Monday, February 11, 2019

The Gospel **Is** the Tradition

"I handed on to you as of first importance what I also received..." If the rest of 1 Cor 15:3-5 is the tightly compressed summary of the Christian story—that he died for sins, was buried, was raised, and was seen—then this introductory line tells us quite a lot too. 1) This is of first importance; this is the stuff you need to know above all else. 2) Paul handed it on to them, first in person, now in this letter. What he is reminding them now (verse 1) is the gospel he had preached, and the verb for "handing on" is where we get "tradition", just like in "Therefore, brothers, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us." The gospel, the good news, the tale of the paschal mystery, is the Apostolic Tradition that we hold fast to and build our lives around.

Sunday, February 3, 2019


1st Corinthians chapter 13 is one of the most widely quoted passage of the Bible. Some sentimentalize it. Some write it off as cliche. But if we give it the right kind of look, we can find amazing treasures in there. 

4th Sunday, Year C

1 Cor 13 

Today I want to look at the second reading.

Open to page 54

Last weekend I gave only the most passing glance at the second reading. 

My main topic was Catholic Schools, and if you weren’t here for that one, I would encourage you to look up the audio of that one on the parish website or on my blog. 

This, today, is 1 Corinthians chapter 13. 

This is St. Paul’s great “hymn to love”

This, or parts of this, have been read at countless weddings, 
quoted in letters, 
embossed on greeting cards. 

It IS St. Paul at some of his rhetorical best

But it’s not just magnificent poetry and sentimental words. 

1 Cor 13 REALLY is both a beautiful exhortation, and high theology besides. 

So I’m going to make about 4-5 points 

First point: context 

Context really matters here. 

So start by going backwards 

P. 52

Let’s see where we ended because, while today’s reading is mostly chapter 13, the first verse comes from the previous chapter, ch. 12, 

and of course chapter breaks are artificial: they were added much later. 

For Paul this is just a straight continuous thought.

Now again, last week, I just had the readers read the short version of the second reading, so we didn’t go into the details.

But if you scan it quickly, you will recognize it’s the famous description of the church is the body of Christ, and how the body has many parts, all of which act differently, and or necessary and unique.

So, “Should the ear complain that it’s not an eye?”, 

Or “What would happen if the body was all hands and no feet?”

This is Paul talking about how we are all One, 
but we have different gifts. 

And you’ll notice that the last couple of verses here are him talking about the different gifts that people might have in the church. 

And he names some of them: 

speaking in tongues. 

OK now turn back to page 54, because that is literally the very next line. There are no words in between the end of that in the beginning of today’s reading

So Paul has just given a long list of gifts, and he’s even given what seems to be a ranking of them in terms of power and prestige.

But then he suddenly turns a sharp corner.

Here is he saying: “yes, strive for the greatest spiritual gifts…”

“BUT I shall show you a yet more excellent way”

A more excellent way. 

More excellent than prophecy? 

More excellent than being an apostle?


The way of love. 

Leads us to point 2

The comparisons

The structure and flow of Paul’s thought in this chapter is flawless. 

He begins by saying there’s something above these great gifts.

And then before he even names it—before he tells you that it is “love” he is thinking of—he starts by naming things we might think are better. 

“If I speak in human and angelic tongues,
but do not have love, 
I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.”

Without love, I would be just noise. 

In the previous chapter he has just talked about people thinking that the ability to speak in tongues was a great gift, but that’s the gift he “shows up” first.

And also realize, he has just thrown himself under the bus—because what is Paul’s greatest skill? Speaking. 

public debates, 
private conversations...

That is his superpower.

But without love?

He is a noisy gong. 

And what if even the angels taught him to speak their language?

Clashing cymbal. 

Next up: 3 gifts
Prophecy—like a mystic
Understand all the mysteries—like a church doctor 
Faith that can move mountains....

But if I do not have love, I AM NOTHING

It’s interesting: we don’t need to have Martin Luther arguing with the Council of Trent over the question of faith alone, 

or pit St. Paul in Romans against St. James on faith. 

Paul himself says right here: a person with “even faith so as to move mountains, it he doesn’t have love, is nothing.” 

You have faith? 
Good. Now show it in love. 

Just like James said. 

Just like 1 John says.  

And notice he keeps going up the ladder:
Tongues—lower level
Prophecy and theology—getting jogger
Last one—presumably the highest: “hand over my body” 

A reference to martyrdom 

Highest of crowns

And yet, if I didn’t do it out of love, with love, for love...

It gains me nothing 

Point 3: As we move on to the most widely quoted part of the passage, let’s pause and ask: 

what is this love we are speaking of?

It’s pretty obvious that the kind of love that Paul is talking about here is not merely the love we have for ice cream, or a TV show, or puppy love or any kind of merely passing emotional burst. 

It’s not a crush. 
It’s not infatuation. 
It’s not “Stan-ing”. 

It’s a love that will lay down its life. 

It’s a love that can extend to strangers. 

It’s a love that can even extend to enemies and persecutors.

You have probably heard that in Greek there are several words for love, whereas in English we just use one

This true. 

There are words like philia, from which we might call some one a bibliophile—a book lover. Or a Francophile—someone who loves all things French. 

There is Eros. From which we get the word erotic. And with means a sensual, romantic, passionate love. 

And you probably know that the word here is “Agápe”

But it’s not like there was this Greek word just laying around meaning all those deep, selfless, unconditional, sacrificial things. 

The apostles had to PUT those ideas in there 
as the translated the story of the Hebrew God 
and the Hebrew Messiah 
out into a Greek. 

The old Greek Agápe had a sense of: cordial, pleasing, affectionate, warm, gracious 

That was the seldomly-used Greek word that the Apostles picked up to try to describe how: 
God was acting a certain way to us, 
and Jesus acting that way back to his father, 
and that action would take him to his death, 
and it was the thing that filled the new Christians. 

But THEY filled it up with meaning. 

With John constantly telling us about the this Agápe that Jesus and his Father have for each other,

And the evangelists fill it with image of the man looking for his lost sheep and the father looking for his lost son, 

And since Paul wrote most of his stuff before the gospels, we cannot doubt this famous paragraph here might be Paul trying to draw together all the things he and the apostles meant when the talked about God’s Agápe which sought them out, and the Agápe which must animate them. 

Like most priests, I see this passage a lot at weddings, but unlike some, I don’t think it’s cliche.

I mean, even if you take the most hardline “love is a choice, not a feeling” emphasis on the word, this I hard to beat:

Not jealous
Not rude
Doesn’t seek its interests
Quick to forgive
Bears all things
Hopes all things

That’s as fitting for the mom of a toddler, the couple on their honeymoon, the adult children taking care of a disabled parent, the friend with an open ear. 

Point 4: the ending

A little confusing 

In 3 or 4 quick ideas, Paul brings his “ode” to a close

Some people feel they are mixed metaphors or confusing:

Other gifts shall cease. 
I used to talk as a child. 
We see and know now only partially. 
FHL, & The greatest is love. 

Actually looping back around to the first 2 points:

If you have to choose—choose love. 

Of all the gifts you could pursue—pursue love. 

If you have other gifts but don’t have love, 
that was a bad call, 
because those others will cease. 

5: But let me say this then as a wrap up:

If we read this passage careful and take in the whole context, we realize...

Paul is not saying: 
Don’t work
Don’t strive for understanding  
Don’t teach
Don’t heal 
Don’t administer 
Don’t grow in faith 

He’s saying do those things, but never forget love. 

Do them out of love,
With love,
For love. 

Because that is the core, that is what will remain after your work is done. 

And that was always a better motivation for doing them in the first place. 

So I beg you, 
when read or hear or think of this more-than-a-little famous passage:

Don’t over-sentimentalize it. 
But don’t write it off as cliche. 

Really is one of the best we summaries of the Christian life we have:

From the divine Agápe that first motivates, 

to the final Love in which we are hoping to rest,

and all the loves we give and receive in between,

It really is a great exhortation to the greatest of all virtues. 

Sunday, January 27, 2019

What's Your Catholic Schools Story?

Today kicks off Catholic Schools Week. In addition to thanking parents, teachers, and benefactors (every member of the parish, right?) I wanted to share my "Catholic Schools Story". Everyone who attended them, whether it be grade school only, K-12, or even just one year, has things they can share. And that witness might be the most important thing. And then I ended with a story of emotion and gratitude and prayer for our past teachers and their (often) thankless hard work.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Three Epiphanies

The Triduum is super cool because it's one "moment" over three days. Does that make Epiphany super cool too, because it is one manifestation spread out over three weeks...and maybe thirty years? This may sound crazy, but both the East and the West have very ancient traditions of seeing the coming of the Magi, the Baptism, and the Wedding at Cana all as moments within "the moment" of Epiphany.

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

Three Epiphanies

 Today's Gospel is the wedding feast at Cana and we're told about this first miracle, at Cana: that in this moment Jesus "revealed himself—revealed his glory to his apostles.".

And that's all great except for there's kind of the fact that he "reveals his glory for the first time" like a half dozen times. He's constantly "revealing his glory for the first time." This is a tricky question that the early Church tried to deal with, "When does God reveal, or manifest—that's just the Latin word for it—when does he manifest his glory in the flesh, in Jesus, for the first time?" 

It's a 2,000 year debate, most of which was done the first five hundred years of the Church, but it really is this debate about the month of January: When does God reveal himself? Is it at his birth, December 25th, as little baby? Is it later on, at the Epiphany when the Magi come? Is that the revelation—as we call it, the Epiphany—the "showing of himself"? But then at the baptism, Jesus is shown—sky opens, dove down, voice loud, right? Definitely revealing who he is there. And then we're told by John that he reveals himself at Cana, that that's the moment. In other words: "Everybody agrees that Christmas ended last week with the baptism of the Lord, but maybe Epiphany didn't end yet. Maybe that's actually still going on.

So open up your missals to page 89. That's why you've been keeping them open there. I'm sorry, it's Song 89. My bad. Go to Song 89 in your little missalette. This is a song that in most Masses, we sing it either at Epiphany or at the baptism or maybe both. But it's also fitting to use it here on this day.

So I want you to notice first of all, this hymn will literally use the word "manifest" seven different times. It's clearly a big theme here, and the song captures the tension and the debate about when is Jesus really made manifest? Again, you can see it as early as the Feast of the Magi. Look at that first verse; come to the second line of the first verse: "Manifested by the star/ to the sages from afar/ branch of Royal David's stem/ in thy birth at Bethlehem." Okay, so that's clearly the Magi, the Wise Men, coming on January 6.

But then look at the second verse, the very beginning: "Manifest at Jordan's stream/ prophet, priest, and king supreme"—that was the homily last week on prophet, priest, and king—but then look at the second part of the second verse: "And at Cana, wedding guest/ in thy Godhead manifest/ manifest in power divine/ changing water into wine." So it's pulling that one event in too.

And then the third verse kind of implies that there's always this manifestation going on, but now it involves us: "Grant us grace to see thee, Lord/ mirrored in thy holy word/ May we imitate thee now/ and be pure as pure art thou/ That we like to thee may be/ at thy great Epiphany,"—implying that all of this is a "great Epiphany". Kind like how you have the Greater Omaha area, well this is the "greater epiphany area". Okay, now you can close your books. So in some sense, Epiphany isn't just January 6th or the closest Sunday. It really is something much bigger.

So I checked out the Catholic Encyclopedia on "Epiphany" and let me tell you, that is a deep dive with a lot of stuff, and don't go there unless you're really got some time on your hands. But in there are talks about Epiphany with all sorts of different names. It calls it "epiphany" which literally means "the showing upon", like "epidermis", like the top layer—the "upon" layer, so "a showing upon the people". "Theophany" which is "showing God" to the world. "Manifestation." "Apparition." "Illumination." "Illustration." It also calls it "a day of light" which works for all three, right? There's the Magi following the light of the star, also the light of Jesus' glory is shown at the river with John, and then you now have these enlightened apostles who know what's going on with Jesus. It also used the word "Declaration" which is weird because that doesn't fit super well with the Magi. Like, the baby Jesus can't talk. At the baptism there's a declaration of God the Father, and at Cana it's kind of an unspoken declaration like Jesus shows himself but he doesn't say anything.

Again these were debates especially the 300s and the 400s: "What is connected with what?" There was certainly a connection of Nativity and Epiphany all along. But then there is kind of a sense that you've got the Nativity, where he's born; the Epiphany is something later. Nativity is he's born here; Epiphany is he is revealed here. But which revelation? Is it when a couple of wise men sneak in and then scurry home without talking to Herod? It is when a handful of people see him at the Jordan thirty years later? Is it when the locals see what's going on it Cana? You know, he's only a couple miles from Nazareth. Mary's there, and the people who grew up with him, you know, now they know something about him. We don't really know.

What is interesting is we've never had a feast day of the wedding feast at Cana. Unlike the feast of the three kings and the feast of the baptism, we didn't have a separate feast, but there's always a sense that these three were connected. And in fact at Vespers, in the prayer of the church, for Epiphany it says this: "We keep our holy day adorned with three miracles: today a star led the magic to the crib; today wine was made water at the marriage; today in the Jordan Christ will be baptized by John and save us." But that's saying one day: But they are spread over 30 years. So see in some way that's all still "one day".

It's a constant theme in both the East and the West that these are connected. Sometimes you pull them more closely together: this all is the manifestation of God. And sometimes we see them as very distinct feasts. But there's both there. And the key is this: God is revealing himself in Jesus in his humanity whether as a little baby to the Magi or thirty odd years later in public. God has made himself known in the flesh. God has made himself known to the people. God is going to make himself known to the greater world. So these three moments, together, make this perfect transition, as we leave the world of Advent and Christmas and transition into his public ministry at Ordinary Time.

And as the song pointed out, it's not enough for us to say, "Oh there he is; he's manifest." We're also saying. "Let me be a part of that." We see that as he is light, let me also be light. Let me give a revelation of God's mercy in the world. As he comes into the world, let me go out into the world—not as God to save it; we can't do that—that but as a disciple to proclaim it. That's our job. If we've seen the revelation, if we've become aware of God made flesh, then it's our job to go out and proclaim it. And that's part of all three slices of Epiphany.