Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Preface of the Holy Trinity

As I have preached for a decade: "If you want to know what a feast day is about, read the preface." And that is all the more true when dealing with a tricky, highly-theological feast like Trinity Sunday. So, what do Catholics believe about this great mystery? Read. The. Preface.



Sunday, June 2, 2019

Two Trees in the Garden

Was there one special tree in Eden, or two? Most of us picture that there is just one, but a close reading of the text suggests there are two: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil AND the tree of life. And even when Eve, the serpent, and God speak vaguely about trees, the Hebrew verb yadah reveals the emphasis. The tree of life disappears from the story, but reappears in the Heavenly Jerusalem. And later Christian reflection on the tree of life connects it with the cross of Jesus.


Saturday, June 1, 2019

God Himself Will Be Its Light

Revelation tells us that, surprisingly, the Heavenly Jerusalem doesn't have a temple. But, beyond surprisingly, the city doesn't have sun or moon either. God and the Lamb are its temple, and God's glory is its light, and the Lamb, its lamp. The promise of a temple that can't be destroyed and likewise that the glory of God is inseparable from that temple answers fears left in Jewish hearts since the days of Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the Babylonian Exile: "God will never leave us again; God himself will be our indestructible temple."




Sunday, May 19, 2019

Is the Crucifixion Worship?

Humility, obedience, and love are the heart of worship. In the Garden, those came easy. After the fall, they were difficult; they were sacrificial. On the cross, Jesus is completely sacrificial, but also truly humble, perfectly obedient, and unconditionally loving. Therefore the Crucifixion was the ultimate act of worship, and is the key to both the Lamb's liturgy in heaven and the Mass here on earth.



Is The Crucifixion Worship?

5th Sunday of Easter, Year C


In today's Gospel, at the Last Supper, Jesus talks about glory. What might have caught the disciples' attention there was a Jesus seems to be saying that God will be glorified in Jesus and that Jesus will be glorified in God himself. He in fact says, "If God is glorified in him God will also glorify him in himself." It's a fascinating image of them sharing the same glory. And yet there's also some sort of hierarchy amongst the two of them: who's the origin, and who's the recipient of this glory and things like that. 

We get it because we've heard of the Trinity, unlike the disciples. We are used to being told that there is difference and hierarchy amongst the persons, but there is also the unity and communion of the one true God. 

We saw this actually last week in the Book of Revelation, the second reading. I preached on how the Lamb in the Throne Room is both the one who leads all in worship of the One upon the throne and yet the Lamb also sits on the throne with the Ancient of Days. And he receives the same glory, honor, and blessing as the Lord God. Why? Because he was slain—we are told—therefore he is worthy. Take that, Thor! 

Alright. So the Lamb is both worthy of the same praise and yet he leads the praises going to the Father. That was actually the second time since Easter that I preached on heavenly worship has shown the Book of Revelation. You can look them up on the blog. You can listen to them there and stuff like that, but you don't have to have heard them to follow where we're going today. 

So this homily centers on a question that was asked after last week's homily and that is" "How is the Mass worship?" We say it is, but how exactly? It's a good question. I had to actually think a bit, and as I answered it it actually raised new questions. So there are really two questions to look at today on this idea of worship. 

So "worship" is a funny term. Its meaning can shift around in time, and shift with who the speaker is and who the audience is. We know there's a heavenly worship. That's what the Book of Revelation is all about with all these angels and elders, creatures and martyrs, falling down in worship of God. And that here on Earth, we can do worship too and we are called to do worship. We are called to do that as Christians. And we know that as Christians by definition we worship the one God, the Trinity. 

But how? And where? And when? Catholics don't actually say the word "worship" a whole lot. We rarely use in our advertising, in our bulletins and billboards and stuff like that. You go by other churches and you see it all the time. "Sunday Worship, 9 and 11 a.m." That's a pretty standard thing. So it raises the question: "Is just anything that we do—on Sunday, in a church—is that is that worship right there.? And again, in American English usage in 2019 most of us think of worship as being something about song and prayers, spontaneous praise, a sense of acclimation to God. Stuff like that. Which is definitely part of it, but sometimes that becomes "Oh that's what you mean when you say worship." Like Praise and Worship kind of stuff. 

I've mentioned before that I was in the Inter-Seminary Seminar in Philadelphia. We as seminarians joined seminarians from four other denominations and we would talk about topics. And this one time we had this long discussion about worship, and it mostly focused on music. And at the end of it I was kind of shamed when the Lutheran professor said, "I can't believe we had an hour long conversation about worship and the Catholics never mentioned the Eucharist once." And I was like, "Whoops. I think the botched that...". 

So yes, we tend to hear that word and we think of those sort of things. But for, you know, a thousand years or two, Catholics have continuously said the Sunday Eucharist is our worship. At least since the generation of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, that's been clearly the understanding. So we say it, but how is the Mass worship? That's the first question of the two. How is the Mass worship? 

And this actually came up a little bit during the ad orientem discussion a year ago. Somebody asked a question after I said, "Well, part of it is that we're all worshipping in the same direction." And a person on the Internet said, "Surely Jesus was facing the apostles at the Last Supper, right?" Reasonable point. I think everyone agrees that he was. But realize Martin Luther brought up that same point. His point was that the Sunday Eucharist is this memorial of the Last Supper. And this becomes a defining feature of the Reformation for Luther and Calvin and Cranmer. They said: "It's the Last Supper only. It's the meal. It's the memorial of the meal. That's what you're doing. So do it more like that." Whereas Catholics said, "The Mass is not just the Last Supper. It's the Last Supper, and the Cross, and Easter Sunday, and the Ascension. All of those." Catholics say that Mass isn't just Holy Thursday. It's the worship of Good Friday too. 

Now that leads us to our second question, because a lot of Christians—Catholics and Protestants—would have heard that last sentence and not paused at all: this idea that you're worshipping because [the Mass] is Jesus on the cross. Catholics and Protestants might debate the Sunday Eucharist, but they tend to agree: the crucifixion was worship. "The crucifixion is worship. The Eucharist may be something else—a memorial of the Last Supper, etc.—but duh, of course the cross is Jesus' worship. Most Western Christians in the last 500 years would agree on that: that the crucifixion was Jesus' worship. In the last 50 years, some people got kind of scared of the cross and now run away from it so they might not say that, but overall, the totality of people would say, "Jesus on the cross is worshiping the Father."

Where does that idea come from? Well, you find it was an Old Testament references. Malachi 111. Chapter 1, verse 11 says, "For from the rising of the sun even to its setting my name will be great among the nations. And in every place, burnt offering will be offered to my name." So it's perfect worldwide worship through sacrifice. You'll actually hear that Malachi line quoted in Eucharistic Prayer 3 today. 

Then you come to the New Testament, and the Apostles see that [Malachi's prophecy] has been fulfilled. So in Romans 3:25 (I preached on this at Easter) "God presented the Messiah as a sacrifice of atonement in the shedding of His blood through faith." So he saying that Jesus' death was a sacrifice. Specifically a sacrifice like that found in temple worship. 

But there's kind of an unspoken mental jump there that we're making. Why is the cross worship? That's the second question: "Why was Jesus' death on the cross a kind of worship?" Even granting that the Mass may be Good Friday too, Why (or how) is the cross worship? It's a really legitimate question—though we don't usually think about it—that has some cool answers. 

We might reply. Well, duh, of course it's worship. It's a sacrifice. And practically everybody on the planet connects worship and sacrifice. That's true. In almost every culture, if we're going to go worship our God or gods, we take a goat for sacrifice, or we bring some human sacrifices of people we've captured, or like that. That's pretty standard. Yes, but why? Why do we do that, why do we connect sacrifice and worship as a human race? Why do we even non-Christians and non-Jews think the same way? Why will a tribe maybe bring its captives to be offered, Jews offer up sheep in the temple, and Catholics offer up Jesus' sacrifice on the cross. 

So let's think this through. So we've got our two questions out there. Why is the Mass worship? And why is the cross worship?  But now let's walk through the answer here. Take this step by step. 

First, let me ask you: What do we as human beings least like to do? And I think it goes something like this: What do we not want to do as humans? To be humble. To be obedient. And to be charitable—to be truly, unconditionally loving. Those are hard. And if my 39 years in this planet has taught me anything, it's that the tasks that I least want to do, are probably the ones I most [need] to do. Do you have that experience? I think we all have it. Usually it involves cleaning some part of the house we don't want to do. 

So we can probably bet that if humility, obedience, and charity (or love) are the hardest things for us to do, that probably means they're the most important virtues for us to grow in. We need to humble our pride, to do the things we don't want to do (obedience), and to love those that we don't want to love. 

But it wasn't always that way, right? So, step two. Let's go back into the garden. Let's go back to the beginning of creation. God makes the first humans and they instinctively worship him. It comes right out of their very being. And, lo and behold, the components of their worship, the things that burst out of them, the things that glorify God and that filled them with joy, are the very things that we just said are probably the most important [virtues] for us to have:. 

Humility. They knew, incredibly clearly, who they were: that they were creatures of a good, loving, creator God. They knew they were dependent on him. 

Obedience. It was obvious to them that God would have the best plan. So why wouldn't they just do what he told them to do? 

And then love or charity. Love was like the factory-default setting for them. That was how they were made. God loved them. They love God. They loved each other. Everything was hunky dory. 

So these three things filled them with worship there in the garden, and their worship of God increased those three virtues in them. At least for the first two chapters, right?

And then we know those things broke. That they failed at those. So that brings us to the third step here. What happens in that third chapter [of Genesis]? Not humility, but pride. Not obedience, but disobedience. Not love, but breaking from that love. And in fact even when you look at different definitions of original sin it's usually like, "Well, it might be a physical action but also it's our pride or it's our disobedience or it's our failure to love. It's those things." In the third chapter, they choose not to do that, which means their worship ceased. When they're no longer doing those three, they cease to worship. 

And because it's a cycle, without worship those virtues in them—humility, obedience, and love—also begin to shrink up. What were once the easy virtues of worship in Eden have now become....what? The hard work of sacrifice. Humility, obedience, and love are now hard, even painful. Therefore they are sacrificial. 

Whether people follow one God or many, the things of worship now feel difficult and sacrificial. If I have to give up my goat or give him the first fruits of my produce or whatever, that's hard. I feel like I'm losing something. But that instinct remains in humans that something about giving that away is worshipful. Something about surrendering that, is a kind of worship. 

And we see the Old Testament, God tells them specifically how to do that. Now if we're being honest a lot of that was straight obedience, right? God tells you to do it. And so you say, "Okay God I'll do it. I'll bring my sheep. I'll bring my turtledoves. I'll bring my goat or whatever." There was some humility because humility connects to thankfulness. And there's a sense of: "God, I didn't do these crops on my own. I didn't make these lambs healthy on my own. You did that. So yeah I'll give you the very best of the things that have grown up in my in my farm."

Love? There should have been love with it, but we get the impression that it wasn't always a thing of love. It was more a thing of obedience, and I just need to do this; it is what the Torah asks. 

Which brings us then to the fourth step. So, we haven't been faithful. We have failed in faithfulness. Adam and Eve failed in that. And then everyone after them fell in that as well. But what if someone were truly faithful? What if someone is actually faithful in all things. And that's what Paul and the other apostles insisted on: That Jesus comes along and he is the faithful one. He is the faithful servant to the end. He is the faithful Messiah. 

And so we look on the cross. And do we see that faithfulness lived out in those three virtues we talked about? You look at the cross. Do you see humility? Absolutely. Because you see humiliation: the Romans mocking him, the Jewish high priests mocking him, being stripped of his clothes, the pain, the suffering. We see total humility, total surrender right there. We even connect it with the idea of the lamb. You know we're told in Isaiah 53 that he went to his death like a lamb to the slaughter. That humility, that surrender going on there, is pretty clear. 

Obedience. The Book of Hebrews is obsessed with the obedience of Jesus. In fact it basically makes the case that it wasn't even his body and blood on the cross that mattered it was his will. The sheep goes to the slaughter because it's stupid. Right? The Lamb of God, the one leading heavenly worship, goes to its death by its choice. It willingly says, "Yes, Father I will follow you in all things. I will tell your truth in all places. And if that ticks people off and sends me to the cross, so be it. I'm obedient to the end and even on the cross I give my perfect 'yes' to the things you ask of me. It's the surrender of my will."

And then we look at the cross and do we see love? Absolutely. For most of us, that's the first thing we think of. We don't think of humility and obedience; we think of love. There's the love of one who said, "This person is a sinner and I still die for them." Paul tells us that even when we were yet enemies of God he sent his son to die for us. Perfect sacrificial. So the cross is ultimate humility, complete obedience, and sacrificial love even for us the unworthy. 

So it does all the things that are most sacrificial. But it also does all the things that at the beginning of time were worship (and that we had done imperfectly in worship since then). It does all those things. It has humility, it has obedience, and love. It is therefore complete worship and complete sacrifice. 

So hopefully that makes more sense of why we can say that the cross is Jesus' worship, and why we can say—if the Mass is us having Jesus' cross and sacrifice there to offer—that is our worship too. 

And yes he worshipped once on Good Friday on the cross, but as Revelation is telling us, he worships from all time in heaven as well—leading our worship. 

And then finally, to end with that line from the Gospel, [the cross] has both: it has that love—"love one another as I have loved you; they'll know you're my disciples by your love for one another." But he says that immediately after he says, "I will glorify the Father and he will glorify me." Love and glory, love and worship, are not separate. They are one and the same because sacrifice and worship go hand-in-hand as well. 




Monday, May 13, 2019

The Heavenly Throne Room

Sunday I focused on the second reading, from the Book of Revelation. I picked up a theme from two weeks ago: heavenly worship of God through, and alongside, the Lamb. I didn't mention it in the homily, but this with-but-through paradox of Trinitarian worship fits well with the Gospel too:
                                      John 10   →   Revelation 
1) "I give them eternal life" → "you purchased them with your blood"
2) "I know them; them follow me" → "the Lamb will shepherd them; they worship before the throne"
3) "The Father and I are one" → "to the One on the throne and to the Lamb, be blessing, honor, glory, and might."

Yes, we worship Jesus and God-incarnate, and yet Jesus leads us in worship of the Father.



Sunday, May 5, 2019

Peter's Own Divine Mercy Sunday

1) Did you grow up hearing that the threefold "Do you love me?" was Jesus letting Peter take back his denials?

2) Did you grow up hearing that the Greek words for love (philia and agape) both get used in this passage showing a disconnect between Peter and Jesus?

3) Did you (wrongly) get told that Peter finally catches on and tells Jesus that Yes, he agape-loves him?

Well, it's time we clear up that confusion, learn that actually Jesus comes down to Peter's lower love, and see that this makes total sense of the next line about how Peter is not yet ready to love Jesus unconditionally, to the end. And that Jesus, in his mercy not only doesn't punish for sins but also doesn't punish for our slowness to grow in virtue, provided we listen when he says, "Follow me."



Sunday, April 28, 2019

The High Priest of Revelation

St. Paul tells us that Jesus is the one mediator between God and man. St. John in his first letter says Jesus is our advocate who ever pleads our cause to the Father. The Letter to the Hebrews constantly affirms that Jesus is our great high priest. We should not be surprised then that the Book of Revelation starts with Jesus dressed as a high priest of Israel, surrounded by liturgical imagery, and then shows that as human Messiah and divine Victor, he is the ideal mediator between fallen humanity and the heavenly Father. Revelation then, isn't a play-by-play of tribulations and the end of the space-time continuum as much as it is a vision of the perpetual worship in heaven, the constant struggle on earth, and of Jesus as leader of the faithful in both.