March 30, 2012
Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord [April 1, 2012]
Anyone with even a passing interest in art will remember Andy Warhol, the painter who developed the peculiar practice of repeating images of objects and persons on canvas: bright red Campbell Soup cans, for instance, or the alluring face of Marilyn Monroe, the actress.
More to the point, however, is a phrase Warhol once used and that is still commonly used in various contexts today. It is far and away the best known of the many quotations attributed to Mr. Warhol: “In the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen minutes.” I imagine many people in the world today share that illusory notion, if not for a lifetime, then surely for fifteen minutes.
On this feast of Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion, my friends, we are introduced to a small group of people, Israelites all, who had formed a modest parade to call attention to a young prophet from Galilee, a friend of theirs, who had done marvelous deeds back in his own home territory: inspiring religious speeches, healings, even calling forth certain friends back from the dead. His name was Jesus of Nazareth. In the minds of those peasant folk who welcomed him to the capitol city that day with cheers and branches of palm, this young prophet was truly in their eyes a “Warhol character.” Oddly enough, they made him ride into the city on a donkey, if you can imagine that, because for these folks standing along the way this was to be their friend’s fifteen minutes of fame.
Of course, it was a true parade, even if of modest sorts, because parades by their very nature have the power to bring joy and exuberance to young and old alike.
My friends, I choose this short introduction on “fifteen minutes of glory” as a preface to one of the most noteworthy events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. As we read in the Markan gospel text for this feast, crowds of people from the countryside were flocking to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover. It could be compared to the Worlds Fair or World Youth Day all in one.
Among that vast crowd of local folks and diaspora people from all about the Middle East, there appeared on this day (the day before Passover) a rag tag group of followers of Jesus the preacher and wonderworker from Nazareth. They were his disciples, listeners, and learners, peasant folk who wished to understand the meaning of the good news of the kingdom of God. As we are told, they came from the hinterlands of Galilee in the North where public figures of great consequence seldom journeyed to celebrate anything. Nonetheless, this young preacher had gained a worthwhile following of local folks who thought of him as the one who would finally establish the true kingdom of God and supplant the kingdom of the Roman/Jewish state.
What better way, therefore, to celebrate his success than to bring it to the capitol where other great religious and secular events were traditionally celebrated? They followed, therefore the usual the custom of welcoming notables by throwing fresh branches and colored streamers in his way.
This event probably did not attract the vast crowds that had journeyed to Jerusalem that day, but for this modest group from Galilee, this would be their one opportunity to introduce their leader to the world, even for fifteen minutes.
All these events are vividly described in the gospel of Mark assigned for this Sunday’s liturgy. In an earlier time in Church history it was simply named Palm Sunday, a reference to the branches brought to the event by Jesus’ followers. Today, however, it must be noticed that the title is Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. In other words, the palms do not tell the whole story. When we read the story of the passion of Christ on this day we come to realize that the joyous palm procession and the subsequent suffering and death of Jesus are all of one piece. Indeed, Jesus predicted that this would be the outcome of his preaching and his way of life, his great kingdom vision and his public rebellion against the powers of Rome and the temple.
More to the point in all this is to say that Palm Sunday and Good Friday come together in the lives of most of us. If the Christian of our day believes that following Jesus will simply be a cheerful “fifteen minute parade,” they will be sorely disappointed. Rather, we should insist that anyone, whether Christian, Jew, Moslem, believer or unbeliever, who imagines that following Jesus Christ does not cost something, that person will be greatly mislead regarding the meaning of the Kingdom of God.
Life itself is a strange mixture of bliss and heartache, happiness and disappointment. Nonetheless, with the happy memory of the palm parade in mind, we should still be able to bear the tragedies of life that are bound to follow. Fifteen minutes will not be sufficient to satisfy the longing of the one who imagines life in terms of eternity.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 02:27 PM.
March 23, 2012
Fifth Sunday of Lent [March 25, 2012]
I am unashamed to say that I have been a subscriber to The National Catholic Reporter for close to thirty years. The NCR, as it is commonly known, was first founded by a group of young adult Catholic laymen; hence the second line on the main page says that it is a lay catholic weekly (bi weekly these days, given the economy).
At any rate, being edited and published by lay people, one can expect less surveillance and supervision by the hierarchy. Some may say that this could put the “Catholicity of the paper into question. Others will say, predictably, that it’s the only way to get to objectivity in the news.
Having said all that, I want to add that Catholic news events seem to be popping faster than a bi-weekly Catholic newspaper can absorb them.
Hence, in recent times one must access Catholic news on NCR on line because they occur so rapidly. Indeed, several major Catholic news events may occur within the space of one hour.
I wanted to preface this homily with that piece of information because of the number of disquieting Catholic events that have happened around the world over the past several weeks.
A short description of each event will need to suffice: First, the sexual scandal within the religious community called the Legionnaires of Christ. Secondly, the schismatic Catholic group calling itself The Society of Pius X has separated itself from Rome over issues of the Second Vatican Council. Third, the scandal concerning Bishop Williamson, an Englishman (a member of the Society of Pius X) who claims that the numbers of Jews killed in the Holocaust was much fewer than reported. Thirdly, and some few years ago, the Vatican initiated an investigation of American seminaries for irregularities.
Finally,(April 15, 2009) the Vatican launched an investigation of alleged irregularities of LCWR, (Leadership Conference of Women Religious) the elected group that represents roughly 95% of American religious sisters.
In addition to such disturbing major issues there are also serious issues noted in the NCR of Catholic individuals who are censured by a local ordinary (bishop) for “irregularities”.
I make no judgment on any of these issues, but what seems evident to me is that there is an increasing number of individuals or groups, initially Roman Catholic, who have broken from the center of the faith. Of course, there have always been such “uprisings” in the Church, all of which seems to indicate that Jesus’ explicit desire for one flock, one shepherd that we read of so clearly in this Sunday’s gospel, is far from fully realized. Even the earliest days of the apostolic church had its unique differences of opinion and practice.
On the other hand, if our Church is to be described as one, holy, Catholic and apostolic, such historical separations from the core of our Church can hardly be beneficial to the Body of Christ.
Personally, I would consider it a privilege and a responsibility to belong to the community that Christ founded even though I may have my share of differences with its leadership. Jesus is still the vine and we are the branches whether we consider ourselves grapes, oranges, apples red-hot chili peppers or whatever.
It is unity that will make us strong. Nothing is accomplished by formally or informally separating ourselves from Christ’s church. Personally speaking, I would feel rather lonely out there in the world if I did not have the Church to support me. But does that stop me, or any Catholic, from speaking out regarding critical issues that affect us in the Church or the world today? I would hope not. If we consider ourselves branches of the vine that is Christ we should consider it a right to appeal to the vine. I can imagine Jesus Christ saying: Hey, that’s okay; we’re part of one another, right?
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 01:20 PM.
March 14, 2012
Fourth Sunday of Lent [March 18, 2012]
Some days ago I happened to read an article in the New York Times regarding the impatience many of us have developed using modern technology. The computer has made it possible to click on a file and have it appear before our eyes in a second or two. But that was a year or so ago, this is 2012. Today people want results, not in seconds but in mille-seconds, faster even than in a wink of the eye. I must admit that I am one of those people who ask, what’s wrong with this computer if I don’t get results like right now.
Yes, I imagine we all get spoiled with the amazing speed of modern technology. Often it seems to exceed even the speed of our human brain. We are determined to communicate with the rest of the world, not sometime, but right now That is a good and worthwhile desire on our part, of course, if it helps us be more human and humane. Unfortunately our hopes often exceed our ability to understand and treat each other with common dignity.
So, the question always arises: is our world any better place a more humane planet because we have learned over the millennia to talk to one another in mille-seconds I think that may be a valid question. I have no immediate answer but some serious doubts.
So, it seems to me that this messaging or communicating that we do can be both good and bad. In so many cases today the messenger becomes less important than the means and speed whereby the message is communicated. Our hope is that if the message gets to its destination fast, our goal will have been achieved. So, let’s get the latest and fastest Intel processor!
But think about this: In the not-so-long-ago, messages were delivered in person or by a person. Someone was entrusted to get a letter or a document to an addressee. That messenger took personal responsibility to get it there. At one time in our American history, for instance, folks used the Pony Express to get a letter from point to point across the vast plains. Today, as we all know, government officials often use a personal courier to deliver top-secret documents. Even the Vatican sends messages by courier. Not such great speed there!
At any rate and in either case, a living person takes responsibility for delivering words, whether good or bad. If the words happen to be welcome, all for the better, if unwelcome, the messenger often might suffer violence or death. Even today, we often hear the phrase “to kill the messenger,” it’s a phrase that comes from the Greek playwright Sophocles’ in his play, Antigone. William Shakespeare also once used the phrase, “don’t shoot the messenger.” We surely hope not.
But it is not so amusing, my friends: individuals who choose the message of hard words or give serious warnings for the good of all are often tortured or killed. There is an example of that in the scriptures for this very Sunday. The Chronicler in our first reading points out that many messengers of God who were sent to the Israelites over the centuries were mistreated and their message rejected.
The classic messengers in the Jewish testament, of course, were the great prophets, Jeremiah (mentioned in today’s first reading) Isaiah, Micah, Ezekiel, Haggai and Malachi and others less well known. In today’s parlance, they often took the heat when they gave warnings to the people and especially their kings. Jeremiah, for instance, was thrown into a dry cistern and left to die because he warned the kings of the risk of allying with foreign nations for military protection..
So, you may ask, why were they persecuted? Think of it this way: prophets, by profession, are people who are willing to look deeply into the times and speak the truth to power. They are not willing to accept soft and easy answers for world problems and for that they are scorned. But that is precisely the role of prophets, ancient or modern, to ask hard questions and not allow for soft and easy answers. If you will allow me, I often think of our president, Barak Obama as a prophet. He spoke bluntly this week of the grave condition of our economy and healthcare for all citizens.
Returning to the scriptures, we know and follow the greatest prophet of all time: Jesus of Nazareth. The author of John’s gospel in today’s liturgy, for instance, says of Him that he came into the world to bring light, but people preferred darkness to light because their works were evil. How would we interpret “darkness” in our times? Good question.
The common denominator in all this, it seems to me, is that truth and messengers of truth will always find it difficult to get a hearing. Just think, for instance, how difficult it was for Jesus to get people to listen to the good news. Ultimately people killed the messenger.
But it seems to me too that part of our problem is that there are not enough messengers to speak truth to power. Ideally, prophets should not be in short supply in any age. Unfortunately, we imagine that it takes some special kind of person to be that messenger. Not so, I say! If we ordinary Christians, not bishops or priests but good and dedicated lay people are not messengers of good news, what are we good for? If we are unable or refuse to bring good news into the dark corners of our world, who will do it?
This brings us back to our original question: What can bring true and lasting change to our world, speedy technology or a Christian messenger who believes in the power of the life and work of Jesus Christ? I think we know the answer to that question All the broad band access, all the Intel technology, all the high powered computers, all the cell phones in the world will never compare to one human voice who is willing to speak truth to power. Jesus did it, so can we. May God bless you and all that you do this week.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 02:20 PM.
March 07, 2012
Third Sunday of Lent [March 11, 2012]
I believe it might be true to say that most folks have memories about buildings, at least two buildings (there may be more) that have played some part in their life’s history. May I suggest, therefore, that one’s early childhood home may be one and, in at least some instances, our parish church. Speaking only of myself, I must say that I have vivid memories not only of those two buildings but also of the experiences that occurred there. I would call those two buildings foundational structures. It is there that some of our earliest images of life, sacred and secular, were formed.
It may be true, of course, in regard to houses of worship that a church building has perhaps has never been considered even moderately important in the pattern of some individuals. Nonetheless if a situation were to arise where a church, synagogue or mosque was considered to be in danger of being desecrated, I am sure such folks would be first to cry out in anger. In short there is a natural sense of defensiveness regarding the holiness of sacred buildings.
One need only travel through any country in the world to note the importance of places of worship. A steeple will always catch our eye. Folks in most cities will point out to you a famous building where their ancestors worshipped for centuries. Indeed, it should be said that places of worship have traditionally formed the conscience and ethos of an entire people.
On past occasions, I have often spoken of homes and churches in these Sunday essays. Perhaps the reason for that is because I am firmly convinced that my human and spiritual character is still affected by those sacred buildings. It was in my home where I first learned the name of God, Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the sign of the cross and other common Catholic prayers. It was in the cool basement of the church of Saint Henry that I learned my catechism, sort of! I’m sure that most of you who read this will be able to describe a similar passion for the home where the Spirit of God first came upon you…yes even a passion!
Our scriptures for this Third Sunday of Lent speak graphically about the ancient sacred traditions of the Hebrew people and specifically of what Jesus held in high regard. First, of course, the Torah, the Law of Moses received on Mount Sinai that had guided the religious life of the Jewish people for centuries. Nothing was held more sacred. Secondly, the temple built by Solomon on Mount Zion is the geographical spot where the Jewish people could meet their God; it is defended at the Western Wall to this very day. Recent popes have prayed for reconciliation at that very same wall.
It should not be surprising, therefore, that Jesus himself had such strong feelings about the merchandising that was normally carried on in the temple: the changing of money, the selling of various sorts of animals and other such non-religious activities.
It must be said, of course, that these practices were considered legitimate or at least tolerated so that Jewish people traveling from the Diaspora to Jerusalem would not need to carry sacrificial animals and local forms of money from their home country.
Nonetheless, Jesus found these activities disgraceful and sacrilegious. In modern terms, he lost his temper one day and literally whipped the buyers and sellers out of the temple area. It would surely be considered a radical act for a Christian today to walk into St. Patrick’s Basilica in New York and confront the designated ushers collecting the offerings of the assembly! Nonetheless, that small scenario already tells us something about Jesus’ religious passion regarding His Father’s house, the temple he first visited with his parents as a child.
Obviously, such religious fervor might be considered rare among Catholics and Christians today. Nonetheless the incident prompts us to question our own attitude toward sacred places and objects in the age in which we live? What might Jesus think if he suddenly decided to walk into a Catholic church today? Would he display the same anger? Despite the gap of history and culture of course, He might well be at least a bit puzzled at the multiplication of rites, rituals, sacred objects, marble floors and walls, sacred hangings, rich robes and tassels and many other such appurtenances. Would he be surprised, for instance, that there are no women deacons assisting at the Eucharist as there were in early Christian times? Would he be a bit astonished at the gap in spending for the maintenance of the church as opposed to the budget set aside for the poor, the homeless and the “left-behind?” Might Jesus be left a bit stunned, if he heard hardly a word from the pulpit regarding the critical issues of our day: immigration, treatment of the undocumented, and all victims of injustice in general.
Granted, we live in a different age than Jesus did but the fundamental questions still trouble us: the poor are still poor the rich are still rich, those with power still take advantage of those with none, inequities still persist as they did in Jesus day. It would be safe to say that Jesus did concern himself with the temple, but his anger was not so much with the abuse of a building as it was about the mistreatment, cruelty and exploitation of the ordinary struggling family who had traveled from Nazareth to acquit themselves of their religious devotions.
Finally, it needs to be said that institutions, religious or secular, almost by their very design, defend, protect, guard and preserve their own foundations and agendas. Perhaps we may find excuse for this common practice in the secular realm, but if we are determined to preserve the meaning and sacredness of the institution we call the Church of Jesus Christ, we must be prepared to become a bit irritated when we observe some of the very same inequities occurring in our day that plagued Jesus and his times. In short, Jesus passion in the temple that day was concerned not so much about boulders stacked one on the other; more accurately, it was about the little ones from Nazareth who struggled to find the justice of God in His holy place and among its leaders and could not find it.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 12:20 PM.
February 29, 2012
Second Sunday of Lent [March 4, 2012]
This little piece of information may never have been explored on the History Channel, but perhaps you may have noticed in your reading or travels overseas that many churches are built on hills or high in the mountains. Think of the Byzantine monastery on Mount Athos or Monte Cassino in Italy, the church at Engelberg in Germany and it’s name’s sake, Mount Angel in Oregon. There are lots more, of course.
I have to tell you that the church where I worshiped as a child, St. Henry was built on a slight rise or knoll on the flat lands of North Dakota. My early relatives said that they built it there so that the Lutherans could see it better.
Some of those ancient churches or monasteries were built up high for protection or even the view; but perhaps there is also anthropological-theological reason behind it. It seems that religiously inclined people have always had the sense that one can better communicate with God “on high” or that the human sense of reverence is stronger in high places. The feeling that God is “up” in God’s heaven has always been a human assumption for as far back in history as we can determine. In short, it seems more effective for religious people to communicate with God from the heights. A sense of transformation or transfiguration of the spirit can occur there.
This little anecdote may have nothing to do with the Gospel we read today, but in a time when I was young and foolish, Father Jim Schultz and I spent many summers climbing mountains, I mean high mountains like the Matterhorn and Mt. Blanc in Europe, volcanoes in Mexico and peaks in western United States.
I can vouch for the fact that there is a sense of overwhelming awe or transcendence, even a sense of smallness when you look down on the plains from 15,000 feet. Whenever we would reach a summit, Schultz would always dig out a small bottle of wine from his backpack, and we would salute the mountain with the German phrase: “Berg heil.” “Praise to the peak.” Then Jim would always say: “ You know, you can’t get this down town.” He was obviously correct. The sense of the sacred was more acute and direct from up high than it might be standing on a street corner down town.
Well, obviously, the gospel today describes a mountain top experience, an experience of overwhelming, sacred awe both for Jesus and the apostles. We don’t know from the gospel whether they ascended that mountain precisely to experience God, but obviously, something strange, something sacred happened while they were on that peak. Jesus was transformed or transfigured; he seemed God-like to the apostles to the point where they wanted to build three worship places in his honor so that they could remember the experience. It was as though they saw something in Jesus that they had never noticed before something transcendent. It is all described in terms of the mystery: the cloud, light and of Jesus relationship with Moses and the prophets, the great leader and prophet who would be called to take their place.
So, what does all that mean for us, how does it fit into the sacred time of Lent? My own sense is that we are called to celebrate this season in such a way that we can truthfully say that we are trying to transform our inward spirit, trying become that person God is calling us to be. To use the mountain metaphor from the gospel we might say that especially during Lent we are invited to a higher place to experience a sense of personal transcendence, transformation or transfiguration
Obviously, we each are called to do this in our own way but the important thing is that we do not simply end up doing trivial things like giving up chocolate or desserts and then imagine that we have changed interiorly. That does nothing more than to trivialize the sacred.
If nothing more, perhaps our hope in Lent might be that, like the apostles we would experience Christ, the Sacred One in a deeper manner when these days are over, a way that would carry us to Easter and beyond all our days.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 02:00 PM.
April 13, 2011
Palm Sunday [April 17, 2011]
I am writing this a few short days after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. Having seen many such tragedies in the past, I first thought that nothing would shock me any more; but I was wrong. I found it truly frightening to watch the images on television of people who had literally lost all: family, possessions, indeed, even their futures.
On the other hand, as overwhelming as this natural disaster was, it could not compare to the shocking human horrors we have all witnessed in our own lifetimes: I list only some names; you will know readily recognize the circumstances: Columbine, John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Auschwitz and Buchenwald Concentration camps, Pearl Harbor, Terrorism at the World Trade Center, Hiroshima, Nagasaki bombings.
These are only a few of the most obvious and blatant human crimes in our history and world history.
Reflecting on these human events, one is prompted to imagine that nothing can shock us any more. Can there possibly be anything that can bring us to shame? Is this, indeed, what the human community has come to?
Unfortunately, such events continue to happen with such frequency in our own time that we have almost become emotionally hardened to their seriousness. Each day as we read the morning paper more and more of these sad occurrences seem to rise up and shock us; unfortunately, we even stop thinking about them entirely.
So, should we simply stop reading the paper or cease watching such happenings on television. I would suggest that such an action in itself would be shocking. It was George Santayana, the philosopher and novelist who warned us that those who refuse to remember their past are doomed to repeat it. Sadly, our own history seems to prove this truer than ever.
Needless to say, we Christians, on the day we call Palm Sunday are asked to reflect on a shocking event that is part our own history: the passion and death of a good and righteous man, Jesus of Nazareth.
On this Sunday, we Christians will once again listen to the proclamation of the passion narrative, the exuberant joys of the palm procession and then the tragic events of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion
For those of us who are adult Christians, we will doubtless have listened to these events countless times. Indeed, we may say silently to ourselves: “Gosh, why do we need to listen to that long gospel every year? It’s always the same.” Unfortunately, repetition has nearly hardened our feelings to the shocking character of the story. No dramatic additions to the reading seem to wake us up the utter seriousness of. these events
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 02:42 PM.
April 06, 2011
Fifth Sunday of Lent [April 10, 2011]
Most of us, somewhere in our educational history, must surely have been introduced to that beautiful poem by William Wordsworth (d.1888) entitled Intimations of Immortality From Recollections of Early Childhood. Here are some of the early lines:
“There was a time when meadow, grove and stream, the earth and every common sight to me did seem appareled in celestial light. It is not now as it hath been of yore. Turn wheresoe’er I may, by night or day, the things which I have seen I now can see no more”
It is a poem, of course, that speaks of impending death, softened by the beauties of childhood.
That poem came to mind as I opened the scriptures for this Fifth Sunday of Lent that speak of the eventuality of death.
It hardly needs to be said that of the many thoughts that may cross our mind on a typical day, the consideration of death must come into relief fairly often even though we are generally reluctant to mention them publically.
For all of us, of course, there are memories of near death experiences. I can remember at least a half dozen such occurrences in my own life that were due to careless driving.
Everyone dies, of course, but there are also many small and large death experiences that happen during a lifetime: loss of friends and family, the dying of friendships over some insignificant difference of opinion. There are the inevitable deaths when memory fails, bones break, youthful vigor wanes. In these days of economic woe there are deaths that come from the loss of a job or a home. Each of these temporal experiences can help us prepare for that moment when we are once again welcomed back into the heart of God. It is at that moment in our history that God will say to us as Jesus said to Lazarus: “You are set free.”
Death, as we all well know, is, in one sense, a great mystery but, in another, it is simply one more phase of our personal autobiography. What makes us imagine that this material existence of ours will continue on indefinitely when the evidence before us is that all reality that is born into this cosmos dies. Consider the stars and planets!
At the same time, we cannot bear the thought that when this earthly life is over there is nothing more. It seems almost impossible that the God who created a creature (humankind) that has evolved into such marvelous forms will now end up as an eternal tragedy. Surely, faith convinces us that we are an unfinished story, a tale that concludes in God’s eternal kingdom.
If there ever is a moment, therefore, when our faith must come to the rescue, this is that moment. If nothing else, we have the assurance that the possibility of death must energize our days on earth.
The gospel story of the raising of Lazarus that we read on this is Sunday is less concerned with questions regarding the physical body than with the issue of belief. Jesus asks the crowd whether they can believe that he (Jesus) can restore a man to life; some were believers, others were not.
The core of the story is not whether a miracle was performed, whether a man dead for three days could be restored to life. The real question is a personal one: is the Christian willing to believe that God has the power to raise us up to eternal life? If the answer to that question is “yes,” then our days on this earth will be filled with the joy that must compare to the life of God’s kingdom. If the answer is “no,” our life can only be described as an eternal tragedy.
Ultimately, life and death are mysteries for which we have no final answers. We do have one assurance however: the only path to eternal life is through death. It is the eternal future that must energize these moments of life here on earth as we can only imagine what the mystery of God has in store for us somewhere, sometime.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 01:58 PM.
March 30, 2011
Fourth Sunday in Lent [April 3, 2011]
I imagine it might be said that many of us seldom appreciate the use of our physical or mental abilities until we are forced to go without them. Age, for instance, surely teaches us that. Certain skills that were once simple for us now have become a burden.
Yet, at the same time, the human spirit has the capacity to overcome even the most serious handicaps.
I recall, for instance, an incident that happened when I was teaching at Saint Edwards University back in another century. A young woman from Milwaukee, Wisconsin came to register as a freshman. I happened to be working with orientation program on the day her parents brought her on campus. While she was standing in line waiting to register and be assigned to a residence hall, I noticed that she was carrying a white cane to guide her steps. So, in my naïveté I stepped over and asked her parents if the university could do anything to help her get used to the campus facilities. Before her parents could respond she piped up and said, “No, don’t worry, just show me where I should go for the first time and after that I’ll take care of myself.” I said to myself, “ I wonder if she realizes how big and complex this campus is and the distance between the residences and the class rooms.” Then in as kindly way as I could ever imagine, her mother spoke up and said “Listen, she has been finding her way around this world for the past 16 years and has never has had a problem, I don’t think this campus will be a problem for her” And, indeed, it wasn’t a problem for her. The university assigned her a companion for the first couple weeks and after that she made her way around campus as easily as any other student.
I often think about that incident and I still say to myself: “Wow, think about the determination of the human spirit to overcome all odds!” It seems to prove that no person, other than the individual him or herself, truly understands the meaning of handicaps. In some sense, we all have our personal handicaps and we work things out for ourselves from day to day.
The human issue that the scriptures invite us to think about on this Fourth Sunday in Lent is blindness, physical blindness, of course, but if we examine the human psyche, it appears that we often inflict ourselves with other types of blindness, namely, the refusal to open our minds, our hearts and senses to a universe that is out there just for the seeing, hearing, enjoying and fulfillment. The sacred texts seem to claim that there is no darkness so deep or so powerful that one cannot be liberated from it by the power of God’s grace and our own resolve.
Listen, for instance to what Saint Paul tells his Christian converts: “Once upon a time,” he writes, “you lived in darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Well, then, live as children of the light. Light produces every kind of goodness, justice and truth.”
It seems to me that this is so true: There is the possibility each day each day to live as children of light, people who are determined to be alive and open to be enlightened individuals, to Sacred Scripture, art, poetry, music, philosophy, theology, indeed, all the human sciences. In short, one of the signs of a truly mature person is that he or she has learned to perceive what truly matters in life.
That is also the lesson we learn in the gospel, in that lovely story of the encounter of Jesus with the man who had been blind from birth. Everyone who saw him was convinced that he had done some evil act. Jesus proves them all wrong. He asks the man if he believes in God’s power to heal. “Yes, I really want to believe,” the man says. Jesus anoints his eyes with mud (a symbol of darkness) and the man can see again. It is a theology-story of the power of faith over doubt, the power of light over the power of darkness.
Could it be true that this story could resemble our life story, a tale of our daily struggle to overcome our darkness with light? With our determination and God’s grace anything is possible. Blindness need not be a permanent condition.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 01:18 PM.
March 22, 2011
Third Sunday of Lent [March 27, 2010]
If you have ever had the desire to wander around the campus of the University of Notre Dame on a pleasant summer day, you will surely want to include a visit to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the famous grotto, the Hesburgh library or even that huge piece of concrete simply called “The Stadium” where on certain weekends in autumn young men are accustomed to struggle valiantly with one another in order to score a goal or goals. It is commonly referred to as football!
Of course, if you are simply wandering aimlessly about the campus, you will encounter (not by accident) a number of lovely pieces of art. Prominent in my mind are those sculptor-pieces created by the well-remembered Croatian artist, Ivan Mestrovic. Most of his work tends to be overwhelmingly enormous, gigantic, if you will. Even from a distance, they will catch your eye: Moses, the lawgiver stands out, as also a statue of a prophet with arm raised in threat.
There is one piece of Mestrovic’ art, however, that I never tire of revisiting; actually no name appears on the base, but you will be able to put a name to it if you have read the well-known story of the woman at the well, retold for us in John’s gospel for this Third Sunday in Lent. The setting, as you might imagine, is a well (Historically, Jacob’s Well). A woman stands close by balancing a water jar perched on the well’s rim. She seems intent, indeed almost enthralled by the person standing across from her. We will know him immediately, of course, as Jesus the teacher. He seems to be giving a lesson, his hand and index finger raised, while the woman appears to be waiting for the next sentence to follow.
Those who have seen the sculpture and read the story will recall that Jesus came to the well thirsty; the woman of Samaria came to the well with the same intention. Interestingly, in the course of that short encounter the woman could slake Jesus physical thirst; Jesus, in turn, can slake her thirst for wisdom, for the knowledge of God.
With that long introduction, we can now explore the central theme for this Third Sunday in Lent. We are speaking of water, of course, its reality and, more importantly, its meaning.
Water is undoubtedly what we may call a foundational substance, indeed the source of life itself. Human life begins in a watery tomb just as the life of the cosmos had a watery origin, over which God’s spirit hovered and called forth all that exists.
Ancient Hebrew writings tell us that the people escaped the imprisonment of Egypt by crossing the sea of reeds. In their desert trek they are nearly without water until Moses (the desert tracker) leads them to a spring; the crisis is avoided, lives are saved.
The significance and meaning of water also becomes clear to us in our everyday environment. Oddly enough, because of its abundance we simply assume without question that it will pour forth from the faucet or the showerhead. The famous office water cooler has become a place of communication and, yes, even gossip. Bars and taprooms are called “watering holes” because they are special places where friends meet and satisfy their thirst with a liquid libation.
Many vacationers spend their summers at the beach or cruising down their favorite white-water river.
Public parks always have a convenient water fountain to renew and refresh the visitors.
We know from history that cities have grown up around sources of water. European countries can boast of their health-giving baths. People of faith flock by the thousands to the grotto and shrine at Massabiele, Lourdes in France to bath in the healing waters of the spring.
That brings us to the point where we shall explore the scriptural meanings of water: first of all, it recalls our birth, the release from the watery womb of our mother. Secondly, water evokes the reality of death; careless use of it can endanger life. Third, water can be a sign of physical and spiritual renewal. How could we celebrate the sacrament of baptism without life-giving water? Lastly, it signifies and accomplishes cleansing.
Finally, one might ask, “why do these water stories appear on this particular Lenten Sunday? Each Lent the Christian community welcomes new candidates who are thirsty for the water of baptism. These stories are meant to help them understand that their thirst for faith will be quenched in baptism and in the on-going catechesis that will help them grow in the Christian life.
Of course, that is the task of every Christian; to let the scriptures and our sacramental symbols continue to form us in the never-ending search for holiness.
A little something to think about in the morning as we stand under the powerful gush of warm water flowing from the showerhead.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 10:12 AM.
March 15, 2011
Second Sunday of Lent [March 20, 2011]
There was an interesting and, indeed, a rather scary cover story in the February 21st issue of Time Magazine. It was entitled “2045, The Year Man Becomes Immortal.” When I first saw the title I thought it was going to have something about science fiction or perhaps about some weird religious cult. But, no I was wrong: it was about science, real science happening now; actually it was about the speed of communication. A very smart guy by the name of Raymond Kurzwell is predicting that we are approaching a moment in history when computers will become intelligent and not just intelligent but more intelligent than humans. When that happens, he says, our bodies, our minds our civilization will be irreversibly transformed. (Pay attention to that word transform, it will come up again.) He believes that this moment is not only inevitable but also imminent. According to his calculations, the end of civilization, as we know it will happen about 35 years from now, the year 2045. Fortunately, none of us here today will be around to experience it.
All this may sound rather bizarre but when one observes the transformations that have happened in our lifetime, it makes you sit up and take notice.
When I was a kid, for instance, my parents bought a new invention called a telephone; my father hung it up on the wall, turned a crank and talked to someone far away. Today, you can pull a tiny computer called an I Phone 4 out of your pocket and do the same thing along with a dozen other modern technological miracles. Within a month after you buy that phone or, indeed, a modern computer, it is already obsolete or at least unfashionable.
So, when you think about it, 2045 may be closer than we think. Transformation is happening whether we want to believe it or not.
Let me give you a couple other examples of time-lapse to bolster my point. Where were you when President John F. Kennedy was killed? Where were you when terrorists struck the World Trade Centers? Where were you when the U.S. Air Force dropped an atom bomb on the cities of Japan? Now, think what has happened in your life since then and what is still happening right now.
As we look back on those events we will have to admit that our lives have been radically transformed in that space of time. Perhaps we may even have come to think about the meaning of life in a different way. Perhaps we have come to see that we are not so much in control of our lives as we once thought we were or have come to see life as a deep and profound mystery.
The common denominator in all these examples is not that something earth shattering is happening in our lives, but rather, what do we do with that experience? Do we do we learn from its meaning or do we weep over it and do nothing? It is all about transformation
We are offered three such transformation experiences in the scriptures for this Second Sunday in Lent. First, we are introduced to our Biblical ancestor Abram (later Abraham). He is a wealthy Bedouin dwelling, as the text has it, in the Land of the Chaldeans. He is quite satisfied where he is and with what he has for his livelihood. On a particularly momentous day, he has this overwhelming experience of God who bids him to leave that land that is not his land, cross the desert and establish himself and his kinfolk in a land that God will give him. Reading forward into history we know that this new homestead is what we today know as the Land of Israel.
Secondly, God promised Abram that he would become the father of many nations and that his name would be great among other nations of the East.
The text does not describe for us what was going on in Abram’s mind, when he thought about moving his family across the desert to a destination he could only imagine.
The point of story is that Abram was willing to make this great transformation in his life. As a result we know him today as the father of three great religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. “See what happens when you decide to change your address?”
Our second illustration comes from the Christian scriptures. It is the story of Saul (later Paul, another name change). His life, and, indeed, our lives are changed forever because of Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road. Saul, the persecutor becomes Paul the preacher of good news. What would Christianity look like today if Saul had said, “hey, I’m okay with being an observant Jew; why should I want to change my life around?” Only a question, but life is often about a matter of choices. You see it’s all about transformation.
We conclude this list of transformation examples with the well-known experience of Jesus and his disciples on the Mount of the Transfiguration. The core of the story lies in the disciple’s discovery of Jesus’ relationship with the Father. (“This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”) With that, of course, begins the long course of Christian history. The disciples come down off the mountain with Jesus and continue spreading the good news. If you look at the time-lapse of Christian history you would have to say that we are all recipients of that transformation experience.
The point of all this, of course, is that transformation experiences, large and small, are constantly going on in our lives throughout our lives, but obviously we will never know the outcome unless we follow instructions.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 10:43 AM.
March 09, 2011
First Sunday of Lent [March 13, 2011]
Recently I happened to be reading a particularly depressing issue of Commonweal Magazine. The front cover caught my eye immediately: black background, titles of three articles outlined in red and a four-sided border outlined with barbed wire. The headline read: “INSIDE OUT (America’s Prison Problem)”.
I struggled through all three articles, burdensome though it was. The authors, each in turn, related what we already know: The United States has an incarceration rate 6 to 12 times higher than other Western countries. Putting more people in prison and, sadly, more people to death has not given Americans the security we seek.” This is a quote from a pastoral statement by the Catholic bishops in the year 2000.
Sadly, the situation has gotten even worse over the past nine years. The pastoral letter continues: “We bishops believe that the current trend of more prisons and more executions, with too little education and drug treatment, does not truly reflect Christian values and will not really make our communities any safer.”
By pure coincidence, I happened to be reading those articles just at the beginning of Lent and suddenly the thought came to me that there was something in those articles that seemed oddly analogous to the themes in the readings from the Book of Genesis and the story of Jesus’ three temptations described in the Matthean gospel passage.
Before delving into those two readings, let me philosophize a bit on human nature. A daily reading of any metropolitan newspaper will convince us that something is amiss in our world. True enough, there are lots of encouraging and hopeful events to be found. At the same time, however, there are countless stories of individuals who have fought with their demons and lost.
There seems to be a natural inclination in human individuals to long for and search for what they do not have. In some sense, enough is never enough; we always seem to want more of whatever that happens to be.
Think, for instance, of Bernie Madoff and all the people who invested millions, billions of dollars in his Ponzi scheme. For the most part, they were already well to do, but the hunger for more kept them investing until the scheme fell apart.
Could the same be said of individuals who deal in drugs because it promises a quick fix to their hunger for security? Now, of course, they are truly secure…in prison.
Oddly enough, individuals in prison are, for the most part, not evil people by nature; they are simply people responding to an unfulfilled need. Perhaps they feel that something is missing in their lives, a vacuum that could be fulfilled by selling drugs, useless bonds or ponzi schemes.
Obviously, we are suggesting here an extreme set of examples. Could it not be said, however that all of us deal with our demons? Is there not within our deepest psyche, our conscience, a daily battle going on over what we have and what we want? For the most part, we win those battles of good over evil, but they continue to go on every day, nonetheless. It’s our nature.
Let me suggest, therefore, that the scenes I have just described are replicated in the two stories in the scriptures for the First Sunday of Lent.
Lent always begins, of course, with the story of the first two humans. They find themselves in a garden of delights (Eden). They lack for nothing; God walks with them in this garden. And yet, something deep in their psyche tells them that there is something more to be had in their lives by eating of the fruit of the tree of wisdom tree, the tree of the choice of good or evil. The choice would be theirs. The serpent, the tempter, of course, is a symbol of the struggle that is going on in their own consciences, their desire for fulfillment.
It is a story, once again, that portrays one of the fundamental elements of our human nature, the choice of good over evil. For the most part, we already have all that we need, but if perhaps there could be something more to be had, then we will be satisfied…maybe!
The question whether the events in the Garden of Eden happened as they are described in Genesis is immaterial. The fundamental issue is the question of what it means. What does it say about human nature, about us, we who also live in our personal Gardens of Eden? Do we have sufficient strength of mind and will to say “enough is enough?”
That is exactly where the story of Jesus enters into the picture. The setting is not a “Garden of Eden,” but a deserted place where temptations can be equally as real.
Let it be said here that the event described by Matthew occurs almost immediately after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. At the baptism he hears the voice of God’s Spirit referring to him as “God’s favored Son” called to preach good news of the kingdom of heaven. Following upon that baptismal vision, he ventures out into a deserted place to reflect on that call. And it is also here in the silence of this deserted place that he struggles with his three personal demons, the temptation to power, success and self-sufficiency. These are the very temptations that he would face later as he began his work proclaiming God’s kingdom. If his later work would be successful, he would need to confront the possibility of failure in this private desert Garden of Eden.
Of course, both of these biblical events will have little meaning in themselves unless they can be personalized in the context of our own lives
We began all this by pointing out that each of us has our every day personal battles with the world around us. It is a good world, of course, but its rewards are limited. Like Jesus, we must resist the temptation to believe that we can have whatever we want whenever we want it.
What better time, therefore, to reflect on all this than at the beginning of Lent in the deserted place of our own choosing. We have the option of going the easy way of failure, the way of our biblical ancestors, or the difficult way of Jesus who stood firm against all that threatened him. We already know from experience where our battles will take place; by Easter we will know the outcome.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 11:20 AM.
March 22, 2010
Palm Sunday - Sixth Sunday of Lent [March 28, 2010]
Is there a person in the world, old or young, but especially the young, who does not love a parade? I doubt it! Many a time I have reserved a seat for myself on the curb, waiting for the festivities to begin, for the hard candies to start flying.
The Fourth of July, of course, the feast of our independence is always the most celebratory: Vehicles of all sorts creep by: high -powered cars, old tractors, home made “go-carts. Then, of course, along comes the Queen of something or other with her ladies in waiting. And somewhere in the middle of that long retinue comes the center piece of the event: the mayor and members of the city council, followed by fire trucks with horns blaring, some people clapping wildly, others, perhaps, less enthusiastic about politicians and politics, bearing up as best they can.
Without doubt, however, everyone seems happy to celebrate a day off from the burdens of work and a time to pretend that the world is really okay, at least for today.
We do not have much reliable evidence of patriotic parades in ancient times, except on those occasions when a Roman general with his victorious troops came home after defeating “the enemy” whomever they might be.
An instance of a parade, much smaller and less pretentious, is described for us in the gospel of Luke for the Sunday that we, oddly enough, name for tree branches, palms. Palm Sunday, we call it.
As in most parade-celebrations, and in this instance as well, an important personage was making his entrance into the city of Jerusalem. He had already gained considerable renown as a preacher of good news, being also one who did marvelous deeds of healing the sick and offering hope to the downtrodden. His name: Jesus, the man from Nazareth.
Over the preceding months he had gained considerable attention, both by the common folks and suspicion by the religious and civil authorities.
Nonetheless, this particular day and its festivities belonged to the “folks,” the common people who had seen or heard of his great exploits. Hence, as the text points out so graphically, they laid their coats, blankets and tree branches on the dusty street as a sign and acceptance of this humble man who seemed to be the promise of a happier future.
In only a short time, however, all this gala celebration would be forgotten. This man who promised liberation would be dead at the hands of the Roman army in collusion with the religious authorities.
And so, the crowds soon forgot him. However, a small group of close-ups (disciples, apostles, hangers on) could not forget him. They soon became known as Jesus Followers. They formed themselves into small prayer and worship groups, who, after a short while, began to grow. They could not forget Him. After all, he held out such great promise for them. Through these small prayer and worship groups, his memory would continue to grow over the years and centuries until this very day, Palm Sunday, when all of us Christians gather whether in marching ranks or sitting on sidewalks to remember this man who has meant everything to us.
Given all this, it seems to me that Palm Sunday is not simply an effort to recall the past but also a parable for the future. It appears to me that grand events often peak for a short time and then hopes are dashed, but only for a while.
This has happened many times in history: just when people began to think that their hopes were useless, suddenly, or over a period of time, the importance of this person and his vision begins to flower and hope begins to return.
Let me give you several examples of this phenomenon. Thirty years ago, in the month of March, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero was shot through the heart by a designated soldier of the Salvadoran army while he, Romero was celebrating Mass at a convent of sisters. The reason for this atrocious act: he was doing his best protect the campesinos, farmers and local artisans from the threat of the military dictatorship: There was always the suspicion by the government that they were Communists, agitators.
Today, however, the Salvadoran people consider Romero a saint. A film is being shown in mid March here at the University of Notre Dame titled Romero on Romero. Romero’s story by Romero himself. It is expected to be shown around the United States and especially in Central America as a tribute to the little people whom Romero defended.
I think of this as a Jesus parable: Just when we thought all was lost in El Salvador, new life sprang up from the grave of that great man.
One last parable: thirty years ago, also in El Salvador, four American churchwomen were raped and murdered. Their only crime: being agitators of the people, communists deserving death. In fact, however, like Archbishop Romero, they simply stood in companionship with the poor and the oppressed.
Today, they are considered saints and martyrs. Once again, an example that when all seems lost, hope springs up anew.
This, I think, is the message of Palm Sunday: There may be instances in our own lives when we feel that life is a parade, a gala event until, suddenly, all our hopes are dashed. Only much later, after much perseverance, however, does the hope of new life return for us.
In some sense all our lives are a parable of death and resurrection. It simply takes a while to see the sunrise after a long night of darkness.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 12:50 PM.
March 17, 2010
Fifth Sunday of Lent [March 21, 2009]
It has occurred to me many times when reading Jesus’ stories that he had a keen sense of human relationships. Many of his stories are concerned with the life of families. Perhaps the best known among such stories is the one we have come to call The Prodigal Son, the son who had everything life could provide but left home, wasted it, then came to his mind and returned to his father for reconciliation.
All of us, being members of families, know from personal experience that fathers-sons and mothers-daughters relationships can be stressful. It is often said that fathers compete with their sons and mothers with their daughters. From my own family experience, I believe that to be true. My father and I were never very close. I cannot ever remember carrying on any deep and sensitive conversation with him. Such was not his style nor choice. I believe that was much to my disadvantage in my struggle to grow into manhood.
Later on in college, during my so-called “Russian period,” I read a novel by Ivan Sergeevitch Turgenev entitled Fathers and Sons, hoping to find some light regarding my own parental relationship. Alas, the book turned out to be too political for my tastes.
Speaking again of my own experience, I believe that I struggled mightily to grow up and made many mistakes in the process. All this was a great sadness for my father, I’m sure. He had high hopes that his eldest son would carry on the tradition of the family estate. My decision to enter the seminary seemed something of a disappointment to him.
So, what about the story of the prodigal son? You will notice that it is sandwiched into a conversation Jesus had with the scribes and Pharisees regarding his habit of welcoming sinners and eating with them. Such association with “sinners” (non Jews) was particularly repugnant to conservative Jews.
The prodigal story is also part of a three-some concerning “the lost”, the lost coin, the lost sheep and the lost son. All three demonstrate Jesus deep concern regarding those whom conservative Jews considered lost, outside the realm of salvation.
Jesus, on the other hand tells each story in such a way that the woman who loses the coin, the shepherd, the lost sheep and the father his son will go to great lengths to recover that which was lost. That is God’s way, Jesus seems to say. No effort is too great to find whomever or whatever is lost. In modern parlance, Jesus is preaching God’s “Lost and Found” policy.
The lost son story also has stored within it the notion that the God of Jesus is a patient God. Nothing in this world moves rapidly, particularly human growth. Becoming human simply takes a lifetime. God is willing to wait until we finally find our way back home. It’s called forgiveness,
So a question arises from the story: What is gained if the father simply tells the son: “You ruined our family name and heritage. Don’t ever come back here?” In that case both sides have lost everything.
In a sense, then, none of us should consider ourselves as estranged from God; we may feel alienated, but are never lost.
There is still one last small mystery in this story: What of the elder son? He seems to have been completely overlooked. Most us, reading the story would feel compassion for him. After all, he supported his father from his youth, never a party of any sort; then “the wastrel” comes home and the partying begins. Where is the justice in this? My personal interpretation of this element in the story that the elder son was never lost; the younger one was lost. This is a story about “lostness” and recovery; Jesus simply wants to get a point across to those who have placed certain members of the human race outside the availability of salvation.
Interestingly, I should imagine that most of us would come down on the side of the younger son, despite his scandalous ways. It is against our deepest sensibilities to see a son or daughter punished when they demonstrate their desire to come back into the fold and be one of the family again. Of course, it does sound a little extreme, doesn’t it? A shower, new clothes, a party with the best food and drink. dancing and the rest. But now tell me, wouldn’t you go out of your way to welcome home one of your own? Sure you would! After all, we can’t be petty about such things. Hey, we’re all a little bit lost, aren’t we?
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 01:20 PM.
March 08, 2010
Fourth Sunday of Lent [March 14, 2010]
It is obviously a bit late for me to be thinking about changing careers. Even if it were possible, however, the one occupation that would not attract my interest would be Law. I do not have many friends, who are judges or attorneys, but it occurs to me that Law is a calling that involves a high level of intelligence, deep compassion while making those serious decisions that can realistically affect another person’s life. Indeed, judges and juries in many instances have the power to take or spare another person’s life. Without doubt, therefore the legal profession carries with it great power but also great peril. A wrong decision can make a difference for a lifetime.
It should also be said that a case of law should have no room for assumptions. Life and Law have to do with provable facts. There is no room for superficial assumptions about guilt or innocence.
It occurs to me also that on a personal level, all of us can fall into the trap of making assumptions about others that ultimately turn to be false or at least highly questionable. I can truthfully say that I have often been guilty of making such harmful judgments, much to my own embarrassment afterwards.
We have such a situation of false judgment and happy ending in the gospel for this Fifth Sunday of Lent. It is the well-known story of the woman taken in adultery. Interestingly, it is a kind of case history. The elders of the temple consistently tried to trap Jesus in his judgments regarding civil cases. And so, in this instance, they bring before him the woman found to be in an illicit relation with a man. (By the way, the man is not accused in this instance, which makes for another interesting legal situation.) Nonetheless, the elders place the legal case before Jesus the rabbi, teacher. If he decides that the woman should go free, he could be accused of violating the Law of Moses, which specified that a woman caught in adultery should be stoned. If, on the other hand, he should find her guilty, they would accuse him of contradicting the human law of compassion. In other words, the elders wanted to trap Jesus on the basis of his own judgment.
It is at this point that the wisdom of Jesus is clearly seen. It is clearly a case of gender discrimination. Jesus puts the elders on the defensive by asking them whether there is any among them who has never committed a sin. Silence befalls the crowd and, one by one they crept away. The only assumption one can make is that the elders themselves were guilt of sin…adultery? Who knows?
I’m sure that many people hearing this story will say, “All right. Justice is served!”
I have thought of this as “Second Chance Theology,” or the risks of false accusation. In any case, it is a happy ending story.
Notice, by the way, that the of reconciliation story is included in the liturgy of Lent; all of which invites us Christians to think about our habit of false accusation or false assumption, a tendency we have in relation to others. It is so simple to throw rocks, real or metaphorical, at others. It is true, I believe, that all of us are consistently growing up throughout our life. Every transgression is an opportunity for atonement.
It occurs to me that wherever we walk, there are rocks under our feet, a good reminder that they should be left to lie exactly where they are. Now, baseballs are a different story. One can throw and catch them without danger.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 01:08 PM.
March 01, 2010
Third Sunday of Lent [March 7, 2010]
Let me begin this reflection on the Third Sunday of Holy Lent with an assumption that I feel is almost certain. My assumption is that everyone, without exception, is capable of experiencing God. Secondly, everyone experiences God in his/her own unique way. There is the Catholic experience, the Christian experience, the Jewish experience, the Islamic experience and others too numerous to mention.
I would also like to assert that even atheists experience God, not my God or yours, perhaps, but God in some unique form known and interpreted only by the individual.
Over the past several years there has been a number of self-identified atheist authors who have made new assertions regarding the existence of God: the three best known in the group are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, all scholars in their own particular field of science. Lest we imagine that these gentlemen are doomed for their position, let me quote two interesting statements from their works; here, for instance, is what Sam Harris has to say: “I still use words like “spiritual” and “mystical”…People have self-transcending experiences. And people have the best day of their life when…they seem to be one with nature.” Some may say, “That’s not God!” True enough, perhaps, from our Christian perspective, but it is an experience, nonetheless, of the sacred, the transcendent.
Here is a short paragraph from Daniel Dennett: “(The God experience) is the best moment in your life and it’s the moment when you forget yourself and become better than you ever thought you could be, and see in all humbleness the wonderfulness of nature. That’s it! and that’s wonderful.”
Most of us, I should imagine, would agree that there is something transcendent about nature: the sun, for instance keeps us alive, rain that provides water for thirsty creatures, clouds, thunder and lightning, storms of all sorts help us to imagine the God of Christian faith.
Finally, there is the well-known experience we read of from the Book of Exodus. Moses is wandering about in the Sinai desert herding his father-in-law’s herd of sheep and suddenly comes upon a bush that is afire and yet does not seem to diminish. Then comes the divine experience: A voice from the bush warns Moses not to approach any farther because he is already standing on holy ground.
I’m sure Moses must have felt all the more bewildered and perplexed over this experience: talking bushes must have been rare in those times as they are today. Nonetheless, he interprets it as a divine intervention in his life. He will not consider himself a simple sheepherder from that moment forward. His life was now changed forever.
Scripture scholars are at a loss to explain the divine phenomenon except to say that although physically unique, it was interpreted by Moses and others after him as a God-experience.
As we mentioned above, all such experiences are exclusive to the individual. That is what makes me think that no two people on this planet have the same perception of God. We are literally left to our own devices.
It is for this reason that certain so-called burning bush experiences in life are worth considering and remembering. Many of us have heard of individuals who have turned their lives around after some particular event that happened to them. My sense, however, is that this is a rather rare occurrence and not to be duplicated for ourselves.
More common, I believe, are the so called every day experiences that at first sight seem to be nothing more than accidents: the sunset that made you stop on the way home from work and simply stare until the sun disappeared below the horizon. I myself have had several close-call automobile accidents that awakened me to the real world and made me realize that only God could have protected me from my careless driving
Perhaps you will agree with me, therefore, that there are such occurrences in that at first seem may simply seem to be a “happening” but, indeed, on reflection, turn out to have immense meaning.
What really matters at such moments in life is that we pay attention and search for the deeper meaning that lies deep within the incident.
Many people feel that the God-experience is in the details of life. I believe that to be true, but it applies particularly to perceptive people, folks who try to appreciate the extraordinary in the ordinary, the sacred in the worldly. That is why I still insist that folks who call themselves atheists may yet be people of faith whether or not they believe it to be true.
Let me add, however, that If any of you who are reading these words claim that you have seen a burning bush in your back yard that talks, let me know, I need to come and do some closer investigation.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 10:09 AM.
February 23, 2010
Second Sunday of Lent - February 28, 2010
As I take my seat before this machine called a word-processor, a processor of words, I am, almost literally, without words. The unimaginable destruction and human suffering that has followed upon the 7.0 earthquake on the Caribbean nation of Haiti has left everyone who thinks about it and tries to write about it nearly speechless. No words in the English language can describe the suffering these good people have experienced. Graphic images make us turn our face away. On the streets and alleyways of the cities the odor of death makes people turn and walk in a different direction. In short, communications people who are generally skilled with words are suddenly left without. There are simply some natural occurrences on this planet that defy our ability or skill to explain or describe.
It should come as no surprise to us, therefore, that we live on a very fragile and unprotected planet. One sometimes even wonders whether humankind was meant to live on this planet we call earth. We seem to have little control over our environment.
Speaking for myself regarding this catastrophe, I can only say, “how quickly life can be transformed.” Haiti, a poor country but nonetheless a nation of fundamentally happy, dancing-people became a scene of indescribable terror, a terror that most of us have never experienced or even imagined. Buildings that were once relatively safe for living are now simply dust. (Ironically, one thinks of the prediction of the Ash Wednesday liturgy: “Thou art dust and to dust shalt thou return.”)
I think it is safe to say generally that inhabitants of the earth are not prepared for catastrophic transformations of this sort. We have a certain intuition that the earth is not our enemy. It provides food, water, protection, and natural sustenance for us. And then suddenly, as in Haiti, it is only fit as a burial ground for the unfortunate dead.
We all know, of course, that transformation happens slowly. If we have access to a photo of ourselves at First Communion, for instance, we know only too well how we have changed; our whole being, physically, emotionally, spiritually has been transformed by time and natural circumstances. Again, however, it happens so slowly and gradually that we hardly have any sense of it. That is why certain sudden transformations are often nearly unbearable because we are never ready.
The point, of course, is that transformations of all kinds and sorts happen throughout our life.
Then the question remains, what do they mean, how do we recognize them, how do we adjust to them, as adjust we must, if we are to live into the future?
We have several life stories in our scriptures for this Second Sunday of Holy Lent that give us an insight into the manner whereby three people, Abraham, Paul and Jesus experienced transformations in their lives.
Having lived approximately 1600 years B.C. we have scant knowledge of this Bedouin sheik, Abram, who followed his flocks in the Eastern desert, the Ur of the Chaldees. He was, no doubt a happy man: Flocks, wives, children were in abundance; protection from harm seemed eternally assured. On a certain night, however, he experiences a great mystery: A God of whom he knows nothing appears to him with the promise that he and his descendants will inherit the land from Egypt to the great river Euphrates, literally the whole Middle East. “On what evidence shall I know this,” says Abram: A flaming brazier and torch then passes between the two halves of the traditional sacrificial animal, the symbol of a covenant being made. And so it was, Abram became the father of many nations…but not instantly nor absolutely. It would be thousands of years of gradual transformation before the Israelites would recognize the ancient prediction. Indeed, it is happening this very day in East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Often transformation takes many lifetimes, sometimes never.
The second transformation story occurs in Paul’s life and is described in the letter to the church at Philippi. Paul is never satisfied until he can retell the story of his transformation into the life of Christ. With this in mind, he tells his recent converts that becoming a Christ follower does not happen instantaneously (as it happened with him, Paul). He goes on to say, however, that “Our citizenship is in heaven and from it we await a savior, our Lord Jesus Christ; he will change (transform) our lowly body to conform to His glorified body…)” It is safe to say that we, like the Church in Philippi, also travel through a gradual Christian transformation.
And finally, we are once again told the story of Jesus’ Transfiguration (transformation) on a high mountain. The disciples who were with Jesus during that life-changing moment could not describe the interior transformation that Jesus was experiencing. All they knew was that he appeared differently to them. He spoke with the ancient prophets, his forerunners. No doubt, he was reflecting on the founding of God’s reign that he was to undertake. All that we can make of this scene is that Jesus came down that mountain a different person: Like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. he could say: “I’ve been to the mountaintop; God allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over and I have seen the Promised Land.” I would like to imagine that Dr. King’s experience was something like what Jesus and his disciples experienced at his transfiguration. Perhaps he could see his whole life in front of him.
Finally, It is safe to say that most of us will never experience what Jesus experienced that day on the mountain. Transformations happen slowly, hardly even being noticed. Indeed, I will be bold enough to say that even Jesus began to see and understand his future gradually as he “went among the people and cured their ills.” Only the every day existential experiences can teach us who we are and what we shall become…yes, all the way to that place where the God of mystery reigns endlessly in peace.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 02:51 PM.
February 16, 2010
The First Sunday of Lent [February 21, 2010]
I have a feeling that the person who was responsible (I’m assuming it was a pope) for the good ordering of the liturgical calendar, the ordered procession Sundays, feast days, obviously did not take the condition of human nature into consideration. It may sound trivial but it has only been approximately 6 weeks since we celebrated (yes celebrated) the Nativity of the Lord and the other lesser feasts that follow directly upon it.
And now, here we are today on the First Sunday of Lent being asked to put on ashes and dreary faces (well, not quite). But we are asked to change our thoughts to serious matters. I’m not sure whether most Christians are ready for that substantial transformation; whether we are prepared for it or not, however, the season has come for us to do some serious thinking about the manner in which we look at life and what we are doing about it
Of course, the anomaly in all this is that Lent is not for the sake of Lent; Lent is for life and living. it is a time for rethinking the patterns of our life to see whether they are leading us anywhere beyond the season itself.
Traditionally, we Christians have always opened the gospel for this Sunday that describes Jesus’ three temptations and how he dealt with them. The graphic language of the gospel has Jesus fighting against outside, worldly forces: satisfaction with self (stones to bread), power and glory (world domination), casting himself off the highest point of the temple. (Power over self).
The “old time” Lenten preachers would collapse these three into a familiar saying: “the world, the flesh and the devil.” Using the graphic description of the three temptations in the gospel, they assumed that human temptation came from the outside. Seriously minded people, they thought, were constantly harassed by powers beyond their control.
A more serious reflection on this passage, however, gives one the sense that a person, a human being, a Christian is fundamentally faced with self, with those inner urges that rise out of one’s psyche when in contact with the world. (Remember the old Pogo line? “We have met the enemy and they is us.”) The gospel story seems to say that the world and its allurements have the power of evil, a sense that, unless controlled, they will destroy a person. Jesus is portrayed, of course, as the one who has faced these temptations and overcame them, this being a model for the Christian as well.
Admittedly, of course, the world around us does have an effect upon our life, but only if we allow it to be so. We are all children of this world, but hopefully not of it.
I want insist, however, that it is not the world that is out to conquer us; it is our inner desire to react to those natural inner forces that rise up to struggle against us. Who of us has not felt the power to control our environment? Who has not lusted after the world’s attractions?
Nonetheless, it is not the world or its goods that are to be blamed; it is the uncontrolled inquisitiveness arising out of our emotions that causes us anxiety.
In this regard, Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun living in Erie Pennsylvania, has an interesting insight on the relationship between the world and the self: “In the midst of chaos,” she says, “it is nevertheless possible to be at peace because peace first comes from within ourselves, not from outside of us. Those who are not at peace within, would not be at peace in heaven.”
Given what Joan Chittister says regarding peace, we might well think of it as the predominant goal for Lent. Lent is not about overcoming “the evil one,” not about conquering our inner tendencies. Rather it is about coming to grips with self and making peace with ourselves
Ultimately, life for the Christian is not about battling the world, imaginary or real; rather it is about understanding the world as friend, brother or sister. We do not necessarily need to be “at war” with what attracts us.
With all that in mind, I am convinced that when the forty days and forty nights of Lent are completed and Easter dawns we will be at rest and at peace with ourselves. Have a peaceful Lent, my friends.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 10:16 AM.
April 02, 2009
Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion [April 5, 2009]
There is a long running joke among Catholics that they always show up in greater numbers on Ash Wednesday and Palm Sunday because, for a change they get something back for their money! Well, to be truthful, ashes don’t cost much and neither do palms.
Nonetheless, it is true that Catholic folks do pack their churches on those two days along with Easter Sunday, of course. So, why is this?
Well, a long time ago, Father Andrew Greeley, parish priest in Chicago, said that Catholics may have disagreements with their Church but when push comes to shove they will never leave it because in their heart of hearts they love symbols and sacraments. It’s this that keeps their faith alive for another day.”
Incidentally, we do have before us this Sunday one of those occasions when Catholics do get something back but it is not simply a few branches of palm.
Let me explain: The rites and ceremonies that we will celebrate, beginning with the Palm Sunday of the Lord Passion, Thursday of the Lord’s Supper, Friday of the Lord’s Passion, the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday…all these are rich in ritual and gesture, word and song. This week is so filled with rite that it is almost difficult to keep up with it all. (Pity the song leaders!)
It is called the great Triduum, the three great days of the Lord’s Pasch, his passing over from death to life and we with him in liturgy, in rite and ritual.
There is one thing, however, that Catholics at worship need to be cautious of: All these rites are not simply play acting, not trying to imitate The Passion of the Christ, the film we saw a few years ago.
What we need to remember is that Jesus did, indeed, go through humiliation, suffering, pain and human agony like none other. (Remember the whipping scenes in The Passion of the Christ.)
The question arises therefore: What does all that pain and suffering mean to us? It happened over two thousand years ago and now it’s over. Well, the answer to that is that Jesus entered into that suffering and death for our sake. The consequence is that if Christ’s suffering is to have any benefit for us, we have too must participate in that suffering somehow. Obviously, we cannot do that again historically with Jesus. History moves on.
But there is a way to participate in Jesus’ Pasch, his passing over and that is by way of entering into it by way of the liturgy, doing again, vicariously, what Jesus did once before in history.
Here is the way Patricia Sanchez a theological scholar puts it: “Because Jesus’ immersion in the human experience, believers may no longer regard salvation as a spiritual experience only, or as a relief that will come when death frees us from this world. Salvation is and must be a here and now experience of the mercies of God.” That’s really powerful.
It must also be said that Christ continues to go through his passion, and death each time the human community enters into death-dealing events: Wars, violence, substance abuse, disrespect for the opinions of others, et cetera. It is for these that Jesus also died.
It seems only logical then that the human race, particularly the followers of Jesus should join in this effort to reduce the power of evil in our time and make repentance for our participation in the world’s fallenness.
The end of all this, of course, is Easter Sunday of the Lord’s Resurrection. As Paul says: “If we die with Him (Christ) we shall also live with him”
Given all that, therefore, it will be worth our while to pass with Christ from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. The rewards will be greater than a few palms that, often enough, are left to dry somewhere and forgotten.
But aren’t those ceremonies so long? Yes, indeed, they are long, but on Easter Sunday we will be able to say to ourselves: “I was there with Christ in his suffering; now I rise with Him in glory.”
The scriptures: Mark 11: 1-10; Isaiah 50: 4-7; Philippians. 2: 6-11; Mark 14:1-15:47
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 09:43 AM.
March 23, 2009
Fifth Sunday of Lent [March 29, 2009]
Occasionally, on television you will see programs that ask people to do daring things like motorcycle jumps, parachute plunges from bridges, jungle searches for some for some hidden prize or other such weird projects.
Well, just for fun, let me ask you another odd question, a question I dearly hope that you will never have to answer. The question: What would you be willing to die for? Most folks would say, “Well, I hope I never have to answer to that.” Or you might say: “If my house was on fire and my kids were inside, I’d risk my life to save them. I’d even risk my life to save my old black lab hunting dog.
Happily, of course, situations like that rarely arise or if they do arise, we have high praise for the person(s) who took the risk.
There are indeed folks who are willing to risk their lives practically every day: Policemen, firemen and women, soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, doctors who treat people with infectious diseases, young adults who volunteer to travel to countries with politically unstable governments. You could name other brave souls.
Another group of people who are willing to give up their lives for a cause are those who love their country, true patriots like the Irish who battled with Great Britain to reestablish their freedom. Think too of the monks and people of Tibet who for years have been struggling for freedom. Once a country loses its freedom, it loses very identity.
But there are also others, of course, who are willing to take their lives and the lives of others for radical causes: Think of the Muslim extremists, for instance, who tie explosives around themselves, ignite them, killing dozens of people at one time.
People in Ireland have also died at the hands of the IRA. People in Spain by the Basque Separatists (ETA). All I can say is that this is misguided patriotism. Nonetheless, it must take tremendous courage for such people to dress in ammunition and then blow themselves up. There must be more worthy causes than that.
At the same time, it occurs to me that people over a span of time have chosen to die for religious causes more than for any other. I find that interesting inasmuch as life itself seems to me more important than the beliefs of any particular religion.
Interestingly, of course, Christians claim that Jesus died for us. It is a tenet of our Christian faith that through Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection we are saved. I confess that I do not know precisely what “dying for our salvation” means. As close as I can come to answer that is to say that Jesus struggled through his entire adult life to bring life to people by his word, by his miracles of healing and by his very person. As an ultimate sign of his life saving work for us, he was willing to die for all humankind.
I also think of Jesus death as a living sign or model of how we are invited to live for others. Wrapping oneself in explosives and blowing ones self up for the sake of others is obviously not an answer. Yet, in some sense we are called on to sacrifice something for others in a model that resembles Jesus’ life and work. This could also be called a “sacrifice” in a relative sense, a giving up something of ourselves and our life for the sake of others.
Think of the efforts mothers endure to bring new life into the world, the hard work parents do to sustain their families. Yes, I realize these examples are not equal to the suffering and death of Jesus. But, of course, God is not calling us to literally die for others. But there are ways and ways of dying for others. In all of this we can say that Jesus is our model.
So, now we are back to the original question: For what are you willing to die? I imagine most of my readers might now say: “ Well, at least I know what I am willing to die for and I know what I am not willing to die for, and that makes all the difference.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 02:09 PM.
March 16, 2009
Fourth Sunday of Lent [March 22, 2009]
I suppose I should know better by now, after all the years of communicating with people, but it still amazes me how speedily and efficiently our words, our personal messages can get from one place to another, from one person to another. Just think, for instance, how quickly a little piece of gossip makes the rounds.
But more to the point, any of us who use a computer or an ordinary cell phone will know how easily one can reach across the world. I have a good friend, a teacher who lives in the far reaches of Alaska and we communicate by cell phone and e-mail all the time. I think I probably have around 200 names on my e-mail address book. Now, if I was to write a letter by hand to each of these folks at Christmas time it would be the Fourth of July before they received them.
By the way, I understand that instant messaging on cell phones is now all the rage. A friend showed me how to do it but I found out that my fingers were too large and clumsy to cover those small keys on my cell phone. Besides, I’m sure no one could have understood my abbreviated words anyway. Ah, the fascinating world of technology.
A question, however, in regard to the speed of communication is this: Does communication technology, all this messaging, make us more human, more intelligent, more sensitive, more intuitive more responsive to others. Is our world a better place a more humane planet because we have learned over the millennia to talk to one another? I think that may be a valid question. I have no immediate answer
So, it seems to me that this messaging or communicating that we do can be both good and bad. In so many cases today the messenger becomes less important than the means whereby the message is communicated. Our hope is that if the message gets to its destination fast, our goal will have been achieved. So, let’s get the latest and fastest Intel processor!
But think about this: In the not-so-long-ago, messages were delivered in person or by a person. Someone was entrusted to get a letter or a document to an addressee. That messenger took personal responsibility to get it there. At one time in our American history, for instance, folks used the Pony Express to get a letter from point to point across the vast plains. Today, as we all know, government officials often use a personal courier to deliver top-secret documents. Even the Vatican sends messages by courier.
At any rate and in either case, a living person takes responsibility for delivering words, whether good or bad. If the words happen to be welcome, all the better, if unwelcome, the messenger often might suffer violence or death. Even today, we often hear the phrase “to kill the messenger,” It’s a phrase that comes from the Greek playwright Sophocles’ in his play, Antigone. William Shakespeare also once used the phrase, “don’t shoot the messenger.” We sure hope not.
But it is not so amusing, my friends: Individuals who choose to say hard words or give warnings are often tortured or killed. There is an example of that in the scriptures for this very Sunday. The Chronicler in our first reading points out that many messengers of God who were sent to the Israelites over the centuries were mistreated and their message rejected.
The classic messengers in the Jewish testament, of course, were the great prophets, Jeremiah (mentioned in today’s reading) Isaiah, Micah, Ezekiel, Haggai and Malachi and others less well known. In today’s parlance, they often took the heat when they gave warnings to the people and especially their kings. Jeremiah, for instance, was thrown into a dry cistern and left to die. He was warning the king of Israel to avoid a useless and dangerous alliance with another king.
So, you may ask, why were they persecuted? Think of it this way: Prophets, by profession, are people who are willing to look deeply into their times and speak the truth to power. They are not willing to accept soft and easy answers for world problems and for that they are scorned. But that is precisely the role of prophets, to ask hard questions and not allow for soft and easy answers. If you will allow me, I often think of our president, Barak Obama as a prophet. He spoke bluntly this week of the grave condition of our economy. Who was listening?
Returning to the scriptures, we know and follow the greatest prophet of all time: Jesus of Nazareth. The author of John’s gospel in today’s liturgy, for instance, says of Him that he came into the world to bring light, but people preferred darkness to light because their works were evil. How would we interpret “darkness” in our times?
The common denominator in all this, it seems to me, is that truth and messengers of truth will always find it difficult to get a hearing. Just think, for instance, how difficult it was for Jesus to get people to listen to the good news. Ultimately people killed the messenger.
But it seems to me too that part of our problem is that there are not enough messengers to speak truth to power. Ideally, prophets should not be in short supply in any age. Unfortunately, we imagine that it takes some special kind of person to be that messenger. Not so, I say! If we ordinary Christians are not messengers of good news, what are we good for? If we are unable or refuse to bring good news into the dark corners of our world, who will do it?
This brings us back to our original question: What can bring true and lasting change to our world? Speedy technology or a Christian messenger who believes in the message? I think we know the answer to that: All the broad band access, all the Intel technology, all the high powered computers, all the cell phones in the world will never compare to one human voice who is willing to speak truth to power. Jesus did it, so can we. May God bless you and all that you do this week.
The scriptures: Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; Ephesians 2 4-10; John 3: 14-21
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 09:34 AM.
March 09, 2009
Third Sunday of Lent [March 15, 2009]
An article appeared in our local paper some days ago about an action that happens all too often: As group of teenagers bearing cans of spray desecrated a local Jewish synagogue with Nazi symbols. One would think that at some point in our American history intelligent people would be able to appreciate the meaning or significance of holy places. Such actions happen at Catholic churches as well, of course, but that does not make it any less serious in the eyes of all devout people.
A year or so ago several young adults in South Carolina went on a spree burning African American churches in several cities. They were finally apprehended and the parishioners went back to work rebuilding their churches without hate in their hearts.
One might ask, of course, why churches or synagogues or mosques? I think the answer is that most people of any faith have deep regard and respect not for the building itself, but for the actions that take place there: Worship of God, teaching of the commandments and other forms of devotion. In some sense, churches may be more sacred to us than even our own homes!
I imagine to that there is one other building in Washington, D.C. that is sacred to most people and that is the Supreme Court. You will notice that it has a frieze of some of the world’s great lawgivers on the façade. From a distance it almost looks like a giant cathedral with the pillars across the front. Once again, we would all be angry if someone were to desecrate it by graffiti.
Again, we may not be offended simply by the desecration of the building. More often, our anger might arise out of a conviction that this building itself (like a church, mosque or synagogue) is the place where human law is adjudicated, where justice is served, where people can expect their cause will be heard. When, therefore there are reports that an officer of the court has been shot, everyone is outraged.
Given these various examples of law, worship and the buildings where accompanying activities are carried out, we can well understand the short episode in the gospel describing Jesus’ anger with the mercantile activities that were being carried out in the temple in Jerusalem. “Get these things out of here,” he said, “you are turning the house of God into a market place!” As far as I know, this is the only incident in the gospels where Jesus ‘lost it,” where he became physically violent.
Interestingly, of course, no one else in the temple seemed to feel that there was anything wrong with what the sales that where going on. These men were simply selling sacrificial animals and birds that were needed for Jewish worship. It was probably a long-standing custom with which no one took offense.
For Jesus, however, this was serious business: He was simply repeating what the great prophets who preceded him had also said. “My house is a house of prayer. You have made it a den of thieves. “
It occurs to me too that this is one of those historical practices that no one took offense at. It’s like the old saying: “Hey, we’ve always done it this way.” Hence, by Jesus time, no one was the least bit offended by the sales that were being carried on in their place of worship. I’m sure we can find instances in our own time where violations of sacred practices become the norm rather than the exception.
It occurs to me, therefore, that there are certain things in this world that are, by their very nature, holy, sacred, untouchable. We know all this simply by instinct.
Could it be said, therefore, that the human person, the human body, is also a “sacred edifice?” You may have noticed that the gospel writer made it clear that when Jesus referred to the destruction of the temple, it was, in fact his own, his body that would be destroyed, desecrated by crucifixion.
I imagine that it does not occur to us very often when we enter the sacred precincts of our church, that it is our own sacred body, created by God that is entering these doors.
Perhaps this story of Jesus’ action in the temple should challenge us not to be swallowed up by consumerism. We might do better to invest our attention in “stocks that do not fail,” human and spiritual interests that pay eternal dividends.
In summary, there are things in this world that are by nature holy. Nonetheless, given our human tendency so often to overlook their inherent holiness, we ought not be offended if someone has the gentle courage to remind us of that. I suspect that knotted ropes may not be needed to bring us around. Just a little nudge here and there, you see.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 09:33 AM.
March 02, 2009
Second Sunday of Lent [March 8, 2009]
Despite the many years I have immersed myself in the world of scripture and theology, I must admit that there are still words and phrases that have little or no meaning for me. My favorite way of coming to some understanding of a particular word or phrase is by heading for Webster’s dictionary or Google to see if I can find synonyms or similar words. Sometimes it works. At other times I’m up against a wall.
One such mysterious word appears in the gospel for this Second Sunday in Lent. Actually, the word comes up again in the liturgy in mid-summer, all of which tells you that it must have been considered important in the Hebrew lexicon. The word is transfigured, transfiguration. It refers to the state of mind that Jesus experienced with his disciples on a high mountain.
Before proceeding, any further, let me say from personal experience that when one expends much effort to climb a mountain, the experience at the summit can be overwhelming (transfiguring). A good climbing friend of mine had an apt phrase to describe such an occasion: Looking out over the vast landscape, he would say: “You can’t get this down town.” Indeed, you can’t.” I would like to think that this might have been Jesus’ experience, something so overwhelming that he could not even explain it.
So, how does transfiguration appear in common, every day occurrences on the personal level? Perhaps you may have attended your 20th or 30th high school reunion. A quick look around will tell you that something has changed: Gray hair, a bulge at the belt line. Psychologically, the person who was non-stop full of energy in high school has now slowed down. Not even cosmetics cannot cover up the lines that were not there at 17.
Some while ago a television program appeared with the title Total Makeover. You may have seen it. I found it amazing to see what cosmetologists could do to make a person look better or at least different.
Obviously, change is one of the most evident elements in our life. We may be unhappy that we are not today what we were 25 years ago, but that’s part of the great cycle of life.
At the same time there are also positive signs in this process of transfiguration: At 50 we are more mature and sensible than we were at 15. At 25 we should be more spiritually mature than we were at the time of our Confirmation. The point, of course, is that we will not understand ourselves spiritually or psychologically unless we can look back calmly and notice the change. Change, after all, is one of the most significant signs of a healthy life. Moreover, there is a deep longing in each of us to become what we are not yet. We all know that we have undiscovered God-gifts that are just pressing to find their place in our lives but how often they lie unused because we are afraid to change, afraid or unwilling to take a chance and use them.
So, what about Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain top with his disciples? Obviously, it was a unique experience which none of his friends understood. Undoubtedly, however, he felt in close touch with his God. At the same time, nothing permanent, no significant change seems to have affected Jesus except that he was surrounded by a bright light while he spoke with Moses, the Exodus leader and Elias the prophet. When the transfiguration came to an end, Jesus and his friends immediately descended the mountain and went back to work, preaching and healing, the very work his Father had called him to.
And so, what of us? Obviously, we will probably never have that spontaneous experience of God that Jesus had. Nonetheless, I am sure there have been moments in all our lives when God seemed closer than ever to us. Perhaps it was simply a feature of raw nature; at other times we may have been alone in our church, just thinking and suddenly the sacred became real. There may have been no obvious explanation; it was just God and you. After all, sacred experiences do not need to be explained. They simply are what they are; each one is unique. In those simple moments we are personally changed with or without any physical evidence.
One last point: Nowhere in the gospel do we find Jesus explaining this transfiguration experience to anyone; perhaps he was unable to do so; perhaps it was simply too overwhelming. So, what happened next? He and his friends all went back to work, transformed, I’m sure.
The scriptures: Genesis 22: 1-2, 9, 10-13, 15-18; Romans 8: 31-34;
Mark 9: 2-10
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 01:11 PM.
February 23, 2009
First Sunday of Lent [March 1, 2009]
The Christmas season is complete now and with that we know that the next season will be Lent and Easter. In some sense I think that we are never quite ready for Ash Wednesday or the First Sunday of this season. On the other hand, we welcome these 6 weeks because many issues in our life have probably been building up over the past year and we know in our heart that we need to confront them.
Lent, truly, is a gift for us all: It is a different kind of season, a serious time, a time of reflection and new intent. Would we really get serious and take a broad look at our life if the Church did not offer us this special time? Speaking for myself, probably not. For that reason then we need this special push, this engagement with the reality of our lives. I always look forward to Ash Wednesday and those weeks that follow it because I know that I will come away the better for it. Yes, it’s true, we will all come back to revisit Lent again next year and the year after that, not simply because of liturgical law or a sense of guilt but because, deep down we know that time and the world are hard on us, indeed, our own weak spirit does not help us much either. And so given all that, we feel happy that we have the whole Church supporting us in this huge effort to turn away from sin and follow the gospel once again.
As the old saying has it, on Ash Wednesday and during Lent sin goes to church. We go to Church because we know that we are nor alone in this huge effort of renewal and reconciliation. We will be in Church, among the community of the faithful giving our all to this great effort of discovering who we are and where we belong.
The question, of course, that arises at the Lent’s beginning is, “so, what am I going to do this year?” From past experience we know that the options are overwhelming: We will go to church daily, we will read some special spiritual book we have been putting off, and of course, following the suggestion of the scriptures, we will pray, fast and give alms. I have no argument with any of those, except to ask the question, “Why,” why are we planning to do all these things? In some sense, I suppose, we have the hope that these will change our life, or we will choose to do them for penance sake, to make up for our wrongs. Nonetheless, from my own experience, I can tell you that penances are not magic, they do not solve or eliminate long entrenched habits. But, still and all, we continue to practices because we feel so good afterward. We’ve made the great effort and that in itself seems to be a reward.
For my part, however, I am always brought back to the gospel on the Lent’s first Sunday, the one you just heard, Jesus’ being driven by the spirit into the wilderness where he faced the three universal temptations that we all experience in our own lives.
Here is what happens: Jesus has just recently been baptized in the Jordan by John. Then immediately he goes out into the desert, the quiet places where there will be no distraction and there he will think about his life now and about his future. Will he go the way of other young men of his time and make a name for himself? Or will he listen to that quiet voice deep within and try to figure out what this mysterious call means?
We all know the answer, of course, his choice is still making us wonder today, wonder what the Good News means, what the Kingdom of God means, what justice and peace and concern for the poor means. It was to these issues that Jesus eventually dedicated himself.
All this leads me to say that all the so-called Lenten practices we have “practiced” before are not in vain, but rather that they must be preceded in doing what Jesus did, to think and reflect and ponder about who we are just now, what we are capable of for God’s kingdom.
In other words, Lent, it seems to me is first of all a time for deep interior reflection: Who am I just now? What gives my life meaning, what is my bliss, what continues to keep me from achieving that Christian goal I set for myself each Lent?
Obviously, if we are thinking about Lenten penances, this one will surely prove the most difficult of all because we usually will insist that everything is really okay in our life and promising to do a few penances will make it all perfect.
My own suggestion therefore, is simply to keep quiet during Lent, do some good spiritual reading to deepen our sense of self, spend at least 15 minutes of reflection daily in our own desert. I am not sure whether there will be any noticeable external changes in our life by Holy Thursday, but at least we will have had to face ourselves and ask hard questions. Chances are that we will not notice many spectacular, long term changes in our life-behavior but that’s not the goal. The goal is simply to take a serious look at life as it appears to us just now and let the spirit move us in the right direction.
The scriptures: Genesis 9: 8-15; Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 12-15
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 01:45 PM.
March 15, 2008
Palm Sunday - Walking into Face of Danger
I imagine the image most of us have of a parade is a happy occasion commemorating some extraordinary event or accomplishment. Parades, of course, are always or usually open-air events. They happen on Broadway or on the main streets of towns and villages around the country. Everyone somehow becomes part of the parade, whether you are actually sitting in the back of a fancy car or sitting on the sidewalk watching the notables go by. We all love parades, even if we sometimes get rained on. Makes no difference.
When the troops come home from Iraq, there will always be a grand reception in every small town around the country. The soldiers will be in full dress uniform, eyes straightforward; a band will accompany them. No effort will be spared to show our thanks for these men and women who risked their lives for our country.
Sometimes the parades are about less serious matters, like the one that took place in New York a couple months ago when the Giants came home the winners of the Super Bowl or again when the Boston Red Sox won the World Series.
In other words, this is the way we pay attention to certain events and heroes in our country’s history: We watch, we cheer, and sometimes we also cry. It’s all about showing our emotions about things we love.
But let us also say that parades can be signs of other things as well: They can be signs of power, for instance, ways of showing that justice should be served, that peoples rights and freedoms should be respected. So, in that sense, parades or public demonstrations can be dangerous occasions.
All of us can remember days when our heroes were shot: John Kennedy’s death in Dallas. He was a hero to many. Others will remember the day John Lennon of the Beatles was shot in New York City. He was also a hero to many. And who can forget the day that Pope John Paul II was shot in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. He was a hero to Catholics and others as well. More recently we witnessed the assassination of Ms Benazir Bhutto, the leading opposition candidate in Pakistani politics. The common thing we can say of all these individuals is that they were heroes to some, enemies to others, but especially that they were willing to take the risk of being out in public where their friends could be in touch with them. They also spoke truth to power and paid for it.
Given all that, my friends, we celebrate today the life and death of one who is truly a hero to all of us: Jesus of Nazareth.
We call this day the Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. What we remember best of this day, of course, is the blessing of the palms and the procession (parade!). It resembles the procession of Jesus into the city of Jerusalem and describes his friends who thought him a hero and demonstrated it by laying palm branches in his way. (No confetti in those days!)
The word we do not think of so often on this day, however, is Passion. We think of it more often on Good Friday, the day of the Lord’s death.
But I would like to think of passion in the way we think of it in daily life. We say for instance that some folks are passionately dedicated to football or some other sport. But we also say that some people are passionate about justice and peace, about abolishing the death penalty and so forth.
That is the way I think of Jesus: He was passionate about honesty in God’s temple. He walked in publicly and threw out those who were cheating the poor out of their small savings. He would not allow his followers to be violent. He spoke of peace when others would take up the sword. It was all of these matters that Jesus was passionate about. It was these that also brought him to his death. He spoke truth to power.
So, that is what is so striking about that little palm procession in Jerusalem that day: A man on a donkey rides into the face of power, religious and secular, and lets power know that someone is here to do battle with it.
There is a lovely little story about Dorothy Day, the fearless peace activist. She was asked one time how Pope Pius XII could have stopped Hitler. Dorothy replied: “Well, he could have ridden into Berlin on a donkey!”
Whether that would have made any difference, I do not know. But it tells you that some folks more than others have a passion for peace.
That brings us to the question of what we are willing to walk for. What are we so passionate about that we are willing to stand in public and demonstrate for it, even at the risk of our life?
So, my friends, that is what I think the Palm Sunday of the Lord’s passion is all about. It is not about waving palms and singing songs. It’s about honoring and adoring our hero Jesus Christ who has given us the example of what it takes to be declared a Christian. In short, it’s all about risks and the courage to take them.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 09:40 AM.
March 08, 2008
Fifth Sunday of Lent - Never Forgotten
I know a retired friend who travels the back roads of the U.S., mostly in summers, visiting small towns, trying to get a sense and flavor of the people who have immigrated here over the many years.
One way he picks up this flavor of our history is by visiting cemeteries where, on tombstones, he often finds epitaphs, some humorous, some serious, that give him a sense of how the relatives of the deceased thought of him or her. I’ll quote just a few to give you a sense of it all. Sir John Strange: “Here lies an honest lawyer and that it is Strange is no business of yours.” “Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a.44, no less no more.” On the 22nd of June Jonathan Fiddle went out of tune.” Margaret Daniels: “She always said her feet were killing her. Nobody believed her.” Harry Edsel Smith: Born 1903—Died 1942. “Looked up the elevator shaft to see if the car was on the way down. It was.” “Here lies an Atheist. All dressed up and nowhere to go.”
So, why am I sharing all these quotes with you? First of all, they are pretty funny. Sometimes the lives of the deceased are rather humorous. Even death itself, when you think about it, is sort of humorous. None of us wants to die and yet we have no control over it. As a humorist once said: “None of us will get off this planet alive.”
Part of the reason I also wanted to share these poetic verses with you is because I have a sense that none of us wants to die and be unremembered. Our relatives and friends want us to be remembered. So they print mortuary cards or long obituaries. After all, it does seem to me that every person born onto this earth was important to somebody and, hence, should be recalled, remembered, spoken-well and written well of. Of course, the deceased person himself or herself has no more control over that, but someone else, someone living has that option and they often make use of it.
Epitaphs, obituaries, et cetera also can give us a sense of the meaning our own lives and its shortness and its tenuousness. In short, the lives of the dead are often a lesson for the living.
Well, if you have the sense that epitaphs and obituaries are a modern invention, let me point out two examples, two pieces of writing, that are in the very scriptures for this Fifth Sunday of Lent. Let me point out also that they are resurrection stories because in our Church calendar we are nearing Holy Week and Easter.
The first story, or epitaph comes from the prophet Ezekiel. He has this vision where he sees scattered on the desert floor the bones of thousands and thousands of his fellow Israelites. But in his vision he also sees these bones being reattached one to the other by the power of God. He imagines all these reattached bones springing alive and returning back to their own land.
So, you see, this is a resurrection story, a prediction that death is never a total separation. Some day God will put us back together and gather us into our own land, the Kingdom of God.
The second epitaph or obituary story is about the only man in recorded history who died, was buried for three days and was brought back to life…Lazarus. If you believe in Jesus’ miracles, of course, as I do, you will have no difficulty with the details of the story. But if you don’t then some items may puzzle you: Where was Lazarus for those three days, on earth or in heaven? Did he ever tell anyone about the experience? Did he remember anything in the grave? How did he breathe? Did his body start to decompose, as Martha feared?
Well, those are useless question, useless because this is really more a resurrection story, not simply about dry bones or the dead Lazarus; it’s about all of us. The power of Jesus to bring Lazarus back from the dead is the power that Jesus will bring to bear for all who believe in him.
The interesting and mysterious feature about both these readings is that they assume the reality of death but tell us nothing about what follows except to say that death is not the end. We are all destined for a life beyond this one, whether, like Lazarus, we are in the grave three days or for a millennium.
The point that give me some hope is the sense that we are all remembered. Life is precious. For many of us, someone in this world will remember us after death, even if only on a grave marker. For all of us, our God will remember us. I just can’t imagine a God who has the power to create all things, simply allowing us to disappear from existence…period. I still believe in resurrection although what form it may take is still a mystery to me…perhaps to all of us.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 12:13 PM.
March 01, 2008
Fourth Sunday of Lent - Overlooking the Obvious
Several weeks ago my optometrist suggested that my eyesight was becoming as little cloudy and that it might be a good idea for me to have cataract surgery. At first it sounded pretty threatening. I didn't want anyone messing with my eyes unless it was absolutely necessary. I've had these eyes for a lot of years and they have served me well. But Dr. G assured me that it was not dangerous, that the operation would take only a short while and I would definitely see more clearly afterward. And so it was: I'm seeing things today I never saw before! Flat screen television never looked so beautiful. I think I can even read for longer times without becoming weary.
It occurred to me some while ago that of all the senses I would not want to be without, eyesight would surely hold first place. Smell, touch and hearing I could do without if necessary, but eyesight...it's something I use practically at every waking hour.
Whether I appreciate all that, of course, is another matter. Eyesight is always there, always available whenever I need it.
So, perhaps that is something to think about, namely that those human gifts that are simply "there" are often taken for granted.
But just think for a moment how intricate and complicated that human faculty and process of seeing truly is, not only the eye itself, but how it is connected to the brain, how we actually see and interpret what we are seeing. It's all a great mystery, the mystery of God's creative power.
Given all that, however, it also needs to be said that even though we claim 20/20 vision, it could be said that we often do not truly see. Perhaps the word understand or appreciate might be a better term. I know for a certain that there are many things I see very day and never think about fu the, even a beautiful sunset or the face of a child or the sight of children playing in a school yard, beautiful sights but never reflected on for contemplation.
I often take time to read Thomas Merton's diaries (Merton, the Trappist monk). He walked in the woods on his monastery grounds practically every day and every day he would notice something different in nature. He would comment on the weather for that day, for instance, pointing out that it was hot and muggy, sweaty and sticky or he would point out that the trees glistened with frost. He would write about how his sandaled feet felt walking over dry leaves. He noticed things that I surely never see, all the more to my loss, of course.
Perhaps it is true to say then that all of us suffer from some sort of non-physical myopia, lack of attention, lack of insight, lack of appreciation. So much in our daily experience escapes our understanding.
What is even more discouraging is that there are so many human events happening in this world every day that we pay so little attention to. Most of us read the daily newspaper or watch television news and perhaps we will notice certain world situations that are terribly distressing: On the day I wrote this homily the morning paper's headlines told us that five more U.S. soldiers were killed in Iraq, hundreds of Kenyan people were killing each other with rocks and machetes, Palestinian families were struggling to get across the border into Egypt so that could buy oil, medicine and food for their tables. I didn't even finish reading the articles. Isn't that interesting? I just said to myself: "Well, what can I do anyway. All that is on the other side of the world. Sadly, I did not even have any interior sense of compassion for those people. All this happens every day. What can you do? Well, you (I) can think about it, pray about it, let it sink into our consciousness. What if any of this should happen to me?
Given all this, there is a story in our gospel for this Sunday about someone who did care about blindness, Jesus of Nazareth; he saw the seriousness of it all and he did what he could in that situation. Jesus, obviously, did not cure every who appealed to him, but, for whatever reason, he did cure this young man.
The question to ask is not how did Jesus cure this man, but rather how can each of us heal like Jesus did? Obviously, we are not miracle-workers but perhaps we could learn better how to appreciate the humanity of the people I mentioned above, even though they may be thousands of miles apart from us. Every human person is precious in God's "eyes."
The second thing we might begin to see if we allow Jesus to heal our blindness is the overlooked population. They are the ones who are always there but often unseen because they do not count in anyone's eyes. These are the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the out-of-work, immigrants, the underemployed, the marginalized and the handicapped. Sometimes we are even forced to see them because they are obnoxious to us. They are always there, always disturbing our peace, always making us think.
And lastly, perhaps we could let Jesus heal our blindness if we tried deliberately to notice this day's natural beauty, whether of nature, of our work, or even of the little things we can't control, the things that disturb our peace. If we were simply to say, "thanks Lord for reminding me to notice that," that would be enough.
Finally, we must say that none of us chooses deliberately to be blind. It's just that we don't pay attention; so many other things in our lives distract us.
So, the next time you do notice something so beautiful that makes you gasp with awe and wonder, just say: "Thanks God. Now, help me keep my eyes open to all those other things in life that are not always so beautiful but are still somehow filled with sacred meaning.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 12:09 PM.
February 23, 2008
Third Sunday of Lent - Thirsting For the Sacred
My hunch is that most of us hearing this homily (or reading it on line) don't often think much about being thirsty. The fact is that we are probably never very thirsty. Oh, yes, I suppose we'd all love to have a coke or a beer on a hot day. That would slake our thirst at least for a little while. But none of us, I suspect, has ever been so thirsty that our lips began to crack or that our tongue and throat were so dry we could hardly speak. That sort of thirst doesn't happen today, at least not in First World countries. But it does happen in many parts of the world, especially in thy, desert areas like Africa or the Middle East.
However, even in the United States today wars are being fought over who gets the water from the Colorado River: Should it go into the swimming pools of Los Angeles or the vegetable growers in the Central Valley of California? Even the state of Georgia is worrying today about the water level of the lake that supplies Atlanta's homes and businesses.
There is no doubt that water is in the news and the minds of many people today, more than it has never been before. Even Global Warming is causing people to worry about oceanic water levels. But for the moment let us say that we don't immediately need to worry about going thirsty today or tomorrow.
The question, however, is this: Do we experience a thirst for anything else in life? I'm talking about thirst in the analogical sense, a longing or a craving for other things besides water, something that could give us a reason for living. I'm thinking, for instance, of our thirst or our longing for love, for recognition, for support, for respect, for intimacy, for partnership, for community, for peace, for identity, for meaningful work, and especially for God, for the sacred. We are all very complicated people; there are lots of things we long for even though we have more than enough water to drink.
An added thought about our thirsting is this: Do we ever give a thought to the notion that we have it in our power to slake the thirsts of others, that each of us has a hidden well that we can draw on and make it possible for others to live? Obviously, none of us has the capability of fully taking care of ourselves. We naturally depend on each other to lighten our thirsts for whatever it is we long for. The point is that we don't always know where the well is, but someone else does, so we go to that person to draw the water for us.
There are two examples of that in our scriptures for this Third Sunday of Lent. The first comes from the Book of Exodus, the migration story of the Israelites through a land where there was little water. There were a few springs (oasis) along the route, but you had to know where they were. The immigrant Israelites were getting desperate; they were ready to give Moses the boot and go back to Egypt. But fortunately, just in the nick of time, Moses finds a spring and saves the day along with his life.
So, we are back to the question: Who knows where the water is? Is that person ready to make the water available to those who are thirsty? Remember, you can't hoard water. It's too precious.
The second story comes out of Jesus' life. He was obviously on the road a lot; he needed to know where the watering holes were. Fortunately, there was a famous one, Jacob's well. Everyone in the Middle East knew where it was. So, here we have Jesus and his twelve followers (all men) coming to Jacob's well, out of water and even without a bucket. Fortunately, a woman from the nearby village is already filling her jar. Whether they liked it or not, Jesus and 12 men needed to ask a woman for water! That may have been considered humiliating for men in those times, but what could they do? She had he bucket and the water! No questions asked.
But then Jesus and the woman get into this very interesting theological conversation about the water of life and the question of where one can satisfy one's thirst for God. So, there is an interesting trade-off: Jesus and the guys get a drink of cold water and the woman receives from Jesus some insight about how to slake her thirst for God. A "win-win" situation all around.
All this brings us back once again to the question: "Who's thirsty, who's got the bucket and the water, so we can we make a trade and everyone will come away satisfied? That's the question for the modern Christian: Who's thirsty and who's got the water?
Finally, why are we hearing all this on the Third Sunday of Lent? We are hearing it because in practically every church in Christendom some folks are thirsting for acceptance into the Catholic Church. They are in an RCIA program and they are only a few weeks away from the "well", the fountain of baptism.
These two stories therefore are catechism lessons for the catechumens. They are the thirsty travelers and the church is the "well" that will satisfy them at the Easter vigil.
My hunch is that all of us who have already had our initial thirst for God satisfied at baptism should now be ready to share the water of our faith with others. So, again, we're left with the Question: "Who's thirsty, who's got the bucket, the water and is there anyone willing to share?
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 12:23 PM.
February 16, 2008
Second Sunday of Lent - Unforgettable Moments
It has always been a great mystery to me why it is that I can clearly remember certain events in my life, some going all the way back into my childhood, that, in themselves, were not very significant. And yet, on the other hand, others that should have been very important to me, I have no recollection of at all.
As a child, for instance, I can remember my father playing the violin (fiddle!) in the living room of our home and I being spellbound by it. Playing in the violin in one's home must not seem all that important and yet I remember it clearly to this very day. Or again, I can still remember the first airplane I ever saw up close. I can even remember the name of the pilot etched on the side of the plane.
On the other hand, however, I cannot remember the celebration of my First Communion, my Confirmation or even parts of my Ordination ceremony. You would think that these solemn religious rites should have made an impression on me, and yet, alas, they have disappeared from memory. The human mind is a great mystery: Why does it retain some human experiences and forget others? Without doubt, however, some events in our human history have made an indelible impact on our consciousness, for whatever reason.
I think the same might be said of certain events that have taken place in our country's history or even in the history of the world. Fortunately, there were individuals who remembered them and had the good sense to write them down for the sake of history. Everyone, I'm sure, remembers Pearl Harbor, everyone remembers "9/11", everyone remembers the names of the cities of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the atom bomb. Interestingly, these events are not religious in nature and yet many people interpret them spiritually because they had such a negative impact on the human race. They might even be interpreted as death and resurrection experiences for humanity. At any rate, they will not be forgotten by our generation or by generations to come. We could almost call them transcendent events transcending time and place.
Our scriptures for this Second Sunday of Lent contain two such transcendent experiences that have never been forgotten.
The first comes from the history of the Hebrews. It is remembered as the call of Abraham, the Father of the Israelites. Interestingly, it is referred to three different times in the book of Genesis, which will tell you that it had a definite impact on the consciousness of the Hebrew people. Three different scribes wrote it down. The reason it was important to the Israelites was because, for the first time in human history we have a record of some people being given a piece of land of their own and a place in history. All this was done by God, of course, at least that is the Hebrew interpretation of the event.
I'm sure there is not a Jewish person in the world today (whether practicing or not) for whom this is not an important moment in their history. It defines who they are.
The gospel also has a remembrance story; In this instance, however, only three people remember the event, the disciples of Jesus, Peter, James and John. Let it be said, however, that it is mainly a remembrance story in the life of Jesus. It happens on the top of a mountain, which tells you immediately that it is meant to be interpreted as a story of transcendence, a sacred moment in the lives of Jesus and the disciples.
We are not completely clear how this event happened because some of the references are metaphorical, the cloud, for instance and the voice speaking out of the cloud, et cetera.
Nonetheless, Jesus is clearly speaking to God, to the Father and this is a complete mystery to the three disciples. They don't understand it, but they know something important, something sacred is happening. Hence, they feel they must build some sort of stone remembrance structure a cairn, a rock pile for history, but they also carried the event in their memories until another generation could write it down and we could also experience it today So, what can we to make of all this? Several things come to mind: First of all, most human events that happen to us are holy. Rabbi Abraham Hesehel once said: "Just to be is a blessing. Just to live is holy." If that is the case, it would be worthwhile for us to try and remember (as best we can) those events in our lives that were sacred to us (whether religious or not). Perhaps they could even be written down for another generation.
Think, for instance of Thomas Merton the Trappist monk who wrote the
story of his life called The Seven Storey Mountain. Think too of St. Augustine's famous autobiography, The Confessions. Both of those biographies have influenced the lives of many, many people over the years.
So, perhaps our story is also important. Some say that we live on our memories; we forget the bad ones and try to remember the good ones. It is all part of our history...all worth remembering.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 11:57 AM.
February 09, 2008
First Sunday of Lent - Figuring Out Who we are
Speaking out of my own experience and perhaps assuming yours as well, I would be willing to say that most of our “Lents” have been disappointing…not necessarily a disaster but perhaps less than satisfactory.
As I began thinking about this homily for the First Sunday of Lent once again, I asked myself the question: “Why does Lent turn out so badly for me? Why have I consistently been dissatisfied with my “performance” during these forty holy days of penance and self perception?” Well, I think I have just answered the question: Perhaps, without knowing it and without planning it so, it’s been a “performance.” I don’t necessarily mean a stage performance, but rather some grand plan that will change my life forever. That would be my hearts desire, I said.
But, my friends, it’s never happened. I’ve never really changed my life radically, at least not in the limited time of forty days and forty nights.
I’m sure you have all made so-called “good resolutions” at the beginning of the year or at some other significant moment in your life’s history. But how many of those resolutioins have we kept and been satisfied with? Not many, I’ll wager!
So, what’s the answer? Is there an answer to this annual question of ours “what are we going to do for Lent?” That’s the way the question is often phrased…”doing something for Lent.” If what we planned to do for Lent was actually so important, why wouldn’t we want to be doing the same throughout the entire year? Perhaps there is a hidden thought that if we do something for Lent, it may stick for the rest of the year. At least that may be the hidden hope whether we express it that way or not. Alas, it does not always happen that way.
I have decided, however, that this year I may take a different approach to Lent. The idea came to me from the title of a smallish book I’m reading by Jim Martin, the Jesuit who writes for America Magazine. It’s entitled: Being Who You Are. The title sort of fascinated me because the tendency for us usually is to be different than we presently are.
So, what I’m proposing for myself this year (maybe even next year) is to promise less and to think more; to simply reflect more on who I am at this point in my life, to get a clearer sense of my personhood, how I think of myself.
Perhaps from all this some truth will be forthcoming. If all that means less penances, less discipline, so be it.
The reason I think this may be more effective is because the incentive comes right out of the scriptures assigned for this Sunday. The first reading comes from that lovely story of the creation of Adam and Eve, their temptation and their eventual fall from grace. Scripture scholars have been reminding us for years that this is not a story of a lush garden, a snake and a piece of fruit. It’s not a story about who was ultimately responsible for succumbing to the snake. It’s really a lot deeper than all that. It’s really about the state of the human condition, of how we got to be the way we are. It’s the story of Everyman and Everywoman. It’s ultimately a story also about how we humans deal with choices. In both Genesis and the gospel you will notice that the main characters, Adam, Eve and Jesus, are faced with choices that will ultimately make them more human or which will detract from their human nature.
So, there are a lot of ultimate questions in the Genesis story. For instance: Why are we like we are? Why do we do evil? Why is their suffering? Why do we often feel alienated from God? Why do we often make wrong decisions when we obviously know better? Why are we ashamed of our actions? Good questions, all.
But whoever that author of Genesis was, one thing for sure, he was not afraid to look human nature in the face and he didn’t like what he saw. He knew that it was not just the first Man and Woman who made bad choices. Bad choices are being made all the time and that is obviously the reason for shame, alienation, guilt and the daily struggle to get out of the mess we’re in. Could that ultimately be the reason why we feel that it is important to “do penances?”
And finally we come to that well-known story of the three great temptations Jesus experienced. Those are all about choices too, just like the one in Genesis. Matthew, the gospel writer, frames those battle temptations as though they were going on between a person (Jesus) and another person, the evil spirit. But, actually the battle is going on in the mind of Jesus. How will he deal with easy answers to life’s questions? Each one deals with a different human option, all attractive, rewarding and fulfilling, at least on the surface. Besides that, they won’t cost anything. But notice, in each case Jesus thinks it through and refuses to be fooled. He knew that he was stronger than all the temptations combined. And he said no!
So, here we are back to the question of knowing and being who we are and dealing with life’s questions from that vantage point.
I’m actually grateful that Lent gives us the opportunity to think about all that and if we do we’ll ultimately be the better for it.
Is it still a good idea to do penance, prayer, fasting and almsgiving in Lent? Absolutely! But not to demonstrate how tough we are but rather to discover the real person that we are, how we deal with those choices that will go on long after Lent is over.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 11:45 AM.
March 31, 2007
Palm Sunday - View From the Sidewalk
I imagine most folks here this evening can remember back two and one half years ago around the time of Holy Week when Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ first hit the theaters. The very timing of its opening, of course, already tells you something. Mel Gibson is no dummy.
At any rate, it was a popular film, despite the terrible violence it depicted; people still flocked to it, including entire church congregations...at a reduced ticket rates, of course.
The Passion of the Christ was probably the first film produced that actually portrayed capital punishment in all its ugliness. As Catholics, of course, we have all seen and made our Stations of the Cross, but in terms of violence, they are nothing in comparison to Gibson's film. Perhaps, for the first time, we saw violence the way it actually took place in the days of the Roman Empire. Historians tell us that every crucifixion attracted crowds of people and the Romans made sure that it was handled as a public spectacle so that other would-be criminals might think twice before carrying out their deeds.
Why other ordinary folks would choose to come and view such a display of cruelty, however, is a mystery? The gladiator games at the Forum in Rome, of course, always attracted thousands as well. Some in the United States today say that Sunday afternoon NFL football is not much different, but at least players don't usually get killed.
At any rate, down through history public executions have attracted the curious and the prurient. Witness the executions during the French Revolution, the ethnic "cleansing", between Hutus and Tutsis and even those old black and white photos that show public hangings of African American slaves here in the United States during the late 1800's. Families, mom, dad and the kids are all present watching the Sunday afternoon spectacle!
Or, why, for instance was there so much interest worldwide at the gruesome hanging of Saddam Hussein and his cohorts?
For some reason the suffering and death of individuals has always attracted people. It seems a great mystery to me, but it happens.
The parallel I am about to draw now may not seem very appropriate but Catholics and many Christian denominations witness a public execution twice each year, once on Palm Sunday and again on Good Friday. Obviously, we do not think of it in those terms. After all, this is Holy Week, the holiest time of the liturgical year when we remember the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We do not think of ourselves as witnessing an execution. We have heard the narration of the Passion so many time that it has lost much of its original violence for us. Nonetheless, Jesus did suffer and die publicly. It was the worst kind of execution one could imagine, worse even than hanging.
What should we be thinking of then as we listen to the Passion account again this year? Perhaps the only way to get some personal sense of it is to think of ourselves as standing along the street where Jesus passed, or standing at a distance on the bottom of Calvary hill, watching the entire spectacle, an innocent and good man being put to death. But still, does that give us a sense of its meaning in terms of present day circumstances in the world?
We have all read the phrase in our catechisms and we recite in the creed that Jesus "died for us and for our salvation." Theologically, that is true: Jesus died for us, not for us as an anonymous group of people, but for us individually and personally.
There is also another way, however, one might think of the Death of Jesus, namely as a metaphor or a model for the ways unjustified suffering and death are still carried out among us today. I think, for instance, of the number of people in the United States who have been executed by mistake. I think of the history of violence against Black Americans during the civil rights movement in the South; the murder and disfiguration of the young Black man, Emmet Till. They said he had whistled at a white lady. I think of the American nuns and lay missionaries, who were murdered by military personnel in El Salvador: Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donovan, Maura Clark and Ita Ford. I think too of Archbishop Oscar Romero who was martyred as he celebrated Mass at a convent of nuns.
All of these folks and many others in modern history were crucified, not precisely like Jesus was crucified, but they died nonetheless in their efforts to bring peace and justice to others.
With all that in mind then, perhaps it will help us listen more attentively each Palm Sunday and Good Friday when we hear the gospel of the Passion read again. True, it did happen once in history but it continues to happen each time one of Jesus' brothers or sisters dies an undeserved death.
One thing for sure: We cannot passively stand on the side of the street looking on as these things happen to others. There is too much is at stake.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 04:27 PM.
March 24, 2007
5th Sunday of Lent - Never Too Late
There are occasions when my errands here in the city take me along a section of Third Avenue, some two miles from my office. Along that street there stands a truly unattractive building, dark grey, solidly built about five years ago. It is the municipal jail, more fittingly termed, the Anchorage Correctional Facility. Whether any of the many inmates housed in that building are being "corrected" is another matter.
Nonetheless, as I drive by that building and gaze out at it, I often wonder what it must be like to be incarcerated there. Actually, I have had the occasion to visit individuals there, and each time I am escorted by a guard from the lobby into the inner "sanctum", I say to myself, "self, consider yourself fortunate that you are not cloistered here by civil decree." I do not think I have ever done anything so heinous as to deserve being placed there, but often strange and unpredictable circumstances put people in prison. Nonetheless, just being in those small cramped quarters with no exit save for a guard who is nowhere in sight makes me nervous.
I have often thought how mentally difficult it must be for prisoners to know that they will be in this place for, say, 25 years, or indeed a lifetime with no hope of reprieve. I am not sure how I would deal with such a circumstance. Some people commit suicide in prison. Perhaps it is because they have the sense that they can never be forgiven, indeed, that they cannot even forgive themselves. Conscience is a severe taskmaster and the cement block walls of the building are there to remind the prisoners of their past, twenty four-seven-three sixty five.
I often wonder how prisoners can live in such circumstances, how they live with themselves each day, knowing that tomorrow and tomorrow will be much the same as today and yesterday.
Civil society, of course, the court system, the incarceration system, the world at large pays little heed to the thoughts these men and women have regarding their situation. Perhaps society feels that this is not their task or responsibility. Everyone lives with their past.
Given all those circumstances, I have often asked myself what can give a man or woman in prison a sense of peace with their situation. The only option l can think of is "self-forgiveness." An odd word, of course, because it does not restore justice to society.
Nonetheless, if a person cannot come to understand that, despite all the circumstances of life that have put them in prison, they are still good people, worthwhile human beings, sons or daughters of God. What others may think of them is immaterial, at least in terms of their own self-image.
That long introduction was brought home to me by the lovely story (it is lovely!) about an unnamed woman in the gospel of John assigned for this Fifth Sunday of Lent. She is accused of public impropriety, prostitution or adultery. Prison was seemingly not an option. The only public option in those ancient times was capital punishment, stoning to death.
Several troubling questions have consistently come to mind when reading this story. First of all, if it was truly adultery she was being accused of, what of her partner or partners? Were they not considered worthy of punishment? Why was the woman the only one being threatened with stoning?
Secondly, why was a sexual offense considered so severe that it should deserve death? All sorts of crimes, many more serious than this, were doubtless committed in civil society in those times, but seemingly they did not deserve stoning.
The central point of this story, of course, is not the civil punishment issue but rather the human implications, the way Jesus handled it.
Obviously, the religious authorities had no concern for the woman as a human individual. They were more interested in the fact that she had publicly given religion a bad name.
Now Jesus comes on the scene and, amazingly, declares himself judge and jury, not in the civil sense, but in the personal, human realm. First of all, he deals with the accusers: He tells them that if any of them feel that they are sinless they may wish to throw stones. None did so, obviously. Then Jesus asks the woman the follow-up obvious question: "What happened to these other sinners?" They've disappeared" she said. "Well," Jesus says, "l guess that means that we are all sinners, just different kinds. Go in peace."
That's a truly wonderful piece of drama. But the best part of it is the sense not that Jesus forgave the woman, but that he gave her permission to forgive herself. Even if she was truly a sinner, she was obviously not the only sinner in the world.
Finally, an insight for this story comes from the first reading for today's liturgy. It comes from the prophet Isaiah. These are the beautiful words as he addresses them to the people of his times: "Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new...did you not notice it?" I've often wondered if Jesus might have been thinking about those very words when he told the woman to go in peace, to forget her past?
I'm sure, even though most of us (I hope all of us) have never been incarcerated, we may all have a "past." None of us are perfect. The question is, how do we live with our past? Do we continue to berate ourselves with our sins and shortcomings, or do we do what Isaiah says God does, namely to "remember not the things of the past, the things of long ago." If that is the way God thinks about us, inviting us to forget the past, perhaps that is exactly what we should do, just forget it, period.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 04:25 PM.
March 17, 2007
4th Sunday of Lent - Always Forgiven
In the year 1992 Clint Eastwood, the movie director produced a film that he said would finally put to death the American Western as we have come to know it. It was entitled "Unforgiven." It starred Mr. Eastwood himself along with Morgan Freeman and Gene Hackman, as hardened a bunch of outlaws as you might imagine.
Basically, it is a story of two aged and "retired" gunslingers who decide to try out their "trade" one last time. They agree to take revenge on a local cowboy who had disfigured a prostitute. They were promised a thousand bucks if they took the job.
The moral of the story is that this decision ultimately destroys them. They discover that they cannot not put their past aside and turn straight; violence is too deep in their genes. Hence, they end their lives being unable to forgive themselves for their past violence.
The scene I remember best comes toward the end of the film that has Eastwood lying face down in the mud of his corral sobbing over his wasted life. He feels that he is a totally useless person. His whole life had been a waste. End of story
I think t would be true to say that there are millions of people in the world today, especially in America, who feel that their lives have been a useless venture, that they have never been able to shake violence out of their personality. Perhaps they feel that they have made too many mistakes to be able to redeem themselves. So, they are now on the street or in prison, living from day to day without any hope. The saddest thing of all is that they know of no one who can redeem them, give them another chance at life. A sad picture, indeed.
Several weeks ago a program appeared on National Public Television entitled "Generation Next." Judy Woodruff did interviews with young adults who had found their own way to pursue their goals in life in ways quite different than that of their parents. After some years of exploring religion and society in their own way, however, many find that they needed to return to their roots, family, school, church, et cetera. It was these sources that had originally given them roots, security, support, a future.
The point which Ms. Woodruff makes in her Interviews is that exploration, testing the borders, testing the waters, taking chances are the marks and qualities of youth and young adulthood. How can one find one's own character, one's own ego, and identity unless one has the freedom to seek out life's rich possibilities?
Those of us who have some years behind us and have accumulated some wisdom in the process would say: "Fair enough, but be ready to accept the implications of what you decide to do." Of course, many of us might also say, "Don't come running back to us if you have wasted your talents and gifts. You need to live with your decisions"
The beautiful story of the Prodigal Son that we hear again on this Fourth Sunday of Lent is one of those classic stories that anyone of us could say applies to us personally, the story of a young person's desire for independence and its consequences. It is a narrative of a young man (of many young men or women) who want to find their own way, follow their own instincts, dictate their own terms, to be free of the constraints of parents, home, church, society. In the process of finding his freedom, of course, the young prodigal loses his way and ultimately begins to think that there is no redemption, that he is unforgiven. Pride and independence have gotten the best of him.
But as we all know, that is not the end of the story. In all of Jesus' stories there is an out, a solution, redemption.
As we know from the story, the young man finally saw no other solution than to swallow his pride and go home, reciting his repentance as he walked along.
Then the scene switches to the father, perhaps sitting on the front porch (if he had one) shading his eyes, gazing out over the open land, wondering if his son would ever return and what he would say if he did return. Finally, the son appears on the horizon and the father rushes out to meet him, welcomes him and, of all things, prepares a barbecue to celebrate the occasion.
This is one of those typical endings Jesus surprises us with. This is not the way things usually work out in life. In our hard nosed world most of us would say: "If you want your freedom, fine, live with it, but don't come sniveling back imagining that you can take advantage of the goodness of your friends and that everything will be forgiven and forgotten."
At the same time, I think, deep in our hearts, most of us are happy with the way the story turned out. If Jesus would have had the father, say, for instance: "Sony, son, don't expect anything from me; you had your chance and blew it," we would not have been happy with that ending.
Well, as we all know from having listened to many of Jesus' stories, they are all about redemption, they are about us, everyman, everywoman. They are about our pride, our independence, our desire to have our own way, even about our difficulty in facing our mistakes, indeed, our very selves.
At the same time, in between the lines, Jesus always makes it clear that it is all right to search for our personal goals, even though they are often wrong-headed. No one is beyond redemption, no one is ever unforgiven if we want to be forgiven. That is always good to know, isn't it? Sometimes it just takes a while for each of us to grow up, but I have a hunch that God must know that too.
Maybe we should suggest to Clint Eastwood, that great movie director, that he should do a film sometime entitled "Forgiven." That would surely be a film we could all identify with. After all, it would be all about us; we've all experienced forgiveness.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 04:21 PM.
March 10, 2007
3rd Sunday of Lent - Holy Earth
I recently finished reading a fascinating book by Timothy Egan entitled The Worst Hard Time. It is the actual history of the great drought that left the high plains of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Colorado a vast dust bowl in the middle thirties of the last century. I happened to hear it reviewed on National Public Radio one morning and decided to buy it right away, mainly because I too can clearly remember the dust bowl days in my native North Dakota.
The book is actually about 6 families who decided to "stick it out" on the land during those terrible years, in contrast to the people who are described in the novel The Grapes of Wrath as the ones who left and headed for California.
The book is a story of people, but even more, it is also a book about the land, the earth, specifically about the vast millions of acres of grassland across 4 states over which the Indians had roamed for thousands of years pursuing the buffalo and the antelope.
At the turn of the century the U.S. government opened up this vast pasturage to farming and immediately thousands of "hard up" farmers descended upon it, plowing up earth never meant for farming. At the outset all looked good. People raised wheat and looked forward to a life of millionaires.
But then came the hard years of the "thirties" with the lack of rain and the high winds that literally picked up the earth of the plains and sent it wheeling as far east as New York and Washington, D.C.
Herbert Hoover lost the presidency over that catastrophe. Franklin Roosevelt was able to set in motion some reclamation programs. Nonetheless, the Great Plains has never fully recovered. Whole towns have disappeared, never to be repopulated again.
I just wanted to talk a little about all that because it has to do with the sacredness of the earth, the land on which we live. In this case, the land was thoughtlessly desecrated, ripped up, torn up and so it simply blew away. A great act of disrespect upon the natural world.
I am sure that most of us do not often think much about the earth as "sacred," as holy. It is simply something natural, something from which we make a living. We think of the "bread basket" of the Dakotas or the vegetable or fruit basket of central California as being ours to do with what we choose. We think of Global Warming as a modern "myth" which won't affect our generation.
It has always seemed to me, however, that anything that gives life is inherently holy. Anything God has given us to sustain the life of the planet must somehow be sacred.
The people of the Middle East have always had a special respect for the earth, perhaps because they live so close to it and depend on it for their existence. The great patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob eventually settled the "Promised Land" because that is where there was water and one could grow things and live.
We have a beautiful story in today's first reading from the book of Exodus about the sacredness of the earth. It is the familiar tale of Moses, the nomadic shepherd out on the desert, who notices a dry bush strangely burning. He decides to "check it out", but immediately is warned not to come any closer, but to take off his sandals because he is standing on holy ground. I have never been able to figure out why wearing shoes should desecrate the earth. Perhaps it's because if you are shoeless you are in closer touch the natural elements! Just a guess!
When Moses does come closer to the burning bush, however, God begins to speak with him, reveals His name as "I Am."
The implication I draw from this experience is that God does speak out of the earth if we have the good sense to consider the earth as God's domain.
I think people have always found the experience of being close to the land a transcendental experience. Why have monasteries of monks and nuns always been established far from cities, in forested land or simply out the country? Why do people find comfort and spiritual renewal by going out into the wilderness to make a retreat or simply to be in closer touch with God? Even people who simply like to "grub" around in their garden find it a peaceful, comforting experience.
So, what does all this have to do with Lent? Well, Lent has traditionally been a time when, like Moses, we are invited to come in closer touch with our God again. It may not be possible for most of us who live in this cold, wintry environment to go out and get in touch with our God on the earth, but perhaps we could create a virtual piece of earth for ourselves where we can be quiet and in touch with ourselves. Whatever works!
At any rate, God often speaks to us in strange places, no burning bushes, perhaps, but in whatever place is already holy for us. If we go there, God will surely be ready to have a word with us.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 04:16 PM.
March 03, 2007
2nd Sunday of Lent - The Hunger for Contemplation
It has often occurred to me that most of us are naturally born and destined to be contemplatives, that is, searchers for silence. That may sound like a rather odd suggestion because the fact is all of us live in another world, the world of work, of recreation, of noise and responsibilities which makes contemplation, if not impossible, at least rather difficult to find.
Nonetheless, if you were to ask the ordinary blue or white collar person if they would prefer to have some opportunity for silence in an ordinary day, I'm sure they would say, "sure." Of course, we live in a world of noise and distraction simply because we have to. There is no other option if we want to make a living. But paradise, according to Genesis, was never like the world we live in today.
I have often thought to myself that if I had not been born and raised a Catholic and if I did not have so many years invested in the Catholic Church, I might think about joining the Quakers or the Amish. Alas, it's too late at my age. Nonetheless, I long for some quiet every day. It's available to me, but I seldom make use of it the way I should. The question is, where to find it?
I have told this story before, but when I was a youngster, living on a farm, the land around us was predominantly flat, but near our house there was also a rather impressive hill. No mountain, mind you, just a bump on the plains. But it was one of my favorite places to go when I wanted to be alone. Sometimes I would go there and watch for my father coming home from the fields in the evening. But mostly, I would go there because it was quiet. I could see for miles, I could feel the sun and the wind on my face. It just seemed good to be there. Actually, I was not old enough to imagine that I was in touch with God on that hill, but if someone asked me why I spent so much time up there, I would probably have said, "It's just quiet, that's all."
Actually, I have always been fascinated with hills and mountains. Later in life I enjoyed many experiences climbing truly big mountains. That same feeling of peace always overwhelmed me when I reached the top.
I have often had the sense that Jesus must have been torn between a life of contemplation and action. We all know from the gospels how much time he literally spent among the crowds, healing and preaching. But once in a while when it became too oppressive for him, he would say to his friends, "Let's get away from here and go to a quiet place where we can pray."
That seems to be what happened on a day Jesus invited Peter, James and John to accompany him to a high place to pray. Notice, the text specifically says that Jesus wanted to pray on a high and quiet place. He wanted to literally be in touch with God. So, it is described as a transcendent experience, a divine experience. The symbols are all there: The cloud that envelopes them, the meeting with Moses and Elijah, the voice out of the cloud designating Jesus as God's chosen one.
The interesting point is that we do not know whether Jesus and his friends actually prayed or not, prayed as we usually pray. They just experienced God. Even Jesus disciples seemed to know that this was something special that they should preserve for posterity. Therefore, they suggested to Jesus that it might be a good idea to set up three altars in remembrance of the occasion so that they could return again some day and
I imagine most of us would not choose to climb a mountain to pray, but if we had the option, I imagine we would choose some quiet place where we would be undisturbed and be with our God.
Perhaps we could say that each of us already has a place of that sort where we pray: Our parish church, a grotto somewhere, a local convent or monastery. The point is this: We all long for a prayer- place and we will take time off occasionally to go to it.
The additional question, of course, is to ask why are we hearing this gospel of the Transfiguration on this Second Sunday of Lent? Here is my suggestion: Lent is a special time of self discovery, a desert space experience, a time when we are invited to make a special effort to find ourselves, re-find our direction in life.
Every season of the year, of course, is "prayer- time", but Lent is a special time, a desert time or a mountain time when we might want to learn how to pray more sincerely, to be in touch with our God.
Contrary to the way we have traditionally thought about Lent as being a "give up something" time, I would suggest that it could be much simpler: If we did nothing more than make the effort just to be quiet so that God could make God's way into our life, that would be enough for Lent. If nothing else, we should be able to come out of this Lent being able to say that we have been looking for a place where we could be thinking about God. I doubt whether we would be ready to say that we came away transfigured like Jesus was. But that's not the point. The point is that God will meet us some way, somehow wherever we try to set aside some place and time for Him. It doesn't necessarily have to happen on a mountain, or even on a modest hill unless you think you are actually ready for some strenuous exercise, which, by the way might not be such a bad idea either.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 04:13 PM.
February 24, 2007
1st Sunday of Lent - We Do It Together
It seemed like a perfect day to write a homily to start Lent, 2007: Dark, dreary, cold, looked like it might snow. I had a hard time getting started. Then I said to myself, "self, if this is the kind of attitude you are going to have to start Lent, you might as well shut down the word processor and do something else."
Perhaps I was just demonstrating the same attitude that many Catholics have when Lent pops up on the horizon each year. You can hear it in people's conversations: "Well, what hard thing can I do this year? I tried it last year and it didn't work. Maybe I should just forget about Lent entirely this year. Of course, then at Easter I would have this intense guilt complex! Then what? Everybody else was doing something hard except me."
Unfortunately, Lent, at least in the minds of many people does have this sense of dreariness. It's penance time again and we hate to face it.
It's true; of course, most of us do not naturally like to think about ways to be hard on ourselves. Where's the satisfaction in that? No wonder then that most folks enter Lent with a certain sense of drudgery and resistance.
So, the question at the beginning of Lent is always this: What is our motivation? Why do this at all? Unless we can truthfully answer that question at the beginning of Lent, it's going to be a long forty days.
Perhaps we should begin by saying: "Hey, it's good for you; it's good for your spiritual well-being, maybe even for your physical well-being.
Somewhere a while back I read a comment by a theologian who said that Lent is so vital for a church like ours that if we lost it, we would quite naturally have to invent it all over again.
I think that fellow was on to something: Discipline, regulation, good order is good for us. We all long for good order in our lives. We feel embarrassed if our lives are chaotic, undisciplined. People, for instance, who are active in an exercise regimen, will tell you that even one day away from the gym makes a difference in their attitude.
So, if the regimen of the gymnasium can be a model for Christian Lent, we need to ask ourselves how Lent can be something we could look forward to. Could it even be something, which all people might benefit from, and not just Catholics? After all, there is something very natural about the reasons we have practiced Lent all these many years.
The motivation for all this is found precisely in the gospel for this initial Sunday in the season. It tells us that after Jesus had been baptized and had heard God's call to go out and preach good news, he immediately first went out into the desert to think it over; for forty days he did this, he prayed and fasted and at the end of that time he was hungry... naturally.
So, for centuries our Church has suggested that the discipline of fasting is one of the most profitable things we can do in our lives, but also prayer and almsgiving.
But fast from what? Food, we say, of course. Anything more? Perhaps it would be beneficial if we were to think about fasting our physical appetites, but also with our eyes, our vocal cords, our ears and our precious time. What must we cut out in our lives if there is to be room for mercy to take root? Flow will we fast? Good question.
But Lent is also about prayer: The question is, how can we learn to pray so well during Lent that it will become a habit for the rest of the year, the rest of our lives? Good habits, once begun, deserve to have a life of their own.
Then alms-giving: How do we give aims in Lent so that it will become a natural habit after Lent. We contribute to good causes, of course, but perhaps alms-giving also has to do with the way we use what is rightfully ours, our material things.
But there is the further question: How do we care for the earth on which we dwell? How much do we waste, how much do we preserve? Could we truly be Christian environmentalists? Just because something is mine, does that mean I can use it anyway I please? Does, global warming and the selfish use of the earth's resources ever bother us? In short, giving alms is more than simply putting five bucks in the "poor box."
Another happy note about Lent is this: We never do it alone. That, of course, is the way we have traditionally thought about Lent: What am I going to do? What am I going to give up? In fact, however, Lent is never a private matter: It is the church, the entire body of Christ that does Lent together. With that attitude, of course, we also save ourselves from pride and self accomplishment.
I started all this out, of course, by moaning how dreary the day was and how dreary Lent was going to be. Well, the only thing that will make Lent dreary is if 1, if we, think of it as forty days of depressing work. The fact is, however, Lent is all about preparing for Easter, that glorious feast that celebrates Jesus resurrection.
A short while back on January 1, we greeted each other with the words: "Happy New Year." Now we can also say to one another: "Happy Lent" and really mean it.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 04:09 PM.
April 04, 2006
Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion - Fallen Heroes
I have personally never been very much attracted to crowd events, large celebrations such as political rallies, sports events, et cetera. For some reason they always impress me as being a bit hollow, perhaps over-blown. Everybody gets caught up in the excitement of the moment; they do crazy things: Wave flags and banners, dress in weird ways, paint their faces, display foot-tall messages, yelling support for their personal hero on the field or the speaker's platform. Some people even get into fights at such events (too much beer, perhaps). What does it all mean? In the end, it all seems so unreal, so momentary so unlike what life is really like when the event is over and everyone has gone home.
Yet, in a certain way, even events such as this are truly what life is all about. Everyone occasionally needs a break from the ordinary, from the boring, work-day existence. We all need to pretend we are in a more idealistic world occasionally where everything looks rosy, not a care in the world.
Once in a while you get that sense from the scriptures too, the sense that the people described there were not so different from ourselves, separated by a couple thousand years. Most of them were working-class people who did not have many opportunities to celebrate life. For middle class folks, there were not many local heroes to lift their minds and spirits out of the ordinary, hum-drum experience of every day. You can begin to understand then that when someone special appears on the scene, someone who might offer people a chance for a break from the ordinary, they would immediately gather for a celebration.
That is exactly the picture we get from the description of the so-called Palm Sunday celebration that occurred in Jerusalem on that eventful day described in Mark's gospel.
My hunch is that it probably was not such a huge gathering as the gospel would have us believe. Jerusalem was a fairly large city in those days, of course. People came from all over to celebrate religious feasts. I'm sure that when a well-known political or military figure showed up, people would immediately flock to the streets to catch the action. But, by comparison, the Palm Sunday parade was probably not a very momentous event. Most of Jerusalem probably did not even know it was going on or could care less.
But for this little rag-tag group of country folks from Nazareth and Bethlehem and Capernaum, this was, indeed, a big day. Their local hero had come to town, the one who always had good news for them, the one who was able to cure people from illnesses, even raise people from the dead. You can begin to understand then why they would rip palm branches from the trees and wave them as Jesus, their hero came down the street. If national heroes could be celebrated, why couldn't they also have their special all-in-one "Fourth of July and Mardi Gras" celebration for their hero?
One of the great puzzles regarding Palm Sunday celebration, however, is this: Why do the gospel writers immediately attach the story of the passion and death of Jesus? Why not just enjoy the natural happiness of this one day in the fife of Jesus?
Well, the fact is that the folks taking part in the Palm Sunday celebration, like a lot of modern-day folks at big public events, got it all wrong: The favorite son does not always win, the popular quarterback sometimes get intercepted. Somebody wins and somebody loses and often it is the favorite son who loses.
So, this was also the situation in Jerusalem on that day: Jesus' followers imagined that this was going to be the big day, the day that their favorite Son would start a revolution that would put down the Romans, perhaps even take charge of the temple and they would all be winners.
The point is, of course, that Jesus ultimately disappointed a lot of people after the parade was over and the palms had withered up in the gutter. He had no intention of being their national hero. He had not come merely to solve problems and make life look rosy forever. He had come to teach that there are no easy answers to problems in this life, problems that national or religious heroes can solve for us. Rather, he came to teach about justice and peace, mercy and compassion, healing, hope and love, all those human gifts that we already have and can share if we wish to and so make the kingdom of Jesus present here and now.
So, the question remains: What do we do with the palms when Palm Sunday is over and we have all gone home? My hunch is that we may often have found them on the back seat of the car weeks later. Or perhaps we have hung them up behind the Sacred Heart painting on the wall and forgotten about them.
If that were the case, it would be a sad thing because these palms are not decorations or reminders of a day in church. No, indeed, they are reminders that once upon-a-time a good man came among us and tried to-teach us how to take care of each other and this world we live in so that we not need depend on heroes to do the work of salvation for us.
Finally, if this day teaches us anything, it teaches us that good days and bad days are always interconnected; happiness and suffering go hand in hand; there are no easy answers to life's questions. We go from day to day making the best of things, all the while knowing that Jesus never promised us a rose garden, but a field where weeds and wheat grow up together until the kingdom he promised us will finally be our's. In the meantime we struggle along each day, with the palms on our walls reminding us that someone, a great hero, has been along this path before us. "Follow me," he says.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 01:58 PM.
April 02, 2006
Fifth Sunday of Lent - Hero Worship
It's a peculiar human phenomenon, I mean this desire many people have to "get a look at" famous people, or even better to "get to talk" to them personally. What is there about politicians, movie and rock stars, sports "heroes" that makes us want to get close to them? I mean, some will even go so far as to rip at their clothes, try to get their autograph et cetera. (mostly teenagers!). Are these people really heroes? We have to admit that some of their life-styles leave something to be desired. EBay makes millions selling clothes and other artifacts that once belonged to famous people now long dead. It's all a great mystery to me because I do not personally feel the need to identify with so-called heroes, living or dead.
But one must say something good about the folks who will spend good bucks to see a rock star or a football legend and never get any closer than a quarter of a mile away. Perhaps they simply want to admire the good human qualities of this person (whether they are such or not). Perhaps it gives them a sense of pride that there are people out there who can do outstanding things and are worthy of being seen up close. In the end, we need to say that most of us are attracted by people who have done outstanding things or are at least a little better at doing certain things than we are. Hero worship has been with us for centuries, going back at least as far as we have a history of human activities. Remember, for instance, the ancient Romans and Greeks and their gods, their emperor worship? So, we Americans were not the first people to discover hero worship; we've just gotten a little more sophisticated at it. Remember Pope John Paul's funeral and the election of Benedict XVI. St. Peter's square was jammed with thousands of people for days. Obviously, we Catholics have our heroes too! What puzzles me is that heroes usually do not have much to give us, if, indeed, we are looking for a "handout." They are just interesting people to see!
When you hear the scriptures for this Fifth Sunday in Lent, you will notice that Jesus of Nazareth was also a hero of sorts. Lots of people tried to get close to him, even to "touch even the hem of his garment." Most of these people, of course, didn't simply want to see him, as though he were a "star!" They had learned that he was a worker of signs (miracles), that he could heal people, had even raised some people from the dead. So, many must have said to themselves: "Why not me? I'm sick too."
Mysteriously, of course, we know that Jesus, for whatever reason, did not heal everyone who came to him. Nonetheless, he remained an interesting person down to the end. Even King Herod wanted to see him.
So, today in the gospel, you have an interesting little scenario about some Greek-speaking persons who wanted to see Jesus (no reason why given), but realizing they were not Jewish, they probably thought they didn't have a chance. So, they approached Phillip a Greek-speaking follower of Jesus and asked him for an introduction. Oddly enough, however, we are never told whether they were successful or not because Jesus immediately starts talking about something entirely different. End of the story! Great mystery! Nobody will ever know why these two Greeks wanted to talk to Jesus!
That leads us into an interesting diversion. It is true that most of us do not get to meet important persons simply by walking into their offices or homes unannounced and ask for 25 minutes of their time. But if we are lucky, we may be acquainted with someone who does know the famous individual personally and he or she may be willing to give us an introduction. Sometimes it happens!
Now, the question for us today is this: How do we get to meet Jesus? Obviously, we are not going to talk to him physically, face to face. On the other hand, there are some people whom I consider very intuitive, that is, they can speak to Jesus very openly, pray very devoutly as though Jesus were standing right in front of them. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people. It's just not that easy for me. I do pray, but not like the folks 1 just described.
But what I have found helpful for my spiritual life is to be introduced to Jesus through someone who was obviously closer to Him than I am: There are certain saints who have helped me in that: St. Francis, for one, St. Theresa of Avila, the one who rode her horse around Spain to visit the nuns in her monasteries. Others as well: Thomas Merton, the monk at Gethsemane, Kentucky, has helped me immensely to know Jesus, Mother Theresa of Calcutta too. Oddly enough, there are also certain Catholic novelists and poets I have read and who have also helped me get an insight into Jesus: Graham Greene, C.S. Lewis, Georges Bernanos, Flannery O'Connor, Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J., even some famous painters like Raphael, Giotto, Botticelli and others.
The point is, there are all kinds of people who have had some sort of relationship with
Jesus and who could introduce us if we were willing to listen. Of course, the best introduction to Jesus is still his own story, his life as it was lived among the people who knew him best. There is nothing better than reading and rereading the gospels even though we may have read them lots of times before.
Finally, of course, there may be no reason at all why we should need to wait for an introduction to Jesus. Perhaps the best way simply is just to get brave and introduce ourselves which is probably what we do each time we pray. If prayer is anything, it is a personal conversation with Jesus. I think we can assume that Jesus knows us, but probably does not always know what’s going on in our life at this moment and might just want to hear about it. Why can't we just assume that each of us may know Jesus as well as anyone else? After all, we struck up a personal relationship with Jesus on the day we were baptized and I suspect that has not been terminated.
If news came down from the Vatican one day that Jesus would be making an appearance in our town on such and such an hour, would I go out, stand on the corner and wait to see him? You betcha! If I got close enough to say, "Hey I know you," he would probably reply, "Hey, I know you too. How's it going?" Who needs introductions?
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 09:40 AM.
March 26, 2006
Fourth Sunday of Lent - Light For Our Darkness
Every year around this time when light is contending seriously with darkness and we can expect spring to emerge once more, 1 get a sense that peoples' attitude seems to change for the better. Its not that Alaskans are "sourpuss" people, it just that the long winter months of darkness seem to have a negative effect on peoples' lives. They call it LDS, Light Deprivation Syndrome. It's no wonder then that people smile at each other in the supermarket or on the street. Light has an effect on our emotions, indeed, on our whole bodily system. It is obvious then that the world in which we live and we ourselves too depend on light for our very existence. We're not cave dwellers.
On the day I am writing this in late January, NASA lifted a space capsule off the pad in Florida and headed it off to Pluto at 8 miles a second. Even at that speed, it will be 2015 before it reaches Pluto which is out in an area of darkness called the Kuyper Belt, an area which the sun itself does not reach.
It is interesting to note how well we humans have been able to conquer darkness and use light to our best advantage, literally because without it we die. So we are indebted to good old Ben Franklin for teaching us about electricity which brings the brilliance of burning light bulbs to our very living room.
Darkness, in whatever form we experience it, is something which we cannot live with. We will do whatever we can to overcome it, not just in the physical sense, but more importantly in the spiritual realm as well. Darkness is a negative reality, light is something positive. Light gives life, darkness means death.
Did you ever notice how artists, photographers, painters, film makers and others often depend on light and darkness to say what they want to say? I personally still prefer the old black and white films of yesteryear. The contrast conveys the whole mood of the film. The great directors like Ingmar Bergman and Frederico Fellini have made some wonderful films that use light and darkness to convey a message. Pablo Picasso, the great painter had his "Blue Period" when all his paintings were dark purple, perhaps conveying how he was feeling about his life at the time.
And all the rest of us too would say that when we are feeling good, it's a bright day. When we are feeling down, it's a dark period. It makes sense!
It is not unlikely then that the sacred scriptures that we use for our spiritual "enlightenment" have used the metaphors of darkness for many centuries to talk about God and God's ways with us. It is interesting, for instance, that the author of the Book of Genesis has God creating light early on in the story of creation, realizing perhaps that all living things depend on light for their existence.
The New Testament authors also use light and darkness to convey the struggle between good and evil in the world. The point they make is an obvious one: Evil deeds are dark deeds; good deeds convey light and truth.
And Jesus himself, when attempting to describe his role and reason for being in the world claims the title "Light of the world." St. John, in particular, refers to Jesus many times in terms of light. In today's gospel, for instance, he says "Light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light because their works were evil. Everyone who does evil things hates the light. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God."
Many of you who may remember the Mass before the Second Vatican Council will recall the prologue of the Gospel of John at the very end of Mass, when we thought Mass was already over. It speaks of Christ coming into the world as light shining in darkness, a light that darkness could not overpower.
So, we have this great human and spiritual struggle that has been going on for all the years we have been on earth, the struggle between two powers: Good and evil, described as light and darkness. That describes our life in this world. We are in a constant battle with the two sides of ourselves, the dark side and the light side. Some would call it the battle between sin and virtue, goodness and evil.
No matter how we think of it, it seems true that we know the difference between good and bad and much of our life is spent trying to make sure that we are on the track toward the light and stranded in the tunnel of darkness.
So, you might ask, why all this talk about light and darkness at this time of year? Actually, there is something going on in the church these late days of Lent that is connected to the notions of light and darkness: Thousands of people are in the last stages of their preparation to come into the Church on the great night of Easter. When they are baptized, the minister will pray that the light of Christ will guide their lives. He tells them that in baptism, light will over come their darkness, sin will be forgiven and henceforth they can live in the light of Christ.
Most of us have probably been baptized for a long time and I don't suppose many of us think much about the implications of that great event in our lives. But what baptism into the Church actually means is that henceforth for the rest of our lives we are automatically linked to Christ the light, which means that we must be "light bearers." We all know, of course, that the battle continues daily because darkness is always out there in so many forms.
Perhaps when things are going badly, we could be reminded to sing that little ditty we once learned in grade school: "This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine, let it shine, let it shine. In that case, darkness will never have the last word.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 10:52 AM.
March 19, 2006
Third Sunday of Lent - Creating Space For God
I am sure that there are many experiences or memories from our past that we could say have given us a sense of identity, a sense that we belong somewhere, that we have something that gives us reason for existence.
The first of these, I should think, would be our home, especially the house where we lived and grew up in our early years. There must have been a sense of stability that we enjoyed in that place. Perhaps there were even special rooms that we could call our own, where we could be alone to think and play.
I have a memory of such a house. It was a large Victorian-style house, with lots of rooms. 1, being the only child in the family for a number of my early years, could claim the whole place for myself. It was my personal castle where I could pretend I was king or at least a prince and everyone else was my subject. Later on, of course, I had to share it with other brothers and sisters, but I can still remember every nook and cranny of that place. I don't think I have ever lived in any other house that has had the same impact on my life. I still hold a vivid image of it in my mind.
Why should that be so important for me? Well, I think it has something to do with a sense of place, a sense that we belong somewhere specific, a place where there is warmth and protection, an assurance that we are safe there. I'm sure most of us would raise our voices in protest if someone decided to take it from us. We might even think of that home as a sort of sacred space where we prayed with our parents, where we first leaned our catechism, et cetera.
The second building that we may remember from our youth and that may have left an imprint on us might be our church. We always say that churches are "our's" because in sense we know we can go there whenever we like and that we will be welcomed, if not by an ""usher", then surely by the God whom we were told dwelt there in the tabernacle with the lighted red candle-lamp burning nearby. It was quiet there; there was a sense of awe and holiness when you came in. It may even have had the smell of incense or the crowds of people that packed it each Sunday. Churches do seem to have a unique odor of holiness!
It is again interesting that we could call this church our very own: It was the Irish church or the German or the Lithuanian church. Other folks had their churches and we had our's. We might not even have felt comfortable in one of those other churches. This is the place where family events took place: baptisms, first Communions, Confirmations, weddings and funerals. We could expect that our spiritual needs would be satisfied there.
So, theologically, why are churches so precious to us? Well, I think it is because we have the deep sense that here is where we meet our God. Here is where God takes up residence with us when we come. No other building can compare with this one; it has a special ness we call sacred. That is why we give them special names, names of the saints or one of the mysteries of Christ. Here is where our Christian character is formed. It is also a place which we would defend against all harm.
It would not be out of place, therefore, to say that Jesus also had his favorite church, a place where his character was formed by the teachings and rites that were held there. It was the great temple which King Herod constructed over a lot of years. Parts of it still remain standing today. People come to pray at the so-called Western Wall every day.
So, we learn something in the gospel for this Third Sunday in Lent how Jesus felt about this temple where he had learned something about God when he was twelve years old.
By the time he was about thirty, of course, he had felt a special call from God to preach good news, to heal the sick, raise the dead. But he also had the need to pray at the temple occasionally, to experience the quiet of the sanctuary, perhaps to make an offering.
It was this need for quiet time with his God that drew him to the temple on a particular day. Perhaps he had not been there for a while. At any rate, when he walked in he found that commercial enterprises were being transacted there, at least in the outer courts. Now, we do not have many evidences that Jesus got really angry during his life, but this is one that stands out very clearly. Jesus seemed genuinely shocked at the sight of the selling of animals and birds for sacrifice, at the money that was changing hands. When you read the details of the event you say to yourself, "Jesus really lost it; he became violent. It must truly have been a ferocious scene, tables flying, money scattered across the pavement, birds and animals running wildly about, people yelling. It would have made a good subject for a film, and it actually has.
The odd thing about all this is that most of the other people, who came to the temple to pray, seemingly did not get agitated by all the commercialism going on there. This tells me that Jesus had a deeper sense of the sacredness of the temple than many others of his day, and he was willing to go to extremes to defend its sacred character. We also know from reading further in the gospels that this event got Jesus into a heap of trouble with the temple and civil authorities. It led eventually to his passion and death.
So, what does all this have to do with our sense of church today? Obviously, we do not have ushers sitting in the entry way, making change or charging "pew rent!" Tickets for parish functions are sold outside or in the hospitality rooms of the church, or wherever.
But churches today are also places that serve a variety of human needs: Hospitality, surely. But they are also places where we should have the freedom to meet God on our terms. Aside from the common liturgy, we should be able to drink in the meaning of the symbols that surround us. We should be able to come away from this time with God refreshed, quieted and satisfied spiritually. There should be no distraction. At the same time, we should feel free to take part in the sacred liturgy with passion and delight along with our fellow-Christians because we come there as a community, not as individuals. In a sense, churches are places where there is room for everyone's devotion, everyone's spirituality. We need to make room for each other. In short, churches, like "houses are places where, if you go there, they have to take you in."
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 01:46 PM.
March 07, 2006
Second Sunday of Lent - "Thou Shalt Not Kill"
"Thou shalt not kill" Three words, the Fifth Commandment of the Decalogue, God's own Word. You can't get it much clearer than that! No killing, period! But isn't it interesting that in the history of the human race, we have probably had more violations of that commandment than any of the other nine.
I suppose we would not have needed God to tell us that killing is wrong. It is obviously part of the natural law. None of us would want our life taken from us; so what should give us the right to take someone else's life, for whatever reason? Of all things that are precious to us, life stands in first place.
Perhaps that is why we Americans in particular have been struggling with the death penalty or capital punishment for so many years, indeed, until this very day. What bothers many is that we have found that in too many instances innocent people have been put to death. One innocent death is already one too many.
I must confess to you that I believe that the death penalty is unjust. Granted, murders of innocent people are a horrible and unjust act. However, I always wonder if one death deserves another? Moreover, does capital punishment actually deter violent crime? I have no evidence one way or the other on that. Moreover, most violent crimes which take life occur because of anger, vengeance or retaliation. That is no excuse, of course. Punishment of some sort should follow, life in prison at the least.
The important question always follows: Does capital punishment harden our sense of compassion and forgiveness?
Well, this is a depressing way to start a homily, even on the First Sunday of Lent. But we cannot pass up the question because our first reading from the Book of Genesis contains that famous and very puzzling story of God's call (?) to Abraham to offer up his son Isaac in sacrifice. I have read all sorts of explanations for that atrocious act: God didn't really mean it. He was just testing Abraham. Or, the fact that God relented is a proof that God forbids the human sacrifice of children, an act that many cultures had practiced for centuries. Read the stories in National Geographic that describe the sacrifice of little children in the high places of Peru.
My own understanding of those primitive cultures is that the life of a child was the most precious thing they possessed. The very future of the family or clan depended upon the life of this youngster. Hence, if they wished to please their god, the life of a child would surely suffice, horrible as that may sound. For centuries the human race has felt the need to appease God (gods) with their most precious gifts.
For those of us in our own times, of course, some theological questions arise about God and sacrifice: If God wants sacrifice, wouldn't grain or animals do? Why would a good and just God, who brings all human flesh into existence, suddenly want us to sacrifice the most precious being on earth? A human being? Moreover, why should God want to test us anyway? If God gave us a human mind and will, could God not simply trust us? Or, finally, does God expect human sacrifice at all, or is it just a desire on the part of humanity to appease God?
Well, fortunately, in our own time, child sacrifice is history. Were we not all shocked when the lady in Houston some years ago drowned her 5 children because she thought God was calling on her to do so? We all knew that she must have been mentally ill.
But let us be honest about this issue as well: The lives of children are being taken every day in our country and in our world. Abortion may be legal, but it is, nonetheless, a horrible crime of murder.
What is equally heinous today is the crime of pornography wherein little children are made the subjects of peoples' sexual fantasies. Why are little children made to suffer this inhuman form of recreation?
More and more today we also learn from news accounts of the numbers of children who are battered by their parents, sometimes killed. Why take advantage of a defenseless little child?
And as Catholics, we cannot pass over the fact that priests have taken advantage of their position and sexually abused youngsters in their teens or younger. Again, why are young people the ones who are abused by adults? Is it because they seem more vulnerable, or that they will not speak out in their own defense?
The point I am making is that we may well read in horror the biblical story of Abraham's willingness to take the life of his son Isaac, while at the same time we think little of the taking of life in the womb or the abuse of children and teenagers by adults that goes on day after day in our own time.
So, what has all this to do with Lent? Lent, obviously, means a lot of different things to different people, and we all have our little projects to fill up the Forty Days: It may be something as small as abstention from chocolate or whatever our other little "evil spirits" are. On a more positive note, we may wish to get serious again about the age-old practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Stations of the Cross or Lenten Vespers put us in liturgical touch with others. But whatever practice we may choose, these are not ends in themselves. They are meant to help us understand transformation, turning around again. That, indeed, is what Lent is about: The Greeks call it metanoia turning completely around again. Doubtless, this will not be a final turning around, given our human inclination to be slackers.
But if we care to link Lent to that first reading about the sacrifice of little Isaac, we might well think about transforming our attitude toward the preciousness of life in all its various and beautiful forms. Transformation is always a matter of the head and the heart. Given that we are always a little slow and sluggish about changing our ways of thinking and doing, perhaps the Forty Days will hardly be enough, but they will be a start which may carry us all the way into the days of summer...at least.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 12:26 PM.
February 27, 2006
First Sunday of Lent - Something For Everybody
Of all the seasons of our Catholic Liturgical calendar, Lent, it seems to me, is the one which has been co-opted (gladly!) by people of all persuasions, religious or otherwise. Perhaps there is something humanly natural about changing our life's course, taking time to figure out where we are, what we are doing and whether it is taking us anywhere. One does not have to be Catholic or even Christian to do that!
I'm not sure how it will be this year in New Orleans on the three days before Ash Wednesday, but in former years the whole city went into Mardi Gras mode, a frenetic celebration of all things crazy. But at the stroke of midnight on Fat Tuesday practically everyone, or at least those who were sufficiently sober, knew that Lent had begun and the baubles, bangles and beads should be stored away for another year. A great quiet now had set in, a time to think seriously about life once again.
For those of us who follow the scriptures for this holy season, you will find three or four themes which guide us through the forty days: The one that stands out so clearly on this First Sunday, the key Sunday, is covenant. To us, in this modern age, it seems like a rather out-of-date word; but it really has an important role to play in Lent. Covenant, in the scriptural sense, simply means "God makes a deal with us" and we are expected to "make a deal with God." God says, "if you keep my law, you will receive a blessing. If you don't, you pay for it." This is one of the most ancient relationships we can find in the scriptures.
So, what could that have to do with Lent? Well, simply this: Lent is a time when we try to rethink the covenant that we made with God at Baptism, to see how this Christian life which started then has been going all these years.
And what are the Lenten activities that can help us think our way through this covenant with God, put us back on track? The big three: Prayer, fasting and alms giving. All the other "penances" we may choose to do in Lent fall under one or the other of these "big three" categories.
Secondly, you will notice in the first lesson from Genesis today that it is all about water, the great flood and the rainbow as the universal sign of God's promise (covenant) that it will not happen again if we keep our part of the "deal."
So, why does that passage about water and the great flood appear at the beginning of Lent? Well, simply because in our Christian tradition the period of Lent is spent in intensive preparation for baptism, baptism for the thousands of catechumens throughout all the churches of Christendom who were waiting for welcome into the Church on the great night of Easter.
What about fasting, and what does that have to do with Lent? Well, obviously, it has nothing to do simply with cutting down on food, for whatever reason. Fasting can have a therapeutic effect on our lives: It clears our thinking (St. Thomas Aquinas taught us that). It clears our thinking because we are invited to ask what is really important in our life: Just feeding ourselves to stay alive or considering food to be the possession of everyone, especially the poor? The food we cut back on in Lent needs to find its way to the tables of those who have little or no food. Otherwise, giving up food in Lent merely becomes an exercise in controlling our waist lines. Not such a great motivation, even though it may make us feel better about ourselves.
Finally, there is one absolutely important ingredient in Lent that most folks might say shouldn't belong there: Joy, celebration! Is that something we gave up at midnight on Fat Tuesday? Well, not the right kind of joy!
There is an interesting line in one of the prefaces to the Eucharistic Prayer for Lent that goes like this: "Each year (Lord) you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the Paschal mystery (Easter) with mind and heart renewed. You give us a spirit of loving reverence for you, our Father, and a willing service to our neighbor. That's Lent in a nut-shell: We celebrate joyfully during Lent so that we can experience Easter in its fullness. Again, we fast (happily) so that Easter will mean all the more to us.
Lent, then, is all about fasting and feasting, disciplining ourselves so that we can experience life in its fullness.
The question, however, is "fast from what?" Here is a list offered by Father Charles Faso in a recent issue of Preaching magazine:
Fast from suspicion and feast on truth
Fast from complaining and feast on appreciation
Fast from judging others and feast on Christ within others
Fast from idle gossip and feast on purposeful silence.
Fast from anger and feast on forgiveness.
Fast from discouragement and feast on hope
Fast from worry and feast on trusting God
Fast from unrelenting pressures and feast on' unceasing prayer.
Fast from lethargy and feast on enthusiasm.
Fast from emphasizing the differences and feast on the unity of life.
Fast from thoughts of illness and feast on the healing power of God.
I could add a couple more:
Fast from a sour face and feast on smiles.
Fast from growling and feast on laughing
Fast from depression and feast on joy!
Now, that's a pretty full menu for Lent. but it's our covenant with our God who promises in return that Easter will be forever.
Posted by Cindy Lentine at 12:42 PM.
March 24, 2005
Holy Thursday: Getting Down on One's Knees
Some years ago I had the opportunity to celebrate the marriage of two young folks of our parish, both Catholic, both having made their way through our religious formation program. I never thought of them as particularly pious, just ordinary young teenagers who had made their way into adulthood and were now prepared to enter the mysterious world of Holy Matrimony.
I helped them prepare the marriage liturgy, choose the readings, prayers and all the rest. When I asked them whether there was anything in the scriptures they might want me to reflect on for the homily, they said: “Well Father, if you don’t mind, we’d like to do the homily ourselves.” I said, “ok by me, just keep it down below a half-hour if you can.”
When the day of the wedding came around, I began to wonder what they planned on saying in the homily. Priests always worry about stuff like that. This is usually the time for the presider to get in a few choice words about marriage and family matters. Actually, I already had some sense of what they might want to say because they had selected the Last Supper event in the gospel of John, the very one which we just read here a few moments ago.
So, the gospel was read and everyone sat down, waiting for the homily. Not a word! Dead silence! Much to my astonishment, the couple just sat at their chairs and began taking off their shoes and socks. Then two of the wedding attendants brought up a bowl of water and a towel and placed them at the couples’ feet.
Well, you already know the rest: There was no homily, not in the normal sense. Each of them in turn simply got up and washed each other’s feet, wiped them and sat down. End of story! Not a word, no homily, no explanation, no reasons given. In other words the action took the place of anything they might have said. Then there was a period of total silence as they replaced their shoes and socks and their parents and friends sat there with their mouths open! I’d have to say, however, that it was probably one of the best wedding homilies I had ever heard or seen!
Of course, it could have turned out to be a big show, something to impress their friends with their personal piety. But this was not the case: They simply wanted to say or do something that would be a sign of their dedication to one another. I’m sure they are probably still happily married and perhaps they are also still washing one another’s feet, at least I hope that is the case.
All this tells me that sometimes, often times, actions are more effective than words. Indeed, this is what St. James said in his letter to the early Christians: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only.”
We have just listened to a dramatic reading of another incident of foot-washing. No doubt, we have heard that reading many times and may have let it go at that. This is just what Jesus usually did, something astonishing, something different. He was always doing such things.
But think about this: This was the evening of the Paschal Supper, one of the most important feasts in the entire Jewish calendar. It was all about story-telling, about eating and drinking in memory of Jewish history. There was no rubric in the ceremony about foot-washing, none whatsoever. Everyone must have been totally amazed at Jesus turning this ancient and sacred ceremony into something personal like this. Didn’t history count for anything?
But my sense of the foot-washing ceremony is this: Jesus might have said to himself: “Here’s my chance to do something important.” So, he might have said to them: “My friends, now that I have you all together, perhaps for the last time, let me share a word or two with you. Did you understand what I just did for you? You address me as ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’ and fittingly enough, for that is what I am. But if I washed your feet---I who am Teacher and Lord---then you must wash one another’s feet. What I just did was to give you an example: as I have done, so you must also do.”
What’s this all about? Well, what it is all about is Jesus’ insistence that if his disciples or we wish to be his followers, we need to learn how to be servants to one another. There is nothing more fundamental than that about being Christian.
In other words, we can talk all day about how we love one another, but unless we are willing “to get down on our knees” and be servants to one another, it will mean very little. Actions speak louder than words.
So, how does all this break out in the context of or every day life? Obviously, we are probably not actually going to be washing one another’s feet literally every day. We are pretty sensitive about how our feet look anyway. We’d prefer not to touch someone else’s feet!
But we do need to demonstrate what foot-washing means. We do need to be servants to one another and not in a demeaning way either, but in total integrity and truthfulness. It could mean something like this: Being honest with one another; no phoniness. It could mean speaking respectfully to one another. It could mean putting up with one another’s annoying and irritating habits. Even more, it could mean having to do what we don’t always like doing, all for the sake of others. Actually, it’s all contained in those lovely words of the marriage ceremony: Loving and honoring one another, especially in circumstances of riches and poverty, sickness and health, difficulties or joys, day in and day out. That’s what serving one another should mean.
In a few moments we shall once again participate in that ancient ceremony. There is always the chance, of course, as in so many other liturgical ceremonies, that it will seem like just another ritual formality that we Catholics are so well known for. We have to be careful of theatrics. Truly, it’s what happens after this rite is over, what happens at home, at work or wherever, tomorrow and the day after that, which ultimately counts. If we have not learned the every day meaning of this rite then perhaps it would be better that we not do it at all.
Getting on our knees is not something we do easily. It’s a long way to the floor. Being servants to one another is never easy nor simple either. We have to keep learning and doing it over and over again. If tonight is the time we decide to start over again, then all we do here will have been worthwhile.
Exodus 12: 1-8, 11-14; 1 Corinthians 11: 23-26; John 13: 1-15
Posted by Deacon Eric Stoltz at 02:36 PM.
March 20, 2005
Palm Sunday: Even if Good Friday Had Never Happened
Each year when Palm Sunday comes around, I must confess that I am always left a bit disappointed, not with the celebration of the rite of the palms, but because of the way it ends, that is, with the proclamation of the Lord’s Passion story. In other words, what began so well ends so badly? A joyful parade on one day ends with the death penalty and crucifixion several days later. Now, doesn’t that sound like a pretty big emotional jump for anyone to make?
What if we (or those who can make decisions in our church) were to simply say: Today, on Palm Sunday we will think about the happy climax of Jesus’ work. We’ll try to imagine what it was like when he came to town and all his friends were ecstatic with joy. Here he was, in from the desert, in from the villages, rich with a lot of personal victories, ready now to receive the accolades of his friends. On Friday, the day of his crucifixion, there will still be time to think about the Passion. Why tack it on to the liturgy of Palm Sunday?
Obviously, I am not in a position to make those kinds of changes, but I think it would be an interesting possibility to explore. So, we will do that, we will think a little about the meaning and implications of parades because that is the central point of this story. We will leave the exploration of the meaning of the Passion for Friday.
I think it would be safe to say that all of us love a parade: We look forward to the day when the county fair comes to town. If we live in Boston or New York City we are in the streets when the Yankees or the Red Sox win the World Series. If our favorite NFL team happens to win the Super Bowl, only a grouch would sit at home and watch the festivities on television.
The point here is simply that all of us need to enjoy a break from the dull routine of a work day. Celebrations of whatever kind give us a chance to recoup our leisure energies.
Now, the question is, what do we commonly do to celebrate special events? We have many options, of course, but if it is something really important, a once-for-all lifetime event, we will join a parade or at least we will watch from the sidewalk as others march down the street. But, for sure, we will not sit at home and grouse. We will feel the need to get out and do something: Play in the band, carry a banner, throw shredded computer paper around, whatever suits our fancy.
The basic thing most people will do, however, is simply to get in line and walk. Perhaps they will also sing, play an instrument, cheer or wave a banner, but all these activities take place while people are walking, parading down the street.
So, when you think about it, walking is a very basic and meaningful human action. Walking upright is one of the things that defines the nature of the human person.
For the most part, we walk with purpose: We walk to the office, the school, the store. All of these are minor parades even though we often walk alone.
History is full of examples of people who have gone on long walks, on pilgrimage: Each year two million Moslem men and women travel to Makkah for the Hajj.
If you should travel to Rome, you would find there a number of triumphal arches, particularly the famous Arch of Titus which commemorates the return of the victorious Roman armies with the spoils of the temple in Jerusalem.
Hundreds of Christians go on pilgrimage each year, whether to the cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres or to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostella in Spain.
Most of us Catholics will make our minor pilgrimage to our parish church each Sunday.
Think too of the number of minor liturgical processions in which we participate (walk) every Sunday. We walk to the house of the Lord, at least from the parking lot. We watch as someone processes to the altar with the gospel book. We walk (parade) with our gifts to the Eucharist table. We walk again to receive communion. All of these are minor parades: We walk together for a holy purpose. It is not just a way of conveniently getting from one place to another.
Think then for a moment of that small parade that was going on in Jerusalem on that day when Jesus came in from the country with his entourage of “little people.” They obviously did not have much to celebrate with, some palms or simply branches from nearby trees that they waved or threw down on the street ahead of where Jesus would be traveling. The important thing was that they needed to welcome their conquering hero (like the Romans welcomed Titus the general and his army back from the Middle East). No doubt, they sang songs and yelled acclamations: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, hosanna in high heaven.”
It is hard to know whether many of the other local citizens of Jerusalem even paid any attention to this rag-tag group of peasants. There could have been close to 250,000 people in town for the Passover. But for this little group, it was the World Series and Super Bowl Sunday all rolled into one event. So, why not celebrate? The fact that someone even “commandeered” a donkey for Jesus to ride tells you something about the importance of this event. Everyone else walked!
What is especially significant about this little parade is not its size, not its notoriety in the city, but the fact that a group of little people felt the need in the middle of a large city to pay tribute to the one whom they called their Messiah and Lord, the one who had done great things in minor villages. He was their hometown hero and nobody was going to stop them from celebrating his entrance into their city. If people laughed at them, so what? It was their day and their parade.
So, my friends, if I had my way, here is where I would stop. Doesn’t it make sense that all of us who are Christian should have an opportunity just once during the year to join those peasant friends of Jesus and celebrate, parading and waving our palms in memory of our hero, our king? Yes, I know, in a few days we will also remember the Friday we call Good. We will think about the Lord’s suffering and death. But on this day we should be happy. If there was not so much snow on the ground, we would parade around the parking lot, waving our palms and singing “hosanna in the highest.” Jesus is still our champion, our hero. Nothing should dampen our enthusiasm or cheering for the one who has made it all worthwhile for us to come here today. It’s our parade too. Let nothing stand in our way.
Matthew 21: 1-11 (procession); Isaiah 50: 4-7; Philippians 2; 6-11; Matthew 27: 11-54
Posted by Deacon Eric Stoltz at 02:33 PM.
March 13, 2005
Fifth Sunday of Lent: Friendship as Resurrection
There is a very funny film in the theaters these days entitled “Sideways”. It is a story about two middle aged bachelor fellows who have been friends for a long time. One of the gentlemen is shortly preparing to be married. So, the two of them decide that it would be nice if they could celebrate the memories of their long friendship together with a drive up the California coast to visit the wine country. They are both into the art of wine tasting.
Well, the week does not go well: Despite all the good wine they tasted, all the dinners they had, all their intellectual debates about the unique taste of different brands of wine, et cetera, they get into some fierce arguments; they yell at one another, they crash their car. The whole week almost ends in disaster, but eventually they decide that their friendship is too important for it to end like this. I won’t tell you any more of the story because some of it does not bear retelling in church. Let us just say it’s a story about the fact that life without friendships can be a dreary situation. Friendships are worth the struggle even if they do not always go well or peacefully.
We all know that, of course: All of us have friendships. We’ve had many friendships in the past, some good, some not so good, but the fact that we do have them says something about their importance. They are the glue that holds life together. All marriages, for instance, begin with a good friendship. Married couples call one another friends. “I will marry my friend,” they say.
I think it would also be true to say that all of us have a deep fear of loneliness, of finding ourselves in this world without anyone to support or befriend us. We are obviously created to be together, we compliment each other, not always well, but we do depend on one another to make it go. The Book of Genesis makes that absolutely clear: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will create for him a helpmate.”
It is for that reason, I should imagine, that we are saddened when friendships end, whether by choice, a falling out or especially by death. Why, for instance, are tears shed at funerals? Because we have lost a friend, obviously.
This is exactly the situation we find in the gospel story for this Fifth Sunday in Lent, the story of the death of Lazarus, Jesus’ friend. Here is one of those rare situations where we see a touch of Jesus’ human nature, his reaction to death on a personal level. The story insists that Jesus was deeply perturbed, deeply troubled, and that he wept. The people standing around notice this and comment on how much he must have loved him.
Tears are always a sign of our deepest emotions, how we feel toward someone. We have all attended funerals, rites of Christian burial, and we know that when people shed tears during those rites, it is not something shallow. It is because a dear friend, a mother, a father, a family member’s friendship has been severed and we are left standing there alone, by ourselves.
But think of this too: This story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus to life is also what we could call a resurrection story. What Jesus did on that day is a sign for all of us that, despite the death we will some day experience, we are assured that the death of a Christian is not the end. God is our friend and, like Jesus, like Lazarus, we will all experience resurrection. Our friendship with God is everlasting. God does not abandon those whom Jesus calls friends.
It occurs to me also to say that resurrection is not a one-for-all experience; it goes on every day of our lives: In a sense, we are something like Jesus: By the friendship we show to others during our life we have the power to raise others up time and time again, perhaps not literally or physically but humanly, and personally nonetheless. Every act of kindness, every act of friendliness, every good word, every act of concern for others is a sign of resurrection.
I suppose we might imagine that it would be nice if we could all call on Jesus, like Martha and Mary did, to raise up those we love who have died. But, obviously, that is not going to happen. We live in the here and now, the present; we have little control over life and death. But while we live we ought to be able to say, “if life means anything to me, it means that I am personally responsible for bringing even some small sign of hope into someone’s life today.” That’s resurrection! Resurrection goes on all the time when friends untie the bonds that prevent us from experiencing life in its fullness. If Jesus could make that happen for Lazarus, we can make it happen for one another. It’s the least you can ask of friends.
Ezekiel 37: 12-14; Romans 8: 8-10; John 11: 1-45
Posted by Deacon Eric Stoltz at 02:31 PM.
March 06, 2005
Fourth Sunday of Lent: Life With Eyes Wide Open
As I often wander through the aisles of Barnes and Noble Booksellers on my day off, it astonishes me at the number of people, writers, who can produce works of five hundred or even a thousand pages of text. If it is a novel an author has written, for instance, I ask myself, how can anyone imagine everything that will go into that work beforehand: characters, places, events, dates, and all the rest? Does it just come to mind as the person types at his or her word processor, or does the person have some sort of grand scheme, intention or vision at the start and then gradually puts all the elements into place as he or she types along? I have great admiration for people who can do that. I’m sure that I personally do not have the breadth of vision to go much beyond three pages of typed text.
As I often begin writing a scripture reflection, for instance, I look at the blank computer screen in front of me and wonder what will eventually fill that space in the next few hours. Sometimes it takes a while even before one thought comes to mind. “Writer’s block” they call it!
I suppose it would be true to say that anything we do in life has to start with a thought, an idea, even a plan of action. Surely we don’t have the final product in our mind all at once. So, a creative process has to go on as we work. Indeed, we have to be stimulated by some idea in life and then try to work that out during our creative years.
But it all boils down to vision, imagination, outlook. The Germans have a word for it: They call it “Weltanschauung,” world vision, a way of looking at life, a perspective. Perhaps that is the answer to many things: What’s your life vision? How do you look at life?
What is critical in life, of course, is that we do not go through life sleeping. Doubtless, sleep is a wonderful, restful experience. We will not be much good for anything creative if we get too little sleep. It doesn’t do any good, for instance, to begin reading a book only to find ourselves nodding after a few moments, or to go to a concert and doze off during the first movement, or sit through a Sunday homily half awake. Better had we stayed at home to watch the opening quarter of an NFL game!
So much in life therefore depends on how awake we are, what kind of mental vision we have of what is going on around us, in short, how we see things in life.
That is also the question for the Christian: How do we see life? Is our vision any deeper or broader, any different than other folk who may never give a thought to the serious things in life?
There are some ideas about sight and insight, vision, seeing and not seeing, darkness and light in our scriptures for this Fourth Sunday in Lent.
Before we go into that, however, we need to recall that the gospel stories, particularly those of the last two Sundays of Lent are meant particularly as lessons for the listeners, the catechumens, those who are preparing to be welcomed into the church through baptism at the Easter Vigil. Last Sunday they (and we) heard water stories: Moses’ discovery of the spring in the desert and Jesus being given water at Jacob’s well by the woman from the village of Samaria.
Today we hear a story about a man who was born blind and all the troubles he encountered when Jesus cured him of his blindness. This is really a very interesting story inasmuch as it portrays for us two different kinds of people, two different visions, two different ways of looking at life. The young man born blind represents one side, one vision. He knows that he was born blind he admits that, he has lived in darkness all his life. But once he is cured of his physical blindness, he declares his faith in Jesus. In other words, his eyes are opened and he sees life in a completely different way. Faith in Jesus has given him a whole new way of observing the universe around him.
The antagonists in the story are the scribes and Pharisees. They are model Jewish religious leaders: They know all the correct answers, are loyal to the Commandments. Their problem, however, is that they are also living in darkness, but a different kind of darkness: They refuse to believe that Jesus, or any other religious leader, for that matter, could do something good, a cure, for instance, on the Sabbath. In the young man’s case, his darkness is physical, he cannot see. The scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, are spiritually blind; they refused to see.
Here is a short side-light that is interesting: The story about the blind man actually represents a conflict in the days of the early Christian church between themselves, followers of Jesus the light of the world, and the Jewish religious authorities who refused to believe in Jesus the Light. You can begin to understand why the scribes and Pharisees are presented as “blind men”, men who lived in darkness while the early Christians are presented as people of the light.
But what insights can we draw from this story for ourselves, Christians who claim to follow Jesus the Light? First of all, we might ask the question: What does it really mean to be baptized Christians? Has baptism and enrollment in the Christian community made any difference, any impact on the way we look at life, the world? Do we have a Christian philosophy of life? Do we perceive life any differently than others in the world do? That does not mean, of course, that other people are swimming around in darkness while we bask in the light. Being Christian is not a “comparison game.” It’s a matter of being responsible to our own baptism, our own act of faith. If we say that we are followers of Jesus the Light that has to mean something. Claiming that we are Christian is serious business!
Finally, a short word about the blindness we call prejudice. It means prejudging an issue and refusing to admit that there might possibly be another way of seeing a solution or answer. We’re all guilty of it occasionally. There are all sorts of examples of racial, ethnic and religious prejudice that go on in the world every day Hopefully, we who say we are followers of Jesus the Light are not guilty of such practice. It is contradictory to all that Jesus teaches us abut light and darkness.
Somewhere I once read that there are two things in life that we would have a difficult time living without: One is water and the other is light. We know that is surely true in the physical world. Now, the question is: What should that mean if we also call ourselves followers of Jesus the Light?
1 Samuel 16: 1b, 6-7, 10-13z; Ephesians 5; 8-14J; John 9:1-41
Posted by Deacon Eric Stoltz at 02:28 PM.
February 27, 2005
Third Sunday of Lent: That Most Precious Gift
I think it would be safe to say that all of us, we who live on planet earth, never became more aware of the power of water than we did on the twenty-sixth day of December 2004, the day the earth suddenly became unbalanced and the waters of the Indian Ocean and South Asia began to move with tremendous force across those fragile islands which dot that part of the earth.
True, everyone knows that water often floods the land in many parts of the planet, but never anything like this, never with such tremendous force. On the other hand, we also know that in some parts of the world there is no water at all, only miles and miles of dry desert.
But on the twenty-sixth day of December 2004, we suddenly realized as never before that we are a fragile and vulnerable people living on a very fragile planet. There are obviously some things on this planet over which we humans have little control. This became very evident when the waters overwhelmed the land and people could do nothing but run away, some successfully, but thousands of others, tragically, to their deaths.
It occurred to me as all this was happening that so many other events that were taking place around the world on that day suddenly became very unimportant: football championships, political squabbling in Washington or Jerusalem or the Gaza Strip. Indeed, even on that day for a change, the war in Iraq fell from the headlines. When 150,000 people die in a matter of a few short hours, you begin to wonder what is really important and what is not important on the life of this planet.
Many also realized, perhaps for the first time in our history, how much we are dependent upon one another. Like never before in our history we decided to set aside our petty differences and pitch in to help those who could do little for themselves. Like never before, many countries pulled together their human and scientific know-how in the cause of compassion for people most of us had never met before.
I imagine that we never fully realized until then how much impact water has on the life of people who live on this globe. Undoubtedly, we take it for granted each day: We take our showers each morning, never caring whether there might be enough to go around tomorrow. People casually walk around everywhere with their little plastic containers of water, holding them tightly for fear of losing them. Water is recreation; water gives joy and delight to heart. Children know that better than most
Perhaps for the first time too, because of its destructive force, many people began asking: “Why did this happen to us, of all people? Did God suddenly decide to punish us, punish this lovely part of the planet? Did we do something wrong? Why us and not others around the world?”
To that I can only say that once we claim that God uses this fragile earth on which we live to punish us for whatever reason, then we have some gigantic problems before us.
It seems more reasonable to say that God simply allows all creation to do what it was created to do. The natural universe does not always operate in our best interests. It simply does what it does by its nature; it’s not a perfect creation, obviously, and, cruel at as it may sound from our point of view, sometimes we humans are in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sorry!
At any rate, the great tragedy that befell us on the twenty-sixth day of December has been a great lesson to us: Appreciate what you have, thank God for it and take care of it, take care of each other.
The scriptures for this Third Sunday in Lent, as you have just noticed, also speak clearly and forcefully about water. You may wonder why we are hearing these two water stories on this particular Sunday in Lent. Well, it all has to do with baptism. In many churches through the Christian world there are people who have asked to be admitted to the Catholic Church. They have been preparing themselves for this for many months. On the evening of Easter, therefore, they will be plunged into the church’s baptismal font in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and they will be welcomed into the body of Christ’s faithful.
But why with water, you may ask? Why not just say some words of welcome over these folk and let it go at that? Well, the answer to that is because water stands for something, and what it stands for, above all else, is life. Without water we die, simple as that.
On this Sunday in Lent, therefore the catechumens, the learners, those asking for welcome into the church are presented with two stories from scripture to help them understand what water does for them and will do for them in a few short weeks as they become Christians. They are invited to listen to the story of Moses who found a spring in the desert and made it possible to keep the Israelite people from dying of thirst. For Moses and for the desert wanderers, it must have seemed like God’s gift.
The lesson, of course, is that for those who are thirsting for eternal life, the church offers them baptism and the opportunity to join the Christian community where they will be able to experience Christian life first hand.
The catechumens, the learners, are also invited to listen to the story about the day Jesus had run out of water in his desert wanderings and ended up at the famous Jacob’s well, but without a bucket to draw it up. He had no qualms about asking a woman who had also come there for water to draw some for himself and is friends. While Jesus and the woman were sharing water, they got into this conversation about the meaning of life, physical and spiritual, and Jesus saw the opportunity to help her get a grip on her life. She had been married five times. So, in exchange for natural water, Jesus gave her spiritual water which quenched her thirst for life’s fuller meaning. A good exchange, obviously.
For those of us who are gathered here this morning, Christians all, I imagine it could be said that we pretty much take for granted the fact that someone in our past, our parents, for example, thought it important enough to bring us to the church for baptism. All they wanted to do was to make sure that we had the same opportunity to share in the life of Christ that they had. They wanted to pass on their faith to us and expected us to do the same for our children or for those who might come to us asking how they could find their way into the church.
Finally, it might be well for us to think seriously and often about natural water and its life-giving power in all the ways we use it in our daily lives: In our family, as I was growing up, there was always a little holy water font near the front door of our home where we could bless ourselves as we left to go to school in the morning. My mother had great faith in the power of water: Whenever a storm threatened, she would sprinkle the entire house with holy water and ask for God’s protection. It always worked!
So, what is the lesson in all this? Something so simple as water, so abundant, so beautiful, so refreshing, so life-giving, so taken for granted, is God’s gift to us, a gift for our bodily and spiritual life. It might be a good idea to say thanks the next time we lift a glass of cold water to our lips, take a shower or bless ourselves with it as we go to work. Think what we would do without it?
Exodus 17: 3-7; Romans 5: 1-2, 5-8; John 4: 5-42
Posted by Deacon Eric Stoltz at 02:25 PM.
February 20, 2005
Second Sunday of Lent: Our Human Restlessness
It is astonishing, when one thinks about it, how much discomfort one will put up with these days in order to do our traveling. All human beings by nature love to travel and we are willing to endure practically everything to get there, wherever “there” is. We will sit patiently in our cars on blocked highways, we will be kind and considerate to TSA people who “wand” us, check our shoes, our brief cases, and our lap tops. It is all worth while just to get to our destination.
But this desire to travel is not simply about getting on the road and reaching the place for which we have planned. If we think about it in a metaphysical or spiritual sense, traveling to some exotic or not so exotic place is all about fulfilling our life’s deepest desire, our best dreams, indeed, even about becoming a different person once we have experienced the goal we have set for ourselves.
Obviously, people have been traveling for centuries and putting up with the inconveniences of the road or air. Think, for instance, about the Mormons traveling by ox cart to Utah, or about Lewis and Clark and their Voyage of Discovery. Those were surely no “joy rides.” But they had a vision, a dream of what it might be like at the end of the road. Hence, they were willing to put up with the inconveniences on he way.
So, we come to this Second Sunday in lent and we find two scriptural stories of people who were travelers with visions and dreams.
First, the story of Abram and his wife Sarah who lived in a metropolitan city (for those days) called Ur of the Chaldees. They were not happy with the Land of Chaldees. It had a lot of conveniences in the city of Ur, but it lacked pasture lands for their flocks. So, they set out across the desert, even to an unknown destination. (It was the Nomadic thing to do in those times.) It was just a dream, after all. But their dream also told them that when they arrived, they would be the father and mother of a great nation and that their progeny would be as numerous as the sand and the stars. So, they put up with the heat, the distance and even the possibility that they might never reach their promised homeland. The dream of something better was enough to keep them traveling. We know the final chapter of this story, of course. They eventually arrived and dwelt in what we know today as the Land of Israel and did, indeed, become a huge nation.
Our second story also involves travel, but in this instance not out there somewhere, but rather up, up a mountain, or at least a modest hill. The characters in the story are Jesus and three friends. He invites them to climb to a place where they will experience something sacred or at least different.
The question, of course, is why up, why to the top of a mountain? The answer is that humankind has always considered mountain tops as a place where one can experience life in a different, a clearer, a more unobstructed way. Think for instance, about Moses climbing Mt. Sinai, or the prophets who went to high places to experience God.
Sir Edmund Hillary probably had the most correct answer when he was asked on one occasion why he decided to climb Mt. Everest. His response: “Because it’s there.” That may sound like a flippant answer, but in a sense it is the only answer one could possibly come up with. It’s all about the dream once again. Hillary dreamed about climbing that mountain simply because it was there. Hence, he was willing to endure all sorts of hardships in order to be the first person to climb that beautiful piece of ice and rock.
No doubt, this was on the mind of Jesus, Peter, James, and John. The mountain for them was not simply a piece of vertical rock It was a place of quiet, a place apart where God could be experienced, a place above the plain, the ordinary, the busyness of every day life, a place worth struggling to reach.
We do not know exactly what the experience was that Jesus, Peter, James, and John had, but we know that for the three, or at least for Peter, it was so overwhelming that they thought it would be worthwhile simply to stay there, set up an altar and pray. Better, obviously, than going back down to put up with the crowds all day.
Ultimately, of course, we know that they all came back down to the plain, but they were different people after what had happened to them in that sacred place.
I suppose it would not be too much to say that all of us have our sacred places, our “mountain tops” where we can experience our God in a unique way, different from the way other people experience God. This is always the human way of experiencing God: We choose a special place where we will not be disturbed. We hunt out our little hermitages, retreat centers, or simply walk in the woods where nothing will disturb our contemplation.
So, why are we hearing all this during Lent? I am not sure why the framers of the Lectionary chose these two stories about travel to tell us something about Lent. But my sense is this: There comes a time in all our lives when we decide that we need to separate ourselves and break from the ordinary, distracting ways of life. We feel the need to be in a holy place where we can think and try to understand the ways of God for ourselves.
I think of Lent in that way: The church provides a special time during the year for us to simply be separate from worldly matters, from distractions, indeed, even from temptations of the world, the flesh and the devil, to use a scriptural reference. Perhaps we simply need to get our life back together again and we need a time and place to do that. We could do it at any time of year, of course, but the church gives us Lent, that time of year we think of as spring, a time of renewal and freshness.
The point, of course, is that we need to “go there” we need to travel, whether up or out. We need to struggle with the matters of this world in order to realize our dream. Ultimately, it is worth all the effort, even if it is only forty days and forty nights. To experience something new, something special, something holy, something transcendent is indeed worth all the stress and trouble tht accompanies us along the way.
Obviously, we are all on a personal life journey. We have no idea what the future holds, but one thing for sure, if like Abram and Sarah, like Jesus and his friends, we cling to our dreams, life will never be a disappointment. Jesus promises us the kingdom. When we arrive there it will be home. Not a bad option when you think about it.
Genesis 12: 1-4a; 2 Timothy 1: 8b-10; Matthew 17: 1-9
Posted by Deacon Eric Stoltz at 02:22 PM.
February 13, 2005
First Sunday of Lent: Back to the Basics
This is one of those years in the church calendar when we may feel crunched, crunched because the season of Lent begins about as early as it can. So, we are crunched between Christmas and Ash Wednesday. Christmas is hardly over and here we are already thinking about fasting. Actually, it’s probably not a bad idea that Lent begins early. Lots of people are probably working on ways to cut down on the carbs and sugar that were ingested during those feverish Christmas holidays.
An article in the newspaper some weeks ago made the point that most of the people who were once so faithful to the famous Atkins Diet are now “bailing out”. “Too much fuss,” they say, “kind of tiresome doing it everyday.” Perhaps Christians who decide to use Lent as the time to “take it off” will also decide that it can get kind of tiresome after a while. Of course, Lent was never meant to be a time dedicated to fat loss anyway.
So, what about Lent? What do we think about during these forty days? What should we be planning? Obviously, there is a deep and mysterious longing in all of us, in our deepest psyche to occasionally look seriously at our life and life’s habits. Even deeper than that, we sometimes ask ourselves the question, what does it mean to be a human being like me? Why am I the way I am? How did I get this way? We all obviously know that we are not terribly satisfied with ourselves. Our habits and customs seem to draw us in a direction we are not happy about.
Thinking a bit more broadly, many of us also ask the question, why is the world the way it is? How did the world become like it is? Obviously, it is not in a very healthy state from many points of view. Whatever happened to goodness or honesty, truthfulness, to the search for justice and peace and all the rest of those human-Christian virtues? Whom should we blame for the evils that seem to corrupt our nature and our culture. I think we all know that there is something amiss in the world, but we would rather attribute it to human weakness, Original Sin or something such, anything that will absolve us of personal responsibility.
The story is told of G.K. Chesterton, the English philosopher and writer who once responded to a question in the London Times: “What’s wrong with the world today?” Chesterton responded with a one-line answer: “Dear sir: I am.” What Chesterton was implying was that if we don’t’ like the way we are, it’s our fault, we human beings with our great potential for good and evil. We could choose better but we do not. The point is, we make choices and they are not always good choices. “We have met the enemy and it is us” to quote a line from the comic strip Pogo of long ago.
The task of Lent, therefore, if we are not happy with ourselves, the challenge of Lent is to make good choices. Indeed, that is the very reason why we traditionally are presented with the story in the Book of Genesis of the temptation and choice of our first parents, Adam and Eve. The story teller wishes us to know that the reason “we got this way” is because there is something deep in our human nature which does not seem to be able to cope with the temptation to take the simple, the easy and comfortable way in life.
The story of Adam and Eve, therefore, is the story of every man and every woman who has ever existed on this planet. He is a good philosopher, this ancient story teller: He wonders why we are like we are. Why do we do evil? Why is there suffering? Why are we ashamed of our bodies, our actions? Why do we feel alienated from God and one another? These are good and deep questions that need to be asked and they all have to do with choice.
Obviously, good choices are also being made all the time. Human beings are not bad by nature. But we also know that we are responsible for our shame, our alienation. There is a natural desire in each of us, therefore, to escape this mess in which we find ourselves.
St. Paul in his letter to the Roman Christians admits this great human weakness: He had been a persecutor of Christians in his young adult life. But now he is honest enough to say that even though “sin came into the world through one person (Adam)”, we are all responsible because we are, each of us and all of us, sinners. We all make choices that harm us. Of course, we all know the choice Paul eventually made to follow Christ, a journey which led him to Rome…and death.
And, finally, we come to that wonderful story in Matthew’s gospel of Jesus’ confrontation with the choice between good and evil, the classic temptation story. We all know, of course, how it is going to turn out, but the interesting part is how Jesus’ dealt with it. In the story of Adam and Eve, the struggle was going on in their minds. Here too the struggle is going on in Jesus’ mind, his conscience. Adam and Eve struggled with choices. Here Jesus also struggles with choices. In both cases we are witnessing a psychological or mind game, the battle with the self.
Without trying to identify precisely the nature of the three temptation of Jesus, therefore, we could say that they resemble the temptations we all experience: The struggle, with self and the world, the temptation to take the simple and easy way out of hard decisions.
But what I think we also learn from the way Jesus dealt with the three temptations is that human decisions that affect our life, the decision to do the right thing is never easy. Nonetheless, if we do not fight valiantly, we will never be happy with ourselves. Deep in our souls we really want to believe that we can do the better thing, that we can “take the road less traveled” and feel good about it.
So, here we are back at the beginning of another Lent. I’m sure many folks on Ash Wednesday just passed have probably already thought about what they want to “give up” in order to strengthen their resolve to live as decent Christians. “Giving things up” is actually not a bad idea, but only if it is understood as a way to remind ourselves that there are other things in life that need to be dealt with beside our waistline.
We did all this last year, didn’t we? We will do it all again this year and next year because we recognize that we are still not “all together”: The old temptations, the world the flesh and the devil consistently keep coming back to haunt us. Oddly enough, if we were finally able to destroy them, once and for all, we would hardly have need for Lent. But we know ourselves well enough: Perfection has not happened yet. That is why Lent is good for us. Lent is the season of second chances even third or fourth or as many as we need.
Genesis 2: 7-9; 3:1-7; Romans 5: 12-19; Matthew 4:1-11
Posted by Deacon Eric Stoltz at 02:19 PM.