Sunday, May 19, 2024

BEING AT PENTECOST

 


+Last night I thought of the following guided meditation that I used to use with my students when we're studying the Pentecost event. It assumes you know the story of the descent of the Spirit in Luke's gospel. Try reading it slowly and reflectively.


A large group of us disciples are in a large room.

Morning light is filtering in through the closed shutters ast one end,
Noise is filtering in from the street just outside the window...
Children's voices,
a fruit seller calling to advertise his fresh oranges.

The room is dark, except for the dim glow of a single oil lamp in the corner by the door...
you can smell its oily black smoke.
The remains of lunch are still on the table: some scraps of bread and fish and fruit.

We're just sitting here, not knowing what to do.
It's been several days since several of us heard the Lord tell us to go back to Jerusalem and wait for something to happen, then he disappeared from sight.

But that was over a week ago. Have we missed something?
Did he already send us a sign and we missed it? I'm starting to wonder.
I know that some have started drifting away from our group
-- a few familiar faces are no longer in the room.
There are a couple of whispered conversations, some of the voices sound frightened;
We still keep the shutters closed so no one on the street can see in...

What's that sound? It's not coming from the street. How can it be the wind?
I can't feel it on my face.
The others look up -- they must hear it, too. We're looking at one another,
puzzled expressions on every face.

The sound is louder now -- this is getting scary!
We ask ourselves what it could be.
Suddenly it's quiet again. Dead quiet except for the man selling oranges;
I can hear a fly buzzing around.

The room seems to be getting brighter but the shutters are still closed.
I look around and see that each of us seems to be glowing...
no -- it's more like there's a tiny flame above everyone's head;
but I'm too scared to look any closer.
Suddenly I realize that this must be the sign we've been waiting for!


We look around at each other...The flames disappear as quickly as they came.
I ask James,
- What the heck just happened?
- Did you see it?
- Yeah I saw it!
Other voices chime in.
-That was weird. Was I seeing things?
- Are you guys scared?
Peter answers right away ,
- No, just the opposite. I don't feel afraid of anything right now!
Others at,
-Neither do I!
- So why are we hiding in here like a bunch of rats in a hole?
I agree with them, and ask,
- If that's the sign, then what does it mean?
Peter almost shouts,
- It means we've just been changed! We're now messengers! The Lord's message isn't just for us in this room any more. We have to go and spread the news that He has risen, and that he's saved everyone in the world. ... Not just us disciples ... Not just Jews ... Everybody!

Someone throws the shutters wide open and the morning sun floods the room.
The street noises pour in, including the sound of a crowd of people right outside.

Peter says,
- I'm going out there to tell people what just happened to us,l to tell them about the Lord. Anybody else coming?
Peter grabs his cloak and strides toward the locked door.
We all stand up and hurry to catch up with him.

I blow out the oil lamp on the way by.
.





Saturday, May 11, 2024

Among the many ways that our faith can help us cope with the difficulties of life, I'd like to offer two ideas can help you and me to keep our bearings in the midst of all the terrible negativity that crowds every moment and every inch of our news media these days, from murderous wars to climate change to acts of random racist hatred. The first is the Old Testament theology of the Wilderness and the second tomorrow's feast of the Ascension.


MIDBAR MOMENTS

I’ve already written several times about the Hebrew word midbar, which we sometimes mistranslate as “desert.” It means a trackless place untamed and uninhabited by humans. For the Israelites the wilderness was “God’s country,” where the Lord was totally in charge and they were completely dependent on Yahweh for everything from traveling directions (the pillar of cloud) and food (manna) to military protection against hostile tribes. (You can go to the “labels” column to the left of this post and click on “Wilderness” for more thoughts on this topic.)

Well, when I found myself starting to wander in a land of darkness and anxiety I soon recognized it as the Wilderness, what our Jewish ancestors called the midbar. The bad news is that in the wilderness there are no maps, no sense of being in control. The good news, though, is that I am assuredly in “God’s Country” and can therefore expect to encounter the Lord there. The One Who Saves is waiting to meet me there in the very events that I find so discouraging, frightening and repulsive. So I just kept looking carefully at those experiences to discover the divine presence. And, again like the Israelites in the midbar, I in fact met the Lord there more than once this week.

THE GIFT OF THE ASCENSION

Tomorrow we celebrate the mystery of Christ's Ascension into heaven The liturgy of the paschal season has been leading us toward this feast for weeks. And reflecting on the meaning of the mystery of the Ascension has also been a help to me during certain depressing moments.  

In  the na├»ve worldview of ancient Israel, where the earth was as flat as a dinner plate and the firmament was above and the netherworld below, the idea of Jesus’ “ascending” up into a cloud was easily accepted. Too easily, perhaps, because it would then seem to mean that Jesus, taken “up” into heaven, had gone away from us and was thus no longer present.

Fortunately our modern astronomy won’t allow us to settle for this simple picture of Jesus rising “upward” to heaven. And that’s great, because we’re not as likely to misinterpret it as meaning “Jesus left us.” We are forced to look for the meaning of the event rather than simply settling for “Jesus went up into the clouds of heaven.” And it is precisely this theological meaning that has been a comfort to me at times this past week.



The feast of the Ascension celebrates Jesus’ passing beyond the familiar dimensions of time and space, beyond the reach of our senses and into the presence of the Father. So what? Well, think about it: This means that Jesus is no longer bound by time and space, so he is now more present to us than he ever was previous to the Ascension. He is in our hearts and bodies, in our friends and our foes, in the spring breeze and, mysteriously, in the tragedies of hurricanes and demented terrorist bombings. Now, I may be repelled by the idea that God could somehow be present in those terrible things, but that’s far more comforting than the alternate view – that God is totally absent from those tragic times and horrible places and that I am left to face them on my own. I don’t want a God who’s only present to me when times are good!


So as I struggled with this week’s headlines I was consoled by the presence of the Ascended Lord who I knew was right in the midst of the whole mess. And I knew that somehow he was standing beside me as I was wandering in that mysterious trackless wilderness, the midbar, “God’s Country.” 
 ..

  

Saturday, May 4, 2024

IS GOD INVOLVED?

 Here’s one of my favorite stories from the early days of the monastic movement in Northern Egypt:

It seems that one of the fathers fell ill, and for many days couldn't eat anything.  One of his disciplesurged him to eat: "If you'll let me, father, I'll make you a little cake."  The old man nodded, and so the other made the cake.  Now there were two pots there side by side, one containing honey and the other rancid linseed oil used for the lamp.  The brother took this second pot and emptied some of it into the cake, thinking he was adding honey. Although the old man tasted it, he didn't say anything, but just kept eating in silence.  When he was offered a third helping, though, he said,  "Really, my son, I can't eat any more."  But the young man wouldn't hear of it. "Look, father.  They're good cakes  I'm eating some myself...."  When he tasted his concoction he realized what he'd done and threw himself on his face saying, "Woe is me, father!  I've killed you!  You've caused this sin in me because you didn't say anything!"  But the old man replied in the calmest of voices, "Don't worry about it, my son. If God had wanted me to eat a good cake, you would've put in the honey and not the linseed oil." 


Clearly this older monk's worldview includes a God who is very much present and active in the lives of people. A similar view of the world is shown in the first reading in the second half of the first reading a mass today:


They traveled through the Phrygian and Galatian territory because they had been prevented by the Holy Spirit
When they came to Mysia, they tried to go on into Bithynia,
from preaching the message in the province of Asia. but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them, so they crossed through Mysia and came down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision. A Macedonian stood before him and implored him with these words, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." When he had seen the vision, we sought passage to Macedonia at once, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the Good News to them.
(Acts 16:6-10)


It seems that Paul had intended to make a circular journey around Asia Minor, starting in Derbe, in the center of the region and then returning toward the eastern sections of the province of Asia. Twice, however, when he tried to head back in an easterly direction some obstacle or other presented itself:
-- They had been prevented by the Holy Spirit from preaching the message in the province of Asia.,
-- Then he tried to head up north and east through Bithynia: they tried to go on into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them,
-- Then, in frustration, he headed west toward the coast and arrived at the port city of Troas, across the water from Europe (specifically Macedonia and the cities if Corinth, Philippi and Thessaloniki).


Evidently Paul still hadn't gotten the point, so that night "
Paul had a vision. A Macedonian stood before him and implored him with these words,"Come over to Macedonia and help us."

When Paul had seen the vision, the author of Acts, tells us, "we sought passage to Macedonia at once, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the Good News to them."


Maybe Paul could have said to himself, echoing that wise Egyptian monk: "If the Lord had wanted me to circle back eastward into Asia, then we would have been able to do so. But he has something else in mind for me." That "something else" was to bring the Good news to Greece and thus Europe for the first time.


What about you and me? Does your worldview include a God who communicates to you through events, frustrating or otherwise? Are you as patient with frustrations in your life as that wise monk was with his spoiled porridge?


Certainly it's worth cultivating this way of dealing with frustrations. It's good for your relationship with God -- and helps control your high blood pressure.



Sunday, April 28, 2024

THE TRUE VINE

 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.  (Jn 15:1, 4-5, 8)

Here is a chapter from a book of mine, and so it may be a little longer than an ordinary post, but it is a commentary on today's gospel reading (some verses of which are quoted above) that may be of some help to you..

*   *   *   *   *

On my daily walk, I am following Elm Street back to the monastery through the Portuguese and Spanish-speaking  “Ironbound” neighborhood -- so-called because it was once surrounded by railroad tracks. I pass in front of houses separated from one another by narrow alleys, and whose front steps spill directly onto the sidewalk. When I reach the corner of McWhorter St., I see, directly across the street from me, a grape arbor supported by eight heavy vertical pipes connected by a “ceiling” of thinner pipes that form a grid ten feet above a concrete slab below.   

Whenever I pass this intersection on my walk, I notice how the vines marking the changes of the seasons. In winter, for example, there are only the bare pipes and wires, and the three thick vine stocks that function like tree trunks, and from which the vines will branch out. Since this is late spring, lush leaves are already crawling across the overhead wires in long bunches, like giant green caterpillars. 

As I cross the street, I notice that the leafy branches seem to be growing fuller right before my eyes as they burst with new life, sending shoots and tendrils sprouting in every direction. While I pause to rest against the cyclone fence that encloses the arbor, I take a moment to reflect on the scene. 

I immediately think of the image that Jesus offers his apostles at the Last Supper: “I am the vine, you are the branches.” He does not say that he is the vine and they are the grapes, but rather that he is the vine, and they are the branches, the lush, vital growing part of the vine.  

I look at one of the gnarled vine stocks, as thick as the trunk of a small tree, and imagine it sending raw, vital energy through the branches, to the farthest end of the arbor. The stock is the source of the vine’s life, and the branches depend entirely on it, the same way that we draw life from Christ and are intimately one with Him.

I reflect, too, that Jesus tells his apostles: “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit.” Picturing the heavy clusters of dark purple grapes that will be weighing down these branches in the middle of September, I realize that my goal as a Christian cannot be simply to become a branch that is lush with pretty leaves, any more than one of these branches I’m looking at is meant to produce nothing but leaves. My purpose is the same as that of every branch in this grape arbor: to produce fruit.  

Turning away from the fence to continue my way down Elm Street, I repeat Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper: “By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit.”   I remember that for John, the expression “to glorify God” means  to show forth God’s power in the world, to make his presence known; therefore the fruit I bear must show forth God’s loving presence in the world.

I think of some of the “fruits of the Holy Spirit,” and imagine them flowing from Christ, the vine stock, into us Christians like sap through branches: charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and gentleness. The Holy Spirit, which is Christ’s life flowing in us, then enables us to pass on this fruit to everyone we meet. 

As I continue along the street on my way back to the monastery, I start to picture my community as a lush grape arbor springing from one stock, and made up of fourteen branches, each one leafy and laden with clusters of dark purple grapes. I pray that we may help one another to be fruitful, producing whatever fruit the Spirit asks of us.

Following Elm Street across McCarter Highway, I promise myself to pass by the vine arbor again in a few weeks, when the branches will be showing the first tiny grapes.




Saturday, April 20, 2024

MAGDALENE'S MYOPIA

 

I posted this reflection some years ago but I still find it a very helpful reminder. I hope you will, too.

Mary Magadalene stood outside the tomb weeping, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “Because they have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.”
Saying this she turned around and saw Jesus standing,but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom do you seek?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him and I will take him away.” (Jn 20:11-15)


I was giving this text a lot of thought and prayer earlier this week. What made Mary suddenly turn around before the two angels could even deliver their message? Did she sense a presence behind her? St. John Chrysostom suggests that the two angels suddenly caught sight of the Risen Lord standing behind Mary and she read their faces and so turned to see what they were looking at.


She may have turned only partly around, because v.16 tells us that when Jesus called her by name, “She turned and said to him, ‘Rabouni.’”   


But the phrase that really caught my interest came when she first turned and saw this figure standing there “but she did not know that it was Jesus.”


Maybe her eyes were filled with tears, or maybe she was so overwhelmed with grief that she wasn’t really thinking sraight. And she certainly had no concept of a “risen Jesus” - Judaism had no such concept nor any vocabulary to express it, so she was not prepared to see a “risen Lord.”


In addition, there are other places in the Easter narratives where other people don’t recognize Jesus either ( e.g. the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and the disciples out fishing when Jesus calls to them from the shore), which indicates that there was now something different about his appearance. So we can’t blame poor Magdalene for mistaking Jesus for the gardener. “She did not know it was Jesus.

SO, WHAT'S YOUR EXCUSE?


But what about you and me? We have the gospel accounts along with the hindsight and the insights of two millennia of Christian tradition, all preparing us to recognize Christ in every person we meet. But the same thing happens to you and me as happened to Magadelene: we don’t know that it is Jesus standing before us when he comes.


I’ve learned that He often comes in the guise of the person who puts their umbrella into the spokes of my life’s bicycle: he phones at an inconvenient hour looking for someone to talk to, he needs help pouring cereal into his bowl because his Alzheimer’s is bad this morning, he is a homeless woman asking for a handout on the sidewalk down the hill from the monastery. I need to be on the watch all the time for these “appearances” of the Risen Lord so that I don’t make the same mistake that Magdalene made when “she did not know that it was Jesus.”
 
"She did not know it was Jesus."
We’re about to start classes on Monday after a two-week Easter break. There are lots of terrific kids who I’ll be delighted to see after a two-week vacation; I’ll see Jesus in them right way and enjoy His presence. But will I be willing and able to recognize the same Jesus when he starts acting out his adolescent anger in class because he doesn’t know what else to do with it, or when he starts chatting with his classmate while he’s supposed to be taking notes in class? That will be the test for me.


Let’s pray to the Risen Jesus that He’ll give each of us the eyes of Easter Faith, that he’ll open our eyes to see His presence in every person and every circumstance.
x

Saturday, April 13, 2024

IN TOTAL CHARGE

During the Easter season, the lectionary takes us on a journey through the Acts of the apostles every day at mass. We hear all about the very earliest preaching in the church, and how the first Christian communities were formed and grew, spreading outward from Jerusalem.

So I found it interesting that two gospel passages to the end of this week invited us to turn our gaze back toward Jesus in a particular way.

First, on Friday, we heard John’s account of the miracle of the loaves and fishes. What is unique about John’s account, making it different from the account in the other three gospels is this: the other three gospels have Jesus blessing the bread and handing it to the  apostles to distribute to the crowd. So the miracle takes place in their hands. But John’s version says simply “Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining.” The entire miracle happens not in the hands of the disciples but in the hands of Jesus. This detail, of course, fits in with John’s whole theology, emphasizing that Jesus is the Divine Word, the Son of God.

Second, at mass today, Saturday, we hear the episode that follows immediately upon the miracle of the loaves and fishes, when Jesus comes walking on the wind-swept waves toward the boat in which his disciples are rowing. “They saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they began to be afraid. But he said to them, 'It is I. do not be afraid.' They wanted to take him into the boat, but the boat immediately arrived at the shore, to which they were heading.” in this Christ-centered passage, Jesus tells the disciples “It is I.” this is clearly a reference to the book of Exodus, chapter 13, where God says of himself “I am.” It is hard to think of a more Christ-centered episode in all of the gospels. But don’t miss the second half of that same verse, “do not be afraid.” 

These two “Acts of Jesus”, it seems to me, offer a perfect balance to the emphasis on the "Acts of the Apostles" and of the other early Christians that we hear about in the first reading in the lectionary at daily mass. 

In both of these gospel episodes, Jesus is in total command of the situation:

 he takes charge of feeding five thousand people with five little loaves of bread, 

and overcomes the power of the strong wind to bring his disciples safely to shore.

I have been comforted and encouraged by the powerful presence of the risen Lord. Let us pray that we may all be able to hand over all of our troubles to the Risen One who can work such wonders in the lives of those who trust on him.


Saturday, April 6, 2024

OUR EASTER TASK

This Sunday’s gospel passage makes sure that we see the full meaning of Easter for our lives.

The passage begins with a rather humorous understatement: “the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” But the important point, it seems to me, is this: how often do you or I ourselves “see the Lord?” Do you see him easily in the folks around you? In people who need your help? And in people who you find difficult to deal with? It seems to me that this Sunday we are being invited to “rejoice” when we see the Lord in everyone around us.



As if to emphasize this point, Jesus then says “as the father has sent me, so I send you." What else could he be sending us to do if not to continue his mission on earth? Since his resurrection, Christ's mode of presence in the world is now different: he is present in spirit. Therefore, he needs our voices, our hands, our feet, and our actions to spread the Good News of the Kingdom. 

Here's a good Easter question: How do you see your task as an apostle? What is it that Jesus may be expecting you to do as a follower of his?

Then, as if to emphasize that the risen Jesus is serious about sending us out into the world, John tells us that he then “breathes on them, and says 'receive the Holy Spirit'.” This assures the apostles - and us - that we are now equipped for the task of apostles.

Easter, then, is not just about Jesus, it is very much about you and me, and our lives as Christians.

May the grace of this holy season, help us to recognize the risen Lord in our midst, and to build up the Kingdom on earth as his apostles.