Losing our Leprosy (In Four Easy Steps) – A Meditation on the Gospel for the Sixth Sunday of the Year

In today’s Gospel we see the healing of a leper (this means you and me). Leprosy in Scripture is more than just a physical illness, it is also a euphemism for sin. Leprosy itself is not sin, but it resembles sin and what sin does to us spiritually. For sin, like leprosy, disfigures us; it deteriorates us, it distances us (for Lepers had to live apart from the community), and it brings death if it is not checked. Yes, sin is a lot like leprosy.

Psalm 38 is a biblical example of how sin is compared to leprosy:

There is no soundness in my flesh because of thy indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning… there is no soundness in my flesh…My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my kinsmen stand afar off.

Perhaps a brief description of physical leprosy might be in order, just so we can further appreciate both the physical illness and also, by analogy, how sin devastates us in stages. I have compiled this description from several sources; among them, William Barclay’s Commentary on Mark. I reading this, you will see how Psalm 38 above quite vividly compares sin to leprosy:

Leprosy begins with an unaccountable lethargy and pains in the joints. Then there appear on the body, especially on the back, symmetrical discolored patches with pink and brown nodules and the skin becomes thickened. Gradually the symptoms move to the face and the nodules gather especially in the folds of the cheek, the nose, the lips and the forehead. The whole appearance of the face is changed till a person loses his human appearance and looks more like a lion. The nodules grow larger and larger and they begin to ulcerate, and from them comes a foul discharge of puss. The eyebrows fall out and the eyes become staring. The voice becomes hoarse and the breath wheezes because of the ulceration of the vocal cords. Eventually the whole body becomes involved. Discolored patches and blisters appear everywhere. The muscles waste away, the tendons contract until the hands look more like claws. Next comes the progressive loss of fingers and toes until a whole hand or foot may drop off. It is a kind of a terrible and slow, progressive death of the body.

The disease may last from ten to thirty years and ends in mental decay, coma, then finally death.

Yet this was not all. The lepers had not only to bear the physical torment of the disease, they also had to bear the mental anguish and heartache of being completely banished from society and totally shunned. They were forced to live outside of town in leper areas. Everyone they knew and loved was lost to them and could only be seen from a distance.

In the middle ages when a person was diagnosed with leprosy, they were brought to the Church and the priest read the burial service over them for in effect they were already dead, though still alive.

This description of leprosy shows how the illness develops, disfigures deteriorates and distances the leper, and ultimately there is death. As we shall see, not every diagnosis of Leprosy was accurate, since many skin aliments, (such as psoriasis) can resemble the early stages of leprosy. Later, if the skin cleared up or remained stable, the supposed leper could be readmitted to the community.

But what of us, spiritual lepers? How are we to lose our leprosy and find healing? The Gospel suggests four steps to find healing from our spiritual leprosy of sin.

I. Step One – Admit the Reality – The text says simply, A leper came to Jesus, and kneeling down, begged him and said, “If you wish you can make me clean. But see, he knows he is a Leper, he knows he needs healing. He humbles himself, kneeling and pleads for cleansing.

And what of us? Do we know our sin? Do we know we need healing? Are we willing to ask? We live in times where sin is often made light of and confessional lines are short. Too easily, we excuse our faults by blaming others (It’s not my fault, my mother dropped me on my head when I was two). Or perhaps we point to some other sinner, apparently worse and think, “Well at least I’m not like him.”

But the fact is we are loaded with sin. Too easily we are thinned-skinned, egotistical, unforgiving, unloving, unkind, mean-spirited, selfish, greedy, lustful, jealous, envious, bitter, ungrateful, smug, superior, vengeful, angry, aggressive, unspiritual, unprayerful, stingy, and just plain mean. And if all the things on the list don’t apply to you, many do and, frankly the list is incomplete. We are sinners with a capital “S” and we need serious help.

Like the leper in the Gospel, step one is to admit the reality of our sin and humbly ask the Lord for help.

II. Step Two – Accept the Relationship – Notice two things. First the Leper calls on the Lord Jesus. In effect he seeks a relationship with Jesus, knowing that it can heal him.

Note secondly how the Lord responds. The text says Jesus is moved with pity and touches him. The Greek word translated here as pity is σπλαγχνισθεὶς (splagchnistheis) and is from from splanxna, meaning  ‘the inward parts,’ especially the nobler organs – the heart, lungs, liver, and kidneys. These gradually came to denote the seat of the affections.

Hence the Lord is moved with a tender love for this man. The English word “pity,” though often considered a condescending word today, is rooted in the Latin pietas, referring to family love. So Jesus sees this man as a brother and reaches out to him. The touch of Jesus was an unthinkable action at that time. No one would touch a leper, or even come close to one. Lepers were required to live out of town in the nearby caves. But Jesus is God, and loves this man. And in his humanity, Christ sees this leper as a brother. Scripture says,

For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why HE IS NOT ASHAMED TO CALL THEM BRETHREN, saying, “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee. (Heb 2:11)

As for us, it is in our saving relationship to the Lord, a relationship established by faith, that we are justified, transformed, healed and ultimately saved. If we would be free of the leprosy of our sin we must accept the saving relationship with Jesus and let him touch us.

III. Step Three – Apply the Remedy – Having healed him, note that Jesus instructs him to follow through in this manner: Jesus said to him, See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.

Among the ancient Jews it was the priests who were trained and empowered to recognize leprosy and its healing. For, as already stated, leprosy in its early stages can resemble other skin aliments. Perhaps it is leprosy, or perhaps it is just dermatitis, or psoriasis, or eczema. Priests were trained to make observations and either banish someone, or readmit them to the community. For sometimes, out of an abundance of caution, a person was dismissed on suspicion of leprosy, but the condition cleared up or remained stable. It was the priest who made the decisions for the community.

And, of course we have here a metaphor for sacramental confession. For what does the priest do in confession? He assesses a person’s spiritual condition, and having seen God’s healing mercy at work in a person’s repentance, reconciles, or, in the case of serious sinners, readmits them into the full communion of the Church. It is God who forgives, just like the leper in this story, but the Lord ministers through the priest.

And thus for us, spiritual lepers, the Lord gives the same instruction. “Go show yourself to the priest.” That is,  “Go to confession!” And the Lord adds, “Offer for your cleansing what is prescribed.” That is, say,  “Offer your penance.”

But someone might say, Why should he bother? The Lord has already healed him. To which we can only answer, “Just do what Jesus says: Show yourself to the Priest, offer your penance.” It is true, God can forgive directly, but it is clear enough from a passage like this, that confession is to be a part of the believer’s life, especially in the case of serious sin. To those who balk, the simple answer must be, “Just DO what Jesus says.”

So, having admitted the reality, accepting the relationship and applying the remedy, there remains a fourth step.

IV. Step Four – Announce the Result – When God heals you, you have to tell somebody. There’s just something about joy. It can’t hid. And people know when you’ve been changed.

That said, there are perplexities about this part of the Gospel. For, as the text says, Jesus “sternly warns him” NOT to tell a soul, other than the priest. The Greek text is even stronger, for it says Jesus warned him ἐμβριμησάμενος (embrimēsamenos); which means to snort with anger, to exert someone with the notion of coercion, springing out of displeasure, anger, indignation, or antagonism. It means to express indignant displeasure with some one; and to thus charge them sternly. So we see a very strong and negative command of Jesus. There is nothing ambiguous about the fact that he angrily warns this man to remain silent.

That this, and other places where the Lord issues similar commands, is puzzling, is an understatement. And yet, the reason is supplied; namely that Jesus did not want his mission turned into a circus act where people gathered to watch miracles and merely to see “signs and wonders.” Clearly this man’s inability to remain silent means that Jesus can no longer enter a place quietly, and that many sought him for secondary reasons.

That said, commands to remain silent cannot remain true for us who are under standing order # 1: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age. (Matt 28:19)

Hence it is clear we NEED to shout what the Lord has done for us and give him all the glory. And, honestly, when God acts in your life there is joy, and joy cannot be hid or suppressed. If our healing is real, we can’t stay silent. To quote Jesus at a later stage, and when the Temple leaders told him to silence his disciples, I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very rocks will cry out (Lk 19:40).

At the heart of evangelization is announcing what the Lord has done for us. An Old Gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify…but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me!

Yes, tell somebody what the Lord has done. If the healing is real, you can’t keep silent.

Loosing our Leprosy in Four Easy Steps.

A Concern for a Vague Translation in the Lectionary and a Missed Moment for Teaching

This past Sunday featured a reading from 1 Corinthians 6 that was unfortunately vague in its English translation.  The text said, “Avoid immorality,” (1 Corinthians 6:18) hides the more specific meaning of the text. “Avoid immorality?” It may as well have said “Do good and avoid evil.” Nothing could be more vague.

For the record the Greek text is Φεύγετε τὴν πορνείαν (Pheugete ten porneian) which is accurately and easily translated: Flee fornication (sexual immorality). It is a powerful admonition in the Greek, and just about every other English version of the Bible, except the Revised New American Bible (RNAB). I checked twenty other translations, and they all say “Flee fornication” or “Flee sexual immorality.”

It is a clarion call to chastity that is so necessary to hear in this sex saturated culture? Sadly our vague lectionary translation misses a teachable moment.

Fundamentally there are two problems with this translation.

In the first place, πορνείᾳ (porneia) (which is a specific reference to sexual immorality) is translated vaguely as “immorality.”

Immorality can mean practically any sin. If I were to say, “That group is immoral,” I could mean almost anything from it being greedy, or racist, or violent, or just promoting some sinful activity. Frankly sex is not the first thing that comes to mind when the word immorality is encountered.

But πορνείᾳ (porneia) is a specific word referring to sexual immorality. Usually it refers to pre-marital sex (fornication), but sometimes it may be used to refer to other sexual sins, depending on the context, like incest or adultery.

So problem one is that “immorality” is so vague as to be inaccurate.

In the second place “avoid” (as in “avoid immorality”) is profoundly weak as a translation of Φεύγετε (pheugete) which means, quite simply, “Flee!” It is a present, active, imperative verb in the second person plural. As an imperative it is thus a command, and merits the exclamation point: You (all) flee!

Strong’s Greek dictionary of biblical terms defines the verb as “to flee, escape or shun.

One might argue that “avoid” captures the word “shun” which is the third meaning. No it does not. “Shun” is a strong word, “avoid” in English is exceedingly more vague. “Avoid” says, “other things being equal, you ought to steer clear of this, if it is not too much trouble.”  “Avoid” is friendly advice. “Shun” indicates a strong detestation.

Flee, which is the first first meaning is an unambiguous command of warning, one which calls for immediate action due to something that is more than a small threat.

This Greek verb φεύγω (pheugó) is used 29 times in the new Testament (see here) and in no case is “avoid” the best or proper translation. In fact to use “avoid” would yield often times unintelligible, sometimes comical results. Consider some of the following verses and mentally try to substitute the word “avoid”

  1. The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream saying Arise and take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt (Matt 2:13)
  2. But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism he said unto them O generation of vipers who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come (Matt 3:7)
  3. And they that kept [the pigs] fled into the city and told every thing and what was befallen to the possessed of the devils (Matt 8:33)
  4. When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet stand in the holy place whoever reads let him understand  Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains (Matt 24:16)
  5. the disciples left [Jesus] and fled. (Matt 26:56)
  6. the woman fled into the wilderness (Rev 12:6)

In other words “fled” or “flee” is the first, and best translation of the Greek verb φεύγω (pheugó), followed by “escape.” “Avoid,” just doesn’t capture what is being said.

Pastorally, this is a lost moment for Catholics with the translation “Avoid immorality.” Not only is the meaning obscure, but the imperative voice of the Greek is almost wholly lost by the vague and suggestive “avoid.” Who will follow an uncertain trumpet? (cf 1 Cor 14:8). The clarion call of this text is to get way as far, and as fast as possible, from fornication. This trumpet-call is reduced to barely a kazoo by the translation, “avoid immorality.” And even if a listener does finally get that “immorality” here means “sexual immorality” he or she will hardly be moved by the word avoid.

The bottom line is that 1 Corinthians 6:18 (Φεύγετε τὴν πορνείαν. πᾶν ἁμάρτημα ὁ ἐὰν ποιήσῃ ἄνθρωπος ἐκτὸς τοῦ σώματος ἐστιν· ὁ δὲ πορνεύων εἰς τὸ ἴδιον σῶμα ἁμαρτάνει) is better and correctly translated as:

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. 

OR:

Flee fornication. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but the fornicator, sins against his own body.

In other words, Run! Flee! Head for the hills! Get as far and as fast away from fornication as you can.

Do you get it? Probably not if you heard the Lectionary version last Sunday: Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the immoral person sins against his own body. Not exactly a clarion call.

This is surely something to bring to the attention of the Bishops as a new Lectionary is prepared. Rest assured I will surely bring it to the attention of a few bishops I know. I pray you might do the same.

Painting at top: St. Paul Writing at his Desk by Rembrandt

The Road to Hell Is Paved with Indifference

The Gospel for Tuesday of the 31st Week features the Lucan version of the parable about a man who gave a banquet. (In the Matthew version, Jesus refers to him as a king and I will refer to him that way in this post.) When all was ready, the servants were sent out to fetch the invited guests, many of whom made excuses:

The first said to him, ‘I have purchased a field and must go to examine it; I ask you, consider me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have purchased five yoke of oxen and am on my way to evaluate them; I ask you, consider me excused.’ And another said, ‘I have just married a woman and therefore I cannot come’ (Luke 14:18-20, see also Matthew 22:2).

None of the excuses is wrong or evil in itself. The guests weren’t excusing themselves to be able to consort with a prostitute, oppress the poor, or wage war. Each goes off to do something good. However, as the saying goes, “The good is the enemy of the best.” Oddly, the invited guests reject the rare opportunity to attend a banquet in favor of some good but lesser activity.

Their excuses illustrate well the disposition of many today who prefer the passing things of this world to the greater and lasting gifts of God and the things awaiting them in Heaven. While indifference and misplaced priorities have always been human problems, we in the modern age seem to exhibit them in greater abundance. This is likely an effect of having so many options and creature comforts available to us.

Indifference is a huge problem today. Though there are some people who resist, disbelieve, or even hate God, and others actively engaged in serious sins, there are even more who have simply fallen into indifference and drifted away from God and the things of Heaven. They veer off to the modern equivalent of examining their farms, evaluating their livestock, or spending time with their spouse: one goes off to detail his car, another goes shopping, yet another is off to a family function or even to work. If they think of God at all or of the invitation to attend Mass, they casually dismiss it because they have so many other things to do.

What makes this sort of rejection of God’s invitation so pernicious is that, as in the parable, most of these people don’t go off to do sinful things. Many today who live very secular lives, giving little or no thought to God, are very “nice” people. Many of them pay their taxes, love their families, and dedicate their time to any number of good causes. It is easy to look at their decision to skip Mass and conclude that it’s “no big deal.” Though they seem to have little time for God or for the things of God they are still “nice” people. Everything is fine because they don’t really mean to reject God or His invitation to holy things. Surely, they will be saved in the end. Or so we think.

The parable does not make this conclusion. Our thinking that everything is probably fine is at odds with the very words of Jesus. The parable teaches that their rejection has catastrophic consequences: they will not have no part in the banquet! For, I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will taste my dinner (Lk 14:24).

Their indifference to, and rejection of, the invitation has a lasting effect. At the end of the day you’re either at the banquet or you’re not. Being “nice” or going off to do good (but lesser) things doesn’t get you into the banquet. Accepting the invitation and entering by obedience to the summons of faith gets you in. Once in, there will be plenty of “nice” and good things to do, but you must obey the summons and enter by faith. That many today regard the summons lightly, preferring worldly things to the things of God is, as the parable teaches, very dangerous.

Let us study carefully the king’s reaction to the rejections by the invited guests, noting three things about the response. The text says,

Then the master of the house in a rage commanded his servant, ‘Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in here the poor and the crippled, the blind and the lame.’ The servant reported, ‘Sir, your orders have been carried out and still there is room.’ The master then ordered the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedgerows and make people come in that my home may be filled. For, I tell you, none of those men who were invited will taste my dinner’ (Luke 14:21-24)

1. Rage

The translation is vivid: the king is described as being in a “rage.” Scripture says, And without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb 11:6). Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him (Jn 3:36).

We must be careful here to understand the implications of the Greek word that underlies this. The Greek word is ὀργίζω (orgizo), and while it can be properly translated as anger or rage, more deeply it expresses a “settled opposition” to injustice. The word does not describe God as being in an egocentric rage, as if he were some sort of a jilted lover. Rather, the anger comes from a settled, serene stance in which God does not (and cannot) adjust Himself to the vicissitudes of sinners or change Himself to placate them. God’s stance remains unchanged. It is our stance that changes and makes us come to experience His love as wrath.

The form of the verb used in the text underscores this reality. The verb form is an aorist, passive participle (ὀργισθεὶς (orgistheis)) best translated as “having been angered.” Thus, God does not change His principled stance of offered love; it is those who reject Him who change and experience His love as wrath. It is the result of human rejection that brings forth this experience. God’s settled, steadfast opposition to the human refusal of His love does not and cannot change. It is our rejection of His offer that puts us in opposition to Him, not an egotistical rage on His part. God unchanging desire is for His banquet hall to be filled.

2. Resolve

Having been rebuffed by some, the king merely intensifies his resolve to extend the invitation further until the hall is filled! He sends his servants out again and again; he will not stop calling until the full number of guests has been reached. Scripture says, Then [the martyrs] were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete (Rev 6:11). For the whole creation hopes for and expects the full revelation of the sons of God (Rom 8:19). There is an old spiritual that says, “Oh, preacher, fold your Bible. For the last soul’s converted!”

God, who does not relent in His resolve or change His settled stance, continues to call until enough sinful, stubborn human beings repent and accept His invitation to the banquet.

3. Respect

The final line of the passage is telling. Although it sounds like a denunciation, it should be understood more deeply as a sign of respect. The king says, For, I tell you, none of those men who were invited will taste my dinner. At the end of the day, God will respect (though not approve of) the rejection of His invitation. God has made us free. He respects our freedom even if, in His settled opposition to sinful and harmful choices, He regrets our decisions. Scripture says, If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us (2 Tim 2:12). Yes, God will at some point either accept and ratify our denial of His offer or He will rejoice in our enduring yes. The decision is ours and it is one that will determine our destiny.

We in the Church must become more sober in our appreciation of what a parable like this teaches. We cannot allow ourselves to be carried away by the unbiblical notion that most people will be saved and that they can do so merely by being “nice.” There are lots of nice people in the world (however vaguely “nice” is defined). The more critical question is this: Do you want what God offers or do you prefer the world, with its offers rooted in the flesh or even in the devil?

There is a strange obtuseness to the human heart, which desires lesser things to greater ones, which is easily carried away by passing pleasures, which hates the discipline of the cross. We must recover an urgency in our evangelization that does not presume that most will “make it in” by some natural “goodness” or “niceness.” We need to draw everyone to the definitive yes that a parable like this teaches is necessary. Vague notions of universalism and of being pleasant, nice people cannot replace the biblical teaching of obedience to the summons to say yes to God’s Kingdom. Naïve and myopic notions cannot save God’s people or motivate vigorous and urgent evangelization. Only an obedience to God’s Word can do that. Presumption is a terrible thing and it stabs evangelization in the heart.

The teaching here is clear: we need a sober, consistent, urgent outreach to the many souls who prefer the secular to the sacred, the passing to the eternal, what is here to what is heavenly. Wishful thinking will not win any souls, only a sober seriousness rooted in God’s Word will do so.

The music in this video I prepared is by Fiocco and the text is this: Homo quidam fecit coenam magnam, et misit servum suum hora coenae dicere invitatis ut venirent: Quia parata sunt omnia. (A certain man made a great banquet and sent his servants at the hour of the feast to say to the invited that they should come: because everything is prepared.)

Time to Decide – A Reflection on a Question from Elijah

In this week’s Office of Readings comes a crucial question from Elijah. It came at a time of widespread apostasy among the Jewish people. Elijah summoned a multitude to Mt. Carmel in the far north of Israel:

Elijah appealed to all the people and said, “How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.” The people, however, did not answer him (1 Kings 18:21).

The Baals were the gods of the Canaanites. It had become expedient and popular to worship them because the ruling political leaders, the apostate King Ahab and his wicked wife Jezebel, had set forth the worship of the Baals by erecting altars and sacred columns. All who wished their life to go well and to have access to the levers of prosperity were surely “encouraged” to comply. Jezebel funded hundreds of prophets of Baal and the goddess Asherah. She also had many of the prophets of Israel killed and forced others into hiding. Through a policy of favoritism and fear, the true faith was being suppressed and false ideologies were being promoted.

At a critical moment Elijah thus asked his question. In effect he told them that they needed to decide whether to serve the Lord God out of courageous fidelity or the Baals out of cowardly fear.

We, too, must decide. In our times, the true faith has been undermined in the hearts of many by plausible liars, cultural war, and political correctness. Those who strive to hold to the true faith are called hateful, bigoted, and intolerant. A legal framework is growing that seeks to compel compliance to the moral revolution and abandonment of the biblical worldview. Social pressures are at work as well, seeking to force compliance through political correctness, through suppression of speech and ideas, and through the influence of music, cinema, and art.

The same question must be asked of us:

How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him (whatever the cost). If Baal is your god, follow him! If you prefer what is popular, trendy, politically correct, and safe, go for it. But understand that if you do so, your decision is increasingly for Baal, not the Lord. In a culture that insists you celebrate fornication, homosexual acts, transgenderism, abortion, euthanasia, and all sorts of intemperance, realize that your decision to comply amounts to a choice for Baal.

Some claim that they are not really making a fundamental choice against God and for the modern Baals. Rather, they prefer to think that they are being “tolerant,” that they are pleasant moderates seeking to build bridges and keep the faith “mainstream.”

Today the lines are starkly drawn. The choices required of us are clear. The ancient maxim has never been more true: tertium non datur (no third way is given). Jesus says, You cannot serve God and mammon (Mat 6:24). James adds, Adulterers! Do you not realize that a friendship with the world is enmity at God? (James 4:4) Elijah’s question cannot be watered down. There are two sides in the moral battle of our times: choose a side.

In Elijah’s time, the people did not want to answer. The text says that they just stood there, silent. But silence does not make the question or the choice go away. Indeed, prolonged silence to so fundamental a question becomes an answer in itself. Silence and fence-sitting are not valid answers when the lines are so clearly drawn.

To the fence-sitters is directed this warning in the form of an old story:

A man once refused to take sides in the critical and disputed matters of his day, nobly declaring that he was tolerant of all views. Taking his seat on the fence he congratulated himself for his moderation and openness; others did too. One day the devil came and said, “Come along now, you’re with me.” The man protested, “I don’t belong to you. I’m on the fence!” The devil simply replied: “Oh, but you do belong to me. I own the fence.”

“How long will you straddle the issue? If the Lord is God, follow him; if Baal, follow him.”

Some Brief Thoughts at the Passing of Pope Benedict

Many wonderful articles have already been published in reference to the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict. I can only affirm much of what I have read as to his scholarship, and the dignity with which he conducted the Office of the Papacy. To have such a renowned theologian as pope makes one think of Pope Gregory the Great who like Pope Benedict would have prefered the quiet of the monastery to the heavy weight of the chair of Peter.

Neither Gregory or Benedict had it easy. Tumultuous waves rocked the barque of Peter during Gregory’s time as the Roman Empire continued to crumble and the Lombards made their steady advance. Pope Benedict XVI endured the storms of the collapsing Western culture, lamenting that the lights were going out in Europe and he warned us of the “dictatorship of relativism” that we now know all too well.

Surely, if the lights were going out in the dying West, the Church must all the more be as a lighthouse in the deepening dark. I was certain that Pope Benedict was just the man the Lord could use. But Pope Benedict also sensed the wolves were near, and asked us to pray that he not flee from them. Sadly, as we know, for reasons of his own, he chose to step aside. I cannot doubt that he thought it best for the Church, but I must still lament the loss of his light in a world sinking into deeper darkness and murky confusion. It is zero-dark thirty for the Western world we once called Christendom.  And we, the Church, called to be the light of the world, are terribly divided and caught in a morass of scandal, ambiguity and confusion.

I can only ask God to receive Pope Benedict XIV into the arms of His mercy and permit his prayers for us to be like a ray of light shining past the barrier of death on a gloomy and storm-tossed world.  Permit my informal cry like a son to his father: “Papa Ratzi pray for us! And we too prayer for your repose, dear and Holy Father.”

Sometimes when you struggle to cry, humor has a role in releasing sorrow and also pent up joy. In that vein, I’d like to include a short video I put together many years ago that celebrated the photogenic quality of Pope Benedict. His face is wonderfully expressive. I hope you might enjoy a one minute diversion down memory lane as a moment too of prayer.

I also put together another video of the Pope as a pilgrim and world traveler set to Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere.” Enjoy a toe tapper of a song with photos showing the Pope’s far flung travels.

This Pope’s Been Everywhere! 

 

 

Why Serve a World that Hates You? A meditation on a teaching of St Cyprian’s

As we wrap up November and the traditional meditation we make on the four last things (death, judgement, heaven and hell), A classic meditation of St. Cyprian comes to us in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. It is a meditation on a fundamental human struggle to be free of undue attachment to this world and to truly have God, and the things waiting for us in heaven, as our highest priority.

St. Cyprian Writes:

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 forever.  (Treatise on Mortality: Cap 18:24, 26: CSEL 3, 308, 312-314)

It is amazing how much loyalty and sweat-equity we give to a world that hates us. Whatever gains we get they are short-term and then we lose everything and are consigned to a stone-cold tomb. What a joke, and the joke is on us. But still we toe the line and follow the world’s demands like slaves to a master; we make compromises and bow before the trinkets of this world, forsaking the unlimited treasure of heaven. Be assured of this that this world and the Prince of this World ( Satan) will never relent in their demands until every last ounce of our integrity is gone; until we are completely compromised and conformed to the futile and wicked ways of a sinking ship. And all the while we think we can keep loyalty to God on some back burner. No, be assured, as Cyprian reminds, the more we embrace the darkness, the harsher to true light seems; the more we grow spiritually weak by indulging the flesh, the more unreal and unrealistic do God’s ways seem. And thus we grow averse to what we say we we love. But as Cyprian reiterates and Scripture teaches:

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)

We ought to long for heaven and to be free of this exile but as Jesus teaches, where our treasure is, our heart will also be. And so we cling to our trinkets. St. Cyprian continues:

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 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.

It is indeed a strange truth that so many of us prefer this earthly bondage and devilish exile and are so averse to death! Understandably we fear the process of dying, or might feel the obligation to accomplish certain tasks (like raising children), but really, for those who love God, the day we day to this world is the greatest day of our life. We may have to journey through purgatory, but even that is so much more blest than this valley of tears and danger. And So Cyprian concludes:

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)

Whether we cling to world or not: Slowly we die to this world as we see our skills, strength and looks begin to fade in late middle age. As old age sets in we say farewell to friends, perhaps a spouse, perhaps the home we owned. Our eyesight, hearing and general health begin to suffer many and lasting assaults, and complications begin to set in. For those who are faithful it begins to occur that what matters most is no longer here; that our true treasure is in heaven and with God. Slowly the lust of this world dies and a gentle longing for what is above grows.

As November ends, remember the four last things: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Prepare eagerly to meet God, 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?

In Times of Harsh Political Discourse, What Do the Scriptures Say?

We are in times of strident political protest that includes a lot of harsh language, personal attacks, name calling, and even debased and profane terms. There are tweets, and angry monologues, harsh commentary on news networks, and interruptive press conferences and news interviews that sound more like a brawl than a debate. To put it all more pleasantly, these are times of “colorful” discourse.

What is the overall teaching of Scripture when it comes to this sort of colorful language? Are there some limits and ground rules? Let’s take a look.

The word “civility”dates back to the mid-16th century and has an older meaning that referred to one who possessed the quality of having been schooled in the humanities. In academic settings, debate (at least historically) was governed by a tendency to be nuanced, careful, cautious, formal, and trained in rhetoric. Its rules often included referring to one’s opponents with honorary titles (Doctor, Professor, etc.) and euphemisms such as “my worthy opponent.” Hence as the word entered common usage, it has come to mean speech or behavior that is polite, courteous, gentle, and measured.

As one might guess, there are a lot of cultural variancesin what is civil. And this insight is very important when we look at the biblical data on what constituted civil discourse. Frankly, the biblical world was far less dainty about discourse than we have become in 21st-century America. The Scriptures, including the New Testament, are filled with vigorous discourse. Jesus, for example, really mixes it up with His opponents—even calling them names. We shall see more of this in a moment. But the Scriptures also counsel charity and warn of unnecessarily angry speech. In the end, a balance of the scriptural witness to civility must be sought along with an appreciation of the cultural variables at work.

Let’s examine a few of the texts that counsel charityas well as a modern and American notion of civility:

  1. Anyone who says to his brother, “Raqa” is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell(Matt 5:22).
  2. Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen(Eph 4:29).
  3. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged(Col 3:21).
  4. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be (James 3:9-10).
  5. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry(James 1:19).
  6. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt(Col 4:6).
  7. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up(1 Thess 5:11).
  8. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips(Col 3:8).
  9. Words from a wise man’s mouth are gracious, but a fool is consumed by his own lips(Eccl 10:12).
  10. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools(Eccles 9:17).
  11. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification(Rom 14:19).
  12. Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother(Gal 6:1).
  13. Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort [the repentant sinner], so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow(2 Cor 2:7).

All these texts counsel a measured, charitable, and edifying discourse. Name-calling and hateful or unnecessary expressions of anger are out of place. And this is a strong biblical tradition, especially in the New Testament.

But there are also strong contrasts to this instruction evident in the Bible. And a lot of it comes from an unlikely source: Jesus. Paul too, who wrote many of the counsels above, often engages in strident denunciations of his opponents and even members of the early Church. Consider some of the passages below, first by Jesus, then by Paul and other Apostles:

  1. Jesus said, “You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good?”(Matthew 12:34)
  2. And Jesus turned on them and said, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are. “Woe to you, blind guides! … You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. … You hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. … And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your forefathers! “You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?”(Matt 23 varia)
  3. Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and now am here. I have not come on my own; but he sent me. … You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire. … He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God” (John 8:42-47).
  4. Jesus said, Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me”(Mark 7:6).
  5. And Jesus answered them, O faithless generation, how long am I to be with you? How long must I tolerate you?(Mark 9:19)
  6. Jesus said to the disciples, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11)
  7. Jesus said to the crowd, “I do not acceptpraise from men, but I know you. I know that you do not have the love of God in your hearts”(Jn 5:41-42).
  8. So he made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area, both sheep and cattle; he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables(John 2:15).
  9. Then Jesus replied, “Have I not chosen you, the Twelve? Yet one of you is a devil!”(John 6:70)
  10. Paul: O senseless Galatians, who hath bewitched you that you should not obey the truth … As for those circumcisers, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!(Galatians 3, 5)
  11. Paul against the false apostles:And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Cor 11:11-14).
  12. Paul on the Cretans:Even one of their own prophets has said, “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This testimony is true. Therefore, rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith(Titus 1:12-13).
  13. Peter against dissenters:Bold and arrogant, these men are not afraid to slander celestial beings…these men blaspheme in matters they do not understand. They are like brute beasts, creatures of instinct, born only to be caught and destroyed, and like beasts they too will perish. … They will be paid back with harm for the harm they have done. … They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their pleasures while they feast with you. With eyes full of adultery, they never stop sinning; they seduce the unstable; they are experts in greed—an accursed brood! … Of them the proverbs are true: “A dog returns to its vomit,” and, “A sow that is washed goes back to her wallowing in the mud”(2 Peter 2, varia).
  14. Jude against dissenters:These dreamers pollute their own bodies, reject authority and slander celestial beings….these men speak abusively against whatever they do not understand; and what things they do understand by instinct, like unreasoning animals—these are the very things that destroy them. Woe to them! They have taken the way of Cain; … These men are blemishes at your love feasts, eating with you without the slightest qualm—shepherds who feed only themselves. They are clouds without rain, blown along by the wind; autumn trees, without fruit and uprooted—twice dead. They are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever. … These men are grumblers and fault finders; they follow their own evil desires; they boast about themselves and flatter others for their own advantage(Jude 1:varia).

Now most of the passages above would violate modern norms about civil discourse.Are they sinful? They are God’s word! And yet they seem rather shocking to modern ears. Imagine getting into your time machine and going to hear Jesus denounce the crowds and calling them children of the devil. It really blows a 21st-century mind!

I want to suggest to you that these sorts of quotes go a long way toward illustrating the cultural dimension of what it means to be civil.The bottom line is that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive debate are common. But in the upper-Midwest and parts of the Deep South, conversation is more gentle and reserved.

At the time of Jesus, angry discourse was apparently more “normal,”for as we see, Jesus Himself engages in a lot of it, even calling people names like “hypocrites,” “brood of vipers,” “liars,” and “wicked.” Yet the same Scriptures that record these facts about Jesus also teach that He never sinned. Hence at that time, the utterance of such terms was not considered sinful.

Careful, now—be careful here. This does not mean it is simply OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then; we live now; and in our culture such dialogue is seldom acceptable and often backfires. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity. Exactly how to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard-to-define things is “I know it when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility. But clearly we tend to prefer gentler discourse in this day and age.

On the other hand, we also tend to be a little thin-skinnedand hyper-sensitive. And the paradoxical result of insisting on greater civility is that we are too easily “outraged” (one of the more overused words in English today). We take offense where none is intended and we presume that the mere act of disagreeing is somehow arrogant, intentionally hurtful, or even hateful. We seem so easily provoked and so quick to be offended. All of this escalates anger further, and charges of hate and intolerance are launched back and forth when there is merely sincere disagreement.

Balance– The Scriptures give us two balanced reminders. First, that we should speak the truth in love, and with compassion and understanding. But it also portrays to us a time when people had thicker skin and were less sensitive and anxious in the presence of disagreement. We can learn from both biblical traditions. The biblical formula seems to be “clarity” with “charity,” the truth with a balance of toughness and tenderness. An old saying comes to mind: “Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

Here is a video that depicts the zeal of Jesus and a bit of his anger.

An Overlooked But Powerful Reading from the Christmas Cycle

There is a Scripture reading proclaimed at the Christmas Liturgy that usually gets overlooked. And yet it should elicit considerable reflection since it is proclaimed at the Christmas Midnight Mass, one of the Church’s most prominent Liturgies. It is from the Letter to Titus in the Second Chapter. I would like to reproduce it in full and then give some commentary following.

The grace of God has appeared, saving all
and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires
and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age,
as we await the blessed hope,
the appearance of the glory of our great God
and savior Jesus Christ,
who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness
and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good
. Titus 2:11-14

  1. The Moral Life is a gift – The grace of God has appeared The Word Grace (χάρις – charis) most fundamentally means, “grace” but it also means “gift.” And this word “gift” needs to govern the whole remainder of the passage which is an exhortation to receive the gift of a new moral life in Christ. One of the biggest mistakes made by most Christians regarding the Christian moral life is that it is something we must, by our own flesh power, “do.” It is not. It is something we must receive as a gift. Without this understanding the Gospel is not good news at all, it is just a long and burdensome list of requirements that we must do “or else.” Frankly, some of the more demanding passages of the New Testament (e.g. that we should love our enemies, never have lustful thoughts and be perfect and the heavenly Father is perfect) ought to clue us in that this is going to have to be God’s gift and God’s work in us. This text is teaching us that the grace (gift) of God’s very own life is available to us. Jesus Christ wants to live his life in us and offers us that relationship. As he begins to live his life in us sin is put to death and the grace (the very life and love of God) comes alive in us. Of course we can then love our enemies because it is God who is doing this in us. Lust, greed, self-centeredness, anger, resentments, fear and the like all begin to die and are replaced by joy, serenity, peace, patience, chastity, love, generosity, self-control and the like. A completely new life is made available to us. If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). This grace, (the gift of the very life of God) has now appeared in Jesus Christ and is available to you right now. Don’t leave this gift under the tree!
  2. The gift is offered to all – saving all – The gift is offered to all. As I live, says the Lord, I do not want the sinner to die but to turn to me and live! (Ez 33:11) No one can say they are excluded or that that they are not being offered the gift of a new life in Christ. Therefore the Church’s moral exhortation cannot exclude anyone. There are many today who want to claim exemption from some aspect of the moral law. The claim comes most commonly today from the Gay community who say that God “made me this way” and thus that the Law of Chastity does not apply for them in the same way as others. But this cannot be so for it would amount to a denial that God’s call was universal and that his grace is sufficient. No indeed, God can equip, empower and enable all of us, whatever our condition or apparent limitations to receive and live this new life. ALL are offered this grace. Don’t leave any gifts under your tree unopened!
  3. The gift does not just inform, it transforms and training us to reject godless ways and worldly desires– The Greek word translated here as “training” is παιδεύουσα (paideuosa). First note it is a present participle which signifies an on-going action. As Catholics we see salvation as a process more than just an event. The training involved here is lifelong. We ought to have the experience that we are growing into the perfection that God has promised. I may not be what I want to be but at least I’m not what I used to be! Our training and transformation are on-going and lifelong. Secondly, we need to grasp what is meant by training. Some translators render this as “instructing.” But let’s be clear, our instruction is more than an intellectual thing. It is experiential as well. The Greek word παιδεύουσα is rooted in the Greek word paideuo which means to train up a child by discipline and instruction. Perhaps the best example we have of this today for adults is the notion of a personal trainer. A personal trainer does not just write instructions or talk over the phone. They show up and take you through the exercises personally. They point out bad form that will bring on injury and establish an exercise routine that works all the major muscle groups. They also impose a kind of discipline or routine until the next visit. This is what God wants to do for us. He wants to personally train us and build up strength in us so that we will recognize godless ways and worldly desires and he gives us the strength and will to reject them not merely because we have to but because we want to. Make sure you open and receive this gift from under your tree.
  4. The gift of a clear, clean, sober mind – and to live temperately, justly, and devoutly in this age – The Greek word translated as “temperately” here is σωφρόνως (sophronos) and it more usually means sober, of sound mind, and by extension it can mean moderately or temperately. Obviously intemperate, extreme behavior causes our mind to be unsound. A good, clear mind is a gift that God wants to offer us by also giving us the gift to temper our behavior. To live justly is to be in right relationship with God and others, render to each what is due and receiving also what is due. This too is a very great gift to be sought. So often we are NOT in right relationships with God and others and the result is guilt, anger and frustration. The Greek word translated here as “devoutly” is εὐσεβῶς (eusebos) and it is an adverb meaning more commonly “reverently.” This helps us to understand the word more widely. To be devout is usually interpreted in religious terms as being prayerful. That is a good thing to be sure but the reverent behavior that is the gift here is to be respectful not only of God per se but also of everyone. The gift that the Lord offers in this verse is that with clear and sober minds we live in a right and reverent relationship with God and others. Don’t leave this gift under your tree either.
  5. The gift of hope – as we await the blessed hope, the appearance of the glory of our great God and savior Jesus Christ – To live with hope is a very great gift. The Theological Virtue of Hope is the gift to have a confident expectation of God’s help in attaining eternal life. Therefore hope is not some vague wish, it is a confident expectation. We ought to live with great confidence for our God has the power to save and the will to save us. And if we but open the gifts under our Christmas Tree and allow them to flourish in our life we can look with confidence to our judgement and to the glorious second coming.
  6. A very personal gift – who gave himself for us to deliver us from all lawlessness – Notice again, the moral life is a gift. We are delivered from lawlessness. We are not just warned not to be lawless we are offered the gift of deliverance. And this gift isn’t something Jesus went and got at some store. He paid the price for it with his own blood. We are delivered from lawlessness by the precious blood of Jesus. This is a very personal gift. Now don’t leave it unwrapped!
  7. The gift of a willing heart – and to cleanse for himself a people as his own, eager to do what is good – The final expression of the gift is that when we receive the gift of the moral life from Jesus we are not only cleansed, our desires begin to be reformed. Thus we do not keep the law merely because we have to but because we WANT to. We become eager and joyful at keeping God’s law, not resentful and mournful about it. What a gift. Don’t leave it to be lost under the tree!

So, King Jesus has a garden full of diverse flowers, diverse gifts. There are many gifts he offers us but the fundamental gift he offers us is the gift of a new life, a reformed and restored heart and mind, eager to do what is right. This is his gift to us this Christmas and every day.