Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday 2015

On a dirt floor inside a scrap metal hut a girl of just 14 lies exposed and open as her clammy, convulsing customer tears himself off of her.  A tear of desperation forces its way through her duct; but she will not let it out.  So she grits her teeth and kills the last sense of dignity that attempts to touch her soul.  She and her brothers will eat tonight and that’s all that matters.  And the world looks on in silence. 

A child of just 2 months screams in hunger as his ribs rack his very skin stretching it to the point of tearing.  That skin longs for nourishment; but no nourishment will come from the arid breast of his malnourished mother.  The heart that protrudes from his chest beating for a chance to live will soon beat its last.  And the world looks on in silence.

Somewhere in the Western world an old woman walks the lonely streets at dusk.  For five years now no one has as much as recognized her existence.  She will soon give the world what it wants as she fades into the shadows of the streets to disappear forever under the drip of an I.V. hastening the last responsibility that has been yanked from the hands of a dying God.  And the world looks on in silence. 

Yet, perhaps not so.  For what begins as just a soft melody, a faint sound in the distance, gains force.  What once was barely perceptible now becomes audible.  It is the sound of a trumpet.  A trumpet being blown from the tops of spires, belfries, domes and towers throughout the world.  From St. Peters to St. Patrick’s to St. Kwinten’s to Notre Dame the watchmen sound the horn as the Christian community rises together from its slumber to say “no more.”  “No more” to death, “no more” to hunger, “no more” to lost innocence, “no more” to violence, “no more” to objectification, “no more” to sin.  The simultaneous shout from the Church united this evening, this Ash Wednesday, from around the world disrupts the march of evil that has been prowling for too long.

So we rise and proclaim a fast.  We fast from the banality of pop culture and the senseless streams of Netflix binges.  We fast from the protruding poses of Internet pornography and our wasteful habits of consuming without care.  We fast from our hasty judgments and our petty preferences and our murderous gossip.  And when we hunger with lust inside for those things which are no longer ours we remember in solidarity the hunger which took the life of the child in his mother’s arms, we remember the hunger for justice of the girl who simply wanted to be just a girl, we remember the hunger for hope and recognition of the elderly woman who no longer walks the streets, and we remember that somehow we too are implicated in all of this. 

Yes, we too are implicated.  Adam’s blood runs through our blood.  Adam’s blood which implicates us in the evil that continues to exist in this world.  The very blood that spilled out from Cain’s murderous lust towards Abel that has polluted the world ever since.  The blood that invites the screams and howls of the world longing for something more, for redemption, for freedom from slavery and sin.   The blood that makes us say with St. Paul that “What I do, I do not understand.  For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.”

But the blood of Adam is not the only blood in our veins.  It is not the only blood that has been spilled out on this earth.  For there is another’s blood that drowns out the drip of the I.V. in the shadows of the night.  It’s the blood of our savior who gave his blood for us, that lamb slain upon the altar as the world looked on.  It’s the blood that we drink this evening.  And this blood flows in our veins too, flowing like a stream from that New Jerusalem.  For we have drank from the one chalice.  The chalice of blessing, the cup of everlasting life.  Therefore our hearts pump not just malice and hatred, they pump love and mercy and sacrifice and peace.  And so little by little this confused concoction in our veins is purified to become a hypostatically constituted reality.  It is purified to become like the lamb’s, the lamb who was slain.  So our veins pump this blood that has the potential to renew the face of the earth, to clean the pillar of profanity and the darkness of death and decay. 

And so we rend our hearts.  We rend our hearts to let this blood flow from our chests onto the earth.  That in the rending of our hearts we might give to the world the priceless alms of eternal life.  We rend our hearts to let out the blood of blessing and let in the feelings of pain that have so long dominated this Earth that we might hear the cry of the poor and respond.        

And so we pray.  We pray that this Lent might be different.  We pray that we might be changed.  We pray that we might rise from the rubble of our decadence and be restored to something new.  We pray that we might be set free from our solipsistic selfishness and no longer walk in a wasteland of sin but stand together as brothers and sisters, ambassadors of Christ, in a shared sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

And we receive the mark on our foreheads.  Not the mark of Cain or the mark of the beast, but the mark of Christ.  The cross of ashes on our foreheads is sign of contradiction to the world.  A sign to a deconstructed world that has wallowed long enough in its own fruitless flight from reality that now is the time for redemption—now is the time for a re-constructed Adam and Eve.  The mark on our foreheads says to the world that this night things will be different.  This night things will change.  This night I will try my best to live the calling that was given to me in my baptism; and should I fail I will rise again from the ashes absolved to live yet another day for him.   

As the trumpets quiet down and the cries cease to exist and the dripping evanesces there is no utterance on the lips of the world – and no utterance on our lips either, of “where is your God?”  But there is just the sound of bending knees, knees bending from North to South and East to West, from Heaven to Earth to under the Earth, and a resounding proclamation that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” 

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Does the Church Still Have a Prophetic Voice?

During his trip to the Philippines, Pope Francis said this about Blessed Paul VI in regards to the controversial 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae:

“In a moment of that challenge of the growth of populations, he had the strength to defend openness to life.”

“He looked to the peoples beyond. He saw the lack and the problem that it could cause families in the future. Paul VI was courageous. He was a good pastor, and he warned his sheep about the wolves that were approaching, and from the heavens he blesses us today.”

In a small, but not insignificant way, the pope called Blessed Paul VI a prophet—one who was willing to stand up in the midst of discord, as a minority, and speak the prophetic word of God.

But we all know the reality.  No matter which statistics one chooses to cite, it is clear that most of the Western world does not regard Paul VI as a prophet in this particular stance.  Clearly, many people attempt to live the ideal offered by the church. Some even struggle and fail, but virtuously try again.  But for the most part, the church’s teaching on contraception is viewed as one small mistake in her deposit of faith and morals.

But this homily today is not about contraception. It’s not about making people feel guilty.  That is not my intention at all.  This homily is about raising some questions for us in regards to today’s readings.  Who are the prophets of our time?  If Blessed Paul VI was not a prophet, and if Saint John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Pope Francis were wrong too in seeing him as a prophet:  where are the prophets in our day?  

In the first reading today we hear Moses addressing his people.  After being a prophetic voice to his people who consistently denied him, who complained, and who questioned him, Moses makes a promise to the people.  He says that the Lord will raise up prophets for them after he goes.  The Lord will place his words into their mouths.  These prophets will convey to them what God wants them to hear. 

This promise was fulfilled down through the ages with various, courageous voices who spoke out even when they were ignored.  It continued, of course, until the appointed time when the Prophet came to the Earth.  The Prophet who spoke with power and authority.  The Prophet who spoke with both firmness and condemnation, but also with mercy, compassion and by his example.  The Prophet who was the truth, and held up that truth on the cross for the world to see.

But where is the prophetic Jesus today?  In one sense he has left us.  In his Ascension he has returned to Heaven.  But could we believe that he would leave us without guidance?  Would he leave us to wander this life of exile without knowing what to do, how to act, where to turn?  Even less than perfect parents desire for their kids to go through life with at least some guidance.  How much more would our Heavenly Father desire to guide us?  And so Jesus let the truth be discerned within his Church by the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  It’s what any good parent would do if they could.  It is what he has done for us.

But we have to be honest.  We know that the Church is not seen as prophetic.  At best the Church is seen to offer good advice that is applicable to some people.  But it certainly does not speak for all of humanity.  It does not even really speak for all Catholics.  She is most often seen as fallible, weak, sinful, misguided, out of touch, encroaching on our freedom, and on and on and on. 

But if the prophetic role of the Church is gone, then where do we turn?  For most of us we turn to ourselves.  We take it upon ourselves to determine what is best in life.  We create and construct and arrange our own sense of morality.   We find some passage in the bible to support our stance, we claim that this is our context, or we find a theologian or a bishop who will support our own sense of morality.  And so everyone becomes a prophet, and then no one is really a prophet. 

Now there is a very healthy sense that we must personally struggle with all of these issues.  We must seek to form our conscience and determine how to act and live our lives.  All of that is true.  But at the end of the day, when we are quiet and lying in bed:  are we really that certain that our own prophetic voice is the one we should follow?  Do we sleep in peace at night knowing that we are relying on our own limited knowledge of life and love and justice and truth, as compared to a Tradition that is promised to serve as our guide and help? 

It is obvious that in this homily I am asking a lot more questions than I normally do.  I do so treading lightly on this subject for I know it goes to the heart of so many of our lives as we struggle to live as Catholics in the Modern world.  But I am convinced that this is one of the fundamental, decisive issues for the church today.  Does the Church have a prophetic voice? Do we as Catholics as least make an attempt to follow that voice?

It is a fundamental issue for many reasons, and it bears upon many consequences, but I will name just three that perhaps we can consider:

First, if we laugh in the face of the Church and her teaching, if we slough it off mockingly as if it is out of touch and wrong, then we laugh in the face of so many people who have gone before us, and who live with us now, who take the Church’s guidance seriously. People who have struggled valiantly, but certainly not perfectly, to live the life that God is calling them to live.  And these people are our family members—biologically and spiritually.  And family members don’t treat each other this way.   Christian charity calls us to more.

Second, if we think the prophetic voice of the Church is gone, and we are each left to ourselves, then it will continue to be nearly impossible to spread the Good News?  Who would want to be part of something that cannot be distinguished from the world?  If the Church is just as unclear about how we are to live our lives as the world is, if the church leaves us to our own selves to determine what is right and wrong—then why be part of her?  When so many people who profess to be Catholic turn a blind eye to what the church asks of us, this is in the end what people see—a body of semi-believers of a Tradition that doesn’t offer much more than can be found in the world.   It is difficult to call this Good News.

Finally, if we don’t at least attempt with a sincere heart to live what the Church asks—AND I KNOW HOW HARD THIS IS—I UNDERSTAND THIS IN MY OWN LIFE—what is there to assure us that we are really following Jesus at all?  For Jesus is the foolishness to the Greeks; he is the stumbling block for the Jews; he is the stone rejected by the builders; he is the suffering servant; he is the flesh beaten down on the pillar; he is the head hallowed with thorns; he is the friend betrayed by his loved ones; he is the leader denied by the Rock; he is the king crucified on the cross.

And he calls us to the same thing.  His fate is our fate.  His death is our death.  A disciple is not greater than the master.  Following Jesus means the same end for us.  But if we don’t at least try to live the prophetic voice of the Church even if we fail:  What is there to guarantee that we are really trying to follow a savior who calls all of us to enter into the same sacrificial and difficult fate as his—to die on a cross in order that we might rise?

It is true that Jesus speaks with authority, that he has the power to cast out demons, that He has the power to raise us up on the last day:  but we must first be willing to die.