Lent and Easter Reflections

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

We Are Called

"Come and you will see" (John 1:37). 

The New Year gives us a chance to examine our priorities and the direction of our lives. While so many New Year's resolutions focus on self-improvement, the scriptures offered us in the liturgy remind us that discipleship is the key to finding ourselves and our real purpose. We will find ourselves by submitting to instruction. The first step is to find the true Master. 

Today's Gospel tells us about the first disciples, who began with John the Baptist, but at his urging, seek out Jesus. They literally follow Jesus home. When he turns and asks them what they are seeking, they answer, "Teacher, where do your live?"  In modern parlance, this is similar to asking "where are you at?" or "where are you coming from," referring to a person's home base or basic values.  The fact that they call Jesus "Teacher" reveals that they see him as a source of knowledge and direction they are seeking. They want to be his students, his disciples. 

Jesus invites them to join him where he lives, in his innermost dwelling, which is his Father. Just as he is listening to and obeying his Abba, so he shares this same source and center with them. If they "remain" with him, another key word in this passage, they will gradually "come and see" what Jesus knows intimately -- the inner life of God, the face of the Abba, which is mercy. 

One of them,  Andrew, is the brother of Simon the fisherman, who will become Peter. Jesus meets Simon, a name that means "reed," or someone vacillating in the wind, and changes his name to Peter, which means "rock." This name change indicates the path of transformation that lies ahead for Simon Peter. Jesus knows him better than he knows himself. Peter's new name begins the process of discipleship that will make him the leader of the Apostles.

The story puts strong emphasis on the fact that Jesus "looks" at each of his disciples in a deep and knowing way. His look of understanding and love is the essence of the call to intimate discipleship with him. Jesus is calling them to be with him, where he lives, and to remain with him until their identities and missions are fulfilled. They become themselves by being with Jesus, for he is the Christ, the authentic human being, sent by God to restore humanity to the image and likeness of God. 

Jesus sees each of us as God sees us. To be a disciple is to abandon every mask and false self, cultivated to gain approval or to be culturally accepted. To be a disciple is to surrender the greatest illusion of all, that we are sufficient unto ourselves, little gods who can create ourselves. To be a disciple is to "get real,"  grounded in the plan and purpose God created us for. 

We begin to be that real self when we follow Jesus, find where he lives, stay with him, listen to him, and enter into intimate union with the mystery of his humanity and, ultimately, his divinity.

Who We Are

"See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are." (1 John 2:29). 

The late Patristics scholar and historian, Benedictine Fr. Godfrey Diekmann, often said that the Gospel of divine life was the best kept secret of the church. How are we to absorb and then live the idea that we are children of God, destined to share the inner life of the Trinity for all eternity? Being a human being is challenging enough, yet the truth of the Incarnation is that Jesus made every human act holy. Human struggle and suffering are holy. Everyday ordinary tasks are holy. Every human relationship has a sacramental dimension: To love one another is to know God. We are full of grace.

For Diekmann, salvation came when Jesus took up our human journey, infusing every human life with divine possibilities, opening us to a new destination that empowers us to live differently, more fully and without fear. The path to holiness and the path to human maturity are now the same path. The glory of God is a human being fully alive. Every human talent is multiplied within community. Personal plans are enhanced and fulfilled when they serves the common good. We are brought together by the Holy Spirit in a great web of mutual giving that unites us as the body of the risen Christ in the world. 

John the Baptist called Jesus "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world." What did this mean? Redemption was not rescue from without, but restoration from within. Because Jesus was human, he could engage and transform every distortion and weakness in our nature by reorienting it back to God. Jesus confronted our temptations in his own body. He struggled with human pride and the urge to rebel, and he submitted himself in perfect obedience to God.

Jesus sought out the broken-hearted, the self-destructive and the outcast, embracing them and restoring them to God and to the community. In every encounter with evil, Jesus absorbed the damage sin had inflicted on humanity, offering himself as ransom for all those enslaved and addicted to sin, setting them free in exchange for his own life. In the astonishing words of St. Paul, "Though he was sinless, he became sin in order that we might become the grace of God."

Though we were unlovable, Jesus loved us back to lovability, reconnecting us, even though we were sinners, to the infinite, unconditional and undeserved mercy of God.  The Gospels shout this secret to the world, whether it is listening or not. Jesus whispers it in our hearts, even when we cannot hear it because of the noise we generate to distract ourselves. Our true identity is godlike. Our destiny is divine life with God forever. What can compare with this good news?  Is this not the joy of the Gospel? 

No One Left Behnd

“Let what you learned from the beginning remain in you" (1 John 2:24).

In his New Year's message, Pope Francis decried the damage done to the human family last year by "lies."  The biggest lie of all is to deny the essential dignity of another human being. Yet as we enter the New Year, the pope spoke for millions of our fellow human beings who have been displaced by wars, poverty and environmental degradation, and are now being abandoned by the rest of the world community, including some of the richest nations. Over 65 million people are now labeled as refugees, in flight, trapped in squalid camps, exploited and abused by traffickers and predators, while they wait in hope to find new homes.  

The pope lamented the deliberate distortions about all refugees as potential terrorists, immigrants as dangerous illegals who bring disease and crime, drain national resources and steal jobs. The politics of fear and the rhetoric of hate have been used to caricature the poor, to justify building walls and closing doors to millions of desperate human beings in their time of greatest need. 

The season of Christmas and the celebrations of hope for the New Year only accentuate the disparity, the waste of innocent lives and growing indifference that has marked a global shift to self-preservation and exclusion based on race, religion, wealth, education and privilege. 

Today's scripture readings proclaim the central truth of the Incarnation. By becoming human, God sanctified the human family and gave it a divine destiny. Every human being shares the image and likeness of God and possesses a divine dignity as a child of God. Any attack on that essential dignity is an affront to God and a denial of the basic unity of the human race. 

In his letters, John repeatedly links our treatment of one another to our claim to love God.  Anyone who says he loves God while hating his brother or sister is a "liar." Baptism is an irreversible sign that we have crossed over from falsehood to truth, from selfishness to love. We die with Christ in order to rise with him to new life. This is the foundation of our faith. It calls us to resolve in this New Year to find real solidarity with those who are crying out for help. 

This message is also paradoxically the Good News, for it reveals the path to life for us.  To break the spell of fear, to challenge the lies and push back the darkness is our commitment and God's invitation to each of us today. If this seems impossible, we recall the simple truth, that if every person were to commit to accompanying just one other person with love, the whole world would be filled with love.  

Mother of the Year

"Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).

New Year's imagery includes welcoming the year as a baby. The old year is bid farewell as Father Time, an old man with an hourglass and sickle, taking his harvest of failings and disappointments with him as he fades into history. The New Year is brand new, full of hope and determination.  

Where there is a baby, there is a mother. The Church celebrates the new year by honoring Mary, mother of the child Jesus, the hope of all humanity and our invitation to enter the new creation as God's beloved community. 

Mary is our model for faith, and from the start, she teaches us as she ponders each event and its significance in her heart. If there was a source and inspiration for the Christmas story, it may well have been Mary herself. In today's Gospel, Luke records that Mary and Joseph and their newborn son were first visited by shepherds, sent by an angels filling the skies with this message: "A child had been born for you in the city of David, a savior who is Christ and Lord." 

This is something for a mother  to ponder. A savior, Christ and Lord, is first announced to poor shepherds, sent to a stable in a hillside to see a newborn child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. 

Today's solemnity invites us to see the events of this past year and our hopes for the year to come through the eyes of Mary. We consider every child born in 2017 whose face made the news, especially those who were victims of the war in Syria, refugees turned back at borders in eastern Europe, those driven from Myanmar, the children lost in the desperate crossings in the Mediterranean, or to violence and starvation in the Sudan and Yemen. So many Pieta's, mothers holding their dying children. So many innocents sacrificed to expediency and to policies that fed on fear and suspicion.

Mary shows us a different new year, if we are determined to choose it, insist on it, make it happen. The Christmas story will continue for those who want to be on the side of the angels, who are not afraid to go and see what God will show them in hillside stables, mangers, shelters, foodlines, emergeny rooms, detention centers, immigration courts, refugee camps. Mary is among the many mothers who are carrying newborns, expecting babies in the months ahead, who will be our shared future, our hope and challenge as a society and a world. 

Pope Francis ended the old year in sorrow and indigation over the waste of life and opportunities to be better, do better. He challenged world leaders to take responsibility for their people, for the people of the human family, for the planet. We join this prayer as we ask for a new and different world in the year to come.  

Join the Holy Family

“When they had fulfilled the law, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth” (Luke 2:39).

The Christmas story makes clear that Jesus’ divine identity does not spare him the full experience of being human. Not only does he encounter every ordinary kind of need, his life is also immersed in the challenges faced by the poor and the powerless.

Today’s celebration of the Holy Family is filled with reminders of the kind of adversity people suffer at the hands of authority. The imperial mandate to register in Bethlehem before Jesus’ birth was a census used to levy taxes. The religious mandate to bring their child to the temple held that a woman was ritually unclean for 40 days after the birth of a child. Purification lifted that taint for a fee. Joseph, a blue-collar tradesman unable to afford a lamb for sacrifice, paid the cost prescribed for the poor -- two turtle doves.

St. Paul writes that Jesus was “born of woman under the law.” Though he was Lord, he subjected himself to the patriarchal, imperial and legal systems of his time and place. The Holy Family was observant, regularly making the long trek to Jerusalem to fulfill the rituals and offer sacrifices according the law.

Jesus' life in Nazareth marked him as from the "hill country" of Galilee, a small-town inhabitant far from the more sophisticated and religiously devout region of Jerusalem in Judea. He lived anonymously for most of his life in a village like many others, beset by gossip and petty rivalry, He observed local customs and expectations and performed his assigned roles within small town society.

Anna’s praise and Simeon’s song of gratitude were, Luke says, a source of amazement to his parents. Simeon’s ominous warning that Jesus would be a source of division and judgment must have cast a long shadow over their thoughts and conversation as they returned home.  Simeon tells Mary that she would be pierced by a sword of sorrow. She would be left to ponder this for three decades, until it came true in the controversies surrounding her son, beginning with his expulsion from his own home town of Nazareth.

We might ask what made the Holy Family holy. One answer is that they knew the whole range of human suffering that so many people in our world also face: Poverty, bureaucratic oppression, insecurity, forced flight, anonymity, prejudice threats, public opprobrium, lack of status and power.

The Incarnation added incalculable dignity to the human condition of everyone counted among the poor, the outcast and the expendable. Such suffering is the one purification God takes note of as important. What the world tries to take from them, God makes a source of grace by coming to share in their low estate. Jesus can be ritually enshrined to enhance institutional authority, but no amount of theological abstraction can take him away from the poor as their champion, one who shares their sufferings and blesses their struggles.

We follow Jesus by identifying with him, imitating him, finding solidarity with those he loved and came to serve. This is what makes us holy and identifies us as members of his Holy Family.

A Sign of Contradiction

"You a sword will pierce so that th thoughts of my hearts may be revealed" (Luke 2:35).

If we needed more evidence that Christmas is both our joy and our greatest challenge, today's readings for the commemoration of yet another martyr, St. Thomas Becket, speak of a sword piercing Mary as she and Joseph present Jesus in the temple.

Simeon and Anna, elderly prophetic figures stationed in the temple for decades to see God's promised  messiah, hold the child Jesus with joy. Simeon overflows with the wisdom older people gain after a lifetime of experience. God's plan of salvation has begun, but there will be a cost. The child they are blessing will grow up to be a sign of contradiction. Great suffering will pierce his mother, revealing the hidden thoughts of many. 

Do we not also feel the deep dissonance and contradiction of God arriving in our world as a vulnerable child this year? The world that once seemed on the threshold of global cooperation and rich diversity has become a dangerous place for the victims of war, the displaced, the desperate. Walls not bridges, doors closing not opening, conflicts stoked by fear and provocation, immense wealth extracted from the earth and fortunes built on the backs of the poor -- these are the signs of darkness that reject God's light. 

Pope Francis has proclaimed the Gospel, called for common sense and compassion, warned of the terrible consequences of ignoring the extremes in the global weather, the cry of the wounded planet, the arrogance of  inequality that will erupt in violence if not addressed by world leaders. His message is a beacon in the darkness, yet goes unheeded, like the voice in the wilderness that heralded the first Christmas.  

Simeon rejoiced that he had lived to see the promise of a savior fulfilled in the child. He also pondered the great darkness he knew was already marshalling its forces against God's champion. He felt the foreboding threat to the young mother standing before him. He saw the anguish she would face as she accompanied her son. 

We enter the scene here, knowing that if we accompany Jesus in our own lives in these times, it will cost us everything. But isn't this the joy of Christmas, that God has come to show us how to live faithful to our own deepest dreams? Isn't this the chance that we, along with Simeon and Anna, have been waiting for all our lives?

The Fate of Children

“Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you” (Matt 2:13).

The commemoration of the Holy Innocents reminds us of the reality of unspeakable violence done to children in our world. The bombing of civilians, gun massacres in schools, bullets raining down on concert goers, refugee boats abandoned by traffickers and the horror of young bodies washing onto beaches.

The terrible scene recorded in today’s Gospel fit the logic of the brutal king who feared any and all rivals, even one foretold by the prophets and confirmed by his own court advisors. “Kill every male child two years and younger in the area surrounding Bethlehem, just to make sure.” We try to imagine the soldiers capable of this kind of slaughter, but know it has happened in every war.

Slow death by official policies indifferent to refugees, callous terrorizing of families left hanging with uncertainty, economic systems that trap the poor where lack of food, water and health care takes their toll in infant mortality, sexual abuse and child labor.

Can this really be part of the Christmas story? But we know it was, and is today. How do we put all of this together in the season of giving, of family gatherings and celebration?  Perhaps because we can’t, because the dissonance is so great -- this is the point.  The slaughter of the Innocents, the stoning of Stephen, the birth in a stable, the forced march to register, the closed door at the inn.  

God comes to disturb the comfortable, to challenge the status quo, to give us pause and invite us to deeper reflection and prayer on what is required of us as Christians.  Looking back some day on Christmas 2017, what will we remember most?  What would we have done differently now, as though our souls depended on it?

 

Human Encounter, Divine Destiny

“We are writing this so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:4).

The feast of St. John, celebrated this second day after Christmas, traditionally encompasses both John the fisherman, one of Jesus’ first apostles, and John the evangelist, who 60 years later composed the fourth Gospel and three pastoral letters for the Christian community at Ephesus. 

Often called “John the Divine,” the evangelist, instead of an infancy narrative like the ones in Luke and Matthew, gave us the majestic prelude to his Gospel that presents Jesus as the Logos, or Word of God. The Greek word  logos refers to the template of creation, the principle design from which everything derives its form and purpose. Jesus’ appearance in the world restores the original image of God to a fallen universe. He is the light that reveals creation as it was intended to be, exposing the distortions caused by human sin. Jesus’ mission is about restoring us to the image and likeness of God.

How this is to be accomplished is the message of Christmas.  The incarnate Word, God present in our human flesh, is our summons to transformation. By following Jesus we can leave behind the old creation and take up the new as a gift. What the first covenant and the Law could only highlight as our fallen state, the new covenant accomplishes by Grace. God’s gift of love makes us beloved.  

The call to be beloved disciples of Jesus is a central theme in John’s Gospel. The beloved disciple sees with the eyes of love. While faith involves intellectual assent, the beloved disciple learns who Jesus is by placing his head near the heart of Jesus at the Last Supper.  The beloved disciple stands at the cross with Mary, the perfect disciple, and sees the meaning of Jesus’ death as the “lifting up” that saves the world. The beloved disciple is the first to understand the meaning of the empty tomb, and the first to recognize the risen Christ at the Sea of Galilee.  

The First Letter of John captures the joy of our essential encounter with God in Jesus. “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life…” (1 John 1:1).

This amazing affirmation of the Incarnation is how we understand Christmas. The God who in former times was only an idea, an object of wonder and fear to be worshiped and obeyed, is now a Person we can touch. The body of God is in the world in Jesus, and because we are incorporated into this body by baptism, we are in intimate, loving union with God.

St. John made this mystery explicit. St. Paul showed us how to participate in it through the community, in the Eucharist and in the way we live as beloved disciples, dying to ourselves in order to rise with Christ.

Christmas, the frenzied cultural event is over, but the season of Christmas will linger so we can slow down and try to grasp the gift that is ours in Christ. If it seems overwhelming or even too theological to apply to us in our ordinary lives, ask St. John. He knew Jesus by heart.

St. Stephen

“It will not be you who speak, but the Spirit speaking through you” (Matt 7:20).

The martyrdom of St. Stephen is the first event we commemorate after Christmas. This serves two purposes.

 First, if Christmas tends to be overwhelmed by the joy of the Incarnation, the implications of God’s entry into the world in Jesus are brought home quickly in the fate of Stephen. The Good News of the divine claim on creation is immediately met by human resistance. The world does not want to be saved,

Second, the renewal of the image and likeness of God in Christ is extended to every believer. Stephen’s death mirrors the death of Jesus. He is executed as a blasphemer when he proclaims the same vision of the coming of the Son of Man that Jesus affirmed before the Sanhedrin. Stephen expires under a hail of stones with the same words Jesus spoke from the cross: “Lord, receive my spirit.”

Christmas makes us other Christs. Baptism incorporates us into the body of Christ in the world. We are formed by the Word of God to declare our adopted status as children of God, temples of the Holy Spirit. We are called and empowered to take up the mission of Jesus.

The story of the murder of Stephen for affirming his identity with Jesus ends with a powerful glimpse into the future of the faith. An official witness of the persecution of the church stands nearby, guarding the cloaks of the mob. Saul’s conversion begins as he sees in the glow on Stephen’s face.

The future Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, will soon see what Stephen saw as he died — Jesus standing at the right hand of Glory.  But what is the end for Stephen will be the beginning for Paul, a lifetime of proclaiming the mystery of Christ.  As we celebrate Christmas, we are also committing ourselves to living the same call.

Come and See

“Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place” (Luke 2:15).

 

In many churches, one of the most important experience for families at Christmas is when parents take their children to visit the crèche depicting the birth of Jesus. There is an endearing familiarity to the scene of simple shepherds, sheep, oxen and donkey huddled in around Joseph and Mary by the manger holding the child. But we must look beyond sentimentality or tradition to see its disturbing truth.

These evocative displays were a medieval form of catechesis inspired and loved by St. Francis of Assisi because they brought Jesus to the poor, which Francis believed was the point of the Gospel. God came into the world for the poor. Children’s questions about how such cold deprivation could happen to God on his birthday are crucial.  

The enduring appeal of the Christmas story has always had less to do with its historical veracity than its powerful message that God loves the poor. The infancy narratives found only in Matthew and Luke are richly layered pastiches composed to show that Jesus fulfilled the promises and figures found in the Scriptures. The authors knew this, and told the story this way to urge their audiences to grasp the more demanding claim of the Incarnation -- that God is in the world on the side of the poor.

If any more explicit commentary were needed, the child’s mother, in her Magnificat, rejoiced that his birth signaled a turning point in God’s favor toward the outcast and the hungry, the weak and the oppressed. Unfortunately, her manifesto seldom appears in any Christmas card.

By contrasting the stark beauty of Christmas morning to the indifference of the world that had no room for a desperate couple at the inn, or the plotting and brutal response of Herod when he learned of the child, the evangelists were also sending a warning to the rich and powerful that they would be judged by how they treated the poor.

Those who sentimentalize or commercialize Christmas as a story for children must also take heed of its real message. Leaders and policies that terrorize and abandon millions of refugees and immigrants in a world destabilized by war and economic injustice are now put on notice by Christmas.

We are invited to know the joy of Christmas in a different way, as a call to redemption, the turning of history in a different direction, a summons to justice as the only way forward for the world. We are invited to come and see with eyes opened to the reality of God’s presence among the poor.

If we take our children to visit the crèche, they may see and ask questions about the obvious. We all should feel what St. Francis felt when he knelt there. It is the key to the Good News and the path to understanding the depth of God’s urgent and compelling love in coming to dwell among us.

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