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Bread Given Freely to All

Posted on 08 April 2016 by patmarrin

"Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to the crowd" (John 6:10).

Pope Francis released his long-anticipated letter on the family today. It is helpful to put his words into the context of today's Gospel about the multiplication of the loaves and fishes.

Jesus looks out at a huge crowd, hungry for instruction and also for food. He engages his disciples in the problem of the cost of buying enough food to feed everyone. Philip, ever practical, calculates that it would cost 200 days wages, while Andrew, naïve but trusting, presents a boy with five barely loaves and two fish. Neither suggestion meets the problem realistically.

Jesus then miraculously multiples the small amount of food at hand to feed everyone, with 12 baskets of leftovers. There are no distinctions about who is worthy or unworthy to receive this bounty. Anyone who is hungry is satisfied. In John's account, the food is blessed and distributed by Jesus himself. Abundance flows directly from him, as the disciples witness in awe the power of God's unconditional love meeting the needs of the crowd.

Pope Francis addresses the bishops and pastors of the church as Jesus addressed his disciples: "How can we meet the needs of this huge crowd?" Francis challenges his brother priests to be as open and generous as Jesus always is, grace flowing freely to everyone who needs it. Need defines the moment, not criteria of worthiness or protocols of control. All are welcome and everyone is fed, as much as they need.

The pope's letter will challenge everyone, including those who seek mercy and truth from the church, to enter into conscientious discernment about where they are in their life situations and what they need to do to grow and be at peace with God, themselves and others. Like hunger, each person must discern their needs, join in the community that shares God's gifts equitably and fairly, for the good of all.

Clergy are challenged to be pastors, accompanying their people, immersing themselves in their struggles and sufferings, helping them discern what is right without judging their inner state before God and where they are on the long journey toward the holiness that only God can give any of us. Priests are not the source of God's grace, but witnesses to the miracles of love occurring in every life.

The pope's letter will challenge most those bishops and priests who see themselves as gatekeepers to God's mercy and not as servants of the mystery of God's encounter with each individual. Whole new skills will be needed for some, not to speak of hearts immersed in the common human condition of weakness and uncertainty. If the pope's letter is a new approach, it is primarily one of attitude and openness for the church's minsters. We will see how they receive the pope's words.

We rejoice to witness a church alive to God's mercy and to the needs of the world for grace and guidance. The Spirit is evident in these events and in all of us.

Sailing to Heaven

Posted on 07 April 2016 by patmarrin

"The one whom God sent speaks the words of God. He does not ration his gift of the Spirit" (John 3:34).

The Apostles appear before the Sanhedrin and declare their intention to continue to proclaim the resurrection of Jesus: "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:30). In today's Gospel, Jesus continues his conversation with Nicodemus about the heavenly realm and the earthly realm of understanding. Because Nicodemus is still thinking in earthly terms, he does not understand who Jesus is or what it means to be "born from above."

Human existence has its own logic while faith brings a transcendent dimension to our thinking that can seem to the worldly-wise to be illogical or even illusory. Why would someone lay down his life for a cause? Why would anyone sacrifice her advantage for some dreamy ideal, especially when society punishes her for it?

Jesus tells his followers to listen to and keep his word as the path to life, both in this world and beyond. The price we pay cannot compare to the blessing of friendship with God, who pours out the gifts of the Spirit on those who remain faithful. While faith may seem irrelevant to practical necessity, it holds the ultimate value of being one with God.

In both readings today, we hear clearly that we must choose the path we will take. We cannot drift in the winds of culture or history and expect to arrive anywhere but where those winds take us. A disciples must raise the sails of faith and guide his small craft through the sea of life toward heaven's harbor. It is a deliberate voyage, but one we can complete if we listen to the voice of Jesus in prayer and in his word.

Get Out of Jail Free

Posted on 06 April 2016 by patmarrin

"The men you put in prison are in the temple preaching" (Acts 5:24).

The Acts of the Apostles, sometimes called the second book of Luke, tells the story of the church. So it is not surprising to find parallels between the life of Jesus and the life of his church.

In today's first reading, the resurrection of Jesus is reflected in the liberation of the Apostles from prison. Just as the tomb of Jesus, guarded by soldiers, is found to be empty, so the cell where the Apostles are being held under guard is found to be empty. Nothing can chain or contain the preaching of the Gospel.

Today's Gospel from John continues the story of Nicodemus' night encounter with Jesus, as Jesus utters the famous lines of John 3:16: "God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. "

Contained in this proclamation is John's entire theology of Jesus. He is the only-begotten Son, the Word of God, through whom the world was created. As the Father loves the Son, so God loves the world, which is the material manifestation in time and space of the eternal Word made flesh. Creation and the Incarnation are a single divine act. Jesus is sent to restore a broken, errant creation to its original blessing. Those who believe in him recover the image and likeness of God.

The world might have been created and held on course toward perfection, but God wanted his children to respond freely to the divine initiative. Salvation history is about creation's fall from grace, which made necessary the entry of God into human history in Jesus to draw us back our authentic selves, destined for eternal life.

Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew are planning to visit the detention camps on the Greek Island of Lesbos to highlight the suffering of Syrian refugees caught between the war in their homeland and Europe's reluctance to allow them a safe haven. This tragedy reveals just how far from redemption the world remains, even two millennia after the Christ event. But the Gospel of life must be proclaimed, and so the pope and the patriarch are going to stand in solidarity with these displaced and abandoned victims.

We are invited to stand with them, even as some voices in our political campaigns call for the exclusion of immigrants and refugees in desperate need of our compassion and assistance. Why should we care? Because we are Easter people.

Walking Toward Freedom

Posted on 05 April 2016 by patmarrin

"The Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life" (John3:15).

As we proceed into the Easter season, the Lectionary reminds us of a crucial passage from the fourth Gospel that foreshadows the meaning of the resurrection,

Nicodemus arranges a meeting with Jesus at night for fear of censure from his fellow Pharisees. But he cannot grasp Jesus' words that he must be "born again from above" to find eternal life. This brilliant scholar of the Law is still in the dark about the mysterious passage through suffering to new life that Jesus is about to undertake.

Jesus compares himself to the serpent on a pole lifted up by Moses in the desert to heal those bitten by serpents that invaded the camp. Just so, Jesus is the "Son of Man," or "human being," a representative of all of humanity, will be "lifted up" on the cross, taking upon himself the curse of sin. His death and resurrection are together the sign believers will recognize as our liberation from the universal fate of sin and death. Nicodemus will eventually "see" this, but only when he witnesses the death of Jesus on the cross.

As Jesus is reborn by his resurrection, so all of us are reborn through baptism and the Holy Spirit. But to complete that baptism we must follow Jesus through death to new life. We do this by imitating him as servant to the needs of others, giving our lives for others, even for our enemies. Nicodemus struggles to understand this profound surrender of prestige and pride to become a servant, but it is his rebirth to eternal life.

Pope Francis is modeling this humble way of life. His invitation to all of us to pass through the door of mercy is the same sign Jesus was proposing. If we surrender ourselves to mercy, strip off any resentments and failures to love that hold us back, we will step into the light and freedom of the children of God.

Easter gives us 50 days to reflect on this mystery and to live out its implications in our personal lives. Now is the day of salvation for those who seek mercy and give mercy, for they will know the joy of the Gospel.

God's Announcement; Our Response

Posted on 04 April 2016 by patmarrin

I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word" (Luke1:38).

The redemption of the world from its willful estrangement from God was not a rescue from without, but a transformation from within. God reformed a thwarted human nature not by force, but by assuming flesh, becoming one of us to show us how to recover the original blessing. Everything Jesus experienced in his human nature, including his death, was perfected by grace. He absorbed the effects of sin in his body so that our bodies might be free to know the image and likeness of God we were created to reflect.

This theology is the heart of our Christian faith, and it is not just about Jesus; it is about us, what is meant to happen to each of us and all of us together. His Incarnation completes creation and culminates, after his death and resurrection, in the mystery of the church, the body of Christ in the world.

This theology would not have been possible without the consent of a young Jewish woman in a small village in the hill country of northern Palestine. Mary's response to the announcement of the angel Gabriel opened her -- heart, mind, spirit and body -- to God's earthly sojourn and solidarity among us in Jesus. Mary's response moved from surprise to confusion to consent, the full and free acceptance of God's will in her life and on our behalf. She said Yes for all of us. She is the second Eve who overrides the fall of the first Eve, so eager to be godlike but, with Adam, seduced by pride to lead all their children into a warped history of self-centered misery and misdirection.

Just as we share the life of Christ now as members of his body, we also share the response of Mary each time we say Yes to the Word and the Spirit. God becomes flesh in us and our bodies are filled with grace. Everything we say and do advances the redemption of the world. This is the joy of the Gospel.

My Lord and My God

Posted on 02 April 2016 by patmarrin

“Unless I see the marks of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25).

The fourth and final canonical Gospel, sometimes called the Gospel of the Beloved Disciple, offers us some richly theological and moving appearance stories that witness to the mystery of Jesus’s resurrection. Jesus first appears to Mary Magdalene at the tomb, then to all the disciples in the locked upper room, then to Thomas, who is absent when Jesus comes the first time, and finally to Peter and six other disciples near the Sea of Galilee.

These selected accounts, composed some 60 years after the fact, must have held profound importance for the faith community that celebrated them at their eucharistic gatherings. Each story focuses the impact of the risen Christ on a particular person or group, but with the whole community in mind. Today’s account of the encounter between Thomas and Jesus seems addressed to believers who wished they had seen and touched the risen Christ themselves instead of just hearing about it. Two milennia later, we might wish the same. If only we had been there, imagine how strong our faith would be!

So the dramatic story of Thomas is, in fact, addressed to us today. We want proof that the crucified Jesus rose from the dead, and because we weren't there we excuse ourselves from the daring witness of the first disciples who did have proof. But did they? The fourth Gospel has as one of its central themes the difference between seeing and believing, physical sight and a much deeper encounter with the mystery of God in Jesus that we call faith. They needed faith to "see" the risen Christ just as we do.

Thomas, called the Doubter, wants the kind of forensic proof we think will make us better believers. He insists on sticking his finger into the nail hole in Jesus’ hand, and his hand into the wound in Jesus’ side from the soldier’s lance. But before he can respond to Jesus’s invitation to do just that, Thomas is overwhelmed by something far greater than a reanimated dead body. His eyes are opened in faith to the mystery that, standing before him in the crucified person of Jesus, is his “Lord and God.” Thomas' demand for proof leads to a stupendous theophany, a personal encounter with the living God.

This story said to its original audience at the end of the first century, and says to us today, that the resurrection is not proof that our religion is true, but even more, that God has in Christ transformed human suffering and death as the door to redemption. Those who share the suffering and death of Jesus and unite themselves to all the victims of violence and injustice in history, will rise with him and with them to everlasting life, beginning in this world as a glimpse of our divine destiny with God.

If we insist on seeing and touching our wounded Jesus, behold, he is all around us, in the poor and in the suffering of this world, including our own difficult growing edges, losses and sacrifices for one another. Are we not the body of Christ? Isn’t this the meaning of our Communion around the altar of his sacrifice for the sins of the world?

If we pray for real faith, we will know we have received it if we encounter a wounded brother or sister and are moved to say, “My Lord and my God!”

Sinners Wanted

Posted on 01 April 2016 by patmarrin

"They went out in the boat, but that night they caught nothing" (John 21:3).

In one of his first interviews after he became pope, Francis was asked who he was. He replied, "I am a sinner." He did not say he had sinned but that he was a sinner. It was an important revelation because it said he knew that in some essential way, at the very core of his existence, he could not save himself.

Peter, the first pope, was prepared for his role as the leader of the first evangelists of mercy by his own experience of heart-rending failure and sin. At the core of his personality was both a self-deluding pride and the inability to respond with courage when under pressure.

Confronted as a disciple by servants gathered around a charcoal fire in the courtyard the night Jesus went before the Sanhedrin, Peter denied even knowing him. He "saves" himself but is thrust into total estrangement from his Master. After rejecting this intimate friendship twice more, Peter hears the rooster announce the coming dawn, and he flees into the bitter alienation he has created by his cowardice.

Today's Gospel from John is an exquisite mirror image of Peter's failure with Peter's redemption. Another disastrous night, a dawn baptism, Eucharistic breakfast around a charcoal fire, triple reaffirmation of his love for Jesus, and, finally, the commissioning of Peter as the first missionary of mercy. He and the other disciples will know the mercy they preach, because they have received it in full measure. Their sinfulness is essential to their understanding of their role to catch other sinners into God's saving embrace.

We must make the same pilgrimage, first by acknowledging our need to be saved. And this is not just from our bad habits and weaknesses, but from an existential incapacity to integrate our fragmented selves into wholeness. Real sin lies in the illusion that we are self-sufficient. Those who do not know sin have never really lived, have never confronted the hidden selfishness coiled around their souls, an enemy that is awakened only by the crisis of love, the fall from grace inherent in every friendship, where we grapple with God like lovers and can only find our way home by mercy and forgiveness.

All attempts to describe this process will understate its terror. So we have the story of Peter, our first pope, whose denial of his best friend to death prepared him to teach us about God's mercy. We enter the story to find our own encounter with Jesus, who alone can rescue sinners.

See Me. Touch Me.

Posted on 31 March 2016 by patmarrin

“Look at my hands and feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see” (Luke 24:38).

It would have been so much simpler for the early church to say that they had seen visions of Jesus alive after his crucifixion and death. A spiritual Christ, his soul now free of his dead body, would have made more sense to the Greek and gentile audiences they were trying to attract. All this business about a missing body, then a risen body, passing through locked doors, but then eating fish and inviting people to touch him – this was all very confusing and incredible.

So there must have been something essential about Jesus’ glorified body that the evangelists knew had to be conveyed in their appearance stories. Some are quite mysterious: The disciples do not recognize Jesus in some instances. Mary thinks he is the gardener; the two disciples on the road to Emmaus walk and talk with him for miles, but still see only a stranger. Peter and the disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee encounter Jesus on the shore fixing breakfast for them, but do not recognize him right away. He passes through walls to the locked upper room, and they think he is a ghost.

Other accounts are overtly physical, as though doubts needed to be addressed. Jesus insists that the disciples see, even touch, his pierced hands and feet, his side, to confirm that he is in fact the crucified one. In today’s Gospel, Jesus eats baked fish. The very contrast between a spiritual being and a real body is preserved without explanation, as though to deliberately draw us into but not resolve the mystery of resurrection.

I can only stop here to let the mystery be, but I am convinced that the risen body of Christ is part of the even more profound mystery of the Incarnation, that God, a pure Spirit, came among us in the flesh, blessing all of creation as sacred, as the visible surface of an invisible mystery, one reality, inseparable and indivisible. Our bodies are destined for glory, not for discarding. Our who and our what are of a piece, our bodies the outward expression of an inner self that is already part of the Incarnation — God embodied in the universe.

All touch, then, is sacramental — an outward sign that gives grace. We are a body in love that defies death, a face beautiful in countless ways in every moment in everything that exists. We are a body suffering toward rebirth, in solidarity with one another, responsible for one another, a single web of life.

This is what Jesus invites us to see and touch today. This is the joy of the Gospel.

On the Road Again

Posted on 30 March 2016 by patmarrin

"Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over" (Luke 24:30).

Luke's familiar story of the risen Jesus walking with the dispirited disciples on the road to Emmaus has often been cited as a perfect Gospel in miniature. All the elements are there to describe the emerging faith of the early church in the resurrection of Jesus.

The two disciples, possibly a married couple, are leaving Jerusalem after the disastrous events of Passover, trying to absorb the shocking news of Jesus' crucifixion and the rumors that some of the women had found his tomb empty and angels saying he was alive. The fact that they are on the road away from the city suggests their own take on these conflicting stories. It is better to get out of town, find perspective by distancing themselves from danger and from their own shattered dreams that this man Jesus might be the long-awaited messiah.

A stranger walks alongside and enters their conversation, asking questions, then chiding them for being so slow to understand the scriptures that foretold all the events that have so troubled them. As the stranger walks with them and explains the prophecies about the Christ, the disciples are lifted from the darkness of despair to the first glimmerings of hope, their hearts burning within them. "Stay with us," they beg the stranger when they stop for the night, the darkness once again threatening to overtake them.

Then, as they sit at table, the stranger becomes more and more familiar to them in the gestures of taking the bread, blessing it, breaking it and sharing it with them. It is none other than Jesus, alive. But as he appears, so he disappears, and the two disciples rush back to Jerusalem to tell the others what they have witnessed.

So the early church, gathering for Eucharist, grappling with the scriptures, came to know the mystery of how Jesus fulfilled the Law and the prophets by his suffering and death. So their hearts burned within them as they finally understood how apparent defeat revealed a love beyond telling, and in the breaking of the bread they knew Jesus was with them in a new way, never to depart, sending them forth to share the good news of God's mercy and love overcoming sin and death.

We are that church now, on the road to Emmaus, or to Jerusalem, or to Galilee, where we are told we will find him everywhere, grace loose in the world, revealing the hidden life of God at the outer limits of human doubt and suffering, in the poor and in every stranger we meet. In the breaking of the bread we know the heartbreaking mystery of love that teaches us how to give ourselves away in service. Jesus appears and disappears, but we know that everything is different now. The end of the story has appeared in the middle, and now we know how to read the signs of the times, and how we are to live.

Jesus and Women

Posted on 29 March 2016 by patmarrin

"They have taken my Lord, and I don't know where they have laid him" (John 20:13).

This most poignant of Easter readings conveys the deep sorrow and promise it depicts. Mary of Magdalene, formally acknowledged by Pope Benedict XVI as the "Apostle to the Apostles" for her role in delivering the good news of the resurrection to the resistant men disciples, weeps outside the empty tomb. The body of her Lord has been taken away, thwarting her final act of love to complete his anointing for burial.

Women, held at bay from ordination and not allowed to preach in the Catholic church, have wept and prayed the same lament for centuries. But the Risen Christ comes to them to reassure and ordain them as evangelists to a doubting, dismissive church. The Gospel of service has always exceeded the ritual reenactment of Christ's death and resurrection reserved for priests. Without it, the Mass is incomplete, contained to sanctuaries and their gowned attendants, while women depart with tears and balm to find the body of Christ at the margins of human suffering in the world.

Rumors out of Rome that Francis believes women should preach are a welcome gesture, but it is on top of the fact that women are already the church's most effective preachers. Like St Francis, they preach everywhere, sometimes with words.