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)