Tag Archives: Church

Kingdom of the Little Ones

Fra Angelico, Coronazione delle Vergine (1435)

Deuteronomy 7:6-11, 1 John 4:7-16, Matthew 11:25-30

“God is Love.”

Like an owl squinting in sunlight, the eyes of humankind are opened gradually to the truth of who we are as a people and who God is. “You are a people sacred to the Lord,” Moses told the Israelites. Bending to the weakness of human mistrust, God made an “oath,” a covenant with his people, though Jesus would later exhort them not to swear at all. No gap lies between a divine word and its fulfillment, after all. The oath was for Israel, not for God.

The engagement between God and his people was also very fuzzy, like a picture out of focus. The “I AM” of the burning bush was personal, but faceless. “No one has ever seen God,” and yet, “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” Jesus said. 

The identity of the mysterious YHWH began to focus a little bit more as Jesus shared with his disciples the heart of the Father, and promised to send them the Advocate, the Spirit of truth. 

Not only God’s identity, but Israel’s began to sharpen into some clarity. God is not only One, but Three. Israel, the precursor of the Church, is not only a people, but persons. 

Moses consecrated Israel as a “sacred people,” a nation set apart. The Holy Spirit consecrated the disciples as unique persons when he descended upon each one with a distinct tongue of fire.

“Love” is not an abstraction, but a concrete reality with concrete faces—Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and each unique person baptized by the Spirit in one Body of Christ. The finite and the infinite, the created and the uncreated are united in communion in a way beyond conceptual grasp.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, St. Anne, St. Joachim, the Holy Innocents, St. John the Baptist, St. Peter, St. John, St. James (son of Zebedee), St. James (son of Alpheus), St. Andrew, St. Philip, St. Bartholomew, St. Thomas, St. Matthew, St. Simon, St. Jude, St. Matthias, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Paul, St. Barnabas, St. Timothy, St. Titus, St. Priscilla, St. Aquila and all the saints to the present day each shine with unique splendor in heavenly communion.

The eternally young, ever-begotten Son of the Father who became the microscopically small son of Mary with a tiny beating heart invites us to become little with him. Mysteries that elude the “wise and the learned” are revealed to “little ones.” 

-GMC

Mary, the Church and the Trinity

After Christ’s revelation of the thrice holy Trinity, new light is shed upon the entire arc of salvation history, especially the role of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This meditation sketch explores the thesis that Mary and Mother Church image the Divine Person of the Father in being the font of new persons.

Consider Mary’s virginity. From her womb, the Son of God received his human nature and became for us the Son of Man, yet without change to his divinity. His immutable identity as the only-begotten Son of the Father—his Person—remained intact. In Mary he is conceived not by the seed of man, but by the Holy Spirit. In other words, his entrance into our world bypassed the dyadic union of the male and the female. 

This theological truth suggests that the hidden “who” or person of each of us is also transcendent to that dyadic union. Our final destination in the transfigured and deified state is communion in the Trinity, in which persons “neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matthew 22:30).  

Masculinity and femininity are two complementary halves of one human nature, but the person of each man or woman is whole and entire, transcendent to nature. Consider the Person of Christ who is neither male nor female, as divinity transcends the dyad. He lived his earthly life as a first-century Jewish man, but his hidden “who” remained in triadic communion without ceasing. 

Before proceeding, let us review the distinctions between person, individual, and nature within humanity. An individual has a certain height, weight, gender, culture, giftedness, etc., but persons embody the entire human nature—the entire Body of Christ—really and mystically. In common parlance, we use the word “person” when we mean “individual,” but in theological terms, they have distinct meanings which cannot be confused in the case of Christ. In the Trinity there are no “individuals,” as each Person contains the whole divine nature in its entirety.

Salvation is on the line if these two meanings are not clearly distinguished. A guiding dictum in patristic theology (reflections by the Church Fathers) states: “What has not been assumed has not been saved.” We believe that Christ assumed human nature and saved it. If the Person of Christ is not distinguished from his existence in time as an individual, then what is saved is only the masculine, Jewish portion of humanity.

In Scripture, the language of the dyad is employed to speak of the relationship between man and God—the Church is the “Bride of Christ.” Humanity is “betrothed” to God in “marriage.” St. John speaks of the “marriage of the Lamb” in Revelation. For most of salvation history, and for all of the Old Testament, God is conceived as one, not Trinity. Man is in an “I-Thou” relationship with the one God. The God revealed by Jesus Christ, however, is both one and three. Dyadic language points to the union between the divine and human natures, but our communion in the Trinity as persons requires another approach. 

It is noteworthy that the Third Person of the Trinity is not revealed to us with a gendered name. The name “Holy Spirit,” unlike “Father” and “Son,” transcends the dyad. This supports the revelation of Christ that heavenly communion transcends marriage. Names are given to us during our earthly sojourn, and we reverence the Persons whose names we invoke. In our heavenly state, there will be no need for words and addresses, as we will all be of one mind and heart in the love of the Trinity.

The thesis sketched here, if based on sound principles, requires more development. The point of this essay was to explore the idea that Mary and the Church give birth to persons in the Womb of the Father, fit for eternal communion in the Trinity. The Church’s font of baptism, also like a “womb” in which we are born “of water and the Spirit,” makes us adopted children of the Father. The Father is a Virgin, St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote in his work, On Virginity, highlighting the passionlessness of Christ’s eternal birth. The revelation of the Trinity deeply enriches our meditation on who we are as persons and our destiny for eternal communion in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

-GMC

Paul’s Conversion

The dramatic conversion of Paul is recalled in today’s  first reading at Mass from the Acts of the Apostles. Luke describes this event three times, acknowledging Paul’s special  role in the spread of the church from Jerusalem to Rome.

 Luke sees Paul’s conversion and ministry as a work of God, who uses the apostle for his own divine purposes. It’s not Paul’s genius or imagination that achieved so much. God’s grace brought him to the ground on his way to Damascus and God’s grace sent him on his mission.

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Jesus says to him. Their meeting caused Paul to be convinced that faith is a gift that justifies us and that the church is the body of Christ. He did not come to those beliefs on his own.

Paul’s great conversion story in Acts introduces a succession of stories recalling the conversion of the gentiles. Though Paul has a prominent part in these stories, he is still an agent whom God sends and constantly empowers.

The Acts of the Apostles is not just a description of the past;  it’s a template for the church of every age. Personalities like Paul and human factors play a part in her growth, but the church’s advance is not principally through human power, reason, or imagination. The power of God’s Spirit guides and supports it through time.

We need to recognize the church as God’s church..

A Mother’s Plans for James and John

On today’s feast of St. James, the apostle,  Matthew’s gospel describes the mother of James and John asking Jesus to give her sons privileged places in his kingdom. “Command that these two sons of mine sit, one at your right and the other at your left, in your kingdom.”

I’m not sure she would have fallen at Jesus’ feet as she’s pictured in the illustration above. They were related, after all, and her approach was probably more indirect. She probably reminded Jesus that James and John were his cousins, and she was one of his relations too. Family ties have always helped people get ahead.

Jesus doesn’t dismiss her altogether, but he reminds her that his followers are to serve and not be served. It’s a service that will cost them, even their lives. Following him doesn’t mean that they and their family would gain. Like the Son of Man James and John will  have to give their lives “for many.”

They’re called by God to reach out, and reaching out can be hard, sometimes painful. It means going beyond those we call our own, our families and friends. It means reaching out to those we don’t know, even to those we don’t like. It means going beyond what we’re used to.

Later stories say that James and John went to places far beyond the Sea of Galilee where they fished with their father Zebedee and were cared for by a mother who had their interests at heart. Our church is a missionary church. It reaches out to the whole world. That’s what  Jesus last words in Matthew’s gospel says to do:  “Go out to the whole world, baptizing and teaching.”

That’s still his word today. Go out to the whole world, even if the world is changing and the future is uncertain. “I am with you all days,” Jesus says.

James, brother of John, is also known as  James the Greater, to distinguish him from James the Less, the other disciple mentioned in the New Testament. James was the first of the apostles to die for Christ; he was beheaded in Jerusalem by King Herod Agrippa in 42 AD.

Later Traditions About James

Some 4th century Christian writers say that one of the apostles went to Spain and a 6th century source identifies the apostle as James, who preached briefly in Spain and converted only a few before returning to Jerusalem and his death.

Modern scholars are divided about the truth of the tradition. Relics said to be of St. James were discovered in Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain in the 9th century, a major event in Spanish history. His shrine at Compostella became a major pilgrimage center for the people of Spain and Europe, rivaling even Rome and Jerusalem in its popularity.

From the 9th century onward, James was patron of the Spanish peoples and a rallying cry in their fight to free their land from the Moors. At four battles – Clavijo (9th c.), Simancas (10th c.), Coimbra (11th c.) and Las Navas de Tolosa (1212) – legends say he appeared as a warrior astride a great white horse with a sword in his hand. Throughout the Middle Ages, soldiers and knights  came as pilgrims to Compostela to seek the saint’s protection.

In 1492, when Spain was finally free of Moorish domination, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella came to Compostela to give thanks to St.James in the name of the Spanish people.

How old are the relics of St.James? Pilgrims from Galicia were frequent visitors to the Holy Land as early as the 4th century and may have brought the relics back to their native land. Colorful legends from medieval times, however, brought the story back further to the time of the apostle himself, saying that disciples of James fled with his body after he was beheaded and, escaping by boat, drifted to the coast of Spain where, after many adventures they buried him. These legends about James appear frequently in medieval art and in numerous churches built in his honor in France, England, and later in the Spanish colonies of the New World. Cities such as Santiago, Chile, Santiago, Cuba,San Diego, California, are named after him. The feast of St.James is July 25.

Sharing in the Sufferings of Christ

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The weekdays at Mass we’re reading St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, a Christian community in the city of Corinth around the year 50, shortly after the time of Jesus. Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians are favorite sources for historians studying the early Christian church; they also help us reflect on our own church today.

During the easter season we read the Acts of the Apostles– St. Luke’s overview of the early Christian church as it spreads from Jerusalem to Rome after the resurrection of Jesus, mainly through the activity of Peter and Paul. Now, in ordinary time we look more closely at one of the churches Paul founded–the church at Corinth. What was it like?

Drawn from different peoples flocking to the great Mediterranean port, the Christian community at Corinth was diverse; it attracted a variety of preachers and teachers, causing some division, noticeably as they came together to “break bread.” There’s some sexual immorality in this church, close to the open sea. Some were wondering about the resurrection of Jesus.

Its members were not mostly Jewish Christians, though there are some who may have missed the stability found in a Jewish synagogue. There’s no bishop administering this church as yet. Paul’s ministry is to the world; there is no one person in charge here for him to work with.

It’s a church  “in the works,” not complete, with glaring weaknesses, struggling to grow in faith, with plenty of loose ends, looking for answers. It’s a church experiencing great change. It’s a church suffering, not from outward persecution, but from turmoil within.

Maybe a church like ours?

Addressing the Corinthians, Paul sees first their suffering, which he describes as “Christ’s suffering”. He feels that mystery in himself, as he says in the opening chapters of the Second Letter to the Corinthians. He returns to that theme over and over.

Yes, problems must be faced, corrections made, restructuring to take place, but Paul keeps reminding the Corinthians they’re experiencing the sufferings of Christ–with Christ’s suffering comes his encouragement.

Paul knew both–the sufferings of Christ and his encouragement. “We were utterly weighed down beyond our strength, so that we despaired of life,” he writes from the province of Asia, but with suffering came an overflowing encouragement, which always accompanies the sufferings of Christ. “We do not trust in ourselves but in God who raises from the dead.” ( 2 Corinthians 1, 5-11)

Paul’s way is the right way, the first way to look at our experience. We’re tempted to judge, to analyze, to condemn, to throw up our hands and lose hope in the world around us. We need to remember the sufferings of Christ, a mystery affecting us all, and the “encouragement” that always accompanies this mystery.

Listen to Paul speaking to the struggling Corinthians:

“Our hope for you is firm, for we know that as you share in the sufferings, you also share in the encouragement,”

Good letter for us to read these days.

The Resurrection according to Luke

Our gospel reading today and tomorrow is from Luke’s resurrection narrative.(Luke 24,13-35), the story of two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Like Matthew, Luke begins with the women at the tomb, but he quickly directs us beyond the tomb to a road where two downcast disciples sunk in disappointment have lost hope. Jesus appears gradually to the two disciples. Slow to see his presence, they finally recognize him in the breaking of the bread. Afterwards, they remember his words on the road that made their hearts burn within them.

In Luke’s account of the Risen Jesus, the two disciples on the road who lose hope are key to understanding the journey of the church the evangelist describes in his gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles. The church is on a journey from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. For the evangelist Rome is the ends of the earth.

But it’s not a triumphant journey the two disciples make, nor is the church’s journey triumphant. It falls and fails along the way. Luke’s narrative is a wonderful corrective to a triumphalist view of the church.

It also reminds us our personal journey of faith is not a triumphal march either. We’re like the two disciples. Yet, Jesus walks with us. He never fails to help us see.

Rembrandt. Disciples on the Way to Emmaus

Timothy and Titus

Timothy and Titus were companions of St.Paul on his missionary journeys and they continued his mission. Timothy was given leadership of the church at Ephesus; Titus assumed leadership of the church in Crete. We have Paul’s letters to them: one letter to Titus and two letters to Timothy, most likely written from house arrest in Rome.

Like Jesus, Paul never saw himself acting alone or handing on a church that was completely developed. It was a church in transition. That’s why we celebrate the feast of Timothy and Titus on January 26th, the day after the feast of Paul’s conversion. He saw others continuing his work.

The church given into the care of Timothy and Titus would enter a new stage in its growth. Paul and the other apostles were completing their work; now roles of bishops, priests and other ministries began to evolve. The notes in the New American Bible–always worth reading–point to the changing nature of these offices as Timothy and Titus take on the work of Paul, in prison in Rome.

Paul’s advice to Timothy is especially interesting. “Stir into flame the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power and love and self-control. So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.”

Sounds like Paul is trying to bolster Timothy’s confidence, who is losing his powerful mentor. I also like Paul’s reference in that same letter to Timothy’s mother Eunice and his grandmother Lois. Powerful mentors Timothy also should remember.

Timothy and Titus were given “apostolic virtues” by God to continue the work of Paul and the other apostles, the opening prayer of their feast says. And “May we merit to reach our heavenly homeland” by “living justly and devoutly in this present age.” Like them “we” also are given a task –to work for the church’s growth and development in this present age.

We have to remember our mentors and remember too that God “ does not give a spirit of cowardice, but rather of power and love and self control.” Like the two followers of Paul, we have to hold on to what we were given, but it’s our turn to continue their work: “Go into all the world, and proclaim the gospel. I am with you always, says the Lord.”

I see in the notes of American Bible that the deacons Paul refers to in I Timothy 3, 8-13 may include women as well as men. “This (deacons) seems to refer to women deacons, but may possibly mean the wives of deacons. The former is preferred because the word is used absolutely…”

Why not today? We need women in roles of leadership. I have some in mind who would fit the role very well. I wonder what my mother would say.

The End is Only a Beginning

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We begin reading the Farewell Discourse from John’s gospel along with the Acts of the Apostles this 4th week of Easter. Facing their loss of Jesus the disciples seem helpless as he says farewell. “I have a lot to say to you, but you cannot bear it now,” he says. The Lord recognizes their paralysis.

In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, on the other hand, Paul and his companions are not helpless at all. They’re boldly on their way to places that may not seem impressive to us now, but were impressive places then: Psidian Antioch, Philippi, Athens, Corinth. Three were important Roman colonies, strategic cities on the Roman grid, steps on the road to Rome itself. Athens, of course, was a key intellectual center of the empire, though maybe a little down-trodden when Paul got there.

Paul welcomed people into his growing ministry. Meeting Lydia, the trader in purple dyes at the river, he baptizes her and her household. How many did she bring to the gospel? Priscilla and Acquila, the two Jews that Claudius expelled from Rome during the Jewish riots of AD 42, became his trusted partners.

Maybe it’s good that we read these two scriptures together.

The Acts of the Apostles tell of a church confidently on its way to the ends of the earth to fulfill its mission.

The Farewell Discourse, on the other hand, says that sometimes a church can be paralyzed in its thinking and acting. But the Lord is the shepherd of both. What seems like the end can be only a beginning.

By Faith, Not By Sight

At Mass today we hear St. Paul reflecting on his life in his Second Letter to the Corinthians. “We walk by faith and not by sight,” he says. You can look at yourself by faith or by sight. Obviously, some at Corinth are looking at Paul “by sight,” what they think he is, but Paul sees himself in another way, by faith.

“We are treated as deceivers and yet are truthful;
as unrecognized and yet acknowledged;
as dying and behold we live;
as chastised and yet not put to death;
as sorrowful yet always rejoicing;
as poor yet enriching many;
as having nothing and yet possessing all things.”   ( 2 Corinthians 5,1-16)

Some in Corinth see Paul as a deceiver, a nobody, on his way out, beaten, sorrowful, poor, having nothing. Paul sees himself by another light. The NAB commentary on 2 Corinthians says that, though Paul speaks personally he assumes his experience is shared by other people of faith. We’re all called to walk by faith and not by sight.

And so, how do we see ourselves today?

Today, the 58th year of my priestly ordination, I’m beginning a Mission at St. Mary’s Church in Kingston, New York at 7 PM. It’s the last of the Revive Missions sponsored by the Archdiocese of New York that I’m taking part in.

Some would say the church is responsible for the ills of our world, it’s passing away, beaten, a sad thing, having nothing to say any more. But, Paul begins his reflections proclaiming “Now is an acceptable time. Now is the way to salvation.” So, “We walk by faith, not by sight.”

Friday Thoughts: Up From The Ashes

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I saw a ladder extended high up into the sky.

It seemed to reach into heaven.

Were angels ascending and descending?

Perhaps.

Firefighters can be seen as angels, that’s for sure.

“The church is on fire.” That was the reality. The flames that consume wood and air have now been extinguished. Our parish has been pushed into the street. Most of the material damage was done to the steeple. It is pretty much gone. The bells collapsing inward. The large copper cross crashing onto Central Avenue. The roof too suffered. A large hole, allowing direct sunlight, presides directly above the altar.

The tabernacle and the statues are perfectly intact.

In other words, Jesus’ real presence and His Communion of Saints are alive and well.

No Resurrection without Crucifixion. No Easter Sunday without Good Friday.

The last service before the fire was The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass—Friday after Ash Wednesday—the first Friday of Lent. The Mass was preceded by the Stations of the Cross. It was led by the women of The Sacred Heart Society.

The best poetry, the most romantic images, the most apropos settings are constructed by God Himself. Like good, basic, simple, yet shockingly profound haiku poetry—God’s work always contains three lines: One of Faith, One of Hope, One of Love.

Faith: There is a God. He is our father. He is good. All He does is good. He is ultimately in control. Nothing happens without His active or passive permission. He brings all to good. All back to Himself. His promises are good as gold. Better. Much. His promises are eternal. He promises everlasting peace. He promises joy beyond comprehension.

Hope: Jesus is with us every step of the way. Everything that happens to us can become an event that teaches us, instructs us, encourages us, and helps us become more like Him. It can propel us deeper into His presence. And Jesus is already victorious. He died for us, for you and for me, personally. He defeated death. Completely. And He has perfectly shown the way through. For Jesus not only makes His Father’s promises possible, He fulfills them. He not only provides salvation but also all the help and assistance we will ever need to reach salvation, our eternal home. All will be ok.

Love: The Holy Spirit—the Love of the Father for the Son, the Love of the Son for the Father—is awesome. Period. And there is nothing that can stop God from loving us, each and every one of us, as individual and greatly prized children. Love. Love. Love. Say it out loud. Breathe it. It is the breath of life. With Faith and Hope we can freely Love. With Love we can continually Believe and Hope.

But He never says it will be easy, this pilgrimage on earth. But He says it is worth it.

Suffering is not a choice. We will experience suffering. No one gets out alive. The only real question then is this: How will we receive suffering, and how will we handle it?

There is only one acceptable answer: In Union With Jesus.

If we suffer in union with Jesus, then our suffering is His suffering. And Jesus’ suffering is fruitful, always. It redeems. It brings to life. It resurrects.

How then can we do it?

The answer is always the same: Grace

We must cooperate with God’s grace. And that cooperation begins with posture, with how we position ourselves. And the posture needed is prayer. In His Holy Name. We need to ask Jesus for what He will not deny: To participate in His salvation of the world.

To participate in His life, His death, and His resurrection:

Lord, grant me the grace to endure all suffering in perfect union with You. Grant me the patience and strength and courage to accept and carry my cross daily. The grace to not desire that the circumstances be immediately changed, nor the desire that I be removed from the struggle—but instead the grace of walking with You, Lord Jesus, through the suffering—praising You constantly—thanking You continually for the privilege of no longer being a mere bystander, but now instead an active participant in Your great work of salvation—filled the entire time with Faith, with Hope, and with Love—knowing that great work, heavenly work, tremendous good is being done. Whether it is seen or unseen. And also please grant, my Lord and my God, the grace of always giving all honor and praise to You and You alone. “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours now and for ever.”

Amen.


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—Howard Hain

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