Saturday, January 31, 2015

Christ the Ruler of All - A Homily for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
The Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year B

Christ the Pantocrator
February 1, 2015

In many churches throughout Christendom, especially in those of Eastern persuasion or heritage, there can be found in the main apse the very ancient iconographical depiction of Christ the Pantocrator, which is Greek for “Almighty” or “Ruler of All.” These paintings or mosaics portray Christ in His Majesty and are meant to convey His supreme glory, might, and power. If you’ve ever been to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. you’ll find a magnificent representation of Christ the Pantocrator in the upper church immediately behind the main altar – His arms are outstretched in a tremendous display of sovereignty; His face is strong and focused; and He is enrobed in the mighty garments of a king.
Christ in Majesty - main apse of the Basilica of the
National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington DC
The purpose of the Pantocrator icon is clear: it is meant to convey the truth that all power, all dominion, and all authority rest solely in Jesus Christ. But when you look at the oldest known image of the Pantocrator, which can be found at the 6th century Monastery of St. Catherine at the foot of Mt. Sinai in Egypt, there is another element to the icon that is worthy of note. Christ is shown holding the New Testament in His left hand and His right hand is extended in a gesture of both blessing and teaching. The great and mighty God, who is the ruler and governor of all that exists, is at the same time the great sanctifier and teacher of the whole world. Christ is the Great High Priest, who offers Himself and His people as a sanctified offering to God the Father. Christ is the True Prophet, who teaches His people by His word and His example. And Christ is the Great and Everlasting King, in Whom rests absolute authority to rule and to govern over all. The Pantocrator icon has, for centuries, placed this three-fold Mystery before the eyes of believers, beckoning them to submit their hearts, minds, and souls to Christ the Almighty.

In modern times, however, efforts have been made to divide Christ against Himself. He has been stripped, by both believers and unbelievers, of His Divine right to rule, and has been reduced to one Who blesses and one Who teaches. He’s the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, who teaches a new and radical way to live…He’s the Jesus of the multiplication of the loaves and fish, who blesses and feeds and nourishes the hungry…He’s the kindly sage Who offers words of wisdom to a selfish world and He’s the ultimate advocate of the poor, and the sick, and the marginalized. He becomes like a mentor, one Who shows the way and Who helps us to live a better life. But a Jesus who merely blesses and teaches and does not rule, a Christ who is Priest and Prophet but not a King, has absolutely nothing to offer anyone.

In our Gospel this morning, St. Mark is very clear to show us the inviolable and absolute link between Christ’s sanctifying and teaching power and Christ’s authority. The Pharisees are astonished at His teaching…not because He was persuasive or clever or insightful, but because He taught as one having authority. And when the possessed man is presented to Him, the crowd is astonished…not because He offered a beautiful prayer over the man or simply made him feel better, but because He drove out the unclean spirit as one having authority. Christ sanctifies and Christ teaches only because He is Power Itself. As the Word through Whom all things were made, Christ has the power to make the unholy holy…He has the authority to dispel falsehood with truth. He has dominion over all and can change all. He is not a magician and He is not a wise sage…He is Priest, Prophet, and King, and everything is subject to Him.

This frightened the Pharisees and it frightens many of us in today’s day and age. We’re okay with being blessed, and we’re grateful with being taught, but we have an aversion to being ruled. We want to be the rulers of our own lives…happy to use Christ for His good gifts, happy to learn from His words, and unwilling to give Him our hearts. But there is no blessing and no teaching that can come from Christ that is divorced from His sovereignty and His lasting power. To be blessed by Him and to be taught by Him is to become subject to Him…and to become subject to Him is to be utterly changed by Him.

Christ the Pantocrator - St. Catherine's
Monastery, Mt. Sinai
Unfortunately, Christianity today is both seen and lived as an ethical system…a way to make our lives better and to leave the world a better place. Jesus is seen as the great Teacher Who shows us how to do this, and He is the great Sanctifier Who blesses our efforts. He's the One Who paved the way in Galilee 2,000 years ago and He smiles on us now as we strive to be peaceful and loving. But Christ the Pantocrator shows us the He did not come to establish an ethical system; He did not come to bring about world peace; He did not come to affirm us and to make us feel wonderful. Christ, Priest, Prophet, and King, came to save us and to change us. Bearing our human nature and taking it to Himself, Jesus Christ actually and truly shed His blood for us. Through the Sacraments, Christ the Priest covers and enrobes us in this blood, making us truly grace-filled and holy. Through His teachings, Christ the Prophet shows us and directs us how to better open ourselves to this out-pouring of grace. And through His absolute power and governance, Christ the King calls and commands us to deep and daily conversion so that we might enter His Heavenly Kingdom. If we do not change, if we do not subject ourselves to our King so that He may make us like Himself, then all is for naught. Without Christ’s call to conversion, His blessings and teachings are formless and useless.

Today, at this Holy Mass, the Lord offers to each one of us the infinitude of His blessings and the entirety of His teachings, which He offers to us for the salvation of our souls. He gives Himself to us today, not only as our Priest and our Teacher, but as our King, so that we might be thoroughly changed and readied for the Kingdom of God. Christ isn’t interested in where we’ve been or even where we are. He’s not going to meet us “where we’re at;” He’s going to pull us where we need to be. He’s going to rip open our hearts and fill them with Himself. Let’s ask ourselves if this is truly the Christ we serve. If we serve a Christ Who doesn’t do this…if we serve a Christ Who doesn’t change us and rule over our hearts…then He is a fiction and not Christ the Pantocrator. But if this is the Christ we serve…the One Who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life…then we have great reason to rejoice, because the Kingdom of God is at hand and we are not far from it.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Honeymoon is Over

One of the inevitable transitions that has to be made in the life of a newly married couple is the movement from the "honeymoon phase" into what might simply be called "normal life."

It's that time in a marriage when the newness and excitement of living as husband and wife wears off and gives way to the more dynamic realities of sharing a life and space with another human being. You know exactly what I'm talking's the transition from "Isn't this exciting?! We're cooking together!" to "Ugh, he left the dishes in the sink again..." or "Yay! We just picked out our first bedroom set!!!" to "Great, she didn't make the bed...again." Sometime this transition can be jarring, and sometimes it happens seamlessly. And, depending on the couple, it can occur after a year or two, or a month or two. Whenever and however it happens, it happens...and it's in this less-than-exciting, challenging, rewarding, annoying, joyful, mundane, pain-staking, sweet time that a husband and wife really begin to learn how to love each other more and more.

And you know, it's not much different in the priesthood...

Claude Laydu as the Curé d'Ambricourt in 1951 film,
"Diary of a Country Priest"
The "honeymoon" phase ended for me pretty early. Part of this was due to the fact that my first priestly assignment took me into the far reaches of northern Maine and I was immediately thrust into survival mode: how do I start a new life where I don't know anyone? how do I go about my days without regular or easy access to my family and friends? how do I live without the amenities of urban life? And then the practical challenges of serving 10 very different churches in a territory that is the size of Rhode Island soon took over. All of this presents a newly ordained priest with a big dose of reality that ushers him right out of the overwhelming thrill of his honeymoon phase into the everyday ups-and-downs of the priestly life. The elderly die...and they need a priest. Babies are born...and they need a priest. The Ladies of Ste. Anne are having a party...and they need a priest. A woman is getting evicted from her apartment....and she needs a priest. The kids are going to religious education...and they need a priest. A family's house burns down...and they need a priest. A man has a debilitating stroke...and he needs a priest. A young father has a pornography addiction...and he needs a priest. A young couple wants to get married...and they need a priest. A woman is addicted to pain-killers...and she needs a priest. The world is happy/sad/joyful/angry/excited/fearful/lonely/desperate...and it needs a priest. The day you wake up and truly realize that the priest they need is you...honeymoon over.

Every so often a friend or family member will call and ask how I'm doing. Sometimes I think that the expectation is that I say, "Things are great! I'm fantastically happy! Really life couldn't be any better!" After all, priests are so close to God that their lives must be perfectly wonderful...they can't possibly know what it means to feel lonesome, or tired, or aggravated, or anxious, or worried, or anything of the fact, it's disconcerting for many to even entertain the possibility that priests struggle through life like the rest of humanity. But the reality is, we do. We know what it's like to be just as happy/sad/joyful/angry/excited/fearful/lonely/desperate as anyone else. And you know what? It's actually okay! All of these ups-and-downs, as I have found out rather quickly, are opportunities to encounter Christ in ways I never thought possible.

I'm only in my eighth month of priesthood...hardly a seasoned and weathered priest by any means. But the circumstances of my assignment, the demands of my parish, and the grace of God have allowed me to quickly settle down in the reality of what the rest of my life will be like. And it's in this less-than-exciting, challenging, rewarding, annoying, joyful, mundane, pain-staking, sweet time that a priest...that I...can really begin to learn how to love God and His people more and more.

If you've still got a pulse and breath in your lungs, chances are you're going through some kind of struggle right now. No matter what it is, whether it's mildly uncomfortable or absolutely debilitating, know that you're not alone in this. And I don't mean this in some patronizing, cliché, or sentimental way...but in all truth and sincerity. Open yourselves up to the enduring and constant presence of Jesus Christ in your lives and you will find your strength. Your struggles will not disappear and your disappointments won't cease, but you'll discover how friendship...friendship with God Himself...can truly make this life worth living. And by embracing Him in this way, ceasing our expectations that He'll just magically make things wonderfully fantastic, our honeymoon can come to an end and real life can begin.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Paradox of Water: A Homily for the Baptism of the Lord

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
The Baptism of the Lord

January 11, 2015

It might seem rather obvious, but have you ever stopped to consider just how important water is in our everyday lives? We drink it…we wash with it…we cook with it…we grow with it...we create power with it. Our bodies, depending on our size, are about 2/3 water. And 71% of our planet’s surface is covered by water. It’s so essential to our well-being, our livelihood, and our survival, and yet it is so easy to take it for granted. With the turn of a knob or the flip of a switch we can have it flow in our homes for hours…and we can control its pressure and its temperature and its other qualities. We can go to Hannaford and easily buy gallons and gallons of it to drink. Human ingenuity has figured out how to harness this essential resource, allowing it to bring its life-giving properties to remote deserts and barren lands. But yet, as life-giving as water is, it is also amazingly deadly. Many oceans and seas have enraged themselves, swallowing up countless ships…and many rivers have flooded, destroying homes and crops. Torrential rains have caused devastating landslides and powerful storms have thrust deadly amounts of snow, sleet, and hail upon unprepared communities. Perhaps the greatest symbol of life on earth is simultaneously one of the greatest symbols of death. And today, on the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we find the God of Heaven and Earth immersing Himself into this great paradox.

At first glance, to even speak about the Lord’s baptism seems an absurdity. As the Baltimore Catechism makes abundantly clear, baptism is a sacrament which cleanses us from original sin, makes us Christians, children of God, and heirs of heaven. Now any child with even a modicum of training in the faith can tell us that none of those things apply to Jesus. So what was going on in the Jordan River that day? Why did Jesus step into its waters if He had no need to be baptized? The early Church Fathers considered this question at great length and their conclusions are pretty much unanimous: Jesus entered into the waters of the Jordan to undergo baptism by John not so that He could in anyway be changed by this water, but so that this water might be changed by Him.

Historically and religiously speaking, the Jordan River was hugely significant. For thousands of years, the Jordan River has been the main water source for the land of Israel, and has thus become the great symbol of life in the region…bringing fertility and life to what would otherwise be a desert. It was the very site where the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land after wandering in the desert for 40 years, taking on the even greater symbolism of being a sign of God’s covenant. And yet at the same time, the very waters of this river have been a great source of death and destruction in the region. Its rapid torrent and sudden violent floods have, throughout history, brought devastation to the people who have relied upon it.  The waters of this great river have, with today’s feast, by infiltrated and stepped into by God Himself. The waters of this river flow over Him, saturating Him…but this water, try as it might, has nothing to offer its Creator. It cannot give Him life…and it cannot bring Him death. But by plunging Himself into it, Christ the Lord gives it new meaning and new purpose. His divinity and power flow into this water, sanctifying it, making the life and death it brings divinely ordered to His death which brings life to the world. By going down into the waters of the Jordan, Christ Himself makes the waters of baptism the first Sacrament…the first place where we encounter the redemption accomplished by His death on the Cross, the first place where we encounter the new life of His resurrection. And by His own example, He propels all of us who would desire to follow Him to meet Him in this water. It’s risky business to go into the water…where life meets death and where death meets life…but we trust that because He Himself has entered into it, these waters of paradox become the very means of our salvation.

Water cleanses, water nourishes, and water destroys…and this is precisely what the waters of baptism accomplish in us through the grace and power of Christ. It destroys us…it strips us of all that we once were…it drowns the sin and the guilt right out of us. But it simultaneously rebuilds and brings to new life what it destroys…but not just any new life, the very life of Christ. We become so uniquely and truly one with Him, the Divine Son of God, that the Heavens open and the Father’s voice is heard over us: “You are my beloved son; you are my beloved daughter…in you I am well pleased.” God the Father looks upon us and sees in us His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ...and He loves us as perfectly and as infinitely as He loves the Son. This is what it means to be redeemed in the waters of baptism…this is the paradox of water, and this is why Christ immersed Himself in the waters of the Jordan.

The waters of the Jordan River, sanctified by Christ, symbolically but truly flow into our midst at our own baptism and throughout our lives. Christ continues to sanctify water through the ministry of His priests, making it abundant and ever available for us to wash in and to be nourished by. Every time you come into the church, you are presented with an opportunity to plunge your hands into this sanctified water, recalling the power and miracle of your own baptism. And you can take this water home, sanctifying yourselves and your families with this powerful and precious symbol. But every time you do this…every time you make the sign of the cross with the water, remember that you are ever being plunged into the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. This water, you must realize, will destroy you every time…stripping you of all that you are…and will then bring you to newer and newer life with Christ. Today and all days, let us pray for the grace to continuously drown in these waters, to die to ourselves, so that Christ can raise us to new life with Him, so that the Holy Spirit can descend upon us, so that the Father’s voice might be heard: You are my beloved son…you are my beloved daughter…in you I am well pleased.”

Friday, January 9, 2015

Meatless Fridays...Still?

A few days ago I got into a discussion with a well-meaning parishioner about (surprise!) all things traditional. It was a great chat...we talked about the "good ole days" and how she's glad that the Church is really doing its part to recover some of its lost patrimony and traditions. I was pleased as punch...I even broke into Peter Allen's fantastic song, Everything Old is New Again. It's always a real pleasure to speak with someone who actually cares that the 2,000 years of history and tradition prior to the Second Vatican Council are still relevant in our lives. As the conversation continued, however, we went down the road concerning Friday abstinence from meat. She said: "I have to say Father, I'm glad that we can eat meat on Fridays now! That was one of the good things they changed!" I chuckled, put my arm on her shoulder, and said, "Well, I've got some good news and some bad news..."

There's a lot of misunderstanding about Friday abstinence...many people think that Vatican II threw open the windows, let all the stale air out of the Church, and put Big Mac's on everyone's plate. It's really a bit more nuanced than that...

After the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI took on the task of rearticulating the role of penance in the life of the Church. In 1966, he promulgated the Apostolic Constitution Poenitemini, effectively establishing new laws concerning both fasting and abstinence. He decreed that all Fridays of the year (expect on days of precept, e.g. Holy Day of Obligation), are still to be observed by abstinence from meat/meat products. However, in the same breath, he extended to the Bishop's Conferences the faculty to replace this abstinence with another kind of penitential practice, such as works of charity or other pious exercises.

So, on November 18, 1966, the United States bishops issued a Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence. In this document, they took Pope Paul VI up on his offer...they lifted the obligation to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year, allowing the faithful themselves to decide how they will observe the penitential nature of Fridays. BUT, in doing so, the bishops were clear to state that abstinence from meat is still the preferred act of penance on Fridays and they hoped the faithful would STILL ordinarily and freely choose to abstain from meat.

Now, it's 2015...nearly 50 years have passed since all of this has occurred. We might ask ourselves, "What has been the fruit of this decision?" I think the answer is pretty clear...the majority of the faithful interpreted all of this as "letting up on the rules" and giving blanket permission for everyone to eat as much meat as they want on Fridays. For those not abstaining from meat on Fridays, are they engaging in an explicit and intentional act of penance in order to make every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ (USCCB, Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence, 23) or are they letting Friday slip by without any thought to penance or the Lord's passion?
In our world today, as secularism/materialism/individualism beats up against our homes, our minds, and our hearts more and more, we Catholics are going to have to take strident steps to root ourselves in our Catholic culture and tradition lest we get swept up in the things of this world. From the days of the early Church, Sunday has always been a day of great celebration, rejoicing, and feasting in order to commemorate the Lord's resurrection, whereas Friday is a day of penance, prayer, and fasting in order to commemorate His passion. I'm afraid to say that, without a concrete and definite plan of action, Fridays will become increasingly more and more non-penitential in our lives. We'll continue to treat it as the first day of the weekend, turning it into a day of partying and over-indulgence. Perhaps, now more than ever, we need to make a full-fledged return to meatless Fridays.

The long and short of it folks: you may eat meat on Fridays of the year (except during Lent, mind you!), but if you're going to eat that steak or pepperoni pizza you must be doing some other explicit act of penance. The time to get serious about these things has come...the world has changed A LOT since 1966, and not, I must say, for the better. Only strong Catholic culture can properly equip us to withstand the increasing allurements of the secular world.
So who's with me? Let's return to the traditional and perennial practice of abstaining from meat/meat products on every Friday of the year. It'll be a bit of a sacrifice, as it's supposed to be, but hopefully it'll help to make us more intentional and strong in our faith!

Saturday, January 3, 2015

The Work and Play of the Spiritual Life: A Homily for the Feast of the Epiphany

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
The Epiphany of the Lord

January 4, 2015
The Work and Play of the Spiritual Life

We’ve all heard the phrase, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” Typically it’s something we level against workaholics in an attempt to remind them that there’s more to life than the toil of labor. And while I certainly think there’s some merit and truth to the phrase, or at least to the sentiment behind it, I think it subtly introduces too sharp a distinction between “work” and “play.” Work is seen as labor…it’s regular, productive, sometimes necessarily exhausting, it puts bread on the table, and it’s time-consuming. But play…it’s spontaneous, deliciously unproductive, relaxing, it takes the edge off life, and it’s freeing. Work and play thus become polar opposites…each with their own purposes, each done in their own time. Our friend Jack is spending too much time working and not enough time playing, so we want to help him keep things in check and to keep things balanced…to work a little less and play a little more. The kicker is, by helping Jack to keep things “balanced,” we inadvertently create a huge divide between work and play for Jack…he might work a little less, but to be as productive as he wants to be, he’ll actually have to work harder, making his work more burdensome and painstaking; and he might play more, but because he’s so tired, his play will become more about resting and relaxing. In my opinion, the answer for Jack is not for him to work less and play more…it’s about working playfully and playing workfully. By not making his work ‘playful’, and his play ‘workful’, Jack will remain ever a dull boy…he’ll only rush to submit his reports on time and then fall asleep in front of the television.

Unfortunately this false chasm between work and play extends beyond the office and the couch…it seeps into the kitchen and the dinner table; it finds its way into our relationships; and it affects our interior lives. This chasm, which essentially compartmentalizes work and play, can choke the life right out of our spiritual lives just as fast it can make Jack dull. The spiritual life must be an admixture of work and play, in a full and comprehensive sense. Though remaining separate and distinct, the work and play of the spiritual life must learn to dance together in harmony. Our spiritual lives require the regularity, the diligence, and the effort of work, but simultaneously the carefree spontaneity, pleasure, and relaxation of play. God cannot simply become the boss we work for…offering our prayers and worship to Him as an employee offers his employer projects and reports; nor can God simply become a relaxant…a benevolent and supreme force of good and pleasure to help us unwind from the labor of life. The spiritual life is about relationship…a true labor of love, that becomes as productive as work and as enjoyable as play.

Today we celebrate the great feast of the Epiphany, when the Christ Child’s divinity shone forth into the world and was made manifest to the Magi. This manifestation is mind-blowing…that God could be a baby and that a baby could be God. So explosive was this mystery that it drew the wise men in from afar…they could not help but come and see what was happening for themselves. They toiled and labored to make their journey, and upon reaching the Divine Child they became overjoyed…not because of a spectacle, but because of a Person. They prostrated themselves and paid Jesus homage, giving Him gifts…but they didn’t remain hunched over and on bended knee, becoming as lifeless as nativity figurines. There’s no doubt in my mind that these men, whom tradition calls Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, would have done with Jesus what any sane person would do with a little child…they would have picked Him up and held Him in their arms bouncing Him up and down, they would have engaged in games of peek-a-boo and would have made funny faces to make Him laugh…they would have played with the Christ Child, because that’s what you do with babies: they demand all your effort, and your tireless labor, but they also demand your playfulness. This exchange between the wise men of the world and the little God-Man shows exactly what the spiritual life looks like and how it’s carried out.

If we spend all of our time in the toil and labor of the spiritual life, we will miss the awesome enjoyability of our God. At the same time, if we only play with our spiritual lives and do not work at uncovering, through steadfast prayer and study, the awesome mysteries of God, then our playfulness will be fruitless and we’ll soon grow bored. Drawing from the example of Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, let’s give Christ all we got…all of our effort, all of our labor, and all of play. When we both revere and enjoy our God, it is then that we can truly love Him. All work and no play will surely make us dull. All play and no work will soon leave us bored. But all work and all play will make us full.  

The Blessing and Distribution of Epiphany Chalk

One of the many fruits of a spiritual life marked by robust work and joyful play is the birth of Catholic culture and traditions…rituals that, infused with the work of prayer, allow us to playfully live out the mysteries of our faith. One such tradition, that goes back many centuries, is that of “Epiphany Chalk.” During the season of Epiphany, priests give to the faithful some blessed chalk which is used to inscribe over the lintels of their doors a blessing for the New Year. The first two digits of the new year are written…in this case “2 and 0”…followed by the initials of the three Magi…+ C +M + B +…followed by the last two digits of the new year…in this case “1 and 5.”

I would invite one member from every household to come forward to receive this blessed chalk. You’ll find on the packages all of the necessary instructions to carry out this beautiful tradition. I would also recommend making this a great opportunity for a little bit of evangelization – invite yourself over to a friend’s house and share your chalk with them, blessing their doors and their homes. 

May the example of the three Magi always inspire us to live deep spiritual lives marked by hard work and enduring play.

Let us pray.
Bless, + O Lord God, this creature chalk to render it helpful to men. Grant that they who use it in faith and with it inscribe upon the entrance of their homes the names of Yours saints, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, may through their merits and intercession enjoy health of body and protection of soul. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.