Sunday, January 24, 2010

Picture the Scene

When I try to imagine the scene of this past Saturday’s gospel selection for mass, I can’t help but raise my eyebrows and ask, “What the heck was going on?”

Jesus had just selected his twelve apostles and returned to his home. “The crowd came together again,” Mark tells us, “so that they could not even eat.” (Mk 3:20). I can picture the crowd pressing in upon him, seeking to be cured of their diseases. A few verses earlier, just before he picked his apostles, Mark related how Jesus “told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they should crush him.” (Mk 3:9) Perhaps the crowd was getting out of hand, maybe even on the verge of a violent riot.

The unruliness of the crowd did not go unnoticed. “And when his friends heard it, the went out to seize him, for they said, ‘He is beside himself.’” (Mk 3:21) The crowd was large enough and loud enough to attract the attention of the friends of Jesus. It’s not clear to me whether these “friends” were apostles, disciples, or friendly acquaintances. Later, Mark will specifically mention his mother and brethren (Mk 3:31), so these are probably not they.

Those attempting to intercede appear to be concerned not about the state of the crowd, but about the state of Our Lord. “He is beside himself.” This is where my eyebrows start going up. With the crowd pressing in, what was Jesus’ behavior, evoking the concern of his friends? When we say that someone is beside himself, we typically mean that the person is in a highly emotional state. This is a stark contrast to my usual image of Jesus as a man firmly in control of his emotions. I can picture his anger at the money changers in the temple or at the Pharisees, and I can picture his sorrow at the death of Lazarus or the impending doom of Jerusalem. Even in these moments of emotion, however, I never imagine Christ as “beside himself.” What was going on here?

The gospel passage read at mass stops here. For Mark, though, this is only the beginning of the paragraph. What happens in the next verse is directly related to the two preceding verses: “And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out demons.’” (Mk 3:22) My eyebrows are now fully raised.

What caused the scribes to reach this conclusion? Was it the behavior of the crowd? Was it the apparent mental state of Jesus? Was it the actions of his friends? Was it a combination of the three? I really don’t know how to picture the scene!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Counter-Cultural Canon

Sometimes, being counter-cultural is no fun, especially if you’re doing it not because you want to, but because you are obliged to.

I’m speaking of Canon 1250.

The Code of Canon Law is binding on all Latin Rite Catholics. Eastern Rite Catholics have their own code (the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches). Canon 1250 is the law that stipulates that every Friday is to be a day of penance. The standard form for the penance is abstinence from meat, but Catholics in the United States are allowed to substitute some other form of penance. Following the Second Vatican Council, most Catholics were told that they were now allowed to eat meat on Friday, and the requirement for a substitute penance was never heard. The American Bishops’ reasoning, it seems, was that abstinence from meat wasn’t enough of a sacrifice: “Since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.”

I’ve been thinking about Canon 1250 ever since I saw it mentioned recently on another blog (God Is With Us), and I’ve concluded that it truly is a counter-cultural canon. I say that because Friday, in American culture, is anything but penitential. We have casual Friday and Friday Fun Day. Friday ends the work week and initiates the weekend. Friday night is the time to party. I would be so much easier to do penance on Monday or Wednesday.

But the Code says Fridays are penitential, in memory of Our Lord’s Passion.

Perversely, I try to have it both ways. I celebrate the end of the week, but I do it without eating meat. The abstinence acts as a reminder of my Catholic identity, but it hardly rises to the level of penance. I have, regrettably, given in to the temptation to minimalize, doing the least necessary to comply with the letter of the law, while happily whistling past the spirit of the law.

It is yet another sign that my conversion is incomplete.

I want to be obedient. I recognize the authority of the Church not only to teach doctrine, but to regulate the spiritual disciplines of her members. When the world calls us to celebration, but the bride of Christ calls us to prayer and sacrifice, I pray that I will have the wisdom and courage to follow where He would lead.

Oh Lord, purify my heart and rid me of my selfish inclinations.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Pacwa on Samuel

The non-Gospel Lectionary readings for the first two weeks of Ordinary Time are coming from 1 Samuel. We've heard of how Hannah's prayer was answered with the birth of Samuel, how Samuel served Eli and was called by God to be a prophet and judge. We've heard how Samuel annointed Saul king of Israel, and of Saul's disobedience. Very soon, Saul will annoint David and, after Saul's death, David will become king of Israel.

With Samuel on the mind, I've been listening to some of Fr. Mitch Pacwa's Old Testament Prophets series. Episode 5 covers young Samuel and Episode 6 covers Samuel as kingmaker and king breaker.

Interesting stuff, worth a listen.

Wouldn't It Be Nice If . . . ?

Every now and then, the scriptures contain a hint of something that leads to a “wouldn’t it be nice if” supposition. Sometimes, the supposition has a lot of historical support and can be found in the early Church tradition or the exegesis of the Church Fathers. At other times, there’s no support for it at all.

One example of this is in the lineage of Mary. It is widely believed that Mary, like Joseph, was descended from the line of David, giving Jesus not just a legal claim to the royal lineage, but a natural one as well. The Gospel of Luke, however, contains the detail that Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron. Wouldn’t it be nice if, like her kinswoman Elizabeth, Mary was also a daughter of Aaron?

Jesus was (is) a divine person with a divine nature and a human nature. He was also the prophet, priest, and king par excellence. In his divinity, he possessed all of the qualities necessary for this triple role from eternity. In his humanity, however, these roles would need to be acquired according to human tradition.

The royal claim is clearly established through Matthew’s genealogical map from Abraham through David to Joseph, the husband of Mary.

The role of prophet is not passed on through blood lines; rather, God calls the prophet. This call and public commission by God the Father was given to Jesus after his baptism by John, when the Holy Spirit descended upon him and drove him into the desert to be tempted.

But what about the priestly office? How does Jesus lay claim to the priesthood in human terms? There were two kinds of priesthood under the Torah, and both were handed on by bloodline. Intercession between God and man was entrusted to the descendants of Aaron, and they were assisted by the tribe of Levi.

If Mary, like her cousin Elizabeth, was descended from Aaron, then it all gets wrapped together nicely. The royal claim is through Joseph, the priestly claim is through Mary, and the prophetic claim is through the events of the Baptism.

The Catholic Encyclopedia entry for the Blessed Virgin Mary indicates that Mary might have been both. Her father, Joachim, might have been a descendent of David and her mother, Anne, a descendent of Aaron. For the most part, though, the most we can do regarding the lineage of Mary is speculate.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Future Without Down Syndrome?

As the father of a child with Down syndrome, I have mixed feelings about Dana Goldstein’s piece in The Daily Beast, ”A Future Without Down Syndrome?”. On the one hand, it’s always nice to read of parents who have come to embrace the treasures that their non-typical children are. But on the other hand, I am a little disheartened by some of the underlying assumptions: particularly that only the “very religious” or the uneducated would choose to carry to term a baby diagnosed with Trisomy 21, or that advocates are motivated by a desire not to see their child’s peer group shrink.

Ms. Goldstein, unfortunately, reflects a significant portion of American society. Too many people, it seems to me, have children for the wrong reason. Their motivations are fundamentally selfish, and they are devastated if the child is born with imperfections. The birth of a child should never be the cause of depression! (Yes, I realize that post-partum depression is real. I don't think we're talking about that here, though."

There is a curious statistic cited. “According to a study published last month in the journal Pediatrics, between 1979 and 2003, the number of babies born with the condition increased from nine to about 12 per 10,000 births.” Just how that statistic is reconciled with the contradictory, and oft-cited, statistic that as many as 90% of Down syndrome pregnancies are terminated by abortion is a mystery. Methinks maybe I should take a peak at that study.

As with many on-line articles, the comments provide some “interesting” perspectives.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Baptized for Our Sake

During Lent, as we approach Good Friday, the Lectionary leads us, in the gospel selections for the weekday mass, through progressive miracles performed by Jesus in the Gospel of John and His conflict with the Pharisees. As I followed along last year, I couldn’t help but wonder where I would have found myself. The man Jesus was teaching some pretty radical things and making appeals to authority to which no man could claim. My conclusion at that time was that the raising of Lazarus would have been a game changer for me. I might have had doubts before that, but certainly not after.

Today, the Church brings to a close the Christmas season by celebrating the Baptism of Our Lord. In the events of the Baptism, we see a public manifestation of God the Father recognizing in Jesus the authority that he already possessed. Some might argue that, on a human level, Jesus didn’t know his mission until after his Baptism. Pope Benedict XVI, however, warns against trying to psychoanalyze our Lord and the impact that his baptism by John had upon his self-awareness. “The texts give us no window into Jesus’ inner life – Jesus stands above our psychologizing.”

Imagine being present in the crowd that day. John was widely regarded to be an authentic prophet, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in Israel hundreds of years. John himself not only denied that he was the Christ, but testified that another was coming who was much greater than he. John was not fit to untie the thong of his sandal, and he would baptize with the fire and the spirit, rather than with the mere water that John used. One day, while baptizing in the Jordan, a man comes out with the crowds, and John says, “Behold the lamb of God!” The man wants John to baptize him, and John tries to demur, saying, “I need to be baptized by you!” The man insists, and John obeys. Then something truly amazing happens. The heavens open, and the spirit of God visibly descends upon the man, and a voice from heaven declares the man his Son!

All four gospels are in agreement regarding the phenomena that accompanied the Baptism of Jesus. For a person present at the Baptism, it would not have been so hard to accept the controversial claims of the man Jesus. It would not have taken the raising of Lazarus. My personal conclusion is that the descent of the Holy Spirit and the affirmation of the Father were not for the sake of the Son. The Son knew who he was, but no one else did. It had been thirty years since the angels announced the birth of the messiah to the shepherds and the magi had brought him gifts. Now that he was to begin his public ministry, it was necessary to renew his divine certification.

Whenever I purchase gasoline, the pump is marked with the Auditor’s seal. The presence of the seal certifies that I’m getting what I think I’m getting. Placing the seal on the pump does not change the way the pump works, and it doesn’t change what comes out of the nozzle. It gives me confidence that it is what it says it is. In the same way, the dove and the voice after Jesus’ Baptism gave those who witnessed it confidence that Jesus was who he said he was.

Jesus didn’t need the Baptism, we did.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Gold Standard Feminism

I often listen to National Public Radio while driving to and from work. NPR’s late afternoon/early evening news program is called “All Things Considered”, and on Wednesday evening, ATC aired a remembrance of feminist theologian Mary Daly.

I must live a sheltered life, because I had never heard of Ms. Daly. The ATC profile, however, had me laughing out loud at points. For example, we are asked to believe that the Catholic Church feared Daly because she was a radical lesbian feminist. According to Ms. Daly, the Trinity was derived from triple goddesses in ancient culture. The patriarchy stole all of women’s creativity, creative energies, and religion.

The fact that she was a member of the faculty in the theology department of a major Catholic University (Boston College) for more than thirty years, speaks rather negatively of our Catholic universities. Could it be that, rather than fearing her, the Church thought it best to either ignore her kook theories or actually present the authentic deposit of faith, which was at odds with what she was selling?

Professor Lawrence Cunningham of the University of Notre Dame noted that Daly could be described as the “gold standard for absolute feminism.” In other words, if Daly was a 10 on the feminism spectrum, then every other feminist would be something less than a 10, therefore allowing them to describe their views as “moderate.”

I really want to believe that most people would hear her theories and find them to be nonsense. The fact that many people apparently took them seriously makes me wonder whether our society is in need of a reboot.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Rhetorical Excess

Rhetoric can be a dangerous thing, especially when it resorts to hyperbole and exaggeration without making it clear that the author knows that he’s exaggerating. When any left-wing ideologue referred to President Bush as the second-coming of Adolph Hitler, it did nothing to strengthen their criticism of his policies. If anything, it revealed that the person employing the comparison didn’t really appreciate just how evil Hitler was. When this tactic was used too often, it diminished the stature not of Bush, but of Hitler. After all, if Bush was just like Hitler, then Hitler couldn’t have been too bad. It’s a false, ridiculous, and repulsive line of argument.

It’s unfortunate that the tactic is resorted to by both enemies and friends.

There is an article today at Catholic Exchange by Colin Mason, the Director for Media Production at the Population Research Institute. In it, he argues that many groups are presenting themselves as Catholic while promoting an agenda that is at odds with what the Catholic Church teaches. He specifically cites Catholics for Choice, Catholics United, and Catholics for Health Care Reform. I whole-heartedly agree with most of what he has written. Where he loses me is when he brings up the reaction of press and of the executive director of Catholics United to criticism by Deal Hudson.

For pointing out the obvious, Hudson was summarily crucified in the press and by Catholics United. Chris Korzen, executive director of Catholics United, shot back that “abortion is legal in the United States, and there’s not much either Catholics United or Deal Hudson can do to change that.” He promptly went on to demolish his own Catholic credibility by insisting that his organization was neither “pro-abortion rights or anti-abortion rights,” but “pro-common ground.”

Deal Hudson was criticized. You could stretch things a little and say that he was attacked. He certainly was not “summarily crucified.” To say as much belittles the reality of crucifixion.

Hudson has a scandalous past. He has rehabilitated himself admirably, and I trust that he has repented. He can defend himself, presumably without suggesting that any criticism of him is comparable to executing God.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Complications and Happiness

The feeling comes upon me every now and then: the desire to pull up stakes and relocate the family.

Some enterprising pollster recently decided to measure people’s happiness and catalog it according to geographic location. Ohio, it turns out, is way down on the list of states, ranked according to happiness. We are 44th out of 51. The District of Columbia, so it appears, is now a state. I can’t help but wonder why Puerto Rico and Guam were left off the list. Any relocation that we might make based on the happiness ranking, however, would have to be fairly far. None of the states bordering Ohio ranks any higher than 34th, and both Indiana and Michigan fare even worse than we do. The closest state to rank in the top ten is Tennessee at 4th. Ah, Tennessee, with its rolling hills and its country music! I could learn to like Tennessee.

It’s never going to happen, though. Especially now.

We’re in the middle of a construction project on our 80 year-old house, and we’re taking on a bunch (for us) of new debt in the process. We now “own” the house even more than we did before. We’re not going anywhere. The accumulated complications of life aren’t going to offer us an easy way out, not that I ever really expected that they would.

The temptation to look around and see greener grass anywhere other than in your own yard is a powerful one. It also usually turns out to be an illusion.

I used to scoff at people who warned me that my teen-aged kids would drive me batty. “Not mine,” I would insist. “I’m raising mine right.” I don’t scoff anymore. Instead, I wonder that God has entrusted such a responsibility to me, and I hope and pray that I don’t screw it up too much. I know that all too soon, they’ll be moved out, accumulating their own complications. I only hope (selfishly, I know) that they don’t move far.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Shepherdless, Hungry Sheep

In the liturgical calendar, Christmas continues for another week. We don’t begin Ordinary Time until after the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord this coming Sunday. In this Christmas Tuesday following Epiphany, the Church has selected as the gospel reading for the mass Mark 6:34-44, which recounts one of the instances in which Jesus multiplied the loaves. Where does this passage fit into the Christmas season?

As I read Mark’s account, two observations come to mind. First, the convergence of signs and symbols that I noted in my post, Something About Christmas, continues. Second, the numbers are significant.

“When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” (Mk 6:34) God’s people were like sheep, so He sent to them the Lamb of God. They were without a shepherd, so He sent to them the Good Shepherd. “You give them something to eat.” (Mk 6:37) Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread” and was laid in a feed box. God gave the Israelites manna in the desert, but Jesus identified himself as the “true bread from heaven” and the “bread of life.” “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (Jn 6:35) The Eucharist is woven throughout the gospels, from the Christmas narrative, through the miracles of Christ, to the Last Supper and the passion, death, and resurrection. It is truly the source and summit of our lives.

The numbers (five thousand fed with twelve baskets left over) are significant. Don’t take my word for it, though. Two chapters later, in Mark 8, Jesus feeds four thousand with seven loaves and seven baskets left over. When the apostles then misunderstand His words about the leaven of the Pharisees, thinking that He’s talking about physical bread, He seems to become a little exasperated. “’Do you still not see or understand? Are you hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see; and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many baskets did you pick up?’ ‘Twelve,’ they replied. ‘And when I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?’ They answered, ‘Seven.’ He said to them, ‘Do you still no understand?’” (Mk 8:17-21)

We can only guess at what the numbers mean, since scripture isn’t explicit, and our culture doesn’t place as much symbolic meaning in numbers as Hebrew culture did. One interpretation, which I believe comes from Dr. Scott Hahn, is that the fives and twelve refer to the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) and the twelve tribes of Israel, whereas the four and sevens refer to the four cardinal directions and completion or perfection, such that the two miracles of the loaves represent the extension of God’s covenant to all people, and not just to the Israelites.

Whatever the numbers might mean, Jesus seemed to think it was important that the Apostles understand the significance. We can only trust that the point He was making has been transmitted to us by the successors to the Apostles, such that we get the teaching, even though it isn’t explicitly explained in this passage of scripture.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Happy Anniversary

My wife created this wonderful video last year, on the occasion of our 16th Anniversary. Today we celebrate our 17th.