Blessed Are Those Who Have Not Seen

A homily from 2nd Sunday of Easter. Divine Mercy. April 3, 2016.

This is the third homily I have given this year. My turn comes on the first Sunday of each month. Each time, this year, the theme has been mercy. So the focus today on Divine Mercy Sunday should not be on “doubting” Thomas! There is something more important than “doubting” going on here. How about “the not-yet seeing” Thomas? How about “the not yet believing” Thomas? Finally, how about the Thomas who “questions”? Only through questioning can we discover the awesome truth of how necessary it was that Jesus should have died an innocent man’s death on the cross. His innocent suffering and death reveal the quality of God’s mercy, the Divine Mercy. Thomas questioned and not only was it revealed to him that Jesus had been raised from the dead. The fuller truth is that Jesus will carry the wounds of his crucifixion, the signs of his suffering and death on his risen body, forever and forever. “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.” Suffering and death are swallowed up in victory. Death has no victory. But the suffering and death are never undone, only completed. In John’s Gospel, Jesus’ last words are “It is completed.” Forever and forever!

At the same time let us remember Jesus’ last words while dying on the Cross in the Gospel of Mark, the first line of Psalm 22, the Prayer of an Innocent Person. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Someone said, “Wait let us see if Elijah comes to take him down.” Of course, Elijah does not come down nor does God. God was silent. God used to be merciful but not now. Or was He? Or is He merciful?

BuchenwaldI am reminded of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Weisel and his famous memoir, Night. If you have not yet read this book, please do read it. It is one of the great religious books of the twentieth century. I am passing around a picture taken on April 11th, 1945, one of the most famous photographic remembrances we have of the Holocaust. That day the American army liberated Buchenwald. Weisel is the last person in the middle bunk in the middle row. Weisel’s literary reference to “Night” comes from the same Psalm 22 that Jesus cried out as he died: “My God, I call by day, but you do not answer; by night, but I have no relief.” God did not answer as six million Jews were incinerated. This has always startled Weisel, especially the death of the babies. They were all innocent.

He says: “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in the camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke, Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky. Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments that murder my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes. Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”

That “night” Jesus suffered and died an innocent man. That night the babies suffered and died innocent babies. We must ask questions. If there is going to be any final justice in the world that God created where so much innocent suffering takes place, then God’s silence must be suffered. There can be sense here only if God can suffer. But our theology and philosophy say that God cannot suffer. Impassibilis est Deus.  Yes, God cannot suffer. That is true. But there is more to God than God, especially when the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Saint Bernard completes the phrase Impassibilis est Deus with, sed non incompassibilis. Pope Benedict translated this as: “God cannot suffer, but he can suffer with. Man is worth so much to God that he himself became man in order to suffer with man in an utterly real way—in flesh and blood.”

The seventh sign in the Gospel of John is the resurrection and the signs of Jesus’ suffering and death on his risen body, forever and forever. I have no answer for Elie Weisel’s questioning. He handles it with his Jewish resources. However, Thomas saw and believed, and now had a reason for hope. When we encounter the risen Christ and believe, we discover the only appropriate response to the Divine Mercy. That response is gratitude and hope. In the deaths of the innocents that cry out for justice, we discover a very strong argument why we need faith in the resurrection. But it works the other around. Faith in the resurrection, blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed, is the only way that those innocent babies will have justice. Jesus did not die in vain. The babies did not die in vain. Jesus’ wounds mark his risen body forever. The babies’ burn scars will mark their risen bodies forever.

“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.” Amen.

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College and former Director of the Online Theology Program. He is a permanent deacon in the Diocese of Portland.

 

 

Crisis Points – The Holy Spirit at Work

I have been keenly aware of the work of the Holy Spirit in my life recently. So, I suppose, on this week before Pentecost, I should not feel surprised that I feel the Holy Spirit has guided my reflections here. Nevertheless, I still feel awed.

HS over Chair of PeterOver the past two years, I have witnessed the breakdown of one of the most effective, faith-filled teams with which I ever have had the pleasure of working. A cancerous tumor had metastasized and spread both deep and wide throughout the team’s relationships. Though the tumor itself was recently removed, the effects of those cancerous spreading fingers remain. True healing will require the deepest levels of love and compassion – a truth that resonates in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. As I ponder all the pain that exists and all the people that have been hurt, I am reminded of Thomas Keating’s thoughts related to crises and spiritual development.

In his book Open Mind, Open Heart on the contemplative dimension of the Gospel, Thomas Keating states, “By not answering our prayers, God is answering our greatest prayer, which is to be transformed” (68). Keating positions that God guides us to a higher state of consciousness in our relationship with Him through the crises we face in life – challenges that can take many forms and exude differing levels of pain – from deaths, to divorces, to family quarrels, to simple disappointments, to health concerns, to organizational chaos. Through crisis points in our lives, we either hold on to our false selves (think “ego”) or grow in our relationship with and understanding of God. Keating states that the false self, an illusion, is how we perceive the world and ourselves, and Christian practice is about dismantling this false self (67). If we resist the crisis, we risk regressing spiritually. We either regress, strengthening the false self, or mature, strengthening our spiritual self while overcoming our weaknesses. In the calamity I have faced these past two years, I have witnessed many examples of both spiritual maturation and regression in my fellow sisters and brothers, as well as myself. Keating reminds us that if we do regress, we have to wait until God presents us with a new challenge.  “Fortunately,” Keating says, “He has plans for us and never gives up” (67). Thank you God.

A similar pattern of Keating’s challenge – regression/growth – challenge occurs throughout the Gospel of John. Jesus has several dialogs of misunderstanding with his disciples and others within which He presents challenges (e.g., dialogs with Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the blind man, Mary Magdalene, John, Peter). In the challenge, Jesus tries to capture and direct the person’s spirit and guide him or her to a higher level of understanding and faith. As the quintessential servant leader, Jesus used challenges to transform others. Why shouldn’t we, then, accept the challenges and crises in our lives as opportunities for spiritual growth?

Our God, in the abiding Trinitarian relationship with us, uses the Holy Spirit to guide us not only in our relationship with Him but also with all others. Our spiritual transformation may take any number of repeats of Keating’s pattern (only God knows what it will take), but ultimately if we are open to dismantling our false selves, we can find the compassion, mercy, and forgiveness to transform all our relationships and grow spiritually. All of this brings to mind my favorite leadership quote which I found over 25 years ago and titled “Leadership Means Helping God Transform Others:”

“The ability to understand and deal effectively with human beings – to get them to fully exploit their own capabilities, and overcome their shortcomings – to give them the opportunity to find success in life, and the courage to make good on that opportunity – in effect, the ability to capture and direct their spirit, and to guide them from where they are to where they need to be – that’s what leadership is all about.”

(General James P. Mullins, USAF)

Yes, God hears our prayers, but he does not always answer them in the way we expect.  He answers them in the way we need. We must trust and look for the Holy Spirit working on, within, and through us as well as on, within, and through the others God places in our path – especially during those crisis points.

My God, please send your Holy Spirit to help me to help You to heal emotional wounds, bring mercy, and transform others.

Fawn Waranauskas teaches spirituality for the Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Tradition and Communion

In last month’s post, I began by looking at a single word. I thought that I would begin this month’s post in the same vein. Vaguely recalling a line from Sesame Street, therefore, “today’s posting is brought to you by the word”…tradition. ‘Tradition’ comes from the Latin word traditio, which means ‘handing over.’ The word ‘traitor’ also comes from this word; as in someone who ‘hands over’ things he shouldn’t.

In today’s gospel proclamation (Jn 17:20-26), we get a sense of what has been ‘handed over’ to us. This passage comes from a portion of St. John’s Gospel known as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer (Jn 17). This is the prayer that Jesus offers to the Father during the Last Supper and, as Fr. Raymond Brown has noted, Jesus adopts the tone of “one who stands before the throne of God making intercession for us.” According to St. John’s Gospel, these are the very last words Jesus utters prior to his arrest.

At this crucial moment of Jesus’ life and ministry, he prays for us. We are the ones not present at the Last Supper, who will come to believe in him through the words of others (Jn 17:20). These words, handed down generation after generation, have come to animate – literally, to ‘give life to’ – our faith. And this handing on, this tradition, is of irreplaceable importance; because faith comes from hearing and believing. As St. Paul famously asked: “[H]ow can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach?” (Rom 10:14). Christians are not formed by nature. Perhaps living in a predominantly Christian culture can help formation, but it certainly does not guarantee it; nor can it replace the personal act of faith. The early Christian theologian Tertullian once wrote that “Christians are made, not born” (Apol. 18). And this ‘making’ begins with faith.

At some point in our lives, we heard the proclamation “Christ is risen” and we believed. The vast majority of Christians were not like Ss. Mary of Magdala or Peter or Thomas – he actually got to poke his finger into Jesus’ side! Rather, most Christians have believed because the good news of Christ’s resurrection had been handed on to them. Our faith, therefore, has a mediator. It comes to us through the mediation of the Church. She has handed on the faith – first in preaching, then also in Scripture – since the day of Pentecost, and does so throughout the ages.

Caravaggio ThomasIt is for us, therefore, that Jesus prays. And the content of his prayer is for our communion. He prays that his future disciples “may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, […] that they may be one, as we are one” (Jn 17:21, 22). He prays that his entire Church, spread across lands and languages, time and eternity, might be one – one as God himself is one! Jesus’ prayer for our communion, therefore, is a prayer that we might participate in God’s own Trinitarian life.

What has been handed over to us is not some sentimental nicety or material benefit, like the recipe for Mama’s sauce or the deed to a house. The tradition we have inherited is that through which we have been joined to Christ by faith. It has formed us into a new people, where “[t]here is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). It calls us into communion with one another, and into that loving communion which is our Triune God. Jesus himself has prayed for this to the Father; i.e., “that the love with which you loved me may be in them” (Jn 17:26).

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

 

The Reality of Being Known

Worth Revisiting Wednesday – This post originally appeared on March 22, 2015.

Everyone wants to be known. We long to be acknowledged, understood and ultimately, loved. We look for affirmation of who we are and praise for what we do. We want to be desired, sought after and needed. As if we couldn’t find evidence of these desires in our own experience, Exhibit A can certainly be found in Reality TV. What began with talk shows that gave ordinary people their 15 minutes of fame has morphed into a “true confessions-meets men and women behaving badly” phenomenon, churning out people famous for being…famous. Reality TV doesn’t just open a window into its inhabitants lives; it throws open the doors and pulls down the walls so that everyone inside is utterly exposed. On our television sets we see them: the good – but mostly the bad and the ugly. It’s those last two that grab the highest ratings and biggest headlines. Who would open themselves to such exposure, laying bare even the most intimate aspects of life – and why? Why reveal so much of oneself, resorting to the kind of over-the-top behavior that would otherwise be unthinkable – except for when the cameras are rolling? Perhaps an equally important question is: Why do so many of us watch?

According to St. Sophronius’ account of her life (as told to the priest Zosimus), Mary was a prostitute, and a woman who found great satisfaction in her work. One day Mary saw a group of people boarding a ship to Jerusalem and, intrigued by what might draw so many on this voyage, she decided to follow them. Mary paid her way doing what she knew best, Koshute 1and after the ship docked she eventually made her way to the passengers’ destination: a church where a relic of the True Cross was housed. A large crowd pushed their way into the church to celebrate the great Feast of the Exaltation and Mary fell in line. Hard as she tried, Mary was unable to get inside. Convinced the crowd was just too heavy Mary hung back and tried again, and again, and again. Each time she attempted to cross the church’s threshold Mary was repelled, as if some hidden force were protecting the sacred place from her presence. Frustrated and confused, Mary was gripped by a longing to be in God’s presence. From her place outside the church she saw an icon of the Mother of God and begged her to petition the Lord to grant her entrance. The Holy Mother heard her cry and suddenly the barrier was removed and Mary entered and gave praise and thanks to God. Promising to dedicate her life to prayer and penance, Mary made for the Jordan River and the Church of St. John the Baptist. There she was baptized and finally experienced the authentic love and true gift of self she could not have known until she received her Lord in Holy Communion. Leaving the church nourished and reborn, Mary went into the desert. There she lived, praying, making penance – still battling her demons – yet resting in the presence and safety of her True Love.

Mary of Egypt’s life might have made for salacious reality TV. Her insatiable carnal desire, fierce independence and disregard for the potential dangers inherent in her lifestyle would have provided hours of voyeuristic delight. Mary lived over a thousand years ago, yet the longing in her heart is ours, too. Mary wanted to be known and loved; she craved attention, even of the “wrong kind,” because any notice of her was at least an acknowledgment of her existence. Like each one of us, Mary grew restless and dissatisfied and looked for satisfaction everywhere except in the one place where it lay: with the One who knows us more intimately than we even know ourselves. We may not resort to the kind of lifestyle, or even the same nature of sin as Mary. But each one of us takes “refuge” in sin due to human weakness, rebellion, the need to “fit in,” and the simple longing for something to fulfill us, even temporarily.

The season of The Great Fast is our opportunity to be “laid bare” in front of God; to be exposed not for titillation or exploitation, but to be truly known by the One who sees us in Koshute 2truth. God knows our weakness and our flaws, and He is well aware of our sins, even before we openly confess them. His desire for us is not that we remain trapped in the cycle of sin, or that we seek attention in ways that violate our personal dignity. Yet when He beholds us He does so with eyes of love and with the knowledge of who we are as He created us. This is why He so desires us to let go of our sins and embrace Him. When Mary approached the church doors and was denied entrance it was not because God wished to refuse her. Rather, He awakened Mary’s true longing, giving her the space to realize her past mistakes. God presented Himself to her respecting her freedom, exposing His desire for her and allowing her to “fall in love.” Mary encountered True Love on that day, and even as she continued to battle temptation and sinfulness, she finally let Him to fight for her.

Our True Love waits patiently for us, making Himself known in ways subtle and unexpected. We need not (over) expose ourselves for others in order to be known and appreciated. The God who loves us, who became a man in order to die for us, knows the desires of our hearts and Himself longs for us to know Him.

O Christ the Bridegroom, my soul has slumbered in laziness. I have no lamp aflame with virtues. Like the foolish virgins I wander aimlessly when it is tie for work. But do not close your compassionate heart to me, O Master. Rouse me, shake off my heavy sleep. Lead me with the wise virgins into the Bridal Chamber, that I may hear the pure voice of those that feast and cry unceasingly: O Lord, Glory to You!

Bridegroom Matins, Great and Holy Week

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The Joy of Love: A Joy to Read?

“I do not recommend a rushed reading of the text” (Amoris Laetitia 7). Pope Francis gives this great advice in his Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia, The Joy of Love, which is certainly the most important to follow for interpreting the document as a whole. The pope encourages families to read the document “patiently and carefully” (Ibid). And it seems clear that Pope Francis desires all people to read it since, “everyone should feel challenged by Chapter Eight” (Ibid., emphasis added).

It contains an authentic vision for marriage. Pope Francis constantly challenges culturally accepted norms which have hurt family life. This document is strange in that you could find yourself saying “yes, yes yes,” in many instances. But then after reading the document in its entirety, several ambiguous points leave you feeling uneasy for their lack of clarity. Let’s start with the clarity.

The pope warns against “an extreme individualism which weakens family bonds…” (AL 33). Pope Francis thanks families who remain faithful to the Gospel. He encourages and speaks warmly about parents who raise children with special needs (cf. AL 47). The pope is clear that same-sex relationships cannot be equated to marriage because, “No union that is temporary or closed to the transmission of life can ensure the future of society” (AL 52). Later Pope Francis affirms, “there are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage and family” (AL 251). The pope speaks out against “various forms of an ideology of gender that ‘denies the difference and reciprocity in nature of a man and a woman and envisages a society without sexual differences…’” (AL 56). He then says, “Let us not fall into the sin of trying to replace the Creator” (AL 56).

Pope Francis constantly refers to his predecessor, Blessed Paul VI, in citing Humanae Vitae. Spouses must respect the procreative meaning of sex and, “no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning…” (AL 80). Artificial contraception is not a possibility. Similarly, the pope condemns abortion (cf. AL 83). In rather strong words he explains to parents that, “it matters little whether this new life is convenient for you, whether it has features that please you, or whether it fits into your plans and aspirations” (AL 170). The couple must respect life in all circumstances.

Chapter Four serves as an exegesis of St. Paul’s great explanation of love found in 1 Corinthians 13. The pope gives practical advice, “never to let the day end without making peace in the family” (AL 104), which calls to mind Scripture (cf. Ephesians 4:26). In this chapter he challenges how the word “love” is “commonly misused” (AL 89). This is clear in the fact that a husband could say “I love my wife and I love that song” in the same sentence. It does not require sacrifice to “love” a song, but it does require self-gift and personal sacrifice to love one’s spouse.

Joy of loveAt various points Pope Francis clearly and unambiguously reaffirms that a marriage bond is indissoluble and he also explained that this should be seen as a gift, not a burden (cf. AL 62). The pope actually quotes the Old Testament book of Malachi, “For I hate divorce, says the Lord” (Malachi 2:14-16; AL 123), and later goes on to proclaim that, “Divorce is an evil and the increasing number of divorces is very troubling” (AL 246). He minces no words when he describes the reality of divorce and also the affect it can have on children.

But there are some statements in this document that are ambiguous. Please call to mind that the pope has encouraged everyone to read Chapter Eight of Amoris Laetitia. And I propose that that is the problem, not everyone has the ability to interpret what the pope is suggesting. At times it seems you need a degree in Moral Theology or Canon Law to get at the heart of what he’s saying. There’s ambiguity around the issue of what constitutes a mortal sin. “Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any ‘irregular’ situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. More is involved here than ignorance of the rule” (AL 301). In other words, some people who commit grave sins are not guilty of mortal sin, beyond cases of invincible ignorance. Pope Francis does cite the Catechism for this proposal: “Imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (CCC 1735). One problem with what the pope proposes is that he doesn’t seem to address the fact that any sin, whether venial or mortal, will affect the soul and the individual’s relationship with God, albeit in different ways. The Catechism also teaches, that venial sin, “impedes the soul’s progress in the exercise of the virtues and the practice of the moral good” (CCC 1863).

Many people were turning to the pope for clarity on whether or not civilly divorced and remarried Catholics could receive Holy Communion, even though this has been addressed by St. John Paul II (cf. Familiaris Consortio 84). The pope encourages help in the Sacraments. He reminds priests that the confessional is not a “torture chamber” and that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the week” (AL 305 [footnote 351]). However, we don’t get a clear explanation of whether or not civilly divorced and remarried persons can receive Holy Communion. And again, keep in mind that the pope encouraged all people to read this section of the document.

Amoris Laetitia is a document which provides great encouragement to families. Certain passages merit extremely close reading, such as the passages about civilly divorced and remarried Catholics. But you can’t judge the entire document based on a couple of paragraphs and footnotes. Overall it was a joy to read it and I encourage you to do so “patiently and carefully.” Let’s continue to ask the Holy Spirit to guide us as we read and unfold what Pope Francis has taught us in The Joy of Love.

Edward Trendowski is Director of the Office of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Providence and teaches pastoral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.