Friday, June 27, 2014

Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus

Leave it to the Catholic Church to dedicate a feast day to an internal organ. A cynic mutter, "What next? The Blessed Toe? The Immaculate Hangnail? The Miraculous Gall Bladder?" Such utterances notwithstanding, today marks the Church's celebration of the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart. Although understandably neglected by most of us - no children, after all, get an annual Sacred Heart vacation - it may be worthwhile to spend a few moments considering what it means to observe this solemnity so dear to the Society of Jesus. 

The symbolism of the heart is hardly foreign. Top-40 songs croon melancholically about the "broken heart." Students feel devastated when the college they had "set their heart on" sends them a rejection letter. As loved ones struggle with an issue, one feels "heart sick." In the Scriptures, "hardness of heart" prevents Pharaoh from allowing the Hebrew people to leave Egypt and keeps the crowds gathered around Jesus from accepting his message. The heart encapsulates so much of what is essential to our humanity: love and fear, hope and doubt, sorrow and joy. The heart, so to speak, makes us vulnerable to the world. 

Corporations and young lovers grasp (and frequently exploit) this vulnerability. In the weeks leading up to Valentine's Day, one finds an endless array of heart-shaped boxes filled with various delights. We are encouraged to buy bags of heart-shaped candies stamped with "Call Me" and "Be True" and "Kiss Me." A young man carves his initials along with his beloved's into the bark of a tree; a little boy, wanting to do something nice for his mommy, uses safety scissors to cute a heart from construction paper and writes "I Love You" in a barely legible scrawl no mother can fail to understand.

Furthermore, we hear frequently medical advice about good heart-health, about maintaining cardiovascular fitness: heart disease continues to be a leading cause of death in our country. Our language is saturated with these medical metaphors: to gauge vitality we "take its pulse" and if we "call the code" it means that there's no hope, that the endeavor is over.

What has this to do with the Sacred Heart? Everything. This Solemnity reminds us that Jesus' heart was nothing less than fully human, open and susceptible to the world around him. Jesus' heart could be scourged with grief - he wept over Lazarus's death - and gripped with fear as in the Garden. His heart moved with love for the Rich Young Man and led him to preach and to teach, to act and live in a way that gave those around him hope in God's Kingdom. 

His lifespan was measured in heartbeats, a rhythm animated by a heart knitted together in Mary's womb, a heart that must have seemed to have carried the weight of the world within it. And this rhythm of loving and serving and calling led him, ultimately, to the brutal timbers of the Cross. For this is a heart abandoned by those he called his friends, the heart of one whose final words echo within our own hearts: My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Yet this is a heart, so set aflame by God's life and love, that not even death could extinguish it. The Risen One didn't have a vengeful "heart-to-heart" with his betraying disciples; instead, he bid them peace, shalom, and gave them a new mission.  

Jesus' heart is sacred not because it is magical but because it focused exclusively on one end: the love of God. Jesus' heart is sacred because Jesus focused his entire self upon bringing into a world grown dark with sin the light of the Good News. Jesus, enlivened by a heart quickened by the Good News of what God is doing, never said, "Change so that God can love you. Change so that God might find something within you to love and then maybe you'll find healing." Jesus flips such a sentiment - sadly one far too many of us share! -  on its head: "God loves you, so live out this love boldly. Take heart, my friend, and follow me." Jesus does not ask us to be different persons. Instead, Jesus gives us a way  to be be people differently.

We are all offered, daily, an opportunity to make our own the Sacred Heart of Jesus. A heart committed to love rather than hate, forgiveness over vengeance, peace instead of war. We might see our lives as the circuit-training of Christian discipleship, a workout program sustained by God's Word and Flesh, aimed not at beach-worthy bodies but Kingdom-living hearts. Christian faith hopes that on our last day Jesus will ask us not about our waist size but about the size of our heart. Did you give me food to eat and water to drink? Did you clothe me when I was naked? Did you visit me in prison? In the hustle and bustle of your daily life, did you allow your heart to be moved in love and compassion? Did you bother to love?

In the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Christians believe, we encounter the fulfillment of humanity's hope for God and God's hope for humanity. We are each offered a share in this heart, a chance to make our hearts beat in time with Jesus' own heart. And, unlike the clothing at Abercrombie & Fitch, the Sacred Heart is available to all regardless of size or shape. A heart on fire with a desire to share the Good News with a world desperately in need of it. A heart vulnerable to the cares others. A heart open to being touched, pierced, and moved. A heart pouring itself out in joyful love, giving without ever counting the cost, courageously allowing each heartbeat the record a life lived for God's greater honor and glory.

Oh, Sacred Heart of Jesus, give us strength to allow our hearts to beat in time with yours that our entire lives may become one single prayer lifted up to you. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

A dreadful thing...

Images of the sacred are necessary, but since they inevitably become stabilized, reverence can become fixed and shackled to them, in bondage to them. Religions spawn idolatry because we resist being reminded of the impermanence of our images, even those of the Holy. ~William Desmond, Philosophy and Its Others
I begin this post with the above quote because, to my mind, it captures an essential aspect of what might be considered our contemporary tendencies toward idolatry. Normally, when we hear the word idolatry, we think of things like golden calves and statues of false gods. At its root, idolatry occurs when we place something finite in the place of the infinite. While I can't say I've had much of an impulse to forge a golden cow, I'll admit that there are times when I'm seduced by other "idolatrous" images present in the world: riches, being honored, being powerful.

It seems to me that many of us face the temptation toward idolatry quite frequently. No place is this better seen than within the Catholic Church. At its core, the Church is a community gathered into the Body of Christ by the Holy Spirit which journeys together through history as it grows in friendship with God. For believers, this should hardly be an objectionable, albeit minimal, definition.

Note, however, the verbs: to gather, to journey, to grow. These are dynamic verbs, verbs of motion. The Church is an ongoing process over time; it is not now a completed project and, near as I can tell, will it be completed on this side of God's Kingdom.

I mention this because I find myself disheartened when I read essays published in Catholic forums, or read the comment boxes attached to them (note: reading comments is often an invitation to spiritual desolation). I find myself sad because people treat the Church as though it were a solid and stable thing, rather than a dynamic process over time. What is more, the Church becomes the object of fixation for those who write about it. How often do you read:

  • I don't agree with the Church. 
  • The Church is wrong about....
  • In my experience, the Church needs to....
While I it, I'm struck by what's missing: you hardly ever hear about sacraments, about community, or about this Jesus fellow who seems rather important! Well, you only hear of Jesus when it is politically advantageous to the person's point, such as "Jesus was with the poor" or "Jesus was welcoming." Jesus is used as a cudgel for advancing one's opinion rather than as the good shepherd who is gathering us together. 

One of my favorite scriptural quotes is Hebrews 10:31 - "It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." God's hands are hardly idle as they lead and gather, direct and draw, the Church forward in history. They are the hands that reach out to us, that beckon us forward through a finite institution toward an infinite relationship and life eternal. The Church, for believers, is the means of salvation. It is hardly salvation itself. 

This is not to discount the experiences of the faithful, but it is to encourage all of us to be mindful of our temptations to turn the Church - or any institution - into the sole focus of our lives. Often enough, "liberals" and "conservatives" are but mirror images of each other: both seeing the Church as a static thing, they either rush to remake it or preserve it as-is. Both forget that the whole project is not of human initiation and that God is, ultimately, calling the shots on this. 

Anyway, these are brief thoughts before I go to Costco to shop for the community. I've been very busy playing music, studying French, and generally enjoying the summer and I've not felt much like posting of late. I hope readers are keeping well in these early days of summer and please be assured of my prayers as we continue in our journey together!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Scapegoating Donald Sterling

For those interested, a piece I wrote for the The Jesuit Post has gone live. It's a short essay drawing upon the thought of René Girard to look at some of the issues present in our media-fixation on the case of Donald Sterling.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

That the World Might be Saved

Two weeks ago, I took my five-year old nephew Quinn to see the new X-Men movie. Truth be told, I had no idea (1) if he'd like the movie or (2) if he'd be able to sit through it. Fortunately, there were enough action sequences to captivate his attention and he did manage to make it through the whole film. 

The film opens with a bleak depiction of the future: Sentinel robots have effectively destroyed the planet. Once-beautiful and flourishing cities have been ravaged and there remains but a glimmer of hope that, through the use of their mutant powers, the surviving X-Men work together to correct history. 

The X-Men narrative, like many superhero arcs, raises the question of a savior. Who is going to sweep in and rescue us from our woe? Who is it who has the power to stand up to the forces of evil, to resist the darkness, and lead us into the light? Superman. Batman. Wolverine. Wonder Woman. Spiderman. In each telling of the superhero's story, there emerges a figure willing to face tremendous opposition and difficulty to restore order to human lives. 

Our workaday world often seems so much less intriguing than those where superhuman individuals have special powers or abilities. Yet hardly any of us would deny that very often we feel the need of some sort of savior. A cancer diagnosis, the loss of a job, a loved one's mental illness...these all introduce into one's life a terrible swirl of chaos. The ecological crisis, the ongoing need for financial reform, crises of authority, and the plight of the poor and dispossessed elicit from the human family a common cry: is there no one who can save us...from ourselves? 

This Sunday, the (blessedly) short Gospel expresses the central claim of Christianity. It also happens to be the scriptural verse I associate most with going to sporting events. In John 3:16 we read, 
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. 
Jesus is, so to speak, God's rescue mission of our world.

The cynic and skeptic might reply, "Well, a fat lot of good this has done for us! Look at the Cleveland Browns (sports fans) or the violence of society to see that this Jesus fellow has pretty well failed this task."

In superhero movies, we typically have some sort of definitive battle wherein the hero musters a comeback and defeats the villain. In the Gospel, the great comeback is Jesus' resurrection where he defeats no single human villain but triumphs over death itself. It's not that he eliminates death so that we become immortals, but his resurrection allows us to live in the hopeful confidence that darkness of death is not the final answer to human life. Life, not death, is the horizon of our lives.

When believers speak of Jesus "saving" the world we are not talking about his putting a spell on it. Nor are we talking about a superman-esque feat wherein he yanks it from a collision course with an asteroid. More subtly, and infinitely more profoundly, he has given us more than a second-chance to get things right. Jesus' Resurrection gives us a new life, a new way of being, based on sharing within the life and destiny he offers us.

If you think on it, villains in comic book movies are often bent on world domination. They want to control, to rule, to possess all things. They want to remake all of creation in their own images, to be the arbiters of life and death. Jesus, but contrast, promises us nothing less than everything. He offers us life, a way of being fully human, based not on what we own but on the one who loves us. Jesus doesn't create a rebel alliance. He creates a family.

Jesus came that the world might be saved, that it might be rescued from our insatiable appetites for more and more and more. Instead of becoming one more commodity in our economy, Jesus gives us an entirely new economic order in which me might live.

As the Church emerges from its annual celebration of Pentecost, it may be well for us to consider how we are called to be a part of Jesus' rescue mission. Having found in this Jesus a hope that gives us the courage to face death, how are we made able to embrace our lives in a way that reflect God's generosity? How does our shared life in the Spirit gather us into one family?

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame