A Wasted Week

No, this isn’t about drugs or about being adrift at sea. It is about a wasted week. But, since the particular week hasn’t come yet, I guess it is about a week to be wasted. At least that is what some people might think about my coming week….

First of all, the week in question has one more day than your run-of-the-mill week. My week will has eight full days. Better yet, all eight days will be spent in silence. Literally, yes! No television, smart (or dumb) phone, computer, radio, etc. “So what is it, solitary confinement?” you might ask. Not solitary by any stretch of the imagination. I will have about twenty-five (silent) companions.

So what will be going on? Well, it will be my annual retreat, that is, an eight-day period of prayer and reflection. Glorious! I know that some of you are underlining the word “wasted” in my title – what a way to waste a good week! Really, I can assure you that it is not a waste, but a splurge.

Each and every one of you should think of making one of these retreats even if it is only for one day. It is a time of calm and relaxation for both body and spirit, a time to reassess the past year, a time to check on your character, your habits (good and less impressive), a time to plan what progress you hope to make in the year ahead. It is a time for accountability and calm. A time to contemplate and pray.

While I am at it I promise not to pray only for myself, but also for you because you are part of my past year and will hopefully be part of the year to come. May your hearts be at peace. May a little quiet time enfold you. May your days be straight and your steps secure. So, I will pray for you and hope you pray for me, too.

here is crabby mystic at work...

here is crabby mystic at work…

Blessings all around!

Matthew and Consolation (Mt 5:4)

“Blessed the sorrowing; they shall be consoled.” Sometimes this beatitude is translated: “Blessed those who mourn.” This is the beatitude that enters our conscientiousness whenever we are faced with the death of a friend or loved one. The human heart cannot avoid the sorrow it feels at the prospect of losing someone held dear. And the Lord is confirming our natural reaction: “You will be consoled.” Our sorrow will be turned to joy.

However, unless one is in the midst of a sorrowful time, this beatitude isn’t too consoling. No one looks forward to sorrow or to mourning. We also mourn for other kinds of loss. Sorrow in the sense of regret or penance is not a negative, but a cause of great consolation (all around). The great announcement of Jesus was this: “Reform your lives, the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent!” This is a command that each of us should take seriously. By complying with it we will please Jesus and be worthy of entering his kingdom. Our sorrowing should also extend to all sin, to every sinner, to all social and institutional evil, to all malice, ill-will, scandal, and to every evil, all of which require repentance along with mercy. Those embroiled in any of these things will not necessarily recognize their state or what is happening to others because of their choices. If we do see the error, the sin, we are called to sorrow for it, to mourn it. Allow yourself to be grieved by offense to God, to be moved by the modern Ninevites who don’t know their moral right hand from their left. Take them to heart, suffer for them and with them. In this way you will console the heart of God and be consoled in turn. This is to possess the heart of God.

Among a set of sentences found around the tabernacle in each chapel of the Pauline Family, is one that speaks to this beatitude. It says: “Live with a penitent heart.” In other words, be constantly attentive to the sufferings around you be they an offense of God or simply a breach of good sense. Do not think of this as a morbid sentiment. This kind of sensitivity is beautiful and helps one develop a closeness to the heart of the Lord of Life who went so far as to die for the sins of humanity. In his human nature, Jesus was the great consolation of God.

Passionate Week

Christ on the Cross by Leon Bonnat, circa 1874

Christ on the Cross by Leon Bonnat, circa 1874

We are between the most tragic and most triumphant days of the liturgical year: the agony and the ecstasy of Christianity. This past Sunday was Passion Sunday. The normally short reading of the Gospel was replaced by the entire account of the last days of the earthly life of Jesus. We followed him from the exuberant entry into Jerusalem when he was hailed as king to his last supper with the disciples, his betrayal, the mock trials, the false testimonies, failure of justice, police brutality, horrifying execution and death. This was the passion of Jesus Christ.

The word itself – passion – conjures intense feeling. It is not necessarily a term used for our thoughts, although one can be intellectually passionate in the pursuit of some truth. When we use the word, passion, we generally apply it to something just slightly over the top, intense, driven. This describes well the feelings accompanying the reading of the Passion account. Those involved in this drama acted on passion: the crowd who chanted his praise in their spontaneous procession into the city; those who shared an intimate meal and pledged to die with him (if it came to that); the one who panicked and made a deal to set himself up; the predetermined judgments based on the lies of false witnesses; the pitiful authorities attentive only to pride and self-preservation; perverted guards too easily worked into a frenzy by their temporary power; the self-righteous leaders who gloated over their victory as one otherwise innocent man “died for the people”; and those same unworthy leaders who demand a squadron of guards to insure their Victim remained dead and buried. These, except when speaking of the fervent welcome of the crowd as Jesus entered Jerusalem, were the evil passions at work in the Passion.

Other passions were in play as well. We see the anxiety of the apostles as Jesus speaks to them during that last meal together, the initial confusion and anger of the man pressed into service to help carry the cross, the resolute strength and devotion of the youngest apostle, John, the uncontrollable weeping of the women along the road and the great sorrow of the woman who walked along beside her son. And Jesus himself was driven by his own passions. They were two: that the Will of his Father be accomplished and that his life be spent entirely for our salvation. Jesus did not only suffer his passion, but he offered his passion. The difference is immense! He came to our world to accomplish our salvation, that is, to bring about the reconciliation of God and the human family, to mend the relationship severed by sin. This he did passionately, freely, intensely, lovingly.

Next Sunday will be Easter, the day of triumph, when the Passion becomes Exultation. We really shouldn’t think of Jesus’ Resurrection as a reward for his suffering. That is short-changing the Event. That perspective is too human. His rising from a real death to new life (Resurrection) is the fulfillment of the restored relationship between God and the human race. In the Risen Jesus, we, fallen humanity, are restored to our rightful dignity as God’s children, destined to eternal life with God.

During this week between the agony of sin and the ecstasy of redemption, let’s think of our response to so gracious a gift. Are the passions I suffer and the passion I feel always directed to my relationship with a loving God in Jesus Christ my Lord?

Matthew and the Message (Mt 4:23 – 5:1-2)

Christ Preaching - Rembrandt

Christ Preaching – Rembrandt

Jesus’ disciples, those first fishers of men were certainly rewarded in what they witnessed early on. Jesus was on a tour of Galilee. He was invited to speak in synagogues, he preached, he cured the sick, and his reputation continued to expand. People from all over the area brought their sick to him and he cured all of them of every kind of malady. Great crowds actually followed him, coming from Jerusalem and all the known locations around, but the fishermen were his men. These were days of euphoria!

The Gospel reads as if all this activity happened in a single day. Matthew says, “when Jesus saw the crowd….” Maybe he was just so preoccupied with all those in need that he didn’t notice the huge following he now had. However, it more likely reads that ‘now that there was such a crowd following him, Jesus went up above them on an elevation and took the opportunity to speak to them.’ It might also be a way of saying that now, as his ministry began, he took the opportunity of this large, docile following to lay out what the kingdom meant. He centered the message on his listeners. He caught them up immediately by telling them what was in it for them, why this was crucial and how it involved them. He laid out what are known as the beatitudes. These are the description of the blessed, the attitudes or keys to the promised kingdom – promised, and in fact, right in their midst. Not solely of the future, but life beginning now.

These statements are so simple and in-your-face that they can actually elude us. They can be read through as if they were only poetic platitudes, or on the contrary, too distant or too difficult to be meaningful in the here and now. The beatitudes are an individual and collective description of membership in the Kingdom. They are a very easy set of guidelines for being a follower of Christ (which by the way is not a passive thing – we can no longer come along for the ride, to enjoy the hype and sympathize with the troubled times). This is us! We are Christ! So the beatitudes, this description set out by Jesus is something very real and very now!

In Matthew every beatitude begins with the word “blessed”, that is, happy with finality. It is not a happiness that is here now and gone tomorrow. This is abiding happiness; this is joy. Not giddy, not untested and unpestered happiness, but enduring, deep, and eternal. It means to have the hand of God resting on you. Here and hereafter are one.

In the real (liturgical) world, we are entering the fifth week of Lent. We are a bit more serious now because next Sunday is Passion Sunday and the climax of the Lenten Season follows. If I may make a suggestion: pick up your Bible and turn to the beatitudes (Mt 5:1-12). Spend a little time reflecting on how the beatitudes define the life of Jesus right up to the Cross, and then how they define your life as well.

Matthew and the Dawn (Mt 4:12-22)

After hearing of John’s arrest, Jesus left Nazareth and went to Capernaum in Galilee. This was not a bad choice; it was by the sea. But Jesus went because it was the plan. Not vacation, not even an escape. Prophecy placed him there. And Jesus knew that John’s ministry was nearly over and his must commence. He was to begin in “heathen Galilee” with “a people living in darkness.” Not unlike our reformers who begin with an inner city ghetto or some outpost of sin. Why shouldn’t the Dawn begin in darkness? Prophecy has Galilee sounding so bad that death hangs over it like a threatening cloud, but no longer, for “Light has arisen.” And so Jesus begins by taking up John’s theme: “Reform your lives. The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Here is the other reason why prophecy places Jesus in Galilee: the future apostles are there. We can suppose many things then about Galilee. Either it wasn’t totally a bad place or Jesus had been preaching awhile and had won these men over from not so stellar lives by his call to reform. Perhaps as Matthew encapsulates the scene, these men were immediately taken by the presence and invitation of Jesus. Or, we could speculate that they had occasion to hear him preach and had taken time to observe this new man in town. When he happened by their boats with his invitation, they literally ‘jumped ship’ and followed him. Both sets of brothers – Peter and Andrew, James and John – were in the process of casting nets so Jesus’ words, “I will make you fishers of men,” hit the right chord.

Perhaps we know nothing practical or realistic about the art of fishing, but the concept makes sense. Every Christian wants to be part of the great fishing fleet of the Church. It is a great thrill to bring someone to Jesus. It may be a family member, a friend, a total stranger, someone who comes because of us, but without our being aware of doing anything. That someone may be a person we taught, greeted, served, prayed for, or simply loved.

Matthew and the Baptizer (Mt 3:1-12)

What an interesting man John the Baptizer must have been! No wonder people came out to see him. He had one basic message: “Get your act together. God’s kingdom is about to come.” We imagine him a bit wild looking. His clothing was out of the ordinary (animal hides) and his food as well (grasshoppers and wild honey). Yum!  People not only came to hear him, but they confessed their sins to him and received the baptism he gave. He demanded true repentance, as seen in his rejection of the leaders who came only to check things out. He was severe with them: “Brood of vipers! Give some evidence of your sincerity. Don’t simply count on being children of Abraham. God will give other children to Abraham. Things are about to change dramatically. I’m only a herald, a sign of the One who comes. In fact, I’m unworthy to even serve Him. His baptism will be in the Holy Spirit and in fire. He will clear the threshing floor of this life, gathering the good and throwing the chaff into unending fire.”

Well then…!

This is a message for the ages! Even today John continues preparing the way because we keep losing it, both as a people and individually. The reign is actually here, but each of us needs reminding that our own threshing will be over at death. It’s time to start heading for the good pile. The image of gathered wheat and burning chaff is very compelling.

John was born for his mission. He was the one who rejoiced in his mother’s womb at the approach of the unborn Messiah in Mary’s womb. Sometimes it seems so hard to identify our life’s mission, never mind following it from birth, and with such gusto throughout life. And yet, we who received Baptism as babies do have our mission early on: we were reborn as followers of Jesus Christ. That may appear a little wild to some folks; our clothing is Christ himself and our food is definitely Unique!

John lived a Lenten existence for his thirty-some years. May his message and example inspire us this Lent to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to the Lord we follow.

Matthew and Wisdom (Mt 2:1-12)

One of my earlier posts was about the Magi, but I’m giving them a repeat performance. Why? Because they offer such a necessary example for us who are seekers today.

Matthew’s Gospel describes men of faith who are in search of truth. They are star-gazers, men learned in the study of the physical heavens. They were obviously familiar with Jewish prophecy for they knew where the Messiah-King was to be expected. It seems that their inquiry with King Herod took him by surprise (probably not a very religious man) and he had to call in his own scholars (also not too religious, it would seem). The Gospel reads as if they had the appropriate scripture at hand (in the library perhaps), but aren’t aware of the star (inattentive). Herod tries to play nice, promising to go adore the new king as soon as his visitors returned with a location. He didn’t offer to accompany them or to send anyone with them, but must have put a tail on them because, even though they didn’t report back to him, his soldiers were sent to kill all young boys in Bethlehem. Actually, the prophecy pinpointed Bethlehem, but I don’t doubt that Herod had spies.

As for the Wise Men, the star brought them straight to the “house” where Jesus was to be found. Interestingly, we now hear of the child and a house, so probably some time had passed since the night in the stable. These truly wise seekers prostrated themselves before the child and did him homage. Imagine his parents astonishment that such persons are aware of Jesus’ existence and have sought him out. They offered gold, frankincense, and myrrh – prophetic gifts we are told. Then because of a dream (whose we don’t know), they quietly return home.

I ask myself how aware I am of the signs of my time – this present time we all live in? Where is Christ to be found in all of it? Am I a Herod, reigning in my own little kingdom oblivious to the greater plan? Am I wrapped up in my own version of truth, considering my opinions, wants, and desires to be the definition of that truth? Am I instead a true seeker?  Am I one of those wise persons, ever alert and attuned to earth and heaven, ready and willing to put myself out in order to pursue the meaning and purpose of what is revealed? When I come into the presence of God’s plan, what gift am I prepared to offer?