Archive for April, 2019|Monthly archive page

SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER – C – April 28, 2019

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles 5:12-16
A reading from the Book of Revelation 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 20:19-31

 

My dear Friends in Christ,

Isn’t it strange how memories of past events surface?  For me, those memories seem to be triggered by similar events, similar to those in now distant years.  I woke with a start and his name flashed through my mind, a name I hadn’t thought of for over forty years.  I remember the shock I felt when I first heard the news that he had been murdered by a shotgun blast as he peered from his front door on a snowy night in 1969.  He was a black man who lived in a mostly white neighborhood and was an activist for racial equality.  The killers had thrown a snowball against a window.  The sound alarmed his wife.  She peered through the bedroom window and saw the intruders hiding behind her husband’s car in the carport.  He went to the front door to investigate.  She cried out too late to alert him to the danger and heard the blast that killed him instantly.

I think of the historical events of those years and they seem remarkably similar to events in these times.  Violence ran rampant in the country.  Riots and demonstrations on college campuses and in city streets demanded that race relations and war be reconsidered.  John Kennedy’s slaying in Dallas ushered in an era of change the way, in the same year, that Vatican Council II opened windows and let the wind of renewal and change rush through the Church.  Then Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated.  Watts, Detroit, Selma, and other city’s found new fame as places where citizens banded together and stood in the face of police batons, snarling dogs, and the rush of water from fire hoses.  Kent State and other campuses experienced sit-ins.  Student demonstrations led to valence and bloodshed.  Pictures of anguished students crying out in the camera’s eye haunted all who saw them.  So did the picture of the naked and napalm-seared young girl running down a Viet Nam street shriek of the horrors of war.

Those years are distant now.  They were the years of my formation and the beginning of my priestly ministry.  It seemed that the church for which I was prepared in the seminary years ceased to be with the Council’s closing and the issuing of new foundational documents called Constitutions that called the Church as the People of God to a new springtime, a new Pentecost.  Pope Francis renews that call as he urges us to be a servant church, a poor church that ministers to the needs of the poor.  He challenges the bishops to be shepherds in the midst of the sheep.  Bishops and clergy should not see themselves as being over the people, but among them.  It seems to me that the pope is inviting that new Pentecost, that reformation that was proclaimed by the Council.

From this vantage point, Pentecost seems the most apt analogy.  We are used to sanitizing and tranquilizing Scriptural scenes – Pentecost among them.  There was the sound of a violent wind blowing in the place where they were, and over their heads appeared tongues as of fire.  Yet when we see stained glass or holy card representations of the scene, everything looks tranquil and serene without a hint of violence.  Looking back on those years and remembering the violence in the streets and the upheaval in the Church, I believe the world experienced the rush of the Spirit in those winds of change.  The winds continue to blow through the violence of the present times.  

Nothing would ever be the same, following the Council, no matter how nostalgically some would come to think of pre-conciliar days.  Those times may have seemed safer with people kept in their proper places, in an established hierarchy, and with roles carefully defined according to sex and race.  The evils of sexism and racism wore sanitized masks.  But the violence and the wind tore away those masks and Justice and Equality became the new catchwords to define the emerging era, and continue to define.  Pentecost is dangerous, as are hurricanes and forest fires.  We must remember that those who emerged from the first Pentecost could never go back to what they were before.  They had been transformed forever.  So were we who matured in the 1960s and experienced the new Pentecost.

Which brings me back to the man whose name came to me in the night 50 years after his murder.  He and I had appeared on a panel together to address the question of racial equality.  The Council document, The Church in the Modern World, called for us to be involved in societal change and to be engaged in the plea for justice.  To speak as part of that panel before an all white audience seemed like the right thing to do.  It was a packed house.  My co-panelist was the only African-American person in the room.  Several of us spoke in turn of our desire to see this new era of justice emerge and to see the crime of racism cease.  I cannot remember what I said.  I am sure it was safe and sanitized.  I was new to speaking out, new to the Church’s role as an implement of change in society.  I did not want to rankle the assembly.  Polite applause followed my remarks.  Then he spoke last.  I remember sitting in stunned attention as he lashed out at the establishment and at the Church for tolerating the abuses against which he now spoke.  It seemed like a call to anarchy for which I had not been warned.

He finished his speech and called for an intermission.  To this day I do not know what possessed me.  Without forethought, I reached over and pulled the microphone back to myself and asked everyone to wait a moment.  Then I turned to the speaker and acknowledged his pain.  I admitted that I could not understand the pain because I had not experienced it.  But also I said that anarchy was not the answer.  We, he, those like him, and the Church, all of us ought to work together.  Together we could be a leaven for the change he longed for.  Apart and at odds, hostility and chaos would be the only results.  I pledged to work with him and never be complacent with the status quo.

I remember our conversation during the break.  He apologized for what I had taken to be a broadsiding.  I pledged my support of his cause.  We promised each other that we would remain in contact and parted that night as friends.

Three weeks later, Edwin Pratt was shot to death in a snowy night in the neighborhood we shared.  It has been years since I have thought about him.  His name came to me in the night.

Now I remember and wonder how far have we come?

Sincerely yours in the Risen Christ,

 

Didymus  

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EASTER SUNDAY

A Remembrance

 

Sometime afterwards he told someone that when the phone had first rung he felt a twinge pass through him and he caught his breath.  Odd that he had held his hand over the receiver and listened to the rings, counting them, knowing how many he had before the answering machine would take over.  He lifted the receiver to his ear and paused before he spoke the single word, “Yes.”  Afterwards he tried to remember how many words it had taken the caller to deliver the news that changed his world.  Had time really slowed, putting everything into largo, so that there were cavernous pauses between each staccato word, letting him hear the beat of his heart and the sound of his own swallowing?

Replacing the receiver, he sank into the chair and studied the face of the clock on the living room wall.  He wanted to etch the exact moment into his memory.  The precision of date and time seemed important.  He thought it fortunate that the date had no other significance.  It wasn’t a major holiday.  No member of the family had been born on the date.  He wondered if he would live to see the return of the date on which his eldest son had died alone in a crosswalk on a dark street in a town on the other side of the country.  What was it that the officer had said? Oh, yes.  It had been raining.  Rain might have contributed to the accident.  But so had speed, the caller said.  “Your contact information was on a card in his wallet,” the voice said.  “It is hard to determine what your son was doing, walking on that lane at that time of night, alone in the rain.”

A child is not supposed to die before the parent, he thought, even if the child is estranged.  How can reconciliation happen then?  He looked at his son’s high school graduation picture that hung amid the family memorabilia on the dining room wall.  So much promise, so much hope in those eyes.  He remembered their last conversation on a park bench, while children played tag and sunbathers lolled on blankets.  Why had he been so closed to his only son?  He held his clenched fist to his forehead as he remembered saying, “I do not want to hear from you again until you come to your senses and get your life back in order.  You are throwing away your future.”  He hadn’t meant what he said and had wanted to take back his ultimatum.  Instead, he had sat on the bench and watched as the young man, with slumped shoulders, shrugged, raised his arm in a wave, and wandered away, disappearing among the other strollers on the path.  

He knew he had to call the others in the family, the boy’s sisters.  But he needed time to sit with this before bringing in his other two children.  What could they do about it at this time of night?  He would wait until morning, he thought.  Let them have their rest.

He went to the basement, to the room that had been his son’s; to the room that remained just as it was the last night the young man had slept there.  He sat on the edge of the bed and noted how strangely barren the room was.  There were no trophies for sports achievements, no awards or accolades in frames, nothing that celebrated the remarkable student he had been.  

A crucifix lay on the pillow.  An icon of the Mother and Child hung on the wall opposite the foot of the bed. Why hadn’t he been able to understand his son’s fascination with religion?  Why had he laughed and dismissed the interest as a passing fancy that would fade with the coming of maturity and the next season?  He gazed at the icon and wondered what it would be like to pray and to believe that there was someone who would listen and care.

He picked up the crucifix and weighed it in his hand.  Why would anyone want such a grim reminder of humanity’s cruelty?  Where was the consolation?  All he could see was defeat in the body that sagged from the crossbeam, and the thorn-crowned head slumped to the side.  Then he saw his son’s body on that wet roadway and wondered if, with his last breath, he had reached out, if he had prayed then and experienced its folly.

He carried the crucifix as he climbed the stairs and padded his way to the sofa, where he sat and wondered if there had been a reunion between the son and his mother as life left his body.  His wife had grieved the estrangement between her husband and their son and had distanced herself from her husband after that separation in the park.  He suspected that there had been clandestine meetings and secret phone conversations.  He had told her he didn’t care as long as he didn’t have to hear about them.  Why couldn’t she have understood that he could not accept a son who chose to live like a vagabond, a beggar, content to be a street-person, and for what purpose?  To walk with poor people, to be with them and share their burden.  The father was embarrassed.  Why wasn’t the mother?  Then he wondered if there had been a son and mother reunion, did they pity him now?  Would they forgive him? 

The clock chimed.  He was startled to note that it was nearly dawn.  Had he dozed?  He thought he must have slept because the night had flown by so quickly.  He was hungry.

 

Brown bread broken lay on the plate before him.  A mug of last night’s coffee steamed as he stirred in the sugar.  He spread a bit of honey on the bread and tasted its sweetness and swallowed.  Such simple things give comfort.  For a moment he could hear the laughter and conversation that used to emanate from the kitchen table when his family sat to meals in those days before his son’s strangeness emerged and the family fractured.  He could hear the voices and feel the presence.  

AN EASTER GREETING, April 21, 2019

Dear Friends in Christ.

Springtime in the desert means that the night air is fragrant with the scent of orange and cactus blossoms.  From my patio I watched the Easter moon cast its glow causing the surroundings to shimmer.  A mourning dove, perched on the wall near me, sang to its partner in the sky.  Strange how all those elements come together to remind us of Mystery.

As a people of faith, we are challenged to live in Mystery and say boldly to the world that there is more than what the senses can behold.  There is something more important than what is tangible, more important than youth, or beauty, or wealth, or power.  We are dared to trust that the darkness will not triumph, nor will war, or hatred, or prejudice, not death nor any of the powers that threaten humankind bringing us to our knees in near despair.  There is something that can be experienced only when all else has failed and the powers of darkness have done their worst.  We must never forget that Jesus, in the last moments of his dying, was enveloped by darkness.  He felt abandoned as he cried out to Abba, Father, and asked: Why have you forsaken me?

The Lenten Journey is that kind of walk, that time of being alone with Jesus, when we are invited to enter into the darkness and experience the worst that can befall us.  Every year the season begins with the Temptations in the Desert.  Look at them closely and you will recognize that they sum up all the temptations we can suffer in life, as what dazzles and distracts might make us wonder if God will triumph.  We hear God’s plea: Let me be your God.  You will be my people.

Easter, in the northern hemisphere at least, comes in springtime.  Winter has done its worst.  We have survived.  There have been ample signs of the power of darkness.  Horror stories of war, famine, disease, exploitation of the weak and the poor, global horror have all been there in the nightly news.  Perhaps some have felt estrangement from the church as we heard told stories of clergy and religious sexual abuse of children.  Perhaps some have felt estrangement from a loved one.  Some might have kept the lonely vigil by a deathbed and watched and wondered how life would ever be endurable without the loved one.  Others might have experienced the most bitter blow of betrayal by someone loved and trusted that is at the heart of Christ’s Passion.  Some may have been brought to their knees by all those things that tempt us to think of tragedy – the ultimate defeat.

In all of Scripture, the passage that is dearest to my heart is the Emmaus story.  Their having witnessed Jesus’ destruction on the cross has shattered the two travelers’ faith.  We had thought that he was the one who would set Israel free.  The mysterious Stranger invited them to revisit what they had experienced and this time to view it through the prism of faith.  He broke open the passages that referred to him and his suffering. Did not the Son of Man have to suffer these things and so enter into his glory?  After they had pressed the Stranger to stay with them, and he, in Eucharistic language, had taken the bread, blessed and broken it, and given it to them, and he vanished from their sight, they remembered that they had recognized him in the Breaking of the Bread.  They knew it was the Lord as they recalled their hearts burning as they walked with him On The Way and invited them to share in the new perspective.

The Emmaus story is important for us to remember.  Notice that the Lord did not revise recent history for the two.  He did not take away the horror of the passion and death.  It had happened.  But the Good Friday they had witnessed was not about defeat, but about victory.  Easter dares us to trust the story and believe in the Mystery.  It might be that Easter can only hold sway in our lives when we have been brought to our lowest point, when our strength has been depleted, when everything else has failed us, and we are still alive.  The cross is still the cross, and it is horrible.  But in the light of Easter, it is also a sign of hope and promised victory.  Behold I make all things new!

May every Easter blessing be yours.  May your faith be strengthened.  May your hope be renewed.  May your love, nourished by the broken Bread and the Cup poured out, be the reason you dare to be that for others until He comes again.  May your hearts burn within you as you continue to journey with the Stranger on the Way.

A favorite quote from a favorite saint, Thomas More, seems apt by way of conclusion.  Pray for me, as I will for thee, that we meet merrily in heaven!

Sincerely yours in the Risen Christ,

Didymus