Face to Face

"Someone wrestled with Jacob until the break of dawn" (Gen 32:25). 

Jacob was at a turning point in his life. To fulfill his destiny he had to return to his ancestral land and face his older brother, Esau, whom he had tricked into giving up the family birthright. He may have been grappling with his own conscience, but the deeper meaning of the night encounter with a mysterious stranger is that he is also wrestling with God. From that face-to-face contest, Jacob will emerge with a new name and a new destiny as the carrier of the promise made to Abraham and Isaac. 

He declares, "I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been spared." Any direct contact with God would take a human being out of time into the eternal present of the divine moment, for God is I AM. This sudden suspension of our time-bound narrative was thought to equal the shock of death, yet Jacob's life is just beginning, not ending. He is now the father of the promise, and his 12 sons will become the forebears of the Twelve Tribes. 

Every Christian experiences a life-defining encounter with God at baptism. God's identity imprints the narrative of our lives and the trajectory of our destiny by uniting us with Christ. Our fate, our choices, our gifts and our dreams are focused within the Christ in us, our personal share in the total mystery of the baptized members of Christ's body. Jesus, the crucified and risen Christ is the head of that universal body, and his Holy Spirit is the animating, coordinating principle of our shared life in the church. We belong to Christ and we depend on each other for our identity and purpose.

If our lives sometimes feel like a long night of wrestling, it is because we must work out and embrace the specific details of our Christian lives under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We may even experience a kind of wounding, as Jacob does, when our lives are wrenched and pulled by God's divine invitation. It should be no surprise if we feel like there is something much larger and deeper going on than our own personal agenda. Even when we feel lost, disconnected and irrelevant, we are part of the mystery of the body of Christ, sharing in the redemption of the world. God alone knows the whole of it, but we are never alone and never inconsequential in the hidden scope of Providence. 

In the face of so awesome a call to holiness, our only response is to turn and surrender to God's call. Our vocation is nothing less than to become ourselves and to find the glory that God has intended for each of us from the moment of our conception. 

God Revealed

"What you have hidden from the wise and learned you have revealed to little ones" (Matt 11:25).

As Jesus began his preaching, he realized that so-called wise and learned people did not seem to be able to grasp the Good News of God's love. It was too simple and direct for them. They were expecting theological ideas they could analyze and debate, something more sophisticated to match their intellectual discernment. 

But Jesus rejoices that simple and ordinary people immediately grasped the depth of his message and felt the presence of God in both his words and his person. Because of their lives of total dependence on God, they were already attuned to the everyday graces that can be found in the simple encounters and challenges of life. 

The Bible had a name for the little ones of God. These anawim were the salt of the earth, the poor who tilled the soil and cared for animals on the land, rising early to toil in the rhythm of the seasons and the patterns of the weather. We find them in the Beatitudes: Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the land; Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God. 

The anamwim come to know God because they are like God. Without the added layers of self-conscious posing and sophistication, they let the original image and likeness of God shine through.  Their meekness is a reflection of the meekness of God, who never forces or compels people to obey, who patiently and silently accompanies us while we work out our life stories. Their humility reveals God's gentle guidance and forbearance, even when we fail and have to start over. 

In effect, the poor and simple were drawn to Jesus because he was one of them, an anawim who trusted totally in God and went with the flow of life through each dsy, accepting what came, grateful for every blessing, however small. enduring life's hardships and never giving up. 

The image of the yoke was something they understood. Two beasts of burden yoked together shared the load evenly. Jesus was inviting them to yoke their lives to his, to get in the harness with him, and he would help carry their burdens with them. Such a simple image, perhaps too earthy for the wise and learned, but with profound implications for the people who labored and were weary of life itself.  This was good news, indeed. 

Jesus offers each of us the same intimate, side-by-side companionship. God's love is ever-present, ever-ending and abundant . It can seem too good to be true, but if we learn to be a little one, we will never lack for God's help. .   

Mercy, Not Sacrifice

"Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do" (Matt 9:12).

One of the more astonishing and troubling aspects of the political debate over healthcare is the apparent lack of empathy some lawmakers show for those who are sick. People who are themselves healthy or who have no family members in need of medical care should not be in charge of creating healthcare programs. Only those who can ask, "How would this program affect me or my wife or my child if they are seriously ill?" should be designing the kind of coverage all people want for themselves and their loved ones.

Jesus uses the analogy of sinners as sick people to argue that they are the ones who need attention, not the righteous. This is why he is seeking out and sharing table with tax collectors and prostitutes. God wants mercy, not judgment or sacrifice.  

How easy it is for people who have never made a mistake or committed a sin (they think) to pass judgment on others. Compassion is born of the common experience of failure or a foolish decision that hurt others. The Pharisees saw themselves as models of righteousness, which gave them the right to condemn others.  

They could not imagine associating with public sinners as Jesus was doing. It would contaminate them and damage their reputations. But this attitude also limited their freedom to reach out people in need  or to show compassion for those in trouble. They might be doctors of the Law, but they could never be physicians to those in moral suffering and confusion. Jesus prods these righteous teachers with the words of the Prophet Hosea: "I desire mercy, not sacrifice." 

Choose Life

"I will walk in the presence of the Lord in the land of the living" (Ps 115).

The dramatic story of the testing of Abraham's faith makes us shudder at the though of being asked by God to sacrifice our own child. The ancient context suggests that human sacrifice was prevalent in many societies-- the absolute offering to gain absolute blessing from the sovereign who held your fate in its hands.  The clear message of the story is that Yahweh, the Lord of the Jews, did not ask for such sacrifice and prevents Abraham from carrying through on what he thought he was being called to do to show his obedience. 

Evolving ideas of God are reflected in the Bible. Genesis and Exodus offer a very anthropomorphic version of God -- one who gets angry or jealous -- before a more sophisticated and spiritually nuanced divine Mystery appears.  As people mature, the image of God they project also matures. What is revealed over time is the God who is filled with love for his people, one who gives life and wants us to choose life. 

We see this in Matthew's gospel passage, the story of the forgiveness and healing of the paralyzed man. The religious teachers are upset with Jesus for presuming that God has forgiven the paralytic's sins. They prefer a God who punishes sinners with illness, or one who must be appeased with sacrifices before giving a blessing. Jesus presumes a God who is always forgiving and who neither causes nor wants human sickness and suffering.  This is too much for Jesus' critics, who fear the end of religious control and their own role as arbiters of God's actions.

Jesus is the human face of God, and he has brought us the Good News of liberation from fear and the gift of mercy. As Pope Francis has said, "God never tires of forgiving us; it is we who tire of asking." Jesus came that we might have life, abundant life.  

The Holy Spirit of Jesus

"What have you to do with us, Son of God?" (Matt 8:29).

When Jesus crosses the lake he enters pagan territory and encounters two possessed men living in a hillside cemetery.  He is outside Palestine, the territory of the Jews where his ministry is focused, but the universal scope of his message is shown in that the demons acknowledge that he is the Son of God and has power to drive them out. Evil Spirits bow before the ultimate power of the Holy Spirit.

They beg Jesus not to expel them to wander about in the spirit world but to allow them to occupy a large herd of swine, an animal regarded by Jews as unclean. The swine panic and rush down the hill into the sea and are drowned. The people of the district beg Jesus to withdraw from their region. They, like the demons, recognize his extraordinary power, and they want to be left alone. 

In stories like these, we enter another world filled with unfamiliar scenes of demonic possession, spiritual battles and the clashes of different cultures. But the underlying themes still apply to us. Jesus is the authentic presence of the one God, the creator of the universe. There is only one authentic Spirit animating the world and guiding human history. To live and breathe and have being is to be part of the one mystery of God over all things.  All other forces or influences, beliefs or loyalties are illusions compared to the one Reality, who is God. 

The Gospel Jesus preached is a universal message directed to all people. The gift of the Holy Spirit he offers is the one  Spirit that gives life to all things, leading all people to the wisdom that knows the one, true God. There is only room in our hearts for one God to dwell and guide us, and that is the Trinity, the community of Father, Son and Spirit.  There are no other options or alternatives. 

Blessed are we to surrender out lives to the Holy Spirit of Jesus, who comes  to heal and free us from false spirits and unbelief. 
 

Jesus and History

"Why are you terrified, O you of little faith?"(Matt 8:25).

The story of the Jesus asleep in the boat during a violent storm at sea has been both a comfort and a challenge to the church in history, How often it must have seemed as if the risen Christ were absent in time of crisis or slumbering through a dark night when faith was at a low ebb. 

Another angle on the story might be that it is we, not jesus, who sleep as the church falters. We are lulled into complacency in good times or we entrust our fate to rational solutions and good management strategies because we think we can solve our own problems, without God. Or we find Jesus too prophetic and too radical, so ignore the call to difficult discipleship in a culture that rewards submission. We find the gospel difficult, and so we just go along to get along. 

Preachers will have several themes to reflect on for this Fourth of July Independence Day. It may be just a coincidence, but the first reading from Genesis is about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Religion has always found much to criticize in our contemporary consumer culture, entertainment industry and need for spiritual renewal. 

The Gospel strikes a more comforting theme-- that even if Jesus seems asleep, he has promised to be us in all kinds of weather, from good times to storms, He will never abandon ship. But the disciples must still rouse him with fervent pleas and renewed trust if we want his help. Crises are better solved by cooperative effort with grace than by waiting passively for miracles. God is always there when faithful people take up the challenge to address their own problems. 

On this national holiday, we are best served by asking God's help to awaken our ideals and our commitment to the common good, not to be discouraged by difficult times and the failure of official leadership, but to take up the call to change what is wrong and to affirm what is best within us.  This is how we will honor our country and ourselves. 

Believe!

"Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe" (John 20:28). 

When the other apostles tell Thomas that they have seen Jesus alive, what he demands is not proof of the resurrection but of the crucifixion.  

It is one thing to believe that someone has escaped death, but what Thomas wants to know is that Jesus actually died. The full measure of love was that the Master had actually laid down his life for them. This is what can move Thomas from doubt to faith. Someone has loved him enough to lose his life for him, an irrevocable sacrifice that goes beyond religion or any human exchange of life for glory or gain. The free, conscious sacrifice of one's own life for the good of others is the absolute sign of absolute love. 

Thomas wants to encounter the crucified Jesus. Before he can grasp the full message of the mysterious events of that first Holy Week, he wants to put his finger into the nail hole in Jesus' hand and his hand into the wound in his side. Then he will know that Jesus really died for them.  If he did, then Thomas would know that what they were seeing in the living Christ was a new kind of human being, the first progenitor and pioneer of the new creation. Jesus death on the cross is the breakthrough the first creation has longed for but been incapable of producing because of sin. Only Jesus has been able to open the way to eternal life. It was made possible by his perfect act of love.

Every human being faces the inevitability of death.  Jesus understood this, and scriptures tell us that he prayed with loud cries and tears and that God heard him. But he did not escape death. The grace given him was how to die in order to overcome death, not only for himself but for all of us as our perfect high priest. By making his death a "perfect act of praise," perfect obedience and perfect love, Jesus changed death from the end of life to the transformation of life. 

The transformed Jesus standing before Thomas in the upper room was both the crucifed and risen Christ. The full journey from human existence to divine destiny was present, and Thomas recognized that he was encountering the LORD of life, the eternal God, the source of all things.  His prayer for faith went from doubt to revelation, evidence to epiphany. His own life-- and his own death -- would be defined by this mystery.

As and Apostle, Thomas would witness to the ultimate meaning of human existence as a search for our own perfect act of love. To be in Christ is to trust that we will be shown when and how to offer ourselves as Jesus did. 
 

Back to Basics

"If we have died with Christ, we believe than we shall also live with him" (Rom 4:8).

The weeks of Ordinary Time for those in the northern hemisphere occur in the long summer months when life often seems to slow down, to be, literally, quite ordinary.  Yet the liturgy and readings are always rich in basic Christian formation. The more we understand just how natural it is to grow in faith, the more we can use this important time to participate in the patterns of life that shape our identity as Christians. 

There is really only one Christian spirituality, and that is the Paschal Mystery. St. Paul found in the central Jewish feast of Passover the meaning of Christ's exodus from death to life on the cross, which became the source of our liberation from sin and death to live new lives in God. Paul identifies this ongoing process as our own dying with Christ in order to live with him. This rhythm of dying and rising with Christ is the meaning of baptism, the first and most important of the sacraments.

At our baptism we were ritually immersed in the death of Christ, like someone going down into the waters of death. We cross over, just as the Hebrews did in the parting of the Red Sea. Our old life is in that moment transformed so that when we come up out of the water we have been united to Jesus and are now part of his new life We are a members of his risen body, the new creation, and in communion with all other baptized Christians. The eucharistic bread is the bread of passover, food for the journey. 

What we celebrate ritually then becomes our way of life. Our joys and hopes, challenges and suffering become the offering we bring to our deeper and deeper identification with Christ over the years. Real life struggles produce human maturity in those who respond and grow, and it is in this same human growth that grace is at work to make us holy.

We are never alone. Our transformation and incorporation into the risen Christ makes us brothers and sisters with him and with one another. We are adopted children of God, heirs to the divine life that flows into us through the Holy Spirit of Jesus and by our sharing in his body and blood sacramentally present at each Mass in our reception of Communion. 

Because of our new identity, we believe that the divine life -- grace -- is already at work in our everyday lives. We do not have to wait for heroic moments of sacrifice or virtue to experience the power of grace moving us to make good choices, to give deeper meaning to our relationships and to inspire us to live ith less fear or the need to compete with others for our self-interest.  Because we already possess the highest possible good, we can live more freely and generously.  if sharing a cup of cold water is an act of grace, how much more will any sign of love be multiplied? 

Simple daily prayer, enjoying God's friendship with our first cup of coffee, listening to the Spirit as we set the mood for our day, making gratitude our attitude, encouragement our message to others -- these small adjustments at the start can have large influences as the day proceeds.  We should not be surprised to meet God again and again in every task and every human encounter. This is the way the Gospel works, small, simple and effective -- among the many blessings that flow freely in Ordinary Time. 

 

Nothing Is Impossible for God

"Lord, if your wish, you can make me clean" (Matt 8:2).

If there are parallel themes in today's reading and commemoration of the first martyrs of Rome, they focus us on God's paradoxical ways. Jesus' ministry attracts the poor, lepers, cripples, tax collectors and prostitutes. It seems an impossible beginning  for the arrival of the Kingdom of God, and it overturns every expectation for the promised Messiah. 

Abraham cannot keep from laughing when God promises him a son by Sarah. He is 100 years old and she is 90. How can this be?

Today's feast remembers the Christians martyred by Nero as scapegoats for his own plan to burn down the shanties of Rome to make way for a new and more glorious city.  These martyrs includes Peter and Paul, the most prominent and revered leaders of the movement. It must have seemed a disastrous beginning for the early church.

Yet the people Jesus reached first and foremost during his ministry were precisely the lowly ones who would reveal God's mercy. A leper is cleansed. The first became last and the last first.  An upside down world that challenged the high and mighty was at the heart of the Gospel of justice an love. Nothing is impossible for God.

Abraham would become, as God had promised, the father of a great nation through Isaac and his descendants. Even more, Abraham would also be the father of Islam, the Arab peoples who were to respond to the call of the Prophet Mohammed. Nothing is impossible for God. 

In one of great miracles of the early church, the martyrs of Rome inspired a surge in new members to the church. The blood of martyrs proved to be the seed of conversion that revealed the power of God in the courage of the first Christians.  Nothing is impossible for God.

If we seek to know God, perhaps we should look in the places where our hopes seem disappointed and our best efforts seem frustrated.  Where prayer reveals an authentic desire for good, this signals that God is promising that it will come true.  If we stay focused and faithful, even in the midst of suffering and delay, God will not disappoint. 

Founded on Mercy

"On this rock I will build my church" (Matt 16:16).

Imagine founding an organization and choosing for your first CEO a person who was known for boasting and then folding up in a crisis. Imagine appointing as leader someone who barely understood your purposes and was unprepared for the challenges the company would face after you left him in charge.  

Imagine recruiting for your head marketing director a person who was known to oppose your goals and despise your mission. Would you entrust the fate of the company to someone who had done everything possible to thwart its growth, even to the point of attacking and imprisoning its members? 

Isn't this exactly what Jesus did by choosing Peter and Paul to be exemplars of the Gospel message and leaders of the emerging church within the Jewish community and in the world?  Each man had to undergo a profound conversion experience to carry out their roles in the life of fledgling Christian church. How are we to make sense of this astonishing paradox?

The only answer is that the very mission of the church was to announce God's mercy to the world. Who better to preach that message than two leaders who had experienced it to the core of their being? Peter and Paul knew God's unconditional love because they had received it in full measure. They, above all the other disciples, were retrieved from shame and failure by the love of Christ. They were chosen not for their worthiness and holiness, but for their unworthiness and need.

Peter and Paul followed in the footsteps of Jesus, who was himself accounted a total failure, rejected and despised in the eyes of the world when he was condemned by his own religious community and executed as a dangerous criminal by the Roman state. Peter and Paul both suffered rejection and ignominious deaths in Rome for preaching the Gospel of mercy.  And it was for this that they proved the perfect leaders and models for the faith. 

God calls those who seem most unlikely to succeed, turning their failures into the experience that teaches them mercy for other failures and sinners.  This should give us all hope, for we are just the sort of people God is looking for to be his church. 

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