Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Better Part

In Luke's gospel, there is a scene of Jesus visiting two sisters--Martha and Mary. Martha welcomes Jesus into her home and is running around making preparations and getting anxious. Her sister Mary, meanwhile, plops down at Jesus' feet to be with him. Martha gets upset and tries to get Jesus to take her side to get her sister to help her with the preparing. But instead he sides with Mary, saying that by sitting and being present, forgoing all activity, she has chosen 'the better part.' (10:38-42)

We know people like Martha and Mary, yes?  One is a do-er; one is a be-er.  Personally, I've got a little Martha in me, and a little Mary. Since we were hosting Christmas Eve dinner for both of our families and friends, and I do 95% of the cooking in our marriage, the marathon job of getting food prepped and served fell to me, along with a hundred other little details. Every now and then I catch my wife in a Mary moment just kind of 'being' and my inner Martha rages. 

And yet, getting anxious over details, as necessary as they might seem to be, does not actually please the Lord. Being present does. Which is how I actually prefer to worship and serve, when I have the choice and am not forced into being 'busy and anxious about many things.'

In the end, the busy details of life are temporal. At the end of the night, nobody really cares whether you used red or white candles, or how many forks were put out at each place setting. Time eats those  things and digests them into the past. 

What people remember is the timeless--the feeling of belonging, or being welcomed and listened to, of knowing they are loved and not a burden or a nuisance. The eternal things--being present before Presence; prayer that doesn't seek to accomplish or check things of a list but rather simply rests in the arms of Love; letting things go that upset our spiritual equilibrium. 

As we await the birth of the child savior, let's not forget to lay aside our activities and cares and "fall on our knees" as in the Christmas hymn, and simple marvel in awe at the God of the Universe humbling himself by taking on flesh in the guise of a little baby. This was a once-in-history event that lives on in eternity, since God came to save not only those who lived in the Middle East 2,000 years ago, but extended his hand through the blanket of time and space to save US here in the present day, our children, and our children's children, from sin and death. 

It is too much for the mind to behold in the temporal; such knowledge is too wonderful for me(Ps 139:6). So, it must reside in the eternal, in timelessness. After 18 hours of being in Martha mode today, I'm ready to simply sit at the feet of the baby Lord, and rest.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Observations From The Confessional Line

I don't know how he did it, but our pastor managed to pull in 24 priests and an auxiliary bishop from the Archdiocese to hear confessions for our parish penance service tonight. He had been making the announcement the past few Sundays during Advent, encouraging people to go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and jokingly assuring them that the "lines will be short" since there were so many priests available to hear confessions. When Deb and I pulled up separately, the parking lot was already packed. I waited in her car with the kids while she went in, and then we switched off and she headed home.

When I entered the candlelit sanctuary, there were stations spread in all corners of the church with two chairs: one for the priest, wearing his purple stole, and one for the penitent. It was encouraging to see the church packed with so many people, young and old and people my age, waiting in line to confess their sins.

I was asked to volunteer to manage the lines inside the church, since there were so many people. My job was simple: make sure people don't get too close within earshot, and move the line along. But it was a good opportunity to stand for an hour and a half and witness God's grace at work in this very particularly Catholic practice of confessing one's sins to a priest. Here's what I observed during that time:

-It Is All Jesus

When people were lining up, a few here and there wanted to go to a particular priest, but for most it didn't matter because of the unique recognition that the priest who hears confessions is acting in persona Christi ("in the person of Christ"), so that the penitent is not confessing to Fr. So-and-so, but to God himself in the person of Christ. This is hard to understand without faith,  and is of course a particular Catholic theological understanding of the nature of "binding and loosing," but suffice it to say God alone forgives sins, but can and does do so through the priest holding the legitimate apostolic power to do so. There is not a 'cult of personality' in the Church, since it is not about the pastor or the preaching, but about the actual sacramental embodiment of Christ truly present--in the celebration of the Eucharist, in the reading of the the Word, in Holy Orders and Matrimony, and in the confessional as well.

-There Is An Air of Latent Joy

People had an air of expectation and eagerness waiting in line. They wanted to be there. They wanted to confess their sins and receive forgiveness. It wasn't awkward or morose: God was inviting his children to come to Him, to be made new again, to have their garments made white as snow. Despite stereotypes to the contrary, I have never in twenty years encountered a priest in the confessional who berated me, or was perverted, or laid heavy guilt trips or burdens down. Mostly tonight, there was such a joyful sense of relief in the air of being restored the God's friendship, and a gratefulness for having the opportunity and invitation to do so.

-Formulaic Is Not Necessarily Bad

Because of the volume of people that particular night, and also in general that priests may have been hearing confessions and assigning penances for twenty, thirsty, forty, sixty years, there is always that tendency to get formulaic. But the power of God's forgiveness does not lie in the dynamism of the priest, but the nature of the sacrament "ex opere operato" ("by the work worked"). The confessional is not a therapy session, and priests do not always have the opportunity or desire (though some do) to spend inordinate amounts of time getting to the root of things (that is a process more reserved for spiritual direction). No matter how many times one goes, no matter how many different sins one commits, in the sacrament of penance one will always here the same words, "Through the ministry of the Church may God grant you pardon and peace. And I absolve you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."

-Confession Is Both a Private and Public Affair

The evening began with a public service, and ended with individual confessions. Sin is never isolated; it effects our relationships vertically (with God) and horizontally (with our neighbors). The purpose of penance is to reconcile and make amends for those wrongs committed. We are One corporal Body, the Church, though many members, and what one member does affects the rest of the Body.

-The Authority to Bind, To Loose

I am so grateful for our priests, for Christ Himself has given them the authority to forgive sins, the power to bind and loose (Jn 20:21-23). Catholics distinguish between venial and mortal sins, for all wrongdoing is sin, but there is a sin which is not deadly (1 John 5:16-18), and recognize that grave (mortal) sins require the power of the sacrament of Reconciliation to be restored to God's friendship, and that unrepentant mortal sins put one in danger of enteral damnation.

-Confess With The Tongue

Though Jesus can absolutely forgive outside the confessional, there is something deeply human about confessing our sins out loud to someone else. It is like when you write something down or make a list, it is no longer an abstraction. I always try to make my confessions more detailed than vague, for my own benefit, since there is always some shame in seeing our faults for what they are--failures to love--and naming them. And after shame comes forgiveness, and with forgiveness, healing.

-The Seal

Catholic priests have an absolute duty--under pain of excommunication--to never reveal anything anyone ever confesses, for any circumstance, to any person, ever. Priests in the past have rather died than betrayed that vow when forced to do so by authorities. It is a duty, yes, but admiral in my mind nonetheless, to live by such non-negotiable principals to safeguard something as serious as the trust between a penitent and his confessor.

-Priests Are Truly Servants

St. John Vianney (1786-1859) would hear confessions 13-17 hours a day some days. Our own priests are not in it for the power and the glory, but they are truly servants (Mt 20:26). What they offer is a free gift of themselves, of God's grace (also free)--there is no charge to go to Mass, no charge for confessions, for funerals or baptisms, no one is forced to put in the collection basket, they often go above and beyond to serve the needs of their congregations. So indispensable are priests to our Catholic faith, and so often taken for granted, that I literally could not imagine my faith without them. To witness so many priests together tonight, serving the flock, doing God's work, so many coming back home to God...Satan truly hates it.

-Young and Old

I loved seeing some of my 5th graders sitting down with the priest to confess their sins, followed by an 80 year old woman, followed by a young father in his thirties. Confession isn't just for old church ladies--we are ALL in need of God's grace and forgiveness to live our lives effectively in the Spirit.

-Start Anew during Advent

Advent is a time of expectation, of awaiting the birth of the Messiah, and preparing our hearts for His coming. Is there any better way to a lay a foundation for His birth than preparing our hearts, "clearing the stable" to make room for him?

As I left the Church that night, after making my own confession after everyone else had gone before, I was so grateful...grateful for our God, who sent His only Son into the world to save us from our sins; grateful to our priests, who serve the Lord by serving His people; grateful for having an active, faithful, orthodox parish to go to; and grateful to be alive, forgiven, and washed clean in the blood of the lamb. God is so good, and it is true that there is more rejoicing in Heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous in no need of repentance (Lk 15:7). Much to rejoice about.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Day Set Apart

As my wife can attest, I'm not a 'sit down and do nothing' type (we are very different in that respect, ha!). I like to work, and like to keep busy with projects. Sundays used to be my 'overflow' day; anything I didn't get done during the week or on Saturday would spill into Sunday and I would use it to play catch-up. Without a break in the week, though, it was like Groundhog Day--every day the same as the one before, like being on a treadmill.

Recently I've been trying to be more intentional about the 2nd Commandment, that calls us to keep the Sabbath day holy and reserved for worship and rest. That may mean doing more on Saturday and letting things that don't get done go on Sunday. It also means forcing myself to rest and 'set aside' the day for the Lord. After all, God Himself created the world in six days and rested on the seventh (Gen 2:2). He expects us to rest as well.

On the flip side of working and 'doing' all the time seven days a week is continuous rest. I tried my hand at a trial 'early retirement' a few years ago when I quit my job and took a month or so before looking for another one. I got up whenever I felt like it, worked on my novel a little bit, walked to the bakery on Germantown Avenue for coffee and donuts, read, napped, volunteered a little. But it was too much rest and not enough work. The balance was off. I didn't appreciate rest because I wasn't working enough to do so.

And so, once again, God's plan for balance in our lives is right, his ways is perfect, and the word of the Lord proves true. (2 Sam 22:31) Work six days. Rest and worship on the Sabbath. Repeat.

I have to force myself to 'do nothing' on Sundays a lot of times, and resist the temptation to do projects and overwork, using the holy day simply as an add on extension of the week. We go to Mass to worship communally, spend time together, as a family, read a little, and just have white space. And the funny thing is, when Monday comes around, I'm ready to go again. I feel recharged and rejuvenated.

This is the way God intended us to live, by his design. Worship is what we were created for, it is the right orientation of our souls. Leisure is a gift from God, and so is work, but each belong in their respective spheres and ratios.

If you haven't set Sundays apart as a day of rest, try it. It takes a little getting used to at first, the reorientation of your week...but it may just change your life!

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Golden Triangle of Freedom

There is a house down the street from us with a homemade plywood sign mounted in the front yard. It reads:


Whenever I drive down that windy road and pass the ramshackle house, the sign has given me pause. Is this a local Concord Township tea-party PSA? Just what does 'Freedom' mean anyway? And why is the idea of liberty so important to a person that would motivate them to erect a semi-permanent fixture in their front yard reminding people like me about it every time they drive by?

I don't know anything about the owner of the house. I am also relatively ignorant about our country's founding, our system of government, and our roots as a nation. I mostly write about faith and theology because it's where I live, what I know. Concepts like 'freedom,' 'responsibility,' and 'liberty' are lofty terms with a transcendent quality; they can jump the fence and play with the theological, but they also posses a unique conjuring that is rooted and lives in American political theory.

Poli-sci is not my schtick. I vote, but that's about about as involved as I get in exercising my citizenship. That being said, I am in a ripe position to learn more about things I have for the most part just taken for granted as Joe American--an American in name only.  Which is why I am finding Eric Metaxas' If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty such an enlightening read.

As a catechist, I see first hand the consequences of failing to hand on the faith--a faith that has been passed down and transmitted from generation to generation since the time of Jesus. Catholics who identify as such, but can't name any of the Apostles, don't believe in the True Presence in the Eucharist, and are ignorant of the moral precepts of the Church, not to mention the actual daily practice of prayer and immersion in scripture. What you don't preserve, you risk losing. And so there is a real threat there with eternal consequences (eternal damnation) when we fail to take seriously our responsibility to pass the faith down to our children.

What I like about the way Metaxas approaches the topic is that he does not divorce the "experiment in liberty" of the Founding Fathers from its roots in the lofty ideal of religious virtue; what strikes me in fact is that the very existence of the Republic, a nation like no other, so precariously depends on it. "Our Constitution," as John Adams wrote, "was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."

Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker and historian, traveled to America in 1831 on behalf of the French government to examine the penal system and report back on what he learned. Tocqueville marveled at the flourishing American democracy at that time, recognizing that the uniqueness of such a system depended on a liberty "which cannot be established without morality, nor without faith."

Metaxas cites Benjamin Franklin who said, "Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom" and describes a concept referred to as the "Golden Triangle of Freedom" which is a basic but profound kind of 'closed-loop' on which freedom depends. It goes like this:

Freedom requires virtue;
Virtue requires faith;
Faith requires freedom.

These are lofty concepts, but then again our country was founded on lofty ideals, an "experiment in liberty" that was completely unique--of all men created equal, the unalienable right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," and the concept of self-governance. 

* * *

I think what struck me throughout this election cycle was just how far we have drifted from being a nation rooted in virtue. And if the Republic depends on virtue to maintain its very existence, what does that mean for the future of our country? 

My vague but driving motivation during this cycle was the issue of religious freedom. While it was important to me on a personal level, I felt it went deeper than just my own personal self-interest, though I couldn't put my finger on why it was important. It wasn't til reading Metaxas' analysis of the importance of religious liberty in maintaining the unique identity and existence of the Republic that I realized that it wasn't some ancillary topic isolated and pursued for its own sake, at odds with the so-called "separation of church-and-state"  so often argued today, nor was it simply the mis-quoted "freedom of worship"  by political leaders wishing to relegate religious expression to an hour a week within the confines of a church, safely out of the public square. 

No, religious expression is tatamount to our very identity as a nation. Virtue depends on it, and on virtue depends our freedom.  "As nations become more corrupt and vicious," Benjamin Franklin noted, "they have more need of masters."  I think I understand a little better the push-back from ordinary, everyday Americans that felt that something "just ain't right," even if it is just a vague sense that our freedom as citizens were under siege, the Federal Government was overstepping its bounds, and that the idea of self-governance was being undermined as a result. 

What is often forgotten, though, is that responsibility is an integral part of the plywood liberty-formula. Self-governance doesn't just happen; we don't just 'do our duty' as citizens at the voting booth and leave the rest to our elected officials. No, the cultivation of virtue is central to our identity as American citizens, and we have an civic obligation to engage in such practice. Not only that, but it must be passed down through generations, and the conduit for such a transmission is none other than the family itself. Healthy societies depend on healthy families, healthy families are formed in the cultivation of virtue, and virtue finds its roots in religious expression. Threats to the family are threats to the potential for self-governance itself, and so liberty is in fact not restricted only to the political, but extends to the realm of faith and religious practice, which help to form strong healthy families. 

Or, as Bernard Jaffe (Dustin Hoffman) said in I Heart Huckabees, "It's all connected."