From Qoheleth to the Christ

Russian Icon of the Crucifixion, late 16th century

25th Week in Ordinary Time, Saturday (Year II)

Ecclesiastes 11:9—12:8, Psalm 90, Luke 9:43b-45

Rejoice, O young man, while you are young 
and let your heart be glad in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart,
the vision of your eyes;
Yet understand that as regards all this
God will bring you to judgment.
Ward off grief from your heart
and put away trouble from your presence,
though the dawn of youth is fleeting.

Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, 
before the evil days come 
And the years approach of which you will say, 
I have no pleasure in them; 
Before the sun is darkened, 
and the light, and the moon, and the stars, 
while the clouds return after the rain; (Ecclesiastes 11:9-12:2)

The wiser, older Qoheleth took the young under his wings and exhorted them to enjoy their fleeting days of agility and health, conducting themselves well in the sight of God. 

For all will vanish in the blink of an eye:

You turn man back to dust,
saying, “Return, O children of men.”
For a thousand years in your sight 
are as yesterday, now that it is past,
or as a watch of the night. (Psalm 90:3-4)

With poetic imagination, a poignant image of the young person’s imminent future was depicted by Qoheleth. Common allegorical interpretations for the poetic figures are found in the footnotes of the New American Bible:

When the guardians (arms) of the house tremble, 
and the strong men (legs) are bent, 
And the grinders (teeth) are idle because they are few, 
and they who look through the windows (eyes) grow blind; 
When the doors (lips) to the street are shut, 
and the sound of the mill (mastication) is low;
When one waits for the chirp of a bird, but all the daughters of song (voice) are suppressed; 
And one fears heights, and perils in the street; 
When the almond tree blooms, (white hair of old age) 
and the locust grows sluggish (stiffness in movement of the aged)
and the caper berry (stimulant for appetite) is without effect, 
Because man goes to his lasting home, and mourners go about the streets; 
Before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, 
(The golden bowl suspended by the silver cord was a symbol of life)
And the pitcher is shattered at the spring, (death)
and the broken pulley falls into the well, (death)
And the dust returns to the earth as it once was, 
and the life breath returns to God who gave it. 

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, 
all things are vanity! (Ecclesiastes 12:3-8)

In the face of the meaninglessness of aging and death, Qoheleth found solace in virtuous conduct and the enjoyment of the short life allotted to him: “I recognized that there is nothing better than to be glad and to do well during life. For every man, moreover, to eat and drink and enjoy the fruit of all his labor is a gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 3:12-13). 

Life may be empty and futile—vanity of vanities!—but one can still rejoice and be glad in God’s gift of life. Cheers!

What a shock, then, to hear from the sage of sages, the Messianic Son of David, that he intended to embrace a violent death in the bloom of youth:

While they were all amazed at his every deed, Jesus said to his disciples, “Pay attention to what I am telling you. The Son of Man is to be handed over to men.” But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was hidden from them so that they should not understand it, and they were afraid to ask him about this saying (Luke 9:43b-45).

Miracles, healings, signs and wonders evoked the spring of youth, life, and vitality. Jesus himself was young and robust. The wintry blast of icy death in his prediction of his betrayal and passion made no sense. Nor did anyone wish to probe the matter with questions. Ignorance was bliss. 


How Do We Learn and Pray Now?

Education is up in the air these days. Our schools are struggling. How will kids be educated?

Our faith formation programs are struggling too. The Mass and sacraments–ordinary ways we pray–are drastically curtailed. What do we do?

Could our homes and families become our churches? Can we find teachers and  temporary sacraments there?

A friend of mine was in prison for awhile and ended up once in solitary confinement after a fight he had with another inmate. He told me he remembered in the dark what a nun had told him about the rosary. Ten Hail Mary’s and an Our Father. He started counting the prayers on his fingers and, after awhile, he found a great peace came over him, so much so that after getting out of confinement he asked the chaplain for a rosary. It led to a profound conversion. He was changed by the experience there in the dark.

We’re living in the dark these days, but do these days have to diminish us? Maybe we can learn to pray more simply these days. Simple prayers we may have abandoned, maybe there’s a bible or a prayerbook lying forgotten in a drawer. Simple prayers are always the best,  because God takes simple form to come to us. Jesus came “in the form of a slave,” remember, he used simple things like bread and wine to bring us his greatest gift. 

This could be a time to pray simple prayers and to teach them to our kids. You never know when they’ll bring them peace.

Eternity in our Hearts

True Bodily and Spiritual Enlightenment of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Church of Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Protais, Paris, France). Licensed by Châtillon under CC-BY-SA-4.0

25th Week in Ordinary Time, Friday (Year II)

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11; Psalm 144; Luke 9:18-22

There is an appointed time for everything,
and a time for every thing under the heavens.
A time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant.
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to tear down, and a time to build.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance.
A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them;
a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces.
A time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away.
A time to rend, and a time to sew;
a time to be silent, and a time to speak.
A time to love, and a time to hate;
a time of war, and a time of peace.

The lilting cadences of this Hebrew poem flowed from a wonderstruck sage surveying the cyclical movements of the universe. Rising and falling like sunrise and sunset, nature’s course goes round and round, “blowing now toward the south, then toward the north” (Ecclesiastes 1:5-6). Human feelings and behavior seem to mirror the cosmic laws of action and reaction. Is humanity doomed to be swept along with the winds of change without any possibility of freedom? The human person seems like a tiny atom in a vast, immeasurable cosmos:

LORD, what is man, that you notice him;
the son of man, that you take thought of him?
Man is like a breath;
his days, like a passing shadow. (Psalm 144:3-4)

A strange incongruity looms before the psalmist: vaporous, shadowy Adam fades continually, yet the Lord of heaven and earth regards him as the apple of his eye (Psalm 17:8). There’s more to Adam than meets the eye!

Once when Jesus (Adam) was praying in solitude, and the disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” They said in reply, “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.’” Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter said in reply, “The Christ of God.” He rebuked them and directed them not to tell this to anyone. He said, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

Peter’s inspired confession of the Christ sprouted from the seed of a new, deifying consciousness. Immutable divinity assumed shadowy humanity in the person of the Son of God, opening the path of return to the Father in the Holy Spirit.

The Logos beyond action and reaction was born to die and rise, to suffer without retaliation, and to be killed while forgiving his enemies. Yet Jesus harmonized with the laws of action and reaction when it was fitting: The disciples were directed to obey the rhythm of a time to be silent, and a time to speak. Premature proclamations of the Christ were forbidden.

He has made everything appropriate to its time, and has put the timeless into their hearts, without man’s ever discovering, from beginning to end, the work which God has done (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

Eternity (olam) is at the very heart of the human person called to deification. Every human heart from conception to eternity longs for Trinitarian union and communion. 


Vanity of vanities!

From the Schedelsche Weltchronik or Nuremberg Chronicle (1493).

25th Week in Ordinary Time, Thursday (Year II)

Ecclesiastes 1:2-11, Luke 9:7-9

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! …The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor is the ear satisfied with hearing (Ecclesiastes 1:2, 8b).

Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was happening, and he was greatly perplexed because some were saying, “John has been raised from the dead”; others were saying, “Elijah has appeared”; still others, “One of the ancient prophets has arisen” (Luke 9:7-8).

Qoheleth, the Solomonic pen name of Ecclesiastes, sagely lamented the emptiness and futility of all human striving “under the sun.” 

Herod epitomized our collective vanity, surfeited with seeing and hearing, yet never satisfied. 

News and the “latest buzz” tickle the outer ears but leave the inner chamber of the heart untouched. Rumors about “John” or “Elijah” or “one of the ancient prophets” fluttered about Herod’s court, flummoxing the tetrarch.

But Herod said, “John I beheaded. Who then is this about whom I hear such things?” And he kept trying to see him.

Would “seeing” this elusive figure have sated Herod’s ravenous eyes? Jesus refused to entertain the wolfish tetrarch when summoned into his presence on the morning of his crucifixion (Luke 23:8-9). 

The gap between subject and object in seeing and hearing always leaves the subject yearning for more. All rivers go to the sea, yet never does the sea become full (Ecclesiastes 1:7). The human spirit longs to soar in union with the infinite Trinity, beyond the distinction of subject and object. Is it possible?

Nothing is new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). 

In modern times, even the marvel of the Incarnation draws a yawn. The One who keeps the sun shining was silenced and buried under it (John 1:11). 

What does our jaded world say about the resurrection of Christ? Is that new?

All speech is labored; there is nothing one can say (Ecclesiastes 1:8). 

Weary, weary words! There is the speechlessness of the resigned. There is also the speechlessness of the mystic. St. Paul received the gift of arrested speech, his most eloquent testimony: “I know someone in Christ who… was caught up into Paradise and heard ineffable things, which no one may utter” (2 Corinthians 12:2-4).

“The Tao (Logos) that can be spoken is not the eternal Tao.”1


1 Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, chapter 1, translated by Derek Lin.

Saint Vincent Strambi, CP

Saint Vincent Strambi

Today the Passionists celebrate the feast of St. Vincent Strambi, CP (1745-1824). In his early years as a Passionist priest Strambi was a well known preacher, writer and spiritual director. As a bishop during the tumultuous years in Italian history when Napoleon moved to take over Italy, the papacy and the Catholic Church, he was an heroic supporter of the pope and the church.

It’s true of most saints that you can’t understand them unless you understand the times in which they lived. Unfortunately historians pay little notice to this period today. Vincent Strambi lived in challenging times.

In 1789, following the French Revolution, a Reign of Terror struck the church in France, religious orders were suppressed, priests and religious were imprisoned, exiled, put to death. Word of the terror quickly reached Italy and Rome; the defenseless Italian peninsula would be the next target of France’s fierce revolution.

Pope Pius VI asked for prayers that Rome be spared, and so he called on Vincent Strambi, then one of the church’s best preachers, to prepare the people for a blow sure to come. In packed churches and piazzas in Rome Strambi promised that God would not abandon his people. The Roman people were strengthened by his words.

In 1796 Napoleon Bonaparte turned to Italy, demanding heavy tribute from the Pope and the Papal States. The murder of the French General Duhot in Rome gave him the pretext for invading the city, deposing and imprisoning the pope and declaring the Papal States a Republic. 

Religious houses were suppressed, their goods systematically confiscated. Strambi, a well-known opposition figure, fled to Monte Argentario, a Passionist sanctuary on the Mediterranean Sea.

In 1799 Pius VI died in exile and was succeeded by Pius VII who, in 1801, appointed Strambi bishop of Macerata and Tolentino, two cities in the Papal States along Italy’s Adriatic coast, poverty-stricken from years of political and military turmoil. 

The bishops of the Papal States were largely responsible for temporal as well as spiritual affairs and Bishop Strambi became a champion of the poor in his diocese. He lived sparingly himself, without signs of wealth or position. The poor were constantly on his mind. “Don’t you hear the cries of the poor?” he said one day to the treasurer of his seminary, looking out his window. 

The education of poor children interested him especially and he urged his priests to care for them. In his sermons then he constantly looked to the Passion of Jesus for wisdom in the struggles of the time.  His devotion to the Precious Blood of Jesus came from his reflection on the bloodshed brought about by the Napoleonic Wars to millions in Europe. Almost 4 million died as warfare rose to a level never seen before.

On May 5, 1809, after occupying Rome and most of the Papal States. Napoleon declared the region under French control and the temporal power of the pope abrogated. On June 6, 1809 Pius VII placed notices on church doors throughout Rome excommunicating anyone cooperating with the French.  July 6, the French general Radet arrested the pope and brought him to Savona.

Napoleon then demanded that bishops sign an oath of loyalty to his new government. Refusal meant exile and imprisonment, signing would be seen as an act of disloyalty to the pope. 

“I am ready for prison and for death. I obey the pope,” Strambi declared. On September 28,1808 he left his diocese under guard for northern Italy where he remained for 5 years under house arrest.

After Napoleon’s defeat in 1814 the church’s exiled leaders returned. Bishop Strambi returned to his diocese in May, 1814;  immediately the pope asked him to come to Rome to preach a nine day “retreat of reconciliation” in late July and early August. Not all met the French invasion heroically.

In 1816 a typhoid epidemic followed invading armies. Food shortages and inflation spread through the bishop’s diocese. He opened hospitals for the dying and sought supplies for his suffering flock. 

Physically frail from birth, Bishop Strambi suffered increasingly from various illnesses and now found it harder to manage his diocese. By 1814, the world too had changed. The Papal States had no bishops in the long chaotic period of the Napoleonic invasion and new forces demanding change came to power. Bishop Strambi recognized it was too much for him.

In 1823 he asked the new pope, Leo XII, to allow him to retire. The pope accepted his resignation but, appreciating his holiness and experience, asked the bishop to live with him at the Quirinal Palace, then the pope’s residence in Rome. A local commentator wrote of the departing bishop: “ He was a man who lived a holy life, giving alms to all and content with only the necessary for himself. We are sorry to see him go, for we lose a good pastor. The cries of the poor are especially loud, for they lose one who cared for and sustained them.”

Vincent died in Rome on January 1, 1824, having offered his life to the Lord in place of that of the pope who was seriously ill. 

Pope Leo ordered the process for his canonization 8 days after his death. He was declared a Saint in 1950 and his relics now rest in Macerata, the city where he was a zealous pastor for twenty-two years.

St. Vincent Strambi’s room, Saints John and Paul Monastery, Rome

God Saw It Was Good

Creation story, BL

“And God saw that it was good” (Gen 1:25). God’s gaze, at the beginning of the Bible, rests lovingly on his creation. From habitable land to life-giving waters, from fruit-bearing trees to animals that share our common home, everything is dear in the eyes of God, who offers creation to men and women as a precious gift to be preserved.

Tragically, the human response to this gift has been marked by sin, selfishness and a greedy desire to possess and exploit. Egoism and self-interest have turned creation, a place of encounter and sharing, into an arena of competition and conflict. In this way, the environment itself is endangered: something good in God’s eyes has become something to be exploited in human hands. 

Deterioration has increased in recent decades: constant pollution, the continued use of fossil fuels, intensive agricultural exploitation and deforestation are causing global temperatures to rise above safe levels. The increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather phenomena and the desertification of the soil are causing immense hardship for the most vulnerable among us. Melting of glaciers, scarcity of water, neglect of water basins and the considerable presence of plastic and microplastics in the oceans are equally troubling, and testify to the urgent need for interventions that can no longer be postponed. 

We have caused a climate emergency that gravely threatens nature and life itself, including our own.

In effect, we have forgotten who we are: creatures made in the image of God (cf. Gen 1:27) and called to dwell as brothers and sisters in a common home. 

We were created not to be tyrants, but to be at the heart of a network of life made up of millions of species lovingly joined together for us by our Creator. 

Now is the time to rediscover our vocation as children of God, brothers and sisters, and stewards of creation. Now is the time to repent, to be converted and to return to our roots. We are beloved creatures of God, who in his goodness calls us to love life and live it in communion with the rest of creation.

Pope Francis, September 1, 2019