Some Infinitely Gentle, Infinitely Suffering Thing

What does it cost to have a heart on fire with true love?

Pope Francis pointed out on Trinity Sunday that that feast renews in us “our own mission to live in communion with God and with each other. …We are not called to live without the other, above or against the other, but with the other, for the other, and in the other.”

Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, Sacred Heart: the Church weans us from Eastertide with this procession of solemnities. The Sacred Heart binds all the mysteries together, for within its chambers the union of all hearts is forged.

It is that Heart alone that reveals the Trinity, and it is from that Heart, pierced, that the Spirit of limitless love flows, in the endless Eucharistic self-expenditure. The Apostle John emphasizes in all of his writings the triumph of Trinitarian love, slaughtered yet victorious over all the enemies of love. Those writings were emphasized during Eastertide; that vision that must vitalize our pilgrimage through ordinary time.

There is an image seared into the mind of the Beloved Disciple, through which he sees everything: the pierced Sacred Heart. From here comes his characteristic insistence on bearing witness: “But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth—that you also may believe” (Jn 19:34-35).

He SEES here what it means for the Word to become flesh, for love to become visible. He SEES what it costs for God the Father to so love the world. We must understand that the public birth of the Church on Pentecost could not occur without this drawing forth of the New Eve, Mary-Church, from the side of the New Adam, asleep in His love-death.

What John sees is the immensity of the love Jesus and the Father have for each of us, the love that is Their shared Spirit. What he sees is that this immensity fills and overflows all the channels of the world. All natural exigencies must bend to the one thing: the extravagance of divine love. Each thing was created through the Word, according to its nature, to serve the grace and truth of the Word made flesh in the abasement of love. To stand on some sense of natural justice, our “rights,” to use Law as a counter-commandment to divine recklessness, is to be anti-Christ.

“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, Whom the world cannot receive…” (Jn 14:15-17). What are these commandments? They are refractions of one commandment, in the limitless responsibility of loving each person: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down His life for His friends” (Jn 15:12-13). Love is what the Law and all of nature were created to serve.

But do not even unbelievers love their friends? Indeed. So, we must understand that divine love is prior to any merit on our part. Using Paul to illuminate John: “But God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rm 5:8). Divine love creates friendship out of the chaos of war, conjures love when there’s less than nothing there for love. And we are called to live out exactly the same asymmetrical love by the power of the Spirit. We are to love our enemies (even the ones we live with, work with) into friendship, should we lose everything in doing so.

This is simply Christianity, to live Trinitarian love: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is of God; everyone who loves is begotten of God and has knowledge of God…for God is love” (1 Jn 4:7-8). How much love? Some limited quantity, some safe measure? No, indeed. True love means divine priority, with its infinite self-expenditure, limitless mercy, and absolute commitment to reconciliation: “God’s love was revealed in our midst in this way: He sent His only Son to the world that we might have life through Him. Love, then, consists in this: not that we have loved God, but that He has loved us, and has sent His Son as an offering for our sins. Beloved, if God has loved us so, we must have the same love for one another” (1 Jn 4:9-11).

This is the Christian mission: being enraptured by the love descending from on high so that all the others may be enraptured through us. Everything that contracts this thrust towards universal intimacy is, quite precisely, anti-Christ. Sadly, the smoke of anti-Christ fills even the halls and homes of Christianity.

I wish to state this very clearly: the Johannine insistence on the supremacy of love is the word I have been charged to communicate. (Not for nothing is John my confirmation name!) My constant themes: true love, charity, solidarity as one unified reality, characterized by defenseless openheartedness and asymmetric love, which does not stand on rights, which means, inevitably, suffering. Despite my weakness, my whole life and teaching come down to taking a stand on this one Gospel of love and life. Our Lord Himself made clear what the whole shape of Scripture is: “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and so enter into His glory?” (Lk 24:26). Please pray for this frail servant to bear witness, despite myself.

Leonard Cohen has these words on bearing witness to invisible love: “It was deep into His fiery heart, He took the dust of our Joan of Arc, and then she clearly understood, if He was fire, oh then she must be wood. I saw her wince, I saw her cry, I saw the glory in her eye. Myself I long for love and light, but must it come so cruel, and oh so bright?”

John receives the vision that consummates Scripture: the golden City descending like a bride from heaven to earth. Nuptiality and urbanity merge: one-flesh union finds its realization in the one-body communion of life in Christ. Love falls upon us like fire. Our hearts begin to beat to a rhythm not of this world. We yearn for consummation in an intimacy without limits. We yearn that refreshment and vindication come for the victims. Nothing for it, but Jesus come again from the Father. And He comes through open hearts.

Fire and Ice in DC

By David and Angela Franks

This column appeared in the January 31, 2014, edition of The Boston Pilot.

 

A major snowstorm, and brutal cold, and still the hundreds of thousands came on, to March for Life in the nation’s capital on that dreadful anniversary, January 22nd. They were heeding the fire bell in the night. But, unlike Thomas Jefferson’s grotesque take on the Missouri Compromise, these citizens hear the bell aright: we run to the flame of love, to have our hearts rekindled. For the forgotten ones, the “unwanted” babies, written onto the nether side of a line of judicial caprice, we bear witness.        

Forty-one years ago, the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton legalized a private right to execute the unborn throughout all of pregnancy. Our great republic is sick with this cancer.

David brought our two oldest children to the March with the seminarians from Saint John’s for the fourth year. The men seem to appreciate indulging their antics on the way up and down. And our kids gain a profound sense that the pro-life movement is the most important human rights struggle in the history of the world, because it is waged on behalf of the most powerless human life.

If you take the preferential option for the poor seriously, you are seriously pro-life. You vote pro-life. You pray for the end of the abortion regime. You give the firstfruits of all your labor to defend the weakest from the onslaught of consumerist desire in its most diabolical phase.

Jesus declares, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already blazing! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!” (Lk 12:49-50) Why is Jesus yearning for the baptism of the Cross? The Catechism, in one of its boldest formulations, indicates why. “Jesus knew and loved us each and all during His life, His agony, and His Passion and gave Himself up for each one of us” (no. 478). The Sacred Heart of Jesus is big with each of us. Each and every one of the tens of billions of human lives who have existed or ever will exist, Jesus carries in His Heart. His heart is ablaze with the divine love, and He would melt our hard hearts. He would cross through death, so that we may be brought to life.

The hearts of most of us contain vast tracts of tundra. We who march have our own unloveliness, sclerotic in intimacy, perpetrating our own, sometimes spectacular, failures to love, in our own homes, in our own workplaces, in our own cities and states. Acting pro-life is the beginning of the heart-thaw, but until we take the popes seriously, and love one another as Jesus loves us, with wild, uncalculating love, neighbor and enemy and all the denizens of the worldwide city of the poor, we are only beginning.

But we must all begin with pro-life commitment.

Archbishop Chaput in the text he wrote for the Mass to close the Vigil for Life, puts it beautifully: “The truth about the dignity of the human person is burned into our hearts by the fire of God’s love.  And we can only deal with the heat of that love in two ways.  We can turn our hearts to stone.  Or we can make our hearts and our witness a source of light for the world.  Those of you here today have already made your choice.  It’s a wonderful irony that despite the cold and snow of January, there’s no such thing as winter in this great church.  This is God’s house.  In this place, there’s only the warmth of God’s presence and God’s people.  In this place, there’s no room for fear or confusion or despair, because God never abandons his people, and God’s love always wins.

Thank God that He is the First Cause! In the long run, hard hearts will melt, for Jesus has passed from death to life.

Now, marching is not the same as the hard political and educational activity necessary to change the hard heart of this nation. There is no silver bullet that will restore the right to life of the innocent in law. But it is very important to be reenergized by going on a pilgrimage, and sacrificing some personal comfort to have our consciences exposed a little more, to receive the gospel of life a little more deeply.

Cardinal Séan, in his homily for the National Vigil Mass for Life, transmitted the whole vision quite comprehensively. There is no love, there is no communal life, no solidarity, no human rights, no social justice, if we are not seriously pro-life: “Rather than societies of people living together, we risk becoming societies of people who are rejected, marginalized, uprooted, and oppressed. When the Church raises the prophetic cry “Choose Life!”, we’re performing a great service to all of society. …The gospel of life is the centerpiece of the church’s social teaching. …The Church’s consistent life ethic contrasts with the incoherent proclamation of human rights that fails to protect the most vulnerable. Human rights without the right to life are the [emperor]’s new clothes. It’s a fraud. It’s an exercise in self-deception.”

The Congregationalist minister John Ames in Marilynne Robinson’s extraordinary novel Gilead conjures the vision we all must have: “It has seemed to me sometimes as though the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and it turns to radiance—for a moment or a year or the span of a life. And then it sinks back into itself again, and to look at it no one would know it had anything to do with fire, or light. ...But the Lord is [even] more constant and far more extravagant than [this] seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”

Love blows on the embers in this darkling world. Don’t you see the fire that rises?

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Solidarity as Love Story

By David and Angela Franks

This column appeared in the February 28, 2014, edition of The Boston Pilot.

 

 

 

Lent epitomizes the long journey towards the fullness of love. Aren’t we ready for a renewal of our hearts? In this season, Jesus draws us more intensely into His poverty and defenselessness, to make us rich in love.

In his Lenten Message, Pope Francis takes Saint Paul’s words, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that by His poverty you might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9) God the Son falls like a comet from heavenly glory into the howling waste of human waywardness. God takes on human flesh! Why? So that He might enter into the suffering and despair of each of us.

            This love-pursuit creates the Body of Christ, the body of all humanity as it is being forged into the unity of the Holy Spirit. The “passionate” love of God for man generates the fullness of solidarity.

            We are in the habit of placing on one side the heart’s desire to love and be loved and on the other the pursuit of social justice. This is a false dichotomy. All the currencies of intimacy, in their truth, subserve the intensification of human solidarity. Or, to put it differently, the theology of the body leads directly into Catholic social doctrine.

            This is the point of Pope Benedict’s beautiful first encyclical, God is Love (Deus caritas est). He begins with a meditation on eros as the love between man and woman, shows how eros must allow agape (self-sacrificial love) to suffuse it and how this transfigured eros finds its fulfillment in charity (the supernatural love infused into our souls at baptism). This charity, of itself, gives rise to the works of charity, our care for all the others, especially the physically and emotionally vulnerable, the victims, the poor. That is, every true love-story is aimed at the solidarity of the New Jerusalem.

Eros has many meanings. For Plato, it is basically the yearning of the human soul for that which transcends this worldly condition, a yearning expressed in the desire to know, the desire for beauty, the desire to do good. To question, to pay attention, to create: the human soul desires to expand into the infinite. A special instance of eros is the love between man and woman. Eros must mature into desiring the good of the other person, not only desiring the good for me that the other person is. Eros is in training for solidarity, for universal empathy, care, and responsibility.

This vector heads towards marriage, and through marriage, it aims at the taking on of the good of every single other as my concern. Marriage is the beginning of the Kingdom of all hearts, united in mutual care, a care for the overlooked, the hidden victims (think of the children in the dark places of the world, the unborn, the myriads of the poor who live and die in squalor), a care for the brother or sister I take to be an enemy.

            C. S. Lewis expresses this in a startling way in The Four Loves, “[Eros’s] total commitment is a paradigm or example, built into our natures, of the love we ought to exercise towards God and Man. As nature, for the nature-lover, gives a content to the word glory, so this gives a content to the word Charity. It is as if Christ said to us through Eros, ‘Thus—just like this—with this prodigality—not counting the cost—you are to love me and the least of my brethren.’”

Pope Francis reminds us that true love is consummated in solidarity. Why does God come among us? “The reason for all this is His love, a love which is grace, generosity, a desire to draw near, a love which does not hesitate to offer itself in sacrifice for the beloved. Charity, love, is sharing with the one we love in all things. Love makes us similar, it creates equality, it breaks down walls and eliminates distances.”

Love seeks the formation of the universal body of Christ. The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins writes, “…for Christ plays in ten thousand places,/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his/To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”

True love is ultimately to be a participation in the love shared by Father and Son in the Spirit, a love that will not abandon the defenseless sheep to darkness. Pope Francis continues, “So what is this poverty by which Christ frees us and enriches us? …What gives us true freedom, true salvation, and true happiness is the compassion, tenderness, and solidarity of His love. Christ’s poverty which enriches us is His taking flesh and bearing our weaknesses and sins as an expression of God’s infinite mercy to us. Christ’s poverty is the greatest treasure of all: Jesus’ wealth is that of His boundless confidence in God the Father, His constant trust, His desire always and only to do the Father’s will and give glory to Him.”

If we allow Christ’s trust in the Father to grow in us, all those anxieties that dog us will lose their grip over time, and we will be liberated to love with open hand all the defenseless hearts placed on our way.

 Pope Francis exhorts us, “In imitation of our Master, we Christians are called to confront the poverty of our brothers and sisters, to touch it, to make it our own, and to take practical steps to alleviate it. …Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts: no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.”

Giving up something for Lent, fasting more than required, tithing ten percent, almsgiving (above and beyond tithing), more fervent prayer: how our hearts will burn to love all neighbors!

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Religious Liberty Humbles the State

By David and Angela Franks

This column appeared in the March 28, 2014, edition of The Boston Pilot.

 

 

 

 

 

Is government the master of life and death, and conscience?

The Supreme Court on Tuesday heard arguments concerning President Obama’s Health and Human Services (HHS) “contraceptive” mandate (which in fact also covers certain abortion-inducing drugs, female sterilization, as well as contraceptives that may operate abortifaciently). What’s at issue in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood v. Sebelius is whether the religious right to object, possessed by individuals, is also to be recognized with regard to the owners of certain for-profit corporations. If you are a Christian businessman, say, who objects to providing coverage under the mandate because some of the devices and drugs involved can cause abortion, or a Catholic business owner who recognizes the damaging social effect of contraceptive use, what recourse do you have?

Taking a step back to take a look at this debate in terms of our ideals, an American might feel a little confused. Why does a case have to be made for conscience rights in America? In America?!

The First Amendment to the Constitution begins with these rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” And the fundamental law of our nation is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

This is the American proposition: the government as one instrument of the people to help secure the common good, which at least consists in the safeguarding of divinely given rights. This is a non-secularist liberalism (“liberal” referring to the participatory nature of governance). Unfortunately, America has more and more fallen under the sway, since the Progressive Era, of the explicitly anti-religious, indeed anti-Catholic, secularizing “liberalism” of the French Revolution. This is not really liberal, because it is the assertion of an omnicompetent state as the ultimate horizon of all human action, run by a self-anointed elite that is sure it knows best how to manage life: better than the common citizen, better than families, better than churches, better than local governments, better than the voluntary associations of civil society.

The secularist state wields its power in manifold ways, especially through apparatuses of education. The ultimate goal is to regiment the very desire of citizens, to manage desire in a way to render us passive with regard to the bureaucratic projects of the elite. Michel Foucault, the important post-structuralist theorist, has a name for this: biopower.

This is where the “contraceptive” mandate comes in. The ne plus ultra of biopower is state management of the population through contraception and abortion, which fundamentally restructure desire.

Angela has written this history in her book Margaret Sanger’s Eugenic Legacy: The Control of Female Fertility. It is Sanger’s vision of biopower that is finding its ultimate realization in the HHS mandate.

Why would the president pick this fight? Why make an enemy of the Catholic Church? Because the Left, which gets its name from where the Jacobins and allies sat in the National Convention (as Jeffrey Bell has noted), has always sought one thing above all, even above socialism: the administration of all of life by the state elite. Right now in America, of course, we aren’t looking at the Reign of Terror, but we are witnessing a breathtaking attempt to introject secular ideology into the most intimate spaces of the human person. Freedom of conscience? How inconvenient, when the precise point is contracting, secularizing, our deepest desires so that they do not look beyond the horizon of the state to a transcendent sovereignty belonging to God. If Jesus is Lord, then elitist ideology is always subject to interruption from on high.

Contraception looks like freedom: control the number of kids you have. “Looks like freedom, but it feels like death,” as Leonard Cohen sings. In fact, this “freedom” or “control” serves the interests of state elites for whom the greatest disaster is religious faith: trusting in God as the Sovereign Lord of history, to Whom we surrender control of our lives. A life of faith blows up the pretensions of the state to have final say in the practical affairs of our lives.

The Church provides a vision of the fulfillment of the human person that runs through temporal goods, and on to the ultimate good of intimacy within the Trinitarian communion: infinite actualization of knowing and loving. Integral human development—the trajectory of the human person from creatio ex nihilo to participation in God, ipsum esse subsistens, (from nothing to everything)—requires recognition of many rights, but two in particular are the most salient: the right to life and the right of religious liberty. And both of these are compromised by the HHS mandate.

The Supreme Court arguments were heard on the Solemnity of the Annunciation. A delicious irony of providence. What is religious liberty for but to utter Yes to the Father? What shows more clearly the inviolability of the right to life than the zygote Jesus? The Blessed Virgin Mary, with her Yes, opened the way for the true Lord of all to break into this dark world, where we lord it over each other, in ways petty and spectacularly violent.

Jesus comes to break the hold sin has on our hearts. But He doesn’t liberate by managing us from on high. In fact, He descends, always seeking the lower place, always subverting our unloveliness by loving us even more radically. The Word enters the interiority of each of us in our darkness: “A body You prepared for Me.” (Heb 10:5) And there, in the flesh of universal humanity, the King of the universe is leavening the whole human lump with His infinite love, working through any of us who lets Him say Yes in us.

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Mercy Streams from the Heavens

By J. David and Angela Franks

This column appeared in the April 25, 2014, edition of The Boston Pilot.

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The birds they sang at the break of day

“Start again,” I heard them say

Don’t dwell on what has passed away

or what is yet to be.

Ah, the wars, they will be fought again

The holy dove, she will be caught again

bought and sold and bought again

the dove is never free.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

 

--Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

 

When the love of the Father crashes into human agony, into our suffering and sinfulness, it is mercy.

            This is Easter. Everything is possible. Your life is hid with Christ, and He has overcome the world. Believe in the Father’s mercy. Believe in the Father’s tenderness. He touches us in Jesus, Who has made all things new.  He touches us in Mary, who never abandons her children.

            It’s so painful to let Him touch us. The Father’s tenderness is a hard thing for us. Deep down, we don’t think we’re lovable. But hear this: you wouldn’t exist if the Father didn’t love you.  

            But isn’t the evidence all against us?

            Who will bring the charge? “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Rom 8:31)

            We bring the charge against each other because we bring it against ourselves. But that must end. If we don’t know the Father loves us, we cannot be merciful to others. This is not to discount our sins, but to recognize that there is only one reason the Word becomes flesh: to forgive us. There’s no trick to that. That’s all the Father wants.

            A great celebration is upon us, with the canonization of John Paul II and John XXIII on Divine Mercy Sunday. These will be the great saints of the Second Vatican Council, which John XXIII convoked and which John Paul devoted his entire pontificate to implementing.

            John Paul never tired of quoting from the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes), number 22: “Christ the New Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and of His love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his lofty calling.”

            In his encyclical on Divine Mercy Dives in misericordia, John Paul emphasizes the council fathers’ paradoxical formulation: somehow, it is in revealing the Father and His love that Christ reveals the truth about man.  But what does the revelation of the Father have to do with the revelation of man?

            In the social doctrine of the Church, it is emphasized over and over again that the first principle is the infinite dignity of every single person (created in the image of God, redeemed by Christ, and destined to Trinitarian communion). The Church’s whole mission is to walk the path that is each human’s life, for the Church is the streaming of the life of Jesus, blood and water, into every crevice of human existence: cor ad cor loquitur.

            That is, the Church is anthropocentric, centered on man, on each human person. But John Paul says that perhaps the most important teaching of Vatican II is that this anthropocentrism is not be separated from theocentrism, from having everything centered in ho theos, the Father of the Son.

Secular modernism assumes that man and God must compete with each other, that “divinity” robs the vitality of human existence. But in fact, there is no vitality except as a gracious bestowal by the Father. We’ve got it all wrong. We’ve accepted Satan’s slander about the Father: “He’s holding out on you!” But we wouldn’t exist at all but that the Father wants to lavish His entire fullness on us!

            Anthropocentrism and theocentrism entail each other. And they do so because of the unfathomable abyss of the Father’s love and mercy: Christ makes known God, the Father, “above all in His relationship of love for man: in His ‘philanthropy.’ It is precisely here that ‘His invisible nature’ becomes in a special way ‘visible,’ incomparably more visible than through all the other ‘things that have been made’: it becomes visible in Christ and through Christ, through His actions and His words, and finally through His death on the cross and His resurrection.”

            Jesus is the making visible of the Father’s abyss of love, and that abyss pours out of the pierced Sacred Heart. Into the deep! Are you thirsty? Come and drink, and drink free. The Spirit of the Father and the Son, the Spirit Who is infinite Love: that is the only drink which can slake our thirst for intimacy. And then from our hearts the Spirit will flow on. This is evangelization: mercy flowing into the dark places of the world, a cascade from heaven filling the furrows of our lives, the aching there, making our lives fruitful, making us agents of reconciliation, of joy, of cheer.

            In his neediness, man simply is the visible shape of the Father’s mercy. And so we must be merciful.

            “Especially through His lifestyle and through His actions, Jesus revealed that love is present in the world in which we live—an effective love, a love that addresses itself to man and embraces everything that makes up his humanity. This love makes itself particularly noticed in contact with suffering, injustice, and poverty—in contact with the whole historical ‘human condition,’ which in various ways manifests man’s limitation and frailty, both physical and moral.”

            Gerard Manley Hopkins, in a poem entitled “Easter,” expresses the exuberance that should be our Easter lives, an exuberance that will be solidary with the poor precisely by being centered on Christ: “Break the box and shed the nard/Stop not now to count the cost;/Hither bring pearl, opal, sard;/Reck not what the poor have lost;/Upon Christ throw all away:/Know ye, this is Easter Day.”

            The economy of salvation is an economy of gratuity, and in tenderness we cannot waste our substance fast enough, prodigally enough, for the Son sent by the Father into the far country, to all the hearts on the periphery.

            This is Easter. Time for mercy.

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The Ramification of the Flesh of Christ

By J. David Franks

I have to begin with a note about a change in the column. My wife Angela and I have been co-authoring for the last year, but she has felt an urgent need lately to concentrate on her scholarly work. She is a very fine scholar indeed, so I understand, though I will miss collaborating with her. Please always keep the Frankses in prayer—even if you don’t like the column!

What joy to have the Body of Christ laid on my tongue by a man just ordained to the priesthood, one I have had the privilege to help form over many years at Saint John’s Seminary. The oldest of our children is twelve. We’ve witnessed prodigies: seen ballet and piano performances, heard tremendously clever things, observed acts of charity. But their maturity is still ahead. As a seminary professor, an instrument of bishops in the formation of men for the priesthood, I get to enjoy some of that paternal pride already.

Without the priesthood, there would be no Eucharist. Without the Eucharist, there is no permeation of the flesh of human existence—the banalities, the inanities, the horrors, the joys—with the transfiguring presence of divine love. Jesus comes to justify. He comes to raise us from our dung heap of self-love. He comes to cause us to attain our full stature under His merciful and saving Headship. This rising of each human person, this redemption of our vain lives, is the mystery we celebrate in this Easter season drawing to a close.

Ascension makes clear that the economy of salvation is about the justification of our seemingly unjustifiable lives. Baptism justifies us by causing us to be conformed to the dying and rising of Jesus, breaking our old habits of self-assertion, initiating new habits of abandonment to the Father’s loving wisdom. Towards the baptismal font does the Father drive every human heart interiorly, by the Spirit of His Son. Towards a more profound conformity to this total loving and this vindication, the Spirit continues to drive us. Baptism causes us to die to the death-in-life that is worldly existence, “flesh” without the Spirit. What Jesus is working in us is the resurrection of this “flesh” into a vessel of divine love. This resurrection begins now; it will be consummated when we actually receive back our bodies on the last day.

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ Who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” (Col 3:1-4)

This resurrecting movement, this justification that is worked out as our sanctification, is the ramifying of the Kingdom of divine mercy through every human heart. But the coming of the Kingdom is as painful as death, for we must die to self, day after day.

Within and without, our struggle indeed is not against flesh and blood as such, but “against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:11) Flesh has been subjected to a demonic discipline, formation by ideology. The Word becomes flesh, and gives us His flesh, to liberate our flesh in His Spirit of truth.

Though the demons wreak immense and horrific havoc upon human flesh, the victory is Christ’s. He has come back from the dead, having swallowed up all our darkness, having become the Victim in every victim: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Mt 28:18)

This is usually not apparent: its effects are sub contrario, as Luther puts it. It is only as the slain Lamb that He is sovereign Lord of history. No magic wand for suffering humanity. But sometimes we are given a glimpse of victory. So, with the attempted “black mass” a few weeks ago.

Not only did the event not occur, but thousands bore witness to our Eucharistic faith. What an awesome victory! We need more such occasions of public avowal of our faith in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. The only redemption of the world is in the Body of Christ: divine flesh to redeem suffering flesh, dying flesh. But precisely for that reason, we must not fetishize or exoticize the Eucharist. If we segregate the Eucharist from the substance of daily human life, we have missed the point of the real presence: the food Jesus gives is “His flesh for the life of the world.” (Jn 6:51)

As Pope Francis just reminded us on his return flight from the Holy Land: “When a priest commits abuse, he betrays the Lord’s body. A priest must guide children towards sainthood. And the child trusts him. But instead, he abuses him or her. This is very serious. It’s like celebrating a black mass!”

In fact, every time a child is abused or aborted, it is the Eucharistic Jesus who is desecrated. Every time we act against true love, we act against the Eucharist. Every single time. What “liberal Christianity” got wrong was not its emphasis on everyday correlates of dogma. It was in losing the faith. We need both simple faith in Christian dogma and correlation to everyday life. To choose one or the other is a betrayal of the Incarnation.

Liberal Christianity debouched the Christian substance without remainder into thisworldly realities, humanitarianism, “social justice.” But it was not the emphasis on this world that was wrong. It was losing the unsurpassable source of Christian engagement with the world: Jesus Himself, Christ crucified and risen, the Eucharistic Lord—Christ, our justification, the only possible source of true social justice.

Jesus says, “You have not chosen me. I have chosen you, to bear fruit that remains.” (Jn 15:16) Jesus chose those men ordained a few days ago. He chose them to give us the sacramental grace and paternal care and sound instruction necessary for us to carry out the mission He chose each of us for: to serve as instruments of the Father’s mercy. The tree of life grows downwards from the golden city, ramifying through each moment of your life. Eternity is blossoming, hardly noticed. The Lord is risen indeed.

[This column appeared in the May 30, 2014, edition of The Boston Pilot.]

_________________

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A Midsummer Night's Dream: Jericho Will Fall


 From the Bamberg Apocalypse

From the Bamberg Apocalypse

By J. David Franks

This column appeared in the July 25, 2014, edition of The Boston Pilot.

What is your midsummer night’s dream? Time slows, sweet doldrums take us, a blessed silence of the soul steals in. Do you have a fairytale dream? Shakespeare reminds us, “The course of true love never did run smooth.” Do you dream that all the loves in your life will bear fruit? Do you have a dream for our great nation, as a renewed venture in freedom and virtue under God?

Your dreams aren’t just a private matter. Our deepest desires are what constitute social life. Saint Augustine speaks of two cities built by two loves: a city of man, founded on a disordered self-love that puts its own needs at the center of things, and a city of God, constituted by a love of God with no boundaries.

In the Apocalypse to the Apostle John, all of the confusion, fury, and glory of the history of desire is weighed in the presence of the slaughtered Lamb, the Word of God Who conquers by self-sacrificial love (Rev 19:13). Love is the final measure of history. The stigmatized Jesus alone can open the seals of the scroll of history. With the seventh seal, we expect a huge pyrotechnic display of divine wrath. What we get instead is silence (Rev 8:1).

It’s like that breathtaking judgment scene in C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces (as good a novel as any I’ve read): Orual spits the bile of her stored-up resentments against divine providence over and over, which stem from her envious, jealous, possessive “love” for her sister. And the Judge doesn’t have to say a word. She comes to judge the gods, to claim her rights. But in the arena of objectivity, her meanness has only to be expressed for her self-justification to collapse.

Jesus doesn’t justify the ways of God to man. He comes to justify man. First, He comes to vindicate the victims (Rev. 6:9-10): all those whom Mammon, or worldly success, has used up and tossed aside. All those babies, all the elderly and suffering ones, all the women and children outraged in the flesh trade, all the poor upon whose labor our bourgeois comfort is built. Pope Francis talks about the throwaways. He’s talking to us. We should all be disturbed. He is doing the Shepherd’s work: to lead us to the uplands of greater love.

The hardness of our society, this culture of death, is the result of our everyday hardness. What does our hardheartedness look like? When we gossip, we kill. I’ll say that one again, because calumny and detraction are probably the most common mortal sins churchy people engage in. (A meager and pathetic jouissance, to be sure. Is that supposed to be attractive when the world has more interesting options for defective gratification?) When we gossip, we kill. When we refuse forgiveness, we kill. When we are convinced of our own rightness and refuse to find some way to vindicate our enemy, to find some way to put ourselves in the wrong, we kill.

We must always love more, imaging the God of ever-greater love. Consumerist contraction of desire, which sets what I need as measure of what’s possible, is so sad, so empty, so radically unfulfilling. There is only one way to life: openheartedness, defenselessness, radical hospitality beyond all worldly calculation of benefits and burdens. This is the posture of a slaughtered lamb. There is no other posture for a Christian.

“Oh, What a Beautiful City,” that great spiritual, song of the marginalized, emphasizes that the New Jerusalem stands open on every side: “Oh, when I get to Heaven, gonna sing and shout/There’s twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah/Ain’t nobody there gonna put me out/There’s twelve gates to the city, Hallelujah.”

Our hearts, our homes, our parishes, our neighborhoods, our cities, our nation must be like that. 

Jesus comes to justify all of us. But we must allow the Cross to say the Word of love to the end: “It is consummated.” Consummated in total openheartedness. The water and blood flow from the pierced Heart of Jesus. His unrequited love streams through the interstices of all time, slowly eroding the obduracies of our lovelessness.

That is what history looks like before the slaughtered Lamb: the ramshackle of our anxious walls and proud towers, so blindly defending a pleasure that does not please us. But the Gospel is this: Jesus has already defeated us. Thank the good Father! Origen compared the Second Coming of Jesus to the fall of Jericho. That is Christian hope. Our meanness will break. The victims will be vindicated. Jesus will make all things new. Every tear will be wiped away. True love will win out in our hearts. Jesus is an importunate lover. He is at the door. We must respond like Molly Bloom at the end of Ulysses: “yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

In Holy Sonnet 14, John Donne puts it in a most daring way:

 

Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;

That I may rise and stand, o'erthrow me, and bend

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.

I, like an usurp'd town to another due,

Labor to admit you, but oh, to no end;

Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,

But is captiv'd, and proves weak or untrue.

Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov'd fain,

But am betroth'd unto your enemy;

Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,

Take me to you, imprison me, for I,

Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,

Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

 

Summer is the season of the Sacred Heart. Father, send the Spirit of Your Messiah now. Interrupt our plans; disturb our complacency; create psychological openings. Break, blow, burn, and make us new! Yes, Love, yes.

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The Queen Stands in Gold

By J. David Franks

Today, the Kingdom of God has a Queen! And Our Lady’s role in the economy of salvation illuminates and makes possible the fact that the scroll of world history is written for one purpose: that we all become the Father’s instruments in bringing heaven to earth, in incarnating true love.

            This was the point of imaging God in the beginning: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it…’” (Gen. 1:27-28)

            Male and female are entrusted with the task of procreation and civilizational progress. The slaughtered Lamb has loved us to the end to make this possible: “Worthy art Thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for Thou wast slain and by Thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.” (Rev. 5:9-10)

            And to get from Garden to golden City, to that New Jerusalem which will descend to consummate all love’s actions in history, requires not only an Adam and Eve. The New Adam needs a New Eve. And that is what we celebrate today.

            Sixty years ago, Pope Pius XII instituted a feast in honor of the Queenship of Mary. Eventually, this feast would be celebrated on the octave of the Assumption. And it is this heavenly Marian glory, following upon the Transfiguration, that lights up these august but waning days of summer, transforming melancholy into the determined initiative to be about the Father’s business of reconciliation.

            My favorite apse mosaic is in Rome’s Santa Maria Maggiore, a depiction of Jesus sitting side-by-side with His Mother on a royal bench, reaching over to crown her. It is different from most depictions of the coronation in that Mary and Jesus sit on the same level. This indicates how humble the divine love is. All Jesus wants to do is share His heavenly glory.

            There is a reason the consummating mystery of the rosary is the Crowning of Mary as queen of heaven and earth. The whole of the Father’s plan of loving goodness is bent to one end: to make humans His partners in making love visible.

            In his letter to the Ephesians, Saint Paul describes the sweep of history as an act of recapitulation, that is, of bringing all things under the headship of Christ. On the one hand, this includes all the cosmic labor of 13.8 billion years of evolutionary process. On the other hand, and even more crucially, this means Jesus’ descending into the trivialities and horrors of human existence to transfigure them by the alchemy of the Cross. Here the philosopher’s stone is precisely the divine and human love of Jesus, abased and unrequited, bleeding to the end for each of us.

            But Jesus thirsts for our love, as Blessed Teresa of Calcutta insisted. For God does not act the way a micromanager does. The point of the divine initiative is to call forth creaturely cooperation. And here we get to the secret behind the celebration of Mary’s Queenship. The Father in His generous goodness creates difference—different excellences, analogies of divine goodness—in a symphonic and panoramic effusion of the infinitely rich simplicity of the divine life. It pleases the Father to distribute the merits of His Son through the Mother of His Son. Pope Pius writes in Ad Caeli Reginam, no. 43, “Let all Christians, therefore, glory in being subjects of the Virgin Mother of God, who, while wielding royal power, is on fire with a mother’s love.”

            There is an order here, to be sure. The human nature of Jesus is a creature, the greatest creature of all. That’s the impossible paradox of the Incarnation: the Creator, as God the Son, unites Himself to a creature, so irrevocably that for all eternity the Second Divine Person will always be named Jesus of Nazareth. And through the Sacred Humanity of Jesus, the Father accomplishes His plan of loving goodness.

            But the next creature in rank is Mary, who is in fact the greatest of all created persons (Jesus being a divine person). Her personhood sums up what all creaturely personhood is about: to be the handmaid of the Father’s loving will.

            When the Word, God the Son, becomes flesh, He undertakes all of the tensions that mark human existence. In the social order, the most basic such polarity is that of man and woman. The Incarnation is not sufficiently honored if we do not recognize that in becoming a male, Jesus took to Himself a partner, an associate, for His mission: the Woman, Mary.

             And the point of recognizing Mary’s preeminence amongst created persons is, in the end, to recognize our own calling to participate in the mission, the ministry of reconciliation, to bind hearts together in true love and solidarity. Looking to Mary as Queen, we are comforted, even under the blows that we suffer in life. For all of that wasting away, that seems so characteristic of human existence, the Father allows, and sometimes commands, for one reason only: to try our hearts in the crucible, so that only love remains. Love transcends time; it is eternal:

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Cor 4:16-18)

            Love alone is glorious. It seeks to build the neighbor up, to create unity where once there was division. Thus the body of Christ makes visible the invisible world of divine love. And that is the task that has been entrusted to us. In Christ. And under Christ, in Mary. For the generous Father, Who causes every good thing, nestles mediation upon mediation within His direct, creative, and beneficent action. Christ takes us captive, normally through baptism, so that He might move us by His Spirit to ever greater works of love:

 “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, Who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Cor 17-19)

            The message of reconciliation: the word that energizes your neighbor, rather than crushing him; the word that has nothing to do with gossip, but only with the justification of your neighbor in Christ.

            The Queenship of Mary means our pettiness is not inevitable. We can be free! With a mother’s care, she keeps trying to separate us from the self-seeking that causes us to fail in our love for coworkers, family members, strangers, the unborn, the poor, the throwaways of our society. True love bears fruit in solidarity. May Pius XII’s words energize us (Ad Caeli Reginam, no. 49) to strive to create the fraternity of love that Mary’s maternity makes possible:

 “All, according to their state, should strive to bring alive the wondrous virtues of our heavenly Queen and most loving Mother through constant effort of mind and manner. Thus will it come about that all Christians, in honoring and imitating their sublime Queen and Mother, will realize they are truly brothers, and with all envy and avarice thrust aside, will promote love among classes, respect the rights of the weak, cherish peace.”

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