Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Can this song please just go away?

Mary did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?

In no other case is "smh" more appropriate.

(For those who don't know, smh means "shaking my head." Don't feel bad. I didn't know that one till a couple months ago.)

While I certainly have a tendency to rant and rail against any number of things, I am not one who lightly makes polemics about religious songs. I do my best to see the good in religious art, even when it might be from a different tradition or take a little poetic license. I am a staunch defender of Amazing Grace, a hymn which many super Catholics denounce as heretical. I thought it was beautiful when Sr. Cristina Scuccia (winner of Italy's The Voice) recorded Like a Virgin for her first album (whereas, many other Christians were scandalized). I'm not interested in black listing songs or suppressing artful expression.

All of that said, I have zero love for "Mary Did You Know." Art has great power, and, especially when it comes to religious art, we need to be aware of how that power is affecting us.

Before I really get going on this, I will say that I don't mean to disregard the talent of the many artists who have performed this song, nor even that of Buddy Greene and Mark Lowry, the song's co-writers. They created something they thought was beautiful (or rather, something just about everyone thinks is beautiful), and if its subject matter were any other human being who ever lived, it would be. However, in reality, it is a misleading portrait of the Mother of the Church.

If you are one of the many who think that "Mary Did You Know" is a worthwhile reflection on Mary's perspective on her Son, I invite you to re-examine your understanding of the Blessed Mother. You might say that it makes her feel more human, more like us, but I respond that in her place in God's plan she is the most human, an elevation of humanity, what humanity should have been in the first know, without sin. I don't need to identify with yet another sinner. There are plenty of those to go around. There are any number of good, respectable, and even heroic people who were sinners. We call them saints, and there are loads of them. I pray to them all the time, and I identify with their stories.

Yet Mary is not merely a saint. In my search for intercessors and exemplars, I have need of something beyond just the saints, someone higher than them. You might say angels fit that bill, but they aren't human. No, this need is only fulfilled by tapping into the hope and beauty that is the perfection of our nature, without stain of sin. Of course we already have the New Adam in the person of Jesus Christ, but there is something truly beautiful about the New Eve in her perfect humanity. I need my Mama.

That's not to say that Mary never knew fear or doubt or difficulty--even Jesus in his humanity experienced those thing--but this song takes it way too far. Here's why I can't abide "Mary Did You Know:"

"Mary Did You Know" imagines a Mary who is clueless as to who her Son is, an ignorant Mary who doesn't know as much about Jesus as we Christians do. How absurdly condescending! We don't need to bring Mary down to our level, and we certainly don't need to put her beneath us. Who among us knows Jesus better than Mary? She carried the King of kings in her womb, yet we would lecture her on who he is.

The song speaks to Mary as though she is unworthy of our veneration. It ignores her place in our salvation. It relegates her motherhood as a mere plot device in the Gospels. That's such an impoverished take on Divine Providence. God had chosen Mary from the very beginning. That's why she's special. There is a difference between Mary and us.

Before you get all argumentative (and I some of you will), I do understand that the intended effect of the song is to teach us about Jesus, not Mary. It's not lost on me that one of the more creative and profound ways to teach about Jesus is to speak of his mother, but there's a right way to do that. The Council of Ephesus called Mary "Theotokos" (Mother of God). That sounds like it's just a positive thing to say about Mary, but it's actually done to teach us about the unity of Jesus' human and divine natures. If Mary is his mother, she's the mother of the one Person Jesus Christ, who is fully human and fully divine. She's not just the Mother of Christ (his humanity), but the Mother of God. The Council of Ephesus succeeded both stating the truth about Jesus, and saying something positive about Mary. "Mary Did You Know" states the truth about Jesus at the expense of his mother.

To me it is a real shame that in Catholic churches across the nation, this song will be sung during Advent and Christmas. I can think of probably 50 songs that get at the true nature of the Mother of God, all so much more beautiful than this song from 1994 (when Ace of Bass topped the charts). Check out the words of this hymn to Mary written by a Anglican convert to Catholicism that sums up most of what we believe about Our Lady:

Holy light on earth’s horizon,
star of hope to fallen man,
light amid a world of shadows,
dawn of God’s redemptive plan,
chosen from eternal ages,
you alone of all our race,
by your Son’s atoning merits
were conceived in perfect grace.

Mother of the world’s Redeemer,
promised from the dawn of time:
how could one so highly favoured
share the guilt of Adam’s crime?
Sun and moon and stars adorn you,
sinless Eve, triumphant sign;
you it is who crushed the serpent,
Mary, pledge of life divine.

Earth below and highest heaven,
praise the splendour of your state,
you who now are crowned in glory
were conceived immaculate.
Hail, beloved of the Father,
Mother of his only Son,
mystic bride of Love eternal, hail,
O fair and spotless one!

Or, just be reminded of the words of the Hail Holy Queen:

Hail, Holy Queen, mother of Mercy,
our life, our sweetness, and our hope!
To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve.
To thee do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us,
and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O Clement, O Loving, O Sweet Virgin Mary!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

All Life is Sacred

Brittany Maynard's decision was wrong, but not for the reasons you think.

What I'm seeing on the inter-webs is that many Christians feel that the only reason to be disappointed in Brittany Maynard's decision to end her life is if you group it in as a suicide. Suicide is wrong, therefore she was wrong. At this, I shake my head.

Technically speaking, yes, suicide is the term for what happened to Brittany Maynard. However, to pretend that the underlying cause of her actions is comparable to that of a more stereotypical suicide (for lack of a better term) is about as mature a position as young earth creationism. Suicide is a different issue (and is itself a vastly complicated one). Many progressive bloggers have keyed in on this distinction and concluded that maybe she wasn't wrong to end her life, some going so far as to say Brittany Maynard didn't commit suicide.

Coming at it from that point of view is a red herring. Suicide is not what we should be talking about. What is disappointing about Brittany Maynard's decision in particular and society at large is that so many believe that human dignity is rooted in quality of life. Life is only worth living if it can be lived under ideal conditions. That is simply untrue. Human life is by nature dignified, even if it's imperfect.

I readily admit that it would have been very difficult for Brittany Maynard to continue living - clearly her prognosis was dire. However, pain, suffering, and the loss of faculties do not empty life of its dignity.

The notion that quality of life is the measure of the dignity of life is related to the horrendous fact that in the United States, 92% of children with trisomy 21 (Down syndrome) are aborted. Reflect on that for a moment. What might cause parents to make that choice? The child is atypical? It will be more challenging for the parents? It's not what the parents imagined life or parenting to be like? Maybe it's something else besides, but whatever the cause, it's terribly sad. It betrays a survival-of-the-fittest mentality when it comes to human dignity. The only people who should live are those who's lives are worth living.

Here the reader will begin to write off the comparison, because I'm using Brittany Maynard's sad case as an opportunity to make a point about abortion. But to be pro-life is not just a question of abortion stance. The Christian is called to recognize that all human life is sacred: the child in the womb, the terminally ill patient, and yes even the convicted criminal. I am saddened that Brittany Maynard could not see the beauty of her life in spite of suffering, just as I am saddened that so many parents can't see the beauty in a disabled child and that so many Christians insist that criminals deserve death. None of us is in a position to point at a given human life and say, "end it," just as none of us is in a position to walk through the Louvre, point at a particular work of art and say, "destroy it."

Then there's this:
I've also seen people say that the reason Brittany Maynard was wrong is because it is God's decision when we die, not our own. I think that is an awful thing to say. The book of Wisdom teaches us, "God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living." (Wisdom 1:13) We are not on this earth to patiently await the time God has chosen to kill us. We are on this earth to be filled to brimming with the love of God, and then let that love be poured out of us into the world until such time as we are spent. "If you love until it hurts, there can be no more hurt, only more love." (Bl. Mother Teresa)

Very plainly, the reason Brittany Maynard's decision was misguided is that her life still had value, even if she could not see it. Broken as she was, and as we all are, Brittany Maynard never ceased to be God's beautiful creation. It would have been heroic for her to go on living, and sometimes, heroism is precisely what God calls us to.

Still, though I've said her actions were wrong, I do still hope to see her in the Kingdom. If God in his goodness would deign to forgive my great sins, surely he can forgive someone who unfortunately did not recognize the Divine Image in her own heart. In the build up to her decision, I wished for all the world to have some way of communicating that truth to her, but, as Thomas Merton said, "There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun."

This is November, the month of praying for the dead:

Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, 
and let perpetual light shine upon her.
May her soul and the souls of the faithful departed 
through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

All Saints' Day Homily

I don't ever post homilies, but since this one will only be delivered once (tomorrow is All Souls' Day, so the homily will be quite different), I figured I'd make it a bit more accessible. (And yes, I did steal a line from Louis CK.)

John makes a rather peculiar assumption in this evening's second reading: "The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him [Jesus]."

"The reason the world does not know us..."

"The world does not know us."

Really? The world does not know us? Is that true? Let's give a face to "the world," and ask the question, "does that guy know me?" I wonder if we're really all that estranged from a personification of "the world."

The world is greed.

He is the desire for more, and more, and more. The world is wanting to have the newest thing, searching for happiness in money and power. The world is having desires fulfilled as soon as possible. He despises patience and loves next day air. The world is greed. Does the world know you?

The world is envy.

The world is always thinking about what other people have, despising the blessings God has given to him. The world looks in the other person's bowl, not to check that they have enough, but to see how unfair it is that they have and he does not. The world is envy. Is he your friend?

St. John assumes that the world does not know us...

The world is gluttony.

The world is perpetually bored, consuming food and drink and entertainment, because, well, what else is there to do? The world stays up all night binge watching TV shows. The world wastes hours on the internet and playing video games. The world is gluttony. Are you a stranger to the world?

The world is lust.

The world pretends to love the sexual act, but actually hates it, using it in all the wrong ways. The world is addicted to pornography, and that doesn't bother him, because everyone uses it, right? The world sees other humans as objects not subjects. The world constantly makes sexist jokes and sexist policies. The world is captivated by someone else's spouse, or a live in girlfriend or boyfriend. The world is lust. Does the world know you?

The world is sloth.

The world is lazy and listless. The world insists that no one encroach on his time. The world sits on the couch and takes for granted those he loves and who love him. He always keeps his options open. The world knows what the right thing to do is, but hesitates to do it, sits on his hands, and it goes undone. The world is sloth. Does the world know you?

The world is anger.

The world knows just what's wrong with people today, what's wrong with everybody else. The world will admit a vague sense that he know's he's not perfect...but do you know what that other guy did? Did you hear? ... The world is a gossip. The world curses uncontrollably, especially when he's driving or watching football. The world is angry with his wife more often than he finds himself enjoying being with her. The world never compromises. The world is anger. How familiar is the world with you?

The world is pride.

The world doesn't listen. The world wants things his way. He's frustrated that people just don't get it. The world rolls his eyes at his superiors, usually behind their back. He's really good at imagining what he should have said to that person. The world is self-absorbed, but at the same time, hates himself, because he knows deep down that he's not as good as he tells everyone else...definitely not as good as the facade he presents on Facebook. The world is pride. Are you a stranger to the world?

Again, St. John takes it for granted that we are strangers to the world, for the saints are. That's why holy people stick out so easily and draw so much criticism. To the extent that they are captivated by heavenly things, their relationship with the world is neglected more and more.

Most saints started out as close friends with the world. They were old drinking buddies. But growing in holiness is sort of like what happens when a person settles down, gets married, gets a job, has kids, matures, or otherwise no longer has time for his immature friends. He feels awkward around them. He doesn't care as much about the things they want to talk and joke about. He has to leave early to get back to his life. Eventually he becomes estranged from them. He says hello every now and then, but his life has changed.

That process of leaving our old "friends" behind is precisely what conversion means. We grow further and further apart from our old drinking buddy, (but we might not even notice it as it's happening). We begin to care about other things and neglect our old friendship with the world.

But here is the question. Here is what determines whether we're on the path to sanctity, that great quality of being a saint:

Who is it that we're growing apart from? Can I more truthfully say:

"I am neglecting my relationship with the world."
"I am neglecting my relationship with God."

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Body of the Deceased

Concerning preparations for funerals and plans for burial or cremation (both for loved ones and one's self), there is a common theme I hear with regard to the body of the deceased: "That's not Mom." "It's just a shell." "Of course, Dad's not here [in the casket]." It's not universal. Not everyone talks that way, but many do.

As All Souls' Day approaches, I just want to remind people (Catholics in particular) that the human body is sacred. True, the dead body is dead, and it is no longer informed by the soul. It will indeed return to dust, as we are reminded on Ash Wednesday. However, it is still the beautiful creation of God, even if it will soon decay. This is part of why the Church for such a long time banned the practice of cremation (though the main part was its cultural ties to paganism and a rejection of the belief in the resurrection of the dead). The human body is to be honored as something good and holy, for it is God's creation. That's why a person's remains are sprinkled with holy water, covered with a pall, and incensed, not to mention the Bible and crucifix placed upon the casket. These are outward signs as we remember and pray for the person's soul, yes, but they are also geared towards our reverence for the body.

The human person is composed of both body and soul. A little known implication of that reality is this: human beings are incomplete in heaven. (Wait, what?) No, I don't mean that humans are not completely fulfilled by the beatific vision of God.  Souls are perfectly happy in the presence of God. Rather, I mean that God created us as bodily creatures, so to exist without a body leaves us incomplete in God's plan for us. That's why we have that line in the Nicene Creed that you might not have contemplated before: "I look forward to the resurrection of the dead." The dead will be raised at the end of time, not because God wants to engineer some kind of awesome or macabre spectacle. The dead will be raised because Jesus Christ was raised, and we who have died with him will also rise with him.

For this reason, cemeteries are considered holy places! They aren't unholy or unclean. They aren't scary or evil. Horror movies and popular Halloween traditions might tell us otherwise, but I assure you, graveyards are good and holy places.

So when you think of what you want done when you've passed away, or as you prepare for a loved one's death, keep these beliefs in mind. The human body is sacred, and it will one day be reunited with the soul.

[In case you're wondering, cremation is now an acceptable practice in the Church, and there is even a rite of burial specific to it. It is allowable under two conditions: it's not a denial of the resurrection of the body, and the remains will be deposited in a fitting location, like a columbarium. Scattering ashes and placing them on the mantle are not acceptable in the Catholic Church.]

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

More Than You Can Handle

An old saying has really been getting put down lately, and not without reason.  I understand the point that people are making, and I kind of agree.  However, the Fathers of the Church are generally better at communicating the faith than we are, so let's take a look back.

The saying to which I refer is, "God will never give you anything you can't handle," or some variation on that.  The common deconstructionist retort these past few months has been that he most certainly will and does give you more than you can't handle.  Just Google the phrase and you'll quickly find at least a handful of bloggers devaluing the poor old truism.

But let's look at how St. Basil the Great words it:  "First, let me say that we have already received from God the ability to fulfill all his commands.  We have then no reason to resent them, as if something beyond our capacity were being asked of us.  We have no reason either to be angry, as if we had to pay back more than we had received."

Aha!  There's a bit of nuance here.  The old saying has it in terms of not being able to handle the things God gives us (things generally being understood as situations or problems), but the only things Basil talks about God giving us are commands.  God doesn't give us problems; he gives us commands.  Interesting.

The pesky bloggers have understood the saying to mean that God will not cause you to be in a situation where you will... "What?" they say, "not be able to handle it?  But of course he will!  He does all the time!"  And the bloggers go on to describe all the situations that they or those close to them have been unable to handle.

Basil's version is so much clearer.  The point is not for us to "handle" situations.  The point is not for us to maintain control all the time.  The point is for us to be faithful throughout.  Yes, we will be confronted by problems in life that are un-solvable.  We will lose our composure.  We will lose our money.  We will lose friends.  We will lose our calm.  Yet, Basil would tell us that all of that stuff is fair game.  It's totally alright to lose all of those things.  Tribulation will come.  The only goal we should have is our faithfulness to God's commands during that tribulation.

People emphatically cannot handle the death of their children.  They absolutely cannot handle witnessing genocide.  God never asks anyone to have all the answers.  He does not command us to "handle it," to "take it like a man," or to "deal with it."  He wants us to learn how to suffer well, for suffer we must.  We are called to suffer like Christ.

Christ's body (guess what) didn't handle it.  Christ was crushed, broken, killed.  Nobody's there telling Jesus to "deal with it."  Rather, he patiently suffers.  He trusts in his Father.  He is faithful to the end.  While the deconstructionist bloggers may have it technically right--God most certainly will give you more than you can handle--they're also missing the point.  It's not our place to stay in control, to "handle" situations.  Success is God's business; faithfulness is ours.

Funny thing is, I don't think I find myself in disagreement with the conclusions reached by most of those "pesky" bloggers, as I have named them.  I just disagree with their headlines and titles, designed thus to grab your attention.  They may grab your attention, but I think they're throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Conceived in Rape

Please watch the video.  I am not a woman and furthermore not a victim of rape, so, if my comments are off, please forgive me my ignorance.

A child conceived in rape is automatically seen as someone who shouldn't exist.  Even this woman admits that when she found out the truth, she felt her "value" had dropped.  Children should be conceived in love.  That is the way things are supposed to be.  But children of rape are conceived in hatred, anger, lust, fear, abuse, etc.  Because their beginning is so far from where children "should" come from, they are worth less in our eyes.  The already enormous pain suffered by a victim of rape shouldn't have to be augmented by the physical and emotional burden of carrying a child conceived in such a way.  That is what many believe (I think).

Two things against that:

First, even if the human beginnings of a child conceived in rape are evil, the inherent worth of that little person as a child of God is never lost.  Just as God is my Father more profoundly than my biological father and mother (who in my case, conceived me in love), so God is the Father of a child conceived in rape, regardless of the despicable acts of that child's earthly father.  The child is good and unrepeatable, an object of God's love and attention, every bit as much as you or I.

Second, we are not meant for ordinary lives.  The ordinary choice is to abort the child of rape.  That's what is expected, because such a child shouldn't exist.  The victim/mother has suffered enough.  It's too much for her to suffer the stigma of carrying that child, to bear the physical burden of child birth, or to endure the emotional turmoil that no doubt such a pregnancy would bring.  That's too much to ask someone who has already needlessly suffered an awful indignity.

But I say that we need to stop settling for what is ordinary, for merely what is needed to get by.  Each one of us, in our own way, can be a hero.  Heroism is what our world needs--the hidden heroism of a victim of rape who chooses not to abort.  We need to stop encouraging one another to just get through crises.  Instead, it's time we began helping one another rise above them.  

It breaks my heart (not to mention angers me) that so many prominent pro-lifers out there say that God intends for women to be raped or that it is their own fault or anything of that sort.  It is a horrible poverty of mind and heart to say that because God is the creator of all life, even the child of rape, he must have therefore "willed" that the rape take place.  No, no, no!  That is stupidity.  That is blasphemy.

God is so good and so powerful that he relentlessly brings good out of evil and places a light even in the darkest of situations.  How powerfully and beautifully did love overcome evil the day this woman's mother decided not to abort.  What a brilliant light shining for all to see.

A life taking choice does not undo the outrage of rape.  It does not take away the evil committed.  It does not expedite a return to normalcy for the victim.  

Let us give life, not take it.