Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easter Sunday

Readings: Acts 10: 34a, 37-43; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-9

Earlier this year
I spent several weeks at a Trappist monastery,
which is one of those things you can do
when you’re a university professor on sabbatical
and your youngest child has left the nest for college.
Over the course of weeks I discovered
that not a lot happens at a Trappist monastery,
and every day is pretty much like the one before it
and the one after it.
You rise early at 3:00 AM and spend several hours
in communal and private prayer
before going off to work, praying some more,
then more work, and more prayers.
Throw in a few meals, eaten in silence,
and that’s about your day.
The prayer itself is pretty much always the same:
chanting the 150 psalms over the course of two weeks,
along with a few hymns and Mass each day.
The work is also pretty much the same:
at this monastery it is growing mushrooms,
which is about as exciting as watching paint dry,
though more physically demanding.

Shortly before I left for the monastery
my mother was hospitalized.
She had been failing for several months
and it was clear to all of us
that the end was not too far off.
But my family insisted I not cancel my plans.
I arrived at the monastery knowing that I might well
have to cut short my time there,
as indeed proved to be the case
when my mother died three weeks later.

In the midst of those these seemingly uneventful days,
prior to my mother's death,
I found myself thinking about and praying over
the impermanence of life,
the way in which, despite our best efforts,
we cannot hold on to the things we love,
to the people we love:
how we hold our lives like water cupped in our hands
that ever so slowly leaks through our fingers.
Our days slip past us,
each one marked by some degree of loss.
We experience this most sharply
when we lose to death someone we love.
We experience it perhaps less sharply, but no less really,
as we drift away from friends over time,
or lose the enthusiasm we once felt
for our work
or for a cause we cared about,
or even for our faith.

Of course, there are gains in life as well as losses,
but we experience a kind of loss even in life’s gains.
As I prayed about the coming death of my mother
I recalled my last conversation with her,
in which she spoke of when I was a toddler
and she would come into my room every morning
and I would be standing in my crib,
so excited to see her.
While I have no doubt that she loved the man I became,
it was also clear that she missed that little toddler
and his unambiguous love and enthusiasm.
I thought too about my own children
and their transition from childhood to young adulthood,
and how even in the process of becoming
the increasingly accomplished, interesting,
complex people that they are
there is the loss of innocent childlike wonder and simplicity.
Even the great gains of life are not unmarked by loss.
The advent of the child who walks on her own
marks the end of the child whom you carried in your arms.
The emergence of the child who can read for himself
marks the end of the child to whom you read
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
over and over and over and over.
As tired as our arms may grow,
and as tedious as the adventures of that caterpillar may be,
we still miss the feel of that child against our chest,
the time spent together
discovering the wonder of language and image.
We want to hold on to those moments of grace,
but they pass away and even memory fades.

Is this simply the fate of us human beings,
who live within the unceasing stream of time?
Will the water of life inevitably trickle through our fingers?
Does every tick of the clock
mark the winding down of life?
Is it the case, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins put it,
that “all is in an enormous dark/Drowned,”
that “vastness blurs and time beats level”?
Or can we find, in the midst of the ceaseless flow of time,
a still point, a place of eternity
in which every moment that flies past us
is held safe and kept close,
a point that gathers in all that time takes from us,
a point in which we can find that lost loved one,
that friendship that faded out over the years,
that childlike innocence that was exchanged for adulthood?

On this Easter morning, St. Paul exhorts us,
“Think of what is above, not of what is on earth.”
In the midst of this life that at every moment
is being pulled by time from our grasp,
Paul tells us to open our hands,
to let go of the things we love in this life.
But he tells us this not because this life is unimportant,
not because the things we love are not worthy of our love,
but because the only way we can keep them
is by releasing them
into the eternity of love that is God,
the eternity of love that explodes into our world
in the resurrection of Jesus.
This is what Easter hope is all about.
The empty tomb of Christ is the doorway
into the still point of eternity
in which all time is gathered and redeemed.
It is the doorway that we enter
through faith and baptism,
the faith that is expressed in the baptismal promises
that we will renew in a few moments.
And passing through that doorway, St. Paul tells us,
we have died—
died to the merciless passage of time—
and our life is now hidden with Christ in God,
hidden in the risen one
who holds within himself all that we love.

What I found in the seemingly uneventful life
of prayer and work of the Trappist monks
was not a tedious cycle of pointless repetition
but the presence within time of eternity,
an eternity of returning again and again to the beginning,
to find that everything I thought time had taken
is being kept for me in the risen Jesus.
And it can be like this for all of us,
as we gather week by week
in the repetitive rhythm of the liturgy,
we return to our beginning,
we receive Jesus,
the eternal one,
into ourselves,
and find again in him
all that is true,
all that is good,
all that is beautiful.
We creatures of time,
who seem made for death,
whose best achievements
are shadowed by loss,
are given the gift of sharing in God’s eternity
through Jesus Christ, who came to share our life
in the turbulent torrent of time,
so that we might share his life
in the still point of God’s eternity.
To quote again the poet Hopkins:
“In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
           Is immortal diamond.”

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Easter Vigil

Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:2; Exodus 14:15-15:1; Isaiah 55:1-11; Baruch 3:9-15, 32-4:4; Ezekiel 36:16-28; Romans 6:3-11; Luke 24:1-12

The story of salvation
that is rehearsed in the scriptures
of our Easter Vigil
might seem like tales
of the “glory days” of God’s people.
So much of our faith,
and of this Vigil celebration in particular,
is tied up with memory,
and memory can give us a sense of grounding
in our collective and individual histories,
but it might also bring with it
a sense of regret and even resentment
over the loss of past glories.

Perhaps there is something wrong with me,
but sometimes when I hear
the story of salvation rehearsed
I find myself saying,
“if only… if only…”
If only I could have been there to witness
the kinds of miracle that God used to perform:
calling the universe into being with a word,
parting seas and slaying attacking armies.
If only I could have heard the voice of God
speaking directly through the prophets,
offering words of warning and of comfort
that could pierce the hardest of hearts.
If only I could have been there, like the women, 
to see angels proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus
or even, like Peter,
just the empty tomb
and burial cloths.
If only…

Sometimes I hear these stories from the past
of the great and mighty deeds of God
and feel an odd sort of regret—
the sense that the best days of our faith are in the past.
God’s activity in the world used to be so clear:
those were literally “glory days,”
when the light of God seemed to burst forth
with undeniable clarity,
and those who saw and heard and experienced these things
were so bathed in that light
that I imagine that they
could not help but be moved to faith.
But all we today have are reports from the past,
of what God once did
but seems to do no more.
Where have the glory days of our faith gone?

This sense of loss,
this sense of passing glory,
can haunt not only the story
of God’s people as a whole,
but also each of our individual stories:
if only I could return to the kind of simple faith
that I had as a small child.
If only I could recover the fervor of faith
that I had when I first entered the church.
If only…
And not just we as individuals,
but even as a parish community:
I think, if only Mary Jane O’Brien or Tom Ward
could be here at this Vigil with us,
or Mary Alma Lears could be sitting with her daughters,
or Henry Tom could making himself busy
with many, many, many details…
but we look around us and we see them no longer,
and our celebration seems that much less glorious,
and we are beset by a sense of loss and regret
and maybe even resentment at their absence:
If only…

But the God of Easter is not a God
of regrets and resentments.
The God of Easter is not a God
who promises to “make Christianity great again,”
as if some new savior must come
to return the church and us to some past glory.
No, the God of Easter says,
“This is the night.”
Not some dimly recalled days of glory in the past,
nor hoped for days of glory yet to come,
but this is the night.
This is the night when the waters part
and slaves are freed,
this is the night when prophets speak
and hearts are changed,
this is the night,
when Christ breaks the prison-bars of death
and rises victorious.”
It is the night that redeems all our losses,
the night when waning embers of faith
are stirred into new light,
the night that “dispels wickedness,
washes faults away,
restores innocence to the fallen,
and joy to mourners,
drives out hatred,
fosters concord,
and brings down the mighty.”
This is the night when all those whom we have lost—
Mary Jane, Tom, Mary Alma, Henry,
parents and children and spouses and friends—
stand with us in the light of eternal glory.
For this is the night of Christ,
whose empty tomb stands as an outpost of eternity
in this world of passing glory.
This is the night in which we die and rise with Christ,
so that we live with him now in newness of life,
and living that new life, that eternal life,
we witness to the reality of a glory
that carries us through days of loss and regret
to the day when God will be all in all.
This is the night when we leave behind “if only,”
the night when all the glory of the past,
and all the glory that is to come,
and all the glory that now lies hidden in our midst,
shines forth in Jesus risen among us:
“Christ yesterday and today,
the beginning and the end,
the Alpha and the Omega,
all time belongs to him,
and all the ages;
to him be glory and power,
through every age and for ever.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Lent 4

Readings: Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Though we call it “the parable of the prodigal son”
it is really a parable about two sons.
It’s a familiar dynamic.
The younger son is the “baby” of the family
(no matter what his chronological age),
the free spirit who gets to do everything at a younger age,
who pays little attention to rules or social norms,
who presumes that the world is his oyster.
The older son is a typical older sibling:
the dutiful child who colors inside the lines,
who saves his allowance,
who does what is expected
and expects his hard work to be repaid
as a matter of justice.

The younger son displays
no particular malice toward his father,
but simply a kind of self-centered disregard
and a slavery to his own immediate desires.
His alienation from his father grows
not from any ill will toward him,
but from the fact that he can barely be bothered
to think about him at all.
It is only when the money runs out
and times get tough,
that he “comes to his senses”
and returns to his father’s ready embrace.
The older brother seems to be the dutiful son,
but he shows himself on his brother’s return
to be no less—
and possibly even more—
alienated from his father.

As the story unfolds we see
that his rule-following responsibility is rooted
not so much in love and concern for his father
as in resentment toward his brother
and a desire to be recognized—
and rewarded—
by his father as “the good one.”
His actions seem exemplary,
but they grow from a bitter soil;
he keeps such careful count of each and every slight,
calculating the rewards and penalties each is due,
that he blinds himself to his father’s generosity
and the possibility of mercy.

The parable invites us to reflect
on our own lives in relation to God.
Am I, like the younger son,
neglectful of my relationship with God?
Do I focus on my immediate desires in life
and forget the God who is the source of that life?
Do I reflect on my duties toward God?
And if I do fulfill those duties,
is this out of love for the one
who has given me my life
or is it, as with the older son,
out of a desire to set myself up
as one of “the good ones”
by casting others as “the bad ones”?
Do I treat God’s love as a zero-sum game
in which the goal is to win
as many point of divine favor as possible
and in which there are a limited number
of points to be won?
Do I think that in order to have more of God’s love
others must have less?
Do I, in my resentment
toward the mercy shown to others,
make myself unable to see the mercy
I am being freely offered,
and that I need no less than they do?

But this story is not simply a vehicle
for examining our own consciences
so that we may receive
God’s forgiveness and mercy;
it also provides an occasion for us
to reflect on our call to be,
as our second reading today puts it,
“ambassadors for Christ”:
those who have been reconciled with God
through the cross of Jesus
and who have been entrusted
with that message of reconciliation.
The official theme of the Jubilee Year of Mercy
that began in December
is Misericorde sicut Pater
“merciful like the Father.”
It is a phrase not only that reminds us
that God is to us like a merciful father
but is also a call to us to be embodiments
of the mercy we have received.
How do I respond to those who, like the younger son,
treat my love thoughtlessly,
carelessly trampling on my feelings
as they pursue their own lives,
casting me aside as they pursue their dreams?
Do I, merciful like the father in the story,
welcome any tiny act of thoughtfulness,
any small gesture indicating a desire
for a restored relationship,
and run to greet them when they return?

Perhaps more challengingly, how do I respond
when I discover that someone who, like the older son,
had always done his duty in relation to me,
had been in fact been seething with resentment for years?
How do I respond to those who see
any favor, any love, any mercy
that I show to others
as something that they have been deprived of.
How do I show mercy to those who see the world
entirely in terms of who owes what to whom?

The parable does not answer
all of these questions for us,
in part because it leaves the story incomplete.
We hear of the joyful return of the younger son,
of his reconciliation with his father,
of his passage from death to new life,
but we don’t know what happens with the older son.
The father assures him of his love
and invites him to rejoice in the good news
of life’s triumph over death,
but we do not hear of the son’s response.
The younger son,
true to his passionate if thoughtless nature,
willingly enters into his father’s welcome,
while the response of the older son,
locked into calculations of justice,
remains uncertain, unresolved.
Will he be able to hear the good news
of his father’s mercy and compassion
as good news for him as well?

This story offers us a dual challenge.
Are we willing to examine our own lives
and be open to hearing the good news
of mercy and forgiveness,
even if it means that we must give up
what we imagine is due to us in justice?
And if we do hear that good news,
are we willing to share it with others,
to be ambassadors of God’s compassion
shown to us in Christ,
to be merciful like the Father,
to proclaim mercy in word and deed
even to those whose hearts
seem most closed off to it,
to trust in the power of the Gospel of mercy
to overcome even the hardest of hearts.