Take Up Your Cross

In today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus tells his disciples that he will suffer and be rejected. That in itself would have been unhappy news to his friends.  But then he adds the kicker: “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever wishes to save his live will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes these words talking about Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and rejection:

Jesus Christ must suffer and be rejected. It is the “must” of God’s own promise, so that scripture might be fulfilled. Suffering and rejection are not the same thing. Jesus could, after all, yet be the celebrated Christ in suffering. The entire sympathy and admiration of the world could, after all, yet be directed toward that suffering. Suffering, as tragic suffering, could yet bear within itself its own value, its own honor, its own dignity. Jesus, however is the Christ who is rejected in suffering. Rejection robs suffering of any dignity or honor. It is to be a suffering devoid of honor. … Death on the cross means to suffer and to die as someone rejected and expelled.

Suffering and rejection. This is what Christ must experience – a suffering devoid of honor.  It is not surprising this is a difficult pill for the disciples to swallow.

Bonhoeffer also speaks of the final portion of the passage, reminding us that “[j]ust as Christ is Christ only in suffering and rejection, so also they are his disciples only in suffering and rejection, in being crucified along with Christ. Discipleship as commitment to the person of Jesus Christ places the disciple under the law of Christ, that is, under the cross.”

So we can enjoy being with Jesus at wedding feasts and dinners at the home of friends. We can share his joy in healing and in feeding those without food. We can wander merrily through grain fields, and take boat rides with Jesus. (And I have no doubt Jesus enjoyed time with his friends – and that they had times when they joked and laughed and maybe even had a little too much wine.) BUT if we would call ourselves disciples, we must also stay wedded to him in Jesus’ suffering and rejection, that is, be “disciples under the cross.”


What Has This to Do With Me?

I’ve prayed with today’s Gospel reading  – St. John’s account of the Wedding Feast at Cana – any number of times.  What struck me in my prayer this morning, however, was not the miracle.  Rather, it was Jesus’ response to his mother when she tells him their hosts had run out of wine.  “What has this to do with me?”

What immediately came to my mind was Scrooge in the Christmas Carol when solicitors come seeking a contribution for the poor.  “It’s not my business.  It’s enough for a man to understand his own business, and not to interfere with other people’s.”

And that, too often, is the response – consciously or unconsciously – to the pains and suffering of others.  The fact that some lack adequate housing, food or medical care.  The reality that many in other nations lack access to clean drinking water.  The plight of refugees.  What has this to do with me?

Mary’s response to Jesus, effectively, is: You’re here and you can do something about it, so do it.  That’s the response to Scrooge and that is the response to us.

As I sat with that thought, I heard John Donne’s lines: “Every man is a piece of the continent…Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind.”

Birthing Christ into the World

The day after Christmas we get the martyrdom of Stephen and today we celebrate the feast of the Holy Innocents.

Today’s feast reminds us of the world into which Jesus was born – a world of suffering and sin – a world desperately in need of the peace Jesus offers. Jesus’ world is our world. A world in which innocent young children shot to death in their school. A world in which civilians are killed in drone attacks. A world in which the poor get poorer and the rich get richer. The examples of suffering are endless. In the words of Henri Nouwen:

We live in a world groaning under its losses: the merciless wars destroying people and their countries, the hunger and starvation decimating whole populations, crime and violence holding millions of men, women and children in fear. Cancer and AIDS, cholera, malaria, and many other diseases devastating the bodies of countless people;…it’s the story of everyday life filing the newspapers and television screens. It is a world of endless losses.

We live in a world that desperately needs Christ. And today the Christ child comes, not wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manger, but through us. Meister Eckhart wrote

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.

Even now – so many years after the birth, suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus – the question remains for each of us: Will you help give birth to Christ in your time and culture? Will you infuse the world with Christ’s presence? We don’t answer those questions merely by singing beautiful carols around the creche. The feast we celebrate today reminds us that the world needs more from us.

Are You the King of the Jews?

“Are you the King of the Jews?”, Pilate asks Jesus in today’s Gospel on this Solemnity of Christ the King.

The answer depends on what you mean by “king.”

Pilate and Herod, and a whole lot of other people, were nervous about all this talk about Jesus as King of the Jews, because they understood kingship in terms of worldly, political power.

But Jesus’ answer to Pilate has nothing to do with worldly power.  “My kingdom does not belong to this world,” Jesus explains.  When Pilate prods him, “Then you are a king,” Jesus responds: “For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”

It is a response that reminds us that the kingship we celebrate today is not a political one. As Pope Benedict once explained, Jesus is a new kind of king. “This king does not break the people with an iron rod (cf. Ps 2:9) – he rules form the Cross, and does so in an entirely new way. Universality is achieved through the humility of communion in faith; this king rules by faith and love, and in no other way.”  Thus, today’s feast, he suggested, “is not a feast of those who are subjugated, but a feast of those who know that they are in the hands of the one who writes straight on crooked lines.”

Today’s solemnity marks  the end of a liturgical year.  It is a good time engage in an examination of our allegiance to this king.  Do I faithfully testify to the truth?  To I follow the example of faith and love?

One Body, Many Parts

Today’s first Mass reading from Romans is one of those I think we could all benefit from taking to heart. Paul reminds us that

We, though many, are one Body in Christ
and individually parts of one another.
Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us,
let us exercise them:
if prophecy, in proportion to the faith;
if ministry, in ministering;
if one is a teacher, in teaching;
if one exhorts, in exhortation;
if one contributes, in generosity;
if one is over others, with diligence;
if one does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Many parts, one body: with each part given different gifts. If I can remember that then

– I can rejoice in the contributions and successes of others without jealousy because they are doing their part to further God’s plan.

– I can do my part without comparing myself to others, knowing that my task is simply to do the best I can with the gifts I have been given, and it is no matter whether my part is smaller or bigger than the part of others.

– I can avoid pride and embrace the humility of knowing that my gifts are not my own, but gifts from God.

– I can remember that it is God’s plan I am about, not my own.

It is a simple passage but one worth sitting with. It can make a tremendous difference in how we approach our work and our lives.

Of Bucket Lists

What’s on your bucket list? That is the question that Deacon Thom Winninger opened the sermon with at Mass this past Sunday.

It is a good question. I googled “bucket list” yesterday afternoon and clicked on the entry for “most popular bucket list ideas.” The list included items such as: stay in the Ice Hotel in Sweden, air boat across an alligator invested swamp, walk on the Great Wall of China, gallop a horse along the beach, ride an elephant in Thailand, visit NYC at Christmas time, write a book and get it published, and dye my hair blonde.

The list also included: knit and donate 100 scarves for the homeless, donate my hair to locks of love, and volunteer abroad.

What is on your bucket list?

Is your list full of things you want to acquire, exciting experiences you want to have, and places you want to see? That is what most people tend to put on their bucket list.

Or does your list reflect your discipleship in Christ? Does it suggest your embrace of Jesus call to serve rather than be served, his invitation to labor with him on behalf of God’s plan?

If you have a bucket list, you might want to reflect a bit on what is one it. If you don’t, you might ask yourself, what is on your list? And what does it say about your priorities?

Jesus Speaks: The Great Commissioning

Yesterday was the final session of the Fall Reflection Series I am offering this fall at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.  As I’ve already shared in my posts following the first three sessions, the reflection series is titled Jesus Speaks and it is designed to deepen our appreciation of fundamental Christian teachings drawn from the words of Christ. Each session includes a talk, time for individual reflection and some sharing of the prayer experience. In earlier sessions we considered the Lord’s Prayer, the Beatitudes, the Eucharist, and the Great Commandment.

Today our focus was on what we refer to as the Great Commissioning: Jesus’ command to his disciples to “proclaim the gospel to all creation,” a charge found (using slightly different words) in at least two Gospels and in Acts.

In his Apostolic exhortation, Christifideles Laici, Pope John Paul II wrote: “The entire mission of the Church, then, is concentrated and manifested in evangelization. Through the winding passages of history the Church has made her way under the grace and the command of Jesus Christ: “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation” …and lo, I am with you always, until the close of the age”…. “To evangelize,” writes Paul VI, “is the grace and vocation proper to the Church, her most profound identity.””

That raises for us the question: what does it look like for us to evangelize today? How do we proclaim the Gospel in the world in which we live today? In my reflection, I shared some thoughts on those questions.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 28:21.) Although this was the final session of the series, I did give participants some prayer material; you can find it here.

It Is Not Enough To Be Good by Avoiding Evil

In a great follow-up to my power of yesterday about the examination of conscience we did at our reconciliation service the other night, in today’s Gospel, Mark records a man coming to Jesus to ask what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus reminds him of the commandments – you shall not kill, you shall not steal, and so forth. The man assures Jesus he has done all these things, to which Jesus “looked at him, loved him and said to him, ‘You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.'” Mark further tells us that the man “went away sad, for he had many possessions.”

Five months before his assassination, Oscar Romero preached on this Gospel passage. Speaking of Jesus’ encounter with the man, he said

Here Jesus challenged the natural goodness of men and women. It is not enough to be good and it is not enough to leave evil aside. Christianity is positive and not simply a negation of things. These are many people who say: “I do not kill or steal or do harm to anyone!” This is not enough; something else is needed. The goodness of the young man was not complete. Jesus tells him what he lacks….

The young man had reason to fear following Jesus. He thought that in avoiding evil he could fulfill the commandments in some half-hearted, careless manner and that this was enough. There are many Christians today who judge others because these Christians believe they are good because they do no evil. This is not what Jesus desires. Jesus died for something more positive. Saint Paul states: For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die we are the Lord’s (Romans 14:8-9)

Romero invited his listeners to allow the Word of God to be “like a sword that penetrates the depths” of their hears and to reflect on the extent to which they are attached to the things of this world…the extent to which they fail to do more than avoid evil.

We would do well to do the same.

To Lose One’s Life

I’ve mentioned that I’ve been reading Gerhard Lohfink’s book Jesus of Nazareth: What He Wanted, Who He Was.  In the first of his chapters addressing the “Who He Was” part of the title, Lohfink addresses Jesus’ statement in Luke’s Gospel that “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

Lohfink makes the important point that this is not just, or even primarily, about the surrender of life in death.  Human beings, he writes

are also desperately engaged in “saving” their own desire and dreams, their own guiding images and plans for their lives.  But these very rescue actions cause them to lose their lives – namely, the true lives that existence under the rule of God would give them.  “To lose one’s life” therefore refers not only to martyrdom but in given circumstances to the surrender of one’s secure bourgeoise existence for the reign of God.

This is important because if we put the focus on martyrdom, it is easy to let ourselves off the hook – Oh, I’m not being called to lay down my (physical) life for God.  Even when we understand Jesus’ words more broadly, we want to resist them.  Lohfink continues

Such radicality for the sake of God’s project is not everyone’s thing.  Normally we want not “either-or” but”both-and.”  In particular, people familiar with the Gospel and desiring to serve God can be deeply conflicted here.  They want to be there for God, but they also want space for themselves.  They want to make a place for God in their lives, but they also want to have free segments in which they decide for themselves about their lives.  They want to do the will of God, but at the same time, they want to live out their dreams and longings.

That description pretty much sounds like many, if not most, of us.  And Jesus is clear in his reaction to that way of thinking: “No one can serve two masters.”  That is, Lohfink paraphrases, “when it is a question of God an the reign of God, there can be nothing  but undivided self-surrender.”  And that, suggests Lohfink, is a central part of Jesus’ message.

I can see the tagline of the commercial: Discipleship in Christ – It’s Not for the Faint of Heart!

Blessed Oscar Romero

Today is a day many people have been waiting for a very long time: the beatification of Oscar Romero, one of my great heroes.

Romero’s path to sainthood, however, has not been without controversy.  There are some who during his life viewed him (and some who continue to view him) as a Marxist or, in one commentator’s words “a poster boy for the left-wing cause.”

I think there is no better answer to the charge of Marxism than the words Romero spoke during his homily on the feast of the Ascension in 1977, three years before his assassination.  The message of the bishops in the Documents of the Second Vatican Council, he preached

condemns this false understanding of tradition that wants to present the Church as simply spiritual – a Church of sacraments and prayers but with no social commitment or commitment to history.  We would betray our mission as pastors, if we were to reduce evangelization to mere practices of individual piety and the participation in non-incarnated sacraments.  The Pope says: Evangelization would not be complete if it did not take account of the unceasing interplay of the Gospel and of man’s concrete life, both personal and social (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 29).  My bothers and sisters, let us not place our faith in some corner and reduce it to some private place and then live in public as though we had no faith.  The Council said that this divorce between faith and our private life is one of the great errors of our time (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 43).  So great is this error that in the name of this error, the Church is called subversive because she wants to lead Christians to a faith commitment in their concrete life.  My dear Catholics, let us study this right doctrine and wisdom of the Church.  Then we will understand that priests and Christians who live their Christian commitment in the world are far from being communists or Marxists or subversives.

Blessed Oscar Romero, pray for us!