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!