Saturday, April 20, 2019

LEARNING FROM THE WOMEN

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THE PROBLEM

Easter seems like a lot of hollow words sometimes -- Christ conquering sin and death and so forth. It’s sort of happy, certainly, but also vague. It’s not terribly real; it’s about Christ, but not about me. It doesn’t feel as if it’s part of my world. I’d like to offer a perspective that I’ve found helpful: Experience the easter event through the eyes of their women in the Gospels.


A PERSPECTIVE: THE WOMEN


In Luke's gospel there are several women who are part of Jesus' entourage, traveling with him from Galilee ministering to his needs, and remaining at his side right through the fateful journey up to Jerusalem. They watch him suffer and die on the cross, and follow his corps to the tomb to see that it is properly taken care of.


They are his personal friends, and have committed their lives to him. When they come to the tomb that Sunday morning with spices to finish anointing the body, they were grieving terribly -- this was their personal friend who had died. This was nothing vague for them, because Jesus was not vague or distant. And this is the key: Jesus was a real person to them, who had made a difference in their lives. 

Has Jesus ever made a difference in your life? What about the way you talk to Him or relate to Him? Does he affect the way you spend your money or use your possessions? Have his words ever touched you and changed you? Have you allowed Jesus to take control of your life?

These women are, according to all four gospels, the first witnesses to the empty tomb. The fact that the body is not there doesn't of itself lead to faith. Stand next to the holy women as things seem to be going from bad to worse for them. Not only is Jesus dead, but now they can't find his body to anoint it. Have you ever stood perplexed in front of some event in your life that makes no sense? A serious illness, say, or a death, or a divorce? What do you do then? Well, stay with the women and watch what happens next.

REMEMBERING YOUR FRIEND

In Mark's account, two men appear and say to them "You need not be amazed! You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth whom they crucified. He has been raised up. He is not here." Then the announcement takes on the tone of a rebuke: Why are you looking among the dead for one who is alive? He is not here. He is risen. Remember what he said to you while he was in Galilee." This is not just a mechanical bringing to mind, for the women it is a form of presence of their friend, and they do remember, and they come to belief.

Then the empty tomb is transformed from an unsettling puzzle to a source of consolation; it suddenly makes sense -- it's what Jesus promised, it has a "shape." No matter what it looks like at the moment, said Jesus, this is God's victory plan!

Remember what he said to you. When things look bleak, when you keep trying and nothing works, when you feel lost in the wilderness, remember what he said to you: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give your rest." "For man it is impossible, but nothing is impossible for God." "I will not leave you orphans."

Easter is the time to look at an empty tomb in your life and remember. Not just a mechanical calling to mind, but a vibrant, life-affirming "Aha!" kind of remembering. Stand with the women at the empty tomb on Easter morning and remember what your friend promised to you.
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Have a Blessed Easter!
  

Friday, April 12, 2019

PALMS AND PROCESSIONS

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PALMS AND PROCESSIONS 


The following are some ideas I first posted in 2012, and then again last year. I found them helpful when I reread them this morning, so I've decided to post them again.

The idea of a Palm Sunday procession originated, not surprisingly, in Jerusalem where 
people could really have the sense of re-enacting various events of Jesus’ passion and death in the very places where they had occurred. It was well established by the fourth century: a large crowd, including lots of children singing “Hosanna,” preceded the bishop on a long walk from the top of the Mount of Olives into and across Jerusalem into a church to celebrate mass. It’s easy to see how such a ritual would capture people’s imaginations; and by the ninth century there were Palm Sunday processions in Spain and Gaul. The custom would take root in Rome only in the eleventh century. The actual rituals of the blessing of palms and the procession varied quite widely from place to place. The blessing of the palms could be very elaborate, for example, while in some places the bishop would imitate Christ by riding in procession on a donkey. Last year on Palm Sunday I posted some thoughts about the custom in some countries of having a statue of Christ on a donkey that was rolled along in the procession.


MISLEADING RITUALS


The detailed ritual re-enacting of various sacred actions of the gospel, begun in Jerusalem and spreading throughout the Christian world, while it is appealing to many people, also poses a danger: we can begin to think of each episode as a separate stand-alone event without seeing it as part of the single “paschal mystery” of suffering-death-resurrection.


A good example of this unfortunate splitting up of the paschal mystery is the popular devotion called the fourteen “Stations of the Cross.” These meditations follow Jesus’ passion from his condemnation by Pontius Pilate through his death and burial, and end (incredibly!) with Jesus’ lying dead in the tomb. To stop the story at that point is not only misleading, it’s almost blasphemous. Worse, it implies that you and I can or should look at our own suffering and pain apart from Jesus’ triumphant victory over suffering and death at Easter. That’s real bad theology! Presently when the stations are celebrated in public, the service often ends with a sort of “fifteenth station,” a brief meditation on the resurrection – i.e. the event which gives all of the events of Christ’s suffering and death their ultimate MEANING.


A similar unfortunate separation of the resurrection from the suffering and death of Christ is reflected in the history of the so-called “holy triduum.”


THE SACRED TRIDUUM


The expression “holy triduum” or “sacred triduum” originally referred to the three days of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Easter was an integral and essential part of the “holy week” celebration. Saint Augustine, for instance, refers to this triduum in the fifth century. Toward the middle of the seventh century, however, a commemoration of the Last Supper was introduced on Holy Thursday at Rome (where that day had previously been mostly the day for reconciliation of penitents). This new commemoration caused an unfortunate shifting of days: the “triduum” then became Thursday-Friday-Saturday, and Easter was cut completely out of the picture! The triduum became a self-contained unit involving only Jesus’ suffering and death.


This new arrangement is misleading and could very easily distract at least some people from the full MEANING of Christ’s suffering and death (which, after all mean nothing without the resurrection). The church has revised her rituals and her language in recent years to try to counter that misconception. The official language in the church’s calendar, for example, now refers to “the Easter Triduum of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection,” which begins only with the evening mass of the Lord’s Supper, thus restoring the original unity of suffering and resurrection.


IT’S NOT ABOUT THE PALM BRANCHES


The ceremonies of Palm Sunday can still be misunderstood in that fragmented way mentioned above by making the blessed palms the center of attention. I once saw a pastor being set upon by angry parishioners complaining vehemently that the ushers at the side door of the church were distributing smaller pieces of palm than the ushers at the main door. This outrage would color or even define their whole experience of Holy Week that year!


Try to consider Palm Sunday from the original perspective in which the events of Holy Week including Easter were not seen as reenactments of a disjointed series of events but rather as the celebration of a single unity known as the “paschal event.” Here, too, the church since Vatican II has helped us to correct our vision by revising the rituals of Palm Sunday. First, note that its official name is no longer “Palm Sunday” but “Palm Sunday of The Lord's Passion.” The preceding Sunday, formerly called "Passion Sunday" has been given back its original name, “The Fifth Sunday of Lent.” Centuries ago the Church began emphasizing Christ's sufferings and so pushed "passiontide" further back into Lent, usurping the Fifth Sunday and naming it "Passion Sunday." The Sundays in Lent, however, are clearly intended to prepare us for the resurrection. This idea is obvious when you notice that the gospel for the Fifth Sunday (that we used to call "Passion Sunday") tells the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead. Sounds like a resurrection theme to me!


Secondly, besides the name change, there are the various prayers, blessings and options for the procession that now help us to focus on the more important theme of the Palm Sunday ritual, the procession. The actual blessing of the palms is limited to a brief introduction and a short prayer of blessing, teaching us that “Palm Sunday” is not about the blessing and carrying of palms that are to be brought home as almost magical tokens disconnected from anything about the Paschal mystery.


The true perspective is reflected in the fact that the blessing of the palms should be held someplace besides the sanctuary, preferably outside the church building, so that there can be a procession. There are even a couple of options for the entry into the church so as to encourage the use of a procession even in less convenient circumstances. The emphasis is where it should be: we as the People of God are accompanying the Messiah on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem where he will suffer and die and RISE again.


Thirdly, the sacramentary helps us to focus on the paschal mystery as a whole by opening the ceremonies of Palm Sunday with the priest's saying these words:


“Dear friends in Christ, for five weeks of Lent we have been preparing, by works of charity and self-sacrifice, for the celebration of our Lord’s paschal mystery. Today we come together to begin this solemn celebration in union with the whole Church throughout the word, Christ entered in triumph into his own city, to complete his work as our Messiah: to suffer, to die, and to RISE AGAIN. Let us remember with devotion this entry which began his saving work and follow him with a lively faith. United with him in his suffering on the cross, may we share his resurrection and new life.”

Notice the various emphases:
1. We have been preparing to celebrate the “paschal mystery” (passion-death-resurrection as a single event).
2. We are doing this as a community, in union with the Church throughout the world.
3. Christ is about to complete his Messianic work “to suffer, to die, and to rise again.”



A fourth help to keeping focused on the unity of Holy Week and Easter is found in the mass readings. During the mass we will listen to the reading of the passion, but this is preceded by the second reading from Philippians that includes these lines that combine the passion and the resurrection:


“he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:8-11).


MY SCRUFFY PROCESSION


So when I preside at the Palm Sunday mass in one of the seedier neighborhoods in Newark I will be conscious of marching up to Jerusalem with Jesus in company with the whole Church throughout the world. In our procession will be many Spanish-speaking immigrants, some suburban white folks who come to help the sisters serve Sunday dinner to the poor, and there will be some homeless and hungry people, too, along with AIDS patients and recovering addicts. It’s these last folks that will truly appreciate knowing that we are going with Jesus not just to SUFFER with him on Friday; no, we are very definitely walking with Jesus in order also to RISE again with him on Easter Sunday. And we’ll all join our voices in welcoming our Savior, singing 
Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
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Romare Bearden  "Palm Sunday Procession" (1967)



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Saturday, April 6, 2019

"TWO STEPS BACK" BIBLE

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"We hear his footsteps in the treetops"
There was this Christian missionary who found himself deep in the jungle, meeting with the chief of the village. The missionary asked him,  “Do your people believe in God?”The chief lowered his voice almost to a whisper, and replied, "In the evening we hear the sound of his footsteps in the treetops, but we stay away."  God is by nature unknowable to us humans with our limited intellects. So, the Lord has to reveal himself to us. One of the central beliefs of Jews and Christians is that God does this is through Sacred Scripture, “revelation.” So it’s obviously important to get scripture right; but unfortunately, we often don’t do so! I’d like to offer a couple of basic ideas in this post that might help us to read the bible so as to get the message that the Lord intended.

First, although the bible is a collection of 72 different books with various authors, written over a period of a thousand years, it needs to be read as a unity: From the first verse of Genesis to the final verse of the Book of Revelation, the bible is always heading in one single direction, toward love and unity.

But, and here’s the second point, the bible is written by human beings and is rooted in time and space, bounded by the writer’s specific culture. One scholar said that the bible is “a document in travail.”  We shouldn’t think of it as a book that is finished, and  that we can just read it the way we read a cookbook or a newspaper. This is important: like any human endeavor, biblical revelation doesn’t proceed in a nice, smooth straight line It has a definite  direction, a goal, of course,leading toward the final fulfillment of God’s love, a New Heavens and a New Earth. But it proceeds toward that goal in typical human fashion by taking three steps forward and two steps back.

We can easily recognize the “three steps forward:” E.g. When God has delivers his people through the Red Sea, or brings them into the promised land and they enjoy the first crops in the new country -- this is God being faithful. We see three steps forward toward the goal. When the Word becomes flesh in Bethlehem, or when Jesus gives himself up out of love, to take conquers death itself to save us. Clearly these are events that bring us three steps forward.

But what about the two steps back? The steps that lead in the opposite direction from the goal of love and unity? They’re easy to spot, too. They’re the ones in which God acts like a human! The God of vengeance, who keeps score so he can get back at people. The God of justice, who demands that justice be done. We can relate to this God: he’s like us!

Just yesterday I read about the rioting in South Africa between rival tribes after apartheid was ended.
Imagine a person inside -- It's hell.
Both sides had this thing called “necklacing,” in which people would hold somebody down and slip a tire over his torso, pinning his arms at his side, and then set the tire on fire. When I read that I said to myself, “Oh yeah! That’s what God does to sinners! Hell!" The passages in the bible that talk about this kind of a God are in the “two steps back” column. Some of us good Christians are very reluctant to let go of this very understandable God. We want God to mete out strict justice to everyone: “You break, you pay!”

Some of us get nervous with the "three-steps-forward" God like the Father we meet in the parable of the Prodigal Son. We say to ourselves,  “I know what I would have done if I were that father.” But Jesus came to tell us “Well, you are not that Father, his ways are far above your ways. His love overpowers every other consideration.”  All a sinner needs to do is turn around (repent) and show up at the father's doorstep. No necklacing, no getting out the account ledger to add up your sins.

Three steps forward
And when someone objects, “Hey, necklacing is in the bible, and so is the fact that white people are superior to the sons of Ham, and that we should destroy people who don’t believe in our God!” Jesus gently urges that person to let go of the easily-understandable two-steps-back pages of the bible, and embrace the more difficult mysterious passages, the ones that reveal to us a God who is so loving, so beautiful that He's incomprehensible to us, 

Let's all pray for one another, that the "three-steps-forward" passages in the bible may lead all of us together toward the final goal of infinite, everlasting all-inclusive Love, the Kingdom of God, where we hope to live together with Him as one loving family forever and ever.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

MY WIDENING CIRCLES

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One week ago today I celebrated my 50th anniversary of priestly ordination. The mass and the buffet
Kids get up close at mass
Grand-niece Gracie helps cut the cake
following it were truly joy-filled. They were as filled with joy as I was with gratitude. Gratitude to God, and also to all the relatives and friends who have been loving and supporting me along the way. Someone reminded me that a "jubilee" in the bible lasts for a whole year, so I started wondering what this coming year might mean for me. I didn't have long to wait for one good answer. 

Someone gave me a book of beautiful poems by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, entitled Rilke's Book of Hours. which includes the original German as well as the lovely English translations. (Click on the link above to get a quick biography of him.)

I opened to the second poem in the book, and was immediately given a new way of seeing the jubilee year. First, here's the entire poem:

Widening Circles

I live my life in widening circles
that reach out across the world.
I may not complete this last one
but I give myself to it.

I circle around God, around the primordial tower.

I’ve been circling for thousands of years
and I still don’t know: am I a falcon,
a storm, or a great song?


The opening two lines swept me up in a spacious embrace of love and optimism. Instead of seeing my life as starting its inevitable decline that poets, playwrights and physiologists often dwell on, Rilke gave me a different and opposite way to look at my life: Just when so many factors are suggesting that the beautiful circles of my life should be starting to grow smaller, Rilke offers me the idea that I live my life in widening circles / that reach out across the world. The "ever-widening circles" of my life are already touching the infinite! I circle around God, around the primordial tower. /
I’ve been circling for thousands of years


And the third and fourth lines of the poem had a particularly pointed message for me at this anniversary time, [my loose translation]: Maybe I won't complete the circle I'm currently on, but I'll still continue pursuing my path. In Rilke's vision, the end won't come with a fiery crash, nor with a bang nor a whimper. The "end" involves being swept up in the outermost of those ever-expanding circles, the one I'm already living in, until I touch the infinite, endless circle of God's love, of Jesus' embrace. But meanwhile, my task as a Christian doesn't change: I still live my life in ever-growing circles of love that embrace all of creation and, paradoxically, even God himself.

So, last Saturday's beautiful jubilee celebration of God's love and faithfulness, shared by two-hundred relatives and friends, has taken on further meaning. You know how aerospace engineers will make a rocket fly near a planet so as to make use of that body's gravitational pull to give the rocket a "boost," increasing its speed as it zooms past? It's called a "gravity assist." Well, I consider my jubilee celebration as a "gravity assist" to help me to widen the ever-expanding circle of my life.

Pray for me that the gravity assist will keep working!

Here's the original German:

Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen,
A small circle -- Group hug!
die sich über die Dinge ziehn.Ich werde den letzten vielleicht nicht vollbringen,
aber versuchen will ich ihn.

Ich kreise um Gott, um den uralten Turm,
und ich kreise jahrtausendelang;
und ich weiß noch nicht: bin ich ein Falke, ein Sturm
oder ein großer Gesang.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

TO BE BREAD

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This has been a busy few days, especially yesterday, Saturday, as I celebrated the 50th anniversary of my priestly ordination. Here's the homily I gave at the jubilee mass. Several people came up to me afterwards and said that they found it very effective, so I'm sharing it with you.


I once read a story that at the end of World War II Europe was left with thousands of orphans - babies whose parents had been killed in the war. Doctors, nurses and other caregivers set about trying to help these half-starved children to heal both physically and emotionally.

They immediately discovered that a lot of these children couldn’t fall asleep at night.Besides the terrible nightmares, and the frightening memories of pain and separation, it turned out that these little ones, who had almost died of starvation, were terribly afraid of going hungry again. They were haunted by the question: Will there be anything to eat tomorrow? Simply put, they were worried that there wouldn’t be any food the next morning when they woke up.



So, the story goes that one day a nurse got an idea: The next night, as she was tucking the children into bed, she gave each of them a little loaf of bread to hold onto -- and it worked! The little victims of near-starvation fell asleep peacefully, clutching their loaves. That bread was a promise that there would be something to eat tomorrow,
     We’re here this morning celebrating, as we do at every Eucharist, the bread of Promise: It’s a special way  Jesus has of fulfilling his pledge: “ I will be with you always, until the end of time.”  He gave us the Eucharist with the command:  “Do this in memory of me.”
       

And so, for almost 2,000 years Christians have been repeating this ritual in which we make present in a mysterious way Christ’s self-sacrificing love. The church keeps faithfully repeating the ritual keeps making the mystery real again, even in the midst of terrible trials and troubles. Over the centuries the Lord has been with his Church: in the 1,000’s, when Christendom was split down the middle between Easter and Western Churches, or in 15127 when the Protestant Reformation tore western Christendom apart. What is there about us that makes some of us say "Your ideas are different from mine, therefore I must kill you?" Through all her trials, the Church kept listening to Christ’s voice encouraging us,

“Trust me, just keep on repeating this ritual,
Of my self-giving love, until the next time I come,

So that’s what we do: in faith and trust in God, Christians all around the world keep on gathering around the table just the way we are gathered here this morning: To make Christ present on the altar, to celebrate the bread of promise,  and thank the Lord for His gifts.

But today we’re celebrating a specific example of God’s loving faithfulness: You’re joining me in thanking God for being faithful to me during  5o years of priestly service. The word Eucharist, after all, means “Thanksgiving.”
        
Yet there’s a lot more going on here than simply commemorating Christ’s sacrifice, more to it than “giving thanks.” When we come to the banquet and share in the bread, the body and blood of Christ, We are transformed: we become what we receive. The old saying has it, “You are what you eat!” Christ, who has has become our bread on the altar, calls us by this sacrament to love as he loves.  

On a 50th anniversary of someone’s priestly ordination we expect to hear the  word “vocation,”  we automatically think of “priestly vocation” or a “religious vocation” of a nun or a monk. But the rest of you here this morning are not going to get off that easily!
 
 The first line of this morning’s  second reading, when Paul says: “I implore
you to lead a life worthy of your vocation.”  he’s talking to all the baptized Christians in Ephesus. And he tells them that all of them have the same vocation: He says,  “Bear with one another charitably, in complete selflessness, gentleness and patience.”

So you see, this is NOT a priestly or religious vocation, rather, it’s the vocation of each one of us here this morning. Each of us has a share in this one same vocation. Listen to Paul describe your calling further:
“Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit
by the peace that binds you together.
There is one body, one spirit,
One Lord, one faith, one baptism. One God Father of all …”

He goes on to explain how this works for baptized Christians:
“Each of us has been given his own share of grace,
given as Christ allotted it:
And he gave some as Apostles, others as prophets,
others as evangelists, others as pastors and teachers,”
      
So there’s a wonderful variety of different callings, different vocations in  the church at Ephesus, just as there is a wonderful variety of different callings, different vocations  in this community assembled here this morning: Some are parents, others priests, some are monks or religious, others are called to the single state.

And now Paul goes on to describe the purpose, the point of our common vocation; listen to this beautiful passage because it’s about you:
“So that the saints together make a unity in the work of service.   for building up the Body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of faith and knowledge of the Son of God, until we become the perfect Man, fully mature in fullness of Christ himself.”

Did you hear that? We together become the “perfect man,”  we become Christ!
This is also the message of  the sacrament of the Eucharist. This is our calling as Christians: together we are to become CHRIST! This is our sacred vocation:to BECOME BREAD FOR ONE ANOTHER But not just for one another in our comfortable closed circle. Today, when the human family is being torn apart by the forces of hatred and violence, and splintered almost, it would seem, beyond repair, the world needs us, more than ever, to BE BREAD FOR ONE ANOTHER! More than ever, we, His body the Church, are called to be an example to the world: called to be a community of love that is always looking outward toward others who may not look like us, who may not sound like us, or think like us.
WE ARE TO BECOME BREAD OF PROMISE FOR THEM!
WE ARE TO BECOME BREAD FOR THE WHOLE WORLD!

So, as we celebrate this morning God’s loving faithfulness in supporting me in my vocation, remember that the Lord is supporting you in your vocation as well, which is basically the same vocation as mine: To build up the body of Christ, help bring about the Kingdom on earth.

O God of Faithfulness, I thank you for being so wonderfully  good to me during fifty years of priestly service; grant that all of my family and friends who are gathered here to celebrate with me, may be strengthened in their vocations as well.  Help us all to continue faithfully being bread for one another and for the whole world. Through Christ Our Lord. Amen.

 

Saturday, March 16, 2019

CELEBRATE WHAT?

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I was ordained a priest on March 22, 1969. After some sophisticated mathematical computation I
concluded that next Friday, March 22, 2019, will be the 50th anniversary of my ordination. We're going to mark the event on the following day, Saturday (one week from today) with a mass and a buffet luncheon in the school dining hall for about 200 relatives and friends.

Now I'm trying to figure out exactly what it is that we'll be celebrating. The obvious answer is that Fr. Albert's been a priest for fifty years. Okay, but why does this fact call for a celebration? I'll start with a list of reasons, some or all of which may be good ones:

Because Albert has made it to his 50th without dying.
Because God has given him the gift of serving as a priest for fifty years.
Because God has been faithful to him.
Because God has given him the grace to be faithful to God in return.

All the good reasons I can think of begin with the word "God." So, this is really a celebration of God's unbounded, mysterious goodness to a certain monk-priest in a small monastery in downtown Newark, New Jersey.

When I hear a person say "I'm not celebrating my anniversary, I don't like making a fuss about myself" I get upset and I think to myself, "It's not about you, darn it! It's a chance for the community to come together and celebrate how good God is, to celebrate the Lord's faithfulness! Are you saying that God doesn't deserve a special celebration now and then for being so kind and loving to us?"

People who know me well know that I have a big fat ego that would enjoy having a big celebration in my honor. But sorry, ego, the party next Saturday can't possibly be about you! After all, what have I had to do with the fact that I've been a priest for fifty years? Any answer you give I can restate it in terms of a gift from God (look at the list I started with above): The Lord has given me the grace to be faithful to my vocation. The Lord has given me health of body and mind so that I can continue to serve as a priest for so many years.


So, I don't see this jubilee celebration as an award ceremony for Outstanding Priestly Achievement. No, it's more like a party thrown by someone who wants to celebrate with his friends that he has won the Mega-Million Dollar Lottery. How lucky can a person be! Let's celebrate!"



"I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because  he considered me trustworthy  in appointing me to the ministry."  (1 Timothy 1:12)

Saturday, March 9, 2019

EVERYTHING - ALMOST!

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Happy Lent! Remember that you can make the Lenten journey with me and a lot of other virtual pilgrims by reading the selection for each day in my book "Pilgrim Road: A Benedictine Journey through Lent." (I just noticed that when I searched Google Images for "Pilgrim Road Holtz" that someone has posted photos of a lot of the places I write about in the book. Hmmm.)

Here are three loosely connected Lenten thoughts about Lent.

I

First a passage from C.S.Lewis' "Screwtape Letters." You may remember the plot: a senior devil is mentoring a new devil, showing him how to get people to fall away from God. Here's what the elder has to say about the good Christian who is the new devil's first assignment:

"What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot-talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favorable credit-balance in [God's] ledger." (Letter II)


I don't know about you, but I have to admit that the devil is right about me: I think my credit-balance sheet with God is in good shape. That's a red flag! The Tempter loves it when we think that way! Does God keep a credit-balance sheet on you? Do you think he keeps score? If so, then you'll get the fasting thing all wrong, and think that it's a great way to make your credit-balance look even better. 

II

Here's a passage from the assigned gospel selection for today (Saturday):

After this Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything behind, he got up and followed him. (Lk 5:27-28)

A few verses before this he had called James and John, and "When they brought their boats to the shore, they left everything and followed him." (5:11)

Matthew and Mark, when they tell the story of the apostles following Jesus, say that they "left their fishing nets and followed him." Not Luke; he says "they left everything behind." Remember Matthew's remark to the Lord, "We have left everything we had and followed you. (18:28).

So, if I'm tempted to think that my credit-balance sheet with God is pretty favorable, Luke is going to give me a painful poke in the ribs with his account that Matthew and Jon and James "left everything behind" to follow Jesus. My prayer runs something like this: "Lord, I have left a lot of things behind to follow you. I've only held on to a couple of favorite things: one grudge I'm holding against you-know-who, those two pet vices, and one or two other things. Nothing sinful, really, just well, you know... So, please remember that I have left almost everything to follow you."

III

In regard to leaving "almost everything," here's a story from the earliest days of the monasticism , when the wisdom of the first monastic men and women was handed down by means of sayings and stories.

Once there was a very holy hermit who lived in a cave high on a cliff overlooking the sea. He owned nothing; his cave was bare except for a straw mat, a bowl, a cup and spoon, and a little clay jug which he used to catch the drops of cool water that dripped from the roof of the cave -- he loved that little jug. He spent endless hours in prayer and fasted constantly. But he realized that despite all of his prayer and fasting, something was missing: Something, he sensed, was keeping him from truly meeting God.

Then, one day as he sat at the mouth of his cave and pondered the sparkling surf hundreds of feet
below, he suddenly received a flash of insight. He sprang to his feet, stepped quickly to the back of his cave and grabbed the jug. He hurried to the front of the cave and threw the jug over the cliff. At that moment he received his wish and was given the gift of union with God. The holy man had given up almost everything, but one thing was holding him back.

You got any little clay jugs in your life?

May your Lenten journey bring you closer to our Redeemer who let go of everything on Mount Calvary.