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Posted by on Jul 10, 2022

Something Very Near to You

Something Very Near to You

Reading these words, “something very near to you,” I find myself wondering, what is very near to me? What do I treasure most? What is a fundamental part of me that might not even be consciously mine? Do I even know what is very near to me?

As Moses and the Israelites approach the promised land after forty years of travels through the Sinai Peninsula and lands to the east of the Jordan River, he realizes that the time has come to pass the leadership of the community into younger hands. He is now old and the end of his days is at hand.

In this first reading for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Moses gives some final instructions and his final plea/dream to the people. “If only you would heed the voice of the Lord … and keep his commandments…” (Dt 30:10-14) He calls on them to return once again to the Lord, “with all your heart and all your soul.”

Early in their travels, Moses had gone up to the mountaintop and received the tablets containing the Law from the Lord God. He brought the Law down to the people and it became the foundation of their way of life and traditions. Sometimes they followed it well. Other times not. Always it was the basis of their agreement, their Covenant, with God.

As it becomes obvious that Moses will not be leading them when they enter the new land, they must have wondered, who will now bring the Law to us? Who will be the intermediary with God? Where will our leader need to go to find God and bring instructions to us?

Moses corrects the notion that the Law by which they live is something mysterious and remote that needs to be found in the sky or across the sea, or in some other far-off land. No one needs to travel far to retrieve and bring it back to the people so they will know how to live. He tells them, “No, it is something very near to you, already in your mouths and in your hearts; you have only to carry it out.”

What is written in the Law?

St. Luke brings us a picture of what it means to live according to the Law. (Lk 10:25-37) A student of the Law, a person who had spent many years studying Jewish laws and tradition, asked Jesus a question. “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus went right back to basics. “What is written in the law?” The man responded with a condensed statement of Mosaic law. “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.”

This answer was absolutely correct. No need to add anything more. No need to travel to the sky or across the sea. Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus assured the man that nothing more would be needed.

Then came the follow-up question, “Who is my neighbor?” This is one we all need to contemplate. Is my neighbor the person living next door, on my block, on the other side of the block, my village, my region of the country, my country? How far out do I need to go before those I meet cease to be my neighbor and I no longer need to love them?

Today we often hear, “There’s an app for that!” We might equally well say, “With Jesus, there’s a parable for that!”

Jesus told a story. There was a man who was traveling from Jerusalem down to Jericho. This was a mountainous area, with lots of bandits along the way. He was attacked, beaten, robbed, and left half-dead beside the road.

Two men passed by the wounded traveler, but moved to the opposite side of the road as they walked by him. Neither stopped. One was a priest, the other a Levite.

(Time out of the story for a bit of explanation. Priests were descendants of Aaron, brother of Moses, who offered sacrifice in the temple. They were subject to strict rules of purity and behavior because they entered the most holy places. Levites were members of the tribe of Levi, descendants of the third son of Jacob and Leah. Levites assisted with services and worship at the temple, but were not priests. They filled roles that we would call musicians, song-leaders, acolytes, lectors, greeters, administrators, guards/guides, artists, designers, and so forth. They were held to higher standards of purity in obedience to the Law, but not as high as those for priests.)

So a priest and a Levite passed the man. The story doesn’t say whether they were on the way to Jerusalem or on the way back, but it really didn’t matter to Jesus. The point was that they were people who had higher than average position and responsibility in society and in worship, and they did not stop to help.

Another traveler came along the road. This person was from Samaria. Samaritans were hated by Jews. They were descended from some of the people who had been left behind during the Babylonian exile. Their land had been conquered earlier and the survivors had adapted their religious beliefs and practices to include some of what came from the conquerors. They worshiped on mountaintops rather than in Jerusalem. Folks traveling between Judea in the south and Galilee in the north tried to go around Samaria or spend as little time as possible there. These were not folks one would expect to find as heroes in a story told by a good Jew.

Yet this is exactly the person Jesus presents as the hero of the story. The Samaritan sees the injured man and takes pity on him. He gives first aid, loads him on his own donkey, and takes him to an inn. He cares for him there overnight, then leaves money for the innkeeper to continue caring for him, with a promise to reimburse any additional costs as he (the Samaritan) returns along the way.

Jesus asks a simple question, “Which one of these three … was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” The answer is clear – the Samaritan who was merciful. Jesus agrees and adds, “Go and do likewise.”

The command of the Law was closer to the heart of the Samaritan in this case than to the other two travelers. Care for the one in need of help, whoever that is, trumps ritual purity and practice or other societal norms.

Would it be closer for you or me? Hmmm.

How can all of this be possible?

A hymn from the early church, shared by St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians, gives a hint of how this can be possible. (Col 1:15-20) “Christ Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” All things were created through him and for him, even the great principalities and powers of the spirit world. Everything is held together because of him. He’s the head of the church, his body. The fullness (God) dwelt in him, the human man, and reconciled all things through him. Peace between God and creation was achieved through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

We are the body of Christ. We, the human members of the community. Jesus lives in us and we in and through him. Because of this, we have a real chance of living the law of love that he taught. The law that Moses says is “something very near to you” and Jesus presents as the foundation of loving a neighbor as ourselves.

Is living the law of love always easy? No. Is it always the popular thing to do? No. Is it always totally clear how to live? Not always, but there are hints if we keep our eyes and hearts open. Do our cultures and societies make this very easy? Not really. It’s much easier to love those who are like ourselves and with whom we share experiences, language, and culture. Do we have to love other folks anyway, even if we don’t like what we see? Yes. Can it just be an intellectual, “My heart goes out to you?” No. It must be practical.

“Go and do likewise.” “It is something very near to you … you have only to carry it out.”

Lord, help me to listen to your voice speaking through my heart. Help us to come together in loving service.

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Posted by on May 22, 2022

A Guide into the Future – The Holy Spirit is With Us

A Guide into the Future – The Holy Spirit is With Us

“It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us …” (Acts 15:28)

Members of the early Christian community did not have everything figured out and standardized from the beginning. It’s important for us who look back from two thousand years later to remember this. These were a bunch of fishermen, farmers, tradesmen and women, and even some educated people like Paul. They had a message of amazing good news to share with the world. They had witnessed the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. They had come to believe in him as their Lord, a title reserved for God. But they were not in agreement on many other things that popped up in the years after the resurrection.

The first reading for the Sixth Sunday of Easter presents an example of one such disagreement that had to be resolved. The reading does not include the entire story of what happened, so here’s a quick summary.

Paul and Barnabas have just completed their first missionary journey in Asia Minor and returned to Antioch in Syria when this reading begins. Their message was mostly rejected by the Jews to whom they first presented it in these lands, but enthusiastically received by many non-Jews. These Gentiles had been welcomed into the Christian community by Paul and Barnabas, who returned to Antioch in Syria with reports of the wonders God was doing among the Gentiles.

Rather than welcome this news wholeheartedly, some members of the community wanted to put extra conditions on admission to membership – first the Gentiles must become Jews in order to be worthy of admission to the new community. Paul and Barnabas rejected this notion and went south to Jerusalem. (The text says they went up to Jerusalem, because that city was located in a mountainous region in the south.)

In Jerusalem, they consulted with the apostles and other elders of the community. The community was not in agreement on the subject. Some argued that only those who were Jewish could be saved, so converts must become Jews and live by Jewish laws. Others argued that becoming Jews was not necessary. Paul and Barnabas described the signs and wonders God had worked through them among the Gentiles. Peter spoke to the community about his experience as the one who baptized the first Gentiles, the family of Cornelius, a Roman centurion in Caesarea. When the Spirit of the Lord came upon Cornelius and his family before they were even baptized, Peter realized baptism could not be denied them based on being Gentiles. He reminded the community of this event and asked why anyone would think other Gentiles should be treated differently.

Finally, after much conversation, debate, and prayer, the community reached an agreement. Gentiles did not need to become Jews in order to be Christians. They needed to “abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage.” The community sent two of its members to accompany Paul and Barnabas back to Antioch in Syria with the good news for the new Gentile Christians. (Acts 15:1-2, 22-29)

In this early example, we see the importance of several things in the decision-making of the early Christian community. These include consultation with the leadership, conversation among the members regarding the difference of opinion, reliance on the Holy Spirit to provide insight and guidance in selecting the correct path, and willingness to change accustomed patterns of thinking and acting when situations change and new opportunities open. In presenting their decision, the leaders in Jerusalem made it clear that it was not just their opinion, but that it was the decision of the Holy Spirit that was leading to this major change in an ancient practice.

Jesus, in his final teaching to his apostles the night before he died, made clear that not all would be easy to understand (Jn 14:23-29). He knew that unexpected things would happen in their future. He promised the Father would send the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, to be their guide and remind them of his teachings. They were to follow Jesus’ teaching, his word. In doing this, they would be keeping the word of the Father. Jesus and the Father would come to live within those who keep his word. He promised to give them peace, a deeper peace than any the world can give.

The disciples held on to this promise. Even after Pentecost, as they were fired with faith and courage to go out and share the good news, they counted on the guidance of the Spirit when difficulties arose. During times of persecution and as the years passed and Jesus didn’t return in glory during their lifetimes, this remained a constant.

The reading from the Book of Revelation (21:10-14, 22-23), written long after the events of the other readings, offers a symbolic view of the Church, the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven from God. This city gleams and is radiant with God’s splendor. Its features include twelve gates and twelve foundation stones. The gates, guarded by angels, are named for the twelve tribes of Israel – the chosen people of God who will come from all four directions to this new city. The foundation stones are named after the apostles, upon whose experience and faith the Christian community would stand. But there is no temple building within this new city. The Lord God is the temple himself, lighted by his glory. The Lamb is the lamp through which that light shines.

The presence of God in the Church, the new Jerusalem, the people of God, is the source of all that is to be and the foundation on which the life of the community is built.

We as a Church community have come through a time of great transition in our lifetimes and are seeing new pathways and new understandings of our relationships with each other and with God. It’s been a relatively short time since the Second Vatican Council and the development of the reforms and revised understandings of our relationship with God and the world that it brought. Conflicts among us remain. There is still much to do as we explore the ramifications of the insights of the Council, insights that surprised even those who participated. The Holy Spirit was at work, bringing/calling the Church once again into a newer and deeper presence in our world.

Will we be as brave as those first Christians were in hearing and accepting the guidance of the Spirit? Our world has seen major changes since the early days of the Church and the days of the Council. How have we changed. What have we learned? What areas need our attention and healing now?

We are currently in the process of the first Synod that has ever asked the opinions of lay people about the future of the Church – who we are, what we are called to be, how we are to live in our world. How will we respond as the Spirit speaks through ordinary women and men? Will we trust the Spirit? Are we open to change? Will we follow where the Spirit leads, believing the One who has loved and led us for so long will continue to be there for us too? Will we recognize and accept the peace of the Lord in our lives? The early Church community met, prayed, and discussed changes needed. The Church today continues the same tradition of Synodality. Where will the Spirit next lead us?

“It is the decision of the Holy Spirit and of us …”

Come Holy Spirit!

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Posted by on Mar 2, 2022

A Clean Heart Create for Me

A Clean Heart Create for Me

The holy season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. This is a time of preparation and growth. In just six and a half weeks, we’ll arrive at Easter. In the northern hemisphere, Spring is fast upon us. Here on California’s Central Coast, it is in full swing. Trees and flowers are blooming. Birds are getting ready to fly north. Butterflies bring flashes of color to the landscape. Citrus trees are heavy with ripening fruit. And while we don’t have the cold, cold weather seen in so much of the world during Winter, the longer and somewhat warmer days are awakening itchy fingers, ready to plant the warmer season flowers and vegetables. It is a time for growth and renewal.

The readings for this day speak of renewal, of God’s mercy, of recognition of our failings, and of ways to till the gardens of our hearts, making them fertile soil for receiving the gifts our Father has for each of us.

The prophet Joel (2:12-18) spoke at a time of swarms of locusts and a great drought that caused crop failure and famine in the land. This was seen as a time of loss of divine favor due to the sin of the people of Israel. But through Joel’s words, God calls the people back – to conversion through prayer and fasting. The reading concludes with the observation that the Lord took pity of his people, stirred to concern for his land.

Psalm 51 calls on God to be merciful, to wash away our offenses, cleanse us of our guilt, and put a new spirit within us. “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.” The joy of salvation and a willing spirit come as gifts from God. And we pray, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.” Praise and thanksgiving grow in the soil of a newly renewed heart.

St. Paul, in a second letter to the people of Corinth (2 Cor 5:20-6:2), begs them to be reconciled with God, for the sake of Christ. Christ gave himself so that humans could become the “righteousness of God.” But what is God’s righteousness? God is merciful and gracious. God is slow to anger, rich in kindness, relenting in punishment. These are characteristics of God, revealed by Joel in our first reading. This is the call of the followers, the sisters and brothers of Jesus. To be images of the God who loves and forgives. Again, something that can only grow from within the heart of each person. It doesn’t really come naturally to us.

Finally, Jesus gives us very specific instructions (Mt 6:1-6, 16-18). Summed up briefly: Don’t perform righteous deeds where people can see them! Be discreet in your life of faith. Give of what you have, but do it quietly, secretly. Pray quietly, by yourself. Wash your face, wear your regular clothes. Don’t do anything to draw attention and praise to yourself for your good deeds.

Why not be open and even brazen about doing these good deeds? Shouldn’t we be good examples to others? Because God is hidden and can only really be approached through the heart. God is love. God reaches quietly out to the heart of each and every person. It is only in the garden of the heart, just as it was in the Garden of Eden, that we meet and walk freely with our God. And when we are consistently meeting and walking with our God, there will be a certain something that is attractive about us, something that draws others to walk with God themselves.

“A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.”

Pope Francis has some suggestions for us this year. More challenging than giving up chocolate or TV or desserts, perhaps. Perhaps not. Certainly worth considering. What fertilizer does my inner garden need? What weeds need to be removed? What flowers and fruits will grow from my heart this year.

Welcome to Lent – the season of growth and renewal as we prepare for the great mystery of redemption.

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Posted by on Dec 25, 2021

God’s Recipe for Change: Step Two – Get Personally Involved!

God’s Recipe for Change: Step Two – Get Personally Involved!

Christmas is upon us. The word itself tells us much. This is the day and season during which the Mass we celebrate, our Eucharist, is specifically a celebration of thanksgiving for the coming of the Christ, God’s Chosen and Anointed One. Christ’s Mass!

Usually, I would look at the readings for the Mass of the day and talk about them. Who is featured? What is the message for us? Are there any common themes? How do the themes of the readings speak to me (and to us) today?

However, there are many Masses for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Many parishes only choose one set of them, because it’s easier to prepare just one homily, worship aid, set of hymns, etc. But which one will my parish choose? Which one will your parish choose? Will your parish celebrate each of them in turn?

The first set of readings is for Christmas vigil – Christmas Eve – and features Matthew’s listing of the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham, through David, to St. Joseph (Mt 1:1-25). This is followed by the narration of the decision of Joseph to accept Mary as his wife, even though she was pregnant before they were living together as man and wife. He believed and accepted the word of the angel who came to him in a dream with the message that this was God’s child.

The second set of readings is for Christmas night (midnight Mass). In these readings, St. Luke (2:1-14) picks up the story with the decree of Caesar Augustus that all must return to the town of their ancestors for a census and taxation. There are very specific names of officials in various regions of Palestine given, which tells us historically the timeframe of the events which follow. Luke tells us of Jesus’ birth in the stable and of the message to the shepherds carried by the angels. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

The Mass at Dawn has Luke (2:15-20) telling of the decision of the shepherds to go and find the child. They find him in Bethlehem, lying in a manger, just as the angels had described. When they leave the stable, they tell everyone they meet about what they have heard and seen, “glorifying and praising God.”

The final Mass for Christmas is for Christmas Day. This one gives us the Prologue from the Gospel of St. John (1:1-18). This gospel was written many years after the Resurrection. It reflects a long period of theological reflection on the mystery of what has happened in history. In John’s Gospel, the focus is more on the divinity of Jesus. What he does is done deliberately and because God is in charge of the whole process.

The Prologue begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It goes on to say that “He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him… And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us…”

The combined readings of all the Masses of Christmas tell the story of Salvation History from the beginning of creation through the birth of Jesus. The first and second readings of each of these Masses also differ – but the themes are similar in their focus on Salvation History. In the first readings, we see in great joy the coming of the Lord, or a return from exile, a rebirth of the community. In the second readings we hear of the early Church’s proclamation of the good news to the Jewish community (Acts 13:16-17, 22-25) and also their reflection on the effects of the coming of “our great God and savior Jesus Christ” (Ti 2:13) in the letters to Titus and the Hebrews.

In the weeks and months to come, we will learn more about the continued unfolding of that history in the life of Jesus and the birth of the Church, but for today, we stop and celebrate a wondrous reality. God cares enough about us that God chose to become one of us. This is the crux of the matter that we celebrate today. God’s plan for change included getting personally involved. God became a human being, with a name, a family history, a life story. In doing this, God shows a total commitment to making things better for all of us. We are not condemned to everlasting battles, unhappiness, struggles for justice. God got involved personally to lead the way into a new way of being human.

Let us take time today to rejoice and be glad. The Lord has come!

God’s Recipe for Change: Step Two – Get Personally Involved!

Merry Christmas!

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Posted by on Nov 28, 2021

A Time for Hope and Expectation – The Lord is Coming

A Time for Hope and Expectation – The Lord is Coming

One of the wonderful things about being a mother and grandmother is the chance to read stories to children. So many wonderful stories I have read to children at bedtime and in the car as we were traveling – stories that I would never have even known existed had I remained always in the adult world. Just last night I sat up and re-read the final chapters of The Lightning Thief, by Rick Riordan. It is a story I read with my daughter when it was new. Now my grandson has just finished reading it and I re-read it so I could talk with him about it as he enjoyed it for the first time. (Besides that, it’s a really good story with a lot of unexpected twists and turns that I had long ago forgotten.)

The Lightning Thief is the first of several series of stories that take as their inspiration Greek, Roman, Norse, and Egyptian mythologies – the stories of the gods and their interactions among themselves and with humans. This particular story is about a boy who discovers he is a demi-god whose father is Poseidon, god of the seas. A favorite tool of one of the gods has been stolen and a war is about to break out among them if the tool is not found and returned. Among the gods, it is widely believed that our hero has stolen the tool. The story goes from there as he discovers who he is, what has been stolen, who is believed to have it, where it actually is, and whether it can be recovered in time to prevent the war. A marvelously impossible and improbable quest for a group of children in middle school to engage upon, it is an engrossing story for the reader to share.

This story came to mind this morning as I was thinking about the readings for the First Sunday of Advent. It’s a brand new year for us as Church and once again we hear apocalyptic writings of things that are to come at the end of time. We’ve had a lot of these readings lately. One year ends with them and the new year begins with them.

Why do we have this kind of writing anyway? Why not just state clearly that at some future date the universe will end. At some date each of us will end our lives here. At some point we will meet the Lord. Earthquakes happen. Climate fluctuates over time. Storms come and go, both literally and figuratively. And so forth…

We have these kinds of stories because our understanding of the world is incomplete. Humans have existed for thousands of years, but much of what we know of how the geology, chemistry, physics, psychology, and inter-personal relations behind our daily experience operate has only been uncovered in the last few hundred years. There is still much we don’t know or understand.

As an anthropologist, I turn to a concept that I find helps explain our human use of stories to make sense of what we don’t understand or can’t find words to express. Anthropologists speak of “explanatory systems” that take a physical or social reality and place it within a larger context.

Humans wonder “why” things happen the way they do. Why do we have earthquakes? Why do we have storms? Why is the weather good some days and terrible other days? Why do people care for each other? Why do we have enemies? Why do some people die young? Why do old people spend so much time telling the same stories over and over? In the words of a song originally written by Woody Guthrie and adapted for children by Anne Murray, Why Oh Why, we ask again and again “Why does… Why can’t… Why won’t…” Eventually, the question becomes, “Why won’t you answer my question?” and the response is, “Because I don’t know the answer, Good night, good night.”

We don’t know the answers, so we humans tell stories and sing songs.

In our Judeo-Christian tradition, there is only one God. There are no demi-gods as there are in so many other traditions. Our God speaks through humans. Our God speaks directly to humans. God acts in human history. God loves humans and all of creation so much that God enters into creation as a human being. As a human being, God experiences a complete human life, including the joys and sorrows of life and death with family and friends, unexpected happy surprises, hope, love, suffering, fear, and death.

Yet there are things that happen in our lives and history that are hard to explain. For our ancestors in faith, the answer was clear. God intervened. In times of war, God acted to protect the armies of God’s people. When the people were not faithful to their agreement (the Covenant), God punished them by allowing their enemies to conquer and send them into exile. Yet always, God was there, ready to forgive and bring them back to a good relationship between humans and their God.

The apocalyptic literature read today tells symbolically of this relationship. Jeremiah (33:14-16) recalls the promise God made to King David that a savior would rise from his descendants and do what was right in the land. The country would be secure and the capital city, Jerusalem, site of the temple in which God dwelt in a special way among the people, would become known as “The Lord is our justice.” The people are in exile in Babylon, but the promise is made yet again. There is a reason for hope and expectation of a better future.

Our Gospel story is told by St. Luke, a man who was not part of Jesus’ original circle of friends. Yet Luke (21:25-28, 34-36) has heard and tells the story of Jesus’ description of the coming end of time, when the Son of Man will come on the clouds of heaven. We heard this story from St. Mark two weeks ago. Luke encourages his readers to be awake, vigilant at all times, prayerful for the strength to remain faithful when things are going badly around us. Nations and peoples, and even the physical world itself, will be in disarray, but we can be assured that redemption is at hand. It’s a time for hope and expectation of the coming of the Son of Man – the one who saves us.

The early Christian community expected the second coming of Jesus very soon after the Resurrection. After all, the final reconciliation between humans and God had been achieved through Jesus’ death and resurrection. St. Paul (1 Thes 3:12-4:2) also expected the second coming to be imminent, but in the meanwhile, it was important to live a life of loving care as a community. He reminds the people of Thessalonica to behave themselves! He asks the Lord to increase the love they have for each other and strengthen their hearts, so they will be holy and ready when God comes with all his holy ones.

We too live in difficult times. Our world is filled with strife. We argue over immigration, vaccinations, mask mandates, borders, national sovereignty, taxation, the role of government, and on and on. How do we as a Christian community live in love for and with each other? How do we deal with our brothers and sisters with whom we find ourselves in serious disagreement? How do we find ways to address problems that threaten us all, when we can’t even agree on what has caused them?

I don’t have any easy answers. I’m not sure there are any easy answers. But I know in the depths of my heart that we must continue to respect and love each other. We must care for each other and work to find common ground. We are called as members of Christ’s Body to be one with all the rest of our sisters and brothers, working together to bring the peace of Christ to this world.

Happy New Year. May the Lord’s Peace dwell deep within each of us and shine forth in our lives today and through the year we are just beginning.

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Posted by on Nov 21, 2021

King of the Universe!

King of the Universe!

Sometimes when children are playing, one or another will exclaim, “I’m King of Everything!” Today we celebrate the final Sunday of our liturgical year, The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. In this case, it’s not a question of the exuberant, excited cry of a child in a game. The Christian community, through the centuries, has proclaimed this truth, both in direct statements and in apocalyptic images.

Predictions of the coming of a savior often appear in the Hebrew Scriptures during times of exile and persecution. This savior comes and acts as the agent of God in opening the final age of salvation history, the time in which God will become the ruler over all things. The human (Son of Man) who is the instrument of God in all this upheaval and transition is to be raised to a heavenly level, implying a divine status of some sort.

Our reading from the Book of Daniel (7:13-14) describes a vision received in the night. Someone like a Son of man is coming, but not with a human army or traveling in a normal human way. This individual is coming on the clouds of heaven. The destination of this Son of man (human) is not a standard one either. The Son of man comes to the Ancient One. Who is the Ancient One? This is a title for God. This human, who has served as agent to open the new age, comes before God. God gives him dominion (authority as a ruler), glory (renown, magnificence, splendor), and kingship over all times and peoples. This new status and role will continue for all eternity.

In Psalm 93, the term Lord is used. In this context Lord is the word used to speak of God. Jews do not use God’s actual name, because if a person knows the name of another, there is some power over the other individual. Call that individual’s name and the individual will respond. God made clear from the beginning that no one else will be in charge. This is the reason for the prohibition on using God’s actual name and substituting the word Lord.

The Lord is king, dressed in strength, making the world firm and ruling from everlasting to everlasting. The decrees/statements/commands of the Lord are worthy of trust. This is a hymn of great trust and joy.

The early Christians had to figure out where their friend and teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, fit into the whole picture. The book of Revelation was probably written sometime in the years 81-96 CE, during the persecution of Christians under the reign of the emperor Domitian. The identity of the author is unknown, though the name John is assigned to this person.

Today’s reading is from the very beginning of the book (Rev 1:5-8). John sends greetings to the seven major Christian communities (the churches) of Asia. The greeting is also extended in the name of Jesus, faithful witness and firstborn of the dead. Jesus is identified as ruler of the kings of the earth. It is through the death of Jesus that the new kingdom has been brought into existence. Jesus is coming and all will see him. His sisters and brothers will be raised through him, conquering sin and death, triumphing over persecution and unbelief. The Lord is the beginning and the end, just as the Greek letters Alpha and Omega represent the beginning and end of the alphabet. (The Christian scriptures were written in Greek, making this a relevant note.) God’s life-giving power now operates in the world through Jesus, the Christ.

On this feast of Christ the King, we leave the Gospel of Matthew and instead hear from the Gospel of John (Jn 18:33b-37). Jesus stands as a prisoner in front of the Roman governor of Palestine, a man named Pilate. Pilate was responsible for keeping the territory free of revolutionaries and imposing Roman law. He asked the leaders of the Jewish court why they had brought Jesus to him for judgement. They responded that they could not legally condemn him to death.

Pilate is not interested in religious arguments between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. Their reason for the death penalty was blasphemy – the claim to be God. However, the most important issue for Pilate is whether this man standing before him has committed treason by claiming to be a king. Only Caesar in Rome gets that title. Anyone else will be executed. So Pilate asks Jesus directly, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He is expecting a simple Yes or No, but Jesus instead asks Pilate a question, essentially, why are you asking me this? If Pilate is interested in Jesus’ teaching, the conversation has potential. If not, then other issues arise. Pilate makes clear that he is not asking because he has heard of Jesus and his teaching and wants to know more. What he wants to know is: “What have you done” that the authorities of your country have turned you over to their enemies for execution?

Jesus does not answer the way Pilate expects. He explains, “My kingdom does not belong to this world.” He points out that if he were a king in the worldly sense, he would not be standing there alone. Others would be fighting for him. But his kingdom is elsewhere. Pilate takes this answer as a statement that Jesus is claiming to be a king and asks for confirmation of that interpretation. Legally it matters. “Then you are a king?” But Jesus still refuses to claim an earthly kingdom. “You say I am a king.” He doesn’t deny being a king, but he is king in a very different way. He explains that his mission is to present the truth of God’s love for humans. Any who accept that truth will be members of his kingdom. God’s gift to humanity, the self-giving love leading to God’s becoming one of us, is the source and power of this kingdom. Those who belong to the truth, listen to Jesus.

Here’s a person who really is King of Everything! Do I listen to his voice? Do I hear the truth of God’s love and the Kingdom of Love? When he comes, will I be ready?

Today let’s not get bogged down in worries about how we are doing in following our Lord. Let’s take some time and simply celebrate the wonder of this gift from our Father. He loves us so totally that he became one of us. Jesus brings this love to each one of us each day of our lives and with every breath of our bodies. Long live Christ, the King of the Universe!

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Posted by on Oct 3, 2016

Finding God in All the Wrong People – A Look at the Emerging Church

Finding God in All the Wrong People – A Look at the Emerging Church

Accidental Saints

 

Seeing the Underside and Seeing God: Nadia Bolz-Weber with Krista Tippett at the Wild Goose Festival from On Being on Vimeo.

Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran Minister who is described as “not your mother’s minister.” This is a marvelous interview with the woman who is the pastor or “pastorix” as she jokes of the House of  Sinners and Saints in Denver. Raised in the Church of Christ with no drinking, dancing, and no instruments in church Nadia has gone through many years of addiction and stand up comedy. In her Denver church,  she has incorporated the four part a capella singing of her childhood and focuses her preaches on the ongoing death and resurrection of Christians.

Before meeting her husband she had not found a Christianity with a care for the poor and a liturgy. Her getting clean and sober she describes as a “completely rude thing for God to do.” In Lutheranism she discovered a long articulation of belief that she “did not have to get rid of half her brain to accept.” She found an emphasis on God She doesn’t feel responsible for what her congregants believe but she feel responsible for what they hear and experience in the preaching and in the liturgy. they are anti excellence but pro participation. She calls her liturgy “high church and tent revival.”

For a fresh take on traditional Christianity in contemporary language enjoy this interview.

 

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Posted by on Apr 17, 2015

The Resurrection of Christ and Planet Earth – It’s not all about us.

The Resurrection of Christ and Planet Earth – It’s not all about us.

Earthrise (NASA photo ID AS11-44-6552)The Catholic Church and the broader world community are looking forward to Pope Francis’ forthcoming encyclical on the environment. Generally, Christians tend to see the earth and all of creation as a motion picture studio back drop for God’s saving action in the Christ Event — the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. However, there is more to our relationship with the Earth and with Christ than a motion-picture-type approach suggests. Patheos, a collection of blogs focused on faith, presents a panel discussion representing many viewpoints on the impending human-caused collapse of our planetary life-support system.

Overflowing love

What we tend to overlook is that all of creation is the ongoing reality of God’s overflowing love. Nature is a major facet of God’s self-disclosure. Creation is God’s great art project, which the Holy One holds in existence. The Book of Genesis makes it clear that we are part of this great Divine creativity. Humanity is taken from the earth and given life through the Divine breath. The Christ Event is God’s very immersion into creation. The Divine Word, God’s highest and most complete God Self disclosure, becomes truly human and remains truly divine in Jesus of Nazareth. God’s irruption into human history is part and parcel of the divine irruption to bring all creation to fulfillment in Christ according to St. Paul and the ancient tradition of the Church.

The Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, gave us a post-modern vision of all creation spiraling upward to its fulfillment: the Omega Point which is the Cosmic Christ. His book, the Divine Milieu (The Divine Environment / Context), and his mystical poem, La Messe Sur le Monde (The Mass on the World), convey the ongoing creativity in the universe and that facet of creation which is the human species. This does not mean that everything is God – pantheism – any more than art we might produce is identical with us. The things we make reflect our creativity, but they are not us. According to Chardin, our gift of consciousness not only allows us to be aware of God’s activity but to take part in it by God’s out-poured love for us.

Participating in God’s saving activity

The ongoing Christ Event sweeps us and all of the cosmos toward creation’s fulfillment in Christ, the Omega point. The Second Vatican Council, in its key documents the Church and the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes – Joy and Hope) and The Light of Nations (Lumen Gentium), affirms the centrality of God’s action in human society and creation and our need to participate in this saving activity. Social and political oppression generally go hand in hand with the destruction of the environment and the human life-support system, resulting in poverty, war, and ignorance and the degradation of humanity.

As the Council Fathers wrote:

Therefore, the council focuses its attention on the world of men, the whole human family along with the sum of those realities in the midst of which it lives; that world which is the theater of man’s history, and the heir of his energies, his tragedies and his triumphs; that world which the Christian sees as created and sustained by its Maker’s love, fallen indeed into the bondage of sin, yet emancipated now by Christ, Who was crucified and rose again to break the strangle hold of personified evil, so that the world might be fashioned anew according to God’s design and reach its fulfillment. – Gaudium et Spes #2 (emphasis added)

Image: Earthrise (NASA photo ID AS11-44-6552)
public domain

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Posted by on Apr 16, 2015

The Resurrection of Christ and Planet Earth – It’s not all about us.

Easter and “Eastering”

Icon of the ResurrectionEaster is a celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and what that means for all human beings and the whole of creation. It is an event which gives us hope; a time to remember that good is stronger than evil and death is not the end of life. But the resurrection also has divergent interpretations. For some, Jesus never really died but instead was revived. Some say that he died but his body was stolen and buried somewhere else. For some, it is a question of the resuscitation of a corpse so that Jesus had a revived human body and had to die completely at a later time. For others, it is the return of Jesus in a transformed body. Still others believe that Jesus came back as a vision, seen either interiorly or externally but in a ghostly form.

Catholicism (and most of Christianity) teaches that Jesus returned as fully human and fully divine in a transformed body. He could walk through walls, yet he could eat (Lk. 24:36-23). He could vanish in a moment but had wounds that were of flesh and could be touched. The story of the encounter with Thomas the Apostle (Jn. 20:26-29) is one example. The people closest to him did not recognize him at first. Both Mary Magdalene in the garden (Jn. 20:11-18) and the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35) mistook him for someone else, a gardener or a fellow traveler respectively. Only through his words and actions did they come to recognize him.

Various traditions of Christianity also emphasize different aspects of Easter. A few focus primarily on the symbolic nature of this miracle, i.e. that all human beings can experience a new life in Christ at the time of death. Most Christians, however, believe that the entire Paschal drama (the Paschal Mystery) from Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday to Easter cannot be separated into parts. With Easter, in this understanding, creation was made fundamentally new in the here and now. It also means that the risen Christ manifested an existence that all will share in in the future Eschaton (the last days) — the reconciliation of all to God.

Because of the entire Paschal Mystery, the Holy Spirit and grace are understood as active in the day-to-day world, inviting and drawing people to God in very tangible ways. According to St. Paul all of us are recapitulating in our lives the life, death and resurrection of Jesus (Phil. 3:10-11). The famous Catholic paleontologist, geologist, philosopher, and theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. saw this movement of human history towards its fulfillment in Christ as taking place in everything in the entire universe. As he examined every level of creation from the most basic subatomic (as much as he could know in the 1950s) to the macrocosmic realities of the galaxies, he saw a movement toward greater unity (communion) and consciousness.

What Jesus did at the Last Supper was to place himself as a unique offering of love to the Father, an offering that is shared by us. His self-giving and adoration, and their rejection by those in power, became a historical event on the cross the next day. But, out of the sacrifice of his life came the triumph of God over death and sin for all humanity. No evil or tragedy is beyond the reach of God’s love and redemption. Easter is the absolute promise that the human condition and the way the world currently is is not a meaningless lonely journey to oblivion. Jesus “Easters” us every day when we let his love and guidance into ourselves and our lives as we struggle with our crosses of loss, hurt, or disordered living. We live Easter here and now imperfectly, but this Easter will be fully realized in the future in the Kingdom of God.

Icon of the Resurrection, by Surgun. Public Domain

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Posted by on Mar 24, 2015

The Resurrection of Christ and Planet Earth – It’s not all about us.

Growing Into an Adult Morality

Virtues fighting Vices - 14th Century window

Virtues fighting Vices      14th Century window

Fr. Bryan Massingale, in his workshop at the 2015 Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, “Virtues for Adult Christians”, explains that Christian morality is about decisions we make that are motivated by faith in Christ. They are a response to God’s prior gift of love and expressed in our choices and decisions about what we do and the kind of person we are.

Morality, like much of human experience, is different for children than for adults. Childhood is a time of formation and growth. Adulthood is a time of internalization of what has been learned and growth in wisdom. For children, morality is something that comes from the outside, tends to be phrased more negatively (“you may not…”), is based on rules and obedience, and is reinforced by fear or rewards. For adults, morality comes from within the person. It is a positive statement of who I am. Based on ideals and goals, it is virtue-centered. Virtues in this sense are good habits — attitudes and ways of being/acting that are positive responses to divine love. Adult morality is inspirational: becoming the best person I can be, the one God calls me to be.

Both approaches to morality are appropriate and Catholic. Children need rules and boundaries in order to learn and grow safely and securely. But in late adolescence and early adulthood, they need to grow and make what they have learned a positive part of who they are. Humans need to grow up morally as well as physically, because most of what we experience in our adult lives does not fit easily into the system of rules we learned as children. As Fr. Massingale noted, life is sloppy, complex, messy, and fascinating. Rules are for  perfect worlds: neat and precise! We expect more than rules can deliver and we want to be safe, but that’s not what adult life is about. Pope Francis tells us in The Joy of the Gospel (#39) that morality is more than rules and self-denial. It’s a response to the God of love.

Traditional lists of virtues are divided into two groups: Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope, Love) and Cardinal Virtues (Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, Justice). The Cardinal virtues are sometimes known as “hinge” virtues because others flow from them.

In contrast to the virtues, we also have lists of vices. Interestingly, the vices come in two versions: an excess or a lack of that quality that makes a virtue the good quality that it is. For example the vice that is opposite to Hope may be seen as Despair (too little hope) or as Arrogance (too much misplaced confidence).

Fr. Massingale suggests that for today’s adult Christians, a list of some contemporary virtues should include: Courage, Compassion, Self-Love, Forgiveness, and Wisdom. If these are missing, our lives get all messed up.

His presentation was recorded and is well worth taking the time to enjoy. (The video gets started slowly. Move the cursor on the bar to 21.15 for the beginning!)

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Posted by on Mar 16, 2015

The Resurrection of Christ and Planet Earth – It’s not all about us.

Metanoia — Transformation and Change

 

What does “Metanoia” Mean?

 “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may judge what is God’s will, what is good, acceptable and perfect.” (Rom 12:2)

Many of us have a desire for closeness to God and the realization of all that we can be. Those goals inevitably call us to change. But, change is hard. And often we feel that we cannot make it happen. In fact, we cannot and do not make it happen. As Christians we realize that God makes it happen. We can let  desire in. We can say “yes” to change even if it feels like an unknown path. We can push back fear and see the new possibilities as freedom from the past or as an adventure.  But even these are with God’s support. Left on our own, we humans fall into fear, laziness, and even anger that there is work involved in finding true happiness.

Why is growth toward happiness so much work? Is there a point to work? Why doesn’t God just give us feelings of happiness or all the material goods that would meet normal needs?

Created for Transcendence

In his love, God has created us to transcend our natural selves. He has built into his creation a sense of beauty and  love that goes far beyond the need to survive. As humans evolved from an un-self-reflective consciousness  to an ability to be self-reflective, they developed the ability to choose consciously and to know if an act is harmful to self or others.  This is a good and basic moral accomplishment, but the bigger task for humans has been to distinguish accomplishments from our fundamental orientation. Many of us work very hard at doing important and helpful things. We build our legacy goal by goal.

In the middle of all of this striving we inevitably hit such things as disappointment, tragedy, loneliness, thoughtlessness, health problems, and set-backs. We ask ourselves if all the effort is worth it. Do I matter? Does my life matter?

I can react with anger or ego and wrap myself up in accomplishments, money, or an attractive body. I often yell at God about why I have to work so hard to get things done. I always get back the same reply, “Because I love you.”  God loves me enough to invite me to work with my fear and my feelings of inadequacy and to let him help me through all the moments of planning and work. No one is going to hand me good relationships. But, my prayerful reflection on my relationships can improve them. I can let God calm me down. I can hear an inner voice suggesting a better way to talk or listen.

All of this hope and growth can happen if my fundamental orientation is to God. The desire to depend on God happens because I surrender to God and to God’s ways. The Bible speaks of the turn in fundamental orientation as “metanoia.”

Repentence or more?

The term “metanoia” appears 58 times in the New Testament.  It is usually translated as “repentance.” But, the translation as “repentance” is controversial. It can be traced back to a choice that had to be made when the text was translated for early Latin Christianity. There was no equivalent in Latin to the earlier Classical Greek meaning. Classical Greek understood it as a change of mind. Even if one narrows the word to repentance, it never in Greek usage had a sense of sorrow or regret. “Meta” means beyond or after and “noia” means mind.  Why is this search for precision important?

It is important because “metanoia,” even if translated  as repentance, is in the broader context of Jesus’ intention to announce the coming of the kingdom of God. There is a process in the Gospels by which people come to the Kingdom and salvation. It is a process of evangelism, encounter with God, enlightenment, conversion, repentance, decision, and a new self-identity which includes a change of belief and social structure.  Sorrow for sins is important and good, but the encounter with God and commitment to him is the only enduring basis for belief, change and perseverance. We see examples of this in the story of St. Peter’s responses to Jesus after the Resurrection (Jn 21:15-21) or the call of the disciples (Jn. 1:35-39).

Christ and Zacchaeus - Niels_Larsen_Stevns-_ZakæusA lasting “metanoia” or change happens because of an experience of God.

No one can define the nature of that experience. It is different for each person. It can be a sense of closeness such as that experienced by Mary, Martha and Lazarus (Lk. 10:38-42, Jn. 11:1-44) or an answer to prayer or the knowledge that one has been saved from a threat or entanglement as in the experience of Zacchaeus the tax collector (Lk. 19:1-10).  Some people have visions, others experience healings. For some a particular passage in Scripture sets their hearts on fire or they experience a feeling of consolation after receiving communion.

Metanoia: A gift for the entire community

Some Christian groups make a distinction between the metanoia and pursuant faith commitment of someone raised in the faith and the startling experience St. Paul had on the road to Damascus. There is no difference. People raised in a faith tradition can grow from learned traditions and rules to an experience of God. It can be quite eye-opening. Many are not counting on knowing Christ. The practice of prayer can provide strength and guidance, but experience of God is the possible and expected point of prayer. This is not just for the canonized saints. God can re-frame our accustomed ways. This is metanoia. It is a turning or conversion which takes our consent, but it is a gift.

Give God some time to meet you in prayer. Read the Gospels and put yourself in the stories. Consider giving your life to God and let him lead you to your experience of him, to your metanoia.

 

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Posted by on Jan 21, 2015

Martin Luther King, Jr. — A Gift of One’s Self

Martin Luther King, Jr. — A Gift of One’s Self

 

January 19, 2105 is the Martin Luther King holiday in the United States. The first reading of the day in the lectionary is Hebrews 5: 1-10. Christ’s adherence to the will of the Father has led Him on a path of suffering, death and glorification. Dr, King took this path of God’s will to which we are all called.

“In the days when he was in the Flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” – Hebrews 5: 5-10

The Feast of Martin Luther King, Jr is not a feast of the Roman calendar, but it is a national holiday to celebrate a civil rights leader and a Baptist minister who advocated non-violence. Today is a tribute to all who work for human and civil rights for African-Americans and all people. Many of us are of an age to remember the Reverend King. The three television networks brought us live coverage in black and white of the marches, the sit-ins, and the fire hoses and police dogs that were part of the black struggle against white oppression. There was the famous “I have a dream speech” at the Lincoln Memorial. The haunting last speech before Dr. King was gunned down, “I Have Been to the Mountain Top” in which he saw the promised land of freedom, “I may not get there with you but I have seen it.”

Like all of us, Dr. King was an imperfect human being. Like all of us he was a sinner, but his redemption, like ours, is based in obedience to Christ, the source of eternal salvation for all. We know that precisely because Jesus is the Son of God, His will is perfectly aligned with that of the Father. Since Jesus was truly divine and truly human, his obedience came at a human cost. “In the days when he was in the Flesh, he offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death, AND HE WAS HEARD because of His Reverence.

In his work of announcing the kingdom, healing the sick, feeding the multitudes, Jesus did not shy away from doing the will of his Father. But he knew where his call was leading. It became more and more obvious that if he stayed true to the person he was — the Divine Word become human — that His hands that had been raised in blessing and healing would be nailed to the cross. With loud cries and tears he asks the Father to take this cup away, but he is true to his calling and the will of the Father. “Let not my will be done but yours.” It is through this obedience that Jesus goes to his excruciating death on the cross and to the glory of the resurrection. He WAS HEARD because of His Reverence.

For Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi, all Christian saints and martyrs, and ourselves, this call to obedience is not only a question of observing certain commandments but a deeper call to be the person God created us to be, to be at one with God, to hear at one with God, to accept God’s truth about our mission in life to advance the kingdom of heaven.

There were many black leaders in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Dr. King didn’t need to have such a high profile in the movement. Yet it was something that Dr. King was drawn into despite all of the obvious risks to himself and his family. He was born and raised in Atlanta in a strictly segregated society. Dr. King knew what happened to black people who broke the rules. He certainly could have taken an easier type of ministry, but he heard the Word of God, the Will of the Father for his life and his death.

Most of us think that we are not called to such types of work. We are certain that God’s will for us involves something less “glamorous,” nothing so heroic as what Jesus and the saints like Mother Teresa and Dr. King did. But I wonder. All of us have that little voice within us to do something special, something only we can do, but we know that it will cost us. Dr. King used his gift of oratory, of speaking and preaching, to give voice to the prayers and aspirations of the millions enslaved and oppressed using the language, song, and rhythm that the Spirit had given them in their bondage and oppression.

Many of us see fewer years ahead of us than the ones that have fled so swiftly. The babies we held are now grown adults with their own babies. What are we called to do to announce the Kingdom of Heaven and to make it a reality? What can we do to end poverty, hunger, oppression, and violence? How do we draw closer to God and each other in prayer? How do we move toward reconciliation and forgiveness?

We can only do it if we take the time to be quiet and to listen — to pay attention to that little voice that comes to us or the massive cry that comes to us in outrage at the atrocities of the world visited upon the young, the poor, the defenseless. There is a price to be paid, and eternal life to be gained.

 

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Posted by on Dec 18, 2014

The Resurrection of Christ and Planet Earth – It’s not all about us.

Incarnation: Why Is It Important to Us?

Christ the Savior -Pantocrator
What does the Incarnation mean and why is it important to us?

“Incarnation” literally means “to put into flesh.” In the case of Christ, the term points to the differences among a sacred being who could have been a guest in the created and physical world, one who was united to the physical world, and one who became physical while yet also remaining sacred.   Christ is the latter. He is fully human and fully divine.

Why did God speak his love for us so completely that his talk to the Earth became the enfleshment of the Second Person of the Trinity?

The main reason is that God’s self-communication to us in the natural world (within our minds and consciences) and in divine revelation to the Jewish people (in writings known as the Bible) had not brought humans to justice, compassion and holiness. The historical context of Jesus in first century Palestinian life was the perfect time, place and culture in which the precursors to exceptional human insight and conversion were in place. The fact of sin had by then been explored. The need for salvation was painfully obvious.

Jesus was not a second rate emanation from God. He also was not just a new face or action of a non-Trinitarian God. He is “begotten not made.” He is “one with the Father and the Holy Spirit.” He is the Earthly reality of the pre-existent second person of the eternal Trinity. So, because of these facts, Jesus is a reality that confronted both the Greek and the Jewish worlds of his day: the worlds of multiple and separate deities and the world of one, single sacred reality.

As one of the three persons of the Trinity Jesus shared the divine essence and inter-communication, but in the mystery of the Incarnation his full humanity caused his awareness of this to lie in the background of his consciousness. He learned, planned, acted, and suffered just as we do. He was a fully human person who thought, prayed and regretted as we do. He assumed all the joys and indignities of this life. He was like us “in all things but sin.” He took it all on and therefore redeemed it all. He let evil have the final word in the Earthly sense and then surrendered to the Father who made it good.

What Jesus did was not just good in his regard but rather, because he was fully human and divine, he transformed humanness. He brought humanity into a completely new state and relationship with the Trinity. With God’s grace we are both redeemed and able to know it.

We are called to be like God (Genesis 1). We are called to rejoice in the Incarnation and give profound thanks because we can know and love God and grow in closeness to him.

 

For more on this topic, read:
“Incarnation” from the Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramundi Mundi.

A Christological Catechism: New Testament Answers, by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, SJ
Elizabeth A. Johnson’s  Consider Jesus is also excellent.

Image: Christ the Savior (Pantocrator), 6th century image from St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mt Sinai

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Posted by on Aug 29, 2014

The Resurrection of Christ and Planet Earth – It’s not all about us.

Church: Organizing as a Community

Models of Church

A conversation overheard recently in the locker room of our local gym led me to consider the concept of community more deeply: what living as community implies, how our relationship with God shapes our lives, and how all of these are reflected in the way we structure our community.

Two women were visiting as they changed back into street clothes to leave the gym. One was Jewish and the other was from a small, evangelical Christian community. They seemed to be continuing a conversation they had begun on the exercise machines earlier that afternoon. We’ll call the Jewish woman Miriam and the Christian one Carol. Carol was describing her small church community. She noted that there had been some stress recently as the community dealt with a difference of opinion over what to believe and how to respond to a controversial issue. She expressed her opinion that it shouldn’t really be a serious problem for her church community because the important thing was that each person believe in Jesus and accept Him as Savior. The relationship is between the individual and Jesus.

Miriam did not agree with Carol that a personal relationship with God is all that is needed. She explained that she is Jewish and for Jews the fundamental relationship is between the community as a group and their God. Simply having a personal relationship with God does not suffice. Worship and relationship with God occur in a community and together have concrete implications and results for the community. They are not separate realities.

As an anthropologist, I found the conversation fascinating. I’d have loved to hear more, but they continued on their way and I was left to ponder community and our relationship with God.

A Faith Based in Community

Not too long ago, Carol’s beliefs might not have been all that unusual to hear expressed within Catholic circles as well. While Catholics have not traditionally believed that simply accepting Jesus as personal Lord and Savior will guarantee admission to Heaven, we have at times forgotten how deeply our responsibilities to the community of all human beings is tied to our salvation. We often forget that our faith began in Jewish faith and tradition. We come before God as a community of people, responsible to and for each other.

More recently, with a return to a greater focus on God as Trinity, the idea of each individual standing alone does not explain who we are quite as well. God is one, yet God is Trinity. Self-knowledge, the Word that expresses and embodies that self-knowledge, and the total loving acceptance of the reality as known and expressed, all swirl around in the reality of one God,  a God dancing  in beautiful harmony.

We live in the midst of the Divine Community as members of Christ’s Body. We meet Christ in and through each other. We share together in the Body and Blood of Christ. And we are responsible to care for each other, including the least loveable among us, because Jesus is there … “Whatsoever you do …”

Living in Community

How, then, do we live in community? What organizational models would be best for us as a community? How can our communal life best support our own journey of faith and growth in holiness? How does community bring us closer to God?

Cardinal Avery Dulles, SJ, in Models of the Church,  suggests that our community, the Church, can be better understood in term of six different models. The one that comes to the fore at any given moment will differ, based on the needs of the community in that moment. Each has strengths and each has weaknesses. Together they offer a picture of a vibrant community. Cardinal Dulles’ models reflect the images of church presented in the Documents of the Second Vatican Council, particularly Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope) The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World and Lumen Gentium (Light of Nations) The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church. The First Vatican Council (1869-1870) emphasized the self-contained nature of the Church as an institution sufficient unto itself – a “perfect society”. Vatican II (1962-1965) focused on the Church in its relationship to the modern world including non-Catholics, and non-Christians.

Church as Institution: In this model, the focus is on the administrative role of Church leaders. The Pope, bishops, priests, and deacons (collectively known as clerics) are responsible to teach what the community has come to believe and understand about God. They help the community to become more holy (sanctified), more in tune with divine life, through the administration of the sacraments. Finally, clerics are responsible to set the standards for faith and morals, to govern or rule the church community. In their role as rulers, clerics have many of the same kinds of responsibilities as the civil authorities who govern our towns and countries.

Church as Community (The Body of Christ): In this model, the Church is a community of believers who worship together and through their faith and worship become both a sign of the union of God with humans and an instrument through which the union occurs.

Church as Sacrament: A sacrament is the visible form of an invisible grace, a grace that brings about the reality towards which the form or symbols/actions point. As Catholics, we recognize and celebrate seven formal Sacraments as part of our lives as Church. However, the Church also teaches that the source and authority for our seven sacraments actually comes from Jesus as the Sacrament of God and the Church as the Sacrament of Christ. The community (the church) is to be a sign of God’s grace in the world as Jesus was. With the help of the grace of God, we are made holy in Christ.

Church as Herald: This model is focused on the Word of God.  We are called to hear God’s word and keep it, putting our faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior and then sharing that faith with our world. This is much more like the model Carol (in our example above) would find familiar. The Word comes to us both to transform our lives and to be passed on to others as Good News.

Church as Servant: In this model, the church’s role is to serve those in need of help directly and work to change social and political institutions that promote injustice. The church is in the world and serves the human community, but its service is one with a spiritual foundation rather than a strictly secular one. We as community serve in imitation of the Lord who washed His disciples’ feet and called those at the lowest rungs of society His sisters and brothers.

Church as School of Discipleship: The final model was developed after the first edition of  Dulles’ work was published. It recognizes that to be followers of Jesus requires the community and its members to continue to learn what it means to be a Christian and members of a Christian community. In this school of discipleship, we are informed, we are formed, and we are transformed; all as part of the process of learning and growing in faith.

For a summary of the characteristics of each model see Fr. Yeo’s presentation on SlideShare.

The Organization Supports the Life and Faith of the Community

Which of these models is correct? None of them! Each offers important insights and helps describe the experience of Christian life in community. Even within one individual parish community, some will experience that life more in terms of one of the models than in terms of the others. Is that bad? I don’t think so. God created a world of wonderfully different people, each with special gifts needed by our world. Those gifts and our experience of them may lead us to favor one or another of the models of Church. But if we are honest, we would be a much poorer and more limited community if we did not embrace the richness that multiple models offer. After all, God is infinitely creative and loving. No human model could ever hope to define conclusively the limits of what God’s communal life  actually is. Yet we live within that divine community, continually loved into existence. So we move through our lives in this great community, with first one model and then another taking the lead. With the grace of God, we’ll all muddle through and reach our final goal: union with God.

For a more detailed summary of Cardinal Dulles’ models and other useful materials visit Young Adult CLC .

 

 

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Posted by on May 11, 2012

The Resurrection of Christ and Planet Earth – It’s not all about us.

Blessed Julian of Norwich Feast Day — “All is Well”

 

Julian of Norwich - Stained Glass Window from Church

 

May 13 is the unofficial Feast Day of Julian of Norwich, the English mystic and saint of the Middle Ages.  We cannot be sure of her birth and dates but she lived approximately from 1342-1416.  Her lifespan and location were situated in times of great distress in England.  Three waves of the Black Death had swept over England and Norwich was particularly hard hit as it was a commercial center, especially of the wool-textile trade with the Netherlands, which brought with it the bacteria from the Continent.  Julian was an anchoress at the church of St. Julian.  We have a historical record of people visiting her for advice and prayers.  We do not know why she was not canonized by the Catholic Church.  One reason is likely that she left behind relatively few writings.  Another is likely because her writings contained teachings that would have been considered controversial by some scholars.  Teachings about Christ as mother and that God sees our sins as a way for us to learn about ourselves would have offended or worried many clerics of her day.

In 1373 we read that Julian had 16 visions in which she was saw and heard revelations related to God, creation, evil, sin,  salvation, and the human person. She recorded these revelations at the time and then some 20 years later produced a longer version, called the Long Text, in which she integrated the many thoughts communicated to her by Christ about the meaning of the 16 visions and locutions.

Julian is optimistic in a time of when people questioned the goodness of life and how God regarded them.  She recorded that Christ said to her that “All will be well and all is well.” She explains how all can and will be well. Julian also recounts wonderfully warm images of us and Christ who holds us tenderly and celebrates us as his “crown.”

Another reason to celebrate this great saint is that she is believed to be the first woman to write a book in the English language.  She is also a pioneer, with Chaucer, in creating literature in Middle English.  After many years of Norman control of England, the French and their language were driven out.  The English language had degenerated into a language of the lower classes with a very poor vocabulary.  Julian is responsible for creating many new and very useful words to articulate her scholarly theological presentations and to give colorful descriptions of what she saw in the visions.

Julian’s texts, which she referred to as the “shewings” (Showings in contemporary libraries), are very inspiring and provide satisfying answers to many questions which Christians have.

Image of Stained Glass Window borrowed from Satucket Lectionary entry for the Feast of Julian of Norwich

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