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Perfect Love

Posted on 07 January 2015 by patmarrin

“There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4:17).

The Incarnation places God so intimately into our lives that there is no going back.

God is revealed as the source of our existence. If you woke up this morning, it is because God continues to will you into existence. Another name for this divine will is love. If you and I are here at all, it is because God loves us.

John’s letters announce the Gospel pure and simple: "God is love, and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him or her." The only thing that can distance us from God is fear. How many people isolate themselves from God and from others by doubting that anyone could ever love them. John is quick to remind us that even our own consciences cannot override our intrinsic lovability in the eyes of God. God never stops loving us. God never stops forgiving us or welcoming us home, no matter how deep our sinfulness or how long we have been away.

A lovely story from Harry Byrne, a Dominican preacher, captures the mystery: When he was a boy he was eager to help his father take down the storm windows. While his dad was at work, he positioned the tall ladder against the house and accidently broke one of the windows. Then he ran away from home. Later that day, his father found him under a tree in a distant neighborhood, brought him home, fed him some soup and put him to bed.

Perfect love drives out all fear. To know all is to love all. This is the joy of the Gospel and why we celebrate Christmas.

"This is my body, broken for you."

Posted on 06 January 2015 by patmarrin

“Give them some food yourselves” (Mark 6:37).

Jesus is depicted in today’s Gospel as the concerned shepherd who looks out at the huge crowd following him and takes pity on them. They are like “sheep without a shepherd,” lost and hungry in the wilderness.

The miracle that happens to feed the huge crowd is as much about the response of the disciples as it is about bread and fish. The disciples are overwhelmed by the logistics of feeding so many, and their first solution is to dismiss the people into the surrounding villages to buy food for themselves. Jesus instead confronts them with the words “Give them some food yourselves.”

Those of us who are well provided for can likewise feel overwhelmed by the many people all around us, even in our modern cities, who suffer from food insecurity. Kansas City has its share of homeless people, families living in cars, in shelters and with relatives. They are dependent on public aid, food pantries and meal programs to help them with food, but often at the cost of their human dignity. The impact this has, especially on children, is incalculable and long term.

While there are many large systems in place to assist hungry people, we are put in a very personal and challenging place by today’s Gospel. Jesus receives our concerns for the poor, in prayer and in our parish communities. But then he looks each one of us in the eye and says, “Give them some food yourself.”

What this might mean for us is the open-ended focus of today’s Word.

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First Light

Posted on 05 January 2015 by patmarrin

"The people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death, light has arisen" (Matt 4:14).

A heart-breaking story unfolded in rural Kentucky this past weekend of an injured, barefoot child who knocked at the door of a house after a small plane had crashed, killing her entire family. She had found her way through the darkness by following a light in the distance. Her survival against such utter loss touches every family.

The story also stirs one of the deepest instincts in all of us: When in crisis, go toward the light. In today's Gospel, Matthew, quoting Isaiah, describes the beginning of Jesus' ministry with the image of a light coming to a people who were in darkness. Jesus is revealed in Galilee as a teacher and healer. Wherever he goes, light flows from him into the lives of everyone he approaches and touches. He is the bright dawn of the New Creation, restoring God's original plan for a world steeped in chaos and lost in the darkness of death.

For those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, the long months of winter cold and darkness test the human spirit and challenge our determination to rise early and face the necessary patterns of life. It is less a matter of heroic survival than just simple duty that keeps us on track, one day at a time, fulfilling our promises, showing up, doing our best.

God rises with us, first in our hearts, then in our presence to others. A man opens his door to a wounded child, and the whole world opens itself to compassion. A thousand faces respond to need, on school buses, in classrooms, hospital emergency rooms, places of business, on the street; and the world is reconstituted in vast webs of care that push back the night, offer a smile and extend a healing hand.

God is in the world, and his love rises with the sun each day to warm our hearts and light our way.

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Star of Wonder

Posted on 03 January 2015 by patmarrin

“They were overjoyed at seeing the star, and on entering the hous they saw the child with Mary his mother” (Matt 2:10).

Matthew’s account of the star of Bethlehem and the three wise men is an example of how a story becomes so compelling and beloved that it must be true. What then follows is the endless debate over fact and myth that has characterized so much of biblical literature. How important is it that a fabulous celestial event occurred in the skies over the Middle East at the time of Jesus’ birth? How essential to Christian faith is the arrival of three gentile witnesses to worship a child revealed as heaven-sent?

Faith comes before proof, and once it teaches us to see anew, the scriptures open us to truths beyond objective verification, realities so deep that perception itself is only the door and not the destination of our enquiring minds. The heart enters a world of wonder where intuition exceeds logic. Ask a child what is true and he or she will raise their arms to be lifted into the embrace of a loving parent. Or a man or woman in love, and they will show you the face of the beloved, fathomless mystery to them though impenetrable to others.

Matthew would be confused if not amused by our paralysis over fact or fiction. His intent was clearly to show that Jesus fulfilled every image and story found in the Hebrew scriptures. The story of Joseph of Egypt is fulfilled in Joseph of Nazareth. The story of Zechariah and Elizabeth fulfills the miraculous conception of Isaac by Abraham and Sarah. Mary’s visit to Bethlehem fulfills the arrival of the Ark and the leaping of King David. The slaughter of the Innocents invokes the cry of Rachael at Rama.

Matthew’s Christmas card glows with layer upon layer of shimmering stories, inviting us to see a light in the sky so brilliant it dispels the shadow of death itself. No news report could contain so much glorious truth in so few words as Matthew gives us today in 12 verses. Our invitation to mature faith begins the moment we sit like eager children in the circle of love itself and ask angels to please tell us another wonderful story.

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The Bones of Our Faith

Posted on 02 January 2015 by patmarrin

"Who are you?" (John 1:19).

Two millennia later, we peer back into the first centuries of the emerging Christian church, suffering persecution from without and dissension within. Just how did so fragile an enterprise survive and take hold to become the basis for today's global Christianity and its 2 billion ahderents?

The question posed in today's gospel reading was first put to John the Baptist. "Who are you?" "Are you Elijah?" "Are you the Prophet?" John tells his Jewish interlocutors that he is only a messenger, sent to prepare for the coming of Another, God's promised messiah. Jesus will later pose the same question to his disciples: "Who do you say that I am?"

Everything we believe as Christians and celebrate in this Christmas season depends upon a the astonishing claim that Jesus of Nazareth is both fully human and fully divine, the Word of God made flesh, the visible face of the invisible God. If Jesus was only a divine being who appeared briefly among us in human guise, then our human nature was not transformed from within. If Jesus was only a charismatic human figure, his claim to bring salvation is only conjecture.

What we rote recite in our faith communities when we say the Creed was up for grabs for over 300 years after the time of Jesus. Only by fierce debate and fragile consensus at the first official church councils did our ancestors find the language to balance the doctrine of Jesus' identity in order to rescue it from what are now seen as heretical views on both sides of the divine-human spectrum.

Today we honor two of the great thinkers of the Eastern church who helped forge that balance, Basil and Gregory, fourth-century bishops in Asia Minor (now Turkey). Historically speaking, without their efforts, there would be no Christian church. The survival of the doctrinal body of the church these past 2,000 years rests on the orthodoxy (bone structure) these early theologians defined an defended.

We share in that balance and the durability of that truth in our membership in the body of Christ, our human brother and divine savior. It is cause for celebration and gratitude. Thanks be to God.

A Year of Favor from the Lord

Posted on 01 January 2015 by patmarrin

“Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” (Luke 2:18).

We mark the start of the New Year by celebrating the motherhood of Mary. As she gave birth to Jesus, the firstborn of the Second Creation, so a whole new era of possibility was born for us all.

The First Creation, stillborn by sin and death, was blocked from its intended journey to the joy and freedom of life with God. Jesus restores the original plan and purpose of human life by his obedience, making it possible for us to know friendship with God.

To see a mother holding her newborn is to see the relationship that most reflects the intimacy that exists between God and every human being. As a baby’s eyes come into focus, the first thing they behold is the face of the mother, gazing lovingly back at them. The image and likeness of God, eternal Mother and Father to us all, is communicated in that lifelong look of love. We learn who we are in that intimate exchange.

Mary also models for us the meaning of discipleship. She is attentive to her son, first in his humanity, but then in the mystery of his divinity. What she conceived and gave birth to, in turn conceives and gives birth to her as she comes to the full realization of her human existence within the life of the Trinity. Mary takes her place with all the baptized as a member of the body of Christ, as our sister in faith, transformed by her sharing in the suffering and death of Jesus so as to share in his glory. As Jesus is the firstfruits of the new creation, so Mary is the firstfruits of the life of the church, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born into the world at Pentecost, the sign of the ongoing harvest of God’s glory, which is the mission of the church.

Mary shows us how to ponder this same mysterious process in our own lives. Every human experience -- especially our suffering and struggles -- can be taken into prayer, our intimate exchange with God, who never ceases to embrace and gaze at us.

We welcome the New Year in that face-to-face communion. Here is everything we need to grow in Christ during the days and months 2015. Let it be a year of grace and favor, our jubilee in God and with one another.

New Year's Eve

Posted on 31 December 2014 by patmarrin

“Children, it is the last hour…” (1 John 2:18).

“In the beginning was the Word …” (John 1:1).

We (in the West) mark the end of 2014 and the start of 2015 at midnight tonight. It is a wholly artificial threshold, but then so is all human reality, imposed on time and space by our collective imagination, neatly tucking chaos into order, randomness into continuity to make a story we call civilization.

All attempts to understand the miracle of existence (like fish discussing the ocean) make a mountain of words, libraries of tomes and scrolls and discs. Like the ancients who believed the universe rested on pillars atop the backs of elephants, we awake each day to a consensual assertion resting on backs of the myths of science and religion that have generated a worldview flowing forward into a formless void called the future, projecting and sustaining itself as it goes.

Perhaps the bedrock of all other stories is the biblical account of creation, containing as it does the origins of language needed to render the essential metaphors that sustain the architecture of meaning that defines human history. That ancient tradition, oral and written, met Greek thought in today’s Gospel, the story of Creation retold by John the Divine in his magnificent prologue: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Absolute pre-existent, eternal Reality is revealed as a Storyteller whose first breath spoke creation, whose ineffable Word and Spirit formed world from nothing, set time on its course so story could unfold freely, past, present, future.

For John, the Incarnation was the second Creation, renewing the first, redirecting it from natural death to eternal life. The Word made flesh is revealed as the template of the original creation and its fulfillment in history toward a divine future. Jesus, crucified by the world, is the first fruit of the harvest of love offered to every heart open to the gift made possible by his self-emptying, our human brother and the divine Son, the firstborn from the dead.

A toast at midnight is in order. A song of gratitude that we are here, that we are at all, leaning out for love and longing for the dream of wholeness that visits us each night, when the whole universe sleeps within the miracle of our thoughts and desires, each one of us the beloved child God has dreamed us to be.

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Prophets and Priests

Posted on 30 December 2014 by patmarrin

"Anna gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem" (Luke 2:38).

Debate continues in the Catholic church over the role of women and, in particular, whether they should be ordained to the priesthood. Based on the scriptures, many New Testament scholars can point to the inclusion of women among Jesus' closest followers, present at his death and given the privilege of being the first witnesses to the resurrection. Many of Paul's house churches were headed by women, and he acknowledges women by name as partners in his missionary efforts to establish new faith communities. Early church sources also indicate that women were ordained as deaconesses.

Historically it is also clear that as the church grew into an organization, it became more patriarchal and hierarchical, citing Gospel texts to show Jesus choosing 12 men to be his Apostles, seen as the forerunners of bishops who ordained other bishops and priests in a succession of offices that became the basis for today's male church leadership.

Proponents of a female priesthood argue that this very selective history and interpretation of the scriptures has been used to lock in a power structure and theology that serve the status quo while excluding half the membership of the church from leadership. They say this continues to embarrass the church as one of the last hold-outs in a world that recognizes gender equality as a justice issue. Full recognition of women's gifts and rights, they argue, is a key to both evangelization and effective ministry for a church facing a loss of credibility and a serious clergy shortage.

Today's Gospel offers a model of a woman recognized as a prophetess. Anna, together with Simeon, welcomed and blessed the child Jesus in the temple. While not resolving any of the issues being debated theologically and historically about women's ordination, Anna represents another significant form of leadership -- that of prophetic ministry to call the church beyond legal and official structures to follow the Spirit in adapting the church to changing circumstances.

As Anna shows, all ministry is essentially about welcoming and sharing Jesus. Virtually every other aspect of the church has changed to meet new needs. The freedom of the Spirit to breathe life into church structures is the equivalent of new wine requiring new wine skins. The gift of prophecy is being given freely in today's church. There are many Annas holding up Jesus and asking the church to be open to where and how Jesus wants his followers to grow in order to more effectively carry out his mission of mercy and justice in the world.

Hold Fast to Your Dreams

Posted on 29 December 2014 by patmarrin

“Lord, now let your servant go in peace; your word has been fulfilled" (Luke 2:29).

The song "I Dreamed a Dream," from the stage play "Les Misérables" struck a deep chord in millions of people because we all have dreams. No matter how hard life gets, we come back to those dreams to find our way into the future. A dream pursued becomes a promise, and that promise becomes the map of our journey through life.

The Canticle of Simeon connects Jesus to the ancient promise made to Israell that God would send a savior. Simeon, an old man, has waited for decades to see this day. The Holy Spirit revealed to him that the poor couple waiting to make an offering of two turtledoves as they presented their firstborn to God were carrying in their arms the salvation of Israel.

Simeon saw his life's purpose in witnessing to this moment, and when it was fulfilled, he prayed, "Lord, now you can dismiss your servant in peace." Simeon can now die happy, for his dream had come true, and what was promised to him had been given. As a wisdom figure, he fulfilled what the prophet Joel had written, that "young men will see visions and old men dreams." Bringing all the wisdom of one who has waited his entire life, Simeon was able to take the dream of Abraham and project it into the future.

Isn't this what we also must do -- remember the dreams that take form in our experience of life -- and instead of letting them fade or rejecting them as too idealistic, revive them as promises of what is to come. If faith means anything it is that God keeps promises, and so must we if we are to complete the trajectory of our lives and bring to fruition the gifts God has given us.

Hold fast to your dreams, for in them lie the promises God is making to you each day. Jesus represents the essence of how human life is meant to be lived. By imitating (following) him, we will fulfill our purpose on earth and find our way to heaven.

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Welcome to the Holy Family

Posted on 27 December 2014 by patmarrin

“The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40).

It has been said that it takes a village to raise a child. Today’s Gospel from Luke gives us a glimpse at the many people who were part of the formation of Jesus. Though he was God, his human development occurred naturally and socially within the tribal and family mores of a first-century Jewish child, in village life and within the spiritual and liturgical life of Israel.

Mary and Joseph were his first and most important teachers, in the home and in Joseph’s trade, among extended family and neighbors in the town of Nazareth. They went to synagogue each Sabbath and there Jesus heard the texts and prayers from the scrolls. They made the first of many pilgrimages to Jerusalem when Jesus was presented in the Temple. Simeon and Anna, prophets and elders, held the child, blessed him and sang of the mystery of his birth as fulfilling salvation history. Surrounded by stories, a deep culture, history itself, Jesus grew up. His ordinary human experiences were the crucible in which his personality and unfolding sense of purpose took form.

The Feast of the Holy Family reminds us that all personal formation is communal. Nature and nurture, modeling and mentoring are part of the process that calls forth each person to take their place and find their vocation in the world. Today’s celebration reminds parents of the responsibility they bear to provide a safe and loving environment for their children, to determine which influences in the larger culture they will expose them to and what example they will give. The challenges of parenting are many, but it is evident that stability and discipline, love and trust are essential to child development and responsible living.

While Jesus is in many ways like every child, we acknowledge that something radical and spiritually intense was taking place within him and in his family as he grew to maturity. We know nothing of his adolescent or early adult years, but we can imagine the struggles he faced as he came of age and integrated his emotional, intellectual and sexual identity into his personality and sense of mission. The scriptures tell us he "learned obedience through suffering" and experienced every human temptation. The "hidden" years of his life invite us to imagine all the experiences that produced the adult Jesus we meet at age 30, driven by a strong sense of justice, deep compassion for the poor and a fearless commitment to telling the truth. How does any person come to this maturity without exposure to all aspects of life, including frustration, failure and conflict?

God’s favor is upon each of as we also struggle to integrate our lives around the call to live purposefully and authentically. The Holy Spirit whispers in every heart, directs every human desire toward some human good, however long it takes us to learn how to be deliberate and honest about the effect of our words and actions have on others. No one comes to maturity without making mistakes and learning from them, being hurt and hurting others, giving and asking forgiveness, falling down and getting back up again.

God is an intimate part of the process of all human development. This is the joy of the Gospel and the meaning of the Incarnation. Jesus became human so that we might also become human on our way to our divine destiny, life in the Holy Family of God.