Saturday, April 19, 2014

Easter Vigil

Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:2; Exodus 14:15-15-1; Isaiah 55:1-11; Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4; Ezekiel 36:16-28; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10

“They went away from the tomb,
fearful yet overjoyed.”
And who can blame them,
encountering the fathomless mystery of God.

The first man and the first woman opened their eyes
to see displayed before them
the wondrous array of God’s creation,
and they heard the voice of God saying,
“Be fertile and multiply;
fill the earth and subdue it.
Have dominion over the fish of the sea,
the birds of the air,
and all the living things that move on the earth.”
They thought of the gift of life and freedom
that had been given to them,
and the call to tend the world
that had been entrusted to them,
and they stepped into paradise,
fearful yet overjoyed.

Moses stood on the edge of the Red Sea,
the song of victory still ringing in his ears:
“I will sing to the LORD,
for he is gloriously triumphant;
horse and chariot he has cast into the sea.”
He looked at the armies that had pursued them,
now covered by the waters;
he thought of the mysterious God
who had called him to lead his people
into the land promised to their ancestors,
and he turned to resume the journey,
fearful yet overjoyed.

The prophet Ezekiel heard the word of God:
“I will sprinkle clean water upon you
to cleanse you from all your impurities,
and from all your idols I will cleanse you.”
He felt the burden of the mission that had been given to him
of proclaiming to Israel that they were to abandon their idols,
to worship God alone –
the God who is holy mystery –
and he went to bear this word to his people,
fearful yet overjoyed.

Throughout the history of salvation
people have been caught up
in the terrifying yet joyful experience
of encountering the mystery of the living God,
of being called by the incomprehensible
and endlessly fascinating source of all life
into an ever-deeper immersion in the mystery that is God.
It is like the dizzying experience of falling in love:
it is an encounter that promises everything,
an encounter that changes everything,
an encounter that calls one to risk everything.

As the Sabbath turns into the week’s first day,
the women go to the place of the dead
where the one whom they had loved now lies entombed. 
But the tomb is open and an angel is there,
instructing them to bring to the disciples
the incredible message
that Jesus has been raised from the dead.
They go away from the tomb,
fearful yet overjoyed.

As they leave the tomb,
the women meet the risen Jesus himself.
They embrace his feet and worship him,
for in the risen one who has triumphed over death
they have encountered
the one who is the creative source of life itself,
the one who raised Israel from captivity in Egypt,
the one who spoke through the prophets,
the fathomless mystery of God.
They are fearful yet overjoyed
because now everything is different:
the old certainties of death and the grave
have been broken open
and they are faced with the dizzying prospect
of new lives that can mean more
than they could have ever imagined.
All they have to do is risk everything
and give their lives to the mission and the task
of proclaiming the good news of the resurrection.

And we too, here tonight,
should be fearful yet overjoyed
for we too have been called to risk everything
in giving our lives
to the mission and the task
of proclaiming the good news;
we too have been called to a new life
that is more than we could have ever imagined:
“We were indeed buried with him
through baptism into death,
so that,
just as Christ was raised from the dead
by the glory of the Father,
we too might live in newness of life.”
We celebrate the sacraments of initiation
in this night of resurrection
because it is through Baptism,
and the Eucharist
that we, like those women,
have been called
to the fearful yet joyful task of being disciples
of the one who was crucified and raised;
it is in these sacred mysteries
that we encounter the living God
who promises everything,
who changes everything,
who calls us to risk everything.

But, in the end,
for us who are disciples of Jesus
joy must triumph over fear
just as life has triumphed over death;
for the living God whom we encounter at the empty tomb
is not a faceless mystery who speaks to us from the abyss.
God is the one whose enfolding love
has been revealed in the face of Jesus.
Fearful yet overjoyed,
we hear the mystery speak to us
in the voice of the risen one:
“Do not be afraid.”

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Palm Sunday

Readings: Matthew 21:1-11; Isaiah 50:4-7; Philippians 2: 6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66

For most of us, it is an old story,
a story we have heard year after year,
whose sharp edges have grown a bit dull with familiarity,
and which we cannot but hear in light of its Easter sequel.
No shock.
No horror.
No sense of, “how could this possibly happen?”
It is a story that we hear and nod our heads,
“Yes, that’s how it happened.”
But if we are attentive to what is happening in our world,
it is a story that we hear year after year,
day after day,
in new guises,
shocking and horrific guises.

Just this past Monday, Fr. Frans Van Der Lugt,
a Jesuit priest from the Netherlands
who had lived in Syria for nearly fifty years,
was beaten and shot to death in the city of Homs.
He had spent his life there working with both Christians and Muslims,
particularly with young people with mental illnesses and disabilities.
In recent months he had spoken out
about the suffering of the people of Homs,
who live amidst violence and deprivation
as a result of the Syrian civil war.
In a video message to the world, he said,
“We do not want to die out of pain and hunger.
We love life and love living it.”
Yet when he had the opportunity to be evacuated last January he refused.
He set his face like flint, unwilling to leave behind
the people to whom he had devoted his life.
Not surprisingly,
the government blames the rebels
and the rebels blame the government for his death.
And in that death he joins the more than 150,000 Syrians
who have died in this war.

In his death, however, he also joins Jesus.
His story presents us once more with the passion of Christ,
who emptied himself and took the form of a servant,
who went to his death because he refused to abandon the cause of God.
In Fr. Van Der Lugt’s passion
we see displayed before us the passion of Jesus,
because he suffered his passion out of love for Christ crucified,
and in the faith and hope that no matter what his fate,
it was already redeemed,
already transformed,
by the death of Christ.

As a Jesuit, Fr. Van Der Lugt would have had the experience
of praying the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola.
At the end of the first week of those Exercises,
after seven days of reflecting on one’s sins,
Ignatius says to imagine oneself
before the crucified Jesus
and to ask:
What have I done for Christ?
What am I doing for Christ?
What will I do for Christ?
Fr. Van Der Lugt answered those questions
with his life and with his death,
and re-sharpened for all of us
the cutting edge of this ancient story.
What will I do for the one who loved me enough,
even in my sins,
to endured the shame and suffering of the cross?
How will I give my life
to the one who gave his life for me?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Lent 5

Readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

Throughout Lent,
we have journeyed with Jesus through a series of encounters:
into the Wilderness, to encounter Satan;
to the Mountain of Transfiguration, to encounter Moses and Elijah;
to a well in Samaria, to encounter the much-married Samaritan woman;
to Jerusalem, to encounter the man who was born blind.
And in today’s Gospel, we journey to the village of Bethany
where Jesus encounters Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus.
But even more, today he encounters death, grief, and sin.
And this is fitting on this last Sunday before we enter Holy Week.
For in the raising of Lazarus, we see a foreshadowing
of the great combat between life and death
that is the drama of Holy Week;
we see the encounter between death
and the one who is himself resurrection and life.

In the Gospel of John, it is this story,
even more than in the Passion story,
that allows us to see the humanity of Jesus:
we are told of the love that he has
for Mary and Martha and Lazarus;
we are told how in the face of Lazarus’s death
he is “perturbed and deeply troubled”;
and when he is taken to Lazarus’s tomb
we are told, “Jesus wept.”
It is in this story, perhaps more than any other in the Bible,
that we see Jesus’ solidarity with us,
who ourselves must encounter death.
We will all, of course, encounter death when our own life ends.
But that is not what I would like to focus on today,
for our encounter with death is not only at our ending;
in the midst of our lives we already encounter death.

We encounter it in the loss of family members and friends,
the loss of the presence of those whom we love.
In today’s Gospel Jesus encounters death
in the grief of Martha and of Mary,
and also in his own grief, in his own weeping.
Martha and Mary believed, and Jesus knew with divine certainty,
that death was not the last word for Lazarus:
“whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live.”
But this did not stop their grief or tears.
They still felt the pain of loss. 
And so too in our own encounters with death and loss;
our faith does not prevent us from feeling grief.
No matter how firmly or feebly we may believe
that Jesus is himself resurrection and life
and that he shares his risen life with us,
we still find ourselves longing for one more conversation,
one more goodnight kiss,
even one more frustrating argument
with the loved ones whom death has taken from us.
Those whose faith in eternal life is most certain
still long for the time to be shortened
until the day of death's final defeat.

Our encounter with death in the midst of our lives
is not, however, limited to physical death.
We encounter death also in the experience of sin,
the spiritual death that separates us from God and our neighbor
as surely as physical death separates us from those whom we love.
This separation ought to grieve us as much as, if not more than,
the separation of physical death.
There is a long Christian tradition of interpreting the story of Lazarus
not simply as a story of a mighty miracle worked by Jesus
but also as an allegory of God’s power to triumph over human sin.
Lazarus laid in the tomb represents humanity,
entombed in spiritual death;
Jesus’ crying in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out”
shows us God’s desire that we confess our sins,
bringing them out into the light of day;
Jesus’ command that Lazarus be untied
is a symbol of our being freed from the bondage of sin:
we who were dead in sin become alive to righteousness
through him who is himself resurrection and life
and are freed from the bondage of our separation from God.

In our grief and in our sin,
even in the midst of life, we are in death.
To whom can we turn for comfort?
We turn to the one who loves us,
to the one who weeps over our dying,
to the one who opens our graves,
and who calls to us in a loud voice: “come out!
Come out from the tomb of death!
Come out from the tomb of grief!
Come out from the tomb of sin!
Come out and be unbound,
for I am the resurrection and the life.
‘I have promised, and I will do it, says the Lord.’”

Sunday, February 9, 2014

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 58:7-10; 1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Matthew 5:13-16

There is a word that scares many Catholics: “evangelization.”
We associate it with people going door-to-door,
disturbing innocent people’s Saturday afternoons with talk of God,
or with co-workers who always want to tell you
about their personal relationship with Jesus.
We tend to think of it a bit of intrusive over-sharing,
not unlike parents (usually the father, for some reason)
who want to tell you the graphic details
of the birth of their child
or perhaps their child’s latest adventures in potty-training.
“Look, I know this is an important thing in your life,
but I don’t really need a blow-by-blow recounting of it.”

Yet in today’s Gospel Jesus tells his disciples
that they are the light of the world,
and that they are not to hide their light
under a bushel basket.
Now normally when we use that phrase –
“hiding your light under a bushel” –
we are referring to those
who keep hidden their abilities and achievements .
But that is not what it means here;
it is not about hiding the good things we have done,
but about hiding the good things God has done in and through us.
“You are the light of the world…
Your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.”
Our light is always a reflected light,
a light that has its source
in the glory of God that has shone upon us.
Moreover, the good news about God that we are called to share
is not merely good news for us personally,
like the birth of our child
or the joyous day when little John or Mary
finally uses the potty.
It is good news for all people:
the good news of God’s love for the world,
revealed in the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus
and in the sending of the Holy Spirit into our hearts.
One can hardly over-share such news.
As Pope Francis wrote recently,
“if we have received the love
which restores meaning to our lives,
how can we fail
to share that love with others?” (Evangelii Gaudium 8)

Jesus makes it clear that if we are to be his followers
we must share the light of the good news we have received,
but he also makes it clear that our sharing of this good news
is inseparable from the witness of our lives.
“Your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds…”
Of course, this does not mean
that we simply do good deeds and leave it at that,
which I think is perhaps the strongest temptation for many of us.
Talk about religion is awkward.
But if we are to give a truthful account of our lives
at some point we must commit the embarrassing social faux pas
of using the words “God” and “Jesus.”
At the same time, those words will only be interesting to anyone else,
will only seem like something other than intrusive over-sharing,
if they are linked to a life that shows forth the power of faith.
To quote Pope Francis again, “all religious teaching
ultimately has to be reflected in the teacher’s way of life,
which awakens the assent of the heart
by its nearness, love and witness” (Evangelii Gaudium 42).
We need both words and actions –
and actions that match our words.

With regard to actions:
the prophet Isaiah, in our first reading,
casts light on the kinds of actions
that show forth God’s glory:
“Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…”
Acts of mercy and compassion toward the poor and oppressed
are one of the chief ways in which our lives reflect the glory of God,
because they reflect the way in which God
has dealt with us in Jesus Christ.
To quote again the eminently quotable Pope Francis,
“Jesus’ whole life, his way of dealing with the poor,
his actions, his integrity,
his simple daily acts of generosity,
and finally his complete self-giving, is precious
and reveals the mystery of his divine life” (Evangelii Gaudium 265).
Perhaps nothing speaks more eloquently to the world
of the mercy and love that God has shown to us
than the acts of mercy and love
that we show to those most in need.

With regard to words:
in our second reading St. Paul says to the Christians of Corinth:
“When I came to you… proclaiming the mystery of God,
I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom.
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you
except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling…”
Paul did not arrive in Corinth
with complex arguments or fine speeches,
but speaking of his own experience of suffering,
his own experience of neediness,
his own experience of new life found through faith in Jesus.
To share the good news of God’s work in our lives
we don’t need words like “hypostatic union” or “transubstantiation”
(as much as I personally love such words)
but words like “God”
and “Jesus”
and “cross”
and “resurrection.”
Indeed, we don’t need stories
of our achievements or good deeds,
but stories of how God
has sustained us in our own neediness.
It is in confessing our own weakness,
our own struggle,
our own need for the grace of faith,
that we bear witness to the power of God.

To give good Pope Francis a final word:
“we are called to be living sources of water
from which others can drink.
At times, this becomes a heavy cross,
but it was from the cross, from his pierced side,
that our Lord gave himself to us as a source of living water.
Let us not allow ourselves
to be robbed of hope!” (Evangelii Gaudium 86)
And let us also not allow others to be robbed of that hope;
rather, by both our actions and our words,
let us always be ready to give them
an account of the hope that is in us.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Funeral Homily for Clayton A. Sweeney

Readings: Isaiah 25:6a, 7-9; Revelation 21:1-5a, 6b-7; Matthew 11:25-30

Clayton Sweeney was a busy man.
Of course, no one who raises six children gets much downtime,
even if he has a force of nature like Sally Dimond
to do a lot of the parental heavy-lifting.
But you can add to that his work as a lawyer, a corporate executive,
a board member, an adjunct law professor,
not to mention the almost full-time job
of being a sibling to his brother and six sisters,
and an uncle to literally scores of nieces and nephews,
for whom he was always a source
of willing and generous support.
Even in his so-called “retirement” at Lake Chautauqua –
his own version of Yeats’s Lake Isle of Innisfree,
where he sought the peace that “comes dropping slow/
dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings” –
even there his life was a flurry of activity:
serving on the boards of numerous non-profits,
singing in the choir at his beloved parish
of St. Isaac Jogues in Sherman,
hosting an endless stream of family and friends
and friends of friends in his home,
and keeping track of the exploits and misadventures
of his ten grandchildren.
All of this activity bore fruit in a long list
of noteworthy achievements
and significant contributions to his family, his church, and his community.
Clayton was a busy man in part
because he was an extraordinarily talented man
who was often called upon by groups and individuals for his expertise,
and, because he was also an extraordinarily generous man,
he rarely said “no.”

But now we have come to lay this busy man to rest.

When the early Christian theologian St. Augustine wrote,
“you have made us for yourself, O God,
and our heart is restless until it rests in you,”
he put his finger on something fundamental about being human:
we are made by God to live with God,
and God alone can quench our thirst for meaning and love.
No achievement, no honor, no paycheck or bonus
can still the restless seeking of our hearts,
but only the one who says, “Come to me,
all you who labor and are burdened,
and I will give you rest.”
For all his achievements and honors,
Clayton remained not just a busy man, but a restless man.

It does not diminish Clayton’s memory
to say that he was not perfect,
to say that in the restless journey of his life
he labored and was burdened,
for we know that we are saved by God’s mercy,
not by our own perfection.
So, for example, it was rumored that Clayton could be a bit stubborn
(a trait that he passed along to at least a few of his children),
and it could be quite terrifying to watch a Steelers game with him,
particularly if things were going badly.
But he also struggled with demons
more troubling and more difficult to face,
demons that were hardly unique to him,
but seem, in one guise or another, to afflict all of us
in our restless journey through this life.
In the almost thirty years that I knew Clayton,
it seems to me that his greatest burden,
his greatest source of unrest,
was the struggle to let those whom he loved
know just how deeply he loved them.
Again, this struggle is hardly unique to him;
all of us want so badly to let those whom we love
know how much we love them,
but often the words don’t come, or they come out wrong.
Even the best of us,
who busy ourselves with all we can do for others,
all we can give to those whom we love,
can still hold back ourselves,
perhaps afraid that the naked gift of ourselves
will not be enough to merit love in return.

When Clayton died I posted a picture of him on Facebook
from his seventieth birthday celebration,
surrounded by his ten grandchildren,
all engaged in various acts of mischief and misbehavior,
and Clayton looking as happy as I have ever seen him.
It garnered a number of comments,
but one in particular stood out to me:
“What a golden picture, and a foretaste. Eternal rest.”
It was a picture of a happy moment from the past,
but also, I think, a picture of what we now hope for Clayton.
On our restless journey through this life
we are sustained by the grace-filled glimpses we are granted
of what it must be like to rest in God.
For the seer John in the Book of Revelation
it was the image of a new heaven and a new earth
in which God would dwell with humanity.
For me, it is that golden picture,
which captures the busy man in a moment of rest,
surrounded by squirming grandchildren who, like God,
loved him not for anything he had done, but for who he was;
loved him not for anything he had achieved,
but simply because he was their Papa.
“Although you have hidden these things
from the wise and the learned
you have revealed them to little ones.”
Clayton was a busy man, a restless man, who achieved much,
but in the end I think that he, like all of us, wanted only this:
to love and be loved for who he was.
And he, like all of us, was burdened by the fear
that who he was would not be good enough.
But now he can lay that burden down; now he knows:
through the mercy of Christ, it is enough;
it was always enough.
Now he is surrounded, as in that golden picture,
by the love of God,
the love that will strip away from him
all that is fearful, all that is false,
and reveal him to himself as who he truly is:
Clayt, Dad, Papa, brother, uncle, friend,
beloved child of the living God.
The busy, restless man is now at rest.

It seems appropriate in this place to end with words
from another notable Catholic lawyer: St. Thomas More.
On the night before he was executed,
he wrote to his daughter Margaret
words that I believe Clayton even now is saying to us:
“Farewell, my dear child, and pray for me,
and I shall for you,
and for all your friends,
that we may merrily meet in heaven.”

Until then, Clayton, rest in peace.

Sunday, January 5, 2014


Readings: Isaiah 60:1-6; Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2:1-12

Matthew tells us that “magi from the east,”
who came seeking a newborn king,
“prostrated themselves and did him honor.”
But sometimes I wonder:
before bowing down and worshiping the Christ child,
do you think they were secretly disappointed,
even if only for a moment?
Do you think that, arriving in Bethlehem
at the end of a long and difficult journey,
and seeing the unimpressive dwelling
of the unimpressive parents
of this unimpressive child
the magi might have thought,
“we came all that way for this?”
After all, an astronomical event
spectacular enough to be visible in in a distant land
sets up a pretty high set of expectations.
Did the magi, not unreasonably,
expect a palace with a treasury
that could receive their gifts
of gold, frankincense, and myrrh?
Did they perhaps confer discretely among themselves
as to whether they should find some alternative gifts
that would be more suitable for these simple folk
and keep the fancy stuff in reserve,
just in case another star appeared,
heralding another king,
perhaps a more normal sort king?
Did they perhaps even find themselves thinking that King Herod,
who, though ruthless, was quite effective at wielding power,
seemed a bit more of a king than a squalling baby
and his shabby parents.

Matthew doesn’t tell us of the magi
having this disappointment,
and maybe I’m simply projecting,
but if they did doubt, who could blame them?
Surely what the world needed was a ruler
who could take on petty tyrants like Herod,
not to mention major tyrants like the Roman Emperor.
And just as surely
there was nothing that they found in Bethlehem
that gave any indication
that such a ruler was to be found there.
No palace, no treasury, no obvious royal lineage.
Just a poor baby of poor parents,
and a star, and a prophecy:
you, Bethlehem, land of Judah…
from you shall come a ruler,
who is to shepherd my people Israel.

Matthew says nothing
of the disappointment and doubts of the magi;
what he does tell us is that,
“they prostrated themselves and did him homage.”
He does tell us that, “they opened their treasures
and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”
If at first they felt that their expectations had not been met,
something seems to have changed.
The word “epiphany,” which is the name of this feast,
means a “manifestation” – literally a shining-forth of light.
At the end of a long journey
that ended at an unexpected destination
the magi seem to have found new eyes
to see the divine light that shone,
not from a star in the heavens,
but from a child cradled in his mother's arms.
They found new ears to hear the voice of God,
no longer in ancient prophecies,
but in the cries of a wordless infant.

One detail of Matthew’s telling of this story
that has always struck me
is his statement that the magi
“departed for their country by another way.”
Of course the reason that they did this
was in order to avoid having to go back to Herod
and tell him where the infant Jesus was.
But perhaps Matthew is also telling us
that the magi were changed by their encounter with Jesus.
Their prior expectations overturned,
the long journey back was a quite different one
from the long journey out
because everything was seen with new eyes,
everything was heard with new ears,
and they now journeyed through a world redeemed by love
shining forth from a powerless child.

After the journey of Advent and our arrival at Christmas,
we too may feel a sense of disappointment and even doubt.
Perhaps we too have not found the savior whom we sought,
the savior who would bring us
peace or healing or reconciliation.
Perhaps we, like the magi, brought to Bethlehem
a set of expectations that have not been met.
But the God whom the magi found in Bethlehem
is clearly not a God whose top priority
is meeting our expectations,
but a God of surprising grace.
And we too, like the magi,
can have our expectations transformed
by the grace of the Christ child;
we too can return home by a different way,
having new eyes with which to see,
and new ears with which to hear.
Let us pray that we will find
true peace and healing and reconciliation
in the new world that awaits us as we continue our journey.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent 4

In today’s Gospel,
Joseph finds himself in a delicate situation;
the pregnancy of Mary, his betrothed,
has put him into quite a quandary.
He knows that the baby is not his
and so he reasonably (though wrongly) presumes
that the father must be some other man.
Our Gospel writer tells us that, “he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame.”
He was a righteous man, a just man,
which in the first-century Jewish context
meant that he obeyed the Law that God had given to Moses,
and the Law that God had given to Moses said,
“If there is a young woman, a virgin who is betrothed,
and a man comes upon her… and lies with her,
you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city
and there stone them to death. . . . Thus shall you purge
the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 22:23-24).
Harsh justice, but justice all the same,
intended to make sure that a man’s heirs were indeed his,
which was crucial for the peaceful functioning
of a patriarchal society.
Harsh justice, but justice all the same,
intended to purge from the community the evil of injustice.

But, our Gospel tells us,
while Joseph was a righteous man, a just man,
he was also a merciful man.
Though he would have been within his rights to do so,
he did not want to expose Mary to shame,
which, given the Law, meant to expose her to death.
She was his beloved,
and in his heart mercy called him to go beyond justice
and to let Mary’s life be spared,
merely breaking off the betrothal.
And after the angel appeared to him in his dream
and showed to him how the Spirit of God
was at work in these events,
Joseph’s heart opened to even greater mercy:
casting aside all fear of shame and of transgressing the Law,
he took Mary into his home so that they might live together.

The fourth-century theologian John Chrysostom
saw in Joseph’s small act of human mercy
a hint of the great act of divine mercy that was to come.
He wrote: “It is like the sun not yet arisen, but from afar
more than half the world is already illuminated by its light.
So did Christ, when about to rise from the womb –
even before his birth –
cast light upon the world” (Homily on Matthew, 4.4).
In Joseph’s act of mercy
the grace of God is already showing itself
and we begin to understand what it is
that we will celebrate at Christmas:
mercy that goes beyond what justice requires.

But God’s mercy goes beyond even the mercy shown by Joseph,
as the brightness of the sun outshines the pale light of predawn,
for while Mary was innocent of all sin, we are not.
We human beings have misused our freedom,
and chosen to turn away from God our creator,
and we justly suffer the effects
of a life lived apart from the creative source of life itself:
conflict and violence and, ultimately, unending death.
And God could have justly left us on our own,
exposed to the shame of our own injustice.
But we are God’s beloved,
and in the very heart of God
divine justice is enfolded within divine mercy.
And behold, a virgin conceived and bore a son,
and God came to live with us
and the light that dimly shone in Joseph’s act of human mercy
burst forth in all is blinding brilliance
and purged the darkness of evil from our hearts.

In Advent we still await the coming of that light.
We await the light of mercy that surpasses justice,
and we pray that, like Joseph, our merciful actions also
might be dim reflections of the divine mercy.

Many find this to be a season that tries their mercy.
Think about it: this is the season
when we drag ourselves through crowded malls
to shop for gifts for people
that we don’t really even like very much.
This is the season
when we are forced to spend time with family members
whom we manage successfully to avoid for the rest of the year.
This is the season
when we brood over old hurts and past insults,
generosity unappreciated and favors unreturned,
when we want to hold people accountable; when we want justice.
But the coming of God to live with us is not about justice;
it is about mercy.
The birth of Emmanuel is not about what we deserve
but about the forgiving love that God shows to us,
and which God calls us to show to each other.
This is the season when the dawn of Christ is already appearing.
Come, let us celebrate this feast of mercy
by following the example of Joseph
and letting God’s mercy and forgiveness
fill our hearts and guide our actions.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Advent 2

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12

“On that day, a shoot shall sprout
from the stump of Jesse…”
On that day.
On what day?
Even leaving aside the question of who Jesse is
(he’s King David’s father, by the way),
it would certainly be helpful to know when it is
that this mysterious descendant of Jesse will appear:
this one upon whom the Spirit of God will rest,
this one who will judge the poor with justice
and decide aright for the land’s afflicted,
this one who will be girded with justice and faithfulness,
who with his words will strike those without mercy.
When is “that day” when the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb
and the lion shall eat hay like the ox
and the knowledge of God will flood the world?
The prophet Isaiah doesn’t tell us;
he simply says that “on that day”
the root of Jesse will be set up as a sign for the nations,
so as to draw all people into God’s kingdom.

Matthew, the author of our Gospel reading,
believes he knows when “that day” occurs.
He tells us that “in those days”
John the Baptist appeared
preaching that God’s kingdom was at hand.

“In those days.”
The phrase in Matthew’s Greek is almost identical
to the ancient Greek translation of the book of Isaiah
that Matthew would have known.
That day that the world has been waiting for?
That day of justice and mercy and peace
when the wolf will be the guest of the lamb?
That day when the earth shall be filled
with the knowledge of the Lord?
John the Baptist appeared two thousand years ago
saying that this is that day.
John arrived to tell us to prepare the way of the Lord
by producing good fruit as evidence of our change of heart,
because the one sprung from the stump of Jesse
was about to appear with his winnowing fan in his hand,
to gather the wheat and to burn the chaff,
to judge the poor with justice
and to strike the ruthless with his words.
With the appearance of Jesus we can truly say
that this is that day.

So, was John wrong?
As far as I can tell,
the poor are still often unjustly judged
and the ruthless seem often to go unrebuked.
Knowledge of the Lord does not seem
to be in particularly abundant supply
and I don’t see wolves and lambs
spending much quality time together.

Indeed, Jesus, the Lamb of God,
himself fell prey to the human wolves
who tore his flesh and hung him on a cross.
The shoot who sprang from the root of Jesse,
the one upon whom God’s Sprit rested
with the fullness of her gifts,
was himself cut down and cast into the fire of death.

So perhaps we still await that day of which Isaiah spoke.

Yet our faith tells us that John the Baptist was right.
The Lamb who was slain has been raised
and reigns gloriously,
not simply at God’s right hand in heaven,
but even now within the hearts of his disciples.
That day is truly this day
when, as Paul says in our second reading,
Christ’s followers think in harmony with one another
and with one voice glorify God;
when they welcome one another
even as they have been welcomed by Christ.

But on this day, the transformed world spoken of by Isaiah
is present to us primarily in sign and mystery.
We sense it when we welcome a child
through the waters of baptism,
or when we gather at the altar to glorify God
and to be fed by Christ the Lamb.
We feel it when people respond to tragedy with generosity
or when a leader acts, not in his or her own interest,
but in the interest of justice and mercy.
But these are only signs, only glimpses,
and it takes faith to read these signs,
to know that this day really is
that day of God’s great triumph.

So in Advent we wait.
We wait for the feast of Christmas
when we celebrate that day
when Jesus Christ was born,
the great sign to the world
of the mysterious real presence
of God’s kingdom of love among us.
But we also wait for that day,
the day when God’s kingdom
will be present to us
no longer in sign and mystery,
no longer dimly perceived,
but in the clear and certain light
that flows from the Christ the Lamb,
filling with earth with the knowledge of the Lord
as water covers the sea.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14; 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5; Luke 20:27-38

I have a confession to make:
When it comes to life after death
I am something of a Sadducee.
The idea that death is not simply the end
sometimes strikes me as just a bit too good to be true.
God has blessed me with a family that loves me,
meaningful work to do,
a Church community that challenges and supports me,
and I sometimes think that that would be enough,
that eternal life is sort of gilding the lily,
and that if my death were definitively the end of me
I would still believe that God is good;
I would still thank God
for all the blessings of this life.
So I am, at least by disposition if not belief,
not unlike the Sadducees in today’s Gospel
who look for their rewards
in the blessings of this life.

Of course, when you find yourself
identifying with Jesus’s opponents
it is usually a sign
that you have gotten into theological trouble,
so we should reflect a bit more
on the Sadducees and their disbelief.
The ancient historian Josephus notes
that the Sadducees were a group within Judaism
who had their support primarily among the rich.
I suppose this makes a kind of sense:
enjoying in this life what they take to be
their just deserts from the God whom they serve,
they hold to the ancient Israelite belief
that God justly rewards people
for the good they have done in this life
with blessings bestowed in this life.

But what about those
who do not receive blessings in this life?
What about those who faithfully serve God
and, like the seven brothers in our first reading,
receive as their recompense torment and torture
at the hands of a tyrant?
What about those who seek to do God’s will
and end up abandoned and alone?
What about those who, through no fault of their own,
lead lives filled, not with blessing,
but with disappointed dreams?
If our hope is only in this life
then it becomes difficult to believe
in a God who is either just or good;
if we allow ourselves to remember
all of the kindnesses that have gone unrewarded,
all of the injustices that have gone uncorrected,
all of the sufferings that have gone unrelieved,
it becomes difficult to believe that,
as Martin Luther King put it,
“The arc of the moral universe is long,
but it bends towards justice.”
To believe this we must believe not only
that justice in this world
will one day be achieved;
we must also believe that all those
who have suffered unjustly
or had their goodness unrewarded,
will one day find vindication,
will one day receive the reward that they deserve,
will one day have the wounds of injustice healed.
And to believe this is to believe in resurrection,
to believe that there will be justice
for all those whose lives
have been ground beneath the injustices of history.

A few years ago, Pope Benedict XVI wrote,
“I am convinced that the question of justice
constitutes the essential argument,
or in any case the strongest argument,
in favor of faith in eternal life. . .
only in connection with the impossibility
that the injustice of history should be the final word
does the necessity for Christ's return and for new life
become fully convincing” (Spe Salvi n. 43).

If agreeing with Jesus’ opponents is a sign
that your theology has gone wrong,
the perhaps agreeing with a Pope
is an indication that you’re on the right track.
For me, the most compelling argument for eternal life
is not my own desire to avoid death,
but rather my conviction
that the God we know in Jesus Christ
is a God of justice,
who will heal the injustices of history.
I still find it difficult to imagine
what eternal life would be like.
Of course, in this I am not all that different
from the Sadducees in today’s Gospel,
who think eternal life would be simply
an extension of life in this world.
But perhaps my difficulty in imagining eternal life
is simply the difficulty of imagining true justice.
We cannot imagine how God could set right
the injustices of the past,
could restore wholeness of body and soul to the tortured,
could heal the indignities already suffered by the disabled,
could assuage the hungers of those who have starved to death.
But we do know that our God
is a God of the living, not the dead,
and the promised eternal life that we cannot imagine,
we can still believe to be true,
we can still hope one day to see,
we can still love as our true homeland.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14

In our first reading we hear,
“Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet [God] hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint.”
In the Hebrew scriptures, those who are weak and oppressed
are referred to as the anawim or “little ones,”
and they, as our scripture says,
are the special object of God’s concern.
It is from scriptural passages such as this
that the Church today draws her teachings concerning
the need for what Pope John Paul II called
a “preferential but not exclusive love for the poor”;
we, both as individuals and as a Church,
are called to give the poor,
the oppressed,
and the marginalized
a privileged place in our hearts and our concerns.
Concern for the poor is not, for Christians,
simply one concern among others;
concern for God’s little ones is integral
to our identity as God’s people.

This is not a matter of romanticizing the poor,
imagining that every poor person is good and noble;
indeed, poverty is very unromantic,
and often makes those who are poor
less good, less noble, than they might otherwise be.
The Peruvian theologian Gustavo GutiƩrrez
writes, “the poor are human beings;
they include very good people,
but there are also some among them who are not good.
We should prefer them not because they are good…
but because first of all God is good
and prefers the forgotten, the oppressed,
the poor, the abandoned.”
Our concern for the poor is not simply a matter of philanthropy
but grows from our convictions concerning who God is
and how God has acted in human history.
Indeed, we believe that when God came to dwell among us in Jesus
he took his stand with the poor and the powerless,
to the point of saying that
what we do for one of God’s little ones, we do for him.
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it,
“Jesus identifies himself with the poor of every kind
and makes active love toward them
the condition for entering his kingdom” (CCC 544).

This is all relevant as we reflect this weekend
on our relationship with
our sister parish in Sepalau Guatemala,
an isolated village, high in the mountains.
Guatemala is an extremely poor country,
with a GDP that is roughly one-half
of the average for Latin America.
Among the indigenous people,
who make up most of the villagers in Sepalau,
73% live below Guatemala’s poverty line –
which, as you might imagine,
is considerably lower than ours.
Guatemala has one of the highest rates
of malnutrition in the world,
with almost half of the children
under the age of five
being malnourished.
Truly, the people of Sepalau
are among the “little ones” of God.

If our relationship with our sister parish
is to be an authentic one
we need to recognize the realities of the poverty
in which the people of Sepalau live.
But I’m not here to give a sociology or economics lecture,
but to preach the word of God.
And today the word of God tells us
that God hears the cries of the poor,
and will answer them
and establish for them justice on earth;
the little ones of this world will be lifted up
and the powerful will be cast down.

This is surely good news to the poor,
but what about the rest of us?
Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel that
“whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Our love for the poor must manifest itself
in a kind of humbling of ourselves,
so that the concerns of the poor become our concerns,
so that their cause becomes our cause,
not because they are good, but because God is good,
because God has heard their cries and will answer them;
God has made their cause his cause
by emptying himself and accepting
the death of a slave,
death on a cross.
You cannot be on the side of God
if you are not on the side of the poor –
this is not politics; it’s simply the gospel.

And this is really what our sister parish relationship is about;
it is about coming to know and entering into friendship
with the people of Sepalau
so that their concerns can become our concerns,
so that is some small way
their struggles can become our struggles.
And we do this because by entering more deeply
into relationship with them
we enter more deeply into relationship with Christ,
who for our sake became poor,
so that we might have spiritual riches.