I don’t often share my homilies, but here’s what I preached this weekend at our parish of St. Joseph in Spreckels, California.
I don’t often share my homilies, but here’s what I preached this weekend at our parish of St. Joseph in Spreckels, California.
It is no coincidence that today’s Antiphon occurs on the shortest day of the year, the Winter Solstice. The “darkest” and shortest day, with the least sunlight of the entire year. On this day, then, the Church remembers that Christ, the Morning Star extolled in the great Exultet on the Vigil of Easter, brings light back into the world. The Latin root of the word “oriens” is “East”, the direction from which the sun “rises.” This explains the various English translations attempting to capture that sense: “morning sun”, “dayspring”, “morning star,” “dawn” and so on. The point is simple and based on Isaiah: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined” (Is 9:2).
Pope Francis spends considerable time in Evangelii Gaudium speaking of the dangers facing “pastoral workers”: those clergy and laity who together attempt to serve the needs of others. Among those challenges, he writes that “the biggest threat of all gradually takes shape: ‘the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small mindedness.'” He is quoting then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger from a speech given at a gathering the Presidents of the Latin American Episcopal Commissions for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1996. Pope Francis continues:
Disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves, they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like “the most precisous of the devil’s potions.” Called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate. For all this, I repeat: Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelization. . . . One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, “sourpusses” (#83, 85).
Although these words are focused on pastoral workers, they certainly apply to all people. In today’s world, it is easy to become overwhelmed and discouraged. As the pope reminds us, though, as followers of Christ and proclaimers of the Gospel, we are “called to radiate light” and only in our relationship with Christ and the relationships which flow from that primal relationship, can we truly carry that light into the world. Pope St. John Paul II told deacons and wives in an audience in 2000 that, when they were discouraged they should “throw yourselves into the arms of Christ, and he will refresh you.” In these final days of Advent, no better advice can be given!
Are we ourselves discouraged and overwhelmed at this time of year? As Christ the Morning Star enters the world, may we too be illumined and strengthened to bear that light to others. No sourpusses allowed! “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. . . .”: Are we, disciples of Christ and heralds of the Gospel, perpetuating the darkness, or sharing the Light?
Today the Church, again using the language of the prophet Isaiah, refers to the Messiah as the Key of David. Consider the following passages:
The notion that of the Messiah as the one with the power of the key is further referenced in the New Testament when Christ gives the “power of the keys” to Peter. While, of course, the Key can “shut, and no one can open,” the hope of the Antiphon is on the opening of dungeons and the liberation of people from bondage. With Christ comes freedom.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis often uses the language of freedom and openness to all in their need. Consider, at #63:
We must recognize that if part of our baptized people lack a sense of belonging to the Church, this is also due to certain structures and the occasionally unwelcoming atmosphere of some of our parishes and communities, or to a bureaucratic way of dealing with problems, be they simple or complex, in the lives of our people. In many places an administrative approach prevails over a pastoral approach, as does a concentration on administering the sacraments apart from other forms of evangelization.
While the pope clearly criticizes certain cultural and societal shortcomings which devalue the human person and keep them “locked up” in various ways, he continues to level criticism as appropriate on the structures of the Church itself and the attitudes of some of its people. For example, at #70:
It is also true that at times greater emphasis is placed on the outward expressions and traditions of some groups, or an alleged private revelations which would replace all else, than on the impulse of Christian piety.There is a kind of Christianity made up of devotions reflecting an individual and sentimental faith life which does not in fact correspond to authentic “popular piety”. Some people promote these expressions while not being in the least concerned with the advancement of society or the formation of the laity, and in certain cases they do so in order to obtain economic benefits or some power over others. . . . It is undeniable that many people feel disillusioned and no longer identify with the Catholic tradition. Growing numbers of parents do not bring their children for baptism or teach them how to pray. There is also a certain exodus towards other faith communities. The causes of this breakdown include: a lack of opportunity for dialogue in families, the influence of the communications media, a relativistic subjectivism, unbridled consumerism which feeds the market, lack of pastoral care among the poor, the failure of our institutions to be welcoming, and our difficulty in restoring a mystical adherence to the faith in a pluralistic religious landscape.
This is quite a review! So how does the “Key of David” open us up to address this general breakdown? We believe that Christ, fulfilling those prophecies of Isaiah, IS the light to the nations, and he IS able to open the eyes of the blind, and to set those imprisoned free. Since this is a blog dedicated to all things diaconal, we can ask specifically of all who are ordained to this service: How are we to “use” the Key of David in our ministries? How might we address that rather bleak checklist of “prison cells” enumerated by the pope? Each one of those items is, in fact, hampering the freedom of all, and we are called to help break down those barriers. How can we improve family communication, use the power of the media in positive ways, preach the objective truth that God loves God’s creation and wants all to live in freedom, the use of resources for the common good of all, reach out with new energy to the poor and the marginalized, be a more welcoming parish community, and assist in developing a healthy Christian spirituality? Christ is the Key, and he has called us all to participate in the use of that Key in the world today.
Take a look around the parish. What structures, policies and practices can and must be reformed so that the Key (Christ) can be more effectively used? Are there things keeping people “in their place” rather than setting them free? Now look beyond the parish? What needs in the community are not being met at all? How can we move outside parish and even Church boundaries to carry the Key to all of those imprisoned?
O Root of Jesse, standing
as a sign among the peoples;
before you kings will shut their mouths,
to you the nations will make their prayer:
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
Until now I have simply used the English translation of the O Antiphons found in several editions of the Liturgy of the Hours; however, I much prefer the accuracy and the flow of this translation, especially at the very beginning! The Latin text begins, “O Radix Jesse” and many English translations have translated this as “Flower of Jesse”. In this case I favor the more literal “root” because it signals clearly the Mystery being invoked in this prayer.
I have also been introduced recently to the work of Malcolm Guite, a poet, singer-songwriter, professor and member of the clergy at Cambridge. Here’s his sonnet on this antiphon, for which I am most grateful:
All of us sprung from one deep-hidden seed,
Rose from a root invisible to all.
We knew the virtues once of every weed,
But, severed from the roots of ritual,
We surf the surface of a wide-screen world
And find no virtue in the virtual.
We shrivel on the edges of a wood
Whose heart we once inhabited in love,
Now we have need of you, forgotten Root
The stock and stem of every living thing
Whom once we worshiped in the sacred grove,
For now is winter, now is withering
Unless we let you root us deep within,
Under the ground of being, graft us in.
The point of the ancient antiphon is to identify the coming Messiah as the very root and foundation of creation and covenant. Our connection to Christ and to the world is not a superficial grafting onto a minor branch of the family tree, but to the very root itself. We are grounded, connected and vitally linked to Christ.
In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis turns to some particular challenges facing today’s world, echoing yet again the Second Vatican Council’s work in Gaudium et Spes, which provided five “problems of special urgency” which they saw facing the world in 1965. The pope observes, “In our time humanity is experiencing a turning-point in its history, as we can see from the advances being made in so many fields” (#52) He praises developments in health care, education and communication, while reminding us that
the majority of our contemporaries are barely living from day to day. . . . a number of diseases are spreading. The hearts of many people are gripped by fear and desperation. . . the joy of living frequently fades, lack of respect for others and violence are on the rise, and inequality is increasingly evident. It is a struggle to live. . . . We are in an age of knowledge and information, which has led to new and often anonymous kinds of power.
Clearly what the Pope is concerned about is exclusion and inequality, people who are cut off from society and church. It is within this context that he makes his now-famous statements about the economy. However, when looking at his comments as a whole and within their proper context, what he is saying is nothing but traditional catholic social teaching based solidly on the Gospel. He condemns ANY “economy of exclusion and inequality. How can it be that it is not a news item when as elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock mart loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrwon away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality” (#53).
Much ink and cyberspace has been spilled and filled with analyses of the pope’s subsequent remarks on “trickle-down” theories. To me, all of that hyperbolic posturing has missed the pope’s point. Following those sections, the pope writes, “Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting [and] al those lives stunted for opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us” (#54). Any economic system which cuts people off, ignores them, or marginalizes them in any way, needs to be reformed. This is the moral concern expressed in all of Catholic social teaching, and highlighted at the Second Vatican Council, subsequent official teaching, and now by Pope Francis. We are to be a people of INCLUSION AND EQUALITY, not exclusion and inequality.
Financial systems are to serve, not to rule. The Pope writes of those types of systems which are grounded in a “rejection of ethics and a rejection of God” (#57). Ethics is derided, he says, because “it is seen as counterproductive, too human, because it makes money and power relative. It is felt to be a threat, since it condemns the manipulation and debasement of the person. . . . Ethics [however] leads to a God who calls for a committed response which is outside the categories of the marketplace.” Once again, the value of the human person in modern economic systems has been a concern even before Pope Leo XIII’s landmark 1891 encyclical, Rerum Novarum.
The pope’s message is quite clear and, when considered as part of our Advent reflection on “O Root of Jesse”, particularly on point. As Christians we thrive when we are grafted to the Messiah, the source of life. The whole theme of today’s antiphon is the importance of this life-giving connection in our daily lives, and the importance for all people to be part of our “family tree”. A focus on economic theory that does not take this underlying principle into account will miss the whole message being proclaimed and, I dare say, the entire message of the Gospel itself!
In my own life and ministry, do I keep the fundamental truth of the “Root of Jesse” in mind? Do I seek to find ways to include all persons equally in the life of the church? What structures and attitudes exist which are exclusionary and unequal and need to be changed? In Guite’s words, do we run the risk of being cut off from the Root and find ourselves blowing, disconnected, across and increasingly arid and lifeless landscape?
O sacred Lord [O Adonai] of Ancient Israel, who showed yourself to Moses in the burning bush, who gave him the holy law on Sinai mountain: come, stretch out your mighty hand to set us free.
The last reflection ended on the note of freedom, and that’s where we now begin. Remember that the “O Antiphons” are titles to be associated with the Messiah, the Anointed One; here the Messiah is linked to the Lord of Israel who saved Israel. The connection continues through the allusion to Moses, called to lead the people to freedom in God’s name, and to whom God would give the Torah on Sinai. Although in English we tend to interpret “law” in a sense of “rules”, that is not the way it is understood in Hebrew and the Jewish tradition. Torah refers to instruction or teaching. In the covenant relationship with God, these instructions describe the practical nature of how the covenant is to be lived.
With this distinction in mind, let us turn again to Evangelii Gaudium.
Our relationship with God is not about law enforcement but about faithfulness and compassion in the relationship. Pope Francis (#44) reminds pastors and others who serve in ministry that, “without detracting from the evangelical ideal, they need to accompany with mercy and patience the eventual stages of personal growth as these progressively occur.”
I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy which spurs us on to do our best. A small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties.
The Church, the pope reminds his readers, is always open because God is always open to all. “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open” (#47). In addressing the pastoral consequences of this radical openness, the pope tackles a current issue head on:
The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.
The pope concludes the chapter by recalling his frequent exhortation that he prefers “a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a Church concerned with being at the center and which then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures.”
The God of Israel, Adonai, is the God of all.
In serving others, do we accept the challenge to be missionary, to be constantly reaching out to others rather than sitting in our churches waiting for people to come to us? Do we act as “arbiters of grace” or “facilitators of grace”? Are we guilty of treating the Eucharist as a “prize for the perfect” or do we understand Eucharist as Adonai reaching out to all in mercy? Adonai, the Lord God of Israel, comes to set us all free, and we who serve in any way, are challenged to be instruments of that freedom.
O Wisdom, O holy Word of God, you govern all creation with your strong yet gentle care. Come and show your people the way to salvation.
Providentially, the theme of divine Wisdom seems particularly appropriate as we pick up where we left off with the Pope Apostolic Exhortation; namely, with a section entitled: “A Mission embodied within human limits.” We are a people constantly in seek of Wisdom, both as individuals and as a People of faith. This is actually the pope’s starting point. In paragraph #40, the pope refers to the entire Church as a missionary disciple, a disciple who “needs to grow in her interpretation of the revealed word and in her understanding of truth.” It is interesting to think of the entire People of God in this way: as a singular disciple on mission. Just as I, as an individual Christian disciple, need constantly to grow in understanding, so too does the entire Church. The Pope reminds those of us who serve in the ministry of theology: “It is the task of exegetes and theologians to help ‘the judgment of the Church to mature.'” This is a quote taken directly from the Second Vatican Council’s monumental Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum, #12).
Without specifying particular examples, the pope continues:
Within the Church countless issues are being studied and reflected upon with great freedom. Differing currents of thought in philosophy, theology and pastoral practice, if open to being reconciled by the Spirit in respect and love, can enable the Church to grow, since all of the help to express more clearly the immense riches of God’s word. For those who long for a monolithic body of doctrine guarded by all and leaving no room for nuance, this might appear as undesirable and leading to confusion. But in fact such variety serves to bring out and develop different facets of the inexhaustible riches of the Gospel.
This call for a broad and diverse search for wisdom, as we shall see in a moment, once again calls upon the wisdom of the whole Tradition of the Church, with this particular section supported by an extensive reference to St. Thomas Aquinas; shortly, Pope Francis will call to mind the example of St. John XXIII who says essentially the same thing! Wisdom, in short, is not “monolithic”, nor is it a hoard of theological propositions known in fullness and waiting only to be transmitted verbatim and intact to succeeding generations, cultures and peoples. The pope writes, in #41: “Today’s vast and rapid cultural changes demand that we constantly seek ways of expressing unchanging truths in a language which brings out their abiding newness. ‘The deposit of the faith is one thing, the way it is expressed is another.'” That is the voice of St. John XXIII, exhorting the world’s bishops at the beginning of the Second Vatican Council. Pope Francis cautions that when some people “hold fast to a formulation [which] fails to convey its substance,” we can — with every good intention — “sometimes give them a false god or a human ideal which is not really Christian.” He then cites St. John Paul II, who wrote that “the expression of truth can take different forms. The renewal of these forms of expression becomes necessary for the sake of transmitting to the people of today the Gospel message in its unchanging meaning.”
This quest for expressing eternal truth in various ways in order to communicate, not only the words but the meaning of truth, continues when considering the various customs and practices of the Church, as a missionary disciple.
In her ongoing discernment, the Church can also come to see that certain customs not directly connected to the heart of the Gospel, even some which have deep historical roots, are no longer properly understood and appreciated. Some of these customs may be beautiful, but they no longer serve as means of communicating the Gospel. We should not be afraid to re-examine them. . . . St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God “are very few”. Citing Saint Augustine, he noted that the precepts subsequently enjoined by the Church should be insisted upon with moderation “so as not to burden the lives of the faithful” and make our religion of form of servitude, whereas “God’s mercy has willed that should be free.” This warning, issued many centuries ago, is most timely today. It ought to be one f the criteria to be taken into account in considering a reform of the Church her preaching would would enable it to reach everyone.
We have already seen in earlier sections of the document that the pope is committed to helping the Church recover her missionary purpose, and that this mission is not only to reach everyone in a general way, but in very concrete ways which are understandable to all people today, regardless of culture or history or age. Past ages found beautiful and creative ways of expressing eternal truths in their own day and time; we must not do the same for our own, and not merely try to repeat the brilliant work of the past which may no longer be capable of communicating truth as it once did.
As we move more intently into our final preparations for celebrating the coming of Christ anew into our lives, how well do I express my faith to others in ways that are full of meaning, promise and hope? What about our parish: What customs do we continue to hold onto which — if we were truly honest with each other — no long seem to be capable of expressing the truth of our relationship with Christ and our responsibility to the world around us. Honestly review our lives as individuals and as parish, and then reflect: Do we unduly “burden” those around us? Do we have the courage to let go and to let God inspire us with Divine Wisdom in finding new ways to proclaim the Christ to the world. For those of us who serve as deacons, do we continue to grow, not only as disciples, but in our ministerial competence? Are we open to new ideas, even when those ideas may be challenging to our former ways of thought? “O Wisdom” is a title given to Christ today; may our own relationship with Wisdom give us the freedom and courage to find new ways of sharing God’s truth.
We haven’t looked at the Pope’s Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium since December 4 and here we are in the final week before Christmas. I thought this might be a good time, as we have entered into the period of the “O” Antiphons, to reflect on aspects of the Exhortation through the lens of those Antiphons. Since they started yesterday (December 17), I’m already a day behind! I’ll try to catch up with two reflections today.
But first, a bit about the “O” Antiphons. They are the seven daily refrains used with the recitation of the Magnificat at Vespers (Evening Prayer) from December 17-23. They are very ancient and go back to the earliest years of the Church.
If these titles look familiar, you may recognize them as the various stanzas of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, which is based on them. In subsequent posts, I’ll reflect on Evangelii Gaudium in light of each antiphon.
“Call me Ishmael. . . . Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul. . . I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can; I quietly take to the ship." -- Herman Melville
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