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The Revolutionary Message of Palm Sunday

The texts that Christians typically read on Palm Sunday have become so familiar to them that they probably don’t sense their properly revolutionary power. But no first-century Jew would have missed the excitement and danger implicit in the coded language of the accounts describing Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem just a few days before his death. In Mark’s Gospel we hear that Jesus and his disciples “drew near to Jerusalem, to Bethphage and Bethany on the Mount of Olives.” A bit of trivial geographical detail, we might be tempted to conclude. But we have to remember that pious Jews of Jesus’ time were immersed in the infinitely complex world of the Hebrew Scriptures and stubbornly read everything through the lens provided by those writings. About five hundred years before Jesus’ time, the prophet Ezekiel had relayed a vision of the “Shekinah” (the glory) of Yahweh leaving the temple, due to its…

Does Christianity Demand “Niceness”?

Many people are familiar with G.K. Chesterton’s observation that “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” We like the quote because it confirms our suspicions that a faith grounded in gratitude and a wider perspective can create a solid tarmac from which we may soar. That’s easier than it sounds, of course, and Chesterton knew it—the fully delicious and playful quote comes from his profound masterwork Orthodoxy, and reads, “Solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.” And gravity, as we know, is the law. Lately, I’ve seen in some of my acquaintances the development of a very grave and solemn habit, indeed—a tendency to expect niceness in everyone they meet, particularly in professed Christians. When exposed to someone’s overwhelming urge to snark at politicians, headlines, celebrity-sham-marriages, and overplayed cards…

The Colors of the World

If I may lift a lyric from Les Misérables (the musical), “The colors of the world / Are changing day by day.” Red and black. Those colors characterized Rome during the Nazi occupation. As The Scarlet and the Black opens, a red Nazi flag flies with a black swastika emblazoned in the center. Black-clad Gestapo officers with red swastika armbands march into the Vatican. But then we see that not only rage and hatred can co-opt red and black. For there, the Nazis find cardinals, bishops, and monsignori vested in their black cassocks and the scarlet colors of their offices. This visual contrast sets up the conflict that dominates the film. As the Nazi occupiers attempt to capture Allied refugee soldiers and round up Rome’s Jewish population, they frequently find themselves foiled. An increasingly frantic SS commander, Herbert Kappler, played by Christopher Plummer of The Sound of Music fame, fails…

Lessons Through Illness

Recently, I spent a few days in hospital with a serious illness. Thank God I have recovered fully, but it could have been worse—even fatal. Such a brush with death makes you think deeper and changes your perspective. You move into a different space that is already occupied by millions of sick people whose plight you were aware of but did not consider as much as you should. Here I share a few thoughts from this experience of illness and how it impacts on our call to evangelize. We hear much about the institutions of society that are the shapers of culture—the media, universities, politics, TV, the internet, movies, art, music, literature, etc. It may seem odd to describe hospitals as shapers of culture, but the truth is that they not only care for people who are sick but remind society that we human beings are weak, limited, and vulnerable.

How I Cheated in College

He had an overmastering regard for efficiency. —Charles Ryder about platoon commander Hooper in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder. —G.K. Chesterton Life can’t be all bad when for ten dollars you can buy all the Beethoven sonatas and listen to them for ten years. —William F. Buckley, Jr.   Years ago, when I was in college, I cheated.  Now, let me explain. When I decided to become a doctor, I had no idea what I was doing. My two older sisters, both bright and engaging, had dabbled with the idea of practicing medicine. However, after considering the lives they wanted to lead (and, for one, enduring the harrowing experience of poorly taught Microbiology), they thought better of it and found their calling as schoolteachers. My father was a school superintendent and my mother, a homemaker.

How Lent Reminds Us We Can Never Repay God

Lent is not about evening things out with God. As Br. Joachim Kenney, O.P., explains, since our prayers and sacrifices add nothing to God’s greatness or happiness, they are not primarily for his benefit, but rather for our own.

Lent and the Challenge of the Gospel

The Book of Genesis is a book of beginnings, a book of origins. From it we learn the beginning of creation, of humanity, and of the Israelites. The Israelites originate as a people from the great Old Testament patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah. Abraham is called forth by God from the life he knew and sets out on a journey that God promises will take him to lands that will become the homeland for his descendants who, God promises, will be a great nation “as numerous as a stars in the heavens.” In today’s Scripture this promise is literally cut in a sacrifice and becomes a covenant between God and Abraham. A covenant is best understood for our purposes as a relationship, a relationship that goes much deeper than merely a legal contract. The sacrifice indicates the depth of the relationship between God and Abraham; it is a matter…

The First Commandment: Orienting Us Away from Our Idols

“Not only does the devil have the best music,” a former pastor used to tease, “he also has the best lines in movies and the most interesting of the Commandments—the ones we want to break.” It was a smart, funny observation, and Father employed it with some regularity because it guaranteed a laugh. Anyone who had ever thrilled to Smeagol’s dementia over his “Precious” or repeated Darth Vader’s “Come to the dark side”—or had ever entertained angry or lustful fantasies (in other words most of us)—could appreciate the truth of it. After all, when we think of the Ten Commandments, those injunctions against stealing, killing, fornication, and covetousness come immediately to mind; they interest us because we know the struggles we wage against our worst instincts and fallen natures. In preparation for confession, we quickly find ourselves dwelling within that prompt-list of easy sins: yes, I took the Lord’s name…

Fake News and Speaking the Truth

You love evil more than good, and lying more than speaking the truth. (Ps. 52:3) Evidently, lies spread more than truth on the internet. A group of scientists published a research report, “The spread of true and false news online,” in Science magazine in March of last year. The study spanned ten years of Twitter, analyzing over 100,000 contentious stories, most of which also spread to other social media platforms like Facebook. According to Jill Lepore in The New Yorker, Facebook’s “trending news” feature helped aid the notorious “fake news” of the 2016 election cycle; the feature has since been terminated. The online catalyst for false news is not just found on social media. The larger media circuit has also flubbed. Without accusing anyone of malice, we may say that erroneous news, although retracted, has had tremendous consequences. One example comes from the 2019 March for Life. An altercation…

A Lent of Eloquent Silence

Praise no one before he speaks, for it is then that people are tested. (Sirach 27:7) Every Lent calls for a fasting from words. Not simply to make them fewer, but to make them worthier of our dignity and his Majesty. This Lent, more silence for the mouth, the ears, the phone, the keyboard. Fewer words, spoken with more consideration and care, more thought and deliberation, more reflection and repentance. Words that emerge from a place of depth, and not from the swampy shallows of superficiality. Words that tremble in the presence of their Creator, the Word through whom all things were made, he who once said to us, “On the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter” (Matt. 12:36). Be silent, or say something better than silence. This Lent, choose to “let no evil talk come out of your…