Isaiah 1:18

The Book of Isaiah opens with what is called the Book of Judgment – a scathing indictment of the people of Israel, who have turned their backs on God. God calls the people of Israel a “sinful nation, people laden with wickedness,” an “evil race” who “have forsaken the Lord.” He calls them Sons who have disowned him and tells them: “Your incense is loathsome to me….I close my eyes to you.” God seems to condemn completely the entirety of his people, accusing that “From the sole of the foot to the head there is no sound spot.”

But as harsh as the indictments are, God cannot sustain them consistently. Even in the first chapter, God also invites with words that always touch me to the core: “Come now, let us set things right…Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they may be crimson red, they may become white as wool. If you are willing.” (Isaiah 1:18)

Those words have such power, conveying to us the incredible reality that God constantly invites us back; is constantly there with arms out saying, I’m here and we can be together….We can be reconciled. You have the choice to come back to me.

When I talked about his line from Isaiah in my talk at the first session of the UST Advent Retreat on Monday, my friend Tom pointed out that the King James Bible translates the first line of Isaiah 1:18 as “Come now, and let us reason together.” The “let us set things right” language I quoted in my talk comes from the New American Bible. Tom wrote to me later that evening saying he had checked out some other Bibles and the line is variously translated as “let us set things right,” “let us reason together,” “let us settle the matter” and “let us settle this dispute.” I then contacted Rabbi Norman Cohen, who I’ve referenced before in posts, who told me that the Jewish Publication Society translation is closer to “let us reach an understanding.”

The different translations evoke very different feelings in me. As I said when the issue arose during the session, “Come, let us set things right” is language that soothes my soul. It brings me back to my early days of returning to Christianity, during which I had great insecurity of where things were between me and God…and the joy when I finally felt that things were “right” between us. So, to me, “let us set things right,” expresses God’s desire for exactly that joyful state with His people.

“Let us reason together” and “let us reach an understanding” are compelling in a different way. They feel less like God scolding us like misbehaving children than inviting us into dialogue, into a collaborative process of healing the relationship, and not letting disagreements stand between us.

“Settle the dispute,” as Tom pointed out to me in our discussion puts one in mind of God’s “legal” case against Israel for breaking the covenant between God and His people.

I am no Biblical scholar and have no ability to judge which of those is the “right” translation. (Indeed, Rabbi Cohen suggested when we spoke that the differences go to prove that whenever we are engaged in translation, by definition there is interpretation involved.) But we don’t really have to come to a firm view on that. I think there is value in praying with the different translations side-by-side to come to a fuller sense of what God is conveying to us. God’s fidelity. God’s desire to see the covenant restored. God’s amazing love for us. And, on our side, our need to accept what God offers, to open our hearts to reconciliation with God.

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Preparing the Way of Our God: An Advent Retreat in Daily Living

Yesterday was the first gathering of the Advent Retreat in Daily Living I’m offering at the University of St. Thomas School of Law. Given how close we are to the end of the fall semester, I am delighted at the number of students who, along with faculty, staff and other participants, are making this retreat a part of their Advent experience.

The theme this year’s retreat is Preparing the Way of our God. During my talk today, I spoke a little bit about the meaning of Advent and gave some general instructions for a retreat of this type. Then I spoke about the focus of this coming week’s prayer – prophets. After talking about what is a prophet, I focused on Isaiah, one of the major prophets of Advent.

One of the wonderfully things about the Book of Isaiah is how effectively it conveys God’s fidelity. Although the people of Israel had turned far away from God, there is promise of reconciliation – reminding us that God is relentless in his desire to be reconciled with us.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 26:57.) You can find a copy of this week’s prayer material here.

Outrage, but with Hope

I have no recollection of how Stephane Hessel’s Time for Outrage: Indinez-vous! got on my birthday list, but I picked up the short piece (more essay than book, although it is nicely bound in a 3×5 red hardcover) this morning to read while on the exercise bicycle. Written by Hessel, a Resistance leader, concentration camp survivor and former UN speechwriter, at the age of 93, it has sold millions of copies since it was published in France a little over a year ago.

As the title of his piece suggests, Hessel believes we all should be outraged because we live in a world where there are things to be outraged about and because it takes outrage for us to fight for greater justice and freedom. He talks about many things that might outrage us, and discusses his own outrage over the situation in Palestine, Gaza, and the West Bank. (His criticism of the behavior of the Israeli government has earned him much criticism.)

Hessel adds something that is incredibly important for us to keep in mind. Outrage can be accompanied by exasperation or by hope – and which of those accompanies outrage makes an enormous difference. He writes

Violence inspired by exasperation is too often the outcome of unacceptable situations. In this light, one can see terrorism itself as a form of exasperation – and, as such, “exasperation” becomes a negative term. Instead of exasperation, there should be aspiration. Exasperation negates hope. As an emotion, it is understandable. I might even go so far as to say it is natural. But it is nonetheless unacceptable, because it will never accomplish what hope could.

The temptation to resort to violence can sometimes be strong, but violence always “turns its back on hope.” We should be outraged and we should right for justice. But Hessel is right that the message of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela remain relevant to us in those struggles. “They are messages of hope, of faith in a society’s ability to overcome conflict through mutual understanding and watchful patience.”

Look Out: Here Comes Advent

One of my friends posted as his Facebook status on Wednesday, “I heard someone say today that in five days, it will be Advent. Is there anyone out there who can explain to me how that happened?” Indeed, somehow the days have melted away and here we are on this First Sunday in Advent, the beginning of my favorite liturgical season.

Like Lent, Advent is considered a time of preparation. The word Advent comes rom the Latin “Adventus,” which means “coming.” So we are preparing for a coming – the coming of Christ.

We tend to think of that in terms of our celebration at Christmas of the Incarnation of Christ. God’s becoming human is foundationally important to us – it means everything to us that God became human. But in thinking about what it means to celebrate the Incarnation, it is good to remember that the coming we are waiting for is more than the anniversary of a historical event. The Catholic Encyclopedia reminds us that the coming is broader than that, speaking of our need in Advent to prepare orselves

worthily to celebrate the anniversary of the Lord’s coming into the world as the incarnate God of love,
thus to make our souls fitting abodes for Jesus’ coming in the Eucharist and through grace
thereby making ourselves ready for his final coming at death and at the end of the world.

It is vitally important to our task as disciples to keep foremost in our minds that Advent is not simply a reenactment of the past, as beautiful as our Christmas pagents and crèches are. We are not just remembering these nice things in our faith history that happened a long time ago because it gives us a warm feeling.

Rather, if we are Christian disciples, we are called to play active parts now in birthing Christ into the world; we each have a role in giving reality to the rule of Emmanuel. So this season is about making ourselves ready to more fully give birth to Christ. Meister Eckhart once wrote:

We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son is I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.

Our invitation of Advent is to prepare ourselves more fully to engage in this task to which we have been appointed. What will be your response to that invitation?

Humor in Our Spiritual Lives

I just finished reading James Martin’s most recent book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life. I’ve experienced a few bouts of melancholy of late, and the book has been a great antidote to that.

There are so many things I love about this book. Like many great spiritual writers, Martin has the ability to convey profound truths in an accessible manner. (He is also not afraid to poke a little fun at himself…something we all could benefit from doing now and then.)

In one of the chapters in his book, Martin explains several reasons “why we need humor in our spiritual lives, in our daily relationship with God.” The first is that humor leads to poverty of spirit, which Johannes Baptist Metz calls the ground of every theological virtue. The second is that humor reminds us that we are not in control. The third is that levity is a sign of God’s presence on our lives.

It is the third that resonated deeply with me. What came to my mind when reading Martin’s text here was my experience during my first directed retreat after returning to Catholicism. I had approached that retreat with some trepidation, not at all sure of where things stood between me and God. It is fair to say that I lacked trust both in God and in myself and wasn’t at all sure where God and I were with each other and where we this relationship between us was going.

On the fourth day of the retreat, during the times I spent walking out of doors, I had a frequent sense of God being playful with me. The incidents themselves were silly…nothing worth writing about (and I suspect they would lose something in the telling). The notes I wrote in my journal for that day are cryptic, but they refer to several different experiences that conveyed a sense of God being playful and laughing, not at, but with me.

What finally struck me after a number of these experiences that day was the insight that if God and I could be playful together, we must be on good terms. I realized one cannot really be playful with another person unless the two people have a level of comfort that allows them to let go. And what I remember most clearly is that absolute delight I felt at that realization, at knowing that God and I were doing OK with each other.

Those moments of humor accomplished something profound in me, in a few moments conveying something that hours of more “serious” conversation between me and God might not have conveyed so effectively. God was there. And God and I were happy to be with each other. And we were going to be just fine.

He Saw Them

The Gospel passage for yesterday, Thanksgiving Day, was Jesus’ healing of the ten lepers, recounted in St. Luke’s Gospel. We tend, when we listen to that passage, to focus on the one leper – the Samaritan – who came back to give thanks to Jesus. The passage invites a focus on gratitude, and that is what Fr. Rolf talked about at the Mass I attended at St. Hubert yesterday morning.

But what I kept coming back to as I listened to the passage again yesterday was something that Rev. Neil Willard had zeroed in on when he spoke about the passage at St. Stephen’s Episcopal on Wednesday evening – the most important aspect of Jesus’ encounter with the lepers.

When Jesus entered the village, ten lepers “stood at a distance form him and raised their voices” crying out for him to have pity on them. The next line of the Gospel says, “When he saw them” he told them to go how themselves to the priests, and as they went, they were cleansed.

He saw them. Jesus looked at the lepers and saw them. He did what most people didn’t do when a leper came near, so intent on putting distance between the leper and themselves that they never really saw them. He did what we so often don’t do when a beggar approaches us in the street – perhaps we toss a coin or a quick “sorry” in their direction as we hurry past so quickly we don’t really see them. He did what we don’t do anytime another approaches us who we don’t want to deal with for one reason or another.

He saw them. Jesus looked at the lepers and saw them. Even if he did nothing else, even if they had not been cleansed, he gave them an enormous gift simply by seeing them. By seeing them, he gave them dignity. By seeing them, he made them, not only lepers, but persons.

Who do we not see? And what would it mean to see that person the way Jesus does?

A Thanksgiving Prayer

If you do a search of my prior blog posts for “gratitude,” you’ll come up with quite a few, for it is something I speak of often. My daily Igantian Examen includes giving thanks for all of the gifts of that day and in talks I give, I often express my belief that if the only change we could make would be to replace an attitude of entitlement with one of thanksgiving and gratitude, that alone would change everything, making the world an infinitely better place.

While gratitude should be part of our daily prayer practice, today, Thanksgiving Day, is a day on which we collectively offer our thanks for all of our many blessings.

Recognizing that many people will go this day without good, we give thanks for the food we will eat this day.

Recognizing that many people lack adequate shelter, we give thanks or the warmth of our homes.

Recognizing that many people are without jobs, we give thanks for the job we have (and that it gave us a day off to celebrate this holiday).

Recognizing that many people will spend the day alone, we give thanks for the friends and family we will be with this day.

And as we give thanks for all of the many blessings we have been given, let us pray in a special way for those who are not as fortunate as ourselves…

…those who will wake up on the cold street or who will go to sleep on an empty stomach.

…those who are jobless or who work two and three jobs and still can not make ends meet.

…those who do not experience the loving embrace and support of family and friends.

And let us think of ways we might share our bounty with them.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Other Side of Death

Thanksgiving has become a bittersweet holiday for my family. Three years ago today, my then 46-year old cousin died.

Bobby was a New york City firefighter. Described by those with whom he worked as “a fireman’s fireman, he took a shift from another firefighter who had been scheduled to work on the evening of November 23, 2008. Answering a call that evening, he led the first unit of firefighters into a two-story house in Staten Island where a fire had ignited in the attic. It wasn’t the kind of fire that usually takes lives, but this one did. A ceiling collapsed on my cousin, knocking off his mask and air supply as he battled the fire from the second floor of the house.

“Cousin” in some families doesn’t mean a whole lot. But in families like mine, where aunts and uncles are extra sets of parents, cousins – especially those you grow up side-by-side with – are more additional siblings than cousins. So along with my aunt (Bobby’s mother), his siblings, his wife and his children, the rest of us – cousins, aunts, uncles, all of us – continue to shed the tears of loss.

The death of a family member is hard enough when death hits an older person. But deaths like Bobby’s three years ago, and like that of my then-50-year old Uncle Mike on 9/11, hit us deeper because they are so contrary to our expectations and our sense of fairness. People shouldn’t die young. Children shouldn’t die before their parents do. Parents shouldn’t die while their children are young. And those I love shouldn’t die without my being able to say good-bye, and tell them once again how much I love them. Except – sometimes they do.

I don’t know how people without faith bear such losses because, for me, death is bearable because I know what is on the other side of death. The only thing that makes it possible for me to bear death is the certainty of resurrection. My confidence in the words Jesus spoke to Martha after the death of her beloved brother Lazarus: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.”

I still feel sadness that Bobby – the younger cousin who i loved – is no longer in our midst. But I know that he – along with Michael, my dad and all of the rest of those who have died – live with Christ.

The End of a Liturgical Year

This past Sunday, we celebrated the feast of Christ the King, which one of my Maryknoll friends informs me has been renamed the “Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” By whatever name the feast marks the end of the liturgical year, as we prepare to celebrate the First Sunday in Advent this coming weekend.

The end of the liturgical year – during which our readings have often focused on the end times – remind us that this world is not our final home – that, to use a phrase I borrow from my friend Joe, we are temporary visitors on this planet.

As we come to the end of one liturgical year and look toward a new beginning in Advent, we might reflect on what we are doing to prepare ourselves to be with our God, to prepare ourselves for our final home. In this regard, Archbishop Charles Chaput had this to say about this time of year:

But we’d do well to remember that while our time in this world is brief, our lives do have eternal consequences. Our choices and actions here matter. They fashion us into the kind of persons able to be happy with God forever, or unable to bear his presence. In Catholic thought, heaven and hell are not necessarily “places” any more than eternity is an endless amount of “time.” These concepts help us to imagine what lies outside our experience, but they’re human words with human meanings. All we really know about heaven and hell – and it’s more than enough – is that heaven will be our conscious, unending, joyful union with God and all others who love him; and that hell will be the terrible pain of rejecting God, forever, because we cannot bear his love.

This week is a good time to take stock of the choices we have been making and the actions we’ve taken (or not taken).

Appointing Ourselves Shepherd

Yesterday’s Gospel is one we are all familiar with, the judgment passage in Chapter 25 of St. Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus talks about the separation of the “sheep” and “goats” at judgment. Rev. Neil Willard began his sermon at St. Stephen’s Episcopal yesterday morning by confessing that he doesn’t like this passage very much, which certainly caught my attention, as it is a passage I mention not infrequently in talks I give. But as I listened to him speak, the reason for his reaction resonated.

I think Neil is quite right that it is all too easy for us, when we hear this story, to feel both self-satisfied and judgmental. Everyone, he suggested, can listen to that passage and come up with a good reason why they are the sheep. And in his sermon, he gave some good examples of how liberal Christians, conservative Christians, Victorian Christians, and Christians of any other stripe would read the passage in a way that would convince them that they were on the right side of the divide. He also suggested, again, I suspect, quite rightly, that they would each feel a bit of satisfaction (perhaps glee is more like it) that the “goats” would get what they deserved.

That helps explain Neil’s negative reaction to the passage. While the passage may not exactly invite us to put ourselves in the role of shepherd, it often has that effect. We too easily grab that shepherd’s staff out of Jesus’ hand and set ourselves up as the judge of who is in and who is out, a judgment that invariably puts us in and others out.

The truth is, as Neil suggested, we all have some goat in us as well as sheep and we are all in need of God’s grace. He ended his sermon with a beautiful image, that I will hold with me. Referencing the Gospel passage where Jesus is accused of being friends with tax collectors and sinners (a comforting image to those of us who see ourselves clearly), Neil imagined himself standing before God on the day of judgment, head bowed in anguish at ways he felt he had failed to measure up. And in that moment, he said he imagined Jesus putting his arm around him saying, “This one’s with me.”

When we listen to this passage, it is good to remember both that we can’t separate the sheep and the goats (that is God’s task) and that we all need God’s grace. And, like Neil, I live with the desire to feel Jesus’ arms around my shoulders, telling his Father, “This one’s with me.”