Sunday, April 19, 2015

The One Who Comes & Stands Among Us

What if...the next time you came here for the Eucharist, when it comes time to pass the Peace, you turn to the bearded man next to you, and as your eyes meet his, you suddenly realize beyond doubt that it’s none other than Jesus? How do you think you’d react: frightened? startled? embarrassed? guilty? Would you feel overwhelmed? full of peace? overcome with joy? One thing is sure: you wouldn’t be indifferent! You’d probably feel many or all of the same emotions exhibited by the Apostles in today’s Gospel passage. Luke records that Jesus’ followers become “startled and frightened” when Jesus himself suddenly appears among them. You’ll remember from last week’s Gospel how Jesus greets them: “Peace be with you!” Whenever Jesus comes and stands among people, his usual way of appearing after the Resurrection, wherever he’s present, he brings peace.

Once it dawns on Jesus‘ followers that he is, indeed, really present with them, Jesus can explain the real meaning and purpose of his visit. Luke says: “He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures...”, and he tells them that the suffering, the forgiveness and, above all, the love, of Jesus is to be preached to all, beginning in Jerusalem. “You”, he says, “are witnesses…”, i.e., people who attest that something is, indeed, true and factual, whether by reasoning or by faith. Jesus presents himself in both ways. His is a complete spelling out, an unfolding, a revelation of who he is: the One, as St. John says,  who “was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands...” (1 John 1:1), on whom you and I have set our hearts and whom we now share with others.

The other day, a priest friend of mine posted a beautiful story: “The Most Honest, Beautiful, Important Question I Have Ever Heard Anyone Ask”, dated April 1, 2015, and found on the blog by Glennon Doyle Melton, called Momastery — I urge you to check it out because it expresses very beautifully and far better than I ever could just what it means for the Risen Jesus to come and stand among us.

In today’s Collect we asked, “...Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work...” On those occasions when you and I turn to one another to share the liturgical peace of Christ, make it a genuine sign that you and I really do set our hearts completely on this One who comes and stands present among us as we share his Body and Blood, and then as we go back to our lives and try to serve others.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

An Antidote to Hopelessness & Fear

On the Day of Resurrection last week: Easter Sunday, the greatest feast of the Church’s year, we celebrated Christ’s decisive victory over evil and death. Easter also gives hints of resurrection in a number of other ways. With the arrival of Spring, surely varying in degree from year to year, we witness a transformation in nature, a resurrection, from cold and wind and storm to budding trees and blooming flowers. Fr. Pius Parsch says “Springtime is nature executing her Easter liturgy.” (The Church’s Year of Grace, Vol. III, p. 13) Nature becomes a sort of holy symbol, a picture book of God’s beauty and love.
Another kind of resurrection takes place within the Body of the Church. During the Easter services, you and I renewed the vows to which we committed ourselves when we were baptized. As the Church, you and I are part of a new and holy renewal, opening our minds and hearts to the energizing forces of the Risen Christ. Today’s Scripture readings give us specific examples of such renewal.   

John’s account of the resurrection and its aftermath in his Gospel reports four instances of people’s reactions to it: first, John the Beloved, who looked into the empty tomb and “saw and believed”; second, Mary of Magdala, who, to her great distress, finds the tomb empty, but when called by name, sees and knows that the supposed gardener is really Jesus; third, the disciples, whose cowering fear is turned into joy as Jesus comes and stands among them; and finally, Thomas, the focus of today’s Gospel passage, wherein Jesus “comes and stands” once again (John 20:19-31). For the Gospel writers Jesus’ coming and standing describes the way in which the disciples experience the resurrected Lord.

St. John writes from the perspective of the increasing split between the Jewish tradition and the newly emerging Jesus movement toward the end of the 1st century, which had been brewing even from before Jesus’ death. Joseph of Arimathea had kept his discipleship secret “for fear of the Jewish leaders”. Many others were reluctant to openly support Jesus’ ministry for the same reason. The parents of the blind man whom Jesus cured at the Pool of Siloam fear to tell the truth “because they feared the Jewish officials”. John’s Gospel and three Epistles were “works in progress”, between 40-110 AD, and went through a number of “rewrites”.  Not long after the Gospel’s final edition appeared in the early 2nd century, a writer of John’s tradition penned the 1st Letter of John, a passage of which is today’s 
Epistle (1 John 1:1-2:2). In Chapter 2:18-19 of that Epistle the writer speaks of dissenters, “antichrists” as he calls them, who have torn the community apart. Within the Christian community they’ve compromised the truth which Jesus handed down. John says: “They went out from us, but they did not belong to going out they made it plain that none of them belongs to us. But you have been anointed by the Holy One…I write to you, not because you do not know the truth, but because you know it, and you know that no lie comes from the truth. Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ?” It’s a stark reminder that when Christians or groups of them lose hope and become fearful, Christian confession begins to weaken. Confusion, doubt and misunderstanding creep in and soon faith is shaken, sometimes even lost.
The Church has always had to face this, even from the time of Jesus. So we shouldn’t be surprised at the atmosphere of hopelessness and fear displayed in today’s Gospel: “the doors of the house…were locked for fear of the Jews.” It’s into this situation that Jesus suddenly “came and stood among” the disciples on the evening of the day of Resurrection. “Shalom = Peace be to you!”, he says. They see that it’s really him because he shows them his hands and his side. Though there’s also some hard-to-name difference, they’re nevertheless reassured that it’s Jesus and they rejoice, their sagging spirits replaced with smiles.

Jesus repeats his wish of peace, and tells the disciples that even as the Father has already sent him to proclaim the Good News, so Jesus continues the Father’s work by now sending them to do the same. An Apostle is “one who is sent; an emissary”. In an important visible action Jesus “breathed on them and said to them,Receive Holy Spirit’”, the Hebrew of which literally means God’s breath. The Risen Jesus sets God’s creative power into action, releases it, upon the community of his faith-full followers. This isn’t in order to achieve some sort of spiritual pyrotechnics, such as fantastic miracles or babbling in tongues, but to carry forward in their lives and relationships with others Jesus the Word, his message of compassion, forgiveness and servanthood. 
Throughout his Gospel and letters, John views sin as unfaithfulness, unbelief. The Risen Lord here empowers his community of disciples, through the Father’s life-giving Spirit, to isolate, repel and negate all that is sin and evil. Easter is Jesus’ resurrection, his glorification as God’s Son, and the giving of the Spirit all rolled into one. It’s what finally enables the community of faith, the Church, to shed its fear and doubt, and to realize that it’s never abandoned or alone. The Risen One comes and stands with them, always.
Someone has noted that “A person who has never doubted is a person who has never thought.” Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples the night Jesus came to them. Thomas appears twice previously in John’s Gospel: once in Chapter 11 where he’s referred to as “the twin”, and again in Chapter 14 when, at the Last Supper, he says to Jesus: “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” 
Only in 1945, with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi writings in Egypt, did scholars become aware of a series of references to Thomas the Apostle, which Jesus’ followers would’ve heard about or with which they’d have been familiar. Among these writings is a well-preserved early Christian, non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, a collection of Jesus’ sayings. The opening line reads: “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded.” Didymos is the Greek for twin. In this writing Thomas is pictured as a mystic seer, in contrast to his depiction in John’s Gospel. The Gospel of Thomas depicts Didymos Judas Thomas as a hero and the other Apostles as seemingly less knowledgeable. In John’s Gospel, it’s a literal-minded Thomas who seems not to understand. Given this as a background, it would be understandable that, within John’s community, his followers might have looked skeptically, perhaps with some scorn, at the claims of Thomas’ followers. When the other disciples tell Thomas that they’ve seen the Lord, Thomas reacts somewhat negatively and harshly: “Unless I see the mark of the nails...and put my finger in the mark of the nails...never will I believe!” Just as some of those dissenters in John’s community, mentioned earlier, Thomas displays the doubts and lack of secure faith which characterizes some 1st century Christians. He needs to see, to prove, to have it all nailed down first. 
John recounts that a week later, Thomas is present when Jesus makes a return appearance, again declaring “Peace!” Wasting no time, Jesus invites Thomas to “put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Don’t be faithless, but believing and faithful.” Thomas is dumbfounded. John doesn’t record whether Thomas ever acted on Jesus‘ invitation. Once the Risen Jesus had come and stood in front of him, all Thomas could do was to simply acknowledge the reality by stammering: “Yes, it’s Jesus and he is God!” 
Jesus’ challenges Thomas, and us, to examine our faith without being too hasty in professing it: “Have you believed because you have seen me?” The late Anglican Franciscan and biblical scholar, Barnabas Lindars, observes:  “Being absent when Jesus appeared to the disciples on Easter night, Thomas was virtually in the position of the Christian who has not seen the risen Jesus, and he should not have needed a further appearance in order to come to faith.” “Blessed are those,” says Jesus, who haven’t seen... and yet have faith that Jesus isn’t absent, that he’s always with us, always coming and standing before us in order that we can have faith.
John concludes with words which originally, before editing took place, concluded the whole Gospel. He says that he’s written down these signs, only a sampling of many, many signs which Jesus did, “so that you may continue to believe”, i.e., to set your heart on, to stake your life on, the Risen Christ who gives you and the whole Church enlightenment, love and life through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit as he comes and stands among us. 

Spiritual writer, Frederick Buechner, who I might proudly add is also an Associate of our Order of Julian of Norwich, says: “...if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.
Don’t be faithless, but believing and faithful.” 

Friday, April 3, 2015

The Friday Called "Good"

(From Hugo Rahner, "The Mystsery of the Cross", The Mysteries, Eranos Yearbooks 2, Pantheon Books, 1955):

"...In medieval art, Adam's skull was represented at the foot of the cross, because they knew that the cross was erected where Adam was created and was buried. Round it flowed the four rivers of paradise. On his deathbed, the legend went, Adam sent his son Seth to paradise to bring him the fruit of immortality from the tree of life. The angel gave him three seeds from which grew a threefold tree out of the dead Adam's mouth, made of cedar, pine and cypress. This is the tree that the soldiers cut down to make the cross of Christ. Such elaborate stories are part of the rich understanding and veneration of the Cross in early Christianity. Such mythological elaboration is a profound expression of the depth and the abundance of the understanding of this mystery as something so unique and so generous that it breaks through all attempt to classify it..."

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

(3rd century Pseudo Chrysostom)

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Relationships or Idols?

The Hebrew expression for what we call the commandments literally means the ten words/sayings. Lent reminds us how easily you and I, just as the Israelites, ignore or rationalize what God expects of us. The commandments, in fact, involve, more than anything else, our relationships: with ourselves, with God and with one another and the creation around us. Experience confirms how fragile these relationships can be, how easily damaged and broken through careless words and actions.

 The Book of Common Prayer (pp. 847-848) clearly notes that the first four commandments have to do with recognizing that God alone is worthy of our love, worship and obedience. God is where we focus on setting our hearts, our trust. The remaining six commandments describe human relationships and how we’re responsible for the way in which we treat one another: honoring parents and those in authority; respecting life, working for peace, bearing no malice, prejudice or hatred towards anyone; being kind to all creatures; dealing honestly and fairly; looking to others‘ rights and necessities; using our God-given talents and resources; speaking the truth and not misleading others by silence; resisting envy, greed and jealousy; and rejoicing in all people’s gifts and graces. Sin has been defined as “treating people like things and things like people”, and in the sacred words given to Moses on the mountain there’s a firm warning against confusing such priorities. When things become idols, relationships invariably suffer.

 It’s not uncommon to read the commandments and to conclude, just as Paul did, in one of his more memorable passages: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it...I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:18-19) Most of us can readily identify with Paul’s sense of human weakness and frustration. In the letter to the Romans he describes a kind of civil war taking place inside us. The sense that “I can will, but I cannot do” articulates the inner conflict between desire and power, raging within human beings ever since the Fall. Agnes Rogers Allen humorously quips:
I should be better, brighter, thinner 
And more intelligent at dinner. 
I should reform and take pains, 
Improve my person, use my brains. 
There’s lots that I could do about it, 
But will I?...Honestly, I doubt it.” 
 Are the commandments still even possible for followers of Jesus trying to serve God faithfully in an age so radically different from Moses’ culture? The BCP asks, on p. 848: “Since we do not fully obey them, are they useful at all?” It answers: “Since we do not fully obey them, we see more clearly our sin and our need for redemption.”  

Remember that the commandments are part of a much larger narrative, namely, the whole story of the Exodus of God’s people out of Egypt and through the desert wilderness. Note the words prefacing the commandments in the Hebrew Scriptures: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” God’s redeeming words/commandments is given to people who have been released from slavery. The salvation of God’s people isn’t earned through their obedience to a code of law. God’s action of freeing them and leading them to a new life came first. Only as an appropriate human response to what God has already done does observing the Law make any sense. 

On any given day you and I find it difficult to observe God’s words, keeping both the letter and the spirit of what God asks of us. The commandments’ specific details help to graphically remind us that we’re self-centered, sinful, i.e., constantly “missing the mark”, and that we need redemption. The various commandments emphasize God’s absolute claim on the totality of our life. But even though God’s claim on our lives is expressed in terms of specific things to do or not to do, we continually risk becoming distracted from God and of focussing on mere “requirements”. God’s commandments, God’s words, come to us as people whom God has already saved, through the One who is the unique Word of God, Jesus the Christ, God’s beloved. 

 As he himself grew spiritually, St. Paul began to understand the problem resulting from attempts to earn God’s approval merely by “keeping” the commandments. He came to recognize that God’s Law is different from legalism. Paul wrote to the Philippian community that he’d been keeping the Law, but for entirely the wrong reasons: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ...For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things,..not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith...” (Philippians 3:4-11) Paul acknowledged that the Law, indeed, sets out God’s holy expectations of the way we should act towards God and each other. Yet the very way in which it redirects our attention and focus towards our activity and away from God’s is the Law’s weakness. 

 That’s the real issue at the heart of today’s Gospel reading, as Jesus enters the Temple and chases out the money-changers and the animal-sellers. (2:13-22) The confrontation between Jesus and the merchants is really a conflict over priorities of relationship. Who Jesus is, as Son of his Father, and what he represents, the living God, clashes with the loyalties of the religious institutional leaders. Jesus challenges them. After chasing out those who had set up their businesses in the immediate Temple area, Jesus makes a mysterious reference to the destruction of the Temple and to its being “raised” up again. Generations later, you and I understand Jesus’ words to be an image of his own death and resurrection, whereas the Jewish authorities think he literally means the Jerusalem Temple. And that seriously offends them, because, for the Jews, the Temple was the external witness to God, the place centered on God’s words, God’s Law. The Temple and the Law stood at the center of Jewish faith, yet these had become idols, ends in themselves, rather than the living God and their own people. Through misplaced devotion, the Jewish leaders let their focus be redirected away from relationship with God to merely fulfilling man-made requirements. They thus missed entirely the spirit of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” 

 Our religious practices and preferences, too, can, and often do, become lesser gods, idols, for us if we let them become the chief objects of our devotion. In our attempt to excel and succeed as “good Christians”, we often begin to focus on what we think we should do, rather than on the fact that, as Paul says, “...Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24-25) has already spelled out for us what we should be as his followers through his own living words and example. 

 The commandments are important words about what God intends for us. We and the society in which we live need to take them much more seriously than we currently do. Nevertheless, we must bear in mind that Christian faith and practice has everything to do with our relationships. Paul clearly reminds us of that when he says, “...we proclaim Christ...” May this Lenten season guide us to do that in all our words and actions.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Supporting the "Weaknesses of Each of Us"

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Memories have the power to call to mind previous experiences in our lives. They seem to reactivate our memory banks and replay the tapes we've stored there. Perhaps as you and your spouse attend a wedding you recall the day when you exchanged your own vows. The emotion which that evokes may lead you to squeeze your spouse's hand or give a knowing wink. A funeral or memorial service for a family member or a friend might equally bring back sentiments and feelings of remembrance or sadness over the deaths of significant others in our past.

Mark's retelling of the story of Jesus' baptism is, for many, that kind of event. It conjures up for us the sights, sounds, and emotions surrounding past baptisms we've experienced: our own, a friend's, or a child's. Because of this we're enabled to better "connect" with the experience of Jesus at the Jordan River.

Mark's version of Jesus' life differs from those of Matthew and Luke in that he doesn't give us a glimpse into Jesus' earlier days. Instead, he presents John the Baptizer as the messenger fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy, as the voice of preparation for the One who is to come. Jesus was among the people who came from all over the Judean countryside to be baptized by John. There's no record of what that experience was for any of the other individuals besides Jesus. All three of the Synoptic Gospel writers record that Jesus went down into the waters, just as the others had, but that upon his emerging from the river something extraordinary happened. The voice of God the Father pierced the barrier between earth and heaven, and Jesus "saw…the Spirit descending like a dove on him."

Four verses later, Mark indicates that some time after this John's ministry came to an end when was arrested, imprisoned and eventually beheaded. Jesus, on the other hand, "came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God…" There's no gradual build-up, no account of exactly why Jesus chose to be baptized by John. We simply find him there on the Jordan bank with the others. He submits to baptism and is confirmed by the Father and the Spirit as the Beloved Son of God.

Our own baptism is an occasion for commitment, either through our godparents or on our own, to take up the ministry which Jesus began, as well as an occasion for being affirmed and supported in that decision. The ritual of baptism may have been simple or elaborate for us, but the essential elements are the same whatever. We commit ourselves to follow Jesus the Christ for the rest of our lives, and we're supported in that choice by others who've made the same commitment and have handed down to us the good news which Jesus proclaimed.

Generally, baptism is a public event. We make promises to God in the presence of a believing community, as a witness to both God and to others. We make this covenant out of the confidence that our allegiance can't be just a private matter, between us and God. We need to make ourselves accountable for what we promise, to God and to the body of Christ, the Church.

Putting into daily practice, living,  the baptismal covenant isn't a "walk in the park" for any of us. In addition to the grace of God, we depend on the support of our sisters and brothers in Christ, not only at the baptismal celebration, but continually through our lives, particularly at those times when we grow discouraged and lukewarm. There is constant need of reclaiming our promises, of recommitting ourselves to live the Gospel. Perhaps the simple retelling and rehearing of Mark's story about Christ's baptism, together with the passages in today's  liturgy from Genesis and 1 Peter, presents such an occasion to do so.

Several steps are involved in this process of rehearing and recommitting. First, we need to acknowledge our need for it. That can be as simple as praying: "Lord, I don't quite know how to do this, but I hand over to you again as much of myself as I can at this moment." Our reaffirmation needn't be any more dramatic or sophisticated than that. Fr. R. Stewart Wood, Jr. has written: "Goose bumps won't make it any more genuine or real! You simply need to decide and then do it."

Second, it's helpful to have a supporting person or group. It may be a close friend(s) to whom we can turn. In any case, it's always a bit scary to reach out to someone else for support, but we need to be aware that others, like us, undoubtedly wrestle with the same sense of vulnerability, need and risk as we do. In fact, many times our reaching out brings relief to the other person who may have been looking for similar support, but was too embarrassed to ask for it. In most parishes there are helpful groups (Lenten studies, Scripture classes, EFM, etc.) who serve as that "blessed company" of faithful people who are willing to uphold us in our commitment.

Living the Gospel is a cycle of growth and progress, alternating with desert-periods of dryness and stagnation. St. Mark's reminder today of Jesus' baptism and the ensuing struggle in the wilderness can encourage us as we labor through the Lenten season to renew our commitment to live out our baptismal promises. Even as Jesus had angels to minister to him in the desert, we find help "to continue in…the fellowship" through the communion of saints, particularly on the local level. Each time you and I hear the question posed during the baptisms which we celebrate in our communities of faith: "Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?", may our reply be a resounding, "We will!"        

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ash Wednesday

"In your great goodness, Lord, you have promised forgiveness to sinners, * 
that they may repent of their sin and be saved. 

And now, O Lord, I bend the knee of my heart, * and make my appeal, sure of your gracious goodness. I have sinned, O Lord, I have sinned, * and I know my wickedness only too well. Therefore I make this prayer to you: * Forgive me, Lord, forgive me. 
Do not let me perish in my sin, * nor condemn me to the depths of the earth.

For you, O Lord, are the God of those who repent, * and in me you will show forth your goodness. Unworthy as I am, you will save me, in accordance with your great mercy…"
(From A Song of Penitence, Prayer of Mannasseh, 1-2; 4; 6-7; 11-15)

Lent is the time of bending the knee of our hearts before the Holy One: a time of recognizing, acknowledging, confessing the reality of our sin, and asking to be reconciled with God and all others in our lives. Christopher Pramuk, in his new book At Play in Creation: Merton's Awakening to the Feminine Divine says that Thomas Merton, in a 1959 letter to Victor Hammer, described Sophia - Wisdom as "'the dark, nameless Ousia [Being] of God, not one of the Three Divine Persons, but each 'at the same time, are Sophia and manifest her.'" Pramuk continues, "Above all, Sophia  is God's love and mercy coming to birth in us. 'In the sense that God is Love, is Mercy, is Humility, is Hiddenness,' writes Merton, 'He shows Himself to us within ourselves as our own poverty…and if we receive the humility of God into our hearts, we become able to…love this very poverty, which is Himself and His Sophia.'"

It is out of this mystery of God revealing Godself to you and me "within ourselves as our own poverty" that you and I bend the knee of our hearts in humility before God, and receive back God's own goodness and redemption.

Monday, February 9, 2015

God's Bard

St. Bede writes in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People: "[t]here was in the Monastery of this Abbess a certain brother particularly remarkable for the Grace of God, who was wont to make religious verses, so that whatever was interpreted to him out of scripture, he soon after put the same into poetical expressions of much sweetness and humility in Old English, which was his native language. By his verse the minds of many were often excited to despise the world, and to aspire to heaven." He was referring to Caedmon, the earliest English (Northumbrian) poet known by name. Caedmon cared for the animals at the double monastery of Streonæshalch, later known as Whitby Abbey, whose abbess was the famous Hilda from 657 to 680. Caedmon was, according to Bede, originally ignorant of "the art of song" but learned to compose one night during the course of a dream. He later became a zealous monk, as well as an accomplished and inspirational poet. 

Caedmon's only extant work is Caedmon's Hymn, one of the earliest examples of the Old English language. In this poem of nine lines, purportedly learned in his dream, he sings praise to God: 

 Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven, 
the might of the architect, and his purpose, 
the work of the father of glory 
as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders; 
he first created for the children of men 
heaven as a roof, the holy creator 
Then the guardian of mankind, 
the eternal lord, afterwards appointed the middle earth, 
the lands for men, the Lord almighty.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Peter's Mother-in-law

"As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them." (Mark 1:29-31)

As Jesus finishes a teaching session in the synagogue, Mark notes that he’s invited to Peter’s house where Peter’s mother-in-law presumably lives with him and his wife.  Though Peter’s wife isn’t mentioned specifically here, later, in 1 Corinthians (9:5), Paul very clearly refers to her as possibly accompanying Peter on his mission.  Perhaps the mother-in-law had the flu: “she was in bed with a fever”, always risky for an older person.  In his quiet, gentle way Jesus comes to her and takes her hand.  As the fever subsides, she gets up out of the bed, and heads for the kitchen, as any good Jewish mother would do, to get them all something to eat!  Could it be that Mark inserts this little detail in his Gospel to hold up the mother-in-law as an example to us of someone looking beyond her own ills and infirmities to taking care of the needs of others?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

A New Creation In Christ

"Use creatures as they should be used: the earth, the sea, the sky, the air, the springs and the rivers. Give praise and glory to their Creator for all that you find beautiful and wonderful in them. See with your bodily eyes the light that shines on earth, but embrace with your whole soul and all your affections 'the true light which enlightens everyone who comes into this world'…If we are indeed the temple of God and if the Spirit of God lives in us, then what every believer has within is greater than what the believer admires in the skies. 

Our words and exhortations are not intended to make you disdain God's works or think there is anything contrary to your faith in creation, for the good God has himself made all things good. What we ask is that you use reasonably and with moderation all the marvelous creatures which adorn this world…"  

(From a sermon of St. Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome, 461)

Monday, January 26, 2015

"For Me To Live Is Christ"

From a homily of St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople (407):

"The one thing [Paul] feared, indeed dreaded, was to offend God; nothing else could sway him. Therefore, the only thing he really wanted was always to please God.

The most important thing of all to him, however, was that he knew himself to be loved by Christ. Enjoying this love, he considered himself happier than anyone else…

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

So too, in being loved by Christ he thought of himself  as possessing life, the world, the angels, present and future, the kingdom, the promise and countless blessings. Apart from that love nothing saddened or delighted him; for nothing earthly did he regard as bitter or sweet…"

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Week of Prayer for Unity & Intereligious Dialogue

During the week beginning on the feast of the Confession of St. Peter, January 18, and continuing through January 25, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, the Church celebrates a Week of Prayer for Unity and Interreligious Dialogue. Though originally designed and commonly understood to pray for Christian unity, in more recent years it has widened in scope to include interfaith involvement. 
This ecumenical week began in the little New York community of Peekskill, specifically on a remote hillside 5 miles away, called Graymoor, home to a small Episcopal religious community of friars and sisters, who were quite controversial and unpopular in the Episcopal Church. At a time when religious community members were often suspected as “advance agents” for a Roman Catholic takeover of the Protestant Episcopal Church, the Graymoor Franciscans, “eccentrics”, as they were called, did very little to allay such suspicions.

Fr. Paul Wattson and Mother Lurana White, co-founders of the Graymoor Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement, quite openly advocated for a reunion of Anglicans with Rome and recognition of the papacy. Most Protestants and even some Catholics were astounded by the idea. Because of their committed stance, the Graymoors were under enormous pressure from church leaders and editors to abandon their efforts. Fr. Paul was shunned in most Episcopal pulpits, and Mother Lurana had to literally send her sisters out begging just to keep the Society of the Atonement alive.
Nevertheless, Fr. Paul and Mother Lurana pursued their perceived God-given mission: to seek a coming together of divided Christian churches. The idea of a period of prayer for Christian unity came up in a conversation between Fr. Wattson and an Anglican clergyman in England, The Rev. Spencer Jones. In the autumn of 1907, Fr. Jones suggested an annual day of prayer for Christian unity. Fr. Wattson concurred, but simultaneously conceived the idea of a Church Unity Week or “Octave”, to be observed for eight days between January 18 and 25, the dates of the two feasts mentioned earlier. The first attempt at the observance, held in the small, gloomy Graymoor chapel in 1908, met with lukewarm response, at best. 
Fr. Paul and Mother Lurana, because of their pro-Roman leanings, finally asked to be admitted into the Roman Catholic Church, and in October, 1909, Pius X received the whole Society of the Atonement as a body. Eventually, the Octave became very popular, but almost exclusively in the Roman Catholic Church. Other Christian bodies held observances of their own, more compatible with their theology and spirituality.
A number of historical movements towards Christian unity, from the 18th century on, preceded the Graymoors’ efforts.  In the 19th century, the desire for Christians to pray together was occasioned by the divisions which weakened the power of Christian witness. In 1846 the Evangelical Alliance was established in London and developed both international and inter-church connections. The Association for the Promotion of the Unity of Christians was founded in 1857 with Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox participation. The Popes had consistently urged Roman Catholics to pray for Christian unity, but only from the particular stance of return to the Roman Catholic fold. The Lambeth Conferences, particularly in 1878, during this period also promoted prayer for Christian unity.
In 1913 the Faith and Order Commission of the Protestant Episcopal Church issued a number of publications for Christian unity, and the preparatory Conference on Faith and Order at Geneva in 1920 appealed for a special week of prayer for Christian unity. Faith and Order continued to issue "Suggestions for an Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity" until 1941 when it changed the dates for its week to that of the January Octave. In this way, Christians, who for reasons of conscience, could not join with others in prayer services could still share in united prayer at a specific time. 

In 1935 Abbé Paul Couturier, a French priest, addressed this problem by promoting prayer for Christian unity on the inclusive basis that "our Lord would grant to his Church on earth that peace and unity which were in his mind and purpose, when, on the eve of His Passion, He prayed that all might be one." A huge ecumenical step was taken in 1964 with the issuing of the Decree on Ecumenism of Vatican Council II. The Decree was clear for Roman Catholics: "In certain special circumstances, such as in prayer services for unity and during ecumenical gatherings, it is allowable, indeed desirable, that Catholics should join in prayer with their separated brethren. Today the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity and Interreligious Dialogue belongs to all people of faith who wish, as Jesus did, "that all may be one". The formation of official ecumenical dialogues among Christians and between non-Christian bodies reinforces the value of such a yearly observance.

A dear deceased Trappist monk friend of mine, Fr. Brendan, OCSO, once sent me this quote: “The schisms, persecutions, and polemics of our yesterdays [today] begin to assume a certain unreality...As the Christian world once split on the dipthong, so have Christians killed each other for a definition. That they should quarrel and divide within the great area of mystery created by the Incarnation, which they share and live by, becomes increasingly unacceptable. The most elementary lesson of a faith held in common is to love, and so to understand one another...

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Jesus the Christ, Savior

Luke 2:15-21 tells us of angelic words spoken to common sheep-tenders: "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you: he is Christ the Lord." The child referred to is Jesus of Nazareth who historically bore the name Yeshua/Joshua bar Joseph. The name derives from yasha = to be open, wide free: to save. Jesus signifies "He [God] saves." A Jewish name stood for the person and indicated something about her/his history, purpose, and mission in life. The name Yeshua was a fairly common one. There had been many "saviors" in the history of God's people, but this Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, was to be the Savior, the Anointed One of the Lord.

Many of us may have been asked, at one time or another, "Are you saved?" That usually implies our ability to cite a specific time or date of a religious experience or conversion, or it implies that some common ground is provided in conversation between the questioner & us, as in "Are you part of the club, the 'in' group?" A positive reply allows the questioner to associate with you; a negative reply causes the questioner's defenses to go up and draw away. 

When I hear that question, "Are you saved?", I think back to some comments made by my son's school principal in a 1981 PTA newsletter: "The greatest problem facing our world today is that of man's relationship to his fellow man…The human ability to accept others is the brightest light in the darkness of this world…I am convinced that the answers to this problem lie within each of us. The light is there for us to use as individuals, as a community of persons, as a community of nations. Yet we continue to withhold ourselves from others -- we cut them off -- we don't believe in them -- we don't accept them as being one of us because of a difference in age, sex, color, viewpoint or speech. Darkness is nothing -- as soon as we turn the light on it disappears…At this time of year, just think what benefit we can provide for those who inhabit our small corner of the world and even for ourselves if we turn on the light of affection, concern, sympathy, understanding and love for our fellowman…It is not so difficult to give of ourselves -- to open the gates of our attitudes -- so that we can share ourselves with those who may have differing viewpoints…It is our potential to give freely and lavishly of [our gifts]."

What a wonderfully simple, direct, practical message, yet one which virtually expresses the essential wisdom and meaning of such phrases as "Are you saved?", "He saved us", "Jesus saves". The fact is that Jesus wouldn't withhold himself from humankind. "The Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us."  He accepted us. He accepts us always, even despite what we've been in the past and often are in the present. St. Paul reminds us: "…when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy…" Regardless of how we are, Jesus accepts us.

How might you and I spread the light of our "affection, concern, sympathy, understanding and love to our fellowman", mentioned above? You and I have so many simple saving gifts which we can give to one another all year long: a smile; offering to wash the dishes or to cook a meal for someone; forgiving an old grudge or hurt; propagating good news, rather than just the negative or gossip; saying "Please" and "Thank you"; trying to be understanding of someone's feelings or viewpoint before we grumble at or condemn them.

Somewhere along the line, I'm sure I ran across the name of the person who wrote the following Resolutions but I can't for the life of me remember or track it down. It'll suffice simply to share them in hopes that each of us might be moved by one or other of them as we live through this New Year of 2015.

No one will ever get out of this world alive.
Resolve, therefore, in the year to come to maintain a sense of values.
Take care of yourself. Good health is everyone's source of wealth.
Without it, happiness is almost impossible.
Resolve to be cheerful and helpful. People will repay you in kind.
Avoid angry, abrasive persons. They are generally vengeful.
Avoid zealots. They are generally humorless.
Resolve to listen more and to talk less. No one ever learns anything by talking.
Be chary of giving advice. Wise men don't need it; and fools won't heed it.
Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged,
sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the wrong.
Sometime in life you will have been all of these.
Do not equate money with success. There are many successful money-makers
who are miserable failures as human beings.
What counts most about success is how a man achieves it.
Resolve to love next year someone you didn't love this year.
Love is the most enriching ingredient of life.