Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Surprised by authentic happiness (Easter Homily of Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury)

The deepest happiness is something that just creeps up on us when we're not looking. We can look back and say, Yes, I was happy then – and we can’t reproduce it. It seems that, just as we can’t find fulfillment in just loving ourselves, so we can’t just generate happiness for ourselves. It comes from outside, from relationships, environment, the unexpected stimulus of beauty – but not from any program that we can identify. It’s a perfectly good idea to test and tabulate the ways people measure their own happiness – but beware of thinking that it will yield a foolproof method for being happy.

We have just heard the beginning of the resurrection story – a narrative of shock and amazement, utter disorientation. One of the things that makes these stories so believable is just that sense of unexpectedness – the disciples don’t come to the empty tomb and say, ‘Well, there you are; just like he said.’ They arrive never having really believed that their Lord would return from death, and now they find themselves in a disturbing new world where anything is possible; and so bright is the light in this new morning that even the familiar face of Jesus becomes unrecognizable. But as the story goes on in John’s gospel, we are told that the disciples anxiously gathered in their locked room were ‘filled with joy’ when they saw Jesus among them. They have been jolted out of the rut of what is usual and predictable – and joy springs on them without warning, ‘Christ the tiger’, in T.S. Eliot’s great image.

What was it like for those first few hours after the empty tomb had been found, after Mary Magdalene had delivered her breathless message? It must have been a period of alarming uncertainty, half hope, half terror; which of us would really rejoice at the prospect of a miracle that would make us rethink most of what we had taken for granted? But into that chaos steps a figure before whose face ‘the questions fade away’ – the words with which C.S. Lewis finishes his greatest book, Till We Have Faces. And joy arrives, irresistibly. The world is even more dangerous and strange than before, the future is now quite unimaginable; but there is nothing that can alter the sheer effect of that presence.

And that’s another thing about authentic happiness. It doesn’t take away the reality of threat or risk or suffering; it’s just there. This is one of the hardest things to get hold of here. How can I feel ‘happy’ in a world so full of atrocity and injustice? How can I know joy when I’m aware of my own failure, my own shabbiness, my own depression? There are no answers in theory because this isn’t a matter of theory: it simply happens that way. People in the middle of extreme stress will witness to this. We might well remember today some of those in such situations – Christians facing threats and attacks in Pakistan or, right at the moment, in Northern Nigeria; and please pray and think of them, as some fanatics of all backgrounds seek to exploit religious differences there, even in the wake of what appears as a free and fair election. Or we might think of an aid worker in Congo, or a nurse or teacher in a strained and under-resourced institution, or a career sitting through the night with a terminally ill child – people such as this will sometimes speak, shockingly, of feeling joy in the middle of what they endure. It is not – God forbid – feeling cheerful, it is not pretending that things aren’t so bad after all. And it’s a grim reproach that that’s all too often what people half-expect from Christians, a glib and dishonest cheerfulness. No, it is an overwhelming sense of being where you should be, being in tune with something or someone, being rooted in the moment in a way that doesn’t at all blur your honesty about what’s there in front of your eyes but gives you what you need to sit in the presence of horror and grief, and live.

More than just a feeling, then, a passing emotion, certainly more than a self-conscious determination to put a brave face on things. Once again we have to be clear that it depends on something quite other than our efforts and our will power. And that takes us into a further dimension of joy. What we can contribute by our will or effort is not a system for making ourselves happy but a habit of readiness to receive. The person whose mind is completely cluttered with anxiety, self-absorbed worry or vanity or resentment, is going to find it hard to give way to moments of gift and surprise. That’s why people who are fairly used to taking time in silence and reflection may often be people in whom you see joy coming through. It’s also why, for many of us, like the disciples at Easter, it takes something of a shock to open us up to joy, some experience that pushes its way through the inward clutter by sheer force and novelty. Perhaps part of the message of Easter is very simply, Be ready to be surprised; try clearing out some of the anxiety and vanity and resentment so as to allow the possibility of a new world to find room in you.

But this means in turn that rather than battling all the time to lay hold of a happiness that we have planned according to our fantasies, we should concentrate on challenging the things that make us anxious. About six weeks ago, I was visiting Manchester to see some of the work done by local churches and other faith groups for community regeneration; and I found myself listening more and more carefully for what these groups were saying about how the local people they worked with thought about well-being. They didn’t have extravagant plans – but they simply identified a few conditions that would relieve loneliness, boredom and fear. Good and reliable mental health care, especially for the young; access to fresh air and space; opportunities to be creative, whether in growing vegetables or running a drama group. And it was impossible not to wonder where some of these hopes were on the scale of official priorities, in local or national government. On the same visit, an unscheduled stop at a local library in a rather devastated council estate revealed a lively group of teenagers who were regular users, welcomed by staff, glad of a place to do homework, gossip and feel secure. Space, opportunity, the time to discover a larger world to live in – where are the clearly articulated priorities in public discussion that would spotlight all this, so as to make us think twice before dismantling what’s already there and disappointing more hopes for the future? Talk about the happiness of the nation isn’t going to mean much unless we listen to some of these simple aspirations – aspirations, essentially, for places, provisions or situations which help you lay aside anxiety and discover dimensions of yourself otherwise hidden or buried.

Because, ultimately, joy is about discovering that the world is more than you ever suspected, and so that you yourself are more than you suspected. The joy of the resurrection has a unique place in Christian faith and imagination because this event breaks open the shell of the world we thought we knew and projects us into the new and mysterious realm in which victorious mercy and inexhaustible love make the rules. And because it is the revelation of something utterly basic about reality itself, it is a joy that cannot just be at the mercy of passing feelings. It roots itself in the heart and remains as a foundation for everything else. The Christian is not therefore the person who has accepted a particular set of theories about the universe but the person who lives by the power of the joy that is laid bare in the event of the resurrection of Jesus. To be baptized ‘into’ Christ is to be given a lasting connection with joy, a channel through which the basic sense of being where we ought to be can always come through, however much we choke it up with selfishness and worry. Sometimes, clearing out this debris needs a bit of explosive – encounter with an extraordinary person or story, experience of passionate love, witnessing profound suffering, whatever shakes us out of our so-called ‘normal’ habits. But we can at least contribute to this by giving time to clearing the channel as best we may, in silence, in the space of reflection. And we can also ask persistently what it is in our social environment that will most help create this for others, especially those who live with constant anxiety because of poverty, disability or other sorts of disadvantage.

Christian joy, the joy of Easter, is offered to the world not to guarantee a permanently happy society in the sense of a society free from tension, pain or disappointment, but to affirm that whatever happens in the unpredictable world – sometimes wonderfully, sometimes horribly unpredictable – there is a deeper level of reality, a world within the world, where love and reconciliation are ceaselessly at work, a world with which contact can be made so that we are able to live honestly and courageously with the challenges constantly thrown at us. And on the first Easter morning, it is as if ‘the fountains of the great deep’ are broken open, and we are allowed to see, like Peter and John at the empty tomb, into the darkness for a moment – and find our world turned upside down, joy made possible.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

He is risen!

There are some experiences in life too magnificent for words. No human expression can do full justice to their awesome power; nothing that passes one's lips can encompass their fullness.

And so one bows in silence before their grandeur, like the mystics, rapt in the intensity of wonder and adoration.

The resurrection of Christ is one of those experiences, and so rather than adding yet another reflection which can only prove superfluous, let us choose instead to make the words of the
Exsultet speak of the immensity of joy and hope that burns deep within us. It is precisely at those moments, when words fail us, that we realize how good it is that our community of faith--the Church--can supply us with the appropriate words.

Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!
Exult, all creation around God's throne!
Jesus Christ, our King, is risen!
Sound the trumpet of salvation!

Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor,

radiant in the brightness of your King!
Christ has conquered! Glory fills you!
Darkness vanishes for ever!

Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory!

The risen Savior shines upon you!
Let this place resound with joy,
echoing the mighty song of all God's people!

My dearest friends,

standing with me in this holy light,
join me in asking God for mercy,
that he may give his unworthy minister
grace to sing his Easter praises.

It is truly right
that with full hearts and minds and voices
we should praise the unseen God, the all-powerful Father,
and his only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ.

For Christ has ransomed us with his blood,

and paid for us the price of Adam's sin to our eternal Father!

This is our Passover feast,

when Christ, the true Lamb, is slain,
whose blood consecrates the homes of all believers.

This is the night

when first you saved our fathers:
you freed the people of Israel from their slavery
and led them dry-shod through the sea.

This is the night

when the pillar of fire destroyed the darkness of sin!

This is the night

when Christians everywhere,
washed clean of sin and freed from all defilement,
are restored to grace and grow together in holiness.

This is the night

when Jesus Christ broke the chains of death
and rose triumphant from the grave.

What good would life have been to us,

had Christ not come as our Redeemer?
Father, how wonderful your care for us!
How boundless your merciful love!
To ransom a slave you gave away your Son.

O happy fault, O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer!

Most blessed of all nights,
chosen by God to see Christ rising from the dead!

Of this night scripture says:
"The night will be as clear as day:
it will become my light, my joy."

The power of this holy night dispels all evil,
washes guilt away, restores lost innocence,
brings mourners joy;
it casts out hatred, brings us peace,
and humbles earthly pride.

Night truly blessed when heaven is wedded to earth
and man is reconciled with God!

Therefore, heavenly Father,
in the joy of this night,
receive our evening sacrifice of praise,
your Church's solemn offering.

Accept this Easter candle,
a flame divided but undimmed,
a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God.

For it is fed by the melting wax,
which the mother bee brought forth
to make this precious candle.

Let it mingle with the lights of heaven
and continue bravely burning
to dispel the darkness of this night!

May the Morning Star which never sets
find this flame still burning:
Christ, that Morning Star,
who came back from the dead,
and shed his peaceful light on all mankind,
your Son, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.


Thursday, April 21, 2011

Christ's story is our story (Reflections on Good Friday, John 18:1-19:42)

Have you ever wondered why the Bible doesn’t say anything about the life of Jesus from ages 12-30? I've often been asked that question by perplexed students. This rather odd situation has led many to speculate about the so-called “hidden life” of Jesus. There are a lot of theories of course.

There’s the traditional one we were taught—that Jesus grew up quietly with Joseph and Mary in Nazareth, living an ordinary life as he waited for the day when he would begin his work at the age of 30. And then there are the theories of authors used by Dan Brown in "The Da Vinci Code" which speculate all sorts of things, including a trip of Jesus to India where he learned yoga and other forms of magic that enabled him to perform miracles. While the first seems to leave a great deal of questions unanswered; the second leaves far too much to unfounded speculation.

Perhaps the answer lies elsewhere. In fact, it can be gleaned from both the Gospel as well as the Liturgy of Good Friday. Let me explain. When we normally think of the story of Jesus in scripture, we think of it as one complete story, written from beginning to end, from the stories of his birth we celebrate at Christmastime, and ending with his death and resurrection, which we’re commemorating this week. His birth and childhood come first, then his public ministry where he preaches and heals, and then his passion and resurrection. And isn’t that how life stories or biographies are written: birth, childhood, young adulthood, adulthood, death, etc.

But that leaves an entire hole right smack in the middle. No teenage years, no early adult years, nothing at all about his twenties. But you see, that’s not exactly how the life story of Jesus was written. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John didn’t simply write it from beginning to end like biographers who sat down and wrote. Rather they wrote it from the end, backwards to the beginning; they were, as scripture scholars theorize, “extended passion narratives”.

They argue that the parts of the gospel we read today (the account of the Passion)—which was also read last Palm Sunday—are actually the oldest, most ancient, and earliest parts of the gospels ever written. It’s actually the first and oldest part of the gospel to be written, simply because it was the story that those who lived during the time of Jesus’ passion and death, could easily remember. It was the event most of them actually saw and experienced. It was the news that they all heard about. It was the thing everyone talked about. And hence it was the first story they decided to write down.

And then, slowly, as their faith in Jesus grew, they began remembering the other bits and pieces of stories people were telling about him: the words he spoke, the miracles he performed. And much later, they also began to write down, stories about his birth and his early childhood. The account of Jesus’ passion was written first, his words and miracles were written next—gathered from accounts and recollections of many who heard Jesus speak; and finally, the stories of Jesus’ birth and early childhood were added, completing the entire narrative of Jesus’ life. This very simple idea which we learn from biblical exegesis, or the theological study of the bible, tells us two things.

First, it tells us that when it comes to how the early Christians understood the life of Jesus, they saw his passion, death, and resurrection, as the events that color the rest of his life. The passion served as the lens from which they viewed his words, his miracles, and even his birth. Thus, we sometimes hear it said that the “shadow of the cross is cast on the manger itself.”

Second, it also shows how important the passion was for the writers of the gospels. They wrote it first was not only because it was the part of Jesus’ life they could easily remember, they wrote it first because it was the part of Jesus’ story that they identified with most. In the story of Jesus, suffering and death, they saw their own suffering and death. They saw their lives, their difficulties, challenges, headaches, suffering.

However, they also saw that the passion of Jesus didn’t just end there. He suffered and died. But he rose from the dead and lived again.

The passion and the resurrection are two sides of the same coin. In Christ’s life, we see our life. In his passion and death, we see with our passion, our suffering, the challenges we constantly face in life. But just as Jesus’ story ends, not in the passion, but in the resurrection, neither will our own.

Today we remember how suffering and death is the story of us all, just as it was the story of Jesus. We recall that for a brief moment, suffering and death triumphed over us all. But we also know for certain that this isn't the end of our story. For Good Friday isn't our end; it is Easter, when we too shall triumph over death, and together with Christ, proclaim with the words of St. Paul: “O death, where is your victory? O, death, where now is your sting?”

Love's absurd logic (Reflections on Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet, Holy Thursday, John 13:1-15)

It has got to be one of the oddest things about the Gospel of John that the passages we just read, which contain the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, are the opening passages of the section called the “Book of Glory”.

Now you would think that a title like that would be more about Christ’s rising from the dead. And yet the “Book of Glory”, while containing the resurrection, is really an account of Christ’s suffering, passion, and death.

Why wasn’t it called the “Book of Suffering” then? Why the “Book of Glory”? It seems a contradiction, or at the least, a paradox. For how can suffering be equated with “glory”? And is there anything “glorious” about “washing feet” or “dying on a cross”?

But that is our faith—one full of paradoxes, seeming contradictions, even absurdities. It proclaims a God who becomes man, a God who suffers and dies, a powerful God who wins people over, not by force but by service, a God who gives his flesh and blood to be eaten, and a God who dies in order that all might live.

And in tonight’s gospel, he is a God who stoops down, gets down on his knees and washes feet, his disciples feet—our feet.

In a world that proclaims the glory of power, money, fame, fortune, position, title, authority and control—the God that we encounter tonight is a God who does what only a servant will do—the exact opposite of what the world expects.

The God we Christians proclaim is a God of contradiction. And his single greatest contradiction is perhaps—as the late Pope John Paul II calls it—the “contradiction of the cross”.

Teaching at a university in the States a few years ago, the only student who got a straight A in my theology and philosophy classes one semester was a devout Muslim girl who wore a hijab to school. The rest got A minuses and B pluses. She was bright, hard-working, and widely read. What was even more amazing though—both for myself as well as for the other students in class—was that she seemed to know more about Jesus, the bible, the church, than most of the other students who were Christians and Catholics.

I had many wonderful conversations with her, during class and afterwards. While being a devout Muslim, she was very open and progressive in her thinking. But one thing I remember she told me she believed goes against every acceptable canon of logic and reason is the idea that the God we worship suffers and dies on the cross. “God cannot die. God cannot suffer. God is God,” she would say.

“God cannot die. God cannot suffer. God is God”. And yet here we are—beginning our celebration of the God who suffers and dies for us, who took on the role of servant for us, whose “glory” is the exact opposite of how the world understands what “glory” means. Are we celebrating an anomaly then? Are we celebrating an illogical and irrational belief?

The cross, as the bible tells us was a “scandal to the Jews” who believed in an almighty God, and “a stumbling block to the Greeks” who had no time for what was illogical and irrational.

But is it really illogical and irrational? Perhaps it is.

Perhaps it is as illogical and irrational as a young nun named Teresa who left the security of her convent in Albania to care for the poorest of the poor in Calcutta and the rest of the world. Perhaps it is as illogical and irrational as a bishop in El Salvador named Oscar Romero who chose to live his life in solidarity with the poor and was eventually martyred for it; perhaps it’s as illogical and irrational as an American nun in Peru named Dorothy Stang, who was murdered because of her work for human rights and the protection of the environment.

Perhaps it is as illogical and irrational as a young man and woman who choose to get married rather than simply doing what so many young couples do today, who choose not to because of fear of life-long commitment. Perhaps it is as illogical and irrational as a young husband and wife who choose to have children instead of living only for themselves. Perhaps it is as illogical as a mother or father who has sacrificed great amounts of time, energy and resources to raise a family.

Perhaps it is as illogical and irrational as one of my former students at Providence College in Rhode Island, who after graduation, and being offered a very good job, chose instead to work for a shelter for troubled young girls in New York city. Perhaps it is as illogical and irrational as the young men I’ve taught in seminary these many years, who have struggled to bid farewell to the ways of the world and instead bind themselves steadfastly to following Christ who has asked them to “deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him”.

Perhaps it is as illogical and irrational as any of one of us here tonight who does his or her best to be true to his faith, his values, principles and ideals at whatever cost—amidst a world that knows only cynicism, skepticism, and ridicule.

Where indeed is the logic and reason in all that? The answer is that it has a logic and reason all its own. Mother Teresa once called it “the absurd logic of love”.

“The heart has reasons which reason does not know”, the philosopher Blaise Pascal once said. At the heart of our faith as Christians, and at the heart of our ritual tonight, is a reason and logic so profound, the world will never understand it.

“As I have done, so must you”. As Christ has served, so must we. As he has loved, so must we. Loving service alone is what tonight’s ritual means.

If we are to ask, Where is the “glory” in that? then we still don’t get it. If we fail to see the connection between serving others and true glory—then like the world—we too fail to understand.

“Do you realize what I have done for you?” Jesus asks each one of us.

“You call me ‘teacher’ and ‘master’, and rightly so, for indeed I am. If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet”.

“I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you also should do”.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Forcing the hand of God (Reflections on Judas's betrayal, Wednesday of Holy Week, Mt. 26:14-25)

Judas is such a tragic figure. Why did he betray his master and friend? There are three possibilities.

First, the gospels tell us that he was stealing from the money that Jesus and his band of followers had to use for their daily needs. Judas may have betrayed Jesus because he wanted the money. But this is really unlikely. We are told that he sold Jesus for thirty argurion. An argurion, is such a small amount that all thirty pieces would’ve been no bigger than six dollars in value. Judas didn’t betray Jesus because of money.

Second, he may have done it because he started to get disillusioned and so hated Jesus. He thought Jesus was going to lead the rebellion against the Roman occupiers, but Jesus refused to do this and preached peace instead. But this is also unlikely. For a person who hates would not have felt so guilty and remorseful that he would hang himself, as Judas did. Judas didn’t betray Jesus because of hatred.

Third, it may be that Judas never intended Jesus to die. It may be that he believed Jesus to be the Messiah. But he may have thought that Jesus was moving too slowly; and he may have wished for nothing else than to force his hand. That is in fact the view which best suits all the facts. Judas betrayed Jesus in order to force him to act and reveal himself as the Messiah.

However we look at it, the tragedy of Judas is that he refused to accept Jesus as he was and tried to make him what he wanted him to be. It is not Christ who should be changed by us, but we who must be changed by him. We can never, and must never, use God for our purposes.

The tragedy of Judas is that of a man who thought he knew better than God. As we enter even deeper into the mystery of Holy Week, Christ invites us to do what he did, to put our lives in God’s hands and say with him: “Father, not mine, but your will be done”.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Peter, Judas, and an Apocryphal Story about Da Vinci's "Last Supper" (Reflections for Tuesday of Holy Week, John 13:21-33, 36-38)

There’s a story that when Leonardo Da Vinci was painting the “Last Supper” in Milan, he went around looking for models to use for the thirteen figures that he would include in the painting. Each one had to have a particular face that expressed Da Vinci’s vision of the particular man he would represent. It took him forever to find just the right face for each character.

One Sunday as he left the cathedral for mass, he saw a man whom he thought would be the perfect model for the face of Jesus on his “Last Supper”. The man had the features of kindness, tenderness, caring, innocence, and compassion on his face. And so Da Vinci invited him to sit as the model for Jesus.

Years went by, and the painting still wasn’t complete. This time Da Vinci was having a hard time finding the right face for Judas. He was looking for a man whose face was streaked with despair, wickedness, greed, and sin. Da Vinci decided to visit the Milan prison in search of a model for his Judas. There he found him and got the authorities’ consent to let the prisoner model for Judas.

Da Vinci worked tirelessly for days. But as the work went on he noticed certain things changing in the prisoner. His face seemed more filled with tension, and his bloodshot eyes filled with horror as he saw his face slowly being painted on the canvass.

One day, Da Vinci, felt so sorry for the man that he stopped painting and asked him, “What seems to be troubling you so much?”

The man buried his face in his hands and began crying. After a long time, he raised his head and said to Da Vinci, “Sir, do you not remember me? Ten years ago, I sat in this very same room. I was your model for Jesus”.

This miserable man had turned his back on Christ and turned his life over to sin and the world sucked him down to its lowest levels of degradation. He no longer loved the things he loved before. And those things that he at one time hated and despised, he now loved.

Where once there was love, now there way misery and hate; where once there was hope now there was despair; where once thee was light, now there was darkness. The young man had forsaken goodness and had therefore brought his life crashing down. He brought punishment upon himself.

Today’s gospel reading juxtaposes, but also brings into stark contrast two very important persons in the life of Jesus, two men who belonged to his inner circle of friends: Peter who was to become the leader of his band of apostles, and Judas, a man whom Jesus trusted enough to make him the ‘treasurer’ of the group. Judas of course eventually betrays Jesus. But Peter’s offense would be no less serious; he will after all, deny knowing his friend and master—not once, but three times.

Both men shall sin, both shall fall short and fail to live up to the demands of loyalty and friendship. But whereas Peter repents and recognizes the immensity and boundlessness of Christ’s forgiveness, compassion, and understanding, Judas will know only despair and hopelessness, because his vision can see no farther than the pain and suffering his betrayal will cause the one person he has loved and committed to giving his life.

Sin disfigures us; there is no denying that. It can damage the bond of friendship between ourselves and a God who cares deeply for us. And yet, as St. Paul tells us: “Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more”. (Rom. 5:2)

This was something Judas forgot, but Peter remembered. Perhaps it was Peter’s many offenses against Jesus—a number of which the New Testament records—that reminded him of this truth. Perhaps it was the numerous times when Jesus had to correct him, the many occasions when his quick tongue and slow wit offended his master and friend—that made Peter remember Jesus’ kindness and limitless compassion, most especially for the weak and fallen.

He was after all, most certainly there when Jesus saved the woman about to be stoned for committing adultery. He was most certainly there on those many occasions when Jesus spoke those words every repentant sinner seeks to hear: “Your sins are forgiven; go and sin no more”.

Our God is a loving, merciful, and patient God who is willing to wait for us to turn away from our sins, and is always ready to give a repentant sinner a second chance. Lent is a time we are asked to turn away from sin and recover our original blessedness, as Peter did. God is patient and is willing to wait. But let us not make him wait too long. We should not wish to disfigure ourselves irredeemably, like Judas, or like Da Vinci’s young man.

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Never-ending Goodbyes of Life (From Joyce Rupp's, "Praying our Goodbyes")

Endings come; they always do.
Goodbye comes. It always does.

Trees struggle with it in autumn
and in our deepest being, so do we.

And as we begin our fallow vigil,

we recall the truth of the ages:

Unless the wheat seed dies,

it cannot sing a new birth.

Endings silence the soul,
yet not forever,
For the heart will one day,
sing once more.

Goodbyes are as much a part of life as the seasons of the year. The story of gain and loss, of joy and sorrow, of life and death, of union and separation, is inside each one of us. The cycle begins at birth, when we were broken loose from our mother’s womb. Our forward movement gathered momentum until we pushed farewell and, with a throbbing burst of new life, cried hello again to a vastly different world.

The cycle continues throughout our lives. Who of us has not said farewell to someone and felt a great heartache and a deep sadness, wanting to stop the process and wondering when the ache inside would ever leave?

Several years ago I accompanied a friend to the bus depot. She had been away for three years and was leaving again for a long time. The moment of separation came, that last little space when an onrush of sadness suddenly wells up and causes a great inadequacy of expression. She turned and hugged me. Then she looked at me with tears in her eyes and painfully remarked: “We’ve said goodbye so many times. Do you think that we will ever learn how?”

The word “goodbye”—originally “God-be-with-ye” or “Go-with-God”—was a recognition that God was a significant part of the “going”. When you dreaded or feared the journey there was strength in remembering that the One who gave and cherished life would be there to protect and to console.

“Goodbye” was a blessing of love, proclaiming the belief that if God went with you, you would never be alone, that comfort, strength and all the other blessings of a loving presence would accompany you. To the traveler it meant:

“We cannot keep you from this journey. We hurt deeply, for you have made a home in our hearts. Yet, we know your leaving is essential for your growth. So go; go with God. May you always rest in the assurance that ‘God will lead you, will be with you, will not fail you or desert you. Have no fear. Do not be disheartened by anything’ (Deut. 31:8).”

Do we ever get used to saying “goodbye”? Or should we? I think not. Saying goodbye helps us to experience the depths of our human condition. It leads us to a much deeper understanding of what it means to live life in its mystery and its wholeness. We ought not to be afraid of the partings that life asks of us. Nor ought we to hold back in giving ourselves fully to love, to the wonderful opportunities for growth, of investing ourselves in the many new persons we shall encounter along life's paths, and the many new events of which we shall be part.

We may be harshly bruised by life’s many farewells, but it is possible to be healed. We can become whole again. If we are willing to move inside the heart of the experience, to live patiently, through the process even as we acknowledge the difficult, painful emotions, that we can experience the wonder of spiritual growth and the marvel of new depths of faith in our relationship with God and others.

Amidst the silence of parting, we know, deep within, with that invincible knowledge we call faith, our hearts shall one day sing again.

“There is a season for everything,
a time for giving birth,

a time for dying;

a time for tears,

a time for laughter;

a time for mourning,

a time for dancing…”

(Ecclesiastes 3:1-4)

"Create in me a pure heart, O God; renew in me a steadfast spirit" (Monday of Holy Week, John 12:11-11)

Judas criticizes Mary for anointing Jesus’ feet, saying the money could have been given to the poor. One would expect Jesus to agree. Why should such a sum be wasted when it could have in fact been used to feed many? But that isn’t what happened. Instead Jesus turns to Judas and rebukes him, not because what he had said made no sense; but precisely because it made too much sense—at least in Judas’ calculating mind.

Poor Judas, up to this point, he still didn’t get it. He was still operating within the compass of the world’s calculations of investment and return. He had become too worldly for his own good, material concerns remained his priority. Mary anointed Jesus’ feet in what Jesus himself saw as a symbolic gesture foreshadowing the anointing he will receive at his death. But more than that it was an expression of Mary’s love for him, a love that went far beyond the utilitarian calculus out of which Judas operated.

The gospel reading tells us why Judas found Mary’s action unacceptable. It wasn’t really because he cared for the poor, but because he stole money from the group’s contributions. Intentions and motives, as always, make all the difference. Mary’s action may have been extravagant, but her motive was pure. Judas’ indignation may have been understandable, even salutary, but his motive wasn’t untainted. For God it is a pure and undivided heart that counts the most.

“Create in me a pure heart, O God; renew in me a steadfast spirit.” (Psalm 51:10)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

No good we do in life is ever done in vain (Reflections on the Sunday of the Lord's Passion, Matt. 26:14-27:66))

The stage has been set for the final showdown between Jesus and his detractors. And today, Passion Sunday, the final scene will be played out. This is Holy Week, when the whole Christian world comes together to commemorate the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the fulfillment of his mission, and the fruition of the task that the Father had sent him to do.

Everything Jesus had done so far, every word, every action, every miracle, had been building up to the climactic events of this coming week. All the players are now in place, all the elements of the play are now ready, and Jesus enters into his passion after a life of faithful service to his Father and to the people whom he loved.

The final scene in Jesus’ life appears to the whole world as a scene of tragedy, a failure of tremendous proportions. Here was a man who did nothing but good, who spoke only of peace, who cared only that the will of God be done. And he was to end his life in the most cruel and humiliating way—crucifixion, at the hands of the very humanity he was sent to redeem. In the eyes of the world which calculates its investments in terms of the returns it will get, Jesus has to be judged a failure, his mission futile, his words, fallen on deaf ears, his death the final judgment of a failed and wasted life.

Passion Sunday begins Holy Week on this sad note. It sets the tone for the somber days ahead. But there is inserted into this sadness, an unmistakable element of triumph. For we all know that the play doesn’t end with the crucifixion and death of Jesus on the cross, at the hands of those who rejected him.

We know that death would not be the final word. We know that after the agony of Good Friday and the silence of Holy Saturday, will come the glory and triumph of Easter, when the very life of Jesus will find vindication in the hands of his Father who will give him the greatest reward of all by raising him from the dead and destroying death forever. The life of Jesus, his works and his deeds, did not happen in vain.

Holy Week is an occasion to remind ourselves, not only of the supreme love Christ has shown us by taking our sinfulness upon himself and giving his life for us, but also of the fact that no good we ever do in life is ever done in vain, for our stories do not end with the sorrow of the Cross but with the victory of Easter. Because our Savior died and rose from the dead, life has meaning, purpose, and direction, no matter how forgetful of these things we can sometimes be.

Friday, April 15, 2011

"You've talked the talk; now let's see you walk the walk" (Reflections on John 10:31-42)

Today’s gospel shows the seriousness of Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish leaders of his time. As far as they were concerned, Jesus was a trespasser, one who claimed for himself, the space that was reserved for God alone. Jesus’ statement that he and the Father are one is sheer blasphemy which will eventually cost Jesus his life.

And yet, despite their shock at his words, Jesus doesn’t flinch. He speaks the truth. But he does invite them to see that his words aren’t empty words. And so he invites the acid test. He says to them:

“If I do not perform my Father’s works, do not believe me; but if I perform them, even if you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may realize and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”

In effect, he was saying: “I do not ask you to accept my words. But I do ask you to accept my deeds.” He tells them that if they do not wish to believe his words, then they should believe him on account of the deeds he has done in his Father’s name.

A word is something about which one can argue; but a deed is something beyond argument. Jesus does not base his claims on what he says, but on what he does. His invitation to the Jews was to base their verdict on him, not on what he said, but on his actions; and that is a test which we his followers ought to be able and willing to meet.

As it was for Jesus, so must it be for us. As he tells us in another part of the bible: “Let all people see your good deeds, so that in seeing them, they may give glory to your Father in heaven”. We sometimes hear it said: “You've talked the talk; now let’s see you walk the walk”.

Eight hundred years ago, a wealthy young man went around gathering friends around himself and preaching to people about poverty, humility, and absolute abandonment and trust in God’s providence. He began giving away his clothes and possessions to the poor. His wealthy father, furious at his seeming disregard for property, challenged him before the bishop to be true to his words.

The young man proceeded to take off all his clothes and handed them over to his father—his ultimate act of living concretely and genuinely, the poverty, humility, and absolute trust in Divine Providence which he had preached. That young man of course was Francis of Assisi.

When many years later, he was ordained a deacon, he chose not to be ordained a priest in fidelity to the commitment to total humility that he had made to God and to himself many years before. Francis knew how to “talk”, but he knew how to put flesh and blood to that “talk”. He “walked the walk”. His actions bore witness to the genuineness of his words.

Words are easy; too often they also come cheap. Concrete acts to back up one's words are the true measure of a man. In the Christian life as well, concrete deeds of goodness are the only authentic measure of genuine faith. Everything else is secondary.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

"I AM WHO AM" - אהיה אשר אהיה - "Ehyeh asher ehyeh", (Reflections on the Untamed God, John 8:51-59)

Being allures but eludes. Being invites but hides. Being draws us near but flees. Being is, only when it is not. This is a paraphrasing of what some existentialists philosophers say of “Being”. If we were to substitute the word “God” for “Being” though, we arrive at the heart and core of the mystical experience itself. “God allures but eludes. God invites but hides. God draws us near but then flees. God is, only when he is not”.

One spiritual author calls it the “untamed God”, the “God who refuses to be domesticated, pinned, down, labeled, categorized, classified, put into a neat and tidy box”. The God who refuses to be turned into an “idol”.

The Jews in fact would not even name God. Instead of pronouncing the four letters of God’s name יהוה- the Tetragrammaton, “yot, heh, wav, heh”—which we pronounce “Yahweh”, devout Jews instead say אֲדֹנָי “Adonai”, “my Lord”, or השם “Hashem”, “the name”. God, they believed should not even be named, because to name him is to label him, to classify, categorize, box, tame, and domesticate him.

When Moses in Exodus 3:14 faced the burning bush and asked God what his name was, God said, “you shall tell the Israelites, my name is אהיה אשר אהיה - Ehyeh asher ehyeh”—“I am who am”, or literally (and better) translated: “I will be who I will be”, which means, “I am the one who cannot be pinned down”, “I am the dynamism itself”—which is why the following line says he is the “living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”. “Ehyeh asher ehyeh” – in the Greek text of the Septuagint it is ἐγώ εἰμι – “Ego eimi” – which are the very same words Jesus uses to reply to the Jews in today’s gospel reading who ask him: “Who are you?” “Ego eimi”, says Jesus, “Ehyeh asher ehyeh”, “I am who am” – “I am the one who cannot be pinned down”.I am the God who will be what I wish to be”.

And the Jews, both his friends and enemies, did try to pin him down on numerous occasions, but they failed. Political leader, powerful Messiah, earthly liberator—every single label was wrong, leading John the Baptist to once ask: “Are you the one, or are we to wait for someone else”. But if God, “Adonai”, “Elohim”, “Hashem”, could not be pinned down, tamed, domesticated, and labeled, neither could Jesus.

But what of us? We often prefer labels, classifications, categories, neat and tidy boxes into which we put others, ourselves, and even God himself. We operate from out of these safe labels and boxes. Sadly, we end up unable to get out of them.

Defining ourselves, pinning ourselves down, says the spiritual author Adrian Van Kaam, is the worst thing we can do to ourselves—because it robs us of the tremendous possibility for change, for growth, for maturity that is one of the greatest gifts given to us by the God who himself refuses to be pinned down.

“Ehyeh asher Ehyeh”, “Ego eimi” – “I am who am”, “I am the one who is becoming”, “I am the one who cannot be pinned down”.

The words of Jesus in today’s gospel reading are a challenge to each one of us to say with him: “I am beyond labels. Like my God, I simply am. And my God, my Lord, my Creator, and my Father, loves me for who I am; all of me”.

It’s a statement of faith, a statement of confidence, of trust, of hope, and of that inner invincibility that is God’s most precious gift to each one of us, a child upon whom He looks with the greatest care, concern, compassion, and love. “I am who am”. It’s an invitation never to put God in a box; and to never do so to ourselves as well.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

"I shall not harm" (Cura Animarum: The Priest as a "Doctor of Souls")

There’s a very ancient image of the priest which patterns itself after the identity of Jesus as healer. Ancient Christians understood Christ’s role as “savior”—soter in Greek and salvator in Latin—in terms of carrying God’s healing and life-giving balm. Jesus is the one who brings health and wholeness to a broken and sinful world. (The English word “salve” is itself derived from salvus which means “healing”.) In line with this thinking, the priest as an alter Christus is seen as one who mends broken hearts, heals hurting souls, and applies God’s soothing balm on pained and wounded lives. He is a “doctor of souls”.

The person of Jesus is the source of healing for the Christian, and conformation to his ‘image’ by means of imitation is the key element in the process. Jesus is the ‘image’ or ‘icon’ of the Father, the highest manifestation of God’s love for our fallen and broken world and his pledge of healing for souls that bear the wounds of sinful humanity. The Incarnation is the ultimate proof of God’s healing love, the ‘door’ through which one who desires his life to be made ‘whole’ passes. A person who is conformed to Christ, the Incarnation of God, also finds his life transformed from one that is shattered and fragmented to one that has become ‘whole’ and now has room for growth and enlargement.

Just as Jesus is the ‘icon’, the revelation of the Father’s healing love, the priest likewise serves in an iconic capacity—mirroring for the people to whom he ministers, the image of Christ, in much the same way as the bronze serpent crafted by Moses in the desert healed all those who looked upon it. There’s a certain ‘representationality’, even ‘sacramentality’ that’s going on here. For the priest is precisely that—a ‘representation’, ‘image’, ‘symbol’, ‘sacrament’, and ‘reminder’ of who and what Jesus is.

A priest’s very existence is encompassed and defined by such a relationship. In this relationship we find the essence of his healing ministry; apart from it he is a hollowed-out shell, able not to heal, but to harm. For just as the serpents in the desert poisoned and killed the Israelites, and it was the power of God, not the bronze serpent that healed those who were dying, so it is the person and the power of Jesus and not the priest, that heals the sorrowing heart.

It is important that our being healers in the image of Christ begin as early as our days in seminary. It happens when we strive to mirror to one another, Christ’s unconditional love and acceptance for us. Despite the relative comfort afforded by seminary life, there is much in seminary that causes pain and difficulty. The close proximity by which we live with one another and go about our daily business of formation sometimes gets the better of us. We sometimes tend to forget that we are in formation, not to become ‘professional seminarians’, but to approximate day by day, the loving, accepting, caring, and compassionate person of Jesus Christ. Patience with one another, tolerance, understanding, charity in speech, a thoughtfulness and concern that constantly anticipates the needs of those we live with, these are only some of the means by which we can gradually grow into the healing persons that priests are called to be.

However, just as there are ways by which we can imbibe the healing character of Christ, there are also ways by which we can not only lose it, but actually act against it. “I shall do no harm”—medical doctors make this ancient oath of Hippocrates, the father of medicine, reminding them of both their responsibility to heal, but also of the possibility that they can in fact end up hurting people instead of healing them, and destroying lives instead of building them up.

The Hippocratic Oath is a recognition that even a healer can in fact cause pain if he isn’t careful. And the difference between healing and wounding is defined not accidentally, but by a conscious choice on the physician’s part. The priest’s case, as a physician of the soul, is no different. For him, what spells the difference between causing pain and bringing healing to people, is a conscious choice to live, speak, and act never in himself, but in the person of Jesus the healer. Apart from this conscious choice, a priest can cause very great harm.

In this thoughts. A priest can cause harm when he fails to remember and recognize that he is not the source of his strength but Christ, that he is not the source of healing and therefore must not claim credit for himself, but always point to Christ as the sure foundation and ultimate purpose of his ministry. Failure to do could lead him to wound others, because while they may find a temporary solution to their pains in him, this can only go so far, and ultimately, he fails to provide them with the complete and lasting healing of their wounds which only Jesus can give.

And he also wounds himself in the process, for when his personally-made solutions no longer help those he assists, he discovers in himself a yawning abyss and he is left with the most profound sense of ultimate uselessness and despair. He comes face to face with his nothingness. If Christ’s healing balm is not applied to this self-discovery, the priest enters into the downward spiral of self-destruction, dragging along the way, the lives of others he had originally intended to help. This is a tragedy of gigantic proportions, and priests must be careful that they do not enter into this path. Pride comes before a fall.

In his words. When a priest loses sight of the intimate connectedness of his healing-work with the ultimate font of all healing—Jesus Christ—he begins to see himself and his ministry in a grossly exaggerated way. He becomes proud, vain, and pompous. Worse, he starts seeing others in a most deprecatory light—as individuals who are utterly dependent on him, and therefore, of second-rate status to himself, who is the “star of the show”. He comes to see himself as the repository and oracle of truth and the final arbiter of what is right and good. The spectacle of some priests, bishops—and yes, even seminary students—acting like primadonnas is something all-too known to many of us.

Instead of being a tender of God’s Word meant to console and comfort the weak and sorrowing, his words become like sharp knives that cut through the already scarred flesh of those he now looks down upon as his inferiors. Instead of binding the wounds of those weaker than himself, he sprinkles salt on them and heightens their agony. Instead of empowering the weak, he makes them even weaker by making them utterly dependent on him. He starts to find joy in the thought that “they can’t survive without me”. But they can survive without him. The world and the church have existed long before we are born, long before we were ordained, and they will continue in existence long after we are gone. Jesus saved the world two thousand years ago, the priest is not meant to duplicate this saving act.

In his actions. When a priest forgets that he is no more than an instrument, and not “the healer” himself, he loses sight of his true identity and value, and begins to build monuments to himself. The repository of his self-worth, once the deepest part of his being where he is intimate with Christ, is now found externally—in his projects, his building plans, his programs, his crusades, his ambitions, degrees, titles and positions. He ceases to be a “wounded healer”, but a “wounding” one, running roughshod on anyone who stands in the way of his work. His ministry and service become a show. The people he assists and serves become means to an end. And his priesthood degenerates into a hollowed-out shell, an empty temple at the altar of which is erected no longer Christ, but his ego.

It is here that we must resist the temptation to think, say to people, and act, as if our assignments would collapse once we are removed from them and they are given to someone else. It is the height of arrogance to imagine that it will, simply because it is “no longer I” who am there. Here you have the comic spectacle of priests who ruin the reputation of their successor by going back again and again to their previous assignment in order to chat with a loyal following they’ve left behind—who gossip about the failings of “the new guy”.

Here too you have the situation in which some newly assigned priests seeking to build a reputation for themselves begin by sullying the good name of their predecessor, “discovering” all sorts of wrong things that have been supposedly left behind, and immediately turning the new assignment upside-down in the attempt to show that they are better by suggesting everything the predecessor had done was inferior and ineffective.

It’s a sad tale that unfolds over and over again. “Oh, I’m enjoying my new assignment”, the narrative would usually start. “Everything’s fine”. And then the tirade begins. “But I just wish my predecessor did this and that. The parish he left is in really bad shape. I discovered such and such anomaly in the office. The parish grounds are awful”. The commentary goes on ad nauseam. And then the punch line: “That’s why I’m instituting so many reforms”.

Granted that this might actually be the case in certain instances—I do know of priests who have left their post like a pigsty—we must nevertheless ask, What purpose under heaven does it serve to tell others about the failings of our predecessor, glaring as some of these might be? We must not build our dreams on the ruins of others’ lives. To do so is to choose the way of insecurity and the downward path towards a priest’s eventual loss of soul. It’s the easy way, but it isn’t the narrow way, and priests are meant to choose the latter. We preach Christ. We do not build a cult of personality around ourselves.

The Incarnation is the key to avoiding these traps and the gateway to a priest’s conformation to the image of Christ the healer. The Incarnation is at the heart of the iconic understanding of the healing work of the priest. Just as Jesus is the Incarnation of the Father’s love for a broken world, so the priest is called to be the Incarnation of this continuing love in every age. He is tasked with communicating, not his own message, but the message of love and salvation that is from Christ. But it’s a task that can only be carried out to the full if the priest has become empty in himself and full of Christ. Even for his task as doctor of souls, kenosis is for the priest, the order of the day. This is not self-debasement, instead it is the discovery of the greatest source of self-worth there can ever be, namely, knowing that one is an instrument in the hand of the Great Physician himself. It is the confidence wrought by knowing that I belong to Christ and am an extension of his healing work begun two thousand years ago and continues to this day.

- From "Journey into the Heart of Christ" (Claretian Publications, 2004).

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"His life is not like that of others, and different are his ways" (Reflections on Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, John 8:31-42)

When I was preparing the homily for Mass last Friday, there was a line from the first reading that struck me and which I couldn’t seem to get out of my head. It’s from the Book of Wisdom, and it says:

“His life is not like that of others, and different are his ways”.

It points primarily to Jesus, of course; but it also refers to every Christian, and especially those who profess a desire to follow Christ's footsteps even more closely: priests and those like yourselves who feel called to this life, seminarians.

When I was a student, my spiritual director used to remind me that a priest is meant to be a reminder to everyone he meets that there are things in this world that transcend the transitory nature of life. “The priest is meant to be a reminder that there are lasting and eternal values”, he would say. “He is meant to remind people that there’s more to life than wealth, power, popularity, and fame”.

The priest is a "pointer" to a transcendent, a "cipher", subtly calling humanity--too often bewildered and lost in a world that most of the time sees only itself--to be mindful of God who dwells in its midst. The priest, just like Christ and his Church is what John Paul II called a “sign of contradiction”. He is meant to be a reminder of what is "different", what is "other", what is true, and good, and holy.

“His life is not like that of others, and different are his ways”.

At the same time, my spiritual director would also caution me that there are two ways of being such a reminder of transcendence. The first is by looking like it; the second is by being it. The first is external; the second is internal. The first manifests itself in words and actions; the second lies deep in our hearts, like a seal imprinted in our souls. It shows itself outwardly, but only because it dwells in us, inwardly. The second, if it’s real, shows itself externally; the first, if it goes no deeper than an external show, isn’t real, but a fraud.

The difference between these two is so vividly portrayed in the contrast between the Pharisees and Jesus in today’s gospel reading. These teachers of the Law, these supposedly righteous men, drag a woman caught in adultery, ready to stone her to death.

For all their pretensions of righteousness, however, the Gospel tells us that it wasn’t really the Law they were interested in, nor the injustice done to the woman’s husband, nor the scandal she caused. In fact, they weren’t really even interested in punishing her. All of that was a façade. What they were truly interested in was to trick Jesus into destroying his reputation, by doing either of two things.

If he condemned her, she would be stoned to death. People will begin to doubt him as a righteous man, especially since he taught forgiveness and compassion. On the other hand, if he forgave her, he’d be breaking the Law which commanded punishing adultery.

If he condemned her, he would be branded a liar; if he didn’t, he would be encouraging the violation of the Law. Either way, he would be branded a false teacher; either way his reputation would suffer. Then perhaps, they’d finally be rid of him. People would no longer look up to him and admire him.

And that’s what the Pharisees were really concerned about, for what mattered to them most was to look good before people, to be thought devout, righteous, and holy in the eyes of others. Never mind if in the eyes of God, they weren’t being true. To look good on the outside was enough. Never mind what they truly were on the inside.

Legend has it, that when Jesus bent down and wrote on the sand, he began writing the sins of the Pharisees who had dragged this woman. One by one, he wrote the sins that they thought they had hidden from God, and from themselves. And one by one, to their horror, Jesus showed to them what they really were: whitewashed tombs—clean on the outside, rotten on the inside. And one by one, these proud and arrogant men, shamed into staring at the ugly truth about themselves they thought they had kept hidden, dropped the stones they had picked up.

“His life is not like that of others, and different are his ways”.

True righteousness is found within. It does show itself on the outside, but it always begins from the inside. True faith, true religion, is also that way. Our calling is to follow Christ with sincerity of heart, with a genuine faith, with an authentic righteousness. There’s already too much in the world that's phony, too much that's fake. Christ invites us to be the real thing, and to live truly good and righteous lives.

For those of us who seek to follow in Christ's footsteps even more closely--seminarians and priests--this challenge has an even greater urgency. For unless we are careful, we may wake up one day and realize that we have become the very Scribes and Pharisees. It isn’t enough to look pious, devout, spiritual, and holy; our piety, devotion, spirituality and holiness must be genuine. Hypocrisy has often been the millstone tied around the necks of those of us who call ourselves "leaders". We must dare to be different!

It isn’t enough for us to be priests in the eyes of the world, we must be truly priests in the eyes of the only one who ultimately matters the most, God who has called us to follow in the footsteps of his Son.

“His life is not like that of others, and different are his ways”.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Reflections on another Sabbath healing and a God who refuses to be contained (John 5:1-6)

Jesus heals another sick man on the Sabbath and incurs the ire of the scribes and Pharisees. “They began to persecute Jesus”—the gospel tells us. Such tragic characters! These are individuals who had gotten so stuck in their ways that they simply refused to accept the possibility that God could choose to act in ways that were new, and to reveal himself in ways they least expected. Even their religion had become stultified that they could not even recognize Jesus’ pity and compassion for the sick and suffering as a clear sign that God himself was at work.

The scribes and the Pharisees are not simply characters in bible stories. The scribes and Pharisees are with us, even today. In fact, often enough, they are us. When we think we have God all figured out and tucked away in a neat and tidy box that there could be no other possible way by which He could manifest himself, we become these very men.

This is a very real danger for many religious individuals, and especially for those who are in positions of leadership and authority—like the Pharisees and Scribes. There’s a thin line separating authentic religion from religious fanaticism, and there are times when careful and prudent discernment between “the will of God” and “the will of one who believes he speaks for God” becomes necessary.

There are those who believe they know God’s mind completely and have gotten him all figured out; seeing themselves as possessors of the fullness of truth, and everyone else—especially those with whom they disagree—as lesser human beings. [Perhaps it wouldn't hurt to once in a while be reminded of a simple lesson we learn in the philosophy of the Great Medieval Scholastics; the human mind is incapable of possessing absolute truth--not by itself, not in this life, not through its own power or strength.]

Lent is a time of soul-searching, of penance, and contrition—for all of us, but most especially those of us who now occupy the position once held by the Scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day--we who call ourselves religious leaders, we who sometimes forget, not through malice but through simple weakness, that it is Christ and his truth we proclaim, not our own, not ourselves. And his truth possesses us; we do not possess it. Rather, we search for it; yearn and desire it, with our whole heart, mind, body, and soul--and in doing so, it heals us and sets us free.

We are fellow-discerners of the People of God; we aren’t God’s oracles. And with God’s people, we must discern God’s revelations which—as we see again and again in Jesus’ healings in the gospel, and as we see in Jesus himself—can come to us in things, experiences, persons, and events, we sometimes least expect to find them.

Putting God in a ‘box’, just as the scribes and Pharisees did, is a very real danger against which every Christian, and especially every religious leader must be on guard. The God of Jesus Christ is a God who refuses to be contained in our neat and tidy little categories and boxes. He reveals himself wherever, whenever, and in whomever He chooses.

Paradoxically enough, in all the narratives of the New Testament in which Jesus heals the sick or gives sight to the blind, especially on the Sabbath, those who think they have God all figured out, turn out to be the ones who really cannot see, and those who believe themselves well and have an extremely high opinion of themselves turn out to be the ones who are most in need of healing and the restoration of genuine sight. And so we pray:

Lord, heal me of my blindness and my illness, my biases, my prejudices. Tear open and shred the neat and tidy boxes into which I insist on putting you; break the chains I use to bind you which, in reality, are the very chains I use to shackle myself. Heal me, Lord, I want to be well; I want to see.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)