Monday, January 29, 2018

Fr. Chuck's Column, January 28, 2018

I am continuing to look at the nature of religious mysteries, specifically the Virgin Birth of Jesus. 
Now, it would not make much sense to read a phone book as if it were a novel. Lots of characters but not much plot. And it would not make sense to read a cookbook if what you wanted was today’s news. Each type of writing requires a different way of approaching it. That seems obvious, but when it comes to reading Sacred Scripture, we often forget that.
Our Scriptures were written between 3,000 and 2,000 years ago, give or take a century. The approaches that the Scriptures take to telling a story is not our modern, fact-based approach. We often read the Scriptures as if it were a newspaper report giving us the facts, or a history book describing what happened. But the Scriptures tell us what happened in the sense of what it all really meant, not in the sense of what physically took place. This is not an attempt to mislead us. The Scriptures are very clear in what they are trying to tell us, and that is the meaning of what really happened, not necessarily the actual occurrences. St. Mark is very clear in the opening line of his Gospel. He blandly states: The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God. St. Mark’s intention is clear. What he tells you is going to help you understand that Jesus is the Son of God. In the same way, St. John, at the end of his Gospel, states: Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book.   But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name. (John 20: 30-1) St. John has a purpose in how he tells you his Gospel, and he is open and clear about it. So we need to read him on his terms.
The Gospel writers tell us not the factual occurrences of Jesus’ life, but rather the TRUTH about who Jesus is and what Jesus means for us. They arrange their stories to make this clear, not always as it may have occurred in fact. So, for example, Jesus gives the Beatitudes in a sermon on the plain in St. Luke’s Gospel, but on a mountain in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Did Jesus give the same sermon twice (all preachers re-use their good material after all)? Perhaps. But the actual historical location is not nearly as important as the truth of understanding who Jesus is and what He is all about. Thus, St. Matthew, writing to a congregation of mixed Jewish and Gentile Christians, wants badly to show that Jesus is the new Moses, the new giver of the Law. Moses received the tablets of the Law on a mountain, so it is important that Jesus, the new Moses, gives the New Law on a mountain. Matthew doesn’t mention the name or location of this mountain, because it is not so much an actual, physical location as a spiritual, religious truth. The mountain represents Jesus’ authority as the new Moses, not an actual place.

In the same way, an evil ruler tries to kill the infant Jesus, just as Pharaoh tried to kill the infant Moses. Just as Moses came out of Egypt, so Jesus, re-capitulating the history of the Chosen People, has to flee to Egypt in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Did Jesus actually, in physical fact, go to Egypt? It seems highly unlikely. But, in St. Matthew’s Gospel, the Flight into Egypt helps reveal the truth about Who Jesus really is. Jesus is the summation and fulfillment of all the hopes and dreams of the Jewish people. Jesus incorporates in himself all the promises God had made and all the preparation the Jewish people had gone through. In short, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and Prophets, and St. Matthew tells us that truth through stories that are true rather than factual. The facts do not save, the Truth does.  

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Fr. Chuck's Column, January 21, 2018

Last week in this space I began looking at the miracle of the Virgin Birth. I would like to continue laying some ground work so that we can (hopefully) come to a deeper appreciation of this miracle. It is more than just a marvel, but a deep mystery that reveals something to us about God and about ourselves.
We need to distinguish between truths and facts. Facts are about what is. It is a description of reality. 1 + 1 = 2, and e = mc2. That is just the way it is. While 2 and 1 and e are numerical values, they are not human values in any sense. No matter how holy or wicked you are, 1 + 1 still is going to come out to 2. It is just the facts. The distance from Austin to San Antonio is the same for all people, regardless of their politics, immigration status, or their virtue. It is just what it is, with no moral or ethical component to it.
Truths, on the other hand, are deeper, richer, and fuller of meaning. Truths can operate simultaneously at several levels of meaning. They are “multi-valent.” Really big or rich truths can even be inexhaustible. Some events or realities have aspects of both fact and truth, such as the Crucifixion of Jesus. It is a historical fact (“crucified under Pontius Pilate….”) and also a religious truth (the cause of our salvation). It sometimes is difficult to pick these apart.
One way I think about the difference between truths and facts occurred to me when I was working at the Washington University library as an undergraduate. I came across a book listing the absolute number and percentage change of each county of Oklahoma for each year of the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. There, in rows of numbers, were the facts. But the facts explained very little. On the other hand, John Steinbeck’s famous novel The Grapes of Wrath gives a much fuller and truer picture of what the Dust Bowl was really all about. The work of fiction is much truer than the mere statement of the facts. If you want to understand the Dust Bowl as a human phenomenon, read the novel, not the book of statistics. The facts are correct but not in any deep sense “true.”
As modern Americans we are used to looking for the facts. We tend to be pragmatic and want to get things done. We don’t spend much time with poetry or other ways of perceiving reality other than just the bare facts. We pretty much want to know just what is. And we are very successful at that and have learned to control and manipulate our surroundings far beyond any generation before us.

The trouble is that the Scriptures are not modern textbooks. They are ancient writings composed between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. They don’t share our assumptions about the facts of reality or even what is most important. We approach them like they are a newspaper report, when they are actually more like poetry. So next week I hope to look at what kind of writings the Scripture are and what kind of questions we can ask. 

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Homily Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Cycle B Jan 21, 2018

Well, let’s look at our Gospel, from Mark chapter one.  It begins “After John had been arrested…”   Literally it says, “after John had been handed over.”  That is the same thing that is going to happen to Jesus later in the Gospel.  He is going to be “handed over” to evil men representing the powers of this world, the powers of darkness.  Very early in the Gospel St. Mark sets a somber tone. 
          Mark’s Gospel is called the “Sorrowful Gospel”   The shadow of the Cross is cast very clearly over this Gospel.  In Mark’s Gospel you cannot understand Jesus until you get to the Cross.  Unless you accept the Cross as part of following Jesus you cannot follow Him.
          Scholars think that Mark is writing for a community that is being persecuted, that is suffering.  So Mark reminds them that taking up your cross daily is an integral part of following Jesus.  The Cross is always present in Mark’s Gospel.  And that is a challenge to us.
          Anyway, in the passage Jesus begins His preaching mission, proclaiming the gospel, or literally “good news” of God.  Then St Mark succinctly sums up Jesus’ preaching.  I like that because I like things that are direct, to the point, succinct.  No beating around the bush.  Jesus gives it to us straight:  “This is the time of fulfillment.  The Kingdom of God is at hand.”  It is here!  God’s Kingdom is now breaking into history in a whole new and unique way in Jesus Christ.  This is something NEW, something DIFFERENT, something UNEXPECTED.  The Kingdom of God is at hand, it is right here.
          So, what should we do?  Jesus has a short, to the point answer for that too.  “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”  I really like that sentence, not only because it is concise and succinct, but it is also very positive.
          Anyone here ever feel guilty?  Of course.  You did something stupid, and later you realize how many people you disappointed and hurt, and you feel like a jerk.  You feel guilty.
Well, that is NOT what Jesus is calling us to.  No where in the Gospel does Jesus ever urge or tell us to feel guilty.  Guilt only keeps us chained to the past.  Guilt feeds on replaying old tapes.  Guilt focusses us backwards. 
          That is NOT what Jesus calls us to.  Rather, Jesus tells us “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”   Repentance is different than guilt.  Repentance is about changing and moving forward.  Repentance is a change of mind and heart.  Jesus tells us “Repent, and believe in the gospel,” the Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.
          Interestingly we have a case of repentance in our first reading from the Book of the Prophet Jonah.  Jonah starts preaching the impending doom of the City of Nineveh.  And what happens?  The people and the king repent.  “the people of Nineveh believed God, they proclaimed a fast and all of them great and small, put on sack cloth.”  They changed their hearts and they changed their ways.  They turned from sin and moved forward in a new direction.  They repented.
          And what happened?   “When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil ways, he (that is, GOD) repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them, he did not carry it out.”  God repents!  God changes what God was going to do.  God repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them.
           Do you think God was sad over that?  Was God disappointed?  Was God really looking for an opportunity to sorely smack some sinners, and so was disappointed when they changed their evil ways and He couldn’t smack them?    NO!
          God was delighted to repent of the evil he had threatened to do to them.   God was overjoyed!   Repentance is not a sad and onerous thing, because repentance is always about turning to more life, turning from the works of death which is sin, and embracing instead the works of life, the Gospel which is GOOD news.
          Jesus does not call us to feelings of guilt.  Jesus does call us to repentance, to moving forward in the way of life, and to believe in the Gospel, the Good News of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. 
          Brothers and Sisters:  The Gospel is not easy.  It takes work and sacrifice. We must embrace the crosses in our lives.  But it is still Good News, the good news of life, of the triumph of love over hate, of life over death, of God over sin. 

Follow Jesus’ call: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.”     AMEN.  

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Fr. Chuck Column, January 14, 2018

On this Martin Luther King Jr holiday weekend, I wish you all a greater commitment to social justice, and both the COURAGE and the PATIENCE needed to accomplish justice. Courage is necessary, of course, to address the difficult and painful issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance and the narrow nationalism that wants to isolate ourselves and exclude others. Patience is needed to resist the temptation to short-circuit the long and painful work of Justice and instead turn to violence in order to speed it up. So we all need both Courage to address issues, and Patience to hang in there and not given to violence.
Recently, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof had an interview with the New Archbishop of Newark, NJ, Cardinal Joseph Tobin. Since the interview occurred shortly before Christmas, Kristof asked Cardinal Tobin about Catholic belief in the virgin birth of Jesus. Cardinal Tobin’s answer, as reported in the New York Times, was concise: “The most mind-boggling miracle is the incarnation.  We believe that the Creator of the Universe became one of us.  If you accept that, then there are a lot of other things that don’t seem to be quite as unbelievable. It is not a magic show. All of the miracles were pointing toward who God is, and who this carpenter from Nazareth really was.” (12/24/17)
Well, that is a good answer. But it is brief. I would like, over the next several weeks, to try to unpack this mystery of the Incarnation (and Virgin Birth) a little. As a mystery it will not be fully explained, but hopefully we can come to better, fuller, more mature, and deeper understanding of this mystery so central to our faith. 
But first we need to lay some groundwork. To begin, we need to ask what kind of knowledge we are looking for. After all, the Virgin Birth (VB) is a mystery. A mystery, by definition, is unknown. If we knew it, it wouldn’t be a mystery! 
Well, religious mysteries are not like murder mysteries. Murder mysteries need to be solved. Who did the dastardly deed? Once you (or Miss Marple, or Perry Mason, or Hercule Poirot) solves the mystery, reveal the identity of the murder, it is over.  It is no longer a mystery. We say it has been “solved.” But the mysteries of faith are not like that. We do not solve them. Rather, they help make sense out of, and give purpose to, our lives. The mystery solves (or heals) us. The mystery helps us make sense out of the puzzle that is our life.
So the “solution” of the religious mystery is not a once-and-for-all answer, but rather a deeper insight into our relationship with God, with other people, or with our self. And that is an ongoing kind of process, or better a dance, that we engage in all of our life, going deeper and deeper, hopefully, into the mystery that more and more explains us. 
The great Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner, once stated that “The incomprehensibility of God is the blessedness of man.” I liked that saying so much that forty years ago I put that on the holy card of my ordination. What Rahner is saying is that with our infinite openness as human persons, with an infinite capacity to receive truth, beauty and love, the worst thing that could happen to us is that we become filled up, fully satiated. That would be the death of us as persons. But God can never be exhausted, never be totally comprehended, never fully boxed in and wrapped up, totally understood and explained. Instead, for all eternity, we will go deeper and deeper into the mystery of God and there will ALWAYS be more. We will never have God totally figured out, and so will always be excited to learn new things, to be grabbed by new expressions of beauty, to be ever deeper and more fully in love.
So the knowledge we are looking for is not simply an intellectual answer, but rather a deeper appreciation of Truth, the Truth that comprehends us.

Next time: facts and truths.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Fr. Chuck's Column, January 7, 2018

This week, we have the Feast of Epiphany on Sunday, and then the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord on Monday, the next day. Usually, the Baptism of the Lord is celebrated on a Sunday, not Monday. Liturgically, it feels pretty cramped.
Why such a rush? Well, Easter comes early (April 1) and so Ash Wednesday comes early (Feb 14, a.k.a. Valentine’s Day!). We have barely gotten through Christmas and now Lent is rushing at us! Oh my!
Since the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord is kind of shunted aside this year (if may be so bold to say so), being relegated from a Sunday to a mere weekday, I would like to take a look at this Feast, which is important.
The Greek root of the word “epiphany” means a revelation of the divine. While in the West, we think of the visit of the Magi as the Epiphany, in the Greek Church they observe a series of epiphanies, or revelations of Jesus’ divine nature. One is the visit of the Magi, and the second is His Baptism when the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and the voice from heaven declares: "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased." And a third epiphany is celebrated at Jesus’ first miracle, the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana. All of these reveal the true nature of Jesus. So having the Feast of the Baptism the day following the Feast of Epiphany does make some liturgical sense.
More importantly, all Christians share the experience of Baptism with Jesus. No matter in what language, or where, or how it took place, in a very real but spiritual way, at the core of the experience is the same thing. At every Baptism God declares, “this is my beloved child.” We are incorporated into Jesus by this experience of Baptism.
Like all Sacraments, this is not something that we accomplish, rather it is totally God’s work. In Baptism, as in all Sacraments, God does all the heavy lifting. We need to approach the Sacraments in openness and faith.

So, while we will not celebrate the Baptism of the Lord on a weekend this year, do not let that fool you that the Feast is not important or is being downgraded. Rejoice in the wonderful gift of adoption as God’s child that you received at your baptism, and remember that the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, regardless of what day it is celebrated on, is important. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Fr. Chuck's Column, Sunday, December 31, 2017

As we come now to the end of the calendar year, it would make sense to look back on the year here at St. Austin’s and see if we can draw any lessons learned or deeper realizations from what we have just lived through.
In the larger society we have, unfortunately, lived through a year of increasing division and bitterness, with people not only taking sides on many different issues – for that is normal and natural – but going further and impugning the motives, the intelligence, and the moral character of all those who find themselves on the opposite side. It doesn’t matter so much the issue, it just seems some evil genie is poisoning the wells of dialogue and compromise. People, more and more, form into camps over politics, over culture, over race, over nationality, over sports teams, over everything.
This is NOT healthy. It certainly is not Christian. Fortunately, this has not become a major issue for our parish community. This may not be because we are so good at managing disagreement and conflict, but rather that those who would disagree with us, who want a different style of liturgy or preaching, who do not approve of our style or approach, who like a different style of music or vestment, who want a different emphasis on morality, self-select out to another parish, or even another Christian church, and so avoid the conflict. That would be unfortunate, as it would only increase the splintering of the Austin community into competing camps, even in the Church!
My hope for this coming year is that we work hard at embracing the difference, the disagreement, even the division that so runs through our society, in a way that reaches deeper to our common humanity and our common adoption as God’s children in Jesus Christ. I hope that we truly be a community mature enough, and strong enough, and Christian enough, to embrace differences and divisions without breaking apart. That is the hard work of forming the Body of Christ.

We have been pretty successful this past year in physically upgrading and beautifying our church building. It was not easy. It was not cheap. It caused a lot of inconveniences. But we hung in there and did it. Well, this coming year I hope we can spend the same amount of energy in renewing and renovating our community to be an example of a welcoming, healthy, whole, and holy community that does not exclude but includes. That would be quite an accomplishment for 2018!