Sunday, November 16, 2014

Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-6; Matthew 25: 14-30

In today’s Gospel the master says to the servant
who buried his single talent in the ground,
“You wicked, lazy servant!”
But was laziness really the servant’s problem?
After all, digging the hole to bury the money in
must have required some effort—
perhaps even more effort than putting it in the bank,
which was the master’s suggestion.
I think the servant was speaking truthfully
when he said that it was out of fear
that he buried the talent in the ground.
After all, his master was a demanding person
and while a talent was a lot of money
(about a thousand dollars),
he had still been given less
than the other two servants,
so he had less margin of error
and had to be careful.
According to rabbinic law
if someone entrusted you with something and you buried it
then you could no longer be held liable for its loss,
since you had taken the safest course of action
(far safer than entrusting it
to the speculation of bankers).
The servant’s problem was not laziness, but fear:
a fear of a master who would hold him
to an exact accounting
and a fear of loosing what he had
in the pursuit of something greater.

This parable is not, obviously, about how we need
to be industrious entrepreneurs with our money,
and about how laziness is a great evil.
Nor is it simply, I think, about how we need
to be industrious entrepreneurs
with the spiritual gifts that God has given us
and about how spiritual laziness is a great sin.
I think it addresses a deeper question of how we see God:
whether we see God as one who’s chief interest
is exacting from us what is owed,
or as one who wants to say to us,
“Come, share your master’s joy.”
The problem is not spiritual laziness.
As shocking as it may seem
in the context of contemporary American culture,
Jesus is not calling us to work harder,
to invest more wisely,
to put in more hours,
or to “lean in”
so that we can “have it all”
(spiritually speaking, of course).
Rather, Jesus is calling us to dig up the gift
we have buried in our fear—
the gift of the good news of Jesus himself—
and unleash it on the world.

To do this, we must let our fear be replaced by love.
If we act out of a conviction that God’s desire
is not to exact his due
but to have us share our master’s joy
then we become radically free
from the fear of loosing what we have
and radically free
for taking risks for the sake of God’s kingdom.
Indeed, according to the logic of God’s kingdom,
it is only if we risk all we have
that we can keep anything.
Perhaps more than any other,
love is a treasure that can be lost through fear.
We can keep it only if we risk its loss
by opening our heart to another
and setting that other’s good above our own,
never knowing ahead of time whether our love will be returned
or will be met with indifference and even hostility,
just as the love of Jesus was met with the scourging pillar,
the crown of thorns, and the cross.
The path of love might seem imprudent
but it is only if we take the risk of Christ
that we can share in the resurrection of Christ
and hear the invitation,
“Come, share your master’s joy.”

We should be willing to risk everything
for Christ’s kingdom of love.
But what does this mean in the concrete?
Well, it might mean in part something as simple
as installing showers for the homeless
in the public restrooms in St. Peter’s Square,
as the Vatican announced it would do this week.

And what about us, here at Corpus Christi?
We might feel as if we, being such a small parish,
are a bit like that servant
who was given but a single talent.
We have limited resources,
so perhaps it would be wisest
to focus on preserving what we have
and not to risk new ventures.
But this is the path of fear,
not the path of love;
this is not the path of resurrection,
which is the path of risk.
Not to put too fine a point on it,
but if Jesus is right, and he usually is,
we will lose everything if we seek only to maintain,
if we fearfully bury out talent in the earth
rather than thinking of new ways
of living our Christian life together
and proclaiming the Gospel
in our neighborhood and city.
With our new small Christian communities
and outreach to immigrant children
we are beginning to do this,
but we must always be looking for new risks to take.

If God is truly the one revealed
in the cross and resurrection of Jesus,
what risks can we undertake
for the sake of God’s kingdom?
We must always be asking ourselves what new thing
the God who desires nothing more
than that we share his joy
is calling us to do,
is calling us to be.
I believe that we are being called to be,
by God’s grace, true to our name:
Corpus Christi, the body of Christ;
by God’s grace we can be the body
that opened itself in love on the cross
and was raised by God to new life
to bring life and faith and healing to the world.
As the parent of teenagers,
I never thought I'd utter these words,
but get out there and engage in risky behavior.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

An All Saints / Wedding Homily

Readings: 1 Corinthians 12:31–13:8a; Matthew 5:1-12a

I’m not sure S______ and J______ were aware of it at the time
but the day that they chose for their wedding
is one of the great feast days of the Catholic Church: All Saint’s Day.
The saints are those who have, as St. Paul put it,
fought the good fight,
finished the race,
kept the faith;
they are those holy ones who have received the crown of glory
and are even now enjoying life in God’s eternal kingdom.
Some of these saints are known to us and named as individuals,
and many of them have special days each year
on which we remember them.
But we believe that there are many saints
whom we do not know,
whom we cannot name,
and so we have this feast day to remember
all of those holy people
who lived out their lives in God’s service
quietly and out of the world’s sight.

Our two readings give us a picture of what it means to be a saint.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells us
the qualities possessed by those who are blessed
and what rewards await them:
they are “poor in spirit,”
meaning that they humbly know their need for God,
they are meek, and they hunger and thirst for righteousness,
they are merciful,
pure of heart,
and peacemakers.
They are the ones to whom God will grant his kingdom:
they will be comforted,
shown mercy,
and called children of God.
St. Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians,
draws all of the virtues of the saints together
into the one virtue of love:
a love that is patient and kind,
that does not seek its own interests,
a love that bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things,
endures all things,
a love that can fight the good fight,
finish the race,
keep the faith.

But how does one become a saint?
Is it simply a matter
of trying really, really hard to be a good person?
While that is, of course, important,
becoming a saint is really something much more mysterious.
It is mysterious because it is something
that God’s grace does to us,
something that is brought about
by the mystery God’s love at work within us.

S______ and J______, today you enter in a new way
into the mystery of God’s love.
In the Catholic tradition we believe marriage to be a sacrament,
meaning it is both a sign and a cause of God’s grace.
In other words, your married life together
will both make God’s love present to you in a special way
and also show that love to those whom you meet.
But even more,
if you open yourselves up to the grace
that God gives you in your married life together,
you can become saints.
Your marriage can make you
into one of those people we celebrate today,
those who in their everyday lives fight the good fight
in the cause of love and mercy.
My prayer for you on your wedding day
is that the years ahead
be filled with joy that comes from God’s grace,
the grace that can transform you together
into the holy ones of God.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43

In both our first reading from Isaiah
and in our Gospel from Matthew,
we hear about vineyards.
And in both Isaiah and Matthew the vineyard is representative
of the people of God:
those whom God has called into his covenant of love.

But there is an interesting difference:
while Jesus’ parable is addressed to and focuses on
those whom the owner has put in charge of the vineyard—
“the chief priests and the elders of the people”—
Isaiah’s oracle makes no mention of leaders or caretakers,
but focuses on the vineyard itself.
In Matthew, the leaders of God’s people Israel
are held responsible for their failure
to give God his due and to respect his emissaries.
It is a powerful indictment of religious leaders
who use their positions for their own benefit
and forget that they are here to serve God and God’s people.
In Isaiah, however, it is the vineyard itself that is at fault;
it is the vineyard, not those who are put in charge of it,
that is accused of producing wild grapes
that are bitter and unfit for consumption
rather than the good fruit
that is a source of joy and nourishment.
It is the vineyard itself
that must bear God’s rebuke,
not those who tend it.

So what does this mean for us, who are God’s people,
the vineyard that God has planted and protected,
in which God has erected the winepress of the sacraments
and the strong tower of God’s Word, revealed in Christ?
On the one hand, it means that those into whose care
God has entrusted the Church
must never forget
that they are but tenants, caretakers;
Church leaders must carefully tend
what God has planted,
always remembering that it is God’s Church, not theirs,
and all the spiritual fruit that the Church produces
must be returned to God to do with as he will.
According to Jesus’ parable, when the tenants forget
whose vineyard it is that they are tending
the result is violence directed at God’s messengers,
and, ultimately, God’s Son.
I suspect that the result of such forgetting today
is less obvious.
Some Church leaders may treat God’s vineyard
as something to exploit for their own personal gain.
But a more common result of forgetting whose vineyard it is
is an overdeveloped sense that what grows in the vineyard
is something that they must control.  
Of course, part of the good stewardship
that leaders should exercise
is tending the life of the Church
in ways that will make her
fruitful and pleasing to God.
But this is something different from trying
to micromanage the spiritual growth of the vineyard
so that it produces the fruits that they desire,
forgetting that it is God’s vineyard
and that it is God to whom
the harvest of its fruits is owed
and who will judge
which are pleasing and which are not.

But in reflecting on the meaning
of Jesus’ parable of the vineyard,
we ought not forget the vineyard of Isaiah.
Remember, in Isaiah no fault was found
with those tending the vineyard;
rather the vineyard itself was faulted
for producing bitter, wild grapes.
At various times and places
the Church may have good or bad leadership,
and we may not even agree
on what constitutes good or bad leadership—
I might think that Pope Benedict was a careful, thoughtful leader
and that Pope Francis is dangerously off-the-cuff,
while you might think Pope Benedict was a stodgy old coot
and Pope Francis a refreshing breath of fresh air
(I should note that both are excellent Popes
compared to some of the Popes of, say, the 10th century).

At the end of the day, however,
while it is better to have good leaders than bad,
you who are the people of the Church
have to stand on your own two feet
and take responsibility for your life as Church.
Dissatisfaction with the leadership of the Church
is no excuse for disengaging or producing bitter fruit.
If we want to be a vineyard that produces good fruit
then we must make it happen—
by which I mean that we must let God make it happen in us;
we must let the Holy Spirit fill us with, as St. Paul said,
“whatever is true, whatever is honorable,
whatever is just, whatever is pure,
whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious.”
At the end of the day,
the kind of fruit that the Church produces
is as much the responsibility of you who are the vines
as it is of any bishop, priest, or deacon.

God has planted us in this vineyard
so that we might bear good fruit
and God has given us what we need to do so:
the consolation of the Spirit present in our community
and manifest in our commitment to each other,
God’s word and sacraments to strengthen us,
and the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
to guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
God has provided all of this to us in abundance.
Now let’s bear some fruit.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20

Imagine this scenario:
I do something—let’s say gossiping—
that causes harm to Sam,
who is a fellow parishioner at Corpus Christi,
and so one night, over a few beers,
he confronts me with what I have done
and asks me to change my ways.
I refuse:
maybe I don’t believe that talking about him
really is gossip,
or I think that my gossiping
has not really caused him any harm.
So, he gets a couple of fellow parishioners
to come with him to talk with me again.
After hearing both our sides of the story, they agree
that I really am in the wrong
and must change my ways and apologize.
Still I refuse,
so Sam presents his complaint to all of you,
during the announcements at Mass,
and everyone, after some prayer and reflection,
agrees that I have done wrong
and need to change my ways.
I, however, remain recalcitrant,
so Fr. Marty tells me
that I can no longer participate
in our community’s celebration of the Eucharist
because I have shown such little regard
for the peace and unity
that is at the heart of that Eucharist.

It seems hard to imagine this scenario actually happening.
In part, it seems hard to imagine
that Sam would bother confronting me in the first place,
rather than simply trying to avoid or ignore me.
We are a small parish,
but with some effort Sam could limit our contact,
or maybe simply find another parish to go to.
Either would be easier than that confronting me.
It also seems hard to imagine that,
if his initial efforts failed,
Sam would then bring in other parishioners
to help settle the dispute.
What business is it of theirs?
No need to air such dirty laundry
in front of others;
it might prove to be embarrassing.
Even if Sam asked, they would likely say,
“What does this dispute between the two of you
have to do with us?
Besides, who are we to judge?”
Finally, even if Sam were embarrassment-proof enough
to stand up at Mass and air his complaint against me,
it seems hard to imagine that the rest of you
would appreciate Sam’s interruption
of your weekly prayer time.
It is also hard to imagine
that people would be willing to tell me
that I could not participate in the Eucharist
since, after all,
religion is such a personal and private thing.
As difficult as it might be to imagine, however,
this is more or less
what is described in our Gospel reading.

Behind Jesus’s teaching in our Gospel
is a picture of human beings and of the Church
that runs somewhat counter to many of the assumptions
of 21st-century American culture.
Whereas we Americans tend to love our freedom—
the idea that we belong to ourselves and no one else—
Jesus seems to be saying that we belong
not first and foremost to ourselves,
but to one another.
St. Paul says in the letter to the Romans,
“Owe nothing to anyone,
except to love one another.”
Yes, I am free;
except that I owe you, all of you, one thing: love.
The one thing I am not free to do
is to withhold my love,
because we are bound together in Christ.
My conflict with Sam
is not simply between him and me
but affects the entire Body of Christ:
if Sam avoids me by declining to participate
in a ministry I am in charge of,
then the Body of Christ
suffers the loss of his ministry;
if he switches parishes rather than confront me,
then our community loses the gifts
that the Spirit has given to Sam.
Sam owes it to me and to all of you
not to leave our conflict unaddressed.
Our freedom is not a freedom from obligation,
but a freedom for love,
even if that love will involve conflict.

Furthermore,
the idea that we would bring our conflicts
to the Church to be settled
presumes a different picture of the Church
than most 21st-century Americans have.
The Church that our Gospel envisions
is not simply a place
where I come for personal renewal and strength,
or a large organization
providing spiritual goods and services.
Rather, it is the Body of Christ,
the living sign of God’s reconciling love.
For what we hear proposed in today’s Gospel
to be imaginable
we cannot be a community of strangers or acquaintances,
but must truly know and love one another
as brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Church would have to be
the kind of community that could engender trust,
trust that even so drastic an action
as excluding me from the Eucharist
was done out of love for me
and for the sake of my ultimate salvation,
something intended to bring me to my senses
and heal the communal body.

Let’s be honest: this is not the Church we have.
This is not what the Universal Church is
and this is not what we as a parish are.
The larger structures of the Church
often do not engender our trust,
precisely because they seem more caught up
in bureaucratic self-preservation
than in seeking the lost,
healing the broken,
and reconciling the sinful.
Even here at Corpus Christi,
we often do not seize the opportunity
to come to know each other better,
so that we could trust each other more.
We too often treat our community as, at best,
an hour-long obligation
that we try to fit
into an overly-busy schedule.

My point is not to scold
or to make you feel guilty;
I am as guilty of these things as anyone,
and what we hear in our Gospel
has been an enduring challenge
to the Church and her people
at all times and in all places.
The challenge remains,
but God’s grace is strong.
We are an imperfect Church,
an imperfect parish,
imperfect people,
but we are also filled with God’s Holy Spirit,
and Christ has promised,
“where two or three
are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them.”
We should be filled with hope,
because Christ is present here,
in word
and in sacrament
and in each other,
healing and transforming us
in great and small ways,
calling us to be a community
of ever greater trust and reconciliation,
making us an ever truer sign
of God’s love for the world.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Isaiah 56:1, 6-7; Romans 11:13-15, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

In today’s Gospel we hear the surprising exchange
between Jesus and the Canaanite woman
who asks him to heal her daughter.
What surprises us is Jesus’ seeming reluctance to help the woman
because she is not among the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.”
At first he ignores her request,
and then he compares her to a dog
who is not worthy to eat the bread of the children of Israel.
The woman does not blink at this insult,
but cleverly turns the tables,
saying that even dogs
get to eat the scraps that fall to the floor.
Jesus then changes his tune—
saying, “O woman, great is your faith!”—
and heals her daughter.

Early Christian and Medieval interpreters of this story
generally thought that Jesus
intended to help the woman all along,
but initially resisted to her request
so that she could show to his disciples
the depth of the faith she possessed.
Writing in the fourth century, St. John Chrysostom said,
“Jesus did not want the great virtue in this woman to be hidden.
He did not speak these words to insult her, but to call her forth,
and to reveal the treasure contained in her”
(Chrysostom, Homilies on Matthew 52).
It may come as no surprise to some of you
that I think that the early Christian and Medieval interpreters
are on to something in at least this regard:
Matthew does not offer this story as a learning moment for Jesus
but as a learning moment for his disciples and for us.

The disciples learn through this exchange
that even though Jesus has indeed been sent
“to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,”
God’s gift and call to faith are not restricted
to any one people, any one group.
Even those whom they considered outsiders
could possess great faith—
faith, indeed, greater than their own.
Isaiah prophesied that the foreigners
who love and serve the LORD
would be brought by God to the holy mount Zion,
to offer prayer and sacrifice in God’s Temple,
which “will be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”
Jesus initially stresses the woman’s outsider status
only to make more striking the praise he lavishes on her faith:
as if to say that the time of universal reconciliation
foretold by Isaiah
was now arriving in the healing power
available to all through Jesus.

Jesus’ exchange with the woman also teaches us,
who are his disciples today,
that we are to be a community
in which racial, ethnic,
and other human divisions
are overcome and reconciled.
The Church is, as the Second Vatican Council taught,
to be a sacrament—a sign and cause—
of the unity of the human race;
it should be a house of prayer for all peoples.
The nations should be able to look at us and see
what a world reconciled and restored to God looks like.

We do not, unfortunately, need any help to see
what an unreconciled, unrestored world looks like.
We see the attacks on religious minorities in Iraq
by the forces of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or ISIS.
We see the other places that have been in the news this week,
in which religious, ethnic, and racial differences
have led to violence:
between Israeli and Palestinian in Gaza,
between black and white in Ferguson Missouri.
And then there are the places
that may have slipped from our sight in recent days:
Afghanistan, Egypt, Central America, Syria, Nigeria, Sudan, Ukraine.
We have seen what occurs when one group of people looks at another
and says, “you are dogs, unworthy of God’s love and healing”
and are blind to the possibility of great faith
in those who are other,
those who are different.
In the midst of this violence, we,
as individuals and as a community,
have been entrusted by Christ
with the ministry of reconciliation.

But what can we do
in the midst of such conflict and division?
How do we begin to exercise our ministry of reconciliation—
we who, ourselves, so often think
in terms of “us” and “them,”
we who, ourselves, often need
so desperately to be reconciled?
Perhaps at least a first step
would be to invite into our hearts through prayer
all those situations of conflict, hatred, and division;
asking God’s peace to descend
not only on those we see as innocent victims
but also on those we see as the sources of conflict and hatred.

Pope Francis has asked that we pray today
for Christians in Iraq
who have been driven from their homes
and in some cases killed.
As many of you have undoubtedly seen in news reports,
the homes of Christians in northern Iraq
have been marked by the ISIS militants
with the Arabic letter nūn,
which stands for Nasara,
which is the term in the Qur’an for Christians,
the followers of Jesus of Nazareth;
and these Christians have been faced
with the choice of converting to Islam
or abandoning their homes and belongings
and fleeing their cities.
Most have chosen to cling to their faith
and abandon everything else.
These people need our prayers,
as do the other persecuted religious minorities in Iraq
who have also been forced to flee their homes,
and face starvation and death.
But for the true seeds of reconciliation
to take root in our hearts,
we must also pray
for the enemies of our fellow Christians in Iraq:
those who seem to have no interest in reconciliation,
those who have committed acts of unspeakable brutality,
those who are most in need of the peace of Christ.
Our hearts must become houses of prayer for all peoples.

But this kind of prayer is hard;
to respond with love in the face of insult and injury
requires faith as great as that of the Canaanite woman.
But it is such faith, such prayer,
that will, by God’s grace, truly mark us as Nasara:
followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time


Readings: Isaiah 55:10-11; Romans 8:18-23; Matthew 13:1-23

The novelist Tom Robbins once noted
that there are two kinds of people:
those who think that there are two kinds of people
and those who know better.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is at a point
where he has been preaching for some time.
Some have listened to him
and others have reacted with hostility;
so we might be tempted to think that
with regard to Jesus and his message
there are two kinds of people:
those who are for him
and those who are against him.
But Jesus knows better,
and in his parable of the sower
he prompts us to think about the different ways
that people might respond to the word of God.

There are some who are like a hard-packed path
in which the scattered seed can find no purchase,
presumably those who do not even give Jesus a hearing
but reject his words out of hand.
Some are like shallow soil,
responding at first with enthusiasm
but lacking the depth
in which the word of God can take root.
Others again are like soil
that is already choked with thorny weeds,
because they are so preoccupied
with the concerns of daily life
that there is no room for the word within them
to flourish and grow and bear fruit.
Finally, there are those who are like good soil,
deep in their commitment
and free from preoccupation with other things,
in whose lives Jesus’ words bear much fruit.

Jesus’s parable, like all his parables,
is intended not so much
as a way of conveying information –
as if it were telling us
that there are four, and only four, types of people –
but rather as a prompt to reflection and action.
It is intended to make me ask myself,
what type of soil am I?
Do I let the Jesus’s word and Spirit
take root in my heart
and, if so, what becomes of that seed?
I suppose if I were to identify myself
with one of the types of soil in the parable,
it would be with the weedy ground
in which the shoots coming from the seed
are choked by the concerns of daily life.

When I look at myself,
I find that I am preoccupied with many things.
It is an interesting word: “preoccupied.”
We tend to use it to mean “distracted”
but it literally means
that our minds are already occupied,
already inhabited, already filled.
Our hearts and minds are already filled
with cares and anxieties
just as the ground in the parable
is already filled with thorny weeds.
Jesus identified what is pre-occupying
the soil of our souls
as “worldly anxiety and the lure of riches.”
But our soul can be preoccupied with many things;
and some of them, in and of themselves,
are worthy of our attention:
My heart is full of my job
and the many things there that need doing;
My heart is full of my children
and how I can support them
as they move into adulthood and independence;
My heart is full of my aging parents
and how they can still count on me,
even though I am far away.
These things pre-occupy my heart
and they are all worthy concerns.
But they can also choke out
the tender shoots of God’s word
before they can bear the fruits of the Spirit:
love, joy, peace,
forbearance, kindness, goodness,
faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The great irony is that
it is precisely these fruits of the Spirit
that I need in order to face my worries
about work, children, parents, or anything else.
Without love, joy, peace and the other fruits of the Spirit,
my justified concerns become the thorns of anxiety
and, as Paul says,
though we have the firstfruits of the Spirit
“we also groan within ourselves”
as we await redemption.

So Jesus’s parable is a call
to reflect on the kind of soil
that his word will find in my heart.
But it is not a call simply to decide
that I am a certain type of soil –
hard-packed or shallow or weedy or good –
and then leave it at that.
The fourth-century theologian John Chrysostom
asked why it was that the sower
was so careless in sowing his seed,
scattering it not only on the good soil
but also on the path, the shallow ground, the weedy plot.
This is hardly good agricultural practice,
since we can predict with some accuracy
what will become of the seed
when it is sown on the path
or on shallow or weedy soil.
But here, Chrysostom says,
we see the difference between soils and souls.
He says when it is a matter of souls,
“There is such a thing as the rock changing,
and becoming rich land;
…the thorns may be destroyed,
and the seed enjoy full security.
For had it been impossible,
this sower would not have sown” (Homily on Matthew 44.5).
When I look within my weed-choked heart
and I see the firstfruits of the Spirit
struggling amidst the thorns,
it all seems impossible and I feel like despairing.
But if I can turn my eyes from myself
and consider who it is that is the sower
who in his wisdom has planted his seed within me
then I pray in hope that the stony path,
the shallow soil,
the weedy plot
can all be transformed by him
to become good soil
bearing abundantly
the fruits of the Spirit.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Ascension


Readings: Acts1:1-11, Ephesians 1:17-23, Matthew 28:16-20

In medieval art, Jesus’s Ascension into heaven
was often depicted as Mary and the Apostles gathered together
looking up at a pair of legs and feet dangling from a cloud.
For people in the Middle Ages,
the universe was thought to be
a series of spheres
centered on the earth
and bounded by an outermost sphere
called the Empyrean heaven, a realm of pure light,
which was the dwelling place of God.
It was to this Empyrean heaven that Jesus had ascended.
Dante gives poetic expression to this
at the end of his Divine Comedy,
when he describes seeing God – Father, Son, and Spirit –
as three differently colored circles that are somehow one.
And the middle circle, Dante writes,
Within itself and in its coloring
Seemed to be painted with our human likeness
So that my eyes were wholly focused on it
(Paradiso, Canto 33).
Our humanity, which God the Son took upon himself
in being born of the Virgin Mary,
has in Christ’s Ascension entered into the life of God.
The union of God and humanity is not a temporary state
but has become an eternal reality
and serves for Dante as the focal point that allows him
to have some glimpse of our sharing
in the perfect peace of God,
the peace that surpasses our understanding.

Certainly for us
who no longer conceive of the universe
as centered upon the earth,
with heaven located somewhere above us,
pictures of feet dangling from clouds,
and perhaps even Dante’s sublime image
of a human figure
at the highest point of the empyrean heaven,
do not capture the mystery of the Ascension.
I suspect, however, that our difficulty
is not in the end
a problem with their picture of the universe
and of how to fit the mystery of Christ’s Ascension
into whatever our current picture of the universe might be.
It is rather the difficulty
of finding words to express so great a hope –
the hope that our poor, mortal humanity
might share in the riches of God’s glory,
might even now be dwelling
within the surpassing greatness of God’s power.
St. Gregory the Great wrote,
“The disturbance of things
may still be driving your hearts to and fro,
but fix the anchor of your hope
now in your eternal home” (Homily 29).
The Ascension of Jesus gives us
an almost unspeakable, unimaginable hope.

In the face of this mysterious hope,
all of us must make our own the words of Dante:,
O how pale now is language and how paltry
For my conception! And for what I saw
My words are not enough to call them meager
(Paradiso, Canto 33).
And yet we continue to seek ways to imagine
and words to express this hope.
The writer Maya Angelou, who died this past week,
concludes a poem entitled “Still I Rise”
with the following lines:
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.
Angelou is writing about
the perseverance and hope
of women and African Americans
in the face of oppression,
a hope that cannot be held down
but from the darkest depths
surges ever upward toward the light.
But Angelou’s poem also gives us words to speak
of a more universal struggle
and a more universal hope.
Indeed, in the voice of the poet,
we can hear an echo of the voice of Christ,
the voice of the one who has ascended
above the night of fear and death
into the wondrously clear daybreak of the resurrection,
the voice of the one
who now fills all things in every way,
and is the dream and the hope
of all of those who are enslaved by sin and suffering,
the voice of the one who has lifted our humanity
into the life of God himself.
It is the voice that speaks to us who,
tossed to and fro in this world,
find in Jesus the anchor
that fixes our hope in eternity.

Though our words and images
may be less than meager,
we still give voice to the hope
born in us through Christ’s Ascension.
In every Mass,
as we enter into the Eucharistic Prayer,
the priest bids us to lift up our heats
and we reply that we lift them up to the Lord.
We proclaim that our hopes are fixed on Jesus
who in the Eucharist lifts us with him
out of the nights of our terrors and fears,
and into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear.
We rise
we rise
we rise.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Easter 3

Readings: Acts 2:14, 22-33; 1 Peter 1:17-21; Luke 24: 13-35

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once noted
that life could only be understood backwards;
but it must be lived forwards.
Of course, this is not something
that we need a philosopher to tell us.
The passage of time gives us a perspective on our lives
that allows us to understand past events
better than we did when we were going through them.
I am pretty sure that my fifty-two-year-old self
understands my twenty-two-year-old self
better than my twenty-two-year-old self did.
My twenty-two-year-old self had no idea
what people and events were truly significant in my life.
I thought that the girl who had just broken up with me
was the most important person in my life,
little realizing that the Jesuit priest who,
in casual conversation,
suggested a year of volunteer service after college
would end up being the occasion
of my moving to Texas
where I met my future wife,
which led to three children,
and a job in Baltimore,
and me standing here today,
in this church,
speaking to all of you.
What seemed at the time
like a casual conversation
with a near-stranger
was a key turning point in my life.
When I look back,
I tell the story of my twenty-two-year-old self
in a way that my twenty-two-year-old self never could,
a way that is not simply different, but truer,
because life can only be understood backwards.

We see this in the story
of the disciples on the way to Emmaus.
It is only after Christ had shown himself to them
in the breaking of the bread
that they could know the true significance
of the stranger who had met them on the road.
He had walked with them,
listening to them recount a story
that they were not yet in a position to understand,
the story of the death of Jesus
and the strange reports of his empty tomb.
Looking back they say,
“Were not our hearts burning within us
while he spoke to us on the way
and opened the Scriptures to us?”
Looking back they say,
“The Lord is truly risen!”
But as they walked with him,
they had no idea.
What they come to identify
as their hearts burning within them
was likely in the moment simply a vague feeling
that they could not yet understand or name.
They only begin to understand this event,
to know the significance of this person,
in looking backwards
from the perspective of their eyes
being opened to the risen Jesus
in the breaking of the bread.

Of course, even when we look backwards,
we are still living forwards.
Lest my fifty-two-year-old self
should begin to get too smug,
thinking how much more I know
than my twenty-two-year-old self,
I must remember that at some point
I will be looking back on this day
and understanding it far better than I do now.
Kierkegaard wrote that,
“life at any given moment
cannot really ever be fully understood;
exactly because there is no single moment
where time stops completely” (Journals 1843).
The self that is trying to understand backwards
is the same self that is living forwards, on the road,
and so we must constantly re-tell the story of our lives.
If my fifty-two-year-old self
better understands my twenty-two-year-old self,
then presumably my eighty-two-year-old self,
should God grant me that many years,
will better understand both of those selves
and doubtless tell the story of my life
differently than I do now.
Who is the stranger walking beside me
on the road this day
who will, looking backward,
prove to be the key to the story of my life?
Living forward, on the road,
I never truly understand myself
because I have not yet reached
the end of the journey;
I am not yet in God’s kingdom,
where time shall be fulfilled.

Yet that is not entirely true.
In the story of Emmaus there comes a moment
when their eyes are opened
and they see the truth
of the story they have been living.
While he is with them at table,
he takes bread,
says the blessing,
breaks it,
and gives it to them.
In that moment, the kingdom of God
makes itself present to them
through a sacramental sign.

And for us too, in our Eucharist,
Jesus gives us the story of our lives,
and the story of our world,
looking, as it were, backward from the Kingdom.
We know him in the breaking of the bread,
but we also come know ourselves –
or at least we catch a glimpse
of what our lives might truly mean.
The bread of himself that Christ breaks and gives to us
is a foretaste of that heavenly supper of the Lamb,
where one day, our long journey ended,
we will feast and tell tales:
we shall tell the story of our lives
as we will then see them,
bathed in the light of resurrection:
a story with unanticipated plot twists
and unexpected heroes.

But even now,
with Christ,
at this table,
we catch a glimpse of that final story,
the story of the stranger
who has walked beside us,
the story of words
that made our hearts burn within us,
the story of the one
who is life itself,
accompanying us through the valley of death.
On this day, at this table,
we catch a glimpse of that day
when, as St. Augustine says,
“we shall rest and see,
see and love,
love and praise” (Civ. Dei 22.30).

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,
Confirmation,
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?