John the Baptist, Pope Benedict XVI and Monsignor Bill Gahagan

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In the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we hear that the infant John leapt in the womb of his mother Elizabeth on the approach of the infant Jesus carried in the womb of his mother, the Virgin Mary.  Today, in the first chapter of the Gospel of John, when the adult John sees Jesus coming towards him, he leaps in his very proclamation that Jesus is the Lamb of God – the one sent to take away the sins of the world! 

It is easy to imagine that the scene contained just John and Jesus but Scripture tells us otherwise.  Many people, we are told, were going out to see John – this man who was proclaiming that the Kingdom of God was at hand and that the Messiah was coming.  Many people were heeding the message of John to repent of their sins and to be baptized in preparation for the Messiah’s coming.  And it is in the very midst of this crowd of people who were aware of their sins and wanting to repent that Jesus appears on the riverbank of Jordan. 

This had to have been disconcerting for John who was proclaiming a Messiah who would baptize not with water but rather fire and the Holy Spirit – the appearance of a humble messiah willing to be in the midst of sinners.  But the Holy Spirit who came upon Jesus during his baptism in the Jordan also enlightens the understanding of John that the true Messiah and King of Israel would not accomplish God’s will by the power of this world but by being the humble Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.  God will bring about his Kingdom by His fire and His Holy Spirit and in His way.  John was gifted to be led into this understanding just as our Lord began his public ministry. 

And John points him out.  Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world … Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.  The proclamation of John is the mission of the Church.  The Church is to do what John did – point Jesus out and say, “He is the Savior!  Yes, humble.  Yes, ever willing to be in the midst of sinners, but he alone is the Savior.”  At every Mass we repeat the words of John when the priest holds up the Eucharist and proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world!”  By saying these words, we also remind ourselves who we are to be as Church.    

Pope Francis wisely reminds us in many of his writings that the Church must never proclaim herself but rather always proclaim Christ.  That the Church must never bring herself but rather always bring Christ – because it is Christ alone who frees people from their sins.  It is Jesus who is the Lamb of God and we, as Church, proclaim him to the world! 

Today, in a special way, we pray for the repose of the soul of Pope Benedict XVI.  Pope Benedict was a man who knew the same truth that John knew and who lived his life and found his fullest calling in pointing to Jesus, the Lamb of God, and calling people to the truth of Christ.     

I think it also worthwhile today to pray for the repose of the soul of Monsignor Bill Gahagan – a former pastor of St. Dominic Church and beloved priest of our diocese.  People who knew Monsignor Gahagan know that he was a man caught up in the love of God and a man who easily found his Lord present in the midst of his people. Monsignor Bill would count himself blessed to be in the midst of the crowd along the bank of the river Jordan standing beside his Lord and Savior.  

For people of faith there is sorrow in the death of a loved one but there is also a deep joy knowing that the dearly departed now fully beholds the face of their Lord. 

May these men and all the faithful departed rest in peace. 

Trying to be family in a smoke-filled room. A reflection for the Feast of the Holy Family

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I am not a Marxist.  (How is that for an opening line?)  But I do believe that Marx was right about one thing – the economy matters.  Neither our individual lives nor the life of society occur within a vacuum.  There are many factors which influence and even shape us and the economy is one of the major influencers.  Economy carries both positive and negative influence in our lives and it is both critical and helpful to acknowledge this. 

Today’s feast – the Feast of the Holy Family – naturally leads us into a reflection on what it means to be family.  As Church we proclaim the importance of family and how family is the foundation of society.  As Church we strive to build up, support and strengthen families in their particular vocation and witness to our world.  This is all true and good, but in order to truly fulfill these goals we also have to be willing to acknowledge and be aware of the context of our times in which families find themselves.  Part of this context is economy and its influence. 

A number of years ago I came across the book, “Following Christ in a Consumer Society” by John Kavanaugh S.J.  Writing the first edition of the book in 1981, Kavanaugh was quite prescient in his awareness and understanding of how the economy was having and would have ongoing impact on our lives, including the life of the family.  Here is a quote from the book:

          When people, at least on a per capita basis, have most of their needs fulfilled, how are you going to get them to continually want and buy more?  Is it possible that it would be more financially rewarding if people were conditioned to be dissatisfied cravers rather than appreciators of the earth?  Does one buy more if one appreciates and relishes things, or if one is continually dissatisfied and distressed and craving?  Is it profitable that dissatisfaction be induced into the life-consciousness of a people?  Will the stimulation of anxiety and tension (closely associated with the experience of need) be economically desirable?  Will persons buy and consume more if they have been taught to be unhappy, to be distressed, to be unsure about personal identity, sexuality, and relationships?

          Another way of putting this problem of the commodity formation of self-consciousness is to suggest what kinds of behavior are not “good new for business.”  Let us suppose that you are a married person with children.  If you are relatively happy with your life, if you enjoy spending time with your children, playing with them and talking with them; if you like nature, if you enjoy sitting in your yard or on your front steps, if your sexual life is relatively happy, if you have a peaceful sense of who you are and are stabilized in your relationships, if you like to pray in solitude, if you just like talking to people, visiting them, spending time in conversation with them, if you enjoy living simply, if you sense no need to compete with your friends or neighbors – what good are you economically in terms of our system?  You haven’t spent a nickel yet.

This is the context in which families find themselves – the very air they breathe – as they strive to be all that family entails. 

Both of my parents were life-long smokers (a factor that was a contributing cause in both of their deaths).  It was only when I got to college seminary that I realized it was possible to live in an environment that did not have the continual haze of cigarette smoke.  I also soon realized the health benefits of living in an environment free of second-hand smoke.  Our society has also learned these benefits and promotes these benefits through a variety of laws and ordinances prohibiting second-hand smoke. 

To promote family while not acknowledging the influences which weigh upon family is like trying to encourage people in maintaining a healthy lifestyle in a smoke-filled room.  Life does not occur within a vacuum.  Context matters and economy (positive and negative) is part of this context.  Economy influences. 

Ours is not the first generation to be influenced by economy.  Economy (in all of its different forms and developments) has been an influence since day one.  The Holy Family lived with the influence of economy, the families of medieval serfs lived with the influence of economy, modern day men and women live with this influence.  What is unique, I think, about our time though is the depth of influence and continual presence and impact the economy has in our lives through our cell phones, social media in all of its forms and the internet.  It is unrelenting and is now moving into the virtual and trying to take us with it.     

What can Church and family do within this smoke-filled room?  Here are some initial thoughts.  First acknowledge that there is smoke.  Economy is an influencer and not all of the influence is good.  We need to be honest about this.  Second, always proclaim and uphold the dignity of the human person and demand that this dignity be respected in all contexts, especially in those of economy.  Third, individually, begin to open some doors and windows in your life to both clear the smoke and let fresh air in.  How?  Do the things Kavanaugh lists in the second paragraph quoted above: go for a hike (one of my favorites), enjoy time with your kids and talking with other people, pray, live simply, put the cell phone away every now and then.  Strive to be an appreciator of the goods of the earth.  Do the things where you don’t have to spend a nickel and enjoy it.   

The fact that God chose to be born and then grow up within the context of human family has much to teach us.  St. Paul VI encouraged us to always be willing to go to the “school of Nazareth” and learn from the Holy Family in their love for and interaction with one another.  It is interesting to note that the origin of the word “economy” is rooted in Greek meaning, “the management of a household or home”.  The Holy Family can help us learn how to truly navigate all of the contexts and influences in which we find ourselves while remaining family – rooted in and formed by that greater economy of salvation found and known through Christ our Lord.    

The smallness of the manger – a reflection for Christmas

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It is a small entrance into the world for God – the Creator and Ruler of all – yet that is how God chose to come to us.  Luke highlights this small entry of God in his gospel by placing it in the context and movement of the time.  The emperor Augustus had commanded a census of the whole world – nations and peoples were on the move – and in the midst of all of that movement of humanity was one couple (the young wife expecting her child) on the edge of the large empire who had to leave the space of home, family and friends and enter the much smaller space of being strangers in an unknown place.  All that they could find for shelter was a manger – not even a room in the Inn.  It was within this smallest of spaces that God chose to enter into the world and creation. 

“Is God so mighty that he can make himself small?  Is God so mighty the he can love us and really enter into our lives?” Pope Benedict XVI asked these questions in a reflection on St. Nicholas found in the small book, “Seek That Which is Above”.  Can God enter into our smallness?  The answer is “yes”.  The answer was given by the birth of Christ – a helpless infant born in a small stable, unnoticed by the powers of the world and first witnessed by a few shepherds.  Love that is true cannot remain distant.  Love has to draw near and for God to draw near to us then God has to become small and vulnerable.  The smallness of the manger reveals God’s power. 

But the manger does not just reflect on God – the manger, the incarnation, also reflects on us.  The Church, from our earliest days, has understood this.  “For if God is too far away from us to love us effectively, then human love in only an empty promise.  If God cannot love, then how can man be expected to do so?” (Pope Benedict XVI, “Seek That Which is Above”).  The manger teaches us that God can and does love, where love is to be found, how we can love in turn and, by so doing, how we can be truly human ourselves. 

Love – most authentically, most purely – if found and given in the small, isn’t it?

The warmth of a smile, the laughter of friends, the comfort of a hug, the help of a stranger, the kiss of a beloved, the tiny grasp of a newborn’s hand… 

Love is found, love is given in the small.  And it is in the small – where love is given – that time and eternity touch.  Is God so mighty that he can make himself small?  Is God so mighty that he can love us, even in our smallness?  The smallness of the manger says “yes” and the answer given reflects both on us and on God. 

During these days of Christmas, the infant Christ looks on us with a singular question in his eyes, “Can you come to the manger?  Are you strong enough to set aside the ego, the pride, the resentments, any sense of superiority, the hurt and the fear often carried in life that hinders and weighs down in order to enter the small and to love, just simply love and be loved? If you can you will find life and healing, because there in the small,” says the infant Christ, “you will find me.” 

It is in the smallness of the manger that God’s power is revealed and that we learn to live full and true human lives.  You could say that we also are born in the smallness of the manger … if we are willing to go there. 

It is a small entrance into the world for God – born a helpless infant and laid in a manger.  God dwells in the small where love is found. 

St. Joseph – patron saint of handling the curveballs of life (Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent A)

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After listing the genealogy of Jesus in the first chapter of his gospel, Matthew tells us how the birth of our Lord came about and how the humble carpenter Joseph plays a key role but not in any sort of way that he could ever have expected.  After deciding to spare Mary shame and to divorce her quietly, Joseph is visited by an angel in his dream.  The context of “within a dream” is important because by letting Joseph know that Mary is with child through the Holy Spirit, the angel is inviting Joseph to set aside his own dreams in favor of God’s dream. 

Surely Joseph had dreams and plans regarding his marriage to Mary and what their life together would be like.  Surely Joseph found great anticipation and joy in those dreams but then he was thrown the biggest curveball in all of human history – his betrothed was with child, the infant was the Word incarnate and now his dreams must give way to God’s dream.

Joseph is considered the patron saint of a happy death because tradition holds that when he died (sometime between the finding of the young Jesus in the Temple and before the beginning of our Lord’s public ministry) Joseph had at his bedside both our Lord and our Lady.  St. Joseph is also considered the protector of the Universal Church as he took on the duty and responsibility of protecting the newborn Christ and his mother.  There are many titles given to this amazing saint and each title offers a different glimpse of his sanctity.  The first chapter of Matthew offers another title worthy of consideration I believe – St. Joseph, the patron saint of handling the curveballs of life! 

Life throws curveballs and they come at us at unexpected times and in many varied ways – an illness in the family, the loss of a job, the need to move, interrupted plans and projects, an unexpected pregnancy, even a random encounter with a stranger can turn things upside down!  These curveballs come in many shapes and sizes and they all demand that we set aside our dreams and plans in favor of the needs of the situation and the needs of another person(s).    

It is good to have Joseph with us in these moments.  He shows that these moments can be navigated through in faith and in hope. 

Joseph offers three lessons for the curveball moments of life. 

The first is not to react in frustration and agitation (a common and often kneejerk response in such moments) but rather to step back, take a deep breath and choose to act in care for all involved.  Joseph did this.  Before the angel even visited him in his dream to announce God’s plan, Joseph finds out that his betrothed is with child.  Joseph must have experienced pain, shame and a sense of betrayal in this moment.  Yet, he does not react out of all of that.  Joseph falls back on his faith and his honest care for Mary and he chose to act out of that space.  He decides not to expose her to shame.  Even in his pain he acts in care for the very one who it seems (on the surface) betrayed him.  Joseph teaches that when life throws a curveball don’t react – rather step back, take a deep breath and act in care. 

The second lesson is to listen. God is present even in the curveballs of life.  God has a word to share even in such moments.  We are told that Joseph was a righteous man – a righteous person lives in relationship with God which means a person who has learned that God is present in all moments of life and who has learned to search for the voice of God in all situations.  Joseph listened to the message of the angel in his dream and he accepted that message.  Even in the curveballs that life throws at us, God is present. Joseph teaches us to listen for what God is saying even in such moments. 

Thirdly, Joseph (after listening) acts in faith.  Faith means to be willing to just take the next step.  Faith does not mean we know exactly how things will work out.  Faith means we take the next step precisely because we trust in God and His will for us.  Joseph did this.  Joseph did not know how it would all end.  Joseph did not fully understand all that was going on and neither was he given the whole picture but he trusted and in that trust he decided to act in faith.  Joseph received Mary into his home. 

Three solid lessons for handling the curveballs that life can throw at us: don’t react but rather act in care, listen for the voice of God in the moment and then act in faith, take that next step. 

St. Joseph, patron saint of handling the curveballs of life, pray for us! 

Trying to ride dead horses – reflection and homily

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It is interesting how God speaks to us.  This past week I was on retreat at a Jesuit retreat house.  For me, a retreat is a time for quiet, prayer, reading and walking.  (I walk a lot on retreats.) On one of these walks, I came across a little bench given to the retreat center in memory of a deceased Jesuit priest.  On the bench was engraved a saying that, I am guessing, this Jesuit was known for.  The saying is, “If the horse is dead, it is prudent to dismount.”  (Fr. Bob Hanlon, S.J.)  Jesuit wisdom at its finest!

There is wisdom in the saying.  How much of our time and energy do we spend trying to ride dead horses?  If we are nursing a grudge or a grievance, we are trying to ride a dead horse.  If we are comfortable in a habit of sin, we are trying to ride a dead horse.  If we are holding on to a prejudice, we are trying to ride a dead horse.  If we give in to the voices of negativity and doubt in our lives, we are trying to ride a dead horse.  If we take pleasure in gossip, we are trying to ride a dead horse.  If we are active in an addiction, we are trying to ride a dead horse.  If we need to control persons and situations, we are trying to ride a dead horse.  There are many ways of trying to ride a dead horse. 

There is wisdom in the saying.  A good examination for each of us is asking the question: what are the dead horses in my life that I am trying to ride and is now the time to dismount? 

The gospel for this Sunday is not easy (Lk. 12:49-53).  Jesus … a source of division and not peace?  This does not seem right.  Jesus does not come to sow discord but, as we are told elsewhere in the gospels, Jesus fully understands human nature.  Jesus comes to bring new and true life but he knows our weakness in sin.  Some will accept this call to new life and some will fight and kick against it. 

Jesus comes to each of us – in love and in truth – and says, “It is time to stop trying to ride that dead horse.”  Not only does he say “it is time”, he gives us the grace – he is the grace – to dismount and to walk away from the dead horse into the newness of true life. 

Because of this we read in the Letter to the Hebrews, “…let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us (in other words, “Get off that dead horse!”) and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus…”

Jesus calls us to rid ourselves of sin and he gives us (each of us) the grace to persevere in running the race – the grace of the sacraments, the grace of Holy Scripture, the life of Christian community, the discipline of prayer, the call to serve and the call to carry our own crosses.  These are the graces given in order to persevere.  Hebrews gives us further wisdom; when we are discouraged and down  – consider Jesus and all that he endured, we have not yet resisted, “to the point of shedding blood.” 

Jesus does not come to sow discord.  Jesus comes to brings new and true life but he also knows well our human nature. 

“If the horse is dead, it is prudent to dismount.” (Fr. Bob Hanson, S.J. – may he rest in peace)

The “Our Father” as fire

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In the “dog days” – the time before the arrival of horses and guns – the Pikunii people (one branch of the Blackfeet nation served by our sister parish in Montana) used fire carriers made of hollowed-out bison horns to carry burning coals from one camp to the next in order to once again enkindle fire at the new campsite.  The persons chosen to carry the fire for the tribe were well respected members of the tribe who were known to be both mature and responsible.  To carry the coals was a critically important task because in many ways the life of the tribe (fire for warmth and for cooking) depended on these coals being safely transferred from camp to camp.  The coals had to be both protected as well as kept burning just enough through the journey so as not to go out. 

In the coals was also seen a connection to the past as the coals being carried were seen as coming from and connected to all of the campfires at all the campsites the people had made throughout their history.  The fire journeyed with the people. 

The tribes carried these coals with the greatest of care. 

How do we view the “Our Father”?  Is it just some interesting words, a nice part of our worship, nice thoughts given us by Jesus to think about or do we see it for what it truly is – fire. 

The “Our Father” is fire. 

It is a fire that we could not get on our own.  Tertullian wrote, “The expression God the Father had never been revealed to anyone.  When Moses himself asked God who he was, he heard another name.  The Father’s name has been revealed to us in the Son, for the name ‘Son’ implies the new name ‘Father’.”  (CCC #2779) Jesus alone brings this name to us and he gives this name and his prayer to us now through our adoption as sons and daughters of God.  Jesus entrusts this fire to each of us and he invites us into this relationship that is now – through grace – our common patrimony.  Now, we each must carry this fire throughout the journey of our lives.  We must cherish this fire, tend it, protect it and allow it to protect and nourish us. 

In the very beginning of the Church, Christians would stop and pray the “Our Father” three times each day.  They recognized that this fire that they held (which we now hold) pushes back the darkness of evil, sin and lies.  It overcomes the great deceiver and his lies.  It nourishes and brings refreshment to our weary and thirsting souls and it warms and protects us from the cold pain of injustices endured in our world. 

The Pikunii chose only those persons who were mature and responsible enough to carry the fire for the tribe.  This fire given to us by Christ both matures us and is received by us more fully as we mature in the journey of faith and discipleship.  The words of the Our Father are the same today that I first learned when I was five years old but the fire that I carry in those words today is very different – it has now been tended through all of the experiences, joys and struggles of fifty-four years of life.  It is the same for each of us, if we tend this fire that has been given us and if we also allow this fire to warm, nurture and mature us. 

How do we view the “Our Father”?  It is fire.  A fire given to each of us through our baptisms to carry and protect throughout the journey of our lives. 

In the humility of his humanity

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The early Church wrestled with the Christological controversies like their lives depended on it.  The truth is that our lives (and salvation) do.  Unless Jesus is fully God, we are not saved.  Unless Jesus is fully human, we are not saved.  The chasm created by our turning away from God (because it is God we have turned from) is impossible for any creature (human or angelic) to bridge.  Only God can heal that divide.  Hence, the savior must be fully God.  The original offense – the turning away – is on our part.  We are the ones who turned our back on God.  We must be the one who makes amends.  Hence, the savior must be fully human.  The savior must overcome our prideful disobedience by his humble obedience to the Father.  Jesus – fully God and fully human – did this.   

For centuries the Church (guided by the Holy Spirit) wrestled this out and from this effort and inspiration was born the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds – guardrails to keep us on the way of truth.  But guardrails are not the road nor are they meant to be.  Guardrails serve their purpose by keeping the traveler on the right path and protecting the traveler from the misfortunes and the dangers of going off course.  This is their purpose and the creeds do this but they do not answer every single question nor are they meant to.  There is still so much more to learn and to be brought to deeper understanding on.   

Being fully God and fully human, how does the savior overcome our disobedience by his obedience?  Both in the emptying of his divine sonship and in the humility of his humanity, I believe. 

Here, the Christ Hymn of Philippians 2 (a hymn sung by the first generation of disciples) is of critical importance.

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,

Who, though he was in the form of God,

did not regard equality with God

something to be grasped.

Rather, he emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

coming in human likeness,

and found human in appearance,

he humbled himself,

becoming obedient to death,

even death on a cross. 

Because of this, God greatly exalted him

and bestowed on him the name

that is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus

every knee should bend,

of those in heaven and on earth

and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that

Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.  (Phil. 2:5-11, NAB)

The glory of the divine Sonship is present in Jesus but it is an emptying presence.  It is freely let go of.  This letting go allows Jesus, in the humility of his humanity, the “space” to fully exercise his will in obedient response to the prompting and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit – who is the love of the Father and the Son – fully indwells within Jesus who is without sin.  And Jesus (without sin) in the humility of his humanity continually and fully makes the choice to respond to the prompting and guidance of the Holy Spirit. 

In this the salvation won by Christ is an exercise of his divine Sonship in the sense of continually emptying himself of the glory of God in order that in the humility of his humanity Jesus might authentically exercise that human obedience in which we failed. 

To be fully human means to grow in understanding and therefore not always fully know and comprehend, to authentically exercise trust and faith even in the darkest and most despairing moments, to be guided by the Holy Spirit through one’s own prayer, scripture, worship and the Spirit speaking through other persons and circumstances.  Jesus did all of this even to death on a cross. 

The miracles of Jesus (the signs) can be understood then not as the exercise of the power of his divine Sonship in the worldly sense of “will to power” but rather the exact opposite – an emptying of his equality with God in order that in the obedience of his sinless humanity the Holy Spirit might fully work through him and now, through Christ, even in others.  In the Last Supper discourse, before the promise of the sending of the Holy Spirit, Jesus says, Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever believes in me will do the works that I do, and will do greater ones than these because I am going to the Father. (Jn. 14:12) 

It is only in Jesus’ ascending to the Father, that the Holy Spirit (who had been fully indwelling in the Son) can now be poured forth upon and begin to dwell within us who have been washed clean through the obedience of Christ.  Now the Holy Spirit can begin to work through us if we take on the same attitude that was in Christ Jesus.  If we learn (through grace) willed self-emptying, then the Holy Spirit can move through even the humility of our own humanity and we can learn to hear and be docile (obedient) to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in our lives.      

In the self-emptying of his equality with God and in the humility of his humanity Jesus exercises the obedience that overcomes the effects of our original disobedience. 

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus.

Jesus – the Living One

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My favorite Easter movie is “Risen”.  The story centers on a Roman soldier named Clavius.  A lifelong member of the military, Clavius is a dutiful and hardened soldier who has risen in the ranks.  He is looking toward the end of his military career.  He is sent by Pilate to oversee the execution of a criminal charged with treason – a man that many were proclaiming to be the King of the Jews.  Clavius watches Jesus die.  He returns to Pilate and gives his report.  Pilate, aware that Clavius is a man of ambition whose service will soon be ending, asks the soldier what he ultimately wants in life.  Clavius answers, “Rome, position, power…”  “What will this give you?” asks the governor.  “A villa in the country.”  “What will you find there?” asks Pilate.  “An end of travail … peace … a day without death.” 

The story does not end there. 

There begins to be reports that this dead man has risen and with these rumors unrest begins in and around Jerusalem.  Pilate again summons the soldier and assigns Clavius to get to the truth of what has happened and to prove that all of these accounts of a resurrection are false.  But they are not.  In the course of his tracking down the disciples, Clavius comes face to face with Jesus – the man he saw die on the cross.  His world is turned upside down!  Everything is thrown into question.  The hardened Roman soldier begins to tag along on the edge of the group of disciples – like a stray dog.  He watches the risen Lord and the disciples.  One night, on the shore of Lake Galilee, while all the disciples are asleep, Clavius approaches Jesus who is watching the night sky.  Sitting down beside Jesus, Clavius admits, “I don’t even know what to ask,”  “Speak your heart,” says Jesus.  “How can I reconcile this with the world I know?”  “Still you doubt … what frightens you … What is it you seek Clavius?”  Jesus then answers for him, “certainty … peace … a day without death?”  Clavius weeps, his heart and his pain have been recognized … and answered. 

The angels in the tomb ask the women, “Why do you seek the living one among the dead?  He is not here, but he has been raised.”  Jesus alone is the “living one”.  Although we consider ourselves alive we are not the “living one”.  How do we know this?  Because, like Clavius, we often seek to find life in the midst of that which is dead.  When we seek peace and tranquility through worldly power, privilege and position – that is seeking to find life among that which is dead.  When we find a numbing comfort in life by holding on to grievances, resentments, fears, sorrows, addictions, failures and even our own sins and sense of unworthiness of mercy – that is also seeking to find life among the dead.  We are not the living one because we carry the wound of sin, because we so often look to find life among that which is dead.

“Why do you seek the living one among the dead,” asks the angels.  Jesus alone is the living one and he is not to be found among any of those dead things. 

Here is the Easter truth – Jesus alone is the living one.  Jesus, alone, in his obedience has conquered sin and death.  If we go on looking for life among that which is dead, we will find no life.  It is only when we allow the Living One to find us – to answer the need and pain in our own heart – that we will know healing and true life. 

Only in the fullness of the Kingdom, will we be truly living.  Only then will we know a day without death.  For now, we still carry the wound of sin.  But, the Living One is here, he walks with us, he loves us and he gives us his mercy and he says to us, “Do not seek me among the dead things.  I am not there.  There is no life there.  Let go of those things.  I am the Life and I am here for you.” 

“Why do you seek the living one among the dead,” ask the angels, “He is not here, but he has been raised.”   

Singing the Christ Hymn on Good Friday

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The Christ Hymn (Philippians 2:6-11) was the first reading I proclaimed as a lector at Mass during my time in theology studies.  Since that time I keep returning to the mystery of the words found in the hymn.  The hymn, I believe, is both a good complement as well as corrective to scriptural interpretations and theologies found throughout history and present in our own day.  “Does it pass the Christ Hymn test?” is what I often ask myself when listening to sermons and opinions in theology.  

Singing the hymn on Good Friday leaves one with a question; “What saves?  The blood of Christ or the obedience of Christ?”  This is asked not to minimize the sufferings of Jesus nor the salvation which was won for us through his sacrifice but to allow the hymn to clarify in the hope of being brought to deeper understanding. 

Could an over-emphasis on the imagery of the “blood of the Lamb” have the unintended consequence of leaving us with the image of God as a wrathful Father who demands a blood sacrifice?  Sadly, this has been an interpretation given ample evidence of in sermons, hymns and theological writings that has floated down through the Christian centuries.  But sheer multitude does not necessarily make something right.  In fact, it might demonstrate that it is just … easy. 

Scripture scholars say that Paul did not pen the Christ Hymn.  Rather, he made use of a hymn that was already being widely sung by that first generation of Christian disciples.  This first generation hymn does not mention nor emphasize “blood” rather it focuses on “obedience”.     

“…he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, death on a cross.  Because of this, God greatly exalted him…”  (Phil. 2:7-8)

Obedience is an act of the will and when that is kept primary then we are safeguarded from the pitfalls of a brand of Christian thought that ultimately reduces the Father to the image of a wrath-filled despot demanding a pound of flesh.  Keeping the obedience of the Son central allows the focus to remain (in wonder and awe) upon the free act of will on the Son’s part – an act of will in which Jesus demonstrates his love for the Father and his deep desire for us to be restored in our relationship with the Father (free from the wound of sin) in the fullness of the Kingdom.    

Singing the Christ Hymn on Good Friday reminds us that the sacrifice made on the cross was first, foremost and for all eternity an act of love. 

Writing in the dust and circles of violence

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There are many circles of violence in this Sunday’s gospel story (Jn 8:1-11). 

The woman is not without fault.  She was caught in the act of adultery.  That was a free choice on her part as well as a free choice by the man she committed the sin with.  Adultery is an act of violence against the covenant of marriage.  It is worthwhile to note that after everyone walks away Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you.”  It is in the mercy of God that she is freed from condemnation but there is judgment on her sin, her participation in that act of violence.  Jesus says, “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”    

The crowd is also caught up in the circle of violence as they stand ready to stone this woman.  These two circles of violence (the act of adultery and the desire to kill) are clearly visible and apparent but there are still other circles of violence.  There is a further circle of violence against the woman – she is being used.  The gospel lays it out clearly.  The scribes and Pharisees are using the woman to try to trap Jesus.  “They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.”  They have no real interest in the woman, their focus is on Jesus and she (and apparently even her very life) means nothing, she is just a means to get at Jesus.  To reduce another person in any circumstance to a “means to an end” is an act of violence. 

There is a further and even more profound act of violence.  The scribes and Pharisees, so proud of their religious observance, are trying to use both the commandments and even God.  Again, their intent here is to trap Jesus and not to give honor to the commandments of God and therefore, even God himself.  On their lips they say, “Now in the law, Moses commanded us…” but in their hearts their intent is far from giving honor to the law but rather to trap Jesus. It is in their intent that we see that they are trying to reduce the commandments of God and even God himself to a means to an end.  This is an act of violence.  God will never be reduced to a means to an end. 

All of these circles of violence within eleven verses. 

Probably beginning the very day that these verses were written, we have wondered what it means that Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground.  There are all sorts of interpretations of this action.  A thought that I have is that, by this simple action, Jesus is clearly showing that he will not participate, he will not get caught up in any of these circles of violence.  He will not condone the woman’s act of violence, he will not get caught up in desire to kill, he will neither use a person nor his heavenly Father as a means to an end.  He will not … by writing in the sand, our Lord demonstrates his refusal and disdain for all these circles of violence. 

Once he straightens up and looks around, the answer he gives immediately cuts through all of these circles of violence.  “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  All walk away.  The circles of violence have been broken, no stronger than the dust Jesus was just drawing in. 

Throughout his preaching, St. Paul never tired of letting people know how he had persecuted the church before his encounter with Christ.  St. Peter, never tired of sharing how he had denied knowing Christ in the courtyard of the high priest.  Both men and all of the apostles never tired of sharing how Jesus had rescued them from the circles of violence in their lives and how Jesus shows us a different way and makes it possible for us to live this way. 

Isaiah foretold it, “Thus says the Lord, who opens a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters … In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers.” (Is. 43:16-21)    

Now, in Christ, we do not have to live in the circles of violence.  We do not have to participate.  We do not have to get caught up in the violence.  There is a different way.  We find it when we allow Jesus to find us. 

Jesus sets us free to walk this new way.