Lenten Devotions: It’s Not Too Late!

It’s already the first Saturday of Lent – maybe you never settled on a devotion or spiritual discipline to take on this Lent, and you’re feeling awkward or ashamed or defeated. But fear not! It’s not too late. It’s never too late: as my pastor preached on Ash Wednesday, Lent is a season for starting over… over and over again. Every day can be a new fresh start, a new turning away from sin and towards our merciful God.

So if you haven’t settled on anything yet, or if you’re looking for something to expand your spiritual practice, this post is for you.

Longtime readers of this blog know I’m a big fan of Lent Madness, a March Madness-style bracket matchup of 32 holy men & women competing (via our daily online votes) for the Golden Halo. It’s organized by the Episcopalians, so not all the saints are formally recognized by the Catholic church as “saints”, but this makes it a wonderful opportunity to learn about some faithful Christians that we Catholics may never have heard of. It is also more than a little bit irreverent, so it’s not for everyone. That said, I highly recommend the weekday* discipline of reading about the two saints, voting in the poll, and reading the comments, where people may share their reasons for voting (and there are no wrong reasons) and reflect on the lives of the saints.

On a more serious note, the Ignatian Solidarity Network is running a very important blog series. Lift Every Voice: A Lenten Journey Towards Racial Justice features a brief daily reflection on the sin of racism in America, with questions for reflection and an opportunity for comments. There’s also a hashtag #ISNLENT for continuing the conversation elsewhere in social media.

This is one I’m starting late myself, but I’m very grateful to see a Catholic conversation about what has been justly called “America’s original sin”, and am particularly looking forward to reading the reflections of Dr. M. Shawn Copeland, a renowned Black Catholic theologian, one of several contributors to the series. I encourage all my readers, especially my fellow white Christians, to join me in taking on this daily discipline of reflecting on a grave sin from which we need to turn away, individually and collectively, in the church and in civil society.

Both devotions offer email signups, so they can helpfully appear in your inbox, with links back to the blog so you can participate there as well if you wish. (aka How modern technology can make it easier for you to be faithful to your Lenten disciplines — do we have it good, or what? :) )

I invite you to share any other Lenten practices, disciplines, or resources in the comments. Because it’s never too late! Someone else might find spiritual nourishment in what you share.

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, I wish you all a blessed, holy, and fruitful Lenten season. Thanks be to God!

*Lent Madness is a weekday series except for today! The first Saturday of Lent is included to make the numbers come out right. Vote today for Cyril or Methodius… after learning more about these two brothers from the ninth century who were very influential in shaping the Slavic church.

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One of These Things is Not Like the Others

I read this quote, and I immediately noticed:

One of these things is not like the others.
Just imagine if it said

In this Year of Mercy, let us try to have a more compassionate love for the poor, the pregnant, the prisoner, the immigrant, and the sick.

Why doesn’t it?

The rhetoric of the anti-abortion movement renders pregnant women invisible, transparent, so that the only visible subject is the zygote, embryo, or fetus that the women are gestating. (Note that “gestate” is an active verb, requiring a subject as well as an object.)

The legislative speech of the anti-abortion movement infantilizes pregnant women, treating them as moral naifs who simply don’t realize what they are doing, or haven’t thought it through. Sometimes it lies to them.

The protest speech of the anti-abortion movement vilifies and harasses pregnant women, verbally, visually, and physically.

Given these other choices, rhetorical invisibility seems preferable. But that invisibility insidiously enables the infantilization, deception, and harassment: by replacing pregnant women with the fruit of their wombs, it fosters compassion for the latter while rendering the former not only rhetorically, but morally, invisible. This erasure of pregnant women is both morally and theologically problematic.

In this Year of Mercy, let us try to have a more compassionate love for the poor, the pregnant, the prisoner, the immigrant, and the sick.

Because mercy should have nothing to do with misogyny.

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Mercy and Misogyny

I picked up a nice little brochure on the Year of Mercy at my parish in December. It had a lot of good information in it, including a handy checklist of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy; and it had this prayer:

Pope Francis’ Prayer for the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy

Lord Jesus Christ, you have taught us to be merciful like the heavenly Father, and have told us that whoever sees you sees Him. Show us your face and we will be saved. Your loving gaze freed Zaccaeus and Matthew from being enslaved by money; the adulteress and Magdalene from seeking happiness only in created things…

OK, I don’t know what it says after that, because I was so shocked that I stopped reading. Because apparently, Jesus frees men from love of money, and women from love of sex with men. What?
Continue reading

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The Woman Taken in Adultery: An Imaginative Retelling of John 8:2-11

Shortly after the morning meal, one of the stable hands at the inn came upon a man and woman having sex in one of the empty stalls. He raised a hue and cry, and soon all the servants and half the guests had come running to apprehend the couple and make sure they got what was coming to them. Well, they apprehended her, anyway; the fellow got away, seeing as how he was on top and had run off before more than one or two of the others had arrived, and them more interested in laying hands on the half-naked woman, her blouse undone and her skirts clear up around her waist, than they were in catching him.

….He was good at seducing other men’s wives. So of course, he always had an ear half-cocked for the sounds of discovery. By the time the first shout was raised, he’d already heard footsteps and started to pull out of her. He jumped up and ran, holding up his pants with one hand, and keeping his face turned away from his discoverers. He ducked into the rearmost stall for half a minute, long enough to fasten his pants, straighten his clothes, and pull up his hood; then sneaked out the back entrance into the yard and strolled around the corner in time to join the mob pouring out of the inn. No one would suspect him there.

The first few lads were brought to the innkeeper, to tell what had happened, and then to one of the scribes: interrupting each other every other sentence, faces flushed with excitement at being the center of attention (and at having managed to grope and fondle the woman a few times while hauling her up and rearranging her clothes so she was decently covered). While the scribe went off to consult others, the crowd gossiped happily about the scandal. He returned with a colleague, and a couple of the local Pharisees, who said they were going to bring her to the temple, where that upstart Galilean was teaching; and the whole crowd followed along, to see what would happen. Continue reading

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Holy Doors, Plenary Indulgences, and Challenge Grants

As I mentioned in my earlier post, there is a special blessing available to those who pass through a holy door during the Jubilee Year under certain conditions. This blessing is called a plenary indulgence; in colloquial terms, it takes away all the time that one would otherwise spend in Purgatory. In order to obtain this plenary indulgence, one must on the same day pass through the holy door, go to confession, receive communion, and pray for the intentions of the Pope. This blessing can be obtained either for oneself or for someone else.

My initial exposure to the concept of indulgences was in the context of learning about the Protestant Reformation. One of the things that justifiably outraged Martin Luther was that indulgences were being sold in order to raise money to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica. So I was quite taken aback when I first encountered indulgences in contemporary use! I hadn’t realized it was only the sale of indulgences that had been reprobated by the Council of Trent, as part of what is traditionally called the Counter-Reformation but is arguably more aptly called the Catholic Reformation: basically, this was a period during which the Catholic church enacted a number of reforms in response to many of the critiques made by the Protestant Reformers.

I like to use the practice of selling indulgences as an example of what occasionally happens when you take several well-grounded but distinct teachings or traditions, and follow them out to their logical conclusions.

The following are all, independently, uncontroversial Catholic teaching: Continue reading

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Rejoice, Rejoice, Christ is born of the Virgin Mary!

This is a beautiful article about Lo How A Rose, which is one of my favorite Advent/Christmas carols.

Most Christmas carols, and most of our popular music generally, exist for the rhythm or melody. Consider how much mileage “Angels We Have Heard on High” gets out of its cascading glorias, or how much of the fun of “Carol of the Bells” springs from its icy intervals or insistent tempo. But Lo How a Rose exists for the chords. There is almost no rhythmic variation: The four voices move together, syllable after syllable, in patient homophony. This is a hymn about beholding and listening. It’s about watching revelation flourish.

It includes several different recordings, and a discussion of just how the musical setting testifies to its subject.

The title of this post is taken from the English translation of this piece, normally tucked away on my “About” page:

And this is the most adorable Christmas pageant ever:

Merry Christmas!

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Gaudete Sunday: Rejoice Greatly!

Wishing you all a happy pink-candle Advent week on my blog’s name day, and reflecting on the incarnation of Zechariah’s text in joyful performances like this one.


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Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy

In honor of today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception, which opens the Jubilee Year of Mercy, I thought I would do a close read of this traditional Catholic prayer, also known as the Salve Regina.

If you only know the version in the hymnal, or its delightfully joyful rendition from Sister Act, then this will be new to you. The prayer is not a triumphal hymn of praise; it is, instead, a lament. And, I argue, a lament that deliberately counterposes Mary with Eve.

Here is the entire prayer as I learned it in childhood; it is this version I’ll be reading, rather than the original Latin. If your tradition permits, pray it with me now.

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 lift up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious advocate,
thine eyes of mercy towards us,
and after this, our exile,
show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
O clement, o loving, o sweet Virgin Mary:
Pray for us, o holy Mother of God,
that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Now, my Protestant friends may already find their teeth set on edge at line 2, and I confess I too would be more comfortable addressing Jesus as Life, Sweetness, and Hope than Mary. I wondered, in fact, if this line should actually be interpreted as a continuation of the previous phrase, thus addressing Mary as “Mother of (Mercy, Life, Sweetness, and Hope).” I went so far as to check the original Latin, but it’s clear from the grammar that these images are indeed being used of Mary. Perhaps for your own comfort you may make that adaptation as we proceed; but we will come back to this line later.

So, a quick overview: Mary’s in heaven, we’re on earth, woe is us, because we all got kicked out of the Garden of Eden and that’s why life is so miserable. We ask Mary to mercifully intercede for us so we can get to heaven, too.

A quick sidebar for non-Catholic readers: our tradition has it that at the end of her life Mary was translated (“assumed”) bodily into heaven (the feast of the Assumption you may have heard of), because God would not suffer the body that bore and nursed him to decay. As the mother of God, she is honored more highly than any other creature, even the angels, and is thus called the queen of heaven or queen of angels. (Jesus of course is not a creature, being fully divine as well as fully human, “born of the Father before all ages . . . consubstantial with the Father” per the Christology declared at the Council of Nicaea.) Thus Mary is as bodily in heaven as we are bodily on earth, and the two realms in this text are solidly counterposed.

To thee do we cry,
poor banished children of Eve

Why do we cry to Mary? Continue reading

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Holy Doors

Tuesday, December 8, 2015 will begin the Jubilee Year of Mercy. Popes have proclaimed a Jubilee Year from time to time since at least the fifteenth century. It’s inspired by the practice of Jubilee Years described in the Shared Scriptures, and traditionally the year is begun when the Pope opens up a door at St. Peter’s that is at all other times kept closed, and traditionally even bricked up from behind. This door is called the Holy Door, and special blessings are available for those who enter through the Holy Door during the Jubilee year. (More on what those blessings are in my next post.) Traditionally, other Holy Doors are then opened in other major churches in Rome, and one aspect of the Jubilee is to go on pilgrimage to these places.

Francis has done two interesting and unusual things with this tradition.

First, he opened the first Holy Door not at St. Peter’s, but at a church in the Central African Republic, one of the poorest and most war-ravaged countries in the world. This was a high point of his trip through several African countries last week; he announced that the Jubilee Year of Mercy was coming early to the CAR, and opened the Holy Door there. This is beautifully consistent with his preaching that the church should be centered and focused on and among the poor, rather than the wealthy.

Second, he is giving every bishop in the world permission to open a Holy Door in their own diocese! Typically this will be at the cathedral, but it is up to the bishops’ discretion: they might choose another popular shrine, or — who knows? — follow Francis’ example and choose a poor church in a poor neighborhood.

I love this proliferation of Holy Doors for two reasons. First and most obviously, it’s a clear and beautiful symbol of the abundance and availability of God’s mercy, which is what this Jubilee Year is all about.

But there’s also ecclesiological symbolism at work. Contrary to the centralized model of the church in which Rome is the Head Office and local churches (ie dioceses) are franchise outlets, this is another move towards implementing the decentralized, collegial, communion ecclesiology envisioned by the Vatican 2 document on the church, Lumen Gentium, and retrieved from the early church.

With a Holy Door in every local church, Rome moves a bit closer to its historic place as first among equals — which is the historical reason that the Bishop of Rome is the head of the Catholic Church, a history to which Francis has nodded from the first moments of his papacy. What I see here is the church of Rome taking a step back to allow more room for its sister/daughter churches to shine.

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Ordinary Resistance

Sometimes the weight of the urgently important things in the world feels crushing. Terrorism, bombings, racism, war, refugees, xenophobia, hateful rhetoric, closed borders, trials, protests, police brutality, the list goes on and on.

And I’m not writing about any of them.

It’s not that I don’t care about them, not at all. But I’m having trouble writing lately (evidenced by my infrequent postings), even when I have the time and energy. And it feels more possible to write somewhat lighter pieces about somewhat lighter things. But given all that’s going on in the world, I wanted to explain why.

Sometimes, all you can do to resist evil is to refuse to let it have power over you. To refuse to be terrorized, refuse to be scandalized, reject the glamor of evil and refuse to be mastered by sin. To resist by keeping your gaze and your mind and your heart fixed upon the ordinary things, the little blessings and challenges and puzzles and joys. And as a Catholic theologian, some of those blessings and challenges and puzzles and joys are about the church; so I may be doing a little blogging about those things, during this season of waiting for the coming and coming-again of Christ.

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