Archive for March, 2008|Monthly archive page

THE THIRD SUNDAY OF EASTER

The Acts of the Apostles 2:14, 22-33
The First Letter of St. Peter 1:17-21
The Gospel of Luke 24:13-35

Have you ever noticed that the beginnings of faith often have to do with giving up suppositions about Jesus? Along the way you have to let go of so much and deal with disappointment. You might have thought you believed only to have an epiphany, as it were, that tells you that you had no idea. Or, better, that your preconceptions centered on such a limited portion of the truth and often involved misconceptions. We are dealing with mystery, after all, so why should that be a surprise?

If I have a favorite gospel passage, it is today’s. I pray with it at least weekly and each time find something new at which to marvel. I turn to the passage in times of desolation. I rest in it in times of great elation. I have come to accept that to be a believer means to journey with Jesus on the way. When and where did your faith life begin?

The two people on their way to Emmaus are introduced to us as disciples. That designation means that they had made a decision to follow, to be with Jesus. They’re different from those who made up the crowds that milled around Jesus, listening to him, observing him in action, but remained uncommitted. We’re given a hint about what the two thought about Jesus, that he was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. They were impressed by the power of his preaching and thrilled by how his preaching translated into action. They probably concluded that there had never been another as wonderful as Jesus who could give them reason to hope during the oppressive times in which they were living. Remember, they lived in a time of domination by Roman rule. Jesus seemed to fit so many of the qualities that they expected to see exhibited in one who would redeem Israel, that is, set Israel free from their oppressors.

What went wrong? The two are conversing and debating about their Jesus experience. Some things he said and did fit their preconceptions of the Messiah. The poor did have the Good News preached to them. It had been thrilling to see multitudes rapt in attention to his every word. Some wanted just to touch his clothes. There were reports of miracles. But being condemned and crucified like a common criminal were not concepts associated with the Messiah. When you began to believe, what did you imagine Jesus would do for you? There are not a few today who extol a Jesus who will bring wealth and power to those who turn their lives over to him. Did such thoughts draw you to Jesus in the beginning?

The Stranger who joins the two on their way to Emmaus invites them to go deeper into their disappointments. He gives them an opportunity to acknowledge their grief even as he invites them to let go of their assumptions and enter the new way. Don’t miss the important information that their eyes were prevented from recognizing (Jesus). It happens in Luke’s and John’s gospels that disciples do not recognize the resurrected One in their first encounters with him. What really is happening is that these disciples are coming to see him for the first time with insights that alter all their previous experiences of him. Invariably, there is much they have to let go of. Isn’t it curious that the two have heard the astounding news reported by some of the women in the group? The empty tomb. Angels announcing that he is alive. Amazing news, yes, but it is not enough to convince them.

Hang on now. There is an abrupt transition. The Stranger does not mince words. How foolish you are. How slow of heart to believe! They have missed the whole point of the mission and message. The Jesus moment was one of God’s entering into the human experience inviting people to live a new life. It was as if God were saying again, in the words found in the Hebrew Scriptures, Let me be your God and you will be my people. Let us live in a union that you could never have dreamed or imagined if only you will not be embarrassed by this different kind of Messiah, different from your expectations, and will walk with the Christ in faith. And here is the shocking transition that if accepted alters forever the meaning and role of suffering in life.

The common belief regarding suffering was that it was a punishment for sin, either for one’s own sins or those of one’s ancestors. The horror of crucifixion paled in comparison to the obvious meaning that God was punishing Jesus on the cross through the hands of those who drove in the nails and crowned him with thorns. How foolish you are. Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?

Nosh on that for a moment. Unfortunately we hear texts over and over again. Pericopes are proclaimed. We hear opening words, know the rest of the story and muse off about something else until the proclamation is over. I remember looking out at the assembly while reading the gospel that spoke of Jesus calming the wind and the waves and being startled by a woman yawning. What is so shocking? In a simple turn of phrase, suffering far from being a punishment for sin becomes a means of entering into glory. A suffering messiah is the Christ.

And what about disciples? What comes to them if they follow Jesus? The challenge is that Jesus must be all and all for them. I wonder if the two disciples remembered that Jesus had warned that if they would be his disciples they would have to take up the cross every day and follow him. Had they been present for the encounter between Jesus and the rich person who wanted salvation? That person had followed all the commandments from youth. What more had to be done? Go sell what you have and give to the poor. Then come and follow me. That person went away sad because that was asking too much.

The two disciples had to let go of their assumptions and preconceptions. It is not an exaggeration to say they had to go back to square one. They had to read the Scriptures in a new light. They had to see that discipleship was not for self-aggrandizement but for imitating Jesus in love. There was so much that had to die if they were to live. And there was the cross at the center of it all.

It is curious, isn’t it, that with all the insights that Stranger made available to them they still didn’t recognize him. The recognition of the truth burning in their hearts did not remove the veil from their eyes. That happened at the Table but not in the way that we might expect but in how Christ’s abiding presence would be achieved. The Bread is broken. It is in the action of the Eucharist that they recognize the Risen One. And as soon as they do, it is as if they are sent back to their community to tell the story and share the faith.

So it must be for us. The Word lives in the proclamation. And as we are nourished at the table of the Word and our hearts burn with the recognition of the truth we must go to the other Table and do Eucharist. It is there we will recognize the Risen One and know his presence. But it never stops there. Celebrating Eucharist and sharing in that meal mean that we must then be sent to tell the good news in word and action, loving others as we are loved. And the kingdom dawns.

THE SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER

The Acts of the Apostles: 2:42-47The First Letter of Peter 1:3-9The Gospel of John 20:19-31

He sat in the church that was silent except for the sound of the water trickling from the raised bowl into the font below. The last light of the setting sun set the stained glass windows in the eastern clerestory shimmering and dapples of blue and red on the west wall deepened as the rays flickered like candle flames in too strong a breeze. The last of the worshipers had left moments before. This man seemed unwilling to let go of the moment, reluctant to step out of the mystery into the approaching night.

I watched him for a few moments and felt irritation rise because I wanted to lock the doors and get on with my evening. I flicked the switches that extinguished the majority of the interior lights thinking that this surely would be a signal the man would recognize as an indication that he should be on his way. I walked to the narthex and noisily closed the doors and turned the key in their locks to secure them. Turning to start my way back up the aisle, I gazed over the font. My jaws clenched as I noted that the man continued to sit stolidly in place giving no evidence of intending to respond to the audible signals I so clearly had given.

The sound of each step I took on my way back down the aisle echoed through the nave. When I reached the pew in which he was sitting I stopped and turned toward him. I could see that his gaze was fixed on the Easter Candle that stood adjacent to the ambo. Tears glistened on his cheeks. I sat a few feet away from him and watched. His breathing was calm and his arms rested in his lap. Then he was looking at me, his eyes wide and unblinking.

“Is there anything I can do for you?” I asked.

Was there a hint of a smile on his lips as he turned his attention back to the Candle? “I was here a week ago tonight when you proclaimed Christ the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. You lit the Candle from the Easter fire and entered this dark church to proclaim Christ our Light! And I joined the others with Thanks be to God! I think I meant it. I desperately wanted to believe it. I thrilled as one by one the candles we held received light and flickered a moment before the light was passed on to a neighbor. I remember the darkness of the night yielding as one by one the candles were lit.

“We all sat in the candles’ light and listened to the story from the beginning. The words rushed over us. Genesis. Exodus. Isaiah. On and on in hypnotic cadence the words washed over the people. And I wondered, do I believe this. I want to but I don’t feel anything.”His tears continued to flow, falling from his chin to his shirtfront and hands below. “Feeling and believing aren’t the same thing any more than seeing and believing are,” I said. His right hand flicked across his cheek whisking tears away. “I can see that you are upset. Is it about this lack of feeling you have or is there something more?”He leaned back against the pew and sighed. I became aware of the smell of incense commingled with the scent of the Easter lilies.“I love the Easter Candle. I was told several years ago that the Candle is the great symbol of the Lord’s resurrection. I heard that when I was baptized. What an awesome night that was. The Candle figured in every step along the course of the service. It was the first thing I saw when I came up from the water gasping. Three times the water poured over me.”

I remember thinking that there must be something more that he wants to talk about. His body language was that of someone who had just heard of the death of a loved one. The need to urge him on his way had subsided. I was content to wait and listen. Rather than stare at him my gaze focused on the Candle that was simply decorated this year with the cross and five red spikes and a wrap of marbled wax. Light of Christ. Thanks be to God.

“I’m dying,” he said. “A few months from now and I’ll find out for myself whether there is anything more than silence. I feel like darkness is enveloping me. I keep hearing the doctor’s words, how sorry he was to tell me that the headaches I have been enduring are the result of an inoperable tumor in my brain.” He turned toward me to see how his news registered on my face. There was a pause, long but not awkward. “Thank you for not saying something trite. Thank you for not saying that you understand. It’s amazing how many people say they understand my pain.”

I felt my heart pounding in my chest as I searched for something to say. I knew that silence wasn’t enough. In stead, I reached over and took his hand. “I can pray,” I said. “I can try to support you with my prayer.”

“I don’t have anyone near by, any family. They’re in the Midwest. I’m not married or even engaged. But you have to die alone anyway, I guess. I hate darkness. I love light.”

His tears had stopped. He turned toward me tightening his hold of my hand. “If I could only see something that would convince me. I’m like Didymus, maybe. If I could touch the wounds, even feel his breath, I know I could believe then.”

“You do believe. You’re here. You celebrated Eucharist tonight with this assembly and were transformed more completely with them into the Body of Christ. The union in the Body is closer than family. The bond is love – Christ’s love for you. Your love for Christ and one another.” I remember feeling that I was struggling, grasping for words, praying that something I would say would touch.

“Am I loved? Does Christ love me? Did God send this thing that is killing me to punish me for my sins? Maybe if I believed stronger this wouldn’t have happened to me.”

“Hear me,” I said. “God does not send you this terrible cancer. But God does rush in to support you with love during your illness. You walk with this illness the way Jesus carried the Cross. To all the world it looked like defeat. Jesus proclaimed God faithfulness and love. He experienced darkness. And he leapt into the void believing that God would catch him in an embrace and raise him up.

“That’s what God will do with you because God loves you with the same love God has for Jesus. In fact, God might not even be able to tell the two of you apart.”“Do you mean that? Is that true for me? Can I believe that?”“I’ll tell you more. Hear me again. If you want it, when the time comes, I’ll be with you. You will feel my hand holding yours. You will hear my voice. I will remind you that God loves you and that Jesus waits to take you home.”

* * *

Puffs of smoke seemed to cling to his casket before ascending as I incensed his body at the funeral’s conclusion. The pall reminded those gathered that at his baptism he was clothed in Christ. The mourners stood in testimony to the truth that he had lived in Christ, died with Christ, and now lived in Christ forever.

The Candle went before us as we made our way down the aisle and out into the summer’s sun.

PALM SUNDAY OF THE LORD’S PASSION – A

Isaiah 50:4-7

Philippians 2:6-11

Matthew 26:14-27:66

What’s it all about? Not a bad question to be asked as we enter Holy Week with the celebration of Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. What do youth think all this is about? How are we supposed to respond? These can be lugubrious days that touch our emotions even making us weep as we remember what happened over 2000 years ago. Mel Gibson felt duty bound to afford us all a visceral experience of the horror of crucifixion, the horror of Jesus’ agony, his scourging, his crucifixion, and his death. Blood and gore were everywhere. The horror. The horror. The horror. Mary’s blank and accusing stare that ended the picture gave everyone in the audience ample reason to take a guilt trip. Look what you have done!

Of course one of the things we are supposed to have been doing during these days of Lent is repenting, becoming conscious of the fact that we are sinners, seeking to atone for our sins, and looking for ways to conform more closely to Jesus in whom we have been baptized. We are stepping out of the darkness and embracing the light. All that is well and good. But if our Lent has been too introverted and our focus too backward looking, then no matter how strict our Lenten observance has been, no matter how vivid the image we have of Jesus on the Cross, we have fallen short of what should have happened during these days.
The Liturgy of Palm Sunday, or Passion Sunday, is not an invitation to go to a Passion Play. I personally think Were You There should be forbidden at this liturgy and that of Good Friday because the hymn is an invitation to saccharin emotionalism. Who are the you to whom the Lord possessor is speaking? Were you there when they crucified my Lord. Isn’t Jesus our Lord? The experience is not about us vs. them. The Liturgy is about the timelessness of the event and the reality of every person’s suffering being a share in the event.

Listen to Isaiah’s Suffering Servant in the first reading. Some of the imagery in the Passion Narrative undoubtedly comes from the text. Who is the Suffering Servant? Surely we see a fulfillment in Jesus. But the Servant at times is as individual. At other times the Servant is Israel, the whole people who suffer. As terrible as the sufferings may be, this is the person, this is the people who are convinced that God is present to the sufferers and ultimately is their deliverer. An individual who suffers can find consolation in Isaiah. The people who suffer can, too. Liturgy invites us to live in hope.

Have you read Thomas Keneally’s Schindler’s List, or seen the film by the same name? Not bad reading or viewing for Lent and Holy Week. There are other similar works that might serve as well. The point? Is the historical novel an invitation to simply look back at an event of some 60 years ago and remember? Or, rather is the work meant to stir in us a compassionate response? If we simply look back and gasp in horror at the evils perpetrated, we can have a satisfying emotional experience. On the other hand, if we recognize our participation in humanity’s suffering, and like Schindler are stirred to a compassionate response, the experience can be converting. The operative word is compassion. The word means to enter into the sufferings of others – to suffer with. Dare we do that? And if we dare, will we ever be the same again?

Not that long ago, we celebrated Christmas. What was that all about? For some it is another invitation to be sentimental and imagine themselves at a Baby’s birth. That’s fine, I guess, but oh so lacking. The reality is that we are celebrating the Lord’s Incarnation, the wondrous fact that the Word took on flesh uniting the human and the divine. What’s that have to do with Passion Sunday, you ask? God has entered into the human experience and united us. If we believe in the Incarnation, we cannot look at others as strangers. We cannot blind ourselves to or stand idly by and watch dispassionately others’ suffering. To do so is to blind ourselves to Jesus’ sufferings, to fail to recognize the cross on which he hangs today. We must enter into that suffering, dare to suffer with, or we miss the door Passion Sunday can open for us. Dare we enter? I don’t mean to be dower, but we might not find God unless we do.

I remember how moved I was the first time I read the biography of Damien of Molokai. You remember him, the Belgian who traveled to the Islands to minister to lepers – outcasts from the rest of society, the untouchables. Once he entered that community he too became untouchable lest he contaminate someone else with the dreaded disease. In order to fulfill his obligation to confess his sins at least once a year, he had to stand on the dock and confess to the priest on the ship in a voice loud enough for all to hear his sins. And from the day he recognized the signs of leprosy in his own hands he never again referred to you lepers. Rather it was we lepers. Compassion: to suffer with. And for us, to recognize in those who suffer, the Christ suffering today.

Those who entered Dante’s Inferno read overhead, Abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Hell – to live without love with no hope of loving or being loved ever again. That is one of the great temptations of our day – to despair. Suffering leads us to the brink. Jesus, in the Passion Narrative cries out, My God, my God, why have you abandoned (forsaken) me? Some have said that the cry evidences Jesus’ despair in the last moments on the cross. In reality, the words open Psalm 22 and is the prayer of all suffering people who believe in the God who saves. Jesus enters into that suffering. The Psalm is not a psalm of despair, but one that affirms belief and trust in the God who saves. The God who led Israel dry shod through the Red Sea and to the Promised Land will continue to save until time runs its course. The psalm ends in triumph and thanksgiving because God delivers God’s people in the present just as God delivered in ages long ago. It is with that confidence that Jesus leaps into the void that is death and into the arms of the One he knows will raise him up on the Third Day.

Now celebrate Eucharist. Remember the word means Thanksgiving. We give thanks to God by renewing the dying and rising of God’s son, Jesus. Do this in my memory, Jesus says. The action of Eucharist necessitates our allowing ourselves to be transformed by what we do. As Jesus uses the word memory, it is better translated and I am with you, the whole mystery, the Jesus experience. Now. The Body is broken. The Cup is poured out. Our participation makes us the Body of Christ to be sent to do what Jesus does in every age, enter with compassion into the sufferings of others. Don’t leave others in the abstract. Give others names and faces and genders and nationalities and races. The others are Jesus. How do you look at the illegal alien now? The Iraqi? No political endorsement intended, but is Barak Obama still a little too dark to run for president, as someone said to me recently?

And we haven’t even talked about the impact all of this on each of us and our own personal sufferings. I wonder if this is why Jesus said we ought to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us? Could that be why we are supposed to forgive someone seventy times seven times? Is this why, if someone strikes me on one cheek I am to turn the other for the slap? Is this why we are silent in the face of condemnation?

Remember who is your vindicator, who it is who will raise you up. That is why the Christian cannot end in tragedy. For the Christian there is no ultimate defeat. God exalted Jesus following his rejection and defeat. So will God do for all who Hope in God.

Now, celebrate the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion and see if you will ever be the same again.