In the Mystery of Christ, Thomas Keating writes about the double-bind as a key moment in spiritual growth. The scriptures for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 21) depict David and Mary in this situation. (We are in a double-bind when we fee that we are bound by expectations pulling in opposite directions.) In 2 Samuel 7 we read that David planned to build a house for God. The prophet Nathan tells David that it was the Lord who established David as king and it is the Lord who will establish a house, i.e. lineage for David. His double bind does not seem to be very difficult: it was a reminder of who actually was in charge.
Mary’s double-bind was infinitely more difficult. Here she was, bound to a promise of virginity, hearing from the angel Gabriel that she would bear a child. As Fr. Keating writes:
“She does not say she won’t do it, but she delicately raises the problem of how it can be done since “ I do not (and will not) know man.” In other words, she takes her dilemma and respectfully places it in God’s lap. “You created the problem,” she seems to say, “Please solve it. I’m not saying yes. And, I’m not saying no. Please tell me how this problem is to be resolved.”
The angel goes on to explain that the Spirit will overshadow her and she will bear a child. This child is fulfillment of the promise given to David in 2 Samuel 7.
Mary’s situation is a model for us. All to often we make an incomplete assessment of our own role and talents and set out to “do something for God.” Maybe we just tell ourselves that we are doing it for a good cause. Then we find ourselves doing something else and begin to experience resentment or tension because we are not doing what we thought we would. Finding ourselves bound between conflicting explanations, Keating suggests, puts us in a situation to re-examine our previous expectations. We need, as Mary did, to turn the problem back to God and wait for a clue as to how to solve it. This is an opportunity for spiritual growth. it is also a highly uncomfortable situation. We can rest assured that Mary understands.
Keating O.C.S.O., Thomas (2013-01-31). The Daily Reader for Contemplative Living (Kindle Locations 3482-3485). Continnuum-3PL. Kindle Edition.
This text had different meanings to different listeners. At the time of Isaiah, the Israelites had just returned from Babylonian captivity. Liberty meant freedom from the Babylon empire. Jesus applied this text to himself in Luke 4. Many of his listeners must have thought he was promising liberty from occupation by the Roman Army.
In addition to the historical meanings there is, as John Martins writes in America, an eschatological edge. Christians see this in terms of an event still to come. This will be day of the Lord’s return.
There is also a personal edge. Each of us should pause to consider the ways in which we are held captive by our situation, attachments, fixed opinions, resentments or other circumstances. If our captivity is desperate and self-destructive we can look to the promise of liberty and glad tidings.
Advent is a time of anticipation and waiting. Let us look forward in hope.
The context was this: The people of Israel and been conquered and exiled to Babylon. When they heard the words of Isaiah they were expecting that Israel would rule the world in glory. When John the Baptist declared:
...“One mightier than I is coming after me.
I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandals.
I have baptized you with water;
he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”...
many applied the same context. They expected a glorious king messiah. As we will learn as we go through the liturgical year, Jesus knew his scriptures. However he reframed them, telling his listeners that their expectations will be met, but in a far different and greater way.
As we listen to the proclamation from Isaiah:
Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her service is at an end,...
we need should recognize that we have specific expectations of what this comfort will be. (At least I do.) We should also recognize that God will do something far greater than the best we can expect. Our exception should not be closed. They should be open to whatever God will give us. This will gives us the courage to meet the challenge posed by John the Baptist:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.”
Making straight the crooked paths of our lives can be done, if we have the hope that the Lord will help us. We can do it, one step at a time.
Happy new liturgical year! November 30th is the first Sunday of Advent. As we begin a new cycle of scriptural readings, the season of Advent focuses our attention on the coming birth of Christ.
This Sunday’s readings are taken from Isaiah, Corinthians and Mark. (The gospel readings this year will be drawn primarily from Mark.)
In Isaiah 63 we hear of a people longing for the presence of the Lord and frustrated because they do not keenly feel the Lord’s presence:
You, LORD, are our father, our redeemer you are named forever. Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways, … Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,…
In Mark 13 we are promised that this will happen but, since we do not know when, we are told:
Jesus said to his disciples: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.
We all long for fellowship and acceptance, even when we do not feel worthy. The longing expressed in Isaiah is for a fellowship that transcends all others. In Corinthians 1 Paul writes:
Brothers and sisters: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always on your account for the grace of God bestowed on you in Christ Jesus, … irreproachable on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, and by him you were called to fellowship with his Son,Jesus Christ our Lord.
Happy Advent everyone. Keep in mind that this is season of preparation. Some celebration of Christmas is unavoidable in this secular society - but to the extent that we can, let’s save our celebration for the Season of Christmas, which starts on December 25 and ends with Epiphany (Jan 4th.)
Sunday, November 26 is the Feast of Christ the King. It is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. (We being the new year with Advent on November 30th. It was placed on the calendar in 1931 by Pope Pius the 11th. He wanted to counter the tendency of many people to see their political parties as identical or superior to God’s Kingdom. This tendency is still with us, especially among political progressives and Tea Party members. We need to remember John 18:36-38
Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will look after and tend my sheep,…
This is an astounding promise. It will not be some earthly shepherd, but the Lord himself who will look after us.
Then in Mt. 25:31-46 Jesus, the good shepherd, gives us a picture of how we get to the Kingdom while on this earth:
(you will) “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’
To the question “When did we see you a stranger and welcome you,…” Jesus gives the answer:
“whatever you did for one of the least of my brothers you did for me.”
While the Kingdom is “not of this world,” it is coming into being. We can help bring it into being and become part of the kingdom by caring for or neighbors. We don’t have to look far, or even go into the streets of Charlottesville, to find people who are desperate and suffering. We can find people in all our daily affairs, if we are just open and listen. When we see people who are suffering, lonely or maybe just afraid of their future, we can extend mercy and bring the kingdom a little closer.
In the Catholic lectionary for Sunday Mass the first and gospel readings are chosen because they reflect a common theme or idea. In this case, the connection between the two is not immediately clear - at least to me. The parable promises a reward: those who use their gifts and talents will find them multiplied. Those who hide them will lose even what they had at the beginning. This should lead us to reflect on what our gifts really are and ask if we have failed to use some of our gifts out of fear, shame, or sloth. The good wife, in contrast, does not seem to be reflecting on her gifts. She simply goes about using them in her daily tasks. She does not even seek praise for her accomplishments. Instead the writer of Proverbs urges us to:
Give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates.
It should be thus for all of us. Rather than seeking reward for our gifts or worrying about what we might be hiding, we need to go ahead and use the gifts that we know we have. The results, recognition and reward are in the hands of the Lord.
This Sunday, November 9, we interrupt the weekly progress through the scripture readings for Ordinary Time to celebrate the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica. Our readings speak of the holiness of a church, its respect and fruitfulness through the people. To many it seems odd to dedicate a day to the construction of a church in Rome in the year 324. As I reflect on it, I recall the campaign motto for our parish when we started construction in 1973: "Not a house for God, but a house for God's people". Our first
reading (Ez: 47,1-2, 8-9,12) paints a picture of what this might mean:
"The angel brought me
back to the entrance of the temple,
and I saw water flowing out
from beneath the threshold of the temple ...
Wherever the river flows,
every sort of living creature that can multiply shall live,
and there shall be abundant fish,
for wherever this water comes the sea shall be made fresh.
Along both banks of the river, fruit trees of every kind shall grow;
their leaves shall not fade, nor their fruit fail.
Every month they shall bear fresh fruit,
for they shall be watered by the flow from the sanctuary.
Their fruit shall serve for food, and their leaves for medicine
Ezekiel views the temple as a source of healing and strength for the entire land. In the second reading Paul takes us a giant step beyond that as he writes to the Corinthians:
"Brothers and sisters...you are God's building."
It is not just from the temple or church building that healing and nourishment flows; rather it is from God's people. This is true, as Paul cautions us, to the extent that our foundation is Jesus Christ.
In taking a day to commemorate a mother church, we can also give thanks and offer prayers that our own local church, indeed all local churches and the universal church may me, in the words of Psalm 46 "Our refuge and our strength, an ever present help in distress, a stream whose runlets gladden the city of God.
This Sunday (Nov. 2nd) is the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (aka All Souls Day).(The scripture readings pre-empt the readings we would ordinarily find for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time.) There is a connection between the first reading (WIS 3:1-9) and the Gospel (JN 6:37-40). In Wisdom we read:
“The souls of the just are in the hand of God,and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace.”
We might ask: If we take this literally as applying to the “just,” how about the unjust?’ Is this beautiful state promised in Wisdom to be restricted only to the just? I think we get an answer in John. Jesus says that he is sent to do the “will of my Father” and that this is the Father’s will:
“…everyone who sees the Son and believes in him may have eternal life, and I shall raise him on the last day.”
The unjust can become just by looking at Christ and believing in Him.
Yet, going back to Wisdom, The just will not be sitting on clouds enjoying their rest. There will be some work to do: The faithful departed will dart about igniting the faith and carrying out the Lord’s tasks:
“In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble; they shall judge nations and rule over peoples, and the LORD shall be their King forever.”
This leads to an interesting speculation: Rather than resting peacefully upon clouds in heaven, the departed faithful are somehow busy darting about as “sparks through the stubble.” We can look to them, or at least to their memories and writings, hoping that they will ignite the sparks of faith among the stubble that still exists in this earth.
We will hear this admonition in the scripture readings for the 30th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Oct 28th). These are scripture verses easily made into arguments supporting political ideologies. The first reading from Exodus will be followed by the gospel text giving us the first and second greatest commandments:
"You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."
The admonitions in Exodus are implicitly contained in the Gospel. Loving one’s neighbor extends to the alien, the widow and orphan, and the poor. It forbids exacting interest or harsh loans. These texts are the basis for much of Jewish and Chrstian movements to promote social justice.
These readings bring thoughts of modern applications to the questions of legal and illegal immigrants into the United States. This has been the subject of much political commentary, much of it filled with resentment and anger. These feelings result, I suggest, from the tendency of both liberals and conservatives to convert their political ideologies into idols. Elizabeth Scalia writes about this in her book Strange Gods; Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life.
There is a remedy for this. When we find ourselves “idolizing” one particular set of political opinions, we should remember that we, ourselves were once “aliens in Egypt.” This thought may seem strange and impossible, especially for those of us who have never been to Egypt. We can understand how this might apply by taking a lesson from Deuteronomy 26:5-6 on how the Hebrews were to read scripture. It tell us that when you make your offering to the Lord, this is what you shall say:
“…‘A wandering Aramean was my father; and he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6 And the Egyptians treated us harshly, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage.”
From the Hebrew point of view, what happened to their father in the past, also happened to them. They were enslaved along with their ancestors - and freed in the Exodus.
We can also interpret “once aliens yourselves in Egypt” in a contemporary spiritual sense. As Elizabeth Scalia writes, it is all to easy to become over-involved in the things of this world. When we do, our dedication to political causes such as opposing or supporting immigration reform, can cause to become resentful and even hateful. This is especially true when politicians and talk show hosts are all too willing to stir up hatred and anger for their own purposes. When these attitudes dominate our thinking we have become slaves to a political idol.
If we can remember that we were aliens and in some sense in Egypt as slaves to an idol, we can look on immigrants as real persons search for a better life. If we do that, our version of immigration reform will strike a balance between conflicting political opinions.
The scripture readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time bring us to a question that has challenged Christians since Jesus’ time. In the first reading (IS 45:1, 4-6), we hear that King Cyrus, even though he is unaware of it, serves the Lord’s purpose. Secular leaders can be fulfilling God’s plan. In the Gospel reading (MT 22:15-21) we will hear about Jesus’ response to a trap set by the Pharisees:
“Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?"
This is a dilemma. If Jesus opts for Caesar, he offends the Phairisees. If he refuses to pay the temple tax he offends the governing Roman Army. Jesus responds by asking the Pharisees for a coin - which has an image of Caesar on it. Since the coin has an image of Caesar on it he responds by putting the dilemma back in their laps:
"Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."
This answer evades the dilemma and puts the question back on the Pharisees. It may have embarrassed them: they were carrying an image of a “strange God” -Caesar and were in violation of their own law.
Through the centuries the institutional church, theologians and political pundits have devised various answers to this question. At times the church has been closely allied with the government. Thomas Jefferson called for a separation between Church and State. Up until Vatican II, the Institutional Catholic Church was uncomfortable with this principle. Today some political progressives hold that gospel values require that the government be active in alleviating suffering and promoting social justice. Libertarian conservatives argue that the government is harmful and tends toward tyranny. Churches and private individuals should be in the forefront of alleviating poverty and promoting social justice. The text from Isiaih applies here: the state may be doing the Lord's work even though progressives and libertarians may not recognize it. The Phairisees' attempt to pit one against the other may be mistaken.
In all my decades of following public discussion and reading about politics, I’ve never developed an answer that satisfies me, even on a personal level. In the end, Jesus has put the question back on each of us and we must answer it within the resources of our own (properly formed) consciences.
I have, however, reached one wish - that people on each side of the question (especially progressives and libertarians) would at least practice civility as they argue their positions and attempt to actually listen to one another.