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.”

What Elizabeth Recognized

Today’s Gospel is Luke’s account of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth after learning that she (Mary) will bear a son. It is a story we all remember well.

When the angel appears to Mary, one of the things the angel tells her is that her cousin Elizabeth, who was thought to be barren, has conceived a child – the child who we know will be John the Baptist. And so Mary goes off to visit Elizabeth. When Mary enters the house and is greeted by Elizabeth, the baby inside Elizabeth leaps in her womb with joy. And Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cries out in a loud voice, “Blessed are you, Mary, among all women, and blest is the fruit of your womb.”

And then Elizabeth says adds: “Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me.” The title reminds us that the incarnation is not simply God taking on human form or a human becoming God. Instead, in this act of the incarnation, God was conceived and birthed in Mary’s womb, thus becoming simultaneously fully human and fully divine.

The Mother of the Lord. Psychologist writer Sydney Callahan writes,

The truth revealed in this Marian title astounds me. A woman bears God within her womb. God unites the Divine Word with human flesh. When we think of God as Mary’s newborn infant, we see the Lord of all creation in need of human love. Jesus is totally dependent upon his mother’s care. What risks God takes in loving us! And how much God expects of human kind in bringing the new creation to birth! Mary is the first to know the humility of God.

Callahan’s words are good ones to take to prayer as we celebrate these final days of Advent.

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?

Where Would You Cut and Paste

My friend Bill Nolan, Pastoral Associate at St. Thomas Apostle Church, writes a weekly column for his parish. I receive it by e-mail each week.

This week, Bill wrote about what is known colloquially as “The Jefferson Bible.” This is the version of the Bible created by Thomas Jefferson with the aim of creating a condensed compilation of “the doctrines of Jesus, what he believed to be the essential elements of a Christian life.” Bill describes the work as “essentially a biographical chronology and collection of Jesus’ more famous speeches and parables.

What most interests Bill is what Jefferson cut from the original Gospels, both in and of itself and in comparison with what many people would be most likely to cut today. He writes

[I]t is the “cutting” from the original that makes the Jefferson Bible so intriguing. For what Jefferson also sought to do was eliminate from the story that which made him uncomfortable. And what made him most uncomfortable were the stories of the supernatural, the miracle stories, the divinity references, and the Resurrection. In summary, what makes Jesus who he is, at least in the eyes of mainstream Christian tradition.

What I find most interesting in the composition of the Jefferson Bible is that it eliminates – and retains – exactly the opposite of what I find most Catholics would eliminate and retain when it comes to the story of Jesus. It is not the divinity of Christ that we tend to have the most trouble with, it is the humanity of Jesus, the real person, the flesh and blood. It is not the supernatural, but the natural; not the miraculous, but the everyday; not the Resurrection, but the suffering and death.

Bill ends his column with a great thought exercises: If you could cut and paste the Gospels to your liking, what would you keep and what would you cut? I suspect Bill is correct that “your answers might reveal much about the Jesus – and the Christ – you need to know.

Thanks to Bill for allowing me to share his thoughts.

What Do You Wish Me to Do For You?

In today’s Gospel, James and John approach Jesus and tell him they want him to do whatever he asks of them. Jesus replies by asking, as he asks people so often, “What do you wish me to do for you?”

And what is the response of James and John? “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” The response is particularly jarring because this passage in Mark follows immediately after one of Jesus’ predictions of his passion. James and John don’t seem particularly anxious to be at Jesus’ left and right during his suffering.

What came to mind as I reflected on their response was the passage in the Second Book of Chronicles, where God appears to Solomon and says “Whatever you ask, I will give you.” Salomon asks for “wisdom and knowledge” to govern God’s people.

The contrast is striking. James and John want to be rewarded with the choicest seats in the house; Solomon asks for the grace he needs to carry out the task to which God as appointed him.

Jesus asks the same of you and I: What do you wish me to do for you?

How do you reply?

Does your response sound more like James and John’s or like Solomon’s?

Was Jesus a Shrewd Animal?

That was the title of the reflection offered by my friend Dave Bateson at Weekly Manna the other day, which focused on thinking about networking from a Christian perspective.

Dave started by reading an excerpt from David Brook’s’ recent book, The Road to Character. In the portion he read, Brooks talks describes our society as functioning within a merit system the encourages us to treat every occasion and every other person as an opportunity for personal advancement. As a result, Brooks suggests that our meaning of “character” has changed. Instead of using terms like self-sacrifice, integrity, and generosity to describe character, we use terms like self-control, grit, tenacity. In short, a change from characteristics that risk our success in worldly terms to those that make us more likely to succeed – what Dave calls a shrewd animal.

Dave stressed that there is nothing wrong with networking, and recognizes the value to our students in doing so. But, he suggested, there is a problem when our short-term goal (e.g., getting a job) replaces the humanity of the people involved. When we put time only into those people who can give us something and only for so long as they do so. When we make decisions about who we spend time with in stark cost-benefit terms.

And that brought Dave to the question that was the title of his talk. If Jesus had been a shrewd animal, he would have connected with the scribes and Pharisees rather than criticizing them. If Jesus had been a shrewd animal, he would have been the military leader the Jews of his time wanted the Messiah to be. Instead, Jesus chose to connect with people who could do absolutely nothing to advance his earthly interests. Instead, he said and did a lot of things that all but guaranteed his failure in the way the world measures success and failure

If we would be like Jesus rather than behaving as a shrewd animal, Dave suggested, our networking should focus on relationships rather than solely on benefit to ourself (in Catholic terms, we speak of seeing others as ends and not as means) and our goals should be authentic relationships.

Dave had some great suggestions for our students of questions to ask themselves to examine how they are approaching their networking, and made some great comments about how counter-cultural this way of thought is. I am hoping he will write up an full version of his remarks; if he does I will amend the post to include a link to it.

Jesus Speaks: The Lord’s Prayer

Yesterday was the first session of the Fall Reflection Series I am offering this fall at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.  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.

The focus of today’s session was the Lord’s Prayer, perhaps the most well-known prayer in the Christian tradition, although as i shared with the participants the prayer comes almost verbatim from the Talmud. After giving a brief introduction to the series, I offered some thoughts about the various petitions of the prayer.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 25:44.) A copy of the the handout I distributed to participants for their prayer this week is here.

Our session continues next week with a focus on the Beatitudes.

Short Stories by Jesus

I just finished reading Amy-Jill Levine’s book, Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi. I am a big fan of Levine and have benefitted greatly both from lectures she has given on the Old and New Testaments and from her essays in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, and thus have been greatly looking forward to reading this book. It did not disappoint.

Levine’s starting point is that parables are intended to challenge us, to make us feel uncomfortable. Commenting on religion’s role “to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable,” she observes that “we do well to think of the parables of Jesus as doing the afflicting. Therefore, if we hear a parable and think, ‘I really like that’ or, worse, fail to take any challenge, we are not listening well enough.”  In fact, she suggests, if we hear a parable and are not disturbed, “there is something seriously amiss with our moral compass.”

Levine believes that, unfortunately, we too often ignore that challenge. That we take easy lessons form the parable that “lose the way Jesus’ first followers would have heard the parables,” and thus “lose the genius of Jesus’s teachings.”  (The framing of the parables by the Gospel writers sometimes encourage our taking the easy way out, she suggests.)

Levine discusses nine well known-parables in her book, including the Prodigal Son (which she thinks is better called “The Lost Son”), the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, and the Rich Man and Lazarus. Rather than trying to tell us what the parables mean, she encourages us to treat them as invitations for reflection and to be open to various interpretations – especially those that force us to ask hard questions of ourselves.  She does so, in part, by helping us to understand how Jesus’ audience would have heard the parables.  While she does not think historical context is all that matters, I think she is correct in her observation that “the more we know about the original contexts, the richer our understanding becomes.”

Reading this book caused me to think differently about a number of Jesus’ parables, including some I have prayed with with some frequency.  That in itself is a sign of the success of the book.

Which (and Who) Strengthens Me

There is a line in the Letter to the Philippians that comes to mind often.  In the translation in which I usually hear it, it says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  It is a line that I have internalized and that I turn to when I’m feeling overwhelmed.

The other day I saw the line quoted on a calendar, where it was quoted with a one word difference from the way I usually hear it.  It read, “I can do all things through Christ which strengthens me.”

I smiled when I read it.  It seemed to add to the power of the line to me.  My traditional translation conveys the reality that I do nothing without Christ that the strength comes from Christ.  The second seems to add the additional strength that comes from the knowledge and security that Christ is there.

Perhaps that is a distinction without a difference for many people.  Indeed, the line itself may have less significance for you than me (regardless of translation).   But it keeps coming back to me, and making me smile.

  

Mary Magdalene: Fiercely Loyal Friend and Disciple

Today the Catholic Church celebrates one of the most maligned women in history: Mary Magdalene, faithful disciple of Jesus.  She was one of the people who followed Jesus wherever he went. One of the few who didn’t run away at the end, but who stayed at the foot the cross until he died. And she is the first person to whom Jesus appears after his resurrection – the appearance that we hear about in today’s Gospel.

It is a beautiful encounter.  In The Twelve Voices of Easter, Woodrow Kroll and Keity Ghormley have a chapter on Mary Magdalene, which among other things, describes that encounter in Mary’s voice.  I share here an excerpt, which you might use as a meditation for today’s Gospel.

…when we arrived at the tomb, we were shocked: The stone was not there, nor were any soldiers to be seen. The stone had been rolled away–taken right out of its trough and tipped over.

As we stood and wondered at what had happened to the stone, two men dressed in dazzling white robes suddenly appeared. These garments were not the togas of Roman soldiers, nor were they the long white robes of the Pharisees. These were not men at all, but angels of God.

We were overcome and we fell to the ground. But the angels reassured us. They reminded us how Jesus had said that He would rise again. One of the angels bid us to look inside the tomb and see for ourselves. I ran as fast as I could to tell Peter and John. When we returned, the other women were gone. We looked in the tomb. Empty. I was convinced that someone had stolen the body of Jesus. The linen garments Joseph had wrapped Him in were lying there, neatly folded in their places. But the tomb was empty.

Peter and John ran from the garden, but I remained. I had nowhere to go. What had happened to the Master? Could it be that He actually did rise from the dead, or had the soldiers taken His body away? My heart was overcome again with sorrow. I just stood there, weeping.

Then I heard a voice behind me ask, “Woman, why are you weeping?” I assumed it was the gardener. “Sir, what have you done with Him?” I asked, wiping my face.

It was fully light, but tears blurred my eyes. I turned, but could not see clearly. Then He called me by my name. “Mariam.” That was my Aramaic name, the name my parents and my friends called me. A gardener would not have spoken Aramaic to me. A Roman would not know my name. I knew that voice. I looked up. I saw Him. It was Jesus. I answered in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” I threw myself at His feet, weeping, laughing, not believing, believing. My Master, my Teacher, my Savior, my Lord. He was standing there alive….

He told me to go tell the others, and I did. Marvelous news. A wonder beyond all wonders. God has accomplished great things in our midst. Jesus is risen from the dead!