Friday, September 19, 2008

Just a Stretch of the Legs

Praying the Rosary on the way into work, something new caught my attention about Jesus' Transfiguration. You probably remember the event: While Jesus was at prayer on a mountaintop, Peter, James, and John witnessed Jesus become "more brilliant than the sun." Moses and Elijah appeared to Jesus, and the disciples could hear them discussing His "exodus." The scene culminated with a cloud overshadowing the mountain (as the Shekinah, or cloud of God's glory, had when Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai) and God the Father proclaiming, "This is My Beloved Son, listen to Him."

The new data that registered with me is actually preliminary to everything I just recounted: before the Apostles witnessed this, they had climbed a mountain! Traditionally, Mt. Tabor, pictured here, has been identified as the spot. (That little white dot at the top is a church, if that gives a better idea of the size.) I'm thinking that they had to exert themselves a bit to "get into position" for the Transfiguration.

And that got me thinking some about the energy we have to exert in our own lives. To make progress as Christians we have to work. God may have given us a new nature, but that doesn't mean its "second nature" yet.
Seriously though, think about your day so far. How many things can you think of that make you say, "Lord, I shouldn't have said that," or "I wish I'd done that?" I can sure think of a few. There's no reason to get disheartened though. When the Apostles were climbing that mountain they had to exert themselves...but Jesus was right there alongside them. The Lord was exerting Himself, as they were exerting themselves. And the same is true for us. We have to do the work, we have to make an honest, concentrated effort; but Jesus is right there alongside us - and thanks to His resurrection and ascension, in us - working to get us to that next level. Without Him its impossible; but with Him, there are no limits.

This is what the Church is talking about when it says that final salvation is the result of Faith and Works. We become the kind of creatures that can exist in Heaven because we've actively cooperated with God's activity within and through us. Maybe it's not appropriate to talk about Faith and Works as two separate activities; it's really one fluid movement, beginning in God. I may start using the term "faithwork" to describe it. Check out how the Apostle Paul spoke of it: " out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13). It's 100% God and, because of Grace and the Gift of the Holy Spirit, 100% us too! 
And like the Apostles, embracing Jesus' desire to get us to the "top of the mountain," leads to incredible realities. Like them, we get to pray alongside Jesus. And because of that, our prayer will change, will become more mature, will focus upon God's will instead of ours. We get to hear Moses (the Law) and Elijah (the Prophets) of the Old Covenant speaking to us as we study Scripture. Divine Light enables us to see things about ourselves and our situation that would have been impossible before.

And this pattern will be repeated again and again in our lives, as Jesus challenges us to follow Him from one peak to the next - until we're as high as we can possibly go. (They don't call it "Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem" for nothing [Hebrews 12:22].)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Single Most Important Word in Human History?

My vote is for "Mary," And here's why:
Mary [Magdalene] stood weeping outside the tomb...she turned round and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus...Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Jesus said to her, "Mary." She turned and said to him in Hebrew, "Rab-bo'ni!" (which means Teacher)" (John 20:11-16).

That one word, that simple speaking of Mary's name by the risen Jesus, did more to Magdalene, more to the world, than all other human actions rolled together - it was Jesus' revelation, His first announcement, that He had beaten death. And that is the hinge upon which hope, all true hope, for a future swings. Without it, what is the point in going on? No matter how good of a fight we put up, Death would still get the last word - that all powerful final word. Jesus changed it all though, turned despair on its head when He said, "Mary."

Monday, September 15, 2008

The Tenacious D

No, not the homies pictured at right. I'm talking about Death, the ultimate tenacious "D." You see, I realize that I'm a bit strange because I don't experience much sadness when someone passes. Yes, I KNOW - I sound horrible, even to myself. I do experience very strong emotions...but rarely in response to death. I was reflecting upon my strangeness over the weekend, and came up with the following explanation, a mini-essay if you will:

"My grieving usually involves, not death, but the tough things that precede death - pain and struggle with illness, catastrophes of life, relationship difficulties, living with the consequences of poor choices, people's struggles with addictions, etc. Someone's death, their absence from my daily life, doesn't affect me in the same way. And I guess that is for a number of reasons:

"I usually still speak to these people (although no, I don't hear them answering back!) I ask them to pray for me, and I pray for them - that their experience of purgatory is brief, or not necessary at all. I realize that, in God, they can understand my love for them and the motivations for my actions (good and bad) much better than I can myself. If there was anything I didn't feel able to say to them in life, for whatever reason, those restrictions aren't there anymore. They're free of the pains and struggles I mentioned in the paragraph above. There is also the recognition that, for all of the theological study I've done, these people have leaped beyond me in the twinkling of an eye. I also hope to be able to spend a literal eternity with them. I guess for all of these reasons, death doesn't sadden me all that much. If I feared that a person I loved was totally resisting God's attempts to work in his/her life though, then that passing would make me sad; there is something far worse than earthly death out there.

"My discomfort with my own death centers around the unknown: will there be a great deal of pain beforehand? When my time comes, will I be living as God's child; or will I have chosen something incompatible with Him? (I'm very aware of my ability to sin, how feeble I really am when it comes to virtue; so I have to stay on my guard.)"

Note: This is my second post with a photo of Jack Black. Forget my views on death; what does that say about me?

Friday, September 5, 2008

I'm Not Going to Jail - Thank You, God!

Alright, maybe I'm exaggerating a little. I'll tell the story and you can decide for yourself:

Two weeks ago, I got an e-mail from a local marketing research company, asking if I wanted to earn $85 for chewing gum and answering questions about the aforementioned experience. (No, I kid you not - this is totally legit. And if they start paying people to take naps, I will quit my day job.) So I happily agreed to do it, thinking that I was finally going to be able to squirrel something away towards the kids' Christmas presents.

Well, this past Monday evening we got around to opening some mail that had been sitting on the counter: a camera had caught me running a red light (I didn't remember it at the time, but it's hard to argue with photographic evidence), and I would need to pay the $100 fine within seven days. Mind you, it will be 14 days until the next paycheck - and my family LITERALLY lives paycheck to paycheck. (Just part of the glitz and glamour of working in education.) I didn't want to be driving around for a week with that outstanding fine...couldn't I have been arrested?

But that's not even an issue now, because the Lord allowed me to spend the past two evenings reading a good book as I chewed different gums and periodically stopped to rate them! No, I can't put that money back towards Christmas presents; but He gave me what I need for the present moment. How amazing of Him - looking into my future, seeing the need that would arise, and arranging the circumstances to have it met at just the right moment.

And isn't that what Jesus taught us to pray for, "Father, give us this day our daily bread?" He rarely sends it a moment before the deadline, but He sends it.
Objection: "There have been a lot of things I've needed, that I've begged the Lord to send me; but they never came."
FAITH's Answer: "Then what you were asking for, was not what you actually needed, what you couldn't go without. And the fact that you're here to voice the objection demonstrates the truth of this answer. You've had your daily bread."

With all the struggles that we face, we have so much more to be grateful to God for. It's little events like "not going to jail" that bring it home to me. Mind you, that's not to say that God won't someday bring me to the point where I could survive a stint in the can...and then...this blog will have a whole host of new happenings to reflect upon - time in the yard, shivs, gang signs, cavity searches, digging an escape tunnel, etc., etc.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

"90210" and the Number of the Beast

It has been right there in front of me for years: if you subtract 89,544 from 90210, you get 666, the Book of Revelation ’s “number of the beast."

Nah, I’m not that far gone. I just couldn’t let the return, nay - the rebirth, of 90210 pass without comment. And while there are many avenues that we could explore, the fact that there were numbers in the title made it a great vehicle for discussing gematria.

That’s right, gematria. You see, the Hebrew, Greek and Latin alphabets have a number associated with each letter, and gematria is the“science” of discovering the hidden meanings of words by studying and comparing their numerical values. It most likely began with the Greeks, but is best known due to its use by Jewish rabbis. The author of the Gospel According to Matthew employs it for his Jewish readers when recounting Jesus’ genealogy, breaking it into three groups of 14. That was the numerical value of David in Hebrew, and thus a very cool way for Matthew to “double-up” on his proclamation that Jesus is the messianic descendant of King David.

Anyone who has watched The Omen or listened to metal is familiar with the best known example of gematria in Scripture; it comes from the Book of Revelation, or Apocalypse. The author, John, describes a highly symbolic vision of the persecution to be suffered by the Church. It speaks of two beasts, the first of which is generally understood as antichrist. It had seven heads (one of which was wounded) and was given the throne of “the dragon,” or Satan. John then goes on to identify the beast for his readers: “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” (Revelation 13:18).

When we interpret these images in the context of first-century Christianity, we arrive at a pretty likely candidate for the beast: Nero Caesar. Consider the following: Nero was the first Roman Emperor to persecute Christians; Peter and Paul were martyred under his reign. Nero died by a self-inflicted wound to the throat (the Beast with a mortal head wound?) And whose name, when written in Hebrew, has the numerical value 666? That’s right - Nero Caesar. In fact, early Latin manuscripts of The Book of Revelation exist in which the verse reads 616 instead of 666. When the name Nero Caesar is written in Greek, 616 is its value. The early Church, believing it understood John’s code, made the adjustment when additional copies of the book were made in Greek.

Chapter 17 of Revelation gives us additional reasons to identity the beast with the Roman Emporers, personified by Nero at the time of the work’s composition. We’re told that the beast’s “seven heads are seven hills…they are also seven kings, five of whom have fallen, one is, the other has not yet come, and when he comes he must remain only a little while” (17:9-10). Rome is a city on seven hills and five emperors had preceded Nero; he was the last of the royal blood-line. With his suicide the empire was plunged into civil war as competitors vied for the throne. Galba succeeded Nero but was assassinated six months later, making him the seventh king, who “must remain only a little while” (17:10). Only Vespasian’s ascendancy to the throne returned stability to the empire; the “mortal wound” inflicted by Nero’s suicide “was healed, and the whole earth followed the beast with wonder” (13:3).

Reading Revelation in the historical context of the early Church makes sense to me. It doesn’t rob the book of its prophetic character either. Prophecy isn’t mainly about predicting the future; it is God giving His people a reality check. (So please, please, don't try reading this book with a newspaper in the other hand!) In this case He reminds us that even when the Church on earth looks like its being crushed, Jesus is still Lord of the situation; He will bring deliverance to His holy ones and rule the Earth as her King. Whenever the Church finds herself persecuted, under the gun, martyred - Revelation is God’s word addressed to that situation. The Roman Empire did fall; its former capitol is now the center of Christ’s Universal (Catholic) Church!

Both Scripture and Tradition give us reason to expect the Church to undergo another great persecution and face a definitive Antichrist before the Lord’s return. The symbols of Revelation may take on added significance at that time; it wouldn’t surprise me at all – Scripture’s Author is beyond time, and thus its applicability timeless as well.

And I’m going to be keeping that in my mind as I watch this new 90210….very, very carefully. You got that Dillon and Brandon? (I've always suspected that those sideburns held a message; I've just never been able to decipher it.) What? Dillon and Brandon aren't in the new series? Oh, just wait for "sweeps week" my friend. Both of these dudes have done movies for the Sci-Fi Channel; they're not above revisiting 90210.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Choice, Consequence, & Blessing

Just spoke to a friend and she was curious whether I was going to blog about Gov. Sarah Palin's 17-year-old daughter's pregnancy. The thought had never really occurred to me; it didn't seem like any of my business. My friend changed my mind when she told me how much media coverage it has generated; because I can't imagine what could justify that. What pregnant 17-year-old, with so much already on her mind, wants to be made a headline?

Is this supposed to be a scandal because Palin is a "conservative," running on "conservative family values?" Is anyone honestly asking if Palin encouraged her daughter to become pregnant at 17? Here's the newsflash: 17-year-olds make their own choices.
Objectively, the choice Gov. Palin's daughter and a young man made when they engaged in pre-marital sex was wrong, and there are many different facets as to why that is. The consequence of their choice was a pregnancy - a child. Now, talk about writing straight with crooked lines - God took their choice and has blessed the world with a new life, a brand new human being who can live eternally in the Trinity! And Gov. Palin's daughter gets that; she is carrying this child to term. It can be easy to be pro-life in the abstract; but that 17-year-old is being pro-life when it really counts, when it hurts. Let me hear a sound bite celebrating that!
Now, I'm sure she and her boyfriend realize that they should have waited, and regret the fact that they didn't. But I hope they also realize that God loves them and that He gave them the grace to accept the "consequence" of their choice, the BLESSING of a CHILD. And we need to keep this young family in our prayers, that they can be the kind of parents that Mary and Joseph were. (You remember Mary don't you, that 14 or 15-year-old girl who found herself pregnant out of wedlock?) God was with Mary and Joseph and things turned out pretty well (although it probably didn't look or smell like it would in that Bethlehem stable). I know the present situation is different, but God's desire to transform this young man and woman into successful parents and give their child a good home isn't. Oh yeah, and props to Barack Obama for telling the media to drop this "headline."

Monday, September 1, 2008

Enter the Octagon

Does anyone remember this movie from 1980? I was six when it came out and remember my next door neighbor bragging about how his dad had taken him to the theater to see it. I refer to it now because my friend Kathi Strunk (the person crazy enough to say, "Shane, you should start a blog") threw down the gauntlet, "When will Chuck Norris be making an appearance?" I KNOW - Strunk is outta control. I was stymied; how could I bring Chuck to bear on my contemplation of the Catholic Faith? Sure, there's the spiritual warfare aspect - but that's so played. Some other aspect of Chuck's mystique was needed. So I asked the Holy Spirit, and as I proceeded to think about Chuck, the phrase "Enter The Octagon" and this old movie popped into my head.

I realized that Chuck responded, in a highly metaphorical way...involving Ninjas, to the same call as each of the baptized. I've lost you?

Well, when you were baptized, chances are that the baptismal font was shaped like an octagon. You will see exceptions, but throughout history that has been the traditional shape. It goes back to a passage in the First Epistle of Peter: "God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you" (1 Peter 3:20-21)

Amazing - which of us attending a baptism ever stops to think about the significance of the font's octagonal shape, that it is a physical representation of the biblical word? Our Catholic Faith is filled with these kind of things though.

If you find yourself wanting to know more about how the Church's celebration of the Sacraments brings Scripture to life, allow me to point you toward Jean Danielou's classic, The Bible and the Liturgy. This insight about Baptism is the first of a thousand. Oh, and take a moment to reflect upon your own Baptism, when you "entered the octagon," by viewing this profound 1980, theatrical trailer. Just as the announcer says of Chuck, we too "find freedom only one way."

(Note: this trailer has no value other than the ultra-manly pics of Chuck Norris. It should not actually be used for mature theological reflection and is unsuitable for viewing by children.)