the Lord calls us to do something, when the Lord calls us to a level of virtue that is beyond our sinful inclinations, this donkey shows us what to do and what is to be gained. We have to let the grace of his presence fill us and bring us higher than our natural inclinations. If we accept the tasks he offers us, then we get to share in the glory he receives.

This week the Lord is inviting us to walk the rough road with him from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. He is calling us to receive the gifts of the priesthood and Eucharist on Thursday night, to walk the road to Calvary on Friday, then to wait at the tomb on Saturday. All this is in preparation for the glory of Easter Sunday. So walk the road with him this week.

To help us understand how the Lord's tasks can lead to glory, I want to leave you with a poem from the great English wordsmith G.K. Chesterton titled "The Donkey."

When fishes flew and forests walked
     And figs grew upon thorn,
Some moment when the moon was blood
     Then surely I was born.

With monstrous head and sickening cry
     And ears like errant wings,
The devil's walking parody
     On all four-footed things.

The tattered outlaw of the earth,
     Of ancient crooked will;
Starve, scourge, deride me: I am dumb,
     I keep my secret still.

Fools! For I also had my hour;
     One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
     And palms before my feet.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Covenant and the Cross

In our first reading from Jeremiah, we have the Lord talking about a covenant, about a covenant that he is going to make sometime down the road. He says, "I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah." He goes on to say that it's not going to be like the old covenant, which they broke, but in this new covenant everyone is going to know it, understand it, and live by it, because it will be written on their hearts.

Now, there are covenants throughout the Bible, and covenants are crucial for understanding the Scriptures. So what is a covenant? It's different than a contract. A contract is an exchange of goods or services. If I pay you money to perform a service, we have a contract. But a covenant is different. Rather than an exchange of goods or services, a covenant is an exchange of persons. So marriage is a covenant, it's not a contract. The husband says, "I will give myself completely to you," and in exchange the wife says the same thing. A covenant involves people giving themselves to each other in love. So God has established covenants throughout the Old Testament, most notably with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David. He gave himself to his people through these men, and in exchange he asked that his people give themselves to him.

But they didn't. Time and time again, the story of the Old Testament is God offering his blessing and us saying no. But God remains patient, so we see him here talking about a new covenant. It will not be like the old covenants, but will involve a more full gift of God than he had yet given. This covenant will involve the forgiveness of sins, which frankly is more than we deserve, and in exchange, our half of the covenant is to give ourselves fully to God, because God is giving himself fully to us in Jesus.

So with this background of covenants and exchange of persons in mind, we can understand deeper Jesus' words today. This reading is from near the end of John's gospel, in fact it comes just after Jesus' Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. So in Jerusalem, tensions are high. The authorities in Jerusalem want to kill him, and yet he has come to Jerusalem for Passover anyway.

So Jesus's words here seems to give us insight into what he is thinking: "I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name." Jesus admits that he is troubled, and he proposes being saved from this trial as a hypothetical option for how to relieve his troubled heart. But he immediately discounts that option. For him, it was never an option anyway, he simply puts it out there so we know all know it's there, but it will never be chosen. Instead, his true purpose is revealed in the next line: "Father, glorify your name."

One way to look at the whole purpose of Jesus's ministry and time on earth is that it was all to glorify the Father. Jesus loves his Father completely, and so he wants to glorify the Father. So this has a couple aspects. One, he wants to do the will of the Father. But he wants to do the Father's will so much that it becomes his will also. So with regard's to Jesus's time on earth, the will of the Son was to glorify the Father by redeeming humanity. Humanity is the pinnacle of God's creation, but we fell from our lofty stature by our own choice. So Jesus wants to redeem us, restore us to our former position, in order to glorify the Father who created us.

This redemption of humanity to restore us to our former position can only come about through the total self-gift of the Son, by handing himself over to sinners and being killed. Jesus knows this, and he has fully embraced it. What we are seeing today is Jesus trying to prepare those around him for what he knows is coming.

My friends, next week is Palm Sunday and then begins the holiest week of our entire year. When as a Church we celebrate these ancient events every single year, it's more than just marking a birthday or anniversary. It's more than just marking another trip around the sun since those things happened. Our liturgy, the official prayer of the Church, gives us real access to God, more so than any private prayer or devotion. So when we celebrate liturgically the events of our Lord's Passion, in some real way we relive the events of the Passion. So I want to encourage you to make the liturgies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Easter Vigil a real priority in your life. And I want to encourage you even if it's not convenient. I know we're all busy, but especially if it's inconvenient, these liturgies are important enough to rearrange your schedule for.

Jesus's total gift of self to initiate the new covenant requires from us a total gift of ourselves in return. Remember, a covenant is an exchange of persons, so when I say the words of consecration over the chalice I will say, "This is the chalice of my blood, the blood of the new and eternal covenant." This covenant was won by the shedding of Jesus's own blood. We have to give ourselves completely to him in return. That's how we enter into this covenant. So this means that each of us has to really and truly examine our lives in these days leading up to Easter and we have to really and truly ask ourselves how well we have really entered into this new covenant by giving ourselves completely to Jesus. What angers and jealousies do I hold onto, unwilling to give them to Jesus? What bad habits do I hold onto, thinking that I deserve them? What opinions do I hold contrary to Jesus's Church? What unhealthy friendships do I let stay in my life, thinking that they're not that bad?

Just as Jesus surrendered everything on Good Friday in order to win it back on Easter Sunday, we have to surrender everything to God. We submit everything to him: our habits, our emotions, our friendships, our opinions, and what is bad he gets rid of, what is imperfect he perfects and gives back to us. In order to enter into this new and everlasting covenant, in order to share the life that Jesus offers us, we have to surrender everything to him. That's our role in the covenant between God and humanity. Surrender everything to God, and let him transform everything in your life.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Neutral Media

A couple Sundays ago, the gospel for Mass showed Jesus cleansing the temple in Jerusalem. That day I said in my homily that with regards to entertainment like movies and music, "nothing is neutral." That is, it all either helps or hurts us in our walk with God.

Today in the FOCUS blog, in a post about judging the media we allow into our lives, "Some media is neutral: neither good nor bad for us." Their list for judging the media we allow into our lives is very good, even the point that seems to flatly contradict my point, and I would agree with them, even the seemingly contradictory point. And yet I would stand by what I said.

Ed Viesturs
So let's dive in briefly. First off, obviously, neither FOCUS nor I speak or blog infallibly. That is for the Pope to do ex cathedra. Both FOCUS and I could be way off base. But to reconcile the two statements, that nothing is neutral with regards entertainment and that some media is neutral, I would propose this. Some media is neutral in a generic sense, that is, it is neither moral or immoral. But every piece of media helps or hurts the individual who consumes it based on where he is at in his walk with God. I might put Ed Viestur's book "No Shortcuts to the Top" in this category. Basically, the book is his story of how he became a professional climber and then went on to climb the world's 14 highest peaks.

But for each of us, depending on the particular areas of virtue and vice in our life, even one man's adventure story will help or hurt the individual walk with God. For example, if I am prone to judgment then I might find myself judging, sinfully so, the choices and sacrifices he made to accomplish his obscure goal. If I am prone to rash decisions then reading his stories of danger in the Himalaya might make me waltz off to my local hills unprepared and become the next search-and-rescue story. If I am prone to see the best in things then reading his stories of doggedly pursuing a goal for years might push me to accomplish the delayed goals in my own life. But I truly don't believe that even a mountain climbing book is completely neutral.

Annapurna, Viesturs's final 8,000 meter peak
So if no media is neutral in the end, if it all either helps or hurts, then we have to acknowledge that some of it is so close to neutral that it barely helps or barely hurts the journey. Fine. But then to justify the things that barely hurt, we have to fall back on the flimsy defense of, "It's not that bad." In this regard, just yesterday I heard the apocryphal "dog poop story." Students were trying to justify a movie that had "just a little bit of swearing" in it, and that just a little bit isn't that bad. So the next day she brought brownies to the students and as they were enjoying the brownie she told them that the brownies had "just a little bit" of dog poop in them. After all, just a little bit isn't that bad.

We're dealing with a God who loves us. Our response to him should be one of absolute love. We are preparing our souls to experience unimaginable beauty. We don't want the ugly things of this world, the ugly things we voluntarily let into our lives, to distract us from that ultimate goal. No cheap movies, music, or books are worth the inestimable beauty for which we are created.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Old Photo

Almost all seminarians, if left unattended in a sacristy, will go rummaging through the cabinets, drawers, and closets to see what old vestments or liturgical items they might find. Some seminarians get over this desire to explore once they are ordained. I did not. So I went rummaging through the old archives and records of the parish, and I discovered this picture of what the old Holy Name Catholic Church looked like. The church was built in 1902. The murals were added by a Theodore Braash in 1943.

It was replaced by the new church in 1975.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

God isn't Fair!

This is not a post dealing with the Problem of Job, or the question of why bad things happen to good people. That's an important question, but not what this is about. This is a short reflection on St. Patrick and today's gospel.

First off, St. Patrick's life in very broad strokes: He was born in Britain in the 400's and raised a Christian. While he was still a child he was kidnapped and became a slave in Ireland. After spending six years or so in captivity, he escaped and returned to his family in Britain. There, he studied for the priesthood and received a vision instructing him to return to Ireland. So he returned as a bishop and proceeded to convert the Irish to Christianity, facing much persecution along the way.

Our Gospel today shows Jesus healing a lame man on the Sabbath, and from this point on "the Jews" (St. John's term, not mine) begin to persecute him. "The Jews" will be the antagonist throughout the rest of John's story.

Both Jesus and St. Patrick treated those to whom they ministered better than they deserved. If Jesus was operating under human terms of "fairness," then he could have quite fairly washed his hands of the Jews that were persecuting him. And the same thing with Patrick. He had no reason to return to the people that had enslaved him. It would have been fair of him to never return to that land. But both had moved beyond a human concept of fairness into a realm of self-sacrificial love. They both sought the good of their persecutors, even if it meant more harm would befall them.

This is what we are called to do as Christians, because God could quite fairly wash his hands of us at any time. We abuse and ignore his gifts to us so often, God could quite "fairly" just stop extending them. But he doesn't. Because God isn't fair, God is love (1 Jn 4:8). Because we are so undeserving of God's love, but he loves us anyway, we are called to extend that unfairly-given love to the world. St. Patrick showed us how.

S. Patricium, ora pro nobis.

Christian Music

Let's talk about contemporary Christian music for a minute. I confess, with no contrition at all, that I'm not a fan of most music in the genre. Generally, the musical skill is weak and it subsists on light, airy sounds and breathy lyrics. You find God's love compared to the ocean so much that one friend of mine brilliantly coined the term "ocean music" to refer to the genre. The quality of this music, as judged by the Christian consumer market, can be gauged by the Jesus-per-minutes, or JPMs, that is, how many times can you mention the name of Christ in a minute. The basic formula for contemporary Christian music may be put: More JPMs + more ocean references = better music = more Christian music.

But the most difficult thing about this music is that the Christian life is always presented in unbelievably positive terms. Anyone who experiences doubt can't connect with this music. Anyone who struggles with serious sin can't connect with this music. If you sometimes think the Christian life is just downright tough then this isn't the music for you.

Can you tell I really don't like this music? I don't need to name and criticize specific artists, I'll just point you to any K-Love radio broadcast. A blessed reprieve from this music can be found in Josh Garrels, a talented artist who confronts the difficulty of the Christian life head-on. Being a small artist, he doesn't have a lot of music videos, just YouTube Songs.

This is his song "SISU," which is a Finnish word meaning determination or bravery. His ability to rap is fun, and if you need help with the lyrics go here. The lyrics are worth understanding. If rap isn't your thing, he's got other songs that I'll dive into in the future. So the point of this post isn't actually to rip on contemporary Christian music, but to go through a Josh Garrels song and see what wisdom we can find in it.

So SISU has verses with the chorus after each one. I've not posted all the lyrics here, only the ones I want to discuss.  In the first verse he goes through the difficulty of one caught in sin and unable to get out:
I remember the sins of my youth, the path and the madness of unrestrained pleasure
The heavier trip it made the heavier debter
In the deepest of dark without a wing or a feather,
The spiral closed in like a cage, like a cage
A maze that’s amazing for days turns to rage if the page it refuses to turn
And the hopeless will hope the book burns
When the lesson it returns, but the lesson is still unlearned
And then he's trying to get out of this sin, but he can't. When I'm caught in sin, the meaning of life gets lost. Is life something I must earn or is it simply a gift? Is it just a delaying of death? Is it mine to do with as I like?
See I yearn to discern if a life can be earned or is given as a gift to the dead
I read and I bled and I fed to the full my soul on the sickest of sickness
And then he gives the strongest imagery yet on how tough this sin is to get out of:
Seeking the light of a saviors witness, a way that one day that I might forget this
But slave master wont permit this
Cause I’m a hooker I’m his mistress
And when I look for freedom he puts more chains on me
Strangles my hope so that I live like a zombie
What masters house can this be, that when I look for freedom he still deceives me
 Sin drags you away from God, almost to the point you can't see him anymore:
If there’s a God I screamed, “Answer me!”
I didn't expect an answer to be received, 
The imagery in this song is so much stronger than you ever get in ocean music. But he get's something fundamentally right: sin weighs you down like a bird without wings. Or like a book where you want to turn the page and just can't. Seeking a way out of sin he says the "slave master wont permit this, cause I'm a hooker, I'm his mistress." Contemporary Christian music this is not. In the chorus, he starts to find the path out of the mess he's in:
You must die to be set free, living in the kingdom of God eternally
Open up my eyes so that I can see, and die with a cry revolutionary
Every man and woman is a witness, and we will never forget this
Death to self, living for others, is the path of true freedom. Sin traps us looking inward, sending us on a never-ending spiral of looking for happiness in a place we'll never find it. Then he starts to play out the implications of this truth, this that the death of God's Son saved us. It is powerful, and it can never be compromised.
Undiluted, undisputed, never to be substituted, or uprooted, fully suited for the war
It’s a modernization of a timeless metaphor, and
By the boomerang we bring the beats back more
What for man, do we work exterior to core, or begin it in the spirit of the Lord
Now you could pull the chord, but the people still sing it acapella
Marching to the beat I hear their feet are in the cellar
Fear not the world cannot stop what must begin within you and me
A fire wind, holy hymn, beautiful diadem, hidden within positively pure prism refraction
Every colors broken down, harmonize with my eyes spectrum
In the end bleeding into the One, to the source, to the beautiful father of light
Eventually, he understands that this unstoppable truth is the source of his strength. The Book of Wisdom says of the just souls that, "Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed. because God tried them and found them worthy of himself. As God in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself" (Wis 3:5-6). Our friend Josh Garrels says:
All the pressure and pain, produces perseverance
It’s purged by the flames, without interference
Produces a hope, In the glory of God
My God I am your son, and I know that you will finish the work that you've begun
Homespun, grassroots, spontaneously suits the purpose, and we don’t deserve this
Sin traps you in a web of lies where you pursue an illusory happiness that never fulfills, but you doggedly keep pursuing it because you think that eventually the Father of Lies will eventually deliver on his empty promises. The only way out is dying to your own will and desires and receiving a new life from God.

Josh Garrels has impressed me with his uniquely honest take on the Christian life. It's not easy, and breathy lyrics that compare God's love to an ocean don't speak into the pain that many of us feel, they only cover over it. If you know of any other musicians with this quality in music and honesty in lyrics, please let me know.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Pope Francis Breaks Another Tradition

Pope Francis, thought to be the freshest thing to happen to the Catholic Church since Constantine, set a new precedent, again! Breaking with years of Catholic tradition of saying, "I confess my sins to Jesus in my heart," Pope Francis himself acknowledged that he is a sinner and went to a priest for Confession! By this action, he has refuted the commonly-held belief that confessing one's sins to God in one's heart is sufficient for forgiveness. 

Hopefully you recognize the tongue-in-cheek humor above. But really, at a Penance Service at St. Peter's Basilica today, the Pope went to Confession himself before hearing the Confessions of others. So, my friends, if even the Pope goes to Confession, who are we to say that the Sacrament isn't for us, or that we prefer to confess our sins to Jesus in our hearts? That is not the way to Jesus arranged it. Jesus arranged it so that you can have the definitive judgment of the Church, the Bride of Christ, that your sins are forgiven. That way, you don't have to rely on a subjective feeling of whether or not you feel forgiven. The Church, with all the authority of Christ himself, says that you are forgiven when you receive absolution from a priest. Your sins do not exist anymore.

Confession is not an experience of judgment, but of love. My friends, GO TO CONFESSION!!!

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Suffering...Just Because

We talk a lot about suffering for the name of Christ, and as our culture becomes more hostile towards Christianity I think a lot of us are thinking about it and talking about it all the more. I've long prayed that if, while wearing clerics, I receive abuse for what I stand for, I would have the grace to respond as Christ did before his persecutors: with humble strength. If I'm wearing clerics or some external sign of my Christian identity, then I can make sense of sufferings received from others much more easily.

So much opportunity for grace
But what about sufferings that come just because? What about sufferings that come just because the other person is, quite frankly, a jerk (and who is also a beloved child of God and infinitely worth saving, but who is acting like a jerk). While out for a run the other day, some teenage boys drove by and yelled something at me (dear teenagers in the truck your parents bought for you: I can't hear your full insult when you drive past at 20 m.p.h. over the speed limit). While their insult was lost due to the doppler effect and they very quickly moved beyond my concern, I was reminded of stories of other runners who have had things thrown at them and the like by disgruntled passing drivers. So then I got to thinking about how we handle suffering inflicted on us from people who are just jerks. I really shouldn't be allowed to run more than three miles at a time, because this is what happens.

At such a moment (or fill in your own, like getting cut off in any sort of line, from the supermarket to the freeway), can I rejoice with the apostles at being "found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name" (Acts 5:41)? The apostles were flogged because they refused to stop preaching about Jesus. This seems different. Do I retaliate against unjust suffering from jerks? I think the Christian answer is pretty clearly "No." So what then? Just offer it up? The phrase is a bit overused and trite, but there might be something there.

C.S. Lewis
First, it's worth saying that I don't think we should seek out additional suffering in our lives. I think the Christian life lived rightly opens each of us to just the right amount of suffering to identify us with the Suffering Christ. Sometimes there are luxuries we should deny ourselves. So we buy one less Starbucks every week to increase our tithe and we call it suffering (middle eastern Christians are not impressed), but that's different than seeking out suffering at the hands of jerks.

We don't seek out suffering at the hands of jerks. When I was driving through the school parking lot in high school, I would choose this aisle instead of that aisle, because that aisle is where all the jerks parked. It's wasn't going to be useful to me or them to subject myself to that kind of misery. Don't seek out that kind of suffering.

But sometimes jerks come intruding right into our happy little Starbucks-decreased, tithe-increased, pseudo-suffering lives. Then what? Well one, get away from it if you can. Even if you endure it gracefully, the chances of them saying, "Wow, you endured me throwing my soda at you really gracefully, what is the source of your inner strength that allows you to do that?" and then you getting to preach the kerygma to them are really slim.

So, get away from unnecessary suffering. Avoid jerks until such time as you can convert them. But suffering, any suffering, can be fruitful. Jesus, through his Passion, endowed suffering with meaning. Now that we have a God who has suffered, our sufferings can bring us closer to the divine. So, those who suffer innocently can unite their suffering with Jesus, the ultimate Innocent Sufferer. There is grace in this, grace to grow closer to Christ in a way that can only be done by experience, not by learning.

But there is so much grace in this that there is grace enough to share. There's grace enough to share, and we shouldn't be selfish in the grace that comes from suffering. That's what is meant by the oft-used phrase, "offer it up." If the grace that comes from my little sufferings comes from uniting them to the most important hour of Jesus's earthly life, then the grace from His monumental suffering magnifies the grace from my little suffering and makes it enormously effective. So I do indeed "offer it up" to Jesus (ideally through Mary, in a Marian Consecration) and by doing that I participate in Jesus' all-sufficient work of redemption, and I "fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the Church" (Col 1:24).

Yes! By being heckled by obnoxious teenagers in their truck, I can participate in the sufferings of Christ! Go out, and suffer fruitfully, my friends.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Love and Table Flipping

All of the Sundays of Lent so far have provided us with different angles of this man Jesus, who can be quite mysterious. On the first Sunday of Lent we saw Jesus portrayed as one who could be tempted when he was in the desert. Last Sunday we saw Jesus' divinity when he was transfigured on the mountain. This Sunday we see an image of love. We see Jesus cleansing the temple of things that God in the way between the Father and his children. The other images we could handle, but this image might be difficult for us to deal with.

I suspect that most of us either really like this image, this episode of Jesus' life, or we really don't. Perhaps we really like this idea of Jesus showing this strange emotion, this emotion that is something like anger, because we think it justifies our own anger or other issues and absolves us from having to work on them. Or perhaps we really don't like this picture of Jesus because we think of him as always meek and mild, so we just exclude this picture from our mental image of Jesus. But our job as Christians, as followers of the Christ, is to really learn who this man Jesus is, so that we can make sure we are actually following the Christ, and not some image we've concocted in our heads. So we have to see this man flipping tables, and in a couple weeks the man who will stand silent in the face of false accusations, silent in the face of the cross, who will beg forgiveness for his murderers, as one and the same person.

What's important to see here is that he was so moved by the wrongdoing going on in the temple that he fixed it immediately. It was too severe for him to wait. He wasn't going to talk to the authorities and establish a committee to study the problem. He wasn't going to perform an economic impact study to see if removing the money changers was going to negatively impact the Jerusalem economy. This needed to be changed now. But why was this situation so bad that it needed to be changed immediately? Why couldn't he have changed it in a way that upset fewer people? I mean, if he had conducted a short teaching session rather than flipped a table, he might have gained a few more followers. After all, the people he drove away with a whip probably didn't become his followers, so was it really worth it? Yes, yes it was. In short, humans had constructed a hurdle, not even a full-on roadblock, just a hurdle, between God and his people, and Jesus, out of love, wouldn't allow even this hurdle to stand.

So what's the background here? Basically, animals sacrifice was a part of Jewish life, but by this point the animals used for sacrifice, and the special currency necessary to buy them, was all being bought and sold and exchanged inside the temple courtyard. Profane things had intruded on the realm of divine, and they were hurdles that people had to overcome as they just tried to fulfill their religious duty.

So Jesus, out of love for his Father and his Father's chosen people, destroyed this whole system. God didn't want his people to have any extra hurdles on their way to him, so Jesus took care of it. The temple was the dwelling place of God, so Jesus wanted it to be that again, and not be a marketplace where the things of this world are bought and sold.

The only difference between then and now is where that temple, that dwelling place of God is located today. God doesn't dwell in a temple in Jerusalem anymore, but rather God dwells in the soul of each and every one of you who are baptized. Your heart, your soul, is the dwelling place of God. So now, Jesus is waiting to cleanse your heart the same way he cleansed the temple. Bu he won't do it without your permission. So he waits until you invite him in to purify your heart, that dwelling place of God in you. Your heart should not be a marketplace where the things of this world are bought and sold, but your heart should be dedicated only to the things of God. Your heart is worth purifying, forcefully if necessary, and this is your path to holiness.

Each of us is called to holiness. Each of us is called to be a saint. Holiness, sanctity, it isn't just for strange people of long ago, it isn't just for monks and nuns who live in quiet monasteries, and it isn't just for priests and people who work for the Church. It is for each and every one of us. That's because holiness isn't mindlessly reciting prayers all day, it's not spending all day in the church not talking to people, and it's never boring. Holiness is never boring! Holiness is taking everything about my life and laying it at the feet of the author of life, and letting him transform it. So by drawing near to the author of life and happiness, holiness makes me happier and more alive than I could be on my own. Also, holiness makes you endlessly unique. Sin makes you boring. Jesus is calling you to be a saint, but not a saint like the world has ever seen before. You are to be a new and completely unique saint. And you become a saint by this lifelong effort of purifying the temple of my soul. It's never a finished effort until heaven, but it's something we have to work at our whole life through.

Now remember, what Jesus was dealing with in the temple, these salesmen and money changers, all they had done was make the journey to God more difficult, not impossible, and yet even this increased difficulty was worth flipping out for.  That's how much Jesus loves us. For ourselves, we let all sorts of things into the temple of our hearts, into our lives that make our journey to God, more difficult. An easy one to think about is the entertainment we use. There are some forms of entertainment - music, movies, television, sports, etc - that are so wholesome that they actually make us better people, and there are some that are so awful you can't take them in and still pretend to be a Christian. But most fall in the middle. Most secular entertainment acts as hurdles. They don't actually make a relationship with God impossible, but they make it tougher.

So what does Jesus do with these hurdles? If you haven't figured it out yet, he banishes them immediately. So we have to surrender everything, even the things we use for entertainment, to God and see what he wants to do with them to make us holier. Remember how I said holiness is unique? He may not want to get rid of all the things we use for entertainment. Some of these secular or middle of the road entertainments he may be able to transform to our benefit. But the thing is, it's up to God, it's not really up to us, what sorts of secular entertainments we let into our lives, because he knows us better than we know ourselves. So we can't decide for ourselves what sort of movies and television is good for us, that's a matter for God. But none of it is neutral. Nothing in this world is neutral, it will all either hurt us or help us to be saints.

So be a saint, be a unique saint, be a saint that the world has never seen before. Be a saint by letting Jesus cleanse the temple of your heart of everything that is not of him. Surrender everything in your life to him, and let him remove all hurdles between you and the Father. Doing this will not make you bored or sad, it will actually make you happier than you are today. This relationship with God is the most important thing in your life, let Jesus cleanse you of everything that does damage to that relationship, and you'll experience a happiness on this earth that actually prepares you for the happiness of eternal life.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Putting Jesus in a Box

This event we just heard we call the Transfiguration, because Jesus’ appearance, his figure, was temporarily transformed in front of his disciples. Every year we hear the story of the Transfiguration on the second Sunday of Lent. So let's set the context. Every year on the first Sunday of Lent we hear the story of the temptation in the desert, and then every year on the second Sunday we hear the story of Jesus going up the mountain and being transfigured. The two readings stand in contrast to each other. On the one hand, in the desert Jesus is presented as one so like us that he is even tempted by the Devil like us, except he resisted. And then on the other hand, at the Transfiguration Jesus is presented to us in all his divine glory, as someone totally other, someone completely unlike us.

This image of Jesus today is an important one for us to consider because it helps to remind us that Jesus isn't just a guy who happens to be really holy. At the Transfiguration, a bit of the veil was lifted, and these chosen apostles got to see who he really is. They got to see his divinity. So we don't want to downplay what happened here. The apostles got to see Jesus in all his divine glory, or at least as much as their sinful humanity could bear. Whatever it means to see Jesus in his glory, they got to see it, and even afterwards when this gospel was being written, words failed them. They couldn't adequately describe what they had seen, so they settled on explaining that his clothes became whiter than bleach, whiter than anything.

What they witnessed was beautiful. It was terrifying, but it was beautiful. And because it was so beautiful, it put their ugliness, their sinfulness, in stark contrast. And yet, even though this beauty was terrifying, and even though it made them keenly aware of their sins, it was not repellent. The words of Peter indicate that he never wanted to leave, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” His reference to tents can also be translated as booths or tabernacles, basically, “dwelling places,” and it seems to be a reference to the Jewish feast of booths. At the feast of booths the Jews would live in simple structures for eight days as a way to remember their time in the desert and to rejoice in God’s blessings. So Peter wanted to stay in this moment of blessing, to stay at this mountaintop experience of Jesus’ Transfiguration.

Peter wanted to stay here because he knew he was experiencing something good. Not the way we throw around the word good (“How ya doing?” “I’m good.”), but he was experiencing goodness itself. In the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis, one character is describing Aslan the Lion, who is a Christ-figure in the story, and he says, “Safe? … Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn't safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

This king of ours, Jesus Christ, isn't safe for us either, but he’s good, he’s the source of all goodness. If we have settled for a mediocre life, for a mediocre Christianity, if we’re content with wallowing in our sins, then Jesus isn't safe at all because he calls us to greatness. Many of us settle for a “good enough” sort of Christianity, where we think “I’m good enough to get to heaven,” and so we think that absolves us from having to work on our sins or having to work on following Jesus closer. That’s the kind of Christianity that a real encounter with Jesus is threatening to, so we try to put Jesus into a box. Maybe we put him into our Sunday box, and we pull him out for once a week on Sunday to talk, but then we put him away again so he doesn't intrude on the rest of our lives. Basically, we try to conceive of him in terms we can understand, in terms we can grasp. But we can’t approach Jesus like that.

If we worship a Jesus we can understand and contain, if we worship a Jesus that is safe, then we’re not actually worshiping Jesus. What we’re doing is taking our ideas of what he should be: nice, gentle, non-challenging, non-threatening, and we’re worshiping that. We’re not worshiping Jesus; we’re worshiping our own ideas. In that case, we've turned our own ideas into an idol, and we’re worshiping that.

But the thing about Jesus is that he is his own person, independent of our ideas about him. The question, “Who is Jesus to me?” kind of misses the point. So at another point in the gospel when Jesus asks the apostles, “Who do you say that I am,” he wasn't taking a public opinion poll. He was looking for that one right answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But asking, “Who is Jesus to me?” would be like asking, “Who is Father Brian’s mom to me?” (just roll with it). There would be a lot of ways to answer that question wrongly, and  if you get it wrong I'm going to be upset. But there are very few ways to get it right, because my mother is her own person (a delightful woman), independent of your or my ideas about her. To get it right, you either need to meet her and get to know her, or hear about her from someone who knows her. But just to try to think your way to what my mother is like would undoubtedly lead you to a wrong conclusion. Same with Jesus, he is his own person, independent of what we think about him, so our job is to get to know the real Jesus and not to get caught up in our own ideas about him.

And we get to know him through the Scriptures and through the Church that he established. So this Lent, I would highly recommend you dust off your Bible, pick a gospel, you've got four options, and just read it. And meet Jesus through the Sacraments, especially Confession and the Eucharist. Through them, we meet the real Jesus, the one who both forgives our sins and calls us to not sin anymore. Jesus showed the apostles his glory unveiled at the Transfiguration. That same glory of the real Jesus is present to us, veiled in the Eucharist and all the other Sacraments. As we prepare to celebrate the mystery of our redemption at Easter, pray to Jesus that he might break through the safe walls we've built around him and show us who he really is.