Monday, December 24, 2018

A Holly Jolly Earworm

Is it true that snow covers a multitude of sins?
So much is in the songs, isn’t it? The songs of Christmas, the carols, take us back or pull us in.  Hearing an old recording can transport us to a long-ago experience of Christmas, flooding us with memories.  Singing one for the umpteenth year in a row at Christmas Mass can suddenly fill our mind and heart with an experience and understanding of the closeness and vulnerability of God become (infant) man.   
Last weekend, I visited a home in the late stages of preparation for a party.  Christmas music filled all the rooms, until it began to skip and jump. Eldest son was dispatched to adjust the player by dad, who noted that it was “the best Christmas album ever.”  Clearly, it was the one he had heard his parents play over and over when he was a lad.  I recognize the syndrome; the ones I recall seem to have been produced by Firestone automotive stores, circa mid-1960s.   
Also last weekend, I was able to join our Religious Ed families for the program put on by the students there. It was so good, truly right and just, to hear those young voices sing Joy to the WorldO Come All Ye Faithful, and Silent Night; but it was also something to which many seemed unaccustomed.   Years ago, I realized that our young people have little or no chance to sing these basic Christmas carols for two reasons: first, the soundtrack of the season in public spaces is almost entirely secular; secondly, singing of the birth of Christ is strictly excluded from programs in public schools.  
Those songs, sung by those voices, resonated within me.  It changed my focus, finally flipping my interior Christmas switch, and I went back to the rectory that afternoon and decorated our Christmas tree.  The powerful music drew my attention to the coming feast.
As that scene of Our Lord’s Nativity came to my mind’s eye, with Mary and Joseph above the newborn infant, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, surrounded by the beast of the stall, also looking on with adoration, what came then to my mind’s ear surprised me.
It was a song not on anybody’s list of Christmas carols:  Ooooh that smell; Can't you smell that smell?  This classic by the band Lynyrd Skynyrd, on the soundtrack of my youth in sweet home Alabama, has never been on my Christmas playlist.  Suddenly it won’t go away.
In Neri di Bicci's Nativity (ca. 1470s), the ox and ass are depicted as being suspicious of how the Christ Child smells.
Of course, Our Lord’s birth did occur in a stable, where ox and ass are feeding, to quote the more customary carol.  That cannot have smelt good!  I never see the Blessed Virgin Mary depicted with crinkled nose, though.  It may provide a more practical reason for the Three Kings to have brought incense! 
The song That Smell, however, came to me this year not because of the biological realities of farm animals, but because of something in the Church.  There is something wrong, something deeply off in the place that welcomes the newborn King.  
First, there is the revelation of horrible abuse of children by priests.  Most of this is not new, but rather a renewal of what the Church herself acknowledged almost two decades ago to have gone on for a long, dark period that we thought had passed; what makes it raw again is how little of it was addressed.  Second, there is the broader question of “inappropriate” behavior by clergy, often with people entrusted to their care.  These were not little children, but younger people, people under their care and under their power, ministry leaders or even seminarians or younger priests.  Last and most appalling is the culture and attitude of leading clergy and bishops that declined to respond to cries for help, shared in the expectations of unchastity, or failed to see the grave wrong because of the blindness they had cultivated toward their own sins. And the odor fills Christ’s Church.
Ooooh that smell; Can't you smell that smell?  The song was written by a bandmember in response to the self-indulgent and destructive behavior of his suddenly successful band-mates: Angel of darkness is upon you / Stuck a needle in your arm / So take another toke, have a blow for your nose / One more drink fool, will drown you / Ooooh that smell; Can't you smell that smell / Ooooh that smell; The smell of death surrounds you.  Death; the result of sin is death.  My mental MP3 player got it just right; there is a smell of death in the Church.
The band Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1977.  They are not caroling.
But let’s get back to that manger scene.  The rank odor that surrounded the infant Jesus at His birth was not simply that which is the natural result of healthy farm animals functioning according to their biology and instinct.  It was into the darkness of human sinfulness that He came that dark winter night; and it was the stench of human selfishness in which He immersed Himself to rescue us from it. The smell of death surrounded Him there, too.
This was the plan all along. God the Son gave up the fragrant atmosphere of the heavenly Communion with Father and Spirit not only to visit our stinking world, but to take on our stinking flesh and our stinking, sinful nature with it.  By the power of His unbounded love for us, He did with His flesh and blood what we could not do with our own, which is to obey the will of His Father.  Through Him, our nature and our flesh are buried and raised again, and even now reside in that fragrant Communion where God is all in all.  
By being born into the stench, God brings the sweet fragrance of divinity to our human nature.  There is even a Christmas carol about that, too:  
What is this lovely Fragrance stealing,
Shepherds, that fills the winter air?
Never was sweetness so appealing
Never were flowers of spring so fair
What is this lovely Fragrance stealing,
Shepherds, that fills the winter air?
It’s a French carol, of course; perhaps this understanding contributes to their ability to make the best perfumes.  But I digress.
You and I congratulate ourselves on having better manners than farm animals and better hygiene than most people throughout history, but by no means are we shed of the stench of sin. Jesus knows that, and is born for us and among us not despite that foul reality, but because of it.

With most personal odors, we more readily notice the ones of other people than we do our own, and so with the stink of sin.  This year, it is true, there is a cloud filling the Church that comes from certain sins which most of us can say we do not share.  That cloud, like all of them, someday will be dissipated by the love of God.  May that day be soon!  But meanwhile let us not forget that it is to die for our sins, yours and mine, that the Child is born.  

Ooooh that smell; Can't you smell that smell?  In the fullness of time, every foulness is driven away by the sweetness that comes from the newborn King.  Never was sweetness so appealing; Never were flowers of spring so fair. What is this lovely Fragrance stealing, Shepherds, that fills the winter air?
Sweet music and sweet fragrance now fill this Silent Night.  It is Christ, our Savior, who is Joy to the World!  O Come, All Ye Faithful; let us be washed of every stain and stink of sin by the tiny child we find Away in a Manger.  So much is in the songs, isn’t it?  
From all of us here at Saint Bernadette, We Wish You a Merry Christmas.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Keeping Company, Keeping Christmas

A most innovative depiction of all four participants in the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to her cousin Elizabeth, from one or both for the brothers Jakob and Hans Strub, early 16th century German artists.

When I was a growing up in Alabama, on either Christmas Eve or Christmas Morn my family would pile into the car for Christmas Mass and travel more than twenty minutes to get to our Catholic church.  As we drove, we would pass church after church that was dark and empty, nary a car in the lot.  
These were the Baptist, Methodist, and Church of Christ communities to which most of my school friends belonged.   I was slackjawed when they told me that they did not go to church on Christmas.  How, then, did they celebrate Christmas?  Well, they explained, mainly they did it on the Sunday before Christmas, though they decked their halls and sang their seasonal songs all through December.  
It turned out that our Protestant brethren, especially those touched by the imperative finger of John Calvin, didn’t keep holidays – ANY of them – and worshipped only on Sundays.  Who knew?  Man are you missing out, I tried to explain to them, and I thought principally of the raucous joy of keeping Christmas Day holy.
That thought comes back to me know, but on this weekend when so many of them are already knee-deep in Christmas, and we are at the height of Advent.  Man are you missing out, if you don’t have Advent.  
Christmas is a birth, after all, and we all know that before a birth come preparation and expectation.  Advent gives us God’s preparation, through all the prophets and John the Baptist, and our expectation, through the groaning of the people Israel that prefigures the Church.  And this weekend, Advent lets us spend time with the expectant mother.  
Here at Saint Bernadette (“Saint B, where the ‘B’ stands for ‘baby,”as Father Nick Zientarski so aptly put it years ago, and many visitors have observed since), we know from babies.  And we are no stranger to expectant moms.  
We know that the Blessed Virgin Mary is no bit-player in the diorama of ox and ass and shepherd, all kneeling piously around the radiant child glowing from his feed-trough crib.  No; she is a principal, in the language of the theatre, and so a principal in the drama of our salvation and our lives.  And this weekend we spend time with her, because we can learn from her, and we can get to know her.  
Mary’s life both before and after that day when she shares the stable and the spotlight with her Divine Son are all about Him, and because of that, they are also all for us.   Her every act of obedience to God (I am the handmaid of the Lord) is an act of charity toward us.  Her every word to her Son (They have no wine) is on our behalf.  Her every maternal care (Woman, behold your son) is for us, who make up the Church.  
An expectant mom nine months along is ready, so ready for the coming of her child, but already enjoys an intimacy with him, already feeds and cares for him, already knows him in the secret recesses of her heart.  This intimate union, this expectant love, is Mary’s gift to the Church who keeps her company in anticipation or that day when the Salvation of the World will be manifested in her child.
We and our Christmas celebrations can wait for that arrival and that day, just like Mary and Joseph waited for that arrival and that day.  The world will celebrate what it wants and when it wants, but for us who keep Advent, the birth will only be more delightful for us who know and keep company with the Mother.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Make me

As commands go, it is a pretty tough one to make someone do it:  Rejoice!
You can command a well-trained dog to bark, but beyond that, good luck.  Try it on one of your kids, or on your staff if you have one.  If you are a commander or a president, a CEO or a supervisor, I doubt your results would be any better than the rest of us.  You just can’t order somebody to rejoice.
Especially these days, when everything is so demonstrably bad.  Everybody’s talking about it: this president, the climate, Europe, Brexit, Russia, China, trade and terrorism; we are running out of everything we need, destroying everything we have, and behaving badly at the same time. Families barely exist anymore; nobody looks up from his phone, even long enough to drive; opioids are claiming great swaths of our society.  Disease is stronger than ever before, as infections get more resistant to medication, and that’s if you are lucky enough to have an insurer who will approve the treatment.  Whatever you like best probably gives you cancer.  Almost everything has become rather like air travel: a fiendishly ingenious combination of humiliating, painful, and unavoidable.  What a rotten time to be alive, right?  Rejoice? You can’t make me!
Even the Church herself even undermines her own command to rejoice; she has squandered so much of her authority to tell anybody what to do.  She is wracked by sin; her ministers are revealed to be selfish frauds at best, abusers and tyrants at worst.  Rejoice, you say?  Physician, heal thyself!   
But here it is; the name of this Sunday is Gaudete, which is Latin for Rejoice (y’all)!  
Right in the midst Advent, a four-week season in which we focus on our need for a Savior, is one day dedicated to reminding us not only to rejoice, by whywe rejoice. 
Rejoice, but not because there is no evil in the world.  Rejoice, but not because of all the good things in your life.  Rejoice, but not because of how small you got your carbon footprint or because of how you have everything ready for Christmas.  Rejoice, but not because you’re smart enough or lucky enough to be Catholic, or because you’re independent enough not to depend on such a faulty Church.  Rejoice, but definitely not because of how faithful you have been to the Lord and His law of love.  
Rejoice, because God has already saved us.  Rejoice, because His Christ has already won the victory.  Rejoice, because even from our place in the midst of every struggle, we know how the struggle ends.  Rejoice, because our long, sad exile is already ended, and even now we stand in the presence of God.  Rejoice, because so little of it depends upon you, or on me.
If ever there was an Advent that revealed the mystery that solitary pink candle, it is this one.  Where everyone is crying Darkness!, a single voice announces the light.  Let him who ears to hear, hearken.
Rejoice; I say it again, rejoice. Raise your heads and stand erect; lift your feet and move toward the light.  Let your every breath be rejoicing.  Our God hascome to save us; and the son of Mary, Jesus Christ, is Lord.
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 08, 2018

My ways are not your ways, says the Lord

Behold, I make all things new, says the Lord.  (Rev. 21:5) On the other hand, Old heresies never die, says the faithful Catholic; and there is an oldie (and a baddie!) going around against which you need to be warned. 
Sixteen centuries ago, widespread grave moral failure by clergy led to a popular rejection of their ministry and an insistence on “purity” for the validity of Church and sacrament.  The theological formulation of this human response was Donatism.
Donatism takes its name from Donatus, a schismatic bishop who set himself up against the Catholic bishop in Carthage, in North Africa, in the early fourth century.  The heresy began in the wake of the Roman Emperor Diocletian's brief but bloody persecution, initiated in February, 303.  The Church had been outlawed, and professing the Faith was a crime punishable by death. Those who refused to offer incense to Roman idols were executed.  Churches were razed, relics and sacred vessels were seized, and any copy of Scripture that could be found was burned. 
Some Christians saved themselves by renouncing Christ or, when their churches and houses were searched by the Roman authorities, handing over sacred artifacts.  Those who in this way survived the persecution (which ended in 305) were called traditores.
In light of the many who endured martyrdom rather than renounce Christ, some were outraged that priests and deacons who were traditores were allowed to resume their ministry after being reconciled to the Church through confession. 
The heresy of Donatism lay … in the assertion that only "sinless" men could administer the sacraments validly. By denying the intrinsic efficacy of the sacraments the Donatists claimed the sacraments could be celebrated validly only by those in the state of grace.  They also required the re-baptism of any Catholic who came over to their sect. 
This heresy sparked not only schism (a formal split in the church) but also violence almost to the point of war.  By God’s providence one of the faithful bishops at that time in that place was none other than Saint Augustine, who was an articulate teacher of the true Faith and a tireless leader of the faithful.  Even then, it was a full century before the heresy ceased.
Also by God’s providence, we now have the true Faith presented clearly and accessibly in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, from which I now extensively quote (emphases added):
1127 Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify.48  They are efficacious because in them Christ himself is at work: it is he who baptizes, he who acts in his sacraments in order to communicate the grace that each sacrament signifies.  The Father always hears the prayer of his Son's Church which, in the epiclesis of each sacrament, expresses her faith in the power of the Spirit.  As fire transforms into itself everything it touches, so the Holy Spirit transforms into the divine life whatever is subjected to his power. 
1128  This is the meaning of the Church's affirmation49 that the sacraments act ex opere operato (literally: "by the very fact of the action's being performed"), i.e., by virtue of the saving work of Christ, accomplished once for all. It follows that "the sacrament is not wrought by the righteousness of either the celebrant or the recipient, but by the power of God."50  From the moment that a sacrament is celebrated in accordance with the intention of the Church, the power of Christ and his Spirit acts in and through it, independently of the personal holiness of the minister. Nevertheless, the fruits of the sacraments also depend on the disposition of the one who receives them. 
1129  The Church affirms that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation.51  "Sacramental grace" is the grace of the Holy Spirit, given by Christ and proper to each sacrament.  The Spirit heals and transforms those who receive him by conforming them to the Son of God.  The fruit of the sacramental life is that the Spirit of adoption makes the faithful partakers in the divine nature52 by uniting them in a living union with the only Son, the Savior.
This should be reassuring.  You and I know that God made the sacraments necessary for salvation.  So we can be confident that he would not make what is necessary tricky to identify, impossible to guarantee, or too arduous to obtain.  
In the light of current revelations of sinful and abusive acts by priests, and also of failure to respond appropriately by bishops and others in authority, many find their confidence in the Church and in her sacraments shaken or even crushed.  That is human nature, and cannot be gainsaid.  But the Divine nature is otherwise, so it is there that we must fix our eyes and our faith in times of grave trouble.   Praised be Jesus Christ, who is at work in the sacraments – through His imperfect ministers. 
Monsignor Smith

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Time Gained not Spent

The first Advent Bush marks the time.

We begin again.  Advent, the Coming, settles on the Church like a favorite blanket clutched against the cold.    Admit it; while the tree lot out front is welcome, and you are excited to be decorating and gathering gifts, the harsh hawking of “The Holidays” with its inescapable, endlessly looping soundtrack of chestnuts, sleighs, and snowmen sung in every possible style is already too much to bear.  Advent is our safe place.   
Advent is how we begin.  We are waiting, looking forward, and preparing for something, some One Whom we know is coming.  Waiting is hard, but helped by confidence in His coming, waiting gives us time to prepare.  Time is the one thing everybody needs, especially this month; Advent gives us time.
How,you ask, can anybody, anything give us time?  Time is non-negotiable; that which, like the tide, waits for no man.  That is true, but obtaining time is simpler (not easier, but simpler) than those harried, hurried shoppers realize as they rush to grab the last parking spot: give it to God. 
Give God your time in worship, and you will find time in your life where you thought you had none, like a fat wad of bills in the pocket of the winter coat you last wore in March.  Throw down before the Lord an hour here, an hour there, and suddenly eternity opens before you like a vista from a roadside stop. The vastness and beauty of God’s glorious working is exposed before your eyes where previously you saw only brake lights and bumpers.   
Give God your time in worship and he will give you thirty, sixty, a hundredfold in return, good measure, flowing over into your life.   Time, which you cannot buy or bargain or store, comes to you as your servant and your friend.   Each day brings moments like treasures, and the weeks that were too few become suddenly an abundance.
Give God your time in worship and you will have found the perfect gift, given what nobody before has ever given nor will ever again give, given what is more precious to Him Who receives it than it is even to you who give it, because your minutes and your hours have never been lived before nor will anyone ever after have anything like them to offer. Imagine, hearing the Lord God Creator of the Universe say to you, nobody ever gave me that before!  You will be a gift-giving genius who has spent not one penny.
Advent gives us time because instead of trying to box it or bag it or pour it into a glass, worship puts our time where it belongs.  In this demanding season when people feel free to tell you what to do, they will blithely insist that this is the time for friends; this is the time for family.  But our Lord Who craves our time outranks friends, edges out even family.  It is okay to make them wait while you’re with Him; you give them the opportunity to join you in fruitful waiting.  But it’s not an either-or; our God offers us His friendship, and has made us His family. Bring them along when you come to Him, and never fail to bring Him when you’re with them.  Then you will have more, better time with them, too. 
This Divine economy is mysterious, but it is not magic, it is no myth.  Pray more, worship longer, and time will be yours in abundance.  The Eternal God spills his extra into the tiny cup of our time-short lives every time we pause before Him.  His News is good: I am coming!  His command is simple (not easy, but simple):wait for Me.  We must wait for the Lord, before the Lord.  Advent is how we begin.  Again.
Monsignor Smith