Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The Goodness of the Shepherd

As I had only one opportunity to verbally preach on Good Shepherd Sunday (which we Roman Christians celebrate every Fourth Sunday of Easter), and given the quintessentially 'Paschal' character of our Lord Jesus Christ's title as 'the Good Shepherd,' I decided to post it here.

            I remember as a kid, going to my grandmother’s funeral and hearing for the very first time the Twenty-Third Psalm or, as we Catholics call it—like all the Psalms—by its first words, Dominus pastor meus, “The Lord is my Shepherd…”  But I was always puzzled by that very first sentence, “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want.”  I used to think, “That’s not very nice.  The Lord is my Shepherd, but we don’t want him?”  But, of course, the older meaning of ‘want’ is intended here, in the sense of ‘lack’ or ‘need.’  This Psalm is saying, really, “The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I lack.”
            The Fourth Sunday of Easter always commemorates ‘The Good Shepherd,’ one of the titles of Jesus.  But the insertion of ‘Good Shepherd Sunday’ during Eastertide has a specific function that the Church wants us to think about.  In the gospel, Jesus said of Himself, “I am the Good Shepherd” and He contrasts Himself with the hired hand who look after sheep who aren’t his own.  A hireling isn’t a shepherd, really; he’s just, well, someone from the temp agency.  Jesus, on the other hand, looks after His sheep, that is to say, you and me.  But that’s not all:  He refers to Himself as the ‘Good Shepherd.’
            So we have to ask ourselves, what makes Jesus a ‘Good’ Shepherd?  It is too superficial to say that Jesus is the ‘Good Shepherd’ just because He’s Jesus; the answer is found in the gospel itself and especially during the Easter Season.  It is found, more precisely, in a paradox about ‘Jesus-as-Shepherd’ that is, quintessentially, Easterly.
            I am the Good Shepherd, and I know Mine and My own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I will lay down My life for the sheep [Jn 10:14-15].  That’s the key.  That’s the paradox, right there.  Tthe paradox is this:  The Good Shepherd is, Himself, the Passover Lamb.  I hope you remember the Sequence of Easter Sunday:  “Christ the Lamb has saved the sheep / Christ the just one paid the price” [cbw iii, 690].  The paradox here is that the One who cares for the sheep is Himself the Lamb whose death saves the lives of the sheepfold:  The Lamb shepherds.
            Jesus often used metaphors to describe Himself; ‘Good Shepherd’ is one of them.  We know that He was actually a carpenter by trade, not a shepherd.  St John the Baptist metaphorically referred to Jesus as the Lamb of God.  We know that Jesus was a human being, the God-Man, not an animal that zoologists call ovis aries.  But the use of these metaphors about Jesus highlights something about Him.  Jesus is a Shepherd because He cares for the sheepfold—the Church by any other name—and he is Good because He is also the Passover Lamb whose death and resurrection saves the rest of the sheep from the wolf—that is to say, Satan, who is determined to drag us into hell with him.
            A shepherd is always a human being; sheep are sheep.  But the paradox of the ‘Good Shepherd,’ especially during Eastertide, emphasises even more the Mystery of the Incarnation, of the ‘God-with-us’ in that just as God became man to save women and men; the Shepherd is like the sacrificial lamb whose death and resurrection has brought God to pass-over our sins.
            Let’s take this one step further.  Jesus sacrificed Himself for us.  When we say “Jesus sacrificed,” we mean to say that Jesus is our Priest because priests, by definition, are people who make sacrifices.  And, in “Jesus scarified Himself for us,” when we say “sacrificed Himself,” we mean to say that Jesus is the sacrificial Victim—not just in the sense of being on the receiving end of violence but in the sense of being the sacrificial offering.  Priests offer victims—such as lambs as in the Old Testament.  But Jesus is the ‘Good Shepherd’ precisely because ‘Jesus sacrificed Himself for us’ which means, really, that Jesus is Priest and Victim, the sacrificer and the sacrifice.  Hence:  The Good Shepherd is the Passover Lamb.
            Which brings us to our final point and our conclusion.  I hope you’ve been to St Joseph's Cathedral Basilica recently.  In the Lady Chapel, where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the tabernacle, there is a new mosaic on the wall that shows a lamb holding a standard.  The lamb shows its pierced side and a flow of blood being poured into a chalice.  This is a very Easter symbol, the Passover Lamb who was slain but lives again.  In a few minutes, when we begin the Communion, I will be holding up the Host and say “Behold the Lamb of God; behold Him who takes away the sins of the world.”  ‘Host’ means ‘Victim’ in Latin.  In the Byzantine Church, the ‘Host’ is called, simply, ‘the Lamb.’  And it is here at this Table that we celebrate Easter every single time we gather, because we commemorate—we remember together—that we were born sheep in danger of sin, death, and hell, and that Jesus’ advent is like that of a shepherd becoming a sheep who allows himself to be devoured by the wolf so that the rest of us sheep would be spared.  But the Lamb who was devoured returned to life and in turn conquered the wolf—Satan—and his wolflings, sin, death, and damnation.  “This is My Body, which will be given up for you…This is the chalice of My Blood…which will be poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Do this in memory of Me.”  That’s why we come to Eucharist—that is to say, Thanksgiving in Greek—because that’s all we’re left with:  Being thankful to the Passover Lamb whose death saves us from eternal death, whose resurrection has raised us all up.  Truly, there is nothing we lack.

            Glory to You, Lamb of God, Lord Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Believing in Jesus

I preached a homily at St Theresa's and St Mark's Community of the Deaf on the meaning of John 3:16 this past Lord's Day.  Many asked for copies of the homily so I am posting it here.
     I know that some Protestants have ‘hijacked’ John 3:16.  Remember that man who used to always hold up a sign with “John 3:16” on it and showed up at major televised sports events wearing a rainbow coloured clown wig?  He would stand in front of every camera shot at baseball games and golf tournaments, making weird faces and push his message.  His name is Rollen Stewart and we can thank him for our ambivalence towards John 3:16 especially because he’s in prison for taking a hotel housekeeper hostage in Los Angeles, threatening to shoot airplanes taking off and landing at LAX while taping Bible passages to his window.  He’s now serving three life sentences in California, but the damage was done.  John 3:16 has become, unfortunately, that ubiquitous but least favourite verse that everybody knows.  Today, I want to fix that.
     “For God so loved the world that he gave his Only-Begotten Son…”  What did Jesus mean when He said that God “gave” Him?  We say in the Stewardship Prayer, “the great gift of Jesus your Son.”  How did God “give” Jesus to us?
     God “gave” Jesus to us in three principal ways:  at Creation, at the Incarnation, and at the Cross.
     God gave us his Son in Creation by way of anticipation.  Hence “For God so loved the world…”  God created the universe, and us, as a ‘meeting place’ between himself and us.  The Church teaches that God created us in order that we may “to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world, and to be happy with Him for ever in heaven.”  Creation took place in anticipation for the human race’s encounter with the God-Man, Jesus Christ.
     With creation in place, and thus a ‘meeting-place’ between creatures and the Creator, God sent his Son as one of us, as a human being.  This we call the Incarnation, as we read in John 1:14, “and the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.”  As Catholics we believe that the Incarnation was the first Christmas gift, when God gave  to us his Only-Begotten Son by uniting the Eternal Word with our human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary, so that God the Son would speak to us in a human language, share our human experience, and even endure our human end, death.
     Finally, God gave us his Son even to the point of surrender at the Cross.  Why?  Jesus did for us what none of us could do for ourselves—Jesus gave His life perfectly, completely, and obediently to the Father, thereby ‘proving’ that He is a Son.  By our own sinfulness, on the other hand, we have irreparably withdrawn ourselves from God; our nature became so deformed that we were thus henceforth incapable of repairing our broken relationship with God.  God gave us, or rather gave up his Son to do for us what we were unable to do for ourselves:  making satisfaction and reparation for humanity’s offence against God, thereby meriting for us mercy, grace, and pardon.
     I cannot stress that last point enough.  The Church has gone so far as to excommunicate those Catholics who believe that you can be your own saviour.  “I’m going to heaven because I’m a good person.”  Wrong!  “I’m going to heaven because I’ve earned it.”  Wrong!
     So how, then, can we be qualified that we “may not perish but may have eternal life”?
     Jesus makes it clear, although the English Bible obfuscates it just a bit:  “so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  What does it mean ‘to believe’ or ‘to have faith’—which in Greek is the same word?  It means, on one hand, to be devoted to Jesus; it also means to intellectually assent to the Truth that is Jesus.  The tense of the verb “believes” used by the gospel writer is in the present active tense, which means we believe and continue to believe and never relent in believing.  Hence St Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, “from faith to faith.”
     There’s more.  At the beginning of John’s gospel, it says “But to all who received Him, to believed in His Name, He gave power to become children of God.”  But to adhere to Jesus already implies a package deal:  Jesus the Son points to the Father by His obedience; Jesus is the Christ points to the Holy Spirit who anointed Him.  So by adhering to Jesus, we automatically adhere to the Trinity.  This is why one of our lesser-known creeds, the Athanasian Creed says, “Whoever wishes to be saved must, above all keep the Catholic Faith.  For unless a person keeps this faith whole and entire, he will undoubtedly be lost for ever.  This is what the Catholic Faith teaches:  We worship one God in the Trinity, and the Trinity in unity…”  Remember what ‘Catholic’ means?—‘according to the whole.’  To follow Jesus is to take the package deal—everything Jesus teaches us, and just by believing in Jesus Christ the Son of God, we believe in the whole Godhead, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in Trinity.  To not believe, as Jesus unambiguously said, is to be “condemned already.”  Vladimir Lossky, a Russian Orthodox theologian, put it this way:  “Between the Trinity and hell, there lies no other choice.”
     God has given his Son to us, and therefore the whole Trinity, in Creation, in the Incarnation, and in the Cross.  God has given God’s self to us entirely.  This self-gift of God we call grace.  In Greek, the word for ‘grace’ is charis.  But charis, grace is freely given to us.  Free, why?  Because we can’t afford it.  So what is left for us to do?  We receive Him, by faith, that is to say, with adherence of mind and heart to Jesus.  And we cannot repay this costly, priceless, invaluable grace except in thanksgiving.  It’s interesting to note that the Greek word for ‘thanksgiving’ is eucharistein, where we get our word for ‘Eucharist.’  But look what’s hidden in the word eucharistein:  the word charis is hidden in the middle of it, because the only ‘repayment’ we can give for grace, if anything, is thanksgiving.
     Notice how Eucharist mirrors the gift of Jesus.  From Creation we harvest the wheat and the grapes to make bread and wine; this bread and wine, like the Incarnation, changes into the Body and Blood of Christ here at the Table.  And this table is where we celebrate the memorial of the Cross.  We’ve come full circle.
     We renew our faith here at this Table.  Listen to this prayer used in the Byzantine Liturgy just before the Communion:  “I believe, Lord, and profess that You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God, come to this world to save sinners, of whom I am the greatest.  I believe also that this is really Your spotless Body and that this is really Your precious Blood.  Wherefore, I pray to You: have mercy on me and pardon my offenses, the deliberate and the indeliberate, those committed in word and in deed, whether knowingly or inadvertently, and count me worthy to share without condemnation Your spotless Mysteries, for the remission of sins and for eternal life.  Amen.”

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Top Ten Evidence That Jesus Was Raised

What follows is the homily I preached this past Lord's Day, the III Sunday of Paschaltide, at Corpus Christi and St Theresa's Parishes.
     "My brothers, one can confidently say to you about the Patriarch David that he died and was buried, and his tomb is in our midst to this day."  This is St Peter speaking here, and he is making a comparison to the burial of Jesus.  "God raised Jesus; of this we are all witnesses!"
     Really, now?  I’ll bet there are fair few of you who might be a bit sceptical.  Jesus survived His own death?  He came back to life?  And we know this?  It’s a fair question.  Actually, no:  It’s the question.  Because if Christ was not resurrected, you and I are wasting our time with this Christianity business and we are suckers for history’s greatest hoax.
     This morning I’d like to present you with the Top Ten Evidences That Jesus Was Raised From The Dead.  Here we go.
     1.  The tomb of Jesus, which exists to this day, remains empty.  In Jerusalem, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre houses the original gravesite of Jesus Christ, but His body isn’t there.  I invite those who may be interested to read a groundbreaking article by the Biblical archaeologist Fr Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, The Argument for the Holy Sepulchre, available online.
     2.  No other tomb claims to have the body of Jesus.  The founders of the world’s religions all have identifiable tombs:  Mohammed, Siddhartha, Confucius, and so on.  Only Jesus’ tomb is both identifiable and empty.  What’s even more, Jesus’ opponents were partially convinced that the His empty tomb was a hoax, but have never been able to blow the whistle, so to speak, by producing His corpse.
     3.  The Easter-event was experienced by those indisposed to believe in any kind of resurrections.  In first-century Judaism, belief in the resurrection was only an obscure theory held by Pharisees, a lay movement within Judaism.  The Sadducees, who were the religious aristocracy tended to be somewhat rationalist on matters pertaining to the hereafter.  Ordinary folk, let alone fishermen-become-Apostles, when they listened to Jesus predicting His own Resurrection, it went right over their heads.  Being thus indisposed to believe in resurrections, it is highly, highly unlikely that they would have invented an Easter faerie-tale because it would have been too foreign to their way of thinking.
     4.  The Easter-event was proclaimed by those who experienced, it at great cost.  Almost nobody would believe in their own hoax and die for it, too.  But to those who witnessed the Risen Christ, the experience was so real and so palpable that they were willing to surrender their lives for it.  St Peter was crucified upside-down.  St Thomas was speared, branded, then burned.  St Bartholomew was skinned alive.  All of the Apostles—the Twelve and others—except one, were martyred.  St John was exiled to the isle of Patmos for his testimony.  If the Easter-event were a fabrication, you’d have a heck of a time trying to explain why the Apostles believed it to the point of gruesome execution.
     5.  None of the original followers of Jesus provided an alternative to the Easter-event.  We know that the Apostles did not always get along.  Yet they were consistent in their proclamation that Jesus resurrected.  Moreover—and listen to me carefully—if the Easter-event were a hoax, we would have to account for the fact that nobody, but nobody blew the whistle.  There is no early Christian leader, or sect for that matter, who said “Hold on, wait a minute.  The Easter story is a fake.  I’ll tell you where Jesus’ body is.  I’ll tell you what really happened.”  No-one, whether Jesus’ opponents or former followers, have been able to uncover any sort of ‘Easter conspiracy’—because there is none.
     6.  Nor were the original opponents of Jesus able to uncover the Easter-event as a fabrication.  A very curious absence in the historiography of our ‘elder bothers’—the Jewish people—is that very little is said beyond the fact that Jesus was crucified.  We possess nothing from the Sanhedrin—who condemned Jesus and who opposed the preaching of the Apostles—trying to falsify the Easter-event.  The absence of any alternative explanation whatsoever to the Easter-event speaks strongly for the truth that Jesus was resurrected.
     7.  The precise moment of the Resurrection was never recorded or described.  Another curious thing—if the Easter-event were a fabrication, then there would have been at least one storyteller describing, with grandiose imagery, what the Resurrection looked like:  How someone saw a blinding flash of light, the tomb-stone being rolled, and Jesus actually emerging gloriously from the tomb.  The absence of a predictable element in any false alibi—someone seeing someone somewhere and doing something—lends credibility to the Easter narrative.  If the Easter-event were a fabrication, there would have been at least one lying eyewitness, even more than one for the sake of corroborating testimony, but there isn’t.
     8.  The first witnesses to the Resurrection were women.  In Semitic jurisprudence, the testimony of women was inadmissible in court, let alone in culture enough to give a witness that triggered the rapid expansion of Christianity.  As one of the ‘Holy Myrrhbearing Women,’ St Mary Magdalene has the distinction of having the title of ‘Apostle to the Apostles’—and this woman, whose word shouldn’t count, had audacity enough to tell a bunch of coarse men that she met the Risen Christ.  The boldness of second-class people being the first to proclaim the Good News speaks to the truth of Jesus’ Resurrection.
     9.  St Paul ‘calls his own bluff’ on the veracity of Christ’s Resurrection.  He was ardently opposed to Christianity and was personally responsible for arresting and summarily executing Christians.  But on the way to Damascus to continue his genocide of Christians, St Paul met the risen Jesus and his life was changed.  He even goes so far as to say, “if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain.  …If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.  …If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.”  But, he says, “in fact Christ has been raised from the dead.”  And what did he get out of all this?  A meagre income as a tentmaker, dangerous mission trips, and finally a beheading at Rome, but all for the simple truth that Christ is risen.
     10.  Only an historically supernatural event can account for the rapid expansion of Christianity.  That is pretty self-explanatory:  The very basis of Christianity’s validity lies in the first Easter, nothing else.
     My friends:  That is what makes us Christians; we believe that Jesus Christ was victorious over His own Death.   As Consuela the house maid from Family Guy would say,  “No…no…Mr Jesus no es here.”  Not only was Jesus rasied—past tense—but he is risen—present tense.  It is the quintessential, defining ‘thing’ of Christianity.
     And if Easter is true, then mediocrity, a mediocre life is out of the question.  By rising triumphant over sin and death, Jesus Christ has bestowed a newer, higher life on us, as a gift.  What’s left is for us to live Easterly, knowing that His Resurrection has renovated the universe—from the furthest galaxy to the tiniest atom.  Can we be content to live as before?

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Refuting Adventism's so-called "Three Angels' Message," Part I

The following is a response to a challenge by a Seventh-Day Adventist to refute their (anti-Biblical) doctrine of the ‘Three Angels’ Message’—a pet belief within that religious system.
            My method is to provide, first, an exegesis of Apocalypse 14:6-13 in three parts (6-7, 8, then 9-13), each with a subsequent comparison with Adventism’s official pronouncements on this same text’s interpretation.  I have consciously set aside any comparison to Adventist doctrine during the exegesis itself so as to maintain academic honesty in the hermeneutical exploration of the Sacred Text before contrasting it with Adventism.  The intention is to refute Adventism’s ‘Three Angels’ Message’ angel-by-angel, so to speak, and to highlight why the same Sacred Text cannot be invoked as a critique of the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church founded by our Lord Jesus Christ.
            Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of Thy faithful, and enkindle in them the Fire of Thy Love!

Then I saw another angel flying in midheaven, with an eternal Gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and tongue and people; and he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the fountains of water.

Unlike the ‘angels of the Churches’ in Apoc 1:20 et al., “angel” here refers to the supernatural beings created by God prior to the creation of the human race; we derive this from the description that this angel is “flying in midheaven”—Scripture often describes angels as ‘flying’ and this particular text is reminiscent of Apoc 8:13 in which an “eagle crying with a loud voice, as it flew in midheaven, ‘Woe, woe, woe to those who dwell on the earth.”  The comparison here highlights the fact that an angelic being is traversing the skies so as to have a vantage point to announce something to those on earth who hear the angel’s message.  And the message is addressed, like “to those who dwell on earth” [πετόμενον  ἐν  μεσουρανήματι] 8:13, 14:6—highlighted by the exact same Greek pattern—as well as by the fact that it is addressed to “every nation and tribe and tongue and people.”  In other words, the angel proclaims something catholic—‘universal’ or ‘according to the whole’ of humanity.
     This follows upon the Great Commission given by the Lord Jesus just prior to His Ascension:  “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations” (Mt 28:19); “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation…” (Mk 16:15); “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in His Name to all nations” (Lk 24:46-47).  Similarly, St Paul commends the Roman Christians for their “faith is proclaimed in all the world” (Rom 1:8).
            What about this “eternal Gospel”?  Gospel, εὐαγγέλιον, is an imperial term, from ‘good’ [εὐ-] and ‘message’ or ‘tidings’ [ἀναγγέλλω], which in its Latin form (evangelium) was used to describe a victory of the Romans after battle or the accession of the Roman emperor.  Its usage in Mk 1:1, given its Roman provenance, is intended to be a slap-in-the-face to Caesar:  Christ, not Caesar, is the ‘good news’; Christ, not Caesar is the ‘Son of God’ (as the Roman emperors were considered to be divi filius, ‘son of the divinity.’
            And this Gospel remains unchanged and unchangeable, as St Paul insists in Gal 1:6-9.  But what is the content of the Gospel?  It is, above all, the glad tidings that the Lord Jesus, by His Death and Resurrection, has conquered sin and death.  “[T]he Gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh [i.e., His Davidic royalty and His Incarnation] and designated Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by His resurrection from the dead [Easter], Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom 1:3-4).  He is named “Lord” because of the Easter event:  “[F]or to this end [εἰς  τοῦτο] Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living!” (Rom 14:9); “And being found in human form He humbled Himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a Cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him a Name that is above every name, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:8-11).  This, by the way, is why we call the First Day of the week ‘The Lord’s Day’—as it is the anniversary of the resurrection when Christ was exalted as ‘Lord.’  Again, “God has made [ἐποίησεν] Him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified!” (Acts 2:36).
            The content of the apostolic preaching, the Gospel, can be found in the eight kerygmatic sermons of the Acts of the Apostles:  2:14-36; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 5:29-32; 10:34-43; 13:16-41; 14:15-17; 17:22-31.
            One more thing.  Speaking of the “eternal Gospel,” we must take into account Jude 1:3, “Beloved, being very eager to write to you of our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints [ἅπαξ παραδοθείσῃ].”  The Greek clause ἅπαξ παραδοθείσῃ can be translated as “once traditioned”—that is to say, handed over once and only once for all time.  This is to say that St Jude Thaddeus here precludes the idea—harboured by the assemblies of the heretics—that the Gospel somehow was obscured as the Church’s history moved on and, at one point, resurfaced thanks to the teachings of a sect’s founder, whether it be Charles Russell, Ellen White, or any heresiarch.  The Gospel, as St Thaddeus tells us—and the Greek text makes this plain—is delivered once.  It will not be delivered again, which also precludes the idea that the Gospel could ever be lost or obscured.
            In addition to the “eternal Gospel,” the angel exhorts all to “worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the fountains of water.”  This is not unlike the preaching of Sts Paul and Barnabas in Acts 14:15.  But what of the “hour of judgment”?  We have already spoken of the centrality of the Cross in the Gospel.  The Fourth Gospel describes the ‘Hour of Jesus’ as an hour of “judgment”:  “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out” (Jn 12:31; cf. 16:11).  The Apocalypse of St John shows the ‘heavenly side’ of Good Friday, of the Lamb’s Passion (cf. 5:6, 12; 14:1).
            The last question we must address is this:  When does this episode of Apoc 14:6f take place?  As we will see, it took place in the first century of the Church, as evidenced by the fact that it follows the showing of the two “Beasts”—the second of which is described thus:  “This calls for wisdom:  let him who has understanding reckon [] the number of the beast, for it is a human number, its number is six hundred and sixty six” (Apoc 13:18).  Curiously, the Vetus Latina or the Italic manuscripts has a different number:  616.
            Recall that the Greeks invented the article.  The RSV’s “a human number,” in Greek is  ἀνθρώπου ἐστίν; the absence of the direct article means that the indirect article is intended, ‘a’ or ‘an’; the fact that ἀνθρώπου is in the genitive singular means it is one human person, and precisely a human being.  It refers to some-one.  Who is this someone?  The answer is crucial, because it will put the next episode of chapter 14 into its proper historical context:  The ‘Three Angels’ announced their tidings in the first century, not later.

            More to come.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

God in the Gallows


The following homily was preached at our Good Friday Celebration of the Lord's Passion.

In high school, we were required to read Night by Elie Wiesel, in which he recounted his imprisonment at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.  But there is only one scene that I recall from the book.

     Three prisoners were being punished with execution by hanging, including a small boy.  The SS, as was their custom, forced all the prisoners to watch the punishment in order to impress upon them their subjugation.  When the trap doors were unhinged, the two men died almost instantly.  The boy was not so fortunate because he was too light to have the weight of his body break his neck suspended in the noose.  For a half hour, the boy remained suspended, writhing with his legs.  Watching the ordeal, Elie Wiesel then heard someone behind him ask, “For God’s sake, where is God?”  “And from within me,”—this is Wiesel speaking—“I heard a voice answer:  ‘This is where—hanging here in the gallows.”

     That silence we hear in our suffering is in fact God shouting so loudly that we become deaf.

     Just four short months ago we celebrated God becoming an infant, becoming one of us—and why?  God became Man not to take away our sufferings, but to share in it.  “Ours was the sufferings He bore; ours the sorrows He carried.”  Like I said when we celebrated Jesus’ birth, Christmas is the empathy of God.  And how far does God take His empathy?  So far, in fact, that the cry from the Cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken me,” Jesus lends His voice to the tears, the grief, the anguish of all humanity.

     But why allow suffering in the first place?  What’s the point of suffering if someone concludes that an omnibenevolent God and evil cannot exist at the same time?  Because at least it’s gotten even the atheist to think about God; suffering shifts our gaze to God, even if our hearts remain closed to him.  God can deal with a closed heart later, but for now, he’s got your attention, and that’s why we’re allowed to suffer.  As C. S. Lewis said, “Pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

     Holy Mother Church teaches that we are made for happiness.  St Thomas Aquinas defines happiness as the “attainment of the Perfect Good”; most of us, however, confuse happiness with pleasure, and pleasure always leaves us hanging, wanting more.  Happiness makes us content.  And happiness cannot be found in anything or anyone other than God.  Why?  Because our hearts were made to be in friendship with God and the immensity of God and his love means that there can be no substitute to fill that void in our hearts.  As the Trappist monk Fr Thomas Merton said, “We are not called to pleasure; we are called to joy.”

     The sad reality is that suffering has entered the world through the collusion of our First Parents:  They—and we in them—have disobeyed and turned away from God; and when we turn away from the Only One Who can make us happy, we will be anything but happy; we will suffer.  And the turning of the human heart back to God is a painful process, even if it is only that of a pure heart already turned to God but opposed by you and me—by crucifying Jesus.  “Obedient unto death, even death on the Cross.”  Jesus’ perfect gaze and heart fixed upon His Father shows the Man of Sorrows reaching the fullest of human flourishing.  Jesus, for all His extreme humiliation and pain, on the Cross was the happiest of men.

     My friends:  There is no-one in this house of the Church that does not suffer.  But Holy Mother Church offers us no faerie-tales so that we can go on imagining that the whole wide world is our nursery.  To be Christian means to take off those ridiculous rose-coloured glasses and to see the reality around us, and the reality within us:  “Pain insists upon being attended to.  God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains.”

     Elie Wiesel was right.  God was in the gallows that day when that boy was hanging between life and death.  Even the bad news of human suffering has its silver lining, and the Good News isn’t far off.  God will overcome suffering.  Despair does not exist in Christian vocabulary.  We now wait outside the Tomb of Jesus, the tombs of our lives, in hope.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Christmas: The Empathy of God

The following was the homily I preached at the Midnight Mass of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ at St Theresa's Catholic Parish.
“Does anyone understand me?”  “Nobody knows what I am going through.”  “I feel so alone.”  There isn’t one of us in here tonight that hasn’t thought or felt this at one point or another.  Depression.  Grief.  Worrying about the bills.  Husbands and wives fighting.  Children and parents not talking to each other.  Stress on the job.  So we are right to ask ourselves:  Does anyone understand?  Does nobody know what I am going through?  Why can’t I shake off this loneliness?

          Tonight is your answer.

          Most of us get only sympathy.  We might talk to someone, get convinced by platitudes like “oh there’s a silver lining somewhere” and become subjected to a barrage of advice we know to be a waste of time.  Sympathy’s nice, but the problem is, it’s cheap.

          Empathy, on the other hand, means someone does understand me, that someone does know what I am going through, and, no, you’re not alone.  That, my friends, is why tonight is your answer.

          What’s going on here, in this church, and throughout the world tonight?  Jesus’ birthday?  That’s too easy.  It’s Jesus’ birthday, yes, but it’s actually more than that.  Christmas, more than being the birthday of Jesus, is when God became a baby.  As we heard in the Proclamation tonight, “Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father…was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man:  The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.”  Christmas highlights the first of two central truths in Christianity:  The Incarnation.  “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelled among us” [Jn 1:14] we read in John’s gospel; St Paul also wrote “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a woman” [Gal 4:4].

          In the story of creation in Genesis, God said that that each thing he made was called “good,” but the making of the human person was “very good.”  Even more than the brightest star or the most colourful nebula, the child, the woman, the man carries a worth far greater.  You and I—would you believe it?—are the crowning work of creation.  God didn’t come in the form of thunder and lightning or in some celestial portent or by way of a mass euphoric religious experience.  No.  He came as one of us.  At Christmas, God became a peer to the human race:  “Born as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”  In the soft cries of a Jewish boy in the backwaters of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago, God’s voiced was joined to ours—God cried our cries.  God laughed our laughs.  God sorrowed our sorrows, God rejoiced in our joys.  God became one of us.  As Catholic Christians we believe this so true that repeated attempts to downplay the humanity of Jesus the God-Man was met, one by one, by anathemas swift and severe.  True God and true Man.

          By all rights, Mary should have been served by Elizabeth, travelled in a caravan of purebred horses and lodged at the choicest hotel, but no.  Seeing the plight of humanity, God willed instead to be subject Caesar’s brutal politics, an endangered pregnancy, and to have for his first home a cave reeking with smells of cows and sheep, and received a delegation of nobodies—shepherds.

          And, like you and me, the God-Man, Jesus, experienced the full range of human emotions.  He rejoiced in the Holy Spirit [Lk 10:21].  He was tempted in the desert [Mk 1:12-13].  He was angry with the money changers in the Temple [Jn 2:15].  He loved the rich young man [Mk 10:21].  He wept when His friend Lazarus died [Jn 11:35].  His heart was torn at seeing people without a caretaker [Mt 9:36].  He was afraid the night before Good Friday [Mk 14:34].  And at His crucifixion, Christ felt abandoned [Mk 15:34].

          Excusing himself from no human experience, the God-Man Jesus Christ endured even death.  In point of fact, God took on a human body precisely so that He, too, would experience human death.  Christmas was planned with Easter in mind.

          Christmas is the empathy of God.  During the period of the Old Testament, we took it on faith that God understood our struggles and shortcomings because God knows all things.  With Christmas, we now know this to be true because what makes us Christians is exactly the belief that God willed to commiserate with us by taking upon himself flesh and blood, mind and soul, and the ups and downs of human life.  That’s the ‘true Man’ side of the equation.

          The ‘true God’ side of the equation comes into clearer focus on Good Friday, “Ours were the sufferings He bore, ours the sorrows He carried…  Upon Him lies the chastisement that makes us whole, and by His wounds we were healed” [Is 53:4, 5].

          What does all of this say about you and me?  It means that you and I—whether we’re rich or poor, gay or straight, Asian or African or European or Native, disabled or not, unborn or elderly, whether we’re convicts or victims or surivors—it means that each of us is worth that much, that God would become one of us just so that God could say, “I am with you because I love you; see, I even became a baby.”

So, my friends, whatever you’re going through at home, at work, or in the privacy of our soul, Christ our God is with you.  But I know what you are thinking:  Why does life hurt so much?

          It hurts because we love.  Without love, those words from our spouses wouldn’t be so cutting.  Without love, the death of our children wouldn’t be so painful.  Without love, we wouldn’t miss our family and friends who are shipped off to Afghanistan.  Love, strangely enough, is what makes life hurt.  At the same time, if we had the choice of a love that hurts versus a loveless world, most of us, I’m sure, would still pick love.  And this is just what God has done.  “God is love,” and by his birth, God has willed to love to the point of being hurt, so that you can see in Jesus’ gaze just how far God went to prove his love.  Whatever is happening with you, don’t be afraid to throw yourselves in God’s arms, now open to receive your joys and sorrows, your hopes and griefs, your living and yes, even your dying.  “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

          The paradox of Christmas is that God doesn’t take away our pain; instead, he endures it.

          The Incarnation of the Eternal Word endures, even to this night.  Just as Our Lady, our Mother, placed Christ gently into her hands, do we also receive Christ and partake of Him in this Eucharist.  When you hear “the Body of Christ,” “the Blood of Christ,” know that our true God is also true Man, and say “Amen.”  Take and receive Christ Who received your—our—flesh and blood.  Join yourselves to Him Who was joined to us.  Give Him your life, Whose life was given for you.

          Glory be to Jesus Christ, the one Incarnate nature of God the Word, unto the ages of ages.  Amen.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Easter: Death is Overcome by Life
and Life Overcomes the World

The following is the homily I preached at my first Paschal Vigil as a presbyter at St Theresa's Catholic Parish.  The vigil of the Lord's Resurrection was was truly a celebration in every sense of the word.  Eight people were received into Holy Catholicity that night.

During my last year in California, I used to take the train from San Francisco to Berkeley for grad school, getting off at Shattuck Street and walking up University Avenue and then taking Oxford Street, which runs in front of UC Berkeley.  I used to make the point of walking on the north side of the street because the south side was lined by tall buildings and the shadow on the sidewalk there made it always chilly.  Walking on the north side meant walking in the sun, walking to school, walking to what was, for me, a new life.
          Only two years prior, things weren’t so good.  I recall thinking, at the time, that no amount of sunshine, coffee, or books could shake off that grief I was going through.  It was a long, personal Good Friday.  But once I began my new life and walked on that sunny sidewalk in Berkeley, I discovered—for the first time—the meaning of Easter.  The sun, it seemed, shone for the first time in my life.
          There was no greater tragedy than our silencing the life of the “Firstborn of all creation”, who came for no other reason than to tell us how much we are loved by God.  Disturbed by the prospect that we—cosmic dust that we are—are actually the crowning achievement of the Big Bang, we tried to disarm Jesus whose proclamation of God’s love disarmed us.  “With everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer.”
          Tonight, however, the deepest and darkest corners of the human condition was overcome by a violent love when God broke the chains of sorrow and, in a burst of divine energy, not only raised Jesus to new life but also put all shadows to flight.  ‘Easter’ means just this:  that in Jesus, death is overcome by Life and Life overcomes the world.  The Byzantines will sing tonight, “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs, bestowing Life!”
          In all the Scriptures we read tonight, God’s people have been ‘on their way out’ of the tomb—from the tomb of nothingness to creation, from the tomb of slavery to liberation, from the tomb of sorrow to joy, and the tomb of the font to a life of grace.  Each of us here, tonight, has our own tombs, too.  As the Lord Jesus said to Lazarus, “Come out!” He invites us, also, to emerge from whatever tomb that holds us hostage and to receive His Light.  God created light on the first day; we have just passed the vernal equinox; the moon is full; and Christ our Light has risen from the dead.  Easter illumines not only the Church, but the whole universe, beginning with our hearts, and from the largest nebulae, stars, and planets, down to the last particles and quarks of an atom.  If only we could hear, if only we could see the universe’s celebration of Christ risen, we would not want to leave tonight.
          My friends, Christ is risen.  “We are an Easter people, and alleluia is our song!”  Let us continue our celebration.