Favorite shots from my Spring Break! God bless you as Holy Week soon begins.
Sunday, March 25, 2012
Readings: Jer 31:31-34; Jeb 5:7-9; Jn 12:20-33
The first reading from the prophet Jeremiah is one of the most famous passages of the Old Testament. It possesses elements of transcendent beauty in its image of God writing directly on the hearts of the members of the People of God. A scriptural highpoint, to be sure. But to grasp the complexity of the passage we need to know a little more about Jeremiah himself and his background.
Jeremiah came from a priestly family in the town of Anathoth, a few miles north of Jerusalem. His home area belonged to the old northern kingdom of Israel, which had been destroyed by the Assyrians. So Jeremiah knew well the difficulties of both lands, of Israel and Judea. He had a long career as a prophet (ca. 627-582 BC, 45 years) and witnessed many terrible events, like the destruction of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. A major part of the difficulty in understanding Jeremiah lies in the difficulty in establishing an exact chronology for the individual literary units that make up the Prophecy of Jeremiah. One cannot always determine who he is writing to.
In some ways that doesn’t make any difference. The clarity and power of his message speaks to everyone. The passage that we heard today comes from a section of the Prophecy that scholars call the "Book of Consolation." (Chaps. 30-33) It is written for people (whoever they are) who have a desperate need to hear a positive word from God. And this section is about as positive as you are going to find in the Bible. All the People of God, of both the northern and southern kingdoms, were in exile; they were punished because they had failed to live up to the obligations of the Sinai covenant. However, Jeremiah encourages them to have heart because the Lord God has established another covenant with them, a new covenant. They have been given a second chance.
The tremendous event that Jeremiah prophesies is that God has established a new covenant with them, different from the Sinai covenant. (By the way, this is the only passage that specifically mentions a "new" covenant in the entire Old Testament.) The covenant that Jeremiah prophesies possesses some very different characteristics from the Sinai covenant. The first of these is that this new covenant is unconditional. The people of Israel have no obligations as they did with the Sinai covenant. It is based simply on God’s everlasting love for His people. The second unique charateristic is that God effects this covenant by writing his Law on the hearts of each and every individual of the People of God. So, if you look hard enough, God can be found in your own heart.
What does this practically mean for us? It means that God is actively searching for us, for each and every one of us, no matter what kind of failings we may have in our backgrounds. God still pursues us and asks only acknowledgment and love from us. Realizing this caused St. Augustine to write his famous lines: "Too late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient and ever new! Too late have I loved you." (Confessions 10:27) He wrote that when he was 44 years old. Likewise the poet, Francis Thompson, captured the sense of God’s pursuit of us in his classic poem: "The Hound of Heaven." "I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the year; I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind; and in the midst of tears I hid from Him....From those strong feet that followed, followed after." (Vv. 1-3) The message of Jeremiah is simple: God is pursuing each one of us.....right now and through all our lives. The response is ours!
Sunday, March 18, 2012
Readings: 2 Chron 36:14-23; Eph 2:4-10; Jn 3:14-21
One theme that seems common to all three of the readings we just heard is that this world is pretty much a mess. The passage from 2nd Chronicles details the devastation of the land of Judea by foreign invaders and the subsequent deportation of the people to Babylon. The Letter to the Ephesians sees all of us as "dead in our transgressions." And the gospel teaching of Jesus to Nicodemus begins with all the world on the verge of perishing eternally. Very different ways of expressing it, but all three have the same message: this world is pretty much a mess.
But that’s not the only common theme in these readings. In each case the negative description of the world’s condition is countered and even bested by a positive view. After the exile to Babylon comes the Restoration to the land of Judah. In the midst of our transgressions unto death it is the merciful God who sends Jesus to save us from them. In the gospel Jesus is that source of eternal life who overcomes eternal damnation by his cross and resurrection. If we put those two themes together (the positive and the negative) the result is: this world is grace in the middle of a mess.
When you think about it, that’s not a bad definition of the Catholic faith itself: grace in the middle of a mess. The mess would be the assertion that the world has always stood in need of redemption. You can find that stated in religious texts that go back as far as the discovery of human writing. The cave men and women probably sat around and moaned, "Times are bad." There’s probably not much difference between them and individuals today who see the world as going to hell in a handbag. The contemporary causes for complaint are many: international war, environmental disaster, worldwide famine, biological diseases, nuclear catastrophes. The reasons go on and on. They all agree that the world is pretty much a mess.
In the Christian theological tradition one of the ways to explain this negative human situation, this "mess," was the doctrine of original sin. Original Sin has gotten a lot of bad press in the last few decades—mainly due to people being upset with St. Augustine’s explanations of original sin. You can argue a lot about different points of the doctrine (by the way, not all of Augustine’s explanations are part of Catholic teaching; they are his theological opinions), but it’s pretty hard to deny the basic insight. As far back as you can look at humanity, it’s always needed a lot of help. However, instead of talking about this in generalities, the season of Lent does offer us a time when we can focus more clearly on the ways that our own lives are affected (perhaps I should say ‘infected’) by the history of sin we find ourselves in. St. Paul called his particular failing the "thorn in his flesh." (2 Cor 12:7) Evidently it was embarrassing enough to him that he didn’t mention exactly what that failing consisted of. But it always made him remember his need for God’s grace. One of the places that Original Sin shows up in each of our lives is in our own particular "thorn of the flesh." Lent is a time for us to face it more directly—not to wallow in discouragement from having failed so many times; nor to simply give in and give up confronting our thorn; rather we are to face our thorn in the flesh and to realize our continuing need for God’s grace in everything. Recognizing the mess, recognizing our thorn, leads us back to a merciful God.
So, the world is pretty much a mess. And our Catholic faith is grace in the middle of a mess. Let’s pray that we all take the needed steps along the way to find our merciful God.
Sunday, March 11, 2012
Readings: Ex 20:1-17; 1 Cor 1:22-25; Jn 2:13-25
When I went to visit the shrine of Lourdes in 1973, I approached it not knowing what to expect. My initial impression was not a good one. Approaching the entrance to the grounds required walking past what seemed like miles of religious goods stands selling every kind of trinket imaginable. As I walked along, various sellers would come right up to me with all sorts of plastic containers to use in collecting the miraculous water. But then, finally, the main entrance to the shrine opened onto an expanse of buildings and green park which just glowed with a sense of serenity, prayer and peacefulness. The faith of the people gathered there radiated all over. The sense of prayer was almost palpable. One’s heart could not help but be deeply touched. Mine certainly was. But, no matter how long one stayed, there were still all those trinket shops to be passed again on the way out and the sellers to be negotiated.
Religion, economics and politics don’t mix easily. I suspect if those trinket shops were on the grounds of the Lourdes shrine itself, my feelings would have been much more conflicted. I imagine that’s what happened in the Jerusalem Temple to set off Jesus’ angry outburst and lead him to drive the money-changers out altogether. Unfortunately things haven’t changed a great deal these days along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem. When we go to visit a holy place, we don’t want it sullied with all sorts of cheap economics and trinkets. That does create anger and a feeling of disgust. Anger and disgust usually result in fuzzy and rash thinking. And we always need to be wary of that.
Sadly, we are seeing way too much indiscriminate religious/political mixing in the current presidential campaign. There isn’t much likelihood that things are going to improve in coming months. Religion, economics and politics are getting mixed together so much so that it is hard to tell which is which. We aren’t even sure who to drive out of the Temple. I certainly don’t intend to give you any tips about the upcoming elections. But I would like to offer a couple of observations that flow from today’s gospel passage....while keeping in mind the current political climate.
The first is the powerful (though painful) realization that it’s almost impossible to completely separate religion, economics and politics. Most of us would surely like to have our religion pure and unsullied, unmixed with all kinds of worldly doings. But in the Christian perspective where the divine and the human intermingle in everything, that won’t happen. We need to accept that, even though it’s very hard to do. The trinket sellers are always going to be there right aside of the holy places. Our challenge is to accept that, be moderate about it, and sift through things to appreciate the "holy" in the "murky." The "holy" is there in the murky, but it needs to be actively sought.
A second observation is one that I have found hard to teach myself: stop and question if people can really deliver what they promise? In this political environment you hear candidates promising great things: if I am President, we will have $2 a gallon gasoline. Well, how are you going to do that? Even if you are president, you have no control over the actual factors that determine gas prices. The same is true in religion: can people deliver what they promise? There are lots of TV shows that promise Christian faith and huge economic prosperity. I don’t see any of that in the New Testament. The early Christian kerygma promised the cross and a hope of Resurrection. It’s like St. Paul wrote in the passage of 1 Cor. we just heard: "We preach Christ Crucified"....and a hope of resurrection. We need to remind ourselves: that’s still the Christian message today.
Sunday, March 4, 2012
Readings: Gen 22:1-18; Rom 8:31-34; Mk 9:2-10
One of the things I like to do, when preparing homilies, is to see what the compilers of the Lectionary have chosen to omit from the various readings (e.g. today’s). I’m interested in what they cut out and I try to guess why they did it. Most of the times their exclusions are pretty understandable; they simply drop material that gets in the way of the main narrative line. But sometimes they miss, and today they missed.
The passage from the book of Genesis about Abraham going to offer his son, Isaac, is one of the most difficult and famous passages in Jewish and Christian history. The passage in Jewish tradition is simply called the "Akedah," the binding (of Isaac). It’s also a passage which challenges modern scripture scholars because there is evidence of multiple writers who worked on the text, as we now possess it. It also seems likely that some of those writers did not accurately understand the intent of the writers who went before them. Now, one unit of the story is fairly clear—but only if you hear it read in Hebrew. For in Hebrew it would be very clear that there occurs a significant change in the name of the divine being at work with Abraham. When the story begins, "God put Abraham to the test." The Hebrew word used in this instance for God is Elohim. But Elohim is a generic name for any of the deities of the Middle East, and in Biblical literature Elohim often refers to the Canaanite gods. Abraham lived among the Canaanites at that time, and the Canaanite gods wanted child sacrifice. But when Abraham is about to strike and kill Isaac, he is prevented by a messenger of the Lord. Here comes the name change for god; it is not Elohim, the gods of the Canaanites, but Jahweh (the particular God of Israel, the Lord) who commands Abraham not to kill his son but a sheep instead. There is a great moral step forward that has occurred here. Alas, the text which validated this has been cut out of our section by the compilers: "Abraham named that place: Adonai-yeher, from which comes the present saying, ‘On the mountain of the Lord there is vision.’" (v. 14) In other words, deeper insight comes from the God of Israel, the Lord, than from the Canaanite gods. At one time that’s probably where the present story ended. At that time it was ultimately a story about spiritual wisdom and the greater wisdom that comes from Israel’s own special deity, the Lord.
The whole make-up of the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac contains multiple issues and questions: about the nature of God, what God asks of us, the nature of faith, etc.—but one issue often missed is this search for spiritual wisdom. Spiritual Wisdom was also one of the reasons for having the Benedictine sisters form themselves into Federation of Pontifical governance. That’s what you celebrate today: 75 years of the Federation of St. Gertrude.
There were lots of legitimate reasons for having communities of Benedictine sisters gather into federations in the United States. The Vatican was urging more centralization in religious communities; there was a genuine effort to escape the autocratic rule of some bishops; various communities wanted to legitimately retain regular ties between themselves. But the possibility of a greater depth into spiritual wisdom through the sharing of resources and experience was just as genuine and important. Perhaps it had to wait for the more open attitude of the post-Vatican II era to be more fully realized. Thankfully we have seen that happen richly in the past forty years. Today we celebrate and pray that it continue for many more years and much more spiritual wisdom.
Thursday, March 1, 2012
My dear apostles, you remain faithful to Me and I guide you through every change. Can it be said that the Lord devised a plan for you yesterday and again today but that the Lord will fail to make His plan for tomorrow known to you? Will I hide My needs from you? Will I abandon the work and the workers? You know that this will never happen. My friends desire a relationship with Me and truly I make Myself available to all who sincerely seek Me. And those who know Me, through a desire to know Me, understand that My ways do not always look the same as the ways of the world. Therefore, true followers you must be alert to the desires of the Lord when events around them alter earthly plans. I am constructing an edifice of humility in the world. I am committed to My Church and it is My desire to bring an abundance of grace into the world through My Church. Dear apostles, do you see that this cannot be accomplished through the ways designed by humanity? Which human being can embrace the scope of change necessary to bring God’s children into humility and into love for the Father? Only God can do this and only God understands the ways of both earth and heaven. It will always be a heavenly directed plan which brings individuals back to peace through holiness. Together, we are accomplishing this, person by person. I am pleased that our efforts are securing fruit, which we offer to the Father as evidence of a true desire for holiness in His children. Please, dear apostles, remain faithful to Me. Allow Me to direct your contribution and you will be blessed and consoled. Through your fidelity, others will also be blessed and consoled. When we are finished with your work on earth, you will come to Me in fullness and you will understand all that I accomplished through your willingness. I will not steer you into what is bad for you but into what is good for you. Continue on in trust and be grateful that I have chosen you to serve God’s Renewal.