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Archive for March, 2008

We often approach Lent as the opportunity for a fresh start, a time to make changes in our lives, to let go of bad habits, to grow spiritually. And we approach it sort of like a liturgical marathon, with the final push to Easter taking place during Holy Week. But Easter is more than a goal or a destination. It’s a new way of life.

Today we begin a fifty-day celebration and unfolding of the great mystery of Easter. Jesus’ resurrection may have happened in a flash, but it took his closest followers a long time to understand the implications of that event.

Over two millennia later, we are still growing in this same understanding. In the early days of the church, Lent and Easter traditions grew up around the experience of those who were just being baptized into the Christian faith. In our own time, the revival of the Rite of Christian Initiation has returned to this experience. The days and weeks following Easter are a time to reflect on the experience of Baptism, Confirmation and Eucharist.

Our liturgical year follows a cycle of birth, death, resurrection, discipleship. We have seasons of penance and seasons of rejoicing. Our faith tells us that both are celebrations. What we come to realize in our own spiritual journeys, however, is that these cycles are neither mechanical nor predetermined. Like the seasons of nature, the seasons of the church year flow into one another in a swirling mix of life and death.

Father Ronald Rolheiser, in his book The Holy Longing, shows us how the paschal mystery is not just something we celebrate at the Sunday Eucharist and in the great feast of Easter, but something that governs the very rhythm of our lives. He uses these phrases to describe the events from Good Friday to Pentecost:
1) Name your deaths;
2) Claim your births
3) Grieve what you have lost and adjust to the new reality
4) Do not cling to the old, let it ascend and give you its blessing,
5) Accept the spirit of the life that you are in fact living.

This struck a chord with me when I first read it. It made sense to me. And it helped to make sense of things that I’d experienced in my own life and relationships. In his rephrasing, I discovered a way to connect the story of Jesus with my own story.

We are all called to do this, and maybe Easter is a good time to begin. Over the course of the past week, we’ve heard all the great stories of our faith tradition, from the very dawn of creation through the dawn of a new world on the first Easter morning. Now it’s time to discover our own story. Whether we have recently been baptized or whether we have lived all our lives in the embrace of the church, that experience shapes us.

Take some time in the next seven weeks to reflect on your faith life. You might want to use Father Rolheiser’s five steps as a starting point. What comes to mind when you think about death? About birth? What causes you to cling to the old? What scares you about trying something new? Learn to recognize the power of the Spirit blowing through your life.

Easter is not an end, but a beginning. As a community and as individuals we have much to celebrate in the coming months. Promise yourself that you will live this new life to the full.

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The next week marks the high point of our Church year. The French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus once wrote, “There is no sun without shadow. It is essential that we know the night.” Christians know that there can be no resurrection without the cross.

We hear two different versions of Jesus’ Passion this week. On Palm Sunday we hear Matthew’s account, sprinkled with references to the Old Testament and the way that Jesus fulfilled the words of the great Hebrew prophets. On Good Friday, we hear the Passion according to John, the same story but told from the other side of the resurrection, when there’s no doubt about the outcome, no question of who is in control of everything that takes place. It reminds us that faith is often a question of perspective. God’s truth shows itself in our lives in different ways.

It’s not quite 40 days since we were signed with the ashes of last year’s palms, praying that this time we wouldn’t run from the cross. The cross is before us now with its wordless challenge to love beyond death.

We gather at church on Palm Sunday and wave our palm fronds in the entrance procession. During the reading of the passion, we may take the parts of the crowd, shouting almost in spite of ourselves, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

We might think this is merely a bit of liturgical playacting. It may be that we come to church because it’s what we’ve always done or because someone is telling us that we have to. We may not give much thought to why we gather here for these holy days.

Like the Jewish celebration of Passover, which not only remembers the historical event that changed forever their lives at the chosen people of God but makes that saving event a reality in the lives of those who celebrate it down through time, the events of Holy Week are far more than a dramatization of the last days of Jesus’ life. We enter into the saving mysteries of the passion, death and resurrection. Jesus’ gift of his Body and Blood at the Last Supper takes place each and every time we celebrate the Eucharist.

Our actions here at Mass may give us a deeper insight into our relationship with God. How often do we turn on God when things don’t go the way we had so carefully planned? How often do we stand waiting for a glorious celebration of victory, only to find ourselves staring in confusion at a cross? The palm branches drop from our hands and we raise our firsts to heaven, hoping to hide deep disappointment in self-righteous defiance.

A long-standing tradition among Catholics has been to braid palms into crosses. There are many different methods for doing this. I was surprised to find a variety of patterns and instructions on the internet. Crosses take many different shapes. Whether or not you take part in this folk tradition, it’s a metaphor of the way this day begins with a palm and ends with a cross.

Take some time this week to think about events in your own life that have given you an experience of Jesus’ command to pick up your cross and follow him. You might find that something you always wanted has turned to bitter disappointment. See beyond that disappointment to the God who is in control even in the blackness of death.

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For much of our lives we wander in a hazy routine of daily tasks and comfortable relationships. But when tragedy breaks into our lives, even the most orderly among us can’t prevail against its chaos. We see this in the reaction of Martha, so familiar as the woman too busy with her domestic tasks to listen to Jesus teaching. She meets Jesus alone on the road, her household chores forgotten, and simply says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would never have died.”

She challenges him out of her pain. Intense grief calls forth the deepest questions of our faith. Instead of closing herself off and becoming bitter, Martha allows her pain to open her to Jesus’ challenge to believe. In turn, strengthened by this risk, Jesus accepts her challenge.

Mary, too, can be present to Jesus only in the depths of her grief and suffering. Gone is the time of leisure when she would sit quietly at his feet while he talked of the kingdom. Mary challenges him with the wordless power of her tears and stirs him to compassion. This, perhaps more than anything else, reveals the source of his power and strength.

The love poured out in this scene at Bethany will be exceeded only in the love poured out in the blood from the cross. Only great love can challenge the darkness of death itself.

Like Mary and Martha, we have to be able to see through and beyond the intensity of our pain, challenging even God himself with utter belief in his statement, “I have promised and I will do it.” Like Jesus we have to use all the strength that compassionate love gives us to call those around us to a newer and fuller life. But perhaps most of all, like Lazarus, we ourselves need to be challenged to rise from our sleep of routine and complacency.

Death always startles us with its suddenness, its finality. Even when a loved one has been sick for a long time and death comes as a release and relief for both the one suffering and those left behind, the initial reaction is one of shock and dismay. In cases of sudden, tragic, accidental death, this reaction is magnified. We who believe in the resurrection are no less likely to experience this very human reaction. We resonate with Mary’s response to Jesus about her belief in the resurrection at the end of time. Our minds and our faith tell us one thing, our hearts and our bodies often balk at the appearance of separation and loss that for a time is all too real and unavoidable.

Like so much of our spiritual lives, we have to learn to live with this paradox. We see it differently at different times in our life. When we’re young, death is an infrequent and scary interruption of life. When we’re old, we sometimes feel like we’ve seen too much death over the course of a long life and it seem almost unbearable in its familiarity.

We might envy Mary and Martha in their experience of their brother being restored to life. The Gospels don’t tell us what happened afterward, because the far greater event of Jesus’ resurrection now takes center stage. And there’s no more need for envy, because what Jesus experienced, we will all experience. This is the promise that’s at the heart of our faith. It’s what allows us to celebrate our loved ones even in their passing, because we know that life, not death, is the final reality.

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Today is the middle of three Sundays that explore the great metaphors of water, light and life, all key images for the baptismal promises we celebrate at Easter. In today’s Gospel, John tells the story of the man born blind and what happens when he encounters the Light of the world in the person of Jesus.

It’s no coincidence that so many of the miracles in the Gospels involve healing someone suffering from blindness. Sight is a common metaphor for faith. So much depends on our ability to see. Our Scripture readings today are filled with people who are blind and yet see, who claim to see and yet are blind, who could see but choose to keep their eyes closed.

At the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus sees the simple reality of a man blind from birth. Because blindness and other physical sufferings were considered symptoms of sin, his disciples immediately question him about the moral implications. They see only an abstract theological debate. Jesus sees someone suffering, someone in need of healing compassion. As the light of the world, he was sent to give vision to all who want to see. The message should be as straightforward as the healing itself. The man who was healed states it so simply: “I was blind. Now I can see. He is a prophet.”

How frustrating and lonely it must have been for the man whose sight was restored to give his testimony so clearly, to see the truth at last, only to be met with the unseeing stares of those blinded by the fear of lost power and authority. Even his own parents had learned the cynical lesson that sometimes it’s easier not to look, or if you must look, not to see. They couldn’t deny that their son’s sight had been restored, but to see beyond that to the implications of Jesus’ identity would be to commit themselves to something with unknown and possibly terrifying consequences.

We’ve probably found ourselves on both sides of this story. How often have you been in a conversation with someone and said, “Can’t you see what I’m saying?” Sadly, too often they can’t. We wonder how they can be blind to something that we see so clearly and believe so passionately. But we’ve also closed our eyes to sad realities in our world. We prefer darkness to light, comfort to confrontation. In both cases, it takes the healing touch of the Lord to open our eyes and heal our hearts.

The Gospel shows us what happened to the blind man as he recognized Jesus as a prophet. He’s willing take chances, he’s willing to believe his own eyes, newly opened though they are. We’re left to imagine whether the Pharisees and even the man’s own parents ever came to see the truth.

Just as spiritual blindness can be far more devastating than the loss of physical sight, so having our vision of God’s grace restored can bring healing far beyond the physical. We see hope where once we knew only despair, and more than that we see new ways to communicate that hope to others. We see light instead of darkness, and in that light we discover a side of ourselves that we thought we had lost. We look with new eyes on the people around us and see how they, too, are children of God.

Being open to possibilities is part of the experience of Lent and Easter. Seeing a path where once there was only confusion and chaos, understanding a truth that once seemed complex and incomprehensible, recognizing that not having all the answers can open us to the mystery of God’s grace. Sometimes all it takes is opening our eyes.

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