Thursday of the 23rd week in ordinary time

But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol’s temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. (1 Corinthians 8:9-12 NASB)
For a long time I have wanted to add to the preferential option for the poor a similar divine concern for the broken-hearted. “The Lord is near to the broken hearted, and saves all those who are crushed in spirit,” writes the psalmist. And likewise also the weary (Isaiah 40:31 and Matthew 11:28, for example), and children, and outcasts… So in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians today, I was drawn to the emphasis on the weaker brothers and sisters in Christ. These are (like us) those for whom Christ died. Not only that, but these brothers and sisters are “the least” to which Christ refers and with whom he identifies: whatever we do them, we do to Christ himself.
Passages like this always call to my mind people with intellectual disabilities. This is in part because I have a daughter with Down Syndrome, and I realized long ago that I was no closer to God because I knew some theology that she doesn’t. And it is in part because of the general disregard for people with such disabilities in contemporary culture. Last month, Richard Dawkins suggested that it is immoral to allow a baby with Down Syndrome to be born. (This infuriates and saddens me, but I won’t dwell on it here.) What we do to those with intellectual disabilities–who might very well fall into the category of “lacking knowledge” in Paul’s letter–we do to Christ himself.
The whole orientation of our Christian practice ought to favor the weak, the downtrodden, the poor, the refugee, the mentally disabled–those for who Christ died. I know I often forget that–I think about writing my books and get caught up in the stresses and strains of my daily life. I forget that in my daughter, in my children, in all those around me who most need Christ’s care, strength, and protection, I have not just those for whom Christ died, but Christ himself.
Deo gratias.

Good Friday

Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.
                          (Isaiah 53: 4)
…my kingship is not from this world.
                           (John 18.36)
Abba Hyperichus said, “The watchful monk works night and day to pray continually: but if his heart is broken and lets tears flow, that calls God down from heaven to have mercy.”
*            *           *
That’s what today is about: he has “carried our sorrows.”  On the cross, Jesus takes on all the sorrows of the fallen creation, of fallen human creatures. And Mark’s gospel records Jesus’ call from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” So cries the broken heart for the God who alone can heal. But Jesus’ broken heart calls God down from heaven to have mercy on us all. His heart is the one heart that can break for the whole world and so heal the whole world.
When we are broken hearted over our own sins, when we feel that grief, we participate in Jesus’ grief on the cross: he took our sorrows, our grief, and now we only experience it properly as we participate in him. 

Tuesday of the 29th week in ordinary time / Blessed John Paul II

You do not ask for sacrifice and offerings,
     but an open ear.
You do not ask for holocaust and victim.
     Instead, here am I.

                                             Psalm 39 [40]: 7

.        .       .

‘Instead, here am I.’

Just letting that sink in… I often find it quite easy to get caught up in the complicated and flashy things I think I ought to do as a Christian theologian. You know, books and articles I ought to write, and the spiritual and mental toughness I ought to develop in order to be the person who can write books and articles, and give lectures, and still remain as humble as St Benedict says I should be.

Yeah, right. There is something completely naked and vulnerable about that statement: ‘here am I.’ Just me, nothing fancy. No extravagant sacrifice, no spectacular holocaust, just the handmaid of the Lord. I always liked the spectacular holocaust: Elijah vs the prophets of Ba’al (I Kings 18) has always been one of my favorite Bible stories, since I was a child. It’s like fireworks from heaven, and the good guy wins in a show of light and power. But that’s not what it is about at all. It is about the open ear that the Psalmist identifies as the real sacrifice, the real offering to God. God requires of us nothing more and nothing less than our attention, wholly fixed on him.

The bit about Elijah’s showdown with the prophets of Ba’al in I Kings 18 that my mother didn’t relate to me when I was little, is the part where the prophets of Ba’al entreat their god, who doesn’t seem to be listening. “So they cried with a loud voice and cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances until the blood gushed out on them” (18: 28). Not only do they harm themselves in their endeavor to get Ba’al to respond to them, but they do so in vain. There is no response. Elijah, on the other hand, calls on God to answer, “that this people [Israel] may know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you have turned their heart back again’ (18: 37). The return of God’s people originates with God: God responds with fire to demonstrate that he has already rekindled the hearts of his people. It is not what the people do to get God’s attention that is the heart of the drama, but what God does to get their attention, to get our attention.

When I present myself, fragile and fallen as I am, God does not ask for my blood. When I come before God having done the wrong thing, or the right thing for the wrong reasons, or having done nothing when I ought to have acted, God doesn’t ask for my blood. God has already acted; it is only by the Spirit’s encouragement that I return at all. When I say “here am I,” it is because God has called me first, and even as I ask for forgiveness and the strength to walk in it, I do so because that grace has already been extended to me. That grace alone makes me the handmaid of the Lord, ready to do his will.

God does ask for my life, to be sure, but that is only so that he can give it back to me, in abundance. And then when I say the “I” in “here am I,” it is no longer I who live and speak, but Christ who lives and speaks in me, giving my life as he gave his, to the Father for the sake of the world’s salvation.

And that is an extravagant gift indeed.

Deo gratias.