Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

07 September 2018

The Sign of Jonah: Baptism

“What sign can you do?” (Jn 6:30): is it the taunt of Messiah-chasers, or the hunger of the shepherd-less? As our ruthless self-sustenance proves insufficient, we simply must come to terms with having nowhere else to go. Meanwhile, however, the culture of skepticism produces the sign-seeking, angle-seeking generation (authors of “the fine print,” the “hidden agenda”)—which turns out to be every generation.

In another place, Jesus declared that the only sign given to such persons is “the sign of Jonah” (Mt 12:38-42): the “Son of Man” (Jesus’ most-used Self-description) would emerge from a three-days’-darkness lodging, in the same way the Prophet Jonah was preserved amid the deep waters by a large fish (commonly considered a whale).

We might consider this sign a “type,” or foreshadowing, of the sacrament of Baptism. The rebellious prophet tried to escape from God’s choice of him; he is cast into the waters; he is rescued from/through the waters into safety. Water is at once a sign of death and life: you can drown in water, yet you live only because of water. Incidentally, the big fish is a type of the Church, the “vessel” that preserves us amid the storm. As a bonus, the fish was an early symbol that Christians would use to mark their sacred assemblies, subjects of chronic persecution. The five letters of the Greek word for fish (ιχθυς) stood for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”

Baptism comes from the Greek word “to plunge.” The original method of immersion conveys the sign most vividly. The entire body makes contact with the water because the entire person—body and soul—needs redemption. Your Reverend Writer has not employed this method in his ministry, but has admired those who do.

If water is a reliable descriptor of Baptism, so is light. For every celebration of it we ignite the Paschal Candle that easterly proclaims the triumph of the risen Christ over sin, suffering, and death, precisely because each plunge makes that triumph clear in that subject’s life. The belly of the fish is darkness, but once evacuated, the child is, as it were, assaulted by brightness. It must be too much to bear at the outset, and indeed all life long.

If light is a reliable descriptor of Baptism, so is enclosure. The child’s white garment enfolds her even as her mother’s womb once did. The fearsome fish’s belly, known now as the Church, is the child’s safety net. Whoever sticks with us, has a chance in this crazy, mixed-up world. By “us” of course we mean “The Church,” but on the local, intensest level, we mean faithful parents and godparents who, by virtue of their familiarity with both the child and the Church, represent one to the other.

Reflect with me, often and gratefully, on God's most supreme gift by which He frees us from the original sin, makes us brothers and sisters of Jesus, temples of His Spirit, heirs of heaven, and franchises of grace and mercy (so long as we deal in them by obedience to the Commandments).

06 September 2018

Steven Wright and the Eucharist (A misleading title for the first of seven articles on the Sacraments)

One of the pastoral prerogatives is the direction of, and contribution to, the content of parish communication organs, whether it's the message board out front (which we don't have...yet), the various social media (for us, definitely a work in progress), or the reliable weekly bulletin. Since my first weekend at St. Michael the Archangel nearly two years ago, I have written a bulletin column called "To Inspire, To Inform,  To Entertain" (IIE) That's not the actual headline because I write too much to be able to fit the title, but those words do appear above a nearby quotation, which I take from sources as diverse as Steven Wright and Flannery O'Connor.

Fondly I tell of how I met Steven Wright. I flew to Boston to compete in the Marathon in 2017. While hanging out at Logan International Airport before my return flight, I saw a bearded man with a Red Sox cap wheeling his luggage in my direction while I was approaching (where else?) Dunkin' Donuts. From several dozen yards the man's identity seemed clear, although he was either trying to conceal it or just be a regular citizen. He seemed somewhat surprised I could spot him. I identified myself as a Catholic priest and a big fan. Wright, himself raised Catholic, seemed genuinely humbled by a priest's respect. I told him I feature diverse quotations in my weekly bulletin. "You mean that paper you get in church? Wow! That's neat." We gave a fist bump (WHY DIDN'T I REQUEST A SELFIE, COUTH BE DAMNED?) and he went on his way. I got in line for coffee, feeling a bit better for having competed earlier that week, even though my time was far slower than I'd desired.

IIE has featured series on the Spirituality of the Twelve Steps, Indulgenced Prayers (in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation--"just to show 'em," God forgive me), and, more recently, the Seven Sacraments. For your penance, here is the first of the seven columns, largely unedited. You are always free to read past bulletins--nothing like "yesterday's news!"--archived under the relevant tab on our parish website.

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I was thinking about doing some sort of series on the Sacraments for the next seven weeks, because 1) there are seven of them; and b) for the next five weeks, the Gospel reading will be taken from the sixth chapter of Saint John’s Gospel. Permit me to do something unconventional by starting with the Eucharist. Think of Baptism as the egg and Eucharist as the chicken. In this series I declare that the chicken comes before the egg, in terms of both time and significance.

John 6 presents the famous “Bread of Life Discourse” in which Jesus declares the necessity of eating His flesh and drinking His blood in order to share in the Son’s eternal-life relationship with the Father. This chapter takes the place of “institution narratives” found in the other (“Synoptic”) Gospels, where Jesus offers His Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity for our salvation in the forms of bread and wine, first in the Upper Room with His Apostles on Holy Thursday, then on the Cross on Good Friday.

The Church’s Code of Canon Law presents a theologically rich description to lead off its treatment of each of the seven Sacraments. For Holy Eucharist, the Code references the Second Vatican Council’s liturgical document when it says, “The Eucharistic sacrifice, the memorial of the death and resurrection of the Lord, in which the sacrifice of the cross is perpetuated through the ages is the summit and source of all worship and Christian life, which signifies and effects the unity of the people of God and brings about the building up of the Body of Christ. Indeed, the other sacraments and all the ecclesiastical works of the apostolate are closely connected with the Most Holy Eucharist and ordered to it.”

That’s right, Catholics: Mass makes Calvary as real for us today as it was for Jesus Himself, those who dared to stand with Him, those who fled in fear, and for those who neither knew nor cared about the event. Through the Eucharist we share in the Paschal Mystery in more than a merely spectatorial manner. When we are all together at Mass, even if we don’t spiritually “have it all together,” insofar as we are “all together,” at least we have a chance. Moreover, every good work of ours finds its force from the Best Work of the God-Man. We are well reminded that we don’t, can’t, save ourselves.

“We must consider how to rouse one another to love and good works. We should not stay away from our assembly, as is the custom of some, but encourage one another, and this all the more as you see the day drawing near” (Heb 10:24-25).

An Annual Labor of Love

It is hard for me to imagine that the former Saint Kieran Parish in Heckscherville actually had two auxiliary chapels in nearby patches: one in Buck Run and the other in Greenbury. The latter, dedicated to Saint John (the Baptist? the Evangelist/Teacher/Divine?), collapsed some years ago, leaving miraculously untouched a lovely grotto of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The territories of New Castle Township and the patch of Greenbury came together in the name "Castle Green Grotto." At this lovely edifice, locals still convene to pray the Rosary and otherwise enjoy a lovely slice of Paradise.

For about a decade, several dedicated folks have organized an annual Mass on Labor Day. About 100 citizens attend, many of them former St. Kieran parishioners. The local Ancient Order of Hibernians and Ladies' AOH form an honor guard. Several area clergy have been the celebrants of the Mass over the years. As the local pastor, it has been my honor to join them. This year I was privileged to preach the occasion. Storied reporter John E. Usalis of the Pottsville Republican-Herald aptly summarized my words, which, lacking a written text, I certainly could not have done:

"We’re grateful to God and so the greatest act of gratitude to almighty God that we can offer is this sacrifice of the Mass. We do it specifically on Labor Day mindful of how God has labored on our behalf and how we labor for God. [...]

"So this day is dedicated to the honor of working. And not just the burden of it, but the honor and privilege of expending ourselves for the glory of God and for the betterment of man,” Zelonis said. “What a day to be able to do that with the liturgy, which is Greek and means ‘our work for God’ or ‘God’s work for us.’ It actually can be translated either way. The sacred liturgy is God’s work on our behalf, which I would say primarily because God is always the first agent, but then it is our work for God, our return to him as we hear in the Psalms. "What can I do for the Lord for all that he has done for me. I will take up the cup of salvation" (Ps 116:12-13). The bread of life and the cup of salvation will be offered, the bread and wine will become the body and blood of Christ, and we join to the bread and wine our prayers, our works, our joys and our sufferings.

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