Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Be Prepared...The Son of Man is Coming

"Be not afraid... Fear not."  People have derived comfort from these words for over 2,000 years, yet we are still afraid.  What's more, we are too frightened to admit our fears, particularly the biggest fear of all - death.  The fear of death overshadows our lives.  We have - or likely have - lived longer than our parents and grandparents.  We are better fed; we lose few babies, and modern medicine protects us from contagion and disease that will lengthen our lives... and yet, we are still afraid. 

Shortly after 9/11 the words Fear Not seemed a little out of place.  Surely we had every reason to be afraid.  I am reminded of Father Mychal Judge, a Franciscan priest, who served as Chaplain to the New York Fire Dept., and was the first registered victim at Ground Zero, the sight of the former Twin Towers.  The details of his death are unclear:  some say he was fatally wounded as he administered last rites to a dying firefighter; others recall his being killed while in silent prayer.  Whatever happened, his lifeless body was discovered in the lobby and carried to a nearby church shortly before Tower I collapsed.

What does this have to do with our gospel (Matthew 24:36-44)?  Who knew how that fateful Tuesday that began with skies so blue and air so clear, would end as it did?  In many ways, Father Mychal lived this gospel.  In many ways this was a man who had arrived at Ground Zero long before 9/11.  He had proved himself ready to lay down his life many times during his career.  For him 9/11 could have occurred on any day or at any time... he was prepared.

If the thought of finding God amidst such harrowing circumstances seems strange, perhaps it is because we are out of practice looking for Him.  However, we can be certain that Christ's death and resurrection hold the deepest answer to all our fears.  Christ was executed like a common criminal and was totally forsaken by his friends.  By His overcoming death and our sharing in his resurrection, He took away all our reasons to fear forever.  Of course it does no good to recognize this on a merely intellectual level.  Knowing that Christ loves us may not save us from fear, nor will it save us from death.  And so it comes down to this:  The only way to truly overcome our fear of death is to "be prepared" and to live our life in such a way that its meaning cannot be taken away by death.  As with Father Mike, it means fighting the impulse to live for ourselves instead of others.  It means being prepared to die again and again to ourselves, and to every one of our self-serving opinions and agendas.                           
(Adapted from Johann Chrisoph Arnold, Be Not Afraid, Advent Readings, 2001)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Christ the King

Although his time on earth was short, Jesus created quite a stir during his even briefer ministry( Luke 23:33-43). As a revolutionary he upset Jewish law, tradition and the Roman hierarchy. He consorted with the most unlikely disenfranchised members of society and violated conventional decorum. He upset the “purity code” by proclaiming it wasn’t what went into your mouth that mattered but what came out. He wasn’t a king, a priest, or a prophet. He performed many miracles that included healing the sick and bringing the dead back to life. Yet he was unable to save himself; he was executed with 2 petty criminals. Not very kingly is it? And to compound the indignity, the soldiers kneel at his feet, not to worship, but to gamble for his clothes, while deriding his reign as “king of the Jews.” It amused them because they were Romans and they knew what a real king looked like, and this definitely was not it. A real king had power and arrogance and this Jesus had none of that. So they mocked him.

Yet, for some reason, one of the two thieves also being executed reprimands the other who derides Jesus’ weakness and speaks with compassion and takes pity on another condemned man. Then he does an astounding thing and asks “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Now, where did that come from?  How can he hang there on the cross and look over at a man dying beside him, and see in him as a savior, a messiah, a king with a kingdom? Somehow, the second thief got it; he saw what Jesus was doing; he saw that Jesus refused to swat his oppressors and he died so that they could be forgiven, died so that by his suffering their suffering would be healed.

We celebrate Christ the King, not because of his regal bearing, but because of his humility; not because of his power, but because of his compassion; not because of his triumph, but because of his travail; not because he fixes our lives, but because he shows us the way to live.

And what about this kingdom of God? Where is it? Richard Rohr writes that “if we go to the depths of anything, we will begin to knock upon something substantial, ‘real’ and with a timeless quality to it. We will move from the starter kit of ‘belief’ to an actual inner knowing. This is most especially true if we have ever loved deeply; accompanied someone through the mystery of dying, or stood in genuine life changing awe before mystery time or beauty. This ‘something real’ is what all the worlds religions were pointing to when they spoke of heaven or the kingdom of God. They were not wrong at all; their only mistake was that they pushed it off into the next world. If God’s Kingdom is later, it is because it is first of all now…In other words, heaven/ /union/ love now emerge from within us much more than from a mere belief system and  as Jesus promises the Samaritan woman, “the spring within her will well up into eternal life. (John 4:14)”

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Love is Here to Stay

The more I read the papers, the less I comprehend.
The world and all its capers and how it all will end.
Nothing seems to be lasting, but that isn’t our affair.
We’ve got something permanent,
I mean in the way we care.
… and so did Ira Gershwin pen this beautiful preface to his brother George’s melody. Somehow these words seem to connect me to our reading in Luke 21:5-19. Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics to Love is Here to Stay as a loving tribute to his brother who had recently died at 39. The song speaks of love’s permanence in an ever changing world. Ira would have no way of knowing how prophetic his words written in 1938 were, as we witness the passing of what we thought would be indestructible icons that turned out to be passing fancies of sorts.

A few months ago I had the chance to visit the high school from which I graduated. I had attended this newer more “modern” building for the last 6 months of high school, since my school had to be torn down. At the time of my visit I passed by my childhood home and paused to take it all in. Only the front door remained the same. I did not nor did I expect to recognize anyone, although I could recreate people and places by super imposing my memory on the scene. Not unlike those who resisted Jesus’ prediction that the temple would one day be destroyed, I too thought these icons of my youth would last forever. Yes, there is an ache that comes from seeing so much of what I thought would be always, be no longer, but the older we get the more we know that nothing temporal by its very definition is eternal.

Jesus prophetically speaks of unsettling things that we like to think are just spiritual metaphors. But the current devastation from the Typhoon in the Philippines and the civil war in Syria are terrible reminders that the things we hold so close are just passing fancies and in time will go.  Even if these words don't resonate for us today, the time will come when they just might.  And then, as now, Jesus’ promise remains “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”  God is watching out for us and His love is here to stay.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Resurrection and Everlasting Life

I don’t think the Sadducees really cared about Jesus’ opinion on resurrection (Luke 20:27-38). Not unlike news reporters who ask leading questions to which they already know the answer, the Sadducees tried to embarrass Jesus by having him say something that “contradicts” the law. Yet, motive aside, was their question really unreasonable?  The Sadducees saw the whole person as mortal and did not believe in "resurrection.” They attempted to use the Jewish law on women, marriage and procreation to trap him. Of course in all cultures marriage and procreation are crucial to maintaining stability and preserving survival and Jesus is really not rejecting or taking a stand on the importance of marriage. However, he is telling the Sadducees that marriage is irrelevant and procreation is unnecessary in life eternal.

 Much of our belief on Christ’s resurrection on the “third day” comes from the way in which the Church interpreted the Creed throughout the centuries. David Steindl-Rast writes that “Jesus’ resurrection has nothing to do with coming back to life (like Lazarus in John’s Gospel). The Creed does not talk about any coming back; resurrection is a sacred movement of completion. It’s a new beginning into a new level of life in which the power of love breaks the bonds of death. The followers of Jesus experienced the resurrection of Jesus Christ as a life-changing conviction.”

The Sadducees used the laws of Moses to trap Jesus on resurrection. However, Moses was dealing in a time and place during which a man was responsible for the preservation of his lineage and his family by marrying his deceased brother's wife (Deuteronomy 25:5-10). Jesus stance on earthly convention had nothing to do with the earthly laws of Moses which do not apply in heaven. We are confined to understanding that which we are capable based on our human intellect. God s not bound to our human understanding or to our dimension. God is about something more.

For many of us mystery became an adversary; unknowing became a weakness. The contemplative spiritual life is an ongoing reversal of this adjustment. It is a slow and sometimes painful process of becoming ‘little children’ again in which we first make friends with mystery and finally fall in love again with it again.”  (Gerald May, Dark Night of the Soul).