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John’s Passion

Today the Catholic Church celebrates The Passion of St. John the Baptist.  It has been a busy week and so allow me to share again some thoughts I’ve shared before on this feast day.

Note that although the Gospel reading for today is Mark’s account of Herod putting John to death to satisfy his promise to the daughter of Herodias, the feast focuses not on John’s martyrdom, but on his passion.

We spend a lot of time during Lent praying with Jesus’ passion. With John, I think we tend to limit our focus to either his preaching or his dramatic death. But I think there is value in the invitation of this feast to focus our attention on John’s passion, which can be thought of as his prison experience. What was it like for John between the time he was arrested and the point at which he is beheaded?

John wasn’t sitting in some swanky minimum security prison being served three meals a day and getting exercise. He was likely in a dark and dank cell, perhaps chained, being served unappetizing and perhaps even rotten food.

As he sat, day after day and week after week (we are not told how long John was imprisoned), he must have had questions and doubts. In our only Gospel account of his time in prison, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?” (Matthew 11:2-3) suggesting at least some uncertainty.

I can see John sitting there wondering if his mission had been worth dying for. Wondering if he had been abandoned by God. Wondering if it had all been for naught.

Pope Benedict wrote

The task set before the Baptist as he lay in prison was to become blessed by this unquestioning acceptance of God’s obscure will; to reach the point of asking no further for external, visible, unequivocal clarity, but instead, of discovering God precisely in the darkness of this world and of his own life, and thus becoming profoundly blessed. John even in his prison cell had to respond once again and anew in his own call for metanoia or a change of mentality, in order that he might recognize his God in the night in wich all things earthly exist.

Most of us won’t be imprisoned for our preaching of the Gospel. But we do each suffer dark moments and, thus, face the same challenge “of discovering God precisely in the darkness of this world and of [our] own [lives].”

We don’t know if John succeeded in doing so, but I would guess he did. May we do the same.

Today’s Inward/Outward post, which was in my inbox this morning, was a quote by Parker Palmer that I think is right on target.  Parker writes:

One of our problems as Americans—at least, among my race and gender—is that we resist the very idea of limits, regarding limits of all sorts as temporary and regrettable impositions on our lives. Our national myth is about the endless defiance of limits: opening the western frontier, breaking the speed of sound, dropping people on the moon, discovering ‘cyberspace’ at the very moment when we have filled old-fashioned space with so much junk that we can barely move. We refuse to take no for an answer. Part of me treasures the hopefulness of this American legacy. But when I consistently refuse to take no for an answer, I miss the vital clues to my identity that arise when way closes—and I am more likely both to exceed my limits and to do harm to others in the process.

The secular theory underlying the mindset of which Parker speaks understands freedom exclusively as “freedom from,” that is, a freedom from interference to follow individual pursuits, whatever they may be. This is freedom as individual autonomy, with no objective ranking or judgments about individual preferences. Prior to his election as Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger characterized this understanding as a “dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.”

The Christian understanding of freedom, what is sometimes referred to as “authentic freedom,” is very different. In contrast with an understanding of freedom that admits of no judgments about individual preferences, authentic freedom is not unlimited; it is bounded by moral truth. Authentic freedom is the freedom to make choices that accord with truth. As Pope John Paul II observed, in Centesiumus Annus, that “freedom attains its full development only by accepting the truth.”

Authentic freedom understands that there are limits and that sometimes “no” may be the right answer.

While looking for a youtube on video, I came across an interview with the Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast.  He is someone who has been very influential to me and I have cited him here before.

The first question the interviewer asked Brother David was how many times a day he prayed.  Brother David replied by explaining that one needed to distinguish between formal prayer times and praying.  Praying, he suggested, is something we should be doing all of the time.  As for prayer times, he explained that the Rule of Benedict called for seven periods of prayer during the day and one during the night.  But these formal ones, he suggested are really not so important in themselves.  Rather they exist to remind us to be praying at all times.

I think I take issue with calling them “not so important,” in that my experience praying in Benedictine communities is that those formal periods of prayer can be quite powerful.  But I do think there is something to the suggestion that these formal prayer periods are what remind us – and perhaps what enable us – to pray all of the time.

What does it mean to pray at all times?  Brother David put it this way: “To be praying at all times means to be moment by moment attuned to life attuned to what life wants from you.”

Here is the entire interview:

(For those reading by e-mail, if you have trouble seeing the video, click-through to the blog itself.)

Ruth’s Choice

Today’s first reading is taken from the Book of Ruth, a book I love and that we hear from too infrequently during Mass.

In today’s passage, we meet Naomi after the death of her husband Elimelech and her two sons, both of whom had married Moabite woman.  Naomi makes the decision to return to Bethlehem, her homeland.  Her daughter-in-law Orpah bids her a tearful good-bye.  Orpah’s choice to remain in her homeland is a sensible, as well as honorable and safe decision.

Ruth however, makes a much bolder choice. Despite Naomi’s encouragement that Ruth do as her sister-in-law has done, Ruth chooses to go with Naomi to a land where she will be an eternal outsider and where the national prejudice against Moabites, let alone single Moabite women goes deep.  (And remember, this is early Israel, where interracial marriages are frowned upon and where it is not easy to be a single woman in a culture where a woman’s social security depends on being linked to a man.)

Nonetheless, Ruth says to Naomi, in words familiar to us, “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.” 

Joan Chittister, in her book The Story of Ruth: Twelve Moments in Every Woman’s Life, describes Ruth as making the choice filled with faith “that the God of yesterday is also the God of today, that the God who took one thing away has something else in store for her. Ruth determines to follow a God who worked through Miriam, Rachel, Sarah and Leah, as well as through Moses, Jacob and Abraham to save a world and lead a people.”

Ruth seizes the moment to become someone new, to start again in a place other than the place of her beginnings. She stretches herself to the limits to find the God who waits for her in what she has not yet become. Chittister writes:

Life is not a mystery for those who choose well-worn paths. But life is a reeling, spinning whirligig for those who do not, for those who seek God beyond the boundaries of the past. All the absolutes come into question. All the certainties fade. A ll the relationships on which they once had based their hopes shudder and strain under the weight of this new woman’s newness of thought and behavior.

Suddenly – it seems to have been, but probably only slowly, one idea at a time – Ruth finds herself at odds with her culture, her country, her religion and her role in life. One by one, she chooses against each of them. A Moabite, she makes the decision to go to the Jewish city of Bethlehem where race and religion will marginalize her forever. A follower of the tribal god Chemosh, she professes faith in the one God, Yahweh. A marriageable young woman, she opts for independence with another woman rather than set about finding a man to care for her. Ruth has discovered what it is to be the self that God made and nourishes and accompanies on the way.

Do we have the faith and courage of Ruth.

There is a line in the Letter to the Philippians that comes to mind often.  In the translation in which I usually hear it, it says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  It is a line that I have internalized and that I turn to when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

The other day I saw the line quoted on a calendar, where it was quoted with a one word difference from the way I usually hear it.  It read, “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.”

I smiled when I read it.  It seemed to add to the power of the line to me.  My traditional translation conveys the reality that I do nothing without Christ that the strength comes from Christ.  The second seems to add the additional strength that comes from the knowledge and security that Christ is there.

Perhaps that is a distinction without a difference for many people.  Indeed, the line itself may have less significance for you than me (regardless of translation).   But it keeps coming back to me, and making me smile.

  

Flipping through a book of poetry earlier today I came across a poem of George Herbert’s I have always loved.  In some collections is it titled simply Love.  It is a good reminder of God’s constant invitation.
Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
                              Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
                             From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
                             If I lacked any thing.
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
                             Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
                             I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
                             Who made the eyes but I?
Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
                             Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
                             My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
                             So I did sit and eat.

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Assumption of Mary, a commemoration of the death of Mary and her bodily assumption into Heaven, before her body could begin to decay.  (There is a difference between how the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church speaks about the end of Mary’s life, the former focusing on the raising up of Mary and the latter on her not being subject to death because of her freedom from original sin.)

What if anything does the Assumption mean for us?

For most of my Christian life, this was a feast I pretty much ignored, deciding it wasn’t something central or even all that important to my faithlife.  One of the difficulties for me is that the “Mary, Queen of Heaven” image that tends to be associated with this feast is not an image of Mary I relate to. When I see pictures depicting Mary’s Assumption or Mary’s Coronation as Queen of Heaven they bear no resemblance to the Mary of my prayers. Mary, the woman with the strength to say Yes to what must have seemed an insane and frightening proposition that she give birth to God. Mary, the woman at Cana who told the servants to do as Jesus asked. Mary, who stayed with Jesus til the end and then took the dead body of her son in her arms. Mary, who stayed with the apostles after the death, doubtless comforting (mothering) them in their loss of Jesus.  Even more so after my retreat earlier this summer, where I had such a sense of Mary’s supportive presence to Jesus throughout his public ministry, as well as during his earlier life.

If our picture of the Assumption is of a prone Mary being bodily lifted up by angels into heaven, it doesn’t seem to have much significance for us.  That, after all, is not what happens to the rest of us.

On the other hand, if our focus on the Assumption is on Mary’s experience as an embodiment of the reality of our Resurrection, it becomes something much mor meaningful to us. Jesus resurrection is, of course, the true victory over death – that which gives creates the possibility of our own resurrection and ultimate full union with God. But with Jesus there is always the nagging thought, “Well sure, he was God, of course it worked for him. He may have been fully human, but he was also fully divine from the get go.”

But Mary was human, like us. And Mary’s assumption into heaven, body and soul, symbolizes for us the reality of what will happen for all of – resurrection of the body into full union with God. You can phrase it various ways as a matter of dogma. But her experience is, in simplest terms, a foretaste of our own.

 

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