Saturday, January 18, 2020

COULDN'T KEEP IT TO MYSELF

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In Mark's gospel (1:40) Jesus heals a leper and then promptly tells hm "You mustn't tell anyone about this."  Think about the poor guy's situation. He's been living as a victim of a disease that made him an outcast, that excluded him from every aspect of life in his community. Then this man touches him and heals him of his disease, so that suddenly he has his life back. He is able to live with his family and go to the market and the synagogue and wherever else his wants. His life will never be the same. 

But Jesus commands him solemnly not to tell anybody about it. In Mark's gospel there is this theme that the scholars call "the messianic secret," describing Jesus' constantly telling people not to tell anyone that he is the messiah (because for the Jews of that time, the messiah was a military and political figure, the complete opposite of Jesus's understanding of his identity).

In any case, the newly healed man, immediately goes and starts spreading the wonderful news that he has been cured. There's a gospel song that goes "I said I wasn't gonna tell nobody, but I couldn't keep it to myself." Naturally I think of this song whenever someone in the gospel disregards Jesus' command to be silent about some miraculous event.

The words to that song are a great source of meditation: "I said I wasn't gonna tell nobody, but I couldn't keep it to myself." Mahalia Jackson sings it slowly and reflectively, but I prefer the more lively and upbeat rendition I once heard from the choir at Blessed Sacrament Church in Newark. For me, the reason I'd sing the song so brightly and up-tempo is that I'm so overjoyed because of God's gift to me that I have to just shout out my enthusiasm.

This enthusiastic response is, it seems to me, what my life as a Christian needs to be. I have no right to "keep it to myself" when God has given me so many people who love me, for example, and so many talents, good health, and so on.

When someone says something that offends me, or does something to me that I consider rude, I need to remember that I have experienced God's boundless forgiveness myself. Do I have the right to just keep that experience to myself? No. I need to share that forgiveness with this person who has offended me.
"I said I wasn't gonna tell nobody, but I couldn't keep it to myself." 

 The Lord has been so good to me, so loving that, like that healed leper in the gospel, I just can't keep it to myself; I need to pass it on to people who need a word of encouragement or a thoughtful gesture to make their burden a little lighter.
"I said I wasn't gonna tell nobody, but I couldn't keep it to myself." 

My way of treating or talking about others should be telling them that I've personally experienced God's loving kindness in my life, and that I'm just naturally passing it on.
"I said I wasn't gonna tell nobody, but I couldn't keep it to myself." 

When I manage to love and forgive people whom I find very difficult to deal with, then my life becomes a joyful song:
"I said I wasn't gonna tell nobody, but I couldn't keep it to myself." 

The examples are countless. All of Jesus' commands seem to boil down to the one great command: "Love one another as I have loved you." Yes. That's the idea: Tell everyone by your actions that Jesus has loved you.
"I said I wasn't gonna tell nobody, but I couldn't keep it to myself." 

Happy singing!

I said I wasn't gonna tell nobody, but ...




Saturday, January 11, 2020

THE KINGDOM IS AT HAND!

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THE KINGDOM IS AT HAND!




"Jesus began to preach and say 'Repent! The kingdom of Heaven is at hand'" (Mt 4:17)! This verse came up in the Gospel reading of last Monday. There are a few things about it that are worthy of a closer look.

First, these are the exact same words that were used by John the Baptist in the previous chapter: "Repent! The kingdom of Heaven is at hand" (Mt 3:2)!

Second, the verb translated as "is at hand" is in fact in the past tense in the original. The word engizo  has a variety of meanings centered around the idea of "to draw near," "to approach (geographically)."  In Luke, for instance, it's the verb used to describe Jesus and his disciples as "drawing near to" the town of Naim when they see the funeral procession of the widow's son coming toward them. So, you could say that they're already at Naim, but not exactly. Well, they're as good as there, just at the town gates. This is a great example of the ambiguous nature of engizo.

So, in our passage above, the verb is not in the present tense, "the Kingdom is drawing near" but in the past ("perfect") tense, which shows a completed action: "The Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near," or "the Kingdom has arrived."

Here's some food for reflection: When Jesus repeats the announcement of John, he means something radically different by his words than John does. Let me explain.

PERFORMATIVE LANGUAGE

Bear with me as I digress for a moment into the field of linguistic philosophy. People who make a living analyzing language talk about various kinds of "utterances:" Statements, commands, exclamations and questions are good examples. But there's a kind of utterance that doesn't get much attention; it's called a "performative utterance."

"STRIKE THREE!"

Say you and I are sitting on the sofa watching a baseball game on television. The pitcher winds up and delivers a pitch, and I shout "Strike three!" At the same moment the umpire calls "Strike three!" Is there a difference between my saying "Strike three!" and the umpire's saying "Strike three?" Obviously there's a big difference. When I call out "Strike three" nothing happens, nothing changes; but when the umpire calls "Strike three," his words cause the pitch to be a strike and not a ball, and the batter is out. The umpire's words are a "performative" utterance, while my call from the sofa is simply a declaration, with no effect on reality.

"THE KINGDOM HAS COME NEAR!" 

Now let's apply the notion of "performative utterance" to the words spoken by John the Baptist and by Jesus. When the Baptist says, "Repent! The kingdom of Heaven is at hand," we could say that he's issuing a warning, stating that the long-awaited kingdom is breaking in. Or, we might say he is stating what he considers to be a fact: The kingdom is about here. But when Jesus says "The kingdom of Heaven is at hand," he's doing something different: He is not merely announcing the Kingdom, he is saying that in His ministry the kingdom has in fact arrived, it has begun to be present. It's almost a performative utterance: by saying that the Kingdom has arrived, Jesus is bringing the kingdom into being then and there. He'll say in other places in the gospel, "I am the kingdom; you're looking at it."

OUR TURN


Think about this: When Jesus sends his apostles -- and us -- into the world to proclaim that the kingdom has come near, is he asking us to simply make a statement, a verbal declaration about the kingdom, or is he asking us to imitate him by making the kingdom present by our actions? Are we to content ourselves with being the guy watching the baseball game and shouting "Strike three!" or are we to be like the umpire whose performative utterance of "Strike three!" causes the pitch to be strike three? It's clear what Jesus is asking us to do: We are NOT to simply announce the kingdom, but rather we're called to bring it into existence.

If it's true that Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom already, then God's "reign," God's "power" is present in my life and all around me. What then, can possibly threaten or harm me? St. Paul seems to enjoy listing all the things that no longer scare him: Death, imprisonment, the sword. None of these has power over him any more because of Christ who strengthens him and gives him life. If we believe that in Jesus Christ "the kingdom has arrived," then we, like Paul, can live our lives free from fear and all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ. Not just waiting passively, however, but spending our time bringing the kingdom into existence more and more each day by the way we live.


Saturday, January 4, 2020

RECOGNIZING JESUS

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"I baptize with water, but there is one among you whom you do not recognize"(Jn 1:26).


John the Baptist said the above words to the representatives of Jewish authority when they came to ask him who he was and what he was doing (Jn 1: 25 ff). He must have had an inkling of what was on their minds, because he starts off the dialogue without being prompted: "No, I am not the messiah." 


The expectation of the imminent coming of the messiah seems to have been at a fever pitch at the time, so John starts out by answering the unasked question, denying that he's "the one who is to come."

What caught my eye was a phrase a bit later on, "there is one among you whom you do not recognize." I applied the verse to myself:Why don't I recognize Him? Should I be looking harder? What will he look like? Then came the zinger: Why don't I recognize Him? I went to a commentary on the Gospel of John (F.J. Moloney in the Sacra Pagina series, p. 52) and found some helpful suggestions as to why I find it hard to see Jesus in others. Here are some of the thoughts I put together thanks to the commentary.

"Behold the Lamb of God!"
The Baptist explains his mission in terms of Isaiah 40:3, the voice of one crying in the wilderness, prepare the way. He doesn't refer to any other of the messianic prophecies that fill our Advent lectionary. He concentrates on being a witness to a future coming of the Lord. "The expected messianic criteria are being eclipsed as the Baptist points forward to 'the Lord'."  Hmm. That got me thinking about my own "expected criteria" for what Jesus should look like. First Century Palestinian Jews were looking for a Messiah who would be a military leader who would throw off the Roman yoke and establish God's victorious reign on earth.  Verses 24 and 25 show the Jewish investigators asking if John is Elijah or the prophet. This shows where their heads are: filled with the typical Jewish messianic expectations of the day. And they are determined not to move from their criteria.

This is the context of the discussion, and explains why John says "there is one among you whom you do not recognize." The coming of Jesus lies in the future beyond the criteria of Jewish messianic expectation,

So, there's a pretty good explanation of why I'm so much like those scribes and pharisees who didn't recognize the Messiah in their midst: I have my own criteria of what Christ should look like in the world, and am not on the lookout for anyone who doesn't fit those criteria. I don't expect Jesus to come to me as a short-tempered person who insults me, I don't recognize him in a student who disrupts my class by acting out his psychological difficulties. I don't recognize him very easily in someone who comes to the monastery door  and interrupts my plans. 

The Jewish representatives have a good lesson to teach me: Be critical of your messianic criteria. Jesus is probably not going to meet them, but is nevertheless standing right in front of you. Let's give John the last word, a repeat of his warning that "there is one among you whom you do not recognize."  

Saturday, December 28, 2019

CHOOSING THE RIGHT GIFT

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The following is a post from eight years ago. I think it's still worth our reflection.

CHOOSING THE RIGHT GIFT

I recently read about some research on people's attitudes toward gift-giving. (John Tierney, “In Pursuit of the Perfect Gift? It’s a Lot Closer than You Think,” NY Times Dec. 12, 2011.) Social scientists have done various experiments and interviews probing the complex interactions that underlie the practice of gift-giving. Some of what they found out disappointed me.

One of the findings that particularly struck me was that although giving a gift that you found after hours of painstaking thoughtful shopping may make YOU feel great as the giver, the recipient is far less likely to share your enthusiasm about the surprise gift, and would, truth be told, much rather have received something that was on his or her wish list. One researcher put it this way:

“… The recipient usually doesn’t know how much time and effort you put into finding just the right thing, so it doesn’t necessarily strike them as particularly thoughtful. Instead, your idea of the right thing may strike them as just wrong.”
Then there’s the whole thing about online gift registries; do you dare ignore them? “With a gift registry, they’re telling you what they want, and you’re saying, ‘No, you want something else, because I know more about you than you know about yourself.’ The result is not joyous gratitude, as Dr. Flynn found in a series of studies with Francesca Gino of Harvard.”
Do you like to be creative and surprise people with your gifts? Well, consider this (from the same article): "When married couples were asked about the wedding gifts they’d received, they reported liking the ones from the registry more than the unsolicited ones. When people were given money to buy presents for one another on Amazon, the gifts chosen from the recipient’s wish list were more appreciated than the surprises."Oh well!




CHRISTMAS WITHOUT GIFT-GIVING?


At a meeting of our Benedictine Oblates two weeks ago an African woman remarked that in her country Christmas was celebrated without the exchanging of gifts; people got new clothes, dressed up and went to midnight mass to celebrate the birth of the Savior, then spent the day visiting one another’s homes. There was no feverish “Christmas shopping” or giving of presents.

This got me trying to image what Christmas would be like if there were no gift-giving involved. I was surprised at how much of the celebration would still be left if we were to drop the custom of exchanging presents. Many of us have lots of other ways of marking the celebration, including rituals such as the Advent wreath, the putting up of the manger scene, trimming the Christmas tree, putting up decorations, cooking and baking, and enjoying Christmas music -- and this isn’t even counting going to church!

In addition, visiting family and friends at Christmas without the exchanging of gifts might help us to appreciate more the deep message of the Nativity of our Lord: God’s becoming present to us in the flesh points us toward a more conscious and more loving presence to one another. What if instead of worrying about presents we were to concentrate on this new kind of “Christmas Presence” and become a gift to each person around us?

So dropping the shopping part of Christmas would actually enhance the celebration. Of course it would bankrupt the whole retail sector of the U.S. economy in the space of two months, so it might not happen any time soon!

GIVING GOD A GIFT?

All of this thinking about gifts made me reflect on the idea of giving God a gift. (Talk about finding a gift for someone who has everything!) The idea is a very old one, of course, prompted by the gospel account of the magi coming to Bethlehem to present their gifts to the newborn King.

Here is a lovely meditation on the theme:

……..…..ROYAL PRESENTS
The off'rings of the Eastern kings of old 
Unto our Lord were incense, myrrh and gold;
Incense because a God; gold as a king;
And myrrh as to a dying man they bring.
Instead of incense (Blessed Lord) if we
Can send a sigh or fervent prayer to thee,
Instead of myrrh if we can but provide
Tears that from penitential eyes do slide,
And though we have no gold; if for our part
We can present thee with a broken heart
Thou wilt accept: and say those Eastern kings
Did not present thee with more precious things.
…………………-. Nathaniel Wanley, 1634-1680

So, I started thinking about what gift I might give God for Christmas. Maybe I could be extra nice to a certain brother monk, or be a little more careful to avoid distractions during my meditation period... Then I suddenly thought: Does God have a gift registry?



GOD’S GIFT REGISTRY

Some entrepreneurs have picked up the popular wish for an orderly and practical way to get the gifts you want and need while avoiding the totally useless and unwanted ones. Enter the Christmas Gift Registry! This spin-off of the “bridal registry” and the “baby registry” is a grownups’ version of mailing your Christmas list to Santa c/o the North Pole. If it sounds a little tacky and unsentimental to publish a list of what you really want for Christmas, you have to admit that it is at least extremely practical – and we Americans are famous for our pragmatism.

So then it hit me: instead of giving God what I want to give, what if Jesus had a Divine Gift Registry intended just for me where I could find out with complete certainty what he wants from me this Christmas? If I could access such a list on the internet would I dare to look at it or would I just keep trying to surprise the Lord with my own ideas of what he wants from me?

The researcher’s words quoted above now took on an ominous tone, “With a gift registry, they’re telling you what they want, and you’re saying, ‘No, you want something else, because I know more about you than you know about yourself.’” I asked myself, “Do I have the guts to ask the Christ Child what He really wants from me this Christmas? And if I were to find out, would I be willing to give him what he was aking for?” Maybe I’d be better off not knowing.

Quiet introspective prayer, the prayerful reading of scripture, and the insights of a good soul-friend can all be pretty effective ways of accessing Jesus's Gift Registry, personalized uniquely for me. I pray that I’ll have the courage to consult mine and then, of course, have the courage to give him at least one of the things on the divine list!


Have a blessed and a Joyful Christmas!



..........Haitian nativity set, clay figurines

Saturday, December 21, 2019

CHRISTMAS IN PERSPECTIVE

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What event do Christians celebrate at Christmas? Most folks would answer "The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem." This is certainly what most of us celebrate on December 25: Nativity scenes, the carols and Christmas cards and dozens of other charming traditions all celebrate the birth of the infant lying on the straw, with the ox and the donkey, Mary and Joseph looking on in adoration. Reflections on that scene are standard fare for preachers -- and bloggers -- during this season.  

On this Saturday before the Solemnity of the Birth of the Lord, though, I'd like to invite you to expand your vision of Christmas. First of all, like any feast on the Church's calendar, it's not an isolated event, hovering in space and unattached to anything before or after it. In this brief post I'll hint at a couple of connections that we need to fit Christmas into its proper place in the wide sweep of the history of our salvation.

Let's start with the gospel passage assigned for the "mass during the day" on Christmas. (There are three different sets of mass readings assigned for the feast: one for "Mass During the Night," another set for "Mass at Dawn, and the third for "Mass During the Day"). The gospel for the Mass During the Day is from the prologue of the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God ..." What a disappointment! You go to mass on Christmas day expecting to hear the beautiful familiar stories of the shepherds, the stable, and no room in the inn; and instead you get this highly abstract, cold theological tract about the logos, the Word, becoming flesh. But remember, the liturgy is a great source of instruction for us, so we should try to learn what we can from it, especially when it presents us with surprises such as this reading from John on Christmas day. In this case the reading from John offers us a great place to start taking a deeper look into the meaning of Christmas.

The nativity, the fact that God took on human form, is a central belief of Christianity, but this belief was not celebrated as a liturgical feast for the first few centuries of the Church's history; the great central feast was Easter, the resurrection of Christ. When the feast of the nativity finally began to be observed, it celebrated the fact that the Second Person of the Trinity took on flesh  for our salvation. There was no heavy emphasis on the infant, on Jesus' condition as a baby -- the "cult of the manger" was a later development. (See last week's post.)

The coming of the Word as man was closely connected with the paschal mystery (the suffering-death-resurrection of Christ). This connection is a specifically Christian idea of God's incarnation: Incarnation means not only that God is with us but also that we are redeemed and with God. Fallen mankind is redeemed and shares the very life of God. In the truly traditional thinking of the Church, there's nothing poetic about the incarnation. On the contrary, the emphasis is, if anything, on a brutal fact: The Word came to do God's will, even to the point of dying on the cross.

As second consequence of taking a wider perspective of Christmas is this: the Christian view of the incarnation is that God became a human being not so that he might be be with us, but so that we might be with him. In other words, the nativity is the starting point of our divinization. This is a favorite truth expressed by the Fathers of the early church: God became  human so that we humans could become divine." But this "divinization" is not an end in itself, nor is it some abstract theological principle with no consequences for you and me. Rather, it has practical consequences in our everyday lives. It comes about so that we, having become in a sense divine, may be capable of working with Christ to rebuild the world for the glory of the Father, and be his coworkers in establishing the Kingdom on earth.


We are not passive bystanders at the incarnation (contrast this with the awed onlookers in the stable at Bethlehem). Seen from this broader perspective, the incarnation radically transforms the history of the world and the personal history of each one of us. Because of it, each of us has our proper role in God's plan, and we're expected to play that part enthusiastically and generously.

Keep this broader perspective in mind when you gaze on the familiar warm scene of the babe in the manger: You are not a passive bystander, but someone who, by virtue of the incarnation, has become divinized, and shares in Christ's work of building the kingdom on earth by your deeds and your words.

 Have a blessed and holy Christmas!






Saturday, December 14, 2019

ADVENT AND PENANCE?

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Most of us Catholics think of Lent as a time of penitence, a time to reflect on Jesus' suffering and death as we prepare for Holy Week and the celebration of the Resurrection, Christ's victory over sin, suffering and death. 

I've been reflecting recently (see my previous post) on the penitential side of Advent. The message of John the Baptist rings out during Advent: "Repent! The Kingdom is at hand!" So the Advent season is one of joyous anticipation of the coming of Christ at Christmas, but it has always included the dimension of repentance as part of answering the Baptist's call to prepare the way for the Lord. 

Nowadays most of us think that repentance and joy as opposites, and that you can't experience both at the same time. It seems that in the past the penitential practices of Advent always had a festive character. Our ancestors in the faith understood the concept of "the discipline of joy" -- they had a good time keeping Advent even though they were fasting and abstaining from meat, and so on. For us moderns it's an "either/or" situation rather than a "both/and". As a result, we've let go of the penitential aspect (preparing the way, making the paths straight for the Lord to come) and have kept just the celebration part.

So we fill the pre-Christmas season with parties and Christmas carols and miss the experience of "waiting in joyful hope for the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ." There was wisdom in the original way of celebrating Advent -- joyful penitence that would make the celebration of the feast on December 25 that much more festive.

We shouldn't be afraid of including in our "celebration" of Advent some practices such as giving to the poor or having a simpler or meatless meal now and then. A wise celebration of Advent in our homes and churches is certainly a great antidote to our culture's frenzied mindless rushing, the stressful, exhausting round of shopping and partying in preparation for Christmas.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

A WIDER PERSPECTIVE ON ADVENT

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I love Advent. In the monastery we mark the season with beautiful hymns, new psalm tones for singing Vespers, special antiphons that reflect the words of the prophets or psalm verses that foretell the coming of a new King. Of course, we share with the wider church the special readings at mass, the liturgical color of violet or blue, and a family Advent wreath in the refectory.

In most ways we monks are insulated from the craziness of the exhausting pre-Christmas rush, and
ADVENT IN AMERICA
can enjoy the season as one of quiet preparation. Jealous? I'd like to offer you two links to brief articles that might help you to use Advent as an antidote of pre-Christmas craziness. 

First, though, a note or two. It seems that Advent was first celebrated in Europe around the time that St. Benedict was born in 480. At that time any big feast was preceded by a day of fast and abstinence on the principle of "fast then feast" that makes the feast more special by contrast with the fasting that preceded it. You can see the remnants of this in certain cultures' traditions that observe meatless Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve. In many Eastern churches the forty days before Christmas are still preceded by a "Nativity Fast" of forty days before Christmas, although the Roman Church has pretty much lost the fasting dimension of Advent. 

So, to what extent should we consider Advent as a "Little Lent?" Good question. As you look at the two articles that follow, be thinking of how the proper celebration of Advent can help you overcome the craziness that our larger culture tries to force on you in the weeks before Christmas.

First, here's a helpful article on the difference between Lent and Advent.

I found this second essay provocative, and you may even find in it some practical suggestions as the writer addresses Advent as the "season of forgotten penitence."


COME, LORD JESUS!