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.