What Are you Standing There Looking at the Sky?

Today is the Solemnity of the Ascension of the Lord – at least in the diocese in which I currently live.  (I confess a part of me will never get used to the Sunday celebration of what I grew up knowing as “Ascension Thursday.”)

Our first Mass reading records Jesus’ last words to his disciples before he ascends – the commission to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria,and to the ends of the earth.”  After his Ascension, “while they were looking intently at the sky,” two men dressed in white garments appear to them and ask,

While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky?”

Why indeed!  As I’ve probably written before, when I hear those reads, what I hear is “What are you doing standing around here? You have work do to. Don’t be looking up there – he’s not going to be doing the heavy lifting from now on – he’ll come back in his own time. Right now it’s up to you.”

As I heard the words this morning, I was reminded of Danielle Rose’s song, Rejoice!, which carries that same sense of the words. Here it is:

Don’t just stand there looking up at the sky.  Go out and proclaim the Gospel to all the world!


The Vine and the Branches

In today’s first Mass reading from Act, Paul and Barnabus arrive back in Jerusalem and report to the Apostles and the presbyters “what God had done with them.”  Not what they had done, but what God had done through them.

That first reading from Acts (and I’ve written before about how much I love hearing from Acts every year during the Easter season) is coupled with the passage in John’s Gospel where 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 Jesus, 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.”

Both readings also remind 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 in this reading that the vine grower – the Father – prunes the branches that bear fruit so that they bear more fruit.  We might profitably reflect on the question: Where do I need some pruning?  What in me needs to be pruned so that I can bear more fruit for God?

Lent Reflection Series Session 4: Accepting the Cross as the Consequence of Discipleship

Yesterday was the final session of the Lent Reflection Series I offered this year at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.  Our first session addressed on the traditional Lenten observances of fasting, almsgiving and prayer.  In the second session our subject was sin: our need to acknowledge both our own personal sins and our participation in social sin, and to recognize our need for God’s help and open ourself to God’s love and grace.  The third session invited participants to walk with Jesus in his passion.

Our subject during this final week was Accepting the Cross as the Consequence of Discipleship.  Drawing on the writings of both Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Brother David Steindl-Rast, I talked about the reality that (to use Bonhoeffer’s phrasing) we must be disciples “under the cross” as well as some of our challenges in taking up our crosses.  (After my talk, we had a great discussion of this challenge of discipleship, but that part is not recorded.)

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 22:47.) A copy of the the handout I distributed to participants, which I talk about near the end of my talk is here.

Jesus and the Syrophoenician Woman

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus encounters a woman who asks him to heal her daughter, who was being tormented by an unclean spirit. Mark tells us that the woman “was a Greek, a Syrophoenician by birth.”

Jesus response to the woman is harsh: “Let the children be fed first. For it is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs.” Matthew’s version of this encounter embellishes the response, with Jesus explaining,”I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

The woman, however, does not accept no for an answer. She argues, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s scraps.” Her argument prevails and Jesus heals her daughter.

Jesus was open to growing into a wider understanding of his mission – an understanding that would lead him to later tell his disciples to go not only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but to proclaim the gospel throughout the whole world.

This encounter provides a good lesson for us. When we are so sure that we have it right, it is good to remember that even Jesus needed to grow into an understanding of his mission. It was not fully clear to him from the get-go. Fully human as well as fully divine, Jesus had to grow in knowledge and understanding.

And if he had to grow, surely we do as well.

A Fundamental Claim on Our Being

I just finished reading Charles Marsh’s recent biography, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had seen a review of it this fall and so was happy to find a wrapped copy under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning.

Bonhoeffer has always been a figure I admire and I included him as one of the figures we discussed in the Heroes and Heroism undergraduate honors seminar I offered during this J-term that just ended. I have benefitted from many of his writings and often use some of that material in retreats I offer.

I found Marsh’s biography a worthwhile read – albeit a hefty one (400 or so pages, not including the endnotes). It paints a fuller picture of Bonhoeffer than I have read before.

So many things in this book struck me. But what most sticks with me are some of the questions Bonhoeffer asked himself, questions that in one form or another were his focus throughout his life.

In one of his dissertations, he asked: How might social existence be transformed if this ideal of the body of Christ became the aspiration of every Christian? (A good – and exciting – question to put to ourselves.)

While serving in a parish in Barcelona “the question then forming in his mind was whether Christianity – despite the bland outward cast it had assumed – could still become a vital and meaningful reality for people who had found better ways to spend a Sunday morning.”

In more simple terms, the question he explored over and over again in his own mind, with his students, with those with whom he corresponded, What does it mean to be a Christian with a lived devotion to Jesus?

Such questions reflect Bonhoeffer’s understanding, shared in one of his lectures,

that we understand Christ only if we commit to Him in an abrupt either-or. He was not nailed to the cross as ornament or decoration for our lives. If we would have Him, we must recognize that He makes fundamental claims on our entire being. We scarcely understand Him if we make room for Him in merely one region of our spiritual life, bur rather only if our life takes its orientation from him alone or, otherwise, if we speak a straightforward no. Of course, there are those not concerned with seriously considering the claims Christ makes on us with His question: Do you wish to make a complete commitment, or not? They should rather not get mixed up with Christianity at all; that would be better for Christianity, since such people no longer have anything in common with Christ. The religion of Christ is not the tidbit after the bread; it is the bread itself, or it is nothing.

The claim Bonhoeffer makes here is a bold and hard one, but I believe it is the correct one: Even if we can’t embody it fully, as least in aspiration and in effort, it has to be all or nothing.

I am Called by God

Yesterday was the fifth session of the program I am offering at UST Law School during this academic year on Discerning my Place in the World. In our sessions during the fall semester we addressed several aspects of discerning vocation, including getting in touch with our giftedness, identifying what brings us joy, prioritizing our values and reflecting on our deepest desires.

The subject of today’s session was our individual call by God, the reality that each of us is called by God by name and invited to labor with him.

The first thing I always think about in this context is the beautiful line in Isaiah: I have called you by name and you are mine. God calls each of us by name. We are individually called by God, individually invited by God to labor with him in the co-creation of the world.

We capture this reality of our call in the idea of vocation. “Vocation” comes from the Latin word for call or calling (“vocare”). It implies that there is an action from God who is beyond ourselves that is beckoning and calling to us. Although the term used to be reserved for priests, nuns, rabbis, etc., we now understand the idea of a “call” to refer to more than being drawn to some type of ordination. We now more rightly understand the concept of vocation as applying to everyone. After all, why wouldn’t God call everyone in his or her own way to contribute to the buildup of the Kingdom?

We are all called, although in different ways. We are each individually called to take part in a particular way in God’s plan. One way to express that is to remember that our relationship with God is personal, not private. We deepen our relationship with God so that we can hear God’s call, but the call always involves our living for the life of the world. It is always a call beyond ourselves.

I spent some time in my talk (which, sadly I was unable to record, as I realized only as I was about to speak that the battery in the recorder had died) talking about challenges to hearing God’s call and challenges to responding to that call. After the talk, the participants engaged in a meditation adapted from Elizabeth Liebert’s wonderful book The Way of Discernment, a copy of which is attached here.

During my talk I also described the Call of the King meditation of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, which I think is a wonderful meditation for connecting with Jesus’ call to us. I distributed a version to the participants, suggesting they pray with it during the week; you can find another version of that meditation here.

Bringing the Spiritually Paralyzed to Christ

I arrived today at the Benedictine Center at St. Paul Monastery (where I am co-facilitating our semi-annual vocation retreat weekend for law students and alum) in time for the 5:00 daily Mass.

Today’s Gospel was St. Mark’s account of Jesus’ healing of a paralyzed man. Jesus is speaking in a crowded room, so crowded it is impossible for the four men carrying their paralyzed friend to get in the door. So determined were they to get their friend to Jesus that they broke through the roof and lowered the mat carrying their friend to Jesus.

It was that act that the priest celebrating Mass focused on in his sermon – the caring determination of the friends of the paralytic.

We can’t heal people directly, but we can participate in their healing by praying for them. But the priest also invited us to think about how else we can help bring those in need to Jesus. How, he asked, might we bring the spiritually paralyzed to Him. He acknowledged that it can be challenging to know what to say to people who are feeling distant from God, and that saying the wrong thing is potentially worse than saying nothing.

Do we have eyes that see those who are paralyzed? And are we open to those opportunities where we might help bring them to Jesus?

Please keep our retreatants in prayer this weekend.

Neither Too Late Nor Too Early to Give Room to Christ

In these final days before Christmas Day, Dorothy Day’s words from December 1945 offer a fitting reminder:

It is no use to say that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts. But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that he speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers and children that he gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers and suburban housewives that he gives. It is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that he walks, and with the heart of anyone in need that he longs for shelter. And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ.

The creche on the mantle is lovely, but it is not about beautiful creches.

The music at our Christmas liturgies are inspiring, but it is not about the music.

The lights on the decorated tree sparkle, but it is not about the tree and the lights.

It is about seeing Christ’s face and hearing Christ’s voice in all those we encounter. It is about welcoming Christ in whatever form he appears to us.

I Am the Handmaid of the Lord

On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, our Gospel reading is St. Luke’s account of the Annunciation, something I have written about many times.

My prayer this morning focused on Mary’s final words to Gabriel, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.”

I am the handmaid of the Lord. As I repeated those words, I saw the reality that that is my primary identity – handmaid of the Lord. Everything else: wife, mother, daughter, friend, spiritual director, law professor and so on, is secondary to that primary role. Everything other aspect of my identity is a support and way of living out that primary element of my identity. I’m not saying other aspects are not important. (Certainly in Catholic thought family is of profound significance.) But they are supportive of my primary identity.

At one level that says nothing other than: God first, so it is not really a new realization. But for some reason, the recognition in this form was powerfully striking to me this morning.

“I am the handmaid of the Lord.”

What (or Who) is the Temple

In today’s Gospel reading from St. John, Jesus finds “in the temple area those who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there.”  He angrily drives them from the temple area and it must have been something to behold: Jesus overturning tables, spilling their coins, whacking at things with a whip made of cord.  And he tells reprimands them, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

I’ve shared before that when I imagine the temple as Jesus walked into it, I see note only people buying and selling and money changing, but also  people cheating each other or haggling excessively over prices. People socializing and carrying on other business. People off in corners gambling, eating, drinking, and probably engaging in a lot of other activities that don’t seem very temple-like. What Jesus saw were people who had lost their focus, forgot the purpose for which they were there, a people whose focus ceased to be on God. I think that is what Jesus is reacting to when he laments what they have done to the temple, his father’s house.

But there is more than that going on. When asked for a sign, Jesus says to them “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up.”  Literally, that made no sense; as the people observe, it took 46 years to build that temple.  How could Jesus rebuild it in three days?  John goes on to clarify that Jesus “was speaking about the temple of his Body.”

John states explicitly what is implicit in Jesus’ words:  There is now a new temple, a new place of God’s dwelling, and that temple is Jesus. Jesus’ own body replaces the physical temple as God’s dwelling. Jesus is where we go to worship, Jesus is where we go for solace, Jesus is the source of our salvation. Once the Word becomes flesh, Jesus is the the focal point; it is through Him that we are saved.

This passage invites us to think about how we approach the temple that is Jesus. Do approach Jesus so wrapped up in the world, so completely distracted by our worldly affairs – with what we are buying or selling or getting or not getting, that we cannot hear Him when He speaks to us? Do we approach with a grudge against our brother or our sister, so that our focus is on our own wounds and the injury done to us by another, unable to truly believe in the love our God has for us? Or do we approach with hearts full of love and joy to be in God’s presence?