Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: November 2013

There’s more to Thanksgiving than a day at the mall…  Click on Preaching for the homily for Thanksgiving Day

Thanksgiving Day

Sir 50:22-24
1 Cor 1:3-9
Lk 17:11- 19

Earlier this week, the first book printed in America back in 1640, The Book of Psalms, sold at auction for a record sum of 12.5 million dollars, the highest price ever paid for a printed book – more than for a Gutenberg Bible or a first folio of Shakespeare’s plays.  Only 11 copies survive, two of which belonged to a Boston church, which will use the money to fund its charitable activities.  It was a fitting prelude to the deeper meaning of Thanksgiving Day.

Early this morning I checked the news stations to see how America is observing the day – there was no mention at all of going to church or Whom we might be thankful to as we count our blessings.  That’s so yesterday.  Or last century.  Today it seems that we count our blessings with cold hard credit cards.

Originally, Thanksgiving Day was a harvest festival, but the frost melted off that pumpkin a long time ago.  Today, it marks the official beginning of what is now called “the Holiday Season,” during which millions of people indulge in the great American pastime.  Not just football, though there will be plenty of that, nor even watching the Thanksgiving Day parades.  It’s shopping.  Some newscasters have even begun to refer to Thanksgiving Day as Brown Thursday, the day before Black Friday.  As if Turkey Day wasn’t bad enough.

In the midst of helium-filled comic book character balloons, jolly reindeer, Ronald McDonalds, floats and marching bands, and, of course, the grand entrance of Santa Claus,  Americans may not be thinking a lot about harvests or gratitude, much less God.  The parades, of course, are traditionally sponsored by giant department stores, and the message is clear — buy.  That’s why the government gave you am income tax refund, remember?  So be a patriot: spend.  The economic health of the nation depends on you.

Earlier this week Christmas trees were lit ceremoniously in civic plazas throughout the nation, and stores obligingly stayed open till ten P.M.  Many will be open today, too.  They usually are, but this is different. K-Mart opened at 6 AM and will remain open for 41 hours.  What’s not to love?

The Apostolic Exhortation of Pope Francis has come at an opportune moment, for he correctly identifies what is probably the besetting sin of our time – the idolization of money.  It matters little what we buy.  The important thing is that we buy.  And buy a lot. I’m not sure whether it’s greed or addiction, or a combination of both, but it’s certainly our reality.

Needless to say, the readings suggested for today strike a different note.  The first is from the late book of Ben Sira.  It describes how the high priest, Simeon the Just, the son of Onias, repaired the Temple during the struggles with the Greek conquerors after the death of Alexander the Great. [Sirach 15:1]

Finishing the service at the altars, and arranging the offering to the Most High, the Almighty,  he held out his hand for the cup and poured a drink offering of the blood of the grape; he poured it out at the foot of the altar, a pleasing odor to the Most High, the king of all. Then the sons of Aaron shouted; they blew their trumpets of hammered metal; they sounded a mighty fanfare as a reminder before the Most High. Then all the people together quickly fell to the ground on their faces to worship their Lord, the Almighty, God Most High.  Then the singers praised him with their voices in sweet and full-toned melody. [14-18]

St. Paul, of course, is always finding a reason to be thankful, even in the most difficult situations.  He must have been hard to live with.

We last heard this gospel account just a few weeks ago, on the 28th Sunday, when the readings focused on gratitude.  So in a sense, we have already considered the importance of giving thanks.   But Thanksgiving Day is different.  It’s a very American holiday, one attributed to the English Puritans in 1621, just 19 years before that Book of Psalms was printed.  Actually the French Canadians beat the English to it by about 50 years, and it is still an annual custom up there.  The Spanish may have had one down in Florida as early as 1565.  Our first National Day of Thanksgiving, was proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, during the American Civil War, as a day of fasting and prayer for national unity.  President Franklin Roosevelt moved it to the fourth Thursday in November in the war year, Dec. 1941, in an effort to boost economic morale.  He’d certainly be astonished at how that has caught on in more recent times.

I think I’ve told the story several times, but don’t stop me if you’ve heard this before.  Several years ago, Oprah Winfrey’s secretary called me with a request.  Where, she asked, in the writings of Meister Eckhart can we find Oprah’s favorite quotation?  In case you aren’t a regular that would be “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘Thank you,’ that’s enough.”

I looked for a long time.  Several other people had asked about the citation, but I had seen anything exactly like it in Eckhart’s works.   Then one day, I happened on a slightly different translation from German Sermon number 34: “If a man had no more to do with God than to be thankful, that would suffice.” [Sermon 34, Walshe translation No. 27, Vol. I. p. 209.] However you translate it, thanksgiving or gratitude is one of the highest forms of prayer as well as one of the noblest human acts we’re capable of.

Grace and gratitude go together.  It’s the same word, essentially.  So is graceful.  I was reminded by a young Greek buy some years ago as we flew to Ireland next to each other that the word for “Thank You” in Greek today is the same as it was in Jesus’ day, although pronounced a little differently.  Efchristo. Eucharistéo.

We have much to be thankful for – we have everything to be thankful for.  Despite suffering and hardship, not least that of our neighbors in Washington, Coal City, and Pekin, so many of whom expressed thanks to God after the tornadoes that their lives had been spared.  The rest can be rebuilt, just like the Temple. We should remember them in our prayers as well as our charity.  And for everything, utterly everything,  let us “give thanks to God always,” as St. Paul said, “ …because of the grace of God that has been given us in Christ Jesus” …

The old world is ending… But a new world is coming.  For the current homily, click on Preaching above.

33rd Sunday of the Year – 17 November 2013

Mal 3:19-20a = 4:1-2 (RSV)
2 Thes 3:7-12
Lk 21:5-19

It’s that wonderful time of year when the Official Holiday Season begins with a parade presided over by Mickey Mouse that celebrates the virtues of shopping, even on Thanksgiving Day itself.  It’s also when the readings in the liturgy scare tend to hell out of us, or so it is to be hoped, with accounts of what we tend to think of as the end of the world.  That’s a sure sign Advent is coming.  This year things are a little different, because many people have already had the hell scared out of them, or into them, by the Sequester and the Shutdown.  Environmental scientists are warning again that global climate change could spell the end of human civilization as we know it.  For some years now, Doomsday preppers, including God-fearing Christians, are still squirreling away food and water supplies, converting their stocks and bonds into ready cash, and moving across the country to desert and mountain hideaways.

It’s not just global warming or the hurricanes and earthquakes or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq or the civil war in Syria or the threat of an Al Qaeda attack on the Mall of America or the fall of the House of Lehman or J. P. Morgan Chase or the problem of signing up for the Affordable Care Act.  It’s all of them.  Although the stock market is edging warily upwards these days, we’re jittery. People are not shopping with the usual pre-holiday abandon that usually delights the fiscal hearts of Wal-Mart and Macy’s.

And perhaps we should be jittery, if only because of the huge mess we have made of things over the last fifty years or more.  Our learning curve is pretty flat.  But that’s really not what Jesus is talking about in today’s gospel from Luke, or that passage from the book of Malachi, which — not coincidentally — is the last book of the Old Testament.  People have been jittery for a long time.  Check it out on the History Channel.

Jesus seems to have foreseen all that and actually warned us against getting too agitated about rumors of the End Times.  In today’s reading, for instance, he says, “Take heed that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’  Do not go after them.  And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified; for this must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” (Luke 21: 8-9.)  Not by a long shot.

St. Paul was no less opposed to the spiritual and social paralysis that comes in the wake of trying to pin-point the Parousia.  He rebuked the fidgety folks in Thessalónika, many of whom had worked themselves into a stew expecting the Second Coming of Christ, “living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work.  Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work in quietness and to earn their own living.” (2 Thess 3:11-12)

So what are we supposed to do?  Why does the Church schedule these readings every year just before Advent?  By now, we have heard it all so often, we may be numb to the message.  But dismissing the age-old Christian belief in the end of the world as just another outmoded myth misses the point just as much as overreacting to always-erroneous predictions of the day and the hour.
It’s a mistake, first of all, to think that Jesus was simply talking about history, about space and time and the stock market or even the stones of the Second Temple.  What the prophet Malachi, Paul, and Jesus were all saying is that this world, with its governments, social systems, wealth, credit cards, poverty, misery, and suffering is not ultimate, not finally decisive.  Money, power, and success are not what life is all about, despite what you see on television or read in the papers.  Still, mighty nations succeed one another, corporations rise and fall, one form of currency replaces another, stock markets crash, and hurricanes come in tandem.  Stars fall out of the sky, or seem to.  Wars and rumors of war continue.  The world remains very much with us.

But the message of today’s readings is that we are not to locate our hopes or our fears in the powers and structures of this world, which are not only fallible, but will inevitably fail us.  Hope rests secure in God alone.  But, on the other hand, as St. Paul insists, we may not resign our commission as members of our communities, but must remain attentive to the very real needs of those around us and the living planet as a whole.  For the world is the scene of our activity as Christians, not in order to create some sort of perfect Christian super-state.  Religious fanatics and political dictators have tried that many times in the past.  And all they created in the long run were savage totalitarian regimes or doomed utopias that burned out or just faded into irrelevance.

It’s much simpler than that.  We are called upon to build a human city, a humane habitat, a commonwealth of love and justice, of peace, truth and freedom.  We are called to look to our neighbor in order to assist and protect, especially the poor, the oppressed, and defenseless.  For all that, Jesus warns us, we should not count on being rewarded, honored, or even thanked.  Expect, rather, to be misunderstood, opposed, and even persecuted.  Simple does not mean easy.

It isn’t by chance that the word “justice” appears so strikingly in the first reading and the responsorial psalm.  If you missed it, consider taking another look when you go home this morning or even better, before you go to bed tonight.  Even St. Paul is thinking about justice when he reminds his first small church that no one should impose on anyone else, but everyone should contribute to the extent they can to the welfare of all.

Human beings may well be able to wreck the world, and we stand a good chance of doing so if we don’t change our way of living pretty soon — especially in this richest of all nations.  But we can’t really save the world.  In the end, God bestows the New Heaven and the New Earth.  It will be a gift, not a credit-card purchase or some kind of spiritual dividend.  But we’re not just marking time here.  We are being prepared.  And so when we say we believe that Jesus Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead, we really should lift up our hearts.  For the old world is coming to an end, with all its injustice and suffering and destruction.  It has been ending all along in fact, ever since Christ rose from the dead.  A new world is coming, just as surely, but it will get here in God’s good time.  In the meantime, we have some important work to do. In a word, inserting into this teetering planet a healthy dose of peace, love, justice, and freedom.

Death be not proud — the message of autumn.  For the latest homily, click on Preaching

32nd Sunday of the Year

2 Maccabees 7: 1-2, 9-14
Thess 2:16-3:5
Luke 20:27-38

Among Catholic Christians, autumn is a particularly otherworldly season.  October is known as the month of the angels.  And November has long been counted as the month of the dead.  The ancients marked the first of November — Samhain, the Celts called it, as the first day of the winter season, the day of the dead, heralded by unearthly visitations the night before.  When in the eighth century Pope St. Gregory the Great astutely moved the Feast of All the Saints from May 13th to its present date, the connection could not have been missed in the flourishing Celtic Church. Within a century, the day afterwards was dedicated to the remembrance of all the departed.  Traditionally, the octave day of All Saints day has also been celebrated as a memorial — in many countries, the Feast of national Saints and Martyrs, and in various religious orders and congregations, including the Dominicans, we celebrate the anniversaries of our deceased members and families.

Not too surprisingly, today’s readings have a lot to do with death.  Or, more correctly, with life beyond death.  And that’s very important to keep in mind, perhaps especially as we observe Veterans’ Day tomorrow.

Catholics probably seem to outside observers to be preoccupied with death, and to some degree that is true. We pray for the dead, we pray for a happy death, we remind ourselves on Ash Wednesday  — one of the most popular celebrations in the church year — that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

Only in the modern world would all this seem odd or unhealthy. For we live in an era, as Dr. Ernest Becker eloquently reminded us a couple of decades ago, in which the denial of death has assumed major psychological and social proportions. What’s more, it is the denial of death, as dear old Freud himself recognized, that is really unhealthy. Worse yet, the more we deny death, the more it dominates our life and our culture. Catholic Christianity, on the other hand, like many other religious traditions, unflinchingly looks death in the face and thus robs it of its hidden power to terrorize.

And so, on this cool evening, when we find the liturgy of the word dwelling on the mystery of death and resurrection, we should hardly be surprised, nor — especially — frightened or disappointed. For the message these readings bear is one of hope and glory.

The account from the second Book of the Maccabees tells of the heroic faith of seven brothers and their mother, who faced excruciating tortures rather than deny their faith. At this moment in late Jewish history, the family’s resolution was steadied by an unshakable confidence in the resurrection of the dead, in which God would vindicate those who had sacrificed everything to remain true: “…since it is for his laws that we die, the King of the world will raise us up to live again forever.”

To the anxious Christians of Thessalonika, Paul, too, speaks of comfort and strength based on the love, grace, and hope that comes only from God. “May the Lord turn your hearts toward the love of God and the fortitude of Christ,” he prays, for, as with the Maccabean brothers and their mother, “God is faithful and will give you strength and guard you from the evil one…”

The Gospel passage resumes the theme of hope and confidence. It is not really about marriage or Jesus’ attitude toward marriage. It is about the resurrection of the dead, which the Sadducees denied. Behind the not-so-clever question they put to Jesus lies the Levirate Law, by which if a man dies without producing offspring, his widow was required to marry his brother, her brother-in-law or levir. This was to perpetuate the brother’s name – his lineage, honor, and inheritance, according to Deuteronomy 25:5-10. But in the life to come, Jesus tells them, there will be no need for the Levirate Law because there will be no need to raise up descendants to replace those who die. Perpetuating the family name and inheritance will no longer matter. Such things belong to this world and pass away with it.

But Jesus does not say there will be no friendship, no relationship between husbands and wives, or between children and parents, as a young married couple I know were led to fear by a well-meaning priest who used this passage to insist that marriage was for this life only. Jesus’ favorite image of the Life to Come is, after all, a great marriage feast.

Moreover, being like the angels does not mean being immaterial: Jesus, with the Pharisees whose teachings he shared, believed firmly in the resurrection of the body. Rather, just as angels cannot die, so, too, those who have been raised will never die again: “…being children of the resurrection, they are children of God.”  God is not the King of Death, but the Lord and Giver of Life.

There are no dead people in the sight of God – all are alive, eternally. Every moment is now, and there is no elsewhere.  Where the presence of God is felt, there, too, are all those who have preceded us into the light of glory, whose presence to God does not differ from our own. The only difference lies on our side, limited as we are by boundaries of space and time that also prevent us from being fully attentive to the that glorifying presence.

Why, then, do we remember the dead? Why do we pray for them? First of all, not lest they be forgotten. No one is forgotten in God’s sight. We remember those who have died because it is well for us to have their memory before us as a constant reminder of our hope and faith in God and as living models of our own inevitable Passover and our resurrection. They have gone before us; they are not part of the past.

We pray for the dead, secondly, so that they may be forgiven any sins that might hinder their entry into the living presence of God, as Judas Maccabeus said a century and a half before Christ. We pray for them, not to satisfy some debt or obligation, but to remember and strengthen our bonds with those we love in this life and the next, to recall and enact our solidarity with the whole people of God. We pray for them, so that they will pray for us, a holy exchange of care and concern that creates and unites the communion of saints. And we pray for those who have gone ahead in the hope that when we follow them, our loved ones, friends, and family will likewise remember us, as we will remember them.

So let us pray for those who have on ahead, so that living eternally in the presence of God, they will remember us when as children of the resurrection they shine like the stars among the all the holy ones.  And that we may be found worthy to join them.