Sunday, April 15, 2018
Third Sunday of Easter
Tomorrow is Marathon Monday in Boston. I’m not a marathon runner, nor do I aspire to be. When I was in high school I learned about Pheidippides, the runner who announced “Nike!” (that is, “Victory!”) to the Athenians regarding the Battle of Marathon against the Persians in 490 B.C. He ran roughly 25 miles from Marathon to Athens… and then dropped dead. The marathon is named after that ill-fated runner. The question in my mind is: who was the second runner to attempt it? It seems like marathons never should have become a thing. A more reasonable people would have said, “Well, we now know the limit for long-distance running. We won’t be doing that again!” Instead, we have not allowed fear to dictate our limits, and as a result, marathons are only one of many athletic endurance events throughout the world.
The bombing at the Boston Marathon in 2013 likewise could have instilled fear and trepidation. It could have put an artificial limit on freedom and put an end to a festive and hallowed tradition. Instead, from the start, the people of Boston looked terror in the eye and refused to allow it to dictate their lives. Far from living in fear, they chose to be Boston Strong.
I have a friend who will be running in the Chicago marathon, hoping to qualify for Boston next year. He is visually impaired, but I have never known him to allow that to limit his life. He has a law degree, multiple awards for running, an active political life, a “little brother” he mentors, and a great love of both beer and donuts besides! He may not be able to see perfectly, but his vision is inspiring.
St. Paul compared our spiritual journeys to a race. “Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly… I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Likewise, he said to Timothy, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7-8). Running a race is a great metaphor for the endurance and discipline that faith require, and for the great reward that awaits us.
When we bring Paul’s inspired insight into the reflection on marathons, we highlight the essential element of faith, which is trust. “Fear is useless,” Jesus said, “What is needed is trust” (Mark 5:36, NAB 1970). Fear would have kept anyone from running a marathon after what happened to Pheidippides. Fear would have shut down the Boston Marathon forever. Fear would have kept my friend from getting involved in running. Fear creates artificial limits and breeds anxiety. Fear is the enemy of faith. Of course, fear is also natural, and having fears is not a sign that we lack faith. The spiritual question is whether we allow those fears to limit us and to keep us from running the race, or whether instead we confront fear like Jesus did in the Garden, ultimately trusting in God and saying “not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
Faith is radical trust. Without feeling like everything is going right, we have faith in God’s loving care. When all signs seem to indicate otherwise, we have faith that God still reigns supreme. We entrust ourselves to the Father—“into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46)—without knowing how everything will be made right. As St. Thérèse teaches us, we have the trust of a child, confident in the arms of a loving Parent. Faith is far more than intellectual assent to articles of doctrine: Faith is fundamental trust in God. It defeats fear.
The reward, even here, of this faith is peace. “[H]e stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” It is “the peace… the world cannot give” (John 14:27, NLT) because it comes from encountering the Risen Christ, and knowing that God is trustworthy, that we have nothing to fear. It is the peace the Psalmist knew when he wrote, “As soon as I lie down, I fall peacefully asleep, for you alone, O LORD, bring security to my dwelling.” Being at peace, trusting that no harm can ultimately befall us, knowing with Julian of Norwich that “all will be well, all will be well, all manner of things will be well,” we also find the grace to keep running the good race and the hope for the crown of victory!
Sunday, April 8, 2018
Divine Mercy Sunday
Whenever today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles is proclaimed at Mass, I can’t help wondering whether the early followers of The Way would recognize today’s Christians. Let’s take an inventory.
“The community of believers was of one heart and mind.” It seems that right off the bat we find a major difference. Not only is there division within the Catholic Church today, but disagreements among Christians over the years have divided the Christian community into a staggering number of churches and faith communities. We are hardly “of one heart and mind.” Of course, this early sense of unity did not last long either. Like any earthly utopian society, it fell apart pretty quickly. Paul’s writings to the Corinthians and the controversy that led to the Council of Jerusalem are scriptural testimony to the divisions that affected the followers of Christ very early on. No wonder Jesus fervently prayed “that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21). The ideal community that Luke portrayed in Acts may be out of our reach, but that doesn’t excuse us from being open to the grace Christ wants to bestow in order that his own prayer be answered. A good place to begin is right here online and on social media. There might be significant disagreement over policy, politics, and theology, but there should be “one heart and mind” in the love and respect we show one another.
“No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they had everything in common.” Once again, it seems that we are very different from those first Christians. The very idea that we should have “everything in common” quickly raises the ire of those who suspect a Communist agenda. We hold private property so sacred that we have laws in some places that allow us to use deadly force to protect it. I’m quite certain, though, that a pro-life Church should always value human life—even that of a criminal—over personal property. St. Thomas Aquinas, in fact, did not consider private property to be an absolute right, but a bonum utile—a useful good. It is useful for the common good that property be held privately. The usefulness is not related to selfish individualism and the greedy accumulation of material things, but to stewardship. The whole creation is given to all and is meant to be a blessing for all. In owning pieces of the earth, we hold them in trust for one another, especially for those most in need. This is very different from a Communist perspective, and it also seems to align with Luke’s description a bit better than our winner-take-all, individualist, capitalist, competitive mentality.
“There was no needy person among them, for those who owned property or houses would sell them, bring the proceeds of the sale, and put them at the feet of the apostles, and they were distributed to each according to need.” This behavior of the first Christians, if it is not an idealized version of the reality, is surely related to the sense that Christ’s return was imminent. We have seen the same behavior in cults in our own day. When the Second Coming (or something similar in the various cults) is believed to be imminent, quotidian life becomes relativized. Nothing matters as much as being prepared for Christ’s immediate return. This behavior continues to be prophetically present in our midst in the monks and nuns, and religious brothers and sisters who take a vow of poverty, rejecting private property and being ready anytime, as those virgins in the parable, for Christ’s return. For those who do not take such a vow, selling one’s house and leaving one’s family homeless would be an especially imprudent act! Still, the challenge remains: how can we make our private property a blessing for others, especially those most in need? For many of us, “love travels best through well-worn paths.” We don’t need to reinvent the wheel because we have “well-worn paths” such as Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services, and the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, among many others, which are, no doubt, ways that we continue to “bring the proceeds…and put them at the feet of the apostles.”
“With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great favor was accorded them all.” Who can doubt that this remains the raison d’être of the Church? Under the leadership of Peter, we continue to proclaim to all the world the Good News that sin and death have been conquered in Christ, who rose from the dead! We continue to proclaim the Gospel of God’s mercy in Christ Jesus. We continue to relativize the value of our possessions here, knowing that Christ will come again and that our treasure will be in Heaven. Of course, the Church is not perfect in its members and in its human constitution, but “great favor was accorded them all” back then no less than now. On this Divine Mercy Sunday, the Church doesn’t look so much different from the early Church after all. We remain blessed and committed to blessing. We continue to be recipients of the overwhelming grace of God! And so, in unbroken tradition, we gather for the breaking of the bread, that is, for the Mass—a word that means mission, to celebrate the Eucharist—a word that means Thanksgiving!
Sunday, March 18, 2018
Fifth Sunday of Lent
“Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.” Those of you who follow soap operas will recognize that sentence right away. I have never watched soaps, but even I am familiar with the large hourglass and the opening words of Days of our Lives.
The hourglass is such an effective symbol for the passing of time, isn’t it? We see the sands running through the glass without stopping, knowing that the end is increasingly near. Unlike the clock with its endless cycles, the hourglass has a definite limit. Time is running out!
One way of reflecting spiritually on the hourglass is to focus on the themes of memento mori (reminder of death) and carpe diem! (seize the day!)—themes I previously wrote about here and here. The themes are, of course, classic. Think of Ronsard’s poem to Cassandre, Mignonne, Allons Voir Si La Rose—“O vrayment marastre Nature,/ Puis qu’une telle fleur ne dure/ Que du matin jusques au soir!” (“O truly stepmother Nature,/ Since such a flower lasts only/ From morning until evening!”) Or, consider Shakespeare’s Sonnet 126—“O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power/ Dost hold Time’s fickle glass, his sickle, hour…/ If Nature, sovereign mistress over wrack,/ As thou goest onwards, still will pluck thee back.” Recall also the famous lines from Robert Herrick: “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may…” or the words of the poet of our age, Mary Oliver: “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?/ Tell me, what is it you plan to do/ with your one wild and precious life?” And, of course, there are classic films like The Seventh Seal and Dead Poets Society. Even the inspired writer Ben Sira recommended a mememto mori, which we recognize as the Word of God: “In whatever you do, remember your last days, and you will never sin” (Sirach 7:36).
Think of your own experiences with hourglasses. Their most common use, arguably, is in board games that might otherwise drag on without the propulsion provided by the timer. I imagine their use added pressure and maybe even anxiety to your activity, forcing quick decisions in games like Monopoly and chess. The constant reminder that time is running out brings new intensity to the game, and it forces us to focus. Ready or not, we must move on. Imagine the giant Days of our Lives’ hourglass being present in our daily lives. What would change if we could see our time running out before our very eyes? What would we concentrate on? What decisions would we make? What would be our priorities?
Aside from this memento mori reflection, there is another spiritual lens we could apply. The hourglass is a reminder that, in one very important sense, time is not linear. The Paschal Mystery of Christ that we prepare to celebrate at Easter is the very center of time—the gravity you might say that gives time its meaning and that draws everything to Himself (cf. John 12:32). In linear thinking, Christ came thousands of years into human history. He has a specific place on the historical time-line. This is critical for our belief in the Incarnation. When Rome—the whole world, in a sense—was being numbered in a census, God chose to be numbered among us (cf. Luke 2:1-7). Still, in Christian thinking, kairos is more important than chronos. Chronos is the Greek word for linear time (we have the word chronological from it). The god Chronos was pictured as an old man with a beard and an hourglass. Kairos, on the other hand, is pictured as eternally young, for kairos is what we might call sacred time, measured not minute by minute on a historical time-line, but in terms of what Christians call “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). (See here for a blog post about these Greek terms, including images of the gods). It is in this sense, that Scripture refers to Christ as “the firstborn of all creation” and reminds us that “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:15,17).
The hourglass is usually associated with chronos, but if we think about Christ as “The Way” who said “no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6), then we might recognize Christ and His Passion, Death, and Resurrection as the center of the hourglass just as He is the center of time. Then we will realize that the sands are not running out, but rather gathering unto eternity as Christ draws everyone to Himself (John 12:32). Our focus shifts from what is transient to what is eternal. Most importantly, we come to see that everything and everyone must go the Way of the Cross. “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”
Third Sunday of Lent
When the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 A.D., it seemed to the early Christians to confirm the passing of the Old Law and the inauguration of the New, which required no more sacrifices after the one, perfect sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Yet, Jesus had recognized the Temple as “my Father’s house” and a “house of prayer” (Matthew 21:13). He was outraged at the market mentality and the extortion that had turned the Temple into a “den of thieves” (Matthew 21:13). He flipped tables over and chased out the money changers and even the animals with a whip! It is the only time we see Jesus using something akin to a weapon in all of Scripture. And it is a sobering reminder that Jesus is not always “nice,”—sin and corruption lead him to righteous anger.
We are now the living temples of God. St. Paul wrote, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16). Imagine, then, that Jesus approached this temple that is our body. What would make him angry? What would he chase out with a whip? What tables would he flip over in our soul? What coins would he fling to the ground? Our reflection should lead us to a holy kind of fear, the type the Psalmist described when he said, “the fear of the Lord is pure.”
It also makes me hope that I never encounter the angry Jesus!
In Matthew’s Gospel, the cleansing of the Temple is followed by Jesus’ healing of the blind and lame in the area (Matthew 21:14). His anger about those who profaned the sacred space immediately subsided in the presence of those who needed his care and compassion. His wrath was directed at those who manipulated the religious laws for profit, to cheat people of their money, committing sacrilege and harming the very people the Temple rituals were meant to help. For the blind and the lame, though, he had nothing but tenderness. I can imagine Jesus dropping the whip, taking a deep breath, and smiling again as he made them whole.
This is how I hope to encounter Jesus. I imagine it is the same for you.
John follows his story of the cleansing of the Temple with Jesus’ encounter with Nicodemus. This Jewish leader was convinced that Jesus was “a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you are doing unless God is with him” (John 3:2). Jesus tells him about being “born from above… by water and the spirit” (John 3:3ff.). And then, in that exchange, we hear some of the most comforting words of Scripture:
“[Jesus said,] ‘No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.’ For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:13-17).
We are living Temples of the Holy Spirit. As we make our way through Lent, like Jesus we must cleanse the Temple, which is precisely what the Sacrament of Reconciliation and the discipline of penance are for. After all, we don’t want Jesus to take out his whip again! Holy fear of the Lord is a healthy spiritual quality, unrelated to the anxious fear that terrifies us. It is not psychological terror, but simply the wonder and awe we feel in the presence of the power of God. It moves us to repentance and deeper conversion. It makes us fall more deeply in love with God, and prepares us to receive and to share God’s love more fully.
Having encountered the merciful God, we reject all barriers that make it difficult for others to experience the same encounter (barriers like those the profaners of the Temple set up). Instead, we imitate Christ and bring the Temple to the people, fostering the encounter with God wherever healing and mercy is needed. For, through us as living sacraments, people everywhere will come to know and experience—and we will know and experience through them—the profound truth this Lenten season prepares us to celebrate: “For God so loved the world…”
Sunday, February 25, 2018
Second Sunday of Lent
As we continue the penitential season of Lent, it is appropriate that we are also celebrating Black History Month. The Church in the United States has yet to effectively proclaim the Gospel in a full-throated manner that denounces racism in both its personal and its structural manifestations. We are still in need of both penance and conversion. This is not my assessment alone, but the grim appraisal of Bishop George V. Murry of Youngtown, Ohio, who is the chair of the USCCB’s recently formed Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.
Racism against black people remains paradigmatic of the deep problem of racism in our culture more generally. We saw its ugly face in Charlottesville last summer. The very fact that white supremacists and Neo-Nazis continue to exist in our society is extremely disconcerting, but even more worrisome is that they feel empowered to come out from the fringes. These monstrous examples of racism harken back to the days of lynchings, de jure segregation, and slavery, and they remind us, as William Faulkner wisely noted, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
These grotesque acts also distract us from less obvious, structural forms of racism, such as we find in our economic arrangements and in our justice, immigration, and education systems, which demand our focused attention. Moreover, heinous acts allow white people like me to define racism only in terms of its ugliest manifestations and therefore to credit myself with not being racist. Yet, being a member of a majority race that benefits from structures of oppression, I cannot become complacent. It is not enough to say “I have black friends” and “I don’t discriminate.” Being against racism demands what Catholic social teaching calls solidarity. I am compelled to work for racial justice as if it were myself who were being oppressed. This is the meaning of the second half of the Great Commandment after all: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:39).
In my work against bullying in schools, I see racism and white supremacy joining homophobia and mockery of those with disabilities as common forms of violence among our youth. It didn’t surprise me when I read about a Catholic high school chanting racist slurs against the opposing Catholic school’s basketball team recently. What surprised me was that it reached the surface, demanding a response from the Archbishop of Cincinnati. “Behavior such as this is directly contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and falls well short of the expectations that I have of any of our Catholic high schools,” Archbishop Dennis M. Schnurr said. “Our Catholic faith demands that we respect and love all of God’s children, and our words and actions should reflect this at all times.” Typically, bigoted, bullying language is hidden from adults in the school, who often fail to assess correctly the prevalence of such language and prejudice among our young people. In this case, the racism was directed at students who are black or Asian. In other cases, it is bigotry and dehumanization directed at those with Middle Eastern, Native American, Latino, Jewish, or any other non-white identity. Racism, we know, is a learned behavior. It should worry us deeply that we belong to a society that is teaching it.
All this brings me back to Bishop Murry’s statement. Reflecting on the USCCB’s 1979 document which acknowledged that “Racism is an evil which endures in our society and in our Church” and that “Racism is a sin: a sin that divides the human family…and violates the fundamental human dignity of those called to be children of the same Father,” Bishop Murry asks the pointed question, “Why has the church in the United States been incapable of enunciating straightforward principles and taking decisive action regarding racism that has led to a change of attitude?” He points to a USCCB study as evidence of his criticism. “Since 1979… only 18 percent of U.S. bishops had issued statements condemning racism. Of those, very few addressed systemic racism. In addition… many diocesan seminaries and ministry formation programs were inadequate in terms of their incorporation of the history, culture and traditions of the black community.”
On Mount Tabor, Jesus was Transfigured and the Father proclaimed, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” When it comes to racial equality and respect for the human dignity of all persons, we have not been listening. The Church must do better. White Catholics must do better. We have to acknowledge the sins of the past, including that “During the 19th century, some U.S. bishops defended slavery; and during the 20th century, many Catholics opposed the civil rights movement and encouraged—or at least acquiesced in—racial segregation.” It is time to listen. The U.S. Bishops are doing exactly that. The work of Bishop Murry’s committee is an important step forward. We must follow their lead. Lent is a perfect opportunity for greater conversion towards an unequivocal rejection of racism as both personal prejudice and systemic discrimination.
Sunday, February 18, 2018
First Sunday of Lent
This past week, Latin Rite Catholics and many other Christians began their Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday. (Our Eastern Catholic family began Great Lent two days earlier on “Clean Monday,” and our Orthodox brothers and sisters begin their Great Lent tomorrow). Coincidentally, Ash Wednesday was also St. Valentine’s Day on our social calendar. As a result, some dioceses asked Catholics to move their Valentine’s Day celebrations to Tuesday, incorporating them into the already festive activities of Mardi Gras. The requirement to fast on Ash Wednesday took priority over fine romantic dining and the exchange of chocolates and heart-shaped candies, and bishops were not keen on granting a dispensation.
So how did you do… and what did you do? Did you move Valentine’s Day to Mardi Gras? Did you cheat a little and have some chocolate on Ash Wednesday? Did you forget Valentine’s Day altogether this year? For me, it wasn’t a problem. My family never celebrated Valentine’s Day on February 14th. Being one of eight sons, I am used to our “family Valentine’s Day” being February 15th—when all the chocolates were at least 50% off! (Of course, school—and dates!—didn’t move the celebration back a day, so I suppose I am more torn than I let on.)
“Dust thou art and to dust thou shalt return” is not exactly a romantic expression, but it does contain a theme that every romantic poet and playwright understands: how quickly our time on earth passes. The predominant cultural response to this memento mori is to embrace the Epicurean mindset: eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow we shall die. The culture says carpe diem! and by that expression means for us to have as many pleasurable and joyful experiences as we can. We are led down the road of hedonism, hoping that the balance of pleasure will outweigh the inevitable pain and death. Knowing that we are, indeed, dust, we “rage, rage against the dying of the light” as Dylan Thomas famously wrote.
The Church also asks us to remember death and to seize the day, but it leads us on a path far more life-giving than hedonism. Instead of raging against death, we are invited to enter into the passion and death of Christ, through whom resurrection is possible. It puts life in a new perspective, measuring everything against an eternal horizon. It reminds us that although time is fleeting, love remains. Love will even conquer death. Christ “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death…” (1 Corinthians 15:25-26). Concerning the Epicurean mindset, St. Paul wrote, “If the dead are not raised: ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” (1 Corinthians 15:32). But the dead are raised! “For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life…” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
It is fortuitous, then, that Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincided this year. They both ask us to value and to reflect upon love. As Father Leo Patalinghug of EWTN’s Savoring Our Faith TV show noted, Valentine’s Day on Ash Wednesday afforded us a “perfect day to start Lent and to have that discussion of what love means.” As reported in The Pilot (the archdiocesan newspaper for Boston), Fr. Patalinghug hopes we gain a “deeper sense of what love really means — which at times requires sacrifice.” This is not the hedonistic way, which always leads to frustration because it is built on the false foundation of selfish individualism. This is The Way of Christ Jesus, who taught us that “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life” (John 12:24-25).
Valentine’s Day is now behind us, but love remains. Lent is the Church’s great period of sacrifice, preparing us to receive love and to give love more fully. We struggle, perhaps, to avoid the way of hedonism and selfish individualism that are so prominent in our culture, and so we pray with the Psalmist: “Your ways, O LORD, make known to me; teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my savior.” We make the prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus our own once again: Jesus, meek and humble of heart, make our hearts like unto Thine. After all, someday this earthly life will be behind us. But love remains!
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I have a friend who is HIV positive. Had he been born ten years earlier, he would probably be dead now. Fortunately, advances in science and medicine—and access to treatment—have allowed him to live and to prosper. Many of us who remember the height of the AIDS crisis in the U.S. know the double tragedy that occurred. First and foremost, it was a tragedy in terms of human suffering and death. Secondly, it was tragic in terms of judgmentalism (sometimes fueled by religious self-righteousness) and a wanton lack of compassion.
Mark was infected with the disease through a blood transfusion he received as a hemophiliac when he was a child. It is funny to hear him tell the story of his parents sitting him down when he was about ten years old to tell him something very important. He says, “I thought they were about to give me ‘the talk.’” Instead, they told him he had a second deadly disease and that he would have to be very careful to protect himself and others.
Between the first and the second paragraphs of this story, some people move toward deeper compassion. Although we are doing better as a society (I think), there is lingering judgmentalism and even lack of compassion, isn’t there? Some people hear “HIV” or “AIDS” and immediately begin to question the person’s life choices. Is he sexually promiscuous? Is he gay? Is he sharing dirty needles? Once they hear that Mark was a mere child when he contracted the disease, there is a surge of compassion. It is as if there are the “good sick” and the “bad sick.” For some people, at least, mercy and compassion are reserved for those they deem are worthy of it.
That, of course, is not the Christian way. The disease that made one an outcast in Biblical times was leprosy. We hear from Leviticus the law regarding lepers: “The one who bears the sore of leprosy shall keep his garments rent and his head bare, and shall muffle his beard; he shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.” It was a common assumption that the disease was a punishment for one’s sins—not unlike what some preachers proclaimed about AIDS in our day. Yet, when the leper in today’s Gospel approached Jesus and begged him, “If you wish, you can make me clean,” Jesus did not rebuke him for being unclean, nor did he castigate him for his sins or the sins of his parents, nor did he avoid him out of fear. His immediate reaction was compassion, seeing a human person and not a disease: “Moved with pity, he stretched out his hand, touched him, and said to him, ‘I do will it. Be made clean.’”
Christian discipleship requires these same three movements. I have witnessed this many times, and I am always grateful for those who continue to mentor me, especially those Christians (and others) in the healthcare field. What is it that they model? First, regardless of the disease or the way in which it was contracted, their first response is compassion. They see the human dignity of the person in front of them. They are moved to pity. Second, they touch the person when others are afraid to get close. When their own health is at stake, they use universal precautions, but nonetheless, they engender the very idea that medicine is not just about prescriptions and technology, but is about the healing hand. Third, like Jesus they take action. Using what power they have, they administer treatments, advocate for their patients, and educate the public and public officials about health care, human dignity, and the common good.
Jesus said, “When I was sick, you cared for me” (Matthew 25:36). He did not say, “When I was sick, you made sure I was worthy of your care and then, and only then, offered me compassion.” St. Francis of Assisi embraced a leper in the thirteenth century. St. Damien of Molokai ministered to the lepers in Hawaii in the late nineteenth century and was canonized in 2009. St. Teresa of Calcutta reminded us that the sick, including AIDS patients, give us an opportunity to care for Christ himself. The real disease in any society is indifference and judgmentalism. Today is the World Day of the Sick. Perhaps as we enter into Lent this Wednesday, we could fast from indifference and judgmentalism whenever we see them infecting us. Those un-Christian qualities are the viruses we should fear. They should be the outcasts among us.
Sunday, February 4, 2018
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time
George Bernard Shaw once observed that “Both optimists and pessimists contribute to society. The optimist invents the airplane, the pessimist the parachute.” We need a bit of both, don’t we? Christians aren’t required to be optimists, nor are we condemned to be pessimists. Both outlooks are fully human and may be harnessed to serve the Kingdom of God. What is required, however, is hope.
Hope is different from optimism. Optimism sees things through rose-colored glasses and is sure that everything will work out just fine. Hope, on the other hand, sees the possibility of desperation and rejects it. Hope knows the pain and still holds on. Hope is lost in darkness and nonetheless trusts that light will return. Hope has no clear answers about how everything will be made right, except to trust in God’s goodness. It exchanges the surety of the optimist for the faith of the believer. Optimism, on the other hand, can easily be dashed by disappointing situations, and can become disillusioned by failure, lack of progress, and setbacks. In this way, its ungrounded cheeriness could lead to despair. Hope, on the other hand, joins Jesus on the cross in apparent failure and abandonment—crying out, “My God! My God! Why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46) —and yet trusts that God will somehow make this all right: “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.” (Luke 23:46).
As optimism is distinct from hope, pessimism is different from despair. Pessimism assumes things will go wrong and get worse, and that sin and selfishness will continue to afflict us. If it does not cling to hope, pessimism may indeed devolve into despair. With hope, though, the pessimist puts his/her negative vision of the state of the world into prophetic action for change and compassion. With hope, we comfort one another through the suffering. With hope, we work for a better world, against all odds, fully aware that our best efforts cannot ultimately bring about the fullness of the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom will be God’s gift, the epic restoration (and more!) of justice and harmony won by Christ and accomplished by the Spirit, through the Church and in the world, to the glory of God the Father. It is one way of naming the object of our hope.
Job understood pessimism, and who can blame the poor guy? When he cries out on the brink of despair, can’t we relate? Haven’t we experienced the darkness and depression? Haven’t we known those endless, sleepless nights that he describes? In his tortured state, he even seems to reach hopelessness, but we know he hangs on: “Job spoke, saying: Is not man’s life on earth a drudgery? …If in bed I say, ‘When shall I arise?’ then the night drags on… My days are swifter than a weaver’s shuttle; they come to an end without hope… I shall not see happiness again.”
The important lesson from Job—the very indication that he holds on to hope—is that from his misery he cries out to God. He complains bitterly. He even accuses God of treating him unfairly. He is terribly pessimistic about life, God’s providence, and his destiny. Still, he remains in communication with God, and therefore in communion. We know from our human relationships that as long as we continue talking and listening, we remain in relationship. There is still hope. When we walk away permanently, it is over. To break off all communication is to give up, to be hopeless. There are few more painful experiences in life than having someone we love cut off all communication. We are afflicted by the devastating lack of hope for healing, and the knowledge that we don’t matter enough for the other person to even continue trying. We suffer from the words and efforts we would like to communicate that are now stunted and moot. It is so painful and frustrating to not be able to speak those words! Job does not do this with God. As distressed, depressed, and close to despair as he is, he remains in communication with God.
Staying in communication with God—even if our words must be words of pain and anger, even if we bring pessimism to the conversation, even if we feel that God isn’t listening and has abandoned us on the cross—is the wellspring and the expression of hope. It is built on a firm faith that, even though I may not be experiencing it yet, God “heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” It is an expression of love that refuses to walk away. So, fly when you can; and carry a parachute if you must; but never stop talking and listening to God, even if only silently in the heart, even if the speech is full of gloom and agony and accusation, for as the title of this blog reminds us, The Word Is Life!
Sunday, January 28, 2018
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
One of the most unusual depictions of the Stations of the Cross is in the Chapel of the Rosary at the Dominican Convent in Vence, France. The chapel, designed by Henri Matisse, features a back wall on which the Stations are one large mural. At first, one has the impression that it is unfinished: it resembles black and white chalk drawings one might find in an artist’s sketchbook. After spending time with the artwork, though, one begins to appreciate its inherent logic. The lack of realism is, ironically, more painful for the viewer than a realistic creation would be. It is chaotic. It disturbs us. It is too simple. It makes no sense. We begin to understand how disturbingly ordinary the crucifixion itself was, how simple, how senseless by any human calculation. “The drawing is rough, very rough,” Matisse confirmed in [a letter], “God held my hand.”
“L’exactitude n’est pas la vérité,” explained Matisse about his approach to art: “Exactitude (or precision/accuracy) is not the truth.” Precisely because we are forced to think about the meaning of the representation, we enter more deeply into meditation on the passion and death of Christ. Two ingredients are blended here. First, the representation is completely familiar. We quickly identify the story. We recognize its movements. We know it by heart. This makes the second action possible. By rejecting some pieces of the tradition (e.g. separate “stations” requiring a pilgrimage through the church, and artistic realism), Matisse moves us from recognition to contemplation. In doing so, he prevents the tradition from becoming stale (Are we not desensitized by the too-familiar? Don’t we walk by Stations on a regular basis with barely a notice?) and allows it to surprise us with its ever-fresh revelations and requirements.
This, it seems to me, is a basic liturgical rule. We must balance continuity—that which never changes, which is familiar and known by heart—with that which provokes us to “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgy (Sacrosanctum Concilium #14). The Psalmist invites us: “Come, let us sing joyfully to the LORD… Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving… Come, let us bow down in worship; let us kneel before the LORD who made us.” If we are to fulfill the Psalmist’s requirement, we must be careful about continuity and change.
For example, scholars have given us multiple translations of the Bible, and the bishops wisely mandate a specific one for the sacraments. However, because the lectionary changes to accommodate scholarly developments, Bible passages we memorized as children may already be unfamiliar to us as adults. For example, the Magnificat read from the pulpit nowadays is not the same wording many of us memorized as children. The same may be said for the 23rd Psalm and others. Have you experienced this? We must ask, is the alteration worth it? Does it, like Matisse’s Stations of the Cross, provoke deeper contemplation and “full, conscious, and active participation,” or does it needlessly disrupt the tradition? Perhaps a familiar, albeit lesser quality, translation would serve the Church better. Is it not still The Word of God? Do we imagine that God’s living Word depends (apart from egregious distortion) on the accuracy of the translation? L’exactitude n’est pas la vérité.
Likewise, Pope Francis has suggested that the English version of the Lord’s Prayer should be changed to be more theologically accurate. Instead of praying “lead us not into temptation”—which sounds as if God is the one doing the tempting—the pope suggests praying “do not let us fall into temptation.” If the pope makes the change, I will certainly follow his lead, but as long as it remains an open question, I turn again to Matisse. Will changing the words lead to deeper contemplation and “full, conscious, and active participation” in the liturgy, or will it distract us? Whether in our prayers, our Scriptures, our Missal, our music, or our liturgical art and architecture, we must carefully balance the need for familiarity and continuity with legitimate change. Although a development may be technically correct, it may not be spiritually beneficial. L’exactitude n’est pas la vérité.
For the faithful Catholic, changes in wording that has been familiar and beloved may feel like a loss or a theft even. I suggest we take Matisse as a model and allow the disruption to lead us into deeper contemplation. By balancing—with faithful creativity—the demands of continuity and change, Matisse effected a spiritual masterpiece. He may very well be the liturgical mentor the Church needs most right now.
Sunday, January 14, 2018
The Second Sunday in Ordinary Time
In a paper I read recently, one of my students talked openly about growing up with an abusive father. As she reflected back on those years, she was especially upset by religious people who offered cheap maxims such as “Everything happens for a reason” and “God always has a plan.” I have heard these same expressions so many times in life, and I consistently find them lacking. While they may provide comfort for some people, they do not sufficiently account for human freedom, agency, and sin.
Extending “sympathy” to another person with these saccharine sayings leads them to question God’s goodness (or even existence, for how could THIS be part of God’s plan?) and to doubt the wisdom of the Church. We effectively become like Job’s friends, offering words that lack understanding and fail to comfort. In my student’s experience, the sayings led her to blame herself. She must have done something to deserve this treatment if a good God was allowing it. Worse, she began to think God didn’t love her. This, of course, re-victimizes the victim. What she needed, and fortunately found, was compassion—a word that means to suffer with. Genuine compassion doesn’t have easy answers; it simply refuses to leave another person alone in their suffering. It offers assistance when assistance is possible. Through compassion, we suffer together, and lessen the pain. As my student wisely noted, she was helped not by words but by one person who extended compassion through an “enduring show of solidarity.”
The reading this weekend from 1 Samuel is a familiar one to us. Samuel hears God’s voice but thinks it is Eli calling him. “Here I am. You called me,” he says to Eli. Samuel, after all, did not know what to make of his experience because “At that time Samuel was not familiar with the LORD, because the LORD had not revealed anything to him as yet.” I am moved by the quality of advice that Eli gave to Samuel, after discerning the experience correctly. At first, he did not recognize what was happening in the young man’s life, but “Then Eli understood that the LORD was calling the youth. So he said to Samuel, ‘Go to sleep, and if you are called, reply, ‘Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.’’”
Isn’t this the case with so many of our young people? God is certainly moving in their lives, but they are not yet familiar with the ways of God. They need mentors. They need teachers who are patient and wise in discerning what is happening in their experiences. What a tragedy if all they receive from us is the trite expression, “Everything happens for a reason.” How much better if we respond as Eli did, teaching them to discern the voice of God, and to assume the posture of a loving disciple: “Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.”