Sunday Scriptures — Advent A 1, Nov. 27, 2016

Happy New (Church) Year! The calendar of the Catholic Church runs from the first Sunday of Advent, which is the fourth Sunday before Christmas, through the day before the next year’s first Sunday of Advent. The most notable changes from one year to the next are the scripture readings at Mass. On Sundays there is a three year cycle, marked principally by the Gospel which is most frequently employed. On weekdays there is a tow year cycle in which the gospel readings are the same in both years, but the first readings are different. Today, we begin “Year A,” in which Matthew supplies the gospel readings for most of the Sundays.

I suppose the reason we start now with the new liturgical calendar is that the year is seen to go from Jesus’ birth, celebrated at Christmas, to his return at the end of time as king of creation. Advent is in the same year as Christmas because it is a time for preparation to celebrate that feast. There is, however, some overlap, because early in Advent the prayers and readings also look to the second coming of Jesus. There is also another coming of the Lord which we should be aware of: his daily coming to us in grace, especially his sacramental coming to us in the Eucharist. So we prepare to celebrate the Lord’s birth into time and his coming to us here and now, and we prepare to see him when he comes again at the end of time.
In the first reading — Isaiah 2:15 — the prophet sees the Messianic age as one in which there will be peace among all nations. All will recognize the God of Jacob, i.e., the God of Israel, as the true God. For that reason, they will want to go to his earthly sanctuary to learn from him how to live. The promise is not that the kingdom of Israel will rule the world or that Jerusalem will be a political capital, but that it will be the spiritual center. The prophet exhorts the people of Israel to “walk in the light of the Lord” even now, as the Gentiles will in the end. Now that the Messiah has come, Gentiles do walk in the light of the Lord, but so far not all of them. The prophecy of Isaiah is partially fulfilled in a way he probably did not foresee. We look forward to its complete fulfillment, also in a way we can’t completely foresee, although it probably has to do with the end of time and the return of Christ.
The responsorial psalm — Psalm 122 — was apparently one which pilgrims would sing as they came to Jerusalem. Now we sing it as Gentiles who are approaching the Lord according to Isaiah’s prophecy.
In the second reading — Romans 13:11-14 — St. Paul turns explicitly to how we are to behave in expectation of our coming salvation, that is, the return of the Lord. We are to “walk in [God’s] paths,” following his instruction. Paul’s converts had been engaged in “works of darkness:” excessive eating, drinking, and partying; sexual immorality; and self-seeking. All these are part of what he calls “desires of the flesh.” These remained temptations for the Romans, and they remain temptations for us. But the true day, of the light of Christ, “is at hand.” For each of us the time is short, even if for the planet it may appear to us to be long.
The gospel — Matthew 24:37-44 — gives further instruction about the time of the Lord’s return. It will be unpredictable for each of us and for the world, and therefore we must always be ready. It is not something that should cause us to live in fear, because for God’s people, the day of the Lord means the perfection of joy. It is something to look forward to, to hope for. We will not be left when the Lord gathers his own if we have lived as his people, walking in his ways, putting on the Lord Jesus and conducting ourselves properly.
The Lord Jesus, who was born into history at Bethlehem, comes to us now in prayer, in the words of scripture, and preeminently in the sacrament of his Body and Blood, strengthening us to be ready for his return to bring us beyond the limits of time and history — to life in his presence. We want to be ready to greet him then, and when he comes to us in the here and now.


Lunch with College Classmates and Their Wives

From time to time I’ve gotten together with a couple of college classmates, Dan and John, and their wives for dinner. Last Saturday, we got together for lunch. Another classmate, John B, and his wife also joined us. It was part of a fairly busy day. I had told them that I’d have to leave by 3:00 so I could get home in time to attend my parish’s “Mass of Remembrance” and the unrelated dinner that would follow it. Lunch was to be at 1:00 at a harbor side seafood restaurant in Boston, about 45 minutes’ drive from my home. After all that was planned, a fellow parishioner asked me to meet him in the morning to tell him what the scripture scholar, who comes to our parish a couple of times a year, had said in the last lecture of a recent three lecture series. That get together lasted from 10:00 to 11:30.

John and Maureen were there when I arrived a couple of minutes before 1:00, and Dan and Carolyn arrived soon after. John B and Winnie got delayed by traffic coming up from the Cape, but were there by 20 past. I followed John’s example and had a bloody mary. As usual, we talked for a while, but owing to my time constraints we had our orders in by 1:45. I decided on the fish in a bag because it had mushrooms. The bag turned out to be cellophane, and the fish was steamed in it. It was brought to the table opened. It was good, maybe not the best fish ever, but enjoyable.

The conversation was pleasant. Despite Maureen’s rule of No Politics, imposed after an evening in which we got into a fairly heated argument, this time we managed to get in a few brief exchanges about the election and the President-elect. I think we all agree that Trump isn’t fit for the job, and much will depend on the people he selects and listens to. There was also a lot of talk about family (John and Maureen’s extended family is fairly large) and some about travel. At one point a couple of books were mentioned, and I took the opportunity to give a strong recommendation for Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard, about James A. Garfield. As soon as I mentioned it, John B. chimed in (see what I did there?*) with an enthusiastic second to my suggestion. He then gave me a couple of other titles — one by Millard — that he thought I’d like. Sometimes there was one conversation going on, sometimes several smaller ones.

It was a fairly pricey afternoon. We decided to split the tab equally, and Dan took charge of the check. It think he included the tax in figuring the tip, and rounded up rather generously, with the result that the tip was about 28% of the total and 37% of the pre-tax amount. Anyway, we paid $50 per person. Parking in the garage was another $29 (The garage at the subway station nearest my home charges $5.) But it was worth it: I can spend as much on a dinner alone, and this was maintaining friendships.

I had a couple of apprehensions beforehand. One is that typically the conversation can go on almost endlessly (the waitress has to come back maybe four times before people decide to order), and that would have been a problem for my getting home in time for the Mass. But they took care of that. The other is that sometimes the conversation includes long stretches of Dan and John exchanging news about classmates with whom I was not acquainted, or only barely so, That makes for a pretty boring time. But this time there was little, if any of that. So it worked out well, and I was home in good time.

*In college, John B was a member of the a cappella octet called The Chimes. I didn’t think of the play on words until after I had written “chimed in.”

Five Days at the Monastery — Beyond the Schedule

It’s now six weeks since I arrived at the monastery, and over five since I came back home, so I’d better get to this before I forget everything.

The evening I got there, the monks had a buffet dinner, cooked by one of the monks, in the Chapter Room, instead of the everyday dinner in silence with table reading. This is the usual practice on Sunday evenings. It gave me an opportunity to tell the junior monk who had tweeted a recommendation of Destiny of the Republic that I had bought the book and begun to read it. He told me had come across it one day browsing in a Barnes and Noble bookstore.

The next day at haustus (snack time in mid-afternoon) some monks were talking about a student at the college, Louis, who was spending the weekend with the Franciscans exploring whether he might want to join them. Naturally, they would rather see him join the monastery. As it happened, since the day was a holiday, the abbot chose to have dinner in the Chapter Room again. Unexpectedly, Louis was at Vespers. Since the campus eateries were closed for the holiday, the abbot invited him to join us in the Chapter Room, and he accepted. It almost looked at times as if some of the monks were putting the “full court press” on him to get him to consider the monastery. Well, I suppose all religious orders can always use new members, but the abbey needs to maintain numbers to be an effective presence in the college. It happens that last summer one of the two junior monks who had taken temporary vows in 2014 had decided to leave, so now they only have two people “in formation,” the remaining junior and a novice who was admitted last January. I hope Louis will ultimately decide to join there. I don’t know him, so I can’t be sure he belongs, but the monks who do know him seem to think he’d be a good fit.

One thing I enjoy about the Chapter Room meals (held outdoors in the cloister in warm weather) is that afterwards, the monks clean the dishes and utensils, because the regular kitchen employees get the evening off. It’s fun, but it’s also impressive to see everybody, from the 80+ year old retired bishop of Portland to the novice, chipping in to do the work. I’ve noticed that other guests don’t join, but I go to the monastery to visit the monks as well as for private benefit, so I’m happy for the additional opportunity to spend time with them.

On Tuesday, when the campus bookstore reopened, I went to get some cough drops and something or other else. As I entered, the clerk cheerfully called out, “Happy Monday,” to which I replied, “or Tuesday, as the case may be.” After I had made my purchases and was walking away, I thought of a pun and went back and told her that “Tuesdays after a holiday can feel mundane.” She and a customer got a nice chuckle from it.

One day I went out to the cemetery. I know who most of the monks buried there are, since they were monks when I was there in the 60’s. Another day, I asked the abbot about visiting Fr. William in the nursing home. He wanted to go, but there were meetings of the College trustees that week, and he ended up not having a chance to go see Fr. William.

I had planned to leave on Friday afternoon in time to get home before dark. But then I noticed on the bulletin board that the Mass on Friday (at 5:15 because college was in session) would be for all the deceased monks of the abbey and its sister abbeys of the American-Cassinese Congregation of monasteries. With that added incentive, I decided to stay for the Mass, and the following dinner, recreation and Vespers. Leaving the Chapter Room a the end of recreation, I tried to say good bye to the junior and the novice, but couldn’t get to them.

As we were all walking down the corridor toward the church, Father Peter twice urged me to visit again soon. For services in the church, the monks file in led by the juniors, with the abbot at the end of the procession. Leaving, the order is reversed, beginning with abbot, and ending with the most junior. After they’ve all left, the guests leave. I was pleasantly surprised at the end of Vespers on Friday to find that the junior monk and the novice had stopped at the door into the corridor to say good bye. Then, a little bit farther on, the abbot was waiting to bid me good bye.

It had been a very pleasant visit, and I’m looking forward to going back in the not-too-distant future. I’m trying to remember the big points I took from the book I had found in my room. I had thought I might set aside some time each day to continue reading the Pirenne book, the follow-up by Scott, and then other books, but that hasn’t happened. Instead, when I finished Destiny of the Republic as my dinnertime book, I turned to the Pirenne, which is better organized in the final chapter than in the earlier ones. One change which has continued is that I’ve expanded my usual morning prayers into something more like the Vigils they pray at the monastery at the beginning of the day. It’s interesting that it took me three yearly visits to be motivated to do that. “Third time never fails.” But seriously, it seems that sometimes it takes several exposures for something to sink in.

Sunday Scriptures — Solemnity of Christ the King, Year C, Nov. 20, 2016

On the 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time, which is the last Sunday before Advent, the Church celebrates the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. While the inclusion of this observance in the Roman calendar is a fairly recent development, the idea of Christ as a king is found in the gospels. At one point the disciples ask Jesus,”Lord, will you now restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” In today’s gospel the “good thief” being crucified with Jesus pleads, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The common expectation was that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David and would restore the independence of Israel and be its king.
The first reading — 2 Samuel 5:13 — is an account of David’s becoming King of Israel. He has three qualifications which Jesus also has: 1.) he is one of them; 2.) he has led them to victory; and 3.) God has chosen him to be king.
The responsorial psalm — Ps 122:1-5 — doesn’t speak directly of kingship, but it refers the the royal house of David and expresses joy in being on the way to Jerusalem, the royal capital.
The second reading — Colossians 1:12-20 — speaks of Christ’s kingdom and then tells of Christ’s primacy in all things and the peace-bringing effect of his crucifixion and death for all creation.
The gospel — Luke 23:35-43 — tells us that Jesus was accused of claiming to be King of the Jews. The inscription above his head proclaims the charge, and the soldiers refer to it tauntingly. It’s notably that for them, the title implies divinity, or at least the power to work miracles — an implication also of Messiahship as understood by the “rulers” at the beginning of the passage and later by the first criminal. The second criminal, the “good thief,” has faith that Jesus is a king who will rule despite his crucifixion. Jesus’ response, referring to Paradise as his and the thief’s destiny, recalls the words in the Gospel of John, where he tells Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world.
It is clear from all this the Jesus’ kingship, his Messiahship, is not political, despite the common expectation of his contemporaries. His kingship is not the direction of governments nor the making of laws for civil society. It is a rule over the conduct of his loyal believers. He is King through the obedience of Christians to his teachings. Their lives, of course, have an effect on society as a whole, making it more the way God intends it to be. Christians often tend to think that the laws of civil society themselves ought to reflect Christian values. When believers form a large part of the population, it often happens that that is the case. But we should not think that this should always be the case. The laws and culture of a nation may be more or less consistent with Jesus’ teachings. But Christ’s kingship does not require anything of civil law; it requires that he reign in our hearts. We need to exemplify the humility of our king, and avoid coercion.

President-elect Trump

I suppose he isn’t officially President-elect until the electors elect him, but that’s a foregone conclusion. Anyway, here are some thoughts I’ve been having since I woke up Wednesday morning.


I still think he’s unfit for office for all the reasons I’ve said, and maybe more. But there are some areas of expected action where it’s better to have him as President. The one I immediately think of is nominations to the Supreme Court. It has seemed to me for decades that many of the Justices of the Supreme Court have been reading their own personal preferences into the Constitution and creating “rights” which the framers never intended. This goes back at least to Roe v Wade. With the expected vacancies being filled by Trump nominees, we can hope for this judicial tyranny to stop, and even to have some of the willful decisions reversed.


More generally, we can hope to see greater recognition of religious freedom than a Clinton administration would have given and maybe even a curtailment of the scope of the federal government consonant with the 10th Amendment, although limited government as such wasn’t one of Trumps talking points.


Trump’s seeming willingness to ignore our NATO obligations, particularly toward the Baltic States, has me worried that Putin would see them as available for the taking. But it could conceivably happen that Trump’s friendly attitude toward the Russian dictator could end up making him feel more secure and therefore less inclined to grab more territory. This depends, of course, on whether his annexation of Crimea and attempted takeover of Ukraine are motivated by expansionism or insecurity, and which motives would apply to the Baltics.


On Thursday we’ve seen some hopeful signs. He assured Korea that under his presidency, the U.s. will continue to defend them. Maybe he’ll rethink out Nato obligations as well. His extended meeting with Obama and the kind words afterwards suggest that maybe he realizes that there’s more to being president that he had thought — although we have to bear in mind that it is normal procedure for him to say whatever he thinks people want to hear, with necessarily meaning it. And there was a recent headline stating that the mention of banning Muslims from entering the country has disappeared from his website.


I suppose we can see it as a function of his being totally unprincipled that he has no problem changing his positions. Nevertheless, it does seem that he is making changes in the direction of more sensible policies and actions. So I see some basis for hope that in practice, he won’t be as bad as I feared. I think it all comes down to his having good advisers and actually listening to them. One in particular on whom I pin a lot of hope is Newt Gingrich. He’s a true conservative, devoted to governing by constitutional principles, and I think if Trump listens to him, we will not see Trump acting as a dictator rather than a President.


Ultimately what matters is what he does in office, not what he said during the campaign. We’ll have to wait and see.

Planning to Vote

Since there is virtually no chance that Donald Trump will win Massachusetts’ electoral votes, I’m free to vote for the candidate who seems to most closely reflect my principles. Of those I’m aware of, the best candidate (i.e., the one with the best platform) is Michael Maturen, of the American Solidarity Party, with Juan Muñoz as his running mate.


The party seems to have been recently formed. I only learned of it a couple of months ago via an on line article in First Things. The party seeks to be comparable to a European Christian Democratic party. Their platform shows signs of being hastily written, and there are points where I think they are a bit off the mark or where I think they express things infelicitously or where I simply disagree — and some that, frankly, I don’t really understand — but on balance I think they are aiming for what is truly good for our country better than any other party.


If I were not aware of the American Solidarity Party, I’d be supporting Darrell Castle and Scott Bradley, the candidates of the Constitution Party. My main disagreement with them is their position on immigration. If you don’t like the American Solidarity Party, then I recommend the Constitution Party as the best I’m aware of. My third choice, if those two didn’t exist, would be the Libertarians.


All of this is based on a couple of points. For one thing, Donald Trump is absolutely unfit to hold office. Therefore, in states which are seriously in play, I consider it a duty to vote for Clinton. Elsewhere, Clinton is so bad — on Supreme Court, cozying up to Wall Street, abortion, religious liberty, and federalism, that she does not deserve a vote in her own right. Indeed, I see it as a duty to vote against her unless it’s needed in a particular state to stop Trump



Marriage and Family Symposium

I’m very happy about an event in my parish earlier today. It was a luncheon with speakers and moments of prayer around the theme of Marriage and Family. Speakers were a couple who have been married 58 years, a couple married 8 or 10 years (I forget) with two children, two widowed people, and a high school senior and his parents. All offered useful perspectives on the topic.


The program was the brainchild of our pastor, whom I’m increasingly admiring for his pastoral concern. As you may recall, there were two years of rather intense focus on this topic, including two synods, concluding with Pope Francis’ statement “Amoris Lætitia” (The Joy of Love), which still needs to be digested and implemented in many respects. Fr. Steele wanted to do something to help present the teaching and last May came up with the idea of this symposium. Over the summer and early fall he developed it in consultation with parishioners, and today it took place. In addition to the speakers and prayers, he also provided all couples with a copy of a booklet titled Pope Francis Talks to Couples: Wisdom on Marriage and Family, which consists of the two sections of  “Amoris Lætitia” which deal directly with married life.


The lady who had been married 58 years went on too long, but overall, the program, which was very well thought out, was very good. It was necessarily limited in attendance. A number of couples had been directly invited to participate in planning, and more were invited to attend, but registration was also open to all. I hope there will be a ripple effect as those in attendance share what they gained with their friends and acquaintances.


One thought, which was set aside, was to have a discussion of “Amoris Lætitia.” It is too big a topic for such an event. The booklet, however, is an important beginning.Father Steele has also scheduled a lecture by an expert from Boston College for an evening in January.


This is the most recent example of Fr. Steele’s resourcefulness in providing various types of programs for adult faith formation. Perhaps he is better known for involving children in vibrant “family liturgies,” but his devotion to offering adult programs is also a highly admirable element of his deep pastoral concern for all.