Thursday, March 28, 2013

Holy Thursday

“It is the Passover of the Lord.”
With these words, 
God institutes the sacred meal and celebration
in which the Israelites
would commemorate God’s salvation of them
when they were slaves in Egypt.
It is called in Hebrew pesach
which we translate as “Passover,”
in part because it celebrates God’s “passing over”
the homes of the Israelites,
which had been marked with the lamb’s blood,
sparing them from the final and most terrible plague:
the destruction of the first born.
But it is also a celebration of the Israelites “passing over”
from slavery into freedom,
from bondage in Egypt 
into the land of God’s promise,
from oppression and death 
into new life as God’s covenant people.

It was therefore appropriate that Jesus
would adapt the Passover tradition
in instituting his own sacred meal,
the meal in which his followers would commemorate
Jesus’ passing over from death to life,
and their own passing over 
from the captivity to sin and death
into the freedom of God’s grace 
and the life of eternal glory.
As St. Augustine said, 
“all the mysteries of the Old Testament
were fully consummated
when Christ handed over to his disciples
the bread that was his body
and the wine that was his blood” 
(Sermo Mai 143).

Over the course of the next three days,
we will be celebrating Jesus’ passing over
as well as our own passing over:
our passage from bondage into freedom,
from death into life.
But what does that mean concretely?
What does it look like to undertake this journey,
this passage, into freedom and into life?

Pope Benedict wrote, 
“Love is the very process of passing over,
of transformation, of stepping outside 
the limitations of fallen humanity –
in which we are all separated from one another
and ultimately impenetrable to one another –
into an infinite otherness” 
(Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 2, 54-55).
To pass over is to step out of ourselves
and into the infinite mystery of divine love,
the gift of love that makes possible 
true love for one another.

This passing over from self-centeredness
to God-centeredness and to neighbor-centeredness
was echoed by our new Pope, Francis,
just yesterday in his first Wednesday audience:
“to live Holy Week following Jesus
means learning to come out of ourselves. . .
to reach out to others, to go to the outskirts of existence,
ourselves taking the first step towards our brothers and sisters,
especially those farthest away,
those who are forgotten,
those most in need 
of understanding, 

We live the mystery of the Passover of the Lord
by passing over from self-centeredness to find the other
at the outskirts of existence,
by coming out of ourselves into the mystery of love
in an exodus from bondage to our own needs and desires,
through the mystery of divine love,
and into the promised land of freedom.
The final end of our passing over will only arrive
when we live fully in God’s presence in eternal glory,
but we already begin to live it now
in the hearing of God’s word, in prayer, in the sacraments,
and in loving service to our neighbor.

In a few moments we will obey Jesus’ command
to wash one another’s feet,
as a sign of the passing over from self to other
that lies at the heart of our Holy Week celebration.
But we do not simply wash the feet of others;
we also let our own feet be washed,
because Jesus says that it is only if he washes our feet
that we can share in his inheritance.
The word pesach, which we translate “Passover,”
can also mean “to stumble” or “to trip.”
And we all know, if we are honest with ourselves,
that in our passing over from love of self 
to love of God and neighbor
we often stumble,
we almost always trip over ourselves 
in one way or another.
So tonight we let Jesus, 
in the person of our fellow Christian,
wash our feet with the pure water of his love.
Tonight we who have stumbled let Jesus pick us up
and join our passing over to his own,
so that through him and with him and in him
we can continue our exodus
into the mystery of divine love.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Lent 3

It has been an interesting week to be a Catholic.
Of course everybody who has access to any form of media
knows that Pope Benedict’s resignation from the papacy 
took effect on Thursday
and that the Church has entered a period of sedes vacans,
or the empty chair of Peter,
as we await the election of a new Pope by the college of Cardinals.

In my mind, this event is framed 
by two other events from this week:
on Monday the Scottish Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned
amidst accusations of sexual misconduct with several priests,
and on Friday the Archdiocese of Baltimore issued a statement
that one of my brother deacons had been suspended from ministry
after his arrest for possession of child pornography.

Sad to say, for all too many people 
such news has ceased to be shocking,
because it has come to seem like business as usual 
from the Catholic Church.
And I find myself praying that God will seize this opportunity
to send us a leader who can make the Church into the kind of place
where at least such things regain their capacity to shock.

So what does the Word of God offer us today?
We hear in the Gospel the parable of the fig tree,
which for three years produces no fruit,
after which the owner of the orchard, 
justly and understandably frustrated,
tells the gardener to cut it down 
so that it will no longer deplete the soil.
But the gardener pleads with the owner 
to give the tree one more year,
during which he will tend it and fertilize it.

Early Christian interpreters such as St. Augustine
saw the parable as a warning to Christians that,
while we have been granted another season of grace
in which to bear the fruit of good works,
a day of judgment and reckoning is coming
for those whose lives remain barren.

But perhaps this parable 
is not just about us as individuals,
but also about us as a Church.
Events not just this week but over the past ten years
have led me often to wonder whether our Church
has become like the fig tree,
exhausting the soil around it
while producing no fruit but scandal upon scandal,
sucking life from the world
and offering nothing in return but one more excuse
for the cynicism that so pervades modern life.
Is time running out for our Church to bear good fruit?
Could the day arrive when God decides 
that the time has come to cut it down?
Christ said that the gates of hell 
would not prevail against his Church,
but we must also remember the words of St. Paul:
“whoever thinks he is standing secure 
should take care not to fall.”

These are dark thoughts to have on the eve of a papal election.
And they bring with them the temptation to think
that what is needed to fix the Church
is a Pope who fits with my particular agenda:
whether that is a Pope who will ordain women to the priesthood
or impose the Latin Mass on all parishes,
or change the Church’s teaching on contraception
or excommunicate all the bad Catholics.
These might be good ideas or bad ideas,
but a solution more radical than any of these is called for,
a solution that fits neither a “conservative” agenda nor a “liberal” one, 
a solution that is hinted at in the parable of the fig tree.

The gardener in the parable says
that he will cultivate the ground around the tree and fertilize it.
What our translation rather primly translates as “fertilizer”
is the Greek word kopria, which really means “excrement.”
A Pope from many centuries ago, Gregory the Great,
said, in reference to this parable, that the fertilizer that can make
the unfruitful tree of our souls fruitful once again
is the remembrance of the dung of our past sins;
the frank acknowledgement of the stench of our own misdeeds 
can pierce our hearts
and move us to begin bearing 
the fruit of good and godly deeds (Homily 31).

And what is true of us as individuals 
is just as true of us as a Church.
The Church must clear away all of the weeds that are choking it:
the desire to protect careers and images at all costs,
the denial that the world’s evils are found in the Church as well,
the denigration of any who would dare to call us to account.
The Church must be fertilized by facing up to the foulness of her failings,
and let her heart be pierced by the stench of her own sins,
so that we can in due season bear fruit
that will feed a world that is spiritually starving.

Perhaps our next Pope can help us to do this.
But the Church stands 
on the promise of Christ to remain with us,
not on the dream of a Pope 
who will fix everything that is wrong with us.
Still, we should pray in this time of sede vacans 
for God to send us a leader
who, like the gardener in the parable,
will cultivate and fertilize the Church with honest repentance.
And we should not only pray, but pray with confidence,
because we know that while our past is ours, and we must own it,
our future belongs to the God 
whose grace can make a barren fig tree fruitful
and make a desert bush burn with the fire of God’s presence,
the God whose Spirit, 
despite our best efforts to quench it,
still burns as a refiner’s fire within the Church, 
the living body of Christ.