Themes for surviving ‘Ordinary Time’

I’m fortunate to hear good preaching on a regular basis. But even the best Catholic preaching these days leans far more toward moral exhortation than biblical exposition. This strikes me as a missed opportunity. For if one of the tasks of preaching today is to help the people of the Church “see” the world and our lives more clearly by piercing through the regnant fog of cultural confusion, then there’s no substitute for expository preaching that digs into the biblical text, unpacks it, and shows how it provides a unique optic on the here-and-now. 

So as food for thought as Catholics enter that terminological abomination known as “Ordinary Time,” here are four themes I wish I had heard more forcefully preached from the rich menu of biblical texts the Church provided during the recently completed Easter season.

The Resurrection was an evolutionary leap forward. Pope Benedict XVI made this point in Jesus of Nazareth, trying to put words on what is beyond words: the first Christians’ experience of the Risen Lord. They knew that this Risen One was the same person they had known as the young rabbi Jesus of Nazareth; but he was also radically different, or transfigured. Neither a ghost nor a phantom, he ate and drank (and the New Testament thought that eating and drinking with the Risen One were crucial warrants for anyone claiming to be “his witnesses”); yet this transfigured body was not restrained by space or time. So the Resurrection is not just something- that-happened-to-Jesus. Because he is son of Mary as well as Son of God, his Resurrection marks a tremendous evolutionary advance for human nature.

The Ascension is about us as well as about the Risen Lord. The narratives of the Ascension are not about a launch into outer space. They are the Church’s witness to its faith that, in the Risen Lord who sits at the right hand of the Father, human nature has been brought into the thrice-holy Trinity. And in that sense we can say that we, who are the Mystical Body of Christ in the world, “live,” even now, within the light and love of God himself. How? Through the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. Those who believe themselves to be living now within the life of the Trinity “see” the world differently, live differently, suffer differently, and approach life’s challenges with resolution and joy, knowing how the story – our individual stories and the human story – is going to end: God will win.

To know the risen and ascended Jesus as both Lord and Savior is to embrace a missionary vocation. The gospels make abundantly clear that to know the Risen One – to eat and drink with him, by the seashore in Galilee or around his table in the Eucharist – is to accept a task. Matthew teaches this at the very end of his gospel, as the Risen One gives the Great Commission of Matthew 28.19-20. The coda to Mark’s gospel also links mission to the Ascension, underscoring that these first Christians got the message: they “went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it” [Mark 16.15, 20]. What Pope Francis calls a “Church permanently in mission” is what the Church must be in every time and place: everyone is a missionary; everywhere is mission territory; even those leading hidden lives within the Church, like contemplatives or the home-bound, participate in the mission through prayer.

Happiness is the aim of the Christian life. By being baptized into Christ’s death and Resurrection, every Christian has also been glorified with Christ. And that glory which comes from “putting on Christ” expresses itself in a Christ-like manner of life: in a life of beatitude. Christian morality does not begin with “no.” Christian morality begins with God’s triumphant “yes” in the Resurrection, and that to which Christians must say “no” is said on the basis of that prior “yes,” from which we learn the truth about what makes for true fulfillment.

Nothing “ordinary” about all that.

 

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.