The Heart of God

"Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Matt 11:29).

Today's feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus gained liturgical status in the late 17th century, but  it had always existed as a popular devotion for people who wanted more than doctrinal ideas about the divinity and humanity of Christ. 

In Jesus, God has a human heart. Jesus brings God into human life, especially the feelings and needs that characterize human relationships. We can never say that God has not experienced our human condition, the joys and fears, triumphs and losses of ordinary life. Jesus knew the whole range of human need and suffering, and because he is God, he brought this dimension of our lives into the divine life. Every human experience is now an encounter with God. 

The Gospels tell us that Jesus felt life deeply and exposed his heart to the sufferings of others. He wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus. He was moved to the depths of his being when he encountered lepers, or the poor widow whose son had died. He wept again as he looked out over the city of Jerusalem, knowing the suffering to come because its leaders would not listen. He felt the tenderness of a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings to protect them. He knew the love of the shepherd who would not leave a single lost sheep in the wildnerness. 

A sacred heart is no easy way of being. To feel the needs and sufferings of others is to be vulnerable to their plight, moved by their desperation. How we try to distance ourselves from those in trouble, to protect ourselves from their losses. We wish them well but cannot stop to get involved. As the chaos of life swirls around us and pulls others into its storms, we seek the shelter of our own inner circle, afraid to even imagine the unbearable burdens others must face.  

Jesus revealed a God whose heart is mercy itself, moved to compassion that expands until the divine heart breaks with the broken hearted, plunges into sorrow with the grief-stricken and those in anguish. Jesus not only immersed himself in our human condition, he carried our damaged lives and inner contradictions, our self-inflicted wounds and sinfulness to the cross, so that we might be set free to live life as God intended.  

This feast is for those who have lived enough to know that life will break your heart. How else will we be privileged to carry one another in times of sorrow? We need look no further than our personal relationships to find the many ways in which love can pull us apart and make us tender enough to hold the human stories all around us. Then, when we meet God, we will recognize that divine love has always been with us, consoling and challenging us. How can it be otherwise? Our way to God is through the human heart.  

Our Intimate Life in God

"Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in them" (John 6:55).

If you have seen the TV ads for "Ancestry," a company that can take a saliva sample and reveal your genetic identity, you are on  track to understand something of the mystery we celebrate as the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. It begins with the truth that as human beings we are all one species, linked together by our human ancestry. Along with our shared blood, human beings also represent a great river of shared elements that make up the human body. We are of one flesh, and amazingly each generation recycles the same chemistry that forms our carbon-based structure to make new human bodies out of old ones.

We believe that Jesus entered that river of life and shared fully in our human identity, his body and blood partaking of the common source of the universal human family. But something happened to the human family because of him, a leap from the old creation of the first Adam to a new creation suffused with glory. By his self-sacrifice on the cross, Jesus defeated our old nature, held captive by sin -- alienation from God -- by embracing it and taking it with him into death. By his resurrection, Jesus revealed a new transformed human nature. 

Jesus is the new Adam, the pioneer of the new creation, an older brother to all those who make this same leap by baptism into a new human destiny -- life with God.  The risen Christ is also a risen body, and we share in this new body by our participation in the Eucharist. When we share the cup and break the bread with the other members of the Body of Christ at Mass, we are being nourished by the body of blood of Christ. We are already being formed with a new ancestry, a divine identity that Jesus makes possible. 

We share in his body and blood now in a sacramental way, that is, by believing that the bread and wine we share is a visible sign of a hidden reality. Our Communion is an encounter with the living Christ, the risen body of Jesus in glory. His divine fullness is poured out in us through his Holy Spirit. What we consume we become. His transformation is transforming us from our old nature to our new nature, perfected by grace. Imagine at each Communion that you are receiving a transfusion of the glorified blood of Jesus, or that you are experiencing a kind of spiritual dialysis, a purification of your old self by this intimate union with Jesus.  

Another approach to this intimacy is to think of a very special meal in your life when the food you shared was only a glimpse of the union you experienced in conversation with a beloved friend, a lover, a spouse, a guest who changed your life with their words, the beauty of their face as they gazed at you with love.  Ordinary flesh and blood cannot reveal this dimension of communion, but the shared spirit can.  This is the leap of faith that changes everything, that makes us a new creation in Christ. 

Earthen Vessels

"We hold this treasure in earthen vessels" (2 4:7).

In another life I taught high school theology in Texas.  I had a senior student who had read beyond his years and thought about the dilemmas and ironies of life in ways that taught me more than I taught him.

In one of our classes, we discussed the difficult sayings in today's Gospel passage in which Jesus calls us to a higher standard than the letter of the law. Someone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed sin with her. It is better to pluck out your eye and cut off your hand or foot than use it to desire or do something evil.  Anger in the heart is the equivalent of murder.

These sayings are so stark, many preachers avoid them or approach them as hyperbole. But my student understood them to  mean that every human being is a sinner. Everyone lusts and murders in their heart. If everyone who was tempted to use their eyes or bodies to do evil had instead plucked out an eye or cut off limbs, the only people in heaven would be cripples and the blind. The simple incontrovertible fact is that everyone sins. Even if they do not act, everyone thinks about and carries out shameful desires in their heart.  Is there any hope for us if this is so.?

Fortunately the Lectionary wisely links today's Gospel with St. Paul's words to the notoriously sinful community he founded at Corinth. We hold the treasure of God's grace in earthen vessels. Our human lives are not made of gold, silver or bronze, but of simple clay.  We break easily, and cannot claim that the grace we hold has anything to do with our accomplishments or worthiness.  God's forgiveness is gift to sinners. Our ability to overcome evil and grow in love is also a pure gift.  God makes us lovable by loving us. Christ died for us while we were still sinners.  This is what keeps us from despair when we fail and have to begin again. 

We go to God together as sinners called to holiness by the grace of God.  Sometimes, the greatest gift we can offer each other, the greatest show of encouragement, is to share our own failures. 

Glory to Glory

"All of us. gazing with unveiled face on the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory" (2 Cor 3:18).

If you have ever had the experience of looking at the face of someone who is fully revealing themself, you have a hint of what St. Paul is trying to explain about the new access to God because of Christ. Two people in love reveal themselves, and it lifts the veil of self-defense and shyness all of us use to protect ourselves until we are really ready to be known. It is a stunning moment in a relationship, and often leads to a desire to be one with another person whose love reveals us to ourselves.

Our encounter with God made possible by Jesus is like this. In seeing God we understand for the first time that we are created in the same image and likeness. Glory meets glory, divine beauty becomes transcendent in our human identity. Paul uses the example of Moses, who saw God face to face when the Law was given. His faces was so illuminated the people could not look at him directly, but only through a veil.  The Law alone, Paul, held, was an indirect encounter with God, a veiled understanding. But Moses had seen the Glory.

Jesus, prefigured by Moses and other prophets like Elisha and Ezekiel, was himself the human face of the divine Mystery. His human presence in the world was the veiled revelation of God. But when he was raised from the dead, his hidden divine identity was revealed in glory.  To believe in Jesus is to begin to approach what lovers discover in each other. Just as strangers become friends and then become lovers, we move from glory to glory as discipleship deepens our intimacy and knowledge until we know him as he is. In knowing Jesus, we see as in a mirror that reveals in us the image and likeness of God.

The question at the heart of our Christian lives is not whether we can become so virtuous that we are worthy of God, but whether we are ready to let go of ourselves so completely that we fall in love with God.    

The New Law of Love

"I have not come to abolish but to fulfill" (Matt 5:17).

In his letters to the community at Corinth, St. Paul describes the transition from the old Law of conformity to the rules to the new law of grace, which enables us to be good because it is our nature perfected in Christ. If Lawgiver Moses' face was so brilliant that the people could not look directly at him, how much brighter is the face of love that frees us from fear to live in the freedom of the children of God? The first law was written on tablets of stone, the new law is written on our hearts. 

Paul's preaching sought to create a bridge from the old to the new. Continuity between the first covenant under the law and the new covenant of grace was essential if Paul's Jewish brothers and sisters were to make the transition to Christ. 
Matthew's Gospel seeks the same continuity: Jesus did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it. The commandments given by Moses were meant to hold the people in right relationship -- with God and with one another. But obeying them by not killing, not stealing, not lying, not coveting was ony the beginning. To enter fully into relationship with God and within the community is to be filled with the spirit of Love, God's own life. 

The journey from old to new is the work of grace as it meets our freedom. Discipleship is a day to day choice to go with the flow of grace and the guidance of the Spirit. Those who surrender to this movement experience a kind of leap in quality in the ordinary tasks and interactions of life.  Patience begets patience, generosity inspires imitation, cheerfulness lifts everyone up. Encouragement works better than correction or criticism. Openness engenders trust and cooperation.  This is the Spirit at work in us, and the results are obvious over time.  

Perfect Joy

"You are the salt of the earth" (Matt 13:5).

Salt and light are so basic that we hardly notice them. We take them for granted as they enable us to live and work, or bring savor and quality to life in so pervasive a way.  We remember the content of a conversation or activity, but do not notice how its tone and energy was seasoned with humor and affection. Our relationships are brightened by love or filled with shadows created by doubt or suspicion.

Why is one encounter uplifting and another a burden? Some people set us at ease or invite us to share by their careful and sincere listening.  Another person, without even knowing it, will fill th room with their moodiness or shut down the conversation with their superior air.

Jesus sent his disciples to proclaim God's freedom not just with words but by their manner and bearing. People would know they had encountered good news and received the blessing of peace.  Today's Word invites us to ask if we bring light and salt to those around us.  It is a simple lesson with large implications.  

The Way

"As Christ's sufferings overflow in us, so through Christ does our encouragement also overflow" (2 Cor 1:5). 

Paul's letter to the churches were in circulation a decade or more when Mark wrote his Gospel. All four Gospels show the influences of Paul's idea that all baptized members of the body of Christ got to share in the suffering and glory of the Risen Jesus. This spiritual formation was called the Paschal Mystery. We die with him in order to rise with him. 

So when Mark records the Beatitudes in his Gospel, he is describing what life in Christ looks like. The Christian community has already encountered rejection and some persecution. There is a real cost to being a disciple, but it is experienced as a blessing. How blessed are you who are poor, who mourn, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who show mercy and work for peace.  As Jesus suffered, so are you invited to suffer with him, but this is the path to Glory. 

The first followers of Jesus did not see themselves as involved in a new religion. They simply described their life in Christ as the "Way."  It was a way of life imitating Jesus, whose radical emphasis on care for the poor, acceptance of sinners, as witnesses to mercy and reconciliation, eventually brought him into conflict with the authorities. His followers likewise experienced opposition, rejection and persecution. The Beatitudes helped them interpret their experience as sharing in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. 

We find our baptismal maturity and fulfillment in following the same Way.  Our Beatitudes are revealed each time there is some cost to our discipleship: When do not insist on our own status and honor, we are poor in spirit, but set free from the need for approval. When we show compassion, we are blessed by solidarity with the suffering of others. When we long for a more just world, we share the work of changing the world others are doing. When we seek clarity and truth, we uncover God's purpose in our world.  When we do not take sides but seek to resolve conflicts, we help repair the world and create community.

To live this way is to know Christ more and more, and there is no greater blessing possible. 

  

God With Us

"If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company" (Exodus 34:8). 

We approach the mystery of the Trinity by keeping in mind that everything we know about God we have learned from Jesus. He is our point of entry into the unfathomable question of who God is and who we are. 

The early church experienced Jesus first as a human brother and fellow human being, the man from Galilee who went about announcing a radical notion of God and the purpose of life. Unlike the images of God people heard from organized religion-- a distant, unapproachable judge --, Jesus spoke of God as his "Abba" a loving father who offered his children, including sinners, unconditional love and acceptance.   The essence of Jesus' message was that God was filled with mercy and compassion, a generous father willing to take back his prodigal children, a good shepherd out looking for lost sheep. This was the Good News.

His death on the cross seemed to shatter their dream of a restored Israel, but his resurrection from the dead took believers to a whole new level of understanding, that this man Jesus was much more than a charismatic leader meant for their time and place. He was God's chosen one, the Christ, whose death and resurrection had to do with redeeming the whole world. He had fulfilled the Law and the Prophets, overcome sin and death. He was none other than the Lord, the revelation of God present in history. 

This awesome realization began a profound theological reflection in the light of their experience and of the many images and prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures that produced the letters of St. Paul and the four Gospels about who Jesus was in relation to the One God. This reflection evolved within the faith communities' experience of the risen Christ, still with them and active through his Holy Spirit given to the baptized members of the church.

The translation of the Christian faith in Jesus through Greek concepts during a time of competing understandings of his identity led to the creedal formulas of the first church councils. Jesus was the Son of God, yet equal to God the Father, and united in the Holy Spirit, three persons in one God, the divine Trinity. These words somehow contained the truth about Jesus but as a mystery that could not be explained logically. It could only be believed and lived. 

How we understand this brings us back to the same starting point of our encounter with God in Jesus.  We only know about God and about Jesus from our own human experience. Because we were made in the image and likeness of God, we already know something about the Trinity-- the challenge of love that produces unity in diversity  We also know from experience that we only know ourselves in relationship. No human individual is complete in himself or herself but only becomes fully alive in community. And just as our desire for maturity and wholeness leads us to community, so our journey toward God is toward the Community of God, the inner life of God as Persons united in love -- the Trinity.  

God comes to us in encounter. On this celebration of the Holy Trinity, we pray to encounter Jesus, our brother, who draws us through his human nature and experience toward his divine identity. This is our destiny, to share the life of the Trinity.  We will know it by seeking an intimate knowledge of Jesus, who is one of us.  He is also our point of entry into the inner life of God.  

Encounter

"The Lord keeps faith forever" (Psalm 146).

Todays's short gospel seems to reflect some the of theological questions being argued in the generation of early Christians with their Jewish protagonists. According to the scriptures, the messiah, God's anointed one, was to be a descendant of King David. Yet this Christ figure, as identified with Jesus, is proclaimed as Lord. How can he be both Lord and a descendant of David? 

The Gospel writers were keen to show that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies regarding the messiah. We see this in Matthew and Luke's infancy narratives, which establish that Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the city of David, and is of the house of David through Joseph. But it is also evident from what then happens to Jesus that he was much more than a human descendant of David. His resurrection reveals him in glory as the Lord of history. Mark's gospel begins with the assertion that Jesus is the Son of God. 

The members of the early church are confronted by an event that shatters their entire sense of reality. Their leader, Jesus of Nazareth, son of Joseph, a carpenter from Galilee, is put to death by the Romans at the instigation of their own high priest and Sanhedrin. He was vilified and rejected as a false messiah, a dangerous heretic whose popular following and provocative attack on the Temple at Passover threatened the establishment. 

But after his death, he is again alive and with them, both as restored to life and transformed by a new kind of life. The end of history is revealed in the middle of history, and his disciples experience Jesus as Lord, as the culmination and redemption of humanity. By his death Jesus has healed the great wound of sin that had separated creation from its Creator, humanity from its destiny, now redeemed by divine love that rescued him and rescues all of us from death. 
Jesus as human reaches back to claim David and all the patriarchs, the entire people of the covenant, the human race itself, and as Lord carries everyone forward through death to new life.  

For them and for us, theology gives way to an encounter in faith that goes beyond our concepts and our desire to control the mystery. Pray for this encounter, to know the risen Christ, Jesus as Lord, This is the goal of faith, why we belong to faith communities that witness the truth of his presence and power among us. Receive Jesus in the Eucharist, seek his face in prayer as a conversation that begins with your first conscious moment each morning and ends with your last breath at night.  This is our path to life, more life here and now, and abundant life forever. 

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