Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Sickness, Forgotten Backpacks, and Providence

Photo by Melissachoo
This morning was unusual.  My son became sick on the way to school; and once we arrived there, to drop off my daughter, we realized that she had forgotten her backpack at home.  On the way back home to retrieve it I was making calls - to the middle school to say that my son was sick, to work to let them know I wouldn't be in, etc.  From the backseat I heard my son say, "Dad, I am so sorry to make you miss work today; I know you don't have much sick time."  I assured him that it was perfectly fine., that sick time is there for a reason and he had absolutely nothing to feel bad about.  Besides, you never know how God can make use of a sickness ... or a forgotten backpack ...

St. Paul would not have stopped in Galatia to preach the Gospel unless he had been forced to stop there by an illness.  It's true:
You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first; and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. (Gal.4:13-14)
The truth is, we never know what kind of "surgery" God will perform on a heart forced to take a day off of work or school and quietly rest - or how a u-turn for a forgotten backpack may prevent you from continuing down your usual route and being in a fender bender, or getting to work a couple of minutes later but running into someone God wanted you to talk to.  It makes for a much brighter day to trust that the Good Lord has it all under control, and is working things for the good (Rom.8:28).

Guest Author, St. Bernard of Clairvaux

I was surprised by how easy he was to book for this gig!  St. Bernard comes to us this morning from the Liturgy of the Hours, where his twelfth century sermon on the Song of Songs serves as Second Reading.  Bernard's words on Christ's love for us and His Sacred Heart were too powerful for me to not pass along.  (And in a happy coincidence, I was just reading about the Song of Songs as I lay in bed last night, enjoying Christopher West's Fill These Hearts.)  So without further ado, St Bernard:

Where can the weak find a place of firm security and peace, except in the wounds of the Savior? Indeed, the more secure is my place there, the more he can do to help me. The world rages, the flesh is heavy, and the devil lays his snares, but I do not fall, for my feet are planted on firm rock. I may have sinned gravely. My conscience would be distressed, but it would not be in turmoil, for I would recall the wounds of the Lord: he was wounded for our iniquities. What sin is there so deadly that it cannot be pardoned by the death of Christ? And so if I bear in mind this strong, effective remedy, I can never again be terrified by the malignancy of sin.

Surely the man who said: My sin is too great to merit pardon, was wrong. He was speaking as though he were not a member of Christ and had no share in his merits, so that he could claim them as his own, as a member of the body can claim what belongs to the head. As for me, what can I appropriate that I lack from the heart of the Lord who abounds in mercy? They pierced his hands and feet and opened his side with a spear. Through the openings of these wounds I may drink honey from the rock and oil from the hardest stone: that is, I may taste and see that the Lord is sweet.

He was thinking thoughts of peace, and I did not know it, for who knows the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? But the piercing nail has become a key to unlock the door, that I may see the good will of the Lord. And what can I see as I look through the hole? Both the nail and the wound cry out that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. The sword pierced his soul and came close to his heart, so that he might be able to feel compassion for me in my weaknesses.

Through these sacred wounds we can see the secret of his heart, the great mystery of love, the sincerity of his mercy with which he visited us from on high. Where have your love, your mercy, your compassion shone out more luminously than in your wounds, sweet, gentle Lord of mercy? More mercy than this no one has than that he lay down his life for those who are doomed to death.

My merit comes from his mercy; for I do not lack merit so long as he does not lack pity. And if the Lord’s mercies are many, then I am rich in merits. For even if I am aware of many sins, what does it matter? Where sin abounded grace has overflowed. And if the Lord’s mercies are from all ages for ever, I too will sing of the mercies of the Lord for ever. Will I not sing of my own righteousness? No, Lord, I shall be mindful only of your justice. Yet that too is my own; for God has made you my righteousness.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Labor Pains!

No, not mine - although after all of the eating I did over Christmas, New Year, and Lily's birthday, I could understand if you had caught a sideways glance at me and wondered.  (No worries - I'm on it!  The cardio and calorie counting are back in full effect.)

I was actually thinking of the Blessed Mother's labor pains at the foot of the Cross.  Jesus looked down at her and John and said, "Woman, behold your son" (Jn.19:26).  It was the moment that He visibly, before the entire universe, declared her to be the Mother of the Church - Mother not just of the Head, but of the Body.  Jesus' sacrifice was what brought the Church into being, and Mary experienced His Passion as only a mother, as only His Mother, could.   Hers were the most excruciating labor pains ever felt.  Take a moment to meditate on this image, also from the Apostle John:

And a great portent appeared in heaven, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heaven; behold, a great red dragon ... stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth;  she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God … Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus (Rev.12:1-17)

Monday, January 28, 2013

Jesus, Squared

During the offertory at Mass yesterday - when members of the congregation brought forward the bread, wine, and water to be offered in the Eucharistic Prayer - I was reminded of the Gospel accounts of the multiplication of the loaves.  I am sure you recall how a boy present among the hungry crowd had thought to bring along five barley loaves and a couple of fish (Jn.6:9; Mt.14:17), which he offered to Jesus and the Apostles.  Jesus took the boy's offering, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to the apostles to distribute to the crowd of 5,000 plus.  Miraculously, not only did they have enough to feed the hungry throng, but they collected twelve baskets full of leftovers.

In an earlier post I shared how the same four verbs (italicized above) used by the evangelists to narrate Jesus actions in the multiplication of the loaves (Mt.14:19), are exactly the same verbs used to narrate His actions at the Last Supper, when He established the Eucharist (Mt.14:26).  Yesterday however I glimpsed a different connection between the two:  Jesus takes the bread and wine we offer Him at Mass and uses them to perform different kind of miraculous multiplication - multiplying not the quantity of bread and wine, but His presence. Wherever a crumb of the consecrated Host is present, Jesus' whole Body  is present, and with It His Blood, Soul, and Divinity.  Exactly the same is true for a drop of His Blood - with It comes His Body, Soul, and Divinity - the whole Christ!  And as each of us receive Him in Eucharistic communion, His sacramental presence is multiplied throughout the sanctuary!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

How Often Do You Make Love?

Warning - Mature Content (Spiritual and Otherwise)

The Kiss, Gustav Klimt
A very good friend of mine, a priest, shared a story with me several years ago:  A woman approached him after he had finished saying morning Mass.  He had been recently transferred to the parish and the parishioners were not used to the way his celebration of the Mass took slightly longer than pastor of the parish's and the previous associate pastor's that he replaced.  (Attending one of my friend's Masses is incredible - the preaching, the love with which he prays each word of the Eucharistic Prayer - it is beautiful.)  The woman said to him, "Father, that was a wonderful celebration of the Eucharist; thank you.  I wanted to tell you though that we are used to a quicker celebration on weekdays.  I have to be to work in a few minutes, and I am used to having more lead time."  My friend, perhaps the most gentle priest I know, glanced down at the ring on the woman's left hand, looked back up into her eyes and responded, "Madame, I would never presume to tell you how to make love to your husband; and you should not presume to tell me how to make love to my God!"  And that was the end of that.

My priest friend understood one of the truths that far too many Christians live their lives completely unaware of - the Church is the Bride of Christ.  The sexual union between spouses is an image, a foretaste, that God gives us of the even deeper union Jesus longs to effect between Himself and us, His Church.  And where does that happen?  The Eucharist.

Look at what Paul taught about the sacramentality of marriage:
Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.  For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.  (Eph.5:28-33)
If that shocks you or sexual union somehow seems inappropriate when speaking of the spiritual life - get over it!  That's how we Catholics roll - from the writings of St. Paul, to the great mystics and Scriptural commentators of the Middle Ages, right on down to Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body!  All of creation speaks of God - but nothing like man and woman, and especially their spousal union.  It is a created image both of the Oneness, the Unity, between the Three Persons of the Trinity as well as between God and us. The Old Testament frequently likens God to Israel's Husband (Ezek.16:17-19 is a powerful example) and you must recall how John the Baptist referred to Jesus as the Bridegroom (Jn.3:29) - an image which Jesus went on to use for Himself in His parables. (This pervading sense that sex is somehow "dirty," and incompatible with holiness comes not from Catholicism but American culture's roots in Puritanism.  Remember, we Catholics are the ones with the huge families - and how do you think we get those!?)

In the Eucharist Jesus comes to us, His Bride, like the groom on his wedding night, "This is My Body." The Eucharist is His means for effecting a one flesh, spousal union with us:
Jesus said to them, "I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.  For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.  Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.  Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. (Jn.6:53-57)
In the Eucharist Jesus enters our bodies and souls in a manner analogous to the way Father, Son, and Spirit compenetrate each other within the Trinity!  We hear Jesus petition the Father for unity among the members of His Church at the Last Supper, when after establishing the Eucharist, He prayed, "... that they may all be one; even as You, Father, are in Me, and I am in You, that they also may be in Us" (Jn.17:21).

I was reminded of the profound unity the Eucharist gives us with Jesus when I visited a non-denominational church last weekend.  I had a wonderful time worshiping God in song, and listening to an associate pastor break open James 1:19-25.  It really was an excellent Liturgy of the Word.  And then ... and then ... we sang another song and dismissed.  We had built to a crescendo, the Word of God had been proclaimed, but then the Word did not become flesh (Jn.1:14), Jesus did not become "real food" and "real drink" for our bodies and souls (Jn.6:55).

What my non-denominational brothers and sisters have is real.  God is present to them and they hear Him speaking in His Word - as we do in the first half of the Mass.  It's simply that they do not realize how much more Jesus wants to give them, the deeper union He wants to give them with Himself in the Eucharist.  It is analogous to a bride who basks in the pleasure of kisses and caresses from her beloved, but never goes on to consummate their union - never knows the greater bliss of intercourse and the even deeper union it will effect between she and her groom.

But once we understand the reality of Jesus' presence in the Eucharist - that He is really, truly, substantially present and that He joins us to Himself, makes us part of His Self-offering to the Father - then it becomes the center of our spiritual lives.  Like the saints, we begin to enter into this union with the Lord more frequently; Sunday Mass is not enough.  Our personal prayer, our Bible study, singing, praying of the Rosary - all is important for deepening our relationship with the Lord; but they climax in Eucharistic worship.  Scripture records only two specific directives that Jesus gave the Apostles regarding how He wanted them to worship:
  • "This then is how you should pray, 'Our Father, Who art in heaven ...'" (Mt.6:9)
  • "This is My Body ... this is My Blood ... do this" (1 Cor.11:23-25)
And where do we find both?  The Mass - where we celebrate not only the Liturgy of the Word, but we experience its completion in the Liturgy of the Eucharist!  Even now we are given a participation in the life of heaven, "the marriage supper of the Lamb" that awaits us at the end of our journey (Revelation 19:7-10).

Saturday, January 26, 2013

"Jesus spit on the ground ... "

Back in August, I shared how my eleven year-old son helped me get back into the practice of reading Scripture each night before I went to bed.  A couple of thoughts occurred to me last night as I read an acount of one of Jesus' miracles in the Gospel of John:  
[Jesus said,] "While I am in the world, I am the light of the world." Having said this, Jesus spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man [who was blind from birth]'s eyes. "Go," he told him, "wash in the Pool of Siloam" (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing." (Jn.9:5-7)
 It is an amazing miracle - but what's with the saliva, right? Last night my mind traveled back to the Bible's earliest chapters:  "the LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being" (Gen.2:7).  When Jesus healed the man born blind, it was as if He was perfecting what had been askew in the in utero development of this man's ability to see.  In this simple action of combining His saliva - the saliva of the God-Man - with the dust of the ground, the Lord was recalling the Creation Story.  And then He took it to the next level.

By sending the man to wash in the Pool of Siloam, Jesus gave us a sign of Baptism that raises us above natural life, to supernatural!  The waters of Baptism restore us to the dignity of Children of God - the gift given to, but lost, by our first parents.  They impart the supernatural life of the God-Man to our own souls and begin the process that will ultimately lead to the healing of all of our bodily ills as well, in the Resurrection!  Jesus' saliva mixed with the dust, the waters of Siloam - it all speaks of how God uses the things of this world to impart not just natural, but supernatural life!  It's the sacramental principle.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Church - Hypocritical or Holy? My Honest Response

I recently heard a gentleman lambasting his "hypocritical Catholic Church."  His comments were somewhat jumbled but it was clear that he thought the Church was very concerned with money and, although it was a lesser concern for this particular gentleman, the Church does not "encourage people to think for themselves."  Two things I will tell you right off the bat:  1) When I hear things like that it gets my dander up, because I love the Church, and 2) Twenty years ago I frequently said the same kind of things about the Catholic Church.

So what gives, right?  Why would I move from offense to defense?  Well, it all comes down to what we mean when we speak of "the Church."

When people like the gentleman above, or a younger Shane Kapler, level charges against "the Church," they are almost always referring to a particular leader - or group of leaders within the Church - with whom they disagree.  And they may or may not have valid reasons for doing so.  There are priests and bishops within the Church who make terrible decisions, even commit egregious sins.  It has always been so and always will be so - both among the clergy and the laity.  (Do not forget, Judas was one of the original Twelve Apostles.)  We individuals are always in danger of going astray; Jesus didn't establish the Sacrament of Reconciliation on a whim - He knew we were going to need it!  It is not wrong to acknowledge wrongs committed by individuals within the Church, or even wrongs committed by a group of individuals in collusion with one another.  But these sins are not the actions of "the Church"!  Stay with me here; I will explain.

The Christian Faith recognizes "the Church" as the Body of Christ (1 Cor.12:12-27; CCC 792-801).  Jesus Himself is its Head (the Mind),  the Holy Spirit is its Soul (its Heart, or vivifying force), and each of us are Cells (the physical component visible to the world).  Because of this the Church is HOLY (Nicene Creed, Apostles' Creed).  "The Church," understood in this way, understood by faith, does not sin - because it is the Body of Christ, and Christ does not sin.  

Individual members, cells, can and do sin; but these are not the actions of the Body, directed by its Head and made possible through the energy of the Spirit.  They are "rogue" actions - like when a cell in one of our bodies becomes cancerous.  It is still attached to our bodies, but it no longer lives in harmony with the other cells; it is at war with them.  And so it is when individual cells, individual members of the Body of Christ, fall into sin.  These are not the actions of "the Church" but of individuals or groups of individuals (analogous to tumors) afflicting the Body.  But these "cancers" are no more "the Church" than a tumor is the patient being afflicted.

I do not expect the media or people outside of the Faith to make these distinctions.  But if you are a Christian, and you desire to be faithful to the Truth that has come to us from Jesus and the Apostles, then you must.  That desire is what forced me to change my tune.  The Church is Christ's Body.  To speak ill of her, is to speak ill of Him.  We can and must deal with the sins of individuals - ours and others - the cancers afflicting the Body.  But we must never attribute these things to "the Church;" it is slander.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Pushin' 40 - and It is Evil (January 22, 2013)

Only a few months until I turn 40, but I am fine with that.  I realize that chronologically I am not a kid anymore, but I sure feel like one in my head.  Ironically, thanks to God's grace and my good friend Kevin Vost, I am actually in better physical shape now than when I turned 30!

The "pushin' 40" to which I refer in the title is a much more serious matter.  January 22, 2013, will mark 40 years since the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade.  In those 40 years, our nation has aborted approximately 55 million children.  My mind can barely begin to make sense of that number; it is just shy of the total number of people killed in WWII.  But this 55 million were not combatants or people living in a war zone - they were children in their mothers' wombs.

I am not a superstitious person, nor am I doom and gloom; but when I hear the number 40, my mind turns to Scripture.  It is a number we encounter there from time to time.  We find it, for instance, in Psalm 95 where Israel was warned:
Today, if only you would hear his voice,
“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,   
as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness 
[at the time of the Exodus],
where your ancestors tested me;
    they tried me, though they had seen what I did.
For forty years I was angry with that generation;
    I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray,
    and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”
(Psalm 95:7-11)
The Epistle to the Hebrews quoted this Psalm to the early Church, adding "Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, that no one fall by the same sort of disobedience" (Heb.4:11).
When Jerusalem's leaders rejected the New Covenant God offered them in Jesus, they were given "a generation," (Mt.24:34), commonly understood as forty years, before God allowed judgment to fall.  Instead of repenting of their crime and pursuing God's will however, they pursued their own wills year after year.  They tried to stamp out the Church in its infancy. Their hardness of heart eventually brought them into rebellion against Rome; and Jerusalem and its Temple were leveled in 70 A.D. - approximately forty years after its rejection of Jesus. 

And here is the United States, after forty years of allowing its children - its most innocent members - to be killed in their mothers' wombs.  Forty years - how has the sin of abortion hardened hearts in our nation?  How has it twisted us and eroded the respect we have for all life?  How many Christians in this nation are horrified by it enough to speak out?  Just look at how many Christians - how many Catholics - believe they can justify the unjustifiable: casting ballots for politicians committed to keeping this atrocity legal.  "Today, if only you would hear His voice ..."

If we imagine a bright future for a nation that continues to practice - whose politicians actually seem to be doubling down on the practice of - killing the child in its mother's womb, then we are as blind as Annas and Caiaphas, as blind as Herod and Pilate.  "God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.  For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption" (Gal.6:7-8).  If we continue, then God will finally allow the evil we have courted to overtake us.  I don't have a clue what that might look like, but it has happened again and again throughout history.  Cultures rot from within, and like the Jewish rebellion against Rome, we will bring it upon ourselves.  In our self-imposed blindness we will undoubtedly make foolish choices and bring it all crashing down.

Forty years is a long time for God to tolerate evil ... but He has been known to do so for longer. Hopefully, we still have time to repent.  "Today if you hear His voice ..."  Fast, pray, talk to your loved ones, and realize that God is with you the next time you step into a voting booth.  We may have failed Him in the past, but we don't have to do so again!  But make no mistake, "God is not mocked."  As Ruth Graham, wife of evangelist Billy Graham, concluded, "if God doesn't bring judgment upon the United States, He's going to have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah."  The cries of our aborted children - our 55 million aborted children - do reach His ears.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Water Into Wine - the Old Covenant Flows Into the New

Today's Gospel recounted Jesus' first miracle, performed at a wedding feast in Cana (Jn.2:1-12).  At His Mother's request, Jesus came to the bride and groom's aid by turning water into wine, miraculously replenishing their supply.

The wedding feast of Cana has many elements on which we can meditate.  Here I offer a simple thought that came to me at Mass - Cana is yet another example of how the New Covenant flows out of the Old.

The Law of Moses contained prescriptions for ceremonial washings (Num.19:11-12).  Listen to how John recounts Jesus' miracle:

"Now six stone water jars were standing there, for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons.  Jesus said to them, 'Fill the jars with water.'  And they filled them up to the brim.  He said to them, 'Now draw some out, and take it to the steward of the feast.' So they drew some out and took it." (Jn.2:6-8).

Here the Lord used water prescribed by the Old Covenant to perform the first sign of the New.  And this sign, the transformation of water into wine, anticipates the Great Sacrament of the New Covenant, the Eucharist, where Jesus transforms the wine into His Blood! (Mt. 26:27-28)

Saturday, January 19, 2013

On my way to Confession ...

... and I have been thinking about its healing properties.  Earlier this morning I read a powerful quotations from Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Exhortation on Reconciliation and Penance:
“But as it reflects on the function of this sacrament, the church’s consciousness discerns in it, over and above the character of judgment in the sense just mentioned, a healing of a medicinal character. And this is linked to the fact that the Gospel frequently presents Christ as healer, while his redemptive work is often called, from Christian antiquity, medicina salutis“I wish to heal, not accuse,” St. Augustine said, referring to the exercise of the pastoral activity regarding penance”
It brought a few analogies to mind regarding the discomfort I feel before confessing my sins before one of Jesus' priests and the incomparable benefits it brings to my soul:
  • I don't like it when my doctor says, "I'm going to need you to disrobe;" but it's a necessity for the doc to examine and treat some conditions.
  • Sometimes we're embarrassed to talk to the doctor about a health problem, but until we are able to acknowledge it, the doctor cannot prescribe the cure.
  • After we've received treatment, to prevent the problem from returning, we may need to change certain behaviors - less foods high in fat, less caffeine, more exercise, more fibre in our diet, etc. (That's penance - repair the damage we have done to ourselves and Christ's Body and move forward in such a way that we do not fall into that sin again.)
Confession isn't easy; but nothing about Redemption is.  Whenever I read the Bible I am forced to acknowledge that God the Father is not in the business of raising wimps.  We all recognize that He never gives up on us, never abandons us, no matter how many times we fail; but we often fail to acknowledge that there is a second manner in which He never gives up on us - He never stops challenging us.  

The Father never says, "Oh, Shane is never going to look like Jesus.  I'm going to stop challenging Him to and just let him stay the way he is for eternity."  No, God loves us right now, just as we are; but He loves us too much to let us stay the way we are!  He wants children who have grown strong under His loving discipline, grown strong by repeatedly opening themselves to His grace.  As Paul wrote, "continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose" (Phil.2:12-13).  We might well experience "fear and trembling" before making our Confession, but oh how it allows God to work in us!

And you and I know - Jesus would not have established the Sacrament if it was necessary for us.  He knew what He was doing when He appeared to the Apostles on that first Easter, and said,
“Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23).  And, through the Holy Spirit, the Apostles knew what they were doing when they ordained presbyters (the technical term for those we commonly refer to as priests) to share in their ministry of forgiving or retaining sins.  Note how it is was simply mentioned in passing in connection with the Anointing of the Sick:

Is any among you sick? Let him call for the presbyters of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed (James 5:14-16).
Confession.  Has it been awhile since you've seen the doctor?  I want to be healthy; I'm on my way.  "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9). Hope to see you there!