Sunday, April 3, 2016

Easter 2


Readings: Acts 5:12-16; Revelation 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19; John 20:19-31

Here we are a week after Easter
and our Scriptures today paint for us
a picture of the post-Easter world.
What do we see?
In the Gospel of John we see
the risen Jesus walking through a locked door,
breathing on the apostles,
and thereby giving them the power
to bind and loose people’s sins.
In the Book of Acts we see
those same apostles beginning to enjoy
such a reputation for “signs and wonders”
that people are dragging the sick out onto the streets
so that Peter’s shadow can fall upon them
and heal them as he passes by.
In the Revelation of John we see the author,
living in exile on an island,
having a vision of the risen Jesus
as a robed divine figure
surrounded by seven golden lamps
and proclaiming that though he was dead
now he lives forever.
Today we also celebrate Divine Mercy Sunday,
a new feast, inaugurated by the Church in the year 2000,
prompted by a vision had in 1931
by a young Polish nun, Faustina Kowalska,
in which Jesus appeared robed in white
with red beams emanating from his heart,
telling her that on this day especially
the depths of his tender mercy are open
to all who would receive it.

In other words,
the post-Easter world is a pretty weird place.
It is as if the resurrection of Jesus from the dead
has seriously unhinged things
and caused people to act in all sorts of strange ways
and experience all sorts of strange things.
Who can blame doubting Thomas
for trying to inject a little sanity into the situation
by asking for some concrete evidence of this resurrection?

But isn’t the point of Easter
that the world has become unhinged by the resurrection.
Or it might be more accurate to say
that the raising of Jesus from the dead
has put the world back on its hinges;
that this is the way things are meant to be,
but many of us don’t realize it.
Karl Marx once responded to his critics
who said that he had taken the philosophy of Hegel
and turned it on its head
by saying that, on the contrary,
he came along and found Hegel standing on his head
and turned him right side up again.
Likewise, we might say that Jesus
found a world standing on its head
and put it back on its feet;
the resurrection of Jesus has restored the world
to how God intended it to be:
a world of life rather than a world of death,
a world of mercy rather than a world of condemnation,
a world in which God once more has drawn near.

In trying to appreciate the way in which
Easter radically transforms things,
some people can get hung up
on the extraordinary and miraculous things,
the “signs and wonders,” that we are presented with today.
Some might think that they are the main point,
while others might think that in their weirdness
they make the message of Easter
somewhat unbelievable.
In both cases we should remind ourselves
that the extraordinary and the miraculous
are not God’s primary way of working in the world,
but rather God’s way of getting our attention.
John’s Gospel and the Book of Acts
both speak of miracles as “signs”—
events that make visible
the normally hidden power of God
that is always at work in the world.
Most of us, in fact, believe without direct experience
of extraordinary signs and wonders.
And as Jesus says to Thomas in our Gospel,
“Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

And yet, even if most of us don’t have Jesus appear to us
as he did to the apostles in the upper room
or John in exile on Patmos,
or Sister Faustina in her convent in Poland,
we no less than they live in that strange post-Easter world.
We no less than they live in the world
that Jesus found standing on its head
and set back on its feet.
Indeed, we no less than they are called to live out our faith
in the extraordinary and miraculous good news of Easter.

Think of what Jesus says to John
when he appears to him on Patmos:
“Do not be afraid….
I hold the keys to death and the netherworld.”
What should our lives look like
if we really believe this is true?
What should our lives look like
if we really believe that we do not need to be afraid?
What should our lives look like
if we really believe that death
is not the worst thing that can happen to us?
What should our lives look like
if we really believe that there is nothing
from which the power of the risen Christ cannot save,
no loss that he cannot redeem,
no sin he cannot heal,
no shame that he cannot turn into glory?
What should our lives look like
if we truly know the truth of Easter,
the truth that the crucified Christ is alive forever
and holds in his hands—
the hands that were pierced by human sin—
the keys to death and the netherworld?

The writer Flannery O’Connor is reputed to have said,
“you will know the truth
and the truth shall make you odd.”
The promise of Easter
is that you too can look pretty weird
if you live our faith in the risen Jesus
in a world that keeps trying to turn itself back onto its head.
This is the world that wonders why you spend so little time
trying to protect yourself
from the loss of your reputation or your security.
This is the world that wonders why you do not treat refugees
as threats to be managed
rather than brothers and sisters to be welcomed.
This is the world that wonders why you forgive—
not just once, or seven times,
but seventy-times-seven times.
This is the world that might wonder
why you willingly lay down your life
in service, in sacrifice,
and perhaps even in death.

The grace of Easter faith can transform us
so that we become the signs and wonders,
the extraordinary and miraculous occurrences,
that bear witness in the world
to the resurrection of Jesus, the one who lives,
to the the message of divine mercy and forgiveness,
to the weird world of Easter
and the truth that makes us odd.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Sunday


Readings: Acts 10: 34a, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9

Earlier this year
I spent several weeks at a Trappist monastery,
which is one of those things you can do
when you’re a university professor on sabbatical
and your youngest child has left the nest for college.
Over the course of weeks I discovered
that not a lot happens at a Trappist monastery,
and every day is pretty much like the one before it
and the one after it.
You rise early at 3:00 AM and spend several hours
in communal and private prayer
before going off to work, praying some more,
then more work, and more prayers.
Throw in a few meals, eaten in silence,
and that’s about your day.
The prayer itself is pretty much always the same:
chanting the 150 psalms over the course of two weeks,
along with a few hymns and Mass each day.
The work is also pretty much the same:
at this monastery it is growing mushrooms,
which is about as exciting as watching paint dry,
though more physically demanding.

Shortly before I left for the monastery
my mother was hospitalized.
She had been failing for several months
and it was clear to all of us
that the end was not too far off.
But my family insisted I not cancel my plans.
I arrived at the monastery knowing that I might well
have to cut short my time there,
as indeed proved to be the case
when my mother died three weeks later.

In the midst of those these seemingly uneventful days,
prior to my mother's death,
I found myself thinking about and praying over
the impermanence of life,
the way in which, despite our best efforts,
we cannot hold on to the things we love,
to the people we love:
how we hold our lives like water cupped in our hands
that ever so slowly leaks through our fingers.
Our days slip past us,
each one marked by some degree of loss.
We experience this most sharply
when we lose to death someone we love.
We experience it perhaps less sharply, but no less really,
as we drift away from friends over time,
or lose the enthusiasm we once felt
for our work
or for a cause we cared about,
or even for our faith.

Of course, there are gains in life as well as losses,
but we experience a kind of loss even in life’s gains.
As I prayed about the coming death of my mother
I recalled my last conversation with her,
in which she was recalled when I was a toddler
and she would come into my room every morning
and I would be standing in my crib,
so excited to see her.
While I have no doubt that she loved the man I became,
it was also clear that she missed that little toddler
and his unambiguous love and enthusiasm.
I thought too about my own children
and their transition from childhood to young adulthood,
and how even in the process of becoming
the increasingly accomplished, interesting,
complex people that they are
there is the loss of innocent childlike wonder and simplicity.
Even the great gains of life are not unmarked by loss.
The advent of the child who walks on her own
marks the end of the child whom you carried in your arms.
The emergence of the child who can read for himself
marks the end of the child to whom you read
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
over and over and over and over.
As tired as our arms may grow,
and as tedious as the adventures of that caterpillar may be,
we still miss the feel of that child against our chest,
the time spent together
discovering the wonder of language and image.
We want to hold on to those moments of grace,
but they pass away and even memory fades.

Is this simply the fate of us human beings,
who live within the unceasing stream of time?
Will the water of life inevitably trickle through our fingers?
Does every tick of the clock
mark the winding down of life?
Is it the case, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it,
that “all is in an enormous dark/Drowned,”
that “vastness blurs and time beats level”?
Or can we find, in the midst of the ceaseless flow of time,
a still point, a place of eternity
in which every moment that flies past us
is held safe and kept close,
a point that gathers in all that time takes from us,
a point in which we can find that lost loved one,
that friendship that faded out over the years,
that childlike innocence that was exchanged for adulthood?

On this Easter morning, St. Paul exhorts us,
“Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.”
In the midst of this life that at every moment
is being pulled by time from our grasp,
Paul tells us to open our hands,
to let go of the things we love in this life.
But he tells us this not because this life is unimportant,
not because the things we love are not worthy of our love,
but because the only way we can keep them
is by releasing them
into the eternity of love that is God,
the eternity of love that explodes into our world
in the resurrection of Jesus.
This is what Easter hope is all about.
The empty tomb of Christ is the doorway
into the still point of eternity
in which all time is gathered and redeemed.
It is the doorway that we enter
through faith and baptism,
the faith that is expressed in the baptismal promises
that we will renew in a few moments.
And passing through that doorway, St. Paul tells us,
we have died—
died to the merciless passage of time—
and our life is now hidden with Christ in God,
hidden in the risen one
who holds within himself all that we love.

What I found in the seemingly uneventful life
of prayer and work of the Trappist monks
was not a tedious cycle of pointless repetition
but the presence within time of eternity,
an eternity of returning again and again to the beginning,
to find that everything I thought time had taken
is being kept for me in the risen Jesus.
And it can be like this for all of us,
as we gather week by week
in the repetitive rhythm of the liturgy,
we return to our beginning,
we receive Jesus,
the eternal one,
into ourselves,
and find again in him
all that is true,
all that is good,
all that is beautiful.
We creatures of time,
who seem made for death,
whose best achievements
are shadowed by loss,
are given the gift of sharing in God’s eternity
through Jesus Christ, who came to share our life
in the turbulent torrent of time,
so that we might share his life
in the still point of God’s eternity.
To quote again the poet Hopkins:
“In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
           Is immortal diamond.”

Saturday, March 26, 2016

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; Luke 24:1-12

The story of salvation
that is rehearsed in the scriptures
of our Easter Vigil
might seem like tales
of the “glory days” of God’s people.
So much of our faith,
and of this Vigil celebration in particular,
is tied up with memory,
and memory can give us a sense of grounding
in our collective and individual histories,
but it might also bring with it
a sense of regret and even resentment
over the loss of past glories.

Perhaps there is something wrong with me,
but sometimes when I hear
the story of salvation rehearsed
I find myself saying,
“if only… if only…”
If only I could have been there to witness
the kinds of miracle that God used to perform:
calling the universe into being with a word,
parting seas and slaying attacking armies.
If only I could have heard the voice of God
speaking directly through the prophets,
offering words of warning and of comfort
that could pierce the hardest of hearts.
If only I could have been there, like the women, 
to see angels proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus
or even, like Peter,
just the empty tomb
and burial cloths.
If only…

Sometimes I hear these stories from the past
of the great and mighty deeds of God
and feel an odd sort of regret—
the sense that the best days of our faith are in the past.
God’s activity in the world used to be so clear:
those were literally “glory days,”
when the light of God seemed to burst forth
with undeniable clarity,
and those who saw and heard and experienced these things
were so bathed in that light
that I imagine that they
could not help but be moved to faith.
But all we today have are reports from the past,
of what God once did
but seems to do no more.
Where have the glory days of our faith gone?

This sense of loss,
this sense of passing glory,
can haunt not only the story
of God’s people as a whole,
but also each of our individual stories:
if only I could return to the kind of simple faith
that I had as a small child.
If only I could recover the fervor of faith
that I had when I first entered the church.
If only…
And not just we as individuals,
but even as a parish community:
I think, if only Mary Jane O’Brien or Tom Ward
could be here at this Vigil with us,
or Mary Alma Lears could be sitting with her daughters,
or Henry Tom could making himself busy
with many, many, many details…
but we look around us and we see them no longer,
and our celebration seems that much less glorious,
and we are beset by a sense of loss and regret
and maybe even resentment at their absence:
If only…

But the God of Easter is not a God
of regrets and resentments.
The God of Easter is not a God
who promises to “make Christianity great again,”
as if some new savior must come
to return the church and us to some past glory.
No, the God of Easter says,
“This is the night.”
Not some dimly recalled days of glory in the past,
nor hoped for days of glory yet to come,
but this is the night.
This is the night when the waters part
and slaves are freed,
this is the night when prophets speak
and hearts are changed,
this is the night,
when Christ breaks the prison-bars of death
and rises victorious.”
It is the night that redeems all our losses,
the night when waning embers of faith
are stirred into new light,
the night that “dispels wickedness,
washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen,
and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred,
fosters concord,
and brings down the mighty.”
This is the night when all those whom we have lost—
Mary Jane, Tom, Mary Alma, Henry,
parents and children and spouses and friends—
stand with us in the light of eternal glory.
For this is the night of Christ,
whose empty tomb stands as an outpost of eternity
in this world of passing glory.
This is the night in which we die and rise with Christ,
so that we live with him now in newness of life,
and living that new life, that eternal life,
we witness to the reality of a glory
that carries us through days of loss and regret
to the day when God will be all in all.
This is the night when we leave behind “if only,”
the night when all the glory of the past,
and all the glory that is to come,
and all the glory that now lies hidden in our midst,
shines forth in Jesus risen among us:
“Christ yesterday and today,
the beginning and the end,
the Alpha and the Omega,
all time belongs to him,
and all the ages;
to him be glory and power,
through every age and for ever.
Amen.”

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Lent 4


Readings: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Though we call it “the parable of the prodigal son”
it is really a parable about two sons.
It’s a familiar dynamic.
The younger son is the “baby” of the family
(no matter what his chronological age),
the free spirit who gets to do everything at a younger age,
who pays little attention to rules or social norms,
who presumes that the world is his oyster.
The older son is a typical older sibling:
the dutiful child who colors inside the lines,
who saves his allowance,
who does what is expected
and expects his hard work to be repaid
as a matter of justice.

The younger son displays
no particular malice toward his father,
but simply a kind of self-centered disregard
and a slavery to his own immediate desires.
His alienation from his father grows
not from any ill will toward him,
but from the fact that he can barely be bothered
to think about him at all.
It is only when the money runs out
and times get tough,
that he “comes to his senses”
and returns to his father’s ready embrace.
The older brother seems to be the dutiful son,
but he shows himself on his brother’s return
to be no less—
and possibly even more—
alienated from his father.

As the story unfolds we see
that his rule-following responsibility is rooted
not so much in love and concern for his father
as in resentment toward his brother
and a desire to be recognized—
and rewarded—
by his father as “the good one.”
His actions seem exemplary,
but they grow from a bitter soil;
he keeps such careful count of each and every slight,
calculating the rewards and penalties each is due,
that he blinds himself to his father’s generosity
and the possibility of mercy.

The parable invites us to reflect
on our own lives in relation to God.
Am I, like the younger son,
neglectful of my relationship with God?
Do I focus on my immediate desires in life
and forget the God who is the source of that life?
Do I reflect on my duties toward God?
And if I do fulfill those duties,
is this out of love for the one
who has given me my life
or is it, as with the older son,
out of a desire to set myself up
as one of “the good ones”
by casting others as “the bad ones”?
Do I treat God’s love as a zero-sum game
in which the goal is to win
as many point of divine favor as possible
and in which there are a limited number
of points to be won?
Do I think that in order to have more of God’s love
others must have less?
Do I, in my resentment
toward the mercy shown to others,
make myself unable to see the mercy
I am being freely offered,
and that I need no less than they do?

But this story is not simply a vehicle
for examining our own consciences
so that we may receive
God’s forgiveness and mercy;
it also provides an occasion for us
to reflect on our call to be,
as our second reading today puts it,
“ambassadors for Christ”:
those who have been reconciled with God
through the cross of Jesus
and who have been entrusted
with that message of reconciliation.
The official theme of the Jubilee Year of Mercy
that began in December
is Misericorde sicut Pater
“merciful like the Father.”
It is a phrase not only that reminds us
that God is to us like a merciful father
but is also a call to us to be embodiments
of the mercy we have received.
How do I respond to those who, like the younger son,
treat my love thoughtlessly,
carelessly trampling on my feelings
as they pursue their own lives,
casting me aside as they pursue their dreams?
Do I, merciful like the father in the story,
welcome any tiny act of thoughtfulness,
any small gesture indicating a desire
for a restored relationship,
and run to greet them when they return?

Perhaps more challengingly, how do I respond
when I discover that someone who, like the older son,
had always done his duty in relation to me,
had been in fact been seething with resentment for years?
How do I respond to those who see
any favor, any love, any mercy
that I show to others
as something that they have been deprived of.
How do I show mercy to those who see the world
entirely in terms of who owes what to whom?

The parable does not answer
all of these questions for us,
in part because it leaves the story incomplete.
We hear of the joyful return of the younger son,
of his reconciliation with his father,
of his passage from death to new life,
but we don’t know what happens with the older son.
The father assures him of his love
and invites him to rejoice in the good news
of life’s triumph over death,
but we do not hear of the son’s response.
The younger son,
true to his passionate if thoughtless nature,
willingly enters into his father’s welcome,
while the response of the older son,
locked into calculations of justice,
remains uncertain, unresolved.
Will he be able to hear the good news
of his father’s mercy and compassion
as good news for him as well?

This story offers us a dual challenge.
Are we willing to examine our own lives
and be open to hearing the good news
of mercy and forgiveness,
even if it means that we must give up
what we imagine is due to us in justice?
And if we do hear that good news,
are we willing to share it with others,
to be ambassadors of God’s compassion
shown to us in Christ,
to be merciful like the Father,
to proclaim mercy in word and deed
even to those whose hearts
seem most closed off to it,
to trust in the power of the Gospel of mercy
to overcome even the hardest of hearts.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Lent 1


Readings: Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Roman 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

In our Gospel for today we are told that
“When the devil had finished every temptation,
he departed from [Jesus] for a time.”
Every temptation?
We are only told of three.
But there is a sense in which
these three temptations
contain within themselves
the fundamental pattern of all temptation,
a compact description of the different ways
our desires can be led astray,
a kind of encapsulation
of the devil’s comprehensive strategy of enticement.

The devil begins
with the most basic form of human desire:
our need to satisfy our bodily cravings.
As animals we have natural physical yearnings
for food and for drink,
for sleep and for sex.
So he says, “You are hungry;
turn these stones into bread.”
Surely there is nothing wrong with this.

The devil then moves on
to a subtler human desire:
the desire for wealth and power,
not to satisfy an immediate need,
but to secure our lives
from the whims of fortune and chance.
He says, “Here is all of the world’s
power and glory;
reach out and take it
and you will never worry about hunger again.”
Surely there is nothing wrong with this.

Finally, the devil appeals
to perhaps the subtlest of human desires:
not a material need at all,
but the quest for human recognition and admiration.
He says, “Throw yourself off of the Temple
and when the angels catch you up
all people will acclaim your power
as God’s anointed.”
Surely there is nothing wrong with this.

The temptations grow ever more refined,
from the satisfaction
of our basic animal desires,
through the desire for the security
bought by wealth and power,
to our need to be admired
and thought highly of.

My own experience of the enticement of evil
is that it matches up pretty well
with these three temptations.
All too often
I let my immediate physical needs
override any concern I should feel
for my long-term well-being,
my attention to those things
that go beyond my simple animal cravings.
All too often
the promise of the latest glittering technological toy
and the diversion and security it promises
keeps me from asking questions
about how my resources could be spent
so as to best aid those
who lack life’s basic necessities.
All too often
I act in ways designed to make me appear
impressively clever or competent
in the eyes of others,
so that I can hide from them
(and from myself)
the many ways in which
I can be quite foolish and hapless.
There are certainly other ways of describing
how evil gets its hooks in us,
but these three temptations
do a pretty comprehensive job of it for me.

Yet in this holy season of Lent
our tradition offers us
an equally comprehensive plan
for combatting these temptations.
The three fundamental practices
of the Lenten season—
fasting, almsgiving, and prayer—
can serve as an antidote to these temptations.
Fasting teaches us
to curb our immediate physical cravings
so that they do not dominate and control us.
Almsgiving trains us out of the habit
of desire for control through acquisition
by training us into habits
of generosity toward others.
Prayer requires us to set aside our vanity
as we call upon the God before whom we are needy,
the God who is not at our beck and call,
and to ask for God’s help
for ourselves and those we love.
In the face of the devil’s
comprehensive plan of temptation,
Lent offers us a comprehensive plan
for resisting that temptation.

Now I have some good news
and some bad news about all this.

First the bad news:
you will fail.
Your fasting
will probably not make you less gluttonous;
your almsgiving
will probably not make you less greedy;
your prayer
will probably not make you less vain.
And, even if they do,
they will not make you immune
from future temptation.
The Lent disciplines of fasting, almsgiving and prayer
simply don’t work as a self-improvement program
and to think that they do
is to fall into that most subtle of temptations:
the temptation to think
that we can fix ourselves,
on our own,
without God.

But now the good news
(and by this I mean
the capital-G-capital-N
Good News of the Gospel):
while Lent might not be a self-improvement program,
God has given us this holy season as an opportunity
for our fasting, almsgiving, and prayer
to invite Jesus Christ and his Spirit
to enter more deeply into our lives
through God’s grace,
to help us recognize our failings
and seek God’s mercy.

Another way to put this
is that God’s answer
to the devil’s comprehensive strategy of enticement
is this Lenten season of God’s comprehensive mercy,
the mercy of Jesus our high priest who,
as the Letter to the Hebrews says,
is able to sympathize with our weaknesses,
because he has been tempted in every way
that we are tempted,
yet without sin.

As we begin Lent,
our Gospel reminds us
that Jesus does not stand aloof
from our temptation,
a distant observer of our struggle
waiting to pass judgment on our failure;
the Good News is
that he has entered into that struggle
to fight on our behalf,
that he has triumphed
over the power of evil’s allure,
that he invites us to share in his victory
through repentance and forgiveness,
that his mercy endures forever.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

The Baptism of the Lord


Readings: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11; Titus 2:11-14, 3:4-7; Luke 3:15-16, 21-22

Today we pivot from our celebration of Christmas
to the beginning of what the Church calls “Ordinary Time”—
those ordinary “green” Sundays
that mark our everyday lives as Christians.
As we make this pivot we celebrate one final mystery
of Christ’s entry into our world:
the Baptism of the Lord,
the event that inaugurated
the public ministry of Jesus,
the time of his proclamation of God’s Kingdom,
the extraordinary ordinary time of his life
in which the sick were healed,
the dead were raised,
and the poor had the good news
proclaimed to them.
This is the story
that unfolds in our hearing
Sunday by Sunday
in the Ordinary Time
of our Christian lives.
But this first Sunday in Ordinary Time,
this Feast of the Baptism of the Lord,
is not simply when we begin
to tell the story of Jesus’ ministry,
it is also when we remember that
through our own baptisms
the story of Jesus
has become our story as well.

To be part of a family
is to “own” a set of family stories.
My family has stories of one group of ancestors
who emigrated from Scotland in colonial times
to seek their fortunes in the New World
and another group who emigrated from Germany
in the late 19th century
for reasons ranging
from avoidance of military service to romance.
We have stories of how my mother’s mother’s mother
ran a hotel all on her own after her husband died,
and how my father’s father ran a dancehall
that was actually the front for a speakeasy
during Prohibition.
We have stories of how my parent met at a party
the night before my father
went to sea for several months
and how when he returned
he called up my mother,
not sure she’d even remember who he was
(my presence here today
testifies to the fact that she remembered).

We all have these family stories that belong to us
or, it might be more accurate to say,
to which we belong.
We belong to these stories
because they shape who we are,
they shape how we see the world
and how we respond to what we see,
they constitute our identities as individuals
who are embedded in a communally shared history.
Even more that biological relationship,
it is these stories
that make us members of a family:
whether one is born into a family
or is adopted into it,
or marries into it,
we belong to a family
because we are heirs to its stories—
the happy and the sad,
the beautiful and the ugly.

But we are not only part
of our individual family stories.
We are also part of the story of the human family:
a story of joys and hopes,
of griefs and anxieties.
It is a story that is deeply marked by sin,
a story of war and poverty
and sickness and death.
It is a story
that has shaped how we see the world
and how we have responded to what we see,
and what we humans see
and how we respond
is often not very pretty.

But the good news
is that you do not have
to let that story define you;
this shared human history
need not be your destiny.
For in baptism you have become
part of a different story:
the story of the people of Israel
and of Jesus
and of his Church.
This is the story of the becoming present
in our human history
of the eternal love that is God:
Father, Son, and Spirit.
In the baptism of Jesus
we hear the voice of the Father
calling him beloved,
and see the Spirit of love
pouring out upon him
from the opened heavens.
And when we are baptized
in the name of the Father,
and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit,
that story becomes our story.

In our second reading today,
Paul writes to Titus that God
“saved us through the bath of rebirth
and renewal by the Holy Spirit,
whom he richly poured out on us
through Jesus Christ our savior,
so that we might be justified by his grace
and become heirs in hope of eternal life.”
We become heirs in hope of eternal life
because as members of God’s family
through the grace of baptism
we are inheritors of the story
of Israel, Jesus, and the Church,
the story of hope that is now our story,
a story that can shape how we see the world
and how we responded to what we see.

An early Christian author,
writing about Jesus’ baptism, said,
“At once ‘the heavens were opened to him.’
The world we see was reconciled
with the world that lies beyond our vision;
the angels were filled with joy;
earthly disorders were remedied;
mysteries were revealed;
enemies were made friends”
(attr. Hippolytus of Rome).
And so too at the baptism
of each and every Christian:
the heavens are opened
and our vision is no longer limited
to the often brutal facts of human history
that lie before our eyes;
heavenly powers rejoice as we are freed
from the grip of sin and self-seeking;
the mystery of divine love is made manifest
as hatred is healed and division overcome.
We leave behind in the waters of baptism
the old story of sin and death
and rise into the new story of Christ,
a story of Spirit and of fire,
a story of faith and of hope,
a story of the triumph of love over death.

As you renew your baptismal promises this morning,
as you live the Ordinary Time of your life in Christ,
own that story,
and let that story own you.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Holy Family


Readings: 1 Samuel 1:20-22, 24-28; 1 John 3:1-2, 21-24; Luke 2:41-52

When my children were little
we gave them each a copy of a book called The Picture Bible.
This was more than simply an illustrated Bible;
it was what today they call a “graphic novel”—
a thick volume containing most of the Biblical stories
in classic comic book form.
It was the perfect vehicle
for conveying the stories of Scripture to children,
and to this day there are parts of the Bible
(particularly the battles in the Old Testament)
that my children know better than I do.

But in some ways the Bible does not really make
a very good children’s book.
Take the compact little story of the birth of Samuel
that is our first reading today.
Hannah prays to God for a child and,
in gratitude for the birth of her son, promises
“Once the child is weaned,
I will take him to appear before the Lord
and to remain there forever;
I will offer him as a perpetual nazirite.”
Hannah makes for her son a vow that,
according to the book of Numbers,
you really should only make for yourself,
a voluntary consecration to God
that involves never cutting your hair
or drinking wine,
things that mark you out
as “set apart” from ordinary life.
Moreover, as part of her vow
she takes Samuel to the Temple
and leaves him there
to be raised by the priest Eli.
Why, we might ask,
after all she has been through to have a child
would Hannah commit him
to the difficult life of a nazirite
and then abandon him into someone else’s hands?

Moreover, whatever puzzlement this story
might cause in us adults,
imagine the effects
that it might have on a child:
your parents make promises for you behind your back
and then abandon you
with some old man who lives in a temple.
It is almost as if the story
is designed to hit the sweet spot
between children’s frustration
at their lack of autonomy
and their fear of parental abandonment.
It is more like the terrifying tales of the Brothers Grimm
than what one would hope to find in the Bible,
though given stories like Abraham’s near-killing of Isaac
and Jeptha’s foolish vow that
leads him to sacrifice his daughter,
it is actually pretty mild
(In The Picture Bible,
you may be reassured to know,
Hannah’s vow is depicted more as a simple desire
that her son be a good person
and Samuel’s leaving at the Temple
is more like him going off to boarding school,
a kind of Hogwarts for prophets).

But if it is not really a story for children,
perhaps it is a story for parents,
for the story of Hannah and Samuel captures something
that is deeply true
about the relationship of parents and children.

All parents have hopes and dreams for their children,
ideas of what sort of person we want them to be,
what values we want them to embody.
For Christians
who bring their children
to the waters of Baptism,
we promise “to bring them up
to keep God’s commandment
as Christ taught us,
by loving God and our neighbor”;
we renounce Satan
and profess our faith
in Father, Son, and Holy Sprit
and state our desire
to have our children baptized
into the faith we have professed.
We do this not because we want
to violate their autonomy
or restrict their freedom,
but because we believe
that the Gospel of Jesus Christ
will give them the freedom they need
to be truly happy.
Like Hannah, we dedicate our children
to a life of love of God and neighbor,
a life that might be difficult
in a world that often rejects God’s love,
but one that promises them a joy
that ultimately surpasses
any pain they might suffer.

We parents must also realize, however,
that our children do not remain
forever in our households.
From the outset and gradually over the course of years,
they are and become, as we say, their own people.
Or, for us Christians, we might better say
that Baptism is not simply about
our hopes and dreams,
but about placing them in God’s hands,
so that they can receive
what God desires for them.
As they, like Jesus in today’s Gospel,
“advance in wisdom and age and favor
before God and human beings,”
they might do things and make choices
that cause us,
like Mary and Joseph in today’s Gospel,
great anxiety.
We desire happiness for our children,
and we seek to teach them the ways
that we believe will lead them to that happiness.
But all along they are also teaching us,
teaching us that God’s ways are many and varied,
teaching us that the one thing we can know
is that the path along which
they will make their journey to God
will surely not be our own path.
Even when we are convinced
that they are mistaken in their choices,
once we have said our piece and done our best,
we can in the end only entrust them to God’s care,
in the faith that the God
to whom we gave them in Baptism
will never abandon them,
never let them fall from his loving grasp.

Like Hannah,
we ultimately must leave our children
in God’s hands,
trusting that they have in Baptism
become children of a God
who loves them even more than we do,
and will lead them to eternal happiness.
Like Hannah,
we hope for our children
a destiny so great
that no effort of ours,
but only the merciful love of God,
can bring it to completion.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

2nd Sunday of Advent


Readings: Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:4-6, 8-11; Luke 3:1-6

They killed without mercy in San Bernardino.
They killed without mercy
fourteen coworkers and acquaintances,
alongside whom they had previously
lived their lives in peace.
They killed without mercy,
seemingly in the name of God,
the God whom the Qur’an invokes
at the outset of every chapter
as “the Compassionate, the Merciful.”

He, too, killed without mercy in Colorado Springs.
He killed without mercy or discrimination
three people who happened to fall
within the sights of his weapon.
He killed without mercy,
seemingly in the name of God,
the God whom he was convinced
would mercifully cover his sins,
no matter what he did.

Some of us reacted
by taking to Facebook and Twitter,
posting and tweeting
our “thoughts and prayers” for the victims;
others of us rebuked these sentiments,
saying that thoughts and prayers are not enough,
that concrete action must be taken
to end such violence.
Many of us simply felt
immense perplexity and sadness.
We huddled,
wrapped in our robe of mourning and misery:
wanting to pray,
but not knowing what to say;
wanting to act,
but not knowing what to do;
wanting maybe simply
to hide and hope it all would go away.

I am not without sympathy
for The New York Daily News,
which responded to the politicians
who sent out their “thoughts and prayers”
with a headline that read
“God isn’t fixing this.”
I’m sympathetic because I too grow tired
of politicians and pundits
who turn prayer into a placeholder
for prudent action infinitely delayed.
I too sense with weary irony
the ambiguities of praying to God
for those who have been killed in the name of God,
by those who probably also prayed to God
before embarking on their merciless missions.

But even my weariness and my cynicism
cannot keep me from calling out,
“Lord, have mercy.”
Aware of the ambiguity and abuse
that sometimes accompanies
talk of thoughts and prayers
I still cannot suppress the primal cry
that wells up
from the depth of my heart:
“Lord Jesus, have mercy on us.”
We should never be ashamed to pray
in response to the horrors of the world,
to beg that God would have mercy on this human race,
a people that has,
as St. Catherine of Siena put it,
“declared war on [God’s] mercy
and become [God’s] enemies” (Dialogue ch. 13).

Yes, we must act to try to curb
the merciless violence
that afflicts our nation and our world,
but we must also recognize
that this violence has roots
deep within our human nature,
a nature that has been devastated by sin.
There are things we can and should fix,
but there are also things wrong with us
that only God can fix.
The large-scale acts of war against God’s mercy
that we witness in California or Colorado
grow from seeds of destruction
that we all have in our hearts:
seeds of resentment and pride,
seeds of spite and selfishness,
seeds of indifference and malice.
I, too, am at war with God’s mercy;
I, too, am a merciless combatant
in sin’s war against goodness.
Perhaps we should not expect God
to fix those situations
that call for the exercise of human wisdom
and political prudence,
but surely I must beg God to fix my warring heart.
Confronted with the darkness around and within me,
I am not ashamed to call out:
Come, God of mercy,
come and bring us back
from the darkness of our exile,
come and take from us
the robe of mourning and misery.

And so we gather together on this day
as God’s people ,
seeking God’s mercy.
And we hear in our Gospel
the voice of John the Baptist,
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths….
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
We hear the voice of the prophet Baruch,
“take off your robe of mourning and misery;
put on the splendor of glory from God forever....
for God is leading Israel in joy
by the light of his glory,
with his mercy and justice for company.”
In this season of Advent,
we light our candles of hope,
visible signs of our prayer that God’s mercy
would bring peace to our hearts and to our world.
We light our candles of hope
because we believe that God has come to us,
that in the life, death, and rising of Jesus
God has, as St. Catherine of Siena wrote,
“[given] this warring human race a way to reconciliation,
bringing great peace out of our war” (Dialogue ch. 13).
Yes, we must act to restrain
the violence that grows
from our war against God’s mercy.
But we must also pray for that mercy,
because in the end
it is only God’s mercy
that will disarm our hearts.
In the face of merciless killings
done in the name of a merciful God,
we light our candles of hope
as a sign of our prayer
that God the Compassionate,
the Merciful,
will one day reign victorious
and that we will find ourselves,
joyfully defeated,
prisoners of war
who have surrendered to mercy.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Christ the King


Readings: Daniel 7:13-14; Revelation 1:5-8; John 18:33b-37

Do you think that Pilate, the Roman governor,
breathed a sigh of relief
when Jesus said,
“My kingdom does not belong to this world”?
Did he perhaps think that Jesus
was taking himself out of the game
and saying that his kingdom had
no real-world relevance?
Was this why he would shortly go out
and tell Jesus’ accusers, “I find no guilt in him,”
because he now thought that Jesus was no threat,
that Jesus was the king, at best,
of some fantasy kingdom in the sky?

But of course Pilate misunderstood Jesus’s words.
As St. Augustine pointed out,
when Jesus said that his kingdom did not belong to this world,
“he did not say: ‘My kingdom is not in this world,’
but ‘is not of this world’” (Homilies on the Gospel of John 115.2).
Jesus’ kingdom is very much in this world,
because it is present in his life and words and deeds.

So what then does he mean when he says
that his kingdom does not belong to this world,
that although it is in this world
it is not of this world?
He is saying that that his kingdom does not grow from
the forces and motivations
that produce kingdoms and nations in our world.
It is a sad fact
that our nations and political allegiances are based
on a fundamental division of the world
into “us” and “them,”
and a desire to make sure that
by banding together
we can protect ourselves from the threat of “them.”
The kingdoms and nations that are of the world
are mechanism of control
marked by what St. Augustine called
the libido dominandi,
the lust for domination,
a desire that grows from the fear
that the lives we have made for ourselves—
our families and friends,
our possessions and pursuits,
our safety and security—
hang by a thread of fortune
and can be swept away in an instant.
This fear turns everyone who is not us
into a threat to be managed or eliminated.
We still hope that somehow,
if we can just accumulate enough economic clout,
if we can just strengthen our boarders with a higher wall,
if we can just kill enough of our enemies
fortune might be controlled,
fate might be fooled,
and we might finally have peace of mind.

So much of our political discourse is driven
by this fear and desire for control.
But Jesus says that his kingdom is not like this;
his kingdom, though it is present in this world,
does not spring from a lust to dominate,
his kingdom is not a regime of risk management
in which we trade liberty for security
and compassion for control.
Christ’s kingdom is not of this world
because it operates outside of the tyranny of fear.
It is a kingdom that spreads forth from Christ’s empty tomb
and its promise that no enemy,
not even death,
can take from us
the one possession that ultimately matters:
the love of God that comes to us through Jesus.
For he is the one,
as our reading from the Book of Revelation says,
who is “the firstborn of the dead
and ruler of the kings of the earth…
who loves us and has freed us from our sins
by his blood,
who has made us into a kingdom,
priests for his God and Father.”
In his kingdom we find true freedom,
true liberty,
because he has freed us from sin
and the fear of death;
and in doing this he has made us free
to love God and neighbor,
He has made us free to see as our neighbor
not simply those who look and live like us,
or those whom we can control and dominate,
or those whose threat we can neutralize,
but each and every person God has made,
particularly those who are most vulnerable
and in need of our love:
the poor, the defenseless, the stranger.

It is not that Christ’s kingdom
has no enemies or faces no threats.
How could we think that
when we hear in our Gospel today
of Jesus facing the man who would order his death?
But it is a kingdom that does not let itself be ruled
by fear of enemies
and calculation of risk,
but continues in the face of all this
to witness to the truth.
Christ our king is risen
and we have been set free
to live lives of generosity and mercy,
lives that befit the citizens of his kingdom:
“a kingdom of life and truth,
a kingdom of holiness and grace,
a kingdom of justice, love, and peace”
(Preface for Christ the King).

Of course, because we are still journeying
toward the fullness of Christ’s kingdom,
we continue to live in this world
with its kingdoms, nations, and tribes.
We struggle to discern God’s will,
and might disagree among ourselves
regarding how best to live out concretely our call,
as citizen’s of Christ’s kingdom,
to live lives of generosity and mercy.
But the one thing we cannot do
is to let the Pontius Pilates of this world
breathe a sigh of relief
because we live our lives
as if Christ’s kingdom were irrelevant in this world,
as if it were merely an ideal
for some other world,
some other life.
Because if we do not live
as if the defeat of sin and death
in the resurrection of Jesus
makes a difference here and now
then we may need to ask ourselves
if it is really the resurrection of Jesus
that we believe in.
If we persist in living lives ruled by fear
and the desire for control
then perhaps we have misunderstood the one who is
“the Alpha and the Omega…
the one who is and who was
and who is to come,
the almighty.”
To celebrate Christ as king
is to say to the kingdoms of this world,
the kingdoms driven by fear and exclusion,
that they do not have the final word,
because Christ’s kingdom
is present now in our midst
beckoning us to enter.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Solemnity of All Saints


Readings: Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12a

In the late 19th century
the French Catholic writer Léon Bloy
concluded his novel The Woman Who Was Poor
with the line,
“There is only one sadness…
not to be saints.”

But, we might ask,
why should not being saints make us sad
and why would he say
that this is the only sadness?
After all,
isn’t there plenty of other sadness in life—
disappointments in our careers
and creative endeavors,
our love lives
and our friendships:
promotions and recognitions passed over,
failures and broken promises.
Moreover, we do not tend to think of saints
as people who had lots of fun.
Indeed, we tend to think of them
as having become saints
because they were willing to give up
fun things that make people happy,
like money or sex or careers
or, in the case of martyrs, even their lives.
Being a saint sounds to many of us
like a pretty dreary affair—
lots of church and Bible-reading and visiting the sick—
and Jesus in today’s Gospel doesn’t help matters much
when he says that those who are blessed
(which is another way of saying those who are saints)
are the poor in spirit,
the mourning,
those hungering and thirsting for justice,
those who are persecuted for justice’s sake.
This does not sound
like a particularly happy crowd.
We might even ask,
with all due respect to Monsieur Bloy:
given all the potential occasions
for sadness in life,
why increase our sadness
by the pursuit of joyless sainthood?

I probably do not need to tell you
that I think such a view
profoundly misunderstands
both happiness and sainthood.

So, what is happiness?
Our deepest experiences of joy
are when we are doing something and say
“This, this, is what I am meant to be doing.”
We experience joy when we are engaged in some activity
that is so in tune with who we are
that it flows forth from us
with a sense of rightness,
a sense of naturalness,
a sense that this is what we were made to do,
this is who we were meant to be.
It might be joy that we feel in a career,
in which our own particular set of skills and gifts
perfectly match the meaningful task we have to do.
It might be the joy we feel in athletic
or creative pursuits,
when hours spent on the practice field
or in the studio
or at the writer’s desk
yield that moment of victory,
of achievement,
of beauty.
It might be joy that we feel
in friendship or romance,
when the love that we offer
is returned in kind.

But nobody’s life is only their career
or their art
or even their loves.
Our life as human beings is in part distinctive
because we are many things at the same time:
we are doctors or business people or teachers,
while we are also artists and athletes ,
as well as parents and spouses and friends and siblings.
Because we are many things at once,
we find happiness in many areas of our lives.
But we also find sadness,
because the activities that fulfill us
in one area of our lives
might be in conflict with finding joy
in another area of our lives,
as when pursuit of a career
negatively affects our personal relationships,
or we give up our artistic dreams
in order to help provide for our families.
It seems that none of these things
makes us happy in all that we are;
each happiness is a partial happiness.

And even more, we human beings are aware
that each and every partial joy we experience in life
is fleeting,
temporary,
and so fragile
that a small turn of fortune
could take it from us.
An economic downturn
makes me lose that perfect job;
my strength diminishes,
my hands shake,
my mind grows dim,
and I can no longer engage
in my beloved athletic or artistic pursuit;
death or betrayal takes from me
that precious friend or lover.
Part of what it means to be human
is to recognize all this,
and even in moments of intense happiness
to be haunted by the question,
is there something more?
Is there a happiness
that can embrace all that I am?
Is there a happiness
that neither fortune
nor time
nor even death
can sweep away?

There is only one sadness—not to be saints.
Because it is precisely in loving the creator of all,
the one who knows us better than we know ourselves,
that the saints are fulfilled in such a way
that joy can pervade every aspect of their life.
There is only one sadness—not to be saints.
Because the saints are those who have found a joy
that no passage of time or turn of fortune,
no human failure or inadequacy,
and not even death,
can take from them.

Perhaps the life of the saints
strikes us as a sad one
because our notion of “a saint”
is a narrow and moralistic one.
But the saints are not those
who have followed all the rules;
they are not the ones
who have sacrificed all pleasure;
they are not the ones
who have cut out of their lives
everything and everyone except God.
No, they are the ones
who have abandoned themselves
to the wild adventure of being a lover of Jesus,
and have let the joy of that adventure
flow from them
to pervade their every action,
have let that love
infuse all of their relationships.
They are the ones who have found an eternal happiness
that can console us now
in the face of misfortune and disappointment,
and will one day
wipe away every tear in God’s kingdom.

To miss that love,
to miss that joy,
to miss that adventure:
truly, this is the only sadness
that God’s joy cannot overcome.