Faith gives life and sends us on a mission. That’s what it did for Mary, Luke’s gospel says.
Mary believes the angel who announces in Nazareth the coming of Jesus, and she’s empowered by the message. So, she sets out “in haste” for the hill country of Judea to visit Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah, who also was with child. It’s not an ordinary visit. She goes “in haste” because she’s filled with a sense of mission. She hurries to Judea to announce good news to her relatives serving in the temple of God.
Faith is not a burden; it empowers us. It does not cripple us, it enables.
“Blessed are you who believed,” Elizabeth says to Mary.
“You too, my people, are blessed,” comments St. Ambrose, “ you who have heard and who believe. Every soul that believes — that soul both conceives and gives birth to the Word of God and recognizes his works.
“Let the soul of Mary be in each one of you, to proclaim the greatness of the Lord. Let the spirit of Mary be in each one of you, to rejoice in God. According to the flesh only one woman can be the mother of Christ, but in the world of faith Christ is the fruit of all of us.”
As with Mary so with us, faith gives life and sends us on a mission..
A year ago today we blessed our Mary Garden here. We will pray there after the 11 AM Mass.
Our reading at Mass from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15, 7-21) brings us to a critical moment in the life of the early church– the Council of Jerusalem, which decided whether and on what terms gentiles would be accepted into the new Christian movement. Its decision to admit the gentiles led to a rapid expansion of the church as non-Jews from all parts of the Roman world embraced the faith.
Luke Timothy Johnson has a fine commentary on this crucial event. (Acts of the Apostles: Sacra Pagina, Liturgical Press 1992)
Did a meeting really take place? Johnson writes “we can state with considerable confidence that in the first decades of the Christian movement an important meeting was held concerning the legitimacy and basis of the Gentile mission; that participants included Paul and Peter and James and Barnabas; that certain agreements were reached which, in one way or another, secured the basic freedom of the Gentile initiative. The most striking agreement between the sources comes, in fact, at the religious level. With only very slight variation, both Luke and Paul agree that the basis of the mission to the Gentiles was a matter of God’s gift, (Acts15,11. Gal 2,9) and that God was equally at work in the Apostle Paul as he was in the Apostle Peter. (Acts 15,7-8.12; Gal 2,8)
Notice the hesitancy of the original Jewish followers of Jesus to accept gentiles into their ranks. That’s evident in Peter’s strong reluctance to meet the Roman centurion Cornelius as he visits believers of his own kind around Joppa. Not only are the disciples slow to recognize their Risen Lord, they’re slow to accept his plans for expanding their ranks. Peter must see signs of God at work in Cornelius before baptizing him and his household. Paul, James and Barnabas also must see God’s gifts in the outsiders they meet before they recognize that God is calling them to believe.
God sows seeds of faith, but we’re as slow to recognize the action of God in others as the first disciples were. We have trouble seeing God’s action in the stranger and in the unexpected. We need enlightenment.
Johnson notes that the Church’s journey through time is marked by conflict and debate. We must accept those conditions today too. Those who follow Jesus will not always agree with each other; there are strong opinions and differences among believers.
One thing I would add. Besides conflict and debate, our reading today speaks of the “silence” that comes as they debate. We’re in the presence of our transcendent God, whose ways and thoughts are above ours. We need silence to discern God’s will. Too much talk can get in the way.
We take for granted the ground we stand on. We live at 86-45 Edgerton Boulevard, Queens, Long Island, New York, USA, but the ground we stand on goes deeper than that.
The monastery we live in stands on the highest point of a spine of volcanic rock that goes back at least 400 million years, when the continent was being formed.
About 22,000 years ago the last glacier, the height of a skyscraper, came down from Canada and stopped here. Our monastery stands where the glacier stopped. As it receded and melted the glacier gave us the land we stand on now.
Southeast of us the glacier formed clay flatlands and sandy beaches facing the Atlantic Ocean. The winding depressions in our area, like Midland Parkway next to us, were streams from the glacier bringing sand and clay and rocks to the flatlands east of us.
North of us the last glacier left the waters that became Long Island Sound. The glaciers also left water in the aquifer that still provides drinking water for most of Long Island today.
About 12,000 years ago, the first humans arrived here. Small bands of Indians lived in settlements near streams and waterways where they fished and hunted for game.Then, we came here.
Pope Francis says in his encyclical Laudato Si that we need a long view of life for the days ahead, because we’re facing a world that will be radically transformed by climate change. To prepare, Pope Francis says, we need “an ecological conversion.”
That certainly means knowing more about the physical world we live in, so that we can understand it and care for it. Some say since the time of the Enlightenment in the 17th century we have concentrated too much on the human world and prioritized it too much. We’ve neglected creation and the ground we stand on.
That means also remembering that God created the heavens and the earth and God has a plan for the world. God must remain in the picture of the changing physical world, otherwise life becomes chaotic. We can’t depend on science alone.
Pope Francis, in Laudato Si, while accepting science and its findings, said that besides scientific knowledge, we should mine our own religious traditions for the wisdom and hope they give and he said to look at the Book of Genesis and our spiritual and sacramental traditions to face the future.
Our location here in Queens, particularly our garden, on the edge of a spine of volcanic rock, offers a valuable place for cosmic reflection. Our Mary Garden, based on the garden of Genesis, sees creation with eyes of faith and also with eyes of earthy experience. Water creates the garden, bringing life to everything else. Four rivers flow to the four corners of the earth. The plants in the four quadrants of the garden represent the staples of life– beauty, medicine and food.
Mary stands in our garden as the representative of redeemed humanity, holding in her arms Christ, the Redeemer. She rejoices in creation before her and presents the one, “through whom all things were made,” who blesses the world with hope. Mary also, as a witness to the resurrection of Jesus, knows he has promised a new heaven and a new earth. “Behold, I make all things new,”
Mary’s statue stands on the stump of a large cedar tree, a tree whose roots reach deepest into the earth. At the base of the stump are rocks; most come from parts of our continent swept up by the ancient glacier and deposited here. We put some rocks from the Holy Land there, and a friend recently gave us a rock from Ireland to add to it.
The flowers in the Mary Garden bring the various colors and shapes of the world’s plant life here. Flowers are perhaps the most popular “immigrants” of the plant world, coming from everywhere, welcomed everywhere. Many of them, like the marigold, “Mary’s Gold”, are particularly associated with the Mother of Jesus.
Our Mary garden stands next to a grotto recalling Mary’s appearance at Lourdes in the 19th century when faith in France was eroding in an age of skepticism. Her appearances later at Fatima and the strong devotion to her that persists today remind us she is a permanent witness to Jesus Christ, who promised to remain with us “all days”, even days when the foundations of the earth are shaken. Mary’s a witness who comes when times are bad.
The concept of the Mary Garden developed in 13th century Europe when, during the “Black Death”, people believed a cursed earth caused millions to die. Today as the earth enters its own “passion” the Mary Garden offers a rich resource of Christian wisdom and hope for the days ahead.
I was one of Fr. Thomas Berry’s first students. It was at Holy Cross Preparatory Seminary in Dunkirk, NY in 1950. Tom taught history to seminarians that year and I was in his class.
I remember the first day he came into class with a stack of booklets in his hands. “We have to know what’s going on today in the world,” he said, “and so we’re going to study The Communist Manifesto.”
Now remember, this was 1950. Senator Joe McCarthy had begun a witch-hunt to root out Communist sympathizers and The Communist Manifesto was on the church’s list of forbidden books. We studied it.
Tom never mentioned Joe Mc Carthy or the threats of a Communist takeover in Europe or what was happening then in China. No, he was interested in where the Communist Manifesto came from. Beyond Karl Marx and Lenin, he traced it back to the Jewish prophets and their demands for justice for the poor and human rights. The long view of history was what interested him.
After the Communist Manifesto, we studied St. Augustine’s City of God. Two loves are building two cities, Augustine said. Again, Tom didn’t dwell much on the historical events used by Augustine to illustrate his theory of history. It was the overall dynamic of the two loves in conflict over time that interested him.
From Augustine, we studied Christopher Dawson and his book The Making of Europe. Dawson, one of the 20th century’s “meta-historians,” wasn’t interested only in Europe; he was interested in the whole panorama of civilizations that came before it. That was Tom’s interest too.
As far as I remember, Tom didn’t speak of the universe and its evolution, his focus in later years, yet you could see him heading that way. He had a mind for the long view of things.
Pope Francis in Laudato Si also has a mind for the long view of things. The pope doesn’t quote from The Communist Manifesto, but he insists, more strongly than the manifesto, on the rights of the poor, to which he joins a strong insistence on the rights of the earth.
Can we also hear echoes of Augustine’s City of God in Laudato Si? I think so. The pope speaks of two loves in conflict. There’s the love that builds the city of man. How describe it today? How about blind consumerism; we love things too much. We love our vision of material progress too much. We love our technology too much. We love our control over the earth too much. We love ourselves too much. The result is “global indifference” to an environment falling apart. (Laudato Si, 9,14)
Opposing that love is a love the pope sees in Francis of Assisi, “who was particularly concerned for God’s creation, for the poor and the outcast…he would call all creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister’… If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” (LS, 13)
Berry, like the pope in Laudato Si, accepted science’s view of our environment, yet also like the pope he distanced himself from a major trait of the era of the Enlightenment which unfortunately causes us in the western world “to see ourselves as lords and masters of our environment, entitled to plunder her at will.” (LS, 2)
Science teaches us a lot about our environment and its perilous condition today, but knowledge is one thing and love is another. Two loves are at work. Love doesn’t always follow what we know, especially if our hearts are fixed on something else. Love is hard to change.
The evironment doesn’t seem to be a big issue in our churches, in the media or in the political world. We seem to be avoiding what the pope calls “an ecological conversion.”
It’s not going to happen overnight through some quick fix. We need to get ready for the long haul. And what does that mean? We need wise teachers and leaders to guide us, like Thomas Berry and Pope Francis.
“The present time is not a time for desperation, but for hopeful activity.” Thomas Berry, CP
Monday Acts 14,5-18; John 14, 21-26
Tuesday Acts 14,19-28; John 14, 27-31
Wednesday Acts 15,1-6; John 15, 1-8
Thursday Acts 15, 7-21; John 15, 9-11
Friday Acts 15, 22-31; John 15, 12-17
Saturday Acts 16,1-10; John 15,18-21
The gospel readings for the remainder of the Easter season are from the Farewell Discourse from John’s gospel. Jesus says he is going to the Father. What does that mean, his disciples wonder.
“I will not leave you orphans,” Jesus says, yet he will not be with them as he was before, but he will be with them as God is always with them. Now, the Paraclete, the Spirit of truth, will teach them all things; Jesus’ presence will be signs.
The Acts of the Apostles continue to describe the church’s journey in time. This week’s readings describe the successful missionary efforts of Paul and Barnabas among the gentiles in the Asia Minor cities of Lystra, Derbe, and Pisidia. The mission raises questions in the Jewish Christian community at Jerusalem. Are the gentiles taking over? To meet what some considered a threat and others an opportunity, a council was called in Jerusalem, which has enormous consequences for the church.
Conflict causes the church to grow, Pope Francis said some time ago: “But some in Jerusalem, when they heard this, became ‘nervous and sent Barnabas on an “apostolic visitation”: perhaps, with a little sense of humor we could say that this was the theological beginning of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: this apostolic visit by Barnabas. He saw, and he saw that things were going well.”
Previously in his homily, the pope said that persecution or crises bring growth, often hidden. In the 1960s and 70s, as the church in the western world experienced critical times and decline, tremendous growth took place in Africa, Asia, and South America. Today there are 1.2 billion Catholics in a world of 6 billion people.