Jesus’ Final Words

Today is Good Friday, the day on which Christians commemorate the death of Jesus on the cross. Many of us will attend services at one of another point during the day. In some churches, people will offer reflections on the words uttered by Jesus as he was dying on the cross.

The final words Jesus is recorded as saying is “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.

There is a particular reflection on that line that has always been very powerful to me. It is by John C. Ortberg, and is part of book of meditations on the last words of Christ in a book titled Echoes from Calvary. I share it for your reflection today:

Into your hands….

A two-year- old girl stands by the side of a pool.  “Jump,” her father says.  She is filled with fear.  She is quite certain that if she jumps, she will die.  But she knows these hands.  She trusts these hands.  So she jumps.  She abandons herself to her father.  In between the jumping and the landing, everything in the world depends on these hands.

The history of this earth, in a way we don’t fully understand, comes to this one moment.  A lone figure is stretched out on a cross between heaven and earth, life and death.  All the fear and loneliness of the human race has been somehow poured out on him.  He has been asked by his father to do that which he most dreads.

But he knows these hands.  He trusts these hands.  So he says a prayer.  He says it now because he has said it every day of his life.  It’s not the kind of prayer you hold in reserve. 

Into your hands…

Each of us will stand on that edge one day: in a hospital room, maybe; or a convalescent ward; or some unsuspected place.  We too will taste fear.  None of us knows all about what comes next – not really; we all live between the jumping and the landing.

So Christ invites us to make his prayer our own.  He offers these words as the final gift of his earthly life; the last, best prayer of humankind.

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

Blessings on this Good Friday.

Where Do I Stand in the Crowd?

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. It is the day on which we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. While Covid precautions mean we won’t march into our churches with our palms as we usually do, still we recall Jesus riding down the street on a donkey, with people shouting “Hosanna” and laying their cloaks and palm branches before his path.

In one respect, knowing the succeeding acts in this story as we do, the scene seems like a cruel mockery to us; we know what awaits Jesus. We know that many of the same people who should “Hosanna” as Jesus rides into Jerusalem will, in only a few days, scream out, “Crucify Him.”

This morning, during our Palm Sunday Mass, we will have a chance to reflect on the juxtaposition of these two events. We begin our service recalling the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Then, as we will again on Good Friday, we will listen to a gospel account of The Passion of our Lord, in our turn, crying out Crucify Him.

We could treat it all as playacting, with us simply playing the roles of the crowds in the two scenes. Or we could use it for an opportunity for serious reflection, recognizing that our words and deeds always either give glory to Jesus or contribute toward his suffering. Because, make no mistake, we are always doing one or the other.

So we may wish to take some time to reflect on questions such as:

When am I like one or another of those crowds?

Do I recognize and celebrate Jesus when I encounter Him?

Are there times when my words or actions are the equivalent of the crowds crying for Jesus’ crucifixion?

Obstacles and Openness

Today’s first Mass reading is the story of the encounter between the prophet Elisha and Naaman, and Jesus alludes to this passage in today’s Gospel. My friend and colleague Joel Nichols wrote the following reflection as part of daily Lent reflections sponsored by the Office of Spirituality of the University of St. Thomas. The questions he poses at the end are great ones to sit with today. (The following words are all Joel’s, not mine.)

Today’s reading recounts the story of Elisha, the prophet in Israel, and Naaman, an army commander from Israel’s enemy. Naaman has leprosy. The tale comes to its pinnacle as Elisha tells Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman initially objects but then relents and receives healing, declaring: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.” 

Luke’s Gospel reading alludes to this Elisha/Naaman story. Jesus, speaking at his hometown synagogue, pronounces how a prophet is not accepted in his own city, illustrated by how God met the needs of a non-Israelite widow in a famine (through Elijah) and cured the outsider Naaman (through Elisha). Right on cue, the crowd rises up in fury to reject Jesus. 

I am struck at how the Gospel passage seems pointed right at me – one who is an “insider.” Those of us who read these Lenten Reflections, who undertake additional practices, who strive (even in good faith!) to better connect with God – we play the role of insiders in the story. We’re not Naaman – that person who doesn’t listen well at first but eventually responds – but instead seem cast as those who heard Jesus speak and were so put off by Jesus’ words that we lash out. Could this be true? I sure don’t like the idea that I (and you?) might be the one resisting, or the one having trouble hearing the message of Jesus. 

So I’m considering: 

  • What are my obstacles to listening well? 
  • What is God’s message that I resist? 
  • How do I get off track in seeing where God is at work? 
  • Do I struggle to see God acting in ways contrary to my expectations? 

May God give us insight into our obstacles and an openness to see his grace to all.

Loving Our Enemies

Today’s Gospel from Matthew contains a command we are familiar with: Love your enemies. Jesus rejects the old teaching of “love your neighbor and hate your enemy,” in favor of an instruction to love all, in imitation of God, who “makes the sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and unjust.”

It is not an easy command to follow. But I read something this morning on the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s lenten series that helps. Writing on today’s readings, Catherine Punsalan-Manlimos encourages this:

When confronted by an enemy, stand in wonder and curiosity. What is this person trying to express in what I hear as hateful and cruel? What wounds is this person nursing that is causing so much pain that they lash out violently? It takes revolutionary love—that is, grace—to be able to take a posture of wonder and curiosity that makes possible seeing the wounds of another, a seeing that can soften hearts even towards enemies. It is revolutionary love that makes possible the desire to tend their wounds because we remember that we too are wounded. 

When I hear curiosity and wonder, I am reminded of the invitation of Ignatian spirituality to openness and receptivity to another—welcoming who they are in their complexity and brokenness. I am also reminded of the invitation to mercy, because we have been shown mercy and are called to make that mercy present in our compassion, even for our “enemies.”

What difference would it make for us to stand in a posture of curiosity and wonder when faced by an “enemy”, rather than to stand in fear, insecurity and anger? Surely the author is right that giving ourselves the space to see the wounds of another will soften our hearts, allowing the kind of “revolutionary love” Jesus calls us to.

The Choice of Discipleship

One of the great gifts God has given us is free choice. God always invites, and never forces us to act one way or the other. While God has great hopes and desires for us, God always leaves it up to us what path we will choose. 

Both of today’s Mass readings reflect that reality. In the first reading from Deuteronomy, God through Moses, tells the people, “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the Lord, your God, heeding his voice, and holding fast to him.” 

On its face, that doesn’t seem like such a hard choice. Who among us is going to jump up saying, “I choose death…I choose the curse”? Choosing life seems the obvious choice – love God and obey his commandments. Simple. 

In the Gospel, however, Jesus dispels any thought that this is simple for those of us who call ourselves Christian disciples. He sets out quite starkly the choice we are asked to make. “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.” 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed that “just as Christ is Christ only in suffering and rejection, so also they are his disciples only in suffering and rejection, in being crucified along with Christ. Discipleship as a commitment to the person of Jesus Christ places the disciple under the law of Christ, that is, under the cross.” 

Christian discipleship is challenging. It means choosing to give up our attachment to honor, approval, and respect of others and to follow the path of Christ even where that requires us to be ignored, dishonored, or perhaps even persecuted.   

Lent offers us the opportunity to reflect on the choice Christ asks us to make and to deepen our commitment to staying wedded to him no matter the cost.

[Cross-posted to University of St. Thomas Office for Spirituality Lenten Reflections]

A Time of Restoration and Renewed Direction

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that marks the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period preceding the death and resurrection of Christ. Lent is a special time in the cycle of the Catholic Church. It is a time in which we are invited to focus in a special way on our life with God, to nurture our relationship with God and to deepen our appreciation for God’s enormous and unconditional love for us.

Joyce Rupp once wrote, “The church is wise in offering us the season of Lent because it can be the very time we need to find what is missing in our lives; it can be the season to deliberately seek what has been tossed away or misplaced or ignored, so that our lives can once again reflect the gospel which Jesus encouraged us to live. Lent can be a searching out and a restoration time and the means for renewed direction.”

The traditional Lenten observances are fasting, almsgiving and prayer. In the words of Father William Joensen, “Each of us is entrusted during Lent with the sacred task of going into the soil of ourselves, inviting the Spirit to help us venture into the inmost recesses of our being: by more persistent prayer, by means of fasting calibrated to the demands and discipline of our personal lives, and by sharing our material, human resources in an intentional, consistent manner.”

It is not that we do these practices at Lent and not at other times. All of them should be part of our lives as a normal matter. However, as the Rupp passage suggests, sometimes the busyness of our lives let us lose track, lose our focus on practices that are fundamental to who we are. So let today be our re-dedication of ourselves, a day on which re-commit ourselves to nurturing our relationship with our God and with each other.

Who Are My Mother and My Brothers?

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, word is sent to Jesus that his mother and brothers are outside looking for him. Jesus’ response is sometimes taken as a dis to Mary, for he replies, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” Then pointing to those around him, he says, “Here is my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister, and mother.”

It sounds pretty harsh. But Jesus’ comment is not intended to disparage Mary. Rather, his words simply reveals that, in Jesus’ eyes, discipleship is more important than blood relationship. Mary has both, as in a very real way, she was the first disciple.

In his Encyclical Redemptoris Mater, Pope John Paul II wrote, “Mary is present in Cana of Galilee as Mother of Jesus, and in a significant way she contributes to the ‘beginning of the signs’ which reveal the messianic power of her Son…At Cana, thanks to the intercession of Mary and the obedience of the servants, Jesus begins ‘his hour.” At Cana, Mary appears as believing in Jesus. Her faith evokes his first ‘sign’ and helps to kindle the faith of the disciples.”

In Mary’s case, being a disciples meant that she said yes to giving birth to Jesus, in spite of being unmarried, in spite of knowing the hardship this would entail and not knowing where it would lead. And we see in her words at Cana (“Do whatever he tells you”) that her discipleship meant believing in the reality of Jesus as God – and the reality that God could do anything – before there was any sign demonstrating that this would be the case. (This is in contrast with the other disciples, who began to believe in Jesus after his first miracle.)

Making the choice of discipleship is at the heart of Mary’s story. She, more than anyone, truly is “brother, and sister, and mother” of Jesus.

Conversion is Not a One-Shot Deal

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The first Mass reading from Acts is Paul’s address to the people describing his conversion.

When we look at Paul’s great conversion moment on the road to Damascus, we have a tendency to think conversion is a sudden or dramatic single event. I think we forget that although that was an important moment of transformation for Paul, a foundational religious experience for him, it was really the beginning and not the end of his conversion. So we would do well to hear today’s reading while keeping in mind something Paul wrote to the Philippians:

It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus. Brothers and sisters, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession. Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.

Paul came to know Jesus, he had a deep experience of Jesus, but still he knew he hadn’t attained “perfect maturity,” he hadn’t reached “the goal.”

This is such an important message for us. It reminds us that wherever we are on our spiritual journey at any given time, there is still need for growth, still need both for the deepening of our relationship with God and the strengthening of the fidelity with which we live out the consequences of that deepened relationship.

Among other things, understanding conversion as process helps us understand how important are each of the steps we take along the path of our spiritual journey. We have such a strong tendency to judge harshly what we in hindsight view as missteps along the way. It is so very easy for us to forget that everything we experience and learn from contributes to our growth process, is part of who we have become and how we relate to God and others, and is a potential source of grace.

A Sober Look at America’s Moral and Spiritual Progress

Today in the United States we observe Martin Luther King Day, a day on which we celebrate the life and legacy of this great leader of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. We remember King for his commitment to work for the end of racial segregation and other forms of racial discrimination through nonviolent means.

King was a powerful speaker and, on any number of occasions I have quoted from one speech of his or another, and I always encourage my students to watch or listen to his speeches rather than read them.

One speech of King’s is particularly salient to us today. I refer to his 1956 imaginary letter from St. Paul to American Christians. Here is an excerpt of what King imagines St. Paul might have to say to us today:

…America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.

I am impelled to write you concerning the responsibilities laid upon you to live as Christians in the midst of an unChristian world. That is what I had to do. That is what every Christian has to do. But I understand that there are many Christians in America who give their ultimate allegiance to man-made systems and customs. They are afraid to be different. Their great concern is to be accepted socially. …

But American Christians, I must say to you as I said to the Roman Christians years ago, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as I said to the Phillipian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God. …

It is worth spending some time reflecting on whether the indictment in these words are true. If so (and I do think it is), some examination and reformation of our behavior is in order. We all need to ask ourselves: what is my particular responsibility as a Christian in the environment in which I find myself? Are there places I am called to take a stand? And what graces do I need from God to be able to fulfill that responsibility?

Three Blocks to Growth and Connection With Reality

One of my Christmas gifts from my husband was Pope Francis’ newest book, Let us Dream: The path to a Better Future.  I just started reading it, and since I started teaching two J-term courses this week, I haven’t gotten very far. Nonetheless, here’s a tidbit.

Early on in the book, Francis identifies what he terms “three disastrous ways of escaping reality that block growth and the connection with reality, and especially the action of the Holy Spirit.”  The three are narcissism, discouragement and pessimism, each of which is paralyzing.

Narcissism “takes you to the mirror to look at yourself, to center everything on you so that’s all you see.”  Everything is judged with reference to the self.  People are seen as objectively good if they are good to you; situations or events are bad if they don’t benefit you personally.  Rather than God being at the center, the self is.  It is not hard to see examples of painful narcissism in the public figures we read about every day, be they politicians, athletes or celebrities.  And perhaps we can see examples in those around us, or even occasionally in ourselves.

Discouragement “leads you to lament and complain about everything so that you no longer see what is around you nor what others offer you, only what you think you’ve lost.”  We certainly see that in people’s reaction to COVID and other hardships.  But when we only see what we’ve lost, we are blinded to all the gifts that are around us – even during the pandemic.

Pessimism “is like a door you shut on the future and the new things it can hold.”  Like discouragement, it focuses only on the negative and keeps us from hope.

Francis suggests that each of the three is “in the end about preferring the illusions that mask reality rather than discovering all we might be able to achieve.  They are siren voices that make you a stranger to yourself.”

How do we fight against such tendencies when they arise? – because, let’s face it, each of us is susceptible to the pull or one or another of them.  Francis says simply that “to act against them, you have to commit to the small, concrete, positive actions you can take, whether you’re sowing hope or working for justice.”

Let us do precisely that, asking ourselves what small, concrete, positive actions we can take in the name of hope and promoting justice.