2017-06-25 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Matthew 10:26-33

Homily podcast.

The legend of King Robert the Bruce, exiled from Scotland in a cave off the Irish coast in 1306, resembles a similar story in the Bible about King David when he was a boy. King Robert watched a spider finally manage to make a web after failing in several attempts.  Thus the child’s rhyme: “If at first you don’t succeed, Try, try, try again.” Our Lord’s parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8) is about a poor widow who persisted in getting the judge to hear her case. The refined translation says that the judge wearied of her importuning, but the Greek has the judge fearing that she would punch him. That was a woman who would not give up.

To discourage is to lose heart. It is a trick of the Anti-Christ and the very opposite of Christ who encourages. “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16). The widow in the parable reminds one of theDamas de Blanco—Ladies in White—who are wives and mothers of political prisoners in the gulags of Communist Cuba. Mostly Afro-Cubans, they formed in 2003 to protest the large-scale arrest of their kin who included journalists and human rights activists. From then on, every Sunday, they attend Mass in Havana and then process in white clothing to a park where, despite their peaceful witness, they frequently have been beaten and jailed.

Their persistence has been an embarrassment to many outside Cuba who choose to ignore the devastation wrought by Marxism. Even some leading churchmen indulge the gossamer hope that appeasement will convert evil to good. The Ladies in White were hurt but not thwarted when a U.S. presidential executive order in 2013 lifted sanctions against Cuba, while requiring no reform of its dictatorship. “Peace for our time” was predictably delusional, and political oppression increased: there were 1,095 detainees in 2016, up from 718 in 2015. Our social media applauded the capitulation, its accompanying festivities, and our own government’s “easy speeches” that, as Chesterton said, “comfort cruel men.”

On June 16 in Miami, our President fulfilled a campaign promise by signing a directive imposing sanctions that will not be lifted until Cuba frees political prisoners and holds free elections. He also explicitly mentioned the persistence of the Ladies in White. Berta Soler, a leader of the Ladies in White, whose husband has been serving a twenty-year sentence, replied: “These days, Mr. President, when most of the world responds with a deafening silence to the harassment, arbitrary detentions, beatings, house searches, and robberies against peaceful opponents, human rights activists and defenseless women, your words of encouragement are most welcomed.” It was like the parable of the undaunted widow: “And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night?”

2017-06-18 Corpus Christi John 6:51-58

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Our Lord’s admonition that much will be required of those to whom much has been given, applies most vividly to us. We have been given so much in the way of inventions and medicine and comparative wealth, but above all in knowledge of the world around us. No king in his silken bed at Versailles knew the luxury of instant information that we have. “YouTube” gives us access to great music for which the Bourbon monarchs had to summon their court musicians, while we need only press a button on the computer.

I have been listening on YouTube to the choir of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London singing the Victorian John Stainer’s setting of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have everlasting life.” They are the most wondrous and mysterious words ever spoken and have to be sung, for they are a love song. A young man shyly told me that he knelt to propose marriage to the girl he loved, even though he thought she might laugh at him. But in the humility of true love, he meant what he said, and they are now married.

God so loved the world. That means all he has created in the world. I confess that I do not yet share my Creator’s affection for all things. For instance, I do not like, let alone love, mosquitoes. Perhaps our Lord sees, through his aesthetic lens, a mathematical symmetry and power of endurance that I will only appreciate during my first years of assimilation in Purgatory. For that matter, I find it hard to like, let alone love, some of the people rambling along 34th Street at a snail’s pace, oblivious to those behind them, and speaking loudly and rudely on their cell phones. I am not God, who loves them as I try only feebly to do. He even died for them. And for me.

Jesus became human, but from the perspective of heavenly glory, he might just as easily have become a mosquito. In the divine eye, humans are no more or less attractive than bugs, but God took upon himself the form of a slave (Philippians 2:7) because humans have the unique gift of reciprocating the love that made them. By reflecting that love, through worship and service, we are God’s agents in making the world into what he wants it to be.

I am not a mosquito, but that makes no difference to my Creator. In the seventeenth-century words of Samuel Crossman, now accessible on YouTube:

My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I,
That for my sake
My Lord should take
Frail flesh and die?

2017-06-11 Trinity Sunday – John 3:16-18

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The Feast of the Holy Trinity follows Pentecost because it is only by the inspiration of the Third Person of the Trinity, who leads into all truth, that the mystery of the Trinity can be known. Human intelligence needs God’s help to apprehend the inner reality of God. Certainly, human reason can employ natural analysis to some extent to describe God in terms of causality and motion and goodness. Saint Anselm, who models the universality of Christendom by being both an Italian and an Archbishop of Canterbury, said that “God is that, than which nothing greater can be conceived.”

A house is a house because it houses. But what is in the house is known only by entering it. Since creatures cannot enter the Creator, he makes himself known by coming into his creation. “No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has declared him” (John 1:18).

Had we invented the Trinitarian formula, it would be only a notion instead of a fact. There are just three choices: to acknowledge what God himself has declared, to deny it completely, or to change it to what makes sense without God’s help. That is why most heresies are rooted in mistakes about the Three in One and One in Three.

Unitarianism, for example, is based on a Socinian heresy. Mormonism is an exotic version of the Arian heresy. Islam has its roots in the Nestorian heresy. All three reject the Incarnation and the Trinity but selectively adopt other elements of Christianity. Like Hilaire Belloc in modern times, Dante portrayed Mohammed not as a founder of a religion but simply as a hugely persuasive heretic, albeit persuading most of the time with a sword rather than dialectic. These religions, however, are not categorically Christian heresies since “Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and catholic faith . . .” (Catechism, 2089).  Only someone who has been baptized can be an actual heretic.

Cultures are shaped by cult: that is, the way people live depends on what they worship or refuse to worship. A culture that is hostile to the Holy Trinity spins out of control. In 1919, William Butler Yeats looked on the mess of his world after the Great War:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . . .

That is the chaotic decay of human creatures ignorant of their Triune God. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” But to worship the “Holy, Holy, Holy” God as the center and source of reality is to confound anarchy: “For in Him all things were created, things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible . . .  He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:16-17).  

2017-06-04 Pentecost – John 20:19-23

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The fire that Moses saw was not by any definition what we know as fire, for it did not burn the blazing bush. The light that shone from Christ in his Transfiguration was not what is light in the canons of natural physics, because it was of an intensity beyond accessible description without damaging the sight of Peter, James and John. Fifty days after the Resurrection, in the Upper Room, there was a noise “like” a driving wind and then flames “as of” fire shone over the heads of the apostles, but the description required similitudes because the noise and the flames were not a natural noise and fire.

Christ promised that the Holy Spirit would enable human intelligence to embrace depths of reality beyond the limits of natural experience. Here at work is the principle of Saint Thomas Aquinas: “Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.” The apostles became more intensely human when they received the power of the Holy Spirit, to the extent that they traveled to lands beyond the limited environs of their early years, with a courage never before tested. They received the “glory” that Christ, on the night before he died, prayed that his disciples might share. Because that participation in the divine nature bridges time and eternity, there is an invigorating terror about it: not the dread of being diminished or annihilated, but the trembling awesomeness of breaking the bonds of death itself.

When the Holy Spirit moves a man from aimless biological existence to what Christ calls the “fullness” of life, the reaction is a little like that of someone who has heard simple tunes but then encounters a symphony. Simple pleasure may evoke smiles and then laughter, but the deepest joy can move one to tears, and that is why there is that curious experience not of laughing for joy but of weeping for joy, and the equally enigmatic experience of lovesickness.

Oft quoted is the diary account by Samuel Pepys in the seventeenth century after attending a concert: “… that which did please me beyond anything in the whole world was the wind-musique when the Angel comes down, which is so sweet that it ravished me; and endeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife.”

A fan of Jascha Heifetz told him after a performance that his violin had such a beautiful tone. The maestro placed his ear against the Stradivarius and said, “I hear nothing.”  By way of metaphor, it may be said that we exist biologically as wonderful instruments: the brain itself is the most complex organism in the universe. But we make celestial music only when the Holy Spirit conjoins our human nature with the Source of Life.