Thursday, September 29, 2011

St. Michael, Archangel - Prince of Light

Today is Michaelmas: the feast of St. Michael the Archangel, or the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. Michael is a given name that comes from the Hebrew: מִיכָאֵל / מיכאל‎ (Mikha'el), derived from the Hebrew question: "mi kəmo ʔelohim", meaning "Who is like God?"

The Letter to the Hebrews notes: "Are not all angels spirits in the divine service, sent to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation?" I am still unabashedly and avowedly one of those quaint remnants from the medieval Catholic tradition who believes not only in angels, but also in angel guardians for each of us. A late dear friend of mine, was convinced that even every parish church has an angel guardian. I obviously don't and can't know the name of my personal angel guardian, but, nevertheless, have vaguely sensed a "presence" from my earliest days, and have been spared enough times in situations where I could've been seriously harmed had it not been for the presence and influence of a being superior to me. That isn't in any way not to acknowledge God's presence always, but this angelic presence is something slightly different. I have know idea how many other folks might or might not share this conviction. 

Western Christianity celebrates Michaelmas on September 29 in the Church calendar. The Eastern Orthodox Churches do not observe Michaelmas, but rather honor the Archangels on November 8 instead. Because it falls near the equinox, it's associated in the northern hemisphere with the beginning of autumn and the shortening of days. St. Michael is considered the greatest of all the Archangels or principal angels, who also include Gabriel, Uriel, and Raphael. Michael is honored for overcoming Lucifer, as is alluded to in the Book of Revelation. Angel = ἄγγελος (pronounced ángelos in Greek) = messenger. God's messengers can be visible or non-visible, in human or non-human forms. Archangel Michael is seen as a protector against the darkness of night, and as the administrator of cosmic intelligence.

Everlasting God, you have ordained and constituted in a
wonderful order the ministries of angels and mortals:
Mercifully grant that, as your holy angels always serve and
worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may
help and defend us here on earth; through Jesus Christ our
Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one
God, for ever and ever. Amen. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Empty For Love

St. Paul sometimes preached and wrote in a cultural setting which makes little sense to us today. Many people today, for example, bristle when they read Paul’s admonition that women shouldn’t speak in church, or that they should cover their heads for worship. At other times, Paul’s letters convey an extraordinary insight into the Christian mystery, today’s passage from Philippians (2:1-13) being one of those.
In last Sunday’s passage from his letter to the Philippians, Paul expressed concern for unity in the Body of Christ: “Only live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that...I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel…” He goes on, in today’s passage to note that if there’s any encouragement in it, any incentive of love in Christ, any fellowship in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy -- and there is -- then, “be of the same mind...being in full accord and one mind.” 
The Greek word Paul uses is thronéo = to center, to focus one’s thinking on something(one); to steer one’s actions according to such a mind-set. Paul wonders out loud with the Philippians about the norms, the goals, which he notices in Jesus’ example and which we might adopt for our daily following of Christ: 1) encouragement; 2) cheering one another on towards love; 3) fellowship in the Spirit; and 4) tender mercies and compassion. This, Paul says, is the mind-set, the same as we see in Jesus‘ life, that should characterize our own understanding and actions. Jesus himself is the norm for our living. You and I need to think and act toward one another in the same way that we would act toward Jesus.
In one of the most beautiful and profound of all passages in Scripture, Paul spells out the theological foundation on which this attitude, this mind-set rests. He quotes an ancient hymn, possibly used in the liturgy of the Hellenistic church at Antioch. It describes first the kenosis = the utter self-emptying of Jesus:  Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God [i.e., equal to God] did not regard equality as something to be exploited [i.e., held onto, achieved by grasping], but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave [i.e., a doulos in Greek, a slave in bonds], being forn in human likeness [i.e., he came to pass, he happened as man]. And being found in human form [i.e., as a man], he humbled [humiliated] himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross.
We all know what an empty container is, especially if it’s a “Got Milk?” or “Out of Gas” situation! Widows and widowers know exactly how it feels to be in an empty house. We’ve probably all known what it’s like to empty our pockets or pocketbooks, particularly around April 15! But what must it have been like for God’s Son to empty himself of himself?? To go from the supreme Community of Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to slave status?? From the highest imaginable reality to the lowest?? We could imagine an elephant becoming an ant; or someone with immense wealth and power becoming a skid-row bum. Many years ago, I was deeply moved by the admission of one of my priest friends in Wichita, KS, Fr. Dan Orth. Dan was a great guy, a diocesan priest with whom I’d worked on some workshops. He confided in me that every year he made a trip to Chicago’s bowery, where he lived on the streets for a week as a bum. He did it as a form of ministry, and, as he said, to keep himself grounded in reality. But even these examples would pale in comparison with what Jesus did for us. What Jesus did was incredible, unbelievable. Yet he didn’t do it for just awhile, to prove that he could or to make a point of living on the edges of poverty. Jesus made a commitment to becoming just as human as any of us: even unto death!
It could all have ended there: God, in Jesus, experiencing what the whole human cycle from birth to death was like. The message was loud and clear: God cares that much for you and me. Jesus is Emmanuel = God with us: in all our ups and downs, in all our highs and lows, and in all in between. That’s, indeed, good news...of a sort. But God, in Christ, went even further. The message of salvation doesn’t end with the Incarnation followed by the passion and death of Jesus.
Nor does Paul’s reflection end there. He now proclaims the mystery of the Resurrection:  Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him [gifted/graced him with] the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus the Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” 
To the man called “slave” God assigns the name “Lord” and “Master”. The whole cosmic power structure, controlling humankind’s destiny, as it still does today, under whose authority Jesus humbled himself, now is called upon to confess him as its Lord, which is still does not do today. The hymn’s purpose isn’t meant to present a systematic Christology, or to summarize Christ’s life. Rather, Paul uses it as a catalyst for his hearers, and for us, to jump-start our own thinking and acting.
The news that God “cares enough to send the very vest” in the Incarnation is, indeed, Good News. But there’s a quantum leap made in the Resurrection’s proclamation that God not only cares enough to be involved with us, but, more, loves enough to overcome our selfishness and sin with the giving of himself, our weakness with his strength, our death with his life.
As you and I look at our lives in comparison with Jesus, how well do we see ourselves encouraging one another? Do we find ourselves routinely cheering each other along towards love? What do we put into building up a fellowship in the Spirit? How much of tender mercy and compassion do we heap upon those who need it?
Francis of Assisi developed a way to do this in his own life, and urged his followers to do likewise. He summed it up by saying: “Preach the Gospel [the Good News], and, if necessary, use words.”  The passage from Philippians today concludes with Paul’s exhorting his hearers and us: “ out your own salvation with awe and trembling, for it is God [in Christ] who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. 

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

From Quisling Tax-Taker to Giving Apostle

"Not long after the end of the Second World War in Europe – on October 24, 1945 to be specific – a Norwegian citizen who had undergone a lengthy trial was convicted of treason and executed. He had collaborated in the Nazi invasion of Norway, and had been proclaimed the puppet “minister president” of Norway by the Nazis during the occupation. He made every effort to Nazify the Norwegian church, the schools and the youth organizations, and he personally sent over 1,000 Norwegian Jews to death in concentration camps. His crimes were so heinous and his action so treacherous that his very name entered the English language. His name was Vidkun Abraham Lauritz Jonson
Quisling. A “quisling” is a craven, unprincipled, low-life traitor, and collaborator with the enemy, and is universally hated and passionately despised by all.

And so was Levi, the first-century Galilean tax collector, a publican. He was a Jew who made himself fat and rich by collaborating with the despised Roman conquerors of Palestine. And he made his riches by taking money from his own people, and by skimming his profits off the top. (Tax collecting was farmed out by the Romans to individuals who were expected to return a set amount to the Romans and could keep whatever else they extorted from the people for themselves.) Levi’s particular area of operation was at the shore of the Lake of Gennésaret near Capérnaum where he collected customs from the trade commodities that were transported over the lake. He also extracted a toll from all passengers arriving by boat. (As a matter of fact, in an ancient Hebrew translation of the Gospels, he is called “The Lord
of the Passage”, since he controlled all commerce and traffic passing into Capérnaum.) This man was an extremely rich and an utterly despised person—despised by both Jews and Gentiles. He betrayed his own people. He was a quisling. He was not allowed in the Temple, and devout Jews would even be made ritually unclean just by touching him or speaking to him.

And then one day Jesus, having lately cured a famous paralytic, left Capérnaum (where he resided much of the time) and went walking out by the Lake of Gennésaret. And he came upon the customs house that Levi directed, with its guards and its soldiers and its lines of citizens and traders waiting to pay their taxes and tolls, and Jesus looked in, saw Levi at his desk, and said to him simply, “Follow me!” Certainly Levi knew who Jesus was by then, and certainly he considered himself absolutely the last man in Palestine to whom the Nazarene prophet would even speak. And yet, mysteriously, there was no moment of hesitation on his part. He walked away from his responsibilities, from his riches, from his future—and he became… – he became MATTHEW.

“Matthew” is his name in all the Gospel lists of Apostles, and quite obviously it is a “conversion name” given him by Jesus (just as Cephas was renamed “Peter” and Saul renamed “Paul”). The name “Matthew” means “the giving of Yahweh”—a wonderful reversal from Levi the taker to Matthew the giver.

As a publican, it is likely that Matthew had a better education than some of the Apostles who were fishermen or the like. The ancient tradition that he was the first to write a full Gospel seems entirely probable. It is not surprising, then, to hear Origen’s claim that his incredible library at Caesaréa (in the early 3rd century) contained a copy of the original Aramaic text of the Gospel of Saint Matthew! Nor is it a surprise to read in his Ecclesiastical History that Eusebius claims to have seen Matthew’s original Gospel (which he says was “written in Hebrew” though this could also mean “Aramaic”, since Aramaic was in effect “vernacular Hebrew”). Eusebius claims that Matthew wrote his Gospel for Jewish Christians before he left Palestine. Páppias, writing in the year 130, said that Matthew had composed a Logia or gospel in the Hebrew tongue. And the missionary Pantaénus mentions finding Matthew’s Aramaic Gospel circulating in India in about the year 200.

That Aramaic Gospel, no copy of which has survived, was apparently the raw material for the writer of the Greek Gospel of Saint Matthew who clearly translated, revised, and adapted Matthew’s original. It is this “Greek Matthew” which we now translate in our modern New Testaments.

Again, a wonderful transformation in which Matthew leaves the tax-collector’s desk and ends up at a scribe’s desk, writing his Gospel.

And with the gift to the world of his Gospel, any reliable record of the rest of Matthew’s life or death disappears. The Jewish Talmud recorded a tradition that he was put to death on orders of the Sanhédrin, but it is also said he was martyred in Ethiopia when he supposedly converted the cannibal king’s consort. From Ethiopia his supposed relics were brought back to Salerno. However, equally creditable traditions have him preaching and dying in Persia, or in Macedonia, or in several places in the far East.

There is a famous unfinished statue by Michelangelo of St. Matthew; Bach wrote his famous “St. Matthew’s Passion” based on the Matthean Gospel; one of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings is the Saint Matthew in San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome; Rusconi’s statue in St. John Lateran has been called one of the most superb of the 19th century, and the Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film version of “The Gospel According to St. Matthew” is one of the finest religious films of our day.

In the poetic interpretation of the four heavenly living creatures of the Apocalypse, Matthew was originally identified with the lion, but Saint Jerome and Saint Augustine changed that and assigned him to the creature with a man’s face, because his Gospel begins with the human genealogy of Jesus.

And, in that wonderful long-lived fiction that the Apostles’ Creed was actually composed piece-by-piece and line-by-line by the Twelve Apostles themselves, Matthew is credited with the phrases: “The Holy Catholic Church” and “The Communion of Saints”.

It is not surprising that the one-time tax-collector Matthew has long been portrayed as the patron saint of bankers and bookkeepers, but one delightfully unique and very old painting of him shows Matthew wearing eye-glasses—the only bespectacled saint of the first thousand years of the Church’s history!"

Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Sweet Miracle of Our Empty Hands"

George Bernanos, in his book The Diary of  A Country Priest, describes the ministry of a self-effacing and unsuccessful country pastor. Most of the time the priest appears to be inept. The village he serves ignores him and the people all but abandon him. Particularly harsh is one of the women parishioners, mostly motivated, it seems, by her own personal bitterness towards God. At length the priest is called to minister to the woman as she faced death. Somehow he manages to break through her defenses and helps her to surrender to God’s mercy. “‘Be at peace,‘ I told her. And she knelt to receive this peace. May she keep it forever. It will be I that gave it to her. Oh, miracle, thus to be able to give what we ourselves do not possess, sweet miracle of our empty hands.
The theological lesson expressed in the story of Jonah, in the alternate Hebrew Scripture reading (Jonah 3:10-4:11), is one of the most important in the Bible. Jonah, clearly, was a man of “empty hands”: empty by his own stubborn choice. 
Jonah had a unique call from God: to go and speak for God at Nineveh, capital of the Assyrians, one of Israel’s hated enemies. God commissions Jonah to call the people of Nineveh to repentance, but he refused. “But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.”  Jonah books passage on a ship, and during the journey a massive storm arises and threatens the ship and its crew. The sailors on deck, laboring to fight the storm, cry out to their deities to save their lives. Meanwhile, Jonah has gone below decks to the inner part of the ship to take a nap. The captain comes down and finds him sleeping, rouses him, and says, “What do you mean, you sleeper? For God’s sake (and ours) get up and call on your God so that we don’t sink!” The picture is one of total empty-handedness. No one knows what to do next.
Up on deck the sailors are brainstorming why this evil has befallen them. They can only conclude that it’s because of the new guy on board, Jonah. In “grilling” him, it comes out that Jonah is running away from the Lord and from his responsibility to the God of the Covenant. Because the storm is getting worse and they’re feeling more and more helpless, they decide that they need to take action. Jonah, by this time, is having a serious case of remorse and suggests that, perhaps, if they throw him into the drink, the storm may subside, since he is apparently the cause of the trouble. For a second the sailors are reluctant, but then, with no better idea and completely empty-handed, they grab Jonah and pitch him overboard.
And the Lord,” says Scripture, “appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah…” Jonah ends up with a lot of time on his hands to reflect and get things right between himself and God and his neighbors -- three days and three nights! His subsequent prayer to God hints that, perhaps, Jonah is beginning to realize who’s really in charge here. “You brought me up from the pit...Salvation comes from the Lord.” At length God bids the fish to unceremoniously spit Jonah out!
On the second try, where the passage appointed for today’s liturgy begins, God convinces Jonah to once again take on the mission to Nineveh. To all appearances Nineveh was a big city, since Scripture alludes to a three day journey! Jonah gets only about a third of the way across the city when he experiences what must be every pastor’s dream. The entire city grinds to a halt; a fast is proclaimed; everyone, including the king and even the animals puts on sackcloth; and all bow before God, renouncing their evildoing and violence. God, the merciful, the forgiving, the compassionate, surrounds the Ninevites.
Now, you’d think that with that kind of success Jonah would’ve been ecstatic and would’ve recommitted his own life to God on the spot, and preached to those Ninevites with a zeal and fervor that would make Billy Graham look like an amateur Sunday School teacher. Instead, Jonah is unwilling to let God be God. God “had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened…” And Jonah was angry! His heart was full of resentment and bitterness towards God for sending him to a non-covenanted people: you know, the wrong denomination, so to speak! He resented the Ninevites because all along, on the journey and now, both the sailors and they had acted with more faith than he had. They repented, changed their lives, opened their hearts to God the Mighty One, while Jonah remained empty-handed and empty-hearted.
In a gesture that calls into question Jonah’s mental stability, he removes himself to “East Nineveh”, sits alone in a tent and waits! His hardness of heart convinces him that the people of Nineveh are faking. Sooner or later, he figures, they’ll go back to business as usual. Then we’ll see how lovingly-kind and merciful this God will be as God brings doom down on the city!
But it doesn’t happen. Jonah just sits there, baking in the hot sun. The Lord, “gracious and full of compassion...loving to everyone...faithful in all God’s words and merciful in all God’s deeds…”, as Psalm 145 describes God, lets a plant grow to provide some shade for Jonah. Jonah would never say it, for he’s not speaking to God at the moment, but the shade of the plant feels pretty good. The next day, however, Jonah notices that the leaves are dropping off and that the plant seems to be withering, dying: very much like the way Jonah is feeling inside. A fat worm has found the succulent plant (we’re told that it may have been a castor oil plant, which might indicate that what Jonah really needs is a good catharsis!), and soon there’s no more shade. The sun beats down so severely that Jonah almost suffers heat-stroke, and in his heart Jonah is probably near to cursing God for killing the plant, not to mention that God has also taken away some very nice shade! “It isn’t fair!” “Why?” “Why me?” “How dare You?”. Jonah is possibly thinking. And God says, “You pity the plant for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should I not pity Nineveh?…”  The last lines of  the Gospel appointed for this Sunday (Matthew 20:1-16) ring like an echo to this question: “Friend, I am doing you no wrong...I choose to give this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?…
Here are a couple of ideas you and I might think about over the next week. First, you and I, like Jonah, each have a unique call from God to do God’s work. And that’s the point: it’s God’s work. Anything you and I do as followers of Jesus is to be guided by what he wants, not by what we want. God’s will for us and in us can only be accomplished if we’re willing to accept our human inadequacy, unsuccesses, frustrations, our inability of ourselves to hold out anything but empty hands to him or to one another. The “sweet miracle of our empty hands” is God’s. 
We all run the temptation, particularly when we have any sort of deep “spiritual” experience, some form of personal conversion or renewal, of putting words into God’s mouth, or of attributing to God’s will our own human motives, preferences, and inspirations. This is dangerous enough for ourselves, and even more so when we project such things onto others and their actions. Listen to the great preacher John Wesley’s caution: “Do not hastily ascribe things to God. Do not easily suppose dreams, voices, impressions, visions or revelations to be from God. They may be from God. They may be from nature. They may be from the devil.” When you and I, like Jonah, are too proud to allow God to do God’s will, in the way God wishes to work these out, whether in our own lives or in the Church, then we can be sure that we’re running in the opposite direction from God’s presence. There’s great wisdom in testing the authenticity of our experiences against what we pray so frequently: “...for the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever…
Secondly, the messages of both Jonah and Matthew today are interrelated with last Sunday’s theme of forgiving others without limit. There’s a perversity in each of us that begrudges God’s unworldly generosity and God’s will to give a sister or brother, or a group of people, what we judge to be “undeserved” rewards. Matthew’s parable has been called the Parable of the Eccentric Employer. Ours is an eccentric God, a God of the unexpected and the startling. God’s economics frustrate us because they’re so unlike our standards. Followers of Jesus don’t bill God for services rendered. Being called to God’s work, early or late, is always an undeserved, unmerited privilege. None of us earns his/her way into God’s reign. The joy of it all is that God’s amazing grace and lavish generosity enables all of us equally to come to salvation. Even with our best efforts, we’re all overpaid. Matthew’s parable is, indeed, a word to each of us against an unbending, grumbling attitude, whether of the strong against the weak, the old-timer against the newcomer, the faithful against the “sometime” follower of Jesus.
The Lord is near to those who call upon God, to all who call upon God faithfully.” 

Friday, September 16, 2011

Apostle To The Southern Picts

The earliest mention of Ninian of Whithorn is in a short passage of The Ecclesiastical History of the English People by the Northumbrian monk, Bede, in c. 731. The 9th-century poem Miracula Nyniae Episcopi records some of the miracles attributed to him. A Life of Saint Ninian (Vita Sancti Niniani) was written around 1160 by Aelred of Rievaulx, and in 1639 James Ussher discusses Ninian in his Brittanicarum Ecclesiarum Antiquitates. These sources of information about Ninian of Whithorn all provide seemingly innocuous personal details about his life. However, there is no unchallenged historical evidence to support any of their stories, and all of which probably had political and religious agendas. 

Tradition has it that Ninian had studied in Rome; that he established an episcopal see at the Candida Casa ("white house") in Whithorn, named after St. Martin of Tours; that he converted the southern Picts to Christianity; and that he's buried at Whithorn. Variations of the story say that his father was a Christian king, and that he was buried in a stone sarcophagus near the altar of his church. Further variations assert that Ninian left for Ireland and died there in 432. 

The Venerable Bede's information about Ninian is minimal and he doesn't claim it as fact. He asserts only that he's passing on "traditional" information. This first historical reference to Saint Ninian is given by Bede in a passing reference contained in the final part of a single paragraph. Bede says that Ninian was a Briton and was instructed in Rome; that he made his church of stone, which was unusual among the Britons; that his episcopal see was named after St. Martin of Tours, [whom he may or may not have met]; that he preached to and converted the southern Picts; that his base was at "hwit ærn", Old English for the Latin candida casa = white house which was in the province of the Bernicians; and that he was buried there, along with many other saints.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Immortal Tree

"Immortal tree, it extends from heaven to earth.
It is the fixed pivot of the universe, the fulcrum of all things,
the foundation of the world, the cardinal point of the cosmos.
It binds together all the multiplicity of human nature.
It is held together by invisible nails of the spirit in order to retain
its bond with the Godhead. It touches the highest summits
of heaven and with its feet holds fast the earth,
and it encompasses the vast middle atmosphere in between
with its immeasurable arms."
(Pseudo Chrysostom, 3rd century)

Sunday, September 11, 2011

"The Quality of Mercy"

"The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown;
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself;
And earthly power doth then show likest God's
When mercy seasons justice...
Though justice be thy plea, consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy..."
( Portia, in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, 1596)

It can't be by accident that the liturgy's readings referring to forgiveness, both last week and this week, bookend today's 10th anniversary of 9/11. "Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done...then your sins will be pardoned when you pray..." (Sirach 28:2)  " often should I forgive?...Jesus said...'Not seven times, but seven times seventy times..." (Matthew 18:21-22)

Those messages of peace, forbearance, and forgiveness are a description of our mission as the Church. A valid theology of mission, of being "sent" out, simultaneously affirms both that the riches brought to the human family in Jesus are meant to be shared by all, and that religious traditions which know nothing of Jesus, but have brought so many people to spiritual maturity and fulfillment, are genuine paths to salvation, not meant for eradication.

It's been drummed into most of us that the Church's mission is expressed in Matthew and Mark in the so-called Great Commission, a term not coined by by or used by Jesus. Unfortunately, it expresses a mission of conquest, not unsimilar to the political agendas being pushed forward today by Republican presidential candidates. 

The Gospel of John, on the other hand, speaks of the Church's mission and ministry in much different terms. The basis of John's Gospel isn't power and authority invested in the disciples by Jesus, but rather Jesus' peace, breathed into them, even as God breathed life into us humans in the beginning. The Church's mission isn't, in the words of Sister Sandra Schneiders, IHM of Santa Clara University, "to succeed Jesus by making disciples, baptizing in the name of the Trinity, and teaching Jesus' message, but to carry on Jesus' own mission as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the forgiving sins and holding fast in communion those who are thus reconciled with God..."

In John's Gospel Jesus shows how this mission is to be translated into ministry by washing his disciples' feet, ministering to his disciples as friends and urging them to do the same to one another, thus demonstrating a love which is truly that of Godself. Jesus prays, not only for his disciples, but also for all who will believe in him through their word. In that way, they will all be one "as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me." (John 17:20-21) The Church is "sent" to live, in Sister Sandra's words, "...the community life of friends in equality and mutual service, which will draw others to seek the source of that life and to desire to share in it..." Clearly, you and I are "sent", not to conquer, but to share Jesus the Word of Life and to offer one another the forgiveness, mercy and reconciliation which Jesus himself offers us, thus drawing us into a communal way of living which, John says, is the very life Jesus shares with his Father and with us through the Spirit of Love.

The Church's commission, according to St. John, doesn't speak of going out to overwhelm and strong-arm nonbelievers for Christ or for any other cause. It emphasiszes, to quote Sister Sandra, "...a ministry of presence rooted in the kind of community that can only derive from the inner life of the Trinity itself. It is a preaching by being, being together..." -- reaching out in forgiveness, mercy and friendship, accepting the other as other. "...There is, or should be," Sister Sandra continues, "no moral or religious price tag..." on our ministry. Our task is simply to extend to others the love that binds the community of the Church itself, the love of the Crucified and Risen Jesus, the Wisdom of God.

Forgive is a rich word. It means that the God of mercy "fore-gifts" us, that God is way out ahead of us even at our worst, even in our moments of selfishness and sinfulness. God in Christ is always the One who takes the initiative, is already present in and through our weakness, preparing us for the time when, if we choose it, we'll again be able to rise above our selfishness. At the heart of understanding what it is to forgive is realizing that I do so not because I'm expected or told to do so, or because it's somebody's "nice idea", but because I myself have experienced and am aware of the gracious forgiving presence of Jesus. Because of that I now wish to share that with someone else, whether another person, a group, an ethnic entity, or a nation who's offended me.

Ask yourself this question: how many times in a day, a week, a month, a year, do I say the Lord's Prayer? Before ever saying that prayer again, it might be well for you and me to consult a lawyer! Do you and I have even an inkling of the terrifying commitment and responsibility which we're taking on ourselves in praying that prayer? You and I ask to be forgiven by Godself in exactly the measure that you and I DO forgive another, and AS we forgive another! Perhaps we need only think back just over the past week: to our thoughts and words about other people, other groups, other races, other nations -- them. In praying the Lord's Prayer are we calling down a blessing upon ourselves, or a curse?

Revenge is often said to be "sweet". But if you and I are honest, we know that of all the fruits revenge is ultimately the most bitter, the most poisonous, the most deadly, of all. "Vengeance is mine, says the Lord; I will repay...", the author of Deuteronomy reminds us. Sirach says "...The vengeful will face the Lord's vengeance...

That people or groups of people have faults and sins, or that they often perpetrate ugliness and evil beyond any of our expectations can never become a reason to stop loving them or to begin hating them. It should, rather, be the occasion for us to offer forgiveness, mercy and love even more, difficult as that will be. Corita Kent writes: "...we must be more careful about stamping out evil or hating anything because we know that in the past and in the present many people and things have been tragically destroyed in the name of good. We are reminded of Rilke's words to the young poet, 'Evil may be not seeing well enough', so perhaps to become less evil we need only to see more, see what we didn't see before...things look different to different people depending on where they stand, and if we can share views, not convert others to our views, we would get a larger vision. No single group can do it alone; the job is too big and we can only make it if we work it out together, and this is true on a worldwide scale, that if we're not going to find a way to work it out together, the whole thing is going to come apart..."

"We only know of God what we have allowed [God] to work within us.
We only know forgiveness when we have learned to forgive.
We only know the love we have received when we have given ours in exchange."
(Louis Evely) 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Nativity Of Mary, The Theotokos

"The hoped-for day of the blessed and venerable Mary ever a Virgin has now come; therefore let our earth rejoice with great gladness, illuminated by the birth of so great a Virgin. For she is the flower of the field from which came forth the priceless lily of the valley; by her child-bearing the nature inherited from our first parents is changed, their fault wiped out. In her that sentence passed on Eve was remitted which said, 'In sorrow shall you bring forth children,' for Mary brought forth the Lord in joy.

Eve sorrowed, but Mary exulted; Eve carried weeping in her womb, but Mary carried joy, for Eve brought forth a sinner, but Mary innocence itself. The mother of our race brought punishment into the world, but the Mother of our Lord brought salvation into the world. Eve was the source of sin, Mary the source of merit. Eve by killing was a hindrance, Mary by giving life was a help. Eve wounded, Mary healed. Obedience takes the place of disobedience, faith makes up for faithlessness.

Mary may now play on her instruments, the Mother strike the cymbals with swift fingers. The joyful choruses may sound out and songs alternate with sweet harmonies. Hear, then, how she sings, she who leads our chorus. For she say, 'My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid; for, behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed; because He who is mighty has done great things for me.' And so the miraculous new birth takes away the cause of our increasing burden of sin, and Mary's song puts an end to the weeping of Eve."  (St. Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 18, On the Saints)