The Fellowship

The first part of JRR Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings largely focuses on the gathering together of the “Fellowship of the Ring.” (mild spoilers for this paragraph, if for some reason you are not already familiar with this story!). This is a group of heroes gathered from all the races of Middle Earth (ie humans, hobbits, elves, and dwarves – along with the wizard Gandalf) that unites for the purpose of destroying the dominion that the One Ring holds on the world. I think in that way the Fellowship is an image of the universal Church. The original Greek word for church – ekklesia – in fact means an assembly that has been called together. They set out against their opposition, and even come to a point at which the Fellowship seems to break – although in truth they stay united to their purpose despite no longer being in each other’s company.

The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel describes a breaking among the disciples of Jesus: “many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him” (Jn 6: 66). The dispute here centered on His words, “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6: 53). At the end of the chapter, Jesus also speaks of the upcoming betrayal of Judas Iscariot (verses 70-71).

I think these passages give an important warning at the end of the Bread of Life discourse. Jesus is preparing this community/fellowship, and desires it to be a place of transformative encounter with Him (in a particular way in the celebration of the sacrament of His body and blood). However, our response to His invitation maintains its freedom. There is no substitute for a conversion of self, and no external proclamation that is sufficient without an interior correspondence.

At the time of this writing there is unfortunately the scandal of priests and bishops that  have used their positions to abuse (or cover up abuse) of those in their care. They took the external signs of consecration, but without a true internal correspondence. Instead of loving the Church as Christ loves her, they chose to care more about worldly prestige or personal gain. This is deeply saddening and I am so sorry for those affected. I pray for healing for those harmed directly or indirectly by the scandal, and for a true purification of the Church. I pray that I may be a faithful minister of Christ, and always do my part to protect those in the part of the vineyard entrusted to me. I am aware of my weaknesses, and ask for your prayers to fully respond to God’s call.

What inspires me at this time, though, is to meditate on that original plan of Christ for this Fellowship of the Church, and to be a part of its renewal. As ugly as scandal is, I am thankful that what has been brought to light is not continuing its growth in the darkness, where corruption breeds most quickly. May the light of Christ shine and drive out the darkness. I am reminded of the joy of living a life rooted in the presence of Christ, and renewed in my desire to fight against everything that seeks dominion in my life in opposition to it.

Visiting the Alamo

A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. I was familiar with it through tv shows and general American culture. Still, the visit there left a surprisingly deep impression on me.

Some might not know that it was originally built as the Catholic Mission of San Antonio, and the main building was designed as the chapel. Because of circumstances it ended up spending the majority of its time as a military/government base, but one of its side rooms was maintained as a functioning chapel for many years. The building is now surrounded by downtown San Antonio, although space has been preserved for a park that maintains the feeling of the original complex. Most of it is set-up like a typical museum, with artifacts, dioramas, talks, and even some historical reenactors (we saw one giving a musket demonstration).

What surprised me, though, was the reverence maintained in the old church itself. The door bore an old metal sign with the inscription, “Be silent, friend. Here heroes died to blaze a trail for other men.” In thinking of all those who have given their lives for others, the words of the Gospel came to mind: “No greater love has one than this, to lay down one’s life for a friend” (John 15:13). Hats were to be removed and no camera/electronic devices were permitted. The space was clean and simple, with a few displays explaining aspects of the building, and a set of plaques listing the names of all of the deceased. It seemed the deaths were recent events, and the weight of loss was palpable.

Of course, from my perspective it was impossible to think of this without recalling that in a small side room the Franciscan priests at the mission had regularly celebrated Mass – the sacrament of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ. “For freedom Christ set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Side-by-side were the temporal struggle and the eternal dimension. It still merits further reflection for me. May I try honor those that have given me the opportunities that I have in this life, and the One that has offered me a freedom beyond that which the world can give.

The Epiphany and Seeking God

My favorite reflection on the feast of the Epiphany comes from GK Chesterton. [Side note: the Epiphany is the day we commemorate the visit of the Magi/Wise Men/Three Kings to Christ. In the Church it represents in general the public revelation of the identity of Christ, so can also include Jesus’ baptism or the wedding feast at Cana, his first public miracle]. The reflection comes from his book Everlasting Man—a book that deserves a post in itself! I found it dense and a little difficult to work through, but very rewarding.

Chesterton writes about the way mankind has watched the stars. The panorama of stars at night has been an encounter with transcendence since time immemorial. It has spawned mythologies, stories, and legends. He sees the primordial myth as the belief in some “great sky god,” which over time becomes developed into a whole pantheon of deities, heroes, and the like. On the other hand, he points out that the night sky has also inspired the work of astronomers and physicists. The movement of the stars has been a fascinating mystery for scholars to puzzle out.

I think of this as an “Epiphany” reflection because he connects this with the two groups that come and encounter the infant Christ—the shepherds and the Magi. The shepherds represent a group that probably sat around the campfire at night looking at the stars, and can embody the first sort of seeker described above. In their stories and mythologies about the constellations there is an expression of a desire to encounter an otherworldly creature here among us. The mythologies bring the transcendent down to earth and make it tangible (even if only in imagination). The Magi are also star-gazers, but with a different desire. They have some study of the nature of the movement of the stars, but have been moved to a deeper question. Beyond just wanting to know *how* the stars are moving, they want to know *why.* What is the significance of this new star that they have seen? This inspires them on their journey.

Both find the answer in Bethlehem. The Shepherds encounter God-with-us, Emmanuel—not just in the imagination but in the flesh! Likewise, the Magi encounter the deeper meaning to which their study has led them. Both groups have moved from an experience of wonder (the stars of heaven), to a search (one by imagination and another by study), and finally to an encounter.

This presentation by Chesterton always reminds me of the saying, “atheism began with the invention of the street light.” In other words, as light pollution in cities blocked our ability to see the stars, we lost the sense of the transcendent. The deeper questions don’t matter as much as we are consumed with everyday things. This isn’t to say that the astrology/mythologies inspired by the stars are a sufficient argument for God left to themselves, but they are a spark to the search. The awe that they inspired led the Magi to the *search,* which led them to the encounter. The Magi had real questions, and wanted to search for the fullest answer. I think this teaches us that having questions about God/faith/etc is not necessarily a bad thing. It isn’t something that we just have to hold without thought or reflection. Instead, those questions can lead to encounter. Too often, though, we let the questions die on the vine. We don’t follow them far enough. Often “questioning my faith” means at best reading a couple of Facebook articles or something (I recognize the irony of writing that on a blog that links through social media!). What we need is the search of the Magi, that followed the question. We need to spend time with the best and most profound explanations available—whether by speaking with a knowledgeable person, reading a book, listening to talks, etc. This is how we truly engage the question.

What about us—what questions do we have? How have we followed them? Through them, may we seek an encounter with the Lord.

What is my favorite Christmas movie?

There are plenty of Christmas movies that I enjoy and highly recommend, but with no doubt my favorite is the Muppet Christmas Carol. I have watched it every year for quite some time, and it is always as good (or better!) than I remember. It has become part of our family tradition. At some point, after the Masses and dinner, we gather and watch it together. I love the songs and humor. I love the joy of Fozziwig’s party (and excellent commentary by Statler and Waldorf). But, what I think sets it apart is the way that it combines these elements with the spiritual depth of Dickens’ original work. The narrator (Gonzo) and Scrooge (Michael Caine) largely follow the words of the book, which adds a seriousness that blends very well with the fun. It continues to inspire me to conversion of life and to the joy that comes from living the Gospel. If you get chance, check it out. God bless!