Thursday, March 27, 2008

Alleluia, Christ is risen! Happy Easter! I always love the fact that the church is SO crowded on Easter Sunday! How wonderful to see so many people attending, and I always hope we make it such a good experience people want to come back. A non-church going friend once complained that he hated to go into a church and see all of those people acting so pious who had committed so many sins. He could not stand the hypocrisy! I told him that that is why we go to church! We don't go to church because we are so holy, we go to church because we recognize that we desperately need God in our lives. The fact is, church should be a place where we welcome sinners with open arms, while at the same time acknowledging our own sinfulness and need for forgiveness. Jesus said, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Lk. 2:17).” The Gospel is all about revealing God’s mercy and forgiveness. Jesus Christ is the love and mercy of God in the flesh.

As a community, it is our job to make everyone feel welcome, including those society has marginalized. In doing so, we reflect the Kingdom of God. The Jewish traditions and law of Jesus’ time held quite strict purity laws. There were certain types of people with whom contact would make you ritually ‘unclean’ and thus unable to participate in the religious practices of the community. There were also certain professions that were looked at as being contrary to a faithful Jewish life. One example is a tax collector, who not only worked for the Roman system that was oppressing the Jewish people, but also earned his living by what he collected from people above and beyond the amount required by Rome. Jesus breaks down all of these boundaries between people. He commands that we love God and our neighbor. When asked who is to be considered our neighbor, Jesus tells the story of the good Samaritan. Samaritans were not ‘neighbors’ to most Jewish people! The Jewish people and the Samaritan people had had centuries of conflicts. Jesus broadens the concept of neighbor to include, not just members of one’s own family and community, but even one’s enemies. As we reflect on the all-embracing love of God in our own time of uncertainty and conflict, it is good to ask ourselves today: Who is our neighbor?

The early Christian community worshipped in the temple and then gathered in one another's homes for the breaking of bread. We hear in this Sunday's reading from the Acts of the Apostles that the Christians held all things in common and that their resources were divided equally among them, to each according to his or her need. Of course we also know that problems quickly arose, given the story of the two disciples who sell their property, but try to hold back some of the proceeds of the sale for their own use. Likewise Paul admonishes the Corinthians because those who had plenty to eat were eating in front of those who did not have enough to eat and were not sharing what they had. Paul tells the Corinthians that if they cannot recognize the body of Christ in their brothers and sisters, then they are not going to be able to properly discern the body of Christ in the Eucharist. We may not always practice hospitality and community to the extent we are called, but it is important to always strive toward that ideal nonetheless. Who are those in need among us? Do we see them? Do we reach out to them? Do we as community incarnate Christ? All those who joined us for the liturgy last Sunday, will they be back this Sunday? If not, what could we have done to have made them want to come back?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

We stand between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, so I want to talk about the passion narratives that we hear this week. A few weeks ago, I went to an amazing talk by Donald Senior, C.P. (appropriately enough a priest of the Passionist community), a Scripture scholar and the president of Chicago Theological Union. While Senior talked about all four passion narratives, I want to share with you a little of what he said about Matthew, which we heard on Sunday, and John, which we will hear on Good Friday.

Matthew, following Mark, focuses on Jesus' humanness and solidarity with human suffering in the passion. Matthew focuses on Jesus as the obedient Son of God, paralleling the understanding of Israel as the Son of God in the Hebrew Scriptures (cf. Exodus 4:22). The idea of Jesus' sonship focus on his obedience and his trust. This relationship is shaken, but not broken, in Jesus' encounter with death. Senior points out that his death entails not only physical death, but the seeming loss of his mission, the shattering of his community and of his dreams for Israel. He prays in the garden that this cup might pass, but ultimately prays as he taught his disciples, "Your will be done."

On the cross, the religious leaders mock Jesus in the fashion of Psalm 22:
He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him. For he said, 'I am the Son of God.' - Matthew 27:43

All who see me mock me; they curl their lips and jeer; they shake their heads at me: "You relied on the LORD--let him deliver you; if he loves you, let him rescue you." - Ps. 22:9
The crowds mock the very relationship with God that has grounded Jesus throughout his life and his ministry, and Jesus cries out in response with the words of Psalm 22, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" In a lament psalm the first half of the psalm pours out all of the psalmist's frustration and anger, but psalmist does not stay in the place of despair. Rather he moves in the second half of the psalm to a place once again of trust in God and praise of God.
For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch, Did not turn away from me, but heard me when I cried out. - Psalm 22:25
Jesus cries out, but does so trusting that God hears him. He cries out again at the moment of his death, and gives up his spirit, literally his breath. Senior pointed out that Matthew changes the verb from Mark's more raw "loud scream" (toned down in our translations as "a loud cry") to "cried out again" to bring to mind that reassurance of the Psalm that God hears those who cry out. Jesus does not "expire" or "breath out" as in Mark, but hands over his spirit in a final act of trusting obedience to God. Senior pointed out that for the Israelites, our breath was given to us by God and belongs to God. Jesus gives his breath back to God in a act of loving surrender, and the result is cataclysmic for the entire world - the veil in the sanctuary is torn in two, the earth quakes, rocks are split, tombs open, and the dead are raised. All that seemed hopeless is given new life - Jesus' trust in God is vindicated. Senior sums up: God is faithful even in the midst of our anger and doubt.

John's gospel tells a very different story of the passion. Jesus in John's gospel is the Word of God, the revelation of God to the world. And what does God say to the world? "For God so loved the world . . . " (Jn. 3:16) Senior points out that the most powerful sign/symbol/word of God's love is the death of Jesus.
No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends. - John 15:13
In John's gospel love and life triumph over death. Jesus walks to his death in supreme confidence - the hour of his glory has come. The soldiers fall down before him. Senior points out that in John, Pilate brings Jesus out before the crowd's and seats him "on the judge's bench." Jesus is the true judge. Pilate fears Jesus.

Death in John is the completion of Jesus' mission. Jesus' crucifixion, his being "lifted up," is his exaltation, his ascension to the Father. He returns to the Father to prepare a place for those he loves. For John's gospel, death is communion with God. Senior sums up: death is the portal into communion with God, with the love of God.

As we stand between Palm Sunday and Good Friday, between the anguish of death and the confidence of God's love and faithfulness in the midst of our human turmoil, we also stand on the anniversary of the war in Iraq, a war that has now lasted five years. It seems somehow appropriate that a day that so aptly illustrates part of the sinful and anguished human condition falls between these two readings of the passion. So once again I ask you to pray for peace in Iraq and the world and wisdom for the leaders of our country and Iraq. Let us turn to God with all of our doubt and anger and somehow trust that God stands by us even in our darkest moments. Let us trust that all those who have tragically died in this ongoing cycle of violence have been taken up into the love of God. Let us move through Palm Sunday and Good Friday to celebrate the resurrection of Easter.

To read more of Donald Senior, see his books:
The Passion Series, 4 Volumes, Liturgical Press, 1985-1991.
You can also access some of his commentary on the passion narratives at:

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Last week I spoke of sin, so this week I want to talk about freedom! The Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner had an axiom that can be summed as “God and humans don’t compete.” In other words, we do not lose our freedom when we surrender to the love of God, but rather we become fully free precisely in that surrender. Another way Rahner puts it is to say that dependence on God and human freedom are in direct proportion to one another, i.e. when one increases, the other also increases. They are not in a relationship of inverse proportion (in which if one increases, the other decreases).

From the time of St. Augustine, the Catholic tradition has made a distinction between freedom and freedom of choice. Freedom is our ability to love God above all things. It is our ability to be the people God created us to be. It is this freedom that we lost in the fall. To put it another way, not having this freedom is part of what we mean when we talk about having original sin. We are born incapable of actually loving God above all else. We can only love God in such a way because of God’s grace.

So if we have some understanding of freedom, what is freedom of choice? Freedom of choice is exactly what it sounds like, the ability to make choices, to decide or choose between this and that. Without God’s grace, human choice tends toward the things of this world. It is God’s grace that gives us the ability to love God, allowing good choices to flow from that love.

According to St. Augustine, who quotes St. Paul, grace is primarily “the love of God . . . poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us (Rom. 5:5).” Scripture tells us that “we love because God first loved us (1 Jn. 4:19).” God reaches out to us, but we must accept God’s offer. Of course, we are only capable of accepting the offer because of God’s grace; but nonetheless, as one of my teachers used to say, God won’t save us without our ‘yes’. God wants to share his love with all people, but at the same time, God allows us to choose whether or not to accept that love. God liberates us by giving us grace which frees us from sin and empowers us to do what is good. Yet even with God’s grace we are subject to the temptations of sin. We still have freedom of choice and can choose to do good or evil. However, in surrendering to God’s love and in choosing the good, our freedom, that is our ability to love God above all else, increases; and we continue to choose what is good because it is part of who we are and who we were created to be.

In each and every moment of our lives, we get to choose who we are, who we are going to be. Are we going to live up to all of the potential, all of the gifts with which God created us? Are we going to choose to close ourselves off from God, from love, from all that we could be? We don't always make the right choices, but we also have the incredible gift of God's mercy, love, and forgiveness that picks us up when we fall and empowers us to start again. Each day, each moment, can be a moment of new life, of better choices, of resurrection.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Lent is a time when we reflect on our own sinfulness and shortcomings in preparation to renew our baptismal vows at Easter. We have all been created in the image and likeness of God; but we have also experienced the reality of original sin in our world. Original sin is the brokenness within us that is a part of being human and the fact that every single one of us is in need of the love, mercy, and forgiveness offered to us in and through Christ, i.e., salvation. Beyond the human condition, we have all experienced personal sin. If most of us are honest, we can probably acknowledge with St. Paul that there are times when,

“What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate. (Rom. 7:15).”

He refers to those times when we do the things we know are wrong and then wonder why we did them in the first place. All of us are sinful at times; it is part of being human. The good news is that Christ has liberated us from sin and death. Christ is our physician who heals what is broken within us and restores our relationships with God, other people and ourselves. Our human reality is always a mixture of sin and grace. Despite the bad choices we make, God is always there loving us and forgiving us through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is that presence of God in our lives that stirs our hearts to do what is right and to overcome our weaknesses.

Sin is not just personal; it is also communal or social. All you have to do is turn on the TV or radio to experience the reality that we live in a sinful world. As we hear the stories of more deaths in Baghdad and Jerusalem, as we watch the tension unfolding in Columbia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, it is clear that humanity has still not reached a point where we can solve conflict without violence. Each of us is indirectly responsible for the violence in the world. The Church calls this condition social sin. It involves sins that we do not directly commit, but are all implicated in by being members of the global human community. This social sin is often built right into the structures of our world.

In the midst of a world of social sin, when we look around and at times feel despair, it is important to remember that Christ has already won the victory over sin and death. In the midst of the darkness of war and violence, we must remember that Christ is the light that has come into the darkness, the light that the darkness cannot overcome. We must remember that after death comes resurrection. Maybe we can’t solve the problems of the world, but each of us can walk a path of continual conversion, allowing Christ to be our guide and allowing the Spirit into our hearts. We see God at work in the world when we as individuals, with the gift of freedom, allow God to work in and through us. Paul VI says, “If you want peace, work for justice.” Each of us can be peacemakers in our own lives, both in our actions and through our prayers.

I would like to ask all of you to continue praying for peace throughout the whole world, for all of the people who are serving our country in the military and their families, as well as for the people of Iraq who are also our brothers and sisters in Christ. I also ask that you pray for the leaders of our nation and the nations of the world, that they may be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit. As we move through these final weeks of Lent toward Easter, let us find hope in the resurrection and in our God who brings life from death.