Friday, April 18, 2014

Behold the one we have pierced…

Prædicamus Christum Crucifixum

Homily for Good Friday
April 18th, 2014

Hale Creek Prison, NY
Parish of Saint Joseph’s (Troy, NY)
Rev.  Michael Taylor

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole. By his stripes we are healed.[1]

"Against you alone, O Lord, have I sinned,
and I have done evil before thee."
Psalm 51.6

I don’t know about you, but every year, once on Palm Sunday and the other on Good Friday, I am struck to the marrow of my bones when I hear the people assembled cry out, “Crucify Him!” Is there anything more convincing a testimony that Christ died for our sins then when we join in the chorus of those demanding the life of Christ? Yet what is it about today that is so special? Why do we focus on the cross? When one reads the acts of the Apostles, the letters of Peter, James, John and Paul, one notes a certain peculiarity. They don’t speak about the teachings of Christ, or the miracles He did or the parables he told. Rather they speak of the one who died and rose, who suffered death and conquered it in the resurrection. Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians even went as far as to say  When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified [2] and again in his letter to the Galatians,  but far be it from me to glory in anything except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.[3] What is it about the cross then that is so significant? What is it about this day that means our redemption?

Oh my people, what have I done to thee?
Or wherein have I afflicted thee?
Answer me…
[The Reproaches from Good Friday]
The evil of the cross is often forgotten. It has become so symbolized that we forget what it represents and how horrible it was to those who first encountered it. It was the perfect fulfillment of human cruelty. It wasn’t just meant to kill someone. It was meant to torture them for days upon end. Ropes were tied to the person so they stayed in place. These ropes over days would cut into the skin. Nails were driven through the flesh so that any thought of escape meant tearing the flesh of your hands and feet to shreds. The condemned would be left out for days in the heat of the day and the chill of the night, pushing themselves up to gasp what little air they could, ultimately suffocating when they collapsed exhausted. Then carrion birds and the beasts of the field would tear apart the flesh of the body, leaving only the shame of a human unburied. It was a political statement by Rome, the state. The power of man is ultimate. We hold the keys to death.

What more ought I have done for thee, that I have not done?
I planted thee, indeed, you were my most beautiful vineyard:
and thou hast become exceedingly bitter to Me;
for in my thirst thou gavest Me vinegar to drink:
and with a lance thou hast pierced the side of thy Savior.
[The Reproaches of Good Friday]
When we go over the Passion narratives of the evangelists, we begin to note a curiosity about the trial of Jesus. Note that they cannot find any witnesses whose testimony agrees on what exactly it is Jesus has done that warrants death.[4] Jesus reminds silent in their midst, challenging them to convict Him on who they say He is. He will not allow them to kill Him for some petty charge, such as an act against the temple, or being a mere political figure. He challenges them to confess who He is and try Him as such. In Matthew’s gospel, the high priest, Caiaphas, asks, I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.” Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” [5] Jesus’ silence forces the crowds to convict Him for who they believe Him to be; He is the Son of God, the Son of Man, the Messiah, the King of the Jews. And we have put Him on trial.

"Man, you who judge God, you who order Him to justify himself before your tribunal,
think about yourself, if you are not responsible for the death of this condemned man,
if the judgment of God is not actually a judgment upon yourself."
Blessed Pope John Paul II
Think about what this actually means, to put God on trial. Man from the beginning has demanded that God make an accounting of His actions. Why do bad things happen to good people? Why does God allow evil? Why does God allow bad people to do bad things? In the book of Job, the righteous man of Job laments all that he has lost. Today also my complaint is bitter, His [God’s] hand is heavy in spite of my groaning. Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that might come even to His throne! I would lay my case before Him and fill my mouth with arguments.[6] Then when God turns to us and tells us that we are sinners who need to seek His forgiveness, we turn back to Him and demand why He didn’t make us better, stronger, wiser or holier. How dare God hold us accountable for any deficits we might have. So we demand that God make an answer for Himself. In the trial of Jesus, we find ourselves asking these very questions. Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself and come down from the cross!” [7]He saved others; let Him save Himself, if He is the Christ of God, His Chosen One!” [8] “Let Him come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him.” [9] If God is there, why doesn’t He stop your pain? Where is your God? Where is God in the face of the cruelty of the cross? Has not God abandoned us all?

Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

Yet note the contradiction; save yourself. It is precisely for the sake of saving us that Jesus is on the Cross in the first place. Not for the sake of saving Himself but so that we might be saved. In Christ Jesus is the answer to all the questions of humanity. God has not abandoned us. Death is not the final word. No, the Word has become flesh and dwelt among us[10] and He is known as Emmanuel, God with us.[11] He is the resurrection and the life.[12] He is the cure for the leper, the blind, the deaf and the lame. He is the one who offers us peace, not as the world promises but as the peace available only from God.[13] He is the way, the truth and the life.[14] Those who believe in the Son have eternal life.[15] Note Christ’s words to Pilate; You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.[16] Yet it can all seem too fantastic. We sympathize with Pilate as all we see is this bruised, scourged, and naked man standing before us, seemingly helpless to the world. One can hardly blame Pilate for his skepticism when he replies, What is truth?[17]

"I am the way, the truth and the life" John 14.6
"And you shall know the truth,
and the truth will set you free." John 8.32
Years ago, when Pope Benedict XVI was only Father Ratzinger and a professor at a seminary, he offered a course on the basics of the faith which he called Introduction to Christianity. In the lectures he would go over each part of the Apostles’ Creed. The first quarter of the book is concerned just with the question of belief. What does it mean to say “I believe”? What does faith even mean? Ratzinger is not unsympathetic to this view and he offers the following reflection. For those of us who are brought up in the household of faith, at some point, as we grow older, we began to notice the flaws of the house we grew up in. We note the cracks in the paint, the dullness of some of the light fixtures, the plumbing which rattles. More to the point we become disillusioned by many of the family members in this household. The uncle who drinks. The cousin who is selfish, petty and shallow. The lack of concern for one another. And so we leave the household of faith, we walk away to try and come up with a greater understanding of reality.
We soon find ourselves tossed about in a stormy sea, treading furiously just to keep our heads above the waters as deep calleth upon deep.[18] We look back to find that house we previously disdained, and instead see nothing but two rough hewn beams of wood fashioned together, bobbing precariously upon the crashing waves. Around us we see many others treading water, and we look back to the cross floating nearby. It seems so weak, so fragile. Yet it floats. At some point we have to make a decision. Do we keep trying to tread water on our own, or do we cling to the cross? Do we tell ourselves we’ve done swimming so far and keep going, or do we surrender and lead the cross carry us. There is nothing else to cling to, and in the end, it is faith that this cross will not sink.
Because at the end of the day it comes back to the cross. We have tried God and in our rage we have condemned Him to suffer pain and die slowly. We have found Him wanting and cry out crucify Him! Is it not now He who uses the Cross as a judge’s bench? What happens when we realize who it is who hangs upon the cross? For today, He who crowned the heavens with stars is crowned with thorns. He who wrapped creation is splendor is now wrapped in a purple robe of mockery. He who suspended the land upon the waters is suspended upon the cross. How Satan must have howled with laughter when he saw the God he could not defeat beaten and scourged! How the demons must have shrieked with glee when they saw the very creatures God came to save nailing Him to the cross! Imagine the sight in heaven, as the angels who cry out “holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts” before the King of the Universe see Him spat upon. Imagine the sorrow they bear within them as they look upon love incarnate consumed by our vengeful rage.

And say not: "The mercy of the Lord is great,
he will have mercy on the multitude of my sins."
For mercy and wrath quickly come from him,
and his wrath looketh upon sinners.
Delay not to be converted to the Lord,
and defer it not from day to day.
Sirach 5.6-8
What will the Father do? What will the God who sent plagues upon Pharaoh because of his hard heart do to the people whose hearts received not His Son? What will the God who sent serpents among Israel because they challenged Moses do to those who have mocked the Son? What will the God who broke covenant with Israel because they killed the prophets do to those who killed His Beloved Son? All of creation bears witness here and now, to see what verdict God will pronounce on those who would dare act against the Son. In the silence of that dreadful moment, we hear a soft, broken voice break through the overwhelming darkness; Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.[19] The verdict of the cross will not be one of condemnation but of mercy. Far be it from me to glory in anything except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.[20]

We adore Thee O Christ, and we bless Thee,
because by Thy Holy Cross Thou hast redeemed the world.

Blessed be God, now and forever.

[1] Isaiah 53.4-5 [all scripture references are from Revised Standard Version [RSV] Catholic Edition unless otherwise noted].
[2] I Corinthians 2.1-2
[3] Galatians 6.14
[4] Cf. Matthew 26.59-62; Mark 14.55-59; Luke 22.63-71; John 18.19-24
[5] Matthew 26.62-63
[6] Job 23.2-4
[7] Mark 15.29-30
[8] Luke 23.35
[9] Matthew 27.41
[10] Cf. John 1.14
[11] Cf. Matthew 1.23
[12] Cf. John 11.25
[13] Cf. John 14.27
[14] Cf. John 14.6
[15] Cf. John 3.36
[16] John 18.37
[17] John 18.38
[18] Cf. Psalm 42.7
[19] Luke 23.34
[20] Galatians 6.14

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The kingdoms of this world fadeth away...

Regna Mundi Corrunt [1]

Homily for Palm & Passion Sunday
Thirteenth of April, MMXIV

Parish of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha (Union Street)
Parish of Saint Joseph (Troy, NY-Extraordinary Form)

Rev. Michael Taylor

And the multitudes that went before and that followed, cried, saying,
“Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord:
Hosanna in the highest!” [2]

And Pilate saith to them: “Why, what evil hath he done?”
But the multitude cried out all the more: “Crucify him!” [3]

Todos tus monstruos son de papel...
One of the many tales told by Hans Christian Andersen was that of “The Court Cards.” The story goes something along these lines. A young boy named William decides to construct for himself a castle, using thick packaging paper to help make his dream come true. He drew and colored the castle, even creating a little moat where a draw bridge could be lowered and raised. William populates the castle with the royal members from his father’s pack of playing cards, the court cards, if you will. There stands the King of Roses, majestic in his attire, the Queen of Clubs, with long and eloquent veil, and all others attired in similar fashion. As the young boy is playing with the cards, one of the Jacks, the Jack of Hearts to be exact, comes alive, and begins to speak to William. He asks William what audacity he has to intrude upon the castle of his Lord and Lady, the King and Queen of Hearts. William informs him that the castle is actually his, for he has built it. The Jack informs him that this is pure folly, and that, truth be told, any of the royal cards could leave the walls of this castle, only, it more convenient, more conducive, more agreeable to staying where they are.
Sic transit gloria mundi...
William asks the knight if they were at once human beings, to which the response is, “Yes, were, but not so good as we ought to have been!” The Jack informs young Master William that he ought to light a candle for him, the Jack, out of respect. William goes and finds a red candle and offers it to the Jack who begins to tell him the tale of the reign of the House of Hearts. The Jack begins, saying, “The Golden Age was so very good. In fact, when they dined, they dined buttering both sides of their toast, which of course was then garnished with a generous topping of brown sugar. The King and Queen never had to go to school, but could just spend all day playing. But they got tired and the realm passed to the House of Diamonds.” At this the Jack of Hearts ceases moving. William, frustrated, tries everything, but then realizes he must go to the Jack of Diamonds, who of course, demands a candle, out of respect. Not only for him, but for his Lord and Lady, the King and Queen of Diamonds.

"In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire,
that on the ashes of his youth doth lie…"
Shakespeare, Sonnet 73
The Jack of Diamonds says, “You’ll note both my Liege and Lady have within their breast, a glass window, wherein all their subjects could look into their lives, and marvel at the splendor of the royal court. A monument was erected to them, which stood for seven years. It should have stood forever, but for some unknown reasons it fell.” The Jack of Diamonds thus froze, his eyes fixed upon the fire. At this point, William moves to the Jack of Clubs, who cried out, “Wax Candle! Wax Candles for all the members of the House of Clubs!” The Jack then went on to tell his tale. “We didn’t get butter on both sides of the bread, much less did we see brown sugar. My King and Queen did not get it. They had to go to school to learn what had not been learnt before. They too had windows within their chests, but here the kingdom only seemed to look into the windows in order to find something to criticize.” With that, he too froze, eyes fixed upon the candle.

"Those banners come to bribe or threaten,
or whisper that the man's a fool
who, when his own right king's forgotten,
cares what king sets up his rule.
If he died ling ago,
why do you dread us so?"
Yeats, The Black Tower
William had candle white as snow at the ready for the last Jack. The Jack of Spades limped into the middle of the drawing room. Tired and worn, he began his tale. “The history and trials of my Lord and Lady are well known and attested. So poor their lot, they have a gravedigger’s spade adorning their clothes. Surely, my Lord and Lady deserve more candles in respect for what they have suffered.” William goes and gets even more candles so that now the whole of the interior of the castle is bathed in light. The Kings and Queens of the all the Houses begin their waltzes, going through their motions and bows, their customs and courtesies. But of course, when you put too many candles into a castle built of paper, a mishap is certain to happen. First the tower went, and then the walls, and then the very playing cards themselves. William runs to his parents, tears streaming down his cheeks, crying out, “I am innocent of the destruction of the castle.” And, as Hans Christian Andersen concluded, it was not his fault that the castle was burnt down.

"Thus hath the candle singed the moth.
O, these deliberate fools! when they do choose,
they have the wisdom by their wit to lose."
Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice
Why do I tell that story? Well, Hans Christian Andersen, being born in 1805 and living until 1875, lived through a rather rough transition period within the European continent. Andersen himself came from a line of Danish nobility which had fallen on harder times. As such, Andersen had to leave home at the age of 14 to work as an weaver’s apprentice and tailor. As to the Continent, the concept of monarch was a rather bruised and tattered one. Whether it was the ruins of the French Revolution, the rise of Napoleon, the restitution of the French Monarch, only for the French Republic to reestablish itself. There were the wars in Greece, the Crimean Wars (which of course would never experience any drama afterwards) and the wars within the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.  There was of course the unification of Italy in the 1860s (creating the Kingdom of Italy, and with it the fall of the Kingdom of Naples, Venice, Sardinia and the Two Sicilies. There was the move towards German unification (which would occur in 1871), and with it the loss of many of the Germanic kingdoms, principalities, and duchies. Andersen published the above story in 1869, and so right in the midst of all of these developments.  It’s easy to criticize power and to imagine that we hold knowledge of the way things ought to be.
Heavy the Head that wears the Crown

Now think of the juxtaposition of our gospels today. The multitude cheers for Jesus as he enters the city of David. Yet that very same multitude cries for his death not even a week later. Why? Because Jesus was not the king they expected. He did not do what they wanted him to do. Think of the person of Judas. In Matthew’s gospel, he is known as a Zealot,[4] belonging to the group of people that thought that the messiah would be the one to overthrow the Romans and cleanse Jerusalem of corruption. Some hypothesize from this that Judas, having seen the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, was trying to force Jesus into revealing himself and starting the revolution. In Mark and John’s Gospel, Judas is greedy and corrupt, the keeper of the purse and the thief thereof, [5] thus his willingness to sell Jesus out.  Regardless, Judas, like almost all the rest, didn’t know who Jesus was and therefor didn’t understand the kingdom of God. The Cross is the throne of Christ, for by it’s power, the kingdom of sin and death are conquered. It is why Paul said, God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ; by whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world. [6] Yet the world could not see that. Even Christ’s own disciples could not see that which is why they fled as soon as he was arrested. It’s easy for us to stand by Christ when his teachings are popular. It’s easy to stand by Christ when he’s doing things the world admires. Can we stand by him when his teachings invite ridicule? Can we stand by him when it means embracing the cross? As our Lord said, if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.[7]

It's not always a figure of speech...

This past Wednesday, I had the opportunity to pray solemn vespers with now Bishop Sharfenberger. One of the requirements before ordination to any level is to make an oath of fidelity in the presence of the people of God, usually with one's hand on a book of the gospels. I’ve actually had to do it three times, once before becoming Catholic, once before diaconate, and the last time was before priesthood ordination. In addition to reciting the Creed, the oath contains the following words,

“With firm faith, I also believe everything contained in the Word of God, whether written or handed down in Tradition, which the Church, either by a solemn judgment or by the ordinary and universal Magisterium, sets forth to be believed as divinely revealed.
 I also firmly accept and hold each and everything definitively proposed by the Church regarding teaching on faith morals.”

"God's mercy and grace allowing,
This is the faith by which
I intend to live and die within."
I wonder how many of us could make the same oath. Because when we want to accept the easy parts, but not the entirety, we become like Peter. We begin distancing ourselves, pushing ourselves away from the suffering of Christ, from the cross of Christ, from the truth of Christ. When we say that “sure we’re Catholics, but I don’t believe this” or “I’m not one of those Catholics”, we deny Christ, because we deny that he is king of our lives. Either he is king of all or he is king of nothing. We deny the Holy Ghost [8] who enlivens and quickens the Church.[9] It’s easy to proclaim Christ Jesus on Palm Sunday. Today we lifted palms in the air, but Good Friday is coming. Today we cried out, “Hosanna in the highest; blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord” but Good Friday is coming. Today we proclaimed Jesus as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. But Good Friday is coming. On whose side will you be found on the day of the cross?

"And they shall look upon me, whom they have pierced;
and they shall mourn for him as one mourneth for an only son,
and they shall grieve over him, as the manner is to grieve for the death of the firstborn."
Zechariah 12.10

[1] The kingdoms of this world fadeth.
[2] Matthew 21.9
[3] Mark 15.14
[4] cf. Matthew 10.4- The name Iscariot, indicates membership in a group of zealots known as “dagger-men” from the sicarri. See Bastiaan van Iersel, Mark: A Reader-Response Commentary. Continuum International. 1998, p. 167. Other scholars hold that it was more a denotion of where he was from, the city of Kerioth.
[5] John 12.1-6; cf. Mark 14.1-6
[6] Galatians 6.14
[7] Matthew 16.24
[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church §79: “The Father’s self-communication made through his Word in the Holy Spirit, remains present and active in the Church: ‘God, who spoke in the past, continues to converse with the Spouse of His beloved Son, and the Holy Spirit, through whom the living voice of the Gospel rings out in the Church- and through her in the world- leads believers to the full truth, and makes the Word of Christ dwell in them in all its richness.” [SEE II Vatican Council. Dei Verbum. 8 #3 and Colossians 3.16]
[9] Catechism of the Catholic Church §749: “The article concerning the Church also depends entirely on the article about the Holy Spirit, which immediately precedes it. “Indeed, having shown that the Spirit is the source and giver of all holiness, we now confess that it is he who has endowed the Church with holiness.” [Roman Catechism 1,10, 1]. The Church is, in a phrase used by the Fathers, the place, ‘where the Spirit flourishes’ [St. Hippolytus, Traditio Apostolica, 35].”