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OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST THE KING – November 22, 2015

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Daniel 7:13-14

A reading from the Book of Revelation 1:5-8

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 18:33b-37

Dear Jesus,

Let me state at the outset what you already know.  I love you.  All I desire is to be known as one who follows you.  That is the only reputation that matters to me.  We are finishing another Liturgical year and are about to celebrate the Sunday that proclaims your kingship.  Do I offend you when I say that I have long found this to be a strange feast?

Please do not misunderstand me.  From the day I began to believe and to experience your call to follow, that is, your call to discipleship, I have wanted you to reign in my life so that I could be part of the Church’s extension of your reign in the world.  But when I sift through various proclamations that you made to the crowds and I notice how you always seem to focus on the little ones, the poor and the disenfranchised, I do not hear one who wants to be a king.  Kings are not popular in this country, as you know.  Our ancestors fought a long and bloody war to end a king’s rule over the original colonies.  A king implies domination.  Subjects must be subservient.  The people of this country take pride in being free participants in a democracy.

Lately I seem to be always questioning apparent realities.  I have to rethink assumptions I have lived with for many years.  I am not trying to be obstinate, much less impertinent.  We have journeyed together through another Liturgical Year.  A lot has been stripped away in the process.  I wonder if I am any closer to knowing what it’s all about.  I just want to understand.

Sudden and unexpected deaths may be clouding my thinking.  My emotions are on the surface.  Within a week’s time I received two messages informing me that friends dear to me had died.  The first was a young friend that had drowned in a rushing river where he was trying to cool off following a hike taken during the heat of a summer’s day.  The second call was from a grieving son to tell me that his mother had died suddenly in the midst of an asthma attack.  Neither deserved to die.  They were both faithful servants of yours and could have had many more years to journey with you.  Yes, I believe in the life after this one, but the separation that death brings weighs heavy and I find myself asking, “Why?”

If a king is someone who rules over all his subjects, shouldn’t we have a better Gospel selection to proclaim on this day, one that would emphasize your reign, instead of one that proclaims your kingship in spite of your standing before Pilate on trial for your life?

Daniel’s vision in the first reading is appropriate and is more in line with the revealing of a king.  There’s conflict in Daniel’s dream as he sees the worldly powers oppose the coming kingdom of God.  Then Daniel sees one like a Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven.  The church believes you are that Son of Man who receives from the Father dominion, glory, and kingship.  But that kingship, it seems, will be exercised only at the end of time when all people, nations, and languages will serve you.  Would that that could begin now.  You may appropriate Daniel’s vision to yourself in the Gospel, but it will be your crucifixion that will follow.

Are you a king?  The question seems apt.  The sign that will be tacked to the top of your cross will read: Jesus of Nazareth, king of the Jews.  What kind of king has no subjects?  Your Jewish brothers and sisters rejected you for welcoming sinners and eating with them.  Even your disciples fled in terror, except for your mother and the Beloved Disciple.  A resplendent reign is hard to reconcile with defeat.

My thoughts go back to the poor and to all those suffering atrocities in the war-torn lands.  I think of children abused and abandoned.  I think of my two friends.  It’s here, isn’t it?  This is the lesson you want understood if we re to celebrate Christ the King.  You are the king of the desperate.  You reign in hearts that open to you and are otherwise empty.  You are the king of those refugees who have no one to whom they can turn.  You won’t be king for those who think they can save themselves.

So often you challenge me to remember.  I’ve come to understand that that means to remember with all that remembering entails.  To remember is to make all things present.  To be remembered by you is to be present to the whole mystery that is you.  When disciples remember all your actions and your dying and rising become timeless. Celebrating Eucharist is that kind of action.  Do this in my memory is your challenge to live the mystery; and living it, to make the whole Christ event present.  That is how you bring us to God.

We have to be empty and desperate in that emptiness.  We must have relinquished every other refuge and anyone else on whom we could rely.  We have to admit our sinfulness.  We have to know that what helplessness and hopelessness mean if we are going to enter into your reign.  There is no other way to know other than to have lived the experience of being helpless and hopeless, except for you.  That is what makes sense out of the Meal we share gathered around your table.

I think of my two friends in their dying.  To drown or to suffocate is to experience ultimate powerlessness.  That must be like a plunge into a deep and dark chasm.  Just when they thought that their situations were hopeless, and that they were helpless, you rushed in and lifted them up.  I believe that just as I pray that will be my experience on my last day.

Am I getting close to what you want me to learn as I celebrate the Feast of Christ the King?  I believe that you are supreme over the Church and all of creation.  But I have to need you and let you reign in my heart.

That is it, isn’t it?  I have to let you be king.

What a dolt I am.  I must be the epitome of the slow learner.  It just occurred to me now that because of our baptismal union with you, we already share in your reign.  We celebrate that, too, on this feast.  If I share in your reign, I had better reign the way you do.  I can do no better than imitating you in pouring out myself in service.

Yours is not a community of triumphalists, if there is such a word.  Yours is a community of servants who aspire to nothing loftier than being foot-washers.  I must recognize you in the poorest of the poor and serve you in them.  When I gather with my sisters and brothers in the faith, in that number there must be representatives of all walks of life, especially the lowliest, and those who are known to be sinners, and the disabled physically and mentally, all must be welcomed or our gathering will not be the Body of Christ that you want the Church to be.

I remember a quotation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who understood what the kingdom that is the church should be like: It is much easier for me to imagine a praying murderer, a praying prostitute, than a vain person praying.  Nothing is so at odds with prayer as vanity.  If we are a people in whom you reign, we know what it means to be a sinner and to wonder if we would ever be free of the sin.  Then we come to know what it means to be surprised by grace.

Please, Jesus, as you enter your kingdom, don’t forget me.  Please let my friends, newly in the face-to-face vision of your glory, know that I look forward to seeing them again when that day comes.

Sincerely,

Didymus

A MYSTICAL MOMENT

 

The father and his son were experiencing a bit of strain in their relationship.  Each had his own agenda of things he wanted to do.  The son sulked when the father told him his agenda would have to wait until the father’s had been taken care of.  As a member of a service organization, the father had volunteered to bring food to a women’s shelter.  He wasn’t bothered that his service was required on a Saturday.  He told his son that that was just the luck of the draw.  The chore needed to be done so that people might eat.  It is as simple as that, he said to his son.  How impressed the son was with that logic was not immediately apparent.

Father and son loaded the containers of beef stew, salad, rolls, and deep-dish cheery cobbler into the trunk of the car.  The father took as a positive sign that his son had stopped objecting as soon as, together, they had picked up the food items from the kitchen counter.  Conversation wasn’t easy yet.  But then, when is it between a father and a son as the son struggles with the onset of puberty and the desire to be his own person?

As they rode to the shelter they listened to a football game and cheered when the right team scored, and groaned when their team suffered any setback.  Normal bonding moments between a father and a son, the father thought.

They carried the food into the shelter kitchen.  Their responsibility was not only to heat the food, but also to assist in getting the food to the tables.  They waited as the stew heated and the hands of the clock moved to the dinner hour.

The father stirred the stew and looked out onto the dining room as his son engaged in conversation with one of the homeless women that the father had met before.  He couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other.  He felt a bit anxious because his previous experience with the woman had convinced him that she was, to give it the kindest interpretation, eccentric.  It wasn’t that he thought she was dangerous.  It had more to do with a question of hygiene and those odors that arise when it has been too long between showers.  He thought about rescuing his son, but since the conversation between the two seemed to be flowing easily, he continued to tend the stew.

When the time was right, the father signaled the son and both helped in the serving.  Then they replaced the empty stew bowls with portions of cobbler topped with whipped cream.  They refilled coffee cups and asked if anybody needed anything more.  Everyone seemed to be satisfied.  The father was impressed with how adept his son had proved himself to be at serving table.

“So,” the father said, “I think we can go now.  Our job here is finished.  You can have the rest of the day off.”  He laughed to show he meant what he was saying.  “You’ve been a great help.  I’m proud of you, Son.”

The son said he had one more thing he wanted to do before they left.  It shouldn’t take long, he added.

The father watched his son go back to the woman still seated at her place at the community table.  It touched the father to see his son crouch down and speak to the woman.  They seemed to him to be acting like two people with a long-standing friendship.  The woman reached out and patted the boy on the shoulder as he stood up.  He shook her hand and turned to walk toward his waiting father.

“We can go now,” the boy said.

They had been riding side by side for a block or two when the father asked what his son and the woman had been talking about.

“Not much, the boy said.  “She just told me some things about herself and her life.  She lost her husband and two young sons in a terrible car accident when someone who had been drinking ran a red light and t-boned their car.  That was a long time ago.  She said it is still as fresh in her mind as if it had happened yesterday.  She said she gets lonely now.  Sometimes when she doesn’t know where she will sleep at night, especially if it is cold or rainy outside, she gets anxious.  She said she doesn’t have anybody that cares about her, no family and very few friends.

“She carries on imaginary conversations with people that would happen if she had anybody to talk to, anybody that cared.  Sometimes she talks to her husband and to her sons.  She’s not really talking to herself the way some people think.

“I gave her a picture that I had drawn.  It was just an ordinary picture of a bird that I drew in pen and ink.  She loved it and said it made her feel just like she did when she was a little girl on Christmas morning.

“Did you know that one of her sons like to draw?”

The father had to swallow hard and cough a bit so that his welling tears would have an excuse for falling.

They drove on through the Saturday traffic and the father continued to digest what the young man at his side had shared.  As they waited for a traffic light to change from red to green, the son said, “Dad, you know what I think?”

“What?”

“You promise to laugh at me?”

“I promise,” he said, knowing that laughing was the farthest thing from his mind.

“I think that woman was Jesus.”

The father reached out and put his arm around his son.  They drove the rest of the way home in silence.

THE THIRTY-THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – B – November 15, 2015

 

A reading from the Book of Daniel 12:1-3

A reading from the Letter to the Hebrews 10:11-14; 18

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 13:24-32

The Church’s Year draws to an end. We have completed the cycle once more as we await its glorious conclusion next Sunday when we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King. That celebration will affirm all that has gone before and will support the faith of even the weariest believer struggling along The Way. Before we get to the Feast we must go through the end times and understand what they will be like. We shall see that those times will not be for the faint of heart, nor will they be for those who lost sight of what we were called to be as we began this journey. Most of us began the journey before we knew what the Way was all about.

We in the Northern Hemisphere have signs surrounding us that support the Liturgy of the Word proclaimed today. Light wanes. In much of the country, cold takes hold. Wind and rain strip the trees of their once green leaves. Bare limbs reach up into the heavens and plead for light’s return, and for warmth and spring. Those who experience the severity of this season may wonder if winter will yield this time. Will there be the renewal of life and vegetation?

We are people of faith, remember. As such we must come to understand that trial does not mean defeat. No winter is forever. God’s love is constant and unconditional. The death of God’s Son proves that. And so does the Resurrection. Even death is not a defeat.

Some televangelists milk the First Reading from the Book of the Prophet Daniel and this Sunday’s Gospel reading from Mark and use them to strike terror in the hearts of their listeners. Terror for some may be a motive for towing the moral line, but fear will neither inspire nor long support faith. The highways and byways are strewn with those who could not stand the condemning message any longer. They gave up on the faith. Why else would Former Catholics constitute the second largest denomination of believers in the United States, exceeded only by those who still claim to be members of the faith?

Beware of fundamentalism. For properly interpreted, the first Reading and the Gospel for this Sunday are not meant to inspire dread. They should not be seen as condemnatory.

The End Times does mean that things as we know them will pass away. Horrors may be part of those days. In the depths of winter, remember the previous spring when the lilacs first bloomed and daffodils blanketed the hillsides. Then came the warmth of summer and the zephyrs that made the aspen leaves flash like sunlight through prisms. Remember how, on an ideal summer day, you sat beneath a willow, dappled by the suns glow, and wished those days would go on forever.

Israel knew glory days. They were confident that Jerusalem, bedecked in jewels, with the Temple at its heart, would certainly be eternal. Then came the destruction of the city and of the Temple. The people were led away as salves just like their ancestors in Egypt had been. A winter of discontent descended upon God’s chosen ones, a time unsurpassed in distress since nations began until that time. That is not where the reading ends. The hearer is not invited to peer down into a bottomless chasm of despair. Rather, there is an invitation to remember God’s fidelity. In the worst of times, some people will escape and many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake…and live forever. That is the word for those who are faithful to the call. We do not have to go into the fate that awaits the unfaithful ones. We remember that Jerusalem was restored. The Babylonian Captivity ended. The people returned rejoicing.

Israel has known times of suffering in many ages down through the centuries. Among the worst of times was the Holocaust during Hitler’s reign. That horror is not without parallel. The sufferings of others who endured the ravages of ethnic cleansing in other countries are etched in our memories. At least they ought to be. Think of the Hutus and the Tutsis of recent history in Uganda and Rhodesia. The Serbs and the Croats. There can be only estimates regarding the numbers of millions of Russian people Stalin exterminated. The point is that each of these atrocities would qualify as the worst of times.

Daniel speaks to those who suffered and to their survivors. Death will not hold sway forever. Tyrannies will end. The dead will rise to vindication. God is faithful and will bring his own from every nation safely home.

Jesus quotes Daniel at the beginning of the Gospel: In those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky; and the power of heaven will be shaken. Is it possible to imagine a scene more terrifying? What is the purpose of the quote here? We have to think back over the journey that we began at the start of this Church’s Year. We must remember our own individual faith journeys along The Way. We brought this reality to each Eucharist we celebrated and each Meal that we shared.

Jesus, through every lesson that he taught, through every healing at his touch, through the feeding of the multitudes and the announcing of the Good News to the poor, proclaimed himself to be the Messiah. That said, we also know that there was a struggle to accept the kind of Messiah that Jesus is. Some imagined Jesus to be the mighty, all-powerful warrior, the one who would drive away all oppressors and would set up a secure kingdom forever. That would mean that the Jews would not have the Romans, once they were driven out, enslaving them ever again. Some have thought that should hold true for every enemy in every age since then – that is, if Jesus is the Messiah. In the Lord’s time and in every age since, there were those who saw Jesus as a way to their own power and wealth as they lusted after the positions at his right and left in the Kingdom.

For those of us who have listened this year, it should be clear that such thoughts and values are not in the message Jesus was sent from the Father to deliver. Rather, Jesus models himself after Isaiah’s Suffering Servant. Servant is the operative word of the one who always sought out the little ones, the lost sheep, the poor, the blind, the lepers and the physically challenged. This Messiah is the one who scandalized many by the company he kept and by the table fellowship he practiced. Tax collectors. Prostitutes. Roman Legionaries. Gentiles. Name an unsavory group that did not have representation at his table. Even women reclined at his table. The challenge for all of them, if they were to be his disciples, would be to do what Jesus did and to exhibit a poverty of life that bespeaks a complete and total dependence on God and a trust in God’s promises. The command will be to love one another as they are loved. One cannot be invincible and do that.

Jesus speaks of those days. They will be days of great trial. The faith of many will be broken. How can a Messiah be reigning if he is led away, scourged, crowned with thorns, carries a cross, and is crucified and dies like so many common criminals before him who had experienced Calvary as a common place for execution? How can the Messianic age have followed Jesus’ time if Jerusalem and the Temple are destroyed again?

Most of the disciples ran away, scandalized by the death Jesus died. But we know that was not the end. Jesus rose on the Third Day and ended death’s tyranny forever. That is what the disciples had to remember, as Jesus resurrected, reclaimed them. That is what disciples in every age must remember, especially when new horrors abound.

Remember spring. Even the deepest winter yields to spring’s thaw. Life and light return. The promise that we are to cling to, the second spring in which we are to live, is the yearning for the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise that we will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.

What does it mean to live in faith? I pray the Church hears the urgings of Pope Francis and takes in the example of his service. With him it is not about power and prestige, it is about shepherding in the midst of the sheep and smelling like them. To be disciples means that we remain convinced of the promise of the Second Coming in spite of the direst signs to the contrary. Think of the hoards of refugees streaming out of their shattered homeland, questing for a place of welcome and peace.

It means that each of us determines what the Lord is calling him or her to be and how we are to serve. Then with the Lord’s grace to strengthen us, we strive to live that calling.

It means that we are to be a Eucharistic people, gathering each Lord’s Day to renew his dying and rising in Bread and Wine. The word Eucharist, remember, means thanksgiving. It means that we take and eat, take and drink, and do this in Jesus’ memory until he comes again. It means that having eaten and drunk, we allow ourselves to be bread broken and cup poured out until all from the four winds, and from the end of the earth to the end of the sky have been fed and come to know the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We don’t know the day or the hour when the glory will be revealed, only that it has been and will be once again. Do you believe this?

Sincerely,

Didymus