Monday, January 31, 2011

St. John Bosco

Completely as an aside note, I need to vent my amazement and objection, wondering why in the world the editors of the recent publication Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints, by Church Publishing, has as its heading for today's commemoration "Juan Bosco (John Bosco)". It's quite clear that Bosco was a dyed-in-the-wool Italian. In fact, in their biographical section the Church Publishing editors refer to him as "Giovanni Bosco". Why they would use the Latino name "Juan" is totally beyond me!

Born to a peasant family, Giovanni Bosco spent most of his life in Turin, Italy. He lost his father at age two and was raised in poverty by his mother. Early on he showed signs of being different from the generally rough kids with whom he grew up. Giovanni was also intrigued by traveling circuses visiting the region where he lived, and learned to juggle, walk a tightrope, and perform magic tricks, all of which undoubtedly stood him in good stead later on.

With the help of some generous patrons who recognized his intelligence and abilities, he was able to attend seminary and was ordained a priest. He was first appointed as chaplain at a boarding school for wealthy young girls, which he soon found quite unsatisfactory. He tended to gather around himself the "ragamuffin boys" of the area, to whom he would teach catechism, give basic schooling, and oversee and channel their endless energy. Officials at the boarding school apparently weren't on the same wave-length, and they fired Don Bosco.

In 1846 he opened a boys' orphanage, under the patronage of St. Francis de Sales, whose feast we commemorated on January 29. He pioneered new educational methods, and gained begrudging respect even from anticlerical politicians for his work with homeless youth and his advocacy for vocational training, including evening classes and industrial schools. In 1859, with the help of another priest and some seminarians whom he had groomed from among "his boys", he founded the Pious Society of St. Francis de Sales, also known as the Salesians.

A flavor of his healthy educational approach to young people is apparent in this excerpt from a letter which Don Bosco wrote, apparently later in his life: "If we want to be thought of as those who have the real happiness of our pupils at heart, and who help each to fulfil his role in life, you must never forget that you are taking the place of parents who love their children. I have always worked, studied, and exercised my priesthood out of love for them. And not I alone, but the whole Salesian Order.

How often in my long career has this great truth come home to me! It is so much easier to get angry than to be patient, to threaten a boy rather than to persuade him. I would even say that usually it is so much more convenient for our own impatience and pride to punish them rather than to correct them patiently with firmness and gentleness...

...It is difficult to keep calm when administering punishment. But it is very necessary if you are not to give the impression that you are simply asserting your authority or giving vent to your anger. Let us look on those over whom we have a certain authority, as sons. Let us be determined to be at their service...We should be ashamed to give the least impression of domineering. We should only exercise authority in order the better to serve the boys...

Instead, like true parents, really intent on their children's welfare and growth, show them compassion now, and always hold out hope for the future."

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jesus' Great Instruction

In commenting St. Matthew’s narrative (5:1-12) on the Beatitudes or The Sermon on the Mount, perhaps a few preliminary observations will be helpful. First, though we’ve come to know these sayings of Jesus as “The Beatitudes”, from the introductory word most often translated as “blessed”, it seems that, for St. Matthew, a more accurate title might be “The Great Instruction”. Second, Jesus gives this Great Instruction to the inner circle of his disciples, NOT, as is so often taken for granted, to all the people: Jesus’ hearers and us who read it centuries later. Finally, there also seem to be a number of common misinterpretations abroad: one is that the writer had in mind a comparison between Jesus and Moses, because of “the mountain”/”the giving of the Law”. Matthew, however, seems to give no apparent indication of this. If anything, he might’ve seen more of a parallel between Jesus and Joshua, their names in Hebrew being virtually equivalent. Just as later rabbis contrasted the prophet Elisha with Elijah, with the advantage going to Elisha, so also with John the Baptizer and Jesus. John is more apt to be compared to Moses: neither lived to enter the Promised Land; and as Moses was rebuked for his lack of faith (Nm 20:12), so Jesus seems to have mildly rebuked John in his enquiry from prison in Mt 11:2-6. Jesus is the proclaimer of the reign of God and, therefore, of the true hope of Israel, even as Joshua was seen by later sources as keeping alive among the people the hope of the Messiah. The other misinterpretation is that Jesus, in The Great Instruction, was setting up some sort of new moral code with universal applicability. In fact, Matthew arranges Jesus’ instruction in an orderly grouping of material in order to make it easier for those who would be teaching it later. The Great Instruction is aimed at the Messianic community of Jesus’ disciples, and then to those whom they would teach.

If you compare Matthew’s narrative in this passage with Luke’s (6:17-22), it’s obvious that there is a difference. This is probably because they are two versions, spoken by Jesus on two different occasions. Matthew’s may have been a series of explanations in response to questions raised by Jesus’ disciples. Whereas in Luke, Jesus says in 6:24-26: “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.” It could be that here that Jesus was directly addressing his disciples.

What was it that Jesus conveyed to his disciples, as Matthew narrates it? First of all, Matthew uses the Greek word makarios, which bears a number of “flavors”. It can mean blessed/supremely blessed/fortunate/well-off/happy. In classical times it meant “the state of gods in contrast to humans”. The Hebrew word asher has the sense of “the good omens of…” In Matthew’s context, it’s a Messianic term because of its connection with the reign of God, of which Jesus, in his Person, is the bearer. Whoever’s life is characterized by these eight or nine qualities mentioned, is blessed, to the highest degree, by the salvation which only God can offer.

If we stick with the English term fortunate, what Jesus says is:
- Fortunate are the humble in spirit, i.e., those who live uprightly, in perfection. They’re virtually synonymous with the poor/afflicted/humble -- in Hebrew, the anawim -- the ones pushed out to the margins of society; those who, throughout Scripture, are the special, favored ones of God. God’s reign is made up of people “fully conscious of the poverty of all human resource, and knowing [their] need and desire for God…
- Fortunate are those who mourn and grieve over humanity’s selfishness and disobedience to God. These are the souls who feel and lament over the “pain of the world”.
- Fortunate are the meek who, because they’re humble and poor will be welcomed and admitted to God’s realm, God’s presence.
- Fortunate are the ones who hunger and thirst, who desire and pray that God’s purposes for humanity will be vindicated. The Old Testament cites many examples of fasting as prayerful desire, which is the present state of these who hunger and thirst, even as they anticipate the great Messianic feast with which they’ll be fulfilled in God’s reign.
- Fortunate are the merciful who haven’t allowed their hearts to clench or to become blind to others’ need. And because of that they’re welcomed into the reign of that God whose tender mercies are always new every morning.
- Fortunate are the pure-minded, i.e., the spiritual equivalent of those who are ritually purified. To see God one is called to be single-minded in handing over to God one’s whole heart, mind, body, and soul. Those who live thus are promised life as daughters and sons of the Son of God in his reign.
- Fortunate are those who make peace, who pursue it throughout society, and who pay the price and suffer for it, sometimes greatly. They can look forward to being admitted to the reign, the realm of God’s shalom, God’s peace.

These sayings, known as The Great Instruction, constitute “the spiritual charter” of the reign of God. Earlier, in 4:23, Matthew speaks of Jesus going about the whole of Galilee, “teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the Freedom of the Kingdom.” In today’s passage Matthew shows how Jesus proposes that his disciples bear this message as they proclaim the Good News to others. With Jesus’ coming among us, the long-awaited reign of God has already arrived, and the message has taken on new urgency. Jesus proclaims the demands of the Covenant for any who would share in God’s reign, though exactly how that plays out in each of our lives will depend on our vision and generosity.

The one thing which Jesus does promise is that, if we take God’s reign seriously and help others to do so, you and I must prepare to suffer for it, to endure push-back and opposition. Nevertheless, Jesus says that we’re to “rejoice and be glad, because your reward in heaven is great…” Now, please don’t misunderstand that statement! Jesus isn’t promising “pie in the sky, bye and bye”. This isn’t the “Be-Happy Attitudes” promised by one prominent TV evangelist, as if by doing these things, you’ll get the “Great Reward”. Yes, some sort of responsive action on our part is asked of us for God’s generosity. But it’s God’s generosity which is supremely far beyond anything which you and I can ask or possibly earn on our own strength. When Jesus speaks of a “reward in heaven”, he’s really saying “a reward in God, a reward with God”: indeed, a reward which is Godself.

You might want to check out Dylan’s Lectionary Blog online for another take on today’s Gospel. The blog is written by Sarah Dylan Breuer, who calls herself a “public theologian”. In place of the word “blessed”, she favors a translation by K.C. Hanson, viz., “honored”. She takes the same approach as Jesuit scholar, Fr. Jerome Neyrey, who thinks that the last “beatitude” should actually be the starting point for The Great Instruction: “Honored are you whenever men vilify you, persecute you, and falsely charge you with evil for my sake; rejoice and be glad, because your reward in heaven is great, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.

Breuer goes on to develop how “in the New Testament world, the esteem you commanded was in large part a function of how important your connections -- your family members, your patrons, and your clients -- were. If you were (whether by birth, adoption, or being a slave or freedperson) part of a very important family, you were important. If your family was less important, you were less important. If you weren't connected to others, that didn't make you ‘your own man’; it made you nobody...nobody wants to do business with a nobody; being pushed out of your network of social relationships could also mean being left with nothing to live on and no way to get out of that position…

Putting the last “beatitude” first, she feels, makes Jesus’ listing of the qualities of those who qualify for the reign of God more plausible. Whether or not her thesis is valid, I don’t know. I saw nothing in commentaries which I consulted to confirm that, but it does make some sense. Nevertheless, her point is well taken, particularly in a society like ours, and at the end of her blog she challenges us with some valuable questions: “What does God require of us? Not sacrifices of blood, not impressive buildings, not achievement or respectability: just justice, and mercy, and humility…What would it mean if we honored those whom God honors? What would happen if we stopped playing all of our culture's games for status and power and privilege? What would it cost us if we lived more deeply into justice, and mercy, and humility? And more importantly, what blessings await us on that journey?…

Another, and perhaps the main, reason why I mention Sarah Breuer, however, is to borrow from her and to share a prayer poem to which she alludes, written by The Very Rev. Jeffrey John, Dean of St. Alban’s in England. Dean John isn’t at all known for shying away from being outspoken. His prayer may or may not strike us as a bit harsh, but it certainly encourages us think seriously about Jesus’ Great Instruction:

Lord, do something about your Church.

It is so awful, it is hard not to feel ashamed of belonging to it.

Most of the time it seems to be all the things you condemned:
hierarchical, conventional, judgmental, hypocritical,
respectable, comfortable, moralising, compromising,
clinging to its privileges and worldly securities,
and when not positively objectionable, merely absurd.

Lord, we need your whip of cords.

Judge us and cleanse us,

challenge and change us,

break and remake us.

Help us to be what you called us to be.

Help us to embody you on earth.

Help us to make you real down here,

and to feed your people bread instead of stones.

And start with me.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Andrei Rublev (c. 1365-1430) - Monk & Iconographer

Andrei Rublev is considered by many to be Russia's greatest iconographer. He was born near Moscow, and, while very young, entered The Holy Trinity monastery. In 1405 he transferred to the Spaso-Andronikov monastery and studied iconography under Theophanes the Greek and the monk, Daniel. Some of his most admired works are in the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir.

Rublev was no exception to iconographers who consider writing an icon a truly spiritual exercise and experience. Repeatedly throughout the process he would recite the Jesus Prayer = Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. It was as if he were creating a window into the Divine Presence itself, though no human eye could see it. Yet he could experience the reality of himself being created in God's image.

His icon [shown above] of the Three Guests visiting Abraham at Mamre, symbols of the Holy Trinity, is one particularly meaningful in my own spiritual life. I've noticed that it has, at times, "followed" me around. I was baptized in Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Dayton, OH, in 1937; the Trappist monastery where I was briefly a novice was the Abbey of the Holy Trinity in Utah; when I made the first U. S. Taizé pilgrimage in 1992, also in my hometown of Dayton, OH, and where I was privileged to meet and speak with Brother Roger Schutz, the huge icon at the front of the hall was a copy of Rublev's Holy Trinity; I served for 11 years in the Episcopal parish of Holy Trinity, Ukiah, CA, where a copy of Rublev's icon had been placed as a memorial on the door of the tabernacle.

Holy God, we bless you for the gift of your monk and icon writer Andrei Rublev, who, inspired by the Holy Spirit provided a window into heaven for generations to come, revealing the majesty and mystery of the holy and blessed Trinity; who lives and reigns through the ages of ages. Amen.

St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622)

Francis de Sales was the Bishop of Geneva [Above right: his heraldric shield]. He worked to convert Protestants back to Catholicism, and was an accomplished preacher and teacher. Francis was also skilled in spiritual guidance and formation of others. His Introduction to the Devout Life is still a much loved and simple guide for many Christians. His writings on the perfections of the Heart of Mary as the model of love for God influenced St. Jean Eudes to develop the devotion to the Hearts of Jesus and Mary.

Friday, January 28, 2011

St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) On the Love of God

From the Summa Theologica

"...Bernard says (De Dilig. Deum 1) that 'God is the cause of our loving God; the measure is to love Him without measure.'

...As appears from the words of Augustine, mode signifies a determination of measure; which determination is to be found both in the measure and in the thing measured, but not in the same way. For it is found in the measure essentially, because a measure is of itself the determining and modifying rule of other things; whereas in the things measured, it is found relatively, that is in so far as they attain to the measure. Hence there can be nothing unmodified in the measure whereas the thing measured is unmodified if it fails to attain to the measure, whether by deficiency or by excess.

Now in all matters of appetite and action the measure is the end, because the proper reason for all that we desire or do should be taken from the end, as the Philosopher proves (Phys. ii, 9). Therefore the end has a mode by itself, while the means take their mode from being proportionate to the end. Hence, according to the Philosopher (Polit. i, 3), 'in every art, the desire for the end is endless and unlimited,' whereas there is a limit to the means: thus the physician does not put limits to health, but makes it as perfect as he possibly can; but he puts a limit to medicine, for he does not give as much medicine as he can, but according as health demands so that if he give too much or too little, the medicine would be immoderate.

Again, the end of all human actions and affections is the love of God, whereby principally we attain to our last end...wherefore the mode in the love of God, must not be taken as in a thing measured where we find too much or too little, but as in the measure itself, where there cannot be excess, and where the more the rule is attained the better it is, so that the more we love God the better our love is.

...That which is so by its essence takes precedence of that which is so through another, wherefore the goodness of the measure which has the mode essentially, takes precedence of the goodness of the thing measured, which has its mode through something else; and so too, charity, which has a mode as a measure has, stands before the other virtues, which have a mode through being measured.

...Augustine adds...'the measure of our love for God is to love Him with our whole heart,' that is to love Him as much as He can be loved, and this belongs to the mode which is proper to the measure.

...An affection, whose object is subject to reason's judgment, should be measured by reason. But the object of the Divine love which is God surpasses the judgment of reason, wherefore it is not measured by reason but transcends it. Nor is there parity between the interior act and external acts of charity. For the interior act of charity has the character of an end, since man's ultimate good consists in his soul cleaving to God, according to Psalm 72:28: 'It is good for me to adhere to my God'; whereas the exterior acts are as means to the end, and so have to be measured both according to charity and according to reason."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Holy Women: Lydia of Thyatira/Phoebe of Cenchrae/Dorcas

Filled with your Holy Spirit, gracious God,
your earliest disciples served you with the gifts each had been given:
Lydia [left] in business and stewardship,
Dorcas [right] in a life of charity
and Phoebe [center] as a deacon who served many.
Inspire us today to build up your Church with our gifts
in hospitality, charity and bold witness to the Gospel of Christ;
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

These holy women are a reminder to us that, though the 1st century was a patriarchal time and women had virtually no voice, nevertheless it was the women who provided the resources, protection and support for the early Church. 

Lydia, "a dealer in purple cloth" and apparently a woman of means, though marginalized by her own Jewish community, "opened her heart to listen eagerly" to St. Paul's message, was baptized along with her household, and graciously gave lodging to Paul and his companions.

Phoebe, a proto-deacon, "a benefactor of many" in the community at Cenchrae, the port city of Corinth, and of St. Paul himself, gets a glowing recommendation by Paul to the church at Rome.

Dorcas, or Tabitha, was a woman of Joppa, on the seashore of Palestine WNW of Jerusalem. The writer of Acts describes her as  "devoted to good works and acts of charity". She fell gravely ill and died. They washed her and laid her out in an upstairs room, while some disciples ran to get St. Peter, who was staying at Lydda, a short distance away. They take Peter up to the room when he arrives, as all the widows stand beside him, "weeping and showing tunics and other clothing which Dorcas had made". Peter sends everyone outside, and kneels to pray. After a time, he stands and says "Tabitha, get up." Dorcas opens her eyes, sits up, and, with Peter's assistance, stands and is reunited with her widows' group.

We all know many holy women, young and old, in our own day who quietly go about ministering to people in many ways. In giving thanks for the lives and witness of our three Holy Women today, let's also give special thanks for the holy women in our acquaintance and lives, faithful servants of the Church and the community, women who have, like Lydia, opened their hearts to the compassionate and loving Christ.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Conclusion: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity / The Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle

God of Peace, we thank you that you sent your Son Jesus, so that we might be reconciled to yourself in him. Give us the grace to be effective servants of reconciliation within our churches. Fill us with love for one another and may our unity serve the reconciliation that you desire for all creation. We pray in the power of the Spirit. Amen.

We've been praying this week in the spirit of the ancient Church of Jerusalem with its long-standing devotion to the apostles' teaching, to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. Has anything changed in world during the past seven days? or in the Church? or in each of our local situations? Honestly, though our efforts and prayer are certainly not wasted, yet the realities of division, discontent, disappointment and injustice still remain to challenge us. The question now is: to what are you and I called, here and now?

Prayer for Christian unity is not a one-time, or simply an annual, observance. It must be our aim to "Pray always", so that the Church may truly become a sign and instrument for healing divisions and injustices, for growth in understanding between people of all faiths and those with no faith. We're called, both in our personal and family lives, as well as in our corporate life together, to be "ambassadors of reconciliation".

God in Christ is continually reconciling all people to Godself. St. Paul, whose feast we commemorate today, refers to this as "a new creation." Our vocation as ambassadors of reconciliation is a call to allow the power of the Holy One in us to make all things new. This is the Good News which we're called to proclaim by the way we live, not just during one week of the year, but every day of our lives.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Day 7: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity / Ordination of Florence Li Tim-Oi (1907-1992)

God, you raised your Son Jesus to give hope for humanity and renewal to the earth. Continue to strengthen and unify your Church in its struggles that obscure the hope of the new life you offer. This we pray in the name of the Risen Lord, in the power of his Spirit. Amen.

"The first Christians' devotion to the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking of the bread and the prayers was made possible, above all, by the living power of the Risen Jesus. This power is still living and today's Christians witness to this. The light and hope of the Resurrection changes everything...

...The central Christian experience is that of passing from death to life. This is the abiding sign of God's steadfast love. It is the defining reality of all baptism...we have died with Christ, and live to share his risen life..." (Week of Prayer Daily Scripture and Prayer Guide)

If ever there was a witness to the power of the living Risen Christ at work in a baptized Christian, it was Florence Li Tim-Oi! Named Tim Oi = Much-beloved Daughter by her father, Florence later chose her first name in honor of Florence Nightingale. At age 21, she wanted "to be a selfless lady like her", to serve. And serve she did in a lay capacity for the next 13 years. She really hadn't set out to be a deacon or a priest, but God led her, by successive steps, and through the tremendous upheavals of war, poverty, and uncertainty in her native land of China. She was ordained deacon in 1941, and in 1944, under unusual circumstances and with the concurrence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, she was ordained the first woman priest in the Anglican Communion.

At the conclusion of World War II, because her ordination was a matter of great controversy, she made the personal decision not to exercise her priesthood until it was acknowledged by the Anglican Communion. That took some 36 years, during which she was also persecuted by the Communist Red Guard in China! Nevertheless, she continued to labor as a servant of the Gospel in Macao, China, and in the Diocese of Montreal, Canada, where she eventually settled. Florence Li Tim-Oi lived firsthand in the spirit of Paul's words and in the spirit of all her forebears in the Communion of Saints, from the Church in Jerusalem onward: "For the love of God urges us on...So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us..."

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Day 6: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity / Epiphany 3

From Week of Prayer for Christian Unity booklet:
Suggested readings: Jonah 2:1-9; Psalm 67:1-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-8; Matthew 6:5-15

"It is prayer that empowers Christians for our mission together...The Psalm calls us to pray that God's face will shine upon us -- not only for our own benefit, but for the spread of His rule 'among all the nations.'"

Prayer is a part of the strength and power of mission and prophecy for the world. Paul instructs us to pray especially for those with power in the world so that we may live together in peace and dignity. Our own prayer for unity in Christ reaches out to the whole world.

In Matthew's Gospel we hear of prayer as a 'secret' power, born not from display or performance, but from a humble coming before the Lord. Jesus' teaching is summed up in the Lord's Prayer. Praying this together forms us as a united people who seek the Father's will, and the building up of His Kingdom here on earth, and calls us to a life of forgiveness and reconciliation."

Lord God our Father, we rejoice that in all times, places and cultures, there are people who reach out to you in prayer. Teach us to pray better as Christians together, so that we may always be aware of your guidance and encouragement through all our joys and distress, through the power your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Day 5: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity / St. Vincent of Saragossa (d. 304)

God of Hope, we praise you for your gift to us of the Lord's Supper, where, in the Spirit, we continue to meet your Son, the living bread from heaven. We pray that you will hasten the day when your whole church together shares the breaking of the bread. As we wait for that day may we learn more deeply to be a people formed by the Eucharist for service to the world. We pray in Jesus' name. Amen.

What better way to be at one with one another than to share a meal, to bread break together. That is our renewed pledge today as we near the conclusion of this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In some sense we, as Jesus, become seed for making into the bread of our lives to be shared with one another. He told us that a seed needs first to fall into the ground and die, else it remains alone. Also, bread, if it's to give nourishment and strength, needs first to be chewed up and broken down, and consumed. In the One who modelled this for us, we become, as it were, bread for the world.

St. Vincent, deacon and martyr, who died in the same year as Agnes of Rome, entered into this process of being broken down in a very real and graphic way. As the eloquent spokesman of his bishop, Valerian, who had a speech impediment, Vincent boldly and truthfully gave witness to his faith in Jesus before the Roman officials. The price he paid was in being beaten, flayed, boiled, and stretched on a rack before he finally died. Never were Tertullian's words more true: "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of Christians."

Friday, January 21, 2011

Day 4: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity / St. Agnes of Rome (c. 292-305)

God of Justice, your giving is without bounds. We thank you that you have given what we need. Inspire us to be instruments of love, sharing all that you give us, as a witness to your generosity and justice. As followers of Christ, lead us to act together in places of want. We pray in the name of Jesus, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we reflect on the fellowship (koinonia) of the community of faith. Fellowship is an oft-used, sometimes overworked, word among church folks, and can have many meanings. Episcopalians' first thoughts probably turn to the ample spread of good food at Sunday coffee hours or at potlucks! But there are many other kinds of fellowship: the frequent coming together of the church community; the act of a church's members reaching out to people of other faiths or to people in the surrounding community for activities, projects, concerns, etc.; the oneness that we feel in sharing Christ's Body and Blood in the Eucharist; acts of visiting the sick, working in a food line for the needy, ministering to people in prison or their families. Jesus' reminder rings loud in our memory: "As you did it for one of these, the least of my sisters and brothers, you did if for me."

I was thinking of St. Agnes this morning and marvelling at and trying to figure out how a 13 year old girl came to have the courage and fearlessness to give her young life for Jesus. In his treatise On Virginity, the great Bishop Ambrose of Milan, writing only about 70 years after Agnes' martyrdom, also wonders about this. "The cruelty which did not spare even so young a child serves only to demonstrate more clearly the power of faith which found witness in one so young. There was not even room in her little body for a wound. Though she could barely receive the sword's point, she could overcome. Girls of her age tend to wilt under the slightest frown from a parent...But Agnes showed no fear...Too young to have any acquaintanceship with death, she nevertheless stood ready for it...Is this a new kind of martyrdom? The girl was too young to be punished, yet old enough to wear a martyr's crown...Everyone was weeping, but she herself shed no tears. The crowds marvelled at her spendthrift attitude to life, discarding it untasted, but as if she had lived it to the full. All were astonished that one not yet of legal age could give testimony to God..." We have no way of knowing how Agnes arrived at such spiritual maturity. Her fellowship with sister and brother Christians in Rome was the fellowship, the sharing of courageous example, of witnessing, literally martyria, to the One on whom she'd set her heart and her life.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Day 3: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity / St. Fabian (d. c. 253)

God of Light, we give you thanks for the revelation of your truth in Jesus Christ which we have received through the apostles' teaching. May your Holy Spirit continue to sanctify us in the truth of your Son, so that united in him we may grow in devotion to the Word, and together serve your Kingdom in humility and love. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.

As I was watching the opening of the new season of American Idol last evening, I was struck by not only the talent, but by the rich stories which many of the young women and men brought to their interviews: a great mixture of hopes and dreams, challenges, sorrows, and determination. That really is what the Scriptures are all about. They're a collection of many kinds of human stories about a diversity of people, from the beginning of time onward, couched in all sorts of styles and genres. The one thing they have in common, however, the common thread which ties them altogether, is the story of God's redemption, of God's working in the lives of God's creation, of God's loving each of us to life. The stories continue with each new generation of the Church, down to the present. Our lives and stories are inextricably bound up with the people who've gone before us and with the people in the world who surround us at this moment, particularly those of the community of faith in Jesus the Christ. Perhaps we're far closer than six degrees of separation! Central to our lives together is the teaching which Jesus' apostles have handed down to us through each generation. The great Anglican preacher, Herbert O'Driscoll, once described it is a chain of outwardly extended hands through the centuries, reaching out with the Word of salvation, and traceable all the way back to "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith", the One bearing the nail-prints of death and resurrection. A goodly heritage, indeed!

As your story develops, and mine, ever notice how God has the knack of nudging us into the wrong place at the right time? Fabianus or Fabian, a lay person, certainly did one day in 236 as he was "just" visiting Rome. So happens that the bishop of Rome [the Pope], Antherus, had died, and on this day the people and clergy of Rome had gathered to select a new bishop. As Fabian stood looking on in the crowd, a pesky dove flew into the scene, circling above Fabian and eventually landing on his shoulder. Well, for highly excitable Italians, in the midst of an election, this could only have been a clear sign from God that the person on whom the dove landed was the person whom they were looking forward! After a shocked pause, the cry, which couldn't have been better scripted even on a Wayne's World episode, went up: "He is worthy! He is worthy!" Before Fabian could say "Party on!" he was whisked off to be ordained to the successive degrees of Holy Orders, consecrated, and began a 17 year reign as the 21st successor of St. Peter! Pope Fabian, among the many accomplishments of his pontificate, stood out as a defender of the apostolic teaching, confronting even one of the Numidian bishops of the Church, Privatus.  He understood that the apostles' teaching, the Good News, is, as Paul calls it, "the power of God for salvation", and in Isaiah's words, "a lamp to [our] feet and a light to [our] path".  May we, as the early Church of Jerusalem, as Fabian and our other forbears in the faith, be enthusiastically devoted to the apostolic teaching.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Day 2: Week of Prayer for Christian Unity / St. Wulfstan of Worcester (c. 1008-1095)

God, from whom all life flows in its rich diversity, you call your Church as the Body of Christ to be united in love. May we learn more deeply our unity in diversity and strive to work together to preach, and build up the Kingdom of your abundant love in all places. May we always be mindful of Christ as the source of our life together. We pray in the unity of the Spirit. Amen.

An ecumenical tale by an Episcopal priest regarding a local dilemma with a Lutheran pastor:
"We were to have a service in the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, and the Lutheran pastor was to take part in my church. He called to ask what he should wear, and I told him, 'Wear what you would wear for such an occasion in your own church.' 'Well,' he said, 'I'd wear a surplice and stole. What color stole would be appropriate?' 'This is Epiphany season,' I said, 'so we would wear green.' 'But for Epiphany season,' he said, 'we would wear white.' 'That's all right,' I said, 'it's also St. Paul's Day so I could wear white.' 'But if it's St. Paul's Day,' he said, 'we would wear red.' 

So we realized that if we wanted to do the same thing -- wear white stoles -- it would represent different purposes (St. Paul and Epiphany), but if we wanted to celebrate the same thing (St. Paul, for example), we would wear different colors. Thus, if we said the same thing, we would wear different things, but if we wore the same thing we would have to say different things. 

And that is a cautionary tale to bear in mind in all ecumenical conversation!"

We need to be reminded that Christian unity doesn't mean uniformity. The Church of Jerusalem was rich in diversity, and our Church today is globally becoming more richly diverse and inclusive by God's graceful prompting. "For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body -- Jews or Greeks, slaves or free -- and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." The Collect above sets the tone for our reflection on this day. St. Wulfstan, whom we also commemorate, was a fine example of a bishop who included all equally among his diverse flock, particularly through his great preaching ability. This was at a time when that was sometimes a delicate matter. He became bishop right on the cusp of the Norman invasion by William the Conqueror in 1066. Even though Wulfstan couldn't speak French, he nevertheless was allowed to remain as bishop of Worcester. He dealt graciously with William and the new regime in England, eventually becoming an entrusted colleague of William's and of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Lanfranc. By the time William died in 1087, Wulfstan was the only remaining native British prelate.

John Wesley, Anglican priest and Methodist pastor, once said: "The pretences for separation are innumerable, but want of love is always the cause." That is because love unifies, even in the midst of great diversity. Throughout history the truly outstanding servants of God: the Pauls, the John Wesleys, the Mother Teresas, who have been called and sent by God, have always understood that the foundation of true Christian unity is love in action, love of God and love of one's neighbor, no matter how different.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Confession of St. Peter - Beginning of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Almighty and Merciful God, with great power you gathered together the first Christians in the city of Jerusalem. Grant that, like this first church in Jerusalem, we may come together to be bold in preaching and living the good news of reconciliation and peace wherever there is inequality and injustice. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, who liberates us from the bondage of sin and death. Amen.

For this year's Week of Prayer for Christian Unity Palestinian Christians from the Church in Jerusalem have selected the passage from Acts 2:42 as the week's theme: "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers." There's a wonderful link between the ancient church community of Jerusalem and each of our own churches, and between all the churches and the communion of saints, the assembly of holy ones in the heavenly New Jerusalem.

This year's theme is a simple one, focusing on the essentials of our faith: the teaching of Christ handed down through the ages; the communion and fellowship shared among Christ's followers; the Holy Eucharist, Christ's own Body and Blood; and prayer: the personal and communal relationship which we continually develop with Jesus the Savior. By reflecting anew, praying about, and putting into action, within each of our own contexts, these basics of faith, we strive to renew the unity and vitality of the Mystical Body of Christ, as we continue to struggle with our sisters and brothers throughout the world for justice, freedom and peace for all.

Recommended Scriptural readings:  Joel 2:21-22; 28-29, Psalm 46, Acts 2:1-12, John 14:15-21

Monday, January 17, 2011

Blessed Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

Almighty God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Called To Extraordinary Witness & Service

Two of today's liturgical readings (Isaiah 49:1-7 and 1 Corinthians 1:1-9), within the first line, explicitly talk about being called. "The Lord called me before I was born...And he said to me 'You are my servant...'" (Is 1;1); "Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God..." (1 Cor 1:1) Jesus' invitation to Andrew and John, "Come and see", in John's Gospel (1:39) rounds out the theme. These Scriptures together span a 700 year time period, and we continue to ponder them today.

The context of the Isaiah text is that Jerusalem has been destroyed. Israel is displaced, in exile. This is the 2nd of four "Servant Songs". The writer, whom scholars often term, "2nd Isaiah" or the "prophet of the Suffering Servant", from c. the 6th century BCE, is, perhaps, the greatest of Israel's prophets, though the writer is anonymous. The text speaks of commission and empowerment: "The Lord called me...made my mouth like a sharp sword...made me a polished arrow..." In essence, this prophet becomes a sharp weapon by speaking the truth. His message is unencumbered and goes straight to the mark.

The bad news which the prophet announces is that he has failed: so miserably, in fact, that he has "spent my strength for nothing and vanity", and now the people are in exile. Despite this, he experiences a new call, a call to bring Israel back to God. It involves two things: 1) restoring Israel, resurrecting Israel; and 2) being "a light to the nations", i.e., speaking the truth world-wide.

Paul, speaking to the Corinthian community, also acknowledges his call: "called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God". The word called serves as a "bookend" word in this passage which ends thus: " him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." Corinth was a major maritime center. At the time of Paul's ministry the population numbered some 600,000. Corinth was famous for the Isthmian Games, second only to the Olympics. It was also famous for the temple of Aphrodite on the summit of Acrocorinth and its "sacred" prostitutes. The name "Corinth" became an insulting byword for vice. And, as we can gather from Paul's two Epistles to the people there, the community had an abundance of divisive issues. Yet Paul unequivocally tells the Corinthians that they, even they, are "called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours..." -- even those who differ from them! That should make us today squirm a little! Paul reminds them that they're waiting "for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ." They don't have all the answers, and neither do we!

John the Evangelist, in his magnificent Prologue, alludes the previous call of John the Baptizer. He makes is clear that the Baptizer: 1) was sent from God; 2) that the Baptizer wasn't "the light", but only "a witness to the light". In vv. 19-23, John the Baptizer, when grilled by priests and Levites from Jerusalem reemphasizes that he's neither the Messiah, nor Elijah redivivus, nor "the prophet". In vv. 24-28, we learn that, in reality, John's questioners had actually been sent by the Pharisees -- "the Establishment" -- who wanted to know why he was baptizing across the Jordan, drawing people (in droves presumably) away from the Temple, thus cutting into their profits.

John the Baptizer is obviously committed to his call, viz., to "witness to the light", to keep the focus on the One whose sandal thong he wasn't even worthy to untie. "Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!", the man who ranks ahead of him, the man he didn't even know, but for whose revelation to Israel John had been designated the messenger. The Baptizer then refers to a recent event, spelled out in the narratives of Mark and Luke, where Jesus shows up at the river bank and asks John to baptize him. Excitedly, John tells what happened there: "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the One who sent me  to baptize with water [God] said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the One who is to baptize with a Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God." John the Baptizer is the vehicle through which the Father confirms that, indeed, Jesus is the Messiah.

A day later, the Baptizer is standing with two men, Andrew, brother of Simon, and one other who could be either Simon, James or John the Beloved, author of the Gospel. Once again, John the Baptizer yells out: "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" Andrew and the other disciple start bird-dogging Jesus, who notices this, turns, and says: "What do you want? What are you looking/searching for?" Note the double meaning. Notice, too, that it's Jesus who initiates the conversation and the eventual invitation to discipleship. The two men address him, whose fame had already spread in the region, as "Teacher/Rabbi". "Where are you staying? He said to them, 'Come and see.' They came and saw...and they remained with him..." The Greek word can refer to lodging, in the ordinary sense, or it can refer, more profoundly, to dwelling with, abiding in. John the Evangelist seems to imply that these men come to Jesus, look and see Jesus, and finally believe and remain with Jesus. The sense of Jesus' comment "Come and see" has the flavor of "Come, and keep on coming..." Jesus chooses to have them around.

For Andrew, especially, it's a profound experience. He immediately runs and seeks out his brother, Simon: "We have found the Anointed One!", and he brings him directly to Jesus. Jesus "looked at him", saw within Simon, and says, "You are Simon...You are to be called Cephas (which is translated Peter)." Cephas (Heb.) = Petros (Gr.) = Rock or Rocky. The great ancient father Origen writes that Simon will take Jesus' place, since Jesus is the rock struck by Moses in the desert, giving living water to the Israelites in distress. In John 21:15-17 Jesus makes Peter a shepherd: "Feed my lambs/sheep", even as Jesus is the noble Shepherd.

These readings coincidentally appear within the annual Week of Prayer for Unity, as well as the day preceding Martin Luther King, Jr.'s commemoration. Since last Saturday, especially, it has also been a time of great distress in our country, especially in Tucson, AZ. It's a time of distress and division within the Church, even as many who have left the Anglican Communion embark this week on their new Vatican-approved Ordinariate in England. It's a particularly opportune time for each and all of us to think about our personal call as servants of God; about our call to the Church to do servant mission and ministry; about our call as individuals and as the Church corporately to reach out in love and truth (light) to the world: "that all may be one even as you, Father, in me and I in you, that the world may know that you sent me..."

Great ecumenist, Albert Outler, has written: "...denominations may be justified in their existence for this 'time being' only or that, but not forever. We are commissioned by the Spirit of God 'for the time being' to carry out an extraordinary mission of witness and service, for just so long as our life apart is effective in the economy of God's providence. We are, or ought to be, prepared to risk our life as a separate church and to face death as a denomination in the sure and lively hope of our resurrection in the true community of the whole people of God...The price of true catholicity may very well be the death and resurrection of the churches that we know -- in the faith that God has greater things in store for his people than we can remember or even imagine."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Friendship: Begun, Preserved, Perfected in Christ

 St. Aelred of Rievaulx (c. 1110-1167 AD) was a 12th century abbot of the Cistercian monastery at Rievaulx. He was an Anglo-Saxon (“Ethelred”), born in Northumbria along the Anglo/Scottish border. His great-grandfather/grandfather/father were all married priests. Aelred had two brothers and a sister, of whom one brother and his sister later became monastics as he did.

At 15 (1125) Aelred was sent to live and be educated at the court of the King of Scots, David I. He became close friends with the king’s two stepsons, Simon and Waldef, and was appointed steward of the royal table. Early on he had become familiar with Cicero’s dialogue, On Friendship, which influenced him the rest of his life. He himself became the intimate friend of a member of the court by his own account, presumably a same-sex relationship. But overall he became greatly dissatisfied and restless about his life at the court, almost, as he says, to the point of despair.

While on a mission to York in 1134, he rode over to the new Cistercian monastery, only two years old, at Rievaulx. He was so deeply impressed that, after discussing it with his friends, he entered the
monastery the very next day.

Around 1142 he was sent to Rome and on the way back he stopped at the monastery of Clairvaux where he met the great abbot, St. Bernard. Bernard was very much taken with Aelred’s literary promise and his spiritual depth. Back at Rievaulx he was made novice master in 1142 and began writing books at Bernard’s behest.

In 1143 he was sent to found a new abbey at Revesby. And four years later, in 1147, at age 37, he was called back to become the abbot of Rievaulx, a position which he held for the next 20 years.

Aelred continued writing, and during this time wrote Spiritual Friendship, among other works: a magnificent book of only 81 pages, reflecting the depth of his understanding and lived experience of friendship among men.

Aelred’s life was busy not only with his writings, but with visitations to several daughter houses, trips to General Chapter at Citeaux, not to mention his day-to-day administration of the monastery of Rievaulx, which grew from 300, when he came, to over 600 monks and lay brothers.

The last ten years of his life he suffered ill health, especially kidney stones. He lived and ate in a small infirmary cell, but graciously welcomed his monks always to come -- sometimes 20-30 at a time --
to be with one another and converse about the spiritual life.

Aelred died on January 12, 1167 at the age of 57, with these last words: “Hasten, for Christ love.

Aelred wrote his book Spiritual Friendship initially for an enquiring monk, Ivo of Wardon, who wanted to know about spiritual friendship -- and not just from such secular sources like Cicero’s On Friendship (from which Aelred frequently quotes) -- which, as Ivo says, “lacks the salt of heavenly books and the flavoring of that most sweet name...

Aelred replies in this way: “...friendship bears fruit in this life and in the next.” (SF, 2.9) “For what more sublime can be said of friendship, what more true, what more profitable, than that it ought to, and is proved to, begin in Christ, continue in Christ, and be perfected in Christ?” (SF, 1;10) “And, a thing even more excellent than all these considerations, friendship is a stage bordering upon that perfection which consists in the love and knowledge of God, so that man from being a friend of his fellowman becomes the friend of God...” (SF, 2:14)

This is a perfect illustration of what St. Thomas Aquinas meant when he commented: “Grace builds upon nature.” John’s Gospel (2:25) assures us that Jesus “knew all people...he himself could tell what was in people...” And so Jesus could say to his chosen Twelve: “ one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I earnestly admonish you to do. I do not call you servants... but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father...and I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last...” (John 15:12-16)

The Gospels are full of Jesus’ references to friends: John the Baptizer referred to Himself as the “friend of the Bridegroom”. Jesus, says Mark, “called to him[self] those whom he wanted, and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, whom he named apostles, to be with him...” (Mark 3:13-14) Jesus’ critics (Luke 7:34) called him “a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” Jesus refers to “our friend”, Lazarus, as he goes to dramatically restore him to life. (John 11:11)

But Jesus was also realistic, and knew that friendships don’t always last and aren’t always sustained by both parties. After the unusual message Jesus preached about “the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6), Scripture says: “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Jesus responded as such a solicitous friend that he even gave the Twelve the opportunity to opt out. Their response: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life...” (John 6:66-68)

Luke’s Gospel (11:5-8) recounts a story about a person who, looking to his own convenience and comfort, didn’t want to be bothered helping his friend in a time of need. Jesus uses the parable to contrast this with God’s always-reliable friendship, and to demonstrate the need for persistence in prayer.

Finally, Jesus modelled for us how a friendship-gone-bad needs to be handled. Judas, one of the most trusted of the Twelve, the keeper of the purse, goes to the chief priests and says: “What will you give me if I betray him to you?” Though Jesus is very direct and forthright with Judas, both before and after the betrayal, never once does he disavow his friendship; he doesn’t bad-mouth Judas, or attack him in any way, or demean him. He says simply: “Friend [Matthew’s account], is it with a kiss that you are betraying the Son of Man? [Luke’s account] what you are here to do.” Jesus lived and modelled the message which he’d often preached to his friends and followers: denying oneself, taking up the cross, and losing one’s life: even for a disloyal friend like Judas.

St. Aelred concludes: “And so in [true] friendship are joined honor and charm, truth and joy, sweetness and good-will, affection and action. And all these take their beginning from Christ, advance through Christ, and are perfected in Christ. Therefore, not too steep or unnatural does the ascent appear from Christ, as the inspiration of love by which we love our friend, to Christ giving himself to us as our Friend for us to love...And thus, friend cleaving to friend in the spirit of Christ, is made with Christ but one heart and one soul...” (SF, 2:20-21) “Thus ascending from that holy love with which he embraces a friend to that with which he embraces Christ, he will joyfully partake in abundance of the spiritual fruit of friendship, awaiting the fullness of all things in the life to come...and God shall be all in all.” (SF, 3:134)

May we all be blessed with such friendship!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Baptism: The Springing Forth of New Things

The new year is a time for fresh beginnings: for evaluating the past twelve months; for arranging priorities and setting goals. Americans traditionally use the occasion for making resolutions which are commitments, hopefully, to change and improve. Yet, if we're honest, yearly resolution-making amounts largely to a game for a lot of folks. We even joke good-naturedly each year about our broken resolutions. In the post-holiday scatteredness, we may accomplish something for the short term, but eventually we find ourselves failing.

As believing persons, individually or as a community of faith, we can ill afford to renew our resolutions only yearly. We should, in fact, be keeping our commitments year-round. The root of our frequent failure might be because we disallow ourselves to become truly convinced of God's Word to us. As a result, we find our lives unfocused and ourselves spiritually off-center.

In today's reading from Isaiah (42:1-9) God assures us: "I am the Lord. I have called you in righteousness. I have taken you by the hand and kept you...I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other..." Paul Tillich writes: "...within the name, that which bears the name is present." There was an ancient idea that you could hold in your power a being whose hidden name you knew. If we scrutinize our faltering efforts to pray and to keep our other commitments, might we not admit that we often invoke or try to make claims on God's name in order to harness God's powre for our own purposes? God's name isn't empty; it bears power and Presence. That's why we dare not take it in vain, for though it surely has power to heal us and make us whole, it can also be our undoing if we try to manipulate it.

There's a way that you and I, individually or corporately, can take God's name in vain. It's when we become so comfortable, so self-assured that we think that we can explain or interpret God to others, or even to ourselves.When we become that proud and independent that God, we find ourselves actually pushing God aside and away from us. We find ourselves surprised and astounded at our lukewarmness, at our lack of anything but a superficial dedication as a "good Christian",  at the felt "absence" of God's presence. Perhaps that's God's way of helping us to realize our utter helplessness, and of giving us a chance to recognize anew that God is the center and the sole reason for our being who we are, individually or corporately.

When we, individually or corporately, become humble enough to learn how to speak God's name in what Tillich calls "the embarrassment of awe", and to respond by letting God take us by the hand and keep us, then, as Isaiah says, "new things...spring forth". Our baptismal covenant is a sign of such "new things" and of the power of God's name among us.

What all this implies, in this new year which begins with the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, and in this season of Epiphany, the manifestation of Jesus, is that we have a tremendous responsibility to continue allowing the name of Jesus, that is, himself, be at the center of our lives. The Letter to the Hebrews begins with an astounding statement, one which can keep us reflecting for the rest of this Epiphany season and in the lead-up to Lent. "Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word..."

You and I are called, by our Baptism, to let this Jesus be manifest, to be seen, in us. At the threshold of this new year the Lord of all asks us for more than a few nominal resolutions which will go by the wayside. He invites us to a firm commitment to examine our hearts and to make some radical inner changes: by letting ourselves be called "in righteousness"; by allowing ourselves to be led and kept by him; by being signs to one another of his Covenant; by bringing others, locked in their inner and outer dungeons and darkness, into the light of his Presence; and by living to the full each day the new life which he brings forth in us.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Epiphany: Living in the Saving Light

The word Epiphany, derived from the Greek epi + phaino [to shine out, become manifest], may conjure up in some minds the image of some kind of exotic pastry!

Isaiah (60:1-6 & 9) assures the returnees to Jerusalem from exile that their "light" has come. The poet speaks as if to bid someone slumped over in dejection and without hope or purpose to "Arise; shine!" Isaiah insists that God's saving light and glory has come to all the nations and peoples, even as they have come into the light. Things are changing for them. Their hearts, he says, will thrill and rejoice because of the abundance which God is about to pour forth on them. References to Midian, Ephah, and Sheba imply that all of Abraham's descendants are included in the promise fulfilled. They, just as the other nations, share in the saving light of God's glory.

St. Paul in a passage from his letter to the Ephesians (3:1-12) carries the same theme forward by speaking of the mystery, "made known" and "revealed". What God makes known is that the light of God's salvation, in the person of Jesus, has come for all. Jews and Gentiles aren't to discriminate, whether in the society or in the Church. That's a truth revealed by the Holy Spirit "to apostles and prophets", and holds true regardless of how the Ephesians or any others happen to interpret it. In this life we determine who our heirs will be; but when it comes to the inheriting of the Good News and all that it implies, only God has that privilege. The basic Gospel truth of the oneness of all, Jew and Gentile, can't become a reality automatically. You and I, as the Church, must not only preach it, but live as though we believe it. That means discovering ways, as individuals and as a community of faith, to share the Light with literally everyone we can.

In Matthew's Gospel (2:1-12) this theme takes the form of story theology. God, in Jesus, has come to save all. Matthew's whole narrative, generally as well as in this particular story, presents Jesus as the One who fulfills prophecy, and the One who upsets people's preconceived expectations. An heir of Abraham, Jesus is like another Moses and another David. Like Moses, he comes out of Egypt. Like David, he's born in Bethlehem. Yet, he's not simply the One to be "born king of the Jews". He's emphatically a child. Centuries before, Isaiah had said: "...a little child shall lead them". Those Jews who had an exclusively kingly, "adult" image in mind for the Messiah didn't take this very seriously. Small children are unlikely messiahs.

Yet, it's this Child of Bethlehem, with several non-Jewish forebears in his genealogy, who is recognized and honored as Messiah by foreigners, not by the Jewish leaders. In the Epiphany story Matthew prepares us for the two principal reactions of people to Jesus later on: homage, or rejection.

Matthew talks about strangers, Magi, sages from the East. The biblical text, by the way, doesn't say that they were "kings", nor all male, nor only three, nor that one was black, nor that they were named Caspar/Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Possibly Matthew was thinking of Babylonian astrologers who studied the stars. About all they seem to have learned was that a king had been born in Israel. The Hebrew Scriptures were their guide in determining where he was born.

In speaking of the "star", Matthew may have been recalling the coming together, around 7 BCE, of the planets, Jupiter and Saturn, in the constellation Pisces, thus causing a bring light, an occurrence which happens every 794 years. In ancient thinking, Jupiter was the royal star belonging to the ruler of the gods and humans. Saturn represented the star of Israel. Or, perhaps, Matthew was thinking of a nova, a short-lived, but brilliant, light caused by an explosion of a white dwarf star. Such a nova seems to have appeared in the eastern sky around 5 BCE, according to Chinese records.

Nevertheless, the sages' message of Jesus' coming upset not only Herod the King, prince of duplicity and evil, but all of Jerusalem. Jesus' Epiphany was and is and should be deeply "disturbing". Cities, then as now, are symbols of power. The implication in Matthew's story is that age-old Jerusalem, the "city of peace", will never be the same. God's saving purpose is now unequivocally extended beyond the Holy City, beyond the people it represents, to all nations, and, indeed, to all people on the earth. Jesus, He saves, Son of the Most High, is Savior of all.

Once again this year, you and I have awaited and celebrated Jesus' manifestation throughout the Christmas/Epiphany feasts. But how are we to receive the Saving Light into our day-to-day lives again this new year, as well as to anticipate his coming as the fulfillment of all things?

The late Bishop Kenneth Untener (1937-2004), former Roman Catholic bishop of Saginaw, MI, once related a story about his family who lived on an island. On Saturdays his parents would often travel to the farmer's market in downtown Detroit to buy food. Before leaving, they'd assign their children Saturday chores, which were to have been completed by the time the parents returned. As soon as their parents left, the youngsters would have a great time playing baseball or whatever. When they figured it was about time for their parents to reappear, someone was posted on the shore with a pair of binoculars. The lookout's job was to watch the distant bridge in order to spot the family car heading home. It took about ten minutes from the bridge to get to the house. As soon as the lookout signalled, the youngsters would swing into action and work as hard as possible during that final ten minutes. Of course, they were never finished when their folks arrived, but they made a good show of making it look as if their labors had taken several hours!

That's one way to prepare for an arrival: scramble to get things ready when you figure that it's about time. But that's not a very appropriate way to prepare for the coming of Jesus, the Saving Light. How do you and I, the Church, prepare for the Lord's coming? The disciples thought the best way was to know exactly when it would happen. "Tell us," they said to Jesus, "when will all this occur? What will be the sign of your coming and the end of the world?" Jesus told them that no one knows the exact day or hour. There aren't any binoculars to spot it from a distance, despite occasional claims by fundamentalists and others to the contrary. [In fact, as of this writing, I heard recently of the latest "prediction" of the end-time: May 21, 2011. It happens to coincide with the birthday of my dear friend, Fr. Leo Joseph, OSF, who has terminal cancer. He jokingly told me that, of course, he'd planned this "grand exit" on his birthday and for us all to join him!] After squelching that idea, Jesus taught the disciples the only way to prepare: to simply make sure, every single day, that others -- the poor, the suffering, the homeless -- are the center of one's concern, bearing in mind, of course, that poverty, suffering and loneliness can take many different forms.

That wasn't just a casual remark by Jesus. It really was the bottom line of all his teaching in the Gospel of Matthew: "When the Son of Man comes in glory...all the nations will be assembled before him." We know the rest of that passage, which depicts God addressing two groups of people, telling them that the whole thing is based on how they've treated the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill, and the imprisoned. This was no parable or allegory. It was the real deal! If you haven't served these folks, then you haven't served God, because God is in them.

Scholars have long pointed to the text, "He who hears you hears me..." to demonstrate how Jesus identified himself with the Church's leadership. The stunning truth is that Jesus identified himself even more closely with the poor and suffering. "As often as you did it for one of them, you did it for me." Such works aren't reckoned as if they're done to him. They are done to him. The way that you and I, the Church, live our calling and prepare for the Light's coming into our lives daily is by responding, day in and day out, to his coming to us in the person of others: to anyone who is near and needing us most.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Christ: Center & Holy Wisdom of Creation

Over the past few months I've been reading about sophiology, the study of Wisdom. Two books, particularly, have given me much to think and pray about regarding the relationship between Christ and Wisdom, and the relationship of Christ/Holy Wisdom and creation, especially human beings: Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton, by Christopher Pramuk, and Sophia: The Wisdom of God, by Sergei Bulgakov. Pramuk's is an exciting appeal for the long-overdue recognition of Wisdom's centrality to contemporary theology and ecclesiology, and Bulgakov's is one of the finest explanations I've ever read of the relation between Scriptural accounts of Wisdom and each Person of the Holy Trinity. A warning: this isn't lectio divina for the fainthearted! It's intense and heavy. I don't claim to comprehend even half of it, but I think it's extremely relevant to our situation as Church today. I read recently a criticism of someone who is an avowed conservative regarding the way "liberals" present their take on contemporary theology.  The criticism was that you don't see much explicit mention of Jesus. Without engaging in a side-discussion of that statement, which could go on endlessly, it's a point, I believe, well taken.

That's why I was eager to share just the following few ideas, during this Christmastide/Epiphany cycle, from another great theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar, taken from The Glory of the Lord, Vol I: Theological Aesthetics, published back in the early '80's:

"The Incarnation of the Word means the most extreme manifestness within the deepest concealment...What is most familiar to us [humanity itself] is suddenly turned for us into a word and a teaching about God...

...The insignificant must be the appearance of what is most significant. We could understand it better if the hiddenness of this 'flesh' were supposed to represent the silence of the Word, God's pure concealment. But no: precisely this hiddenness is to be the speech in which God desires to make himself known definitely and insurpassably, beyond misunderstanding or confusion with any other human Christ, humanity is disclosed along with God...God takes on human nature as his own and expresses himself from within it through the expressive structures of that nature's essence...God is able, therefore, to reveal in Christ, at once God and humanity... the form [of revelation] because he is the content...If for a single moment we were to look away from him and attempt to consider and understand the Church as an autonomous form, the Church would not have the slightest plausibility...The plausibility of Christianity stands and falls with Christ's...

...The fact that Christ 'says nothing to me' in no way prejudices the fact that, in and of himself, Christ says everything to everyone. What is at stake here is the correspondence of human existence as a whole to the form of Christ...

...The gospel presents Christ's form in such a way that 'flesh' and 'spirit', Incarnation to the point of suffering and death, and resurrected life are all interrelated down to the smallest details..."

Well, that ought to give us all plenty to chew on until Easter!   

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Jesus: The Holy Name

St. Luke, in Chapter 2:15-21 of his Gospel narrative, gives us his understanding of the meaning of the Christmas event through words spoken to common sheep-tenders. The good news told them was: "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ [i.e., Anointed One of] the Lord." The child we've come to know as Jesus historically bore the Hebrew name Yeshua/Yeshua bar Joseph. The name derives from yasha = to be open, wide, free; to save. Jesus means He [God] saves.

In Jewish society, the name stood for the person and indicated something about his/her history, purpose and mission in life. Jesus' name was a fairly common one (e.g., the Hebrew Scriptures' equivalent: Joshua). There had been many "saviors". But in God's plan this Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, was to be the Savior, the Anointed One of God.

You've no doubt heard, as I have, the oft-asked question: "Are you saved?" What that usually implies is something like: "Can you name a specific time/date of a religious experience or conversion??" Or, it implies that some common ground may exist in our conversation, i.e., "Are you part of the 'club'?? If so, then we can associate. If not, then you're suspect and my defenses are up." Sometimes the question is asked, meaning: "Are you a charismatic, or born-again, or evangelical Christian??" For many others, "Are you saved?" carries with it a negative connotation: "Are you saved, in the sense that you're not one of those 'worldly' people who smoke, drink, dance, etc."

When I hear that question, "Are you saved?", I'm reminded of the comments made by my son's school principal in a 1981 PTA newsletter:
"The greatest problem facing our world today is tat of man's relationship to his fellow man. How we resolve this problem will, in a large part, determine whether this nation, and even the world will survive. The human ability to accept others is the brightest light in the darkness of this world. Many of the world's religions point to this human ability as the quality by which man can prevent potential misery and even annihilation.

I am convinced that the answers to this problem lie within each of us. The light is there for us to use as individuals, as a community of persons, as a community of nations. Yet we continue to withhold ourselves from others -- we cut them off -- we don't believe in them -- we don't accept them as being one of us because of a difference in age, sex, color, viewpoint or speech. Darkness is nothing -- as soon as we turn the light on, it disappears. By providing even a little light, some of the darkness disappears.

At this time of year, just think what benefit we can provide for those who inhabit our small corner of the world and even for ourselves, if we turn on the light of affection, concern, sympathy, understanding and love for our fellowman. It is this giving of ourselves that this holiday season represents.

It is not so difficult to give of ourselves -- to open the gates of our attitudes -- so that we can share ourselves with those who may have differing viewpoints. Let this holiday season be one in which we exercise these gifts. It is our potential to give freely and lavishly of them."

Parenthetically, I hadn't read that for some years, until now, and I'm rather astounded at both the passionate simplicity of that man's message, and also the spot-on relevance which it has these 30 years later! On the face of it, there's nothing world-shaking in that statement; it's a simple, direct, practical message.

The simple meaning of "Are you saved?" or of "He saved us." or of "Jesus saves!" is that Jesus wouldn't withhold himself from any one of us. Jesus accepts us. He accepts us despite what we have been in the past and often are in the present. St. Paul describes our condition in his letter to Titus (3:1-3): "At one time, we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy..." This is how we are, and Jesus accepts us.

In his story about Jesus' birth, Luke speaks about light surrounding the shepherds: a symbol of wisdom and recognition that in Jesus we're saved, that he hasn't withheld himself from any of us. This giving and sharing is what the world is crying out for as it stands today at the threshold of this new year, 2011. The non-believers of the world don't generally criticize us Christians so much because of the fact that we believe, or because of our outward religious observances. But the one thing they do call us on is that we don't take our belief seriously enough to actually live it and practice it daily, without prompting from the priest or minister, or from the Church, or from organized religion. We Christians often seem not to understand or to take seriously the truth of the fact that "He saved us".

How can you and I live such that we do convey the reality of "He saves" to others? How do we live the Christmas event throughout the new year? My then 11 year old daughter, Nicole, unknowingly expressed something of an answer to this on Christmas Eve, 1981, when she left a note for Santa which said: "I hope you will bring me the things I put on my list. But most of all, I hope you will bring to all my family and relatives the things they really want..." Exercising the human ability to accepts others, not withholding oneself from them: that's how you and I enable Jesus to save us and others. It's really very simple. There are so many saving gifts which you and I can give to one another all year long: a smile; washing the dishes for someone else; forgiving an old grudge; passing on some good news, rather than a complaint or gossip; saying "Please" and "Thank you"; trying to understand another person's viewpoint, rather than dismissing them.

It's almost a national annual ritual to set about making resolutions at the beginning of the new year. Walter Scott suggests the following possibilities. Perhaps one or two may strike a responsive chord in you and give you a year's worth of motivation this year:
 No one will ever get out of this world alive.

Resolve, therefore, in the year to come to maintain a sense of values.

Take care of yourself. Good health is everyone's major source of wealth.
Without it, happiness is almost impossible.

Resolve to be cheerful and helpful. People will repay you in kind.

Avoid angry, abrasive persons. They are generally vengeful.

Avoid zealots. They are generally humorless.

Resolve to listen more and to talk less. No one ever learns anything by talking.

Be chary of giving advice. Wise men don't need it, and fools won't heed it.

Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged,
sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the wrong.
Sometime in life you will have been all of these.

Do not equate money with success. There are many successful money-makers
who are miserable failures as human beings. What counts most 
about success is how a man achieves it.

Resolve to love next year someone you didn't love this year.
Love is the most enriching ingredient of life.