Saturday, February 21, 2015

Our Covenant of One Revisited (Lent 1B)

Samuel Goldwyn, the legendary movie producer, never said the famous words “a verbal contract ain’t worth the paper it’s written on.” But apparently he liked the line so much that he was perfectly happy when people attributed it to him.

The fact is, valid contracts can be verbal or in writing. Nonetheless, for the agreement to last, it pretty well needs to be written down.

Bishop Fulton Sheen, the first and (surely!) last priest to have his own network radio and TV shows, was once carefully studying his contract for a television program. He looked up and said “the big print giveth, and the fine print taketh away.”

Fortunately for us, God chose to sign written contracts with his people. He signed the first one with a rainbow. He signed the last with the blood of his Son.

Of course we don’t call these contracts—we call them covenants.

The word ‘covenant,’ which we hear in the first reading, is a translation of a Hebrew word meaning a sacred contract of partnership. All the Semitic peoples believed they were bound to their gods by such contracts, but the covenant with Israel was a free and sovereign initiative by the Lord himself. [“Covenant,” Louis Bouyer, Dictionary of Theology, 104]

This covenant was fundamental to God’s plan as revealed to Abraham; it was at the very root of the existence of the chosen people as the People of God.

Throughout the history of Israel, God showed himself to be faithful to his covenant while demanding their faithfulness in return. Ultimately, he announced through the Prophets that the covenant based on the Ten Commandments had to give way to a new and everlasting covenant written on human hearts.

All this was in the mind of Christ when he instituted the New Covenant at the Last Supper.

I’ve just noted the essential importance of the covenant to God’s plan. One theological dictionary says that the idea of a plan centred in the formation of a people that is truly God’s own, completely underlies the Word of God. And the notion of a divine plan is behind the idea of Providence through which, as St. Paul says, all things work for good for those who love God. [”Plan,” Louis Bouyer, Dictionary of Theology, 351]

All of which should be more than enough to focus our attention on the words of our first reading today. In this short text from the book of Genesis God himself uses the word ‘covenant’ five times. The promise he makes, that there will never again be a world-destroying flood might not hold our attention—but behind it is a marvellous promise of a time of salvation.

Behind it, too, is the reminder of baptism. The only flood God will ever cause to purify the world is the flood of Grace poured out in the baptismal font.

We are blessed to live under the New Covenant, but there is much to learn from the story of Noah. The world got a fresh start from the Great Flood; we get the same every Lent.

Countless people were destroyed by the waters of that flood, while Noah was safe in the Ark. Although we, too, are threatened by the raging waters of “greed, lust, drugs, alcohol, gambling, and materialism” we, too, have been offered safety in an ark: the Church.

Like Noah’s Ark, the Church floats us over the flood waters to a place of safety. [S. Joseph Krempa, Captured Fire, 33]

All this, and more, is promised to us in the New Covenant we celebrate at Mass today. But although God’s covenant with his people has changed, he has not. In response to his perfect faithfulness, he still expects that we will be faithful to him in return.

In the Sundays before Advent our parish celebrated God’s covenant with us. We narrowed our own response to the simplicity of a ‘Covenant of One’—one extra hour of prayer, one hour of Christian service, and one hour’s weekly wages offered to the Church.

Now Lent has arrived. Can there be a better time to take stock? How have we been doing in honouring our pledges to the Lord?

If you’re still working out your Lenten program, nothing could be simpler than to recommit to these three pillars of stewardship and Christian life.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Healing the Evil of Isolation (Sunday 6B)

When youngsters throw up nowadays, we say they’ve caught the norovirus. When I was a kid, we just called it the flu. But we did our share of throwing up.

I remember what my mother used to do. She’d hold my head as I knelt at the toilet bowl. Not saying anything, just holding my head.

You might think it’s in poor taste to talk about throwing up in a homily. But if the Lord can talk about leprosy—the most repugnant disease of his time—I can get away with it.

The reason this memory came to mind today is the importance I attached to having someone who loved me sharing my childhood misery. Forty years later when I had minor surgery at St. Paul’s, my mother was there when I came out of the anesthetic; it was just a coincidence that she was in town—I wasn’t such a wuss that I asked my mother to fly out from Toronto—but I recall thinking not too many middle-aged men had their mommy driving them home from the hospital.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals someone who had no-one.

It’s easy to focus on the physical side of the miracle. And I might have done so this morning if I hadn’t looked carefully at where this story appears in Mark’s Gospel. It comes near the very beginning, in chapter one.

St. Mark had so many stories to choose from as he told his Gospel. Those who eventually organized it in written form had to make all kinds of choices when they ordered the narrative. Yet the healing of a solitary leper is important enough to be placed at the start of the greatest story ever told.

Why is this?

It can’t be because the good news of Jesus Christ was going to be mostly about sick people getting well. If that’s true, Christianity is false. Christians get sick about as often as other people; every Christian dies sooner or later; some die before their time.

Surely this and every other healing miracle points beyond itself to something beyond the physical—something even more important than good health and even earthly life itself.

The first thing Jesus does for the man is talk to him! Other folk would have run the other way—the cry of “Unclean! Unclean!” was fair warning. But Jesus stands his ground as the leper kneels before him.

The second thing Jesus does, when he grants the leper’s prayer, is restore the man to society. As the first reading shows, a leper was isolated from family and friends—from the experience of community and social life. There was no one to hold his hand, much less his head, no family members to offer support.

Few modern Christians have the call or the charism to work miracles of healing, although it’s not unknown. But all of us can resist the urge to run from those who frighten us; all of us can allow the angry, the unreasonable, the demanding, and the needy to approach us with their needs.

Father Joseph Krempa, whom I often quote, points out that there are spiritual wounds greater than the marks of leprosy described in today’s first reading. “Hate, anger, bitterness, arrogance, envy and fear are real sores in the soul that we carry around. They can isolate us from others as surely as the leper’s skin condition isolated him from people around him years ago.” [Captured Fire, Cycle B, 91]

We need to allow Jesus to heal these sores in our souls, particularly through honest self-examination and the sacrament of penance.

At the same time, we are called to restore others to life in community. Some of us have elderly neighbours who have shut themselves off from social contact. Others can help to end the isolation that many people experience in hospitals and care homes.

We can bring Jesus and his healing work into the lives of those whom society no longer welcomes and values. We cannot heal them physically, but we can help them find healing in their souls.

There are two reasons why I find the theme of today’s liturgy so pressing.

The first is that Father Xavier’s long absence has put me back on the front lines in caring for the sick and housebound of our parish. While he has been away I have spent more time visiting the sick, saying Mass at the care homes, and making calls at Lions Gate Hospital.

In the first place, I have seen firsthand the generosity and the effectiveness of the ministry of our parishioners who visit the sick and who serve them as Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. The healing hand of Christ reaches out weekly from this altar to many people, thanks to their dedicated service.

In the second place, I have seen that Jesus is just as much a healer now as he was during his earthly ministry. Only some concern for their privacy stops me from telling you stories of the sick and dying I have anointed this past month—men and women whose physical health is failing but whose spiritual health could make some saints jealous.

To tell one story, I asked a parishioner who is very close to death whether she was ready to meet the Lord. With a smile she replied, “As ready as I’ll ever be!”

Finally, the recent court decision in favour of assisted suicide and euthanasia makes the theme of today’s liturgy more pressing than ever. The healing ministry of Jesus that the Gospels describe and the Church continues is an antidote to the isolation and fear that can tempt lonely and suffering people to end their lives.

We cannot stop speaking of the evils the Supreme Court may have unleashed—as last St. Paul’s words reminded us last week, woe to us if we do. This week’s bulletin contains a fine booklet on euthanasia produced by the Canadian Catholic Organization for Life and Family. I don’t hesitate to say that it’s your Christian duty to read it.

In his poem, “The Death of the Hired Man,” Robert Frost says “home” is “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” It’s also, in his lovely phrase, “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”

Christ’s love is “home.” It’s a place where no-one who needs it is turned away. His healing is something we don’t deserve but which we can freely claim.

Let us bring that healing to others even as we accept it ever more deeply in our own wounded hearts.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel of Life (Sunday 5B)

On Friday morning, Canada as I’ve known it disappeared by a vote of 9-0.
By a unanimous decision, our Supreme Court decreed that "The prohibition on physician-assisted dying infringes on the right to life, liberty and security of the person in a manner that is not in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice."  The court gave Parliament a year to recognize in law the right of consenting adults who are enduring “intolerable” physical or mental suffering to seek medical help in ending their lives.
The decision did not limit physician-assisted suicide to those suffering a terminal illness.
Not one dissenting voice on the court opposed this destructive change to Canada’s legal tradition of protecting human life—already greatly weakened by the abortion licence the Supreme Court ‘granted’ in 1988—not one!
Many evils have slowly crept into Canadian society; this one arrived with a huge leap. As the medical ethicist Margaret Somerville said “It’s not an incremental change… It’s a seismic change in our most fundamental values.”
She added “I think future generations will look back on this decision and what comes out of it as the single most important values decision of the 21st century.”
Words written by Friedrich Gustav Niemöller, a German anti-Nazi,
theologian and Lutheran pastor (1892-1994) are probably known to many of you:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Although Niemöller was initially a supporter of Adolf Hitler, he became one of the founders of the Confessional Church, which opposed Nazi control of German Protestant churches, and spent from 1937 to 1945 in concentration camps.  After the war, and until his death at the age of 92, he expressed his deep regret at not having done more to oppose the evils that had taken over German society during the Nazi era.

At this moment I do not know what will replace what Canada has lost.  Will we be another Netherlands, Belgium or Switzerland?   Or will we descend to the very depths of the Brave New World painted by Aldous Huxley in his 1932 novel?

In a devastating National Post column written on the eve of the Supreme Court decision, Father Raymond J. de Souza explores these questions better than I can. I urge you to read it; I’ll go further than that: it is your duty as a Christian to read it.

Now wait a moment.  How can a pastor say it’s my duty to read something? I like to pick my issues and read what I want, some might reply.

But St. Paul has a slightly scary answer to that in today’s second reading.  “Woe to me if I do not proclaim the Gospel!”

That exclamation is not unique to apostles and saints. Woe to any Christian who does not proclaim the Gospel—for, like St. Paul, we have an obligation to do so, a commission received in baptism. Jesus himself commanded all his disciples, and not the apostles only, to proclaim his teaching to all nations (Mt. 28:19-20).

The Good News of Jesus Christ cannot be limited to the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ—what we might call the basic Christian message of salvation. St. John Paul II made this wonderfully clear when he coined the term “the Gospel of Life.” He said that it must be preached “with dauntless fidelity as ‘good news’ to the people of every age and culture.” (Evangelium Vitae, 1.1)

Woe to us if we do not preach this Gospel of Life—in word and deed. What punishment may follow on society and even on individual Christians as a result of our failure to defend the life of the vulnerable?

In a letter he wrote on Friday, Archbishop Miller points out that this obligation is by no means limited to what we say or what we write in letters to the editor or to politicians, important as these things are.

“So that we do not forget out own personal responsibilities, all of us need to be reminded to spend time with those who are dying, disabled, depressed, or elderly. A principal reason why people lose the desire to live is their isolation and loneliness.”

It’s interesting to look at what the Archbishop wrote in the light of our first reading. There’s no doubt about it: Job would like to die. Life is not worth living in the face of the multiple evils that have afflicted him. We all know his story—Job’s situation is precisely what the Supreme Court was thinking about.

But what about the end of his story?

If you open your Bible to the final chapter of the book of Job, you’ll read “The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning… And Job died, old and full of days.”

It’s all but certain that euthanasia will become a substitute for the proper treatment of severe depression, especially in the elderly and the lonely.

Christians understand the redemptive value of human suffering—united to the suffering of Christ it promotes our own salvation and the salvation of the world—but nonetheless we do not see suffering as a good thing; clearly it is not.  Part of our proclamation of the Gospel of Life is to alleviate suffering of every kind.

Archbishop Miller urges us to “call on governments, health authorities and the healing professions to improve access to palliative care.”

“We know,” he says, “that when people are provided with palliative care that takes away pain and reduces suffering, their desire for assisted suicide almost always goes away.”

Of course we can’t effectively meet our commission to proclaim the good news without informing ourselves.  How many of us really know what the Church teaches about death and dying? About medical ethics? How many of us know her wise teaching about the legitimate refusal of extraordinary levels of medical intervention?

For almost two thousand years the Church has been caring for the sick in one way or another—following the example of Jesus, whom we see in today’s Gospel as healer of body and soul. For centuries the members of religious orders have founded Catholic hospitals, now largely run in Canada by the public authorities that fund them. Perhaps the horrible wake-up call we have received is an invitation for the lay faithful to look at new models of Catholic health care.

As you can tell, today’s homily isn’t about the slippery slope down which we are skidding; again, I urge you to read Father de Souza’s article—not this week, but today, with Job and St. Paul and Jesus fresh in your mind. Today I am talking mainly about Christian life—about the demands of being a true disciple and not just a churchgoer in a post-Christian society.

During the last fifty or sixty years, as anti-Catholic prejudice in the U.S. and Canada lessened greatly, we began to enjoy “fitting in” with the mainstream.  In fact, many of you in church today don’t even remember how strong that prejudice once was. Right here in B.C. a Catholic could not hope for a good job in the provincial civil service, and at least two major department stores would not hire Catholics.

Well, we’re right out of the mainstream now—which, when you think about it, is where serious Christians belong.

The list of professions directly affected by society’s refusal to recognize fundamental moral values and the conscience of Christians who do recognize them grows day by day. Those of you who work in fields that are not under attack will be required to support those who do.

During his lifetime, Pastor Niemöller rewrote his famous words many times, substituting different people for the socialists, the trade unionists and the Jews. If he were alive today in Canada, I wonder if he might say something like this…
First they came for the politicians and I did not speak out—because I was not a politician.
Then they came for the lawyers and I did not speak out—because I was not a lawyer.
Then they came for the doctors and I did not speak out—because I was not a doctor.
Then they came for the nurses and I did not speak out—because I was not a nurse.
Then they came for the evangelicals and I did not speak out—because I was not an evangelical.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.