The scriptures for the Fourth Sunday of Easter (April 26) provide us with an arresting image, one that we usually miss. In the gospel reading (Jn 10:11-18) Jesus tells a story that must have been startling to those who heard it:
A good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. A hired man, who is not a shepherd and whose sheep are not his own, sees a wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away, and the wolf catches and scatters them. This is because he works for pay and has no concern for the sheep.
At this point the listeners might have been asking themselves: “So the wolf kills the shepherd. Who will protect the sheep now?” Jesus continues, saying that not only will he lay down hs life for his sheep, he will go get even more sheep and enlarge the flock. It is an arresting image, one that might have been even more vivid to the disciples after the Shepherd was dead and they had scattered.
The listeners have barely thought of the question when they get a surprising answer:
“…I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.”
What was the response from his listeners? (We have to go beyond today's gospel reading which stops at verse 18.)
“Again there was a division…. Many of them said, ‘He is possessed and out of his mind; why listen to him?” (Jn 10:19-20)
We who know the rest of the story think don't stop to consider the listener's response. Had I been there at the time, and heard Jesus' claim I would have suspected that he was out of his mind. Today I can be grateful that we have a living Shepherd.
The scripture readings at Mass for the Third Sunday of Easter (4/19/15) challenge us first to turn our lives from one direction to another and then to give witness. Sadly, it is nearly impossible for many of us to make that turn. When our face is set in one direction we find it difficult to change, even if the current direction is bringing us physical, social or emotional suffering. Ben Franklin defined this as insanity - doing the same thing over and over while expecting a better result.
The first reading (Acts 3:13-15, 17-19) calls upon us to make that turn. In gospel terms this is metanoia (“conversion”). Thomas Keating writes that this means to change the direction in which we are looking for happiness. Once this is done, and we have found happiness, witnessing to our new lives will follow naturally.
The challenge is to make that turn, to change the direction in which we are looking for happiness. This is difficult when we are “set in our ways.”
The Gospel reading (Luke 24: 35-48) describes how the disciples changed. They experienced confusion, elation and fear following the resurrection. It was not until Jesus
“..opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.”
that they were able to turn their lives to witnessing “to all the nations.”
So must it be with each of us. We can try to understand. We can be confused, elated and afraid - but we will not be able to turn and witness until after our minds are opened. Note that we use the passive voice. We cannot open our minds (active voice) by ourselves. We must wait for them to be opened. Psalm 4, describes the gift that follows:
“…But you have given my heart more joy than they have when grain and wine abound. In peace I will lie down and fall asleep, for you alone, LORD, make me secure.”
The scripture readings for the Second Sunday of Easter give us a powerful story of witness and unity, followed by dissent from a believer. We hear in Acts 4 that the “community of believers was of one heart and mind,” sharing all amongst themselves. However, in John 20 we see the first example of disunity in the church. Thomas, who had spent his life reciting the Shema (“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one. ….” ), had reason to doubt. If the Lord was one, how could the impossible have happened. Jesus, who had been killed, was walking alive and was the Lord as the apostles testified?
Thomas set conditions for his belief, telling the disciples:
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”
Yet the disciples kept the door open for this man, whom we might call a “resurrection denier.” The Lord met his conditions, saying to Thomas:
“Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas’ answer, given that he spent his life reciting that the the Lord was one, is stunning:
“My Lord and my God!” (Christians would spend the next three centuries devising an explanation of how this could be true.)
Thomas had to be challenged to overcome a lifetime’s conception of who God was and how God should act. Thomas had a confirmation bias that almost prevented him from seeing how God was acting. His story is, to a large extent, our own.
Dt. 26:4-8 gives us a clue as to how to listen to the 9 readings and re-sponsorial psalms during Great Vigil of Easter. We by reporting what happened to our ancestor: "My father was a wandering Aramean and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there and became a great nation…" In the next verse we identify with what happened to the Israelites: "But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer,…. Then we cried out to the Lord…"
The story of our ancestors is, somehow, our story as well. In our parish we will start after dark with a bonfire and follow the newly lit Easter Candle in procession into church. (This same candle will lead the casket in procession for anyone who will be buried during the coming year.) As we follow, singing the lumen christi (light of Christ) we can imagine that, like the Israelites, we are being rescued and escaping from Egypt. What is Egypt to us? It is the slavery of attachments, resentments, anger, fear and whatever else binds us and keeps us from becoming the people we can be. We are on the way, not fully in the promised land - but making spiritual progress not perfection. Perfection will be attained when we follow that candle one last time.
In reflecting on the scriptures for Passion Sunday (March 29) believers are frequently urged to meditate upon Jesus’ suffering while on the cross. We should also reflect on the psychic and emotional suffering before the actual crucifixion.
Imagine Jesus in Gethsemane, looking down through the ages and visualizing the multitude of humanity trapped in behavior that is destructive of others and self. He realizes that he alone can provide a safe path out of the trap - and that the path goes through the cross. Kathleen Norris writes in Amazing Grace that the original meaning of the Hebrew word “yeshua” can mean rescue or making a safe path. This, to my mind, is what happened. Jesus looked across the world and down through the ages, saw us trapped and realized that he had to provide a path. This would lead us out of slavery to our own destructive behavior patterns. He must have realized that he did not have to go forward. He pleaded with his Father to be allowed to avoid walking this path. Yet his understanding of the text of Isaiah:
I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.
The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
told him that he had to proceed. How did he find the strength and courage? Paul writes to the Philippians that Jesus:
“Who, being in very nature] God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:6-11, NIV)
Once we grasp that his rescue set us free, we can only be grateful.
In the scriptures for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 22) we will hear what, IMO, is the most challenging statement in all of the gospels. Before we get to this, we will hear a promise in the first reading (Jer 31:31-34) and a plea for help in Psalm 51. Then, in the second reading (Heb 5:7-9) we get a foundation for meeting the gospel (Jn 12:20-33) and for meeting the challenge.
In Jeremiah we get this promise:
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will we have an external law, one that we must obey under the threat of punishment. We will have one that lives in our hearts and is followed out of a sense of joy. Yet we sense that we can not do this ourselves, and so we pray in Psalm 51:
A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Lest this seem impossible, the writer of Hebrews gives us the foundation for our hope:
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
Then, in John, we have the challenge issued to the Greeks who wished to see Jesus.
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.
The phrase “hating his life in this world” calls for some explanation. What it means to me is that, true to the promise, the Lord will plant his law in our hearts. The Lord will also create a clean heart within us - but we must desire for our hearts to be open. The challenge, then, is to be willing to give up those things in our hearts which keep them closed. When we see what it is in this world that is closing our hearts will will “hate”, ie. love it less, and be willing to give it up.
Sometimes the challenge is not just becoming willing to give up obstacles to God’s presence within us. It is simply becoming able to identify the obstacles. If we take inventory we may find that the obstacles are numerous and that some of them are disguised as good things. Thus, with David we pray:
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.
Paul’s reminder that it is by grace, not by our strenuous efforts to heed warnings, that we are rescued
and John (3:14-21) telling us that God gave his only son to rescue us from Babylon.
It is a natural for individuals and societies to ignore warnings of disaster as Israel did. For individuals the disaster may be medical, legal or personal. For Israel, it was defeat and exile into Babylon.
Psychologists, social scientists and theologians have given us many explanations of how we ignore warnings. For example, we may say:
“I’m too busy to deal with this now”
“…that warning applies to other people” or
“It’s not that bad. I’ll get help if I need it.”
(The last one got me into physical therapy for a knee problem that could have been prevented.) The reality is that there are some problems which paralyze us. We find ourselves trapped and unable to get out without help. We can get help, Paul reminds us in our second reading for Sunday:
“God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved —,”
And how were we brought out from death into life? This Sunday we hear John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world that he gave* his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
In the middle of Lent we hear words of hope and reason for gratitude.
The scriptures for the third Sunday of Lent (March 8) immediately bring to mind a line from Elizabeth Scalia, author of Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life. Scalia writes that modern idols are no longer golden statues or large temples. Rather they are the things that we chase after in the hopes that they will make us popular, important, attractive, wealthy or happy. They are the things that we serve in order to get what we want. We pursue trends, looking at the internet to find the “five best places to …” or the latest clothing fashion.
In contrast to this, our first reading (Ex 20:1-17) starts with this reminder of the source of our freedom and happiness:
“I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery."
We are cautioned, not as a threat, but out of love, that we should be careful in our choice of what and whom we serve. When the causes that we pursue, be they social, political or religious become so important that we place them before the Lord, we are serving idols.
Elizabeth Scalia’s book at times makes uncomfortable reading because it reminds us of how easy it is to be seduced today’s cultural trends. In an interview she quotes Flip Wilson as saying we are now members of the “Church of What’s Happening Now.”
Many of these activities and trends can serve good ends. In the gospel (Jn 2:13-25), we find Jesus enraged by the activities of money changers in the temple. The end which they served - providing animals for the temple sacrifice - was a good one. The problem was that they had turned from providing a service to “making my Father’s house a marketplace.”
The scriptures for the Second Sunday of Lent (March 1st) give us clear examples of being caught in a double-bind. In the Mystery of Christ: Liturgy as Spiritual Experience Thomas Keating describes a double-bind as a situation in which one must choose between two courses of action and both courses are perceived to be the will of God. The choice may be agonizing as it was for Mary, an engaged virgin when she was asked to a mother and not by Joseph. In the first reading for Sunday, (abridged from Genesis 22) Abraham is direct to sacrifice Isaac on a mountain in the land of Moriah. Abraham and Sarah had waited all their lives for Isaac. He was the only promise of old age. Abraham goes forward, somehow trusting. He finds out that he will not have to sacrifice Isaac. The Lord promises;
I will bless you and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants will take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth will find blessing, because you obeyed my command.”
This story has produced endless commentary designed to explain the tension inherent in Abraham’s faith in God in the face of an apparent contradiction.
The double bind faced by the disciples after the transfiguration (Mk 9:2-10) is also dramatic. On the mountain, the disciples see the transfigured Jesus and learn that he is the Messiah, the one for whom Israel has waited. Yet,
As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
The disciples must have felt a strong urge to tell everyone the good news, yet they were urged to keep quiet. Their response?
So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.
The double-bind is not seen as a common spiritual experience - although I suspect that it is. We just don't recognize it because it does not occur in as dramatic a manner. In the most common form it is the challenge of choosing between two good courses of action, each of which seems desirable. Keating gives the example of persons who choose the contemplative life wishing that they were in the active life - or the reverse.
What should we do when in a bind? We can realize that others have gone forward in faith, asking the Lord to work out a solution and trusting that He will.
...redoubled our efforts.” Jim, one of my favorite bosses, used to quote this management proverb. It reminds me of the theme in the scriptures for the 1st Sunday of Lent (Feb 22). The connection is not immediately clear. Let me explain.
In engineering program management, teams are often assigned a problem, develop a solution and spend immense time, energy and money implementing their solution. If the chosen solution does not work right away, the natural tendency is to pour even more time and effort. In a desperate hope that the solution will work the team will tolerate tremendous stress and burnout rather than accept failure and start over.
This is a natural response in the engineering and intelligence analysis world. I’ve seen it happen and done it.
So what is the connection to Sunday’s scriptures? In Gn 9:8-15 we will hear after a flood, Noah and his sons knew that the solution was keeping God’s Covenant. Then in the very short Gospel reading (Mk 1:12-15) we read that
“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the Desert and he remained in the desert for forty days.”
Mark didn’t record it, but in Luke we learn that the Devil proposed solutions to Jesus. These three solutions were 1) gaining power over the world, 2) accepting the pleasure of food and comfort, or 3) gaining possession over the worlds goods. (Our teacher Msgr. Chester Michael called these the “3 P’s”) Jesus rejected all three of them. As in my comparison to engineering programs, they will lead to frustration and failure. Most of us will stick with them for a long time and change direction only after experiencing burnout.
Jesus returned from the desert proclaiming:
“This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Trappist monk Fr. Thomas Keating has often written that to repent means to change the direction in which we are looking for happiness.