To celebrate today’s feast, I walked over to St. Peter’s Basilica this morning, especially keen to see the church decorated for the day–the candles lit on Bernini’s spectacular sculpture of the Cathedra Petri and the first pope’s statue decked out in his party regalia.
In the past I’ve always had class or other obligations or there were too many tourists or the world was closed for pandemic, so I’d never visited the basilica on this feast. Today, like Goldilocks but without the hair, I found everything just right. Just a smattering of visitors early in the morning, and as a bonus I was able to get to the altar of St. Leo the Great, which is in a part of the church that is sometimes blocked off. Leo is a favorite of mine because of his lapidary teaching that what was visible in Jesus when he walked the earth has passed over into the sacraments (Sermon 74).
I paid a visit to chilly Mount Rushmore on my last trip to South Dakota and was stuck by the way the sunlight hit Washington’s face, casting it half in light and half in shadow. It occurred me how little I knew of our first president, whose birthday–with characteristic American efficiency–we combine with Lincoln’s to produce a three-day weekend.
To remedy my lack of knowledge–and perhaps because Americana takes on added interest when you live abroad–I read a biography of our first president.1 And it stuck me just how fortunate those thirteen colonies were to have a man like George Washington as their leader.
“The entire life of a good Christian is in fact an exercise in holy desire. You do not yet see what you long for, but the very act of desiring prepares you, so that when he comes you may see and be utterly satisfied.
“Suppose you are going to fill some holder or container, and you know you will be given a large amount. Then you set about stretching your sack or wineskin or whatever it is. Why? Because you know the quantity you will have to put in it and your eyes tell you there is not enough room. By stretching it, therefore, you increase the capacity of the sack, and this is how God deals with us. Simply by making us wait he increases our desire, which in turn enlarges the capacity of our soul, making it able to receive what is to be given to us.
“So, my brethren, let us continue to desire, for we shall be filled…”
St. Augustine, Tractates on the first letter of John 4
from today’s Office of Readings, Friday of the 6th Week in Ordinary Time
Today’s first reading from Jeremiah brought to mind the surreal landscape of Craters of the Moon National Monument in central Idaho, which I visited on a long road trip through the American West several years ago. It’s a surreal landscape of lava flows, ash, and shards of rock so sharp they’ll slice through your shoes if you wander off the trail.
Jeremiah’s image of a “barren bush [that] stands in a lava waste” to describe those who trust in men and not in the Lord brought Craters of the Moon to mind. I remember rounding a cinder cone, descending onto a river of hard rock, and thinking I’d wandered into Mordor.
I’m back in Rome after a happy stay at St. Isaac Jogues in Rapid City, grateful for my time in America and all that I continue to learn at my adopted parish in particular.
One anecdote came back to me this morning, reading the Gospel about the call of Peter, an important passage for me in accepting my own call. Peter recognizes his own unworthiness–“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”–but Jesus is undaunted and calls him anyway. And, of course, Peter’s subsequent story is filled with missteps, too, with the Lord again reaching out to save him and get him back on the right track. Yeah, I can identify.
At a confirmation in Rapid City a few years ago, one of my Lakota friends gave a talk that has stuck with me ever since about the eagle. Few objects are considered more sacred among Native Americans than eagle feathers, and few sights, I have to say, are more impressive than an eagle or a hawk soaring over the land.
But the point of this story was how the eagle teaches her young to fly–by carrying the little ones up into the winds and letting them go. At first they plunge, flailing and failing–until, from below, the eagle swoops down to catch them, save them, carry them aloft to try again. And that’s Jesus, my friend said, to a hushed congregation, with a conviction that could only come from knowing what it’s like to plunge and to soar.
Today’s readings are not for the conflict-averse. Today’s world is not for the conflict-averse, either. Within our communities and families, we experience conflict over vaccines and politics. Irresponsible political and media actors seem intent on increasing racial conflict. In the Ukraine, armed conflict threatens. But, as even the Bible demonstrates, the world has never been a conflict-free zone.
Conflict is a part of the human reality Jesus entered into. Conflict is not always bad, either. Political conflicts between big states and small states produced the checks-and-balances of the American Constitution. Theological conflict has led to doctrines that give us deeper insight into the nature of God. We wouldn’t have a Creed if there hadn’t first been disagreements about the Trinity. The fact that sometimes we disagree doesn’t make us bad Christians.
It looks like a picture of a horse’s… well, of the back part of a horse. Caravaggio’s painting of the conversion of St. Paul in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome puts the story’s equine character front and center. What gives? The practical joke of a roguish artist?
In today’s second reading, St. Paul warns us of autoimmune disease. An autoimmune disease, as you may know, is when the body attacks itself, one of its own parts. It’s a self-destructive disease. Last week we heard Paul tell the Corinthians, who had been squabbling over who had the better gifts, that all these different gifts come from one Spirit. One Spirit, many gifts.
Today Paul continues the same theme with the analogy of the body. The Church is like a body, with different parts—eyes and ears and limbs and so on—and if jealousy between these parts enters in and the eye stops seeing because it wants to hear, and the legs stop walking because they want to see, and the lungs stop breathing because they want to walk, then pretty soon instead of a body you have a corpse. It is one of the most important metaphors in the Bible, and this morning I’d like to focus on two implications of this metaphor. The first is that bodies share common goods. And the second is that the Body of Christ is meant to be alive.
This week I stopped at the store to purchase a box of wine. Just in case there was another quarantine, I wanted to make sure I had enough on hand to celebrate Mass. Also, like the miracle at Cana, I wanted enough left over for dinner. Coming out of a box, however, I’m not sure that anyone would say, “You saved the best for last.”
There’s something a little bit lighter in today’s Gospel story. Usually, Jesus’ miracles involve healing grave ailments—leprosy, paralysis, even death—but the miracle at Cana begins and ends at a party. At most Jesus’ intervention saves the new bride and groom from a social embarrassment. The miracle also seems a bit off script, not what Jesus had in mind. It’s his mother, after all, who intercedes for the couple and then doesn’t take no for an answer. When Protestants object to Catholics praying for Mary’s intercession, I point out that all we’re doing is repeating what happened at Cana. Nobody knows what Jesus is capable of better than Mary.
“One mightier than I is coming… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Put aside for a moment everything you think you know about baptism, and imagine you are hearing John the Baptist’s words for the first time. You’ve seen John calling sinners to repent, warning of punishments to come if they don’t, and then dunking them in the Jordan River as a sign of conversion. And now he says a mightier one is coming, who will use fire instead of water. Is it a promise or a warning?