The Bread of Life: heaven’s answer to a hell of a mess (August 26th, 2018)

Before all Masses today, I read this letter to my parishioners regarding abuse by clergy. I am posting it here for reference for those who might wish to read or re-visit it. Please forgive any errors in the Spanish translation, which is dependent on Google Translate and my limited vocabulary:

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 26th, 2018) – Father Maurer’s letter to the Lewis county Catholic community regarding abuse by clergy


Well, this is a hell of a mess. I’m not just cursing, by the way, I’m describing: this mess is from Hell. There is no room for mincing words when we talk what we’re reading about in the grand jury report, what we’re hearing about with former-cardinal McCarrick, what is both being discovered from the past and from those victims who are newly emboldened to speak out now – whether their particular abuse happened in the past or more recently. This from Hell.

There is also no room for pretending that this is not here or for assuming a defensive posture. It does no one any good to say ‘it’s just a minority of priests’ or ‘it just happened back in the past’ or ‘it’s not that much’. Frankly, that kind of excusing or diminishing is also from Hell. Do not participate in it. We need to acknowledge that we are in an awful state: the brokenness of the Church exposed for us to see.

I find it very interesting to hear the readings today, how the Lord allowed for all of this to unfold and for this particular Sunday and these particular readings to be at hand. Joshua gathers the people of Israel and when they’re in front of him he says:

If it does not please you to serve the LORD,
decide today whom you will serve,
the gods your fathers served beyond the River
or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling.
As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.

We’re standing in front of prophets right now – the unlikeliest of prophets. The jurors on that Pennsylvania report, believers or not. And if you read the first pages, you may see for yourselves that they do not have an ax to grind or an agenda to drive forward. They’re looking for the truth: they’re prophets. Those who have come forward about former-cardinal McCarrick, those who speak about their own experience – unwilling though they may be, pained as they are – they are prophets. And we stand before them.

And the question is being asked of us: ‘who will you serve? Decide, now’. Will you follow the whims and the idols of culture or will you re-dedicate yourself to Jesus Christ, your Savior and your God?

Don’t be quick to answer – don’t be quick to say ‘I’m on the side of righteousness, I’m got this, I’m following the Lord.’

The second reading today is also a striking one. You’ll notice that the long form version is that rather infamous one among Catholic circles. It starts like this:

Brothers and sisters:
Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.
For the husband is head of his wife
just as Christ is head of the church,
he himself the savior of the body.
As the church is subordinate to Christ,
so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.

Oh, couples love this reading – they’re sooooo happy when it comes up… So let me just address the elephant in the room right off the bat. Any spouse who uses this passage as a ‘bash passage’, as a way of domineering over their spouse, recall that you too will stand before God to account for your life. When you pull out this passage – perhaps even recalling chapter and verse – good luck with that. We don’t have time to argue that any further, because that isn’t what Paul was even talking about.

The very end of this reading speaks to his intention: “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church.” And what does He say about Christ and the Church? “The church is subordinate to Christ”. Subordinate.

When you decide to follow God, you embrace humility. ‘I will follow Christ and His Church’ – even in times when that Church is fraught with sickness and sin. Nonetheless the faith that has been passed down, that is from Christ.

How many of us find ourselves struggling with our faith! Not just with personalities of the Church or the sins of the Church – terrible though as that may be at times. And I do not mean to diminish in any way how difficult in can be when you have a clergy member you dislike, someone has fallen from grace, or has abused terribly as we see in example after example after example laid out in the news.

Yet how many of look at our faith and respond like the disciples of Jesus who walked away? “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” How many of us, in our hearts at least, have answered with that to the call of Christ: ‘Be perfect as My heavenly Father is perfect’, ‘give up everything and follow me’, ‘be subordinate to Me’.

I wonder at the posture of the disciples who left. As Christ is talking in this passage, you may recognize that we are continuing His ‘Bread of Life’ discourse that we have been reading through from last Sunday and the Sunday before. Last Sunday we heard Christ say not once, not twice, but five times ‘If you do not eat My Body and drink My Blood, you will not have life within you – if you do chew My Flesh and swallow My Blood, you will not have eternal life – if you will not receive this gift, you will not be received into heaven’. That’s what they’re responding to.

I wonder if they got more and more tense, their arms crossed in front of them, their shoulders tensing up, their eyes cast down and then finally, they’ve had enough: “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” And they left.

How many times do we see this reflected in our own hearts? ‘It’s too hard to follow our faith – it’s too hard to be humble – its too hard to admit that I am part of the problem in my parish, in my community, in my family – it’s too hard to admit that I am attached more to my sin than I am to following Christ’.

I remember a conversation with someone in some sort of irregular marriage. As you might expect, we ended up talking about the consistent teaching of the Church – as given to us by Christ Himself – about marriage and purity. The person looked me in the eye and said “Father, you don’t know how hard it is not to have sex.”

‘…..really? Tell me more about this thing called ‘celibacy’ – I’d like to learn about that!’

Now I don’t want to pretend that it’s easier for priests or easier for married people. We’ve all got our struggles. But let’s be honest – we all have our favorite sins. Contraception, pornography, masturbation are among the top three of our culture. But those aren’t all:

‘I don’t want to get married in the Church; it’s too much effort to go through marriage prep or have to deal with annulment work – and in the meantime you want me to be continent, to be celibate?’

‘You want me to worship in a certain way, to follow the guidance of the Church in how to offer sacrifice to the Lord?’

‘You want me to donate money?’

‘You want me to volunteer?’

‘You expect me to pray every day?’

‘You expect me to give to the poor and talk to those who make me uncomfortable?’

‘You want me to give up everything?’

Not me, no. I’m no better than anyone else – these questions ring in my heart and at times from my lips as well. But Jesus does want all of this, and more. Jesus has consistently asked not for ten percent, not for thirty or fifty or even ninety percent. He asks for everything.

“This saying is hard; who can accept it”

We can accept it. We are called to accept it. And it starts with first confessing our sins. There is a reason I pound on this sacrament so often: we have to confess our weakness, we have to confess our brokenness. This is what happened to these abusing clerics: they so grew in pride until they were so blind that they could commit the most terrible atrocities, cover it up…and then sacrilegious celebrate Mass, sometimes just minutes after the fact.

If we think our own sins will not lead to terrible acts, we only have to look to the example of those who have done these things to see the kind of path that we could fall into. Maybe not those sins – God forbid! – but certainly terrible sins. We will wound ourselves and we will devastate others.

This saying is hard, but we are called to accept it. And the very first thing we do is confess our need: ‘I need a Savior, I need someone who will redeem me. I need someone who will see my petty desires, my grasping for power or authority or possessions or wealth or status or acclaim – and still accept me, and give me something work all of those things, worth more. Someone who has the power to forgive my sins, Who is willing to give me His very Body and Blood to nourish me, Who is preparing a better place than this messed up and broken world.’

That person is Jesus Christ. That is where our faith lies.

We are hearing calls afar and in our own community – perhaps you yourself have considered or even made this invitation – to prayer, to acts of reparation, to fasting and abstinence. You might have doubts right now and sleepless nights, sorrowful and angry, wondering why you’re here and listening to a priest after so many priests have violated their sacred trust. We do these things not because of earthly examples, but because of the example of Christ.

If we are willing to subordinate ourselves to Jesus, to declare ourselves and our households to God, we will be able to fulfill the commandment of Christ: to receive His Body and Blood – worthily! – and to present Him to the world.

It’s an interesting thing that this should all come to pass around this weekend, with these readings. Moreover, Monday and Tuesday are special memorials in the life of the Church. The power of prayer on display in the lives of two particular saints.

Monday is the memorial of Saint Monica – you’ll recognize her as the mother of Augustine. She suffered greatly as she witnessed the sins of her son, watching him embrace a life of debauchery and abuse – abusing his own body and those of others as he sought after every single vice. You can read all about it in his book ‘Confessions’ – because one day, after years of prayer on her part, Augustine asked to be baptized. Recognizing his own weakness, he confessed is sins. And therefore, on Tuesday, we celebrate Saint Augustine, bishop and doctor of the Church.

I don’t know what role we’re in, honestly – are we Saint Monica or Saint Augustine? I guess at times we’re either of them. Sometimes we look at the sins of others and we weep, we mourn as we see how much others have destroyed lives, including their own. And sometimes we’re Saint Augustine, participating in those very sins and blind to the fact that we’re the source of our own pain and that of those around us.

What changed their lives? Jesus Christ – renewed dedication to Him in prayer and acts of reparation as we join our sacrifices to His.

In a few moments we will celebrate the Eucharist, and as I mentioned before Mass starting this weekend every Sunday vigil Mass for the foreseeable future will be offered for the victims of clergy sexual abuse. We also need to offer ourselves and ask for the conversion of ourselves.

That cross-armed posture of the disciples who walked away – I see it every Sunday. People come up to the front of the church, arms crossed. Communion has been replaced with a blessing. I don’t mean to judge anyone and I know that children also often come up this way because they haven’t yet received their first holy Communion. But I can’t help but wonder: how many of us in this room have not received Communion for weeks, or months, or years, because we have not yet let go of the sins to which we are so attached.

The saints and Christ Himself are proof that this way that is hard can be accepted and can effect change in our lives. Do we want to fix all these problems, do we want to bring about conversion – even in those in the high places of the hierarchy, do we want to restore trust in Christ’s Church in a world that not only looks at us with skepticism for our faith but now anger for our hypocrisy?

It starts with our holiness. We must be ones who say ‘I will submit my own life for conversion – because I am a sinner too. Because I like sin….even some that are grave sins. And yet I need to receive the Bread of Life, I need eternal life.’

Saint Peter makes that amazing testimony of faith at the end of the Gospel. Jesus, having watched some of His disciples walk away, turns to His Apostles. I’ve always imagined Him with a sad look on His face, His voice low and soft: “Do you also want to leave?”

“Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

This is Christ’s promise to us: ‘I give you My Body and Blood. I give you My very Self, so that you will have eternal life.’ It will not be easy! It is the hard way, and when you dedicate yourself and your household to the Lord, you will be confronted with all of the ways that you need to be converted. One by one or all at once, Jesus Christ will reveal to you the ways that you have not yet given yourself to Him.

And yet, when you do, when you honestly present your sins forgiveness, you will become a saint. What a great gift it would be to be able to celebrate your feast day, to tell the story of your conversion – if not here on earth, one day in heaven. Saint Augustine has a whole book full of his sins – not because he is trying to excuse or glorify them, but because his conversion from those sins shows God’s glory even over the darkest of deeds.

God can overcome these sins as well: God can overcome the brokenness of our Church. And as He said to Peter – ‘On this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it’. But they’re sure trying hard! And it won’t help if we cooperate through our sins.

And so we celebrate Mass and we come forward for communion. And I’d like to encourage you: only come forward for communion. If you’re not receiving communion today, stay seated. This is what the Church teaches us to do when we are not able to receive communion, for whatever reason. We’re not called to receive a blessing at this time – which is why I don’t offer them at communion – because it replaces communion with something lesser. And what do we call that when we replace the Lord with something that is not the Lord? Idolatry. We don’t want to make that our practice.

Stay seated if you’re not receiving communion – not out of shame or fear of judgment, but in anticipation. In these moments we recognize our need for God’s gratuity and commit to making a good confession, changing our lives – and returning to reconciliation any time we fall – so that we can look forward to that time when we are ready to worthily receive the Body and Blood of Christ. Because it is at Mass, at communion, that Jesus gives us eternal life. He has promised to do just that.

We’re feeling pretty bruised and broken right now. But we are not lost. Christ loves His Church – even we sinners. Especially sinners! Christ has special care for those who are victims. And especially now – if we are to offer that care for victims – we must purify ourselves so that we are found ready to offer what they truly deserve: a Church that can turn to them and say ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry that this has been done to you, I’m that my Church did this to you, I’m sorry that we ignored it for so long or covered it up. And I stand ready to help you.’

If we are going to do that well, we must be united with Christ – especially through confession and the Eucharist. Christ is hope, He is the center of our faith, He is the reason the Church exists, and the only foundation that will stand firm. Trying to build our faith on anything else – including bishops or priests – will only produce something weak and fragile. But if we return to Christ, if we declare ourselves for the Lord, if we turn to Him and accept even His hard sayings, subordinating ourselves to Him, Christ who climbed on the cross and accepted our sins – sins that He had no culpability for – Christ who rose from the dead and promised us new life, He will restore us, bring us to health. And through us, He will bring life to our fallen world.

This Sunday is the last Sunday that we repeat the psalm 34 – “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord”. We’ve sung that psalm three Sunday in a row. Today, may we ask the Lord to prepare us if we’re not ready and to bring us if we are so that we may taste and see His goodness here at this altar. And may He help us to own our sins, to proclaim His forgiveness, and to be agents of healing especially to those who most need. Christ is our faith. Christ is our center. He will not abandon us.

Let us stay close to Him, trusting that He truly has the words of eternal life.

Turning from idols to Christ, the Bread of Life (August 20th, 2018)

If we are attentive to the readings, to the choice of readings over the past few weeks and the coming weeks, we may have noticed a theme. It is most noticeable in the responsorial psalm – you’ll remember that last Sunday we sang the same psalm that we had today: “taste and see the goodness of the Lord”. And we’ll sing it one more time next Sunday.

Additionally, we’ve been walking through the Gospel of John, with the umph of the message really being evident in today’s Gospel and next Sunday’s Gospel. And what’s the punchline? It is Christ giving His Body and Blood and food.

This is probably one of the most controversial teachings of our faith, right after the mercy of God. And even at the time it was offered it elicited skepticism in response. ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ And Jesus doesn’t stop and say that it is an allegory, or a metaphor, or some rhetorical device. He says, ‘no, I’m telling you exactly what I mean’. He repeats it again and again – a total of five times in just seven verses.

In next Sunday’s Gospel in the continuation of this narrative, people will get upset and leave because this truth is too hard for them to accept. Jesus doesn’t respond by changing His teaching, but instead turns to the Apostles – almost sadly – and asks them ‘will you also go?’. Peter in return answers with that simply statement of faith ‘To whom would we go? You have the words of eternal life’.

When we read this particular passage, when we read about the feeding of the five thousand, about the manna from heaven in the Old Testament, and we sing the responsorial psalm ‘taste and see the goodness of the Lord’, it’s all focusing us towards receiving the Body and Blood of Christ. That’s what we do here at Mass!

In the Catechism, it speaks of the Eucharist as the ‘source and summit of our faith’. Everything we do centers around receiving Christ, the whole point of our entire faith is an encounter with Christ and the best way to do that is reception of the Eucharist.

Baptism joins us to the Body of Christ and enables us to join in the participation in the Mass. We go to Confession so that we can offer our sins and receive forgiveness in order to receive the Eucharist worthily. We celebrate Mass so that we can offer Christ’s sacrifice to the Father and so that we can receive the Eucharist.1 We’re married so that we can support each other and raise our children in this faith. We’re ordained so that we can celebrate and make present the Eucharist. Even at the hour of death, when we are anointed, the Church calls for (whenever possible) the reception of the Eucharist. All of our sacraments and all of faith revolves around the Eucharist.

There is a temptation that we face, from time to time, in all of our lives – both individually and corporately: to put something other than the Eucharist at the center of our faith. Good thing, most often, but things other than Christ. Sometimes its social work, outreach to feed the poor, offering resources, and help to those in need. Sometimes it is in standing for changes in the culture – abolishing abortion and injustices that we see against the poor, immigrants, the marginalized. We tell ourselves that by participating in these movements, we have checked off the box of fulfilling our faith.

We’re called to do all these things and more – they are good and necessary works, part of our faith. But they will become idols if they take the place of Christ as our center. And the best encounter with Christ, the one that He gave us, is here at the altar.

In recent weeks, we have seen the devastating results of making anything an idol. We’ve seen in the news the stories of the former cardinal who abused his power terribly, particularly with seminarians. And just this week we had the report from Pennsylvania of a grand jury – over one thousand pages long, after two years of investigation – that details the abuse by priests and apparently covered up by bishops of at least 1000 victims, over a span of about 40 years.

This is what happens when Christ is not at the center.

I imagine that those clergy – especially those who covered it up – told themselves ‘the reputation of the Church is important and we need to protect that’. And I suppose there’s truth in that, but they made it an idol by not looking to the protection of the Body of Christ who was wounded, to those members – and maybe future members! – who were victimized.

I can’t imagine what the priest who perpetrated these crimes were thinking, but it’s clear that it was not the Eucharist that was at the center of their lives. Perhaps the idol of power, though God knows what else.

What do we do with idols? We smash them to pieces! We see this in the Old Testament especially. And we are faced with this terrible, terrible truth: that there are idols within our own Church and that those at the highest level – our clergy – bishops and priests have failed us. They have perpetrated these crimes or have been complicit, even if simply through inaction.

Where do we go from here, what do we do? We’re just regular people sitting in a pew, and yet, here we are. We can’t ignore it or pretend it doesn’t exist. We also don’t have the luxury of saying ‘that’s the East coast, not here’. If nothing else, this one investigation will surely spur many others elsewhere. But even if there are not more, we are all one Body. We don’t get to pretend that members of our Christian family are not part of us and vice versa.

So, what do we do? Foremost, we do what we’re doing right here. We celebrate the sacraments, we celebrate the Mass. There will still be Masses offered in our church, there will still be confessions offered here. We continue to have the opportunity to have an encounter with Christ in the Eucharist. Our very first response should be to turn to the One who is not an idol, to turn to Christ.

The second one, is to present Christ to the world. There are a number of ways we will have to do that. The very first one is accepting responsibility for the sins of the Church. And I want to make a really clear distinct between accepting responsibility and taking on guilt. I have faith that none of us here in any way has participated in these crimes, none of us here has knowingly contributed to these awful violations or abuses of trust.

But as Catholics, as members of the Body of Christ, of whom there are members who have committed these crimes, we have to take responsibility. We have to say ‘I am going to own the responsibility of helping to clean this up, of helping to address those who are victimized, of in some way fasting & praying to make reparation, and if there are victims – whether I encounter them or simply know of them – I will support them in whatever way I can.’

This is our call, this is what we have to do in order to turn our Church back to Christ. We can not ignore what is going on or pretend that it hasn’t happened.

There is a temptation that I want to mention, that I have felt in my heart and seen in conversations, especially online. It is the temptation towards defensiveness. Perhaps defensively looking at the report and say ‘it only happened in the 70s & 80s – most of the cases are long distant!’. And that may be true…. and yet it happened. Perhaps defensively saying ‘we’ve put all these structures in place: anyone who volunteers has to go through a background check and complete our Safe Environment program – we’ve improved so much!’. And that maybe true….and yet it happened.

To present Christ to the world, we must do what Christ did. Even as those who have not necessarily participated in these sins, by accepting responsibility we must accept that we may be treated badly. If Christ could hang on the cross for our sins, perhaps we need to endure some abuse.

I don’t mean to suggest that put ourselves out there to ask for it. But it may come to pass that someone will come to you and vilify you for being Catholic. They be angry at you, they might curse at you, they might spit at you. We don’t to seek that out, but

We may need to allow people to express themselves, responding simply ‘I am sorry – I am sorry that my Church did this to you.’

Even as we ourselves are scandalized, wounded, angry, and sorrowful, we also have to accept the responsibility that we have to present Christ to the world – to help healing begin.

What can we do right now? Again, what we’re doing every Sunday: come to Mass. Now is not the time to separate yourself from Christ. Now is not the time to say ‘I give up’: we don’t have that option! We need Christ, now more than ever. We need to receive the Eucharist, and we need to go to confession, often, admitting ‘I am a sinner’ in our own ways. We need to be purified and strengthened in order to effectively present Christ, Who is loving, Who is merciful, Who took responsibility for the sins of others. This is the very first and most important thing that we can do.

We can also make reparation in our own ways. We can not heal others – that is God’s work alone. We can not fix the crimes that were committed – that is the work of the authorities. But we can offer prayer and make reparation. We can offer sacrifices, we can give up meals, we can offer our devotions and prayers for the healing of victims, for justice for perpetrators, for change & healing in our Church.

Perhaps we might feel a call to reach out to our leaders, to our priests, bishops, maybe even the Pope, to say that we are here to exhort, support, and hold accountable our leaders in doing the right thing. Not an accusation – for there are many good members of the clergy – but to say ‘I as member of the faithful want to add my voice to the chorus of those offering both support and the expectation of you doing what is right as leader within the Body of Christ’.

We have challenging times in front of us – and I think there will be more to come. I imagine that this is not the end, but the beginning of many hard truths coming to light, sinfulness in the Church even at the highest levels.

And yet, what is our center? It is Christ – it has always been Christ. We’ve strayed from that truth from time to time. Perhaps we’ve experienced that in our own lives, though we certainly see the results when our clergy – especially our bishops and priests – stray. And yet Christ always calls us back.

After Christ’s death & resurrection – and recall that at His Passion all of His apostles abandoned Him, Peter denied Him, Thomas doubted Him – Christ’s response was not to come to scold, to be angry, or to announce that He was done with them. He instead appears to them, breathes on them, and says ‘peace be with you’.

He even goes individually to Peter and has that amazing moment of the threefold question ‘Do you love Me? Do you love Me? Do you love Me? – Feed my sheep, tend my flock, care for my people’. Even to Thomas, who doubted, He comes and invites Him ‘if this is what you need, touch me, be healed, have faith’.

This is the offer He makes to us as well. You may be doubting, you may be suffering. ‘Come to Me, receive Me, I will give you peace.’

It is necessary to mention that there may be people in our lives, in our community, maybe in this very church, who are victims of abuse by clergy. To you I would say, especially – I am sorry. I know that simply saying that doesn’t change much of anything. Yet you deserve that and so much more.

If you are a victim, please speak to someone. To a priest, to trusted friend, to anyone who you have confidence in. If a crime has been committed, please reach out to the police. Please tell some authority. We have to shine a light on this, and you deserve to be supported and cared for.

What has been done is diabolically wrong. Now we have to work to help make it right. How do we do that? Jesus – the source and summit of our faith. He has given us His very Body & Blood to feed us. We taste and see that He is good, even when we are not very. But He will transform us, He will make us good if we stay close to Him. Our job is to make Christ present to the world, and we do that by receiving the Lord.

What a wonderful mercy we have in Christ, Who is forgiving, Christ Who sees our failings and our faults, grave and grievous as they are. He responds sayings ‘Here I am, to give you what you need, to be healed and made whole, to know peace’.

May we cling to what we have – Him who is Christ. May we stay close to the sacraments – especially in confession and the Eucharist. May we take responsibility – even for sins that are not ours personally. May we work to show Christ’s love to a world that is hurting – yes, because of our Church –yet needs to know that Christ is still present to them.

This is our faith – and it’s hard… but worth it. Because Christ can heal even this wound, He can restore even this fault, He can make good even of grave sin. And how do we start? The celebration of the Eucharist, making our own prayers, and fasting & reparation – trusting that Christ will work through us, if we are willing to let Him, so that victims will be healed and also even us, who are now more than ever aware of our sinfulness. Christ wants to give us very His Body and Blood – maybe today we realize more how much we need it.

‘Taste and see the goodness of the Lord’

Footnotes:

  1. I forgot to mention Confirmation, where we are sealed by the Holy Spirit so we can go out and proclaim Christ, inviting others to the altar of sacrifice

Post script (a commentary I offered (again) after all the Masses this weekend):

This may be a moment in history when the faithful are called to exhort the clergy, especially our bishops. You may be discerning if and how to write a letter to our archbishop or your local ordinary. I admit that I am fearful of having a parishioner write some sort of nastygram to a bishop with the justification of ‘Father Maurer said to give you a piece of my mind, so here I go!’. Not so fast, please.

If you write a letter, recall that it is another human being who is going to open it and read it – a human being with needs and feelings much like your own. Write with charity, with gentleness even (especially!) if you have hard things that you need to express. Kindness strengthens both your credibility and your message.

And do not ask for the impossible. Bishops do not have the power to investigate other bishops – this is written into Church law and has been done so for many good reasons. But bishops can hold each other accountable in other ways, and they can together request that pope take a more active and authoritative role in situations like these (such as empowering an independent review on his authority as pope). Support and exhortation for bishops to take this step is something we all can offer, though again, in charity and without malice.

Whether we reach out to a bishop or not, all of us can make a difference in simply reaching out in prayer. Foremost, pray for the victims of abuse, for their healing and for the support that they deserve & need. Pray for those members of the Church who are hurting – laity and clergy alike – who need support in the face of all of this. And let us take up fasting! All of us can make sacrifices, whether it be in food or some other form of abstinence. Each of us has the ability to call on God’s grace today and every day. Let’s be sure that we do just that, so that our Church may be purified and we might truly be a conduit of grace for a broken world.

When all seems lost, food for the journey (August 12, 2018)

I have long admired the prophet Elijah from the Old Testament, but never felt any particular connection to him. We are all baptized priest, prophet, and king and share in these charisms as have so many who have gone before us. But I’ve found Elijah to be an enigmatic figure until recently – particularly in this reading today.

So Elijah goes days into the desert and there, sitting beneath a broom tree, he says the most extraordinary thing. The book of Kings has him praying for death saying “This is enough, O LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

I don’t think he’s saying this to be dramatic or that he is being sarcastic – I think he was serious. ‘This is it, I’m done – let’s get this over with’. I have to admit that over the past couple of weeks, and perhaps you have shared in this, I have felt a similar sentiment in my own heart.

We don’t have to look far to see the overwhelming brokenness of the world. We read the news and see violence, poverty, illness and natural disaster. People just being mean –sometimes of those people have great power while sometimes they just have a platform of some sort, but they just say awful things about each other. We see whole countries or cultures that are falling apart. One example is in Ireland – once a bastion of Catholic culture (or so we thought) – which recently legalized abortion. A move that most of us would have assumed unthinkable, right up until it happened.

We see it in our own country, watching the divide of political sides and ideological groups grow with folks becoming more entrenched against those on the opposite end. People who are otherwise generally of good will are drawn in or even jump in eagerly.

Even here locally we see signs of brokenness, or things that are worrisome. In the announcement last week of the closure of one of our parishes – Sacred Heart parish in Morton.

We also see it in our faith: seeing our bishops and cardinals fail us – again – abusing their power. We see a former cardinal who abused his power in terrible ways. And it seems that there may be bishops who knew of this and turned a blind eye at best, possibly even actively covering it up.

“This is enough, O LORD! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.”

It’s not sinful to feel these things, to look around, feel the pressure and weight of all of this – wanting to respond simply ‘I’m out of here, I don’t want anything to do with this, what could I possibly can do?’.

No one here is necessarily a citizen of Ireland. None of us necessarily have great political influence. Most of us don’t have great sway in the Church and sometimes there are even decisions – like the closure of a parish – that are hard, if necessary. We might wonder ‘what am I supposed to do now?’.

Saint Paul warns us of what we’re not supposed to do: that we should not allow ourselves to be filled with bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, reviling, or malice. We certainly have enough of that already in the world. Yet we certainly feel that temptation, certainly in the injustice of things that are wrong, against those who have betrayed us, in the face of those things that are just sorrowful. Are response is both sorrow and anger.

If you’ll pardon me for taking a quote from outside of the Catholic tradition, there’s a quote from someone – I think it’s the Buddha2 – it says that “bitterness is liking drinking poison and expecting your enemy to die”. It doesn’t work, and usually rebounds back on us. So where do we go, what do we do?

I think we can take solace in God’s response to Elijah’s exclamation. Elijah, who is God’s chosen prophet, who is to proclaim God’s will. He’s had enough, and it seems apparent that he’s gone there to die, telling God as much. And God, who has previously shown Himself in fire and thunder and fury…doesn’t do any of that in response.

Instead, He sends an angel to Elijah, who gives him bread while telling him ‘you need to eat, or you won’t have strength for the journey’. So Elijah does, and then he goes back to sleep. And the angel comes back a second time, repeating the message and offering more food. Elijah eats a second time – and then walks through the desert for forty days until he reaches the mountain of God.

We see something similar going on in the Gospel today, with Jesus. You might recall last week’s Gospel, which we pick up from today. Jesus has gone off and the people chase after Him. When they finally find Him, He calls them out for their motivation: ‘you’re not here because you want signs or miracles; you’re here because you saw the five thousand fed … and you’re simply looking to be fed again’.

But Jesus isn’t scolding them, He’s raising the ante. The Father has sent an angel in the past – now He’s sending His Son. And where He gave regular bread in the past, He gives eternal sustenance: the bread of life. Because the journey is long, and we will not make it if we are not fed.

We may truly and genuinely feel powerless in the face of the brokenness of the world, of our own communities, in the brokenness of our own Church – and it’s leaders. But we are not powerless. Not that we’re somehow powerful in our own right, not because we’re especially strong or wise or well-spoken – but because we are fed with the bread of life.

We too are here – who may have come for a variety of reasons, maybe because we’re ‘supposed to’, or because we have to, or because we like the music (or the donuts), or maybe we just don’t know why we are here. And the Lord does not spurn our motivation, whatever it may be, nor judge our very human feelings – He responds by making Himself present, at this altar, in this Mass. He gives us spiritual food.

The journey is long, and we will not make it unless we receive His Precious Body and His Precious Blood.

But what do we do from here? I’m not suggesting that you walk into the desert – but the tasks in front of us are no less burdensome. They will be fruitful, however, if we take seriously our responsibility to both walk and invite others to the mountain of God.

It is our responsibility to preach the Gospel of Life, even if we don’t live in Ireland. It is our responsibility even in the face of parishes to closing, even to community members we may not know, to reach out to parishioners from Morton and let them know that we are united with them, to invite them to join us in worship and service and to walk with them as they prepare to say goodbye to what they have come to love.

And even with our bishops, though we may not have power over them, we all can write letters – in charity, in kindness – to say ‘I want to support you bishop, who I believe is good, but also I want to ask you to hold accountable those who have failed in or abused their authority.’ And believe it or not, you can in fact write letters to the pope! If you include your phone number, he’s been known from time to time to call.

We are not powerless. Not because we are powerful in ourselves, but because we are fed by the Bread of Life. The Lord sees our desperation, He sees our sorrow – and He does not reject it or punish it but instead sends His only Son so that we might receive the food we need to make the journey. And we need to make that journey, calling people to accountability – even people of power – and inviting them to make come to the mountain of God.

I’ll say one other thing, and you can probably see it coming. Before we can worthily receive the Bread of Life, what do you need to do? Go to confession and make a good confession, especially if it’s been a long time (and we have a new priest here to whom you can make a confession without fear of him knowing you!). But make that good confession – because we need to be purified!

We all have our own imperfections, and we need to be cleansed of any anger or bitterness or malice – because those will not serve the Lord. It may come from a place of wounded-ness or betrayal, but that too must be purified. When we make our stand, when make our call to accountability, even to those in authority, we do it with trust and faith in God without any malice in our hearts.

We are God’s chosen people. He is calling us, and not to just stay here in Church. The final exhortation at the end of Mass – ‘go forth’ – means that we go out and convert the world, inviting others to share in this spiritual food, proclaiming the truth that is even where it is still proclaimed badly or lived poorly. But this is our opportunity at this Mass, to be refreshed so that we can do just that, telling the world that this is the food, this is the bread that will give us eternal life.

Footnotes:

1. Well, that turned out to be wrong! Apparently the origin of this saying is a mystery


Post script (a commentary I offered after all the Masses this weekend):

This may be a moment in history when the faithful are called to exhort the clergy, especially our bishops. You may be discerning if and how to write a letter to our archbishop or your local ordinary. I admit that I am fearful of having a parishioner write some sort of nastygram to a bishop with the justification of ‘Father Maurer said to give you a piece of my mind, so here I go!’. Not so fast, please.

If you write a letter, recall that it is another human being who is going to open it and read it – a human being with needs and feelings much like your own. Write with charity, with gentleness even (especially!) if you have hard things that you need to express. Kindness strengthens both your credibility and your message.

And do not ask for the impossible. Bishops do not have the power to investigate other bishops – this is written into Church law and has been done so for many good reasons. But bishops can hold each other accountable in other ways, and they can together request that pope take a more active and authoritative role in situations like these (such as empowering an independent review on his authority as pope). Support and exhortation for bishops to take this step is something we all can offer, though again, in charity and without malice.

Whether we reach out to a bishop or not, all of us can make a difference in simply reaching out in prayer. Foremost, pray for the victims of abuse, for their healing and for the support that they deserve & need. Pray for those members of the Church who are hurting – laity and clergy alike – who need support in the face of all of this. And let us take up fasting! All of us can make sacrifices, whether it be in food or some other form of abstinence. Each of us has the ability to call on God’s grace today and every day. Let’s be sure that we do just that, so that our Church may be purified and we might truly be a conduit of grace for a broken world.

Aching with desire – an encounter with beauty

At the request of my archbishop, and thanks to his generous financial support, I spent the better part of last week at Notre Dame University for the School Pastors Institute offered by the Alliance for Catholic Schools (ACE). More about that via the links, which I especially commend for priests entering into ministry with a Catholic school for the first time.

Apart from the conference, the main attraction for me was Notre Dame University itself. I must confess that my knowledge of Notre Dame is limited to what is conveyed in the movie Rudy, the various instances in which it has shown up in modern media, and from the reverent tones with which it is referenced within Catholic conversation.

Frankly, my regard for Notre Dame has wavered over the years between dismissing it as overhyped or, rather unfairly, internally regarding it as a ‘Catholic-in-name-only’ institution. I’m happy to report that that preconception did not last long in my encounter with the actual place.

I’m sure there are legitimate critiques of the culture, curriculum, and indeed even the catholicism of the university. I can not address those, but I can say this with great confidence: of the three transcendentals (truth, goodness, and beauty) it is the last one that shone through clearly at Notre Dame in my brief time there.

I’ve been catching up on The Liturgy Guys podcast (well worth your time!) and by happy coincidence happened to be listening to one of their season one episodes in which they make the point that of the transcendentals, beauty is what is most effective in today’s generation.

While modern man argues about truth and goodness as entirely subjective, beauty is still generally recognized to exist apart from individual definitions of it. I may recognize beauty or the lack thereof, but beauty makes itself known as beautiful simply by being. Not only do my subjective preferences fail to mar the beautiful or beautify the ugly, but beauty is recognizable across a diversity of subjective preferences.

So back to Notre Dame: it’s beautiful. The sprawling 1000+ acre property is simply extraordinary. Sidewalks cross and circle well-manicured lawns, tastefully placed trees, with open & shaded areas thoughtfully placed between the various buildings. And the building! I can’t speak to the specific architectural traits, but it is clear that thought went into even the simplest of buildings. Saints, seals, and symbolism in general are present everywhere.

The center of the campus is the administrative building – ‘the golden dome’ – atop of which is a gilt statue of Mary (sixteen feet tall, our guide told us), herself standing on a gilt dome. Originally the only building of the university, it is now the spot where you go to enroll there. By tradition, it is also where graduates go to celebrate by simply going up the stairs – often for the first time. And next to the golden dome is the Basilica of the Sacred Heart – where the beauty of Notre Dame truly makes itself known.

I can’t do this church justice. The tabernacle is its own sight to behold, the paintings (especially above and behind the altar) worthy of extended examination, the statues holding rich history and symbolism, the stained-glass windows deserving of in-depth reflection on the mysteries they make present. Even the decoration of the walls, the floor, the ambo, and elsewhere call for attention and prayer over what they convey.

Walking into this beautiful church, this making-present of Christ and His Church joined together in the heavenly Jerusalem to us still here anticipating that union, I was deeply moved. Of course, there was awe: everywhere one looks there is extraordinary, awesome, glorious, thoughtful, detailed beauty. Or more precisely expressed:  integritas, consonantia, and claritas  – as The Liturgy Guys regularly remind their listeners.

What surprised me were the movements of my heart following my awe. One was a longing to stay, to simply be here, both in presence and in belonging. If I had come to Notre Dame before visiting a seminary, I’m certain I would have enrolled right away.

Knowing that staying wasn’t possible, I found my delight in the church mixed with the sadness that I would have to eventually leave. The beauty that was inspiring and delighting me was not one that I could stay with nor take with me. No memento or photo would match up with the real presence of this church. I can only hope to return some day to this church, to pray here, perhaps even to join in the liturgy for which it was built.

The final movement I discerned within my heart is a resolve to do my part to make present this transcendental of beauty where ever I may be. I’m no creator of classical aesthetic beauty – making beautiful art and architecture are works I must entrust to others. But my actions can be more beautiful, my prayer more beautiful, my words more beautiful, my ministry more beautiful – my very person more beautifully as God created me to be, no matter where I am.

 

Intellectually, I know that the beauty of Notre Dame can not be without flaws. But my brief encounter with its imperfect beauty elicited something within me that I have rarely felt before – certainly not to this degree: I want to be joined to beauty. It is no exaggeration to say that I felt that my heart was literally aching with that desire.

The truth is that our parishes, our liturgy, our very people can themselves make present this beauty to each other and the world. How amazing would it be if our buildings, our celebrations of the Mass, our encounters with parishioners individually and as a whole more perfectly conveyed the beauty of Christ and His Church joined together in the heavenly Jerusalem?

If dead stones, dry paint, and silent figures can touch the hearts of those who behold them, what graces might be made present by the living stones of the Church brilliantly shining forth in all the colors of redeemed humanity, their very lives proclaiming Christ!

There’s an idea to make the heart of every Christian ache and through them, inspire the hearts of the whole world.

Re-connecting to the Lord (re: incense, chant, & Latin)

In just a couple of days we will leave Ordinary Time, as briefly as we were in it!, and enter into the season of Lent in preparation for the season of Easter.

One of the things that marks the changing of the seasons are the changes of how we celebrate the Mass. While it is still the Mass in it’s substance, some of the elements are changed or omitted – the ‘alleluia’ just before the Gospel is replaced with a more subdued acclamation. Similarly, the Gloria is omitted throughout the season as we take on a more quiet and reflective tenor or tone to our prayer and worship.

There are three other elements that we are adding into the liturgies in our parishes, and I’d like to speak about them because they often bring with them frustration, consternation, or simply confusion. Why are we adding these in, what do they mean, what purpose do they serve?

These three things are: incense, chant, and Latin.

While I would discourage you from taking your understanding of the faith from Hollywood, I think you’ll find that if there is ever a scene involving the Catholic Church (funeral, wedding, whatnot), there will always be copious amounts of incense, someone will be chanting something at some point, and Latin will inevitably be included. The director may get everything wrong about what we believe, but these are clear signs to the viewer that this is a Catholic moment.

Now we’re more accustomed to these things, but even we might not know what they are all about, so I’d like to spend some time on them today.

To start, I’d like to start with the word ‘religion’, which can help us understand the purpose of these elements and all the elements of the Mass. I have to go back to Latin, so bear with me. The word ‘religion’ comes from two Latin words re and ligare. Ligare means ‘to connect’, which you might recognize as the foundation of the word ‘ligament’, which holds the members of our body together. So religion means to re-connect.

And what are we re-connecting? Well, we are re-connecting with ourselves and we are re-connecting with God. I don’t think it takes much for us to recognize the divisions that exist in our lives – within our communities, our families, and most especially with the world. There is brokenness all around us. Some of those divisions are ideological, some simple distance, some by choice, some by accident. We see this in Scriptures today in the division of those who are healthy (and presumed holy) and those who are ill (and presumed sinful).

We also need to re-connect, as one Body, with God. We need not go into much detail, but a faithful examination of conscience will quickly reveal how we are separated, divided, from God.

May I take this opportunity to also point out that one of the additions to our life of prayer are extra opportunities in Lent for confession. And if you haven’t been for a while, the invitation is open: come to confession.

So here we are, at Mass, as part of the Catholic religion, looking to re-connect with each other and God. What do incense, Latin, and chant have to do with that? They’re clearly not necessary for faithful prayer: I’m confident that very few, if any, use incense to pray in private, nor Latin, and probably not chant for the most part either.

But why does the Church put emphasize on these things?

Well, let’s start with incense – not the least because I am biased: I love incense! I think it’s the coolest thing in the world and in fact, I just purchased a sampler pack that we’ll be trying out at my parishes.

Incense comes from our practice in the Scriptures. If you read the book of Revelations, if you get past the trials & tribulations, you get to the vision of John the Evangelist’s vision of heaven. God the Father is sitting on his throne, surrounded by the multitude of saints dressed in white.

Saints are simply people like you and I who have been purified by the Blood of the Lamb and are at last in heaven. They’ve lived our life, suffered through sorrows like ours, and have died our death before receiving the eternal life they enjoy. St. John sees them before God, praising Him without end and interceding on our behalf. And he envisions those prayers being lifted up on incense before the glory of God.

If we look in the Old Testament, we see incense being used as well. And there especially we see an element of purification. As we smoke meat to cook it – or as in olden days smoke was thought to bring healing to sick persons – so we use incense to bless, to sanctify places, objects, and people. This is why incense is often perfumed, so that we both our sense of sight and smell are engaged.

So now to chant. What is that all about? Well, chant is just the spoken word put to music – but not just any words! We wouldn’t just enter into conversation and chant that at someone, possible though that may be. We would probably lose conversation partners at an amazing rate.

That said, we put to chant words, prayers, that we want to elevate, that we want to emphasize as having a holy character and purpose. We are essentially saying ‘this is an important thing’, as with the antiphons, the prayers of the Mass, the dialogue between the priest and the people. We’re not talking normally in these moments, we’re doing something extra-ordinary and so we elevate it by formalizing it in this special singing that is chant.

Finally, there is the use of Latin, and I know that this one is at times controversial – not least because most peoples around the world don’t speak Latin in any kind of day-to-day conversation. And yet, the Church has chosen Latin as Her official language, as the language of Catholics. This doesn’t mean you have to learn Latin wholesale, but it is the language that is meant to unify us in prayer.

There’s a practical aspect too, right? In our communities here in Lewis county we have at least two language-speaking communities at any given time – Spanish and English – to say nothing of other languages that may be spoken by others present. The result is that while language can be a source of pride, but also a source of division – not because we are against each other, but because we don’t have one common, worldwide language.

So, the Church responded by settling on one common language so that at for our prayer we can speak with one voice, a language for our faith. We may not have an extensive of grammar or vocabulary, but we know what the prayers mean. Take the Sanctus, offered before the Preface and Eucharistic Prayer. We know that ‘Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus’ means ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’.

Neat fact: Jesus probably spoke at least a little Latin because that was one of the languages of the time. He was Jewish, so He certainly spoke Hebrew. The culture of the time most likely spoke Aramaic, and the civil government spoken Latin – which most citizens would have had some reasonable grasp of in order to interact in secular society. We don’t use Latin solely for that reason, but it is neat to think that we have that connection.

Latin has endured throughout the years specifically it is a dead language, which admittedly sounds awful. I’m reminded of a ditty that someone taught me in seminary: “Latin is a dead language, as dead as it can be; it killed off all the Latins, and now it’s killing me.”

But what that means is that it is stable – the meaning of words is no longer evolving. I suspect we’ve all had words that meant one thing in one decade and have since changed to mean another now, sometimes even an opposing meaning. But Latin doesn’t have that pitfall and so the Church uses it as our common language of faith.

So why are these three things worth bringing up? If nothing else, it’s worth acknowledging that these particular elements often bring consternation, misunderstanding, or are simply difficult to integrate into our regular practice of prayer. We might even think ‘I want to do what the Church tells me, but this is hard!’. And that alone is worthy of attention – no one should feel as if they must shoulder that difficulty alone, without support.

So, we delve into these elements to see how they all serve a purpose – they assist in the function of religion, of re-connecting our diverse membership to each other, and us to the Lord. And the hope of the Church is that these common elements will bring us together. This is why we do the same thing at every Mass, following the command of Christ: “Do this in memory of Me”.

What held the disciples together? At first, it was Christ Himself, present bodily to them. And now, after His death, resurrection, and ascension, He has left us this memorial of His sacrifice – which is also His very Self, His Body & Blood offered in the Eucharistic celebration.

We have this common practice, this common action, that re-connects individuals, and individuals with Christ.

In a couple of days we will enter into Lent, and the liturgy will look different – we know this, having gone through this each year. And I very much want to encourage you: even if you struggle with the various elements, these or others, look at what the Church intends in our worship.

And what is it that She wants for us? The same thing that Christ wants for the leper. And while the leper who is divided from the community due to his visible infirmity, our divisions are not always so obvious. While the leper calls out ‘unclean, unclean!’, we have no practice of calling out our infirmities or divisions – just imagine what that’d look like! ‘I’m struggling with anger!’ or ‘I’m battling with lust’ or ‘I’ve fallen into despair’. No, we don’t do that.

But that is what Mass is for, that is what Christ and His Church wants for us: the unity of the Body of Christ and the unification with the Body to Christ.

As we enter into this season, may we ask the Lord to heal us, to cure us, to unite us. That He may to use these elements, even ones that are alien, foreign or uncomfortable for our benefit. That they might serve us to achieve that re-connection, that we might one day be saints too, joining those gathered before the throne of God, to intercede for those yet separated from the Lord, that we may even now participate in that unending, eternal praise of Christ.

[February 20, 2018 – additional references]

For anyone who is interested in learning about the liturgy, the documents below are invaluable resources. After all of the Masses I preached this homily, these were mentioned and included in the pastor’s notes – I’m sorry I didn’t initially include them in my post here online. They’re not especially long (20-30 pages) and do not require a theological background to read & understand. They’re both both for teaching and reflection and I highly recommend them:

Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) – the first document of Vatican II and a defining teaching on what the liturgy means for the Church

Musicam Sacram (Instruction on Music in the Liturgy) – the music document commission after Vatican II to follow up on Sacrosanctum Concilium, specifically addressing how to implement its directions in the area of liturgical music

General Instruction of the Roman Missal – this contains the directions of the ‘how’ to offer the Mass. It addresses almost every ordinary celebration of the Mass (pontifical Mass, for example, are not addressed here) and is a wonderful reference for the ‘how’ of the Mass.

I would highlight #24 of the General Instruction, which binds a priests – who have made a public promise of obedience to the Church and its laws – to follow the rubrics of the Mass: “The priest must remember that he is the servant of the sacred Liturgy and that he himself is not permitted, on his own initiative, to add, to remove, or to change anything in the celebration of Mass.”

Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Celebration of the Christian Mystery” (1066 and onwards) – The section covers all of the sacraments and then some, so it may be wise to pick where your focus will be, but the opening paragraphs are especially useful in laying out our understanding of what liturgical prayer is and means.

1×04 – The Warriors of Kyoshi

I feel bad for Sokka. Despite his bravery against Zuko’s threats to his village, and despite his often clear-eyed grasp of the obvious problems that no one else seems to take seriously, he seems to get the short end of the stick in every episode.

With that said, I was grateful to see Sokka get a little more serious treatment in this episode. Admittedly, it is preceded by a well-earned comeuppance (though delivered in overstated characterization by the writer(s)), but it was nice to see Sokka get to exercise restraint, respect, and even show some competence for once. Constant comic relief does not make for a well-rounded character.

Of course, all of this goes on in the midst of Aang’s continuing campaign to distract himself from the reality of who he is meant to be. His detour to Kyoshi island, ostensibly to ride elephant koi for fun, goes awry. This is first due to an unexpected attack by an unagi (basically a giant eel that shoots water – and has an uncanny resemblance to Spirited Away’s Kohaku, an influence to which the makers of this show readily admit) and thereafter, capture by the warriors of Kyoshi – who are all women.

Sokka’s interactions with the warriors eventually brings him first into conflict and later into a relationship of mutual respect with Suki, their leader. Aang, on the other hand, uses his status as Avatar (proven by his use of airbending) to amuse the crowds who follow him wherever he goes, looking to get a little closer to the latest Avatar – it turns out that the island of Kyoshi is named after a previous incarnation.

All of this attention means that words spreads and finally reaches Zuko, who had been thrown from the scent due to Aang’s unpredictable tourist-like travelling. As with the Southern Water Tribe, he arrives and threatens the locals unless Aang surrenders. This time, Aang simply leaves, knowing that Zuko will abandon any attack to pursue him. His use of the unagi to put out the fires from the attack is a neat, though it seems a waste to introduce both the elephant koi and the unagi to such a short end.

Of these first four episodes, this is definitely the weakest yet. Though it introduces the warriors of Kyoshi, the overall storyline is basically in limbo. Admittedly, the warriors are just too interesting to be a one-off and I look forward to seeing how they enter the storyline in the future. The budding romance between Suki & Sokka seems a bit rushed even for a 20-minute show, but is balanced by the antagonism they have to overcome, and the development of Sokka’s otherwise weak fighting skills. I must admit, Sokka’s non-apology apology (“I’m sorry if I insulted you earlier”) made me grind my teeth. I doubt there will ever be any follow-up, but man is that not the way to genuinely say ‘I’m sorry’.

A quick note to acknowledge ‘foaming mouth guy’ – the character that goes into hysterics before foaming at the mouth and collapsing when Aang reveals himself as the Avatar by airbending. Apparently he has quite a following among fans, evidenced by the wiki entry that he has online.

1×03 – The Southern Air Temple

‘The Southern Air Temple’ breaks open the world and stories of Avatar in immensely satisfying – though incomplete – ways. We begin with Aang and company, revisiting nearly immediately Aang’s avoidance of reality – both his destiny and the ramifications of the passing of a hundred years.

Meanwhile, Zuko faces off against Command Zhao, whose dialogue reveals that Zuko is the disgraced son of the Fire Lord, banished for an unnamed offense. Similarly, he mockingly addresses Zuko’s uncle as ‘General’ Iroh, a great hero of the nation – though he clearly has no regard for either prince or uncle. Iroh’s calm acceptance of the blatant disrespect stands in stark contrast to Zuko’s barely contained fury.

Zhao takes over Zuko’s mission, citing his failure to hold the Avatar, and taunts Zuko into rashly challenging him to some sort of duel called ‘Agni Kai’. After Zhao accepts smugly and leaves, Iroh worriedly reminds Zuko of what happened last time he dueled a master, leaving us with more questions than when we started. Is this what happened to Zuko’s face?

Meanwhile, Aang is losing himself in the joy of being back at the Southern Air Temple, empty though it is. Katara & Sokka are notably subdued in contrast, both intuiting that the temple is empty because the Fire Nation overran it years ago – this is confirmed when Katara finds a Fire Nation helm, though she quickly hides the evidence to spare Aang’s feelings. This can’t last, and a feeling of nervous anticipation shadows Aang’s fond recollections of his mentor, the loveable and wise Monk Gyatso.

Things reach a head for both storylines as Aang enters the temple itself and Zuko faces off against Zhao. Zuko initially falls against Zhao’s confident attacks, overwhelmed by their power and unsure of his ability. Iroh’s encouragement and reminder of his ability helps bring him back and he turns the tables, ultimately standing ready to deliver the finishing blow to Zhao. He instead fire the shot deliberately wide, allowing Zhao to live with the shame of his defeat.

We aren’t surprised when Zhao mocks this mercy as weakness, nor when he moves to attack Zuko from behind. But it is Iroh’s intervention that stands out, and is surpassed not only in his rebuke of Zhao, but his statement of faith in Zuko: “Even in exile, my nephew is more honorable than you.” The moment of camaraderie between these two as they walk away together is understated but affecting.

Aang has his own crisis of faith when the reality of what has happened at the Southern Air Temple can no longer be avoided. After chasing a lemur that entered the temple (mysteriously filled with statues of every previous Avatar incarnation), he finds the remains of his beloved mentor Gyatso surrounded by the remains of Fire Nation soldiers. Distraught, he enters the Avatar state, wreaking havok all around him as he glows almost insensate with sorrow and rage. At the same time, all of the statues and every Avatar temple around the world begins glowing too.

It is only Katara’s statement of faith and sharing of her own pain in the loss of her mother that brings Aang back from the brink. Sokka, too, expresses his commitment, as Aang finally accepts that he really is the last airbender. They set off together with Momo, the earlier mentioned lemur, to their next destination.

More pieces of the puzzle are laid out for us in this episode. Aang’s angst (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) is on full display, and I can’t help but think that this isn’t the end of his avoidance issues of his destiny and of his loss. It’ll be interesting to see how that unfolds. Similarly, I wonder if we’ll hear more about Katara & Sokka’s loss of their mother – and where is their father? What became of him & the warriors who journeyed to the Earth Kingdom?

We also got a few extra facts about how the Avatar cycle works: air, water, earth, fire. That the last Avatar was a Fire bender and that the Fire Nation is currently the source of the world’s woes makes for an interesting potential story point. And the life of the airbenders just seems neat – along with their lock design! I very much enjoyed seeing how that sort of made sense, while also being ridiculous and fanciful.

0x00 – Thoughts about Avatar: The Last Airbender

Why Avatar: The Last Airbender? In short, because it’s a series I appreciate, and it happens to be fairly popular to boot. There are several virtues that are particularly noteworthy, but foremost it is a visually beautiful show. The creators not only take pride in the artistic quality of the show, but they love the world that they’re creating and invite us to do the same vicariously through the characters.

And the characters clearly appreciate what they have, as when Aang rides his ball of air while cheering with glee as he finds creative paths around obstacles, the beauty of the elements being moved through bending, or simply the attention to detail of characters, costumes, animals, and vegetation. Especially in the light moments of pure delight – riding penguins, the joy of flight, or the use of mystical powers for cheeky fun.

The music is also remarkable for its attention to style and pairing with the changing themes of an episode, the various characters, and of course, the different states of the Avatar himself. It’s a shame that Nickelodeon hasn’t released the soundtrack to this series: it would make for great listening even outside the context of the show.

There are some caveats, and the most obvious one is the Eastern mysticism that undergirds the show. While not explicitly religious, it’s not hard to see how the show takes many of its cues from Tibetan Buddhism and lamas, particularly the Dalai Lama. Eastern influence also informs Avatar’s understanding of life force or chi. This comes up in conversations about ‘bending’ or about the body, usually with various explanations of how both have something to do with working with one’s life force or the forces in the world.

We can licitly appreciate and enjoy things with elements contrary to our own faith, provided that we are not confused about what it and isn’t true, and that what we are watching is not objectively immoral (as would be the case with, say, pornography). I would encourage any parent to watch this show with their child(ren) and discuss these (and other) potentially confusing elements with them. Why don’t we believe in reincarnation? What do we believe about the body, soul, and spirit?

The real value of a show, however, isn’t in what it does poorly or in the trappings that surround the story – it is in the world-building, character development, and lessons learned along the way. This show has that in spades, and I look forward to reflecting on them. I’m not a professional reviewer, nor an experienced commentator (beyond expressing my own opinion), and I hope that my amateur efforts don’t put you off from the content. I’m fairly confident that you won’t regret giving this show a chance – I certainly don’t!

1×02 – The Avatar Returns

The second episode of this first season – or ‘Book 1’, as the series prefers – continues immediately from where we left off previously. We see both Sokka and Zuko more clearly in their roles, and how woefully under-prepared they are for the position they find themselves in. Sokka in the responsibility that lays on his shoulders, Zuko in the power he wields – neither ready for what they hold. And boy are both of them over-zealous in how they handle their problems! Sokka in his nearly immediate exiling of Aang for his mistaken triggering of the flare on the Fire Nation ship, Zuko in his heavy-handed tactics to intimidate a tribe of women and children.

The image of Sokka silhouetted against the approaching Fire Nation ship is striking – here is a kid who can’t win, knows that he is powerless to defend those in his charge, but dang if he isn’t going to stand in front of them until the end. Of course we know that this won’t work, but I couldn’t help but smile with him when his boomerang lands a lucky blow against Zuko – who otherwise has the upper hand in every possible way.

Despite his exile, Aang returns to defend the village (was there any doubt he would?), and we’re confronted with another child who is in over his head. “You’re just a child!” says Zuko, to which Aang retorts “Well, you’re just a teenager!”. Yup. Aang’s approach – to surrender in exchange for the village’s safety – is the logical, if inevitable conclusion to the confrontation. Equally inevitable is the pursuit by Katara & Sokka, amusingly punctuated by the proof that Appa is indeed a flying bison – along with Aang’s easy escape.

A couple of light moments I especially enjoyed were right in the midst of the escape. Sokka’s triple prodding of Zuko, knocking him off the ship, was a nice reversal after Zuko did the same to him as he tried to defend his village. Similarly, I chuckled at Katara’s pragmatic acceptance of her limits: If you can only fire freezing water backwards, face away from your enemies! Problem solved – at least for this round.

It’s notable that Aang, too, is a boy with more going on than he knows how to handle. Though he escapes the guards with ease and defeats Zuko handily, if less confidently, the entire encounter reveals the truth behind his previous hesitancy: he doesn’t want to be the Avatar. As he recovers from going into the Avatar State during his escape, his response to Katara’s confusion is telling: “Why didn’t you tell us you were the Avatar? Because…. I never wanted to be.”

Our heroes set off to get Aang the training he needs – albeit with a several detours for ‘serious business’ at Aang’s request. Given the revelation of Aang’s reluctance, it’s not hard to guess that perhaps these detours are deliberate distractions – the question is, how do you force someone to be the Avatar?

(It’s worth noting that this episode’s opening sequence is the one that we’ll see for the rest of the series – and that all but one of the benders we see depicting each tribe will eventually be revealed as a major character. The pilot episode had a longer opening and omitted any visual of Aang, presumably to allow us to meet him for the first time inside the show. Also, in the first episode I wondered at Katara’s ‘ruthless Fire Benders’ remark in the opening sequence – no longer present in this shortened version – will this bear true if/when we learn about the Fire Nation, or is this the bias of an opposing tribe?)

1×01 – The Boy in the Iceberg

The pilot of Avatar: The Last Airbender stands up well as an establishing episode. I’ve watched this series several times now and I’m still impressed at how the show puts its best foot forward right from the beginning.

This is evident first in the opening sequence. Nowadays it seems that television shows eschew narrated opening sequences, but this wasn’t the case before the turn of the century. However, most of the time this was a mark against the show, not a statement in its favor. Notable exceptions were the Star Trek and Star Trek: The Next Generation series (a trend that ended with TNG, I believe) – though I may be biased due to my affection for Trek.

What I love about this shows introduction sequence is that it isn’t just a filler for credits; it introduces you to the world you’re entering, the major factions, the historical backdrop, and a brief montage of the main characters. The only other animated introduction that has impressed me with its ability to do this so well is the 2003 Fullmetal Alchemist series.

Also notable from the introduction is the art style of this series. Although Nickelodeon takes its artistic cues from Japanese anime, this is clearly American animation. Additionally, it’s interesting to see the styles of familiar famous anime – notably Hayao Miyazaki – combined with digital animation. On one hand, I find the digital insertions to be a bit jarring. The movement from the drawn map of the world to the digitally placed ships of the Fire Nation shows the stark difference of a softly drawn world and the hard lines of computer rendering. However, the animators seem to have only rarely used digital animation and to good effect overall.

Alright, to the episode. The episode introduces us to our main characters by establishing dual plotlines. We’re first introduced to Katara & Sokka, out fishing for their village. Right off the bat, you’re reminded that this show is geared towards kids as we are thrust into a typical brother/sister teasing, joking, whining, pseudo-fighting scene. But what sets this otherwise mundane drama apart is the undertone of tension (and perhaps even tragedy) in the reality that these two are responsible for their tribe in a largely troubled world.

I really appreciate the alternating plots between character pairs. Katara & Sokka are contrasted with Uncle Iroh and Prince(?!) Zuko. It’s quickly apparent that despite the differing cultures and settings, they’re complementary sets. Katara is to Sokka as Iroh is to Zuko. Both Sokka and Zuko are young men thrust into responsibility before they have the experience to handle it. Katara and Iroh are the calming, mature influences that temper them and provide a reflective counterpoint to the rashness of the boys they accompany, though not without faults of their own.

Having established the four main characters, we’re introduced to Aang and Appa (his flying bison, though the descriptor has yet to be proven!) towards the end of the episode. Though we the audience know that we’re meeting the titular character, his discoverers (Katara & Sokka) are yet ignorant. The beacon of light alerts Zuko and by extension, Iroh, to his awakening. After Aang’s introduction to the village, he and Katara accidentally set off a trap in a derelict Fire Nation ship, giving Zuko the location of Aang and the Southern Water Tribe’s village – and sets the stage for the conflict between our paired protagonists and antagonists.

Throughout all of this, we are introduced to a number of themes that are especially promising: Aang’s guilty evasion of questions about the Avatar, how he and Appa came to be encased in ice, the question of Aang being the ‘last’ airbender and the significance of that to others and for him, Zuko’s status (honor-bound?) and why he has been searching (and for so long, apparently) for the Avatar, Zuko’s constant state of anger, and Katara & Sakko’s backstory as to how they came to be in charge of their village.

It’s a strong start to the series, with foreshadowing for everyone involved. If the series can make good on these threads, we’re in for a fun ride.