Tuesday, May 29, 2012

12-05-27: Solemnity of Pentecost

Solemnity of Pentecost
Acts of the Apostles 2:1-11 / Pslam 104 / 1 Corinthians 12:3-7,12-13 / Veni, Sancte Spiritus / John 20:19-23

What do you call a person who speaks three languages, the joke goes. 
A person who speaks two? 
And a person who speaks just one language? 
An American.

Implied in the joke is the premise that the ability to speak more than one language is beneficial, though for many Americans, if it’s going to be only one language, it best be English.  The readings for Pentecost speak to the point: the Tower of Babel, imaging humanity’s fall into mutual incomprehensibility as the purity of an original language is lost, vs. the Holy Spirit’s gift to the apostles, allowing them to be understood by their listeners who spoke varied languages. 

In some way, language was treated a lot like religion when America came to be.  Communities were separated by both their religion and their language: the Pennsylvania Dutch, the French-speaking Louisiana Territory, the English-speaking northeast, each mirrored Reformed, Catholic and Anglican religions, respectively.  While the children of foreign-speaking immigrants quickly assimilated English as their own, their religion was usually a different story; though, in isolated cases like Yiddish-speaking Hasidic Jews of Brooklyn or the German-speaking Amish of Pennsylvania, adherence to language became as important as adherence to religion. 

Apropos this dilemma of what it means to become an American, there’s been renewed interest of late concerning the background of America’s discoverer, Christopher Columbus.  Doubts about Columbus’ pedigree first emerged in Franco’s Spain when it was suggested (until Franco quashed the research) that Columbus was either a descendent of a converso or perhaps a converso himself: Conversos being Jews who had converted to Catholicism in fifteenth century Spain.  Their conversion, however, can only be understood as a forced assimilation, since they were heavily penalized for remaining Jewish.  Finally, in 1492, the same year Columbus made his epic voyage, the Catholic Monarchs of the united Kingdom of Aragon and Castile, Ferdinand and Isabella, expelled from their kingdom all Jews who had not converted to Catholicism.  The desire for a Spain unified by religion, language and culture would eventually produce the Spanish Inquisition to insure those conversos didn’t lapse into their former religious practices. 

On a recent PBS episode of Finding Your Roots, genealogical and genetic research into the ancestry of Linda Chavez uncovered her Jewish roots that had been transported clandestinely to America early on.  Evidence of other Spanish immigrants’ Jewish background turned up when tombstones were discovered in Catholic cemeteries carved with Stars of David and notations in Hebrew script.  Chavez recalled, as a young girl, seeing her grandmother mysteriously turn statues of saints, which adorned her house, to face the wall; perhaps an attempt to observe the Jewish prohibition against graven images.

The desire for unity is always a good and noble endeavor.  But unity is not necessarily uniformity.  Uniformity, when imposed, may do more to fracture authentic unity than solidify it.  Just remember the Inquisition in Spain or the Know-Nothing and Ku Klux Klan movements of early twentieth century America.  The great strength of the American enterprise, it seems, has been flexibility, patience and tolerance in regard to assimilation.  And, no doubt, the protection afforded by the government to speak your native language and practice your chosen religion without fear of punishment or threat of exile.

[N.B. It’s that time of year once again to sign off on these Pastoral Reflections and give the patient readers of this column a well-deserved break!  Until September…tfb]

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

12-05-20: Seventh Sunday of Easter

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 1:15-17,20-26 / Psalm 103 / 1 John 4:11-16 / John 17:11-19

The election of a pope always makes for a good story.  For Catholics, all bishops are successors to the original apostles, though only the pope, the bishop of Rome, claims succession from a particular apostle - Peter.  One exception of course is the apostle chosen to replace Judas Iscariot, the ignominious apostle who betrayed Christ with a kiss.  Today’s first reading records the event of selecting a replacement from two nominees: Matthias and Judas (aka Barsabbas).  Both had the necessary credentials, being bona fide witnesses of the risen Lord.  After much discussion and prayer, Acts tells us, the eleven apostles commend their choice to the Holy Spirit by casting lots (apostolic succession by the role of the dice might explain the strange idiom: holy crap(s)!).  The Holy Spirit chooses Matthias: and we never hear of him again.  Understandable enough.  It couldn’t have been easy – taking over for Judas Iscariot – too much baggage, too many bad memories.  This might explain the Spirit’s decision of choosing Matthias over Judas Barsabbas; a successor with the same first name as the traitor might prove problematic – people easily get confused.

The election of popes throughout the millennia have likewise been ascribed to the decision of the Holy Spirit.  Though, if you’ve been watching Showtime’s The Borgias, about the papacy of Alexander VI, you might wonder about the wisdom of the Holy Spirit’s choice.  But, who knows, the alternative might have been even worse.  My favorite pope by the way is Clement VII, one of the Medici popes (who reigned a bit after the Borgia one), whom Ludwig von Pastor, in his classic History of the Popes, ranked as one of the worst – bastard that he was.

Although it’s easier to assent to the reality of divine intervention in the selection of a good pope (or, at least, a moral one) this reference to divine intervention poses a dilemma for the modern believer because it reflects ultimately how we view our own lot in life: how we came to be and what we’ve done with what we got.  Phrased in differing ways, the dilemma is all about free will.  How much free will do we really have; and how much free choice do we really exercise in the many decisions, major and minor, we make throughout our lives.  The Church teaches that human beings possess free will – this is a tenet of faith to which Catholics are required to assent; but, as to how much free will we have - the Church has never said. The more we learn from neuroscience and psychology, for instance, the less real choice we seem to have; or, if we have it at all, it must be very limited indeed.  An even more disturbing prospect: Could divine providence – that mysterious Holy Spirit - move us to make a bad choice to achieve a good end?

The pathetic figure of Judas Iscariot looms at the heart of that question.  Regarding his own destiny on the cross, Jesus seems nearly obsessed with telling his disciples that the Messiah must suffer and die so as to fulfill the dictates or prophecies of scripture.  Skeptics claim that the gospels had to put these words into Jesus’ mouth in order to explain such an ignominious death and, further, to defend his choice of Judas Iscariot as an apostle in the first place (if Jesus was God, the jaded might argue, he surely must have known!).

And so was Judas, poor Judas, just a dastardly coward who sold out his friend for money; or was he a dedicated but misguided follower who had his own ideas about how things should turn out; or, shuddering to contemplate, was he the servant par excellence, an agent of divine destiny that made the prophecies of scripture come true – a necessary hinge in the divine plan of redemption? 

Bob Dylan put the question best in his old ballad, With God On Our Side
Through many dark hour /
        I’ve been thinking about this
      That Jesus Christ was betrayed by a kiss
 But I can’t think for /
      You have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side

If you were to take Bob Dylan up on it, your decision regarding Judas Iscariot might not be so academic; it would reflect your take about how you view the meaning of chance and providence, choice and destiny in your own life - whether or not you are or ever will be a successor to an apostle or just an ordinary soul making sense of the lots cast that has become your life, that hand of cards you’ve been dealt.

Monday, May 14, 2012

12-05-13: Sixth Sunday of Easter

Sixth Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 10:25-26,34-35,44-48 / Psalm 98 / 1 John 4:7-10 / John 15:9-17

Searching is a theme that runs through my life – everyone’s life, I imagine. On this Mother’s Day I’m remembering, though it’s hard to believe, it’s been thirty years since I decided to search for my birthmother. The process was an adventure, like unraveling clues in a mystery novel or going on a journey into unchartered terrain. Looking back it didn’t take me so long to find her (only a matter of months); though, truth be told, I’m still searching for something - that ever-elusive goal, that destination never quite reached.

I’m sure that’s why I’ve liked history so much. Because I’m a slow learner (this is not self-deprecation, just honest perception), it took me a long while to question that much-accepted myth and acknowledge that there’s no such thing as an objective view of things – history depends on who’s telling the story, on what and how much that who chooses to reveal. It’s precisely those dull textbook accounts, filled with numerous unadorned facts, which serve to turn most kids off to the study of history. You might think you’re being very wise when, like Sergeant Joe Friday from Dragnet, you say you want just the facts, ma’am; but those facts need to take on some flesh and blood, be embodied so to speak, in order for us voyeurs of history to get the meaning – to understand what’s really happening.

Yet facts are essential. They’re the skeleton on which that flesh takes form. That’s why despotic governments throughout history have always tried, and often succeeded in manipulating people, by withholding from them the uncomfortable facts of their own history. In a recent interview to promote his new film, For Greater Glory (opening June 1st) Eduardo Verástegui told how he had been raised and educated in Mexico’s public schools and yet had never heard of the Cristero Rebellion of the 1920s. The film is about that uprising which rebelled against the Mexican government’s attempt to eliminate the power of the Church by suppression, violence, imprisonment and execution. Embarrassed by those events, subsequent governments sought to brush things under the rug – what they don’t know won’t hurt them, seemed to become accepted government policy. But lies always hurt; and the greatest lies are the ones that are told to keep secrets. So a Japanese student will never read from a Japanese textbook about the misery his countrymen perpetuated in China in the 1930s or about their cruel occupation of Korea for nearly forty years. And you’ll look in vane through any Turkish history book in search of that chapter on the Armenian Genocide.

The adopted suffer a similar injustice; the lie, for us, writ large on amended (i.e. false) birth and baptismal certificates – the original facts sealed under lock and key. But lies always backfire. It may take time, but they always do. Lies not only deceive others but they deceive the liar as well. I remember an adoptive mom asking me once whether I thought she should tell her two sons they were adopted. After all, she said, they came from abusive homes. It might hurt them to know. But, I said, they’re only four months apart in age. Don’t you think that someday they’ll figure out they’re not related to each other? It literally never occurred to her. The adopted, who have been lied to about their origins, may indeed someday forgive the adoptive parents – as was the case in the recent film October Baby. But that type of lie – the biggest kind of lie you can tell – can never be forgotten. “It is secrecy that is everywhere the soul of bureaucracy,” Simone Weil wrote. “It is the condition of all privilege and, consequently, of all oppression.”

I now know many of the facts of my particular history – at least, a lot more than I knew before – but I’m still sifting through them, deciphering their meaning, trying to understand how they became the deck of cards I was dealt. Jesus tells us in today’s gospel that we are no longer slaves because a slave doesn’t know what his master is doing – he doesn’t have the facts. Jesus calls us friends because he lets us in on things, reveals, discloses, sheds light on the situation. This is why we call the gospel the “good news.” Love always seeks knowledge and knowing inevitably leads to loving – and that’s a fact.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

12-05-06: Fifth Sunday of Easter

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 9:26-31 / Psalm 22 / 1 John 3:18-24 / John 15:1-8

Clean up your act – or else might be the subtitle for today’s gospel image of God the Father as he prunes the vines and cuts down all the deadwood in the vineyard. It didn’t take long till the Church Fathers understood the vineyard to be synonymous with the Church, ever in need of purification from doctrinal error and moral misbehavior. This outlook would eventually give rise to things like the Inquisition, the Index (of forbidden books) and, in our time, a renewed emphasis on the demand to conform to the Magisterium, the Church’s teaching authority, with little room for questioning or nuanced disagreement.

These “markers” in the history of the Church might be perceived as extremist positions. Not satisfied with the conversion (albeit pressured, if not forced) of Spanish Jews during the Reconquista of the fifteenth century, the Inquisition sought to make sure their conversion “took.” Spying on friends and family was encouraged so as to report any remnant religious practice, like avoiding pork or seeking to circumcise your son. And well into the twentieth century Catholics were forbidden to read certain books and authors deemed dangerous to your faith. How a book ended up on the Index was a mystery unto itself, though an insight was given a few decades back by Graham Greene. What is now considered a very Catholic novel, The Power and the Glory, was about to be placed on the Index when a young monsignor working in the Vatican interceded on Greene’s behalf, insisting that the character of the priest, weak and sinful though he was, is ultimately a noble testament to divine grace working through that weakness. The monsignor won out and Greene was spared condemnation. The monsignor, Giovanni Battista Montini, would eventually become Pope Paul VI.

As for the renewed emphasis on the Church’s teaching authority and its demand for the believer’s obedience, we seem now to be approaching a crisis point. Evidence of the dilemma erupts here and there in ever-increasing frequency: bishops refusing communion to certain politicians who hold pro-abortion views; the recent case of a Catholic school teacher being fired because she became pregnant through in vitro fertilization; the Archbishop of Seattle requesting all parishes in his archdiocese to campaign for signatures at Mass in order to place a referendum on the ballot attempting to overturn same-sex marriage legislation. The dilemma occurs not because bishops are teaching in error, but because other loyal believers see the enforcement of certain liturgical embargoes in response to views held, or lifestyles practiced, a foolish response to complicated issues.

The rector of the Seattle archdiocesan cathedral, for example, refused his archbishop’s request to campaign during Mass for parishioners’ signatures to place on that referendum because, he said, it would serve only to offend and divide his congregation. Or, in the case of a lesbian who was denied communion at her mother’s funeral because the priest knew she was living with another woman, the Archdiocese of Washington apologized to the woman and put the young priest “on leave.” And, perhaps most significantly, the recent case reported from the Archdiocese of Vienna where Cardinal Schönborn overruled his own spokesman who had stated that active homosexuals are living in the state of grave sin, and permitted an openly gay man, living with his male partner, to serve on his parish council after being elected by parishioners. Cardinal Schönborn made the decision after meeting with the man and his male lover for lunch. It serves well to remember that the cardinal was the main editor of The Catechism of the Catholic Church and a former pupil of Pope Benedict himself.

Although moderation in doctrinal enforcement may indeed be coming to the fore, the forces that seek to prune away what they perceive as deadwood in the contemporary church seem all too willing to sacrifice anyone, and nearly everyone, for the sake of purity in faith and morals. Remember that movements like the Inquisition and the Index ultimately backfired: so-called heretics were emboldened in their perceptions, and books placed on the Index (as well as movies later condemned by the Legion of Decency) became guaranteed best sellers.

As for pruning those vines, it might be wise to acknowledge that an unblemished purity in matters of faith and morals is seldom found (except in bishops, of course); and, more importantly, that perceived impurities can in fact be the very place where grace enters the human heart – O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam, sings the Exultet. The esoteric Alan Watts, once Anglican priest turned Buddhist, reflected on this deep and essential paradox when defending his own lack of purity in both faith and morals when he wrote that “the finest incense in the world – aloeswood – is made from a diseased part of the tree, and pearls are a sickness of oysters.”

Saturday, May 5, 2012

adoption reform NYS Legislature

5 May 2012

The Honorable Edward C. Braunstein
Assemblyman - District 26
213-33 39th Avenue
Bayside, New York 11361

Dear Assemblyman Braunstein,
I hope this note finds you well. I’m writing in the hope that you might consider supporting recently proposed legislation in the New York State Assembly concerning the right of adopted adults to have access to their original birth certificates. It is my understanding that Assemblyman Weprin is now sponsoring such legislation in bill A8910.

As someone who was adopted in New York City in 1953, I have been involved over the past twenty years in efforts to change the laws that currently prohibit citizens like myself from access to the identifying information with which they were born but have been denied through legislative action that had sealed records and issued amended, i.e. false, birth certificates.

In recent years virtually all adoption professionals have advocated openness in adoption procedures and the free access on the part of the adopted and their adoptive parents to vital information concerning their natal identities and medical information. What adoption reformers, myself included, are now seeking is the same right and practice extended to those born into the closed adoption system that sealed records in most states, including New York.

The main objection, I believe, on the part of those who oppose access to original birth certificates on the part of adult adoptees has been the assumption that women who relinquished children to adoption were promised confidentiality from everyone at the time of relinquishment. Though this position is often stated, there is actually no evidence that any such confidentiality was ever promised at the time of relinquishment. In fact, my own adoption (which was emblematic of adoptions conducted in New York State at the time) suggests otherwise. When the adoption papers were issued by Surrogate’s Court and given to my adoptive parents, I was identified in those papers with my birthmother’s surname. If the state had indeed intended to guarantee confidentiality to my birth mother – from everyone, including the adoptive family - why would the state issue the adoption papers with my mother’s surname? I would submit that one could only logically infer that confidentiality, i.e. anonymity from the adopted themselves, was never intended.

Those of us in adoption reform wish to argue that the right to know your parents’ names and the facts of your own birth is a human, civil and inalienable right. I hope you would consider backing A8910 and help those of us long denied this right – a right which every other American citizen possesses, that is, the right to one’s original birth certificate - be granted.

(Rev.) Thomas F. Brosnan

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

12-04-29: Fourth Sunday of Easter

Fourth Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 4:8-12 / Psalm 118 / 1 John 3:1-2 / John 10:11-18

“There is no salvation through anyone else,” Peter says of Jesus in today’s first reading.  That conviction, perhaps more than anything else, has driven the efforts of Christian missionaries for two thousand years.  The history of that missionary effort, its beneficial as well as its harmful effects, has been the subject of much debate in the past fifty years. 

I remember, in seventh grade, reading Maryknoll Magazine for the first time and deciding there and then I wanted to be a missionary, travel to far and exotic places and bring Christ to the “heathen nations.”  Within the religious ghetto where most Brooklyn Catholics of my generation grew up, there was little doubt that the Roman Catholic Church not only subsisted in the one true Church of Christ (as Vatican II put it) but was identical to that true church and, thus, the only way to salvation – the one door to heaven, so to speak.  Some would argue that Vatican II changed all that, opening up a way to acknowledge Christ as the unique Savior of the world while respecting other religious traditions as valid: if those non-Catholics were not on the designated highway to heaven, at least they were seen as traveling in the right direction. 

I’m not so sure Vatican II invented that idea as much as verbalize what had already been brewing in our collective unconscious for some time, especially since the time when Europeans embarked on that so-called “Age of Discovery”; when they encountered peoples, cultures and societies which challenged their basic notion of what Cardinal Ratzinger called the unicity and salvific universality of Jesus Christ and his Church in his now famous declaration from the year 2000 – Dominus Iesus.

That encounter with difference, way back when, posed the challenge of first seeing peoples outside Western culture as human, as capable of salvation (African slaves and Indians being the prime examples); and then, once their humanity was acknowledged, to make every effort to convert and baptize them, igniting a great missionary effort not seen since Christianity ceased being simply a Jewish sect.  Even in China, where Europeans encountered a culture more advanced and sophisticated than their own, the emphasis was on making the other conform to western ways of expressing faith at the expense of their own cultural practices.  There were notable exceptions: the remarkable Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, being perhaps the greatest example. In sixteenth century China Ricci translated himself into Chinese Confucian society.  Rather than simply imparting truth, he sought to discover it – practicing that Thomistic (and very Catholic) principle he had learned so well: God can indeed be known through the light of one’s own reason and that, therefore, in a mysterious way, salvation can be experienced by those who never heard of Christ.  Ricci’s non-Jesuit successors, however, didn’t see things the same way.  One could argue that their arrogance in these matters lost China to the Church, altering the course of world history in a significant way.

Some see the theology expressed in Dominus Iesus as a revisionist document in much the same vane; a return to that type of arrogance where the explicit necessity of confessing Christ and the Catholic Church as the only way to salvation is reiterated.  And even for those of us completely convinced of the truth of that document, the fact remains that we no longer live, or can live, in that Catholic ghetto of yesteryear (even though we might want to).  There remains that nagging question in the back of our minds, brought forward every time we meet someone – be they Protestant, Jew, Muslim, or even atheist – who leads a good and perhaps even exemplary life: How can it be that someone who is outside the Church, or who denies Christ’s unique role as savior, lead a better, happier or more meaningful life than people like you and me who claim more complete access to truth and grace?

Apart from a ghetto mentality that basks in black and white, either/or formulas, the answer resides in mystery.  Even those graced with the gift of infallibility in matters of faith cannot (at least, till now, have not) pronounced on how that divine mystery of love and redemption enters the hearts of those outside the faith.  Perhaps the answer doesn’t lie so much in explaining what that faith entails, but rather, depends on the definition of what you mean by “outside.”

The Catholic Baptismal Rite might be a case in point.  While blessing the water to be used for baptism, the priest says: “Through the waters of the Red Sea you led Israel out of slavery, to be an image of God’s holy people, set free from sin by baptism.”  One might wonder if those Israelites of a pre-Christian age knew they were being baptized into Christ as they trod through the muck and mire of those parted waters.  I wouldn’t think they did.  But the blessing does reveal the Church’s willingness to accept that salvation can come in different guises, through many different translations of that one eternal Word.  Revelation may have ended with the death of the last apostle, but history has not.  It’s not the fact of the redemption that one questions in this regard, but how that redemption is revealed in time, in history.  The task of the missionary, our task as Catholic Christians in this age of the so-called “new evangelization,” is perhaps not so much to simply reiterate an ancient truth but to discover its manifestations – the translation of that eternal Word - in ever new and surprising ways.   

Monday, April 23, 2012

12-04-22: Third Sunday of Easter

12-04-22: Third Sunday of Easter
Acts of the Apostles 3:13-15,17-19 / Psalm 4 / 1 John 2:1-5 / Luke 24:35-48

Last Sunday, April 15th, was a day saturated with history.  It was the day Abraham Lincoln died from the gunshot he endured the night before; it was the day the Titanic sank into the icy Atlantic taking fifteen hundred human lives; and it was Pope Benedict’s 85th birthday, celebrated amid widespread rumors that he would announce his resignation (retirement), as pope, due to age – it never happened.

There had been several popes in history who resigned in order to end schism or the scandal of simony but only one, Celestine V, who did so without external pressure.  Having been a Benedictine monk for most of his life, Celestine was elected pope, without his knowledge, because of his reputation for sanctity and humility.  He resigned the papacy at eighty years of age within a few months of his election because he felt that he could not handle the burdens of administration.  He sought to complete his life in peace following the ordered routine of monastic life.  Not too long ago Pope Benedict had visited Celestine’s grave, fueling the rumor that at some point Benedict might follow the example of his predecessor and resign the papal office because of age and/or infirmity (an option allowed by Canon Law).  From remarks made on his birthday last week, however, the pope seems to have the clear intention to continue as successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ until death. 

Apropos of rumors of papal resignation, the newly-released Italian film, We Have a Pope, is the fictional story of papal resignation or, more accurately, papal abdication.  Although the film is difficult to follow at times and gets sidetracked into unnecessary farce, the plot remains an interesting one.  It’s about the election of a new pope, Cardinal Melville; but, before he is introduced to the world from the balcony of St. Peter’s, the newly-elected pontiff experiences a psychological breakdown of sorts – he gets cold feet and, literally, runs away from his appointed destiny.  You could say the frightened pope, filled with doubts about his own abilities, is the contemporary anti-hero, akin to the likes of an Edward VIII abdicating the British throne, his destined duty, “for the woman he loved.”  The pope and the king just can’t measure up.  But, we post-moderns might ask, who could?

At the heart of such human predicaments lies the question of duty, sacrifice and heroism and the quest for happiness and fulfillment.  The more conservative among us might argue that, in the good old days, there was no predicament – happiness and fulfillment were found in doing one’s duty even if it required heroic sacrifice.  But then, one might argue back, Pope Celestine lived in those good old days – the thirteenth century being, as Tennyson might have put it, the greatest of all the good old days.

Perhaps we are on the cusp of a paradigm shift in the way we understand how we engage our responsibilities and the permanence of our promises.  Evidence of such is increasingly more clear in the way the Church approaches the possibility that circumstances can change the nature of our previous decisions: consider the number annulments the church grants every year or dispensations from active ministry (and celibacy) granted to priests.  We might, from that more conservative viewpoint, condemn the objective decision of a fictional Cardinal Melville or the historical Edward VIII in forsaking the duty they seemingly were destined for.  But we cannot judge their interior motivations or whether those decisions evince genuine courage or an unfortunate cowardice.  That, only God knows.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

12-04-15: Second Sunday of Easter

Second Sunday of Easter or Divine Mercy Sunday

Acts of the Apostles 4:32-35 / Psalm 118 / 1 John 5:1-6 / John 20:19-31

Some say the Acts of the Apostles reflects an idealized rather than an actual view of the early Christian community. The skeptical sight today’s first reading which says that no one claimed any possessions and all held everything in common. That’s a pretty tall order for any group to accomplish – just look at the mess that Communism engendered in the twentieth century. But the clincher, as to the use of hyperbole in describing the early church community, lies foremost in the rather nonchalant statement at the beginning of the reading: “the community of believers,’” it asserts, “was on one heart and mind.” Thinking of the church today, no less imbued with the Spirit now as it was then, you’d be hard pressed to see us as of one mind on anything.

There is one notable and undoubtedly true exception to this thesis and that’s what’s stated in today’s gospel. After the crucifixion, the gospel tells us, the apostles were locked away in a room “for fear of the Jews.” Scholars disagree what John’s gospel attributes to the cause of that fear. Were the apostles fearful they would be persecuted by the Jewish authorities as Jesus was; or were they fearful they would be accused by the Jewish authorities of having stolen Jesus’ body? Whatever the reason: they were certainly of one mind and heart in that fear.

Bishops, the Catholic Church maintains, are the successors of the apostles. This distinction, a guaranteed-given by the grace of ordination, is meant to assure the continuation of church and sacraments, and suggests as well that the bishops share in witnessing to the truth about Christ and his presence among us. Unfortunately, the grace of episcopal ordination doesn’t safeguard from that all-too-human affliction of fear. In this, modern day bishops are just as weak as their apostolic forbears. A case in point: the trial of Msgr. William Lynn of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Msgr. Lynn is now on trial for endangering the welfare of children - all in connection with the priest sex abuse scandals. No one is accusing Msgr. Lynn of abusing children himself, though he is accused of being no less responsible, since he was the head of clergy personnel when a number of cases of abuse were reported and accused priests, rather than being removed, were transferred to other parishes. If convicted, Msgr. Lynn would be the first priest to be held responsible for covering-up the sexual abuse of children by “protecting” the abusers.

On the face of it some might breathe a sigh of relief, saying to themselves: Well, finally someone is being held accountable. But, as every priest I suspect knows deep down, Msgr. Lynn is the quintessential scapegoat in this ugly drama. Because, as every priest also knows (and anyone else who has seen firsthand the bureaucratic workings of the church), it is the bishop of the diocese who bears the responsibility for the placement and removal of his priests. In this case the responsibility rested with the Archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Bevilaqua, who died a few days before the trial began. The prosecution felt so robbed by this twist of fate that they ordered an autopsy against the wishes of both the archdiocese and the cardinal’s family – implying there might have been foul play (echoes of the Borgias right here in Philadelphia).

There can be little doubt that the prosecution does not also know that Msgr. Lynn, as wrong as he might have been in hindsight to dutifully fulfill his obligations to episcopal authority, was not the person ultimately responsible for these bad, but all-too-common decisions, on how to handle abusive priests. Lynn is the district attorney’s clerical scapegoat. But, much worse it seems to me, Msgr. Lynn is the bishops’ scapegoat as well.

For fear of the authorities, not one American bishop has spoken up explaining how decisions are made on a diocesan level and how those decisions are executed within the clerical bureaucracy of the local chancery. Not one bishop has publicly expressed support or even concern for Msgr. Lynn. Not true, some say: the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has offered their legal counsel to Lynn, probably free of charge. This, despite the repeated warnings of the judge, that this in itself is a clear conflict of interest and would not serve Msgr. Lynn well at all. Alas, Msgr. Lynn has not taken the judge’s advice and has refused separate counsel - reason unknown. Perhaps he has grown used to being used, and abused, by the workings of the American episcopate – of one heart and mind, locked in their fear of those secular authorities.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

12-04-08: Easter Sunday

Easter Sunday

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

If you’ve ever been to Jerusalem and had the opportunity to visit the Holy Sepulchre you might agree that it’s a big mess. Different churches control different parts of the church and their respective (though not very respectful) clergy are constantly getting into arguments with each other that quite often escalate into fist fights and brawls. If you can manage to get through the main entrance and make your way to the tomb itself you can actually enter the tomb, say a prayer and maybe light a candle - before you get thrown out. Unlike any other famous tomb, there would of course be no remains present because, as the gospel states, “He is risen as he said.” In this, you would have walked, literally, in the footsteps of Peter and the beloved disciple and experienced what they experienced on that first Easter morning – an empty tomb. Yet we are told, the beloved disciple “saw and believed.”

So, what did he see? That’s the starting point of a book just released this past week in which a British professor makes the case that it was the Shroud of Turin, or more precisely, the image on the shroud that engendered belief in Jesus’ resurrection for Jesus’ first disciples. John’s gospel tells us that the burial cloths that covered Jesus’ body, as well as the cloth which had covered his head, were in plain sight. The author of the book makes the case that, unlike today, an image had an enormously powerful effect on ancient peoples and it was the image of the crucified Jesus on the shroud that engendered belief in the resurrection. I haven’t yet read the book (only a review) so I don’t know how the author deals with the other very obvious detail in the gospel account – the fact that the body of Jesus was missing.

The other way to read the same gospel account is to understand that what the beloved disciple saw was, in a word, nothing. He believed on account of what he didn’t see. And it’s this experience – the experience of what’s missing – which can be of great value, precisely because we human beings all know that feeling. And we don’t like it! That empty, hollow feeling we get after a long relationship breaks up, when the doctor gives a diagnosis of terminal disease, when someone we’ve loved so much takes his last breath. It’s that hollow, empty feeling that brings on that sick-to-the-stomach, I–just-wanna-wake-from-this-nightmare feeling. But maybe that’s the first fruit of the resurrection – that hollowed feeling can become a hallowed encounter with the divine.

The notion that the hollowed may be a sign of the hallowed, that emptiness is the mirror image of holiness, that what is missing is already evidence of what will be found, resonates with that old rabbinic take that God created the world by withdrawing, just as the beautiful sandy beach appears only when the wave recedes. This might not be an experience of the Risen Lord in the flesh, but it may well be the first fruit of his resurrection – hope. A hope which intimates that all is possible. That’s what happens when you hollow out space; you make it hallowed, holy – you make room for what’s missing.

Monday, April 2, 2012

12-04-01: Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord

Mark 11:1-10 / Isaiah 50:4-7 / Psalm 22 / Philippians 2:6-11 / Mark 14:1-15:47

If you had seen the Oscar winning movie, The Artist, you might have assumed it was making allusions to that heartthrob of the silent screen – Rudolph Valentino. It’s my understanding that Valentino, like the leading man in The Artist, lost out when sound came to cinema: not so much a problem of foreign accent which both men possessed but, for Valentino, because he had an unusually high-pitched voice. Suspicion about Valentino’s sexuality, verbalized at the time as doubts about his masculinity, hounded Valentino till his early death at thirty-one in 1926. It seems Valentino was a bit avant-garde when it came to fashion as well. He began to wear an item which men judged effeminate. After WWI this particular item of fashion became quite common and remains so today; but when Valentino sported it, he was judged a danger to the idea of what an American man ought to be. No, it’s not an ascot, not a monocle, not even that questionable cigarette holder – the kind FDR would constantly hold. It was just a wristwatch. Some say that pegged Valentino’s “deviant” orientation more than anything else. Times have changed – thank God.

Those who embody sexual difference, or what others might judge as sexual deviance, have always been a part of every culture. Take today’s Gospel which begins Jesus’ Passion. The account opens with the scene of a woman anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive nard. Very early on the Church Fathers would identify her as a prostitute and the ointment she used as something bought with the money she earned in “the world’s oldest profession.” What is Jesus’ response: “Let her alone. Why do you make trouble for her?”

Then, almost incidentally, a very interesting thing occurs. The disciples ask Jesus where he would like to celebrate the upcoming Passover meal. “Where should we go?” they ask him. “Go into the city,” Jesus says. “And a man will meet you, carrying a jar of water. Follow him.” It would have been very unusual, in the Jerusalem of Jesus’ day, for a man to be walking about carrying a jar of water. Why? Because that was what women did; work was gender-specific. Men simply did not carry jars of water about; a man doing so would have seemed very strange. What the gospel is describing here might be called, in modern parlance, a trans-gendered event. Yet, Jesus tells his disciples something extraordinary: “Follow him.” It must have taken more than a bit of courage for those two disciples to follow this man-acting-like-a-woman. But they obeyed Jesus so that the Passover meal could be prepared as he wished. This incident which could be perceived as an example of an inversion of nature would prepare the way for the great conversion of nature into supernature, of bread and wine into the Lord’s body and blood. The disciples were able to know where to go because they would have recognized the man easily; his ‘difference’ made it all possible.

These days the so-called culture wars, and presidential politics as well, remain concerned with issues surrounding sexuality, be it soccer moms moonlighting as high-class madams, those seeking the right to same-sex marriage, or those same-sex couples seeking to adopt. Today’s hot-button issues make the wearing of a wristwatch seem a very minor affair. Sticking with the analogy some might contend that some of these issues have become, in the minds of the more liberal, as innocuous as wearing a wristwatch. But for many, especially the religious, issues involving sexuality can still rattle more than a few feathers. The Church, the Body of Christ in the here-and-now, has the right and the duty to teach as Jesus did in matters of morality. But timing can make all the difference. Jesus did not condone prostitution, yet he saw the innate dignity of the woman who anointed his feet with her ill-earned ointment. And while it doesn’t seem likely Jesus would have been turning water into wine if the feast at Cana was a same-sex wedding, he still recognized the innate dignity of the man carrying the water jug, the man acting like a woman within that cultural context, and used him to lead his disciples to their appointed task and their ordained destiny.

Was it Flannery O’Connor who once remarked that it remains a sublime paradox that many enter the Church by means the Church does not allow? Perhaps there are lessons yet to be learned by all parties, religious and secular, gay and straight, in this mystery we call human sexuality, on this Sunday we dedicate to passion.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

12-03-25: Fifth Sunday of Lent

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Jeremiah 31:31-34 / Psalm 51 / Hebrews 5:7-9 / John 12:20-33

With the heated debate over religious freedom of conscience now raging as the presidential election approaches, that very issue of conscience has become entangled with sexual behavior and reproductive issues. Although for the past twenty years, with Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body,” the church has sought to engage issues of sexuality and reproduction within an “incarnational” framework, what unfortunately seems to result, when such topics mix with vying political agendas, is that the church is seen as the great nay-sayer, a puritanical voice amid the cacophony of voices that claim freedom and choice as its goals.

Today, March 25th, is the traditional Solemnity of the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel came to Mary and the virgin conceived “by the power of the Holy Spirit.” It’s odd that the church, for all its current concern over reproductive technologies and the legitimate conception of children, wouldn’t emphasize the Annunciation more – move it to a Sunday or, at least when it falls on a Sunday as it does this year, celebrate the Annunciation rather than the usual Sunday. But, alas, next to the mystery of the Trinity itself, there are few things so incomprehensible in Catholic life than liturgical rules and practices.

One of the current areas of contention between Catholic sexual morality and us moderns (Catholics included) is the issue of in vitro fertilization (IVF). One could argue, at least from anecdotal evidence, that Catholics by and large disobey, ignore, contravene this prohibition as much as they do the prohibition against artificial contraception. But not even the more conservative among Catholic leaders and politicians (are they the same entity?) dare broach that teaching for fear of alienating their brothers and sisters and, perhaps as time goes on, their own mothers and fathers. Yet, as far as I understand it, the moral reasoning prohibiting both is pretty much the same. In the case of contraception the church teaches that, in marriage, every conjugal act must be open to procreation and to circumvent that possibility, by artificial means, is immoral. In the case of IVF the church teaches that the unitive aspect of marriage must also be always evinced between a man and a woman and, thus, then to remove the act of fertilization from that marital “embrace” is also immoral. John Paul II’s “language of the body” understands marital intercourse to “speak” both a bodily self-giving (procreative aspect) and a spiritual self-giving (unitive aspect). To evade either is to, in this sense, act falsely; to lie, as it were, with your very body.

In a perfect world, I suppose, all that sounds quite admirable and a worthy goal to want to strive for. But one wonders where that world might be. I remember back in the ‘70s when Louise Brown, the first “test tube baby” – the first to be conceived in vitro - was born. Pope John Paul I was one of the first to acknowledge her birth and did so without condemnation, rejoicing in her birth rather than focusing on the means of her conception. A wise political choice for that historical moment. Alas, times have changed.

It has since become, if not commonplace, then quite un-extraordinary, for a child to be conceived in vitro. The moral questions concerning what happens to the other fertilized but un-implanted eggs are, for sure, a grave moral concern. But that question really doesn’t impinge on the morality of how the born-child was conceived. Perhaps the Feast of the Annunciation, when we celebrate the fact that a young unmarried girl conceived a child in an asexual manner without benefit of intercourse or marriage, can help us better grapple with this contentious issue. The Virgin Mary and her bodily experience does not fit the strictures or definitions of what Catholic morality insists should be – suggesting perhaps, a la Shakespeare, that there’s more to the mystery of life and its origins than is in our philosophy – or our moral theology.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

12-03-18: Fourth Sunday of Lent

Fourth Sunday of Lent

2 Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23 / Psalm 137 / Ephesians 2:4-10 / John 3:14-21

History is filled with ironies. Just think of the import reflected in today’s first reading about Cyrus the Persian, responsible for the repatriation of exiled Jews back to Israel in the sixth century BC and then for rebuilding the Temple after having been destroyed by the Babylonians fifty years earlier. Cyrus the Persian, Cyrus the proto-Iranian if you will, was so admired and appreciated by the Jews that he is even given the title “Messiah” in the scriptures. Fast forward 2,500 years and Cyrus’s descendents, the Iranian ayatollahs, are Israel’s sworn enemies and the greatest threat to Jewish existence.

This weekend we’ll be celebrating the memory of Saint Patrick who, virtually single-handedly, converted the entire people of Ireland to Christianity. All the more remarkable when we realize that Patrick, probably from Roman Britain, had been kidnapped and enslaved by Irish pirates and, upon his escape, felt an interior call to return to Ireland as a priest and preach the gospel to his former captors. The legacy of the Catholic Faith that Patrick left in Ireland helped preserve the faith of an entire Europe during the barbarian invasions. Now, after the priest sex-abuse scandals and subsequent cover up by the Irish bishops, we see the Irish Church imploding and the Irish people themselves rejecting their ancient faith.

Comparisons could be made. Iran is an Islamic theocracy that seeks to govern on Qur’anic principles. Ireland was the closest thing to a theocracy in the modern West till very recently. The Catholic Church in Ireland wielded enormous influence and political power. But the problem with theocracies, no matter when and where we find them, is that the power entrusted to a religious elite is often easily abused. That has happened in both Iran and Ireland. One just needs to listen to the ranting of the Iranian ayatollah or remember the abuse of power in the hands of a former Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid.

Against that bleak backdrop there emerges an unexpected diamond in the rough – Diarmuid Martin, the current archbishop of Dublin, recently interviewed on 60 Minutes. Archbishop Martin seems a maverick among his brother bishops, not willing to go along blindly either with them or the Vatican. A seeming humble man, named to his post from outside the usual source of candidates, he came to near tears in the interview when talking of visiting a school and seeing the innocence of the children all the while remembering the stories of abuse told him by sex-abuse survivors. He’s no fool though. When pressed to speak about the recent rift in relations between the Irish government and the Vatican (Ireland closed its embassy to the Holy See and the pope recalled his nuncio) he politely refuses to speculate. And, no doubt, 60 Minutes was told not to mention the Pope’s refusal to accept certain bishops’ resignations over the scandal or ask for Martin’s response. Yet Martin seems a light in the darkness now engulfing the Irish Church – perhaps the only light amid a bevy of bishops running in all directions; including Cardinal Brady, Archbishop of Armagh, Primate of Ireland and, thus, successor to St. Patrick himself, who has admitted to “silencing” sex-abuse victims years before lest they cause scandal to the church. While there’s little doubt Martin’s church career will go no further - he’ll not succeed Brady as Primate - one can’t help but think Martin is, in fact, Patrick’s worthy successor. If anyone will be able to begin to rebuild the Irish Church from this low point in its history, Martin seems to be the one.

Ireland and Iran are separated by a lot of geography but their attempt at workable theocracies bears more than a little similarity. And students of comparative linguistics have long known that both Persian Farsi and Irish Gaelic are distantly related, belonging to the same Indo-European family of languages. Interestingly, a case has been made for the remarkable theory that the place names, Ireland and Iran, share the same root, “Ar”- the same root of the name Aryan – an ancient and mysterious people who seem to have emerged from the Russian steppe some 4,000 years ago, spreading in all directions and leaving vestiges of their language and religion within disparate cultures. Let’s hope that the example of Cyrus the Persian, that proto-Iranian defender of the Jews, and Saint Patrick, that messenger of the Gospel to the Irish who once enslaved him, will win the day in both modern Iran and Ireland. And let’s pray that any attempt at theocratic government, from whatever religious background, will be seen for what it actually is: tyrannical despotism – albeit clothed in attractive religious garb.

Monday, March 12, 2012

12-03-11: Third Sunday of Lent

Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 20:1-17 / Psalm 19 / 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 / John 2:13-25

The American Atheists Association has once again gained media attention: it’s posting billboards in Muslim and Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn, written in Arabic and Hebrew (Yiddish?), saying You know it’s a myth – you have a choice referring to belief in God. One old Jewish resident of Williamsburg was quoted as saying: “That takes a lot of chutzpah.” Maybe. If they really had chutzpah they’d forget about G-d and Allah and just question the bona fides of Mohammad… peace be upon him.

One of the pivotal stories in the Bible is recorded in today’s reading from Exodus about the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments, the covenant made with the chosen people through Moses. We are oftentimes overly impressed by the fact that the essence of the covenant between God and his people is one framed in law, a set of prohibitions (the latter seven commandments) to ensure peaceful communal coexistence. We should remember that the civilization from which the Hebrews were escaping – Egypt – had long before achieved a level of high sophistication. Remember Moses found himself leading the Exodus because he had been running from “the law” having killed an Egyptian whom he had seen beating a Hebrew. No, there’s nothing essentially extraordinary about the latter seven commandments – but there’s quite a bit of dynamite in the first three.

If the last seven commandments teach how we should relate with others, the initial three are concerned with how we relate to the deity. Remember, Moses was the first human being to whom God had revealed his personal name which, paradoxically, is the heart of that second command – forbidding anyone to utter that name (the prohibition against using foul language – which most of us learned, and still is taught in Sunday school, is but a silly extrapolation). But it’s that first commandment that remains uniquely relevant: “I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt have no other gods before me” (KJV). No doubt the command mirrors the great insight of monotheism which Judaism has brought to the world. But we think of it as a great insight only because we are viewing it in hindsight. It was anything but. It’s the generally accepted understanding of most scholars that strict monotheism took some time to be enthusiastically embraced by Hebrew-turned-Israelite-turned-Jew. The command says to have no other gods before this particular God; and the chosen people obeyed, though with a caveat. For centuries they were monolatrous though not monotheist, meaning they worshipped only one God while acknowledging the existence of other gods. Only after the Exile is there clear indications that their monolatry (one-god worship) had evolved into genuine monotheism (belief in only one God). Some might argue that, even today, Christians, Jews and Muslims still struggle with putting God first in their lives. When it comes to money, power, fame, sex we’re all monolatrous – striving to worship the true god while very cognizant that those other gods are vying, and often times winning, our attention and worship.

The first commandment, when viewed within the context of the ancient polytheistic world where gods abounded in every village and city, is thus primarily a command to not believe in many gods. It is, oddly, the command to become an atheist. The emergence of genuine monotheism goes hand-in-hand with the possibility of atheism, inviting all to relinquish long-held myths in favor of a mystery which we are forbidden to name.

So the American Atheists campaign in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg and Kensington neighborhoods among Orthodox Jews and Muslims is, for sure, iconoclastic – as iconoclastic, perhaps, as the Decalogue itself. Atheism, like a bastard child, is closely related to monotheism – a first cousin once removed. That first commandment continues to call each of us to question our belief and our worship of all those idols we make into God. Strange as it sounds, atheists are not unlike Moses coming down the slopes of Sinai with the tablets of the Law, calling us deeper into the mystery we so casually call God. I just hope, at their first meeting, those atheists have the good sense not to serve ham sandwiches – old habits are hard to break.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

12-03-04: Second Sunday of Lent

Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 22:1-2,9,10-13,15-18 / Psalm 116 / Romans 8:31-34 / Mark 9:2-10

One could say that all of history, from the Christian perspective, can be summed up in that line by Paul Newman in the film Cool Hand Luke: “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate.”

For what is the meaning of divine revelation if not communication? God trying to communicate with his creatures, who all basically suffer from ADD to one degree or another. That’s why God – not unlike the novelist Flannery O’Connor - has to shout now and again to get our attention, so impervious do we seem to advice from on high. Lent is meant to be a divine shout: Hey wake up, the divine voice says. I’m over here. Pay attention for a bit. Caught off guard we often don’t hear the message clearly or even correctly. Not only do we have a failure to communicate, but we misinterpret, misread, mis-hear what’s being said and so screw things up, leaving God to look like the heavy. Today’s story from Genesis may be a case in point.

The revered Old Testament scholar, Gerhard von Rad, wrote that Genesis 22 is one of the greatest pieces of world literature, filled with concise suspense and high drama, promises made and sacrifices asked. It’s also pivotal in the self-understanding of the three monotheistic religions (though the Koran substitutes Ishmael for Isaac). Yet, from our modern perspective, it is a dark tale no matter how later commentators spin the meaning, including St. Paul himself. Even the title of the episode eludes consensus: the Jews refer to it as the Aqedah (“the Binding of Isaac”) while Christians call it “the Sacrifice of Isaac.” The former suggesting the theme of submission of will; the latter, a proof of faith. In reality, it would best be titled “the Testing of Abraham.”

But what if Abraham just misheard God’s command? It’s possible, isn’t it? Why else would God have to send his angel to stay Abraham’s hand as he lifted the butcher’s knife to slay his favorite son as an oblation to the deity? God gets off the hook if we see it as a mandate to not imitate the practice of human sacrifice which seems to have been prevalent in Canaan at the time – but, alas, not everyone agrees about that. Maybe Abraham wasn’t interpreting his relationship with this new found God by the same terms as he had previously interpreted his relationship with the other gods he no doubt had one time worshipped. New God - new language. Things easily get missed in translation.

One of the great though frustrating things about the Bible is it’s fraught with the possibility for misunderstanding – just think of the myriad interpretations of various texts from creation accounts to prophecies of Armageddon. Even the personal name of God is a mystery still largely unsolved: both its meaning and its proper pronunciation. The Hebrew alphabet, having only consonants, records the personal name of God as YHWH first revealed to Moses in the burning bush. How Moses might have heard the divine name pronounced is lost to history (but, then again, the name “Moses” is itself more than a bit of an anomaly). So sacred was the divine name that Jews (and everyone, actually) are forbidden to utter it and must resort to circumlocutions like “the Lord” (Adonai) or “the Name” (ha-Shem). It’s a bit like the story of the seven-year old boy returning from Sunday school to be asked by his mother what he learned in class that day. We learned God’s name, the boy says. And what would that be? his mom asks. Harold, the boy answers. Harold? the mother questions. Yeah mom, you know, like when we pray we say: Our Father, who art in heaven, Harold be thy name

Communication is always problematic, especially when the connection is long distance – a long way from here to heaven. And maybe longer still when discerning the meaning of words read in 2012AD but originating from events that happened in 2000BC.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

12-02-26: First Sunday of Lent

First Sunday of Lent

Genesis 9:8-15 / Psalm 25 / 1 Peter 3:18-22 / Mark 1:12-15

The account of Noah’s Ark is one of those universal stories that even the unchurched and irreligious have heard of. Catholics too, notorious for being proudly unaware of the Bible, feel on safe ground when it comes to Noah and his floating zoo. You can’t say that for much else in the Bible or in the collective religious consciousness today. Stephen Prothero, in Religious Literacy, writes that on the first day of class each semester, in his Boston University Religious Studies seminar, he gives a quiz to find out how much his students know about what were once bits of common religious knowledge. One question, Who was Joan of Arc?, elicited this answer: Noah’s wife.

Biblical fundamentalists, like the Intelligent Design gang, like to make the point that they believe in the literal truth of the Bible, i.e. the six-day creation story, the young age of the earth (about 10,000 years), and the biblical account of the flood that gave rise to the story of Noah. On the other side of the debate are both modern biblical scholars and evolutionists who see in the account of Noah and his Ark the makings of a great religious myth (the former group reading “myth” as a poetic truth, the latter as fable). Some time ago archeologists discovered not one, but several, ancient extra-biblical accounts of a flood and a hero who builds a boat to escape. The hero goes by different names depending on the culture. In the Gilgamesh Epic from Mesopotamia, he is named Ut-napishtim. You would think that the fact that different cultures possess similar accounts of an ancient flood would reassure the fundamentalists that perhaps this was a proof that the biblical account of a flood might be historically true. But no, they can’t bring themselves to contemplate the possibility that God spoke to someone else in a book not called the Bible. Of course, Jungians might suggest that it’s all a wash and but a proof that there is such a thing as the collective unconscious. But it is intriguing, isn’t it, that virtually the same story is told by several different cultures indicating, perhaps, that there might well have been a huge flood or, even more intriguing, that the Bible borrowed stories and made them its own – perhaps making the God of the Bible not a primary source.

In the Gilgamesh Epic Ut-napishtim becomes divine through his ordeal. Noah never gets that far. Noah’s story continues after he lands on dry ground and he is subjected to some further ordeals, one of them involving a very kinky and unexplained sexual experience that’s not fit to be repeated in this above-board column. Though, to his everlasting credit, Noah is attributed with introducing wine into our shared history as well as being permitted by God to eat meat (up till then everyone was supposedly a vegetarian).

All this doesn’t jive too well with the beginning of Lent when we’re supposed to be more circumspect about certain sensual pleasures (forego the filet mignon and aged Cabernet and choose the salmon and iced tea). But maybe there’s some hidden wisdom here. After all, Noah had to endure the flood in that Ark of his, not only with his immediate family, but a menagerie of all living creatures (hope they had cross ventilation). When the Ark finally hit dry ground, atop Mount Ararat, Noah had to start all over again. Not easy for a more than middle-aged man; but he did so with a spirit of thanksgiving (the wine and roasted lamb might’ve helped). Maybe that’s a good lesson for us as we begin this Lent. Starting over is never easy, but when you begin again with a sense of gratitude for the opportunity - all things are possible. Come to think of it, those undergrads from BU should be grateful that the Bible beat out the Gilgamesh Epic: Noah is a lot easier to remember than Ut-napishtim.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

12-02-19: Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Isaiah 43:18-19,21-22,24-25 / Psalm 41 / 2 Corinthians 1:18-22 / Mark 2:1-12

Once again the gospels present a healing miracle of Jesus, but this time he connects healing with forgiveness and, thus, in the manner of the ancients – suffering with sin. If Jesus were plying his ministry anywhere but Israel few would have noticed, or cared, about the forgiveness part. But forgiveness, for Jews, was ascribed to God alone.

I once had the privilege of attending a series of lectures by Amy-Jill Levine, Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University. Levine, a practicing Jew herself, told the story of a hypothetical case posed by Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Nazi hunter. While addressing a mixed audience of Jews and Christians, he posed the following story: An SS guard lay dying in a Nazi concentration camp. He bids his comrades to send him a Jew, which they do. The dying Nazi looks at the Jew and asks rather matter-of-factly, sounding more like an order than a request: “Forgive me before I die!” Wiesenthal then asks his audience to identify themselves as Christians or Jews. He then asks the Christians: “Should the Jew forgive the dying Nazi? They answer, yes. He then asks the Jews. They answer, no. An understandable response on the Jews’ part, but there’s a caveat. Apart from the vested emotional interest a Jew would have in such a circumstance, he would insist the reason he cannot forgive is that he has no authority to forgive. Forgiveness is God’s prerogative, not man’s. Wiesenthal, and Levine, use this example to illustrate the different understanding of forgiveness between the two traditions.

This anecdote helps us appreciate the sheer radicalism of the gospel story. The crowd who sees the paralytic take up his mat and walk away may have been astounded; but what shocks is the fact that Jesus has the chutzpah to say the man’s sins are forgiven. The shock is deep. If Jesus had simply mouthed words of forgiveness, the crowd’s shock would have simply been based on Jesus’ presumed blasphemy. But because suffering was viewed through ancient Jewish eyes as the result of sin, the “blasphemy” is more than mere words – it has an effect.

I would suspect that most of us no longer hold that ancient, arcane view that an illness or physical defect is the result of an individual’s personal sinfulness. Yet, it seems we do make that assumption much of the time when it comes to psychological or emotional aberration. One might argue that psychoanalysis, as curative, is based on the assumption that the patient sustained some kind of wound in childhood, intended or not, from a parent or adult-figure, and now suffers the consequences as fixation or arrested development. Therapy involves the recognition of the hurt and the capacity to forgive, or at least to let go, and move on with life. If the patient can do so he may be freed from laboring under a heavy weight, and life opens up in unexpected ways. What remains astounding as much today as in Jesus’ time, is the fact that the power to forgive can do remarkable things not only for the one forgiven but for the one who forgives as well. It is a power that Christ tells us is within our grasp, though we often view it as a kettle too hot to handle and so, for fear of the heat, seldom enter the kitchen.

Returning to Wiesenthal’s Nazi hypothetical, I’m reminded of the well-made movie for television, aired about thirty years ago, called The Scarlet and the Black. Gregory Peck plays Msgr. Hugh O’Flaherty who saved thousands of Jews in Nazi occupied Rome during WWII. The Nazi commandant, Col. Herbert Kappler, knew of O’Flaherty’s involvement and tried to have him assassinated. He fails. Then, when the Allies were about to liberate Rome, the Nazi pleaded – demanded really – that O’Flaherty help his family escape Rome. O’Flaherty was enraged that the Nazi would have the gall to even ask this “favor.” When the Allies liberate Rome, Kappler is arrested, but his family has inexplicably escaped to Switzerland. Kappler serves a life sentence. He has but one visitor every week – Msgr. O’Flaherty, who would eventually baptize Kappler a Catholic: a conversion story, as much Kappler’s, as it was O’Flaherty’s.

Lent will soon begin. As a creation of the Church, Lent can help us discover the extraordinary power of forgiveness which, when exercised or experienced, can have powerful, and rather shocking, repercussions.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

12-02-12: Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Leviticus 13:1-2,44-46 / Psalm 32 / 1 Corinthians 10:31-11:1 / Mark 1:40-45

The readings this week continue the theme of suffering and Jesus’ response to it. Coincidentally, this Saturday (February 11th), we celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. If you’ve ever been to Lourdes you might agree that it is especially moving to witness the great numbers of sick who are escorted to Lourdes by loved ones and volunteers (usually young people in search of something greater than themselves). All come seeking the curative waters and the possibility of a miracle. Most leave still suffering from the disease that brought them there yet claim, despite that fact, to have found a miracle nonetheless.

Illness and disease not only produce physical pain but also isolate the sick, causing them to withdraw from friends and family or causing their friends and family to withdraw from them. Sometimes this is a direct result of the type of illness: leprosy, a case in point. In the biblical accounts isolation was enforced, as a divine mandate, for the good of the community, leaving the observer to wonder which is worse: the disease or the isolation. If you’ve ever talked with a person who is seriously ill, especially the elderly, they’d tell you it’s the isolation and loneliness that end up hurting a lot more than the disease.

When a child suffers from illness, especially of the developmental kind (as in the various manifestations of autism) the entire family can feel isolated. Such a story was beautifully told in a recent New York Times Magazine article, Wonder Dog (2.5.12), about a couple who adopted two unrelated children from Russia: the girl, normal; the boy, later diagnosed as suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. As the boy grew the symptoms of his disease became more manifest: an inability to relate and communicate, his propensity for severe tantrums and, as he now enters adolescence, his inability to exert any kind of self control.

As you read how the family tried to deal with their son’s illness, your heart breaks for them. The boy’s illness not only isolated him, but caused his family to withdraw and isolate from the wider community. And then, when things seemed to become impossibly difficult, along came Chancer. Chancer was the Golden Retriever service dog who entered their family and changed everything. No, the boy did not suddenly become “normal” and everyone lived happily ever after. But the dog was nonetheless a miracle. Chancer was well trained as a service dog and became completely devoted to the boy. Although not uncommon for such dogs, but still fundamentally inexplicable, Chancer would somehow sense the approach of a tantrum before it engulfed the boy. In such tantrums the boy’s arms would lock as he grasped his shoulders, he would throw himself on the floor and begin to scream and wail. These tantrums could happen anywhere, at any moment - at home, at school, in the supermarket. When Chancer sensed such a tantrum about to erupt, he would run to the boy and place his snoot firmly on the boy’s chest as his arms were about to lock, preventing them from doing so, resulting in the boy embracing the dog. When Chancer was a bit too late and the boy was already engulfed in the tantrum, screaming and howling, the dog would begin to lick his face, slobbering all over the boy, as dogs are wont to do. And, in an instant, the screaming and howling became laughter and giggles. Chancer changed everything.

Miracles are usually identified when the pain of illness or disease is relieved or reversed – and there are well-documented cases of such happening at Lourdes. What’s not documented, at Lourdes or anywhere else, are the miracles that occur when the effect of disease and illness – the isolation that the victim suffers – is relieved and reversed, as in the case of this boy and his dog. The divine can enter our human reality in stupendous, extraordinary ways. But most often it arrives through the ordinary. Chancer is a dog, not human, not of our species. Yet he serves this boy unconditionally and without judgment. By entering the boy’s world and placing himself in the boy’s arms, licking his face, converting anger and frustration into laughter, we can understand how grace builds on nature – even our very flawed nature. Or, as Rumi, the thirteenth century Persian Muslim put it: “Be helpless, dumbfounded / unable to say yes or no / then a stretcher will come from grace / to gather us up.”

Grace – that healing divine presence - comes to us in many ways, in many forms: as angelic beings or slobbering Golden Retrievers. God always surprises.