Sunday, December 23, 2012

Advent 4

Readings: Micah 5:1-4a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45

Today, as we teeter on the brink of Christmas,
the Church offers for our consideration
the story of the Visitation:
the pregnant Mary’s visit
to her pregnant kinswoman Elizabeth.
This event might be familiar to some as the second joyful mystery
upon which one meditates when praying the rosary.
To others is might be more familiar as the subject matter
of great paintings by Giotto, Fra Angelico, Albertinelli, and Raphael.
Whether as a joyful mystery to be meditated upon
or as a subject depicted with great beauty by artists,
the story of the Visitation –
Elizabeth’s greeting of Mary as blessed
and the unborn John the Baptist leaping in her womb
in recognition of the Messiah whom Mary bears within her –
seems to be a fitting prelude to the joy and beauty of Christmas.

The poet Jessica Powers captures some of this joy and beauty
in the opening lines of her poem “The Visitation Journey,”
in which she meditates on Mary’s journey to Elizabeth:
The second bead: scene of the lovely journey
of Lady Mary, on whom artists confer
a blue silk gown, a day pouring out Springtime,
and birds singing and flowers bowing to her. 
But then Powers introduces a note of skepticism
about this picture she has painted.
If we consider the incredible news
that Mary had received from the Angel,
the news that she, a virgin, in some ways still a child,
would give birth to the Son of the Most High God,
then perhaps her journey to visit Elizabeth
was neither entirely joyful nor completely saturated in beauty.

Powers continues:
Rather, I see a girl upon a donkey
and her too held by what was said to mind
how the sky was or if the grass was growing.
I doubt the flowers; I doubt the road was kind. 
Rather than the calm and self-possessed Queen of Heaven
whom we might envision in our prayers
or see in great works of art,
Jessica Powers presents us with the image of a young girl,
her mind filled with all that had recently transpired,
preoccupied on her journey with trying to make sense
of how God had grabbed her life and shaken it,
overturning all that she had expected
and promising her something she could barely imagine.

It is still a joyful mystery, a beautiful mystery,
but its joy and beauty are of a sort
that can only be taken in slowly and with great effort.

Powers concludes her poem:
“Love hurried forth to serve,” I read, approving.
But also see, with thoughts blown past her youth,
a girl riding upon a jolting donkey and
riding further and further into the truth. 
Jessica Powers suggest to us that Mary’s visit to Elizabeth
was not unmarked by fear and perplexity.
But it was not only a journey of fear and perplexity.
Because of her faith, Mary knew
that despite her fear and perplexity
her journey was a journey further and further into the truth.
It was faith that allowed her to see this,
which is why Elizabeth says to her,
“Blessed are you who believed
that what was spoken to you by the Lord
would be fulfilled.”

Teetering on the edge of the great mystery of Christ’s birth,
Mary was no doubt filled with fear and perplexity
but she was also filled with faith:
truly blessed was she who believed.

And we too, teetering on the edge of the Christmas feast,
have not been immune to fear and perplexity
as the past week has brought more and disturbing news
of the school killings in Connecticut.
And we can only try to imagine the fear and perplexity
of the families and friends of those who died.
What can Christmas mean for those whose lives
have been touched by such horror?
What does it means to celebrate Christmas
in the shadow of the cross?

Blessed are you who believe
that fear and perplexity
do not have the last word,
but that we are even now journeying
further and further into the truth.
Blessed are you who believe
that the horror and suffering
of a world awaiting redemption
cannot completely hide
the joy and beauty of Christmas.
Blessed are you who believe
that the Christ whom we expect,
whom we await
and in whom we rejoice
will visit us in his mercy
and heal our broken world.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Advent 1

Readings: Jeremiah 33: 14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2; Luke 21:25-28, 34-36

Advent is a season of expectation:
a time of expectant preparation
for our celebration of Christ’s birth 2000 years ago,
for the coming of Christ into our lives today,
and for the glorious return of Christ on the last day.
This Sunday our attention is drawn particularly
to Christ’s future coming in glory:
“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars,
and on earth nations will be in dismay,
perplexed by the roaring of the sea and the waves.”

Of course, this year things are a little bit different,
since this year we know that
when the ancient Mayan calendar runs out 
on December 21, 2012,
the end of the world is upon us,
whether it is caused by a black hole eating up the earth
or a collision of the earth with the mysterious planet Nibiru.
And I’ve got to say that knowing this 
certainly simplifies things in my life:
I’ve told my daughter Sophie
to forget about getting those college applications done
and I’m thinking about canceling
the repairs on our leaking roof.

Speculation and prediction about when the world will end
is not really something unique to this year
and to enthusiasts for the Mayan calendar.
Last year the radio preacher Howard Camping
predicted that the world would end on May 21, 2011,
and, when May 21st came and went,
revised that to October 21st.
Prior to that, various groups and individuals
had predicted the end of the world in
1889, 1874, 1844, 1763, 1585, 1533, 1370,
1284, 1260, 1033, 1000, 992, 793, 500.
In fact, I think we can safely presume that pretty much every year
has been a candidate for the world’s end in somebody’s calculation.

I must admit that 
I don’t take end of the world speculations very seriously,
and I suspect this is true of many of you as well.
But a lot of people do, so it is worth asking,
what is it that attracts people to such speculations?

I suppose that we might take a negative attitude toward them
and say that they are an expression of our human desire
for control over our own destinies,
a desire to put God on a timetable 
that we can plan around.
This is certainly part of what is going on,
and it is why the preacher Howard Camping
has recently denounced his own attempts
to predict the date of the world’s end as “sinful.”

But I don’t think such predictions are only
manifestations of a sinful desire for control.
I think that they are also a sign
that one is living one’s life 
in expectant hope of deliverance.
Those who look for this world’s ending
seem to be those who have a profound sense
that something is wrong with this world,
marked as it is by sin and death,
and that we await a deliverer who will set things right,
who will “do what is right and just in the land.”
Perhaps people come up with dates for this world’s end
because they yearn so fervently for a world where,
as our first reading says, we can “dwell secure.”
In other words, 
perhaps those most interested in the world’s end
are those whose lives in this world are most insecure,
whether materially, socially, emotionally or spiritually.

And perhaps people like me,
who tend to dismiss end of the world speculations,
might have something to learn 
from those who take them seriously –
not that the world will end on this or that date,
but the fundamental and undeniable truth
that my life is in fact insecure,
that the life that I have so carefully constructed
could collapse in an instant:
through sickness, unemployment, betrayal or death.
The one thing that does seem secure 
is that my world, my life, will end.
Perhaps what I need to learn is that, 
as Jesus says in today’s Gospel,
my heart has grown drowsy 
with the concerns of everyday life,
so that I overlook 
the fundamental insecurity and fragility
of my very existence,
not to mention the suffering of those
whose lives are far more insecure than mine:
the poor and the dispossessed.

To wake up to this insecurity is also, by God’s grace,  
to awaken to an expectant hope for a savior
in whose love I can dwell secure.
The message of the Gospel
is ultimately not about the insecurity of this life,
but about the security of the love of God
that comes to us in Jesus Christ,
the love that allows us to face life’s insecurities with hope,
knowing our redemption is at every moment at hand.
Because of the love that God has shown us in Jesus
we can look in hope beyond our insecurity,
not to a fixed date on which the world will end,
but to the certain advent in our lives of the God who is love
and whose love will one day be fully manifest in our world.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time

When in our Gospel reading a scribe comes to Jesus
and asks him which of the commandments is the greatest
Jesus’s answer is in one sense not surprising:
he replies by quoting from the book of Deuteronomy
a passage that is to the Jewish people
perhaps the most familiar passage in all of Scripture:
Hear, O Israel!
The Lord our God is Lord alone!
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart,
with all your soul,
with all your mind,
and with all your strength.
But Jesus does not stop there.
This first and greatest commandment
seems to immediately imply a second commandment,
this one taken from the book of Leviticus:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

What is notable about Jesus’s answer to the scribe’s question
is not so much the two passages of Scripture that he cites
but rather the way in which he joins them together:
love of God and love of neighbor go hand in hand.
Indeed, we might say that love of God and love of neighbor
are but a single love.
The great 17th-century saint, Francis de Sales,
said that love is like the ladder that Jacob saw in his dream,
stretching between heaven and earth,
upon which the angels ascended and descended:
love is a ladder,
“raising us even to spiritual union with God,
and bringing us back to loving companionship
with our neighbors” (Treatise on Perfection Bk. 10 ch. 11).

On this weekend, when we celebrate our relationship
with our Sister Parish of St. John the Baptist 
in Sepalau, Guatemala,
it is good to remind ourselves of this single love
upon which we are raised up to God
and journey back to our neighbor.
We have had a relationship with the people of Sepalau,
a remote mountain village of about 800 people, 
for twenty years;
we have helped finance a school building, a church,
and most recently a community chicken coop.
We have sent delegations from our parish down 
every couple of years 
and, as many of you remember, 
a delegation from Sepalau
came to visit us here in Baltimore in 2008.

Maintaining this relationship has required much effort,
not only because of the physical distance of some 3000 miles,
but also because of the distance 
of language and culture and experience.
Those of us who have not been there 
cannot really imagine
the daily lives of the people of Sepalau:
the great beauty of the land and culture of Guatemala,
but also the every-day struggles of this particular village.
For example, I am sorry to say that the chicken coop project
has gotten off to a rocky start
due in part to the logistical difficulties 
of setting up a community bank account
but also due to disagreements within the village itself,
community dynamics that are themselves 
difficult for us to understand:
why can't they do things the way that we do them?

The people of Sepalau are good people, 
but they are not perfect people.
And maybe it is in this that they are most like us.
We too seek to be good – 
to love God and love our neighbor –
but we too are imperfect in that love.
While we as a parish want to show our love 
to the people of Sepalau,
the distances of time and culture 
make maintaining this relationship a challenge
and all too easy to put out of our minds
or to leave to someone else.

Perhaps this is the way 
in which love of God and love of neighbor
most resemble each other:
if it is difficult to love the neighbor whom we can see
how much more difficult is it 
to love the God whom we cannot see?
If our love of neighbor is imperfect,
how much more do we fail 
in our attempts to love God 
with all our heart,
all our soul, 
all our strength?

So while love is the ladder 
upon which we rise up to God
and which brings us back to our neighbor,
it all proves to be a pretty complicated and difficult affair.
Our faltering human love 
can seem like a pretty shaky ladder.
But thanks be to God 
that the twofold commandment
to love God and neighbor
is enfolded within the promise of God’s love for us.
In the love we show to our neighbors –
whether distant neighbors in Sepalau,
or near neighbors in Baltimore,
or the nearest neighbors of all: our friends and family –
we are simply handing on 
the love that God has shown to us:
in the end it is God’s love that is the ladder
that brings us close to God’s kingdom;
it is God’s love along which we journey 
to our neighbors near and far,
and it is God’s love that unites us together with them
to the God who is love. 

Sunday, October 7, 2012

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Some of you might recall the Catholic custom of “First Fridays.”
These were days especially devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
when Catholics would go to special Masses 
or perform other devotions.
This was sometimes associated with promises
of particular spiritual benefits
for those who received communion at First Friday Masses
for nine consecutive months,
most specifically the gift of dying in a state of grace
with the Heart of Jesus as their refuge in their final moments.
Now this might seems just a bit too calculating: 
in exchange for about half an hour a month 
over nine consecutive months
I can get my ticket into heaven stamped.
Seems like a pretty good deal.
It might be easy for some of us to be scornful
of such a simplistic spirituality
and be glad that the Church has grown beyond such things.

But the Church has not abandoned the custom of First Fridays;
in fact, I went to a First Friday Mass just this past week
at Loyola University, where I work.
I think it is actually a good thing 
that the Church has continued this practice,
because our Catholic tradition 
of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus
is rooted in a profound theological insight
into the nature of God’s love for us.
Because God has become a human being in Jesus Christ,
God not only loves us with perfect divine love,
the dispassionate love of God’s benevolence to all creatures,
but God also loves us with the love of Jesus’s human heart,
a heart that, like our hearts, knows pain and distress,
a heart that is pierced and broken when love is rejected,
a heart that, precisely in being pierced and broken,
has become a source of grace, a place of refuge,
for all the brokenhearted of the world.
This theology is rooted in what we read today
in the Letter to the Hebrews:
Jesus is the one who by the grace of God 
tastes death for everyone,
who has been made perfect through suffering.
A human heart made perfect through suffering –
made perfect in the knowledge 
of what each and every one of us suffers,
an intimate knowledge of the failures and betrayals 
of human love,
as well as love’s glories and triumphs.
And, the writer of Hebrews says,
he is not ashamed to call us brothers and sisters.

This is good to bear in mind 
as we reflect on our Gospel reading,
in which we hear Jesus’s stringent 
and challenging teaching
regarding marriage and divorce.
His words offer no escape clauses,
and I am not going to try to invent one for you.
Even if we put the teaching in historical context
and understand that in Jesus’s culture
the way in which men could cavalierly abandon their wives
was a genuine social justice concern,
Jesus’ teaching still does not seem to recognize
the pain that often accompanies the collapse of a marriage:
the shattered hopes and broken hearts and rejected loves.
Of course, Jesus’s point here is to underscore for his hearers
the challenge of being his disciple
and the promise that the original integrity of creation
will be restored through him.
But we should also remember that this challenge and this promise
are made by one whose own heart is broken on the cross
by the rejection of his love.
However we deal with the challenge 
of Jesus’s teaching on marriage,
we must remember that he too is one 
whose human heart is wounded,
and that from his wounded heart 
he offers salvation and hope.

On Friday, as Mass was ending, 
I reflected on the people who were there.
Many of them were elderly,
and they undoubtedly had long experience
of the joys and sorrows of human life:
promises kept and promises broke,
hopes fulfilled and hopes destroyed,
marriages that survived and marriages that didn’t.
What drew them there to that church on that day?
Was it simply the promise of the benefits gained
by attendance at nine consecutive First Fridays?
Or was it, rather, the chance to worship the God
who knows from within the joys and sorrows of the human heart
and whose love can sustain us through those sorrows and into joy?

Whenever I officiate at a wedding in this church,
before the service I light a candle 
at our altar of the Sacred Heart,
and I pray that the couple would know 
the love of Jesus in their marriage:
the love of a heart that is broken, yet forgives,
a heart that knows our failings but is always open to us,
a heart that is a place of refuge and of healing.
I pray that all of us would come to know 
the love that flows from that heart
and would share it in turn with all those whom we meet.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Through my son Denis, the percussionist,
I have recently been introduced to the work
of the Scottish percussionist Evelyn Glennie.
She is a remarkable musician in a number of ways:
sustaining a career as a solo classical percussionist,
receiving over fifteen honorary doctorates,
winning a Grammy,
and being one of the featured performers
at the opening ceremonies of this past summer’s Olympics.
She also happens to be deaf.

Because she would much rather be known as a musician
than as a “deaf musician,”
she generally does not talk much about her deafness.
But when pressed she will say that while she is deaf,
in the sense that her ears do not work properly,
this does not mean that she cannot hear.
Hearing is simply being able to interpret vibrations,
to experience them as meaningful.
And while most of us do this most of the time 
with our ears,
we can also do it with other parts of the body,
as when we feel the rumble of a passing truck 
in our torsos
or see the reverberation of a guitar string or a drum head 
with our eyes.
If one does not have use of his or her ears,
then one must find other ways to connect 
to the vibrations that we call music,
which is what Evelyn Glennie has learned how to do.
Hearing, Glennie says, is in some ways 
just a specialized form of the sense of touch,
and what she has learned to do is to interpret pitch and tone
with the whole of her body,
building up in her brain what she calls a “sound picture”
by opening up her whole self and letting the music inhabit her
so that she can in turn let music flow out of her
through the medium of her instrument.

Evelyn Glennie shows us the power of human beings
to adapt to seeming limitations and to overcome obstacles
in pursuit of the things they love.
But she also shows us that hearing
is about far more than what we do with our ears.
In some ways, “hearing” is about our whole self
opening up to the reality around it.

This can help shed light on today’s Gospel reading.
This story involves much more than simply the healing
of one whose ears do not work properly.
The man’s deafness here is a symbol of spiritual deafness –
of the way in which we close ourselves off
to the vibrations produced by what God is doing in the world.
In the context of Mark’s Gospel,
the deafness of the man whom Jesus heals
is a symbol of the inability of the people of Jesus’s day,
of even his own disciples,
to recognize the presence of God’s messiah in their midst.
Their expectations of what God’s anointed would be like –
a powerful warrior and ruler like King David –
made them incapable of hearing God’s voice 
in Jesus, God’s Word.
In our second reading, from the letter of James,
we encounter another sort of spiritual deafness:
an inability to recognize 
in the poor person with shabby clothes
one whom God has chosen to be rich in faith
and heir of the kingdom that God promised 
to those who love him.
The people in Mark’s Gospel,
the Christians to whom James writes,
and even we ourselves,
depend perhaps too much 
on our normal way of perceiving things
and so are deaf 
to the presence and activity of God around us.

The example of Evelyn Glennie
learning to hear music with more than her ears
indicates to us that in order for us to overcome
our own spiritual deafness to the Word of God in all its forms
we need to open ourselves up to new ways of knowing,
new ways of sensing the presence of God.
When Jesus heals the deaf man, 
he touches his mouth and ears
and says, “Ephphatha – be opened!”
Today he says to us as well, “Be opened!”
We need to be opened by Christ,
so that we can hear with our whole self,
hear the voice of God that sounds all around us:
in the sometimes comforting 
and sometimes discomfiting words of Scripture,
in the cries of those who beg for food,
in the voices of those who cry out for justice,
in the words even of those who might disagree with us.
If Jesus touches our ears and opens our senses
our deafness can be overcome;
the music of God’s Word can inhabit us and transform us.
And as with the man in today’s Gospel,
the touch of Jesus opens not only our ears, 
but also our mouths,
so that the music of God’s Word that fills us
can also flow forth from us
to bring hope and comfort and challenge and good news
to all whom we encounter.
Ephphata – be opened!