The Cross: Absurdity or Power?

The title of this Holy Week post comes from First Corinthians. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that the Cross is a stumbling block for the Jews and a folly to the Gentiles.  While praying with the Scriptures, I paused over this idea.  What about for us in 2015?  Is the Cross an absurdity or a stumbling block for us?  I think it is, but not in the same way it was for Paul’s audience.

As Father Barron points out here, for Paul’s audience, the very image of the cross and the idea that it was holy or a sign of power was absolutely ludicrous.  We, by and large, have lost that shock.  We have become desensitized, if you will, to the Cross.  It is such a common symbol, we have forgotten how radical it is.  We refer to the Cross as a sign of victory!  Think of the hymn “Lift High the Cross” …  “Led on their way by this triumphant sign…”  Or the last verse, “So shall our song of triumph ever be / Praise to the Crucified for victory.”

What? Victory?  Triumph?

During the time of the Romans, the cross was so horrific that the Roman philosopher Cicero wouldn’t even describe it directly in his writing. The whole ordeal of crucifixion was meticulously planned by the Romans, who had perfected the process of execution.  They would place the crosses near city gates or along busy roads so that everyone would see the victims’ extreme pain and their long hours of agony. To those living under Roman rule, the cross was a sign of oppression, meant to discourage uprisings or disobedience. It was a sign of terror, of suffering, of humiliation.

And now that sign has been transformed — from a sign of brutality and oppression to a sign of victory and love.

Do we realize how radical the Cross is?

We forget the scandal of the Cross. We forget how shocking it is. And as a result, I think we forget the enormity of what He did for us.

So is the Cross is a stumbling block for us?  I don’t think it is in the same way it was for Paul’s audience.  The sight isn’t shocking. The symbol doesn’t remind us of oppression or horror.  The idea isn’t shocking anymore (although it should be).

You know what is the stumbling block for us?  The reality of it in our own lives.  When we come face to face with the Cross- with suffering, with emotional, psychological, or physical pain, with struggles that don’t make sense, with trials that don’t seem fair… that is our stumbling block.

“Why is there suffering in this life?”

It is the age-old question. And guess what?  I don’t think there is a satisfactory answer.

And that can either be a stumbling block, or we can embrace it as Simon of Cyrene did.

You know why I’ve come to believe that depicting Christ on the Cross — of having a crucifix with a corpus on it and not just an empty cross — is vital?  Because we never embrace a cross in our life without embracing Christ.  If we try to embrace the crosses in our life alone, we’ll never be able to survive.  But when we embrace the wood of the Cross, we embrace Christ. And He embraces us.  And that’s the only way suffering is possible.

Suffering is a mystery.  We can’t explain it.  It’s an absurdity.  But once you see it with the eyes of faith, even the struggle to embrace it becomes lighter.

CS Lewis said, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

And that is the only way I think the believer can wrap his mind around suffering. We can’t explain it, but once you see it with the eyes of faith, the absurdity makes sense.  In the light of the Cross, my suffering can be embraced.  …Maybe never fully understood, but embraced in spite of it.

The world thinks we are crazy. But we know the Cross is victory. We know suffering does ultimately have an answer – Jesus Christ.

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,
but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

I Cor 1:18

Glory 2014

I just finished a weekend of beautiful liturgies, new friendships, messages and music that ignited once again the embers of a passion for truth, beauty, and goodness.  I was one of the speakers for the annual Glory Conference, which brings together young adults for four days in Nashville, TN.

My talk was Saturday morning, so while I had blocked the whole weekend out on my calendar, I wasn’t really expecting to stay around all four days.  My plan was to check out the conference on Friday night to hear my friend Mike Aquilina, then come back for my talk Saturday morning, stay for Mass, and then play the rest of the weekend by ear.   I ended up spending the entire weekend there, soaking up the beauty.

As one of the speakers, I suppose I was the one who was expected to build the participants up, give them truth, energize and encourage them before everyone returned home to Wisconsin, Georgia, Michigan, Florida, Kentucky…   I hope I did that, but as is so often the case, the opposite happened too.  They energized me.  They reminded me of the hope of the New Evangelization, the joy of the Gospel, and the beauty of living this radically Catholic life.  I didn’t want the weekend to end- I didn’t want everyone to leave my city.  To witness their joy, their love, their excitement, their holiness… as I reluctantly waved goodbye this afternoon, I marveled at the gift the conference had been for me.  While the four days flew by, Friday also seems like a long time ago.  Holy joy does that – expands time as it expands your heart, so that minutes fly by but can feel like hours.

Thank you to everyone who made the experience possible.  See you next Memorial Day weekend!

My talk on Pope Benedict, Beauty, and the New Evangelization is posted on the audio page.  Enjoy!

Seeking Him

Pope Benedict pointed out something about the second chapter of Matthew that I had never considered.  Herod calls together the scribes and chief priests to find out where they were expecting the Messiah to be born.  After telling him, they do nothing.  We have no recorded account of the scholars going to worship the Christ Child.  Isn’t that rather odd?  They spent their lives reading the Scriptures, and then when something occurs that should spur them to action, they stay put.  It seems they aren’t even curious.

“That Herod would draw the obvious conclusion is understandable.  Yet it is remarkable that his Scripture experts do not feel prompted to take any practical steps as a result.  Does this, perhaps, furnish us with the image of a theology that exhausts itself in academic disputes?” (Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 105)

One of the talks I’ve given as part of a women’s retreat is the importance of embracing the “intellectual apostolate,” especially given the times in which we’re living.  There is a dire need for a well-instructed laity, equipped to speak to friends and family about the Truth. We aren’t all called to dwell in the academies, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t all called to feed our minds beyond our eighth-grade education in the Faith.

But these scribes and priests should be reminders to those of us who do dwell in the academies. We seek the Truth – not just in books, but in the streets as well. Truth exists in the Word, but it also exists in the flesh. If we, as academics, aren’t on our knees in front of the Blessed Sacrament, if we aren’t in the streets preaching the Gospel, our academic pursuits are futile.

He makes Himself a Child

When searching for seeds for meditation, I generally turn towards the writings of Pope Benedict.  If I was stuck on a desert island, I would only need my Bible and a copy of Jesus of Nazareth and every day I’d have a new understanding.

So his writings were the first place I turned when I was asked to speak to a prolife group.  As I prepare my talk for January, I began praying over this portion of his homily from Midnight Mass in 2006.

God’s sign is simplicity. God’s sign is the baby.
God’s sign is that He makes Himself small for us.
This is how He reigns. He does not come with power and outward splendor.
He comes as a baby – defenseless and in need of our help.
He asks for our love: so He makes Himself a child.
He wants nothing other from us than our love.
God made Himself small so that we could understand Him, welcome Him, and love Him.

Pope Benedict XVI

I could sit and think about that quote for hours, and my thoughts jumped all over at first.  First to the sign – God’s sign – promised to us by the prophet Isaiah- “the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)  Then to the idea of simplicity, then to vulnerability. He makes Himself small for us; He gives Himself into our hands.  God makes Himself so vulnerable — first, as a human that we could kill, then coming to us under the appearance of bread that we could ignore, or, at worst, desecrate.

But as comfortable as these thoughts made me feel at first — how warm and fuzzy to think of Jesus coming to us as a baby so that we would welcome Him, love Him… I began to feel uncomfortable.  But we don’t welcome Him.  After all, everyone knows there was no room for Him in the inn…

In the third part of his work Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict points out that the verse refers more to the world than to any particular innkeeper.  Rather than focus on the innkeepers, perhaps we need to look within.  “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.”  (Jn 1:11)

But what really struck me is that if He came as a baby so we could welcome Him… what about when our world doesn’t welcome babies?  Our government persecutes them and our society seems threatened by them.  This is nothing new — read Matthew 2:16.  Being threatened by a baby?  There’s no wonder this child was not only a sign for Ahaz in Isaiah but was also a sign of contradiction (Luke 2:34).

Threatened by a baby?  Our world is threatened too … Not by the baby, but by what the baby brings… suffering… the Cross…

The Christ Child brought the Cross — that is why He was born.

And that’s why we rejected Him.  Because He came and brought suffering.  The Prince of Peace brings suffering, the Lord of Light comes in the darkness.

And really, when we really stop to think about it … every baby brings the Cross.  Every baby brings suffering — not just the physical suffering of pregnancy and childbirth, but the suffering of being stretched as you lose your selfishness in fatherhood and motherhood.  The suffering that comes when you begin to live not for yourself, but for another.  And that’s why our society fears them.  Babies mean selflessness.  Babies mean being stretched beyond your imagination.  Babies mean sacrifice.

But where there is the greatest Cross, there is the greatest Love.

The Christ Child came to bring the Cross… but He also came to bring us Love.

The Art of Waiting

Tonight is our monthly Theology on Tap gathering.  I’m in charge of getting the speakers, so I suppose it looks like a cop-out tonight when the speaker is me.

To my defense, people have asked me in the past if I would speak sometime, but it always seemed a little strange for me to speak when I’m supposed to be hosting it.  What am I going do tonight — introduce myself?  I guess so.

But the reason I’m speaking is not because I was too lazy to get a speaker – it’s because the topic I wanted addressed is something that’s been on my heart a lot lately, and when I thought about who I might ask to speak about it, I decided I should just do it.  It would give me a chance to think about it more, and it would ensure what I wanted said would be said!

The topic is the Art of Waiting, a phrase stolen from this book of talks by Mother Mary Francis.

When I told people the name of the talk, people would often ask me, “Waiting?  For what?”  That itself was fruit for meditation.  Aren’t we all waiting for something?  Most of my audience tonight is in the in between stage of their life — many of them have graduated from college or are in graduate school and are discerning their next step.  They may have jobs but are not in serious relationships, or they may be in serious relationships but unsure of marriage.  So we can find ourselves in this period of waiting … waiting for the next step, for the next thing, for what comes next.

But even those not in this in between stage are still waiting for something.  We spend our whole lives waiting.  We wait to get married and then we wait for children and then we wait for those children to leave us alone and give us some peace and quiet.  We say we’ll be happy when we’re married, then we say we’ll be happy when we have kids.  We say we’ll be happy when we discern our vocation, and then we say we’ll be happy when we make final vows.

If we aren’t happy waiting… we ain’t going to be happy.  Because ultimately, the only time in our life we won’t be waiting for something is after we die and go to Heaven.  Then we’ll be perfectly happy.

So really, we’re all waiting to die.  But no one really thinks about that.

Tonight’s talk is gong to tackle a few things:

-The two extremes of waiting: 1) those who never wait [Christmas without Advent, instant gratification] and 2) those who always wait [people who are afraid to take the next step, who’d rather perpetually discern rather than take a leap of faith]

-What we do while we wait

-The remedy Jesus Christ gives us while we wait – also known as the “pledge of future glory” …

So if you’re in the area, come by Corner Pub tonight, buy me a beer, and hear it for yourself.  If you’re not in the area, well, invite me to speak to your Theology on Tap group sometime … because I know there are lots of Catholic young adults out there in the same predicament.

In the meantime, I have Mumford and Sons on repeat.  Which song?  Oh, you know.

Theology of Woman

Pope Francis has quickly established himself as a good story.  The press have been eating him up since day one, ironically even while he says things shockingly similar to his predecessor.

Like his predecessor, however, Pope Francis is often misquoted or misinterpreted.  Other times, the real “money quotes” are neglected for the sake of phrases that might make a better headline.

Case in point: his lengthy off-the-cuff exchange with reporters on the way back from WYD in Brazil quickly became the interview where he apparently condoned homosexual acts.

Of course, he did nothing of the sort.  And something that got lost and ignored in the aftermath was his comment about women.

“I think we must go further in making the role and charism of women more explicit … I think we have not yet made a profound theology of woman in the Church.”

A theology of woman.  Beautiful groundwork has been laid for it (John Paul II, of course, but also the oft-forgotten address of Paul VI to close the Second Vatican Council), but Pope Francis seems to be calling us to something even deeper.

The modern feminist movement has tried to ignore, push away, the differences between men and women.  Our fertility is terribly inconvenient, so it must be our right to eliminate that fertility so that we can be equal to men.  But in doing so, they squash the gift of God that gives us our dignity as women.  We have an intellect and will, we are made in the image and likeness of God, we are equal to men, we have dignity as a human person.  But we alone have the ability to nurture man before he even breathes air.

“Many things can change and have changed in cultural and social evolution, but the fact remains that it is woman who conceives, carries and delivers the children of men. And this is not merely a biological fact; it entails a wealth of implications both for woman herself, her way of being, and for her relationships, her relation to human life and to life in general. In calling woman to motherhood, God entrusted the human being to her in an entirely special way.” (Pope Francis, on the 25th Anniversary of Mulieris Dignitatem)

On the plane, after speaking about this need for a theology of woman, the Holy Father was pressed again on female ordination.  He said again, “I would like to explain a bit more what I said about women’s participation in the Church.  It can’t just be about their acting as altar servers, heads of Caritas, catechists… No!  They have to be more, profoundly more, even mystically more, along with everything I said about the theology of womanhood.”  He repeated the position of the Church that there could not be female priests, then repeated, “Our Lady, Mary, was more important than the Apostles, than bishops and deacons and priests.  Women, in the Church, are more important than bishops and priests; how, this is something we have to try to explain better, because I believe that we lack a theological explanation of this.”

I believe the Holy Father is asking us to stop looking at what we aren’t and to start looking at what we are.  We will never be priests because we will never be men.  He is asking us to go deeper – stop wanting a role in the Church you cannot have, because there is a much greater role that you can have.

Our society wants to look at the surface of things and ask “why not?”  The Pope wants to go deeper and discuss what is at the heart of the issues.  Why can’t women be priests? Why can’t divorced and remarried people receive communion?

The Holy Father wants to re-steer these conversations — not to avoid them, but to better understand them.  Rather than wasting time on the exterior of the issues, let’s go to the root of things.  Let’s talk about the theology of woman.  Let’s talk about marriage.  Even when asked about a recent possible scandal and the “gay lobby” in the Vatican — he steered the conversation to the “theology of sin” and the difference between a homosexual tendency and homosexual acts.

But our modern society doesn’t seem to have time for distinctions and roots– we like generalizations and exteriors.

Pope Francis seems to be setting the stage for these discussions — getting to the root of things — in the upcoming synod on family life.  While not mentioned explicitly in the preparatory document as it stands right now, it seems a good platform to begin delving into this theology of woman, since no woman exists without a family and woman, at her root, is daughter and mother.

As we emphasize the role of woman, we cannot lose sight of the role of man, for if we do, any ground gained would soon be lost.  Man and woman are partners, helpmates.  We do not exist in a vacuum.  It does not help women to gain rights if men lose sight of their own dignity, for we will always be subjugated if men are not fitting fathers and husbands.