June 25, 2006
Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time - The Perfect Storm
Back on October 30, 1991 there occurred an extraordinarily violent storm along the Atlantic Eastern Seaboard with wind gusts up to 60 knots and waves up to 40 feet. It was one of the worst storms that the weather service people had ever seen.
What brings that storm back to memory is the fact that a sword-fishing vessel, the Andrea Gail, out in the Atlantic on that fateful day, was caught in the eye of the storm and sank, killing all on board.
Actually, the accident might never have made headlines around the country had a writer by the name of Sebastian Junger not written a novel entitled "The Perfect Storm. He took the name from the National Weather Service itself which described it as "The Perfect Storm. (1 guess only the National Weather Service could call a storm "perfect" For the rest of us, we might have other names for it.) At any rate, the novel became famous around the country and was eventually made into a movie of the same name.
It's always nice, of course, to be able to read about an event in a book or to sit comfortably in a Cineplex watching things go wrong and people losing their lives. But if you have ever been out in a storm, especially a storm at sea, you will know that it appears to be almost a divine act, God, as it were, pouring out his wrath from above and we down below caught in that whirling eye. No fun!
Those of us who live in Alaska, of course, are familiar with such storms. They happen all the time out in the Bering Sea and the North Pacific where the crabbing boats regularly go out in winter from Dutch Harbor to make sure that we all get our fill of crab-bisque at our favorite restaurant. Those who know about such things say that crabbing is the most dangerous kind of work because boats, no matter how large they are, are vulnerable to the winds and the waves, to say nothing about the ice that forms on the decks and makes them top-heavy.
I think there is something especially threatening about storms because they make us seem so vulnerable, so helpless. In such situations, we hardly know what to do, except pray. We know that we are in the hands of God and we know that God is not "up there" somewhere ready to punish us, but it sometimes seems that way.
I can still remember my mother sprinkling holy water around the house whenever it began to storm. Whether the sprinkling did any good I'm not sure but it was an act of faith on her part and that's all that counts. But even as a child, I felt somewhat secure when the holy water came out. I knew that my mother was doing something to counter the elements. She was not questioning God's power, obviously, but doing what she could to help the family feel safe and secure.
Well, given all that, we have some references to "The Perfect Storm" in our scriptures for this Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time. There is first of all a beautiful short piece of poetry from the Book of Job. God speaks to Job and asks rhetorically: "Who shut the doors of the sea when it burst forth from the womb? Who set limits to it?" "Who said: `Thus far shall you come but no further, here shall your waves be stilled!"'
What the poet, obviously a man of faith, is saying is that no matter what we think about the forces of nature, God is still in charge. I'm sure he must speak for all of us when gale forces threaten our lives. God is still in charge.
It's not so sure, however, that Jesus' apostles were so convinced of that on a night they were caught out on the Sea of Galilee during a sudden squall, described here in the gospel of Mark . They thought they were surely going down and so they inquire of Jesus whether it doesn't even occur to him that things were getting serious on board.
Well, this is really a rather humorous story in a sense. It shows the difference between the way Jesus looked at life and the way his apostles did. They were scared to death and here is Jesus, stretched out in the back of the boat, fast asleep, or at least not showing a bit of concern about their dire condition.
So, they finally get Jesus' attention and he simply "rebukes" the wind and the waves. "Quiet", he says. I sometimes wonder whether Jesus was actually rebuking the winds or whether he was saying to the apostles: "Relax, everything is going to be ok", and it was!
I'm sure that story must seem like another miracle to us who read it today, but I think there is also a lesson in it and in the many natural catastrophes that occur in our lives. Like the author of the poem in the Book of Job and in the gospel, we need to believe that natural disasters are not the hand of God. God does not use nature to punish us or to teach us a lesson. That's a childish notion of God.
Nonetheless, we can learn something about God from such events: The power of the entire universe is in God's hands. Sometimes that power is destructive by nature. At other times it comes about in our favor. God simply allows his universe to do what it was created to do. Sometimes we find ourselves in the way of that power, but that's not God's will. We can't make God some sort of "power broker" who just waits around for us to be hurt. Despite all the destructive things that happen every day (Tsunamis, earth quakes, fires, pandemics, whatever) God is still the loving Father. Unlike the apostles in the sinking boat, we can't expect God to simply turn things around.
So, there are storms and there are storms: Aside from the natural catastrophes there are also personal storms, tragedies that happen to us. Life does not always go well for us. It's part of life that we need to deal with in a peaceful way. God is still with us despite all.
It occurs to me that this sense of tragedy also applies to the Church: In recent times the Catholic Church has been experiencing the storms of sexual abuse and cover up. We have all heard the phrase "the bark of Peter." Well, the bark of Peter is in unsteady water at the moment, and unlike the situation of the apostles in their boat, we cannot simply call on Jesus to rebuke the waves.
That's our responsibility: The pope is the captain of the ship, we, bishops, priests and lay people are the crew and we obviously have some work to do to set our boat on a straight course again.
The important point is that all will be well if we trust in God and trust in God's power to help us make our way through the storms of life. Jesus is not asleep in the stern. No doubt he is still watching to see how we're doing at the oars... until the storm dies down.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 09:08 AM.
June 18, 2006
Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ - Gracious Dining
Most of our days, I should imagine, are relatively peaceful. We do our work, get on with our life, we try to live in harmony with one another. Sometimes, of course we manage to "get into one another's hair or get into arguments, but those are rare...I hope.
But if there is one place and time when we surely want to be in accord with one another, it would be at our daily meal, the main meal, dinner. That is not only an opportunity to enjoy good food and drink but also some nourishing conversation, debate, sharing stories, events of the day, good or bad. When we are in a good mood and can communicate with each other, even the food tastes better. In other words, meals are not simply occasions to satisfy our hunger, but more importantly, to experience life in all its various forms and dimensions.
One thing for sure, an argument at a meal can spoil the taste of the food and drink. If we can't talk to one another graciously, the meal will be a failure, a total loss.
I can remember when I was a youngster, everyone in our family knew that our father, God rest his soul, could get moody and depressed occasionally. He would often come to the dinner table and refuse to say a word to anyone. None of us kids knew what to do; we just sat there and we knew something was wrong but we didn't dare open our mouth and ask. It was even difficult to eat our food. Of course, we did not know why it was happening, but we knew that there was something seriously lacking at the meal.
I think that means that we instinctively know there is something sacred about meals. We treat the food and each other with respect...hopefully.
I have often thought it interesting how often food and drink are mentioned in the gospels and how often we find Jesus having meals with people, people who loved him and people who would have killed him if they could.
Many of the most important things that Jesus said and did happened at meals. He preached before meals, during meals and after meals: Remember the feeding of the 5000? The feeding of breakfast to the disciples after the resurrection? There are lots of other examples as well:
The most classic example, of course, is the story of the Last Supper, the sharing of stories, wisdom and bread and wine
I have a hunch that Jesus enjoyed eating with people, feeding people, feeding them with the wisdom of his stories and the nourishment of the food and wine. These were all of one piece. People do not live on bread alone, obviously!
It is interesting to notice, therefore, that Jesus really wanted to continue feeding his followers well after his death and resurrection. Do you remember what he said at the Last Supper? He said: "Take and eat, this is my body. Take and drink, this is my blood." Then he says something really astonishing: "Do all this in memory of me. Tell the stories, bless and share the bread and cup, and in all this "remember me."
I must confide to you that I really do not know what happens at the consecration of the Mass, how bread becomes Christ's body, how wine becomes his blood. But it doesn't matter. What matters is that we continue doing all this in Jesus' memory. That's enough!
So today then we celebrate this great feast of the body and blood of Christ. It is not really two "things" not two physical realities that we commemorate, but rather Jesus' desire to continue being with us, to keep nourishing us as often as we do it in his memory.
I should point out too that Jesus never mentioned anything about adoration, about adoring his body. All he said was, "take and eat, take and drink." When you do, I will be there with you." Mind you, there is nothing wrong with our acts of adoration, it is a long tradition in our Church but adoration is not what Jesus had in mind when he sat at the Last Supper table with is friends. He just wanted to celebrate Passover with them and asked them to continue doing the same thing again and again. Eucharist, therefore, is not a thing, but an experience of the risen Christ.
Finally, we need to ask, how do Catholics recognize Christ each time they celebrate Sunday Eucharist, I mean beyond his presence in the body and blood, the bread and wine? Think of this: Our Church teaches us that Christ is present in many ways in the Eucharistic celebration: In the assembly gathered (you folks in the pews!), in the Word proclaimed, in the priest who presides, and, of course, in the bread and cup. In other words, we are really overwhelmed with the many presences of Christ. Jesus,
obviously, decided that he would never leave us orphans. He left us sacred signs that tell us that he really never mean to abandon us when he went to heaven. Actually he is more present now than he was when he sat down to supper with the apostles. All that is good to know when we come together on Sunday, the Lord's Day, to remember Him, as we say, until he comes again...some day. In the meantime, we have lots of evidence that he is still as present as he was on that great night of the Last Supper. All that should make our Sunday dinner, the Lord's dinner, a moment not to be missed!
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 09:03 AM.
June 11, 2006
Feast of the Holy Trinity - Naming God
If I were to ask you one day what you thought about yourself or how you would wish to identify yourself, you might say, "well, my face is unique, different, unlike anybody else's in this world." Or you might say, "I have a unique personality; I'm somehow different in many ways from all others in ways I could not even describe."
Then I might say to you, "That may well be true, but let me also suggest that something else makes you different, your name. Yes, you may well have a common name like James Johnson or Mary Smith. But, that name was given to you to set you apart from every other Johnson or every other Smith in the entire world.
Human beings are obviously much alike in this world. We all share a certain number of the same genes. Human beings all look somewhat alike; we have what we call the human form. We don't look or act like giraffes or cows, for instance.
So, I think it may be true to say that even though our names are not integral to our human nature, they do identify us. How else would we set ourselves apart from the millions of other people in the world.
We need to be able to respond to someone who calls out to us; we need to know to whom that person is referring. So, we are designated by this name for this person and no other.
Our family name also has significance for us. We have a certain pride in that family signature. Doubtless, it goes back thousands of years, back beyond our contemporary history. Family names are important, even for the good order of society.
So, the point of all this is that it is important for us humans to be able to say something about our self, if nothing more than that we are who we are and nobody else.
We are celebrating a unique feast in our liturgical calendar today. It is called The Feast of the Holy Trinity. I call it The Feast of God because it is the only feast of the entire year that references God alone, God the Trinity. We call it the mystery of the trinity and indeed it is surely that, a great mystery. So, I want to explore with you a little about how we think about God, about the mystery of the Trinity.
For centuries, of course, theologians have tried to explain the Trinity as though mysteries were meant to be explained or defined rather than experienced. In the end, of course, all definitions, all examples, all metaphors fall flat because they only describe what we think God the Trinity could be. They never can adequately say who God is. The only person who has ever told us anything definitive about God is Jesus, God's Son. Who better? And the two things Jesus told us about God are these: God is love and God is Father. Of course, both of those words are human words. They can hardly describe God theTrinity in "God terms," but it's all we have. Ultimately, all God talk is analogical. In other words, we keep asking how we can think about God using our own language, the only words we have, words that make sense to us?
It is interesting to notice too that this search to understand God has been going on as long as we have had religious people to ask the question. The best example I can think of is Moses who was as concerned about who God was as we are today. God, as you remember, appeared to him at a desert bush that was burning. Moses walked over to check it out and as he got near he found out he was already on holy ground, that God was near. So, God told him to take off his shoes. And then this cute little conversation goes on between God and Moses: God says: "Moses, 1 want you to go to your people and lead them out of Egypt." And Moses says in reply: "If I go back to my people and tell them that the God of your fathers sent me to you and they ask me what is his name, what shall I tell them?" And God, in reply, says: 'I am who am'; tell them that 'I am' sent me to you."
Now, let me tell you, scripture scholars have been puzzling over that name for centuries. First of all, it doesn't sound like a name and secondly, it doesn't make any sense. So, finally, God tells Moses, "Tell the Israelites that Yahweh-God has sent you to them." That was enough for Moses. He didn't need explanations or definitions. In short God was his own definition. God is who God is. Period.
But the significant thing about that little conversation between Moses and God is the fact that Moses thought he needed a name to take back. He probably already knew that other people living around there had names for their gods. So, he couldn't just go back and say to his people, "folks, a ghost, a spirit sent me to you." That would never fly. The fact, therefore, that Moses received some sort of name for God was enough even though it did not tell him or his people very much about God or the inner life of God.
But when you think about it, there is really not very much we can say about ourselves either. We are truly a mystery, both to ourselves and undoubtedly to others as well We obviously know our names, but if someone were to ask us who we are, the best we probably could come up with might be a description of our ancestry. Anything beyond that might be too embarrassing to go into. Ultimately, our name is synonymous with who we are whether we can describe our identity or not.
So, finally, we need to ask why all this is so important. Why is it so important to have a name for God? Well, obviously, it's probably not very important to God, but it is important to us. If the God of the Trinity is important to our spiritual life, our prayer life, then we need to be able to address God by name. Indeed, I suspect that most of us do that already whenever we pray. We just don't lift our eyes to the heavens and talk to no one! No doubt, each of us creates our own name for God or we choose one that we learned as kids or something from a prayer book that we once owned. But we need a name; we need to speak personally to our God. I suspect that we don't even say "Your Eminence" or "Your Holiness" or "Your Highness", the way we sometimes address bishops, the pope or some civil dignitary. Our God is always personal, not formal. Even Jesus could call God "Father" and St. Paul could call God "Papa". Now, that's really getting personal.
So, don't be embarrassed if you have the desire to address God with whatever name seems familiar to you. Remember, if God is God, we are probably already on a first-name basis with him. I'm sure he knows our name too and that's surely comforting, don't you think?
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 02:30 PM.
June 04, 2006
Pentecost - Something Blowing in the Wind
A while back, shortly before Holy Week, I noticed some figures in a Catholic magazine predicting the number of people who were preparing to come into the Church at Easter: The article predicted that we could expect something like one hundred fifty thousand people to be baptized or to become full members of the Church. One thousand and thirty three in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C. alone. Think of that! That's a pretty astonishing number. Practically every church, small and large,in the U.S., in the world will be welcoming at least several new members into its ranks.
I imagine most of us who have been Catholic since the day our own baptism might say, "well, that's not so astonishing; the Catholic Church has always been attractive to a certain small number of non Catholics. People keep 'dribbling in' from year to year, as they say."
But let me tell you that this is truly astonishing when you compare it to the so-called "old days" when one or two individuals each year might come to the local pastor and ask for "lessons."
One of the great accomplishments of the Second Vatican Council was to restore the "Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA), a year-long process whereby non Christians or baptized non Catholics would choose to sit in the presence of other Christians for a period of a year or more and explore the gospels, listen to the stories and tell their own story, their journey of faith. So, this wasn't just a matter of someone sitting in the pastor's study, taking "lessons in being Catholic." It was a family experience, Christian congregations sharing their faith with other searchers and learners.
But you might say, what's so important about that? Well, first of all look at the numbers. The numbers of people coming into the Church since the beginnings of the RCIA have just exploded. Something really monumental is going on in the Church.
I would like to say, therefore, that I think all this has something to do with what we are celebrating today, the Feast of Pentecost, The coming of the Holy Spirit. You may say, "What? Today? Is the Holy Spirit still moving in our midst today? Well, we often imagine that the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was a once-for-all "event," something that happened to the twelve apostles and has since been forgotten or at least has not had any visible impact on the life of the Church today.
However, the reason I say that the "wind" of the Holy Spirit is still blowing among us today is because that is exactly what Christ promised. He said: "Iwill be with you all days, even until the end of the world." In John's gospel Jesus also tells his disciples: "I shall ask the Father and he will give you another Advocate to be with you for ever, the Spirit of truth...The Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name will teach you everything."
That leads me to say, therefore, that God's Holy Spirit must still be active in the world today. Jesus promised not to leave us orphans (those were his exact words.) The question, however, is this: How do we know? How do we know that the "wind of the Holy Spirit" is still blowing today? Well, we simply need to look around for evidence.
First of all, some not so good pieces of evidence. Despite all our bungling throughout Christian history, we still manage to stay alive. Think how Christians have treated Jews over the years. Think about the Catholic Inquisition, the torture, the jailing and killing of "heretics." Think about the threat to the freedom of conscience. Think of the way the Church has treated creative thinkers, philosophers and scientists like Galileo and others. Think about the abuses that led to the Protestant Reformation, the selling of indulgences, the wars between Christian nations. Think even in our own time about what we have come to call the "Sexual Abuse Crisis," priests sexually abusing youngsters, bishops covering it up. The Church obviously has not had such a great record of living by the words of Jesus. I could go on and on about this.
And yet, the Church, still manages to stay alive. How so? I think it is by the guidance and the protection of the Holy Spirit. "I will not leave you orphans," Jesus promised.
But are there any good things in the history of our Church that we could point to and say: "This is pretty astonishing! It could only be the work of the Holy Spirit."
I would, first of all, point to good Pope John XXIII who called the Second Vatican Council which literally changed the face of the Catholic Church as we know it today. Just think how the liturgy has changed peoples lives, the language of the liturgy in our own tongue so that we could understand respond! All this has literally changed our Christian lives for the better. I think that is partially the reason why so many people are attracted to the Church today.
Or think about the many trips around the world that Pope John Paul took, the millions of people who celebrated Mass with him in open fields. I think that's pretty amazing.
But some will say, "Look how the number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life has been falling. Thousands of churches, large and small throughout the world have no priest to celebrate Eucharist with them. What about that?" I say, "perhaps that is also a sign that the Holy Spirit is moving among us, prodding the Church to think about new ways to look at priesthood and pastoral life. Today many Catholics say, "be bold, think outside the box," Perhaps that is what the Holy Spirit is asking us to do, "think outside the box for a change, think creatively, take a chance. indeed, perhaps the Holy Spirit is asking the Church to do something totally new with regard to ordination of priests!
So, what else is happening in the Church that we could lay at the "feet" of the Holy Spirit? Think about the numbers of lay people who are taking responsibility for the life of the Church today. Before the Second Vatican Council this was unheard of. Priests and bishops did everything. Today you will find both men and women in some of the highest levels of Church governance and in all kinds of pastoral positions. Could it be the Holy Spirit calling the laity to take on their baptismal responsibility?
Finally, I think about the role that the Church has taken in matters of justice and peace today, care for the poor and the oppressed. Think, for instance, what Catholic Charities USA is doing around the world today to assist in tragedies like Hurricane Katrina and other disasters.
Well, for me, all this adds up to the clear evidence that the Holy Spirit is indeed "blowing" in the Church and in the world today. There is no way we could have done all this alone.
In the end the question we need to ask is always the personal one: Is there anything spiritually exciting or new happening in your life these days? If there is, you can bet it's probably God's Spirit "blowing in the wind."
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 02:20 PM.