Who is Barabbas? (or Why is “Good Friday” good?)

“…will you have me release for you the King of the Jews?”  They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!”  Now Barabbas was a robber.   -John 18:40

It’s hard to understand, unless we take some time to ponder it, what is “good” about “Good Friday.”  After all, it is the day that Jesus, the son of God, not only died, but was actually put to death at the request of the very people who were God’s “chosen” ones.

How can this be “good’?

In order to understand, of course, we must know a bit about our history.  Not the history of the world, per se, but the history of our salvation.  For that, we need to go all the way back to the book of Genesis, and a long-ago promise made between God and Abraham.  Here, Abraham is pleading with God to give him a son, an heir.  And God promises not only will he have a son in his old age, he will have so many descendants they will “number the stars.” (Gen 15:5)  But in order for Abraham to know that God was serious about this promise, God said to Abraham, “Bring me a heifer three years old…” (Gen 15:9)

Say what?

Yes!  This is why knowing our salvation history is so important.  Because in the days of the Old Testament, bringing animals to sacrifice is a sure sign that a covenant is being formed.  And in today’s terms we sometimes refer to a covenant as a “contract.”  But it’s really so much more than that!  In America today, if you break a contract, you may get taken to court and have to make a monetary payment of what you owe or possibly spend time in jail.  But in biblical times, animals were sacrificed as a covenantal promise that if one of you should break your end of the deal, you would bring a curse upon yourself and your family,  perhaps to the same end as the animals you are sacrificing:  death!  Further, a covenant was often made between one person who had much to offer, and one person who had less but needed what the other one had.  Very often the person who risked bringing the curse upon themselves was the person with less, because that person would be taking out a loan but promising to repay the person who had given them the loan.  Part of the covenant then, was for both parties then  to walk between the bloody carcasses of the sacrificed animals to indicate they were offering their life–or at least their livelihood– in exchange for whatever they needed from the other person, should they not repay it.

But something strange happens in the covenant between God and Abraham.  Tradition would dictate that in any exchange with God, God is “holding the cards” so to speak.  So  clearly, Abraham should walk through the animal carcasses to swear his faithfulness to God or risk being cursed or put to death.  Instead though, we are told that “a deep sleep fell on Abram” (Gen 15:12), and “when the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.” (Gen 15: 17)  This fire pot and flame, in biblical terms, is none other than God himself agreeing to be cursed– even to the point of death– if he should not fulfill his promise to Abraham.  And what does Abraham need to do in return?  Stay faithful to God.  And this covenant is binding not just between God and Abraham, but between all generations after them.  Sounds simple enough, right?

But as it turns out it is the regular old sons and daughters of Abraham, the father of our Christian faith, that fail to keep the promise of faithfulness. Yet, we can see that God keeps his promise!  In the first chapter of Matthew, we are given these long ramblings of generation after generation who are the descendants of…you guessed it, Abraham. (Yes! This is where all the “begats” finally start to mean something.)  Matthew takes us through generations that “number the stars” from Abraham all the way down to the Messiah, who is, of course, Jesus.  Jesus, the son of Mary, the foster son of Joseph… and the only begotten Son of God.

If this were a movie, the music would be swelling right about now, because with the birth of Jesus, we are going to see God deliver on his covenant oath and establish a new one.  Here God himself enters into the ancestral line (pointing clear back to Abraham, the father of our faith) in order to make good on his covenantal promise.

Which means someone is about to pay.

Not because God didn’t keep his promise to Abraham, but because the sons and daughters of Abraham didn’t stay faithful to God!

So God will send us his Son to pay the price. And his Son will die.

But first, in today’s reading, the crowd is given one last chance to let God out of this covenantal oath and instead pony up for all their own years of faithlessness and broken promises.  Again, though, we must understand some biblical traditions.  That is, that it was customary that every year on the feast of Passover, a prisoner was released.  Yep. One completely guilty person, released and set free.  This is what is happening when Pilate offers the people one last chance to let the Son of God go free, but instead they choose, not Jesus,  “but Barabbas!” to be released. (John 18:40)

And this is where the music should stop, and the cameras zooms tightly on your face.

Or mine.

Because there it is in my footnotes:  Barab’ bas.  Aramaic meaning “son of the father.”

You see, God ponies up on his covenantal promise (a promise he didn’t even need to make with us) not because he didn’t keep his promise, but because we didn’t.  He pays our due in that moment in time, with the death of Jesus, the Son of the Father, instead of the rightful death of Barabbas, the son of the father.  Barabbas, the “robber” who stole the spot of the Blameless One, is set free.

Who is Barab’ bas?

Barabbas is you.

Barabbas is me.

Because Jesus took the place for our unfaithfulness and sins.

And we are free.

Free from this covenant that we never upheld anyway.

Free of all the old ways of doing things.  The old ways of worship.  The old ways of sacrifice.  The old ways of judgment.

And God himself, in Jesus, invokes a New Covenant.  With moral laws that haven’t changed, but the ways we honor them have.

We honor them now “Loving God above all things and loving my neighbor as myself.”

We honor them with repentance.

We honor them with forgiving others as we have been forgiven.

And we honor them with Holy Communion.  Eucharist.  Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving because we never had to pay the price for the generations of promises broken.

Thanksgiving because we never even had to take the oath to pay.

Thanksgiving because God loves us so much that he gave his very self for us, just so we might love him in return.

Do you see it?

It’s all right there in front of us.

And it is very good.

Reflect:   Read the Passion of our Lord today (John 18:1 – 19:42) and place yourself in the story as Barabbas.  Give thanks to God for sending his only Son to take your place!

Pray:  Heavenly Father, we can never, ever thank you enough for the sacrifices you’ve made for us.  But we thank you for never giving up on us!  We thank you for loving us even when we fail to love you in return.  Help us to be more like you!  Send us your Spirit of Love to empower us to share your love with all your creation.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

How Will You Lay Down Your Garments?

Jesus…laid aside his garments…and began to wash the disciples feet.  – John 13:3-5

Today marks the beginning of the Easter Triduum, or the three days that mark the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Lord.  These mark the end of the Lenten season and are the summit of the Liturgical Year.  In the eyes of the Church, these three days are the climax of the year that mark a  “new age of Resurrection” and launches us into the 50 Day Season of Easter that then climaxes with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Sounds like a big deal, right?

Yet, in America, (at least in all the places I’ve lived), the world doesn’t seem to take much notice.  Especially in stark contrast to Christmas where store shelves start getting stocked for the season (largely secular décor, of course, but nonetheless they are getting ready) in early October.  And many people decorate inside and out to prepare for the celebration of the coming of our Lord (or for the coming of Santa, but again, at least the secular, too, is getting ready for something).  But what about Easter?  Maybe an aisle or two dedicated to cute bunny or egg décor, and an overload of candy-stocked aisles, but those are quickly whisked away once Easter Sunday has ended.  While most stores are closed on Christmas, many remain open on Easter.  Yet, this is the single-event in history from which we have established our calendar (A.D. and B.C., which are also quickly becoming out of vogue), and it is through the Christian Tradition that even our secular holidays originated (Christmas, Easter, Halloween, Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day).

So, it struck me today, as I read the Scriptures of our Lord preparing to wash the feet of his disciples, the line that reads, “Jesus…laid aside his garments…” that I needed to “lay aside” something, too.  Jesus’ action and  these garments, are symbolic of his human life.  In other words, Jesus “laid aside” his life  to serve those closest to him, and only when finished serving the others does he “take” his life up again.

And I wondered what will I do differently to mark this day? 

Of course, one thing will be to attend the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper.  But how else might I “lay aside” some of the other aspects of my every day life today and in the days to come?

One of my friends who does much of her business on Facebook posted beautifully today that, “For Holy Week, I will refrain from business posts through Sunday, when we celebrate a big ole spectacular Easter morning!!!”

She is certainly “laying down her garments” to mark this sacred event.

Then another thought came to me. An image shared by a pastor who serves at a nearby convent.  This convent is cloistered, so the sisters inside it have little to no communication with the outside world.  (I asked him once, “Is it like ‘The Sound of Music?’ and he smiled and said, “Pretty close,” if that helps you imagine it, too.)  Anyway, this pastor is one of the few people who has the privilege of seeing the routine day-to-day life of these nuns.  Yet, he said that each day, when the bells ring indicating it is time for prayer, no matter what they are doing (washing the floor, raking leaves, etc.) they drop everything about their ordinary lives and run to prayer.

They drop everything and run to spend undivided time with Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but to me, when it comes to “laying down the garments” of my ordinary life, stopping in the middle of what I’m doing throughout my day today and giving my undivided time to Jesus seems like a pretty good start.

Whether I do that by abstaining from parts of my work life like my friend, or by dropping everything and running to prayer hardly matters.

What matters is that these next three days  look different, and my ordinary life gets “laid aside”…

Ding! Dong! Ding!

Reflect:  How can you “lay down” your garments and spend undivided time with Jesus over these sacred three days?  What “garments” in your life are getting in the way of spending time with Jesus? Or spending time serving those you love?  Looking ahead to next year, what is one thing you could do differently about your home to “elevate” the significance of the Lenten season and these sacred days?

Pray:  Lord, thank you laying aside your life every moment of every day to serve even my smallest needs and desires.  Help me to remember that the least I can do is take some time in the days ahead to spend solely with you.  Help me to hear what you want me most to hear.  Help me to see what you want me to see.  Help me to love those who are hardest to love.  Transform me so that when I do “take up” my life after spending time with you, I have become more like you.  Amen.

 

 

 

The Heart of the Eleven

And while they were eating, he said, “Amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”
Deeply distressed at this, they began to say to him one after another, “Surely it is not I, Lord?”   – Matthew 26:21-22

Swimming.  Cross-country running.  Track. Tennis.  Volleyball.  Softball.  These are the team activities the members of my family have participated in over the years.  We are not natural athletes, most of us.  We have to work really hard if we want to do more than cheer from the sidelines.  And most of the time, to be honest, the majority of our kids haven’t been interested in working that hard.  But we still strongly encourage them to join a sport. Why?  Because, when coached well, (or at least when kept in proper perspective by us as parents) it teaches them that there is more to life than “me.”  It teaches them that when the team wins, they win, even if  they did poorly, or didn’t play.  And when the team suffers, they suffer, even if it was their best performance.

This is an important lesson for each of us.  And it’s one we don’t just learn once, but one we must continue to challenge ourselves to remember in each of the “teams” we join later in life.  The “team” of co-workers at work, the “team” of our fellow parishioners, the “team” of our family, the “team” of our fellow citizens, the “team” of humanity (the world).

But it’s easy to get side-tracked.  It’s easy to get so focused on building our retirement portfolios that we forget to carve out a portion of it to help our fellow citizens.  It’s easy to get so focused on building a name for ourselves in our business that we forget to raise others up when they’ve done well, too.  It’s easy to get so focused on what we want, that we forget to give thanks for all we’ve been given.

We see this again and again in the lives of the twelve disciples…James and John ask to be the two chosen to sit on either side of Jesus in his glory. (Mark 10:35-37).  Peter  may have been trying to gain favor over the disciples with Jesus when he proclaims, “Master, then not only my feet, but my head and hands as well!”  (John 13:1-6)

We come by it honestly to think of ourselves, it seems.

However, by the grace of God, we can discipline ourselves to grow beyond that.  To be able to put others first, or to cheer others on, even when we ourselves aren’t doing so well.  This, it seems to me, was the mature self-discipline that eleven of the twelve disciples show us today.  For when Jesus foretells that one of the twelve will betray him, they all grow “deeply distressed.”  Why?  Because if Jesus is going to be betrayed, then they are already hurting for him!  Asking “Surely, it isn’t I?” doesn’t seem to be a question with hidden motives of self-interest, because as of yet,  there is no foretelling of what fate will befall the betrayer, there is only mention that Jesus will be hurt by a betrayal.  And for the eleven, when one hurts, they all hurt.

We get to see what self-interest looks like, however, when Jesus goes on to say that as for  his betrayer it would be “better for that man if he had never been born.”  In saying this, he cleverly draws out his betrayer by mentioning the  single subject of the most import to him:  himself.  And it is only then we see Judas alone ask, “Surely, it is not I?”

Now, please understand I’m not saying team sports are the answer to self-sacrifice.  There are certainly lots of stories about how, when coached poorly, or when parents are unrealistic about their kids’ abilities, requiring their kids to be a part of team sports can create a self-focused, self-absorbed individual, or cause more damage to their self-esteem than good.  I’m saying that it’s important to use whatever opportunities we have in this life to help our kids (and remind ourselves) that God desires us to have hearts like those of the eleven.  Hearts that empathize and sympathize and break for others when they suffer.  Hearts that celebrate others’ joys even in the midst of our own sorrows.  Hearts that “lay down their life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)

This is the heart of Jesus, and the heart of his disciples.

Reflect:  What are the “teams” in my life right now?  What is one way I can help raise others up on each of these “teams” rather than focus on my own successes or failures?  How can I encourage others to have a “Jesus heart” into the teams and groups I’m involved in?

Pray:  Lord, we thank you for opportunity to remember there is so much more to the world then our own sufferings, our own failures and successes, and our own interests.  Please help me see those around me who could use some encouragement today, and help me to provide the encouragement they need.  Thank you for always being the source of encouragement for us.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hold Every Thing Loosely

And the chief priests plotted to kill Lazarus too, because many of the Jews were turning away and believing in Jesus because of him.  – John 12:10-11

Sometimes the hardest thing for me to change is my own mind.  My behaviors are hard to change at times, too, but it seems like if my mind is really made up about something, the behavioral changes follow more easily.

In today’s Gospel, the chief priests, are plotting to kill Lazarus because, well…because he was alive.  He had been dead for four days when Jesus raised him from the dead.  Lazarus’ very existence, then, was a testament to the miraculous power of Jesus, and therefore a threat to the high priests who just could not accept that Jesus was God.

As we walk this final journey into Holy Week, I find these readings about the plots to kill Jesus and the people that testify to his character very foreboding.  I do a lot of volunteer work at our church.  This means that sometimes I am in danger of being like the high priests and clinging so much to what I want to do (programs I want to run, ways I want to see things done, people I will and will not work with) that I lose sight of what God may be asking of me in each moment.  Sometimes– just as Jesus did when he first heard Lazarus was sick–we need to let things die. Even the things that are very dear to us–as Lazarus was to Jesus.

Our old ways of doing things (because that’s how we’ve always done them and that’s how we like it), our favorite events and celebrations (even though nobody new has come to them in years), and even the people we love to work with  (because they are fun and think just like us!)  always need to be held loosely.  This is the Paschal Mystery:  to die and to rise anew.  If we are not willing to hold things loosely enough that when the time is right, we let them die, then we have rejected a very large part of our faith!

This is a challenge and a struggle, yes, but the alternative as the Gospels seem to spell out again and again, should certainly give us pause.  If we do not hold things loosely, we risk clinging to them so tightly that we, like the high priests, fail to recognize God when he’s right in front of us!

We can stand firm in our faith that God is always for us, yes, but we do not know how his plans for our best interests are meant to unfold.  Therefore, we must hold loosely to all “things” in order to make room for him to stir our hearts, and give ourselves permission to change our minds when we’ve clung too close to something other than God himself.

The same is true for the people we surround ourselves with, too.  If we are not careful, we can push to the margins all those who think differently than us and therefore we run the risk of clinging too tightly to our own way of thinking.  As biblical scholar, Sister Dianne Bergant, recently stated, “Who are the outsiders in your life?  Be careful, they might be more righteous than you.”

Today’s Gospel message seems clear:  if we want to live our lives as a testament to Jesus, then we need to let things die when their “time has come.”  This means we must continue to examine all “things” which we hold dear:  not just old programs, old routines, and old habits, but also our old ways of thinking and those in our lives whom we are holding at arms length.  Jesus is more than willing to breathe new life into the things we think and say and do, and when we make room for him to do this, we point more people towards him, not us, which is exactly who we want to promote!  However, if we cling tightly to our old ways for the sake of our own status, our own glory or our own self-righteousness, then we are not only sure to be blind to God’s presence, but we also–perhaps even unknowingly–run the risk of plotting against him.

Reflect:  What are some “things” in my life that I have been struggling to “keep alive”?  What would happen if I loosened my grip on these things and made room for God to work within them?  Am I afraid they might “die”?  If so, why am I so afraid of letting them go?  Have I considered that perhaps these things really are meant to “live”…and that only God can make that happen?  Would I be willing to loosen my grip if I knew that were his plan?

Pray:   Heavenly Father, you gave us all you had in your Son Jesus, even to the point of death on the Cross!  Help me to give no less of the things in my life back to you.  Help me to trust in the New Life you desire for me and for all your creation.  Open my eyes to see your promise of New Life  in the signs of spring all around me:  the budding trees and flowers, the returning birds, the melting snow.  Take me by the hand and walk with me, so that I can loosen my grip on my old habits and ways of thinking, and make room to follow you more closely. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Susanna’s Message

…but a daughter of Judah did not tolerate your wickedness.   Daniel 13:57

The sex scandal in the Catholic Church has captured headlines for many years.  When news of it first broke in 2002 (as depicted in the movie Spotlight), it caused great shock and awe in both Catholic congregations and across the globe.  Even today, details of the horrific crimes of abuse and cover-up are still being revealed as dioceses across the country are bringing to light the names of those priests and clergy members who were responsible in any way for causing pain and harm to its many victims. And as dioceses around the world continue to find scandal and cover-ups of their own.

This is the Church.  The one place where we should be able to go as a “safe space” for all.

But how can we when there is so much evidence to the contrary?

Today’s story in Daniel exists  in the Catholic biblical canon, but may also be found in the Apocrypha of many Protestant bibles.  In this story, we find, Susanna, a pure and pious spouse of a church patriarch, Joakim, being threatened by two corrupt elders who insist that Susanna succumb to their lustful desires or they will accuse her (falsely) of adultery with a young man and she will be sentenced to death.  She seemingly only has two options:  do as they wish and sleep with the two men, or die.

Enter Daniel.

Daniel sees through the two elders to the underlying truth.  He sees that their stories don’t add up, and he demands the two elders be separated to give their testimony.  And when they do, they each describe its events differently, which proves their guilt and Susanna’s innocence, and they are then put to death and Susanna escapes abuse and is free.

I can’t help but see some parallels in the story of the religious elders of ancient Israel and the hierarchy of the Church today.  Then, like now, corruption existed in religious settings.  Then, like now, it wasn’t in everybody and everywhere, but it was in some…and even one victim is one too many.

But there is hope.

Then, like now, more and more often details of the scandal are being brought to the light.  Then, like now, victims advocate groups and counselors rise to help those who have suffered.  Then, like now, people’s eyes were opened.  And while it stinks to feel as though we have to scrutinize the leaders of our churches (or our corporation or our country, etc. ), it’s a good reminder to me that the reason for that is because there is only one True Authority, one Truth we can trust in this world, or any world…and that is Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life (John 14:6).

Though Susanna walked the earth many years before Jesus, like Jesus her heart was aligned with God, the Father.  This daughter of Judah, remains faithful to God in the midst of this little -known scandal,  just as many years later a little babe who is born in the “hill country” of Judah, called Bethlehem, remains faithful to God the Father to the point of death on a Cross.  Then He rises into New Life, breathing that Life into the very Church of today.

My footnotes tell me Susanna is a “type” of the Church.  (In biblical talk, a “type” is a foreshadowing of sorts–someone or some thing that parallels someone or some other thing that happens later in history). Like Susanna, we the Church, should not tolerate wickedness, neither outside her “walls,” nor within them.  Like Susanna, we the Church can overcome scandal.  We owe it to the thousands of victims who have suffered at the hands of it, and we owe it to Jesus who died because of it.  We need not fear it.  And we need not despair over it.  We need simply let the Light shine upon it, until the last stone is overturned.

Until then, we put our hope in the day when we, like Susanna’s husband and parents, can say with every confidence “praise God…because nothing shameful was found in her.”

Reflect:  Have I lost faith in God because of the wrongdoings of men?  What can I do to be like Daniel, and help victims of abuse (either in or outside the Church) in my area?  How can I deepen my faith in Jesus, so that when uncertain times fall upon me, I can still trust in his goodness and love?

Pray:  Lord, today we pray for all those who have suffered abuse at the hands of those they trusted, or through random violent attacks.  Help us to love one another, to understand one another and to have compassion and provide counsel for all those who suffer, but especially for those who suffer from abuse by church and religious leaders whom they trusted.  We will not tolerate that wickedness.  Empower us to continue shining your Light until the last stone is overturned.  Amen.

 

 

 

 

Ocean Swimming

…but there was now a river through which I could not wade; for the water had risen so high it had become a river that could not be crossed except by swimming.                                                                                                                                                Ezekiel 47:5

One of the first songs that guided and consoled me when I began the timid steps of following Jesus, was Matt Maher’s “Come to the Water.”  I sang/prayed it for days   pondering its message and taking comfort in its words and melody.  Then, after several days of this, I remember walking into our basement storage room and before I even turned on the light I could smell it: the damp, dank smell that comes with a pool of lifeless water.  I anxiously threw on the light and was relieved to see, not the flooded storage room I feared, but simply a large puddle due to a drain pipe that had accidentally been kicked away from the drain.  Whew!  Simple clean-up and a simple fix. Having restored my heart to its natural rhythm, I thought of the song and remember turning my eyes to heaven and saying, “Thank you, Lord, but this was not the water I’ve been praying for!”  And then I laughed out loud.  And I started to realize that maybe God has a sense of humor, too.

Today’s readings provide us with fantastic images of the kind of water we long for:  the Living Water that is Jesus. Images of water pouring out of the temple and into the Dead Sea in the Old Testament and a pool of healing water for the ill and crippled in the New Testament are the two bookends that point toward the Living Water that is Jesus.

The reading from Ezekiel was especially powerful for me today.  An angel brings Ezekiel to the temple of the Lord and shows him this water that starts spilling out of it as a trickle and ends in a flowing river too deep to cross without swimming. And I’m overwhelmed with images of my own life, and God’s work in me.

I sit with the images awhile and return to a prayer I’d nearly forgotten.  It’s a prayer that maybe feels unnatural to some because it’s less of prayer as we think of it and more of an encounter with Jesus.  In this prayer I picture myself lying in a pool of water that to me looks a lot like a babbling brook or a creek that would run through someone’s back yard.  I’m lying on my back and the water surrounds every part of me including about four inches over my face.  Knowing that the water is a symbol of Jesus, I relax in the water and the water is Him.  I rest in Him.  I float in Him.  He cools me if I’m warm and warms me if I’m cool.  I breathe Him in.  He cleanses me inside and out. He heals my wounded heart. He soothes my raw and sensitive spots.  He restores  my soul.  He replenishes my spirit.  We share no words (though you could), because this encounter–this heart-to-heart, face-to-face, breath-to-breath experience –is so much deeper than words if you let it.

Then after several minutes of this, I open my eyes.

And it’s hard to explain the changes I experience after these encounters because they’re subtle, but very real.  My body feels reenergized, my mind is clearer, my outlook is  brighter and the world appears somehow softer (more fragile, maybe even?)  and I am more aware that I have a purpose in it.  A mission to make changes where I can, when I can, as often as I can, as long as I can.

This is the Living Water that is so deep and so wide, that I realize I can never cross it, except by letting go of everything.  And in Him I find an ocean of everything I need..healing and love and comfort and mercy and grace.

And after reflecting on all of this, , I smile a grateful smile and turn my eyes to heaven, and say the only thing I can think to say… Thank you!  THIS is Water I was praying for.

Reflect:  How do I see Jesus as the Living Water in my life? Am I fighting Him by treading water?  Drowning in Him and afraid to let go? Thirsting for Him but not sure where to turn?  Immersed in Him, but relying on an oxygen tank? Whatever your understanding, spend a few minutes and sit with the thoughts of water and Jesus and see what comes to mind for you.  Ask Jesus to show you what He wants you to know or see. 

Pray:  Lord, thank for being Living Water for us!  Thank you for the times you replenish us and the times we thirst for you.  Help us to remember that your oceans of love and mercy are readily available to each of us, and that just as the ocean meets the beach, you are happy to meet us where we are, whether we are watching from the shore, or swimming in your depths.  You beckon us, but never force us in your love.  Amen.

What Do You Wish?

[Jesus] said to her, “What do you wish?”  – Matthew 20:21

Yesterday’s Gospel reading was the story of James and John, “the sons of thunder,” whose mother dares to go before Jesus on their behalf, (right after Jesus has announced for the third time that he is going to suffer and die, mind you), and ask if her sons can sit at his right and left hands in his kingdom.  I’ve long been embarrassed for this mother whenever I read this passage.  Because don’t we mothers (and fathers) sometimes lose sight of the larger picture and go to extremes to try to get the best for our kids over other people’s kids?  In her defense, by asking such a thing she is indirectly implying that Jesus is the best because why else would she want her sons to have such a prominent share in his kingdom?  Still, her understanding of Jesus while well-intentioned, is a narrow view.

What struck me as I read it this time, however, was not what the mother dares to ask, but that Jesus invites her to tell him!  Surely Jesus knew what was on her mind, and yet he wants her to ask it anyway.  And I wonder why?

But then I think of all the times I’ve told Jesus what I want without his even asking.  And to this day, I can’t think of a time he’s not answered. As the old saying goes, however, sometimes his answer has been “no”, sometimes it’s been “yes”, and sometimes it has been “not yet”.  But the “no’s” I’ve received are about things I no longer desire, and it is he that I credit for taking the desire away.  The “yes’s” are those many things among which I try to count my blessings or remember when I rehearse my victories.  These are, for the most part, the “easy” answers in my life.

It’s the “not yet’s” I find most difficult.    The things I still desire to accomplish or attain, but have not yet been given. These are a struggle.  But these are also where I can give meaning to these small struggles by uniting them with Christ’s own struggle.  It assures me I am on the road of discipleship (Matthew 16:24), and reminds me that his grace will see me through.

The mother of the sons of Zebedee reminds us that we are free to tell Jesus exactly how we feel, and exactly what we want without apology.  We have no need for pretense or false humility simply because he is Lord of Lords…because he is also our friend.  And any good friend wants to give us the chance to say what we want, even when it may sound ridiculous, rude or short-sighted.  Our Lord loves us that much! But, also like the mother of the sons of James and John, we are often short-sighted in our requests.  And it is precisely because he loves us so much, that we can trust him to spare us from granting our wishes when it is not in our own best interest.

Reflect:  Sometimes we hold too tightly to dreams and desire. What are the things you’ve desired for a long time that still haven’t happened in your life?   Do you trust Jesus enough to let him lead you to your desires?  Do you trust him enough to ease your suffering by removing your desire  if what you want isn’t in your best interest?  If not, be honest!  Tell Jesus exactly how you feel.  He loves you so much and he wants to hear from you!

Pray:  Lord Jesus, just as you listened to the mother of James and John, listen to me today!  Let me pour out my wants and desires to you.  Help me to hold loosely to all of them, so that you may work in my life for your greatest good.  Open my ears to hear and my eyes to see how you unite me with my desires or relieve me of them in the days ahead.  Amen.

 

A Map of Faith

It was not through the law that the promise was made to Abraham and his descendants that he would inherit the world, but through the righteousness that comes from faith.  – Romans 4:13

How can we have faith?  This is a question that is asked and discussed in the small groups during the Alpha course we run at our parish. “Faith isn’t a blind leap. It’s a reasonable step based on good evidence.  In some ways faith is more like a journey,” they say as the Alpha video begins.

But what is the evidence for putting our faith in God?  The answer is simple, but not necessarily easy:  by having a personal relationship with God.  Jesus is our perfect example of how to live a life of faith.  Through his example we see the person of God himself become fully human to take on the burdens of all our sins and suffer to the point of death, not to save himself, but to save us.  He gives everything of himself for us.  And out of his great love for us, God gives us a share in this life of suffering, too.  Not because he doesn’t love us, but because none of us could ever repay our debts from the wrongs we have committed against himself and others.  And because of Jesus we don’t need to.  We need only carry the share of the suffering that is given us.   And from a human perspective this can sometimes seem grossly unfair.  We see that some very good and wholesome people experience a great deal of sufferings, while others skate through life seemingly unscathed.  The question is, how do we handle the unfairness we see?  Do we turn away from God?  Or do we follow Jesus’ example and lean more deeply into him?

The Scriptures tell us that “Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)  So which is it? you may be wondering. Is faith, as Alpha says, “a reasonable step based on good evidence,” or is it as the Scriptures say “evidence of things not seen?”  When we look to the life of Jesus, we can see it’s clearly both.  Jesus did not go through life minding his own business until one day God put it on his heart to die for all our sins and Jesus did it and so now he’s a hero.  No!  Jesus was born into and shared a deep and personal relationship with God the Father from the very beginning.  And today’s second reading from Romans reminds us that years before Jesus became incarnate, Abraham, too, had a deep personal relationship with God the Father.  Without it, the whole story of the sacrifice of his son Isaac (also a young man of great faith and a prefiguring of Jesus) Abraham would appear insane!  But today we are told it was Abraham’s faith that God rewarded, not his adherence to any laws. (In fact, it wasn’t until centuries later that the Law was given to Israel, and that was only because of their many transgressions.)

Today’s readings are in celebration of the Solemnity of St. Joseph.  Joseph, another man of great faith, chose not to follow his legal right for a divorce from Mary when he discovered she was pregnant (though they had not been together), but rather to follow the commands of the angel of God who appeared to him in a dream and bring her into his home and marry her, though he stood to face much shame and rejection for doing so.

Abraham had great faith.  St. Joseph had great faith.  Jesus is our perfect example of faith.  All had a personal relationship with God.  By their examples, we can begin to connect the dots for how faith may look in our own lives:

  1. Open our hearts to God.  Alpha suggests we say a simple prayer like, “God, if you are real, show me in a way that I will understand and can come to believe in you.”  You could say this step is a “realization of what is hoped for” (Hebrews 11:1)
  2.  Watch/listen for God to respond to us.  This is the step I think that confuses many of us, as we tend to have at least two unrealistic expectations of God: 1) that God will answer us immediately, and 2) that it will be something very supernatural and obvious.  While these two things are certainly well within God’s capabilities to do, people who walk with God will generally attest to something quite different.  They see God working through the people around them, and through things that are already meaningful to them.  We, on the other hand, often mislabel these things as “coincidences.”  However, with open hearts, through the eyes of faith, we can begin to see these “coincidences” as our own personal “evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)
  3.  Repeat step 1.  Once we’ve received this “evidence” in our hearts, though we can’t see it, we act on it if it calls us to act. Sometimes, the “evidence” is simply an affirmation of God’s love for us, or a reassurance of his presence with us that calls for no action on our part at all. And in many cases, we can rest assured that any calls to action will be reasonable, or at least consistent with the nature of God.  They are seldom “blind leaps”, but rather “reasonable steps based on good (but unseen) evidence.”

To us, Abraham’s sacrificial offering of his son, Joseph’s willingness to marry a woman pregnant with a child who was not his own, and Jesus’ willingness to take on death on the Cross can all seem like extreme “blind leaps” from where we sit.  But for them?  For them, these acts were their next most reasonable steps based on the lifetime of evidence they had from their personal relationship with the God of the Universe.

The same God who wants to have a personal relationship with you and with me.

From this perspective, we can begin to appreciate that perhaps the one who takes the biggest “leap of faith” in all of this is not us, but God.

Reflect:  What “evidence” do you have to point to in your life that God exists?  If you don’t have any “evidence” of God, have you considered asking for him to provide you with some? Does asking for God to provide this “evidence” seem like a reasonable step to you?  Imagine if after you die, you were to appear before God and accuse him of never revealing himself to you and his reply were simply, “Well, my child, why did you never ask?”  

Pray:  Heavenly Father, thank you for loving us even when we don’t love you in return.  Thank you for loving us even when we don’t know you, or forget to include you in our lives.  Help us to know you more fully, walk with you more closely, and experience your love and mercy more deeply as we begin, continue or renew our journey of faith with you.  Amen.

 

 

O, That I Were a Ninevite!

Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” when the people of Nineveh believed God…     -Jonah 3:4

Today marks the first full week of Lent, and already it’s feeling like a lifetime to me.  The weather is dreary, the dog’s foot fungus won’t clear up, and the flurry of activity on my calendar for this month makes me anxious just looking at it… not to mention the fact that I’ve already failed a few times at some of the things from which I’d said I would abstain  (hello, all things sugar).

And I sit here like Jonah.  Resisting the words God is putting on my heart to share, insisting first that God respond to my own demands, OK, God, but first tell me…When will I see the sun again? When can I finally stop rubbing this stuff on my dog’s foot? Why can’t I just have one day without 47 errands to run and places I need to be? And why am I already failing at Lent and it’s only Day 7!?

And as I pray more over this Scripture the answer to everything–yes, all of my questions!– comes into focus.  But it’s not easy.  The answer is this: Return to Me.  Rely on Me. Repent and let go of so much…you.  And while I am more than happy to preach that word to everyone else (you know, all you sinners out there), God is reminding me today that having a share in the spiritual gift of prophecy does not give the prophet a free pass.  One cannot simply share God’s words and ignore it for oneself.  For Jonah, not following God’s words meant suffering in the belly of a great fish for three days and three nights.  It was only after that miserable experience that Jonah took God’s word  of repentance to the ominous and intimidating citizens of Nineveh.

But how did the Ninevites respond to God’s word through Jonah?  By immediately believing God’s warning, fasting, and putting on sackcloth  (a sign of mourning and a prayer of deliverance).

By widening the lens, we see the bigger points:  sometimes we are quick to change our hearts (like the Ninevites), other times we change more slowly (like Jonah).  Keeping our hearts open enough to leave room for God to enter into them and change us involves sacrifice. The psalmist sets the example for us today with his words, “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” Psalm 51:17

The self-emptying of our pride, our own agendas, and even some our earthly desires are reasonable and necessary requests for God to make of us in order to make us more like him: Perfect Love.  How we do that looks a little different for each of us, but the good news is that God is more than happy to work with and reward us no matter how much, how little, how long, or how soon we open our hearts and make room for him to do so.

Reflect: What is one thing you know you should do, but you have been avoiding doing for a long time?  What if God were to appear before you today and ask you to do it?  Would that spur you into action?  If not, ask God to forgive your stalling and help you see how tackling that one thing will free you, and how continuing to avoid it is making you a slave to something contrary to God’s love.  Then ask him to help you take one (teeny-tiny) step towards accomplishing this one thing…and be ready to take it!

Pray:  Lord Jesus, we see in Jonah a foreshadowing of you. In three days time, you entered into death and overcame death for the world! Thank you for opening the gates of heaven for us so that we may know eternal joy.  Help us follow your example by purging ourselves of our own earthly desires and sacrificing them for God’s greater heavenly desires for us. Jesus, we trust in you! Amen.

 

Pray Boldly!

“This is how you are to pray.”   – Matthew 6:9

When I was in college, I did a research project on using directives in the English language.  A directive is like a command, or “an official, authoritative instruction,” as dictionary.com states.  As an example, some simple directives that parents may use frequently are things like shut the door, brush your teeth or go to bed.  These are things we are not merely suggesting our kids to do if they feel so inclined, but are expecting to be done…and quickly!

As I read again the prayer we commonly call the Lord’s Prayer or the Our Father, in Matthew’s gospel today, I’m reminded once again that Jesus not only lived with authority, he prayed to God our Father that way, too!  Viewing his prayer through a directive lens, it’s astounding to see the boldness with which Jesus prays. Give us. Forgive us. Lead us. Deliver us.  

As disciples, we surely are meant to pray this way, too!  However, it’s important to see that our directives, like Jesus’ must be rightly ordered.  Before Jesus begins praying these bold requests of God, he first praises God for their relationship as Father/Son (our Father) and praises God’s holiness (hallowed be Thy name).  Then Jesus aligns his own desires properly behind God’s desires (your kingdom come, your will be done).  Then, and only then does he begin with the directives, but these are also directives that had first come from God:  daily bread, forgiveness, and deliverance from evil are all things God has given us first!

In the Catholic Mass, before we recite the Our Father, the priest always prefaces this prayer by calling us to recite together “the words we dare to say.”  When you look at it this way, it does seem daring!  We call the God of the universe our father.  We ask that he cast his will upon us.  Then, we list the things we want from him as though they will happen.   How dare we say and demand these things!?  Yet, this is our faith.

Perhaps the words God speaks to us in today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah can help us understand,

“For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth…so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” – Isaiah 55:10-11

If we’ve rightly ordered ourselves to God, the relationship of God’s desires for us and our requests for those desires becomes analogous to the water cycle:

  1. God rains his love upon us.
  2. We absorb that love into our hearts.
  3. We grow in his love and begin to trust him, desiring even more of his love.  (But  we are helpless to give him anything, so we offer the only thing we have: our prayers.)
  4. Our prayers rise to him like water vapor, requesting ever more and more of that life-giving water pouring down upon us.
  5. God’s rain falls upon us even more, etc.

Isn’t it beautiful?

Perhaps with this renewed sense of understanding we can begin to pray even more reverently– and more boldly– to God our Father, just as Jesus did.

Reflect:  Have you ever asked God for something and didn’t get it?  How did that make you feel?  Did you give up on God after that, or did you try to learn more about what a healthy relationship with God really looks like?  Consider one thing you could do today that imitates the example Jesus gave us:  If you are baptized, do you call God your father?  Do you ask for his desires to come before your own? Do the things you request from God reflect things that God would want for you?

Pray:  Heavenly Father, we know you love everything you have created, including each of us.  Thank you for the gift of life and the gift of free will to choose you.  Thank you for the grace of baptism which makes us your children and draws us closer to you.  Thank you for the gift of your Son and your Holy Spirit who dwell among us and teach us how to draw intimately and confidently closer to you.  Amen.