Sunday, May 12, 2013
It has been said that as Christians we are always, “aliens in a foreign land.” We might look the same as others, we might talk the same, we might act the same but as Christians we are never fully at home in this world. Our souls will always be, in this life, to some extent or another, “restless”. At some level we know that our true home still awaits us. As Christians we do not disdain the world nor do we see it as evil. The opposite, in fact, is the case – we value the world, we marvel at its beauty but we view it within the fuller horizon of the love, truth and hope that we have come to know in Jesus Christ. What we have come to know in Christ affects everything – even how we judge our place in the world.
This must have been especially true for those first disciples. They knew Christ. They had spent time with him. They experienced the resurrection. And now, we are told, they watched him ascend into heaven but things are now different – they cannot go back to the way it was before – it can never be the same. As Christ ascends, they stand in between the earthly ministry and presence of Jesus and the promised fullness of the Kingdom.
“Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking up at the sky?” In other words, the angels are reminding the disciples even as they stand in between, “Remember, you are in this world and there is work to be done,” but, they also say, “This Jesus who has been taken up from you … will return in the same way…” but, “keep your eyes on heaven.” As Christians we live with our feet planted in the world but our eyes on heaven. Right now (like those first disciples) we live “in between”.
As humans, we are not all that good about living “in between” – we like to be either here or there but one of the gifts of the days of Ascension – the time between Christ ascending to heaven and the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost is to teach and help us recognize that God is present even in the “in between” moments of life.
All lives have moments of “in between”. The announcement of pregnancy to the birth of a child, the ending of one career to the beginning of the next, graduating from college and preparing to either enter the job market or to move forward to graduate school, the moving from one place and culture to another, the pain of losing a loved one to the acceptance of memory and hope, even the pronouncement of a terminal illness to the point of death – these are all moments when we stand “in between.” Life is full of “in between” times.
Let us not assume that God is not present in the “in between” moments of life. Even if we cannot go back, even if things are different – God is still present. We have experienced the fullness of truth and love in Jesus Christ. God will remain with us even to the end of the ages and through all the in betweens. As Christians we live with our feet in this world and our eyes turned toward heaven.
Sunday, May 5, 2013
|"The Trinity" by Andrei Rublev. A meditation on friendship.|
Where does friendship begin? It is a question worthy of reflecting upon. When we look at the friendships within our lives, where and when did they start? Did the friendships begin all at once in an instant, almost like a thunderclap, or did the friendships we have gradually develop and grow over time, even to the point where we might not remember exactly when a friendship began? I think that the latter of these two is the nature of true friendship. Friendship grows over time and it grows through daily encounter and interaction.
As Christians we believe in the friendship of God - not because we have loved God first but because God has first chosen to love us. The readings for this sixth Sunday of Easter can be read in the terms of friendship (Acts 15:1-2, 22-29, Rev. 21:10-14, 22-23 and Jn. 14:23-29).
In today's gospel we find our Lord saying, "Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him..." In his book, The Priority of Christ, Fr. Robert Barron takes some effort to explore what the doctrine of Christ as fully human and fully God has to say about the very nature of God. Fr. Barron begins by exploring the very common fallacy of viewing God as just the "biggest" of beings. He points out that if this were the case then God would still just be a being among other beings and therefore if God is just another being then God's will necessarily inhibits and limits my freedom and my very being. Nothing is further from the truth and this is demonstrated in the reality of Christ being fully God and fully human because in Christ we find humanity fully realized and not inhibited in the presence of full divinity. God is not the biggest being among other beings who will necessarily limit my freedom by his presence; God is "otherly other" - to quote one early Church Father. God operates in a way that we cannot fully grasp because we are limited beings. God does not need to compete as we do.
"Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him..." Christ is offering the terms of a friendship that is truly non-competitive in nature. This is the amazing promise of Christ. To the one who strives to keep the word of Christ; God will come and make his dwelling with him or her. "Dwelling" is a neat word here. It is not heavy. It does not oppress. It is a place of life and home. The presence of God does not limit nor oppress because God is otherly other. God can be fully present to us in our lives in a non-competitive manner and in a way that fulfills the human person. Keeping God's word leads to true life.
Our Lord continues this invitation to a non-competitive friendship with the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit. "I have told you this while I am with you. The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you." Christ can promise and give a peace that moves beyond the limits of this world precisely because Christ in the fullness of his divinity and humanity is otherly other. Christ can enter into your life and my life in a truly non-competitive way. God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit does not come to limit life but to give life and to give peace.
In today's second reading from the Book of Revelation we are given the image of the new and heavenly Jerusalem. It has been noted that in the Old Testament there can be seen a progression in regards to the presence of God. First, God is present for his people in the meeting tent. Second, God is present in the temple then God is present in Jerusalem. In the New Testament, God becomes present within the human heart, "...and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him...". John writes of his vision, "I saw no temple in the city for its temple is the Lord God almighty and the Lamb. The city had no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gave it light, and its lamp was the Lamb." There is no need of temple or church in the heavenly Jerusalem because the presence of God is fully realized and welcomed within each human heart. This welcoming begins today and it is found in the daily invitation to encounter our Lord as he makes himself present to us.
In the first reading from Acts we find the early Church deliberating about its mission to the Gentiles and how this is to occur and even "if" it should occur. This is no small thing. In fact, it is at the heart of the mission of the Church and it, in many ways, is a question about friendship. Can the friendship with God that we now know through Christ be extended and should it be extended to others? The Church, guided by the Spirit, comes to the decision that yes, friendship should be extended and friendship is always possible. This mission continues today and it is primarily an invitation to friendship. The love that we have heard and seen and touched is a love that, by its very nature, must be extended to others. As Church, we proclaim that friendship is always possible and we make this proclamation in a time that continually seeks to isolate and divide people from one another. The Church's witness of the possibility of friendship is truly counter-cultural in our day and age and it is truly needed.
"Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him..."
Friday, April 26, 2013
|"Behold, I make all things new." Scene from The Passion of the Christ.|
In this Sunday's second reading from the Book of Revelation (Rev. 21:1-5a), John shares the vision of seeing a "new heaven" and a "new earth" with "the holy city, a new Jerusalem". As John writes, The former heaven and the former earth had passed away... John then hears the One sitting on the throne proclaim, "Behold, I make all things new."
In our gospel reading (Jn. 13:31-33a, 34-35), at the Last Supper after our Lord had just washed the feet of his disciples - showing by action what he is to now proclaim in word - Jesus says, I give you a new commandment: love one another.
By holding these passages together - letting them inform one another - I think that we can say that the new heaven, the new earth and the new Jerusalem are intrinsically linked to the new commandment that is given to us. God has chosen to "make all things new" precisely through the love revealed in Jesus Christ. God does not choose force or fear or power or might to accomplish his purpose rather, God chooses loves because, as Scripture says, God is love.
It is helpful to note that Jesus reveals this new commandment only after Judas had left. Judas had made up his mind to betray the Lord. Judas had chosen to remain captive to the sad logic of this world that chooses to only see things in terms of conflict, division, power and isolation. Judas could not take in the truth of God's way and of the very nature of God that our Lord reveals. Judas was blind. The sad logic of our world continues to remain blind and cynical to the ever newness and possibility of God's love. "Life is ever the same, look only to your own needs, nothing can ever be different." This is the sad logic of our world. In the resurrection, the risen Lord breaks this sad logic just as surely as he breaks the chains of sin and death.
We must realize that this commandment of love is not of our origin nor our making. On our own we cannot arrive at it. On our own we cannot even dream of it or imagine it. This new commandment of love comes from Christ and is in fact, Christ. Christ present in our lives calls us to an ever new awareness and an ever new living of love. I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. The truth of these words need to sink into the depths of our hearts: as Christ has loved us ... as Christ has loved us ... as Christ has loved us ... we should love one another.
Fr. Robert Barron begins his series on the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Lively Virtues by highlighting a profound spiritual truth. The truth is this: we are not necessary. We do not have to be. The world and creation existed before we came on the scene and it will continue after we have exited the scene. We are not necessary nor, in fact, is all of creation. It is only when we wrestle and grapple with this profound and sobering truth that we come to recognize that the one necessary is God himself and everything else is contingent upon God. The good news? The new commandment? God is love. We are here, all of creation is here, only through the continual and generous outpouring of God's love. When we recognize this and are able to step away from the isolation of the self-absorbed ego then we can live in and even be a conduit of God's own love.
The more we love one another as Christ has loved us, the more we participate in the very newness of God's love which overcomes death, sin and the sad logic of our world. This is why the gospel can proclaim "blessed" those persecuted, mocked and derided for their faith in Christ because it is in the very face of the sad logic of this world that we are afforded the opportunity to love as Christ himself loves and that we ourselves can therefore participate in the very life of God who alone is necessary.
St. Thomas Aquinas defined love as "willing the good of the other". There is a lot to this definition that can be fleshed out in a variety of ways but here I just want to highlight a couple of truths. God in Christ has and continues to fully love us. God, in Christ, wills our good. God did not have to come to us when we were lost in sin and death but because God is love, God willed our good. God came to us and took on the weight of sin and death. Love is willing the good of the other.
Here is the other truth. When God wills it is accomplished. We are not God, we are creatures. We are not necessary. When we love, when we will the good of the other, that does not necessarily mean it will come to be but this is okay because whenever we will the good of the other in whatever way or shape or form then we ourselves are participating in that very movement of the newness of God's love. I offer this because we all often hear one another say, "My spouse, my child, my friend, my sister, my brother is making really bad choices. I love him or her but he or she does not change no matter how I try to help." "There is so much pain and hurt in the world. I will try to do my part to help but what good does it really do?" It is not on us to accomplish (that is God's part). "Behold, I make all things new." proclaims the One sitting upon the throne. It is only on us to will the good. When we love, when we will the good of the other, no matter how small and insignificant it might seem, then we are participating in the ever newness of God's love and we are moving beyond the sad logic of our world.
At the end of her life, when my mother's body had pretty much given out on her, my mom could not do much but one thing she could do was watch the finches come to the bird feeder at her window. When the feeder ran out she would remind me to fill it with new seed. In her own little way, my mother was loving and willing the good of those little birds and God's creation. At the very end of her life, she was making the choice to participate in the ever newness of God's love and not be bound by the sad logic of sin and death.
The Lord said, I give you a new commandment: love one another.
John heard the One sitting on the throne say, Behold, I make all things new.
Sunday, April 21, 2013
|Icon of Christ the Good Shepherd|
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday when we, as Church, reflect on the truth that the risen Lord is indeed the good and beautiful shepherd who came to seek out and save the lost. But here is the rub: we cannot reflect and proclaim the Lord as Good Shepherd and ourselves remain in-authentic in relation to him. To proclaim Christ as the Good Shepherd demands an authenticity of relationship on our part. This authenticity of relationship is witnessed to us in today's gospel (Jn. 10:27-30) - the relationship of us and the Lord and the relationship of the Son and the Father.
Jesus said: "My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me..." The movement of authentic relationship begins with our Lord. When we were lost in the darkness of sin and death, God came to us. God became incarnate and took on the full weakness and suffering of humanity. God took on everything except sin. "I know them...", says the Lord. Christ can authentically say this because it is true.
"My sheep hear my voice ... and they follow me ..." There are two parts for authenticity of relationship on our part. One, we hear the voice of the Good Shepherd and two, we follow. To say we hear the voice and then live as if the voice does not matter is not authentic. To proclaim Christ as the Good Shepherd means we must continually "tune" our ears to the voice of the Good Shepherd, we must trust and we must follow.
This gospel passage also reveals the wonderful authenticity that makes up the relationship of the Father and the Son. Christ (in reflecting on the deep and abiding security of the sheep entrusted to his care) says, No one can take them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can them out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one. Our Lord, as Son, is expressing his gratitude for what the Father has freely given him. Authenticity of relationship finds its fullest expression in gratitude for what is freely given rather than in using the other for ones own need. Here, I think, is found another subtle yet withering aspect of practical atheism and it is found more in those persons "in" church rather than those persons "outside" church. God is used as a means for my personal satisfaction and this becomes the only reason that I turn to God. There are tell-tale signs to this in-authenticity on our part: going to church is more about social status than conversion, worship is more about getting my emotional hit than it is about my coming before the living God and gratitude of heart gives way to demand and fear.
This brings us to the great gift gained through the authenticity of relationship with the Good Shepherd and it is a gift that cannot be pretended. Either it is there or it is not. When we live in relationship with the Good Shepherd we gain hope and we gain trust. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand. In-authenticity of relationship, practical atheism cannot give this, no matter how hard it pretends that it can. As Scripture tells us; a tree is known by its fruits.
We must let these words sink into the soil of our hearts, break apart any hardness that remains there and till the earth that hope and trust may take root and grow! These words are spoken by the one who has risen, the one who has conquered the tomb and the chains of death! I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.
Facebook users are probably familiar with the "Go home, you're drunk" memes. In this meme there is a picture of someone saying or doing something stupid with the caption, "___________, go home. You're drunk." If there were a meme for this Good Shepherd Sunday I think it would be a practical atheist saying, "Oh, I am a Christian but I live as I wish." and the response would be, "Practical Atheist, go home. You're drunk."
Friday, April 12, 2013
|"The Disciples Peter and John Running to the Sepulchre on the Morning of the Resurrection" by Eugene Burnand|
Recently I was asked to list some good books written by Catholic authors. The names that immediately came to my mind were Georges Bernanos, Flannery O'Connor, Shusaku Endo and Graham Greene. Each of these authors wrote fiction and each one in his or her own way courageously delved into the psychology of sin, grace and faith. These authors did not seek to present faith in simplistic black and white categories and neither did they need to explain away the struggles and doubts of life. Rather, each author was able to present the reality of grace found within the very struggles, doubts and even times of darkness that can comprise moments in life that we all experience.
In many ways, their writings mirror the very gospel passage that we are given this third Sunday of Easter (Jn. 21:1-19). In this resurrection appearance we are told that Peter and six other disciples went fishing on a boat in the Sea of Tiberias. Seven disciples in a boat - a concise symbol of the Church. It was night. Christ has not yet appeared to them. They were relying on their own self-sufficiency and their own ability to catch the fish but (we are told), they caught nothing. When we rely solely on ourselves then we remain in the darkness of night and we catch nothing, the work is futile.
When it was already dawn ... Jesus was seen standing on the shore, yet not recognized. Whenever Christ comes to us the darkness already begins to flee. It is helpful to note that Christ does not need to consult our calendars. Christ comes to us when he so chooses and it is in that moment that the dawn begins to break.
Probably with a bit of a smile and fully aware of his disciples' exercise in futility the risen Lord slyly asks, Children ... have you caught anything to eat? No, they admit and then upon his instruction they cast their nets again and make a great haul of fish.
John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, is the first to realize it is the Lord. John was the one who leaned his head on the breast of the Lord at the last supper, John was the one who stood by the cross of the Lord and did not run away. John is the one whose heart is attuned and attentive to the beating heart of the risen Lord. Yet, John did not hide within his realization, only to enjoy it for himself, rather he turned in respect to Peter - the "rock", the one on whom the Lord said he would build his Church - and said, It is the Lord.
Peter, continually surprising - ancient, yet always surprising - in his eagerness and love for the Lord jumps out of the boat and into the water and swims to shore! The Lord feeds his friends and then he has this wonderful exchange with Peter. Three times, the Lord asks Peter; do you love me? Three times Peter responds "yes" and the Lord instructs him to feed and tend his sheep.
Why did the Lord give this command and why specifically did he entrust Peter with this task? Peter had denied the Lord, Peter had run away and now the Lord is entrusting his very flock to this man? What had changed? What had changed is that now Peter had accepted love. Where before he had relied on his own strength of faith - Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death. (Lk. 22:33) - now Peter, after his denial, can only hold on to the love of the Lord. Peter's heart, healed by the light of Easter, had come to truly understand and grasp the words of that beautiful Lenten hymn; What wondrous love is this? Peter had accepted the love of the risen Lord and now Christ says to him; feed my sheep.
The Gospel does not need to explain away the weakness of the human heart nor the struggles and doubts of life. Rather, the Gospel proclaims the amazing truth that grace has entered into our very human and limited and sinful reality. The Lord is risen! He does not deny our humanity, rather he fulfills it through love and friendship!
Saturday, April 6, 2013
|"Doubting Thomas" by Carl Heinrich Bloch|
Thomas, we are told, was not there at that first encounter with the risen Lord. Thomas would not believe. "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe." Thomas was not a bad man nor was he a mediocre disciple. Thomas was honest. He was hurting. His love for Christ and his hope in Christ had been crushed by the sheer violence and weight of the cross and the tomb. He was resigned to the belief that death and violence were, in fact, the final answer in this world. Thomas had loved the Lord yet now, seemingly, that love was lost. Thomas was left wounded - his heart hurting and hardening.
How often we are like Thomas. We are not bad people nor are we necessarily mediocre disciples yet the wounds of life occur and resignation sets in. We sincerely proclaim ourselves Christian yet we hold on to that, "Unless I see..." of a hurting and hardening heart. We seek to be good people, we strive to do right by others, we do honestly love and care yet wounds come and in differing ways we begin to lock ourselves behind closed doors and we begin to accept the resignation of our world. We might proclaim Christ yet we find it easy to live as if Easter never occurred.
Today, on this Divine Mercy Sunday, the Gospel proclaims to us that God does not abandon! Death, violence and resignation are not the final answer! New life is possible! Live in the joy and truth of Easter and shake off the false logic of our world! The mercy received through Easter is not a mercy meant to kept locked away indoors. Divine Mercy is a mercy meant to transform the world, beginning with us. We begin to be transformed when we begin to not be resigned.
Our Lord says to Thomas, "Peace be with you ... Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving but believe."
"...do not be unbelieving but believe."
Thomas responds, "My Lord and my God!"
Friday, April 5, 2013
These words spoken to the women by the angel at the empty tomb of Jesus have been echoing in my heart these first days of the Easter season.
I believe that the message of the angel has added weight for me this Easter because this coming July 1st I will be moving to Chattanooga to begin a new chapter in my ministry as a priest and I will be bringing to an end my six years as chaplain to the Catholic Center at East Tennessee State University.
In the life of Christian discipleship the risen Lord always goes before us and he awaits us just as he awaited his first disciples in Galilee. Six years ago the Lord awaited me here at the Catholic Center after five years of serving as pastor of St. Mary Parish in Athens, TN. I am grateful to God for these six years at the Center just as I was for my time in Athens.
I am grateful to God for the ministry that has been built at the Catholic Center these years. I am grateful that we have built a ministry that is solid in our Catholic faith, in community and in service to the poor. I am grateful that the ministry that we have operated out of at the Center is a ministry that is respectful of the dignity and worth of people and that does not need to manipulate people nor ridicule the cherished beliefs of others nor engage in rumors even as so often seems to be the case in our world today. My experience on campus is that despite all the talk about respecting differing viewpoints; people and groups on college campuses are extremely eager to form other people in their own image. I take pride in saying that at the Catholic Center we have sought to respect the image of God found in the person rather than seeking to form the other in our image. Some people might view this deference to the image of God found in the other person a form of weakness worthy of ridicule. I disagree, it is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength, a confident humility, that in the long run shows true respect and care for the other person as a human being.
I am grateful for the students who have made the Catholic Center their spiritual home these past six years. I am grateful for and inspired by your willingness to live, wrestle with and witness to your Catholic faith. I honestly believe and hope that you will be leaders in your faith communities one day. To the students who have been committed to the Center and who strive to live your faith while on campus; please know that I will always be willing to help you in any way and at any point that I can.
I am grateful for the friends that I have made both within the university community and in the larger Johnson City and St. Mary Parish community. Friendship is a blessing and a source of joy and comfort. I thank God for each of my friends.
I am grateful for the years I had with my mother as her caregiver. The last five years of her life were not easy for her or for me to watch and I cannot count the number of times I left Colonial Hills and the local hospital emergency room with tears in my eyes and in my heart but I am grateful that I was able to walk these years with her. Rest in peace Mom.
I am grateful to the Community of Sant'Egidio who continually teaches me to find Christ in the Gospel and in the poor. I am grateful to my friends at the John Sevier Center. Over and over again I have seen Christ in their faces and they have taught me about faith, trust, hope and friendship. I look forward to living the charism of Sant'Egidio in Chattanooga and to friendship with the poor there.
I am grateful for Fr. Christian Mathis. He is a good friend and good priest and I know that he will bring an energy, enthusiasm and love to this ministry of the Catholic Center. I am hopeful that he will take the Center ministry to the next level.
I am grateful to Bishop Richard Stika who is now calling me to Chattanooga and I am grateful to the gift of obedience. Eighteen years ago on my ordination day I promised obedience to the Bishop of Knoxville and ever since then I have experienced again and again that obedience is a font of unexpected graces and growth in life. I am hopeful for this new call to serve.
Six years ago, Christ awaited me at the Catholic Center at ETSU. Now, Christ awaits me in Chattanooga. The joy of discipleship is found in following Christ wherever he might lead.