Reflection from this past Sunday

Here are some reflections I gave last Sunday, on the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time:

I hope that you all have had a wonderful holiday weekend so far. I was at a parade on Friday down in Norwood, and then went to the fireworks on Friday night downtown, and spent of the rest of the weekend relaxing, seeing friends, and getting some downtime in with my dogs. And I hope that you, like me, are grateful for this holiday, grateful for the fact that our country takes this holiday so seriously, this 4th of July, this feast of St. Elizabeth of Portugal. Known as “the Peacemaker” for the many wars she ended, mostly started by her husband and son, it’s fitting that our nation take time off to celebrate her memory every year, with fireworks in her honor, barbecues that recall her service of the poor, and domestic disagreements that remind us why she is the patron saint of difficult marriages.

Now, of course, I doubt that many of us spent too much time honoring Elizabeth of Portugal on Friday, and those of you visiting from out of town didn’t come to Boston to celebrate St. Elizabeth’s Day. But that gives me the opportunity on this Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary time to reflect a little bit on the calendars in our lives, civic, social, liturgical, and on the importance of knowing what calendar you’re on. Because a calendar isn’t just a neutral reckoning of days. In our first reading, the prophet Zechariah proclaims that the Lord’s “dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” I want to reflect tonight with you upon God’s dominion as not only a reality in space, “to the ends of the earth”, but also a reality in time, “forever and ever.” Calendars are about dominion. Whose calendar, or calendars, are you on? The academic year? The fiscal year? Your child’s first year, or X years until retirement? An election year?

The striking proclamation of today’s readings is a proclamation reflected in the church’s calendar, in the very existence of this day called “Sunday”, the “first day of the week”, which used to be just another ordinary workday in the ancient world and particularly in the Jewish world of Jesus and the early church. Sunday used to be the equivalent of Monday morning. But now the resurrection of Christ on this first day of the week upends all that. This first day of creation has become the first day of a re-creation, a new creation, and we can no longer live as though God’s calendar had not erupted into our own calendars. And that’s why the holiday we celebrate today, even here in the United States, even here in the “cradle of liberty,” is not primarily the Fourth of July, but more humbly, more profoundly, the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time.

So how do we live as Catholic Christians and as Americans? How do we put together our civic calendars, as well as all our other calendars, together with God’s time?

The key to that, I think, is in our second reading from St. Paul, whose life and witness to Christ we celebrate in this year of St. Paul: the indwelling Spirit of Christ in our lives. Saint Paul provides our earliest model of negotiating following Christ in a culture full of different calendars. Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulists, predicted “in the union of Catholic Faith and American civilization...a future for the Church brighter than any past.” We, in this Paulist Center and chapel of the Holy Spirit, keep turning back to the same mystery, the mystery of the Spirit of God’s real, active presence in us and through us.

“The Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” Paul writes and Isaac Hecker repeats. “Dwells – in – you.” If we don’t talk about that as much as we could, it’s because we might be a little bit frightened by how close God really is to us.

This Spirit teaches us a thing or two about our calendars.

This Spirit teaches us that all of our other calendars are grounded by God’s calendar, grounded by this first day of the week that was the first day of creation and is the first day of re-creation. Notice I didn’t say that our other calendars are “trumped” by this calendar – if we think that God’s calendar is in competition with our other calendars, if we think of the relation between our work calendar or our family calendar and God’s calendar as an “either/or” proposition, then what happens to our belief in the goodness of creation, the goodness of our lives, even the goodness of our country and its accomplishments? Paul tells us not to live according to the flesh, by which he means not to live as though this creation was the Creator. But he doesn’t say that the flesh is bad – he’d be a very poor Apostle and a very bad Jew if he didn’t believe in the ultimate goodness of creation.

But the Spirit does teach us that we need to center our lives and our calendars on God’s time, and not on our own times. Even this 4th of July weekend, we’re led by the Spirit to see that as wonderful as the gifts of our country are, it is fundamentally God’s dominion that is from sea to shining sea and also from day to day and year to year. Our celebration of Independence Day on Friday, as well as the celebration of all our other important days – our own birthdays and anniversaries, our academic successes and professional accomplishments – you can name your own – all of these are grounded in God’s time by our bringing them together in our celebration of Christ’s resurrection, the 14th Sunday in the church year, the 14th Sunday in ordinary time.

Now, this is freedom, and this is why Paul uses the language of freedom and of debt. Living in God’s dominion in time frees us from the pressure, the anxiety of trying to make our smaller calendars bear the weight of being the center of our lives. It’s like enjoying ourselves at a really good dinner – good food, good company, maybe some good wine – and looking up to realize that hours have gone by – living according to God’s time frees us from our nervous clockwatching, and puts our busy-ness into proper perspective. And so it’s not incidental that each week when we celebrate our ordinary, extraordinary salvation, we share a really good meal together.

As we continue our prayer today, let us pray to be more conscious of the Spirit of God dwelling within us. Let us pray that we may celebrate a weekend of rest and relaxation by celebrating the gift of our rest in Christ and his calendar. Let us pray for a Spirit of discernment in loving God’s creation well, and of loving it as grounded in the new time opened up for us in Christ.

And my prayer for all of you is a blessed and relaxing St. Elizabeth of Portugal weekend.

Gopnik on Chesterton, "Conversion Sickness"

There's a great essay (not available online, sadly) in the current issue of the New Yorker by Adam Gopnik on G.K. Chesterton entitled "The Back of the World: The troubling genius of G.K. Chesterton." It has a fabulous paragraph on conversion that I felt the need to reproduce in toto:

"In these books [his later Catholic non-fiction works] Chesterton becomes a Pangloss of the parish; anything Roman is right. It is hard to credit that even a convinced Catholic can feel equally strongly about St. Francis's intuitive mysticism and St. Thomas's pedantic religiosity, as Chesterton seems to. His writing suffers from conversion sickness. Converts tend to see the faith they were raised in as an exasperatingly makeshift and jury-rigged system: Anglican converts to Catholicism are relieved not to have to defend Henry VIII's divorces; Jewish converts to Christianity are relieved to get out from under the weight of all those strange Levitical laws on animal hooves. The newly adopted faith, they imagine, is a shining, perfectly balanced system, an intricately worked clock where the cosmos turns to tell the time and the cuckoo comes out singing every Sunday. An outsider sees the Church as a dreamy compound of incense and impossibility, and, overglamorizing its pretensions, underrates its adaptability. A Frenchman or an Italian, even a devout one, can see the Catholic Church as a normally bureaucratic human institution, the way patriotic Americans see the post office, recognizing the frailty and even the occasional psychosis of its employees without doubting its necessity or its ability to deliver the message. Chesterton writing about the Church is like someone who has just made his first trip to the post office. Look, it delivers letters for the tiny price of a stamp! You write an address on a label, and they will send it anywhere, literally anywhere you like, across a continent and an ocean, in any weather! The fact that the post office attracts timeservers, or has produced an occasional gun massacre, is only proof of the mystical enthusiasm that the post alone provides! Glorifying the postman beyond what the postman can bear is what you do only if you're new to mail."


Pentecost Reflections

I had the privilege of reflecting on the readings for the Pentecost Vigil last evening, and wanted to share some of the thoughts I had with you. Happy Feast! Alleluia, alleluia!
(The readings for the Vigil were
Genesis 11:1-9
Ezechiel 13: 1-14
Romans 8:22-27
John 7:37-39
Full text on the U.S. Bishops' website)

The writer and non-traditional theologian Anne Lamott has said that she has two basic forms of prayer – “Help me, help me, help me,” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I’d add at least one more variation on the first – one of the ways Christians say “help me, help me, help me” is by praying, asking, begging God to come and be present with us.
Come and save us.
Lord Jesus, come – Maranatha!
And, come, Holy Spirit, which is our prayer tonight at this Vigil of Pentecost. I’d like to focus on our prayer, “come, Holy Spirit” this evening.

Sometimes it can appear that we neglect the Holy Spirit in our prayer, but have you noticed how often we pray “come, Holy Spirit”? In our liturgy, the technical name for this is an “epiclesis” – there’s your SAT word for the evening. An “epiclesis” is a prayer of invocation, asking the Holy Spirit to come and sanctify us.
Whenever we bless holy water for baptism, we invoke the Holy Spirit.
When we celebrate the Eucharist together in a few minutes, we will pray, as we do at each Eucharist, “may the Holy Spirit sanctify these offerings. Let them become the body and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And at every Eucharist, we also invoke the Holy Spirit upon us and upon our church – my Episcopalian friends take that so seriously that the routinely bless themselves when they pray, “by your Holy Spirit, gather all who share this one bread and one cup into the one body of Christ” or “Grant that we, who are nourished by his body and blood, may be filled with his Holy Spirit, and become one body, one spirit in Christ.” There are always at least two invocations specifically of the Holy Spirit in each eucharist, upon the bread and the wine, the body of Christ, and upon the gathered church, the body of Christ.

So we pray “come, Holy Spirit” a lot – but do we have any idea what we’re asking for on this night of Pentecost vigil when we can focus on the church’s “epicletic” existence?
I think we do know what we’re asking for – and that that is why we avoid thinking about it very often…
Let’s look at our scriptures tonight. Let’s look at these dry bones – “How dry they were!” How dry they are.
One way of hearing these texts is with deep joy, to receive the “springs of living water” Jesus promises in our Gospel tonight, to receive the “sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit.” Those of you a few years older than I probably could have rattled them off without having to look them up on wikipedia, like I did… wisdom, knowledge, judgment, courage, understanding, piety, and fear of the Lord. It can be a bit like the lion getting courage, the tin man getting a heart, and the scarecrow getting a brain – put yourself in whatever category you choose.
But while that joy at the Spirit’s gifts is crucial, I’m not sure rejoicing in the Spirit’s gifts is enough.

You see, here’s what I think.
Deep down, or if I’m honest with myself, some of the time, (most of the time?)
I kinda like being a dry bone.
I kinda like just lying there.
You see, dry bones don’t feel pain. They’re already dry – you need flesh for that.
And dry bones don’t have to get up in the morning – you need sinews and tendons for that.
And nobody expects anything of dry bones – how dry they are! – nobody expects dry bones to keep doing Christ’s ministry in the world, to “do Christ’s work and even greater things than he,” he tells us in John’s Gospel, to save and not simply to be saved – you need Spirit for that.
When we pray, “Come Holy Spirit”, do we really know what we’re asking?

There’s a communal dimension to this as well.
Deep down, if I’m honest with myself, some of the time, (most of the time?)
Do I really want to be united with those who are other than I?
You see, Pentecost is the opposite of Babel – the people that attempt to “make a name for themselves” are dispersed from Babel, while, at Pentecost, the people who glorify God’s name, ha-Shem – the Name – are re-united, speaking all tongues, gathering all people into one new family.

That sounds great – and at the Paulist Center, we do a pretty good job at praying, “Come, Holy Spirit, unite us all in Christ.”

But deep down, do I want the Holy Spirit to unite me with, say, our brother in Christ, Bernard Law?
As a gay man, do I want the Holy Spirit to unite me with my Christian sisters and brothers who think that my sexual orientation is a sin, a perversion? More frightening, do they really want to be united with me?
You can think of your own examples, not of the “easy other” who it’s socially acceptable to accept in your current location, but of the “hard other”, the one who speaks a totally different language than you do. I often want to be united to others with the clay and bricks of my own terms, that is, by proving them I’m right – not on God’s terms, which may or may not be the same. But it is on God’s terms that we who were no people are being made into God’s people.

There is good news in the church this night. It is a great and graced irony that Paul’s promise that “the Spirit will come to the aid of our weakness, because we do not know how to pray as we ought,” is fulfilled when we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit.” It is in asking for the Spirit that we most need the Spirit’s help in being courageous, wise, understanding, prudent… and it is in our confidence that “in hope we are saved” that we believe that our prayer will be answered, and that God will bring our dry bones to life again.

Come Holy Spirit, upon us and upon these gifts, upon these dry bones that are the body of Christ, that are waiting, hopefully, fearfully to walk again. As so often happens in the liturgical calendar, Pentecost ends one season not by coming full stop, but by beginning another – ordinary time, the “Sundays after Pentecost,” in the old language, the time to drink deeply of the Spirit’s living waters. These are the weeks to continue tonight’s celebration, to continue to ask for the grace to pray as we ought, for water to flow within us, for spirit to raise up these bones. Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.


Happy Patriots' Day

So, in honor of Patriots' Day, I found this Family Guy tribute to the Spirit of Massachusetts:

But in my searching, I also found this 1982 ABC news report about beautiful Rhode Island, "The Biggest Little State in the Union."