Archive for January, 2017|Monthly archive page

THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT: ON FASTING

 

It seems three practices are to be hallmarks in the lives of the disciples.  Those called to follow Jesus and walk in his ways are to pray, fast, and give alms.  Earlier, we talked about prayer and considered the attitudes that we are to have in mind as we come before the Lord.  Shortly, we will talk about the attitude we are supposed to have toward worldly wealth.  Now we listen to the Lord as he speaks about fasting, how we are to fast.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus talks about fasting as he teaches us as he is seated on the Mountain.  In each of the synoptic Gospels, Jesus prepares for his public ministry by spending 40 days in the desert, fasting and praying.  In each case the prayer and fasting are antecedent to his encounter with Satan and the temptations.  The word temptation means an attraction toward something that is illicit.  For one to refuse to indulge the temptation involves a struggle.

Jesus followed a rigorous fast during his sojourn in the desert.  He ate and drank just enough to sustain life.  The Gospels tell us that following his period of fasting he was hungry.  The truth is that he was starved half to death and therefore vulnerable.  But when Satan tempts, Jesus triumphs and keeps his intention focused on the Father and his desire to do always the Father’s will in sending Jesus.  Fasting weakened Jesus physically, but fortified him spiritually.

It is interesting to hear that Jesus assumes that his disciples will fast.  There is no exhortation here to fast, but only instructions on how we are to fast.  The Lord taught us how we are to pray and that we are to avoid praying in a showy manner that would draw attention to the one praying, thus making him a source of admiration from the crowd of observers.  Why?  Because that is what the hypocrite does.  There is no inner reality that corresponds to the exterior activity.  Hypocrisy does not please God.  The only reward that comes from that kind of praying is the adulation of the crowd.  Pray in secret.  The Father who sees what is done in secret will reward.

Fasting is to be done in the same way.  Nothing about the one who is fasting should connote the difficulties he is enduring in the process.  Nothing about the faster should elicit sighs of admiration from observers.  Again, it is the hypocrisy that is to be avoided.  The focus in prayer is on God.  The focus in fasting is the hunger for God.  What the crowd thinks is of no consequence.  So, when the disciple is fasting, as we are supposed to do during the Lenten season, for example, everything about her should connote comfort and serenity.  Maybe the faster will lose a pound or two in the process, but that is not the primary goal of fasting.  The hair should be combed and the face washed.  Nothing about him should project a dower attitude.  Joy in the Lord should shine through her.  Then the only reward coming from the fasting will be from the same One who observes the praying in secret and that is a greater capacity for God.

There are obvious benefits from fasting, especially for the one who has been over indulging.  It is a good way to take off excessive weight so that one will be able to wear again the clothes that no longer are comfortable.  Toxins can be flushed out, too.  But those benefits are not why fasting is assumed for disciples.  Notice how often people who adopt harsh and restrictive practices for a period of time for the purpose of taking off pounds, after the desired goal has been achieved, will revert to former indulgences and regain all the lost pounds and, often, more pounds for good measure.

Fasting for disciples has two purposes.  The first purpose is to experience emptiness, a longing that only God can fill.  That longing is holy.  Over indulgence saps energy and dulls focus and makes the focus primarily on self.  (I’m sure you have noticed that much about these times in which we are living supports narcissism.  Some of those in power want us to think that it’s all about me.)  Indulgence mutes the inner voice that otherwise prompts us to recognize the inadequacy of things to fulfill that for which we were created; the focus on self blinds us to the needs of our brothers and sisters around us.  Fasting awakens us to who and what we are and what we are supposed to be about.  We are not called to be self-absorbed, but to be open to our Creator as the end for which we were made, the love that called us into existence, sustains us and will embrace us for eternity.  Through the Eucharist, our daily Bread, Jesus calls us to live lives of loving service that imitate his pouring out of self in giving us his body to eat and his blood to drink.

The second purpose of fasting is to help us maintain control of all our appetites.  The discipline empowers us to say “no” to those things that might otherwise become addictive behaviors.  If our focus is on self-indulgence, than anything that brings pleasure is what we long for.  How many lives are destroyed by addictions?  Whether we are talking about smoking, drinking alcohol, consumption of food, addiction to drugs, sex, or gambling, not being able to control urges enslaves the abuser and can destroy him.  Learning to control appetites is a way out of slavery.

An aside here.  Only the addict can understand the compulsion of addiction.  My suspicion is that those who are able to regain sobriety by simply quitting drinking alcohol, are not addictive drinkers, but habitual.  They can break that habit by their choice.  The 12 Step Program allows the addict recognize powerlessness, accept it, and yield to the strength that comes from the Higher Power and so regain their lives.  A friend and recovering addict told me that the majority of the steps help him to shift the focus from himself and recognize the need to reach out to others.  Atonement is a major step along that way.

When so much of the world’s population lives in poverty, and so many children do not have adequate food, there is an added evil to our overindulgence.  We are not talking about fasting here, but responsible use and consumption of the foods to which we have access.  I will never forget an epiphany moment experienced shortly after returning to the States following a period spent in Kenya and Uganda where poverty is the norm and most are able to eke out just enough to survive.  I walked into a major market and was literally stunned by the abundance.  There was more pet-food piled high on shelves here than all the food for people I saw in a market in Kenya.

When we come to the end of Matthew’s Gospel, there is the judgment scene.  The opening words of praise for the sheep and condemnation for the goats have to do with the distribution of food.  To the sheep on the right, the Lord says, “I was hungry and you gave me food.”  To the goats on the left, he says, “I was hungry and you gave me no food.”  The prick to our consciences ought to be our recognition of the Lord in those who are hungry and are powerless to get the essentials to satisfy that hunger.

Could it be that fasting awakens in us a hunger for justice and a desire for all to be able to come to a table of plenty?

That could be why the next thing the Lord challenges us to consider will be our attitude regarding wealth.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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BLESSED ARE THE MERCIFUL, THEY SHALL OBTAIN MERCY

 

Mercy was no more a cardinal virtue in Jesus’ time than it is in our own.  That may well be why when a merciful person acts today the result is so newsworthy.  So, too, was it then.

Imagine yourself in that crowd gathered around Jesus, listening to these incredible statements that challenge and contradict every commonly accepted value.  I am posting this Beatitude out of order because it seems to me to be so urgent.  Before this statement about mercy, the crowd heard that the poor in spirit are blessed, or happy.  Where is the joy in mourning?  If you are meek, won’t you get trod upon?  How can those who are hungry or thirsty be happy?  We will consider all these in the weeks ahead.

Coming as they do in rapid succession, there is hardly a moment to digest what you hear before you are confronted again with a more demanding attitude that, if accepted, will push power, prestige, and economic success farther from your grasp.  Surely some in the crowd became restive and wanted to say enough of this and so move on.  But others gave clear evidence of hanging on every word, especially those who have declared themselves to be disciples of Jesus and want to be part of the Kingdom they believe he is bringing.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”  If you use a different word you will come close to what Jesus is suggesting as a core value of those who will walk with him on the Way.  Blessed are the compassionate.  The word means to enter into the sufferings of another, or to suffer with another.  That is what God does.  And those of Jesus’ disciples who are compassionate will help others to believe this.

What was the common experience in the Lord’s age?  Frequently in the Gospels we hear of people who cry out to Jesus for pity, even as those around them try to silence the poor.  Lepers were shunned and relegated to the outskirts of towns.  Widows and orphans were in constant peril, their survival in danger.  Don’t you think this is the experience of many in the lower stratum of contemporary society, the homeless, the unemployed, the disabled, the members of the LGBT community?  Jesus rails against the Pharisees for their lack of compassionate response even as they rail in return against Jesus for welcoming sinners and eating with them.  Surely you have heard Pope Francis speak to the need for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.  That could be seen as a contemporary translation of “Blessed are the Merciful.”

Do you remember the parable of the Good Samaritan?  A man is beaten and robbed and left by the side of the road to die.  Religious figures on their way to temple skirt around the man and continue on their way on the other side of the road.  They had to.  After all, if they had touched the man and come into contact with his blood, they would have incurred ritual impurity and not been able to enter into worship without showing themselves to the priest.

But the Samaritan, not obliged under the law, does not have the same dread.  Moreover, He responds with a compassionate heart and ministers to the poor wretch, binds up his wounds, puts him on the Samaritan’s beast of burden, takes the man to an inn and pays for his stay and time of recovery there.  He promises to pay any overage on his way back.  The Samaritan entered into the man’s sufferings and took them on as his own.  Jesus told the parable as an example to be imitated and imitate.  His primary audience in the telling was scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus meant the parable to lodge in the hearts of his disciples and motivate them to the same kind of response to others’ sufferings.  He hoped for the same response from the scribes and Pharisees.

What must be remembered is a mindset of those times.  All of the social and physical ills endured by people were deemed to be the God-sent punishment for sins – either of the one suffering, or the sins of his parents or grandparents.  Such thinking may well have given the scribes and Pharisees and the crowds permission to ignore the cries of the poor, much less to respond to their needs.  The blind, the crippled, the lepers – all these are in their desperate condition because of their sin, just as all those who are secure and wealthy are in their condition because of their virtue.  God favors them.  Jesus challenges those assumptions when he touches and anoints blind eyes with mud made with his spittle, when he touches the deaf ears, putting his fingers into them, when he takes the lame man by the hand and invites him to rise.  And in every case, Jesus extolled the cured for the faith that has enabled their healing.

This new community that Jesus forms will be made up of a different kind of people.  Remember, the Sermon on the Mount has been called the Magna Charta of the New Way.  Compassion will be expected of those that accept the invitation to be disciples.  Be compassionate.  Enter into and take upon yourself the sufferings of your brothers and sister.

Compassionate responses may be applauded in the media in our times, but that doesn’t mean that compassionate response is the common experience.  How can that be when many in our society accept that “it’s all about ME?”  Children are taught to be competitive from an early age.  Winning is the most important outcome.  A more theologian once said that he believed competition is the source of most of the moral evils of every age.  In a competition someone wins and someone loses, just as happens in wars.  Teaching children to participate in war games or play them electronically desensitizes them to the horrors of war.  The same results rise out of the violent video games that have as their goal killing of who or whatever is “out there.”  Again, the survivor takes all.  Compassion can play no part.  It’s kill or be killed.  Somehow I find it hard to see that as a Gospel value.  There is a danger in saying it is only pretend.  Humans, albeit digitalized, are the targets of the bullets and bombs.

As I write this, Wall Street is surging.  Banks feel their day is dawning.  The rules in that arena are acceptable only if you accept the Ayn Rand philosophy of “objectivism” that makes the only ethic applicable the one that ensures you come out on top.  Alan Greenspan, a former Chairman of the Federal Reserve is a dedicated disciple of Ms. Rand.  There are indications that the current President adheres to this philosophy.

When the Nazis set their sights on the Jews as the source of all Germany’s woes, the first thing that had to be done was to convince the people that the Jews were the common enemy and that they were sub-human.  How else could a people look the other way during the attempt to exterminate the Jews?  Outsiders could look on and bemoan what came to be called an example of “man’s inhumanity to man,” a concept the Nazis could not grasp.  In their eyes, the enemy wasn’t human and therefore did not have basic human rights.  They were a scourge on the coming Third Reich.

Space doesn’t allow us to speak to the terrible slaughter of the Native Americans, the first to live on this land, at the hands of the newly arrived Europeans who were sent by God to claim the land as their own, or so they thought.  Blacks could be bought and sold as slaves because their humanity was denied.

Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful.”  The first instinct might be to say, “Thank God.  Now maybe someone will take pity on me.”  That may not be what Jesus is teaching.  Rather, he is placing the onus squarely on the disciples’ shoulders.  Each one is called to be merciful, to be compassionate, to give of self that others might simply live.  Read the history of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Claire.  You will get the idea of what it means to live this Beatitude.

The Eucharist is at the heart of our faith life.  We gather as brothers and sisters, as one people, to renew the dying and rising of Jesus in Bread and Wine.  Jesus promises that when we do this, he is present to us.  That’s what “Do this in my memory” means.  As important is what happens at the conclusion of the celebration.  Those who have been fed by the Word and by the Eucharist are transformed into the Body of Christ by what they have done.  Now they are sent.  “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord and one another.”  In other words, “Go and be Christ’s compassionate presence where ever you are through whatever you do.”  To act in that manner is to exercise the Priesthood of the Baptized.

Mercy.  Compassion.  Add to those, forgiveness.  Recently, I heard a woman give a motivational talk.  She was a woman who knows terrible suffering and grief in her life.  In one horrific accident, her husband and two children were killed.  The driver of the other car was drunk and was killed as well.  There was no minimizing of the burden she had borne in the years since that horrific event.  Then there was stunned silence as she said through a radiant smile that if the man who took her family from here were alive and present to her, she could forgive him and wish him well on his way.  Her faith, she said, demanded that response from her.

Nowhere does Jesus say that being his disciple will be easy.  Why else would he say, “If you would be my disciple, take up your cross every day and be my disciple?”  In other words, know what is involved and what is expected before you begin this venture.  Jesus expects disciples to live the Eucharist they celebrate, to allow themselves to be bread broken and cup poured out in compassionate response to all who feel alone and abandoned.  Wounded and broken.  They are family, all.  Even the ones you might be tempted to despise.

Sister Helen Prejean responds to this Beatitude in her ministry to prisoners on death row.  Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta responded through her ministry to the poorest of the poor on the streets of India.  Hospice workers do the same as they assist the dying so that their dignity is revered to their last moments on this earth.  Those who serve in shelter for the homeless and treat their guests with kindness and respect have taken the invitation to heart.  The same can be said for those who minister to the developmentally disabled and those locked in in sanity or dementia.  It really doesn’t matter the poverty to which the compassionate respond.  Jesus looks for those who are willing to enter into others’ sufferings as their own.  In the process they will recognize Jesus there and experience his mercy and compassion in return.

One final note on this Beatitude: the compassionate response of believers to those who suffer reflects God’s attitude toward us all.  God comes to us as the Samaritan did to the beaten and abandoned man on the road.  God comes to lift us up and share the burdens of our lives, to forgive our sins, and support us in our repentance.  God wills to bring us safely home at the end to be with God forever.  God loves unconditionally and forever.  That’s the promise Jesus gives, isn’t it?  Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

If only we dare to take Jesus at his word.

Sincerely,

Didymus

THE THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A – January 22, 2017

 

A reading from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah 8:23-9:3
A reading from the first Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians 1:10-13, 17
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew 4:12-23

 

Dear Jesus,

Something is happening in the Church that causes me great distress.  There is nothing that I can do about it, but I thought I would write and put my sorrow before you.  Sometimes you get back to me with a response.  That would be most welcome now.  Other times silence ensues.  Then I must pray over my concern and learn to live with it, knowing that ultimately you will heal what is perceived to be a wound; you will unite what seems to be intractable division.

How many years have I been walking with you in faith and gathering with you at the Table?  You know that I was never the same after that first encounter.  Nothing that antedated our meeting had the same value or importance.  My journey with you has been fraught with questions that always seek greater understanding.  That is the way with faith, isn’t it?

I noticed in this Sunday’s reading from 1 Corinthians that Paul chastises his readers for the divisions that they seem to be fostering in the Corinthian community.  Some are boasting because they belong to different teachers – Paul, Apollos, Peter and Christ.  Each sect seeks to lord it over the others as being inferior.  Finally, Paul cries out:  Is Christ divided?  He is scandalized by their attitude.

Nowhere is that unity of the whole church more clearly proclaimed than in the celebration of the Eucharist.  Things are changing.  In increasing evidence there are two rites – one Ordinary and one Extraordinary – but two nonetheless.  The Ordinary is the Celebration of the Liturgy according to the Missal of Paul VI promulgated in 1970.  The Extraordinary comes from the official document Summorum Pontificum of Pope Benedict XVI that authorizes wider use of the Latin Mass composed before Vatican II and contained in the 1962 Roman Missal of St. John XXIII.

This division between rites seems to foster two rather startlingly different ecclesiologies.  I am old enough to remember when the 1962 Rite was the only rite.  Said in Latin, the priest had his back to the people – were the people called the Assembly in those days? – and the people on their knees followed along in their missals, which offered translation.  Or, the people could read their own devotions or pray the rosary, depending on what moved them.  Bells rang to call the people to attention for the words of institution.  Then, after the exposition of the Bread and Wine above the priest’s head and they adored, they could go back to their devotions.

When Communion time came, it was not unheard of that the priest was the only one to receive the Bread.  He was the only one to drink from the Cup.  The later in the morning the mass time, the few the number of communicants.  The emphasis seemed to be on the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into your body and blood at the hands of the priest.  The people, on their knees, were there to adore.  While the readings were in English, they were limited to two each Sunday – one from St. Paul and one from one of the Gospels.  The Hebrew Scriptures were seldom proclaimed.  We have three cycles of Sunday readings today.  Then there was one.  Much of the Scriptures were never read in the course of the Sundays of the year.

There is nostalgia among some for that essentially Tridentine Liturgy.  Nostalgia for the Latin.  Nostalgia for the silence and the reverence perceived in the Assembly’s posture of adoration on their knees.  Even some priests find joy in celebrating this rite because there are fewer distractions when their backs are to the people.   They have less of a compulsion to perform.  Alas, how can there be nostalgia for something that one has never experienced but only read about?

Am I mistaken in thinking that the Second Vatican Council called for the full, active, and conscious participation of the Assembly?  Am I not incorrect in thinking that the Assembly is called to exercise the Priesthood of the Baptized as co-celebrants of the Liturgy?  In no way is the assembly to be passive adorers, much less spectators.

We stand about the Table of the Bread in testimony to your Resurrection and, as the Baptized, to our participation in the Resurrection.  We stand in recognition of your presence in the transformed bread and wine and in the transformed Assembly.  We stand to testify to our intention to receive the Bread and to drink from the Cup.  Kneeling was the sign that that would not be the case.  Those kneeling would not receive.  We engage in dialogue with the priest-presider and are of one mind and heart with him in the offering of the Eucharistic Prayer.  There is no place for private devotions here.  (In fact, I wonder if an argument could be made that if one were to engage in private devotions throughout the Mass s/he would have missed Mass.)  We stand in unison in the Communion Process acknowledging our common union with you, augmented through our reception of the one Bread and drinking from the one Cup.  It is, after all, a following of your instruction quoted in the Institution Narrative.

Am I making sense?  Or are you thinking that I am daft?  Am I wrong when I think there are two different ecclessiologies being exercised here?  Am I being stubborn when I think that I cannot go back to the former way?  I loved the Gregorian chant of the old days.  I loved the ritual of my youth.  It was difficult and even awkward to adapt to the new.  But once the theology of the call to renewal was grasped and the transforming effects on the Assembly were perceived, there was no going back for me.  The priest now empowered the Assembly and did not just preside over them.  The Presider and the Assembly co-celebrated.

I didn’t shake the dust from my feet as I left, but I left the parish church near when I live knowing I could never return.  I had to find a parish that celebrated according to the mind of Vatican Council II.  What sent me over the edge?  The pastor announced that he was discontinuing granting the Assembly access to the Cup.  Among the reasons, none of which seemed compelling to me, was his concern that with so many Lay Ministers of the Cup the people might lose sight of the priest and miss his importance.  It seemed clear that his perception was that too much power has been given to the people.  It is time for the ordained priest to take that back and return the people to their proper place.

I travel a distance to Liturgy now.  The parish is poorer than the one closer at hand.  The disabled and the aged are much more in evidence here.  Some of the disabled and developmentally challenged engage in Liturgical Ministry as greeters, ushers, lectors and Eucharistic Ministers.  The choir isn’t as polished sounding as the one in the more posh surroundings.  But joy abounds because it is clear you have called us to be transformed by the Eucharist that we celebrate in order that we might be sent to be the continuation of your presence in the market place until all, especially the poor, have eaten and drunk and now know that they are the beloved and have primacy of place in the kingdom of the One who sent you to live among us.  It is curious how poverty enhances that proclamation.

I hear Paul asking again: Is Christ divided?  I am afraid that is my perception now.  It makes me sad, but all the more resolved not to go back but to enter into the reformed Liturgy and continue to be challenged to do this in your memory.

Sincerely,

Didymus