Monday, January 28, 2013

First Things First

(A sermon by Father John-Julian Swanson, OJN
Epiphany 3 - January 27, 2013
Julian House Monastery, Waukesha, WI)

In his second inaugural address the other day, President Obama mentioned that his presidency would be remembered for the end of two wars—the war in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan. 

The serious question I find myself asking is, “Can these two countries succeed with a democratic form of government?” Do the people in these countries have the insight, the wisdom, the stamina, and the commitment to make it through this difficult time? The fear I have—and it is shared by some serious observers of the world scene—is that the only means these people have ever known to solve problems such as food shortages, wages, corruption, etc. has been to turn to a centralized, totalitarian government to solve the problems for them (as did Germany in the 1930’s), and it is not at all beyond the scope of possibility that they will cry out once more for a Big Brother government to take care of them—and by choice they may revert to totalitarianism. 

The story is the same among some of the relatively new democratic regimes in Africa and South America—people inexperienced with a democratic way of government, with a transfer of power that involves no violence and no revolution, are having a terrible time. It looks to us as though they are behaving like children, without restraint and self-control. 

What we forget is that our social and economic system began to develop about seven hundred years ago. 1215 was the date when the barons of England forced the king of sign the Magna Carta. That didn’t work, either, and it had to be done again and again almost up to our own century. And even when the American form of democracy was shaped by the Founding Fathers, most people don’t realize that it took twelve years from the time of the War of Independence until the first national popular elections were held in the United States—twelve years before we could be a truly democratic nation—and even then, it was only males who owned land who were allowed vote. It then took an additional 144 years before women could vote and another 44 years after that before African-Americans were finally truly enfranchised. 

Now, Christianity is just like that—just exactly like that! The Christian life is a long, long, long, slow, subtle developmental process that cannot be hurried. And in virtually every parish I know of what is being taught is aimed at the level of Algebra or Geometry at a time when neither teachers nor learners even know the fourth grade basics. 

Look, let me try to put it as simply as possible: virtually every Christian one might ask would agree that the purpose of Christian religion is to help people to live better, more moral lives, with less sin and less wickedness. And therefore our job as a church is to lead people into the narrow paths, and show them how to live better lives. -- And that is simply utter nonsense! The living of a “better life” is not the way one becomes a good or active Christian. If a Christian does change and live a better life, it is a fringe benefit, not the purpose of Christianity. Indeed, “living a good life” is one of the last things Christianity can provide—because living a better life only happens when one is daily more perfectly united to and bound up with God. 

 Living a “better life” is absolutely and completely and totally impossible without union with God. Until one has discovered and accepted that union with God, any efforts to live a better life are a waste of time. So we have it all backward—we teach and promote people to live better moral lives—without hatred, without war, without wrongdoing, without drugs, without racism, without sin, etc., etc., etc. But every one of those things can only be changed, can only be overcome and can only removed from our behavior if we are in union with God. We cannot “be good” without that union. 

 Let me try to say it this way: “Being good” is one of the hardest tasks human beings can undertake. “Being good” is college-level Christianity. And it will never work, it will never succeed, it will never come to any fruition unless one has passed the elementary school examinations first—unless one has absorbed the basics, the fundamentals first. One cannot even know how to relate with other people until one has related with God. One cannot comprehend true relationship itself until one has found it in God. Indeed, “being good” is only a manifestation of God within ourselves when we begin to relate with God within others. 

So you can understand why you often hear me despairing of parish life. 99% of all parishes spend all of their time totally missing the point. Bible Study, Sunday School, Bazaars, Evangelism programs, Stewardship drives, Mother’s Day commemorations, etc, etc., etc. are, in fact, all futile and useless—or they are at least far too early. The Bible makes no sense whatsoever except to someone who is striving for union with God. Helping the needy, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless are all very good, but they are the product and result of union with God, not the cause of it. 

Most Christians tend to fail in their Christianity—and the main reason they do, is that they are starting off at a graduate-school level. 

Jesus knew us—inside out! He knew just what we needed in order to get ourselves ready for these advanced things like forgiveness, peace, joy, and fulfillment. We needed divine food to feed out souls—so he gave us the Mass. And we need a surrounding community that will support us when we stand against the rest of the world—so he gave us the Church. 

Do we really think that Jesus Christ died so that a parish could have a Spring Bazaar? So that Sunday School students could color autumn leaves and make cotton snowmen and learn the story of Noah and the Ark by heart? Do we really think that is what it is all about? Do we think Jesus went to the cross of Golgotha so that we would stop using dirty words? Or be nicer to our next-door neighbor? Or give five bucks to the next panhandler we see? 

No, not at all! Not at all! He died so that you and I could die, too, die right into him, die and be born inside his Body, in perfect union, savoring that mystical meal of the altar when he and I become one thing, one being. 

The starting place is exactly where Jesus Himself put it: in the Church—and at the altar. When we have that totally assimilated that, then we will be ready for whatever else God has in mind. 

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Conversion of St. Paul

"The most important thing of all to Paul, however,
was that he knew himself to be loved by Christ.
Enjoying this love, he considered himself happier
than anyone else...He preferred to be the loved
and be the least of all...than be without that love
and be among the great and honored.

To be separated from that love was, in his eyes,
the greatest and most extraordinary of torments; 
the pain of that loss would alone have been hell...

I urge you, therefore, not only to admire, but also
to follow his example of virtue. For in this way
we will be able to share in the same crown of glory."

(From St. John Chrysostom's homily,
In Praise of St. Paul)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The "Mary of Ant Village"

It’s amazing to me how frequently I discover, usually quite by chance, remarkable stories of contemporary saintly women and men who are completely unknown to me and, I suspect, to countless others. I’m always inspired to realize the immense amount of human good being done so quietly and unobtrusively all over the world. It definitely counterbalances the endless stream of negative news of evil interactions across the globe, and gives one tremendous hope that the universe is being upheld by such noble souls. Such is the story of my most recent find: Satoko Kitahara. 

Satoko Elizabeth Maria Kitahara was born August 22, 1929, the youngest daughter of an aristocratic family, descended from the ancient Japanese Samurai and from Shintō priests. The early part of her life was normal and quiet. In 1940, however, with the entry of Japan into World War II, her family life was suddenly disrupted. Like many Japanese people early on, Satoko’s family supported Japan’s military effort, believing in its honor and integrity. Her father and brother-in-law were sent to fight in the army. Her older brother was summoned to work at the Nakajima airplane factory. Satoko herself also willingly worked there. Since Tokyo was under continuous bombing, the days were marked by frequent warning sirens. Like millions of her fellow citizens, Satoko lived in constant fear and anxiety, and miraculously escaped unharmed, though in deep shock, when a bomb fell on her workplace. It was here that she initially contracted tuberculosis, though she seemed to recover. By this time also, her brother, physically and psychologically debilitated, succumbed to pneumonia. It was in this setting that Satoko spent her early adolescence.

Japan experienced the full trauma of war when the people learned of the atomic bombs which devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, taking countless lives and inflicting unspeakable injuries, as well as by the nation’s inevitable humiliating capitulation and surrender which followed. Tokyo had become a field of ruins. Many died from hunger, while others suffered the uncertainty and daily struggle to survive. One of the severest problems facing the Japanese people after the war was how to deal with massive numbers of refugees in a society plagued by unemployment, poverty and hunger. Thousands of people flocked to the major urban centers. Satoko’s own family welcomed many of their relatives who’d lost all their possessions.

Despite all this, Satoko decided to devote herself again to her studies. She had developed a great admiration for the work of Dr. Albert Schweitzer and she, too, dreamed of a noble focus for her life. Like him, she was willing to sacrifice lesser pursuits for something more essential. Pursuing her education in the midst of Tokyo’s horrible conditions at that time was a real challenge. Virtually the entire infrastructure around her had been destroyed, and so books were a rare luxury. By this time in the war, also, many young Japanese people her age had begun to realize the extent of Japan’s war crimes and became disillusioned, Satoko among them. They felt that their nation had betrayed them in putting aside the ideals of a cultured society, and began to feel that there was little hope for the future. Satoko endured and through her studies regained a sense of serenity in living. After receiving her diploma in 1949, her quest for a meaning to her life became paramount. 

In a moment which Carl Jung would term “synchronicity”, Satoko happened upon Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Yokohama City. Inside it she experienced a inner awakening, uncomfortable in that it began to challenge her cultural beliefs. Satoko began wondering about Christianity. She felt particularly attracted by the peace and quiet she experienced when she visited the church. As she quietly pondered all of this in her heart, she sought out further information from the chaplain, a group of Spanish nuns, and other Catholic lay persons. Eventually, finding herself more and more drawn in wonder to the Eucharist, to Mary the mother of Jesus, and to the great joy and peace which she experienced in prayer, she decided to embrace Catholicism. She was baptized on October 30, 1949, choosing the names of Elizabeth and Mary. 

In 1950, Satoko became acquainted with Br. Zeno, a Franciscan friar of the Mission of the Immaculate Conception, instituted by St. Maximilian Kolbe. He had developed a tireless ministry among the homeless and needy along the Sumida River, particularly in Arinomachi, known as the “Village of Ants”, because of the unbelieveable overcrowding of people and the level of constant activity which reigned there. The village’s inhabitants, among them many children and young people, managed to survive by collecting, recycling and selling materials discarded in the trash. The city’s leadership was so revolted by the village that they intended to level it and redevelop the area as a park.

Satoko wrote about her initial experience with Br. Zeno and the trashpickers of Ant Village: “I lay down in bed but could not get to sleep. Br. Zeno, a man without formal education, unable to read Japanese, had bridged a chasm separating two nations and two cultures. He had discovered a part of Japan I did not know existed, where thousands lived in unbelieveable destitution. Many of them lived less than a kilometre from my home! I had lived in the pampered, educated ignorance of an over-sophisticated world while this unlettered foreigner worked without thought of self in the world of painful reality...I lived surrounded by carpets and gas stoves while he went without even an umbrella into the terrible twilight world of destitution.

Satoko Kitahara, in order to get to know the residents better, began visiting Ant Village each day to teach basic grammar to the children, and, among other things, music and hygiene. The local population responded to her efforts and appreciated Satoko’s helping them reclaim their human dignity. Nevertheless, the work was difficult and discouraging at times, and on one occasion she was seriously shaken by the criticism of a non-believer who saw her as only a “do-gooder”. “I had thought”, she writes, “I was a great Christian because I condescended to dole out some free time, helping Ants children with their homework!...It hit me know. There was only one way to help those ragpicker children: become a ragpicker like them!” 

Satoko made the decision to set aside her privileged life and to live as one of the people of the village. She began to help collecting and selling material. She organized a study room and a cafeteria. She assisted in administration and in bringing in income. Her influence with local authorities was great enough that she negotiated with them to build a center with a classroom, bathroom and meeting hall. Sustained by prayer and her devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary, she gave of herself with extraordinary selflessness to her vocation. 

Sadly, her health began to fail because of recurring tuberculosis and she was forced set her work aside. She spent a long time convalescing, and found, upon her return, that another young woman had stepped into her place to carry on the work. By this time, the efforts among the people of the Village of the Ants had become well-known throughout Japan, and others lent support in eventually making it possible to relocate the village to a new and satisfactory location. In her debilitated state, Satoko continued to labor for the people of the village, though she herself was vulnerable to feelings of uncertainty, uselessness, and doubt. She nevertheless continued her constant ministry of prayer among and for the people of Ant Village, especially praying the Rosary, so much so that her reputation for sanctity spread throughout Japan and touched many other lives. 

Br. Zeno advised Satoko to remain firm in prayer and in her devotion to Mary the mother Jesus. Reminding her of the Gospel call to leave the comfort of one’s home, he urged her to finally settle in the Village of the Ants, submitting her whole life to God’s will as Mary had done.  She became a simple servant of God, offering her life for the people of the village. “I want to share the life of the Ant people, to work and suffer with them, to rejoice with them as one of them...and to die for them.” 

Her mission was completed as Satoko Elisabeth Maria Kitahara died on January 23, 1958. Along with Doctor Paul Nagai Takashi, she is one of the most representative figures of  20th century Japanese Catholicism. In 1981 the Catholics of Japan, supported by the Conventual Franciscans, introduced the cause for the beatification of blessed Satoko Kitahara.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Gift of a Dream

I don't believe that dreams happen just by accident.

Since my mother, Grace, died almost ten years ago, I've never had a dream about her, nor any sort of other "communication", as I actually have had with others who've passed on. Last evening Mom emerged very vividly in a dream, and I was taken completely by surprise.

In the dream she was with an unknown woman who appeared to be a caretaker. The scene took place on a short steep stairway of an obviously multi-level building. From the window in the background I could see that the sun was shining outside. 

Mom, wearing a bandana and a coat, was holding onto the stair railings and slowly, but rather gingerly, heading upstairs. Seeing her half-smiling face, I exclaimed: "Look at you!"

The scene shifted and Mom was sitting on a sofa of sorts, the bandana and coat removed. Then she smilingly said, not with any animosity but perhaps in a more feisty spirit, "I'm gonna sue this radical outfit!" I remember thinking in the dream, "That's my Mom!". 

Naturally I've been wondering about the dream's possible significance. I felt compelled to call and share the experience with my Aunt Joan, who took care of all of Mom's affairs during the last eight years of her life. They were inseparable as sisters and as friends. I told Joan that I thought that this might be Mom's way of letting us know that she's OK, that she's still her old "self". Joan was clearly delighted and reassured by the story; she has missed Mom terribly since she died in 2003. I told Joan that, perhaps, Mom was probably just disgruntled because something in the way heaven is being run isn't just the way she thinks it should be, and is determined to speak her mind!

A favorite psychiatrist of mine from the past once told me, "Harry, sometimes a dream is just a dream." But in this case, Jim, I'm going to believe that this dream really was a gift!   

Sunday, January 20, 2013

La Unidad en Fe y en Amor

Este el viernes pasado, la fiesta de la Confesión de San Pedro, y continuando por el próximo viernes, la fiesta de la Conversión de San Pablo, la Iglesia celebra la Semana anual de Oración para Unidad cristiana y interreligiosa. 

Esta semana ecuménica empezó en Peekskill, New York, en un lugar llamó Graymoor. Padre Paul Wattson y Madre Lurana White, los cofundadores de una pequeña comunidad religiosa Episcopal de Frailes y Hermanas franciscanos de la Expiación desearon para una reunión de anglicanos con la Iglesia Católica Romana. La mayoría de los protestantes e incluso de algunos católicos se opusieron la idea vigorosamente. 

No obstante, Padre Paul y Madre Lurana continuó su misión para reunir las iglesias cristianas divididas. La primera Semana por la Unidad, o la "Octava", del dieciocho de enero al veinticinco de enero, occurió en 1908, pero la respuesta fue, a lo más, poco entusiasta. Finalmente, en octubre 1909, los Frailes y Hermanas de Graymoor fueron aceptados en la Iglesia Católica Romana por Papa Pío X. La Semana de Oración llegó a ser muy popular en la Iglesia Católica Romana, y durante los próximos sesentos años, otras iglesias cristianas lo adoptaron. 

Hoy muchas personas de fe celebran la Semana de Oración, unido con Jesús que dijo, "que todos ellos estén unidos". Las Escrituras para este Segundo Domingo después la Epifanía son muy apropiadas para esta Semana de Oración para la Unidad cristiana. 

Quiero las palabras en la abertura de la celebración de una boda en El Libro de Oración Commún: “Nos hemos reunido en la presencia de Dios para bendecir y ser testigos de la unión entre este hombre y esta mujer en Santo Matrimonio. Dios estableció en la creación el vínculo y pacto matrimonial, y nuestro Señor Jesucristo honró esta forma de vida con su presencia y su primer milagro en la boda de Caná de Galilea...

Dios y Jesús consideraron la celebración de una relación humana  en una boda para ser una experiencia mas importante. Hoy en El Evangelio (San Juan 2:1-11) "Jesús y sus discípulos asistieron a una boda. No estaban en la montaña, ni eseñaban en las calles. No estaban dando de comer a los pobres, ni sanando a los enfermos. No estaban orando ni en la soledad, ni ayunando. Estaban en una boda, compartiendo una ocasión feliz con una pareja recién casados, con su familia y amigos y, proba-blemente, con la mayoría de las personas en la aldea.

¿Había algo más importante que Jesús pudiera estar haciendo? Proba-blemente contestaríamos: “Por supuesto que no. Jesús estaba haciendo lo que tenía que hacer.” Imagínate a Jesús diciendo: “No tengo ocuparme de las cosas de mi Padre.”

Ninguna persona ha tenido una vida más guiada por un propósito como la tuvo Jesús, pero aún él y sus discípulos aceptaron la invitación a una boda. Allí, él concedió la petición de su madre e hizo su primer milagro público para que la celebración no se echara a perder. En comparación, ¿qué tan importantes pueden ser nuestras tareas cotidianas? No debemos permitir la misma libertad para dejar a un lado las exigencias de la vida a fin de unirnos en las celebraciones de la vida." (Un Años de Domingos (Estudio Bíblico de Little Rock, 2013, II Domingo Ordinario, Roy Goetz)

El mensaje principal del Evangelio hoy es que Jesús, en su Persona, nos revela la presencia de Dios. Vivimos en un mundo de signos. Los signos procuran comunicar y transmitir un mensaje. Los signos son tentativas de estar allí, y ser presente a otras personas. Según San Juan, Jesús trata con nosotros en la manera que sabemos mejor: por signos, y por palabras. 

Jesús utilizó los signos o los milagros; y utilizó palabras. Estos signos, utilizado en su ministerio público, ayuda a revelar, destapar y transmitir a sus oyentes que lo que ven en la persona de Jesús es la muy presencia de Dios. 

La historia de la boda en Caná es extraordinaria. Es encontrada sólo en el Evangelio según San Juan. Juan dice que Maria, la madre de Jesús, le explicó que los nuevamente casados encararon una situación embarazosa: "Ya no tienen vino". Jesús contesta: ¿"Mujer, por qué me dices esto? Mi hora no ha llegado todavía". La respuesta de Jesús fue nada en absoluto irrespetuosa. Al contrario, Jesús se dirige a Maria como "Mujer", aquí y en el momento de Crucifixión, con una palabra cortés del respeto más grande. Jesús dijo sin embargo que parentesco humano, de lo que clase, no debe afectar la pauta de su ministerio. Jesús debe hacer el trabajo de su Padre, y por lo tanto debe colocarse más allá de bonos y relaciones familiares naturales, así como cualquier discípulo del suyo debe hacer. 

¡Maria, como la buena madre judía, persiste! Su persistencia lleva al primer signo, la iniciación del ministerio público de Jesús. Maria dice: "Hagan todo lo que él les diga". Un principio nuevo fue possible para tal dependencia humilde en Jesús. 

Las Escrituras hebreas utilizan la imagen de una fiesta de la boda para hablar de tiempos mesiánicos. Como agua es reemplazada con vino selecto, así que es la aduana vieja reemplazada con la nueva enseñanza de Jesús. El encargado de la fiesta dice: "Tú has guardado el mejor vino hasta ahora". Esto insinúa y proclama sin duda la esperanza dada por la presencia del Mesías, el Santo de Dios. 

Juan dice que había seis tinajas de piedra de agua, cada teniendo quince a veinticinco galones. ¡Que asciende a aproximadamente noventa a cientocinquenta galones de vino selecto! Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah y otros profetas habían hablado de la abundancia de vino como un signo, un prefigurar, de la alegría que caracterizaría los días finales cuando el Mesías por último vino. ¡Lo que alegría debe haber habido en este fiesta de Caná! 

Todo el simbolismo en este Evangelio los puntos juntos a Jesús como el Santo de Dios que personifica visiblemente muy presencia de Dios y revela la gloria de Dios. Las palabras y las acciones de Jesús el amor expreso, la curación, la sabiduría, la compasión, el servicio, y la dedicación. Y este Hombre Jesús, que es también Hijo de Dios, llama usted y mí personificar esas mismas características en nuestras relaciones uno con el otro. 

La introducción de la Celebración de un Matrimonio continúa: “El matrimonio significa para nosotros el misterio de la union entre Cristo y su Iglesia, y las Sagradas Escrituras recomiendan que sea honrado entre todos los pueblos...” El mensaje de las fiestas de Navidad y de la Epifanía es que Jesús llegó a ser humano para mostrarnos como qué Dios está. Dios es el amor. Dios es la compasión y la misericordia. Dios nos cura. Dios reconcilia y trae a personas atrás juntos. Dios nos alimenta. Por Jesús, Dios pide que seamos como Dios es.  En la Plegaria Eucharistica I oramos: “Concede, te suplicamos, que todos los que participamos de esta Santa Comunión...seamos llenos de tu gracia y bendición celestial; asimismo te pedimos que nosotros, y toda tu Iglesia, seamos un solo cuerpo con él, para que él habite en nosotros, y nosotros en él...” Como un marido y la esposa son unidos juntos, así que somos unidos con Cristo y con el Padre. 

Jesús dijo: “Te pido que todos ellos estén unidos; que como tú, Padre, estás en mí y yo en ti, también ellos estén en nosotros, para que el mundo crea que tú me enviaste...” (San Juan 17:21)  

Saturday, January 19, 2013

A Prayer For All of Us

O God, who created all peoples in your image, we thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in this world. Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellowship, and show us your presence in those who differ most from us, until our knowledge of your love is made perfect in our love for all your children; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Week of Prayer For Christian & Interreligious Unity

For well over 50 years I've personally espoused, supported and put great personal effort into the ecumenical enterprise. In the past 20 years, my understanding has expanded to the need to pray not simply for "Christian" unity, but for "Christian and Interreligious" unity. The time especially during and immediately after Vatican Council II seemed to be marked by great ecumenical fervor. While much of that has remained here and there on the local level, I've seen interest and effort gradually dwindle over the years. That isn't to say that much hasn't been accomplished to date, at least on paper. In some cases there've been real, significant, and, I think, lasting breakthroughs. Yet, as we begin another week of prayer for unity, I sense the disgruntlement, misunderstanding, mistrust and ho-hum attitudes which pervade the religious world.

For myself, I'm wondering if all along I was waiting for some grandiose actual coming together of at least the major Christian religions in a body. Sounds naive even writing that down! As I approach the sunset of life I frankly don't envision much of any, if any, visible organizational unity. But I do see lots of possibilities for a deeper coming together in the heart and spirit, which might lead to much more practical, cooperative effort together to, as Pope John XXIII put it, "cry the Gospel" with our lives. I believe that that would be accomplished only through a mutually serious immersion of ourselves, individually and corporately, into the Word of God. 

Many members of our Diocese of Northern California, along with others across the U.S., are currently engaged in what has been termed a "Bible Challenge" for 2013, a tag I certainly wouldn't have chosen to use. The American societal environment today, from Congress on down to the schools and beyond, fairly reeks of "challenge", confrontation, in-your-face interaction. The Jesus I've come to know didn't/doesn't operate like that, except in the face of sin and untruth. At any rate, I would've billed the endeavor as something like "An Invitation To The Word". What is proposed is reading three chapters of the Hebrew Scriptures, one Psalm, and one chapter of the Christian Scriptures each day, Monday through Friday, for a year, during which time one will have virtually read the entire Bible. The assumption is, rightly or wrongly, that on Sundays the Scriptures would be shared in common.

This isn't, by any means, a new approach. I was introduced to something very similar back in the early '90's when two lay missionaries from the Solomon Islands, Barbara and Charles Dugnolle, of Episcopal World Mission, made an appointment to see me at St. John's, Chico. When they called once or twice earlier, I simply put them off, figuring it was the same old pitch for money. It was that, but it turned out to be much more than that. Though I figured I’d give them only 15 minutes of my time, we talked for about an hour and a half! They told fascinating stories about their ministry in a school where Barbara taught and an eye clinic which Charles was setting up.  While they were theologically evangelical, in some ways more than I was comfortable with, their obvious spirituality, sincerity, and enthusiasm won me over. In the following years we became good friends.  

In our meeting Charles and Barbara introduced me to what they called a “Scripture Covenant”.  The idea was for the parish priest, and any parishioners who wished to join in, to commit to reading three or four chapters from the Old and NewTestaments, and three or four Psalms. The invitation was to “covenant” to this formally in writing. The idea wasn't to formally study Scripture, but simply to read the Bible in a continuous manner, to let it wash over one’s mind and heart, so that in the course of the year a substantial part of the Bible would be read, perhaps even several times. I wisely began doing it myself before ever introducing it to the congregation and to a few of my clergy colleagues, and found it truly helpful, despite requiring some intentional planning and honest perseverance. 

Whatever such a regimen is called, it seems to me that it could go a long way, practiced continually, to form our hearts and to instill attitudes oriented toward the oneness which Jesus so earnestly prayed for. I recommend it as a positive tool one might utilize, beginning in this Week of Prayer for Christian and Interreligious Unity.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

Sisters & Brothers of God's Beloved

If you want a boost to your self-esteem or to shake off feelings of not counting for much or for not being special to anyone, just read some of the Scripture passages appointed for this feast of the Baptism of Jesus! (Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:15-17; 21-22)

The straightforward, undeniable love of “your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” fairly explodes in the reassuring phrases voiced by Isaiah, the prophet: “created you”; “formed you”; “redeemed you”; “called you by name”; “you are precious in my sight and honored”; “I love you”; “I am with you”; “I will gather you”; “[I] called you by my name”; “I created [you] for my glory”.

The Gospel passage from Luke portrays the heavenly identification of Jesus as the special object of God’s immense love through an epiphany, a revelation and manifestation of the mystery of God-in-Christ. There’s an in-breaking, an opening, of the heavens, a descending of the Spirit’s presence, and the resounding creative voice of the Father. Luke notes that “the people were filled with expectation”, and we can only imagine that in the midst of that crowd Jesus’ heart must have expanded with open anticipation of all that was about to happen. Some inkling of what direction his life was beginning to take as he was being led forward must have occurred to Jesus. Luke says “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened...” and the fireworks began! The Holy Spirit, in a dove-like form hovers over Jesus, and a voice proclaims: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 

Though it’s not one of today’s readings, St. Peter’s comments in Acts 10:34-38 complement both the messages of Isaiah and Luke: “...God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who stands in awe of God and does what is right is acceptable to God. You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ who is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with Holy Spirit and power; how [Jesus] went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the Adversary, for God was with him.

Note that all this took place while Jesus was at prayer in the company of all who were gathered there. Luke portrays Jesus as a sort of disciple of John the Baptizer, accepting his baptism by water, a sign of repentance, as a mark of initial association with John, as well as a preparatory stage for his own thoughts of a preaching and healing ministry. Jesus associates himself with the universal reaction (“all the people”) to John the Baptizer’s call to “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (Luke 3:8) 

The bodily form of a dove which Luke associates with the Holy Spirit’s presence is a rich symbol from the Hebrew Scriptures’ tradition. The ruach Yahweh, God’s wind or breath sweeping over, hovering over (like a dove) the pre-creation “void and darkness” bespeaks a new creation. Noah’s sending of a dove in Genesis 8:8-12 also foreshadows deliverance and new beginnings. Deuteronomy 32:11-12 substitutes a hovering eagle for a dove as the metaphor, but the message of God leading the people in a new exodus is not lost. 

The Father’s voice spells out Jesus' true identity and mission: “You are my Son, the Beloved...” Heinrich Schlier, in his book The Relevance of the New Testament (Burns & Oates, 1968) comments: “...And so [Luke] brings this epiphany into connection with another, that on the mountain of the transfiguration, which also took place when Jesus was praying (9:28ff). Luke sees in Jesus’ baptismal epiphany a reference to his glorification. From the very beginning of his journey to Jerusalem, which of course is his ‘taking up’ (9:51), Jesus sets out on it as one already secretly marked out in baptism for glorification.” The author of the Letter to the Hebrews expands on this by saying: “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters...

What can we, as beloved daughters and sons with Christ, take away from today’s feast? First, God’s call is universal; we’re all invited. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit...” Just as with Jesus, God pours out upon us the Spirit to prepare us for the special call of our ministry, whatever that may be. In this personal and communitarian baptismal epiphany you and I are marked, identified, as God’s daughters and sons, God’s beloved ones. The sure sign that our ministry is authentic is that it bears all the marks of God’s presence: it takes place in the context of prayer. The message we bear is Good News which brings peace, the abundance of God’s blessing to the sisters and brothers to whom we offer it. The fruit of it all is goodness and love, healing and reconciliation.


Sunday, January 6, 2013

Epiphany: The Saving Light Revealed

The word Epiphany derives from the Greek epi + phaino = to shine out, become manifest. In the first reading, Isaiah (60:1-6 & 9) assures the exiles returning to Jerusalem 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 may want to interpret otherwise. 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. But the basic Gospel truth of the oneness of all 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 boldly and confidently share the Light, “the wisdom of God in its rich variety”, 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 “make[s] everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things”, thus upsetting 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 responses of people to Jesus later on: homage, or rejection.

Matthew speaks of 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 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 bright 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, “revealed” to all nations, and, indeed, to all people on the earth. Jesus, Yeshua = 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, to be completed by the time the parents returned. As soon as their parents left, the youngsters would have a great time running off to play 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 to get from the bridge to the house. As soon as the lookout signaled, 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 though 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. 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 Mayan calendar watchers to the contrary! Jesus, rather, taught the disciples the only way to prepare: to simply make sure, every single day, that others -- the poor, the suffering, the homeless, the outcast -- 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.

In saying "As often as you did it for one of them, you did it for me", Jesus of Nazareth identified himself closely with the poor and suffering.  Such works aren't reckoned as if they're done to him. They are done to him. Today’s Psalm proclaims: “...he shall deliver the poor who cries out in distress, and the oppressed who has no helper. He shall have pity on the lowly and poor; he shall preserve the lives of the needy. He shall redeem their lives from oppression and violence.” That can only happen if you and I, “fellow heirs, members of the same body,...sharers in the promise of Christ Jesus through the gospel” commit ourselves to being Christ’s hands and heart for our world.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Blessing of The Name

Through the words, in the Gospel today (2:15-21), which were spoken by God’s messengers to common sheep-tenders, Luke  states his understanding of the meaning of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem: “An angel of the Lord stood before them, and...said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see -- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord... 
The short first reading on today’s feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, from the Book of Numbers (6:22-27), is the well-known Priestly Blessing, or Birkat Cohanim in Hebrew. It’s been used for centuries by our Jewish sisters and brothers, and was borrowed later by Christian communities, including the Episcopal Church. You can find it in An Order of Worship for the Evening in the Book of Common Prayer, p. 114: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” Notice God’s directive which the author of Numbers includes right after this: “So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” For the Hebrews, HASHEM = The Name, was the most sacred term in their vocabulary, embodying all that God is, to the point where they wouldn’t even pronounce God’s Name, but used other words to describe God. 

What the Blessing means to say is that the Holy God’s name, i.e., all that makes God to be God, especially creation and redemption, is bestowed by God as a blessing, is placed upon the people of God. The threefold repetition, as well as God’s wish to bless, keep, make God’s face shine, be gracious, lift up God’s countenance, and give peace, covers every good thing imaginable for us: bodily, earthly, or spiritually. The totality of blessing is that God’s name, God’s character and identity, is placed upon the people. It’s as if God’s name tag, God’s identity tag, is placed on us, for us to wear it so that all with whom we come in contact may see and, in the words of the second reading from Philippians (2:5-11), “every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Luke’s Gospel passage is full of almost fantastical movement. After their appearance to the shepherds, God’s messengers, the angels, leave and go to heaven. The shepherds, overwhelmed by the sights and sounds, hurry to Bethlehem. Their quick stop with Mary, Joseph and the Child having verified the message they’d been given, the shepherds head out again to spread the good news, still as amazed as their hearers along the way are, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Joseph and Mary, meanwhile, we can assume, left Bethlehem as quietly as they’d come, and eight days later, according to Jewish law, the baby boy was circumcised as one of God’s chosen people, and named. All during this time and probably for a long time after, Mary “treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart”. God’s messenger, Gabriel, had told her nine months before that she, God’s favored one, would conceive and bear a male child destined to be great, that he would be called “the Son of the Most High”, that the throne of his ancestor, David, would pass to him, that he would “reign over the house of Jacob forever”, and that his name would be Jesus = Yeshua or Yehoshua. The name comes from the Hebrew yasha = to be open, wide, free, to save. Jesus: the One who saves. In Jewish society the name stood for the person and indicated something about his or her history, purpose and mission in life. Jesus’ Hebrew name was fairly common. There’d been many Joshuas, many “saviors” in Jewish history. In God’s plan, however, this Yeshua, son of Mary and Joseph, was to be the long-awaited Savior: the Messiah, God’s Anointed One. 

As in the Gospel, so also in St. Paul’s Epistle there’s a sense of movement, though in this case it’s certainly not “fantastical”, but soberly real. First a downward movement: “Have this mind in you, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men...” Scholars refer to this as the “kenotic passage”, from Paul’s use of the verb related to the Greek word kenosis = emptying out, stripping oneself of.  Had Paul simply stopped there we could’ve spent a lifetime trying to comprehend this. 

But the downward movement continues: “...And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death...” Like us in every way but sin, Jesus, fully human, could be expected to die at some point. Yet, Paul says, the movement reaches even further down: “...[he became obedient] even [to] death on a cross.” Jesus willingly suffered the most humiliating, brutal form of death which the Roman Empire could devise for a human being. It isn’t a stretch to say that, in experiencing this, Jesus “hit bottom”.

But for Paul, who had exclaimed earlier in Philippians, “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain!”, this wasn’t the end of Jesus’ story. Paul now talks about the upward movement, the supreme blessing which God the Father bestows on Jesus: “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, 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 Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” What God is, Jesus embodies.

You’ve no doubt heard the question countless times: “Are you saved?” What the question usually implies is: “Can you name a specific time or date of a religious experience or conversion?” Or , it may be posed to see if some common ground exists: “Are you part of ‘the club’?

The name of Jesus, the One who saves, carries no such narrow meanings. “Jesus saves” is unconditional. It means that Jesus doesn’t withhold himself from us. He accepts us. He accepts us despite anything that we’ve been in the past and often are in the present and may be in the future. Paul pointedly describes our sad sinful human 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. The biggest challenge, however, as the late distinguished theologian, Paul Tillich, pointed out, is our learning to accept that we are accepted. 

If there’s one thing of which non-believers might accuse us who are blessed to wear the name tag of Jesus the Christ, it might be that we don’t take our belief seriously enough to live it and practice it every day, without all our churchly and religious props. We withhold ourselves and miss so many simple opportunities to extend Jesus’ saving love to one another: a smile; washing the dishes or cooking a meal; forgiving an old grudge; saying “Please” and “Thank you”; trying to understand another’s feelings or viewpoint, instead of writing them off or condemning them.

The First Letter of Peter suggests a better way: “...all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called -- that you might inherit a blessing.

In this new year ahead of us, let us continually be a blessing to one another, in the name of Jesus, the One who saves.