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Monday, April 27, 2015

Mystagogy for dummies (like me) (B4E)

Once again, the question:

How did Sunday’s liturgy speak to me about the meaning of life in the light of the paschal mystery? What did the readings teach me about what it means to “rise from the dead”?


It was a line from the responsorial psalm that caught my ear yesterday. It was quoted by Peter, somewhat polemically in the context of a quasi-legal hearing, in the speech from Acts in the first reading.
“The stone which the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.”

What got my heart working during the hearing of these scriptures was trying to associate that phrase with the overarching metaphor from today’s gospel of the Good Shepherd. Of course, there’s the obvious connection with “laying down my life for my sheep.” But how to take this out of the purely theological context, and apply it to my faith in daily life? That is the mystagogy question.


Another question that arose as I listened to the gospel comes up for me every time I hear this scripture and similar ones. There is the condemnation, or at least repudiation, of the “hired man”:

A hired man, who is not a shepherd

and whose sheep are not his own,

sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away,

and the wolf catches and scatters them.

This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.


How do I know, as a paid minister of the church, that I’m being a “good shepherd” and not a “hired man”? In context, I can see the parallel between the “hired man” in this passage, with its dominant metaphor of the people of God as sheep, as the equivalent of the tenant farmers in the parable of the vineyard, or even the builders’ unrevealed plans that are replaced when the rejected stone becomes the keystone of the structure. One one level, these are the equivalent of the “false shepherds” exposed by the prophets, who lead people away from Torah. For instance, there is Ezekiel’s stunning philippic that pervades chapter 34:

Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel,
in these words prophesy to them (to the shepherds):
Thus says the Lord GOD:
Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves!
Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep?
You have fed off their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered the fatlings,
but the sheep you have not pastured.
You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured.
You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost,
but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally.


I didn’t want to get sidetracked by this, but it does appear that the charge against the religious leadership of Israel during the time of the prophets and again at the time of Jesus was that it was self-serving, concerned about its self-preservation, enrichment, and legacy to the detriment of the people from whom they were chosen. By the time of Jesus, the ruling class including the temple priesthood of Jerusalem were often collaborating with the occupying power of Rome to hold back the tide of potential violence if the nation appeared to be restlessly moving toward revolt, as they might while observing the memory of Passover each year and their deliverance from Egypt. The swollen ranks of the temple aristocracy skimmed enough money from the overtaxed peasantry to arouse general resentment. Thus, Jesus could make a priest and a Levite the object of (mild?) ridicule in the parable of the good Samaritan, as well as win points with the populace in his game of status-and-shame with his inquisitors on many occasions. 


What does that have to do with me? Well, ultimately, the choice is the same on any minister of the church. Which god do I serve? Of which empire am I a citizen? Are my efforts in my work toward building the empire of God, this God, this shepherd, or the empire of “the world,” and its strategy of self-preservation, acquisitiveness, survival-of-the-fittest, and might-makes-right? That’s a tough question. Like everyone else, I’m culturally entangled in the web of civilization that makes me complicit in the domination of others in ways of which I’m not even aware. But the possibility of action is there for me to the extent that I'm aware of my complicity, and so am able to make decisions about how to act. 


But it is the metaphor of the rejected stone that I think most helps me relate to the paschal mystery this week. The cornerstone of the temple of the Holy Spirit, the building of living stones that is the church, is the rejected stone that is Christ. It is the stone that did not appear to be worthwhile because it was too weak, not worthy, not suited for such a task. And yet it is this very stone that becomes the cornerstone. What this made me remember is Paul’s observation in the second letter to the Corinthians about his “thorn in the flesh,” and the answer he received from God when he asked that the weakness be removed:

But (God) said to me: “My grace is sufficient for you,
for power is made perfect in weakness."
I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses,
in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.
Therefore, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and constraints,
for the sake of Christ;
for when I am weak, then I am strong.  


It is here that I encountered the Easter presence of Christ in the scriptures Sunday, the way that Christ revealed the paschal mystery to me a little more fully in the scripture from Sunday. This weakness-is-strength is a scandalous idea in a universe that appears to run by strictly Darwinian natural selection. And yet it pervades the revelation of scripture, from the moment that a slave nation is chosen to be the people of God and wrested from the hand of Pharaoh. The sin of the first parents initiates a new strategy of divine participation in the human enterprise. The deceit of a son secures a birthright from Isaac, the favored runt of Jacob’s litter is sold into slavery and emerges as the savior of both Egypt and his murderous siblings.The youngest of eight sons, a shepherd, is anointed as the king of Israel. A stuttering murderer is God’s advocate before a Pharaoh, children and tree nurses are selected to prophesy to kings. The choice of the apostles themselves, and their characterization in the gospels as clueless, ambitious fair-weather friends of Jesus belies their emergence as the foundation upon which the temple will be laid, with Christ as the cornerstone.

This God, the God of the paschal mystery, is the rejected stone. This God, who did not believe status of “godhead” was something to be grasped, is the one revealed in Jesus Christ.
 

I guess, then, no more thinking that the job is too big for me, or that I don’t have the talent or the means to accomplish the task. I don’t. But it’s not what I can do, or what kind of ability I have. It’s not even about succeeding, if success is defined by civilization and the culture of domination and strength.

Like the Good Shepherd, my task is to serve, to lay down my life for others. God’s grace, my baptism into the mystery of this God who pours Self out for the good of all, has to be enough for me. As the first letter of St. John reminded us yesterday,
See what love the Father has bestowed on us
that we may be called the children of God.
Yet so we are.
The DNA of the paschal mystery is imprinted on us. I’m a child of the God who is not ashamed to be revealed as weak, as slave, even as an enemy of the state. But it is this love that created and sustains the universe, and which calls me to unity and peace with every other person on the planet, every other child of God. Nothing else will give me life. There’s no way to build any other temple to God than upon the rejected stone that is Christ, and him crucified.

The stone which the builders rejected

has become the cornerstone.

By the LORD has this been done;

it is wonderful in our eyes.

(Psalm 118)

Friday, April 24, 2015

Jesus (and the Christian) as God's "good shepherd" (B4E)

Christ the Good Shepherd, from the
catacombs of St. Domatilla.
The fourth Sunday of Easter in every cycle visits the metaphor of Christ the shepherd. Shepherding is an ancient metaphor, antedating Jesus, for leadership in the community of Israel. Prophetic literature often rails against the “shepherds of Israel” who mislead God’s flock, the God about whom Psalm 23 proclaims, “The LORD is my shepherd; I lack nothing.” Leadership among the people of God, by king, priest, or prophet, is supposed to mirror the qualities of the Holy One of Israel from whom authority flows. As Psalm 72, a psalm probably used in the coronation liturgy of Judean kings, puts it:

O God, give your judgment to the king;
your justice to the son of kings;
that he may govern your people with justice,
your oppressed with right judgment,


That the mountains may yield their bounty for the people,
and the hills great abundance,


That he may defend the oppressed among the people,
save the poor and crush the oppressor...


For he rescues the poor when they cry out,
the oppressed who have no one to help.


He shows pity to the needy and the poor
and saves the lives of the poor.


From extortion and violence he frees them,
for precious is their blood in his sight.


The expectation is that the leaders will act, in God’s place, as just arbiters, impartial, loving freedom and peace. This, of course, is not the way of the world, and kings, prophets, and priests are often condemned as false shepherds who lead the people to their ruin.


But why is Christ the good shepherd? For the author of John, where there are numerous references in chapter 10 to the work of shepherding the God’s flock. How is Jesus uniquely good as shepherd? By his intimacy with his flock, an intimacy that is analogous to his intimacy with Abba (10:14-15). His intimacy with them extends to his death in their defense. It seems important to me that he suggests not that he will kill in their defense, but that he lays down his life for them. He acts as God’s surrogate, then, coming among us with love, and unlike the false shepherds condemned by the prophets, ruling as God rules, through solidarity and service. This clarity or transparency of the Good Shepherd is critical: his way of being with the sheep is an image of the invisible God.

So Peter says, “there is no other name given to the human race by which we are saved.” All other metaphors and avatars are empty. It seems to me that this is a critical reflection on the meaning and significance of Christ, one which differentiates true Christianity from other religions. God is not revealed by manipulative despotism, no matter how benign; not by holy wars fought for “just” or even sacred purposes. God’s way is revealed by the shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. God is love. God is kenosis. As we make other choices about how to live in this world, we need at least, then, to be honest about our efforts being divorced from the way. Our violence and strategies of accumulation, however well-intended, are not God’s way. Throughout our political and economic lives, we need to cling to the prayer of supplicants throughout the Christian scripture: Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison. Is it any wonder that this litany begins our liturgical prayer nearly every Sunday? As St. John’s first letter reminded us last Sunday, whoever does not says he knows God without living in divine love, self-emptying love, or agape, is a liar. Saved from the despair of our situation by grace; we’re sinners, and the liturgy at her eternal heart knows it, and won’t let us forget that.
There is no salvation through anyone else,

nor is there any other name under heaven

given to the human race by which we are to be saved.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

B4E - That shepherd thing

There are a number of things in next Sunday's scriptures that strike me. The whole section about the "hired hand" hits a little close to home for me, and I hope for all of us who make our living in churches. I mean, this is from John 10, and Jesus is addressing the Pharisees, with all the prophetic utterances echoing "woe to the shepherds that mislead my people Israel" howling in the background, as well as the memory of the Shepherd-King, David, and the twenty-third psalm. I don't really want to be thought of as a hired hand, but that's really what I am. God is the shepherd. I take some comfort that Jesus also said it was all right to "Stay in the same house and eat and drink what is offered to you, for the laborer deserves his payment.” (Lk 10:7) That's about all I did for the first ten years in Barrington! It's not the hiring that's the issue, I guess, but whether or not one has the "heart of a shepherd," whether one takes seriously one's baptismal calling to be Christ and learn to love the Church with Christ's own self-emptying love.


Being a good shepherd - that's one aspect of the calling of the Christian community. We have an example in the Master, but by virtue of the Spirit's mark upon us in our baptism, we too are called to  the ministry of shepherding. There is only one way to be "good" shepherds, and that is by doing it God's way, because only God is good. God's shepherd paradigm is Jesus, who lay down his life for the life of all. To be "known" by the sheep, and to "know" them, this is interesting too. It seems to me that at least a measure of intimacy is expected, some "face time" with the community. It could be said that to know oneself is to know the weakness and lovability of others, too, but to "be known" is the clincher: people can't know us unless we're out there and able to be seen. I guess I should be better at returning phone calls in a more timely way, and not try to cut down on my hours in the office. Rats.
Moving on to another aspect of the gospel, there's a tension between the Christ of faith, who is the Logos and thus completely self-emptying and the Utter Totality of things at the same time, and the Jesus of history, who was human, like us, and needed faith, because certainty is not the provenance of the human race. Jesus of Nazareth could not have been certain he would "take his life up again" in any categorical sense, otherwise, he would not have been human. How much courage would it take to die if we were certain, with no doubt, that there was a better life waiting beyond death for us? Or that we were God? Sure, we might be afraid of the pain if that were our lot, but certainty of the beyond would be a Big Help in facing death. I am convinced that this was not the case with Jesus, because no one would want a Messiah who had it all figured out in advance. That's not humanity. I don't want a heavenly actor pretending to be like me. I want a Messiah who is like us in everything.


I understand that John is a late gospel, and more theologically sophisticated by comparison to Mark, with a certain understanding of sophistication. I'm perfectly willing to accept an interpretation of this text that goes something like this: I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. God has given me the power that I have to lay down my life, and I expect the power to take it up again because God can be trusted, the God of Abraham, Moses and Elijah, the God of the living. It was the voice of that God who called me "beloved," whose call and hand I feel upon me in my life, who guides my steps, who wants me to bring abundant life to the many. I can believe, in other words, in a Jesus who has faith, but not in one who doesn't need faith. That one would not be human.
We are God's children now, St. John says. Now. So, the author seems to be saying, act like God's children. Be, for instance, shepherds to the world. Lead like you know where you're going, out of the valley of death's shadow, into green meadows with refreshing streams. What we will be has not been revealed, John says, so, he seems to say, don't worry about that. Trust in the God of Jesus, who gives you the power to lay down your life, and whose power will enable you to take it up again. Your faith can give you confidence, but it's still faith. If we can trust that God delivered Israel in the exodus and exile, and delivered Jesus from the grasp of death, we can trust God to deliver us, too, though what that means “has not been revealed.” But we are God’s children now. Lay your life down, lay it down for others, for the sheep. Have the heart of a shepherd.

Here's our music for St. Anne's this week. As I have mentioned, we're celebrating not just Easter 4, but the 50th anniversary of our pastor emeritus, Fr. Jack Dewes, and the 15th anniversary of the dedication of the current parish church.

Entrance Song: All Are Welcome (Haugen)
Glory to God/Sprinkling Rite: Mass of St. Ann (Bolduc)
Psalm 118 "This Is the Day" (Joncas)
Easter Alleluia (O Sons and Daughters, arr. RC)
Presentation of Gifts: Yours Today (Cooney)
Mass of Creation
Lamb of God ("May We Be One," Daigle)
Communion: Heart of a Shepherd (Cooney)
Recessional: On Holy Ground (Peña) or I Send You Out (Angotti)

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A doozy with the "heart of a shepherd" – Fr. Jack Dewes

Sunday's 11:00 a.m. mass for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time will have another layer of celebration added to it: our pastor from 1989-2009, Fr. Jack Dewes, will be celebrating his 50th anniversary as a priest. Retired in 2009, he lives and works at St. Anne as pastor emeritus. This mass allows the parish to honor God’s work in him for five decades as a priest, almost half of that in Barrington, and his cooperation with grace in the meantime.


It was no small accomplishment to shepherd St. Anne into the 21st century. The growing “bedroom community,” on a Metra stop on the Northwest Line out of Chicago, was worshipping in a country church built in 1950, which was the 2nd or 3rd church built for the parish. Once a parish of a few hundred Catholics in a largely rural Methodist community, St. Anne’s has grown to a size of nearly 3,000 households. As it approached 1,500 and then 2,000, it became clear than no number of masses celebrated in a little stone church seating 350 was going to be enough on Sunday. Early in his tenure, with the counsel and collaboration of my liturgist friends and colleagues Courtney Murtaugh and Clem Aseron, the parish moved its contemporary celebrations to the Dillon Center across the street from the church, which doubled as the school gym. Capturing the spirit of the Eucharist in its ancient and new depth, they arranged the gym for worship with antiphonal seating, with the portable altar and ambo along a central axis, and the seven hundred or so chairs arranged facing those foci from either side. 


A side benefit of the gym was that, unlike the church, it was air conditioned, a welcome relief in the often sultry Illinois summer. With five weekend services, three were in the gym during the summer, two in the winter, with the others celebrated in the “old” church. With a different building and even a street separating them, the two worshipping communities grew more settled in distinctive worship styles, one based on the pipe organ (a small but serviceable Möhler), one based in the ensemble, though one organ mass was celebrated in the gym on the mighty Conn.


In what was to become one of the ten or so best things that ever happened to me, in 1993, the music director went seeking greener pastures. I had asked Mary Prete, then the owner of Alverno Religious Books in Chicago and a friend and fellow road warrior, to keep her ears open for possible good fits for me in the area. My friend and classmate Bill Fraher had found a perfect fit at Old St. Pat’s in downtown Chicago, so why not me? As it turned out, she and Courtney spoke, and at the 1993 NPM Convention in St. Louis, I was unexpected greeted by Courtney’s southern smile after a GIA showcase. “Hi, I’m Courtney Murtaugh,” she said, handing me a packet of information about the parish, including their bulletin. “We hear you’re looking for a job, and we’re looking for a music director.” A month later, Jack Dewes picked me up and O’Hare, and I was interviewed by several staff members and him. At the end of it, we all felt pretty comfortable, but I told them that I couldn’t make a commitment until after Christmas, four months down the road. Jack said to me, “If you want the job, we’ll keep it open for you.” And they did, and here I am. I’m a lucky guy, and just let me say that this is proof that Jack lived his life open to divine inspiration. ☺ Or some kind of inspiration, but it was divine to me.

What I didn’t know then was that this inner circle was already planning in an indirect way for a stunning project: the building of a new home to remedy this community's divided worship. In the next three or four years, the plan would gain a new concreteness and then blueprints, guided by Jack’s vision and the expertise of local liturgical consultant and artist John Buscemi. The result, $17,000,000 later, is the church that is St. Anne, a completely reimagined and restored daily mass chapel built from the old church, and a gutted and modernized pre-K through 8 school. Of that $17,000,000, fifteen years after the dedication of the building, less than $1M remains to be repaid, thanks both to the generosity of the local community and the tireless efforts of Jack and his circle (and those of his successor, Fr. Bernie Pietrzak and his finance people and staff) to raise the funds. 

St. Anne Parish logo and motto, in gathering space tile.

It wasn’t easy. A tremendous amount of resistance grew up to the idea of expanding the church at all, let alone expanding it into a “modern” (of course, it’s not modern at all) antiphonal design with a separate daily mass and reservation chapel. Letters were mailed, some anonymous, some using stolen parish mailing lists, decrying Fr. Jack’s work and the plan to “ruin” St. Anne’s. People left. People stopped supporting the parish. But he saw it through those painful months, and the building project flourished. The plan was approved by Cardinal Bernadin, but he died before the building was completed, and the new Church was dedicated on the 2nd Sunday of Easter, 2000. It was April 30, which happened to be Jack’s ordination anniversary as well.


Jack’s style is like a lot of Chicago priests, liturgically speaking, tending toward the familiar and loose around the edges. But it is always prayerful and inviting, and his personable and generous way come naturally to him. He is fond of theater and music, and these passions come through in his public style. Interwoven for a generation in the lives of Barrington Catholics, he has come to place where he is now marrying couples whom he baptized or gave first communion to in his first years in the parish. His hospitable instincts and style have become the trademark of the community. Committed to all four pillars of the apostolic tradition, St. Anne’s has put its money where it's liturgical mouth is in catechesis, worship, social justice, and community building, and all of this because of the ministry of Fr. Jack and his inspiration of thousands of others.


So we will gather for Eucharist and be thankful this Sunday, me as much as anyone for this man who hired me over twenty-one years ago and made me a part of this little piece of the mission of the Church, and made it possible for me to support my family even though money was always tight for everybody. For Jack’s 40th anniversary of ordination, I wrote and arranged the song “Heart of a Shepherd,” since published by GIA Publications. Like the church he built, “Heart” is a bit of the old and the new, combining the ancient text of Psalm 23 with Père Joseph Gelineau’s early 1960s setting of the verses with an original refrain taken from the Easter gospel in which the risen Lord instructs Peter, “If you love me, feed my lambs, feed my sheep.” “And for my part,” I have added with a bit of
poetic license, “I give you the heart of a shepherd.” This is the essence of the man we have all grown to love over the years, and who we all hope will have a long and active and joyful retirement. Never were the words of a gospel so appropriately to be proclaimed at a priest’s retirement mass: “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” He’s the servant who is pouring the scotch and singing Rodgers and Hammerstein; he’s the servant at the hospital, the funeral home, the wedding, the baptism, and Sunday after Sunday a thousand times.
Ecce, sacerdos magnus qui in diebus suis placuit Deo. Ideo, jurejurando, fecit illum Dominus crescere in plebem suam.
In the vernacular: Now, there is a great priest who in his life made God happy. Therefore, by a solemn promise, God made him flourish among his people. That antiphon, cobbled together from a couple of Sirach texts for the common mass of a bishop and confessor, is generally associated with a bishop, but I think its sentiment works fine for him. I wouldn't embarrass him by actually singing it on Sunday, lest someone remove the mitre and crozier from his private costumery and make him bishop by popular acclamation. There are those among his friends, I must say, past whom it I would not put. ☺

Ad multos annos, Jack. 


Monday, April 20, 2015

Thomas, Emmaus and "Contact" (from Easter 2014, reformatting caused date change! Sorry!)

 Although you have not seen him you love him;

even though you do not see him now yet believe in him... 
(2nd reading, 2nd Sunday of Easter Year A)

Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?

Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” 
(Gospel, 2nd Sunday of Easter Year A) 

Sorry, it’s been a while. It’s not that I’ve lost interest in this at all, I just haven’t felt like I had anything to say. As you we'll know, life gets busy, and triage of our interests is required! And there really are a lot of words out there, aren't there?! “And that’s…OK,” I can hear Al Franken’s Stuart Smalley saying in my ear, giving me a daily affirmation intended to keep me writing something, just to keep the pumps primed. And I believe this is true: sometimes, you just go through the motions, so you don’t forget how the motions go. Inspiration will catch up. Dum spiro, spero

The Easter gospels seems to be dealing with what the devil it means that someone, this someone, Jesus, is risen from the dead. What’s going on? Is it Jesus? Why don’t people recognize him? Is he a ghost? A gardener? Who saw what? Fifty years after the events described in the gospel today people are asking those questions, which is why we have gospels to begin with. What did the eyewitnesses see? Who is it for whom they were finally willing to go to the cross, sword, and lions? Two thousand and fifty years after those events, we ask the same questions. They are not questions of fact so much but of meaning. Good postmodernists that we are, we’re not taken in by the need to know exactly what happened on that day-after-Sabbath morning in about 30 CE when it was first reported that a man had risen, or been raised, from the dead, or at the very least that his tomb was empty. “What happened” is beyond the grasp of history or reason, at least as far as we know. What we might be able to come to appreciate is what it meant to those who were most immediately affected by the presence of Jesus before (and after) his death. It is, ultimately, not the fact of the resurrection, or the details of it, but the meaning of it that we have to grapple with. And not just the meaning of it to the Twelve, or the seventy-two, or whatever, but the meaning to us, today. 

Thomas, in the gospel of Easter 2 (John 20: 19-31) gets a bum rap, the epithet “doubting Thomas” has stuck with him for two millennia. And yet, unlike those hiding in the upper room “for fear of the Jews,” he appears to have been the only one who had the courage to go outside. The rest were huddled together for the cold comfort of their mutual fear, and Thomas “was not with them.” What was there about the report of the other ten that would have convinced him. They were afraid, they were still up in the room together. Why should he believe their wishful thinking? And when push comes to shove, and the vision of the Risen One is presented to him, he doesn’t follow through on his demand for proof; he trusts his experience, whatever it was, and doesn’t put his hand into Jesus’s side, or his finger into the nail marks. What I hear in this gospel is that on the third day, the day of resurrection, they were together. The ten had an experience of peace, of Christ risen, whatever that means. But Thomas wasn’t there. A week later, again on the day of resurrection  (let’s call it Sunday), Thomas was with them. They were together, and it was on Sunday. Now, the experience of presence, whatever it might have been, is complete. With the doors locked against the perceived hostility of the world, the disciples experienced peace, experienced the Lord, and they experienced it because they were together.

In Sunday's gospel, Luke tells the story of the disciples on the road to Emmaus. Now, the geographical center of Luke’s story is Jerusalem. From the 9th chapter of the gospel, the destination of Jesus is specifically told to be Jerusalem. As long as they are headed to Jerusalem for the final encounter there with the dominating powers, they are headed in the right direction. The key events of the passion, death, and resurrection will occur there. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus have left Jerusalem, as far as the story discloses, deciding that the death of Jesus was definitive, though they confess to being astounded by the women’s report of the empty tomb. They are leaving Jerusalem before being sent  out; they are headed in the  wrong direction. The stranger on the road hears their discussion, and sets fire to their religious imagination with his synthesis of the tradition with that of their own experience. Perhaps it makes sense, after all, that the Messiah should die, if he is the servant of God! Perhaps the women were right after all, they had found the right tomb, and it was empty because God had raised Jesus from the dead. 

This strange catechist who read their lives back to them is invited to dinner. As the story goes, when he breaks the bread (ritually, at the beginning of the meal), they recognize that it is Jesus, and he disappears. In the action of their own meal, an action they had seen Jesus perform at hundreds of meals, the paschal meaning of their lives was revealed. Jesus was present, and absent, all at the same time. He was there in the breaking of the bread, but he could no longer be seen. I guess the question is, what faith is required in the resurrection of a dead man if you’ve actually seen him? Where is the faith in that? That’s not faith, that’s science. Faith is trust in things that are not seen. Or, as John as Jesus say, “Blessed are they who have not seen, and yet have believed.” Those people, at least, are us.  

So I was thinking about the wonderful Jodie Foster movie  Contact. Contact is based on a novel by the late great Carl Sagan, an astronomer and popularizer of science and a noted agnostic. In my   Easter mood, Contact resonates with me much more than it did when I first watched it 15 years ago or so, especially since in the last couple of years I’ve been reading more books on science, religion, and atheism than I have through most of the rest of my life. And it really struck me what an imaginative and well-constructed exposition of the quest for truth the movie is (and I suspect that the book is even more so, because the movie is flawed by its length.) The main character in the movie, an astrophysicist played by Jodie Foster, is the quintessential scientist, a product of the enlightenment. She is in an intense but difficult relationship with a novelist who is a religious writer, an ex-seminarian who is a popularizer about the search for God. They can’t agree on the nature of truth. For him, a world without God is unimaginable, a place not worth living in. For her, since there is no empirical evidence that can be pointed to to prove God’s existence, one has to conclude that, at the  very least, one can’t say with certainty there is a god. His certainty is faith, hers is science. 

The  genius of the story, however, is the topsy-turvy way in which the plot develops. A message that  apparently originates from a higher civilization gives a detailed plan for the building of a vessel that will transport one person, only one, to...somewhere. The world is mobilized to build this vessel, but its final test is sabotaged by a religious zealot who sees the attention science is getting as threatening to the idea of God. A duplicate vessel has been built unknown to governments, however, and Jodie Foster’s character is chosen to pilot it. Her journey, however, is observed to be a failure. After a spectacular “launch,” nothing seems to have happened. Her experience in the vessel, though, is quite extraordinary: she sees aspects of the universe, wormholes, and planetary systems that stun her with their beauty, so much so that her initial thought is, "They should have sent a poet." She makes contact with an ancient civilization that alerts her to civilizations and paths yet more ancient than theirs. Yet because this journey of some hours (for her) was unobservable to those at the site because of the enormous vagaries of lightspeed, she is unable to convince anyone, for lack of empirical evidence, of her experience of another civilization. Her lover’s experience of faith was unavailable to her for lack of proof; her experience of a scientific “miracle” was unavailable to anyone else for the same lack. 

The question that Contact leaves us with, then, is, what is the nature of truth? What is the role of experience and evidence in that search? What is the role of faith in the search for truth, whether religious or scientific? There is something for us Christians in that question, and in Contact. Faith is related to experience. It’s not just giving intellectual assent to things we can’t know or see; neither is experience always something that we can quantize or give empirical proof for. The Christians of the first century, the apostolic witnesses, passed on faith to us through these gospels, these stories of their faith in Jesus the Messiah, and the meaning that his life, work, and his death and rising brought to their lives. We don’t know, in any quantifiable way, what the resurrection was, what happened on Easter morning. What we can know, by sharing the stories of the witnesses and breaking bread together, is the meaning of the resurrection for them, and what made their experience of the resurrection something worth living and dying for. 

 Of course, meaning can be a slippery slope. The  meaning of the resurrection has engendered pogroms, crusades, anti-semitism, and as much schism as unity. But it has also generated compassion, solidarity with the victim and the poor, healing, reconciliation, and peacemaking in ways that were not possible before the witness to the memory of Jesus recorded in the gospels and preserved in the breaking of the bread. Ultimately, the meaning necessary to discern is not the meaning to anyone other than us. What matters is whether, at the end of our time on earth, we will have found meaning in death, violence, threats of violence, and economic hegemony, or in life, peacemaking, and the sharing of resources. The good news is that, because of the gospel and the resurrection story of Jesus, even if we should opt for death, neither death, nor we, will have the last word.

Mystagogy for Dummies (like me) (B3E)

I’d like to briefly visit yesterdays’s readings, because it’s a good exercise for us to do. The way I phrased the question that mystagogy asks in my blog a year ago was this, and for better or worse, that’s how I am going to follow through:

How did Sunday’s liturgy speak to me about the meaning of life in the light of the paschal mystery? What did the readings teach me about what it means to “rise from the dead”?


As I reflect on the scriptures and how I heard them last week, it’s the words “repent, and be converted” that struck me. I think it’s because of the reading I’ve been doing, because the question that really pops for me is, repent of what? Be converted to what? We tend to spiritualize those words, much in the way we have spiritualized the cross, but more and more I wonder whether the gospel offers an explicitly “spiritual” message any more than a socio-political one. Certainly for Jesus's contemporaries, the Jewish culture was not a way of imagining a better afterlife, but was how people lived in this world. Wouldn’t opting out of this world, in favor of one to come (after death), actually be a victory for "the other gods," the forces of death? Whose world is this, anyway? In the clash of ideologies and gods, it’s the way of the god Tiberius (following after Augustus) versus the God of Israel, the abba of Jesus. If the clash is between this life and the next, what does Tiberius have to lose? Or any other despot or boss or husband or warlord or president or ayatollah who controls the destiny of others by violence or intimidation? 


On the contrary, it seems to me, it is complete turning away (repentance) from the strategy of empire (the violence and threats which Crossan and Borg call “peace through victory”) and a turning toward (conversion to) the strategy of God (what Crossan and Borg call “peace through justice.”) That may or may not have something to do with the world to come: no one knows about that. But it does have an effect upon the followers of either “way” in this life, on this planet. 
"Rising from the dead" is repentance (i.e., metanoia, changing our inner direction) when we understand the competition between gods for our allegiance while the one God, the one whose "name" is "I AM" waits all around us, perfectly full of life, inviting us to turn together in a new direction.

So how did Sunday’s liturgy speak to me about the meaning of life in the light of the paschal mystery? Well, first, God is a God of freedom, life, peace. Living for God is to be a stranger in a strange land, or in Stanley Hauerwas’s happy phrase, “Resident Aliens” in whatever civilization or culture we find ourselves now. We live and work and love here, in this world, the world that God made good, and claim it for the good God by our way of life here, in this world. It means sharing and not hoarding, dialogue and not coercion, and every possible alternative to violence in every situation. The words of the Messiah to the “army” of his empire is, “Put away your sword. Enough!” (Mt. 26:52 and equiv.) We’re not incarnate spirits, or souls trapped in bodies: we’re divinely created beings that are all at once body and soul, substance and meaning, inseparable. To live in the paschal mystery is to learn that it’s not enough to be right; it’s fairly easy to kill for what you think is right, but it’s often difficult to live and die for it without killing or threats of violence or coercion. The paschal mystery of God, that great kenotic arc of creation and salvation by which God creates and saves the world through the presence of the Spirit and the incarnation of the logos, is the eternal example lived out by Christ, who washed his disciples’ feet like a slave. God “bent down” in Christ, Christ “bent down” to serve his world, and now, we ourselves are called to do the same. Not to fight for what we believe, but to live for it to the death.




And so in the gospel, Jesus speaks the words that we heard Peter echo in Acts in the first reading:

"Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer 

and rise from the dead on the third day 

and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins,

would be preached in his name
 to all the nations,
beginning from Jerusalem.

You are witnesses of these things."


God achieves victory not through the violent intervention of angels or armies, but through the surrender, in life and death, of those who love. It is our witness, we who have not seen him but have believed in him through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling gift of faith, our witness that will save the world. Our witness is the lives we live as a community that follow the example of the master, who bent to wash our feet. Our witness is our participation in the saving actions of life, justice, peace-making, and healing taught by Jesus and the saints who have followed him. If we were buried with Christ in baptism, we’re risen with him now. Nothing else can bring us to any harm.


God has thus brought to fulfillment

what he had announced beforehand

through the mouth of all the prophets,

that his Christ would suffer.

Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Suffering Christ, scary resurrection (B3E)

Just a few quick thoughts about Sunday's scriptures.

I was looking at the footnotes for the gospel in NABRE, specifically the note on Lk 24:26. This might seem like a small thing, but that footnote says that "Luke is the only New Testament writer to speak explicitly of a suffering Messiah," and in today's readings from Acts and Luke we have two of the explicit texts. What is so astounding to me is that we are so inured to hearing those words, "suffering" and "messiah" (or "Christ") together that here I am 62 years old and I'm just finding out that Luke is the only evangelist who uses the terms.

What I take from that is that the late-Judaism developments of the Suffering Servant and the messianic hope that was associated with a restoration of the monarchy and expulsion of Gentile invaders only came to be seen as unified in Jesus, and that would happen perhaps decades after his death. Not insignificantly, today's gospel passage picks up Luke's post-resurrection narrative at the last verse of the Emmaus story. James Alison, in Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice, suggests that in this crucial narrative the risen (but unrecognized) Jesus walks with the befuddled and argumentative Clopas and N. (his friend) and "gives their story back to them," explaining why it was "necessary that the Messiah (Christ) should suffer," but, significantly, telling them that story through their own texts. It was not obvious, at the time of Jesus's death, even to his own inner circle, that the messiah/Christ should be be like them, and have to suffer and die. Alison's concern is that we see, with the disciples in their nascent resurrection faith ("they did not yet know what it meant to 'rise from the dead'"), that Jesus was telling them the story of mimetic violence and the scapegoat mechanism from the point of view of the victim, which no one had ever done before, since victims of violence don't usually have a voice. Dead men tell no tales, as he says.

And yet, not only does Jesus come back to tell the tale to Clopas and N, his friend, and then to the rest of the eleven, he comes back with one word on his lips. Peace. There is no retributive violence on the victims lips. He doesn't, as Alison says, come back rattling his chains and making horrible moaning noises and threatening retribution, but quite the opposite. It's as though he says, "Yes, human violence killed me. They said I was guilty of blasphemy against God and the other god, Caesar, but look here—I'm alive. And guess what? I love you. God loves you. Don't be afraid any more. Live your life out fully and do as I've shown you. Death isn't a factor any longer."

Our natural reaction is to be afraid of ghosts, right? They're generally up to no good, if we're to believe our stories. But those stories emerge from the murderous hearts that made people into ghosts! Here we have the story of a person whom our murderous hearts destroyed, and he comes back from the place we fear the most and says, "Look, I've been there, and here I am. Where I've gone, you will be too. Do not be afraid. Everything I told you about Abba and the kingdom of God is true."

Which brings me to the final point I wanted to share about these resurrection narratives. This is most pointedly seen in the "original ending" of Mark's gospel, the verse (16:8) noticeably and mysteriously edited in the current version of the lectionary (it was present in the 1970 lectionary). Speaking of the women who had come to the tomb, discovered it empty, and had received the angelic message to tell the apostles to return to Galilee, the passage concludes with the unsettling verse excised from our hearing in the current lectionary:
Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
Of course, excising it from our hearing doesn't make it go away, but we still have to deal with it. Why were they afraid? In Sunday's gospel, too, the eleven were not immediately filled with joy when Jesus entered the room, even after he said to them, "Peace be with you"! Luke continues:
But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost.
I don't want to make too much of all this, but there is something scary about the resurrection. Going back to Jerusalem (like Clopas and N. did) or going back to Galilee (like the discipleship community in Mark was charged to do) means going back over all that old territory and seeing it with new eyes, and begging the question of us again who have not opted in wholeheartedly to the work of the crucified Messiah. Now that we know Jesus was right all along, what do we do? Why are we sitting up here in a locked room, afraid? That work of Jesus, reconciling, healing, teaching the genuine worship of justice and care for the stranger, is a work of joy. Human treachery and the violence of exploiters and hoarders and the self-appointed mediators of divine presence and grace are no match for the patient, life-giving love of God. Jesus has gone before us and put himself in the very place of which we are most afraid, and his faith in Abba's loving-kindness was justified by the resurrection. The mission, handed on to us, can be scary, even lethal. But the resurrection message is, "Do not be afraid. Peace be with you."

"As the Father sent me, so I send you," says Jesus as he breathes messianic Spirit of God upon them in the upper room where they are huddled, afraid that what befell him might yet befall them. Not just them, though. Us too. Called to the life and mission of the suffering Christ, we have reason to believe that death has no power over us. What does it mean "to rise from the dead"? I think it means to start living, today, for a good life for every daughter and son of God, without being afraid of those who profit from their poverty, hopelessness, and subjugation. And to do that without participating in the violence that is the strategy of the oppressor, confident that divine love is as patient as it is kind, and that it wishes no harm on the other, even the enemy. That is the meaning of "repentance" in the gospel: turning away from the strategy of the other pretenders to divinity, and toward the gentle reign of the one God.

Music we're doing at St. Anne this weekend:

Entrance Song: I Have Loved You (Joncas)
Sprinkling Rite: Glory to God, from Mass of St. Ann by Ed Bolduc
Psalm 16: Path of Life (Balhoff, Daigle, Ducote)
Easter Alleluia
Preparation Rite: On the Journey to Emmaus (Haugen, ST COLUMCILLE)
Communion: In the Breaking of the Bread (Hurd)
Recessional: This Little Light of Mine (spiritual)