As I Have Done…

Today is Holy Thursday, the day on which we commemorate the Last Supper – the Passover meal that Jesus shared with his friends on the night before he was crucified.

Tonight, many of us will attend the beginning of the Triduum liturgy: the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper. During that Mass, two related things will happen. First, we will hear St. Paul’s account of the institution of the Eucharist. In his first letter to the Corinthians, he will pass on to the people of Corinth what he “received from that Lord,” that

the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

But it is clear that “Do this in remembrance of me,” is not satisfied simply by listening to the priest recite these words each week during the Eucharistic Prayer, followed by our receipt of the Eucharist.   During the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper we will also listen and then participate in a reenactment of the scene in John’s Gospel where Jesus washes the feet of his disciples.

John’s Gospel contains no account of the institution of the Eucharist, as do the synoptic Gospels and Paul. Instead, Jesus washes his disciples’s feet, a menial act that would normally be performed by a slave. And, just as he says in the reading we hear from Paul, “Do this in memory of me,” he says here, “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.” Jesus says, I am your servant; in my memory, be a servant to each other.

The command in John’s Gospel is a challenging one. It instructs us that “do this in memory of me” is not satisfied solely by our Eucharistic celebration at Mass, as important as that is. Rather, we are asked to follow Jesus’ model in how we live and interact with all of our brothers and sisters.

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Hosanna or Crucify Him?

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.  At our masses this morning, many of us will process with palms, as we celebrate today Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. As he rides down the street on a donkey, people shout “Hosanna” and lay palm branches before his path.

In one respect, the scene seems like a cruel mockery to us because as we know what awaits Jesus. 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 will march into our churches, waving our palms and crying out, just as the people of Jerusalem did, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” 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.

Some questions to consider:

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?

Joseph: An Unsung Hero

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of St. Joseph.

I had no particular devotion to Joseph growing up nor, for that matter, in the early years after my return to Catholicism in my early 40s. He was simply a figure hovering in the background at events like the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, a (literal) figure I placed near the crib when we put out our creche every Christmas.

But over the years, he has come to be one of the saints who figure prominently when I visualize the communion of saints.

Joseph reminds us that one doesn’t have to have the starting role to play an important part.

Joseph reminds us that we can trust God, even when the world seems turned upside down.

Joseph reminds us to give people the benefit of the doubt even when their stories seem strange (read: completely unbelievable).

Joseph reminds us of the value of loyalty and fidelity even when they are hard.

Happy Feast of St. Joseph!

Called to Say Yes

Janice Andersen (Director of Christian Life at the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis) and I co-presented a retreat this morning for volunteers and friends of City House.  Our theme was Called to Say Yes: Helping the Kingdom Break Through.  As the title suggests, our focus for the day was on each of our parts in building God’s Kingdom, including reflecting on what that “yes” looks like for each of us given the needs of our world today.  It was a rich morning of talks by Janice and I, individual reflection, and sharing.

The inspiration for the title was a poem of Edwina Gateley’s titlled Called to Say Yes.  It is one that touched both Janice and I, and so I share it for your reflection.

We are called to say yes.
That the kingdom might break through
To renew and to transform
Our dark and groping world.

We stutter and we stammer
To the lone God who calls
And pleads a New Jerusalem
In the bloodied Sinai Straights.

We are called to say yes
That honeysuckle may twine
And twist its smelling leaves
Over the graves of nuclear arms.

We are called to say yes
That children might play
On the soil of Vietnam where the tanks
Belched blood and death.

We are called to say yes
That black may sing with white
And pledge peace and healing
For the hatred of the past.

We are called to say yes
So that nations might gather
And dance one great movement
For the joy of humankind.

We are called to say yes
So that rich and poor embrace
And become equal in their poverty
Through the silent tears that fall.

We are called to say yes
That the whisper of our God
Might be heard through our sirens
And the screams of our bombs.

We are called to say yes
To a God who still holds fast
To the vision of the Kingdom
For a trembling world of pain.

We are called to say yes
To this God who reaches out
And asks us to share
His crazy dream of love.

(From Edwina Gateley, There Was No Path So I Trod One)

The Pharisee and the Tax Collector

Today’s Gospel reading from Luke is the familiar parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, a parable Jesus addresses “to those who were convinced of their own righteousness and despised everyone else.”

When we hear this parable, we tend to be critical of the prayer of the Pharisee.  But consider a different perspective, this by Amy-Jill Levine.  She write

First, the Pharisee thanks God for his state and thus shows his dependence.  As for being an autonomous agent of moral virtue, Pharisees did believe in a combination of fate and free will.  To some extent, his moral stance is of his own doing; he resisted temptation; he chose to follow Torah.  At least the first part of the prayer is perfectly fine, for it is another way of saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

As I read that, I thought, that is no different from how we approach things: we are each given gifts, but we have a choice how to use them.  We are given law by God, but it is up to us to follow that law or not.  We are beings constantly called by God, but we do have free will.

Levine admits that the prayer if the Pharisee (“I am not like this tax collector…”) does set up distinctions, but she suggests those distinctions are not about self-importance, but about gratitude.  “It is God who provided the supplicant with the opportunity to study rather than have to work to earn money.  It is God who allows the supplicant to see what is truly important.”

You may not agree with Levine’s interpretation, but what I find helpful in reading her is the reminder that there is more than one way to read parables, and we need to think hard before jumping to easy conclusions about them.

Lenten Practices

Lent is marching on!  How are you doing with your various resolutions regarding the Lenten practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer?

I had a conversation with a friend recently about the value of fasting or giving up certain foods for Lent.  I’m not sure God benefits much if I give up desserts for Lent, although I surely benefit from taking a few pounds off.

But I do think there are ways to make fasting more meaningful.  How about:

  • Fasting from eating alone, and instead sharing a meal with a friend.
  • Fasting by skipping a meal and donating the cost of that meal to someone in need.

Or, thinking of fasting in terms other than food

  • Fasting from the use of plastics (as I heard recommended by a church in England)
  • Fasting from criticizing those with whom I disagree.

 

I’m sure you can think of other things.  The question is simply: How do I make fasting more meaningful.  Giving up sugared cereal is great for kids, but surely we can do more than that.

 

Do I Derive Pleasure from the Death of the Wicked

Dr. Paul Wojda, Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas, authored today’s Lenten Reflection for the University of St. Thomas Office for Spirituality’s Seasonal reflections.  Prompted by today’s first Mass reading from the Book of Ezekiel (18:21-28), it ought to make us a bit uncomfortable about how we respond to those we villify.  Rather than summarize it, I include it in full for your reflection.

“Do I indeed derive any pleasure from the death of the wicked?”

Charles Dickens may well have had these lines from Ezekiel in mind when he was writing his now famous conversion narrative, A Christmas Carol (1843). At the final and decisive visit of the third spirit (“The Spirit of Christmas Yet-to-Come”), the misanthropic Scrooge is given a vision of his own death, or rather a vision of some reactions to his death, none of them cheering. Three businessmen bemusedly remark that Scrooge’s funeral will certainly not be very well attended. Indeed, one of them only plans on going if a meal will be served. Scrooge’s own housekeeper is greedily pawning, to a sketchy character named “Old Joe,” the household goods she lifted. And a poor couple on the miser’s hook rejoice: they will now have a bit more time to repay their debt.

We all know what happens next. But let’s be honest, would any of us have shed a tear if, instead of his remarkable turnabout and subsequent generosity, especially where Tiny Tim is concerned, old Ebeneezer died in his sleep that Christmas Eve?

I suspect not. I know I wouldn’t have. On the contrary, wouldn’t we, don’t we, shouldn’t we actually rejoice? Serves him right. Bad guy gets it in the end. What goes around comes around. Just deserts. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Praise the Lord. Right? Wrong.

If Dickens’ classic story is a morality tale, then it challenges us to take the measure, not so much of Scrooge’s mercy, but of our own. How narrow and shriveled are ourhearts? If we rejoice that Scrooge found new life–that what he thought was a fateful choice to reject love was in fact not irrevocable–then should we not also lament the possibility that he might have missed the opportunity?

Should we not likewise lament our own failures to grasp new life, resurrection, when it extends its hands to us? By all means, let us lament together. That is Lent. Let us begin where Jesus himself proposes in today’s Gospel: by disowning the pleasures we take in our many angers, grudges, and resentments.

As Marley might say, we have nothing to lose but our chains.

You can read all of the Lenten Reflections here.