This is not to argue, though, that one should neglect these spiritual disciplines in favor of charitable works. There is a story told of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Someone criticized her for all of the time that her sisters spent in prayer. Couldn’t that time be put to better use going into the slums of the city to care for more of the poor? Her response was that if her sisters did not spend all that time in prayer, they would not be able to go into those slums at all.
It takes great spiritual strength to be able to immerse oneself in the suffering of the world without despairing. Some, after encountering that suffering, recoil. They try to deny the truth of that suffering, because it demands conversion of them. Others are able to maintain contact with that suffering, but they become angry and embittered by that contact. Some even turn to violence. To love the world without despairing of its wounds is a challenge that can only be met by prayer.
We need the disciplines of prayer, fasting and abstinence because they open us to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. They make us malleable, so that we might be shaped—often painfully—into the people that God is calling us to be, a people who believe and live the truth that “the Kingdom of God has come among you.”
CHOOSE LIFE: When I first read the readings for today, I felt a certain tension. The first reading from Deuteronomy has Moses laying the decision of the covenant before the people. If the people obey the “commandments, statutes and decrees” of the Lord, they will “live and grow numerous.” Later on there is a promise of “a long life for you to live on the land that the LORD swore he would give to your fathers.”
But when we turn to the Gospel, we hear the words of Jesus: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” It’s not exactly the land of milk and honey.
It’s easy to resolve the tension between the two readings by “spiritualizing” the promise of life and land made by Moses and suggesting that this is the deeper reality those promises point to. I wonder, though, if that’s too easy. Maybe we need to find a way to live with the tension between these two promises.
There is ample evidence that Jesus enjoyed being human. He was not the ascetic John the Baptist, living out on the edges of human society with only the bare minimum of necessities. Jesus clearly enjoyed food, wine, and (often disputatious) conversation.
But he didn’t cling to these things. He enjoyed them as the gifts they were, but did not mistake them for the whole of life. He was willing to relinquish them when it became necessary. He loved life enough to pray that the cup of his passion might pass from him, but when his path was clear, he followed it.
A friend of mine told me something Martin Luther King once said, but he couldn’t place the source. But here is the essence of it: there are worse things than death. One thing that is worse is, when you are presented with a situation that demands a decision of conscience, to fail to make that decision. Because even if you live many years beyond that day you are essentially already dead.
“Choose life, then, that you and your descendents may live.”
I do not use props for the sake of complementing my homilies these days, but if I was to use one today, my prop would be to give a moist towelette packet to each person who has come here today to receive ashes. If I gave out moist towelettes, I would do so with the instruction to wash your face as soon as you leave this church after Mass. I would tell you to do that in order to fulfill the command Jesus gave us in the Gospel today so that none of us appears to be fasting. We need neither advertise where we have been today nor what we are doing; we simply need to follow the command given to us within the first and second readings: be reconciled to God. It is exponentially much more important for us to seek forgiveness and conversion than it is to seek ashes on our forehead.
I recommend that all of us meditate upon the second reading we heard this past Sunday. In a letter to the people of Corinth, Saint Paul wrote that “as we have borne the image of the earthly one, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly one.” This is the time for us to allow God to reveal the image of the heavenly one that is inside us. Whatever fasting and penance we perform during this season should be done for the sake of removing the layers of the image of the earthly one. By removing these layers of sin and personal desire, we can return to our true fundamental passionate desire – to be united with God. By taking off the ashes, you take off the first layer. This removal leads to the revealing of the indelible marks given to us in the Sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation. By removing the layers of selfishness and sin, we can reveal the powerful testimony of the Holy Spirit who has sealed us and inspires us to bring the world into greater union with God.
Whatever we do for the sake of revealing the image of the heavenly one will be supported by God. He promises to give us what we need, whether it be appropriate food, mental stamina for the pilgrimage, or an abundance of new hope should we slip and fall during this pilgrimage walk. Although we are called to remember how Christ suffered and died for us, we have no good reason to look gloomy. God loves us without conditions, he provides for us everything we need as we continue our pilgrimage, and he seeks to reveal our truly beautiful bodies and souls made beautiful by being united to the source of all beauty.
Wash your face so that you do not draw attention to yourself. Seek with your whole being the cleansing water that is going to be blessed at the Easter Vigil. Through that water and through the blood of Christ, we have been truly cleansed. Do not maintain a gloomy expression when you consider how wonderful a Savior we have.
Fr. Shawn O'Neal is the Pastoral Administrator at Saint Joseph's Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Bryson City, NC and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Cherokee, NC.
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In the scriptures, the Passion narrative doesn't stand alone. Paul preached Jesus crucified, but he also preached Jesus risen and active in the lives of believers. The Gospels depict the Passion, but they also depict the ministry of Jesus and how the claims Jesus made during that ministry produced conflicts that led to His death.
The medieval passion plays were not meant to communicate the Gospel to non-believers. They were a form of catechesis for a believing community where literacy was not widespread. The same could be said for the meditations on the Passion that are part of the Rosary. These things are not really designed to lead the unbeliever to a decision for faith in Christ.
I'm just not sure that the Passion narrative, removed from what comes before and after it, demands a decision for faith. Without the larger context, it becomes the story of a man being brutually tortured to death.
If I didn't know the cause for which Steve Biko struggled, but was merely shown a video of him being beaten to death by South African police, would that--taken in isolation--compel me to embrace his cause? Or take a harder example: a captured Nazi in Poland being tortured by Polish partisans. Would the mere fact that the man was willing to undergo physical suffering somehow prove the truth of his beliefs?
Clearly, the "cause" of Jesus is different from a social movement. But I wonder if too sharp a focus on the Passion itself delimits how Jesus' life, death and resurrection was a work of atonement, reconciliation and healing.
It's easy to assume that people are able to put the Passion account in context because--even if they are not believers--they have grown up in a culture shaped by the Christian narrative. I'm not sure how much we can take that for granted at this point. Many of the reviewers have suggested that Jesus' core message was "love," and that this message is obscured by the film's violence. The fact that their understanding of Jesus is so thin suggests that we shouldn't assume that all viewers--and even some practicing Christians--will be able to supply the necessary context to make the Passion narrative intelligible.
I suppose I'll be pondering these things in my heart over the next few days as I prepare to see the film.
Contributions from immigrant cultures modified and enriched the Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers. The essentials of that founding culture remained the bedrock of U.S. identity, however, at least until the last decades of the 20th century. Would the United States be the country that it has been and that it largely remains today if it had been settled in the 17th and 18th centuries not by British Protestants but by French, Spanish, or Portuguese Catholics? The answer is clearly no. It would not be the United States; it would be Quebec, Mexico, or Brazil.
Huntington repeatedly uses the phrase "Anglo-Protestant" and it's hard not to conclude that he attaches significant importance to the latter term. That comes across in a later discussion of what he sees as "irreconciliable differences" between Anglo-Protestant culture and Hispanic culture:
Castaneda cited differences in social and economic equality, the unpredictability of events, concepts of time epitomized in the ma?ana syndrome, the ability to achieve results quickly, and attitudes toward history, expressed in the cliche that Mexicans are obsessed with history, Americans with the future. Sosa identifies several Hispanic traits (very different from Anglo-Protestant ones) that "hold us Latinos back": mistrust of people outside the family; lack of initiative, self-reliance, and ambition; little use for education; and acceptance of poverty as a virtue necessary for entrance into heaven.
Maybe I'm overreacting, but I'm hearing the voice of the 19th century American nativists, who argued the Irish immigrants couldn't be assimilated into the United States because they were Catholic. We are obviously more than a century and a half removed from that era, but the parallels in the rhetoric are striking.
Do people think I'm overreacting here? I'll be curious to see whether any of the contemporary critics of anti-Catholicism in our culture take this one up.
BAPTISM:William Willimon, Dean of the Duke University Divinity School chapel, writes about baptism. He notes that in baptism, we are baptized into Jesus' death, which continues to be a difficult notion:
In all this I hear the simple assertion that we must submit to change if we would be formed into this cruciform faith. We may come singing "Just as I Am," but we will not stay by being our same old selves. The needs of the world are too great, the suffering and pain too extensive, the lures of the world too seductive for us to begin to change the world unless we are changed, unless conversion of life and morals becomes our pattern. The status quo is too alluring. It is the air we breathe, the food we eat, the six-thirty news, our institutions, theologies, and politics. The only way we shall break its hold on us is to be transferred to another dominion, to be cut loose from our old certainties, to be thrust under the flood and then pulled forth fresh and newborn. Baptism takes us there.
"REMEMBER JESUS": The Bruderhof Communities site has a short history of the White Rose, a German resistance group that opposed Hitler. Six decades ago at the end of 1943, three students active in the group--Hans Scholl, 24; his sister Sophie, 21; and Christoph Probst, 23--were arrested, sentenced to death and summarily beheaded.
As the article notes, the White Rose wondered whether they were effective and wondered whether the risks were ultimately worth it. When asked, "What if we don't succeed," Christopher Proust, the only married member of the group (he had two children) responded:
Then we must risk it anyway. It is our duty to demonstrate that man’s freedom still exists. Sooner or later the cause of humanity must be upheld, and then one day it will again prevail. We must gamble our "No" against this power that has arrogantly placed itself above essential human values. We must do it for the sake of life itself—no one can absolve us of this responsibility.
Hans Scholl, Pray for Us; Sophie Scholl, Pray for Us. Christoph Probst, Pray for Us.
PASSION PLAYERS:The New Republic sorts out what might be called "The Passion Pundits," the various critics and supporters of Mel Gibson's forthcoming film. Alas, no bloggers are included. It's a conspiracy, I tell you...
I have heard it suggested, for example, that the Passion is a "sword" that will separate the true orthodox believers from what they derisively refer to as "AmChurch." Of course, this particular species of professional malcontent says that about every issue in the Church today. This month it is The Passion of the Christ;" last month it was performances of the Vagina Monologues; last fall it was Terri Schiavo; before that the GIRM; next month it will no doubt be something else. If you've fallen in love with your own perpetual state of rage, you can always find a reason to keep it going. There are some who, for all their regard for Mr. Gibson's "apostolic work," seem more concerned about using The Passion of the Christ as yet another weapon in the culture war that continues to rage within contemporary Catholicism.
Having said all that, I fully intend to see The Passion of the Christ and given the debate that has raged around the film, I would recommend that others do so as well. For the last several months, we have been treated to an odd discussion where the vast majority of us have not actually seen the work of art that we are discussing. Mr. Gibson's work may be an artistic triumph or it may be irredeemably flawed. Each of us now has the chance to come to our own conclusion.
Moments arise when the Gospel must be applied to specific topics and the proper manner of behavior that can coincide with a certain topic. I have asked the Holy Spirit for his guidance because I believe that I must speak to you as a shepherd sent here by the shepherd of this diocese. I am going to speak about homosexuality with regard to marriage and the manners with which we can always approach this issue with charity as is required by Jesus. Above all things, we must act charitably.
Firstly, I say that we must look at the marriage of homosexuals strictly within the context of our Church rather than as a matter of secular law. Only homosexuals who either are ignorant of what Catholics believe or are seeking confrontation will ever come to me and asked to be married in the Church. I believe I am very safe in saying that marriage rites for homosexuals will never occur within the Roman Catholic Church. We would undo the structure of marriage as God willed it to be used. For a Catholic, marriage never allows itself to be reduced to a simply, mutually-accepted legal contract; it is a Sacrament and a model of the relationship God seeks to have with his people until time ends.
Secondly, all of us have been called to love all people. We are not called to love their faults; if anything, it is a primary duty as Catholics to offer constructive witness to all people, and correction when it is necessary for the sake of personal and common good. For example, if a Catholic who claims to be homosexual either states opinions and suggests actions that run contrary to what we are called to believe and to act upon as Catholics, then each of us is called to charitably instruct the person without insult, without provocation, and without a lofty sense of pride in our hearts. Each of us has something within us that makes living as a Catholic an uneasy life to live. I better not hear anyone in the Church ever say: “I might do this bad thing or that bad thing, but at least I’m not gay!” We are called to admonish sinners; but, perhaps we need to take the plank out of our own eyes before we look into the eyes of other people. Homosexuals are never the only group in the world who act according to personal desire.
I must also clarify that within our Catechism homosexuals are considered to have an objective disorder toward committing sin. The term “objective disorder” is a common term used in the theological world, but it needs special explanation outside the lab, so to speak. For the record, all people are objectively disordered toward committing sin. Homosexuals carry a specific burden. For example, heterosexuals who desire to engage in sexual intercourse can adapt their desires so that such intercourse can be good and holy as within the proper context of marriage. Homosexuals cannot amend their desires as easily as heterosexuals can. In light of that, we must extend compassion toward them.
In regard to integrating faith, community, and politics, Catholics must act upon their divinely-given duty to participate within the society within which we live. We cannot live isolated from the world around us, no matter how fearful or angry we are about its collective behavior. We must be wise to what can harm us, yet we must act lovingly toward all people. Someone somewhere will see a Catholic living without fear and contempt, as Christ lived, and want to imitate them. In the case of homosexuality, people who are attracted to a potential same sex partner can be inspired to imitate the good examples set by those who seek constantly to rise above whatever sinful inclination they may have. It is naïve to pray for the conversion of homosexuals to living as heterosexuals; we must pray for something greater, such as an increase in chastity. All walks of life are called to abide to live chaste lives according to the lifestyle. We must pray that people of any sexual preference turn into people who seek the Holy One and to seek living in holiness and righteousness. Pray that people are not known first and foremost as “gay” or straight”, but rather as “good” and “holy”.
Saint Paul informed the Christian Church at Philippi that their true citizenship was in Heaven. He told them those words so that their public and private lives would be consistent. Catholic Christians are called to work for the good of the whole of society. They are called to do so even when they are held in suspicion. This tradition goes back to the persecutions during the Roman Empire when Justin Martyr described the Christian community as one who “obey(ed) the established laws and their way of life surpass(ed) the laws.” Even if the marriage of homosexuals becomes a recognized legal practice in every state of this nation, we are called to offer the handshake of charity and cooperation toward all people. By doing this, we give honor to God and we continue to prepare ourselves for true Homeland Security in Heaven. We could even help everyone seek the greater freedom we gain by living according to the Law of God than we can gain simply be adhering to human precepts.
Jesus wants us to act according to his charity. He calls to us a certain standard of life, but the greatest standard is that of love that imitates true, good Christian love. Pray for all people, especially Christians, who seek to condemn other people to homes of eternal suffering. That time could be used better for sake of saving people. Leave the judgments to the great judge at the end of time.
Fr. Shawn O'Neal is the Pastoral Administrator at Saint Joseph's Saint Joseph's Catholic Church in Bryson City, NC and Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Cherokee, NC.