An Ascension People

Around this time of year you sometimes hear priests saying we are an “Easter People” or even a “Resurrection People.”  But what does it mean?

As far as I can tell, “Easter” is an old-English word that means little more than “Spring Festival.”  But Il Risorto - Chiesa della SS. Trinità - panoramio.jpgwhat is our Spring Festival?  Other Catholic languages use the Hebrew word Pasch, which at least ties “Easter” to the Passover and to the whole “Paschal mystery” of Christ’s death and resurrection.  Still, what is the meaning of Easter?

And what is the meaning of the Resurrection?  Perhaps I’m jaded: when I was in college, a priest used to use the non sequitur argument that we shouldn’t kneel before the Eucharist because we are a “Resurrection People.”  But the same “liberal” logic passes over to some “conservative” Catholics, where Chesterton’s famous comments about “beef and beer” sometimes seem to devolve into a kind of Catholic pseudo-orthodoxy that thinks the Incarnation means we should all make ourselves at home in the world, eat drink and be merry.

Is that what Resurrection means?  “The battle’s done,” we’re an Easter people, let’s be fat and happy and self-referential?

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I was struck in my reading this year by a Thomist theologian who tied the Resurrection to the Ascension.  The Bible is a little confusing here.  Of course we know that Jesus was “seen by them through forty days” (Acts 1:3), apparently before the Ascension (1:6-9).  And Thomas Aquinas seems confident to say the Ascension was “after forty days” (IIIa q. 55, a. 3, arg. 2; ibid. a. 5; ibid. q. 57, a. 1, arg. 4).

But the only other place the Bible talks about the Ascension is at the end of Luke’s Gospel – same author as Acts – where the drumbeat is “that same day” (Luke 24:13), “the same hour” (24:33), “as they were speaking” (24:36), and then, apparently with no passage of time, “He led them out as far as Bethany . . . and as he blessed them, He withdrew from them and was carried up into Heaven” (24:50).

Now, I’m not trying to throw you into confusion about when we should celebrate the Ascension.  I’m just trying to say the Ascension and the Resurrection are not so far apart.  They are more like two parts of the same mystery.

We tend to think, perhaps, that the Resurrection is the big deal, and then later on something obscure detail gets added on – and so our “Resurrection people” focuses on a God who is sitting on the beach having a meal.  But you wouldn’t be out of line if you instead thought that Jesus ascended on Easter Day, but made appearances “through forty days” so that they would understand the truth of the Ascension. File:Η Ανάληψη.jpg You wouldn’t be out of line if you thought of the Ascension as the main mystery, and the Resurrection and its appearances as sort of a step on the way.

The anamnesis, the important but over-looked prayer right after the Consecration of the Eucharist, ties the two together.  Eucharistic Prayer II, the shortest and so the most often used, just says “his Death and Resurrection,” but (google them if you’re interested) in EP III and the ancient EP I, the Roman Canon, the grammar gets strange as the two are tangled into one mystery.  The Ascension is not an afterthought.

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A clue to the reason is in the two Prefaces for the Ascension in the Missal.  The second one (which was in the Pre-Vatican II Missal), says:

“after his Resurrection

he plainly appeared to all his disciples

and was taken up to heaven in their sight,

that he might make us sharers in his divinity.”

The other one says:

“he ascended, not to distance himself from our lowly state

but that we, his members, might be confident of following

where he, our Head and Founder, has gone before.”

These prayers summarize a lot of what we have been reading from the Farewell Discourse of John’s Gospel.

The mystery of the Ascension is that our humanity is taken to heaven.  Yes, in the Resurrection our humanity conquers death.  But Jesus has a better plan than that: he wants us to share with him in the life of heaven.

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We are an Ascension People.

File:Église de Kalkar - Ascension.jpgThe Resurrection does not mean that we make ourselves at home on earth.  It means that we are destined for heavenly glory.  Nor does the Resurrection mean that we are afraid to kneel: it means we are still on our way, trembling, to something eye has not seen and ear has not heard.

We are an Easter People.  But the Paschal Mystery, our Springtime celebration, doesn’t just mean we won and now we can party.  On one side of the Resurrection is the Cross, through which we must pass continually until we reach the glory of heaven.  And on the other side of the Resurrection is the Ascension, which calls us not to get too comfortable here on earth, but to long for heavenly things, the heavenly places that Jesus has prepared for us.

What does the Ascension mean for you?

Sixth Sunday of Easter: Our Apologetics is Love

We are coming to the end of the Easter season.  Ascension is on Thursday, and the readings are starting to look ahead to Pentecost.  (In the many places where Ascension is transferred to Sunday, the Lectionary gives the confusing option to do the New Testament readings from that Sunday on this Sunday; I will comment on this Sunday’s readings.)

Our Gospel continues on from last Sunday’s reading in John 14.  John expands on little details from the other Gospels.  They tell us about the institution of the Eucharist.  He takes us deep into the meaning of the Eucharist, not only in John 6, where he gives Jesus’s preaching about the multiplication of loaves and the Bread of Life, but also in John 13, where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, and then 14-17, where he preaches at length about his love for his disciples, the Church.

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Love as I have loved

Our Gospel this Sunday has two themes: the commandment and the Spirit.

Now, the other Gospels, especially in the Sermon on the Mount, emphasize how love establishes the old commandments: if you love, you won’t kill or commit adultery or lie, etc., in fact you’ll never come close to those things.  John knows this point has been made – but he wants to emphasize the other direction, the necessity of love.

Our reading this Sunday begins and ends with Jesus saying that if you love him, you will keep his commandments.  In the next chapter he will say, “if you keep my commandments, you abide in my love,” just as he keeps his Father’s commandments and abides in his Father’s love.  “Abide” is one of John’s favorite words: we dwell in that love, live there, take time there, remain there.

But in that chapter after ours, right after he says “if you keep my commandments,” he says, “this is my commandment: love as I have loved you.”  He has said the same thing in the chapter before ours: “a new commandment I give you: as I have loved you, love one another.”  He has just washed their feet.  The Tradition calls Holy Thursday “Maundy” Thursday because of the commandment, the mandatum, to wash each other’s feet and love one another.

Jesus tells us to keep his commandments, in the plural – but Jesus really only gives one commandment: love as I have loved you.

St. Thérèse points out the newness of this commandment.  The Old Testament told us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  That’s pretty hard.  But Jesus gives a new commandment: love not as we love ourselves, but as he loves ourselves, which is vastly more.  That is his commandment.  And that is the whole thing, that love is Christianity.

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The other theme in our reading for this Sunday is the Holy Spirit.  Jesus emphasizes that the world does not have the Spirit, does not see him or know him or accept him.  But we do know him because – here’s that word again – the Spirit dwells in us, abides with us.

In John’s Prologue, he says we are born as children of God not by blood (not just because we are human), not by the will of the flesh or even the will of man, but from God.  Here he makes the same point in a different way: love is not just automatically in “the world.”  Love is the presence of the Spirit in us.

Receive the Holy Spirit

We can love as Jesus loves not because we try real hard – not by “the will of man” – and certainly not because it’s just human nature, but because he pours his Spirit, his love, into our hearts.  This is why the sacraments are an essential part of Christianity: because they are the means, the instruments, by which Christ pours his Spirit, his love, into our hearts.  Only his Spirit allows us to love as he loves.

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Our reading this week from Acts continues the story of the deacons.  Stephen has been stoned, now there are a few stories about the deacon Philip.  The deacons have been ordained to free up the Apostles for preaching – but the deacons too, Luke tells us, are “full of the Holy Spirit,” and they too proclaim the Gospel, by word and deed.

And they go forth to bring the Spirit to others: they baptize, and then call the Apostles – the givers of the sacraments – to give the fullness of the Spirit by laying on hands.

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Our reading from First Peter is about apologetics – it uses that Greek word.  But it is not quite the apologetics we sometimes learn.  Peter calls us to give a reason (a logos) not for our faith, but for our hope.  Tell them of your hope in Christ!

And the whole reading makes clear that the context matters.  Our “apologetic” begins with sanctifying the Lord in our hearts and ends with meekness, with fear – our translation says “reverence,” but Peter is saying, be ever so careful – and with a readiness to lay down our lives in gentleness, as Christ did, suffering not because we are obnoxious but only for the good we have done.  Our apologetics is love.

How does dwelling in Christ’s love – or not – affect your witness to the faith?

 

Fifth Sunday of Easter: Christ Alone our Cornerstone

Throughout the Easter season we read the Acts of the Apostles.  Up till now it has been Peter’s preaching at Pentecost.  In the weeks to come it will be the spreading of the Gospel to the nations.  But this week we get the central theme of Acts: the repetition of Christ’s life in the life of the Apostles.

Christianity, need I say, is Christ-centered.  A curious phenomenon of the Catholic Right is a constant assertion that we should be “reverent” and focus on the “transcendent,” which, they frequently assert, “all religions do” – while, meanwhile, you hear precious little reference to what is distinct about Christianity.  What is distinct about Christianity is Christ, and the repetition of his life in the life of his Body, the Church.

Instead of “reverent, transcendent liturgy,” let’s have a life and liturgy centered on Christ.  That also means Biblical liturgy, where we hear the unique message of Jesus Christ.

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This week’s Gospel reading, from John 14, has many famous lines: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”  “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”  “Show us the Father and we will be satisfied.”

As usual, John overwhelms us.  But we can pull some of these strains together.

First, there is location.  People say many pagan things about transcendence and immanence, but in the Eucharist, in the other sacraments, and in Scripture, as in the Incarnation, we have a God who draws us to himself.

Here in John 14, Jesus says, “in my Father’s house there are many dwelling places . . . I am going to prepare a place for you.”  On the one hand, he says several times, “I am in the Father and the Father in me.”  On the other hand, he says his goal is “that where I am you also may be.”

It is not sufficient to say God is transcendent, and it is even less sufficient to say he is immanent.  The point is that by his grace, we ascend to the place from which he descended.  God became man so that man could be united with God: anything less is not Christianity.

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A parallel theme is faith.  “You have faith in God, have faith also in me”: that is, “believe in me.”  “If you know me, then you will also know my Father.  From now on you do know him and have seen him.”  “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?  The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. . . . Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe because of the works themselves.”

The reason Scripture is important is because it tells us something absolutely new about God.  Jesus, who alone is with the Father, has told us about something we could never have imagined.  Without belief in his words, trust in what he tells us, we can never know the amazing truth of the Gospel.

We need to hear his voice.  That means not just sitting in silence, where we hear our own internal voices, but reading Scripture, the voice of Christ, the Word of God, which speaks from outside of us and tells us something absolutely new.

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The third theme is works.  “Believe me . . . or else believe because of the works.”  “Whoever believes in me will do the works that I do.”  Faith bears fruit.  If we receive his Word, we learn what it means to receive Him; if we receive Him we are transformed to dwell where He is.

In our reading from Acts, the Twelve Apostles say, “It is not right for us to neglect the word of God to serve [diakonia] at table.”  On the one hand, the ministry of the Word is higher than the good works of Christians.  It is from faith that works come forth – here the works are “the daily service [diakonia] to the widows . . . at table.”

On the other hand, those works are essential.  So the deacons, committed to those words, must be “filled with the Spirit and wisdom.”  They receive the laying on of hands of the Apostles – waiting at table is a sacrament – and they produce great saints such as Stephen, the first martyr.  And thus, through this proper ordering of Word and service, “the word of God continued to spread.”

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Our reading from First Peter tells us of the true worship.  All of us must “be built into a spiritual house,”

Knowing Christ through faith in his Word

which is “a holy priesthood to offer spiritual sacrifices”: through the ministry of the Apostles and priests, all of us are called to be priestly, in liturgy and life.

But to be that priestly house, we must be built on Jesus Christ, whom we know, Peter says, through “faith.”  Those who “disobey the word” – literally, those who do not assent to the word – see Christ only as a stumbling block.  Only through faith in Christ and his words can we become the holy people we are called to be.

How do you let your mind be transformed by the truth of the Gospel?

Fourth Sunday of Easter: Know His Voice

The fourth Sunday of Easter is the Good Shepherd.  Each year on this Sunday we read different sections of John 10, turning from accounts of the Resurrection in the first three Sundays to Jesus’s preaching at the Last Supper (John 14-17) in the weeks to come, and so penetrating into the meaning of Easter.

Searching the Scriptures

John’s Gospel is an overwhelmingly rich commentary on the other Gospels.  In Matthew 13, the disciples ask Jesus why he speaks in parables; he responds with the parable of the Sower: his word is good seed, but it needs to be received in good earth.  John 10 is a variation on the same theme.

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John 9 was the man born blind.  At the end of that chapter, Jesus says he has come to open the eyes of the blind. The Pharisees, halfway understanding, ask, “Are you saying that we are blind?”  Jesus responds, “Now you say, We see. Therefore your sin remains.”

He then launches into the parable of the Good Shepherd, through all of chapter 10.  Jesus’s preaching is punctuated with the responses of the Pharisees.  Our reading includes the first response, “They did not understand what it was which He spoke to them.”  Later in the chapter they debate whether “he has a devil, and is mad.”  Later still they want to stone him.

The chapter is punctuated, too, by the Greek word ginosko, the word for “understanding” in “They did not understand his words.”  Deeper than understanding, it is knowing.  Later in the chapter Jesus says, “I know my sheep,” “I know the Father,” “The Father knows me and I know him,” “My sheep hear me, and I know them.”  And the final line of the homily is, “That you may know and believe.”

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File:Timrå kyrka int6.jpgThis is the context for Jesus’s preaching about the Good Shepherd.  His sheep, he says, know his voice, they hear his words, they follow, “because they recognize his voice.”  They do not follow strangers, “because they do not recognize the voice of strangers.”

Just as the good seed takes root only in good soil, so the sheep only follow their shepherd.  And as the seed in Matthew’s Gospel is the word, what the sheep follow in John’s Gospel is the voice of the Shepherd.  But in John’s version, the sheep have a bit more intelligence.  They do not just passively receive the word, they hear it, recognize it, and follow it.

This week’s installment from First Peter ends with a line about sheep.  It may be a play on words.  The Greek for sheep literally means, “the ones who walk straight forward.”  Maybe that is part of what people mean when they say sheep are stupid: they just plod straight ahead.

Peter gives two images of sheep.  First, “You had gone astray like sheep”: they just keep wandering off in whatever direction.  But second, “You have now returned” – the Greek word is turn – “to the shepherd.”  They plod straight ahead – unless they hear the voice of their shepherd and guardian, in which case they turn to follow.  Not so stupid, as long as they have a good shepherd and they know his voice.

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Jesus mixes his metaphors.  He is the shepherd; he is also the gatekeeper and the gate.  We could summarize the mixed metaphor as Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, through him, with him, in him, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ behind me.

He warns us that there are those who would enter the sheepfold by other ways.  Jesus the Good File:The Christ Child as the Good Shepherd. Lithograph by J. Abri Wellcome V0034043.jpgShepherd wants life for his sheep, wants to lead us to pasture, but the others are thieves who want to slaughter the sheep.  Beware all that is not Jesus.  Beware Catholicisms of the Right and the Left that have something to offer you other than the love of Jesus.

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This week’s reading from Acts is the end of Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, completing the reading from last week.  Our translation happens to botch the key word: “Save yourself,” it has, in the last line, “from this corrupt generation.”  But the point is precisely that we cannot save ourselves.  The Greek says, “be saved” – by Jesus.

In response to Peter’s preaching, his audience has asked, “What are we to do.”  Peter says, “Repent and be baptized.”  Repent, because the one “that God has made both Lord and Christ,” is the Jesus “whom you have crucified.”  We have gone astray.  Repent, because this world is crooked and corrupt.

But repent and be baptized, because only Jesus can give “the gift of the Holy Spirit” (through the sacraments), only Jesus can save us, only Jesus can overcome our corruption and give us a new birth, a re-“generation.”

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File:Stories of old or Bible narratives (1863) (14579310939).jpgPeter offers one more metaphor.  “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his footsteps.”  The word for “follow” is the one used several times in John 10.  Go where he leads.

The “leave you an example” is a bit abstract in the English.  In the Greek, the image is of something written in bold so that you can put tracing paper over it.  “Copy” his example, follow his voice, no matter where it leads.

How could you better get to know the voice of the Shepherd?

Third Sunday of Easter: Discovering the Hope of the Resurrection

The first three Sundays of Easter give us accounts of the Resurrection; the fourth Sunday is the Good Shepherd; and the following Sundays of the season are about the Eucharist.  Meanwhile the first reading is from the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles, and the Epistle is from 1 Peter, 1 John, or Revelation, depending on the year.  We spend Easter pondering the meaning of Easter – and finding it in Jesus the Good Shepherd’s care for the infant Church, especially through the Eucharist.

This week we read the Road to Emmaus, from Luke’s Gospel.  Like the Easter Lectionary, those disciples are grappling with the meaning of Easter – and they find it in the Good Shepherd, revealed in the Eucharist.

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A word central to all three readings and the Psalm is hope.  As Jesus talks to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, they say, “We were hoping that he would be the one to redeem Israel.”  Of course they are right, he has redeemed Israel.  But not the way they expected.  They were prevented from recognizing him walking along with them – but they were also prevented from recognizing him as their redeemer and hope on the Cross.

Luke, the author of our Gospel and of the Acts of the Apostles, is concerned with abandonment.  In Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels, which Luke seems to have had before him while writing his own, Jesus’s only words on the Cross are “Why have you abandoned me?”  Now, he is citing Psalm 22 which, the Gospel writers expect us to know, tells how even in what feels like abandonment God has not abandoned us.

But Luke wants to make it more clear, so he tells us about another Psalm Jesus prayed, Psalm 31, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”  Jesus was not abandoned.  Nor did he abandon us: Luke also tells us of Jesus saying to the Good Thief, himself abandoned on the Cross, “today you will be with me in Paradise,” and even of the morally abandoned people who crucified him, “Father, forgive them.”

In our reading from Acts, the same Luke reports Peter beginning his preaching at Pentecost with Psalm 16: “You will not abandon my soul to the netherworld.”  It’s the same Hebrew word for abandon as in Psalm 22.

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The disciples on the Road to Emmaus feel abandoned.  Christ was not the redeemer, he was abandoned on the Cross, and so we too are abandoned.  But this is the first thing they need to know about Easter: we are not abandoned.  “Therefore,” says our Psalm, “my heart is glad and my soul rejoices, my body, too, abides in confidence; because you will not abandon my soul to the netherworld, nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.”

Rembrandt’s Christ in Emmaus

“Abides in confidence” – actually, the word is hope.  In the Greek Old Testament, which Luke cites in Acts, it’s the same word as the disciples say on the Road to Emmaus: “we had hoped he was the redeemer.”  It’s the same word Peter says in our Epistle: “through him you believe in God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.”

We are not abandoned, because we have hope.  And yet, as Paul says in Romans, hope is not yet possession.  The other side of hope is that we do indeed feel abandoned.  The power of Psalm 16, and the joy of Easter, is not in having completely escaped death, but in knowing, in the midst of death, that Christ is our hope.

The disciples “hoped” for a redeemer who would get them out of jail free.  For that, on the Road to Emmaus, Jesus scolds them: “Oh, how foolish you are!  How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets spoke!  Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory!”  (Glory is another word all over this Sunday’s readings.)  We enter glory through suffering, through hope.

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In our Epistle, St. Peter tells us that we were “ransomed” – redeemed, as in, “we had hoped that he would redeem Israel” – from our futile conduct.   Peter reads the resurrection in terms of our conversion, which is still in process.

File:De gamle Kalkmalerier or12.pngBut we were redeemed not through earthly power, “not with perishable things like silver or gold,” but through our Passover lamb, “with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb.”  He redeemed us not by being a powerful conquering king, but by laying down his life on the Cross.

His Word and his Eucharist transform the disciples on the Road to Emmaus.  “Were not our hearts burning within us?”  Actually, the word is more like “kindled,” “lit on fire” – the Greek emphasizes not a fire already burning, but the beginning.

Jesus kindle, your love in me, may your Cross and Resurrection give birth to the Church, a hope of glory, in each one of us.

To what new hope is Christ calling you this Easter?

Fifth Sunday in Lent: To Believe in the Resurrection

We come to the fifth Sunday of Lent.  In the old calendar this was called “Passion Sunday.”  The Gospel was from John 8, not yet the Passion – as now, they read the Synoptic account of the Passion on Palm Sunday, and John’s account on Good Friday – but this Sunday began “Passiontide,” when the statues are covered and the prayers increasingly focus on the Cross.  They began to use the Preface of the Cross, there were fewer Glory to the Father’s, the hymns Vexilla Regis and Stabat Mater were sung – we are moving from Lent into Holy Week.

The reformed Lectionary gives us the raising of Lazarus, from John 11.  It is a fitting choice.  John’s Gospel describes just a few events, in the life of Jesus then in 12:1 he begins Holy Week: “Then, six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany.”  Our reading ends with 11:45, “Then many of the Jews who came to Mary, and had seen the things which Jesus did, believed in Him.”  But 11:46 says, “But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.”  The rest of chapter 11 centers on the line, “Then from that day they took counsel together that they might kill Him” (11:53).  For John, Lazarus is the final act before the Cross.

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The center point of the story is faith in the Resurrection.  When Jesus hears that Lazarus is sick, he says, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God.”  The disciples are confused why sickness not unto death is any worry, so Jesus tells them clearly, “Lazarus has died.  And I am glad for that, that I was not there, that you may believe.”  Notice how many times he says, “Believe.”

Église de Kalkar - Résurrection-Lazare.jpg

Église de Kalkar

Most of the story is a dialogue with Martha.  This is where Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever” – here’s that word again – “believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”  John gets into weird circles like this – but in any case, Jesus is talking about resurrection and believing.

Martha has already expressed her belief: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Jesus points to a deeper belief: “Your brother will rise.”  And Martha professes again, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.”  She believes in the resurrection – but Jesus points her deeper.  This is when he says, “I am the resurrection.”  He concludes, “Do you believe this?”

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Martha says, “Yes, Lord, I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”  John is like a commentary on the other Gospels.  For him, the primacy of Peter is clear – and he discusses it in his own way, after the Resurrection: “feed my sheep.”  But John puts Peter’s confession in the mouth of Martha.

File:Jesus uppväcker Lazarus, målning av Karl Isakson.jpg

Karl Isakson

In Matthew, Peter says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”  It may be the center point of Matthew’s Gospel – and immediately after it comes Jesus’s first proclamation of the Cross.  In Mark, Peter only says, “You are the Christ,” and it is not till Jesus dies that the Centurion completes the profession: “Truly this man was the Son of God.”  But John puts that profession on the lips of Martha, who experiences the resurrection through the death of her own brother, the one for whom “Jesus wept,” entering into the weeping of the sisters.

But she still does not fully believe: when Jesus comes to the tomb, she says, “Lord, by now there will be a stench.”  But when Lazarus rises, “many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what he had done began to believe in him.”

A growing faith in the resurrection, faith through death and resurrection.

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“If you had been here,” Martha complains.  In fact, “when he heard that he was ill, Jesus remained for two days.”  “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus” – but he did not hurry.

How much of our life is lived in this words?  “If you had been here, Jesus.”  Hurry up!  Why are you leaving me to die on the vine?

But Martha’s profession – like Peter’s and the Centurion’s – must be purified by death.  It is easy to say, “I believe that Jesus is Lord.  I believe in the Resurrection.”  But we must pass through Lent, through fasting, through loss, through the Cross, to find what the Resurrection means.

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The other two readings hammer the point.  Ezekiel says that the Lord is a God of resurrection: “I will open your graves and have you rise from them.”

Paul warns us that the deepest resurrection is deeper than we want to go.  The Spirit who raises Jesus’s body from the dead will raise our souls, even though our bodies are dead.  The Resurrection doesn’t mean there is no Lent, no Cross, no death.  It is in the Cross that our souls can be brought to true life, by the purifying of our faith.

Only then, when he has given life to our souls, will he “give life to your mortal bodies also” – only when we have passed through the purification of death and the Cross.

What Cross is Jesus making you pass through?  How is he purifying your faith?

File:Wydra Raising of Lazarus.jpg

Jan Wydra

Fourth Sunday of Lent: To See and Be Seen

These three middle Sundays of Lent, the Gospel readings, from John, are overwhelming.  Last week we had the Samaritan woman, this week the man born blind, and next week the raising of Lazarus.  They are each about forty verses long, and every verse of John is packed.

Searching the Scriptures

The first thing to say about these readings is that the readings themselves are an initiation.  Each one leads us through and into a deep encounter with Christ.  We learn the grandeur of Scripture.  We are called to revel in it.  And as we listen, we are like the characters: like the Samaritan woman, we talk to Christ – and, more important, we hear him talk to us – and we are amazed and want to tell our friends; like the man born blind, our eyes are opened and we can only fall down and worship; like Lazarus’s sister Mary we weep at the horror of death and see the glory of Christ the Resurrection.

No commentary can do justice to the grandeur of these readings.  Lent is about initiation; these readings are themselves an initiation.  Enjoy them!

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A first theme in this Sunday’s Gospel is sin and suffering.  We think suffering is a sign that God does not love us – the reading opens with a question about whose sin caused the man to be blind.

But Jesus shows that that is not at all what suffering is about.  Suffering – also the disastrous love life of the woman at the well, or the death of Lazarus – is an opportunity for us to discover God’s strength in our weakness.  “It is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”

At the end, Jesus turns their thinking inside out: the Pharisees think only the ones God hates suffer things like blindness – but Jesus says, “if you were blind you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘we see,’ so your sin remains.”  When I am weak, then I am strong – but when I am too strong for Jesus, then I am weak.

That’s one of the things we learn in Lent, isn’t it?

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Phariseeism takes us deeper into this weakness.  The strangest detail in this reading is that Jesus makes clay out of spittle and rubs it in the man’s eyes.  Jesus does not need clay to heal.  So what is he doing?

Mary sees

The clue comes when the Pharisees notice that “Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a sabbath.”  The clay is a provocation, a little extra work to get their goats.

It brings to light their deeper blindness.  They think the man is a sinner because he is blind, they think Jesus is a sinner because he cured the blind, but in fact the weakness of the man and the strength of Jesus are the revelation of the glory of God.  They can’t see it, because they are too busy condemning, too confident of their own perfect vision.

Lent calls us into humility.

***

And a third element is sending.  Jesus sends him to the pool of Siloam, “which means Sent.”  John gives so many bewildering details.

But then you notice there’s a lot of sending.  Jesus has just said he must do the works of the one who sent him.  He sends the man to the pool called sent – and going out, the man encounters others to whom he must preach his good news.  His parents fear he will be put out of the synagogue.  And he becomes

Seeing and being sent

bolder, and is in fact thrown out.

Initiation isn’t such a neat orderly thing.  It isn’t that he’s formed, then sent.  His sending is part of his formation; it is in speaking of Jesus that he discovers Jesus.  We cannot meet Jesus unless we are also bearing witness.  Always he is sending us.

The same thing happened with the Samaritan woman, whose faith grew as she went out to tell her friends about Jesus.  The same thing will happen to Lazarus’s sister Mary, who has to lead the mourning and unwrap her brother and bear witness to others.  Our action is inextricably bound up with our contemplation, our witness with our witnessing.

***

The other two readings draw our eyes to seeing and blindness.

Samuel comes to Jesse looking for a David to anoint king.  He says, “Do not judge from his appearance.  Not as man sees does God see, the Lord looks into the heart.”  We need our eyes opened.  And then he sends for David, and anoints him, which is a kind of sending.  We see in being sent, and are sent by our seeing.

And St. Paul tells us we are called out of darkness into light.  He talks about things we want to hide in darkness, and the need to wake up and open our eyes and go into the light.  We need to see and be seen, to see and be sent.

Where do you need to go to better see Jesus?

Third Sunday of Lent: Meeting Jesus at the Waters

The first two Sundays of Lent we read the Temptation in the Desert and the Transfiguration, which for many centuries have set the tone for the season.  But for the next three Sundays, the revision of the Lectionary after Vatican II has rediscovered readings that the early Church used for people preparing for Baptism at Easter.  (These readings are mandated for this year, Year A; they are optional for Years B and C.)

Searching the Scriptures

We rediscover the true meaning of Easter and Lent.  Every Sunday we celebrate the Resurrection – but originally, Easter added to that a celebration of new Christians being plunged into Christ’s Death and Resurrection.  Easter is about Baptism.  Lent is about the preparation for Baptism.  And though at first, Lent was just for the catechumens, we all enter into their preparation – we all become catechumens, we all rediscover our need to be plunged into the waters of Christ at Easter.

The Old Testament readings for Lent give a quick overview of the history of God’s People before Christ – a catechumenate people, preparing to be plunged into Christ.  This year, those readings are Adam and Eve, the promise to Abraham, the Exodus in the desert, the choosing of David, and Ezekiel’s dry bones in the desert: all awaiting Easter.

The Gospel readings for these three weeks, from John, are the woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus.  Each of them speaks of how we long to be plunged into Christ.

***

This week’s Gospel, the woman at the well, is long.  The drama is exquisite, and I can write nothing to compare with hearing that story in its entirety.  Here I only point out some parallels to Lent.

The disciples are gone, allowing the woman to be alone with Jesus.  The intimacy is exquisite.  And we come to this desert of Lent to be alone with Jesus.

He speaks to her, enters into her daily life, even her prejudice and ignorance.  In this intimate time, Christ comes to meet us.

And when he does, he confronts her sin, her many husbands.  Pope Francis speaks of the kiss of Christ’s mercy on our sin.  In the desert of Lent, when the emptiness of our fasting meets the weak but real love of prayer and almsgiving, our sin is laid bare; but Christ is so near that rather than fear, we delight in his intimacy.  Search me and know me!

From talk of sin, he moves to talk about true worship: “You Jews worship in Jerusalem,” she says.  Jesus takes her beyond talk of externals: “true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and truth.”  In Lent we discover that worship is in the heart, and so it is about truth – the truth, for example, of our own moral state.  We need this time of silence to get to the heart.

Meeting Jesus

And then she goes into the town to tell her friends.  And we find that the roots of true mission are not in programs or training – this woman doesn’t come across as a brilliant talker – but in personal knowledge of Jesus.  She can speak of him, draw others to him, because she has been near him.  The only true source of evangelization is this encounter in Lent.

John repeats the point about evangelization.  When the disciples come, he says, “My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.”  It is John’s gloss on “Man does not live by bread alone.”  We fast, and learn that there is a deeper food that we need.  We need Jesus in our hearts – and we need to go forth.

And so the disciples, too, are sent into the fields to reap the harvest, based not on their genius, but on the work of Jesus in their hearts and in the world.

***

The other two readings give us a more practical and then a more spiritual take on this encounter at the well.

In the reading from Exodus, the Israelites complain, “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?  Was it just to have us die here of thirst?”  Moses too complains, “What shall I do with this people?”

Really they ask, is the Lord in our midst or not?  But Jesus gives them to drink.  Just as he teaches the woman at the well through physical thirst, so he teaches them through a cup of cold water that yes, he

The Well of Mercy

cares for them.

But in the reading from Romans, we discover that the true fountain, the true living water, is not bodily, but spiritual.  “Because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” Poured out from the pierced heart of Jesus, who “while we were still helpless, died at the appointed time for the ungodly.”

Mercy pours from his merciful heart.  These are the true living waters, the true refreshment for our souls, in this desert of Lent and in the baptismal waters of Easter.

Into what new intimacy is this Lent leading you?

Eighth Sunday: To Call Jesus Lord

A student recently asked me about St. Francis of Assisi.  Are we all called to be like him?  Or is that just a crazy vocation for one strange person in a strange, distant time?

Cimabue’s St. Francis

Well, the first thing to say is what another former student recently wrote to me: I am not called to be St. Francis, I am called to be St. ____.  In that sense, no, we are not called to be like Francis.  But we are called to be saints.

Vatican II declared the “universal call to holiness” just about the time that the American church was drifting into assimilated suburban comfort.  In that context, the call got sort of retranslated into a “universal proclamation of holiness,” as if Vatican II said everything is fine, whatever.  Actually, Vatican II said the exact opposite – and the tendency of our culture to ignore that call of the Council shows how important it was.  You and I are called not to assimilated suburban comfort, but to sanctity – yes, as radical as St. Francis.

***

Last Sunday we finished our reading of every verse in Matthew 5, the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount.  The Lectionary finishes the Sermon by reading just the final verses of chapters 6 and 7, one Sunday for each.  With the location of Ash Wednesday this year, we won’t get to chapter seven until after Pentecost.

But the reading from chapter 6 is perfect for this last Sunday before Lent.  The first half of Matthew 6 is about almsgiving, prayer (with the Our Father), and fasting, the three practices of Lent; several of those verses are the annual reading for Ash Wednesday.  But the second half of the chapter explains the point of those practices, with six verses on laying up treasures in heaven and ten verses on worry.  The Lectionary’s summary of this chapter gives us the last verse on treasures in heaven and all the verses on worry, in a way that perfectly shows how the whole chapter hangs together.

***

“No one can serve two masters,” says Jesus, at the beginning of our reading.  The key is in lordship: it’s not that money is evil, it’s that money is an evil master.

He adds a line that can be overlooked as dull repetition: “He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despire the other.”  The point is, sometimes you actively hate the thing that isn’t your

Crucified with Christ

master – sometimes, if money is your master, you hate God – but sometimes you just “despise,” or under-value, the one who isn’t your master.  Sometimes, that is, it’s more insidious than hate: we might not hate God, but our love of money can make us treat him with contempt.  Be careful.

This verse introduces the verses about worry, with their famously Franciscan lines about the birds in the sky and the wild flowers.  Jesus says God cares for them, and we should have confidence that God will care for us.  I am sure I’m not the only one who has had a priest directly contradict these verses, directly tell me that we shouldn’t be like crazy St. Francis and just assume God will take care of us, we have to be hard-nosed and worry about money.

Friends, I think this tendency to reject the direct teaching of Jesus is a disease, a heresy that threatens the American church to its core.

***

Now, Jesus doesn’t say you shouldn’t work for a living – even Francis went out begging.  But he does say you should be careful who your “master” is, and what you “worry” about.  He doesn’t say you shouldn’t seek your meal, but he does say, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”

The chapter (and our reading) ends with a verse that seems out of character, after all this happy stuff about lilies of the field: “sufficient for a day is its own evil.”  This verse has a clue for how to read the whole chapter.  This “evil” really is the word for evil, not just deprivation, like a couple weeks ago.  Each day has evil to be battled.

Temptation

What is the evil?  It is the very real temptation to make money our master, to worry more about food and clothes than about God and righteousness, to think that if we don’t outright hate God, then we don’t need to worry about despising, or undervaluing, him.

We don’t worry about this temptation enough.  But Jesus sees it as a major threat, and he hits it hard, here and elsewhere.  Every day, make sure you are more worried about calling Jesus Lord than about how much money is in your bank account.  That’s why we have Lent, with its threefold call to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

***

Our short reading from Isaiah reminds us that God is our Father.  Seek his kingdom and his righteousness, and you really will have everything.  The secret of St. Francis was his trust in the providence of God the Father.

Nothing but Jesus

Our reading from First Corinthians puts the same thing in more dire terms.  Our job in this world is not to lay up treasure on earth, but to steward our goods for Christ – and we should worry, above all, about

how Jesus will judge us on his return (he says it will be how we feed the hungry, not how big a house we owned).

Seek first the kingdom, and take seriously how easily our American values can get in the way of the Lordship of Jesus.

What part of your life demands clearer priorities?

 

 

Seventh Sunday: Perfect Love

This Sunday we complete Matthew 5, the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount.  Although the Lectionary will only give us parts of the next two chapters, we get every verse of Matthew 5.  It is exquisite.

Searching the Scriptures

Our readings start with God saying in Leviticus, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”  Our Gospel concludes, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The key is in our second reading, where St. Paul says, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God?”  God dwells in us, and so we share in his holiness.

***

It is important to see the continuity between Leviticus and the Gospel.  Last week Jesus said, “I have come not to abolish the law or the prophets . . . but to fulfill.”  This week we are tempted to doubt that claim.

Our reading begins, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  The second half begins, “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  We get the idea that the Old Testament is all about vengeance, and Jesus has come to abolish it.

To the contrary, the Old Testament took us half way.  Eye for an eye was not an encouragement to poke people’s eyes out.  It meant, if someone pokes out your eye, you’re not allowed to kill his whole family in retaliation; and if no one has poked your eye out, you oughtn’t to poke out anyone else’s.  These laws from Leviticus are not an encouragement to retaliation, but a restraint on it.

So too, this week’s reading from Leviticus reminds us that the main teaching of the Old Law was “love your neighbor” – it just didn’t extend that love to the enemy.  “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people,” we will hear.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

***

But Jesus goes much further: “turn the other cheek.”  He goes so far that we are tempted to think he is

Crucified with Christ

merely exaggerating.

The heart of the matter is in his first response: “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.”  Can he really mean that?

Now, Greek has three words for evil.  One is inherent wickedness.  The second is degeneracy – falling into inherent wickedness.  But the word here focuses not on the evil of the person himself, but on his effect.  Jesus does not say, “Let the wicked person be wicked.”  What he says is, “when someone, or even some thing, deprives you, let it go.”

The same word appears two other important places in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is at the end of the Beatitudes (thus returning us again to that fundamental teaching): Blessed are you when they say all depriving words against you, when their words strip you.

But it is also at the end of the Lord’s Prayer: deliver us from being deprived.  Throughout the Beatitudes, why are we blessed?  Because the one thing the deprivers cannot take from us is God.  And if we have him, we have everything.

***

Jesus’s commentary on this “do not resist the depriver” nicely focuses on doubling.  In an eye for an eye, there is balance: his eye, your eye.  But in Jesus, instead of taking his eye, you give him your other one.  If they slap one cheek, let them slap the other.  If they sue you for your tunic, give them your cloak.  If they demand one mile, go two.  Doubling.

And the final doubling: “You have heard it said, You shall love your neighbor . . . .  But I say to you, love your enemies.”  The Old Law took us half way, Jesus takes us all the way.

That’s the real meaning of the last words, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The Greek word for “perfect” means “all the way to the end.”  Don’t go half way into love.  Go all the way – as God goes all the way.

***

And that’s the reason we can go all the way: because God goes all the way.

We always doubt the prudence of what Jesus says.  I’m going to have no cloak!

To lose all and have Jesus

But in this week’s reading from First Corinthians, St. Paul warns us against “the wisdom of this world.”  Hanging on to your cloak won’t get you so far.

The wisdom of God is that “everything belongs to you . . . and you to Christ, and Christ to God.”  We are “the temple of God, and . . . the Spirit of God dwells in you.”  If you have God, why are you fighting over the cloak?  Go all the way, love to the end, let God be your all.

Where do you fight for worldly goods and forget the presence of God?  How do you live the wisdom of this age?