Of Preludes, Postludes, and Appreciation for Sacred Liturgy

In the first video below there is a scene, not exceedingly rare today, of a piano placed in an airport or shopping mall. A person approaches the piano and begins to play, meekly at first, but then displaying virtuoso talent. Soon a crowd assembles in appreciation of the remarkable gift before them, both the man and the music.

Sadly, I have not noticed a similar appreciation expressed by Catholics at Sunday Mass, weddings, or other similar moments when virtuosity was displayed by the church organist. For example, a few years ago I was at a large Mass of the faithful at a large church in Washington, D.C. where very talented organists are known to play. For the postlude, the organist played the Symphonia from Cantata 29 by J.S. Bach, a phenomenal and difficult piece (see the second video also below). Only two of us out of the entire congregation showed enough appreciation to stay and listen, lifting our hearts to this piece that so glorifies God, and seeing His grace shining through mortal talent and the king of instruments, the pipe organ. The rest of the congregation began chattering and moving toward the exits. I wondered if they had any idea of the glory and the gifts that were unfolding all about them. It seemed that they did not. Rather, they appeared to treat it as background noise that forced them to them talk to one another even louder. Once the piece ended, the two of us approached the organ area and thanked the organist profusely. I lamented that so few seemed to appreciate what he had just done. He shrugged, and with a philosophical attitude said simply, “I played this for God.” Yes, Amen. The whole liturgy is for God.

To some extent, though, we Catholics have lost our way when it comes to the conclusion of Mass. Whether there is a recessional hymn or not, as the clergy and servers depart, one is invited to stay for a few moments to personally thank the Lord for the gift that has unfolded. Sometimes this is done in silence for a moment or two. Some organists, especially those who are particularly gifted, choose to assist this act of worthy and joyful thanks with a postlude. Either way, a brief time of even just a few moments is commendable for the faithful. To be sure, some people have valid reasons to leave at once, but most can stay just a bit and linger in the afterglow of the inestimable gift of the Sacred Liturgy. Instead, most parishes erupt into a cafeteria-like setting, in which loud greetings and conversations dominate. In the past, such activities took place in the vestibule or just outside the church. Fellowship is commendable and to be encouraged, but so is the concept of a sacred place reserved for prayer and praise of God. Currently things are out of balance.

Many pastors seek to admonish the faithful to respectful silence within the church interior, but their request is  usually forgotten within weeks. The prevailing culture of informality is pervasive. There is also something of a generational quality to it. Surprisingly, I have found that masses predominantly attended by young adults feature silence in the church prior to and after the Mass. Paradoxically, it is the elder generation, who were raised with the notion that is a “sin” to talk in church, who have most set aside the idea of silence in church. 

Returning to music for a moment, most great composers created preludes and postludes to be played at Masses and religious services. Bach composed dozens of them along with meditative pieces based on sacred hymns and themes. As one entered and left the church, one heard the music of Heaven, signaling that the ordinary world was left outside the doors of the church. Most organists I know don’t even try to play preludes anymore, especially at weddings, where so many enter the church as if it were merely a reception center sans bar and hors d’oeuvres. Churches used to resound with the sounds of Jesu Joy and Ave Maria as people assembled quietly and respectfully, recognizing that they were in a sacred place. Many of the guests at weddings are unchurched and simply have not learned the proper behavior; I do not believe they are being intentionally disrespectful. It is more the result of a secular culture that almost never engages in formalities anymore. We seldom dress up, endure a formal silence, or even understand its meaning.

Recently, preludes and postludes (usually played by organists) seem to be making a bit of a comeback. They help to remind the faithful that a sacred place is being entered or a sacred event is being ended with joy and solemnity. They are like bookends or boundaries. If you’re blessed to have a good or even a decent organist, encourage him or her to play preludes and postludes. Ask the clergy and musical leaders to teach the congregation about their significance. They are not merely background music to chat over; they are a summons to what is heavenly and edifying.

Five Advent Reflections

The Following are “Five Advent Reflections”  I have prepared. If these interest you I have prepared them also in PDF format which you can get by clicking here: The Season of Advent

1. Advent is Witnessed by Creation  – Autumn and early winter are times of great seasonal change. The leaves turn brilliant colors then fade and fall. The shadows lengthen as the days grow shorter and colder. The warmth of summer and vacations seem distant memories and we are reminded once again that the things of this world last but a moment and pass away. Even so, we look forward as well. Christmas can be a wonderful time of year. Likewise, the winter ahead has delights. Few can deny the mesmerizing beauty of falling snow and the child-like excitement a winter storm can cause. Advent draws us spiritually into this season of change, of longing and of expectation. As the days grow shorter and the darkness increases we light candles on our Advent wreathes and remember that Jesus is the true light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness. These lit candles also symbolize our on-going commitment to come out of darkness into God’s own marvelous light. (cf 1 Peter 2:9). A Gospel Song says:  Walk in the light, beautiful light, come where the dew-drops of mercy shine bright.

2. Longing for Salvation – Advent also draws us back to our Old Testament roots. Israel was taught by God through the prophets to expect a Messiah from God who would set them free from sin and injustice. Across many centuries there arose a longing and a yearning for this messiah. Sin and injustice had taken a terrible toll and so the cry from Israel went up:

O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil…We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities. Yet, O LORD, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity for ever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people. (Is 64:1-7)

In Advent we recall these cries of ancient Israel and make them our own. Surely Christ has already come yet we know that sin and injustice still have their terrible effects in our lives and in our communities. We very much need Jesus to be our Savior and to daily set us free. Advent is a time to acknowledge our need for the saving work of God and to long for the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that God has already begun this saving work in us, now we long for him to bring it to completion. We also await the full manifestation of his glory and this brings us to the second important meaning of Advent. .

3. Waiting  for His Second Coming – Advent is also a time to prepare for the second coming of the Lord. We say in the Creed, He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. This truth flows directly from Scripture which teaches clearly two things on which we must reflect. First, He will come again in glory. Second we cannot know the day or the hour that he will return. In fact, though some signs will precede his coming, the emphasis of Scripture falls upon the suddenness of the event:

  1. He will appear like lightning (Mt 24:27),
  2. with the suddenness of the pangs of child birth (1 Th. 5:3)
  3. in the twinkling of an eye and the sound of a trumpet (1 Cor 15:52).
  4. It will take place when we least expect (Mt 24:44),
  5. Just when everyone is saying, “There is peace and security!” (1 Th. 5:3).

Since this is to be the case we must live lives of readiness for that day. Advent is a time when we especially reflect of the necessity of our readiness. Here too an Old Gospel Song sasy, Ready!? Are you ready? For the coming of the Lord? Likewise, a spiritual counsels, Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. The time is drawing nigh!

4. The Fire Next Time! – Some of the images of the last day, images of judgement and destruction, can seem very frightening indeed. Consider for example this passage from the Second Letter of Peter:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Pt. 3:10-14).

Some of the imagery used here reminds us of the even more fearsome images of the Book of Revelation! But notice the complete message of this passage and others like it. The heavens and the earth as we know it will pass away but we who are ready look forward with joy to a “new heavens and a new earth” where the justice of God will reside in all its fullness. An African-American Spiritual summarized the teachings of the Second Letter of Peter by these classic lines, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time. Here too, our first reaction to such phrases might be fear. But in the tradition of the spirituals, this fire was a fire of justice and truth that destroyed the power of injustice and oppression. Another spiritual expresses this, God’s gonna set this world on fire, one of these days Alleluia! [and] I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days Alleluia! For the slaves, the Day of God’s visitation could only be a day of jubilee, a day of vindication and deliverance. And so it will be for us if we are ready. But what does it mean to be ready? To be ready is be living faithfully, holding to God’s unchanging hand in the obedience of faith and trust. To be ready is to be living a holy life and a life of repentance. If we do this we have not only have nothing to fear about the Last Day, we eagerly anticipate it and cry out, “Amen, Come Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).

5. Remember, Repent, Rehearse – All these reflections help to place Advent in proper perspective for us. We are called to remember, repent and rehearse. We remember that Christ has already come and that he has called us to the obedience of faith and promised he will return in glory. We repent of whatever hinders our readiness for that day. And we rehearse for his second coming in glory by anticipating its demands and celebrating the glory that comes to those whom he finds watchful and ready. In a sense every Mass is a dress rehearsal for the glory of the kingdom. At every mass the following prayer is said, Deliver us Lord from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ. This beautiful prayer recalls that it is entirely God’s work that we be ready for his glorious return. Only he can deliver us, free us from our sin and remove anxiety about that day. Only he can give us joy and make us holy. We have but to yield to his saving work.

And this brings us back to where we started, longing and yearning for our savior. To yearn for him is to know how much we need him. To long for him is to constantly seek his face and call upon his name.  Therefore cry out with the Church, “Come Lord Jesus!” For it is written, The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price… He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:17, 20)

Watch! A Homily for the First Sunday of Advent


The Sunday Gospel announces a critical Advent theme: While I want to comment primarily on the Reading from Isaiah, the Gospel admonition surely deserves some attention as well.

Too many today hold the unbiblical idea that most if not all people are going to Heaven. For weeks now we have been reading parables in the Gospels in which the Lord Jesus warns that many (possibly even most) are not headed for Heaven. There are the wise and the foolish virgins, the industrious and the lazy servants, and the sheep and the goats. Today’s Gospel features those who keep watch and those who do not.

Although many prefer to brush aside the teachings on judgment or the teaching that many will be lost, Jesus says, “Watch!” to all of us. In other words, we should watch out; we should be serious, sober, and prepared for death and judgment. We must realize that our choices in this life are leading somewhere.

Some try to tame, domesticate, and reinvent Jesus, but it is not this fake Jesus whom they will meet. They will meet the real Jesus, the Jesus who warns repeatedly of the reality of judgment and the strong possibility of Hell. The beginning of Advent is an especially important time to heed Jesus’ admonition and realize our need to be saved.

This leads us to the today’s first reading, from Isaiah, which rather thoroughly sets forth our need for a savior. Isaiah distinguishes five ailments which beset us and from which we need rescue. We are: drifting, demanding, depraved, disaffected, and depressed. In the end, Isaiah reminds us of our dignity. Let’s look at each of these ailments in turn and then ponder our dignity.

1.  Drifting – The text says, Why [O Lord] do you let us wander from your ways, and harden our hearts so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage.

It is a common human tendency to wander or drift gradually. It is relatively rare for someone to suddenly decide to reject God, especially if he was raised with some faith. Rather, what usually happens is that we just drift away, wander off course. It is like the captain of a ship who stops paying close attention. The boat drifts farther and farther off course. At first, no one notices, but the cumulative effect is that the boat is now headed in the wrong direction. The captain did not suddenly turn the wheel and shift 180 degrees; he just stopped paying attention and began to drift bit by bit.

So it is with some of us, who may wonder how we got so far off course. I talk with many people who have left the Church; many of them cannot point to a single incident or moment when they walked out of Church and said, “I’m never coming back.” More common is that they just gradually fell away from the practice of the faith. They missed Mass on Sunday here and there, and little by little, missing Mass became the norm. Maybe they moved to a new city and never got around to finding a parish. They just got disconnected and drifted away.

The thing about drifting is that the further off course you get, the harder it is to get back on course. It seems like an increasingly monumental task to make the changes necessary to get back on track. Thus Isaiah speaks of the heart of a drifter becoming hardened. Our bad habits become “hard” to break. As God seems more and more distant to us, we lose our holy fear and reverence for Him.

It is interesting how, in taking up our voice, Isaiah, “blames” God. Somehow it is “His fault” for letting us wander because He allows us to do it. It is true that God made us free and that is very serious about respecting our freedom. How else could we love God, if we were not free? Compelled love is not love at all.

What Isaiah is really getting at is that some of us are so far afield, so lost, that only God can find us and save us. And so we must depend on God being like a shepherd who seeks his lost sheep.

Thus, here is the first way that Isaiah sets forth our need for a Savior.

2.  Demanding The text says, Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, with the mountains quaking before you, while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for, such as they had not heard of from of old. No ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for him.

There is a human tendency to demand signs and wonders. Our flesh demands to see, and when we do not, we are dismissive, even scoffing.

This tendency has reached a peak in our modern times when so many reject faith because it does not meet the demands of empirical science and a materialistic age. If something is not physical, not measurable by some human instrument, many reject its very existence. Never mind that many things that are very real (e.g., justice, fear) cannot be weighed on a scale. What most moderns are really doing is more specific: rejecting God and the demands of faith. “Because we cannot see Him with our eyes, He is not there. Therefore, we may do as we please.”

Isaiah gives voice to the human demand to see on our own terms. We demand signs and wonders before we will believe. It is almost as though we are saying to God, “Force me to believe in you” or “Make everything so certain that I don’t really have to walk by faith.”

Many of us look back to the miracles of the Scriptures and think, “If I saw that, I would believe.” But faith is not so simple. Many who did see miracles (e.g., the Hebrew people in the desert), saw but still gave way to doubt. Many who saw Jesus work miracles fled at the first sign of trouble or as soon as He said something that displeased them. Our flesh demands to see, but in the end, even after seeing we often refuse to believe.

Further, God does not usually do the “biggie-wow” things to impress us. Satan does overwhelm us in this way. God, however, is a quiet and persistent lover who respectfully and delicately works in us—if we let Him. It is Satan who roars at us with temptation, fear, and sheer volume, so that we are distracted and confused. More often, God is that still, small voice speaking in the depth of our heart.

Thus the Lord, speaking through Isaiah, warns us of this second ailment, the demand for signs and wonders. Our rebellious flesh pouts and draws back in resentful rebellion. We need a Savior, to give us a new heart and mind, attuned to the small still voice of God in a strident world.

3.  Depraved – The text says, Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in our ways! Behold, you are angry, and we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people.

The word depraved comes from the Latin pravitas, meaning crooked or deformed. It means to be lacking what we ought to have. Hence, the Lord (through Isaiah) here describes our deformed state in the following ways.

Unthinking – the text says that we are “unmindful” of God. Indeed, our minds are very weak. We can go for long periods so turned in on ourselves that we barely if ever think of God. Our thoughts are focused on things that are passing, while almost wholly forgetful of God and Heaven, which remain forever. It is so easy for our senseless minds to be darkened. Our culture has “kicked God to the curb.” There are even fewer reminders of Him today than there were in previous generations. We desperately need God to save us and to give us new minds. Come, Lord Jesus!

Unhappy – the text says of God “You are angry.” But we need to remember that the “wrath of God” is more in us than it is in God. God’s anger is His passion to set things right. God is not moody or prone to egotistical rage. More often than not, it is we who project our own unhappiness and anger upon God. The “wrath of God” is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sinful state with the holiness of God. God does not lose His temper or fly into a rage; He does not lose His serenity. It is we who are unhappy, angry, egotistical, and scornful. We need God to give us a new heart. Come, Lord Jesus!

Undistinguished – the text says, we are sinful; all of us have become like unclean people. We are called to be holy. That is, we are called to be “set apart,” distinguished from the sinful world around us. Too often, though, we are indistinguishable. We do not shine forth like a light in the darkness. We seem little different than the pagan world around us. We divorce, fornicate, fail to forgive, support abortion, contracept, and fail the poor in numbers indistinguishable from those who do not know God. We do not seem joyful, serene, or alive. We look like just like everyone else. Our main goal seems to be to fit in. Save us, O Lord, from our mediocrity and fear. Come, Lord Jesus!

4.  Disaffected The text says, There is none who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to cling to you; for you have hidden your face from us and have delivered us up to our guilt.

In other words, collectively speaking we have no passion for God. We get all worked up about politics, sports, the lottery, and television shows; but when it comes to God, many can barely rouse themselves to go to Mass, pray, or read Scripture. We seem to find time for everything but God.

Here, too, Isaiah gives voice to the human tendency to blame God. He says, God has hidden his face. But God has not moved. If you can’t see God, guess who turned away? If you’re not as close to God as you used to be, guess who moved?

Our heart and our priorities are out of whack. We need a savior to give us a new heart, a greater love, and better priorities and desires. Come, Lord Jesus!

5.  Depressed The text says, All our good deeds are like polluted rags; we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind.

One of the definitions of depression is anger turned inward. While Isaiah has given voice to our tendency to direct anger at and blame God, here he gives voice to another tendency of ours: turning in on ourselves.

Our good deeds are described as polluted rags. While they may be less than they could be, calling them polluted rags gives voice to our own frustration with our seemingly hopeless situation and our addiction to sin and injustice.

Ultimately, the devil wants us to diminish what little good we can find in ourselves. He wants us to be locked into a depressed and angry state. If we think there is no good in us at all, then we think “Why even bother?”

There is such a thing as unhealthy guilt (cf 2 Cor 7:10-11) and self-loathing that is not of God, but from the devil, our accuser. It may well be this that Isaiah articulates here. From such depressed self-loathing (masquerading as piety) we need a savior. Come, Lord Jesus!

So the cry has gone up: Come, Lord Jesus; save us, Savior of the world! We need a savior and Advent is a time to mediate on that need.

Isaiah ends on a final note that takes the song from the key of D minor to the key of D major.

Dignity the text says, Yet, O LORD, you are our father; we are the clay and you the potter: we are all the work of your hands.

Yes, we are a mess, but a loveable one. God has so loved us that He sent His Son, who is not ashamed to call us brethren.

We are not forsaken. In Advent we call upon a Father who loves us. Our cry, Come, Lord Jesus, is heard and heeded by the Father, who loves us and is fashioning us into His very image. God is able and will fix and fashion us well. Help is on the way!

What is a Cardinal? A Basic Review of the College of Cardinals in History and Today.

Now that attention shifts on Saturday to the new Cardinals, (Including Archbishop Wilton Gregory of this Archdiocese), it might be good to spend a brief time reflecting on what a Cardinal is and how the College of Cardinals functions. Perhaps it is good to start with a little history and then describe the present realities.

History [1] Originally the term “cardinal” simply referred to any priest who was attached to a particular church or diocese. Even to this day we speak of diocesan priests as being “incardinated” (or attached) to a certain diocese or religious order, and this is required for every priest. There are not to be “free-ranging” priests. Later however, from about the 4th Century through the late Middle Ages the term “cardinal” came to be used only of certain more prominent priests in the larger and more prominent dioceses of antiquity such as Constantinople, Milan, Ravenna, Naples, Sens, Trier, Magdeburg, and Cologne and of course, Rome. In more recent centuries the term came only to be used of Rome.

And thus we find the term cardinal used in the Church at Rome (from at least fifth century) to designate priests permanently serving in the Roman parishes and ministries under the Bishop of Rome, the Pope— These were the “cardinal priests.” However, as the number of priests grew, not all the priests attached to these Roman parishes were known as cardinal, but only the first priest in each such parish—i.e. the Pastor or Rector.

Cardinal priests attended not only to their own ministry or parish but also convened regularly to oversee matters of Church discipline in the diocese of Rome. These might include matters of disciplining the clergy, filling vacancies and so forth. But it also involved matters pertaining to the laity insofar as they interacted with the Church. Thus the Cardinal priests assisted the Pope in the administration of the Diocese of Rome. There are some echoes of all this in every diocese through a mechanisms known as the College of Deans and College of Consultors who assist the Bishop in administrative details and matters of Church discipline. Cardinal Gregory is among the “Cardinal Priests” so designated.

Cardinal Deacons – During all this time just described there also existed a group known as the cardinal deacons. The Roman Diocese was divided into seven regions and a deacon was assigned to each. They performed numerous duties but chief among them was record-keeping and the coordination of the care of the poor, cemeteries and the like. Given their elevated status over a deacon who only served a parish, they came to be called cardinal deacons. These cardinal deacons would also assist the Pope liturgically whenever he was in that region of the diocese. The number of these cardinal deacons gradually rose over the years.

Cardinal Bishops – Yet again, during all this time there also emerged the cardinal bishops. As the worldwide Church grew in size, the duties of the Pope, and the administrative concerns of the Roman Church (diocese) grew. The Pope increasingly came to call on bishops of nearby dioceses (esp. Ostia and Velletri, Porto and Santa Rufina, Albano, Frascati (Tusculum), Palestrina (Præneste), and Sabina) to represent him in an official capacity and to give him counsel. In a way it was like the modern notion of a local synod.

Thus we see that the Cardinals had varying ranks and functions. They were, assistants of the pope in his liturgical functions, in the care of the poor, the administration of papal finances and possessions, and met in synod over the disposition of important matters to include Church discipline.

By the 11th Century the College of Cardinals took on more importance as they began to oversee the election of a new pope when this became necessary. They not only saw to the election but they also ran things during the interregnum. From this time on their functions and importance grew. The Pope met regularly with them in something called the “consistory,” i.e. the reunion of the cardinals and the pope. In these meetings were regularly treated doctrinal questions of faith, disciplinary matters, canonizations, approvals of rules of new orders, indulgences for the Universal Church, rules for papal elections, the calling of general councils, appointing of Apostolic legates and vicars etc. The consistory also oversaw matters concerning dioceses and bishops, creation, transfer, division, the nomination and confirmation of bishops, also their transfer, resignation, etc.

The Modern Scene – More could be said of the history but allow this to bring us to modern times [2].

Although we see historically that there are three ranks of Cardinals (bishop, priest and deacon) it is now the practice that only bishops are elevated to the College of Cardinals. Since 1962 all cardinals have been required to receive episcopal consecration unless they are granted an exemption from this obligation by the Pope. Most recently this happened with Cardinal Avery Dulles who was elevated to Cardinal but remained a priest.

Though all the Cardinals are now bishops, the traditional distinctions are maintained.

      • The title of “Cardinal Bishop” only means that he holds the title of one of the “suburbicarian” (nearby dioceses of Rome listed above) or that he is the Dean of the College of Cardinals — or that he is a patriarch of an Eastern Catholic Church. Cardinal priests are the largest of the three orders of cardinals.
      • Cardinal priests today are generally bishops of important dioceses throughout the world, though some hold offices in the Curia.
      • The cardinal deacons are either officials of the Roman Curia or priests elevated after their eightieth birthday (such as Cardinal Dulles was).

As for the functions of the College of Cardinals, we have already seen much of this in the history above. In modern times the function of the college is to advise the Pope about Church issues whenever he summons them to an ordinary consistory. The cardinals not only attend the meetings of the College but also make themselves available individually or with small panels of cardinals if the Pope requests their counsel in this way. Most cardinals have additional duties, such as leading a diocese or archdiocese. Others run a department of the Roman Curia.

The College of Cardinals also convenes on the death or abdication of a pope as a papal conclave to elect a successor. The college has no ruling power except during the sede vacante (vacant see) period, and even then its powers are extremely limited.

Those who attain to this office have proven their worth as stable and wise counselors, good bishops of the Church. May our Cardinals experience many graces and blessings in their work of electing a new Pope, likely from among their own number.

Love of the World Fuels the Fear of Death – A Meditation on a Teaching of St. Cyprian

As November winds down and Advent still looms, the traditional meditation we make on the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell) is still operative. A classic writing by St. Cyprian comes to mind. It is a meditation on the fundamental human struggle to be free of undue attachment to this world and to have God (and the things waiting for us in Heaven) as our highest priority.

In this meditation, St. Cyprian has in mind the Book of James and the Epistle of St. John. Yes, surely these dramatic texts are present in his mind as he writes. Hence, before pondering St. Cyprian, it may be good to reference these forceful and uncompromising texts:

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God … Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded (James 4:4,8).

The Lord Jesus, of course, had first said,

No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (Matt 6:24).

And St. John also adds,

Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever (1 John 2:15-17).

Nothing is perhaps so difficult to imagine, especially for us moderns, as being wholly free of the enticements of the world. These texts, so adamant and uncompromising, shock us by their sweeping condemnation of “the world.” For who can really say that he has no love for the world?

We may, however, be able to find temporary refuge in some distinctions. The adulterous love of attachment and the preference for the world over its creator is certainly to be condemned. Yet surely the love for what is good, true, and beautiful in the world is proper. St. Paul speaks of those things “which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and who know the truth. For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:3-5).

However, our distinction, though proper, cannot provide most of us with full cover, since we also know that the adulterous love of this world is still aplenty in our soul, however much noble love we also have. And the lust of the world is more than willing to sacrifice the good, the true, and the beautiful (not to mention God himself) for baser pleasures.

Only God can free us. And while some are gifted to achieve remarkable poverty of spirit long before departing this world, most of us are not ultimately freed from the lust of this world until God uses the dying process itself to free us. Slowly we die to this world as we see our skills, strength, and looks begin to fade as we age. And as old age sets in, we say farewell to friends, perhaps a spouse, and maybe the home we owned. Our eyesight, hearing, and general health begin to suffer many and lasting assaults; complications begin to set in.

For those who are faithful (and I have made this journey with many an older parishioner as well as some family members), it begins to become clear that what matters most is no longer here in this world, that our true treasure is in Heaven and with God. A gentle longing for what is above grows. For those who are faithful, slowly the lust of this world dies as we let God do His work.

Yet too many, even of those who believe, resist this work of God. While a natural fear of death is to be expected, too many live in open denial of and resistance to what is inevitably coming. Our many medicines and creature comforts help maintain the illusion that we can hold on to this world, and some people try to tighten their grip on it. A natural fear of death is supplanted by a grasping, clinging fear, rooted in a lack of faith and little desire for God.

And this is where we pick up with St. Cyprian:

How unreasonable it is to pray that God’s will be done, and then not promptly obey it when he calls us from this world!

Instead we struggle and resist [death] like self-willed slaves and are brought into the Lord’s presence with sorrow and lamentation, not freely consenting to our departure, but constrained by necessity.

And yet we expect to be rewarded with heavenly honors by him to whom we come against our will! Why then do we pray for the kingdom of heaven to come if this earthly bondage pleases us? What is the point of praying so often for its early arrival if we should rather serve the devil here, than reign with Christ.

The world hates Christians, so why give your love to it instead of following Christ, who loves you and has redeemed you?

John is most urgent in his epistle when he tells us not to love the world by yielding to sensual desires. Never give your love to the world, he warns, or to anything in it. A man cannot love the Father and love the world at the same time. All that the world offers is the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and earthly ambition. The world and its allurements will pass away, but the man who has done the will of God shall live for ever.

Our part, my dear brothers, is to be single-minded, firm in faith, and steadfast in courage, ready for God’s will, whatever it may be.

Banish the fear of death and think of the eternal life that follows. That will show people that we really live our faith.

We ought never to forget, beloved, that we have renounced the world. We are living here now as aliens and only for a time. When the day of our homecoming puts an end to our exile, frees us from the bonds of the world, and restores us to paradise and to a kingdom, we should welcome it.

What man, stationed in a foreign land, would not want to return to his own country as soon as possible? Well, we look upon paradise as our country, and a great crowd of our loved ones awaits us there, a countless throng of parents, brothers and children longs for us to join them. Assured though they are of their own salvation, they are still concerned about ours. What joy both for them and for us to see one another and embrace! O the delight of that heavenly kingdom where there is no fear of death! O the supreme and endless bliss of everlasting life!

There is the glorious band of apostles, there, the exultant assembly of prophets, there, the innumerable host of martyrs, crowned for their glorious victory in combat and in death. There, in triumph, are the virgins who subdued their passions by the strength of continence. There the merciful are rewarded, those who fulfilled the demands of justice by providing for the poor. In obedience to the Lord’s command, they turned their earthly patrimony into heavenly treasure.

My dear brothers, let all our longing be to join them as soon as we may. May God see our desire, may Christ see this resolve that springs from faith, for he will give the rewards of his love more abundantly to those who have longed for him more fervently (Treatise on Mortality: Cap 18:24, 26: CSEL 3, 308, 312-314).

Amen.

As November ends but Advent begins, remember the four last things: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Prepare to meet God eagerly; run toward Him with joy and confidence, calling on Him who made you for Himself. Death will surely come. Why not let it find you joyful, victorious, and confident—eager to go and meet God?

Some Thoughts on Jesus as a “Concealed King”

We do well to further examine a quality of Christ’s kingship mentioned in yesterday’s sermon notes, namely that he is a “concealed” King. In the gospel, both the saved and condemned are surprised and wonder when they encountered Jesus at all, whether as hungry, thirsty, naked, a stranger, sick or in prison. He replies, Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Matt 25:41). So, although concealed, Jesus says he was, quite present in those who were in such need.

To examine and further understand the concealment of Jesus, consider another gospel passage. In the afternoon of the resurrection, two disciples are on the road to Emmaus and, as they journey and discuss the events of passiontide, Jesus joins them but they do not recognize him. Along the way he sets their hearts afire ass he explains the Scriptures. Having reached the house where they were going he entered the house and, as the text says,

While He was reclining at the table with them, He took bread, said the blessing and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Jesus— and He disappeared from their sight. (Luke 24:30-31)

So, even as they recognized Jesus who had been concealed or hid from their earthly eyes, he vanishes from their sight. It is as if to say to them and us, “You will no longer see me in the way to which you are accustomed. Now you will see me in the Sacraments, in the Sacred Liturgy and wherever two or three are gathered in my name.”

Our usual way of seeing, at least in the physical sense is that light rays reach our retina and are somehow decoded by the brain. Jesus teaches we will not see him in this way. Rather we must learn to encounter him at the Holy Liturgy as he enters, clothed in priestly garments, blesses us, speaks a word to us, and feeds us with his very Body and Blood. We must learn to hear his voice in the Scriptures proclaimed and when he speaks to us and ministers to us in the Sacraments: This is my Body….this is my Blood…. I baptize you in the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit… I absolve you from your sins… and so forth. It is Christ concealed in the person of the priest and under various signs whom we encounter.

And though he is concealed from earthly eyes, he expects us to recognize him by the eyes of the faith. St Thomas Aquinas wrote:

I devoutly adore you, hidden deity,
Who are truly hidden beneath these appearances.
My whole heart submits to You,
And in contemplating You, it surrenders itself completely.

Sight, touch, taste are all deceived in their judgment of you,
But hearing suffices firmly to believe.
I believe all that the Son of God has spoken;
There is nothing truer than this word of Truth.

On the cross only the divinity was hidden,
But here the humanity is also hidden
Yet believing and confessing both,
I ask for what the penitent thief ask (Adoro Te Devote vv. 1-3)

Again, though concealed from physical or earthly eyes Jesus expects us to recognize him here nonetheless. St Paul says, “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor 5:7). We also read: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb 11:1). And thus, though concealed, we are expected to find Christ in the Holy Liturgy and the Sacraments.

In the Gospel from this past Sunday Jesus teaches much the same thing. Though concealed from our earthly eyes, he expects us to recognize his presence in the needy, the poor, the sick and the suffering. To consistently fail to give care to the needy is a damnable sin. Not only do we sin by failing them, we also sin by failing to recognize Christ in them. Both groups, those on the right and those on the left are surprised that it was Christ himself they served or failed to serve. But the teaching of this gospel is that, henceforth, we are expected to recognize him. Though he is concealed in some sense, it cannot be that way for us. With the eyes of faith we are required to understand that it is He who we are also seeing.  Thus, St. John admonishes us, For if a person does not love his brother, whom he has seen, then he cannot love God, whom he has not seen. (1 John 4:20)

Behold, your concealed King and Lord!

Not Your Average King – A Homily for the Feast of Christ the King

The readings for this Feast of Christ the King evoke three images of Christ as King. All of them are to some extent paradoxical because they emphasize things we don’t usually associate with kings. They also tell us that we have already met King Jesus even if we don’t realize it. Let’s look at these three images of our Lord Jesus Christ, King of all Creation:

I. Caring King – The first reading, from Ezekiel 34, speaks of the Lord as a shepherd who cares for His flock. Here are some of the lines that summarize His care: I myself will look after and tend my sheep … I will rescue them from every place where they were scattered when it was cloudy and dark … I myself will give them rest … The lost I will seek out … The strayed I will bring back … The injured I will bind up. The sick I will heal.

In the modern world we don’t typically think of kings and heads of state in such a caring role. Most world leaders are inaccessible to us, existing behind many layers of security and staff. Even bishops of larger dioceses are hard to reach personally.

Jesus, however, is a King who is more present to us than we are to ourselves. An old revival hymn says, “Jesus is on the Main Line … call him up and tell him what you want.” Another song says, “God is just one prayer away.”

In the ancient world it was much more comment to speak of a caring king. Most kings had more immediate contact with their subjects. Many had certain days on which their subjects could line up to talk to them. It is said that St. Athanasius ran up to the emperor on his horse one day, grabbed the reins, and proceeded to debate a theological point with him.

Until relatively recently, even U.S. Presidents had office hours. It is said that on Tuesdays Abraham Lincoln received visitors from among the citizenry who sought to speak to him of their concerns. They would line up at the door without formal appointments and he’d listen to them one by one. As our culture has become more violent and public figures have become more widely recognized and vulnerable, leaders have receded into sealed, bulletproof, and figuratively soundproof worlds, hearing little from “ordinary people.”

The idea of a king who cares for his people personally is somewhat paradoxical to us today, but Jesus does care for His people.

I want to testify that I do indeed have a caring King, Jesus. He’s been good to me. He has led me, rescued me, purified me, fed me, instructed me, and graced me; He died for me.

I also want to testify that He was being good to me even when I didn’t think He was being good to me. Scripture says, All things work together for good to them who love and trust the Lord (Rom 8:28). Notice that not just the “good things” work for my benefit but even the bad things. God sometimes permits some “stuff” to happen because it will bless us in the end. Even if you’re suffering, don’t give up on God. Some of His gifts sometimes come in strange packages. St Paul says, For this affliction is producing for us a weight of glory beyond compare (2 Cor 4:17).

Did you notice the last line in the passage from Ezekiel? But the sleek and the strong I will destroy, shepherding them rightly. Yes, even at those times when I needed to be humbled (to have my pride destroyed) the Lord was shepherding me rightly. There was a time in my life when I was sleeker and stronger, but the Lord let me experience some humiliation, destroying me as it were, and giving me humility. I even see this humiliation physically, for I was once slim and now I am overweight. It is humbling to be fat, especially when people scold me; they seem to think it is easy to lose weight. But God will humble them too, perhaps in other ways. God hates pride; He just can’t stand it. This is because He knows how deadly it is to us.

Yes, God is a caring King. Some of His ways are paradoxical. Do not reduce the noun “care” merely to meaning “that which comforts and consoles.” It can be that, but not always! Sometimes the “caring” thing to do is to rebuke, warn, or even punish. God never ceases to care for us. I’m a witness. He’s been good to me. Even when I didn’t think He was being good to me, He was being good to me.

Finally note that Jesus exercises this care through his Body, the Church. This means all of us, not just clergy. Parents, elders, youngsters, and all area summoned to share the faith, to console and care, find the lost and straying, and correct the sinner. We are Christ’s voice, his heart, his hands.

II. Conquering King – Today’s second reading speaks Jesus’ victory over all things, saying that He has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep; that He has reversed what Adam did; that He is the first fruits, then each one in proper order will also rise. It says that He will hand the kingdom over to God his Father when he has destroyed every sovereignty and every authority and power and that he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet, the last enemy to be destroyed being death.

Here, too, there is a great paradox. As Hebrews says, In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death (Heb 2:8-10).

So while at times it seems that evil triumphs, God is working. One by one, He is putting all His enemies under His feet. One day, even death itself will be destroyed. The paradox of the cross shouts to us that God conquers, not by brutality and cruel strength, but by love, forgiveness, and mercy—things the world dismisses as weak.

Here, too, I want to say that God is a conquering King in my life. He has destroyed the power of many sins and diminished the strength of others on the way to their ultimate destruction. I have seen sins put down and under His feet as He cleanses the temple of my soul. He has conquered so much of my pride. I am seeing lust, greed, anger, sloth, envy, and fear on the ropes. One by one, He is diminishing their power and replacing them with greater love, compassion, kindness, purity, love for the truth, prayerfulness, courage, trust, and eagerness to do good and to win souls.

Thank you, Lord, for being a conquering King in my life.

Unlike worldly kings, this conquering King does not force us to be His subjects and live in His kingdom. Earthly kings conquer regions and force peoples under their rule by might. But Jesus is a King who respects our freedom to decide whether to have Him as our King and to accept the virtues of His kingdom—or not. Hence, Hell is not so much a place of punishment as it is a place for those who refuse, those who say no to Christ and His kingdom. This King, though all-powerful, does not force His kingship and laws. He offers them to all and allows each of us to decide.

III. Concealed King – The Gospel teaches us that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. In this second coming we will discover that we have known Him all along, though in a paradoxical way. As Christ comes and takes His seat and all are summoned to Him, we are going to have a strange sense that we’ve met Him before—and He will confirm that.

For indeed, we have met His Majesty and He is the strangest King of all. He is a King who is hungry, thirsty, sick, lonely, a foreigner, in prison, and a stranger. The list He gives should not be seen as exhaustive, for He is in the needy, whether rich or poor. He is in the discouraged loved one who cannot find a job; He is in our children, who need to be taught and encouraged; He is in the co-worker who just lost his wife; he is in the patient who was diagnosed with cancer; He is in the lost family member who needs instruction and to be drawn back to the Sacraments. He is even in you, in your struggles and needs.

Yes, we have met this King every day. And He is not merely saying that these people have some moral union with Him. He is saying, mystically, that He is each one of them. And when we cared for them, we were not simply doing something ethical; we were serving and caring for Him: “You did it for me.”

What a strange King! We usually picture kings in palaces, far removed from trouble, but this King is naked, poor, hungry, and thirsty. We walk past Him every day.

To those who have cared for Him in His poor, He says that He will never forget what they have done. The poor may not be able to repay us, but King Jesus will repay us a millionfold. On the day of our judgment we will look at Jesus and say, “I know you! I recognize you!” And He will say, “I know you, too.” Come, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

We should not view this judgment scene as containing the only standards by which we are to be judged, for numerous other passages lay out other standards such as having faith, being willing to carry our cross, living in purity, forgiving others, and loving our enemy. But this passage does remind us that we are not to neglect the corporal works of mercy.

Yes, Jesus our King is the strangest one you will ever meet: a caring and close King, a conquering King who never forces, a King who is hungry and thirsty, a King who reigns from the cross, a King who dies so that we don’t have to, a King who washes our feet, a King who comes to serve rather than to be served. He is a King, all right, one who rules with love, not force. He’s the strangest King you’ve ever met, and you meet Him every day: in the Eucharist, in the poor, in His Word, in your heart, in the events of your day, and in your very self.

Sober but Serene Themes of Judgment in the Spirituals

I’ve often been impressed by the ability of old African-American spirituals to treat serious subjects in a clear, memorable, and almost joyful way. This is true even of weighty matters like sin and judgment. During early November we are focused on the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and hell) and November is also Black Catholic History Month. So, this seems like a good time to look at some of the creative lines from different spirituals that articulate these topics.

It can be very helpful to the preacher, teacher, and parent in recovering an ethos of coming judgment, but in a way that is almost playfully bright while at the same time deeply soulful.

In a certain sense, the spirituals are unimpeachable, even by hypersensitive post-moderns who seek to shame preachers for announcing sterner biblical themes. Most of the spirituals were written by slaves, who creatively worked biblical themes into these songs that helped accompany both their work and their worship.

The spirituals were written in the cauldron of great suffering. If any people might be excused from thinking that the Lord would exempt them from judgment day, it was surely the enslaved in the deep South. If any people might be excused from crying out for vengeance, it was they. Yet the spirituals are almost entirely devoid of condemning language; enslaved blacks sang in ways that looked also to their own sins and the need to be prepared. If they were prepared, God, who knew their trouble, would help them steal away to Jesus. They did not see themselves as exempt from the need to be ready.

If they, who worked hard in the cotton fields and endured the horrors of slavery, thought these texts applied to them, how much more do they apply to us, who recline on our couches and speak of our freedom to do as we please?

Here are some lines from a few of the many spirituals that speak to judgment and the last things:

  • I would not be a sinner, I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die.
  • Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out!
  • Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t a goin’ there, Oh my Lord!
  • Where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds? Oh where shall I be when it sounds so loud, when it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead? Oh where shall I be when it sounds? How will it be with my poor soul, Oh where shall I be?
  • Better watch my brother how you walk on the cross! Your foot might slip and your soul get lost!
  • God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time!
  • Old Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe, If you don’t watch he’ll slip it on you!
  • Noah, Noah let me come in!
    The doors are fastened and the windows pinned! fastened an’ de winders pinned
    Noah said, “Ya lost your track
    Can’t plow straight! you keep a-lookin’ back!
  • Knock at the window knock at the door
    Callin’ brother Noah
    Can’t you take more?
    No said Noah cause you’re full of sin!
    God has the key you can’t get in!
  • Well I went to the rock to hide my face
    The rock cried out, no hiding place
    There’s no hiding place down here
    Oh the rock cried I’m burnin’ too!
    I wanna go to heaven just as much as you!
  • Oh sinner man better repent!
    Oh you’d better repent
    for God’s gonna call you to judgment
    There’s no hiding place down there!
  • No signal for another train
    To follow in this line
    Oh sinner you’re forever lost
    When once you’re left behind.
    She’s nearing now the station
    Oh, sinner don’t be vain
    But come and get your ticket
    Be ready for that train!
  • Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass
    And die and lose your soul at last.
  • My Lord, what a morning
    When the stars begin to fall

    You’ll hear the trumpet sound, to wake the nations underground
    Looking to my God’s right hand,
    When the stars begin to fall
    You’ll hear the sinner moan,
    When the stars begin to fall

    You’ll hear the Christian shout,
    Oh, when the stars begin to fall!

Most of these songs are deeply scriptural and make serious appeals to the human soul, but they do so in a way that is creative. They get you tapping your foot and invite you to a joyful consideration of the need to repent before it’s too late. Others are more soulful, even mournful, in their pentatonic scale.

Given all the reluctance to discuss the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell), songs like these may help to reopen the door to necessary conversations between preacher and congregation, parents and children. They are a valuable resource.

I’d like to conclude with a creative spiritual about the last judgment. Note that it is rich in biblical references. It is joyful—a real toe-tapper—and makes a serious point along with a wish.

In That Great Getting’ Up Mornin’ Fare You Well

I’m gonna tell ya ’bout da comin’ of da judgment
Dere’s a better day a comin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Chorus:
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Oh preacher fold yo’ bible,
For dat last souls converted,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Blow yo’ trumpet Gabriel,
Lord, how loud shall I blow it?
Blow it right and calm and easy,

Do not alarm all my people,
Tell dem all come to da judgment,
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Do you see dem coffins burstin’,
do you see dem folks is risin’
Do you see dat fork of lightnin’,
Do you hear dat rumblin’ thunder?
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Do you see dem stars a fallin’,
Do you see da world on fire?
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Do you see dem Saints is risin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
See ’em marchin’ home for heaven,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Oh! Fare thee well poor sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well
Fare thee well poor sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well!