The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Although I am an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church, the opinions expressed in this blog are my personal opinions. In offering these personal opinions I am not acting as a representative of the Church or any Church organization.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Homily: Monday, 7th Week of Ordinary Time

Readings: Sir 36:1, 4-5a, 10-17 • Psalm 79 • Mk 10:32-45

"This kind can only come out through prayer" [Mk 9:29].

Jesus is telling the disciples something very important here. First, God's power remains God's power; it doesn't become ours. When His power moves through us to accomplish His will, we don't possess it. 

Perhaps the disciples had forgotten this, and assumed God's healing power, the power He exercised through them, had become theirs. Jesus is reminding His disciples that they must remain in constant communion with God, something which can be done only through prayer.

When St. Paul instructs us to "Pray without ceasing" [1 Thes 5:17], he's speaking of holiness, the result of that constant connection between the soul and God, a connection that keeps us always mindful of God's will for us.

But when you consider prayer from a strictly human perspective, it's really quite strange, isn't it? In prayer we communicate with Someone we can neither see nor hear. Physical sight and hearing are really not involved. And so prayer, even the prayer of weakness, the prayer of the unbeliever who turns to God in desperation - even that prayer demands at least a glimmer of faith. Indeed, it's in that turning to God that this faith is manifested.

In the Letter to the Hebrews we're told that, "Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen" [Heb 11:1]. Yes, hope and faith, even in their weakest form, are necessary ingredients of prayer.

Listen again to that brief dialog between Jesus and the desperate father in today's Gospel passage [Mk 9:22-24]. The father pleads with Jesus:
"But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us."
Jesus said to him, "'If you can!' Everything is possible to one who has faith."
Then the boy's father cried out, "I do believe, help my unbelief!"
Once again, the faith of the people, the faith of those who come to Jesus in pain and suffering and dire need, puts the disciples to shame.

I don't know about you, but I feel a deep connection with this unnamed father. He pleads with Jesus to "help us" - not help my son, not help him, but help us. His love for his son is so great that his son's pain, his son's suffering, have become his pain, his suffering. With this he's already taken a necessary first step on the path to true discipleship: he accepts that to be truly human, to be in God's image and likeness, he must love.

This prayer of ours, then, this personal encounter with Jesus Christ, must lead us to serve others in Christ's name. Our service to those in need must always be the outgrowth of our prayer. Otherwise our prayers are only selfish ramblings, really no prayer at all.

The father then takes a second step to discipleship when he has an honest encounter with his own faith. Unlike the disciples - "that faithless generation" [Mk 9:19] - who can't understand why they are unable to exercise God's healing power, the father also knows that his faith, although real, is still very weak. And driven by this self-awareness, he utters his now-famous words: that statement of fact followed immediately by his contradictory plea:

"I do believe, help my unbelief!" [Mk 9:24]

On hearing such words, the faithless will just cast them aside as an unresolved paradox. But to those of us struggling through the times of darkness that enter every life, his words make perfect sense. Faith and doubt, belief and unbelief often exist side-by-side in the same heart, especially when that heart is broken or filled with fear.

Do you see what else Jesus is telling this distraught father, what He is telling us? 

There are no limits to the power of prayer. "Everything is possible..." [Mk 9:23] Jesus tell us. All that is necessary is faith. In other words, the possibilities are endless. And it all comes through the Gospel, the Good News, the story of faith made real for us.

Jesus is telling us that our relationship with God can deepen only through a strengthening of our faith; and faith can deepen only through prayer. Otherwise, like the disciples that day, we can become self-absorbed, something that will ultimately enslave us.

We are slaves, you know -- slaves to our sinfulness. That's why Christ ransoms us. Can we accept this? Can we let the Spirit pray in us so we thirst for the chalice from which Jesus drinks?

Can we accept that, as Jesus' disciples, we are baptized in the baptism of Christ's Cross?

Is my prayer the gift of myself with Christ on the Cross?

I think those are enough questions for us to ponder today.

God's peace.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Happy SAINT Valentine Day

Poor St. Valentine. His feast day has been overrun by a constant stream of commercialism and syrupy sentimentalism that seems to flow more quickly and more deeply with each passing year. For decades candy or flowers were the expected gifts a man gave to his sweetheart, but now expectations have apparently become inflated. Today jewelers warn of catastrophic rejection if the object of one's affection isn't showered with diamonds. One cruise line sent me a slick brochure demanding that I book a week-long Caribbean cruise. Failure to do so would shatter my relationship with my "significant other." And a local car dealership, while reminding its customers that "love is priceless," encouraged them to buy their lover a $40,000 vehicle. It's all quite strange. And I find it somewhat incongruous that in these times of supposed sexual equality, almost all the ads are aimed at men. Are there no feminists on Madison Avenue? 

Thankfully Dear Diane and I have never celebrated this pseudo-holiday except to honor the saint whose name it bears. This morning we greeted each other with a kiss and words of love, the same kiss and words with which we begin every morning. I did, however, add a little something extra today. When I awakened her this morning I handed her a cup of freshly brewed hot coffee in my favorite mug. Now this might seem less than trivial, but Diane truly admires this mug. It's really quite a handsome mug, and she bought it for me on a recent visit to Nantucket. 

Those who know me well also know that I have a rather large collection of coffee mugs, acquired on my travels over the years. To elevate a particular mug to "favorite" status is not something I do capriciously. The mug must earn this label. Size, shape, color, graphics, origin, even the "feel" of the mug -- these and other attributes enter into the mix that ultimately enshrine a mug as most favored. Until it is supplanted by another, the Nantucket mug reigns supreme.

Because of this Dear Diane has refused to drink from this particular mug, fearing she might drop and break it. As I handed it to her this morning I told her not to worry, that I would rather have a broken mug than a broken heart. It's her presence in my life that keeps my heart whole and happy. This so pleased her that she allowed me to vacuum the living and dining rooms and set up the card table in anticipation of the arrival of her friends who are now here playing mahjong.

St. Valentine
Yes, poor St. Valentine -- well, not really "poor" since he is, after all, a saint enjoying the riches of his heavenly home. But I suspect that fewer than one in a ten of those who bought gifts for their lovers today know anything at all about this 3rd-century Roman saint. Martyred under Emperor Claudius II in the year 269, this priest and bishop was accused of encouraging young Christian couples to marry, contrary to an edict by the government. His martyrdom was brutal, a three-part torture that included beating, stoning and decapitation. 

The patron saint of lovers, St. Valentine knew full well that a loving life-long commitment to another involved both joy and suffering, a pairing many today cannot accept. Married life isn't always candy and flowers; sometimes it's broken coffee mugs and vacuuming and card tables. And sometimes it's worrying about paying the mortgage, or struggling to help a troubled child, or confronting unexpected unemployment, or coping with the reality that the one you've loved for a lifetime no longer recognizes you, or dealing with a serious illness that threatens the other's life. Love and marriage are a wonderful gift from our God, but they demand the radical humility of self-sacrifice -- and this, too, is a gift. 

Take a few minutes today to pray together with the one you love and give thanks to God for each other.

Happy St. Valentine Day!

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Homily: Saturday, 5th Week of Ordinary Time

Readings: Gen 3:0-24 • Ps 90 • Mk 8:1-10

What does God first say to Adam after that original sin? He asks a question, doesn't He?
"Adam, where are you?" [Gen 3:9]
God knows where Adam is, physically, but He wants Adam to understand and recognize where he has placed himself by his sin. 
Where are you, Adam? Don't you see what's happened, Adam? What you and Eve have done to yourselves?

Yes, with that simple question God reminded them that He had given them paradise on earth, everything they needed, a gift they tossed aside. The two lost their intended place in God's creation, because they desired that which is reserved for God Himself. They listened to the serpent, and succumbed to the temptation to be God, forgetting that God had blessed them as no other creature had been blessed. They had been created in God's image, molded into His likeness. But they were still creatures, weren't they? They were not the Creator.

Oh, how that question, that Word of God, must have echoed throughout the Garden:
"Adam, where are you?"
Adam is shamed. He and the woman are naked. With their sin they have cast themselves out of paradise and into exile. They know they have sinned, just as you and I know when we have sinned. But they refuse to admit it, to repent. Adam blames the woman. Yes, the other, the one created to be loved is now to be blamed. Already the effects of their sin have taken hold.

Sin and its effects will multiply and infect every generation that follows, pouring through the ages. In Genesis we soon encounter it again, don't we? When God asks another question:

"Cain, where is your brother?" [Gen 4:9]
Cain, where is your brother?
Sin has indeed multiplied. A brother is envied, despised, and murdered.

Today God still asks those same two questions:

Where are you? Where is your brother?
The world today, like our first parents, has become lost. Rather than recognizing and repenting of our sinfulness, rather than caring for one another, we cast blame, and we destroy.
"Where is your brother?"
It's a question that God, in His love and mercy, asks each of us.
"Where are you?"
Yes, God seeks us out, just as He sought Adam and Eve in the Garden. He calls us back to the reality of His love by exposing our sinfulness.  

What horrors have you brought to my creation? Why do you turn away from me, convinced that you are gods?

God had provided them with food but they ate that which was forbidden them. Out of their rebellion something else is forbidden them: to eat of the Tree of Life, which would give them life eternal.

But even in their sinfulness, God offers them, and He offers us, a path to return to God from their exile. As they leave the Garden they have an encounter with God's mercy. From that encounter comes a promise. It is the promise of God's Son, the gift of Jesus Christ, who will take on Adam's nakedness, our nakedness, who will take on the shame of humanity, the shame of all our sins, and allow Himself to be sacrificed by those He created.

By His wounds we are healed.

Yes, Jesus is nailed to the Tree of Life, and leaves us a new food: the Eucharist, His own Body and Blood, God With Us in a way almost unimaginable. And now we can eat of the food that will give us eternal life. It is through Jesus Himself that we are transformed. The Mass is a kind of new Eden in which Jesus feeds us with the food that perfectly satisfies.

We see a foreshadowing of this in today's Gospel passage from Mark. This is the second miraculous feeding of the crowds. At the first Jesus feeds 5,000; in the second 4,000. Listen again to the Word of God:

"...taking the seven loaves he gave thanks (in the Greek, eucharistesas), broke them, and gave them to his disciples to distribute, and they distributed them to the crowd" [Mk 8:6].

Yes, the Eucharist, the Bread of Life, is given to us by Jesus but is distributed by his disciples. The same is true today. We, the disciples, are called to feed the hungry, to feed them with both the physical and spiritual bread they need.
Lord, teach us to be the servants we are called to be. Help us to serve you by serving others, regardless of the cost. Let us learn to accept the wounds of service as gifts, to turn our lives into a labor of love, happy and content only to do your will.