Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sweet Scripture

The second lesson in Morning Prayer today (2 Corinthians 14-3:6) is a good example of what I call "sweet Scripture". Notice the vibrant images which St. Paul uses in writing to his beloved church in Corinth
with such obvious tenderness and love:  

"But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not peddlers of God's word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence. Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life."

The most "triumphal procession" I can remember takes me back to the old days of our annual parish Corpus Christi processions at St. Patrick's, Troy, OH. All us school children were decked out in our best: the girls in white dresses, the boys in dark suits, with ties (!), each carrying full bouquets of snap-dragons, roses, carnations, etc. We were followed by the vested deanery priests who preceded the Blessed Sacrament in the gold monstrance, carried by the golden-coped celebrant walking under a canopy borne by four Knights of Columbus, with plumed hats and shiny swords, and assisted by a gold-vested deacon and subdeacon. In front of them walked a server whose incense-filled thurible poured forth clouds of sweet-smelling smoke. Talk about fragrance and aroma! We paraded around the whole perimeter of the side aisles, then back up the middle aisle to our pews, the altar party continuing on into the sanctuary.

By our lives, Paul says, for good or ill, you and I are "the aroma of Christ to God" and to one another, either a life-giving or death-dealing "fragrance". He intimates that if we constantly live in God's presence, we'll take on what some in the past used to refer to, sometimes seriously, sometimes in jest, as "the odor of sanctity". For Paul it bears a deeper meaning: that you and I are "persons of sincerity...persons sent from God". In spreading the Good News, the fragrant, life-giving Word embodied in Jesus, Paul says, we're not "peddlers of God's word like so many". Peddlers of the Word are interested in one thing: promoting themselves and their own "infallible"version of salvation, and making money on it in the process. Tune in to almost any of the current so-called TV evangelists, and you'll get the idea.

The other image St. Paul employs is that of his hearers being his "letter, written on our hearts". The heart, the seat of love, is where Paul holds his beloved Corinthians, even with all the good and not-so-good traits which he accords to them in his first Letter. Holding them in his heart, he prays that this "letter", written not in ink but in the living Spirit who brings us, through our confession of Jesus as Lord, "into love and harmony with God, with ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all of creation", as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, may become visible and read by all in the lives which you and I lead.

Paul's final reminder is that this is all possible, not by anything we can do of ourselves, but through God's competence alone, empowering us to be "ministers of a new covenant": a covenant of self-giving love, a covenant not of the confining letter but of the living Spirit.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Mary, Lent & The Paschal Mystery

He'd just finished a long teaching session.
She'd been sitting quietly toward the back, taking in all he'd said.
A grandmotherly type. She waited till the others had dispersed.
Walking up to him, smiling, she took his face in her hands and said: "Yeshua, blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts that nursed you!!

His warm hand lifted and grasped hers on his cheek, as he smiled and said: "Ah, but rather blessed are those who hear Yahweh's word and keep it."

His mind, at that moment, wandered back several years, to a day when he'd talked with his mother, Miriam, as she worked in the kitchen. The kind of quiet conversation with his mom in which a young boy delights.

He'd asked all sorts of questions: the kind which young boys ask when important issues and things that don't make sense come to their minds, in no particular order.

His mother had paused as he asked how he'd come to be, how he'd been born to her and Joseph, and why Joseph was his "stepfather".

With a far-away look in her eyes Miriam spoke softly of that day, many years ago when she was a young girl. She and Joseph has just been betrothed, married, for all practical purposes, though she hadn't yet gone to live in his house.

That particular day she was on her way to the well to draw water, when she suddenly became aware of a Presence. It was both like a dream, yet like it was really happening.

Out of the Presence came silent words which seemed to be directed to someone else. She must've misunderstood: "Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you."
She knew that she was a good Jewish girl; Anna and Jehoiakim had raised her such.
But what she was hearing was language for someone special, someone very close to Yahweh: not for someone as ordinary as she.

She'd tried not to seem alarmed, though she was, as the Presence conveyed to her that she would soon become pregnant, immediately, in fact; that she would bear a son, and that his name would be Yeshua. "How nice," she remembered thinking momentarily. "Yeshua, 'he saves'". A lot of boys whom she knew had that name.

Suddenly the message began to register with full impact. All this talk of a great son, and thrones, and never-ending kingdoms began to confuse and truly frighten her.

"How can this be, since my betrothal hasn't even been consummated?" she'd exclaimed. "I'll be stoned if anyone finds out that I'm pregnant!"

As Miriam told her son the story, she'd paused briefly, sitting very quietly, then continued:
The Presence had spoken of the Spirit and the Most High's power overshadowing her, and even as the word came to her she'd felt in her body that it had been done. Something was different, something was new.

"The child to be born will be called holy: the Son of God."
Trying to grasp the reality of this moment, she'd heard further words about her cousin, Elizabeth, also being with child, and all this she verified when she'd visited Elizabeth shortly thereafter.

The words had kept ringing in her ears all through the days of her pregnancy: "For with Yahweh nothing is impossible."

She'd then related to Yeshua how in that strange and sudden moment, it had all begun to make sense despite her misgivings and uncertainty.
From somewhere deep within her being she'd summoned up the courage to say aloud what she was feeling: "I am Yahweh's handmaid; let it be to me according to your word."

+    +    +

Yeshua came back from his reverie, back to the present, back to the smiling face of the old lady in front of him. From the expression on her face, as she looked him straight in the eyes, he knew that she understood what he'd just said: "Blessed, rather, are the ones who hear God's word and keep it."

You and I are about to once again conclude the Lenten season and to celebrate Holy Week which leads us into the glorious Resurrection mystery where, in the words of the preacher of Hebrews, we've been "consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all."

We're about to realize anew just how great are God's "wonders and...plans for us". Of course,
that doesn't preclude our being irritated occasionally at those plans! Just when you and I think we've settled in, and found that comfortable niche which we've always looked forward to, the one we thought we deserved after all our hard years of following Jesus, God has a pesky way of interrupting our lives with a different agenda.

Though we hold out to God weak reminders of all our past "sacrifices and offerings", what the Psalmist and the Hebrew preacher call "burnt offerings and sin offerings", God isn't buying it. If we "get" even a hint of the meaning of the Paschal mystery, we can figure out that God wants, not these things from us, but the same as Jesus gave on the Cross: ourselves, our whole lives. "Behold I come." "...I have come to do your will, O God." "Here am I, the servant of the Lord."

Providentially, we will have the weeks of Eastertide ahead to contemplate what all this might mean for us personally, how each of us might articulate her/his "Here am I" to God. Martin Smith, in his magnificent collection of readings for the days of Lent, A Season For the Spirit, reflects that "[t]here is no place in me, however dead, however false, that is out of the reach of the Risen Christ." He adds: "In these forty days we have 'practicing the scales of rejoicing,' allowing the Spirit who is alive within us to show us a little more of our self, more of our many selves that make each one of us a microcosm of the humanity God is healing through Christ...The Spirit has acted as the Advocate of some of the conflicted, gifted, wounded, imprisoned, banished, beautiful, desiring, lost, angry, fearful, creative selves whom we are usually so reluctant to face...By showing us how [the Risen] Christ touches each self of my self the Spirit has helped empower us some more to act as the agents of his touch for others." 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

"We Want To See Jesus"

Many years ago I came upon a poem entitled Meditation on the Greek Event, written by an unknown poet, Albert Newton:

All they said is
  “We want to see Jesus”
  and that’s the last we hear of them
no ‘Well, show them in’
    no ‘What are they up to?’
  no ‘What Greeks?’
no ‘Not right now -- I’m too busy”
no nothing
  about the Greeks
‘cause the story is not about the Greeks
but Jesus.
All the Greeks are is an event
in a way beyond our comprehend
  they are a sign
    that now is the time
      not yesterday in the wandering
      not tomorrow when it’s done
      not when we looked for it
      not when the shadow broke its shade
      not even when the wine is free
but now
  when the world says
    I’ve heard of something
      I want to see.
So it’s time
  when it may still be Greek to you
    but not to me
  though I may not yet understand
    I want to see
      and be.
As this Lenten season moves towards the great Holy Week, you and I, too, “want to see and be”. To do so we need to really look at the Cross which, already next week, will be graphically set before us in the Passion, and at the man stretched out upon it. You and I come to see God face to face only through this human Jesus who can deal gently with our ignorance and waywardness because of his own experience of human weakness. This is One acquainted with “loud cries and tears”, with obedience and suffering and death. And you and I come to be only through him who “being made perfect...became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him...” 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Joseph: The Father of Jesus

"Joseph" derives from Hebrew = Yahweh will increase/add, in Tiberian Hebrew and Aramaic Yôsēp̄.  The name can be translated as Yihoh Lhosif.

The earliest Gospel, Mark, makes no mention of Joseph of Nazareth. Matthew identifies him as a descendent of Abraham, his grandfather being Matthan and his father, Jacob. Luke identifies him as "a man...of the house of David" who was engaged to a young woman, Mary of Nazareth. In John's Gospel one of Jesus' followers, Philip of Bethsaida, tells his friend, Nathanael, of "him about whom Moses...and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth." Apparently, Jesus was fairly well known among those to whom he preached, if John 6:42 is accurate: "They were saying, 'Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know?..." Of the four Evangelists, Matthew and Luke give us the most information, though it's still sketchy, about Joseph.

"Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus." (Matthew 1:18-25)

From this passage we can generally assume that Joseph was a normal Jewish man, capable of falling in love and entering into an engagement with Mary/Miriam through her family; that he was sensitive to Mary's puzzling pregnancy situation; that he was "righteous", decisive, and faithful in following God's lead. 

There's always been speculation about how old Joseph was, but the Scriptures are silent on that detail. For some reason many artists depict him as an older man. Wikipedia has this to say: "Up to about the 17th century Joseph tends to be depicted as a man advanced in years, with grey hair, often balding, occasionally frail and with arthritic fingers and a sharp nose, a comparatively marginal figure alongside Mary and Jesus if not entirely in the background, passive other than when leading them on their flight to Egypt. Joseph is shown mostly with a beard, not only in keeping with Jewish custom, but also because – although the Gospel accounts do not give his age – later literature tends to present him as an old man at the time of his wedding to Mary. This depiction arose to allay concerns about both the celibacy of the newly wedded couple [an assumption based on Mt 1:25], the mention of brothers and sisters of Jesus in the canonical Gospels, and Joseph's other children spoken of in apocryphal literature – concerns discussed very frankly by Jean Gerson for example, who nonetheless favoured showing him as a younger man. In recent centuries – in step with a growing interest in Joseph's role in Gospel exegesis – he himself has become a focal figure in representations of the Holy Family. He is now often portrayed as a younger or even youthful man (perhaps especially in Protestant depictions)..."

Luke's Gospel narrative speaks of Jesus' birth, naming, and presentation in the Temple. "Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn..." Luke 2:4-7) Joseph is pictured as a law-biding Jew, and one who made such provisions as were available for his pregnant wife.

"After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb..." (Luke 2:21) Though Luke doesn't specifically name Joseph, we may assume from Matthew's account, Matthew 1:21; 25, that Joseph gave Jesus his name: " are to name him Jesus...", and "...he named him Jesus."

"When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord..." "Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God..." (Luke 2:22; 27-28)

Matthew fills in another gap, though he gives only a general time frame ("...after [the  Magi] had left..."), by saying: " angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod..." (Matthew 2:13-15) "...When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth..." (Matthew2:19-23)

That's pretty much the sum total of what we know directly about Joseph from the Scriptures. The rest is speculation. The references which we have describe him as being a tekton = artisan, probably in wood, but perhaps also iron and stone. We'd call him a blue collar working man. Given the other Scriptural descriptions and intimations, we wouldn't be far off in concluding that Joseph was conscientious, probably skilled in what he did,  and a good provider for his family. It's also not unreasonable to assume that Joseph might have shared some of his expertise with his young son, Jesus. In short, the image we're left with is of a solid, generous, goodhearted man, an observant Jew, a reliable husband, and the kind of father a son would admire and try to imitate.

It was the Roman Catholic custom, when I was confirmed, to assume the added name of a patron saint. Though I don't remember exactly how I came to it, "Joseph" was my choice. Something in the Bible stories which the nuns told us must've stuck with me. Having grown up without my natural father, perhaps there was some influence, too, by the fact that his middle name was "Joseph". Whatever the reason, my devotion to St. Joseph as a dependable father-figure has endured. I also learned later in life that burying a statue of St. Joseph, upside down (!), in the yard of a house one wants to sell brings about favorable results. While some claim that it's true, I have no firsthand experience. Fully aware of the superstitious nature of the practice, some months ago I sent a statue of St. Joseph to my niece in Alaska for her to plant in the yard prior to their family's move to Oregon. To date, the verdict is still out on whether St. Joseph will come through!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Apostle of Éire

From the Confessio of St. Patrick:
"I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many, had for father the deacon Calpurnius, son of the late Potitus, a priest, of the settlement of Bannavem Taburniae; he had a small villa nearby where I was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people, according to our deserts, for quite drawn away from God, we did not keep his precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought down on us the fury of his being and scattered us among many nations, even to the ends of the earth, where I, in my smallness, am now to be found among foreigners.

And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance. And he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.

Therefore, indeed, I cannot keep silent, nor would it be proper, so many favours and graces has the Lord deigned to bestow on me in the land of my captivity. For after chastisement from God, and recognizing him, our way to repay him is to exalt him and confess his wonders before every nation under heaven.

For there is no other God, nor ever was before, nor shall be hereafter, but God the Father, unbegotten and without beginning, in whom all things began, whose are all things, as we have been taught; and his son Jesus Christ, who manifestly always existed with the Father, before the beginning of time in the spirit with the Father, indescribably begotten before all things, and all things visible and invisible were made by him. He was made man, conquered death and was received into Heaven, to the Father who gave him all power over every name in Heaven and on Earth and in Hell, so that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and God, in whom we believe. And we look to his imminent coming again, the judge of the living and the dead, who will render to each according to his deeds. And he poured out his Holy Spirit on us in abundance, the gift and pledge of immortality, which makes the believers and the obedient into sons of God and co-heirs of Christ who is revealed, and we worship one God in the Trinity of holy name.

He himself said through the prophet: ‘Call upon me in the day of’ trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.’ And again: ‘It is right to reveal and publish abroad the works of God.’

I am imperfect in many things, nevertheless I want my brethren and kinsfolk to know my nature so that they may be able to perceive my soul’s desire.

I am not ignorant of what is said of my Lord in the Psalm: ‘You destroy those who speak a lie.’ And again: ‘A lying mouth deals death to the soul.’ And likewise the Lord says in the Gospel: ‘On the day of judgment men shall render account for every idle word they utter.’

So it is that I should mightily fear, with terror and trembling, this judgment on the day when no one shall be able to steal away or hide, but each and all shall render account for even our smallest sins before the judgment seat of Christ the Lord. "

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Deo Gratias!

On this my anniversary of Baptism I give thanks to God for the privilege of sharing life in Christ with all my sisters and brothers. My comprehension of this mystery has grown with each year since March 14, 1937, but always with the words of St. Paul as a background: "...eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart man what God has prepared for those who love God." Our baptismal lives are but a hint, a vague clue, of the profound reality that awaits to be fully revealed to us. In Baptism each of us is "ordained", ordered, oriented towards becoming the kind of loving, serving being which Jesus modeled in his own life. Like the water which John the Baptizer poured upon Jesus' head, and which is poured on us in Baptism, our Lord intends us to be poured out like refreshing, cleansing, life-giving water through our service to and care for one another.

We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.
Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.
We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit...


Sunday, March 11, 2012

Words Of Life

A college student, discovering that he needed a Bible for a religion course, wrote home asking that his Bible be sent to him.  His mother wrapped it carefully and took it to the post office.  The clerk took the package and shook it.  “Anything in here that can be broken?”, he asked.  With a wry smile, the mother replied: “Only the 10 Commandments!
The Hebrew expression for what we call the commandments = Asereth ha-D’bharim or Ashereth ha Dibroth means literally the ten words/sayings/matters.  For me they recall how, as seminarians at St. Joseph’s College in Indiana, we were allowed to go off-campus one Sunday to see Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 classic movie, The Ten Commandments, starring Charlton Heston, whose commanding presence riveted us to the screen.  Who could forget those magnificent special effects when God parted the Red Sea, and when God engraved the Ten Words of the Law on stone tablets?! 
What you see, of course, especially when Hollywood is involved, isn’t always what you get! The film’s 1923 version, also directed by DeMille, included Exodus scenes filmed at Nipomo Dunes, near Pismo Beach in southern CA. The famous scene of the parting of the Red Sea for the Israelites to pass through was originally shot at Seal Beach, CA, and  was accomplished with a slab of Jell-O which was sliced in two and filmed close up as it jiggled. This shot, then combined with live-action footage of Israelites walking into the distance, created a near-perfect illusion. Though the 1956 film won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, DeMille was reluctant to discuss the technical details of how the film was made. It was eventually revealed that footage of the Red Sea had been spliced with film footage, run in reverse, of water pouring from large U-shaped trip-tanks set up in the studio back lot. 
Not long after seeing The Ten Commandments, my enthusiasm was somewhat dampened upon reading a negative review of the movie.  Referring particularly to the “orgy scene”, while Moses was busy up on the mountaintop, the review critic tersely dismissed the film with, what I suppose, was an accurate assessment: “Dancing girls and dogma don’t mix.
Thinking about our lives during Lent reminds us how easily we ignore or rationalize God’s expectations of us. The command- ments, in fact, involve, more than anything else, with our relationships: with ourselves, with God and with one another.  Experience confirms how fragile can relationships be: how easily damaged and broken through careless actions and words.  Israel’s ancient laws make it clear that God expects people to be faithful, not only in worship, but most importantly in their relationships.
The Book of Common Prayer, on pp. 847-848, clearly notes that the first four commandments have to do with recognizing that God alone is worthy of worship.  God is to be the focus of one’s belief and trust.  The remaining six commandments describe human relationships and how we’re responsible for the way in which we treat one another.  Sin has been defined as “treating people like things and things like people”, and in the sacred words given to Moses on the mountain there’s a firm warning against confusing such priorities.  When things become idols, relationships invariably suffer.
It’s not uncommon to read the commandments and to conclude, just as Paul did, in one of his more memorable passages: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it...I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:18-19) Most of us can readily identify with Paul’s sense of human weakness and frustration.  In the letter to the Romans he describes a kind of civil war which takes place inside us.  The sense that “I can will, but I cannot do” articulates that inner conflict between desire and power, raging within human beings ever since the Fall.  Agnes Rogers Allen humorously quips:
I should be better, brighter, thinner
And more intelligent at dinner.
I should reform and take pains,
Improve my person, use my brains.
There’s lots that I could do about it,
But will I?...Honestly, I doubt it.” 
Are the commandments even still possible for followers of Jesus trying to serve God faithfully in modern times, so radically different from Moses’?  The BCP asks, on p. 848: “Since we do not fully obey them, are they useful at all?” It answers: “Since we do not fully obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption.
It’s easy for us to forget that the commandments are part of a much larger narrative, namely, the whole story of the Exodus of God’s people from Egypt and their children’s wandering in the desert wilderness for many years.  Note the words prefacing the commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Law is given to people who have been released from slavery.  The salvation of God’s people isn’t earned through their obedience to a code of law.  God’s action came first.  Observance of the Law is their appropriate human response to what God has already done.
On any given day you and I find it difficult to observe God’s words, keeping both the letter and the spirit of what God asks of us. The commandments’ specific details help to graphically remind us that we’re selfish, sinful, and that we need redemption.  The various commandments emphasize God’s absolute claim on the totality of our life.  But in conscientiously trying to observe the commandments, we need to remember that they’re given to us as people whom God has already saved. It’s also important to be aware that, because God’s words describe God’s claim on our lives in terms of specific things to do, we can easily become distracted from God and focussed in on “requirements”.
As he himself grew spiritually, Paul began to understand the problem resulting from attempts to earn God’s approval merely by “keeping” the commandments.  He came to recognize that the Law is different from legalism.  Paul wrote to the Philippian community that he’d been keeping the Law, but for entirely  the wrong reasons: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Philippians 3:4-11)

Before his life-changing encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul had been living as if he could, according to C. K. Barrett, “gain control of God by paying his fee”.  Paul acknowledged that the law, indeed, sets out God’s holy expectations of the way we should act towards God and each other.  Yet the very way in which it redirects our attention and focus towards our activity and away from God’s is the law’s weakness.  In and of itself the law can’t lead to life.  It doesn’t resolve the inner conflict, the civil war, in the soul.
This insufficiency of the Law is a real issue in Jesus’ ministry and teaching.  Jesus is a controversial teacher in John’s Gospel.  Today’s Gospel narrative of how Jesus enters the Temple and chases out the money-changers and the animal-sellers is a good example. (2:13-22)  The confrontation between Jesus and the merchants is really a conflict over priorities. Who Jesus is (the Son of his Father) and what he represents (the living God), clashes with the values espoused by the religious institutional leaders. Jesus challenges them.  After chasing out those who had set up their businesses in the immediate Temple area, Jesus makes a mysterious reference to the destruction of the Temple and to its being “raised” up again.  Generations later, you and I understand Jesus’ words to be an image of his own death and resurrection, whereas the Jewish authorities think he literally means the Jerusalem Temple.  And that offends them! Remember just how sacred the Temple building was in Jewish religious life.  It was the external witness to God, and the place where people drew most near to God.  Holy and unique, it stood at the center of Jewish faith.  Yet Jesus saw that this human construction had become the object of devotion: an idol, an end in itself, rather than the living God. Despite all the good things which the Temple was supposed to represent for the Jews, Jesus knew that, in their misplaced devotion to a building, people had let their focus be redirected away from the divine to the human. Despite the Temple’s importance, people were giving to their rites, customs, holy places, even to their laws, the special devotion due only to God.  They missed entirely the spirit of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.
Our religious practices and preferences, too, can, and often do, become lesser gods, idols, for us if we make them the chief objects of our devotion. The universal temptation is to become so preoccupied with the desire to excel and to succeed as “Christians” that we begin to focus on what we think we should do, rather than on the fact that, as Paul says, “...Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24-25) has already spelled it out for us through his death and resurrection.
The commandments are important words about what God intends for us.  We and the society in which we live need to take them much more seriously than we usually do. That being said, the reality is that Christian faith and practice entails far more than rules and regulations. It has to do primarily with relationships.  William Barclay writes that, while morality is knowledge of what to do (a code), Christianity is the knowledge of Jesus Christ (a person). Paul understood that clearly: “...we proclaim Christ crucified.” (1 Corinthians 1:23) Important as the commandments are, we don’t secure God’s favor simply by observing them.  A narrow focus on mere things, rituals, rules, and appearances doesn’t resolve the civil war within ourselves. “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
Wretched man that I am!” exclaims Paul, “Who will free me from this body of death?”  His answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 7:24-25) Only by being centered and focussed on Jesus, crucified and risen, can we find the wisdom and grace to do what we know we ought to do.  

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Prodigal God

During these first two weeks of Lent I've found Fr. Richard Rohr's little book of daily meditations, Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent, incredibly helpful. Today, for example, he enthusiastically cites today's liturgical readings, from Micah 7:14-15; 18-20 and Luke 15:1-3; 11-32, to remind us of God's utter generosity.

14 Shepherd your people with your staff,
the sheep of your inheritance,
those dwelling alone in a forest
in the midst of Carmel.
Let them graze in Bashan and Gilead, as a long time ago.
God agrees

15 As in the days when you came
out of the land of Egypt,
I will show Israel wonderful things...
...18 Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity,
overlooking the sin of the few
remaining for his inheritance?
He doesn’t hold on to his anger forever;
he delights in faithful love.
19 He will once again have compassion on us;
he will tread down our iniquities.
You will hurl all our sins
into the depths of the sea.
20 You will provide faithfulness to Jacob, faithful love to Abraham,
as you swore to our ancestors
a long time ago.

1 All the tax collectors and sinners were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. 2 The Pharisees and legal experts were grumbling, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
3 Jesus told them this parable
...11 Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. 13 Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.

14 “When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15 He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. 17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.

“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27 The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ 28 Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. 29 He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ 31 Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”

Richard Rohr's point is that Micah, in saying what he did, had no idea that Jesus, many years later, would read those words, take them into his heart, think about them and let them form his convictions about God, and then share this good news with others in his ministry. I found myself wondering at what age Jesus might first have been exposed to the prophet, and what words of Micah's passage might have jumped out at him. Surely, if we're to judge by what Jesus later said, they were ideas such as: pardoning, overlooking, delighting in faithful love, compassion, faithfulness, etc.

With that foundation, Jesus set out, in his early 30's, to talk with and to share with anyone who'd listen his convictions about God whom he experienced as his "Father". With that background, we can now appreciate how understandable and believable Luke's recollection of the story is which Jesus told in order to convey this others. We can identify, probably with both those siblings, who obviously never seemed on the best of terms, because we, too, have had some of those same kinds of experiences in our own lives. We, too, have known how difficult it is to be humble enough to say we've acted really foolishly, or to work up the courage to ask forgiveness, particularly of a family member. We've also known it from the other angle: to feel resentful and cheated when we think we've done our best, with little apparent return, while someone else who's squandered their life away, comes out on top.

"What kind of experience of God," asks Richard Rohr, "allowed a peasant prophet to say such things on his own authority and eight centuries before Jesus said much the same? You have got to know this is quite amazing and game-changing." (p. 57)

Friday, March 9, 2012

In Memoriam: Fr. Lawrence Heiman, C.PP.S. (1917-2012)

During my freshman and sophomore years at St. Joseph's College, Rensselaer, IN, two priests were significant figures in my formation: my spiritual director, Fr. Robert Lechner, C.PP.S., and our college choir director, Fr. Larry Heiman, C.PP.S. Fr. Lechner passed on to his eternal reward on February 22, 1999, and this year, Fr. Larry followed on February 26, the day before my birthday.

In the summer of 1956 Fr. Lechner began what became a respected international philosophical journal, Philosophy Today, and enlisted me as his typist. The other priest with whom I worked closest during this time was Fr. Heiman, college choral and liturgical music director. Larry, then 39, had come to St. Joseph’s in 1944 immediately after his ordination in December, 1943, and was assigned to teach Latin and Greek. When Fr. Paul Speckbaugh, C.PP.S. (1905-1944) died about 10 months later, Larry was asked to step in as both Dramatics director and Music instructor. He spent several summers at Catholic University, Washington, D.C. and earned an M.A. in Speech and Dramatics, with minors in Music and English. During his 58 years of teaching at St. Joseph’s, Larry directed theatrical productions, choir, band, and the glee club. His work with the latter included a half-time show for the Chicago Bears, as well as special performances with the Alverno College (Milwaukee) Glee Club, and Handel’s Messiah in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall.

Larry was an engaging person, terribly bright, always in motion, seemingly untiring. He had some difficulty with his heart, but it never seemed to slow him down an iota. I remember being concerned because of his intensity and non-stop activity. His cheeks always looked rosy on his fair skin. He was an excellent teacher, intense and intriguingly expressive as a director. There was only one time while he was directing the choir that our singing flat-out collapsed. It was during evening Benediction one Lent. We were singing a motet and somehow one of the sections went off course. Larry did a yeoman’s job trying to prompt us with notes, keeping time, and cuing in all the sections. He finally was forced to stop and start over, but was able to laugh about it with us afterwards. He usually had a smiling and cheerful demeanor; I doubt that I ever saw him really angry. He may not always have been pleased with our singing, but he never took it out on us personally.

In 1957 Fr. Heiman was sent to Rome to study at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music, where he earned a Licentiate and Master’s Degree in Gregorian Chant. He returned to Rome again in 1968-1969 to work towards a Doctorate in Sacred Music at the Pontifical Institute. In February, 1970 he defended his thesis in an hour-and-a-half-long session, in Italian, before five expert judges! The title of his thesis is so typical of Larry: The Rhythmic Value of the Final Descending Note after a Punctum in Codex 239 of the Library of Laon! He was then 53 years old, and one of very few in the U.S. to earn a doctorate from the Pontifical Institute. He was the founding father of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, the Church Music Association of America, and the Composers Forum for Catholic Music. After I left St. Joseph’s I was amazed at Larry’s continued stamina and the expansion of his musical work there. In 1960 he founded the Rensselaer Program of Church Music and Liturgy, which he directed for 35 summers. It remains the longest-running program of its kind. In 1998 he began the summer Gregorian Chant Institute. Though "retired", he continued to teach a History of Art course, which he'd introduced to the College curriculum in 1956, as well as music courses at the College. 

The responsibility of directing the Schola, and eventually the choir, with which Fr. Larry entrusted me in 1956 gave me a tremendous boost in self-confidence as a young seminarian. I considered it truly an honor and a privilege to be tutored by someone of his caliber. It also surprised me because I was far from being the best singer among my classmates, and I played no instrument. But I apparently had a good feel for Gregorian chant, thanks to Fr. Volk’s and Fr. Larry’s training, and a fair sense of rhythm and timing. 

By the end of July, 1956, I was directing the Schola and held evening Schola classes for Fr. Heiman periodically. I regularly intoned the Benediction hymns in chapel for the whole college community, sometimes daily, during this time. In the fall that year Larry invited me to begin rehearsing with a sub-group of the college Glee Club, called The Singing Seventeen. The most notable in the group was a freshman, Greg Petrin, of Russian descent, who had an extraordinarily rich, powerful, and very deep bass voice. I was always delighted when Fr. Heiman scheduled us to sing Hospodi Pomiluij = Lord, Have Mercy, a traditional Eastern liturgical chant, where Greg and the basses had a major part.

On November 26, 1956, Fr. Heiman and the seminarians traveled to Jefferson City, MO, where we sang for the installation of Bishop Joseph Marling, C.PP.S. (1904-1979) as Diocesan Bishop the next day. We left St. Joseph’s College at 10 AM, probably followed the route across Illinois to Peoria, then down to Hannibal, MO where we crossed the mighty Mississippi, my first sight of it. We'd seen two other rivers that same day: the Illinois and the Missouri. We ate dinner in Louisiana, MO, southeast of Hannibal, then continued on to arrive in Jefferson City around 8 PM. My diary notes: “went to see movie in Jeff. City - ‘War and Peace’. Excellent.” The truth is that Jim Franck, my classmate and roomie for the trip, and I saw most of it, but had to leave early to get back to the motel before our "curfew". We stayed at Kolb’s Motel, which I describe in the diary as “Luxurious living!” The next day we had Mass in the morning at St. Mary’s Hospital, breakfast at the Missouri Hotel (“Scrumptious!” says the diary). The Installation Mass was probably at midday and there was undoubtedly a banquet afterwards. There’s a rather unenthusiastic reference in the diary to a concert which we apparently gave at the banquet: “Concert went pretty well.” 

The diary mentions something about recording songs on tape. Apparently Fr. Heiman had me record the choir and/or Schola at times so that he could use the tapes at various meetings which he attended. My diary notation for May 2 reads: “Recorded [Flor] Peeters’ ‘Ave Maria’ for Fr. Heiman to take to Missouri convention.

Fr. Larry continued to have me direct occasionally through the spring and summer of 1957. The highlight was when Larry asked me to direct a glorious new Mass by a Spanish composer, Bilbao on Easter Sunday. Other opportunities were on the feast of Pentecost, June 9, for the college Solemn High Mass; on June 12, the 3rd anniversary of St. Gaspar’s canonization; on June 19 when I directed a group of seven seminarians, plus two of our college instructors, Frs. Aloysius O’Dell and Ernest Lucas, C.PP.S., for a Confirmation service at the parish in Goodland, IN; on June 20 for the Corpus Christi Solemn Mass; and on June 23, the college Parent’s Day, when we again sang the Bilbao Mass. 

A 2002 student from the Gregorian Chant Institute accurately described one of Larry’s most striking traits: “...the most amazing thing for me concerns his hands. When he conducts chant, his hands are beautiful, so expressive, so filled with prayer.” In our classes with him Larry had emphasized the importance of good chironomy so many times, and I remember well, and often tried to emulate, Larry’s beautiful and prayerful technique. When I visited St. Joseph’s in July, 1995, for an gathering of former priests and brothers and their families, I had a chance to chat awhile with Larry, by then 78, and to thank him for all that he’d given me during my two years there. In 2002, Fr. Heiman was given the prestigious Jubilate Deo award from the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. After 63 years of campus life, Larry finally retired to St. Charles Seminary, Carthagena, OH, in 2007.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

A Clarification & An Apology

Today I received an email from Mr. Frank X. Blisard, some of whose material I used on the blog on May 24, 2010. I'm reproducing his comments here in full in order to give complete credit to his original article. To Mr. Blisard I offer my appreciation for his clarification, as well as an apology for the sloppy way I handled this in the first place, with the hope that this will set it right.

Dear Rev. Allagree,

On your blog, "The Good Heart," in an entry dated Monday, May 24, 2010, you posted a large fragment of my article, "The Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit—A Re-Examination," which was originally published in This Rock  Magazine, Vol. 17, No. 10 (December 2006), pp. 36-39.  For your convenience, here is the URL for the blog-page in question:

While I am gratified and grateful that you found my writing on this subject worthwhile, and that you have exposed my insights to a wider and more "diverse" audience than otherwise would be the case, I must insist that you at least cite in full the source of my article.  I would also appreciate it if you would include the following hyperlink to the full article:

Finally, I note that the fragment you posted cuts off in mid-paragraph, at a quite important point in my argument.  The paragraph in question is lacking only one sentence (set in boldface in the exceprt below):

"The seven gifts are designed to be used in the world for the purpose of transforming that world for Christ. Isaiah 11 vividly portrays what these gifts are to be used for: to do what one is called to do in one’s own time and place to advance the kingdom of God. The specific, personal details of that call do not come into focus until one has realized his very limited, ungodlike place in the scheme of things (fear of the Lord), accepted one’s role as a member of God’s family (piety), and acquired the habit of following the Father’s specific directions for living a godly life (knowledge). This familiarity with God breeds the strength and courage needed to confront the evil that one inevitably encounters in one’s life (fortitude) and the cunning to nimbly shift one’s strategies to match—even anticipate—the many machinations of the Enemy (counsel). The more one engages in such "spiritual warfare," the more one perceives how such skirmishes fit into the big picture that is God’s master plan for establishing his reign in this fallen world (understanding) and the more confident, skillful, and successful one becomes in the conduct of his particular vocation (wisdom)."

Please do what you can to make sure this paragraph is reproduced in its entirety.

Thank you.

Frank X. Blisard
PO Box 58
Titusville NJ 08560