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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective
Saturday, April 10, 2004
Fr. Shawn O'Neal's Easter Vigil Homily
Gn 1:1–2:2 or Gn 1:1, 26-31a
Ps 104:1-2, 5-6, 10, 12, 13-14, 24, 35
Gn 22:1-18 or Gn 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Ps 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11
Ex 15:1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 17-18
Ps 30:2, 4, 5-6, 11-12, 13
Is 12:2-3, 4, 5-6
Bar 3:9-15, 32--4:4
Ps 19:8, 9, 10, 11
Ez 36:16-17a, 18-28
Ps 42:3, 5; 43:3, 4
Ps 118:1-2, 16-17, 22-23
You would be surprised how many long discussions and arguments have started as a result of the last verse of our Gospel reading. Scholars and historians have been attempting to determine for decades whether the last verse concerning Peter was an original verse written by the evangelist or a verse included by a later editor. I make these comments especially because some Bibles do not include the verse at all as if they move from the eleventh verse to the thirteenth verse without a twelfth verse in between them.
You would be amazed, too, if you discovered how many people become frustrated by the lack of consistency about the Resurrection of Our Lord as this scene is presented within all four Gospels.
It is too bad that people become frustrated about these things. People throughout the world should rejoice in the fact that our Gospels reveal one common belief – that the Savior of the World conquered death and sin through his death on the cross and his resurrection from that same death. That is nothing at all to become frustrated about. We should grow in joy as a result of what we have heard. There are times when we need to ignore the small details and rejoice when we receive great news. There are times when we should attempt to fill the imperfect cracks in the world and in our lives, but more time should be used to unite ourselves with the One who has called us to share in his perfection.
The details could seem inconsistent, but the important aspect that we need to remember now and always is that Our Lord did as He said he would do. He suffered, he died, and he has risen. That is what we should always remember and be thankful for most of all.
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Friday, April 09, 2004
Fr. Shawn O'Neal's Good Friday Homily
When a person confesses something, the matter confessed is usually considered to be something that many people would not like to know or would like to hope never happened. It is a pity that the word “confession” causes people to think only about negative deeds. Many people within our society have no idea that confession can be a good thing – as if “to profess” means that something good will be said and “to confess” means that something bad will be said. It is unfortunate that our culture has attempted to place strict negative meaning on an otherwise positive verb.
In the letter to the Hebrews, the author reminds the disciples of Jesus to hold fast to what they believe in good faith. Confession can mean that, too – as in holding fast. In this case, the author of the letter wants people to speak of the power and love of God during times of great struggle with the same hope and joy as would be used during times of great happiness. The author wants to help disciples to never become fair-weather-only disciples. I thank God that we have this reading today, because if there is ever a foul-weather day, to put it lightly, it is today. But even today, through the power of God, we can have the courage to tell the world that the love of God is stronger than anything anyone can put up against it.
If you want to meditate on something odd during the next 24 hours, then meditate on all the times Saint Paul considered the crucifixion as a glorious moment for all humanity. At first glance, it seems an odd thing to boast. He told people that he was proud to preach about the crucified Christ. He rejoiced in the fact that Jesus was nailed to the cross. At one point in his life, he rejoiced in the fact that the insurgent Jesus was going to be put away for all time; later on, thank God, Paul rejoiced that Jesus put away any barrier that kept Paul and everyone else out of Heaven.
Paul confessed his faults and his faith, and we are called to confess both of those for the sake of the salvation of the world. We called to confess our faults so we can receive the Lord’s healing power and we are called to confess our faith so everyone around us can know how much God loves his people. The fair-weather disciples have scattered in disbelief; the true disciples, although saddened by what they have seen their Lord endure, hold fast in their confession in order to reassure each other and assure strangers that what Jesus promised is going to come true.
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Thursday, April 08, 2004
Fr. Shawn O'Neal's Holy Thursday Homily
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
If you either receive or buy Time magazine, then you know the main story featured on the cover. You know that theologians, ministers, and various experts have speculated on why Jesus endured what we celebrate tonight and tomorrow. I choose not to cast aside all the speculation that has occurred within the article. I choose not to consider as useless all the speculation, dialogue, and writing that has been done in an effort to examine why Jesus did what He did.
However, no enlightened academic can provide a sufficient explanation for the suffering Jesus endured. Numerous people have neither read a theology book nor attended a theology class during their years in school. Their latest theological reference point might be “The Passion of the Christ.” Yet these amateurs ask the same questions asked by the supposed professionals. They want to know why Jesus did everything he did as he did it. Could there have been another way to do it?
As we seek to understand this great question, we can act as Peter acts in many portions of the Gospel – and as a result, we can imitate his frustration. When we think we know the best course of action, Jesus directs us onto a different path. When we believe we understand comprehensively the context of any given situation, Jesus informs us that we do not know well what we believe we understand well. This type of dialogue can frustrate many people.
Jesus knows this can happen; in order to keep faith alive and to remove any frustration, Jesus gives us a statement filled with hope: you are going to understand later. Jesus is going to make sure that we understand later. Jesus promises us that we are going to understand later. Unfortunately for humanity, the promise given by Jesus can provoke an immature response: How much later is later? Humanity has the ability to take a statement that was meant to inspire us and turn it into a statement that can discourage us simply because we do not know all the specifics. We do not know when later is. Later is out of our control and we grow angry because we find this concept difficult to accept. When we do not know the specifics, we act as the disciples acted as they walked to Emmaus after Jesus was crucified and buried: we have a burning heart filled with hope, but we do not give our attention to the heart because the head is unnecessarily confused. But we walk by faith; we do not walk by sight. If we walk simply by sight as our own two eyes present the world to us, then we do not see everything as it is.
For the next few days and for the whole of our lives, Jesus wants us to use something greater than the gift of sight He gave us so we can receive this new understanding when Jesus wants us to have it. Throughout these liturgies and throughout our lives, it would be good for us to tell God that we believe, but we need help understanding what He does for us. If we ask for understanding, then we are going to receive it. When we receive it, I hope that we accept it and rejoice in it.
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HOLY THURSDAY: Well, I had a bit of a relapse and I'm home sick again and not much in the mood for blogging. Looks like I'll be missing the Holy Thursday mass tonight and Good Friday isn't looking good either. Kind of a tough end to my Lent.
But enough whining. One thing I did want to do before signing off was to offer a prayer for all of our priests tonight. We make a lot of demands on these guys and we give them a lot of grief. But the priests I know well have helped me know Christ more deeply and walk more closely in His footsteps. So on Holy Thursday 2004, I just wanted to say "thanks" and ask God to watch over them.
Back to bed....
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Wednesday, April 07, 2004
Breathe into me, Holy Spirit, that my thoughts may all be holy.
Move in me, Holy Spirit, that my work, too, may be holy.
Attract my heart, Holy Spirit, that I may love only what is holy.
Strengthen me, Holy Spirit, that I may defend all that is holy.
Protect me, Holy Spirit, that I may always be holy.
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A SUFFERING GOD? When I first began to study theology, one of the most challenging ideas I encountered was the notion of divine impassability. The word "impassible" means impervious to suffering and is often taken to mean that God is impervious to any emotional states at all.
Such a notion seems to fly in face of what many of us learn about God as children. We are taught that God loves us, that he hears our prayers, and that he becomes angry if we are cruel to others. Because we are Christians, we believe that—as my six year old son likes to declare vehemently—"Jesus is God!" Even if, theologically, such a statement cannot be accepted without some refinements, it reflects a popular Christian belief that things that can be attributed to Jesus—including, of course, emotional states—are also part of God’s nature.
We have come quite far from the world of the early Church fathers, where divine impassability was taken not so much as something to be proved, but rather as an axiom from which theological speculation had to proceed. One of the reasons that the paths to Nicea and Chalcedon sometimes seem so tortuous in retrospect is that the professed divinity of the demonstrably human and passable Jesus needed to be reconciled with a strong belief in divine impassability that was shared by virtually all of those involved in the debate.
But why was this so important? And does it remain important for us today? Does the doctrine help us to "think rightly" of God? Or does it obscure Him?
Some 20th century theologians, such as Jurgen Moltmann, have made powerful arguments for a "passionate" God, a God who suffers along with His suffering creatures. Moltmann argues that if God were incapable of suffering in every respect, then he would also be incapable of love. But unlike human beings, who must suffer out of necessity, Moltmann argues that only God is capable of making a completely free decision to suffer with his creation.
There are a number of reasons that the arguments of Moltmann and others like him resonate so powerfully in contemporary culture. Faced with the enormous human suffering of the last century, the idea of an impassible God seems almost to be an obscenity. How can God not weep when faced with the horrors of Auschwitz, Srebrenica, and Rwanda? Furthermore, our contemporary understanding of personhood leads us to assume that a "personal" God must be capable of emotional states and to resist the idea that a lack of emotional states is a perfection.
I find that when I preach on the scriptures out at the county jail where I volunteer, something close to the idea of a "suffering God" often resonates with these men. When speaking of the problem of men returning to jail after being released, I sometimes ask the men to remember that Jesus stumbled three times on the way to Calvary. When speaking of their pain and loneliness, I ask them to remember that Jesus also suffered pain and that He understands what they are going through. I often see heads nodding when I speak words like this.
But we shouldn’t assume that this is the only image of God that can speak to people in their suffering. I remember the words that a woman in our parish small group spoke one night: "I don’t really need a God who is as bad off as I am." What this woman needed was not so much solidarity with her suffering, but the hope of transcending that suffering. Knowing the ebb and flow of her own emotional states and the inconstancy of love that often resulted from them, she trusted in a God who, in all times and all places, was faithful and loving.
Perhaps the problem is not so much impassibility per se as the way we have explained it. Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy, OFM Cap, author of Does God Suffer?, once argued in First Things that contemporary theologians have interpreted impassibility as a positive attribute, i.e. that God is static, lifeless and inert. Weinandy argues that, on the contrary, the impassibility of God should be seen as a negative attribute, i.e. that God is not anything that would prevent him from being perfectly loving. God’s emotional state does not change because no change is needed to perfect his love for us. Rather than being a manifestation of “emotional inadequacy,” God’s impassibility is the guarantor of His everlasting fidelity and love. God already is what we strive—and often fail—to be.
In the end, I find myself torn in both directions in this debate. But I am increasingly drawn to the position that God’s impassibility—properly understood—may well give me a better way of understanding the fidelity and love of God than some of the contemporary alternatives.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a mighty stronghold to save me,
for you are my rock, my stronghold.
For your name’s sake, lead me and guide me.
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TEN YEARS: Today is the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the Rwandan genocide. Of all the remarks made in the days leading up today, these words from Romeo Dallaire--the Canadian general who commanded the ill-equipped U.N. forces in Rwanda at the time of the genocide--stayed with me:
I still believe that if an organisation decided to wipe out the 320 mountain gorillas [in Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains], I believe there would still be more of a reaction to curtail or stop that today than there would be in attempting to protect thousands of human beings slaughtered in the same country.
And of course, as a Catholic, I must ponder the complicity of Catholics--indeed, of Christians of all stripes--in the genocide as well.
Not all humans are ‘human’ in the international context. Some countries are seen as important, but we have coldly created a [lower] tier of orphan nations. I’m afraid we haven’t learned, and the same thing could happen again. How do you live with that?
If you are looking for a good book to read about the Rwandan genocide, try Philip Gourevitch's . We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda
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Grant our brothers and sisters of Rwanda peace.
Uhe amahoro abavandimwe bacu b'abanyarwanda
--Catholic Relief Service
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Tuesday, April 06, 2004
Give us, Lord, a lively faith, a firm hope, a fervent charity, a love of you.
Take from us all lukewarmness in meditation, dullness in prayer.
Give us fervor and delight in thinking of you and your grace, your tender compassion towards me.
The things we pray for, good Lord, give us grace to labor for: through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
--Saint Thomas More
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PSALM 116: Fr. Jeff has composed his own chant for Psalm 116, which will be sung on Holy Thursday. Listen to it here.
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THROW AWAY EVERYTHING: This was a great Lent. In fact, it might have been my best Lent ever. I don't think I did anything particularly different or special. It was just a grace, and I'm very grateful for it. I particularly grateful for all the people who wrote me or commented about the things I posted along the way. It was like pilgrims conversing on the road to Canterbury or the Tomb of Saint James.
But I sort of came crashing down from my high over the past few days while I've been sick. My stomach hurt like hell and I got way behind on various assignments I had undertaken. All in all it wasn't an auspicious start to Holy Week.
But I came across this quote from Flannery O'Connor's story A Good Man is Hard to Find that helped set me straight. It comes from the lips of The Misfit, the escaped criminal who is central to the story:
"Jesus is the only One who ever raised the dead." The Misfit continued, "and he shouldn't have done it. He thrown everything off balance. If He did what He said, then it's nothing for you to do but throw away everything and follow Him, and if He didn't, then it's nothing for you to do but enjoy the few minutes you got left the best way you can--by klling somebody or burning down his house or doing some other meanness to him. No pleasure but meanness," he said and his voice had become almost a snarl."The events of this week present us with a choice. Is Jesus just another prophet who died a violent death (of which there are no shortage)? Or was he something more? Did He really rise from the dead? And if He did, how should our lives change? Something to think about...
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Father, may we receive your forgiveness and mercy as we celebrate the passion and death of the Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
--Opening Prayer for Tuesday of Holy Week
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Sunday, April 04, 2004
Fr. Shawn O'Neal's Sunday Homily
Palm Sunday 2004
Ps 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24
The following text is an open letter to the criminal who reviled Jesus:
I hope that you understood Jesus’ intentions before you died on the cross. I hope that you corrected your words while you had the chance to do so. Jesus chose to save us first rather than save himself at all. Jesus chose to lead us into greater freedom than can be put into words. Jesus wanted all humanity to ascend into heaven once again; therefore, he refused to descend from the cross.
Dear Sir, you are not the only person to be confounded by what you saw and heard. It is a great mystery for all believers in Jesus the Christ – even the most steadfast believers – who want to know the specific “how” and “why” of the release of God’s people from sin and death through such a sacrificial self-offering. But Jesus said he would do it because He loved us. Love cannot always be explained, but that does not make it any less powerful. There is no greater love than this, that Jesus gave his life for the sake of the people whom he loved.
He could have saved himself. He was powerful enough to do it. Yet he placed his love of others ahead of any love of self. That is something that humanity is always going to find difficult both to understand and to imitate.
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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