Sunday, August 24, 2014

Peter, Pius, and What We Leave Behind

I generally have two books going at any given time—one for spiritual enrichment and the other for entertainment. I’m currently reading Jesus: The Son of Man by Kahlil Gibran and Love In the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’ve also been making my way through an audio version of Michael Cunningham’s The Snow Queen: A Novel.

A few days ago, I was listening to The Snow Queen as I went for a walk and I was struck by this passage:

There’s something about the courting of disaster, in shopping terms, that fascinates Barrett [one of the book’s main characters], that holds his attention, helps render him satisfied with his current stature. It’s the technically extinct but somehow still plausible hint of calamity implied by the impulse purchase—the impoverished dowager or disinherited young earl who says, “I’m going to walk the earth in this perfectly faded Freddy Mercury t-shirt (two-fifty), I’m going to party tonight in this vintage McQueen minidress (eight hundred), because the moment matters more than the future. The present—today, tonight; the sensation of walking into a room, and creating a real if fleeting hush—is what I care about, it’s all right with me if I leave nothing behind.”

At this risk of sounding unnecessarily harsh, I have to say that the reason this passage stayed with me is because I think it captures the prevailing attitude of our culture in general, including those of us who profess to be committed to our faith. 

Convenience. Expedience. Comfort. Security. Passivity. Independence. Rapacity. These are dark, hard words. And yet, we can also see how, in many ways, they are the guiding values of the culture in which we live. Each of these values is focused on “me” and what is best for my life. They give us permission to ignore what is going on around us (as long as “I” am not effected) and effectively prevent any outside voice from disrupting or forming the life that I lead. These same words can become the guiding values of communities, as well. 

And this tendency to live only for the self and for the present moment reveals how hard it is to live for the future. But the demands of the Gospel force us to see the world and our selves through different eyes. Being a disciple automatically places us within a community because faith cannot be lived out in a sort of private experience that is only focused on seeking out and gaining what is best for me and mine. 

In the Gospel for this Sunday, we hear the Peter’s great profession of faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” But we also hear Jesus’ reply to Peter: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church… I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” For Catholics, this passage from Matthew’s Gospel forms the foundation for belief in the primacy of the Bishop of Rome, the successor of Saint Peter. And whether you accept the Catholic understanding of this pericope or adopt the Protestant perspective (that the emphasis should be placed on Peter’s confession rather than Peter himself), this is a pivotal moment in the lives of Peter, the other Apostles, and all Jesus’ followers. 

But even after this wonderful exchange, Peter “the Rock” continues to get things wrong. His personality continues to get in the way and, at the time we would expect him to stand by his friend and Master, he denies Jesus three times (cf. Matthew 26:69-75; Mark 14:66-72; Luke 22:54-60; and John18:15-18, 25-27). However, as Sr. Kathleen Howard, O.S.B., observes, “It is not Peter’s character or virtuous achievements that make him a rock. It is his faith in Jesus that makes him stable and strong enough to be a foundation stone for the church… Peter’s faith is more than intellectual knowledge; it is a trusting relationship with Jesus. When he confesses that Jesus is the Christ, Peter is speaking out of deep loving communion with him. He knows Christ as friend knows friend, as husband or wife knows a spouse. Knowing in this deep, loving way with heart as well as head makes Peter willing to place all his trust in Jesus, the Messiah, God’s Son” (from Give Us This Day¸ August 24, 2014). 

Despite his faults, we do see Peter begin to fulfill his mission in the Acts of the Apostles. The same can be said of all the Apostles. They shepherded the Early Church through persecutions, internal divisions, scandals, growing pains, and theological exploration, leaving us a legacy of faith that in enshrined in both the New Testament and in the most ancient traditions of the Church. In their ministry, Peter and the Apostles were mindful that their work and witness had consequences, not only for those first generations of Christians, but for those who would come later. We are given a hint of this in the Letter to the Ephesians: “You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone. Through him the whole structure is held together and grows into a temple sacred to the Lord; in him you also are being built together into a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” (2:19-22). The building up of the Body of Christ continues and we are a part of that process. Peter’s future is our present. We are the beneficiaries of this great legacy. And this legacy places demands upon us, because our present and our future will shape those who come after us.

As I reflected on this reading and the idea of what we “leave behind,” I thought of the ministry of Pope Francis, but also of another pope, Pius X, whose liturgical memorial was celebrated on August 21. This year marks the centenary of the death of this important but controversial pope  who was canonized 1954. 

In his Lives of the Saints, Father Richard McBrien observes that Pius X was “the pope best known, unfortunately, for the war he waged against Modernism, an ill-defined grab bag of liberal but not necessarily unorthodox opinions, in the course of which campaign he set back Catholic theological, biblical, and historical scholarship at least fifty years.” But Pius X is also the pope who encouraged frequent reception of the Eucharist (in an age when many only received Communion once a year, if that often) and determined that First Communion could be celebrated at the “age of discretion” (around age seven). 

Giuseppe Sarto was born to an impoverished family (his father was a postal worker) in the region of Treviso, Italy. Following his ordination in 1858, he served in country parishes before being appointed diocesan chancellor and a seminary spiritual director. In 1884, he was consecrated as bishop of Mantua, a poor and tired diocese that he reformed and renewed. Then, only nine years later he was appointed Patriarch of Venice and named a cardinal. He was revered by his people for his simplicity and humility, but he was also known for his strong opinions. All of these were characteristics that he took with him to Rome when he was elected to succeed Pope Leo XIII in 1903, taking the name Pius the Tenth. 
 
Pope Pius’ papal motto was Instaurare Omnia in Christo (“To Restore All Things in Christ”) and he made it clear that he intended to be a pastoral—rather than political—pope. Despite his wishes, however, he became immediately involved in international tensions and even broke off diplomatic ties with France. The majority of his efforts were focused on the internal life of the Church. Pius used all of the resources at his disposal to rout out the error of Modernism, which he condemned as the “synthesis of all heresies” in his encyclical Pascendi Dominici gregis. Three years later he imposed the “Oath Against Modernism” on all clerics. These actions led to the dismissal of seminary professors and Catholic academics and led to a sort of reactionary theological war within the Church. Pius saw himself as the steward of the Church’s treasury of teachings and traditions and understood that the pope was responsible for maintaining the fabric of the Church in the face of an increasingly secular and fast-moving culture. 

And yet, he also reorganized the Roman Curia, called for a new, definitive edition of the Code of Canon Law (the first official collection in Church history), established the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and encouraged the laity to collaborate with their bishops. Finally, he initiated a system of liturgical reforms that paved the way for the great “Liturgical Movement” and the continued reforms of Pope Pius XII and the Second Vatican Council. 

In 1913, Pope Pius X suffered a heart attack from which he never recovered. He died on August 20, 1914, less than two months after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the outbreak of the First World War, which he desperately tried to prevent. It is said that he died of a broken heart. In his last will and testament, he wrote, “I was born poor, and I have lived poor, and I wish to die poor.” In keeping with his wishes, he was buried in a simple, unadorned tomb beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. 

Like Saint Peter, Pius X understood that something precious had been entrusted to his care and he spent his life working to shore up and beautify the building of the Church. While some of his tactics can be seen as harsh and reveal a limited perspective, he lived for the future, conscious that those who would come after him would benefit or suffer because of the decisions he made.

As Pope Francis, another successor of St. Peter, observed this morning, “what happened in a unique way in Saint Peter, also takes place in every Christian who develops a sincere faith in Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God. Today’s Gospel challenges each of us: ‘How is your faith?’… For his part, Peter is the rock, as the visible foundation of the unity of the Church; but every baptized person is called to offer to Jesus his or her own faith, poor but sincere, so that He can continue to build His Church, today, in every part of the world” (Angelus for August 24, 2014).

Part of our offering of faith, part of living this faith is being mindful that our acts or omissions have an impact on those who come after us. Living for our own present isn’t an option. Just as we have been the beneficiaries of the prayer and work of both great saints (like Saint Peter and Saint Pius) and generations of nameless, holy Christians, we have been entrusted with a responsibility to live for the future. How this reality takes shape in our lives reveals itself in our prayer and discernment and especially in how we actively engage our faith communities and the world around us. The essential point of all of this is that we have to begin to be mindful of the times and ways that we settle for the values canonized by society, as we offer our homage to the myriad of gods our culture has enshrined. We are called to do and be more. Living for the future is hard, as is living for others. But it is only in engaging in this hard work that we will find our salvation.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Us and Them

The story of Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite Woman (Matthew15:21-28) that we hear this Sunday is one of the more difficult episodes of the gospels. Not because it shares the opaqueness of many of the parables or because Jesus is revealing a challenging theological truth. Instead, it’s difficult to read and hear because it is a story about Jesus that doesn’t fit our childish Sunday-school version of who Jesus was. 

In this passage, Jesus has traveled to the Gentile (non-Jewish) region of Tyre and Sidon. John the Baptist has been murdered by King Herod (Matthew 14:1-12) and Jesus himself is now on Herod’s radar. It is likely that Jesus has gone to these coastal towns to get out of Herod’s jurisdiction and to have some time alone to grieve the death of John the Baptist (throughout chapter 14 of Matthew’s Gospel, we hear, more than once, about Jesus trying to find solitude for prayer and reflection). This would be a region where he wasn’t known. And yet, he’s recognized by a Canaanite woman (a Gentile) who comes to him begging for him to heal her daughter. But, even as a non-Jew, she expresses faith in Jesus as she cries out Kyrie ele­ison—Have mercy on me, Lord. When others have called out to Jesus with these words, he has acted quickly and decisively, offering healing and wholeness (cf. Matthew 9:27; 17:15; 20:30-31). But in this instance, Jesus doesn’t make any reply or acknowledge the woman at all—for the first time, we hear about Jesus ignoring someone who asks him for help. The disciples, of course, urge him to send her away. She’s calling after them and is an annoying embarrassment.
 
Jesus and the Canaanite Woman
by the Egyptian Scribe and Monk
Ilyas Basim Khuri Bazzi Rahib (ca. 1684)
in the Walters Art Museum

The nameless woman isn’t put off by any of this. She’s asking something for her tormented child and she shows a mother’s tenacity. And when she calls out again, Jesus responds in a way that baffles and insults our sensibilities: “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Although Scripture scholars have tried to explain this away, sanitizing it by trying to give it cultural and historical nuances, it’s still a shocking affront. But the woman doesn’t walk away, however hurt, angry, or simply surprised she might have been. She uses Jesus’ own words against him: “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scraps that fall from the table of their masters.” 

Personally, I’ve always heard the woman’s words in a pleading voice that reveals her desperation. It is how I imagine the prayers of those who are desperate and with no recourse—the tone of those mothers who have sent their children off into the deserts of Latin America, hoping they will find a new home and life in the United States or those parents in Iraq who are weighed down by fear and oppression, desperately seeking safety for themselves and their children, away from religious fanatics bent on pillage, rape, and murder in the name of our common God. It is the voice I’ve heard myself as I’ve stood with families when marriages have failed or who have received a medical diagnosis that can really only have one outcome.

But, perhaps that wasn’t how the woman responded at all. What if her response was intended as a challenge to Jesus: “If you’re going to call me a dog, then at least give me what you would give your dog!” This is the same passionate defiance that Dylan Thomas expressed when he wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night, / Old age should burn and rave at close of day; / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The woman is, as Sister Barbara Reid observes, stretching Jesus to “see her not as ‘other,’ or as an ‘enemy,’ but as one of his own, one with whom he shares a common humanity, a common faith in God, a common desire for the well-being of children” (from Abiding Word: Year A). 
 
This woman’s belief that Jesus is someone special, her trust that he can effect a change in her daughter’s life is a powerful testament to what is possible when we truly believe and stand firm in our prayer. She stands firm in her request. What is it she understood about Jesus and his mission? We will never know. But she placed her confidence in him and she wasn’t disappointed. As the great theologian, Romano Guardini, reflects: “her own heart is wide enough to understand [Jesus], her faith deep enough not to be put off. That is the beauty of the incident. Quietly she accepts and uses the humiliating metaphor; the Lord feels himself understood and loves her for it: ‘Because of this answer…’” He continues: “What comes from God does not discriminate, qualify or limit, it overflows freely from his bounty. Here is no philosophical system, no complicated ascetic doctrine, but the fullness of God’s love, that divine audacity with which the Creator gives himself to his creatures, demanding their hearts in return. Everything for everything; we cannot but admit the truth of this—and in so doing pronounce our own judgment. For are we any better than those others?” (from The Lord). 
 
We Christians can be overly secure in our faith and in our understanding of ourselves as children of God. But we owe this nameless Gentile woman a debt of gratitude. The reason is because, like her, we are dogs at the master’s table because we too are outsiders—we are the “them” to the “us” of Jesus and his followers. After all, what made the woman an outsider and an enemy was that she was a foreigner (non-Jew), a woman, and she’s annoying—she’s not pleasant or easy to have around because she’s not respecting the established way of doing things. Bu, her encounter with Jesus challenges him and we see something in him begin to unfold. After all, earlier in Matthews Gospel, he had reminded his followers that he had only come to gather together the “lost sheep of the house of Israel” (10:6); It is only later that we will hear him instruct them to go “into all nations” with the Good News (28:19). This story marks a turning point for Jesus and his understanding of the saving mission that was entrusted to him by the One whom he called “Father.” And so, for us outsiders, this story is an essential part of our salvation. 

There is another two-fold lesson here, I believe. First, we have to be very aware of how we exclude others from our faith communities. The Church has no place for an “us/them” mentality. Those walls have been broken down: “For through faith you are all children of God in Christ Jesus… There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In many of our communities we have a “saint versus sinner” mentality, or an idea that some of us enjoy a certain “election” by God that excludes everyone else. Perhaps we draw these lines based on race, gender, or sexual orientation (and this can be done consciously or unconsciously). Others of us might be more hesitant to embrace those of different socio-economic status (meaning both the poor and the affluent), those who are divorced or remarried, the disabled, the mentally ill, those with a "history," or those with different theologies or political views. If we discover that we are part of a faith community that has these prejudices, we have to ask ourselves, “Who we are protecting?” Surely we can’t believe that we’re protecting God or the integrity of the Gospel. 

Second, we have to be willing to accept that this story has consequences for how we engage the broader culture. There is no possibility of our divorcing our faith and prayer from the demands placed upon us by the broader culture. It is so easy to set aside the demands of the Gospel for expediency and comfort. Too often, we have allowed ourselves to be convinced that the value of the separation of Church and state means that we are freed from the obligations of exercising our faith as we fulfill our civic duties. Beyond this, we also have to risk the criticism, judgment, and possibility of change that can occur when we speak out, in faith, for the rights of the poor, the exploited, the sick, the persecuted, the homeless, refugees and migrants, and all those others who live on the margins of our society. We Christians have a responsibility to reach out to these individuals and groups within our communities and this means risking going to the fringes ourselves to seek them out and care for their needs.  

As I said, if we had lived in Jesus’ time and culture, the majority of us would also have been considered outsiders and enemies by his first followers. We enjoy the spiritual comforts and assurance that we do because of courageous women and men of faith who claimed their place as a follower of Jesus. This is our inheritance and we do not have the right or privilege to make a “them” of anyone else. God’s Kingdom is a place of welcome, safety, and nurture to all, because all are invited.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Prayers of Thanks on the Assumption

Since moving to Los Angeles a year ago, I find myself in a much more diverse theological landscape than I’ve known in well over a decade. Obviously, understandings of Mary and the Communion of Saints rank among the differences that divide Christians. The mystery that is celebrated in the Solemnity of the Assumption has often been described as a uniquely “Catholic” feast. And, while it is true that the Dogma of the Assumption was officially promulgated by Pope Pius XII in 1950, the mystery that inspires this celebration is firmly rooted in the ancient Tradition of the Church and has its foundations in the words of Scripture, and this celebration is shared with Orthodox Christians throughout the world. Many members of the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran Church also honor Mary on this day.

This feast, which celebrates the truth that, at the end of her earthly life, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, was taken body and soul into heaven, evolved from a liturgical celebration of the “Day of Mary, Mother of God,” in Jerusalem in the fifth century. Although it was originally a more general celebration of Mary, it soon became a commemoration of the Natale (“birthday” [into Heaven]) of Mary. The feast made its way into the Byzantine Empire in the late sixth century and was being celebrated in Rome by the middle of the seventh century. Under Pope Sergius I (d. 701), this day in honor of Mary came to be celebrated as a memorial of Mary’s passing from this life and included a midnight procession (during the night of August 14) from Rome’s church of St. Adrian to the Basilica of St. Mary Major. By the end of the century, it had come to be known as the “Assumption of Holy Mary.”


A contemporary icon of
Mary, Our Lady of Hope
 
When we talk about the mysteries of the Faith, it is important to pay attention to when and how many of our liturgical celebrations developed. As with other great Feasts (including Christmas [December 25], the Transfiguration of the Lord [August 6], the Presentation in the Temple [February 2], the Triumph of the Cross [September 14], and the Immaculate Conception [December 8]), we can see what our ancestors believed by seeing how they prayed. Or, to say it another way, the fact that there was a celebration of Mary’s entrance into Heaven tells us that early Christians believed that there was something special about the death of Mary (called her Dormition (“falling asleep”) in Latin) and that they saw particular meaning in this mystery. 
Among the earliest set of prayers we have for this Feast (from the eighth century Gregorian Sacramentary), is a prayer which reads: “God, turning your gaze to the humility of the Virgin, you raised her to the sublime dignity of the Mother of your Son and crowned her with incomparable glory.” This theologically ripe sentence tells us what is at the heart of the celebration of Mary’s Assumption: Because of Mary’s humble and unique cooperation in the mysteries of salvation, she enjoys a privileged place in Heaven. In his Genesee Diary, Henri Nouwen expresses this truth in this way:
Mary is the most pure contemplative. Luke describes her as contemplating the mysteries of the redemption. After telling about the visit of the shepherds to the Child, he writes, “As for Mary, she treasured all these things in her heart” (2:19), and after describing how she found Jesus in the temple among the doctors of the Law, he adds: “His mother stored up all these things in her heart…”
The doctrine of the Assumption affirms the fulfillment of this contemplative life in heaven. There the most redeemed human being, the woman in whom God touched us in the most intimate way, the mother of Jesus and all who believe in him—there she stands in the presence of God, enjoying forever the beatific vision that is the hope of all monks and all Christians.
The glory and grace that Mary enjoys now in Heaven is also promised to each of us. We are reminded of this in the Second Reading for the Mass for the Assumption: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since death came through man, the resurrection of the dead came also through man. For just as in Adam all die, so too in Christ shall all be brought to life, but each one in proper order: Christ the firstfruits; then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ” (Colossians 15:20-23).  

The special grace that preserved Mary from the decay of death (cf. Genesis 3:19; Romans 6:23) contains a promise of restored life for each of us. But, in order to really appreciate the gift and promise of the Assumption, we have to recognize that grace and call which God extended to Mary were received, by her, with an open heart. She did not allow those gifts to remain idle within her heart and soul. This is Mary as the woman of faith and this is Mary as a model for all of us who follow her Son. Mary’s active and living faith inspired her to place her trust in God’s promises and to give herself completely to the will of the Father: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Even Jesus himself praised his mother’s faith. When a woman called out to him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you,” he replied, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:27-28). Mary was called blessed not simply because she happened to be the mother of Jesus. Mary is blessed because of faith and obedience. 

Inspired by the beauty and grandeur of this mystery, Saint John Damascene (d. ca. 749) wrote:
This day the Eden of the New Adam [Heaven] welcomes its living Paradise, in whom our sentence has been repealed… Eve heeded the message of the serpent… and together with Adam was condemned to death and assigned to the world of darkness.
But how could death swallow this truly blessed soul, who humbly heeded the word of God?... How could corruption dare to touch the body that contained Life itself? The very thought is abhorrent, repugnant, in regard to the body and soul of the Mother of God. 
So, on this Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, let us take a moment to offer a two-fold prayer of thanks: for the gift we have received because of Mary’s obedience and faith which are at the heart of this celebration and for the promise of new and eternal life that God has made to each of us, in Christ, when we faithfully and lovingly respond to the movements of the Holy Spirit, as did Mary.

  

Midday. I See the Open Church by Paul Claudel +
Midday. I see the open church.
It draws me within.
I did not come, Mother of Jesus Christ,
to pray.
I have nothing to offer you.
Nor to ask of you.
I only come, O my Mother,
to gaze at you,
to see you, to cry simply out of joy.
Because I know that I am your child,
and that you are there.  
(This poem describes a decisive moment in Claudel’s life when he was recovering an awareness of God and of Mary’s role in the Christian life.)

 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Getting Out of the Boat

During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified. “It is a ghost,” they said, and they cried out in fear.

At once, Jesus spoke to them, “Take courage, it is I. do not be afraid.”

Peter said to him in reply, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.”

He said, “Come.” Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how strong the wind was he became frightened; and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!”

Immediately, Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?”
Matthew 14:25-31

 
In one of my earliest (and most memorable) experiences of lectio divina (“holy reading”), I read Matthew’s account of Jesus walking on the water that we hear in this Sunday’s liturgy. This was nearly twelve years ago, shortly after I had entered monastic life. As I read and re-read the text, I kept coming back to Peter’s desperate and profound cry for help: “Lord, save me!”

In my prayer in the years since, I have often come back to those words. Peter is in need (he is beginning to drown, after all), but he is also giving voice to an awesome faith in Jesus, whom he calls “Lord” and whom he trusts can save him from the stormy sea with its overwhelming waves.

For many who do not share our Christian Faith, this seems to be one of those “too-good-to-be-true” stories of Jesus. After all, this isn’t like the stories of Jesus’ signs and wonders in which he heals someone who is sick or feeds a multitude of people. This is even something beyond John’s account of Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead. This story almost seems to present Jesus as some sort of demi-god—a Herculean being who is capable of defying the rules and limitations of the natural world. In a way, I think this is a fair criticism. After all, even the frightened Apostles, cowering in the storm-tossed boat, wondered if the figure they saw walking toward them was a phantasma (φάντασμά)—a “ghost”! Yes, this is a wonder-ful story, but this miracle of Jesus has more to do with the mysteries of Transfiguration and Resurrection than it does with many of Jesus’ other signs and miracles. This story reveals to us the power and glory of God at work in and through Jesus and it reveals his divinity to the frightened disciples. This revelation is embodied in Jesus’ words to the disciples (which most of us miss because it is a very subtle proclamation): “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” The Greek phrase used by the Gospel writer is egô eimi (έγώ είμι), “I am,” which was the Divine Name which God revealed to Moses: “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). Jesus claims the Divine Name to show that God is present to the Apostles both in the midst of the storm and in Jesus’ own being. 

And so, when Peter, who finds confidence in the words of Jesus, climbs out of the boat to approach him, he’s exercising a daring faith and trust. However, we often lose sight of Peter’s courage because we immediately jump to the next part of the story. Peter does begin to walk on water but then notices the wind and waves whirling about him and he gets distracted by the danger. Did Peter’s faith waiver and did he lose sight of the One who had control of the wind and sea? Yes. But doesn’t Peter also deserve credit for getting out of the boat? 

In a sermon on this passage, St. Augustine reflected:
Look at Peter, who in this episode is an image of ourselves; at one moment he is all confidence, at the next all uncertainty and doubt; now he professes faith in the immortal One, now he fears for his life… When the Lord said Come, Peter climbed out of the boat and began to walk on the water. This is what he could do through the power of the Lord; what by himself? Realizing how violently the wind was blowing, he lost his nerve, and as he began to sink he called out, “Lord I am drowning, save me!” When he counted on the Lord’s help it enabled him to walk on the water; when human frailty made him falter he turned once more to the Lord, who immediately stretched out his hand to help him, raised him up as he was sinking and rebuked him for his lack of faith.
Think, then of this world as a sea, whipped up to tempestuous heights by violent winds. A person’s own private tempest will be his or her unruly desires. If you love God you will have power to walk upon the waters, all the world’s swell and turmoil will remain beneath your feet.
 Sermon 76

I believe that Augustine’s understanding of this world as the storm-tossed sea is well worth considering. We live in a world that is ravaged by violence, exploitation, poverty, hunger, and greed. These forces of darkness seem to be whirling around us and it is tempting to seek the safety of the “boat,” hoping the tempest will pass by or at least subside a bit. After all, we can’t effect changes in great world events or even most family crises any more than Peter could control the storm. But is that really true? 

When we place ourselves in the story, in the boat with the Apostles, we quickly recognize that Jesus' invitation to Peter to “get out of the boat” is an invitation for us, as well. After all, don’t we claim to share Peter’s faith? If the answer is “yes,” then we have to accept that we are also being called to get out of the boat and to enter into the storm that is around us. 

Deep inside, I believe that we, as people of faith, recognize that we have to step onto the waves. As Sister Pat Kozak, C.S.J., put it, “We want to get out of the boat to engage in the work of faith—struggling for justice, offering hospitality, creating community. Yet our own fear, confusion, or self-preoccupation drowns out the call… Our staying put is not simply a failure of faith; it is also a failure to see how intimate and real are the power and love of God" (reflection in Give Us This Day, August 4, 2014). 

What would it mean for you to get out of the boat and enter the storm? Could it be witnessing to your faith on social media by sharing and liking posts that express our Christian commitment to justice and peace? Is it standing up for the poor and marginalized when we put politics before people? Is it sacrificing your time and energy to do volunteer work? What about something as simple as skipping a meal out and making a donation to a charity that serves the poor and exploited at home and abroad? What about sharing your faith with your children and finding ways to live your faith in more obvious ways at home? It could be as simple as turning of the TV and spending a few minutes each day reading the Bible or a daily devotional or even stopping by your parish church for a few moments of quiet prayer when you’re out running errands. There isn’t really one answer to this because each of us is called to a unique form of discipleship that makes the best use of our gifts and talents. The important thing is that you and I choose to act now, to step into the storm today.

This is a terrifying prospect and we can expect to be lashed by the wind and rain and to feel the pounding of the waves as we resist the movements of our out-of-control world. But it’s simply what we’re called to do. This is what Jesus means by "take up your cross," this is Bonhoeffer’s “cost of discipleship” and this is the experience of those countless martyrs (from the earliest days of the Church up to those who are being murdered in modern-day Iraq) who have lost their lives because of their faith. But, through it all, we also trust that the Lord is there before us, in the midst of the storm with us. Ultimately, as Henri Nouwen observes, “Jesus speaks out to us in the Gospel with very strong words. Throughout the Gospel, we hear, ‘Do not be afraid.’ He continues,
This is what Gabriel says to Mary. This is what the angels say to the women at the tomb: ‘Do not be afraid.’ And that is what the Lord himself says when he appears to his disciples: ‘Do not be afraid, it is I. Do not be afraid, it is I. Fear is not of God. I am the God of love, a God who invites you to receive—to receive the gifts of joy and peace and gratitude of the poor, and to let go of your fears so that you can start sharing what you are so afraid to let go of.”
Jesus’ invitation to us is to move beyond our fear and to enter the storm with the confidence that we are not alone. And so we ask for the gift of courage and for the grace to move beyond our fears, and doubts, and justifications for staying in the boat, making the words of the Psalmist our own; “I will hear what God proclaims; / the Lord—for he proclaims peace… Near indeed is his salvation to those who fear him, / glory dwelling in our land” (Psalm 85:9-10).

 
A Prayer to Work for the Things We Pray For
O Lord,
give us a mind that is humble, quiet, peaceable, patient, and charitable,
and a taste of your Holy Spirit
in all our thoughts, words, and deeds.
O Lord,
give us
a lively faith,
a firm hope,
a fervent charity,
a love of you.
Take from us
all lukewarmness in meditation
and dullness in prayer.
Give us fervor and delight
in thinking of you,
your grace,
and your tender compassion toward us.
Give us,
good Lord,
the grace to work for
the things we pray for. Amen.
—inspired the writings of St. Thomas More
(from The New St. Joseph People’s Prayer Book)

 

 

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Feast of the Transfiguration: A Celebration and a Promise

And Jesus was transfigured before them;
his face shone like the sun
and his clothes became white as light…
Behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them,
then from the cloud came a voice that said,
“This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased;
listen to him.”
 
 
The Transfiguration of Jesus is one of those moments in the Gospels when the veil between Heaven and Earth all but vanishes and we are given a glimpse of realities that transcend the limits of our language, intellects, and even our imaginations. Found in all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-9, and Luke 9:28b-36), this is one of those events that Scripture scholars and theologians struggle to explain. Even the traditional name we’ve given to this moment of revelation—“Transfiguration”—is nearly impossible to translate into a simple, concise definition. But the Transfiguration isn’t a puzzle to be solved. While we do well to ask if this was originally retold as a vision of the Risen Lord, what its connection is to the Jewish feasts that occur each autumn, or what it says about how the Early Church understood the relationship between the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith (cf. 1 Peter 5:1; 2 Peter 1:16-19), I think we have to be careful of over-intellectualizing this experience, because we risk losing sight of the promise that is at the heart of the Apostles’ vision of the Transfigured Lord.
 
The Feast of the Transfiguration (August 6) was first celebrated in and around Syria in the fifth century. The celebration made its way west and was being celebrated in Europe by the tenth century and spread quickly from there. Finally, in 1457, Pope Callistus III added the celebration to the Universal Calendar to commemorate the victory of the Hungarian army (which included the “soldier saint,” John of Capistrano) against the invading Turks at the Siege of Belgrade. Although this makes it a fairly late addition to the Church’s calendar, this day at the beginning of August is an important part of the Season of Ordinary Time.
 
In his three-volume Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI observes that, “The Transfiguration is a prayer event; it displays visibly what happens when Jesus talks with his Father: the profound interpenetration of his being with God, which then becomes pure light. In his oneness with the Father, Jesus is himself 'light from light.' The reality that he is in the deepest core of his being… that reality becomes perceptible to the senses at this moment: Jesus’ being in the light of God, his own being-light as Son” (Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 310). With his formal theological language, Benedict is telling us that the Transfiguration reveals to us who Jesus is, within the depths of his being: Jesus is the Son of the Father, who shares the Father’s glory. The promise contained in this mystery and embodied in this feast, a celebration of the glorious and transforming power of God, is that we too can experience God’s transforming power in our own lives.
 
I recently read a reflection on the Transfiguration which moved me deeply. In it the author, Fr. Terrence Klein, wrote:
The future has a way of rewriting the past. The young man who had to attend his college of second choice doesn’t even recall his first selection, not when he meets the girl of his dreams on campus. A grief transfigures to gladness, yet the past didn’t change. A parent laments the toll, that a child with special needs exacts, until those very needs prove their worth, becoming a source of blessing for all who know the adult. History regularly rewrites itself. To use our odd word, it “transfigures” in significance, and it will do so until its close. 
This is what the Apostles experienced on that mountain. Their stories, their experiences of Jesus were rewritten by the vision of who Jesus truly was and is. This is the promise of the Transfiguration for us, as well. Through coming to know Jesus and by committing ourselves to an ever-deepening relationship with him, we and our stories are transformed by the light of God’s love and peace. The darkness of our sorrows, struggles, losses, and weakness is cast away and we are given the grace to see the deeper truths that lay within those moments and seasons—most especially the truth that God remains with us, at work in each and every facet of our lives. Thinking of this transformative power, Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote:
In Jesus, the world of ordinary prosaic time is not destroyed, but it is broken up and reconnected. It works no longer just in straight lines but in layers and spirals of meaning. We being to understand how our lives, like those of Moses and Elijah, may have meaning we can’t know of in this present moment: the real depth and significance of what we say or do now won’t appear until more of the light of Christ has been seen… Christ’s light alone will make the final pattern coherent, for each one of us and for all human history… When Jesus is transfigured, it is as if there is a brief glimpse of the end of all things—the world aflame with God’s light. - from The Dwelling of the Light: Praying With Icons   
This day of celebration also reminds us, however, that we need to go "up the mountain," to set aside time and space to seek out and listen to the Word of God. Pope Francis said it in this way: "We all need to go apart, to ascend the mountain in a space of silence, to find ourselves and better perceive the voice of the Lord. This we do in prayer." "But," he continues, "we cannot stay there! Encounter with God in prayer inspires us anew to ‘descend the mountain’ and return to the plain where we meet many brothers and sisters weighed down by fatigue, sickness, injustice, ignorance, poverty both material and spiritual. To these, we are called to bear the fruit of that experience with God, by sharing the grace we have received." - from the Angelus Address of March 16, 2014  

The Transfiguration is a celebration of who Jesus is and of the transformed life we are invited to live. In this feast, we offer thanks for God's continuing revelation and we are also reminded of the need to set aside times for prayer and reading the Scriptures so that we can attune our ears to God’s voice. Finally, we are reminded that those graces and blessings we receive in these “mountaintop encounters” are to be shared with those around us, especially those who need to know the transforming love of God, revealed in Christ.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Believing There Is Enough

The story commonly known as the “Feeding of the Multitude” is one of the best-known of the miracles of Jesus. It has been reflected on by countless theologians and preachers and is among the most frequently portrayed in works of sacred art. And yet, it seems that this is one of those stories that is wrapped in a sort of holy cocoon, isolated and unrelated to the realities of our day-to-day lives.

But it’s a very real story with the very real experience of hunger at its center.

Matthew’s account of this miraculous meal follows immediately after the account of the death of John the Baptist at the hands of King Herod (Matthew 14:1-12). Jesus, having heard of John’s murder, goes into the wilderness to pray and grieve. And with this journey into the wilderness, the scene is set. Jesus and the Apostles are joined by a huge crowd of people who are hoping to see and hear this famous teacher. Jesus was moved by their presence: “his heart was moved with pity for them, and he cured their sick.” Although he was mourning the brutal death of John, Jesus attended to those who were in front of him and, as one commentary notes, “From the midst of his own grief at the death of his mentor, his wounded heart fills with compassion for others who are suffering. The same faithful God who provided manna and quail for Israel in the wilderness wandering [cf. Exodus 16; Numbers 11:31-35] and who worked through Elisha to feed a hungry crowd [cf. 2 Kings 4:42-44] acts now through Jesus to bring well-being to the people” (from The New Collegeville Bible Commentary: The Gospel According to Matthew).

A 5th century mosaic from the historic
Church of the Multiplication in Tabgah, Israel,
the traditional site of the Feeding of the Multitude

We know the rest of the story. Jesus, taking what has been given—a few loaves of bread and a couple fish—instructs the Apostles to use that small amount of food to feed the large number of people who had gathered around him. The Gospels also include that there was even food left over, after “they all ate and were satisfied.”

That’s how it is with God—there is always enough. In fact, there is more than enough. We are the ones who don’t believe there is enough—enough justice, enough food, enough peace, enough love. But as a friend recently observed, “We don’t believe there is enough because we don’t believe there is enough.” We even see this at work in this story. The people need to eat and so Jesus’ friends encourage him to send the crowd away so that they can get what they need for themselves. The Apostles seemed to think that it was someone else’s responsibility to provide for the physical needs of this huge crowd of people. This included believing that the people in the crowd had the money and the wherewithal to buy what they needed and that the surrounding villages would have enough food on hand to feed so many people. But Jesus teaches them another way by directing them away from this belief in independence and self-sufficiency to a solution that is “based on remaining in community and pooling and redistributing their resources. It is a eucharistic action, he transforms all that they have, and there is enough” (from Abiding Word: Year A).

We can see that this story of the Feeding of the Multitude is important because it highlights two realities. The first is that God can work wonders in the midst of the most practical needs of daily life. Beyond that, it reminds us that we have a role to play in providing for the needs of those around us. In essence, Jesus is telling us to go out and feed the crowds.

As I was thinking about this Gospel passage, I was reminded of the phrase “The love of Christ compels us” (2 Corinthians 5:14). These words were offered by Saint Paul as his justification for his mission to take the Good News into new territories, despite harsh treatment and suffering. Over the centuries, they have come to serve as the motto for some of the religious communities in the Catholic Church that have dedicated themselves to those who have the lowest places in our society (e.g. the Alexian Brothers, the Daughters of Charity, and the Society of the Catholic Apostolate [“the Pallotines”]). The members of these communities didn't set out to be heroic (although the work that they have done can certainly be described as such). These religious communities, like so many Christians throughout the ages, were inspired by love and have understood that the wonders and signs performed by Jesus were not just intended to entertain or astonish the people crowding around him—they were demonstrations of God’s love. We share in that miraculous work when we feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, elderly, and incarcerated, and when we work for peace.

Our Christianity has to express itself in tangible, concrete acts of charity and justice. This isn’t negotiable or dependent on where our particular theology falls on the “faith versus works” scale. The needs are great and we only have to scan the news to gain some sense of how much unrest and suffering there is in the world. The Feeding of the Multitude challenges us to resist the temptation to believe that all of these sad realities are other people’s responsibilities. When we try to pretend that we don’t bear some responsibility and that the care of refugee children at the American border, the persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria, the stalled efforts for peace in the Middle East and Africa, and the exploitation of women and children (even in America) aren’t spiritual realities or are only the responsibility of elected officials, then we fail—we fail to imitate Jesus and we fail to live out our baptismal covenant. And these “troubles” aren’t just found on the international level. In our communities, the sins of exploitation, human trafficking, racism, sexism, homophobia, and abuse are too common. We become complicit in these injustices when we refuse to share the Apostles’ burden of “feeding” our sisters and brothers. 
 
When Isaiah the Prophet envisioned God’s kingdom (cf. 55:1-3) as the place where the hungry are fed and have their thirst quenched, he was speaking to an exiled community that was longing for the security and comfort of the home it was beginning to forget. When we do what Jesus is asking, we are helping make Isaiah’s vision a reality for those modern-day exiles who live in want and isolation; it’s a meal to which we are also invited if we are willing to accept the invitation and stop trying to satisfy our own hunger and thirst with those things that can never truly satisfy our deepest longings.

Henri Nouwen reflected on all of this when he wrote these words:
[This] is a story about the value of the small people and the small things. The world likes things to be large, big, impressive, and elaborate. God chooses the small things which are overlooked in the big world. Andrew’s remark [in John’s account of the Feeding of the Multitude], “five barley loaves and two fish; but what is that among so many?” captures well the mentality of a calculating mind. It sounds as if he says to Jesus, “Can’t you count? Five loaves and two fish are simply not enough.” But for Jesus they were enough. Jesus took them and gave thanks. That means that he received the small gifts from the small people and acknowledged them as gifts from his heavenly Father. What comes from God must be enough for all the people. Therefore, Jesus distributed the loaves and the fish “as much as they wanted.” In giving away the small gifts from the small people, God’s generosity is revealed. There is enough, plenty even, for everyone—there are even many leftovers. Here a great mystery becomes visible. What little we give away multiplies. This is the way of God. This is also the way we are called to live our lives. The little love we have, the little knowledge we have, the little advice we have, the little possessions we have, are given to us as gifts of God to be given away. The more we give them away, the more we discover how much there is to give away. The small gifts of God all multiply in the giving.

Key to all of this is our accepting that we do, indeed, have enough. When we realize how blessed we are, even if life isn’t quite as comfortable or secure as we might want it to be, we become free to give to those who stand in need of our time, our attention, a share in our resources, and our love.