Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

HOW FOOLISH IS GOD’S LOVE

Dear Jesus,

How does your forgiveness work?  I’ve tried to come up with another way of asking the question, but cannot.  There is something about the way you seem to forgive that bothers me, that seems too freely given for me to be sure that the person forgiven is truly sorry for what was done and will change, will really repent.  After all, repentance means being sorry for one’s sins with the intention of not repeating that sin.

Don’t misunderstand me.  I’m comforted by the fact that often when I have come to you, sorry for what I have done, I have gone away with a sense of joy that you mean what you say and that I am forgiven.  But I wonder sometimes if that isn’t too easy.  Shouldn’t there be conditions on the forgiving?  Without those conditions, the forgiveness can become a burden because it has come too soon and to easily.

Guilt is always heavy and can paralyze.  Do you remember the time that I wandered away from you and started living as if we were not friends?  Nothing serious happened, as I think of that time now.  It wasn’t like a divorce that severed our relationship.  I just drifted off in my own direction and stopped praying.  I remember the first night that I had gone to bed and then suddenly realized that I hadn’t taken time that day to pray.  For a moment I thought about putting off my sleep, getting out of bed and taking time to pray.  Then, as quickly, I decided that tomorrow would do, and I slept.

The next day went by in the same fashion as the day before and concluded the same way with the same intention.  On the morning of the fourth day, while I was in the shower, I realized that it didn’t bother me any more that I wasn’t praying.  Then Sunday came and I decided that there were more important things for me to do than take the hour to gather with others of the baptized and renew your dying and rising.  That would be the first time I had missed mass.  I wanted to spend time at the beach that day and thought that I would make up for missing mass by taking time to ponder you in the waves that crashed on the rocks and in the gulls that circled and cried as they rode the sea breezes.  That evening as I rinsed the toothpaste from my mouth, I looked into the mirror and thought I would get to mass during the week to make up for my lapse.  That didn’t happen either.

You must remember that I was brought to you when I was very young.  I can’t think of a time in my life when you were not part of it.  Not to make excuses, but when I wandered I thought it was something that I needed to do for myself, that I was tired of saying “No” to myself and of living differently from all those who did not feel the weight of the same obligations that I did.

How long did that time of drifting go on?  I just know that my life seemed very full, first with studies and then with work.  Days, then weeks went by, then months and years.  One evening I was drinking coffee after a supper.  There weren’t many others in the restaurant.  I gazed into my cup as I stirred in the cream and realized that it was hard to be alone.  Quiet time became a burden.  There were thoughts that I did not want to entertain.  If I let my guard down, I would find myself reflecting on the old days and our relationship; but the experience was like looking through a family album filled with now distant and fading images of images of times past.  Nostalgia is bittersweet and quietly unsettling.  It is odd how a cluttered room imprisons and gives a sense of impotency.

In the end it was a friend’s simple statement, unsought and unmerited, that provoked the encounter that occasions this letter.  We were walking together, my friend and I, on a bright and sunny autumn afternoon.  The green of the leaves had begun to yield to ambers and purples.  A bite in the breeze encouraged me to plunge my hands into my jacket pockets and shiver as we strolled.  Anyone observing us could see that I was closed in on myself, scarcely aware of the friend that kept pace at my side.  When had I stopped enjoying the time and begun enduring the walk and my friend.

After a prolonged silence that used to be a hallmark of the comfort and depth of our friendship but now was awkward and oppressive, he said, “Don’t forget, the Lord loves you.  I’m praying for you.”

I stopped.  He continued on a pace or two and then turned back to take in my stunned visage.  I wanted to rage at his presumption.  How did he know of my pain, the dull ache of an emptiness that I had been struggling to deny?  Like a slap in the face or a splash of iced water, it struck me in that instant I had to admit that I was in hurting.  The tears welled and then flowed.  Then I sobbed.  I turned and looked into a shop’s windows so that others might walk by and not notice my misery.  My friend came to my side and silently we both peered into the glass, he looking at my reflection and taking in my obvious distress.  The good friend that he was, he waited patiently and said nothing.

Then, for just a moment, I thought it was you as he put his hand on my shoulder and said, “It will be fine now.”  It?  What it? And I shuddered and knew that he was right.

That was you, wasn’t it?  Because in a moment, without transition, I knew what forgiveness meant.  I knew I needed it.  I felt powerless to ask for it.  And I knew you had granted it, unbidden as it was.

Should it be that easy?  How did you know I would change?  Why didn’t you make me prove my sorrow and promise to change my ways first, holding our reconciliation in abeyance until I had proven worthy of your gift?

Is that really how God acts?  Is God’s love so foolish?  You seem to say so.  And I am amazed.

You know now that my repentance didn’t stop there.  It wasn’t long before I became aware of another grace you set to work in me.  Was it your gift of the Spirit that prompted me to recognize my need for a reconciliation that went beyond you, or rather, included those others in whom you live and with whom I had not gathered at your table for a long, long time, those who are your body, the Church?

A few evenings later, I gathered in the church with others like myself seeking reconciliation.  I looked about and drank in the faces of people, some familiar, some strangers.  Like me, they seemed burdened, but also encouraged by the presence of the others on the same mission.  It was then that it occurred to me that there is no such thing as a private sin, a sin that affects only the one that commits it.  We are a communal people, united in you through our shared baptism.  Anyone’s sin weakens the rest of the assembly, just as each one’s desire to die to sin and live more completely in you strengthens the rest.  Our reconciliation is communal, too.

That Sunday I returned to the table.  I was aware that some of those who were gathered with me had been with me the other evening in reconciliation.  Now that reconciliation was about to be consummated in the Eucharist we were celebrating and the meal we would share.

It was good to be home again.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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THE FIFTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – February 6, 2011

Isaiah 58:7-10

1 Corinthians 2:1-5

Matthew 5:13-16

For the next several weeks we will be on the mountain gathered around Jesus, as seated, he teaches us about the basics of being a disciple.  The Sermon on the Mount continues as Jesus entices us with the results of our transformation and of living the Beatitudes whose enumeration we heard last week.  Stunning, weren’t they?  We have had a week to ponder them and try to deal with the possibility that we are supposed to be among those blessed ones.  This week we begin to hear about the impact that the lives of those who do live the Beatitudes will have on the world.

The ranting of two pendants from the far right has appalled me.  They have been trying to make the case that many Christians have been misled into thinking that they have a responsibility to share their abundance with the poor.  One has been harping on Liberation Theology as blatant Marxism and anti-Christian.  I wince because some of my heroes of the not-too-distant past were Liberation Theologians that laid down their lives for the liberation of the poor in El Salvador and other parts of South America.  Archbishop Oscar Romero was among their number.  I happen to think that those Liberationists got it right and their example remains a challenge for us today.  I would rather err on their side than on the side of the oppressors their witness opposed.

The tone is set in this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word by Isaiah’s opening words in the First Reading.  Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own. Obviously Jesus was familiar with Isaiah.  The wording of some of the Beatitudes is too closely parallel to Isaiah’s to be coincidental.  That makes the challenge to live them the beginning of fulfillment of the prophecy.  Isaiah said that light would follow such charitable responses.  So does Jesus.

Imagine the world without salt.  That is the image that Jesus puts before his audience, before us, in order for us to realize our importance and the difference we will make in the world if we follow Jesus on the Way.  Living the new way that flows from the Beatitudes will have an impact on the community at large.  The joy and peace that come from living in union with Christ will cause those who do not know the Way to question their own lives as they are living them and to wonder what is missing from them.

It is loving service and the pouring out of self that will have the impact and make the accepted order change.  People stand in awe when they hear of love-motivated heroic deeds.  The September 11 terrorism attack in New York City brought the nation to its knees.  Even as the dust began to settle from the collapsing towers, incredible stories began to be told about what some of those trapped in the crumbling mess did in their final moments.  There were not a few of those who otherwise might have escaped that stayed behind to be a comfort and support to those who could not navigate their way down the nearly endless flights of stairs.  The Franciscan chaplain to the fire department walked amidst the rubble and ministered to those fallen until his own life ended.  Their heroic acts took the tragedy out of the horrendous event.  Tragedy speaks of final defeat.  Those tales spoke of triumphs over evil and of final victories.

The witness of those heroes had a huge impact on anyone who heard to stories.  The net result was that because of them many became determined to cope and go beyond merely surviving.  Those heroes are the bit of salt that makes all the difference in the world.  Another result is to inspire others to act similarly.  They were not significant people acting, not the idols of society.  They were ones known for their power.  They were the little ones whose determination and love help to change the world.

Books and articles are being written about the numbers of people walking away from the Catholic Church and some from Christianity.  It is not that Christ is no longer relevant.  Those leaving are not finding Christ in their experience of Church.  Some say we have become too preoccupied with power and are losing touch with the common person.  If we look at our Church’s history we will find that this is not the first time that this has happened.  Remember the Crusades?  Remember the era of the Grand Inquisition and the numbers of those burned at the stake for heresy or for not converting to Christianity?  The Church was powerful then and some would say, corrupt.  We must not forget that the worst of those times had great saints whose lives are held up to us because they are examples of little ones living the Gospel in the darkest times and loving as Jesus loved.  We look back and recognize their impact on society and their impact on the Church.  Most of them did not think of themselves as reformers.  They took the Gospel seriously and couldn’t imagine living another way.  They lived by faith.

Paul reminds the Corinthians in the second reading that the impact he had on their lives that resulted in their being converts to the faith was not the result of wordy eloquence or powerful persuasion, but of Paul’s exemplifying Christ and him crucified.  Paul speaks of his fear in coming among the Corinthians that allowed the power of God to work through him.  The same needs to happen today and will if we return to being a servant Church that opts for primacy of place for the poor and is evidently a community of people who love as they are loved.

This is where light comes in.  You are the light of the world. Whether we are talking about an individual parish or the universal Church, both are meant to be that city on the hill, shining like a beacon in the darkest of nights.  That city is made up of the faithful gathered together, united in the Eucharist they celebrate, conscious of being the Body of Christ.  In the decision making process, the needs of the poor are the first considered.  The Church, the parish should speak collectively in defense of the poor and in demanding justice for them.  The corporal works of mercy – feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and sheltering the homeless – must be the Church’s and the parish’s primary mission.  The Church barters for peace and an end to war.  The Church proclaims the dignity and worth of every human life.  It is perfectly fitting that parishes enter peace marches and demonstrate against injustices that deny the dignity of the brothers and sisters in Christ.

The light will shine brilliantly when the Church’s principal proclamation is that all are welcome here, that God loves all people, completely and unconditionally, and wills the salvation of all people.  The Constitution on the Church in the Modern World defines the Church as the People of God called to full, active and conscious participation in the Liturgy of the Church.  The priest and the people co-celebrate the Eucharist.  Each time the Eucharist is celebrated the priest and the people, the ordained priest and the priesthood of the Baptized are sent forth to be Christ’s presence in the world, to be bread broken, to be cup poured out, to live in service of the little ones, the lost and forsaken, and to embrace them all in Christ.  What a beacon all that becomes.

I heard a story the other day that touched me.  A woman burdened with several parcels lost her footing on some stairs.  Her parcels went flying as she came to rest on the sidewalk.  Several people walked by, looking the other way lest they embarrass the woman by noticing her plight.  A little ways away, a man, best described as a bum, offensive as that term is, sat at the alley entrance and leaned against a wall.  He saw what happened and rose to come to the woman’s aid.  He helped her to her feet and went about gathering up her packages and returned them to her.  She was more stunned by what the man did for her than she was by her fall.  As he presented her with her last parcel, she asked him why he did all this for her.

His response was: because I knew that you would do the same for me.  Wouldn’t you?

Sincerely,

Didymus