Sunday, December 26, 2010

Holy Family

Today, on the Feast of the Holy Family,
we continue to celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation –
our belief that God the eternal Son,
through whom all things were made,
became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth;
in Jesus Christ God has lived a human life.
But more than that, today’s Gospel reminds us that
in Jesus Christ God has chosen
to live a certain kind of human life.

This morning St. Matthew presents us
with what is still in our world
an all-too-familiar human story:
a family fleeing violence in their homeland
undertakes a journey involving great peril
to seek refuge in a foreign land
where they may not speak the language,
where their religion and culture and ethnicity
may appear to their neighbors to be alien
and perhaps even threatening,
where whatever social or economic status
they had in their homeland
may not translate into similar status in their new home,
where they may find themselves living on the margins of society
without any way to move into the mainstream.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph find themselves
among the ranks of history’s refugees,
among the “displaced persons”
who throughout history have had to choose
between violence at home and exile in a foreign land.

There are many other all-too-familiar human stories
involving families:
families locked into cycles of poverty and social marginalization,
families torn apart by broken promises and old hurts,
families that are scenes of physical and emotional violence
rather than havens of peace.
These all-too-familiar human stories remind us
that all of us are in some sense “displaced persons”
who live our lives exiled from all that we had hoped
those lives might have been.

The mystery of the Incarnation is that God,
the creator of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible,
has chosen to live among us
and to make this all-too-familiar human story his own.
God, who is supremely rich,
the source and center of the world’s existence,
chose to be poor,
and ultimately to die on the cross.
Without ceasing to be God,
the Word becomes flesh and dwells among us,
sharing the joys and hopes,
the sorrows and anxieties,
of the human race.
As Saint Catherine of Siena put it:
“You, God, have clothed yourself in our humanity,
and nearer than that you could not have come” (Dialogue ch. 153).

God becomes human, sharing our human poverty,
so that we humans might come to share in God’s riches.
God becomes a displaced person,
so that we might find in God the place where we truly belong.
The mystery of the Incarnation is just this simple
and just this mysterious:
God has joined us in our exile
to transform that place of exile into our true home,
to make us members of God’s holy family.

And if this is true, then we ought to live with each other
in a way that reflects this mystery.
The letter to the Colossians tells us:
“Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,
bearing with one another and forgiving one another.”
This too is something supremely simple . . . and mysterious.

It is something simple because this way of living
has been shown to us by Jesus –
in the face of the all-too-familiar human story
of betrayal and disappointment,
he chose to live a life of openness and compassion;
in him we have been shown what a truly human life looks like,
we see what it means to find our place in God’s family,
to be sons and daughters of God.
How we ought to live together is as simple as the story of Jesus.

But it is also something mysterious,
because we know
that we can live this truly human life,
that our place of exile can become our true home,
that we can find our place in God’s family,
only if we open ourselves to God’s grace.
We can be compassionate,
only if we, as the letter to the Colossians says,
let the word of Christ dwell in us richly –
if we, like Mary and Joseph, have Jesus with us in our land of exile.
As Paul reminds us,
“whatever you do, in word or in deed,
do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

In the Incarnation, God did not simply live a human life,
but God lived the all-too-familiar human story
of exile and rejection.
And the joy of Christmas is that in living that story
Jesus has rewritten it,
Jesus has transformed it,
Jesus has triumphed over it
and so has made this our land of exile
into the place where God dwells richly among us,
making us into the holy family of God.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Advent 3

“Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?”
This is the question that John the Baptist,
imprisoned by King Herod and facing execution,
sends his followers to ask Jesus.
“Are you the one who is to come,
or should we look for another?”

This question is a puzzling one.
Why would John, whom we heard last week
confidently heralding Jesus’ coming,
suddenly seem to doubt that Jesus really is God’s anointed one?
Having proclaimed him the one who is to come,
why would he be sending his followers
to ask if Jesus is really the one who is to come?
Has he forgotten?
Does he think he might have been wrong?

Early Christian theologians were puzzled by this as well,
and tended to think that John
was not really asking a genuine question,
but was posing the question rhetorically,
for the benefit of his followers.
In other words, he knows the answer,
but he wants his followers to hear the words
from Jesus’ own lips
so that they will know, as John knows,
that Jesus is the one who is to come.

I have always found this interpretation of John’s question
somewhat dissatisfying,
probably because I find disingenuous rhetorical questions
somewhat irritating,
as if John were trying to be sly,
by pretending not to know something that he knows perfectly well.

Pope Gregory the Great, in the late-6th century,
took a different approach to this story.
As he interprets it, John is asking a genuine question.
He has no doubt that Jesus is the promised Messiah,
since he had clearly declared this at the beginning of the Gospel,
when he served as Christ’s herald.
But now, at this point in the story,
John is seeking to know something different.
John is facing execution at the hands of Herod;
he knows that he will soon depart this life
for the realm of the dead.
Thus, Gregory says, he is asking
whether he will also be Christ’s herald among the dead,
whether Christ, who had come into our world as God with us,
would also be God with us even in death.
As Gregory puts it, it was as if John were asking,
“Just as you deigned to be born on behalf of human beings . . . ,
will you also die on our behalf” (Homily 5).

I will admit,
Gregory’s interpretation might seem like just as much of a stretch
as the interpretation that says
that John is asking only a rhetorical question.
Yet there is something about it that makes sense to me.
Facing death, John is confronted with a new question:
how deep does your faith in Jesus go?
He believed fervently that Jesus had come into this world
to share our human life.
Now John wants to know,
has he come also to share our human death?
In our Gospel last week John had declared,
“the one who is coming is mightier than I.”
Now John asks, “just how mighty are you?
Are you mighty enough to conquer even death?
I am about to go into the darkness.
Will you be there?
Are you mighty enough to follow me into that dark place
and bring me back to the kingdom of life?”
Will you be there to say to me,
“Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God, he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense he comes to save you.”
John is asking for the gift of faith, to believe that,
even into the mystery of death,
Jesus is the one who is to come.
He will come with his light to dispel death’s darkness.

And as with John, so too with us:
we too ask of Jesus,
“Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”
Are you the one who will come to me
in the darkest places of my life?
Will you be there when I am in pain,
when I am alone,
when I am terrified,
when I am confused,
when I am in the valley of the shadow of death?
Are you the one?
Are you mighty enough to share my weakness?
You who deigned to be born on behalf of human beings,
will you also die on our behalf?
Joining me in death, will you lead me back to life?

We pray in this Advent that God would find us ready,
waiting to receive Jesus.
But perhaps even more we should pray
for a deeper faith that it is Jesus who is ready,
waiting to receive us.
Let us pray this Advent
that God would find us ready to believe
that no place is so dark that God in Christ is not there,
ready to meet us with joy and gladness,
ready to set sorrow and mourning to flight.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

“You can’t take it with you.”
That is at least part of Jesus’ reply
to the Sadducees in today’s Gospel.
The Sadducees were a group within Judaism
who held to a very traditional interpretation of the Law
and who, in particular, rejected what they considered the novel idea
that in God’s kingdom those righteous one’s who had died
would be raised to new life.
We see this belief testified to in our first reading,
from the book of Maccabees:
“the King of the world will raise us up again to live forever.”
For the Sadducees, this idea was a dangerous innovation
that undermined their more traditional view
that people were rewarded or punished by God in this life.
So they pose to Jesus,
who teaches this dangerously innovative idea of resurrection,
the following puzzle:
If a woman’s husband dies, and she marries his brother,
who in turn dies, and she marries another brother,
and so on and so forth through seven brothers
(if I were the seventh brother
I would think twice before marrying this woman),
when the dead are raised to new life,
whose wife will she be?

Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees is twofold.

The first part of his answer is to make clear
that the kind of life led by those
whom God will raise from death to new life
is something quite different from the sort of life we live now.
Those who live in the kingdom of God
“neither marry nor are given in marriage.”
No doubt in God’s kingdom we will still love
those whom we have loved in the time of this life,
but the institution of marriage itself,
tied up as it is with creating households and raising children,
is for this world, not for the kingdom.
People say, “you can’t take it with you,”
and it would seem that, according to Jesus,
marriage is one of those things you can’t take with you.

The second part of Jesus answer to the Sadducees
is that we believe that the dead shall be raised
because we believe that our God is the God of the living;
what it means truly to live is to live in relationship with God
and God’s relationship to those whom God loves
cannot be defeated, even by death.
As Paul says in our second reading,
“the Lord is faithful;
he will strengthen you and guard you.”
Those whom we think of as dead are not dead to God,
and when God’s kingdom is manifested in its fullness
we shall see and know the fullness of life
that is enjoyed by those righteous ones
who have died in God’s cause.
While the saying “you can’t take it with you”
applies to many things in this world,
it doesn’t apply to our relationship with God.
In fact, it seems that this relationship
is the one thing you can take with you.

So Jesus’ response to the Sadducees is to remind them
that the things we think of as making up the fabric of our life –
institutions like marriage,
political structures,
economic systems,
and even the outward forms of the Church –
are in fact simply temporary bulwarks
that we construct against the terrifying reality of death,
and in the age to come they will give way
before the one reality that is the true fabric of our life:
God’s love for us.
You can’t take these things with you
because you don’t need to take them with you;
in the fullness of God’s kingdom,
God’s love alone will unite us with God and with each other
and we will not need those temporary structures
that form the fabric of our lives in this world.

But, of course, we do not yet live
in the fullness of God’s kingdom.
In the time of this life
people still marry and are given in marriage,
they vote and run in elections,
they invest and spend money,
they gather weekly as Church
to hear God’s Word spoken in human words
and to encounter God through sacramental signs.
In the time of this life these things,
provisional though they be,
are the warp and woof from which our lives are woven.
In the time of this life these things,
provisional though they be,
are of crucial importance
to the life that we hope to live in the kingdom of God.
In the time of this life these things,
provisional though they be,
are the means by which we bear witness in this age
to the life we hope to live in the age to come.

Though there will be no marriage in the kingdom of God,
how we live our committed relationships in this age
can become a sign
of how we will live our risen life in the age to come
if we live those commitments
with integrity and honesty and self-sacrifice.
Though there will be, thank God,
no politics or economies in the kingdom of God,
how we inhabit the political and economic structures of this age
can become a sign of our dwelling in God’s kingdom
if we inhabit those structures in such a way that we always look,
not to our own concerns and well-being,
but to the concerns and well-being
of the poor, the outcast and the defenseless.
Though there will be no need
for sacramental signs in the kingdom of God,
how we gather as Church in this age
can become a sign of the heavenly liturgy
that we will celebrate in the kingdom
if we give ourselves generously and without reservation
to the worship of God.

Marriage, power, money,
even the outward structures of the Church. . .
you can’t take them with you
into the risen life of God’s kingdom.
We can, however, use them in this age,
in the time of this life,
as a means by which we begin to live that risen life now.
They are the strands from which
the fabric of our lives is woven,
the lives that we are called to place
at the service of God and neighbor.

Next week we will be asking you to consider again
your financial support of our parish.
I always tell people that if they do not give more money
our doors will not close,
our current staff will not have to be let go;
we will find a way to make do.
But that is not why we give.
We given because even though
both our money and our parish community
are simply provisional realities,
neither of which will go with us into God’s kingdom,
the two of them together
can become a sign of that kingdom here and now.
You can’t take it with you,
but you can use it now in such a way
that it becomes a sign
of the risen life we will lead in the age to come.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

There are many interesting issues raised in today’s Gospel –
concerning healing, gratitude and so forth –
but I want to begin with one question:
why is it that, when the ten lepers ask Jesus to heal them,
he tells them to go show themselves to the priests?
According to the book of Leviticus,
it was the role of the priests in the Temple
to examine those who had been afflicted
with the disease of Leprosy
in order to see if they had recovered,
so they could be re-admitted to the community of Israel.
When Jesus tells them to go and show themselves to the priests,
he is telling them to do what the Law of God required them to do.
So perhaps we ought not to be so hard on the nine lepers who went on their way
without so much as a “thank you” to Jesus.
They were, after all, doing what was right
in the eyes of their religious tradition;
they were doing what was expected of them
as good Israelites.

But one leper came back. Why?
Well, he was a Samaritan.
As you may know, the Samaritans
were something like second-cousins to the Jews
who worshipped the God of Israel,
but did not worship at the Temple in Jerusalem
or accept the Temple priesthood.
What is surprising
is that he would have approached Jesus in the first place,
for at the time of Jesus there was a great deal of hostility
between Jews and Samaritans
and the fact that Samaritan
would have gone to a Jewish holy man for healing
can only be a sign of just how desperate he was.
But it is not surprising that he would have felt no great urgency
to fulfill Jesus’ command
to go show himself to the priests,
since Samaritans did not think much
of the priests in Jerusalem to begin with.
He knew that he was an outsider,
and that even now that he had been cleansed of his leprosy
he was still an outsider.
But being an outsider helped him to see
something that the insiders missed;
it allowed him to see that it was Jesus who had healed him
and it was to Jesus that he was to give thanks.

His nine fellow-lepers were so well schooled
in their traditions and customs
that they seem to have been blinded
to what God was actually doing in their midst.
They were so focused on religious business-as-usual
that they missed something truly extraordinary:
the kingdom of God present in the healing ministry of Jesus.
“Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
The insiders could benefit from the perspective of the outsider.

This valuing of the perspective of the outsider
is a theme that runs throughout the Old and New Testaments.
Those who are not settled
within the well-worn patterns of religion and culture
bring to us fresh eyes with which to see
what God is doing in the world.
Prophets like Jeremiah seem deliberately
to make themselves outsiders
so as to better hear the Word of God.
This insight is an integral element
in the long-standing Catholic tradition
of openness to and advocacy for migrants and refugees.
In his 2003 Message on the World Day of Migrants and Refugees
Pope John Paul II called this openness part of,
“the Christian duty to welcome
whoever comes knocking out of need.”
In other words, it is nothing less than what we must do
if we wish to hear on the day of judgment:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father.
Inherit the kingdom prepared for you
from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink,
a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:34-35).

But this openness is more than a matter
of simple Christian charity,
for we are called not simply to give to the outsider,
but also to receive from the outsider,
to receive from the outsider a fresh perspective
on ourselves, our world, and our God.
Pope John Paul went on in the same message to say,
“Such openness builds up vibrant Christian communities,
enriched by the Spirit with the gifts brought to them
by new disciples from other cultures.”
We cannot be complete without the other, the outsider,
who can see us in a way that we can never see ourselves.
In the foreigner who returns to give thanks,
who perceives God present
in a place we never thought to look,
we learn something new about ourselves and about God.

We have seen this in our own parish community,
in all that we have gained in the past few years
from our Filipino parishioners,
who have enriched us with their customs
and given us fresh eyes with which to see
what God is doing in the world.
They have helped our parish to become more Catholic,
more universal,
through the Missa de Gallo,
Our Lady of Perpetual Help,
and most of all their prayerful presence among us.

I believe it is particularly important
to recall our Catholic tradition
of openness to and advocacy for migrants and refugees,
and our Catholic belief that we are enriched
by those who come to us as outsiders,
as questions of immigration reform begin to come to the fore
in America’s political debates.
Immigration reform is a complex issue,
and I would not presume to suggest in this forum
how we should go about balancing
and concern for the common good
in the enacting of legislation.
People of good will can differ on these issues
and on details of various proposals.
These matters are complex and the correct solution is not always obvious.
But politics can get ugly,
and sometimes we can get ugly along with it.
Sometimes we can get locked into the framework of American politics
and forget that we are first of all Catholics.
But, as Paul reminds us in our second reading,
the word of God is not chained,
and today God's word reminds us that
there are some things that we as Catholics can never do.
We can never use the stranger in our midst as a political football
in order to gain an electoral victory.
We can never demonize those we perceive as outsiders
or to use them as scapegoats for a host of social problems.
We can never convince ourselves that we “insiders”
have nothing to learn,
nothing to gain,
in welcoming these “outsiders.”
We as Catholics can never forget
that Christ is to be found in the stranger that we welcome
and that it is sometimes the foreigner among us
who sees that to which we are blind,
who recalls to us what we have forgotten,
and who reminds us to return to give thanks to God.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

How do you react in a crisis?
When you find yourself at a crossroads
and are confronted with events
that threaten to turn your life upside down,
what do you do?
Where do you find the resources to know how to act?

In today’s gospel Jesus tells the story of a man who is faced with a crisis
that many people today are also faced with: the impending loss of his job.
Of course, in his case he is about to lose his job
not because of an economic downturn
but because he has been squandering his employer’s money.
But what is important is that he doesn’t panic but rather, true to form,
sets about securing a golden parachute for himself.
He does this by, as it were, cooking the books to help out those
who are in debt to his employer,
so that when he is turned out on the street
they will all owe him a favor
that he can cash in.
Funny enough, by means of this craftiness,
he earns the admiration of his employer,
who is probably none too honest himself.
The rich man praises his dishonest employee for his prudence;
the Greek word is phronesis,
which is the name the philosopher Aristotle gives
to the disposition of the mind
by which we know how to act in a particular situation
so as to achieve a fulfilling life.
And in this case, the dishonest employee certain shows phronesis,
particularly given that his own understanding of “fulfillment”
seems bound up with having material possessions.
Indeed, he does not hesitate;
it is as if he had been preparing for this crisis his whole life,
and he knows exactly how to respond.

Earlier this week, the Church offered for our consideration
the story of another man facing a crisis.
Last Thursday was the feast of St. Cyprian of Carthage,
who was a bishop in North Africa in the third century AD.
Cyprian had guided his flock
through a period of severe persecution under the emperor Valerian
until the time came when he too was arrested
and put on trial for being a Christian.
At his trial the Roman governor of the province told him
that if he would perform a ritual sacrifice to the emperor,
signifying his renunciation of the Christian faith,
his life would be spared.
Cyprian responded, “I will not do so.”
The governor said, “Consider your position,”
to which Cyprian replied,
“In such a just cause there is no need for deliberation.”
The governor then decreed that Cyprian would be executed,
as an example to other Christians,
to dissuade them from resisting the emperor’s decree.
So the sentence was carried out.
Like the dishonest employee in Jesus’ parable,
Cyprian too does not hesitate;
it is as if he had been preparing for this crisis his whole life,
and he knows exactly how to respond.

What makes us capable of responding in a crisis,
and what determines how we respond?
How do we acquire prudence or phronesis?
Jesus says,
“The person who is trustworthy” –
the Greek word is actually pistos or “faithful” –
“in very small matters
is also trustworthy in great ones;
and the person who is dishonest in very small matters
is also dishonest in great ones.”
In other words, we prepare for great moments of crisis
by means of the little choices we make each and every day,
the choices that form our character,
that make us the people that we are.

The dishonest employee in the parable
spent his life being dishonest in small matters,
and when the moment of great crisis comes,
he is dishonest then as well.
St. Cyprian spent his life seeking God’s grace to be faithful
and when the moment of great crisis comes, he is faithful to the end,
boldly professing Christ even in the face of death.
This single moment of boldness
grew out of a multitude of small acts of love,
thousands of brief prayers for grace and assistance,
hundreds of occasions when he gathered with God’s people at Christ’s altar
to be strengthened by the Eucharist.
These are perhaps small matters, taken singly,
but they were for Cyprian
what prepared him for the decisive moment
in which he would witness to Christ at the cost of his life.

The Roman governor said Cyprian would be executed
as an example to others.
As sometimes happens, he spoke better than he knew,
for he meant that Cyprian’s death would be a warning to other Christians,
but instead, Cyprian became for them an example
of a truly fulfilling life: a life of faith.
He became an example of how being faithful in small matters
can lead to faithfulness in those moments
when everything in our lives comes together as if at a crossroads,
a moment of crisis.

It is not so different with us here today.
Many people in this parish have had to face moments of crisis,
when everything comes together as at a crossroads:
the death of someone they love,
the loss of a job or a home,
the painful ending of a relationship,
the realization that they or someone they love suffers from an addiction,
moments of doubt about themselves and even about God.
And I have seen them respond
with a faith and a resilience that is astonishing.
Of course, in the end all of this is a matter of the sheer grace of God,
freely given to us out of love.
But this is not a grace that is suddenly dumped on us in that moment of crisis,
but a grace that works its way into our hearts and minds
over the course of a lifetime,
as we have sought to be faithful and hopeful and loving in small matters.
So let us pray for the grace to live our lives in such a way
that when the decisive moment comes,
and it seems as though the meaning of our entire life
hangs on how we respond,
we will be able to speak and act in a way
that shows us to be who we have become:
faithful disciples of Jesus, who live by his Spirit.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Although we habitually speak of heaven as “up” and of hell as “down,”
I suspect that most of us know, as most Christians have always known,
that neither place can be reached by traversing a physical distance.
Indeed, a number of years ago
Pope John Paul II reiterated the traditional Christian view,
saying, “the ‘heaven’ or ‘happiness’ in which we will find ourselves
is neither an abstraction
nor a physical place in the clouds,
but a living, personal relationship with the Holy Trinity”
(General Audience, Wednesday 21 July 1999).
In other words, “heaven” is not so much a place
as it is a state of being.

It is good to remind ourselves of this
when we celebrate a feast such as the one we celebrate today.
Today, the feast of the Assumption, we celebrate our belief
that Mary, upon her death,
was taken body and soul into heavenly glory.
Already in the 451 AD, when the Emperor Marcian
asked the bishop of Jerusalem
to bring Mary’s bones to Constantinople
so that they might be placed in the cathedral there,
the bishop responded to his request by saying that,
“Mary had died in the presence of the apostles;
but her tomb, when opened later . . .
was found empty
and so the apostles concluded that the body was taken up into heaven."
Universal acceptance of this belief
developed over the centuries in the Church
until it was solemnly defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950
as part of the official body of teachings of the Catholic Church.

Now one might imagine this event
as one often sees it depicted in art:
with Mary slowly rising up into the clouds,
perhaps with angels beneath her feet,
giving her an extra boost.
But if heaven is not a physical place,
but rather a state of being in perfect relationship with God –
a state that involves a radical transformation
of our entire self, body and soul –
then these artistic imaginings
must be understood as precisely that:
acts of the human imagination,
in which we attempt to depict for ourselves
realities that go beyond what our minds can fully grasp.
So when we speak of Mary being “assumed” or taken up into heaven,
we aren’t really talking about a direction to which we can point
or a distance that we can traverse.
Mary is not, literally speaking, “up there”
because heaven is not, literally speaking, “up there.”

But it is not too hard to imagine
why people have spoken that way over the years.
There is something about the sky –
or, as we sometimes call them, the heavens –
that speak to us of that exalted state of being
that we might call “heavenly glory,”
that state of being into which Mary has entered.

This summer, while on vacation in Northwestern Colorado,
in one of those increasingly rare places
where there is no electrical lighting for miles around,
I was amazed by the night sky.
In contrast to Baltimore, where at night our stingy skies
might favor us with at best a glimpse of the Big Dipper,
there the stars were strewn across of sky with reckless prodigality.
Their number and their variety were almost more
than the mind and senses could take in;
the immensity of the space of the sky
was like a pool into which one could fall forever.
I was put in mind of the words
of the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:
“Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!"
It was as if in the sky above us
God had provided the whole world
with a symbol of heavenly glory.
The night sky spoke of a mystery
in which there is always more to discover,
a pearl of great price
for which it just might make sense to risk everything,
a standing invitation
to join the fire-folk dwelling there in glory.
It made it possible to imagine
that that which spread itself out above me
was not merely a sky,
but was indeed the heavens.

What better place to imagine Mary,
“a woman clothed with the sun,
with the moon under her feet,
and on her head a crown of twelve stars”?
Surely of all Christ’s followers, Mary is among the fire-folk,
those in whom God’s grace has kindled the fire of divine love.
St. Augustine wrote:
“My weight is my love.
Wherever I am carried, my love is carrying me.
By your gift we are set on fire and carried upwards;
we grow red hot and ascend” (Confessions, 8.9.10).
Mary loved God,
and that love has carried her into heavenly glory.

It is perhaps fitting that,
on this feast of Mary’s being taken up
into the mystery that we call heaven,
our Gospel lets Mary herself speak
of the love that burns within her,
the divine gift by which she is carried upward.
She sings in her Magnificant, her song of praise to God,
of the love that casts down the mighty from their throne
and has lifted up the lowly.
Mary is lifted up in her lowliness
because she said “yes” to God’s love,
said "yes" to the invitation
to become the mother of Jesus, God with us.

But this feast is not just about Mary,
for Mary is not only the Mother of God,
but also the first disciple,
the first to say “yes” to Jesus Christ.
And all of us who say “yes” to Jesus stand with Mary:
we have hope that Mary’s destiny in heavenly glory
will also be our destiny;
we have hope that the unimaginable joy of eternal life with God
will be ours as well;
we have hope that we too will be among the fire-folk
who burn with divine love.

So heaven may not be “up”
and hell may not be “down,”
but the next time you happen to be away from the city’s lights
and the night is particularly clear,
and you find yourself beneath that great symbol of heaven,
“Look at the stars! Look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!"
Imagine Mary among the stars in glory,
and imagine yourself there too.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

In the Christian tradition,
today’s Gospel has usually been understood
in terms of two different sorts of Christian callings –
the calling to the life of active service, represented by Martha,
and the calling to the life of contemplative prayer, represented by Mary –
and the relative superiority of the life of contemplation to the life of action.
But if we read this story from Luke’s gospel in light of our first reading,
which is the story from Genesis
about Abraham’s reception of three mysterious angelic figures
who bring him unexpected tidings
of the impending birth of Isaac, his son,
then the story of Mary and Martha can also be read
as a story about hospitality.
In particular, it is a story about our hospitality
and the hospitality of God.

In our parish of Corpus Christi
we tend to think of ourselves as a pretty hospitable bunch,
welcoming all sorts and conditions of people into our community
and seeking to live together the good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ,
good news that inspires us to reach out to the stranger.
Indeed, the annual event of Artscape allows us to show our hospitality
by offering our church building as a venue for performances,
as well as offering the building itself
as one of the significant works of art in the city of Baltimore,
a space that speaks through the medium of art
of the fundamental mysteries of our Catholic Christian faith.
And, in the past few weeks,
we have had the additional opportunity to flex our hospitality muscles
in welcoming Fr. Marty as our new pastor.
It is precisely these sorts of occasions
that invite us to reflect on what it means to be hospitable.

In the ancient world, receiving hospitality was necessary for survival
when one found oneself a stranger in a strange land
and hotels, motels, and bed and breakfasts had not yet been invented.
The first reading notes that Abraham sees the three visitors,
“when the day was growing hot”
and that he offers them shade and water, as well as food to eat.
In a harsh physical environment, receiving and offering hospitality
can be a matter of life and death.
In this case, the three visitors
are messengers or angels sent from God,
so it is not so important that they receive hospitality
as it is that Abraham offers it to them.
Indeed, throughout the Old Testament God tells the Israelites
that they are to show hospitality to strangers
because God has shown hospitality to them,
taking them in when they were wandering strangers without a homeland.
Part of what it means truly to receive God’s hospitality,
is to show hospitality to others.

In the Gospel, Martha reacts to the arrival of Jesus
in a way not unlike Abraham
reacting to the arrival of his three guests:
she runs around, getting things ready,
becoming in the process, as Jesus notes,
“anxious and worried about many things.”
Indeed, she gets herself in such a state
that she asks Jesus, her houseguest,
to take her side in an argument with her sister:
“Lord, do you not care that my sister
has left me by myself to do the serving?
Tell her to help me.”

Think about this for a second:
someone comes to your house
and you try to drawn him into a domestic dispute.
This is hospitality?
It sounds more like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
It would be as if we asked our newly-arrived pastor
to take a side in some long-standing feud among parishioners,
and I know none of us would ever do something like that.
Martha may think she is the one being hospitable,
but in fact she has tried to put Jesus, her guest,
in a very uncomfortable position.
Moreover, she is so busy doing things for Jesus
that she cannot take the time to be with Jesus, her guest,
except to pop in to complain about her sister.

We might be inclined to forgive Martha these breaches of hospitality
since she, like many of us, is burdened with much serving.
Also, she is, after all, only doing what she thinks is expected of her
as a woman in the household.
Indeed, she probably presumed that, as a woman,
all that she could offer a religious teacher like Jesus
was her anxious, worried activity.
What she cannot imagine –
but which somehow Mary can imagine –
is that Jesus wants her to be with him,
in the position of a disciple,
sitting at his feet
and learning from him the mysteries of God’s kingdom.
Mary chooses the better part
because she chooses to be with Jesus;
she gives her guest the one thing that he really wants:
herself as his disciple.

True hospitality, Jesus seems to be saying,
is not so much a doing-for as it is a being-with.
In our everyday acts of hospitality,
all of our anxious and worried activity –
cooking food, making beds, cleaning bathrooms –
must at some point come to a stop
so that we can finally do the one thing
at which all our activity aims:
being with our guest;
giving ourselves to him or her by opening ourselves
and truly listening to what our guest has to say.
And when the one whom we are welcoming is God,
it is even more the case
that the only thing we really have to give
is our attentive presence.
We cannot really do-for God;
but we can certainly be-with God.
It is as if we show God hospitality
by accepting the hospitality God offers us.
That, after all, is all that God really desires.

And in the hospitality that we as Christians show to others –
whether through opening our church at Artscape,
or welcoming couples who wish to get married here,
or inviting people who want to explore the Catholic faith
to consider the RCIA process,
or even celebrating the arrival of a new pastor –
what we are really doing is inviting them to join us
in accepting God’s hospitality,
to join us in being-with God by being-with each other.
For it is in giving and receiving such hospitality
that we truly are corpus Christi: the body of Christ.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

The biologist Richard Dawkins, in his best-seller, The God Delusion,
writes of what he calls
“the unhealthy preoccupation of early Christian theologians with sin.”
He continues,
“They could have devoted their pages and their sermons
to extolling the sky splashed with stars,
or mountains and green forests, seas and dawn choruses.
These are occasionally mentioned,
but the Christian focus is overwhelmingly
on sin sin sin sin sin sin sin.
What a nasty little preoccupation to have dominating your life”
(The God Delusion p. 252).

To some, it might seem that our readings today
would bear out his charge:
we hear first of David who,
once he is caught out by Nathan and threatened by God,
repents of the sin of having Uriah killed;
then we hear Paul speak of our unrighteousness
and our need to be “justified” before God;
finally, we hear the story of this sinful woman,
whom Jesus compares to a debtor,
before he forgives her sins and sends her on her way.
So is sin the “nasty little preoccupation”
that dominates the minds of Christians?
Do we take some masochistic delight
in pondering and proclaiming our own wretchedness,
or, perhaps more plausibly, the wretchedness of others?
And does our “nasty little preoccupation” with sin
stunt our sense of the beauty and wonder of the natural world?

Some who do not share Professor Dawkins’s atheism
might still agree with him
that we’ve really had too much of this sin business
and that we ought to focus more on the goodness of God,
on God’s blessings,
and not so much on sin,
which simply leaves us paralyzed with guilt –
Catholic guilt, which apparently is the most virulent variety.
One might think that if we focus on our sinfulness,
we will miss the beauty of what God gives us;
we will fail to see the blessing of, in Dawkins’s lovely phrases,
“the sky splashed with stars,
or mountains and green forests,
seas and dawn choruses.”
The more we are preoccupied with sin,
the less we will perceive God’s goodness.

Well, Jesus seems to be of a different opinion,
at least in today’s Gospel reading.
While dining at the house of Simon the Pharisee,
a woman – apparently a well-known sinner in town –
interrupts the proceedings
by washing Jesus’ feet with her tears,
drying them with her hair,
and anointing them with an expensive ointment.
The reaction to this of Simon –
who sees only the woman’s sins
and her temerity in touching Jesus –
prompts Jesus to speak of the great love that has moved her
to such seemingly outrageous actions –
crashing a dinner party
and daring to touch a prophet with her sinner’s tears.
He implies that her love’s greatness is directly proportional
to the burden of sin that had been lifted from her,
the debt that is to be forgiven her:
“her many sins have been forgiven
because she has shown great love.
But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”

It is only because she knows how great her sins are
that she can have this great love awakened in her.
Her “nasty little preoccupation” with her sins
has opened before her vistas of divine love
vaster than the sky splashed with stars
and more beautiful than the dawn choruses.

How do we find this great love;
how can we have it awakened within us?
Where can we go to hear Jesus say to us what he said to her:
“Your sins are forgiven. . . Your faith has saved you; go in peace”?
In the Catholic tradition one of the privileged places
where we encounter Christ’s forgiveness
is the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
It is no secret that this is a sacrament that, in the past few decades,
many Catholics have come to practice only infrequently, if at all.
Recent data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate
at Georgetown University
shows that among those Americans who identify as Catholic,
only about a quarter goes to confession on even a yearly basis.
For about a ten-year period of my life,
I was among the three-quarters majority who never go:
held back by embarrassment, inertia, inconvenience,
and who knows how many other reasons.
I won’t speculate about other people’s reasons for avoiding the sacrament,
but I know that for myself
that the longer I stayed away from the sacrament
the harder it became to contemplate going,
as I imagined the priest saying,
“It’s been how many years since your last confession?”
I suppose I feared I would encounter someone who,
in terms of our Gospel,
was more like Simon the Pharisee and less like Jesus.
When, somehow moved by God’s grace,
I finally did return to the sacrament –
walking around a field in France,
confessing to a Benedictine monk
who was the only native English speaker in his monastery –
I was shocked to find that he was not shocked
by my long absence from the sacrament.
In fact, he didn’t seem much shocked by anything I said.
I discovered that all my reasons for not going to confession
were in fact excuses,
and that what had been dominating my life
was not my “nasty little preoccupation” with sin,
but my studious attempts to avoid thinking about sin –
or maybe I should say, “sin sin sin sin sin sin sin” –
in any personal way.

For Jesus, being aware of our sins –
indeed, confessing them,
weeping over them,
getting to our knees before the God whose love we have offended
and asking for mercy –
is not a “nasty little preoccupation,”
but a prelude to the great love
that can only be experienced in forgiveness.
It is not neurosis to know that we are sinners,
but rather a realistic assessment of our situation:
we have sinned in our thoughts and in our words,
in what we have done and in what we have failed to do.
To deny this is the true neurosis;
it is to lock ourselves into a world of illusion,
and to make ourselves
blind to the infinite vistas of God’s goodness
and deaf to the song of divine mercy.
For we cannot know how good God is
until we see that, despite our sins,
Jesus does not shrink from our touch.
We cannot love God with all our heart, mind and strength
until we know how great a debt has been forgiven us,
until we hear Christ say,
“Your sins are forgiven. . . Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Easter 5

As many of you know,
the pastoral council’s survey of the parish last year
revealed that 65% of those responding
have been in the parish for fewer than ten years,
and 51% had been in the parish for fewer than five years.
(I should note that, having been in the parish twelve years,
this makes me one of the “old timers” –
something I’m not too happy about.)
And if you have been paying attention
to those who tend to stand in the back of the church
you might have noticed that in the past six months
we have had something of a baby boom.
And when you add this to the seven children
we welcomed to Christ’s altar
at last week’s first communion celebration,
one has something of a sense of what John felt in the book of Revelation
when he heard the voice form the heavenly throne say,
“Behold, I make all things new.”

He must have felt a sense of exhilaration
at the new vistas opening up before him:
the new Jerusalem descending from heaven,
the city where God will dwell with the human race,
where “there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain,
for the old order has passed away.”
At the same time, John must have felt a sense of apprehension
at the prospect of all things being made new –
the prospect of the transformation of all that is familiar
into something new and different.
How, we might ask, will we find our way
if God makes all things new,
if the old order passes away entirely?

These thoughts occur to me at this particular moment
because on Thursday we buried Ruby Strawberry,
eighty-nine years old,
a long-time and faithful parishioner
who attended the 4:00 Mass,
and because in a few minutes we will baptize
two of our newest parishioners, Theo and Mary.
Somehow, at least in my mind, these two events
keep intersecting with each other.
It is tempting at such a moment
to think of an old order of things passing away
and a new order of things beginning,
to think of the passing the torch from one generation to another
as part of the ceaseless cycle of birth and death.

But I think there is something far more mysterious going on here.
It is not that Theo and Mary are arriving just as Ruby is leaving.
This might be true in terms of the natural cycles of birth and death,
but it is not true when we take into account the mystery of God’s grace.
For our faith is that Ruby hasn’t really left us;
reborn in Christ, she is not part of the old order that has passed away,
but rather is a citizen of the new and heavenly Jerusalem
where she dwells with God.
She is not gone;
she has simply moved more deeply
into the mystery of Christ’s body,
the same body of Christ into which
Theo and Mary will soon be baptized.
By our human reckoning Ruby might belong to one generation
and Theo and Mary to another,
but in Christ’s body they share a common birth into eternal life,
and are “fellow citizens with the saints
and members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19).
Somehow, in the mystery of the Church,
Mary and Theo will be Ruby’s friends;
they will pray for her
when our book of memory is presented each November,
and I am confident that she will pray for them
in the mysterious eternity of the Church triumphant.
This is what it means to be the Church:
to believe that we are united by God’s grace in Christ’s body.
And this is why Christ commands his disciples in today’s Gospel
to love one another with the same love with which he has loved them.
This is the love that can united us across barriers of time and distance,
and even across the barrier of death.

It is important always to keep this love that Christ commands
before our eyes
as we live our life together as a community of faith.
Given human nature, we can be tempted either to cling to the past,
to the ways that we have always done things,
or to become so enamored of the new that we dismiss our heritage
as merely part of the old order that has passed away.
Both temptations must be resisted
if we are to fulfill Christ’s command of love.
The one who says, “Behold, I make all things new”
constantly calls us into a future that requires us to change,
to think in new ways,
to venture outside the boundaries with which we are comfortable.
The large influx of new parishioners in the past decade
is a wonderful sign of life
but is also a challenge to those of us who have been around a while:
a challenge to think in new ways and to ask new questions,
to listen to new voices and consider new possibilities.
At the same time, we have a body of accumulated wisdom:
the wisdom of our long-time parishioners
and the wisdom of the tradition of the Church,
and this too must be listened to
if we are to be faithful to who we are.

What will make all of this possible is love:
the love with which Christ loves us
and with which he commands us to love each other.
Like Mary and Theo and Ruby,
we meet on the common ground of the love of Christ,
trusting that Christ crucified and risen is in our midst,
and that God’s spirit is here to guide us.
Our treasured past,
our challenging present,
and our unknown future
are all united in the God whom St. Augustine called
the “beauty so ancient and so new.”
So let us love one another:
old timers and newcomers,
children and adults,
progressive and traditional.
Let us love one another with the same love
with which Christ has loved us.
We owe it to Mary and Theo.
We owe it to Ruby Strawberry.
We owe it to ourselves.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Easter 4

Today’s reading from John’s Gospel
is an echo of Jesus’ longer discourse in that Gospel
about himself as the good shepherd
who lays down his life for his sheep.
Taking up this image, Jesus says
“My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.”

Some scholars argue that the image Jesus is using here
reflects the custom in the ancient near east
of the members of a village
keeping their sheep in a common pen at night;
when morning comes
and it is time for the shepherd to take his sheep
out of the pen to pasture
he would call them with a distinctive cry
and they would separate themselves
from the other sheep and follow him.

A pretty neat trick, if you ask me.
I can’t even get my dog to come when I call.

In John’s Gospel Jesus uses this image
to indicate how those who are members of his flock
will recognize his call and follow him,
separating themselves from those who do not recognize his call.
It is an image shaped both the concrete situation
in which John’s Gospel was written –
a situation of conflict between the Church,
the synagogue,
and pagan culture –
as well as the perennial call of Christians
to live in a manner that distinguishes them
from the culture and values of the world around them.

Thinking about our own vocation
to hear the voice of Christ and to follow him,
we might interpret this passage as a call
to separate ourselves from a world
that seems in many ways hostile to the Christian faith,
and, in particular, to the Catholic Church.
As we watch the Church and her leaders
pilloried in the press on an almost daily basis
over the scandal of sexual abuse by the clergy
and the cover up of that abuse by Church leaders,
some have suggested that this experience is showing us
that the secular world is out to get the Church
and that now is the time to circle the wagons,
pull up the draw bridge,
batten down the hatches,
leave the common sheepfold
and follow Jesus our shepherd to some place
where we can be free from these attacks.

Let me say that I think it would be a mistake
to take such a lesson from today’s Gospel.
My reason for thinking it is a mistake
is not because I think that there are no people in our world
who are anxious to use the current scandals as an occasion
to settle long-standing grudges with the Catholic Church.
I think some – though probably a minority –
of the current critics of the Church fall into this category.
As the ancient proverb says,
“When you want to beat a dog, any stick will do,”
and in this case the stick is the misdeeds of Catholic clergy.
Nor do I think it is a mistake
because I think that Christians should in no sense
seek to distinguish themselves from the world around them
and its culture and values.
Rather, I think it is a mistake
because Christians should be distinguished
not by their withdrawal from the world into a sheltered enclave
but by the way in which they live in the midst of the world.

Our way of living as those who follow Christ the shepherd
should not be one in which we flee our critics
into the safe haven of self-congratulation or self-pity,
but rather should be a life
of fearless self-scrutiny and on-going conversion.
What should distinguish us from the world
is our ability to hear the truth about ourselves,
no matter who speaks it,
and to repent and reform when needed.
The Christian calling involves
hearing the voice of the shepherd
even in the voices of those who would criticize the Church,
and to follow the shepherd into the new life that is promised
to those who let the blood of the lamb wash away their sins.
In the image from the book of Revelation
of the lamb who is our shepherd,
we see that following the call of Christ
is not a fleeing of the world to a place of invulnerability
but precisely our willingness
to let ourselves be wounded as he was
so that he might heal us.
And we are able to face the truth about ourselves,
to let the truth wound us.
because we believe the promise of Christ:
“I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.”
The recognition of painful truth about ourselves
is the path to resurrection.

Some criticism is unfair and uninformed;
some is even malicious.
But the distinguishing mark of Christians –
both as individuals and as a community –
is not to flee from criticism to some imagined place of safety,
but our willingness to listen for the voice of our shepherd
even in the words of our critics.
Because our willingness to hear
uncomfortable truths about ourselves
grows from our faith
that no one can take us out of God’s hands.
If we are following the voice of the shepherd,
we have nothing to fear from the truth,
no matter who may be speaking it.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Easter Sunday

“Seeing is believing.”
It is a phrase by which we express credulity:
“I didn’t think that Tide could get out stubborn stains,
but I saw an advertisement on TV that convinced me.”
It is also a phrase by which we express incredulity:
“Well, Congress may have passed healthcare reform,
but I’ll believe that it works when my insurance premiums go down.”
“Aunt Martha claims that UFOs land in Druid Hill Park every July 4th,
but I’ve never see it for myself.”
“You say that you are going to change,
but talk to me when you’ve been six-months sober.”

“Seeing is believing.”
We also sometimes apply this principle
when it comes to religious faith.
Students in my classes at Loyola
will often venture the opinion
that faith was easier for people in the time of Jesus
because God worked a lot more miracles back then,
and that if they could have seen a miracle –
Jesus healing someone
or walking on the water
or feeding the multitude –
then they could believe because, after all,
seeing is believing.

But the Gospels repeatedly make the point that,
at least when it comes to Jesus,
seeing is not believing,
at least not necessarily.
Again and again in the Gospels, Jesus will work a miracle –
sometimes a quite spectacular miracle –
and some of those who see it believe,
but many of those who see it do not.
Indeed, in our journey through Holy Week
we have heard how the disciples,
those who had been with Jesus since Galilee
and who had seen his mighty works,
all abandon him in the end,
because though they had seen,
they had not believed.

Even in the face of the mightiest work of all,
Jesus’ resurrection,
seeing is not always believing.
John’s account of the resurrection tells us
that at the empty tomb
the beloved disciple “saw and believed,”
but this was not the case for everyone there in that garden.
Mary Magdalen, who finds the stone rolled away from the tomb
and who summons Peter and the beloved disciple,
tells them “They have taken the Lord from the tomb
and we don’t know where they put him.”
She doesn’t specify who “they” are,
but presumably she thinks that someone has stolen Jesus’ body.
For Mary Magdalene, seeing the empty tomb is not believing.
Once the disciples return home, Mary stays at the tomb, weeping.
She peers into the tomb and sees two angels in white
who ask her why she weeps,
and the responds again that “they” have taken her Lord away.
For Mary Magdalene, seeing the angels is not believing.
Then she turns and sees Jesus,
but she thinks that he must be the gardener
and she asks him if perhaps he is the one
who has taken away Jesus’ body.
For Mary Magdalene, seeing the risen Jesus himself is not believing.
She must have turned away from him in disappointment,
because John tells us that when he speaks her name
she turns back to him.
She turns back because now, suddenly, she recognizes him,
and she says to him “rabbouni” – “my teacher.”
There is nothing there to see that was not there before,
but now Mary believes.
She believes because the risen Jesus calls her by name.
Gregory the Great wrote that it is as if Jesus were saying to her,
“Recognize him who recognizes you” (Homily 25).
Mary believes not because of what she sees
but because she stands before the one
who knows her to the very depths of her heart
and who reveals himself to her there.

The resurrection is surely something that happens to Jesus:
the one who was killed on Good Friday
is the one who lives on Easter morning;
his tomb is empty and his body is raised.
But it is also something that happens to his followers.
The resurrection involves not simply a change in Jesus,
but a change in those who, like Mary Magdalene,
will become witnesses to his resurrection.

Paul tells us in the letter to the Colossians
that we have died with Christ,
so that our life is hidden with Christ in God,
and that we have been raised with Christ,
so that we ought to seek that which is above.
Seeing is only believing if the one who sees is transformed.
Were we to stand at the empty tomb,
were we to see angels
and the risen Christ himself,
we would not, could not, believe
until the risen one calls us by our name,
summoning our belief
in the good news of the resurrection.

Jesus is truly risen,
but to know this we must be risen with him;
along with him we too must rise from death:
the death of sin and sorrow,
the death of doubt and disappointment.
To truly recognize the resurrected Lord
we must experience
not simply his rising from death,
but also our own.
Otherwise, the story of the resurrection
is just another tale
about something that supposedly happened
a long time ago
in a land far, far away.

During Lent we have focused on a phrase
from the letter to the Ephesians:
“Let the eyes of your heart be enlightened.”
We have prayed in this season of Lent
that God would help us to see
with the eyes of the heart,
that our vision might be transformed.
And now as Lent blossoms forth into Easter
we continue that prayer.
We don’t simply want to see,
but we want to see with the eyes of faith,
the eyes with which Mary Magdalene
was able to see the risen Jesus.
We want the faith that will allow us
to recognize him who recognizes us,
to know him as a living presence
in this community of faith:
in the words of scripture,
in the sacraments,
and in one another.
We want the faith that enlightens the eyes of our hearts.
Because seeing is not believing;
rather, it is believing that allows us to see.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Easter Vigil

“Evening came, and morning followed. . .”
This phrase, along with the refrain “God saw how good it was,”
punctuates the story of creation
found in the opening chapter of the book of Genesis.
And throughout the history of God’s saving work,
by which God seeks to restore and perfect that creation,
we see evening and morning
punctuating the lives of God’s people.

In the book of Exodus, evening comes
as the Israelites camp at the edge of the Red Sea
with the Egyptian armies bearing down upon them,
intent upon their enslavement and destruction.
But God parts the sea for them and they pass over to safety
and as morning comes God closes the sea back,
destroying the Egyptians.
Evening came, and morning followed.

In the book of the prophet Isaiah,
after the long night of exile in Babylon,
the light of God’s love dawns upon the Israelites
as they return to their homeland,
and they are invited: “come to the water. . .
come, receive grain and eat. . . drink wine and milk.”
The night’s long fast is ended as the people of Israel
return to their promised land and its abundant fare.
Evening came, and morning followed.

The word of God comes to Ezekiel,
so that he might speak to God’s people,
to tell them that though they have defiled themselves
with deeds of darkness,
God will cleanse them,
and place within them a new heart and a new spirit,
hearts of living flesh in place of their stony hearts.
The night of God’s wrath
gives way to the light of forgiveness.
Evening came, and morning followed.

Dawn follows sunset,
morning follows evening,
down through history
until we come to that morning when,
“at daybreak on the first day of the week
the women who had come from Galilee with Jesus
took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb.”
Day is breaking after what must have seemed to those women
to be one of the longest and darkest nights of their lives.
This is a morning that brings with it no joy, no hope,
but only the sorrowful but necessary task
of preparing the dead body
of the one in whom they had placed all their hopes.
For them, what lies dead in the tomb
is not simply the teacher from Nazareth
but hope itself.
Though the sun may crest the horizon,
and its light fall upon the world,
for these women it seems
that an evening has come
that no morning will follow;
they are dwelling in a darkness of despair
that the sun cannot dispel.

But evening and morning,
darkness and light,
despair and hope:
these are in the hands of God.
As the prophet Baruch reminds us,
God is the one “who dismisses the light, and it departs;
calls it, and it obeys trembling.”
On Easter morning,
at the mouth of an empty tomb,
the women learn what our Exultet proclaims,
that Jesus Christ is “the Morning Star which never sets. . .
that Morning Star, who came back from the dead,
and shed his peaceful light on all humankind.”
The women learn that Christ is risen from the tomb,
and their hope is risen with him.
Evening came, and morning followed,
and the hope that was resurrected with Christ on Easter morning
is a light that will never set.
As Paul says, “Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more;
death no longer has power over him.”

And we know that this is true
because this history of salvation is our history as well.
The death and resurrection of Christ
is one that we mystically share in baptism.
“If we have died with Christ,
we believe that we shall also live with him.”
This is the mystery into which Laura will be baptized,
the mystery of Christ’s saving death and resurrection.
This is the mystery that Dan will reaffirm
in his reception into the Church.
Of course, as all of us who are baptized know –
and as Laura no doubt suspects –
after our rebirth in Christ
evening still comes
and morning still follows.
Even for those who have died and been raised with Christ in baptism
there is the daily dying and rising,
an evening and morning,
that remains the fabric of the Christian life.

Yet in the resurrection of Christ God has given us,
like those women at the tomb at daybreak,
a rebirth of hope.
And so we live, with the alternation of
evening and morning,
woe and wellbeing,
sorrow and joy,
but always knowing that Christ’s victory over death
has changed the world forever,
so that even in the darkest night
the light is still with us,
even if we can only see it
with the eyes of faith, hope and love.

“At daybreak on the first day of the week. . . “ –
on the first day,
the day on which God said “let there be light” –
God speaks again:
let the morning of light and life
follow the evening of darkness and death.
Evening has come and morning has followed,
and it is the first day once again:
the victory of light over darkness;
the victory of life over death.
Christ has risen!
Death is defeated!
Let there be light!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday (C)

Readings: Luke 19:28-40

So, who killed Jesus?
Who is responsible for his death?
Of course we believe that the death of Jesus
is somehow part of God’s plan for human salvation,
but we might still ask about the human actors in this drama.
This has been a question of particularly intense interest
among Christian theologians and others
since the 1950s when,
in the wake of the slaughter of millions of Jews by the Nazis,
Christians began to reassess the long-held view
that the Jewish people as a whole
were collectively responsible for Jesus’ death
and therefore, as a people, cursed by God.
For Catholics, this process of reassessment eventually led in 1965
to the Second Vatican Council’s declaration Nostra Aetate,
which declared that the Jewish people did not share
collective or hereditary guilt for Jesus’ death
and that “the Jews should not be presented
as rejected or accursed by God.”

Which then leaves us with the question:
if not the Jews, then who?
Where can we lay the blame?
Whom can we hold responsible?
Today’s passion Gospel from Luke
seems to be of limited help here,
since the story it tells is one
in which responsibility is passed around like a hot potato.

The leaders of the Jewish people
would like Jesus out of the picture because he is a blasphemer
and because he has just enough of a following
that his disciples might cause serious trouble
that would bring down the wrath of the Romans on the whole city.
But they don’t want to alienate the crowds
who had greeted Jesus upon his entry into Jerusalem,
so they would like the Roman governor, Pilate,
to take care of the problem.

Pilate does not see Jesus as much of a threat,
and he waffles and vacillates and hems and haws,
not because he wants to acquit an innocent man,
but because he wants someone else to make the decision for him.
So he sends him to Herod,
the ruler of Jesus’ home province of Galilee.

Herod is initially curious, but eventually disappointed
when Jesus won’t perform tricks for him,
so he sends him back to Pilate.
Finally, Pilate, strengthened by Herod’s contempt for Jesus
and incited by the crowd
and the advice of the religious leaders of the people,
agrees to have Jesus executed.

So who is responsible?
Whom can we blame?
There seems to be plenty of blame to go around,
and lots of plausible candidates to hang it on.
But it is unsettling not to have a clear scapegoat to blame,
someone whom I can clearly identify as evil,
the sort of monster who would do the kind of things
I would never do.
It was so much clearer when it was “them” – the Jews –
who were responsible.
It is unsettling not to have a scapegoat,
because it leaves me open to asking myself
if perhaps I might not be all that different
from those who passed Jesus around like a hot potato.
Perhaps I too, like the Jewish leaders,
want those who disturb my peace simply to go away.
Perhaps I too, like Pilate,
am unwilling to act on what I know is true and good.
Perhaps I too, like Herod,
want only the sort of savior who will perform tricks at my behest.

Those responsible for the death of Jesus were not monsters
who did something that I would never do;
they were ordinary people who did what I do on a daily basis.
Their sins are my sins.

Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world:
enlighten the eyes of our hearts and have mercy on us.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Lent 4

I had a homily that I prepared and delivered
yesterday at the 4:00 Mass
that was, if I do say so myself,
spiritually rich and theologically astute (as usual).
But between then and now something happened.
When meeting last night with our RCIA candidates, Laura and Dan,
Laura asked about the latest wave of reports coming out of Europe
of cases of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy,
and the perhaps worse crime of covering such things up by bishops.
So we talked and, as usual, I had no particularly good answers.
I had no good answer to the question of why one would want
to become part of a Church that would allow such things.
I had no good answer to the question of how one reconciles
the joyous and life-giving aspects of the Church
with what can only be called
the dark and demonic power of evil
that seems to infect the Church
and not to be going away any time very soon.
It is beginning to feel like a nightmare
from which I cannot wake up,
and I find myself having to face the ugly truth
that this is no bad dream, but reality.

And the reality is that the Church has, like the prodigal son,
wandered into the distant land of sin and alienation from God.
As someone who studies the history of the Church and Theology,
I am well aware that in every age
we, the Church, have fallen short of God’s will for us,
and there have, believe it or not, been eras
when the leadership of the Church
was even more corrupt, more venal, more scandalous
than it is today.
I am also well aware that matters are complex,
and the media often doesn’t get things quite right
when it comes to the Church,
wanting a sensational story
rather than the complex and messy truth.
But such historical perspective
and such awareness of complexity
are little comfort when one reads yet again,
not simply of priests and deacons and religious
who have used their status to abuse the vulnerable,
but also of bishops and other leaders
who conspire to hide these crimes.

This is not a bad dream from which we can awaken,
but a horrible reality that must be changed.
Indeed, the dream seems to be
our illusion that everything is alright.
So we ask ourselves,
what hope is there for change?
What hope can we find that the Church will,
like the prodigal son,
come to her senses and realize
that she has been longing for the food of swine
and say, “I shall get up and go to my father
and I shall say to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’”?
Every time I think the Church has learned this lesson,
every time I think we have turned the corner,
I find myself back in the distant land,
feeding the swine, far from God.

We seem unable to come to our senses,
unable to recognize the truth of our situation,
unable to wake from our illusion
that the problems have been fixed.

In all this I can only cling to the promise of Christ
that the gates of hell
shall not prevail against the Church –
despite the best efforts of her leaders.
I cling to the belief that the Church is the body of Christ
and that we are joined to Christ our head
and that his graces can still flow into this body
despite our sins and failings.
I keep returning to one of the more enigmatic statements
by Paul in our second reading today:
“for our sake [God] made him to be sin who did not know sin,
so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”

The entire context of the parable of the prodigal son in Luke’s gospel
is a controversy with the scribes and Pharisees
over Jesus’ willingness to share a table with sinners,
his unwillingness to dissociate himself from those
who live their lives alienated from God’s covenant.
Jesus’ solidarity with sinners means that no land is so distant
that the God who was in Christ reconciling the world to himself
is not there with us.
Jesus has joined himself to humanity,
becoming like us in all things but sin.
But though he himself remains faithful to God and does not sin,
he still, as it were, knows our sin from the inside.
Indeed, he not only knows our sin, he suffers it.
In his cross, he knows both the anguish of the sinner
and of the sinner’s victim.
He knows the evasions of the abuser,
the crooked ways of the human heart,
and the pain of the abused child.

I have no adequate answers to the hard questions of Laura and Dan,
no ready reply when asked how the Church – indeed, how God –
can allow such things.
But I do know that Jesus Christ has made the journey
into the distant land of sin,
not just to share the misery of our alienation from God,
but to be light in that land of darkness,
to reveal our sin and to awaken us from our illusions,
so that we may come to ourselves
and say “I will get up and go to my Father.”
In the distant land of alienation from God,
the land of hunger and death,
he is the one who arises to return to his Father
and in his returning he can bring us back with him.

During Lent we have been focusing
on Paul’s exhortation in the letter to the Ephesians:
“Let the eyes of your heart be enlightened.”
I pray this even more fervently today:
O God, enlighten the eyes of my heart
so that I may understand myself and you;
enlighten the eyes of your Church’s heart,
so that we might arise with Christ this Easter
and return to your embrace. Amen.