06 October 2015

Choosing the best part: humility

27th Week OT (T)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

When I want to learn something new, I first find a way to teach it to someone else. The messy work of jumping into an intellectual project w/o a clear plan of attack doesn't bother me. I don’t have to know every text, every authority, every footnote. Living is mostly about introductions, anyway: bits and pieces, snapshots, and collections. But to make sense of all of my collected snapshots, I need a bigger introduction, a larger story. Something to fit My Story into The Story, so that My Story doesn’t end up as a knock-knock joke or a fortune cookie proverb. This need for a bigger explanation, a grander script is basic to human flourishing. We are pattern-making animals created to love the One Who made us. Because we have heard the Good News and received the Father's mercy, we sit at the feet of the Teacher who is himself the Biggest Story, the Grandest Script, and we let him coach us through our ignorance, our rebellion, and our pride. He is the Gift that turns our wandering into wonder, and pushes us out to give all we have received. 
To be properly taught, we must bring one small gift to The Teacher. We must bring the shiny red apple of humility! To be taught – properly taught – is to be changed, turned around and upside down, and made new. Wooo! Can you feel the anxiety! Changed?! Made new?! Teeth clench. Fingers form a fist. And humility is trapped, trapped by worry, by anxious need. We cannot give ourselves fully to the Teacher if we will not unclench our teeth and relax our fists – those busy, busy, hands that seem to believe that determination and hard work will eventually earn us salvation. Any sort of earned-salvation is never worth the work. We cannot be saved by anything made by human hands. There's a better way – the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Jesus teaches Martha by telling her that Mary has chosen the better way. But Mary is just lazy and wants to avoid work, right? No. And Martha is trapped in a socially constructed, oppressive gender role that forces her to serve the patriarchy, right? No. Jesus teaches Martha that Mary has chosen the better path b/c she, Martha, is “anxious and worried about many things.” Martha, sister, where is your humility?!

We could ask Martha: “Martha, does your worrying about many things proclaim the Christ in you? Are you presenting yourself as perfect in Christ when you flail around the room throwing off anxiety like clothes set on fire?” Martha might answer, “I am showing our Lord honor by serving him. And Mary is lollygagging at his feet doing nothing!” So, maybe the question we need to ask is: what is it to serve the Lord, and how is that service an honor to him? Martha argues that being up and moving, doing something productive, serves the Lord. It's true. Manual labor does honor the Lord b/c it shows a willingness to work for his sake. Mary seems to be arguing that sitting at the Lord’s feet, listening to him teach, serves him. And he is honored best by allowing him to serve her as her Teacher. The Lord says to all this, “Mary has chosen the better part…” Yes, she has. Not b/c doing good work in the Lord's name is dishonorable, but b/c doing good work in the Lord's name out of fear and worry and anxiety is. Humility never leads to worry. Humility always brings us to peace and docility. Sure, anxiety, worry, and fear can motivate hard work. But hard work – alone – can never bring peace. Mary chooses the better part, the Big Picture. She chooses in humility to allow Christ to be her teacher. 

Choose the better part. No. Choose the best.

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04 October 2015

Any marriage can thrive. . .

27th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Uncomfortable truths do not go away simply b/c we harden our hearts against them. Reality does not yield to argument or whining. Truth is truth; the Real is real, and we are thrown into both and forced to deal with each as best we can. However, better than most, we Catholics are equipped to confront and thrive in the truth of the real b/c we know and believe that God our Father is Love. He created us in love; redeemed us in love; and He brings us back to Him in love. Our daily reality – given and unavoidable – is soaked through with the abiding presence of Love Himself. Also given and unavoidable. God's presence does not guarantee us that we will never come to harm, or that all of our works will prosper, or that we will always be happy. What His presence does guarantee is everything we do and say can be given the weight of eternity if we work and speak in His name for His glory. With our hearts and minds firmly focused on our lives in Christ, our hands and feet are free to do the holy work we have been given to do. Uncomfortable truths do not go away simply b/c we harden our hearts against them. Reality does not yield to argument or whining.

Earlier today in Rome, the Holy Father opened the 2015 Synod of Bishops. The synod Fathers are gathered to address “The Vocation and Mission of the Family in the Church and the Contemporary World.” This is the conclusion to last year's controversial synod where it appeared – for a moment – that a faction in the synod had maneuvered the Fathers into recommending that the Church dilute her ancient teachings on marriage, divorce, and same-sex relationships. That faction was exposed and its contentious mid-synod report was withdrawn and amended to better reflect the actual recommendations of the whole synod. Between last year's synod and this year's, many of the synod Fathers have published books, articles, and interviews variously defending the Church's tradition; attacking her tradition; or calling for modest reform of the tradition. A few months ago, Pope Francis reformed the annulment process, making the long, expensive ordeal shorter and cheaper. Some applauded. Some booed. Some said, “About time!” Others said, “Catholic divorce is here!” In his homily this morning, the Holy Father said this, “This is God’s dream for his beloved creation: to see it fulfilled in the loving union between a man and a woman, rejoicing in their shared journey, fruitful in their mutual gift of self.” 
This is not how the Pharisees understand marriage. To test Jesus, they ask him, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” The answer to this question is, “Yes, it's lawful.” But Jesus wants to know if divorce is right. At his request, the Pharisees repeat Moses' law on divorce – a simple matter of the husband writing a bill of divorce for his wife. Jesus says to this, “Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment.” He then quotes Genesis – “two become one flesh” – and concludes, “Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.” Here we have an uncomfortable truth that does not go away simply b/c we harden our hearts against it. Here we have a reality that does not yield to argument or whining. Moses allowed divorce b/c the hearts of men were hardened to the gifts of marriage, hardened to the possibilities found in the “mutual gift of self.” Because they would not understand the indissoluble nature of marriage taught in Scripture, Moses gave them a way out. Our Lord knows that though we often fail, we are able – with his grace – to enter the covenant of marriage and thrive.

With the grace of the sacrament and the support of the Church, any marriage can thrive. Notice I did not say “any marriage can be perfect” or “no marriage will ever have problems.” Any marriage can thrive b/c the foundation of marriage is the divine love of Christ for his Church. What obscures or blocks God's love from helping a marriage thrive? In Moses' day it was probably the fact that the wife was more or less the property of the husband. Or the wife's failure to produce a male heir. Or some economic difficulty. In our own day, the obstructions are more subtle but no less destructive. Is the marriage kept barren through the use of artificial contraception? Or worse still, abortion? Does the very real threat of no-fault divorce make every disagreement potentially fatal to the marriage? Somehow, we've convinced ourselves that we can alter the nature of marriage by judicial fiat. When marriage can mean whatever we want it to mean, when does it come to mean nothing at all? With technology and gadgets, how much harder is it to avoid the temptations of adultery and fornication? All of these and others can obscure God's love in a marriage, they can. . .but only if the husband and wife forget that God forms the foundation of their union. Only if they forget that marriage is for the stability of the family and the salvation of their souls.

For the next three weeks, we will be hearing news from Rome about the synod on the family. We will hear reports that sound like a political nominating convention. The conservatives are winning! BOO! The progressives are winning! BOO! We'll hear about how the Pope is letting this thing run wild, and how the media is lying to us about the proceedings. We'll hear from the lobbying groups – the gay and lesbian group, the divorced moms group, the remarried dads group, the stick in the mud traditionalists – everyone will have an opinion and an agenda. There's only one opinion and agenda that really matters here: God's. And Scripture has spoken eloquently on the subject, “God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh.” One man, one woman, complementary, joined by God again into one flesh. What God has joined together, no man can tear apart.
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01 October 2015

Calling Catholic Men!

From Bishop Olmsted:

"I begin this letter with a clarion call and clear charge to you, my sons and brothers in Christ: Men, do not hesitate to engage in the battle that is raging around you, the battle that is wounding our children and families, the battle that is distorting the dignity of both women and men. This battle is often hidden, but the battle is real. It is primarily spiritual, but it is progressively killing the remaining Christian ethos in our society and culture, and even in our own homes.

The world is under attack by Satan, as our Lord said it would be (1 Peter 5:8-14). This battle is occurring in the Church herself, and the devastation is all too evident. Since AD 2000, 14 million Catholics have left the faith, parish religious education of children has dropped by 24%, Catholic school attendance has dropped by 19%, infant baptism has dropped by 28%, adult baptism has dropped by 31%, and sacramental Catholic marriages have dropped by 41%. This is a serious breach, a gaping hole in Christ’s battle lines. While the Diocese of Phoenix may have fared better than these national statistics, the losses are staggering."

Catholic Men: read the whole thing!

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27 September 2015

Your job as a Prophet. . .

26th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! The spirit of the Lord descends on two men who are not part of Moses' camp. The men begin to prophesy inside the camp. A young man – jealous for Moses’ sake – runs to tattle on them. Joshua, an old friend of Moses says, “Moses, my lord, stop them.” What's the big deal? What's Joshua worried about? He’s concerned that Moses will be dishonored by the men who prophesy w/o Moses’ authority. He's worried that there will be divisions in the camp – one side supporting Moses and another side opposing him. He's worried that these unauthorized prophets will lead the people astray. Joshua is anxious for his friend, Moses, and his reputation as the voice of God among God's people. What Joshua doesn’t seem to understand or accept is that the spirit of the Lord rested on these men and made them prophets. Moses corrects Joshua's mistake and comforts him, saying, “Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all!” Would that all of us here tonight were prophets for the Lord. . .

Moses understands a truth that Joshua will not grasp: the Lord will rest His spirit where He pleases. On me, on you, on all of us, if He chooses to. And He will make us all prophets, if He chooses to. He will give each of us the job of prophesying, the job of telling everyone of His great deeds and His promise of mercy. Though we may have rules and job descriptions and personnel policies and human resource requirements, the Lord doesn’t. He sends His spirit as He pleases.

So, here’s my question to you: could you be a prophet, if the Lord chooses you? Could you go out and tell everyone about the Lord's great deeds, proclaim to everyone His promise of mercy? What does it take to be a prophet, you might ask. Well, it seems that you have to be really old. Lots of wrinkles, lots of gray hair, maybe a pair of glasses, a cane, and a hearing aid. Moses’ seventy prophets are elders, old guys with a great deal of accumulated wisdom. It also seems that you have to be male. Moses' elders are all men. So maybe the spirit of the Lord will rest only on old men. OK. You have to be old and male. What else? The big one, of course: you are not a prophet unless the spirit of the Lord comes to rest on you. Could you be a prophet?

Look again at the story from Mark. It’s almost a retelling of the story of Moses, Joshua, and the two unauthorized prophets. John finds out that there are people out there casting out demons in Jesus’ name – people not of Jesus’ camp! John tells Jesus: “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” Just like the young man in the first story, John tattles to his teacher that someone not of their group is doing something that only members of their group should be doing! Jesus says basically the same thing that Moses says, “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us.” Jesus teaches John (and us) that you don’t have to be a member of his small group of disciples to be a prophet. Anyone who does a mighty deed in his name is a prophet. 
So, could you be a prophet? Remember what we said: only old men who have the spirit of the Lord on them can be prophets, right? WRONG! Jesus is clear: anyone who does a mighty deed in his name is a prophet. And what do prophets do but do mighty deeds in the Lord’s name. The job of the prophet is to tell everyone of the Lord’s great deeds and His promise of mercy. The Lord brings Moses and his people out of slavery in Egypt. He destroys the armies that chase them. He guides them though the desert. Gives them food and water when they have none. And brings them to the Promised Land. Great deeds! And He makes a covenant with them: you be my people, and I will be your God – His promise of mercy.

Our Lord Jesus does all of this again for us, for everyone in this church tonight. He brings us out of our slavery to sin. He destroys the power of the Enemy over us. He guides us through our deserts, all of our dry and troubled times. He gives us food and drink, his Body and Blood in the Mass. He brings us to the Promised Land of heaven. Great deeds! And he makes a New Covenant with us: I die for you so that you will not die; love me, love one another, teach and preach what I have taught you.

Go out and be prophets! Tell everyone of the Lord's great deeds and His promise of mercy. Learn your faith. Tell the truth to anyone who will listen. Learn you faith. Make life – thought, word, deed – an excellent example to others. Do not cause someone to fail in their faith b/c of your sin. Be careful here! Jesus tells his disciples: “Whoever cause one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Is this clear enough? We should never lead anyone into sin, we should never be an example of sin for others, we should never cause damage to anyone else’s faith. If you do, it would be better for you if you had a giant grinding stone hung around your neck and then tossed into the ocean to sink.

Your job as a prophet, as one on whom the spirit of the Lord has rested – that's what baptism and confirmation are all about – your job as a prophet is to tell everyone about your faith; about how Christ came into your life; about how you know and love the Lord; about how the Church is the Body of Christ; and about how the Lord uses his Church to bring all of his gifts to his people and the world. This sounds like a lot of work. Probably embarrassing work at times. It’s not always easy for us to talk openly to others about our faith. They may get offended or tell us to shut up or just walk away. True. They may do all these things. But prophets are often ignored or told to shut up or sometimes worse things happen. But you see, here’s the thing: the great deeds of the Lord and His promise of mercy must be told. Told and lived. Not just spoken again but done. The sick must be cured. The hungry must fed. The naked must be clothed. The imprisoned must be visited. Those enslaved to sin must know they are now free. Do these things. Tell others about the mighty works of God by doing these things yourself. St. Pope John Paul II, said over and over again to us, “Do not be afraid! Do not be afraid! Do not be afraid!” 

In NYC yesterday, Pope Francis pointed to the “unnoticed,” those who go unseen, “the foreigners, the children who go without schooling, those deprived of medical insurance, the homeless, the forgotten elderly. These people stand at the edges of our great avenues, in our streets, in deafening anonymity.” That Christ walks with us – his prophets – is a sign of tremendous hope. . .for us and the unnoticed we are sent to love. Would that all the people of the Lord were prophets! We are. Would that the Lord might bestow his spirit on us all! He has! Go and prophesy in the hope of Christ, “a hope which makes us see, even in the midst of smog, the presence of God as he continues to walk the streets of our city.”

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26 September 2015

Bloody moon. . .[cue scary music]


Sounds scary, right? 

Those of us in the CTZ can see this rare event in all its glory at 9:47 Sunday (27th) night. 

Check it out and don't forget to give God thanks and praise for His beautiful creation.

Fr Philip Neri, OP

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24 September 2015

Dorthy Day: "To me, birth control and abortion are genocide."

Secular and Catholics Progs are wetting themselves today b/c Pope Francis mentioned Dorothy Day in his address to Congress. 

To hear them -- the Progs -- tell it, the Holy Father just endorsed all their fav Pelvic Freedoms.

As usual, they only tell the part of Day's story that fits The Narrative.

From her autobiography, The Eleventh Virgin:

I'll never forget the time that I had to literally stand up against birth control. My sister Della had worked for Margaret Sanger, foundress of Planned Parenthood. When Della exhorted me that I shouldn't encourage my daughter Tamar to have so many children, I stood up firmly and walked out of the house whereupon Della ran after me weeping, saying, Don't leave me, don't leave me. We just won't talk about it again. To me, birth control and abortion are genocide. I say, make room for children, don't do away with them. I learned that prevention of conception when the act that one is performing is for the purpose of fusing the two lives more closely and so enrich them that another life springs forth and the aborting of a life conceived are sins that are great frustrations in the natural and spiritual order. 

The Sexual Revolution is a complete rebellion against authority, natural and supernatural, even against the body and its needs, its natural functions of child bearing. This is not reverence for life, it is a great denial and more resembles Nihilism than the revolution that they think they are furthering.

Don't expect to read this in any of the upcoming ecomia in the lefty press.

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Titles for the paintings?

A reader left a comment on my most recent paintings post. . .I hit "delete" instead of "publish." 

Anyway, the gist of the question was: "how do you come up with titles for your paintings?" 

Well, I use a carefully crafted algorithm that calculates the pigment tones. . .just kidding. . .

Basically, on the day I post the paintings, I look at the Mass readings for the day and pick out words or phrases that strike me. 

Those words/phrases become the titles of my paintings. 

There's one notable exception to this process, Jihad at the Circus. When I finished that one, I thought, "Looks like a bomb went off in the Big Tent." 
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22 September 2015

9 Things to Remember During the Pope's Visit

The Holy Father arrives in the U.S. today.  Welcome, Pope Francis!

The MSM is already pushing it's Francis vs. the Tradition narrative. With lots of Benedict XVI vs. Francis thrown in for good measure.

Things to Remember While Consuming MSM Reports:

1). Trust NOTHING you see or read from the MSM. Assume that you are being lied to. Reporters do not and will not understand the faith. Their entire worldview is informed by leftist American politics and anti-Catholic bigotry. 

2). Verify EVERYTHING you see or read with official Catholic news sources, specifically, the Vatican's press office.

3). Do not share any MSM reporting until you know for a FACT that they are telling the truth. You do not want to contribute to the lie that Pope Francis is somehow undermining the Tradition.

4). Carefully consider your "Catholic" sources of info. Pretty much all reporting and commentary coming from America Magazine, Commonweal, U.S. Catholic, and the National Catholic Reporter will be skewed toward promoting a dissident agenda. 

5). Carefully consider the motives and agendas of Catholics who are asked to comment on the Pope's visit. Having "Sister" or "Father" or "Dr." in front of a name doesn't automatically confer infallibility on an individual.  The MSM have a tiny cadre of reliably dissident Catholics they call on for commentary.

6). Assume that everything the Holy Father says and does is in defense of the faith and pushes the gospel forward. IOW, resist the temptation to hear/read him as an "agent of change." This is the MSM narrative.

7). Also resist the temptation to hear/read the Holy Father in terms of the American culture war and our dysfunctional national politics. Doing so buys into the MSM narrative that the Pope is just a politician.

8). Remember: in our faith there is no contest between holding fast to the apostolic faith and serving the oppressed. Dividing the two and putting them in conflict is a demonic strategy to divide us.

9). Above ALL, remember: Pope Francis is the Vicar of Christ, the successor to St. Peter! Pray for him and listen to him. . .

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20 September 2015

Receive Christ among the least

25th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

I lost a few dozen friends yesterday. Mostly people I've never met. Facebook friends. One of these “friends” attacked someone I do know in person, calling her a “sheep in the flock of Satan” b/c she suggested that he lacked a sense of humor. Another facebook friend insisted that Pope Francis is a communist infiltrator bent on destroying the Church. Still another one kept harassing me as a “Republican stooge” b/c I think Planned Parenthood should be defunded for trafficking in harvested human organs. It was an exciting morning. The saddest part for me – as a priest – is that most of those causing me so much anguish on facebook are Catholic. Anti-Pope Francis Catholics. Pro-abortion Catholics. Holy-than-the-Blessed-Virgin-Mary Catholics. Anti-everyone-who-doesn't-agree-with-me-100%-on-every-issue Catholics. I kept thinking: the Devil must be laughing himself silly watching us bickering over who's the Real Catholic! Jesus tells his disciples what's waiting for him in Jerusalem: betrayal, death, and his eventual resurrection. They didn't understand any of this. When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus asks them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” They were arguing about which of them would be the greatest in his kingdom.

Things haven't changed much in 2,000 years. Jesus reveals to his friends what will happen to him at the end of this trip. He will be handed over to the authorities, beaten, killed, and three days after, he will rise from the tomb. This is astonishing news. But rather than spend their time asking Jesus questions about the Good News, or planning out how they would survive w/o him, the disciples bicker over who's going to be the greatest among those Jesus leaves behind! Seriously. You have right there with you the long-promised Messiah, the Savior of Mankind, your teacher and friend, and he tells you that he's going to be murdered and then resurrected, and all you can think about is who's the Best Disciple Ever!? Who's the Boss? And here we are 2,000 years later bickering over who's the Real Catholic; who's inside the Church, who's outside; whether or not the Pope is really the pope; which cardinal or bishop is trying to influence the upcoming Synod. Jesus doesn't rebuke his disciples for being so astonishingly petty. He doesn't rebuke us either. He says to them and to us, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

When Jesus asks the disciples what they were arguing about on the way, the gospel tells us that “they remained silent.” First smart thing they've done on this trip. Why are they silent? B/c they are embarrassed. They don't understand most of Jesus teaches them. They aren't courageous enough to ask him questions. However, they are ambitious enough to jockey for power behind Jesus' back. Jesus deals a lethal blow to their ambition when he reveals to them that the greatest among them will be the servant of all. To make his point, he puts a small child in the middle of the group and says, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me. . .” Whoever takes in the lowest, the least powerful, the weakest, the most humble, the most vulnerable, the smallest in the world's eyes receives Christ himself. In the world, to the world there is nothing more useless than the weak, the powerless, those who simply do not count as Worthwhile. But to Christ, these are the ones – the little ones – who will take us to heaven. These are the ones who will open the gates and let us in. While we bicker with one another about purity and politics and conspiracies, the little ones all over the globe are standing ready to welcome us to Christ. Will we receive them? If not, we should follow the example of the disciples and remain quiet in an embarrassed silence.

My facebook drama over the weekend was prompted by discussions of the Holy Father's visit to D.C. and NYC. He has more traditional Catholics upset with his talk about climate change and the abuses of capitalism. He has more progressive Catholics upset with his talk condemning same-sex “marriage” and abortion. If you follow news about Pope Francis' sometimes “off the cuff” remarks you know that our media are delighted to misreport and misinterpret just about everything he says and doesn't say. I'm betting that this week our TV's and newspapers will be stuffed with all sorts of fables and fairy-tales about the Pope saying and doing this and that. The Holy Father is coming to the U.S. to carry out his ministry as the successor to St. Peter, his apostolic duty to bear witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ. He's coming to remind us that if we hope to receive Christ, we must receive the least of God's children. He's not coming to endorse politicians or approve of public policies or condemn impure Catholics. He's coming to do the job the Holy Spirit gave him to do: to preach and teach as Jesus himself preached and taught. Nothing more, nothing less.

What will we do during the Pope's visit? How will we receive his message? James scolds the Jewish Christians: “Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is disorder and every foul practice. . .Where do the wars and where do the conflicts among you come from?” Sound familiar? The Greek James uses in his letter tells us that the conflicts in the Church then were bloody fights, serious maiming and killing among various factions. What were they fighting about? We don't know the specific issues, but James' language tells us that there were those who wanted to impose their personal preferences on the whole Church; fights over who would be in charge; and fights started by public criticism of Church members. IOW, those who wanted their own way regardless of costs; those who wanted authority and power; and those who didn't want to live up to the moral law. Maybe James wrote his letter to the American Church! 
Will the Holy Father's visit be a time of disorder for the Church? Or will the factions among us manage to set aside jealousy and selfish ambition to receive him as the Vicar of Christ? That's a question too big for you or me to answer. Let's ask it this way: how will you, how will I receive the Holy Father this week? Can I set aside ambition and ideology and the need to be right and welcome his message. Can you? Can we receive him like a little child, welcoming him into our national family as an apostle? Can we listen – truly listen – to what he has to say and give it the weight his office deserves? If we will be followers of Christ, children in the kingdom, then we must set aside the measures of this world and hear with the ears of faith. The world tells us to see everything in terms of politics – money and power. The world tells us to hear everything in terms of prohibition or permission. Christ tells us to receive him in the least of his. That's the fruit of righteousness and the way to peace.


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Eleven New Paintings

All of these paintings are acrylic on canvas panels 18 x 24.

 De profundis

 Full Stature of Christ (donated for auction)

 Jihad at the Circus

 Judgment Seat

 Mercy Not Sacrifice

 Sin Offering (SOLD)

 The Wicked Say

 Without Inconstancy

 Worthy of the Call

 House of God

Measure of Christ's Gift


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18 September 2015

Does God's mercy scare you?

24th Week OT (Th)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

Simon the Pharisee gets it wrong. He can't help it. His heart and mind long-suffocated by the rigors of threading needles Mosaic Law, Simon cannot see or hear or feel the mercy radiating from Christ. When the sinful woman falls at Jesus' feet, the Pharisee's thoughts are squinted and mean, “If this guy were a prophet he would know that this woman is a sinner!” What Simon doesn't know is that Jesus knows perfectly well that this woman is a sinner. And that she has come to offer thanks and praise for her salvation. What prevents Simon from seeing and hearing what is so obvious to Jesus? Sure, he's blinded by religious ideology. He's deafened by ritual and power and status. He's anxious about his reputation, and worried that the woman's presence might render him impure under the Law. But what if Simon's ignorance is driven is fear? What if he's afraid of mercy, afraid of what God's mercy means for him personally and professionally? What if – he might be thinking – this Jesus guy is the Real Deal and my life, my faith, my entire reason for being is about to be hauled up and dumped into the Jordan? If God's freely offered mercy to sinners scares you, think hard and ask yourself: why?

With his attention focused on the sinner at his feet, Jesus whispers to the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.” Then, a little louder, over the heads in the audience, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Her faith has saved her? What faith? When does the woman profess the faith? When does she confess her sins and express contrition? She never speaks! All she does cry on Jesus' feet, wipe them off with her hair, and then rub some oil on them. Apparently, this is enough for Jesus to pronounce his forgiveness. Twice. BUT! This is exactly backwards. Note what Jesus says to Simon: “. . .her many sins have been forgiven; hence, she has shown great love.” So, her sins are not forgiven b/c she has shown great love; rather, she shows great love b/c her sins are forgiven. It's her faith that saves her not her works. Her works express gratitude for her salvation and her great love for Christ. This scandalous public display of affection is best understood as testimony. The scandal of Jesus' ministry among the Jews is made manifest in the scandalous gratitude of the sinful woman. What is her witness? Faith forgives. Faith defies. Faith humbles and frees. So, while Simon waits for cleanliness to happen; Jesus does the cleaning. And great love flourishes.

But if great love so obviously flourishes, how does Simon misread a scene so carefully staged to teach him the rewards of faith? Fear competes with faith for control of his soul. Simon fails to understand b/c he has no faith, no faith in Christ. And having no faith in Christ, Simon cannot greatly love. The woman's many sins are forgiven b/c of her faith, therefore, she greatly loves. “But,” Jesus says to Simon, “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Those deepest in debt rejoice loudest when their debts are canceled. And their gratitude is louder still. How much do you love? A little or a lot? If we are truly grateful to Christ for forgiving us our sins, then our love must always be great, always greater than any sin we might commit and greater still than any sin committed against us. Social conventions, religious ideologies, moral legalisms cannot be allowed to render us blind and deaf when it comes to seeing and hearing the abundant signs of God's forgiveness, nor leave us paralyzed when it's time to act in love. Your faith has saved you; therefore, live in the peace of God's mercy.

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16 September 2015

On not being a Devil's Fool

Cornelius and Cyprian
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

If wisdom is vindicated by her children, then what injustice has wisdom suffered that needs to be avenged? Jesus accuses his generation of being fickle, attention-deficient children who can't figure out who they want him or John the Baptist to be. John comes out of the desert neither eating nor drinking, and they call him demon possessed. Jesus comes out of Nazareth both eating and drinking, and they call him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend to tax collectors and sinners! God's wisdom, which John preaches, is avenged by the miracles Jesus performs. And both John and Jesus – and all who follow him – will be vindicated on the Last Day. Until then, how do we live in God's wisdom? How do we live among the Devil's fools w/o becoming fools ourselves?

Thriving among the Devil's fools in this world is a whole circus of distractions, snares, and tar pits. Some are designed to slow us down, others to kill us outright. Most, however, are created to keep us very much alive as newly minted fools. Our medieval brothers and sisters identified seven of these deadly traps. Each a snare waiting for an unwary soul. What they called Pride, the fools now call Self-esteem. Like pride, self-esteem has its proper, holy uses. The trap is snapped, however, when self-esteem becomes bloated with unearned entitlement and petulance. Another trap, Lust, is now Sexual Liberation. Our sexual appetites are a holy gift from God. But the fools have “liberated” sex from its divine purpose, turning God's creating gift into a recreating hobby. Envy now wears the mask of Social Justice. When you have what I want, I'm not envying you; I'm simply demanding social equality and just reparations. Wrath is no longer disordered anger but Righteous Rage. Gluttony is now Consumer Preference. Sloth is “I'm Spiritual But Not Religious.” And Greed is just Good Business Sense. The Devil gives his fools a particular talent: the ability to tweak every Godly Good just enough to hide his temptations to sin but not enough to expose his evil as evil.

So, how do we – who claim to follow Christ – live in God's wisdom among the Devil's fools w/o becoming fools ourselves? Wisdom is vindicated by all her children. We avoid becoming the Devil's fools by living as the children of Wisdom. Our medieval kin got this one right too. Humility sniffs out the narcissism in Pride. Chastity gives Lust a cold shower. Kindness opens Envy to true justice. Patience quiets and focuses Wrath toward God's righteousness. Abstinence tames Gluttony's frenzy. Liberality frees Greed to be generous in thanksgiving. And Diligence takes Sloth to the spiritual gym. Christ says that wisdom is vindicated by her children, by her works. And so are we. Thus, our way along the path to holiness includes these works of mercy: feeding the hungry; giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the stranger; clothing the naked; visiting the sick; ministering to prisoners; and burying the dead. Since the Devil can hide his temptations among our good works, we are careful to remember that all of our works of mercy are done for the greater glory of God and for no other reason than the greater glory of God. Not for our personal holiness – that's just a by-product. Not for the benefit of the ones we serve – that's just a happy consequence. BUT for the greater glory of God so that His mercy may be proclaimed in word and deed. 
Without His freely given mercy, our works are empty – useless and vain. Done for His glory, our works bear witness to the Good Work of Christ.
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14 September 2015

The Cross: this difficult tree

NB. A "Roman homily" from 2008. . .never been preached.

Exaltation of the Holy Cross
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Convento SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Go out, come back. Leave and return. Go out, come back. Exit and enter. Egress, ingress. Exitus, reditus. We are made, and we return to our Maker. How? The Cross. The cross of Christ Crucified is the via media, the middle way from God and the middle way back to God. From God: creation. Back to God: re-creation. Being made and lost, we cannot return to God without God. He set in history—human events, the human story—the means for our return to Him: Christ on the Cross, crucified as one of us, fully human and fully divine—a bridge from here to there. Jesus says to Nicodemus: “No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.” And Paul writes: “Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, […] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, […] he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” Now, we should hear the familiar refrain of our salvation: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” And so we are saved from the eternal return to nothing from nothing; we are made perfect as our Father is perfect; “being merciful, [He] forgave [our] sin and destroyed [us] not.” 

We say: amen. Or do we? If we accept this gift, we say: amen. And then what? Carry on as before? Do we as please? Live in constant regret that we killed God? Try to make a sacrifice worthy of the gift? The poet, Christian Wiman, in a poem titled, “Hard Night,” asks the same question this way: “What words or harder gift/does the light require of me/carving from the dark/this difficult tree?” What words or gifts does the Cross require of us? Paul writes that the coming of the Christ and his obedient death on the Cross, moved God to exalt His Son and to “bestow on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend […] and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord…” No other words. Let your tongue confess. There is no harder gift to give than the gift given on the Cross. Bow your knees at his name. And then what? It’s not so certain, is it? Once we have confessed the Lordship of the Christ and bent our knees to his rule, what we do next is no certain thing. With the Gift of the Cross in hand, we might worship it, take it around in procession, put it to work for our health and wealth; we might be embarrassed by its necessity or feel imposed upon to react with faint gratitude. Have you ever thought that there had to be a better way? Another way to achieve your eternal life? Something less bloody, something not quite so gruesome? Have you ever been angry with Pilate, the Jewish leadership, the mob that shouted, “Crucify him!”? Perhaps praying before a crucifix, you felt a dangerous rise of bile and wanted nothing more to do with the cruelty of a god who needs blood to love? Or perhaps you felt a dark fear that once we settled in your heart the gift of a bloody sacrifice, you would never be the same again?

Yet another poet, John Ashbery, writes, “…all was certain on the Via Negativa/except the certainty of return, return/to the approximate.” If we are afraid of the Cross, this is what we fear most: to walk the via media of Christ’s crucifixion means accepting the inevitably of joining him on the Cross. Peter, in a fit of fear and false love, denied the inevitability of Christ’s defeat and, in turn, pushed against the necessity of his own crucifixion. Jesus, knowing the certainty of his Father’s Via Negativa, pushed back, “Get behind me, Satan!” Even then, he was empty, obedient to death, and ready to die on the Cross. Perhaps we show our deepest gratitude to Christ by emptying ourselves, being obedient to death, and preparing ourselves to die in his name. Perhaps. But what does this mean for tomorrow? For today? Sitting in a room, cases packed, shoes neatly tied, waiting for martyrdom? Nothing so quietistic as all that! Paul says that we should bend our knees and confess Jesus as Lord. Walking this path of worshipful praise cannot be good exercise if we fail to do what Christ himself did: feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick. Add to this preach the Good News of God’s mercy and teach what Christ himself taught and we have beginning for our gratitude, just the barest start to what must be a life given over wholly to the path of righteousness. That’s a lot to fear. Especially when you know that the one you used to be will not be found again. At most you might think to “the return to the approximate.” But why?

Look at Moses and God’s people in the desert. “With their patience worn out by the journey, the people complained against God and Moses…” Not only are we made and made to return to our Maker, but we are rescued from death by the death of Christ on the Cross and expected then to prepare ourselves for following him to the Cross, obedient to death, bending the knee, confessing his name, and waiting, waiting, waiting for his return to us so we can return to Him. Has our patience worn out from this journey? Do we complain against God and His Church? Our desert is not getting smaller or cooler or less arid. Our days are no shorter. Our nights no brighter. Moses wanders and we follow. And our patience, already silk-thin, rubs even thinner, waiting on the fulfillment of the promise the Cross made in God’s name. While waiting, what do we do? Some of us persevere, walking the Way. Some of us withdraw to wait. Others walk off alone. Still others erect idols to new gods and find hope in different, alien promises. Some let the serpents bite and thrill in the poisonous moment before death. Perhaps most who were with us at first perish from hearts stiffened by apathy, what love they had exhausted by the tiresome demands of an obedience they never fully heard. Not all the seeds will fall on smooth, fertile earth. If those who walked away or surrendered or succumbed to attacks on the heart, if they are out there and not here with us, what hope do we have of going forward, of continuing on to our own crosses in the city’s trash heap? We exalt the Cross. And they are not lost. Never, finally, lost. Unless they choose not to be found.

We exalt the Cross. Lifted high enough and waved around vigorously enough, even those lost will find it. Even those who, for now, do not want to be found, may see it and be healed, if they will. But they will not see what they must to be healed if those of us who claim to walk the Way do so shyly, timidly, quietly. The Way of Christ to the Cross is not a rice paper path that we must tip-toe across so as not to tear it. Or a shaky jungle bridge over a ravine that we must not sway for fear of falling. Or a bed of burning coals that we must hop across quickly so as to avoid blistering our feet. The Way of Christ to the Cross has been made smooth, straight, and downhill all the way but nonetheless dangerous for its ease. There’s still the jeering mob, the scourge, the spit and the garbage, and there’s still the three nails waiting at the end. But this is what we signed up for, right? It’s what we promised to do, to be. Our help is in the name of the Lord. Bend the knee. Confess his name. Do so loudly, proudly and do so while doing what Christ himself did. Otherwise, who will find us among the jeering crowd, the spitting mob; who will see the Cross if we fail to lift it high?

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13 September 2015

Who will Christ say that YOU are?

24th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

A few years back, I walked in the common room of the priory to hear a very familiar, distinctly southern voice on the TV. Even before I made it around the couch to see his face, I knew it was Brother Billy Graham preaching. The logo in the corner of the screen told me that this was a “Billy Graham Classic.” Br. Graham’s powder blue polyester suit and full head of brown hair told me this classic was from about 1976. I listened with the ears of a child and I heard the familiar stories of the Bible, the familiar cadences of my Baptist past, the comforting assurances of a personal meeting with Christ, and I heard again and again the signature Protestant theology of faith alone, the lone sinner coming to salvation in a moment of decision, the instantaneous clarity of one’s relationship with God accomplished in a flash of acceptance, just one second of openness to the Father’s mercy and BAM! you’re done! At the all too familiar altar call, I watched hundreds of people stream down the aisles of the stadium to accept Jesus Christ into their hearts as their personal Lord and Savior. And I thought to myself: “You people have no idea what you’re getting yourselves into!”

Who here wishes to lose his life? Who here wishes to deny herself, take up their cross, and follow Jesus? Who here will refuse yourself what you think you need, what you think you want, will reject all those people, all the stuff and prestige that seems so essential, reject all that in exchange for a life of sacrificial service? Who here will heft the instrument of your greatest pain and eventual death, heft it onto your shoulders and carry it to the garbage dump of your unjust execution? Who will follow Jesus?

Be careful. Be very careful. Denying yourself what you want and need, inviting suffering and death into your life, and walking on the path of Christ-like passion and righteousness is dangerous. It’s more than dangerous; it’s explosive, it’s a volatile risk, a decision reached with grace in awe and lived with ears wide open and a voice graciously freed. This is no stunt. No walk along the trimmed paths of a safely tailored wood. This is soul-shattering serious business, commitment to the brim of your deepest well, filled up and overflowing with just two words: “The Christ.” Who do you say that Jesus is? The Christ. The Anointed One of the Father. Messiah. Emmanuel. God With Us. Be careful. Be very careful. Risk nothing on a vain word, a futile gesture. Risk nothing on a pretense. Risk nothing on a drama, a skit, a made-for-TV moment of tears. We’re not playing at Church here! But please, risk everything, all things, on a steadfast truth, a faithful word. Risk everything answering that groaning longing, that bone-deep, itching desire. Rest your restless heart where Peter has rested his. With confidence, he takes his well-rewarded risk: “You are the Christ.”

Who do you say that Jesus is? Prophet. Brilliant teacher. Rabbi. Essene monk. Son of Joseph and Mary. Pacifist revolutionary. Radical social reformer. Delusional cult leader. Figment of the imagination. God. What possible difference does it make? Labels are peeled off as easily as they are slapped on. One label, two labels, three. No matter. Who he was then and who is now is largely irrelevant. Largely inconsequential to who I was, to who I am. He can be a teacher of ethics, a cultural pioneer, a non-violent demonstrator, an unwed mother, a suicidal teenager, a laid off fifty-something year old, a mad priest, a delicate child. He’s all things to all people. What does it matter who I say he is? If you do not know who he is, cannot or will not say who he is, how will you deny yourself for his sake? Whose sake? Will you take up an empty cross? Who will you follow? You must know who Jesus is and you must speak the name of Jesus so that your works may be signs of your faith. To demonstrate your faith, your works must be worked in the name of Jesus the Christ. Who do you say that Jesus is?

And perhaps more frightening than that question, is this one: when Jesus the Christ looks back at those claiming to follow him, when he looks over the crowd, all those yelling “Lord, lord!” who will he say that you are? Will he see a half-hearted wannabe or a hero of the Word? A mush-mouthed apostle or a proclaimer of the Good News? A wallower in anger and despair or a rejoicer in love and mercy? A slave to disobedience or a freed child of faith. Who will he say that you are? Who do you say that you are?

What do your works say about you? How do you demonstrate your faith? In other words, to say that you have faith, to say that Jesus is the Christ, and then fail, utterly fail to act as though you believe this, to fail to demonstrate concretely your claim to faith, this failure is death. And what a silly way to go. Do you think for a moment that our loving Father would ask us to believe in his Son for our redemption, to accept His invitation to live with Him forever, and then turn around and make it impossible or even difficult for us to do so? Everything necessary for our redemption and our growth holiness is freely given, freely infused in us for our use, just waiting for our cooperation. We are graced, gifted with all that we need to name the Christ, to deny ourselves for his sake, to carry our cross, and to walk in his ways. In other words, when he looks back at us, those following in his way, bearing our crosses, we may ask him, “Lord, who do you say that we are?” He can say, because his own suffering, death, and resurrection has made it so, he can say, “You are the Christs.”

If I were a Baptist preacher, maybe Br. Billy Graham, I would cue the choir to start “Just As I Am.” While they sang softly, I would ask all those touched by the Lord this night to come forward, to stand before the altar and ask Jesus into your life. I would urge you to accept Christ into your heart and make him your personal Lord and Savior. But since I am a Catholic priest and Dominican preacher, I will instead invite you forward to take into your bodies the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, to eat his flesh and drink his blood. To take into your life—your flesh and blood—everything that he is for us. Teacher. Savior. Brother. Master. Son of Mary. Word Made Flesh. Father and Holy Spirit. God. And then I will invite you to leave this place with his blessing to grow in holiness by serving one another, to proclaim the Good News with your tongue and with your hands, to thrive wildly in the abundance of graces that the Lord hands you, the talents He gives you to use for His greater glory.

If you know what you’re getting yourself into, walk these aisles this tonight, stand up and come forward to eat and drink, and know that you stand and walk and eat and drink and serve because he is the Christ, he is the Anointed One of God, and he says to us all and to each: “You are the Christs. Follow me and do our Father’s will.”

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11 September 2015

The blind cannot lead the blind

23rd Week OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Notre Dame Seminary, NOLA

It's a week after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. I'm in my second year of theology, and I want revenge. My turn to preach vespers rolls around the weekend after the Towers fell. The lectionary requires me to preach on Luke's account of the Widower's Mite. I can't do it. Instead, I go to Zephaniah and read: “I will sweep away man and beast. . .I will make the wicked stumble; I will eliminate the people from the face of the land. . .[the nations will be] A field of weeds, a salt pit, a waste forever. . .[pouring] out upon them my wrath, all my blazing anger; For in the fire of my passion all the earth will be consumed. . .I have cut down nations. . .I have made their streets deserted. . .Their cities are devastated, with no one dwelling in them. . .” Smiling, I imagine the A-10 Warthog and the FA 18 Hornet strafing villages; Tomahawk and Stinger missiles laying waste to terrorist hideouts; and tanks and Humvees rolling over barbarian strongholds. To me, the wrath of God smelled like thermite and American gunpowder. But as I took comfort in my revenge fantasies. . .I remembered: I am a follower of Christ, a vowed religious. Is vengeance mine to dispense? Do I judge righteousness? What does the teacher say? What does he teach?

Jesus asks us, “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?. . .Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?” No, Lord, the blind cannot guide the blind, and I notice my brother's blindness b/c it is easier to make myself the judge of righteousness than it is to submit myself to judgment. I judged my nation's enemies in 2001 and appointed myself their executioner. They attacked us. They murdered us. They destroyed families. They caused billions of dollars in damage and started two obscenely expensive wars. More lives lost. More families destroyed. More money wasted. And we here at home began to dismantle our free republic in the name of safety and security. Vengeance blinds. The self-righteous need to return hurt for hurt leaves everyone hurting and no one to do the healing. As an American, I needed a clear and aggressive response to foreign terrorism. I needed vengeance. But as a follower of Christ and a vowed religious, I needed ____________. What did I need? I cannot be greater than Christ my Teacher. But can I be like him? Can I say and do all that he teaches me to say and do? Can I forgive? Can I pray for the terrorists? Can I see my own splinters and remove them before looking for splinters in my enemies' eyes? The blind cannot guide the blind. And the sinful cannot lead the sinful to righteousness. I know this. 
Like Paul, I can confess: “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man. . .” But I cannot say that “I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.” I believed in 2001. I knew Christ in 2001. I was not ignorant in 2001. And I still wanted vengeance. I was mercifully treated despite my sin, despite my disordered passions. And I learned that academic degrees, religious vows, priestly ordination – none of these insulate us from the splinters we gather in the world. None of these compel us to dig these splinters out. What – rather, who – will prompt us to examine our judgments carefully; to consciously, actively search for the splinters that blind us? Christ. And only Christ. “The grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” 
We cannot lead others to places we've never been. We cannot guide others to righteousness if we ourselves dwell in anger, greed, envy, lust, or pride. We cannot lead from power, from compulsion, from manipulation or fear. If we will lead others to Christ, we must be like Christ, like our Teacher. We must lead with abundant mercy, faith, and love. When the Towers fell on September 11, 2001, a splinter found its way into my eye. I drove it deeper and nurtured a need for revenge. But Christ – in his mercy – removed that splinter. Now, I want to be like my Teacher. Lord, save the sight of your servant.


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08 September 2015

God loving us through Mary

From 2006. . .

Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St Albert the Great Priory, Irving, TX

There is no “Once upon a time…” in the Catholic faith, no “Long ago and far away…” The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of the New Covenant, the Father of all creation operates in history for our salvation—dates, times, places, people, events—real history, real stories, faithful narratives of His people struggling to love Him and to be loved by Him. The Eastern Orthodox bishop and theologian, John Zizioulas, writes: “History is the sacrament of Israel’s religion.” Meaning that history, the record of God’s creative and re-creative work in His world, reveals God to us, makes Him better known to us. Through His Word from the Law and the Prophets, through His Word to Mary, our Mother, and through the revelation of the New Covenant in the Word Made Flesh, our Father brings us to Him, reels us in, and gives us new life. The celebration of Mary’s nativity is a celebration of our redemption in history—not an escape from this world in timeless myth but the blessing of this world in Christ’s birth as Lord and Savior.

OK. Why the theology lecture, Father? Here’s why: how easy is it for us to fall into the foggy mush of neo-pagan escapism, the near-Gnostic desire to understand our salvation as some sort of mystical escape from the dirty world, from the heavy stuff of living in bodies that betray our spiritual efforts, and other bodies—you people out there!—who won’t stop sinning, who won’t Do Right and make my work at getting holier easier for me! How quickly and easily we can come to think of our spiritual lives as the difficult work of ridding ourselves of what makes it possible for us to be perfected in God’s love: one another.

If we will be saved together, then we must live together in holiness and that means living in this world, in this history of God’s creation, among His works of beauty and goodness AND among the uglinesses and evils we build from what He has given us. Salvation is not about getting out of here as fast as possible. Salvation is about getting back into the family of God and witnessing, preaching, and teaching His healing Word; living every day, every hour, every minute in thanksgiving, in humble gratitude to Him for your very being, saying “thank you” for the fact of your existence, and the existence of everyone else, all of whom reveal Him to you.

Celebrating our Blessed Mother’s birth exalts her sacrificial fiat, her “let it be done to me” as a moment in history, a real event that calls out her predestined purpose, her prophetic place as the one who gives flesh to the Son. This took place. This took a place. An event with a location and a time. It took place to fulfill what the Lord had said in His Word through the prophet. And b/c it was done to her according to His Word and her Yes, the child is named Emmanuel, God-With-Us. And He is with us—in His family gathered here, in His priests, in His sacrifice of the altar, in His history, and in His Church.

If and when you are tempted by the devil of spiritual escapism—a spirit that tempts us with the false notion that we must get away from the dirt and the ugliness and sordidness of created things, especially other people, in order to be saved—if and when you are tempted by this devil, give thanks for Mary’s birth. Give thanks for her fiat. Give thanks to her for bearing Jesus and bringing the Word to us. And remember that God is with us—not “once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away,” but right now, right here loving us through His family. Loving us back to Him until he comes again.

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