Today the Catholic Church celebrates the feast of the Visitation – the episode in Luke’s Gospel where Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, having been told by Gabriel both that Mary would bear the son of God and that Elizabeth was pregnant.
There are many images and poems that capture this episode. Here is an image that I love because it captures the joy of the two women.
Doubtless the one was scared of the message that she had just been given by the angel, wondering what her parents or her betrothed would say about her giving birth. And I suspect the other had a few concerns about giving birth at such an advanced age after believing herself barren. Yet, they were women of faith, and they found joy in their relationship with each other, with the children they would bear, and with God.
My favorite line spoken by someone other than Jesus in the Bible is that spoken by “two men dressed in white garments” in today’s first Mass reading from Acts.
After Jesus spoke his final words to his disciples, “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight.” After Jesus’ ascension, they all (understandably, if you ask me) continue to stand there “looking intently at the sky.” I’m guessing they stood there with their mouths handing open, looking a bit shell-shocked. And then comes the line I love: the two men dressed in white who appeared suddenly say to them, “why are you standing there looking at the sky?”
“Why are you standing there?” If asked what they meant, I expect they would have said to the disciples: “Didn’t you hear him? He just instructed you to be his witnesses, to proclaim the Gospel, throughout the whole world. Go on. You have work to do! Stop standing here!!”
The same can be said to us. We are the hands and feet of Christ in the world today. We are meant to proclaim the Good News – to be the Good News.
Don’t just stand there! Do it!
My Mother’s Day gift from my husband was a copy of Anne Lamott’s newest book, Hallelujah Anyway. Lamott is a terrific writer and her books are both accessible and deep at the same time.
At one point in the book, Lamott references the title of Pope Francis’ book, The Name of God is Mercy. Mercy is a subject close to this pope’s heart and he believes mercy is the “first attribute of God.”
But mercy is not only God’s name. Rather, Lamott writes
Our name was mercy, too, until we put it away to become more productive, more admired and less vulnerable. We tend to forget it’s still there. It’s our unclaimed selves, in the Lost and Found drawer, access to another frequency, like a tuning fork….It’s part of human nature.
What an important truth to realize! We mouth our belief that we are made in the image and likeness of God, without thinking about what the really means. But: if (a) we are made in God’s image and likeness; and (b) God’s name is mercy; then it follows (c) that our name – our true name – not the false name created by our woundedness – is mercy. (Lamott talks earlier in the book about how we learn early to stifle our merciful nature because mercy can make us look vulnerable and foolish and less productive.)
What would it be, I wonder, if when we wake up every morning we look at ourselves in the mirror and say “My name is mercy”? What difference might it make if we could remember our true name all day long?
I paused when I read this line from today’s daily meditation by Richard Rohr: “I’ve never heard a single sermon my entire life on the tenth commandment—’Thou shalt not covet . . . anything that is thy neighbor’s’ (Exodus 20:17)”
I did a quick scroll through my memory for sermons I’ve heard. And while I can’t swear I never heard a sermon on the tenth commandment, I certainly can’t recall a time that I did hear one.
Rohr’s explanation for this absence is that “coveting goods is the only game in town now. It’s called capitalism and consumerism!” Sounds right to me. We live in a society that values people by what we earn, produce, have and consume – and the temptations to go along with that way of thinking are strong.
How does one reconcile the tenth commandment with the reality of our world today? Do we just scrap that commandment and keep the other nine?
Or do we acknowledge the pull of the world and actively work against covetousness, making efforts to support each other in an alternative lifestyle that emphasizes other values? Values like:
Faith in God vs. security in what we have.
Giving vs. acquiring.
Simplicity vs. the need for the newest and best.
Rohr made his comments in the context of Paul’s preaching about the importance of community. We need to both individually and corporately as Christians model a set of values different from those of the world in which we live.
Many people have written books, article and blog posts titled (in exact words or close to them) “Why I am Catholic.” A new book by a Catholic author just came out that appends to that phrase “and you should be too.” The author is not the first to do so: Our Catholic Faith website, for example, has an entry with the same add-on.
I often find “why I am Catholic” or “why I am Christian” (or why I am [fill in the blank]) stories good reading. The good ones can help me name things about my own faith, raise questions I need to grapple with, help me work though issues and so forth.
But I am not at all comfortable with the “and you should be too” part. I don’t presume to know how God wants to deal with everyone else, and see no basis for my (or anyone else’s) ability to claim that everyone else should follow my faith.
I know this will upset some of my Catholic friends, but I have never thought my task as a spiritual director or retreat leader is to turn people into Catholics, but rather to deepen their experience of God and their understanding of what God is calling them to (however they name and understand God). Christ is at the center of my faith, but I do not believe my understanding of Christ needs to be at the center of everyone else’s faith, or that my relationship with Christ is the model for everyone.
In his book Falling Upward, Richard Rohr writes
There is not one clear theology of God, Jesus, or history presented [in the Bible], despite our attempt to pretend there is. The only consistent pattern I can find is that all the books of the Bible seem to agree that somehow God is with us and we are not alone.
I would add to Rohr’s comment – because I see it consistently throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament – that there is also an agreement that God calls on humans to be part of his plan for the healing of the world and the building of God’s kingdom. One does not have to be a Catholic to accept that call.
In today’s Gospel from John, Jesus tells his disciples that he is the true vine and we are the branches. And, he warns them, “Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me…Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”
For me, this is at one and the same time humbling and empowering, and it is both of those for the same reason. What we do we do, not through our own power, but through the Spirit of God that flows through us. Without that Spirit, we can do nothing; the branch without the vine will never bear fruit. So it is humbling.
But at the same time, it is empowering because it reminds us that with Jesus, there is no limit. “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.” I am reminded of the line from Philippians: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”
The Gospel also reminds us that what we do we do for the glory of God, not for ourselves. In the words of Psalm 115, “Not to us, O Lord, but to your name give the glory.” We need to be mindful of that we are about God’s work and God’s glory, not our own. Once in a while, even the most well-intentioned among us loses sight of that. We are capable of of forgetting it is not about us, but about God.
Jesus also tells his disciples that the vine grower – the Father – prunes the branches that bear fruit so that they bear more fruit. We might ask ourselves today: Where do I need some pruning? What in me needs to be pruned so that I can bear more fruit for God?
Today’s Sunday Review section of the New York Times included a piece titled Getting the Wealthy to Donate.
I had seen before statistics supporting the conclusion that wealthy people tend to believe they should give a smaller percentage of what they have than people with less wealth. One explanation offered for this is that “because money allows people to achieve their won goals without depending on others, it cultivates a mind-set of self sufficiency that is at odds with a charitable outlook.”
None of that is what prompted me to sit for a long time staring at the article. What caused that reaction was the suggestion that wealthy people could be persuaded to give more if requests were pitched differently. Instead of appeals to join with others to support a common goal, experiments showed that appeals that focused on personal achievement would be more successful. So, in one experiment, the message “You = Lifesaver” generated more giving than “Let’s Save a Life Together.” In another, higher donations were generated when people were asked to “come forward and take individual action” than when asked to join their community and “support a common goal.”
I suppose one reaction is the pragmatic one: Great, now we can market more effectively. As the caption in the hard copy of the article suggested, “It’s easy. Just cater to their sense of being the heroes of their own lives.
But as someone with a deep commitment to a discipleship in Christ that focuses on our being many parts of one body working together to fulfill God’s plan, I can’t help but being a bit saddened by the results. They shouldn’t really surprise me. I often speak (particularly when talking about the Two Standards meditation in the Spiritual Exercises of St. ignatius) of the emphasis on individual goals vs. the common good that exists in our society.
Maybe it is a quixotic dream, but I’d be happier to find ways to instill in everyone (wealthy or not) the sense that we are part of a team in pursuit of a common goal, rather than to feed into the promotion of individual achievement and its accompanying illusion of self-sufficiency and autonomy.