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Defined by Rejection

Posted on 04 July 2015 by patmarrin

“They took offense at him” (Mark 6:4).

If you use Facebook, you know that one goal is to have as many “friends” as possible. Etiquette guides now address the thorny topic of how to “unfriend” someone or just ignore a friend request without needing to explain why.

Our friends affirm who we are, at least to them, and can build up our self-image, real or illusory, and make us feel good. But it is our opponents and enemies who really define our values. Rejection forces us to examine our ideas and assumptions. It challenges us to either strengthen our positions or adjust them to valid criticism. People open to contrary views and willing to investigate and negotiate other viewpoints learn and grow to maturity much faster than people who dig in and fight back as their only recourse.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus is shunned by his hometown relatives and neighbors because he claims to be more than they think he is and because he quotes the proverb about prophets being welcome everywhere except in their own native places. (Every celebrity homecoming is fraught with this kind of affront and often subtle pushback: “Just who do you think you are, sonny boy?”)

Even after Jesus has dazzled them with his wisdom and graciousness in the synagogue, they are still offended by his apparent presumptuousness. Mark says that their rejection sours any trust they might have in his healing powers, and without their faith, Jesus is unable to work many miracles at Nazareth.

Yet, for Mark, it is rejection and hostility that will define Jesus’ message of unconditional love and forgiveness. It is his enemies, especially official church leaders, representatives from Herod’s palace and the Roman occupation who will reveal how radical and liberating the Good News of the Kingdom of God really is. As Jesus heads south to Jerusalem, he will encounter both wild adulation from the crowds and a growing suspicion by the Temple establishment. In the end, rejection will win out over acceptance and Jesus will be crucified as a heretic and agitator.

Remarkably, his death as a victim of rejection reveals the heart of God’s unconditional love. Jesus dies to save his enemies, to befriend those who have resisted his call to life-giving conversion. The Gospel reveals a God who rejects our rejection and continues to love sinners and forgive his enemies. God offers life beyond our narrow, small selves cut off from him and therefore destined to die. Hanging on the cross, Jesus is the heart-breaking sign of God’s absolute love for the world that rejected and murdered him. This is the paradox at the heart of the Gospel.

Our lives are destined for friendship. Rejection of itself is hurtful and sinful. But if we are to imitate Jesus, we must be ready to go forward in love even when others resist and reject us. The Eucharist is our food for the journey. The bread broken and the cup shared are the sign of our discipleship and what gives us the strength we will need to complete it faithful to the Gospel.

The Body of Jesus

Posted on 03 July 2015 by patmarrin

"Jesus said, 'Peace be with you." Then he said to Thomas, 'Put your finger here ...'" (John 20:27).

Today is the feast of St. Thomas, Apostle. We should not underestimate the importance to the early church and to us that the Gospels hold up this skeptic as a true disciple. Through Thomas, generations of believers have felt invited to bring their questions and even their doubts to their understanding of the Gospel message and to Jesus in prayer.

Why do the evangelists present the physical reality of the risen body of Jesus with such graphic intensity? Their accounts are filled with images of Jesus showing his disciples his wounded hands, feet and side. They include scenes in which Jesus lets the women grasp his feet, or he eats fish and invites Thomas to touch him. There is also something mysterious about these accounts -- Jesus often appears as a stranger they recognize only with eyes of faith, or he passes through locked doors.

These powerful stories were likely composed to reassure believers a generation after the fact that the risen Christ was not a ghost, but real and, most importantly, still accessible and moving among them through his Holy Spirit, especially when they met for Eucharist.

The emphasis on his body seems crucial to affirming an even greater truth revealed by the death and resurrection of Jesus, namely that something decisive has happened within creation itself that opens up the future to all of us in hope. A new Creation is now unfolding in the shell of the old creation, so damaged by sin and subject to death. Disciples experience this newness by being baptized, literally "incorporated" into the risen body of Christ.

Communities of faith are bound together intimately as members of the same body, in Communion with God and one another. And because they share Jesus' life, they are destined to live forever in God. Like the first encounters with the risen Christ, faith is necessary, for we experience this mystery sacramentally, that is, through signs we must interpret in our "hidden" lives in Christ.

This does not happen automatically. Union with Christ is a lifelong process of accepting the pattern of his death and resurrection. This "paschal mystery," our commitment to die to ourselves in order to live more deeply in the community, is how we imitate Jesus, who emptied himself into us, by emptying ourselves into one another by our love, compassion and forgiveness.

The story of Thomas invites us to believe that the wounded body of Christ is in the world now, and that every time we reach out to touch the bodies of the poor and the suffering, we are in direct contact with Jesus. The same Jesus who breathed over his disciples, showed them his wounds, ate with them, is present at every Eucharist. He gives us his shalom, a peace already fixed in eternity, unshakable by any worldly calamity, loss or personal suffering.

Thank you, Thomas, for encouraging us to ask for proof of this amazing life. For what he received from Jesus was not a clinical examination of the holes in his hands or the cleft in his side, because this was no longer necessary. He was brought into direct encounter with God in Jesus, a theophany that brought him to his knees in astonishment and adoration.

Thomas invites us to ask for no less, and to expect that Jesus will reveal himself to us as well as we grow in faith. This is the joy of the Gospel.

Rise Up and Walk

Posted on 02 July 2015 by patmarrin

"I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living" (Ps 115).

We form our beliefs based on our experience. We see that good people, innocent of serious sin, get sick and die. Therefore, however we understand the moral equation that defines the relationship between how we live and what God allows to happen to us, we know that bad things happen to good people.

So what is at issue as we live, act and pray is who we think God is and what God wants for us. Today's readings are both powerful stories that address this question. Abraham learns that God does not want him to sacrifice Isaac. In the Gospel, the crowd witnesses Jesus address the belief that illness was somehow tied to sin in the paralyzed man. By both forgiving and healing the man, Jesus takes God out of the equation and says that the "Son of Man," (i.e., humanity) has the power to restore the paralyzed sinner to health and to the community. This is a shock to the crowd and heresy to the scribes, who hold that only God can forgive sins.

Thus, Jesus affirms, God, formerly seen as withholding healing and forgiveness, is not a spiteful judge but the source of all that is good for his children. This is the heart of Jesus' preaching. God, his Abba, is always on the side of life. The Father’s love is always present and limitless, even for sinners. Those who entrust themselves to God’s love will always "walk in God's presence in the land of the living" even as they endure life's inevitable and ordinary losses and trials.

By calling for a Holy Year of Mercy, Pope Francis has invited the whole church -- all of us -- to go through a revolution of the heart. What if we really believed that God's name is Mercy, that God never withholds healing or forgiveness? Then we would have to do the same with ourselves and one another. How many of our brothers and sisters live imprisoned and paralyzed by self-rejection and fear, not because of God but because of our attitudes toward them? How many damaged souls await four strong friends filled with faith to carry them to Jesus? You or I might be one of them, or the sinner in need of mercy.

If we respond to this challenge, we will surely know the joy of the Gospel.

Holiness and History

Posted on 01 July 2015 by patmarrin

Holiness and History
"The whole town came out to meet Jesus, and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their district" (Matt 8:34).

Today's liturgy honors Blessed Junípero Serra, an 18th century Spanish Franciscan missionary in Mexico and what is now the U.S. Southwest. He will be canonized when Pope Francis visits the United States in September. Expect news of this to include controversies about the impact of Catholic evangelization on the native populations who fell under the Spanish conquest of the "New World" in the 16th century.

Critics of the canonization say Serra participated in the destruction of indigenous cultures as just one regional example of the much larger history of the collision between European settlers and native peoples already here. Supporters of Serra say that he was a courageous evangelist who sought to ameliorate the suffering of the displaced and abused native peoples, a role similar to that of Dominican Friar Bartolomé de las Casas, who advocated for the essential humanity and dignity of the conquered and enslaved natives under Spanish rule. Both men were embedded in their own time and culture, yet they understood and worked against the prejudices that dehumanized the victims of the European expansion.

The focus on Serra will show once again that canonization is often less about an individual than about some broader example the church's mission to extend the Gospel, however gradually or imperfectly it is lived out in any given time.

Today's readings hint at the same themes in the Bible itself. Abraham, honored as the “Father of the Faith,” was a polygamist who abandoned his mistress Hagar and their child Ishmael when his chosen heir, Isaac, was born to his wife, Sara. We see Abraham in his ancient setting and praise his obedience, not behaviors we would reject by today's standards.

In the reading from Matthew, Jesus is begged to leave the territory of the Gadarenes for expelling the spirits of two demoniacs into a "legion" of swine that rushes over the cliff into the sea and is drowned. The story’s imagery suggests that this refers to the Roman colony and military control of the region. The kingdom of God Jesus is preaching will overcome even the empire. Three centuries later, under Emperor Constantine, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, itself a complex example of cultural conquest at a cost.

Evangelization occurs in history. Perhaps the best example of true enculturation is how the indigenous peoples of Mexico subverted and redefined European Mariology to produce Our Lady of Guadalupe, a pregnant Mestiza princess as their Protectress and Mother.

Another example, depicted powerfully in the film “Amistad,” is how a group of escaped slaves convinced Boston abolitionists of their humanity by identifying their suffering with that of Jesus in the images of a Bible they had deciphered. The themes of Exodus, suffering servant and crucified Jesus came to define the African American Christian churches. The liberation of the Gospel became a moving force for the Civil Rights Movement. Out of tragedy came the profound tradition of nonviolent pursuit of justice evidenced recently in Charleston.

There is much to reflect on here, but isn't this what it means to be “formed by the Word of God”?

Always Go Forward

Posted on 30 June 2015 by patmarrin

"Don't look back" (Gen 19:18).

The famous story of Lot's flight from Sodom and Gomorrah includes the startling detail of his wife looking back and being turned into a pillar of salt. Scholars say this was to identify the geographic terrain marked by salt formations, but the story holds our imaginations for its depiction of the consequences of hesitation in a time of crisis.

The phrase "Don't look back" is found in the Gospels when Jesus warns potential disciples to put their hand to the plow and not look back. It entered popular culture as one of the "rules for life" from baseball legend Satchel Paige: "Don't look back; it might be gaining on you!"

The idea we are to go forward through life, through any storm, is also found in today's Gospel. The disciples are crossing the lake as Jesus sleeps on a cushion in the back of the boat. A squall comes up and threatens to swamp them. Jesus rebukes them for their lack of faith, then calms the storm.

In his short novel, Typhoon, Joseph Conrad powerfully depicts the stolid, practical captain of a freighter caught in a killer storm in the straits of Formosa who puts aside his navigation guides and follows his instinct to go through the crisis rather than around, thus saving the ship, crew and passengers.

What stormy crossing or dangerous passage are you facing in your life? It could be a difficult decision, a challenge to go against convention, a moment when you risk everything to choose a new course toward greater integrity and freedom. Whatever we face, the Gospels counsel courage and faith. "Don't be afraid. Go forward. Don't look back."


Peter and Paul and You

Posted on 29 June 2015 by patmarrin

"Who do you say that I am?"

Like all other figures in the New Testament, including the Blessed Virgin Mary, Peter and Paul received their holiness and significance from their relationships with Jesus. He is the touchstone and source of our encounter with God, and only by our incorporation through baptism and faith into him as Incarnate Word are we transformed and destined for life with God.

This is important to remember, because as the early church became institutionalized, the authority of Peter and Paul became more a matter of the debate over the primacy of the church at Rome among the other centers of church life in Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch. To preserve the unity of the church, Rome claimed leadership based on the probable fact that both Peter and Paul were martyred and buried there. Therefore the bishop of Rome held special rank among other church leaders to decide doctrinal and disciplinary disputes.

Today's feast of St. Peter and St. Paul celebrates this belief, which is the basis for Pope Francis' extraordinary moral authority as the voice for the global Catholic church. At the same time, Francis has sought to promote unity among all the Christian communions by referring to himself as simply the bishop of Rome. This opens the door to deeper respect among the churches and more dialogue toward intra-Catholic unity and ecumenical solidarity.

Francis has also made clear that the central focus of all church identity and activity is Jesus himself. Knowing and growing into the life of Jesus, the crucified and risen Christ now present in history, is the only source of grace we have. No ecclesiastical rank or office or charism elevates any church member above the common dignity of baptism.

The holiest person alive in the world today is the one who has entered full intimacy with Christ in faith and in their imitation of his life of sacrifice and service. This could be man or woman or child, or even an "anonymous Christian" somewhere outside the formal church but filled with the life of God in a baptism of desire or blood because of their longing to know the truth and to live a just and loving life. Only God knows who this person is.

We honor Peter and Paul by responding to the same invitation they embraced, to draw close to the mystery of God in human form that was revealed in Jesus and today is being revealed in other profound human experiences, the most authenticating one being martyrdom.

Perhaps we have witnessed this most powerfully in recent days in the nine church members murdered during Bible Sunday in Charleston, South Carolina. Their witness is the rock on which the Christian faith depends, what enabled them to withstand the assault of hatred and fear from the very gates of hell. We have all seen Jesus in them and can find strength in their example.

"Who Touched Me?"

Posted on 27 June 2015 by patmarrin

“Please, come and lay your hands on [us] that [we] may get well and live” (Mark 8:23).

Today’s Gospel about the healing of the woman with blood issue and the raising of the dead girl intersects multiple themes Mark emphasizes to show the revolutionary nature of Jesus’ ministry.

First, this is a story about Jesus’ direct challenge to religious laws separating everything and everyone into clean and unclean, pure and impure. The encounters in today’s reading follow the story of the cleansing of a leper, so Jesus (or Mark) is on a roll. In each instance, Jesus touches or is touched by something legally unclean.

The woman who pushes through the crowd to touch the tassel of his cloak contaminates him with her menstrual blood. Jesus touches a dead body when he takes the little girl by the hand in the house of the synagogue official. In each case, compassion trumps legalism. For where there is love, nothing is untouchable, and reality cannot be divided into good or bad, clean or unclean. The synagogue official in this story is important, because the local synagogue was where such rules were taught and enforced.

Second, this is a story about faith. Jesus does not work miracles to demonstrate his power, but to show that when God’s life-giving love meets total human trust, grace flows freely into our lives.

The woman in the crowd, desperate for healing after having exhausted all her means on the limited remedies offered by doctors, believes with all her heart that Jesus is filled with God’s life. She risks public shaming to fight her way through the crowd, sure that even to touch his clothing will heal her. Her faith taps into the source of life always present in Jesus. He does not initiate the miracle, and he is only aware that it has occurred when he feels the life force flow from him into whoever has just touched him with profound faith.

The official, informed that his daughter is already dead, falters. Jesus immediately tells him not to lose faith, for his faith is essential to the miracle. Jesus takes the little girl by the hand and summons her back to life. "Rise up." This miracle foreshadows the resurrection that will make eternal life available to all believers, and Jesus’ request that the parents give her something to eat foreshadows the Eucharist that is inseparable from the promise of resurrection for the members of the early church Mark is writing for.

Third, this double miracle clearly affirms Jesus' extraordinary regard for women as life givers, challenging a culture that gave women little respect apart from their role to satisfy men’s sexual needs and bear their children. Jesus blesses both of these women, one at the very start of her adult life and the other dying at the end of hers. The pulse of life flowing through Jesus’ human body and blood, flush with the promise of transcendent life, revives and restarts the lives of both women. The mystery of creation they carry is essential to the Good News Jesus is preaching and demonstrating to everyone who touches or is touched by him.

We are invited to touch and be touched by Jesus at Eucharist, in the Communion we receive and in the human embrace of our communities of faith. Our blood should quicken and our bodies thrill at this encounter we renew each time we gather to break open the word and share the bread and the cup that is Jesus’ powerful presence with us now. "Do not be afraid, just have faith."

Holy Compassion

Posted on 26 June 2015 by patmarrin

“Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean.”

After a stern lecture from her parents about picking good friends at school because “bad children can influence good children to be bad,” their daughter asked, “Can good children influence bad children to be good?”

Jesus raises the question of reverse contamination by his example of eating with sinners and touching lepers. In today’s Gospel, the leper reveals his deepest fear and suffering — that not only is he afflicted with a loathsome disease, but good people have decided it is somehow his own fault or the result of sin, so they will have nothing to do with him. The leper approaches Jesus wondering if perhaps even he will refuse to heal him. “Lord, if you wish…” contains the option, “you may not wish to heal me.”

People in trouble with illness, addiction or personality problems become social lepers. It is as though others, even family members, fear that if they get too close to them, their problems will someone jump onto them, contaminate their virtuous, disciplined and moral lives. We define whole classes of people, including the poor, ex-convicts, recovering addicts, or anyone who has made some mistake in their past, as worthy of avoidance. We add isolation to their suffering, depriving them of help and hope.

The reality is that all of us have our troubles, our weaknesses, though some can hide them better than others. There are no purely bad (or good) children, but only real individuals who are works in progress, each on their own learning curve. The truth is that most virtuous people get there by making mistakes. Compassion is born of personal failure, which inspires us to understand and accept others who have made the same mistakes we have made. Pope Francis has grounded his call for a church of mercy on the admission that he himself is a sinner in need of forgiveness.

Jesus wants to make us clean, but not with a purity based on a "perfection" that separates or elevates us from other people. He immersed himself in the human condition, was like us in all things, knew every temptation and weakness, but without sin. We follow him by accepting ourselves, then others, for who we all actually are, sinners on the way to holiness and compassion. This is the joy and freedom of the Gospel.

The House of God

Posted on 25 June 2015 by patmarrin

“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” (Matt 7:25).

The image of building a house is a biblical metaphor for legacy. In the ancient world, progeny was the sign of blessing, since your children are how you extended your memory and influence into the future. The story of Abraham illustrates this, and the “house of Abraham” promised by God extends Abraham’s memory into the three major religions of the Book: Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

Jesus has no physical progeny. He comes into the world by a virgin birth, a sign of his divine sonship, and after this family identity is now a matter of spiritual birth. He tells his disciples that God will recognize his children not by ethnic or religious identity but in those who hear, keep and act on the Word of God. This is the “house” built on rock. Jesus is the cornerstone of the new age, the new creation, the new Temple of God’s presence. Those who follow him extend his house and are destined to share in his divine life.

The paradox of our faith is that the more we are grounded in Jesus, the more confident and free we can be to explore the future. Our identity is protected and certain as long as we are faithful to his example. This means not just believing in spiritual truths, but trying to live them each day. When God sees us living as Jesus lived, open to others, forgiving and compassionate, God sees our family resemblance to Jesus. This is the house that will go on living when all other certainties and human structures fail.

The Birth of John the Baptist

Posted on 24 June 2015 by patmarrin

“The Lord called me from birth, from my mother’s womb he gave me my name” (Isaiah 49:1).

It has been said that a human life is like a sentence: We don’t know its full meaning until the last word has been said.

The trajectory of each life is often indiscernible until its course is complete. Then we can look back and see how preference, vision and purpose guided that life to its goal. This is why so many elderly people, in the last chapter of their lives, spend it summarizing their experiences. How many of us only come to know ourselves at the end of the story we have been writing over the years.

Both John the Baptist and Jesus had relatively brief lives cut short by violent deaths. John’s birth to older parents stirred wonder and posed the question, “What will this child be?" We meet him 30 years later, a desert prophet, a voice in the wilderness whose purpose is to announce the coming of Jesus.

We can imagine him as a child, or as an adolescent struggling with other voices in the wind and in the sacred scriptures, preparing him to be the one who prepares the way for God’s promised Messiah.

The baptism of repentance John offers in the Jordan draws Jesus down from Galilee to begin his ministry of grace. No sooner does John complete his mission to point to Jesus than he is swept up in the paranoia of Herod Antipas and beheaded.

At this event, Jesus withdraws with his disciples to grieve and absorb the reality that his own mission will end in violent opposition, suffering and death. John’s last gift to Jesus will be the question from prison: “Are you the one?” Jesus defines himself by the works that reveal the coming of God’s kingdom on earth: The blind see, cripples walk, sinners are shown mercy.

What is the meaning of your life? Like Jesus and John, we know ourselves by first listening to the Word and to the voice of God in our experiences. There is no other authentic trajectory than this one, and it will guide us to eternal life.