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Oil of Gladness

Posted on 30 March 2015 by patmarrin

"Leave her alone. Let her keep this for the day of my burial" (John 12:11).

Today's Gospel repeats the story told yesterday at the beginning of Mark's Passion account. John changes the setting -- from the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany to the house of Lazarus, whom Jesus just raised from the dead in the previous Chapter 11. Mark's anonymous woman becomes Mary, sister of Lazarus and Martha. The extravagant show of love with perfumed oil and tears is the same, as is the complaint of the disciples about the waste of money.

The story is important for Holy Week in at least two respects. The anointing of Jesus' feet indicates that the woman, of all the disciples, is the only one who knows that Jesus is going to die. She weeps over him and, figuratively, pours out her heart for him. Second, she gives Jesus the gesture of love he will repeat in John 13 at the Last Supper. Like Mary, Jesus will kneel and wash the feet of his disciples to teach them to love and serve each other as he has loved them.

The extravagance of this sign is so great that John does not need to include the institution of the Eucharist at his Last Supper, as the other three evangelists do. Jesus' gift of himself is powerfully demonstrated in this act of humble service. In most parishes, we will have an opportunity to wash one another’s feet on Holy Thursday.

The dinner at the house of Lazarus is a celebration of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the dramatic show of power in Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. Though Jesus has repeatedly told his apostles what will happen to him at Passover, they are filled with visions of him as messiah and of themselves as his lieutenants. Only Mary understands that Jesus is about to fulfill his role as God’s servant by offering up his life. Mary will remain with Jesus throughout his passion, and she will be the first to witness him alive on Easter morning. Because love triumphs over all else, Mary will be the apostle to the apostles.

As we enter Holy Week, the same lesson is clear. Only love will grasp the meaning of the events that will unfold this week. Only an open heart, its seal broken and its intimate gift poured out, will be a response sufficient to carry us through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Only our own journey through his death to new life with him will enable us to really witness the good news to others. Only by loving each other as Jesus loves us will we be recognized as his followers.


Show Time

Posted on 28 March 2015 by patmarrin

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (Mark11:10).

In all four Gospels, the week leading up to Passover begins with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem riding on the colt of a donkey followed by the cleansing in the temple. After that, Jesus and the disciples withdraw to Bethany while the chief priests plot his arrest and destruction. The triumphal procession into the city fulfills the prophecy in Zechariah 9:9, “Fear no more, daughter of Zion: See your king comes seated upon an ass’s colt.” Similarly, the dramatic scene in the temple fulfills Psalm 69: “Zeal for your house consumes me.”

The triumphal entry is a parody on the Roman practice of entering a conquered capital with a full display of military power, often parading prisoners. The cleansing of the temple is likewise symbolic. The whole day is guerilla theater meant to provoke a response, and it does indeed. If we need to posit a reason for Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, what he does on Palm Sunday would have been more than enough. The city was filled with Passover pilgrims, and the atmosphere would have been volatile.

Jesus’ actions seem almost suicidal. Theological reasons aside, his historical confrontation with the Roman occupation and the temple establishment seems premeditated, with only two outcomes possible; total conversion or brutal suppression. The Passion story we read this Sunday tells us which outcome occurred. The question is why everything came to a head the way it did. Disturbed and exposed, the power that has always sought to rule the world strikes back to protect its interests. Evil, masquerading as good, is laid bare.

Mark, the earliest Gospel and the most likely to offer a political reading of the death of Jesus, does not do so. Mark's Passion narrative is focused on Jesus fulfilling the Passover. As scripture scholar C. Thomson as shown, Mark divides his narrative of the final Passover into time increments of three hours to parallel Jesus death with the themes of the feast, the commemoration of Exodus. This parallel is for his audience, an early Christian community celebrating the death and resurrection of Jesus as their own exodus from sin and death and the pattern of their discipleship -- to imitate Jesus with lives of self-sacrificing love.

This same Paschal Mystery, our share in the sufferings of Christ, is the focus of our Holy Week. Every detail of the story of Jesus' final hours resonates in our lives, from the donkey that carries Jesus into Jerusalem to the centurion who declares at Jesus’ death, “Truly, this man was the Son of God!” We will find ourselves in the story of Jesus.

So we begin this most solemn week of the church year, invited to deepen our own understanding of the faith that will define the outcome of our own stories.


Come, Follow Me

Posted on 27 March 2015 by patmarrin

"In my distress I called upon the Lord, and he heard my voice" (Psalm 18).

Jeremiah the prophet describes the web of intrigue tightening around him as his enemies look for a way to destroy him (Jer 20). We have only to look at the races heating up a full year and a half ahead of the presidential elections to see how brutal politics is.

Jesus hands his fate over to his enemies by openly blaspheming -- claiming to be one with God (John 10). The climactic dialogue between Jesus and his enemies moves the fourth Gospel to its central theme: Jesus is the divine messenger sent to save the world. He will be “lifted up,” meaning both crucified and glorified, as the ultimate revelation of God’s unconditional love for a sinful world.

Anyone who sees (believes) in Jesus will be drawn to him, incorporated into the mystery of his divine Life. Everything on this worldly side of the drama converges on the cross. Everything in glory will emanate from the resurrection into an utterly transformed future.

We are privileged to live in the passageway between old and new, death and life, before and after. Everything depends on how we interpret the silence that followed Jesus’ death, where earthly evidence ceases and faith begins. Here is the ultimate gap where we are invited to leap, trusting that the bridge will appear. Jesus is that bridge between the human and the divine, natural life destined for death and the new life destined for eternity.

We do this every day we say yes to God and show we understand Jesus by dying to ourselves in order to live for others. Eternity begins here for anyone who gives himself or herself away in sacrificial love. It is time to book passage, for Jesus' departure is assured. Will you be with him?



Posted on 26 March 2015 by patmarrin

“Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, IAM” (John 8:58).

John’s Gospel is the last and most theological of the four Gospels. If Mark, thought to be the first, composed in the early 60s, emphasized Jesus’ humanity, John, composed at the end of the first century, clearly emphasizes his divinity. The whole structure of the Gospel, seven signs and seven discourses and a Passion account, is meant to reveal Jesus as God, the I AM, the Hebrew letters, YHWH, the “One who is.”

The claim is blasphemous, and today’s Gospel ends with Jesus’ critics picking up stones to kill him. Jesus provokes them by saying he pre-existed Abraham, outside of time in glory, God’s eternity, where those who believe in Jesus are promised eternal life.

For John’s community, under threat of persecution from Rome, union with Jesus meant life, unassailable confidence in God’s love and the promise they would survive any suffering they might have to face because of their faith.

For us, who live in time and in the day to day struggles of ordinary existence so far away from such theological truths, Jesus is not far away in space and time but always a present reality, here and now. We find him by living in the moment, trusting him and conversing with him intimately as our closest friend and brother. To know him is to know ourselves, becoming like him, being transformed by him in our human nature toward our divine destiny.

God is not I WAS or I WILL BE, but I AM. If we live in the past, consumed with regret, we will not find God there. If we live in the future, anxious about the unknown or in dreams and fantasies, we will not find God there. Only the present moment is overflowing with God, and only here, today, is the grace we need to be fully alive. This is the joy of the Gospel.


Mary's Yes

Posted on 25 March 2015 by patmarrin

“Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God” (Luke 1:30).

Every encounter with God in the Bible begins with terror. The floor goes out from underneath a person’s sense of reality. This can’t be happening. But it is, and the time-space continuum is altered to suddenly bring the past to a decisive passage into a different future.

The call of the prophets, Moses’ encounter with Yahweh in the burning bush, Paul’s conversion, the resurrection appearances to the disciples – all of these moments of revelation interrupt the ordinary narrative and inject it with enormous power, what German theologian Rudolf Otto called the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, the name of God.

The angel’s visit to Mary in what we call the Annunciation, asking her consent to be the mother of Jesus, was such a moment, and Luke says that Mary was afraid. Gabriel, the messenger, reassures her, “You have found favor with God,” then lays out for her the plan. She will conceive and bear and son, and he will be called the Son of the Most High.

Mary’s consent to the Incarnation alters history forever. We share the grace given through Mary to the whole human race, which opened us to a divine destiny. The birth of Jesus makes possible the birth of the church at Pentecost and infuses every baptism with hope that points toward eternity, life with God.

But the journey into that altered future will not be automatic or without cost. Each of us must share Mary’s human journey through the sluggish resistance of old, failed stories generated by human pride and selfishness. A sword of sorrow awaits Mary. Her son becomes a sign of contradiction.

By baptism we bear the sign of the cross. Lent is our journey toward a different future made possible by Jesus, who went before us and opened up the path to Life. “Don’t be afraid, You have found favor with God.”

Now We See

Posted on 24 March 2015 by patmarrin

"When you lift up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM" (John 8:28).

Eye-opening recognition often comes too late. The full meaning of sentence is not known until the last word is said.

John the evangelist packs the full truth about Jesus into the dialogue in today’s Gospel between Jesus and his critics. They want to know who he is, but they are blind to his identity and purpose. The Pharisees, like Nicodemus in John 3, are locked into an old, self-serving understanding of God.

Jesus combines two images to reveal himself: The cursed saraph lifted up in the desert by Moses (Numbers 21) and the Son of Man (Daniel 7:13; Ezekiel 37:3) ) hold the truth of God's plan to save the world. Only when the Son of Man is lifted up, i.e., when Jesus is crucified, will his enemies realize that God so loved the word that he gave his only Son to save us from sin and death.

In Zefferelli's masterful 1977 film "Jesus of Nazareth," Nicodemus, played by Laurence Olivier, stands in the jeering crowd as Jesus stumbles past under the weight of the cross. Nicodemus begins to recite Isaiah 53, one of the songs of the “Suffering Servant,” and his eyes grow wide with anguish as he realizes what is happening: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed” (vs 5).

Thirty-five years ago today, March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered while saying Mass in San Salvador. News of his death sent shock waves around the world and to the highest levels in the Vatican, where many had doubted Romero’s holiness and fidelity to the church. Branded as a Marxist for challenging a government supported by the United States, vilified by four of his own bishops and the papal nuncio in El Salvador, Romero stood exposed and alone on that day. After his death, recorded in graphic detail by a photographer present in the chapel, many eyes were opened to the brutality of the situation in the tiny Central American nation and to Romero’s courage and goodness. He will be beatified on May 23, 2015 as a saint and a martyr for the faith.

Why do we fail to see and hear the prophets sent to warn us to change the self-destructive direction we are taking? Why must they die before the world admits that they were right? This is one of the questions we carry as we approach Palm Sunday and Holy Week. It is never too late to open our eyes.

Sinners Step Forward

Posted on 23 March 2015 by patmarrin

“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:8).

Years ago, when I was teaching high school religion, I encouraged my students to read the Bible but to avoid certain stories as too racy. This guaranteed that everyone read the wonderful story in Daniel 13 about “Susanna in the Garden.”

It must have been well known when the likewise famous story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery was inserted into the Gospel of John, because the two stories run in perfect parallel to provide the early church with another example of how Jesus fulfilled the Law and the Prophets. As the boy Daniel cleverly saves bathing beauty Susanna from the lecherous judges, so Jesus saves the woman caught in flagrante delicto from stoning by shaming her accusers.

John 8 is a story about mercy, but it also brings home an important moral distinction between so-called “sins of the flesh” and "sins of pride." Jesus’ ministry among the poor and those beset by weakness was far more successful than his outreach to the wealthy, powerful and religious people of this time. Conversion is hardest for those who do not know they need it, or who have set themselves in judgment over others. The elders who were eager to execute the woman they accused of adultery were well armed with hearts of stone.

At this point in our Lenten journey we must pass a crucial test. Only sinners need continue, for only sinners can benefit from what will happen after Palm Sunday. The righteous will have no need of a savior. We rejoice to be among those who know they are sinners, too weak to finish the course without God's mercy and without the mercy of the community.


A Matter of Life and Death

Posted on 21 March 2015 by patmarrin

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:23).

Whether the preacher is using the regular B cycle of readings or the powerful story of Lazarus in the A cycle for RCIA, a common theme of resurrection is evident.

Jesus is approaching Jerusalem at Passover time. It is early spring and perhaps the sowers are out in the fields along road that enters the city. Knowing that he will die soon, a final parable comes to Jesus to challenge and comfort him. He kneels to pick up a small grain, precious seed held back for sowing. By entrusting it to the earth, it will produce a generous harvest. He will fall to the ground and die, but greater life will spring forth. This is the pattern the church will take up in its worship and mission; the Paschal Mystery. If we die with him, we will rise with him. This is the Easter message, the heart of our faith.

In the previous Chapter 11, the raising of Lazarus is the penultimate sign in John’s Gospel that will reveal Jesus: “I AM the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even though he dies, will lives, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25). Jesus' death on the cross is the final sign of God’s love poured out to save the world. John will declare that everything has been accomplished in the lifting up of the Son of Man, his death, resurrection, ascension and gift of the Spirit. Only eyes of faith will see it, but those who do see (believe) it will enter the secret of Life.

This would be just theology if never lived. But it has been lived often, and recently in the life and death of Blessed Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador. On March 24, 1980, he preached his last homily on the Gospel we read today. Moments after he quoted John 12:23, he was killed by a bullet to the chest, falling to the floor behind the altar in a small hospital chapel. A single seed, joined to thousands of other fallen lives in the civil war that followed, produced a harvest of faith that now reaches around the world. Romero will be declared a saint on May 23, 2015, just 35 years after his death.

Can we entrust ourselves to the Paschal pattern? Our daily dying to self in the service of others is the secret of Life. There is no other path through death, no other pioneer but Jesus. Faith must be lived to come true. Jerusalem is just ahead. Let us go with him, for it is a matter of life and death.

"Where Are You Coming From?

Posted on 20 March 2015 by patmarrin

“You know me and also know where I am from” (John 7:27).

The colloquialisms “Where are you at?” or “Where are you coming from?" break the rule about not putting a preposition at the end of a sentence, but they capture perfectly the deeper question of source. All our ideas and values emerge from our cultural formation and background.

As Jesus teaches in the temple in Jerusalem, his critics demand to know where he is coming from, namely, by what authority he is teaching. They are experts in the law and part of the Jerusalem establishment. He is an unschooled hillbilly carpenter from tiny Nazareth. There is no scriptural reference to any prophet rising up from the margins of orthodoxy in Galilee of the Gentiles.

They misunderstand, as John’s Gospel intends, because Jesus is not talking about geography or theological credentials; he is revealing his direct relationship with God. He has come from God, who sent him into the world to save it. Even as ordinary people throng around Jesus to hear his message, the decision is being made at the highest levels that Jesus must be eliminated.

Lent carries us toward Holy Week. We must decide who we think Jesus is and whether we will follow him into the heart of the Paschal mystery – his death on the cross and our daily dying to self to join our lives with his. Only if we die with him will we know the meaning of Easter. The question is now not so much "Where are you coming from?" or "Where are you at?" It is, "Where are you going from here?"


St. Joseph

Posted on 19 March 2015 by patmarrin

“Behold, a faithful and prudent steward, whom the Lord set over his household” (Entrance Antiphon).

St. Joseph is patron of workers and protector of the Holy Family. He does not speak in the Gospels, but he acts decisively, even in the midst of profound dilemmas. Angels and dreams are needed to move him beyond human logic and the Law to the freedom of God. In the dramatic scenes of the infancy narratives of Luke and Matthew, we see Joseph as the one constant in a heartbreaking story of a child who stirs wonder and fear, is thrown into sudden flight and alien status.

After this we only catch a glimpse of Joseph as a parent to the young Jesus. When the boy stays behind in the temple to sit with the scholars, Mary does all the talking. We know that Joseph was a carpenter, and so we assume he mentored Jesus in the family trade. He disappears from the story before Jesus begins his public ministry.

Immense theological mysteries overshadow Joseph. He is called to care for a woman he cannot have and a child not his own. In this he is the patron of all husbands and fathers, who also must learn that the better part of love is not control but restraint.

Joseph represents the divine Providence that fed the tribes of Jacob with finest wheat in time of famine. He is the strong arm of Yahweh that brought the Chosen People up out of Egypt. He is the Builder who marries Zion to form an everlasting covenant. He is the dreamer in the rainbow coat who knew the depths of betrayal and the power of mercy.

Jesus, in his human formation and personality, is the son of Joseph, who taught him the tools of the trade -- wonder and courage—that helped him complete his mission after Joseph was gone.

Joseph belongs to us as protector. Pope Francis invokes him as he goes about repairing the church to be a shelter for the poor, a house of mercy for the vulnerable, a place worthy of the Holy Family of God.