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Wait and Pray

Posted on 09 May 2016 by patmarrin

"We have never even heard that there is a Holy Spirit" (Acts 19:3).

As Paul expanded his ministry from Corinth, he discovered a group of believers in Ephesus who knew of the baptism of John but had not yet heard about the Holy Spirit. John's baptism was about repentance, but he spoke of another baptism, not just of with water but with fire and the Holy Spirit.

How many lifelong Christians have yet to hear about the promise of the Spirit as the second wind of the their development in the faith? It is one thing to consider that we have left behind sin at baptism. It is another to believe that we are empowered by the Spirit to live a life of holiness and love that transcends keeping the commandments. The story of Pentecost is about ordinary men and women who felt totally inadequate and unworthy being transformed by God to do amazing things.

Jesus knew his disciples would have to go through failure and doubt before they could understand the gift of the Holy Spirit. They had to be vessels emptied of pride and self-reliance before the Spirit could indwell and empower them. The Spirit does not replace or override our natural gifts, but perfects them with grace to work on a scale we could not imagine. Like the five loaves and two fish a child offered to feed a hungry crowd in the wilderness, whatever we bring to God will be multiplied to meet the need.

The days between Ascension and Pentecost are a time of prayer and expectation. Open your hearts to what God wants to do through us as church. Pentecost was the Jewish celebration of harvest. A great harvest of goodness is ready to be gathered into God. We are the workers chosen to share this labor of divine love.

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Ascending and Descending, God With Us

Posted on 07 May 2016 by patmarrin

Preachers note: Whether we celebrate Ascension or the 7th Sunday of Easter, the theme is the same: Jesus departs and returns in his Holy Spirit.

“As Jesus blessed them he parted from them and was taken up to heaven” (Luke 24:52).

The Ascension of Jesus is a theological event loaded with scriptural and cultural associations that give context and meaning to this key transition from his historical presence to his presence in the church.

For the evangelists, Jesus repeats and fulfills the dramatic departure of Elijah, who drops his cloak and a double portion of this spirit onto Elisha, his prophet apprentice. For Luke, writing for an increasingly gentile audience in the Roman empire, Jesus’ Ascension apes the reception of a conquering general returning to stand at the right hand of the emperor and distribute booty to his army. By comparison, a cosmic, triumphant Jesus stands at the throne of the Father and pours out charisms on his followers, the church.

One of the most striking fulfillment images for the Ascension was captured not by a theologian but by poet James Dickey and artist Marvin Hayes in their book, God’s Images (1977). With text and drawing, they show Jesus lifting away from his disciples, the pulse in his thick veins visible as one of the disciples reaches out as though to hold him back by the ankle. He is the firstborn Esau, seized by his younger twin Jacob in the birthing, revealing his destiny to take the blessing from his older brother. So the disciples are enlivened with the blood pulse of Jesus as he departs, for they are now his presence in the world by the power of his Holy Spirit.

At baptism we have all received the cloak and spirit of Jesus, the pulse and breath of his divine identity in the flesh and blood of our shared humanity. His redemptive mission continues in time and space through us. In union with him and the paschal mystery of dying to ourselves to live his new life, we will share his divinity. Sometimes called the best kept secret of Christianity, this promise of divine life is what is being transferred to us in the Ascension and at Pentecost.

If it seems too good to be true, make it real by feeling the pulse in your neck and your expanding chest with your next deep breath. God is that close —even closer— to us, because God created us and sustains us in existence by love. By celebrating these important feasts together around the eucharistic table, we acknowledge the gift God is offering us. Theology becomes art, poetry, then life in us if we believe it and live it. What greater adventure is there? What other path can lead to such glory?

Breakdown or Breakthrough?

Posted on 06 May 2016 by patmarrin

"You will grieve, but your grief will become joy" (John 16:21).

In his farewell discourses to his disciples Jesus describes the difficult process they will have to undergo as a birthing experience. His death will bring about their birth. His return to his Father will mean the sending of the Holy Spirit. His necessary absence from history as Jesus of Nazareth will make possible his presence as Jesus the Christ, active in the world through his body, the church.

No birth comes easily or without risk. Pentecost, the birthday of the church, is traumatic as the Spirit comes in wind, fire and earthquake. (See Fr. Roger Karban's article about mercy on this site for a reflection on the implications of this birth for today's church). The turmoil and fear we are witnessing in our world today, especially in our politics, seems to many to be total breakdown, but is it not also a blessed breakthrough? A new world is rising from the shell of the old.

Anne Lamott, in her book Traveling Mercies, tells of a Tibetan belief that “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 us to be distracted so that it can be born as perfectly as possible."

That something big and lovely is the future. It is challenging us to the core and will change everything. But let us welcome it, a new birth in hope and our destiny as members of the body of Christ in the world.

Now You See Me

Posted on 05 May 2016 by patmarrin

" A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while and you will see me" (John 16:16).

Whether a diocese celebrates the Ascension today or on Sunday, the theme in the readings is the same; the crucial transfer of Jesus' mission and message to his disciples, the church.

Ascension is clearly a theological event for the evangelists, not a physical or historical "lift off." Luke uses the 50-day interval between Passover and Pentecost in the Jewish calendar to frame the death-resurrection-ascension-sending of the Spirit by Jesus. John telescopes all these major mysteries into Jesus' death on the cross, when "the Son of Man is lifted up," breathes out his Spirit on the church, which is born in blood and water from his pierced side, the new Eve from the new Adam.

The focus in both schemes is the commissioning of the Apostles to be the continuation of the presence and activity of Jesus in history. The large group of disciples, both men and women, gathered in the upper room with Mary at Pentecost, is born as Christ's body in the world. We share that identity when we are baptized. It is an amazing revelation, greater and deeper than any meta-theory or cosmology posed to explain the meaning and purpose of life. In Jesus we come to know who God is and who we are and why we are here.

In today's Gospel, Jesus speaks of the "little while" between his departure in death and reappearance as risen and in the Spirit. John uses the word "see" to mean both physical sight and seeing in faith. It is with Spirit-graced insight that we come to know Jesus and ourselves as his disciples. It is a lifelong process of learning and participating in the central mystery of our human and spiritual development. And it is the only reality worth seeking and claiming -- friendship with God and with one another, now and for all eternity.

A New World Coming

Posted on 04 May 2016 by patmarrin

I have much more to tell you, but you cannot bear it now" (John 16:12).

The movie title "The Man Who Knew Too Much" captures something of the dilemma faced by prophets, mystics and visionaries.

Paul was certainly one of them, and his carefully crafted speech to an audience of sophisticated Greek philosophers in Athens falls flat when he mentions the resurrection of Jesus. They, being fashionable skeptics, were not about to be evangelized by this clever Jew from Tarsus. Paul's cosmic solution to the problem of death would have required conversion, and they were not ready to submit to any act of faith.

Jesus tries to prepare his disciples for his departure, and he knows that they will not be able to bear the full revelation of his coming suffering or their own participation in his death and resurrection. They will need the help of the Holy Spirit. What Paul later grasped as the Paschal Mystery would only be understood over time as the church accepted the redemptive role it was to play in turning history in a different direction. Has any age ever been been ready to accept God's revolution of the heart to bring justice and love to bear on its structures and cultural values?

Pope Francis might have been a successful politician for his skills at proposing a transformative vision to a world desperate for reform. But Francis is not a politician. He is a prophet who must challenge the world to more than a utopian or humanitarian program of change. He is a preacher who must hold up the crucified and risen Christ as the meaning of history. His burden is to warn an unjust, wasteful and arrogant post-modern world that it is courting doom by not repenting of its extravagances and inequalities, its destructive patterns of consumption and abuse of the poor. Who can bear such a message, or even take it seriously?

As the community of the baptized, we must bear it and become prophets ourselves, for our own sake and the sake of our children. This is beyond us, of course, an impossible charge to our battered church and its shallow commitment to change as collaborators who benefit from the way things are.

This is why Pentecost is necessary. We already know too much and it is too late to turn back. So fasten your seatbelts and put on a crash helmet. Something wonderful is about to happen.

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To Know Me Is to Know God

Posted on 03 May 2016 by patmarrin

"Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me?" (John 14:9).

If there was any logic to Jesus' selection of the Apostles, it might be that each one revealed some aspect of our common humanity as he or she encountered the mystery of God in Jesus.

Philip is described as a practical realist. He is the Apostle who took charge in the miracle of the multiplication of bread and fish. Seeing the overwhelming challenge of the huge, hungry crowd, he quickly calculated the number, then the cost per person of feeding everyone (200 day's wages).

In today's Gospel, as Jesus waxes mystical to the Apostles with talk of "going the Father," Philip asks him to show them the Father. This occasions Jesus' beautiful revelation that he and the Father are one, and that to have seen him is to have seen the Father. The fourth Gospel, the last of the Gospels, will explore this mystery, which became the basis for the early church's startling conclusion that the one God of their Jewish tradition was, in fact, a community of three Persons: Father, Son and Spirit, the Holy Trinity.

We have only human analogies to approach this mystery. A suitor eager to meet his beloved's parents will quickly discover that to know her is to know them. A child will mirror the influence of his mother and father. Lovers come to know a whole hidden world of relationships in each other as vulnerabilities and graces are gradually revealed.

On this feast of the Apostles Philip and James, we are encouraged to get to know Jesus. Like all good friendships, there is an infinite depth here. What we learn in this life is our greatest blessing. But the joy of being with him will take an eternity, what heaven is for.

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Alpha and Omega, Beginning and End.

Posted on 02 May 2016 by patmarrin

"You have been with me from the beginning" (John 15:27).

We use the expression "You had to be there" to describe the importance of someone knowing the whole story to put some detail into perspective. "You really had to be there."

The original witnesses to the story of Jesus could say, "We were with him from the beginning." When the Apostles needed to replace Judas, one of the qualifications was that a candidate had to know the whole story and been part of the experience with Jesus from his baptism forward. In today's Gospel, Jesus says that when the Spirit comes, the disciples will be able to testify to him under persecution because "you have been with me from the beginning."

At the same time, we know that many of the original apostles who were with Jesus during his public ministry were pretty clueless, while those who came after -- especially Paul -- understood Jesus far better. In fact, one of the great challenges of the early church was convincing second and third generation believers that they had the same access to Jesus that earlier disciples had had.

We are part of this group of late-comers, and the Good News is that 2,000 years after Jesus walked the earth, we can have intimate knowledge of him in faith. Through prayer, liturgy, reading the scriptures, and especially by imitating Jesus in our own lives, we can live in union with him. This is our baptismal identity, to be members of the body of Christ, sharing in the heartbeat and breath of our brother and Lord, Jesus the Christ, present and active in the world through us.

There is a special grace in the lives of those who got an early start and have deepened their relationship with God from childhood. I remember serving Mass back in the 1950s and thinking about the prayers at the foot of the altar we had to memorize. Introibo ad altare Dei. Ad Deum qui laetificat juventutem meum. The translation was parallel to the Latin. "I will go to the altar of God. To God, who gives joy to my youth." It moves me to remember this. Only years later could I appreciate the blessing of having been given this experience of the holiness of God's house and of the Mass.

But conversion is not a matter of when, or even in calendar time. It is a matter of depth whenever God whispers to our hearts. Some people need a childhood faith, others come freely as adults, in gratitude or in crisis. The important thing is to know that the purpose of life is to encounter God, to fall in love with God, to respond by loving all God's children around us. God, who is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega, encompasses every life story, and all we have to do is say "yes."

Hello, I Must Be Going

Posted on 30 April 2016 by patmarrin

"If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going to the Father" (John 14:28).

The title of this entry is a song from Groucho Marx. "Hello, I must be going" captures something of the frenetic comedy of the Marx Brothers, but it also speaks to the mystery of Jesus' brief time among us as a human being in history, and why he could not stay longer. Some believers wish he had stayed so we could have known him directly and so we would know exactly what to do under his direction.

But it was not to be, and his departure was necessary for his mission and his Holy Spirit to become incarnate in us with the birth of the church. This departure (Ascension) and return (Pentecost) was so the Incarnation could be extended in time and space by his followers, generation by generation, right down to us. We are the body of Christ in the 21st Century. The mission of Jesus has spread across the globe through us. If Jesus had remained in historical time in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, everything would be focused on him and him alone.

The transfer of the mystery of Jesus into us is as important now as his human birth into the world was 2,000 years ago. For many, it is easier to believe that God became human in Jesus of Nazareth way back when than that he is in the world through us now. How little confidence we have that God could dwell in us and teach, preach and work miracles though us. Yet this is exactly what Jesus promised: "We (Father, Son and Spirit) will come and dwell within you." "Anything you ask for in my name, the Father will give you." "The Holy Spirit, the Advocate will teach you everything..."

We are like people who pray and pray for God's help, but then will not take "yes" for an answer. The mission is ours to carry out, and Jesus has promised to be with us always. The Father loves us just he he loves Jesus. Their Holy Spirit has been poured out into us for the redemption of the world. We are the instruments of that redemptive ministry. Why would anyone hang back and fail to participate in so great a calling?

Trust takes time in human relationships, and low self-confidence is one of the effects of sin. It is too good to be true to think that God might love us this much, with all our failures and imperfections. So Jesus came to his first disciples as overwhelming mercy and patience, loving them into shape to receive his mission. They had to experience it to trust it. And so it is with us. All the more reason to start now to live as though God dwells in you, and every grace you need to change the world, beginning with your own life, is available to you today.

I Have Chosen You

Posted on 29 April 2016 by patmarrin

"It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will last" (John 15:16).

Perhaps it is only in retrospect that we begin to understand that our lives have been shaped and directed by God's grace. Of course, we must make decisions, respond to opportunities, face adversity and seem to be guiding ourselves. But in the end, anything of lasting value we accomplish is revealed as pure gift, the result of being given resources and relationships that lift us up out of individual effort to something larger than we could ever have imagined.

This was certainly true of Catherine of Siena, whose feast we celebrate today. Catherine was gifted by God from childhood with an extraordinary sense of the divine presence. She rose from obscurity to guide governments and counsel popes. She was unlettered, yet produced a profound theology of the Incarnation of Jesus from her intimate encounters with him in prayer. In her brief 33 years, she changed the course of church history and left us with the model of woman who would not take no for an answer once she saw what needed to be done.

Jesus tells his disciples, and us, "You did not choose me; I chose you." Our yes to him carries us into the mystery of the Incarnation, God present in the flesh, our flesh, our lives active in the world. We rejoice to be part of the body of Christ, the community of men and women whose very lives have become love stories and adventures in grace.

Remain in My Love

Posted on 28 April 2016 by patmarrin

"Remain in my love" (John 15:9).

Constancy is the secret of any enduring relationship, whether a friendship or a marriage. People who stay in love over time build familiarity into continuity, develop precious trust that comes from having survived together through the best of the times and the worst of times.

Jesus invites us into this kind of relationship over time. If we "remain in love," we will realize that he is always there, through every dark night, every loss and disappointment. He surrounds us with patience, pulls us through the bad times when we are ready to give up on ourselves and can't believe that anyone, even God, could still love us.

This is the "Joy of Love" Pope Francis writes about in his exhortation on the family. It is not the euphoria of passion or pure affirmation all the time, but rather the steady accompaniment of people who really know us and believe in us no matter what. It survives the seasons of life, the stages of failure and recovery, it blesses and encourages us when we ago astray and make mistakes or are ready to quit.

Wherever communities survive there are usually lots of love stories going on, especially long-term commitments, tried, true and tested friendships that keep the group going when discouragement hits or everyone is tired or bored with every day maintenance. Over time, everyone realizes what a gift it is to belong to such a community. When everything else fails, it helps to define and motivate us to be much larger than any one individual.

The church is going through some hard times, lots of disillusionment and serious failings to face and deal with. A lot of people have given up and left. Now is the time to remain in love, to be part of the problem solving and hard effort every mature community has to grow through in order to go forward. The good news is that Jesus is with us, always and everywhere, encouraging us to love one another. He is that constant light in the darkness, all the brighter and clearer because we need it so much.