Sunday, January 24, 2016

Living Our True Identity

Earlier this week, I went to jail. Don’t worry – I was there for a good reason. I was attending a training session for those who wish to volunteer in ministry work with those in the detention center. Several priests in the area, including myself, will soon be going there on occasion to offer confession for inmates who are Catholic.

During the course of the training, the senior chaplain explained that for many of those in prison, religious affiliation can sometimes be a fluid thing. In other words, they’re Baptist if the Baptist chaplain comes around, and Jewish when the rabbi visits, and Catholic if the priest is there. One of the biggest challenges of prison life, it seems, is that there is so much time and so little to do, and so when the opportunity comes along for human interaction and conversation, inmates are willing to adapt themselves – even something like their religion – in order to seize the moment.

That got me to thinking – you and I, though not in prison, are sometimes sort of the same way. Hopefully we’re not identifying ourselves with multiple religions, but don’t we sometimes adapt or shift our religious fervor depending on where we are, or who we are with, or what we are doing? Maybe we are one way with our families or our church community, but when we’re with friends or coworkers or classmates, we’re something else completely. Maybe we go through phases where we feel very Catholic and we pray and participate in the sacraments, but then other times, we let those things go entirely. We act a certain way on Sunday morning even though we had acted a totally different way on Friday night.

This problem existed in Jesus’s age too. The Jewish people were God’s chosen people, but they didn’t always act like it – they fell victim to fear, malice, oppression, all of the things that any other nation did. In the first reading, the prophet Ezra, having led back to Jerusalem a large number of Israelites returning from the Babylonian exile, reads aloud to them the Law, the Torah, God’s commandments to Israel of how to live. And the people weep – they weep out of sadness because they had failed to fulfill those commandments and they weep for joy because they have been given the chance to start again.

This aspect of our human condition – however you want to characterize it: being two-faced or wishy-washy or even hypocritical – is something we all fall victim to, in greater or lesser degree. Except for Jesus. Though truly man, he was also truly God, always in communion with and intimately connected to his heavenly Father. Jesus was incapable of duplicity or guile or sin not because he wasn’t truly free but because, being truly free in his Father’s presence, his human will perfectly conformed to the will of God. In every moment – whether in a healing, or a sermon, or just an encounter or a glance – Jesus perfectly embodied the fulfillment of his Father’s will. It was mission, his identity, and he never wavered or faltered from it.

Christ in the Synagogue (1868) by Nikolai Ge

Jesus announces the nature of that mission very explicitly in the Gospel today. Returning to the town where he was raised, entering his own home synagogue, surrounded no doubt by family and neighbors and friends – he announces that he is the fulfillment of Scripture, that he is the one anointed by God “to bring glad tidings to the poor, … to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free….” But it’s not a mission that he came to accomplish alone, especially now that he physically sits at the right of the Father in heaven. Instead, it’s a mission that he began but which is perpetuated through the Church, continued by every believer. We are, as Paul reminds us Corinthians, the parts, the members of the Body of Christ; we are, in a sense, his new family, his friends who are united to him not by blood or background but by mission and purpose. We do a variety of things, exist in this world in a variety of ways, but as a whole we form the living, breathing, active Body of Christ which continues to fulfill the Father’s will on earth.

How do we do that? In a number of ways. Through prayer, through sacrifice, through the active practice of our faith – we unite ourselves to what God continues to do in the world today. Even more, we can become the instruments through which God does it. Around our country, around the world, the Catholic Church is one of the biggest providers of education, health care, and support for the poor and the downtrodden, not just because we are altruistic but because we understand that is what Jesus would have us do. And in smaller ways, much smaller, we can be examples of his love and mercy to others – through daily encounters of faith, through small offerings of love, through heartfelt instances of forgiveness.

My friends, in this Year of Mercy, you and I are challenged to live authentically from our identity in Christ, and not to waver or falter in it. We are encouraged again to see ourselves not as we so often do – as from this background, or that culture, or this occupation, or that political persuasion. Rather, above all else, we are first and foremost members of the Body of Christ – his hands, feet, eyes, ears. We each fulfill, according to our own gifts, according to our way of life, the mission of furthering the work begun by Jesus, the mission of fulfilling the Father’s will. The role of the Church, of every believer, is to keep doing what Jesus started until all the world is converted. What is your part in that? What mission is God asking of you?

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Transformative Power of Christ

The Wedding at Cana (c. 1563), Paolo Veronese

Human nature is a funny thing. Though it may seem vastly different depending on the region of the world or the historical era, there are certain aspects of human culture that are common to any place or time. Take, for example, the ritual of a wedding. Every human culture celebrates weddings, and there are always two parts to any wedding: the ceremony and the celebration.

As a priest, I’ve been involved in quite a few weddings. I’ve noticed that there’s a somewhat humorous dichotomy to our contemporary American wedding culture. On the one hand, the ceremony is always very planned out, very choreographed – sometimes with lots of pomp and circumstance and even tension. Everyone behaves very proper and dignified. But after the ceremony? It’s time to party! All these people who were acting very sophisticated a few minutes before are now ready to throw down. The ties and jackets come off, the libations flow, and before you know it, Grandma is out on the dance floor. I’ve learned that’s usually the opportune moment to excuse myself.

Don’t get me wrong – if done in moderation, all of this is perfectly fine. After all, people come to a wedding to celebrate! They come to celebrate love – how two people have come together to form something new – and that feeling of love overflows into joy and exuberance. In the Gospel today, the people attending the wedding in Cana were certainly enjoying themselves. They were .... well, partying, but the intensity of their joy had led to a serious problem. The wine had run out.

On the one hand, we can interpret this story in a rather straightforward manner. The wedding at Cana is set in the Gospel of John at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, just after he has called his disciples but before he has really begun teaching and preaching. Indeed, as we heard, Jesus tells his mother that his hour has not yet come – he’s not yet ready to reveal who he is, to show his power and attract attention to himself. And yet, Mary persists and Jesus is persuaded. He performs the miracle of changing the jars of water into wine and so the party is able to continue. It’s a good reminder for us of why prayer through Mary is so important for us – then and now, Jesus has a special fondness for fulfilling the requests of his mother and all who appeal to her.

There is also a deeper, more hidden meaning to this story. Throughout the Bible, the writers of Scripture use the imagery of marriage – the love between spouses, the wedding banquet – to symbolize the intense, faithful love that God has for humanity. The prophets write about how God and humanity are divorced, in a sense, from each other by mankind’s sinfulness, but that there will come a time when God will restore his people and take them to himself like a beautiful bride.

We hear this in the first reading – Isaiah writes to the people: “you shall be called “My Delight,
and your land “Espoused”…. As a young man marries a virgin, your Builder shall marry you; and as a bridegroom rejoices in his bride so shall your God rejoice in you.”
Though the chosen people of God had rejected the Lord’s plans for them time and again, he was not going to give upon them – even more, he was going to fashion them into something wonderful and beautiful, like a bride on her wedding day.

Unlike the other three Gospel writers, John never speaks of miracles; instead, he refers to the signs of Jesus. In a sense, they’re the same thing – the changing of water into wine can be seen as both a miracle and a sign. But perhaps thinking of them as a sign is the better way, because it takes the emphasis off of what is being done and instead puts it on who is doing it. Jesus performs various signs as a way of showing who he is and why he has come.

In this light, what Jesus does in the Gospel reading today takes on a new meaning. By changing the water into the wine, he shows his power to transform – not just the elements of the wedding celebration, but we ourselves, our very nature. He is the Savior who has been sent to restore humanity, he is the God who has come to raise up his people – in him, the divine and the human are forever reconciled and brought into union. He is the heavenly Bridegroom come to claim his Bride.

The transformation of water into wine at Cana allowed the celebration of the wedding to continue, taking on a new and joyous exuberance since it was “the good wine.” The transformation that God has worked in humanity through Jesus is a far, far greater cause for exuberant celebration. Though we have been far from God, he can bring us back to himself; though we have failed to live as his children, he wishes to restore us to a new and greater glory. Indeed, even more he has endowed us with his own power – gifts of wisdom and faith and prophecy and mighty deeds through the Holy Spirit, as the epistle tells us. Through our baptism in Christ, we share already in the ability to let each moment of each day – though seemingly ordinary or unremarkable – to be transformed into something greater, a cause for rejoicing, like water into wine, because of the knowledge of the love that God has for us.

My friends, the union of God and man in Jesus is something that profoundly affects us, indeed transforms us, since he shares that same union with us. Though human, we have been recreated in Christ and participate now in his divine life. His is a love that forgives but also transforms – his is a love that gives us reason to rejoice but then asks us to share that joy with others, each in our own way, according to the gifts God has shared with us.

As we begin a new year, a new semester, a new season in the life of the Church, it’s worthwhile I think to reflect upon the immense outpouring of love that Jesus offers and to consider how we are responding to it at this moment. Let us look for the ways that God wishes to show us his power in our daily life – not through loud miracles perhaps but through small signs – that we may be constantly reminded that we have a celebration to join in, a wedding feast of the divine and the human – present now, but especially in eternity – that awaits us.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Mary & Contemplating the Faithfulness of God

In the year 1788, the Scottish poet Robert Burns gathered together some fragments of a traditional Scots poem, added his own words and melody, and published the song, “Auld Lang Syne.” Ever since, that song – which is about cheerfully remembering friendships long past, even if they have faded with time – has traditionally been associated with end of the year. As we close out one year and usher in a new, “Auld Lang Syne” bids us to raise a toast for old times’ sake and remember the ways in which we have been blessed.

On this January 1, the Church bids us to do the same, to remember the ways we have been blessed, not just by others but by God. In the first reading, Moses receives the Lord’s promise of blessing upon the nation of Israel, a blessing that does not waver or fade but remains through for all time. Of course, as Christians, we understand that that blessing is primarily fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, who is the embodiment of God’s answer to humanity’s longing. On this eighth day since Christmas Day, we are reminded again that God has chosen to reveal himself to us by dwelling among us as one of us.

Francisco de Zurbarán, Christ and the Virgin at the House in Nazareth (c. 1640)

Rather than just remembering past blessings, rather than just being reminded again about what God has done for us, at the start of a new year, we also look to Mary – specifically to what she did in the Gospel reading. As the shepherds draw close to her newborn child, we hear that she “kept these things in her heart and reflected upon them.” Mary did more than observe, more than recall – she pondered, she contemplated, she kept the amazing events that had been done for her alive in her heart. Mary, of course, was pondering what God had done for her – that he had chosen her before all time to be the mother of his only Son. And because that Son, Jesus, is himself God, Mary is also properly called the Mother of God.

But by pondering what God had done for her, Mary was also pondering what he has done for all of us. The newness that Jesus brings is not something that fades after Christmas has ended – it has forever brightened our darkness, forever changed our mourning into gladness. Through Jesus, we are assured that God will never abandon us – he has eternally joined himself to our human reality through the Incarnation. And if God shares humanity with us, he also invites us to share in the divinity that he comes to bring.

On this New Year’s Day, perhaps we can take a hint from our Mother Mary, and remember to keep these things and reflect upon them in our heart. Gratitude is such an important key in our relationship with God – but we only cultivate a spirit of gratitude if we remember, as the shepherds did, what we have seen and heard. We shouldn’t let these days of Christmas slip by unnoticed; rather, we should seek to contemplate the newness of Jesus again and again, now but also throughout the year, so that we can learn to be grateful that the faithfulness of God is unwavering.

So let us be happy and rejoice, not just for old times’ sake, as Robert Burns would have it, but also for this new work that God has begun for us in Jesus, through whom he continues to bless us anew.