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Cooperate!

Posted on 18 May 2016 by patmarrin

"Whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:40).

John, one of the rambunctious "Sons of Thunder" among the disciples, complained to Jesus that some rival preachers were driving out demons in his name. He and his brother James distinguished themselves in another incident when they asked Jesus to call down fire on a town that had refused to let them enter. Or when they sent their mother promote their intersts to Jesus.

Their proprietary interest in the mission was less about proclaiming God's kingdom than about their exclusive role as Jesus' lieutenants. They didn't want others horning in on the glory. Jesus must have smiled even as he shook his head at their misplaced enthusiasm. The power of God was being manifested wherever they went, for both his disciples and others who caught the spirit of the campaign and wanted to help break the spell of fear and control cast over people by the forces of evil.

In addressing the competitive approach of his disciples, Jesus gave history a principle that must always define the church's ministry: "Whoever is not against us is for us." God's abundant gifts flow freely to anyone who wants to do good. Cooperation is better than competition when it comes to advancing justice and serving those in need. No credentials or affiliations or special rank and status are needed to do good and oppose oppression.

One of the positive and exciting aspects of today's highly connected world through social media is that movements for good are discovering each other and joining forces nationally and even globally. Workers' rights, tolerance for diversity, care for the environment, economic fairness, peace and nonviolence efforts -- all these advocates can recognize common goals. Those who want exclusive control or insist on ideological or religious exclusivity become obstacles to real progress.

It is the time of Pentecost. The Spirit is alive and grace is loose in the world. Despite many signs of breakdown and polarization, we also see breakthrough and new energy being released in the very naming of serious problems. Despite the poisonous rhetoric of some and attempts to divide, we are witnessing real public debates over the future. If we believe in and trust that God is with us in all our human striving, we should rejoice to live in "interesting times," and even more, in the earth-shaking, fiery and wind-driven Age of the Holy Spirit.

Children First

Posted on 17 May 2016 by patmarrin

"Taking a child, he placed it in their midst, and putting his arms around it, he said to them, 'Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me...' " (Mark 9:36).

Today's Gospel brings together two very different themes that Jesus deliberately connects to teach his status-seeking followers the meaning of his impending suffering and death.

Jesus and his small band of disciples are traveling through Galilee on their way to Capernaum by the Sea. This is not a time to engage the crowds or work miracles. Jesus knows that his time is short, and so he is concentrating on preparing his followers for what will happen to him in Jerusalem. After a time of tremendous success and acclaim, Jesus is aware that in order to fulfill the scriptures he must undergo great humiliation and rejection. He will be handed over to his enemies to be killed. Only then, after his mission to reveal God's unconditional love is complete, will he be glorified.

The disciples are not ready to hear this prediction from their somber master. They follow him on the road, arguing about who is the greatest among them. The disconnect could not be more total.

When they reach Capernaum and enter the house, Jesus addresses them pointedly by placing a child in their midst, embracing it and saying: "Look! This is the model for greatness -- to be as empty of pride and ambition as this child, to be as open, vulnerable and innocent as this."

He then tells them that only if they have this same frame of mind and simplicity of heart will they be able to understand what is about to happen to him. Like a lamb, he is going to surrender himself to those who think that by killing him they can stop God's Kingdom. In fact, they will only be offering him up as the perfect sacrifice of praise that will free the world from sin and death. Without grasping this paradox and profound mystery, his disciples will be unable to receive him, or the One who sent him. For God is the simplest and purest One of all.

We are witnessing this same parable of the importance of the child in every public appearance of Pope Francis. He is constantly embracing children and those whose sufferings have rendered them "little ones," vulnerable and without status or power. In his remarks to his fellow bishops, men of rank and status, he is constantly warning them of the dangers of self-importance, the self-referential poison of the princely court, the competition for honors and status. Can they be true Apostles of Jesus if they lose sight of the Gospel or fail to model his humility as servant of all?

Today's Gospel calls us all remember that the path to God is humility, the door to God's kingdom is small and narrow, with no room for our egos and self-serving agendas. Yet this path promises us the wonderful freedom that children have naturally, of living in the moment, playfully engaging life's questions and challenges with full trust that God is always watching over them and caring about them. No matter what the world does to children, they are God's greatest gift, and God will come to dwell in those who love them.

The Holy Spirit Is Within

Posted on 16 May 2016 by patmarrin

"I do believe, help my unbelief (Mark 9:25).

As we begin the long liturgical season after Pentecost, it seems appropriate that Jesus and his disciples (the church) are confronted with a boy possessed by an unholy spirit. It is a difficult case. The disciples, in the absence of Jesus, cannot exorcise this mute spirit, which throws the boy into convulsions. Jesus returns with Peter, James and John from the mountain theophany of the transfiguration, and they are met by the frantic disciples and a huge crowd.

Faith is on the line. Why can't the disciples cast out this spirit? The boy's father, desperate to save his son, wavers in his confidence that even Jesus can command this dangerous evil. "I believe," he cries out, "help my unbelief!"

This is a scene from the ministry of Jesus, but also a scene describing the early church. And it is also a scene from our own struggle to believe that the Holy spirit is active in the church today. As we look at the many issues facing believers today, we find weakness and division within and the forces of extremism and violence challenging global civilization itself. The human community, even in this age of great technological advances and creative skill, is often like an adolescent on a roller coaster of emotion, thrashing back and forth between fire and water, unable to express its needs and desires.

Powerful ideologies and religious movements seek to control the hearts and minds of millions of people. The United States, touted as the most stable and balanced system of government in the world, is facing internal paralysis and an upcoming election plagued by extremes of rhetoric tapping into fear and anger that threaten civility and basic institutions that safeguard the common good.

Do we really believe that the Holy Spirit is guiding history toward God's ultimate design of unity and wholeness? Do we believe that we are empowered by the Spirit to make a difference as ambassadors of reconciliation and mercy? This is the age of the Holy Spirit, the epoch in history when the church is meant to be modeling the Beloved Community God has in store for all of creation. God can and will bring this about; the question is, are we going to be part of it, faithful and confident that the Spirit is alive and at work in us?

When Breath Becomes Life

Posted on 14 May 2016 by patmarrin

“He breathed on them and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit' (John 20:23).

When Breath Becomes Air, a current bestseller by the late neourosurgeon Paul Kalanithi, takes its title from a sonnet by 16th century Elizabethan poet, Fulke Geville. The Enlightenment gave dominance to scientific explanations for all natural phenomena, yet 500 years later, a brilliant, young doctor was forced to reflect on the meaning of his life when diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. Kalanithi. who died in 2015, had been present so often at the moment of death for his patients, living breath, warm and flowing in the lungs, able to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide to enrich the blood, becoming only air.

A threshold is inexplicably crossed, like the one in the brain with the last flickers of electro-chemical energy cease. A unique person, possessing a complex narrative of memories, feelings, fears and beliefs, a father, husband, brother and friend within a wide network of relationships and influence, becomes an inert corpse. Science stands at the point of departure, observing, analyzing, measuring, but, if it knows its limits and accepts other approaches, it can only call for the philosopher, artist, mystic or priest.

The feast of Pentecost explores the mystery of creation described in Genesis as the breath of God animating all living creatures. A human being receives life, but also the image and likeness of the Creator, the power to think and choose and relate to other beings intimately, even with God. Air becomes breath, and breath becomes divine life in us. We are destined for more than a natural life span. The questions posed in all of literature and art -- Does death defeat life? Is love only an illusion? – are answered by faith: Friendship with God is the purpose of life. Because God is infinite and eternal, divine friendship never ends, even when the appearance of death defies logic and hard science.

Pentecost was the fulfillment of the mission of Jesus. What was revealed by his life, death and resurrection is handed over to his disciples as the pattern underlying existence. The purpose of one life is to empty itself into other lives. Love is pure gift perfected when given away. Parents do this naturally for their children. Every authentic pastor lays down his life for his flock. Husbands and wives sanctify each other with the holy kiss that forms them as one over time. This is the meaning of our sacramental life, that every physical and human act has a divine dimension, a holy effect.

It takes a community of faith to sustain this truth over generations and through the ups and downs of human history, where hope and despair in turn illuminate and overshadow us. It must be experienced to become believable, but when it does, air becomes breath, touch becomes transformation, food becomes Communion, water becomes baptism, oil becomes gladness. Jesus sends us his Spirit to teach us everything he learned as a human being, one of us. How can we turn away from such joy?

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Letting Go, Letting God

Posted on 13 May 2016 by patmarrin

"When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go" (John 21:18).

Fr. Edward Hays, prolific author on spirituality who died April 3, once described old age as an "escape-proof prison." Those who survive into their 80s and beyond do not need to be reminded of the marked drop in energy and loss of focus that comes with aging. St. Paul described his final years as "the time of my dissolution" (cf 2 Tim 4:1-8).

This natural decline, as a life-stage inevitability, is depicted in today's Gospel about Peter's role as leader of the church. Jesus tells him that after his service of caring for the flock ("feed my lambs, feed my sheep"), Peter will endure the loss of autonomy over his own life, a time of dependence on others every senior or nursing home resident can identify with. It can be a time of humiliation but also of grace.

If aging and infirmity (at any age) are a natural part of life, so can they also be part of our discipleship. The Paschal Mystery of dying with Christ in order to rise with him involves a loss of status and self-importance. By submitting, we join Jesus the servant, the last and least, as God emptying himself into the community in the final oblation that builds up God's kingdom on earth.

This surrender and self-emptying also prepares us to receive the Holy Spirit, the pledge of future glory. It was the Spirit who ultimately dressed and guided Peter through diminishment and death to the glory that was awaiting him, life eternal. At whatever age or stage of life we are, we belong to God. Pray for the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Unity in Love

Posted on 12 May 2016 by patmarrin

"May they be brought to perfection as one, that the world may now that you sent me, and that you loved them even as you loved me" (John 17:24).

Just what was Jesus' mission? What lasting influence remained in the world because of his life, death and resurrection?

The final discourses in John's Gospel, the last and most theological reflection we have from the first generation witnesses to Jesus, seem to focus on the unity of love. God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son to restore the same unity in love that God had with the Son from the foundation of the world. A world united in love is the most complete reflection of the image and likeness of God. This is the glory of God -- the universe achieving the perfection for which it was created.

No wonder the central ministry of the church is reconciliation. Disunity, division, conflict and alienation are what prevent God's intentions for the world and for us, the ultimate expression of a free and conscious response to the Creator from the created. What frustrates this response also limits human development. If, in the words of St. Ireneus, "the glory of God is a human being fully alive," then a human race alienated from itself and rebelling against its own intended purpose is the essence of sin and the cause of death.

Jesus exhibited the perfection possible for us as God's creation. The community he gathered around himself was meant to demonstrate the possibility of love to make unity from diversity. When the church in Antioch was described by outsiders with these words: "See the Christians, see how they love one another," Jesus' ministry was being fulfilled. When the church is divided, quarreling and competing for power, the sign of unity is contradicted and its mission is frustrated.

Pope Francis' radical answer to a divided church has been to declare mercy as the antidote to this primal sin that has so obscured the face of God and the mission of Jesus before the world. The pope's urgent outreach to other Christian churches separated from Rome, his appeal to the religions of the world, to secular humanists and even atheists to join together to work for peace and justice, are clear signs that he understands the central ministry of his papacy: Unity in love.

Pentecost is the ongoing prayer for unity in diversity, love above and before all else, as the only way to get a broken world back on track to its authentic purpose. Without this love, there is no church and the world is doomed to self-destruction. Pentecost invites us all to pray with all our hearts for unity in love as the only path possible to the future God wills for us. We were meant for glory, not destruction.

Standing with Jesus in Truth

Posted on 11 May 2016 by patmarrin

"Consecrate them in the truth" (John 17:17).

Among the many qualities praised in eulogies for Jesuit Dan Berrigan, who died April 30 at age 94, was his steadfast commitment to the truth. He never wavered on basic principles that formed his character through successive seasons and trends that marked the activist communities and the issues he espoused during 50 years of protest and prophetic ministry. In the furor and fever of movements against war, poverty, political and ecclesial corruption, Berrigan kept his own counsel in a solitude grounded in the Gospel. It was not about popularity or political correctness; it was about telling the truth.

He was, in the words of Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg's film "Bridge of Spies," a "standing man." From the script of the movie:

Rudolf Abel: Standing there like that you reminded me of the man that used to come to our house when I was young. My father used to say: "Watch this man." So I did. Every time he came. And never once did he do anything remarkable.

James Donovan: And I remind you of him?

Rudolf Abel: This one time, I was at the age of your son, our house was overrun by partisan border guards. Dozens of them. My father was beaten, my mother was beaten, and this man, my father's friend, he was beaten. And I watched this man. Every time they hit him, he stood back up again. So they hit him harder. Still he got back to his feet. I think because of this they stopped the beating. They let him live. Stoikiy muzhik. I remember them saying. Which sort of means like uh, "standing man."

A human being in full possession of himself or herself is a formidable presence in any society. The changing winds of culture and self-interest may seem an irresistible force carrying everyone in one direction, until they meet the immovable object of a single human being telling the truth. Prophets are inconvenient, and if they stand in the way of power, they will be dismissed, ridiculed and silenced. Jesus prompted the judgment of the Sanhedrin: "It is better for one man to die than for the nation to perish."

In today's discourse from Jesus to his disciples, he is trying to prepare them for his departure by reassuring them that they have already been "consecrated in truth." Persecution and rejection will come, but they have been set apart by grace to be markers for the truth in the winds of history, signposts to guide the church to its destination as the Beloved Community of justice, love and truth.

We stand in this same tradition, the mystery of Jesus revealed in our hearts at baptism, the bread of life our sustaining companion on the way. The promise of the Holy Spirit points us to Pentecost and beyond in a turbulent time when "truth" is anything that sells, or the official narrative that will overwhelm any individual who dares stand in the way of progress toward a different community built on inequality and privilege for the few as the expense of the many. The question is, will we stand with Pope Francis, with the Dan Berrigans of the world, the Dorothy Days and the Nelson Mandelas? Will we stand with Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life?

In for the Long Haul

Posted on 10 May 2016 by patmarrin

"I consider my life to be of no importance to me, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus" (Acts 20:24).

Paul is like a long-distance runner nearing the finish line as he comes to the end of his long ministry to preach the Gospel and establish communities from Asia Minor all the way to Rome. He has suffered all manner of physical hardship, including shipwreck and beatings, imprisonment and violent opposition. His greatest suffering, he says in 2 Cor 6:3-13, has been internal dissension and attempts at subversion within the churches he helped found.

The mystery of union with Christ, which Paul so beautifully articulates in his letters, has been the defining principle of his own life. He will come in on empty, losing his own life so that he might be filled with the life of Christ, his true self. The Holy Spirit is his constant companion, guiding and supporting him as Paul submits to arrest in Jerusalem and house arrest in Rome.

John's Gospel enters this same apotheosis with Jesus' discourses before his departure. His defining purpose has been to fulfill the mission to reveal the face of the Father, the God of mercy and forgiveness, to a sinful, rebellious world. He prays for his disciples, who will carry on the mission by the power of the Holy Spirit. The groundwork has been laid for the mystery of the church, the continuation of Jesus' presence in history until the end of time.

We are that holy church, baptized members of the body of Christ, animated by the Spirit. Our own personal lives are taken up into this cosmic mystery. By living fully and generously, using all our natural gifts to serve others, we, too, will run the race, then hand on the torch of faith to the next generation of believers. There is no other reality, and we are blessed to be part of it.

Wait and Pray

Posted on 09 May 2016 by patmarrin

"We have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit" (Acts 19:3).

As Paul expanded his ministry from Corinth, he discovered a group of believers in Ephesus who knew of the baptism of John but had not yet heard about the Holy Spirit. John's baptism was about repentance, but he spoke of another baptism, not just of with water but with fire and the Holy Spirit.

How many lifelong Christians have yet to hear about the promise of the Spirit as the second wind of the their development in the faith? It is one thing to consider that we have left behind sin at baptism. It is another to believe that we are empowered by the Spirit to live a life of holiness and love that transcends keeping the commandments. The story of Pentecost is about ordinary men and women who felt totally inadequate and unworthy being transformed by God to do amazing things.

Jesus knew his disciples would have to go through failure and doubt before they could understand the gift of the Holy Spirit. They had to be vessels emptied of pride and self-reliance before the Spirit could indwell and empower them. The Spirit does not replace or override our natural gifts, but perfects them with grace to work on a scale we could not imagine. Like the five loaves and two fish a child offered to feed a hungry crowd in the wilderness, whatever we bring to God will be multiplied to meet the need.

The days between Ascension and Pentecost are a time of prayer and expectation. Open your hearts to what God wants to do through us as church. Pentecost was the Jewish celebration of harvest. A great harvest of goodness is ready to be gathered into God. We are the workers chosen to share this labor of divine love.

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Ascending and Descending, God With Us

Posted on 07 May 2016 by patmarrin

Preachers note: Whether we celebrate Ascension or the 7th Sunday of Easter, the theme is the same: Jesus departs and returns in his Holy Spirit.

“As Jesus blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven” (Luke 24:52).

The Ascension of Jesus is a theological event loaded with scriptural and cultural associations that give context and meaning to this key transition from his historical presence to his presence in the church.

For the evangelists, Jesus repeats and fulfills the dramatic departure of Elijah, who drops his cloak and a double portion of this spirit onto Elisha, his prophet apprentice. For Luke, writing for an increasingly gentile audience in the Roman empire, Jesus’ Ascension apes the reception of a conquering general returning to stand at the right hand of the emperor and distribute booty to his army. By comparison, a cosmic, triumphant Jesus stands at the throne of the Father and pours out charisms on his followers, the church.

One of the most striking fulfillment images for the Ascension was captured not by a theologian but by poet James Dickey and artist Marvin Hayes in their book, God’s Images (1977). With text and drawing, they show Jesus lifting away from his disciples, the pulse in his thick veins visible as one of the disciples reaches out as though to hold him back by the ankle. He is the firstborn Esau, seized by his younger twin Jacob in the birthing, revealing his destiny to take the blessing from his older brother. So the disciples are enlivened with the blood pulse of Jesus as he departs, for they are now his presence in the world by the power of his Holy Spirit.

At baptism we have all received the cloak and spirit of Jesus, the pulse and breath of his divine identity in the flesh and blood of our shared humanity. His redemptive mission continues in time and space through us. In union with him and the paschal mystery of dying to ourselves to live his new life, we will share his divinity. Sometimes called the best kept secret of Christianity, this promise of divine life is what is being transferred to us in the Ascension and at Pentecost.

If it seems too good to be true, make it real by feeling the pulse in your neck and your expanding chest with your next deep breath. God is that close —even closer— to us, because God created us and sustains us in existence by love. By celebrating these important feasts together around the eucharistic table, we acknowledge the gift God is offering us. Theology becomes art, poetry, then life in us if we believe it and live it. What greater adventure is there? What other path can lead to such glory?