Saturday, April 15, 2017

Easter Vigil

Readings: Genesis 1:1-2:2; Genesis 22:1-18; Exodus 14: 15-15:1; Isaiah 54-5-14; Isaiah 55:1-11; Ezekiel 36:16-17a, 18-28; Romans 6:3-11; Matthew 28:1-10

“The guards were shaken with fear…
and became like dead men.”

We humans spend a lot of time
trying to domesticate God,
trying to put God on a leash,
trying to bring God to heel
and train him not to make messes in the house.
We labor to contain God within the role
of a therapeutic remedy for our anxieties,
or a metaphysical principle for our pondering,
or a divine sanction for our political agenda,
whether of the right or of the left.
We entomb God in a manageable hour on Sunday
and place guards on him
to make sure that he doesn’t get out.
These guards bear many names:
we call them
“what is reasonable,”
“what is practical,”
“what is realistic,”
“what is traditional,”
“what is up-to-date and enlightened.”

But on this most holy of nights
these guards are shaken with fear
and become like dead men.
This night confronts us
with the God who cannot be contained
in our Sunday morning hour,
the God who refuses to be domesticated,
the God who is wild and free
and will not be harnessed to any of our agendas,
or brought to heel by what we consider
reasonable or practical.

This wild God takes my agenda and tears it to shreds:
commands Abraham to sacrifice his son,
destroys the army of the Egyptians in the sea,
pours out his fury on his chosen people,
scattering them among the nations.

This wild God freely acts in ways
beyond my capacity to imagine or hope:
takes chaos and makes a world,
takes slaves and makes them free,
takes death and makes it life.

The God of this night draws us into his wildness:
taking our flesh to enliven it
and embracing our death to defeat it,
becoming himself the sacrificed son
whose offering reconciles us to God,
drowning us in the waters of baptism
to raise us up to life again.
On this night of nights,
God has broken out of
the one-hour, Sunday-morning tomb
in which we have sought to enclose him,
and, frankly, he has made a mess of our house.

We may think that we want a God who respects our agendas,
who acts in predicable and reasonable ways,
who obeys the guards whom we have posted,
but such a God could never be the God of Easter,
the God of life and freedom.
Such a God could only remain
trapped within the tomb of our expectations—
expectations that are so narrow,
so paltry,
so tailored to our idea of who we are
and how the world must be
and how a proper God should behave.
But the wild God of Easter rocks the earth
and breaks open the tomb.
The guards we have posted,
shaken with fear,
become like dead men,
and it becomes possible to imagine the world anew,
to hope for things that our agenda had excluded,
to ask questions that we had not dared ask before.

It is this wild, free, untamed God
who has broken into the lives
of our catechumen and our candidates,
perhaps unasked and unexpected,
making a mess of things in ways
that they may just now be beginning to suspect.
During our RCIA retreat at the beginning of Lent,
several of them commented on how much
Jesus’ words to his apostles in John’s Gospel—
“It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you”—
resonated with their experience,
their sense of surprise that they, of all people,
should have been chosen by God,
should find themselves here, tonight,
teetering on the edge of something as crazy
as living life as a Catholic Christian,
that heritage of saints who are forgiven sinners,
that vast and unruly collection of characters,
that ancient family made ever new
by children born of water, oil, bread, and wine.

For us gathered here tonight,
our catechumen and candidates
are an icon of what can happen
if we let God off the leash,
if we let the fears
and excuses
and rationalizations
that we place as guards
at the entrance of the tomb
faint away before the wildness of the risen Christ.
They show us the power of the Spirit of Jesus,
that blows where it will
and blows away our therapeutic
and metaphysical
and political agendas.
For us, too, the Spirit of the one
who raised Christ from the dead
has sent forth tremors
that have shaken with fear
the guards we have placed on our lives,
setting us free to live for God,
no longer slaves to sin and death.
For Christ is risen from the dead—
unleashed, wild, and free—
trampling down death by death,
and on those in the tomb
bestowing new life.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Lent 5

Readings: Ezekiel 37:12-14; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45

Throughout the Sundays of Lent
we have listened in on conversations
that people have had with and about Jesus,
transformative conversations
that have opened eyes to the truth
of the good news that Jesus brings,
the truth of forgiveness and healing:
the disciples at the Mount of Transfiguration
witnessing his glory,
the woman at the well confronted
with the reality of her life,
the man born blind encountering
the light of the world.

But what of Lazarus, four-days-dead in the tomb?
What of the one with whom no conversation is possible,
cut off from the living by the veil of death?
Death would seem to be the final defeat of conversation,
putting us beyond the hope of transformation.
We may, for a while, continue a mental conversation,
an imagined dialogue,
with our loved ones who have died.
But do they ever say something that truly surprises us?
Do they ever change their mind in response to what we say?
Is there ever anything new
in our imagined conversations with the dead,
or do we simply hear the echo resounding in the halls of memory?
The truth is, death brings our conversations to an end.
Four days is a long time, his sister warns;
the body is likely to stink—
as if to drive home the finality of what has happened,
the impossibility of conversation.
The woman at the well and the man born blind
can be engaged in a conversation of conversion,
but for poor, dead Lazarus
there can be no transformative conversation with Jesus.

But Jesus does not come to converse with Lazarus
but to command him: “Lazarus, come out!”
His voice resounding at the entry to the tomb
is the Word that, in the beginning,
called all creation into being out of nothing,
the Word that is life and the light for the human race,
the Word that is with God and that is God.
This same Word now calls Lazarus forth
from the nothingness of death into the light of life.
Only this divine Word of command
can banish death, restore life,
and begin anew the conversation that death has cut short.
The truly great miracle here is not simply
that Lazarus is restored to life,
but rather that his dead ears can hear the voice of Jesus
calling him back into live-giving conversation
with the source of all life.

But this story of how the commanding voice of Jesus
can pierce the deafness of death,
and draw us back over the boundary of life,
is not simply a story of his victory over physical death.
For there is a spiritual death that is no less real,
that is no less destructive of our capacity
for engagement with God.
We can find ourselves entombed within the story of our life,
hemmed in by the choices we have made,
choices that have turned us from the God of life
and made us deaf to God’s voice,
choices that make us as unable to hear
as one who is dead and closed in a tomb.
The Church’s traditional term for this is “mortal sin”—
the sin that makes us dead to the life of grace God offers us.
This is best understood not as a really, really, really big sin—
the spiritual equivalent of a capital crime—
but rather as any action that takes us
out of the life-giving conversation with God,
that makes the ear of our heart dead to the voice of God.

Our readings this Lent have shown us
the transformative power
of entering into conversation with Jesus.
But our Gospel today shows us even more.
It shows us the power of Jesus,
the Word who brings light and life,
to call us back into communion with God
when sin and death have broken off the conversation.
The good news of today’s Gospel
is not simply that we have a hope beyond this life
(though that surely is good news),
nor simply that God can raise the dead to life
(though that surely is good news),
but that here, now, on this day,
when we feel cut off from God,
when we feel trapped by the choices we have made
and unable to move from where we are,
as Lazarus was to move from his tomb,
when we feel that God’s voice cannot reach us
because we are held bound in a kind of spiritual death,
when we feel that we cannot even utter a word of prayer
to ask God to give us life again,
the voice of Jesus,
the Word that in the beginning
commanded light and life,
can still call us forth from death.
No choice you have made,
no path you have taken,
no situation in which you are entombed
can silence the commanding voice of Jesus
calling you back into conversation with him,
no sin,
no sorrow,
no deafness or death
can keep that voice
from resounding in your ears.
Come out,
come out
from all that holds you bound,
Let the Spirit of the one.
who raised Jesus from the dead
dwell in you
and give you life.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Lent 1

Readings: Genesis 2:7-9, 3: 1-7; Romans 5:12-19; Matthew 4:1-11

This week’s news suggests
that you really should be careful
about who it is that you engage in conversation.
For example, if you are a highly-visible supporter
of a major political party’s presidential candidate—
particularly if you are someone
who could possibly get appointed as Attorney General—
you might not want to have private conversations
with the Russian ambassador.
At the very least, it just looks bad,
and little good can come from it.
This week’s Scriptures similarly suggest
the potential dangers
of conversation with the wrong person.
For example, if you are one of the first humans,
newly arrived on the scene
and not too experienced in the ways of the cosmos,
you might not want to engage in conversation
with that oh-so-helpful serpent
who suggests to you
that you have been deceived by God,
and that doing the one thing
that God has asked you not to do
might possibly turn out really well.

Notice, in contrast, that Jesus, in today’s Gospel,
does not engage the Devil in conversation;
apart from quoting the words of Scripture,
the only thing he says is, “Get away, Satan!”
He knows that the devil has nothing worthwhile to say.
Indeed, it is actually one of the directives
in the Church’s Rite of Exorcism
that one ought not engage
a demon in conversation:
no good can come of it.
Though John Milton made Satan
somewhat glamorous in Paradise Lost,
the truth is that the devil is a tedious liar and a destroyer
whose God-given intelligence has been reduced by sin
to an animal cunning focused entirely
on turning people away from God.

Perhaps one reason we human beings
can so easily be lured into conversations
from which no good can come
is that we are, by nature, conversational.
One of the glories of being human
is our ability to use language to engage others,
to communicate and so enter into communion
with another person.
We are, you might say, conversational animals,
who need communication with others
as much as we need food or sleep or shelter.
And like any good thing that we deeply need,
the good of conversation can be turned to an evil purpose,
as when we gossip or berate or tempt.

But conversation has other possibilities.
In addition to those conversations
from which no good can come,
there are those conversations
from which great good can come:
the casual chat that begins a profound friendship,
the frank airing of differences that leads to reconciliation,
the final conversation with a dying loved one
in which you say and hear those things
that had previously been left unsaid.
These conversations can be life-changing,
which is perhaps no surprise
since the words “conversation” and “conversion”
find a common source in the Latin word convertere,
meaning “to turn together.”
To have a conversation we must turn toward the one
with whom we wish to converse,
and in so doing our life is changed.

In the holy season of Lent
we turn again to the Lord who calls us to new life.
In our Lenten Gospel readings
we will hear Jesus engaged in many conversations:
with the Samaritan woman at the well,
with the man born blind at the Pool of Siloam,
with Mary and Martha at the tomb of their brother Lazarus.
All of these are conversations of conversion,
in which people turn
from shame and weakness and fear
and turn toward Jesus who is living water,
the light of the world,
and life itself.
As we eavesdrop on these conversations,
we also hear the voice of Jesus calling us
to turn toward him in conversation and communion.

One of the traditional disciplines of Lent,
along with fasting and acts of charity,
is a commitment to deepen our life of prayer.
This is for many of us a frightening prospect.
Giving up things for Lent is relatively easy,
being a bit more generous is a small sacrifice,
but prayer is hard.
It is hard because life is busy
and prayer can seem like wasting time.
It is hard because it involves opening ourselves up
to a love that might very well change us forever.
It is hard because, unlike the garrulous devil
who yammers away in our Scriptures today,
God’s response in the conversation of prayer
is most often experienced as silence.

But this silence speaks eloquently of God’s love.
For in the conversation of prayer
God does not seek to trick or persuade,
but rather lets our spoken and unspoken yearnings
echo in the vast space of his infinite compassion,
so that our desires return to us transformed
by our encounter with God:
reoriented, reinterpreted,
released from selfishness.
In that echoing silence
God creates a place of freedom
in which we can slake our thirst for living water,
in which our eyes can be opened to the light of the world,
in which we can find the new life that comes forth
from the empty tomb of Christ.
Let this season of Lent be for us
a time to turn away
from conversations from which
no good can come,
and to turn back again
to this frightening,
life-changing conversation
that offers us nothing less
than the infinite love of God.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Sirach 15:15-20; 1 Corinthians 2:6-10; Matthew 5: 17-37

Sean Spicer, the president’s press secretary,
recently commented,
“Part of the reason the president got elected
is because he speaks his mind.
He doesn’t hold it back,
he’s authentic” (Press Briefing, 2/9/17).
I think we can all agree,
whatever we may think of our president and his mind,
that no one could ever accuse him of not speaking it.
And in our Gospel reading today
Jesus seems to commend this practice
of speaking one's mind,
telling his disciples not to swear oaths,
but to “Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’
and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’”

But Jesus is not simply commending
being forthright for its own sake—
being, as they say, a “straight shooter”
(now there’s a metaphor for you),
who lets people know what is on his or her mind.
Jesus is calling his disciples and calling us
not simply to speak our minds,
but to speak the truth.
He is telling us who are his followers
that we are not to swear oaths,
but to let our “Yes” mean “Yes”
and our “No” mean “No,”
because our lives ought at all times to testify
to the truth of the words we speak.

Hilary of Poitier, writing in the 4th century,
said, “Those who are living
in the simplicity of faith
have no need for the ritual of an oath.
With such people, what is, always is,
and what is not, is not.
For this reason,
their every word and deed
are always truthful.” (On Matthew 4.23).
If you need to swear an oath
in order to get people to believe what you say,
to believe not simply that you believe it,
but that what you believe is true,
then, Jesus says, something has gone wrong
in your life as his disciple.
The practice of speaking some words under oath,
casts a shadow of doubt over the words
that we do not speak under oath.
It implies that we are bound to speak the truth
only at some times but not at others.
In a world pervaded by lies and falsehoods, however,
the followers of Jesus are called
to be people of the truth at all times:
not simply to speak their minds,
but to have in them the mind of Christ
and to speak the truth of Christ plainly
in all their words and in all their deeds.

In our second reading Paul says that we speak,
“not a wisdom of this age,
nor of the rulers of this age who are passing away.
Rather, we speak God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden,
which… none of the rulers of this age knew.”
What is this wisdom, what is this truth,
that the powerful of the world have missed,
have overlooked,
have been blind to
and that we are called to speak?
When Paul says that “if they had known [this wisdom],
they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.”
he suggests that what the Jewish and Roman leaders
did not know, could not see,
is that the one whom they crucified
is the Lord of glory.
What the mighty of Jesus’ day could not see,
the wisdom and truth to which they were blind,
is that the Lord of glory does not appear among us
clothed in the trappings of power,
but as one unjustly accused,
one tortured and humiliated,
one executed by the ruling imperial regime
as a threat to public order.
He appears among us as the truth crucified
by the powerful lies of our world.

This is the wisdom that Paul proclaims;
this is the truth that Jesus calls his disciples to speak plainly;
this is the mystery hidden from those who rule our world,
but made plain to those who have received the Spirit of God:
the Lord of glory is not to be found
among the powerful and the wealthy,
whose power and wealth are destined to pass away,
but among the poor, those on the margins,
the outcast, the refugee, the immigrant,
the homeless one in our streets,
the child in the womb.
God chose to come among us
in the form of lowliness,
and God chooses still to found
in those who have nothing,
in those who are defenseless and voiceless.
Jesus calls us to seek him there—
not in the halls of power,
where powerful people speak their minds
from positions of privilege,
but among the powerless.
We are to speak plainly
the truth of God’s presence there,
and witness boldly to the power of the Spirit
who has revealed this hidden wisdom to us,
by giving comfort to the sick,
food to the hungry,
clothing to the naked,
refuge to the stranger.
“Whatever you did
for one of these least ones,
you did for me.’

This is the truth we are called to speak.
The books of Sirach tells us that we have before us
life and death, good and evil,
and that whichever we choose shall be given to us.
We also have before us truth and lies:
the truth of the crucified Lord of glory
and the lies of those who killed him
in the name of public order;
whichever we choose will be given to us.
Let us choose to speak the truth of Christ
in the face of the world’s death-dealing lies;
let us choose to speak not our own minds
but the mind of Christ,
and let our “Yes” mean yes
to the God of life and compassion
and our “No” mean no
to the powers of death and fear,
which even now are passing away,
defeated by the truth
of the crucified Lord of glory.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Mary, Mother of God

Readings: Numbers 6:22-27; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:16-21

Once upon a time, long, long ago,
in a land far from this one,
the people of the city of Constantinople,
in their private prayer and public liturgy,
sang praises to the Virgin Mary as the Theotokos,
a Greek term that literally means “the God-bearer,”
and which Latin-speaking Christians translate as
Mater Dei, Mother of God.
Their logic was fairly simple:
if Jesus is God from God and light from light,
as was proclaimed in the Creed they professed,
and if Mary is the mother of Jesus,
then Mary must be the Mother of God.
As one of their bishops,
St. John Chrysostom, put it:
“she is the Mother of God inasmuch as of her
God was born in human flesh….
she gave birth and became the mother of him
who before all eternity was begotten of the Father.”
To praise Mary as the Mother of God
was to praise the God
who in the incarnation
had drawn so near the human race
as to have a human mother,
just like the rest of us.

One day (April 10, 428 AD, to be exact)
the people of Constantinople got a new bishop,
a man named Nestorius,
and he was a person
of considerable theological sophistication.
Like a lot of theological sophisticates
he cast a somewhat jaundiced eye
upon the popular devotion of the common people,
and he found the practice
of praising Mary as God’s mother
to be at best irrational exuberance
and at worst a kind of thinly veiled paganism,
reminiscent of the old Greek religion
in which deities gave birth and were born,
the way that Ares was born to Zeus and Hera.
Bishop Nestorius’s real worry, however,
was not with the birth of Jesus,
but with what all this might imply
about the rest of his life.
If God could have a mother,
if God could undergo birth,
just like the rest of us,
could God also undergo hunger,
undergo grief,
undergo pain,
even undergo death,
just like the rest of us?
If Mary could be spoken of
as the Mother of God,
could not the cross be spoken of
as the suffering and death of God?
Shouldn’t there be some line drawn
to delimit just how close God has drawn to us
in the incarnation,
lest God become too involved
in the sorrows and worries of the world?
Bishop Nestorius thought it much more fitting,
much more theologically correct,
to refer to Mary as the mother of Christ,
meaning that she was the mother of the man Jesus,
but not of the divine Word that dwelled within him.

As often happens
when a new bishop comes to town
and tells everyone
that they have been doing things wrong,
particularly with regard to prayer and liturgy,
the people of Constantinople would have none of this.
They had called Mary "Mother of God" for years
and were not about to change
because of some bishop's theological qualms.
Bishops from other cities were drawn into the controversy,
and even the Roman emperor (who favored Nestorius’s views),
and, to make short a very long
and not particularly inspiring story—
involving meetings of bishops,
excommunications, exiles,
a lot of fairly technical theology
using terms like “hypostatic union”
and “communicatio idiomatum,”
as well as, alas, a lot of mutual recrimination—
ultimately the Council of Chalcedon, held in the year 451,
refuted what it called “Nestorius’s mad folly,”
and affirmed that the eternal divine Son,
who was, as we say in the Creed,
“born of the Father before all ages,”
as regards his divinity,
was also truly born “for us and for our salvation
from Mary, the virgin Mother of God,
as regards his humanity:
one and the same Christ.”

But on this feast day of Mary the Mother of God,
we can set aside for the moment the tangled history
and technical theology
and focus on what first inspired people
to give this title to Mary.
We should treasure the title “Mother of God,”
not primarily for what it says about Mary,
but for what it says about God.
It says that in the mystery of the incarnation,
the great act of God drawing near to us
so as to become Emmanuel, God with us,
we can truly say that God has a mother,
just like the rest of us.
We can truly say that, in the incarnation,
God cries in the crib
and grieves at the grave,
just like the rest of us.
We can truly say that, in the incarnation,
God rejoices with friends
and is beset by enemies,
just like the rest of us.
We can truly say that, in the incarnation,
God suffers human pain and humiliation and death,
just like the rest of us.

But we must say more than this.
As we stand at the turning point of the calendar year,
looking back at a year that has had its joys
but has also had its pain and disappointment,
looking forward to a year that we hope will be better
but fear may be worse,
we seek a God who not only stands in solidarity
with our joys and hopes, our griefs and anxieties,
but a God who comes into our midst to save and heal.
In the incarnation, the great act of God drawing near to us,
we seek someone who will not just share our situation,
but who will change our situation.
We seek a savior.
The incarnation begins in the mystery
of the humility of God becoming just like us,
emptying himself and taking the form of a servant,
but it ends in the mystery
of our being lifted up to become like God,
what Paul in our second reading
calls our adoption as God’s children,
heirs with Christ to the glory of the eternal life of God,
a life beyond pain, beyond sorrow, beyond fear.

This mystery of salvation,
which ends in glory,
begins even now in grace.
It begins in the grace that transforms our lives,
the grace that consoles us in our grief
and calms us in our anxiety,
the grace that prompts and empowers us
to seek a more just and peaceful world,
the grace to resist all the forces
of injustice and dehumanization
that plague our world,
the grace that gives us signs of hope
and makes us signs of hope for others.

As we enter the ever-new season of God’s favor toward us,
may the God who in Christ became just like us,
and who by his grace makes us to become like him,
through the intercession of Mary, Mother of God,
make his face shine upon us and be gracious to us;
may God look kindly upon us
and give us peace in this new year.