Friday, March 25, 2016

Good Friday

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded with thorns, Thine only crown;
How pale Thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish, which once was bright as morn!

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered, was all for sinners’ gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior! ’Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor, vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

My burden in Thy Passion, Lord, Thou hast borne for me,
For it was my transgression which brought this woe on Thee.
I cast me down before Thee, wrath were my rightful lot;
Have mercy, I implore Thee; Redeemer, spurn me not!

What language shall I borrow to thank Thee, dearest friend,
For this Thy dying sorrow, Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever, and should I fainting be,

Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to Thee.

Holy Thursday: Dying and Serving

March 24, 2016 –– Holy Thursday: Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper
John 13:1–15
Dying and Serving

In these three days of the Triduum we follow Jesus to the cross and his death. On this Holy Thursday we are drawn to the sacred Supper when Jesus, on the night before his death, gave the Church the Mystery of his own Body and Blood. He instituted the Eucharist and Holy Orders. He also instituted the ultimate commandment: Love one another as I have loved you.

But first, Jesus is going to his death. Whatever expectations and hopes the disciples had regarding Jesus, imminent death was not included. Peter’s shock at Jesus coming to wash his feet speaks for the disdain and avoidance we all usually feel for whatever seems distasteful and even demeaning to our own preferences and opinions of ourselves.

Jesus is going to his death, and on this evening with his disciples he shows how totally he embraced the role of humbling himself. Jesus “dies” in so many ways: to others’ expectations.... to the honor he had with the disciples as master and teacher.... to any way of promoting himself by plainly explaining what he was doing. The mystery of the greatness of God is made visible in humility of our Lord embracing a slave’s role of feet-washing. As Jesus prepares for his physical death, he is also revealing a “dying” to himself. This is how Jesus loves.

In our self-centered culture, anything that implies death-to-self is ridiculed, despised and even vehemently hated. All we need to do is listen to the mainstream response when the Church will not condone the If it feels good, do it mentality that is rampant in our society. Even among many confessing Christian Faith we find people wanting to feel good about self without first of all submitting that self to the death of the cross. We prefer to try to “heal ourselves” (or excuse ourselves!) instead of accepting God's verdict on our sins.

In this holy Triduum, as we follow Jesus to his death, we can choose truly to follow Jesus in his death by denying ourselves in order to invite the life of Christ to rule our own lives. It is out of this that we love others. The command to love––to lay down our lives for the good of others–– extends beyond Lent and into all areas of life.

Christian husbands and wives are challenged to deny their own desires and pleasures in order to love and serve their spouses. Christian parents sometimes need to deny their own desires and pleasures in order to love and teach and protect their children. Christian young people may have to die to the opinions of their peers in order be faithful to the Lord. Christians in business may need to put to death the desire to succeed at any cost. All Christians need to put to death any attitudes and values from social and cultural influences that are ungodly. It can be the greed of materialism that promises happiness with just one more "thing." It can be the lust of bodily appetites gone berserk so that physical gratification is the ultimate goal. It can be the “normal” response of always wanting one's "rights." Selfishness is always hovering over our shoulder.

Jesus says, I [the master and teacher] have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do. As Jesus goes to die, he asks us to follow him even there. On the same night that Jesus commanded us to remember his broken body and shed blood that rescues us from sin, he commanded us to demonstrate the new life he gives by loving and serving others. Every time we want our own way––to be selfish––we need to ask the Holy Spirit to let us see Jesus humbling himself before his disciples on this night before his death on the cross. This is the love of Christ. This is our Faith.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Life Out of Death

March 13, 2016 –– 5th Sunday of Lent
Ezekiel 37:1–14 / Romans 8:6–11 / John 11:1–3, 17–44 (Year A)

The most repellant ugliness on earth is death with its many forms of expression. There is a painting in the Prado Museum in Spain by Hans Baldung titled "The Three Ages of Man with Death." On the ground is a newborn baby. The baby is surrounded by three elongated figures. On the left is a beautiful young woman. Next to her in the middle is a shriveled old woman. With one arm she is reaching out and grabbing the shoulder of the beautiful young girl, and with a sneer she is pulling her toward herself. Her other arm is interlocked with a third creature––whether man or woman is indiscernible, for all features have melted down into a rotting corpse holding an hourglass. The image is one of birth, youth, and old age, lived in the presence of death.

We all live in the presence of death, but it only takes a moment of reflection to recognize that we try to hide it. Society mostly segregates people who are dying from the young and vibrant. Medical science does its best to anesthetize people who are dying so they do not feel it. After people die, the mortician tries to make them look “natural.” We turn cemeteries into landscaped “parks.”

Today’s Scriptures bring us face to face with death. Ezekiel finds himself on a plain outside the city of Babylon. His people have been dragged from their homes and led away as slaves. Everything of value and all that gave them life is gone. The bones of the whole house of Israel are dried up; they are cut off and their hope is lost.

It’s too familiar. This is the cry of our own nation with fears of terrorism and cultural disintegration. This is the cry of the poor who are trapped. This is the cry of people who survive a major tornado or earthquake. This is the cry of parents when they hear a son or daughter has been killed in a car crash. This is the cry of a wife when she learns her husband has been unfaithful. This is the cry from children who hurt because the people they should be able to trust are abusing them. This is the cry of the person who thinks there is no purpose in living, nothing to look forward to. The words of Ezekiel are true for all who sense the effects of death: Our bones are dried up; we are cut off; our hope is lost. All of this and more is death, and death is ugly.

Can these bones come to life? The Scriptures today are even more about the promise of life––the gift our God wants to give us, but it is a gift that depends on our willingness and ability to name and confront the full reality of death. Life can come out of death, but only if we are not afraid to admit that we are dying and that it’s beyond our control.

This means seeing death as God sees it. Physical death, as horrible as it is, is not the full picture. Physical death and the horror of dying is what gets the attention (when we can’t avoid it). But even bigger than the ugliness of physical death is God’s word to us that physical death is a tangible result of a spiritual death which characterizes our world. St Paul tells the Romans the wages of sin is death…. (6:23a).

There is an interplay between spiritual death and physical death that becomes clearly visible when God’s Spirit gives us eyes to see. A book on grief recovery traces the story of a boy named Johnny. When five-year-old Johnny's dog dies, Johnny is stunned and he bursts out crying. His dog was his constant companion. Now the dog is gone and little Johnny is upset. Johnny's dad stammers a bit and says, "Uh, don't feel bad, Johnny, we'll get you a new dog Saturday." In that one sentence, Johnny's dad is offering the first two steps in society's grief management program: Bury your feelings; replace your losses. Once you have the new dog you won't need to think about the old dog anymore.

Later John falls in love, and the world never looked brighter––until she dumps him. Suddenly there is a deep darkness. John's heart is broken, and this time it's a bigger hurt. This is a person his heart was fixed on. John is a wreck. But mom comes to the rescue this time and says with great sensitivity, "Don't feel bad, John, there are other girls." In other words, bury the pain and replace the loss. John has steps one and two down pat now. He'll use them the rest of his life.

Shortly after, John's grandfather dies––the one to whom he felt closest. Called home from his school, John saw his mother weeping in the living room. He wanted to embrace her and cry with her, but his dad said, "Don't disturb her, John, she needs to be alone. She'll be all right in a little while." The third piece in the grieving puzzle was now in place: Grieve alone. So he too went to his room to cry alone.

This is the pattern our world gives us: Bury your feelings; replace your losses; grieve alone; let time heal; live with regret; never trust again. This has been society's approach for years. Even our culture’s compulsive consumerism is fed by a desire to forget our mortality––just find something immediate and momentarily exciting to buy that can distract your feelings. All this does is intensify our separation from God

When we try to insulate ourselves from pain and death, we are shutting ourselves off from God. We live in a world of death precisely because we want life on our own terms and take matters into our own hands in an effort to make it happen. God wants us to see that trying to understand our world and live our lives on our own, apart from his Truth, is death. Yet evil knows how to package itself so innocently and even beautifully. Christian Faith means looking at any and everything God calls sin and then seeing in it the ugliness of death.

We cannot do this by ourselves. We need God to help us. Yet the death around us clouds our understanding. We so often run from God because we know he is offended when we choose the things that bring death. It can begin to seem that God is the problem. We even want to blame him. How can we learn to trust?

A little girl hurt her finger and ran to her daddy who was busy studying in his den. She showed him her finger, but he was so caught up in what he was doing that he just looked at it and said, “Oh, it will be all right," and sent her out. She ran to her mother, weeping and crying, and her mother said, "Oh, dear, does it hurt so much?" The little girl said, "No, Mommy, it's just that Daddy didn't even say, 'Ouch.'" She just wanted somebody to say "ouch" with her.

The good news of Jesus Christ is that God not only tells us what is right and wrong, he has chosen to come among us––so much so that God himself says “ouch” with us. We find this in the story of Lazarus. These were close friends of Jesus, and he loved Lazarus and Martha and Mary. It hurt Jesus that Lazarus had to experience the ugliness of death; it hurt Jesus to see Martha and Mary in the despair of grief. So we have the shortest verse in the Bible: Jesus wept. Of course Jesus knew he would raise Lazarus to life from the time he first heard of the illness. So why did he weep when he arrived at the tomb?

Jesus wept because he felt the pain and cared about their suffering. Jesus also weeps for us and Jesus weeps with us. As this fifth Sunday in Lent brings us closer to Holy Week, the theme is becoming clearer: death leads to resurrection. Yet there are many times when our hearts and our minds look at the ugliness of death and wonder if there is any hope. There is hope when we look Jesus because Jesus heals the brokenhearted by becoming one of them.

The letter to the Romans affirms that if we have the Spirit of Jesus dwelling in us we shall rise from the dead. So on this Sunday, the Church calls us to reflect on what it means to have the Spirit of Jesus in us. Just as Ezekiel could sense the new spirit that would come upon his people in their return from exile, we who believe that Jesus Christ is God-with-us can experience a foretaste of resurrection as our lives change from death to life because the Spirit of Jesus lives in us.

Right now Jesus weeps with us when we are hurting, when the ugliness of death comes close. He weeps for us when we do not see or accept the gifts that God offers us. The story of the raising of Lazarus tells us that Jesus is indeed Lord of the living and of the dead. And it tells us this: we can take our burdens to him and he will listen…. he will say "ouch" with us in our time of pain. Death does not have the last word.

Christian Faith proclaims that the truth of God is Jesus, and the truth of Jesus is that life comes out of death. This is the Gospel.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Faith & Works

Wednesday: 9 March, 2016 –– 4th Week in Lent
John 5:17–30
Faith & Works

Are we saved by faith or by our works? This has been one of the stereotypical divides between Protestants and Catholics for over 500 years. One of the rallying slogans of the Protestant Reformation is sola fide––by faith alone. Catholics say we will be judged by our works and that those who cling to willful sin are outside of grace. Some Protestants say that we don’t have to worry about sin any more if we “believe” that “Jesus paid it all.”

To some extent the argument is one of semantics and emphasis. The truth is that both perspectives are partially right and both are partially wrong if the emphasis is too one-sided. Christian history has been affected by the human tendency to pendulum reaction. A careful reading of what Jesus says here in the Gospel shows that faith and works cannot be separated.

On the one hand: Amen, amen I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes in the one who sent me has eternal life and will not come to condemnation, but has passed from death to life. Here the emphasis is on faith. It almost sounds as if Jesus is affirming the popular error commonly called “eternal security” or “once saved, always saved.”

But…. on the other hand: the hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and will come out, those who have done good deeds to the resurrection of life, but those who have done wicked deeds to the resurrection of condemnation. In other words, what we do matters––our “works” are an influencing part of our judgment.

It should not be hard to understand this: we act on what we believe. We can “say” we believe, but if nothing in our actions gives evidence we may be only fooling ourselves. Others may struggle with the idea of “belief”(they may struggle mentally with misunderstandings and questions or they may react for some reason to strong religious “feelings”, fearing manipulation) but yet their lives may show the good works of God’s love and justice and peace.

It is also true that some are so deficient (or lop-sided) in their understanding of faith and works that they are outside the boundaries of Christian orthodoxy (and the Church needs to be able to say that), but that is not to judge their final eternal state––only God can do that.

Here is what we need to do to have a full and balanced and robust Christian faith: Understand that faith in what God has done through Jesus Christ is the door and foundation to salvation. Hunger and grow in the understanding and experience of faith, But at the same time, understand and expect faith to have an effect; when we truly believe what God has done through Jesus Christ, we will want to honor God by the way we live. We will want to model Jesus as the Son of God just as Jesus said his whole identity was bound up in modeling and obeying the Father.

This is Christian Faith––faith and works.

Not By Myself: A Penance Reflection

Not By Myself: A Penance Reflection (Ephesians 4:1–6; 5:1-11a)

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all. 

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. But fornication and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving.

Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not associate with them, for once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness….

Solitary confinement has been a severe measure used in prisons for the worst prisoners, but extended  and extreme isolation is damaging to the human psyche. Recent studies on human subjects are rare––in part because of the damaging effect––but in 1951 researchers at McGill University paid a group of male graduate students to stay in small chambers equipped with only a bed. They could only leave to use the bathroom. They wore goggles and earphones to limit their sense of sight and hearing, and gloves to limit their sense of touch. The plan was to observe students for six weeks, but not one lasted more than seven days. Nearly every student lost the ability “to think clearly about anything for any length of time”.  Several others began to suffer hallucinations.

That may seem a strange way to begin a reflection on the Sacrament of Penance, but my thesis is simply this: People––even many Christians––subject themselves to spiritual solitary confinement, and the effect on the soul can be as catastrophic as physical solitary is on body and mind.

The Sacrament of Penance is a gift Jesus gives to his Church. And in this context, remember who the Church is: one body baptized into one Spirit (to use St Paul’s words). In the Church, we belong both to the Lord and to one another. To make my point clear, Christianity is not a private, individualistic faith. A properly formed Catholic would never say, “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” As a former Protestant, it was up to me to keep my faith ordered. Is that all we can do…. just do the best you can and hope we’ve responded well enough?

I came to see that none of us are smart enough or good enough to always know the right thing and do it. We need wisdom and support far beyond ourselves to have healthy souls. An open and honest hearing of what Paul wrote to the Ephesians in our reading proves the incredible gap between contemporary conventional “wisdom” and the truth that God offers all who will listen.

It is almost considered improper today to mention the wrath of God even in our churches! It is the same with naming sins––fornication, impurity, covetousness…. no filthiness, nor silly talk….  We can think that sounds so judgmental.

But we have another standard. It is a higher calling. We are to be imitators of God and that means to walk in love, as Christ loved us. How did Christ love us?  He gave himself up for us…. a sacrifice.

Left to ourselves, we can easily wonder what to “confess”. That often means we are practicing spiritual solitary confinement and not giving ourselves enough to the Church for our souls to stay sensitive. It is possible to “feel” okay simply because we are too weak and disoriented to recognize that something is dangerously wrong. Our personal tendency is rationalization.

Yet our standard is always Jesus. How am I like Jesus in what I do (and don’t do)…. in what I say and how I say it…. in my inner thoughts and dreams and desires? That will usually be enough to give us a good confession (if our understanding of “Jesus” is rightly ordered)!

So what can we hope from Confession? First of all, there is a guarantee that we are not alone. I do not have to figure it out and deal with my guilt and fears by myself. Jesus comes in the tangible person of the priest and speaks from the perspective of the Church (for which he gave his life). The explicit purpose is to affirm that we are loved, that we are called to spiritual health (which is one way to understand holiness), and that everything necessary to wipe us clean and steer us in a right direction is a gift that God wants to give us through the Church died to create.

The world-spirit calls us to the darkness. We are tempted to embrace what ruins us, and to try to hide from everyone (including our own selves) the awful effects of spiritual solitary.

Jesus calls us to the freedom of light and release and affirmation. He does this through his Church.  We are not alone. Paul tells us who we are: you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light. And St John tells us in another place exactly how to do that: if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1Jn 1:7–9).

Site Meter