Category Archives: Passionists

Jacob Wrestling with God

Jacob wrestling

We’re reading two key stories about the Patriarch Jacob from the Book of Genesis this week. Jacob discovers the presence of God on his journey; then he wrestles with an angel.( Genesis 23, 33-43)

The other readings about Jacob from the bible– which our lectionary leaves out– are far from edifying. Jacob and his wife Rachel, Laban and his sons don’t seem to be the most honest people as they strike deals and, by hook or by crook, try to get the best deal they can get. They don’t seem like people you want for neighbors or do business with.

Yet, God promises Jacob what he promised Abraham:

“I, the LORD, am the God of your forefather Abraham and the God of Isaac; the land on which you are lying I will give to you and your descendants. These shall be as plentiful as the dust of the earth, and through them you shall spread out east and west, north and south. In you and your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing. Know that I am with you; I will protect you wherever you go, and bring you back to this land. I will never leave you until I have done what I promised you.” (Genesis 22,1 8-28)

Even with those sublime words ringing in his ears, Jacob seems to go back to wheeling and dealing, as if the most important thing in the world is the extra sheep he’s going to wheedle out of his father in law.

The Old Testament certainly portrays real life. The early Christian scholar Marcion wanted to throw out the Old Testament altogether, because he claimed it wasn’t spiritual enough. God wouldn’t promise such great things to people like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives and relations and slaves.

I suppose that’s one reason for us to keep reading the Old Testament:  God works in real life. “God is a Potter; he works in mud,” the Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis entitled a chapter in one of his books.

Two things commentators note about the stories of Jacob. First, he doesn’t recognize the presence of God until afterwards. “When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he exclaimed, ‘Truly, the LORD is in this spot, although I did not know it!’” That’s an interesting discovery we all can make. God was there and we didn’t know he was there.–except afterwards.

Second, the commentator for the New American Bible says this about the story of Jacob wrestling in the dark at the river edge with the unknown figure: “The point of the tale seems to be that the ever-striving, ever-grasping Jacob must eventually strive with God to attain full possession of the blessing.”

God engages us and wrestles with us, “ever striving, ever grasping”, whether we like it or not, and we will have scars to prove it.

The Faith of Abraham

Abraham and Isaac
Roman catacombs, 3rd century

What does it mean to believe? Abraham is “our father in faith.” We read his story from the Book of Genesis at the Easter Vigil, where it appears as a key reading, and in odd years from Monday of the 12th week of the year to Thursday of the 13th week of the year.

First, faith is a gift by which God invites us to a life far beyond what we have now. “The Lord said to Abram: ‘Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land I will show you.’” It’s not a land we discover, but a land God shows us. We must leave a land we know and enter a land unknown.

Faith’s a gift, but also a challenge. Genesis 22,1-19 begins: “God put Abraham to the test.” There would be no greater test for Abraham than to take his son, Isaac, “your only one, whom you love,” and go up a high mountain and “offer him up as a burnt offering.”

Intimations of the Passion of Jesus are here: “the high mountain… the only son, whom you love.” Approaching the mountain, Abraham takes “the wood for the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac’s shoulders.” “God will provide the sheep.” Abraham tells Isaac. He builds an altar and arranges the wood. “Next he ties up his son Isaac, and put him on top of the wood on the altar.” All suggesting the Passion of Jesus.

But when Abraham takes his knife, God stops him. “I know how devoted you are. You did not withhold from me your beloved son.” And God blesses him. “I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as the stars of the sky and the sands of the sea.”

The Letter to the Hebrews says, “By faith Abraham, when put to the test, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was ready to offer his only son of whom it was said, ‘Through Isaac descendants shall bear your name.’ He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead and he received Isaac back as a symbol.” (Hebrews 11,18-19)

“He reasoned that God was able to raise even from the dead.” He faces sadness and cruelty. He’s not a dumb executioner, immune to what he was to do, but “he reasoned,” he believed deep within that God was a God of life. Like Jesus, Abraham faced an absurd death like this, and he believed in a God of love and promise. Like Jesus, his answer was “Not my will, but yours be done.”

The commentator in the New American Bible describes Abraham’s test. “… after the successful completion of the test, he has only to buy a burial site for Sarah and find a wife for Isaac. The story is widely recognized as a literary masterpiece, depicting in a few lines God as the absolute Lord, inscrutable yet ultimately gracious, and Abraham, acting in moral grandeur as the great ancestor of Israel. Abraham speaks simply, with none of the wordy evasions of chapters 12 and 21.  The style is laconic; motivations and thoughts are not explained, and the reader cannot but wonder at the scene.

We ask for Abraham’s faith.

Abraham’s sacrifice is portrayed frequently in the Christian catacombs of Rome, where believers also faced the mystery of death. (above)

A medieval book for artists, “Speculum humanae salvationis,” the prime resource medieval artists used for comparing New Testament stories with the Old Testament, pairs the story of Abraham bringing Isaac to be sacrificed with the story of Jesus carrying his cross to Calvary, as shown in the example below:

abraham Passion

Daily Prayer

We celebrate the feast of St. Thomas More today, June 22. Holbein’s painting of More and his family, holding their books, portrays a family that prized learning and prayer. More made sure his daughters were well-educated.

Some of those books, I would say are their prayerbooks, not unusual in those days.. Daily prayer was part of Catholic life and prayerbooks containing psalms, prayers and personal reflections were important to those who could read and afford them.

Daily prayer and prayerbooks may not be high among our spiritual priorities today, I fear, but they should be. Daily prayer is probably going the way of Sunday Mass, becoming “occasional” prayer. But daily prayer has always been at the heart of Christian spirituality. So thank you, More and your family, for reminding us of its importance.

The prayer Jesus taught his disciples, the Our Father, was a daily prayer, one of the ways we get ready for what God sends each day. We’re children of God and should act like God’s children each day.

We need to live each day with large vision, doing our part that God’s kingdom come, “on earth as it is in heaven.” We need “daily bread” of all kinds. We’re part of a messy world that’s torn apart by selfishness and smallness and pride. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We need light to go by the right path. “Deliver us from evil” and guide us to do good.

I don’t think St. Thomas More could have lived so heroically in the world he lived in without daily prayer. It brings vision and grace to us; it’s daily bread.

Morning Prayer: A Genesis Prayer

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We may think morning prayer is a few mumbled words or the Sign of the Cross quickly made, but morning prayer is meant to be an important part of our experience as we wake from darkness and sleep.

“Let there be light and there was light; and God said it was good.” (Genesis 1, 3-4) Light was the first thing God made. True Light, which enlightens everyone, came into our world, John’s gospel says. ( John 1, 9)

I sit on the porch for a few minutes in the early morning and watch the sun come through the tall trees lining our garden to the east. In winter it takes awhile. In summer, the sparrows and the doves and sometimes a pair of cardinals gather at the bird feeder to begin the day. Before I do a thing, the world gradually is bathed in light and comes awake.

Before I do a thing.

Morning prayer is a Genesis Prayer, an assurance we shouldn’t miss. Light comes to our world today, True Light, as it was from the beginning. Darkness is a sign of the world that’s chaotic. The psalms and hymns of morning prayer say light comes, and we pray our eyes be open to see.

The images in morning prayer are important. In the beginning God created a garden, a symbol of the world ordered and in harmony, beautiful and fruitful. God is the great Gardener, a king enthroned over creation, and all is God’s garden, the morning psalms say.

“Shout to the Lord all the earth, ring out your joy…Let the sea and all within it thunder praise, the world and all its peoples. Let the rivers clap their hands, and the hills ring out their joy. Rejoice at the presence of the Lord, for he comes to rule the earth.” (Psalm 98, Wednesday Morning 111)

The world, however chaotic it seems, is cared for by the One who made it.

Sometimes God is a Shepherd, a Great Shepherd bestriding the world: “Here comes with power the Lord God…Like a shepherd he feeds his flock, in his arms he gathers his lambs, carrying them in his bosom and leading the ewes with care.” (Isaiah 40, Thursday Morning 111)

Sometimes we’re asked to see the world as a city, God’s holy city. “On the holy mountain is his city, cherished by the Lord…a holy city.” (Psalm 87 Thursday Morning III) We’re asked to see our world as holy, yet still to be built.

“Sing a new song to the Lord; sing to the Lord, all the earth; sing to the Lord and bless his name.” we’re told as we begin the day. (Psalm 96. Monday Morning, 111)

“Serve the Lord with gladness, come into his presence singing for joy.”

An Immense Sea

View_of_Cliffs_of_Moher
Cliffs of Moher, Ireland

I wonder if St. Gregory of Nyssa ever stood at a place like this. He must have:

“The feelings that come as one stands on a high mountain peak and looks down onto some immense sea are the same feelings that come to me when I look out from the high mountain peak of the Lord’s words into the incomprehensible depths of his thoughts.

“When you look at mountains that stand next to the sea, you will often find that they seem to have been cut in half, so that on the side nearest the sea there is a sheer drop and something dropped from the summit will fall straight into the depths. Someone who looks down from such a peak will become dizzy, and so too I become dizzy when I look down from the high peak of these words of the Lord: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
“These words offer the sight of God to those whose hearts have been purified and purged. But look: St John says No-one has seen God. The Apostle Paul’s sublime mind goes further still: What no man has seen and no man can see. This is the slippery and crumbling rock that seems to give the mind no support in the heights. Even the teaching of Moses declared God to be a rock that was so inaccessible that our minds could not even approach it: No-one can see the Lord and live.
“To see God is to have eternal life – and yet the pillars of our faith, John and Paul and Moses, say that God cannot be seen. Can you understand the dizziness of a soul that contemplates their words? If God is life, whoever does not see God does not see life. If the prophets and the Apostle, inspired by the Holy Spirit, attest that God cannot be seen, does this not wreck all the hopes of man?
 “It is the Lord who sustains our floundering hope, just as he sustained Peter when he was floundering in the water, and made the waters firm beneath his feet. If the hand of the Word stretches out to us as well, and sets us firm in a new understanding when these speculations have made us lose our balance, we shall be safe from fear, held safe in the guiding hand of the Word. Blessed, he says, are those who possess a pure heart, for they shall see God.”

Daily Reading, Daily Bread

Reading the scriptures daily and on Sundays in the lectionary is one of the great reforms begun by the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council. It’s part of the church’s effort to seek renewal through the Word of God. But it’s going to take us awhile to get used to it.

For one thing, reflection on the daily and Sunday readings is a new way to reflect on our faith.  The scriptures are old and we live in a new world.  Pope Benedict, describing his own search for “the face of God” in scripture said you have to “trust” you will find it there.

We have to trust we will find God and enter God’s presence as we take up this daily discipline. “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” God promises to speak today. The daily scriptures are daily bread, and they offer a varied diet. We go from Matthew, preoccupied with the tensions of his church with Pharisaic Judaism,  to Luke preoccupied with an outreach to the gentiles, to the other New Testament writings, each with its own purpose.

Then there are the varied readings from the Old Testament. They can be hard to understand, but the church wisely keeps them side by side with the New Testament. They hold a treasure all their own. We need to understand them better.

We need help to appreciate this daily bread, this varied diet served up. We need people like those people on the cooking shows on television who not only  tell you what to eat but make those strange dishes appetizing and appealing. We need good homilists and good catechists.

We need a “lamp, shining in a dark place.” So we ask: Come, Holy Spirit, fill our hearts with your light.”

Sharing in the Sufferings of Christ

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The weekdays at Mass we’re reading St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, a Christian community in the city of Corinth around the year 50, shortly after the time of Jesus. Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians are favorite sources for historians studying the early Christian church; they also help us reflect on our own church today.

During the easter season we read the Acts of the Apostles– St. Luke’s overview of the early Christian church as it spreads from Jerusalem to Rome after the resurrection of Jesus, mainly through the activity of Peter and Paul. Now, in ordinary time we look more closely at one of the churches Paul founded–the church at Corinth. What was it like?

Drawn from different peoples flocking to the great Mediterranean port, the Christian community at Corinth was diverse; it attracted a variety of preachers and teachers, causing some division, noticeably as they came together to “break bread.” There’s some sexual immorality in this church, close to the open sea. Some were wondering about the resurrection of Jesus.

Its members were not mostly Jewish Christians, though there are some who may have missed the stability found in a Jewish synagogue. There’s no bishop administering this church as yet. Paul’s ministry is to the world; there is no one person in charge here for him to work with.

It’s a church  “in the works,” not complete, with glaring weaknesses, struggling to grow in faith, with plenty of loose ends, looking for answers. It’s a church experiencing great change. It’s a church suffering, not from outward persecution, but from turmoil within.

Maybe a church like ours?

Addressing the Corinthians, Paul sees first their suffering, which he describes as “Christ’s suffering”. He feels that mystery in himself, as he says in the opening chapters of the Second Letter to the Corinthians. He returns to that theme over and over.

Yes, problems must be faced, corrections made, restructuring to take place, but Paul keeps reminding the Corinthians they’re experiencing the sufferings of Christ–with Christ’s suffering comes his encouragement.

Paul knew both–the sufferings of Christ and his encouragement. “We were utterly weighed down beyond our strength, so that we despaired of life,” he writes from the province of Asia, but with suffering came an overflowing encouragement, which always accompanies the sufferings of Christ. “We do not trust in ourselves but in God who raises from the dead.” ( 2 Corinthians 1, 5-11)

Paul’s way is the right way, the first way to look at our experience. We’re tempted to judge, to analyze, to condemn, to throw up our hands and lose hope in the world around us. We need to remember the sufferings of Christ, a mystery affecting us all, and the “encouragement” that always accompanies this mystery.

Listen to Paul speaking to the struggling Corinthians:

“Our hope for you is firm, for we know that as you share in the sufferings, you also share in the encouragement,”

Good letter for us to read these days.