Monday, March 25, 2013

"Father, forgive them for they know not what they do"

As I was wrestling with my two children through the longer-than-usual Palm Sunday Mass, I gotta admit I didn’t catch all of the readings.[1]  But one phrase from the second Gospel proclamation was heard loud and clear: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”(Lk 23:34).  I have often considered these words of Jesus to be the most incredible, the most scandalous and yet the most fundamental to our faith as Christians.  Jesus Christ - the pure and blameless One, sent as the Lamb of God and the Savior of the world, after being wrongly accused and brutally beaten, hanging in inscrutable agony on the Cross - what issues forth from his heart in his darkest hour and at the end of his human sensibilities? 

Forgiveness.  Jesus pleads to the Father to forgive his perpetrators. 

What if we took Jesus seriously enough to follow his example?  What if we took seriously the words Jesus instructed us to pray in the Our Father, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”?[2]  What if we yielded to Jesus when he told us plainly, “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.”[3]

Would it change the way Young Life staff and volunteers treat Catholics?  Would it alter the way Catholics thought of Young Life leaders?  This week as we enter more fully into the Paschal Mystery, I implore us to take up our own crosses and have the courage to echo the words of our Savior and pray:

Father, forgive Young Life staff when their influence, either advertently or inadvertently, pulls kids away from the Catholic Church. . .

and Father, forgive the Catholic Church for failing to provide the dynamic presence and real relationships for so many of its young people who are desperately searching for meaning, belonging and love.

Father, forgive Young Life staff when, in their ignorance, they fail to represent the fullness, richness and beauty of Catholicism, especially for those kids who were raised in that tradition. . .

and Father, forgive Catholics when, in their ignorance, they fail to appreciate the critical and necessary contributions of lay movements like Young Life in meeting the spiritual, social and interpersonal needs of adolescents.

Father, forgive Young Life for not realizing the impact, although sometimes unseen, made by the Catholic Church in the lives of young people (through Catholic education, retreats, youth groups, catechesis, sacramental prep, liturgy, service and relationship). . .

and Father, forgive the Catholic Church when often, under the weight of its own expansive tradition, it loses its grasp on its fundamental mission to present the truth of Jesus Christ in ways that young people find compelling, inspiring and directly applicable to the joys and struggles of adolescent life.

Father, forgive every Christian of every creed when we fail to honor your prayer "that they all may be one."

Father, forgive us, for we know not what we do.  Help us to see that without each other we are mutually impoverished.  Help us to understand that reciprocal rejection leads us only to alienation and ruin.  Help us recognize that we are one body of Christ, sent as Jesus was sent, to serve together as Jesus served, and yes, to forgive one another as Jesus forgave us.

            [1]  The Palm Sunday celebration of Mass includes five readings from Scripture – the standard Old Testament reading, Responsorial Psalm, New Testament reading and two unabridged readings from the Gospel (this year from the Gospel According to Luke).  The Gospel readings alone cover the Triumphant Entry, the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, Jesus’ trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus appearance before Pilate, the Crucifixion, and Jesus’ burial. 
            [2]  Mt 6:12.
            [3]  Mt. 6:14-15.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Pope Francis I: Servant of the Servants of God

On the wall in front of my desk hangs a single picture.  The black and white photo reveals a pair of worn leather sandals and a small water basin.  Below reads the familiar passage from 1 Peter, “All of you, clothe yourselves in humility toward one another, because, ‘God opposes the proud but shows favor on the humble.’”[1]  Over the years I have had a great deal of time to reflect on those characteristics I most appreciate about Jesus of Nazareth.  Humility always rises to the top of the list. 

The Apostle Paul duly noted, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in the very nature of God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant.[2]

This passage is amongst the most powerful biblical accounts of what theologians refer to as descending Christology, the supreme example of downward mobility attributed to the Incarnate Word, the God who chose to take on flesh.  In the person of Jesus, God is revealed as the Suffering Servant, the Meek and Lowly, the Man of Sorrows, Immanuel.  In Christ, we have the consummate confirmation that God is with us.

Thus I find it comforting to sense these same qualities in the person of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Argentine Jesuit who earlier today was elected the 266th pope of the Catholic Church.  By now, examples of Bergoglio’s humility are widespread.  Shunning the pomp and vestiges that have accompanied ecclesiastics since the Middle Ages, Bergoglio rides the bus, cooks his own meals and lives in a humble apartment.  When he became a cardinal in 2001 he told his Argentine supporters to take the money they planned to spend on airfare to Rome and give it to the poor.

The acts of simplicity and servitude that marked the life of Jesus, the lowly Nazarene, certainly befit the man Catholics now honor as the Servant of the Servants of God.  Like Pope Francis I, I pray that we all might clothe ourselves in humility toward one another, taking the very nature of a servant.  “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”[3]
Archbishop Bergoglio washing the feet of AIDS patients in Buenos Aires.

            [1]   1 Peter 5:5
            [2]   Philippians 2:5-7
            [3]   Matthew 5:5

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Merton on the Mass

It isn’t very difficult to see that Merton has something quite pointed to say in this story (see my last post on The Art of Missing the Forest for the Trees).  On the surface, it would seem that the primary issue is racial equality and integration (keep in mind Merton told this story in the full tumult of the 1960s).  Yet Merton chose to direct his commentary toward the true lightening rod of the narrative: the Eucharist.  The churchgoers were so incensed by the priest’s sermon that they left prior to receiving the Eucharist, the body of Christ, the “source and summit of the Christian life.”[1]  Thus we have the consternated words of warning hurled at the priest as the offended parishioner stormed out, “If I miss Mass today it’s your fault!

There is an implication of guilt and punishment here.  The parting parishioner assumes that there will be a penalty to pay because he was not able to partake in the Eucharistic meal.  For those Catholic readers, the guilt of moral obligation will already be ringing in your ears.  Yet in a beautiful turn of parody, Merton uses this very idea of judgment in his response:

 Not only do we see in these men a flat refusal to listen to the plain meaning of the word of God. . . there is also a complete moral and spiritual insensitivity to the meaning of the Mass as the Christian Agape, the union of brothers in Christ, a union from which no believer is to be excluded.  To exclude a brother in Christ from this union is to fail to “judge the Body of Christ” and hence to “eat and drink judgment to oneself.” (1 Corinthians)[2]

The proverbial forest missed in Merton’s provocative story is nothing short of Christ and the kingdom of shalom which Christ so insistently preached, a kingdom which, projected into the 1960s, envisioned “little black boys and girls holding hands with little white boys and girls,” to quote Martin Luther King, Jr.  Eucharist is not a private ritual for personal sanctification.  It is the real presence of God with the power to mobilize the people of God to build a civilization of love.  That civilization is marked by reconciliation, right relationship, wholeness and justice. “The ritual action of Eucharist is powerful when it is allowed to penetrate the life and action of the people, and transform them into an effective embodiment of the love that is God, a sacrament of his presence.”[3]   There is an essential relationship between ritual, especially sacramental ritual as momentous as the Eucharist, and the lived realities of human beings which serve as primary witnesses to Christ’s presence among us.

I’ll let Merton get the last word, but I pray that we, the whole body of Christ, will take this universal meaning into our own lives and religious practice.

Is not their attendance at Mass a legal formality?  Formalities, abstractions, are not enough.  Gestures of conformity do not make a man a Christian, and when one’s actual conduct obviously belies the whole meaning of the gesture, it is an objective statement that one’s Christianity has lost it’s meaning.[4]

[1]             Lumen Gentium (The Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), 11.
[2]             Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, NY: DoubleDay, 1966, 105.
[3]             Mary Peter McGinty, The Sacrament of Christian Life, Chicago, IL: The Thomas More Press, 1992, 50.
[4]             Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, NY: DoubleDay, 1966, 105-106.

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Art of Missing the Forest For the Trees

Thomas Merton, one of my favorite spiritual figures, once told a true story:

A young priest was sent to preach one Sunday in a “white” Catholic parish in New Orleans.  He based his sermon on the Gospel of the Sunday, in which Christ spoke of the twofold commandment, love of God and love of one’s brother, which is the essence of Christian morality.

The priest, in his sermon, took occasion to point out that this commandment applied to the problem of racial segregation, and that white people and black people ought certainly to love one another to the extent of accepting one another in an integrated society.

He was halfway through the sermon, and the gist of his remarks was becoming abundantly clear, when a man stood up in the middle of the congregation and shouted angrily: “I didn’t come here to listen to this kind of junk, I came to hear Mass.”

The priest stopped and waited.  This exasperated the man even more, and he demanded that the sermon be brought to an end at once, otherwise he would leave.

The priest continued to wait in silence, and another man in the congregation, amid the murmuring support of many voices, got up and protested against this doctrine to which he saw fit to refer to as “crap.”

As the priest still said nothing, the two men left the church followed by about fifty other solid Christians in the congregation.  As he went out, the first of them shouted over his shoulder at the priest: “If I miss Mass today it’s your fault.”[1]

Merton, at the conclusion of this story, said plainly, “Incidents like this have a meaning.”

Instead of completing  “the rest of the story,” instead of allowing Merton the space to tell us “the answer,” I want to leave the rest to my readers.  Whether you are Catholic or Protestant, this story has a meaning.  Whether you live in the South in the 60’s or Europe in modern times, this story has a meaning.  This story bears meaning for the churchgoer and secularist alike.  Your context, your experience, your hopes and aspirations, your fears and anxieties – all of these will shape and inform the meaning that you bring to story.  Yet I believe this story has powerful and universal meaning for us.

The question that I want to ask you, the question that I encourage you to comment on here is, “What does this story mean to you?  Where does this meaning manifest in your world today?” 

“I do not have clear answers to current questions.  
I do have questions, and, as a matter of fact, 
I think a man is known better by his 
questions than by his answers.”
Thomas Merton

[1]             Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, NY: DoubleDay, 1966, 104-105.