Archive for January, 2012|Monthly archive page

WHAT MAKES THE DIFFERENCE


Dear Jesus,

How long have we been friends?  No, I remember the day this all began, when my parents took me to you to begin this new life.  You remember how naïve I was after I came out of the water.  I was barely dry when I boasted that I would never sin again.  The experience had been so thrilling that I thought I would live in the glory of that moment for the remainder of my life and never be like the rest of the human race, known to be sinners.  You should have warned me.

From my present vantage point I realize that that beginning did not make us friends.  We hadn’t journeyed very far together yet.  Our relationship had not been tried.  I barely knew you.  Later, much later, when dust had gathered and I found myself sitting in the midst of the clutter and out of touch, I panicked at the thought that I did not know you.  I cried out in the darkest night that had yet enveloped me.

Actually, it wasn’t quite that dramatic.  I remember staring at a television screen and realizing in a stunning moment that nothing was registering.  The clock on the wall told me that I had been sitting there, gaping blankly at the screen for more than an hour.  When I heard the woman promise that using a dab of the cream she held would banish the signs of aging from my face, resulting in a veritable fountain of youth, I shuddered.

On a table near me lay my book of the Liturgy of the Hours.  I was startled when I drew my finger across its cover and formed a streak in the dust.  Remember how I picked up the book and started idly to thumb through it, lisping phrases now and then that caught my fancy?  Was that the first time I prayed?  The action rose out of my emptiness and caught me by surprise.  You seemed to fill the void.  That was the moment the friendship began.  But then what?

Someone confronted me today and asked me what I get out of my faith.  It is embarrassing to tell you that I had no answer.  I said I did not understand his question.  With great condescension he told me of his own conversion and of all the wonderful things that had come into his life as a result.  He described a veritable “rags to riches” transformation as a result of turning his life over to you and, as he termed it, being born again in you.  His business had been floundering and he was thinking of closing.  Practically over night, the cash registers started ringing and sales took off.

That has not been my experience.  I am in the same financial bracket I was in the day we met.  Am I doing something wrong?  Am I being brash when I tell you that sometimes I think it would be great to enjoy some of the creature comforts that others take for granted?  I’ve even toyed with the idea of asking you to help me win the lottery.

Is there another way to follow you that results in some of these tangible benefits?  The last thing I see at night before I turn out the lights is a cross on the wall near my bedroom door.  That’s the image that looms before me as I slip into sleep.  Sometimes I fancy you holding that cross out to me, inviting me to embrace it and the Passover journey it symbolizes.  Am I mistaken, or are you daring me to find the elements of my cross in the events and encounters in my life and embrace them, all the while trusting that I can manage because you are with me?

That evening when I gazed at my dust coated prayer book, I realized that my experience of betrayal and rejection had shut down my faith life.  I didn’t turn to prayer for comfort but toyed with the idea of seeking vengeance.  Bitterness is like a heavy narcotic that dulls the senses and turns one inward in isolation.  Some would call it wallowing in self-pity.  You can weep just so long before the tears dry up and you find yourself in arid emptiness wondering if there will ever be springtime.  Will there ever be a dawn?  I remember shuddering as I drew my finger through the dust.

My prayer seeks understanding.  After all this time, wouldn’t you think that I would be stronger, more sure of myself?  It is not that I want a return to those days of naïveté.  I know my weaknesses and I admit that I am a sinner.  I could never utter that childish boast I made in that initial baptismal moment.  But does my life mean anything?

I spoke by phone with a friend who lives across the country from me.  She told me how her strength wanes as her stage-four cancer becomes increasingly evident.  She is losing weight and finds it increasingly difficult to negotiate moving about her home even with a walker.  She wants a power-chair if she is going to be able to get around at all.  I was moved by the confidence I heard in her voice.  She could even laugh as she made humorous her plight.  She is a woman of faith.  I wondered how I would respond in similar circumstances.

When you seized me so long ago, did you have something in mind for me to do?  I would like to make a difference.  The contrary signs that bombard me are overwhelming.  I have tried to love others as you love.  I know what Judas’ kiss feels like and the pain that follows it.

At one point you told me not to seek after perishable food but rather for food that endures for eternal life.  The perishable food you spoke of may be perishable, but it is also very attractive. The random violence that is chronicled in the daily news proclaims the absurdity of it all.  Riots in the streets, countries in revolution, wars, drought and starvation and parents killing their own children make me ask Alfie’s question.  What is it all about?  Where is there reason to hope?

When I look at the meal fragmented on the table you prepare, knowing that you will invite me and those with whom I gather to come and eat, come and drink, the words you speak every time ring in my heart.  Do this and I am present.  If I do, will that make the difference?  Will I find hope again?

Even as I ask the question, I know the answer.  I hear you say it again, repeating it until I get it right.  Get behind me and learn from me.  I will continue to watch over your shoulder.  I will continue to try to imitate you.  Will you continue to give me your Spirit so that I will find the strength to make a difference?

Never let me forget what happened on the Third Day.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – January 29, 2012

 

The Book of Deuteronomy 18:15-20

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 7:32-35

The Holy Gospel according to Mark 1:21-28

The fascination with fortunetellers and psychic readers is not new.  That interest escalates in times of uncertainty.  People do not want the experience of being in the dark, hearing sounds, and wondering what is going on out there.  Won’t someone please turn on the lights?  Someone, please tell us what is happening.  As understandable as anxiety is, the role of the prophet in Scripture is misunderstood if we think he is a seer who tells people with specificity what tomorrow holds.

The prophet in Hebrew Scriptures is one who speaks what God wants the people to hear.  The prophetic onus is tremendous.  No wonder some of the major prophets protested their unworthiness when they felt summoned to the task.  No wonder some of them fled in terror hoping their calling would change.  Fidelity to the vocation will not necessarily result in the prophet’s being heard or the message heeded.  Hear Jeremiah’s anguished cries as he sinks into the mud of the cistern where he has been cast because of his unpopular message.  Think of Jonah last week as he fumed in the whale’s belly.  Of course he was disappointed because the Ninavites heard Jonah’s prophecy and repented.  Jonah had hoped to see their destruction by God’s wrath.

Prophecy is something faith communities need in order to be reminded lest the way be lost.  Or, once lost, to help them find the way back.  Taken as a whole, what is the prophetic message?  Through the Prophet, God says: Let me be your God.  You be my people.  Foreigners will know and marvel at our relationship unlike that between any other nation and their gods when they see you following my ways.

Ah, as Shakespeare says, there just might lay the rub.  Every prophetic message is a call to conversion, to a change of life.  No one ever said that conversion would be easy.  It always involves dying and rising, dying to one way of life and rising to another.  Or, conversion necessitates going deeper into the faith life being lived and responding more completely.

There are two ways to hear this Sunday’s first reading.  It is assumed by those in Moses’ audience that hearing God directly would be too intense, just as would be the experience of looking on the face of God.  They knew that no one cane see the face of God and live – no one, that is, but Moses.  The Israelites did not argue that point.  At the same time there is the desire to know the mind of God.  The Lord said to Moses; I will raise up for (the Israelites) a prophet like you from among their kin and will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him.  There will be others like Moses who will speak to the people on God’s behalf.  That is another way of saying that God’s presence among the people will be evidenced by the veracity of the message.  So many times, succinctly put, that message will be: Remain faithful.  Come back to me with all your heart.  At other times there will be prophetic warnings regarding the implications of infidelity.  If the people abandon God’s ways, their strength will be sapped.  Destruction and bondage could follow if they do not give up the ways of pagans.  But even should they be enslaved, the Prophet will remind the people that God is faithful and one day God will bring them back and restore their city.  There will always be forgiveness and ready reconciliation.

Some hear in the promise to raise up for them a prophet the Messianic Promise.  Christians believe that promise is fulfilled in Jesus.  Mark says it quite clearly at the outset of his Gospel: Here begins the gospel (Good News) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  Jesus is the one who shall tell the people all that God commands him since his will is always to do the bidding of the One who sent him.

So it is that at the beginning of his ministry in Mark, Jesus observes Sabbath and enters the synagogue.  He teaches and gives for the first time in the Gospel prophetic utterance.  Two words dominate the moment.  Authority.  Astonished.  The first describes the manner with which Jesus taught.  There was the professorial about him, a depth of understanding conveyed, but in such a way that those who heard could also understand.  The second word, astonished, describes the people’s reaction.  Astonished.  Amazed.  Both words are used interchangeably in the Gospels and convey the picture of people standing with mouths agape in reaction to what they hear or see.  Neither word implies belief.  Throughout the Gospel two quite distinct groups will follow after Jesus.  Disciples are those who have made their decision about Jesus.  Crowds are those who may well be astonished but are unable to commit.

All the more important that we pay attention to the reaction of the unclean spirit Jesus casts out of the possessed man in the synagogue.  The spirit cries out: What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are – the Holy One of God!  The evil spirit recognizes the authority and from where it comes.  That is beyond what the crowd has perceived.  And Jesus commands the spirit to be silent.  It will not be Evil’s witness that will convince the people who Jesus is, but the words he speaks and the works he does.  Quiet!  Come out of him!

So, today’s Gospel concludes with people marveling about what they have seen, the astonishing authority with which Jesus has acted and his new teaching.  But to what does it all point?  What does this mean?  The people of the synagogue, the witnesses, will tell others the story and help spread Jesus reputation.  It will take the rest of the story, the rest of the journey with Jesus, for the mystery to be revealed and for faith to begin.  Because even those who early on call themselves disciples will have to let go of what they thought they understood, let go of their assumptions about the promised Messiah, and watch him die.  Ah, but then there will be the Third Day.

And so, we hear the proclamation.  What will be its impact on our lives?  We must ponder, noshing, if you will, taking the Word into our hearts.  We live in the light of that Third Day.  About that we don’t have to wonder.  That is why the completion of the Liturgy of the Word for us is always a transition.  We move from the Table of the Word to the Table of the Eucharist, there to enter into Mystery and be transformed, as is the bread and wine, by the invoking of the Spirit.  It is not for us to be astonished or amazed.  Having shared the meal and been deepened in faith and transformed into Christ’s Body, it will be for us to go out and continue the prophecy through ministry.  Some may be astonished at the love being poured out.  Others, though, will see and recognize the source of the power of the works.  And seeing, they will come to believe with us.  And the prophecy goes on.

Sincerely,

Didymus      

YOU MUST REMEMBER THIS

Dear Jesus,

Why are there so many who have to be jealous about you, controlling about who speaks and acts in your name?  When I was a child and first getting to know you, those few actors who could speak in your behalf were clearly and narrowly defined and delineated, at least in my mind.  The pope spoke.  The bishop spoke.  The priest spoke.  The rest of us Catholic Christians listened and towed the line in response.  Even in our worship, all was done for and before us.  We accepted the dictum that we were not very well educated in theology and ecclesiology in those days.  So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised in light of today’s sensibilities that we couldn’t have been trusted with weightier responsibilities then.

Were you uncomfortable with the attitudes we had then even about Eucharist?  Maybe I wasn’t paying attention then.  Certainly I wasn’t reading the right books.  I don’t ever remember being told that Eucharist was more a verb than a noun, something to be done more than something to be adored, and something to be shared and imitated.

Granted, it was safer in those days of clearer definition, when moral decision-making was easier.  We knew what sins were mortal and the primacy of importance to avoid sexual sins, all of which were mortal.  We accepted that there was no such thing as a venial sexual sin.  Not much was said about justice and peace issues.  Oh, the church spoke, but in terms of importance, those teachings didn’t have nearly the impact that the warnings about sexual morality had on our consciences.

With such clear definition we knew our responsibility regarding Mass attendance, too.  We knew we had to hear Mass on all Sundays and holy days of obligation.  We did that by being present on those occasions, at least from the time the priest removed the chalice veil until he closed the tabernacle door after Communion.  We weren’t even expected to share in the meal except visually.  For most people, having to fast even from water from midnight before made it difficult to receive Communion at any Mass that started after 8AM.  Some would try to last until a later Mass.  There were frequent faintings at Mass in those days.

No wonder the noun Eucharist was more clearly understood by us than the verb Eucharist.  You can adore nouns.  Verbs require action.

I keep using we when I guess honesty should force me to use I.  I am writing this to you acknowledging my own shortcomings and limitations in terms of response.  Do you remember how popular the shorter, quieter Masses used to be?  The quieter aspects allowed people to get through their rosaries and other private devotions while Mass was going on.  By today’s standards that would be missing Mass.  When I had something important pending, I could get to Mass at 6AM and be on my way by 6:40 – 6:30 if just a few people went to Communion.  That can’t happen today, at least in most parishes.

I’m confessing past attitudes to you, even as I am hoping you will help me adapt and change in light of what some would call newer insights that to me sound like an attempt to return us to those ways.  I’m not sure I can endure those unless you help me.  Don’t you see that I have embraced the newer ways that to me are far more demanding?

Did you send that person to mock me and leave me shaken and unsettled because he asked me: “Do you think the church is a supernatural welfare state holding entitlements to grace for the submissive?  Or do you think the church exists not to serve itself, but to serve the Liturgy of the World?”  I thought it was nervy of him to speak that way to me since he isn’t even one of us, if you catch my meaning.  Then he quoted Karl Rahner’s description of that terrible and sublime liturgy, breathing death and sacrifice that God celebrates…throughout the free history of men and women…throughout the whole length and breadth of this colossal history of birth and death.  Now how am I supposed to react to that?

Do you know how disturbing that line of thinking is?  It’s far more demanding than some might think they can face every time they go to Mass.  If we enter into that kind of celebration every Sunday, soon what will be left of us?  Maybe that is why some liked it better when they used to hear the bell and know that the bread and wine had been changed and you were there.  Now we have to wonder if that is enough.  What if only the bread is changed and I am not?  Or could I use we here again?  We understand today that this action is, after all, something you challenge us to do as the people of God, the body of Christ, the church.

Is this the kind of violence to self we should expect when we enter into worship that demands such total transformation?  That shouldn’t surprise us.  After all, you spoke in terms of cutting off a hand, or a foot, in terms of plucking out an eye if any of these hindered our journey toward the Kingdom.  Maybe that would be easier than to meet the demands of Eucharist properly celebrated.  Because when we finish that, we still have to allow ourselves to be broken and poured out in service.

May I be honest with you?  As demanding as this present understanding of Eucharistic Liturgy is, I love it and want to continue to experience its transforming power.  I think it is more than pride that makes me resent the attempt to turn the clock back and return us to the practices of those olden days of my childhood.

Still, what can I do?  I have to listen to and obey those that speak for you.  So when the changes begin this Advent, I will submit.  Secretly, I may continue to hold the attitudes and values I have gleaned from my present understanding of Eucharist even if I won’t be able to express them.  And I’ll pray for the day when the Spirit moves us forward again.

Could you get back to me about all of this?  Could you let me know what you expect of me?

Sincerely,

Didymus