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Ashes to Ashes

Posted on 10 February 2016 by patmarrin

"Your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matt 6:3).

The season of Lent begins with a clear reminder that interior conversion comes before any effective change of behavior. The three ritual practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving point us in the right direction but they do not make the journey. What God wants most of all is our total attention. "Turn to me with all your heart."

As in any relationship, this attentiveness requires setting aside distractions, simplifying our lives to focus on the beloved, listening and observing carefully and responding fully. We have important models. Mary was so intent on God's Word that it became flesh in her womb. She calls herself "the handmaid of the Lord," describing a servant who watches the hands of her mistress for the slightest gesture or command. The prophets are those who listen intently, day and night, and then say, "Here I am."

Jesus wants his disciples to be in this same posture of readiness. Habits of mindfulness, an eagerness to move immediately when called, free of the sluggishness of sleep and food, deep empathy for those around us, whose needs can signal God's presence, are part of our training.

Ashes on our foreheads affirm the absolute priority of God in our lives, for without God we are dust in the wind, without purpose or meaning. We live only because our Father sees us, remembers us, sustains us in existence. Nothing else matters if we do not nurture this intimate encounter with the source of our being. Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit or they are abandoned houses, bare, ruined choirs. But if God dwells in us, we are wellsprings, gardens that welcome the thirsty, tired traveler, shade trees offering sweet refreshment to others.

Lent is about clearing away the tangle of competing desires and needs to uncover that the most basic choice we must make every day. "I put before you life and death: choose life." Let us enter the season of renewal to make God the center of our lives.

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How Lovely Is Your Dwelling Place

Posted on 09 February 2016 by patmarrin

"How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, mighty God" (Ps 84).

Solomon prays in the magnificent temple he has built to house the Ark of the Covenant. He acknowledges that no earthly place can be the locus for the Lord of the universe, but he asks God's blessing and protection of this sacred reminder of the covenant. Pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for feasts and offerings would see the glimmering reflection of the sun off of the white stone of the massive structure. A number of psalms describe the joy worshipers felt when they entered the temple.

Shrines have always played a part in religion, solid reminders of the institutional stature of churches, synagogues and mosques in society. But they are only visible representations of a deeper indwelling that must happen within living communities and in the hearts of believers. The church is the People of God, and only secondarily a building, however large or impressive it might be.

Jesus, who embodied the divine indwelling in his person, was alert to distinguishing shrines, rituals and symbols from the reality of true worship in the heart and in community. In today's Gospel he argues that ceremonial washing was a human tradition that was useless if real purity of heart was lacking.

Each believer is a little church, a house of God, where prayer and sacrifice are a source of authentic holiness wherever that person is. Places and practices help keep us mindful of God, but only a loving heart can hold the living beauty of God. If you have ever met a holy person, you will know what this beauty looks like.

The Ark of God Among Us

Posted on 08 February 2016 by patmarrin

"The people scurried about the surrounding country and brought the sick to wherever they heard Jesus was" (Mark 6:55).

The holiness, or "otherness," of God is emphasized throughout the scriptures, evident in the story in 1 Kings 8 of the bringing up of the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The focal point of the presence of God is the Ark, a gold box topped by with angels, their wings spread out to cover it and its contents, the two stone tablets of the Law given to Moses at Sinai.

The ark had accompanied the People during their wandering in the desert and had been housed in a tent. Now that the kingdom was established, Solomon was building a magnificent temple to house the Ark. Because God is ineffable, the divine name inexpressible, this was represented by a dark cloud that filled the space.

An even more inexpressible mystery for Christians is the belief that God was present in the person of Jesus. The Incarnation-- God's Word made flesh and dwelling among us as one of us -- is the central assertion of Christianity, and it goes infinitely beyond the core tenets of Judaism and Islam, the other religions of the Book. It would take generations and several centuries for the church to find any formula to begin to express how God and Jesus are one, but without this belief, the Christian faith collapses.

Pope Francis has described our faith as an encounter. Without meeting God in Jesus in our most intimate consciousness, and then in our neighbor, no amount of theology will draw us into the mystery. But today's Gospel, like every account of the earthly ministry of Jesus and the transformation that occurs with his death and resurrection, we are confronted with both his accessible humanness and his awesome holiness. The crowds experienced this when they brought their sick and just tried to touch his clothing, for power was flowing out of him and restoring everyone who came close to him.

We, too, are meant to encounter God in Jesus, to "touch" God in him both in intimate prayer and in our care for our brothers and sisters. We could dismiss the Incarnation as impossible, or we can divide the world in physical and spiritual realms that never touch, with a distant God on one side and our human frailty and mortality on the other. Or we can bridge the two in the person of Jesus, truly divine and truly human, our model and path to life with God. Even if we do not understand and cannot explain this mystery, to seek a God who is with us, sharing our daily experiences, is cause for awe and joy. And is this not the Good News?

Go Out Into The Deep

Posted on 06 February 2016 by patmarrin

“Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch” (Luke 5:4).

The miraculous catch of fish story appears in Luke 5 and John 21. In both cases it is a story about the call of Peter. It is vivid in detail and rich in emotionas and metaphors: working all night and catching nothing, going out into the deep, catching people, feeling deeply unworthy.

John no doubt took Luke's story and adapted it to his post-resurrection appearance story in which Peter is forgiven for his betrayal of Jesus and sent to care mercifully with the faith community being entrusted to him and the other Apostles.

For Luke, the miracle comes near the beginning of his Gospel and is about Jesus calling Peter from his boats and nets to be a different kind of fisherman, one who catches people. Peter, who is first skeptical of Jesus' request that they take their boats out again after a long, frustrating night of catching nothing, is stunned by the huge catch of fish.

He is also stunned by the realization that he is the presence of great holiness, and he falls to his knees overwhelmed by thoughts of his own unworthiness. He is being called as he is, a sinner, and his weakness will prove a key factor in his understanding of the mercy he will later preach to others. God calls us while we are sinners and because we are sinners. Without that realization we will never grasp the true nature of mercy. God does not love us because we are lovable, but in order to make us lovable. It is a pure gift.

"Don't be afraid," Jesus says to Peter. You will be a good missionary of mercy because you have needed it yourself. Pope Francis no doubt had this in mind in calling priests from around the world to be missionaries of mercy during the Jubilee Year. He made it clear in an interview just weeks into his papacy that he himself was a sinner. Francis wants mature confessors who will walk with those who are weighed down by fear and shame, to liberate them and restore them to full communion with the church.

Today's Word calls all of us who have toiled in the dark night of our own fears and futility. "Don't be afraid." Go out into the deep waters of your unresolved issues, lower your nets for a miraculous catch of mercy waiting for you just below the surface. Know the joy of Gospel, so you in turn can share the good news of God's love with others.

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Off With His Head!

Posted on 05 February 2016 by patmarrin

"Herod promptly dispatched an executioner with orders to bring back his head" (Mark 6:28).

Decapitation, thrust into the news by the conflict in the Middle East, was a common practice in the ancient world. It has survived in the language of strategic theory that says the best way to stop a movement is to decapitate its leadership. For Herod Antipas, accustomed to killing his rivals (and their entire families) to protect his power, the execution of a desert prophet who had publicly criticized his marriage to his brother's wife was probably unremarkable.

But for the Gospel writers, the martyrdom of John the Baptist is told in lurid detail to enshrine his memory and to advance the central drama of Jesus' own falling out with Herod, the Temple establishment and the Roman occupation. Jesus' execution will be even more brutal. Crucifixion was prolonged torture, public humiliation and the one deterrent Rome reserved for terrorists and revolutionaries.

John is regarded as the last of the great prophets, an ascetic who fearlessly preached God's coming justice and used ritual baptism to both symbolize conversion and to evoke the memory of the exodus when Israel crossed the Red Sea to escape Pharaoh's armies. It was a provocative sign that put John on Rome's radar and made him a public target for Herod, Rome's fawning vassal.

Part of the mystery of the Incarnation is that Jesus' earthly life and death are played out in the political landscape of Palestine and the Mediterranean world. What survives in the Gospel story of salvation is the timeless and universal conflict between truth and power, God's design for human fulfillment and counter ideologies and systems that protect inequality and exploit human dignity. Jesus dies to save the world from sin and death, but he also dies to indict injustice and the abuse of the poor by the powerful of this world. The Gospel always advances both a spiritual vision and a material program for human development and liberation.

If we were to open the morning paper to find a news account of today's Gospel, we might be shocked at the violence of John's death. The Gospel is, in fact, about real choices we must make in this world if we want to insure our place in the next world. Believers live in both realms.

Transfer of Power

Posted on 04 February 2016 by patmarrin

"Jesus summoned the Twelve and began to send them out two by two" (Mark 6:7).

Mark's short description of the first mission of the Twelve is really a description of the church. Jesus sends his followers out to do everything that he has been doing. They have his authority to drive out unclean spirits, to preach and to heal. The Kingdom of God he has proclaimed reasserts the original blessing of right relationships, realigning the minds and hearts of people to God and to neighborhoods of peace and justice that overcome the distortions of fear and self-centeredness.

The greatest challenge any movement faces usually comes at the beginning in the transfer of leadership from a charismatic founder to his or her followers. All major religions have complex histories of transition, including the Catholic church. It will take three centuries for tradition to establish clear lines of succession. The splits between East and West and between Protestant and Catholic were about authority. Some faiths, like Islam, faced the same division and conflicts in this regard.

As the United States approaches presidential elections, our system for electing our leaders is always tested. Will those in power relinquish control and will it happen peacefully and according to law. Transfer of power by ballot rather than bullet is a kind of miracle in our modern world.

For us, discernment centers on our willingness to look to community to help us stay true to our beliefs. Ultimately, the question is whether we experience the life of the Spirit in how we live our daily lives. Are we drawn to prayer to a loving God, and do we try to share that love in our relationships with one another. Do we know and practice our traditions? If someone asks us what we believe and who we are, can we give an answer?

Jesus sends us forth today, two by two or in other communal ways, to free those in captivity to influences that hurt their dignity, to bring healing through encouragement and compassion, to anoint others with kindness and respect. This is how we will know that we are followers of Jesus.

For the early church, the role of the Holy Spirit becomes the focus of how communities discern the authentic presence of the Risen Christ as they grow. St. Paul's letter show a church radically shifting from Jewish to gentile membership. Only the Spirit over time could accomplish this transition in identity and leadership.

Prayer, Faith and Miracles

Posted on 03 February 2016 by patmarrin

"So he was not able to perform any mighty deed there, apart from curing a few sick people by laying his hands on them. He was amazed at their lack of faith" (Mark 6:6).

Mark's account of Jesus' visit to his hometown includes a line that might surprise us. He writes that Jesus was unable to work many miracles there because of their lack of faith. We normally assume that Jesus' power was something he exercised at will. But Mark indicates here and in other miracle stories that faith is a necessary part of the process. If someone does not believe, nothing can happen. When Jesus heals someone he always adds, "Your faith has saved you."

We might apply this to our expectations of prayer. It is more than submitting a request and waiting for God to give us what we want. Prayer is a process of discernment, a collaborative moment where God's love and our needs negotiate the best solution to our situation. God will never override our initiative or our readiness to receive something. If parents gave their children everything they asked for, immature choices could have dangerous consequences. Our prayers that other people change often lead to an awareness that we need to change instead. We ask for things, but whether or not we get them, we deepen our relationship with God, which is the real purpose of prayer.

Prayerful people become friends of God, and in this mutual and intimate exchange of confidence and joy, miracles happen every day. The surest sign of faith is gratitude. Friends of God know that whatever they need will be provided, often in surprising ways.

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Eyes That See Hope

Posted on 02 February 2016 by patmarrin

"My eyes have seen your salvation" (Luke 2:27).

A large man wearing a black overcoat was walking along the street as I drove to work this morning. If a stop sign had not slowed me down, I would have missed the fact that beside him, in the shadow of his wide coat, was a little girl dressed in pink and carrying a bright pink umbrella.

For the rest of the us, especially those hunkered in our cars on the way to our offices and the burdens of the day, the world was an overcast sky over buildings frowning with serious purpose. But for this fortunate man, the world was holding his hand and skipping beside him with a pink umbrella.

Someone once said that the truest sign that God still believes in the world is that children keep being entrusted to us. The arrival of each new child offers hope for the future.

Simeon and Anna, the "senior citizens" who graced the temple precincts for so many years in hopes of seeing God's promises fulfilled, rejoiced to recognize the poor couple from Galilee who had come with their infant son for the rite of purification. Simeon's canticle and Anna's praise highlight for us that God never loses hope in our world, but is always present and active for our sake.

But God's presence is not without surprises. God arrives in ways that challenge us to see and respond. God comes at the margins and among the poor, Pope Francis reminds us. God enters the world in the innocence and obscurity of children, or in the least of our brothers and sisters. To find God, Jesus says, we must serve the needs of others, especially the most vulnerable among us: the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick and imprisoned. To miss or ignore them is to deprive ourselves of the salvation God is sending to us through them.

The prayer of Simeon and Anna is that we have eyes to see and ears to hear the promises God keeps sending our way. This is the joy of the Gospel.

Deep Conversion

Posted on 01 February 2016 by patmarrin

“Go home to your family and announce to them all that the Lord in his pity has done for you” (Mark 5:19).

The story of the Gerasene demoniac is loaded with imagery that suggests a story behind the story. It is a description of Jesus’ power over not just a single possessed man or over the religious control of the local synagogues and Temple establishment in Jerusalem, but also over the entire Greco-Roman and pagan culture that had been imposed upon the world by the Empire.

Jesus crosses the lake to the pagan region of the Decapolis (10 cities) and there encounters a fearsome, violent demoniac raging in the burial grounds among the dead. He is inhabited by 2,000 spirits, who recognize Jesus and beg to be cast into the swine. Their name is legion, the equivalent of an entire division of soldiers.

The Romans controlled the region, extracting its wealth and stamping its own economic system and beliefs in the form of markets and temples. The huge herd of swine, an animal considered unclean by Jews, indicates the pervasive control the Romans had over everything from social taboos to diet. The so-called Pax Romana was a co-optative and distorted blend of conquest and capitalism that inflicted spiritual death on its subjects.

Jesus’ power to drive out the demons is evidence that the Kingdom of God is more powerful than any other kind of rule, even imperial power claiming to be divine. Mark is telling us how Jesus is exercising spiritual supremacy over all the powers of this world. He is breaking the spells these powers have cast over people, awakening and liberating them to take back their dignity and destiny.

The Gospel begins in us when we experience this deep liberation and can take charge of our lives from the deadening influence and lifeless patterns of consumption and escapism the dominant culture uses to keep us passive and obedient. We barely know we are being controlled until we break the spell of mindless routine and compulsive obedience to every appetite and whim that summons us and promises to satisfy us. The voices we carry are legion, whispering instructions deep within our consciousness until we cannot imagine any other reality than this half-life of shallow sensations.

We are approaching the season of Lent, a time to stop feeding the beast and start listening to the Spirit. This is the path to freedom and self possession. Discipleship is possible only when we regain control, and God's grace is always there to help set us free.

Winning by Losing

Posted on 30 January 2016 by patmarrin

“No prophet is accepted in his native place” (Luke 4:25).

The launch of a political campaign is always carefully planned to show off a candidate’s values and goals. An event is organized in the candidate’s hometown, in front of the high school where he graduated or in view of the humble family home. The stage is set with a backdrop of patriotic symbols. Television cameras and lights are in position, news media have been invited to magnify the moment to a national audience. The candidate delivers a speech crafted to please every audience, touching on issues the polls have identified as important to voters, saying enough but not too much, inspiring confidence without promising specifics.

By any obvious measure, Jesus’ inaugural event turns into a disaster. He gets up in front of the elders in the synagogue and attributes to himself a famous messianic passage from the prophet Isaiah, he refuses to work any miracles, then quotes an adage about prophets being welcome anywhere but their native places. To rub it in, he cites two examples from the scriptures about miracles done for foreigners instead of the chosen people.

The home crowd is taken aback by the audacity of this local carpenter claiming to be a prophet, and they run him out of town, even threatening to throw him over a cliff. Jesus’ campaign is off to a rough start, but it would seem that he achieved the results that would in fact characterize his controversial ministry all the way to Jerusalem, where he will be condemned by the Sanhedrin and executed by the Romans. It will take his followers several generations to understand his strategy of success by failure. After his death and resurrection, they will come to understand that Jesus was the suffering servant messiah who spoke truth to power and who turned the world’s image of success upside down.

We are left to try and understand, then practice this same upside down strategy in our lives. If we want to overcome our enemies, we must befriend them. If we want to change society, we must stand with the poor, shame the oppressor, suffer expulsion from the centers of influence to work for justice at the margins, live the Beatitudes and practice the Corporal Works of Mercy even if it costs us our status and our lives.

This radical program is the goal of discipleship. We are all beginners, and only the Spirit can teach us how to live it in our ordinary lives. As we gather in community at Eucharist, we must ask God to help us become what we celebrate in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup.

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