Friday, April 18, 2014

Why the Cross? (Good Friday)

One of the many graces of this day is the simplest: 
the time we take to face the Cross.

Did you notice we have no bells ringing today? 
One of the important things about Good Friday is silence. 

We need to be silent before the Cross, 
because the Cross confronts us 
with things we don’t want to face, but we must.

Maybe one of the questions we ask is why? 
Why did Jesus go to the Cross?

First, a very important point. No one forced Jesus to do this. 
As he himself said, when he was arrested, 
do you think I cannot call on my Father, 
and he will send twelve legions of angels? 
But then, how will the Scriptures be fulfilled in this way?”

Before the first word of Scripture was uttered, 
before the world began,
it was God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—
who chose the path that led to the Cross.

So we ask again: Why? Why this?

Last Sunday, they had the movie, 
“The Passion of the Christ” on one of the TV channels. 
It’s a very powerful movie, I recommend it. 
Yet I didn’t watch it; and I’ll tell you why.

It’s so awful to see what they did to our Lord. 
I just didn’t want to see that.
Yet on Good Friday, we must face it. 

When we say, as we do, that Jesus paid for our sins, 
do you realize how much he “overpaid”?

Saint Thomas Aquinas taught that 
because of the perfection of the Son of God, 
“Any suffering of his, however slight, 
was enough to redeem the human race.”

That means a mere scratch on his finger would have paid!

So we are still wondering: Why Lord?

Why? Because this teaches us God’s extravagant mercy. 
How can we question whether God will give, give, and give still more, 
when on the Cross he gave the maximum 
when the minimum would have been enough?

Second, when we see the ugliness of the Lord’s suffering and death, 
it’s a kind of mirror. 

We want to tell ourselves all manner of things about sin: 
it’s not so bad. It doesn’t really affect anyone else. 
And we often want to see the glamor and attractiveness of sin.

And then we come to the Cross. We see the truth about sin.

We look at our world, and wonder, why is there evil? 
Why does this country start a war with this one? 
Why do powerful people do such terrible things 
to hold onto their power? 
How can people be so indifferent?

But the truth is, 
evil isn’t something that falls on earth from the sky. 
Where does it come from? From the human heart. 
And if we’re not careful, next thing we say is, 
“it came from your heart—you—you’re the problem!” 
And the violence continues.

And so for that reason, God came to the Cross.

How many times has each of us said: “someone must pay.”

Someone did. And how!

Do you want revenge? Do you think you have it coming?
There’s your revenge. 

Are you ever angry at God?
There’s God’s response.

“By his stripes we are healed.”

Thursday, April 17, 2014

It's all about priesthood (Holy Thursday)

When we come to this evening Mass, 
as well as Good Friday and the Saturday night Vigil, 
we are at the heart of our Faith. 
The living, pulsing heart.

Just looking at what we do at this Mass: 
the priest washes the feet of several people,
reflecting what we heard in the Gospel. 
That stands out—so much so, 
that sometimes it seems to be the main thing.

Then we “have Mass”—the same Mass we always have, 
except usually with more solemnity.

Then, we have a procession with the Holy Eucharist, 
and we adore the Lord on the side altar, until midnight. 
And then, of course, we then begin our Good Friday pilgrimage.

But what connects it all?

The key idea is “priesthood.” 
But I don’t primarily mean the priesthood 
Father John and I received in our ordination. 
I mean the priesthood—of our Lord Jesus Christ himself.

He, and this Night, these sacred days, 
are the origin both of the sacramental priesthood 
Father John and I were privileged to receive, 
as well as the priesthood all of us receive in baptism.

This reminds us that when God foresaw—
before he created the world—
that humanity would turn from him, 
and would need to be saved and healed, 
the choice of how God might save mankind was entirely his. 

Think about that. 
He did not have to save us in the way that he did.

The plan could have been that on a certain day, 
God would just announce salvation. 
With an angel, or one of the prophets. 
Or, he might still have become human, through the Virgin Mary; 
but again, simply to give us the good news: “you’re saved.”

In that alternative history, 
there’s no Cross. No resurrection. 
No Sacrifice; and no Priesthood.

There wouldn’t have been a Passover. 
No Temple with its sacrifices. 
And what Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezekiel 
and the other prophets would have said, I don’t know. 

But all that and more, from Adam forward, 
was a foreshadowing of what we recall this night.

And when I say “this night,” 
I mean a kind of three-night night. 

The darkness falls as the Lord keeps the Passover with his Apostles; 
when the darkness falls again on Friday, 
the Lord’s broken body is taken from the cross. 
And the night is broken when, in the dark of Saturday, 
Jesus breaks free of the tomb. 
When we gather here Saturday—again in the dark—
the deacon sings, “this is the night!”

As the first reading illustrates, 
Jesus and the Apostles were looking back to recall the night 
when God delivered his people from slavery in Egypt. 

But our Lord was much more looking forward: 
Not only the next 24 hours; even more,
He was anticipating all of us who would gather, year by year, worldwide, on this night, 
not in fear but with joy to say, “we are saved!”

When God’s people kept the Passover, 
before they would share the meal, the lamb was slain; 
and the blood was smeared over the door of the house, 
so that death would pass them by.

Do you remember the reading on Sunday?
Where you, repeating what the mob cried out, 
“his blood be upon us and upon our children”?

Sadly, this has been misunderstood all these centuries as a curse. 
But it’s a blessing! 
With his blood upon us and our children, we’re saved!

When the Apostles heard the Lord say, “this is my Body”; 
“this is the new covenant in my blood,” 
they were troubled and anxious.
They would only understand after the Cross and the Resurrection. 
Only after did they realize why Jesus said—to them: 
“Do this in remembrance of me.”

This is the night—the “hour”—of his high priesthood. 
Our priest prepared the sacrifice; 
he brought it to the altar; 
and then, after the offering was made, 
he went into the most holy place—heaven!—
to make atonement for sin. 

What about the Apostles? 
This night they gain their part in his priesthood. 
By washing their feet, our Lord showed them 
how to be priests for others, as He was priest to them.

Tomorrow’s liturgy begins 
with the priest prostrating himself before the altar. 
It always reminds me of my ordination 
when I lay on the floor and prayed, 
and heard the people praying for us.

But notice where it happens: 
This reminds me, and you, 
that my priesthood makes no sense without the altar, 
and above it, the Cross. 

And of course, it’s not just “my” priesthood. 
What you see me do is not just for me. 
You are not spectators. 

Our Mass tonight only has power 
because it is one and the same with the Mass of Jesus Christ—
his first “Mass,” which began this night, long ago, 
and climaxed with his death and resurrection:

One Mass, offered in time and in eternity, 
by one High Priest, for all humanity, world without end! 

In the old days, this altar wasn’t here, 
and so you would see the priest 
ascend those steps to that altar. 
Most of you have never seen that; 
maybe you would like to, or maybe you wouldn’t. 

But this too is something that has been misunderstood. 
Even if it seemed the priest was going up by himself—
even if the church was empty—he is never “alone.”

And yet, when the priest ascends to the altar, 
it is a powerful sign—including for the priest himself—
that there is but one priest, and one sacrifice: 
Jesus Christ, who is both.

When Moses ascended the hill 
to pray for God’s People in battle, 
he needed Aaron and Hur to hold up his arms. 

When our Lord ascended the altar of the Cross, 
his Mother and John and Mary Magdalene were there. 

When every priest ascends the altar, 
we are alone in one sense, but never alone in another.

And if you’re wondering why I’m reflecting on this with you,
it’s because I am your priest;
and this, of all nights, is when I need to reflect on that with you.

Father John and I desperately need reminders 
of what our priesthood means, 
because there are constant temptations to get off-focus. 

If we forget that it is about the Cross, the altar, and sacrifice, 
God help us, and God help you.

So when Father and I approach this altar, 
ask the Holy Spirit to help you see. 
We don’t particularly want you to see us. 
See the sacrifice. See the Cross. See the High Priest.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

It's all about the Cross (Palm Sunday homily)

On Palm Sunday, some priests don’t give a homily, 
because the readings are so long and intense.

But I want to offer some brief thoughts, if only to give you a breather.

So I offer you this to consider: there is no Christianity without the Cross.

If we try to talk about Jesus Christ only in terms of teaching, or healing, or kindness – 
without the Cross – we’re not talking about Jesus, but someone else entirely.

It’s all about the cross and our need for Christ. 
And that’s what our whole Lent has been about.
So – if you’ve come this far and not had a good Lent? Start now. 

Now, I might have made a different point: 
that just as Christ makes no sense without the Cross, 
so humanity makes no sense without God. 
Without God, we have no anchor, 
nothing to hold onto but our own uncertain selves. 

Yet that is what our contemporary society is trying to do: 
to understand ourselves without God. 

It won’t work; it will end in grief; but we’re trying all the same. 
By the way: this fully explains 
the growing conflict between what our Catholic Faith asks of us, 
and what the world insists is true.

Now, the world has one good indictment of God. 
We see human suffering and we want to know: where is God? 
It’s a question that haunts us.

Yet, without God, the suffering remains. Pushing him aside doesn’t help. 
There seems no way out!

This is why the one word 
God wanted to speak to humanity is the Cross. 
God on the Cross.
Right in front of us.

Face it. Embrace it. This is the only hope we have. 

You don’t have to come on Holy Thursday or Good Friday or the Easter Vigil, 
but I invite you to come. This is the heart of our Faith. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Assisi of Francis and Clare

Well, I'm back in the parish, and pretty much bounced back from jet lag.

So I think I should give you a wrap-up on last few days in Assisi. This will have to be brief, because I have to head over to church in a few minutes.

In this room, in the bishop's residence, is where Saint Francis came to the bishop and, in front of his father and others, renounced his inheritance and removed all his clothes and gave them back to his father. I'd always thought this happened in the town square -- probably because that's how at least one movie depicts it.

This is an ancient Roman temple, built before our Lord was born. It's now a church.

In the Benedictine monastery up on the hill overlooking Assisi -- where Saint Francis spent a lot of his time (it's where he preached to the birds, and rolled in the rose bushes) -- this cross is mounted on the wall. It was used by Saint Bernardine of Siena who preached devotion to the Most Holy Name of our Savior.

This is a statue of Saint Clare, in front of the church of San Damiano -- which is (a) the church Saint Francis rebuilt after our Lord called him to "rebuild my church" and (b) where Saint Clare and her community first gathered. This recalls the time Clare, seeing an army led by Emperor Frederick II toward the convent, went outside and held up the monstrance, containing the Eucharistic Lord. The army saw a blinding light and got the message.

Here's the church of San Damiano. If you look closely, you can see, in the stonework on the left, a smaller building before it was made larger. That's what Francis (perhaps with help) did.

Here's the cross from which our Lord spoke to Francis. It's now in the Basilica of Saint Clare.

Here's the table where another miracle associated with Saint Clare happened. The pope came to visit, and he invited Clare to say the blessing over the meal. When she did, crosses appeared in the bread that was on the table.

Here's the Basilica of Saint Francis. His body is buried here (we had Holy Mass at his tomb). This building was damaged during an earthquake in the 1980s, and some of the damage to artwork could not be repaired.

You may be wondering why I don't have more interior photos. That's because photography was barred most places -- officially, probably everywhere, but it seemed not to be taken seriously everywhere (that's how Italy can be).

And why is photography banned? Because camera flashes damage things. In theory, you could just say, "no flash" -- which some places I've been do say; however, I'm guessing some folks ignore that, so it's easier just to bar all picture-taking.

One of the sights I couldn't take a picture of was the incorrupt body of Saint Clare. Apparently, while her body has not undergone the normal decay of death (there's a miracle I'd like to hear secularists explain), flash cameras did damage her flesh. The damage is concealed, but thus the no-photos policy.

It's hard to do justice to three days in Assisi in a brief post. However, a few points:

> Francis was not the tree-hugging hippie he's often portrayed as being. For one, he was pretty intense about the Catholic Faith. He wanted people to know Jesus Christ in his Church, through the sacraments. And, yes, he was also about poverty and peace -- but his notion of peace was more about the freedom that comes from turning from worldly pursuits and fixes ones gaze on our Savior.

> While Francis was about poverty for himself, he did not despise or reject the good things of life. He enjoyed life and all good things that came his way. Poverty didn't mean not enjoying life; only choosing to take life as it comes, and focus on Christ, not stuff. When people gave him good food and drink to enjoy, he enjoyed it.

> Francis clothed himself in rags, but he didn't advocate treating the sacred things of our Faith that way -- as some advocate today. On the contrary, art and beauty, in worship, were seen as both fitting offerings to the Lord; and also, art that told the story of salvation was part of preaching the Gospel.

Well, that'll have to do. The bells are tolling, and I have to head over to church to hear confessions.

About the movie 'Noah'

...I haven't seen it. I don't know if I will or not.


Folks wonder why Hollywood doesn't make more films about the Bible.

Lots of reasons, but I think we've all seen one of them play out the past few weeks.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Back from Assisi; heading home tomorrow

Sorry for the radio silence for the past few days; but my Internet connection in Assisi was terrible. Just now I returned by train from Assisi, and tomorrow I head to the airport, and then home, via New York. It's late -- past midnight; but my room is stuffy after being shut up for several days, so I've got the windows wide open to cool things down.

The group of us priests had an "Arrivaderci Dinner in Assisi tonight; I left about half-way through to catch my train. The rest of the guys will come back tomorrow, and then begin heading off over the weekend.

So why did I come back early? Simple: I typed in the wrong date when I bought my ticket! Once I realized my mistake, any changes would cost me dearly. As it is, I tried to change it, when I had complications last week, but no dice.

At any rate, the trip to Assisi was wonderful, both in terms of art and architecture, our ostensible mission, but also in learning much more about Saint Francis and Saint Clare.

My next post, most likely, will be stateside! As much as I've enjoyed my sabbatical -- and as very grateful as I am to the Archbishop and the Archdiocese for making it possible -- I am very ready to come home. Not that I was homesick; but, home is home. See you there!

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Caravaggio, Bernini, and other Roman Treasures

This will probably be my last post from Rome. Tomorrow morning the group heads up to Assisi; I'll return late Thursday, and fly home Friday. So my next report will probably be from the home of Saint Francis.

Friday afternoon I made a trip over to the Capitoline Museum. The steps on on when I take this photo lead to the top of the Capitoline Hill, to a plaza designed by Michelangelo. Yes, that Michelangelo. The steps you see going off to the left lead to a church, Santa Maria in Ara Coeli or "Altar of Heaven." To its left you can see a bit of the Altare della Patria, better known as the Monument to King Victor Emmanuel II. 

In the center of the piazza is a statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. It's a copy of this statue, now inside the museum: 

Here are some murals depicting scenes from ancient Roman history. This shows the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, who were charged with keeping the sacred fire burning. In antiquity, this wasn't just a religious matter. When visiting Ephesus, our guide pointed out the need for everyone in the city to be able to come obtain fire in order to quickly kindle fires in their homes or businesses.

Here is Aeneas marking out the bounds of Rome with a plow.

This is the famous scene of the infants Romulus and Remus being nourished by a she-wolf.

The opposite wall told the story of the rape of the Sabine women -- but it was a little indelicate, so I am omitting that.

Here's the very famous statue of the she-wolf. The original predates our Lord's time. Many believe this is the original; however, Wikipedia reports testing dated it to the 13th century. The statues of the two boys were added in the 15th century.

Here's another striking statue. Dr. Elizabeth Lev pointed out that this statue was a contender to be a symbol of the city, but Pope Sixtus IV chose the She-wolf statue above, instead.

This is Emperor Constantine of happy memory. This head is huge. 

Do you know what this is?

That is the foundation of what was the temple of Jove, or Jupiter, which dominated this hill. Just beyond this hill was the Roman Forum of Augustus Caesar's time, and the Via Sacra led down the middle of it, among many temples and public buildings; for example, the Temple of Vesta, where the fire was kept. Dominating all this was the temple of the chief of the Roman deities, Jupiter. Now all that remains are the foundations. And now I can say I visited the Temple of the one, true God, in Jerusalem, and now this temple of a false god, whose worship was overthrown by the Christians.

Here is a lovely image of the Holy Family. I was very taken by the way Saint Joseph is so smitten by our Lady, as is our infant Savior.

This is an angel assisting Saint Matthew in composing his Gospel. I thought this was labeled as by Caravaggio, but I just checked and didn't find it as one of his; and I can't make out the inscription below the frame. (Sorry I didn't take notes.)

 This is one of Caravaggio's many paintings of Saint John the Baptist. His depiction of John is puzzling. No, not the nudity -- that was common in that era -- but the use of the ram, and no real other indication of this being the forerunner of our Lord.

I was struck by this image's depiction of the Holy Trinity:

Visiting the Capitoline Museum takes you to two buildings, and you cross between them through a passage under the piazza. The passage was filled with ancient objects with texts in them. Fascinating stuff, but I didn't have time to see everything. You are also able to duck down a corridor, past the ruins of another temple, and then emerge out onto a balcony to this view of the Roman Forum. You can see how the Via Sacra is angling to the right of the scene -- toward where the Temple of Jove stood in antiquity.

The other building mostly had statuary. I am always impressed by statues and busts using different sorts of stone, in this manner.

More statues.

This is the god Pan. I love the color of the stone.

This is a famous, ancient statue of a Gaul, dying after a battle.

One of the things that struck me was the detail of a moustache. Most of these statues either have full beards, or else the men are clean-shaven.

After a couple of hours in the Capitoline Museum, I made my way over to the Church of Saint Louis, where three Caravaggio works are on display in a chapel where they were intended to be seen.

This first picture is mine, serving to orient you. To the left is the very famous Call of Saint Matthew; in the center, Matthew is receiving inspiration from an angel; and to the right, Matthew's martyrdom.

The two times I've been here to see this, there is always a large crowd viewing these works.

Here are pictures of the images on the sides. I didn't take them; they are readily available online:

One of the distinctive features of Caravaggio's work is the use of light, usually a light that doesn't come from an obvious source. So in the Call of Matthew, note it doesn't come from the window; in fact, it comes from behind the figure of our Lord. Given the positioning of the painting in relation to the altar, the suggestion is obvious where the light comes from.

Well, that was Friday afternoon. On Saturday morning, after joining the North American College seminarians for the stational Mass at San Nicola in Carcere, two other Cincinnati priests on this sabbatical and I made our way up to the Galleria Borghese. Once upon a time this was a home belonging to the Borghese family; the villa now houses artwork that was collected by the family, and the grounds are a public park.

Alas, no photographs allowed; but I was able to see quite a few more Caravaggios, including this one:

There are several things I like about this painting. First, it shows David as a boy, which he was. Second, I enjoy the expressions. We see Goliath's last expression before he died. He seems to say, "I can't believe this boy is doing this--ack!" And then David seems to say, "I told you I could do it!"

Then there was this image:

Notice how it shows both our Lady and our Lord -- as a toddler -- stepping on the serpent's head. This does two things. First, it shows very powerfully the role Mary was given: she was our Savior's teacher in a true sense, even though he is Lord and God! Second, it solves an exegetical dispute. You may recall this is all based on Genesis: "He will strike at your head, while you strike at his heel." These words, of God Almighty to the serpent, refer to the "seed" of the woman; and is sometimes translated "he" (i.e., the Messiah) and "she" (i.e., Mary). (It's also translated as "they," referring to all the offspring of Eve.) Saint Jerome was one who translated it as "she."

One of the mysteries of this image was was older woman. I agree with my compatriot, who said he thought it would be Saint Anne.

If you go to the link above for the Galleria Borghese, you will find images of some of the artwork, which includes some astonishing statuary by Bernini; one of which tells the story of Apollos chasing Daphne, and to escape him, she changes into a tree. Bernini's amazing ability to use stone to show life and movement is on full display; and the delicacy of the fingers, turning into leaves, is simply astounding. I can't imagine how he kept from breaking the leaves as he worked on it!

After the Galleria, we hiked across the park and down to the Piazza del Populo, where there is a church with two more Caravaggios: the Martyrdom of Saint Peter and the Conversion of Saint Paul. The sign said no pictures allowed (although folks were snapping away), so I didn't take any. However, Wikipedia has excellent photographs of these paintings.

By the time we walked back from all this, my feet were sore and my knees aching; but I'd seen some of the great treasures of art in Rome, including, out of the 80-some Caravaggio works in existence, about 15 of them.

Later last evening we met another Cincinnati priest for a nice dinner; today I had Holy Mass with the NAC seminarians; and now I'm wrapping up this post while I wait for my clothes to finish in the dryer down the hall. I have to pack for tomorrow.