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Living With Questions

The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet, “…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and…try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Jesus, though divine, was born into a fallen human world and had lived a life of questioning and being questioned from the moment of his conception. His mother asked the angel, “How can this be?” As Jesus grew, he questioned the elders in the temple, he questioned his parents and they questioned him. John the Baptist questioned Jesus when he came to him for baptism. So it was probably no surprise that after forty days in the desert, he would be questioned once more.

Surely Satan’s questions were no more challenging than the questions he had been asking himself about his ministry, his mission, his message. The questions of the desert would prepare him for a public life of questioning in the marketplace, in the temple and finally on the cross. Jesus is able to respond to the questions of the Tempter because he knows the genuine love of God supported by a faith made strong in suffering, in need and in questioning.

Like Jesus, we must live both the struggle of the questions and the faith of the answers. Our temptations aren’t likely to come to us from a mysterious figure in a deserted place. But often they revolve around the same basic human drives: hunger, emotional security, safety, status, ambition.

Some lie awake too many nights wondering if they’ve made the right choices for their lives, their careers. Others question whether a successful position with a company engaged in questionable ethical practices is a compromise they’re willing to make. Many people fight against the demon of self-doubt and insecurity, afraid they don’t deserve more than the bad hand they’ve been dealt in life.

Sometimes the questions themselves are coming from God, asking us to make life-giving changes in our lives. It’s the easy answers that are the temptation, the decisions that seem to bring happiness and success but are really driving us further away from our center. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, if we reach for the first thing that promises us health and wealth, we might be in bigger trouble than we imagined.

The responses Jesus gives to his tempter are deeply rooted in the words of Scripture. He’s not rattling off memorized verses. He’s speaking out of a lived awareness of the power of the word of God.

Lent is the perfect time to deepen our own immersion in Scripture. The story of God’s undying care for the people he has chosen as his own can mirror the stories of our own lives. The Psalms are a good place to begin. Let the words wash over you. Let them speak to the situations and emotions of your daily life. The words of the Gospels challenge us to a life of Christ-like compassion. The prophets of the Old Testament remind us to put God first before anything else.

The Word has its own power to move us and inspire us and to remind us of God’s presence. It is this power that is, in the end, the answer.

Daring to Be Transfigured

Lent, perhaps more than any other season, gives us permission to focus on our spiritual lives, to take time apart from the everyday demands to listen to what God might be asking of us. Today’s Scripture readings can seem beyond us, describing those events that we might label “Significant Religious Experiences,” things that happen to saints and holy people.

Indeed, for Peter, James and John, it must have been unimaginably startling to experience the transfiguration. Suddenly the itinerant preacher and miracle-worker whom they had been following around Palestine was so very much more. But even that was nothing compared to the resurrection they would experience a short time later.

The transfiguration was an extraordinary moment even in the midst of Jesus’ extraordinary ministry of preaching and healing. We know that such moments don’t happen all the time or even very often. But we also know that when they do, they change everything we know about reality.

Many of the saints have indeed had such moments in their lives. Nearly everyone has heard the story of Mother Teresa on a train journey and hearing God call her to go to India and minister to the dying there. But many ordinary people have had similar experiences in their own lives, perhaps not as dramatic, but equally life-changing. Sometimes the only difference is that the saints have developed an awareness of God’s presence. They’re more readily attuned to the deeper significance of the things that happen to them.

The transfiguration reminds us that Lent is a time of purification, a time of going beyond our limitations. Even during Lent we know that the blessing of Easter is ours in Jesus Christ. But we only arrive at the fullness of the resurrection through the passion of the cross. As we share the vision of the apostles, we also know what happened after it. And we also know that it will happen in our own lives.

We need to let our experience of God transform us into something we never dreamed we could be. For some of us this is a startling notion. We think of our faith as something to tuck away in the Sunday corner of our life. When we think about the changes that Lent can bring, we’re more likely to think about quitting smoking, losing a few pounds, maybe giving some money to a good cause.

It would never occur to us that God might say, as he did to Abram, “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk to a land that I will show you.” But sometimes God does exactly that. A job opportunity takes us someplace we never imagined we would be, and our experiences there change us immeasurably. Or we meet someone who brings us to a completely new awareness of the power of faith in our everyday activities.

We don’t go looking for extraordinary, mountaintop experiences. Those who do often delude themselves with vision of grandeur and fame rather than a life of deep faith. God breaks into our lives in both familiar and unexpected ways. He constantly challenges us to go beyond, to be transfigured. The dynamic, ever-changing pattern of bright sunshine and dark cloud can be startling and even terrifying. But in the midst of it comes reassurance. We hear an extraordinary challenge, but we also hear, “Be not afraid.” The faith that we cultivate day by day flowers into brilliance in the presence of God’s grace.

Those Who Know They Need God

In Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time, 12-year-old Meg Murry sets off with her youngest brother, Charles Wallace, and her best friend, Calvin O’Keefe, to find her father, who disappeared into space several years before. A trio of supernatural beings, manifested as eccentric old women known only as Mrs Who, Mrs Which and Mrs Whatsit, guide them on their quest, offering them gifts—graces—unique to each individuals gifts and strengths. Before the final and most difficult task, Mrs Who, who arranges her thoughts mostly in quotations, tells Meg, “What I have to give you this time you must try to understand not word by word but in a flash.” And she goes on to quote the marvelous passage from Paul that we hear in today’s second reading: “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and the God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something.” Though Meg doesn’t realize it at the time, she discovers that this is a promise of great strength in time of need. In the end, love proves to be more powerful than anything her adversary wields.

We know all too well that the way of our world is too often the powerful crushing the weak and defenseless without giving it a thought. But in reflecting on Paul’s words, I’m reminded of several examples of celebrities who make a point of using their status to help the less fortunate. The Irish rock star Bono has traded on his fame to speak tirelessly to the most powerful leaders of the world, working to persuade them to hear the cries of the poorest of the poor in Africa. He said in one talk, “God is with the poor, my friends, and he is with us when we are with them.”

Legendary Green Bay Packer quarterback Bret Favre was honored by the Make-A-Wish Foundation for the many times he and other members of the team had met with seriously ill children. During the presentation, a little girl named Anna moved him to tears. He pointed out that it wasn’t anything extraordinary that made him support this cause, just the way he had been raised to care about those less fortunate.

Late-night comedian Stephen Colbert often spends time on his breaks and vacations supporting a wide variety of worthy causes. By using the draw of his popularity, he can generate more interest and donations for those in need. These are just a few examples of people who know that their fame and fortune is fleeting and that because they have been fortunate, they have a special responsibility to those who have been less fortunate.

We who have been blessed with so much are called upon to give to others. The God revealed in the Scriptures has always been on the side of the least, the lowly, the poor, the powerless. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminds us of this truth about his Father: Blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. These are the people who know the limits of their own strength. Above all they are people who know their need for God. Whatever earthly influence we may or may not have, blessed are we when we realize that the greatest thing we can do with what we have is to give is as generously as God’s grace has been given to us.

Hearing God’s Call

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” This line from the words of Isaiah in our first reading has long been a personal favorite. As I reflected on today’s reading, though, I discovered the line that precedes it: “Anguish has taken wing, dispelled is darkness: for there is no gloom where but now there was distress.” In many ways it’s simply a rephrasing of the same idea.

The wonder of the Sacred Scriptures is that they’re the living word of God. We hear them differently depending on what is happening in our lives, on what kind of mood we’re in, even on how closely we’re paying attention or not while they’re being proclaimed at Mass. And then sometimes God hits us with  a line of Scripture in the manner of what a friend describes as “the divine clue-by-four.”

Today’s Gospel is the familiar call of the Galilean fisherman. Jesus invites them to leave their boats and nets and follow him. At different times in our lives, we might think they’re crazy. At other times, we think they’d be crazy not to follow his call. And then it dawns on us that the Lord calls us in much the same manner.

St. Ignatius, in his Spiritual Exercises, encourages people to place themselves imaginatively in the stories from the Gospels, using all of their senses to enter into the experience of Jesus and the disciples. This passage is a common one to use for such a practice. The hot sun, the smell of fish, the breeze off the sea, the grittiness of the sand, the texture of the fishing nets, the rough wood of the boats—all these details make it easy to imagine what it was like for those fishermen who became Jesus’ first disciples.

But sometimes those very details that help us imagine a time two thousand years ago can keep us from  seeing ourselves in the same boat, as it were. For most of us, our lives are spent indoors, in offices and cubicles, in trucks and cars, operating heavy machinery or delicate medical instruments. And more an more of our time is spent with our hands on a keyboard and our eyes on an LCD screen.

It’s easy to romanticize the life of a first-century fisherman because it’s so far removed from our everyday lives. Most people in the first century had few occupational choices. But work is work. And no matter what we do our how many choices we had or even have in what we do to earn our daily bread, the day-to-day experience is going to have ups and downs, periods of great satisfaction and dry spells of boredom and frustration. I suspect it was the same for those first-century fishermen. We think of them as being dedicated to their work, their nets, their father and coworkers. But maybe at the time Jesus came along the beach, they were having a bad day and were eager for a change. Only later did they discover what they had traded in their nets to embrace.

One thing is certain in all of this: God may not pay very close attention to what we’re doing when he calls us. It’s up to us to hear the call, perhaps trading something we love for something we will come to love more, perhaps finding a welcome escape from a situation that has become difficult. God chooses to call us. It’s our choice to hear and to follow.

Not Needing to Be Right

A legendary and somewhat humorous epitaph reads, “Here lies the body of Michael O’Day / who died defending the right of way.” We laugh somewhat ruefully because we all know the truth of it. If we admit it, there have been times in all our lives when we’ve been willing to go to extremes to defend the rightness of our position on something.

Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus contains an interesting exchange that the other Gospels don’t include. John the Baptist protests, with some cause, that it is he who should be baptized by Jesus. He recognizes that his is the lesser calling, that he is the forerunner, not the Messiah. And he’s right. But Jesus tells him, “Allow it now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” This is a bit of a mouthful. We might be inclined to say, “It’s okay, let it slide for now.” It’s a recognition that there’s a larger perspective, a bigger picture, than the immediate issue at hand. In the case of Jesus and John, Jesus knows that his ministry is just beginning and must be seen to be part of the bigger story of salvation, that began with creation, with the calling of the chosen people, the exodus and the words of the prophets. He is the fulfillment of all that has gone before, not a renegade bursting on the scene set to take over and dominate everyone around him. He doesn’t need to prove that he’s greater than John the Baptist.

We see a similar attitude in the other two readings for this feast. The prophet Isaiah notes that gentleness is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Servant of the Lord: “A bruised reed he shall not break, / and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, / until he establishes justice on the earth.” And in the second reading, we hear a bit of the revolutionary turn of events in the house of the gentile Cornelius. Peter, the leader of the Jerusalem church in the days after the resurrection and ascension, has been somewhat uneasy about Paul’s mission to the gentiles. In the early days of the Christian community, the question of the place of Jews and gentiles in the new dispensation was one of the biggest questions that needed to be resolved. So this event dramatizes Peter finally accepting that the gentiles were equal to the Jews. He proclaims, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”

Again and again the Scriptures remind us that God is bigger than our human boundaries and power struggles. At times it takes a great deal of faith to believe that God has a higher purpose than we can discern at any given time. And the more we’re invested in a conflict, the harder it is to let God be God. We fall into the trap of needing to be right, and needing others to see that we’re right. And we don’t always care who we trample in our stampede toward rightness.

It can be helpful in a difficult situation to take a step back and reflect on the difference between what’s merely right and what’s righteous, on the difference between human judgment and divine justice. The baptism of Jesus, like so many other events in his life and ministry, reminds us that while he closed the gap between the human and the divine, he did it in such a way that we would be able to resist the temptation in the Garden of Eden to be merely like gods. Through Jesus, we, too, are children of God. If we live that way, others will listen to us.

Choosing a Different Way

When we hear the phrase “speaking truth to power,” we usually think of those particularly courageous and prophetic figures who confront tyrants and oppressors, often at the cost of their own lives. And while such people are essential to our world and our church, many, if not most, of us know in our hearts that we can’t be like those people. But facing this truth about ourselves doesn’t mean that we give up our values, our beliefs, our commitment to positive change. It just means we need to find our own way.

We each have unique gifts to offer the world, and today’s solemnity of the Epiphany reminds us that we are called, first and foremost, to bring those gifts to the newborn King, the Messiah, the Christ child, the Lord of all who was born in a humble stable in Bethlehem.

The story from Matthew’s Gospel about the visit of the Magi that forms the basis of this feast shows us that the kingdom of God will always be at odds with the kingdoms of this earth. Were these visitors kings, wise men, astrologers, astronomers, philosophers? We don’t know for sure. What we do know is that they were seekers. Their field of study had led them to an awareness of a great event taking place in a distant land, one that was worth a long and arduous journey, the journey of a lifetime.
When they arrive in Jerusalem, their natural expectations are met with confusion, suspicion and subterfuge. King Herod, threatened by the idea of a new ruler supplanting him, subverts the work of his own scholars and wise men to find out the answer to the magi’s question for his own purpose. But the men from the east continue on their journey. They arrive in Bethlehem, worship the child and present him with symbolic gifts: gold for kingship, frankincense for divinity, myrrh for the death that he would both endure and conquer. And the reading concludes with a telling sentence: “And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their country by another way.”
As I reflect on this, I find myself thinking of a number of questions, all of them slightly disturbing. Was it their coming to Jerusalem with their curiosity and questions that alerted the wicked king to the baby’s existence? If they hadn’t asked, would the prophecies naming Bethlehem as the Messiah’s birthplace have remained in the dusty custody of the Torah scholars? We know that Joseph was similarly warned in a dream to take the child to Egypt, but might it have prevented the deaths of all those babies? They didn’t return to Jerusalem and Herod with the specific location of the child, but had the damage already been done? Clearly they weren’t in a position to stop Herod. What could three foreigners do in the face of that notorious despot?

Two thousand years later, we still wrestle with these same issues. What is our role, our responsibility? How do we confront the despots in our life? What do we do to protect the innocent, whether it’s one child or many? Epiphany refers to the manifestation of God’s presence in our human world, the showing forth of the kingdom of heaven. The Magi found the child because they sought him. Herod sought only his own power and destruction followed in his wake but he didn’t find the child. Faced with the choice of darkness or light, destruction or peace, which will we choose?

Taking on Great Responsibility

A lot of mental and emotional interference takes place when we hear the readings for this feast. People tend to focus on the line from the Letter to Colossians about wives being subordinate to their husbands, or parents and children exchange looks at the line, “Children, obey your parents in everything.” Most of us don’t want to return to the “Leave It to Beaver” and “Father Knows Best” era’s way of defining family relationships, and it can be hard to see past the superficial interpretation we put on these readings.

We tend to be either cynical and dismissive of this feast or we over-idealize the idea of family. People with unpleasant memories of an abusive or dysfunctional childhood resent the notion that all families should be just like Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Paul tells the Colossians to forgive one another, but we know that some people might not yet be at a point in their healing where forgiveness is possible.
When we hear the phrase Holy Family, too often we think of something that’s “holy card” perfect, instead of the deeply sacred, graced-by-God reality of Mary, Joseph and Jesus—but also of our own families, whether those of blood or those intimate communities that sustain us as adults. The scripture readings for the feast keep us grounded in an awareness that God knows that family life is both essential and complex, but always very real.

The Gospel recounts the story of Jospeh being told in a dream to take his wife and infant child to Egypt to save the boy from Herod’s massacre. What Matthew summarizes in a few terse lines after the fact, and with a good dose of Scripture fulfillment built in must have been terrifying for the young family. It brings to mind scenes from the news media of families of refugees fleeing war, genocide and famine.
When we hear of the messages Joseph receives in his dreams, again we imagine the serene scenes portrayed by artists, with the words of the angel twining into Joseph’s ear as he sleeps. But I suspect it has more in common with the young father tossing and turning during the night, caught in the stressful tension between work responsibilities, the insistent nighttime needs of a growing infant in the next room, and the juggling of too many things.

Family responsibilities ebb and flow at different times of our lives. Young family have the concerns of infants and children and all that entails. Parents of teenagers know all too well the particular challenges that brings. But the responsibility of caring for our elders is also a very real part of many people’s lives. At times the two coincide creating what’s become known as the sandwich generation.

One of the most touching lines in the reading from Sirach is, “My son, take care of your father when he he is old;… Even if his mind fail, be considerate of him.” Several friends are among the countless people caring for parents suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. It’s an almost overwhelming responsibility and through even the most difficult times, it’s obvious that they’re doing it because of the great love they have for their parents.

We need to celebrate this feast not as some seemingly unattainable goal for mere humans, but as a sign of the obstacles that we can overcome if we truly place ourselves in the arms of a loving God who is Father and Mother to us all, and in whose sight we are all part of a holy and sacred family.