Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Woman Who Found the Lost Piece of Silver

Pandita Mary Ramabai (1858-1922)
Social reformer, women's rights activist, 
author, translator of the Scriptures

Rummaging around in a Church of England book on the saints for info on SS. Philip and James (for tomorrow's blog), I stumbled upon the commemoration, for today, of a woman I'd never heard of.  Looking into her life, I'm blown away by the fact  that she isn't more known, or even known, in our branch of the Church.  What a fantastic role model, especially for women!

Ramabai Dongre was born in 1858, one of three children, two girls and a boy, to some very brainy Brahmin parents, Anant Shastri and Lakshmibai Dongre.  Anant was a Sanskrit scholar and was very different from most Indian men in that he believed, contrary to prevailing custom, that women should be educated as well as men.  He set about instructing Ramabai and her mother in Purani Sanskrit, but he paid a high price, both in being shunned by other men in the community and eventually losing an ashram for boys which he'd set up, because of financial difficulties.

The whole family then became virtual nomads, travelling throughout India, the parents making their living by long hours of teaching, reciting and commenting on the Vedas and other Hindu texts.  Meanwhile, Ramabai showed herself to be a fast learner, mastering 18,000 verses of the Bhagavata Purana in original Sanskrit by heart, and excelling in astronomy, botany, and physiology.  You have to remember that at this time less than 1/4 of 1% of Indian women were able to read or write.  Normally, too, Brahmin girls were expected to marry early, as soon as 9 or 10 years of age, and it was considered dishonorable for them to continue  studies after that.  Ramabai's father, further flying in the face of accepted tradition, refused to arrange a marriage for her.

When Ramabai was only a teenager, her family -- mother, father, and sister -- was wiped out as they fell victim to starvation in the great famine of 1874-1876.  She and her brother, though hungry and with no support now, wandered around India until they reached Calcutta in 1878.  There she amazed local scholars with her incredible command of Sanskrit and the ancient texts.  She was called a Saraswati or goddess of learning, and received the title Pandita, i.e., wise person.

After her brother died in 1880, she, although a Brahmin, married a lower caste Bengali lawyer: Babu Bipin Behari Madhavi.  Needless to say, this created a stir in her orthodox Hindu society.  She bore one child, a girl, Manorama, and raised the girl on her own after the premature death of her husband, of cholera, less than two years later.

Through her travel experiences and from her observation of the western Indian social reform movement, Ramabai developed into an activist for oppressed people, especially women.  In addition to writing and lecturing, she founded India's first feminist organization, Arya Mahila Sabha, in 1881, which crusaded for women's education and a more advanced age allowing girls to marry.  In 1883, having been invited to speak before India's Education Commission, she boldly proclaimed: " is evident that women being one half of the people of this country, are oppressed and cruelly treated by the other half."  

That same year, Ramabai and Manorama left India for England where Ramabai had received a scholarship to study medicine.  They were taken in by the Community of St. Mary the Virgin (Anglican) in Wantage, and given a home and an opportunity for Ramabai to learn English in exchange for teaching Sanskrit.  Not long after she arrived, she was distressed to discover that her hearing was defective, to the point that she had difficulty participating in lectures.  Her Hindu friends and colleagues were uneasy with her living in a Christian environment, though she tried to reassure them that she wouldn't "convert".  After a time, however, encouraged to read the New Testament by her hosts, she was deeply impacted by the stories of Jesus' ministry to poor and oppressed people, and his gentle way with women.  She felt that this Christian teaching was thoroughly consistent with her feminist views, and soon she and Manorama were baptized.  She later wrote: "...One can feel that the teaching of our Lord Jesus comes from the All-Father, who loves not one nation, not one class, or one caste, but bears in His heart every creature of His hand..."   Nevertheless, Ramabai remained true to her Indian heritage and always considered herself a cultural Hindu.  Though this stance caused her some difficulty, both with her Hindu friends and her Christian friends, -- and we've had reminders of such in our own Church recently -- she remained firm in her convictions. While in England, Ramabai wrote her feminist classic, The High Caste Hindu Woman, widely read in both England and America: a fearless yet sensitive critique of the plight of India's high-caste child widows, exposing the unreasonable and tragic circumstances to which they were subjected.  Although originally published in Marathi for the Indian public, it was understandably not well received.  In 1886, while a guest of the dean of the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania at a graduation ceremony, Ramabai, now 28, so impressed others that she became the talk of Philadelphia.  Other women's organizations began to invite her to speak, and she eventually became a friend and co-worker with such feminist leaders as Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, and Frances Willard.  Pandita Ramabai later wrote another book, Pandita Ramabai's American Encounter, a commentary on U.S. culture and people, sharply contrasting the treatment of women in the U.S.with that in India.  Nevertheless, she also leveled some pointed criticism, particularly regarding America's racial problem.

Pandita Ramabai returned to India in 1889 with fresh vision and sufficient financial support from American friends to open the Sharada Sadan, a secular residential school for high-caste child widows, making both Hindu and Christian texts available.  The school flourished until the latter part of the 19th century when there was an outbreak of the bubonic plague, forcing Ramabai and her students to feel to a rural village, Kedgaon.  Here she established the Mukti Mission as refuge, not only for high-caste child widows, but also for young widow victims of physical and sexual abuse, famine, and disability, from any caste.  The school eventually housed and educated some 2000 people.  It continues to this day, providing not only education and board, but vocational training and medical services for many in need, including widows, orphans, and the blind.  Panita Ramabai continued to write and lecture during this time, and eventually translated the entire Bible from Hebrew and Greek into her native Marathi language.  In 1919 the British monarchy conferred on her the Kaiser-i-Hind gold medal, one of the highest awards an Indian could received during the period of the British Raj.

Pandita Ramabai remained a life-long student, seeker for truth, and visionary feminist, while bridging two cultures: Hindu and Christian.   Shortly after her conversion she wrote:  "In this new faith there are some things which I cannot take in, and I shall not feel myself bound to do so, until I know them, as far as my poor understanding will carry me. But, I must ever continue to search [the] Scriptures and never stop until I find the lost piece of silver -- either in this world or the next.

What a testimony to humility and to both intellectual and spiritual openness -- for women and men!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Santa Caterina da Siena: The Mad Lover

For most of her 33 years Caterina Benincasa, a native of the Fontebranda district of Siena in Tuscany, was considered...well...kookie, pazzo, folle, a religious fanatic, somewhat mad.  

It's hard to deny the image, given everything which made Caterina who she was.  Born in 1347 of Giacomo di Benincasa, a prosperous wool dyer and Monna Lapa Piagenti, said to be daughter of a local poet, she grew up in a large house, still preserved today, though greatly altered through the centuries, the youngest of 25 children.  Yep, 25!  Although not all of them survived, including a twin with whom she was born.  (It boggles the mind to even imagine what if the twin had survived and followed in her sister's footsteps!!) Apparently Caterina was quite a normal, happy child, even tagged with the nickname, "Euphrosyne" = mirth, merriment: one of the Three Graces of Greek mythology.  Then she became a teenager, and the madness really took over!  While other girls were beginning to notice boys and daydreaming about future married bliss, Caterina became fascinated with prayer and solitude.  Obviously, God would have been a priority for any good Catholic Italian girl of her time; it'd been drummed into them.  But for Caterina her relationship with the Divine wasn't just some shallow cultural thing.  She was one of those rare people who actually responded to the urgings of divine grace with every fiber of her being.

Nevertheless, in typical teenage fashion, maybe with hormones-in-overdrive, she went over the top, secluding herself from everyone and vigorous punishing her body with all sorts of austerities.  Monna Lapa went nuts as Caterina, none too politely, resisted her mother's every direction and/or suggestion re: dress, amusements, and all the other "normal" stuff with which young girls of that age should've been busy.  Caterina adamantly refused to even listen to any talk of possible marriage, and also any consideration of becoming a nun.  What's the mother of a saint to do??

It seems that at age 16, Caterina and Lapa called something of a truce, although Caterina continued her, to the rest of her family and friends, "strange" way of life for the next five years.  During this time the Third Order of St. Dominic, consisting of lay women with a connection to the Order, was flourishing in places like Siena.  Caterina was accepted by the group and, under the rule's provisions, was allowed to wear the distinctive black and white Dominican habit.  She generally only went out of the house for Mass and confession, and limited her conversation to her confessor, who admitted that he didn't know what to do with her! She trained herself to exist on a spoonful of herbs a day, and to get by on a few hours' sleep at night.  Delusion?? Anorexia??  Possibly, but not necessarily.  Here's what she wrote to Daniella, a Dominican lay tertiary from Orvieto in 1378, when she was 31:  "There are some who devote themselves entirely to chastising their body by performing severe and enormous penances.  To keep their sensuality from rebelling against reason, they have set their whole desire more on mortifying their body than by killing their selfish will...[U]nless they are very humble and find their strength in judging not by human standards but by God's, they will often sin against their perfection by setting themselves up as judges of those who do not follow the same as they...Wretch that I am, I regret that I have never followed this true teaching.  I have, in fact, done the opposite.  And this, I believe, is why I've so often fallen into unhappiness and into passing judgment on my neighbors..."   Caterina paid the price for her youthful excesses by finding it difficult all through her life to eat normally.  In a letter to Augustinian Friar Felice a Massa, in 1377, who'd suggested that she ask God for the ability to eat, she wrote:  "I tell you, my father -- and I say it in the sight of God -- that in every way I have been able to manage I have forced myself to take food once or twice a day. Over and over I have prayed and do pray and will continue to pray God for the grace to live as other people do in this matter of eating..."

By her early 20's Caterina was having visionary experiences.  Who would've been surprised!? One of these led her to finally leave her seclusion in order to minister in the town to the needs of the poor and victims of plague and famine, which she continued from 1368 to 1374.  Despite her earlier misplaced religious zeal, apparently God's continual presence in Caterina's life eventually brought her to a greater balance and maturity.  It wasn't long before people began to recognize her depth of discernment when it came to people and their problems, and a motley band of all ages and ranks, including wealthy folks from prominent Sienese families, men of fashion, clergy and religious, soldiers, artists, merchants, lawyers, and politicians, began to approach this simple, unlettered woman and confide in her their problems.  The locals, the plain people of Siena, however, were less than enthusiastic over this holy mad woman, derisively referring to her as "the Queen of Fontebranda" and calling her friends the "caterinati".  Caterina was never one to let sticks and stones break her bones; she and her friends pushed back by tagging themselves as the "bella brigata", a beautiful brigade which maintained its "happy holiness" and serenity, despite the namecalling.  In the end, they had the last laugh because ecclesiastical historians of later centuries gave them the title "School of the Mystics". Not bad for a hometown girl whom everyone thought was mad! Perhaps she was, but apparently God thought otherwise.  On the 4th Sunday of Lent, 1375, while Caterina was in Pisa crusading for peace, she was graced with the five wounds of Christ, the stigmata, though the marks remained invisible until after her death.

The political scene in Italy, particularly the Papal States by 1376, was one of enormous turmoil and intrigue.  Caterina, at age 29, had reached such notoriety in Tuscan society that she was now drawn into a ministry far beyond anything she could ever have anticipated.  Perhaps because many ecclesiastical and civil leaders had lost their moral backbone and authority during this time, marginal figures, such as Caterina, were seen as useful in getting a hearing for various agendas.  The current Pope, Gregory XI, had fled to Avignon from Rome.  In 1376 Florence, in dispute with Gregory at that time, enlisted Caterina to travel to Avignon and convince the Pope to return to Rome.  Accompanied by Raimondo della Vigne of Capua, a Dominican priest, later a saint, who had been appointed as Caterina's confessor two years before, Caterina devoted the next four years, largely unsuccessfully, to convincing the Pope to return to Rome and to completely overhaul the whole church system which she saw as detrimental to the spiritual well-being of the Catholic people.  Oh, yes -- there was also the little glitch of the Great Western Schism caused by a gang of French cardinals who, themselves mad as hatters because of Gregory's move back to Rome and quickly disenchanted with the new Pope, Urban, elected an alternate Avignon "Pope", Clement VII, throwing the Church into a mell-of-a-hess! 

Caterina, fearless and bold, yet always respectful and humble, went where angels feared to tread in dealing with both Gregory XI and Urban VI.  A sampling -- to Gregory XI she wrote: "If till now you haven't been very firm in truth, I want you, I beg be so -- courageously and like a brave man -- following Christ, whose vicar you are...Just attend to spiritual affairs, to appointing good pastors and administratorsin your cities...Do something about it! And take heart in Christ Jesus and don't be afraid...Up, father! No more irresponsibility!...Forgive me, father, for talking to you like this. Out of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks, you know..."   In another place, referring to the Pope with the familiar term "babbo = father", she urges him "not to be a timid child but a courageous man". Popular legend has it that Gregory XI died, in 1378, regretting having listened to "meddling women"! 

Though she remained in the lay Third Order of the Dominicans, Caterina founded a monastery for nuns. Her writing, given the few years she lived and her lack of education, was prolific and was usually dictated.  On one occasion, however, she wrote to Raymond of Capua: "This letter and another I sent you I've written with my own hand...[God] provided for my refreshment by giving me the ability to write -- a consolation I've never known because of my ignorance -- so that when I come down from the heights I might have a little something to vent my heart, lest it burst." She corresponded widely, again with all sorts of people, notable and unknown, and we're the beneficiaries of nearly 400 of her letters.  Though she didn't write them down, friends of hers recollected a number of prayers she composed, and some 26, from the last four years of her life, have been published.  She began to write her Libro della divina dottrina or Dialogo, her spiritual doctrine expressed in a dialogue between her and God, and there are several translations of this.

Those who take the time to get to know Caterina Benincasa cannot help but be impressed by the extraordinary life she led.  She died, far too early, at age 33 on April 29, 1380.  One evening in January, 1380, while dictating a letter to Urban VI, she had a stroke, from which she partially recovered, only to have a second stroke in April while at prayer in St. Peter's Basilica.  She died three weeks later.  Her followers, among whom she lived in Rome, remained ever loyal to her.  In the end, however, her goals, spiritual and political, of bringing the Church to reunion and reconciliation, under the leadership of the Holy Father, were frustrated.  Despite all her pleading and cajoling, Pope Urban, a weak and flawed man, ignored her, allowing arrogance and violence to continue sabotaging any real reform. Biographer Susan Noffke observes: "She had, above all, apparently only aggravated the schism she had given every drop of her energy trying to prevent and then to end."

In one of her prayers, Santa Caterina da Siena writes:

"O eternal, infinite Good! O mad lover!
And you have need of your creature? It seems so to me,
for you act as if you could not live without her,
in spite of the fact that you are Life itself...

Why then are you so mad?
Because you have fallen in love with what you have made!...
She runs away from you and you go looking for her.
She strays and you draw closer to her:
You clothed yourself in our humanity, and nearer than that
you could not have come."

There is a favorite scene of mine in the movie Zorba the Greek where Zorba tells the young teacher who seems reluctant to engage life:  "You're a great man and I love you.  But there's still one thing you need to do to cut the bonds and set you free -- a touch of madness."  Thank God for life of Caterina Benincasa who had that "touch of madness" -- the madness of the God who is unending Love!

+     +      +      +


This is a photo of the tomb of Santa Catarina da Siena
which I took in 1998 at the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.
After her original burial, it seems that the folks in Siena wanted at least
part of her back home, so Caterina's head and one of her thumbs 
were removed and enshrined in the Dominican church back in Siena!
Why am I not surprised?!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

"Touch Me and See"

"God, whose blessed Son made himself known
to his disciples in the breaking of bread:
Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold
him in all his redeeming work..."
(Collect for 3rd Sunday of Easter)

In all the Gospel readings of the liturgy for the past three weeks, there's been a flurry of "appearances".  Whoever is responsible for assigning which passage is to be read on which Sunday has seemingly jumped around through the four Gospel accounts since Easter (including the days of Easter week), as if discovering "Oh, here's one! And there's another one!", etc.  The breakdown of which readings are used is somewhat interesting.  John and Luke lead with four citings each, although only two are the same passage for John. Luke is the clear leader with four citings and three repeats.  Matthew and Mark lag far behind with only one citing each, and, in Mark's case, two appearances within the same passage are only referred to.  The passage repeated three times in Luke is today's Gospel, 24:36b-48.  Now, I wouldn't be able to say exactly what was the motivation of the chooser of these passages, and why he/she emphasized this one of Luke's, but usually repetition implies the presence of a significant message which one wants others to hear.  Up to this time the liturgy's emphasis has been on the stupendous blessing and reality of  Jesus' resurrection for us.  From this point on in the Easter season, it seems that there's more emphasis in how the Risen Lord is calling each of us to live out the Paschal mystery in our own lives.

Luke's passage begins with "the disciples telling how they had seen Jesus risen from the dead." (RCL translation)   In the context of Luke's Gospel, this refers to the Emmaus event (24:13-35) in which Cleopas and another unknown disicple or apostle had seen Jesus who had "been made known to them in the breaking of the bread."  The image I have in my mind is of these guys standing there, very self-satisfied, crowing with one-upsmanship to their colleagues about how they'd seen the Lord.  Then, Luke notes, Jesus was there with them.  The Greek uses a prolonged form of the primary word for "stand", with the flavor of "abiding", "continuing", "standing still", even "covenanting". Jesus is apparently suddenly, quietly, but very visibly there, because Luke observes that "they were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost."  It's one thing for us to hear and read about Jesus, to learn about him, to theologically appreciate the finer points of the Resurrection events, even to prayerfully meditate on these things.  But it's a whole different thing when we have one of those rare moments, which we can never see coming, in which Jesus is really there: before us, within us, encompassing us, and we're somehow very conscious in that moment that our own supposed intelligence, spiritual aptitude, and  self-righteousness has had nothing to do in bringing it about. We feel an inexplicable vulnerability and find ourselves wholly exposed, with nowhere to hide.  Like the disciples, we may be a bit startled, even terrified. because we realize that when Jesus is present, expectations will inevitably be made on us.

Jesus immediately picks up on these feelings in the disciples: "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?"  Then he does something unexpected: in order to verify for them that it's really him, that he's not a ghost, he invites them to look at his hands and feet (and presumably, his side also), and even further, to "touch me and see". Talk about putting oneself right out there! It's a situation where most human beings, whether you're the one looked at or the one looking, would feel extremely uncomfortable.  The lookers would probably find it repugnant to go poking around in someone else's wounds, while the one exposing his/her wounds to another would have to possess an immense amount of trust, not to mention humility, self-confidence, and even love for the other(s).  And yet that's what Jesus does.

I've always loved the way Luke describes the disciples' response:  " their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering..."   Because of that Jesus tries to reassure them still further.  "What do you have to eat here?", he asks.  The best they can come up with is "a piece of broiled fish".  No lemon, vinegar, or tartar sauce; no chips or cole slaw, it seems! At least it was probably fresh, since most of them were fishermen by trade.  But Jesus is never picky.  He happily and readily accepts whatever we offer, little or big, fancy or plain: "...he took it and ate in their presence...

If we're to take anything to heart from all this, perhaps it could be to prepare ourselves better for the "appearance" of the divine in our life; to be more open to accepting Jesus' invitation to "touch me and see", not only in those deep moments of awareness of his own presence, but equally in "his hands and feet": in especially the neediest of our sisters and brothers; to allows ourselves to be more vulnerable in exposing our outward and inner wounds to trusted others who can and are willing to help us; to know that the best place for encountering the Risen Christ is always at table with others, symbolically or really: in the Eucharist or in occasions of sharing food and drink together; and, as Jesus, to overcome our pickiness with regard to the persons who appear in our lives as his "hands and feet", or as to what expectations the Lord might have of us in our ministering to one another.  In other words, we ask to have such vision of faith -- sometimes "disbelieving and still wondering" in our joy, but never unbelieving -- that we can recognize Jesus "in all his redeeming work". 


Friday, April 24, 2009

Mark: My Favorite Gospel

Actually, I have three "favorite" Gospel accounts: Mark, John, and Luke: in that order.  Poor Matthew, for whatever reason, doesn't do much for me, though I sure like all those parables he tells.  

It's John's theology which I like: a gold mine for endless meditation, wonder and prayer.  Luke's appeal is that he's so realistically descriptive of people, Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, etc., but especially Jesus.  That, and the fact that he gives us, as Paul Harvey used to say, "the rest of the story" in his sequel: the Acts of the Apostles.

Mark's Gospel is short, and short is always good in my book! Turns out that shortness, for ancient manuscripts, is usually one clue for possibly being the earliest written.  For me, there's also a crispness about Mark that I don't notice in the other accounts. Within the first 30 verses an amazing amount of stuff happens: John the Baptizer (another of my all-time favorites) is on the scene, doing his baptizing ministry, including Jesus' baptism; Jesus goes into the wilderness, then thunders out of there and proclaims, in one simple sentence, the good news which he wants to get across; Jesus calls the disciples, who immediately head out with him on the road; Jesus teaches, Jesus drives out demons, and Jesus heals, beginning with Peter's mother-in-law. Mark's account is noticeable also for its honesty.  He doesn't at all gloss over  the Apostles' fumblings and failings, or their consistent inability to "get" Jesus' message.   

Scholars identify John Mark, though tentatively at best, as the son of a Jewish woman who owned a house in Jerusalem, in which, some contend, that Jesus and the disciples held the Last Supper.  Mark's curious and very personal-sounding observation in 14:51-52 leads many to believe that he was the naked jaybird who ran off, eluding Judas and his crowd when they tried to grab him as Jesus was being led off.  Paul refers to Mark in Colossians as the cousin of Barnabas, which would make sense in that Mark accompanied Paul and Barnabas on Paul's first missionary venture.  That didn't go so well later because Paul and Mark had a sharp difference of opinion, and Mark baled on the other two, turning back.  Paul stubbornly held a grudge for awhile and wouldn't let Mark on his boat when he embarked on a later journey, so Mark and Barnabas teamed up to do their own gig in Cyprus.  Apparently, in time, Paul and Mark let by-gones be by-gones, and Mark was one of Paul's companions in Rome, where he may have written his account, and where he also met up with and became friends with Peter.

2nd century Bishop Papias of Hieropolis identifies Mark as the author of the Gospel account, and the tradition from that time was that Mark, so to speak, used the notes and recollections he'd taken from Peter's preaching and teaching as the basis for his writing.  The 1st Letter of Peter refers to "my son Mark", but then we're not sure if it was Peter who actually wrote those words or not.

According to the testimony of the historian, Eusebius, Mark travelled to Egypt and founded the Church at Alexandria, becoming their first overseeer.  As to where Mark ended up, the longstanding tradition is that "it is believed" that Mark was martyred eventually in Alexandria "by a mob of angry pagans".  Who else?!

Mark begins his account thus: "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God."  He sandwiches a concise, compelling  description of that good news [or Gospel] and its proclamation in between those beginning words and the words with which he closes: "...And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.  Amen.

"We thank you, God, for this witness, and pray that
we may be firmly grounded in its truth..."

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Arthur Michael Ramsey

Arthur Michael Ramsey, 1904-1988
100th Archbishop of Canterbury

"...Give us grace and wisdom that like him we may know the Church
to be your Kingdom, the Sacraments to manifest your Presence,
and the Gospels to speak your Word..."

What words could do adequate justice to the memory of one who lived for 84 years, who honored God as a student, priest, husband, bishop, archbishop, teacher, speaker, social activist, theologian, and man of God?  Perhaps only a few quotations from the man himself.

"Reason is an action of the mind; knowledge is a possession of the mind; but faith is an attitude of the person. It means you are prepared to stake yourself on something being so." (Spoken to men about to be ordained.)

"To be an Anglican is to belong to a communion no longer limited by the English language or Anglo-Saxon culture."

"The Bible tells us very clearly that to "know" God is not an affair of the mind only, but an act in which our whole being – heart, mind, and will – is vitally engaged; so that sheer intellectual speculation would enable us to form certain ideas about God but never to know Him."

"The Christian's life is lived in the open, not in a pious cubby-hole. As Christ gives Himself to feed us, so we have to incarnate something of His all-loving, all-sacrificing soul. If we do not, then we have not really received Him. That is the plain truth. It has been said that there are many ways and degrees of receiving the Blessed Sacrament. It really depends on how wide we open our hearts. A spiritually selfish communion is not a communion at all."

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

God's Reign

"God confronts us with the dilemma of looking into the future for a 'coming' that is going on now." (Heinz Schurman)

We don't merely ask that the "kingdom come", i.e., grow, as petition.  It's also a statment of wonder, of thanks for the great event which we see unfolding before us, and in which unfolding God invites us to participate.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Faith Over Fear

The celebration of the Resurrection isn't just limited to one Sunday.  Since New Testament times the Lord's Day has been a weekly celebration of Jesus' rising, a sort of mini-Easter.  The Book of Common Prayer pointedly refers not to Sundays "after" Easter, but Sundays "of" Easter.

John the Evangelist's account of the Resurrection centers primarily on the reactions of three people: John the Beloved, Peter, and Mary Magdalene.  None of the three, in so many words, acknowledges the reality that Jesus is, indeed, risen. Apparently, that was a typical reaction of many in that first community.  It was as though the Resurrection was too good to be true.

John, therefore, writes his Gospel in the context of a church which feels abandoned and is lonely and afraid.  Born in Judaism, the followers of Jesus are now being put out and rejected.  Fear, John indicates, is getting in the way of discipleship.  Joseph of Arimathea, for example, keeps his discipleship secret out of fear.  In Jerusalem no one speaks openly in support of Jesus for fear.  The blind man's parents at the Pool of Siloam fear to tell the truth because of their fear of repercussions.  And now (John 20:19-31), on the first day of the week, Jesus' closest followers gather together behind locked doors in fear.  When people or groups lose hope and become fearful, Christian confession can weaken. Confusion and doubt can begin to creep in and erode faith.

It's in the midst of such hopelessness and fear, John tells us, that Jesus is suddenly there with the disciples on the first day of the week.  His first words are "Shalom: Peace to you."   Far more than a greeting, it's the declaring of a revelation: "Look, it's me, the One who died; look at my hands and my side.  It's me, the One who now lives in my Father's power, as I said I would."  The disciples, undoubtedly breathing a sigh of relief, rejoiced, sagging spirits replaced with smiles.  They're reassured now that Jesus' Resurrection is a fact; it's really him, here before them.  "Peace to you," he repeats, as if savoring the pronouncement of a further revelation:  "As the Father sent me, I send you."  (He had prayed in similar words to his Father at the last supper.)

Jesus then actualizes this prayer and revelation with an important visible action: he breathes on them, "breathes into" them, saying, "Receive a Holy Spirit."  To "breathe into" means to set God's creative power into action.  In Genesis 2:7 God breathes spirit, life, into humankind.  In Ezekiel 37:9 the prophet is commanded to "breathe spirit into" the dry bones strewn about the valley.  So here, the risen Jesus sets into action the work of the life-giving, creative Spirit of God within the community of believers, as he had promised he would.  The Spirit is released, however, not to do some sort of "spiritual pyrotechnics" -- fantastic miracles or babbling in tongues --but to carry forward, through the changed hearts and lives of these followers, the message and work of Jesus the Word.

John comments that the sin is unbelief: and now this community, through the Spirit, is to forgive sin and and hold it fast.  That is, they're now empowered, through God's Spirit, to isolate, repel and negate evil and sin, both for old and new followers of Jesus.  Easter is Jesus' Resurrection, his exaltation as God's Son, and the giving of the Spirit all rolled into one.  By finally understanding it in this way, John's community is enabled to shed its fear and to realize that, in fact, it is not abandoned or alone.  Jesus' followers are now energized by the Holy Spirit as companion, power, and co-worker.

Someone has said: "A person who has never doubted is a person who has never thought."  The apostle Thomas wasn't with the others that night when Jesus came to them.  For John, Thomas personifies the attitude of fearful doubt of the the first Christians.  He's characterized earlier in John's Gospel as misunderstanding, not fully accepting, what Jesus was about.  At the disciples' enthusiastic report of what they'd seen and heard, Thomas reaffirms the need for him to see and to feel, to prove, to have it all tied down: none of which is really adequate belief.

Eight days later, Thomas is with them.  Again the doors are locked, for fear dies slowly.  Again, Jesus is there with them.  Again, his declaration: "Peace to you," and then the revelation which would change Thomas forever:  "Reach out your finger...reach out your hand.  And don't show yourself unbelieving, but believing."  Note that John doesn't tell us that Thomas actually did that.

Without implying that Thomas doesn't believe at all (because he does!), Jesus challenges Thomas to change his attitude, to think deeper.  The disciples, upon first seeing Jesus, had confessed him as Lord.  Thomas, however, wants to concentrate on and probe the miraculous.  But in that moment when Jesus generously invites him to reach and touch, Thomas is led to acknowledge real faith, even without actually probing Jesus' wounds, and Thomas voices his faith in an ultimate confession: "My Lord and my God!"  Perhaps he was influenced by Psalm 35:23: " my defense, my God and my Lord!", or by the custom of addressing the Roman Emperor Domitian as "Lord" and "God".  Whatever motivated him, Thomas makes it clear that one may address Jesus in the same language with which Israel addressed God: "Yes, it is Jesus and he is God!"

Jesus then observes: "You believe, Thomas, because you see; happy those who don't see, yet believe."   Jesus means to contrast two experiences: that of seeing Jesus, and that of not seeing Jesus.  Thomas is no longer the doubter, but the believer.  Like the disciples, he has seen and believed.  He, too, is blessed with the joy of the Resurrection.  John seems to be trying to tell us that it isn't eyewitnesses alone who, in a markedly higher way, possess the joy and blessing of the risen Jesus.  Those who do not see are equal, before God, with those who do see.  Contrary to what most preachers commonly say about this passage, John isn't contrasting seeing and believing.  Both truly believe.  The point is that there are two kinds of reactions to seeing signs, and both are valid evidence of the call to believe.  Thomas' kind of belief, the kind that will believe if it sees tangible proof of the marvelous and the miraculous, is inadequate, yet it's still faith.  The other kind of belief, like that of the other disciples, is adequate, for it sees beyond the miraculous to Jesus himself and to what he reveals of his Father and of himself.

It's not that Thomas' approach to belief discards the sign of the risen Jesus.  As long as Jesus stood among people, they came to faith through the visible.  But with Jesus' release of the Spirit into the community of the Church and with his ascension, another way of believing now becomes possible and necessary.  The era of signs and appearances gives way to the era of the Spirit and the invisible presence of Jesus.

John concludes by saying that he has narrated these signs, only a few of many, many signs which Jesus did, so that you and I may believe and that, through faith, through deeper thinking and acceptance, you and I may have life.  "A person who has never doubted is a person who has never thought."

Frederick Buechner says: "...if you don't have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep.  Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving."

"...This is the victory which overcomes the world [of fear, of doubt, of our petty attachments to the spectacular] -- our faith."


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Simple Power of Word and Bread

(Supper at Emmaus, Caravaggio)

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples 
in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may 
behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with 
you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Now on that same day, the first day of the week, two of the disciples were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. And he said to them, "What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?" They stood still, looking sad. Then one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answered him, "Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?" He asked them, "What things?" They replied, "The things about Jesus of Nazareth, who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, and how our chief priests and leaders handed him over to be condemned to death and crucified him. But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place. Moreover, some women of our group astounded us. They were at the tomb early this morning, and when they did not find his body there, they came back and told us that they had indeed seen a vision of angels who said that he was alive. Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said; but they did not see him." Then he said to them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?" Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures.

As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, "Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over." So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?" That same hour they got up and returned to Jerusalem; and they found the eleven and their companions gathered together. They were saying, "The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!" Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  (Luke 24:13-35)

Father Robert Schreiter, C.PP.S. calls the Emmaus story a "master narrative" into which you and I can lay our life stories and thereby discover Jesus' presence in our own journies.

I remember vividly the Mondays after Easter while we were in seminary.  We called it "E-mmaus (as in E-mouse!) Day".  It was the day when this selection from Luke was read for the liturgy of the day, and, most importantly, it was always a free day for us.  In major seminary we were even permitted to go off campus on this day: walking, of course, or riding bikes; journeying; perhaps even visiting, for some of the seminarians' families lived in towns nearby the seminary.  Inevitably, our journeying would be accompanied by 1) food of some sort; and 2) discussion, sometimes lively, with one another.  It was definitely a day of communion and joy.

No one today knows for sure where ancient Emmaus was.  For sure, it had a long history of violence.  It's mentioned as a camp for Judas "The Hammer" Maccabeus.  In 4 B.C.E. the village was burned by the Romans as punishment for revolts which apparently originated among the Emmausites, and 2000 rebels were crucified there.  These memories would still linger in the common memory even in Luke's time.  Emmaus was a place associated with trauma and defeat.

It appears, since Luke says the two disciples were travelling toward Emmaus, "about seven miles from Jerusalem" that they'd forgotten Jesus' directive to "stay in Jerusalem", and thus were going the wrong way! So preoccupied were they with their back-and-forth bantering that they hardly noticed that someone had fallen in pace beside them, someone whom they didn't recognize.  He casually engages them by asking what the topic du jour is, at which point they stop dead in their tracks.  Luke's poignant remark is, "They stood still, looking sad."  Even though walking, they were making no progress.  The conversation continues about all that's been happening, about which the stranger apparently doesn't have a clue.  The disciples speak of Jesus in the past tense: he "was a prophet", whom the authorities "had handed over" to death by crucifixion, a man whom they "had hoped was the one to redeem Israel."  Resurrection didn't even register in their minds yet.  Like us, in the midst of our frequent extinguished hopes and lost dreams, the living Jesus isn't very real for us.  

The disciples go on to tell their new road companion that some strange things had happened that very morning.  Some of their women had gone to the tomb, but couldn't find the deceased Master, and even babbled on about a "vision of angels" who claimed that he was alive! And some of the men had even gone and verified the emptiness of the tomb.  But...  The two disciples, still stuck in their inability to put it all together, couldn't bridge the gap of faith.

Then the stranger, obviously familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, engages in a little friendly midrash with them, probably not an uncommon occurrence.  He deftly puts their story about what we know is his own death into the larger context and story of God's mighty action in their lives.  At just that juncture, they reach the village, and the stranger keeps walking as if continung his journey.  He certainly seems to have gotten some of their attention, however, if not recognition still, because they insist that he stay and join them for supper, especially since it was getting late.  They're hungry, not only for bread, but for more "word".  

The stranger obliges and they sit at the table.  Perhaps they invite him, as the guest, to offer a blessing.  And Jesus "took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them."  Then it happened.  The "Aha" Moment! "...their eyes were opened and they recognized him..."  The key to overcoming our pain, of transforming our memory, of allowing ourselves to get on with our lives is allowing ourselves to be led to tend to ourselves and others with love

The stranger vanished, and by the time they acknowledged that, they could only marvel together that he had set their hearts afire as he opened the bottom line message of the Scriptures: "I am with you always...

This story is foundational for the Church because ever since then Christians experience the Risen Lord's presence by sharing Scripture and bread-breaking, the sacred dimension for all our relationships.  Several questions occur:  1) How can you and I help others to recognize the "Aha" Moment of Jesus' constant presence? 2) How do you and I help ourselves and others to deal with our "we had hoped", whether in regard to a loved one's cancer, a divorce we are going through or have been through, war, dreams unfulfilled, love unrequited, etc.? 3) How can you and I reframe our own and others' stories in terms of God's big story for humankind? 4) Are you and I willing to greet the unexpected stranger, to walk with and accompany them equally, to break bread (literally or through Scripture) with them, to be Christ's Risen Presence to them?

Barbara Rossing says: "Resurrection is not always immediately apparent...The risen Christ may look just like any other homeless [person]."

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Waiting To Be Gracious

"...the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore God will rise up to show mercy to you.
...blessed are all those who wait for God...[who] will surely be gracious to you at the sound 
of your cry; upon hearing it, God will answer you.  
Though the Lord may give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide any more, but your eyes shall see your Teacher.  
And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it.’ "  

(1st Reading for Morning Prayer, Tuesday in Easter Week)

Picture the Risen Christ sitting in the garden near the now vacant tomb as you're approaching him. He rises as you step before him, and you're suddenly overwhelmed in his presence with the inner sensation that every horrible thing you you've ever done, to yourself or to someone else, every unkindness, every bitter or cutting word has just disappeared. The lovingkindness of Jesus, emeth, as the Hebrew Scriptures call it -- what we would call compassion or mercy -- is almost palpable.  Even more, the conviction of your whole being tells you that this is really true: it has really happened to you.

Imagine now all the people who approach us in the course of a normal day.  What if each one of them was to find you and me waiting to be gracious, to be lovingly kind, for no particular reason than that they and you and me are who you/we are.  

"This is the way; walk in it."


Sunday, April 12, 2009

                A Blessed and Happy Easter/

The Sunday of Resurrection

(The Resurrected Christ, Bramantino, 1490)

Alleluia! Christ is risen!  Christ is risen, indeed, alleluia!

"I got me flowers to straw thy way
I got me boughs off many a tree,
but thou wast up by break of day
and brought'st thy sweets along with thee.

Can there be any day but this,
Though many sunnes to shine endeavour?
We count three hundred but we miss --
There is but one, and that one ever."
(George Herbert)