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St. Patrick

Posted on 17 March 2014 by patmarrin

“The measure with which you measure will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:36).

Pope Francis recently profiled the kind of bishops he wants for the church. No more bling, careerism or cushy lifestyles. First and foremost, a bishop is a servant of his people, a shepherd who leads from within the flock, smells like his sheep and shares their lives.

He might have been describing Patrick, apostle to Ireland (c. 389 – c. 461). The story of Patrick, before he became a bearded, mitered figure in green vestments at the head of the parade, is more amazing than the myths. Taken as a youth by pirates and brought to Ireland as a slave, he worked as a shepherd for six years before escaping. Ordained a priest, the pope sent him back to Ireland to evangelize the Celtic clans, which he did by preaching and by example. By the end of his life, the church had a firm footing in Irish soil.

Jesus tells his disciples that what they give away is what they will get back. Patrick poured out his life to bring the blessings of the Gospel to Ireland. The future of the nation came back to him and placed itself under his patronage. When all of Europe collapsed into what we call the Dark Ages, its heritage and faith was recorded by Irish monks to await revival in better times.

Ireland’s gift with language went forth to the ends of the earth in her poets, musicians and missionaries. Here is the measure of one good bishop, whose faith and service changed the world.

Transfigured

Posted on 15 March 2014 by patmarrin

“Lord, it is good that we are here” (Matt 17:1-9).

Even before I learned to tie my shoes, I was taught to make the sign of the cross. It has only become evident over the years how this basic ritual held a lifetime of catechesis. I marked my body from head to heart, shoulder to shoulder, reciting the trinitarian formula of Father, Son and Holy Ghost, tracing out the sign of Christ’s death and the promise of his resurrection I received at baptism.

Each time I cross my heart I again connect a vertical line to God and a horizontal line to my neighbors, promising to keep the Great Commandment, the Jewish Sh’ma of love that fulfills the Law the Prophets. Layer by layer, old covenant and new, the whole story is an invisible tattoo and compass imprinted on me that will guide me through suffering to glory.

The feast of the Transfiguration reveals the heart of every liturgy, the baptized community gathered at the altar, formed by the Word, made one in the Eucharist, again marked by the sign of the cross and sent to transfigure the world.

What we receive in symbol must be lived in action, our daily dying and rising in love and service of one another. We tie our shoes, fasten our belts, ask for God’s wisdom in our minds, God’s love in our hearts and God’s strength flowing into our shoulders, arms and hands as we take up the work of bringing God’s will into the world. We are transfigured.

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Get Out of Jail

Posted on 14 March 2014 by patmarrin

“You will not be released until you have paid the last penny” (Matt 5:26).

Anyone who has struggled with resentment or the need to apologize knows how deep and all-consuming the process can be. If we don’t resolve it quickly, it will keep us awake at night and intrude on our thoughts during the day. Even if we are able to repress it, the inner conversation – like a court transcript – will move into the unconscious and pop back up into our thoughts as a kind of default setting. People who have buried a serious unresolved conflict with a friend or family member will have to deal with it later, often after someone has died. Or it returns in psychosomatic fashion as illness.

Jesus understood well the inner workings of the human heart. This is why he tells his disciples to make sure their morality goes deeper than the appearance of righteousness he witnessed in the scribes and Pharisees. They kept the literal commandments not to kill or commit adultery, but they did not root out the underlying lust and anger that rule the unconverted heart.

Jesus uses the example of two litigants on their way to court to illustrate. Settle quickly and early or the conflict between you will ensnare you and imprison you in your own anger and inability to forgive. The “last penny” must be paid before you will be released.

Forgiveness is the hardest work of all, perhaps because we can hide and deny the need, even from ourselves. But it never goes away until we have turned and addressed it honestly and done the work of resolving it. Then we will know the peace that surpasses all understanding.

Ask, Seek, Knock

Posted on 13 March 2014 by patmarrin

“Ask and it will be given to you…” (Matt 7:7).

So much of what happens when we pray has to do with whether we trust God. For starters, whether we believe God is there at all or if we are just talking to ourselves. Then, whether God hears us, is disposed to give us what we want, and finally, how and when God will deliver an answer.

Jesus uses human analogies. A parent hears a child asking for something and provides it. People who search for something, or knock on a door, or ask a question, are normally the ones who get results. So prayer is really just jumping into the process of talking to God, trusting that if our interactions with other human beings, as unreliable as they sometimes are, get us what we need, how much more will God, who loves us, see that we receive the same and even more.

This basic understanding of prayer is put to the test when we don’t appear to get what we want, and this leads to a deeper analysis of whether we have prayed properly, asked for the right things, been persistent enough, or if we have been short-sighted or so intent on a specific result we miss how God has given us something different but better or much larger than we asked for. Or if, as it has been said bluntly, “Every prayer is answered, and sometimes the answer is ‘No.’” But even, this is an answer that reveals God’s love for us.

What Jesus seems to emphasize is not the quid pro quo of prayer but the relationship itself. Have a relationship with God, talk to God, negotiate with God, trust God. If we seek this first and foremost, we will find that everything else is provided.

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Sign of Jonah

Posted on 12 March 2014 by patmarrin

"No sign will be given except the sign of Jonah" (Luke 11:30).

What was the "sign of Jonah" Jesus told his contemporaries was the only sign they would get regarding his preaching? While the evangelists later emphasized the image of Jonah going down into the belly of the whale as a precursor of Jesus' death and resurrection, the simpler allusion from Jesus was the fable itself. Jonah goes to Nineveh, the great historical nemesis of Israel, and there preaches repentance. And to his utter surprise and chagrin, the Ninevites, from the king on down to the beasts of burden, all respond by putting on sackcloth and ashes to beg God's forgiveness.

Some scholars say the story of Jonah was popular because it was hilarious. No one thought for a minute that the mighty Babylon would listen to a Jewish prophet. In the second half of the tale, Jonah is irate that God shows such mercy to so great an enemy. The point of the story was to counter Jewish certainty that they alone had God’s total attention, but in fact God was reaching beyond Israel to universal salvation, even for the hated Ninevites.

Jesus message was that Israel was receiving a direct invitation to God’s gracious love. They needed no other sign, and if the Ninevites got it, so should they, as privileged as they were.

As Lent unfolds for us, we are invited to enter God’s love. No other sign is needed and no other sign will be given.

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Teach Us to Pray

Posted on 11 March 2014 by patmarrin

“Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:8).

When his disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, he invites them into his own relationship with God. They are to call God Abba, “Papa,” a name that, in that time and culture, encompassed the idea that they were calling upon God as the source of their very existence and identity, thought to come from the male parent.

Abba was no doubt also a parable, a human comparison Jesus used to describe a reality that for Jews was inexpressible. God’s name was beyond language. Yet Jesus invites his disciples into the most familiar and intimate relationship they could know as human beings—between a child and parent.

He perhaps also taught them to pray with body language. The dependency of a child on its father or mother is expressed in reaching up, asking to be picked up, held, embraced in face-to-face mutuality. The distance between an infant and mother during breast feeding is the perfect circle of intimacy. A child held close to a father’s face completes a sensory imprinting that includes smell, touch, voice recognition and an overall feeling of security. We become who we will be for the rest of our lives in these first encounters. When you pray, call God your father, your mother.

The "Our Father" was familiar (family-encompassing) in another way. As a prayer, it expanded upon the simplest and most common of Jewish prayers, the Sh’ma (“Hear, O Israel”), said three times daily to ground the person in right relationship with God, self and neighbor. The first half of the "Our Father" reminds us that God is first, center, source and destiny or our being. By accepting the image and likeness of God, we fulfill our purpose in creation, to make God’s name holy and to bring God’s will from heaven to earth.

The second part of the "Our Father" focuses on us, our need for daily bread. It addresses the core issue of forgiveness—forgiving and being forgiven—as how we stay in right relationship with one another. And the result of this alignment with God, self and neighbor is freedom from fear, a sense of direction within God’s loving providence.

Jesus gives us the words, then shows us in his own life and death their meaning. If we say the words, often and with faith, they will define our entire lives.

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And You Welcomed Me

Posted on 10 March 2014 by patmarrin

“When did we see your hungry and feed you?” (Matt 25:36).

The local Catholic Worker House is meant to be an explicit response to the harrowing final parable of judgment Jesus tells in Matthew 25:31-46. Feed the hungry; Give drink to the thirsty; clothe the naked; welcome the stranger. It opens its doors to guests who come in each morning for an hour of warmth, coffee, toast, oatmeal, a chance to use the bathroom, wash up, make a phone call, get clean socks, a stocking cap and gloves if there are any. The 200 or so houses in the movement begun in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin during the depths of the Depression will witness today in various ways to their dream of a more just and compassionate world.

The “Corporal Works of Mercy” described in today’s Gospel reading actually bookend the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:1-12, the vision of God’s Kingdom leaning into history, laying the foundation for what will be but is not yet. What is most striking about Matthew 25 is that Jesus reveals that he himself has disappeared among the poor, the homeless, the sick and in prison, where he waits to be ministered to. Anyone who serves him there, even if they do not know it, will be welcomed into God’s eternal dwelling place. Those who ignore him there, whatever their credentials or ritual station or good intentions, will have failed to recognize God’s presence in the world.

Pope Francis’ call for a “church of the poor, for the poor” stirs the dream but also measures the distance to what is not yet. Closing the gap is the work of discipleship. A small vanguard holds contested ground each day in trying to live the works of mercy. Their lives invite all of us to find our way to the frontlines where Jesus awaits our loving care.

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March 9, 2014, First Sunday of Lent

Posted on 08 March 2014 by patmarrin

"… lest you dash your foot against a stone” (Matt 4:5).

Matthew’s account of the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness draws on the stories in Exodus of the 40-year formation of Israel as a people before they were ready to enter the Promised Land. In their challenge to trust Yahweh, they encounter hunger, are tempted to idolatry and the vision of worldly wealth and power.

Jesus, after his baptism, recapitulates the history of Israel and in each instance where they failed because of disobedience he advances God’s will through his obedience. He will fulfill the Covenant, the Law and Prophets as God’s servant. The devil’s temptations are all directed to a worldly messiah, not the servant, whose suffering and self-sacrifice will reveal God’s unconditional, reconciling love. This paradoxical way to salvation subverted all human expectations and was so difficult to grasp, the Gospel writers called it the “messianic secret.” Only after his death and resurrection would the followers of Jesus begin to understand how apparent defeat and failure was in fact the history-bending path to glory.

What is remarkable in the encounter between Jesus and the devil is that it is a duel of scripture quotes and actions that on their own merits might even seem positive. Feed the hungry, trust God, use earthly power and resources to accomplish good. What better way is there to usher in the kingdom of God? Church history shows how real these temptations have been and continue to be. In his public ministry, Jesus will multiply loaves, work miracles and exercise power to advance the kingdom. What he will never cede to Satan is his total dependence on God, who is his center of balance, the source of his every discernment and action.

Pope Francis will preach on this Gospel this weekend. Approaching the first anniversary of his election, the pope has had lots of experience in trying to balance the church’s approach on many controversial issues, between doctrine and pastoral need, justice and mercy, clear teaching and and open-ended dialogue. There are those who would like to see the pope falter from his high profile, high-wire balancing act as he proceeds to the core issues of global poverty and religious freedom in a world seemingly locked in economic exploitation and ideological conflict.

We are entering a crucial and, some say, dangerous time. As we embrace the journey of Lent together, there is much for all of us, as members of the church and followers of Jesus, to pray for and about.

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An Acceptable Fast

Posted on 07 March 2014 by patmarrin

“You shall cry for help, and the Lord will say: Here I am” (Isa 58:9).

I don’t know many adults who don’t want to be lean and trim, svelte and buff. Even our language conspires to promote physical symmetry and proportion and to punish the shapeless and dumpy, flabby and fat.

Lent comes along just in time to remind those of us who are form challenged what we resolved on New Year’s day. A good Lenten fast can have us into that one-size-smaller dress or blue suit by Easter.

But the scriptures remind us that physical fasting, whether its purpose is weight loss or spiritual improvement, is secondary and surface to the leanness God wants in our lives. Injustice and indifference to the poor, deceit in business practices, quarreling and competition in our personal relationships – these are the habits that makes us unhealthy and burdened in God’s sight. Using Lent to resolve anything that affects right relationship with God, our neighbor and the good earth is the fast God blesses.

And like any program to improve, getting in spiritual trim is often a gradual step-by-step process that begins with awareness and humility. The same circular logic and self-deception that can torpedo a diet can also keep us from changing old habits. We begin by acknowledging our need and our desire to do better. But then, goals require action, movement, discipline.

The church supports us with ritual and community. We are truly in this together. Everyone is in need of renewal, and if we set a course together, sharing the struggle and marking our successes and failures, we will more easily get there. If Lent is a walk, Jesus sets the pace. Just going forward and keeping up is the secret of following him. And in the process we may even drop a few pounds.

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Losing Yourself

Posted on 06 March 2014 by patmarrin

“What profit is there for someone to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?" (Luke 9:25).

My late father was at the top of his game in the era of Fulton J. Sheen and “Fr. Smith Instructs Jackson,” a 1950s compendium of Catholic answers to questions posed by straw man Protestants, agnostics and atheists. A good Catholic was to be ready to respond to attacks on the faith or to turn a wavering soul into a convert. A man across the alley was Dad’s chance at a jewel in his heavenly crown. So Felix was invited over for coffee, a game of chess and the “speech.” We listened from the other room and could tell at the rising timbre of his voice that my father was about to spring it on him once Felix was rendered helpless by cordiality. It was apologetics at its best, mixed with my father’s natural gifts as salesman and story teller, and it always ended with the quote from today’s Gospel: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his immortal soul?”

The passage in the context of that childhood memory still sends chills down my spine. I imagine life’s pleasures, power and riches (all that candy) piled up before me, reaching out to possess me, only to find myself hurtling into the pit of hell, my immortal soul lost forever.

I begin the season Lent with less theater and perhaps a more nuanced understanding of the “fundamental option” we gradually choose by seeking or ignoring a relationship with God and a conscious focus on what will take up our time, attention and energy. Human maturity and spiritual growth require the same sincerity and effort and, in a real sense, all paths lead to the ultimate reality. Being a serious agnostic takes a lot of work, but it is a choice. The greater danger for most people is to simply drift in a half life of reacting rather than choosing, never getting around to setting goals or taking themselves seriously as seekers.

Jesus was also a good story teller and a bit of a salesman, and he sets us up to decide in our hearts if we will follow him. Talk of the cross can be unsettling, but I think what he meant was, “Get under your own life and see how deep it is.” Anyone who knows how to play chess is already doing this. I picture my Irish father and Felix having coffee over a hot match and congratulating each other on getting into heaven.