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Baptism of Fire

Posted on 23 October 2014 by patmarrin

“There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and great is my anguish until it is accomplished” (Luke 12:50).

We think of baptism as a spiritual cleansing from sin — original or personal – so we can emerge clean before God. While this symbolism is applicable, the deeper meaning of baptism is that we go down into the waters of death and emerge into a different kind of life as new beings. We leave behind the old self with its ego agendas and self-referencing strategies for personal survival, to take our true place within a relational and communal identity as incorporated into the crucified and risen body of Christ, destined for eternal life within the Trinity. Membership within the church is a sacramental foreshadowing of this divine destiny, when all things will be one in Christ, and Christ in God.

It is an awesome theology, and for this reason easily lost to us as abstract and unimaginable, like arriving by train in a major city bustling with humanity and asking for directions to God. How do we get from here — our faulted and conflicted selves — to there -- our glorified selves? The answer is found in today’s Gospel.

We must pass through a baptism with Christ that feels like dying, a baptism of fire that purifies our authentic self as God sees us in the future from all that is false, illusory and distorted. For Jesus, who was carrying all of sinful humanity in his body, his impending death on the cross would strip away everything that had alienated creation from its Creator. His death would put death to death and liberate the New Creation, new life animated by the Holy Spirit, poured out in gracious, reconciling love to all who opened themselves to it.

What Jesus describes in today’s Gospel is the anguish he knew was coming as new was separated from old. Liberation would mean leaving behind the comfort and familiarity of our former selves, our accommodations and complicities within the brokenness and fierce prejudices of the old order and the status and identity it gave us. We must to plunge into the waters of this new baptism not really knowing just how total its death will be to prepare us for rebirth. We stand before that baptism in rehearsal of our physical deaths, with the same fears and the same challenge to trust God completely as we let go.

Jesus went before us, the firstborn of the New Creation. As our model and pioneer, he surrendered himself completely, was then revealed as the Christ, the anointed One of God. He turns and looks at us from the other side of that baptism and says, “Don't be afraid. Come, follow me.”

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Servanthood

Posted on 22 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Much will be required of the person entrusted with much” (Luke 12:48).

Today’s Gospel about Jesus’ instruction to Peter and the other disciples about being good servants seems a perfect text for the first commemoration of St. John Paul II, who was canonized last June together with St. John XXIII.

JPII held the chair of Peter for the second longest papacy in history (1978-2005), a tumultuous period that saw the struggle for reform initiated by the Second Vatican Council, the fall of the Soviet Union and end of the second millennium. The pope used his authority to enforce orthodoxy and tighten control inside the church and his enormous popularity to take its bully pulpit and mission into the global community with trips to 129 countries. He survived a 1981 assassination attempt and in 2001 was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, a debilitating illness that marked his final years.

As chief shepherd of the Catholic church for 32 years, the pope bore the heavy burden of leading a divided church in a world facing continuous war and crisis. Even his canonization was caught up in the controversy of clergy sex abuse and charges that Rome had done too little too late to address the problem.

The scriptures for today’s Mass remind us that all power in the church is for the sake of service. Pope Francis reminded his brother bishops of this at the close of the Synod the Family, that whatever status they have is for the sake of serving God’s people. This is the same measure by which all Christians will be judged before God, but bishops and popes bear an especially weighty responsibility for caring for the flock entrusted to them.

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May they all be one

Posted on 21 October 2014 by patmarrin

"Christ Jesus is our peace; he made the two one and broke down the dividing wall of enmity" (Eph 2:14).

The early church saw its share of conflict as its first established communities and emerging leaders hammered out a unified understanding of who Jesus is and what his mission is through his church.

The author of the letter to the Ephesians delves into St. Paul's profound insights about how the death of Jesus on the cross reconciled Jews and gentiles in God’s universal gift of salvation. Unity is the sign that God’s love has been poured on the world. The promise made to Abraham is fulfilled by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

We have a powerful witness of this message of unity from Pope Francis, who addressed the 200 or so bishops at the end of the first session of the Synod on the Family with some issues still unresolved. The pope said his role was to serve the church by holding all sides together in love. The witness of the church in a divided world is to show that even profound differences need not split the community, but rather spur it on to deeper discernment to find consensus for the sake of the common good.

The church is a work in progress, like the household Jesus describes in today’s Gospel from Luke. The faithful servants must await their master’s return from a wedding. Their vigil is a time of obedience to the teaching they received, but also a time of learning and openness to what is not fully revealed. Those who think they have all the answers become rigid and severe in their treatment of others, while those who relax or neglect their role as servants bring confusion within the house.

Pope Francis has emphasized the process of growing together toward the truth about family life in today’s world. Openness is difficult for some who want the questions answered definitively. Patience is difficult for others who are eager for change. Jesus reigns within the community as its source of unity in love. "May they all be one," he prays, and so must we pray with him and for one another.

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By the Grace of God

Posted on 20 October 2014 by patmarrin

“We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good work” (Eph 2:9).

Today’s commemoration of St. Paul of the Cross, the 18th-century founder of the Passionist Order, offers us a glimpse into the way grace works in long chains of influence. Started in Italy, the Passionists took root in Spain, and its missionaries were sent to Latin America. In El Salvador in the 1970s, two Passionist priests deeply influenced the conversion of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who modeled his episcopacy on the image of the shepherd who lays down his life for his flock.

The Order’s devotion to the Passion of Jesus found its true focus in the reality of the unrelenting suffering of the poor. Romero’s assassination in 1980 drew worldwide attention to the systemic violence being inflicted on the poor by ideological and economic forces propping up post-colonial regimes. Romero’s formal canonization under Pope Francis will provide the flashpoint that defines the pope’s vision of a “church of the poor, for the poor and with the poor” that will challenge the structural injustices that continue to exploit the “crucified peoples of history,” in the words of martyred Jesuit Ignacio Ellucuria.

We are invited to see the breath of the Holy Spirit in a 15-year-old Italian boy who was moved in 1709 to devote his life to the crucified Christ—stirring the heart of a reluctant bishop in Central America 260 year later, which has led to a revolution in the life of the church in the 21st century. We rejoice in how God can use any one of us to change the course of history, if only we are open to the call that comes to each of us, no matter how insignificant we might feel.

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God and Caesar

Posted on 18 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Whose image is this and whose inscription?” Matt 22:20).

Money talks, and when it does, it echoes loudest in the halls of power.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus utters words that have reverberrated down through the long history of the debate over how to balance our obligations to God and the world, church and state, citizenship and discipleship. Is it moral to refuse to pay taxes to support some wars? Is it patriotic to criticize your government or take part in civil disobedience to protest laws you decide are unjust? What belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God?

Ordinary people around the world are facing these dilemmas, on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in Hong Kong, at the gates of Fort Benning, home of the “School of the Americas,” or outside the huge, nuclear weapons plant in Kansas City.

Jesus does not resolve the tension or offer an answer that fits every situation. He puts the question back onto our own discernment about what we owe God and what we owe the civil societies and systems we depend upon and often benefit from. He brilliantly traps the Pharisees and their colluding partners from Herod’s court in the trap they tried to set for him. Would he reject Roman taxes and face Roman censure? Would he cow to the threat and lose the support of the crowds who saw him as their messiah?

Jesus dodges the dilemma by going to higher ground—affirming that our first loyalty is to God, who owns and controls everything. All our obligations fall within this overriding loyalty to the Creator. Rome is but a passing phenomenon in the sweep of history, so give it its due, but know that God alone is absolute and eternal.

Jesus also exposes his critics, who reveal that they carry the coin of the realm and also bear its image and likeness in their hypocritical, craven obeisance to the Roman occupation and to the corrupt reign of King Herod. They must have retreated quickly as the gathering crowds jeered them and applauded Jesus.

Two millennia later we are left to resolve the same questions about where our loyalties lie. What do I owe God first and foremost? Whose image do I bear in my behavior and witness to others? Is it possible to be a citizen of heaven and a faithful disciple of Jesus in a world surfeited and drowsy with consumption and compromise, postponing commitment and living without higher purpose? Life is short, eternity is long. What shall we give to God today?

Ignatius, bishop and martyr

Posted on 17 October 2014 by patmarrin

“Beware of the leaven – that is, the hypocrisy – of the Pharisees” (Luke 12:1-7).

Today we commemorate St. Ignatius of Antioch, one of the first generation of bishops succeeding the Apostles themselves at the end of the first century. He was arrested by Roman authorities and died in the Colosseum in the year 107. During his transport to Rome for execution, Ignatius wrote seven letters that might easily have been incorporated into the New Testament for their powerful proclamation of the Gospel and for his personal imitation of the paschal mystery of Jesus.

Ignatius’ letters offer a glimpse into the life of the early church, the role of bishops, the Eucharist as the “medicine of immortality,” and Ignatius’ understanding of his own martyrdom as participation in the Eucharistic imagery of the breaking of the bread, the very grinding of his body by the teeth of the wild beasts compared to the crushing of wheat to make the bread that gives life.

Today’s Gospel also continues Luke’s account of Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders of his own day. Beware of the “leaven of the Pharisees,” Jesus warns his disciples. Their distorted legalism and claims to absolute moral authority act like an invisible enzyme permeating the entire loaf. This leaven must be replaced by the “medicine of mercy,” what Pope Francis has told his fellow bishops is the essence of the Eucharist and the core teaching of the entire gospel.

It is an important time to hold up within the church a model bishop, one who understood that his authority was to serve the church and to lay down his life for the flock. The Word of God has powerfully addressed the 200 bishops meeting in Rome for the Synod on the Family. We have yet to see if this new leaven of love can permeate the church as it seeks to more effectively serve its own members and evangelize the world.

Where are today's prophets?

Posted on 16 October 2014 by patmarrin

“They were plotting to catch him at something he might say” (Luke 11:54).

Today’s gospel from Luke continues Jesus’ scathing criticism of the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his time. They kill the prophets, then build monuments to their memory; they hold the key of knowledge but do not use it to open the doors, neither entering themselves nor letting others enter. Not surprisingly, the scribes and Pharisees are infuriated with Jesus and plot to destroy him.

If the technology had been available, imagine the relentless campaign of slick and misleading television ads the establishment could have mounted against Jesus: “Hillbilly messiah desecrates Temple!!” “Galilean demagogue disrespects High Priest.” “Nazareth fake seen with prostitute.”

Public life and politics are rough going. If Jesus had limited himself to preaching "love, peace and brotherhood,” he would have been a harmless irritant to the religious establishment, King Herod and the Roman occupation. But it is clear from the gospels that he was in the thick of controversy, speaking truth to power and not mincing his words about the failures of the nation’s leaders to fulfill their responsibilities to God’s people. His boldness cost him his life.

Religion has often been sidelined and silenced in the public square. The so-called separation of church and state, tax-free status, big money support, clerical privilege in exchange for limited involvement in political and economic controversy -- all of these arrangements would have kept Jesus in line and, in the words of novelist Thomas Hardy, “far from the madding crowd.” But Jesus plunged into the turmoil of his own time on behalf of the poor, the outcasts, the despised of society, enduring the hatred and violence inflicted on him by his enemies. All attempts to sanitize and sacrelize Jesus as simply a spiritual teacher fail to reflect the gospel story or account for his public execution as a heretic and subversive.

What we make of this is the measure of religious influence in our own time: so often minimal, misdirected, disconnected or silent when real issues of justice are raised. Seek the most despised and rejected voices in our world today, and there you may find tomorrow’s prophets.

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St. Teresa of Avila

Posted on 15 October 2014 by patmarrin

“If you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal 5:18).

Sometimes referred to as “Big Teresa” to distinguish her from “Little” Thèrése of Lisieux, today’s Saint Teresa of Avila, a 16th century Spanish Carmelite reformer, was one of the spiritual giants of the Western church. Coming on the wave of the Reformation and on the cusp of the age of discovery as Spain and Portugal penetrated the New World of the Americas, Teresa helped refocus the mystical heart of religious life on Jesus.

She continues to fascinate to some measure because we are able to peer behind the hagiography to encounter a passionate, perhaps even neurotically charged woman who exercised full personal authority in her sphere within a still very male-dominated, postmedieval church and society. Her writings, like those of her contemporary, St. John of the Cross, charted the subconscious and laid a foundation for some modern psychoanalysis. Her intense mysticism explored the permeable border between spirituality and sexuality. She was said to entertain her sisters by dancing flamenco style on the table top in the convent. She overcame self-doubt and depression to wield decisive command while purging and founding reformed convents and even some houses for men. During her lifetime she was opposed, silenced and even subjected to the Spanish Inquisition for a time.

She was canonized in 1622, 40 years after her death, and in 1970, Pope Paul declared her a “Doctor of the Church.” Like other reformers, Teresa stands as a reminder in today’s church of the importance of recognizing the gifts of women and addressing the diminishment and distortion that occurs when women’s voices are suppressed. The Gospel readings from Luke this week only amplify this lesson in the confrontation between Jesus and the religious leaders of his own time, men ensconced in their own authority but cut off from ordinary reality and bereft of compassion for those who are suffering.

Pope Francis, who took the name of one of the most important reformers in the history of the church, has expressed his desire to open church governance to more women. The ongoing Synod on the Family in Rome this week is one test of whether the gathered bishops are truly open to the “feminine genius” Pope Francis has invoked, but still not defined in practical ways or fully incorporated into the structures of the church.

St. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of a Church in need of the medicine of mercy, pray for us.

The Law of Love

Posted on 14 October 2014 by patmarrin

"Woe to you, scholars of the law! You impose on people burdens hard to carry, but you yourselves do not lift a finger to touch them" (Luke 11:46).

Today’s Gospel is being read at every Mass throughout the universal church, from the local parish Masses in Latin America and Asia to the pontifical Mass celebrated in Rome for the bishops gathered at the Synod on the Family. We can only be struck by the directness of Jesus’ words to the religious leaders of his own time. The Pharisees’ preoccupation with tithing for their herb gardens while neglecting the central commandment of love earns them his sternest rebuke. Their legalism had blinded them to the primary law of compassion. The so-called scholars of the law had lost touch with ordinary reality.

The balance between law and love begins with establishing priorities. Rules give order to our lives, but if the letter of the law becomes inflexible and absolute, it overrides the more important spirit of the law. It boxes people into judgments that may simply not apply to this or that circumstance. Jesus challenged the scribes and Pharisees to restore love as the central and organizing principle of their lives and their role as teachers. Without love, legal perfection is a kind of death. In his blunt imagery directed at the religious lawyers of his day, Jesus says they are like graves.

Love requires continual discernment and always risks making mistakes on the way to learning just the right balance of spirit and letter as applicable to a specific situation. This is why forgiveness is also part of the journey toward mature love. Jesus gives us the Holy Spirit to help us navigate the ambiguities of life. We will never have the false satisfaction of being “perfect” in this life, but if we put love first, we will fulfill God’s will, the only measure that really counts.

Goodbye Columbus

Posted on 13 October 2014 by patmarrin

“This generation … seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29).

Today is Thanksgiving Day in Canada and a national holiday honoring Columbus in the United States. The Gospel randomly assigned for Mass today prompts us to reflect on the role of the Word of God in human history. Jesus issues a warning to the people of his own day who want a sign he is from God. The only sign they will get, he says, is the sign of Jonah. As the prophet Jonah preached to the Ninevites and they repented, so should God’s chosen people also repent, “for a greater than Jonah is here.”

The civil holidays might seem an odd moment to preach repentance, except that both commemorations beg for deeper reflection. Canada pauses in gratitude for the many blessings First World countries enjoy relative to the rest of the world, and in the United States, we are honoring the Italian explorer Columbus, whose landing in “Hispaniola” set in motion the European colonization of the Western Hemisphere.

Another seafaring figure named Jonah preached to Nineveh, the ancient capital of Assyria, the brutal enemy of Israel. The sudden conversion of Nineveh is the comic highpoint of the parable we know as the Book of Jonah. It was unthinkable that such an evil empire would repent and find God’s forgiveness, yet it did repent. Jesus compares that startling repentance to the rejection by his contemporaries of the Good News he was preaching.

The liturgy calls us to be conscious that our material blessings often come at the expense of others in a global economy that exploits and plunders so many to enrich the few. Some might say that the “conquest” of the New World has never ended. Our cultural celebrations are possible only because of historical amnesia.

The Word of God comes to us in today’s Gospel in which we hear the prophetic voice of Spanish Jesuit Ignacio Ellacuria, martyred with his companions in El Salvador in 1989 for his eloquent defense of the poor, whom he called the “crucified of history.” If we want a different, more just future, then the trajectory of history set 500 years ago in this hemisphere must be altered.

In his last public address before his death, Ellacuria said this: “There is a lot still to be done. Only utopianism and hope can enable us to believe and dare to try, with all the poor and oppressed people of the world, to turn back history, subvert it, and send it in a different direction.”

A different world is possible. A different world is necessary.