The Prayers of My Jewish Brothers and Sisters

Last evening I attended a Shabbat worship service at Bet Shalom temple. No, I’m not converting to Judaism: My friend Rabbi Norman Cohen, who I’ve mentioned in several recent posts, is the head of that congregation and I wanted to be able to worship with him and hear him give a sermon before he goes off for two months of study leave.

I attended many Bar/Bat Mitzvah services in New York and, as I always experienced in those, I found last night’s service profoundly moving. The recitation of the prayers, the singing – all of it touches a place deep in my soul. I am a Christian, not a Jew, but the prayers – prayers of praise to God, prayers seeking blessing for the suffering and for those who have died – are all prayers I can recite with as much fervor (albeit not with particularly good Hebrew pronunciation) as my Jewish brothers and sisters.

I could write about Rabbi Cohen’s thought-provoking sermon about the new year and new beginnings and our desire to “make things right, to smooth out the wrinkles, to make our lives fulfilled and complete.” Or about his beautiful words at the outset of the service about the meaning of Shabbat. But what brought tears to my eyes was the prayer for healing for those who are ill or otherwise suffering.

Rabbi Cohen began by reading the list of names of those the congregation has been praying for. Although I’m not entirely sure why, I felt tears start to run down my face before he even began reading the names. (The music? The prayer? I’m not sure what it was, but something touched a very deep place.)

As he was reciting the names, I was a bit startled when I heard him say the name “Joan Askin” – my aunt, who suffered a stroke at the end of November. I had almost forgotten that, when I mentioned her illness in a conversation, Rabbi Cohen had asked me for her name so he could include her in their prayers for healing.

It is hard to describe how I felt, realizing that this congregation – people who didn’t know me or my aunt – had been praying for her by name as part of their Shabbat service. Grateful, of course. But what I felt was more than gratitude. Something like sense of connectedness with these people who until last night were complete strangers. (And, as a related aside, I found these strangers very welcoming; although I didn’t talk to many people, no one I did talk to had any difficulty welcoming a Christian to their service.) And I felt a sense of the awesome power of prayer, and how important it is that we hold each other in our prayers. I felt all of those…and more. I was deeply moved. And I am incredibly grateful for that.

To all of my brothers and sisters, Shabbat Shalom!


With Whom Should I Surround Myself?

I’ve seen the following message posted on the Facebook status of a number of my friends: “Surround yourself with people who make you happy. People who make you laugh, who help you when you’re in need. People who would never take advantage of you. People who genuinely care. They are the ones worth keeping in your life. Everyone else is just passing through.”

At one level, I understand the sentiment being expressed. Our dearest friends can make us happy and make us laugh, help us when we are in need, genuinely care for us and would never take advantage of us. I cherish the companionship of those friends on my life journey and the love that we share. And I enjoy spending time with them. My dearest friends, who I love, are not only “worth keeping,” but I couldn’t imagine not loving them and “keeping” them.

At the same time, the words make me a bit uncomfortable, particularly when I think of the man who surrounded himself with sinners and tax collectors, and who sought, by his love, to transform them.

The danger of the words (and I’m not suggesting this was the intent of any of my FB friends who posted them) is that they might encourage us to put too much focus on ourselves, making us forget that there are times when are called to surround ourselves with those who don’t make us happy, who don’t make us laugh. Those who can’t be counted on to help us when we need it and who would take advantage of us in a heartbeat.

Because they surely need our love just as much (or more) than those who are good to us. And we need to be generous with that love, not treating them as “just passing through.”

Walk As He Walked: Love

Our first Mass reading today (as it has been for the past couple of days) is from the beautiful first letter of St. John. Today, John gives us a simple test to know when we are in union with Jesus.

How do we know we are in union with him? “Whoever claims to abide in him ought to walk just as he walked.” And John is very clear that walking just as Jesus walked is all about love:

Whoever says he is in the light, yet hates his brother, is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother remains in the light, and there is nothing in him to cause a fall. Whoever hates his brother is in darkness.

We can speak all of the words of faith we like. But no words – not even those spoken with the “tongue of angels” (to use Paul’s phrase in 1 Corinthians) – mean a thing if don’t have love.

I sigh as I write those words, because I know I do not always have the love of Christ in my heart. I want to walk as Jesus walks. I want to love as Jesus loves. I want to be Christ to all who come in contact with me.

I also know that I fail in that aspiration. Probably more often than I’d like to admit. But I know that with God’s grace I can do better. And so each day I pray: Lord, let me love like you. Let me bring your light to the world. Let all who come in contact with me see only you.

Let me walk as you walk. Let me love like you.

I Beg To Differ

I love Margaret Silf, and I came across a quote the other day from her most recent book, A Book of Grace-Filled Days. Silf writes

A first-century philosopher observed: ‘When I light a candle at midnight, I say to the darkness: “I beg to differ.”’ As we light our Christmas candles, we, too, say to the darkness in our world and in our own hearts, ‘You have no final power over us, for the first and final word is eternal light.’

Wonderful words to reflect on.

The event that we just celebrated two days ago is not simply about birth. It is, rather, the beginning of God-with-us that proceeds through Death, Resurrection, Ascension and the Coming of the Spirit. It is about the coming into the human world of the Word, and, as the reading from John we heard proclaimed on Christmas Day put it so beautifully, “What came to be through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

Our task, in this Christmas season and always, is to proclaim the reality of this light. To move through a world in which there is suffering, a world in which things sometimes look so very bleak, and say to the darkness (in the world and in our hearts), “I beg to differ. Victory has been won and you have no final power over us.”

“Iconic” and How We Deal With Co-option

I’ve been mulling over an exchange I read on Facebook the other day. The prompt was an article about someone who was described as an icon. Someone questioned whether any human being should be labeled “iconic.” Someone else responded that his understanding of the Gospel is that we are all called to be iconic.

The person who was uncomfortable with the use of the term icon responded by saying that the use of the word by journalists and others has nothing to do with humans being iconic in the sense of being made in the image of God. Rather, she suggested, the secular usage is about giving glory and praise to the individual. Secularism, she argued, having co-opted the word “icon” empties it of his Christian meaning.

Icon is certainly not the only term of which that is true. As my friend Joshua suggested in the exchange, “there are many good words that have been coopted: some by secularists, some by conservative Evangelicals, to mention only two coopting groups.”

The question is: how to we deal with that. One response is to abandon such words to those who would distort their meaning. My friend’s response was different: “Part of my understanding of what it means to proclaim the Gospel in my daily life is to take back those words so that those around me, faithful or not, at least understand what their significance is in a Catholic or Orthodox context.”

I understand the temptation to cede the field to those who would strip words of their Christian meaning; that is certainly the easier path. But I think my friend is correct that part of proclaiming the Gospel includes not taking the easy path here.

The Feast of St. Stephen

Yesterday was a joyous day of celebration – our celebration of the Incarnation. As incongruous as it is to go immediately from birth of the Savior to martyrdom, on this day after Christmas we celebrate the feast of St. Stephon, first martyr of the Catholic Church. The juxtaposition of the two events serves as a reminder of an important fact – that the Incarnation of Christ is intimately linked to His death and resurrection.

We read in Acts that Stephen was “filled with grace and power” as he preached. His words angered some and they “threw him out of the city, and began to stone him.” Twice, Stephen echoes Christ’s words on the cross, first crying out to the Lord to receive his spirit and then asking God to forgive those who are killing him.

The Incarnation begins the incredible act of God’s love that finds its completion in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the total self-gift of Jesus that allows Stepheon to confidently and triumpahtly announce before his death: “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” The Son of God, though whom Stephen, and all of us, will live forever.

St. Stephen, pray for us. May be be filled with your faith and courage.

The Event that Changes Everything

Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace to people of good will!

Today we celebrate the Incarnation. The Word becomes flesh and makes his dwelling among us. Not the most important event in the Christian faith. (That would be Easter.) But an event that changes everything.

God becomes human, allowing us a share of God’s divine nature. God becoming human, giving us a taste of what it means to live a fully human life.

The incarnation of Jesus tells us both who we are and who we can be – participants in God’s grand plan. A few years ago, I quoted an excerpt from Ian Oliver’s poem, A Christmas Prayer. The message is important enough to share again:

If God can lie down in a cattle-trough,
Is any object safe from transformation?
If peasant girls can be mothers to God,
Is any life safe from the invasion of the eternal?
If all this could happen, O God,
What places of darkness on our eath
Are pregnant with light waiting to be born this night?

Everything is changed. Nothing is safe from transformation. No one removed from the invasion of the eternal. All darkness is pregnant with light waiting to be born. And each of us has a task in bringing that about.

A blessed and merry Christmas to all.

Soon and Very Soon

Christmas Eve. The wait is just about over.

Tonight, we will gather with family and friends. I will be with my extended family at my cousin Joe’s house, where there will be mounds of food and pile of gifts. We will celebrate our ability to be together, even as we mourn those who are not with us. At some point, Santa will make an appearance, as he has every year in my memory. (The consequence of being part of a large Italian family is that year after year there are always children of an age to believe in Santa Claus.) There will be merriment. There will be joy. There will be love.

And, while we bask in the joy of celebrating with our loved ones, let us pause to remember what it is that brings us together. In the words of the popular song:

Soon and very soon we are going to see the king
Soon and very soon we are going to see the king
Soon and very soon we are going to see the king
Hallelujah, halelujha, we’re going to see the king

No more cryin there, we are going to see the king
No more cryin there, we are going to see the king
No more cryin there, we are going to see the king
Hallelujah, we’re going to see the king

Come To the Silence

Advent is just about over and tomorrow is Christmas Eve. Even for those of us who have managed to find time for prayer during these last few weeks of Advent, this last day or so before Christmas can turn into a frenzied rush of activity. Those last few gifts we need to buy. The presents that still need to be wrapped. The baking still to be done. For some, there will be travel today or tomorrow morning. For others, last minute work projects that simply must be done before the week is out.

Times like this, when it is hardest to do so, are the times we need to take a few moments to still our minds and our hearts. To let go of the activity, the noise, the frenzy and to simply rest in silence with God.

Give yourself the gift of silence today. Even if it is only for five minutes. (Surely, as busy as you are, there are five minutes you can give to yourself?) If you need an invitation to do so, here is one from God, written by an unknown author, that I received by e-mail yesterday. I hope you will accept it.

And God said…

Come to the silence, life is so loud – And your soul needs a break from the clock and the crowd.

Come to the silence, And let my love start, To heal all life’s hurts, And comfort your heart

Come to the silence, Be calm and be still, Just rest in my arms – for today, that’s my will…

Come to the silence, In search of my peace, Gently your doubts and your fears will all cease.

Come to the silence – Here, take my hand, Have you forgotten, that I understand?