Monthly Archives: February 2013

The “Real Reason” the Pope’s Resigning

If we see the pope’s resignation only through the eyes of CNN or The New York Times we’ll miss so much. The pope himself chose to explain his action to the crowd in St. Peter’s square today in the context of the gospel story of the Transfiguration of Jesus and his  journey to Jerusalem.

He saw his own decision as a choice to ascend the mountain of prayer, which is not a way of escaping life, but of understanding it. He wants to serve the church, not  leave it, and so he embraces a life of prayer.

“We can draw a very important lesson from meditating on this passage of the Gospel. First, the primacy of prayer, without which all the work of the apostolate and of charity is reduced to activism. In Lent we learn to give proper time to prayer, both personal and communal, which gives breath to our spiritual life. In addition, to pray is not to isolate oneself from the world and its contradictions, as Peter wanted on Tabor, instead prayer leads us back to the path, to action. “The Christian life – I wrote in my Message for Lent – consists in continuously scaling the mountain to meet God and then coming back down, bearing the love and strength drawn from him, so as to serve our brothers and sisters with God’s own love “(n. 3).

Luke’s account of the Transfiguration sees this mystery pointing to the primacy of prayer in the life of Jesus and his disciples. Why not take the pope at his word? He intends to pray.

“Dear brothers and sisters, I feel that this Word of God is particularly directed at me, at this point in my life. The Lord is calling me to “climb the mountain”, to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation. But this does not mean abandoning the Church, indeed, if God is asking me to do this it is so that I can continue to serve the Church with the same dedication and the same love with which I have done thus far, but in a way that is better suited to my age and my strength. Let us invoke the intercession of the Virgin Mary: may she always help us all to follow the Lord Jesus in prayer and works of charity.”

Where do we learn about life after death?

I mentioned in a previous blog on the Resurrection of Jesus (Feb 20, 2013) that books about life after death are popular today. The blog for Publishers Weekly lists among recent best sellers: Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife Eben Alexander, Author. Does the book tell us we would rather learn about life after death from scientists rather than from people of faith? How much can science tell us anyway?

I was thinking of the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in the gospel. The rich man wants someone to come back from the dead to warn his brothers who, like him, aren’t paying any attention to the poor. No one will be sent, says Abraham from the world beyond.

‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’

He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’  Luke 16,19ff.

We have to listen to people of faith. In that same blog there was the encouraging news that sales of  Benedict’s books on Jesus of Nazareth are up since his resignation.

The Resurrection of Jesus

Thomas

People today wonder about life after death. That’s because we yearn to live. A couple of books on the subject are popular these days: one by a scientist who claims he’s come back from death, the other is an account of a little boy who supposedly died and went to heaven and come back to life.

We wonder too about our universe. Will it go on forever?

A couple of years ago I used to watch Harold Camping on television, who predicted the end of the world was coming on May 21, 2011 at 6 PM. He said the world was going to go up in fire, destroying everything except those who read the bible, and he didn’t have much hope for the world or most of the people in it.

A lot of people wondered if his crazy calculation were accurate. They weren’t. The world is still here and most of us are too, but in an era when many have lost confidence in our institutions, including our churches, people listened to him.

Too bad we don’t have more faith in Jesus Christ, who came into our world to teach, heal and offer the promise of eternal life. His death and resurrection answer our questions about death and life beyond this one; he offers hope even for our created world.

“On the third day, he rose from the dead,” we say in our creed. At first, his startled disciples  only use short sentences like this to state their experience of Jesus risen from the dead. That’s because his risen presence was unlike anything they had experienced before or could gather from the past. They knew he was real, but his new existence was something they could hardly put into words.

Jesus did not come from the tomb the same as he was before. He was not like Lazarus who came from the tomb and was easily recognized by all as he rejoined his sisters and went back to his own home in Bethany and took up his daily routine. He would die again.

Risen from the dead Jesus did not a return to normal biological life, but entered a new level of being; he experienced an evolutionary change that affected his humanity and also ours too. Death would not affect him. He was changed, yet his love and care for his own in this world remained .

The Resurrection of Jesus, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, is “an historical event that nevertheless bursts open the dimensions of history and transcends it. Perhaps we may draw upon analogical language here, inadequate in many ways, yet still able to open a path towards understanding;…we could regard the Resurrection as something akin to a radical “evolutionary leap,” in which a new dimension of life emerges, a new dimension in human existence.”

Pope Benedict’s book, Jesus of Nazareth, is a good source for  understanding the mystery of  Jesus Risen.

Recent scriptural studies tells us that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were originally meant for particular churches and situations, so when we read them it’s good to keep in mind the world and circumstances behind each one. Each gospel offers its own unique insight into mysteries of Jesus, and to gain its insight we have to resist a tendency to harmonize one gospel with the others.

At the mission on Tuesday evening we read from Luke’s account of the resurrection of Jesus. Luke centers his account around the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. Like the other gospels, he begins with the women at the tomb on Easter morning, but the Risen Jesus does not stay at the tomb. The Lord engages the world at large and shares his risen life with his disciples and all creation.

In his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, Luke sees God’s plan of salvation realized in the person and life of Jesus and then extended to all humanity through his church as its spreads from Jerusalem to Rome,  then considered the center of the world.

The two disciples on their way to Emmaus help us understand the church’s journey through time, one of the themes of Luke’s gospel.  As he did with the two disciples, the Risen Lord walks with his church on its mission through the ages.

Not an easy journey. Like the journey of the two disciples, it’s no triumphant march. Disillusionment, questions and gradual enlightenment are part of their journey. If the Risen Lord was not with them, they would have ended up hopeless. The church would end up hopeless too, if he were not with her.

Like the two disciples we find the Risen Christ slowly in the scriptures and in the breaking of the bread. Like them, he makes our hearts burn within. He is always with us.

The resurrection narrative from Luke is a good corrective to a triumphalistic view that expects the church to be perfect. It isn’t. It’s also a good corrective to a perfectionistic view of ourselves.

Like the two disciples, we have questions and  disappointments, but the Risen Christ walks with us. He engages  our questions and helps us understand, slowly. He is present in the breaking of the bread, the Holy Eucharist. We don’t see him; he has vanished from our sight, but he is with us. The Risen Lord guides us to his kingdom.

“He took flesh and now retains his humanity forever, he who has opened up within God a space for humanity, now calls the whole world into this open space in God, so that in the end God may be all in all and the Son may hand over to the Father the whole world that is gathered together in him. (cf. 1 Cor 15,20-28) (Benedict XVI)

The Passion According to Luke

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Last night at the mission in St. Augustine Church, Ocean City, NJ,  I read from St. Luke’s Passion narrative. (Luke 22, 26-49) Luke sees Jesus beginning his journey back to God from Galilee. After his condemnation by Pilate he goes to his death on Calvary, but his journey does not end here; it ends when he ascends into heaven.

Jesus did not make the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem  alone; he gathered disciples to accompany him. Now, as he goes to Calvary, he does not go alone into the mystery of death.  Simon of Cyrene and a large crowd of people including “many women who mourned and lamented him” go with him.

Luke notes that “after laying the cross on him, they made him carry it behind Jesus.” Simon, like all the other followers of Jesus, must be part of his journey. He must take up his cross and follow him, a theme emphasized in Luke’s gospel.

Jesus’ words to the women “who mourned and lamented him” are puzzling. Some say he offers them comfort, even as he goes to his death. But other commentators  see his words as a prophetic announcement of the judgment that must inevitably come from such an injustice as his condemnation and death. The great city Jerusalem will be destroyed as a consequence. He tells us every unjust act, every sin has consequences that cannot be waived away.

Two criminals accompany Jesus to Calvary, the place of execution just outside the Jerusalem city gates where so many people passed. The Romans saw it as an ideal place to display their fierce justice. Jesus would die at this hellish place of torture and death. Not a place one wished to be or to see.

Luke, like the other evangelists, sees this place of death in another light. Instead of harsh justice, injustice and death, Jesus offers forgiveness and new life here: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Here God is revealed, who does not just forgive but brings new life. The two criminals crucified with Jesus reveal God’s power at work.  One criminal mocks Jesus on the opposite cross. “Are you not the Messiah. Save yourself and us.” The other rebukes him and turns to Jesus with a plea to be remembered.  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

More than simply remembering him, Jesus promises to take him on his journey to God. “Amen I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” As he did so often, in tender mercy Jesus reaches to one without hope.

Like Simon of Cyrene, the thief symbolizes humanity. He’s been promised life and safe passage through the mystery of death. He dies with Jesus. He’s the first, a reminder that eternal life is never denied to anyone.

The thief is a powerful sign of the promise made to us all. We will die, but we die with the Lord.

The Weather of God’s Blessings

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The first reading from today’s Lenten Mass describes God’s blessings in terms of the weather.

“Just as from the heavens

the rain and snow come down, and do not return there

till they have watered the earth,

making it fertile and fruitful,

Giving seed to the one who sows

and bread to the one who eats,

So shall my word be

that goes forth from my mouth;

It shall not return to me void,

but shall do my will,

achieving the end for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55,10)

Can this reading help us understand how God blesses us?  Like rain or snow God’s blessings come, making our lives fruitful. Yes, they will surely come, but how about the times we have to wait, when no rain or snow comes at all?

God’s blessings are like the weather.

Or think of God’s blessings through the Sign of the Cross. We say “we bless ourselves” when we make this sign. Sometimes God’s blessing comes through the cross of glory and we receive blessings never imagined through his tender mercy.

Sometimes his blessings takes another form of his cross; disappointment, suffering, failure, sickness, death. There God’s blessings are mostly hidden and hard to see.

In Matthew’s gospel today Jesus offers us a way of praying. Does this blessing also follow the weather. Prayer is a gift, but it’s a gift like the rain and snow. It’s one of God’s greatest gifts to us, yet sometimes we find it hard to pray while at other times it wells up within us.

The blessings of God are like the weather.

Journey for a Child

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I’m preaching a parish mission at St.Damien’s Parish in Ocean City, NJ today till Tuesday evening. Each evening at 7 I’m commenting on a part of the Gospel of Luke, which we’re reading in church most Sundays this year.

Tonight I’m preaching on the Journey of Jesus to Jerusalem, which Luke begins in Chapter 9 and continues to the 19th chapter, when Jesus reaches the Holy City.  “When the days for him to be taken up were fulfilled (Jesus) resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9,51-19,28)

Luke doesn’t offer a neat catalogue of miles traveled or places reached in his description of Jesus’ journey. This is the time to gather and instruct disciples, who  witness to him on the journey to Jerusalem and, after his ascension into heaven, bring his message to the ends of the world. An essential quality for a disciple is to be childlike. (Luke 18,15-17)

At the start of his Galilean ministry, Jesus meets opposition in his own town of  Nazareth. The Samaritans, who turn back his messengers, oppose him as he begins to go to Jerusalem. (Luke 9,53-56) There will be others too who oppose him. The Pharisees ensconced in their synagogues pour out criticism on him. Others are too preoccupied with riches or caught in their own interests to pay him any attention.

Some whom we might expect to be interested only in money surprise us, like Zacchaeus the chief publican of Jericho, who welcomes Jesus into his house on his journey. The poor, like the blind man, are also likely to follow him up the road.

But those sure to follow Jesus into the kingdom of heaven are the childlike, not those clinging to power and rank.  Matthew and Mark also say that Jesus pointed out the child to his disciples as an example. (Matthew 18.1-5; Mark 9,35-37}

I wonder if that’s the secret of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector from Jericho, the little man who climbed a sycamore tree to see Jesus passing by.

St. Leo the Great, an early pope, said that becoming like a child does not mean becoming an infant physically. We can’t go back. But the childlike can go forward to the kingdom of God. They’re small enough to get through the narrow gate.  Becoming a child means to be free from crippling anxieties, to be forgetful of injuries, to be sociable, and look in wonder at all things.

Mary temple

Tomorrow I’m going to comment on the Passion narrative from Luke’s Gospel. On the journey to God, Jesus must pass through death. His disciples will accompany him.

Tuesday evening, I’ll talk on the Resurrection narrative from Luke.

The Pope’s Decision

We’re learning things all the time. One thing most of us may have learned for the first time from Pope Benedict last Monday was that popes could resign.  But I think there are two other things we learned from the pope that may be far more important, namely we should make decisions conscientiously and we need to accept reality as we go through life.

I’d like to reflect on those two lessons from the pope’s statement of resignation:

“ After having repeatedly examined my conscience before God, I have come to the certainty that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry. I am well aware that this ministry, due to its essential spiritual nature, must be carried out not only with words and deeds, but no less with prayer and suffering.

“However, in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognise my incapacity to adequately fulfil the ministry entrusted to me.”

First, notice that a lot of the reasons people usually give for a decision like that are absent from the pope’s statement. He doesn’t say the doctors told him to step down, or his friends advised him, or he’s just sick and tired of it all, or for political reasons someone else is needed at this time.

No. He says simply that he has stood repeatedly before God as his ultimate judge; he’s looked honestly at himself and his situation and come to a decision. He’s brought himself as he is to God and asked God to judge his action. He’s trying to live conscientiously, following his conscience in its best sense. Conscience doesn’t mean  where I stand, but where I stand before God.

To me the pope’s decision looks like a good example of living conscientiously.  That’s what we’re all called to do too. We all called to decide on things by standing before God and looking honestly at ourselves and our situation.

Of course, facing  reality and our own situation isn’t easy. Last year I read Pope Benedict’s book “Jesus of Nazareth” in which he comments on the Temptation of Jesus in the desert, which we read on the 1st Sunday of Lent. I went back to that book recently and I think it can put some perspective on the difficulty we have in facing reality.

After his baptism in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted for 40 days. The pope calls that command a surprise. After his baptism we would expect a celebration, but instead of celebrating, Jesus is led into the desert to confront Satan.

The 40 day experience Jesus has there is a mirror of what he will experience the rest of his life.  “He descends into the perils besetting humanity, for there is no other way  to lift fallen humanity. Jesus has to enter the drama of human existence, for that belongs to the core of his mission. He has to penetrate it completely, down to its uttermost depths, in order to find the lost sheep, to bear it on his shoulders and bring it home.” (Jesus of Nazareth, from the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, New York 2007,   p 26)

Jesus is the Messiah whom God sends to save his people. But in the desert–and all through his life– he’s tempted by Satan to be a Messiah of another kind. Satan “offers Jesus another messianic way, far from God’s plan… an alternative messianism of power, of success, not the messianism of gift and selfless love.”

Luke’s gospel describes the temptations of Jesus in interesting detail.  Jesus is hungry; “Turn these stones into bread,” Satan says. “You’re above the ordinary laws of life.”  From a mountain, Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world. “Here’s political power,” Satan says. From the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem, Satan says “Throw yourself down; you can have religious power.”

The temptations Jesus faced are those we face.  We’re tempted to want to control things: our health, our wealth, other people, the world we live in. These are messianic temptations.  We’d like the world to be on our side, to be liked, to be respected, to fit in; we like to control God. In the Our Father we say “ your will be done, your kingdom come.” Our temptation is to say “my will, my kingdom come.”

I may be mistaken but did the pope experience this mystery in making his great decision? We all experience it, that’s why this gospel is the first gospel we read in Lent, the first lesson we learn in this season. Like Jesus we experience temptation. Like Jesus we’ll have angels to come and support us. We pray they support the pope.  “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

The Temptations of Jesus

The temptations of Jesus in the desert probably reveal his human side as much as any other gospel story.

Though scripture says he was “like us in all things except sin”,we tend to see Jesus unlike us: a miracle worker, an assured teacher, a master of circumstances, someone above it all.

But look at him in the desert, weary, vulnerable, struggling for footing in a dangerous land. Was much of his life really like that?

Think of the demands people made on him. The blind man shouting from the roadside, the paralytic lowered from the roof, the woman pleading for her daughter were just some of the many who pressed their cares on him at every turn. Did he tire of it all?

Is the Evil One’s first suggestion, that he turn stones into bread, a lifelong temptation Jesus had to lay down this everyday burden, the burden of doing good, and rest?

Lord, art thou weary? Is the work

the father trusted to thy care,

his ruined temple to restore;

beyond thy mortal strength to bear?

Is thy omnipotence indeed

too sorely pressed in this our need?

Lord, art thou weary? –Janet Erskine Stuart

And what of the other temptations in the desert? Think how pressured he was by the political and religious establishments of his day to conform to their standards and be quiet. Just go along, they said, and you have a place with us, even a place of honor. Jesus called those powerful people “children of the devil”.

Yet was he tempted to conform and go along just the same?

Even his own disciples were his temptors. Listen to their advice to him: “Leave this place and go up to Judea, so that your followers will see the things you are doing. No one hides what he is doing if he is well known. Since you are doing these things, let the whole world know about you.” ( Jn 7:3-5)

Why waste time here in out-of-the-way Galilee? Use your spectacular power, they told him. You can be a world-wide success.

He must have responded to them as he responded once to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan.”

The desert temptations must have been temptations Jesus faced everyday. If they are, how like us he is: tempted to give up under our daily burdens, tempted to compromise and follow the crowd, tempted to seek some extraordinary power rather than the quiet power found in ordinary life.

Can we be like him? Tempted, but still victorious? Will he not deliver us?

Lord Jesus,

we would rather see you strong

than hungry and weak.

Forty days alone,

no miracles, no eager crowds,

no friendly space to buoy you up,

no companion but the Evil One.

This is not the Jordan

where the Father said:

“Here is my Son, listen to him.”

And the Spirit, like a dove,

watched your every step.

Here alone,

you are a weary man,

tired by the daily strain,

at the limits of your strength.

Where would we learn this story,

but from you?

And did you speak of a lifetime

more than forty days

Were your days like ours?

“Turn these stones into bread.”

Were there days like desert stones,

when you walked in waterless places,

and grew weary doing good?

“All these kingdoms will be yours, if…”

Were there days

when promises looked better broken;

right and truth only unreal dreams;

and life secure somewhere else?

“Throw yourself down…”

Were there days

when the journey step by step,

simple words and simple deeds,

hardly seemed to make a difference?

By the mystery of your temptation

in the desert,

Lord Jesus, have mercy on us.

Pope Benedict XVI

The pope gave us a beautiful example of humility in his resignation today, just before we begin the season of Lent.

SONY DSCIt was a conscious decision, “before God” he makes it, not simply on his own.

It was a brave decision. No pope in recent times has resigned. He was not afraid of going out into uncharted waters.

It was not his own good he looked out for, but the good of the church. The office of the papacy is demanding and he saw it beyond his strength.

I think he leaves a powerful legacy that will be more appreciated in time. His books on Jesus of Nazareth are treasures that will last. His homilies and letters will be mined for years to come. He’s a beautiful writer and religious thinker.

God bless him.

The Scandal of the Incarnation

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The four gospels take a dim view of Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus Christ. Early in his gospel, John says that Philip, one of Jesus’ first disciples,  invited Nathaniel to meet “Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathaniel replies. (John 1,46).

 The other gospels recall the sad rejection of Jesus by his hometown after his baptism by John the Baptist. According the Matthew, it takes place after Jesus has spoken to a large crowd in parables. Then, he goes to Nazareth and speaks in the synagogue to his own townspeople, who are at first astonished at his wisdom, but then wonder where did “the carpenter’s son” get all this. They know his mother and his family, and they reject him. (Matthew 13,54-58)

Mark’s gospel puts the event after Jesus has raised a little girl from the dead. Going to Nazareth with his disciples, he’s greeted in the synagogue with astonishment because of his wisdom; they’ve heard of his mighty deeds, but then they ask where did this “carpenter” get all of this? He’s “Mary’s son” and they know his family. Jesus “was amazed at their lack of faith.”    (Mark 6,1-5)

Luke’s gospel has the most detailed description of the event, which he places at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Last Sunday we read the first part of his account: in the synagogue Jesus takes up the scroll from Isaiah and reads “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” And he says,  “This reading is fulfilled in your sight.”

This Sunday we hear about the reaction to his claim. “They are amazed at the gracious words that come from his mouth,” but then ask “Isn’t this Joseph’s son.” Then, enraged by his sharp rebuke to them for refusing to accept him, they take Jesus to the steep hill on the outskirts of their town and are ready to throw him over, but he passes through their midst. (Luke 4,16-30)

Why do they reject Jesus? The reason seems to be that they know his family and what he’s done for a living, and they can’t believe someone like him could be a messenger of God to them.  He’s just a carpenter. What does he know? He came from an ordinary family, some of whom may not have been nice people at all. So they dismiss him.

At Nazareth we see an example of what’s called the “scandal of the incarnation.” People can’t believe that God could come to us as Jesus did.

That scandal still continues.  One obvious instance of it is when people claim to be “spiritual, but not religious.” They want God and not the human ways God comes to us. They want God to be in the beauty of a sunset, but not in a church. They want God as they would like him to be, and not in the messiness of humanity.

I think of that line from one of the English poets:

“I saw him in the shining of the stars, I marked him in the flowering of the fields, but in his ways with men, I knew him not.”

The scandal of the Incarnation is always with us.