Thursday, August 18, 2022

Enter through the narrow door

I am working on my homily for this coming Sunday. It will be in Spanish of course, but I decided to share some of my thoughts in English. My final notes will be tuned to the reality of our people here, but I want to share the barrage of ideas that are going trough my heart.

The phrase from the Gospel (Luke 13:22-30) that hits me is “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” In Spanish it reads a bit more forcefully: “Esfuércense por entrar por la puerta, que es angosta”. “make an effort, exert yourself, to enter by the gate that is narrow. The Greek is Ἀγωνίζεσθε εἰσελθεῖν διὰ τῆς στενῆς θύρας - struggle to enter by the narrow door. 

The Lord calls us to a struggle, because there are so many distractions and offers of an effortless life, which offer a false consolation. 

But, as I began to struggle with the text, I couldn’t get out of my mind an experience I had in 2004 when I was visiting the Holy Land.

I stayed with a friend in the Palestinian city of Bethlehem and visited parts of Palestine and Israel, often with him. Being in Bethlehem, I visited the Church of the Nativity several times. One morning I got up early for Mass near the site of the nativity. But before that, I had visited the church with my friend and entered the church by the Door of Humility.
There used to be three doors to the church but two are walled up and the third one was refashioned in the times of the Ottoman Empire.

The Door of Humility is less than five feet high and you have to stoop to enter the church.

Many have reflected that this door reminds us that we must be humble, remembering our status as creatures made from the earth – humus.

We also are called to remember that we are entering the place when God became human, taking on our flesh, “humbling himself” (Philippians 2: 6-8).

But there is another lesson to be learned when we recall the origin and purpose of this door. It’s important to that it was reconstructed during the Ottoman control of the Holy Land (and much of the Levantine Mid-East.)

The door is low to prevent soldiers entering on their horses.

To enter the birthplace of the Prince of Peace, we have to disarm, to dismount, putting ourselves on the level of others.

This reflects the wisdom of the psalms: 

 “Some rely on chariots, others on horses, but we on the name of the Lord our God,” reads Psalm 20:8. 

 “Useless is the horse for safety; despite its great strength, it cannot be saved,” reads Psalm 33:17 in the NAB translation; the NRSV is more pointed: “The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and, by its great might, it cannot save,” as is the Grail translation, “A vain hope for safety is the horse; despite its power it cannot save.” 
To enter the church of the Nativity we have to leave behind the false defenses of our personal lives as well as the security policies of the nations that trust in their weapons.

The narrow door, the low door of humility calls us to disarmament – of the nations and of the heart. 

Dorothy Day in 1938, during the Spanish Civil War, wrote of the need of the disarmament of the heat.

Yes, we must work for the disarmament of the nations as well as the disarmament of our cities, where all too many weapons lead to murders and mass killings.

But this must come from a disarmed heart, getting down off our high horses, laying aside our supposed superiority, renouncing attacks on our neighbors, and encountering the Lord Jesus in a manger, defenseless, surrounded by all our sisters and brothers.


The full text of Dorothy Day's remarks put the disarmament of the heart in the context of the call to holiness.
“Today the whole world is in the midst of a revolution. We are living through it now – all of us. History will record this time as a time of world revolution. And frankly, we are calling for Saints…. We must prepare now for martyrdom — otherwise we will not be ready. Who of us if … attacked now would not react quickly and humanly against such attack? Would we love our brother [or sister] who strikes us? Of all at The Catholic Worker, how many would not instinctively defend [themselves] with any forceful means in [their] power? We must prepare. We must prepare now. There must be a disarmament of the heart.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The roasted deacon - food for the People of God

Last week I went with Father German, my pastor, to the diocesan Day for the Sanctification of the Clergy, which is celebrated on the feast of Saint John Vianney, the patron of priests. On the way back, Father German shared an interesting take on Saint Lawrence and the diaconate. 
I have been blessed to work with Father German for more than nine years. We’ve had our conflicts and I get frustrated with his long homilies (and I have been caught sleeping during at least one of them). But he has a unique perspective on the importance of the diaconate. He was for some years a Franciscan friar and was ordained a deacon, with the expectation that he would be ordained a priest shortly thereafter. But he remained a deacon for three years, despite requests from his Franciscan superiors. The diaconal ministry and the diakonia of the People of God are important for him.

We spoke of many things, and he shared his unique understanding of Saint Lawrence. Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of Rome, with responsability for the goods of the church and for the care of the poor. Pope Sixtus and the other deacons were arrested and martyred by the Romans. Lawrence was spared since the Roman authorities thought the church had a storehouse of treasures and ordered him to hand over those treasures in three days.

Lawrence gathered the treasures of the church and sold them, even, according to reports, the sacred vessels of the church. He then distributed the money to the poor, the widows and orphans, the outcasts of society. When he appeared before the Roman authorities, he brought the poor, the outcasts, the lepers, the widows and orphans and told the Roman prefect, “These are the treasure of the Church!”
Woodcut of Ade Bethune
Mural in the church of Dulce Nombre de María

The prefect was not impressed and sentenced Lawrence to death, roasted on a gridiron, probably hoping that the torture would make Lawrence reveal the location of the Church’s gold and silver. In the midst of his suffering, Lawrence told his torturers “Turn me over. I’m done on this side!”
Stained glass in The Cloisters Museum

Father German’s take on this was unique. Lawrence was saying that he was ready to be served as food, as nourishment.

Aren’t we called to be food for others, to offer ourselves as nourishment for others?

This is the diaconal call – of the diaconal People of God as well as the ordained deacon. We are to be the food, the nourishment – giving ourselves for God and the People of God (and, I would add, for the whole world).

I didn’t fully comprehend Father German's thoughts on Lawrence at the time. But last night, I was reading the reflection on Saint Lawrence by the German Benedictine Anselm Grün, in his book Cincuenta testigos de confianza.
The second image of Saint Lawrence which has always fascinated people is the image of the red-hot grill. Generally, the grill is an image of life: in its fire we are roasted to convert us into food for other people. This is represented in a graphic image: our life has to be penetrated by the fire of love. It could be said that only then will we be nourishment for other persons, only then will others to able to live from us and through us. (My translation)
La segunda imagen de San Lorenzo que siempre ha fascinado al pueblo es la de la parrilla incandescente. Por regla general, la parrilla es una imagen de la vida, en cuyo fuego somos asados para convertirnos en alimento de otras personas. Dicho con una imagen gráfica: nuestra vida tiene que ser penetrada por el fuego de amor. Se podría decir que sólo entonces seremos nutritivos para otras personas, que sólo entonces podrían otros vivir de nosotros y a través de nosotros. (p. 109)
As ministers of the cup of the Blood of Christ, we deacons are called to pour ourselves out for God and for others, to shed our blood as Christ shed his Blood for us.

Few of us will be called to shed our blood in the style of Lawrence and other deacon martyrs, but each of us is called to put our hearts into our call for service, to sweat, to shed our blood and tears, to give ourselves for and with others.

We do this because our ministry flows from our baptism, our dying and rising in Christ. For us deacons, it especially flows from the altar and calls us to nourish the People of God, first of all, with our lives, the way we live in our families, in our jobs, in our social and civic duties. Then, bringing our lives, our needs and the needs and lives of all, especially the poor, to the altar, we ask God to transform our lives and the world by the fire of His love – to become a People who are living images of Christ the servant who came “to serve and not to be served, to give us life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28)

This is not easy. It means a daily dying. It means, recalling today’s Gospel (John 12: 24-26), being like the grain of wheat which has to die to bear fruit.

I close with these words from Saint Óscar Romero, martyred archbishop of San Salvador, to whom I dedicated my diaconate. Preaching on this Gospel text on April 1, 1979, he said:
To each one of us Christ is saying: If you want your life and mission to be fruitful like mine, do as I. Be converted into a seed that lets itself be buried. Let yourself be killed. Do not be afraid. Those who shun suffering will remain alone. No one is more alone than the selfish. But if you give your life out of love for others, as I give mine for all, you will reap a great harvest. You will have the deepest satisfactions. Do not fear death or threats; the Lord goes with you.
Romero's tomb in the cathedral crypt, San Salvador