Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Transfiguration and the Liturgy (Lent 2A)

Who will be best remembered – Pope Benedict XVI or Joseph Ratzinger? My question hasn't as much to do with the Holy Father's bold decision to resign, as with the remarkable scholarly writing of Joseph Ratzinger over more than half a century.

It is hard to know where to begin in reviewing the remarkable career of Pope Benedict as a theological writer. Most of us are aware of the warm reception that the three volumes of his book Jesus of Nazareth received from academics and ordinary people alike. But the theological writings that came before Joseph Ratzinger's election as pope could fill a bookshelf; and this week I took down two of his books from my shelf. One is a classic, written in 1999, called The Spirit of the Liturgy. The other is A New Song for the Lord, a collection of essays put together in 1996, dealing with the same topic but with a particular emphasis on music.

It's not rocket science to figure out that two things influenced my homily this week – the impending retirement of the Pope, and the presence of this wonderful choir from Redeemer Pacific College. But my thoughts came together around the Gospel be we hear this Sunday, the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus.

"It is good to be here." Even in such a dramatic moment as the appearance of Elijah and Moses on the mountain with Jesus—Jesus dazzlingly whitePeter's simple words resound.

Can we make St. Peter's words our own this morning? Can we say 'it is good to be here'good to be gathered at the altar for this Eucharist?

To answer this question we might well ask three more questions: they are the opening words of The Spirit of the Liturgy. "What is the liturgy? What happens during the liturgy? What kind of reality do we encounter here?"

Cardinal Ratzinger, as he then was, spends the whole book answering these questions.  But one of his insights connects to today's Gospel, where God teaches the three apostles about his Son by means of their senses, displaying his glory in a way they can see, and affirming his mission in a way they can hear.

The future Pope wrote "We can reach out toward God in our thinking and try to feel our way toward him.  But real liturgy implies that God responds and reveals how we can worship him… [Liturgy] cannot spring from imagination, our own creativitythen it would remain just a cry in the dark or mere self-affirmation.

Peter got creative with his idea for tent-building. But God remains in charge of the conversation, and Peter's human response goes nowhere. And no wonder, for in A New Song for the Lord, Pope Benedict tells us that the flesh of Jesus is the true temple and the true "tent."

At the same time, we must admire Peter's eagerness to do something on that holy mountain. In the same book, the Pope reminds us that "God's incarnation was his entry into matter, the beginning of a momentous movement in which all matter is to become a vessel for the Word... As a consequence, Christians are now deriving pleasure from making faith visible, from constructing its symbol in the world of matter."

Another basic idea is connected to this: "the idea of glorification, the attempt to turn the earth into praise, right down to the stones themselves, and thus to anticipate the world to come. The buildings in which faith is expressed are, as it were, a visualized hope and a confident statement of what can come to be, projected into the present."

And if this can be said about church buildings, think about the liturgy itself, this very material expression of the spiritual and infinite. It is good for us to be here, because here the Lord manifests his glory to usnot in the same way as on the mount of Transfiguration, but in the manner he chose and revealed at the Last Supper.

It is good for us to be here, to stay awake and alert for the Word the Father speaks to us.

What does the liturgy call forth from us? Already we have noted as simple a thing as our desire to have a materially beautiful church. But we can never forget St. Peter's own words telling us that we are the living stones God is using to build a spiritual temple. (1 Peter 2:5) We not only witness God's glory: we do our part to make it seen by others.

The welcome presence of the Redeemer Pacific College choir at Mass this morning reminds us that music is a powerful, even necessary, element of good liturgy. It's surprising how much Pope Benedict has to say about music in his theological writings. He even refers in one place to "the musical imperative of the Bible." 

This imperative, he writes, "is the concrete version of the call to worship and glorify God which is revealed in the Bible as the most profound vocation of human beings. This means that musical expression is part of the proper human response to God's self revelation, to his becoming open to a relationship with us. Mere speech, mere silence, mere action are not enough. That integral way of humanly expressing joy or sorrow, consent or complaint which occurs in singing is necessary for responding to God, who touches us precisely in the totality of our being."

These are deep thoughts, expressed in complex ways. But they are just echoes of Peter's exclamation "Master, it is good for us to be here."

It is good for us all to be here, for here we come as close to the glory of God as he wills us to, this side of Christ's return.  It is good for this fine choir to be here, that human gifts may be used to draw us nearer to the place where we glimpse what God still has in store for us as his plan for Salvation unfolds in his Church and in our lives.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Tempting the Church! (Lent 1A)

"Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, "To you I will give their glory and all authority; for it has been given over to me, and I will give it anyone I please."

Imagine the temerity--the sheer evil--of speaking those words directly to the Sovereign Lord of heaven and earth! And face to face with Jesus, the Evil One doesn't even need to hide his identity, for Jesus knows well who he is. The temptation, like the tempter, is breathtakingly, nakedly, evil.

Jesus, of course, vanquishes this and the devil's other temptations by wielding the sword of God's Word; its power turns aside Satan's coarse insinuations and misuse of Scripture. This victory, however, does not vanquish Satan once and for all; he will continue to repeat his offer to all who will listen, until the end of time.

"To you I will give their glory and all authority; for it has been given over to me, and I will give it anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours." The words once spoken to our Lord echoed all week in the pages of newspapers, on television and the internet, as the world reacted to the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI.

One commentator after another promised the Church worldly success and esteem, if only she bows down before the altar of modernity--if only she rejects her ancient ways and outdated beliefs; if only she turns aside from the "conservative" legacy of Benedict XVI and Blessed John Paul.

Even the usually-insightful Robert Fulford called in the National Post for "a democratic reconstruction of the Catholic Church," by which he clearly meant abandoning all doctrines which Catholics find difficult and with which he does not agree.

All we need to do in order to obtain the world's acceptance and respect is to leave behind centuries of teaching about sexual morality, the dignity of the human person, and the nature of the family. Then all will be ours, and the media will grant the Church a place among all the kingdoms of the world.

Let's be honest: the media does not speak these insidious words mainly to the Cardinals who will elect the next Pope. We can presume they are somewhat immune to such blandishments, given the graces of their episcopal office and station in the Church. The words are spoken to us--and who among us doesn't fell just a twinge of temptation at the thought of being better accepted at work, or school, or among our friends?

The media can give anyone it pleases the blessing of social acceptance, and can curse anyone it pleases with social stigma. Wouldn't it be nice to be approved instead of scorned, and at such a low price? A doctrine changed here, a dogma there. A Pope who isn't "conservative."

Yet the only response the serious Catholic can make is the one Jesus made in the wilderness. We will worship and serve only God, and we will rejoice that we have had leaders who did the same.

I read a fine response to the cacophony of analysis of the Pope's retirement on a blog maintained by young Canadian Jesuits.The entire post is dramatic and well worth reading, but I was particularly struck by how the media furore moved seminarian Santiago Rodriguez, SJ to reflect on the blessings of Pope Benedict's papacy:

Benedict XVI's resignation trended on Twitter and Facebook all day long, while television and radio commentators were discussing the news ad nauseam. Bloggers and pundits offered their opinions about what this meant for the Pope, for the Papacy, for the papal conclave and for the Church. Many opined and remarked about the Pope's greatest achievements, and where the Church and his Papacy had fallen short. I quickly grew tired of the analysis and the criticism, and started to reflect on what the Holy Father's resignation meant for me. ...

Benedict XVI has always been a teacher, and a good one at that. He admits that being a teacher has always been an important part of his vocation and his ministry. Someone once told me that people used to flock to see Pope John Paul II, but they congregate to hear Pope Benedict XVI. One only needs to attend one of his Wednesday audiences or read one of his books to realize what an amazing teacher he is. 

In his decision to resign as the Bishop of Rome, the Pope is teaching the value of acknowledging our own frailty and vulnerability. Through his actions, he is instructing us to accept ourselves as we are. He is showing us that it is alright to let down our guard. What good does it do for us to praise the Holy Father for his actions, when we are constantly attempting to appear strong, talented and knowledgeable? When we rid ourselves of the walls we build around us, we allow others in, we invite them to do likewise. In that process, we learn to accept one another as we are. We gain incredible freedom and we experience healing.

In light of this historical moment, I feel drawn to assess and rethink the way I live with my own frailty and vulnerability. I am called to reflect about my need for humility and meekness of heart. This invitation comes at a perfect time, for today, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent. I think that the Pope had thought about the timing of this decision. It witnesses to the reality of Lent. In resigning and accepting his frailty and his need for prayers, Benedict XVI is testifying to the reality of this liturgical season.

As my mind wonders about the future of the Church and about the successor of this great teacher, I am in awe of the timing of this decision. For the Pope is asking us to fast and pray. He is inviting us to recollect and to pray for the Church. He knows, a little too well, that the election of a Pontiff is not a political process, but a spiritual happening. Thus, he calls us to pray for the Church and as a Church. He reminds us that Lent is the best time to ask for spiritual freedom. He displayed that freedom in his decision to step down. He is asking us to pray and to fast, in order to acquire spiritual freedom as we prepare for the election of the new Pope and for the celebration of Easter. Both celebrations require that we free ourselves from our attachments and agendas, in order to be able to follow the will of God, to continue discerning and building the Kingdom of God.

I am grateful to Benedict XVI for his great service to the Church. I am grateful for his reminder that “I must decrease while he must increase” (John 3:30). I am grateful to God the Father for the gift of this servant of the servants of God. I am thankful to Jesus for the mission he has entrusted to all of us in the Church; a mission the Pope has fulfilled so well. I am grateful to the Holy Spirit for the way the Holy Father was inspired to teach, to love and to serve, and for the way the Spirit drives us into the desert of this Lenten season to prepare spiritually, to discern and to build the Kingdom of God. 

Read the entire post here.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

In the Net (Sunday 5.C)

When you check out a movie or a restaurant or a hotel on the internet, you’ll often find it rated by a number of stars—three star, four star, or whatever.

I’m thinking of rating my homilies by the number of cups of coffee they took to write—one cup, two cup etc. This morning’s homily gets at least three cups—because I didn’t know where to start.

I wanted to talk about St. Peter, of course. I just got back from praying at his tomb in Rome and from hearing his successor, Pope Benedict, so St. Peter seemed a logical place to start.

But what Jesus says to Peter, “from now on you will be catching people,” made me think about the tremendous work of evangelization that is happening in our parish, so I wanted to speak about the amazing response to our Alpha Course, and to promote the Shy Catholic course that’s coming up next week—practical training to help us become fishers of people.

And of course what Peter says to Jesus, “go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” turned my thoughts to Lent, coming up this Wednesday, and to the penitence that’s part and parcel of it.

With all that’s going on in today’s Gospel and in our lives, I really had trouble kick-starting this homily.

Then all of a sudden, I zoomed in on one word: nets.

The story opens with the disciples washing their nets. Jesus tells them to cast out their nets. And dramatically those nets are filled with fish. It’s easy to leave the nets in the background, but what if we take a closer look?

Obviously, for fishermen, a net is a tool of the trade. It must be kept clean and dry, and mended when necessary. So I think we might very well step back and take a look at what the nets might mean at the beginning of this story.

Could they not represent our preoccupation with making a living? Don’t we sometimes get “caught up” in the net of work? Perhaps those disciples were paying no attention to Jesus or to the eager crowd as they went about their job.

Of course that’s only one kind of net from which we might need to untangle ourselves as Lent begins. What about basketball nets, and soccer nets, and hockey nets? What about Sportsnet?

Sports plays an important place in developing human qualities, especially in the young, and in maintaining good health for all ages. But if we get caught in the net, so involved that there is no time or energy for God on Sunday, we may need to take a look at how we or our children approach these activities.  And Lent is an ideal time for that.

The dictionary includes this meaning for net: “a means of catching or securing someone or something.” We use this definition when we say “the criminal slipped through the net.” Is there a net that’s tripping us up in our walk with Christ?

Various bad habits and addictions can hold us back from the spiritual, emotional and physical freedom God wants us to have. But to move towards freedom we need to get our feet out of the net that’s snaring us; Lent offers an opportunity for self-assessment and sacrifice that’s often a good first step.

And of course let’s not forget the internet! That net challenges modern Christians as perhaps never before, providing enormous spiritual and intellectual resources right beside terrible temptations and trials.

Some people have been snared by that net, others are simply preoccupied by it. All Christians should use Lent to ask whether they are spending time on the net that makes them forget Jesus or the needs of others.

Used properly, most of these nets—obligations and work and home, our legitimate recreational activities, even the internet—have a place in God’s plan for us. But when they trip us up, or hold us captive, it’s time to listen more closely to what Jesus says to Peter: “Put out into the deep water” so that our Christian life does not become shallow.

What does it mean to put out into the deep? Pope Benedict gives an excellent answer in his message for Lent this year, which might be summed up in two words—get moving! 

Here is what the Holy Father says: “Lent invites us, through the traditional practices of the Christian life, to nourish our faith by careful and extended listening to the word of God and by receiving the sacraments, and at the same time to grow in charity and in love for God and neighbour, not least through the specific practices of fasting, penance and almsgiving.”

From this menu—reading and praying with Scripture, receiving the sacraments, especially confession, works of charity and especially the ancient disciplines of fasting, penance and almsgiving—each of us should choose concrete means of letting down our nets for an abundant catch of spiritual growth this Lent.

To conclude in an even more concrete way, I invite everyone in the parish—young and old—to consider how next Sunday’s Shy Catholic Conference can fit in with your Lenten plan, and help you to learn more about how you can be a fisher of people among your family, friends and co-workers.