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Man on a Donkey

Posted on 12 April 2014 by patmarrin

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matt 11:10).

The utter improbability of the Gospel is apparently something the early church was eager to proclaim. By worldly standards, the arrival of the Messiah, hailing from Nazareth in Galilee, riding into Jerusalem on an ass to purify the Temple was a perfect parody of royal and imperial power. Behold, the clown prince of Yellow Dog, Tennessee, blowing into Washington, DC, on a tractor to clean up Congress and save the world.

Conquering kings and Roman generals marched with their armies into vanquished cities astride white stallions, trumpets blaring and banners waving. This was real power. Matthew instead fulfills prophecies from Isaiah and Zechariah that depict God’s servant coming in lowly estate, welcomed by the poor waving branches and spreading their cloaks on the road before him. These prophecies mocked imperial pretensions to real authority, which comes from God alone.

And in yet another twist of this parody, Matthew subverts the crowd’s show of support for Jesus by contrasting it with the howling mob that just days later will reject him as king and call for his crucifixion. With Palm Sunday we begin a ride on a roller coaster of high expectation and sudden collapse as Jesus’ ministry comes to an appalling end on Golgotha. The man on the donkey pays the ultimate price for his insolence and presumption. Son of God, indeed.

Indeed. Believers who re-enact Palm Sunday know that the story was written backwards in the light of the Resurrection. If Jesus is not risen from the dead, there is no story to tell, no Good News. So our procession with palms and our participation in the reading of Matthew’s long Passion account today is a walk in faith, step by step, deeper and deeper into our own commitment to share in the mystery of the cross in order to know the meaning of the resurrection.

Man on a Donkey

Posted on 12 April 2014 by patmarrin

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Matt 11:10).

The utter improbability of the Gospel is apparently something the early church was eager to proclaim. By worldly standards, the arrival of the Messiah, hailing from Nazareth in Galilee, riding into Jerusalem on an ass to purify the Temple was a perfect parody of royal and imperial power. Behold, the clown prince of Yellow Dog, Tennessee, blowing into Washington, DC, on a tractor to clean up Congress and save the world.

Conquering kings and Roman generals marched with their armies into vanquished cities astride white stallions, trumpets blaring and banners waving. This was real power. Matthew instead fulfills prophecies from Isaiah and Zechariah that depict God’s servant coming in lowly estate, welcomed by the poor waving branches and spreading their cloaks on the road before him. These prophecies mocked imperial pretensions to real authority, which comes from God alone.

And in yet another twist of this parody, Matthew subverts the crowd’s show of support for Jesus by contrasting it with the howling mob that just days later will reject him as king and call for his crucifixion. With Palm Sunday we begin a ride on a roller coaster of high expectation and sudden collapse as Jesus’ ministry comes to an appalling end on Golgotha. The man on the donkey pays the ultimate price for his insolence and presumption. Son of God, indeed.

Indeed. Believers who re-enact Palm Sunday know that the story was written backwards in the light of the Resurrection. If Jesus is not risen from the dead, there is no story to tell, no Good News. So our procession with palms and our participation in the reading of Matthew’s long Passion account today is a walk in faith, step by step, deeper and deeper into our own commitment to share in the mystery of the cross in order to know the meaning of the resurrection.

God's Genealogy

Posted on 11 April 2014 by patmarrin

“The Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

Waiting in the dentist’s office this morning, I saw a magazine cover with a girl holding a picture of her mother holding a picture of her mother, the girl’s grandmother. Three generations in a family showing genetic characteristics passed down, the great continuity of the human race all the way back to the fossil remains in the Great Rift Valley of Kenya. What is individual identity if not participation in the evolutionary hand-off that reveals our shared genealogy?

It is, of course, more than appearance. The phrase from Wordsworth, “the child is father to the man” suggests that being a parent is what pushes a person to maturity. We become who we are because of essential relationships that go both ways and create webs of dependence and responsibility. We never stand alone, but carry both past and future generations with us.

Jesus aroused the hostility of his opponents by claiming to be the “Son of God.” As more and more pressure is brought to bear on him leading up to his death, Jesus stands firm in the mystery his identity and mission from God, his Abba – the very source of his being. He is not alone because the Father is in him and he is in the Father. To know him is to know his Father. Everything he says and does is what he hears and sees the Father saying and doing.

This mystery touches us every time we pray the “Our Father.” Because we are all one within the sweep of human identity, Jesus, by entering the flow of our genealogy, has opened for us a relationship to God. This is our divine destiny as members of his body, flesh and blood continuity with him in his life and death, and spiritual continuity with him in his resurrected life in God. Baptism enables us to say with St. Paul: “I no longer live but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). Our life in Christ brings an indwelling of Father, Son and Spirit, alive and active in us.

We carry the promise of this life with us into Holy Week, nothing less than a personal invitation to participate in the genealogy of God.

Are You Still With Me?

Posted on 10 April 2014 by patmarrin

“Before Abraham came to be, I AM” (John 8:58).

If the religious authorities debating with Jesus in the temple area were looking for grounds to accuse him of blasphemy, he provides it in today’s climactic exchange. They base their orthodoxy on the claim to be children of Abraham, the father of the faith, and on Moses, the Lawgiver and father of the Covenant. Jesus presents himself in John’s Gospel as bearing the name God revealed to Moses from the burning bush, “I AM,” and further claims that he pre-existed Abraham, who “rejoiced to see my day, saw it and was glad.” John says that “they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid and went out of the temple area.”

The stage is set for Sunday’s palm procession and the start of Holy Week, during which the story of Jesus’ ministry will come to a brutal culmination as he is captured, tried, tortured and executed by Rome at the instigation of the Sanhedrin, which accuses him of blasphemy and subversion.

The story is both theological and political, about salvation and liberation, confronting sin and standing up to the powers of this world that exploit and oppress the poor. The church that emerged with the memory of Jesus’ death and faith in his resurrection has always carried forward both the spiritual and earthly dimensions of his mission. Jesus is divine savior and human liberator. The full glory of God, in the words of St. Irenaeus, is a human being fully alive. And in the words of the martyred Ignacio Ellacuria, killed by the army in El Salvador in 1989, the full liberation brought by Christ includes the right of every human being to live out their natural life span instead of being destroyed by poverty, exploitation and state violence.

By participating in the Palm Sunday procession and the liturgical events of Holy Week — the washing of feet, the veneration of the cross, the celebration of baptism and the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection -- we commit ourselves to both the theological and the political liberation of our brothers and sisters on the earth. Without this commitment, our worship is empty and our hope for our own resurrection with Christ is groundless self-assurance only.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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