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Who Are You?

Posted on 12 January 2015 by patmarrin

They left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed Jesus” (Mark 1:20).

The focus in both readings today—from Hebrews and Mark—is on fatherhood. In the ancient world, human identity was thought to come from the father, with the mother only receiving and nurturing the seed from her male partner. This agricultural image influenced the doctrinal emphasis on Jesus as God because he was the "Son of God."

In Mark’s account of the call of the first disciples, the departure of James and John from their father Zebedee denoted a radical break from family and tribal identity to a new loyalty to Jesus. This theme is repeated later when Jesus' family shows up to claim him, and he publicly declares that the Word of God now defines his family of disciples. His own intimate union with his heavenly Father supersedes all blood ties. Today, because of our better understanding of biology, we can only adequately express our identity as coming from both male and female, mother and father, masculine and feminine.

The central question for every person is “Who am I?” As we mature we come to terms with the influence of family and the reality of our DNA. We explore the deep imprint of primary relationships on our personalities and behaviors, sometimes to understand and exceed the limits they imposed, often to appreciate the graces of those who laid the foundation we now build on.

The mystery of our identity in Christ also open us to a lifetime of reflection. We carry divine potential, a sense of mission, the mind of Christ and the legacy of his human life, death and resurrection in our choices. We leave behind all lesser loyalties to follow Jesus wherever he calls us. His face reveals the hidden mystery of God, ineffable source of all life. We pray to deepen our awareness of God so we can know ourselves, who we really are.


Come to the Wedding

Posted on 10 January 2015 by patmarrin

“This joy of mine has been made complete. He must increase; I must decrease” (John 3:30).

The terrifying and tragic events of this past week in France raise the question of how someone could be formed so intensely by their religious faith that they are willing kill others and die themselves for a cause. One man’s religion is another man’s terrorism. An extreme act is praised or condemned as either martyrdom or mass murder, depending on your loyalties and worldview.

In today’s Gospel, baptism is presented as total commitment, a symbolic ritual of dying to one’s former self to rise up cleansed of the past and given a radically new identity and future. John declares that his baptism of water has only prepared the way for another baptism being administered by Jesus, a baptism of fire and spirit. John describes this greater baptism with the imagery of the intimate covenant between God and Israel. Jesus is the bridegroom; John is only the best man, who rejoices that his friend is united with the bride. Again, the imagery is intense, radical and total.

And lest we see baptism as only a ritual, the radical identity of both John and Jesus was perceived as so subversive and threatening to Herod and ultimately to Rome that both men were executed. John’s baptism was a seditious act, a public recruitment to a new Exodus like the liberation of the Hebrews from Pharaoh’s armies by passing through the waters of the Red Sea, slaves on one side, free on the other. It also invoked the miraculous crossing of the Jordan River by God’s people under the leadership of Joshua to claim the Promised Land. Jesus’ ministry extended these same themes with his provocative announcement of the “Kingdom of God” that led to deadly confrontation with those in power.

What distinguishes Christian baptism from many other programs of radical initiation is that Jesus calls his disciples to a nonviolent commitment to build community through reconciliation and compassion. Despite many aberrant examples in history of Christian violence, there can be no genuine evangelization through forced conversion or blind indoctrination. Murder is as forbidden by Jesus as it is by Mohammed, and all zealotry is suspect.

For us, as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and our own baptisms, the message is direct and personal. Where do our loyalties lie? How committed are we to live as a follower of the compassionate, nonviolent Jesus in a time of violent controversy and crises? Jesus pressed the cause of truth and justice not by force but by self-sacrifice and service of others, especially the most vulnerable and powerless among us. Are we prepared to imitate him when conflicts arise that threaten our interests and ideas?

Ultimately, our baptisms must lead not to the destruction of our enemies, political, ideological or personal, but to dialogue as a means to shared purpose, justice and respect for all, freedom from fear to pursue the truth together. Ours is a baptism that must not end in mass funerals but at weddings that joyfully celebrate new life.


Be Made Clean

Posted on 09 January 2015 by patmarrin

“Lord, if you wish, you can make me clean” (5:13).

The 1980 film “Elephant Man” tells the true story of John Merrick, a frightfully disfigured man living in 19th century Victorian England who was rescued from public display as a freak by a doctor at a large London hospital. Merrick’s story helped challenge social attitudes toward people suffering from physical and mental impairment. A similar theme is present in today’s Gospel about the encounter between Jesus and a leper.

The anxious cry of the leper gives us a hint of the drama underlying his request of Jesus. The poor man’s prostration and the hesitancy in his pleading tell us how discouraged he was at the prospects of being healed. He believes that Jesus has the power to heal him but is not sure Jesus will do so.

Leprosy was so feared by the community (think of AIDS in the 1980s or the recent hysteria in the United States over Ebola) that victims were expelled from all social contact, excluded from synagogue, forced to live at the outskirts of their villages, cut off from their own families.

The end of the story suggests that the man may have already gone to the priests to seek readmission and been turned away. The clergy’s power to verify non contagion involved their own unscientific and often moralistic judgment and a fee system that further subjected physically ill people to humiliation and spiritual exclusion. They were branded as sinful and their afflictions a sign of God’s punishment. Jesus dismisses the whole system when he heals the leper, restoring the man to full dignity and the assurance that it is God’s desire that he be whole. Then he sends the man back to the priest as a rebuke to religion’s role in further burdening those who were already suffering.

Jesus models for us both compassion and indignation at social attitudes and systems that further afflict the poor, homeless, ill and outcast as unworthy of help. We could easily make a list of our own social “untouchables.” The failure to see their inherent human dignity is a form of blindness to the presence of God in every human being.


Grace in the Moment

Posted on 08 January 2015 by patmarrin

"Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4:21).

However early it seems, the 2016 U.S. presidential elections are already on the horizon. We read daily in the news of this or that candidate positioning himself or herself to announce their candidacy. Many plan to launch their campaigns in their home states or home towns, outlining their ideas and programs surrounded by supporters and symbols that lend credibility to their call to leadership. They must convince others that they are the leader history now needs, advancing ideas whose time has come.

This is what happens in today's Gospel from Luke. Jesus enters the synagogue at Nazareth, is handed the scroll of Isaiah, finds the passage that describes the "servant" of Yahweh, sent to proclaim a new order filled with grace and freedom, especially for the poor and oppressed. The eyes of everyone are on Jesus as he finishes reading, and then he says, "Today this text is fulfilled in your hearing."

It is a bold claim to say the least, and the shocked assembly is first enthralled by the vision it invokes. Later the same people will turn on Jesus as an arrogant upstart and blasphemer. What happens in Nazareth at the beginning of Jesus' ministry foretells the end, when he will be executed in Jerusalem for challenging the prevailing order of power and oppression the vision of Isaiah challenges.

Jesus lived and moved in the power of the Spirit, always in the grace of the moment, in the right place at the right time. His obedience to the Spirit created the narrative of his life, death and resurrection. We, as his followers, are called to walk the same path of the Spirit.

If you have ever had a day in which everything seemed to come together and you always seemed to be in the right place at the right time, then you know what grace feels like. Imagine living your entire life in this flow of gracious insight and affirmation. Imagine what today could be in your everyday life if the Gospel we read were to come true. Are we not anointed and empowered to bring good news to the poor, freedom to captives, sight to the blind? In our own way, great or small, each of us is called to trust the Spirit is indeed alive in us and that each moment is filled with grace.

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.


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.


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.


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.