Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Reflecting on the Last Words of Christ (Part 3)

[Note: These reflections were originally posted for Lent 2011.]

"I thirst." (John 19:28)

It’s approaching three o’clock in the afternoon. For nearly 20 hours Jesus has endured torturous treatment at the hands of the chief priests and Romans. He’s been tried, beaten, scourged, dragged his cross through the city and finally nailed to it. Since noon he’s hung on the cross, the hot sun beating down on him. He called to mind Psalm 22 when he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” That Psalm goes on to describe his condition when it says, “My mouth is dried up like clay, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.”

But, Christ's thirst was for more than water, and his words call out to each of us today just as they did to those at the foot of the cross. Jesus thirsts for us. Stop and think about that for a moment. God longs for us. His desire for us isn't born out of necessity, as if there is something lacking in God, but springs from his love for us. He longs for us to know him because he knows that only then will we be fulfilled. The only thing that will bring us true joy and healing is relationship with him and he thirsts for us to enter into that peace.

At the same time we thirst for God whether we realize it or not. In the words of the Psalmist, "As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God. My being thirsts for God, the living God." (Ps 42) When Jesus called out from the cross those standing nearby offered him a sponge soaked in vinegar to drink. Have you ever tried to drink straight vinegar? It's not exactly a thirst quencher. Yet every day we choose the vinegar of sin to try to quench our thirst rather than come to Jesus who offers living water.

Jesus calls out from the cross to let us know that he longs for us who unknowingly thirst for him. This Lenten season may we choose to drink deeply of the living water Jesus offers through having a personal relationship with him.

"It is finished" (John 19:30)
"Father into your hands I commend my spirit." (Luke 23:46)

When the Allied Forces successfully invaded France on D-Day it marked the beginning of the end of World War II. That victory all but assured the ultimate defeat of the Nazis. It was only a matter of time to finish the job. Certainly there were many more battles to fight, but once the Allies were able to establish their front lines there was no hope for a German victory.

Jesus came preaching, "The Kingdom of God is near!" Jesus spoke more about the establishment of God's Kingdom than anything else. All that he did was oriented towards this message. The miracles he performed were signs of the presence of the Kingdom. He cast out demons, healed the sick, gave sight to the blind and forgave sins all to demonstrate that in the Kingdom of God there is no enemy, no disease, no blindness, and no sin. In short, Jesus came to establish a beachhead for the Kingdom of God to defeat the works of the devil and redeem our fallen world.

Hanging on the cross, Jesus was aware that he had accomplished his mission. By his death and coming resurrection he would guarantee God's victory over sin and death. He had withstood all that Satan and this world could throw at him. He wrestled with the weakness of human nature and triumphed through obedience. He took on our loneliness, fear, and pain. He endured insults, curses and temptation. He did it all, and when the last enemy, death itself, came to claim him he proclaimed, "It is finished" and entrusted himself to his Father. He gave his life; it was not taken from him.

Jesus' victory on the cross won our salvation and liberated us from sin and death, just like the people of Nazi occupied territories were freed by the Allies after D-Day. There are still many battles ahead and the way is not easy. The enemy stills claim victims and inflicts casualties while fighting a losing effort. But we can draw strength from knowing that while there are battles to fight the war has been won. If we endure we will win. This is what Paul means when he writes: 

"No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom. 8:37-39)
As our Lenten journey draws to a close let us look forward with hope that we too can experience the power and presence of God's Kingdom in our lives as we wait for the day when the last battle is done and we can enter into the rest that Jesus has prepared for us.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Reflecting on the Last Words of Christ (Part 2)

[Note: These reflections were originally posted for Lent 2011.]

"Woman, behold your son…Behold your mother." (John 19:26-27)

Just a few weeks ago we celebrated the feast of the Annunciation. As we listen to the final words of Jesus before his death and resurrection we also call to mind the words of Mary to the angel, "Be it done unto me according to your will." How similar is Mary's abandonment to the will of God as her own son's prayer in the garden the night before he died, "Not my will but your will be done." Here at the cross the obedience of Mary and Jesus come together to free us from our slavery to sin so that we may use our will to say yes to God as well.

In these simple words Jesus entrusts his own mother to the Church, represented by the beloved disciple, and the Church to his mother. We can be confident that as we look to Mary she will always lead us to her son. She was there when he was conceived, there when he performed his first miracle, there when he sacrificed his life for us, and there when he poured out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Scripture tells us that along the way Mary pondered these things in heart. She is our model for living a contemplative life of reflecting on what God has done, is doing, and will do in our lives. 

May we follow the example of the beloved disciple and take Mary into our homes. May we learn from her humility and faith in God. She said yes when it wasn't convenient to do so. She trusted God even when she couldn't fully understand how he would fulfill his promise. She accepted the joys and sorrows equally because she ultimately knew that God was in control and could be trusted to "work all things together for the good of those who trust in him." May our  prayer be that Mary, our mother, will reveal her son to us in ways that are new and meaningful to transform our lives by the power of his cross and resurrection.

"My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46)

Where was God when terrorists attacked churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday? Where was he when women and children were gassed in Syria? Is he all powerful but uncaring, or is he all loving but impotent?  Where is God when over 1 million abortions take place each year in United States alone? Why did God allow the cancer to return? Where is God when life hurts?

“Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” Jesus cried out from the cross with the very questions that shake our faith. The great Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar reflected on the depths of the suffering Jesus endured for us on the cross. In his homily, “The Scapegoat and the Trinity”, he said, 
“Jesus, the Crucified, endures our inner darkness and estrangement from God, and he does so in our place. It is all the more painful for him, the less he has merited it ... there is nothing familiar about it to him: It is utterly alien and full of horror. Indeed, he suffers more deeply than an ordinary man is capable of suffering, even were he condemned and rejected by God, because only the incarnate Son knows who the Father really is and what it means to be deprived of him, to have lost him (to all appearances) forever. It is meaningless to call this suffering ‘hell,’ for there is no hatred of God in Jesus, only a pain that is deeper and more timeless than the ordinary man could endure either in his lifetime or after his death.”
As Catholics we reject the notion that the Father could forsake the Son; that God could turn away from God. But Jesus was not merely God, he was the God-man and in his humanity, hanging on that cross it is not beyond reason to see that he felt abandoned and forsaken. In that moment, in the midst of suffering that goes beyond what we could imagine, in the fullness of his human nature Jesus experienced that dark night of the soul when it seems that even God has turned away. 

What does this have to do with answering questions about evil in the world? How does this apply to the problems of our pain and suffering? Because the Son of God passed through the way of suffering he was able to redeem our pain. It means that though this world is fallen and broken we must pass through the way of suffering, the way of the cross, if we want to experience the joy and glory of the resurrection. The good news is that we have a Savior that will go through it with us, or as Catholic author Melinda Selmys explains, “For Christ, in being forsaken on the cross, entered into this, the deepest of human sufferings, so that even in the greatest darkness we will never be alone.”

Monday, April 10, 2017

Reflecting on the Last Words of Christ (Part 1)

[Note: These reflections were originally posted for Lent 2011.]

"Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing." (Luke 23:34)

Dr. Bernard Nathanson passed away on February 21, 2011. Dr. Nathanson was a leader of the pro-abortion movement and founding member of the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL, now the National Abortion Rights Action League). He estimated that he had supervised or performed over 75,000 abortions including the abortion of his own child. He admitted that he and his associates purposely feed misinformation to the media and deliberately attacked the Catholic Church in order to change public opinion to support legalizing abortion in the late 1960’s. Then something happened. Dr. Nathanson started to question the pro-abortion claim that the unborn child was merely a collection of cells and not a human life.

A longtime atheist, Nathanson still continued to support abortion rights despite his growing doubts until the mid-1980’s when he finally became convinced through advances in medical science that abortion was, in his words, "unjustifiable murder." He then helped to produce one of the most famous pro-life videos, The Silent Scream. Nathanson devoted the rest of his days to fighting legalized abortion. More significantly, he came to faith in God and was baptized into the Catholic Church in 1996.

At the moment of his baptism, every sin he had ever committed, every abortion, every lie, was forgiven. Think about that for a moment. The guilt of 75,000 murders was wiped away, cast as far as the east is from the west. It doesn’t seem fair. It doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t he have to pay for all those innocent lives he claimed? Welcome to the scandal of the cross. 

When I think about it, really think about it, I want Bernard Nathanson to be completely washed clean. I don’t want him to have to pay for his sins because I know I can’t pay for mine. If God can forgive Dr. Nathanson then I know he can forgive me. The cross means there is nothing I can do that’s too big for God to forgive. This is what St. Paul had in mind when he wrote, “For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor. 5:21)

Forgiveness is the meaning and purpose of the cross. Jesus focuses our attention on this fact by praying for the forgiveness of his executioners. Most victims of crucifixion shouted out curses at their executioners, Jesus cried out for mercy for them. Nowhere else is the scandal of the mercy and grace of God on display more than at the cross. Humanity’s greatest sin, killing God's Son, is met by God’s greatest display of love, the life of his Son given for us.

"I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 23:43)

Tradition tells us the name of the Good Thief was St. Dismas. We know nothing of his life other than the fact that he was sentenced to crucifixion for being a criminal. Many would say that his final act was to steal heaven on that Good Friday. After the first thief mocks and scorns Jesus, Dismas rebukes him and offers a simple request to be remembered by Jesus. Somehow he recognized in the beaten, bruised and broken body of Jesus what the crowds of Jerusalem could not or would not see. Somehow he was able to see Jesus as the King of Kings ready to enter into his kingdom. His simple act of faith was rewarded by Christ’s promise of salvation.

It’s easy to be skeptical of death row confessions. We hear how hardened criminals suddenly “find Jesus” when it seems most convenient for them and it’s difficult not to react with some level of incredulity. We often ask ourselves how God could be so gullible as to accept the last minute “conversion” of someone who appears only to be trying to avoid going to hell. It seems unfair that someone who devotes their life to serving and following God and someone who ignores God until their final days would both be welcomed into heaven together. 

In Matthew 20:1-16, Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who goes to town in the morning and hires men to work in his vineyard for a set wage. The man goes back to town near noon and again in the late afternoon each time hiring more workers for his vineyard. At the end of the day he pays all of the men the same amount. The men hired in the morning grumbled because they thought they should get more. He reminds them that they agreed to work for the price they were paid and tells them not to be envious of his generosity. 

Does this mean that we can put off conversion so we can do what we want? Certainly not, for no one knows when their life will be required of them. Jesus and the scriptures are clear that we must remain faithful and vigilant. The moral of the story is not that the wicked prosper by fooling God, but that God's mercy knows no bounds and is always available to us. Indeed, it is God who makes a fool of the devil by mercifully accepting those who call on him even with their last breath. 

Jesus’ words to the Good Thief should give us all hope. While we have breath, it is never too late for any of us to turn to Jesus. It's not too late for the friend or family member we love who has turned from God to come back to him.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Lord of Lunatics and Liars

This election cycle has seen its share of incivility, name-calling, insults, lies, and crudeness. It’s not a stretch to say that it’s brought out the worst in many people. Whether it’s the Wikileaks emails revealing corruption, bigotry, and arrogance from the Hillary camp, or the leaked video tapes (and outright public comments) from Trump displaying misogynistic, narcissistic, and immature behavior it is clear that the 2016 election has been better suited for a Jerry Springer episode than the selection process for the leader of the free world. A simple survey of Facebook posts and comments shows how deeply divided our nation is, and how winning political points is more important than the methods used to get there.

This all reached a new low on the eve of the election when Fr. Frank Pavone of Priests for Life posted two videos (one on Facebook, one on YouTube) in which he displayed the body of a child killed during a second trimester saline abortion on an altar while delivering a political speech urging people to vote for Trump and the Republicans. (I’m not going to post a link to either video as it is too disturbing.)

After a wave of negative reactions Fr. Pavone has essentially doubled down on his position by deflecting blame to abortionists and Democrats while attacking or belittling his critics. For Fr. Pavone, the atrocity of abortion is so great, and the need for political victory so desperate, that his action is completely justified. In his view, crudely displaying a child’s naked body on an altar dedicated for sacred use to deliver a political speech pales in comparison to the evil of abortion. In other words, the ends justify the means.

This kind of thinking and acting is never morally acceptable.  Suppose a fictional Priest Against Porn ministry wanted to drive home the importance of standing against pornography. They reason that perhaps many are ambivalent about porn because they haven’t seen it or been exposed to how graphically disordered it can be, so they decide to post a video of their leader speaking against pornography while in the foreground a naked woman gyrates provocatively. Would this be okay? What if they were taking a stand against sexual violence so they displayed a woman who had just been raped, still weeping and shaking. Would the seriousness of standing against rape justify the exhibition of a victim?

Abortion is a great moral evil, a sin that cries out from our blood soaked land for justice. It is a legal, state-sponsored holocaust that has claimed the lives of millions of children. Abortion is, as St. Teresa of Calcutta said, “the greatest destroyer of love and peace” in the world. But, abortion is not our nation’s greatest sin, nor is it our greatest spiritual struggle. It is only a symptom, a natural consequence of a much deeper, much graver depravity.

We are guilty of and in bondage to idolatry.

I am not just speaking of our secular, hedonistic culture. I’m talking about those who claim the name of Christian. Survey after survey often shows little difference in the moral behavior of believers vs. non-believers. Our national religion is the adoration of the Self. Pride was the original sin and it continues to plague us today, individually and communally.

We have turned from God and towards ourselves. We seek only that which brings pleasure, confirms our biases, and keeps us comfortable. College campuses today promote “safe spaces” free of offensive words, thoughts, or actions; and they are often mocked and criticized for it. In reality, we have all created our own safe spaces in which we insulate ourselves from the call of Christ to “be transformed” rather than conformed to this age.

Jesus stands and calls us to follow, and that implies that we must leave our lives, or dreams, our desires behind. He calls us out of our selves, in fact, he calls us to die to our selves. As Dietrich Bonheoffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” This death to the self brings ultimate freedom and joy. It liberates us not only from our self-centered desires, but also from our fears through abandonment to Christ. He calls us out from the world around us into a new order, a new Kingdom.

This political season has been a challenging one for those called by Christ to follow him. In truth, the Christian life does not easily fit within any earthly political system, and never has. The choice presented to us, what one 60 Minutes focus group called a choice between “the liar and the lunatic”, has caused many well-intentioned Christians to say and do some very out of character things. Those opposed to Clinton’s rapid pro-abortion position have found themselves in the unenviable position of supporting and defending Trump just because he claims to be “pro-life”.

This brings me back to the morally repugnant stunt that Fr. Pavone is trying to justify. I believe Fr. Pavone is motivated out of a true desire to see an end to the holocaust of abortion. I believe that he really believes that what he’s doing is necessary, right and effective. However, I wonder if this isn’t a fearful act of idolatry, of placing hope and trust in a man (Trump), or a party (Republicans), or a system (politics) rather than trusting in God. Is this just playing down to the level of your adversary? Is it morally compromising in hopes of gaining a political win? What does it profit a man (or a country) to win an election but loose his soul?

I saw a meme that said, “The problem with the election is that one of them is going to win.” So true. Today we will elect the most unpopular presidential candidate ever. Tomorrow half the nation is going to feel defeated, cheated, confused, and scared. Regardless of who wins, our nation is going to be confronted with serious issues from terrorism to the economy to the treat of war to moral and religious social challenges. As Christians we must remember that Christ is our King and heaven our homeland. We need to earnestly pray for the blessing and conversion of whoever wins the election. I close with the advice of St. Paul to St. Timothy (remember who the political leaders were when this was written): 
“First of all, then, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 2:1-4

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Learning to Endure

The mass readings for Sunday (7/24), the seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, present us with a teaching about prayer, more specifically intercessory prayer.

In the first reading Abraham negotiates with God over the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. As God contemplates destroying the cities for their rampant sins, Abraham pleads with God to spare them for the sake of a righteous few. In the back and forth conversation Abraham starts with asking for mercy if merely fifty righteous could be found, gradually lowing the number down to ten.

There are some who look at this passage and see a vengeful God ready to smote while kind Abraham has to argue with him to save the cities. It’s the same kind of situation when we see Moses pleading for mercy on behalf of Israel before the Lord. So what’s the deal? Why does God make Abraham and Moses plead for mercy? Isn’t God merciful? It is difficult for many to read these stories and understand what God is doing, especially when the focus is placed on God’s wrath.

The Gospel reading from Luke presents us with Jesus’ teaching on prayer and provides the interpretive key to understanding the reading from Genesis. The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. Keep in mind that as good Jews they likely followed to religious commands to pray, and pray daily. The Jews had specific guidelines for prayer. So why ask Jesus to teach them? I would argue that it was because they watched Jesus pray, they took note of his prayer life and realized there was something different about it from their own experiences.

In response, Jesus first gives them the prayer we know as the Our Father. It is a prayer unto itself and a model of prayer. He then tells the parable of the man asking his neighbor for bread in the middle of the night. This man seemingly pesters his neighbor until the neighbor agrees to just be left alone. Jesus even says as much, “I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence.”

So what does this have to do with Abraham? Is Jesus saying if we just pester God enough he’ll give us what we ask for just to shut us up because we’re bothering him?

Jesus tells us to ask, seek, and knock—in the Greek these verbs are more like keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking. He assures us that God is a loving, caring Father who knows our needs and will not deceive us or withhold from us. How does this fit with the story of Abraham and the parable Jesus told about the persistent neighbor?

God always has our ultimate greatest end in mind, he is always most concerned about forming his children so that we can be fully restored to his image and likeness. The point of the conversation with Abraham (or similar conversations with Moses) isn’t that these men somehow managed to change God’s mind, but that through their perseverance in prayer their own hearts are changed. In pleading for mercy on behalf of others the hearts of Abraham and Moses are moved to mercy themselves. They become less self-centered, self-focused and become truly concerned for others. When we keep pressing on in intercessory prayer, the longer and harder we press in the more our hearts are transformed. God knows our needs and he will “work all things together for the good of those who love him” but that good is always the highest and perfect good. We never see the big picture, we never truly know all of the facts, but Jesus calls us to keep seeking after God and his kingdom. He wants us to be transformed while resting in the knowledge that God always cares for us.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Bearing the Fruit of a Culture of Death

I believe the Unites States of America is truly one of the greatest civilizations in the history of mankind. As a nation it has contributed to the safety, security, and prosperity of not just itself but most of the world through the innovation and generosity of its citizens and the socio-economic and political example of its government. This is not to say that it is perfect.

America has a problem. It’s a problem that’s been there since its very beginning. It’s like a congenital birth defect—a problem that is rooted in the very DNA of the nation: Violence.

It was violent resistance that brought our nation into existence. It was violent oppression against Native American that fueled its expansion. It was violent and bloody war that ended the violent and dehumanizing practice of slavery. Violence against the family through abortion and divorce has been a means of economic gain for many. The option of resulting to violent means to address and solve whatever problems we face is a very real and present solution for too many.

Today as I’ve read and watch the coverage of the shooting of Dallas police officers in the wake of protests of police in Louisiana and Minnesota shooting black men I cannot help but see this same disease of violence wreaking havoc on our nation again.

This disease is not caused by economic disparity. It is not the result of racism. It is not political. These are only symptoms. Our nation suffers from a spiritual disease, our soul is sick. There is a cure, but many don’t want it, they’re too content to profit from the symptoms.

The Old Testament (2 Kings 5) tells the story of Naaman, the commander of the armies of Syria. He was stricken with leprosy and the king of Syria sent him with an entire entourage, gold, silver, and riches to seek healing from the God of Israel. The prophet Elisha sent a message to Naaman to wash in the Jordan River. When he received the message Naaman at first was insulted and refused to even consider the idea of washing in some puny Israelite river. It was then that his servant asked him if he would have done some great and heroic deed if that was what the prophet requested, and if so, then why not do this simple thing? Naaman relented, washed in the Jordan, and was healed of his leprosy.

Like Naaman our culture is suffering from a fatal disease that is slowly, yet progressively eating us alive. We have become a culture of death embracing every form of immorality and ridiculing the virtuous life. Pundits and politicians and every other sort of talking head will discuss the recent acts of violence, just as they did after the Orlando shooting, and they’ll search for motives. They will propose all sorts of ideas, programs and laws to act as a medicine to heal our land. Like Naaman, they will recommend buying a cure with millions of dollars in new programs and initiatives. They will want to do many great things, but they will shun and ridicule the one simple, and only real cure, Jesus.

The only escape from the death spiral our nation finds itself in is to turn to the Lord of Life to rescue us from the culture of death. The only true antidote to hate, racism, and fear is love. The only light in darkness is the Light of World, and the challenge to the Church is to bring that light and that love to others. We must rise above the Balkanizing efforts to divide along political, racial, or economic lines and fully demonstrate to the world the unity of being in Christ Jesus.

Unfortunately, this will come at a price. It is the medicine our world needs, but not what it wants. Like a petulant child it will fight and kick and scream against us. It will resist with the hope that we will give up. We must be faithful and selfless. We must be willing to love as Jesus loved, even to the point of laying down our lives for the love of others. 

Sunday, June 26, 2016

"Follow Me"

As they were proceeding on their journey someone said to him,"I will follow you wherever you go."
Jesus answered him,"Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests,but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head." And to another he said, "Follow me."
But he replied, "Lord, let me go first and bury my father."
But he answered him, "Let the dead bury their dead.
But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
And another said, "I will follow you, Lord,but first let me say farewell to my family at home."
To him Jesus said, "No one who sets a hand to the plowand looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God." - Luke 9:57-62

“Follow me.” This is the invitation Jesus offers. Not, “Believe in me.” Not, “Be my friend.”

“Follow me.” It is the invitation to discipleship. It is an invitation that calls us outside of ourselves, outside of our comfort zones, outside of the boat and onto the water amid the wind and the waves.

It is an invitation to the unknown and the uncertain. It is an invitation without the promise of worldly success or prosperity. It is an invitation that sometimes mean doing the insensible thing, the unexpected thing, even the irrational thing.

This passage hit me between the eyes today.

In only two weeks I’ll be leaving my safe, well paying, stable job of thirteen years. I’m leaving it to follow the call and leading of Christ. In just two weeks I will temporarily leave my family behind in Florida to start a new job as Director of Adult Faith Formation at a great parish in Indiana. They’ll follow me once we’ve closed on the sale of our home and the purchase of a new one in the Hoosier State. But for at least a few weeks I’ll essentially following in the footsteps of Jesus with no place to lay my head. I’’ have to rely on the kindness of a family at our new parish to give me a place to stay. I’ll be leaving behind my wife, kids, friends, and comforts. It’s a little scary, but it’s exciting. As a family we are so excited and looking forward to all that God has in store for us in this next chapter of our lives. Still, sometimes I feel a little like Indiana Jones in this scene:

Jesus calls all of us to leave all behind for him. He’s the pearl of great price, the treasure in a field waiting for us to sell all we have so we can possess him. And yet, it’s really he who possesses us. It is the Lord who calls us to radical abandonment, to complete and unwavering trust in his goodness. That call comes in different ways to each of us, but make no mistake it comes to all. For some it’s a career change or a move, for others it’s greater involvement in a ministry, still others it may be a call to repent and rebuild relationships, or maybe for others it’s speaking up when everything in you wants to remain silent. Whatever the form, the call will always be costly, but it will always be worth it in the end. Missionary martyr Jim Elliot famously said, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep for that which he cannot lose.”

If we ultimately want to see the reality of God breaking through and into our lives we must take the leap of faith. Someone I greatly respected once said that faith is spelled R-I-S-K, and that in the end we must be willing to see ourselves “change in God’s pocket to be spent as he sees fit.” I believe the Church isn’t seeing the miraculous on a regular basis because so many are content to be “believers” and have either not heard, ignored, or are too afraid to follow the call to be disciples, to follow Jesus.

I’m reminded of the song “Called Me Higher” by All Sons and Daughters. We can be safe and content, but that’s not what God is calling us to. In the words of Pope Benedict, “The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness.” Dare to be great. Dare to trust Jesus with everything. Drop your nets. Leave your boats. Listen to him, “Follow me.”

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Where Have All the Heroes Gone

Where have all the good men gone
And where are all the gods?
Where's the street-wise Hercules
To fight the rising odds?
Isn't there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night I toss and I turn and I dream of what I need

I need a hero
I'm holding out for a hero 'til the end of the night
He's gotta be strong
And he's gotta be fast
And he's gotta be fresh from the fight
I need a hero
I'm holding out for a hero 'til the morning light
He's gotta be sure
And it's gotta be soon
And he's gotta be larger than life
 - “I need a Hero” by Bonnie Tyler

We have become a culture of the anti-hero. Three of the top five grossing movies so far this year are: Captain America: Civil War, Batman vs Superman, and Deadpool. These movies present traditional heroes at war with each other or a lead anti-hero character who has no good moral character of his own. As Fr. Longnecker over on Patheos has so eloquently put it, our presidential choices are between “a corrupt, scheming, immoral, venal, arrogant, greedy and ignorant Republican or a corrupt, scheming, immoral, venal, arrogant and ignorant Democrat.” We have an entire multi-million dollar celebrity media enterprise that on one hand promotes morally questionable pop stars while gleefully awaiting and publicizing the moral failures of others. Meanwhile even our athletic heroes have tarnished their legacies through scandals.

As our culture continues to detach itself from moral sanity I think this cult of the anti-hero will continue to grow. There’s something about the classical hero—a strong, confident, morally straight leader—that makes our current culture uncomfortable. If we hold up such characters as exemplars then we must admit that our own priorities as a culture and nation have gone askew. This is why we must now attack the hero. Marvel Comics recently announced a new line of Captain America comics that reveal that he has secretly been a covert agent for the Nazi Hydra organization all along. Groups of fans have started online movements to make Captain America gay or Elsa a lesbian queen in the upcoming sequel to Frozen. Like the primitive pagan cultures of antiquity we are fashioning gods in our image, that affirm our hedonistic desires, and that do not challenge us to a higher, more difficult way of self-denial or sacrifice.

In a 2009 letter to all the bishops of the world, Pope Benedict XVI wrote: “In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai; to that God whose face we recognize in a love which presses "to the end" – in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.” We are certainly a culture that has lost its bearings. Fortunately, in diagnosing the problem, Benedict also provides the cure: Christians making Jesus Christ present in the world.

This isn’t an easy answer, and it will require much of us who are called by His name. We must live lives that match our words. We must live heroically virtuous lives of holiness that will draw people into encountering Jesus in and through us. In short, we need to be saints. The world needs us to be saints. In the words of St. Pope John Paul II in announcing the 2005 World Youth Day, "the Church needs genuine witnesses for the new evangelization: men and women whose lives have been transformed by meeting with Jesus, men and women who are capable of communicating this experience to others. The Church needs saints. All are called to holiness, and holy people alone can renew humanity.”

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Mary At The Cross

“So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called the place of a skull, which is called in Hebrew Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them

But standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.” (John 19:17-18, 25-27)

It is only John’s gospel that tells us that Mary was at the cross. Only John who recorded the dying words of Jesus addressed to his mother. It was only John because he was there too.

It seems odd, even a bit cold, that Jesus would call his mother “woman”. But this one word carries so much weight.

Eve was the first woman and it is by “woman” that she is addressed in Genesis 3: “The serpent said to the woman”.

Eve stood at the foot of the tree in the garden. Eve chose to believe the lie of the devil. She looked up at the fruit hanging on the tree with purely physical eyes, considering its beauty. Eve lost faith, and disobeyed. She did this because she was promised greater understanding and knowledge. Scripture then tells us that Eve handed the fruit to Adam. God rebukes Adam, “Because you listened to the voice of your wife, and eaten of the fruit of the tree…”

Mary, whom the Fathers of the Church called the new Eve, stood at the foot of the cross which would become the Tree of Life. Where Eve believed a lie, Mary believed in the promises of God, that her son was the Messiah and Savior of the word, the King of an everlasting kingdom. Where Eve brought the fruit of sin to Adam, Mary brought the “fruit of her womb” to Elizabeth, and John recognized the presence of Jesus in the voice of Mary and leapt for joy in the womb. Where Eve’s words to Adam brought a curse, Mary’s words to Elizabeth brought a blessing.
Imagine Mary at the cross looking upon the cruel execution of her son. They say that losing a child is one of the most traumatic experiences a person can deal with—and I hope I never do. She had to have been thinking about the words of the Angel so many years before,

“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.

He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  (Luke 1:30-33)

St. Augustine said that “Mary first conceived in her heart by faith and then in her womb” And now at the cross as she looks at her son she receives a second annunciation of sorts. She is asked once again to become a mother, the mother of the Church born from the blood and water flowing from the side of Christ. She becomes my mother, your mother, the mother of all believers at the cross.

There’s a scene in the movie Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince where Dumbledore says to Harry, “Once again I must ask too much of you.” Once again, so much is asked of Mary. To take on the burden of being the mother of all the faithful, is also asking her to take on the heartbreak of all who lose faith, all who reject Jesus, and even those who would accept her son, but reject her.  But once again she says yes.

This brings me back again to that word: woman. Jesus calls his mother “woman” one other time in John’s gospel, at the wedding at Cana. The bridal party has run out of wine. This was much more of a big deal in that time and culture than we really appreciate now. It was a crisis. Mary’s response was to intercede with Jesus on behalf of the bride and groom. She brought the troubled servants to Jesus and told them “Do whatever he tells you.”

John ran, just like all the other apostles. He followed Jesus at a distance during the trials. But only John came to the cross. Is it a coincidence that he was there with Mary? I suspect that John went to Mary and it was she that brought him with her to Calvary. Once again Mary was leading a troubled servant, in a crisis, to her son. And John did as Jesus told him; he took Mary into his home.

As the “beloved disciple” John is supposed to represent all who would follow Jesus. When reading the gospel of John we should be putting ourselves in the place of the “disciple whom Jesus loved”. We should allow Mary to lead us to Jesus, to the cross, to learn from her how to fully and completely surrender everything to God. To come to Jesus and learn from him what he would have us do. 

(Note:This is a re-posting of an older blog post a few updates.)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Being Before Doing

Two scripture passages that I encountered last past weekend got me thinking.

On Saturday I attended a conference and one of the speakers used the story of Gideon in his presentation. Gideon lived in Israel at a time when the nation was under the control of its enemies. Many Israelites went into hiding to avoid being persecuted. Gideon was threshing wheat in a wine press in order to hide from his enemies so they wouldn’t steal his wheat. While he was carrying out his chore in fear and hiding an angel of the Lord appeared to him and greeted him saying, “The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior!” (Judges 6:12) Gideon went on to lead Israel to repent of their idolatry and drove the enemy Midianites out of the land.

Sunday was the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord when Jesus is baptized by John in the Jordan River. After coming up from the waters the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus and a voice from the heavens proclaims, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) The event of his baptism marks the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus.

The thing that struck me as I thought about these two passages is that being preceded doing. They were affirmed in who they were before they did anything. Gideon wasn’t acting like a mighty warrior, but that was his true identity before God and it was proven in his deeds. Jesus certainly didn’t look like the Son of God to those around him, but that was his true identity and it was manifested in all that he did, and ultimately in his death and resurrection.

How often we get that backwards. We allow ourselves, our self-worth, to be defined by what we do. I must not be special because I’m not doing anything special. I must not have great worth because I don’t have much net worth. In reality, we must first understand who we are to the One who made us and let that be shone forth in all that we do. I am forgiven. I am loved. I am a child of God. That means that everything I do has importance, meaning, relevance, and eternal consequences. Gideon had to take some baby steps. He tested the Lord, but slowly he began to believe and to grow into his God-given identity. That’s when God was able to use Gideon to be a blessing to others. That’s when others began to see the blessing of God upon Gideon.