Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Humble Handmaid

ASSUMPTION of the BVM #622

Rv 11, 19a. 12, 1-6a. 10
Ps 45
1 Cor 15, 20-27
Lk 1, 39-56

August 15, 2010
Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.

Deacon Tom Cornell

The Book of Revelation is full of fantastic and frightening images. Jewish writers were playing these marvelous and horrifying figures for at least a hundred years before we have them in the book we have today, Apocalypse or Revelation. Maybe it was John the Evangelist who put them together toward the end of his life, in exile on the Island of Patmos, a Roman prison colony. We don’t really know. The author works these images into a new pattern of Christian revelation, the lady clothed with the sun, standing on a crescent moon and wearing a crown of twelve stars, about to give birth is Mary, and her male child Jesus! A giant red dragon with seven heads and ten horns sweeps a third of the stars from the sky with his tail! Satan enraged at Christ, his deadly enemy. Many of the early Fathers didn’t want to include this book in the Bible at all. They thought it too confusing for most people, lay people and clergy as well, too fantastic, too frightening and too easy to misinterpret. One of my Scripture professors advised, “If you don’t have five years to spend studying Revelation, skip it!”

Apocalyptic writers were obsessed with a world they saw crumbling, their Hebrew world, little as it was but all they knew and loved. Israel no longer existed. It was Samaria. Judaea, all that was left of David’s kingdom, was under Roman occupation. These writers saw their Hebrew world falling apart at the seams under the impact of Greek and Roman culture, customs and ways. Most of the Jews were already in Diaspora, scattered throughout the Mediterranean basin and Mesopotamia. Most Jews couldn’t even read Hebrew any more. They had been reading their Scriptures in Aramaic or in Greek translation for a couple of hundred years already, or not at all. The Temple priests, Sadducees, were playing it safe, making deals with the Romans, accommodating, watering down the Law for the sake of survival. The scribes and the Pharisees, on the other hand, were trying to call the people back to an ever more strict observance of the Law, and some of their extremists were even organizing violent revolution against Rome. That would mean certain death, the writers knew. And most people, then as now, didn’t really seem to care.

Plus ca change, as the French say. The more things change the more they remain the same. Sometimes it looks as if our world, the world we know is falling apart at the seams. Will the economy ever recover? Will we get our jobs back? Will our wars ever end, useless and unwinnable as they are? Can we save Social Security and Medicare? We are told we can’t afford them. We fire teachers, cut classes, close schools and libraries and parks and playgrounds. Where will the money come from to keep them? We spend just a little less than all the rest of the world combined on the military. Yes,that's right, just a little less that all the rest of the world combined on the military. The poor we send away empty.

Not long ago the US was number one in percentage of young people going to college. Not any more! Now we are number 12, behind Germany, Japan, Korea, Canada, Australia, Italy, England and Ireland. Our health care index is even worse, about 32, just ahead of Slovenia. Oh, don’t get me wrong. The very best medical care anywhere in the world is available right here in the US, for those who can afford it. For them we are still Number One!

Our entire culture, based as it is on Jewish and Christian religious values, is undergoing a seismic shift toward – who knows what? Family values, the family itself, once thought sacrosanct, the basic cell of society, is now optional. The signs of the time are grim. “These are the worst of times, and they always have been,” Thomas Merton said. The writer of Revelation saw a world in crisis. It’s always in crisis! The End is near. It always has been near! But we are Christians. Be not afraid!

Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians in an apocalyptic frame of mind, but with a difference. He is triumphant. “Just as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will come to life again…” “After that will come the end, when, having destroyed every sovereignty, authority and power, he will hand over the kingdom to God the Father….” Christians can not be pessimists. “The worst has happened, and been repaired,” as Julian of Norwich had it. Life is not as divine tragedy. It is a divine comedy.

Why does the Church link these readings in today’s Mass to celebrate the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Mary has followed her son, assumed, taken up to Heaven, body and soul, soul and body!

We don’t, we can’t know what the next life will be. We can know this: Jesus has gone to the Father and he would have his mother with him where he is, not only because she is his mother but because she was above all angels and men and women. Mary saw reality with clarity, not as we do, “through a glass darkly.” Mary’s will never deviated from the good, free from the effects of Original Sin. At the moment of her death she did not experience corruption. God willed that Mary precede us to Heaven, body and soul, soul and body, not only because she is his son’s mother but because she never sinned. Sinners that we are, it is our destiny as well because she is our mother too. She would have it so as he will have it so if we will have it so.

What can it possibly mean, to rise from the dead, body and soul? What is a risen body, what will it be like? Will I have my gall-bladder back! I don’t want it! How about teeth? Will they break again? Silly questions, as Saint Paul points out a few verses after today’s reading. Paul compares the earthly body destined to corruption to the spiritual body that will rise from it. It is as if our present earthly body were a seed and our future spiritual body risen from it free forever from pain and corruption.

We have a mental image of Mary, most of us, I’m sure. “Lovely lady, dressed in blue….” We picture the Mysteries of the Rosary and we repeat the Hail Mary. There are paintings, reproductions of Mary on the walls of our homes, the Annunciation, the Visitation. But the Mary of today’s reading, the Magnificat, the humble handmaid of the Lord is also a strong woman. Even fierce! Listen to her words:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior. … He has shown the might of his right arm, he has scattered the proud in their conceit. He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things. He has sent the rich away empty.” Without even a tax break!

Jesus’ mercy exceeds his justice, that is true. His mother is our mother, waiting with words to soothe, arms to embrace, that is true. But there is another side to Jesus and to Mary, one that must give us pause. He is a judge. “Woe to you scribes and Pharisee hypocrites!” And again, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven,” and Mary’s warning today to the rich and powerful. It’s all true.

Whatever the future, however the End, we can be sure that God’s plan for us is glorious. “Now have salvation and power come, the reign of our God and the authority of his Anointed One, the Christ, have come.”

The rabbis envisioned Heaven as a banquet. That’s not a bad idea. All our family and friends around us, a circle unbroken, gathered around Jesus and Mary. Our happiest memories relived and forever, and more than that, much more. We shall be like God, God-like, for we shall see him as he is. Mary is preparing a place for us, just as she prepared for Jesus before his birth and nurtured him through his young life. She, our mother, goes before and prepares a place for us before our birth to eternal life. It’s true, now and forever. 

Monday, July 19, 2010

Abraham's Guests

16 Sunday C #108

Gn 18, 1-10
Ps 15
Col 1, 24-28
Lk 10, 38-42

St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
July 18, 2010

Deacon Tom Cornell

Hospitality is the theme today. One of the most famous icons ever painted is Andrey Rublev’s The Hospitality of Abraham, from 15th Century Russia. He called it The Trinity, but the mystery of the Trinity was not revealed in Abraham’s time, so most people call it Abraham’s Guests or Hospitality. I have a copy. It’s too fragile to bring here to show you, but if you like, drop in on us at our home, Peter Maurin Farm off Lattintown Road. Take a look and maybe we’ll be able to give you some fresh chard to take home.

Abraham was sitting in the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day when he saw three strangers standing by a spreading pine tree, the terebinth of Mamre. They just appear, stand there, not walking. They don’t speak. They don’t ask anything of Abraham. He assumes they are traveling. Abraham goes to them and begs their leader to allow him to host them. He has a servant bring water so that they can wash their feet. He has Sarah bake fresh bread for them and he has a steer slaughtered, butchered and put to roast. He and Sarah go way beyond the normal hospitality expected of peoples of the Near East then and today. They go all out and they expect no reward. But they are rewarded. One of the men, in fact an angel, the three are angels, a manifestation of God, tells Abraham he will be back in a year’s time and that by then Sarah will have a son!

Abraham is one hundred years old. Sarah is ninety. Fat chance! Lots of luck, Abraham! But it comes true, and through his son Isaac, Abraham will father as many sons and daughters as the stars of the sky and the sands of the sea shore, and they shall be a blessing to all peoples for one of them will be Messiah, the Christ. He will break down the wall of enmity between Jew and Gentile and the two shall be one in him. Abraham and Sarah have given freely and lavishly, and God will reward them freely, lavishly, above anything they can imagine. “God will not be outdone in generosity,” Dorothy Day used to say.

Dorothy Day bought our property, 50 acres in back of the cemetery for our Catholic Worker community, in 1979, thirty-one years ago. Monica and I moved here in 1992 but we were part of the Catholic Worker community back then too and helped set up our new farm. I paid a courtesy call on the pastor, Monsignor Dugan at the time, on behalf of the community. We didn’t know him yet, but he knew us well. He told me he used to sell our paper, The Catholic Worker, on the streets of New York City back in the Thirties when he was in seminary. He told me that anti-Semites and racists used to physically attack him and his friends, tear our paper from their hands and throw them into the gutter and even beat them up. Can you imagine Fr. Dugan in a fist fight? I had to laugh! Fr. Dugan welcomed us, but I don’t think he or anyone else has ever tried to explain to the people of this parish just what we do back there. Our house, our farm community is a “house of hospitality,” as we call it. People around town call it “the camp,” why I don’t know.

First of all, it’s not a camp! It’s a farm, or better, a large garden. We cultivate two acres, and it’s a home for people who would otherwise be homeless, a house of hospitality on the land. We have two houses for the homeless in the City, one for men and the other for women. We give all our produce away to soup kitchens, our own soup kitchen in the City first and to Saint Patrick’s in Newburgh. We don’t sell anything and we don’t charge anyone anything for any service we provide. We don’t ask rent from anybody we take in for room and board. We provide utilities and laundry and all the rest at no charge and with no reimbursement from any agency of Church or state. And when our guests die we bury them. When we run out of money we pray and we beg and it comes, from readers of our paper. "I was a stranger," Christ said, "and you took me in.” Come take a look, about a third of a mile at the end of Cemetery Road. We’d love to show you around.

If people in Marlboro know anything about us it’s probably because of Slim. “The Man Who Walks,” they called him. You could hardly miss him as he walked the streets, summer and winter, often with a dog, or two or more. He was tall, well over six feet, even stooped with age. His clothing was worn and didn’t always fit. He looked a little like Freddy Kruger. He didn’t care. When he got tired, Slim just stretched out, wherever he was, on the side of the road, in a parking lot, or even in the middle of a supermarket aisle. The police knew him and they would drive him home sometimes if he seemed over-tired. Our local police are friends and neighbors. That’s one of the reasons why we pay one hundred percent of our property taxes. We are legally exempt from property taxes as a religious charity. But we want to share our neighbors’ burdens, and not be a burden ourselves in any way. Some things we can do on our own, by way of personal responsibility, but some things we have to do together as citizens, like police and fire protection, and the education of our children. We love our parish and our town, and we want to stay here in Marlboro. We’ve been very happy here.

But back to Slim. Slim’s mother had brought him to our house on Mott Street, downtown New York City. She told us, “He’s a good boy, nineteen years old, not quite right in the head but he never gives any trouble.” She said she’d really appreciate if we’d take care of him over the weekend. She’d come back for him on Monday. That was in 1937! She dumped him! She left Slim with no papers, no birth certificate, no identification of any kind, no nothing. We didn’t even know his name for sure until just a few years before he died, at age 84. If his mother had brought Slim to a hospital ER and just dumped him there, the State of New York would have had to spend $30,000 a year to keep him in an institution, tranquilized probably, where he’d have nothing to do and would fade away stuck in a bed somewhere, never a family around him, never a dog, never children, never a job. People need to work, to know that they are contributing, for their own sense of self-worth.

Slim wasn’t happy in our city house, too noisy, too crowded. When they drove him to our farm, in Easton, Pennsylvania at that time, he jumped out of the car and rolled around on the grass for joy. Slim had children and dogs around him. He had jobs. He could take pride that he was contributing. In the spring and fall he raked leaves, he hauled water, he took out the garbage and the compost. In the winter he shoveled snow, cutting paths between the houses and the barn and then anywhere his imagination led him, pathways to utopia, you might say. He had a good life, and it cost one-tenth of what the State would have spent.

How do we do it? How can we afford it? There are no administrative costs, no labor costs. We all live in voluntary poverty, we Catholic Workers. No one is paid. There is no pension fund. Our labor, it’s a gift: “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” That’s not Marxism. That’s basic Christianity as we find in The Acts of the Apostles. And it’s personal responsibility for the needs of others. We live as poor people among poor people, in community. And we have our rewards. It’s part of our understanding of nonviolence, not just refusal to engage in war but the building of a more just and merciful society by example. But some people thought otherwise. J. Edgar Hoover asked President Franklin Roosevelt to have Dorothy Day imprisoned during the Second World War, three times. He didn’t. And the Vatican has accepted Dorothy’s cause for canonization as a saint, that is a model of Christian discipleship for our time. We must be doing something right.

The story of Martha busy about the house as Mary sits at Jesus’ feet has always puzzled me. Why didn’t Jesus add just one little sentence? “Now, Mary, get up and give your sister a hand and we’ll finish talking after dinner and you’ve washed the dishes.” I think of this when I see my wife Monica, a modern day Martha, work far beyond anything that might be asked of her while some of our guests, a couple of them, just sit there on their fat cushions, watching TV. Maybe they’re praying during the commercials. I don’t think so. But that’s all right. If you don’t want to work then there’s got to be something wrong with you, and we’re here for people who have something wrong with them, so it works out! The point of this Gospel episode and Jesus’ saying is the primacy of the spiritual, the necessity of prayer. Mary has chosen the better part and it will not be taken from her.

“The man who does justice lives in the presence of the Lord” (Ps 15). Micah tells us that the Lord requires only this of us, that we “do justice, love mercy, compassion and walk humbly with our God (Mi 6, 8). How do we walk humbly with our God? We have to walk where he leads us, and how do we know that? By prayer. Prayer isn’t just telling God what we think he ought to know. Prayer is listening, in the depths of our hearts for the voice of God, in our own conscience, to lead us. There are those who are called to a life of prayer without ceasing and good for them! But somebody’s got to pay the bills! Those of us in that category have to remember that whatever we do, we have to pray. Prayer will open for us what to do and how to do it. Prayer will sustain us as we go. Then we pray in thanksgiving. All for the glory of God. If not, remember the Psalm, “Unless the Lord build the house, in vain do the builders labor; unless the Lord guard the city, in vain do the watchers keep vigil” (Ps 126). Both Martha and Mary will have their reward.

And we are rewarded lavishly. We may seem to be poor, but we have so many wonderful friends, Nobel Prize winners and bishops and cardinals among them, wonderful nuns and brothers and humble people who have spoken the Truth in ways to astonish, and we have been part of so many wonderful adventures. Voluntary poverty and community free us for things that others only dream of. We were among the first to protest the Nazis in the Thirties and to try to protect the European Jews by opening up our doors and offering hospitality. We helped workers to keep control of their own unions when the Communist Party and gangsters vied for control. And we supported workers in strikes. During one picket at a department store, the New York City police rounded everybody up for arrest. As a cop shoved one of our women into a paddy wagon, he snarled, “Get in, yuh damn Communist!” She answered, “I’m not a Communist, officer. I’m an anti-Communist!” He then said, “I don’t care what kind of a Communist you are, lady. Get into the van!” And in the Fifties and the Sixties we were part of the movement to tear down the legal structures of racial segregation in this country. We weren’t in the leadership. That was for the Black people. But when they called us we answered, we were there. Two high points of my life were in early 1965. Monica gave me our first-born, a son in February, and in March, Martin Luther King accepted me as a marshal at Selma for the March on Montgomery. That changed America for the better, forever. What a precious memory! When Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers came to New York, he came to us first, and his men lived with us. We set up the lettuce boycott together, the first successful boycott in this country since tea in 1776. We took a leadership role in the movement to get out of Viet Nam. We helped to reintroduce nonviolence into the mainstream of Catholic and Protestant moral teaching; and we now know that we held back the hands of those who would have used nuclear weapons in Viet Nam. Precious memories!

All that and hospitality too. Come, take a look at the Rublev and our place! And take some fresh organic veggies home with you, and a copy of our paper, and come again! 

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Fathers Know!

12 Sunday C #96

Zec 12, 10-11. 13, 1
Ps 63
Gal 3, 26-29
Lk 9, 18-24

St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
June 20, 2010

Deacon Tom Cornell

It’s Fathers’ Day and by now the conspiracy to honor Father Ed Bader is out! I’m glad he’s not here. It might embarrass him. What more is there to say than what you all have already said in your cards and notes and letters? The international Year of the Priest just ended. Not for us. Every year is the Year of the Priest as long as Father Ed is with us. We won’t have him forever. They rotate pastors now. It’s not like the old days of Father Hanley. I see from his gravestone in the cemetery that Fr. Hanley came to Saint Mary’s before World War I and was still here when the Korean War ended! In Connecticut where I grew up we had only one pastor from the time I can remember until I was graduated from college. It’s just as well that they rotate pastors now. We have to share! There’s only one way I’d like to see Father Ed transferred, to see him made a bishop! That’s a great idea! I’ll have to tell the Pope. But don’t worry! They never listen to me!

Our Psalm verse today goes: “My soul is thirsting for you, O Lord my God!”

The world thirsts, each one of us thirsts with a thirst that can not be quenched. There is a longing in the human heart and soul that can not be satisfied. It is infinite. Only the Infinite can satisfy it. To deny it is to sink into useless torpor or just as useless frenzy, running around, busy, busy, busy about – nothing! No work, nothing we can do no matter how good and worthy and well-intentioned it may seem will come to any good without the grace of God we receive in prayer. Our priest shows us the way, the primacy of the spiritual, the way to the source of life and its fulfillment. That’s why we call him father. Every father is a kind of priest in a Christian family. Every Christian home is an “ecclesiola,” a little church, or it’s supposed to be.

The reading from the Prophet Zechariah speaks of a gift, “a grace to be poured out on the people of Jerusalem.” “They shall look upon him whom they have pierced and they shall mourn for him as for an only son.” Christians have always understood this to prophesy Jesus, and that one day all people will inherit the Promise made to Abraham and Sarah through him, the Promise not only of children -- he so old his body as good as dead and she well passed the age -- but the Promise of salvation from evil and emptiness, if they will have it.

We celebrate fathers today, and why? Only because of their children. A society that does not count children as its greatest blessing is a society on the skids. Abraham and Sarah knew the future belongs to the fertile.

In our second reading, Saint Paul tells the Gentiles that they are in fact sons and daughters of Abraham along with the Jews, since they have put on Christ and they are one with him. “There is no more distinction between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus. By belonging to Christ you are the posterity of Abraham, the heirs he was promised.”

“Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer is burned in our memory: “You are the Messiah, the Christ of God!” Jesus then tells Peter and the others not to reveal this to anyone until he has undergone his Passion and is risen from the dead. Then he says:

“Whoever wishes to be my follower must deny his very self, take up his cross each day and follow in my steps. Whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” Lose your life to save it; save your life and lose it? The Christian life is a struggle to find out what this means! It is strange, topsy-turvy, like the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. To take up our cross and to go where he went, and that is to Golgotha! Of all the hard sayings of Jesus, this is the hardest, the one that sums them all up. Does that mean we should seek our cross, look for it? I don’t think so. When I was young, a wise old Jesuit told me, “You don’t have to go looking for your cross. It will find you!”

How did he know? Fathers know!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ut Unum Sint, That They be One

7 Easter C #61

Acts 7, 55-60
Ps 97
Rv 22, 12-14. 16-17, 20
Jn 17, 20-26

St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
May 16, 2010

Deacon Tom Cornell

This Gospel reading makes me think of a young man I met not long ago, a very bright guy. He studies comparative literature at NYU. He doesn’t have a church or a religion. But he's interested, he said, even attracted. He told me that he's reading the New Testament, and that in all the world literature he had read, he never came across a figure as attractive or compelling as Jesus of Nazareth. Was Jesus really the Son of God as he read in Mark’s Gospel? Was he the Messiah the Jews expected in Matthew and Luke? Was he the Logos, the eternal Word of God who took flesh and lived among us as in John?

Was Jesus the Savior of the World as Christians claim? Did he really give us the Way to salvation, the Way to keep us from blowing ourselves up when he said from the Cross “Father forgive them?” And when he taught his disciples to pray, "forgive as we forgive." The Deacon Stephen echoed his words as he was stoned to death in our first reading, "Do not hold this sin against them." Did Jesus really take away our sins so that one day we might understand what this whole thing on earth is about, when we are with God in Heaven? It would be nice to think so, he said. Well, why didn’t he just come to our church and find out?

“You Catholics say you know what Jesus really taught, that yours is the true church, the church he founded. But the Episcopalians across the street, they say they the same thing, and the Bible Church up the hill says the same thing, and the Presbyterians over there, and the Methodists up in Milton and the Quakers over in Clintondale…. See what I mean? How can I believe any of you Christians if you can’t believe each other?” Pray for him.

You have to admit, he has a point. He's missing another point though, and that is, at a deep level, we are in fact one. There is really only one church of Jesus Christ for, as Paul has it, “There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all” (Eph 4,5).

God is a mystery, the deepest mystery. God can not be defined because to define means to put an end, a boundary to something, de fine, and you can’t do that to God. God is infinite. Christ is the sacrament of God, another mystery because we can not define him either. We can say “true man and true God” but we can’t really exhaust what that means! The church is the sacrament of Christ, another mystery. So you see you can’t really put a boundary on the church either. Only God knows who is in and who is out. It’s quite conceivable that some who say, “Lord, Lord!” might not be real Christians at all, and it’s quite conceivable too that some we would never expect are true seekers of Truth and Love and doers besides and so beloved of Christ and his own.

Today we heard how Jesus prayed to the Father that his disciples be one so that the world might believe in him, that the Father sent him: “That they be one.” He says it three times. One as Jesus and the Father are one. So it will be because it is God’s will. When and how Christian unity will be achieved we can not know. But we do know this: we have a part to play in it, every one of us. How? By letting go of any feelings of resentment we might have against fellow Christians in other churches or denominations, by letting go of any feelings of hurt for wrongs committed against us, by forgiving. My Irish ancestors, you may know, had a beef with the English. That war lasted eight hundred years, but it’s over now. We don’t have to forget, we can’t forget, but we can and we must forgive.

Let go of any feeling of pride or superiority or envy or resentment and admit our failings and our sins against each other and seek forgiveness of God and of each other, brothers and sisters in Christ. We killed each other in wars of religion! Doesn’t that sound like a contradiction in terms? “A war of religion!” Thank God we are past all that. We are living in a new age, an oecumenical age. Time to love.

I spoke to a group of Protestant young people in their high school not long ago, Anabaptists. My heart had to go out to them because their hearts were so warm with the love of God and of Jesus, and for us Catholic too in our present suffering. I could feel it. How can we not love them? One of the young men asked me, “Tom, why isn’t the Catholic Church a peace church, like us or the Quakers? We have the same Gospel!”

“Timothy,” I said to him, “we owe your people, the Anabaptists, a debt. We Catholics had all but forgotten Christian nonviolence when you people kept it alive for us. We’re taking it back into the mainstream of our own Tradition. Because of your help, your faithfulness, the Catholic Church is well on its way to becoming a peace church.” By that I mean we now have peace at the top of our social agenda, the renunciation of war and the causes of war. We defend men and women who refuse to participate in war for reasons of conscience. We not only defend them but hold them up as examples of genuine Christian discipleship. That is a big step forward, even if all our people don’t know it yet.

What can we do to promote Christian unity? We can pray together, pray the Scriptures together, study together, work together as we work here at Saint Mary’s with the Presbyterians in our food bank, as Sister Mary and the others work in Newburgh Ministries for the poor; work at every level in every way we can for peace and justice in this world, to put an end to war and the causes of war, an end to hunger, an end to ethnic, racial and religious hatred.

For this we need all the strength and nourishment we can get from our Scriptures and the sacraments. We can not share the Eucharist together with non-Catholics yet, except under exceptional circumstances because the Eucharist is the ultimate sign of unity, and if we share Holy Communion prematurely we will not hunger for a common table, and that is what we must do! Hunger for it, thirst for it! It is God’s will!

When the church of Jesus Christ is the church God wills it to be, it will be truly Catholic, truly Orthodox, truly Evangelical and truly Reformed. We will be one, and the world will come to believe. Finally they will see Jesus coming on the clouds with the angels and saints, with Moses and The Baal Shem Tov and Gautama Buddha and Gandhi and the Mahdi, with Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, Frank and Maisie and The B to judge the living and the dead. “I was hungry and you fed me!” Come, Lord Jesus! 

Saturday, May 1, 2010

In Defense of Catholic Worker Anarchism

From the May 2010 issue of The Catholic Worker
Tom Cornell

Ammon Hennacy did the Catholic Worker a lot of good. He got us out on the street selling the paper and into court rooms and jail cells for nonviolent direct action protesting war and war taxes and Civil Defense. We call ourselves Catholic anarchists largely because of him, but we seldom examine what that means.

Ammon refused to register for the World War I draft and served over two years, eight months of it in solitary confinement at Atlanta federal prison. In 1940 he was still of an age obliged to register for the World War II draft. Again he refused. But this time Selective Service ignored him. From then on he refused to pay federal income taxes and took day-labor as a farm-worker in Arizona so that, if the feds wanted to garnishee his wages, they’d have to send a “revenooer” out every day at sundown to confiscate his pay envelope. It wasn’t worth it. Ammon was arrested over fifty times for nonviolent civil disobedience, but more important, he took personal responsibility in little things. If a trash barrel was overturned onto the street, he would go out of his way to right things. That was essential to his idea of anarchism.

Anarchism has been controversial within the Catholic Worker movement at least since the Pacifist Weekend of 1954, when Robert Ludlow, whom Dorothy Day had dubbed the Catholic Worker’s chief theoretician, renounced anarchism, or better, the Catholic Worker’s appropriation of the term and whatever Bob meant by it (v. his “Re-evaluation” in the June 1955 CW). Many secular anarchists agree with Ludlow and hold that “Catholic” and “anarchist” are mutually exclusive terms. Ammon provocatively called his book The Autobiography of a Catholic Anarchist. In a second edition, Ammon added a chapter on why he left the Catholic Church and changed the title to The Book of Ammon. (Ammon was reconciled to the Church a few days before his death. His funeral was held at the Catholic Church of St. Joan of Arc in Salt Lake City, Utah.)

What kind of anarchism can we claim? An etymological definition (an- meaning no- and arche meaning rule) is useless if it fails to recognize a current in the wider socialist movement, called by its detractors anarchism. No anarchist of sound mind holds either that government does not exist or ought not to exist, etymology notwithstanding. All socialists want government to promote the general welfare rather than the enrichment of the few at the expense of the many, “people before profits.”

As I see it, anarchists would want more government if that means courts defending the right of workers to organize, the Department of Agriculture helping to initiate independent producer and consumer cooperatives instead of supporting vertical integration of farms into ever bigger and more powerful conglomerates. Government could favor open-pollinated seed sharing instead of forcing farmers around the world to buy new patented hybrid seed for each planting to enrich Monsanto. Government could facilitate worker buy-outs of small industries with no-interest loans. The Postal Service could subsidize journals of opinion as it once did in order to disseminate alternative ideas and enrich democratic debate, and so that the means of communication might not fall into the hands of a few.

But conversely, anarchists would want much less government if that means the State Department, and the so-called Defense and Justice Departments and counter-revolution, the overthrow of socialist initiatives wherever they may be and the installation of right-wing dictators in client states. Anarchists want much less, no government if that means racist prisons and war, but more anti-trust legislation and enforcement, trust-busting, not union-busting, more environmental protection, more Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and immediate access to federal courts for every labor organizer punished for organizing. But anarchists will hold even benign organs of government to a most strict accounting, since "power tends to corrupt," and they will view the state in practice more as a guarantor of privilege than as an organ of its diffusion.

The late Howard Zinn described his social philosophy as “democratic socialism, without passports or visas or jails.” Noam Chomsky calls himself an anarchist, by which he means a libertarian socialist, as did Paul Goodman, Emma Goldman and in her pre-Stalinist days, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. When Dorothy Day defended the Cuban revolution she did not imagine that Fidel Castro planned to do away with government. Anarchism has to be understood within the broader socialist tradition. Neo-conservatives want to starve the government to death so as to free rapacious corporate interests from any restraint. That is not our kind of anarchism.

Anarchist thinkers distinguish between society, government and the state. National sovereignty entails the ability of the state to protect its interests or to project its might with ultimate force. But the whole of humankind will live as long as it lives under the threat of weapons of mass destruction. Weapons of mass destruction can not be allowed to remain in the hands of nation states without a high probability that they will eventually be used. That is morally inadmissible, absolutely. If the primary purpose of the state is to protect its people and the modern nation state is the primary threat to the survival of all peoples, what can be said of its legitimacy?

Gordon Zahn intended in his retirement years to address the issue of nationalism as a threat to human survival. He wasn’t granted the time. Another framework has to come into play under the over-arching principles of the unity of the human family, the need to defend the innocent, the integrity of cultures and the sovereignty of God in a globalization of solidarity, not a globalization of exploitation. How will anarchists contribute to that project?

Instead of a political program or ideology, anarchists offer a set of attitudes and preferences: the fewer rules and regulations, the better. "All the law necessary, and no more than is necessary," and then we argue over "necessary." We favor spontaneity over predictability, initiative and invention over tried-and-true patterns and personal responsibility over delegation. Authority is to be won by good work and exercised only as long as it is recognized by equals. Anarchists look to horizontal organization before vertical structure, though not denying the need for that too. Catholic anarchists temper individualism with a mind toward community and the common good. Many vote and even hold local public office. But the preferred modus operandi is direct action and the formation of small, intimate communities.

Government can advance the right of peoples to organize for the redress of grievances and for the advancement of their own interests. Since the rich and powerful are already well organized, law and government should make a "preferential option" to extend the same rights to the poor and the marginalized in order to advance justice, promote the general welfare and civil harmony. In the modern state they seldom do. Anarchists are likely to perceive this anomaly, and the deception the powerful employ to justify the wars that maintain their power and privilege.

Catholic anarchists gratefully accept the teaching authority of the Church. How to make our position understandable and attractive to others, especially our fellow Catholics, should be part of our clarification of thought. I have come to conclude that Catholic Worker radicalism is not eccentric at all, but comes from the very heart of the Church. Democratic, libertarian socialism or anarchism best harmonizes the principles of Catholic social teaching: the supreme goods of justice and peace; the dignity of the human person with inherent rights from conception to natural death; universal solidarity with a preferential option for the poor and the young; the defense of the innocent; the universal destination of goods; the right to private property; the priority of labor over capital; subsidiarity and the universal common good, all in the tradition of the virtues.

Almost all Americans have been conditioned by their schooling and the media to believe that ours is a democratic republic and not what it is in fact, an oligarchic plutocracy on its way to fascism. They have been programmed to be compulsive consumers, willing cannon-fodder and compliant accomplices in their own exploitation. Religion should sharpen, not dull moral judgment. If fascism ever comes to this country it will undoubtedly be wrapped in the flag and brandishing the Cross. To reach our fellow Catholics we should go to the Magisterium.

Christians are obliged to obey duly constituted authority justly exercised (Rom 13, 1-2). We must also ask what constitutes legitimate authority and how justly is it exercised. According to the Compendium of the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church, “Citizens are not obligated in conscience to follow the prescriptions of civil authorities if their precepts are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or to the teachings of the Gospel (#820). Unjust laws pose dramatic problems of conscience for morally upright people: when they are called to cooperate in morally evil acts they must refuse…. It is a grave duty of conscience not to cooperate, not even formally, in practices which, although permitted by civil legislation, are contrary to the Law of God. Such cooperation in fact can never be justified, not by invoking respect for the freedom of others nor by appealing to the fact that it is foreseen and required by civil law. No one can escape the moral responsibility for actions taken, and all will be judged by God himself based on this responsibility (#399).” Catholics understand this in the matter of abortion. Once the principle is established, it can be applied to war and unjust social and political structures as well. It’s revolutionary!

Decisions for civil disobedience must be made in good conscience under spiritual guidance, after careful consideration of the facts of the matter and the context and the consequences and the principles involved. A good conscience must be a right conscience as well, based on a correct judgment of the facts and informed by the Gospel and the teachings of the Church. Won’t that lead to chaos? When the time draws near that nonviolent civil disobedience threatens the common good, then we will reconsider the matter. But that is not the problem today. Quite the opposite! The problem today is obedience. The Nazi Army was overwhelmingly Christian, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, over 90 percent. If there wasn’t a pastoral failure involved in that, then there is no such thing and we pastors and preachers and catechists and religious teachers are irrelevant. It’s all “pie in the sky.” If the Kingdom of God is not here and now it will never be then and there.
Dorothy Day believed that a revolutionary force already set in motion would at last sweep the world. The last century saw many a counterfeit. If there is to be a revolution, it will be, as Ammon Hennacy called it, the one man or one woman revolution, or as Dorothy put it, “the revolution of the heart,” one by one. If there is to be “a new social order in which it is easier to be good,” it will be built on the means that Peter Maurin envisioned, “a philosophy so old it looks like new, the gentle personalism of traditional Christianity.” There is no more revolutionary manifesto than the Sermon on the Mount.

Catholic Workers do not, by and large, engage in conventional politics. It is too late for that. "What matters is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. And if the tradition of the virtues was able to survive the horrors of the last dark ages, we are not entirely without grounds for hope. This time, however, the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another--doubtless very different--St. Benedict" (Alisdaire MacIntyre, After Virtue). Although he insists that he is not an anarchist, MacIntyre paints the picture as we see it.

In order not to be conformed to this age, not to be co-opted by an effete state socialism or, even worse, by decadent bourgeois liberalism, to continue ever to be transformed in the renewal of our understanding, to discern what is truly good and pleasing and perfect, the will of God, Catholic Workers should nurture the gifts our founders left us, continue to identify as anarchists, and struggle always to understand just what that means. 

Monday, April 26, 2010

Pax Christi Annual Peace Mass

Feast of St. Fedelis of Sigmaringen, OFM Cap., Martyr

April 24, 2010
Saint Joseph’s Church, New Paltz, N.Y.

Deacon Tom Cornell

Thank you, Father Bernard, for hosting our Pax Christi Peace Mass once again. It is more than fitting that we meet among sons of Saint Francis. It’s such a beautiful space, this church, so much color and light. I just had a flash-back to my time in prison, in 1968. It wasn’t very much, just six months – of sensual deprivation! It was gray, everything was gray, the walls were gray and the ceiling was gray and the floor was gray and the clothes were gray, and the food was gray! Oy veh! It is good to be here in this warm and beautiful place.

Today we celebrate the Feast of Saint Fidelis of Sigmaringen, a Capuchin friar. Saint Fidelis was martyred for defending the Catholic faith against Calvinists who denied the Real Presence of Jesus in the Sacrament of the Altar. To most of Saint Felix’s 17th Century contemporaries the day when Catholics and Calvinists did not kill each other seemed unimaginable. We don’t kill each other any more, Catholics and Calvinists. Today we study Scripture together, we work and pray together; we pray that one day his Church will be as Jesus prayed the Father it would be, that all be one, one flock, one shepherd, Catholic, orthodox, evangelical and reformed.

To most of Saint Francis’ contemporaries, the day when Perugia and Assisi would never even think of attacking each other was unimaginable. But today the cities of Italy are interwoven in a fabric of mutual dependency; they do not attack each other. We older people remember war in Europe, when “the hand that held the dagger struck it into the back of its neighbor.” Italy will never attack France again because Italy and France and Germany, all the countries of Europe are interwoven in a fabric, a web of mutual dependency. How about the world? Can we extend a web of solidarity across the globe? We have to!

Is it foolish to imagine a world without war? No, I don’t think so. There’s an old saying that, “Wars will cease when men (and women) refuse to fight! It’s sounds good but it’s not true. Men (and women) will always be fooled, threatened, lied into their masters’ wars with manufactured fear and hatred. There will always be enough cannon fodder, sorry to say. War will cease when nations are so woven into a fabric of interdependency that war becomes impossible. But that fabric will not be woven without a tremendous sustained moral energy accelerating the progress of history. And that moral energy will only be generated by men and women who refuse to fight, who refuse to work in war industry or to give any sanction to war, men and women determined to say NO!, men and women ready to face the consequences and pay the price in the spirit of Saint Francis and of Jesus himself.

A generation ago, President John F. Kennedy told us that, for the first time in human history, it is possible to eliminate hunger and grinding poverty from the face of the earth. At the same time, he said, it is, for the first time, possible for mankind to commit suicide with the weapons we developed in World War II. Just a few days ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize winner, said that with a fraction of the wealth we pour into weapons of mass destruction, we could eliminate world hunger. It’s our choice.

On August 6, 1945, “Everything changed,” said Albert Einstein, “everything but our way of thinking.” I remember that day. When the news came over the radio we threw a block party. I could almost cry to remember it. We rejoiced because we knew the war would be over very soon. We could not pause to think of the dead and dying Japanese. We had long since been taught to think of them as less than human, not like us. “They don’t value human life as we do,” we were told.

I can not help but think of Saints Francis and Anthony and Fidelis today in this place. It’s easy to white-wash popular saints. I love the statue of Saint Anthony with the Christ child and the lily; I love to see it in people’s homes. But that statue doesn’t give the whole picture, not at all. Saint Anthony didn’t go around holding the Baby Jesus in his arms all the time, and a flowering lily. Saint Anthony could inveigh with power and righteous wrath against the money-lenders of his day who despoiled the poor. Even as a young man, he hollered and screamed and made such a racket that, for the first time, a Council of the Church condemned usury.

Where are the young today? I see lots of white hair and bald heads. Maybe we’ve become too accustomed to Grandmother’s religion in our churches. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against grandmothers, quite the contrary. I’m married to one! And I loved my own grandma and I miss her. And she died in 1942! I still have the prayer book she brought with her from Italy over a hundred years ago. But what the young need now isn’t grandma’s religion. What the young need and crave is struggle, battle, for something bigger than themselves. We, members of the oldest, the largest, the most widely dispersed organization in the world, the Catholic Church, the “sacrament of the unity of the human race,” have all we need right at hand. We can bring about that change in thinking that Einstein called for to catch up with the reality of a changed world. We have a body of social teaching on justice and peace based on the Scriptures, unmatched, and we have the sacraments, we have our saints as models, including the uncanonized ones like Dorothy Day. The young need to know that each one has a part to play in building peace and justice for a fractured and bleeding world. They are called to arms, the army that sheds no blood, to the army of Jesus Christ, the army that binds up the wounds. This is a faith to die for! To live for. The young dream dreams and it is good that they do, for without a vision, the people will surely perish.

Saints Francis and Fidelis were peacemakers. Saint Fidelis practiced the works of mercy to an heroic degree, comforting the afflicted, widows and orphans and prisoners and the sick during a plague at the risk of his own life. And he did in fact offer his life to tell the truth in defense of the Catholic faith, to instruct the ignorant! The works of mercy, corporal and spiritual, are the exact opposite of the works of war and they are, as Mahatma Gandhi taught, the obverse side of the coin of nonviolence. Come, take your part!

On Sunday, May 2nd, you are invited to join a rally at United Nations Plaza, from 4 to 6 p.m. The purpose of the rally is to call upon our government to pledge itself to a series of unilateral initiatives toward complete nuclear disarmament. It’s what our bishops and the Holy Father have called for. The peace tradition of the sons and daughters of Saint Francis is now the standard for the whole Catholic Church, at long last.

Thank you. Peace be with you!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Got Off the Bus!

3 Easter C #48

Acts 5, 27-32. 40-41
Ps 30
Rv 5, 11-14
Jn 21, 1-19

April 18, 2010
Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.

Deacon Tom Cornell

“We must obey God rather than men!” Peter spoke on behalf of all the apostles and for the whole Church. Peter’s successor, Pope Benedict, preached on this text last week, “We must obey God rather then men.” Benedict was talking about the totalitarian regimes of a past that young people do not remember, but that he does only too well, and we older people, Communist and Nazi-fascist dictatorships. The Pope spoke especially to the young about today’s tyranny, dictatorship, a dictatorship of conformity, “…conformity, in which everyone has to think the way everyone else thinks, to act the way everyone else acts.” Get out of the box, young people, get off the bus! It’s going nowhere, if not to Hell!

Pope Benedict spoke also of eternal life. Sometimes we hesitate to speak of eternal life in a culture so saturated with materialism. We need to speak the truth of the Resurrection to eternal life, the truth of spirit. You can bet your life on it. If death is the end, then life has no meaning at all, it is absurd: love, loyalty, sacrifice and honor are empty words, and if God exists, he is evil; all our joys and all our sufferings are for naught; life is a cruel joke, a mockery. Today’s Gospel reading teaches us exactly the opposite. Jesus Christ is risen! It is true!

John tells a touching, very human story of Jesus’ appearance by the seashore. He cooks them breakfast, bread and grilled fish. This is Jesus’ third appearance after his Resurrection. They took heart. Just a few days before they were frightened out of their wits. Now they are strong in faith, strong enough to speak the truth of Jesus to the power of the Sanhedrin. “We must obey God rather than men.”

In the early Christian era the Church had to teach barbarians to obey civil authority for the sake of peace. Today the Church must teach Christians the duty of civil disobedience, how to disobey responsibly, for the sake of peace, to obey God rather than men.

Christians are obliged to obey duly constituted authority justly exercised (Rom 13, 1-2). There’s no argument about that. But then we must ask: what constitutes legitimate authority, and how justly is it being exercised? The Church teaches in the Compendium of the Social Teachings of the Catholic Church: When Christians are called to cooperate in morally evil acts they must refuse…. It is a grave duty of conscience not to cooperate in practices which are contrary to the Law of God. Such cooperation can never be justified, not by invoking respect for the freedom of others nor by appealing to the fact that it is required by civil law” (#399).

Catholics understand this when it comes to abortion. A nursing student or a medical doctor in training must refuse to assist at an abortion, no matter what the pressure, no matter what the consequences. Once the principle is established, it can be applied to other crimes against life, like war and torture and capital punishment and unjust social and political structures as well. We must say “NO! We’re getting off the bus!”

Does that mean that individual Christians may make up their own minds about which laws we will obey and when? Should we not give our elected leaders the presumption of justice for the sake of peace and good order? Ordinarily, yes, but, this is where conscience comes in. In the depths of our hearts God speaks to us. Go there! Listen! Don’t be afraid!

When the time draws near that nonviolent civil disobedience becomes a threat to the common good, then we will reconsider the matter. But that is not the case today. Far from it! The problem today is quite the opposite. The problem today is blind obedience. The Nazi Army was overwhelmingly Christian, Roman Catholic and Lutheran, over 90 percent, the same with the death camp personnel. If there wasn’t a pastoral failure involved in that, then there is no such thing and we pastors and preachers and catechists and teachers are irrelevant. It’s all “pie in the sky.” If the Kingdom of God is not here and now it will never be then and there. This is not Nazi Germany, thank God. But the defense, “I was just obeying orders,” didn’t work at the Nuremburg war crimes trial and it won’t work today, either in the hospital surgery or the battlefield.

It’s not “pie in the sky,” it’s real. That’s what today’s Gospel reading teaches us. The Lord has risen, he has truly risen! In baptism we died with Christ, in baptism we rose with Christ. Death is not the end. This is the most important truth our faith teaches us, the central truth.

They were slow to believe: he had risen! Jesus’ teaching on the hills of Galilee was mostly about the Kingdom of God, so we can presume he was still at it as they did the dishes after breakfast by the seashore. It would all become clear with the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We are slow to believe too.

In baptism you and I were baptized into his death and into his resurrection. We were baptized into his messianic ministry also. We share Jesus’ priesthood, his role as prophet, his kingship, every one of us. The Messiah-Christ awaited by Israel is here, and we are incorporated into him. If we are in Christ, then it is ours to build the Kingdom of God here on earth. Can we do it, create the new heaven and the new earth that he has promised? As a matter of fact, no, we can’t! That's a delusion, a very dangerous delusion. But with faith, with his grace, we can accomplish more than we think. Christ when he comes again will establish the Kingdom. But we have our part to play. We can prepare the way.

The life we will live in eternity starts here and now, how we build the Kingdom, or not. We prepare the way when we learn to obey God rather than men, to say NO! to a culture steeped in brutality, stupidity and ugliness, hatred and fear – if you want to know what I mean just turn on the radio and listen to the music, or open the newspaper and read the review of the latest movie blockbuster, or listen to the incessant justification for crimes against humanity in the name of a “war on terror” – and speak Truth to Power, no matter what the price, no matter what the consequences, even as Peter and the Apostles did. And if we have to pay a price, rejoice and be glad like the apostles to have the chance to do penance for our own sins and for the sins of our country as we pray, “Thy kingdom come!” #

Monday, February 22, 2010

If You Are the Son of God....

1 Lent C #24

Dt 26, 4-10
Ps 91
Rom 10, 8-13
Lk 4, 1-13

February 21, 2010
St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.

Deacon Tom Cornell

When we meet Jesus this morning, he hasn’t yet started out on his ministry. He didn’t know what it was to be! He knew he had a special relationship to the Father from his early youth. When he was twelve years old or so and Mary and Joseph found him in the Temple they asked him, “Why have you done this to us?” His answer: “Didn’t you know that I must be about my Father’s business?”

From early youth Jesus’ mind was clear, his will tended only to the right and good. As he came to full maturity, about age thirty, he knew the time had come. He went to his cousin John to be baptized in the River Jordan. Coming up from the water he saw the heavens open and the Holy Spirit descend upon him in the form of a dove, and he heard a voice: “You are my beloved Son, on you my favor rests.”

Jesus knew then that he was on the right track leaving his mother and Joseph’s carpenter shop. But he still didn’t know just what he was supposed to do or how. That’s why he set out to the wilderness, to fast and to pray in the deep silence searching for clarity. Forty days: his Hebrews ancestors spent forty years in the desert seeking their way to the Promised Land; Moses fasted forty days before going up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments. So Jesus would fast for forty days to find his path. And that is where we find him today, in the wilderness.

Wilderness, by the way, is more than desert. Anyone who has been to Arizona or New Mexico, or has seen Arizona Highways in the dentist’s office knows that the desert can be beautiful with cactus and flowering plants, truly a “land of enchantment.” That’s not the Judaean desert! The Judaean wilderness is something else, burnt, the very stones burnt black, hardly a shred of vegetation, and deep silence. The stones look oddly like loaves of bread. Here Satan comes to him, to divert him. The first temptation:

“If you are the Son of God, turn these stones to bread!”

We have often begged just that, all of us. Prove yourself, Jesus! Why should I believe you if you don’t do what I want? It’s the broader problem of evil. If God is all good and all knowing and all just and all powerful, why do the innocent suffer for want of bread,for life's necessities? The rains are coming in Haiti. The suffering has just begun for the survivors: earthquake, then floods, water-born disease, rampant typhoid, diarrhea. The children will die first.

The First Psalm tells us that the just will stand like tress planted by the water, they shall not be moved, and that the wicked will be blown away like chaff. That is not our experience, not yours, not mine. The wicked do very nicely in this world, all too nicely, and often at the expense of the just, the innocent, the worker and the poor. What are we to make of it? Jesus had the power to turn those stones into loaves of bread to feed the world’s poor and hungry and he was tempted to do so but he did not. He could hold back the rains in Haiti. If he does, will men then believe that he is the Son of God? No, not really. Not if they don’t want to. Not unless it is given to them to want to. He answers:

“Not by bread alone does man live but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

Then a second temptation: the Devil showed him all the kingdoms of the world and said to him, “I will give you all this power and the glory of these kingdoms; the power has been given to me and I give it to anyone I choose.”

What is Satan saying here? That worldly power is his? He can give it to whomever he chooses? Satan is the Father of Lies, but when he claims to hold the powers of this world I tend to take him at his word. Obey legitimate authority rightly used. Yes, of course! We are to be good citizens. But when authority is illegitimate or when it is unjustly used to force people to do the wrong thing, to act against their conscience, to suppress workers’ rights for instance, to assist at abortions, we not only may but we must refuse. And when it comes to unjust wars…. What then? If in the past we had to teach barbarous people to obey civil authority for the sake of peace and the common good, in this day and age we have to teach them how to resist, for the sake of peace and the common good. Our first citizenship is the Kingdom of God. To God alone we owe ultimate obedience.

Jesus’ answer: “You must worship the Lord your God, and him alone shall you serve!”

From the Temple parapet, Satan tempts Jesus a third time: “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for Scripture says the angels will hold you up lest you strike your foot against a stone.”

Jesus’ answer: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

So, if not by dispelling the world’s hunger, if not by the power of government and the force of arms, if not by cheap tricks, how will Jesus set about his saving mission? By simply preaching repentance, that is a new heart and mind, and preaching the Kingdom of God; by doing good, forgiving and curing the sick one by one, and absorbing, not fighting against, but absorbing the hatred and anger this aroused in his own body. Finally, by forgiving on the Cross, he moved the centurion in charge of his execution to declare, “Truly, this man was the Son of God.” 

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Miracles Happen

2 Sunday C #66

Is 62, 1-5
Ps 96
1 Cor 12, 4-11
Jn 2, 1-12

Saint Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
January 17, 2010

Deacon Tom Cornell

Pray for the people of Haiti. And give what you can. They are a beautiful, a strong, a resilient people. Haiti was the first independent nation in Latin America, the only nation whose independence was gained through a successful slave rebellion, and there are some even now who can not forgive Haiti for that! Pact with the Devil indeed! Satan cuts better deals that that! Haiti is very poor, still its people are energetic and creative, artistic and musical. Before we moved up-River, our family lived in a tri-lingual parish in Brooklyn, St. Ignatius Loyola, in Crown Heights. The three languages were English, of course, Spanish for the Hispanics and French for the Haitians, and for unity celebrations we used Latin. Oh, how they sang, the Haitians, the Latin Gloria, the Latin Credo! It’s been over thirty years since we left Brooklyn. I recently ran into the priest who is in charge of ministry to Haitians for the Diocese of Brooklyn. I asked how are they doing, our old neighbors. They were so poor. Are they moving up the social and economic ladder? He assured me, yes, in one generation’s time almost all their kids are in college! My nephew, Joe Tomasiello, teaches fifth grade in Florida. Most of his students are children of Haitian immigrants. “What are they like?” I asked him. “They are a teacher’s dream,” he said, “respectful, curious, eager to learn, and their parents keep them that way.” These are a wonderful people, a Christian, a Catholic people. They are family. They deserve our help. The U.S. bishops are urging all the parishes nationwide to take up a special collection at Mass Saturday and Sunday for the quake victims. Give what you can.

Now to our Gospel reading. Miracles happen. They really do happen. I know it. I’ve experienced a few. The Number One miracle in my life is my wife Monica. Do you remember the song that Motel the Tailor sings in Fiddler on the Roof ? He has just won his bride, Tevya’s eldest daughter, and he compares this to the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea, “Wonder of Wonders, Miracle of Miracles,” he sings. That’s how I felt when Monica said yes to me, and I’ll bet there are more than a few men in this congregation today who know exactly what I mean. We never deserved them. They loved us anyway. Just like God. But there are other miracles too – the Catholic Worker is broke, it’s winter, there is no fuel in the tank to heat the women’s house. We picket St. Joseph, that is, we pray for his intercession as protector of families. Out of the blue a truck pulls up with a tank full of fuel oil, a gift! The kids need shoes. A check arrives in the mail, the exact amount needed to buy the shoes. And there are other stories, so many. Miracles of healing.

Today’s Gospel story is the miracle of the water turned to wine at the wedding feast at Cana. It’s reminiscent, in a way, of the story of the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Jesus fed five thousand men, and more women and children too, with five loaves of bread and two fish. Some scholars interpret that story as a moral miracle, not a physical miracle. They suggest that the real miracle wasn’t that Jesus took a few pieces of food that could reasonably be expected to feed four or five people and, by the power of God, stretched them to feed a thousand times as many with plenty left over. They say the miracle was that Jesus so softened the people’s hearts that when this meager food was passed around, one man took a piece of cheese out of a hidden pocket in his cloak and added it, then another man put some bread he had stashed away into the basket, and another, and another did the same until everyone was sharing what he had intended to keep only for himself. The people’s closed minds were opened and their hard hearts were softened by Jesus’ words and his loving presence. Isn’t that a more impressive miracle than a simple multiplication of loaves? Yes, I suppose so. But I’m not in a position to tell God what miracles he can or can not perform or how. Understand that story as you will, as long as it strengthens your faith in God and in his son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. I’m happy with the literal reading myself.

The story of the water turned to wine at Cana, that’s harder to put a symbolic, a moral meaning to. And it’s such a nice story. Jesus blesses married love. Marriage is an honorable state, so we are told in the wedding ceremony, ordained by God. It is more than honorable. It is divine! Read the Song of Songs in the Bible. Married love is a foretaste of heaven. Unless, of course, you have made the wrong choice. Then it can be something else altogether. This story tells us that Jesus wants people to be happy, to have a good time. That’s a lot of wine!

Do miracles really happen? Is it reasonable to suppose that God is going to tamper with the laws of nature, suspend laws that he himself decreed, for my convenience or Aunt Tilly’s? The whole point of the Old Testament, the overarching message of the Hebrew Bible is that God enters into history. God cares. He didn’t just set the universe in motion with the Big Bang and leave it at that, walk away, as it were. But if God cares so much, and if God is all powerful and merciful, then why do the innocent suffer? Why are children crushed under the rubble of their homes in Haiti? There is no satisfying answer. But it helps to know that God suffers too. In the fullness of time God sent his only begotten son into this world, not to suffer, that wasn’t the point, but to enter totally into our experience, and that means suffering. God suffers too, on a cross, in Haiti, in Marlboro.

But miracles! Why do they seem to happen to believers and not to non-believers? Well, the fact is they happen to non-believers too, whether they like it or not. God is not constrained. He doesn’t take orders. The sun takes a spin at Fatima, thousands see it, attest to it, although no astronomical observatory records the event. A spiritual force is set in motion that takes seventy years, but it brings down an empire. “How many legions does the Pope have?” asked Joseph Stalin. Now he knows! Bernadette’s spring still flows, with healing water. San Gennaro’s blood still liquefies. No one can explain it. Why don’t things like these happen to Unitarians? Don’t ask me! Some say it’s because Catholics are more gullible. These miracles are not essential to Catholic faith; you don’t have to accept them. Public revelation ended with the death of Saint John the Evangelist. If they don’t help you get closer to Jesus and his mother, then forget them. But I’ll stick with Bernadette and the children of Fatima and San Gennaro too.

Maybe miracles happen more often to people who believe they can happen than to people who insist they can not. I have seen the blind regain their sight, as with Robert McNamara, and I have seen the lame walk in Selma, Alabama, and prison doors fly open, and minds open and hearts soften.

Believe! 