Sunday, December 4, 2011

Advent 2

Advent is, of course, a time of expectation –
expectation of the birth of Christ
but also of his second coming –
and in today’s first and second readings
we have voices that present us with images
of the coming salvation of God
that involve a cosmic transformation
of the very fabric of the universe.
Isaiah tells us that, “Every valley shall be filled in,
every mountain and hill shall be made low,”
and, even more strikingly,
the Second Letter of Peter says that,
“the day of the Lord will come like a thief,
and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar
and the elements will be dissolved by fire,
and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.”

These voices remind us that world as we know it
is merely temporary, not eternal,
and that the very fabric of reality will be transformed
in the marriage of heaven and earth –
transformed by God in a way that we cannot even imagine
and so we must speak of it in metaphors
of valleys being filled in and mountains being laid low,
of heavens roaring and the elements being dissolved in fire.

After presenting such dramatic images Second Peter asks,
“Since everything is to be dissolved in this way,
what sort of persons ought you to be?”
In other words. . . so what?
If this is all true, how does it affect my life now?
Peter answers his own question,
saying that if this is true we should be,
“conducting [our]selves in holiness and devotion,
waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.”

Waiting and hastening.
These two things might seem incompatible.
How is it that we can patiently wait for something
and yet still impatiently seek to hasten its arrival?
Even more, how can we,
by acting with holiness and devotion,
do both things at the same time:
both waiting and hastening?
In answer to his own question
of what people we ought to be
in the face of God’s coming transformation of the world,
Peter says our lives should be a hastening that waits
and a waiting that hastens.

We need somehow to work for the world’s transformation
while at the same time waiting for that transformation,
which only God can bring about in God’s own time.
That day we work to hasten
is what Second Peter calls “the day of God” –
the day whose coming belongs entirely to God and not to us.

A hastening that waits and a waiting that hastens:
what Peter says about the kind of people we ought to be
might at first sound quite strange and paradoxical
but perhaps it is not so unfamiliar as it first appears.
Think of the process of growing from a child into an adult.

Of course for me that was a long time ago,
so I think of this in terms of my more recent experience
as the parent of teenagers.
I know that, as a parent, I want my children
to work at developing into adults
and to act like the adults they are becoming,
How many times have I said,
“you’re too old to act this way”?
At the same time,
I want them to be patient with themselves,
not to rush too quickly into adulthood,
but to let it arrive in its own good time.
How often have I said,
“Sorry, you’re too young for this”?
I want them both to wait for adulthood
and to hasten toward it.
And this is not, I hope,
simply one more unreasonable parental demand
because, oddly enough,
these two things often occur simultaneously
in a hastening that waits and a waiting that hastens.
Sometimes it is a step toward maturity to recognize
that you are not yet mature enough for something
and that the most adult thing you can do
is to let yourself be a child for a little while longer.
At other times maturity involves stepping forward in faith
into a risky new experience,
despite all hesitation,
trusting that, whether your succeed or you fail,
it is all part of your becoming an adult
though it may require patient waiting before you can see that.

Maybe if those of us who are adults
can recall how it was that we became adults
we can have some idea
of the sort of persons we ought to be
as “we await new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells.”
If we listen to the voice of the apostle Peter
calling us to cultivate lives
of holy waiting and devoted hastening,
then the Advent season can be for us
a time both of anxious yearning for the world’s redemption
and of patient waiting to receive it as God’s gift.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Wisdom 6:12-16; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13

I recently heard the current Eurozone crisis
compared to Aesop’s fable of the ant and the grasshopper,
with the Germans compared to the ant,
who worked hard all summer to provide for the winter,
and the Greeks compared to the grasshopper,
who frittered away the warm days playing music
and when winter arrived came begging to the ant,
only to be turned away,
with the concluding moral:
“Beware of winter before it comes.”

Maybe because the Greek debt crisis has been so much in the news
this fable immediately came to mind
when I read the parable in today’s Gospel
of the wise and foolish virgins.
The foolish virgins, who forget to bring extra oil,
are the grasshoppers who take no thought for the future,
while the wise virgins are the ants who plan ahead
and make sure they have enough oil
to keep their lamps burning
until the bridegroom arrives.

But in fact the message of Jesus’ parable
of the wise and foolish virgins
is not the same as that of Aesop’s fable
of the ant and the grasshopper.
For in Aesop’s fable the wisdom of the ant
is about calculating the times and seasons –
of knowing how to put the right amount of effort in
at the right time –
and the foolishness of the grasshopper
is a matter of not grasping the obvious fact that winter arrives
more or less reliably at more or less the same time every year.
For Aesop, wisdom and foolishness
is a matter of understanding or failing to understand
a calculable reality
so as to be ready at some fixed point in the future
for the arrival of winter.

In Jesus’ parable, however,
neither the wise virgins nor the foolish virgins
are able to calculate in advance the time of the bridegroom’s arrival.
The wise virgins, though they have brought extra oil with them,
had no way of knowing if it would be enough to last
until the bridegroom showed up.
If he were delayed another few hours,
perhaps they too would run out of oil.
In other words, the wise virgins simply were lucky
that the oil they had brought was enough.
So they are not really like the ant,
who knows more or less when winter is arriving
and who knows more or less how much food she needs
to make it through the winter until the return of summer.

I think a key to understanding the parable
is that the difference between the wise and foolish virgins
does not manifest itself
until the immanent arrival of the bridegroom is announced.
It is only at that point,
when the bridegroom’s arrival has been announced,
that the foolish virgins run off looking for more oil,
rather than staying to greet the bridegroom.
It is as if they can think only of how unwise they will look
if their lamps are not burning brightly,
if they are dark and empty of oil,
and so they leave to buy more oil
and miss the arrival of the bridegroom.
In other words, their foolishness lies in thinking
that it is more important to appear as if they had properly calculated
the arrival of the bridegroom
and had secured beforehand a sufficient amount of oil
than it is actually to be present at the joyful arrival of the bridegroom.
They preferred the appearance of wisdom to wisdom herself,
and in doing so show themselves to be most unwise,
missing the moment for which they should have been longing,
all for the sake of securing a little bit of oil.

How often do we ourselves prefer
the appearance of wisdom to wisdom herself?
How often do we get so wrapped up
in wanting to seem prepared, competent, or clever
that we focus on trivialities and miss the main event?
How often do we forget to ask ourselves
about what it is that really matters
and give ourselves whole-heartedly to that,
the way that the wise virgins gave themselves whole-heartedly
to welcoming the bridegroom?

Next week we will be asking you to consider
your level of financial support to our parish.
I’d like to say that this isn’t really about money,
but actually it is about money.
At least, it is about money to the degree that we need money
to keep the lights on and the heat going,
to pay the salaries of staff members
and to provide programs for the parish.
But your support of the parish is not just about money.
It is about time and talent and, more than anything else,
it is about discerning what it is that really matters to you
and about how to give yourself whole-heartedly to that.

When we gather on Sunday, we are doing nothing less
than joining together to receive Christ joyfully
and to celebrate his arrival in our lives.
This is either the main event, as it was for the wise virgins,
or we are just fooling ourselves that it has any importance at all.
Financial times are hard,
and maybe you don’t have any more money to give.
Life is busy,
and maybe you don’t have an extra hour to give.
Maybe you feel as if you are like the foolish virgins
who lamps were empty and dark
or maybe like the grasshopper
who had not planned ahead.

But that doesn’t matter.
What matters is that the bridegroom is arriving.
What matters is the wisdom of knowing that,
however much or little we have to give,
we give it joyfully in thanksgiving
for the great gift of God in Christ.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10a; Philippians 4:12-14, 19-20; Matthew 22:1-14

At this point in my ministry as a deacon –
four and a half years after my ordination –
I have performed a fair number of wedding ceremonies
and I realize that wedding can be times of high tension
 for everybody involved.
But even so, the characters in the parable
that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel
seem unusually stressed-out.
We’ve all received invitations
to weddings we did not particularly want to attend,
but it seems a bit extreme
to kill the person delivering the invitation.
And while it might hurt our feelings
to have our invitation rejected,
it hardly seems a fitting response
to burn down the city where the invitee lives.
And though an underdressed guest
might raise a few eyebrows,
we would probably not tie up his hands and feet
and cast him “into the darkness outside,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth”
(presumably the wailing and grinding of teeth
of those who cannot get into this joyous celebration).

Matthew’s version of Jesus’ parable
is hardly a realistic depiction
of even the most emotionally fraught wedding.
But of course it’s not really a parable about wedding etiquette
and the deadly consequences of breaching that etiquitte.
Jesus’ parable trades upon the imagery
of the great feast at the end of time
that God, our first reading tells us,
“will provide for all peoples,”
a feast of “rich food and choice wines,
juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.”
At this feast, “The Lord God will wipe away
the tears from every face.”
It is this feast that fulfills the promise in our second reading
that “God will fully supply whatever you need,
in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”

The book of Revelation presents a particularly striking image
of this great feast at the end of time
in which Christ the lamb is united to his spouse, the Church.
At this feast the joyous guests sing, “Alleluia!
The Lord has established his reign,
God, the almighty.
Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory.
For the wedding day of the Lamb has come,
his bride has made herself ready. . .
Blessed are those who have been called
to the wedding feast of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:6-7, 9a).

In all these texts the joy of a wedding feast
at which two lives are joined together
becomes an image of the joyous event
of the union of our life with God’s life,
when God will consummate human history,
wipe away all its tears,
and fill every cup to overflowing. 

In the Eucharist that we celebrate every Sunday
we share already in the wedding feast of the Lamb.
I have heard the Eucharist described
as the rehearsal dinner for the Lamb’s wedding feast
but I believe it is something more than that
because in the Eucharist the Lamb is truly present with us
and the wedding feast is already begun.
We come, week after week,
to have our lives joined to the life of God,
to have our tears wiped away,
to have our cups filled to overflowing.

In the new translation of the Mass
that, as I mentioned last week, we will soon be using
the invitation to communion will now be,
“Behold the Lamb of God,
behold him who takes away the sins of the world.
Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.”
This is not only a more literal translation of the Latin,
but it makes just a bit clearer the connection of our Eucharist
with the wedding supper of the Lamb –
the great feast that God provides for all people
at the consummation of history.

We have been called, like the guests in the parable,
to the wedding supper of the Lamb
who has taken away our sins,
and we are indeed truly blessed
to have received this call.
But the parable is also a warning
not to take lightly so great a call.
Though the actions of the characters in the parable
seem extreme,
the very exaggeration of those actions
drives home the point
that this is a call to the feast of life itself
and to decline that invitation
is to reject the gift of life that is offered.
At the same time,
 the invitation is not to be accepted lightly;
we are to adorn our souls
with the wedding garment of love,
a garment that, as St. Gregory the Great put it,
is woven of two strands of wool:
love of God and love of neighbor (Homily 37).

In the Church we sometimes speak of the “Sunday obligation” –
that is, the obligation of all Catholics
to be present at Mass each Sunday.
But if we understand what the Eucharist is –
that it is our sharing in the wedding feast of the Lamb –
then the language of obligation,
which we might associate
with something we do grudgingly and under duress,
might seems to miss the mark a bit.
At the same time, as our parable reminds us,
how we respond to this invitation
is a matter of life and death,
and our weekly presence
at the wedding feast of the Lamb
is an obligation,
but not an obligation that we owe to God
or to the Church
but to ourselves:
the obligation
to let our lives be joined to God’s,
to let our tears be wiped away,
to let our cup be filled to overflowing.

Blessed indeed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

A girl working at the chalkboard of a classroom while a nun and her classmates look on.
Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a; Matthew 20:1-16a

The prophet Isaiah commands us,
“Seek the LORD while he may be found.”
But how do we fulfill this command?
On this weekend when our religious education programs resume
it is worth asking ourselves what it means to seek the Lord,
and who this God is whom we are seeking.

In his homily a couple of weeks ago,
Fr. Jerry Lardner mentioned the Baltimore Catechism.
Who remembers the Baltimore Catechism?
I don’t mean, “who remembers that there was a Baltimore Catechism?”
but rather, who remembers what they learned from the Baltimore Catechism?
As those who were taught from the Baltimore Catechism will know,
it consisted of set questions and answers concerning the faith
that children memorized and repeated back.

Let’s try a test:
Who made you?
God made me. 
Why did God make you?
God made me to know Him, to love Him, 
and to serve Him in this world, 
and to be happy with Him forever in the next.

Though the fact might have been lost, at least at first,
on the children who were made to memorize them,
these are profound words.

“Who made you?”
I have been made by God,
the supreme, infinitely perfect maker of the universe.
You might think that, as important as God is,
this task might have been delegated to someone else,
such as an angel or a demi-god.
But the Baltimore Catechism tells us
that each and every one of us
has been brought into existence directly by God,
who shapes our lives
with the intimacy of the potter shaping the clay vessel.

But there is more. . .

“Why did God make you?”
God has not simply brought me into being,
but God has given my life a purpose,
a meaning,
a “why.”
God says to us through the prophet Isaiah,
“As high as the heavens are above the earth,
so high are my ways above your ways
and my thoughts above your thoughts.”
And yet the Baltimore Catechism tells us that that even so
God has made each and every one of us
to know, love and serve God in this life.
We are made by God so that we might seek God out.
Though God’s ways are unfathomable to us,
God has made us so that
we can know God, however imperfectly,
we can love God, however falteringly,
we can serve God, however unworthily.

And even more than this,
our imperfect knowledge,
our faltering love,
our unworthy service
can, through the grace of God
that comes to us in Jesus Christ,
be transformed into a path
to eternal happiness with God
when this life is done.

Though it may have been lost on them at the time,
those who were made to memorize
these words of the Baltimore Catechism
were given a profound truth,
a life-changing truth,
a saving truth.
They were given the truth
that each and every human life
is of infinite significance
because it is a gift from God
that can blossom forth into eternal joy.

Our methods of catechesis have changed over the decades,
but our goal is the same.
We may emphasize memorization less
and understanding more,
but our desire is still
to help the children of our community
to seek the Lord while he may be found.
Our desire is to communicate to them the saving truth
that they have been made by God
and that their purpose in this world
is knowing God with their minds,
loving God with their hearts,
and serving God in their daily lives,
so that their lives can be of eternal significance.

As any parent knows,
we live in a world that increasingly pressures children
to polish their résumés
with a dizzying array of activities and accomplishments.
We Christians, however, have a counter-cultural message
to hand on to our children:
that their lives are significant and important
not because of what they have accomplished,
not because of what they have done,
not because of awards they have won,
but, as in the parable in today’s Gospel,
because of what God has done for them
in calling them into life and redeeming them through Christ,
and that therefore their lives should be lives of gratitude and service.
This saving truth is what our catechists seek to give our children
and what we who are parents must reinforce for them every day
in our deeds and in our words.

And this is true not simply for our children,
but for all of us.

St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote:
"Do you want to know the opportune time to seek the Lord?
The simple answer is: all your life."
Our lives are lives of continual seeking and continual finding.
So we should all seek the Lord while he may be found.
We should seek the Lord who made us
to know, to love and to serve him in this life
and to be happy with him forever in the next.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

A Wedding Homily

Readings: Ruth 1:1-11, 14-18; Romans 12:3-18; John 15:9-17

A wise friend of mine once said
that marriage is not about standing face-to-face
gazing into each other’s eyes,
but rather is about standing side-by-side,
facing the world together.
This idea runs somewhat counter
to popular, romantic notions of marriage
that focus exclusively on the love of the spouses for each other.
Don’t get me wrong; this love is important;
C___ and G___ would not be here today
if they did not love each other.
But marriage does not simply link two people together.
Rather it places the couple
within a much wider network of relationships
that can be extremely complicated.
When you marry, you are marrying not just your spouse,
but also his or her family, friends, colleagues,
sports teams, favorite musicians, and even ethnicity.
Indeed, one of the challenges of marriage
is learning to negotiate that complexity.
But it is also part of the richness:
when I got married, I acquired not only a wife,
and eventually children,
but what was to my mind
an extraordinarily large Irish Catholic family,
a set of expectations about how and where
holidays should be celebrated,
and a professional football team I was expected to root for.

This has always been the nature of marriage,
as we can see in our first reading,
which tells the first part of the story of Ruth
from the Old Testament.
She is a foreigner, a Gentile,
who marries into a Jewish family
and as a part of all this
becomes a worshiper of the God of Israel.
When her husband, her original link to that family, dies,
she is offered by her mother in law, Naomi,
the chance to cut her ties to them
and go her own way,
back to her own people
and her own gods.
In what to our ears
sounds like something one might speak to a spouse,
Ruth tells Naomi, “Wherever you go I will go;
wherever you lodge I will lodge.
Your people shall be my people
and your God, my God.
Where you die I will die,
and there be buried.”
For Ruth, her marriage had placed her
within a web of relationships, traditions and beliefs
that permanently altered who she was as a person.

Marriage calls us not simply to be faithful to our spouse,
but into a wider faithfulness,
a faithfulness to family, friends, sports teams,
and even to God.
This is why in the Catholic tradition
we call marriage a sacrament:
it is a sign that points beyond itself
to an ultimate reality –
the reality of God’s love.
It points to the reality that,
as St. Paul said in our second reading,
“we, though many, are one body in Christ
and individually parts of one another.”
But in order to be a true sign,
it is not enough for C___ and G___
to love one another,
or even to love
each other’s family and friends and sports teams,
but they must love in a particular way.
What St. Paul writes to the Romans
is a pretty good description
of the love that married couples
ought to have for each other:
“Let love be sincere. . . .
love one another with mutual affection;
anticipate one another in showing honor. . . .
Rejoice in hope,
endure in affliction,
persevere in prayer. . . .
Rejoice with those who rejoice,
weep with those who weep. . . .
If possible, on your part, live at peace with all.”
In John’s Gospel, Jesus puts it even more succinctly:
“love one another as I have loved you.
No one has greater love than this,
to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

C___ and G___,
that is what you are doing here today:
laying down your lives for each other,
entrusting your lives to each other,
saying, “wherever you go, I will go.”
Your lives now belong to each other,
and in belonging to each other
you belong to the whole world.
In loving each other sincerely and faithfully,
you will be a sign to the world
that true happiness is found
not in power
or in prestige
or in possessions,
but in the kind of love
that will lay itself down for another,
in the love that seeks
to live in peace with all.

What you do here today is, I know,
important to you.
It is important to your families.
it is important to your friend.
But even more than that,
it is important to the world:
a world that desperately needs a sign
that love can overcome hate,
that generosity is more powerful than greed,
that peace can prevail over violence.
You can be that sign.
In what you do together here today,
in what you do tomorrow,
in what you do for the rest of your lives,
you become,
in what will often be small
and undramatic ways,
a sign from God,
a sign of hope.

As Jesus said to his disciples, I say now to you:
“Go and bear fruit that will remain.”
May God bless you.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Somehow, somewhere people came up with the idea
that the chief motivation behind the belief of Christians
was a sense of comfort in this life
and the promise of even more comfort in the next.
In this view, Christianity is for those who cannot face
the harsh realities of this world
and so hope for a better life in another world.
Christians are smug and complacent in their faith,
sure that they know all the answers
and have a firm footing in life.

I can speak only for myself,
but this is not my experience of being a Christian.
For me, the Christian faith seems at times
to make my life
much more complicated,
much more of an effort,
and, in a way, much more uncertain.
Faith places an infinite demand upon me
because it is assent to the truth of the infinite God,
a God whom we can never comprehend or control.
As the twentieth-century theologian Karl Rahner once said,
Christians are those
before whom the abyss of existence opens up –
those who know that they have not thought enough,
have not loved enough,
have not suffered enough.
So do not let anyone tell you otherwise:
to step out in faith
is to step into that abyss of existence.

Think of Peter in today’s Gospel:
Jesus had made the whole walking-on-the-water thing
look pretty easy
and this seemed like a good opportunity
to demonstrate that he,
alone among the apostles,
really had faith;
so Peter succumbed to his impetuous nature
and stepped out of the boat.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.
And for a while, it continued to seem like a good idea;
as Peter began to walk across the water toward Jesus.
But then he began to focus more on the wind and the waves
and the watery abyss beneath his feet
and he began to doubt
and he began to sink.
And suddenly the idea of stepping out of the boat
and into the abyss
began to seem like not so much of a good idea.

When I read this passage earlier this week
I thought, “yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.”

When I think about my life as a Christian,
I sometimes feel as if I have foolishly, impulsively,
climbed out of the boat,
inspired by God-knows-what impulse,
and I realize
that the waves are much higher than I thought
and the wind is much stronger than I thought
and the water is much deeper than I thought.
And I realize that I cannot think deeply enough
to grasp the mystery of God.
I realize that I cannot love passionately enough
to be worthy of the love that has been shown to me.
I realize that I cannot suffer willingly enough
to take upon myself the pain of others,
the pain of our world.
I stand suspended
over the infinite depth of divine mystery
and, as my fear takes control,
I begin to sink
and the only prayer I can utter
is to cry out, like Peter, “Lord, save me.”

And then there is Jesus
who grasps our hand and says,
“Take courage, it is I;
do not be afraid.”
As with Elijah in our first reading,
God comes to us not in a strong and heavy wind
or an earthquake
or a fire
but in a tiny whispering sound
that says “do not be afraid.”
God comes to us in the person of Jesus.
In Jesus Christ,
God has reached out to us with a human hand,
amidst the wind and the waves,
to catch us and hold us up over the abyss.
It is not our thinking
or our loving
or our suffering that can save us,
but only Jesus,
“who is over all, God blessed forever.”
If we trust in him,
if we cry out to him, “Lord, save me,”
we can trust that the storm will not overcome us,
the abyss will not swallow us up.

The Christian faith is hard,
not because it is complicated
but precisely because it is so simple.
All that it asks of us is that we see the world as it truly is,
to embrace the abyss that is the mystery of God,
and to trust the tiny whispering sound that says,
“Take courage, it is I;
do not be afraid.”

Sunday, July 10, 2011

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time

As Christians we believe
that God has spoken a word of grace to us,
and we are invited to respond to that word
by bearing the fruit of the Spirit.

In our Gospel reading,
God’s word is depicted as seed
that is scattered widely across on the earth
so that some falls on the path
and some falls on rocky ground,
and some falls among thorny weeds,
with only about a quarter of it falling on good ground.
These different sorts of soil
reflect different sorts of responses to God’s word,
some of which produce fruit and some of which do not.
The seed that falls on good ground produces an abundant harvest,
“a hundred or sixty or thirtyfold,”
by a process that seems to be natural and even effortless.
We might think that Jesus is saying
that while all people might not be good soil
in which his word can take root,
if you are good soil, then the fruits of that word
will be readily apparent;
if you are good soil then you will produce spiritual fruit
with the same ease with which seeds sprout from good soil.
And if you are finding life difficult and full of struggle
then maybe it is because you are not good soil.

This is not, however,
the implication that we should draw from this.
In our second reading, Paul also speaks
of how we live in response to God’s word.
Here the metaphor is not
that of the seed germinating in the soil
but of a woman laboring in childbirth:
“We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains
even until now;
and not only that, but we ourselves,
who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,
we also groan within ourselves.”
Paul speaks of “the sufferings of this present time,”
to which all of creation is subject,
and makes clear that
even those who have received God’s word with joy –
those who are “good soil” –
still share in that suffering.
Put in terms of our Gospel parable,
Paul is saying that we may indeed be the good soil
on which the seed of God’s word has fallen,
but we still groan along with all of creation
in our bringing forth fruit,
just as a woman must labor
in bringing forth her child.
The process of bearing fruit is not always,
and maybe not ever,
an effortless process.
As Jesus reminds us in John’s Gospel,
even the seed that falls to earth
only sprouts by means of a kind of death:
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies,
it remains just a grain of wheat;
but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24).

I dare say we all have those moments
when we find ourselves groaning,
awaiting redemption,
asking ourselves and asking God,
does it really have to be so difficult?
We might even have those moments
when we ask ourselves
whether the sheer difficulty that we experience
in trying to be faithful to God’s word
might be a sign that we are not, in fact, good soil,
but are rather the rocky path,
or the shallow earth,
or the weed choked thicket.
We find ourselves unemployed,
and our faith wavers.
We groan under the burden of
a debilitating physical or mental illness,
and we wonder whether God has abandoned us.
We suffer the loss of someone we love
and we ask ourselves whether we really trust
that God is a God of life.
If we groan in our suffering,
does this mean that our faith is shallow
and our souls choked with weeds?

Paul seems to say, “no.”
Suffering in this life
is something we share with all of creation,
and why some suffer and others seemingly do not
should never be taken as a sign of who is and is not
the “good soil” that receives the word.
In fact, we have no idea why life’s sufferings
seem to be so unevenly distributed
and I suspect that the answer to this question
will remain a mystery to us in this life.
Paul, it seems to me, is trying to get us to shift our question.
He is trying to get us to ask not,
“where does this suffering come from,”
but rather “where is this suffering leading.”

We can see our sufferings
either as the last agony of one who is dying
or as the laboring of one who is bringing new life to birth;
our groaning can simply be a cry of despair,
or it can be a calling out to God.
The difference between the good soil and the bad soil
is not that one suffers and the other does not,
that one groans and the other does not,
but rather that the good soil suffers and groans
in faith, and in hope, and in love,
trusting that the trials and sorrows of this life
are, in a mysterious way that we cannot now clearly see,
the birthpangs of the good soil,
laboring to bring forth the fruit of eternal life.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


The event that we celebrate on this feast,
the Ascension of Jesus into heaven,
is recounted in our first reading, from the book of Acts.
Our Gospel reading, from Matthew,
doesn’t mention the Ascension
but rather tells us of the risen Jesus
commissioning his disciples
and promising to remain with them always.
Even though Matthew’s Gospel does not recount
the event of the Ascension,
there is a deep connection between this story
of the commissioning of the disciples
and Jesus' ascending to the right hand of the Father.

Matthew tells us that when the disciples saw Jesus,
“they worshipped, but they doubted.”
What is it that they doubt?
They don’t seem to doubt Christ,
since it says they worshipped him.
Perhaps they doubt their own capacity
to carry out the mission Jesus is giving them.
It is, after all, a daunting task he gives them:
“make disciple of all nation. . .
teaching them to observe
all that I have commanded you.”
Not, “make disciples of some nations”
or “make disciples of as many nations as you can,”
but “make disciples of all nations.”
Not, “teaching them to observe
some of the things I have commanded you”
or “teaching them to be just a little bit better,”
but “teaching them to observe
all that I have commanded you.”
This is a pretty tall order.
No wonder they doubted.
How is it possible for their small band
to make disciples of all nations?
How could they even remember,
much less teach others to observe,
all that Jesus had commanded them?
Perhaps it was these two “all”s
that caused them to doubt.

But the commission
to make disciples of all nations
and to teach them to observe
all that Jesus had commanded
is matched by two other “all”s in Jesus’ words:
All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me”
and “I am with you always,” –
the Greek is literally “all the days” –
“until the end of the age.”
As if in answer to the disciples’ doubts
about their ability to go to all the nation
and to teach them all that Jesus had commanded,
Jesus reassures him that he has “all power”
and will be with them “all the days”
and that they should therefore
not doubt their ability to carry out
the mission that he is giving them.

And it is in this second pair of “all”s that we find
the true meaning of this feast of the Ascension.
As St. Paul says in our second reading,
the Father of glory has raised Christ,
“far above every principality,
and dominion”
and has “put all things under his feet”
so that now he “fills all things in every way.”
If we think of this feast simply as saying
that Jesus has gone to live with God
somewhere above the clouds,
then it might seem as if the Ascension
places Jesus at a greater distance from his disciples
and calls into question his claim
that he will be with them all the days,
until the end of time itself.
But if we think of the Ascension
as Jesus’ full sharing in divine power
then, rather than being a departure,
it is what Pope Benedict has called
“the beginning of a new nearness.”
Jesus in his humanity is now present
to all times and places
just as God is present always and everywhere.
The Ascension tells us that the one who was born of Mary,
taught and healed,
suffered and died,
is as near to us as he was to his disciples
two millennia ago;
indeed, he is in some sense nearer to us.
He is present to us
because he has received power to fill all things.
And if he is with us then we need not doubt
that he will bestow upon us what we need
to fulfill the mission that he gives us.

It is easy for us to fall into thinking that we Christians
are followers of someone who lived a long time ago
and who remains with us only in the form
of some interesting stories and intriguing ideas.
But the feast of the Ascension tells us that this is not true;
when we say that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of God,
we are not saying that he has left this world for some other,
but that he is present in this world
with a new nearness,
sharing with us the power of his risen life.

Where is the ascended Jesus?
Not calling out to us across the centuries,
but speaking to each of us directly
in the words of Scripture.
Where is the ascended Jesus?
Not somewhere above the clouds,
but placing himself in our hands
in the Eucharist we celebrate.
Where is the ascended Jesus?
Not managing some cosmic bureaucracy
but consoling and challenging us
through our fellow Christians
who are his body, the Church.

Like the disciples, we too worship . . .
and doubt.
We come here to worship,
because we believe in him,
but we also doubt that we can do all that he asks of us.
But the feast of the Ascension calls us
to cast those doubts aside
and believe that the one
who “fills all things in every way”
is present to us with a new nearness,
even until the end of time.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Easter 3

If you will indulge me for a moment of grammatical reflection,
think about the word “hope” in relation to verb tenses.
Hope is normally something we speak of in the present tense,
as when we say, “I hope it won’t rain tomorrow”
or, as in our second reading today, when St. Peter reminds us
that our “faith and hope are in God.”
While hope is always directed to the future,
we normally think about it
as something that is going on in the present.
Hope in the present tense is a hope that we possess –
a living hope.

But our first reading gives us an example
of hope spoken in the future tense,
when Peter quotes Psalm 16, saying,
“my flesh, too, will dwell in hope.”
It seems at first a bit odd to speak of hope
as something we will have in the future,
as if we were to say, “tomorrow I will hope it doesn’t rain.”
Maybe what we have here is something like a hope for hope –
a hope that we do not yet experience, but which we desire.

What about hope spoken in the past tense?
What about when we say, faced with our soggy picnic,
“I had hoped that it wouldn’t rain today”?
Or, perhaps, “I hoped that this job interview would work out,”
or “We were hoping that the tumor was benign,”
or “I hoped we would grow old together.”
In every statement of hope placed in the past tense
we hear echoes of a story
of disappointment
or disillusion,
of broken dreams
and abandoned aspirations.

This is what we hear echoing in the words of the disciples
as they converse with the unrecognized Jesus
on the road to Emmaus:
“we were hoping
that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”
These are words full
of the pathos of hope in the past tense:
“we were hoping. . . ,”
with the implied-but-unstated conclusion:
“. . . but now we hope no longer.”
These words sum up the shattering effect of the crucifixion
on Jesus’s followers:
they speak of a heritage of hope
that had been bequeathed to the people of Israel,
a hope for a savior who would free them from oppression;
they speak of the hope that in Jesus
all of God’s promises would be made good;
they speak of the death of that hope on Mount Calvary
and its burial in the garden tomb.
Perhaps only a hope of such comprehensive grandeur –
a hope that everything would be set right –
could come crashing down with such devastating force.
The disciples’ words speak of a hope
that has been so thoroughly snuffed out
that even the reports of the women
about the empty tomb
cannot bring it back to life.
Indeed, in their disappointment,
the very presence of Jesus walking beside them
goes unrecognized.

But, of course, the story does not end there.

We are told how, as they walk along together,
the risen Jesus explains to them
the true meaning of that heritage of hope
that had been so disappointed:
how it was “necessary that the Christ should suffer these things
and enter into glory.”
While this is not enough to reawaken their hope,
to allow them to recognize the risen Jesus,
it moves them just enough to ask this stranger
to stay the night with them.
Perhaps this is a case of hope in the future tense:
his words awaken in them a desire to someday hope again.

And so, as night falls, Jesus sits at table with them,
takes the bread,
says the blessing,
breaks it
and gives it to them.
And then their eyes are opened;
they recognize him in the breaking of the bread;
hope is reawakened in them
and they can see the truth of the risen Jesus;
the hope that was just a memory,
something that seemed irretrievably past,
becomes a present reality
as they receive the bread of life at Christ’s table.

And it can be that way with us, as well.
As we come to recognize Christ at the table of the altar
our hopes that had fallen into the past tense
can be spoken again in the present tense.
We who said, “we were hoping. . . ,”
with the implied-but-unstated conclusion:
“. . . but now we hope no longer,”
can know in the breaking of the bread
the presence of Christ, risen and alive,
just as those disciples at Emmaus did.
And a hope that knows the risen Christ
is a hope that can be spoken in the present tense.

We are surrounded by things
that seem to offer us hope:
medical breakthroughs
that promise cures deadly diseases,
forecasts of economic revival
that could fulfill out material wants,
and even the killing of a particularly evil man,
whose death might promise
an end to violence and terror.
But all of these hopes
can so easily slip into the past tense.
For all of our medical breakthroughs,
we still die.
Every economic revival
is followed by a downturn,
and our material wants remain insatiable.
The killing of one evil man
typically generates two or three more,
ready to take up his mission of violence and terror.
And we find ourselves saying, “We were hoping. . .”

But as Christians we believe
that the hope that we receive at this altar –
a hope that is born in the breaking of the bread,
a hope that is raised up with the risen Jesus –
is a hope that is always spoken in the present tense.
Christ is risen,
giving us a hope that will never die again.
So let us leave behind all illusory hopes,
which so quickly slip into the past tense,
and cling to the one hope
that rises with Christ and lives forever.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Holy Thursday

“Jesus loved his own in the world
and he loved them to the end.”
So John begins his account of the last supper,
which presents us with the striking scene
of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

“He loved them to the end.”
Not simply the “end” in a chronological sense –
the point at which something ceases –
but the end in the sense of a goal that has been reached,
a process that has been completed,
a task that has been finished.
Knowing that his hour has come
in which he is to pass from this world to the Father,
Jesus does the work God has given to him,
a work that can only be fulfilled by love,
a work whose completion he will announce on the cross
when he declares, “It is finished.”

The washing by Jesus of his disciples’ feet
is not simply an example of service;
it is an enacted parable of his whole life.
The water that he pours over his disciples’ feet
is the living water that he offered
to the Samaritan woman at the well;
it is the water that will flow forth with blood
when his side is pierced on the cross;
it is Jesus himself,
pouring out his life for his disciples out of love,
for it is through such love that he accomplishes the task
that his Father has given him to do.
Only when he has poured out his life
for the life of the world
can he say “it is finished;
I have loved them to the end.”

It is finished,
but it is still going on:
Jesus continues to wash our feet today,
as he pours out his life for us
through the living water of baptism
and in the Eucharistic feast of his body and blood.
Jesus still washes our feet
because he gives himself totally
for each and every one of us,
holding nothing back.

And this is what he commands us to do as well:
“I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”
Our participation in the ritual of washing feet
is an enacted parable of our own willingness
to give ourselves totally
for each and every one of our brothers and sisters,
holding nothing back.

But there’s the difficulty.
We see in Jesus the completion of love’s task
but we also see in ourselves love’s failures.
As every person knows,
no matter how fully we seek to love
there seem always to be those moments when,
even with the ones we love most deeply,
we say, “I can’t tolerate another moment.
I can’t forgive that hurt.
I can’t love that far.”
We see in ourselves the pride,
the grudges,
the prejudice,
the lack of patience –
all of the things that stand in the way
of giving ourselves totally in love,
the the things that keep us from saying
“it is finished;
I have loved them to the end.”
We know that as much as we try to reach that goal,
we always seem to stumble.

And this is why we cannot simply wash feet,
but must also let our feet be washed.
Our only chance of loving as Christ loved,
of pouring out our lives
and holding nothing back,
is to let ourselves be loved by him:
to let him bathe our stumbling feet
with his own mercy.

On the night before he died,
Jesus gathered with friends and betrayers,
some of whom were one and the same people.
He knew the failures of love.
He saw it in Judas.
He saw it in Peter.
He sees it in us.
He knows that the feet he washes
are feet that will stumble,
yet he washes them anyway,
to bathe us in his own life poured out.
And bathed in his life we, in our own imperfect way,
can join him in love’s task,
called forward into another day’s living by his great cry of victory,
“It is finished;
I have loved them to the end.”

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Lent 4

Confronted with a man who was born blind,
Jesus’ disciples ask,
“who sinned, this man or his parents?”
A devastating earthquake hits the island of Haiti
and American televangelist (and sometime politician) Pat Robertson
asks whether this might be because of a pact
the Haitians had made centuries ago with the devil.
Who sinned, the Haitians or their parents?
An even stronger earthquake
and the resultant tsunami
pushes Japan to the brink of a nuclear crisis
and the governor of Tokyo asks
whether this might not be divine punishment.
Who sinned, the Japanese or their parents?

We might think that faced with such misery
we would never raise such questions
but it is a natural human response to misfortune
to ask why such things happen,
to ask who is to blame,
to seek some past action on someone’s part
that would justify the pain and suffering
that has occurred.
We desire to find order in the world;
for if we can figure out how misfortune and disaster
are connected to someone’s past action
then the perplexity that accompanies such events
might be dissipated,
and we can restore our belief
that the world really is, despite all appearances,
a reasonable, just and orderly place.

But Jesus approaches the misery and misfortune
of the man born blind
in a different way:
in response to his disciples’ question
he says that, “Neither he nor his parents sinned;
it is so that the works of God
might be made visible through him.”
Jesus then spits on the ground, makes a muddy paste
and, rubbing it in the man’s eyes,
heals him and restores his sight.

I don’t think Jesus is saying
that God blinded this man from birth
just so that Jesus could come along, decades later,
and heal him.
Rather, he is indicating to his disciples that,
when confronted with human suffering,
they are asking the wrong sort of question.
They are seeking an explanation
of where misfortune comes from:
Why was this man born blind?
Why must the suffering of the poverty-stricken people of Haiti
be magnified by a terrible earthquake?
What did the people of Japan do
to deserve a catastrophic tsunami?
But these sorts of questions are unanswerable,
or at least whatever answers God has to them
are probably not the kind of thing
we mere mortals might understand.
Instead, Jesus redirects the attention of his disciples
from asking about the reason for suffering
to the ministry of alleviating suffering.
The source of the misery and misfortune of the man born blind
remains hidden.
What is visible is the healing, saving, enlightening power of Jesus.
What is visible is the ministry of Jesus, the light of the world.
Into the darkness of the man born blind, Jesus brings his light
both to heal the man’s physical blindness
and to give to him the eyes of faith,
so that he might recognize the power of God
in the one who has healed him.

Having been enlightened by Jesus,
the man becomes himself a source of light,
bearing witness to Jesus
before those who would oppose him.
This remarkable transformation from darkness to light
is echoed in our second reading,
from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
“Brothers and sisters:
You were once darkness,
but now you are light in the Lord.”
Notice that Paul says to the Ephesians
not simply that they have received light in their darkness,
but that they have become light.
The light that they have received
they are now to share with others.

In other words,
now that they have received Christ’s light
they are called to share in Jesus’ ministry
of healing, saving, and enlightening.
Notice that in today’s Gospel Jesus says to his disciples,
“We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day.”
Not I, but we
the disciples are called to share
in Jesus’ ministry of light in darkness.

Faced with human misery and misfortune,
whether that of the man born blind
or the disasters of our own day,
true followers of Christ
must not let the inevitable questions about “why”
keep them from answering Jesus’ call
to join in his ministry of light:
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light.”
Through the light of Christ,
we become light.
And, transformed into light,
we can respond to the call
that he gave to the disciples
who witnessed his transfigured glory:
“Rise, and do not be afraid.”
Rise, and join me in being light
in the darkest places of human misery and misfortune.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

9th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On this last Sunday before we enter the season of Lent
our Gospel reading offers us the conclusion
of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount,
which we have been hearing for the past five Sundays.
Jesus has been laying down for us
the challenge of being his disciple:
the challenge to be poor in Spirit,
to be salt of the earth,
to turn the other cheek,
to love our enemies,
to not worry about tomorrow,
to seek first the kingdom of God.
This is the challenge that we take with us
into the Lenten season,
as we prepare to celebrate the great mystery
of the salvation that comes to us
through Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection.

That’s a pretty long to-do list.
You had better get busy.

But in today’s Gospel,
Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount with a warning.
He speaks of those who are very busy with their to-do lists –
saying, “Lord, Lord,”
prophesying in Jesus’ name,
driving out demons in Jesus’ name,
doing mighty deeds in Jesus’ name –
and he tells us that he will say to them, “I never knew you.”
He never knew them
because they were too busy with their to-do lists
to stop and to listen and to come to know him.
He contrasts them with the person,
“who listens to these words of mine and acts on them.”
The problem is not that they are busy with their to-do lists,
but that they have assembled those lists
without first listening to the words of Jesus.
They have not listened to him
so that they might come to know him
and to know what it is that he is asking of them.

Notice the kinds of things that are on their to-do lists:
driving out demons,
doing mighty deeds –
big, flashy things that might make you
the first-century equivalent of a celebrity,
with a million people following you on Twitter.
Compare this with the picture of the disciple
that Jesus has sketched for us
in the Sermon on the Mount:
poor in spirit,
and even insulted and persecuted.
Not the sort of person
who is likely to be tweeting their latest mighty deed
done in the name of Jesus.

So maybe the first challenge of Lent
is not one of working our way
through our to-do list of mighty deeds,
but simply of listening to the words of Jesus
as these come to us through the scriptures
and in our prayerful reflection.
For if we act before we listen,
our to-do list is more likely to represent our agenda than Jesus’;
it will end up being a lot more about glorifying ourselves
than about glorifying God,
even if we drape our deeds
in the fig-leaf of piety,
saying “Lord, Lord.”

Jesus goes on to say in today’s gospel, however,
that listening is not enough.
If we want our house to be built on solid rock
rather than on shifting sand
we must not only listen to his words,
but also act on them.
We must not act without first listening,
but we also must not listen without then acting.
The demanding picture of the disciple that Jesus’ gives us
in the Sermon on the Mount
is not simply an ideal that we are to admire
but a concrete set of instructions
that we are to embody in our lives.
We will, of course, fail.
We will be prideful
rather than poor in spirit.
We will hold grudges
rather than be merciful.
We will try to defeat our opponents
rather than be peacemakers.
We will surrender our ideals
rather than face insults and persecution.
As Paul reminds us in our second reading,
“there is no distinction;
all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.”
But he also goes on to say that we are justified –
put back on the right path –
by God grace, “through the redemption in Christ Jesus.”

I suspect that your Lent, like mine,
will end up being something of a disappointment.
Prior experience tells me
that I will try to act without first listening,
or I will listen, but never get around to acting,
or, perhaps most likely,
I will fail to do either much listening or much acting.
But if we can manage to listen even just a little
to the words Christ will speak to us over these next six weeks
we will hear of his power and his glory
that is revealed in suffering and weakness.
We will hear of “the righteousness of God
that comes through faith in Jesus Christ”
and we can hope for some share in his righteousness,
not because we have said “Lord, Lord,”
or because we have done mighty deeds in his name,
but because we have listened and acted on our faith –
our faith in the mighty deed of God in Jesus Christ
by which we have been saved.
This Lent, let us make listening to Jesus and acting on his word
the solid rock on which we build.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Salt has been on my mind this week.
Not only has it been all over our streets,
melting ice and messing up our cars,
and not only do the new dietary guidelines
released by the federal government
say that we Americans,
in addition to consuming too much fat and sugar,
consume too much salt,
but it is also a central image
in this week’s Gospel reading.

Jesus tells his followers
that they are “the salt of the earth,”
evoking a whole web of associations
that human beings have with salt.
Salt is almost certainly the oldest seasoning
used by the human race:
we have archeological evidence of facilities
for the refining of salt
as early as 6000 BC.
Of course, salt was used for more
than making Neolithic french-fries tastier:
salting was for many centuries
the only way we had to preserve food from decay and corruption.
Salt was, in fact, so valuable
that a wide variety of cultures have used it for religious purposes:
in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome
salt mixed with water was offered to the gods;
in ancient Israel,
salt was included in grain offerings and burnt offerings;
salt was used to purify and to exorcise,
but it also symbolized the table fellowship of a shared meal.

So when Jesus tells his followers
that they are the salt of the earth,
he is, as is the case with any good metaphor,
saying a number of things at the same time.
True disciples give our world its savor;
they are the element preserving the world
from decay and corruption;
they are an offering to God;
they are a foretaste of the day
when humanity will be gathered around the table
in God’s kingdom.

But, having told them that they are salt,
Jesus also warns them:
“if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?
It is no longer good for anything
but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”
If the disciples of Jesus lose their power to season and preserve
then they are useless,
they have no purpose,
and, like salt with no flavor, they will be cast aside.

We ought to be careful here, however.
We cannot simply assume that because we see someone
cast out and trampled underfoot
that he or she is salt that has lost its taste
and become worthless.
Remember that Jesus is saying this
immediately after telling his disciples
“Blessed are they who are persecuted
for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
For Jesus, it is precisely those who,
in the eyes of the world,
have been cast out and trampled underfoot,
who are the true salt of the earth,
who give life its savor,
who preserve the world from decay and corruption.

In our second reading, Paul tells the Corinthians,
“I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling,”
not bringing with him words of human wisdom
but only his faith in Christ crucified,
Christ outcast ,
Christ trampled underfoot.
And it is only in this way
that we can proclaim the Gospel of grace.

This completely turns the logic of the world upside down.
Those whom the world might think of as failures,
who are willing to be persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
are the true salt of the earth
and possessors of the kingdom of heaven.

Earlier this week I saw a remarkable photograph
taken in Cairo’s Tahrir Square,
where anti-government demonstrations in Egypt
have been centered.
A large number of Muslim demonstrators kneel in the square,
performing the prayer that Muslims make five times a day.
They are encircled by a protective perimeter
formed by Coptic Christians
who stand with hands joined to ensure
that their fellow protesters
are not disturbed or attacked as they pray.
These Coptic Christians are a minority in Egypt,
and at times have been persecuted by their fellow Egyptians,
perhaps even by some of the very people they are now protecting.
But, by their actions,
they show themselves willing to look beyond that history
because they recognize the cause of righteousness
and are willing to risk, quite literally,
being cast out and trampled underfoot.

It is by actions such as this that the disciples of Jesus
show themselves to be the salt of the earth,
a light that gives light to all the world.
It is those who fear and flee
the persecution that often accompanies discipleship
who are the salt that has lost its flavor
and must be cast aside.
Saint Augustine wrote that
we should not fear being trampled underfoot in this world
as long as our spirit is rooted in heaven
(The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount 1.6);
For it is our being rooted in God
that allows us to live as Jesus’ disciples,
to embrace the risk of being persecuted for righteousness sake,
and to be the salt that flavors and preserves the world.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Baptism of the Lord

There are two days in the Church year
when the sacrament of Baptism is brought into sharp focus.
One is Easter.
As most of you know,
it is the practice of the Church to baptize adults at Easter,
during the Easter Vigil, which is the high point of the Church year.
Here, we see Baptism in the context of our celebration
of the dying and rising of Christ,
as the sacrament in which we die with Christ to sin
and are raised with him to new life,
making us members of his body, the Church.
This is a way of thinking about Baptism that will, I hope,
seem familiar to many:
Baptism cleanses us of original sin
and makes us part of the Christian community.
We might call this the “Easter meaning” of Baptism.

The other day on which Baptism is brought into sharp focus is today,
the feast of the Baptism of the Lord.
Here the focus is not on the dying and rising of Christ,
but on Jesus’ own baptism,
which is recounted by Matthew in today’s Gospel reading.
This feast, no less than Easter,
ought to shape our thinking about Baptism,
because it fills out the meaning of Baptism
and gives us a fuller understanding of our own Baptisms.

While the Easter meaning of Baptism
looks to the conclusion of Jesus’ earthly ministry,
today’s feast points us to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry
and to his baptism as the inauguration of his public life
as the servant and witness to God’s kingdom.
Having spent some thirty years
living what our tradition calls the “hidden life” in Nazareth,
Jesus comes to John to be baptized.
Coming up from the water, the Spirit of God descends upon him
and the voice of the Father speaks:
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Jesus is publicly identified
as the one spoken of in our reading from Isaiah:
“Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased,
upon whom I have put my spirit.”
Thus begins Jesus’ public ministry as God’s anointed one.
As our second reading, from the Book of Acts, puts it:
“God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power.
He went about doing good
and healing all those oppressed by the devil,
for God was with him.”

If we think of Baptism in this context,
we can see that our Baptism, no less than Jesus’,
ought to be the inauguration of a life of service and witness.
In Baptism, we are not simply washed of original sin
and made part of the Church,
but we are given a job to do,
a way of life that we are to live.
In Baptism, we too become God’s beloved sons and daughters,
and we are given the task of ministering in Christ’s name.

And what it means to minister in Christ’s name
is to let Jesus’ manner of service and witness
become the pattern for our own service and witness.
Our reading from Isaiah in many ways sums up Jesus’ ministry:
“he shall bring forth justice to the nations,
not crying out, not shouting,
not making his voice heard in the street.
a bruised reed he shall not break,
and a smoldering wick he shall not quench,
until he establishes justice on the earth.”
When we think of Jesus’ ministry in light of this passage from Isaiah,
what stands out is his gentleness, his patience,
his willingness to bear with the weak and faltering
and his unwillingness to use force as a way of establishing justice.
This is the ministry and witness to which we are called in our Baptism:
a way of life characterized by the same sort of
and compassion
that Jesus showed.

Of course, we must not forget
that it was this path of
and compassion
that led Jesus to his cross.
We ought not to mistake the gentleness of Jesus for weakness
nor his patience for inaction.
Indeed, the service and witness of his compassion
was so threatening to the religious and political leaders of his day
that he had to be eliminated, being nailed to a Roman cross.
And we have no reason to believe that the ways of the world
have changed all that much since Jesus’ day,
and if we follow faithfully the path of Jesus
we should not be surprised
if we too face opposition,
if we too must carry the cross.

And it this way, the meaning of Baptism
that we draw from today’s feast
is linked to the Easter meaning of Baptism,
because it is the ministry that is entrusted to Jesus at his baptism
that will lead him to the suffering of the cross
and the glory of resurrection.
And for us too, faithful to the way of Jesus
and trusting in God grace,
our Baptism initiates us into the ministry of Jesus
even as it makes us sharers in the mystery
of his cross and resurrection.
For many of us, our Baptisms may have been a long time ago,
but it is never to late to recommit ourselves to the way of Jesus,
the way of gentleness,
and compassion.