The Communal Life

Today’s first Mass reading is one I love: the description that comes at the end of Chapter 2 of Acts describing the communal life of the members of the early Church:

They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life,  to the breaking of bread and to the prayers. Awe came upon everyone, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one’s need. Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favor with all the people.

They held all things in common.

They gave to people in accordance with their need.

Every day they gathered together to learn and pray.

They ate meals with a sense of praise and gratitude.

They behaved toward others in ways that inspired love.

I’m not suggesting we give up all of our possessions, but I do think this passage offers us a good checklist against which to test our own behavior.

Do we give to people in accordance with their need, or with our assessment of their desert?

Do we gather together to learn and pray? The members of the early church did so daily: Do we do more than come together on a Sunday? Do we find other opportunities to nourish our faith?

Do we take our meals with praise and gratitude, or thoughtlessly (or worse, with a sense of entitlement)?

Do we behave toward others as Christ would? Or do we see the face of Christ in others.

With respect to giving to people in accordance with their need, let me remind you of something Pope Francis said around the beginning of Lent.  He addressed the fear many have about giving money to the poor – the fear they will not use it well.  Pope Francis had a simple response to this concern: Give money anyway.  Giving money to someone in need, said the Pope, “is always right.”  If one is able to help, we ought to recognize our blessing and be generous in meeting others’ needs.

More importantly, he reminded us that how we give matters.  Look people in the eyes, touch their hands, show interest in them, he encourages. Essentially – remember their human dignity and perhaps remind them of it as well.  This is perhaps the bigger challenge.  It is so easy to avert one’s eyes while feeling good about oneself for dropping a few coins in a cup.  Not really seeing the person in front of us, and certainly not making eye contact.

How we encounter a person in need makes an enormous difference.  “One can look at a homeless person and see him as a person or else as if he were a dog, and they notice this different way of looking” at them, said the Pope.

We could all do a better job, I think, in emulating the early church in its dealings with God, each other, and all those in need.

What Does it Mean to Say Jesus’ Yoke is Easy and His Burden Light?

I have been reflecting during my daily prayer over the last several weeks on Brendan Byrne’s commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, titled Lifting the Burden.

I sat the other morning with a passage that has always given me great comfort: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”

Byrne asks the question: how can we reconcile Jesus’ claim that his yoke is easy and his burden light with the Sermon on the Mount?  If we take seriously the teaching of that Sermon, the demands Jesus places on that are more burdensome than what was taught by the scribes and Pharisees.   Think of how many times he says, “you have heard x, but I say to you 2x.”  You’ve heard don’t kill; I say don’t be angry.  You’ve heard don’t commit adultery; I say do not look at a woman with lust.  And so forth.

Byrne suggests that the apparent inconsistency is not one that can be reconciled in theory, but “only in the personal life of believers” and the personal presence that radiates from “come to meI will give you rest.”  He writes

The quality of “ease” and the “lightness” cannot consist in a lesser level of virtue or ethical demand. It must have something to do with the sense that all fulfillment in practice is preceded and facilitated by an intense relationship with Jesus and a sense of being grasped by his love. His claim to be “gentle and humble of heart” is ultimately a claim to personal attractiveness and an invitation to enter into an exchange of love. Such love, which is ultimately an extension of the love of the Father, is what can make even the most difficult requirements “easy” and “light.”

Ignatian Spirituality places heavy emphasis on our personal encounter with Christ.  The effect of that encounter not only deepens our conversion to Christ, but strengthens us to live in accordance with his teachings.

Where Do We Find the Resurrected Christ in our Midst?

As we continue our Easter celebration, we might ask ourselves where we discover the resurrected Christ.  Marina McCoy says this in reflecting on that question:

The stories of Jesus’ first appearances suggest that finding the Resurrected Christ requires attentiveness and patience. Moreover, by staying with our longing, we are more likely to encounter the Resurrection. Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus because she had a deep and holy longing for him. She stayed present to her desires. Instead of walking away from her unfulfilled hopes and desires, the way the men on the road to Emmaus were walking away from Jerusalem, Mary remained faithful to her desire to be close to the Lord.

Referring to Jesus’ instruction to Mary Magdalene to not cling to him, but rather to go and share the news of his resurrection with his disciples, McCoy observes

For us, too, the meaning of the Resurrection is not as simple as just seeing “all at once.” For example, we can easily fall into the belief that we can find God in only one place—one that is familiar to us. Perhaps a particular kind of experience, like spending time in nature, or mothering one’s children, or a particular relationship or vocational call seems like “the” place where Christ is. But over time, our sense of God’s presence in the world becomes wider, and we can recognize God in other people and places, or experience the same old people and places in new ways. Mary had to let go of knowing and loving Jesus in one way, in order to know and love him in another. Indeed, she had to discover a new identity about herself as an evangelist in order to relate to Jesus anew in the Resurrection.

McCoy ends her reflection (which you can read in its entirety here) with these questions: What are the deepest longings of your heart? What signs of God’s presence might be a first glimpse of the Resurrected Christ? In what new experiences might the Resurrected Christ be discovered?

He Is Risen!

We celebrate on this day the Resurrection of Christ.  Last night, at the Easter Vigil at the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, we began in darkness as we listened to the story of our salvation history, beginning with the story of creation.  Then, lights ablaze, we sang out our Alleluias.

The Resurrection of Jesus, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “the crowning truth of our faith in Christ, as faith believed and lived as the central truth by the first Christian community; handed on as fundamental by Tradition; established by the documents of the new Testament; and preached as an essential part of the Paschal mystery along with the cross. Christ’s resurrection is the fulfillment of the promises both of the Old Testament and of Jesus himself during his earthly life.”

As important as Jesus’ passion and death are to who we are as Christians, it is the Resurrection that is the crowning truth of our faith.  Jesus is risen!  There is not one aspect of life that is not drenched in the resurrection – even when it appears to be hidden.

Let us re-commit this day to live our lives as resurrection people, as people who know that the victory over death has already been won.

Happy Easter!

God is On The Cross

Today is Good Friday, the day on which we contemplate Christ on the cross.

To one way of thinking, the cross is a symbol of failure.  (“If you are really God,” people jeer, “then save yourself.”)  Yet for Christians, the cross is a symbol of triumph.

For your contemplation of that triumph I share these words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Christ goes through the cross, only through the cross, to life, to the resurrection, to victory? That, indeed, is the marvelous – and yet for many people so repulsive – theme of the Bible, that the only visible sign of God in the world is the cross. Christ is not gloriously transported from earth into heaven. He must instead go to the cross. And precisely there, where the cross stands, the resurrection is near. Precisely here, where all lose faith in God, where all despair about the power of God, God is fully there, and Christ is alive and near. Where one stands on a razor’s edge of becoming an apostate or remaining true, God and Christ are fully there. Where the power of darkness wants to overcome the light of God, there God triumphs and judges the darkness.

 

Your Will, Not Mine

Today is Holy Thursday. This evening, we begin our Triduum liturgy with the celebration of  the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper.  We will listen to St. John’s account of Jesus washing of the feet of his disciples and reflect on his his sharing his last meal with them.

What follows after that meal is also an important part of the story, a part we give attention to with the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament that follows the Mass of the Lord’s Supper.

Following his last meal with his friends, Jesus goes to the garden to pray to his Father about what he knew he was about to undergo.

We cannot really appreciate the power of this episode unless we completely embrace one of the fundamental tenets of our faith – that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. Although this is something we profess every time we recite the Creed, I think we sometimes have a tendency to overemphasize the divine at the expense of the human.

Only in understanding that Jesus was as human as you or I, can we appreciate the real suffering Jesus underwent in the garden. Matthew says, Jesus began to feel sorrow and distress; Jesus says his “soul is sorrowful even to death.” This is not pretend suffering, this is not God manifesting suffering to make a point. This is the fully human Jesus truly experiencing an almost unbearable level of suffering.

And this fully human Jesus faces fear and dread of the suffering he knows he is about to undergo. He has known since turning his head toward Jerusalem how this story will end. He may not have known all of the details, but he had a clear enough idea what was going to happen.

Not surprisingly, Jesus says to His father – is this really necessary? Must I suffer so much? Is it possible for this cup to pass?  But even as he asks, he knows how he will respond to his father’s request of him.  This is someone who has lived his life saying Yes to God. Who has prayed and walked with God day after day. And Jesus’ lifetime of “yes’s” to God, leads to his big yes here – Your will, not mine, be done.

The question for us, is can we do the same? As you sit in the garden this evening with Jesus and his disciples, ask yourself: What cup do I ask God to let pass from me? And then ask yourself: Am I willing to instead ask God for the strength to bear the cup?

Living Abundantly In and With Our Suffering

As we move through Holy Week, walking with Jesus toward his death, you might find worthy of some reflection  this passage from James Farwell’s This is the Night: Suffering, Salvation, and the Liturgies of Holy Week:

If Christianity is to be any more than an interesting explanatory system for those who enjoy the diversions of metaphysical philosophy, then it must open in us a way to live abundantly in and with our suffering, give us hope, empower us to live with others in their suffering, and discern the difference between the suffering characteristics of human existence and suffering that demands alleviation or resistance. That is, Christianity, as a living faith must sustain and heal human persons as we “suffer” the long journey of a life lived through the ebb and flow of pain and joy, struggle and peace – both in what we bring on ourselves and in what comes to us unbidden. It must also inspire a clear-eyed commitment to address, with neither fear nor judgment, the suffering that arises from the corporate sins of injustice and oppression and the personal sins of the wayward human creature. Christianity must open a way for us to face suffering, not as an anomaly or a momentary obstacle on the way to a place where God will be present to us but as an enduring feature of human life in which God is with us. The practice of Christianity must reveal to us a God who is ultimately concerned for us as creatures who suffer, in in all senses of that term. If God cannot redeem us as sufferers, then either we are beyond redeeming, or redemption is an illusion. If God can redeem us as sufferers, then the soteriological force of Christian practice depends upon its ability to open us to such redemption, and the faithfulness of Christian soteriology – the theology of salvation – depends on its ability to attest to this possibility.

There is a lot to chew on here, both with respect to our own suffering and our obligation to address the suffering of others.

Blessings during this Holy Week.