Saturday of Easter Week

A rainy day at
Mount Saint Francis

Observing the boldness of Peter and John
and perceiving them to be uneducated, ordinary men,
the leaders, elders, and scribes were amazed,
and they recognized them as the companions of Jesus.

If the government were arresting and prosecuting Christians, would they have enough evidence to convict you?
They certainly had the goods on Peter and John. Not only were they preaching in the name of Jesus, they healed a crippled man who then demonstrated the miracle by dancing in the temple.
In our multicultural, politically-correct society Christianity is often compared to other religions. It is a religion after all, and lends itself to comparison. That being said, Christians then have to demonstrate what gives our religion the right to evangelize the others.
I have written earlier (see Wednesday of 4th week of Lent) of our doctrine of the Trinity. On that occasion I wrote about Jesus, the second person of the Trinity; and how this doctrine sets us apart from other monotheistic religions. As we have entered the Easter Season, we will now hear of God the Holy Spirit.
We know God the Father as the One God of the Jews. The Letter to the Hebrews summarizes that story with its first words:
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets;
He goes on to say:
in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe…. (Hebrews 1: 1-2)
These two stages of history – the ancient past of the Father and the recent experience of the Son – now give way to the unfolding revelation of the Holy Spirit. These doctrines of Jesus the Son of God and the Holy Spirit of God are revealed to us! If we had made them up they would be easier to explain.
How do we know the Holy Spirit? We might expect the appearance of a dove or rushing winds or flames of tongue, but the actual demonstration of God the Holy Spirit is the lively, creative dauntless courage of Jesus’ disciples. Although his disciples are clearly and undeniably human, they are filled with inexplicable energy and confidence and wisdom.
(The Acts of the Apostles even relates one humorous story when the apostles were mistaken for gods.)
Some Christian religions have pared the doctrine severely by ascribing odd things like glossolalia and paranormal incidents to the “Holy Ghost.” They suppose if you don’t have the gift of tongues you don’t have the Holy Spirit. Saint Paul’s words should have put the kibosh on that a long time ago:
Therefore I want you to understand that... no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:3)

There are as many ways to experience the Spirit of God as there are people on earth, and more. And it is extraordinarily difficult to say with assurance that something is not of the Holy Spirit. The New Testament is laden with thorny discussions about how to determine if this or that impulse is from the Holy Spirit. Eventually the Church will teach us that God cannot urge us to immoral acts. And she will insists that we should “test every spirit.”
Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world. (I John 4:1)
We also find lists of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control) and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, (wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety, and fear of the Lord. Isaiah 11: 2-3) 
But even these lists only suggest the infinite graces of God superabundant generosity. The real proof of God’s Holy Spirit is the whole new person who appears when one has given her life over to Jesus Christ. She is recognizably the same person and yet there is an extraordinary difference.
I think of the Samaritan Woman who rushed into her village to tell about the Messiah she met at the village cistern. Because this apparently despised woman spoke with such courage and joy the whole village went up to meet Jesus, and came to believe in him:
…and they said to the woman, "We no longer believe because of your word; for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the savior of the world." (John 4: 42)
The real proof of the Holy Spirit is also in the extraordinary works of the Church, too many to be enumerated. We have built everything from universities to hospitals to cities in God’s name. All, of course, are flawed by our human weakness and in constant need of further direction but in toto they reveal the presence of God in our world.
There may not be enough evidence to arrest you or me, but clearly the Spirit of God is alive in our world. It is refreshing where other religions stagnate.

Friday of Easter week

If we are being examined today
about a good deed done to a cripple,
namely, by what means he was saved,
then all of you and all the people of Israel should know
that it was in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean
whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead;
in his name this man stands before you healed.
He is the stone rejected by you, the builders,
which has become the cornerstone.
There is no salvation through anyone else,
nor is there any other name under heaven
given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”

The Church has always revered the Holy Name of Jesus. Although it was a common name among the Jews of Palestine, and remains a popular name among Christians today, it is rich with meaning and was specifically chosen by God. In both infancy narratives of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke, an Angel tells Mary and Joseph to name the child Jesus.
This is essentially the name Moses gave to his lieutenant, Hoshea (Numbers 13:8). Joshua means “YHWH saves.” After Moses died Joshua led the people to capture Jericho and then oversaw the settlement of Canaan.
 In the Roman Empire what you knew was less important than who you knew. What you really needed were powerful patrons in high places. In our own time, when the worth of money fluctuates hourly and your proficiency will be superannuated by next year, it still helps to know the right people. They open doors, provide information, make contacts and facilitate operations. Successful people are often the best schmoozers.
The early Christians regarded Jesus as a better name than Caesar. There was no better name in heaven, on earth or under the earth. And the best way to improve that name was not by keeping it secret. There was no need for jealousy here. They would spread the Good News to the far corners of the Earth so that everyone would know, bless and hallow that name.
Twelve centuries later, Saint Francis would preach the name of Jesus. The authors of his legends say he called the name like a sheep calling for his shepherd. Preachers in the southern United States would adopt a similar usage as they sing out the word.
The Franciscan Saint Bernadine of Siena encouraged Italian crowds to pray in the name of Jesus. In fact he urged Catholic to add Jesus’ name to the end of their prayer, the Ave Maria. Until that time it was simply a repetition of two of Saint Luke’s verses: “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women” plus “Blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Bernadine asked the congregations, “Who is the fruit of her womb?” and they all cried, “Jesus!”
(Some years later, as the Black Death swept over Europe, they added more phrases, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.”)
Christians still revere the name of Jesus in our prayer. Many people bow their head whenever they hear the word.
Jesus is the Word made flesh. His very name has become flesh. We should keep the name always in our hearts and often on our lips as we go about our lives. Every passing ambulance wails for prayer; every tragic headline urges us to prayer; every sad sensation and happy emotion compels us to pray in the sweet name of Jesus.
For there is no salvation through anyone else,
nor is there any other name under heaven
given to the human race by which we are to be saved.”

Thursday of Easter Week

Sir Knights at the
Indianapolis KC State Assembly

For Moses said:
A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you
from among your own kin;
to him you shall listen in all that he may say to you.
Everyone who does not listen to that prophet
will be cut off from the people.

The Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI begins the first volume of his book Jesus of Nazareth reflecting on Moses’ words, A prophet like me will the Lord, your God, raise up for you from among your own kin….  I am fascinated by his reflections on Jesus as prophet, especially after reading Abraham Heschl’s The Prophets.

The Hebrew prophets appeared at a time when the entire mid-east was rife with charismatic movements of every religion from Egypt to Mesopotamia. Yet, Heschl insists the Hebrew prophets were not like these others. They made no pretensions to knowledge of the future and made no promises of salvation through arcane rites. They simply demanded that the people, their priests and rulers live in obedience to God. As the Prophet Micah said, You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.

We know the right thing to do; we just don’t do it. We relegate God’s demands to those things we must do after we’ve taken care of our own needs. First we’ll buy oversized, gas guzzling automobiles and live in bedroom communities far from supermarkets, schools, places of work, and recreational centers; then we’ll ponder going green. First we’ll buy water in disposable plastic bottles; then we’ll worry about landfills.  First we’ll electrify everything from golf carts to toothbrushes; then we’ll complain about fossil fuels. First we’ll fix our economy, then we’ll worry about impoverished nations. First we’ll make a mess of our world, then we’ll wonder why God is so unfair.

The Prophet Jesus lives among us to show how to live in Truth and Mercy and Goodness. He shows us true beauty and joy. Recognizing him reorients our life and all our choices. We ignore him at our own risk. 

The resurrection of Jesus also demonstrates the enormous resilience of God’s mercy. This is not something we should take for granted but we can rely on God when we finally turn back to him. The irrepressible Word of the Hebrew Prophets was made flesh and lived among us. Even when we have crucified him, our only hope, he returns with healing grace:
Now I know, brothers and sisters,
that you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did;
but God has thus brought to fulfillment
what he had announced beforehand
through the mouth of all the prophets,
that his Christ would suffer.
Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away,
and that the Lord may grant you times of refreshment
and send you the Christ already appointed for you, Jesus,

Wednesday of Easter Week

He leaped up, stood, and walked around,
and went into the temple with them,
walking and jumping and praising God.

When I was a chaplain at the University of Minnesota Hospital I was occasionally called to the Shriners Hospital for Children, to anoint patients before their surgery. Boys and girls came with their families from all over the United States to receive free treatment, helping them to stand tall and walk straight. Seeing the children with sadly twisted legs, arms and spines I was reminded of the terrible suffering that often afflicts our human life.
With our cities segregated into rich, middle and poor neighborhoods and our experience dominated by the antiseptic lens of the television, we often overlook the many miseries of human life. 
Only lately, and tentatively, have people with disabilities dared to come out and demand their fair share of life. For too long they were hidden away by the shame of their families. Christians have considered disability a sign of God’s disfavor. If they could do nothing else about it, they could hide it.
Since humans first gathered into cities we have seen afflicted human beings begging in our streets. They might not survive in the countryside where their only support was an impoverished family, but in the cities they could accost and beg from strangers. Human compassion, with or without a religious faith, can hardly turn away from such pathos.
Today’s first reading reminds us of this familiar tragedy; here is a crippled man begging at the Beautiful Gate of Jerusalem’s temple. He might as well represent every sick and disabled person on earth, needing compassion and help, and receiving barely enough to survive. Twenty centuries later, here in the United States, we know, “People don’t live on the street; they die on it.” Taxpayers provide some assistance to the poor and needy, but it's usually done begrudgingly and with innumerable controls, and it's barely enough for human subsistence. 
Peter and John, who have neither silver nor gold, give from their superabundance. God has blessed them richly with the name of Jesus. The Apostle’s freedom to heal this fellow demonstrates our new freedom. We can be boldly generous because God will provide everything we ask. Our roots run deep and our fruit is plentiful, not because we are wealthy by human standards but because God’s providential love is inexhaustible.  A cloud of witnesses in our churches and volunteer organizations continually tells us stories of God’s generosity. Religious magazines and newspapers report innumerable incidents of charity. They all agree, “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you!”

Easter Tuesday

Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?
Whom are you looking for?”
She thought it was the gardener and said to him,
“Sir, if you carried him away,
tell me where you laid him,
and I will take him.”
Jesus said to her, “Mary!”
She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni,”
which means Teacher.

In the beginning, God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.  But, as you know, the first couple foolishly refused obedience to God and then, to make matters worse, turned against one another. Instead of taking full responsibility for what he had done, Adam blamed both his wife and his God: “The woman whom you put here with me--she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.” Today’s story from the Gospel of Saint John describes the reconciliation of man and woman, the healing of relationships between men and women.
For too long the war of the sexes has raged. People sometimes joke about it but it may well be the longest running and worse of all wars. Its front is in every house in every neighborhood in every city, town and farm on the face of the earth. In many places the space between men and women is friendly and reassuring. But in too many places it is a no man’s land of treachery, deceit, violence and occasional murder. Only God knows the full extent of the casualties.
John has already described the “hour” of reconciliation:
Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his home.
No one supposes that the Virgin and the Disciple were married but we do see the birth/baptism of the Church at the moment of Jesus’ death. “When Jesus had taken the wine, he said, "It is finished." And bowing his head, he handed over the spirit.”
As John tells the story, Jesus "handed over the spirit" to the  Virgin and the Disciple whom Jesus loved. They are born from the side of Jesus as Eve was taken from Adam's side. Washed in the blood and baptized in the water that flowed from his body, we find a man and woman bound together in obedience to his dying words. 
Their relationship is a model of peace, safety and harmony for the entire world. Even their virginity reminds us that marriage requires the virtue of chastity; that is, a holy apatheia before the mystery of sexuality.

Today’s gospel described the ecstatic joy of Mary of Magdala as the Lord reveals himself to her. Her desolation and despair disappear in a moment of sublime relief. In his one word address to her we hear the tender sympathy of a man who cares deeply for this woman.
The healed relationship of man and woman echoes the promise we have heard so often among the Hebrew prophets from Hosea, Isaiah and Ezekiel to Jesus, Saint Paul and John of Patmos (The Book of Revelation). God loves his people as a husband loves his wife; a married couple should love one another as God loves his people. 
This is not simply the church’s teaching; this is a divine revelation about the true nature of sexual relations. It was shown to us in that long awaited "hour" when Jesus died. Marriage is not a war zone but a paradise of safety, assurance, healing, reconciliation and empowerment. Two by two the Church sends men and women into the world to announce the right order of life.
This is why the Church reacts so strongly against every attack on marriage, be it divorce, adultery, serial polygamy, or “gay marriage.”  While some people think these arrangements might be good enough for the broken situations in which we live, they do not reflect the self-sacrificing union of Jesus and his Church; they cannot be called marriage. We cannot accept any institution that would compromise or relativize this teaching. There is no relationship that equals the sublime promise and beauty of marriage. Even the esteemed consecration of monks, nuns, friars and sisters has never been elevated to a sacrament. 

Easter celebrates the renewed potential for holiness among men and women. This is not simply a promise made to individuals. It is a promise realized and fulfilled in the consecration of husbands and wives to their sacrament.

Easter Monday

Scott and Chanel Cunningham
Knights of Columbus State Advocate

Therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices,
my body, too, abides in confidence;
Because you will not abandon my soul to the nether world,
nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.
R. Keep me safe, O God; you are my hope.
                Psalm 16

Easter celebrates the victory Jesus has won over sin, sickness, corruption and death. We celebrate it because He shares his victory with us.
In the face of several centuries of cold scientific study, it is hard to maintain a belief in life after death. What evidence do we have for such a belief? “The bright, shining light” that some people claimed to see when their hearts stopped for a moment? But they really weren’t dead. They were only in mortal danger of dying and were fortunately revived. I heard a doctor explain the only known cure for death is Talitha cum and Lazarus, come out! “When you’re dead,” he said, “you’re dead.”

Our predicament wonders about those who are clearly dead, for months and years and now centuries. What hope do we have for their revival? Some Jews don’t believe in life after death and we inherited our belief in everlasting life from them!
And where will all those people go on judgment day? Will there be enough room for everyone? Of course, if you’re a fundamentalist you think there will be only 144,000 saved, fewer than the population of most cities. Given the great cost of our salvation, the death of Jesus Christ the Son of God, that seems rather parsimonious.
And how long is eternity, anyway? Could King David imagine that his kingdom would last till 2011 A.D, some three thousand years, with no end in sight? He probably thought the End would come a lot sooner than that.

In short, there seems to be a lot more questions than answers about everlasting life. And yet we believe in it. We who love Jesus cannot imagine that he will abandon us to the cold emptiness and utter pointlessness of annihilation.
Therefore my heart is glad and my soul rejoices,
my body, too, abides in confidence;
Because you will not abandon my soul to the nether world,
nor will you suffer your faithful one to undergo corruption.
In our Catholic tradition we honor Mary as the second person to be exempted from the ignominy of corruption. There too, imagination fails us. We can’t imagine Jesus permitting his most faithful mother to undergo corruption in an unmarked grave. The doctrine of her Assumption is an assurance to all Christians that we will be raised up with Jesus. Where she has gone we hope to follow.

Science can tell us only about things it measures, which is a laughably small fraction of reality. We have far more evidence of everlasting life in our everyday experience of this world. How many times have I died already and been revived? I was lost in foolishness, stupidity and sin; and I have been delivered. I was overcome with despair and I was given hope. I believed I could not be forgiven and yet ordinary, sinful, good people forgave me.
No one expected Jesus to rise from the dead. They could not see it coming. Our scriptures testify to that as all of the stories of his post-resurrection appearance describe their utter astonishment. They thought he was a ghost or a garrulous stranger or a silly rumor generated by hysterical women. No one can predict the future and anyone who denies the power of God to raise the dead is talking through his hat. He has no evidence to back his scientific claim. We cannot imagine what eye has not seen, ear has not heard, what God has ready for those who love him.

Though we have not seen, we rejoice. Alleluia, the Lord is risen. 

Easter Sunday 2011

Therefore, let us celebrate the feast, 
not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, 
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Bread makers keep a lump of dough from one batch to the next because it contains the germ of yeast. Yeast, of course, is everywhere in the atmosphere but it’s richer and more accessible in last week’s lump of dough. During the Pasch Jewish bakers were instructed to throw out the old lump and begin with a fresh, unleavened batch of dough. Eventually, as they kneaded the dough week after week it would garner yeast out of the atmosphere, but that first Paschal bread was pretty flat.
To this day the Catholic Church uses unleavened bread for our hosts, recalling the fresh, newness of the Pasch.
Saint Paul invokes that ancient practice to describe the new life of the Christian. As the gospel moves from culture to culture and century to century we pick up a lot of alien practices. Many are harmless, (for instance, the photographs at baptisms and first communions); but some contradict the essential ritual and confuse the ceremony, (as does the wedding candle*).
Likewise, every Christian brings some expectations to his faith practice that are really unnecessary. They tell the story of the young American missionary who was offended by the native women suckling their young as he preached. To solve the problem he distributed free t-shirts to his entire congregation. The following week the nursing mothers arrived with large circles cut in their shirts, to suckle their young.
Barbara Kingsolver, in her wonderful novel, The Poisonwood Bible, tells of the missionary who tried valiantly to persuade his people to go down into the river to be baptized. Year after year they politely refused. He was profoundly frustrated because he believed they could not be saved unless they were baptized by immersion in the river. Finally someone told him, “There are crocodiles in that river. We don’t go in there!”
In a Manichean society such as our own, where people believe there are clear and distinct differences between Good and Evil (for instance, that liberal is evil and conservative is good without a clear definition of either word), many people bring a heretical yeast that is thousands of years old. How many attitudes do I carry which simply don’t fit my Christian faith?
During Lent we should have discovered some of them. Some attitudes are deleterious to health and were constrained by Lenten practices. Some superfluous habits were modified by almsgiving. Some laziness was controlled by the practice of prayer. With six weeks of prayer, fasting and abstinence behind us we’re ready to practice a “new normal” which may be freer than Lent but less corybantic than pre-Lenten life.
We rise up like new bread with the yeast of Jesus, fresh and delicious and ready to enrich the world in which we live. 

*P.S. -- (If you're wondering, every sacrament has words and matter, and the sacrament is not complete without both. The wedding candle suggests that the "matter" of the sacrament is the union of two flames, rather than union of the male and female persons.

Holy Saturday 2011

Since on the seventh day God was finished with the work he had been doing, he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken.So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation.
 Genesis 2:2-3
...and so shall I. 

Happy Easter! 

Fr  Ken

Good Friday 2011

So let us confidently approach the throne of grace 
to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.

Earlier this week I wrote of Saint John’s use of irony. We view the horror of the cross, with its nightmare qualities of gore, grief, mockery and shame through the eyes of faith and see astonishing beauty, grace, mercy and glory. With the Roman centurion we cry out, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
As bleak as the incident on Calvary was, we confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.

In the long history of the Church thousands of nations have approached the cross in many different ways. Wailers keen; pilgrims enter their churches on bloodied knees; and flagellants flay their backs by whips and scourges. All are seeking ways to be with Jesus and to share his sorrow.
My Franciscan tradition, to which I bring my own North American sensibilities and my Irish/German ancestry, recommends silent stillness and quiet devotion. I must pay attention to Good Friday; I cannot dismiss it as a mock show on the way to Easter. Jesus truly suffered and he truly died. An innocent man who did only the will of God was wrongly condemned to death by three tribunals representing religion, the city's mob and a world power.
I must feel the weight of responsibility for that. When the Lord of Goodness entered our world we reacted with an uncontrollable, irrational spasm of violence and murdered him. We did it and we can’t even remember what reason we gave for doing so. Was it blasphemy or sedition or common crime? What was that diabolical impulse that suddenly swept over us?  
When I read of irrational responses to today’s political issues like gun control, illegal immigration, taxation or health care I know the world has not changed. When I hear of NIMBY demonstrations to prevent the building of prisons, halfway houses, and homes for people with disabilities, I know our world is no safer today than Jerusalem two thousand years ago. And I know that if I were to “take arms against a sea of troubles” I would only make matters worse. Violence will always beget nothing but more violence.
So I go to Church with my fellow Christians and confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.

Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper

I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, 
that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, 
took bread, and, after he had given thanks,
broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.

The readings of the Triduum – the three ceremonies of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday night -- bind us to the past and find us in the present.  We must know who we are and, to do so, we must remember our past. As he celebrated the Eucharist Saint Paul invoked the tradition that was already rooted in Jesus Christ. That which he had “received from the Lord” and handed on to others was received by the Lord from already ancient Jewish tradition.
This weekend we will remember an ancient incident, the escape of the Hebrews from Egypt, which they celebrated for several hundred years before the stories, songs and ceremony of Passover were described in sacred scripture. The Exodus was, for all intents and purposes, a prehistoric event. Only the Bible documents the incident. There is nothing in Egyptian hieroglyphics to authenticate it. We don’t know which Pharaoh was drowned with his army, nor do we know how many first born male children died. The story is told not as it might be described today, a catastrophe with terrible loss of life, but as the victory God won for his people. That is all the detail the Hebrew escapees and their heirs needed.
As we hear these readings we peer through the centuries to recall the grace of that Exodus and its meaning. And then, as Christians, we will remember the death and resurrection of Jesus and its Exodus meaning for us.
Today, of course, we celebrate the “Last Supper of the Lord.” It is rich with meaning for us as it was the First Mass, the Institution of the Blessed Sacrament, and the Institution of the Priesthood. In fact Holy Thursday is so dense with layers of meaning the Catholic Church has to celebrate two festive ceremonies, the Chrism Mass and the Mass of the Lord’s Supper. (But most American dioceses celebrate the Chrism Mass earlier in Holy Week or Lent.)

William Faulkner, speaking of the south, wrote: “The past is never dead; it’s not even past!” If that is true of the southern United States, it is doubly true of the Church. The Triduum is not how we keep the memory of Jesus’ death and resurrection; it is the memory. 
As we sing the songs, hear the readings, offer our gifts, listen to the prayers and receive the Blessed Sacrament we take our place within the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We are carried aloft as he offers the precious gift of himself to his God and Father from the altar of the cross. As he dies we descend into hell and lie in the darkness of the tomb. As he is raised up so are we raised up to new, eternal Spirited life. 

Wednesday of Holy Week

The Son of Man indeed goes, as it is written of him,
but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed.
It would be better for that man if he had never been born.

Everyone agrees that remorse, guilt and shame should be avoided at all costs. Nothing good comes of such feelings, or so we’re told. But the passion narratives accentuate the guilt of Jesus’ disciples and insist that we experience our own guilt. The evangelists reveal Judas’ betrayal of Jesus, Peter’s denial and the disciples’ cowardice. Saint Mark says one terrified follower fled naked from Gethsemane rather than be arrested with Jesus. Hearing these stories of the charter members of our church, we cannot suppose we would do any better. Each year, during Holy Week, we read two of the passion accounts and the congregation participates with “Crucify him” and “We have no king but Caesar!” Clearly, we’re not going to get through this week without facing our own complicity in the death of Jesus.

Avoiding the guilt of sin does not vindicate us. Rather, we must own it and turn to God for mercy. It is easy to make excuses for our sins and failings. But it is so much easier to admit, “I have sinned. I have done wrong.” Perhaps there were mitigating circumstances. “I was hungry, angry, lonely or tired. I was bored, impatient, or sick. I was misinformed.” So what? It doesn’t matter. Isn’t it easier to say, “I did wrong; I am sorry, please forgive me,” and then to accept forgiveness?

It might be helpful, in the cold light of day, after making atonement, to examine ones excuses and alibis. That reflection may help one to decide, “I will not allow myself to be so hungry, angry, lonely or tired. I will notice when I am bored, impatient or sick and take care not to act that way again.” Reflecting on one’s excuses can help change one’s lifestyle, but no explanation can provide the spiritual assurance of forgiveness.

But, you might say, “A man was killed! Jesus the Lord was crucified!” Yes, it is good to contemplate the enormity of sin, both mine and ours. It is good to realize we can live God’s way, ethically and morally, as the Hebrew prophets insisted. Dangerous people need not be executed; they can be incarcerated. The poor can receive medical care without bankrupting the economy. All children can be educated; the homeless can be given shelter; jobs can be provided for every willing worker. We can live peacefully with our enemies without weapons of mass destruction. We can do these things if we trust in God’s providence and apply courage, imagination and generosity to the problems. There is no excuse for our sins.

As we walk with Jesus to Calvary we feel the burden of our guilt. Welcome to the real world! And we follow in gratitude and sorrow.

Tuesday of Holy Week

“Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.
If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself,
and he will glorify him at once.

One key to Saint John’s passion narrative is his use of irony. As we use irony today, it is sometimes humorous and occasionally sarcastic. has a useful definition, “the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite of its literal meaning: the irony of her reply, “How nice!” when I said I had to work all weekend. Saint John uses that dictionary sense of opposite its literal meaning, but without humor or sarcasm. And then he pursues meaning further, into the sublime. So when we hear of glory, we can expect its opposite, which is humiliation. But – now here’s the twist – Saint John’s irony is not ironic: the humiliation of Jesus is his glory, but only the faithful may see it. When he says in the first chapter, “we have seen his glory” he is already directing our attention to the crucifixion.
This device helps us to see clearly what is really happening during the arrest, trial, torture and execution of Jesus. We come to understand there is no other way Jesus could affect our salvation.
We should understand this principle when we read the word Jews. The fourth gospel seems to be the most anti-Jewish of the gospels. John uses the word Jews where the other evangelists say Pharisees, Herodians, scribes or Sadducees. Is this gospel truly anti-Jewish? Should Christians despise the Jews?
No! The point of Jewish hostility in this story is that Jesus must be abandoned and despised by everyone including (and shockingly) his own people. They are no more responsible for Jesus’ death than the Pharaoh was for driving the Hebrews out of Egypt. This is a drama to demonstrate the infinite mercy of God and it can be seen clearly only in the darkness of appalling tragedy.
The humiliation of Jesus literally goes beyond all bounds. This man is poured out for our salvation and there is nothing left of him. In the utter emptiness that follows, the complete exhaustion of all beauty, dignity, strength and holiness, we see God’s inexhaustible glory shining brilliantly, blindingly! In the merciless treatment of Jesus we see both the full extent of human sin and the overwhelming mercy of God. There is no one who can say, “I remained strong through it all. I never lost my confidence in God.” The unnamed “disciple whom Jesus loved” and the unnamed “mother of the Lord” kept faith by remaining with Jesus but they had no explanation for what was happening at that time. Not even Mary could say, “I knew it all along.”
In Saint John’s gospel, when Jesus says, “It is finished!” we understand his self-sacrifice is complete. He is the high priest, clothed in a seamless white alb, presiding over the sacrifice of the Pascal Lamb who is himself. That is why the crowd who comes to arrest him in Gethsemane fall back when he says, “I am he!” They cannot lay a hand on him until he is ready. He will point this out to Pilate also, “You would have no authority over me were it not given to you from above.” If Pilate thought of Caesar Augustus, Jesus was speaking of his Father. Finally, on the cross, Jesus dies when he is ready, when he hands over his spirit to his mother and his disciple.

With his powerful use of irony, Saint John proves once and for all the vanity of this world’s glory, and reveals the true glory of God.  

Monday of Holy Week

Mary took a liter of costly perfumed oil
made from genuine aromatic nard
and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair;
the house was filled with the fragrance of the oil. 

After Jesus preached to a huge crowd of people in the wilderness, far from any town or marketplace, he directed his disciples to feed them. But they had only a few barley loaves and a couple of fish, barely enough to feed a few people. What good is that in the face of such hunger? It’s almost an insult, a laughably pitiful donation.
In today’s gospel story, we find the opposite: a surplus, a liter of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard.” But even that is not enough to stave off impending doom.
The money might have been used to feed some poor people, as Judas Iscariot points out. The needs of the poor are another bottomless abyss. His complaint is transparently hypocritical as everyone knows, but it is repeated whenever we build a church. Jesus insists the oil is not wasted; it must be kept for the day of his burial.
Often our gestures seem pitifully small. What can we do in the face of such overwhelming need all around us – the sick, the homeless, the imprisoned, the drug-addicted, the illiterate and abandoned? What can we do in the face of a tsunami of evil that is certain to fall upon us?
For that matter, what is our prayer in the light of heaven? It is a candle against the dark night, a smoldering wick. We can barely see anything by it. It barely lights our faces, much less the spectacular temple of God's presence all around us. 

Sometimes people say there is no time for prayer when there is so much work to be done. This has been called the gospel of social justice.
Sometimes they say the opposite, there’s nothing to be done but pray. This might be called the gospel of piety.
Neither is right because both suppose we know what to do. Rather we must be directed by the Holy Spirit to pray at all times, and never cease doing good. Mary’s impulse was right as Jesus affirmed.
After we have done everything we can to serve God, and seen that it amounts to nothing, we stand back and watch God complete the work which He began:
Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not;
See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers.
Wild beasts honor me, jackals and ostriches, for I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink,
The people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise.

Palm Sunday 2011

Morning after morning
he opens my ear that I may hear;
and I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
A friend once approached me with some very hard news and began with, “Now Ken, try not to be defensive!” Of course, for the next hour I was nothing but defensive. But then, I had been living on the defensive for many months before that.
How do I approach Holy Week with “ears open that I may hear?” Can I hear the greatest story ever told -- understanding that it condemns my sins -- without becoming defensive? Can I participate in a drama that removes my guilt, relieves my shame, heals my sickness, consoles my sadness and restores my innocence -- without becoming self-conscious? The story is of my sin and its fatal consequences, the killing of God. And yet it is also the story of God’s forgiving me.
I can do so only because it is not about me. It’s about God. In fact, my life is not about me. Or, it need not and should not be about me. It’s about God.
There was a time when I felt too awkward to go to theater and watch a play. I knew the actors wanted a response and I didn’t know if I could give it. Eventually I learned to go and enjoy and appreciate.
I think I know why many people do not attend church. They don’t feel comfortable letting themselves slide into the presence of God. They fear his judgment. Maturity has helped me to let that go. I don’t know what happens during the Mass. I don’t know what will transpire during Holy Week. I hope that by attending and by letting God be God, I will be drawn through the story of sin and condemnation to vindication and life. 

Saturday of the Fifth Week of Lent

…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.

For centuries Christian theologians, along with the rest of us, have scratched their heads trying to explain precisely why Jesus had to be crucified. Did he placate an angry God by his meekness? Did he pay back the debt of sin? Did he conquer death by submitting to death and rising again? How did his dying open the gates of paradise? There are many explanations in the scriptures and in our tradition; if they don’t exactly conflict, neither do they harmonize.
In any case, we believe it was necessary.
Perhaps God the Father didn’t demand his death; perhaps we did. We would not allow ourselves to be saved unless we saw how far God would go to save us. Or, we would not be saved until we saw there are no limits to how far God will go to save us.
God might have saved us by a simple word or a simple sign – perhaps a skywriter scrawling daily across the sky, “I love you.” That might have satisfied God but not us. Perhaps his being born among us should have been sufficient – for God, but not for us. Perhaps his living in poverty, suffering hunger, cold and illness would have been sufficient.
We could not imagine how far God would go to save us. We dared not ask and yet by our persistent wickedness we demanded it. Every other gesture seemed to fail. The scriptures, the miracles, the catastrophes, the restorations, the healings, the prophets’ words of reassurance and their threatening curses – nothing seemed to work for us. “Finally he sent his only son saying, ‘Surely they will listen to him.’”
On the other, other hand, perhaps God would not be satisfied until he had poured himself out completely – all the infinity of the universe poured through the utterly senseless and irretrievable emptiness of death.
If our religion were manmade it could be explained. It would make sense. But our faith in Jesus Christ has been shown to us and we accept it. We can say only of the crucifixion, “It was necessary.” We have seen God do this for us; we have seen the man Jesus do this for us. And we thank him.

Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent

The passion of Jesus is an ever popular drama, recreated in oratorios, plays, movies, musicals and operas from Johann Bach’s Passion and Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ; from Oberammergau to the Southeast Christian Church in Louisville. It is fitting that we should try to reenter that historic moment through stagecraft, because the crisis of that first Holy Week was indeed a drama. It was the truest representation of God’s saving love for us, and it could be shown to us in no other way.
In two day’s we will celebrate Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. On this Friday we hear, The Jews picked up rocks to stone Jesus.There is a long, tragic tradition of Christians blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus. They overlook his own words in John 10:
This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again. This command I have received from my Father."
Worse, they totally miss the point of this drama. The Jews no more killed Jesus than the Pharaoh drove the Hebrews out of Egypt. Both were divine displays of God’s enormous authority.
To get some grasp of this truth we must walk with Jesus to Jerusalem, to the Cenacle and to Calvary. We must listen and be quiet and watch what happens without thought, without opinions, and without judgment. It is impossible to appreciate God’s mercy unless we see him crucified. We can make up all kinds of philosophical statements about God’s goodness but they are so much humbug, so much wishful thinking, unless we have been to Calvary. Sure, God ought to be good. Sure, God ought to be all-powerful, all-wise, and all-merciful. Those are nice ideas about God and who wouldn’t agree with them? But you’re talking through your hat until you have been to Calvary and seen it for yourself.
As we enter Holy Week we must follow the lead of Saint Thomas,
So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, "Let us also go to die with him.” John 11:16