Monthly Archives: June 2016

13th Sunday C: On the Journey

To listen to today’s homily, please select the audio file below:

We’re reading the Gospel of Luke the Sundays of this year. At the beginning of his gospel, St.Luke promises to put down in an orderly way the events that have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. As we listen to his account he wants us to realize that what we hear Jesus say to his disciples and to others he says to us. When we hear what happens to Jesus we are also hearing what happens to us.

In the 9th chapter of his gospel, part of which we read this Sunday, Luke describes a crucial turning point in the life of Jesus. After teaching and healing and performing wonders for a time in Galilee, Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say I am?” Then, he asks them, “Who do you say I am?” Of course, Luke wants us to face that same question too. “Who do we say Jesus is?”

Jesus then announces he must go up to Jerusalem. Listen to the way Luke describes his decision “When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled, he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem, and he sent messengers ahead of him.” This is a journey when the days for Jesus being taken up were fulfilled. In other words, this is a journey when Jesus will pass from this world to his Father. He is journeying to Jerusalem to suffer and die and rise again. He will be “taken up.”

And he doesn’t make this journey alone. At this point in the gospel, Jesus calls his disciples to follow him, Luke says, but the evangelist wants us know that he’s calling everybody to follow him, not just a designated few. Greater than Elijah, Jesus gives his mantle to many followers who’ll share his journey and they’re taken up with him to share his reward, and he sends messengers ahead of him to gather as many as they can.

There’s a simple criteria Jesus gives for following him. “Take up your cross daily and follow me,” he says in Luke’s gospel. It’s an everyday cross he wants us to take up, not the cross of wood that he himself bore; it’s not nails in our hands and feet or scourges on our back that we’re asked to bear. It’s the everyday cross that we carry all the time, wherever we are. It’s the cross we carry on our journey of life, all our life. Sometimes it comes from ourselves, from sickness, or old age, or disappointments, or worry, or the constant pressures of living everyday. Sometimes it comes from the world we live in with its violence and uncertainties. It’s always there and Jesus tells us to carry it.

In today’s gospel the Lord says something more about following him; some of what he says we may find hard to understand. For example, what does he say to the man who wants to bury his father before following him? “Let the dead bury their dead.” What does he say to the one who wants to say goodbye to his family first? “ “No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what’s left behind is fit for the kingdom of heaven.” Sounds hard and unreasonable, doesn’t it?

Hard and unreasonable, until we see how important it is to follow Jesus. If life is a journey, and it is, where are we going? Do we think this is all there is? If life is a journey, do we make it alone? If life is a journey, does it stop at death? If it doesn’t stop at death, who will take us beyond it? If life is a journey from this world to another world, who will be with us all days to bring us to that world?

We can see how important it is to follow Jesus Christ?

Some, of course, think he makes no difference. They can go it alone. Some think Christ is just a “back-up,” when you need him he’ll be there. Some think he brings power and success for living here and now. But look at what he says in today’s gospel: “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Jesus doesn’t assure us of a nice house or a good living. In today’s gospel, too, his disciples want to set fire on the Samaritans who refuse them hospitality, but Jesus turns his back on them.

For the next four months our Sunday gospels are mostly from the journey narrative of Luke. We will be hearing what Jesus says to those he meets on the journey. Let’s listen as if he’s speaking to us. On the way to Jerusalem Jesus calls followers. None of them are perfect, by any means. In Luke’s narrative it’s the lost sheep, the prodigal children, the forgotten poor, a blind man on the road, a crooked tax collector who follow him. He calls us too. Let’s listen to him.

We’ll hear warnings in the weeks ahead which we should take to heart. “You are a fool,” God says to the man who thinks only about building bigger barns. Let’s listen to him. We’ll hear about stopping and helping others, as the Good Samaritan did. Let’s listen to him.

Friday Thoughts: You Dirty Rat

The Boyarina Morozova, Vasilij Surikov, 1887, detail 2

Vasilij Surikov, “The Boyarynya Morozova”, 1887 (detail)

I am starving to death by not preaching. I search the garbage bins and pick out of dumpsters, ever eying with hungry eyes trash thrown by the wayside.

I am so wonderfully fed by Christ!

Yet I thirst a thirst of love. I long for more painful encounters that heal me so. I am a lover of the beach who roams the Sahara. Below the height of the mounting sun, among the singing dunes, I bellow with them the universal hum.

The sand is all about me. An oasis resides within my heart. I am surrounded by mirages of men whom long ago have forgotten to start.

I starve to preach. To sing of our Lord. I starve to fly high with no might of my own. Tapping toes and rocking forth, slightly bending knees, ready to spring forth from well to well.

I love our God. I love Him so. I love Him and Him alone. He tells me to love others as myself. I love Him despite myself. I love Him in others, and others because of Him. I love for I have been brought low. I love for I have learned to soar high. He is my all. My everything. Of Him, and Him alone, do I sing.

I sing of socks, and of sneakers, of old clothes and new sandals, and of wedding rings. I sing of mice, and of men, I sing of the difference that resides only in the length of whiskers. I sing of dogs and of cats, and o yes, of rats—o those ugly creatures that challenge me so.

I ask myself, are they not created by God as well?

Isn’t that dirty filthy stinkin’ rat also beautiful and also real?

Does not God shine the sun and shower the rain on disturbing rats as well?

O, if I could only love rates, then I would truly sing! Mend this heart, this rock of mine, hardened by selfish sight and by wanting what isn’t mine. Yes, boil me down, so I may drown in what the residue of life leaves to those who truly suffer.

I sing to you, O Glorious Rat. Creature of God!

I sing to you that you too shall sing with me. I see that I no longer need to sing alone. Come, accept my embrace. I forgive you. Now perhaps I too may be forgiven.

I see and smell and hear the truth. You the rat, object of everyone’s scorn. You too were once so young, before you crawled into the bin, before you journeyed down the darkened tunnel—you too—little infant rat—were brought forth from the mother’s womb.

Come young, come old! Come from your abandoned buildings, and vacant storage yards, from old ball fields well over grown. Come one, come all!

The pious pied piper now plays a gospel tune. The garbage begins to gather, the desolation takes on an evening glow. The sand all about me recedes from the stormy cloud. It slowly begins to lay low.

The desert creeps up upon a vast body of water.

I pass between walls of a held back sea, my feet tread cross a red clay bottom.

You too, brother rat, are a gift from our mighty God above. You too were loved into existence by the Lord of all.

God of all who share residence upon the earth.

God of all who sigh and sing.

God of all who snort and smile.

God of all who bellow and breathe, both fresh and soiled city air alike.

Come, then, last call, leave your dens, leave your hobbies, leave you daily work behind. Leave you rats, friends of mine, leave the muck and sewers of this world, climb the hills, and charge the mountain, dip yourselves in Carmel air, for even you reflect the glory of Zion from a peak so high.

Come and join the birds who listened so intently, who still this day patiently hear lonely troubadours sing. Yes, join us, for there is always plenty of room, room for even you, object of everyone’s scorn.

Enough for even you, you dirty rat.

A sight for sore eyes to this poor lonely thirsty preacher.

For through you I give our magnificent God mighty humble joy-felt praise.


—Howard Hain

12 Sunday C: The Everyday Cross


To listen to this week’s homily, please select the audio file below:

Three gospels, Mark, Matthew and Luke, are called the synoptic gospels because they seem to “see” the story of Jesus in the same way. They were written some years apart. Scholars say Mark is the earliest, written around the year 70 AD. Matthew perhaps around the year 80 AD, and Luke between 80 and 90 AD.

All three recall the same story, but each introduces changes and additions of their own to teach the communities they’re writing for. We may hardly notice the differences, but they’re there.

For example, today’s gospel from Luke recalls an important incident that’s found in all three gospels. After ministering and teaching in Galilee for a time, Jesus announces he is going up to Jerusalem to suffer, die and rise again.

In all three gospels, Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say I am?” Their answers are pretty much the same: ‘John the Baptist’ others ‘Elijah’ still others, ‘One of the ancient prophets has arisen.’”

Jesus then asks his disciples, “Who do you say I am?” All three gospels report Peter’s response: “You are the Messiah.”

Then, Jesus announces he is going up to Jerusalem and he tells his disciples to follow him. The three synoptic gospels agree on the basics of this crucial incident in the story of Jesus.

But notice in Luke’s gospel two interesting variations in Jesus’ call to follow him. “Jesus then said to all, ‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. “”

Jesus speaks to “all,” not just to a few disciples, Luke says. He invites all, not just the chosen twelve, or the Jewish people, or Jewish-Christians to follow him. Luke’s gospel insists that Jesus reaches out to everyone. All are invited to follow him and all, not a designated few, have to take of their cross.

Notice, too, the subtle change Luke makes in Jesus’ call to take up our cross. It’s a “daily” cross we are to take up. “If you want to come after me, you must deny yourself and take up your cross daily and follow me.” It’s an everyday cross, not the cross of wood that Jesus bore; it’s not nails in our hands and feet or scourges on our back that we’re asked to bear.

What’s an everyday cross, we may ask? Open your arms wide and what do you see? We’re formed like a cross. That’s what we carry everyday–ourselves. Maybe it’s sickness or disappointment or weariness or worry about something or someone. Maybe it’s putting up with a world that wont change or dreams that wont come true.

The cross we take up is there, everyday, in ourselves and the world we live in, and our patience wears out bearing it.

“Take up your cross daily and follow me,” Jesus says in Luke’s gospel. By adding one word, the evangelist makes clearer what Jesus would say.

Friday Thoughts: Walled Garden

Francis and Clare from the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon Franco Zeffirelli

Saint Francis and Saint Clare from the movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”, (Franco Zeffirelli) (1972)


A garden enclosed, my sister, my bride,
a garden enclosed, a fountain sealed!

—Song of Songs 4:12


From memory it is not easy to recall. I do have a clear image, but if it is accurate that remains to be seen. Here we go.

It was downhill. A sloping path. As I approached the stone church, a few people wandered around out front. There was somewhat of a courtyard, well not a courtyard, more like a little wall hugging into existence a welcoming space. This wall was about bench height, made also of stone, and extended outward from the building. It created what I would normally call an out-front patio space, but in Italian terms, perhaps it would be called a terrazza, or maybe even be considered a piazza, or perhaps most accurately, a piazzetta. Then again, maybe it is just a patio to Italians too.

Well, sitting on this low wall was a friar. And running around the open area was a small brown dog with a shaggy little beige beard.

I entered the church. It was small, almost cave like. A curved ceiling. Dark. Old. There was the cross, a crucifix. Not the actual one that spoke to Saint Francis—no, that one was moved up into the Basilica of Saint Clare located in the central part of the still small but no-longer medieval town of Assisi.

The reproduction spoke to me.

I’m an early companion of Francis.

I remained in the chapel for a while. I’m not sure if I was praying or not. I’m pretty sure I got on my knees. But from that day’s perspective, prayer was not known to me. So from that perspective, I wasn’t praying. But from today’s perspective, I most certainly was. For I was there. I was in Italy, in Assisi, in the Church of San Damiano. I was there intentionally. I was lost but I was found. I was looking, and I was obeying. Obeying what I didn’t know. I had no idea why, but I wanted to be there. And I felt something. It was heavy, literally. I remember feeling bent over. I remember thinking about all the prayer that must have taken place in that small space over the past thousand years. I remember thinking that all that collective belief must have an effect. It did. It does. It will. I was certain that I felt it. It bowed me down. It bent me over. And I remember liking it.

Faith is common.

I was a pilgrim and didn’t know it.


I don’t remember much about the convent itself. I do remember walking from room to room, the communal rooms where Saint Clare and her companions, her biological mother and two sisters among them, ate and prayed and cared for their sick. I remember the small warm inner garden, with it’s old well. And the spot marked as the place where Clare liked best to sit. I’ve always loved internal courtyards. The thought of being outdoors and yet enclosed. Architecturally, it best represents the beauty of true solitude. Open. Yet safe. Free. Yet sheltered. Alone. Yet surrounded by those who believe the same.

In that sense, solitude—when it’s truly interior, truly spiritual—is like love: you can never get enough of it, and once you have it, once you truly live within it, you’re never again alone.

Solitude is love. And love is never solitary.


Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign. Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.

—Isaiah 7:14



—Howard Hain

The Passionist Charism

Recently, Father Joachim Rego, superior general of the Passionists, sent a letter to “the Passionist Family” commemorating the approval of the Passionist Rule 275 years ago, on June 11, 1741, by Pope Benedict XIV. Father Joachim addressed the letter to ‘brothers, sisters and friends in the Passionist Family.” He was writing not just to professed members of his community but to everyone attracted to its charism.

When Pope Benedict approved the Passionists as a religious family in the Catholic church 275 years ago, he was heard to say, “This is the last community to be called into the church; it should have been the first.” The pope, considered the greatest pope of the 18th century, was devoted to the Passion of Jesus. He renovated the Church of the Holy Cross in Rome, where the ancient relics of the passion, brought to the city by Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, were venerated. Still more, he wanted to rebuild faith in the mystery of the Passion of Jesus at a time when many were becoming forgetful of this great mystery.

In our times, too, many forget this mystery, as well. Let’s keep it in mind.

In his letter, Father Joachim calls attention to a “rescritto”, a special condition that was part of the pope’s letter of approval: “This ‘special condition’ required the Passionists to commit themselves to preach and serve in those areas and islands where, due to the unhealthy environmental conditions, the people are abandoned and forgotten.

“From our very beginnings, the Church has named our special vocation to show a preferential option for the suffering, the marginalized, and the “the crucified” of their times. As we remember this joyful moment for Paul of the Cross and his first companions on 11 June 1741, may we – his companions today ‐ also take the occasion to review and renew our commitment and vocation to keep alive the memory of the Passion of Jesus as the greatest act of God’s love and mercy, and to promote this memory in the lives and hearts of people today…” especially those who are poor and neglected; we seek to offer them comfort and to relieve the burden of their sorrow.” (Const.#3)

“Let us keep challenging ourselves as Passionists to ‘look back’ and appreciate with greater depth the SPIRIT of our Holy Founder, so that we may ‘look forward’ to live and practice with fidelity our Passionist vocation in the various contexts of the church and the world of today.”

I like Father Joachim’s call to look back to the spirit that brought the Passionists into the church and then ask how can we make it present today. A religious community’s rule is important, but charism precedes a rule and keeps it alive. How do we reach out to the suffering, the marginalized and the crucified today?

11th Sunday C: The Mercy of God

To listen to today’s homily, please select the audio file below:

This Sunday there are two stories about forgiveness in our liturgy at Mass. From the Second Book of Samuel we hear the story of King David whose sin is pointed out to him and then declared forgiven by the prophet Nathan. The gospel reading from Luke tells the story of Jesus forgiving a sinful woman in the house of a Pharisee, who can’t seem to believe in forgiveness when he sees it.

The two stories complement each other. They remind us that forgiveness is not a simple matter; it’s a mysterious gift of God.

King David’s sins are well known and nothing to be proud of. He lusts after Bathsheba, the wife of Urriah, one of his officers. When David fails to disguise his adultery, he arranges to have Urriah killed and then marries his wife. The king’s sins are more than sins of lust or murder; his sin is an abuse of power. David’s the king, with absolute power over his subjects, answerable to no one, he thinks. He can do anything he wants and no one stands in his way. Unfortunately, he’s lost a sense of guilt; his conscience doesn’t bother him. He’s a king who can do no wrong.

Notice, though, that David recognizes sin and injustice in others. When the prophet Nathan tells him the story of someone who robs a poor man of his precious lamb, David immediately wants to right the wrong. Nathan says “ You are that man.” But David’s blind to his own sin, and so the prophet must awaken him to see what he has done. If you’re blind to sin, how can you be forgiven?

Finally, David admits; “‘I have sinned against the LORD.’ Nathan answered David: ‘The LORD on his part has forgiven your sin, you shall not die.’”

Now, the woman in Luke’s gospel who goes to the house of the Pharisee, unlike David, knows she’s a sinner and rejoices in the forgiveness she finds in Jesus. She expresses herself with that extravagant gesture of love. “Bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind Jesus at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them, and anointed them with the ointment.”

In Luke’s story, it’s the Pharisee who’s blind. He can’t see forgiveness or the love behind it. He’s blind to God’s love, first of all, welcoming the sinner, and to the woman’s love that comes from being loved so much. He doesn’t seem to think forgiveness exists and he doesn’t understand it.

Simon, the Pharisee in our story, is like the Pharisee in Luke’s parable about the two men praying in the temple. He sees himself “unlike the rest of humanity, greedy, dishonest, adulterous.” He’s too good to need forgiveness. His blindness comes from self-righteousness.

Luke’s gospel is filled with sinners. Let’s be like them: the sinful woman, the prodigal son, the tax-collector Zacchaeus. They all recognize they’re sinners and they end up rejoicing at a banquet. They enjoy the mercy of God.

Friday Thoughts: The Land of Make Believe

Andrei Rublev The Trinity 1411 or 1425-27

Andrei Rublev, “The Trinity”, ca. 1411


“Now faith is the substance of things hoped for…”

—Hebrews 11:1



Out on Interstate 80 in New Jersey, about 70 miles from Manhattan, is a little amusement park for young children. It’s called The Land of Make Believe. And it is located in the small town of Hope.

I’ve never been to the park before, although I’ve traveled through Hope many times.

Those 70 miles got me thinking:

Without a belief in Heaven, Hell loses it’s significance.

And a life without hope makes Hell very real.



Jesus came to make our lives joyful and full of purpose.

After all, He told us that “the kingdom of God is within” and that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”.

From such eternal optimism, which is most certainly and profoundly true, I can see how a temptation may arise. The temptation of thinking—of thinking that there’s no other world than the current one we find before us, and that all we need to do is make this world a utopia via the right cultural, political, and economic policies. That it is all a matter of social justice.

Yes, it can be pretty tempting to turn the promise and proximity of Heaven into a man-made agenda. To begin to think that we can create “Heaven” here on Earth, and in the process convince ourselves and all around us, especially those “below” us, that there’s no Heaven or Hell beyond or beneath this current, known, and visible existence.

That of course also eliminates any Godly judgment to come. Which of course is very convenient, especially when it comes to behavior that God’s Word and Jesus’ Church clearly declares sinful.

But I guess that’s just the point. Many of us want to live in The Land of Make Believe. Pretending. Perverting hope. And via this ongoing state of pretense and presumption, we wish to live in our own self-perceived, self-conceived, and self-serving Heavens, right here and right now, and only here and now—with no “other world” or consequences to come—and this makes many of us feel awfully good, at least for the time being.

Jesus teaches otherwise. For He also told us, through His dialogue with Pilate, that He came into the world “to testify to the truth”, and that His “Kingdom is not of this world”. And perhaps most convincing (and incredibly consoling as well) is what He reveals to the apostles the night before He suffers, dies, and is buried, in order to be resurrected—and eventually ascend into Heaven—to sit at the right hand of “God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth”:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. You have faith in God; have faith also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be. Where I am going you know the way.”—John 14:1-4

We could list many more teachings of Christ that reiterate the same point. The totality, the oneness, of Sacred Scripture makes it abundantly clear that there is an eternal existence to come, that presently we are mere pilgrims just passing though, and that we are not destined to remain in this world. And Jesus also makes it abundantly clear that where He, the head went, the body too shall go—passing through the same cross-shaped gate.

Jesus came to show us how to love, and how to enter the Kingdom, both the Kingdom at hand and the Kingdom to come; one and the same but not limited to either one or the other. Heaven is here and continues thereafter, eternally. The “Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end”. For He, Jesus the Christ, the Word, the Lord God, “the one who is and who was and who is to come, the almighty” was with the Father before the world began…and He is also the one who “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead” and whose “kingdom will have no end”.

It is all too much—and like the Trinity itself, and the Incarnation, and the Resurrection— Life Everlasting is beyond our comprehension. We simply can’t understand. It’s a mystery, but not a mystery that should lead us into the belief that this current world, this world of time, of pomp and circumstance, is the only reality, now or to come.

No, to be a Christian is to believe in Heaven, and Hell. An it is also to believe that through the death and resurrection of our Lord and God, our Savior and Redeemer, we can gain entrance to the eternal banquet, the everlasting feast, the never-ending day of love, of joy, of peace. The permanent Land of Belief.

And yet, in some not-so-mysterious way it begins right here on earth, in a very concrete manner, one smile at a time, one teardrop at a time. It begins when we truly believe in Jesus, follow Him and live the way He taught us. Just as does Hell, in some not-so-mysterious way, begin here on earth when we don’t truly believe in Jesus, follow Him and live the way He taught us.

It’s all kind of like The Land of Make Believe, that small amusement park off Interstate 80, out in western New Jersey. It isn’t real, yet it exists. It brings to life many more smiles than most regular, humdrum, midterm school days. And it has a beginning and an end—yet to children created in the image of God, it seems to go on forever…and in some grace-filled way, they’re exactly right.

You just gotta believe.

The Land of Make Believe is more than you ever dreamed it could be.

Oh yeah, and it resides in a place named Hope.



With tears flowing, the child’s father at once cried out, “I do believe! Help my unbelief!”

—Mark 9:24



—Howard Hain

Morning Thoughts: The Clown of God


Norman Rockwell, “The Jester”, 1939


“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.”

—William Shakespeare, Hamlet: Act 5, scene 1



Early this morning, Francesca and I had a good laugh.

The sun was up, we were not. We were out late a few days ago. On Saturday night we visited a friend’s home and didn’t get to bed until after 11. That’s pretty late for all of three of us, but for Francesca, from her six-year-old perspective, it was “almost the next day!”

So this morning, the Monday of a new week, we found the consequences of that shortened Saturday-night sleep still catching up with us.

Francesca had made her way from her bedroom to the couch I guess around five. I sat up just about half past, the sun fully making its presence known, and as I looked toward the couch I saw Francesca propped against some pillows, cuddled up in the corner, eyes open, but still quite in sleep mode. I walked toward the kitchen to hit the coffee button, and as I passed in front of the couch I broke into an overly-exaggerated stroll. As I disappeared into the kitchen I caught a peek of Francesca’s smile.

When I reentered her line of vision, just a handful of seconds after hitting the “on” button, she was sitting up straight, smiling broadly, and said quite adamantly: “Do it again.”

“Do what again?”, I smiled.

“Walk like that again!”, she immediately answered back, moving her little arms in a fashion somewhat like I hade moved mine.

“What are you talking about?”, I tried to say with a straight face as I walked the same way back across the room.

“Like that!”, she exclaimed, laughing and pointing at my arms.

And we were off and running, or should I say, “walking”. Over and over again, I would say: “What’s wrong with how I’m walking?”, and then she would point out what was “out-of-order” regarding my gait. Each time I would—with as much seriousness as I could muster— “correct” what she pointed out and then try again, this time adding yet another new “discrepancy”. One time I swung my arms wildly, another time I goose stepped, then I raised my knees too high, one round I walked “perfectly” but made funny noises with my mouth as I moved, and this went on and on, or I should say, we went on and on, and each and every time she was laughing more and more, getting more and more exasperated and adamant about what it was that I was not doing right.

“Just walk normal!”, she would laugh, and I would answer, “I am”, again and again. And then it got really funny. I could barely keep a straight face for even a few seconds. She herself began to illustrate how to properly walk, and seeing her trying to walk “normal”, which only resulted in her walking quite “un-normally”, only added to the Buster-Keaton type ridiculousness taking place in our tiny little living room. And all the while Laurie was just a few feet away still in bed, I wont say still asleep, because I have a hard time believing she could continue to snooze through all that ruckus.

But what really brought the house down was when I began to “really try” to walk right, listening intently to all her instructions, and painfully listing each one, and at the same time actually beginning to get confused. I had to think to myself for a second, “How is it that a person actually does just get up and walk?”. It is amazing what happens, what a mess we can make of things, when we try to understand and take control of what comes so naturally to us, of what comes so easily to almost all of mankind by the very nature of who we are, and seemingly without any effort or consciousness. But this little philosophical reflection didn’t stand a chance, Francesca was still on the scene and a child just wont permit, not even for a second, the antics of self-indulgent adult reflection to get in the way of a good time. She was focused on the action at hand, on the flow, from one act to the next, and she now had herself hysterical about the next and final slapstick scene in our not-so-silent film.

For you see, she discovered something in me that’s just priceless in her estimation. She loved the fact that I developed this little movement, quite unintentionally, as I “prepared” to try again to walk properly. I would kind of slightly waddle in place, lining up and squaring my feet, while at the same time slightly rotating my hips and shoulders, trying to position my feet, hips and shoulders just right. I guess I began to resemble a gymnast right before he launches the big run leading toward a long series of tumbles, or better yet, perhaps a diver in the Olympics right before leaping off the high board. Well, either way, this was more than Francesca could handle. She let out a true belly laugh, and then pointing wildly at my shoulders: “Daddy, do it again!”

At this, she jumped off the stool that she was now teetering upon, trying with all her might to mimic me. We both we’re beside ourselves with laughter. It was an absolute blast. It was creative chaos at its best. All heaven broke loose.

I hadn’t even had a sip of coffee yet. My morning prayers were still in a holding pattern. And then the thought came to me. A thought came to this continually under-occupied, perpetually unemployed forty-four-year-old man who just can’t seem to find his way in this world: “I should be a clown.”

I asked Francesca what she thought about my new career path. She loved the idea!

“Yes!!! Do it Daddy, do it!”

I decided to keep my prayers this morning to a few simple Our Fathers.

God was clearly praying for me since the moment I awoke.

The Spirit groans on our behalf, perhaps He laughs for us as well.

Prayer is prayer. This morning, Francesca’s laugh, and mine as well, was the peal of the morning bell—calling all the world to still attention—before the settling in of the business of another new day:


The Angel of the Lord declared unto Mary.

And she conceived by the Holy Spirit.

Hail Mary, full of grace…



—Howard Hain

The Cross in Early Christian Art

cross, 4th Century Sarcophagus, Rome

Cross, 4th Century Sarcophagus, Rome

There are no realistic representations of Christ Crucified and his passion in early Christian art. Realistic portrayals of Christ on the cross and his passion only appear in the early middle ages in the western church. The Crucifixion of Jesus was only portrayed symbolically at first, as in the example above, and early on appears in a variety of ways.

The Anchor Cross

anchor 4

Travelers from one port to another on the Mediterranean Sea at the time of Jesus were never sure of a safe passage until they dropped anchor. The anchor became the symbol of safe arrival, and so ancient seaports on the Mediterranean like Alexandria and Antioch adopted the anchor as a symbol for their city.

Early Christians used the anchor as a symbol of their hope of reaching a heavenly port, the kingdom of God; they inscribed it on their burial sites  in the catacombs to express their hope in Jesus Christ. The anchor closely resembles a cross and early Christians surely saw its resemblance. It’s the most common and sometimes only mark found on the earliest Christian graves in the ancient Roman catacombs of Priscilla, Domitilla and Callistus.

“Pax tecum,” “Peace be with you” the inscription (above) next to an anchor on one of these gravesites reads; the name of the deceased has been half-destroyed by grave robbers looking for valuables long ago. “Eucarpus is with God” we see in another below.

anchor 3

One reason early Christians hesitated to portray the crucifixion of Christ realistically was because the practice  was still  common in the Roman world until the Emperor Constantine  banned it in the 4th century. With crucifixion still before their eyes, Christians would hardly want it portrayed realistically in art, even if it were the crucifixion of the Savior.


The oldest known portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus, (left), is a mocking graffiti found on the wall of a barracks on the Palatine Hill in Rome, showing a crucified man with the head of a donkey, and before him a man with hand raised to the image. The Greek inscription from about the year 220 AD reads: “Alexander worships his god.” Undoubtedly, an instance of a Christian being mocked for belief in Jesus crucified.

The first centuries of Christianity, in  fact, produced little art. For one thing, it inherited a strong iconoclastic tradition from Judaism. The 2nd century writer Justin Martyr also offers another explanation in his Apology disputing Roman claims that Christians were atheists and a danger to society. Justin acknowledges they had no temples, no statues of gods, and did not participate in the rites of prayer as other Romans did.  But Christians were loyal Romans who believed in God, Justin argues. They worship, though, in their own homes and pray there to a God who cannot be imagined or adequately portrayed. (Apology 9,67)

Great Christian churches and shrines were not built till the 4th century, after  emancipation by the Emperor Constantine. Before that, Christian art is found mainly in the catacombs, where Christians buried their dead.

Moses strikes the Rock, Noah saved by the wood. Catacombs

Moses strikes the Rock, Noah saved by the wood.

The art of the catacombs, which are located mostly  around the city of Rome, comes down to us in a fragile state and can be hard to decipher after being underground for centuries. Its simple symbolic style can leave its powerful religious significance unappreciated. Art historians lament its lack of style compared to the sophisticated Roman art of its day.

The writings of Justin Martyr and other early Christian writers may help us better understand its simple, powerful message. In his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, Justin uses a list of Jewish scriptures that he claims predict the coming of Christ, his life, death and resurrection. The core of these scriptures, commonly used by other Christian writers of his day–Tertullian, Barnabas, Irenaeus– were already used in the preaching message of the New Testament to prove that “all the prophets bear witness” to Christ, the promised Messiah. (Acts 10,43) Jesus, of course, was the first to appeal  to Moses and all the prophets to show why it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer. (Luke 24,26-27)

These same Jewish scriptures influenced the formation of the gospels. Other references were added in time and became part of early Christian baptismal catechesis, Christian worship and decoration for the  Christian resting places of the dead. The Jewish scriptures are the key to understanding the art of the catacombs.

In his Dialogue with Trypho Justin proposes to his Jewish opponent scriptures such as Psalm 22 and the Servant Songs of Isaiah 53, that indicate God’s plan to send a suffering Messiah who would redeem his people. These same scriptures shaped the accounts of the passion of Jesus in the four gospels.

In the 86th chapter of his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin lists other scriptures, beginning with the tree of life planted in paradise, that reveal the saving power of the wood of the cross. That saving wood was prefigured in the wooden rod Moses used to bring water from the rock in the desert and divide the sea for his people to pass over. The cross was prefigured in the ladder Jacob saw mounting to heaven. Abraham saw it in the oak at Mamre and in the wood Isaac carried to his sacrifice. David saw the cross in the tree planted by running waters, mentioned in Psalm 1. The cross was signified in the wood that saved Noah from the flood.


Isaac carry the wood of sacrifice. Roman catacombs.

Isaac carries the wood of sacrifice.
Roman catacombs.

Many of these Old Testament figures connect wood with water and feature in the early church’s catechesis and rites of initiation. The same catechesis speaks to the dead resting in the catacombs, who  believed in Christ. Through baptism and the sacraments Jesus Christ would bring them, through the mystery of his death and resurrection, to eternal life.

In other parts of the Dialogue, Justin offers the Three Children in the Fiery Furnace, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, and other Old Testament stories as images that speak of the Passion of Jesus. All these “signs” also appear extensively in the art of the catacombs.

3 children 1

Daniel in the Lion's den. Catacombs

Daniel in the Lion’s den.

In the 55th chapter of his Apology Justin adds signs from nature and human society to expand his argument for Christianity and the mystery of the cross, A ship can’t sail and arrive at its destination without a sail; a field can’t be plowed without a plow. Both of these are in the form of a cross. Human beings themselves are made in the form of a cross, Justin emphasizes. Figures with arms outstretched, Orants, appear everywhere in the catacombs. They imitate Christ who prayed with arms outstretched on the cross, and his prayer was heard. (Tertullian, On Prayer 14)

Orans, Catacomb

Orans, Catacomb

Noah saved by the wood of the ark. Roman catacombs

Noah saved by the wood of the ark.
Roman catacombs

The art of the catacombs found mostly in the 40 or so catacombs around Rome, offers a rich fascinating look at early Christian belief. Today In the Catholic Church’s prayers for the dying we can still hear the figures portrayed there  invoked once more.

“Welcome your servant, Lord, into the place of salvation…Deliver your servant Lord, as you delivered Noah from the flood, Deliver your servant, Lord, as your delivered Moses from the hand of Pharaoh. Deliver your servant, Lord, as you delivered Daniel from the lions den. Deliver your servant, Lord, as you delivered the three young men from the fiery furnace. Deliver your servant, Lord, as you delivered Job from his sufferings. Deliver your servant, Lord, through Jesus our Savior, who suffered death for us and gave us eternal life.” (Roman Ritual)

Good Shepherd, Old Testament figures of the Passion. Catacombs

Good Shepherd, Old Testament figures of the Passion. Catacombs

10th Sunday C: Raising the Dead

To listed to today’s homily please select the  audio file below:

All this week and most of the following week our readings at Mass are about the Prophet Elijah from the Book of Kings. Jesus, remember, is often compared to Elijah. “Who do people say I am?” he asks his disciples. “Some say you are Elijah,” they answer. On the Mount of Transfiguration Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus in glory. Elijah is a prophet who helps us know Jesus.

He’s a mysterious prophet, first of all. We know little about his origins. The scriptures call him, “Elijah, the Tishbite.” Like Jesus, his origins are mysterious.

Elijah is also a lonely prophet. By “lonely” I don’t mean he chooses to avoid people or prefers a solitary life. Elijah is lonely because he got into trouble with the powerful establishment of his day and is continually on the run, hiding out in caves and wadis. His loneliness comes because he fearlessly challenges the wicked king Ahab and his notorious wife Jezebel, who have absolute control over Israel. He himself has no political party, no cadre of followers to back him up. Yes, people like what he’s doing, but when danger comes, they abandon him, like the disciples who abandoned Jesus when danger came to him.

Like Jesus, Elijah speaks the truth and defends the truth, but speaking the truth and defending the truth can also make you unpopular. It can be a lonely, thankless path.

Our reading today from the Book of Kings is from the first part of Elijah’s mission. On God’s authority the prophet announces to King Ahab a drought is coming to the land of Israel. Because Ahab and his people are unfaithful to God no rain will fall, no crops will be harvested, no money will come in from trade. Of course, the king and his queen are furious and want Elijah’s head.

On a pilgrimage to the Holy Land some years ago, I remember standing on Mount Carmel in northern Israel, which is Elijah’s traditional home, looking out to the east and to the south. Our guide pointed east toward the Jordan valley, where Elijah went to hide from Ahab and Jezebel near a mountain stream, the Wadi Cerith. The king knew every water hole, every hiding place and he sent his soldiers out to hunt down the prophet. No one would be foolish enough to shelter or give food to an enemy of the king. But God kept Elijah safe and alive. A poor widow with an only son took him in.

That’s where we find Elijah in today’s reading. He’s in hiding with a poor widow and her only son. The only people who will take him in. But suddenly, the widow’s son dies. This poor woman trusted in God, taking Elijah in, and now her only son is taken from her. She has no one else, nothing else in this world.

You can hear in our reading the poor woman’s anger and regret as she lashes out at the prophet she’s taken in. Is this the way God rewards her good deed? “Why have you done this to me, O man of God?” Elijah too bitterly complains to God: “O LORD, my God, will you afflict even the widow with whom I am staying by killing her son?” He’s fed up with it all.

Then, he calls on the God of life to bring back this boy. He places his body on the dead body of the son, and God raises the boy to life and Elijah gives him to his mother. “Your son is alive.”

The story of Elijah is an old story, but it’s filled with interesting insights into our world and the way God works in it. Elijah himself is a powerful prophet; he raises the widow’s son to life. But really, he’s powerless most of the time, just a poor man on the run, not knowing where to go or what to do next. The world he’s challenging doesn’t seem to change. No matter what he says, Ahab and his wife Jezebel seem to keep running things. The society is corrupt and people are too afraid to do anything about it.

But God keeps the prophet going. In the worst of times, God tells Elijah to be faithful. Even when he is ready to give up, God calls him again, to speak the truth, even to raise the dead.

I mentioned earlier that Jesus reminded people of his time of Elijah. “Some say you are Elijah,” they said. Today’s gospel story would give them reason to compare the two. Jesus raises a widow’s son as they are carrying him from the town of Naim for burial. But it might also be true that people see their own times like the times of Ahab and Jezebel. They were living in a tough, unjust world they couldn’t see being changed. To do that, you would need someone who could raise the dead.