14 February 2015

Turning the Ordinary into the Extra-Ordinary

5th Week OT (S)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church,, NOLA

Those of us who have grown up in the Protestant South have heard all our lives that Catholics do not revere the Bible. Catholics prefer performing strange rituals, marching around in elaborate costumes, lighting candles and incense, and muttering to statues in a dead language. Even today, my Protestant friends distinguish between “Catholics” and “Bible Christians,” using the two words as if there is no connection between the two, no overlap. What my friends fail to grasp is the concept of the sacramental imagination. In an interview, George Weigel, the biographer of Pope John Paul II, offers a description of the Catholic way of seeing God's creation. He says, “. . .the world has been configured by God in a 'sacramental' way, i.e., the things of this 'real world' can disclose the really real world of God's love and grace. The Catholic 'sacramental imagination' sees in the stuff of this world hints and traces of the creator, redeemer, and sanctifier of the world. . .” St. Mark's story of the feeding of the 4,000 gives us a chance to hear Jesus himself teaching us how to view his Father's creation sacramentally. A few loaves of bread and a few fish, blessed by Christ, feed a huge crowd. The unexpected generosity of God miraculously feeds the bodies of those who follow His son. Those fed have witnessed the love and grace of God in an otherwise ordinary, everyday activity: eating dinner. The Catholic sacramental imagination turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, revealing God's presence in His creation.

We have no reason to believe that the miracle described by Mark didn't happen exactly like Mark describes it—four thousand people are fed with just a few loaves of bread and a few fish. We can read the story as a story about the everyday lives of Christians struggling to faithfully live out their baptismal vows. Jesus sees the trials of those who follow after him. He hears all about how we are alienated from God by sin; how we suffer from temptation, disease, persecution; how we hunger and thirst for righteousness and truth; how we strain to be merciful, loving, true to all his commands. Watching us day to day, Jesus says, “My heart is moved with pity for [you]. . .If I send [you] away hungry to [your] homes, [you] will collapse on the way. . .” We've come a long way out of the world to join the crowds that follow Jesus. He's never pretended that following him is easy. He's never lied to us and told us that being faithful is as simple as performing a few rituals or lighting a few candles or muttering prayers before a statue. We have chosen a very difficult way of living in God's creation. But He will not leave us tired and hungry. He takes the bread, blesses it, and gives it to us to eat. 

One piece of bread becomes two. And two becomes four. Four, eight. And because this bread is also his body—both human and divine—we are fed physically and spiritually. The things of the “real world” (bread, wine, oil, water) can reveal the really real world of God's love and grace. The sacramental imagination is a biblical way of living in God's world—seeing, hearing, tasting, smelling His presence, and gaining strength in body and spirit as we notice Him and give Him thanks for being with us always. 

The Psalmist sings, “In every age, Lord, you have been our refuge.” Hungry, thirsty, blind, deaf, afraid—we take refuge in God and find all that we need to succeed in His Christ.

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11 February 2015

Even the dogs eat the children's scraps

5th Week OT (R)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

I'll start with a rather blunt assertion: No, the Greek woman in this evening's gospel does not teach Jesus a lesson about inclusivity nor does she “open his eyes” to the needs of the Gentiles. To believe that the woman somehow enlightens our Lord with a clever retort assumes that Jesus—the incarnated Son of God—doesn't know about or understand his universal mission as the Messiah. It makes more sense—given what we know from the other gospels—to conclude that Jesus slowly reveals the fullness of his mission over time. He repeatedly orders those whom he healed to keep their healing a secret. He also refuses to perform miracles on occasion and sometimes takes his disciples off to teach them in private. These examples seem to indicate that though Jesus wants his identity widely known, he also wants to keep the exact nature of his ministry something a mystery. . .at least until his earthly ministry comes to an end on the cross. If all of this is true, then what are we to make of his exchange with the Greek woman? Like in the story of the centurion with the sick slave, the story of the Canaanite woman, the story of the man born blind, and many others—Jesus is challenging the Greek woman to publicly declare her faith, to lay claim to her inheritance as a child of God.

And what is this inheritance? Generally, she has inherited the privilege of prayer, that is, the grace to approach the Father through His Son and ask for what she needs for herself and her family. As a member of God's family, she has access to the Father. She has been gifted with the desire to praise Him, to thank Him, and to grow spiritually while doing so. By openly, freely acknowledging her trust in God's promises, the Greek woman openly, freely acknowledges God's power to accomplish in her life and the lives of her loved ones every good they need to thrive as holy creatures. We know all of this to be true b/c the moment she says to Jesus, “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps,” the demon is exorcised from her daughter. 

Take note of not only the woman's admission of faith but also how she characterizes herself and her fellow Gentiles—all of those who need God's mercy through Christ. Rather than rear up in righteous indignation at Jesus' apparent insult—calling them “dogs”—the woman takes on the derisive label and admits to Jesus that “even the dogs” get scraps! This isn't exaggeration or just plain ole self-effacement. She is confessing genuine humility. Had she been playing word games with Jesus or trying to teach him a lesson, her confession of faith would have been emptied out and her daughter would not have been freed from the demon. What our Lord hears in the woman's plea is authentic love, authentic faith, and authentic humility—all gifts from the Father. These are what make her a member of God's family not her tribe or race or nation. 

The Greek woman recognizes and publicly acknowledges her need for God's blessings. As children of God, we too have access to the Father through Christ. When you pray, do you pray with genuine love, faith, and humility? Do you receive God's blessings with gratitude, openly and freely acknowledging your dependence on Him? When blessed by God as a child of God, do you multiply your blessings by sharing them with others? I hope so! Remember: even the dogs eat the children's scraps.

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08 February 2015

Painting Links

So that I may share in the Gospel

5th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Dom/Carmelite Laity/OLR, NOLA

Job is not a happy man right now. He's lost everything. His life is drudgery. He's a like a slave who works away his days in the sun, longing for shade. All his nights are troubled. He's soaked in months of misery. Restlessness while trying to sleep; hopeless while he's awake. He says, “. . .my life is like the wind; I shall not see happiness again.” We know all too well why Job is having such a tough time. He's lost everything. His wealth. His health. His family. All of it. He might be able to suffer well under his material losses, but he's lost one thing that all of us need most. He's lost his purpose. He's lost his end, his reason for living. If he had a purpose, he could look forward and place his losses within a bigger plan to reach that goal. But without a goal, Job has no way to give his suffering meaning. Jesus has a purpose. Paul has a purpose. And they know happiness in knowing their purpose. What purpose do you serve? Can you name the happiness that gives all of your suffering a meaning?

What's the point of having a pupose? Isn’t it easier getting out of bed in the morning knowing you have a purpose, knowing you have a goal to achieve, a To Do List for your life that needs some work? Isn't it easier making it to work or class or the next thing on the list knowing that your attention, energy, labor, and time will be focused on completing a mission, on getting something done? With the time we have and the talents we're given, don’t we prefer to see constructive and profitable outcomes? Even when we’re being a bit lazy, wasting a little time doing much of nothing, we have it in the back of our mind to get busy, to get going on something, checking that next thing on the list and moving toward a goal. It’s how we are made to live in this world. Not merely to live for a daily To Do List, but to move toward some sort of perfection, some sort of completion. 
For example, Paul writes to the Corinthians: “If I preach the gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation have been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it!” Paul is given a goal, a purpose beyond mere survival, beyond merely getting along. Having been smacked around by the Lord for persecuting the Church, Paul finds himself ordered to a regime of holiness, a kingdom of righteousness, that demands more than rule-following, more than simply showing up and breathing in the temple's atmosphere. Paul must preach. He must travel city to city, province to province, publicly witnessing to his repentance, to the power of Christ’s mercy accomplished on the Cross.

Paul’s sleep is restful. His work exhausts him. He is a slave whose labor is never drudgery, never pointless. His end, his purpose is Jesus Christ; the telling again and again of his story; his bruising encounter with the man of love. And offering to anyone who will open their eyes to see and their ears to hear; offering to them the same restfulness; the same pleasing exhaustion; the same intense, purposeful focus that the need to proclaim the Good News compels.
Jesus, exhausted by his purpose, is doing his best to find a little time away from the crowds. When Simon and other disciples find him and say, “Everyone is looking for you.” Jesus, pursued, literally, by his purpose responds responsibly, “Let us go to the nearby villages that I may preach there also. For this purpose have I come.” Soon he will look out over the vast crowd and, moved by compassion, teach them many things. Now, exhausted himself, he takes his students out again to preach and teach the Good News. It is his purpose – to show those hungry for God that God does indeed rule, that He holds dominion here, over all creation – heaven and earth, man and the devil – and that healing flows from faith, light always overcomes darkness, and that evil, no matter how far ahead in the worldly race, has already lost.

Job has lost his purpose and dwells in an anxious darkness. Paul is driven by his need to witness. Jesus reveals His Father’s kingdom—healing, driving out demons, preaching. Job recovers his purpose when the Lord dramatically reminds him who is God and who is creature, Who Is Purpose Himself and who has a purpose. Paul runs his preaching into every town he crosses, proclaiming the Word, setting up houses of prayer, and leaving behind men and women strong in the faith. Jesus moves inexorably toward the Cross, his work for the Way along the way reveals again and again the always, already present victory of Life over Death, freedom over slavery, final success over endless failure.

What goals do you serve? Why do you get up in the morning? What meaning does your work, your play have for you? Who are you in light of what you have promised to be and do? What makes you happy? Where do you find joy? Lots of questions! But all of these are really just one question: what is your purpose?

You have a given purpose and a chosen purpose. Your given purpose is dyed into your flesh, pressed through into your bones; it is a God-placed hook in your heart, a hook that tugs you relentlessly back to Him, back to His perfecting goodness. Your chosen purpose is how you choose to live out day-to-day your given purpose, how you have figured out how to make it back to God. Student, mother, professor, virgin, priest, monk, artist, poet, engineer, athlete, clerk, scientist, father, nurse, dentist. When your chosen purpose best reveals your given purpose, when what you have chosen to do helps who you are given to be flourish, your anxiety finds trust, your sleeplessness finds rest, your despair finds joy. And you can say with Paul: “All this I do for the sake of the gospel,” – heal, study, pray, minister, write, research, teach, drive, build, all this I do for the gospel – “so that I too may have a share in it.”

What Purpose do you serve? I mean, when you work, when you study and teach and play, toward what end do you reach? What goal seduces you forward, pulls you to the finish line? Surely for us, all of us here, that purpose is Jesus Christ. Our goal is his friendship, his love. And our goal is his witness, our telling of his Good News. We can waddle around in the darkness of sin, bumping around blind, reaching for what’s never there. We can wail into the wind like Job, moaning about the meaninglessness of life, the pointlessness of our daily striving. We can even refuse happiness, refuse to see that we have a given purpose. But you will find your release and your license, your freedom and your choice when you make yourself a slave to all, when you make yourself all things to all, to help save at least some.

Like Paul, a trusted steward, a faithful child, preach the gospel. Live it right where you are. Make it your reason for getting out of bed, for going to work, for making it to class. Make it who you are, what you do, and everything you ever will become.

Everyone is looking for you. For what purpose do you live?


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