Twenty-Third Sunday: God’s Plans

Thank you to all my readers who have prayed for my son Joseph while he was in the hospital.  The news, in short, is that he is home, but still waiting for something to heal – and there is no guarantee that it won’t heal without surgery.  So please do keep praying for us!

 

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

As the second readings of the Sunday Lectionary take us through the Epistles of the New Testament, this week we get a taste of the shortest of Paul’s letters, Philemon.  Philemon was the owner of the slave Onesimus.  They were both Christians.  Paul speaks here, in a different key from his other letters, about the relation of slaves and masters.

It is sometimes said that the value of science fiction (or also fantasy, like Tolkien or Lewis) is to put human beings in a circumstance very different from usual – and thus to discover what remains true of us in all circumstances.  There is something of that in the differences of earthly vocation.  Paul uses slave and master, the greatest distance, to bring out the essential sameness of human persons.  Slave or master, here or in space or in Mordor, we are human beings.

In our reading, Paul has taken the slave Onesimus to be with him for a time.  Now he sends him back to his master Philemon.  He says, “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for awhile, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.”

As things are moved around, we discover what they truly are.  When Paul can dislodge Onesimus from the standard order of things, Philemon can rediscover him for what he truly is, a brother in Christ.

***

“Perhaps this is why.”  The first reading is from the Wisdom of Solomon.  Its central point is that the reason God’s plans don’t make sense to us is not because they are senseless, but because we are.

I have spoken of this problem before.  Modern Christianity has a tendency to exalt God’s freedom and “will” as if God’s actions were without intelligence.  But no, Scripture is so clear: everything makes perfect sense to God.  Everything is orderly.

But for us, says our reading today, “the corruptible body burdens the soul, and the earthen shelter weighs down the mind that has many concerns.”

There are at least two ways the “corruptible body” darkens our intellects.  One is passion: we are so fixed on our own little expectations that we cannot sit back and discover God’s plan.  A second is indeterminacy: we cannot follow through on our plans, nor can anything we see infallibly hit its mark, and so from our perspective, the world often seems random.  But it is not random from God’s perspective.  He has a plan.  He has a way.

***

In our reading, Paul says, “perhaps this is why.”  But our reading from Wisdom says, “Scarce do we guess the things on earth . . . .  Who ever knew your counsel?”

Perhaps it is important that Paul says “perhaps.”  We don’t know why things happen.  We don’t know why Onesimus was born a slave, Philemon a master, some of us rich, some of us poor.  We are so quick to assume we have it figured out, and so to harden our ways.  “Onesimus deserves to be a slave!”

Instead we should focus on what we do know: God has called us to love.  And he has a plan, for Onesimus and for Philemon, to discover his love.

***

Our Gospel is the infamous, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children,” etc.

This reading too focuses on knowledge.  Most of the reading is taken up with Jesus’s metaphors of starting projects – building a tower or going to war – without proper planning.  The punchline is: “In the same way, anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions” (or rather: “all that he has,” including family) “cannot be my disciple.”  We should plan ahead, and recognize the cost of discipleship.

But we can go a step deeper in light of our other two readings.  Obviously Jesus does not want us to hate our families.  But he does want us to realize that we don’t know his plan.  Like the slave master, we can be tempted to think we know exactly what role God wants us to play in the lives of our families.  Things harden in our foolish little plans.

Let go, says God.  It’s not that everything is random, that family doesn’t matter.  But you don’t know what plans God has for your family, how he wants to use those relationships, where he will take you.

Even in the metaphor of army and building, it’s not that the wise men know exactly what’s going to happen.  It’s that they have the flexibility to adapt to events.

God’s plans are richer than ours.  Let us not be too quick to think we’ve got it all figured out.

 

What parts of your life would benefit if you weren’t so sure of what’s supposed to happen?

Twentieth Sunday: For the Sake of the Joy that Lay before Him

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JER 38:4-6, 8-10; PS 40:2, 3, 4, 18; HEB 12:1-4; LK 12:49-53

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus has his face set on Jerusalem, where he will suffer and die, and so enter into his glory.  Our readings from last Sunday encourage us to set our face in the same way.

The reading from Hebrews says Jesus, for the sake of the joy that lay before him, endured the cross, despising its shame.  He suffered physically – and he suffered shame, too.  It wasn’t nice.

But he looked ahead to the joy.  Our reading says that we too should “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus,” who is both our model of a man seeking divine joy and the God who is our joy.  

With our eyes fixed on him, we can “rid ourselves of every burden and sin.”  The conjunction is nice.  On the one hand, sin is a burden.  It’s not that Jesus wants to take away our joy.  It’s that he wants us to set aside the things – the Greek for “burden” literally means “bulky things,” a nice image – that get in the way of seeking our joy.  We can’t rush forward to the Father with these burdens on our back.

On the other hand, there are burdens other than sin – or rather, we should expand our notion of sin, to include not just rule-breaking, but every burden that stands in our way.  The fear of shame and the fear of pain, for example, are bulky burdens.  As long as we worry about these things, we cannot keep our eyes focused on the joy before us.  We should count them as nothing.

Notice that in this Biblical vision, suffering isn’t a good.  Or rather, it’s only good as an opportunity to shrug it off.

***

The reading from Jeremiah gives us an example.  His sufferings are almost comically awful: thrown into a pit with no water to drink, only mud into which he sinks.  

The reading needs some context.  Jerusalem is under seige, collapsing under the weight of its sins.  Jeremiah says the Babylonians are going to take the city captive.  It’s not a personal preference, not an advocacy, just the truth.  The king’s friends shoot the messenger.

Thus the strange words of the court official who gets Jeremiah freed: “He will die of famine on the spot, for there is no more food in the city.”  “There is no more food in the city” is a strange reason to set someone free.  But the point is: Jeremiah isn’t the one who’s hurting us.  He’s just speaking the truth.

Well, for us, the point is that Jeremiah is doing what Jesus did, following his master.  (Yes, the saints of the Old Testament, too, had Jesus for their master.)  He worried more about speaking the truth than about suffering the consequences.  As Hebrews said, “for the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame.”  We are all called to walk the same path – not because we love getting thrown in a muddy pit, but because it just doesn’t matter compared to the joy of knowing God.

***

The reading from Luke is strange: Jesus says, “Do you think I have come to establish peace on the earth?  No, I tell you but rather division.”  And he says households will be divided, father against son, mother against daughter, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law.  Not nice!

To understand these words, I just want to point out some of what happens at the end of Luke.  On the Cross, Luke – expanding on the “Why have you forsaken me” of Matthew and Mark – has Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them” and telling the thief, “today you will be with me in paradise.”  

Does he come to bring peace or division?  Well, he does make peace on the cross – but not a nice easy peace.  In fact, that true peace comes about by being willing to suffer division, willing to suffer the cross.  Jesus wants not war but – well, he says it in our reading: I have come t oset the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!”  Not war, but not false peace either.  He comes to bring the fire of love, which is willing to suffer.

And so in Luke’s account of the Resurrection, Jesus tells the disciples on the road to Emmaus, “It was necessary to suffer all these things and so enter into glory.”  He says almost exactly the same thing in Luke’s other resurrection story.  

Glory through the cross.  Not suffering as the end, but suffering as the path, suffering as something to “despise,” to shrug off, on the way to something grander, “for the sake of the joy that lay before him.”  

Christ speaks a word of peace to us.  But not false peace, that avoids suffering.  Peace born of a love that endures the cross, despising its shame, on its way to something far better.

Where does fear of suffering prevent you from finding divine joy?

Trinity Sunday

Holy Trinity, Rublev

Holy Trinity, Rublev

PRV 8:22-31; PS 8:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; ROM 5:1-5; JN 16:12-15

This Sunday we celebrate the Trinity, the most obscure but also most glorious mystery of our faith.

Historically, this feast has two origins. First, it is the Octave of Pentecost. In the early middle ages, there grew a practice of recelebrating a feast one week afterwards, and every day in between. Divine Mercy Sunday is the Octave of Easter: it is like the whole week repeats the glory of Easter, and the liturgy even says that “today” is Easter throughout. One day cannot contain its glories. Christmas, too, has an octave. Pentecost was the third to get an octave – and after that, they started giving octaves to all sorts of lesser feasts.

Now, Easter season is the octave of octaves. Pentecost, the Sunday after seven weeks of seven, is the final day of this super-octave. It seems to be in for this reason that they dropped the Pentecost octave in the reform of the liturgy after Vatican II – we should think of Pentecost as part of Easter, not a separate season. But we retain Trinity Sunday as kind of a reduplication of Pentecost – that is, as a celebration that Jesus the Son of God, the victor of Easter, and the Holy Spirit, whom he pours into our hearts, are truly God from God, light from light, true God from true God.

***

There was also an independent tradition that at some places had a Trinity Sunday as the final Sunday before Advent, as the culminating feast of the Church year. The readings at the end of the year point to the end of time, and the readings of Advent to the second coming of Christ. Thus a feast was added to ponder the final mystery, the mystery in which all things culminate, the life of God.

And in fact, before Vatican II the liturgy for the feast focused less on the mystery of the Trinity than on the mystery of God. The first reading (they didn’t used to have an Old Testament reading) was from Romans: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who became His counselor?

The Gospel had the Baptismal formula from the Great Commission, but juxtaposed with Romans and the other prayers of the day, the point seemed only to be that we are baptized into the mystery of God. That is part of what Trinity Sunday does: it just leads us to think about God. It is the feast of God – and the feast of the mysteriousness, the unthinkability of God.

Preachers are sometimes scared of Trinity Sunday. But we should dwell on that: that we cannot understand God is precisely the point.

***

And yet the readings of the reformed liturgy do lead us into a meditation on the three persons. The first reading, from Wisdom, talks about the wisdom, the Logos, who was in the beginning with God, through whom all things were made (as John says in his prologue). Although the tradition would probably focus on the Son, you can think of it speaking of the Spirit, too: “When the Lord established the heavens I was there, when he marked out the vault over the face of the deep,” etc.

We ponder, at the end of this Easter season, the true identity of the Son and the Spirit. True God, in the beginning with God.

***

The first reading from the New Testament, from Romans, is more specific.

“We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access.”  The whole point of the original controversies about the Trinity, in the fourth century, was that Jesus can only give us access to God because he is God – and man. A bridge must reach to both sides: if he is less than God, he cannot connect us to God. But he is that great, that awesome – and our redemption is that great.

So too the Spirit: “the love of God has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” Not something less than God, but God himself, as love. How great is our dignity!

And this is our hope even in “afflictions”: through the trials of life, we are in union with God himself, nothing less.

***

Most specific of all, of course, are the words of Jesus, from the prayer at the Last Supper in John’s Gospel. The Spirit “will take from what is mine and declare it to you,” and “everything that the Father has is mine.” Jesus can lead us to the Father because he is true God, nothing less. The Holy Spirit, poured into our hearts, unites us to Jesus because he is true God, nothing less.

How great is the mystery of God! And how great is our Redemption! Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit!

How would your day be different if you really believed that God himself was at work in your heart?

Good Shepherd: Union

good-shepherd-2

ACTS 13:14, 43.52; PS 100:1-2, 4, 5; REV 7:9, 14b-17; JN 10:27-30

Last Sunday is now well behind us, but despite a busy week, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to comment on its rich readings.

The Second Sunday of Easter taught us about God’s mercy for us; the Third Sunday taught us to worship; this Fourth Sunday, Good Shepherd Sunday, taught us about union.

***

The short Gospel reading was from the fabulous tenth chapter of John’s Gospel, which is all about the Good Shepherd. Pope Francis says a good shepherd smells like his sheep. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is one with his sheep. He shares in our humanity so that we might share in his divinity.

Our reading begins, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” What is implicit is that, just as he knows them, so they know him – that’s why they recognize his voice, and follow. Sheep, as we have said in the past, have an important kind of intelligence: they know their shepherd. They don’t have to be driven with sticks; they follow. Faith is a gift – we recognize our shepherd because he has given his own knowledge to us.

They know him because he is among them. They trust him because he knows and cares for them. The shepherd and the sheep are one.

He gives them life, his life – and they will never be destroyed. The earthly shepherd is a dim image of the kind of care that our Good Shepherd gives us. He is the very giver of life. We live in his hands.

And then he concludes (in our little snippet from a long discourse), “The Father and I are one.” He alludes to a deeper discussion about the unity of the Trinity, a unity poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who is given to us.

***

In our reading from Revelation, in a more mystical key, John portrays the shepherd as a sheep – the most vulnerable sheep, the Lamb. Of course, Jesus is the Lamb in John’s Gospel, too, but here we have it put together: “the Lamb will shepherd them, and lead them to springs of life-giving water.” He can shepherd us because he has united himself to us. We can trust him because this Lamb shows his concern for us in becoming one of us. When he offers us shelter from the sun and the heat, and relief from our hunger and thirst, we know it is for real.

We look to Jesus in his humanity and know he will care for us.

The Lamb, of course, is also an image of sacrifice. In Revelation he is “the Lamb who was slain.” In this reading, we wash our robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb. There are two kinds of depth of unity in this remarkable phrase. First, he unites himself to us not only in our relief, but in our suffering. He loves us “to the end,” to the depths, to the most awful aspects of our existence, to blood and death.

And second, he washes us white, which is a sign of purifying us. He makes us good. He doesn’t merely shelter us from the outside, he transforms us from within. He is not merely a distant God who gives us earthly food, he is Jesus who transfigures us, makes our hearts like unto his Sacred Heart, washes us clean.

***

In our reading from Acts, these mystical images were made concrete and historical. Paul and Barnabas are missionaries. At this point they are in Syria, the northeast corner of the Mediterranean.

The Lord who has united himself to them speaks through them. He has given them his word and they become his mouthpiece. Paul and Barnabas “spoke to them and urged them to remain faithful to the grace of God.” It is Paul and Barnabas who speak, but it is Christ’s word, calling the people to Christ. Christ who has united himself to them unites them to himself.

And he sends them to suffer as he suffered. They are rejected by their people – Christ’s people. They are expelled from the territory, and shake the dust from their feet. And in being rejected with Christ, they are filled with joy and the Holy Spirit – the joy of the Holy Spirit, joy of Christ’s love, poured into their hearts.

The Lamb who shepherds them has made them shepherds. He who loves us calls us to love. Christ who has come to us makes us part of him, rejoicing with him in the Father, suffering with him for the sheep.

Christ calling you. How does he want to take flesh in your life this week?

Third Sunday of Easter: Worship

grunewaldchrisre

ACTS 5:27-32, 40b-41; PS 30: 2, 4, 5-6, 11, 12-13; REV 5:11-14; JN 21:1-19

Last week – the second Sunday of Easter, Divine Mercy Sunday – the Church focused on Mercy. This week our readings turn us to worship. Worship is the positive to the slightly negative side of mercy. Mercy comes in where something is lacking. But God’s mercy, by strengthening us in our weakness, allows us to worship – and God’s awesome mercy becomes a new reason for worship.

***

One of the great joys of the post-Vatican II revised Lectionary is that, beside the traditional readings from Acts of the Apostles and John’s Gospel, we now also get a taste of the Revelation, or Apocalypse, of St. John.

There are various ways to read this book. Protestants sometimes get into trying to predict the future. The Catholic tradition tends not to comment on the book too much – but isn’t into soothsaying. (Jesus said no one knows the day nor the hour, not “just decode the Bible.”) There’s a modern movement (by ex-Protestant Catholics) to turn this book into code for the liturgy. Probably closer to the mark, but I don’t know if it’s necessary.

Literally, “revelation” (in Latin) or “apocalypse” (the same word in Greek) means “pulling back the veil,” seeing what’s hidden. It’s not the future that St. John’s Apocalypse “reveals,” but the present – the spiritual battle that rages all around us. It is a great joy when we learn to read this book, and so to see through the veils to spiritual realities.

One of the greatest joys in this book is the image of the saints in worship. This Sunday we had the angels singing, “worthy is the Lamb that was slain,” and then “every creature in heaven and on earth” crying out, “To the one who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor, glory and might, forever and ever.”

This is not soothsaying. This is the song at the heart of every true Christian. This is worship. Let us discover it.

***

But if Revelation gives us the mysterious songs of heaven, this Sunday’s Gospel leads us into worship in the most human ways. “When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he tucked in his garment – for he was lightly clad – and jumped into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat.”

There is no other scene in the Bible that so brilliantly shows what worship means. Little children understand the story. Peter is so delighted to see Jesus that he turns to foolishness. Worship is not foolish, but there we have the heart of Christianity – deeper maybe, even, then the discovery of God’s mercy. To be so in love with Jesus as to put on your clothes and dive into the water.

Then they ate a meal with Jesus. There are several meals, but this one on the beach is the most touching. Just to be with him. This is why we go to adoration, what we’re really doing when we pray the rosary, the heart of everything: just to be with him.

And then the Gospel takes us a step deeper. “Do you love me, do you love me, do you love me?”

“Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” The threefold repetition, of course, overcomes Peter’s threefold denial. But let us not over-complicate things. The heart of worship is simply the repetition of love.

And finally, that love issues forth in service: “feed my lambs.” If you love me, love your neighbor. If you love me, do my work. If you love me, carry my cross. If you love me let them dress you and lead you where you do not want to go, and die for me, to “glorify God.”

That’s what worship means. Everything else comes back to adoration, profound love of Jesus and of the Father, nothing else.

***

And the reading from Acts of the Apostles takes us a step deeper into the same spirit. On the one hand, we have suffering. “We must obey God rather than men.” And so they had to “suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.” To love him is to be willing to suffer.

But let us not over-focus on the suffering. Let us not over-complicate. The heart is love. “We gave you strict orders, did we not, to stop teaching in that name.” They “ordered the apostles to stop speaking in the name of Jesus.” But the apostles rejoiced “that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.”

Yes, suffering. Yes, obedience. But deeper than that is their joy in savoring the name of Jesus. The name, which is not a talisman, not a magic word, not an obligation, but the simple savoring of the goodness of God. Oh, sweet Jesus!

That is worship.

Where is worship in your life?

Second Sunday of Easter: The Mediation of Mercy and the Sacred Heart of Jesus

Divine-Mercy

ACTS 5:12-16; PS 118: 2-4, 13-15, 22-24; REV 1:9-11a, 12-13, 17-19; JN 20:19-31

The Sunday after Easter is Divine Mercy Sunday, a new feast created by St. John Paul II, in response to a call by St. Faustina Kowalska. It is a wonderful feast – but it takes some unpacking.

It should be said, first, that feasts do not come from one visionary alone. Take the Sacred Heart. People associate devotion to the Sacred Heart with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, a nun in France in the seventeenth century. She did indeed call for such a feast.

But she didn’t make it up. Devotion to the Sacred Heart was already important in the Middle Ages. And the Church didn’t accept it merely because Margaret Mary said so. It was providing insight into the needs of the time – more on that in a minute. This doesn’t mean Margaret Mary is bad or unimportant – in fact, it points out that Margaret Mary had both a great grasp of the Tradition and an inspired eye for the needs of her time. She is a great saint – but she is a great saint because she was not suggesting wild ideas.

Similarly, St. Faustina has important insights that we should hear. But those insights are important not because she made them up, but because she didn’t. And the Church’s articulation of those insights take them beyond St. Faustina, into the teaching of the Church. Divine Mercy is the Church’s feast, not just St. Faustina’s. That’s why St. Faustina is a saint: because she preaches the Catholic truth.

***

Now, there is reason to be hesitant about the Divine Mercy devotion, if not rightly understood.

The key problem is abstraction. Divine Mercy has in many ways supplanted devotion to the Sacred Heart. But the Sacred Heart focused on the person of Jesus, particularly the union between his divinity and humanity. Devotion to the Sacred Heart is not abstract, it is personal and it is intensely incarnational.

Divine Mercy, by itself, runs the risk of becoming an abstraction. To be specific, the danger is that “mercy,” apart from Christ, can lead us to think that our conversion doesn’t matter. People tend to think that mercy means God overlooks our sins. To the contrary, God’s mercy is in healing us and converting us.

The Sacred Heart, being so intensely human, reminds us that God’s mercy restores our humanity. It reminds us of the need to love. It reminds us of the humanity of Jesus, and of his virtues. We pray, “make our hearts like unto thine” – which is the right understanding of mercy, the opposite of God just overlooking our sin.

It is important that our devotion to Divine Mercy maintain this incarnational, human element.

***

St. Faustina, of course, helps us. Her image of Divine Mercy (above) shows that Divine Mercy is a commentary on the Sacred Heart, and on the sacraments – not a replacement for them. In the image, Jesus does not overlook us, he looks intently on us – and the sacraments pour forth from his Sacred Heart to heal our sins and unite us to his glory.

St. Faustina also gives us the Divine Mercy chaplet, which reminds us of “his sorrowful passion,” the pouring out of his Heart on the Cross, and of the Eucharist, “the body and blood, soul and divinity of your dearly beloved Son.”

And underlining it all are the words, “Jesus I trust in you.” St. Faustina does not let us turn Divine Mercy into an abstraction. It is another insight into the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

***

So too the Mass that the Church gives us. The Feast is placed on the octave of Easter Sunday. As Pope Francis has said, it is thereby “dedicated to the glorious wounds of the risen Jesus.” Like the image, it points us not into abstraction but into Easter.

The reading from Acts tells us of grace mediated by the apostles, as Peter’s shadow brings healing to the humanity of the sick. The second reading, from Revelation, has us falling before the feet of him who “was dead, but now [is] alive forever and ever” – embracing the feet of the Risen Lord. And the Gospel has Doubting Thomas probing the wounds of the Risen Christ and the Apostles given the ministry of Confession: “whose sins you forgive are forgiven them,” “Peace be with you.”

The Divine Mercy comes to us through the sacraments of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Mercy is no abstraction, it is union with Christ, crucified and alive.

What does the Heart of Christ teach you about Divine Mercy?

The Juxtapositions of Easter

stabat materI have had a busy Holy Week. It’s overwhelming how so many very different things happen at once. That’s true of our spiritual life in general: work, and friends, and medical issues, and liturgy, and all the rest, all at the same messy time. It’s true, too, of the liturgies of Holy Week.

Holy Week begins with a strange juxtaposition. More than one person asked me about it this week: what’s going on with Palm Sunday? Even the name is confusing: “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.” Which one is it?

On the one hand, the Mass begins with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We sing Hosanna. (Hosanna, it turns out, is a Greek twist on a couple Hebrew words: it appears in the Bible only here, as the acclamation when Jesus enters Jerusalem.) We wave our palms. We acclaim the king.

And then, by the time the ordinary Mass begins, our Hosannas are forgotten. In the first reading, his beard is being plucked. In the second, he is emptying himself, taking the form a slave. The Psalm cries “why have you abandoned me.” And in the Gospel, we read the Passion in its entirety – already, right at the beginning of Holy Week.

Our palms remain awkwardly in our hands, while we are given the voice of a different crowd, crying not Hosanna but Crucify.

But that awkwardness, that strange juxtaposition, is just the point. We who wave the palms are the ones who betray him. And he who is crucified is also the king. This is the triumphal entry that he has eagerly expected. It’s all about that juxtaposition – the palms hanging limply in our hands.

***

This year we have another, but paradigmatic, juxtaposition. March 25 is ordinarily the Annunciation, the moment of great joy, when Christ comes into the world. This year it also happened to be Good Friday, dated according to the changing moon. Our celebration of the Annunciation is deferred till after Easter Week – but the juxtapostion is normal.

For March 25 is not just nine months before Christmas. We know Christmas is at the solstice, in the bleak midwinter. And it seems just an accident that the Annunciation awkwardly falls so close to Holy Week. But it is not awkward. It is the plan.

In fact, the Church settled on March 25 before it settled on December 25. Though we celebrate Easter following the old, lunar calculations for Passover, the traditional date of the Crucifixion was March 25. It is also the traditional date for the creation of Adam, the fall of Lucifer, the sacrifice of Isaac, and the crossing of the Red Sea.

These things go together. They are all one. Just as Christ is both king and crucified, and we are the crowd that both acclaims him and betrays him, so this is the time of when Adam is re-created, Satan is defeated, the first-born is sacrified, and the seas of death are conquered.

These are not just awkward, accidental juxtapositions. It all goes together. That’s the point.

***

Many years ago, some half-Christian family bought us a strange cross. Though it is the shape of the instrument of torture, on it are happy scenes from the life of Christ. Another awkward juxtaposition. Is he the Lord of happiness or the Lord of the Cross?

Here, the liturgical calendar has to de-juxtapose. On one level, the liturgical year simply comes down to the problem of reading the long Bible. It would be nice to read the whole Bible everyday. It all goes together. And it’s all important – we are not a religion of the 3×5 notecard, where everything can be said in a few words. The Bible is long, because there is a lot to say.

On some level, Holy Week is simply the time when we read this central passage. In fact, we read it a few ways. On Palm Sunday we read from the Synoptic Gospels, whichever Gospel we are reading that year. On Good Friday, we read from St. John. And we need those two accounts; they are different; they are richer in juxtaposition. John is like a commentary on the other Gospels – they tell us of the Eucharist, he tells us of the feet washing, etc.

Liturgically, we can’t read it all every day, so we break it up. But that crucifix we were given has sort of the right idea: the one who dies on Good Friday – yes and the one who rises again early on the morning of the third day – is the one, too, who healed the lepers, taught with parables, came to Cana in Galilee; the one who oversaw Noah and Abraham, David and Solomon, Ezra, the Maccabees, and the prophets of the exile.

In the thickness of the Bible, and the complexities of the liturgical year, we see the rich juxtaposition that makes up the whole of the Christian faith.

What parts of the faith do you find most hard to reconcile with one another? Can you learn anything by thinking about that juxtaposition?

Fourth Sunday in Lent: Through Death to Resurrection

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

JOS 5:9a, 10-12; PS 34: 2-3, 4-5, 6-7; 2COR 5:17-21; LK 15: 1-3, 15-32

This weekend we pass the mid-point of Lent and come to Laetare Sunday. There are three and a half weeks behind us, to Ash Wednesday, and three weeks ahead, to Easter. The Entrance Antiphon says, “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning,” etc., so this Sunday is called “Rejoice,” in Latin, Laetare. (An interesting point: in the reforms after Vatican II, they did not change these entrance antiphons, so that we could keep the wonderful old musical settings.)

We celebrate having survived halfway through the hardships. The liturgical color, as on Gaudete Sunday, halfway through Advent, is rose.

And the reading, in this year from Luke, is the great joyful Gospel of the Prodigal Son.

***

The punchline of our Gospel is at the end. The angry older brother complains at the fine treatment of his louse of a little brother. The father says, “Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”

Recent preachers have sometimes liked to call this the Parable of the Older Brother. The older brother gets almost as many verses (eight) as the younger brother (thirteen). You could read the story as a set up for thinking about jealousy. There are many other such stories in the Gospel, such as the servant who is forgiven a great debt but will not forgive a much smaller debt. (That parable is in Matthew 18 – but Luke seems to draw a different point from it in the chapter after the Prodigal Son.) The older son, too, has received everything from his father. His jealousy is not becoming.

We can focus on the father, too, whose mercy is a beautiful icon of the “prodigal” mercy of our Heavenly Father, both clement (sparing in punishment) and merciful (pouring out bounty).

But in the context of Laetare Sunday, it perhaps makes more sense to focus on the Prodigal. As we hopefully look forward to Easter, and ponder our Lenten sacrifices, it makes sense to think of death and resurrection. The simple moral of the story seems to be that we have to bottom out to appreciate what we have. The experience of fasting, the experience of the Cross, makes us newly aware of the goodness of life. Indeed, it is in light of this truth that we understand the older brother’s stinginess and the father’s generosity. It is a basic fact of human existence that we have to lose things to appreciate them.

***

Death and resurrection is the theme to which the other readings point us. In our Old Testament review of the history of conversion, this week we get Joshua. Now, the story is truncated almost beyond recognition.

It begins with the Lord telling Joshua, “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” But what has just happened is that, after forty years of wandering in the desert, God has opened the Jordan so they can cross through. The book gives us a strange historical detail: the wilderness generation had not circumcised their children, so God commands a general circumcision before they enter the land. Abraham had been given circumcision as a sign of the promised land; those who were told they would not enter seem to have been told to set aside that sign. But after their suffering, the sign is re-instituted.

Once again, it took forty years in the wilderness for the Israelites to appreciate God’s promises to them. And God called them to celebrate the promise through pain. Through death to resurrection.

In the paragraph we are given, God takes away the manna – because now they will have a land flowing with milk and honey. The manna was a sign of God’s provision, but they needed deprivation to see it. And even that heavenly bread is taken away as a stimulus to enter into the promise. Through death to resurrection.

***

As usual, our Epistle, from Second Corinthians, transfers these physical parables into spiritual realities. The center of our paragraph is all about reconciliation: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.”

But the first sentence is about death and resurrection: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” That reconciliation involves leaving behind the old ways. Through death to resurrection – “passing away” is, in Greek too, a word connected to dying.

And the final sentence is about Christ’s death: “for our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” He entered into our punishment, into our penance, so that our Lent could be a path to moral resurrection.

Because finally, Easter is not about feasting on the fatted calf, but on knowing the Merciful Father himself.

What have you learned from your Lenten penances?

Crossing through the Desert

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

EX 3:1-8a; 13-15; PS 103: 1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 11; 1 COR 10:1-6, 10-12; LK 13:1-9

In these middle Sundays of Lent, the Gospel readings call us to conversion, and the Old Testament readings give us a brief history of conversion in the Old Testament. This Sunday they give a dense meditation on the passage through suffering.

In the Gospel, “Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.” All year, we are in Luke’s Gospel; here, in chapter 13, we are after 9:51, the pivot point, when “Jesus steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.” Luke’s Gospel, like Lent, is the journey to the Cross.

And some tell him about what horrible things Pilate does to people.

Jesus’s response is twofold. On the one hand, he says that having horrible things happen to you is not necessarily a bad thing. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!”

And yet he has already changed the subject, from the suffering they endure in their bodies to the state of their souls. The questioners say, “oh, they suffered!” Jesus says, “they are not sinners.”

And so the second thing he says – twice, after two parallel stories – is “if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” On the one hand, he says, don’t worry about the suffering. Suffering is not evil, sin is evil, and suffering – such as the suffering inflicted by the evil man Pilate – does not prove that you are evil. On the other hand, suffering is the destiny of evil people.

He underlines this second point with the story of the fig tree: it is given a few chances, but finally, if it does not bear fruit – the fruit of repentance – it will be cut down.

***

There are two kinds of punishment. There is vengeance, an expression of hatred. But there is also correction, or discipline, which is an expression of love. Correction often makes us suffer; often it is precisely through suffering that we correct the ones we love, as when we punish our children. But that suffering is a tool.

God never hates, he is never purely vengeful. To the contrary, the only suffering that does not correct is the suffering of Hell. But that suffering is self-imposed: if we refuse to embrace the good, we end up without it. Suffering in this life is a tool of love, meant to save us from the meaningless suffering of eternal emptiness.

***

Our Old Testament reading, from Exodus, and our Epistle, from First Corinthians, are both about Moses in the desert. The desert is the place of suffering, the epitome of Lent.

St. Paul tells us “our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea.” They were saved in a fearful way. The cloud (which led them through the desert) did not feel like enlightenment. The sea (which parted to let them escape the Egyptians) was terrifying – it saved them because it destroyed what would hurt them, the Egyptians. But God saved them through those fearful ways.

He provided for them in the desert, with “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink.” It was precisely in lack that they discovered God’s sufficiency. The suffering of the desert was not a bad thing. It was a place to discover God.

“Yet God was not pleased with most of them,” and so “they were struck down in the desert.” We have to use that suffering well. Going out into the desert, we have to find God. If instead we make it a place of grumbling, the corrective suffering of love turns to the empty suffering of Hell.

All of this, says St. Paul, a sign of our Baptism. We are plunged into the water. The Greek word for Baptism means the water goes over our heads, we are submerged. But if we find God, that drowning is a place of union.

***

In Exodus, Moses finds God in the desert. “Leading the flock across the desert, he came to Horeb, the mountain of God.” Horeb itself is a Hebrew word for “desolation,” in the midst of Sinai, which means “glaring,” as in, glaring sun on glaring sand and rock. It is in the desert that he meets God.

God is in a bush with “fire flaming” – the doubling is an emphasis. God is fire – but not fire that destroys. God has “heard their cry of complaint,” their “suffering,” their “affliction.” He has not abandoned them in the suffering. It is in their suffering, in the desert of Egypt, that they learn to turn to him.

And there Moses discovers God as I AM, as the only thing that is fully real. But we have to go to the desert, we have to pass through the suffering of Lent, to find him.

How is God purifying your sight through suffering?