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The Poor: Our Lifeline to God

Posted on 05 March 2015 by patmarrin

“Father Abraham, have pity on me” (Luke 16:25).

Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino, who knew Archbishop Oscar Romero personally and advised him on theological questions, said the secret of his spirituality was his encounter with God in the poor. This profound insight, expressed at the regional bishops meeting in Medellin, Colombia, in 1968, as “God’s preferential option for the poor,” became the foundation of Romero’s theology and his understanding of church, not just as an idea but because he was experiencing it in his pastoral visits to the defenseless campesino communities suffering such violence in El Salvador.

Sobrino says that when Romero was with the base communities, “the poor fairly swarmed around them. He took them to his heart, and they were there to stay. And they took him to their hearts, where he has remained to this day” (Witnesses to the Kingdom, Orbis, 2003, p. 20).

Romero’s “conversion,” Sobrino reflects, was to discover a new image of God -- One who accompanies the poor, entering their innocence, their vulnerability and suffering. From the notion of a distant, powerful God, Romero met the self-emptying, self-sacrificing God in the midst of his beloved people, a God who becomes poor, accepting the fate of the "crucified peoples of history."

It is a conversion of mind and heart we are all invited to make this Lent. The story in today's Gospel of the poor man Lazarus, lying hungry and destitute at the rich man’s doorstep, warns us that the gap we put between ourselves and our suffering brothers and sisters in this world will define our eternity. If we do not recognize, know and love God in the poor now, we will not recognize God when we come face to face with him at the judgment. The story, like the call to serve the poor in Matt 25, the parable of the last judgment, is not just a call to help the poor, but a warning to save our own lives by seeing God in the least of our brothers and sisters while we have the chance to love and serve them.

Romero came alive in a new and deeper way because of his relationship with the poor in El Salvador. He is both a saint and martyr because he now witnesses to all of us that this is the path to life, the one place we are bound to find God, in this life and in the next.


Be Ready

Posted on 04 March 2015 by patmarrin

“You do not know what you are asking” (Matt 20:22).

Indeed, the mother of James and John, prompted by her sons’ ambitions, does not know what she is asking when she presses Jesus to place them on his right and left in his kingdom. Jesus had just told the group that when they arrive in Jerusalem he will be arrested, mocked and executed. On his right and left will be two thieves, crucified with him.

During Lent we pray to fulfill our Christian vocations. Do we know what we are asking? To be baptized is to enter into the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. We do not know how this will happen, but we are asking for it.

For most of us, our dying with Christ will not be dramatic or public, as it was for most of the Apostles, and for many other martyrs down through history. But the daily dying to self by serving others, surrendering our time, energy, personal preferences to respond to the needs of others, is sure to happen. Such self-emptying defines the lives of parents, teachers, social workers, ministers or all kinds, and anyone who consciously says “Yes” to God each morning. “Here I am; I come to do your will.”

Martyrdom, or witness, big M or little m, is built into Christian discipleship. Once we decide to follow Jesus, we open ourselves to his daily invitation to lay down our lives for others. For most, it will be ordinary, cumulative and anonymous. But God sees the heart, and God knows who is available for service in any given moment or circumstance. Be ready. Today may be your day to say, “Yes, I knew exactly what I was asking for.”


Posted on 03 March 2015 by patmarrin

“They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them” (Matt 23:3).

At the time of the Synod on the Family in Rome last October, it seemed evident to many observers that some bishops who spoke loudest about the indissolubility of marriage, exclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics from communion and absolute adherence to rules regarding artificial contraception, were speaking from some transcendent, academic world far from the actual experience of marriage.

Pope Francis made clear that he was not asking the bishops to abandon traditional ideals, but to consider the real problems millions of Catholics were facing and to ask how church teaching could be more effectively and compassionately applied at the pastoral level. At the same time, the pope was challenging bishops who seemed focused on ecclesiastical rank and privilege to consider their primary roles as pastors among their people, especially those who felt lost and alienated from their church.

In today’s Gospel, we hear echoes of Jesus’ criticism of the religious leaders of his own time. The scribes and Pharisees were demanding minute and literal observance of the Law by ordinary people without helping them navigate its hundreds of ritual and moral obligations. They touted their own perfection, seeking public honors, titles and signs of respect. Jesus reminded them that we are all equal in the sight of God, who knows our hearts and raises up the humble.

Jesus cautioned his disciples that leadership was always about service. They were not to lord it over others or burden them, but to serve them and take their burdens on themselves. Where structures and rules were necessary, they should be applied with patience and the reality that people grow gradually toward maturity and its ideals. Everyone, including the leaders, was a work in progress.

What Jesus is describing is a church of mercy, a family in which the strong support the weak, a house that welcomes everyone and where forgiveness is the rule and not the exception. The call to love has always been more difficult than legal perfection. We never arrive at perfection in love; we can only keep trying, asking for and giving forgiveness along the way. But this is the community Jesus modeled and continues to guide as our crucified and risen Lord.


Full Measure, Pressed Down, Overflowing

Posted on 02 March 2015 by patmarrin

"The measure with which you measure will be measured out to you" (Luke 6:38).

Jesus often used common sayings to show that morality was based on essential "laws of life." We reap what we sow. Do unto others as you have them do unto you. What goes around comes around. Don't judge others and you won't be judged.

A stingy person will invoke the same response from others. A generous person will be treated generously. A judgmental person will impose the same judgment on himself, which is why the cranky perfectionist is often hardest on herself. The underlying dynamic goes back to the first and most basic commandment to love God, the source of all good, and to love our neighbor as we are being loved. In relationship with God, we overflow with love and are moved to give what we have received.

The imagery is helpful. Think the measuring cups in your kitchen, ranging from a full cup to an eighth of a cup. Imagine choosing each morning to take one of the cups with you that day to determine just how much love, patience, time and help you will measure out to others. Why not take the full cup? The quality of our day lies in this simple choice.

God So Loved the World

Posted on 28 February 2015 by patmarrin

“They kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant” (Mark 9:10).

Three theophanies, or revelations of who Jesus really is, occur in the Gospels. The first is Jesus’ baptism, the second is today’s account of the transfiguration, and the third is Jesus’ death on the cross. Each event is clothed in mystery and is unintelligible without faith. The Gospel writers layer these three moments with earlier scripture passages to show that Jesus is fulfilling his mission to overcome sin and death with the liberating power of love.

At his baptism, Jesus comes up out of the waters that symbolize the passage through the Red Sea at the Exodus of God’s people from slavery.

The transfiguration brilliantly backlights the story of salvation and shows Jesus discussing with Moses and Elijah how his suffering will fulfill the Law and Prophets.

On Calvary, Jesus will complete his salvific work by offering himself as the Passover lamb by taking on himself the sins of the world.

To this theological tour de force the Lectionary for today’s Second Sunday of Lent adds the moving story from Genesis of Abraham and Isaac. With deliberate pathos, the narrative paces out the journey of father and son, the boy carrying the wood on his shoulders, asking his father where the animal of sacrifice is. Abraham tells him that “God will provide.”

The story, scripture scholars say, serves to put an end to human sacrifice, a common practice among ancient peoples. It also establishes the absolute faith of Abraham, the founding father of the people of the Covenant. The story sets the stage for another sacrifice, another moving dialogue between Father and Son, the weight of wood on the shoulders of one who is totally innocent to a place of sacrifice. But with one stark difference. Jesus, the only Son of God, is not spared, but goes to his death.

The death of Jesus should stun us, as would a different end to the story in Genesis -- the death of Isaac at the hand of his own father instead of a last-minute reprieve. Jesus empties himself to the last drop of his blood and his last breath on the cross. In the silence of his death only the eyes of faith can see the third theophany: “God so loved the world that he did not spare his only Son …” (John 3:16).

We ponder this offering, the most difficult mystery in the whole Christian story. How many theologies try to explain how God entered our history in the flesh to take upon himself the burden of human sin in order to liberate us, even while we were sinners, from our fatal estrangement from the source of Life? What are we to make of this terrible mystery?

We journey together through Lent, and like the disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration, we must enter the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the only way forward and, for us, confronts us with the question on which hangs our own salvation.


The Last Penny

Posted on 27 February 2015 by patmarrin

“Leave your gift at the altar, go and be reconciled first” (Matt 5:23).

As I parked my car this morning, I found a penny by the back wheel. It was well worn and corroded with road salt and looked like it had been run over more than once. Remembering my father’s word to always pick up a “lucky penny,” I brought it with me to my office, washed it off to show the familiar profile of Abe Lincoln and the date, 1997, the year I first came to work here.

It seems to have some bearing for me on today’s Gospel, which ends with the words of Jesus, “Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.” He is speaking about reconciliation. Settle your differences early, before they take root and nurture estrangement, or become part of the endless self-justification we use to defend ourselves in conflict. Jesus compares this to going to court over a quarrel that could have been resolved on the way, going before a judge and ending up in a prison cell until you pay a fine to the last penny. Even a penny becomes a heavy burden if it represents the corrosive power of resentment.

Jesus says that unresolved conflicts should be taken care of before we come to worship. In fact, experience shows how we often cannot pray if we have not forgiven others first. Our relationship with God is inseparable from our relationships with everyone else.

A penny comes unexpectedly like a small grace to remind me that the first work of spiritual growth is often the most obvious and the most difficult. Settle your differences, be reconciled, set yourself and others free. Liberty. In God We Trust.

The School of Prayer

Posted on 26 February 2015 by patmarrin

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt 7:7).

Two students go off to school. One is filled with curiosity, asks lots of questions, pursues the resources and people who can help him. The other moves through the program passively, receiving what it offers. Both graduate, one with skills for life-long learning and an expanding knowledge of the world. The other waits to be told what to do, accepting what limits and opportunities life affords.

Prayer is a school that invites us to enter the immense mystery of God. What we learn depends on how deeply we pursue a relationship with God, engage in daily conversation and problem solving with intimate trust that God is with us, constantly teaching us through the ordinary experiences of our lives.

Jesus challenges his disciples to pray beyond formula words and ritual habits, but in steady, active encounter with the Abba, the Source of all life and our Companion in this world. Friendship with God is the goal of prayer, and in that friendship all other prayers — for things, outcomes, meaning and purpose — are answered, opened and found.

The perfect prayer is simply, “Lord, I want to be with you.” The disciples who followed Jesus found an adventure that took them to the heights of joy and the depths of sorrow, with every ordinary experience in between. There must have been days when they felt filled to capacity, other days empty and confused. But as long as they remained with Jesus, they were living and growing ever more deeply in union with God, which, in the end, is all that really matters.


The Sign of Jonah

Posted on 25 February 2015 by patmarrin

“This generation seeks a sign, but no sign will be given it, except the sign of Jonah” (Luke 11:29).

The story of Jonah was a comic jab at super-righteous people who refused to entertain the possibility that God’s covenant could extend beyond the “Chosen People,” to include even their enemies. Jonah, the reluctant prophet, barely whispers the call to repentance in Nineveh, the capital of ancient Assyria, and the entire nation falls to its knees. Jonah, who wants Nineveh to be destroyed, complains to God, who teaches him a lesson about divine mercy.

Jesus refers to this story to compare the dramatic repentance of the Assyrians to the resistance of his own audience of Jewish believers. They have more than Jonah preaching to them. They have more than even the wisdom of Solomon, who converted the queen of Ethiopia. They have God’s messenger and servant in their midst, warning them to repent, and yet they refuse to listen.

Lent is our time to get serious and deliberate about renewing out prayer life, changing habits that distract or prevent us from doing God’s will as we come to know it. We have even more resources than the people of Jesus’ time. We have the example of Jesus and the saints, the sacraments, the community and the larger view of salvation history to teach us how to live faithful lives.

If you are reading this, it is because you have been invited to read the daily scriptures and to orient your live around the Word of God. It is an unfailing guide that will bring you closer to God, who is rich in mercy to all who long to see the divine Face.


Spiritual Maintenance

Posted on 24 February 2015 by patmarrin

“This is how you are to pray …” (Matt 6:9).

One of the problems homeowners face during an especially cold winter is the nightmare of frozen pipes. Pressure builds, pipes burst and water flows inside walls and ceilings.

Any kind of system delivering a constant flow in and out requires care and maintenance. The human body, with its intricate circulatory and fluid exchange systems is endangered by blockages and malfunction that must be quickly addressed and fixed.

When Jesus teaches his disciples the “Our Father” he is really telling them how to maintain the natural flow of God’s grace into their lives. The secret of prayer is first to remember that God is the source of all that is good. We exist and flourish in union with God, whose will for us is the fullness of life.

But God’s love can flow to us only if it flows through us to others. The way to assure that we will continue to receive God’s mercy is to constantly give it away. As soon as we start holding back forgiveness, God’s forgiveness to us is blocked. As soon as we start judging who is worthy or unworthy of our love, the same narrowness slows and impedes God’s love from entering our lives. The measure of our giving is the measure of our receiving.

Spiritual blockage, hardening of the arteries, frozen pipes and narrow judgment prevent us from sharing in the abundant flow of God’s life to us and through us.

Jesus the carpenter may also do a bit of plumbing on the side. We turn to him for mercy when we are feeling spiritually heavy and slow to respond in love. Saying the Our Father often is one form of maintenance. Love and forgiveness are the most natural things we can do, both for others and for ourselves.


Called to Do More

Posted on 23 February 2015 by patmarrin

"When did we see you hungry or thirsty, or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?” (Matt 25:45).

Jesus fulfills the 10 commandments by taking them beyond law and order to unconditional love.

The original commandments given to Moses affirmed the need for right relationships in the community. Based on the golden rule, they preserved mutual self-interest: Treat others the way you want to be treated and society will run smoothly and fairly.

But Jesus invites his disciples to the next level, to show concern for the weakest members of the community. Give freely to those who cannot repay you, and thus you will imitate the heavenly Father, whose unconditional love is poured out on everyone.

It is perhaps not surprising that at the judgment, many law-abiding people are surprised. They thought they had met all their obligations under the commandments. Those who speak of the “deserving poor” or “welfare to work” to justify limiting help as a form of “tough love” that promotes “self-help” are using language that blames those in need and excuses the self-sufficient from feeling compassion for them.

The Corporal Works of Mercy, like the Beatitudes, call us beyond logic to a place of paradox, where God lies hidden in the raw desperation of the poor, those whose immediate circumstances render them unable to help themselves or to pay you back; the hungry, thirsty, naked, the alien, those sick or in prison. God waits in these least ones, whom Jesus calls our brothers and sisters.

It was often said that there is no salvation outside the church. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that there is no salvation outside the poor. Our response to them, when all is revealed, will be the measure of our own relationship with God. It is bracing challenge, but one we must grapple with and respond to as disciples. Lent is a good time to take this challenge into prayer.