Saturday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Lectionary: 256

He did not say this on his own, but since he was high priest for that year, he prophesied that Jesus was going to die for the nation, and not only for the nation, but also to gather into one the dispersed children of God.

The Gospel of Saint John divides into two sections, called the Book of Signs and the Book of Glory. Today's gospel closes the first, and represents the transition to the second. We have seen Jesus give marvelous "signs." They were in the form of teachings (Nicodemus), preternatural knowledge ("You have five husbands!"), healing the sick and reviving the dead (Lazarus). 
Each sign demonstrated to those who would believe Jesus' identity and mission. They proved nothing to skeptics, nor did that worry the Evangelists. They were not cursed with our preoccupation with "scientific proof." They knew that Truth is revealed by knowledge of God; it is not a rickety theory built of uncertain facts. 
The disciples of Jesus have demonstrated through a series of tests their willingness to believe in Jesus. Many had followed him at one time or another; most decided they'd heard enough and walked away. We saw a major culling of the flock when Jesus declared, "You must eat my flesh and drink my blood." 
As a result of this, many [of] his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.
That painful process of separating sheep from goats continued even in this eleventh chapter: 
Many of the Jews who had come to Mary and seen what Jesus had done began to believe in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 
A friar recently asked me if the VA hospital has success in helping alcoholics and drug addicts to recover. 
I replied, "Call no man happy before he has died.The addict can always return to his abuse; the faithful spouse can abandon marriage; doting parents can disown their children. 
The faithful pray each day for perseverance in their vocation.  Disciples of the Lord can always turn away from him; he does not deny our freedom.  
As we enter Holy Week we beg the Lord to give us that courageous Spirit that will follow him through the Valley of Death, even to Calvary. 

Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent

I hear the whisperings of many:
"Terror on every side!
Denounce! let us denounce him!"
All those who were my friends
are on the watch for any misstep of mine.
"Perhaps he will be trapped; then we can prevail,
and take our vengeance on him."

For Lenten meditation, I have been reading Booker T. Washington (Up from Slavery), W.E.B Dubois (The Souls of Black Folks), and James Weldon Johnson (The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man.) I found these extended essays in a single volume, Three Negro Classics. I call this reading a Lenten project because it considers America's Original Sin, racism. (The idea is not my own; it was popularized in 2016 by Jim Wallis and his book, America's Original Sin, which I've yet to read.)

An original sin is, by definition, the opposite of a people's founding principle; and our founding principle is, "All men are created equal." The United States was the first nation in history to attempt building its identity and legal foundations on an ideal. But the principle flies in the face of reality; all men are obviously not created equal. Some are larger, some are smaller. Some are gifted with more native intelligence; others are slow-witted. Some are manually dexterous; others are clumsy. Beyond those genetic differences are the disparities we create of class, wealth, education and opportunity. For tens of thousands of years the disparities of wealth, status and power were regarded as natural and necessary as rain. 
Building a nation on the principle of equality is daring at best. The Founding Fathers knew it when they wrote the Constitution. Some feared the question of slavery might only be resolved by a civil war. The new republic with its complicated bicameral machinery spent "four score and seven years" trying to avoid it.
The upheaval was both inevitable and futile. The War Between the States settled very little. In many cases the slaves became sharecroppers, as bound to the land by poverty, policy and law as any European peasants. Like the 21st century exercises in Afghanistan and Iran, there was no plan for what would happen after the war. How should the freedmen and freedwomen be reeducated for freedom after three centuries of brutal slavery? How would their former masters be persuaded that their former chattel might be as intelligent and capable as themselves, given opportunities for education and advancement? Washington showed how whites and blacks despised work. Work was what slaves did, not free people. And illiterate former slaves had never enjoyed the benefits of work; freedom meant no work! They knew nothing of money or saving or investing. 
These three negro classics, written one and two generations after Emancipation, recall the enormous task that confronted the nation and its massive failure. The best attempts were half-hearted; in many cases they were intentionally sabotaged. I remember the upheavals of the 1950's and 60's -- a half-century later -- an era of riots, marches and some legislation; and the hope that America might yet fulfill its promise to all its citizens. Progress was made but only some.
We can call racism the "original sin" because of its intractability. It is that "damned spot" that does not go away. It's roots are deeper even than our history of slavery and segregation. It involves relations and attitudes of a dominant culture with minorities of every sort; the list alone is daunting, including everyone from African-Americans to women to people with disabilities.
I don't see an end in sight. What I hear is, "African-Americans should have caught up by now; it's their own fault if they haven't. We owe them nothing more!"  But that sentiment hasn't changed since 1869. 
The "American Experiment" began with an untested ideal that appeared during the Enlightenment and seemed to have its origin in the Jewish/Christian tradition. People devoutly hoped this reasonable principle could be attained within a single lifetime, and with little sacrifice. Rationality, they supposed, would disprove and dispel the old doctrines of Original Sin and Grace. 
Lent invites us to consider the dream of democracy theologically. Lent reminds us that we cannot save ourselves. Gentle reason, promised rewards and hideous threats cannot force us to create a more perfect union. Only God can effect it when we consent to to carry the Cross of Equality. 

Thursday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Jesus answered, "If I glorify myself, my glory is worth nothing; but it is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, 'He is our God.' You do not know him, but I know him. And if I should say that I do not know him, I would be like you a liar. But I do know him and I keep his word. Abraham your father rejoiced to see my day; he saw it and was glad."

Unfortunately, the Christian religion, first embraced by the Roman Empire and then outlasting it, took on some of the spirituality of empire; that is, an uncritical veneration of power. Succeeding empires in their turn -- the Holy Roman, Spanish, French, English, Dutch, Portuguese, Russian and so forth -- would embrace Christianity as their state religions, and for the same reason -- it's unquestioning reverence for power.
Religion teaches that one, only Sovereign God is all-powerful; empire must be all-powerful to sustain its legitimacy; they're obvious allies. When in doubt, might makes right. If you don't agree with the powerful, if you have some personal reservations about your rulers, you will be forgiven for going along to get along

The writers of the American Constitution attempted to distance this nation from state religion. No Christian sect would enjoy preference in this new polity. They assumed the Christian ethos, inherited from Europe, would be maintained by the many Christian denominations despite their endless quarreling. If there were other religions in the United States (Muslims, Jews, Native Americans or Buddhist) Christians assured themselves, "We all worship the same god (i.e. Power) so it doesn't matter.

Not many years later, a nation broken by Civil War needed a common religion to pull it together and the American Civil Religion was born. Documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address became holy writ for this religion. The American flag is its sacrament; federal buildings, monuments and parks are its holy places; and the Star-spangled Banner, America the Beautiful and God Bless America, its hymns. The righteousness of this religion is proven by America's ranking among the nations; it has the most powerful military, economy and cultural influence. Its might makes it unquestionably right. Patriotic Americans can assure themselves they are the freest people on earth; they have the power to prove it.

Brilliant green moss by the creek
on a late winter day
The kenosis of Jesus stands rather awkwardly before the cult of power. This humility, he tells us, reflects his Father's behavior. He is, as Saint Paul says, the perfect image of the invisible God. He does nothing except that which he has seen in the Father. If he is obedient, it's because his Father is obedient. There is priority in the Trinity -- the Father proceeds the Son and the Holy Spirit; the Son and the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father -- but there is no superiority. There can be no domination when each cheerfully, readily, eagerly obeys the others. 

In uttering the Word the Father surrenders completely to the Word made flesh -- like a dancer surrendering to her ecstasy. In loving obedience the Son responds, pouring out himself as an oblation -- a gift received and given back -- to the Father. Jesus' surrender to the Father on Calvary, even to the last drop of water, blood and breath, consummates the sacrifice.

This kind of divinity is unimaginable to those religions that celebrate power. They deify power to prop their own governments. Their god must jealously guard that strength and cannot surrender it without suffering annihilation.

Abraham rejoiced to see the humility of God. He saw it and was glad.

Wednesday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Lectionary: 253

Jesus answered them, "Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. A slave does not remain in a household forever, but a son always remains. So if the Son frees you, then you will truly be free.

Watching someone's graceful movement or gracious generosity we notice their freedom. Grace, from the Latin word gratis means free or freely. When Americans celebrate our freedom we're speaking of what our Christian religion calls grace.
We have a saying, "Freedom is not free!" meaning it costs a lot. The expression is often used to support military recruiting and spending. It costs the taxpayer plenty, but if he believes that freedom is not free he pays it willingly. This payment includes military salaries and Veterans' benefits. Recruits expect the nation's gratitude for their sacrifice.
Of course, the proverb also has its shadow side. Providing more freedom than many people can handle entails incarceration of millions of people. The United States has imprisoned the most citizens -- and the largest percentage of its citizens -- of any nation on earth. Most of these prisoners hate being in jails and prisons but they have demonstrated their inability to cope with the open, unbounded freedom we offered them. Apparently, they did not consider the consequences of their free, deliberate choices. They must be confined for our safety and theirs. (Some actually prefer the confinement and limited possibilities. It's easier than a lot of the complexity of freedom.)
We also see the cost of freedom on the highway. We know that traffic deaths go down when speed limits are lower, and higher when they are raised. So we ask ourselves how many lives are we willing to pay for the freedom of 70 miles per hour?
There are similar calculations around the second amendment. The more access to guns, the more people die by suicide, accident, murder or self-defense. The nation is now asking itself, "How many lives are we willing to pay for this second amendment right?"
Some might argue it shouldn't be that way. People should handle their freedom responsibly. But there is no Nation of Should, and decisions, attitudes and policies in the real world have consequences.
The saying "Freedom is not free" invites a second consideration: Freedom is a jealous God. It will not abide strange gods or irresponsible behavior. It severely punishes any infidelity.
For I, the LORD, your God, am a jealous God,inflicting punishment for their fathers' wickednesson the children of those who hate me,down to the third and fourth generation;
The children of alcoholics, drug addicts and convicts, for instance, inevitably suffer the consequences of their parents' behavior. They are often burdened with fetal alcohol syndrome, poverty and traumatic memories of abuse. Fortunately, in God's mercy, they are also given the opportunities of freedom. No one has unlimited freedom and these unfortunate children might have fewer opportunities than those born of responsible persons, but freedom cannot be denied to anyone.
The freedom that Jesus offers is not free; it costs the price of his blood. But, the spiritual masters assure us, "There is no shadow in the cross!" It is pure grace, all good. Christian spouses seek ways to please their partners. Christian parents provide for their children without counting the cost. Faithful parishioners need little persuasion and less cajoling to make sacrifice for the church. Surrendering to freedom, Christians willingly, readily take up their allotted crosses. And so we celebrate Easter again, remembering the cost Jesus willingly paid, reentering the waters of baptism with him as we renew our Easter vows, and inviting others to go down with us to pay the price of freedom.

Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent

So they said to him, "Who are you?"
Jesus said to them, "What I told you from the beginning. I have much to say about you in condemnation.
But the one who sent me is true, and what I heard from him I tell the world."
They did not realize that he was speaking to them of the Father.

The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar asked the question, "Who is he?" I attended the show once in the early aughts here in Louisville. It was a peaceful summer evening in Iroquois Park, with the roar of cicadas filling the silences. The music was the same as I'd heard in the 1970's but the production was altogether different. Audience and cast no longer asked, "Who is he?" They were quite sure they knew.
I was caught between dread and profound discomfort. The show seemed the very worst of American conceit. The mystery of this ancient near-eastern Jew had been rendered white, suburban middle-class and entirely predictable.
Fortunately, it was a Saturday evening and I would celebrate our beautiful Mass in the morning. The Mass has not been doctored or sanitized to fit any nation's expectations. The authorized translations of our prayers do not attempt political or cultural correctness. They retain their roots in the traditions that Jesus received from his ancestors and adapted for his disciples. People who might be offended by certain words like his, many or consubstantial are invited to set aside their fears and discover the divine purpose behind these words. Words cannot explain the mystery of God, but their meanings, music and cadence can evoke it without profanation or violence. They invite us into God's presence.
If you would have an answer to the question, "Who are you?" Jesus directs your attention to "the one who sent me."
How often in ordinary affairs do we identify ourselves by someone else? "I am Marty and Edith's son. I am Robert's brother. I am friend of Father Tom. I am a Franciscan." You can hardly say you know someone if you know nothing of his people: his family, friends, colleagues, co-religious, and so forth.
When his opponents miss Jesus' allusion to his Father, it's obvious they do not know the God who sent him, despite their confident pretensions.
During this season of Lent, with Holy Week about to open before us, the Lord invites everyone to come with him to Jerusalem. Those who know him and those who don't fall in line to carry their crosses and walk in his footsteps. There is no place in his retinue for the casual acquaintance or the sometime friend. His mission is too serious for that.
As Saint Thomas said, "Let us also go to die with him."

Solemnity of Saint Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Joseph, son of David,
do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.
For it is through the Holy Spirit
that this child has been conceived in her.

Recently a man poured out his heart to me about a great tragedy he had suffered. The  horrific incident shook the whole city of Louisville for the period of one news cycle. For reasons he could not explain he had been shown pictures of the bodies. Though he had deleted the photos, he could not get them out of his mind. They appeared to him day and night, week after week. I gave him a rosary brochure with a picture of the "Madonna and Child." I urged him to look at this icon whenever the Horror reappeared to him. By gazing upon the sacred image, as Saint Clare encouraged her sisters, we can be relieved of horrible images and healed of their deep, psychic wounds. I have given Veterans that picture on many occasions with similar instructions; but on this occasion, for once, the fellow actually gazed upon the image. He had just enough Catholic upbringing to know who it represented; he was in such desperate straits he looked to her.
The Angel in Joseph's dream instructed him, "Do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home." The Angel's command applies to everyone who wants Jesus' healing; we must welcome his Mother.
"She represents the Church." it has been said. She is the Church. This feast of Saint Joseph is also a celebration of the woman he loved. As a married couple, they are inseparable.

"For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her."
The twentieth century saw a reawakening of interest in the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Church has always prayed "Come Holy Ghost" but the Pentecostal movement among Protestants jolted Catholics into a new awareness of this Divine Presence. The Second Vatican Council also encouraged Catholics to invoke the Holy Spirit; we should be inspired, fired up, energized by the same Spirit that conceived a child in the womb of the Virgin Mary. One can hardly expect to receive a measure of that spirit without finding oneself in communion with her.
As we prepare for Holy Week and Easter we hurry with Mary to Jerusalem. She was among the thousands who made the Passover pilgrimage to the Holy City. She was there on Calvary when Jesus died; and in the Cenacle when the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples. This pilgrimage will remind us that being inspired is not always about dancing in wild, gleeful abandonment. It is not necessarily making a loud noise for the Lord. The Spirit of Joseph may lead us into exile; the Spirit of Mary may lead us to Calvary. In exile we might meet Rachel grieving her children; and, on Calvary we find a grandfather who mourns the loss of his beautiful boys. We drink the cup of sorrow which Jesus offers us, and are refreshed on Easter.

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Lectionary: 35

"I am troubled now. Yet what should I say?
'Father, save me from this hour'? 
But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour. 
Father, glorify your name."

The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary begin with Jesus' "Agony in the Garden." The story is told with much detail in the synoptic gospels. Because we ponder this mystery often, we are acutely aware of Jesus' human nature and must feel great compassion for him. 

He entered the Garden of Gethsemane after sunset on that spring day a healthy young man; he would die before the sun set a second time. Realizing what was to happen, this human being felt such a deep dread that his knees buckled and he fell to the ground.
John tells us of Jesus' encounter with his tormentors in the Garden but his agony appears in today's gospel, before his Last Supper. It is only a moment. He remembers his Father and his purpose; and immediately surrenders, "Father, glorify your name." 

As a preacher, I would be foolish to conclude, "We should do as Jesus does!" Who can totally yield to "God's will" as Jesus does with no more than a moment's hesitation? In fact we might suppose the Evangelists gave us this dramatic story only to reemphasize his "human side." As they describe him, Jesus never hesitates to follow the promptings of God's Spirit. I cannot lay on other people a burden that I cannot carry. 

But we can reflect together on the beauty of Jesus' intimacy with his God, whom he calls Father and Abba. This is a revelation of the triune nature of our God, a mystery beyond comprehension and yet so compelling as we study the Gospel and celebrate our sacraments. The mystery is not simply an enigma of one and three, three and one; some kind of bizarre mathematical formula. 

Rather, it is a mystery of personal communion. To know Jesus is to know he is obedient to his Father. He says only what the Father has commanded him to speak. He does nothing which he has not seen his Father do. 
“Amen, amen, I say to you, a son cannot do anything on his own, but only what he sees his father doing; for what he does, his son will do also.
root of a fallen tree by
the creek at MSF
As John tells the story, the events of Holy Week reveal the glory of God, beginning with chapter 13, the Last Supper and the disturbing scene of Jesus' washing his disciples' feet. He directs our attention continually to the humiliation of God, his kenosis. Not only does Jesus abase himself before his disciples, the Jewish authorities, the mob, the Roman soldiers and procurator, he pours out the last measure of himself as blood, water and spirit flow from his wasted body. There is nothing left to give.
But this kenosis reveals the Glory of God, for he has done only what his Father did in giving Jesus all authority in heaven and earth. Is it possible that a man has such authority? That he should have it? That he has earned it somehow? 
This Fifth Sunday of Lent prepares us to walk with Jesus through Holy Week, and to see what is beyond all comprehension. It is more than Truth, which flusters the mind; it is Beauty, which captivates the heart.