Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Great Summation: Sixth Week of Lent and the Easter Triduum, April 1 to 7, 2012

This week is the transition from Lent to Easter season, and from the theme of dedication to mission (“Thy Kingdom come!”) to surrender in ministry (“Thy will be done!”).

Lent ends when we begin the “Easter Triduum” (“triduum” is the compression of tres dies, “three days”). Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday (vigil of Easter Sunday) are all one celebration. This week of transition “sums up” and simplifies the whole mystery of redemption, which is the mystery of Christian life.

In a nutshell, to “be Christ” authentically we must “die to” ourselves by “emptying ourselves” of all pretense to human power and prestige, and “find ourselves” by “losing ourselves” in humble service to others. This is what it means to love one another as Christ has loved us.

This is — predictably — the last lesson that any of us learn, bishops, priest and laity alike. It was the first teaching of Jesus that Peter rejected after being named Pope. And on the very eve of Christ’s passion the Twelve Apostles had still not learned it (see Matthew 16:22 and Luke 22:24). This should not surprise us. Self-emptying love is the goal of everything Jesus taught, and goals are the last to be achieved. The rarest thing in football is a touchdown. If the rejection of power and prestige are the rarest thing in the Church, why should that shock us?

The final readings for Lent all call us to go beyond the human to think and act on the level of God — as made divine by Baptism. The Holy Week readings teach us, by the example of Jesus above all, that the way to reach this exalted level is to relish being at the bottom of the heap. But we are closed to it.

The easiest and most acceptable way to “be last” is to surrender ourselves in humble, loving service of others. To love is to put another first. To love like Christ is to put everyone first. It is impossible to do this without making ourselves last. This is what Jesus did, who, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” and “humbled himself” by becoming “obedient to the point of death--even death on a cross.”

If we let that theme guide us through Holy Week, all will make sense to us.

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Sunday, March 25, 2012

Life Through Surrender: Fifth Week of Lent: March 25 to 31, 2012

The readings this week are all about new life, the “life to the full’ that Jesus came to give and only he can give.

Life we can only enter into through surrender; another word for which is “dying.” That sounds pleasant, doesn’t it? But look at the alternatives.

Jesus knew his life would be fruitless if he didn’t die: “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat.” It remains alone, isolated. “But if it dies, it produces much fruit.”

If we don’t “die” by surrendering our self-sufficiency, our complacency in being “right” that closes us to the ideas of others, we remain alone, isolated. The truth we do have dies with us, unfertilized by the ideas of others; a pocket of truth zippered so tight it stales into sterility.
Parents who do not share their religious experience with their children cannot pass on their faith. Catholics who do not dialogue receptively with Protestants perpetuate the division. “Dialogue” begins with asking about another’s experience of God and sharing one’s own. Any discussion not based on a recognition of common experience is doomed to degenerate into nothing but argument. Teachers and preachers of the “Catholic faith” do damage if they don’t listen to the “catholic experience” of those who are living it on ground level and learn from what they hear. And all Christians stunt their growth if they just “hunker down” in the understanding of the faith they grew up with and do not continue to read Scripture and hear with openness what others read and find in it.

This was the sin of the Pharisees. Faced with Jesus, who had personal, intimate knowledge of the Father, they didn’t want to hear about him. They had laws to live by. That was enough for them. So they crucified Jesus, as their successors today crucify anyone who tries to open their minds to more truth.

The only true obedience is surrender to the “endless exploration” of the mystery that is God — and the mystery of sharing in the divine life of God by Baptism. Ultimately, there are only two choices: discipleship — which means commitment to learning the mind and heart of God — and Phariseeism, which means stiff-necked resistance to anything we don’t know already.
Paul said that Jesus himself “learned obedience from what he suffered.” That is, from what he surrendered to. We learn obedience by surrendering our minds to new insights into the truth of our faith, our wills to new ideals, new principles of action that follow from it, our hearts to higher levels of inspiration.

The only true sterility is spiritual fruitlessness. When we stop surrendering to the seed of truth, we begin to die: sterile and alone.

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

“Water words,” Source and Support of Life: Fourth Week of Lent: March 18 to 24, 2012

Baptism invites us into “ecstasy.” “Ecstasy” means “standing outside of,” being “out of ourselves.” Baptism is not an “out of the body” experience, but the experience, and freedom, of being “out of” the world itself — while being deeply involved.

Because we have “died to the world” in Baptism, we are free. We depend on nothing and nobody here. We are physically walking around on earth, but we don’t depend on having the planet under our feet. “Our citizenship is not here.” We have “a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.” This makes us radically free of our “culture.” Free to be different and to call others to be different.

To do this we must be disciples, students of the mind and heart ofd God. Today’s laity are the most educated congregations priests have faced since the beginning of the world. Unfortunately, that education does not always include familiarity with Scripture or with the groundlevel, reader-friendly theology available today to everyone (e.g. the sixteen documents of Vatican II). That has to be corrected. It is essential for the reform of the Church.

True, two thirds of those studying for doctorates in theology are laity. True, priests cannot assume today, as before, that they know more theology than anyone out there in the pews. But the general level of theological knowledge (and awareness, another issue) of the general Catholic population has to be raised.

It won’t just “be raised.” We have to raise it.

The water Ezekiel saw flowing from the temple was a mere “trickle” at first. It gradually deepened until it was “deep enough to swim in, a river that could not be crossed.” We find this “water" in the words of Jesus: "Those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” But we have to read his words.

Not just read them: we have to make Scripture reading a way of life. The difference between this and an occasional “Scripture study” matches the difference between sporadic dieting and a conversion to healthy eating.

Health requires consistent nourishment and exercise. Spiritual health requires both consistent reading of the word of God and consistent acting on it. When we make reading Scripture and acting on it a regular part of our lives, we will enjoy a spiritual health that will enable us to reform both the Church and the world.

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Saturday, March 10, 2012

To See or Not To See: That is the Question: Third Week of Lent: March 11 to 17, 2012

Lord, you have the words of everlasting life.” If we believe that, we have to believe that committed discipleship — regular reading and refection on God’s word — can “fill the hearts of the faithful” and “renew the face of the earth.” If we choose to look and see.

My soul is thirsting for the living God.” It will be, if I am aware of God’s presence, power and goodness. This awareness is the fruit of committed discipleship that does not just take Christianity for granted, but keeps delving into the mystery of God’s mind and heart until everything within us is crying, "Hallowed be thy name!"

Remember your mercy, O Lord.” If we remember it, and let reflection on God’s word remind us of it daily, we will see every problem in the Church and in the world countered by signs of hope. The strongest sign, available to us every day, is the Mass. As long as Jesus is present on the altar, dying and rising in sacrifice, we know the Church is dying and rising daily in him.

Praise the Lord, Jerusalem.” If we — and the rest of humanity — would reflect on God’s laws enough to see how “wise and intelligent” they are, rejection would be replaced by praise. And society would be renewed. This is a motive for committing to discipleship.

If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Hardness of heart reveals itself in indecision. If Sunday after Sunday we listen to the word of God at Mass without making any choices in response, we have something to worry about. Do you want to “harden your heart” against this statement, or do you want to start making choices every Sunday before leaving church?

I am the Lord your God: hear my voice.” Unless we are committed to deep, regular listening to the voice of God through reading and reflecting on his words, we are not choosing to live a happy life. The only true way to happiness is the way of discipleship. Jesus is “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” But he cannot be Life for us unless we learn to follow his Way by absorbing his Truth. For this we must be disciples.

It is steadfast love, not sacrifice, that God desires.” But in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross — made present in every Mass — we see God’s “steadfast love” revealed in its perfection. This is the “perfection of love” which every Christian is committed by Baptism to pursue. We learn how to do this by reading and reflecting on God’s word.

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Saturday, March 3, 2012

Metanoia is Openness: Second Week of Lent: March 4 to 10, 2012

The readings are all about commitment to discipleship; that is, to seeking clearer understanding of the mystery we see by faith, in order to express it more authentically in action. The motive that drives us to seek this greater authenticity is desire to make the Father known and loved: Hallowed be thy Name! We want to be able to say with Jesus, “Whoever sees me has seen the Father!”

The problem is, there is a clear resistance to discipleship in the Church. At the core of it are the same kind of people who closed their minds to Jesus so fanatically in the Gospels that it eventually led them to kill him. These are the “Pharisee party” (not known by that name, of course), who typically — now as well as then — are the most “established” or “accredited” members of the Church. In the Gospels these are clearly and repeatedly identified as the three categories of “chief priests,” “scribes,” and “Pharisees.”

The “chief priests” were the higher clergy. The scribes were the officially approved “teachers of the Law,” which included doctrine as well as rules. And the Pharisees were members of a reform movement who insisted most inflexibly on keeping all the rules and spoke out most strongly against those they perceived as bending them. What the three had in common, that united them against Jesus, were prestige, power, and a complacency in what they were teaching and doing that made them resistant to anything new.

The key to the Catholic spirit is a recognition of mystery. The teaching that comes from God himself, and the New Law of Jesus are so far beyond human understanding that we can only grow into them through commitment to that open-minded, never-ending faith formation the American bishops begged for in their letter Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us. If we ever think we “understand” our religion, we have denied the faith!

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