Sunday, March 28, 2010

He was despised and rejected

I don’t recall right now who it was – probably Fr. DeRosa – but someone recently described a great painting of Jesus’ Way of the Cross. It has all of the characters we recognize from the Passion reading – His Mother Mary, Pilate, the soldiers, the women of Jerusalem, John the Beloved Disciple, Simon of Cyrene -- along the great course of His way of sorrow, which winds through a Jerusalem painted in extensive detail. But Jerusalem is populated by the artists’ contemporaries as well, who are doing things that 17th century Dutch villagers would have done, wearing 17th century Dutch clothing. None are paying the least bit of attention to the drama unfolding in their midst.

As we accompany Jesus through His Passion this week, it is hard not to realize that in addition to all the physical abuse that was heaped upon Him on His way to death on the Cross, He was humiliated. Synonyms I found for humiliated were: broken, crushed, humbled, low, and embarrassed. I think that conveys a lot of the sense of it. Very little human dignity was left to Him who was, in fact, God, and who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Phil 2:6b-7)

As well as the active humiliation from those who spat or shouted at Him, was the passive humiliation of those who took no notice. Of course, everyone has work to do; everyone has a life, a job, a family, and obligations, and can’t be expected to drop everything. We cringe to realize that this, however, is the Son of God, being executed on false charges. This is The Immortal One being crucified to death, not for His guilt, but for the guilt of any and everyone who has sinned.

Last Sunday afternoon, we held our parish Lenten penance service. Fr Derosa invited eight priests to join the three of us who live here to make available to you the mercy and forgiveness that Jesus purchased with His own life’s blood. We started at five and folded the tent a little after six.

No one came. Well, there were maybe fifteen folks when we started, and I can’t tell for sure since I was in the confessional, but I know we didn’t get to fifty people, and under forty is very likely. I thought of all these priests who gave up their Sunday afternoon to help me bring God’s mercy to my parishioners, and I was humiliated.

My brother priests didn’t say anything, of course. One did observe it was an awfully nice day. No one seemed even remotely irritated. It was awkward, though, and sad, for all of us.

Too frequently, I am humiliated because of my own rashness, selfishness, or foolishness. I don’t like that, and I didn’t like this, either. There was solace in that this humiliation came to me because I was standing by Christ.

This Palm Sunday, at first we wave our palms and shout Hosanna!; then, we cry “Crucify Him!” with the crowd that stood before Jesus and Pilate. Let us not take this role-playing too much to heart, and reenact the day that the Son of God died for love of us – and most people did not even notice.

Monsignor Smith

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Gather in -- by scattering

Last week it was more challenging than most to come to Mass. Not only had we lost an hour in the night, but also many of you were carrying groceries to church – adding to already full hands, in many cases. I was deeply moved by this show of care and generosity for our brothers and sisters in need. It made for quite a pile there in the front of the church by Monday morning!

So let me thank you on behalf of those whom you are serving for your response to their need. Saint Bernadette offered 303 bags of food; 185 collected in the church, 118 collected in the school. That breaks down to 1644 canned goods, 784 boxed goods, and 135 containers of juice. That’s a goodly portion of Lenten giving.

Seeing you all give reminded me of a sermon by Saint Peter Chrysologus, one of the Church Fathers, bishop of Ravenna (Italy) in the early fifth century. I read it every year in the Divine Office during the third week of Lent, and am always struck by its candor and directness.

There are three things, my brethren, by which faith stands firm, devotion remains constant, and virtue endures. They are prayer, fasting and mercy. Prayer knocks at the door, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Prayer, mercy and fasting: these three are one, and they give life to each other.

Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others you open God’s ear to yourself.

Fasting bears no fruit unless it is watered by mercy. Fasting dries up when mercy dries up. Mercy is to fasting as rain is to earth. However much you may cultivate your heart, clear the soil of your nature, root out vices, sow virtues, if you do not release the springs of mercy, your fasting will bear no fruit.

When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn. Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering. Give to the poor, and you give to yourself. You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others.

These are powerful words that remind us that our Lenten practices are no empty ritual or cultural artifact, but a spiritual practice of vital importance to our health and survival. So much more than just giving up chocolate or television is the importance of giving. Our Archdiocesan church provided us with an organized way for our giving to have a real impact, thanks be to God. And Saint Bernadette gives – thank you.

Monsignor Smith

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Hope Springs Up

This past Monday morning, Fr. DeRosa came back from his post at the doors of the school and reported that the kids were full of energy and enthusiasm at the beginning of their day. That is not the normal state of affairs for a Monday morning, I assure you. That afternoon, I was at the back steps, as usual, as they spilled out toward their homes and play and families. Once again, the energy level was very high. How can this be?

There is hope in the air, and we name it Spring. We are still shy of the beginning of solar spring, but almost two weeks into what they call “meteorological spring,” and suddenly everything looks a little better. The kids sure know it. I sure feel it. Even Fr DeRosa is in a better mood – as if that could have been possible.

Even as the birds return and the moist mornings promise growth, the piles of snow ringing our parking lot diminish, but not yet disappear. They make a suitable reminder to me to thank all of you who contributed last week to the second collection to help with snow removal. We received just under $10,000, an encouraging help toward our total expenditure this winter of over $51,000.

A number of you gave, some even earlier than that, noting our need, and responding in generosity and stewardship. Thank you all so much! Be assured that if you have not yet had the chance or the wherewithal to help with this unusual parish expense, we will happily receive your participatory gift whenever you are ready and able.

Monday evening we were privileged to have Bishop Leonard Olivier here to bring our young people the Sacrament of Confirmation, and seal them with the Holy Spirit just as life is beginning to get really complicated for them. Wisdom and fortitude in abundance is what He gives them, and strength for the fight. May they use the light of the Holy Spirit to know what to fight for, and what to fight against!

You and I need to dip into that Spirited gift of strength for the fight as well, to fight against sin in our lives and around us. This weekend marks the halfway point of Lent. If you have not already done so, Get Thee to the Confessional!

While we may be fairly sure that we are Not THAT Bad, our sins grow and gain ground unless we are actively engaged in pushing them back, which we can do only with the grace of God and His mercy. A strong man heavily armed is safe in his possessions, says the Lord, but only until someone stronger comes along. Taking our weaknesses to the Sacrament of Penance is the way we make sure that our ally and defender against the Tempter, who is often stronger than we are, is the strongest One there is, the Son of God.

In the second half of Lent, we make this strength available even moreso than up to now, until finally in the last weeks of Lent it will be difficult to find a time when we are NOT hearing confessions. Every church in the Washington area (DC – MD – VA) will be offering Confession all Wednesday evenings from 6:30 – 8:00; and our penance service is a week from now, Sunday afternoon, 21 March, starting at 5:00. All of our NINE confessors will be available until at least 6:00, so if you can’t make it for the beginning, you can still make it.

There is hope in the air, and His name is Christ, the Mercy of God.
Monsignor Smith

Sunday, March 07, 2010

The Sacred is Real

Last weekend, many of you would have noticed I had a friend visiting. Msgr. David Brockman, of the Diocese of Raleigh (yes, that includes the North Carolina beaches), was studying in Rome when I was working there for Cardinal Baum, and he was also a member of the priestly support group organized by Fr. Toups. (See how this all fits together?) Now he is Vicar General of his diocese – second in command, if you will – and rarely gets to escape, so it was very good to have him here for a few days.

On Sunday, after Mass and Fr Toups’ talk to Forums of Faith (where WAS everybody?), we all went downtown and spent the afternoon at the museum. In particular, we wanted to see an exhibition that opened that day at the National Gallery of Art.

The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture, 1600 – 1700 only fills three rooms, but wow! Masterpieces of great painters such as Velázquez and Zurbarán, which are quite well known and often reproduced, are paired with contemporary sculptures of the same subjects, whose sculptors tend not to be so well known.

And what, or who, are the subjects? Our Lord in His Passion, and on the Cross; His mother Mary, and the saints and martyrs. It is an astonishing presentation of the human reality of our salvation and faith. For example, there are several renderings of Saint Francis of Assisi, who is the most influential religious figure in history, after Jesus Himself. His awe and tender intimacy in prayer are compellingly conveyed, making you want to see what he sees.

A statue of Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, presents vividly his wiry intensity, the tears on his cheeks glistening with love of Jesus. Nearby, a statue of Saint Francis Borgia manifests something of the character that made him a suitable successor to Ignatius as Father General.

There are a bust and a full statue of Jesus as the Man of Sorrows, known as “Ecce homo” or “Behold the man,” which is what Pilate said as he presented Him after His scourging and crowning with thorns. These are powerful presentations of the person of Jesus, up close and personal, his posture and expression even more compelling than the wounds and abuses depicted in His flesh.

My favorite, and far sweeter, was a painting by Diego Velázquez I had seen reproduced any number of times, but never in person. Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception has such a calm and attentive expression on her young face, it is hard not to rejoice that she is so eager to bring us to her Son. The similar statue right next to the painting was enough to move me to art theft – just the right size for our Lady Chapel! That is probably not what she would recommend.

I have every intention of going back again, probably closer to Holy Week, to spend more time in conversation with these people. Don’t wait until you have out-of-town guests to visit this exhibit. It is an astonishing reminder of the truth and beauty of our faith, and the salvation that we rejoice in with the saints, through the Son of God who not only visited us, but also took flesh and dwells among us and in us to this day.

Monsignor Smith