Sunday, November 18, 2012

Making God Bleed

In the movie "Iron Man 2", there's a great scene in which Tony Stark confronts the villain in a prison cell, hoping to understand the villain, his motives, etc. etc.  Amidst the witty dialogue, exposition-setting, and foreshadowing and whatnot, the villain makes an interesting philosophical comment:

Ivan Vanko: If you could make God bleed, people would cease to believe in him.

Most people don't think too much more about that line.  But I am not most people.  I focused on that line the rest of the movie, and still ponder it frequently.  If you could make God bleed, would people lose faith in him?  The movie seemed to make that assertion, and so does out culture.  Take the case of General Petraeus, the most recent of history's laundry list of sex scandals.  A month ago, it seemed as though there was nobody quite like Petraeus, indeed, he was a God-like figure.  Powerful, a clean cut military man who valiantly and charismatically led his troops into battle, now turned chief spy for the U.S.  As far as giants in the power structure of the world go, Petraeus was one of them.  However, his vulnerability and failures as a person are now splayed across international news; the man entrusted with some of the greatest secrets of the world rendered vulnerable and weak by the charms of a woman.  Soap operas can't even compete with this stuff.  If Petraeus was a God-like figure, we now see him bleed, and an entire nation loses their faith in him.

Admit it, no matter what sort of
moral fortitude you possessed,
you were fascinated by this man's
And, strangely enough, isn't this the cycle of human history?  The rise and fall of great men, gods in their own right, until somehow they face their vulnerability.  Achilles had his heel, Caesar had the Roman Senate, Byzantium had Mehmet II, Napoleon had Waterloo, and so on and so forth.  Human civilization is built of great men and falls when these men (literally or metaphorically) bleed.  Even more strangely enough, we enjoy this cycle.  We participate in what Romans called delectatio morosa the Germans call it schadenfreude. It is the delight in the misfortune of others.  Tabloids fly off the shelves and Entertainment Tonight is on air because everyone loves a good scandal.  We love watching Tiger Woods play golf.  But we couldn't get enough of him when his affair was made public.  Do we feel bad for him?  Yes.  Do we want him to suffer?  Probably not.  But boy, are we entertained and invigorated by it.  Indeed, we love the downfall of great men because it show us that great men are, behind all their shimmering splendor, human, and thus not really great.  I would even go as far as saying we, in some dark corner of our soul, crave the downfall of all great men, just so we no longer have to believe in their greatness.

So then, is the villain right?  If you could make God bleed, would people cease to believe in him?

Christianity has an unique place in this discussion.  Namely, because we actually tried it.  While the world looks at the cyclical rise and fall of great men and thinks, "If only we could make God Himself bleed, then he too would fall,"  we were the ones crazy enough to do it.  When a Jewish carpenter made the audacious claim that he was the Son of God and had miraculous credibility to that claim, we crucified him.  We scourged him, made him bleed profusely until he died in one of the most gruesome ways we could imagine, and we sealed him away in a tomb.  We struck a fatal blow upon God and killed him so that we might not have believe in him.  And the most extraordinary thing happened. 

Jesus Christ, the Author of Life, was slain by men, and as the direct fruit of that, Christianity has enraptured the world.  History's greatest certainty, the ebb and flow of power, was turned on its head on Easter morning.  Jesus Christ died and conquered death itself in the Resurrection, and in Heavenly glory, he undermined everything we've ever known about greatness.  Christianity is unlike anything in the world.  Everything in the world is built and sustained on the basis of strength.  Successful institutions, corporations, and nations are built by strong men, for strong men, and through strong men (and/or women, in case you get yourself in a tizzy over such meager distinctions).  Successful things succeed because of the exploitation of their strengths and fail because of the exploitation of their weaknesses, or so the world would say.  Not so for Christianity, which was built upon the spilled blood of the Most Innocent.  It was Jesus Christ's cross, his weakness, and not his strength that laid the foundations for Christendom.  

The Church is not born out of the illusion of man's strength, but out of defeat of his weakness by Christ on the cross.  You see, it was precisely because God bled and died that we have the audacity to believe in him.  Let the Holy Mass be the glittering testimony to this fact; in all of Christianity, there is no more glorious moment than when the Body and Blood of Christ are elevated for all of heaven and earth to see and believe. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ dredged deep in the heart of man and left everyone in every age, from greatest emperor to lowest serf, in utter awe and amazement.  In it, we see greatness eternal, greatness eternal, greatness itself. 

Why do we wish to topple great men and their great things?  Because we know that they are not really great.  No matter how strong the Strong Man is, he will die.  No matter how tall the tallest tower is, or how shiny the shiniest monument is, it will crumble to ruin or lose its splendor.  Great men are not great because even the greatest of men fall and die.  But Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Son of Man, died and now lives eternally, and it his passage through death into eternal life that makes him, truly and eternally, great.  This is why we believe in a bloodied God, why we can look in confidence and laugh at a flabbergasted world and say "We made God bleed, and because we did so, we believe."

Sunday, November 11, 2012

A Catholic in a Coffeehouse

So, as I type this, I find myself perched in a corner of America's own pseudo-cultural hubs, the creature known as Starbucks.  I don't make it to Starbucks often, which is odd considering the facts that I love coffee, they sell coffee, and they have about as many coffeehouses in the US as the Catholic Church does parishes.  However, the occasions I do get to go to Starbucks are quite interesting, for a variety of reasons, most notable of which is the similarity that Starbucks bears to the Catholic Church.

That got your attention didn't it.  Now, allow me to explain myself.  I know about Starbucks' support of gay marriage and whatnot.  I'm not saying that Starbucks and Catholicism are the same.  But they are very similar, and here's why.  

They march to a war on naps.
Walk into any Starbucks, and you'll notice that they all bear a striking resemblance to each other.  You can go to nearly any Starbucks and know what sort of environment, what sort of menu, what sort of service, what sort of experience that you will find.  They all have similar layouts, similar furniture, similar atmosphere, and similar process to each other, and from all this, we tend to gleam a sort of reassurance.  We like Starbucks for a variety of reasons, but mostly because Starbucks gives us the same experience no matter where we are.  When we want expensive coffee and free wifi, we know that no matter where we are, we can go to Starbucks and find it.

Now look at Catholicism.  No matter where in the world you are, the Catholic Church has a string of consistency.  You can walk into a Catholic Church and expect the same experience day in and day out.  Mass at St. Patrick's in New York will be the same as Mass in Sts. Peter and Paul in San Francisco, singing many of the same hymns with much of the same smells and bells and what not.   We all have a variety of reasons for being Catholic, and among them prominently is its widespread consistency.  When our souls hunger for prayerful silence and Heavenly Liturgy, we can go to a Catholic Church and find it.

Now, hang in there with me on this one.  Starbucks, for many, is a place of worship.  I can assure you, Starbucks is not just about coffee.  If it were, I could buy a cheap coffee maker and generic coffee, put it on a cart, sell it for 50 cents and be way more successful than a Starbucks.  A cup of coffee is easily $2, and yet Starbucks are more common than acne on the face of a 15 yr old.  Why do people go to Starbucks if not just for coffee?  Well, as mentioned previously, it has to do with the atmosphere.  People like Starbucks, not because its coffee and wifi, but because its trendy coffee and wifi.  Each cardboard-wrapped cup of joe comes with a sense of unspoken prestige, an aura of cool.  Starbucks is artisan, its earthy, its cool.  A styrofoam cup of Folgers doesn't convey the same message that a paper cup of Starbucks does, and that's why we'll drop mad cash for a Venti Mocha Abomination (I take my coffee black, thank you muchly).

And what a devout band of worshipers
we are...
Starbucks is a place of worship, like the Catholic Church, but it worships trendiness.  We don't go to Starbucks for coffee, we go to Starbucks for really cool coffee.  I'd argue that if modern pop culture, especially amongst young adults from middle class upbringing, had a religious denomination, it would be the Almighty Starbucks.  My age group is, despite the demographics, very religious.  Our ancestors worshiped in grand churches and basilicas, and they gave their souls to a God that their eyes could never see.  My generation worships in coffeehouses and shopping malls, and sell their souls to gods they can only see with eyes.  My heart, when it soars in prayer, can be overwhelmed by grace eternal.  My generation cannot commune with trends; we can only empty our wallets at its feet and pray that another cup of coffee will make us happy for a few minutes, or plead that these new shoes will put our anxieties at ease.  Problems that our hearts are afflicted with and illnesses that our souls are stricken by are hopelessly abated with Ugg boots and North Face jackets, all gathered in the vain hope that when we have everything we want, we will still want everything that we have.

Starbucks, as a concept and as an institution, is a stark reminder of a very fundamental truth of human nature:  we are a species seeking purpose.  The human race exists, and yet, uniquely enough, we know that we don't have to exist, and that causes us to seek a purpose, a cause for our existence.  In something as simple as an overpriced and over-stylized cup of coffee, we seek to further settle the dispute in our soul.  We tell ourselves "If I had just one more venti mocha beverage, then I'll be ready for today" or "I'll be happier with a grande cappuccino" recognizing that we're not ready for today and we're not happy.  I have nothing against coffee, I love the stuff in fact.  But we cannot be honest and think that we haven't given trendiness and fashion free reign over our lives.  We coat ourselves in brand names and designer labels, clutching our mocha with both hands.  Why?  Because in a small corner of our heart, we think that the North Face will save us, that Sperry's mark the path to inner peace, that Louis Vuitton wants us to have life to the fullest, that at the bottom of our latte, we might find God.

Human life isn't so cheap that it can be valued in cups of coffee and fashionable accessories.   We want so many things, and when we get them, we find ourselves still wanting, because we never wanted them in the first place, just the satisfaction that we hoped they would bring us.  We don't want (insert trendy item), we want happiness, and have convinced ourselves that (aforementioned trendy item) will bring us one step closer to happiness, ultimately leaving us with coffee stained teeth and a landfill full of paper cups whose emptiness matches that of our hearts.  We were made for more than trends and fashions.  We were made for eternity.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

With Fire

Christ is a conqueror.  All too often, we try to soften him up, to make him seem harmless and passive, but if we don't find Jesus Christ to be incredibly dangerous, we're absolutely kidding ourselves.  Jesus is not sugarplums and teddy bears.  He is not a security blanket, nor is he a hearty laugh.  Jesus is fierce; he is wild and threatening.  Now, can Christ be comforting?  Of course!  Does he warm the heart?  Absolutely!  Is he refreshing?  Certainly?  But does Jesus Christ stop there?  Absolutely not.  While he may begin his journey with us through comfort, he will continue it with fire.  Jesus Christ is relentless, and he wages war on your heart.

Let me explain.  We live in a limp world, one of cheap excuses and cheaper thrills.  We let alcohol, drugs, and sex do for us what we cannot do ourselves.  We justify 5 days of the week with the brief refreshment we gain from the weekend, and even that does not subside.  More people kill themselves on Monday than any other day of the week.  Less than 50% of us actually like our jobs, and 75% of us lack the motivation to do anything about it.  We are a generation that doesn't live, and certainly doesn't thrive.    Most of us live within an hour of getting anything we want, we can get nearly infinite amounts of entertainment with the push of a button.  We aren't starving, we're actually more likely to die because we have too much food than because we have too little.  And yet, life seems miserable to us.  Anti-depressant use has increase a whopping 400% from 1994-2008.  There is a problem here. In today's world, we merely exist, subsiding through each day with the vain hope that the next might just be possibly be better.  I'm going to pull the Captain Obvious card and suggest that this isn't right.  Its not good that we are miserable, that happiness is so fleeting.  We're killing ourselves slowly with drugs, alcohol, and rampant promiscuity, desperately searching for peace we never seem to find.  Much of our society sees this as inevitable.  Jesus Christ sees this as a war zone.  Our society, in its united melancholy, has dismissed our beloved Jewish carpenter.  How can a roaming preacher save the world?  How can a crucified nobody free us?

If there is anything 2000 years of Christianity ought to have taught us, its that it was no mere nobody that hung on the cross.  Warlord and kings have risen and fallen in the past 2000 years.  Greece is a page in the history books.  The Ottoman Empire is a section on our world history exam.  Caesar Augustus is consigned to museums.  But Jesus Christ, the Nazarene?  Two billion people stand as rousing testimony that this obscure man from a dusty corner of history is alive.  Caesar commanded millions of legionaries, Alexander conquered Persia in his twenties, Mehmet II toppled Constantinople, but they are all dead and dust, banished to library shelves.  So why has Christ survived?  Why does Christianity flourish to this day?

Christianity shines resplendent because the Cross of Jesus Christ is a weapon unrivaled.  The sword has laid waste to many, and armies has conquered lands over and over again, but the Cross of Jesus Christ is stronger than sword and soldier; it does not make claim to land and to city, but to the human heart.  It is easy to conquer a city, you can set fire to it and raze it to the ground.  Not so the human heart.  The heart of man is not conquered in the fires of destruction, but in the fire of Christ's love.  This is the secret of the Cross, and the strength of Christ, the Warrior King, he does not conquer in death, but triumphs in life.  Jesus Christ lives eternally, his Sacred Heart ablaze in love.  It is this love that compels us, that wages war on our heart.  The love of Jesus Christ is relentless, it is unstoppable.  Christ is conquering the entire world with fire, the fire of the Holy Spirit.  We may speak of our withering world, but even as it seems so dark, Jesus Christ is rising.  He overwhelms the darkness as the sunrise overwhelms the night, as spring overwhelms winter, as life eternal overwhelms death.

Jesus Christ is waging war for you.  He comes with blazing fire to conquer your heart, not to destroy it, but to bring it to life.  Jesus Christ will make you burn, not in death, but in Heavenly Life.  He will ignite your heart with fire, and how you will love having it burn.

Friday, November 2, 2012


If you were form your impression of western culture from a 5 minute trip of the internet, you'd probably come to these few conclusions:  1) The devil's name is Justin Bieber. 2) Christianity and atheism are in an epic and never ending battle to the death.  3) Christians can only relate to the world in complaints.  Now, while I can't necessarily comment on the truth value of the first two, I can and will say that the last item is false.  We are not creatures of complaint, at least we're not supposed to be.  Unfortunately, that seems to be the case these days.  Christians seem to be the greatest sense of accusation, of complaint, of bemoaning the modern culture.  We always hear of Christian preachers proclaiming fire and brimstone, condemning and denouncing our modern generation.  We see Christians spewing out hatred and judgement, giving downcast looks and showing great dissatisfaction with a myriad of modern issues.  By many measures, Christianity seems to be more focused on eradicating evil than spreading good.

You can tell he's British
by his dental care.
Now, before you get the wrong impression, let me clarify: Christians ought to fight evil.  They ought to fight it passionately, even more passionately than they are now.  Evil must be eradicated in every time and every place, and Christians ought to be the flag-bearers in this effort.  However, it seems our modern efforts aren't quite effective.  Let me explain...  G.K Chesterton, the British apologist and author, once said, "A good soldier doesn't fight because he hates what's in front of him, he fights because he loves what's behind him."  As Christians today, we seem to be passionate, not because of what we love, but because of what we hate.  I will ardently oppose efforts to legalize gay marriage, not because I hate gays or love or because I just get a kick out of oppressing people different from me.  I oppose gay marriage because I love the traditional family, the great and true expression of human sexuality and erotic love.

In many ways, we Christians have forgotten how to love the world around us.  When we wake up every morning, fearful of the day and the wrongs we might confront, we're missing the point.  Christianity isn't a losing battle, its a celebration.  Check your liturgical calendar, we have feast days all the time.  Why?  Because we celebrate!  Christianity is a joyous expression, a gleeful shout that first erupted 2000 years ago on Easter morning.  We are the people bearing the Gospel, the Good News.  If we truly understood the gravity of the News that we are to proclaim to the world, we would have no time to complain.  We would be unable to frown, we'd never stop laughing and shouting in sheer exhilaration, because we are the first light of a dawn in the day that never ends.  We are light and salt, we are the joy of the world.

These children are happy.  Now please,
I'd love to hear why you are not.
I find it incredibly concerning whenever our culture does not think of Christians as the joyful people.  I cringe when I see a world that is afraid of Christianity because they think of it as an imprisonment, as dwelling in archaic fear.  Our world has confused Christianity with its exact opposite.  Christianity is not a domain in fear, it is the freedom from fear.  The Cross of Jesus Christ is not a sign of oppression, but of liberation.  Jesus Christ isn't good news for middle-class white Americans, Jesus Christ is good news for all humanity.  The message of Christ transcends time and cultures, it is the invitation to joy for all peoples.  Heaven was not won for the well-behaved, it was won for the joyful, for the exuberant, for the redeemed.

When a Christian meets the world, it is his joy that is his greatest weapon.  Christianity best conquers the human heart not with the sword, but with the outstretched arm, with the invitation to life.  As a Christian, I must wake up every morning, not gritting my teeth because my enemies exist, but resplendently joyful because God has made his dwelling among men.  If Christians are fighting a battle in this day and age, it is a battle already won.  We have no place to cringe, no right to grit and gnash our teeth, because we are living testimonies to God's goodness.  Consider Paul:  "Creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the Children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God.  We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now."  (Romans 8: 19-22).  We're Christian for Christ's sake!  Consider what that means if we truly believe the message we proclaim!  If we really live the Word we read, the Eucharist we receive;  if we truly consider the sheer audacity of our faith, we would all but die of joy.

Oh you Christian, you have no excuse to be sad!  You have no right to mourn, because the Risen Christ lives and dwells in you, and is using you to redeem the world!  Celebrate this truth!  Proclaim in any way you can the love Jesus Christ has for humankind!  Start by doing something other than internet-surfing.