“WHAT THEN SHALL WE CALL YOU?” (Mt 7:21, 24-27): 06 December 2007 (Thursday)

“WHAT THEN SHALL WE CALL YOU?”  (Mt 7:21, 24-27):  06 December 2007 (Thursday)

Reading:  www.nccbuscc.org/nab/120607.shtml

Some years ago, American singer Joan Osborne had a controverial hit song called “One of Us”–a song most recently used as the theme for the TV series “Joan of Arcadia.”  The first lines go:  “If God had a name, what would it be, and would you call it to his face?”

The gospel today warns us against simply calling Jesus “Lord” to his face.  Calling him Lord just isn’t going to be enough to get us to heaven.  So my question is:  If calling him “Lord” isn’t enough, what name does he prefer?  What then shall we call him?

I remember when I was a first-year novice twenty years ago, our novice master repeatedly told us that prayer shouldn’t just be about talking to God, but should involve listening to him.  So I tried doing just that:  I sat in the chapel to pray, listening for God’s voice.  I waited and waited.  Each day I went to a different chapel, prayed in a different position, closed my eyes and knitted my brows in deep concentration, but all I heard was the sound of my breathing and my own distracted wandering thoughts.  I couldn’t sense God’s presence.  I even tried using a mantra–repeating Christ’s name like some magical incantation–but all to no avail.

Not until after several weeks of hard work at it did I finally–by God’s grace– receive some satisfactory prayer experience.  Those first few weeks, however, taught me a valuable lesson not only about prayer, but also about the Lord:  He is truly transcendent.  We can never capture him and conveniently contain him in a box.  As the mystics say, God is “like the wind that blows where it pleases.”  Although he is present everywhere, our sense of his presence, our experience of him, is a gift he gives only when he wills it and only to those he wishes, whether deserving or not.  The most we can do is to wait humbly and patiently.

Today’s reading warns us against being content with simply calling him Lord.  Uttering his name will not automatically summon his presence and will not guarantee our salvation.  But our Lord also shares a secret with us:  If we really want to be close to him, more important than what we say and what we pray is what we do:  to “do the will of the Father”–i.e., to love and serve our neighbor.  In a word, to follow Jesus.

The music video of Joan Osborne’s “One of Us” features a carnival where every sort of odd-looking people stand behind a standee of Michaelangelo’s Creator and stick their faces into the hole where God’s face has been cut out.  I think it tells us that because God has truly become one of us, if we want to find him, we need to seek him in our neighbor.  His name is really not just “Lord.”  His name is also “brother.”

(image:  www.hotmixradio.fr)

Note:  I’ve uploaded the song if you wish to listen to it.  The lyrics are as follows:

ONE OF US (Joan Osborne)

If God had a name, what would it be
And would you call it to his face
If you were faced with him in all his glory
What would you ask if you had just one question

And yeah yeah God is great yeah yeah God is good
yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah

What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home

If God had a face what would it look like
And would you want to see
If seeing meant that you would have to believe
In things like heaven and in jesus and the saints and all the prophets

And yeah yeah god is great yeah yeah god is good
yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah

What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home
He’s trying to make his way home
Back up to heaven all alone
Nobody calling on the phone
Except for the pope maybe in rome

And yeah yeah God is great yeah yeah God is good
yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah

What if God was one of us
Just a slob like one of us
Just a stranger on the bus
Trying to make his way home
Just trying to make his way home
Like a holy rolling stone
Back up to heaven all alone
Just trying to make his way home
Nobody calling on the phone
Except for the Pope maybe in Rome


“WHY NOT ALWAYS?” (Mt 15:29-37): 05 December 2007 (Wednesday)

“WHY NOT ALWAYS?”  (Mt 15:29-37): 05 December 2007 (Wednesday)

Reading: www.nccbuscc.org/nab/120507.shtml

That’s a lot of miracles Jesus performed in today’s gospel reading:  healing of the sick and feeding of the hungry–all in a day’s work!  I don’t know about you, but when I read something like that and I watch CNN or BBC or scan the morning papers and learn about all the suffering and hungry people in our world today, I can’t help but turn to the Lord and ask: “These miracles that you can do–why not perform them habitually?  Why only occasionally?  Why not always?”

God knows–and he literally does!–how much our world desperately needs miracles!  Despite modern technology, we still have millions of people suffering and dying of incurable illnesses.  And despite the abundance of food in certain places in the world, millions of children still die each day from hunger.

When I read about these miracles of healing and multiplication of loaves and fish, I can’t help but wonder why the Lord doesn’t perform more of them today.  Why indeed do his miracles have to be the exception rather than the rule?

There must be a good reason why God insists that we follow the laws of nature, and why he allows the pain and death that seem to be inevitable consequences of these laws.  The philosophers and theologians can come up with their intellectual discourses, but when I see the the devastated bodies  of the sick and the emaciated faces of starving children, I just don’t get it!  I know God is all-good and all-powerful, so what gives?

When I was a kid, I was told that when Job, that innocent man of the Old Testament, was stricken with unimaginable suffering, he piously intoned, “The Lord has given, and he has taken away!”  But later I found out that he said that only in the beginning.  For the rest of the book (in fact, most of it!), Job complained and demanded an explanation from God for his inexplicable suffering.  Unfortunately, God didn’t give him any explanation–and to this day, as far as I know, God hasn’t to anyone.

But what the Lord does is give us some kind of prescription–one that I suppose he thinks we can follow even without understanding.  We find this prescription in the feeding of the crowd.  The disciples ask him, “Where do we get the food to feed this crowd?”  And the Lord responds with a question, “What do you have?”  And the Lord takes what the disciples have–seven loaves, we’re told, and a few fish–and uses them to miraculously feed everybody.

In response to our questions and complaints about the sufferings and hunger of the world, the Lord invites us to share whatever we have, and to believe that he will use what we have–no matter how little, no matter how limited–to perform his much longed-for miracles.

So I guess the question we can ask ourselves today is:  Can we share the little that we have to heal and feed the world?  And if we can, his question to us will probably be the same question we had for him:  Why not do it habitually?  Why not always?

(image:  www.public.iastate.edu)

“DID YOU KNOW?” (Lk 10:22): 04 December 2007 (Tuesday)

“DID YOU KNOW?” (Lk 10:22): 04 December 2007 (Tuesday)

Reading: www.nccbuscc.org/nab/120407.shtml

The way our Lord spoke in the Gospel today certainly sounded like he knew what he was talking about.  He sounded so certain about who he was and what his relationship to the Father was–i.e., the Messiah, the Son of the Most High, and the only, almost exclusive, Way to the Father.  Those of us who prefer a superhuman Christ should be consoled by that.

However, most biblical scholars today would say that these words were probably added by his disciples only after the Resurrection, when they were more certain about the meaning of Christ’s person and life.  So the question I’d like to ask the Lord is:  “Did you know? Did you know for sure that you were the Messiah, the Divine Son of God?”

In one of the most moving and most meaningful Theology classes I had years ago, our professor, Fr. C. G. Arevalo, extended an invitation to us to speculate,  to imagine what Christ might have thought and felt as a human person. After all, the Church staunchly  teaches that Christ is both totally divine and totally human.  That’s also what the Bible says:  that he was like us in all things except sin.

If Christ, therefore, was totally human, it would not have been possible for him to know for sure who he was every moment of his life.  Ambiguity is part and parcel of being human, so if our Lord was truly totally human, then he couldn’t have been 100% sure about who he was and who God was for him!

As a result of that class, I wrote a song called “Something More,” which was about Christ asking if he was indeed “the One” people were looking for.  In other words, maybe the Lord didn’t know for sure.  At best he had a hunch, but he did not completely understand.  St. Paul had a term for Christ’s condition in his letter to the Philippians:  kenosis, meaning “self-emptying.”  In Christ, God emptied himself, his divinity, to become human.  I suppose the ‘self-emptying’ included divine omniscience.   When God emptied himself in Christ, the divine was hidden not only from people, but even from Christ himself!  That’s how human he must have been!

Some people might suspect that this Christ with all our human limitations might be a reduction of his divinity.  But that’s true only if you think you become less divine if you are more human, and that’s exactly what Christianity is not about.  Christianity teaches us through the Incarnation that there is no opposition between being divine and being human.

I don’t know about you, but this less-than-superhuman Christ, this less-than-certain Christ who probably struggled and lost sleep about who he was, who knew but also like us, did not know for sure if he was following God’s Will–such a Christ is more real and more appealing to me.  Such a Christ understands me more–my own questions, my own struggles, even my own doubts.  One of the most consoling things about the Christian faith is that it offers not a God who is distant and who, because of his perfection, does not and can never understand our imperfections.  Instead it offers us a somewhat subversive face of a God who is intimately linked to us and who remains perfect and divine but because of the human imperfection he willingly embraced, can and does understand our imperfections as well.

I don’t know about you, but such a God, such a Christ, inspires more love and more gratitude in me.  How wonderful that we have such a God!

(image: www.oel-bild.de/Bilder)

“WILL THEY SUSPEND THEIR DISBELIEF?” (Mt 8:5-11): 03 December 2007 (Monday – Feast of Francis Xavier)

“WILL THEY SUSPEND THEIR DISBELIEF?” (Mt 8:5-11):  03 December 2007 (Monday – Feast of Francis Xavier)

Reading: www.nccbuscc.org/nab/120307.shtml

There is a story about St. Francis Xavier that even the most pious among us may find hard to believe.  It involves–of all things–a crab!  The story goes this way:  In 1546, Francis Xavier’s boat was caught in a storm in the Moluccas.  During the voyage, he accidentally dropped his crucifix into the turbulent waters and gave it up for lost. The next day, however, as he was walking by the sea, a crab miraculously brought his crucifix back to him.

Did the event actually happen?  If we believe in miracles, if we hold that “nothing is impossible with God,” of course we have to concede that such a miracle is at least possible. But given the laws of nature and the usual way the world operates, we also have to quickly add that it’s probably unlikely that a particularly helpful and honest crab happened to be swimming around in the stormy sea and conveniently found the lost crucifix, grabbing it by its claw and delivering it personally back to the saint.

But what’s so remarkable about this story is not so much that it happened (because really, who knows if it did?), but that so many people actually believed it.  In fact, the crab story was depicted on the altar at  Xavier’s canonization rites and was one of the four miracles represented on the banner that decorated the basilica for the occasion.  This, for me, is the real miracle–that the people who knew Francis Xavier believed so much in his holiness that they were willing to believe such an incredible legend.  The crab story is proof of Xavier’s holiness not so much because of the alleged miracle, but because of people’s utter willingness to suspend their disbelief about this most unlikely of stories.  My hunch is that they must have seen in Xavier enough of God to believe that normal animal behavior would miraculously alter to serve the saint.

It seems to me then that the holier a person is, the more eager people will be to suspend their disbelief and accept even the fantastic and impossible.  This is how the centurion was with Jesus in the gospel story.  But the opposite is also true:  The less reputation for holiness a person has, the less easily convinced people will be about one’s ability to perform extraordinary miracles–or come to think of it, even simply in that person’s ordinary capacity to do good.

So let’s ask ourselves this question:  “If people hear that I did something good, will they believe me?  Will they be willing to suspend their disbelief?”

One unforgettable evening over twenty years ago, I invited a small group of high school friends to dinner.  After the meal, I broke the news: I had made the important decision to quit my job to enter the priesthood.  The stunned silence that followed my announcement was eventually broken by one of my best friends, who could not hide his disbelief. “That’s impossible!’ he said with his characteristic candor and lack of tact.  “You’ve got all the wrong values!”

So much for suspension of disbelief!  Of course we all had a good laugh over that, but I realized that given his reaction, I might as well have told him the crab story!

Today we remember St. Francis Xavier, a holy man and one of the greatest missionaries in history.  May he inspire us to keep working at being holy or even at simply doing good.  And not because we want our friends to believe some crab story about us in the future, but because we hope that like those who knew St. Francis Xavier, people will also catch a glimpse of God in us.

(image:  Jgotinga)

“DARE WE HOPE?” (Mt 24:37-44): 02 December 2007 (First Sunday of Advent)

“DARE WE HOPE?” (Mt 24:37-44):  02 December 2007 (First Sunday of Advent)

Reading: www.nccbuscc.org/nab/120207.shtml

I watched the movie “Evan Almighty” recently.  As many of us know, it’s about a newly elected congressman, Evan Baxter (Steve Carrell), who is all set to start his term when strange things begin to happen–e.g., the number “614” appears everywhere and all sorts of animals follow him around.  “614” turns out to be Genesis 6:14, where God commands Noah to build an ark.  And soon enough, God himself (Morgan Freeman) appears to Evan and, to the novice congressman’s dismay, gives him almost the exact same instruction. Despite his initial reluctance, like every good prophet, Evan finally concedes and actually becomes passionate about his cause.

I wasn’t surprised when the movie made me laugh, but I certainly was surprised when it made me cry!  “Evan Almighty” is a moving “feel-good” film that also offers a couple of lessons that we can use as we begin this season of Advent.

Lesson #1:  According to the film, God doesn’t “give” things; he only provides opportunities for us to get things.  It’s a timely lesson for Advent, this season of waiting.  I’ve always found it strange to be told to wait for Christ’s coming when he already did over 2000 years ago!  But Morgan Freeman’s God is right:  It isn’t exactly the case that the gift of Christ has been given, but that the opportunities to unwrap this gift are always available.

Lesson #2:  The movie offers a somewhat cheesy but profound acronym of “ark”:  Acts of Random Kindness.  One way to change the world, the movie suggests, is through such “acts of random kindness.”  If we make it a habit to perform such acts, then the “day of the Lord” that the Gospel today warns us about will perhaps catch us by surprise, but certainly not unprepared.

That’s a couple of things we can keep in mind and do as we enter into the Advent season:  Look out for opportunities to find Christ in our lives and opportunities to perform acts of random kindness in the world.  If we find and avail of these opportunities, before we know it, we will have received the gift of Christ and with him–dare we hope?–the gift of a changed world.

(image: en.epochtimes.com/news)

‘WHO’S DROWSY?’ (Lk 21:34-36): 01 December 2007 (Saturday)

‘WHO’S DROWSY?’ (Lk 21:34-36):  01 December 2007 (Saturday)

Reading: www.nccbuscc.org/nab/120107.shtml

Jesus today warns us against drowsy hearts.  That’s a strange and almost funny image, isn’t it?  But it should be easy enough to imagine what the Lord means. He mentions carousing, drunkenness, and daily anxieties as possible causes.  These are things that keep us from doing what’s right, and from recognizing the Lord in our lives.  To recognize the Lord requires a fully alert heart; to follow him demands a self-disciplined heart.

The medieval mystics have another term for this “drowsiness of heart”:  “acedia” or sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins.  Sloth means spiritual apathy or laziness.  But I think today we have an even more familiar term for it.  It’s a complaint we hear all the time these days (even from five year olds!):  Boredom.  How easily we get bored these days!  How quickly we yawn and turn away, thinking to ourselves, “Been there, done that! What’s new?” and all the while, telling ourselves how cool we are not to be so easily pleased or satisfied.

Boredom can be a dangerous thing because it’s a symptom of having a drowsy heart.  When we’re bored, we are unable–or refuse–to be caught by surprise because we think we’ve seen it all.  When we’re bored, we make ourselves incapable of the sensitivity and the vigilance required to recognize the hidden Lord.

So maybe that’s one simple thing we can do today.  Just for today, let us refuse to let anything bore us.  Just for today, let’s try to look at the world with a little more wonder, a little more awe, and a little less drowsiness, even if the world has grown a little too familiar to us.  For all we know, God is there hiding in the most ordinary of things, and a valuable grace awaits us wrapped in the most boring of routines.  Just for today, can we refuse to get bored?

(image:  www.safety-council.com)

“CAN I DO THAT?” (Mt 4:18-22): 30 November 2007 (Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, Friday)

“CAN I DO THAT?” (Mt 4:18-22):  30 November 2007 (Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, Friday)

Reading: www.nccbuscc.org/nab/113007.shtml

One word leaps out of today’s gospel story:  “Immediately.”  The story is about the call of the so-called “first disciples”–two sets of brothers, four fishermen:  Simon Peter and Andrew, John and James.  Matthew tells the story simply:  Jesus walks by the sea–purposelessly, it seems–and chances upon the unsuspecting men.  Quite out of the blue–again it seems–he invites them, and “at once” Simon and Andrew leave their boats.  And not much later, James and John leave their nets–“immediately.”  Continue reading “CAN I DO THAT?” (Mt 4:18-22): 30 November 2007 (Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle, Friday)