Sunday, March 26, 2023

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Lectionary: 34

If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also, 
through his Spirit dwelling in you.

After I totaled my car a few weeks ago, and suffered another compression fracture of a vertebra, I would gladly trade in this old body for a new, smaller model. In early morning, when I do much of my writing, it feels already half "dead because of sin," even as I hope "the spirit is alive because of righteousness." I think I keep going out of pride, anger, and fear of the Lord. The doctor said I'd be better in six to eight weeks. But we're not half way there yet. 

Today the Church celebrates the Lord's promise to those who hear his word and abide in his Spirit. I see the corpse of Lazarus, moldering in the tomb after four quiet days, suddenly hearing the Voice and stirring. 

"I know that Voice!" he might say. It's familiar from conversation and prayer, from listening and singing. He's heard it in church and synagogue, in silence and in shouts. It has the familiar resonance of a mother's voice, something heard, recognized, and welcomed even before we emerge from her body.  

Hearing the commanding Voice he has no choice but to sit up and stumble toward the light that shines unexpectedly where a stone had been. Hearing that beloved Voice calling his name, he remembers who he was and everything he knew and loved, and to whom he belongs. "I am Lazarus; I am his friend; I am the brother of Martha and Mary!" he says. He does not hesitate to obey despite the tightly-wrapped linen around his ankles and legs. 

Even as he stand blindly in the brilliant light of day, he hears another command. This time it's for his friends and loved ones, "Untie his and let him go free!" 

In the coming days, as he settles back into the routines of family life, he surely remembers the familiar words of Ezekiel.   

O my people, I will open your graves 
and have you rise from them, 
and bring you back to the land of Israel.
Then you shall know that I am the LORD, 
when I open your graves and have you rise from them, 
O my people!

How many times has he asked the rabbis what they might mean to him? Is it possible that Death itself will obey the Voice of our God? That graves will surrender their captives and the dead will live?

Our scriptures remind us that a vague belief in "life after death" is no guarantee of eternal bliss. A culture committed to skepticism and scientific certainty knows nothing of such an uncertain and insubstantial notion. It sells no merchandise, offers no vacation tours, and appears on no one's bucket list.

Rather, our scriptures tell us that the Spirit which drove Jesus into the desert, back to Galilee, and onto the highway toward Jerusalem and Calvary; that same Spirit which compelled us to pray and make sacrifice for the love God and neighbor will call us out of the dust of death. It will refresh our memories of love, hope, and trust, and drive us into his Eternal Kingdom. 

We believe in the promise because we believe in Our Lord. We hold to the promise because know his Voice; it is already so familiar, so lovely, and so good. 

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord

 Lectionary: 545

It is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats take away sins.
For this reason, when Christ came into the world, he said:
    "Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me...."

Deep in the season of Lent, we pause to remember the Christmas cycle. The Yule feast is nine months from today and human gestation typically takes nine months. 

As I understand, the human baby's body is not nearly as well formed as that of mammals of comparable size and weight, but a human baby's head is enormous and must pass through the birth canal sooner. Nine months is barely enough. Quadrupeds are born more mature; they can walk within a few minutes of birth. But the human baby only begins to crawl on hands and feet several months after birth, and later to walk on two legs. 

This underdeveloped infant needs more attentive care than similar infants; but, ironically, is born of an animal with no instincts. (Nor does the baby come with a manual on the care and feeding of....) The human mother must be taught what to do! She can only follow the customs of her people as she feeds, clothes, cleans, and protects her child. 

Nevertheless, we praise God that we are fearfully, wonderfully made

It is good that the Church, interrupting the darker rites of Lent, celebrates this feast when so many wives and husbands have forgotten, or never learned, the reproductive nature of sexuality. Many regard the rite of conception as only a physical exercise, and compare their companions to athletes who are good, better, or best. Others regard marriage as a friendship thing but dismiss and sabotage its reproductive and religious dimensions. They prefer a disembodied "spirituality" without the risks, costs, disappointments, and messiness of human reproduction. 

Today we celebrate the Woman betrothed to a man named Joseph who eagerly set out on a journey of motherhood. Along the way she found her own redemption and that of the whole world. Christian parents follow that mysterious, marital path to salvation in the same grateful, joyful spirit. 

Friday, March 24, 2023

Friday of the Fourth Week of Lent

 Lectionary: 248

"For if the just one be the son of God, he will defend him and deliver him from the hand of his foes...."
These were their thoughts, but they erred; for their wickedness blinded them, and they knew not the hidden counsels of God....

Revelation comes to us as a long hidden mystery; but it is also a truth apparent to reasonable people since the foundation of the world. 

It is so obvious that wicked people often think they know it. Like the foolish in today's first reading, they might even tell us what God thinks, what God knows, and how God acts. Even the faithful will adopt that insolence occasionally, as when someone says, "I don't think God cares what you do here." or, "It surely doesn't matter to God."

Maybe it does and maybe it doesn't, but I do not dare to say what God thinks about anything. And I'm pretty sure the statement, "God thinks" as if God's brain is like yours or mine, is blasphemous. As the Prophet says, 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways....
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways,
my thoughts higher than your thoughts. Is 55:8

Let's be careful about how we speak of God, and not imitate the ways of the wicked. 

Saint Paul says of this deep mystery:

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church,
of which I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. But now it has been manifested to his holy ones,
to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; it is Christ in you, the hope for glory. Colossians 1: 24-27

We have to notice the context of this passage: Saint Paul is speaking out of his suffering in a Roman jail someplace.  What we know of God costs us more than memorizing catechism lessons or attending a Bible class. What we know of God comes from our sharing in "the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church."

It is also born of that willingness to suffer with Christ. Not all suffering is redemptive, as Saint Peter warns us in his First Letter: "But let no one among you be made to suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as an intriguer." 

Though it's true that some hardened criminals have found redemption in the penitentiary, it came with the honest admission that they belong there, and the government had exercised mercy with its justice.

We should we not go in search of pain; it comes in search of us soon enough. Aging, the loss of loved ones, disappointments, failures, accidents, sickness: life is generous that way. In the Spirit of Jesus we make something useful of sorrow. We turn it to prayer; we remember our sins and regard the misery as just punishment. We offer it for those who suffer the same afflictions without the comforts we are offered amid this distress. 

We do not heed the advice of Job's importunate wife, "Curse God and die!" Rather, we wait on that vindication that is promised to all God's people. It will be revealed to the wicked and the righteous, who will receive the Good News quite differently. 

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent

 Lectionary: 247

If I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is not true.
But there is another who testifies on my behalf, and I know that the testimony he gives on my behalf is true.

Jesus offers his "letters of reference" in today's gospel, those "witnesses" who can testify to his authenticity as a prophet and messiah. 

The Second and Third Letters of Saint John, and Paul's Letter to Philemon were also letters certifying their bearers. They carried not only the signature of the writers, but also the sound of their voice as their choice of words and their cadence sounded like the trusted authors.

Jesus refers to three witnesses: John the Baptist, the "works that I do," and "the Father who sent me." Those who know the sender will know the one who is sent. Concerning his third reference, we will hear that voice in John 12:27-30. 

The crowd heard thunder though some thought "an angel spoke to him." Jesus and his faithful disciples hear the Voice of the Father assuring him, "I have glorified (my name) and will glorify it again!" 

When I first studied the Gospel of John, I was intellectually immersed in the skeptical rationalism of twentieth century culture. The sciences of that day demanded proofs and refused to believe any assertions that weren't founded on obvious assumptions like "a straight line is the shortest distance between two points." From there one aligned statements and conclusions that seemed logical and rational. These conclusions were tested in laboratory experiments and proven trustworthy. One should never take anyone's word for it. And if authorities should not be trusted, the least reliable were religious authorities! 

In that rationalist spirit, the news media purported to report only "the facts." The news was not confused with entertainment or editorial remarks, and the reporter's opinions never colored their reporting. Consumers of news in the "free world" were assured they were not hearing propaganda, like those unfortunates who lived behind the "iron curtain." 

In those days, as I read John's Gospel, Jesus's insistence on his authority seemed hard to take. Why did he never go halfway with his opponents and explain himself more clearly? I didn't understand when a biblical scholar insisted that the Lord's teaching was very reasonable, and his witnesses were credible. 

It's taken me a while to grow suspicious of scientific evidence and rational proofs and more reliant on authority. I've begun to see the hidden agenda of the most objective reporters. The louder they claim to speak only the truth the more suspicious they become. "Liberals" and "conservatives" are programmed to disagree with one another; and regard the public as wise, intelligent, and loyal followers, or as gullible dupes of their opponents.

Our Catholic faith, on the contrary, is built upon our willingness to trust worthy authorities and the God who speaks through them. When religious faith is violated, we pray for healing and reconciliation, and work to restore trust with a studied awareness of sin and potential abuse. Because we cannot turn anywhere else for spiritual direction, we do not dismiss the divine authority of our Church. We pray for them and remember worse times of opposition and persecution. 

Our faith in the Son of Man teaches us to believe in the Church of men and women, not as na├»ve children but as confident adults. Our leaders are sinners like us, and we are saints like them. Always we listen for the spirit of Jesus who teaches what to say and when to say it:

When they lead you away and hand you over, do not worry beforehand about what you are to say. But say whatever will be given to you at that hour. For it will not be you who are speaking but the holy Spirit.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Wednesday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Lectionary: 246

In a time of favor I answer you,
on the day of salvation I help you;
and I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people,
To restore the land
and allot the desolate heritages,
Saying to the prisoners: Come out!
To those in darkness: Show yourselves!

These words from the Prophet Isaiah introduce today's gospel about Jesus and his father. He is the favored Son, kept and given as a covenant to us. And we in our turn are the favored people. The Lord has kept us and given us as a covenant to the Earth and all its peoples. 

The blessings given to the Son are recognized as gifts to the Church. We can protest about our unworthiness -- there's no harm in that -- but our insistent demurral doesn't change our standing in God's presence. His favor is more persistent than our resistance. If he says we're worthy, we are worthy. No more discussion!

I find the coupling of this Isaian passage with John 5:17-30 very comforting. Often during Lent, I don't expect much comfort for myself or the Lord. He is marching toward Jerusalem and he looks to neither right or left as he goes; and we want to go with him.

Somewhere during my theological studies, 1971-74, I read an essay by Walter Brueggemann about King David. He believed that the story of the Patriarch Joseph in Genesis was shaped by the more recent example of the once and future king, the shepherd king who was destined to return as messiah. David was a legendary warrior, national champion, and model king. More importantly, he was faithful to the Lord who had called him from shepherding sheep to leading the nation. 

A man of decision when the disparate tribes of Israel needed to form a single nation or be consumed by threatening neighbors, David took the reins first as general of an army, and then as king. He legislated, governed, and judged without hesitation or apology. 

He believed the Lord had chosen him over Saul. If he made mistakes, he accepted the Lord's rebuke. Even when his sin -- the murder of Uriah -- was a severe violation of the warriors' code of honor and a national scandal, he repented sincerely, accepted his punishment (the death of his and Bathsheba's son), and continued to govern. 

Brueggemann described David liked the son of a businessman who has built his company from the ground up. When the senior retires, he hands the corporation to his son with every confidence the son will do well. The two often meet to discuss current developments and challenges, and how to continue building the business; but the father does not second-guess his son, nor does the son raise issues about the mistakes his father might have made during those early years. 

Finally, if memory serves me correctly for I cannot find the essay fifty years later, Brueggemann suggests that Jesus is the Son of God in the mode of David and his predecessor, Joseph. We hear of that supremely beautiful relationship in today's reading from John 5. 

Like his Father, Jesus gives and restores life, rules, and judges in the manner of biblical judges. Later, in the twelfth chapter of John, we "overhear" their conversation:
“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.”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”

This word, of course, is for everyone who belongs to the Lord, for we must all grow into the maturity of Joseph the Patriarch, David the King, Joseph the husband of Mary, Mary the Mother of God, and Jesus. As the Son of God explains, 

“This voice did not come for my sake but for yours. Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.”

The Father is more than satisfied with his Son; he is delighted. And, in his Son, God is also deeply pleased with us. 

In us God is glorified; in him we are saved. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Tuesday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Lectionary: 245

One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.
When Jesus saw him lying there
and knew that he had been ill for a long time, he said to him,
"Do you want to be well?"
The sick man answered him,
"Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up....

Much of the New Testament is written in an apocalyptic tone. That is: all or none, yes or no, hate or love, dark or light, blessing or curse, life or death. There is not much room for maybe, and less for excuses, like that of the paralyzed man in today's gospel. When Jesus asks a direct question, as he is wont to do, the reply is anything but direct. 

On the First Sunday of Lent I cited a passage from Abraham Joshua Heschel's A Passion for Justice. It is worth hearing again: 

Kierkegaard... felt that man's gravest danger lurked in the loss of his sense of the unconditional, the absolute. We conduct our lives according to conditionals, compromises, and concessions, all relatives. In faith an individual commits everything to the Absoluteness of God. But the Absolute is cruel; it demands all.

That demand for all is typically apocalyptic. Meeting the Lord is no time for maybe, and less for excuses. 

When strangers meet, the first thing they do is exchange names; but this nameless man did not know the name of Jesus. Questioned about who healed him, he could not answer. Despite his healing, they had no relationship and no covenant. He remained in that unsubstantial place of conditionals, compromises, and concessions. When the Absolute demanded his all, he disappeared into the crowd.

Perhaps because it is so inconclusive, the story introduces a doctrine about naming Jesus's relationship to the LORD, and the Holy Trinity. He is the Son of the Father and we know him as "the Only Begotten Son of God." 

I heard an invocation recently where the minister modified the prescribed prayer, preferring "God" to the name, "Father." He retained "the Son" in the prayer. But god is not God's name. Humans have believed in millions of gods throughout our long, sad history. The minister followed his preference for political correctness at the cost of leaving the Son fatherless, and the Trinity ill-defined. 

Words matter, as radical feminists have said, but we cannot cede the use of words to one ideological party without the give-and-take of serious conversation. The Fathers of the Church knew that centuries ago as they hammered out the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.  

Tomorrow's gospel will lead us deeper into this revelation of the Father and Son and their unity of love and will. 

Monday, March 20, 2023

Solemnity of Saint Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary

 Lectionary: 543

And I will make his royal throne firm forever.
I will be a father to him,
and he shall be a son to me.
Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me;
your throne shall stand firm forever.

Amid our Lenten preparations for Easter we pause to remember Christmas, a mystery which also pervades our entire year. Today's feast, of course, anticipates the Annunciation on Saturday when the Angel Gabriel approaches "a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, of the house of David." 

Within the mechanics of the scriptures and the fulfillment of prophecy, Joseph supplies the legitimacy "of the house of David" to Mary's child, the Messiah. Without descent from that Jewish king no one could save the Jewish race, much less the world. 

We often like to believe everything happens according to a plan, and the Gospels especially remind us that the entire life of Jesus, from his birth in Bethlehem, his sojourn in Egypt, to his death and resurrection in Jerusalem happen according to God's mysterious plan. It is a plan hidden since the beginning of the world, which was suggested in "many and sundry ways through the prophets," but now revealed. 

Saint Paul's explanation is especially relevant this morning: 

Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church, of which I am a minister in accordance with God’s stewardship given to me to bring to completion for you the word of God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past. But now it has been manifested to his holy ones, to whom God chose to make known the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; it is Christ in you, the hope for glory. Colossians 1:24-27

Like Saint Joseph, Saint Paul found his place in "the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past." Despite the brevity of his "hour upon the stage" as compared to the history of the world, he had a role -- to make known to the gentiles their place in God's plan -- and he played it proudly. 

The Lord invites every Christian to find their part in Salvation History and scripture gives us innumerable examples. I think of the little Hebrew slave child who told her mistress, 

“If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 

We don't know her name or any more of her story, but she lives forever with us in 2 Kings 5, and we rediscover her whenever we check out Jesus's reference to Naaman the Syrian. 

No one should expect to be remembered very long by their friends or families despite the promises we make of everlasting remembrance during our funerals. But when the Lord places us within his plan of salvation we know we shall live, and be remembered, forever. We have only to find ourselves within the Gospel.