Sunday Reflection - Prophetic witness in the marketplace

Should the Church get involved in politics?  Many people say, “No way.”  “Religion and politics don’t mix.”  Others disagree.  A religion, they say, that is unwilling to leave the four walls of the church and go out into the public square is irrelevant to real life.  Whenever fundamental moral issues are at stake, these people maintain, the Church must get involved.  Otherwise the Church risks being untrue to its Lord and his message.

          But which political issues actually do involve moral issues important enough to justify the Church’s involvement?  Is capital punishment such an issue?  What about the decision of our government to arrest, detain and separate immigrant families from their children who attempt to cross our borders illegally?   Pope Francis is opposed to both.  So are the American bishops.  What about issues that touch upon the nitty gritty and often contentious area of tax reform? While the common good of any nation is often dependent on its ability to provide for its citizens through income derived from taxation, the intricacies of various plans allow for legitimate differences among people of good will.  Hence, I would be extremely suspect of anyone, let alone a Bishop in the Church, who might state, “This is THE Catholic approach to tax reform!”  While it is the Church’s role to articulate general moral principles that speak of a nation’s responsibility to insure the common good, it is left to knowledgeable elected officials,  economists and experts in taxation, to work out the specifics of a fair and equitable taxation policy for a nation.

          Our first reading today introduces a religious figure who was severely condemned for involvement in politics.  Like his countryman, Jesus, centuries later, Amos was a layman with no professional training for religious office.  “I was no prophet nor have I belonged to the company of prophets,” Amos told the priest in charge of the sanctuary at Bethel.  God called Amos while he was still a shepherd and farmer, and commanded him: “Go, prophesy to my people Israel.”

          God gave Amos no crystal ball to predict the future.  That is not the prophet’s task.  Instead Amos, like all true prophets, was summoned to speak “a word of the Lord” to the people of his day: to warn, to admonish, to rebuke, and to encourage.  As a simple countryman, living close to nature, Amos was scandalized by his glimpses of city life during his visits to market.  He records what he saw there: wealthy, callous plutocrats, overfed and over-housed, spending their time thinking up new ways to amuse and enrich themselves.  Meanwhile poor peasants like Amos, burdened with debt, could be sold into slavery for the price of a pair of sandals.           

         Amos saw this glaring social injustice compounded at the religious sanctuaries.  There he found prosperous worshipers rejoicing in their good fortune, which they interpreted as proof of God’s favor.  To this rotten and decaying society, the official prophets and priests had nothing to say but what a later prophet, Isaiah, would call “smooth words and seductive visions” (Is. 30:10) — rather like certain religious speakers at prayer breakfasts of political and business leaders today.         

         Without mincing his words, Amos pronounced his society ripe for God’s judgment.  Here is a sample of his message: “Hear this, you who trample upon the needy ... ‘When will the new moon be over,’ you ask, ‘that we may sell our grain? ...We will fix our scales for cheating!  We will buy the poor man for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!’  The Lord has sworn ... Never will I forget a thing they have done! ... I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation.”  (Amos 8:4-10)  Those are strong words.  No wonder that the priest, Amaziah, roundly condemned Amos for this unwelcome message, and for daring to speak at all in a place of religious pilgrimage without permission.  With the contempt of the religious functionary for the upstart outsider Amaziah tells Amos: “Off with you, visionary ... Never again prophesy in Bethel; for it is the king’s sanctuary and a royal temple.”          

         In the gospel we heard Jesus telling his disciples they would face similar rejection, and how to behave when they did: “Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.”  Rejection was sure to come because of the message Jesus gave them.  “They went off,” the gospel says, “and preached repentance.”  Repentance is never a popular message.  In the Bible, the word means more than regret for past actions which we see, by hindsight, were wrong.  Repentance means a fundamental change of direction.  It means turning around from self to God.  Repentance means putting God at the center of life rather than somewhere out on the fringe.         

         If Amos were to come back today, what are some of the things he would denounce in our society and tell us we needed to repent of?  Here is a short list.         

         One which was often mentioned by our late Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, is consumerism.  This is the false idea that we can buy happiness by amassing more and more possessions.  A whole industry exists to promote this idea: advertising.  Advertising which tells us where we can get things we need, at prices we can afford, is useful.  But advertising designed to kindle desire for things we never knew we needed until we saw the ad is questionable at least.                   

         Something else which cries out for repentance is hedonism: the mindless philosophy that says, “If it feels good, do it.”  Hedonism wrecks lives, relationships, and marriages, every day.  

          We need to repent also of the hard-hearted selfishness which ignores the needs of the poor and oppressed in our midst; or which thinks that our obligation to them can be discharged by gifts to charity from our surplus goods, with no examination of unjust conditions in society that cause poverty and oppression.          

         We need to repent too of an over-spiritualized religion which is concerned only with saying prayers and getting into heaven; and which ignores the challenge which Jesus gave us in his model prayer: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Those words challenge us to build colonies of heaven here on earth — by living not just for ourselves, but for God and for others.           

         That is a short though incomplete list of the demons mentioned at the end of our gospel reading against which Jesus sends us today.  Demons so powerful, and so pervasive, can be driven out by one thing alone: repentance.  And the repentance to which Jesus summons us is not somewhere else, tomorrow.  It is here, and it is now.  And repentance begins not with someone else.  If it is to begin at all, repentance must begin with ourselves.


Sunday Reflection - Do not be afraid, just have faith!

“Do not be afraid, just have faith!”  Jesus speaks these words of reassurance in today’s Gospel to the synagogue official who rushes up to the Master because his little daughter who was gravely ill has now died.  It is difficult to imagine the thoughts and feelings that might go through the mind and heart of a parent on hearing the death of their son or daughter. Whether that moment may have come as a result of some devastating childhood illness or a tragic and unexpected accident, there is probably no more painful and traumatic human experience than to face the death of one’s child.  For the skeptical and cynical of this world, it might be easy to conclude that these words of Jesus were perhaps a “throw away line” from the famous rabbi.  But for those who were willing to break out of the hard-hearted skepticism that can so easily imprison one into a world of meaninglessness, these words opened a new door of hope for this synagogue official and his family.  That hope would not, of course, leave him disappointed. With the divine touch of the Master, Jesus would raise the little girl from her sleep of death and return her to her grateful parents.

“Do not be afraid, just have faith.”  My friends, the Lord continues to speak those words to us in the midst of whatever challenges, disappointments, frustrations and tragedies we may have to face in life’s journey.  Few of us, perhaps, will taste the bitterness of the death of a child, but all of us at some moment will be confronted with the inevitable tragedies that life will bring.  While we would all like to think that our life will be freed from the tensions and tragedies that so many endure, in our heart of hearts, we know that it is only a matter of time when we experience the inevitable loss of a loved one, the bitterness of personal failure, the darkness that wrestling with a deep seated sin or habit will plunge us into. In the midst of these challenges, it is the Lord who again speaks his words of promise, “Do not be afraid, just have faith.”

That faith, however, is not a mindless pie in the sky wishful thinking but rather a conviction that is grounded in the fact that we never live that faith alone.  As Christians, faith is always a shared reality, a profound realization that we are indeed our brother’s and our sister’s keeper.  Having faith means that we need not face the uncertain future alone. Our sisters and brothers who are indeed the Body of Christ companion us, strengthen us and give us hope as together we face whatever the future may bring.

One of the most dramatic examples of this reality has been the impact that one of the most transforming movements of the 20thcentury has had in providing hope and new beginnings for countless men and women caught in the personal crisis of addiction.  It has been said that Alcoholics Anonymous and the many 12-step groups that it has engendered, may go down as one of the most personally transforming movements of the last century.  A pivotal key to its genius is, quite simply, sisters and brothers coming together to support in radical honesty an individual’s desire to maintain sobriety. Through the compassion, mercy as well as tough-love of the supportive group, radical honesty is maintained and sobriety can be lived, one day at a time.  The group, indeed, becomes companions of wounded healers that open the doors for new beginnings and hope where such life-giving realities seemed impossible.

As a new week opens before us with its inevitable blessings as well as challenges, let us strive to embrace the trust and faith in the one who can, indeed, banish all fear from our lives with his unfailing love.

The Easter Proclamation - The Exsultet

The quintessential chant of the Paschal Triduum is, without a doubt, the great hymn of exultant praise, the Exsultet or, more properly, the Praeconium Paschale, that is sung at the beginning of the Great Vigil of Easter.  Liturgical scholars date this ancient hymn in praise of the Risen Lord to as early as the 5th century.  The ancient Sacramentaries of the Church, or books containing the liturgical texts for the Mass, give witness to its universal presence in the Vigil liturgy by the 7th century.

This melismatic (elaborate) chant is most properly sung by the deacon of the liturgy.  If a deacon is not present, or his musical skill may not be up to the task of singing this challenging piece of music, it may be sung by a priest or even a layperson – so important is its sung form in the Vigil liturgy.  It would be absolutely abhorrent for it to ever be recited!

In 1973 as a Deacon, I first chanted the Exsultet when I was assigned as a weekend Deacon in my 4th year at St. John’s Seminary to St. Margaret Mary parish in Lomita.  The pastor had a deep appreciation for Church music and chant and asked me if I wouldn’t mind chanting this ancient text in its original Latin form.  I gladly obliged.  It was an unforgettable experience that has remained with me as a grateful memory these 45 years.  In the course of my active ministry, I was blessed to chant this Easter praise for nearly every year of my priesthood, until my singing voice ‘gave up its ghost’ several years ago!

There is an ancient maxim in our liturgical lexicon that I have made reference to in previous posts, that is, the law of prayer shapes what it is we believe – (Lex orandi statuit legem credendi).  And so, for the faithful Christian, the true meaning of Easter – what it is we believe about the Resurrection of Christ – is encapsulated in the text of this marvelous and stunning chant.

While the present English version of this chant that was incorporated into the revised, 2011, translation of the Roman Missal, is one of the more successful efforts at what is generally a literal and less than poetic translation of the original Latin text, the following, is the ICEL translation from the Missal that was completed in 1998 but, sadly, never saw the light of day.  In my humble opinion, it captures the vibrancy and depth of meaning of this ancient proclamation of Easter Praise. 

For those who might be fascinated by this topic, I present two video renditions of the Latin chant.  The first, seen at the beginning of this post, is a beautiful, rather straight forward rendition that was done at the Papal Easter Vigil some years ago. The Deacon chants it with precision and in the traditional fashion.  The second, that concludes this post, was done at the Abbey of Fontfroide in France.  It is done by a priest who chants it with an emotion and intensity (with some emotional chant liberties! – I think he’s a Spaniard!) that befits the beauty and meaning of the text.

Here follows the ICEL 1998 translation:

Exult and sing, O heav’nly choirs of angels! Rejoice, all you powers in heaven and on earth! Jesus Christ our King is risen!Sound the trumpet, sing of our salvation!

Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendour, radiant in the brightness of your king! Lands that once lay covered by darkness, see Christ’s glory filling all the universe!

Rejoice, O mother Church, with all your children, resplendent in your risen Saviour’s light!Let our joyful voices resound this night!Let God’s people shake these walls with shouts of praise!

A deacon says:

Rejoice, beloved friends and heirs with Christ, standing with me in this wondrous light!Pray that God grant to me, a deacon of the Church, strength to sing this Easter candle’s praises.

A priest or cantor says:

Rejoice, beloved friends and heirs with Christ, standing with me in this wondrous light! Join me in seeking from God’s Holy Spirit grace to sing this Easter proclamation.

The Lord be with you.

And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.

We lift them up to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give thanks and praise.

It is truly right and justthat with full hearts and minds and voices,we should praise you, unseen God, almighty Father, and your only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

For Christ ransomed us with his precious bloodand, by nailing to the cross the decree that condemned us, he paid to you, eternal Father, the price of Adam’s sin.

This is our passover feast,when Christ, the true Lamb, is slain,whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers.

This is the nightwhen first you set the children of Israel free: you saved our ancestors from slavery in Egypt and led them dry-shod through the sea.

This is the night when you led your people by a pillar of fire: with your light you showed them the way and destroyed all the darkness of sin.

This is the night when Christians everywhere, washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement, are restored to grace and grow in holiness.

This is the night when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death and in triumphant glory rose from the grave.

What good would life have been for us had Christ not come as our Redeemer?

O God, how wonderful your care for us! How boundless your merciful love! To ransom a slave, you gave up a Son!

O necessary sin of Adam, destroyed by the death of Christ! O happy fault, which gained for us so great a Redeemer! O night truly blest! O night chosen above all others to see Christ rise in glory from the dead!

This is the night of which the Scripture says: ”Even darkness is not dark for you, and the night will shine as clear as the day!”

How holy is this night, which heals our wounds and washes all evil away!

A night to restore lost innocence and bring mourners joy! A night to cast out hatred! A night for seeking peace and humbling pride!

O truly blessed night when heaven is wedded to earth and we are reconciled with God!

Therefore, Father most holy, in the joy of this night, receive our evening sacrifice of praise, the solemn offering of your holy people.

Accept this Easter candle, a flame divided but undimmed, a pillar of fire that glows to the honour of God.

Let it mingle with the lights of heaven and continue bravely burning to dispel the darkness of this night!

May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning. Christ is that Morning Star, who rose to shed his peaceful light on all creation and lives and reigns with you for ever and ever.  AMEN.