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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Rooting Out Sin … The Possum Way

©2010, Randall A. Beeler

36 Then having sent away the multitudes, he came into the house, and his disciples came to him, saying: Expound to us the parable of the cockle of the field. 37 Who made answer and said to them: He that sows the good seed is the Son of man. 38 And the field is the world. And the good seed are the children of the kingdom. And the cockle are the children of the wicked one. 39 And the enemy that sowed them, is the devil. But the harvest is the end of the world. And the reapers are the angels. 40 Even as cockle therefore is gathered up, and burnt with fire: so shall it be at the end of the world. 41 The Son of man shall send his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all scandals, and them that work iniquity. 42 And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then shall the just shine as the sun, in the kingdom of their Father. He that has ears to hear, let him hear. (Matt 13, DRE)

I was just drifting off to that last bit of sleep I could get this morning, when Killian opened the door.

"Dad, um, JJ got a possum."

I don't live in a rural area. I live in a small subdivision in a medium-sized city. Possum live there, too.

I had heard JJ barking to be let out of his crate. I had heard him let out of his crate. I heard our other two dogs going into canine apoplexy, too. I just wanted to sleep the sleep of the just while my wife did all that letting out.

So, fruit number one of my indulging in sleep was that JJ, our full-bred Jack Russell Terrorist, had finally gotten the goldmine of Jack Russell-dom—that possum he had been barking at since the Mesozoic era.

The boy is up, I reasoned. He's a high-school senior, manly and all that, thus his heroics would enable me to purchase some extra sleep. "Get a shovel."

And I turned over the turning over of the just.

Meanwhile, my wife, Pam, and the aforementioned boy were left to combine their resources in the retrieval of a possum carcass that they weren't too sure was dead. One thing was for sure: JJ was quite alive and enjoying his new plaything.

Now, mind you, I wasn't there, but I hear tell that my intrepid life-mate walloped the aforementioned possum over the head (using the aforementioned shovel), thus confirming that the possum was dead. JJ had faced off with the critter underneath the tool shed. (Jack Russells were originally bred in WWII to chew on land mines and dismantle Nazi Panzer Tanks. Brother Opossum never stood a chance.)

Having ascertained the dead state of the creature, my beautiful wife then attempted, I hear tell, to transfer the offending marsupial carcass into a welcoming double trashbag configuration that the boy had prepared.

Problem was that JJ (who has the vertical leap ability of Spud Webb) repeatedly jumped to all heights that my gorgeous (but, sadly, hobbit-sized) wife could hold the shovel and reunited himself with his unanimated playmate.

Eventually, however, the possum was raptured to the awaiting trash, JJ corralled, I woke up, and Pam and I went to Daily Mass, where the Gospel was Jesus' explanation of the wheat and the tares ("cockles" in the old Douay translation). In his homily, Father Rusty related how God roots out the evil that resides under the sheds of our hearts. (Uh, he didn't put it exactly that way, but the subject was in the shed—er, back—of my mind. I had gotten my morning beauty rest; I therefore needed no sermon naps.)

Now, again, mind you, I had selfishly turned over when my son and wife needed me. It wasn't like I plotted genocide or, say, broke the neck of an unassuming possum.

Yet, the creaturely "need" to sleep broke the neck of any self-giving love that would have gotten my well-slept self out of bed to give a durn about the predicament my family was in.

How do I do it? Without even trying, I screw up—by not trying. How does the wheat abide the tares in my heart? What JJ Angel will leap to the rescue and break the devil's neck?

Another kind of Wheat rescues the wheat … without even trying. The Eucharist is Christ exposed on the Cross and Resurrected in our hearts, the Angel who, without leaping, rests in the hand of Father Rusty until He lays Christ on our tongues, to deliver us by being with us.

I am a sinner. Thank goodness, I every now and then am made to recognize it. Thank goodness for a wife and children who love me. Thank goodness for JJ, who roots out possum. Bless the Lord, my soul, for the Christ Who gives all, especially when I don't. Amen.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Saint Patrick's Breastplate

©2010, Randall A. Beeler

Saint Patrick’s Breastplate

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ's birth with his baptism,
Through the strength of his crucifixion with his burial,
Through the strength of his resurrection with his ascension,
Through the strength of his descent for the judgment of Doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,
In preaching of apostles,
In faith of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

I arise today
Through God's strength to pilot me:
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel merciless power that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man's body and soul.

Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me abundance of reward.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation. Amen.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

1980 Miracle on Ice—Thawing the Heart of Man

©2010, Randall A. Beeler

A cloud was on the mind of men, and wailing went the weather,
Yea, a sick cloud upon the soul when we were boys together …

Life was a fly that faded, and death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed when you and I were young.
They twisted even decent sin to shapes not to be named:
Men were ashamed of honour; but we were not ashamed.
Weak if we were and foolish, not thus we failed, not thus;
When that black Baal blocked the heavens he had no hymns from us …

Not all unhelped we held the fort, our tiny flags unfurled;
Some giants laboured in that cloud to lift it from the world …

But we were young; we lived to see God break their bitter charms.
God and the good Republic come riding back in arms:
We have seen the City of Mansoul, even as it rocked, relieved—
Blessed are they who did not see, but being blind, believed.
(G. K. Chesterton, Poem Prologue to The Man Who Was Thursday)

23 This is the Lord's doing, and it is wonderful in our eyes. (Ps 118, DRE)

Once upon a time, our land was beset by enemies and doubt. Our hearts beat slow in the frozen dead of Winter, Lent and ashes approaching, hostages in Iran, Soviet tanks poised on the borders of rising Poland. Our blood thickened like treacle in our veins and faint was our hope.

I was 16 and growing up in a Southwestern Pennsylvania where, though the Steelers and Pirates had won championships, the steel industry was rusting into dissolution. I lived in the mountains around Pittsburgh, where the snow heaped up as high, if not higher than it has this Winter of our discontent.

No birds sang. All I could hear was snow muffle-falling from the branches into a drift. Occasional trees were adorned with yellow ribbons. Though high-schoolers, we, too, felt hostage. The Cold War was a fact that we had been born into; it would never end. Though we always prayed for the conversion of the Soviet Union, we knew it would never happen. Poland would be overrun like Hungary in '56 and Czechoslovakia in '68.

Besides, the news reports of the major networks (and the newly hatching CNN) made it all seem as if our Cold-War enemies merely offered a different way of governance. Who were we to say the American way was better, especially with mushrooming interest rates, a spiraling recession, and the unmitigated humiliation of our nation in revolutionary Iran? The success of our enemies' iron rule of tyranny put to the lie the dignity of the human person and the elusive notion of freedom—which, after all, was probably just hedonistic license.

How could we shine a light into the long night of the Soviet gulags when we ourselves were reeling in what must be the Twilight of the West?

We too often forget that twilight can often be darkest … before the dawn.

The Soviet hockey machine was every bit as well oiled and slave-driven as the tanks that amassed at the borders of Poland. Its success testified to the ultimate triumph of man as machine. The red CCCP-emblazoned Soviet-team uniforms glided through warm-ups like the grand parade of lifeless packaging.

I do not romanticize this—or, if I do, then the time itself was destined to be romantic, for no one could predict what was to happen next … or what it was a harbinger of.

The documentaries, magazine covers, and movie made of the "The Miracle on Ice" fall far, far short of what actually happened. They cannot exaggerate, for even those of us who actually witnessed all the events of 1980 had not the depth of vision to see God's footprints in the history of the time: "the eye has not seen, O God, besides you, what things you have prepared for them that wait for you" (Isa 64:4, DRE).

The image at the beginning of this post approximates what we experienced back then: newness of life, amazement, discovering Our Lord in the guise of the Gardener digging out during the Spring thaw. To those of you who did not live through the 1980 USA Hockey Team's Olympic victory over the Soviet machine and later capture of the Gold Medal, the picture looks Photoshopped.

But it is real. It happened. And it is still happening.

This article is not about America and the jingoistic cries of "USA! USA!" Something deeper was stirring under the snow of Western Pennsylvania, Poland, and Siberia, of which the United States' hockey victory was a mere hand-shaped cloud in the sky before the drenching Spring thaw and storm.

Another picture comes from the same time period, one of Pope Saint John Paul II, reaching out a hand and a hug to Lech Walesa. Solidarity. Buried under the Soviet gulags, shrouded under the U. S. hostages' hoods, steadfast under the rusting of abandoned steel mills is the dignity of the human person—the imago dei, the image of God.

For while we shivered in the Cold War and fought Olympic games akin to war, a spiritual battle was waged along the iron curtain that guards—not imprisons—the human heart. The United States' 1980 Olympic hockey triumph did not trigger the events that later saw the hammering down of the Berlin Wall and the conversion (yes, it really did happen, just like we prayed it would).

Rather, it was a signal, a sign.

For, even as we played hockey, brave souls in Poland prayed and amassed to demonstrate the rotten core of the communist systematization of the soul of man. And our Papa John Paul joined arms—arms of flesh and blood—with his countrymen. And souls, as Solzhenitsyn recounts, prayed in the withering blast of the Gulag tundra. And God heard their prayers.

They prayed for us. We prayed for them, though we hardly knew it.

The blasting of the Cold War and the freezing of our heart's blood in the 1980 recession and the Babylonian captivity of our hostages in Iran were not the vanguard of Magog but the last gasps of a retreating rebellion against all that is good.

The vanguard of Magog is always a last-gasp proposition. Even as the "principalities and powers … the rulers of the world of this darkness …  the spirits of wickedness in the high places" (Eph 6:12, DRE) today, 30 years later, hammer our window panes with frost and drifts, we must remember that we are in the midst of an adventure.

The devil's winter will hiss above his hissing as he is thrown in the Lake of Fire. Keep praying. Keep skating. Keep shooting. Keep joining arms in the face of nuclear arms in Iran; wrap the cold hearts of the abortion industry with prayers of hope, life, and a glimpse of the God in the Gardener.

The 1980 Miracle on Ice is miraculous because it happens again and again. Like the dawn, it breaks upon us, at God's command, if only for His sheer joy at seeing it dawn upon us again and again that we are loved, we are prized, we are His!
Lent is like a long "retreat" during which we can turn back into ourselves and listen to the voice of God, in order to defeat the temptations of the Evil One. It is a period of spiritual "combat" which we must experience alongside Jesus, not with pride and presumption, but using the arms of faith: prayer, listening to the word of God and penance. In this way we will be able to celebrate Easter in truth, ready to renew the promises of our Baptism (Pope Benedict XVI, February 22, 2010 Angelus Address)

Monday, February 1, 2010

Groundhog Day: Christ Presents Us to Ourselves

The Presentation of Jesus at the TempleImage via Wikipedia
©2010, Randall A. Beeler
And I will lead the blind into the way which they know not: and in the paths which they were ignorant of I will make them walk: I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight: these things have I done to them, and have not forsaken them. (Isa 42:16, DRE)
At my alma mater, the University of Dallas, a Catholic liberal-arts school, we have a curious tradition: every February 2nd, we enter the live-oak thicket, dig a barbecue pit, line  up kegs of beer, and, for 24 hours, eat brisket and drink brew, to celebrate … uh … um … Groundhog Day?

I wish I could say that the bacchanalia began as an homage to Candlemas and the Presentation of the Lord. But it didn't.

Long ago, before MLK Day, UD observed no holiday between the beginning of the Spring Semester and Spring Break, a long desert of a time in which college students could find no purchase for celebration in the stilly watches of the night. So, a personage, now only known as the Groundhog (his true identity is known, but kept secret out of respect for tradition), dressed up as a groundhog and gathered his friends in the woods. Thus, on February 2nd, UD alums across the world gather in their own local woods (or watering holes) to lift a mug in honor of … yep, the Groundhog.

Like Punxsutawney Phil, the point of Groundhog Day is to brave the cold, to dance in the dark, to raise the blood into our nether capillaries, and … to see our shadows. To see if we're still here.

At the Presentation of the Lord, we celebrate the Presence of the Lord amidst His people. The God of all creation, a struggling infant, is submitted by His Mother and Foster Father to the badge of his community—circumcision, the foreshadowing of the cuts-unto-death that He will bear on the Cross.

God really is Emmanuel, long after the Christmas wrapping is moldering in the dump and the bills have rolled in. Winter is deadlocked in our marrow now, and it may never end: Winter and never Christmas. Unlike Punxsutawney Phil, Christ does not peep His head out of the manger at Christmas only to see His shadow from the Cross as He is broken in Spring.

Christ is with us in the shadow of our winter. Christ sees our shadows—and embraces them. Thus, February 2nd is also Candlemas, the official close of the Christmas season and the welcome of an impending Lent. In the starkness of what is left of Winter, God bids us not to merely burn a candle but to bless all the candles for the year—for Lent, for Easter, for Pentecost, for Advent, for Christmas.

Punxsutawney Phil may see his shadow. But, regardless of the fact that our shadows are ever present to us, Christ presents Himself to us to show us that we must present ourselves to Him, must allow ourselves to be cradled in His Mother's arms and borne to Him, the Great High Priest, Prophet, and King—and to know that we will not be cut open but made whole.

So raise a glass of beer, wine, Dr. Pepper against the dark. Snatch a hunk of brisket and dance. Winter does not last, and even if it would, Christ is present with us to make us present to ourselves:
We see now through a glass in a dark manner: but then face to face. Now I know in part: but then I shall know even as I am known. (1Cor 13:12, DRE)

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Monday, January 25, 2010

A Thunderously Catholic Movie—Gran Torino

©2010, Randall A. Beeler
18 And he said to them: I saw Satan like lightning falling from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you power to tread upon serpents and scorpions and upon all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall hurt you. (Lk 10, DRE)
Imagine a contemporary movie that portrays the power of forgiveness. Imagine a product of Hollywood that portrays the Church and the Priesthood in a positive light. Imagine a story that proclaims self-giving love instead of narcissistic self-indulgence.

Imagine Gran Torino.

Yes, it's rated "R." Yes, its protagonist, Walt Kowalski (Clint Eastwood), is a foul-mouthed, misanthropic old man who wields guns because of a chip-grown-boulder on his shoulder from his time in the Korean War.

It's real.

Set in a decaying, overrun-with-Hmong-immigrants Detroit borough, Gran Torino's grit and realism (including Walt's alienated family, gang activity, and racial strife) do not diminish the Catholic imagination of this story but demonstrate that such a setting is where we find the Church at its best, a keystone that the world rejects as thoughtlessly as it rejects Walt Kowalski and his Hmong refugee neighbors.

The movie opens in the Church, where Walt glares over the casket of his deceased wife as his estranged sons and their families' distance from him and all that he values cause him to curse and snarl. He rebuffs the young priest, Father Janovich, who, at the dying request of Walt's wife, promises to lead Walt to Confession, something the old veteran has not done since his time in the Korean War. Little wonder then, that Walt hurls racial epithets at his Hmong neighbors, despite the winning ways of their 17-year-old son, Thao, and his older sister, Sue.

When Thao, bullied by a Hmong gang, attempts to steal Walt's vintage Gran Torino, Walt is drawn into a relationship with the family as Thao recompenses for his crime by doing chores for Walt, who also saves Sue from a rape attempt. The persistence of the Hmong family is mirrored by that of Father Janovich—both are God's unlikely means of chipping away at Walt's stony heart.

Eventually, the harassment of the Hmong gang leads Walt to respond in the only way he knows: violent reprisal. Yet, Detroit is not Korea; Walt's vigilantism leads to Sue's rape at the hands of the gang and a drive-by hail of bullets on Thao's home.

Thao seeks blood revenge, and it seems that Walt agrees, polishing his rifle. He advises Thao to cool his rage and wait until nightfall so that they can take measures that will "end this thing once and for all."

While Thao waits, Walt gets a straight shave from the barber (something he's never indulged in), is fitted for a suit (again, another first), and arrives at the Church to receive the Sacrament of Penance.

You will have to see the confessional scene for yourself, but it is unlike anything you might expect. Although we do not hear the actual formula of absolution, Father Janovich absolves Walt and urges him not to resort to violence.

[The next paragraph is a spoiler; do NOT read it if you do not want to know the ending.]

Walt tricks Thao and locks him in the basement, while Walt leaves to confront the gang. Standing in front of the ganghouse, in sight of the neighbors, who watch from their windows, Walt calls the gang members to task for their crimes then reaches into the breast pocket of his jacket and mutters "Hail Mary, full of grace …" The rest of the prayer never leaves his lips as the gang guns him down, his prone body stretched on the ground in a cruciform pose, the lighter labeled with his Korean-War 1st-Cavalry-Division insignia in his open palm. He has no gun on his person. The gang is arrested for murder. Walt exorcises the evil from his neighborhood by the Christ-like offering of his very self.

[Spoiler threat over; you may safely read again.]

In Gran Torino, forgiveness—of oneself and others—is not a trite lesson but a palpable living, breathing Walt Kowalski who has been empowered by the Church and the Sacrament of Penance not merely to right his own accounts but to, through love, triumph over evil.

Throughout his life, Walt Kowalski has consigned himself to being a messenger of violence in a world that knows nothing else. Through the sacramental love shown to him by Thao and Sue, and the Sacrament of Penance persistently offered by Father Janovich, Walt is commissioned to bear Christ even to his enemies, the bearers of evil. For, to kill them, would be to kill another Thao, another Korean soldier. Instead, Walt defeats the scorpions and serpents by removing their sting, which Eastwood (also the director) punctuates with the "Hail Mary" as Walt's final words. Through Mary, the serpent's head is crushed (Gen 3:15b). Through the Grace embodied by the Blessed Virgin, the Church's Sacrament of Penance empowers Walt to die to himself and therein die for his people—white, black, Latino, and Hmong.

See Gran Torino and decide for yourself. Hollywood will not tell you that it's thunderously Catholic; but God-given storytelling power, in the hands of a veteran actor and director who has learned a thing or two about life, can tell the story God's love and forgiveness.
Father of holiness,
for the journey of your pilgrim Church on earth,
you have provided the Virgin Mary as a sign and beacon.
Through her intercession,
sustain our faith and enliven our hope,
that no obstacle may divert us
from the road which brings us salvation.
(concluding prayer from Compline
in the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary)

Friday, January 8, 2010

Is God Just—Even When We Are Massacred?

©2010, Randall A. Beeler

Thou art indeed just, Lord, if I contend
With thee; but, sir, so what I plead is just.
Why do sinners' ways prosper? and why must
Disappointment all I endeavour end?

Wert thou my enemy, O thou my friend,
How wouldst thou worse, I wonder, than thou dost
Defeat, thwart me? Oh, the sots and thralls of lust
Do in spare hours more thrive than I that spend,
Sir, life upon thy cause. See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them; birds build -- but not I build; no, but strain,
Time's eunuch, and not breed one work that wakes.
Mine, O thou lord of life, send my roots rain. (Hopkins)

Gerard Manley Hopkins' famous poem seems a fitting way to celebrate another good Friday of Sorrowful Mysteries of Christ's Passion. But the world must find such a celebration witless.

Here we are, in the midst of the Epiphany, celebrating the pilgrimage of the nations to the Christ Child—and what do we do? We proclaim the death of Our Lord. No wonder some scoff at the Faith. We pass to others a peace that flows from the Passion, a violent, hideous, shameful death. We proclaim Jesus' resurrection from the dead; yet, we go on dying. While we gather in faithful worship, we are gunned down by our enemies before the very altar of sacrifice and firebombed as we worship.
You indeed, O Lord, are just, if I plead with you, but yet I will speak what is just to you: Why does the way of the wicked prosper: why is it well with all them that transgress, and do wickedly? (Jer 12, DRE)
Hopkins begins his sonnet with Jeremiah's lament, as if to show that the world must indeed wonder at Christianity. Not only are we decimated at the hands of our enemies but our very Scripture critiques the God in Whom we place our faith.

What God is this? Why, for His faithful "must/Disappointment all [we] endeavor end"?

As the "sots and thralls of lust" thrive in their leisure more than "I that spend,/Sir, life upon thy cause," the sonnet's tone shifts:

…See, banks and brakes
Now leavèd how thick! lacèd they are again
With fretty chervil, look, and fresh wind shakes
Them …

In the throes of our failure, green life bursts forth.

As He carries the Cross, Christ reminds the weeping women of Jerusalem, "For if in the green wood they do these things, what shall be done in the dry?" (Lk 23:31, DRE). Our suffering the green and the dry embodies the sin-broken world we live in. God Himself does not deny this reality, but embraces it in the "fretty chervil" of the Crown of Thorns.

Christ's suffering does not imply that God inflicts evil on us. The Church's frank admission that the evil do  prosper and that the faithful can often be "time's eunuch" is not a sado-masochistic encouragement to "just suffer it." God cherishes our freedom, to the point of suffering our sin of executing him. The Crucifixes we wear proclaim that the Corpus on the Cross rises to eternal life—as do we. Thereby, we defeat evil … in the very grip of it.

In becoming man, God does not plot our suffering but pleads with us in our suffering, in sighs and groans as deep as our laments:
6 The Lord is the keeper of little ones …
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints. (Ps 116, DRE)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Epiphany—Finding Christ Beyond the Tabloids

©2010, Randall A. Beeler
Behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was. 10 And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11 And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother; and falling down they adored him. And opening their treasures, they offered him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (Matt 2, DRE)
They followed a star—and not one on the cover of a tabloid—which is the wonder of the Wise Men wandering there.

Pagan astrologers, the most superstitious of the superstitious, find God … by following a star.

After 2,000 years, we render them reputable royalty. But to a devout Jewish family, to the residents of Jerusalem, and even to the nominally Jewish-convert like Herod, the Magi were worse than the Romans. These very un-Wise Men dabbled in nature worship and magic spells (hence the moniker, "Magi"). Hailing from Babel, they babble in soothsaying and dabble in rituals that make a present-day wiccan look as tame as Rachel Ray.

And they find the Savior.

Their gifts are our best clue. Gold—forged from the vanity and extravagance of solely human effort. Frankincense—choking coals burnt to appease angry gods. Myrrh—the bitter burial herb reminding us that we will return to the earth from which we dug the gold, our dreams up in smoke.

They do not find the Savior. He finds them—by unearthing for them clues in His very creation:
19 Because that which is known of God is manifest in them. For God has manifested it unto them. 20 For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made. His eternal power also and divinity (Rom 1, DRE)
Unlike the Jews, the people of the Word, the Magi are gentiles, the people of the World. As God calls the Jews through the saving books of the Torah, so He calls the Gentiles through the saving truths of His Creation.

The Magi render to the Savior the very clues He gives them. Laying down the gold, frankincense, and myrrh, they show that they understand, even if darkly, in a mirror. The Epiphany is two-way communication.

The Incarnation radiates the Truth that the prophets did not forecast a future event; no, the Incarnation reveals that God has always been with us. Similarly, the astrology of the Magi is not a horoscope but a digging for a Truth more precious than gold.

All we have to account for our merely human efforts are squandered diggings, smoking embers, and bitter extracts. Yet, our very digging, burning, and extracting consummates the relationship with God; what we cannot take with us beyond death we must gift to our Savior—fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
4 Abide in me: and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abide in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine: you the branches. He that abides in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit: for without me you can do nothing. (Jn 15, DRE)
What we cannot take beyond the grave not only shows that, without Christ we can do nothing, but also expresses Jesus' self-offering: His golden rule, His incense offering, His burial.

With Him is buried all our futile efforts to abide by the Law (as if the Law were ever meant to be a book of rules for earning salvation). With Him is buried all our restless digging through the world (as if we could make a god of the dust of the earth).

The Epiphany is firmly planted at the gate of the New Year because it reminds us that, though we can craft clay by the work of our hands, we must lay it all down before the Savior, that He might breathe into it—and us—the breath of Life Eternal.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Conning Ourselves Out of Christmas?

©2009, Randall A. Beeler
14 For while all things were in quiet silence, and the night was in the midst of her course, 15 your Almighty word leaped down from heaven from your royal throne, as a fierce conqueror into the midst of the land of destruction (Wis 18, DRE)
4 But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent his Son, made of a woman, made under the law (Gal 4, DRE)
For it was a cave used as a stable by the mountaineers of the uplands about Bethlehem; who still drive their cattle into such holes and caverns at night. It was here that a homeless couple had crept underground with the cattle when the doors of the crowded caravansaries had been shut in their faces; and it was here beneath the very feet of the passers-by, in a cellar under the very floor of the world, that Jesus Christ was born.
(G. K. Chesterton, from The Everlasting Man)
God reveals Himself as Emmanuel, "God-with-us," at a time when the world appears to least need Him. Rome has conquered and united East and West. Humankind has reached its peak, as recounted in Virgil's Aeneid:
No foe, unpunish'd, in the fighting field
Shall dare thee, foot to foot, with sword and shield;
Much less in arms oppose thy matchless force,
When thy sharp spurs shall urge thy foaming horse. (VI)
But the vision given by Anchises to Aeneas is doomed to frustration: when Rome has all the earth, has attained all things, what then? Even as Aeneas, at the end of The Aeneid, fails the pax Romana, the Roman vision of peace and world order, and plunges his sword into Turnus (XII), so Rome wins the world only to find that the world is not enough:
25 For what is a man advantaged, if he gain the whole world and lose himself and cast away himself? (Lk 9:25)
Christ comes in "the fullness of time"—the nick of time, the time when the world is most tired of itself, even before it knows it is tired of itself. Herod and all Jerusalem tremble, Magi trek from far reaches, Caesar tries to make his world account for itself in a massive census. At the height of its business, activity, and initiative, the world cannot pause itself.

Christ pauses us, and the heavens follow:

O ye beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.
("It Came Upon A Midnight Clear")

Even now, though, we hasten away Christ. Already we see Christmas trees, still green, heaped with the garbage on trash day. The stores display Super Bowl snacks, Valentine's Day candy, and Presidents Day regalia on the shelves. Accountants are braced to tabulate taxes and the first-quarter retail let-down. The Christmas is fairy tale is quaint, the world tells us, but we must get back to the real world of grind, grunt, and groan.

The Church celebrates Candlemas, on February 2nd, as the close of the Christmas Season; it marks the day on which Mary, according to the Law, makes a sacrifice at the Temple, for Her purification (Lk 2:22-24). The world trades Simeon's blessing (Lk 2:34) for Groundhog Day, desperately hoping that we can cheat Winter out of its six-weeks reign. Like Bill Murray's character (Phil Conners) in the movie, Groundhog Day, we despair that our lives are an endless repetition of gaining the world, gaining the world, gaining the world … only to lose our very souls.

We are Phil Conners—we love (philo) to "con" ourselves into trying to conquer the cold of the death, the Winter of the world: if we just try it again, just one more time, we'll get it right.

Thank God that the Christ Child waits for us. Every day—not just Christmas Day—the shepherds and kings step out of their rutted paths to pause at a wonder. What God does once, God does forever, for God is eternal. Therefore, as His Resurrection is eternal, so is His Incarnation eternal.

At each Daily Mass, the Church witnesses this reality to the world; as we kneel at the Consecration, as we step forward to receive the Eucharist, we again receive the Christ Child. Every day is Christmas, and every human heart is the Manger. Christmas never ends.

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.
("O Little Town of Bethlehem")

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Merciful Let-Down of Christmas

©2009, Randall A. Beeler

At the end of the Book of Job, Job keeps silence.

And for good reason—God appears.

Then Job answered the Lord, and said: 2 I know that you can do all things, and no thought is hid from you. 3 Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge? Therefore I have spoken unwisely, and things that above measure exceeded my knowledge … 5 With the hearing of the ear, I have heard you, but now my eye sees you. 6 Therefore I reprehend myself, and do penance in dust and ashes. (Job 42, DRE)
Throughout Job's trials, in the face of the self-justifying counsel of his friends, Job proclaims that, only when God shows Himself, will anyone be justified:
25 For I know that my Redeemer lives, and in the last day I shall rise out of the earth. 26 And I shall be clothed again with my skin, and in my flesh I shall see my God. 27 Whom I myself shall see, and my eyes shall behold, and not another: this my hope is laid up in my bosom. 28 Why then do you say now: Let us persecute him, and let us find occasion of word against him? 29 Flee then from the face of the sword, for the sword is the revenger of iniquities: and know that there is a judgment. (Job 19, DRE)
The Christmas Eve silence that enfolds us in the snow-shrouded dells of our souls is Job's silence. We have called upon God to justify us.

And He comes.

But our attempts at self-justification deafen us to God's justice. We think we want the Peace that passeth all understanding, but Jesus warns us that He comes "not to send peace, but the sword" (Matt 10:34, DRE). We hurry about during Advent, preparing and spending and saving and meeting and greeting to make everything just right for that Christmas Day moment of peace … that always seems to elude us.

Then comes the let-down. We are spent and wonder why we lack the "Christmas spirit." Our old hurts and grievances spring up and, like Job bathed in Satan's outpoured bowls of grief, we are riddled with the sores of our existence, gasping, and wondering why God allows this sword.


Underneath the palace of Herod is the cavern stable where Jesus is born. Under the counting eyes of Caesar, the Father counts us worthy enough, amid the dung of the stable, for His Son to take "the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man" (Phil 2:7b, DRE).

Like Job, we think we can truly see and proclaim justice. Oh, yes, we have been made to thirst for justice, but when justice comes, we must be hushed to silence in order to see Divine Mercy.

Christmas is a let-down: God lets Himself down into our Mangers, amidst our ox-ishness, ass-ishness, and mis-shepherded ways. Are we surprised, then, that we feel this let down?

We must be so let down … in order to lay down our defenses.

And it came to pass when the king sat in his house, and the Lord had given him rest on every side from all his enemies, 2 he said to Nathan the prophet: Do you see that I dwell in a house of cedar, and the ark of God is lodged within skins? … 4 But it came to pass that night, that the word of the Lord came to Nathan, saying: 5 Go, and say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Shall you build me a house to dwell in? the Lord will make you a house … 12 I will raise up your seed after you, which shall proceed out of the bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house to my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom fore ever.(2Sam 7, DRE)
The Lord does build the house—a stable—deep enough in the countryside that only the shepherds can listen for that coming.

So we come this Christmas …

… stilled by a silence that we did not catch the still small voice of …

… mercifully let down by our own noisy efforts to justify ourselves and our idea of Christmas, God, the world, and ourselves …

… let down by God's letting down of Himself, in the midst of our attempts to lift ourselves up.

No, no, He says. Kneel down. I will build the house, out of your clay and straw. You cannot lift yourself up to Me. I give you Myself. I have always given Myself to you. Listen. You can hear My heart beat.

Our God has His own heartbeat.

He is the Cornerstone we would-be builders rejected.

Our protests have been so loud, we have not heard Him. But it is Christmas. Now we see Him.
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in his hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What We Hope for in Advent: The Tearing of the Veil

©2009,  Randall A. Beeler
50 And Jesus again crying with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost 51 And behold the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top even to the bottom (Matt 27, DRE)
The Church proclaims that our salvation begins with the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25th. With Mary's "Be it done to me according to your word" (Lk 1:38a, DRE), our salvation is upon us. No wonder, then, that Jesus so often preaches that the "Kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (Matt 4:17, DRE). He is the Kingdom of Heaven; His entire life, from the moment of His conception to His ascension is our salvation. The Resurrection carries such import because it is the Good News that what the Son of God does once, He has always and will always do. Thus, His entire life is one cloth, without beginning and without end:  He rises from the dead and returns to the right hand of the Father because He reveals that this is Who God has always been.

We might then puzzle over why we celebrate His birth. After all, is not the real paydirt at the foot of the Cross or on the doorstep of the empty tomb? Why the dirt of a cavern stable in Bethlehem?

Bethlehem is where the veil is torn.

Being the very Body of the resurrected Christ in the world and for the world, the Church celebrates the drama of the Christ by stretching the garment across the cycles of the year. Think it no accident that the Annunciation is celebrated on the heels of the Spring Equinox, when the day and night are balanced, and the light is waxing stronger.*

Jesus comes in the "fullness of time" (Gal 4:4, DRE), when the world seemingly needs no salvation. But, as always, the light wanes, hopes fade, the harvest is over; perhaps this time the darkness will overcome the light.

So, at the Winter Solstice, when the light is at its dimmest, we see in the Manger that God has been with us all along—even as our hopes are fading, even as our brightest aspirations are snuffed out, even as our most furtive efforts are frozen in the frost.

What was announced to the Blessed Virgin, what was visited by Mary to Elizabeth, what was dreamt of by Saint Joseph, what was cradled by Simeon, and gifted by the Magi is, at Bethlehem, revealed to the world.

What pauses us at Christmas is that the veil is already torn.

It is a done deal. We cannot foresee how it will happen, but the child in the Manger is the substance of what we now know we were never crazy to hope for.

The siege has ended.

In tearing open presents at Christmas, we celebrate that the sin-imposed veil over man's embrace of God is torn as surely as the Christ's burial shroud lays in a useless heap in the empty tomb.

May your last days of Advent be filled with this substantial reason to hope.

[*Pax, please, my brothers and sisters in the Southern Hemisphere; the Church is telling a parable here, and the Church was birthed in the Northern Hemisphere. Like all parables, it must ultimately show itself to be only like the Reality it figures. Even in the Southern Hemisphere, the point of the parable is valid.]

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Unforgiveable Sin? Bah, Humbug!

©2009, Randall A. Beeler
31 Therefore I say to you: Every sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but the blasphemy of the Spirit shall not be forgiven. 32 And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but he that shall speak against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him neither in this world, nor in the world to come.
(Matt 12, RHE)

Jesus offers these words in the presence of the Pharisees, who had just credited Satan for Christ's power to exorcise demons.

Jesus notes that blasphemy means to declare that God is something God is not. In this case, Jesus is referring to the Pharisees who are claiming that the authentic work of the Holy Spirit is itself demonic.

The Pharisees' practice of a works-based righteousness, in effect, asserts that they do not need God or his forgiveness—for they have already won their righteousness, through adherence to the Law. For them, the works of the Holy Spirit and the works of Satan are indeed indistinguishable (as well as negligible)—and this is exactly why Jesus admonishes them:

36 But I say unto you, that every idle word that men shall speak, they shall render an account for it in the day of judgment. 37 For by your words you shall be justified, and by your words you shall be condemned. (Matt 12, RHE)

Jesus is not saying that we can utter some word or commit some sin that God does not forgive.

God's forgiveness is already a reality, as evidenced by Jesus' healing of the blind-and-dumb man with the demon (cf. Matt 12, RHE). However, some of us (like the Pharisees) do not believe in His forgiveness—and disbelieve to the point of attributing it to a demonically untrustworthy source.

Simply put, then, if we so regard the Grace of God, how can he forgive us, who deny that forgiveness as necessary or efficacious in the first place?

Like a wrapped gift under a Christmas tree, God's forgiveness is a reality, waiting to be received and enjoyed. Would any of us in our right minds leave unopened a present with our name on it?

The holiday season takes a toll, especially on those of us reliving old griefs, hurts, and losses. Amid the buying and selling frenzy, none of us are in our right minds. Little wonder, then, when we see Who offers this gift of forgiveness, we shrink back.

We know all too well that Christ heals our blindness and dumbness—and we shrink back from the challenges and self-sacrifice entailed by our new sight and loosed tongues. Those of us who do dare to break the ribbon on the box hardly do so with the fervor to which He calls us:

10 Now will I rise up, says the Lord: now will I be exalted, now will I lift up myself. 11 You shall conceive heat, you shall bring forth stubble: your breath as fire shall devour you. 12 And the people shall be as ashes after a fire, as a bundle of thorns they shall be burnt with fire. 13 Hear, you that are far off, what I have done, and you that are near know my strength. 14 The sinners in Sion are afraid, trembling has seized upon the hypocrites. Which of you can dwell with devouring fire? Which of you shall dwell with everlasting burnings? (Isa 33, DRE)
Which of us will live with the unquenchable flame, the burning desire for our God and Savior? C. S. Lewis once called this fire, "joy," the desire that is better to burn with than to have anything else in the whole world.

Isaiah tells us who will dwell with such devouring fire:
15 He that walks in justices, and speaks truth, that casts away avarice by oppression, and shakes his hands from all bribes, that stops his ears lest he hear blood, and shuts his eyes that he may see no evil. 16 He shall dwell on high, the fortifications of rocks shall be his highness: bread is given him, his waters are sure. 17 His eyes shall see the king in his beauty, they shall see the land far off. (Isa 33, DRE)
Advent and Christmas tell us how we will do so:
10 And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be to all the people: 11 For, this day is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. (Lk 2, RHE)
Forgiveness may be swaddled in a cavern stable in the hills of backwater Bethlehem. Herod's men may be swarming the city, stalking the Christ Child, Who will be exiled in Egypt for seven years and remain hidden for another 23 years in even more backwater Nazareth.

But Jesus the Christ will heal and preach and teach and give us His very Body and Blood on the Cross. When we receive the Sacraments of Penance and Holy Communion, every day is Christmas, Good Friday, and Resurrection Day. The gift is before us—let us dare to receive the Christ, today and every day.