Desolation

“The heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:26).

The instructions for the accompanying image are as follows: "Concentrate on the four dots in the middle of the picture for about 30 seconds. Then close your eyes and tilt your head back. Keep them closed. You will see a circle of light. Look into it. What do you see?”

This popular Internet image was first sent to me years ago by a Japanese exchange student I had taught at a small Catholic college. She was not a Christian, but she was fascinated with the optical trick the image creates, and she thought that because I was a Christian I would appreciate it.

Today’s scripture readings continue the apocalyptic theme of Endtimes taken from the memory of the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE and again in 70 CE. These readings triggered the memory of Izumi and the image she had shared with me, but this time with a sudden shock of recognition I had not considered then, or since. The image is a reverse, a negative of the picture that appears if you follow the instructions. And it is similar to the shadow-like outlines left on streets and against buildings in the aftermath of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Witnesses afterwards were puzzled by these dark portraits until they realized that they were all that was left of human beings vaporized by the blinding flash and force of the explosions, whose heat and light were equal to the energy of the sun. The two cities were incinerated and tens of thousands of civilians were killed in concentric waves of death racing from the epicenter. Thousands more would die in the days to come from radiation and for decades after that. For them, it was the end of the world.

If irony can still impress us, the name of the project that produced the first atomic bomb was “Trinity.” The bombs dropped on Japan to end the war and to warn the Soviets were dubbed “Fat Man” and “Little Boy.” The first was dropped on August 6, the Catholic liturgical Feast of the Transfiguration, commemorating the appearance of Jesus on Mount Tabor, his face and clothing as brilliant as the sun. The second bomb used the spire of a Catholic church for ground zero. Like the first disciples, we have been been slow to understand or learn from the desolation delivered on humanity by that long, terrible war. Insight comes slowly into focus, but only when we are ready to face it. What do you see?

Persecution

“They will seize and persecute you” (Luke 21:12).

Christianity has always deemed suffering the truest test of faith. Today’s readings from Luke and Revelation were both composed during periods of imperial persecution, when the church reportedly flourished. Lacking persecution, severe forms of asceticism and self-inflicted suffering have met the need for actual martyrdom.

As any spiritual director knows, the emphasis on pain as a path to God is a dangerous one. Obsession with suffering leads to clinical illness, paranoia and a tendency to project religious zeal into acts of violence against others. It is a formula that has produced both saints and suicide bombers. Some people need adversity to show their commitment, though it must be said that most find enough trouble in their ordinary lives.

It has been fashionable for some religious leaders to welcome persecution as a public sign of fidelity. In many parts of the world it is alarmingly true that Christians are under attack, especially in Africa and the Middle East, where competing fundamentalisms, inflamed by economic and political instability, have produced spasms of violence. Back in the United States, one prominent prelate warned that we should expect bishops to be arrested and sent to prison, even martyred for defending religious freedom. Images come to mind of fearless pastors being arrested for opposing ICE raids or for harboring undocumented immigrants, or for crossing the line at the annual School of the Americas protest in solidarity with the thousands of victims in Latin America tortured and murdered by U.S.-trained soldiers, or for joining the scores of lay protesters who have gone to prison for civil disobedience at nuclear production plants or at bases that send armed drones to assassinate suspected enemies halfway around the world.

While this may not be what he had in mind, it is a thrilling prospect, Catholics coming alive to their faith after decades of consumption-induced sleep and cheap-grace religion, led by their bishops to the cutting edge of relevant social action. Such courage for the faith would fill our courts and prisons with Christian witness. Who knows, it might also help fill the many churches that now stand empty.

Glory

"The time to reap has come" (Rev 14:16).

Preachers might envy Steven Spielberg for his power to preach a powerful history lesson with a timely moral to millions of moviegoers who will experience his latest film "Lincoln."

Abraham Lincoln, a backwoods, self-taught lawyer who rose to become president in the stormy years of the American Civil War, midwived the nation to a rebirth of freedom for millions of slaves and set a course that reinvented American democracy as a model for global self-determination that continues to inspire even us today. Today's reading from Revelation is the source for the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," the apocalyptic trumpet call of Lincon's day. In an age, then and now, when those who invoke God often turn out to be cold-blooded killers like abolitionist John Brown, Lincoln prosecuted a bloody war zealots on both sides said could not be avoided. From it he salvaged the country we now struggle to unite and preserve. It cost him everything. The art with this reflection is of the plaster life mask done two month's before Lincoln's assassination on April 14, 1865, just seven days after the truce was formalized at Appomattox.

Looking back, Lincoln's secular agnosticism seems almost a blessing. His rhetorical gifts came from country fables and biblical metaphors, but he was in mind and heart a brilliant lawyer capable of crafting precise, logical arguments for common sense and magnanimity as the way to solve most conflicts. Another hill country preacher comes to mind, loved by his devotees and hated by his enemies, given iconic status as a prophet once he was safely dead. A good film-maker can make a hero live again. The church exists only to remind us that those who give their lives for truth and love never really die at all.

Widow

"She has given from her poverty"(Luke 21:4.

Jesus' praise for the poor widow who put her last two coins into the Temple treasury reveals a pattern he lived himself and asks his disciples to emulate. Give from your want, your lack, even your emptiness, and your gift will be multiplied.

When Jesus sends out the disciples two by two to preach the kingdom of God, they go without money, shoes, even a change of clothes. Their emptiness will invite others to open their doors to strangers, thus receiving God's blessing. When hungry crowds press in on Jesus in the wilderness, he tells his disciples, who have nothing, to give them what little they have anyway. Everyone experiences an overflowing abundance. The pattern is set, paradoxical and always risky. If you want the gift, let go of what you already have.

Jesus himself was the self-emptying gift of God, the divine kenosis. He in turn emptied himself into the world in an outpouring of selfless love from the cross. In John's Gospel, Jesus' death is also his lifting up -- resurrection, ascension -- and his final breath is also Pentecost. The Spirit is given in this last breath and the church is born from his pierced side in an outpouring of blood (Eucharist) and water (baptism). It is a sign so rich with meaning only eyes opened by faith can see (believe) it.

The poor widow, by definition bereft of all protection and support, proclaimed God's kenosis by her act of total generosity. Others gave more, but from their surplus, so it cost them little and, perhaps, was deductible at tax time. Astute and practical, these other Temple donors departed feeling they have done their charitable duty to God, but they missed altogether an invitation to enter God's kingdom.

Truth to Power

“You say I am a king” (John 18:36).

It seems appropriate to ask if Jesus is a king. In his final exchange with Pilate, representing the Roman Empire that was about to execute him for sedition, the closest Jesus gets to identifying himself was to respond, “You say I am a king.” It takes us back to the central question posed by Jesus, “Who do people say that I am?” Our answer to that question decides everything else. Down through history, people have imposed many titles on Jesus: sage, humanist, social worker, revolutionary, Son of God, Christ the King. Each title suggests a different gospel, a different discipleship and a different church. By dodging or redirecting most attempts, Jesus remains a mystery, a haunting presence we can never label, control or claim exclusively for our group.

The closest we can come to knowing Jesus is to look at others who have spoken truth to power and then were struck down for their audacity. Archbishop Oscar Romero comes to mind, or Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr, and many others. They were powerless except for truth and each, in their own way, had the last word. Their memory endures while their executioners are lost in obscurity or infamy. Like Jesus, they were all pacifists, a path few dare to take because it will get you killed. It is a sobering thought as we celebrate this official feast of Jesus, whom, despite his efforts to avoid the title, we insist on calling our King.

Who Is Alive?

“Finally the woman also died” (Luke 20:31).

The Sadducees were the wealthy upper class – the House of Lords, if you will – of Jerusalem in Jesus’ time. They and the Pharisees made up the Sanhedrin. Being wealthy they did not mind the possibility that there was no afterlife, a point of contention with the Pharisees, who did believe in a final resurrection. It was apparently the Sadducees’ turn to trap Jesus, so they concocted an absurd scenario in which a woman is married in succession by seven brothers to insure progeny to the first brother who had married her. If there is resurrection, the Sadducees ask, who will be her husband? As a hypothetical, it is meant to ridicule Jesus even as it shows cruel disregard for the poor woman who will be driven to her grave by seven men determined to impregnate her.

Jesus directly answers both questions: Marriage is for this world and resurrection is assured for those who are the friends of God, as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses are. Those who share the life of God in this world will continue that life in the next, because God is the God of the living, not the dead.

The answer must have stunned the Sadducees, whose comfortable lives were indifferent to the poor and oppressed peoples all around them. Already dead to God’s will, they have no stake in eternity. Their clever trap is turned on them. Some scribes, perhaps legal counsel to the Sadducees, admit defeat. Jesus has answered decisively, and they will be wise not to toy with him again.

The question is not about marriage or even resurrection, but about obedience and love. Those who love others and practice justice are already living in God, and those who do not are already dead. As for the afterlife, God takes care of his friends.

Sweet and Sour

“Black Friday” has entered the national lexicon to designate the critical shopping day after Thanksgiving. An annual frenzy begins the Christmas season and projects the health of the consumer economy for the near term. The day has liturgical parallels; attendance is encouraged, the rituals of discounted pricing and piped in music rival anything religion has to offer in high holy days like Good Friday, Palm Sunday or, for that matter, Blue Monday, when all bills come due.

In Luke 17, Jesus charges into the temple to purge all buying and selling, not because he is against money or GDP, but to preserve holy ground as the heart for the common good. What is an economy if not a way to organize human dignity for all? Apocalyptic John (Rev.10), a probing voice in hard times, consumes a honeyed scroll that turns sour in his stomach. Here is the original bitter pill, sugar-coated medicine we swallow for our own good. Another, larger scroll with seven seals awaits One worthy to open it. It holds the final narrative of accountability.

Whoever picked the readings for the Lectionary may have had irony in mind, but it would be a cheap shot to blame the millions who must sell their dignity every day to survive in the global economy, from the assembly plant workers in China to the greeters and sackers in the retail malls of America. We need better systems, markets that work without the buying and selling of souls. Everyone in the end will take their medicine, sweet and sour. Holy ground begins in the heart, where love is still given freely to anyone who understands its real cost.

Thanksgiving

“Your faith has saved you” (Luke 17:19).

The Church provides two sets of readings for today, one suitable to the Thanksgiving holiday and the other for the ongoing apocalyptic themes emphasized as we end one liturgical year and approach Advent. In Luke 17, the leper who returns to give thanks is praised; In Luke 19, Jesus weeps over Jerusalem. Our reality is always a mix of light and darkness, hope and trouble.

The November 22 date is seared into the memories of a generation – the day President John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963. For many of us it seemed like the end of the world. The country entered into a long period of shock and introspection, and a feeling of lost innocence pervaded everything. And though this was hardly the first time violence defined either our domestic life or our foreign policy, the decade had begun with such a spirit of optimism and idealism. It would end witnessing the horrors of the Vietnam War, a string of assassinations and the bloodiest phase of the Civil Rights movement.

Almost 50 years later, another young president oversees a faltering economy and a global “War on Terror’ fought with immense blood and treasure and scores of pilotless armed drones roaming the world in search of our enemies. Hope and despair define the world with disproportionate force inflicted by fate and design on the poor and displaced. We are right to stop to count our blessings, which include the tears of Jesus over us and our cities, a continuous baptism to cleanse us of sin and lead us to conversion. Our faith has the power to save us, but we must first live it.

Presentation

The Jewish ritual of presenting a child in the Temple is commemorated today in the life of Mary. The feast has no biblical basis other than the general practice, which assumes that Mary’s parents, named Joachim and Anne by tradition, brought her at three-years-old for presentation to the priests. Luke 2:22 records the same ritual when Joseph and Mary presented Jesus after his circumcision. The practice acknowledges that all children are gifts from God and belong to God.

All parents learn this truth. Whether their children are adopted or biological, they are on loan, God’s investment in us that we will care for and nurture them. That so many children in our world are not received this way is one of the deep tragedies of life and a challenge to the glaring disparities in our economic and political systems. An estimated 7 million children under the age of 5 died in 2011, the majority predictably in the developing nations, where poverty, health and environmental factors are the leading cause of infant and child mortality. These brief lives and the potential gifts they held are marked “return to sender.”

We measure the loss in contrast to the joy surviving children bring to those who can welcome and love them. A baby held, a grandchild dandled on the lap, first words and steps, a toddler’s explorations and questions help us all rediscover the mystery of life. When Jesus said that only children enter the kingdom, he was describing a world in which every social structure and institution, policy and goal begins with the question, “How will this affect children.” If this were observed, every conflict would be resolved without war, every government would be run by parents, and mothers and children would always come first.

Trading Places

"I must stay at your house today" (Luke 19:6).

Jesus arrives in Jericho after healing the blind man on the way. Word of the miracle has gone ahead, and a huge crowd jams the streets in anticipation of catching a glimpse of this wonder worker and perhaps witnessing another spectacular healing. There will be just that, but not in the way the crowd expects or understands. Jesus’ encounter with the head tax collector, the most despised man in Jericho, will stir up a storm of criticism. Of all the upstanding citizens and respected figures in town, how can the visiting prophet be so politically incorrect as to choose the house of Zacchaeus to stop and share a meal?

Eager to see Jesus but short of stature, Zacchaeus climbs a tree. He sees Jesus and Jesus sees him, a man up in a tree. In a very short time, Jesus will be the man in the tree, crucified for the sins of the world. The encounter, like all of Jesus’ acts of reconciliation and healing, will be a matter of trading places. Zacchaeus is healed and his stature is restored in the community; Jesus will be condemned and expelled as a convicted criminal and heretic. A meal is celebrated at Zacchaeus’ house; Jesus’s sacrificial death for our sake will be forever celebrated in the breaking of the bread.

There is an unbearable richness in every encounter with Jesus. To seek him in our busy, crowded days is also to be sought by him, invited to dine with him, and to become one with him.

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