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The Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – B: October 29, 2006

Jeremiah 31:7-9
Hebrews 5:1-6
Mark 10:46-52

Dear Jesus,

The thought of being blind terrifies me. I don’t even want to imagine what it would be like to live in that kind of darkness, never to see the first rays of morning light or to watch transfixed by the shades and shadows of evening giving way to twilight and night. What would it be like not to be able to look into the ink-black sky and see the stars? Never to look into the eyes of a beloved and recognize devotion there?

Then, there is Bartimaeus who cried out to you on the road near Jericho. A beggar, he sat in desperation in the byway as the crowds, the disciples, and you passed by. He heard the noise. He felt the motion. He had to ask who was causing the tumult. Judging by his reaction, he must have heard about you before. What had he heard? Had someone told him that you touched a deaf person’s ears and that one heard? Had he heard the stories about you empowering people to walk? Had he marveled when he was told about the crowds you fed with the few loaves and couple of fish? Had he stored up all of this and concluded that the one who did all these marvelous things must be the Son of David, the Messiah, the one who could make him see?

Did he embarrass people when he shouted out to you? Did it seem unseemly that he make such a display of his need? As they rebuked him, did they tell him he should be more discreet? Should piety be quieter?

And how did you hear Bartimaeus’ voice in the midst of the din? What made you stop and have him brought to you? But it seems that some of the people had a different attitude and were less inclined to rebuke? Were they your disciples, those who had come to the same conclusion that Bartimaeus had? Is that why they were able to calm his fears as they brought him to you? Were they the very ones who had told him the stories that created the hunger in his heart and gave him the confidence to cry out?

I wish I could have been there. But where would I have been? Would I have been one of the crowds trying to hush Bartimaeus? Would I have been one of those calming his fear and bringing him to you? Or, would I have been Bartimaeus?

It occurs to me that there is more than physical blindness involved in this moment. Is this event that comes just before your triumphant entry into Jerusalem a glimpse of how the kingdom you are establishing is meant to work? Those who know you need to help others find you. Isn’t that right? Finding you, proclaiming you as Messiah and Lord is not enough and are not realizations that one can keep for one’s self. With you it is all about service.

That’s what faith communities and parishes should be about. Gathering in the midst of the crowds, in the midst of those who do not yet know you, whose values may be contrary to your Gospel’s, these people whom you baptized feast on every word you speak and on your body and blood. They are in the process of being formed into your other selves. And they are sent to put what they have heard and what they have eaten and drunk into practice. Go out and tell the whole world the Good News. It’s about building up your kingdom through the pouring out of self in service. To aspire to anything else is to give testimony to the fact that the basic conversion has not taken place. I want to be in the community of the converted, the ones who know you and testify to that knowledge by imitating you even to the carrying of the cross.

But what if I were Bartimaeus? It would mean that I recognized by weaknesses and dependencies whether or not I am actually blind. I would have sat at the feet of those who told the stories? I would have taken in the testimony of those who had been touched by you, those you plunged into the waters and drew out to new life. But all those encounters and all those witness stories would not mean that I would be able to believe. I would still need more. I would still need you.

Bartimaeus cried out. You heard his voice. You invited others to bring him to you. And when he had thrown off his only possession, the cloak that would shade him from the noonday sun and shelter him while he slept in the chill of the night, when he had given up everything and come to you, you asked him what he wanted.

Teacher, I want to see. But it is more that he wants than the ability to see the trees and the sky. Isn’t it true that he wants to know and believe the truth he has been told? For Bartimaeus to see means to believe, to become a disciple.

You affirm the incipient faith. With a simple command you empower him to see. But how can he go on his own old way as you suggest. He will never be the same. The old way is meaningless now. To see the way Bartimaeus does is to know that life has no meaning without you. To believe means from this day forward he must follow you on the way.

Jesus, I want to see.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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The Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time – B: October 22, 2006

Isaiah 53:10-11
Hebrews 4:14-16
Mark 10:35-45

Dear Jesus,

Is God pleased to crush people in their weaknesses, as Isaiah seems to say? I hope you do not think that I am impertinent for asking. But if that were so, it would seem to me that God is mean-spirited. Who can delight in another’s suffering? And so I wonder if the delight is not so much in the suffering as it is in the acceptance and the abiding trust of the sufferer in the God who promises deliverance.

That’s what your passion and death testify to, isn’t it? The Father wasn’t pleased that you suffered but that you were willing to accept even death on a cross, confident that God would raise you up. That acceptance made your dying sacrificial, the atonement for my sins. In that, you saved me. I think about that often and wonder if I will ever understand. Certainly I am not worthy of this. But then one is not loved because of worthiness. Rather, recognition of being loved makes one all the more conscious of being unworthy. Otherwise one might take being loved for granted.

Someone asked me recently how many Christians I thought there were. What a strange question, I thought. And my answer was hundreds of missions worldwide. But my questioner said, Really? Think about it. Do you really think all those people who identify themselves as Christian readily embrace the Cross, are ready and willing to lay down their lives as Jesus did? How many do you think are just culturally Christian, have Christianity in their background, would never deny being Christian, but make few decisions because of the demands of the faith?

So I bring the question to you. I remember that Gandhi is reported to have said: I love you, Christ. It’s Christians I can’t abide. I shivered the first time I read that remark. But when I think of the sins committed in the name of Christianity, the persecutions, the wars, and the excuses for marginalizing and excluding people, I feel shame and worry that any of those attitudes might lodge in my heart. Do you weep over us? Do you get angry? Do you wonder if we will ever learn?

And what about ambition? James and John wanted power and position in the kind of kingdom they thought you would establish when you revealed yourself as the Messiah. The kingdom they saw coming was very much part of this world and would establish an earthly realm with gold and the other spoils of victory. They wanted to be the captains of your army in positions of power. They wanted primacy of place. Heaven had nothing to do with it.

Sometimes, I wonder how far we have come from their aspirations. In my prayers, I used to wonder what would come to me because of my relationship with you. I thought about success and positions of authority. But I don’t think I ever indulged those fantasies. I think I came to understand pretty early on that serving others in your behalf meant empowering them, helping them to know their dignity and worth, and inviting them to serve, too. But I did like the position and the ministry you entrusted to me.

You have been reading my letters for a long time now. What have they revealed to you? Have I progressed beyond the proverbial square one? Do you really mean it when you say, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all? Who can do that? Who can live with that kind of vulnerability? If I lived by that maxim, wouldn’t someone always be taking advantage of me? What would there be left for me? What dignity would be left for me if I were the slave of the rest?

Learn from me! That’s the point, isn’t it? You want me to walk in your footsteps, peer over your shoulder, watch carefully and learn by observing what you do. And if I did that, I would soon conclude that there is no instance when you sought power. At no time did you ever lord anything over anyone. You were never embarrassed by another’s weaknesses or inadequacies. You touched the untouchables and risked giving scandal so that you could convince even the leper of God’s love for him/her. (I) did not come to be served but to serve and to give (my) life as a ransom for the many. If I am going to be a Christian, your disciple, are you saying that I have to be able to say that about myself? I don’t think I can do that. Not without your help.

Sincerely,

Didymus

The Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time – B: October 15, 2006

Wisdom 7:7-11
Hebrews 4:12-13
Mark 10:17-30

Dear Jesus,

Sometimes I wish I had the courage to strike out for the desert and once I was far from everyone and surrounded by sand and cacti to pitch a tent there and experience solitude. I say that because I realize that I live now among many distractions. It’s not that I am a wealthy man with all of this world’s goods that anyone could wish for. But still, I think I am far from poverty. I have a roof over my head and a bed to sleep in through the night in reasonable security. I don’t know what it means to wonder where my next meal will come from. Provided they are not too steep, I have enough money to pay for green fees.

So I suppose you are now wondering what’s my problem. I’m unsettled by the encounter you have with the rich person in this gospel. I wonder if I am another incarnation of that one who came to you seeking salvation only to be challenged to go deeper. What was s/he worried about? What exactly was being sought? Was s/he scrupulous, fretting about minutiae of moral infractions? What does the question mean?

I wonder if I could say with such assurance following a scanning of the Decalogue that I have kept all these from my youth. And clearly it is not an idle boast. Upon the declaration it says you looked at the person with love. S/he told the truth. Could I say that I kept all of God’s law with such care?

Are you saying that his/her salvation is in danger when you say one thing is lacking? Or are you drawing the person to a realm not yet considered? Wealth does not mean damnation is in the offing, does it? To be wealthy and at the same time to be careful about observing the Law would surely result in the person’s going to God at life’s end, wouldn’t it? After all, all things are possible for God. So this challenge must be about something more, something new, and something previously unimagined – entering the reign of God now. Being empty so that God has a place to fill.

Something just occurred to me. I re-read the list of commandments that you put before the enquirer. Am I right in noticing that there is one thing missing in the list? Love. There is no mention of love, either love of God or love of neighbor. Honoring parents is mentioned. But one can honor without loving. One can keep those commandments and remain self-absorbed.

There is a list of things not to do but little that requires action. Is that what you see in the integrity and lack of the seeker, the potential to be a lover? Is it true that only when one loves can God reign in the heart? Until then one can be deluded into thinking that one earns heaven, that essentially one saves him/herself. Does the seeker’s question betray uneasiness that saving self just might not be an option?

Only when one does what you do, pours out self in service, only then will one enter the kingdom of God. This is what haunts me and what makes me want to set out on a desert trek, there to sit without distraction and await enlightenment. But now that makes me uneasy, too. Your challenge isn’t just to do without, it is to do with. In my desired solitude I would soon hear your whisper challenging me to imitate you. Go, sell what you have and give to the poor…then come, follow me. And if I do that I will have to do what you do, welcome sinners and eat with them. I will have to exercise a fundamental option for the poor. I will have to pour myself out in love. Is it true that if I can do that I will find you? And if I find you, will I know God’s reign?

I was just about to sign off when a word leapt from the page of my gospel. Persecutions! Amidst the litany of blessings that will come from giving up everything and following you, you also promise persecutions. Why did you promise persecutions? Was that to assure the infant church that their trials, their sufferings, their rejections, and their winding up on crosses similar to your own, were not signs of failure but shares in your victory? If your followers dare to take the Gospel seriously and live with values so contrary to the assumed values that surround them, if they speak out against injustice and call for a calming of the winds of war, and if they love the poor, they will be despised in every age. But heaven waits.

Oh my. I am afraid. Can I do this? Can I go beyond the observance of the law to live your life and so enter the kingdom of God?

Could you get back to me about this, please? Or do I want the answer?

Sincerely,

Didymus