Thursday, August 17, 2017

Sun and Moon, Bless the Lord!

I was saddened to hear yesterday on NPR that the moon is slowly moving away from the earth. Every year, it seems, it shifts outward about an inch-and-half. That means that, in only about another 600 million years, the moon will look small enough that it no longer completely covers the sun, and whoever is left on Earth then won't see any more total solar eclipses!

So aren't we lucky to be living on earth now!

(For the full story, go to

Monday’s eclipse is being called the “Great American Total Solar Eclipse,” since the 70-mile-wide shadow cast by the moon will darken skies from Oregon to South Carolina, The total eclipse be first visible in the continental United States on the Oregon coast and will progress south-eastward across the country, covering parts of Tennessee in its shadow.

This eclipse is attracting scientists and eclipse tourists from all over the world. I even know at least one person from Canada who will be in Tennessee for the occasion! Schools will be closed, so that more people can travel to see it. The US Postal service has even issued a special commemorative stamp! (I am still using up my supply of last year's Christmas stamps. But I will interupt that for a while and use Eclipse Stamps.) 

Meanwhile, more people may be congregating in some small towns in the path of totality on Monday than in all of history hitherto! 

Sun and moon, bless the Lord! (Daniel 3:62)

The Path Of The August 21 Eclipse

Source: NASA
Credit: Katie Park and Leanne Abraham/NPR

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Resetting History's Arc

President Obama was famously fond of quoting: "The Arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice." The logic of this slogan is further reflected in secular liberalism's somewhat bizarre preoccupation with always being on something it curiously calls "the right side of history." Sadly, however, history has no "right" side. History just happens. Like human nature itself, our morally imputable, human, historical actions have teleology, but history itself does not. History is just what we do - both good and bad, both right and wrong.

As Jesus said, Watch out that you are not deceived. All sorts of things may happen in history. But the end will not come right away (Cf. Luke 21:8-9).

Secular fantasies about being on "the right side of history" may be one more casualty of the political and moral crisis that has gripped our country. The recent resurgence of publicly celebrated, racist Confederate and neo-Nazi displays, such as was seen in Charlottesvlle last weekend, illustrates the amorality of history's direction. It can go any way - right or wrong. It's really up to us which way it goes. Again, history is what we do. It is we - not some impersonal abstraction called history - that can do right or wrong. 

It is neither accidental nor inconsequential that the public celebration of Confederate and neo-Nazi values in Charlottesville last weekend was connected to a present-day controversy about removing a statue of Robert. E. Lee (photo). A disinterested observer would ask the obvious question. What kind of society tolerates statues and other monuments in honor of traitors? 

The fact that Robert E. Lee and others were not tried, convicted, and executed for treason (as defined in Article Three of the US Constitution) is past history, with consequences in the present  Contemporary cults that continue to honor them, however, are among those consequences. This is present history and so is as yet unsettled and is for those alive now to settle. 

Statues are in themselves simply symbols. But a contemporary generation which witnessed the removal of Communist-era statues after the fall of the Soviet Union understands the potent significance of such symbols - symbols that may portray the past but speak in and to the present. Only when all vestiges of the worst of American history - i.e., of the Confederate fight against the United States in order to preserve and perpetuate slavery - have finally been consigned to the past by people in the present, only then will this nation begin to build not some imaginary utopia on "the right side of history," but the more modest but also more attainable goal of at least a better, more humane, and more just society. 

History's only actual arc is the one we set for it by what we do in present history. So let us do the challenging and demanding work of resetting that arc so as to pass on to the future a country that may be - in the words of the so-called "Ephebic Oath" - "not only not less, but greater, better, and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us."

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Where She Is, There We Hope To Be

To an ancient Christian audience, already well acquainted with the Old Testament, the identity of the woman in today's (to us somewhat strange-sounding) 1st reading [Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10] would be obvious. She is Israel, God's Chosen People, bringing to birth the Messiah, thanks to whom Israel has been expanded now to include all nations and peoples in a new and enlarged People of God, the Church, which continues the task of bringing Christ into the world. Now that the Risen Christ has ascended to his throne in heaven, the Church remains behind, still suffering from all sorts of evils, but full of hope and confidence in the future.

It is easy to recognize the story of the Church in the image of this woman - and equally easy to see her as a symbol of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In Mary's prayer in the Gospel we just heard [Luke 1:46-55], Mary united herself with God's actions on our behalf and so invites us to identify ourselves too with God's plan for the world.

Part of that plan is our sharing in Christ's risen life. Christ, Saint Paul reminds us in today's 2nd reading [1 Corinthians 15:20-27], has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. In ancient times, the springtime offering of the first fruits signified the dedication of the entire harvest to God. So the resurrection of Christ (which took place on the day of the offering of the first fruits) points ahead to the final resurrection of all those who belong to Christ. In Mary's assumption, we have fast-forwarded to what God, having already accomplished in Christ, plans yet to accomplish in us. Assumed into heaven, Mary links the Church, as we are now, with the Church, as we hope to be then.

But, meanwhile, we are still surrounded on all sides by so much bad news. Our world is full of natural and human-made disasters - domestic terrorism, foreign war, economic exploitation, once stable societies unravelling, and once-trusted institutions breaking down, as well as inexplicable personal tragedies. But God has already acted on our behalf by raising Jesus from the dead. In Christ, God has given us an alternative future. And, in Mary, Christ's resurrection has, so to speak, become contagious. In Mary's assumption, God has shown himself as her life and her hope - and so also our life and our hope.

Today, Mary magnifies the Lord on high. She has already led the way for us in being there. May she now also show us how to get there.  For where she is, there we hope to be.

Homily for the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 15, 2017.

(Photo: Oil Painting, Assumption of the Virgin (1515-1518), by Italian Renaissance artist Titian, located at the high altar in the Venetian Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari)

Monday, August 14, 2017

Assumption Eve

The “Old” Catholic Encyclopedia (the first volume of which appeared over 100 years ago in 1907) identified the Assumption as Mary’s principal liturgical feast and assigned it “a double object: (1) the happy departure of Mary from this life; (2) the assumption of her body into heaven.” Thus, well before Pope Pius XII’s dogmatic definition of the Assumption in 1950, the Catholic Encyclopedia attested to the antiquity of the traditions which underlie the Church’s belief.

A 10-minute Vatican video of the 1950 dogmatic definition (with the commentary entirely in Italian) can be accessed at A 30-minute French version can be watched at and a very brief English-language version at

The centerpiece of that grand event was, of course, the solemn papal proclamation of the Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus.

Ecclesiologically, it is interesting how the Pope framed the process of preparing the definition – in particular the 1946 inquiry sent to the world’s bishops: “Do you, venerable brethren, in your outstanding wisdom and prudence, judge that the bodily Assumption of the Blessed virgin can be proposed and defined as a dogma of faith? Do you, with your clergy and people, desire it?” (MD 11).

The almost unanimous response of the world's bishops affirmatively confirmed the traditional popular belief.

Munificentissimus Deus is also especially interesting for the its appreciation of the role of the Church's liturgy in expressing the Church's faith. On this Assumption Eve, we may also wistfully recall the Pope's reference to how his predecessor Saint Leo IV (Pope 847-855), who built the defensive wall that still encloses much of the Vatican, "saw to it that the feast, which was already being celebrated under the title of the Assumption of the Blessed Mother of God, should be celebrated in an even more solemn way when he ordered a a vigil to be held on the day before it" (MD 19). Today's Vigil of the Assumption survived the “first cut” when various other vigils like that of the Immaculate Conception were axed in 1955. Among the most ancient vigils it manged to survive until the unfortunate final elimination of all vigils by Paul VI in 1969.

(Photo: Oil Painting, Assumption of the Virgin (1515-1518), by Italian Renaissance artist Titian, located at the high altar in the Venetian Basilica di Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari)

Sunday, August 13, 2017

At Sea

For many people summer means time to head for the water – to swim, to sail, to ski, whatever. Twenty-four summers ago, when I was in Israel, a group of us went to great length to find a beach on the Sea of Galilee just so that we could all say that we had actually physically been in the water of the Sea of Galilee. Yet, while frolicking in the water has always had a broad appeal, there has also always been a certain dimension of danger associated with water. Jesus and his disciples undoubtedly understood that and treated their local waterway more seriously than we did. It was, after all, where the disciples had, until just recently, been making their living as fishermen; and it was still, so the Gospels seem to suggest, serving as a base of operations for Jesus and his disciples. And, like anyone who has ever been caught in a boat in a storm, they knew how very suddenly things can change and suddenly go very wrong on the water; and they likely also knew how limited was the security that their fishing and seafaring skills could guarantee.

Today’s suggestive image of the disciples in the boat, being tossed about by the waves, with Jesus miles away praying on the mountain, has often been seen as an apt image for the Church. In the 3rd century, the Roman martyr Hippolytus (whose commemoration in the Church’s calendar actually occurs today) described the Church as a boat in a storm being tossed about by the waves of the world. Not much has changed in almost 2000 years! It still seems a very apt image for a Church forever struggling to hold its own amid the many stresses and dangers a perennially hostile world keeps throwing up at it. Anyone who keeps up with the news knows about the dangers and difficulties faced by Christian communities in the many parts of the word – in the Middle East and elsewhere. Compared to that, whatever difficulties we may experience seem like modest storms. But even ordinary storms can pose serious challenges.

In the Gospel story, the solution to the disciples’ dilemma is, of course, Jesus himself, who, during the fourth watch of the night, came toward them walking on the sea. In the midst of so much turbulence, Jesus stands among us, calmly overcoming the chaos that threatens us, saying again and again: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.”

One of those in the boat – appropriately enough Peter, the one appointed by Jesus to be the leader his Church - was willing initially to take Jesus at his word. “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” As I said last week, Peter being Peter, typically says the right thing but then shows how completely clueless he is about what it means. And so Jesus generally both praises him for initially responding the right way and then reproves him for missing the point. As he typically does, Peter here blurts out the first thing that comes into his head - because his heart already belongs to Jesus. But then he loses his focus, forgetting, so it seems, exactly who has just called him to come, and instead starts seeing the danger, starts considering the costs, starts thinking the way the world thinks. And when we start thinking the way the world thinks, then the world starts to win. Peter’s faith is real, but it is what Jesus calls “little faith,” a fearful faith, a faith that still lets itself get distracted by the world, by other ways of thinking and being. And so he starts to sink.

(Those of a certain age who shared my generation's experience of Saturday morning cartoons will remember characters who would run off a cliff and then just keep going until they suddenly realize where they are and only then start to fall!)

Like Peter, we are all susceptible to the competing concerns of other ways of thinking and being. We are tempted continually to count the costs of our commitment – and to try to measure its benefits. We seem forever caught somewhere between walking in faith and sinking in fear. So we are perpetually in need of that outstretched hand, which catches us in spite of all our fears, the hand of the Risen Christ, who has promised to remain with us in this boat, which is his Church, forever.

Homily for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, August 13, 2017.