Wednesday, April 29, 2015

When the Monstrance is an Abyss

There's a very interesting essay in today's New York Times entitled "When the Cyberbully is You." The essay considers the phenomenon of the online mob and "shaming" a person via social media. Most of us are familiar with seeing stories go "viral" and re-posted or re-tweeted. Outrage and indignation spread from one person to another, their contagion seemingly infecting all it touches.

I am reluctant to consider myself a "victim" of cyberbullying but, I will admit, I've had more than my fair share of trolls who have visited this page. Most of them, sadly, are fellow Catholics who feel themselves commissioned by God to point out flaws or anonymously post hurtful comments. It's hard to develop a thick skin when someone is taking shots at you...but I've grown increasingly indifferent to cowardly criticisms.

The author of the Times piece quotes Friedrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. Some years ago, I taught this to my seniors. Quoted is, however, but the first of the two-sentence apothegm. IN §146, Nietzsche writes, "He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster." By this we should understand that we can be be transformed into what we most loath. We may rightly feel outrage at an injustice but, in our attempt to bring about order, we can stray easily into the realm of injustice.

Such, it seems, is the error of many in cyber-shaming. We are indignant at another's comment, or joke, so we attempt to "right" the scale by "calling him out." Stupid comments made on Twitter, things that should be reproved with an eye-roll or a, "Did you really write that?" become, through mob-shaming, the cause for a person to lose a job. Maybe that's justified, maybe it's justice...but I'm not so sure that a mindless mob is ever the best arbiter of what is just. It certainly wasn't the case for Jesus.

The second line of §146 is equally interesting. Nietzsche continues, "And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you."

For me, this is the irony of the vicious so-called Catholic bloggers. They would be the first to extoll hours spent in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament but then, when they turn to the internet, they manifest the presence of an abyss where neither mercy nor charity can be found. Rather than being themselves monstrances embodying the sacramental presence of Christ in the world, they are the monstrous inversions of a sacrament.

I wish some Catholic bloggers would ponder whether there is too-great a gulf between the time they spend on their knees in prayer and the time they spend at the keyboard. Has Christ's presence reached deep into their hearts to transform it? Or has self-righteousness and smug self-satisfaction succeeded in blocking the rays of Christ's merciful light? My (blessedly few) encounters with rage-a-holic bloggers forces me to wonder: are they themselves not guilty of the profanation of the Eucharist when their cowardly deeds and words serve only to destroy and break-down the Body of Christ they believe they serve?

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Such Great Voyages

During one of our many snowstorms this winter, I had a chance to re-watch Tony Kushner's Angels in America. The HBO-adapted miniseries was drawn from Kushner's play which debuted in 2003. The story centers around the AIDS crisis of the mid-1980's and traces how the lives of quite disparate individuals become intertwined in New York City. 

The opening scene takes place during the funeral of an elderly woman. The wizened rabbi stands before a plane pine coffin:

This woman. I did not know this woman. I cannot accurately describe her attributes, nor do justice to her dimensions. She was...Well, in the Bronx Home of Aged Hebrews there are many like this, the old, and to many I speak but not to be frank with this one. She preferred silence. So I do not know her and yet I know her. She was...
 (touching the coffin)
...not a person, but a whole kind of person, the ones that cross the ocean that brought with us to America, the villages of Russia and Lithuania. And how we struggled, and how we fought, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted. Descendants of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America, you and your children, and their children with the goyische names. You do not live in America. No such place exists. Your clay is the clay of some litvak shtetl, and your air is the air of the steppes - because she carried that Old World on her back across the ocean in a boat and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue, or in Flatbush, and she worked that earth into your bones, and you pass it to your children, this ancient culture and home.
You can never make that crossing she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not any more exist. But every day of your lives the miles that voyage between that place and this one you cross. Every day. You understand? In you that journey is.  
As raindrops splash against my window this Holy Saturday, I cannot help but to think the rabbi to be chillingly prophetic. We think nothing of trans-Atlantic travel these days, but we would hardly consider this a voyage. Are such Great Voyages a thing of the past? 

As Christians, we are heirs to the story of a great story originating with Abraham and traced through Jesus and passed down by saints and sinners. The Great Voyage of faith, recorded not only by miles logged but also by hearts made whole, is one in which we are always invited to embark upon. Such Great Voyages as undertaken in the past...these may no longer be possible. What we need today are Great Voyages of the future that will lead us in new directions. 

The conclusion of Lent is, at least for me, almost always bittersweet. The good intentions I began with many days ago are usually smudged and tattered and I know, in my heart, that I did not live out the Lent I desired. It's a terrible irony: I cannot even live my sinfulness well! All the same, after the shadow of Good Friday, I am looking to Easter's light to point the way for another year's journey. 

As the Church waits in hope for Easter's victory, I think it good to remain mindful that the journey of faith isn't a pre-planned itinerary, but something lived by each of us. Where we walk each day, where we set out in new directions, can all be avenues for bringing the Gospel to margins and frontiers. Sometimes these frontiers are places are very close to us - our homes, our friends - and sometimes they are very far away. Regardless, our faith in does not give us a journey. It makes us, in our flesh and bones, a Great Voyage that we undertake guided by Jesus. 

I hope those who read this have come through Lent a bit dirtier, a bit more ragged, than when they set out in February. I hope you thirst, having past through the Lenten desert. And I hope you are prepared for the great celebration when we feel the warm light of Easter's Victory and are refreshed in order to be the Great Voyage God calls us to be for another year. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Why We Need Cardinal Burke

I logged into Facebook the other day and saw that a number of friends had linked to an interview given by Cardinal Raymond Burke. Cardinal Burke has been painted - whether fittingly or not - as the opposition to Pope Francis, especially in matters related to the Synod on the Family. 

If you do a quick Google search for "Cardinal Burke," you'll see what has rankled not a few readers. The teaser line for the interview is certainly provocative. Cardinal Raymond Burke: Gays, remarried Catholics, murderers are all the same

Well, if that isn't going to get you to click on the story, I don't know what will.

It is within the context of a somewhat lengthy interview that this exchange occurred:

LSN: Among the viewpoints of Cardinal Kasper and, more recently, Bishop Bonny of Antwerp, and others, was the consideration that “faithful” homosexuals, “remarried” divorcees and non-married couples show qualities of self-sacrifice, generosity and dedication that cannot be ignored. But through their choice of lifestyle, they are in what must be seen by outsiders as an objective state of mortal sin: a chosen and prolonged state of mortal sin. Could you remind us of the Church’s teaching on the value and merit of prayer and good actions in this state?
CB: If you are living publicly in a state of mortal sin there isn't any good act that you can perform that justifies that situation: the person remains in grave sin. We believe that God created everyone good, and that God wants the salvation of all men, but that can only come about by conversion of life. And so we have to call people who are living in these gravely sinful situations to conversion. And to give the impression that somehow there's something good about living in a state of grave sin is simply contrary to what the Church has always and everywhere taught.
LSN: So when the man in the street says, yes, it's true these people are kind, they are dedicated, they are generous, that is not enough?
CB: Of course it's not. It's like the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people…
Theologically, I think one could ask the Cardinal for some clarification. For men and women living in a state of mortal sin, Church teaching is that they are cut off from charity. That is, they are severed from sanctifying grace. Yet, this does not corrupt human nature and some good remains still within them. This leads Thomas to say, "it is evident that unbelievers cannot do those good works which proceed from grace, viz. meritorious works; yet they can, to a certain extent, do those good works for which the good of nature suffices." (IIa-IIae Q. 10, A4).

Thomas does not deny that unbelief (infidelis) is sinful, but I don't know that he'd quite agree with the Cardinal that "there isn't any good act that you can perform that justifies the situation." If the situation refers to "meriting God's grace" then he's right. But he would have to include this to all of us who, at any moment, are in a state of mortal sin...and given a strict application of Church's understanding of sin, that'd be a lot of people. On the other hand, it would seem something of an overstatement to say that they can't do any good act if this is referred to other matters. Again, as Thomas said,
Hence it does not follow that they sin in everything they do; but whenever they do anything out of their unbelief (ex infidelitate), then they sin. For even as one who has the faith, can commit an actual sin, venial or even mortal, which he does not refer to the end of faith, so too, an unbeliever can do a good deed in a matter which he does not refer to the end of his unbelief.
To my mind, likening gays and remarried Catholics to "the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people" is hyperbole. A murderer is guilty of murder, but this doesn't make every single act of his null and void of goodness. His acts may not be paving his way to heaven - because he's not in a state of grace - but he can still do things that are good for the community, for friends, etc.. So it may be true that, qua mortal sin, nothing can justify a person (nor could any act done out of presumption, as it is a sin against hope). But this is not the same thing as justifying a person's work toward the common good, for instance, and I think we need to be clear on this.

This quibble aside, my strong claim is this: The Church Needs Cardinal Burke. 

The Church needs the Cardinal because we need disciples - women and men - to speak out and dissent when they feel as though something vital appears to be missing from the discourse. Pope Francis explicitly encouraged disagreement at the Synod of Bishops last year. We may not agree, or like, what a dissenting voice has to say but we must listen to them. Otherwise we risk becoming a dictatorship, a totalitarian state and not a living Body.

I find it completely dismaying how quickly people have piled upon the Cardinal for speaking out in a heartfelt defense of the Church. He has given his life to the Church as a disciple of Jesus and he clearly and sincerely believes that current approaches are less-than-faithful to the Tradition. Shame on us, then, if we right him off in the name of political expedience or because his words do not mesh cleanly with our agendas.

If we do not want the Church to devolve into some totalitarian state that reflects the whim of any current age, we need courageous persons to speak out and challenge us to re-examine our presuppositions and premises. It may not be easy, or painless, but it's vitally necessary. I may not agree with the Cardinal's simile, or I may have questions about his use of "good," but I certainly take his call seriously.

We need the Cardinal if we want to continue in the project that is the Church. We sin gravely if we are so presumptuous as to believe that today we hold an illusion-free view of reality to which the entire Church needs to conform itself. I am grateful that the Church does not accede to every whim or notion of the Academy. Not, mind you, because I am opposed to the Academy but because I regard friction and disagreement as a sign of vitality. The fact that people dissent, and disagree, should read as a bunch of cranky geriatrics who've fallen out of touch (as I read in a Facebook post). We should read it as a sign that people are still committed to the pilgrimage of the Church and love it, and the people, enough to challenge us to remain faithful to our mission as disciples. The way we live this mission cannot be dictated by trendy fashion but must, in every era, be discerned so as to stay in communion with one another and in companionship with the Lord.

The Church was born in a plurality of tongues, a host of voices inspired by the one Spirit at Pentecost. Many languages and tongues proclaimed the wonders of God's work that morning, and while some were amazed, others sneered and attributed the event to "new wine" (Acts 2:5-13). We need the Cardinal to help us remain honest, to chasten drive toward "progress," especially if this drive is unreflected and poorly discerned. We betray our calling to be the Church if we glibly dismiss any of our sisters or brothers are irrelevant, or atavistic, or stodgy. We are at our worst when we can no longer enter into any sort of dialogue, any appreciation of another's position, and resort to label-and-dismiss tactics that bring us neither to mutual understand and reconciliation. We owe it to ourselves to listen carefully, disagree when necessary, and do what we can to detect the strains of the Spirit that binds us together as on Body in Christ. 

Friday, February 27, 2015

Easter Proclamation - Exsultet - New Translation of the Roman Missal - P...

A Lenten Apprenticeship

Barring the realization that my voice is judged awful and offensive, I will be singing the the Exultet at this year's Easter Vigil. The text of this ancient hymn runs to nearly six pages and, depending on the singer's pacing, runs between ten and eleven minutes. It's my custom to preach no longer than eight minutes and, generally, I err on the side of four or five. Having to sing twice as long as I'm accustomed to speaking...this will be something!

Some people give up chocolate, or alcohol, or meat for Lent. Others commit themselves to more time spent in prayer. My Lenten journey will be recorded in and through the text of an intimidating song. I thought, then, that it might be fitting to break the text up into small sections and offer a few words of reflection upon it.

Exult, let them exult, the hosts of heaven,
exult, let Angel ministers of God exult,
let the trumpet of salvation
sound aloud our mighty King's triumph!

Be glad, let earth be glad, as glory floods her,
ablaze with light from her eternal King,
let all corners of the earth be glad,
knowing an end to gloom and darkness.

Rejoice, let Mother Church also rejoice,
arrayed with the lightning of his glory,
let this holy building shake with joy,
filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.

Note how the distance between heaven and earth, the celestial and the terrestrial, is traversed in three verses. The people, bearing candles lit with the Easter flame, are the source of the low light filling the Church. The Body itself is the source of light. In a world bathed in florescent overhead lighting, we too easily take for granted the symbolism of candlelight. Instead of radiating down upon us, Easter's light arises from the congregation and radiates. Each small candle contributes to the warm light heralding the King's triumph over death. 

This symbolism, I fear, is too easily lost by many Christians. Very often do Catholics, especially, get so focused on the Church as an institution rather than as an event or process unfolding over time. We get so caught up on hierarchies that we neglect that the Church is made up of those who are called to bear to the world the light of the Good News. 

If we took to heart the symbolism of the whole assembly, bearing lit candles, each offering a ray of light to celebrate the Risen would this affect our understanding of the Church and of what it means to be the Body of Christ? If we really were mindful that each one of us is responsible for carrying the light of Christ to the world, would we so judgmental of others when we know how hard it is for us to keep our own flame's burning? 

No single candle - certainly not my - candle, can illumine an entire Church. It takes all of us, gathered together, to dispel the darkness. When one candle goes out, others are there to re-ignite it. We err grievously when we mistake our feeble flickering for unassailable incandescence. We are all of us stewards of the light, tenders of a flame not of our origin but whose light and warmth gathers us into one Body, one Church, and unites our voices in praise. 

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Delayed Gratification

Last night I began reading a remarkable book entitled Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men.  Written by sociologist Michael Kimmel, the book attempts to offer a map of the terrain young men face today in order to help them "steer a course with greater integrity and honesty, so they can be true not to some artificial code, but to themselves."

Kimmel quotes a young graduate student in psychology:
I feel like my whole life has been one long exercise in delayed gratification...I mean, in high school, I had to get good grades, study hard, and do a bunch of extracurricular things so I could get into a good college. Okay, I did that. Went to Brown. Then, in college, I had to work really hard and get good grades so I could get into a good graduate school. Okay, I did that. I'm here at Wisconsin. Now, though, I have to work really hard, publish my research, so I can get a good tenure track job somewhere. And then I'lll have to work really hard for six years just to get tenure. I mean, by the time I can exhale and have a little fun, I'll be in my mid-30s -- and that's to old to have fun anymore!
As a graduate student, I can commiserate with this young man's sentiment. It is so easy to live our life according to future benchmarks. We find our goal, work really hard to achieve it, only to find another goal on our horizon. Our rush toward future goals keeps us on a treadmill we dare not jump off.

The same is true, I reckon, for any goal in our lives. "If I just lost ten pounds" or "If I could just be a size-X" or "If I just got that promotion." We want to assure ourselves that if we go just a bit further, we will find happiness. And so we either put off enjoying ourselves until we reach that goal - if we can ever reach it - or we become so intimidated by the journey that we don't even begin.

Lent, I suspect, is quite a bit like this. We set our gaze toward Easter and make tons of promises to ourselves about how, by the end of Lent, we will have become better at prayer or more spiritually deep. Yet we become so fixated on the end, the goal, that we lose sight of the daily joys we can discover as we try to grow in our relationship with Jesus.

Growth in holiness, like growth in fitness, is not an all-or-nothing affair. It's a slow process, moving us incrementally from one point toward another. That is to say, it's not like one morning a person wakes up and says, "Oh! I'm holy!!" Quite to the contrary: holiness is not a destination but a process in time, the ongoing growth in openness toward friendship with the Lord. Because it is a process, because it is a commitment of ourselves over time, there both is and is not a sense of delayed gratification.

It is true that, at times, we have to put off small pleasures in order to attain a larger or more valuable one. If I want to grow in my spiritual life, I know that I might need to get up five minutes earlier to have a little extra time for prayer before the chaos of my day erupts. But because I am committed to this growth, because it is on my radar to be a friend of the Lord, many moments in the day present themselves as opportunities to grow. My entire day becomes an opportunity to grow in holiness.

If you want to grow in holiness, or grow in prayer, you do not need to "delay gratification." Instead, be gratified by the delay of prayer. Find gratitude in taking a few moments of quiet each day to rest with the Lord, to bring before the Holy One the contents of your heart. To open yourself a little bit more each day, to make your heart more vulnerable to God, is to make yourself susceptible to finding joy in your journey of holiness.

The young man quote above is all too typical. If you focus on a future destination, you'll only ever know frustration: no matter where you get to, there'll always be something more in the distance. Learn to enjoy the process, to embrace the daily struggles and rejoice in the daily conquests, and you will find that the slow burn of discipleship will transform your life in remarkable ways. Or, to quote Saint Peter Claver:

Seek God in all things and we shall find God by our side. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

A Frozen Prison

As the morning sun begins to creep over the horizon, the new day's light illuminates a pretty stark scene: just about four feet of snow has fallen. Four feet might not sound like a lot, but when it is pushed and plowed up, the sidewalks - where plowed - become little more than rabbit warrens leading a walker (hopefully) to his destination. Add to this frigid temperatures, with windchill as low as -25 Fahrenheit, and it's hard not to feel that one is living in a winter prison. 

When I head up to class this morning, I'll try to get a few pictures and upload them. It really is remarkable to walk to campus and find cars completely buried in snow. And, by buried, I mean totally encased. 

Yet I can aver: neither sub-zero winds nor towering piles of snow will deter some students from wearing shorts to school. I have no doubt that, as I stand in line to buy a cup of hot tea, at least one student will walk past wearing shorts, as though to stand in fashionable defiance of our wintry sentence. Some will admire this students, others will hardly notice. I'll probably roll my eyes and think that there's no statement - fashion or otherwise - that would enable me to wear anything less than four layers to school today. 

Somehow, I think it should be a consolation that Spring Break begins in less than two weeks. I'm of a mind I should use some frequent flyer miles to go someplace warm because, near as I can tell, this snow is going to be around for quite some time!

Monday, February 02, 2015

Another Snow Day

Last night, before I went to bed, I prayed fervently that we'd not have a snow day today. One of my seminars, "Theology in a Secular Age," meets each Monday and it's a topic in which I'm keenly interested. The main text for the course is Charles Taylor's A Secular Age, a sprawling tome in which the author attempts to answer the question, "Why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, 1500 in our Western society, while in 2000 many of us find this not only easy, but even inescapable?" 

The book is a very long, and very challenging, narration of how we got to be where we are today. It is a story far more complicated than the one we typically hear. The typical narrative runs something like this: In the old days, when we didn't know as much as we do now, we needed to believe in a God to explain lots of things. But as we advanced in science and technology, we were able to shake off these silly beliefs and settle into a world governed only by what we've learned. Consequently, religion can now be seen as training wheels: they were necessary for a time but now that we've learned to do it on our own, wholly inessential and oftentimes just in the way."

Taylor dares to ask the question: "Must it have been so and not otherwise?" If today we find many challenges to believe, was this inevitable or is contemporary unbelief more complicated than we've been led to believe? Taylor does not see unbelief as an inevitability and his text records an effort to re-tell our story in a manner attentive to the many micro-stories that have come together to shape who we are today. 

Thus you can imagine why I'd not want to miss a single class! Our seminar's slow reading through Taylor's text (for the first half of the semester) is an absolute treat. As I've said before, I'm so grateful to be working on my PhD this year and courses such as this really set my imagination on fire. So when I woke up this morning and saw a 5:36 am text that said class had been cancelled, I was disappointed...a far cry from those days of being a student, or even a teacher, when I longed for the snow day!


Priestly ordination is now just over four months away. After years of the question, "Ryan, when are you going to be ordained?" I can now say, "Just a few months!" There's a good bit of planning to be done, of course, but I'm really trying to enjoy these last months of preparation.

Some time ago, an Irish dancing friend and I met for a glass of wine and we chatted about priesthood. I expressed to her my own doubts - natural doubts, I suspect - about whether I'd ever be good enough, or qualified enough, or holy enough. Her response lingers with me: As long as you're trying to be the priest you're called to be, you'll always be the priest we need.

I'll post ordination day information here pretty soon. It will be in Chicago on June 13th and the church is quite large so it does not seem that space will be an issue so, if you're a Chicago-based reader, feel free to join! 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Thought on the Francis Effect

Jesuit Father Thomas Reese recently published an insightful piece entitled "The church is more than just the pope" where he underscores something many of us fail to forget: we cannot put the weight of Catholicism's future on the pope's shoulders. If there is anything akin to an authentic "Francis effect," it will not be a singularly herculean feat of bearing the weight of an institution. The effect will be for all of us to "go and do likewise" and serve as we see him serve.

Last semester, I was privileged to take a course with Lisa Sowle Cahill, a renowned ethicist and moral theologian here at Boston College. One student set before himself the task of combing through the Pope's allocutions and writings to try to piece together some sense of the Holy Father's "Theology of the Cross." In an almost casual aside, Lisa drew attention to the Pope's pectoral cross.

One of the first things people notice is that it's not made of gold or studded with precious gems. Contrary to popular belief, it is made of silver and not steel, but what is most intriguing is not its metallic composition. Instead, as Lisa noted, it is what is depicted upon the cross that is most telling.

If you look carefully, you'll see that Francis wears a cross not as a fashion statement but as further testimony to the sort of Christian each of us is to become. If today many of us wear religious jewelry - or, sadly, religious clothing! - and are satisfied that this external ornament attests to our commitment, Pope Francis should be heard as exhorting us to become what we dare to wear.

Thus his cross depicts the Good Shepherd, the one who loves all of his sheep but will carry the lost one home to safety. The Good Shepherd does not rebuke the wayward lamb, does not threaten or harangue, but lifts it up and bears it back to the fold. This is not a depiction of the Pope supporting every member of the flock, absolving the rest of the Church from having to do anything for themselves. Instead, it shows Jesus at the forefront and head of the Church, leading by example: Jesus has gone to collect the lost and expects those who follow to go and do likewise.

Father Reese, in his post, shares a story of a woman who recently sought sacramental reconciliation and was yelled at. Around this time last year, a young woman I was helping to prepare for Confirmation had a similar experience. Rather than rejoicing at her return, the priest seized the opportunity to lecture her about the entirety of her sinful past, as though she wasn't already quite aware of it! To be sure, a word of counsel may be appropriate, but I simply can't imagine that it's ever necessary to yell at someone (I can't even bring myself to yell at a barista when my "plain black coffee" is somehow screwed up).

It boggles my mind that people expect the Pope to get people back into the pews. He may go a long way in restoring credibility in the institution, but if seekers enter our churches and find frigid and self-righteous congregations or obnoxious pastors, his example will be for naught. The Francis Effect, for it to be authentic, must transform our corporate Affect, helping us to become more welcoming and hospitable.

The Good Shepherd isn't good because he knows how to build secure fences to contain his flock. He is good because even when they stray, he goes out to them. There is none outside the Shepherd's reach and, each day, we are all called to be the hands and feet of the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost of this world.

If you've not received sacramental reconciliation in some time, it might be helpful to hear the formula of absolution. After one has found the courage to confess where one has strayed and expressed contrition, the priest utters these beautiful words:

God, the Father of Mercies, through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

There is no condemnation in these words but only a sense of joy at the return of the lost and wayward. What a difference it would be to the Church were those of us who know something of God's mercy were to show mercy to others, were in Father James Keenan's words, "to enter into the chaos of another" not to take away their suffering but to be a companion in their time of need. If we have received mercy and forgiveness, we must become the mercy and forgiveness we have received. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"You are my beloved"

If you're looking for a counter-cultural message, look no further than today's Gospel reading. In four short verses, the Evangelist Mark presses on two particularly sensitive areas. First, John the Baptist acknowledges something difficult for most, if not all of us, to say: it's not all about me. Second, God affirms something of Jesus that many of us long to hear said of ourselves: You are my beloved...with you I am well pleased.

I'll be the first to admit that there's an ever-present temptation to try to make all things center upon me. When community obligations prove inconvenient, I groan and say, "I have better things to do." When others are given praise, or acquire honors, I might smile outwardly but, inwardly, I sneer or downplay the person's accomplishment.

My spiritual lifeline, however, has proved to be my accordion. Not that the accordion is a talisman able to ward off self-centeredness and resentment, of course. But the many hours I have spent, and continue to spend, playing for Irish dancing competitions reinforces, in my life, that this is not all about me. The music I play provides the context for the dancers to dance, but my task is to prepare their way, to play music enabling them to dance. When a dancer executes a particular dance in spectacular form, it brings me great delight to hear people laud the performance: even though they aren't talking about me, or may not even have noticed me, I am joyful that I've had even a small - even if invisible - part in creating something others love.

John the Baptist isn't looking to take a selfie, or to gather a whole group of people around him. He doesn't come up with a catchy #Baptizer or #I_Baptized_Him or #Dunked_Him Twitter claim. He proclaims a truth surely hard to share: you might think I'm good, but you haven't seen anything yet. The Baptizer must have faced terrible temptations: his words and deeds so touched his listeners' hearts, they came to see and hear him, and he must have been tempted to think that he was the star of the show. Yet he knew at the core of his being a lesson most of us have to learn, and re-learn, throughout our lives.

Second, and probably more difficult for most of us, would be the possibility of hearing God say to us: You are my beloved. You (insert your name here) are my beloved and with you I am well pleased. 

"The Baptism of the Christ" by artist Daniel Bonnell
Again, speaking only for myself, I find it hard to take a compliment. If you say, "Ry, that was a great dinner you prepared," I'll probably discount it: "It was nothing" or "Thanks, but I thought the meat was too overdone." I don't think it's modesty so much as, deep down, a little fear-scar refuses to be healed and I'm always self-conscious about whether the person really means what is said. Better to downplay a compliment, to hedge it with some negativity, than risk being disappointed later.

I think a rather glittering seduction is to invert God's words to Jesus. We try to make it something like, You have pleased me by what you have done, therefore you are my beloved. Our sinful hearts want to believe that God loves us because of something we've earned or merited but, even then, do we believe this much? If I can't take a compliment from my friends and family, do I think I'd be able to receive it from the Almighty?

Fortunately, the God we praise short-circuits our many neuroses. Our being loved isn't tied to an accomplishment, or an achievement, or something we've done or might do. We are loved simply because we are. In the celestial Facebook, God gave us a "Like" long before we ever thought to post a selfie.

You're not loved because you're good, or because your worthwhile. You're worthwhile, valuable, and you can be good only because God loves you. Stop trying to be loved. Love, instead, the great adventure of trying to be a disciple, of growing ever closer to the God who loves and sustains us.

Today it may prove helpful to meditate on Bonnell's powerful depiction of Jesus' baptism. Notice the play of light and shape surrounding Jesus who is cruciform: the Jesus who heard God's affirmation is the same Jesus we, sinful humans who are allergic to the message of God's love, crucified. Nevertheless, our hateful rejection of God's love doesn't silence the message directed to us. Perhaps we could take a few moments today and, in quiet prayer, imagine hearing God address us:

You are my beloved. Yes, you. 
Of course I know who you are. I know you are a sinner.
I know what you've done.
I know how you have failed.
I know of what it is you are ashamed, of what you work
so hard to keep concealed. 
I know the doubt in your heart; I know you struggle to believe
that anyone could love you.
"If they really knew me," you think, "they couldn't love me."
I know you because I am creating you, 
and I love what I create. 
You can say no to my friendship, no to my love, only because
I offered it to you first. 
It is never too late and my words to you never change:
You are my beloved. 
Allow yourself to be who you are. 
You cannot force this. 
You are free. 
You are beloved.
Let yourself be.
Be loved.