Sunday, April 24, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Easter Homily

Readings: Acts 10:34-43; Col 3:1-4; Jn 20:1-9

In the mountain regions of Greece, where little villages are widely separated, it’s common for a priest to have five or six villages assigned to his care. On Easter Sunday morning he is expected to visit each one of them and celebrate a short morning service of the Resurrection in the Byzantine tradition. The custom has arisen, and remains to this day, that when the priest enters each little church where the people have gathered, he shouts at the top of his voice, "Christos anesti" (Christ is Risen) And the people shout in return "Christos anesti." They are celebrating that in the Resurrection Jesus has saved and redeemed us. We have a future with God. The feast of the Resurrection is the salvation of all the followers of Jesus and indeed the whole world.

That’s the large, overall Christian message of Easter. But a smaller, day-to-day message follows closely from that. Easter also points to a transition in the life of Jesus’ disciples. They have been freed from the fear and uncertainty that followed the capture and crucifixion of Jesus. Beyond that they are led to an empowering joy in their lives. We don’t see much of that empowering joy in the Gospels themselves, but it shows up in the subsequent writings of the New Testament. The disciples go around fearlessly proclaiming the Resurrection of Jesus and the New Covenant with God that Jesus’ life, death and Resurrection made manifest. Early Christianity is a movement flooded by empowering joy, an empowering joy that they want to share with all people.

It’s important to keep both of these perspectives in mind as we celebrate this feast. On the one hand, we joyfully proclaim the glorious future that God has opened for us. On the other hand, we recognize that we are impelled to go out and share this empowering joy with others, especially those suffering from the discouragements of life.

That dual dimension was something I certainly felt last Wednesday evening. I was over at the Hermitage pushing my mother through the halls when the Health Care receptionist came up to me. She said that one of the residents, Tudie West, was rapidly in the process of dying and she couldn’t find any priest to do the anointing for her. I said I would go and immediately get my oils. On the way back to the chaplain’s house I kept thinking of the past months. Almost every evening when I would go to the Hermitage after supper one of her daughters, especially the twins Karen and Sharon, was feeding her in such a gentle manner. I would often stop and talk with them for a while. I thought, "they are now on their Good Friday way of the cross." When I got to her room, all her children (except for one son) were there and grieving as they knew she was dying. I was able to get all of them involved in the anointing as a final farewell to their mother. She died a little more than an hour after that. The next afternoon I ran into Sharon and Karen in the parking lot. They had cleaned out their mother’s room and were loading the things into a station wagon. I stopped and talked with them. They were very appreciative that I could do the anointing. I mentioned that something like this, sad as it is, has a way of bringing the children closer together. They said that was certainly true with them; the children had become closer than they had ever been before. The power of empowering joy was beginning to be felt in their lives. It would be an Easter of hope for them.

That’s what Easter should be for each of us—the dawning of an empowering joy in our lives that will make us become men and women of great hope. Let’s pray that it be so.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for Passion Sunday

Readings: Is 50:4-7; Phil 2:6-11; Mt 26:14-27:66

This feast of Passion Sunday and the reading of the Passion account remembers and anticipates a sudden change in the lives of Jesus and his disciples. How thrilling and joyous was that triumphal entry into Jerusalem! How deeply moving was that intimate supper that Jesus celebrated with his closest followers! After the meal they went out into the night singing, as was Jewish custom, the Hallel Psalms (##115-118) and the Great Hallel (#136): "Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His love is eternal. Give thanks to the God of Gods; His love is eternal." Joyous with the meal, the celebration and the wine they nodded off in the garden while Jesus prayed. Then in a flash the soldiers arrived, Jesus is arrested, and the disciples scatter and run away in fear. The unthinkable had happened. Everything changed in that moment. Passion Sunday reminds us of that change as we read the Passion account. How quickly the joyous entry into Jerusalem has suddenly become tragedy.

Holy Week plays out symbolically the last weeks of Jesus’ life. Each day in Holy Week is connected to some event that prepared for Jesus’ death and burial in those earlier days. As the week moves along we will want to focus on those events as part of our common liturgical lectio.

That’s what Holy Week is for a monastic community—a common liturgical lectio. We together are reading not a book, but a series of liturgical actions—the washing of the feet, the sharing of a supper, the reading of the Passion account. With each event we reflect on that event for its significance for our own spiritual lives. This is the story of our faith, indeed of our salvation, acted out.

This Passion Sunday we began with that joyful outdoor procession around the Mary circle and into the Church—liturgically expressing the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem. But soon we were listening to the account of the Passion—the beginning of the painful end of Jesus life. These remind us that we have our great moments of joy and happiness in life, but we will also have our own crosses. Let’s pray for a moment on that.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 5th Sunday in Lent

Readings: Ez 37:12-14; Rom 8:8-11; Jn 11:1-45

The story of the raising of Lazarus appears only in the Gospel of John. Not even a trace exists in the gospel traditions of Matthew, Mark and Luke. How odd that is! You would think such a spectacular miracle would have been imprinted into all the Christian memories of Jesus. But it didn’t. In John’s gospel it seems to serve a variety of functions. First, it is an exemplification of what John has Jesus say earlier in the gospel: "The Father has given the power of life and death to the Son." (5:26) Second, the story looks forward to Jesus’ own resurrection, which will far surpass Lazarus in magnificence and glory. Third, the story is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Ezekiel, which we heard in the first reading: "I will open your graves and have you rise from them" The cumulative effect of all these references clearly points to John’s primary affirmation that Jesus himself is the Son of God.

We need to hear this message now. It’s been a hard week for the community with deaths, near-deaths, scary episodes for community members, and just sad events (Fr. Mel Bennett’s automobile accident, in which he killed another person.). It’s a time when the cost of being human and human failure just weighs down upon us. I could see it in your faces this week and I could feel it in mine. We need this message of the Resurrection that Jesus is ultimately the source of life.

This reminds us how much the Christian faith is a religion of hope: hope in a blessed future; hope in a merciful and forgiving God; hope that something better lies beyond the struggles of this life.

This is told beautifully in a famous story related by the Venerable Bede in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. During the 7th century Christian missionaries are trying to convert Anglo-Saxon tribes in England from their tribal gods to the Christian faith. The bishop Paulinus is attempting to convert King Edwin of Northumbria to Christianity. The king leans in that direction, but first he wants to consult with his fighting men. Should we try this new faith or not? During the discussion one of his soldiers makes this famous comment: "Your Majesty, when we compare the present life of man with that time of which we have no knowledge, it seems to me like the swift flight of a lone sparrow through the banquet hall where you sit in winter months to dine with your thanes and councillors. Inside there is a comforting fire to warm the room; outside, the wintry storms of snow and rain are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall and out the other. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few sudden moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the darkness from whence he came. Similarly, man appears on earth a little while, but we know nothing of what went before this life, and what follows. Therefore if this new teaching can reveal any more certain knowledge, it seems only right that we should follow it." (pp. 124-125) Not bad advice from a barbarian.

What the Christian faith does offer is a vision of hope. Hope that we are destined for a future with the Mystery of God. And in that all of our desires and hopes will be fulfilled....far beyond our imagining. As St. Paul writes, "For eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor has it even entered into the human imagination what God has prepared for those who love Him." (1 Cor 2:9) Moreover, the Christian faith offers a group of like-minded hopers to help and support one another to keep this hope alive. That’s precisely what we are doing in this communal celebration of the Eucharist.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 4th Sunday in Lent

Readings: 1 Sam 16:1-13; Eph 5:8-14; Jn 9:1-41

Fr. Mark Massa SJ, in a recent insightful book entitled The American Catholic Revolution: How the Sixties changed the Church forever, states in several places that the only way one can explain many of the changes that happened after Vatican II is by reverting to an old law of history: the law of unintended consequences. In other words this law could be put positively: in a living, historical community of people things seldom go exactly as one plans them. There are simply too many factors to take into consideration when planning. No one individual, no committee can refer to all of them. Human life is too complex. How often governments have passed laws to control a situation....and wound up making it worse....because of something no one had ever thought of. Fr. Massa believes that there is no way the bishops at Vatican II could have imagined the change process they unleashed in the Church. Things seldom turn out exactly as we plan them.

There’s a similar kind of law that seems to emerge from today’s readings: people seldom are completely what they seem to be on the surface. In the first reading Jesse doesn’t even consider his youngest son, David, as a possible candidate to be the King of Israel. But in God’s eyes David is that king. In the gospel the man born blind is simply taken to be born in sin; his very blindness shows that. But Jesus says: "No, he was not born in sin." That has nothing to do with his blindness. People seldom are completely what they seem to be on the surface.

It would be good if we would take these two laws more seriously, especially the second. Lent is a good time to do a little purging of the presumptions and judgments we have about people, particularly those we closely live with. Presumptions and judgments can get so ingrained in us that it’s hard to see how far off they are from the reality. This gospel story today is just filled with biases and prejudices. The Pharisees have no qualms about their judgments on the man born blind or on Jesus; they are prejudiced. They can’t see past attitudes that they have come to accept as "set in concrete." Their opinion of themselves just drips with bias. Most of us would probably find it hard to admit that we are much more similar to them than we think we are.

Prejudices, especially inherited prejudices, are notoriously difficult to confront. I’m reminded of the early years of the ecumenical and interfaith dialogues—how much suspicion there was of each other. I remember once hearing Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum give an address about his entry into interfaith relations with Catholics. His own family had known nothing but hostility from Christians for generations. He spoke about the first time he was going to meet with a group of Catholic bishops and priests during the Second Vatican Council. His family had a deep-rooted prejudice towards Catholics and fear of them. He could hardly sleep the night before. He kept waking up and finding himself sweating heavily. The next morning he considered not showing up for the meeting at all. Even after the meeting went beautifully, he had a hard time accepting in his heart that these were really good people, good religious people. He had to tell himself that over and over again. It’s not easy to get at prejudices.

Lent is a good time for us to begin to erode some of the prejudices and biases in our lives.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Spring Break in Wyoming

My brother, Fr. Zach, and I just returned from our trip to Wyoming. We spent 6 days with our brother...the Bishop! Pictures speak louder than words!

Jesus' April Message

Dearest apostles, you are serving Me despite trials and temptations. That is why you are called apostles, because you follow Me and serve Me. No life is easy or without strife, and I know, dear apostles, that you experience your share of difficulty. These difficulties are important for you because through the suffering of them you gain mastery over yourself. When you conquer a difficulty, using the holiness you have received from Me, you become stronger spiritually and then when the next difficulty comes, you both view it differently and treat it differently. You view it as expected, because your experience tells you that life in general, and service to Me specifically, will include these difficulties. You treat it differently because you know that I am with you today as I have been with you in the past. Additionally, you understand that all difficulty passes. What is it that remains, dear apostles, when the difficulty passes? Your commitment to Me remains and the work I will for you remains. You are not overcome and I need your help. And so we go on, Jesus and His apostles. The work continues and comfort and salvation are brought to God’s children. Be at peace, dear friends. I am with you and I am factoring in your presence as I plan for the advancement of the Renewal.