Monthly Archives: October 2011

Does God Provide?

I was at a fund-raiser for Providence Clinic last Sunday  evening and for some reason I’ve been thinking about the meaning of God’s providence ever since.

God’s providence is mysterious, for sure. But is it cold or fickle?  Or is God mostly uninvolved like the Enlightened Deists say. It’s all up to us, or politics, or economics. So God hasn’t much to say about little Providence Clinic.

Yet, according to Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue on Divine Providence, God is more than just an absentee land lord.

“The eternal Father, indescribably kind and tender, turned his eye to this soul and spoke to her:

‘O dearest daughter, I have determined to show my mercy and loving kindness to the world, and I choose to provide human beings with all that is good. But they, ignorant, turns into a death-giving thing what I gave in order to give them life…Still I go on providing. So I want you to know: whatever I give to human beings, I do it out of my great providence.

‘So it was that when, by my providence, I created human beings, I looked into myself and fell in love with the beauty of the creatures I had made – for it had pleased me, in my providence, to create human beings in my own image and likeness.

‘Moreover, I gave them memory, to remember the good things I had done for them and  to share in my own power, the power of the eternal Father.

‘Moreover, I gave them intellect, so that, seeing the wisdom of my Son,  they could recognize and understand my own will; for I am the giver of all graces and I give them with a burning fatherly love.

‘Moreover, I gave them the desire to love, sharing in the tenderness of the Holy Spirit, so that they might love the things that they knew and saw.

‘But my kind providence did all this solely that they might be able to understand me and enjoy me, rejoicing in my vision for all eternity. And as I have told you elsewhere, the disobedience of your first parent Adam closed heaven to you – and from that disobedience came all evil through the whole world.

‘To relieve human beings of the death that his own disobedience had brought, I tenderly and providently gave you my only-begotten Son to heal you and bring satisfaction for your needs. I gave him the task of being supremely obedient, to free the human race of the poison that your first parent’s disobedience had spread throughout the world. Falling in love, as it were, with his task, and truly obedient, he hurried to a shameful death on the most holy Cross. By his most holy death he gave you life: not human life this time, but with the strength of his divinity.’”

Fighting in Church

Today’s Office of Readings has the letter to the Corinthians by Pope St. Clement 1, written about 95 AD,  just after the last of the New Testament writings were written.

Fighting erupted among the members of the church in Corinth, once cared for by Paul the Apostle, who scolded them for the same thing. There’s slander and backbiting and complaining going on; people like to hear themselves talk, Clement remarks, quoting scripture: If you talk a lot you only hear yourself. A big talker thinks he’s always right.

The Corinthians were a scrappy bunch, it seems.

Clement tells them that their fighting makes the church look bad among their unbelieving neighbors. Who wants to belong to a community like that? Paul wrote to the Romans; I guess Clement thought he should write to the Corinthians.

Stop fighting among yourselves and do some good, the pope says. Obey your leaders, but above all, obey God. Bow down in respect before God and be silent before his holy will, as the Prophet Isaiah bowed silently  before the overwhelming presence of God in the temple.

“Our boasting and our confidence must rest on him. Let us be subject to his will. Look carefully at the whole host of his angels; they stand ready and serve his will. Scripture says: Ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him, and a thousand thousand served him, and cried out: Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole creation is full of his glory.”

“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of hosts…” We say at Mass. We bow down before God; our thoughts, our judgments, our plans are nothing before God’s thoughts, judgments and plans. We know so little. Be humble before your God, Clement says, then you’ll get along with your neighbor.

Good advice for all of us.

Clement’s letter also gives the earliest testimony to the deaths of Peter and Paul at Rome.

Providence Clinic

The other night I was at a dinner and a stranger asked me what community I belonged to. When I told him I was a Passionist, he said “Barnabas Ahern was a member of your community. A great voice at the Vatican Council. Those were the days, but they’re gone now.”

Yes, those heady days are gone. Now we live in hard days.

But even in hard days, as the mystery of the Passion seems to overshadow all else, there are signs of Resurrection. The dinner we were attending Sunday evening was a fund-raiser for Providence Clinic, where poor people without insurance or funds in Monmouth County, NJ,  get treated by dedicated doctors and nurses. About 4,000 patients are taken care of yearly in this little clinic that started 14 years ago in a trailer in a church parking lot.

As the Director of the Clinic, Doctor Anna Sweany, remarked: “People came along and gave their help and their support.”

The clinic is a testimony to God’s providence. It would never have gotten started or continued through the years without God’s hidden, silent care. People “come along” and things are done.

Now they’re worried at Providence Clinic that some vital government funds will be withdrawn and they wont be able to meet their modest budget for this wonderful work.

Even in hard days, God offers signs of resurrection.  I’m hoping and praying Providence Clinic will continue to live up to its name.

Questions About God


At a wedding banquet some years ago, a little girl named Chelsea, a flower girl at the wedding, came up and asked if I wanted to see her walk on her heels. And she proceeded to show me how well she could do it.

Then she leaned over and said. “ Could I ask you something?’” I said “Sure.” She said “ What was God doing about a million years ago?”

Well, I had to think for a while about that. Then I said something like  “A million years ago, God was taking care of the sun in the sky, so that it could shine bright every day. And God was counting all the stars. God was making sure there were enough animals around, like giraffes.  About a million years ago, God was taking care of the world and everybody in it, and loved doing it.”

Children ask the best questions, questions that make us think about things we take for granted or maybe we’ve stopped wondering about. Or worse, we may think we know all the answers.

Some of the questions Jesus was asked are like that. “What does God want us to do?” Jesus is asked in today’s gospel. He answered; “God wants you to love him with all your heart, and all your  mind, and all your soul. And he wants you to love your neighbor as yourself.”

A curious child wouldn’t let it go at that. “What does loving God with all your heart, and all your mind and all your soul mean?” “How do you do that?” “”What’s does loving your neighbor like yourself mean?” “Who is my neighbor anyway?”

We should never stop asking those questions either. Questions about God and about love are big questions that open the windows of our minds to a bigger world and the way we live in it. They can make us grow.

I suppose that’s why Jesus told us that only by becoming a child will we enter the kingdom of heaven. Don’t lose the sense of wonder a child has. Don’t lose the curiosity of a child. Don’t lose the imagination of a child.

I think this is true especially in religious matters. “ I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.” What does that mean? “I believe in the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.” What does that mean?

We need a childlike curiosity and imagination when we approach stories from scripture. My last blog was about an artist who tells the story of Martha and Mary and Jesus in Bethany. He had a wonderful childlike imagination. Take a look at the way at the way he tells that great story.

God meets us through the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ. It’s a wonderful story. Let’s not make it too small or forget it.

The Coin of Tribute

Taxes. If you want to see people react strongly, just bring that subject up. Taxes are a big issue in politics and economics. Some  want to get rid of as many taxes as possible. Others say we need to rebalance our tax system to make it more equitable. We need to tax the rich more.

Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 22, 15-21) reminds us that controversy isn’t new. In Jesus’ day his enemies try to get him in trouble with a question about paying taxes to the emperor.

“Tell us, then, what is your opinion:

Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

The census tax to Caesar was a tax levied on the Jews that required everyone to pay one denarius (the equivalent of one day’s pay) to the emperor in Rome every year. It was a very unpopular tax, one more burden to all the other taxes people had to pay.

Some Jewish nationalists at the time argued against the census tax and at one point started a revolt against paying it. The Romans judged them to be traitors and quickly put them to death. Rembrandt’s illustration above shows the Pharisees and the Herodians questioning Jesus about the coin of tribute, but notice the fellow on the staircase ready to run and inform on Jesus if he says the wrong thing.

If Jesus said “Don’t pay the tax,” his enemies could have reported him to the Roman authorities and they would have taken care of him. But his answer is more complex.

Show me the coin that pays the census tax.”

Then they handed him the Roman coin.

He said to them, “Whose image is this and whose inscription?”

They replied, “Caesar’s.””Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar

and to God what belongs to God.”

On that coin, Tiberias Caesar, the Roman Emperor then, was pictured as godlike, wearing a crown of victory. His word and will were supreme. In a very clever way, Jesus says to give him his due,  but he’s not God, though he may think he is. Caesar, his state, his government, his empire are under a higher authority. All life is under God.

That’s a basic lesson for us today too as we look at all levels of government,  from our national to our local governments. Governments are also under God.

What does that mean? It doesn’t mean that a government follow a particular religion. In pluralistic societies like ours, it’s not prudent for a particular church to dominate.  We believe in separating church and state.

But that does not mean that governments should respond only to the will of the majority or the will of the powerful or the will of the rich.  Governments have to respond to the needs of all,  to respect human rights, “ life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.”

When governments become the tool of private interests or powerful majorities, they no longer are under God who cares for all, especially the poor and the sick and the slow.

Later on, after he’s arrested, Jesus appears before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who condemns him to death.  It’s a dramatic meeting. Pilate is a symbol of what can go wrong in governments. He’s  more interested in keeping his job than seeing that justice is done.

The One who stands before him has no power, no influence, nothing to give the Roman governor. He’s innocent, but the injustice done to him doesn’t matter to Pilate. He’s helpless, but that matters less. Pilate sentences him to death. Jesus stands for our vulnerable humanity. Pilate is an example of pragmatic power, looking after its own interests.

The great tragedy of governments is that they fall in love with their own power and position. But the greater tragedy is that we let them.

Steve Jobs. A Secular Saint?

Some years ago that term was used to designate someone without any obvious connection with religion, yet who had the heroic virtue we usually associate with the saints.

As I listened to his address to graduates at Stanford University a few years ago, I thought the term could apply to Steve Jobs who died a few days ago. It was a remarkable address that any Christian preacher would admire and be happy to preach. I was especially moved by his respect for death as an advisor and mentor for life.

A solid spirituality. You hope the next generation would follow his example.

The other night on iTunes, one of Jobs’ wonderful contributions to the new digital world, I listened to a lecture (free) by Charles Taylor, author of The Secular Age, from Columbia University. Taylor objected to new atheists like Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens who want to banish religion from the world as a worthless and destructive force.

But he also objected to Christians denying the worth of secularists who work for the good of the world and its peoples.

There are secular saints as well as saints honored by the church.

Following Jesus Christ: Oct 4, 2011

Tonight we look at the resurrection story from the Gospel of Matthew, a mystery at the center of our faith. As St.Paul said, “If Christ is not risen, your faith is in vain.”

The gospels not only proclaim the resurrection of Jesus from the dead but see this central mystery of our faith shaping the way we live and think. Each gospel also presents this mystery to the church of its time. If we look carefully, we can see its relevance for the church of our time too. That’s true particularly of the Gospel of Matthew.

What was the Jewish-Christian church in Palestine or Syria like about 80 AD  when Matthew wrote? The followers of Jesus, mostly Jewish-Christians,  were facing hard times. They were being confronted by a resurgent Judaism led by the Pharisees. At the same time, gentiles were accepting the message of Jesus and seeking baptism.  As it faced a large influx of  strangers and attacks from its own people, this predominantly Jewish- Christian church was to be radically changed.

Recall that the temple and the city of Jerusalem had been completely destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, which caused many Jews led by the Pharisees to flee into Galilee and Syria and there begin to build up Judaism again. They saw the followers of Jesus, numerous in those regions, as a fringe group standing in the way of Jewish restoration, so a confrontation began. Jewish-Christians were being driven out of the synagogues in Galilee and a campaign was begun to discredit the Christian movement. Signs of that confrontation are evident in the chapters of Matthew’s Gospel.

This gospel responds to the situation by reminding Christians then that God’s plan is present even when things are uncertain. The Passion of Jesus is their guidebook. Did not Jesus live faithfully through the awful confusion of his arrest, his brutal treatment and his unfair death?  So, like him, should they face uncertainty and hardship. God brought him to new life; God would bring them to new life too.

The story of the Jewish guards at the tomb, unique to Matthew’s gospel, is an example of the Christian response to a story circulating at that time denying that Jesus rose from the dead, but claiming instead that his body was stolen by his followers.

You can see Matthew’s gospel, and all the gospels for that matter, insisting  that Jesus really died;  he experienced death in all its harsh reality. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he cries out after a long silence on Calvary. He was buried, then he rose again. Pilate and his soldiers become important, credible witnesses to his death and burial.

Jesus also really rose from the dead, Matthew’s gospel insists. Even as he died, the earth quakes, rocks are split and tombs we are opened.  An angel clothed like light sits triumphantly on the stone rolled away from an empty tomb. Death has been conquered.

What’s particularly interesting about Matthew’s resurrection account, however, is that  Jesus appears to his disciples, not in Jerusalem or at the tomb outside the city, but on a mountain in Galilee.  From there, he sends his disciples into the whole world to preach the gospel, baptizing in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

It’s true that, as the women run from the tomb to tell the disciples,  Jesus briefly appears and they “took hold of his feet and worshipped him.” (Matthew 28,9) But they’re off quickly to tell his disciples to go to Galilee “and there they will see me.”

A neutral observer on the scene in Galilee and Syria in those days might reasonably judge the followers of Jesus of Nazareth to be in bad straits. They were losing in their confrontation with their Jewish opponents and were being pushed out of their synagogues and their homeland.   In the following centuries, Christianity hardly survives in Galilee, where Jesus began his ministry. After the fall of Jerusalem it becomes a Jewish stronghold.

But that’s not the story Matthew tells. The Risen Jesus appears on a mountain in Galilee urging his followers to a new global mission.  A new step is to be taken to bring about the kingdom of God.

The eleven* disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had ordered them.

When they saw him, they worshiped, but they doubted.

Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me.

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,

teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28,16-20)

Matthew doesn’t forget that the Risen Christ emerged from the tomb in Jerusalem, but he sees him bringing new life and direction to his struggling church and his struggling followers in Galilee. The Risen Lord is where his followers are, leading them on. He leads them into the future, uncertain as it is. He commands them to leave Galilee which now, instead of a place where his church seems to be dying, is a place of hope and new beginnings. From a mountain he points to a beautiful unknown.

Jesus is not a simply a figure of the past; the Risen Jesus constantly calls his followers onward and accompanies them to a wider mission. His call is by no means obvious, though. Matthew alludes to the chronic uncertainty of Jesus’ disciples: “When they saw him they worshipped, but they doubted.”

Matthew’s Gospel could have been written for our church today. The Risen Jesus makes our church– to most observers a church in crisis and severe decline–  a place of hope and new beginnings. He gives us “resurrection thinking” – the ability to look into the ruins and see beyond them.

Just as his disciples learned to see not death but resurrection in what happened during Jesus’ last hours , so we need to immerse ourselves in these mysteries to gain eyes that really see.