Saturday, March 28, 2015

Still here

Dialogues of the Carmelites is one of the great operas of the twentieth century.  Francois Poulenc, who composed it in the early 1950’s, used an adaptation of a book by Georges Bernanos that was based on a real event during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution.  A convent of Carmelite nuns just outside of Paris was condemned by the Committee for Public Safety for remaining faithful to Christ and their monastic practices, and guillotined one by one before a large mob in a public square.

The opera ends with this dramatic martyrdom, and for more than twenty years I had heard about that amazing scene.  Just this month, I finally had the opportunity to see the opera at the Kennedy Center.   Leading up to the breathtaking finale, we encounter in song the lives of the various women in the Carmel as they grapple with their vocations, community life, and the growing threat just outside their walls.  It is an amazing exploration of human nature and divine faith. 

Mid twentieth-century music, particularly opera, is not everyone’s cup of tea.  This masterwork of art was presented with skill and sincerity in an even more modern, somewhat deconstructed twenty-first century production, in a venue and a culture that has grown immune to, or outright rejected, the Christian faith that underlies so much of the great art that routinely is presented there.  For several reasons, it spoke a truth that could not be ignored by even the most sophisticated, self-obsessed, or secular member of cosmopolitan postmodern arts and intellectual community.
One reason is that Poulenc himself knew what would penetrate the bubble that isolates just such a community, because he himself had been a leading member of France’s intellectual and artistic, and therefore atheistic, avant-garde.  His conversion to Christ came in a remarkably unsophisticated, even tawdry way: a visit to a remote medieval Marian shrine while grappling with the sudden death in a car accident of one of his friends.  He wrote marvelous music for litanies and liturgies, but this dramatization of a historical reality reaches where such devotion cannot.
Another reason is the powerful witness of authentic martyrs.  Bernanos and Poulenc portrayed these holy women wholly, not as plaster statue saints filled with only pious virtue, but rather, real women working out heroism and fear, fidelity and selfishness.  The recognizable reality of human nature made remarkable by real faith in a real, historical act of sacrifice is powerful indeed.
A most compelling reason was the timing.   The Washington Opera launched this production of Dialogues of the Carmelites just days after the Coptic Christians were beheaded on that Libyan beach.  This simple, inescapable fact made it impossible to “bracket” it or buffer oneself against what it portrayed by thinking it was just another over-dramatized fiction, remote and unreal.
I was glad my friend and I attended the opera that evening in our priestly garb.  It was our chance to say, in the context of that heroic act of witness so beautifully portrayed, We are still here!  We, who are Christians; we, who believe; we, who are eager to give witness; we, who are seeing our brothers and sisters murdered for their faith; we are still here.
As we, who believe, unite this weekend to witness Christ’s passion and death on the Cross, Saint Augustine would explain in this way what we recognize and respond to:  Lord, I have cried to you, hear me.”  This is a prayer we can all say.  This is not my prayer, but that of the whole body of Christ.  Rather, it is said in the name of his body.  When Christ was on earth he prayed in his human nature, and prayed to the Father in the name of his body, and when he prayed drops of blood flowed from his whole body.  So it is written in the Gospel: Jesus prayed with earnest prayer, and sweated blood.  What is this blood streaming from his whole body but the martyrdom of the whole Church?

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Must we go through this again?


Repetition is the mother of learning.  So they say.  But who needs to repeat things until he learns when we have Google, which I used to make sure I correctly remembered this very maxim? 
Electronic data may stand in place of facts remembered, but learning is far more than simple storage of information.  Learning indicates a knitting together of facts into understanding and ability.  This requires more than simply storage, no matter how “smart” one’s phone may be.
The readings of Sacred Scripture at Mass are long in these days, seeming to stretch longer every week as we move along in Lent toward the Mother of All Scriptural Readings, on Palm Sunday – the Passion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  You can’t try to tell me you haven’t noticed; every Sunday, the Liturgy of the Word seems to have more and more.  Why do we go through all this?  There is no new information being presented, no new facts.  We have heard all of this before.
For every time you hear the Sunday Scriptures, I have gone over them several, sometimes many times more, just in that very week.  And although I am on my fifth or even sometimes tenth time preaching a set of these readings, I assure you that it never fails that something new appear to me.  Sometimes a word, phrase, or line seems so alien and unfamiliar that I even check to see if it was there the last time I read it.  Sometimes words so familiar come along that I need not even read them, but nonetheless, in that moment, they reveal something different and completely new.
The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword.  (Heb 4:12)  Time and time again we return to the words of Scripture so that we might encounter this Word, living and active.  We need to hear over and over again the mighty deeds of God read forth to us, on different days, when we are in different circumstances and dispositions.  The Word of God become flesh, Jesus Christ, reveals Himself to us in the words of Scripture re-read and re-heard in the midst of His Body, the Church united in worship.  There is nothing new among the words, but only the Word, who makes all things new. (Rev 21:5)
So we return again and again to this privileged place where the words are read and re-read in the context of communion.  What was recognized before is not lost, but often enhanced; and what was hidden before, is revealed.  We who would know our God need over and over to allow Him to speak to us, that we may hear His words of eternal life.  Repetition is the mother of learning.
And because learning is not only knowing, but also doing, there are other things we repeat, time and again.  Last week you all participated, again, in the Archdiocesan Lenten Food Drive, offering approximately 4,080 pounds of food (190 bags from the church, 130 from the school and Religious Ed).  That is more than two tons!  While this was 120 pounds (not much, really) less than last year, don’t forget that unlike last year, just weeks ago we had a special parish food drive to help sister parishes in the heart of DC, to which you also gave a huge amount.
This is another thing we do again and again. Like learning Scripture, we are never finished meeting the needs of our neighbor.  Failure to repeat is a recipe for ignorance.  Repetition of Scriptures, repetition of charity; all this repetition is the mother of learning: of learning Christ.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, March 14, 2015

False Dichotomy, or So is that why they're called "in-laws"?

It is easy to think that the law is the opposite of love.  The law is unyielding, impersonal, and irrespective of any circumstance.  Love is human, personal, and particular.  It is easy to figure out which one we like better, and which we want more of.
I am inclined to agree, so I cannot get my head around how the Israelites loved their Law, the Commandments God gave them: And what great nation is there, that has statutes and ordinances so righteous as all this law? (Dt 4:8)  But that is so old school... so Old Testament, even.  Love is the measure of all things now, and even Jesus himself would endorse that, right? 
Of course Jesus did say, Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  (Mt 5:17-18) 
To love is to choose freely the good of the other, and the highest love is to choose to relinquish every good for oneself in order to sustain the good of the other.  Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.  (John 15:13)     In order to be able to choose the good, in order to be able to love, freedom is required.
There is then a prerequisite for love, a “condition for the possibility” as we say, or a sine qua non – “without which not.”  The sine qua non of love is freedom.  Coercion, privation, deception, and manipulation cannot bring about love; on the contrary - they mitigate against love. 
What, then, makes freedom possible? Our practical experience as a nation seconds what we have been taught by the revelation of God: Law is the precondition for freedom.  Think about it first in civic terms – think about the freedom of citizens being achieved by the law, and the absence of law undermining citizens’ freedom.  Then realize how the absence of civic freedom would reduce the possibility of social love, a society of neighborly charity; not to mention personal acts of love.  Believe it or not, law is the sine qua non of love. 
From that civic scenario, make the leap to the love revealed and offered in Christ, and you begin to understand not only why Jesus asserted that he came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it; but you also begin to realize why God first gave the Law in working His will for the salvation of man, and then sent His Son, the God who is Love incarnate, in the flesh.
God’s Law orders our lives before it orders society; it orders our deeds and words to God and our neighbor, the practical steps essential to love, the work that love does.  This fabric of thought, word, and deed is the precondition of authentic love of God and of neighbor.  Just as in our blessed nation, the law is the shaper and guarantor of our freedom, so is God’s Law of the Commandments the shaper and guarantor of our freedom.  It is foolish to think that we can love God without obeying His Law.  The Law, and our observance of it, set our feet on the path to love.
The two types of law diverge where they are broken.  Break a civil law, and pay the consequences – privation or punishment. A government that fails to enforce the law, fails to protect freedom, and thereby fails to govern.  But break the Law of God, sin against Him or our neighbor, and God reaches out to us for reconciliation, offering His Son to pay the price.  This highest love we can receive only by recognizing and repenting of our disobedience.
What’s law got to do, got to do with it? to paraphrase the old Tina Turner song.  Without the Law, we would never know how to love, much less be able to love.  The law is not the opposite of love, but what makes it possible -- for a society, and for a soul.

Monsignor Smith

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Glimpse

I see, said the blind man. It is an old and tired joke, yet it stays in our vocabulary because so often it rings true.  We hear someone’s words to us, even comprehend the sentences, but cannot grasp the meaning behind them.  We understand, but we don’t understand.
I cannot un-see an image I saw inadvertently of the beheading of twenty-one Coptic Christians on the shore in Libya.  It is painful, frightening, and discouraging all at once.  But today I saw another image of those same Coptic martyrs, and it changed everything.


The twenty-one souls on the shore look to Christ their Savior, who beckons them come to Him.  The angels descend, bearing crowns of martyrdom, even as the waves turn red with their blood.  Their orange garb is covered over by red, yes the red of martyrs’ blood, but also the red of Christ’s own Divinity.  It looks nothing like the internet image I saw, but reveals better the reality.
This evening, as I prayed the psalms of Vespers, the evening office, I came to the line Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, and the phrase the Lamb who was slain caught my attention and rang again and again in my mind.  Once again the image of those innocents being slain came unbidden to my eyes.  But those words stand in the midst of the great hymn from Revelation: Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!  (Rev 5:12).  And the eyes of my heart were opened wider.
Suddenly those words brought to mind others.  He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.  (Is 53:7)  And, For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.  (1 Pt 2:21-24)
By his wounds you have been healed.  Those words that I associate with Sunday Vespers every week of Lent have long been pure consolation for me.  But they mean more to me now than they did even a few hours ago.
Jesus gave Peter, James, and John the consolation of seeing His transfiguration, His true identity and glory revealed, in advance of their witnessing His passion and death.  I see now, said Peter; let us stay here.  But the vision passed, Jesus led them back down the mountain, and they asked one another what rising from the dead meant.  They had seen, but were still blind.
I read somewhere that the last words from the martyrs were, Lord Jesus Christ.  He gave them eyes to see, what we need the icon to begin to imagine.  I see, said the blind man.

Monsignor Smith