Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Feast of Life

You will tell me when
and where 
I am to walk your path
totally bathed in joy.
In the meantime,
I ask you, Lord, awaken
in a secret place in my soul
the Feast of Life!
The Feast of the Empty Tomb!
The Feast of the Victorious Cross!

(From "When the Hour Comes", by Julia Esquivel
Threatened With Resurrection, Brethren Press, 1982, p.113)

Saturday, March 30, 2013

This Is the Night...

This is the night, 
when Christ broke the bonds of death and hell, 
and rose victorious from the grave...

Holy Father, accept our evening sacrifice, 
the offering of this candle in your honor. 
May it shine continually to drive away all darkness. 
May Christ, the Morning Star who knows no setting, 
find it ever burning -- 
he who gives his light to all creation, 
and who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Friday Called "Good"

Isaiah 52:13 - 53:12

See, my servant shall prosper; 
he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. 
Just as there were many who were astonished at him — 
so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, 
and his form beyond that of mortals — 
 so he shall startle many nations; 
kings shall shut their mouths because of him; 
for that which had not been told them they shall see, 
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate. 

Who has believed what we have heard? 
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? 
For he grew up before him like a young plant, 
and like a root out of dry ground; 
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, 
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 
He was despised and rejected by others; 
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; 
and as one from whom others hide their faces 
 he was despised, and we held him of no account. 

Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; 
yet we accounted him stricken, 
struck down by God, and afflicted. 
But he was wounded for our transgressions, 
crushed for our iniquities; 
upon him was the punishment that made us whole, 
and by his bruises we are healed. 

All we like sheep have gone astray; 
we have all turned to our own way, 
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, 
yet he did not open his mouth; 
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, 
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, 
so he did not open his mouth. 
By a perversion of justice he was taken away. 
Who could have imagined his future? 
For he was cut off from the land of the living, 
stricken for the transgression of my people. 
They made his grave with the wicked 
and his tomb with the rich, 
 although he had done no violence, 
and there was no deceit in his mouth. 

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain. 
When you make his life an offering for sin, 
 he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; 
through him the will of the LORD shall prosper. 
Out of his anguish he shall see light; 
 he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. 
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, 
and he shall bear their iniquities. 

Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, 
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; 
because he poured out himself to death, 
and was numbered with the transgressors; 
yet he bore the sin of many, 
and made intercession for the transgressors.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Day of Remembrance

"This day shall be a day of remembrance for you.
You shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord;
throughout your generations you shall observe it..."
(Exodus 12:14)

Though the Roman liturgy tags this day in Holy Week as "In Cena Domini" = "At the Lord's Supper", on Holy/Maundy Thursday historically there was a lot more going on than merely the recalling of the the Holy Eucharist's institution. In the morning the bishop and his clergy led a service of Reconciliation of the Penitents, a rite no longer in use. Those known in the community for "notorious" sins gathered, after a long period of repentance, outside the church door, barefoot, clad in long grey garments, and prostrate, holding unlighted candles. After many prayers inside the church, including the Litany of the Saints, the bishop went out to the candidates and invited them into the church aisle, lined now with the clergy on each side: "Come, come, come children, hear me. I will teach you the fear of the Lord." Once inside, the bishop grasped the hand of one penitent who took hold of the next-in-line's hand, and so on through the group. Led by the bishop, holding his crozier in his other hand, the line moved forward into the center of the church where the actual prayer of reconciliation was offered, the absolution given, and where each penitent received holy water and incense, hearing the bishop's words: "Arise, you who sleep; arise from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you."

Since 1955, at some time later in the day, the annual Mass of Consecration of the Holy Oils takes place. The bishop, assisted by his clergy, consecrates three kinds of oil: 1) Oil of the Sick, for the Anointing of the Sick or the Dying, and the blessing of bells; 2) Oil of Catechumens, for the blessing of the baptismal font, Baptism and Holy Orders; and 3) Sacred Chrism, used in Baptism, Confirmation, the consecration of bishops, and for the consecration of churches, chalices, patens, and bells.

Finally, at the conclusion of the evening Mass "In Cena Domini", the Communion elements for the Good Friday service are taken in procession to a side altar of repose, a procedure which was done after each celebration in earlier centuries. Following this the main altar is stripped all its adornments, so that it appears somewhat desolate to our modern eyes. In fact, the altar table is a symbol of Christ, and in ancient times it was customary to uncover the table after each Eucharistic celebration. That, of course, would drive today's Altar Guilds crazy! The idea was to "set the table" for each celebration, just as the table in a home is covered for a meal. Nevertheless, the stripping of the altar is a reminder of the poverty and humility of Jesus in being stripped of all that he had. 

For me the key idea of Maundy Thursday is "day of remembrance". To remember comes from the Latin, meaning to be mindful again, and not just in a casual, fleeting way, but such that we relive and even repeat in a newer way what it is that we're remembering. One of the most profound descriptions of what it means to remember, to celebrate, to do Eucharist, which I've treasured  for years is in a 1967 book called Footnotes And Headlines: A Play-Pray Book. Its author was a voice out of the late 60's: Corita Kent (1918-1986), then Sister Corita, I.H.M. who taught at Immaculate Heart College in Los Angeles and later died of cancer. 

Corita spoke of two sizes of people: the small, individual ones, and the large ones, the community "of two or of everyone". She spoke of how something changes when people come together, especially when the size of a community grows. "...the tribe gets to see itself, know itself, and discovers further ways to act and receive." The celebrating gets to be more complex and there's need for organization. For that people need to take on various tasks and roles" they can explain to the whole race who it is and where it can go (in between God who is at the beginning and end of this race)."

Applying such concepts to the Church and to the surrounding culture, Corita notes that, if those involved only know "physical facts and know no poetry or irony, [they] will be out of the celebration...And the party will miss [them] and be less good or maybe not even go on." She says that the result may well be that people "go hungry and become weak and unable to act, unable to express and explain themselves to each other. They will disintegrate. They will not be able to remember together who they are (which is what a celebration is). And so [they] will begin to do the opposite of remembering, [they] will dis-member."

What happens in today's liturgical readings is a process of remembering at various time and in various situations. In Exodus (12:1-14) Yahweh instructs Moses and the people on how they're to carry out the family/community meal, after which Yahweh will lead them out of the slavery of their Egyptian masters. A lamb slaughtered at twilight. Its blood on the doorposts and lintels of their homes. The lamb then roasted and eaten hurriedly in the same night, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They're to do this with traveling clothes on, sandals on the feet, and walking staff in hand. Yahweh says: "It is the passover of the Lord. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night..." Yahweh emphasizes that they are to remember, to be mindful of this grace-given experience of being saved, and not just on fleeting occasions, but as long as they live, "throughout your generations."

Paul remembers for the Corinthian community (1 Corinthians 11:23-26) what he "received from the Lord" and handed down to them to reenact over and over, i.e., the account of what Jesus did with bread and wine at the last gathering with his disciples before his death: "This is my body...This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do remembrance of me." Paul reminds his hearers and us that each time they/we are mindful again of this as they/we gather together, " proclaim the Lord's death [and resurrection] until he comes."

Finally, John's Gospel (13:1-17; 31b-35) remembers the great unselfish love of Jesus which is the whole point of Holy Week: "Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." Jesus, in essence, preaches a sermon-in-sign: he removes his outer robe, ties a towel around himself, and begins to kneel before each of his disciples, washing their feet and wiping them dry. He reminds them, Peter specifically, the drama-king who resists the "economy" rather than the "deluxe" foot-washing, that they shouldn't expect to understand now what he's doing, "but later you will understand." After he finishes, he spells it out for them: "...if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you...If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them...Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.

That's what they and we are to remember, to be mindful of again and again, to reenact in celebration together, both in church and in life! Corita again (Footnotes And Headlines, pp. 2-5 & 9)

"So if small bodies could remember ceremonially they could understand the celebrations of other communities and then the great revolution could take place, the whole human running race could finally sit down in a big circle and eat together, and having once shared a meal, could no longer be enemies. They would know who they were through these expressions and could somehow work it out, having admitted the importance of playing it out. Then we could all get up and run again.

Always there remains this need to explain to each other that we are good. We all have a constant need to be reaffirmed. The single [individual] needs this. The whole human race needs a yea, needs the large ceremonial pat on the back that says
'Come on, come on!
We can make it!'"

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Man of Constant Sorrows

"I am a man of constant sorrow, I've seen trouble all my days..." are the opening phrases of a traditional folk song, first recorded around 1913 by Richard Burnett, a blind fiddler from Kentucky. It's a perfect summary of the person of the Suffering Servant of Yahweh, embodied by Jesus of Nazareth. 

In today's liturgical readings Isaiah (50:4-9a) describes the Servant as a teacher, one who "sustain[s] the weary with a word." It's his God-given gift, and the Servant's effectiveness lies in the fact that Yahweh "wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught." That's the heart of meditation and contemplation: listening, really hearing. It's related to the Latin word for "obey" = ob + audire, to really absorb what God speaks in love. It's essentially what impels the Servant, not just to accept suffering, but to actually embrace it. "I did not turn backward. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting." Lest anyone misunderstand, the Servant's stance is in no way a masochistic love of pain or of being hurt. It's rather embracing whatever goes with Yahweh's call, for an entirely greater good, and humbly relying on God's help to bring one through. "It is the Lord God who helps me."

The writer of Hebrews (12:1-3) notes that Jesus is "the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of...God." The unique Suffering Servant is willing to do this "so that you may not grow weary or lose heart." It's an incentive for you and me, as we endure the difficulties, misunderstandings, betrayals, and pain of all sorts which human life necessarily entails, to keep our focus on him and on the great "cloud of witnesses" who surround us. "...let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us..." The word which our teacher, Jesus, offers us is that our very failures and the almost unbearable insufficiency of our lives are the very things which lead us into the full light of love ultimately.

John the Evangelist, in today's Gospel (13:21-32), records the depths of sadness and disappointment which Jesus experiences at the impending betrayal of one of his own, Judas Iscariot. " of you will betray me...It is the one to whom I give this piece of bread...Do quickly what you are going to do." Yet, even in the face of such blatant and seemingly unrepentant betrayal, Jesus, keeping his focus on the Father and on the higher stakes for all of us, goes forth to his suffering and death as willfully as Judas goes out into the night to do his act of treachery. The imminent sorrows, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ are the beginning of our journey into the glory of eternal life. "Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him at once."   


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Foolish Wisdom

"...the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God...God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe...but we proclaim Christ crucified,..Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is stronger than human strength...He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption."

The liturgical readings for Tuesday in Holy Week speak of the "foolish wisdom", the paradox so confusing to us, of how God transforms us through the words, actions and life of Jesus the Christ. The reading from Isaiah 49 points to the creative, empowering existence and activity of Unbounded Love far in advance of each of our coming into being. "The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother's womb he named me." Even then, you and I were given a specific purpose for being on this earth, and not just a small task, but an all-encompassing one: "I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."

The confusing part, as we try to figure this all out in living our lives, is the message we're to discover and to convey in order to spread the light, to make it a saving word, a wise rather than foolish, a strong rather than weak word. Paul defines the message rather succinctly: "...we proclaim Christ crucified [and, he would add, risen and ascended]...Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God." It utterly overwhelms our human mind in its simplicity yet depth!

John's Gospel passage (12:20-36), though no less paradoxical and confusing, perhaps, gives us some guidance. Jesus says to the disciples: "...I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life will lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor." Fr. Richard Rohr sums it up this way: "God-in-you already knows, loves, and serves God in everything else. All you can do is fully jump on board. I would call that jump consciousness, and I believe the Risen Christ is the icon of full consciousness. In the human mind of Christ, every part of creation knows itself as (1) divinely conceived, (2) beloved of God, (3) crucified, and (4) finally reborn. He carries us across with him...That is my major thesis about how Jesus 'saves us'." (Immortal Diamond, Jossey-Bass, 2013, p. xii)

Jesus, realizing that the moment of truth has all but arrived as he faces death, goes on to speak of his own inner confusion and perplexity. To his human mind, too, this is all so overwhelming. Should he, as gracefully as he can, ask the Father if he can back out of it? let someone else do it? cut and run? That's one option; but then he remembers the "foolish wisdom" of God which has guided his life up till now: "No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name...Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself...

With Jesus as the "icon of full consciousness" for us, the One who "went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified" (Collect for Monday in Holy Week), perhaps we can summon up the courage, the "foolish wisdom", to walk in the light while we have the light, to "believe in the light", so that ultimately he may bring us into the full light of God's glory.

Monday, March 25, 2013

A Noble And Holy Passion

"Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me." When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.

 Recently I attended a concert performed by the Santa Rosa Symphony, under the direction of Bruno Ferrandis. The final piece was the powerful Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Opus 74: the Pathétique. Interestingly, The Russian title of the symphony, Patetičeskaja, means "passionate" or "emotional", not "arousing pity", but it is a word reflective of a touch of concurrent suffering. The Finale: Adagio lamentoso is a slow movement, bleak, stressful and anguished, in which Tchaikovsky lays his soul bare as he meditates on death. At the end the music slowly fades away into a silence where a pin drop might be heard. It was just at this point in the concert which I attended, during perhaps the last six or eight measures, that the tinkling sound of someone's cell phone was heard. The whole mood in the hall was destroyed! We watched Maestro Ferrandis nearly collapse. The expression on his face wasn't really anger, though I'm sure he felt that, but much more of a profound, weary sadness. He hurried off the stage with a forlorn demeanor, which didn't even disappear as he and the orchestra took a second bow, by which the time the audience had risen in a standing ovation to show its empathetic support. 

What I realized in that experience was the reality of Maestro Ferrandis' deep passion for the music to which he's devoted his life. It's apparent in every one of his performances, but more so on this occasion. Passion. Emotion. Not arousing pity, but rather "a touch of concurrent suffering" with another: certainly with each member of his orchestra and with the members of the audience. Who can know what he may have felt towards the person responsible for the disturbance? 

It seems to me that this is similar to the passion of Mary of Bethany as she tends to the anointing of Jesus in anticipation of his suffering and death, a deeply emotional response to what lay ahead, a sense of solidarity because of Jesus' evident opposition and harassment by the Pharisees and legal experts of the Law. Her gesture happens in the context of her sister, Martha, and her brother, Lazarus, having him to dinner, possibly to show their extreme appreciation for Jesus having restored Lazarus to life. We know from the Scriptures of the longstanding love and friendship among them, and how perfectly Jesus felt "at home" with them and they with him. In John 11:17-46, the story of Jesus raising Lazarus to life, each of the main figures displays a deep pathétique character: Martha and Mary, in each of their opening words to Jesus, "Lord, if you had only been here, my brother would not have died."; and Jesus in his response. "When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he shuddered, moved with the deepest emotions...Jesus began to cry..." Their bonds were deep and enduring.

In a curious, negative sort of way, perhaps Judas Iscariot's hard response to Mary's action betrays a similar passion, though in an opposite, selfish direction. Fr. Pius Parsch, commenting on this passage in his Year of Grace (Vol. 2, p. 303) says, "In everyone's heart, in my own too, there dwell two souls: a Judas-soul and a Mary-soul. The former is the cause of Jesus' suffering, it is always ready to apostatize, always ready to give the traitor's kiss...Your Mary-soul is a source of comfort to Christ in His sufferings."

This Holy Week highlights the noble and holy passion of God in coming among us in Jesus, to be one of us, to experience first-hand what it means to be a human being. Jesus the Christ embodies this noble and holy passion whose clear agenda is "that they may have life, and have it abundantly." (John 10:10) The practical implication of all this for you and me is to open ourselves to and nurture in ourselves a similar noble and holy passion to our sisters and brothers, and to God, a touch of concurrent bearing with, of being in solidarity with the suffering as well as the joy of others.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

It's The Incarnation!

"It's not the Resurrection, dammit! It's the Incarnation! But we don’t believe it. We don’t believe we are invited to become the very life of God!

Fr. Godfrey Diekmann, OSB (1908-2002), one of the architects of Sacrosanctum Concilium/Constitution On the Sacred Liturgy, the first completed work of Vatican Council II, shouted out the above words during a dinner conversation with students at St. John's University, Collegeville, MN. I believe most folks who've thought long and hard about this will get the drift of what he meant. Such a person is Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM who, in his new book, Immortal Diamond, spells this insight out in a clear, creative and exciting way. I heartily recommend it.

Such ideas as Frs. Diekmann and Rohr have put forth set me thinking about and approaching Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum with a fresh understanding. So often in the past I've simply assumed that one starts Holy Week with emphasis on remembering the suffering and death of Jesus, and while that certainly is a major part of the whole mystery of salvation, I've come to believe that emphasizing more the ultimate reality of what Jesus has already accomplished for humankind through his love can lend itself in Lent/Holy Week/Easter to a more fruitful celebration of these mysteries. I experienced the Liturgy of the Palms in a whole new way this morning. "Blessed is the One who comes in the name of God. Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!" was the initial shout. The same tone continued in the Collect where we asked the "God of our salvation, that we may enter with joy upon the contemplation of those mighty acts, whereby [God has given us] life and immortality, through Jesus Christ our Savior." In the reading from Luke 19:28-40, Jesus sends two of the disciples to fetch a colt in the village. I'd never really thought about the words: "Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, 'Why are you untying it?' just say this, "The Lord needs it.'" God's creation, even animals, was so important to Jesus that he "needed" this colt, one that had never been ridden before. The donkey was an ancient symbol of royalty, but one of a sovereign coming in peace, as Zechariah 9:9-10 attests: "Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you' triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey..." Matthew's account alludes to God's creation also as useful in welcoming the Lord of life when he notes that "others cut branches from trees and spread them on the road..." Luke, however, speaks of God's human creation of "people... spreading their cloaks on the road." In a take-off on this text in a delightful sermon, 8th century Bishop and hymnographer, Andrew of Crete, exclaims: "Let us run to accompany him as he hastens toward his passion, and imitate those who met him then, not by covering his path with garments,..but by doing all we can to prostrate ourselves before him by being humble and by trying to live as he would wish...let us spread before his feet...ourselves, clothed in his grace, or rather, clothed completely in him..." Finally, Luke has Jesus answering those adversaries who would stop the crowd's adulation: "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out." In other words, all of God's creation, even the inorganic, has a potential role in welcoming Jesus the Messiah into the City of Peace: a concept that would've warmed the heart of a man like Teilhard de Chardin!

 In conjunction with the Epistle from Philippians 2:5-11, the Liturgy of the Palms conveys to us how boundless and extreme is God's creative love for you and me. Not only are we, with all creation, called this week to exult in the joy of what Jesus has done for us through his humility in the Incarnation, but also to exult in God's lifting us up with Jesus to God's own glory, which is ultimately, of course, resurrection to eternal life, as the prayer concluding the Liturgy of the Palms notes: "...mercifully grant that in all the pain and struggle of life we may learn by his example that humility is divinity, thereby sharing in his resurrection..."

"Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!"

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Blessings & Prayers for Pope Francis

The Lord preserve him and give him life,
and make him blessed upon the earth,
and may the peace of God which surpasses all
understanding keep his heart and mind
in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son,
Our Lord Jesus Christ, 
and the blessing of the loving God 
be upon him always.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Praying For A Pope

It's around 6:15 AM in Rome about now, and I'm sitting here praying for a new Pope. Why in the world should a former Roman Catholic priest, a convert to the Episcopal Church, and now retired after 30 years of service as an Episcopal priest be doing such a thing?! Well, for one, old habits die hard! I was formed by the Roman Catholic tradition for some 40 years, and still have many contacts and close friends who are Catholic. I frankly revere much, certainly not all, in the tradition, theology, and spiritual practice in which I was brought up and trained.

Aside from that, my understanding of the Church is akin to the image of a huge house, a residence, a family home in which there are many rooms. Each room has its own character, design, furnishings, etc. according to the one(s) who reside(s) there. No one in the family necessarily likes or prefers what the others have or how they keep it up, but in a good family, at least, everyone has learned to respect and tolerate and live amicably with the differences. And even to honor the decision of some of the family members to move permanently to a different room! In many cases, there's commonality; in others, there's wide divergence. Yet all are, as the Church, part of the "one, holy, catholic [= universal], apostolic" family, the Body of Jesus the Christ. In such a dwelling, why would we not all be aware of, interested, concerned, and prayerful about the goings-on of our sisters and brothers?

Since Pope Benedict XVI's abdication, I've spent a couple weeks reading about the challenges which the Roman Catholic Church faces at this point in history. The books by Jason Berry and John Thavis which I've perused don't paint a pretty picture. In fact, I guess I'd have to say that what I've read is much worse than I'd presumed. There's a lot going on that's grossly inefficient, unaccountable, morally sinful and evil, and probably illegal. Nevertheless, this is a critical moment in the history of the Church generally and of the world, because a whole lot of lives will be impacted by the ultimate decision this week of the 115 cardinals gathered in the Sistine Chapel. Whether we realize it or not, all of us are touched, directly or indirectly, by the decisions which our brothers and sisters in Christ make. Jesus made it clear that making the reign of God real among, building the Body of Christ through the use of our combined spiritual gifts and talents, is our work, our task. At the very least, it behooves each of us to pray for one another on an ongoing basis to offer our best efforts to the common endeavor.

I have no clue, or even a viable hunch, as to who the cardinals will choose as the next Pope. I do, however, pray for the cardinals to really welcome the wisdom of the Holy Spirit in guiding them to make a choice based on honesty, selflessness, and a deep sense of wanting the very best spiritually for the people of the the Roman Catholic Church. For the cardinal who's destined to become the next Holy Father, I pray that he'll have the humility to accept this ministry as Jesus would and did: to be in word and action the "servant of the servants of God", a title given to popes. I pray that he'll have the courage, the boldness, the determination to be, not a functionary, but a true pastor to his people and, indeed, to all the world. I pray that he'll be given grace from God, the implications of which he can't even remotely imagine at present: "amazing grace" which will surprise not only the Church and the world, but even himself. And I pray that he'll be given the wherewithal to challenge the Church to operate beyond "business as usual", to move forward with a vision of what the people of God can be, realistically, in creatively addressing the immense social, political, moral and spiritual challenges of the 21st century.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Primary Ministry

Today is the mid-Sunday of Lent, formerly called "Laetare" Sunday, from the opening words of the ancient entrance hymn for the liturgy, taken from Isaiah 66: "Laetare, Jerusalem...Rejoice, Jerusalem! Be glad for her, all you who love her...rejoice with her, you who mourned for her, and you will find contentment at her consoling breasts." This graphic reference to a mother's breast influenced the oldest lectionaries and commentaries to call this "Refreshment Sunday", while the Anglican tradition referred to it as "Mothering Sunday". The 1928 Book of Common Prayer also uses the Gospel of the feeding of the 5000.  In ancient times apprentices and those working at a distance from home were actually given leave to visit their mothers on this day. Another emphasis was on the idea of "Mother Church", the "new Jerusalem", and in medieval dioceses Laetare Sunday was especially devoted to the “mother church” of the diocese: the cathedral.

Today is a sort of transition point in our Lenten observance. Old devotional handbooks noted that before mid-Lent you looked at your own sins and spiritual journey, trying to amend your life, struggling with the powers of evil through the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.  After mid-Lent, in such books, the focus shifted from oneself to Jesus and the whole movement toward his Passion. So today there's a sort of psychic in-taking of breath before we resolutely begin our journey, in the company of  Jesus, to the Cross. We look backward to see where we've been, and we look forward to measure how far we still have to go.

Far and away, the most common topic chosen for sermons on this day is probably Luke's account of The Prodigal Son (15:1-3; 11b-32). Notice that this story is one of three stories in Luke 15 dealing with the recovery of something(one) lost. Verses 3-7 talk about lost sheep, although the parable is really about the shepherd who seeks, finds, and restores the sheep to the fold. In the parable of the lost coin (vv. 8-10) the story is about a woman householder who turns her house inside out until she finds the coin which she’s misplaced. She's so happy that she can't keep it to herself, and thus feels drawn to invite her friends to rejoice along with her. So, when we come to verse 11, it should be no surprise to find another story of recovery of the lost.

In Luke’s passage Jesus gets right to the point: "There was a man who had two sons..." It's sort of a tip-off that the story isn't really about one of the sons, just as the previous stories weren't about the sheep, nor about the lost coin. This parable gives a lot of space to the the real subject: the father. The father is the one who initiates the younger son's prodigality by giving over to him the inheritance and the independence in the first place. The father later sees the young man at a distance, runs out and welcomes him, and won't let the son feel ashamed or humiliated. The father is the one who tries to pacify and reassure the older son. And it’s the father who has the last word in the parable: a word of resurrection and reconciliation.

In the two earlier parables of Luke 15, the sheep are recovered by the shepherd's efforts, and the coin is found by the woman's industriousness. In this story the younger son's efforts lead to new insight and to self-discovery. Luke says, " one gave him anything, but when he came to himself..." he returned to his right mind, as if coming out of an illness or a feverish state. No activity by the father to recover the son is suggested. The father simply waits: no search party, no deprogramming plan for when he returns. But once the son recovers himself, then the father takes the initiative as soon as he sees him approaching from afar off.

The other character in Luke’s story is the older son, about to be lost to the father because of his anger and bitter resentment toward his younger sibling. Here the father, like the shepherd and the woman previously, tries to recover what he's in danger of losing. He patiently explains to the older son what's going on, he pleads with him to let go of the anger and hardened attitude which is eating the young man up inside. In the story's closing sentence, Luke brings together the themes of all three of the parables of loss and recovery: the lost is found, as with the good shepherd; and the joy of recovery is so great that it needs to be shared and celebrated with joy and music and dancing.

Thus Luke the Evangelist introduces us to three vividly portrayed people: the patient, loving father; the impetuous, irresponsible and, eventually, repentant, younger son; and the faithful, plodding, hardworking, but jealous and resentful older brother. It probably would be a mistake, however, to view the father and the older son as the contrast with the “prodigal” son. In fact, both of the sons are prodigal: both are wasteful, uncaring, insensitive, each in his own way. They, like the sheep and the coin, are the backdrop against which we learn something about the father. We know that the father is fair and generous, perhaps even foolish, to the point of liberality. He honors the younger son's request for his share of the wealth before it's due. Of course, it doesn't really belong to the son because an inheritance presupposes the death of the heir's benefactor. Nevertheless, the father probably deprives himself of needed income which might have accrued to him as he grew older. We're not told if the father doubts the wisdom of his decision, nor if he regretted it, once made. Nor are we told if he's worried about the son's going off on his own, though you and I know he was...probably from our own family experience!

What we do know is that the father deeply loves both of his sons, and that he's immensely relieved and overjoyed at the younger son's return. He celebrates lavishly, prodigally, the return to life of a "dead" son. Luke depicts the father using all the symbolic language and gestures of resurrection and of starting anew: 1) the cloak; new garments: a symbol of all the rights and duties of the household; 2) the ring: probably a signet ring, a sign of authority and wealth; 3) the sandals: a sign of being relieved of humiliation and extreme poverty; 4) the fattened calf: reserved only for the biggest feasts, usually for monarchs or princes, an especially delectable food.

We also know that this father greatly desired not to lose his older son, despite the fact that the son was angry and resentful, that he wouldn't even acknowledge the other son as his brother ("...this son of yours"). The older boy, it’s true, had been there for the father for a long time. He'd kept all the "rules", except for the one which really mattered: the rule of love and forgiveness, especially of his own flesh and blood. The father reminds the older son that, though he maintains a different relationship to him, he loves him no less deeply and fully.

Luke's passage, to this point, has been filled with entreaties to repentance. The burden has been on the one(s) erring to come back, to repent of the past. Now the emphasis of the story shifts a bit: to God's dogged persistence in seeking out anyone who’s lost, and on God's prodigal love and joy at recovering the lost one. The father's joy, and the woman's and the shepherd's happiness, are all the consequence of people turning their lives around, of repenting, of believing and of being reconciled. And this is the point of the story: God isn't primarily interested in the sin, the mistakes, the failures of your past and mine, but rather in what God sees can be made of us in Jesus, if we’re willing: a new creation, in the present and in the future. Jesus is central to the process of restoring broken relationships, between us and God, and between us and each other: of reconciling us to the Father and to him through the Spirit of love, and of moving us to reconcile others, in that same Spirit, with Godself.

One of my most powerful experiences of this happened in 1980, after I’d begun working as an aide at Don Julio School, in the Sacramento County Office of Education’s Special Ed program there. We were working with developmentally challenged young people, mostly age 13-22. One of my responsibilities was to transport higher functioning students to a special weekly workshop where they performed tasks for which they earned a nominal wage. During one of our times there a flare-up erupted at the work table between two of the young men, and shouted angry words were exchanged. Such incidents tended to make the others visibly anxious, sometimes setting off a chain reaction of other inappropriate behaviors. Following the disturbance, there was a long, uncomfortable silence. Then one of the young men said quietly, “I’m sorry.” We could almost physically feel the tension evaporate. It was one of the most touching instances of reconciliation which I’d ever witnessed. 

This is exactly what St. Paul reminds us of this morning (2 Corinthians 5:17-21): that mending damaged relationships isn’t just something that’s “nice to do”, but that, incredibly, God has handed this on to you and to me as a primary ministry: "All this”, Paul says, “is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation...So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God."

Monday, March 4, 2013

God Is Present

It’s In Silence I Remember
"Invoked or not, God is present."
C.G. Jung

In the silence of my heart
I remember – God is present
wrapped in the whirl –
a stop sign at the corner, a plastic bag
tumbling down the street.
In all this – invoked or not,
present –  in the old  man
spinning up the hill
in his electric wheelchair,
in headlines and news bites
and hawthorn blossoms that herald Spring.
Invoked or not –
Mozart on the car radio, purse
calendar, books as passengers
on the seat next to me.
God is present and
that is sufficient for life.

Kay McMullen, SNDdeN

Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, California Province

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Time To Bear Fruit

"Three important teachings caught my attention in this gospel (Luke 13:1-9).  

First, we should never look at anyone’s misfortune or suffering as punishment for their sins.  Although the concept of retribution was prevalent in the Old Testament, Jesus insists on forgiveness and advised against the temptation to judge to others.  

Second, the invitation to repentance is for all.  An occasional evaluation of our life is essential for living healthily.  In reality, the call to repentance is more than an invitation.  It’s a strong command. We take note of our own sins rather than the sins of others.  

The third teaching is very much connected to the parable of the fig tree.  The fig tree is a metaphor for our life.  Some times we fight discouragement.  We want to give up hope for others or for ourselves.  We’ve done everything that we can.  We’ve said all sorts of prayers.  Nothing changes.  Can we find a way to replace our discouragement with love and faith?  Perhaps we have to sit alone in the uncertainty of what we’re trying to make better.The author, Frederick Buechner, says, “Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. 

The amazing teaching in the parable of the fig tree is that the merciful God gives to each of us time to be and to do, even though we have proven that we are uncooperative, faithless, and unproductive. By now, the fig tree should have produced some 
fruit. We can understand why the owner is frustrated and wants the tree removed. It takes up needed space. Taking care of it costs extra. The tree is likely unsightly or unhealthy.

Nevertheless, the vinedresser, here a symbol of the merciful God, asks for more time. How many years has God come to you and me “looking for fruit on the tree”? What has God found? He is willing to give us more time, but not indefinitely.

God will continue to dig up our false complacency, security, and reliance on ourselves. God will put fertilizer on the ground, to give us humility to recognize who God is and who we are. God will do anything to convince us to repent, to change, to give our lives in faithfulness and loving service.

The poet, James Magaw, writes: 

Too often
I want to say
Nothing new for me, thanks!
Nothing different,
No fearful risks.
I thank God for a savior
Who is the same
Yesterday, today,
That is a savior
To match my life.
Only this question disturbs me:
Is this salvation, 
Or avoidance of the cross?” 

(Translated & adapted from “para ver si da fruto”, by Macrina Wiederkeher, OSB, III Domingo de Cuaresma in Un Año de Domingos, Estudio Bíblico de Little Rock, p. 22)