Candlemas: A quiet changing of the guard

Today is the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord in the Temple, also the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is a Christian Holy Day, just dripping with symbolism, that is not talked about nearly enough in Catholic schools. In fact, my own understanding of this may need some historical correction vis-a-vis biblical history and Jewish law. Feel free to provide that, my imaginary reader.

The Jewish law--a law given to the Jews in ancient times--required that when the first born child was a son, he would be consecrated to God in the Temple. Even though Jesus Himself, as the lawgiver, would not have been bound by such a law, He willed from Eternity that His mother and foster father would take Him to the Temple to fulfill the law. This is where the symbolism gets interesting.

Jesus referred to Himself as the Temple. "Destroy this Temple and in three days I will rebuild it." Those around him thought He was talking about the Temple building, but He was talking about His body and He was foreshadowing His death and resurrection. We also know that the Ark of the Covenant was originally kept in the Temple, although when the Temple was rebuilt, having been destroyed by the Babylonians, the Ark had been lost (or hidden) and was no longer housed in the Temple. However, Mary is the true Ark of the Covenant. So we have the Ark returning to the old Temple with the new Temple. There, two separate prophets--Simeon and Anna--identify Jesus as the "One to come."

Here's what I think is going on: The Temple, having been rebuilt after the Babylonians destroyed it, stood without the Ark for 500 years. During this time, it was waiting for the fulfillment of the Old Testament. Finally, the Ark arrived, in the person of Mary, the Mother of God. Only nobody knew it except for those two prophets. Along with the fulfillment of the Old Testament, and the return of the Ark to the Temple (or the entry of the True Ark into the Temple) we have the New Temple, Jesus, Who at this moment takes His place as the new Center of the People of God.

This event--the Presentation--is not just a nice story. It's the turning point of the official direction of salvation history. Even though the Lord's public ministry wouldn't start for some 30 years, the Presentation is when the Holy Spirit saw fit to proclaim that He had changed His dwelling place from the Old Temple in Jerusalem to the New Temple which is Jesus, Who was to have a mystical continuity with the Church He would establish. Thus, the new Temple is the Body of Christ, which is the Church, which is why each one of us, the baptized, is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

Meet the new boss...same as the old boss

One of the favorite exercises of the mainstream media sources (and even explicilty Catholic commentors) today is to identify contrasts between Pope Francis and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. To be sure, Pope Francis presents differently than did Pope Benedict XVI, as did Benedict XVI from Pope John Paul II, as did John Paul II from Pope John Paul I...you get the picture. The Church has never shown a habit of making sure only a certain personality type ever sits on the Chair of Peter. What makes this Pope's personality so interesting to the media is that, in their own shallowness, they actually believe that his different personality either derives from or indicates a willingness to change doctrines of the Church. Particularly, they expect Pope Francis to remove or revise those doctrines of the Church that the modern world tends to find most troublesome.

Of course, every Catholic who knows anything about his Church knows that this would be impossible. Even if a man ascended to the Throne of Peter with every intention of changing Church teaching, the Holy Spirit would somehow prevent him from following through. We would hope the Holy Spirit's actions would somehow lead such a man to an eventual true change of heart, but we all know that there have been popes who were less than stellar when it came to selfish ambitions and cooperation with evil. (No, I'm NOT talking about Pius XII, nor any Pope of the modern age!) The point, though, is that even an evil pope can't change what the Church teaches. The Holy Spirit won't allow it. This is something we're taught since second grade (or earlier) and it's a truth that withstands the scrutiny of 2000 years of history.

It's not even a question of can or can't, though, when it comes to Pope Francis, because he has no inention of changing any doctrine of the Church. In fact, he doesn't give any indication of changing the direction of the Church from that set by his two predecessors. The New Evangelization was inaugurated by Pope Venerable John Paul II. It was continued in earnest by Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis now shows every indication of being fully committed to its continuation. While Pope Francis' style is very different from Pope Benedict XVI's, the current pontiff's every statement and every action seems directed at the one goal of bringing others--especially those outside the Church--to Christ.

Here's a challenge to those who thing Pope Francis' pontificate somehow represents a change in direction for the Church: Has he said anything--given any shred of evidence at all--that he himself thinks that what he's doing represents a discontinuity with his predecessors? You won't find it. Pope Francis is just continuing the work of the Apostles, same as Benedict XVI, same as John Paul II, same as John Paul I...you get the picture.

The "Protestant Mass" and "Sunday Catholics" - two sides of the same coin

In his daily homily, yesterday, Pope Francis exhorted the faithful to "Come out of your shell," and to be willing to let our joy in the Lord overflow into public acts of praise. As an example, he pointed to King David, who danced with abandon before the Lord, while celebrating the return of the Arc of the Covenant to its home. The Pope even touched on parts of the Mass where we might, all too easily, fall into a habit of rote recital without putting our hearts into the praise that we're supposed to be showing--especially during the Sanctus, where we join the angels in Heaven in their "eternal song of praise."

Some might be tempted to think that the Pope is opening the way, or even encouraging, an abandonment of decorum during Mass and a reversal of the General Instruction on the Roman Missal's direction to avoid "every appearance of individualism." Many will think the Pope is exhorting us all to a style of attending Mass that includes spontaneous outbursts during the Eucharistic Prayer and distractive movements during hymns. Not so. In the references to the Mass, the Pope is merely pointing out that, even when the words for praise are given to us, we still so often fail to make them an act of praise.

The Mass is a structure of worship precisely so that we can give way to ever deeper and more meaningful encounters with God. The formality of the Mass, which we must be careful to observe that the Pope is not criticizing or saying is inappropriate, is there to serve as a set of rails, as it were. We need only to give ourselves over to it to ever more truly encounter the Lord. This is what the Pope is referring to when he says "Do I know how to praise the Lord when I pray the Gloria or the Sanctus? Is my whole heart really in it, or do I merely mouth (the words)?" He's asking us: Do we really give ourselves over to the rails of the Mass that will take us where we need to go?

When we go do our own thing by spontaneously shouting out, by stepping out into the aisle and dancing, we are pulling attention to ourselves--the attention of those around us, whose attention might otherwise be focused on the Lord. We are making the Mass about us, about our worship, rather than about the One Who is worshipped. This is not what the Pope means by "come out of your shell." In a sense, when we call attention to ourselves during the Mass--when we make it about us--we derail everybody else's opportunity to more deeply encounter the Lord that we think we are praising.

So many Catholics are Christian, in the sense of praising God, only during the Mass. In other words, the Mass has become, for many, the sole forum for showing public, physical praise. This has led to the phenomenon of Sunday Catholics, who attend Mass for one hour out of the week, and spend the rest of the week cursing the drivers in front of them who are going too slow; criticizing their wives for not having dinner on the table exactly when they get home from work; or looking for every way to cheat co-workers out of recognition for good work, lest they themselves lose out on a promotion. Indeed, for many, the traffic-cursing starts on the way out of the parking lot at the church!

This same orientation, however--this idea that I belong to God for one our of the week, but the rest of my time is mine--is what gives rise to the need of many to make the Mass into some kind of Protestant-style one-upmanship-in-praise worship service. If the Mass is our only outlet for public praise, then that is where all impulses to praise the Lord must be met. If we are overflowing with a Holy Joy in the Lord, such that we just have to "dance before the Lord," well, then, the Mass becomes the place to do that. But that's not what the Mass is for; the performance of the Mass is, as the GIRM explicitly says and as the Church consistently teaches, a communal work of the entire Body of Christ:

Indeed, they form one body, whether by hearing the word of God, or by joining in the prayers and the singing, or above all by the common offering of Sacrifice and by a common partaking at the Lord’s table. This unity is beautifully apparent from the gestures and postures observed in common by the faithful. [GIRM, Paragraph 96]

That's why Catholics need to get better at giving outlet to those impulses in forums other than the Mass. I don't know what those outlets would look like; maybe it's just an overflow of Holy Joy into everything we do. After all, as Catholics we believe that, by saying a morning offering sincerely, we make every act throughout the day an act of worship. Why, then, isn't our daily life an opportunity to show the overflow of joy that we have in the Lord? Why isn't every moment an act of praise? It can be, and I believe that's what the Pope is really calling us to do.

Pope Francis' call to mission: A necessary response to a hostile world

It's tempting, more than ever, perhaps, to dispair for Christianity in the modern world, especially in the United States. We have a president who has shown, during his first term, a consistent hatred for the poor; yet, he was elected for a second term, still securing a significant amount of the Catholic vote. We have monsters engaged in gross medical malpractice, whom the press is afraid to cover or expose because the story might taint the public image of that grossest of all medical malpractices, abortion. We have a vice president (and make no mistake, a president as well) who sees in China's "one child" policy, not a deep human rights violation, but an economic sustainability problem. While there are clearly many good Christians in the United States whose hearts are close to Jesus and who work tirelessly to serve His Kingdom, the sad truth is that America itself is predominately a nation of selfish individuals. That's how people like the current president keep getting into office, both at the state level and in the nation's capital: They know how to appeal to selfishness in their campaigns.

Furthermore, we're seeing an increasing policy of hostility towards Christianity on the part of the reigning administration. Laws and regulations have been put in place for the purpose of directly challenging the Church's capability to serve people in many capacities in the United States without compromising some of its moral principles. This maneuver demonstrates the president's hatred for both the Church and the poor. With recent attacks on the dignity of marriage in many states, it is not long coming before states will be attempting to force the Church out of the marriage business altogether. The argument will go that if you're not willing to marry same-sex couples, then you can't have a license to preside at marriages. More and more devout Christians in the United States are waking up to a reality that appears to have real persecution somewhat closer than the horizon. This is all going on in the United States at a time when religious persecution is increasing world-wide.

In light of all this, Pope Francis' call to joyful mission might seem a little out of place. It might seem that the correct thing to do right now is enact the very "bunker mentality" that the Pope is trying to warn us against. Christians feel like all there is left to do is hunker down and wait for the persecutions to start in earnest.

This is an understandable response; however, it's not the correct one. We in today's world have grown comfortable. We grew up with "religious-freedom" to allow us to practice the faith of our choosing without fear of persecution. We have "separation-of-church-and-state" to prevent the state from meddling in the affairs of the Church. When we see the problem that too few people are growing close to Jesus, and that the world is being drawn into a vortex of selfishness, our response is programmatic. We establish bureaus in our dioceses and programs in our parishes. We create structures that have the functional purpose of addressing this or that evangelical problem. To be sure, many of these structures seem to work. After all, they clearly get more people involved in the Church. But let's face it: If being involved in the Church automatically meant being close to Jesus, then we wouldn't have witnessed the unfolding of the recent scandal involving predatory activities on the part of priests.

The most successful campaign of missionary and evangelical activity in the history of the Church occurred in its first two hundred years. This campaign's fruit grew from a bed fertile with blood--the blood of Christian martyrs. When we read the stories of these martyrs, though, especially the stories of the acts of martyrdom themselves, we see one overwhelming theme: they were joyful!

This is what Pope Francis is calling us to: the same joyful, confident proclamation of the Good News that caused those early Christians to pay with their very lives. Jesus said "the world will hate you because it has hated Me," and the disciples He said that to went on to joyfully shed their blood to bring His message of salvation to the very world that hated Him and them. This is the joy that the Pope is calling us to express in our missionary fervor; this is the love for Jesus that the Pope is calling on all Christians to cling to and to let drive our desire to convert the world. The Pope's call to joyful mission is not unreasonable or unrealistic in a world of growing hostility. Rather, it's the only acceptable response to Christ in a world that is already hostile to Him and His message.

The Good Samaritan - it's all about community

There are a few biblical passages, especially some of the things Jesus said, that present difficulty for me. I'm not talking about difficulty in the sense of being burdensom, so that I have trouble obeying or conforming my life to them; rather, I mean difficulty understanding just what Jesus is getting at, or at least that what I think Jesus is getting at doesn't match what everybody else seems to think. One of these is the story of the Good Samaritan.

As a bit of background, one of the things I firmly believe is that Jesus doesn't get things backwards or mixed up. He is God, after all; if He wanted to convey something specific, He would use a parable, scriptural reference, or teaching that exactly conveyed what He was talking about--both in the exact sense of what He was saying and in how it would be received by those around him, in terms of culture, common language, etc.

So what's difficult to understand about the Good Samaritan? Seems pretty simple and obvious right: The command to "Love your neighbor" really means "Love everybody." It means we each need to go out and be a Good Samaritan, and that doing so is how we fulfill the law. What could be more clear? But if I am to continue to believe that Jesus doesn't mix things up, that He picks His parables carefully to match His points, then I have to believe that there's something more to what He's conveying in the example of the Good Samaritan.

When the lawyer first asks Jesus the question "What must I do to merit eternal life?" Jesus turns the question back and says "What does the Law say?" The lawyer answered with the same two commandments (one from Deuteronomy, the other from Leviticus) that Jesus Himself used when someone else asked "Which is the greatest commandment?": He said "Love the Lord with all your heart, all your soul, and with all your strength" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." Then he persisted, asking Jesus "Who is my neighbor?"

To understand my interpretation of this passage, we need to start by understanding the question that the lawyer was asking Jesus. In Leviticus, it says to love your neighbor as yourself. So we could represent this with a quasi-mathematical formulation:

LoveAsSelf( me ) ==> NeighborTo( me )

Those who are our neighbors, we are commanded to love as we love ourselves. The lawyer asked Jesus "Who is my neighbor?" which we might represent like this:

NeighborTo( me ) = who?

The obvious implication is that the lawyer was really asking "Whom do I need to love as I love myself?". This could be shown like this:

LoveAsSelf( me ) ==> whom?

So that's the question that's been set up for Jesus to answer, and He answers it with a story and then a question of His Own. I won't go through the story--it's familiar to everyone. If you aren't familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan, go read the 10th Chapter of Luke. What I want to focus on is the question Jesus asks at the end, and how to properly cast that into an answer to the lawyer's question, "Who is my neighbor? (i.e., Whom shall I love as I love myself?)".

Because Jesus is using the story to answer the lawyer's question about himself ("Who is my neighbor?"), it's reasonable to conclude that someone in the story represents a parallel to the lawyer. Extending that, this same character in the story will represent a parallel to us when we ask "Who is my neighbor?". Keep in mind, this question really translates into "Whom should I love as I love myself?". The question Jesus poses is "Who was neighbor to the man who was robbed?" This is where I start having trouble beliving all of the modern interpretations of this passage. Jesus asked a specific question with a specific parallel to the lawyer's question. If we use our quasi-mathematical formulation, Jesus asked the lawyer:

NeighborTo( robbed man ) = who?

The implication, following the parallel of what has already been set up is:

LoveAsSelf( robbed man ) ==> whom?

The answer that the lawyer gives, which Jesus clearly approves (at least, as far as being a correct identification--you can read other commentaries on the lawyer's inability to actually use the word "Samaritan"), is "the one who showed him mercy."

So, following the parallels, we have:

NeighborTo( robbed man ) = the one who showed mercy and kindness to the robbed man

therefore

LoveAsSelf( robbed man ) ==> the one who showed mercy and kindeness to the robbed man

If we are to bring this parable full circle and apply it to ourselves, through the lens of the lawyer's question, we would get:

NeighborTo( me ) = whoever shows me mercy and kindness

therefore

LoveAsSelf( me ) ==> whoever shows me mercy and kindness

Here's the point: Most people seem to come away from this passage with the idea that Jesus is telling us that the law to "Love your neighbor as you love yourself" means that we have to be the character of the Good Samaritan. While it's good to be the Good Samaritan, and while Jesus even commands the lawyer "Go and do likewise," I don't think that's what this passage is centrally about. I think we are still supposed to see ourselves represented by the man who is robbed. I think it's about community. The command to love our neighbors as ourselves, even in the Old Testament, is about community. However, I think Jesus was making the point that anybody who makes it his business to take care of me, to show me a kindness or a particular mercy in whatever my situation of life is, that person is my neighbor and I owe it to the law to love that person as I love myself.

But it goes even deeper than that. If I am the person who was robbed in the story of the Good Samaritan, then who is the Good Samaritan, really? It could be Jesus. The Good Samaritan paid out of his own wealth and time to bandage and heal the wounds of a man who had no capability to repay. Furthermore, the man was robbed and left for dead, such that he would have died if not for the actions of the Good Samaritan. Isn't this what Jesus did for us, when He died on the cross? Weren't we robbed of grace and left for dead? Wouldn't we have come to certain, true, spiritual death if Jesus hadn't given His life for us?

If Jesus is the Good Samaritan, then we are already commanded to love Him with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength. After all, He is God. What, then, is this commandment really about, in the light of the story of the Good Samaritan? Jesus said it so many other times, but I'll pick out just one as an example, John 13:35:

By this, all men will know that you are my disciples, that you have love for one another. [emphasis mine]

And that's the crux. In that passage of John, Jesus was talking to His disciples and He was telling them to love one another. Jesus left His presence in the world as a living Mystical Body, which is the Church. Our fulfillment of the law "Love your neighbor as you love yourself" commands us, in this context, to everywhere extend this love to other members of the Body of Christ. After all, by being a member of that Body, each member of the Church merits consideration as the Good Samaritan in relation to me, the man who was robbed. This, then, I believe is the fullest meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan--that it demonstrates the link between the commandment of the law to "Love your neighbor as you love yourself" and Jesus' command to His disciples to "have love for one another."