Saturday, March 25, 2017

THE ANNUNCIATION IN THE KITCHEN

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...
LET IT BE DONE UNTO ME ...
 

March 25 is the Solemnity of the Annunciation; nine months from today we will be celebrating the birth of the Christ Child at Christmas. 

We are all familiar with the story of the annunciation from Luke (Lk 1:26 – 38) in which the angel Gabriel appears to Mary who says, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, let it be done to me as you have said.” During Women's History Month, and during a time in our country's history when many Americans seem to be looking upon the poor and minorities with less and less sympathy and empathy, this seems a timely post.


THE ANNUNCIATION: A LUCAN STORY 
The first part of the following meditation is adapted from Luke Timothy Johnson’s The Gospel of Luke (Sacra Pagina Vol 3, p. 39). 

Only St. Luke would have thought to tell the story of the annunciation in just this way. He loves to give major roles to minorities (such as women) and outcasts, he emphasizes Jesus’ humble origins, and enjoys pointing out the law of divine reversal (whereby the rich become poor and the poor rich, etc.). These themes give us some new perspectives on the story of the annunciation. 

In Ch. 1:5-25, Luke tells the story of the announcement of the birth of John the Baptist: an angel appears to the priest Zechariah as he is performing his duties in the temple. This story provides a contrast with the next one, the announcement of the birth of Christ, in which an angel appears to a young girl.  

In contrast to Zechariah, Mary holds no official position among the people,
She is not described as “righteous” in terms of observing Torah, 
She is among the most powerless people in her society: 
- she is young in a world that values age, 
- she is female in a world ruled by men, 
- she is poor in a stratified economy. 

Furthermore she has neither husband nor child to validate her existence. 
Yet she has “found favor with God” and has been “highly gifted.” 

Here we one of Luke's favorite themes: God acting in ways that are surprising and paradoxical, reversing human expectations. 

Finally, Luke prizes simplicity and humility; thus the most important dialogue in the whole bible, ending with Mary’s telling the angel, “Let it be done to me,” does not take place in the temple (as Zechariah’s vision does), nor in a royal palace, but rather in the obscure village of Nazareth. 

FR. KILIAN'S POEM 

Father Kilian McDonnell, O.S.B., a monk of St. John’s Abbey in Minnesota, wrote a lovely reflection on this very theme. I offer it here as a reminder that we should be ready to encounter God at any time, anywhere, especially in our everyday activities. But before reading it, first take a look at Jacopo Bellini's 1444 painting, referred to in the first stanza.
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..................                    IN THE KITCHEN 

........................Bellini has it wrong. 
........................I was not kneeling 
........................quietly at prayer, ..........................
........................head slightly bent
........................to show submission. 
.....................
........................Painters always 
........................get it wrong, skewed, 
........................as though my life 
........................were wrapped in the silks, 
........................in temple smells. 

........................Actually I had just 
........................come back from the well, 
........................pitcher in my hand. 
........................As I placed it on the table 
........................I spilled some on the floor. 

........................Bending to wipe 
........................it up, there was a light, 
........................against the kitchen wall 
........................as though someone had 
........................opened the door to the 
..........................................................sun.
 ..........................
........................Rag in hand, 
........................hair across my face, 
........................I turned to see 
........................who was coming in, 
........................unannounced, unasked. 
..........................
                              All I saw 
........................was light, whiter 
........................than whitest white. 
........................I heard a voice 
........................I had never heard, 
........................walking toward me, 
........................saying I was chosen, 
........................The Favored One. 

..........................I pushed back my hair, 
..........................stood baffled. 
..........................With the clarity of light 
..........................the light spoke 
..........................of Spirit, shadow, child 

..........................as the water puddled 
..........................large around my feet. 
..........................Against all reason, 
..........................against all rationality, 
..........................I knew it would be true. 

..........................I heard my voice 
..........................“I have no man.” 
..........................The Lord is God 
..........................of all possibilities: 
..........................with Elizabeth no flow 
..........................of blood in thirty years 
..........................but six months gone. 

..........................From the fifteen years 
..........................of my Nazareth wisdom 
..........................I spoke to the light 
..........................in the joy of truth: 
..........................“Let it be so.” 
..........................Someone closed the door. 
..........................And I dropped the rag. 
"The Annunciation" by Henry Owassa Turner

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Saturday, March 18, 2017

THIMBLE THEOLOGY

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The final verse for this past Monday’s gospel reading has stayed with me all week.


Jesus said to his disciples:
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you. (Luke 6:36-38)


I reflected on the last two lines, “For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you.” The Greek word for “measure,” metron, means simply an object that is used for measuring, such as a measuring cup. I started asking myself what kind of “measure” I use with various people when offering them forgiveness or a patient hearing; I concluded that with a student who is being insolent to me in front of the class, the measure I use for patience is a lot smaller than the measure I use with someone who is, say, lying in the hospital. I wondered how many different measuring devices I use every day.


Then an image of a thimble came to mind, specifically the small white plastic one in my sewing kit. Is this the metron that I use when measuring out, say, patience with others? Is a thimbleful of forgiveness all that someone can expect from me? How much effort do I put into understanding what the other person is feeling at the moment -- a thimbleful? How much compassion does someone get from me when they are disturbing my routine?


I imagined myself standing in front of the Throne of Judgement and asking the Lord for his understanding of my weakness, and asking for forgiveness. And the Lord produces a small white plastic thimble and says, “Okay, here we are; let’s measure out some compassion, and then some forgiveness.”    
As I sat there in church I decided that right after Morning Prayer I would get that thimble, put it in my pocket, and carry it around for the rest of the day as a reminder. All during the day, especially during class, I found myself reaching into my left pocket of my habit to touch the thimble. Simply knowing that it was there was an effective reminder to be patient, to be as compassionate as I hope the Lord will be toward me one day.

It worked so well that I kept it in my pocket all week -- it’s still there. I’m wondering if I should just let it stay there. At least for the rest of Lent? Or... maybe I should get a 50-gallon drum and pull it around with me?

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Saturday, March 11, 2017

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This Sunday’s Gospel passage is Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration, the vision in which Jesus appears in his double nature as a human and the Son of God. The passage is worth quoting in its entirety:

Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother,
and led them up a high mountain by themselves.

And he was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light.
And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them,
conversing with him.
Then Peter said to Jesus in reply,
"Lord, it is good that we are here.
If you wish, I will make three tents here,
one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah."
While he was still speaking, behold,
a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
"This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him."
When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate
and were very much afraid.
But Jesus came and touched them, saying,
"Rise, and do not be afraid."
And when the disciples raised their eyes,
they saw no one else but Jesus alone.
(Mt 17:1-8)

Since, in Matthew, Mark and Luke, this vision follows immediately after a prediction of Jesus’ passion and death, one obvious purpose of the vision is to give the three apostles a glimpse of Jesus’ glory, in order to strengthen their faith in advance of Christ’s suffering and death.

But I came across an additional insight this morning from the theologian John Macquarrie, which I’ll summarize here. The story of the transfiguration seems to express the transition that must have taken place in the disciples, from acquaintance with the human Jesus, to faith in that same Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God.

The Transfiguration story begins with the human Jesus who is going to suffer and die; the presence of Moses and Elijah shows Jesus’ continuity with the prophets, human beings who often suffered for delivering God’s message. Suddenly, “Jesus was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light.” And the divine presence comes in an overshadowing cloud, from which a heavenly voice is heard: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him."  

This event may be a distant echo of the experience of the disciples as they came to understand that Jesus was divine. On the one hand he was a weak, suffering human figure, yet in this completely human and suffering figure, God revealed himself and drew near to the disciples.

In the story of the Transfiguration, this realization of Jesus' divine nature seems to come all at once -- notice that the three disciples "fell prostrate and were much afraid" because they knew that no one can see the face of God and live to tell of it. In our own journey to faith, however, the realization comes over time -- maybe over an entire lifetime.

In the transfiguration, “What we see in Christ is the destiny that God has set before humanity; Christ is the first fruits, but the Christian hope is that ‘in Christ’ God will bring all men to God-manhood.” (Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, p. 279, 1966).

From this point of view, the glimpse of Christ’s divinity is intended not only to prepare the disciples for Jesus’ passion and death, but to give them a glimpse of the glory to which God intends to bring every human being one day. It is as if the Lord is saying to us “This is what all of you will look like one day.” (I just re-read a previous post on the Transfiguration from just over a year ago, and found that I offered this perspective there as well, possibly from a different author.)

This divinization of us humans is our story, our destiny. St. Basil once wrote: "A human being is a creature whose whole purpose is to become God." But, clearly, this divinization is God’s gift, God’s work in each of us. During this Lenten season, then, we might try to be more aware of how God-the-Divinizer is already at work in each of us, and we can try to cooperate with that work by our efforts: by opening our hearts through prayer, for example, or by quieting unruly passions through fasting and self denial, or by imitating God's unconditional love for us by performing works of charity.

During this coming week I will try to look at two particular students of mine as people who destined to be transfigured one day into Christ -- and keep in mind that I'm destined to be transformed with them.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

LESSONS FROM THE WILDERNESS

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 Since I can't type with my right hand for a couple of days (minor surgery on a finger -- it's fine, thanks), and since I'm preparing to give a day of recollection today, I've chosen to repeat the following a post which I wrote a few years ago. Some sections may have more to say today than they did in 2010.

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Here are four passages from the wilderness tradition of the Old Testament, the forty years the Israelites spent in the desert. Each of them suggests a practice or an approach we might use in spending our forty day period of Lent. They each provoked some good discussion at a day of recollection I gave today, so I decided to share them with you.

MOSES THE SEER 

The role of Moses as the PROPHET, the "seer," is to interpret for the people what God is doing. He asks: "Do you see what God has just done for you?" Usually, the people do not understand until Moses interprets for them.

Moses said to the people, Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order to humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commandments. He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna… in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Dt 8:2-3).

There is a lesson here for dealing with troubled times: In our own troubled times our temptation is to DO MORE AND MORE: work harder, etc., but never bother to pause and try to see a MEANING or a lesson in our troubles.

Each one of us is called to be a “seer.” In God’s country you need to pause sometimes and look for the deeper lesson the Lord may be intending The wilderness times of life are times for seeing, not for just doing. Lent is surely like that. We always ask WHAT ARE YOU DOING for Lent? instead of WHAT ARE YOU SEEING FOR LENT?

What are some Lenten activities that might help you with “seeing” instead of “doing?” Periods of quiet reflection for example.

Here’s a second Lesson from the Israelites’ experience of the wilderness.

The MANNA: TRUSTING THAT GOD WILL BE ENOUGH

In the wilderness God provided for his people guidance through the trackless waste, protection from the hostile desert tribes, water, and of course most familiar of all, MANNA to eat.

In the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, ‘What is it?’ For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, ‘It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat. … The Israelites ate manna for forty years, until they came to a habitable land; they ate manna, until they came to the border of the land of Canaan. 

In the wilderness you have to put your trust in God and trust that God’s manna will be enough for you; but we control freaks want a wilderness where you feed yourself, where you bring your own manna! What do you feed yourself with in the desert? Addiction to the Internet or reality television? Accumulating wealth? Controlling other people?

How do you handle the temptation to bring our own manna with us into the desert?
Lent is a perfect time to look carefully at the ways we tend to feed ourselves and provide for our own sustenance, for our own psychological security -- it seems to me that this provides us with some great possibilities for “fasting” from things that have become too much like manna for us.

A THIRD LESSON from the wilderness comes from a less well-known incident,

THE FAILED INVASION ATTEMPT: BE PATIENT! (Num. 14:40-45)

The Israelites began to try in various ways to take back control from God and live according to their own agenda instead of God's. One example of this disastrous attitude was their abortive attempt to invade Canaan before the Lord's appointed time (Num. 14:40-45). Over the protests and warnings of Moses, a large force of Israelites, leaving the Ark of the Covenant back at camp, went up into the hill country to attack the Amalekites and the Canaanites - even though God was not with them.

The Israelites rose early in the morning and went up to the heights of the hill country, saying, ‘Here we are. We will go up to the place that the Lord has promised, for we have sinned.’ But Moses said, ‘Why do you continue to transgress the command of the Lord? That will not succeed. Do not go up, for the Lord is not with you; do not let yourselves be struck down before your enemies. For the Amalekites and the Canaanites will confront you there, and you shall fall by the sword; because you have turned back from following the Lord, the Lord will not be with you.’ But they presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country, even though the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and Moses, had not left the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them, pursuing them as far as Hormah. (Num. 14:40-45)

The Israelites were impatient to get out of the wilderness, and were seeking a shortcut. And they were right: this shortcut up into Canaan would have considerably lessened the time they would have to spend on their wilderness wanderings, but it was doomed to failure because they were rushing God's timetable. God, it seems, still had a lot to teach them in the wilderness. But, off they went without the Lord's help and on their own timetable, not God's. Predictably, of course, the impatient Israelites were soundly thrashed. Troubled times can make us want to rush God's schedule, to forget that our own agenda may not be God’s, that our own timetable may not be the one that God is following.

A possible Lenten practice that comes to mind is to make time for quiet times of reflection during which we ask the Lord for the gifts of insight and patience concerning the Divine Will in our lives.

A fourth and final lesson from the wilderness years comes from a different tradition that the usual one.

THE WILDERNESS TIME AS A HONEYMOON (Hosea 2:14-15)

In the time of the prophets, they gave a new interpretation of the image of the wilderness: the forty years that Israel had spent in the desert were seen as a sort of honeymoon, a time when getting to know her maker and deliverer, a place where it was just God and Israel, without the distractions of the world, and where Yahweh, as we saw, supplied all her needs for food, water and protection.

Perhaps the most famous proponent of this second image of the wilderness was Hosea. a famous 8th century B.C. prophet who lived in Israel during a time of anxiety and fear among the nations, yet, a time of great material prosperity. He employed this second image of the wilderness when calling the Jewish people to turn from their sinful ways and back to their covenant commitment; he wrote: (Ho. 2:14-15)

"Therefore, I will now persuade her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. From there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt"(Ho. 2:14-15).

Why not use this passage as a basis for some Lenten meditations, seeing Lent as a special time for drawing closer to the God who keeps pursuing us so relentlessly?
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Saturday, February 25, 2017

CLICK TO DELETE?

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Earlier this week, in preparing a talk on the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I reflected on one common way of thinking about the sacrament: our souls are washed clean of guilt and, in the eyes of God, our sins are annihilated. I thought of the option on the pull-down menu in my computer’s search engine: “Erase Search History.” With a left-click all the searches I’ve made disappear as if  they’d never happened.




Then I came across this rather provocative idea: “In the strict sense, our sins are not obliterated as if they had never happened. God does not erase our history.


Christ reigning from the cross
Think of the main idea of the Paschal Mystery, the central mystery of our faith: By means of his passion, death and resurrection, Christ has redeemed us. He overcame death, so that it no longer holds power over us. The best-known symbol of our religion, the cross, signifies that Christ’s death has become the means of our salvation. The Paschal Mystery does not say that Christ’s resurrection erased his suffering on the cross, nor does it say that the appearances of the risen Lord obliterated his death.
Christ’s horrible suffering and death, rather than being obliterated, have been completely transformed, and, incredibly, have become the very means of our salvation. St. Paul writes “We know that all things work for good for those who love God (Rom 8:28)”  and St. Augustine adds, “even their sins.” Even our sins work for good! Through Christ’s suffering and death, our sins our transformed, and God uses them as steps toward our salvation. Just as the Almighty draws life from death, he somehow manages to draw good from our sins.


As we begin the season of Lent this Wednesday, then, we might keep in mind the vision of the Sacrament of Reconciliation as a personal encounter between me and the Redeeming Christ, the Crucified and Living One. Once I humbly own my sins, he takes them and, far from obliterating them, makes them his own and transforms them into the means of my salvation.
 
INVITATION TO A PILGRIMAGE

During this Lent, I hope that many of you will join me once again on a forty-day pilgrimage from Ash Wednesday to Easter using the book Pilgrim Road: A Benedictine Journey Through Lent.


HAVE BLESSED, GRACE-FILLED LENT!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

SINGING THE MESSAGE

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This morning I was reflecting on tomorrow’s gospel passage, taken from the Sermon on the Mount, which reads, in part:


"You have heard that it was said, you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. but I
I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Mt 5:43-48)


Jesus’ reasoning is very clear: Just as God lets his rain fall on the unjust as well as the just without making distinctions, our love  should be that way. The New Jerusalem Bible quite correctly translates that last line (So be perfect, just as…”) this way: “So you must set no boundaries on your love, just as your heavenly Father sets no boundaries on his love.”


As I began to reflect on this verse, I had a flashback to yesterday's morning convocation in school. Each morning we begin with a service of scripture, songs and prayers. Yesterday was particularly spirited. Given the present atmosphere of divisiveness in our country, I would like to share a little of this experience with you, hoping that it might encourage you as it did me.

Picture our 550 teenage boys singing, many of them with their arms draped over one another’s shoulders. Black kids and white ones, Catholics, protestants, Jews, Muslims and an occasional Buddhist (you can see the kids singing like this in the 13-minute segment that Sixty Minutes did on us). They are singing loudly one of their favorite songs:

We have got to love people;
We have got to love people;
We have got to love people; love people!”

The next part of the song is a shouted chant:


You can’t choose (You can’t choose!)
Who to love! (Who to love!)
You’ve got to love people!
You’ve got to love people!”


This is Jesus' message in the gospel passage from the Sermon on the Mount quoted at the start of this post: You must set no boundaries on your love -- you don’t get to pick and choose who you love -- you’ve got to love people.
Then these lines change into a rhythmic mantra:


Love people, love people, love people, love people, love!
Love people, love people, love people, love people, love!


When we switch back to the first section, the energy and the volume have reached a joyful climax:

We have got to love people;
We have got to love people;
We have got to love people; love people!


So, here's a gift from our kids to you, a reminder of Jesus' words to us:
You can’t choose (You can’t choose)
Who to love! (Who to love!)
You’ve got to love people!
You’ve got to love people!

"You can't choose who to love!"



Saturday, February 11, 2017

MISSING EDEN

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This past Wednesday, the first reading at mass was Genesis 2:4B-9, 15-17, in which God creates a garden and places man in it. Here are some of the verses:


Then the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east,
and he placed there the man whom he had formed.
Out of the ground the LORD God made various trees grow
that were delightful to look at and good for food,
with the tree of life in the middle of the garden
and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.


The LORD God then took the man
and settled him in the garden of Eden,
to cultivate and care for it.


I was reflecting on this familiar passage when I came across this footnote in the Catholic New American Bible (Rev. Ed.):  “It should be noted, however, that the garden was not intended as a paradise for the human race, but as a pleasure park for God; the man tended it for God. The story is not about “paradise lost.”


The footnote continued: “The Garden in the precincts of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem seems to symbolize the garden of God, (like gardens in other temples).” We can find allusions to this garden in the Psalms, e.g. “He is like a tree planted by flowing waters” (Ps. 1:3), “planted in the house of the Lord, they shall flourish in the courts of our God” (Ps. 92:14), and also in the final chapter of the Book of Revelation, Ch 22 verses 2 and following).


I immediately thought of all those beautiful “pleasure gardens” I’ve seen attached to all of the palaces and chateaux in Europe. I pictured the beautiful symmetrical layout of the gardens of Versailles, for example, where everything is harmonious: the paths and the flower beds, the fountains and statues, the trees and shrubs. There’s something about that orderliness that delights us -- that’s why God did not put our first parents into a trackless forest or a jungle, but into a garden.


With the Fall, we were expelled from the Garden, but to this day we feel nostalgia for that original order that delighted both God and us. We still want the world to make sense, we want to see the gist of things. And every now and then we are surprised and delighted when we come across a little splinter of that original Garden in which everything was ordered and harmonious. Watch the face of a child when she puts in the last piece of a jigsaw puzzle and sees the whole picture. Think of the feeling of satisfaction we feel at solving a problem or watching the detective put the clues together and solve the crime. Something inside of us shouts, “Yes!” We are made for order, for seeing the patterns of things.


Perhaps this is why times of rapid change are so uncomfortable for us, because the “gist” of things is temporarily beyond our grasp, and the world is not a comfortable place. At times like this, Christians have to rely on their Faith, confident that God is still ultimately in charge.


But Christians cannot simply retreat into caves and wait for order to be restored: we need to be working to restore that order.

Even if we don’t feel ourselves called to some public action to help restore the Reign of Love in the world, we are all called through our Baptism to spread as much peace, justice and love as we can in our own hearts, our lives, our families and our workplaces by living the values of the Kingdom every day.

We have to believe that our quiet, good example can be like the tiny mustard seed or the single grain of wheat that Jesus talks about in the parables of the Kingdom. We have to at least plant the seeds.