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New Wine, New Wineskins

Posted on 05 September 2014 by patmarrin

“No one pours new wine into old wineskins” (Luke 5:37).

The question was about fasting. Jesus answered with a wedding. No one fasts at a wedding. So his disciples do not fast as do those of John the Baptist, because the bridegroom is with them.

Something new is happening. It is like new wine, bubbling up, expanding, effervescent, alive. Don’t put it in old wineskins, already stretched and tight, for it will burst the seams and spill out. No, new wine into new wineskins.

Something new is happening. It is not about institutional change or structural realignment. It about love that transforms relationships, creates new life, new possibilities. It is unpredictable and risky. Be ready to expand with it, accommodate it, wait for it to reveal itself.

God gives bread to sustain us, but wine is to make us joyful, exuberant, vulnerable to one another. The first sign was given at Canna, a wedding feast, where the water of legal and ceremonial washing was changed into fine wine for the celebration of love. The Bridegroom is here.

Pray for new wine, but first pray for a new heart to hold it. Make your life a wedding feast. Joy is the surest sign of the presence of God. The Bridegroom is here.

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The Call

Posted on 04 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8).

The story of the astonishing catch of fish in Luke is also the story of Jesus’ call of Peter to become a disciple. It contains what photographers have called the “decisive moment” that tells the whole story. The look on Peter’s face is not just about the catch of fish where all night there had been no fish. He has just experienced a theophany, an encounter with God in the man standing before him in the boat. And the light of that revelation makes transparent his own naked sense of inadequacy, his sinfulness. “Depart from me, Lord,” he says to Jesus as he falls to his knees.

The call of Peter is not unlike other biblical calls: Moses at the burning bush; Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel; the conversion of St. Paul. In each case, the person being called feels the floor of their very existence fall out from beneath them. They are overwhelmed by their own unworthiness and inability to do what they are being invited to do. The call is what empowers them to go beyond themselves to a new kind of life. What the evangelicals call “conviction of sin” clears the way for the gift of salvation, to make sure the person knows it is not something they have earned or deserve.

There are human equivalents to this experience. Perhaps the most exhilarating is the “look of love” two people see in one another’s eyes that invites them into a mutual relationship they know is pure gift, total acceptance that defies logic and sets aside all inadequacy. I choose you. Or a moment of unconditional forgiveness that wipes clean some offense and restores a life-saving friendship. In either, case, love calls us to a deeper level of responsibility and loyalty. There is no turning back now.

We know the rest of Peter’s story—a life-changing journey of both courage and failure that will unite him to Jesus in both life and death.

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At Sunset

Posted on 03 September 2014 by patmarrin

“He laid hands on each of them and cured them” (Luke 4:40).

Mothers know that children get particularly cranky in the early evenings. After a long day of learning and conforming (more or less) to adult expectations, children “fall apart” around bedtime, cry a lot, need to be soothed.

Nursing home staff experience that same phenomenon with some residents, even have a name for it: “sunset syndrome,” when the mix of medications and the approaching night hours seem to disorient and cause anxiety. Patients need to be soothed.

In today’s gospel, Jesus first heals Peter’s mother-in-law, then, at sunset, faces a large crowd of people suffering from various diseases and disturbances. He touches each person, quieting and curing them, dispelling evil spirits from some. As darkness falls and the usual night terrors approach that all sick and elderly people (and all of us) have encountered at times, peace falls over the town. The source of all Life is among them; there is no need to fear anything.

There is no medicine more soothing than the touch of someone who loves you, or more reassuring words than “I’m right here with you.” We have all known the dark hours that test the soul and make us feel utterly alone. No one comes to human maturity without a sleepless night. It is only then that we learn to pray, and when we come to know that for every sunset there is a sunrise.

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Safe at Home

Posted on 02 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Who knows what pertains to a person except the spirit within that person?” (1 Cor 2:11).

In today’s first reading from 1 Corinthians, St. Paul explores one of the deep mysteries of what it means to be a human being. As bodies, we are also individual selves, possessing self-consciousness. We can “see” ourselves thinking, and are thus able to freely direct our thoughts and motives to act. By expressing ourselves in this way, we establish our identities in the world. We become individual selves.

Not only is this an amazing thing, but St. Paul says that God also has a Spirit –- the divine Self –- and that Spirit and our spirit commune, enabling us to know the mind of God and to live at a level of spiritual discernment that elevates us above blind animal nature. We are invited to share friendship with God because Jesus has bridged human consciousness and divine consciousness.

In today’s Gospel (Luke 4:31 ff), Jesus demonstrates his spiritual authority. He comes to the synagogue in Capernaum and there encounters a man possessed by a demonic spirit. He expels it and restores the man to himself. Jesus is in touch with the Source -- the Author -- of life. His very presence reasserts human wholeness and balance.

Our ability to give ourselves in love depends first on self-possession and self-respect. The Great Commandment affirms that right relationship with God and neighbor is measured through the self. We love God with our whole self -- heart, mind and strength -- and then our neighbor as our self. A distortion in our sense of self lessens our ability to see clearly, judge accurately what is true.

Prayer -- that conscious intimate conversation with God each day -- is what anchors us into our true selves. When the storms of life assault us with self-doubt, the need for approval, fear of rejection, the temptation to open our hearts to any passing influence, we rely on the Spirit to keep us safe and centered in God. There alone do we find peace, purpose and joy.

Labor Day

Posted on 01 September 2014 by patmarrin

“Is this not the son of Joseph?” (Luke 4:23).

Jesus returned to his hometown and entered the synagogue on the Sabbath. The attendant handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and Jesus proclaimed the lines from Chapter 61 that summarized his mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.”
It is a familiar scene, but on this Labor Day let us imagine it in a somewhat different way to ask an important question about the glad tidings Jesus brought to the world.

The townspeople in Nazareth identified Jesus as the son of Joseph, a local carpenter. Jesus himself was known as a carpenter. Let us imagine that Jesus is speaking to a large gathering of carpenters in the synagogue that Sabbath. They want to organize to improve their lot, better negotiate a fair wage for their labor, set standards for their profession to ensure quality workmanship. Jesus finds in the scroll of Isaiah words that validate their desire to act in solidarity for the good of the community, the freedom of all workers to live decent lives and be treated justly. God wants them to live full lives, free of oppression, injury and exploitation. Amid great joy, they form the first union of carpenters in Galilee. This is good news.

The history of labor has many martyrs, men and women crushed by powerful interests that have grown wealthy on the backs of slaves, peasants, tenant farmers and low wage workers who tried to improve their lot by protests, work stoppages and strikes. Their cause has advanced human dignity for hundreds of millions of people whose hard work built the world.

Though we think of Jesus as bringing a different kind of kingdom, it is good for us to remember that he was a carpenter, a Savior who knew what is was to work with his hands to provide food and shelter for a family. The same God who looked on him as his beloved Son and anointed him with the Holy Spirit also blessed him in his human endeavors. We should celebrate this blessing on Labor Day on behalf of all those who work. They, too, are building God's kingdom and ushering in the new creation.

The Peter Principle

Posted on 30 August 2014 by patmarrin

"You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matt 16:23).

Pope Francis was recently asked how he copes with his immense popularity. He said he thinks about his sins. St. Peter would understand this. His leadership of the church was founded on both his strengths and his weaknesses. Today’s Gospel is the second part of the scene in which he correctly identifies that Jesus is the Messiah and is told that he will be the rock on which the church is built. But right after this, he totally misses the kind of Messiah Jesus will be and is reprimanded for trying to deter Jesus from his suffering mission. In one moment Peter is “rock,” and in the next he is “satan.”

The pattern is repeated in other gospel stories. Peter daringly steps out of the boat to walk to Jesus on the water, then loses his faith and begins to sink. Peter boasts at the Last Supper that even if everyone else abandons Jesus, he never will. A few hours later, he denies even knowing him. Peter is deeply flawed, yet Jesus wants him to lead the small faith community through the crisis of the cross and the challenge of the resurrection to witness the Gospel message to the whole world.

The New Testament portrait of Peter is in marked contrast to the hero worship and tremendous feats attributed to other important figures in history. Why is Peter remembered by the church with so many glaring shortcomings? The answer seems to be that Jesus wanted someone who had experienced God’s mercy to the full to lead the church whose message was mercy.

The so-called "Peter Principle" in business theory is that managers tend to rise to the level of their incompetence, then stay there. In the case of St. Peter, he rose to the level at which he needed the most forgiveness, then was ready to lead the church in preaching forgiveness.

This Sunday invites us to celebrate our weaknesses and failures as the foundation of our own understanding of mercy and compassion for others. If we keep in mind our own sins, we are less likely to judge others or take ourselves too seriously. Gathering for worship in our local churches, we can rejoice in the odd assortment of flawed people we belong to. Hope is inseparable from a sense of humor, and that is another thing Pope Francis seems to model very well.

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The Sign of the Cross

Posted on 29 August 2014 by patmarrin

“When the disciples heard about it, they came and took his body and laid it in a tomb” (Mark 6:29).

Beheading is back in the news with the death of a young American journalist in the turbulent Middle East. Decapitation, like crucifixion, is not only a brutal way to kill someone but a way to send a message. The beheading of John the Baptist in today’s gospel was Herod’s way to signal the end of a movement that threatened his authority and his standing with the occupying Romans. Decapitate the movement by killing its leader. Severed heads were kept to insure that the deceased was verifiably dead. John’s disciples presumably were allowed to reclaim only the headless body for burial.

The story is important in the gospels because it marks a point of no return for Jesus. His preaching ministry may be about love and healing and Good News, but it is clearly roiling the powers that see him as a rival to their control. If he continues on this path, his fate will be that of John the Baptist, or worse. Public humiliation and a cruel death lie ahead. A shadow falls over the joyous Galilean ministry. Jesus will try three times to prepare his disciples for what seems like a terrible reversal of fortune. The road to Jerusalem leads not to triumph but to disaster.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1:17-25), he argues that in the cross lies hidden the wisdom of God. Jesus overcomes death with self-sacrificing love. This seems foolish to the Jews and the Greeks, but it is a paradox central to the mystery of our redemption. God sends his only son to suffer the consequences of human sin. The cross is the instrument of our salvation. The sign of the cross handed down in history is that all suffering for the sake of love is redemptive. What is in fact the human condition of self-sacrificing love is taken up into the divine plan to save the world from itself. The crucified, murdered, tortured and beheaded victims of sin will triumph over oppression, evil and death. Jesus leads the way by his cross and resurrection.

We have the pattern. We sign ourselves with it every time we pray. It is stamped and sealed on our lives at baptism. There is no way to experience the glory of the Christ without also accepting the challenge of self-sacrificing love. For most of us, this will not entail heroic or public suffering, but all of us will find ordinary ways to give ourselves away in love, lose ourselves in the common good, empty ourselves into the lives of others in order to find fulfillment. God was there first. Jesus shows us how to live fully and die well. This is the sign of the cross.

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St. Augustine, a faithful servant

Posted on 28 August 2014 by patmarrin

“Who is the faithful and prudent servant the master has put in charge of his household?” (Matt 24:44).

St. Augustine (354-430) is regarded as one of the great Patristic writers of the Western church. As a convert and later bishop of the city of Hippo in North Africa, he brokered Catholic doctrine into what emerged as Christendom, the passage of the church into a workable accommodation with contemporary philosophy and civil authority. His writings on original sin, sexuality, just war and other issues shaped church teaching for a millennium. Today’s gospel describes the faithful household servant who is put in charge in the master’s absence. Augustine was such a servant. His feast is celebrated together with that of his mother, St. Monica (August 27), whose tears brought her son to conversion.

Despite the controversies surrounding Augustine's influence and the many accommodations and compromises that shaped the primitive church and the gospel itself down through history, it seems clear that without teachers like St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Benedict, St. Thomas Aquinas and others who guided the tradition across complex cultural thresholds, there would be no Catholic church as we know it today. The message of history is that the church is a dynamic mystery that must carry its essential truths through a constant process of dialogue, enculturation and adaptation. The idea that the church never changes is an illusion. If Augustine or Aquinas were living today, they would be creative, even radical, voices moving the church to engage with current issues and new challenges to the Christian faith. They would faithful servants of the household eager to see that everyone was fed and cared for.

Pope Francis is such a servant. His determination to lead the church from a stagnant, defensive posture to full engagement with contemporary questions is the sign of a good steward. What he accomplishes will depend on all of us and our own willingness to see life as an adventure and not a comfort zone.

Last Call

Posted on 27 August 2014 by patmarrin

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you are like whitewashed tombs” (Matt 23:27).

It is hard to imagine a more devastating criticism leveled at prominent figures in the community than the image Jesus throws at the scribes and Pharisees in today’s Gospel. They are like a cemetery filled with impressive tombs that contain nothing but dead men’s bones. “The corruption of the best is the worst,” said the late priest scholar critic Ivan Illich, addressing distortions within the church of the authentic Gospel message. The severity of Jesus’ attack on the religious establishment of his day was in proportion to its failure to lead people to God.

The same joyful Jesus who thanked his Father for revealing to little ones what was hidden from the learned and clever (Matt 11:25), now turns loose a torrent of prophetic condemnation on leaders and teachers who obstruct the simple, direct path of ordinary lives to the joy of God’s unconditional love because it serves their own status to make that path complicated and difficult. We may even be shocked to hear such harsh words from the Good Shepherd, the Physician of Souls, the Savior of the world. He certainly sealed his own fate by publicly attacking those in power. Matthew’s Gospel moves quickly from this point on toward the passion and death of Jesus.

Like Pope Francis' chilling pronouncement that members of the Mafia are already excommunicated, the only thing that might justify so severe a warning from Jesus was that it was a final wake-up call to those who were already morally and spiritually dead. Jesus was calling them back from the grave. They were like Lazarus, loved even in death and summoned back to life, or like Dives in the Lucan parable, who begs Abraham to send a messenger to his five doomed brothers, also blinded by their wealth and privilege.

Because love is stronger than death, God offers, in Evelyn Waugh’s metaphor, that final “twitch upon the thread” fixed to the errant heart. Turn around, see the look of love, come home, choose life.

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Conversion of Heart

Posted on 26 August 2014 by patmarrin

“You strain out the gnat and swallow the camel” (Matt 23:24).

Jesus’ critique of the religious leaders of his day focused on two things. They lacked a sense of proportionality or priority about what laws were important and what laws were less so; and they were more concerned about outward appearance than they were about inner conversion. They washed the outside of the cup but not the inside. The result was a leadership tending toward fussy legalism and lacking in transparency and sincerity. The scribes and Pharisees had rendered themselves ineffective by their air of superiority and lack of common sense when it came to the life struggles facing ordinary people. They were seen as hypocrites and “blind guides.”

What must have frustrated Jesus the most was the fact that their attitudes and behaviors misrepresented God. Many of Jesus' parables were about a very different God: a shepherd who seeks out lost sheep, a father who never stops loving his prodigal son, a vineyard owner who gives every worker a full day’s page. And Jesus demonstrated God’s compassion and mercy in his own approach to the poor, the sick, outcasts and sinners. He welcomed them and socialized with them. He was like a doctor who came for the sick, not those who had no need of care.

The call to a life of Christian virtue is 90 percent grace and 10 percent human effort. We have to show up and do our best, but whatever holiness we experience is God’s gift. Virtue is often its own reward, bringing order and peace to our lives. Today’s gospel alerts us to the one danger that a good life presents—that in our desire to be good we also become perfectionists who judge others, or are scrupulous about ritual acts for appearance sake while ignoring the messier challenges and dilemmas of love.

It is not surprising that all of Jesus’ disciples were imperfect people, even downright failures who had to be forgiven and guided to doing the right thing. Their example is for us, a source of encouragement to begin again each day, no matter what.