Thursday, April 26, 2007

This weekend we are celebrating the sacrament of Confirmation in the parish. So many people have a misconception about the sacrament of Confirmation, understanding it to be the moment when the individual "confirms" his/her faith. Confirmation is not about something the individual does; it is about something that God does. In Confirmation, God confirms you. You have been chosen by God to be a disciple, to be a witness, to be a sacrament of God's love in the world. There is also a role for the individual, which is to accept that mission (picture Mission Impossible - "your mission, should you decide to accept it . . .") and to use the gifts that God has given you to live out that mission.

The Jesuit theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar taught that it is in our mission that we receive our identity, our personhood. He taught that God creates each of us with a telos (Greek for end or purpose). It is in and through prayer, through our relationship with God, that we discover the mission or purpose that is "specifically designed for and tailored to each individual" (Theo-Drama III, 249). One only becomes conscious of one's mission through encounter with God. Confirmation can be one such encounter, where we realize we have been specifically called by God to accomplish something of God's plan for the world. It is then through living out that mission that we truly discover who we are, who we have been created to be. Each person's mission is also a participation in the mission of Christ, so that as we live out our mission, we become more holy, more Christlike, and ultimately find our fulfilment as a human person.

So often in this world we tend to search for meaning, looking for that which is going to fulfill us and make us happy. The Christian message is so simple - that our fulfillment is not found in ourselves, but in living lives of love and service. It is in giving of ourselves that we truly find ourselves. We spend our entire lives living out our mission, and in doing so, discovering ever more deeply who we truly are. Doing so takes a life of continual prayer and discernment, for rarely is the path we should take crystal clear (life would be much easier if it were, but probably not nearly as interesting). Most of the time I would guess there is no single right path, but rather many different paths we can take, all of which provide opportunities for living out our life of discipleship and mission. And so I leave you, and our Confirmands, with the words of Psalm 143:
In the morning let me know your love, for I put my trust in you. Make me know the ways I should walk; to you I lift up my soul. Rescue me, Lord, from my enemies; I have fled to you for refuge. Teach me to do your will, for you, O Lord, are my God. Let your good Spirit guide me in ways that are level and smooth.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Like many others, I was stunned and deeply saddened by the tragedy at Virginia Tech on Monday. My heart goes out to the loved ones of those who died. My heart also goes out to the parents and sister of Seung-Hui Cho. I have not heard a lot about his family, one article simply said his parents were not at home when the reporter knocked on their door, and for this I am grateful. I can't even imagine what it must be like to experience not only the death of your child, but the knowledge that your child did such a horrific thing. With all that the media has reported about this young man, from his own writings to the way he is described by teachers and classmates, it is clearly evident to me that he was seriously mentally ill. He was living in some kind of personal hell, and while many around him saw that, no one knew precisely what to do about it. This fact in no way excuses or lessens the horrific things he did, but it does make me wonder what brings a person to that point, and so I pray for him and his family as well as for all of the others who have suffered in this incident.

The tragic death of 33 people and the nations' focus on the event also makes me reflect on how fortunate I am to live a life in which I am stunned by this event. My presupposition is that when students attend classes at universities, they will be safe. My presupposition is that when I go to the grocery store or stop to fill my car up with gas, I will be safe. Yesterday at least 197 people were killed in attacks across Baghdad. 140 of them were at a market and many of those killed were women and children. I don't know what it is like to live in a world where I could be killed driving home from work or buying my food for the week. I don't know what it is like to live in the inner city in the US and worry about the safety of my children when they play outside or wait for the bus in the morning. I don't know what it is like to live in a refugee camp in Chad or Darfur and fear being raped or killed when I go to get water or firewood to keep my family alive. And so when 32 people are tragically killed at a US University, I am stunned.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Last Sunday we heard of Mary Magdelene discovering the tomb empty, and this Sunday we will hear of the appearance of the risen Lord to the disciples and then to Thomas. Here we have the beginning and the end of chapter 20 of the Gospel of John. What we miss, unless we were able to attend daily mass on Tuesday, is the middle of this chapter, which is the encounter of Mary Magdelene with the risen Lord. A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to hear a talk on this chapter by Sandra Schneiders, and I hear the chapter in an entirely different way now.

This chapter is about coming to belief. The themes of presence and absence, seeing and touching, all play a role in this account of the transition from a belief in Jesus based on his physical presence among the disciples to our belief today in the continued presence of Christ in our midst, but in a new way. As Schneiders laid it out, the story begins with the physical absence of the Jesus and a problem - where is the Lord? Note that the empty tomb does not engender belief, but confusion, concern, fear. The immediate assumption is that the body has been taken. What brings the disciples to faith is the encounter with the risen Lord.

Sandra Schneiders points out the interesting paradox in John's gospel. In the encounter with Mary Magdelene, Jesus tells Mary not to touch him, but in the encounter with Thomas, Jesus commands Thomas to touch him. Schneiders explains the difference by associating Mary, on the one hand, with the transition from the pre-Easter Jesus to the Easter Jesus. Jesus is present now in a new and different way; he is present now in the community of believers. The prohibition against touching him exemplifies that difference. Thomas, on the other hand, represents that transition from the Easter Jesus to the post-Easter Jesus. The disciples believe because they have seen the Lord. Thomas has not seen the Lord, and refuses to believe. He does not accept the testimony and witness of the others, of "the church". When Jesus appears again, he says to Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. . . . do not be unbelieving, but believe" (v. 27). To see in John's gospel is to come to faith, which Thomas does in his exclamation, "My Lord and my God!" The new generations of believers will have to come to faith through the testimony and witness of others; by spiritual sight, not physical sight. That spiritual sight will then allow them to encounter the risen Christ.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Tonight we begin the Triduum (Latin for "three day") with our Holy Thursday service, The Mass of the Lord's Supper. The Triduum is one service that begins tonight, includes the Good Friday liturgy, and culminates in the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, the highest, holiest celebration in our Church year. In these three days we enter into the paschal mystery, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ. Tonight we will hear the earliest account of the Last Supper, the reading from Paul's Letter to the Corinthians (written a good 15-30 yrs. before any of the gospel accounts). Paul is writing in response to the disreputable behavior of the Corinthian community at their celebrations of the Lord's Supper. I once heard a priest in a talk on the Eucharist say, "Thank God for the drunks at Corinth!" Those drunks are the reason Paul recounts the words of Jesus at the Last Supper. Paul's insight in this 11th chapter of this letter is that when the Corinthians mistreat their fellow Christians, when they let some in their community go hungry and suffer while they indulge themselves, they do not recognize Christ, and thus eat and drink judgment upon themselves. They do not discern the body. In other words, they do not recognize that they are the body of Christ, and when they do not recognize Christ's presence in one another, they do not recognize Christ in the body.

The gospel we hear from John gives a similar message. In the Gospel of John, there is no account of the sharing of the bread and wine. Instead we hear about the washing of the feet. Jesus washes his disciples feet, a gesture of love, concern, humbleness, service, and tells them that as he has done for them, so they are to do for one another. In this passage is one of the most profound lines in John's gospel for me:
I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. (John 13:15)
If we could live by this one line in the Gospel, we would have understood Jesus' entire life and message; we would have understood what it means to be a Christian. We literally wash one another's feet at the Holy Thursday service. If you have ever had your feet washed, you may know that it is not always a comfortable feeling. You have to be willing to be a bit vulnerable to have your feet washed. You have to recognize another's vulnerability and trust when you wash her feet. In many places 12 are picked to have their feet washed. I have also attended at places where everyone washes someone's feet and has her own feet washed. The theme of Holy Thursday is what it means to be a member of the body of Christ, the continuing sacrament of God's love in the world.

On Good Friday we venerate the cross. We do not worship the object, but rather express our devotion to what the object stands for - the crucifixion of Christ. The cross represents Christ's sacrifice for us and his solidarity with us in our moments of worst suffering. The cross should tell us that we are never alone, even when we feel abandoned by all including God. The cross is the symbol of God's love for us poured out. The cross tells us that God's reaction to our sinfulness is to love us without any conditions. Nothing we could ever do can "separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:39)

Easter, like all of our feast days, begins at sundown Saturday night. At the Easter Vigil, we begin in darkness as the Paschal candle is lit. The light of Christ's resurrection is spread through the entire church, as each of us receives the light and then gives what we have received, the pattern of our Christian lives. We hear the story of salvation history - the way God has worked in our history from the moment of creation. We welcome new members into the Church and renew our own baptismal vows, seeing in the waters of baptism that we have become new creations, we have put on Christ, we are transfigured. We again receive what we are and become what we receive in the Eucharist, and we are sent out into the world to take the Easter light into all the darkest places in our lives and our world.