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Ascension

Posted on 31 May 2014 by patmarrin

'And now I will no longer be in the world, but they are in the world, while I am coming to you.” (John 17:11).

German poet Rainer Maria Rilke uses the metaphor of the "dark interval" to describe the silence between notes that makes music possible.

The Feast of the Ascension begins the dark interval between Jesus' departure and Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit and the birth of the church. It is a crucial interval in which the followers of Jesus wait and pray. Mary is with them, a keynote to the miracle of the church, which repeats the moment of conception Mary welcomed that made possible the Incarnation, "Word made flesh." Now the same Spirit will hover over the followers of Jesus and, with their consent, will make them the body of Christ in the world.

We celebrate Ascension by placing ourselves in the same waiting stance of prayer, opening our minds and hearts to the mystery of Jesus. In our generation, we are the body of Christ in the world. The Word becomes flesh in us. Our hands and feet, voices and actions are the means by which God is active in the world.

So we are faithful to the mystery when, together with Mary, the model disciple, we say, "Yes, be it done unto us according to your word." We are now in the dark interval. The music of redemption, love and reconciliation continues in us.

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Something Big and Lovely

Posted on 30 May 2014 by patmarrin

“ … and no one will take your joy away from you” (John 16:22).

I can think of no better way to mark today’s readings than to quote the late Doris Murphy (d. Aug 11, 2011), author and lifelong pastoral minister, from an article she wrote about stress in ministry, published in the September 2002 issue of Celebration:

“True, stress causes tension. But tension is sometimes necessary for good things to happen. Unless a violin string has a certain tension, beautiful music cannot be heard. Unless the adrenaline is really pumping the athlete may not win. Could it be that some of the stress in church ministry can be the stimulus for greater things to happen? There is a wonderful passage that speaks to this in the book Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott (p. 107):

'... this man worked for the Dalai Lama. And he said - gently - that they believe
when a lot of things start going wrong all at once, it is to protect something big
and lovely that is trying to get itself born - and that this something needs for you to be distracted so that it can be born as perfectly as possible.’

“What is the something big and lovely trying to be born?”

Doris served the church during the difficult years when the vision of Vatican II seemed to suffer from revisionists and traditionalists eager to dismiss it as an aberration from the steady march of the fortress church in history. She did not live to see the election of Pope Francis and the reawakening of the great call to reform first issued by John XXIII in 1959. But she trusted the Holy Spirit as the true Midwife of history. Conception had occurred and, as long as it took, something mysterious and wonderful was stirring and was going to be born no matter what.

We are in the birth pangs once again, but we can already rejoice that the Spirit is moving mightily in the church again as it tries to catch up with the many prophets, young and old, inside and outside the church, who have gone forward to welcome a renewed world. A different world is necessary. A different world is possible. Doris would rejoice to witness what we are being invited to see and help usher into reality.

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Hidden in Plain Sight

Posted on 29 May 2014 by patmarrin

"Why are you standing there looking at the sky?" (Acts 1:11)

The Ascension of Jesus has its parallel in the royal welcome given to a victorious general returning from battle to take his place at the right hand of the king. Jesus, victorious over sin and death, ascends in glory to heaven. He has taken captivity captive, overcome evil in all its forms and from his place at the throne of his Father he distributes the spoils of victory to his loyal companions.

But there is also another image of ascension to glory present in the scriptures, far more mysterious and demanding of the followers of Jesus than his departure to heaven. In this alternative scene, enshrinement and the focus on heaven are replaced by the image of Jesus going on ahead of his disciples into the world (Galilee), where they will encounter him in many different guises and settings, especially in so-called strangers and among the poor.

Matthew 25 shows us this dramatic continuation of the life of the risen Christ in the world, hidden in the hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned, sick and alienated poor. By serving them, we will encounter and serve Jesus. By ignoring them, we will deny Jesus and break communion with his commandment to love as the surest path to God.

At the end of the Ascension narrative in Acts, two messengers chide the disciples for standing there looking up at the clouds. We need heaven, the promise of future glory to motivate us, even as we need beautiful shrines to remind us of God's holy presence among us. But ritual devotion and ceremonial worship cannot substitute for seeking out the body of Christ in our brothers and sisters who need our compassion. The "real presence" of Jesus in the host and on the altar or displayed in our churches inspires us even as it points beyond itself to the greater mystery of God incarnate in the community and in the poor. Along with our devotions and time spent in personal prayer, we ask for eyes to see the glory of God everywhere, hidden in plain sight, and for the courage to love and worship him there.

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Faith Seeking Understanding

Posted on 28 May 2014 by patmarrin

When the Holy Spirit comes, he will guide you to all truth” (John 16:13).

NY Times columnist David Brooks offered his picks for summer reading, dividing his classics into two baskets: Athens and Jerusalem. This common distinction recognizes truth from science (philosophy) and truth from faith (ethics or religion). Among his Jerusalem favorites are St. Augustine’s Confessions and Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness.

The pursuit of human meaning by faith and reason is an ancient one. Paul came to Athens and tried to interest a group of Greek philosophers in the mystery of Christ by observing that among their shrines they had one dedicated “To an Unknown God.” Paul offers his best arguments from natural theology but is politely dismissed when he speaks of resurrection from the dead. He has crossed a threshold from rational speculation to belief, and the Greeks refuse to follow for lack of proof. Two millennia later, many prominent thinkers are stuck at the same safe, skeptical holding place with the same erudite theories about the origins and future of the universe.

In the 13th century, at the height of Christendom and church control of all education, daring thinkers like Albert the Great and his pupil Thomas Aquinas helped distinguish philosophy and theology as different approaches to the same truth. Their formula “faith seeking understanding” helped define modern thought as a dynamic, respectful dialogue between science and religion in which both camps need each other to explain the whole mysterious reality we are all part of.

Jesus tells his disciples on the eve of his Ascension that their journey to the truth will come in stages. “I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now,” he says. But he promises that the Holy Spirit will guide them to all truth. This Holy Spirit is for us believers the breath of history and the moving force behind all intellectual inquiry. We prepare for Pentecost by opening our minds and hearts to this Spirit and to sincere dialogue with every seeker of truth.

The Fall of the Tower of Power

Posted on 27 May 2014 by patmarrin

"If I do not go, the Advocate will not come to you" (John 16:7).

Paul's escape from prison by earthquake in the middle of the night (Acts16:22-34), like Peter's escape (Acts 5:17 ff), echoed the power of the resurrection of Jesus. No tomb, jail cell or shackles can hold back the Gospel. Grace is loose in the world.

The crucial transition has occurred. A frightened, cowardly group of disciples has been transformed by the Holy Spirit into the continued presence of the risen Christ. This expansion of the mystery of the Incarnation required that the historical Jesus depart so that the focus of God's Word could enter and animate the church.

One of the paradoxes of the growth of any movement is that as long as the founder or a single charismatic leader is in power, the rest of the organization stays dependent on their authority. Only when that person is gone can the power be diffused into the next generation of leaders. Only then can the movement evolve and adapt to changing circumstances.

A fearful organization that places absolute authority in one leader will never mature or be fully activated. The idea of collegiality, debated (and to large extent defeated) at the Second Vatican II, has continued to define the church as a monarchy, dependent upon the pope to make all the decisions. Pope Francis seems intent on changing this by entrusting the future of the church to a culture of discernment that involves broad consultation and the appointment of strong commissions on pastoral care of families, now addressing the sex abuse crisis and the need for financial transparency. The pope is effectively shifting control of the church from centralized Curial offices to broad episcopal and expert advisory bodies representing the whole church.

Make no mistake, we are witnessing a revolution in governance with the potential for a new Pentecost of shared responsibility and acknowledged charisms of the entire church, especially the laity, the 99 percent of the baptized being awakened from its long sleep of passivity and immaturity. There will be no going back if this is accomplished and formalized in church law, policy and structure.

Jesus is gone, but never gone. The church is alive with his crucified humanity and glorified divinity. We are the body of Christ, God's eternal Word proclaimed in our time and in our world. With courage, let us all take up the joy of the Gospel. Isn't this the real meaning of Pentecost?

Memorial Day: "Hello, I Must Be Going."

Posted on 26 May 2014 by patmarrin

“I have told you this so that when the hour comes you will remember” (John 16:4).

The time between Easter, Ascension and Pentecost invites us to reflect on the mystery of presence in absence. We often know someone more completely in their absence than when they were with us. Death and departure heighten our awareness of the meaning of someone’s life for us. This is an appropriate thought for today’s national Memorial Day celebration.

Acts 16 continues the story of Paul’s journeys into gentile territory. He arrives in Macedonia, where he meets a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple cloth, who is converted by his preaching. The name Lydia brings to mind the signature song by Groucho Marx: “Lydia, Oh Lydia, say have you met Lydia.” Or his other hit song, “Hello, I Must Be Going.” This tune especially might have been the theme song for Paul, who was constantly preaching, then moving on.

The theme of coming and going also rings true for the transition John describes in the last discourses. Jesus is saying goodbye and at the same time promising his continued presence in the Holy Spirit. “Hello, I must be going.” But when departed, he returns to dwell in the minds and hearts of his followers, who become his presence in the world. The Eucharist is what we do in memory of Jesus, but in doing so, we are also “re-membered” as his body.

The Hand-Off

Posted on 24 May 2014 by patmarrin

“They laid hands on them and they received the Holy Spirit” (Acts 8:17).

Relay races in track and field are won with speed but often come down to whether a team can successfully hand the baton from one runner to the next. A dropped baton ends their chances.

The whole idea of Apostolic succession is crucial to the church’s claim that its authority goes back to Jesus himself. The sign of succession is the laying on of hands. This act affirms that the Spirit is passed from one generation to the next, but also –- and this is essential — that it occurs in the flesh and blood touch, and thus affirms the Incarnation. The church is the body of Christ because it has never been out of touch with the Jesus, the embodiment of God in the world.

So the ritual of laying on of hands at ordination, confirmation and the use of oil and touch in administering the sacraments of baptism and the anointing of the sick, together with the implications of bodily intimacy in the Eucharist and Matrimony, this is how the mystery of God is extended in us, not just as an idea or spirit alone, but through our bodies. We are a hands-on religion, and we communicate with sacraments in order to be in touch with God and one another. Grace flows through nature, perfecting us in our bodies toward resurrection, our shared bodily existence in eternity.

This may seem an unfathomable, even abstract, notion, until we recall that the moments of genuine love we experience in life almost always involve touch. A reassuring hand on our shoulder, a child held, a a passionate embrace or tearful hug after reconciliation, a kiss hello or goodbye, sharing food with family, bathing an elderly person, holding hands with a friend –- all these human experiences become sacramental expressions of our unity in God, not as distant Spirit but as present among us, one of us.

Saint John, author of today’s beautiful love poem Gospel (John 14), also wrote in his first letter that our joy is complete because we have seen, heard and touched Life in Jesus. Thanks be to God, may we never lose touch or drop the baton we received and must hand on to one another.

I Call You Friends

Posted on 23 May 2014 by patmarrin

"It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you" (John 15:15).

Every life story in review will reveal that the most important gift we can give or receive is friendship. There is no wealth, power or accomplishment that can equal the joy of inhabiting with another person or persons that inner landscape of shared dreams and ideas that is true friendship. Always a pure gift, it is often larger and more mysterious than the friends themselves, something holy between them that yields continuous wonder, grounded in this world but transcending its limits. We remain separate individuals, free to come and go, but blessed with a mutual meeting place of rest and refreshment.

In the final hours of his life, Jesus tells his disciples that they are his friends. They did not choose him, but he chose them, and the intimate life he shares with them will connect them to the mystery of God. By remaining in his love, they will come to know the mind and heart of God. They will feel the breath of the Spirit surge into them, as at the first creation, expanding the horizons of their lives into eternity. Their mission will be to share this relationship with others, healing every kind of human brokenness and reconciling even the most damaged and distorted lives with the inexhaustible mercy of God.

Baptism brings us into this living web of relationships that is the body of Christ in time and space, God present and active in the world. We are friends with God, and we can count on God to provide everything we need for full lives, the same capacity for love Jesus himself showed during his time on this earth. We have been chosen, named, loved and sent to bring others into the circle of life, especially those most in need of God’s healing and forgiveness.

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Bustin' Loose

Posted on 22 May 2014 by patmarrin

"Why are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?" (Acts 15:11).

The council of Jerusalem is regarded as perhaps the most crucial meeting of church leaders in the history of the Catholic church. According to Acts, it opened the door to gentile converts without imposing on them the obligations of Mosaic law. It declared that it was not necessary, in other words, to be an observant, kosher and circumcised Jew in order to be a Christian.

The resounding argument for this new freedom came from St. Paul's insistence that everyone was saved, not by the Law but by faith and by the grace of Jesus Christ. On his missionary journeys he had witnessed the full outpouring of the Holy Spirit on both Jews and gentiles alike. To require full Jewish initiation of converts would make superfluous the salvation given by God in Jesus. Or, if it was made an enhanced option for some, it would split the church into gentile Christians and Jewish "super" Christians, thus defeating the reconciliation made possible by the death of Jesus. The council of elders in Jerusalem, representing the Jewish roots of the new movement, realized that if they insisted on remaining a Jewish sect, the church would not expand into the Mediterranean world. There would be no Christianity as we know it today.

Peter's dramatic speech in today's first reading added the observation that, in fact, no one had ever been able to keep all 613 prescriptions of the Law, so why should they be imposed on new converts? It would be hypocritical as well as impossible.

One possible application of this daring expansion of the church beyond tradition to adapt to the real world might be the upcoming Synod on the Family. News reports say that some church officials are shocked by the wide variance between official teaching on divorce and remarriage and the sensus fidelium of ordinary lay Catholics. Is it time the church admitted that annulments for those who could afford them have been a de facto end run around the indissolubility of marriage and a scandal to millions of Catholics who can no longer receive the sacraments because their first marriages failed. Are there other areas of Catholic teaching where legalism has superseded common sense and the spirit of mercy in a church where everyone, including the hierarchy, is a work in progress?

The Holy Spirit will bring the church into 21st Century because history demands it, tradition is dynamic not static, and because the Gospel of freedom and grace is more important than any sacred system of command and control that has never worked anyway.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Posted on 21 May 2014 by patmarrin

“Remain in me, as I remain in you” (John 15:3).

Spring moves into summer, and anyone with a garden or intent on yard work will identify easily with the powerful metaphor Jesus uses in today’s Gospel to illustrate the necessity of remaining in union with him if we want to live and produce something of value. He is the vine and we are the branches. A branch cut from the vine dies. Dead branches are removed and, when plants grow wild, a good gardener will cut back to concentrate energy and nutrients in the main plant.

Pruning takes skill and at first appears like loss. But the perfect rose or the choice grapes often require cutting away every lesser impulse to focus everything on the most promising output. For every success story, there has been sacrifice. The root of the verb “to decide” is to cut, to separate. What appears as loss is revealed as that “severe mercy” that focused our lives on a specific goal, a mastery of one thing rather than a defusion of will and purpose on many lesser goals.

The word of God, Jesus says, is what prunes us to produce good fruit in union with him, to be part of the vineyard of God’s plan to bring the world to maturity in justice and love. The word of God is a two-edged sword that cuts deeply into our secret, interior world where choices and motives are sorted out. We rejoice to be in the knowing hands of a master gardener whose only goal is to help us find life, fullness of life.

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