Sunrise, Sunset

“He laid hands on each of them and cured them” (Luke 4:40).

In the final years of her life, especially after my father died, my mother lived in two realms.

The nursing home staff called it the “sunset syndrome,” a phenomenon identified by agitation and disorientation among some elderly or medicated residents in the late afternoon and early evening. My mother was quite specific in her description of it. A line appeared along the wall. It was the kingdom line. Below was here, on earth, above it was that other realm where my father now lived. Their 54 years of marriage had defined her, and when he died, my mother gradually refocused her attention from this world to the next.

In today’s Gospel reading, we find specific mention of the time of day. Jesus is at Peter’s house in Capernaum near the lake. He heals Peter’s mother-in-law (the single reference that opens our imagination to the fact that Peter, our first pope, was a married man and that his wife’s mother lived with them). At sunset, everyone in town with a sick person brought them to Jesus and he healed them, including those possessed by demons.

In the fading light of day, a time when many elderly feel vulnerable against the growing darkness and the long night ahead, when householders lock doors against intruders, when anxious children want bedtime stories and extra affection before sleep overtakes them, Jesus moves among them quieting their fears and removing their suffering. They enter the special zone of his love at the hour of diminishment, when death’s shadow lingers and we feel powerless. God is with us. There is nothing to be afraid of.

It must have been a long day for Jesus, but he is up before sunrise, out in a quiet place where he can pray. The rising sun and gathering light along the horizon strengthen him. Life’s promise survives the darkest night and a new day is upon us. Night brings sadness, but joy comes with the dawn. The kingdom of God is at hand.

The Real Thing

"What is there about his word?" (Luke 4:36).

On the drive into work, I am in traffic waiting for a light. Ahead of me is a young woman on a half-size motorbike wearing a bright yellow helmet over a spray of long red hair, a backpack covered with Central American designs, a pink My Kitty something attached to her belt, a dark full length skirt, a slipper on one foot and on the other —- for stopping purposes -- a bright purple rubber boot. She is, I decide, an art student heading to the Institute at the top of the hill. Perhaps not. She passes the entrance and turns toward the business district. I look in my rearview mirror. A young man, following too close, is eating a banana.

Someone once described reality as “a shared hallucination,” a spell we cast over ourselves and agree to so we can function together. But it also seems clear that, except for the traffic lights that keep everyone from crashing into each other, we live in different worlds. It is something to celebrate, all this diversity of identity, but it also reminds us that different perceptions, prejudices, interpretations and purposes rule our aggregate existence, and we are wise not to take anything for granted.

Different realities can be harmless unless they divide the world unjustly, enforce disparities than mean some live and others die, or encourage us to harbor distorted notions that destroy us and others. In today’s Gospel, Jesus flushes out hidden demons wherever he goes. Like invisible cultural norms we obey but no longer see, or ideas that shape history toward racism and fear, so unclean spirits possessed their victims in Jesus’ time in violent ways. His presence called them out. Because he was real and they were false, they could not abide him and had to depart. People were amazed at Jesus’s power to restore people to sanity, and they said that he spoke with authority. He is in touch with the source of reality, truth, the way things are, not some distorted world of bondage and oppression.

Our own selfish and distorted spirits will never show themselves or be disturbed unless we come into the presence of someone who is real. Jesus spoke with authority. His word is like a two-edged sword that can sever the bonds of self-serving illusion and set us free to be our true selves. In a world filled with spells and incantations, he is a good friend to have and someone worth listening to.

Like Mother, Like Son

“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:20).

We might imagine our lives if a script was provided each day for us to say and act on.

Jesus knows the Scriptures, and today’s Gospel reading suggests that certain passages literally came alive for him. After reading Isaiah 61 in the synagogue at Nazareth, he startled the crowd by announcing that the passage was about him: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” They take offense at his claim. He was, after all, only the son of the carpenter, one of them. Where did he get this power to interpret the Scriptures and to work signs?

We should not be surprised that one we call the Word of God should resonate with the image of the Servant of God contained in the Prophet Isaiah and in the Book of Psalms. His mother, Mary, conceived him in her womb when she said “Be it done unto me according to your Word" (Luke 2). What she knew by heart became flesh in her. At the end of Luke’s Gospel the crucified and risen Jesus explained to the disciples on the road to Emmaus that it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer in order to fulfill the Law and the Prophets (Luke 24). His deep listening -- obedience -- led him to follow the Scriptures being made known to him by the Spirit. Like mother, like son.

We are called to both freedom and obedience. We grow in both when we come to know the Scriptures by heart. To read and study the Bible is to drink from the source of all spirituality and theology. As the body grows with proper nourishment, the spirit requires regular contact with the living Word in the classroom of the Spirit. To be part of the story we must know the story of God’s active presence in the world and in our lives. This is Christian formation, and it is necessary if we are to come to baptismal maturity.

The fruit of a disciplined and regular immersion in the Scriptures is so that we, like Jesus, will come to the daily experience of hearing the Word and knowing that it is about us. If we listen to it and obey its promptings, it will come true in our hearing.

The Last Shall Be First

Blessed indeed will you be …” (Luke 14:14).

The British television comedy “Keeping Up Appearances” plays on the aspirations of Hyacinth Bucket (pronounced “Bouquet”) to enjoy higher social standing than her commoner roots warrant by dressing properly and holding “candlelight suppers.” Her efforts lead to awkward and embarrassing scenes for her dutiful husband, Richard, and her family and neighbors, while never quite breaking the spell for the socially driven Hyacinth. The program skewers both the pomposity of exaggerated class emphasis and the universal impulse to climb the social ladder by pursuing friends in high places.

In Jesus’ time, dinner invitations were more than socializing. The whole culture was based on carefully building up networks of important friends by inviting them to dine. Table fellowship indicated social equality and created an inner circle of shared values and obligations. At any such affair, places at table indicated your standing relative to the host. Jesus observes the jockeying for position at a formal dinner and offers solid advice about how to get ahead by acting humble. We can almost hear the murmur of approval in the crowd at the remarks of this honored guest, the rabbi from Galilee, no doubt spoken from the head table. Then he drops a bomb into the conversation.

When you have a party, don’t invite your friends and those you want to impress and add to your circle of reciprocation. Invite the poor, social outcasts, the sick — people who cannot repay you. Blessed will you be if you act like this, and your reward will be great in God’s eyes.

The proposal was revolutionary. It would in effect dismantle the entire structure of patronage and favors that held together social disparity and class distinction. It is the revolution at the heart of the Eucharist and the ongoing challenge every Sunday where the assembly at Mass does not reflect the broad diversity of status and need Jesus invited to share in his life: the rich and the poor, the proud and the humble, the strong and the weak, saints and sinners. The church is a work in progress, but we know the direction we must be going if we want to be blessed in God’s eyes.

Awake

“Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matt 25:13).

Virgins and bridesmaids are by definition in the Bible those who are waiting, holding their hearts in reserve because they are looking ahead to a transcendent world that is not yet here. Their focused postponement of satisfaction in this world is what points to the next world.

Virgins keep vigil, have the oil of prayer and are alert to trim their lamps, whose wicks are always lit to greet the coming of their hope. For the early church, the idea of virginity was tied to the Parousia. Paul’s exhortation was that the time of waiting was short, and therefore it was a form of worship to wait upon God and thereby give witness to a busy, distracted world that there is something more than buying and selling, marrying and giving in marriage, the pursuit of food and clothing and this world’s satisfactions.

Paul echoed Jesus, whose Sermon on the Mount created a whole community of people willing to live in the twilight of this world waiting for God to come and complete creation, make a just and loving world. The blessed ones live in the threshold between two worlds, pointing by their lives of abstinence and postponement to something they are glimpsing on the horizon, always receding as they approach it but so real it defines everything and gives value to a way of living that is virginal, incomplete. Blessed are the inbetweeners, the poor, the meek, the sorrowful, the peacemakers, the pursuers of justice, the persecuted, those who wait, fast, keep vigil for a world that is both here and not yet here.

So the virgins in the parable who were not ready had forgotten the essence of their virginity, which was to pay attention. They miss the hour at midnight, itself the time between yesterday and tomorrow when those who are awake catch a tiny glimpse of the timeless mystery of God, who asks for our whole attention, our whole mind, our whole heart, our whole soul and all our strength. Wholeheartedness is virginal, reserved for nothing less than absolute love. This is not to neglect or repudiate other kinds of love, but it is adamant about focusing the heart on the source of all love.

The foolish virgins are not there when the door opens. There is no unfairness in the story, only an urgent reminder to stay awake, focused, waiting so as not miss the call at midnight: “Behold, the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.”

John's Final Offering

“When Herod heard John speak he was much perplexed, but he liked to listen to him” (Mark 6:20).

Back in the 1970s, as the full challenge of the Vatican II reforms worked its way through the church, a priest friend remarked that he needed more than just patient endurance; he needed a whole new head.

To be blessed with a long life in interesting times is also to face the fact that we sometimes need to jettison our whole worldview, our whole way to understanding reality in order to really engage a fast-changing world. Old ideas, assumptions, ways of seeing are actually blinding us to new possibilities. We need a new head, fresh eyes, different priorities to see what is happening and to interpret it not as loss but as breakthrough.

John the Baptist, for all the grisly drama of his death by beheading, gave us an example of deep faith and selfless surrender to events and ideas he simply could not understand. He was the last and greatest of the old covenant of law and righteousness. His standards did not comprehend the dispensation of grace and mercy being announced by Jesus. He brought the narrative of salvation history to a chasm only a profound leap of faith could cross.

How many faithful servants of God have found themselves imprisoned by age and its growing deprivations of mind and body, wondering if they have wasted their lives, gotten it all wrong, backed the wrong future and are therefore destined to be left behind? Rebirth is harder than birth, and more miraculous. John the Baptist is again our precursor, pointing at Jesus. Follow him. Whatever he says, trust him. Whatever he does, imitate him. What the head cannot comprehend, the heart knows, and a course we cannot imagine is already set toward eternity.

Aug 28, 1963 -- 2013: We Have A Dream

“Walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into his Kingdom and glory” (1 Thess 2:13).

Fifty years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr delivered his now famous “I have a dream” speech to an estimated 200,000 people gathered on the Washington mall facing the Lincoln Memorial. For impact, millions more watched it on television. Since then, hundreds of millions around the world and several generations not alive when that scene was first transmitted in grainy black and white have experienced King’s powerful call to America to live up to its own ideals and principles for all its citizens regardless of color. We know now that it almost didn’t happen. King had before him a carefully crafted speech titled, “Normalcy, Never Again.” Toward the end, singer Mahalia Jackson called out to him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin,” and he set aside his prepared text and began to preach.

To say it was a prophetic sermon delivered at a critical crossroads in the nation’s history does not fully convey its importance as a timeless and global summons to the human dream of self-determination all people want for themselves and their children. Commemorating it reminds us that its demands are just as urgent and relevant today as they were in 1963. A nation still at war and contemplating yet another military intervention in the Middle East, a society awash in lethal firepower, paralyzed over immigration reform, still accepting de facto economic apartheid in most of its major cities and poverty for its lowest-wage workers — will celebrate the speech again, lamenting its elusive progress in practice, and promising to do better.

In unplanned but appropriate recognition of King’s tragic role in our history, today’s Gospel from Matthew 23 echoes Jesus’ indictment of the hypocrisy of his own day: “You build the tombs of the prophets and adorn the memorials of the righteous,” but failed to heed the prophets standing right in front of them. King’s prophetic voice was silenced five years after his famous speech. But dreams live on as long as there are dreamers willing to advance the cause of equality and a more just world. Today’s commemoration and today’s scripture readings call us all to share in the realization of the dream.

Monica and Augustine

“You have searched me and you know me” (Ps 139).

We don’t what they looked like, but besides the family resemblance we know the power of a mother’s influence over a son. Monica and Augustine are bound together, even in the liturgical calendar, their feasts commemorated back to back on August 27 and 28.

A mother’s prayers and tears are said to have brought her brilliant son back from the edge of speculation to the challenge of faith. Her ambition for him became his devotion to serve the church in North Africa. Her persistence supported his role as crucial broker of the primitive church through waves of heresy into the next stages of its integration into Western culture, bridging classical Greek and Roman thought into Christendom, the realities of institutional power and the relationship of church and state. Augustine set a course for the radical inspiration of Jesus into the complex compromises of multiculturalism, Platonic dualism, natural law morality and the just war theory. Whatever we imagine it might have been, the church we have was defined by Augustine.

In today's Gospel from Matthew 23, Jesus indicts the scribes and Pharisees for tithing their herb gardens while ignoring the weightier demands of the Law, "straining the gnat and swallowing the camel." He accuses them of keeping up appearances while neglecting matters of inner substance — holiness of heart, integrity and sincerity. Hypocrisy is the same in every age, outer compliance masking inner corruption. A man who has endured his mother’s scrutiny is unlikely to be a hypocrite, because he knows she can see through him. Today we celebrate mothers and sons and the mysterious power women have to hold men accountable.

Jesus Loses His Cool

“Woe to you, blind guides” (Matt 23: 17).

Some years ago I taught at a small Catholic college in the throes of controversy over questions of orthodoxy. The faculty debates were healthy for a liberal arts program, but some students found the clash of loyalties debilitating. A visiting scholar who encountered students consumed with anxiety and scrupulosity, asked, “Who did this to them?”

If the Gospel narratives accurately reflect Jesus toward the end of his ministry, we glimpse him at a point of exasperation where he appears to lose his cool. The Sadducees, priests, scribes and Pharisees have all tried to bring him down on issues of orthodoxy. He matches wits with them on the big questions: What is the greatest commandment? Who is my neighbor? Should we pay taxes? It’s when their attacks degenerate into nitpicking about oaths, gold, gifts and altars that he blows his stack and calls them “blind fools, whitened sepulchers and hypocrites."

The threshold for his indignation appears to be the damage being done to ordinary people, sincere seekers after guidance who were being misdirected into the paralysis of formal leaders who did not want Jesus’ message of freedom and easy access to a loving God to succeed. Their power as gatekeepers and as professional experts was too important to ask them to step aside so others could approach God directly.

The burden is on every leader, teacher, minister and representative of the church and the Gospel to open doors, not close them, to facilitate not complicate the path to God’s abundant mercy. We so seldom meet an angry, frustrated Jesus, but we will if we keep others waiting or unable to find him because of our own criteria or need to control the path to his love.

Sunday, August 25: Where are you coming from?

“I don’t know where you are from” (Luke 13:25).

The question “Where are you coming from?” or the more grammatically awkward “Where are you at?” was part of the evolving language of self-awareness in the 1960s, another way of saying, “What are your core values?”

Luke describes people asking Jesus whether only a few – hopefully themselves – would be saved. He shocks them by saying, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many will try and not be strong enough.” He then launches into a scenario in which people come late, after the householder has locked the door, claiming they have a special relationship and are worthy to be allowed in. He says, “I don’t know where you are from.” In other words, I don’t recognize you.

This theme appears in other stories in the Gospels about being alert, lamps lit, extra oil, and idea that external observance or religious credentials might not be enough to make us recognizable to God. Discipleship is what gives us a family resemblance to Jesus. We follow him, listen to what he says and we do what he does.

Like a friendship that forms over time if we spend time with someone, sharing their interests and values, we become recognizable as Christians because we cultivate a relationship with Jesus, which influences the way we live. It shows. God knows us at the end of the story because we have shown up throughout the story, every day, to pray, listen, do what was needed to serve and be present to others. If this is where we’ve been coming from, we will know where we are going.

Pages