Wednesday, April 21, 2010

04-25-2010: Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 13:14,43-52 / Psalm 100 / Revelation 7:9,14-17 / John 19:27-30
One might agree without need of statistics, on this World Day of Prayer for Vocations, that vocations to the priesthood and Religious life have been on the decline for decades. The current sex abuse scandal surely can’t help matters, but the decline was well under way long before the Boston Globe or New York Times (whatever their intent) started reporting stories that have exploded into a major crisis for the Church. Some argue that the decline in vocations is due to the simple fact that no one answers because - no one called. We’re being ushered into a new way of being church, priests and Religious Brothers and Sisters belong to a bygone age, past and passé. Others say that our modern world is just too noisy. Distractions abound and young people are stone deaf to the language of religion as a meaningful experience. We need a return to a more reverent silence, they say, where the voice of the Master can once again be heard. In a new book by George Prochnik, The Pursuit of Silence: Listening for Meaning in a World of Noise, the author travels from noisy Brooklyn to the crypt chapel of a Trappist Monastery in Iowa, “a place so quiet,” a reviewer of the book notes, “that visitors sometimes find themselves physically unable to remain there.” An observation which raises the intriguing question of whether there is such a thing as complete silence, and further, if anyone would really want to experience it. The metaphor for vocation, meanwhile, comes from today’s gospel of the Good Shepherd: his sheep hear his voice and they follow him. Yes, there are a lot more distractions in our twenty-first century world than in the bucolic settings of a first century Palestine. Problem is: who speaks sheep anymore?

Noise as a metaphor for chaos, as the opposite of meaningful sound, may be somewhat if not wholly a cultural thing. At my last parish in the heart of Brooklyn my bedroom window was about fifty yards from the elevated J train. You would think that might have posed a problem in summertime when open windows were more preferable to the white noise of the air conditioner. But I had no problem with the J train; it was the rooster in the neighbor’s backyard that drove me crazy, until they found him dead one day - of mysterious causes.

I once had the opportunity of meeting Matthew Kelly, an Australian Catholic whose claims of having heard the voice of Jesus have gained him a wide international following. Out of curiosity, or maybe just plain skepticism, I asked him if Jesus spoke with an Australian accent. He couldn’t say. It seems disembodied voices do not come to us in the same way other sound enters our bodies. But Kelly, like others down the centuries who have claimed locutions, heard the voice speaking his (Kelly’s) English language and not the Aramaic of Jesus’ day. In other words, the experience – for all its mystical awe - is a translated event.

One of my favorite episodes from the original Star Trek series is the one where the Star Trek crew comes upon a long lost human who was thought to have perished long ago. The man has not aged but has lived, seemingly alone, on the forgotten planet for centuries. The crew soon discovers, however, that the man is regularly visited by a phenomenon he calls The Companion, an energy field that envelopes the man when he calls upon it and from which he emerges energized and at peace. By the time Captain Kirk and the crew find him, technology has advanced, and they use their universal translator when the man once again enters the field enveloped by The Companion. To everyone’s surprise, the universal translator translates the energy frequencies into a human voice – a woman’s voice. It quickly becomes obvious that The Companion is in love with the man; she has preserved him all this time not simply as an act of altruism or charity – but from attraction, affection and concern.

If, indeed, the Lord still calls, it should be the great work of the Church to act as universal translator of the ancient and ever-new revelation. The translation of Jesus’ call, the ruminations of divine love, will mean little to any of us if it is not grounded in a vocabulary of attraction: romantic in an adventurous sense, seducing us more subtly than the contemporary allurement of sexual gratification, more genuinely sensual than merely intellectual or doctrinaire. The Church fears such an undertaking, understandably so. It is safer, by far, to keep speaking sheep, using the vocabulary and cultural metaphors of bygone days and long-forgotten idioms which eventually ring hollow. The Church must experiment, change the frequency on that universal translator, as it were, so the bleating and bahs of the language of sheep will give way to the probing questions of the young (and the old) who, despite the din and drone, are still - and still listening for meaning in this world of noise.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

04-18-2010: Third Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 5:27-32,41 / Psalm 30 / Revelation 5:11-14 / John 21:1-19
Many years ago, when I was taking the test to become a lifeguard, we had to jump into a pool fully clothed and quickly disrobe in the water using our clothes as aides in the rescue we were attempting. Swimming in your clothes is a cumbersome thing, the weight of wet clothes impedes every stroke you try to take. It’s a heavy burden, one that suggests the evolutionary biologists must be right when they suggest we human beings – or our ancestors – emerged from the sea, initially free of the paraphernalia of culture. Remember, it was only in Eden we started wearing clothes; and only in community we began to know the weight of shame.

In today’s gospel, filled with anomalies, Peter does something baffling. He’s near naked in his boat, just finishing his fishing, when he realizes the once-dead-and-now-risen Jesus is cooking breakfast on the shore. We read that Peter first put on his clothes and then jumped into the water to swim to shore.

Some have argued that St. John is being a bit liturgical here, suggesting that a follower of the Lord pays him homage by how he presents himself; not poorly clad or, God forbid, naked – but clothed and reverent before the majesty. It’s the notion of putting on your Sunday-best before you get yourself to church. One could debate such an interpretation. What’s not debatable, though, are the feelings conveyed. Peter is like a bewildered teenager in need of love and forgiveness – he doesn’t realize what he’s doing and ends up doing just the opposite of what you’d expect. His last encounter with Jesus was the night he so coldly denied him to save his own skin. Here’s a chance, he’s thinking, to make things right and face the shame his actions had brought on himself. Three times Jesus asks Peter Do you love me, corresponding to his three denials a few nights before. He asks this in community, in front of everyone, highlighting that precise moment when guilt becomes shame.

Peter, realizing his cowardice and abject inadequacy, might have expected to be replaced at that point by someone more loyal like John, or gutsier like Thomas. But Jesus continues to choose Peter as the Rock on which the church would stand precisely because he failed so miserably, suggesting that the enterprise we call the church was not intended as empire or business, but as the matrix where our abject poverty and terrible inadequacy mixes with grace. Peter shows us that absolutely everyone can afford the cost of entry into this matrix of mystery, though it is a price few of us are willing to pay; the asking price being the very shame we wish not to acknowledge.

Today, Peter’s successor is feeling the weight of shame, the heavy burden of an unresolved past. News reports have been praised and criticized on many counts but few would argue that the pope can escape untainted. A supreme irony is now emerging where the evidence for Benedict’s genuine desire to reform the way the Vatican responded to the sex abuse crisis will inevitably show that his predecessor, John Paul II, was as genuinely desirous to cover it up, to save face, to fall into the inevitable temptation of believing secrecy the antidote to scandal when, in actuality, secrecy is scandal’s greatest ally.

No doubt many who call for the pope’s resignation do so out of a disdain for institutional religion in general and Catholicism in particular; others, genuinely concerned for the church, call for the pope’s resignation because they perceive it as the only way to save the church - by offering a fresh start. Of the two motivations the latter is more acceptable but far more sinister than the former, precisely because a fresh start is just what we don’t need. Peter was the Rock not because he was strong, not because he was innocent, but because he was weak and filled with shame. Grace doesn’t seek to obliterate the past but enables Peter to face it. As Peter’s successor swims toward that same shore, taking the next labored stroke, weighed down as he is by the paraphernalia of Vatican bureaucracy and Romanità, we can only pray that when, and if, he reaches that shore, at least some of that weighty and burdensome paraphernalia – the heavy yoke of secrecy - will have sunk to the bottom of the sea.

04-11-2010: Divine Mercy Sunday

Divine Mercy Sunday
Acts of the Apostles 5:12-16 / Psalm 118 / Revelation 1:9-13,17-19 / John 20:19-31
Thomas, the Doubter, is center of attention in today’s gospel, sticking his fingers and hands in places not many of us would dare venture. We’re told that Thomas, in Aramaic, means “twin.“ He’s also known by the Greek equivalent, Didymus. And, in apocryphal sources, further identified by a more complete epithet, Judas Didymus Thomas. In some of those apocryphal sources, he is even identified as Jesus’ twin.

I remember attending a lecture years ago given by a psychologist who had spent his career researching identical twins separated at birth and raised apart. Well into adulthood these pairs of twins had been reunited, usually through the efforts of at least one of the pair to find his/her family of origin. The psychologist presented a detailed account with a lot of scientific lingo, but it was the unexpected coincidences that were completely mesmerizing. Like the fact that on their shared birthday, two recently reunited twin sisters sent each other the exact same unique birthday gifts – crossing in the mail. Or, the uncanny coincidence that a set of male twins had married women (unrelated to each other) with the same first and last name. And that of a set of male twins, separated at birth and raised by remarkably different families, ended up joining the same small and obscure religious cult, unbeknownst to each other.

The idea of identical twins becomes even more intriguing as we now know infinitely more on a genetic basis than ever before. Identical twins share the exact same DNA “fingerprint” and, for those twins raised apart, provide a near perfect way for researchers to explore the relationship between heredity and environment – a relationship, if able to be understood and evaluated correctly, which can make an enormous difference in all our lives. The drives and desires of the twin can provide a window into our souls as well, helping us understand what it means to be human with a taste for the divine.

That’s one of the reasons that the story of Thomas, the apostle, the doubter, the twin, is so intriguing. Today’s gospel reveals that his absence from the Upper Room (one might wonder why) when Jesus first appeared, frames his skeptical and brash reaction to the others’ quick faith regarding the amazing claim of resurrection. Thomas is no easy sell. He’s a hands-on type of guy – literally. If he hadn’t been born in Palestine you might think him from Missouri, that show-me state. Thomas is a searcher, an explorer; he has to feel the truth, not just hear it. One reason could be the back story to the text and the apocryphal scriptures we now possess attributed to the “Thomas school,” which, in theological jargon, is known as docetist. Docetists (from the Greek, meaning to seem) believed that Jesus only appeared to be human; in actuality he was a completely spiritual entity that only seemed to possess a body and share our common human experience. As one of those apocryphal texts put it: “Jesus never blinked; and he didn’t leave footprints where he walked.” In showing Thomas probe the very body that docetists would only understand as an apparition, the gospel was confirming the orthodox position which Thomas comes to share: Jesus was no ghost, he was indeed a real human being - a man with appetites.

Thomas, as a twin whose brother is never identified, except in those apocryphal texts (a mythical explanation of seeing a divine counterpart in Jesus himself), is the exemplar of the man in search of something he intuitively knows is missing. If we’re lucky – lucky in the realm of grace that is - we might, like Thomas, identify what we long for, put our finger on what’s missing, so to speak: the very thing - or person - who will complete us and make us whole.

04-04-2010: Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday
Acts of the Apostles 10:37-43 / Psalm 118 / Colossians 3:1-4 / Victimae Paschali Laudes / John 20:1-9
One of the most convincing arguments against the truth of Christianity is the one that suggests things haven’t changed much for the better since Jesus of Nazareth was supposed to have risen from the dead, redeeming the world as we Christians claim. Matter of fact you could make a good argument that things have gotten considerably worse over the course of the twenty centuries since Peter and John claimed to have found the tomb empty that first Easter Sunday morning - just look back at the last century with its two world wars and the sheer magnitude of misery and horror that hatred and terror produced. It’s a pretty tough sell because, if indeed Jesus has redeemed the world (including creation and history) then, at least, the shape of things as we experience them here and now isn’t what we might expect or even hope for.

Apropos of things to expect regarding the events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection, I’m reminded of the story of the famous British soldier-turned-archaeologist, General Charles Gordon (the Gordon Pasha of Khartoum fame). Back in the nineteenth century, while in Jerusalem, Gordon claimed to have found the real tomb of Jesus -- as opposed to the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Today you can visit Gordon’s Garden Tomb, as it’s called, and you will immediately want it to be the actual place where Jesus was buried. It’s just like you imagined it to be, just what you expected: a hole cut in the rock with a large circular stone rolled to the side. It’s set in a peaceful and meditative English-style garden where groups of young people come and play guitars and sing melodious hymns while pious pilgrims kneel quaintly saying their prayers. Meanwhile, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb, the Armenian monks are usually cursing out the Franciscan Friars and the Greek Orthodox thumb their noses at just about everybody else. One group of pilgrims shouts their prayers louder than the next; there’s a cacophony of chaos, and violence is not an unusual occurrence. (When I arranged to say Mass there some years ago I inadvertently stepped onto the Armenian side of the chapel causing a commotion that almost ended in a brawl). If you had your druthers, as a believing Christian, you’d prefer Jesus’ tomb to be back where Gordon said it was.

That’s just it though: Gordon’s Garden Tomb is lovely, but it’s a fake - and we know that for sure. The authentic tomb, the real place, is the least prayerful, the least attractive, rather ugly, dark and dingy, and in need of some significant housecleaning. The reality wouldn’t and just doesn’t meet your expectation. Matter of fact, in this case, the real deal - the cacophonous and chaotic Church of the Holy Sepulchre - is what you’d least expect or desire.

Maybe, in a similar vein, that’s the way we need to approach the gospel claim of resurrection and universal redemption. Just because it doesn’t seem so, just because the present state of affairs isn’t what we’d like it to be – doesn’t mean the claim is any less true. Christians believe that redemption, because of Jesus’ resurrection, has occurred once and for all. It may not seem so, it may not be what you’d expect, but maybe that shock of unmet expectations is God’s way to move us to act. Perhaps the misery that so many still experience, these many centuries after Jesus’ resurrection, is an invitation – a demand, really – for you and me to pitch-in in this divine work of redemption, to lend a hand and help finish what Jesus started: building the kingdom of heaven here on earth - in this redeemed but unfinished world.