Monthly Archives: July 2013

God of Tents, Clouds and Fire

One of the first things we were told to do as novices was to recognize the Presence of God. In the novitiate each day one novice was instructed to call out periodically, “The Presence of God,” and we were to stop anything we were doing and stand for a moment of silence, to remember God’s presence.

The Book of Exodus says the Jews did something similar when they journeyed through the desert. They set up a tent, a meeting tent they called it, to recognize the presence of God.

“Whenever Moses went out to the tent, the people would all rise and stand at the entrance of their own tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent.
As Moses entered the tent, the column of cloud would come down and stand at its entrance while the LORD spoke with Moses.
On seeing the column of cloud stand at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and worship at the entrance of their own tents. The LORD used to speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another.”

The tent, the cloud, the pillar of fire are signs of God’s dynamic presence. His presence is not fixed; he leads this group to another place. The Exodus is not just a story about the human journey of a group of foreigners on their way from Egypt to Palestine. God leads them on.

God leads them to a place they don’t know. God’s not a wall surrounding them and making them safe and settled; God’s on the move, and God makes them move on.

Someone said to me recently, “We’re reading too many of those long Old Testament stories at Mass.” In his book “The Mystery of the Temple” the theologian Yves Congar, OP, says we need those “long” Old Testament stories like those from Exodus to remind us of the dynamic presence of a God who lives in tents and is a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day.

God is our guide, the only map we have, and he moves each of us and all of history to a new stage. “We are always tempted to confine ourselves to what we see and touch, to be satisfied with this and to think that a preliminary achievement fulfills God’s promise, ” Congar writes.

Abraham thought God’s promise was fulfilled in Ismael, Joshua thought it was the conquest of Canaan. Solomon thought it was in his immediate descendants…”but these promises were capable of more complete fulfillment which would only materialize after long periods of waiting and urgently needed purification. Only the prophets–and this, in fact, is their task–draw attention to the process of development from seminal promises and to the progress of the latter towards their accomplishment through successive stages of fulfillment continuously transcending one another.” (p 31-32)

We may think it’s the end, but it’s only a beginning.

Finally, in the desert, a place of homelessness and unease, God speaks most familiarly with Moses, the Book of Exodus says: “The Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another.” Is that true for us too? Does God choose to speak most familiarly with us when we’re in the desert, not sure where life is heading?

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Ann and Her Daughter Mary

ann
A few years ago on pilgrimage to Jerusalem I visited the western wall that once supported the ancient Jewish temple where Jesus worshipped and taught. He announced that he would replace this temple through the mysteries of his death and resurrection. Some years later, in AD 70, the temple was destroyed.

The day I visited this holy place, Jewish mothers and their daughters were fervently praying at one section of the battered wall, all that’s left of the glorious buildings that once filled pilgrims with awe and pride. I wondered what they were praying for at this majestic ruin.

Tradition says that the parents of Mary, Ann and Joachim, whose feast we celebrate today, were closely connected to the temple of Jerusalem and may have lived near it or in a town close by. Joachim had a role in providing for the temple, tradition says. Like the Jewish women I saw, Ann and her daughter Mary must have prayed often in this holy place.

What did they pray for; what did they believe? God is here, the Prophet Isaiah said; all the peoples of the earth will stream toward this place when the Messiah comes. Pray even when dreams seem gone. God raises up the poorest to do great things. God’s kingdom will come, no matter how dim the present seems. God works even in ruins.

Ann was old when she conceived Mary, tradition says. Too old to conceive. “Nothing is impossible with God,” the angel said to her daughter when she conceived her Son.

We ask the grace to believe and pray as these two women did. I can’t help thinking that the Jewish mothers and their daughters I saw that day praying at the wall are their descendants too.

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Hunger

Manna in the Desert

The next five Sundays we’ll read from the 6th chapter of St. John’s gospel, beginning this Sunday with the miracle of the loaves and the fish. All four gospels recall this miracle, Mark and Matthew report it twice. The miracle and Jesus’ words that follow it in John’s gospel are about the Holy Eucharist. Jesus, the Bread of Life, is the answer to our hunger.

The miracle takes place across the Sea of Galilee, in a “deserted place,’ as Matthew’s gospel describes it. There’s no place to buy food for a hungry crowd.

There’s only five barley loaves and two fish a small boy has. Barley loaves were the ordinary food for the poor.

Jesus initiates this miracle by pointing out to his disciples  a hunger in the crowd. They seem hardly aware of it and have no answer what to do, except to say “We don’t have enough!”  Taking what’s there, the five barley loaves and two fish, Jesus multiplies this food and feeds a multitude. John notes the Passover is near; it’s spring and green grass has grown up in this deserted place. Not only is it enough, but fragments are left over as the crowd has its fill.

Keep in mind the basic reality the miracle addresses: hunger. It’s bodily hunger, yes, but hunger of all kinds is addressed here. Like the disciples, we may be hardly aware of it. Humanity is hungry, this gospel says. Only God can fill its silent, hidden hunger, this miracle says. Only Jesus can.

Hunger

“I come among the peoples like a shadow,

I sit down by each man’s side,

None sees me,

but they look on one another and know that I am there

My silence is like the silence of the tide that buries the playground of children

Like the deepening of frost in the slow night, when birds are dead in the morning.

Armies travel, invade, destroy with guns roaring from earth and air.

I am more terrible than armies.

I am more feared than cannon, kings and chancellors

I give no command to any, but I am listened to more than kings

and more than passionate orators

I unswear words and undo deeds,

Naked things know me.

I am more the first and last to be felt of the living.

I am hunger. “

Lawrence Binyon

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Mary Magdalene

Today’s the feast of Mary Magdalene. Some recent writers in an attempt to “de-mythologize” Jesus would like to romanticize his relationship with Mary, basing themselves on flimsy late evidence from the gnostic writings of the 3rd and 4th century. They claim he was even married to her. However,tohe gospels see Mary primarily as a disciple who loved him and followed him along with other women. According to the earliest authentic sources we have Jesus was unmarried and his ministry and life was transparent to his early followers.
The media loves sensationalism; it sells and draws an audience. Unfortunately, it takes on a life of its own.

Mary Magdalene

Along with Peter, Mary Magdalene is a key witness to the resurrection of Jesus. Her story is told in John’s gospel which describes their meeting in the garden. For the rest of her years Mary would remember those moments by the tomb.
In the morning darkness she had come weeping for the one she had thought lost forever. She had heard him call her name, “Mary”. She had turned to see him alive and the garden became paradise.
Like a new Eve she had been sent by Jesus to bring news of life to all the living. She was his apostle to the apostles. The belief of Christians in the resurrection of Jesus would be founded on this woman’s word.
On Easter Sunday the church questions her:
“Tell us, Mary, what did you see on the way?
‘I saw the tomb of the now living Christ.
I saw the glory of Christ, now risen.
I saw angels who gave witness;
the cloths, too, which once covered head and limbs.
Christ my hope had indeed arisen.
He will go before his own into Galilee.'”
–Easter sequence

Fascinated by her story, medieval spiritual writers added simple human details to the Gospel accounts. According to the author of the Meditations on the Life of Christ, Mary held the feet of Jesus when he was taken down from the cross, because she had kissed them and washed them with her tears once before.

“(At the tomb) she could not think, or speak, or hear anything except about him. When she cried and paid no attention to the angels, her Lord could not hold back any longer for love… ‘Woman, whom do you seek? Why do you weep?’ And she, as if drugged, not recognizing him said, ‘Lord, if you carried him away, tell me where, and I will take him.’ “Look at her. With tear-stained face she begs him to lead her to the one seeks. She always hopes to hear something new of her Beloved. Then the Lord says to her, ‘Mary’.

“It was as though she came back to life, and recognizing his voice, she said with indescribable joy, ‘Rabbi, you are the Lord I was seeking. Why did you hide from me so long? …I tell you so much grief from your passion filled my heart that I forgot everything else. I could remember nothing except your dead body and the place where I buried it, and so I brought ointment this morning. But you have come back to us.’

“And they stayed there lovingly with great joy and gladness. She looked at him closely and asked him about each thing, and he answered willingly. Now, truly, the Passover feast had come. Although it seemed that the Lord held back from her, I can hardly believe that she did not touch him before he departed, kissing his feet and his hands.”
For more on Mary Magdalene, see http://www.cptryon.org/holylives/nt/magd/

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Visit Palestine

Visit Palestine by Boston Public Library
Visit Palestine, a photo by Boston Public Library on Flickr.

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Moses and the Quest for God

We can look at Moses in different ways. Some historians wonder whether he existed at all and might want us to concentrate on what history tells us about him. Or, we could also see Moses strictly as a type of Christ, as the deacon Stephen does in his long speech to the Jews in the Acts of the Apostles. Or, we could see Moses as an example of God’s call to all of us. That’s what the great 4th century Cappadocian mystic, Gregory of Nyssa, does in his classic work “The Life of Moses.”

He sees each step of Moses ‘ life of 120 years as part of an ascent to see the face of God. In his view, Moses is not just an extraordinary Jewish leader to be judged by his accomplishments. More than that, he’s someone who shows us what it means to be called to see the face of God.

Today’s reading (Exodus 2,1-15) is an account of Moses’ first 40 years. They’rep dangerous times. Instead of leaving him to be eaten by animals as the Egyptians command, his Jewish mother puts him in the river in a little boat ( the word for boat in Exodus is the same word used in Genesis for Noah’s ark) So Moses– and all of us too– are placed in the river of life, with a mission from God and the promised protection of his covenant.

Gregory of Nyssa sees in the adoption of Moses by Pharoah’s daughter a lesson for us also. Moses is given human gifts, as well as divine gifts in his ascent to God. He’s given the wealth of the Egyptians, and so are we. We must use the gifts before us, human and divine.

Moses’ first forty years end with the killing of the Egyptian and his subsequent flight to the desert of Midian. By choosing to stand with his own people Moses chooses to stand with God. In life we’re constantly called to make this same choice. If we wish to see the face of God, we must choose it.

Moses’ next forty years are spent in solitude in the mountains of Midian where he lives a virtuous life and finally meets God in the burning bush. Then, at eighty years, he’s sent on to the next stage of his life: leading his people through the desert to the promised land.

Eighty years old– hardly a good time to begin such a momentous task. But Gregory of Nyssa sees Moses’ life as an inward journey, a journey that doesn’t stop, a journey that has nothing to do with age. Moses never thought he was too old for this inner journey:

“…the great Moses, becoming ever greater, never stopped his ascent, never set a limit to his upward course. Once setting his foot on the ladder that God set up (as Jacob says) he continually climbed to the step above and never ceased to rise higher, because there was always a step higher than the one he attained…though lifted up through such lofty experiences, he’s still unsatisfied in his desire for more. He still thirsts for what seems beyond his capacity… beseeching God to appear to him, not according to his capacity, but according to God’s true being.

“Such an experience seems to me to belong to the soul who loves the beautiful. Hope always draws the soul from the beauty that’s seen to what ‘s beyond; it always kindles the desire for what’s hidden from what’s now known. Boldly requesting to go up the mountain of desires the soul asks to enjoy Beauty, not in mirrors, or reflections, but face to face. “ (Gregory of Nyssa)

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How Bad Can It Get

The gospel is supposed to be life at its best, but it also presents life at its worst. What’s worse than being a lamb among wolves? Than living with people who don’t support you and in fact hate you? Than having people beat you with whips? Than having your own brothers and sisters turn against you? Than having people throw you out of town?

Can it get worse than that? You’ll experience all these things, Jesus says in today’s gospel to the Twelve and those who go out with them.

Today’s gospel from Matthew is part of the commissioning of disciples whom Jesus sends as heralds of the kingdom of heaven. They have power to “cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and drive out demons.” Great powers. But that’s not all. They must exercise these powers in the real world.

We can’t forget we live in the real world that Jesus describes in today’s gospel. His way of living in this world is unique. He doesn’t send out armed divisions or powerful super salespeople, but vulnerable lambs. Yet, his lambs are stronger than wolves. Don’t be awed by governors and kings or crushed by adversity or rejection, Jesus says. Just listen to the “Spirit of your Father speaking in you,” and you’ll have wisdom enough.

Even if you’re thrown out of one town, another town waits for the coming of the Son of Man. The real world is not as strong as it seems.

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