19 February 2017

As a Temple of the Holy Spirit. . .how are you doing?

7th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

I want you to fill in the blank: “My salvation through Christ is like ________.” Like Christ the Lifeguard saving me from drowning in sin. Like Jesus the Physician curing me from the terminal illness called death. Like Christ the SWAT team member rescuing me the kidnapper, Satan. All of these images and the ones you could invent yourselves are fine as far as they go. No image of our salvation is ever going to be perfect. But there is one element of our salvation that even some of our oldest images leave out. When Christ the Lifeguard saves me from drowning, I do not become the Lifeguard. When Jesus the Physician cures my death, I don't become the Physician. Same goes for the Christ the SWAT team member. When he rescues me from Satan, I do not become a SWAT team member. However, in the Church's oldest understanding of how we are saved by Christ, we become Christ when we are saved. Or rather, we are put on the path to becoming Christ. Paul hints at this when he writes, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” So, I'll ask you: how are you doing – out there in the world – as the temple of the Spirit of God?

And not only as the temple of the Spirit of God but also as a child of God who is becoming Christ for others! How's that going for you? If you want to object and say that we've upped the ante on entering the spiritual game. . .well, you're right. Maybe we've become a bit lazy about how we evaluate our growth in holiness? Maybe your measure is something like: “Well, I didn't kill anyone today. I'm doing great!” Or maybe your measure goes like this: “I made it to Mass before the gospel three Sundays in a row. I'm doing great!” Don't get me wrong here. Not killing someone and getting to the Sunday Mass before the gospel are good things. But they do not measure your growth in holiness. The measure we must use is a bit more. . .complicated than that. Jesus teaches us the proper measure by exposing the foundation of the Law, saying, “You have heard it said. . .but I say to you. . .” He says that the foundation of the Law is the law of love, sacrificial love – giving what you have, giving who you are to another in need. Holiness is not about not sinning. Holiness is not about finding the loopholes in the rules and playing lawyerly tricks with them. Holiness is about living in the world as the temple of the Spirit of God, as one who is becoming Christ for others. 
Has anyone here seen the new movie, Silence? It's about a Jesuit missionary to Japan in the 16th century. Long story short. . .the missionary is eventually convinced by a gov't official to denounce his faith and become a Buddhist. How is this accomplished? Not by torture or deprivation. Basically, the official comforts the Jesuit priest into apostasy; that is, the priest is given a nice house, plenty of clean clothes, a beautiful wife, and a prestigious position in the gov't. The official also tortures the priest's followers in front of him, telling him that only he can stop their pain. How? By denouncing Christ and converting to the Buddha. In other words, the official does everything 21stc. secular culture does to the American Christian. We have plenty of food, clothes, shelter, gadgets, cars, medical care, heat in the winter, A/C in the summer, near limitless entertainment choices, and even the illusion of political freedom. We can continue having all these. . .if we attach ourselves to them and let them tell us who we are. If we let them attach themselves to us and tell us that they alone can save us, they alone can make us happy. 

Secular culture doesn't need to throw us to the lions or put us in jail to convince us to deny Christ. It's perfectly content to allow us to keep our shallow measures of Christian holiness so long as we leave Christ in his gilded box inside the church. But our Lord did not die on the cross so that we might have somewhere to go at 6.00pm on a Sunday. He did not die for us so that we might be part of a weird little religious club that meets in secret. Christ died on the cross so that we might be saved from sin and death. So that we might be made heirs to his Father's kingdom. So that we might be baptized in water and fire and rise again to take the Good News into the world and let the world know that the Father has forgiven every sin and wants every man, woman, and child ever born to be His adopted sons and daughters. Christ died on the cross so that you and I might become Christ in this age and build the kingdom for his return. The measure of our holiness can never be how much we have or how well we are known. It can never be how little we have or how obscure we are. We measure our holiness by how far we are from the standards of the world in our love for one another and for the least among us. In other words, our measure of holiness is Christ himself, the one who loved so perfectly, so fully that he died on a cross for the salvation of the world, a world that hated and feared him. 
So, how are you doing – out there in the world – as the temple of the Spirit of God, as one who is becoming Christ for others?

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14 February 2017

New paintings

A new bunch of paintings. . .all 18x24, acrylic, canvas board

 The Spirit scrutinizes everything

 Immense is His wisdom

 He stationed the Cherubim

 The Serpent tricked me

 All they had done and taught

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12 February 2017

Coffee Cup Browsing (Sunday Edition)

Sentimental Catholicism. . .we are most like God in that we are rational not that we experience emotions.

Letting East and West enrich one another liturgically. . .not sure about all those vestments. . .got to be hot under there!

Good book for Lent: Literary Converts. . .read this for my ordination retreat back in 2005.

Some moral considerations on The Wall. . .not a good idea from a CST perspective.

Combating the nonsense of relativism. . .

Fr. Z.'s suggestions for Lenten reading. . .

DOJ drops B.O.'s transgender policies. . .good. Now, we need a charitable approach to helping these people.

This is a dead question that -- like a bad movie zombie -- keeps getting dug up.


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11 February 2017

Coffee Cup Browsing

Apologies for the absence of CCB! I recently received a comment on the blog that prompted me to reboot this HA feature. Thanks, Anonymous!

Apparently, nominalism has its limits. . .even for collegiate snowflakes. 

Suddenly! Unexpectedly! Freedom of association is HOT on the Left. . .but Christian bakers still have to bake gay wedding cakes.

History Repeats: Democrats attempt to block Republican official from entering public school. George Wallace (D), call your office!

Fascinating video. . .if I had watched this in 1985 I would have never been a leftie.

Mandatory "diversity training" is just re-education under another name.

Anti-Catholic extortion group, SNAP sued for taking kickbacks from lawyers. Top officials resign.

Catholic inculturation done right. . .

My new favorite Youtube channel: Food Wishes.

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Jesus & Zombies

NB. Last Sunday I celebrated the 8.00am Mass at St Dominic's and the deacon preached. Today I'm celebrating at Our Lady of the Rosary, and the deacon is preaching. So, here's one from 2011.
6th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatula

A comet slams into the earth, causing massive earthquakes, tidal waves, firestorms: the comprehensive collapse of human civilization and the beginning of a new Ice Age. A few, small pockets of humanity manage to survive—those living on mountain ranges and far from the coasts. Each community fights to survive. They must find food, clean water, medical care. There is no law, no church, no military, nothing left to guide the survivors but raw, individual instinct and the will of the strongest among them. Some few still talk about right and wrong, some few still invoke the name of God, or the authority of the Bible, and some even appeal to reason when the more savage choices have to be made. But who is God? What is the Bible? Where is reason? Six billion people have been reduced to a few hundred scattered across the world. The choice is live or die. What I have just described is the plot of one of the very first novels I read as a kid, Lucifer's Hammer, published in 1977. From the moment I opened the cover of this book, I was hooked on Doomsday fiction, apocalyptic literature. Of course, what I described could be the plot of just about every disaster movie made since the 1950's. Hollywood is still making Doomsday movies—2012, The Road, Independence Day—and they've been diligent in producing my favorite Doomsday sub-genre, the Zombie Apocalypse movie! Why do these sorts of stories fascinate us? What is it about the collapse of civilization and the destruction of humanity that appeals to us? Here's a guess: we want to know what might happen if there were no rules, no law, no consequences. Could we be moral without the threat of punishment?

Now, you have to be wondering what zombie movies and novels about comets have to do with the gospel. Besides the fact that Jesus is talking about Judgment Day—who enters the Kingdom and who doesn't—we have in the gospel a lengthy lesson on what it means to be a moral person. Jesus is teaching on the Law: how he has come not to abolish it but to fulfill it. In the longer version of the reading, he says, “. . .until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law. . .” He goes on to warn that anyone who breaks the commandments will not enter the Kingdom. However, those who obey the Law will be the greatest in the Kingdom. So, to be a moral person, a person held in high esteem among the hosts of Heaven, you must obey the Law. Sounds straightforward enough. But then Jesus does what he does best. He throws a curve, adding, “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” You should understand immediately that the scribes and Pharisees were renowned for their obedience of the Law. But here Jesus tells his disciples that their righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees. Mere compliance is not enough. Something more is required.

In the shorter version of the reading, we have three examples of how our righteousness can surpass the righteousness of mere compliance. Jesus uses murder, adultery, and oath-breaking to illustrate his point. Under the Law, killing another person, sex with someone who isn't your spouse, and swearing a false oath are all grave sins. The Law outlaws these behaviors. The act of murder, the act of adultery, the act of swearing a false oath are all forbidden. Since Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, he teaches the disciples that these behaviors remain sinful. However, good behavior does not produce surpassing righteousness. Something more is required. He says, “You have heard it said, 'You shall not kill; You shall not commit adultery; Do not take a false oath.' But I say to you, do not be angry; do not lust after another' and let your 'yes' mean yes and your 'no' mean no.” Surpassing righteousness springs from a clean heart as well as clean hands, from both a pure spirit and a pure body. You refrain from murdering your neighbors. . .but do you refrain from hating them? You refrain from committing adultery. . .but do you refrain from lust? You refrain from swearing false oaths. . .but is your word alone honorable? Actions are born from intentions. And pure intent is the mother of righteousness.

For all that he teaches us about living in right relationship with God, Jesus has nothing at all to say about living through the Coming Zombie Apocalypse. He really doesn't say much about Global Warming—er, I mean “climate change”—or nuclear annihilation, or the devastation of a global virus outbreak. All he has to say about the End Times is that on the Day of Judgment, the goats and sheep will be divided. The goats will be tossed into the fire, the sheep raised up to heaven. If you want to be among the sheep, live now in surpassing righteousness. If you prefer to be a goat, then revel in hatred, anger, lust, adultery; worship false gods, refuse to help those in need; basically, believe and behave as though the only thing that matters to you is your survival. Given the choice to live or die, what won't you do? In the movie, The Road, a man and his son travel the roads of an unnamed country after the world has been more or less destroyed. There are no animals, very little clean water, no plant life; nothing resembling the rule of law except the sort of rule that comes from the barrel of a gun. The man and the boy spend their time scrounging for canned food, bottled water, and sleeping under pieces of plastic. When they are awake, they have to run and hide from gangs of roving cannibals. Along the way, the man tries to teach the boy about hope. The boy listens and learns. But every time their lives are threatened, the man abandons hope and resorts to surviving by any means necessary. The boy notices the contradiction and wonders if his father genuinely nurtures any hope at all. This movie (and the novel it's based on) provide us with an opportunity to see what happens when the power of the law to rule humanity is destroyed. How do we behave when there is no law, no church, no military, nothing to guide us, nothing to reward or punish us? If our movies and novels are any indication of what most of us would do, then we are in deep trouble. A life of surpassing righteousness can never be about mere survival; it is a life lived in constant hope.

And hope—like faith and love—is a virtue, a good habit. If hope is to be a constant in your life, a rock-solid, bottom-line reality, then your answer to God's call to holiness is going to have to be Yes. Let that “Yes” mean yes. If your “Yes” means “Maybe,” or “When I can,” or “If it's convenient at the moment,” or “When things are good,” then your “Yes” means No and that is from the Evil One. Hope is a choice. Sirach says, “If you choose you can keep the commandments. . .if you trust in God. . .He has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose. . .Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.” Choose to listen and obey. Choose to trust and love. Choose life and goodness. Immense is the wisdom of the Lord! Choose His surpassing righteousness as your own and live in constant hope. Let your “Yes” to His invitation mean Yes. In the face of unemployment, sickness, a death in the family, comets, zombies, nuclear annihilation, whatever comes, let your “Yes” mean yes. Whether you are preparing your taxes, walking on the beach, dating your high school sweetheart, or trying to save your marriage, let your “Yes” to God's righteousness mean Yes. Anything else is from Evil One.

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29 January 2017

Blessed are the Weirdos!

4th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

It wasn't until I got into seminary that I realized just how strange Catholicism really is. When I go home for the holidays – to my Baptist family – I am reminded just how odd we Catholics are. I wore my full habit to my niece's non-denominational wedding. I'm pretty sure I heard the word “Jedi?” whispered. John Zmirak, a Catholic layman, describes our faith well. He writes: “The Catholic faith is neither [simply bland nor inoffensive]. In fact, like really authentic Mexican food (think habeneros and fried crickets), it is at once both pungent and offensive. It offends me all the time, with the outrageous demands it makes of my fallen nature and the sheer weirdness of its claims. It asserts that, behind the veil of day-to-day schlepping, of work and laundry and television and microwaved burritos, we live on the front lines of a savage spiritual war. . .” As an example of the “sheer weirdness” of our faith, we need look further than the Sermon on the Mount. Just about everything Jesus says in this sermon is “pungent and offensive” to just about everything our culture wants us to believe to be true, good, and beautiful. Living as faithful Catholics in this world is an exercise in contradiction and opposition. Our witness to Christ is itself a kind of weirdness.

It's pretty clear that Paul understands just how weird our commitment to Christ can be. Who does God call into His Church? Paul answers, “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing. . .” Rather than picking the wise, the strong, the highly placed and well-loved of the world, God chooses the foolish, the weak, the lowly, and the despised. Imagine pitching this enterprise to a group of American investors. Do you think the investors would jump at the chance to buy into this project operated by the dregs of society? Or would they tell you that your plan was “sheer weirdness” and walk out? To the modern American sense of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, everything about the Church God has given us reeks of weirdness, laxity, pomposity, and backward superstition. The Catholic Church even takes in fallen-away Baptists and lets them become priests! How absurd! 
Of course, we don't have to imagine that God planned a Church like the one presented to the investors. He, in fact, established just such a Church, and we are it. Christ tells us who we are. The poor in spirit; those who mourn; the meek; those who hunger for righteousness; the merciful and the clean of heart; the peacemakers and those persecuted for righteousness' sake. Find a wretched soul, broken and beaten by the world, persecuted for his or her trust in God, a soul steeped in mourning, yet thirsting for justice, and you have found the Church God established. Everything about this picture of our faith is just weird, simply bizarre. What could be more offensive and pungent to the world than an organization that prizes above all else the blessedness of mercy, forgiveness, meekness, poverty of spirit, self-sacrifice, obedience, moral restraint, charity, and life-long fidelity? That Christians are the single most persecuted group of religious believers on the planet tells us that there is little about our strange faith that pleases the powers of this world. That Christians – especially Catholics – are safely ridiculed, discriminated against, and openly slandered tells us that the Church sits in the midst of our culture like a pungent, offensive prophet – a living sign of contradiction, a witness against the vanities of the world and the futility of trying to be wise without God.

The Sermon on the Mount is both a prediction and a promise. Jesus predicts our persecution and promises us blessedness. He makes it perfectly clear that following him back to the Father will be not only difficult but dangerous as well, potentially deadly and most definitely discomforting. And even if we weren't persecuted for standing against the demands of a culture without God, the outrageous demands of the Church herself would be difficult enough. Think for a moment about what it is that we are asked to believe. We are asked to believe that there is an all-good, all-knowing, ever-present god who loves us. Yet, evil seems to flourish. Disease, violence, unimaginable suffering, natural and man-made disasters. We are asked to believe that this god took on human flesh and sacrificed himself for our benefit. We are asked to restrain perfectly naturally passions and desires so that we might imitate the goodness of this god. Perhaps the most outrageous demand for modern Americans is that we are asked to sacrifice in order that others might flourish, to set aside our own needs, our own wants and work diligently for the benefit of strangers and for our enemies. What sane person helps those who would see him dead? But therein lies blessedness. That's not just a promise made by a crackpot preacher 2,000 years ago. That's a promise made by the Word made flesh, God Himself, a promise already fulfilled and waiting for us to claim.

Living in this world as faithful Catholics is an exercise contradiction and opposition. We stand against a culture that promotes death as a solution to unwanted pregnancies, terminal illnesses, and inconvenient suffering. We stand against a culture that promotes the goodness of satisfying every base desire regardless of the consequences. A culture that rewards lying, self-promotion, greed. But while standing against the tides of this world, we stand with the blessed: the poor, the diseased, the oppressed, those persecuted for the faith. We stand with self-sacrifice, unconditional mercy, boundless hope, and the promise of freedom from the slavery of sin. Most importantly: we do not stand alone, as individuals but together as one Body in Christ. With all of our weirdnesses, all of our outrageous demands, with all of our pungent and offensive beliefs, we are of one heart, one mind, and we give God thanks and praise with one voice. Our hope lies in a single truth. Though we are engaged on the frontlines of a spiritual battle, the war has already been won. God is victorious. Our work—as His faithful sons and daughters—is to make sure that His victory shines through everything we do, everything we think, everything we say. As living, breathing testimonies to His redeeming love, we stand—as weird and offensive as we can sometimes be—we stand always as witnesses for His will that all of creation return to Him, whole, pure, and perfected in Christ.

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15 January 2017

The other half of your soul

2nd Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP


John the Baptist says about Jesus twice tonight: “I did not know him.” How does John the Baptist not know Jesus? When John was still in Elizabeth's womb, he leaped for joy in the presence of Jesus – who was still in Mary's womb. John spent most of his adult life wandering the wilderness as a prophet for the Christ, occasionally venturing into civilization to preach repentance and baptize sinners. We know from Luke's gospel that John was reluctant to baptize Jesus b/c John knew who Jesus was. However, tonight we read that the Baptist doesn't know him. . .until the Holy Spirit reveals who he really is. We could say that John didn't recognize Jesus as Jesus. Like we don't recognize an old friend who's gotten fat and bald over the years. But it would seem strange that the Holy Spirit would be needed to help John recognize the man, Jesus. John recognizes Jesus as Jesus. But with the grace of the Holy Spirit he comes to know Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah. Thus, he says, “I did not know him [then], but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” John's mission then is our larger mission now – to make Christ known to world.

To make Christ known to the world would seem to be an easy feat during this technologically advanced age. How easy is it to get on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, etc. and send out thousands of messages about the Father's freely available mercy through His Christ? Very easy. I see it everyday. We have EWTN; international, national, and local Catholic radio; dozens of Catholic magazines, journals, newspapers; literally, thousands of Catholic blogs, websites, businesses. Not to mention diocesan publications, book publishers, university presses, parish bulletins, bookstores. The Word is out. If you were ask random people in random cities, “Who is Jesus?” I bet you that they would say, “The Christ” – or something similar. Even if they know nothing else about him, they would know that the two words “Jesus” and “Christ” go together like a first and last name! So, our job is done, right? We can all go home. Not just yet. Notice: John recognized Jesus as Jesus. But he did not know him as the Christ. . .until the Holy Spirit revealed to him who Jesus really is. I would recognize Pope Francis on the street. But that doesn't mean that we are friends. Much less best friends. Willing to die for love of one another.

When I teach CCC to the seminarians, we always discuss the relationship with reason and revelation. Human reason and divine revelation. For Catholics, these two form the foundation of all human knowledge. They cannot contradict one another b/c they share the same source – God Himself. We know from Thomas Aquinas that reason can tell us only that God is and what God is.* If we want to know who God is, we must rely on divine revelation; in other words, only God can tell us who He truly is. You may recognize Jesus, but do you know him as the Christ? Better yet: do you know him as a friend? I don't mean like a drinking or a fishing buddy, or a girlfriend to go lunch with. I mean as a true friend. Aquinas tell us that “a friend is called a man's 'other self',” quoting St. Augustine, "Well did one say to his friend: Thou half of my soul” (ST I-II.28.1). A friend is the other half of your soul. We might imagine the not-yet-born John leaping in the presence of his not-yet-born friend, the other half of his soul, Jesus. Can you imagine yourself leaping with joy in the presence of the other half of your soul? Christ promotes his disciples from servants to friends before his death on the cross. He wanted to die knowing that his former students would go out into the world as his friends – his other half – making the Father's mercy known to all the nations.

How do we come to know Jesus the Christ as a friend, a true friend? First, we have stop thinking of friendship in purely worldly terms. Acquaintances aren't friends. Co-workers may be friends, but they aren't friends because they are co-workers. Think for a moment: who in your life right now possesses the other half of your soul? If you are married, I hope you thought of your spouse! Who do you trust to die for you, if necessary? That's the kind of friendship Christ offers to us. Second, true friendship is about intimacy – closeness, familiarity, affection. We can become better friends with Christ though the sacraments, of course, especially confession and the Eucharist. But we can also grow daily in our affection for him and with him through the intimacy of prayer. Not just ritual prayer but the sincere outpouring of our hearts to him in silence. No secrets. No dark corners. Just pour it all out to him. Lastly, we can become better friends with Christ by becoming better friends with one another. Jesus himself says that we cannot claim to love him if we hate our neighbor. We serve him when we serve one another without counting the cost. He did not count the cost of his friendship with us when he went to the cross. He just went. And died for love of us.

The Holy Spirit revealed to the world that Jesus is the Christ. We know this about Jesus. But do we know Jesus? I mean, are you friends with Jesus? True friends? John recognizes Jesus but doesn't know him. At least, not until the dove appears in the sky and the Father's voice reveals who Jesus really is. John had a dove and a voice. We have the advantage of 2,000+ years of tradition, Church teaching, philosophical and theological investigation, and all the saints on the calendar bearing witness! Do you recognize Jesus? Or do you know him? And if you know him, do you count yourself among his friends?

* These two philosophical questions cover God's existence and His divine attributes (simple, omnipotent, eternal, etc.).

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11 January 2017

Recent Paintings

A selection of recent paintings. . .all but the last one are 18x24, acrylic, canvas board.

 Accidental Rainforest
 But You Did Not Dance (SOLD)

 Finding Lost Sheep

If the sin is not deadly

I heard a sound from heaven (SOLD)

His star at its rising

I remain in the flesh

Rejoice in His Light (SOLD)
Power came forth from him (SOLD)

Remain faithful to what you have learned

A Great Cloud of Witnesses (SOLD)


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08 January 2017

Prostrate. Open Treasures. Offer Gifts.

Epiphany of the Lord
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Upon seeing the Christ Child, the magi do something remarkable. Matthew tells us that they “. . .prostrate themselves. . .do him homage. . .open their treasures and offer him gifts. . .” This threefold reaction to the Child tells us all that we need to know about who the magi believe the baby Jesus to be. It also tells us how we as followers of Christ best prepare ourselves to be better followers. Our exemplars are astrologers, probably priests from a Persian religion called Zoroastrianism, fire-worshipers. They travel to Bethlehem b/c the stars tell them that a history-changing king has been born. When they find him, they know that the Child before them is both the King of the Jews and the King of the Gentiles. In other words, king of all humanity. So, they prostrate themselves and do him homage, open their treasures, and offer him gifts; thus, placing themselves at his service, making of themselves his servants. They follow a star to the Christ Child. We follow the Christ Crucified. Why would our response to him be any different than theirs? Why would we – who claim his name – do any less than the magi?

To be better followers of Christ, we must become better servants of Christ. The magi prostrate themselves before the Christ Child and do him homage to demonstrate their subservience to him, their surrender of themselves into his service. When we enter the Church, we genuflect before the tabernacle to show our respect to the presence of Christ. Whether we genuflect consciously or perfunctorily (out of habit), we give an outward sign of our subservience to Christ. But outwards signs are easy. What about the true subservience the outward sign is suppose to mark? As followers of Christ, we are vowed to not only show Christ respect as our teacher and Savior but we are also vowed to become Christ for the salvation of the world. Meaning? We are vowed to move beyond respect and obedience toward taking on the mind of Christ. And from taking on the mind of Christ to becoming Christ for others. Our worship of Christ in this church this evening is nothing less than an outward sign of our desire to become him whom we eat and drink. His body. His blood. His soul and divinity – to the very limit of our own humanity. Prostration for us is not just a posture for your body. Paying homage to him can never be perfunctory. These are the surrender of your intellect and will to the Way, the Truth, and the Life who suffered for you, died for you, and rose from the grave for you. To put this in the form of a question: when you go out there tonight and tomorrow and the next day, are you – in thought, word, and deed – an epiphany of Christ for others? Do you reveal the Father's mercy to sinners?

Our Father's mercy is given flesh and bone in the gift of the divine person of Jesus Christ born among us through Mary. We are given mercy in the form of a man. The magi confess the divine kingship of this man, this child, by opening before him their treasures, showing that they know and understand and accept who and what he is and what he has been sent to do. At our baptism, we receive the gift of divine mercy. Freed from original sin and made members of the Body, the Church, we are charged with living out our lives in mercy. As followers and servants of Christ we have a single, priceless treasure we can open before our king, a treasure he himself died to ensure we would receive – the treasure of limitless forgiveness, boundless mercy. The magi offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And we too can offer our time, talent, and worldly treasure to the work of the Church. But there's a limit to gold, frankincense, myrrh, time, talent, and worldly treasure. To put on the mind of Christ on the way to becoming Christ, we must offer the one treasure we possess which possesses no limit – our freedom to forgive. If we cannot forgive, we cannot love sacrificially; if we cannot love sacrificially, we cannot become Christ for others.

Finally, the magi offer their gifts to the Christ Child. Gifts are freely given and freely received. No strings. No conditions. No expectations. Freely given means freely given. Freely received means freely received. The Father sent His Son to become one of us so that His mercy might live among us in flesh and bone. He – the Son – was freely given. Now, we must freely receive him. Without strings, conditions, or expectations. Freely receiving Christ means freely receiving the Father's gift of forgiveness. What gift can we offer back to the Father in thanksgiving? Gold, incense, and myrrh? No. We offer back in daily sacrifice the one gift that the Father deems worthy of His Son's own sacrifice: our lives. We offer before our king our hearts and minds and give to him our daily work and words so that the Good News of His mercy is made known by our hands and mouths. When we offer our daily work and words in the name of Christ, we already know that these gifts are freely received by the Father b/c Christ sits at His right hand ready to intercede for us, his servants and friends.

To be better servants of Christ, we follow the example of the magi at Bethlehem. We prostrate our intellect and will in homage and in defiance of pride, striving to become Christ for others. We open our gifts, especially the gift of mercy, and forgive sacrificially. And we offer to the Father the one gift that He sent His Son to save – our very lives.

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25 December 2016

Notes on the Homily

NB. I was asked recently by the Office of Worship to write three bulletin inserts on preaching and the homily. I found this post from December 2005, and thought I share it again!

Q: What is a homily? 

 A: Let’s start with what it ISN'T. . .

* several stories of dubious humor strung together with a “moral” tacked on

* a pep talk, an appeal for money, an update on parish construction, or a book review

* a report on Father’s last visit to his shrink/therapist/spiritual director

* a stump speech, a rousing call to political arms, a psychology/sociology lecture

* an academic essay on Things Theological-Philosophical-Scriptural

* a love-letter to big money donors

* 8-15 unscripted minutes of the Mass where Father gets to show the crowd what a great guy he is by blowing off the homily! 
* and, finally, a 2016 addition for NOLA: homily time isn't a pep rally for the New Orleans Saints or the LSU Tigers!
. . .so, what IS a homily?

* a liturgical device of Speaking the Word, giving the Word of God voice for today

* authentic, authoritative instruction in the living faith of the Church

* an exhortation to communal and personal holiness, encouragement in the face of despair

* an “unpacking” of the readings in a way that addresses real problems of faith

* a liturgical device for raising questions, suggesting answers, stirring up trouble, getting into fights

Q: How is a homily prepared/written?

A: Every preacher is different, of course. I can give you a brief outline of how I do it:

I read the lectionary readings about a week ahead of time to see what strikes me. I usually mumble to myself about how dull the reading is or how I’ll never squeeze anything out of THAT text or how we just had that reading two weeks ago, etc. Then I will read it again a few days later—having forgotten it by then—and something will strike me as odd/weird/brilliant/curious. I will grab a commentary to check on any cultural references or historical oddities, and then I will begin to pose a question or a problem to tackle. I will locate the readings in a Bible (I own five different English translations!) and look at “where” the readings are in the larger narrative. This almost always gives me something to work with in the homily. All this time, I am praying for inspiration, for insight. I don’t write a word of my homily until the morning of the day it is to be preached. I am a morning person, so I’m up at 4:30am, coffee in hand, ready to roll! Weekday homilies are 550-650 words, Sunday homilies are twice that. [I've recently reduced the word counts by half]

What’s basic, I think, to any good homily is an application of the readings to real, contemporary problems. I don’t mean to suggest that the homily needs to be a “fix-it” talk where the priest gives the assembly quick and easy DIY solutions to complex problems; however, the homily can be a great way for the preacher to raise issues, questions, problems that are common to his parish/ministry and show how the readings and the tradition might help to address them. This means, of course, that a good preacher is listening, listening, listening to what’s troubling God’s faithful.

I always try to do the following in every homily. . .

* preach the gospel in front of me, not the gospel I think the congregation wants to hear, or the gospel that will get me the fewest complaints, or the gospel that will get me the most compliments!

* include a humorous story if there’s one that’s truly relevant (I’m a Southerner born and bred, so I exaggerate like I breath—loudly and on a regular basis.)

* use an image, a phrase, or a line from ALL four readings; the Psalms, sadly, often get shortchanged [This practice turned into an occasion of pride for me, so I don't do this much anymore]

* preaching is an oral form, so I write for oral presentation: lots repetition, alliteration, “unpacking,” and frequent use of language from the readings, the liturgy of the day, and the tradition

* say something truly challenging and maybe even unnerving! (I’m a Dominican, so I am not particularly inclined to spoon feed folks religious pabulum or feel-good psychobabble just to keep things sweet.) [If anything, I'm even more unwilling to spoon-feed eleven years later]

* I am downright tenacious about preaching the following: a) the universal call to holiness; b). our salvation understood as our divinization; c) our salvation as an undeserved, unmerited, totally FREE gimme from God; d) our responsibilities to the Body of Christ as members of the Body of the Christ; e) the need for true humility before the authority of the Church to teach the authentic faith; f) the absolutely indispensable necessity of a powerful private and common prayer life (cf. CCC Part IV), and g) our responsibilities in revealing Truth, Goodness, and Beauty to one another!

Q: What needs work?

A: I read my homilies from prepared texts. This will never change. It can’t. I am tied to language as a writer, a poet, an English teacher, etc. I just can’t let go of the text and preach “off the cuff.” I will ramble, jabber on for an hour, wander around until someone chunks a hymnal at me. I need to practice more so I can be more engaging with the assembly and not so glued to the paper [I'm much better at this!]. I’ve been told that I talk too fast—and I’m a Southerner [Gotten better here too, I think]! And that my homilies are too complex for just listening, thus the blog site for those who want to read them [Improved some here, still need more improvement]. I’m always wrong about my homilies too—just about every time I think I’ve preached a real dud, I get lots of great feedback. And when I think I’ve preached a real winner—nothing, nada, crickets chirping. [I know when I've preached a dud. Still can't tell when I've done a decent job].
Oh well.

Comments? Comments from other preachers particularly welcomed!!

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18 December 2016

Real Faith, Real World, Real Christ!

4th Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Thinking abstractly is one of the ways we mark a child's cognitive maturity. Adults think in terms of general principles and concepts all the time. We use symbols, signs, metaphors, parables; concepts related to numbers, motion, time, space, etc. We learn to think abstractly partly b/c we need to think about the things of the world as they all relate to us and one to another. But there's a problem with abstract thinking when it comes to our lives in the Spirit. Ideas, concepts, principles are easily manipulated, undermined, and changed precisely b/c they often have no tangible referents in the physical world. The names of concrete things – books, keys, glasses – these are all meaningful b/c we can point to the thing and verify the name. However, terms like love, freedom, sin, health, goodness – all of these get matched and re-matched with their abstracted concepts, and it is nearly impossible to decide what they really mean b/c we can't check their meaning against concrete reality. This basic glitch in our humanity can cause problems with our relationship with God. Therefore, he sends His Son to us in the flesh, so that there can be no mistaking His meaning: Christ is the Father's mercy given flesh, blood, and bone
We know that ours is not an abstracted faith. We do not offer our praise and thanksgiving to an idea or a concept. We don't pray to Peace or Justice or Truth or Goodness. Christ did not die on the cross as a symbol or a sign or a metaphor. I mean, who gets dressed on a Sunday, goes to church, and worships Being Itself? Who here has prayed to Existence or the Universe for a favor? As strange as it may sound, over the centuries, including the last few decades, many Catholic theologians, priests and bishops among them, have advocated exactly that. That we stop thinking of God in human terms. That we cease addressing God as “Father” and call Him “parent.” That we no longer say “Son of Man” but “Child of Humanity.” That we refer to the kingdom as “the community.” Besides being horribly clumsy and just plain silly, these attempts at changing the language are also attempts to redefine the truth of the faith. And it's nothing new. Early heresies in the church denied the divinity of Christ. Some denied his humanity. Still others taught that he was just an illusion, not real at all. What they all had in common was their denial of the apostolic faith, specifically, the Church's teaching on the Incarnation of the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity – Christ Jesus, who's birth – who's birth – we celebrate next Sunday!

St. Matthew couldn't make the point any clearer, so he quotes the prophet, Isaiah, this evening, Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “'God is with us.'” Emmanuel. God is with us. Here with us. Right here among us. As a man. As a divine person with both a divine nature and a human nature. Like us in every way except sin. Concepts do not weep. Ideas do not eat flame-broiled fish. Abstract nouns do not die covered in blood on a cross. Emmanuel, God-is-with-us, was flesh and blood and bone so that we might have a saving friendship with a man, a real person. So that our eternal lives will not be left in the ever-shifting definitions of culture or popular opinion or corrupted power. We eat real bread and drink real wine. We light real candles with real fire. We come together shoulder to shoulder and hear real music and sing real hymns. Our worship is real, concrete, and makes use of the ordinary things of the ordinary world. And by the invocation of the Holy Spirit all of these, all of us are taken up and made into a holy sacrifice for the salvation of the world. This is the Father's mercy made manifest. 
God-is-with-us. Emmanuel. Christ Jesus. Both God and man. Born in the flesh and risen in the flesh and set to return again in the flesh. We wait for him during Advent b/c flesh and bone needs time to come together. To gestate. To grow and take full form. If Christ were merely a notion, an idea, then there would be no need for us to wait. Ideas are easy to conjure up. We could all stay at home, synchronize our clocks for 6.00pm, and just think about Jesus for an hour or so. We could think about Peace and Joy and Happiness. No need to get out in this messy weather. But our Father wants real communion for us in real time. This is why we celebrate His son's birth into the world. To reset our faith in Him. To remember our hope from Him. And to reinforce our love for Him. Joseph welcomes the pregnant Mary into his home b/c he knows that she carries the living Word of the Father. We too carry the living Word into the world. We're not always welcomed. But we have said Yes to the Spirit. And there is nothing else for us to do but to show the world God's mercy and love. In thought, word, and deed. . .to be the body and blood of Christ in sacrifice for the whole world.

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11 December 2016

Is Jesus the Savior you're looking for?

3rd Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

What are we waiting for? Better yet: who are we waiting for? Of course, we're waiting for Christ. Born on Christmas and coming again at the end of the age. We wait for both his birth and his return. But waiting for his birth is the easier of the two b/c we know the day and time of his arrival as an infant from Mary. When will he come again? At the end of the age? We don't know. James says to us, “Be patient, brothers and sisters. . .see how the farmer waits. . .You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm. . .Do not complain. . .Take as an example of hardship and patience. . .the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” Patience and hardship. The example of the prophets. That's what we're to do while we wait. Be patient. Endure hardship. Not exactly a cheery Advent message. But probably one we can all stand to hear. John the Baptist, perhaps a bit impatient himself, sends his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” And in his usual way, Jesus gives an unexpected answer: “Go and tell John what you hear and see. . .” Healing, raising the dead, freeing the possessed, preaching to the poor. Is Jesus the Messiah you're looking for? Or are you looking for, waiting for another?

Please don't take offense at the question! I know it's weird to ask a church filled with Catholics if they are looking for a Messiah other than Jesus! But hear me out. The history of the Church is littered with false Messiahs – self-appointed prophets, trendy gurus, and unsavory saviors. And even when no one in the Church is publicly chasing after a personality or a philosophy opposed to Christ, many are still privately putting something or someone on the altar of their heart. Someone or something other than Christ. Who or what are these idols? You've heard them listed all before, no doubt – money, stuff, power, sex, popularity, knowledge, all these things that can be good. . .but they can never be God. None of these can ever be the Messiah. Not your spouse, your children, your job, your friends; not your pastor, your Pope, or your President. None of these is the Christ. And the waiting of Advent, the patience and the endurance of hardship, graces us with all that we need to see and hear the Good News that Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem to the virgin, Mary, is our Savior and King. We are looking for and waiting for no other. Like John the Baptist, we have found and been found by the Only Begotten Son.

Having found him and been found by him, we turn again to our waiting for him to come again at the end of the age. Waiting around patiently and enduring the hardship of living in this world may not seem worth the wait. But if we truly believe that he will sit in judgment of our lives, separating the goats from the sheep, and taking to himself all who remain in his love, then the choice to endure is easy. Jesus asks those who went to listen to John: “What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing?” He wants to know why they ran after the Baptist. What were they seeking? “Then why did you go out?” he asks, “To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.” They went into the desert to seek out the one who would herald the Christ. Why? Because they know that the Christ will call the unrighteous to repentance and the unjust to justice. He will suffer and die for their sins and see them reconciled with the Father. And on the last day, he will sit as Judge to weigh their convictions and dole out abundant mercy to all who have confessed and turned to him. Whatever impatience makes us angry or anxious or depressed, and whatever hardship we must endure while waiting. . .we wait, and while we wait, we grow in holiness for that last day, that last day before the judgment seat.

The third Sunday of Advent is always called Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice Sunday! All this waiting can be a bit wearing, so the Church gives us one Sunday in the season to lift up our praise and thanksgiving to God for His sending us His Son. This week – make your daily prayer one of rejoicing, giving God thanks for the joy He has brought into your life. Name those blessings. Count the gifts. Raise each one up to Him and pledge its use to His greater glory. Moms and dads, teach your children to give God thanks for you, for their siblings, for their family and friends. Teach them true humility before their Maker, and they will see the spiritual dangers of pride and entitlement. And while we all wait, never forget: “Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save [us].”

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04 December 2016

A Fearful Prediction

2nd Sunday of Advent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP

Humans respond to fear. This is both a good and a bad thing. If fear prevents us from doing something incredibly dangerous – that's good. However, if fear drives us to do something incredibly stupid – that's bad. Politicians, media talking-heads, religious leaders – they all understand that fear can motivate human action or forestall it. So, they make liberal use of predictions to paint for us a picture where our only response can be one of fear. Fortunately, reality intervenes and their predictions are shown to be little more than scare tactics in a strategy to dominate us. Economists predicted the financial collapse of the UK if that nation left the E.U. Didn't happen. Climate scientists predicted a New Ice Age in the 70's if we didn't cut pollution. Didn't happen. Religious leaders of all stripes regularly predict the end-of-the-world on some specific date if we don't donate. Hasn't happened yet! Now, we read that John the Baptist is predicting the coming of the Messiah and the destruction of sinners if they do not repent. “Even now,” he preaches, “the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Is he trying to make us fearful? Absolutely! But his fearful prediction is about freedom from sin and not worldly domination.

So, if politicians, scientists, religious leaders use predictions of doom and gloom to scare us into obedience, why should we believe John the Baptist when he predicts the coming of the Messiah and eternal fire for unrepentant sinners? One simple reason, really: he is right; that is, his prediction – or better named – his prophecy is fulfilled with the coming of the Christ Child. The Messiah has come, and he will come again. This is a fundamental truth of our faith. Not a truth meant to dominate us in the world, or to frighten us into religious submission. But a truth that sets us free from our slavery to sin and death. The coming of the Messiah is prophesied in the O.T. Some 800 years before the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. Isaiah writes, “On that day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious.” We know that the Gentiles – the Magi – followed the signal – the North Star – to seek out the Infant Christ and found him glorious in his shepherd's hut. Recognizing him as their King, they prostrate themselves and give him the gifts due a priest, a prophet, and a king. John the Baptist's prophecy – his prediction – that the Messiah will come is fulfilled. 
If we believe that his prediction concerning the Messiah comes true – and we do – then why would we doubt the second part of his fearful prediction? The part where he says, “[The Messiah] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” We shouldn't doubt this b/c this is precisely why the Messiah comes in the first place. Not to condemn. But to gather to himself those who have repented of their sins and followed after him in love. The “unquenchable fire” isn't so much a punishment as it is a consequence, the inevitable result of declining to live fully in the light of Divine Love. As I have preached to you many times over the years: we choose hell for ourselves. By living apart from God's love and His will, we choose to live outside His mercy forever in death. He will not force Himself on us. We must freely choose and then live out our freedom with good works. John the Baptist warns the Pharisees and us that our repentance must produce good fruit to be secure. He preaches, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” Where is my good fruit? Where is yours?

I am thankful everyday that I am not left alone to produce the good fruits of repentance. I shudder to think what I would choose on my own. I have my Dominican brothers; the seminary faculty, staff, and seminarians; friends and family. I have a great cloud of witnesses bearing me up, and dozens of faithful Catholics praying for me. And it is this unity of purpose – the one heart and one mind of the Church – that holds everyone of us up. Paul writes to the Romans, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” With endurance and encouragement we think in harmony! With one voice we give glory to God! That's how we begin to produce the good fruits of repentance – by staying close to the heart and the mind of the Church, giving thanks and praise to God, and doing everything that we do, and saying everything that we say, and thinking everything that we think for no other reason than to give God the glory. Do this. . .and you will bear the most excellent fruit. 
We await the coming of the Christ Child at Christmas. And we await his coming again at the end of the age. While we wait, we prepare. We prepare by remaining in good spiritual shape. By exercising our sacraments. By fasting and prayer. And by remembering always: our God has given us every encouragement to endure in peace until His Christ should again appear. Remain one heart, one mind, in the service of one Lord.

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26 November 2016

THE Final Exam

1st Sunday of Advent (2016)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic/OLR, NOLA

The prophet, Isaiah demands that we “walk in the light of the Lord!” St. Paul urges us to “throw off the works of darkness!” And our Lord warns us to “stay awake!” Walk in the light. Throw off darkness. Stay awake. Sounds like someone is studying for final exams! Or maybe pulling an all-nighter on year-end tax preparation. But, we know, that today is the first Sunday of Advent – our season of waiting – so walking in the light, throwing off darkness, and staying awake are all imperatives for preparing ourselves to welcome the birth of the Christ Child a month from now. Why do we need to prepare? If you are at all like me while waiting, your attention lags. You get anxious. Twitchy and frustrated. You begin to wonder if the cashier is napping. Or if the guy at the head of the line is trying to order lunch in Swahili. While waiting, I begin to experience myself as the center of the universe. I am the only one with important things to do and important people to see. I am busy, rushed, running late. IOW, my pride comes raging to the surface, and the possibility that I am being taught some humility only makes me angrier. With pride comes serious temptation to sin. The spirit of Advent is right behind me, whispering, “Walk in the light. Throw off darkness. Stay awake.”

If I manage to resist punching the spirit of Advent in the face, I take a deep breath and imagine myself walking in the light. There are no shadows. Not even my own. No dark places. Nothing not shining with the light Christ offers. “Walking in the light” can sound a little too much like a Star Wars proverb. But it's the biblical way of saying “live with the Lord,” “follow His commands,” “walk the path of righteousness.” We can prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ Child by getting up in the morning and going to bed at night with a single prayer on our lips: “Lord, you are my light; make me your light to the world.” If we see and hear ourselves as conduits for Christ's light, as a means of shining out Christ's light to the world, then we can more easily resist pride and the temptations pride entertains. Waiting becomes more than just a trial in patience. Waiting becomes our way of bearing witness. Just being still in Christ and letting him convert us into his peaceful presence – no words, gestures, or signs from us. Just Christ radiating out. Scripture calls this “countenance.” One's bearing – encouraging, patient, peaceful. If we are in Christ, then there can be no darkness in us. Our countenance is Christ.

If Christ is our countenance – our manner of appearing and being in the world – then we have already thrown aside the works of darkness. The phrase “works of darkness” always makes me think of the many sci-fi/fantasy novels I've read over the years. I immediately see Dark Lords and Evil Knights ravaging the land for power. Paul is thinking a little smaller here. The works of darkness he urges us to throw off are the works of our disordered passions – rivalry, promiscuity, drunkenness, and jealousy. Not exactly the rioting armies of Orcs from Mordor but nonetheless all fatal to our relationship with Christ. Every work of darkness, every act willed from a disordered passion twists the human person toward folly, turning him or her into a fool. We become used to sin; we come to see and hear disobedience to the Father's will as normal; and, finally, we run out of time, and God honors our faithlessness by faithfully allowing us to live apart from Him forever. While we wait on the birth of the Christ Child, while we walk humbly in his light, the works of darkness appear as stains, as shadows on our Way. We can overthrow these dark works by turning again and again to Christ. In the sacrament of confession, in personal and public prayer, and in works of charity. We can stay with Christ by staying awake in his spirit.

When Jesus warns us to “stay awake,” he means to warn us against spiritual complacency, against the bad human habit of “feeling secure” while living outside the will of his Father. We may feel secure in our homes, our jobs, our personal relationships, but we are not truly secure until we are “awake in Christ,” until every aspect of our lives is fully alive to the reality and power of Christ to bring us to the Father. It's one thing to know about Christ; it's another to know him. It's one thing to love the idea of Christ; it's another to love him. Being “awake in Christ” means being fully, actively conscious that you and all that you have belongs to Christ – as your freely offered gift to him. When we take his yoke and follow his Way, we become his. Wholly owned, if not always wholly operated. By walking in the light and throwing off the works of darkness, we can be both wholly owned and wholly operated by Christ and therefore always awake to his coming, always awake and waiting on his coming again. Advent is our time to wait on his birth at Christmas and to anticipate his coming again at the end of the age. He comes once to free us and again to judge us. Sitting on the judgment seat, he may ask you: “Did you walk in the light? Did you throw off the works of darkness? Did you stay awake?” These are your questions for the season of Advent. Prepare your answers well. . .this will be The Final Exam.

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