Sunday, December 27, 2009

Holy Family

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

As many of you undoubtedly know,
Christians in the first five or six centuries
produced a number of gospels
in addition to the four that are in the New Testament.
These gospels, which are almost surely not as old as the canonical Gospels
that the Church accepts as Holy Scripture,
seem to have been composed in many cases
to fill in gaps that were perceived in the Scriptural Gospels,
particularly concerning the birth and childhood of Jesus, or his resurrection.

One of these gospels is known as The Infancy Gospel of Thomas
and is composed of materials written between the second and sixth centuries.
It tells stories of Jesus as a young boy – and an unusual young boy he is, too.
It opens with a story of five-year-old Jesus
playing by a brook on the Sabbath day:
he first gathers the water into pools, simply by commanding it,
and then begins to forms figures of birds out of the clay.
The neighbors, of course, complain to Joseph
that Jesus is engaged in work on the Sabbath.
When Joseph goes and reprimands him, Jesus claps his hands
and the birds come to life and fly away,
silencing, at least temporarily, his critics.
This is a charming story
that seems to be trying to depict God incarnate as a child:
the same God who in the book of Genesis commands the waters
and forms Adam from the clay of the earth
and makes him a living being.

Other stories in The Infancy Gospel of Thomas
sound a more ominous note,
such as the one in which Jesus strikes dead
a boy who inadvertently runs into him.
When the boy’s parents go to Joseph to complain,
Jesus strikes them blind.
Joseph boxes Jesus’ ear, but this does not seem to have much effect:
in the stories that follow Jesus seems as likely to curse and kill the neighbors
as he is to bless and heal them.
Again, what we seem to have here
is an attempt to imagine what God incarnate is like as a child,
only in this case we see the power of God
combined with the impulsiveness and petulance
that sometimes characterizes young children.
Jesus comes across in these stories as some sort of evil child-genius
who terrorizes the town of Nazareth.
While we might appreciate the impulse
that motivated those who composed these tales –
the desire to imagine God incarnate as a child –
in the end what is conveyed
is less the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ,
and something more like one of those movies
in which the demon-possessed child kills off the characters on-by-one.
The events in these stories are, as my son Denis would say,
are not so much miracles as they are “weirdicals.”

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas concludes
with a version of the story from Luke’s Gospel
that is our Gospel reading for today,
which is the only story from the New Testament
that tells us anything about Jesus between his infancy and his baptism.
After the sometimes bizarre tales
that precede it in The Infancy Gospel of Thomas,
it is something of a relief to arrive at this familiar story
that doesn’t involve anything particularly extraordinary.

Indeed, compared to what has come before,
one is struck by just how ordinary the boy Jesus depicted by Luke is.
True, he seems to astonish people with the answers he gives
to the questions of the teachers in the Temple,
but no one gets struck dead or blind;
Jesus doesn’t levitate or speak with a booming heavenly voice;
he seems nothing more than a spiritually precocious child.
He is not, as he comes across in the later imaginings
of The Infancy Gospel of Thomas,
a powerful and capricious deity in human disguise,
like an avatar of Zeus or Apollo.
Rather, he is a fully human being,
who listens and asks questions of his teachers,
who slips away from his parents and causes them great anxiety,
who returns home with them and is obedient to them,
who advances in wisdom and age and favor,
in the same way that any of us grows and develops within a human family.

And yet, within this ordinariness
there is something extraordinary,
something miraculous.
The boy Jesus says to his anxious family,
“Why were you looking for me?
Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
Even at this young age, Jesus knows
that when he is in the Temple he is in his Father’s house;
even at this young age Jesus knows
that he is the Son of the God whom he calls “Abba,” Father.
We might try to imagine what this consciousness was like,
whether the twelve-year-old Jesus could have formulated words
such as “begotten, not created” or “one in being with the Father.”
But in the end our imaginations fail,
as they always fail when it comes to knowing God.
Suffice it to say that Jesus knows himself to be God’s Son
in something like the way we might, from our very infancy,
know ourselves to be loved by our parents.
While the newborn infant “knows” very little –
if we are using the term “know” in the sense
that I know next Tuesday is the 29th
or that Caracas is the capital of Venezuela –
there is a sense in which the infant that is held in its mother’s arms
knows her love more deeply and surely
than any other knowledge it will ever have.
The infant knows this love
as the power that has given and sustains its life.
It cannot know itself without knowing this love,
for this love is the soil in which it is rooted.
Just so, Jesus cannot know himself
without knowing the love of his Father,
which is the eternal source of his identity:
we might say that from the outset
he knows himself to be rooted from all eternity
in the soil of divine love.

But there is a difference between this divine love and our human love.
While we human parents try to love our children to the best of our ability,
we are also keenly aware of the failures of our love:
the limits of our patience and generosity,
the shortness of our tempers,
the poverty of our wisdom.
Jesus, however, knows himself to be rooted in a love that is perfect,
a generosity without limits,
a power that will enable him to face opposition and misunderstanding
and even the failure of the cross,
a love that will carry him through death
into the risen life of the Kingdom of God.
This is the true miracle of the boy Jesus:
not the power to make clay birds fly or strike opponents down,
but the miracle of a human life rooted perfectly
in the eternal love of God,
the miracle of one like us,
who unshakably knows himself to be God’s beloved child.

But the miracle does not stop there.
As our second reading, from the First Letter of John, tells us:
See what love the Father has bestowed on us:
that we may be called the children of God.
And so we are.”
The miracle is that God’s Son has become what we are
so that we might become what he is.
The divine love in which his life is rooted from all eternity
has now, in time, been bestowed upon us.
In the face of misunderstanding and opposition and even death
we can know that we are held in God’s love,
a love that will carry us through
to the risen life of God’s Kingdom.
Tricks with clay birds pale in comparison
to the true miracle of this Christmas season –
that we become by grace what Jesus Christ is by nature:
beloved children of God.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

2nd Sunday of Advent

In our first reading, from the prophet Baruch,
we are presented with a vision of the return of the Israelites to the promised land
from their exile in Babylon.
We know from the book of Ezra that the return of the exiles
was not that of triumphant victors,
but of a divided and dispirited people,
plagued by economic woes and threatened by hostile neighbors.
And yet Baruch presents this return as a glorious one.
Indeed, in today’s reading the word “glory” is used six times.
God is glorious, shining forth in mercy and justice,
but the Israelites too are glorious:
indeed, Jerusalem is called to share in God’s glory,
which is like a cloak that she is to wrap around herself,
having put off her garments of mourning.

So who is right, Baruch or Ezra?
Was the return from exile a glorious one,
or was it really a disheveled band of displaced people straggling home,
beset by troubles and bickering among themselves
and otherwise acting in all-too recognizably human ways?

I am not sure we need to choose.
I suspect Ezra is more or less accurate
in his depiction of the disarray of the returning exiles,
but Baruch the prophet offers us a different sort of vision,
the kind of vision that only a prophet can have,
the kind of vision that can discern the glory of God in the most unlikely of events,
the kind of vision that sees God’s glory
even in the stumbling and all-too recognizably human return of these exiles.
Because Baruch knows that in this event
the most unlikely of things has happened:
God has made a way home for his people.
The prophetic eye can see glory
in the all-too recognizably human struggle of the returning exiles
because it sees that God is present.

What would it mean to look with the same prophetic eye
at our own community here at Corpus Christi?
Like the returning exiles, we too are all-too recognizably human;
even when we are on our best and most self-consciously “churchy” behavior –
when we gather to celebrate the liturgy –
our human limitations seem at times more manifest than God’s glory.
As any liturgical minister will tell you, during the liturgy, stuff happens –
stuff that you hadn't planned on.
You read the wrong reading as a lector,
or mangle the name of some Bronze Age potentate from Assyria.
You drop the host when you are a minister of the Eucharist,
or realize half-way through communion that you've been administering the chalice
with the words, "the body of Christ."
You are leading the the prayer of the faithful and realize in the middle of it
that the carefully thought-out and theologically profound response
you had so carefully prepared
is in fact too long and too quirky for the congregation to remember.
These examples spring to mind because they are all things that I have done.
For me, a particularly memorable moment came last Easter when,
after the gifts of bread and wine has been brought forward
and I had filled the first chalice,
I discovered that the wine was full of ants.
Often such mistakes go unnoticed by the congregation,
though they seem momentous to the minister.
But as anyone who has had a role in serving the liturgy will tell you,
that’s just how liturgical ministry is:
we prepare, we do our best, but sometimes things go wrong,
so we accept our all-too recognizably human imperfections,
and perhaps long for the heavenly liturgy,
where every voice will be in tune,
every word spoken eloquently,
every movement executed gracefully.

Of course, the all-too recognizably human imperfections of our worship
are not limited to liturgical faux pas.
The true imperfection of our worship
is our falling short in faith, hope and, especially, love.
The true imperfection of our worship
is not the mispronounced name,
but the unkindly spoken word;
not the inadvertently dropped the host,
but willfully ignored neighbor;
not the ill-chosen prayer response,
but the hardness of heart that turns us away from prayer altogether.
In short, our worship is imperfect
because we fail to be a people who, in the words of the prophet Micah,
do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God.
This is why we begin our worship by acknowledging our sins
and asking for God’s grace and mercy.

Yet despite all this,
we believe it is in our limited, imperfect, error-prone liturgical celebrations
that God comes to meet us,
that the glory of Jesus Christ shines forth in our midst,
and we catch a glimpse of that perfect heavenly liturgy.
It is through hands that all too often fail to do God’s will
and voices that all too often fail to speak God’s good news
that we sinners worship the God of grace and mercy.
And this is possible not because of what we do,
but because of what Christ does.
Last week Fr. Rich spoke of the confidence that we can have that,
despite the turmoil in our world and within ourselves,
Christ is with us.
In the liturgy, Christ becomes flesh and dwells among us.
When we gather as Christians for worship and proclaim the mystery of faith
in words both ancient and new,
when we move beyond words and enact that same mystery
through the language of ritual,
we can have confidence that Christ is present,
speaking and acting with us,
speaking and acting for us.
It is this presence that takes from us our cloak of mourning
and wraps us in the cloak of God’s glory.

Julian of Norwich said that
“As the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin,
and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the chest,
so are we, soul and body,
clad in the goodness of God and enclosed in it” (A Revelation of Love, ch. 6).
We – a poor, disheveled and all-too recognizably human band of pilgrims –
gather weekly in this place
and speak our imperfect words of prayer
and make our imperfect gestures of peace and. . .
wonder of wonders,
Jesus Christ stands with us in our midst
and clothes us in the robe of his own glory
and, perhaps for just a moment,
we feel the weight of that glory resting on our shoulders,
and we know in that moment
that we truly are clad and enclosed in the goodness of God.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Solemnity of All Saints

Readings: Revelation 7:2-4, 9-14; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12aIn his Revelation, St. John gives us a vision of the saints in heaven:
“a great multitude, which no one could count,
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.”
This redeemed multitude
worships before the throne of God, crying out,
“Salvation comes from our God,
who is seated on the throne,
and from the Lamb.”
It is a glorious vision of the saints
caught up in the worship of God.
And one of the most striking things about it
is the way in which the saints are envisioned
as being not just in the presence of God,
but in the presence of each other.

Our Catholic tradition tells us
that heaven is an eminently social place:
it is not a matter of the isolated soul
alone with God for eternity.
Rather, part of the joy of the saints in God’s kingdom
is the joy that they feel in being with each other.
St. Catherine of Siena, the 14th century Italian mystic,
wrote that the saints,
“rejoice and exult,
sharing each other’s goodness with loving affection. . . .
For when a soul reaches eternal life,
all share in her good and she in theirs. . . .
They experience a new freshness in their exultation —
a mirthfulness, a jubilation, a gladness —
in knowing this soul” (The Dialogue, ch. 41).
So the great multitude rejoice not simply in knowing God,
but in knowing the incredible varieties of goodness
that God’s grace has made possible in human beings:
the mother rejoices in the martyr’s courage
and the martyr in the mother’s patience;
the pastor rejoices in the scholar’s knowledge
and the scholar in the pastor’s prudence.
The saints bring with them the particular gifts
that God’s grace has poured into their lives
and then they share those gifts of holiness with each other,
so that each may delight in the goodness of others.

In our family there is an All Saint’s tradition that, to me,
embodies this sharing of gifts that we find in the saints.
On the eve of the solemnity of All Saints
our children go (or, at least did when they were little)
from house to house in our neighborhood
while dressed in costumes representing the multitude
drawn from every nation, race, people, and tongue
(you know: pirates, princesses and zombies)
and collect gifts, known as “treats,” from the neighbors.
Perhaps you have heard of such traditions;
your families may even have similar customs.
The highpoint of this traditional celebration of All Saints
has always been the point after the gifts have been collected
and the children gather at someone’s house,
dump out their bags on the floor,
and begin trading:
Kit Kats exchanged for Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups;
bars of dark chocolate for bars of milk chocolate;
Circus Peanuts for. . .
well, you might just have to hang on to those.
And what is most remarkable is that,
aside from occasional bickering,
this exchange is characterized by great excitement and happiness.
And it is not just the excitement and happiness
of trading up for better candy,
but it is really the excitement and happiness
of being together with friends
and of both giving and receiving.
To borrow words from Catherine of Siena,
it is an occasion of mirthfulness, jubilation and gladness
as people rejoice and share in the gifts that others have received.
What more appropriate way to celebrate the saints
than to joyfully share our gifts with one another,
for this is what the saints do for eternity.

Last week Fr. Rich spoke about how our financial support of our parish
ought be something that we do not out of guilt, but out of gratitude.
I would go so far as to say that it should be an occasion
of mirthfulness, jubilation and gladness,
because it is a chance to take what God has given us
and to share it with each other.
Both our first and second collections are ways in which
we acknowledge God’s gifts to us
by sharing them with others.
In our second collection we share them with those outside our parish
who are most in need of material assistance,
and in our first collection we contribute to supporting the parish structures
that make our ministries possible:
keeping salaries paid and lights on and boilers heating.
The money we give makes it possible for us
to gather as a community of worship,
to be an image of God’s kingdom,
where the saints cry out in concert,
“Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving,
honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever.”
Indeed, it not only makes this worship and community possible,
but in the offering of our gifts to God and to each other
we are engaged in an act of worship
and the building up of our community.
We are doing what the saints do for all eternity in God’s kingdom.
So it is appropriate that we do it together.

In a minute the ushers will pass out offertory pledge cards
and I will ask you to fill them out.
You are, of course, free to do so or not:
no one will twist your arm;
God will not spurn you;
the parish will not have to close its doors.
But what if we think of it not as paying our dues or paying a bill
or even making a contribution to a good cause,
but rather think of ourselves as children sitting on the floor
sharing their Halloween candy;
think of ourselves as the saints in heaven
sharing the gifts of God’s grace with each other.
It is an occasion of mirthfulness, jubilation and gladness.
Why would we not want to join in?

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Genesis 2:18-24; Hebrews 2:9-11; Mark 10:2-16
Today is designated by the Catholic Church in the United States
as “Respect Life Sunday.”
The phrase “respect for life” is not simply a code word
for the issue of abortion.
Catholic teaching on respect for life extends to issues
of poverty, healthcare, war, the death penalty,
the environment, the disabled and so forth.
As Eileen Egan put it, “The protection of life is a seamless garment.
You can’t protect some lives and not others.”
I would like to think that part of the strength
of our tradition of Catholic Social Teaching
is precisely the breadth of vision that is involved
when we speak of respect for life.
But I also think it is worth focusing at times
on respect for human life at its earliest stages of development
not least because many Catholics
feel confused and conflicted over how to think about this issue,
feeling as if they are being presented by our culture
with the demand that we choose between concern for the unborn
and concern for women.
Catholic teaching about respect for life says that this is a false choice.
But the only way that we will begin to see
another way of framing the issue
is if we begin with what, for Christians,
is the most fundamental question:
What does Jesus Christ require of us?

In today’s Gospel, we hear that Jesus
welcomed the children who were brought to him;
he blessed them, and told his disciples that
“the kingdom of God belongs to such as these,”
going on to say that “whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child
will not enter it.”
Jesus seems to be saying that those who inherit the kingdom of God
are those who, like children, are without power, without strength,
and who must rely entirely on others — who must rely entirely on God.
Those who are weak and vulnerable
have a privileged place within our community
because they are living signs of who we must become
if we wish to enter God’s reign.
As Catholics, our concern for the unborn
does not grow from a right to life that they possess,
but from the fact that we cannot be the people whom God calls us to be
unless we protect and foster the lives of those
who are least able to care for themselves,
unless we see the unique beauty and value
that grows from that vulnerability,
unless we extend to the most vulnerable
the same welcome that Jesus himself did.
To be who we are called to be as members of Christ’s body,
we must care for the unborn.

This is something distinct from the legal and political controversy
surrounding the issue of abortion.
In our Gospel reading today Jesus treats the question
put to him by the Pharisees
about the Jewish laws concerning marriage and divorce
as rather beside the point
when thinking about how his followers should approach these matters.
Jesus says that Moses gave them that law,
“because of the hardness of your hearts” —
to establish a minimum standard of semi-justice —
not as the standard by which we measure Christian discipleship.
If this is true of the Law given by God through Moses,
how much more true it is of our human laws.
Any legal structure will be at best
a distant approximation of the justice that God desires.
This does not mean that our laws are unimportant;
indeed, with regard to the issue of abortion,
I think every Catholic should desire
that our nation’s laws would foster and protect the lives of the unborn.
But, unlike some, I also think
that the exact nature of those laws,
and how they would relate to other goods
that need fostering and protection,
and how distantly or closely
they might approximate true justice,
are matters over which it is possible for Catholics to differ in good faith.
I have my own ideas about these matters,
and I am sure that many of you do as well,
and it might be interesting to discuss these sometime,
preferably over a drink, or maybe three.
But the political question, important as it is,
cannot be for us the first question.
The first question is not one of legislation
or court decisions
or executive orders;
it is the question, “what should we as the Church of Jesus Christ
do to help create a world
in which every child is welcomed
and cared for from the moment of conception,
and recognized as one of the ‘little ones’
whom Christ himself welcomes?”

In asking this question, we see that our concern for these children
is inseparable from a concern for the mothers of these children.
This is part of the reason why in Catholic teaching
the respect for life is a seamless garment:
we can’t separate the issue of abortion
from the fight against poverty or the fight for the dignity of women.
Our concern for the unborn must extend to the material needs
of women who are pregnant in difficult circumstances —
and this is an area in which individual Catholics
as well as numerous Catholic social service agencies
have an admirable record,
though there is of course always more that can be done.

But our concern must extend beyond material needs.
We have a gospel — good news — to share,
what Pope John Paul II called “The Gospel of Life.”
And part of the message of this gospel
is that even when it appears that there is no way forward,
when we can see no good choices,
when we seem trapped by circumstances,
we can have faith that God can make a way forward,
and, with the help of God’s grace and God’s people,
God can strengthen us to choose life.
People often see the abortion issue in terms of tragic choices,
and I would never want to underestimate the moral struggle
of women who find themselves pregnant in difficult circumstances,
or to suggest that choosing life
does not often require women to live lives of heroic virtue.
Choosing life might mean raising a child
when you are young or single or poor.
Choosing life might mean caring for a disabled child
long past his or her childhood, on into adulthood.
Choosing life might mean living with the life-long sense of loss
experienced by many women who surrender their children for adoption.
These are heroic choices.
But the Gospel tells us that God’s grace makes such heroism possible,
if we can receive that grace with the trust of a child
and if God’s Church is ready to be the kind of community
that will itself go to heroic lengths
to be the kind of community where such heroic choices can be lived out.
The Gospel also tells us that when we fail to live heroically,
there is mercy and forgiveness to be found in God’s Church.

For Christians, there are no tragic dead ends,
because the world’s story is ultimately not a tragedy,
that ends with the bodies of the dead
strewn across the stage of history
and nothing left to do but the work of mourning.
Rather, for Christians the world’s story ends
with the marriage of heaven and earth
and the wedding feast of the lamb.
This is the vision that we have to offer to the world:
a vision that sees the beauty in vulnerability,
a vision that we possess only to the degree
that we actually put it into practice.
This is the vision that must sustain our hope
that our respect for life
can weave together concern for the unborn
and concern for women,
together with concern for the poor, the elderly,
the disabled and the imprisoned,
into a seamless garment in which we,
as Christ’s body,
can be clothed
as we bear witness
to the Gospel of Life in our world.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 35:4-7a; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37In today’s Gospel we hear of Jesus
engaging in what might seem to us unusual behavior.
Confronted with a man who cannot hear or speak,
he touches the body part to be healed,
sticking his fingers in the man’s ears.
He puts his spit on the man’s tongue,
as if it were possessed of magical properties.
He groans, perhaps in effort or for dramatic effect?
And he speaks a magical word — Ephphatha!
which our Gospel writer Mark
is careful to keep in its original, Aramaic form.
In short, he acts very much like a typical magical healer
in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Such a depiction of Jesus as a “magician” makes Christians nervous.
Indeed, it made the Gospel writers Matthew and Luke nervous enough
that this is one of the few incidents recounted in Mark’s Gospel
that they do not include it in their own Gospels.
The idea that Jesus might have behaved in such a way
that people would have seen him as a magician
seems to trivialize what he was about;
it seems to reduce Christianity to a superstitious cult
that is about manipulation of occult forces
rather than the worship of God in spirit and in truth.
We Catholics might be particularly sensitive to this,
since the sacramental nature of our worship
sometimes strikes other Christians as indistinguishable
from various forms of religious magic
that can be found in many so-called “primitive” cultures.
We want to say that our sacraments are radically different
from the ritualistic magic of tribal peoples.

But perhaps we protest too much.
Maybe these so-called “primitive” cultures recognize something
that we modernized,
rationalized people have forgotten.
We human beings are ritual animals;
we make meaning with bodily gestures.
Symbolic action is the DNA of human cultures,
the means by which tradition is transmitted and imbibed,
an effective means of communicating
that which is distinctively human.
Even more, our rituals are signs of a deep mystery
that lies at the heart of the world’s existence,
and they are the means by which that mystery gives itself to us.
So there is really no reason for us Catholics to apologize
for believing that our ritual actions actually make something happen,
that they are, for lack of a better word, magical.
After all, if Mark’s Gospel is to be trusted,
Jesus did not hesitate to engage in “magical” behavior.

But perhaps we do need to make some distinctions
between different sorts of “magic.”
The kind that is probably most familiar to us,
the sort traditionally performed by men on stages
wearing tuxedos and top hats and waving magic wands,
the kind you see at a “magic show,”
is really a matter of illusion, clever and entertaining,
but not really magic at all.
I think it is safe to say that this is not the sort of magic
that is going on
either in today’s Gospel or in the sacraments.

Then there is the “magic” that is associated with incantations and spells —
potions, crystals, amulets, curses, voodoo dolls, the evil eye, and so forth.
This crops up in a variety of places:
from ancient folk beliefs to new age religions to the Harry Potter books.
This magic seeks to control unseen forces in the universe
in order to attain a desired result --
asort of primitive technology
by which people have sought some measure of control
over cosmic forces.
At its best, it expresses our human desire to live in an enchanted world
with hidden possibilities.
But in any case, I think it is safe to say that this is not the sort of magic
that is going on
either in today’s Gospel or in the sacraments.
Jesus is not manipulating hidden forces in order to heal the man;
rather, the healing power of God is manifesting itself
through his symbolic actions.
Likewise, the sacraments are not about our power to control,
but about God’s power to act through our human rituals.

This is a third form of magic.
At least, I cannot think of a better word than “magic”
to convey the idea
of that which makes possible
what we normally consider impossible.
This is the real magic
that will satisfy the desire for an enchanted world.
In literary terms, the world of Christian faith
is a world of “magical realism” —
the magic of God’s hidden power manifesting itself in our reality,
transforming our symbols and rituals
so that they become effective signs of God’s grace.
Jesus’ actions —
involving touch and spit and groaning and ritual phrases —
show us that there is real magic in the world:
there is hope for the hopeless,
there is forgiveness for sinners,
there is release for captives,
there is a home for the outcast.
The world of dead ends and limited possibilities
is not the final truth about the world.
To believe in real magic, the magic of God,
is to believe that when you are in a situation
in which you can see no way forward —
whether depression or addiction
or a broken relationship or professional failure —
that is not the end of the story:
when you cannot hear, cannot speak, cannot see a future,
God can touch you,
God can release you,
God can show you a way forward.
And in the sacraments, the real magic of God touches us
just like Jesus touched the man in today’s Gospel.

So perhaps we shouldn’t be embarrassed by Jesus acting like a magician.
The world is hungry for magic, for real magic.
The world is hungry for the hope that what appears possible to us
is not in fact the limit of the possible.
Let us have confidence that in our sacramental celebration
Jesus will touch us and say to us ephphatha — be opened:
be opened to hear the silent music that sustains the world;
be opened to speak a word of hope to the hopeless,
be opened to embrace
the impossible possibility of the kingdom of God.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: 1 Kings 19:4-8; Ephesians 4:30—5:2; John 6:41-51
In today’s second reading, Paul gives the Ephesians
a command that, at first glance,
might strike us as rather strange: “be imitators of God.”

It sounds sort of. . . phony. . . and pathetic.
No one wants to be a copycat, a poseur, a clone, a wannabe.
We like to think of ourselves as those
who march to the beat of a different drummer,
who take the road less traveled,
who think outside the box. . .
or whatever other cliché you prefer to invoke.
We want to be trendsetters,
and not trendy.
We want to be the ones who are imitated,
and not the ones who imitate.

Yet a certain impulse to imitate
seems to be built into our human nature.
Indeed, some have argued that imitation
is at the heart of human desire —
that a major factor in the desirability of something for us
is our perception of its desirability to others.
In other words, seeing someone desiring something
awakens in me a desire for that same thing,
precisely because I see another desiring it.
My desire has less to do with the intrinsic worth of the thing
and more to do with my imitation of the desire of another.

I do not know if all desire can be explained in this way,
but it would certainly seem to explain a lot:
from romantic triangles to professional rivalries
to inexplicable fads like Tickle-Me-Elmo.
I never noticed how attractive someone was
until she started dating my friend;
I didn’t particularly want the job,
until my colleague applied for it;
I hadn’t noticed how much I needed a particular product
until I heard about people standing in line for it.

This imitative element in desire
might to some degree also explain
the conflict that seems endemic in human relationships.
Because my desire is awakened by your desire,
you and I must become rivals in our desiring:
we both want the same object,
but we can’t both have it.
Whether it is a person or a position or a product,
the imitative character of desire
means that my gain is your loss, and vice versa.
And because of such rivalry,
we come to view life as a competition
and others as a threat.
So not only is imitation pathetically uncool,
but the imitative nature of our desire
leads to the very evils
that Paul speaks of in our second reading:
bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling.

So why, then, does Paul call on us to imitate God?
Because imitating God is not like imitating another person:
God’s gain is not my loss.
God is not a rival with whom we are in competition.
God needs nothing.
God lacks nothing.
God is rather the source of all things:
pure generosity without boundaries;
the inexhaustible source of the torrent of life
that pours constantly into our world.
God desires nothing but to share God’s goodness.

This is the God whom Paul calls us to imitate
by being “kind to one another, compassionate,
forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.”
Our imitation of God, our desiring what God desires,
is the medicine that can heal our rivalries.

But how is this possible?
How can a mere human being imitate God?
We should always remember
that we are created in God’s image and likeness,
so that if we can manage, through God’s grace,
to be the people God created us to be,
we are already imitating God, being God’s image.

And we see what this looks like
by looking at the life of Jesus.
Jesus is the Word of God made flesh
and the image of the invisible Father,
but he is also fully human,
like us in all things except sin.
In him we see what it means
for human beings to be the people God created them to be.
To desire what God desires
is to desire to live the kind of life Christ lived.
As Paul tells us: “live in love, as Christ loved us
and handed himself over for us as a sacrificial offering to God.”
Or, as Jesus says in our Gospel,
he gives his flesh “for the life of the world.”
To imitate God is to imitate Christ,
who holds nothing back,
who sees no one as his rival
and desires nothing but to share God’s goodness,
who goes to his death rather than live in any other way.

Some imitate Christ in a quite literal way,
by laying down their lives for the cause of God.
These we call martyrs and we rightly venerate them.
For most of us, however, this imitation
happens in small, undramatic ways.
It happens when we rejoice in the good fortune of others,
and manage not to see their gain as our loss.
It happens when we desire to live our lives
in service of those less fortunate
and to see in their flourishing our own flourishing.

So in the coming week, take some time to reflect on your desires
Do they foster in you a sense of rivalry with others?
Or are they the desires of God, the desire to be more like Christ,
the desire to live a life of joy and generosity?
And as we discern the source of our desires
let us pray that, through the grace of Christ,
we might become imitators of God.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time

For most of this year,
our Gospel reading is taken from the Gospel of Mark,
but today we begin what we might call
the lectionary's “Johannine digression.”
For today and for the next four Sundays following,
our Gospel reading is taken from the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel,
the so-called “Bread of Life Discourse.”
It is in this section of his Gospel that John,
who does not recount Jesus’ words
over the bread and wine at the Last Supper,
shows us Jesus speaking of himself
as the true bread that has come down from heaven
and in whom we abide by eating his Eucharistic flesh.

John prefaces this “Bread of Life Discourse” with a miracle story
that is found in all four of the Gospels:
the familiar story of Jesus feeding the multitude
with five loaves and two fish.
John underscores the Eucharistic echoes of this miracle,
by telling us that it occurs at Passover time —
the same time when Jesus will eat
his final meal with his disciples one year later —
and he describes the actions of Jesus in the same terms
used by the other Gospel writers at the Last Supper:
Jesus takes the loaves, gives thanks, and distributes them.
In feeding the multitude,
Jesus foreshadows what he will do at the Last Supper,
and what he does for us every time we gather at his altar.

In preaching on this text, St. John Chrysostom,
who lived in the last half of the 4th century,
raised an interesting question:
why doesn’t Jesus simply create food out of thin air?
Why bother to multiply the food that was there,
rather than simply make new food from nothing?
After all, barley loaves and pickled fish
were pretty simple, lowbrow food —
a young boy's lunch;
maybe the first-century equivalent
of saltines and canned sardines —
and Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh,
through whom the universe was created from nothing,
could surely have conjured up something more exciting,
something more elegant,
something that would be a special treat
for the multitude that had followed him across the sea of Galilee.
So why does he choose not to throw out that simple peasant food
and create from nothing a great feast of the finest delicacies?

According to Chrysostom, it is because he wished to use
“the creation itself as a groundwork for his marvels”
(Homily 42 on the Gospel of John).
Rather than create something anew,
Jesus takes what is already at hand,
and transforms it by multiplying it,
so as to feed a multitude.

It seems to me that in wishing to use creation
as the groundwork for his miracle
Jesus is pointing out two things to us.

First, creation itself is already miraculous.
John Chrysostom’s contemporary, St. Augustine,
in preaching on this same passage,
noted how odd it is
that the multitude marvels
at the multiplication of the loaves and fishes,
but takes no notice of the miraculous fact
of God’s on-going and continuous activity in the world.
He says, “Governing the entire universe is a greater miracle
than feeding five thousand people with five loaves of bread,
yet no one marvels at it.
People marvel at the feeding of the five thousand
not because this miracle is greater,
but because it is out of the ordinary”
(Homilies on the Gospel of John 24, 1.6.7).
Jesus works miracles not to convince us
that God can, on occasion, do extraordinary things,
but to awaken us to the fact
that God does extraordinary things all the time.
This is why in John’s Gospel
the miracles are always referred to as “signs.”
Like a sign, they point away from themselves to something else:
the constant extraordinary action of God
in what we think of as the most ordinary events of life.

Second, the way God works in the world
is not by discarding the ordinary realities of creation
and substituting for them something new and different,
but by taking what is already at hand and transforming it.
If God’s creation and preservation of the world is itself a miracle,
as Augustine said,
then God does not need something “better” to work with
in order to save us.
Just as Christ uses the simple loaves of barley
to feed the multitude,
so too he can use the simple substance of our lives
to make his kingdom present.
We might look at our lives and ask, like Andrew in today’s Gospel,
“what good is this for so many?’
but it is good enough if Christ takes it and blesses it.
An adage of traditional Catholic theology
is that “grace perfects and does not destroy nature.”
This means that becoming a new creation in Christ
does not involve the destruction of who we are
but rather is our perfecting and transformation
into who we truly are in God’s eyes,
the miraculous beings whom God has loved into existence.

So as we continue to reflect on this story
of the miraculous feeding of the multitude,
let us pray that we grow ever more attentive
to the miraculous ways in which God feeds us everyday,
the way in which God feeds our bodies
with the food that comes from the earth,
and the way in which God feeds our souls with Christ,
the bread who has come down from heaven.
Let the miracle of the Eucharist awaken us to the ways in which
God uses the daily bread of our lives
and transforms and perfects it to become the bread of angels.

Don’t miss the miracle that you live everyday,
because it is this everyday life
that Christ will take into his hands,
and bless,
and multiply to feed a multitude.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

12th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Three years ago this month I went with a group of people,
including some Corpus Christi parishioners,
down to New Orleans to participate in the efforts
to rebuild the city after hurricane Katrina,
which had hit the gulf coast some nine-months previously.
I say “rebuilding efforts” but in fact what we spent the week doing
was emptying and gutting a house in the lower Ninth Ward —
a low-income area of the city that was particularly hard-hit
in the flooding following Katrina —
as a prelude to its possible rebuilding.
Wearing protective masks and heavy clothing,
we spent our days hauling out furniture, appliances,
and personal belongings
that had been ruined by the rising waters,
and then tearing out the mold-covered walls and floors
so that the house would be ready if, one day,
the owner might find the money and emotional energy to rebuild.

Two things stand out in my mind from this experience.
One is the immense destructive power of water.
The interior of this house looked as if a giant
had picked the whole thing up
and shaken it vigorously.
Furniture had been moved from one room to another;
heavy appliances had been overturned;
every single item that was touched by the water
had been displaced.
And this was not simply one house;
when we stepped outside and looked up and down the street,
we saw an entire community that had been destroyed by water:
almost all of the houses were deserted
and the only people on the streets seemed to be National Guardsmen
and occasional drug dealers.
I have never in my life had a keener sense
of the deadly, destructive power of water.

This destructive power of water
is highlighted in our first reading and Gospel.
More precisely, we are assured in those readings
that God’s power is greater than water’s destructive power.
God can bar the doors of the sea
and say to the proud waves, “be stilled.”
And Christ, the power of God incarnate,
can “rebuked the wind” and say to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!”
It is the God who creates the sea who can command it,
and this is the God we encounter in Jesus Christ.

The other thing that stands out in my mind
from that week in New Orleans
was how the combination of our heavy protective clothing
and the climate of New Orleans in June,
with temperatures in the nineties,
gave me not just a sense of water’s destructive power,
but also a sense of the life-giving and life-sustaining power of water.
We were told that frequent water breaks
were not a luxury but a necessity
and we quickly learned that this was true.
We sometimes say that we are “dying of thirst,”
but during that week I began to have some sense
of what this might mean in a literal sense.
The same element that had destroyed the lives
of the residents of the lower Ninth Ward
was also life-sustaining.
Indeed, one of the factors preventing people from moving back
was the lack of fresh water.

The power of water to give death is matched by its power to give life
and it is for this reason, I believe,
that Christ chose water as the outward sign
of the sacrament by which we become members of his body,
the sacrament we celebrate today.

In our second reading, Paul tells us
that “whoever is in Christ is a new creation.”
Paul sees salvation not in terms of what happens after we die,
but rather in terms becoming a “new creation,”
of taking on a new sort of existence
that he characterizes as being “in Christ.”
This is an existence in which we live no longer for ourselves,
but for the God who creates and redeems us.
And our Catholic faith is that this normally happens to us
through the sacrament of baptism.
In baptism, the life-giving power of water
is raised by God to a new level.
The water that sustains our mortal lives
is taken up by God in baptism
to become the instrument through which
God grants us immortal life,
through which we become a new creation.

But Paul also tells us that becoming this new creation
means leaving behind our old self:
“the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.”
And here we return to the destructive power of water,
the power of water to sweep away all in its path.
The waters of baptism are the waters of life,
but they are also, in a certain sense, the waters of death —
the death of an old way of life:
a way of life that we are born into as members of the human race,
a way of life in which we live only for ourselves,
a way of life that Jesus died to free us from.
Old things must be swept away by the flood of baptism
so that new things might come.
In baptism, our old self is plunged into the waters of death
so that we might arise from the waters of life as a new creation.

Death and new life:
this is pretty serious business for a tiny baby.
Indeed, it sounds sort of risky.
But it is precisely because life itself
is a serious, risky business
that we bring our children to the waters of baptism.
We bring them because we believe
that they too have been born into that old way of life
from which all of us must be freed.
We bring them because we believe
that dying to the old ways of living for ourselves
and leading the life of the new creation in Christ
is the path of true life.
We bring them because we believe
that Christ is the one “whom even wind and sea obey”
and that those who have faith in him need not fear.
So let the waters of baptism
sweep away the old life,
and let the waters of baptism
give and sustain our new life in Christ.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Easter 6

St. Thomas Aquinas,
at the end of his lengthy commentary on John’s Gospel,
recounts the medieval legend that “as an old man
John was carried to the church by his followers
to teach the faithful.
He taught only one thing:
‘Little children, love one another.’”
Then Thomas adds,
“This is the perfection of the Christian life” (§2653).

This is a legend and not from scripture,
but it rings true with our second reading and Gospel for today,
both of which are traditionally ascribed to St. John
and both of which place love at the center of their message.
From the first letter of John:
“let us love one another, because love is of God.”
From our Gospel:
“This I command you: love one another.”
This is the perfection of the Christian life:
to know the one, true and living God.
And we come to know God by loving because God is love,
and when we love, we know God, as it were, from the inside.

This sounds like pretty good news.
Love: this is the commandment of Christ to his disciples.
Disciples who love will “bear fruit that will remain.”
What could be more simple than that?
As St. Augustine said,
“Love, and do what you will” (Homilies on 1 John 7.8).

But anyone who loves knows
that love is really not simple at all.
Our feelings about people and things
can be complex and conflicted.
Our love finds itself entangled
with a host of emotions and passions,
not excluding anger, jealousy, lust and pride,
which makes it difficult for us to separate what is love
from what might be something else, some darker impulse,
that has attached itself to our love, or masquerades as love.
People bind themselves to others in the name of love,
but they also break those bonds in the name of love.
People die in the name of love,
but they also kill in the name of love.
St. Augustine’s injunction, “love, and do what you will,”
can be twisted so that any action on our part can be justified
so long as we do it in the name of love.

This has been on my mind recently
particularly in light of the highly-publicized murder
of Stephanie Parente, a student at Loyola College, where I teach.
Stephanie, along with her mother and sister,
was killed by her father,
who then took his own life.
I did not know Stephanie personally,
but the impact of her murder on her friends,
many of whom are my students,
and the particular nature of this crime,
a father murdering his family,
has caused me to reflect on this event
more than I might on the typical human tragedy
that confronts me in my morning paper.

I don’t think anyone yet knows what role, if any,
mental illness might have played in this tragedy,
and how this might affect our understanding of this man’s actions.
But what has haunted me
is that this man who killed his wife and children
appears from all reports to have loved them.
What haunts me more is that he quite possibly thought
that he was taking their lives because he loved them —
that he was somehow protecting them,
or ensuring that he could have them with him even in death.
Could it be that he used love as the justification for his actions?

“Love, and do what you will?”
In this case, surely not.
This man may have loved his family;
that is not my place to judge.
But this was not an act that was born out of love
but out of some darker passion that hid behind the mask of love.
Surely there are actions that are simply incompatible with love,
and yet our human love can become so twisted by sin
that we attempt to justify these actions in the name of love.
This is an extreme example,
but the shadow of sin falls across us all
and if I am honest with myself I find that I my love too
is not immune from the darker impulses of the human species.

But thanks be to God that all this talk about love
that we hear in today’s readings
is not first and foremost about our human love at all.
Our second reading says: “this is love:
not that we have loved God, but that he loved us
and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.”
This phrase “expiation for our sins”
is perhaps somewhat ominous and technical sounding,
but what it means is that God has sent us Jesus
to redeem the failures of our love.
We are to love one another
not according to the pattern of our fallen human love —
a love that has become entwined with other, darker passions —
but with the pure love that Christ showed on the cross,
the love that lays down its life so as to give new life.
This is the pattern of true love in which we are to abide
and the good news of Jesus Christ
is that God gives it to us as a gift
because God is love.
It is not something that we achieve,
but something that God achieves in us.
Through the free gift of God’s love,
our human love can, over the course of a lifetime,
begin to be untwisted,
disentangled from those dark passions that hide within it;
it can be remade according to the pattern of Christ’s love.
In the waters of baptism, love can be purified,
because we are immersed in God’s own love.
At the table of the Eucharist, true love can be nourished in us,
because the love of God becomes our food and drink.
This is the gift of love in which we are to abide.
This is the love that Christ commands.
This is the perfection of the Christian life.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Easter 4

Every year, on the fourth Sunday of Easter,
our Gospel reading is one of the passages from the tenth chapter of John
in which Jesus speaks of himself as a shepherd.
Thus, in the tradition of the Church,
this has come to be called “Good Shepherd Sunday.”
The image of Jesus as a shepherd is one that is familiar to us all —
indeed, some of the earliest artistic representations of Jesus that we have
are not the familiar robed and bearded figure
but the image of a young, beardless shepherd boy.
The image of a shepherd was a resonant one for early Christians,
and not simply because shepherds
were relatively more common two thousand years ago
than they are now.
It was an image rooted in the Old Testament’s understanding
of what sort of king God desired for the people of Israel.
The king was not to be
one who used and exploited the people for his own gain,
but was to care for them and guide them and protect them.
And as the Jewish people hope for a messiah —
a savior who would restore the fortunes of their nation
and lead them in the ways of God —
this image of the shepherd king
became a way of expressing that hope.

In speaking of himself as a shepherd,
Jesus is claiming to be the fulfillment of that hope:
the king who will care for and guide
and protect the flock of God’s people.
But more than that:
in calling himself the good shepherd,
the shepherd who not only cares for
and guides and protects the sheep,
but even lays down his life for them,
Jesus presents himself as the one who surpasses Israel’s hopes —
a radically new kind of shepherd, a new sort of leader.
The kind of rule that Jesus exercises
involves nothing less than giving his life for his people:
the stone rejected by the builders
who has become the cornerstone of God’s new temple.
In Jesus’ laying down of his life, God’s love is bestowed on us,
so that we may be called children of God.

But this is not simply the kind of leadership,
the kind of shepherding,
that Jesus himself exercises.
He calls us, too, to be shepherds.
At our baptisms we were anointed with the oil of Chrism
to share in Christ’s ministry of priest, prophet and king.
We share in his priestly ministry
by worshiping God as part of Christ’s body, the Church.
We share his prophetic ministry
by bearing witness to his Gospel in the world.
And we share in his kingly ministry, his royal ministry of shepherd,
by exercising the kind of care and guidance of others that he exercised:
the kind of care and guidance that calls us to lay down our lives.
As the first letter of John puts it:
“We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us —
and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn 3:16).

So part of our being sent as Jesus’ disciples
is our being sent to be good shepherds
who will lay down our lives
for those whom God has put into our care.
Not the kind of care and guidance
that dominates or smothers,
but the kind that empowers and gives life,
even if this requires us to sacrifice ourselves.

Of course, the language of laying down one’s life
conjures images of dramatic acts of sacrifice,
in which one dies in the act of defending
those whom one has been charged to protect.
It conjures such images
not least because this is precisely what Jesus does:
he is the good shepherd who gives his life
to keep the wolf from catching and scattering his sheep.
And perhaps it is the case that some of us
will lay down our lives in this dramatic way.
But we ought not let these dramatic images lead us to overlook
the more mundane, every-day ways in which we lay down our lives
for those who have been put into our care.

Any parent who has walked the floor in the middle of the night
with a sick or fussy baby
or who manages to let go of the parental grasp
and send their child out into the adult world
knows what it means to lay down one’s life.
So too, any child who cares for an aging parent
with patience and forbearance
knows what it means to lay down one’s life.
Any employer or supervisor who stays late at the office
figuring out how to tweak the budget,
or who forgoes a bonus,
in order not to have to lay anyone off
knows what it means to lay down one’s life.
Any minister, ordained or lay,
who spends hours listening to his or her people,
sharing their struggles and joys,
while still laughing at jokes
about only having to work one day a week
knows what it means to lay down one’s life.
All of these involve a kind of dying to oneself
so that others might have life in its fullness.
All of these can be ways that we as disciples
answer Christ’s call to lay down our lives.

But Christ does not simply say that he is the good shepherd
who lays down his life for his sheep;
he says that he has “power to lay it down,
and power to take it up again.”
And it is part of our Easter faith as Christians
that he has power to take up our lives as well,
if we lay them down for the sake of his flock.
The kind of dying to self that is involved in being a good shepherd —
a good parent or child or manager or minister —
might at times seem beyond our capacity.
But the call to lay down our lives is in the end
not simply a call to self-sacrifice,
but rather is a call to entrust ourselves
to the one who is our good shepherd,
the who has laid down his life for us
and who will take up our lives with his into eternal life.
For the Lord is our shepherd, and there is nothing we shall want.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Easter 2

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
During Lent we have been reflecting on our call as disciples —
our call to sit at the feet of Jesus
and learn from him the path that leads to true life.
We have gathered on Sundays and Wednesdays to pray and reflect
and to deepen our relationship with Christ
and the relationships we have with each other in Christ.
But today, as we move further into the Easter season,
we hear something different.
We hear not so much “come, you are called” as “go, you are sent.”
Jesus is still calling us as disciples, of course,
but having been called to be formed in our identity as disciples,
now we are called to live out our identity as disciples in the world.
Having been called, now we are sent.

But today’s Gospel calls us to notice not simply that we are sent,
but that we are sent in a specific way, after a particular pattern:
“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
In other words, we are sent by Jesus
in the same way that Jesus has been sent by his Father
into the world of human history.
But what is it about the way that Jesus has been sent by his Father,
that is reproduced in our own being sent by Jesus?

Referring to this verse, St. Gregory the Great wrote:
“The Lord is sending his chosen apostles into the world,
not to the world’s joys,
but to suffer as he himself was sent.
Therefore as the Son is loved by the Father
and yet is sent to suffer,
so also the disciples are loved by the Lord [Jesus],
who nevertheless sends them into the world to suffer” (Homily 26).

Well, how is that for raining on your Easter parade?
Here we are, still basking in our Easter joy,
and Gregory comes along to tell us
that being sent by Jesus as he has been sent by the Father
means being sent to the cross.

I remember a few years ago when Clarence Hicks was in RCIA,
he used to ask, “Did Jesus have to suffer and die on the Cross?
Was it God’s will that Jesus die?”
This is a profound question.
It pushes us to ask how it is possible that the Father who loved Jesus
could have sent him to a world in which he would have to suffer and die.
Was that the point of the whole thing?
And this is inseparable from the question of how Jesus,
who loved his disciples,
could send them out into a world
in which they would have to suffer and die.
How can one who loves us
call us to a life of discipleship that will lead to suffering?
Is suffering the whole point of discipleship?

Here we are dealing with the deep mysteries
of how the divine will plays itself out in history,
something that surpasses our comprehension,
and perhaps the best we can do
is try to come up with analogies from our own experience.
So when I ask myself,
why is it that God the Father would send Jesus into the world
knowing that he would suffer,
and why would Jesus send his disciples into the world,
knowing that they would suffer,
I think about my own children and what I hope for them.
When I ask myself, “who do I want my children to be?” I think:
I want them to be honest,
I want them to be generous,
I want them to be loving,
I want them to be people who have faith in God.
And I want them to be all of these things because I love them
and because I believe that all of these qualities
are what makes a human being truly happy.
But at the same time I know that if they are honest,
they will meet opposition;
I know that if they are generous,
people will try to take advantage of them;
I know that if they are loving,
they may well have their hearts broken;
and I know that if they are faithful to God,
they will not turn back, even in the face of suffering.
So, do I desire the suffering of my children?
I don’t think so.
What I want is for them to live truly human lives,
even though I know that in a world marked by evil
such a life will inevitably bring with it a measure of suffering.
And so my children are loved by their father,
who nevertheless sends them into the world to suffer,
yet it is not the suffering I desire,
rather I desire for them the kind of life that leads to true happiness.

I think it is something like this that is going on
with the suffering that must be endured by Jesus
and those who would be his disciples.
God does not desire that Jesus suffer,
but rather that Jesus live the sort of human life —
a life of love and faithfulness —
that is the path to true happiness.
It is the life lived, not the suffering endured, that is the point.
But in a world marked by sin, a life of love and faithfulness
will bring with it a measure of suffering,
and in the case a Jesus a suffering beyond all measure.
And so too Jesus does not desire that his disciples suffer,
but rather that their lives, like his,
would be lives of love and faithfulness.
And such a life — the life of a true disciple —
is the pearl of great price;
it is a way of life of such value
that it is worth the suffering that it might entail.

“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
We as disciples have been sent by Christ
on the path that he himself trod,
the path that led him to the Cross,
but not a path that ended there.
And because it did not end there,
we are sent as those who through our faith
are already victors in the struggle of life with death.
And if we believe this, if we really believe this,
then we will know that the path of Christ
that we as disciples walk
is not simply the path of suffering
but is in fact the path that leads through the empty tomb
into the very life of God.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Holy Thursday

I recall a particular Holy Thursday, over 20 years ago,
listening to the first reading, the story of the Passover.
It suddenly struck me that this story
was not about something that happened years ago
to an obscure group of slaves in bronze-age Egypt,
but, in some mysterious way,
was about something that had happened to me.
I had been marked with the blood of the lamb who was slain,
and the angel of death had passed over me,
and I was the one who was to remember and give thanks.
Though I could not explain it in any way
that would fully satisfy the demands of reason,
I knew that this story was also my story,
the story of all of us who have been baptized into Christ
and marked with the sign of his cross.
In the years since then,
I have struggled to understand this mystery.
Isn't this, after all, what theologians are supposed to do?
Isn't this, after all, what all of us as disciples are supposed to do:
to sit at the feet of our master and learn and understand?
But before some mysteries understanding must, in the end,
give way to silent, ecstatic adoration.
This too is part of what it means to be a disciple:
to learn how to live in the mystery that we cannot master.

This night is filled with such mysteries.
Or, rather, this night is filled
with the one mystery that is the story of Christ:
the one mystery that is refracted
through a multitude of particular mysteries:
a people saved from slavery and death by the blood of a lamb,
a meal in which the flesh of God becomes our food,
the creator of the universe stooping to wash our feet.
These things are mysteries
not because they leave something hidden from us,
but because they show us everything,
and our finite human minds cannot take it in.
In the second century Melito of Sardis spoke of Christ,
the Alpha and the Omega,
as “the beginning which cannot be explained
and the end which cannot be grasped.”
In Christ, nothing is hidden; everything is revealed.
But just as we can be blinded by light that is too bright for our eyes,
the light shed by Christ dazzles our reason
and disorients our desire to grasp and control the mystery that is God.

Of course, we have our techniques.
We have our ways of trying to tame this mystery,
to make it something that we can handle,
something we can use,
something we can master.
We can turn the story of the first Passover
into a simple historical event, locked in the past.
We can turn the mystery of Eucharist
into a human meal of fellowship and remembrance.
We can turn Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet
into a simple moral lesson about service.

Such things can be easily grasped, easily mastered,
if we reduce them to our level of understanding
and hold them at a safe distance.
Or so we think.
But on this night we do not observe these things from afar;
rather, through our liturgical celebration we dwell in these events
and let them dwell in us.
We become disciples of the mystery
and let it pervade our consciousness.
We unclench the grasp of merely human reason
so that our hearts and souls and minds
can be carried beyond themselves
into the very life of God.

In a few moments, in the ceremony of the washing of feet,
we shall obey the command of Christ:
“as I have done for you, you should also do.”
We shall follow his example of humble service
in a ritual that speaks to us of our call as disciples
to serve those who are in need.
For we wash feet in myriad ways:
giving food to the hungry,
seeking justice for the oppressed,
offering friendship to the lonely.
In all of these actions we follow Jesus’ example
and fulfill his command:
“as I have done for you, you should also do.”

But there is more going on in Jesus’ washing of his disciples' feet
than a simple example for emulation.
Rather, it is an enacted parable of the mystery of our salvation.
When Jesus removes his outer cloak
and ties the servant’s towel around his waist
this is not simply part of the practical business of footwashing.
It is an action that brings before our eyes
the mystery of the eternal Son of God
stripping himself of his divine glory and taking the form of a servant,
so that he might stoop at the feet of his own creation
and pour out his life for the world,
a cleansing flood that can wash away the stain of sin
and give us new life.
For the water that flows over the feet of the disciples
is in fact the blood of Christ:
the blood of the sacrificed lamb
that marks and protects the dwelling of God’s people,
the blood that is in the cup of eternal salvation
from which we are invited to drink.
It is this mystery that enfolds and sustains
our giving of food,
our seeking of justice,
our offering of friendship.

We try to understand this, and it is right that we do so,
for Christ speaks to us the same words he spoke to Peter:
“What I am doing, you do not understand now,
but you will understand later.”
And we will understand, in the end, when we see God face to face
and know as we are known.
But what we will understand, in the end, is that we stand before a mystery:
it is not something that we master,
but something that masters us.
We will understand that we live within the mystery of God,
and that this is what it means truly to live.
And so, tonight, let our minds bow before
the mystery that has stooped to wash our feet,
the mystery that has given its life to guard us from death,
the mystery that has become our food and drink.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Lent 3

During this Lenten season
we have been focusing on our call as disciples of Jesus —
our call to sit at his feet and learn from him,
our call to follow him where he would lead us.
Of course part of the difficulty in reflecting on our call as disciples
is the difficulty we have in thinking of ourselves as disciples at all.
Disciples?” we ask.
“Weren’t those the people who followed Jesus around
2000 years ago in Palestine?”
We tend to this of the disciples as Jesus’ contemporaries,
and we presume that the time of discipleship is past.

But even once we grasp the idea
that “disciple” is a more general term
that can include us today as we seek to be followers of Jesus,
I suspect that we continue to feel that we are at some disadvantage
by comparison with those
who could actually see Jesus with their own eyes
and hear Jesus with their own ears.
I don't mean to make excuses,
but I sometimes find myself thinking that
if I could have heard Jesus' preaching with my own ears,
if I could have seen Jesus’ miracles with my own eyes,
then I would have the same kind of faith,
the same kind of hope,
and the same kind of love
as disciples like Peter or James or John or Mary Magdalene.
If I could have been Jesus’ contemporary during his earthly ministry
then I could have heard first hand
his call to sit at his feet and learn from him,
his call to follow him where he would lead me.
If I could have been his contemporary,
then I could have been a real disciple.
As it is, I feel as if the best I can do
is be what the philosopher Kierkegaard called
“a disciple at second hand.”

But our Gospel today indicates that being Jesus’ contemporary
did not necessarily confer any advantage
with regard to being his disciple.
In today’s reading from John’s Gospel,
Jesus performs a rather strange, disruptive act
in the temple in Jerusalem,
utters some cryptic words about his Father’s house,
and speaks mysteriously
about a temple being torn down and rebuilt in three days —
and his disciples are left, frankly, baffled.
They have no idea what he is talking about.
They see his actions with their own eyes
and hear his words with their own ears
and they are at least as puzzled as we are.
John tells us that it was only several years later,
after Jesus had been raised from the dead,
that they begin to understand
that it is his body that was the temple
torn down and rebuilt in three days.
John tells us that it is only after,
when Jesus’ mortal voice had faded from their hearing,
that, “his disciples remembered that he had said this,
and they came to believe the Scripture
and the word Jesus had spoken.”
Though they were his contemporaries,
they found it no easier than we do to believe his words
and to answer his call to come and be his disciple.
As Paul indicates in our second reading,
the words and actions of Jesus
seemed foolish and weak when viewed from the perspective
of human wisdom and human strength.

So Jesus’ contemporaries were as bad off as we are
with regard to discipleship.
They had as much difficulty as we do grasping the truth
of “the foolishness of God,”
of feeling the power of “the weakness of God.”
Indeed, they were in some sense worse off than we are,
because they only learned later
what we have proclaimed to us now:
that “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom,
and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
They had to await Christ’s resurrection before they could
“believe the Scripture and the word Jesus had spoken.”
The faith, hope and love of the disciples
was born from the empty tomb
and Jesus' risen presence among them.

But for us, Jesus Christ crucified and risen
stands in our midst right now,
if we can but see with the eyes of faith
and listen with ears of hope.
Indeed, if Jesus is not present to us here and now
as much as he was present in Jerusalem two-thousand years ago —
indeed, if he is not in a sense more present to us
because he has been raised to new life in the Spirit —
then we might as well stop now and all go home.

So for Lent, I’ve decided to give something up:
I am going to give up making excuses.
I’ve decided to stop telling myself
that if only I could have been there
to see and hear Jesus with my own eyes and ears,
if I could only have heard his own voice calling me,
then I would be a real disciple,
then I would sit at his feet and learn from him,
then I would heed his call to follow him where he would lead me.
Because the fact is, the risen Jesus is here now,
calling me and calling you;
his own voice is calling us, no less than it called his first disciples.
If we believe that Christ is risen and active in our midst
then the time for excuses is over
and the time of discipleship has begun.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Job, who is perhaps history’s most famously unhappy person,
says in our first reading,
"the night drags on;
I am filled with restlessness until the dawn."
The image conjures for us those nights
in which we toss and turn
and wonder if the dawn will ever arrive.

Not just the restlessness of sleepless nights,
though Job undoubtedly had many of those,
but a restlessness that is at the very core of our being.
The restlessness of creatures whose "life is like the wind,"
who long for union with their creator,
who long to see clearly that which they now perceive only dimly,
who long to find a love that will never disappoint,
a cause that will not fail.
This is the restlessness
of which St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions:
"O God, you have made us for yourself,
and our hearts are restless until they rest in you."

For the first thirty years of his life,
Augustine knew this restlessness
in the young person’s desire to have life mean something,
the desire not to settle from just some job
or just some relationship
or just some life,
the desire to live intensely
and to find that thing into which you can pour your love,
invest your life, and which will not fail you
by becoming boring or routine or trite.
This restlessness yearning for meaning led Augustine
through a succession of religions and philosophies,
friendships, jobs, and lovers.
If I may be permitted to associate him with another author
with whom he is not usually associated,
the young Augustine reminds me of Jack Kerouac,
who wrote in his book On the Road:
"the only people for me are the mad ones,
the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved,
desirous of everything at the same time,
the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing,
but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles
exploding like spiders across the stars
and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop
and everybody goes ‘Awww!’"

Even those of us who are no longer young
can perhaps recall that feeling,
that thirst to have life mean something more,
that burning to be something more.
Maybe, beneath the rhythm of life’s routine,
we feel it still,
a kind of syncopation that calls to us:
"your life can mean more;
your life can be more."

Augustine eventually found
that his infinite thirst for life could only be quenched
by the God who is the infinite source of life.
And yet, even in finding God,
in falling deeply in love
with the one who had loved him into existence,
Augustine did not lose his restlessness;
his life as a Christian remained a life of always seeking more,
always seeking to know God better
and to love God more deeply,
to know as we are known
and to love as we are loved.
Our life on earth, he came to realize,
remains, even for the Christian,
a restless pilgrimage though time,
and it is only at the end of this pilgrimage
that our restless hearts will find their rest in God.

It does not end when we realize
that we will only find our rest in God.
But it does change;
it does take on a new direction and purpose,
and in finding its direction it becomes somehow different.
The restlessness of aimless wandering,
the vague feeling that there is. . .
that there must be. . .
something more,
gives way to the restlessness of the pilgrim
who knows that he or she has a destination,
even if it lies unseen over the horizon,
and who hastens toward it.
We have a goal, we have a purpose,
and we are restless until we reach it.

Like Jesus in today’s Gospel, we cannot rest where we are,
whatever successes we might have had in that place,
but are called always onward into new labors in new places.
When asked by his disciples to return to Capernaum
and continue his successful ministry there
Jesus instead tells them that he must go
and preach in new towns and new villages.
It is for this purpose that Christ has come
and it is for this same purpose that God
has called us to be his disciples.
Because God’s love for the world infinitely surpasses
what we can even begin to imagine,
the task of bringing that love to the world
is always a task of restlessly hastening onward,
a restless task of becoming all things to all,
so that all might be won for Christ.

But not the restlessness of those who lie restless on their beds,
hoping against hope for a dawn that will show them
that their lives can mean more, can be more.
Rather, the restlessness of pilgrims
who long to always be moving forward
into the mystery of God’s love
because their lives
have already begun to mean more, to be more.
And within that restless pilgrimage there is a peace
that allows us to journey without fear
because the goal of our journeying
does not lie hidden and unknown
but has come to meet us in Jesus Christ.
Indeed, the one who is our destination
has come to join us as a fellow pilgrim
and our restless hearts
are already enfolded within the heart of Christ.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Baptism of the Lord

The poem "Christmas Oratorio" by W. H. Auden begins:
"Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers."

But more than regretting Christmas excesses,
Auden sounds an elegiac note,
mourning the passing of Christmas
and the beginning of what he calls "the Time Being" —
the everyday life of school and work
and days unmarked by anticipation or feasting
He says:
"To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all."

The Time Being seems pale and lifeless
in comparison to the excesses of Christmas,
but not just the material excesses of food and drink,
but the spiritual excess, as Auden puts it, of:
"Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It."
This is the true excess of Christmas:
an excess of faith, hope and love
that opens our eyes to the possibility
of everyone and everything made alive by the Spirit —
a virgin become a mother,
a stable become a palace,
shepherds become courtiers,
and a feed trough become the throne of a king.
It is a time of magical transformations.

But now we return to the Time Being.
And what does the Church offer us today,
as we wrap up our celebration of the Christmas season
and carry it back to the attic
or drag it out to the curbside?
We begin our return to the Time Being —
what we in the Church call Ordinary Time —
by remembering the baptism of Jesus.
But why?
What does the baptism of Jesus
have to do with Christmas excess?
What does the baptism of Jesus
have to do with the Time Being
in which we live our daily lives?
And how does the baptism of Jesus
help us to link these two?

In Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus’s baptism,
we find many of the same elements that occur
in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke:
John the Baptist,
the Jordan river,
the Spirit in the form of a dove,
the Father’s voice from heaven saying,
"You are my beloved Son;
with you I am well pleased."
But in Mark we find a small detail that is a bit different:
whereas Matthew and Luke speak
of the heavens "opening" at Jesus’ baptism,
Mark says, "On coming up out of the water
he saw the heavens being torn open
and the Spirit, like a dove, descending upon him."

This image of the heavens being "torn open" is striking
because the language conveys an event
that is dramatic, drastic, almost violent.
It is as if the heavens —
that boundary zone between the world of God
and the human world —
must be forced open
so that the Spirit might descend
and the Father speak.
It is as if a veil that has fallen between God and the world
is being ripped away.
This scene is echoed at the end of Mark’s Gospel,
when at the death of Jesus the curtain in the Temple,
which represents the separation of God from creatures,
is torn miraculously in two from top to bottom.

Mark is giving us a clue as to what Jesus is all about:
the veil between God and humanity being torn open
by God coming to dwell among us as a human.
This is what Advent and Christmas have been about.
This is what Lent and Good Friday and Easter will be about.
And this is what the Time Being —
our Ordinary Time —
is about.
It is really all just one mystery:
the mystery of the heavens torn open
and the grace of the Spirit raining down on us.
This is the mystery of Jesus’ baptism,
and this is the mystery that we share in through our own baptisms.

The elegiac, mournful tone of Auden’s poem
captures well how we might feel
about the passing of Christmas.
But this feast of the baptism of Jesus remind us
that the true mystery of Christmas has not passed.
Because of Jesus —
because of God dwelling in our human flesh —
the world has been changed.
Each and every time that we gather at this altar
the heavens are torn open and the Spirit descends
and God says: this is my beloved Son,
present under the appearances of bread and wine,
and present in you
who have been baptized into his death and resurrection.

So as we leave the Christmas season behind us,
we may regret the excesses of food and drink,
but let us never regret the excess of faith, hope and love
with which this season has filled us.
Let us hold in our hearts the vision of the heavens torn open
and God in our midst,
so that even the Time Being,
the Ordinary Time of our daily lives,
will reveal itself to us as the time of the world transformed.