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Go Free

Posted on 09 April 2014 by patmarrin

“If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31).

One of my philosophy teachers wrote a book titled “Freely Chosen Reality.” I never read it – even his editor found it so densely packed it might have been 10 books instead of one – but the title has always stayed in my mind. The word “reality” is so central to any discussion about life in this world, and it is also the point where philosophers veer off into totally different systems. Whatever we think of it, reality is what is, confronting us at every turn. To deny or defy it is to court not just error but disaster if we are building a bridge or diagnosing an illness. We don’t really have a choice but to go with it, yet, as the book proposed, the secret of a happy life is to freely choose reality. Those who fight it or think they can get around it are in for endless frustration and, in the end, defeat.

John the Evangelist held that Jesus was the ultimate reality, God expressed in the world, God’s Word – the template for all creation – manifested in a human being. Jesus is therefore the measure of all our encounters with reality, first at its most basic material substance, then in its immaterial or metaphysical dimensions – the structures and relationships that define the “world,” as it is and as we encounter it each day. Theologically, this means that a happy life comes from freely choosing Jesus, the visible face of the invisible mystery we call God, the ultimate reality. We are mirrored in that face, created in the image and likeness of God, and therefore find fulfillment in being who we are, not some illusion we concoct to satisfy any other agenda.

The invitation contained in today’s Gospel is “to remain in my word.” Jesus’ final command to his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you,” grounds us in God, the source of that love, our “freely chosen reality.” Imagine the energy we could save in a single day of not trying to change or manipulate the world and people around us for our own purposes? Go with the flow, surf the waves of grace that fill each moment with love. Imagine the freedom we could enjoy by letting truth show us the world in both its limitations and amazing possibilities.

Dying to Live

Posted on 08 April 2014 by patmarrin

“He is not going to kill himself, is he?” (John 8:22)

John’s Gospel is the most mystical of the four Gospels, and it also has the highest Christology. In other words, Jesus knows he is the Son of God from the start, and everything he says and does is to deliberately fulfill the divine plan. The long discourses he engages in with his disciples and his opponents function like the speeches in a Greek play, while the narrator and the crowds act as Greek chorus to make sure the audience understands the meaning of what they are witnessing on stage.

Today’s scene makes clear that his critics do not understand him because they are “of this world,” while he is "from above." But in the final act -- Jesus’ death on the cross -- his enemies will be confronted by the shocking truth that they have rejected God’s beloved. “When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM.” His unity with “the Father” will be revealed to believers.

The deliberateness with which Jesus himself drives the plot toward its climax opens up the difficult question of deicide. Does Jesus, in effect, arrange his own death by pressing home the issue that will precipitate the decision to kill him for blasphemy? When he tells the Pharisees, “Where I am going you cannot come,” they think he is talking about suicide. In fact, because Jesus is orchestrating the circumstances that anticipate his crucifixion, his “lifting up,” they are correct. He is deliberately moving the story toward Golgotha because his death is “necessary” to the divine plan.

The power and the freedom to lay down one's own life is a divine prerogative. People who force their own martyrdom for some cause, whether as suicide bombers or in dramatic self-immolation, are tragic figures. It is, in the end, harder to live for a cause than to die for it. We encounter in Jesus a human brother who surrendered himself to a violent death as an act consistent with an entire life of giving himself away for the sake of love. And this supreme sacrifice somehow revealed the self-emptying nature of God.

Praying to enter this mystery is both difficult and dangerous, but how we live and what we are willing to die for when the time comes is the most important discernment we will ever make.

Set free to sin no more

Posted on 07 April 2014 by patmarrin

"I am completely trapped ..." (Dan 13:22).

A lifetime ago when I was teaching high school religion, my greatest success at getting my students to read the Bible was to tell them not to read certain stories because they were for mature audiences only. I am almost certain they all read Daniel 13:1-62, the fantastic story of Susanna in the garden.

The tale of the beautiful young woman spied upon by two lecherous judges as she bathed in her garden is cast during the Babylonian exile. It ends in a public trial in which Susannah is rescued from stoning by a boy named Daniel, who sees through the lusty motives of the old men and traps them in their lies. The Lectionary pairs the story with the Gospel from John 8 about Jesus and the woman taken in adultery. The match is appropriate since the first most likely inspired the second, portraying Jesus as the rescuer who traps the accusers in their own trap. The compelling story is a late addition to the canonical Gospel, more theological than historical, but a perfect glimpse into the theme of mercy completing justice and Jesus giving life to sinners.

The two stories are different in that Susanna is innocent of the charge that she committed adultery, while the woman brought before Jesus is presumed guilty. Daniel proves that Susanna in innocent. Jesus redirects the woman’s guilt back onto her accusers by challenging anyone in the crowd who was without sin to cast the first stone. Everyone departs and Jesus tells the woman that he does not condemn her, but that she is to “go and sin no more.” The story brilliantly preserves both justice and mercy and also universalizes the phrase by Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge?”

Sin is its own punishment; virtue is its own reward. God is always merciful. We come to God when we have sinned because sin wounds us. Wisdom is the gift that enables us to discern how to be just without being judgmental, merciful without dismissing accountability. Both stories are worth reading and taking their lessons to heart.


April 6, 2014: Fifth Sunday of Lent

Posted on 05 April 2014 by patmarrin

“Untie him and let him go” (John 11:44).

The resuscitation of dead Lazarus is the penultimate sign in John’s Gospel before the death and resurrection of Jesus, the final sign that reveals that Jesus is God, I AM. For those preparing for baptism during the Easter vigil, all the themes of Christian discipleship come together. To be baptized is to die with Christ and to be incorporated into his risen life, to have our human bodies marked by the sign of the cross, the sign of Passover, our exodus from the slavery of sin and death.

For John, Jesus' death on the cross is also his transfiguration, his resurrection, the birth of the church in water, blood and breath, the start of the new creation and Jesus' ascension into glory. “When the Son of Man is lifted up, he will draw all things to himself,” John says. We are part of the great harvest of love, life in God forever.

There is so much theology here it needs to be played out in narrative, and the story of Lazarus is packed with truths for the eyes of faith. Without faith, we have only the first zombie movie, a dead man coming out of the grave to shock the enemies of Jesus into acknowledging that he is from God, of God, possessing power over life and death.

With faith, this is a love story. Jesus loved Lazarus and his sisters so personally that even in the midst of the divine act of raising Lazarus, the human Jesus is wracked by grief, and he weeps. Lazarus is a beloved disciple, and in this sense, represents all of us. Even though we will undergo death, we are already being loved toward eternity.

Two aspects of the story should not escape us. First, this is not only about a future promise — everything coming out OK at the end of the movie. The implications of the raising of Lazarus are about here and now. John takes up for his Gospel an earlier story from Luke about another man named Lazarus who died of poverty on the doorstep of a rich man who had totally ignored him. The message John advances from Luke is the same: How we treat people in this life will determine how we spend eternity. It is a message of judgment and a warning not to neglect the poor. Who are the poor? The poor are those denied a full life because of injustice. The poor will rise to confront those who brought about their deaths -- by violence, exploitation and neglect.

Second, the resurrection is about liberation. Jesus fulfilled both the Exodus and his own mission from Isaiah “to set captives and the oppressed free” when he commanded those at Lazarus tomb, “Untie him and let him go.” We must do the same. Easter will come fully for all of us when this command is obeyed, setting both oppressor and oppressed free to share the banquet of life, first here, in this world, then, like a good party that never ends, for all eternity.


Death Threats

Posted on 04 April 2014 by patmarrin

“He did not travel in Judea because they were trying to kill him” (John 7:2).

Jesus’ confrontation with the establishment in Jerusalem turned deadly when they realized just how radical his reform really was. Jesus was claiming the authority of God to insist on the recovery the core of the Covenant – right relationship with God and respect for the rights of all God’s people. Knowing he was undermining their authority, the leaders conspired to have Jesus killed as a blasphemer and a dangerous agitator.

What toll did life under death threat have on Jesus? More recent examples are instructive. El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero lived under constant threat of assassination. He did not pray to be spared, only to die quickly rather than being tortured, as thousands of other people were during those violent years in the tiny Central American country. Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King Jr also accepted the inevitability of a violent death. An autopsy following his 1968 assassination showed that the 39-year-old King’s heart had been so stressed that it was like that of a man in his 60s. During their intense public lives, both men were vilified as dangerous subversives.

As we approach the Holy Week, is it possible for us to recover the actual context of Jesus’ final weeks, just how stressful they must have been for him and his small band of followers as they entered the city to celebrate that final Passover? Jesus was not killed for preaching love, but because he said that love demanded a total reordering of human priorities and structures to meet God’s will that all people be treated with dignity and love. Anyone today who presses the implications of Jesus’ teaching and example will face the same opposition he faced from those protecting institutional power and privilege.

The fact that we do not stir opposition may suggest just how far we are from understanding, then actually living, the Gospel. The journey we make to Jerusalem with Jesus is our time to pray for insight and courage.

Who Are You?

Posted on 03 April 2014 by patmarrin

“I do not accept human praise” (John 5:41).

The question has been raised about what a modern psychiatrist would do with Jesus.

Psychiatry, at least the work of Freud, has deep biblical roots from his Jewish background, so any analysis of Jesus would quickly meet concepts tied to the understanding of God and humanity found in the Hebrew sources of the Gospels. John’s Gospel in particular explores the core question of Jesus' claim that he was one with God. In psychiatric terms, this claim is either a total delusion or true. In biblical and theological terms, Jesus stands at the thematic center of reality, revealing both the mystery of God and the purpose of every human being.

Everyone’s search for identity confronts the issue of how much we depend on the perceptions and approval of others. We receive our identity, in effect, from our families and our culture. Going beyond this assigned self means stepping away from all human approval. Many philosophers and artists have described this stage in life as one of the most difficult and loneliest journeys anyone can undertake. Without external affirmation and support, a person must find self-affirmation grounded in something deeper than human culture. Jesus, representing the ultimate expression of human maturity, addresses his critics from the depth of his total identification with God. Because he is the Son of God he is also the Son of Man, his complete humanity revealing the fullness of divinity.

In reading these passages from John’s Gospel, the only thing that keeps us from stepping into a bottomless spiral of abstract speculation is the very premise of the Christian faith – that we know God and discover our true selves in an encounter with Jesus Christ. What begins as a profound human search for identity and purpose leads us to the threshold of prayer, and beyond that into the silence. There, stripped of all human concepts and language, we await the Word, who alone calls us into existence and tells us that we are nothing less than the sons and daughters of God.


Like Father, Like Son

Posted on 02 April 2014 by patmarrin

“The Son does what he sees the Father doing …” (John 5:20).

In John’s profoundly theological Gospel, Jesus presents himself in seven successive signs as I AM, the name for God revealed to Moses from the burning bush. Jesus is the physical manifestation in time of the ineffable, timeless mystery of God. Another way of saying this is that Jesus is the Son, the perfect visible representative of the invisible Father.

Jesus tells his critics, who are bent on destroying him for blasphemy, that he is only doing what he sees the Father doing. As the Father creates, so Jesus creates by making mud from earth and spittle to smear on the eyes of the man born blind. As the Father was manifest in the Spirit hovering over the waters at creation, so Jesus is the primordial wellspring of living water for the thirsty Samaritan woman. As the Father gives life, so Jesus will raise Lazarus.

The analogue is theological, but it is also very human. We imagine Jesus growing up in the care of Joseph the carpenter, father and son together in the wood shop or on a construction site. “Watch me, son,” says the father. “Do what I do.” The father mentors the son, empowers him with an understanding of the trade, models for him how to build a secure structure, a useful artifact.

The message of the Gospel to us as disciples is simple: Watch the teacher. Keep your eyes on Jesus, and do what he does. The imitation of Christ has always been the core of Christianity. So the first challenge is to see Jesus at work in our lives and in our world. Get close enough to him through daily prayer and attention to the many prompts that come through his Spirit guiding us through our own tasks.

Watch me. Do what I do.


Posted on 01 April 2014 by patmarrin

"Do you want to be well?" (John 5:3).

A circle, by definition, can only have one center. That center gives shape and stability, perfect centrifugal balance to the form at any spin speed. Symbolically, it is the source and locus from which emanates the expanding, encompassing reach of the circle. Every major world religion has used the circle to express some aspect of its claim to authenticity and its ordering effect on the universe. Many spiritualities prescribe “centering” as the remedy for dislocation and imbalance.

Ezekiel 47 contains the prophet’s magnificent vision of the Temple as the center and source of life. Water flows from the Temple, starting out as a trickle but growing deeper and extending itself to a mighty river that nourishes fruit trees that bear fruit each month and leaves with medicinal powers, and can turn salt water into fresh. The imagery invokes the garden of Eden and is repeated in the Book of Revelation, making it central to the Bible itself. Jesus is presented in John’s Gospel as fulfilling this type. He is the source of living water, healing and nourishment. His death turns the cross into the tree of life and his resurrection takes place in a garden.

The shape and symmetry of the human body makes innate our human desire for proportion and balance. But what we seek with exercise and diet is only an outward sign of a deep inner desire to find the source and center of our existence. We long to come home to ourselves and to the knowledge of who we are, why we are here, where this life leads and what it all means.

Today’s Gospel from John 5 provides an image for prayer. A man paralyzed for 38 years has waited only a short distance from the healing pool, but each time its waters are stirred, he cannot get to the water to be healed. Jesus asks him, “Do you want to be well?” The man expresses his frustration at not being able to get to the pool. Jesus says, “Rise, pick up your mat, and walk.” Isn’t this is our own story, our situation, our prayer and our opportunity to draw life from the source of life?

Do you want to be well? “Ask, and you will be answered; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened” (Matt 7:7).


Faith First

Posted on 31 March 2014 by patmarrin

“Unless you people see signs and wonders, your will not believe.”

The first sign of faith we offer God is to do everything in our power to solve our own problems. So many of the miracles recorded in the Gospels begin with some action on the part of the person seeking Jesus’ help or healing. It can be as simple as acknowledging the need, going to find him, ask, cry out, reach out in a crowd to touch his garment, offer a few fish and some loaves, by filling the jars with water.
The miracles are made possible by participation, openness, taking the first small step ourselves that says we trust God to hear and respond to our need.

Jesus is approached by a royal official who begs him to come to his house to heal his son, who is close to death. Jesus addresses the crowd, knowing they are eager to see a miracle. They are withholding faith until they have proof of his power. Then they will believe. Faith must come first, he seems to say. I am not a magician performing for an audience, but one who is inviting you to accompany me on a greater journey of trust and healing than any one demonstration of power. I offer you a life-giving relationship that will guide you through sacrifice to deeper love, through suffering to glory.

Who does not want signs and wonders, proof before we risk trust, a free ride to the promised land? The real miracle is that God asks us to collaborate toward our own maturity and holiness. To this end, we receive courage that must be tested, wisdom honed by trial and error, love purchased with heartbreak.

Thank you, God for first believing in us. This initiates and makes possible our discipleship.


Lord, I Want to See

Posted on 29 March 2014 by patmarrin

"He went and washed, and came back able to see" (John 9:7).

The story of the blind man in today’s Gospel is again ideal for the catechumens preparing for baptism. It is about the new sight that comes from being “washed,” The discussion about whether the man’s blindness was the result of his own sin or that of his parents touches on the question of original sin as more than just individual offenses but a condition we all inherit within a broader rebellion that has affected human history itself. Jesus comes to realign the entire universe with God’s original creation, marred by sin made possible by the gift of freedom that elevated human destiny to friendship with God, not just blind obedience. Our “yes” to God is meaningful because we can also say “no.”

A man born blind is created anew by Jesus, who uses mud (adam) and the breath of his words to bring light into the man’s darkened universe. As a miracle, typical of John’s signs, this act is deeply theological, performed by I AM, the name God gives to Moses from the burning bush. Jesus declares, “I AM the light of the world.” The religious leaders, guardians of the Law of Moses, completely miss the significance of Jesus’ action. Their opposition to him has blinded them.

In parallel to the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, the blind man, presumed by everyone to be a sinner, becomes an evangelist. But unlike the townspeople of Sychar, the chief priests, scribes and Pharisees scoff at his claim that he has seen the messiah. Their blindness is total, Jesus says, because they say that they see.

The most moving scene in the story is when Jesus finds the man, disowned by his parents and excommunicated from the temple, and confirms his faith. “I am he, the one you are speaking with,” Jesus says. The man, with the sight of one who has just been reborn into the light, gazes with wonder at the face of his Creator. For John, he is seeing the risen Christ, not the Jesus of history. The detail of excommunication puts the setting of this story after the date of the rabbinic expulsion of the Jesus movement in 70 C.E., even as the city of Jerusalem was being destroyed and the great diaspora of both Jews and Christians has begun.

There is a lot in this Gospel, layer upon layer of both history and mystery. Baptism gives us and those being initiated into the faith the eyes to see. Jesus comes to us, touches us, speaks to us, communes with us intimately in the Eucharist. Look deeply, into the sacrament, the Word, the community, and you will see the face of God.