Sunday, January 29, 2017

What Truly Matters (or, “Jesus, You’ve Got To Be Kidding”)

January 29, 2017: 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12–13 / from Psalm 146 /  1 Corinthians 1:26–31 / Matthew 5:1–12a
What Truly Matters (or, “Jesus, You’ve Got To Be Kidding”)

We live in a culture that prioritizes personal pleasure and convenience. If we pay attention to what the commercial world tries to sell us we will hear a seductive invitation to pursue bigger, better, nicer, sexier…. We are told to go after what makes us look good, whatever makes us happy, how to be the envy of others. There is a constant message that security comes from owning and controlling. Wealth, pleasure, power, and honor are the ultimate goals.

Jesus says the opposite as he begins The Sermon the Mount with what is commonly called the Beatitudes. He says God’s blessing rests on things that are polar opposites of what the world-spirit urges us to seek. Jesus uses words like poor, mourn, meek, insult, and persecute as a context for a right relationship with God. As Paul writes to the Corinthian Christians, he commends them for being foolish, weak, lowly, and despised in the eyes of the world.

The world is full of ‘somebodies’ and ‘nobodies’….. That’s not the way God intended it to be. Every human being, man, woman, child, and even unborn child, bears the image and likeness of God, [no one has] more nor less dignity because some other people have heard of them, look up to them, or think they’re special. But [most] people feel that it’s better to be ‘somebody’ [in some way that makes them “better” than others. (N. T. Wright)

A right understanding of what God has said and done through his Son calls us to dare to believe that we do not need to live under the burden of what consumes our world, either frantically seeking the so-called good or living in fear of the bad. Christian Faith turns the world’s common values upside down. As Christians, you and I are asked to believe that there is another world far more important than this one….. and then let that belief––that faith––affect the way we think and speak and act.

For the next several Sundays, the Epistle and Gospel readings are going to be taken mostly from this section of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and from Matthew’s presentation of The Sermon on the Mount. Again and again St Paul is going to contrast so-called human wisdom with God’s wisdom. The whole concept of wise and foolish is turned inside out. Paul insists that our glory as Christians is the cross of Jesus Christ.

Today’s Christians are mostly inoculated to the image of the cross. A cross is often a gold ornament on a nice chain that we wear. We even make a crucifix a work of art (and there is justification for that in the right context). Yet in those early years of the Church the cross was a scandal. It was nothing but an instrument of the most cruel and shameful death of its day. Imagine wearing a hangman's noose around your neck for ornamentation, or having an oil painting of an electric chair on your living room wall; that gives a bit of context for what people felt when Paul exalted “Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

We hear these Gospel readings and we know, on some cerebral level, that it is Jesus giving divine teaching. But if we truly hear Jesus we can hardly believe he is serious: Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me. Rejoice and be glad….. What?! Jesus, you have to be kidding…. you’re using hyperbole, right? You are all about love and mercy, right? You want us to be happy (don’t you?)…. What is this about insult and persecution when we don’t deserve it? ….But let’s finish that one verse: Rejoice and be glad…. for your reward will be great in heaven.

As we hear the readings over the next weeks, please try to remember this foundational truth (it’s the only way that Christian Faith makes any sense): Jesus came to bring––and teach and show––a whole new world: the Kingdom of God. Although we now can only see it by faith, we believe that Jesus and his kingdom is the lasting reality. What the world calls "the good life”–– the world’s veneer of nice things and beautiful people is going to dissolve. Jesus invites us to be free of the rat race and the fear of threats.

Think about it: no matter how wealthy or otherwise secure we are in this life, every one of us is going to die. Most people want to run from that reality. So much around us functions as a decoy to keep our minds and emotions occupied with something––anything––that seems to be important enough to keep us going and distracted. None of it is going to last.

Now it’s not that bad things do not matter, that we shouldn’t be concerned about them. It’s not that we should not desire good things. It’s just that even good things can be bad if they keep us distracted from what is most important, and no bad thing on earth is the worst thing that could happen. Jesus warned us to be more afraid of what can kill the soul than what can kill the body.

So we have Scripture readings like these to call us to a deep reality. The only way to live with any security in this world is to trust God. In love, God lets hard things come to teach us––to draw us––to run to him. God’s own Son, our Lord Jesus, suffered to the point of death so (among other reasons) we could see, in the context of our own fears and sufferings, that God is bigger than evil and death.

We will each leave here today and go out into a world that has all kinds of delightful distractions. Let’s not let them be too important in our lives. We will leave here today and perhaps have to face something awful (and if it doesn’t happen this week, something awful eventually comes to all of us); let’s dare to believe that God’s love in Christ Jesus is bigger than pain and death––even bigger than evil and hell.

Hear again part of our readings today: ….you are in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, as well as righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. God forgives us and heals us and delivers us from our false attachments through his Son. So hear again the words of our Lord himself: Rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be great in heaven. This is our faith.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church

Sunday: January 1, 2017–– Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God
Numbers 6:22–27 / Psalm 67 / Galatians 4:4–7 / Luke 2:16–21
Mary, Mother of God and Mother of the Church

The Church teaches that Mary is the Mother of God. Catholics grow up with Mary as a key figure in the life of the Church. That is good.... but it's not so good if there is little understanding of why and how Mary is so important. On the other end of the continuum, though, are many Evangelical Christians, who think––as I once did––that Catholics worship Mary. This means that, other than a brief cameo role at Christmas, Mary is at best ignored and, sadly, even demeaned in order (it is thought) to “correct” the Catholic error. I know this is true because it was part of my journey. One of the biggest hurdles separating most Evangelical Christians from Catholic Faith is the person and place of Mary.

This first Marian dogma goes back to 431 A.D and the ecumenical Council of Ephesus, which raised the question of whether Mary is rightly called theotokos. That’s a Greek word meaning "bearer of God.” One popular teacher, Nestorius, did not want to give Mary the title theotokos, preferring to call her christotokos, "the bearer of Christ" because he separated the divinity and humanity of Christ. The Council of Ephesus said that this destroyed Jesus as one undivided person. Nestorius' teaching was declared heretical and Mary was formally given the title theotokos, “God-bearer”, as the orthodox way to describe Mary.

This title was not meant to exalt Mary so much as to assert the unity of divinity and humanity in her Son. When properly understood, all the Marian dogmas are about Jesus. We use God-bearer language for the mother of Jesus to confess who Jesus really is: the beloved Son of the Father, born of a woman (Gal 4:4), and thus God manifested in the flesh (1 Tim. 3:16). Yet implicit in this is indeed a great honor for Mary. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Mary says (in the Magnificat): all generations will call me blessed. There was a point where I truly “saw” that for the first time, and with it was a shocking realization: the Christian tradition that had formed me had not taught me to call Mary “blessed.” It was a hard pill for me to swallow when it first dawned on me that it was the Catholic tradition which has fulfilled this prophecy of Mary recorded by Luke.

One of the objections from my past was the argument that Mary does not have prominence in the New Testament––that she has little role in Acts and is hardly mentioned in the Epistles. This point of view ignores the implication of Luke’s early chapters. Where did the details of those chapters come from if not from Mary herself? There is one vignette after another that can only be known because Luke, in composing his Gospel, sat at the feet of Mary and––inspired by the Holy Spirit to do so––recorded her “ponderings” so that we have their fruit today as Scripture.

If we take that as a premise, we then have in Mary a very important figure who is a source of authority for the earliest part of the “Jesus story”. She has stored these memories in her heart and she is highly revered. After she was taken to heaven and the Church was facing great persecution, there was an emphasis on the memory of the holy people who had first formed the Church. From the beginning Mary was uniquely remembered as the virgin in whom the Holy Spirit conceived our incarnate Lord. This was part of the Apostolic Tradition that guided the Council of Ephesus.

The declaration that Mary was the theotokos, the Mother of God, does not imply Mary’s divinity; again, it was primarily about Christ’s humanity. Jesus took his human flesh from his mother. The Church teaches clearly, and has always taught, that Mary is not divine. She is human, a creature, just like us, created by God. When we come to faith in Jesus, we are adopted so that Jesus is our brother (Heb 2:11) and Mary becomes our mother. Then we are all one in Christ in his mystical Body. This Body, of course (as Paul explicitly teaches), has different parts, different roles, and different gifts. Not everyone does the same thing. Mary has a special role: She is Mother, because she is literally the mother of Jesus’ physical body, and as we are joined to Christ through the Holy Spirit as his mystical Body she comes our Mother, too. Jesus, on the cross, explicitly gave his mother to his disciple (and implicitly to the Church). So everything about Mary is connected to the communion of saints, of which we are a part––and of which she is the preeminent member (everything in Catholic Faith interfaces, as a seamless garment). As Catholic piety began to develop and grow, Mary’s role as an intercessor became important as early as the early second century.

Yet this was another cause for concern in my former tradition. How can Mary not be ascribed divine omnipresence if she is constantly able to hear millions of individual prayers all around the world? Then a wonderful analogy came to me: Facebook. It is possible to have a friend on Facebook who has thousands of other friends. That friend can have all other friends tell him their fears and woes. How? Through the internet. I do not mean this to be disrespectful in the least, but the internet functions something like the Holy Spirit. The internet is everywhere. The internet can deliver messages seemingly at the speed of light. A FB friend does not have that power by himself, but it is available. So with prayer, the “vehicle” is always God. We can only pray in and through the Holy Spirit, but because every Christian is a partaker of the Spirit and because physical death does not cut the bond all Christians have in the Spirit, there is a communion of saints, and at the pinnacle of all saints is Holy Mary, the Mother of God. No other human being has greater intimacy with Jesus than Mary. She is is a powerful intercessor. In the Spirit, we can ask for her to pray for us just as we ask for the prayers of our dearest living friend.

Yet there is a caution here. Even as we honor Mary with the title Mother of God and seek her motherly aid, we need to remember than Mary is not the source of holiness, or love, or mercy. Those things come first from God; God’s people have those qualities derivatively as gifts of grace. Let’s not think that is Mary more merciful than Jesus.

But among all the people of God––among all the saints, no one has greater fulness of grace than Mary. She is first in the Church. She is first among the saints. She alone gave flesh to the eternal Word, and in so doing became the very Mother of God. In that grace, and from the very words of Jesus on the cross––Behold your mother, she is our mother, too. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us.

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