Lent and Easter Reflections

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Time's Up

"Where the body is, there also will the vultures gather" (Luke 17).

As the Church nears the end of the liturgical year, the Lectionary lays out its store of endtime readings to invite us to deeper attention and reflection on judgment and accountability. Luke and other evangelists overlap these eschatalogical themes with the actual historical events of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple during the Jewish-Roman Wars in 70 CE. One version of the saying about vultures gathering where there is a corpse changes vultures to eagles, a reference to the Roman legions.

The failure to accept God's invitation to conversion and reconciliation results in catastrophe.  Learn the lesson, and change while there is still time. Jesus cites the time leading up to the flood, when everyone mocked Noah and his ark and continued their eating and drinking and revelry until the rains began to fall. Then it was too late. 

The reading from Wisdom credits the ancients for their awe of nature, even if they called physicl forces like wind and fire gods, for they were searching for the source of created things. Reason can bring thinkig people to basic faith in the unseen power of God. What is scorned is the willful rejection of the obvious, or the ignorant preoccupation with material wants and worldly goals to the exclusion of life's transcendent questions: Who are we? Why are we here? What is the meaning of life, and are we accountable for how we choose to live? 

Jesus warned his contemporaries that judgment can come swiftly and unexpectedly. "You know not the day nor the hour." A sudden crisis can turn our secure lives upside down and bring us face to face with hard reality and decisions we have foolishly postponed. 

The coming of Advent is a time to take our faith questions seriously. For those who seek God, the future is not about the end but the beginning, not about death but rebirth. Nature offers parables to teach us wisdom. Autumn leaves surrender their lives in a burst of glory. The dark nights and cold winds draw nature into a fallow time of regeneration and expectation. Creation urges us to take our place within the seasons of life and death, surrender and return. This is where God waits to renew the mystery of life within us. Now is the perfect time to pay attention.

Invisible and Unannounced

"The coming of the Kingdom of God cannot be observed" (Luke 17:21).

Because the "Kingdom of God" was at the heart of his preaching, Jesus must have been asked often, by his disciples, by the crowds, and even by his critics, "Just what is this kingdom you are talking about? Show us!"

When Jesus did try to explain the comng of God's kingdom, he did so in parables. Each of his stories contained metaphors and analogies, so people went away pondering just how God's coming was like a sower who went out to sow, a treasure in a field, a pearl of great price, a mustard seed, a dragnet, or one of many other images. 

While these parables must have drawn many people closer to Jesus and the mystery he was conveying by his words, actions and especially by his very person, many were not satisfied. In today's Gospel the Pharisees wanted specifics. Just when was this promised event of the coming of God's kingdom going to occur? 

Jesus deepens the mystery and their frustration by telling them the kingdom cannot be observed and will not be announced in advance, and furthermore, it was already here, among them, in their midst. This could only mean that Jesus himself was the revelation of God. As he would later explain to his apostles when Philip asked him to show them the Father, " To have seen me is to have seen the Father."  Jesus was the embodiment of the mystery he was preaching about. His very presence in the world had been the revelation of God. 

We may also want specifics in our growth toward greater faith. Just where are you, Jesus? If God is in our midst, how can we discern it and respond to you more completely? Yet this remains an act of faith, something we believe without seeing. Ultimately our lives in faith come down to how we experience God in our lives, and whether we see the effects of grace in our efforts.

The lack of certainty keeps us exploring and responding, guided by compassion and openness to God's hidden presence in the world. This apparently what will keep us fresh and creative and always alert for God's suprisese and the mysterious encounters that reveal God in ways we could not plan, anticipate or control. But isn't this the way love works?

Healing and Faith

"Stand up and go; your faith has saved you" (Luke 17:19).

The story about the healing of the 10 lepers is really about a double healing for one. Nine of the lepers were cleansed of their disease. One was both cleansed and saved. 

The Samaritan leper, a foreignerr thrown in among a group of outcast Jewish lepers for survival, is the only one who realizes when he and other others are restored that something much deeper has occurred. He returns to find Jesus because he has also received the gift of faith. He believes in Jesus, and the life that now flows in him is not only for the length of his natural life in this world, but a life that has claimed him for God.  He has encountered God in Jesus. 

As much as we want physical healing and pray for it for ourselves and others, this deeper healing is the more enduring gift. All the lepers, blind, lame crippled and blind people Jesus restored during his public ministry were fated to die in their time. Even poor Lazarus, raised from the dead, had to face death again. But for those who perceived who Jesus was and believed in him, physical healing was secondary to the relationship that embraced them forever when he looked and them, spoke to them and touched them.  

We know this mystery ourselves as baptism, when we became members of the living, risen body of Christ. His life flowed into our lives, sustaining and nourishing us toward a new destiny -- life with God. Even as we live out the narrative of our natural lives, this hidden life with Christ is the true animating grace that shapes and guides our choices, our relationships and our ultimate destination. Going with the flow of his presence and deepening our companionship with him is the secret of our identity. 

 

 

Simply Servants

"We are unprofitable servants who have done what we were oblighted to do" (Luke 17:10).

The annual meeting of the U.S Catholic bishops occasions reflection on their role as leaders of the church. Today's Gospel reading comes as a timely reminder that they are servants. 

Jesus addressed a short parable to his apostles about just what servants can expect when they have completed their duties. Rather than imagine that the Master will honor them and reward them for their service, the servant continues to serve and then says, "I am only doing what I am supposed to be doing." 

While this image seems almost uncharacteristic of Jesus, who was always serving others, including his Apostles, the point of the story is clear. Being a disciple or an Apostle is itself an honor and a reward. To be called by Jesus is to enter an intimate relationship with a master who always serves. St. Paul, one of the greatest of the Apostles, understood this well. Even after recounting his many sacrifices and sufferings for the Gospel, he expresses his gratitude for the privilege of his conversion and call to be with Christ. He can do no other, for his apostleship is his identity. He must preach and serve in order to be himself and to fulfill his purpose in this world. 

When we think that our service is overwhelming us, Jesus renews his call to us even in our weariness and feelings of being burdened. "Come to me," he says, "Get in the harness with me, for my yoke is sweet and my burden is light." Where else would be rather be than with him? What else could we be doing with our time and energy that is more meaningful than sharing his redemptive work? 

The Reality of Sin

"Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the one through whom they occur" (Luke 17:1).

Jesus was realistic about the temptations and traps that lie in the path of people seeking life. He knew that even where the spirit was willing, the flesh was weak. He himself experienced the lies and distortions that Evil proposed in the desert to convince him that doing apparenty good things to succeed in his ministry would not lessen his obedience to God. He knew how evil worked and how much damage it could do. 

One area of temptation that earned his sharpest rebuke was when someone uses their superior position or the trust of another, especially a child or any vulnerable person, to draw them into a sinful act. Jesus said that it would be better for that person to have a millstone hung around his or her neck and be cast into the sea. Those who introduce others to sin, who seduce or persuade an innocent person to do wrong, do far more damage than any other kind of behavior, for they take what is good, what is best about a person, and corrupt it. It is one thing to harm a  person physically, but a far greater sin to damage their self-image or to compromise their sense of personal privacy and integrity. 

Jesus' warning echoes down through the history of the church to condemn any kind of use of power to corrupt another. In our own time, the sin of child abuse has delivered a deep wound to the effectiveness of the church to carry out its mission to proclaim God's goodness and love. Wealth and power have created a culture of sexual entitlement in the halls, boardrooms and hideaways of today's corporate, political and entertainment establishments. How many young people, both women and men seeking careers and advancement, have felt their lives ruined by seduction, harassment and blackmail? 

The only power able to break such cultures of corruption is to replace them with cultures of compassion, sincerity and integity. Where sin abounds, grace must abound even more. Where evil has taken hold, the power of repentance must prevail. And where sinners are willing to acknowlege their wrongs, forgiveness should provide a road back to trust and healing for both victims and perpetrators,  restorative justice by sinners for those sinned against. 

If this seems impossible, Jesus himself demonstrated the power of healing by taking upon himself the weight of human corruption by his death on the cross. What is not possible for us was accomplished by God's infinite mercy revealed in Jesus. Even the worst sinner need not escape the saving power of the crucified Christ, who extends a hand even to the one cast into the sea with a millstone around his neck. To believe this is enter the mystery of divine Mercy, which is there for all of us. 

Be a Member of the Wedding

"Stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour" (Matt 25:13).

If you have attended a wedding recently, you know that one of the first questions you are asked when being seated by the ushers is whether you are a friend of the bride or of the groom. We are at an event that is all about friendship, the celebration of a couple whose friendship has brought them to the threshold of lifelong intimacy and commitment. 

Today's parable about a wedding is also about the essential call to friendship with God. If we ask what the oil is that the virgins needed to welcome the bridegroom, it was a relationship with him. This is a reality that  cannot be provided to us if we haven't cultivated and deepened it over time. Friendshp is not something we can borrow from someone else or pretend to have or generate all of sudden if it isn't there. An analogy is the chaotic scene before a big test in school, when students  who have not studied all semester ply those who have studied for last-minute help. It is simply too late. 

The virgins, or bridesmaids, who have oil are called wise. Today's first reading is about the figure of Wisdom, depicted in the Bible as a beautiful woman who comes to those who love her and seek her. She is the focus of their desire during the day and their dreams at night.  She provides a feast in the desert, a profound inner peace, because those who befriend Wisdom befriend God, and therefore they have everything they will ever need in this world and in anticipation of the next. 

The parable is one of several toward the end of Matthew's Gospel that emphasize the need to stay awake and alert. Jesus surely told his disicples this repeatedly toward the end of his life, knowing they would be plunged into darkness at his death. The early church needed this same kind of attentiveness when Jesus' anticipated "second coming" was delayed and members of the community were "falling asleep" in actual death. What the church gradually realized and adapted to was that, lIke the bridegoom delayed in coming, the risen Jesus was also already present and active through the Holy Spirit. A vigilant faith was needed to fully understand this.

The emphasis on vigilance lends a certain harshness to the lesson learned by the foolish virgins. They do not have enough oil for their lamps, and since the wise vigins cannot share theirs, they must go off to purchase extra oil. But when they arrive late, the door to the wedding is already closed and locked. The bridegroom does not know them. We might ask if this was part of the original parable or a warning by Matthew.  The Jesus we know from the rest of the Gospels is always merciful to those who fail or who come late. 

Each of us can assess this for ourselves with some basic question: Just what kind of relationship do I have now with God? What habits of prayer do I practice? Do I seek to understand the Scriptures or make an effort to receive the sacraments? All of these are relevant to our growth in faith in much the same way that our effort to cultivate any human relationship requires attention. Do we grow in any friendship if we never communicate or spend time with someone? 

The simple truth is that what we will experience as heaven -- union with God -- begins here and now, and will be essentially the same relationship fully revealed when the Bridegroom comes at midnight and we are awakened from the sleep of death. Will we be ready? If we begin today, we will be. 

Give Freely

"I know what I shall do" (Luke 16:3). 

Jesus expects his disciples to be faithful stewards of God's mercy. What does this mean? How are we to accomplish this? 

Jesus tells a curious story about an apparently dishonest steward. He has been squandering his master's property. Facing dismissal, the steward decides that the best way to survive is to cut deals with the master's debtors, discounting their debts generously while he is still in charge of the accounts. It is a shameful story, and the audience must have been prepared for the master to be furious. 

But, suprise, the master praises the dishonest steward for being so enterprising. So what is the message of the story?

One way to understand it is to put this parable into the context of Jesus' situation as his ministry runs into criticism from the relgious leaders. They have accused him of being too lenient with sinners, too generous with God's gifts. Jesus, they say, like the steward in the story, has been giving away the store, and the official leaders as guardians of the Law and upholders of God's honor do not like it. What will become of religion as a force for good if sinners are not punished? What will become of religious authority and control if God's love is being poured out on good and bad alike, offered freely to the virtuous and sinners alike? 

Could it be that Jesus wants his disciples to be stewards as enterprising as this "dishonest" steward, and as generous as Jesus himself was being? Was he saying and demonstrating that If anyone comes in need, be merciful, and not in some measured, calculating way, as though you are on control of mercy. No, it is God's gift, so if someone asks for it, open up the full treasury of God's unconditional love. Welcome everyone and invite them to take as much love and forgiveness as they want or need. Give away the store! 

Of course, this complicates the moral order and religion as a system of dispensing reward and punishment for virtue and vice. This throws off our calculus for determing who is good or bad, worthy or unworthy, winner or loser. But if God is this generous, no questions asked, who are we to limit the Source of Mercy from being merciful?  This is a scandal, but it is also the joy of the Gospel. 

Temples of the Holy Spirit

"Jesus was speaking about the temple of his body" (John 2:21). 

Tourism thrives on the preservation of old buildings. History comes alive in these ancient shrines to the faith and ingenuity of past generations. The best way to preserve an institution and  the ideas and beliefs it espoused was to erect a large, solid structure, a temple to the past as worthy of extending its influence into the future.

The early church found a second cradle in the city of Rome after the destruction of Jerusalem. The Emperor Constantine donated many large basilicas, government buildings, for repurposing as major churches.  The wealthy Lateran family gave its property and large palace to the church for one of its earliest and largest cathedrals, the location where the seat, or cathedra, of Peter, was housed. Today's feast honorig this impressive building is a reminder of how old and well-established is the Catholic Church's claim to be the earliest representation of the faith community going back to Jesus and the Apostles.  

Yet there is a reminder within the reminder, also going back to Jesus himself, of just how emphemeral even stone is in history. He foresaw the destruction of the magnificent and presumably indestructibe Second Temple in Jerusalem. John's Gospel uses that catastrophic event to emphasize that the mystery Jesus established in this world was more personal and more enduring than any building. The foundation of the church was not stone, but the very body of Christ, crucifed on the cross, then raised to glory in the resurrection. It's full stature is a work in progress, humanity itself being gathered into the living church, the body of Christ, present and active in history, the sacrament and promise of the New Humanity and the New Creation revealed in Christ. 

We are living stones in that mystery, for our bodies are members of the Mystical Body of Christ. Incorporated into the crucified and risen Christ at baptism, we are nourished by the Eucharist each time we gather as church to celebrate Mass. We take his body and blood into the world when we imitate his acts of compassion and love in our communities, helping to build up the body of Christ as the extension of God's redemptive plan in the world. Wherever we take love, we establish the church by becoming the church, individual temples of the Holy Spirit, small, personal cathedrals where the Gospel is taught and lived. If every church building were bandoned and empty, the church would live in us, as it has down through history in times of persecution and anonymity, quiet witness to the power of faith, even where only a single candle was kindled in the darkness. 

We celebrate today's feast by rededicating and consecrating our bodies to be dwelling places of the Trinity, houses of hospitality where all are welcome, especially those most in need of shelter and love-- the poor, refugees and immigrants, outcasts and those discriminated against in any way. This is how the church lives on and makes believable the mystery of Christ, who is our founder, our brother and our beloved friend.   

Come to the Feast

"Go out to the highways and hedgerows and make people come in that my home may be filled" (Luke 14:24).

Luke presents stories Jesus told originally to heighten the sense of urgency to heed God's invitation to life, while adding details that reflect the historical reality of the expansion of the church beyond its Jewish origins into the gentile world.  The first guests fail to respond to the call to come to a great dinner, making trivial excuses, so the angry host has his servants fill the hall with the poor, crippled blind and lame, and even go out to the roads to corral strangers into the banquet hall. 

The energy of the story is one of deep lament and frustration that so great an invitation from God has been turned down by so many guests. Jesus arrives in the Holy City after his public ministry of miracles and powerful preaching, only to weep at the indifference and obtuseness of the religious leadership. Their failure will bring disaster on Jerusalem. Luke records the actual outcome of this rejection after the Jewish-Roman War that ended with the leveling of the city and the violent diaspora of its people.

Do we sense the parallel to this story in our own times? Do we feel the urgent message that God's offer in our lives is not something disconnected from our choices and actions?  History is the record of lost opportunities, blind ignorance and denial courting tragedy. We need only look at the daily headlines to see the trajectories to disaster we might still avert with common sense and courage. 

The Good News is unstoppable, and the Holy Spirit is guiding history inexorably to its destiny as a New Creation and the Beloved Community. The banquet hall will be filled and the feast will go on. The question is, will we be there? 

 

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