Monday, October 24, 2011

Spirit or Flesh

Today we reach that part of the Letter to the Romans when St. Paul tries to explain the relationship of life in the Spirit and life in the flesh. Despite the number of times we hear the words of St. Paul, how truly do we believe them.  He write, "For those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption, through which we cry, 'Abba, Father!'"

Yet, how many Christians still talk and act as if we are slaves.  Sayings like, "That's just the way I am" or "You can't teach an old dog new trick," or even "I'm only human," all deny the message of St. Paul. This is the language of slavery. It denies the real power of God's grace and turns sacraments into empty symbols.

For St. Paul, the Holy Spirit that we first receive in Baptism transforms us, or to use his metaphor, it frees us from slavery, and makes us the sons and daughters of God. Even the translation "Father" seems too formal to capture the "Abba" of St. Paul. He reminds us that Jesus teaches us to address God as he addresses God. 

As Christians we must embrace the freedom God gives us, embrace the full meaning of our new identity. Can we do it all at once? Not usually. For most of us what it means each day making steps forward, acknowledging those aspects of our life that do not correspond to the gospel, and turning to God to help us eliminate those words and actions which are not in the image of Christ.

Friday, October 21, 2011

The war within

St. Paul in today's first reading deals with the perennial struggle between knowing what is right, and even wanting to do what is right, actually doing it.

In our modern American culture we tend to cast this struggle in purely psychological terms, and behave as if psychology is a science like physics or chemistry and look for formulaic answers that ignore the spiritual.

St. Paul casts the issue in purely spiritual terms with the explanation that there is evil in his members, his body, that leads him to do what he does.

The truth, as always, is found somewhere in the middle. Each day we learn more about neurology and the biochemistry of the brain. As Catholics, we do not deny the advancements science brings us. We also;however, acknowledge that evil is real.Temptation is real, just as real as the biochemical imbalances that cause conditions like depression. The medicine for dealing with this spiritual aspect of our struggle is God's grace.
We human beings are flesh and spirit. and we must tend to both aspects of ourselves if we are to be truly healthy. One would be foolish to simply try and pray away diabetes. One would be equally foolish to look for a pill to cure our spiritual ills.

When was your last checkup, the physical one and the spiritual one?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Antioch Continued

Today we celebrate the Evangelist St. Luke who also lived in the city of Antioch.  He is said to have been a physician, and for those who like a "scientific" approach, he is our man. He opens his gospel by explaining his reason for feeling the need to write another gospel. "I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty(asfalia) of the teachings you have received." 
The word asfalia means: firmness, stability, certainty, undoubted truth.
Perhaps this feast of St. Luke is a time for us to about the trust with which we believe the good news handed on to us in the gospel.  Compare our trust in what our favorite news outlet tells us, and our trust in what the Church teaches, and has taught for two millennia. Which do we trust more? Which should we trust more? 
As we celebrate St. Luke today, may we be just a bit firmer in our faith.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Remembering the Second Generation

When we think of Jesus, it strikes me that we tend to focus on the apostle and the disciples of Jesus without really asking ourselves about what happened next. Once Jesus had ascended, the apostles went out preaching, but we rarely focus on how the church then began to take shape. If fact, we see that there were particular cities that became centers for the Christian faith. Some we know well like Jerusalem and Rome. Other are not so familiar to us.

Among the cities that were the centers for the nascent Christian faith in those early centuries was Antioch. The city was founded by one of the generals of Alexander the Great. During the Roman period it became a kind of eastern capitol for the empire, and there a significant Christian community developed.

Today is the feast day of the third bishop of the city, Ignatius.  It is said that Ignatius was a student of the Apostle John, and that Peter himself named Ignatius to be bishop of the city after the death of his predecessor, St. Evodius around the year 67.  He was sentenced to be eaten by lions at the Colosseum in Rome.

For us today, what remains are the letter which is wrote while on his way from Antioch to Rome. These letters give us a glimpse at how the early church lived, led by be the successors of the apostles in the strictest use of the phrase lived.  We speak of the "one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic church."  His letters help us to understand more fully what that meant in daily life.  We see in them the importance of church structure and the centrality of the Eucharist.  And we also see the use of the word "Catholic" to describe the Church.

Twenty centuries later, we are now the generation entrusted with the faith for which Ignatius and so many others died.  As they look down from their place in heaven, I would hope that they are pleased with what they see. May our leaders today show the same courage.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Context is everything

In today's first reading we arrive at the perennial debate over the relationship of faith and works in salvation. Is faith alone enough? Or is something more required?
Growing up in a non-Catholic context, I remember hearing today's first reading quoted on more that one occasion as evidence to prove that being saved consisted in "professing faith in Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior." Here one would quote from today's first reading, "For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works."

The problem with this is two-fold:
1) it is an incomplete quote. The full sentence reads, "For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law."
Those last words are critical to the text. St. Paul is not referring to any works, but the works of the Jewish law, which brings us to second part of th problem. Context.
2) If one looks at the verse in context one sees immediately that the issue St. Paul is dealing with is the possibility of Gentiles being saved without becoming Jews, at not the 16th century debate of faith or works for salvation.

The Letter of St. James chapter 2 seems to strike the perfect balance on this issue.

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?
If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?
So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.
Indeed someone might say, “You have faith and I have works.” Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.

St. Paul is right and so I had crab cakes last night, bacon this morning, and am wearing clothes of mixed fabrics, in violation of the law, because as a Christian my salvation is not linked to a strict observance of the Mosaic law. St. James is also right, and presents the greater challenge to us, to wake up each morning and repeat his words, "I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works."

Imagine if every Christian in the world just did that today.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and revered and worshiped the creature rather than the creator,

Harsh words from St. Paul this morning and yet what he is describing is what all sin has in common. We exchange the truth of God for a lie, and we put some created person or thing (mostly ourselves) over God. Usually we don't do it directly, but indirectly. We convince ourself that the lie is the truth. We convince ourselves that we need something, so that having it is not a sin,

We seem to get sucked into the same game in morality we see played in politics. If enough people repeat a lie enough times, it becomes accepted as the truth. We forget that truth is a simple binary state. Something either is true or it is not. Our certainty about the truth admits of degrees but the truth does not.

If we start with the most basic proposition, the creator (to use Paul's term) exists. This either is true or is not.

Can I know it with certainty in this life? I am as certain of that as I am that the earth revolves around the sun. Neither of these truths have I seen with my own eyes. From my point of view on earth, the sun moves across the sky. That's what I can see. But what is true is not limited to what I see or what I feel. The earth rotates at about 1,000 miles per hr. Do I feel it? No. Is it true? Yes. So we know scientifically that our senses and feelings are not the measure of truth. There must be some objective truth outside of ME and how I feel about something.

When St. Paul speaks of us worshiping the creature instead of the creator. He is not speaking of worship in the sense of idols, altars, and sacrifices, like our ancestors. In our modern age our "worship" takes a different form. We set some created reality ahead of the creator, and the truths that this same creator revealed to us.

What lies have we allowed ourselves to believe that are contrary to God's truth? Which of our actions today will put a creature above the creator?

Monday, October 10, 2011

A Willing Slave

Paul opens his letter to the Romans by calling himself a slave of Jesus Christ. While some writers will try and romanticize the slavery of the Roman Empire (trying to make it look much nicer than American slavery), all will admit that the owner had absolute rights over the slave. They could rent them out, sell them, even kill them. The slave had no rights but only obligations toward the owner. He was property that lived for one purpose, to serve the owner. The slave had nothing that could be called "mine."

In a world where "I have a right to..." and "I expect ..." have become even commonly heard from the mouths of children. It is one of the true paradoxes of the Christian faith, that the only way we can find true freedom is to hand our lives over completely to God, and like Paul accept the title "Slave of Jesus Christ."

Thursday, October 6, 2011

What's good?

In today's gospel we have the famous seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened passage. The part most people don't have memorized is the end. "If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit
to those who ask him?" Perhaps it's because there is the rub. Who decides what is a "good gift" and how?

When I was small I wore those old heavy metal leg braces.  In some ways they actually made walking more difficult but it was the best doctors knew at the time.  Like all small children I wanted to do everything the other kids wanted to do. My mother told the story of standing in the kitchen clutching the sink, as I tried to run, tried to climb on the swing set, tried to climb trees, and fell ALOT! 
Looking back did the falling hurt? Yes. (There were even a few stitches involved over the years) 
But was it good? Was it a "good gift"? I would argue now that one of the greatest gifts she ever gave me was allowing me to fall down and pick myself up.  Neither that nor the physical therapy seemed like a gift or good at the time. The falling hurt and the PT seemed like 
torture.  But that was all from my child's point of view.

Compared to God we are all small children. We can distinguish good from bad in a rudimentary way. God has revealed to us some important distinctions. But for the more complex issues we simply have to trust God.

As St. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans, "We know that all things work for good for those who love God" 
Can we trust God to decide whats good?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Location, location, location

If we actually look at the biblical text of the Lord's Prayer, their today's gospel from Luke or its counterpart in Matthew the most striking feature is absence of the final doxology, "For thine is the kingdom..." None of the manuscripts of Luke or the oldest and best of Matthew contain it. Few scholar would try to argue that it is part of the biblical text.

As best we can find, the doxology first appears with the Our Father, in a document known as the didache, late first early second century. There is reads simply "For you have the power and glory forever."

It appears that over time this doxology, being sung after the Lord's prayer, was first copied into biblical manuscripts as a kind of side note, and later migrated in the text itself. This was the great problem of manuscripts. Much depended on the person copying the text, and the person copying the copy, and so on.

This is part of the great challenge for scripture scholars, to take the various manuscripts of each book, and try and discover the most likely original text. In 1979, Pope John Paul II, promulgated the New Vulgate, a new Latin edition of the Bible, based on, St. Jerome's Vulgate, but taking into account our best understanding of the original Greek and Hebrew texts.

It would make life simple if we could say, "Here we have the original text of each book of the bible written by a single author whose name we known for certain." That, alas, is not Christianity. We believe the Bible to be the inspired word of God, and we struggle each to understand it more deeply and live it. We do this in faith, trusting that the Holy Spirit not only guided the original human authors, but continues to guide the church in her understanding and right interpretation of The Books (Τά Βιβλία).

Tuesday, October 4, 2011


Today we celebrate St. Francis of Assisi, being a "Memorial" ( the third rank of days in our calendar) it does not have its own readings, but we use the readings from the regular cycle. As providence would have it, the gospel is the famous story of Mary and Martha. Mary we are told has chosen the better part, and yet what does she actually do. She sits and listens. Not only does she sit, but she sits "προς" (near).

In some ways we have done a great disservice to St. Francis and the contribution of the Franciscans to the church over the centuries. We have reduced today to an image of St.Francis holding a bird, and a blessing of pets. Cute but not deep.

The gospel today touches something much more profound and necessary for our present age, the ability to sit, be quiet, and listen to the word of the Lord. Can we even do that any more? Luke 10:39 says she sat near the feet of the Lord, and listened to his words.-- a true expression of love, to sit and listen to someone.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Outlawing the Good Samaritan

Last Thursday the state of Alabama enacted the most sweeping immigration law in the country. The Catholic Archbishop of Mobile and other bishops and christian leaders voiced strong opposition to the law not because they support illegal immigration but as Archbishop Rodi said, "The law attacks our core understanding of what it means to be a church."

Thankfully, in it's final form a church cannot be prosecuted for baptizing a baby, feeding the hungry, or any of our fundamental minisrties. Around the christian world the concept of "good Samaritan" has been enshrined in law for centuries in different ways. In some countries it protects the "good Samaritan" from prosecution, in others it goes so far as to make it a crime not to help a person in distress.

Even as much of our world seems to be moving to push religion from the public square, this parable survives. It stands as further proof of natural law, that certain fundamental moral truths are written in the human heart. Even in times of intense and sometimes vitriolic political debate, those fundamental commands like "love thy neighbor" can shine through.

As we struggle with the many problems that we face, today's gospel reminds us that we must keep ourselves firmly anchored to the two great commandments that Christ gave us.