Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Ugly Jesus — Seventeenth Week of “Ordinary Time,” July 29 to August 4, 2012

Talking to a friend whose son no longer assembles with the community for Mass or baptizes his children — but claims to love Jesus — I just realized how “unchurched” Catholics can believe they “accept Jesus” when they do not accept the Church. We were never taught the real mystery of the risen Jesus. We thought Jesus rose as an individual, and that we can relate to him as an individual. That is ten percent right and ninety percent wrong.

Yes, Jesus came out of the tomb in the body he got from Mary; the body that hung on the cross became alive again — but not the way Lazarus did (John 11:1-45), by just “coming back to life.” The body that rose “glorified” was the body of the “whole Christ,” head and members. When God raised Jesus from the dead, he “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6; see Colossians 2:12, 3:1). If we accept Jesus risen from the dead, we have to accept all who rose with him. If we do not want to associate with the risen body of Christ, the Church, we can't associate with Jesus.

Jesus’ condemnation of those who do not recognize him in the poor and needy apply also to those who do not recognize him in the Church: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” He is also saying, “If you reject the least member of my body, you reject me.” To reject the members of the body is to reject the head.

Jesus says today, “If you cannot accept me in my ugly body — in my body on earth wounded by sin and sometimes stinking with its infection — you cannot accept me.”

Think about it. Why did Jesus insist so much on mutual forgiveness (Matthew 6:15, 18:21-35; Luke 6:37)? Why did John say so strongly that love of others is the proof we are living by the life of God (read all of 1John)? “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.’” Those who cannot love Jesus visible in the Church (although “covered with sores” and sinfulness Luke 16:20), are kidding themselves if they think they love Jesus.

We are deluded if we think we can have a real relationship with the “man from Galilee” — the Jesus of the Gospels who spoke inspiring words, healed the sick and died for us with incomprehensible love — without entering into real relationship with the risen Jesus, Jesus living today: Jesus speaking and acting in the members of his body, the Church. If we think we can “follow Jesus” without assembling with his body on earth, we don’t understand the mystery of the resurrection. Jesus only walks in the company of his disciples — good ones and bad ones.

The great teacher of the Christian mystery is Paul. He never met the historical Jesus. The Jesus he met on the road to Damascus identified himself as identified with his Church: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Paul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Paul understood. From that moment on, the core of everything Paul preached was “the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27).

The “hope” of glory. We will not see the Church in all her beauty until we see her “coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband... holy and without blemish” (Revelation 21:2; Ephesians 5:27). But if we don’t accept her now in her imperfection, we never will see her in her perfection.

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Irrepressible Jesus — Sixteenth Week of “Ordinary Time,” July 22 to 28, 2012

God is irrepressible. And the risen Jesus is popping up all over the place. Paul says that after the resurrection Jesus “appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive” (1Corinthians 15:6). Preaching a mission in North Carolina, I just saw him appear in more than five hundred members of the parish of St. William/Immaculate Heart, and all of them are still alive — or have come back to life because of the pastor and congregation that have ministered to them for the past sixteen years. They are the “sign of Jonah” — the life, the joy and the love of the risen Jesus is visible in them.

We read about multiple scandals in the Vatican. We see bishops and chancery officials standing trial for criminal failure to restrain child abusers. And some complain of “restorationist” priests trying to revive the “legalism, clericalism and triumphalism” rejected overwhelmingly by the bishops in the first session of Vatican II. But that is not where the Church is. Or what the Church is. I saw the Church in Murphy, North Carolina. The Church is the People of God. And Jesus lives in them.

The pastor introduced visitors at the beginning of Mass. I have seen this before, but when he did it I realized he was putting everyone’s focus on the congregation instead of on the priest and ministers in the sanctuary. He didn’t have to call for “full, active, conscious participation” in the Mass. He made everyone conscious that their activity was the Mass, and he was just presiding over it.

(I compared this to a recent book on the Mass, highly praised on the back cover by “big name” people, that had twenty-eight pictures. Twenty-four of them were of the author as celebrant. Not a single picture showed the congregation. The words reinforced the pictures).

The pastor did not recite the Eucharistic Prayer like someone reading words out of a book. Nor did he come across like Moses, going up the mountain alone to commune with God while the people watched in awe (Exodus 19:10 to 20:19). When he read the words, it was obvious that he was talking to God — and doing it with a keen sense of being in the midst of his people, saying the words with them, in union with them, as their spokesman. He was happy saying them. And so were the people.

At Communion time he smiled at each one. A parishioner told me, “That had never happened to me before. The first time I came to Mass here, I knew I was home.”

And I knew Jesus is alive and well in North Carolina — and in thousands of parishes all over the country, where on “ground level” Jesus is rising irrepressibly from the dead.

In most of the country, if you leave your back yard alone for awhile, it will be taken over by grass, weeds, bushes, and — if you leave it long enough — even trees. God is simply irrepressible, even in giving vegetative life. God is not afraid of life. Jesus told of a field where an enemy sowed weeds among the wheat. But the owner told his workers not to focus on weeding out what was bad: “No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest” (Matthew 13:24-30)

Church ministry is not about attacking the sinners and excluding those not in “good standing.” It is about encouraging the life God is already giving to everyone who has been raised from the dead in Baptism (Ephesians 2:6; Colossians 2:12, 3:1). When we encounter one who, like Lazarus, has come out of the tomb still “bound hand and foot” with rules and regulations, Jesus says to us, “Unbind him, and let him go free” (John 11:44).

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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Awaiting the “Peace of the Holy Spirit” — Fifteenth Week of “Ordinary Time,” July 15 to 21, 2012

It is well and good — but a little abstract — to say that as the “risen Jesus,” we should be living the life of Father, Son and Spirit” — a life of relationship with other persons, human and divine.

We have no problem saying it. But how do we make it real? If "relationship" is the reality of our life, what should it look like?

A “rising star” young author, Tanner Colby, has brought that question down to earth in a way we may love or hate. His brilliant, poignant, equally heart-rending and side-splitting book, Some of My Best Friends Are Black (Viking, 2912), looks at racial integration as it is on paper and as it really is in schools, neighborhoods, the workplace, and in churches. To examine our relationships on ground level, his book is a challenging place to start. And it is mostly stories. He says it is “not a book about politics or policy... Most of the book is just stories about people.”

Like the Gospels. And like our lives. When we meet Jesus after death, he is only going to be interested in the stories that tell how we dealt with people — and his Father, of course. And, as we saw last week, it won’t be about what we did for people, or did for God, but about the relationship we sought or neglected to seek with both.

“Peace” was the key word on Jesus’ lips after his resurrection. And it should be a key word to describe our relationship with each other as his risen body. But the “peace of the Holy Spirit” is more than the absence of conflict. In fact, the very absence of visible conflict in “fa├žade integration” can be precisely the “invisibility cloak” that keeps us from seeing that no peace is there. Love on the lips can hide hate in the heart — as Jesus preached so forcefully to the Pharisees.

But the Spirit prevails — given time. Tanner Colby found racial integration mostly a failure in terms of its essential reality: relationships. He searched in schools, neighborhoods, workplaces and churches. But finally, in a little church in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, his native state, he said, “I found what I went looking for.”

“I saw black people at white churches, and I saw white people at black churches, but what I never saw anywhere but here was a black and white Church.” He calls it “The Miracle of Grand Coteau” — a miracle it took thirteen pastors and forty years of prayer and suffering to bring about. And the key players were laity. As one parishioner put it, “You have to go through Good Friday to get to Easter, and we went through an awful lot of Good Fridays.”

Fr. Charlie Thibodeaux, the priest who began it all, saw the kingdom come. “It was agonizing. But to see it now, the tension gone, the people more at ease, I thank God they’re finally united as brothers and sisters. Humanly speaking, it seemed like it was impossible. But with God there is always hope. It just takes time.”

When we say, “Peace be with you” at Mass, we are looking forward, awaiting “the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ.” When he comes, our relationship with each other will be that of Father, Son and Spirit.

This is the triumph of Jesus: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.”

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Sunday, July 8, 2012

“In the unity of the Holy Spirit” — Fourteenth Week of “Ordinary Time,” July 8 to 14, 2012

When we see ourselves as the “risen Jesus,” we think of Jesus alive in our bodies, living and sharing his own divine life with us.

But the divine life Jesus lives is the life of the Holy Trinity. So we, with him, are living the life of Father, Son and Spirit. A “triune” life: three in one.

The Three Persons differ from each other only by their relationships. The mystery of being Three-in-One is the mystery of the way they live in relationship with each other. So all of us who live the life of Christ, sharing in his divine life as God, are living a life that can only be understood as a life of relationship.

Is that what they taught us in grade school? Is that what we are conscious of now?

In trying to live “a Christian life,” do we focus, first of all, on forming and fostering relationships? Finding security in personal relationship with the Father? Seeking fulfillment in life through deeper-and-deeper relationship with Jesus? Experiencing relationship through interaction with the Spirit?

Do we see our first duty toward others as the duty to seek relationship with them? To relate to others as Jesus relates to us? To see every person in the light of the relationship each one has with God? And, consequently, as bonded with us as brothers and sisters, co-sharing with us in the life of Jesus as branches share in the life of the vine?

Do we understand that, prior to being “just” or “fair” to others, prior to “helping them out,” our first duty is to accept the relationship with each one that our faith tells us we have? And tells us we should seek to form and foster — in the way and measure that circumstances allow?

One current example: the priests in the country have just formed the “Association of United States Catholic Priests.” Why is this?

This is not a “protest” organization. The goal is to “offer mutual support and a collegial voice; to engage in contemplation and dialogue”; and only as the fruit of this, to add “prophetic action on issues affecting Church and society.” In other words, it is first of all a movement toward forming and fostering relationship among priests.
As the life of God is relationship between Father, Son and Spirit.
As the life of the Church is koinonia — relationship, “fellowship,” “communion.”

This should make Catholics think. What does it mean that their priests are putting such a value on relationship? What does it say about marriage, friendship, relationship between co-workers and neighbors? Between Americans, immigrants and citizens of foreign countries? About the human race? About what Jesus came to do?

The Association says (, “We are a reconciling body, who are trying to provide a realistic means for dialogue among brothers and then among the people of God.” Are they discovering, and inviting us to discover, something new in the Church?

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