Tuesday, May 24, 2011

11-05-22: 5th Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts of the Apostles 6:1-7 / Psalm 33 / 1 Peter 2:4-9 / John 14:1-12

One of the wonderful but frustrating things about a good story is the fact that you can interpret it in more than one way; put your own spin on things, so to speak. So, in the reading from Acts today, some may focus on the fact that the diaconate was instituted as a ministry of service to help the nascent Christian community get on its feet. Others might see that the reason for the diaconate grew out of a lot of bad feelings based on class prejudice: Hebrews vs. Hellenists (i.e. Aramaic-speaking Jews vs. Greek-speaking Jews). Although scandalous, it’s somehow reassuring to know that, even from the very beginning of the Church, people weren’t perfect and often fought. Diversity was not always understood as a strength.

As centuries passed things only grew worse. The Great Schism that split the Church in the eleventh century formed along linguistic lines: the Latin-speaking West vs. the Greek-speaking East. The Reformation that would split the Western Church into Catholic and Protestant in the sixteenth century was largely about language, about translating and interpreting the Bible. To a much lesser degree but present, nonetheless, we are beginning to see the emergence of an us vs. them mentality over the new translation of the Roman Missal from Latin into English which will be implemented in churches in the United States this coming Advent. It’s significant, I think, that simultaneous to the disagreements about translations and methods of translations that surrounded this debate, was the motu proprio issued by Pope Benedict allowing priests to celebrate the “Latin Mass” without seeking permission from the local bishop. It seems that for some it is easier to avoid the whole issue of translation and just stick to the original Latin, regardless if intelligible or not.

One of the significant changes in the new translation of the Roman Missal affects the words of institution which the priest says during the consecration when the wine becomes the blood of Christ. In the current translation the priest says “for all”; in the new translation he will say “for many” reflecting the Latin “pro multis” literally. While Pope Benedict has already explained that the use of the word “many” does not take away from the truth that Christ’s sacrifice has indeed redeemed all, there will no doubt be a bit of confusion produced by this literal translation. In the pope’s recent book, Jesus of Nazareth (Part Two), he delves into this question in some detail without clearly explaining, let alone resolving, the difficulty. I was speaking to some priests at a recent meeting and asked them what translation they use when saying Mass in Spanish: one priest from Colombia uses the translation “por muchos” (for many); another uses “por todos los hombres,” (for all men). In an effort to be all inclusive the Spanish here has succeeded in doing just the opposite. The Korean translation says “for all,” as does the Italian and the German. So much for universality. In the attempt to be more literally faithful to the Latin, a Pandora’s box of ambiguity now emerges – and that’s over just one word.

In the gospel today Jesus makes the extraordinary claim: “the Father and I are one.” That notion, at the heart of Christianity, would be understood through Greek philosophical language and translated into Latin as consubstantialis. In the new translation of the Nicene Creed used at Mass, the term “consubstanial with the Father” will replace “one in being with the Father.” Less ambiguous, you think? Or intentionally meant to convey a notion laden with centuries of philosophical argument. Time will tell.

In today’s gospel Jesus also says the now famous phrase “I am the way the truth and the life.” I’m just wondering, since translation has been our theme, whether in the Chinese Bible Jesus says “I am the Tao (Way),” conjuring up that ancient and mysterious philosophy of Taoism (which some missionaries once called devilish superstition). No one claims Jesus knew of Taoism, but language is by necessity fluid and thus ambiguous, inviting us to entertain fanciful notions which, by circuitous route, may bring us to insight and truth. Feng Shui (literally, wind water) – that product of Taoist thought – which seeks harmony among diverse elements of reality may be more than a little helpful when trying to translate. Translation, after all, is but a road, a pathway between different cultures and worldviews, filled with unexpected insights and sometimes not so pleasant surprises. The new Roman Missal in English is just the latest example. It will be interesting to see its affect on the life of the Church in the United States: for better or worse - or not at all.

11-05-15: 4th Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Acts of the Apostles 2:14,36-41 / Psalm 23 / 1 Peter 2:20-25 / John 10:1-10

Well this might be the last Pastoral Reflection ever, since according to Family Radio, the Day of Judgment will take place next Saturday, May 21st. If I understand the scenario correctly it seems that there will be a worldwide earthquake and within twenty four hours the entire earth will be one vast ruin. Many people will die and the already-dead will be thrown from their graves. The elect or saved will have experienced “the Rapture,” having evaded this rather nasty conclusion to the human project. The rest of us – sinners and infidels – will suffer one horror after another for another five months until the world comes to a final end in October of 2011.

Family Radio is an evangelical fundamentalist Christian group that claims no church affiliation. Matter of fact they claim the churches are the problem, having given in to the evil of our times (the homosexual agenda and gay marriage in particular) and believe the Holy Spirit had already withdrawn from the churches way back in 1988.

Not to be outdone by some Protestant group, its Catholic equivalent has been hard at work spreading fear and dread by alluding to the third secret of Fatima. I was under the impression that the third secret confided to Lucia by the Blessed Virgin back in 1917, and kept secret by successive popes, was finally revealed a few years back by Pope John Paul II. This group claims, however, that the third secret predicts that the end of the world will come before the year 2012. The end will come by a huge earthquake, and horrendous suffering - described in gory detail by these followers of Fatima - will be suffered by all those who do not repent or who refuse to believe.

Of course for those not especially taken by religious prophecy, there’s always the mysterious Mayan Calendar which some claim predicts the end of the world on 12/21/12. And for the really non-religious, science-no-matter-what types, who don’t want to be excluded from all this end-of-world hoopla, a firm belief in global warming and its effects can certainly do the trick.

For all the disdain I have toward those whose sole purpose in life seems to wish for it to end, there’s something to be said for deadlines. They help you focus, eliminate the superfluous, get to the heart of whatever you’re in the midst of doing. When you know the semester ends in a week or two, you finally start to work on that overdue term paper. If you have no doubt the IRS will penalize you for late payment of taxes (or, God forbid, start an audit), you manage to mail in those taxes by April 15th. That film, Bucket List, seemed to be saying the same thing – life won’t last forever: prioritize!

Is it that we human beings need to be frightened, threatened with severe punishments, in order to get us to focus on the important things in life? Does God punish because we do not believe in him or believe in him in a certain way? These are the kinds of things that just don’t seem to jive with what we expect from a loving God who always wills our good. Then again, these apocalyptic groups (“millennialists” they’ve often been called) are constantly citing biblical references, or locutions received from the Mother of Mercy herself, regarding the punishment we deserve for all our sinfulness - the way a parent sometimes resorts to scolding and scaring a misbehaving child. Problem is: when you scold and scare too often, when you cry wolf repeatedly, you not only cease to scare and reprove, but the child no longer believes you. The objective of groups like Family Radio and these Fatima fatalists is to instill faith: I venture to think, when all is said and done and deadlines come and gone, they accomplish just the opposite.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

11-05-08: 3rd Sunday of Easter

Third Sunday of Easter

Acts of the Apostles 2:14,22-33 / Psalm 16 / 1 Peter 1:17-21 / Luke 24:13-35

I was thinking recently of quitting my job and running for president. For completely selfish reasons, of course, since I wouldn’t be very good at making instant decisions or bargaining deals in Congress. I’d just want Donald Trump, or some like-minded birther, to challenge the bureau of vital statistics so I could see my original long-form birth certificate. I’ve tried – but to no avail. They won’t release it to me as an adopted person; but with the likes of The Donald, they might give in just to shut him up.

Mother’s Day seems an appropriate time to bring up the delicate situation of privacy rights in regard to birth. Obviously, for Trump and the birthers, there’s no right to privacy when talking about birth sites vis-√†-vis the presidency – everyone has a right to know. But, in the case of the adopted, original long-form birth certificates are sealed from view – even from those to whom the document pertains. Please don’t misunderstand: I do have a long-form birth certificate, an “amended” long-form birth certificate. What “amended” means in this case is that once my adoption was finalized by the court, an “amended” birth certificate was produced recording my birth surname as “Brosnan” and recording my adoptive parents as those who gave me birth. As far as I know, the time of my birth (3:00am on January 10, 1953) remained the same. And, as for the place of birth, that must have remained the same – Misericordia Hospital, then located on 86th Street east of York Avenue - a place, I think important to note, that my adoptive parents never set foot in. I know this fact was not changed since it was primarily that piece of information, a detail my adoptive parents hadn’t been told, which enabled me to locate my birthmother not long after I began my search. But who’s to say what might or might not be changed – I mean “amended” – by either order of the court or by some lazy or playful scribe. In the early seventeenth century, for example (an example not wholly irrelevant to my story), when the King James Version of the Bible had been completed and printers (pretty new to their trade) were turning out copies, someone – by mistake or design – removed the small but crucial word “not” from the sixth commandment, giving the world (at least until it was hurriedly corrected) the divine command to commit adultery.

It seems such basic facts, these very vital statistics, can be changed if there’s a supposedly good reason. In the case of the adopted, the purported reason is to protect the child from the stigma of illegitimacy. In effect, however, it has become a ploy to assure prospective adoptive parents a “guarantee” that there will be no interference from previous parents. This must be the logical conclusion of such a practice since the original birth certificate is sealed even from the person to whom it most pertains. The adopted remain the only American citizens who are denied the basic right of seeing the record of their birth and thus of knowing the identities of the parents who gave them life.

Because this practice is so widespread, it is obviously a practice that has many supporters, especially those who do not want adoptive parents to be put in a bind. But I believe that “amending” my original birth certificate - that is, deliberately altering the facts - that is, lying - not only robs me of my right to see my original record of birth, but insults my adoptive parents as well, placing them without their consent at the heart of a lie; a lie that has gained official approbation because the document, a work of fiction, is produced by an official government agency.

Over the past three to four decades there has been slow progress in overturning these offensive practices which legalize the telling of lies. Tennessee, Oregon, Maine, New Hampshire have recently allowed the adopted to retrieve their original birth certificates, but the majority of states’ legislatures have steadfastly refused to even allow to come to a vote any such measure to overturn existing practices. Important to note that the majority of Catholic bishops, especially in the northeast, have been some of the staunchest defenders of this abhorrent practice of secrets and lies. Indeed it has long been the practice of Catholic bishops to imitate the state and “amend” baptismal certificates as well. The effect, in some cases, is to issue “amended” baptismal certificates, having deliberately changed the baptismal name of the person baptized. It seems bishops (as evinced in the recent sex scandals) have a penchant for keeping things hush-hush. One can only wonder why.

I am not a birther; I do believe President Obama was born in Hawaii. But neither am I confident that government officials, nor even Catholic bishops, are as committed to preserving vital facts – adhering to basic truths – as you would want and expect them to be.

11-05-01: Divine Mercy Sunday

Divine Mercy Sunday

Acts of the Apostles 2:42-47 / Psalm 118 / 1 Peter 1:3-9 / John 20:19-31

“We brush against one another….touch. In L.A. nobody touches you behind the metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much we crash into each other just to feel something.” [The musings of a policeman observing the verbal tirade between drivers involved in a fender-bender in the opening scene of the Oscar-winning film Crash].

Touch has indeed become a very touchy issue. “In America these days,” one conservative Catholic pundit recently observed, “everything is permitted – but nothing forgiven.” Especially when the something involves touch.

Yet, touch is the very heart of today’s gospel. I won’t believe the Lord is risen, Thomas declares, without putting my hand into side. Only a few verses before, John’s gospel has Mary Magdalene weeping outside the tomb because the body she has come to anoint - with her touch - is no where to be found. The one she mistakes for the gardener calls her by name and the instant Jesus’ voice touches Mary’s hearing, recognition dawns. Yet, as Mary moves towards him, Jesus says: Do not touch me…yet. Could the gospel be suggesting that touch is even more vital for men than for women?

Touch -- or the lack of it -- plagues us as a people. If lack of touch evokes loneliness; touch itself symbolizes its antidote. Some contemporary spiritualities, like their ancient Gnostic antecedents, try to convince us that we need only transcend our physical selves (caress the aura around the body without laying a hand on anything solid) and we’ll find peace and contentment. But the revelation of Easter as presented in the canonical gospels does just the opposite, emphasizing the sensual reality of the Risen Lord who eats and drinks; who invites us, as he did Thomas, to touch his body; indeed, even, to consume it.

All touch has become circumspect of late -- and that’s a shame. I remember when I was in third grade and sent by my teacher to the eighth grade classroom to deliver a message to Brother Anselm. Brother Anselm seemed old to me at the time (though he was probably then no older than I am now). He commanded respect as principal of the boys’ school but always maintained a kindliness about him; his Louisiana origins coming through no doubt. He must have sensed my timidity at the time because he made a point of asking me my name and thanking me. Then, in front of the eighth grade (remember: all boys), he stood up and hugged me tight to his side. Strangely, I did not feel embarrassed by this gesture; rather, I felt welcomed, accepted. Even more strangely: all those eighth grade boys, usually eager to make a joke of everything, sat there silent, stunned really. If I were to guess what they were feeling at that moment, I would say it must have been …envy.

Puritanism is an American – and Protestant – legacy. It has had a long time to seep into our culture, preparing the way for new-age Gnosticisms to take root which abhor the body and assign perverted intentions to all manner of touch -- rather than recognizing touch for the sacrament it often is.

It seems those who have suffered most from these unfortunate vicissitudes of history are us men and boys -- who crave touch so much “we crash into each other just to feel something.”

11-04-24: Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday

Acts 10:34,37-43 / Psalm 118 / Colossians 3:1-4 / Victimae paschali laudes / John 20:1-9

The stunning thing about Christian belief in Easter – the assertion that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead in his human body – is that it makes a lie of the adage that nothing changes, least of all human nature. Remember that the revelation of Easter is not about the immortality of the soul but of the promise of eternity made to the human person comprising both soul and body. Easter is the story of both our origin and our destiny.

In Pope Benedict’s recently published Jesus of Nazareth (Part Two) he states that the “resurrection could be regarded as something akin to a radical ‘evolutionary leap,’ in which a new dimension of life emerges, a new dimension of human existence.”

I’m uncertain whether the pope intended to reference evolution as only a metaphor. In certain circles evolution is a tainted term that suggests a mindless change in nature, rather than what we might understand as a development – a moving toward, if you will. When discussing human origins some Christians reject any semblance of evolution and insist on what they call ‘special creation’ when referring to the advent of humanity. As Catholics we have the freedom to accept theories of evolution provided we acknowledge that, at some point in time, God breathed into man a soul; God creating us, at that particular moment, in his ”image and likeness.” I’d like to think that moment also included the dawn of self-consciousness, that somehow soul and consciousness are intimately linked one to the other.

If you’ve ever seen Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, you might remember the scene in the very beginning of the film when the camera closes in on a ape-like creature, a primate, who is hitting one stone upon the other. As the camera comes closer, the classical music in the background builds to a crescendo, and the viewer, without need for dialogue, understands that the creature who at first is mindlessly banging one stone upon another suddenly realizes what he is doing. The creature becomes aware, self-conscious, stepping across that chasm between the purely animal to what we have come to know as human, homo sapiens sapiensthe being who knows that he knows.

Ever since people started giving voice to their doubts about the historical veracity of the scriptures, particularly in the nineteenth century, what are called the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus have been called into question. What came to be known as the “Liberal Protestant” school of thought suggested that the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, as well as the resurrection itself, were but metaphors for psychological experience. This solved the awkward question, recorded in the scriptures, regarding the repeated inability of those who had known Jesus before his death to easily recognize him after his resurrection. But if that were true, and the evangelists were simply trying to make a psychological point, why include that awkward detail about not being able to recognize the risen Lord. It’s one of those anomalies that make you think twice, to step back and consider that it may well be indeed plausible that, after Jesus’ death and burial, the disciples did encounter Jesus; and the encounter was a physical one, involving at least four of the five senses (seeing, hearing, tasting, and touching). In other words, it could not have been simply a psychological event. Most of the pagan world already believed in the immortality of the soul: no big revelation there. What’s new about Easter is the startling revelation, not about soul or psyche, but about the body.

Taking the evolutionary metaphor (if it is that) a step further, we might fancy that there remains a fossil record as well. The famed Shroud of Turin, imaging a man badly beaten and having endured crucifixion, mysteriously and, thus far, inexplicably replicated onto the shroud. The story of Veronica’s Veil - what is literally called the true image of the suffering Christ – would be another missing link in the journey from time into eternity. And the Church, often called the Body of Christ, is that living fossil, possessing the power to guide each of us on this evolutionary pilgrimage from earth to heaven, from suffering to joy, from the mundane into glory.

11-04-17: Passion (Palm) Sunday

Passion (Palm) Sunday

Matthew 21:1-11 / Isaiah 50:4-7 / Psalm 22 / Philippians 2:6-11 / Matthew 26:14-27:66

Holy Week begins: the dread of every church sexton and not a few pastors. Holy Week can’t help but be overdone - too many symbols, too little time. While priests and participants blindly wade through a river of rituals feverishly anticipating an Amen that will signal they’ve reached the other shore, liturgists are in their glory explaining the ancient sources of these once-a-year practices and exhorting everyone about what is permitted or prohibited (How do you tell the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist? the old joke goes. You can reason with the terrorist).

One thing to be said for the Holy Week liturgies, though: they evoke the gamut of emotion. From delight at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem that first Palm Sunday, through the fear and dread as he’s arrested on Holy Thursday, to the gothic gore and suffering of the scourging and crucifixion on Good Friday, to the glorious surprise and joy at seeing the Risen Lord on Easter Sunday – Christians of all temperaments can find a place to feel at home. Some more maudlin Christians over-emphasize Good Friday and Christ’s suffering with almost orgiastic delight, mortifying themselves both figuratively and literally -- they’re the ones who find Easter blandly anti-climactic. Others fast forward to Easter Sunday and, like frenzied Pentecostals, sway to the Pollyanna chirps of an alleluia people – all year long. The less religiously-inclined buy a new hat and walk up Fifth Avenue.

Perhaps I betray my own temperament by admitting my prejudice for the theologian von Balthasar who aligned himself neither with the suffering of Good Friday nor the ecstasy of Easter but with the in-between – Holy Saturday: the day devotion is absent, the sacraments forbidden, churches empty of the Real Presence – God gone. And the curse, usually shouted as metaphor, becomes literally true: Jesus go(es) to hell!

Holy Saturday, the descent into hell, represents Jesus’ complete identification with us in our sinfulness – dead, helpless, cut off from God – Jesus, in the words of St. Paul himself, is made sin. Holy Saturday reminds us of those feelings of abandonment, our god-forsakenness. Such a theology suggests each of us will know this experience no matter how sinful or holy we may be. Just ask the alcoholic who’s hit bottom, or someone diagnosed with a terminal disease, or the parent who’s lost a child. Religion, as human invention or, in Freud’s evaluation, as illusion, usually seeks to protect us from the darkness of such feelings; but, at its core, deep in the throes of holy week, Holy Saturday beckons us to face the reality of a hell not filled with burning flame or numbing ice, but with… emptiness.

Holy Week may be filled with prayers and piety, rites and rubrics, but Holy Saturday turns things topsy-turvy. It happens at least once each year on Holy Saturday: the church is left open so volunteers can decorate for the Easter Vigil and Altar Servers can practice when, inevitably, someone will come in to “make a visit.” He’ll walk straight up to the empty tabernacle, still standing at the altar of reposition, genuflect, cross himself, and kneel in a most reverent manner. The nascent liturgist in me wants to go over and point out the fact that the Eucharist, the Body of Christ, is not there; it’s been removed, as the rubric demands. But I catch myself, remembering it’s Holy Saturday - when absence is what it’s all about. Maybe the one kneeling so reverently and praying so fervently in front of the empty tabernacle is on to something whether he realizes it or not. Maybe God’s apparent absence is a presence of sorts, reminding us that when all else fails, when religion’s most sublime symbols of faith removed, when we find ourselves in the darkest of places – precisely then – there comes something deeper than emotion, an intuition perhaps, hovering on a whiff of leftover incense or heard as a haunting lyric from the practicing choir; a mysterious assurance that, despite apparent absence, we are not alone – ever.

11-04-10: 5th Sunday of Lent

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Ezekiel 37:12-14 / Psalm 130 / Romans 8:8-11 / John 11:1-45

I suppose you could call the event recorded in today’s gospel (Jesus calling Lazarus from the tomb) a “near-death-experience” (NDE). For the past few decades many have claimed that, although they have been pronounced “clinically dead,” they became aware of their surroundings, feeling somehow outside their bodies. Many claimed they saw or heard the voice of Jesus, or at least some divine being, who called them into the light at the end of a dark tunnel. All of them, of course, did not follow the light but returned to tell their story. Lazarus was dead, the scripture says, for four days. I don’t know for sure but I don’t think anyone had been “clinically dead” for four days and then returned, but there have been a good number of people who were in “Persistent Vegetative States” (PVS) - in a coma for at least a year - who have woken up, have come back (literally) to their senses.

These phenomena prove that, for all our medical advancements over the past two millennia, we still do not know what death really means, because we don’t really know when death occurs. Some authorities determine death to occur when a person’s heart and breathing stop; others, only when brain activity has ceased. Theoretically, you could be pronounced “dead” in New Jersey, but still judged “alive” in Tennessee. In these conflicting perspectives, death is, well - arbitrary.

The predicament becomes even more acute when the “dead” person’s organs are needed by someone who is, literally, dying for them. The determination of the moment of death directly affects the viability of the donor’s organs. Transplanting vital organs a few minutes sooner rather than later can mean the difference between life and death for the recipient.

Religious and cultural differences play a huge role in how we react to a dying person: do we do anything and everything, even medical procedures we know to be futile, to prolong the moment when death is pronounced; or do we let the person die without administering “extraordinary” means of life support? Cases like that of Terri Schiavo will only become more common as medical technology develops further ways to prolong life – or the semblance of life – almost indefinitely. John Paul II’s pronouncement a few years back that artificial hydration and nutrition are to be considered “ordinary” and therefore morally obligatory - even when administered through a surgical procedure for persons in Persistent Vegetative States - will further complicate how families deal with a loved one in such a condition. The pope’s concern that the dignity of human life is not lost in PVS patients does not absolve from the inherent contradiction in the church’s position concerning what is considered “ordinary” and “extraordinary” means. Since food and water, the pope argues, are considered necessary for human life they must be offered even if they can only be offered by means of a medical/surgical intervention. On the other hand, the church has long taught that placing patients on mechanical ventilators when their lungs cease to function, is to be considered “extraordinary” and therefore non-obligatory. But isn’t oxygen as essential to life as hydration and nutrition? Why is providing one obligatory, and the other not?

If the Lazarus experience from the gospel could be classified as a NDE, an interesting irony arises. Those who claim to have experienced a NDE usually tell us that Jesus is calling them to leave this world and follow him into the next. But Lazarus hears Jesus calling him back to this world. And, apart from the miracle revealing Jesus’ power as divine, maybe that’s the most important lesson for us in the here and now. It’s all about what we do with the second chances were given in life.

It’s too bad we don’t have a follow-up to the Lazarus story. I’m imagining that someday, as a road crew is digging on the outskirts of Jerusalem to lay the foundation for some new building, they discover a long-lost manuscript telling us of what Lazarus did with his second chance at life. Did he put his extra time to good use? What did he accomplish? Did he leave his sisters and marry? Did he follow Jesus, albeit from a distance? After his NDE how did he use that precious gift of time? We could ask the same of many of our contemporaries who have gotten a second chance at life through some modern medical miracle, being called back from the dead. But ultimately the lesson is a universal one even for us who haven’t had a NDE. Each morning when we open our eyes after the darkness of sleep, and are called into the land of the living, we’re given another chance at life – another chance at making a difference, lending a helping hand, loving someone, sacrificing for someone who’s loved us. We’re all Lazarus: we’re all in the midst of a near-death-experience whether we’re on the operating table or performing our routine day-to-day tasks. Remember that even though Lazarus is brought back from the dead and given a second chance at life, he still must die again - same as us. The miracle of a renewed life is a wonderful gift, but it’s based on a solid certainty: this life won’t last forever – we’re all terminal.

11-04-03: 4th Sunday of Lent

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Samuel 16:1,6-7,10-13 /Psalm 23 /Ephesians 5:8-14 /John 9:1-41

Choosing kings seems never an easy procedure, as today’s first reading about the prophet Samuel anointing the young David makes clear. That’s no doubt why the crown was passed according to bloodline in most cultures, so as to avoid the mess involved in choosing an outsider. When the prophet Samuel is sent to anoint King Saul’s successor no one expected he’d end up anointing the youngest of Jesse’s sons, whose main claim to fame (according to the passage) was that he was young and handsome – so much for experience.

The British must have been just as shocked when Edward VIII abdicated the throne “for the woman he loved,” leaving his brother Albert, shy and heavily burdened by a pronounced stammer, to take his place. The recent Oscar-winning film, The King’s Speech, beautifully captures how an obvious deficit can surprisingly be transformed into unexpected inspiration.

I have a feeling those of us who’ll be watching The Borgias (beginning this Sunday on Showtime) might not walk away with as much admiration for the Church’s choice of St. Peter’s successor at the turn of the sixteenth century. The papacy, the oldest monarchy in history, is not dependent on bloodline for right of succession, though Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI) may have indeed wanted to pass on the papal tiara to Cesare - one of his several illegitimate children.

There are some fascinating parallels in the lives of these three men, not the least being that George VI can trace his lineage back to one of Alexander VI’s illegitimate children. And, in each case, the underlying belief was that king and pope were ultimately chosen by God. Such a belief is not that hard to swallow when someone like John Paul II emerges from conclave as elected successor to St. Peter, but we tend to think there must have been a fly in the ointment when a cunning thug like Rodrigo Borgia emerges as a pope; or a lustful King David risks everything to sleep with a married woman, having her husband murdered in the process; or when a nation on the brink of war looking for a strong leader capable of rallying the nation by sheer force of words, hears over the air waves a shy, retiring man with a pronounced stammer. If we say we believe God is running the show, some things just don’t seem to make sense.

It may prove interesting to see how an expos√© on “the worst pope in history” will pan out. Will it simply reconfirm some in their disdain for Catholicism? Or might it suggest, albeit unwittingly, the possibility that there’s always hope for redemption - even for the most corrupt and disreputable?

One theologian recently remarked that in our age of skepticism and doubt regarding matters of faith, surprise is virtually the only remaining “proof” for the existence of God. Surprise, the experience of the completely unexpected, the affirmation of something there that wasn’t there before, can shock even the most hardened materialist. That God chooses the weak both in body (like George VI) or in morals (like both Rodrigo Borgia and the handsome David) might be obvious to those who see a repeating pattern in revelation, but it’s nevertheless nothing less than scandalous to think God chose the one least expected, the one least capable or worthy from our point of view. God’s unforeseen choice catches us off-guard, throwing us off kilter. And that, perhaps more than anything else, is a reason to believe that God is somehow still in charge, still holding the pen and nudging us toward heaven as he writes our human history with crooked – indeed, sometimes, very crooked – lines.

11-03-27: 3rd Sunday of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 17:3-7/ Psalm 95 / Romans 5:1-2,5-8 /John 4:5-42

Wells were the singles’ bars of the ancient world. Not a few romantic relationships in the ancient world began by a well: looking for that drink on an especially hot day or for that tall drink of water after a long haul pushing sheep from one pasture to another. That’s why today’s gospel is especially scandalous, iconoclastic really: Jesus by the well looking for a drink and along comes Samaria’s femme fatale. Scholars tell us it’s an odd time of day for the Samaritan woman, now on her sixth relationship, to come to the well for water. A time of day when the other women of the town would have already come and gone from the well. Was she looking for number seven, perhaps? Jesus tells her to “go get her husband.” “I haven’t got one,” she says. I’m available, she seems to suggest.

Scandal is heightened by the fact that Jesus and the woman are found there by the disciples on their return from town. They are more shocked by the fact that Jesus is talking with a woman than by the fact he’s talking with a Samaritan. It’s simply not acceptable for someone in Jesus’ position to be alone with a woman at a well, no matter how thirsty he might have been. And the disciples, so typical of us all, quickly change the subject and start talking about food. Scripture scholars have picked up on that and suggest the whole passage is really a treatise on the Eucharist. They wax eloquent about eternal life and Jesus’ identity as Messiah and Lord. All well and good – it’s no doubt the evangelist’s intention. But it’s not so good if you’re trying to whitewash the event on which the revelation hinges – hard core scandal.

Ever since Nikos Kazantzakis got himself excommunicated from the Greek Orthodox Church in 1955 for writing his novel, The Last Temptation of Christ, in which he suggested Jesus might have struggled with sexual desire, not many have ventured into that particular DMZ. Kazantzakis said later that he wanted to show Jesus as a man who struggled and, in so doing, would be more attractive to us; we would be able to love Christ more, Kazantzakis once said. Despite the sexual revolution and its prurient aftermath, it seems we modern believers are just as intimidated by sex and scandal as those disciples finding Jesus alone with a woman. When faced with the embarrassment of sex we do our best to change the subject as well. Let’s talk about lunch. Just think of the sex scandals that have bankrupted American dioceses and brought the Irish Church to the verge of collapse. For as terrible as the abuse endured by innocent children was, the ensuing cover-up seems that much more unacceptable. And all because bishops wanted, above all else, not to give scandal. So, they swept things under the rug, pretended nothing happened, and talked about lunch.

Situations that have the potential to give scandal are always with us. Trying to avoid them usually just exacerbates a situation. Maybe today’s gospel, for all its theological eloquence about the Eucharist and eternal life, at least acknowledges that the core of the story is an encounter which produces scandal, and sexual scandal at that. We know the outcome. Salvation is revealed and imparted in the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman who, we might infer, no longer will be visiting the well after hours. But the initial feelings experienced by both participants in that awkward and exhilarating encounter is precisely the place where most of us can enter the story. We’ve been there, we know the terrain, though we’ve seldom, if ever, been invited to express those feelings of desire and ensuing emptiness – the thirst which is the very heart of the story, the thirst we desperately seek to quench but aren’t sure how.