Sunday, August 13, 2017

Riding the Waves

 Ninteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time   A 
Yesterday was the seventeenth anniversary of my ordination as a priest.  In gratitude for my vocation, I offered Mass in our little rectory chapel.  I was getting things set up when I noticed that the sanctuary candle was getting pretty low.  As I reached the Offertory of the Mass, it appeared that the candle had gone out.  Making a mental note to replace it when I’d finished, I noticed the red glass beginning to glow again: the flame had returned, and was now rather bright.  Then it shrank down again to almost nothing.  This pattern of rise and fall continued through the rest of Mass, until the candle finally burned out for good as I said a few prayers of thanksgiving afterward.


I don’t believe that what I witnessed was anything miraculous—in fact, I’m quite sure it was entirely due to natural causes.  But I’m also quite sure it was meant as a message: a metaphor for my life and ministry as a priest these last seventeen years.  It’s certainly had its ups and downs: times when the light of Christ has burned brightly, seen by me and through me; times when the light’s been dim, and fears arise that it’s going out…but (praise God!) it never does.

This came together for me with this Sunday’s gospel story of Peter walking with Jesus on the water.  The stories about St. Peter are quite comforting not only to us priests, but to all followers of Jesus, because he’s so much like the rest of us.  (You could say we’re all in the same boat.)  One of the Lord’s first priests and our first Pope had many shining moments where he clearly “gets it,” but also times when he falls—even falls hard.  And yet Jesus, though he must correct him, never gives up on Peter—and likewise, Peter never gives up on Jesus.

Did you notice in our gospel reading what precisely caused Peter to slip beneath the water?  It was “when he saw how strong the wind was….”  If Peter’s eyes were on the storm, if he was looking at the waves, what couldn’t he see?  Peter had stopped looking at Jesus.  It’s only when he takes his eyes off of the Lord that things start to fall apart.  Isn’t that always the case?  I know it is for me!  When Jesus is no longer the very center of my attention, when I get distracted or discouraged or doubting—whether due to a challenging situation that I must face or my own weakness and sin—that’s when the flame burns low, that’s when I start going under.  But experience has also taught me that when I do keep Jesus in sight, when he remains at the heart of who I am and whatever I’m doing, then no gust of wind can blow out the fire, no swell of the waves drag me down.

My home church in Plattsburgh, where I celebrated my first Mass seventeen years ago today, is named for St. Peter.  And in the sanctuary, right next to the altar, is a larger than life mural of the scene from this Sunday’s gospel.  Peter is half submerged, wild-eyed and windswept, with his boat rocking behind him.  His muscular arms are reaching up for help: his own strength cannot save him now.  And walking toward him is Jesus—cool as a cucumber, with peace in his eyes and not a hair out of place.  (Have you ever noticed that?  How, regardless of what he’s doing, Jesus is always pictured with perfect hair?)


Maybe as I offered my first Mass I should have paid a bit more attention to the painting over my left shoulder.  But at least I can now recognize what the Lord is saying through that piece of art, placed so close to the altar and the tabernacle.  At Mass I, as a priest, experience something so similar to Peter on the sea: something far beyond the abilities of my human nature takes place only because of divine grace as, in my hands, bread and wine become the very Body and Blood of Christ.  Is that not the meaning of the red sanctuary candle?  That God is here with us, and remains with us always?  And through all the circumstances of life?  Its light repeats to us the words of Jesus: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”  When times get tough, we—like Peter—say to ourselves, “I can’t do this!”  But if we’re listening carefully through the wind and the waves, we can hear Jesus whispering, “You’re absolutely right: you cannot do this…by yourself, anyway.  But I can do it.  And together, we will do it.”  Even if he doesn’t calm the raging storm, Jesus remains right there to walk us straight through, unharmed.

And so I ask you to pray for me, and to pray for all priests, that we will remain faithful: that we’ll rise a whole lot more than we fall.  And pray, too, for vocations to the priesthood, that the People of God will never be left wanting for the Eucharist, which is the real presence of God in our midst: the strong Savior who is always ready to quiet our fears, to rekindle our faith, and to lift us up.
   

Sunday, August 6, 2017

So Beautiful

   Transfiguration of the Lord   

We had our annual parish picnic on the first Friday of July, and it was followed—as we hold on the first Friday of every month—by “Hearts on Fire”: a holy hour of Eucharistic adoration with praise and worship music.  A couple from the parish brought with them their two young grandsons—I’m going to guess about 7- and 9-years-old.  The boys ate heartily and ran around with the other kids, playing games in the yard between the raindrops. 

I was then quite pleasantly surprised to then see these grandparents bringing the boys in for the holy hour.  Now, I would have guessed (and the grandparents may have hoped) that, with full stomachs at the end of an active evening, the boys would have sat still for about 10 minutes and then, in the half-lit church, fallen fast asleep.  But that was not at all the case.  Instead, those boys remained wide-awake through the entire hour, and they took it all in: staring at the gleaming gold of the monstrance and the flickering of the candles; following every move of the servers and the flowing robes of the priest; smelling the incense and watching its smoke gently rise; listening to the voices, keyboard, and guitar that made such sweet music in praise of the Lord.

When it was over, the grandmother asked the boys what they thought.  The younger of the two said, “It made me want to cry.”  Surprised, she asked why he had said that.  His response: “Because it was so beautiful.”


The ancient philosophers identified truth, goodness, and beauty as three essential attributes of being—three timeless, transcendental properties that are part of the very nature of things and reflect their divine origin.  The Christian tradition easily recognized that these correspond to the natural desires of man as God made him: with a mind that seeks after truth, and a heart that delights in goodness, and a soul that wonders at beauty.  Even more, we followers of Jesus recognize God himself as the One who is Truth and Goodness and Beauty itself, making the presence of these properties in creation as the fingerprints of the Creator.

Beauty, then, is so much more than a matter of personal taste, more than “in the eye (or ear) of the beholder.”   Beauty reveals the inner radiance of a thing, and attracts us to it.

Beauty is not, however, at the top of our list in this utilitarian age.  We most prize things that are useful, practical, efficient, and valuable—in the sense of monetary value, that is.  Beauty is none of those.  In fact, when we try to put a price on beauty, it only serves to cheapen it.

One could easily say that this Sunday’s feast of the Lord’s transfiguration is a feast of beauty.  Jesus takes three of his Apostles to the top of a mountain—a place to which one hikes, not because it’s convenient, but because of the view; it’s a place of great natural beauty.  And there, Jesus’ own inner radiance—his divine nature—comes shining through: a vision that those who witnessed it struggle to describe in terms of light and glory.  A luminous cloud envelops the scene, and the majestic voice of the Father is heard.  Peter, James, and John are surrounded by previously unimaginable splendor.  Overcome by the beauty of it all, it’s Peter who says, “It’s so good, Lord, that we are here!”  If he’d had a Smartphone, this is when he’d have made a short video to post on YouTube, or maybe taken a selfie with a glowing Jesus behind him.  Not having the technology in hand, Peter proposed to set up three tents that he might capture and preserve this most beautiful moment.


We don’t have much trouble recognizing the essential place of truth in the Christian faith.  One quickly recognizes the teaching of the Jesus as amazingly reasonable, and the great wisdom behind the accumulated teaching of the Church.  Likewise, the place of goodness is pretty clear.  How else could one describe the deeds of this man who healed the sick, forgave the sinner, showed compassion to the outcast, and spoke on behalf of the vulnerable—and whose disciples continue to do the same—besides eminently “good”?  But we must resist the temptation to reduce the faith to a body of true knowledge to be studied or to a motivation for doing good deeds.

Beauty is also essential to our Christian faith—particularly, it is essential to Christian worship.  There’s a great temptation these days to streamline the liturgy or cut corners when building churches.  “Can’t we use the short form?  Do we have to sing all the verses?  Are stained glass and marble really necessary?”  But Christian worship, by its nature, is not at all practical or efficient.  In fact, the hour spent at Sunday Mass is likely the most “useless” of the entire week.  What do you have to show for it?  (Other than the bulletin you leave in the car, of course!)  It produces nothing.  In the eyes of the world, it is a waste of time—but its very wastefulness is what makes it a sacrifice of praise.

And that’s precisely where beauty fits in.  It, too, is useless…but also of the highest value.  And that’s why the sacred vessels on our altars don’t look like the dishes on our kitchen tables.  That’s why the music at Mass doesn’t sound like the music you hear in your car or on your iPod.  That’s why the words spoken here don’t sound like the words spoken on the street.  That’s why liturgical vestments don’t look like the clothes we wear everyday.  The articles and actions of the Mass should be marked by an uncommon beauty.  Now, beauty doesn’t require that things be fancy or expensive; often, the most beautiful things are also rather simple.  But beauty does require a certain nobility and order.  Beauty is fitting to everything we do and everything we use for worship because—like truth, like goodness—it is one of the radiant fingerprints of God.

This is true not only of worship, but in the beauty we encounter in nature and the arts.  In the sounds of music, whether in a great symphony hall or down at the country fair; in the bright hues of a sunset, or the brushstrokes of a painting; in the graceful lines of a classic car, or the familiar lines of your beloved’s face—all real beauty is a ray from the face of Jesus Christ that can and should provoke wonder in us.

The great Russian novelist Dostoyevsky once wrote, “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live….”  Elsewhere, he took it even further by writing, “Beauty will save the world.”

So be on the lookout for beauty, and work to spread it around, aware that it’s a glimmer here and now of the beautiful face we hope to behold for all eternity.  Allow beauty to stir your soul—and maybe even bring a tear to your eye.