Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Crotchety Old Saint

One of the Renaissance Popes, standing before a painting of St. Jerome who was clothed in sackcloth and holding a rock with which to beat his chest, observed that it was fitting that Jerome held that stone because without it one could hardly consider him a saint!

Jerome was a complex man. Born c. 342 in Stridonius, a small town at the head of the Adriatic Sea, his full name was Eusebius Hieronymus Sophronius. He was well-instructed in the Christian faith by his family, then sent off to Rome for grammar and rhetoric. His native tongue was the Illyrian dialect, but he became fluent in both Greek and Latin and read widely. He apparently wasn't a bad speaker and could even have become a lawyer. As a young man he enjoyed life and cooled down a bit in his earlier religious fervor. Nevertheless, Pope Liberius baptized him at age 18, and Jerome himself attests that he and his friends used to visit the tombs of the Apostles and martyrs on Sundays. He enjoyed deciphering the inscriptions on the walls of the catacombs!

He and a boyhood friend, Bonosus, travelled to his native Aquileia where he made friends with some of the monks in the monastery there, especially Rufinus. From there they went on to Gaul, landing in Trier (Trèves), and it was here that Jerome decided to devote himself wholly to God. He spent a number of years in scholarly studies and copying texts, eventually ending up back in Aquileia. In the late 4th century, he decided to go East, passing through Athens, Bithynia, Galatia, Pontus, Cappadocia, and Cilicia, arriving in 373 at Antioch. He and the three friends who accompanied him stayed in the city only a short time, then relocated to the desert of Chalcis, about 50 miles southeast of Antioch. Jerome stayed there four years, studying and practicing austerity. He befriended a monk who had been a Jew and who became his mentor in the study of Hebrew. Later he spoke of how hard it was to learn "...this language of hissing and broken-winded words. What labor it cost me, what difficulties I went through, how often I despaired and left off, and how I began to learn again..." Along with this, he faced the human challenges of every person who has ever embarked upon the eremitical life, as his letters to his friend, Eustochium, daughter of Paula, reflect: "...burnt up with the heat of the sun, so scorching that it frightens even the monks who live there, I seemed to myself to be in the midst of the delights and crowds of Rome...In this exile and prison to which through fear of Hell I had voluntarily condemned myself, with no other company but scorpions and wild beasts, I many times imagined myself watching the dancing of Roman maidens as if I had been in the midst of them. My face was pallid with fasting, yet my will felt the assaults of desire...I threw myself in spirit at the feet of Jesus, watering them with my tears, and tamed my flesh by fasting whole weeks..."

Jerome moved among some of the greatest Christian writers and leaders of that era. He and Augustine of Hippo were buddies and shared many mutually-praising letters back and forth. He knew Ambrose. He knew the famous Cappadocian Fathers: Basil; Gregory Nazianzus, under whose tutelage he studied Scripture in Constantinople in the 380's; and Gregory of Nyssa. While back in Rome after leaving Constantinople, Jerome attended a council of Pope Damasus, who was so impressed with him that, after the council, Damasus appointed Jerome as his secretary. Damasus then asked Jerome to undertake a complete new translation of the Gospels and the Psalter into Latin from the Greek and Latin. Along with this project, he also took under his wing a new group of Roman ladies of nobility who had become Christian ascetics, a number of whom were later canonized saints, notably St. Paula. Jerome was particularly close to the latter and to her two daughters, Blesilla and Eustochium.

For all his reputation for holiness and asceticism and great learning, Jerome also had another, less pleasant side. He made a lot of enemies, both of folks whom he had condemned, as well as Christians of taste and tolerance. They were often turned off by Jerome's biting sarcasm and even ruthlessness in taking people to task. One example, and my personal favorite, is Jerome's diatribe against worldly women who, he says, "...paint their cheeks with rouge and their eyelids with antimony, whose plastered faces, too white for human beings, look like idols; and if in a moment of forgetfulness they shed a tear it makes a furrow where it rolls down the painted cheek; women to whom years do not bring the gravity of age, who load their heads with other people's hair, enamel a lost youth upon the wrinkles of age, and affect a maidenly timidity in the midst of a troop of grandchildren..." Yowser!! He surely wouldn't have had any stock in Maybelline or Revlon! Methinks he and the likes of Joan Rivers or Phyllis Diller might not have hit it off too well!

Jerome's scorn wasn't limited to women. Certain men of the Roman clergy got their equal opportunity for scorn also: "...All their anxiety is about their clothes...You would take them for bridegrooms rather than for clerics; all they think about is knowing the names and houses and doings of rich ladies..." Ouch! And that didn't even include their fancy vestments!

Jerome, honestly, really overdid it: whether in person or in his correspondence, and even though, most of the time, his criticisms were somewhat valid. As you might guess, no mercy was wasted upon Jerome in return. His reputation was attacked by various and sundry people. They didn't like his bluntness; they didn't even like the way he walked or the way he smiled! Jerome, especially because of his association with the ladies under his direction, was the object of scandalous chatter. Jerome finally got fed up with it all, and left Rome in August, 385, to go back East. With the help of Paula and some of the other women who also left to go to the Holy Land, Jerome established a monastery for men near the place of Christ's birth in Bethlehem, as well as houses for three women's communities.

In this more peaceful phase of Jerome's life, things were good, and Jerome waxed bucolically: "...Here bread and herbs, planted with our own hands, and milk, all country fare, furnish us plain and healthy food. In summer the trees give us shade. In autumn the air is cool and the falling leaves restful. In spring our psalmody is sweeter for the singing of the birds. We have plenty of wood when winter snow and cold are upon us. Let Rome keep its crowds, let its arenas run with blood, its circuses go mad, its theaters wallow in sensuality..." Jerome continued his study and writing, especially as need arose when others challenged various Church teachings: Mary's virginity after Jesus' birth; clerical celibacy; the veneration of saints' relics; the teachings of Origen, etc. He also hired Bar Ananias, a distinguished Jewish scholar who helped him continue his Hebrew studies. This inspired him to tackle the translation of most of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures from the original. In the process he even studied Chaldaic. The fruit of his many years of scholarly labor on the Latin translation of the Scriptures came to be known as The Vulgate [versio vulgata = a commonly used translation], adopted by the Council of Trent in the 16th century as the authentic and authoritive Church text.

Jerome's dear friend, Paula, died in 404 and six years later he learned of Alaric the Goth's sack of the city of Rome. He grew more and more distraught as refugees from Rome wandered eastward. He was, at the time, working on a commentary on Ezekiel, but as he himself notes: "...I have put aside my commentary on Ezekiel and almost all study. For today we must translate the precepts of the Scriptures into deeds; instead of speaking saintly words, we must act them..." Not long after, around 418, Jerome fell ill. By this time he was worn out from from his work, his austerity, his sadness. His sight and voice were rapidly failing, his body little more than a shadow. At age 78 he died peacefully on September 30, 420. Initially Jerome was buried under the basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In the 13th century his remains were moved to the Sistine Chapel of the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Had I done my homework better when I visited Santa Maria Maggiore in 1998, I could have visited the Crypt of the Nativity or Bethlehem Crypt where Jerome is buried. Perhaps next time! Especially since I'm as crotchety an old man sometimes as he was!

Things I didn't know about St. Jerome:
- he introduced the "Alleluia" chant into the Sunday Mass
- he's largely responsible for the daily celebration of the Divine Office
- he was the one who wrote the following famous lines. Jerome wrote this to Pope Damasus as part of his passionate declaration of his loyalty to the Church and to the Pope. The first sentence was drummed into every Catholic boy or girl of my era: "Outside the Church there is no salvation. Anyone outside the house of the Lamb is unclean; anyone outside the Church cannot be holy..." I had difficulty with that then, and certainly don't believe it now. Thank God, at least the good nuns at school only quoted the first sentence to us...!

As is often said, the saints are to be admired, but not always to be imitated. Sorry, Jerome: I have tremendous respect and admiration for you, but I still don't agree with you! But then, I can imagine Jerome's rejoinder in typical style: "Even if someone paints a picture of you wearing sackcloth and with a rock in your hand, I doubt that anyone would ever mistake you for a saint!" Touché!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Holy Michael the Archangel

Michael (Hebrew: מִיכָאֵל‎, Micha'el; Greek: Μιχαήλ, Mikhaḗl; Latin: Michael or Míchaël; Arabic: میکائیل‎, Mikā'īl) is an archangel in Jewish, Christian and Islamic tradition. He is viewed as the commander of God's Army. He is mentioned by name in the Book of Daniel, as "one of the chief princes" as well as the advocate of Israel and the "great prince who stands up for the children of your [Daniel's] people"; the Book of Jude; and the Book of Revelation. There is no further mention of Michael in the Hebrew Bible.

The Talmudic tradition rendered Michael's name as meaning "Who is like El?", a rhetorical question, implying the answer, "No one is like God." Much of the late Midrashic detail about Michael was transmitted to Christianity through the Book of Enoch, where it was further elaborated.

In late medieval Christianity, Michael, together with Saint George, became the patron saint of chivalry. In the British honors system, a chivalric order founded in 1818 is also named for these two saints, the Order of St Michael and St George.

The Feast of Holy Michael and All Angels is celebrated on September 29 ("Michaelmas"). Michael the Archangel is traditionally depicted as treading on Satan or a serpent, or carrying a banner, scales, and sword. He is honored in many Christian circles as the patron of soldiers, especially paratroopers and fighter pilots; police officers; the sick; paradmedics; mariners; and grocers. He is also considered the guardian or protector of the Jewish people. The idea that Michael was the advocate of the Jews became so prevalent that, in spite of the rabbinical prohibition against appealing to angels as intermediaries between God and his people, Michael came to occupy a certain place in the Jewish liturgy. There were two prayers written beseeching him as the prince of mercy to intercede in favor of Israel: one composed by Eliezer ha-Kalir, and the other by Judah b. Samuel he-Hasid. In later Jewish writings, particularly in Kabbalistic works, he is viewed as "the advocate of the Jews." Michael is also a patron of Germany and of the City of Brussels. Most Christians refer to him as "Saint" Michael the Archangel. Orthodox Christians refer to him as the Taxiarch Archangel Michael or simply Archangel Michael.

Some believe the numinous "
captain of the host of the Lord" encountered by Joshua in the early days of his campaigns in the Promised Land is Michael the Archangel. This unnamed heavenly messenger is of supernatural and holy origin, and likely sent by God. There is some controversy about this, however. In other places in the Bible, angels do not accept the worship of humans; the willingness of this person to accept Joshua's worship implies that he was divine (e.g., a theophany of God). However, it's not clear whether the angel was the subject of Joshua's worship or merely instigated worship of God.

In the War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness, Michael is described as the prince of light, leading forces of God against the darkness of evil, who is led by Belial. He is described as the "
viceroy of heaven", a title that is said to have formerly belonged to the Morning Star.

Michael is designated in the Book of Enoch, as "
the prince of Israel". Enoch 9:1 mentions Michael, along with Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel and Suriel. Enoch 20:5 speaks of Michael presiding over human virtue in order to command nations; in 24:4-10 Enoch, before the Tree of Life/Mercy, explains to Michael that he should not touch it, for it is for those who are 'elect' after the day of Judgement; Enoch 40:8 says that Michael is patient and merciful; and Enoch 70:11-16 shows that Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Phanuel always 'escort' Yahweh whenever he leaves his throne.

According to rabbinic Jewish tradition, Michael acted as the advocate of Israel, and sometimes had to fight with the princes of the other nations, particularly with the angel Samael, Israel's accuser. The rabbis declare that Michael entered upon his role of defender at the time of the biblical patriarchs, and refer to Michael as the "one that had escaped" (Genesis 14:13). Michael is said to have protected Sarah from being defiled by Abimelech, announced to Sarah that she would bear a son, and rescued Lot at the destruction of Sodom. It is also said that Michael prevented Isaac from being sacrificed by his father by substituting a ram in his place; saved Jacob, in his mother's womb, from being killed by Samael, and prevented Laban from harming Jacob. According to one source, it was Michael who wrestled with Jacob and who afterward blessed him.

The Epistle of Jude mentions Michael, as well as the book of Revelation, or Apocalypse: "And there was a great battle in heaven, Michael and his angels fought with the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven." In Catholic teachings, St. Michael will also triumph at the end times when Antichrist will be defeated by him.

According to some Christian theologians, Holy Michael may appear in Scripture where his name is not mentioned: for example, the cherub who stood at the gate of Paradise, "t
o keep the way of the tree of life"; the angel through whom God published the Decalogue for his chosen people; the angel who stood in the way against Balaam; and the angel who routed the army of Sennacherib.

It may have been natural for Michael, the champion of the Jewish people, to become the same for Catholic Christians. Early Catholics, however, regarded some of the martyrs as their military patrons. To Holy Michael they entrusted the care of the sick. In Phrygia (modern-day Turkey), where Holy Michael was first venerated, his prestige as an angelic healer obscured his role in military affairs. From early times Holy Michael was said to have caused a medicinal spring to spout at Chairotopa, near Colossae, where all the sick who bathed there, invoking the Blessed Trinity and Michael, were cured. At Constantinople likewise, Michael was honored as both a warrior and a great heavenly physician. His principal sanctuary, the Michaelion, was at Sosthenion, some 50 miles south of Constantinople. He supposedly visited Emperor Constantine the Great at Constantinople, intervened in assorted battles, and appeared, sword in hand, in Italy over the mausoleum of Hadrian, in apparent answer to the prayers of Pope St. Gregory I the Great that a plague in Rome should cease. In honor of the occasion, the Pope called the mausoleum Castel Sant'Angelo = Castle of the Holy Angel, as it is still known today. The sick slept in this church at night to wait for a manifestation of St Michael.

In Normandy, Michael is the patron of mariners in his famous sanctuary at Mont-Saint-Michel in the Diocese of Coutances. He is said to have appeared there, in 708, to St. Aubert, Bishop of Avranches.

In Germany, after its evangelization, Michael replaced the pagan god Wotan for the Christians, to whom many mountains were sacred; hence the numerous mountain chapels of Holy Michael all over Germany.

In art Michael is represented as an angelic warrior, standing over the dragon whom he sometimes pierces with a lance, fully armed with helmet, sword, and shield which often bears the Latin inscription, "Who is like God?". He also holds a pair of scales in which he weighs the souls of the departed, or the Book of Life, to show that he takes part in the judgment. Michaelangelo depicted this scene on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

In Arabic literature, Michael is called Mikha'il. In the Qur'an, Michael is mentioned once only. In the English epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton, Michael commands the army of angels loyal to God against the rebel forces of Satan.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Blessed Clives Staples Lewis (1898-1963)

Clive Staples Lewis, commonly referred to as C. S. Lewis and known to his friends and family as "Jack", was an Irish-born British novelist, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian and Christian apologist. His writings are well-known, especially The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Space Trilogy.
Lewis was a close friend of J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of
The Lord of the Rings. Lewis was a leading figure in the English faculty at Oxford University and was part of the informal Oxford literary group known as the "Inklings". Lewis was baptised in the Church of Ireland at birth, but fell away from his faith during his adolescence. The influence of Tolkien and other friends led Lewis, at about the age of 30, to return to Christianity, becoming "a very ordinary layman of the Church of England". His conversion had a profound effect on his work, and his wartime radio broadcasts on the subject of Christianity brought him wide acclaim.

In 1956, he married the American writer Joy Gresham, who was 17 years younger. Literally the "joy" and love of Lewis' life, she died four years later of cancer at the age of 45. Lewis himself died three years after that, following a heart attack, one week before what would have been his 65th birthday. Reports of his death were overshadowed by the assassination that same day, November 22, of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. It was also the same day on which Aldous Huxley died.

Lewis's works have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold millions of copies over the years. The books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia have sold the most and have been popularised on stage, in TV, in radio, and in movies.

Yom Kippur: the Day of Atonement

Yom Kippur is undoubtedly the most important holiday of the Jewish year. Many Jews who do not observe any other Jewish custom will refrain from work, fast and/or attend synagogue services on this day. Yom Kippur occurs on the 10th day of Tishri. The account of its institution is found in the Hebrew Scriptures in Leviticus 23:26ff.

Yom Kippur means Day of Atonement, a day set aside to “afflict the soul,” to atone for the sins of the past year. Jews believe that on Yom Kippur, the judgment entered in the books in which God inscribes all of the people’s names is sealed. This day is, essentially, one’s last appeal, a last chance to change the judgment, to demonstrate repentance and to make amends.
Yom Kippur atones only for sins between man and God, not for sins against another person. To atone for sins against another person, one must first seek reconciliation before Yom Kippur with that person, righting the wrongs committed against them, if possible.

Yom Kippur is a complete Sabbath; no work can be performed. It is well-known that one is expected to refrain from eating and drinking (even water) on Yom Kippur. In other words, it is a complete 25 hour fast, beginning before sunset on the eve of Yom Kippur and ending at nightfall on Yom Kippur itself. Rabbi Irwin Kula , of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership explains the significance of the fast: “...What fasting does is it says I’m not going to concentrate on my physical body right now. I’m going to concentrate on a different kind of food. Rather than nutrients for my body, I’m going to concentrate on the nutrients for my spirit, and my heart, and my ethical way. So when you feel hungry at two o’clock in the afternoon, the feeling of hunger is not so that you’ll be in pain. The feeling of hunger is to stimulate two things: What am I really hungry for—because it’s more than just food. What am I really hungry for in my spiritual and ethical life? And who really is hungry that I need to feed? And if you take those two insights from the practice seriously, it’s working. That’s what atonement—that is what “at-one-ment” means...

The Talmud also specifies some less well-known additional restrictions: washing and bathing, anointing one's body with cosmetics, deodorants, etc., wearing leather shoes (Orthodox Jews routinely wear canvas sneakers under their dress clothes), and engaging in sexual relations. As always, any of these restrictions can be lifted if a threat to life or health is involved. Children under age nine and women in childbirth are not permitted to fast, even if they want to. Older children, and women from the third to the seventh day after childbirth are permitted to fast, but are permitted to break the fast if they need to do so.

Most of Yom Kippur is spent in the synagogue, in prayer. In Orthodox synagogues, services begin early in the morning (8 or 9 AM) and continue until about 3 PM. People then usually go home for an afternoon nap and return around 5 or 6 PM for the afternoon and evening services, which continue until nightfall. The services end then, with the blowing of the tekiah gedolah, a long blast on the shofar.

The Yom Kippur observance includes a number of prayer services. Unlike a regular day, which has three prayer services, or a Shabbat or Yom Tov, which have four prayer services, Yom Kippur has five prayer services (Ma'ariv; Shacharit; Musaf; Mincha; and Ne'ilah, the closing prayer). Perhaps the most important addition to the regular liturgy is the confession of the sins of the community. All sins are confessed in the plural: “we have done this, we have done that”, emphasizing communal responsibility for sins.

The morning prayer service is preceded by litanies and petitions of forgiveness called selichot; on Yom Kippur, many selichot are woven into the liturgy of the mahzor (prayer book). The morning prayers are followed by an added prayer (Musaf) as on all other holidays. This is followed by Mincha (the afternoon prayer) which includes a reading of the entire Book of Jonah, which has as its theme the story of God's willingness to forgive those who repent. The service concludes with the Ne'ila ("closing") prayer, which begins shortly before sunset, when the "gates of prayer" will be closed. Yom Kippur comes to an end with a recitation of Shema Yisrael and the blowing of the shofar, which marks the conclusion of the fast.

There are two basic parts of this confession: a shorter, more general list: “we have been treasonable, we have been aggressive, we have been slanderous...”, and a longer and more specific list: “for the sin we sinned before you forcibly or willingly, and for the sin we sinned before you by acting callously...” Frequent petitions for forgiveness are interspersed in these prayers. There's also a catch-all confession: “Forgive us the breach of positive commands and negative commands, whether or not they involve an act, whether or not they are known to us.

It is interesting to note that these confessions do not specifically address the kinds of ritual sins that some people think are the be-all-and-end-all of Judaism. There is no “for the sin we have sinned before you by eating pork, and for the sin we have sinned against you by driving on Shabbat”, though obviously these are implicitly included in the catch-all. The vast majority of the sins enumerated involve mistreatment of other people, most of them by speech (e.g., offensive speech, scoffing, slander, talebearing, and swearing falsely, etc.). These all come into the category of sin known as “the evil tongue”, which is considered a very serious sin in Judaism.

The concluding service of Yom Kippur, known as Ne'ilah, is one unique to the day. The Ark, a cabinet where the scrolls of the Torah are stored, is kept open throughout this service, and the congregation remains standing. There is a tone of desperation in the prayers. The service is sometimes referred to as “the closing of the gates”, a sort of last chance to get in a good word before the holiday ends. At the end of the service there is a very long blast of the shofar.

It is customary to wear white on Yom Kippur, symbolizing purity and calling to mind the promise in Isaiah 1:18 that our sins will be made as white as snow. Some people wear a kittel, the white robe in which the dead are buried.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

A Reflection on Jesus' Hard Sayings

If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off...And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off...And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out.

When I visited a parish in Chester, England about 15 years ago, they were in the midst of a series of sermons, given by lay preachers, called “The Hard Sayings of Jesus”. I remember thinking how brave those folks were in tackling such a project. It’s hard to talk about such sayings as Mark records in the Gospel assisgned for today’s liturgy (Mark 9:38-50), much less to understand what in the world Jesus is really trying to tell us!

A commentator on this passage whom I discovered recently, and who is well-versed in the ideas and theories of French historian, philosopher, and literary critic, René Girard, says he has a hunch that Jesus is actually employing some dark humor in this Gospel passage. There’s a terribly serious point which Jesus is making, to which we need to pay close attention. But Jesus’ use of dark humor to make the point should also alert us to keep that in perspective. Just as a sidebar: one of the ideas which René Girard has developed is something called mimetic desire. Mimetic is related to the word mime or to imitate. The word desire is fairly understandable. So, mimetic desire would indicate that we imitate, we mime, the desiring of other people.

To understand how this connects to today’s Gospel, recall what Mark records in Chapter 9:30-37: the disciples have a conversation on the way to Capernaum, about which Jesus confronts them later, only to find out that, as Mark says, “they had argued with one another who was the greatest...” Jesus then reminded them that the “greatest” needs to become “last of all and servant of all.” In other words, Jesus reminds the disciples that many of our troubles -- on the personal, regional, national, or global level -- arise from this very process of catching our desires from each other, learning to want the same things, and in the process, competing with one other, which generally leads to selfishiness and conflict, and even violence sometimes. Scripture uses the word covet, as in “You shall not covet your neighbor's things.” The focus is on our brothers/sisters, from whom we learn to desire.

Clergy often joke about a good sermon consisting of three points and a poem. I’ll spare you the poem today, but I will use an old Jules Pfeiffer cartoon to exemplify this idea of mimetic desire. It starts with a high school student standing there, saying: “Ever since I was a little kid, I didn't want to be me. I wanted to be Billy Wittleton. Billy Wittleton didn't even like me. I walked like he walked; I talked like he talked; I signed up for the high school he signed up for. Which was when Billy Wittleton changed. He began to hang around Herbie Vandeman. He walked like Herbie Vandeman; he talked like Herbie Vandeman. He mixed me up. I began to walk and talk like Billy Wittleton walking and talking like Herbie Vandeman. And then it dawned on me that Herbie Vandeman walked and talked like Joey Haverland. Joey Haverland walked and talked like Corky Savenson. So here I am walking and talking like Billy Wittleton's imitation of Herbie Vandeman's version of Joey Haverland's trying to walk and talk like Corky Savenson. And who do you think Corky Savenson is always walking and talking like? Of all people, dopey Kenny Wellington, that little pest who walks and talks like me.

How often we think that we can’t find anything desirable unless we crave what others demonstrate to us to be desirable. It’s the same principle which is at work in Genesis 3: the story of the man and woman and the serpent in the garden of Eden. God tells the man and woman not to desire eating the tree in the middle of the garden, and they obey, at first. But eventually, the fruit becomes more and more desirable, because the serpent shows the woman what to desire, and she, in turn, shows the man. Mimetic desire.

The Genesis story, however, has an even more tragic element. The most direct way to show the woman and man the desire would have been for the serpent to take a piece of the fruit himself, which the woman later actually does, before handing it to the man. The writer of Genesis, however, says that the serpent, the most subtle and crafty creature in the garden, makes the fruit desirable with a classic “Madison Avenue” technique: by “selling” the woman on believing that the most glamorous, powerful, trustworthy person in the world, namely God, finds the fruit desirable! “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God...

The tragedy here is that instead of keeping their hearts set on God, trusting that God would provide all that they need, as God had assured them, the man and the woman begin to doubt God. “Is God maybe holding out on us?” “Might God be keeping back the best fruit from us?” The man and woman now become rivals with God, competing with the Divine, and so they act on their desire. The result is that they can no longer remain with God in the Garden. As the story continues to play out, the ultimate fruit of their rivalry, which they pass down, is an ongoing and growing resentment and anger, until one of their sons becomes a murderer. Brother kills brother. Resentment, anger, conflict, violence, death. It’s their story and the story of each one of us since then. Desire becomes distorted, and continually results in a repetitive process of rivalry, one-ups-man-ship, and eventually violence. Children catch it from their parents, and all end up stumbling and falling.

It could be that in today’s passage Jesus is trying to take a somewhat humorous, perhaps even tongue-in-cheek, approach to these terrible images of hell fire, using an example of mimetic desire and rivalry. The disciples, who have previously struck out in their attempts to drive out demons, had come upon someone else who’d obviously had better luck at casting out demons in Jesus' name. That didn’t go down well with them at all: “...we tried to stop him...” Obviously jealous and envious, they couldn’t stand the success of this other person “because he was not following us...

Is it possible that the disciples’ reaction struck Jesus as so pathetic that he had to laugh?! Which could explain why Jesus continued by demonstrating what they were doing, but in a darkly humorous way: i.e., the stuff about making little ones stumble and having a millstone around your neck; about your hand or foot or eye making you stumble, so you cut it off. It’s definitely
dark humor because it indicates how serious things really are. It helps us appreciate the seriousness involved in making “one of these little ones”, a sister or brother, stumble and fall; and, even more so, in sometimes setting examples as adults which lead our own children to stumble and fall. The consequences of all this stumbling into sin, Jesus hints, are the fires of violence. Mark’s Greek word, géenna, Gehenna, which we translate as hell, refers to the "valley of Hinnom", a place where, in ancient Israel, child sacrifice, the burning of children on an altar, had been practiced. The fires of violence, Jesus hints, isn’t a place that God has created for us, but rather what we create for ourselves. The fire of our own human cravings and competitiveness and even violence, our desire and selfishness to have what others have, and even more; our willingness to do anything to get that, even if it means depriving another or cutting off another, or causing a brother or sister to stumble: that is the hell we create. Jesus says that we might as well cut off our hand or foot, or cut out our eye, if that's where we're going to end up, because that would be a more humane sacrifice than putting “one of these little ones” on an altar and burning them.

Could it also be that Jesus uses these words of dark humor, not to be taken literally but, perhaps with a grain of salt, so that he could offer us another way out, a totally different kind of sacrifice. Jesus, in dying on the cross, allows
himself be cut off from us and from God, to be thrown into the sacrificial fires of our violence. Jesus trusted and hoped enough that God wouldn't let him stay cut off, and rightfully so. Jesus, one-ed as he was in faith to God's self, became the way in which you and I could become reconnected, one-ed again with God. "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned." (John 15:5-6)

Notice the same image for the consequences of not being connected with God through Jesus: being gathered up and thrown into the fires of our own violence. The Good News is that in being connected, one-ed, to the true vine who is Christ, we finally experience God's
loving desire coming to fruition in us and for us. This is our way out of the stumbling block of our distorted mimetic desire, out of our passing this along to our children and to others.

The great 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich, in her
Revelations of Love, speaks eloquently about our human situation of constantly rising and falling, and of our being one-ed in Jesus by his great mercy. Towards the end of her books she says:

If there is any such one alive on earth who is constantly kept from
falling, I know it not, for it was not shown me.

But this was shown:
that whether in falling or in rising
we are ever preciously protected in one love.
In the sight of God we do not fall;
in the sight of self, we do not stand --
and both of these are true as I see it, but the way our Lord God
sees it is the highest truth...

But our good Lord wills always that we see ourselves more from the
point of view of the higher
(but not give up knowledge of the lower)
until the time that we are brought up above,
where we shall have our Lord Jesus for our reward,
and will be filled full of joy and bliss without end...

Kol Nidre: the Beginning of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement

Once again this evening I'll join my friends, Susanne and Al Batzdorff, at Congregation Beth Ami for the observance of Yom Kippur. Kol Nidre is a prayer recited in the synagogue at the beginning of the evening service. When the congregation has gathered, the Ark is opened and two leading men in the community take from it two Torah scrolls. Then they stand, one on each side of the hazzan (cantor), and the three recite a formula: "In the tribunal of heaven and the tribunal of earth, by the permission of God -- blessed be He -- and by the permission of this holy congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with the transgressors." Then the cantor chants the Aramaic prayer beginning with the words Kol Nidre, with its moving plaintive and touching melody, and gradually increasing in volume, repeats three times the following: "All vows [Kol Nidre], obligations, oaths, and anathemas, whether called konam, konas, or by any other name, which we may vow, or swear, or pledge, or whereby we may be bound, from this Day of Atonement until the next (whose happy coming we await), we do repent. May they be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, and void, and made of no effect; they shall not bind us nor have power over us. The vows shall not be reckoned vows; the obligations shall not be obligatory; nor the oaths be oaths."

As a side note, it's interesting to point out that the strains of the Kol Nidre are almost exactly outlined by the pneuma or neume [inflective mark, signfying one to five notes], given in the Catholic Sarum and Ratisbon antiphonaries, as a typical passage in the first Gregorian chant mode. The strains are also similar to the first five bars of Beethoven's C Sharp Minor Quartet, Op. 131, Period 6, Adagio quasi un poco andante.

After the chanting of the Kol Nidre, the leader and the congregation repeat three times from Numbers 15:26: "And it shall be forgiven all the congregation of the children of Israel, and the stranger who sojourns among them, seeing all the people were in ignorance." The hazzan then closes with the benediction: "Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who have preserved us and brought us to enjoy this season." The Torah scrolls are then replaced, and the customary evening service begins. All told, I was alerted that the service will last about three hours.

The history of Kol Nidre is a checkered one. There were heated discussions and arguments wihin the Jewish community through the centuries whether it should even be recited. The formula was also modified periodically, and, as with most human and religious groups, practices regarding the Kol Nidre vary among various regions and synagogues.

The teachers of the synagogues have never failed to make clear that the dispensation from vows in the Kol Nidre refers
ONLY to those which an INDIVIDUAL voluntarily makes for himself/herself alone, and in which no other persons or their interests are involved: e.g., contracts, business agreements, etc. The formula refers solely those vows which have to do with the relation of one to one's own conscience or to the relation of one with the Heavenly Judge. The purpose of the Kol Nidre in nullifying one's vows, in the opinion of Jewish teachers, is to give protection from God's punishment in the event that one violates the vow(s). Nevertheless, no vow, promise, or oath concerning another person, a court of justice, or a community is implied in the Kol Nidre.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626): Doctor, Bishop, Saint

Anyone like Blessed Lancelot Andrewes who befriended the likes of Richard Hooker, George Herbert and William Laud would certainly be a friend of mine!

A truly amazing man by any standard, Andrewes has been described by Rowan Greer, Professor of Anglican Studies Emeritus at Yale Divinity School, as "arguably, the most brilliant scholar the Church of England has ever produced", and by T. S. Eliot as having a place "second to none in the history of the formation of the Church of England". The next time you read from the King James Version of the Scriptures, bear in mind that Lancelot Andrewes, who could read in 21 languages and was fluent in 15, not only largely translated into English the books of Genesis through the 2nd Book of the Kings in the KJV, but also, along with the Bishop of Gloucester, had final authority from King James to review and revise the whole translation before it was published!

Convinced that true theology is based on sound learning, Andrewes is said to have given himself to five hours of prayer daily. One of his pupils and friends, Henry Isaacson, relates that "from the hour he arose, his private devotions finished, to the time he was called to dinner, which, by his own order, was not till twelve at noon at the soonest, he kept close at his book, and would not be interrupted by any that came to speak with him...Insomuch that he would be so displeased with scholars that attempted to speak with him in a morning, that he would say 'he doubted they were no true scholars that came to speak with him before noon'..." Even for an unmarried, reclusive cleric, that's real commitment!

I would love to have attended and/or concelebrated the Eucharist (once a month!) with Blessed Lancelot in his private chapel, which is said to have been outfitted with an altar, candlesticks, two altar cloths, an altar book cushion, silver ciborium, a censer, and five copes! -- But that's just me. I think my friend, Fr. Leo Joseph, OSF, would have enjoyed that, too!

Andrewes was a preeminent preacher, especially at the royal court. He himself spells out a formula that would stand anyone who publicly unfolds the Scriptures for others in good stead: "Let the preacher labour to be heard intelligently, willingly, obediently. And let him not doubt that he will accomplish this rather by the piety of his prayers than by the eloquence of his speech. By praying for himself, and those whom he is to address, let him be their beadsman [i.e., an intercessor] before he becomes their teacher..." He recommends that a preacher "raise to [God] a thirsting heart before he speaks of [God] with his tongue..." He says he prays to "our Lord and Master" to give him "the internal and sweeter doctrine of His own inspiration..." so that he can set forth for his hearers the truth, and that "from this very truth I desire to be taught the many things I know not..." He asks that God "correct me wherein I am (which is human) in error; confirm me wherein I waver; preserve me from false and noxious things; and make that to proceed from my mouth which, as it shall be chiefly pleasing to the truth itself, so it may be accepted by all the faithful..."

Henry Isaacson sums it up thus: "...Of the fruit of this seed-time, the world, especially this land, hath reaped a plentiful harvest in his sermons and writings. Never went any beyond him in the first of these, his preaching...So that he was truly styled, 'an angel in the pulpit.'"

And after having written all this, I have to go and preach at an evening Eucharist in about 3 1/2 hours! Blessed Lancelot, pray for me!

Friday, September 25, 2009

The "Builder of Russia"

The life story of St. Sergius of Radonezh (1314?-1392) is a classic one of a person who was entirely poor in spirit and open to God from a very young age. He essentially had nothing to offer anyone except himself: a gentle, honest, humble, giving spirit. That openness was like a magnet, drawing people of all ages and social strata, religious and political, to him for advice, counsel and prayer. He was and remains the greatest national saint of Russia.

The Most Reverend Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, a titular metropolitan of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Great Britain, in his noted book The Orthodox Church, first published in 1963, points out two aspects of Sergius' greatness: 1) as a sort of explorer and colonist; and 2) as the catalyst for a new dimension of the spiritual life in Russia.

Intending to be a hermit, Sergius founded his Monastery of the Holy Trinity in the remote wilderness, apart from the civilized world. Yet, as Metropolitan Kallistos says, "what started as a hermitage soon grew into a regular monastery, with a civilian town outside the walls. Then the whole process would start all over again: a fresh generation of monks in search of the solitary life would make their way into the yet more distant forest, disciples would follow, new communities would form, fresh land would be cleared for agriculture..." The disciples of Sergius founded fifty communities just in his lifetime, and the next generation founded forty more!

St. Sergius was also a contemporary of St. Gregory Palamas (1296 - 1359), a monk of Mount Athos in Greece and later the Archbishop of Thessaloniki, and known as a preeminent theologian of hesychasm. Hesychasm, from the word for "stillness, rest, quiet, silence", is an eremitic tradition of prayer in the Eastern Orthodox Church, and some other Eastern Churches of the Byzantine Rite. The practice is based on the injunction of Jesus in Matthew's Gospel to "go into your closet to pray". Hesychasm in tradition has been the process of retiring inward, to the stillness of the heart, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God. Sergius was possibly familiar with the Hesychast movement in Byzantium. His biographer, Epiphanius, records visions granted to Sergius in prayer which can only be considered mystical.

Sergius earned the title "Builder of Russia" because politically, he helped Moscow develop as a major center and he had a hand in the repelling of the Tartar threat to Russia; geographically, as mentioned above, it was predominantly his taking the monasteries into the forests that encouraged community-building around them; and spiritually, he profoundly influenced the Russian Church and culture through his own experience and teaching of mystical prayer.

Not only did Russian spirituality overall prosper from 1350-1550, but particularly icon painting, especially among Sergius' spiritual children. It was during this time, in 1410, that St. Andrei Rublev wrote his famous and familiar icon of the Holy Trinity (shown above). For me personally, that icon is the most special. I've found that it has "followed" me around at various points in my life, and I keep a copy of it at the center of my prayer altar here at home. You might want to look at Henri Nouwen's well-known Behold the Beauty of the Lord, with his insightful interpretation of several major icons, including Rublev's.

O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that we, inspired by the devotion of your servant Sergius of Moscow, may serve you with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the age to come...Amen.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Pioneer & "Bishop of the Cross"

If you want to read an amazing story about sheer determination and fortitude, take a look at the life of Blessed Philander Chase (1775-1852): farmer, husband and father, missionary, bishop, and Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church! Being a true, natural-born Ohio Buckeye, I was, of course, fascinated by the fact that Philander was the first Episcopal Bishop of Ohio (and later, of Illinois!), starting out in 1818 with 5 clergy, 8 lay people and no church buildings! Within 13 years, by 1831, he had personally founded 12 parishes, and had raised the equivalent, according to today's standards, of over a half million dollars in England to found Kenyon College and Bexley Hall seminary. Unfortunately, the Diocesan Convention of 1831 edged Philander Chase out because of their perception that he exercised too much single-handed control over the diocesan holdings. It left Bishop Chase understandably bitter, and he continued to publicly decry the "dark conspiracy" which had led him to resign.

Married twice, the first time to Mary Fay, he raised four children, one of whom died early on; Mary died of tuberculosis in 1818. Shortly thereafter he married Sophia May Ingraham, who had a son and daughter of her own. He lost two of his boys to death, one being Philander, Jr. whom he himself had ordained deacon in 1823.

Some of the firsthand accounts of the conditions under which Chase travelled and worked in his ministry rather boggle the mind, particularly as he grew older. Though it may have been true that he was something of a "control freak" when it came to his various projects and dreams for his people, one can hardly question his sincerity, his commitment to the building up of the Church, and his unshakeable faith. Bishop Doane of New Jersey acknowledged this in a comment which he made about Bishop Chase in the House of Bishops in 1835: "A veteran soldier, a Bishop of the Cross, whom hardships never have discouraged, whom no difficulties seem to daunt."

Monday, September 21, 2009

Matthew: "God's Gift"

In the fall of 1995 I blocked out a week for private prayer and continuing education at our motherhouse, Julian House Monastery, in Wauksha, WI. My time, unfortunately, was cut short because of the death of a parishioner, and I had to return home on the fourth day. That was the feast of St. Matthew the Evangelist, September 21, just two weeks after Sister Scholastica Marie, OJN had been installed as Guardian of the Order of Julian of Norwich. Her sermon that morning was one which, at the time, resonated very deeply with me, and I've never forgotten it. Sister Scholastic Marie was gracious enough to give me a copy of her sermon, and I'm happy to share it with you now.

"Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom-house and said to him, 'Follow me'; and Matthew followed him." (Mt. 9:9 - REB)

"Several years ago I heard a sermon on the healing of blind Bartimaeus, the man who sat by the side of the road and cried out to Jesus, 'Son of David, have mercy on me.' I'm sure you do, and when Bartimaeus responded that he wanted to receive his sight, Jesus healed him. The story ends with--'Immediately he received his sight and followed Him on the way.' The preacher on this particular occasion exhorted the congregation that WE must not be like blind Bartimaeus, only crying out to Jesus for what He can do for us and then disappearing--never to be heard from again. Never to be heard from again? Which one of us is to define how we shall be known in the Kingdom? Never to be heard again? Bartimaeus did exactly what St. Matthew was invited to do--'Follow Me'--and Bartimaeus 'followed Him on the way.' After one responds to Jesus' invitation--the manifestation of our 'yes' is not our business. It is not up to us to proclaim our place in the kingdom--we are simply called to follow Him.

Perhaps, like me, you have wondered if it would be much easier to 'follow Him' if Jesus Himself had walked into our places of work and said, 'Follow Me.' Then we'd know FOR SURE that we were following the will of God for our lives. Right? NO! Then we would only have the same questions and doubts of the 1st cenutry disciples--is He really the Son of God? Are you the one or should we look for another? What about us? We have left everything to follow...?

Being a tax collector gives you choices. You can throw caution and friendship to the wind and squeeze plenty out of people. Or you can be reasonable, give the authorities what they demand, and live decently off the rest. This much people understand and perhaps grudgingly accept. But someone else was watching the proceedings which took place in that busy docking area in Capernaum. A certain man from Nazareth was in the area, and small groups were meeting in a couple of the local houses. It is possible that He and Levi, son of Alphaeus as he is called in Mark and Luke's Gospels, had already spoken a number of times--nothing lengthy or intimate, perhaps odd moments of sizing each other up during casual conversation. One day a figure passed that small window which overlooked the pier to allow the tax-collector to keep a keen eye on all the hustle and bustle. A moment later the figure blocked the light from the door and sent deep shadows over Levi's neatly written column of weights and amounts.

Whether Levi actually walked out of his office there and then does not really matter. But it may well be that he often looked back to that moment as the time when something ended and something began. Life is often like that; its dividing lines appear clear and neat only in retrospect. But that was the moment when Levi said, 'yes,' and probably like the rest of us, not knowing quite what he was saying Yes to, but knowing only a Person Who called and Who had to be followed. It changed him deeply and forever. He expressed that change in his name. Because he always felt that the encounter was worth more than all the calculations and contracts in his ledgers, he saw it as a gift beyond price. So he became Matthew, which means, 'God's gift.'

To the extent that we possess intimations and yearning for God, we are all Matthew. Yearning for God is His gift to us. There are rare souls, not necessarily brilliant or academic or saintly in the accepted sense, who possess certainties, who walk with God for much of their life. But most of us discover God only in moments of presence and flashes of insight. Yet these moments and flashes mean that we have been encountered by One who is offering us the gift of Himself. It means that, as for Levi carrying on his business on the landing pier of Capernaum, there is One who approaches and speaks and withdraws again, waiting for our response.

From our side--response is the beginning of OUR gift giving. Levi becomes Matthew not only because he realized that Jesus had come as a gift to him, but because he in turn has offered himself as a gift to Jesus. One of the unbelievable facts in the relationship between Christ and men and women is that the process of giving ourselves is done in total freedom. We can withhold ourselves. I personally know several people who up until now have continued to make that choice. Levi did not lay down his pen and book in a hypnotic trance. His allegiance was not forced. He did not become less Levi by becoming Matthew. Rather for the first time he recognized with blinding clarity the Levi part of him and accepted it as good material from which something else could be created.

The call of Levi, the changed to Matthew, made eyes widen and tongues wag in that long ago community. Whenever a Levi becomes a Matthew we are always astonished. At a party in Levi's house Jesus was questioned on the seeming strangeness of his choice. His answer, which we are continually forgetting, even as we look in the mirror, 'I did not come to call the virtuous, but sinners." (Sermon of Sister Scholastic Marie, OJN, September 21, 1995)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Simply Chosen

Samuel K. Davis writes this:

Think your way back now,
to when you were no longer little,
and not yet grown up --
to when you were in between.

Time after time,
back then,
you heard that word
Choose partners --
Choose captains --
Choose up sides.

Sooner or later
that innocent little word
became painful
and humiliating.

Remember not being chosen? --
or being chosen last?
Everyone waited
for the other side
to take you first.

Everyone politely
that it didn’t matter.
But there was a
in your heart
that it did.

They were picked;
you weren’t;
and that mattered
and that hurt.

The story of Jesus
says something very simple.
It says
the simplest,
clearest thing
that anyone can ever say
or ever hear.

It says
you are chosen,
Now and always,
whoever you are,
whatever you are like,
wherever you go.
You are chosen.

You are simply

For those of us who are Christian, our belief tells us that every person is chosen, simply chosen, to be a servant of others, with Jesus. To live as a chosen one of God calls for a persistent, radical, obedient faith: a faith that requires standing with him, in his power alone, when the suffering which is inevitable comes to us in our serving.

Fr. Daniel Harrington, a Catholic priest/professor at Boston College’s School for Theology and Ministry, and who is celebrating his 50th anniversary as a Jesuit this year, says in this regard: “
When I hear about the sufferings of just people, I am challenged to reflect on their courage and to wonder how I would cope in such a situation. But more important than my self-doubt is the recognition that I belong to a heroic people and a heroic tradition for which principle has often been more significant than any other consideration. I am proud to stand in the tradition of...the anonymous just man of [the book of] Wisdom, Jesus, the early martyrs...and all those who suffer this day for their faith.” I’m not sure how comforting a message that is to Christians who, in fact, live in and are influenced by a largely non-believing, self-reliant American culture which espouses and promotes the principle: “Nice people finish last.

Wisdom 1:16-2:1, 12-22 spells out such a philosophy of life, which ultimately is really one of death. It details the contrast between fools, which Scriptural wisdom literature also calls “
the wicked”, and the wise. This is a favorite theme of the Psalms: the way of the foolish compared with the way of the righteous. The fool’s orientation is to oneself and to one’s own preferences and pleasures. James, in the Epistle, dares to identify the source of such a way of life by the almost quaint phrase “your passions”, “your cravings”.

From the fool’s perspective, nice people always finish last because they don’t get the fact that the aim of life here is basically to
have things: good and costly things; to feel good and to have fun, to endlessly pursue whatever “high” is available; and to be somebody important. The weak, the wimp, the “righteous” person deserves to be pushed aside as irrelevant. “...Let our might be our law of right, for what is weak proves itself to be useless.

Following Jesus the Christ, as he bids us, is a hazardous enterprise! A person who does that, you see, is inconvenient; he/she is a reproach, just by who he/she is, an obstacle, an accusation. That kind of person is a constant reminder, a reproof, a burden “
because his[/her] manner of life is unlike that of others, and his[/her] ways are strange.

St. James, in Chapter 3:13-4:3, 7-8a, sets in contrast to such jealousy and selfish ambition the image of one who is genuinely wise and righteous. That one, he says, is pure, peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, without uncertainty or insincerity.

In the Gospel of Mark (9:30-37) Jesus gives us an idea of what that might look like: “
If anyone would be first, that one must be last of all and”, more than that, “servant of all.” (For “servant” Mark uses the Greek word diakonos literally “one who runs errands; is an attendant, a waiter”. We call that a “deacon”!) Jesus asks nothing more of you and me than he asks of himself: “I came not to be served, but to serve.” Then, unconcerned about rank or status, Jesus does a truly counter-cultural thing by sitting down and gathering a small child into his arms. In our culture a little child is, for the most part, irresistible, endearing, someone to whom we’re naturally drawn. That wasn’t so in Jesus’ time. Adults were consumed with earning honor, above all else. Honor was a socially acknowledged claim to worth. A grown person might do the ethically correct thing, but if he/she didn’t earn other people’s respect, their honor, or wasn’t acknowledged for whatever reason, that person was a nobody. There were various ways to earn honor: to show bravery, be a brilliant speaker, become a well-respected teacher, or give gifts away -- in other words, to buy one's honor. To serve others was considered the work of slaves. When Jesus was later crucified, for example, that was considered not only an extreme loss of honor: it was the ultimate disgrace. Notice in the reading how Jesus catches the disciples off-guard as they arrive at Capernaum. He quizzes them on what they were wrangling about on the way there. Oh! That...! Mark’s little aside to his readers blows their secret: “...they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest...

Getting back to the child, in the Greco-Roman world a child was utterly powerless, totally dependent, without legal rights, completely subject to the authority of the head of the household, lacking any social standing at all. By his action Jesus says that the man or woman who welcomes and accepts an utterly defenseless person, one with no legal rights or claims to anyone’s compassion, one who can’t offer money, who has no prestige, privilege, and therefore power: that man or woman is
truly righteous and wise before God. And, in his book, “nice” people always finish first, because in welcoming the needy one, he/she welcomes Jesus as well as the Father who sent him. That means much more than that it’s “nice” to stick up for the underdog. What Jesus is really saying is that it’s exactly there where you take the risk of offering your compassion to a defenseless, needy one that you will look into the eyes of Jesus himself.

But, you see, the fools and the unwise don’t get this, because their passions, their cravings get in the way.
Why do people deliberately cheat and steal, and cause misery in millions of lives when the stock market crashes?? Why do people con others into drug or alcohol addiction or child prostitution, and into all the other miseries associated with that?? Because at the root of every one of these is a passion, a desire, a craving for what
I want, when I want it, and how I want it, to put ME before everyone else. St. Augustine, himself a self-willed, long-time student in the school for selfishness, eloquently reflects on it all in his famous Confessions, written when he was between 43 and 46 years old, about thirty years before he died, and his conclusion is this: “You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.

Though the society in which we live will continue to try to convince the “nice” people that in following Jesus they’ll end up last, the Eucharist which is shared among Christians convinces them otherwise. In Jesus’ resurrection which Christians celebrate together as they participate in Word and Sacrament, they learn through Jesus’ example of giving himself completely to humankind how to become servants, “deacons”. They will not be left out after all. Through the challenging and strange irony of choosing to be last of all and servant of all for his sake, they find themselves first in the lives of the ones they serve, in their own lives, and before God. Simply CHOSEN. Period.