Sunday, June 30, 2013

Julian of Norwich & The Blood of Christ

For thirteen years as a Catholic seminarian and four years as a priest, I was formed and nurtured in the theology of the Blood of Christ as a member of the Society of the Precious Blood. I must confess that the concept of devotion to the Blood of Jesus wasn't easy for me to understand clearly. Only progressively, through many years, thanks to continued education by the many gifted teachers, writers, interpreters and spiritual models within the Society, as well by others, have I come to appreciate better and experience the depths of this particular aspect of faith.

One of those guides was John XXIII (1881-1963), who was Pope for only five short years during my time in seminary. In his Apostolic Letter of June 30, 1960, On Promoting Devotion To The Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Pope John quotes the words of a verse from Thomas Aquinas' famous hymn, Adoro Te devote, a hymn, interestingly, which wasn't used publicly in the medieval Church. "How truly precious is this Blood", Pope John says, "is voiced in the song the Church sings with the Angelic Doctor (sentiments wisely seconded by our predecessor Clement VI): 

'...Blood whereof a single drop has power to win 
All the world forgiveness of its world of sin.' 
(Translation by Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.) 

Unlimited is the effectiveness of the God-Man's Blood -- just as unlimited as the love that impelled him to pour it out for us...Such surpassing love suggests, nay demands,  that everyone reborn in the torrents of that Blood adore it with grateful love..."

Pope John's reference was to a passage in the papal bull, Unigenitus  (1343), by Pope Clement VI (1291-1352). For anyone not familiar with Vatican terminology, a papal bull is a written communication from the Vatican Chancery, bearing a formal papal seal. The title of a bull is its opening word(s). "Bull" is derived from the Latin bulla, referring to the seal impressed onto wax which was contained in a hemisphere of gold about the size of the eye of a bull, through which passed the ends of a gold and silver braided cord, looped through slits in the document. Such seals were used to authenticate a document because the seal could not be transferred to a forged document without either cutting the cord, which would be too obvious, or first removing the cord from the seal, which could not be done, due to knots in the cord within the wax seal, without melting the wax, thus also destroying the image impressed into it.

In Unigenitus Clement VI writes: "The only-begotten Son of God deigned to come down from his father’s bosom into the womb of his mother, in whom and from whom he joined, by an ineffable union, the substance of our mortality to his divinity, in unity of person... His purpose was in this way to redeem fallen humanity...Nor did he redeem us with corruptible things—with silver and gold but with his own Precious Blood, which he is known to have poured out as an innocent victim on the altar of the cross: not a mere measured drop of blood (which, however, because of its union with the Word would have sufficed for the redemption of all humanity) but as it were an unmeasured flood..."

Since the sixteen shewings, visions, or revelations from Our Lord which Julian of Norwich experienced during her grave illness, "in the year of our Lord, 1373, the 8th day of May", as Julian notes, centered on Jesus' suffering and death, mention of his Blood is no surprise. When I became an Oblate of the Episcopal Order of Julian of Norwich, some 15 years ago, naturally I was intrigued by Julian's several references to the Blood of Christ. In Chapter 6 of her Revelations, Julian summarizes the purpose of the 1st Showing: " teach our soul wisely to cleave to the goodness of God." That reminded her of the current custom, when people prayed, to create "many intermediaries". She fears that this can lead us to misunderstand the full reality of our relationship as human creatures with the God of goodness and love. We often pray, she says, "by His Holy Flesh and by His Precious Blood, His Holy Passion, His dear worthy Death and Wounds, by all His blessed Human Nature...we pray to Him by His sweet Mother's love who bore His Holy Cross that He died on...and in the same way, all the help that we have from special saints and all the blessed company of heaven..." Julian even affirms that God provides such intermediaries to help us, "of which the chief and principal intermediary is the blessed Human Nature that He took from the Maid..."

Nevertheless, she says, "...if we create all these intermediaries, it is too little, and not complete honor to God", unless we acknowledge that "...all the whole of it is in His goodness, and there absolutely nothing fails." The grace of God is Godself who is goodness for us, always. The act of creating us, Julian says, is God loving us, enwrapping us in this goodness and love which God is. This is, according to Julian, an endless reality: God makes us, God keeps us, God loves us. As human creatures, we emerge in goodness and love from our beginning; we're sustained throughout our human lives in that goodness and love; and we return, at the moment of human death, to endless goodness and love. Commentator Dr. Frederick Roden puts it thus: "Here is the foundation of the incarnational process: the manifestation of goodness. Incarnation is the extension of goodness." (Love's Trinity: A Companion To Julian of Norwich, Liturgical Press, 2009, p. 23) Through Jesus the Christ, through his coming among us as a real human being as well as God's Son, God's grace, goodness, and love is held out to and embedded in our very human nature and being.

In Chapter 12 of the Revelations, Julian goes on to elaborate how the humanity of Christ, specifically his Blood, is part of the ongoing process of being "oned" in God. As she contemplates the shedding of his Blood in the 4th Showing, Julian uses the metaphor of liquid, of water, in recalling how the Creator has provided humankind with "plentiful waters" to assist us and "for our bodily comfort because of the tender love He has for us". We can think of the oceans, lakes and rivers which surround us, and their importance in the thriving of the ecosystem, the refreshment and delight they provide for our recreation, as well as the inspiration and inner images which they fire up in our spirits. "...But", Julian says, "it still pleases Him better if we accept most beneficially His blessed blood to wash us from sin. There is no liquid that is made which it pleases Him so well to give us, for just as it is most plentiful, so it is most precious (and that by the virtue of His blessed Godhead). And the blood is of our own nature, and all beneficently flows over us by the virtue of His precious love. The dear worthy blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, as truly as it is most precious, so truly it is most plentiful..."

For Julian of Norwich human nature and God's grace are of one cloth: "...for grace is God as human nature is God. He is double in His way of working but single in love, and neither of these two works without the other, nor is either separated from the other." In God the Creator we have our being; in God, through the humanity of Jesus we have our growing; and in God the Holy Spirit we have our completing.  All that has been created shares being-in-God from God who shares being/goodness/love which is Godself. In creating us God knits us to Godself; in taking flesh, through Jesus, God is knit to humankind. Thus, in our human existence you and I are made in and "oned" with the Persons of the Trinity and with Jesus the Christ.

In talking about our human nature as created by the goodness and love which God is, Julian distinguishes a "higher part" and a "lower part": in our essence or nature, we're complete; in our fleshliness, we're insufficient. Made in the image of the God, One-in-Three, Julian says that she sees no difference between the triune God and our substance, though, she clarifies, "God is God, and our substance is a creation of God. (Chapter 54) In Julian's view, human beings are "two-fold in God's creation": essential and substantial, but also fleshly and sensual. It's how we exist in the world, body and soul. It includes our embodied, spiritual nature. It's where we experience the mercy and grace of God in Christ and the Holy Spirit. Our fleshliness is God's dwelling place, the place where we're "oned" with God. Though complete in our essence, yet insufficient in our fleshliness, nevertheless Julian believes that God completes our insufficiency by mercy and grace. Though inadequate, incomplete, we're never separated from God's goodness, love, grace. Julian assures us that Christ, who knits in himself both our essence and our sensuality in a perfect balance, will restore us and make us complete by the working of God's goodness and love, embedded in our nature. And the way he effects this is through the instrumentality of his Precious Blood, the sign and symbol of life communicated. "Thus", says Julian, "when we by the mercy of God...come to harmony with both our human nature and grace, we shall see honestly that sin is truly more vile and more painful than hell, without comparison, for sin is opposite to our fair human nature!...But let us not be afraid of this...but humbly let us make our moan to our dear worthy Mother, and He shall all besprinkle us with His Precious Blood and make our souls very pliant and very gentle, and restore us to health...In the taking of our human nature He restored life to us, and in His blessed dying upon the cross, He birthed us into endless life." (Chapter 63)

From "Yes, but..." To "Yes!"

A tale is told by writer Massud Farzan of a man who was claiming to be God. He was taken to the Caliph who said: “Last year someone was claiming to be a prophet. He was executed.” “Serves him right,” answered the man, “I hadn’t sent him.

In order to be sent, one needs to be called. When you or I are called to do or be something, we have a choice, a decision to make. It can be “Yes”, “No”, or “Maybe”. Jesus spelled it out in last week’s Gospel passage: “IF anyone would come after me...”, he said, then adding the necessary unconditional condition which one must also accept, i.e., “...let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Further, Jesus explains the consequences of renegging on a decision to follow him: “...Whoever would save his life will lose it.

The readings today from 1 Kings (19:15-16; 19-21) and Luke (9:51-62) deal with the call to follow, the invitation to discipleship, and some typical responses. We find people in both readings saying, “Yes, but...”, something with which you and I can readily identify. “Sure, Lord, I’ll follow you...only don’t let it cost me anything.” “Yes, Lord, I’ll deny myself...but just don’t make me give up what means most to me.” We agree to carry the cross daily, but when it gets heavy and starts to pinch we have to take a rest stop.

It seems that we’re in good company. Moses was willing to take on the task initially to lead God’s people out of Egypt, but then began to throw up all sorts of “Yes, buts”...I’m not eloquent enough...the people are too unruly and stubborn, etc. The great prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah among them, each had a whole list of “Yes, buts” to counter God’s insistence that they honor the call. We’re a bit like the friendly man who came up to a priest in a coffee shop and asked what church he served. The priest pointed to the church across the street, and the man exclaimed: “Why, that’s my church!” The priest replied, “Well, isn’t that strange. I’ve been there for five years now and I don’t recall ever seeing you in the congregation or at the Communion rail.” “Come on, Father,” the man shot back, “I didn’t say I was a fanatic!

In the Gospel passage, Jesus sets his face to go up to Jerusalem, to finish the task to which he’d been called by the Father, to take up his cross, literally, in the City of Peace. On the way, when Jesus asks for simple hospitality in a Samaritan village for his disciples and for himself, he’s turned away because, being a Jew, he belongs to the “wrong” religious group. It’s as if the Samaritan community was saying, “Yes, we have room: but only for those who worship as we do, in the temple on Mt. Gerizim.” The disciples, especially the two hellion “sons of thunder”, James and John, don’t help the situation. Their solution is to “nuke” the Samaritans with prophetic fire because of their refusal. Luke comments, tersely: “...he turned and rebuked them.

As Jesus continues his journey, a way which will eventually lead from death to life, he encounters three individuals. The first volunteers to follow Jesus “wherever you go.” Jesus had the knack of reading people well, and discerned in this person a slight hesitation, a momentary questioning of resolve to follow through to the end: an unspoken, uncomfortable “Yes, but”. Jesus assures him that even though animals have options, not so the One sent from and called by God. Jesus’ call, once answered, compels him to go all the way, even to the wall.

When Jesus meets the second man, he senses a some genuine potential and says simply, “Follow me.” Perhaps one can discern in Luke’s account a sense that Jesus took him rather by surprise, like “Who?!” The man accepts the invitation, sort of, hurriedly asking leave to go bury his father. Perhaps his father was seriously ill or close to death. As the son, the man was responsible for arrangements, either way. He assures Jesus that once this is out of the way, then he’ll be free to walk with Jesus. On the other hand, the father may have actually died already. In that case, Jesus was aware that the ritual of burial and mourning could take days, even weeks. His reply to the man was neither callous nor insensitive. He simply reminded the man that when the Lord of life calls you, invites you, to be his disciple, the priority is clear: to go and proclaim the message that God is here and lives among us. There are always others who can take care of lesser priorities.

A third man approaches Jesus and is, at least, right up front about his situation: “I’ll follow you, but first I need to go say goodbye to my family.” Jesus knew right then that he’d never follow. As the son of a good Jewish family, especially of a good Jewish mother, waiting to tell them that he was going to throw in his lot with a controversial, even revolutionary transient teacher would be equivalent to asking to be disowned. They would have persuaded him otherwise, or he’d have been turned out. For the sake of all those around him, Jesus repeats the consequences for anyone who’s tempted to say “Yes, but...” to his call to be a disciple: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the reign of God.” It’s that simple, and that difficult.

You and I need only survey the fields of our lives to see how often we’ve resolutely set the plow in motion in following the Lord, only to look back, or to stop altogether. The crooked furrows we’ve plowed tell the story of our discipleship. We need Jesus, the prophet Elijah of our lives, to remind us constantly, “Go, and return to me, for I have done something very important to you.” The “something important” which he’s done for us, as Paul reminds us in Galatians (5:1; 13-25), is giving us the freedom to be free. Paul says: “You were called to freedom...”: that’s your calling, your vocation, your responsibility as a follower of Jesus the Christ. Too often, unfortunately, we think of freedom as freedom from, rather than as freedom for something. We confuse freedom with license, and Paul enumerates twelve examples of what happens in our lives when the “lid’s off”.

The freedom to which Jesus calls those committed to being his followers is the freedom for being “led by the Spirit”, for walking “in the Spirit”, for being “servants of one another” through love. Translated, that might mean showing gentleness and tenderness to one’s children; kindness and compassion to an elderly friend or to a difficult relative; patience and loyalty toward someone who’s weak, or even appears to be “wrong”. It means taking Jesus’ call to be a follower dead seriously, not saying “Yes, but...”, but simply “Yes!

Michel Quoist writes:

I am afraid of saying ‘yes,‘ Lord.
Where will you take me?
I am afraid of drawing the longer straw,
I am afraid of signing my name to an unread agreement,
I am afraid of the ‘yes‘ that entails other ‘yeses’...

(Jesus):  Say ‘Yes,’...
I need your ‘yes‘ as I needed Mary’s ‘yes‘ to come to earth,
For it is I who must do your work,
It is I who must live in your family,
It is I who must be in your neighborhood, and not you.
For it is my look that penetrates, and not yours.
My words that carry weight, and not yours.
My life that transforms, and not yours.
Give all to me, abandon all to me.
I need your ‘yes‘ to be united with you and to come down to earth,
I need your ‘yes‘ to continue saving the world!”

(From Prayers, by Michel Quoist, Sheed & Ward, 1963, pp. 121 and 123) 

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Voice

One of the phenomena of the 21st century in the field of entertainment is a program called The Voice, on which teams, each headed by a musical celebrity, vie with one another over a period of weeks to eventually arrive at the one contestant whose talent confirms her or him as The Voice.

Scripture had its own ongoing version of The Voice from the beginnings of creation. Predictably, the most common voice heard was "the voice of the Lord". Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible has six columns of references to voice, most of which belong to God. There were others: the voice of Rachel crying out for her children; the voices of unpopular prophets; the poetic and lyrical voice of the Psalmist; wise voices of the sages of Wisdom literature; the voice of the Angel Gabriel announcing Mary's pregnancy; the voice of John the Baptizer echoing renunciation, annunciation, and denunciation; the voice of Jesus of Nazareth: calling for a radical change of attitude and behavior, calling the hungry to eat the Bread of Life, the thirsty to drink from inexhaustible springs of eternal Life, calling to anyone who would listen an invitation to "Come, follow me", calling out to his Father from the cross in the midst of failure and despair, calling out to his disciples in the days following his rising from the dead, "Peace be with you!"

For this feast of the Nativity of John the Baptizer, St. Augustine of Hippo, in his wonderful Sermon 293, says regarding John: "At John's arrival Zechariah's voice is released, and it becomes clear at the coming of the one who was foretold. The release of Zechariah's voice at the birth of John is a parallel to the rending of the veil at Christ's crucifixion. If John were announcing his own coming, Zechariah's lips would not have been opened. The tongue is loosened because a voice is born. For when John was preaching the Lord's coming he was asked: 'Who are you?' And he replied: 'I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness.' The voice is John, but the Lord 'in the beginning was the Word.' John was a voice that lasted only for a time; Christ, the Word in the beginning, is eternal..." 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Demoniac's Graced Moment

Fr. James Liggett, an Episcopal priest from Texas, gives this colorful assessement of Luke’s Gospel passage 8:26-39):

On one really important level, the story is a hoot – it’s somewhere between a political cartoon and a graphic novel. The whole scene is bizarre. You’ve got a naked crazy guy, chatty demons, charging pigs doing swan dives, tombs, chains, shackles, freaked-out locals, and a small riot. All in Gentile territory where, as far Luke was concerned, Jesus had no business being in the first place.
The folks who first heard this story must have loved it. In addition to the great action and dialogue, there was ancient regional rivalry.
What could be more fun for the good Jews of Galilee to hear than a story about how un-kosher, unlucky, and generally weird the Gentiles on the other side of the lake [the Sea of Galilee] really were; and about how all those unclean pigs came to a well-deserved and hilarious end.
Then there’s the political subtext. Everybody knew instantly both that it was no accident that the demons called themselves ‘Legion’, after the famous and feared Roman legions, or that pigs were a staple of both the Roman army and the Roman economy. Caesar’s legions, and Caesar’s rations, were mere child’s play for Jesus – a quick flush and they’re gone. What fun! And most Romans who heard the story probably wouldn’t even get this part...
Though the place where the story took place is probably in the general region, the terrain of Gerasa, roughly midway between the Sea of Galilee in the north and the Dead Sea in the south, the best guess seems to be that it was the town of Gadara  (fence/border), one of the 10 cities of the Decapolis, present-day Umm Qais (mother of Caius, a Roman name.)  It’s in modern-day Jordan, just southeast of the Sea of Galilee, very near the Yarmouk River, largest tributary off the Jordan River. In identifying the site as “opposite Galilee”, Luke emphasizes that this is Gentile territory, so we shouldn’t be surprised that here we find elements of tombs, demons, Romans and pigs! 
Luke says that, upon arriving, Jesus steps off the boat, fresh from battling a huge storm, where, you’ll remember, his disciples cowered and shrieked in fear, and he steps into a new “storm”. “[A] man of the city who had demons met him”.  The man was a citizen of Gadara. Apparently he’d been normal, but now “for a long time”, Luke notes, he’d run around naked and was homeless, taking refuge “in the tombs”. He is a person socially and spiritually adrift: alienated, shunned by his own. A demon(s) had taken over his identity. Luke provides some editorial background: that the demon(s) had seized him, that the Gadarene townsfolk kept him “under guard and bound with chains and shackles”, and that the demon drove him “into the wilds”.
Jesus figures out the situation almost immediately, “...for Jesus...commanded the unclean spirit to come out of the man...” Cases of demonic possession are difficult, at best, because it isn’t always clear who or what you’re dealing with. Luke sometimes refers to “it” or “he”, sometimes to “they”. So who’s really speaking: the chief demon? the possessed man? or all of the demons? 
Robert Hamerton-Kelly gives an interesting commentary on Mark’s version of this story (5:1-20) in his book The Gospel and the Sacred. It’s clear that the man dwells among the tombs and wanders the wilds, “...always howling,” Mark says, “and bruising himself with stones”. No chains or human effort are able to subdue him. The legion of demons by whom he’s possessed are, in effect, his Gadarene fellow citizens, who’ve become the mob persecuting him as the “other”, says Kelly. The possessed man carries these tormentors inside himself, as if internalizing them. In “bruising himself with stones” he imitates the stoning by which he was probably driven out of their community, compulsively afflicting himself and voicing his own rejection. His self-estranging, self-abusing behavior mimics his persecutors whom the legion of demons mirrors.
 How often do we, in fact, like this man, fall victim to our own inner demons: to that which other significant people in our lives have convinced us that we really are, to the tags and labels we stick onto ourselves, to feelings of unworthiness or shame, or of not being good enough, or smart enough, or strong enough: thus allowing these false realities to define who we are?
The demonized man, cowering in fear, falls in front of Jesus and “at the top of his voice” asks what Jesus has to do with him, begging Jesus not to torment him. Jesus gently asks, “What is your name?”, which is to say “Who are you...really?” Jesus, through his calm, mysterious presence, in and out of our lives, has a way of constantly putting this question to us, through glimpses here and there, not always clearly defined.   
The demonized man answers: “Legion”, from the Latin legio = the heavy infantry which was the basic military unit of the Roman army, numbering between 4200-5200+ men: thus, Luke’s comment “...for many demons had entered him”. Gil Baillie comments: “'Legion' means 'crowd,' 'mob.' This demon's name is Mob. It's an undifferentiated crowd. Who's the constituting Other? For biblical monotheists, our primary constituting Other is supposed to be the one God; but, instead, we have many Others. This man is crazy because the constituting Other is a Crowd...Behind this question, 'What is your name?', is the answer, 'I am the Other,' and the Other is the Crowd...He is possessed.
In Jesus’ presence the many demons become powerless and “[T]hey begged [Jesus] not to order them to go back into the abyss”, i.e., the place where evil powers are kept captive for the final judgment, also represented in this story by the waters of the river or lake, in which the pigs soon end up drowning: a symbol of dark depths, turmoil and chaos.
It wasn’t unusual for swine to be grazing in this Gentile area. As Fr. Liggett mentioned earlier, non-kosher pork was a staple of the Roman army and of the Roman economy. For the third time now, Luke depicts the demons “begging” or “beseeching” Jesus, this time to let them enter a nearby herd of swine. Jesus OK’s their request, but only to expel them for good by sending them into the swine, who, contrary to the demons’ expectation, suddenly, inexplicably, rush over the cliff, into the lake and drown. The herd of demon-inhabited swine is an eloquent symbol of the Gadarene townspeople in pursuit of a victim, much like the crowd of Jesus’ Nazareth townsfolk, earlier in Luke (4:29), who “...drove him out of the that they might hurl him off the cliff…” In light of Jesus’ commanding presence, the herd's drowning means that violence ceases when the mob disappears. Expectations are reversed, with the mob going over the cliff rather than the scapegoat! The fear-ridden townspeople no longer define the man’s identity. 
From Gadara the news spreads rapidly around the region, and, as so often, in cases of breaking news events, people come out of the woodwork in order to gather and gawk. What they discover strikes fear into them, because their system, their very mode of living, all that they know, namely, living in fear of being found out, is now threatened. Here’s the “wild” man now sitting quietly at Jesus’ feet, clothed (one wonders who was kind enough to take care of that for him), and “in his right mind”. “And,” Luke says, “they were afraid”. 
The witnesses of Jesus’ confrontation with the demons and of the ensuing demise of the herd of pigs tell the gathered crowd, in Luke’s words, “how the one who had been possessed by demons had been healed.” It’s true that most translations give some variant of “healed”, “cured”, “made well”. But that isn’t the word Luke uses in Greek, and only the New American Bible gets it right: the Greek word used is “saved/taken care of”.
You’d expect that the crowd would’ve been terribly excited and grateful for what Jesus did, what no one else had been able to do: to control the man, to settle him down, to drive out the demons, to make him sane again, even to save him! But listen to what Luke records: “Then all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes/Gadarenes [note: not just the townsfolk] asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” Gil Baillie says that “the cure to possession is possession”. This man is sitting at the feet of Jesus. The cure is right there. This is what “conversion” looks like. What Baillie calls “a constituting Other” cures people at the core of their being: namely, the Risen Christ.
Sitting in Jesus’ presence now, the man is saner than the rest of the Gadarenes. They come and see him clothed and in his right mind, and they are afraid. Why? For the same reason as some nations try to keep human rights organizations from entering their countries and confronting them with their unlawful behaviors. For the same reason that abusive spouses try to keep their victims isolated. For the same reason that pimps control the lives of sex workers by keeping them poor and addicted to drugs. For the same reason that you and I keep ourselves locked up in despair of our own inner demons. Groups and people such as these realize intuitively that the lynchpin of their whole cultural apparatus is finally being dismantled. 
Again, one would think, 'Well, that's a great thing!' Instead, the whole Gadarene community wants Jesus gone, in the same way that those mentioned above want to keep others away and the lid tightly closed. There’s nothing more fear-inducing when you’re stuck in a dysfunctional system than change, and Jesus’ presence brings that about, in aces! Earlier in Luke (2:34-35) Simeon proclaims, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed..." When the Gadarenes ask Jesus to leave, it’s the beginning of the revelation of their “inner thoughts”. They realized, at some level, that Jesus was interrupting and doing away with the social mechanism on which they’d depended. It is in Gil Baillie’s words “a parable for the way the Gospel works in history.

At length, Jesus and the disciples get into the boat to return to Galilee. Before they shove off, it’s the changed man who now “begs” something of Jesus, and it’s a perfectly understandable and reasonable request: “Let me [not just “go with”, but] be with you.” James Finley defines a “seeker” as “a person, who once having caught a glimpse of God, knows that only God will do.” Aside from that, if you were this man, surely you’d also want to “get out of Dodge” just to leave behind all these crazy Gadarenes, given all they’d done to make his life perfectly miserable! But Jesus, recognizing the true strength and openheartedness of this man, tells him to “return to your home”, since he, of all people, has every right to belong there, “and declare how much God has done for you.” By that Jesus means, not only his physical release from the cruel control of demons, nor even the psychological release from being the town’s outcast, but the sheer grace that God, through Jesus, gave him to become a genuinely compassionate human being: even towards his own community which was still unwilling, because they were unable, to acknowledge their secret fears, even towards a community who were probably still unanimously unaccepting of him as a equal. Luke says, “…He went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.” It’s for God alone to determine where and how your ministry and mine will bring Jesus‘ presence to others.

One thing to carry away from today’s Gospel is that compassion for the “other” is the experience of God’s compassionate Presence, in Jesus, manifesting itself in and as our compassion for one another. It’s a way, a path of continual spiritual awakening. Notice Jesus’ threefold pattern in this and other miracle stories of the Gospel: 
1) Jesus cares enough about someone that he shares in that person’s suffering, feels something of it, makes the person feel that they’re not alone.
2) Jesus loves the person by taking action to deliver her/him from suffering.
3) Even in his smallest act of compassion toward a person, Jesus reflects, manifests the reality of God’s seeing the preciousness of that person: the image of Godself.

Jesus calls you and me to an openness to be accessed by others’ suffering. That’s tricky, because how do you and I allow ourselves to be compassionate without drowning in another’s suffering? James Finley once described the situation as like standing outside the circle of another’s suffering. If I’m unwilling to step into the circle, there’s no compassion. The trick is to step into the circle, but to also keep one foot outside the circle, firmly planted in That which transcends suffering. I owe this to the other so that the other person can come to trust that my life is grounded in something/Someone which transcends suffering, giving the other hope that he or she can also experience the same.

Next, genuine compassion, necessarily rooted and grounded in a compassionate love for ourselves, leads us, like Jesus, to engage the other, to be with them in their suffering, to listen, to do whatever we can, all things considered.

Finally, our compassion to one another, like Jesus’, must be grounded in recognizing the other’s identity, not as their brokenness, but as the preciousness which God sees in them, the image of Godself. Jesus’ healing of the man possessed by demons, as all his miracles, is a sign of what Finley calls “experiential salvation”. When Jesus came out of the boat and saw the demonized man, what he saw was a preciousness that the man couldn’t even imagine at that point. I think Jesus’ question to him, “What is your name?”, was Jesus’ way of revealing to the man that he was “saved”, i.e., of helping the man to understand that, despite the inner demons which had taken him over, God, in Jesus, sees only the precious image of God. When I believe that I am what’s wrong with me, that brokenness becomes my identity, and then I lose hope. This man had certainly lost hope, and then some! But that was restored the minute he began to see that his identity was the preciousness that Jesus saw in him, the very image of Godself. No wonder that the man wanted to “be with” Jesus!

Compassion, according to James Finley, is love in the presence of suffering. Love sees the image of God in the one suffering and holds the suffering close until it disappears and becomes love. Moments like the meeting of Jesus and the man possessed of demons, moments like we ourselves often experience periodically, whether with ourselves or with God or with others, are “graced moments”, moments of saving and being saved. We never know when they’ll come or through whom they’ll come. 

No one can “trash” God’s image in us. We’re created in that image, expressed in the Word, Jesus: “the mystery of God hidden in Christ”, and this is the preciousness, our true identity, which God sees.

Thanks be to God! 

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Wisdom of Basil the Great

In his treatise On the Holy Spirit, St. Basil the Great, whose feast we commemorated this past week, makes some interesting observations. He notes that the various beliefs and practices preserved by the Church originate in different ways. Some, he says, were handed down in the written teachings, the Scriptures. Others were "delivered to us 'in a mystery' by the tradition of the apostles..." Basil claims that both have the same force, and that it would be detrimental to the Gospel to consider some, "as have no written authority", to be second-class. As an example, he cites turning to the East in prayer. Basil speaks of a certain guarding of "the awful dignity of the mysteries in secrecy and silence, for what is bruited abroad at random is no mystery at all." He distinguishes between dogma, which is observed in silence, one form of which is the obscurity of Scripture; and kerygma, the "kernel" of the faith, which is proclaimed to all the world.

"Thus", he says, "we all look to the East at our prayers, but few of us know that we are seeking our own ancient country, Paradise, which God planted in Eden in the East. We pray standing on the first day of the week, but we do not all know the reason. On the day of the resurrection [Greek ana-stasis, 'standing again'] we remind ourselves of the grace given to us by standing at prayer, not only because we rose with Christ...and are bound to 'seek those things which are above'; but also because the day seems to us to be in some sense an image of the age which we expect. Of necessity, then, the Church teaches her own foster children to offer their prayers on that day standing, to the end that through continual reminder of the the endless life we may not neglect to make provision for our removal thither.

Moreover, all Pentecost is a reminder of the resurrection expected in the age to come. On this day the rules of the Church have educated us to prefer the upright attitude of prayer, for by their plain reminder they, as it were, make our mind to dwell no longer in the present but in the future. Moreover, every time we fall upon our knees and rise from off them we show by the very deed that by our sin we fell down to earth, and by the loving kindness of our Creator were called back to heaven."

(Cited in Readings for the Daily Office From the Early Church, J. Robert Wright, Church Publishing Incorporated, 1991, pp. 272-273)

Some Father's Day Lessons

The connection between today’s liturgical readings and the annual celebration of Father’s Day may not be immediately apparent. In the context of having raised two children, a boy and a girl, the Scriptural phrase that occasionally passes through my mind is the one which speaks of the Lord “holding children accountable for the iniquity of parents...” (Exodus 20:5) Particularly during the three years when I was a single dad, there were times when, under stress, I remember raising my voice to my kids more than a few times, then regretfully anguishing afterwards over how deeply my angry words might have distressed them. 

Luckily for us parents, and you often come to realize this only in conversations with your children after they’re grown, our children seem to have an abundant capacity to overlook and forgive our humanness, our foibles and failings: our impatience, our taking them for granted, our belching or passing wind in their presence, or our inconsistency in decisions, etc. But the real sins which they don’t readily forgive are far more serious: such as hypocrisy, a double standard, not taking them seriously or respecting them, lack of fairness and justice, dishonesty, betrayal. The connection between today’s readings and Father’s Day is that some of those serious sins are the point of the readings.

There’s no illusion in Scripture about the reality of human sinfulness: it’s more or less taken for granted as a fact of life. In the readings (2 Samuel 11:26-12:10; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3), the real root of the evil depicted there is the willfulness and deliberateness with which people act out of disrespect for other people. Aside from David’s macho pride and lack of self-control in his dalliance with the beautiful and desirable Bathsheba, it was the use of his power as king to seduce her that was dishonorable. That was compounded by his deliberate deceit with Uriah, her husband, and by David’s subsequent setting Uriah up to be killed in battle, truly a violent act of indirect murder. These are the real sins. And sadly David seems to have passed that on to several of his own children: Amnon, Absalom, and Adonijah.

For St. Paul, it was again arrogance and pride in the Jewish Law handed down by Moses which led to his sin. As a devout Pharisee Paul took the Law very literally and lived it, crossing every “t” and dotting every “i”. In his self-complacent smugness, he disdainfully looked down upon a rag-tag sect in Jerusalem, one generally mistrusted and harassed, especially by the Jewish leaders and priests. These folks had continued to follow what they called “The Way”, in imitation of their model: a disgraced transient Jewish teacher, named Jesus, from God-forsaken Nazareth, who’d eventually been crucified as a criminal outside Jerusalem’s walls. When the leaders arrested one of that company, a man named Stephen, and tried him in a kangaroo court, Stephen had the audacity to speak up and challenge their decision, calling them a “stiff-necked people” who were opposing the Spirit of God. It enraged them so much that they dragged Stephen out of the city and stoned him to death. Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, notes: “...and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul”, who later recounted his own firsthand version of this incident, after he himself had dramatically converted and changed his name to Paul. In the Epistle, addressed to the Christians of Galatia, Paul writes with deep emotion: “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me...” 

Simon the Pharisee, the supposed “host” of a party in his home to which he invited Jesus, displays calculated ungraciousness, even as he’s showing off Jesus, his conversation-piece, the latest controversial prophet about whom everyone is talking. He goes even further when an unwelcome guest appears: a woman of the city, a “sinner”, according to Luke. While she bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears, wipes them with her hair, and anoints them with probably expensive ointment, Simon the Pharisee can only sit in his self-righteous silence and haughtily judge her. “If this man were prophet, if he were the ‘real thing’, he’d know what kind of slut this was touching him...” As outside observers, I guess we could rightfully ask how Simon seemed to know so much about this woman!

Jesus, ever the One who knew “the rest of the story”, as radio commentator, Paul Harvey, used to say, quietly tells Simon: “I have something to say to you.” Perhaps Simon was even arrogant enough to imagine that Jesus was going to commend him publicly for his “generous” hospitality. Instead, Jesus tells him a parable about a creditor who forgave the debts of two people who owed him: one a little bit, the other, big time. “Now which of them will love him more?”, asks Jesus. Simon, now feeling a bit uncomfortable, answers back: “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” “Yes, you’ve got that right, Simon”, Jesus replies, and then goes on to itemize Simon’s inhospitality to  him, in contrast to the abundant outpouring of the woman’s devotion and love. “You gave me no water for my feet...You gave me no kiss of greeting...You didn’t anoint my head with oil.” -- all of which were the common, most basic Middle Eastern signs of graciousness to friends and strangers. “...I tell you, Simon, her sins, which were many -- and there’s no question about that -- have been forgiven;...she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little: and that’s you, Simon, if you haven’t already figured it out.

The first thing we might learn from these three people, David, Paul and Simon the Pharisee, is how inwardly destructive their attitudes were. You and I are often preoccupied with worry over the lesser “sins” in our lives. It’s a sort of cop-out to avoid facing the really deadly ones of which we’re often guilty: our inner propensity for violence toward others, at least in thought or desire; the way we often live according to a double standard: one way in the workplace, another at home or at church; one way when we’re by ourselves, another in front of our children; and finally our smug, self-righteous, judgmental attitudes towards others, because of their appearance, because of their differences from us, or because of our so-called moral “standards”.

But the second, and most important, thing we might carry away from today’s Scriptures is that a new beginning is always possible in for any of us. Nothing in our life or background, no skeleton in the closet, no damage is so irreparable, no brokenness so beyond repair, that the reconciling, compassionate love and presence of Jesus can’t touch and heal it.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that there’s no price, no cost for forgiveness. Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that there’s no such thing as “cheap grace”. You and I are invited, challenged, to repent, i.e., to undergo a change of heart: to be willing to accept and live with the consequences of our mistakes and sinfulness, and to try to set them right. Sometimes the aftermath of sin is the most difficult to live with. Paul drew on his own anguished past when he wrote those words:  “I have been crucified with Christ, yet it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” A new beginning is always possible if we choose to live in faith, i.e., to set our hearts on Jesus the Christ.

I’m guessing that many Episcopalians may be still unaware that in the Book of Common Prayer we have a singularly beautiful liturgical rite called The Reconciliation of a Penitent (pp. 446-452). At the conclusion of Form Two, which is a favorite of mine, the celebrant, laying a hand on the penitent’s head, speaks these words: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, who has left power to his Church to absolve all sinners who truly repent and believe in him, of his great mercy forgive you all your offenses...Now there is rejoicing in heaven; for you were lost, and are found; you were dead, and are now alive in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go, abide in peace. The Lord has put away all your sins.

This Father’s Day is as good an opportunity as any for us who are fathers, and those who are mothers, or grandparents, or guardians to reflect on our relationships: with our children, with each other, and with the Christ who lives in us. Do I live by faith? Is Jesus, who loves and gives himself, at the center of my relationships? Can I, others, our children say that Christ lives in me?

Louise Darcy has written:

To understand a child is to begin
A journey through a land of mystery.
To help another being to unfold,
And yet to leave its seeking spirit free.
Impatience is a detour on the path
And loss of temper is a desert place
Where understanding for awhile is gone
Until there is an honest search for grace.
There must be putting of the self aside,
A deep humility that ever waits
To guard and guide, to stop and listen well,
A love that never hesitates
To show itself no matter what the hour,
That gains its inner strength from God’s own power.”   

Monday, June 10, 2013

Rebirthing Through Confidence & Compassion

Throughout Luke’s Gospel Jesus is depicted as being bold and fearless. Earlier, in Chapter 4 (v. 29), Jesus’ hometown neighbors had become enraged over some of the comments he made in his synagogue sermon. (Imagine that ever happening to a preacher!) They hustle him out of the synagogue and begin pressing him toward a steep cliff. Instead of running off in fear, Luke notes, Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Then there was the time in Chapter 8 (22-25) when he set out with the disciples to sail across the harp-shaped Sea of Galilee. He decides to lie down in the back of the boat for a nap, but is soon awakened by shouts of “Master, we’re perishing!” As often happened, a storm had kicked up suddenly on the lake, severe enough that the boat was taking on water. Rising, Jesus quietly but firmly “rebuked the wind and the raging waves; [and] they ceased and there was a calm”. Again, in Chapter 13, some Pharisees warn Jesus to get away because Herod apparently had a contract out on his life. Jesus calmly sends them to Herod with a message: “Tell that fox that I won’t be rushed!” 

Jesus broke taboos unhindered, healing lepers and raising dead bodies. Refusing name-dropping games and power-plays, Jesus makes relationship with him dependent on a complete reversal of culture’s accepted values. He takes a child in his lap and says: “Unless you become as little children, you can’t be part of the reign of God.

At the same time, Jesus’ confidence was superbly balanced by his human touch, his sensitivity and compassion. Mark notes, in Jesus’ dealing with a leper, that “Moved with compassion, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him...” As Jesus travelled about the cities and villages, Matthew also notes, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless...” Someone, possibly, C. S. Lewis, once remarked that God has paid us human beings the embarrassing compliment of taking us seriously. There’s no question that the infallible sign of God’s seriousness is Jesus the Christ, who embodies both confidence and compassion.
Today’s passage from Luke’s Gospel (7:11-17) graphically and beautifully exemplifies both of these. It may be that stories like the restoration to life of the widow of Nain’s son by Jesus, as well as of the widow of Zarephath’s son by Elijah in the first reading (1 Kings 17:8-24), raise many difficulties, maybe even creating more pain than solace for many Christians today. From the manner of telling and from some details in the stories it’s evident that they belong to a cultural view quite different from ours, a world that might well appear even crude and superstitious to us. In this respect, these stories present tougher questions than other Gospel stories dealing with the healing of illnesses which can be given psychological or spiritual parallels. 
The stories about life being restored to dead persons raise acutely the question of how God is in the world. They confront us, however much we may want to appreciate what was done for the two widows, with a sometimes vivid remembrance and awareness of other deaths in our own experience: the death of a loved one, a friend, a spouse, or a child, which are not reversed. But note that these stories are also steeped in the great hope which Jesus brings to us human beings in his living example of confidence and compassion, especially in his own dying and rising: the hope that neither our failures, nor suffering and tragedy, nor even death itself, has the power to finally name who you and I are. The Letter to the Colossians (3:3-4) assures us: “ have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.” In the meantime, Christ-in-us invites us to embrace the brokenness of our own self and the world, to experience the sufferings of the whole world as our own suffering, bringing to it the compassion of Jesus.
The story of the raising of the widow of Nain’s son appears only in the Gospel of Luke. The town of Nain, meaning pleasant, lovely, was about six miles S.E. of Nazareth. According to Jewish custom, a dead person was buried in the late afternoon of the day of death. A large funereal procession was expected, since honoring the dead was considered a meritorious work. Luke presents a situation of enormously tragic proportions. A son has died. Luke refers to him as a “man”, “his mother’s only son”, and Jesus calls him “young man”. The woman is a widow. The economics of the Roman world at that time generally made life precarious for most of the population, much more so for those who were really needy. Since the woman is without a husband, in addition to this unbearable sorrow of losing a son, we can sympathize with her predicament that no one will see to her basic needs or care for her at all. Luke shapes his story to emphasize how salvation, which Jesus embodies in his dealings with people, repeatedly concerns itself with those at the edge: physically, socially, economically, ethnically, and religiously.  

In v. 13 Luke refers to Jesus as “the Lord”: “When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her and said to her, ‘Do not weep’”. Lord = kyrios, in Greek, is a title signaling exalted position and even divine-likeness. Here, Jesus performs a miracle as extraordinary as the prophet Elijah's raising the son of the widow at Zarephath to life in 1 Kings. But Jesus is more than a prophet. In this scene, death meets its equal. Jesus’ sensitivity and compassion is but a prelude to his decisive, commanding, life-restoring action as Kyrios/Lord. With poise and purpose, he steps forward and, with a gesture which surely shocked not only the pallbearers, but the whole crowd of observant Jews, Jesus touches the bier, a ritually unclean act, bringing the procession to an immediate halt. He calls out: “Young man, I say to you, rise!” At once the young man sits up and begins to speak. “And,” Luke observes, “Jesus gave him to his mother.” This is clearly a rebirth, a rebirth emerging as the result of Jesus’ confident and compassionate power. Luke holds up for all to see the transcendent power as well as the immanent intimacy of God in the actions and person of Jesus of Nazareth. 

The widow apparently had friends, because Luke notes that “with her was a large crowd from the town”. It probably took a few moments for them to take in and begin to process what was happening. Luke says that their first reaction is fear. But then their thoughts undoubtedly began to click back to a time some 30 years before, when Jesus and his cousin, John, were born. John’s father, Zechariah the priest, at that time had exclaimed, in a spontaneous prayer of praise: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old...” And now the crowd is shouting out, referring to Jesus, “A  great prophet has risen among us!...God has looked favorably on his people.” (Luke 1:68-70) The minds of at least some of them must have put together that the One acting with such command and such compassion could only be a prophetic figure. God had visited his people once again! They stood in awe and soon began spreading the news “throughout Judea and the surrounding country.”   
Jesus is the bold and compassionate Lord of life with unquestionable power over death. This means that the Holy God is present in  Jesus’ action of raising the young man. We’ve learned over the past three weeks, through the mysteries of Pentecost and of the Holy Trinity, that as the Father is the power who created us in love, as Jesus is the model of loving wisdom, mercy, and compassion, so the Holy Spirit of Love gives us the wherewithal to love the world of things and people with the love of Jesus. 

Particularly in our contemporary church context, many seem to equate the “salvation” which Jesus brings, along with God’s reign, as belonging to a future time and place beyond that of our own. Our understanding if frequently in rather limited terms: focusing on forgiveness of sins and resurrection to eternal life as the primary, if not the only, benefits for us. But that isn’t the reign of God which Jesus proclaimed and inaugurated. The reality of God’s reign belongs as much to the present as to the future, and it runs counter, as it did for Jesus, to those elements of our politics, economics, and social boundaries which tend to rob people of life and blessing here and now. As much as “being saved” involves wanting to confront and defeat the more dramatic forces of evil in the world arrayed against us, it’s ever so much more about recognizing Jesus as the true Lord of our life, here and now, and about opening the way for his saving mercy and compassion to touch other lives through what you and I say and do every single day.

The Collect, which we prayed earlier, asks that by God’s “inspiration we may think those things that are right, and by your merciful guiding may do them...Inspiration = breathing into. Jesus’ parting words to us through his Apostles was “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation...” He assured us that in this mission and ministry the Spirit, the breath, the wind (ruach) would guide us. You and I are called to speak and act with boldness, with confidence, with definiteness and clarity: not a confidence born of ourselves, but of the in-breathed Spirit. We’re also called to do this with great sensitivity and compassion for every person who comes hungering for the Word of life, and exactly as they come to us, not foisting our own expectations or agendas upon them, but with respect, patience, courage, persistence, and, above all, with love, holding out to them the possibility of a rebirth through relationship with Jesus the Lord. Poet, Joe McCarthy, writes this:
When Christianity happens
it is such a stranger 
We call it by a special name,
We call it a saint.
Dumbstruck by the phenomenon
  of Francis of Assisi
Our only reaction is:
‘My God, it works!’
The rule of sainthood will
  never change:
‘You shall love the Lord your God
With all your heart,
With all your soul,
With all your mind,
With all your strength,
And you shall love your neighbor
  as yourself.’
All the fuss and feathers
  of the world East and West
Are here reduced to two questions:
How deep is our touch with Him, and
How deeply are we in touch
  with others?” 
(From Papal Bulls and English Muffins: Meditations for Every Day in Lent, Paulist Press, 1974)

Friday, June 7, 2013

The Invisible Wound of Love

(From St. Bonaventure, Of the Mystic Life, Chapter 30):

"'...For to this end was your side pierced, that an entry might be open to us. To this end was your Heart wounded, that in it we might be able to dwell secure from alarms from without. And it was wounded none the less on this account that, through the visible wound, we might see the invisible wound of love.'  How could this ardor be better shown than by his allowing not only his body, but even his very Heart itself, to be wounded by a lance? And so, the wound in his flesh shows forth the wound in his spirit. Who does not love that Heart, so deeply wounded? Who would not return love for love to one so greatly loving? Who would not embrace One so pure? And so still abiding in the flesh, let us, in so far as we are able, return love for love to that which loves us, embrace our wounded One, whose hands and feet, side and Heart, have been pierced by wicked vinedressers; and let us pray that he may deign to bind our hearts, still hard and impenitent, with the chain of his love, and wound them with the dart thereof." 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Place of Worship, Place of Faith

All three readings for this Sunday’s liturgy (1 King 8:22-61 [alternate], Galatians 1:1-12, Luke 7:1-10) remind us that our relationship with the living God, as someone has written, “is very much an incarnate matter.” In other words, our relationship with God is formed in specific places, times, conditions, and among specific people.

Unfortunately, that makes our relationship with the Holy One somewhat difficult, because our practice of religious faith is limited and tied down by various human factors. There’s always the temptation for us to try to tie down or to limit God also. In reality the living God whom we worship transcends, goes beyond, every human construction, institution or viewpoint. God is not identified with these things, and they should never be allowed to get in the way of our relating to God as God really is.

There are two things we might consider about the readings today: 1) the place where we worship (“church”, “temple”, “synagogue”, etc.), and 2) the place of faith in our lives. 

The service of a dedication of a church can be a wonderful and uplifting experience. One of my memorable recollections of such a service began well, but ended in a comedy of errors. On October 3, 1954, our 27-member seminary choir was asked to sing at the consecration of the Diocesan Shrine of Perpetual Adoration at Santa Clara Monastery, Canton, OH, by the Bishop of Youngstown, Emmett M. Walsh (lovingly referred to by us wags as “Bishop M & M”!). During the long three-hour ceremony the Sisters recruited a few of us choir members to serve as acolytes, me as thurifer.  At one point the Bishop needed some more charcoal for the thurible. Mind you, this was a brand-spanking new chapel with a cushy light green carpet in the sanctuary. The dear Sister sacristan had put the lit charcoal in a brazier behind the main altar along with some tongs with which to pick up the red hot coals. It was some distance back around the altar steps and up to the Bishop at the center of the altar. I was reluctant to try to carry the charcoal, obviously crumbly, with the tongs. It would have made more sense to have brought the thurible back to transfer the coals from the brazier, but I had left the bishop’s chaplain holding it at the altar. Embarrassed to go back and get it, I foolishly decided to make a bee-line for it, carrying the charcoal with the tongs. All this while the Sister sacristan was carefully observing me from just inside the sacristy. I didn’t get but a few steps before, predictably, the coals crumbled and fell to the floor! The Sister just about had apoplexy and hurried forward stomping on the charcoal so it wouldn’t burn the new rug! I was trembling, fearing I’d ruined the carpet, totally embarrassed that I’d brought the service to a temporary stop. I don’t recall how I finally got the charcoal to the Bishop, but once that was done I scurried back in disgrace to the choir loft where I’d felt I belonged in the first place!  A few days later, Mother M. Claire, the Superior, wrote to our director, Fr. William Volk, C.PP.S.: “Particularly for us in the cloister it was no small treat to have a male choir render the chaste melodies of the chant in our shrine...” No mention of the bumbling seminarian who had undoubtedly desecrated their “virginal” rug by dropping the hot charcoal on it!

Normally, however, consecrating a sacred space such as a church can be a powerful reminder of the presence of the living God. A sanctuary, nonetheless, can also be a dangerous place: a place which walls out the cries of agony of suffering and hurting people. It can also be a place which walls us in through isolation and selfishness, thus becoming the dwelling place of “God’s frozen chosen”! Solomon, in 1 Kings, and the centurion in the Gospel both had a proper perspective on the place of worship in the lives of God’s people. For them it was the place of the Presence, a point of personal contact, an environment of prayer. For the centurion the synagogue which he’d built for the community was a symbol of graciousness, respect, promoting the possibility that people of differing viewpoints can live together.

Perhaps the more fundamental issue in today’s readings, however, is the issue of the place of faith. What kind of faith do you and I exhibit? A covenant faith: enduring, open to all à la Solomon? Or is it a compassionate and respectful faith like the centurion’s, one which doesn’t put others in an awkward position? Is it a faith rooted in the Good News of the Risen Jesus, as is Paul’s in the Epistle: not one tied to specific places, dietary laws, religious practices, traditions, or specific leaders/priests? 

It’s not by chance that we who are the Church are also called “the people of God”. Our forebears grappled with these two issues as we do. Their history was a story of having a place, and then being without one. It was a story of waffling back and forth between believing in the one God and then rejecting the same God. Karl Adolfs writes this about us who are the people of God: “There was, until recently, a sense of security within the walls of the churches and the ordinary Christian could wrap himself in an unconditional (and uncritical) surrender to God’s word (fundamentalism) or seek refuge in an individualistic devotion to Jesus (pietism)...the name, ‘People of God’, refers to a living, dynamic community of people, seeking and on the way towards what is already alive within the community in the form of promise. The Church is not a rigid, fossilized and static institution but a people on the way, on pilgrimage -- a people that lives far more in tents than in temples.”