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HOW BLEST ARE THOSE WHO HUNGER AND THIRST FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS; THEY SHALL BE SATISFIED

Dear Reader,

The contemporary reader may have problems with this beatitude.  Those who heard it the first time did too, but for a different reason.  The current issue has to do with the word “righteousness,” and that, more than likely, is because of the tendency to hear self-righteous.  We are all familiar with the judgments of the self-righteous, their gratitude that they are not like the rest of people, especially those they are reviling and condemning.  They seem convinced that God is in lock-step agreement with them and just waiting to cast the ones they deplore into hell’s unquenchable flames.

The cause doesn’t matter.  Those opposing it are so invested that there is no room for dialog; anyone who holds they are against is reprehensible.  Politics has moved in this direction.  Conservatives spew vitriol on the liberals.  Liberals do the same regarding the conservatives.  All ought to be embarrassed by the vile things being tweeted, especially as the opinion expressed changes as soon as it is posted.

You may have thought that the days of race riots had passed.  There is ample evidence to the contrary.  White supremacists and neo-Nazis marched proclaiming the United States to be a White country.  Jews and Blacks and Hispanics should leave these shores.  Those demonstrating against bigotry and racism confronted them.  The President said that there were good people on both sides and would not speak against the racist demonstrators.  And the list goes on.

Jesus condemned attitudes like those above that were embodied in the Pharisees who, Jesus said, strained over the speck in the other’s eye while ignoring the beam in their own.  It is the judgmental attitude that condemns another’s sin while “understanding” and “accepting” one’s own.

The righteousness for which the blest hunger and thirst for in the beatitude is better translated for us as right relationship, right relationship with God and right relationship with our sisters and brothers in the Lord.  These are the people who long for union with God and for justice and peace in the world.  There is an intensity about them that creates a longing and a willingness to suffer in order to attain what is longed for.  Hunger and thirst.  Human beings need food and drink to survive.  More important for these blest ones is the unitive way, the way that leads to living in the presence of God, embraced by God’s love.  More important than the lavish banquet and the fine wines is the desire to see the oppressed liberated, sexism and racism banished, the impoverished sharing in the goods of the world necessary for their survival.

There is a hymn that achieved secular popularity in the late 1960s and ‘70s.  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.”  The hymn is about conversion, about seeing in a totally new and wholesome light an abominable behavior that before the grace was acceptable.  In this instance, the “wretch” had transported enslaved men and women destined for the auction block.  Once grace entered the author’s consciousness, he was never the same and could never accept the institution of slavery again.  But that is not enough to qualify as one of the blest in this beatitude.  It is not enough to find an evil unacceptable.  What must follow is the willingness to do whatever can be done to eliminate the evil.  This former ship’s captain worked tirelessly to bring about the end of the horror.

Dorothy Day was a woman steeped in that same Amazing Grace.  There had been restlessness in her from her youth.  She saw oppression and inequality in society, the downtrodden poor enslaved in poverty, while others lived lavishly.  The way of Communism seemed for a time to be the answer.  She joined the party.  She became pregnant out of wedlock and had an abortion.  Then she met a man who told her about the Gospel and especially about the Sermon on the Mount.  That is when the grace entered her live, created a longing for God, and empowered her to live the rest of her days in poverty as she witnessed to the dignity of the workers and their worth before God.  She fasted.  She spent a portion of each day in contemplative prayer.  She went to Eucharist every morning.  And she marched for civil rights.  Who can ever forget the picture of the then senior Dorothy Day seated next to Cesar Chavez, peering over her glasses at the baton-bearing policemen who would arrest them for defending the rights of migrant workers?  (Were she alive today, she would be speaking out for the Dreamers and other aliens longing for this country’s freedom.  And she would have something to say about the dignity and worth of other refugees, be they from Mexico, or be they from Muslim countries. )

Saint Dorothy Day?  Not yet.  Some say, never.  After all, she was a sinner in her youth, a Communist who had an abortion.  Surely she wouldn’t get to heave.  Or would she?

The self-righteous might say, “Surely not!”  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness would have no problem with Dorothy’s salvation because they recognize that it is all grace.  God’s love is all embracing.  God’s desire is to forgive and reconcile.  St. Augustine knew he was a sinner in his youth and late had he loved God long after God had first loved him.

Righteousness is God’s gift, God’s grace working in the human consciousness that enables those so gifted to see possibilities for peace and justice once they recognize each other as equals before God, all created in God’s image and likeness.  When they see through that prism, then they come to understand that when the stone is thrown, or the bomb dropped, it is Christ who is crucified again in those who are wounded and slaughtered.

So, as you sit at Christ’s feet and hear the proclamation of happiness for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, you have to ask yourself what stirs your passion.  What evils inflicted on others fill you with outrage?  What is it that you long to see?  What transformation do you pray will one day come about?

What I suggest here might not work for everyone.  The bigoted are often blind to the humanity of those they hate.  We tend to think of those enduring the evils that limit and take their lives in terms of statistics.  Millions of people are dying from AIDS in Africa.  At least that was the case when I was in Kenya and Uganda some time ago.  Think of the raves, the destruction and deaths from the hurricanes and storms that ravaged Puerto Rico, Texas, and other parts of our country.  The numbers mount and can move us to some extent.  But put names and faces on those people and we can find ourselves moved to the core.  Look at the effect the diary of a young girl has had on untold millions of readers regarding the evils of anti-Semitism and the holocaust.

My suggestion is to allow yourself to think of the people suffering as members of your family.  Why do you think it is that when we celebrate Eucharist, the central symbols are one Bread and one Cup?  We gather around one Table to share the one Meal.  It is one family gathered at the family table.  As another hymn has it, “We are one body in this one Lord.”

It is to that kind of sensitivity that this Beatitude calls us.  Once awakened, we hunger for the day when our brothers and sisters no longer endure that suffering, the day when the cure for the disease has been found and there is a vaccine to prevent it.  We thirst for the day when the wars will end and peace will reign.  We long for the time when humanity is enough to guarantee the recognition of the shared dignity that God has in mind for us all.  I believe you will realize then how close God is, as you feel secure in God’s embrace.

“Blest are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness; they shall be satisfied.”  In truth, that is what heaven is all about.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT – B – February 25, 2018

A reading from the Book of Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:31b-34
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 9:2-10

Dear Reader,

The Liturgy of the Word for the Second Sunday of Lent this year just might contain a warning for us even as we are encouraged to remember the vision and therein find our strength to go on.  We are in the second week of this sojourn in the desert of our Lenten renewal.  The fact that we are here is a testament to our faith no matter how challenged or fragile that faith might seem.  If it has been years since the last time we presented our foreheads for the ashes and wondered if faith survived in us, faith brought us here.  If this is our first Lent and this is a leg on our journey toward the Font, incipient faith can be naïve but it is faith nonetheless that empowered the taking of the first steps.  Warning.  Encouragement.  A challenge to remember.

We meet Abraham, our Father in the faith, in the first reading at a crisis time in his faith.  It is ages since God called Abram and challenged him to go to the land that I will show you.  It is a long time since his name change and the promise made to Abraham that I will make you the father of many nations, descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens or the sands on the shore.  Now, with that passing of time, Abraham is in advanced years.  Where are the signs of the fulfillment of the promise?  There is no land to claim.  He and his aged wife, Sarah, have but one son.  If you were Abraham, how would you react were God to say to you what was said to Abraham?  Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah.  There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.

I cannot hear the story without feeling intense horror.  Sure, knowing the outcome mitigates the horror.  Still, the horror remains.  Imagine Abraham as he took Isaac by the hand, as they loaded the ass with the wood for the fire.  Imagine the walk and Abraham’s hand on the knife’s hilt.  Every fiber in his being would cry out, “No!”  Yet he trudges on.  Imagine Isaac as his father ties the boy’s hands behind him and places him on the altar.  Do not minimize the terror the boy felt as he saw the knife raised over him prepared to slit his throat.

Why is this happening?  To test Abraham’s faith.  How firmly do you believe?  Is there anything that faith demands that you would refuse to do?

So, God is satisfied in the realization that there is no commandment God could give Abraham that Abraham would refuse to carry out, Abraham, our Father in Faith.  But what was the aftermath of that faith moment for Abraham?  Did Isaac ever speak to his father again?  Was Sarah’s rage ever calmed, once she realized that her husband had come so close to slaughtering their son?  The answer to both questions seems to be no.

What is the point to be made here?  What are we supposed to take from this reading?  You need not fear that God will command you to offer your child in sacrifice.  The days of human sacrifice ended in Abraham’s time and will not revive.  But your fidelity to God and the Gospel may make huge demands that make little sense to anyone but you.  Think of Damian leaving Belgium to spend the remainder of his life on Molokai in a leper colony.  Think of St. Teresa of Calcutta leaving the security of her convent to go into the streets of Calcutta to minister to the poorest of the poor.  Think of St. Francis disrobing in front of the bishop, abandoning his father’s fortune, and wedding Lady Poverty in response to what he believed Christ’s call to be.  Think of the lad, terrified of height, who climbed an electrical tower to rescue his autistic little brother who had made the ascent before him.

What is the point?  If we listen to the Genesis reading, we will learn what Abraham came to understand.  God is the faithful lover.  Abraham can trust God even in the direst of times.  If Abraham can, so can we, if we remember.  That does not mean there won’t be trials; but it does mean that ultimately the trials will not defeat us.  Think of Maximilian Kolbe as he asked to take the place in line of the young Jewish father being led to the gas chambers in Dachau.  Think of your own challenges, the loss of a spouse, the terminal illness of a child, the loss of your income, or home, the betrayal by a friend, your advancing years and declining health.  Think of your own challenges and remember God’s fidelity.  Remember Paul’s words in the Letter to the Church in Rome: If God is for us, who can be against us?  That was written when many Christians were on their way to execution because of their faith in Jesus, the Christ.

Every second Sunday of Lent, the Gospel takes us to Tabor’s top.  Peter, James and John are with Jesus there.  It is a major moment that language’s limits cannot describe.  What does it mean to be transfigured?  How white is the whitest that any bleach could make clothes?  One thing is certain; the three are seeing Jesus in a totally new light.  Then there is the added attraction of Moses, the Giver of the Law, who had promised that one greater than he would come after him; and Elijah, the first and greatest of the Prophets, who spoke what God wanted the people to hear.  Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.

There are in Life some transfixing moments that make participants wish that time could stop and the moment go on and on.  Think of a magnificent aria sung by the late, great Joan Sutherland in her prime, or the late and great Luciano Pavarotti in his.  Think of Yo Yo Ma playing the cello.  Or think of a sunrise or sunset, or an eclipse of the sun.  Or think of the first time you kissed your beloved, or held your child in your arms.  Then you will understand Peter’s pleading with the Lord to let them build three tents and preserve the moment, to let them stay there and not have to go down from the mountain’s top.

The brilliance of the sublime we remember when the memory is all we have.  Jesus would not allow the three to wallow in the sentimental moment because they did not understand what they had seen and been part of.  During their descent, Jesus forbade them to tell anyone what they had witnessed until those events transpire that will define what they witnessed.  As Peter, James, and John looked on, as they heard the voice from the cloud say, this is my beloved Son; listen to him, most likely they saw in the splendor and heard in the thunder the confirmation of what they thought they had begun to understand.  The great signs, the miracles, convinced them that Jesus was the Messiah of God.  The Transfiguration attests to that.  But, what kind of Messiah?  Not the mighty warrior.  Not the one who would reign over people.  Not the Messiah that would drive out foreign rule forever.

This Messiah serves the poor and the outcasts.  He embraces lepers and sinners and celebrates table fellowship with them.  Peter, James, and John will have to remember the Transfiguration and filter it through that other mountain top event, the crucifixion.  Most of all, they will interpret it in light of when the Son of Man has risen from the dead.

So, should we go on with this Lenten journey?  It could be that by now you have forgotten the Ashes.  It could be that by now you are getting tired of fasting, and praying, and giving alms.  Forty days can seem like an eternity when you are doing without.  Perhaps you are wondering if you will ever reach the Font and be baptized.  This Sunday’s readings warn and encourage us.  They warn us that there may be trials along the way.  We might have days when we are reduced to clinging to our faith by our fingernails, even as we wonder if God has abandoned us.  There could be a long, dark night of the soul.  But if we remember Abraham’s trust, we will remember God’s fidelity.  If we remember the Transfiguration, the crucifixion will not daunt us.  We will remember the Resurrection and our own dying and rising to which our faith in Jesus continually calls us.

Then we will see more clearly why we must always come back to the Eucharist to renew the Lord’s dying and rising and so continue our own transformation.  There we will find the reason and the strength tot continue on to the journey’s end and the life that begins then.

Sincerely,

Didymus

BLESSED ARE THE GENTLE (MEEK) FOR THEY SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH

Dear Reader,

It was true when Jesus proclaimed the Beatitudes, just as it is today.  The proclamations jar the hearer because each one is in such stark contrast with the contemporary values.  Have you noticed yourself wondering as you read these reflections, “Who can do this?”  Think about what these times proclaim our values to be sought.  Power.  Wealth.  To be numbered among the elite.  Jesus said to those sitting at his feet on the mountaintop and he tells us that all that is an illusion.  Forgive me for being blunt about it, but most of us will die and, as far as I know, none of us will take anything we own with us.

Hebrew Scripture through the Prophets and Psalmists proclaimed the poor to be YHWH’s own.  The landowners, the oppressors of the poor, were not the real owners.  Only God owns the land.  Leviticus taught that at 7-year intervals the land should be given back to the original owners.  Jesus told parables that spoke to the folly of hoarding landowners.  Remember the farmer who concluded that his barn was already filled to overflowing and he had not yet harvested his crop for this year.  His decision?  Tear down his barn and build a new and bigger one to accommodate more.  Then when everything is in storage he would be able to take life easily, eat and drink and be merry all his days.  The only problem is that God summons him on what proves to be his last day.  Then who will enjoy all his riches?

Our history in this country should embarrass us.  When our ancestors came to these shores Native Americans who had profound respect for the land and reverenced it already occupied the land.  We took possession of their land and marched them off to reservations on the least desirable of landscapes.   The consciences of the invaders didn’t seem to be bothered.  After all, it was their “manifest destiny.”

How different would attitudes be if we all believed that the earth is God’s and we are stewards of what God has entrusted to God’s family.  That would have an impact on attitudes, too, if we saw each other as members of the one family, sisters and brothers in God’s family.  That is what Jesus taught.

St. Francis of Assisi is the model whose vision should be heeded.  In his embracing of poverty he said that we do not own anything.  He taught his brothers to live without possessions.  He saw the wonder of God on all of creation as he spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.  And he recognized Christ in the poor and the outcast.  He embraced and kissed the leper as he dressed the leper’s wounds.

The world knew that something different was happening when the newly elected pope came out on the balcony dressed simply and without the accustomed papal garments and bowed and asked for prayers.  Taking the Francis’s name, it soon became clear that his intention was to live in the simplicity that the saint taught.  He challenged the shepherds to shepherd in the midst of the sheep and not over them, even to smell like the sheep.  A servant church should proclaim the dignity of all people and hold the poor in primacy of place.  He lives in humble quarters and invites street people to breakfast with him.  Some were shocked when he washed the feet of young people in prison, some of them women, some of them not Christian.  He kissed their feet.

Pope Francis calls us to embrace the fundamentals of the Gospel, and to hear Jesus proclaim that the meek, the humble are blessed or happy because they, we, shall inherit the earth.  The first Christians responded to the Gospel by living in community with a keen sense of responsibility for each other.  But then the Church took on power and that simplicity and strong sense of community was lost sight of.  Wealth became a sign of God’s favor, just as poverty became God’s punishment for sin.  Herbert Spencer, taking his lead from Charles Darwin taught that the fittest in society would survive as the weak and poor died away.  There are unfortunate echoes of that philosophy today.  The poor are poor because they do not work hard enough.

Think of the young man who came to Jesus wanting to be a disciple.  Jesus told him to go and sell what he had, give it to the poor and then come and follow him.  That young man who had prided himself in living by the letter of the Law, went away sad because he was wealthy and could imagine himself living in poverty.  There are current televangelists who link following Christ to gaining wealth.  Turn your life over to Christ and wealth will result.  That is not the Gospel message and challenge that I hear.

As we sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to the Beatitudes, dare we be open to them, vulnerable before them?  I spoke with a couple that told me they were downsizing.  One evening they looked around and realized how much “stuff” they had acquired and how little of it they actually needed.  Even their house was much larger then the two of them required.  They told me they felt it was a graced moment when they decided they could give much of what they had to the poor and start to live simpler lives.  And, they said, with the next breath they started talking about how they could volunteer to work in a homeless shelter.  “We’ve never been happier,” they said.  And their smiles showed it.

We don’t need white supremecists.  We don’t need the Ku Klux Klan, or any of the other organizations that deny the dignity and worth of a segment of the human family.  What we do need is to love one another as God loves us.  If we live in the simplicity of that love we will find peace knowing the inheritance that will be ours.

Sincerely,

Didymus