29 January 2012

Him You Will Hear

Homily for the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time

What does it mean to have authority? To speak with authority?

"Authority" is a loaded word in today's world. We don't like to recognize or submit to authority. Typically we see the authority of others as a threat to our own freedom. Over and above this general human tendency, as Americans we tend to look critically toward authority—with apologies to Lord Acton, "authority corrupts, and absolute authority corrupts absolutely".

So that kind of authority isn't always positive. But there's another kind we recognize—the kind that comes from within. It's the authority of someone who speaks with conviction, from experience. We are much more willing to submit to this kind of authority. We get a sense of a person's access to truth, of having "been around" and gaining perspective through the school of hard knocks. We encounter this all the time, especially in those who have authority on account of what they've suffered—war veterans, mothers against drunk driving, cancer survivors, recovering addicts, what have you.

I think there's still a third sort--the authority that comes with being given a mission, of being grasped by something (or Someone) and responding with everything we have. A young woman by the name of Maria accompanied the Kansas delegation to the March for Life and spoke to us of her experience in sidewalk counseling with women in front of abortion clinics. She was a young, intelligent, articulate, attractive personality that clearly had some success in convincing women that it was not in their best interest to abort their own child. Her presentation was engaging and convincing. You might get the impression that she had come up with this idea on her own--saying to herself: here I am, a good listener, compassionate, generous, and convicted about this particular issue. I know, I'll become a sidewalk counselor!

Yet the reality is quite different--as I spoke with her afterwards, it became clear that this was most definitely not something she dreamed up for herself. Quite the contrary--she would be physically ill in the days and hours leading up to the morning on the sidewalk. These women, these unwanted babies, aren't her problems; but she makes them her own out of love for Christ. She spoke with an unassuming authority that was extremely compelling.

So, in what sense did the Gospel writer want us to understand Jesus' authority?

In the first place, we have to acknowledge Jesus' authority went far beyond a simple authoritative tone of voice, or speaking convincingly. He backed up his words with signs and wonders—in a sense, no one would've taken him seriously otherwise, given that he was subtly claiming divinity. For the way in which Jesus "spoke with authority" here meant not quoting a respected scholar of the law or referencing a venerable tradition of interpretation, but making himself the source of truth. 

As we well know, this was more than startling—he was, in a very real sense, claiming to be God in terms his contemporaries would have understood unambiguously. "You have heard it said…. but I say …" A good Jew would never speak in that way—it would be blasphemous to point to anyone other than God as the source of truth, yet Jesus claims this very thing!

It had to be more than just a subjective kind of authority. In fact, Jesus is the one promised by Moses in our first reading, a prophet chosen from "among the people", one that they will listen to.

You may have noticed in the reading that the prophet is promised because the people cannot endure the direct experience of God's self revelation on Mount Horeb. God appoints someone to speak on his behalf, so that the people are not overwhelmed by the "great fire" of God's glory. (What a great poetic way to refer to God--a "great fire"!) In the Bible, the result of seeing God face to face is death. The appointed "interpreter" is precisely what is meant by the biblical term "prophet": not so much someone who predicts the future (though it may involve this), but a mediator, someone who is able to endure direct communication with the Most High.

We need a mediator, not because we are deaf, but because the rawness of God's presence would annihilate us. Think of prophecy, of mediation, as something like the earth's atmosphere. The sun illuminates and warms our planet, but it also emits enormous quantities of radiation extremely hostile to organic molecular structures. Direct exposure to the sun's rays would lead to the rapid annihilation of most every living thing on earth. Yet the atmosphere (the ozone layer, etc.) absorbs that radiation while letting the light and heat through. So it is with prophetic mediation.

It was God's plan to ensure that through Christ's mission, that mediation would continue even after his ascension. He gave his own authority to his apostles, on whom he founded his Church. The voice that rebukes the demon and forgives sins had one single message to deliver: love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself; the promise of resurrection and eternal life is contained therein.

It is a commandment that is infinitely simple, but as anyone who has tried to live it out knows, it is also infinitely difficult. Yet it is not only possible for cloistered nuns and monks taking a vow of silence but in the everydayness of our mundane lives. So St. Paul points out in our second reading—not dismissing the married vocation as a distraction from serving God, but pointing out how some worldly people go about their lives seeking to please everyone but God. He says clearly: Each of us has a gift from God, by which we are able to serve him undividedly, with a whole heart, with integrity.

The Church preserves that message and speaks in Christ's name, calling the world from darkness into the light of love of God and neighbor. We ignore that voice at our own peril—picking and choosing what to believe and what to obey of what the Church proposes for a Christian life. We are called not to blind, irrational submission, but a trusting discipleship in which not only our minds but our hearts are active and engaged.

The Father's voice resounded above Mount Tabor at Jesus' transfiguration: this is my beloved Son, listen to him. Many listened, and obeyed; and followed him to the Cross. Many others found his teaching difficult and went their own way.

Christ says to us: this is my beloved Church, my bride: listen to her.

Lord, may we not be deaf to your voice!
Because of her unique structure, the Catholic Church is perhaps humanity's last bulwark of genuine appreciation of the difference between the sexes.
--Hans Urs von Balthasar

Saint Teresa Benedicta (born Edith Stein) composed these essays in the years following her conversion to Catholicism but before her entry into the Carmel from which she was eventually deported to the Nazi death camps. During this interim period, Stein dedicated herself (among many other things) to an articulation of a theological vision of femininity that both recognized the myriad changes in how women were being regarded (and how they regarded themselves) as well as the theologoumena of Christian revelation. With the upheaval generated by the first world war and the subsequent recovery efforts enlisting the help of men, women, and children alike, traditional feminine roles were called into question. Women seemed capable of accomplishment in the very areas previously denied to them. Stein sought to sort out the wheat from the chaff and present God's plan for man and woman in the midst of this world turned on its head.

I came across this book during research for a talk on the Catholic Church's reservation of priestly ordination to men alone, and Stein does touch on the issue briefly, but I found her presentation of the meaning of a particular calling for the male and female sex insightful and profound. Her philosophical training obviously shines through here, though without obscuring her points in technical terminology--most of these essays are adapted from lectures delivered to women's organizations simply interested in sorting through the rhetoric of women's emancipation. She even resorts to sampling from literary forms in her pursuit of the feminine vocation, earning a big A+ in my book for referencing a character in Sigrid Undset's quadrilogy The Master of Hestviken.

Some might consider a book written in the 1930s hopelessly outdated for a contemporary discussion on woman, but the power of her perspective has a ring of truth about it that ought not be hastily dismissed. I would encourage anyone with an interest in the subject to dive in to her essays and take her seriously.

The Desk Chair Review of Books, Continued

Armed with a gift certificate to the greatest bookstore I know, I browsed the shelves with a light heart, eager to take a risk to purchase something both worthwhile and unknown. A difficult task. The Swan Lake Trilogy beckoned to me in the children's books section (on sale, and it's always a good place for gifts for my godchildren). I picked it up because I'd read the author's name somewhere briefly and was intrigued, though I would've had little to say if anyone had asked me who he was or what he wrote. The heft of the book, its creamy textured pages and startlingly luminous illustrations demanded further investigation. I opened at random and came across this passage:
He had no desire to kill animals. This was owing not so much to compassion as to respect, for not even memory can conspire to make a smoother line than the track of a bird wheeling silently in the sunshine over blue water. And when deer step gingerly in the heather, their precision of motion is art, and that is not to mention the perfect rocketry of their escapes. Were they to go faster, the result would not be so pleasing, and were they to go slower, they would not appear to be nobly disciplining themselves against flight (p. 49).
My first reaction, after the initial exhilaration over such verbiage, was that Helprin pays very close attention to things. I was hooked.

I made my way through the book over the course of a month or so, reading before bed. The initial sense that this was not a book for children, or even for adolescents, was confirmed throughout my reading, and I would be hard pressed to argue what its intended audience might be. I suspect that, in the words of CS Lewis, Helprin found that the medium of a fairy tale best suited the tone of whatever it was he saw in his mind's eye, regardless of whether his readers were children. That the vocabulary and tone can at times overwhelm the narrative is a defect only in the sense that it causes Helprin to strike a discordant note here and there, like an exuberant prodigy improvising on the piano.

The trilogy follows the career of a girl banished from her royal inheritance by the intrigues of a usurper, in the first person and then through the perspective of those who accompany her. I found the plot to be tight, with few wasted excursions into descriptive whimsy (though it is here that his prose can be most delightful). He builds to climaxes that are surprising without being arbitrary in their unexpectedness, and knows when a chapter is over.

Van Allsburg's illustrations are full of grandeur and depth, capturing both climactic and simple moments with a remarkable eye for twilight. Before reading the book itself, I took a couple young boys age 3 and 6 through the plates, and both were captivated by the dozens of scenes lifted from the story. We guessed at what they could mean, and found ample material for imaginative prequels in the bright color and elegant forms they portrayed.

A great book? A classic? No. But a delightful find on a winter's day in Wichita, unanticipated and simple? Most definitely!

09 January 2012


From the latest issue of Second Spring:

"Liturgy is communal. We don't do it for the convenience, and still less for the entertainment of individual participants. The whole point of the liturgy is that individual participants are transformed into a different kind of being altogether. It's not the individual 'I' who takes possession of the gift of the Eucharist; rather, I am received into the Eucharist, transformed into someone whose existence is formed through self-giving relations with others, relations that are grounded in love and friendship. In other words, through liturgy we receive ourselves as a gift. This creates an order within our souls which orients us to making a gift of ourselves to others. It is only by doing so that we are able to be ourselves."

--Paul Grenier

06 January 2012

Hitchens' Legacy

Now that the dust has settled over Hitchens' headstone, more sober appraisals of his work have been finding their way into the press. In particular, I enjoyed this short reflection on Hitchens by John Haldane of St. Andrew's:
Hitchens is a case worth studying. He is more interesting than Dawkins because evidently more psychologically complex and humanly engaging. If we Catholics are right about God and humanity, why was he so wrong? Or, put another way, what can we learn from his attitude about how to understand our own religious claims and about how our lives reflect them? Hitchens pointed to the record of evil associated with Christianity and with Catholicism in particular. It is glib to reply that humanism has its own tale of terrors, and problematic if we also claim that religious adherence brings transforming grace. If I were to take up Hitchens’s campaign against religion it would be to ask again and again: “Where is your grace and your holiness?”
Read the rest here.

Incidentally, a wonderful quote from today's memorial of St. André Bessette:
Those who are cured quickly often are people who have no faith or little faith. On the other hand, those who have solid faith are not cured so quickly, for the good God prefers to allow them to suffer that they will be sanctified even more.
An excellent biography of his life can be found at catholicism.org