Thursday, December 30, 2010

The "Two Worlds" in John's Theology

In recent times, one of the more famous Gospel verses in US culture is John chapter 3, verse 16: "God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son." This passage was made famous by persons who wore rainbow colored wigs at major sporting events around the country and held this verse aloft, emblazoned on a large piece of poster board (usually written as "John 3:16"). The message, of course, is straightforward and clear: God has such regard for the world that he sent his only Son to save it and draw it into closer communion with himself. However, this passage and the meaning of it may be less clear than one thinks!

In today's reading from the First Letter of John (likely not penned by the Evangelist John but someone who was writing in his honor and memory), the author writes something that "muddies the waters" of the above mentioned scripture passage: "Do not love the world or the things of the world. 
If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him." (1 John 2:15). So, what gives? Does God love the world and should we love it by extension or not?

To resolve this apparent and not unimportant dilemma, scripture scholars tell us that there are essentially "two worlds" in John's theology. The first world, the one that God "so loved" and that we are to love by extension, is the created world and everything that is in it (creatures, cultures, all that makes up a culture which is good, true, and beautiful or that strives for this, etc....) The second "world" that is mentioned in today's first reading are all those "attitudes" which are contrary to God's will, goodness, truth, and beauty.

The importance of understanding this distinction cannot be overstated. Many a well intentioned Christian has chosen not to "get their hands dirty" in the day-to-day affairs of the world (i.e., culture, politics, etc...) under the mistaken notion that it is somehow cut off from God. This couldn't be further from the case. When God took on flesh in Christ and when Jesus carried out his ministry throughout Judea, he was constantly engaging and "mixing it up" with persons from all walks of life, to include the politicians of his day (Sadducees, Pharisees, scribes). In understanding and abiding by John's teaching regarding the "two worlds", we are empowered to be "in the world" but free enough not to be "of the world" (as the famous saying goes). To be "in the world but not of the world" implies having the faith to engage the world in all of it's diversity and complexity, trusting that the Spirit of God and the Church will help us in discerning the one world from the other. Pat, TOR

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Saving Journey From Creche to Cross: Jesus' 'Expiation' for our Sins.

Shortly after the Church celebrates the Feast of Christmas, she puts before us in the readings for daily Mass the stark reminder that the child who was "snug-as-a-bug-in-a-rug" in the creche is the same child that will, as an adult, "hang-forsaken-and-forelorn" upon the Cross for our sins. Tuesday's reading from the First Letter of John states that, "He [Jesus] is expiation for our sins, and not our sins only but those of the whole world." (1 John 2:2).

The word, "expiation" is a curious word that has been used from earliest times to describe one of the "effects" brought about by the birth, life, ministry, passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus. The word means to "atone" or to "make atonement for" and is most often associated with how Jesus' death brought about forgiveness of sins and affected reconciliation between God and humanity. While it certainly is true that Jesus' death "atoned" for human sin and essentially built a "bridge" of reconciliation between God and humanity, there is a bit of a "slippery slope" in limiting Jesus' "saving" actions to his passion and death alone: this essentially separates creche from Cross and can inadvertently "negate" to a sometimes disturbing degree the "saving" content of Jesus' journey (his teachings, healings, and, perhaps most importantly, his solidarity with the poor, sinful, and those regarded as "reprobate" or the "outcasts" of society).

If we are to keep the meaning of the creche vitally connected to the meaning of the Cross, in speaking of Jesus' life and death as "expiation" for our sins, it's essential to focus on the journey of Christ and approach "expiation" not as the issuing of a "blank check" of forgiveness for sins, but, rather, as a saving path and journey that has been opened up between humanity and God in and through the precise way that Jesus lived, suffered, and died. In other words, it makes no sense to speak of being "forgiven" in Christ (and therefore, being "saved") if one is not walking the path of Christ (reaching out to others in healing and especially in solidarity). After all, Jesus states quite explicitly, "I am the Way, the Truth, and The Life." Jesus does not write "blank checks" of forgiveness, healing, and transformation but removes sin as an obstacle so that we can journey the self same "saving" path or "Way" to the Father. Only by making the mysterious journey from "creche" to "Cross" in our own lives and in the lives of others will we then truly experience what forgiveness, healing, and transformation in Christ is all about. Pat, TOR

Monday, December 27, 2010

Feast of John the Evangelist: Visionary of a "Christic" Cosmos

The introductory lines of John's Gospel are totally unique in their fundamental approach to probing, exploring, and "mulling over" the mystery of Jesus Christ. John states, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be (John 1:1-3). Unlike the three "synoptic" Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke ("synoptic" implying a very close similarity in "viewing" and describing the life of Jesus, "syn" = one/oneness, "optic" = pertaining to the eye or vision), John's Gospel is far more developed in expressing the early Church's basic understanding of who Jesus was as Son of God and the wholly unique relationship of Jesus to God and Jesus to the Cosmos (or, the created world). This makes sense when we consider that the Gospel was written approximately thirty or more years after the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Therefore, what we read in John is not primarily about what Jesus did but about who Jesus was and who Jesus is in relation to God, the Church, and the cosmos/world. Hence, the above mentioned peculiar beginning to John's Gospel.

In the book, "Wind and Sea Obey Him: Approaches to a Theology of Nature", Robert Faricy, a Catholic professor of theology, makes an important and even fascinating distinction between the "Cosmic Christ" (St. Paul's approach to Jesus) and the "Christic Cosmos" (John the evangelist's approach). The "Cosmic Christ" of Paul refers to the "alluring" and "transforming" power of the Resurrected Jesus as he draws all things to himself in order to "sum them up" (i.e., bring them to fullness, completion, or consummation) and than unite them to God for all eternity (c.f., the following passages from Paul's letters for illustrations of the "Cosmic Christ": Romans, 8:21; Ephesians, 1:9-10; Colossians, 1:15-20; and 1 Cor. 15:27-28). John, on the other hand, views the cosmos as "Christic" in it's foundations and roots. This means that the entire creation, every atom, quark, black hole, solar system, and form of life is somehow "secretly" and "mysteriously" fashioned and formed after the "pattern" of God's Word.

For those who believe in a Triune God (God as a divinity of seamless "unity-in-diversity"), this is not so difficult to imagine: all elements that exist in the universe or cosmos are necessarily related (reflecting the relationship of God the Father and God the Son) and are likewise, in a very real way, "bonded" to each other - if nothing more than by virtue of sharing in some proximity of space, time, or both (reflecting God as Holy Spirit, or the "relational bond" between Father and Son). In other words, the entire universe or cosmos is "shot through" with the "rudimentary" structure and dynamics of the Father who expresses, the Son who is expressed, and the Spirit who brings fullness to the expression!

I know, I know, all of this may sound a bit esoteric and detached from everyday life! However, the implications of the above couldn't be more relevant and germane to all that makes up our day and our lives. When we strive to live with at least a basic faith awareness that all is grounded in Christ and is moving toward Christ, than every "ordinary" aspect, event, and detail of our lives can justifiably be viewed as having "extraordinary" potential meaning and meaningfulness: every jot, every tittle, and every iota of existence, especially human existence, is founded on Christ (or, founded on relationship, light, life, and love) and destined for Christ. This means that there isn't anything in our world or in our lives that cannot be taken into God and Christ through the Holy Spirit and "summed up" or "transformed" through the healing, reconciling, restoring, and transforming love of God. Pat, TOR

Saturday, December 25, 2010

O' Sublime Humility! O' Humble Sublimity! God Comes to Embrace the Totality of The Human Condition!

"Fall on your knees! O' hear, the Angel voices! O' night divine! O' night, when Christ was born."

St. Francis of Assisi, when reflecting on the "self-emptying" love of Christ in the Eucharist, used to exclaim, "O' sublime humility, O' humble sublimity!" The poetic combination of these words was Francis' beautiful and unique way of articulating his deep reverence and awe at the mystery of God's closeness to us in the basic, rudimentary, very unassuming elements of bread and wine (a sacramental reminder of how close God wishes to be in all that makes up our lives).

What is it that we celebrate at Christmas time? The above words from "O Holy Night" might give the false impression that we celebrate the majesty, power, glory, and victory of God. However, Francis' words come much closer to the truth of the spirit of Christmas: far from celebrating God's greatness and glory, we "fall on our knees" and stand in awe at the sight of the 'illimitable' God become limitable by taking on the whole of what it means to be a creature and to be human. The Incarnation of God in Jesus is a "paradigm" shattering event! Prior to God becoming human in Jesus, few in the Greco, Roman, Judeo, Mediterranean world would have spoke of God becoming subject to all that makes for creaturely and human existence. After the birth of Jesus, his life, ministry, passion, death, and Resurrection, people of faith can rightly speak of the suffering of God and even God being subject to the ineptitude and failure that is so often a part of human striving (remembering that Jesus died accursed prior to being raised).

Such a monumental shift in the human understanding of who God is through the "Christ event", implies a change as well in "how" God is to be most profoundly revealed and encountered. The birth of Christ that we celebrate at Christmas means that God will be "found" when person's embrace the totality of what it means to be human, which includes, but is not limited to: vulnerability, openness, receptivity, responsiveness, depth of connectedness and relatedness with all creatures and other persons, especially the needy, and, yes, even ineptitude and failure at times. Most profoundly, however, is that God is to be encountered in the human resolve to love both when that love is well-received and even when that love is spurned, rejected, refused, or lost. When persons struggle against despair and strive to love through all the events of life in faith and hope, precisely "there" Christ is born anew in our lives and our world. Pat, TOR

Friday, December 24, 2010

Final "Primer" for Christmas: Receiving The God Who Saves Us "Through" The Events of Our Lives

The readings for daily Mass from yesterday and today largely focus on John the Baptist as the herald and "precursor" of Jesus Christ. It would seem, therefore, that they are meant to serve as one last, final "primer" to our celebration of the Feast of Christmas and receiving Christ anew in our lives and world. Some of the more "salient" and relevant verses of the readings are the following: "And suddenly there will come to the temple
 the LORD whom you seek,
 and the messenger of the covenant whom you desire.
 Yes, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. 
But who will endure the day of his coming?
 And who can stand when he appears? 
For he is like the refiner’s fire, 
or like the fuller’s lye. 
He will sit refining and purifying silver,
 and he will purify the sons of Levi, 
refining them like gold or like silver." (Malachi 3:1-3); "You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, 
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
 to give his people knowledge of salvation 
by the forgiveness of their sins. 
In the tender compassion of our God
 the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
 to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
 and to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Zachariah's inspired "canticle" regarding the mission of his son, John the Baptist, from Luke 1:76-79).

With regard to the verses from the Old Testament book of the Prophet Malachi, the striking image is the Lord "refining" and "purifying" the "sons of Levi" (originally meaning the priestly caste of the Jewish community - the Levites - but, by extension also meaning all the Jewish people and, now, in Christ, all of humanity). Obviously, the purifying and refining is from sin. But, what kind of "sin" or "obstacle" is being removed in our relationship with God so that our lives and world can begin to shine with the full beauty and refulgent splendor of God's glory? While we could certainly create a very long "laundry list" of all the many and varied personal and societal sins that undermine God's glory, let's focus our query based on God's revelation of the mission of his Son, described, in part, through the canticle of Zechariah and implied directly by the precise way God chose to come us in Jesus Christ.

In Zechariah's canticle, he declares that God, in his tender compassion, will "bend low" to visit his people and seek out those who's lives are shrouded in "darkness and the shadow of death." According to Luke's perspective, which focuses largely on the poor being recipient's of God's attention and favor, we can take Zechariah's words to mean that God in Jesus seeks out those who's lives and human dignity are overlooked, undervalued, trodden underfoot, or teeter on the brink of oblivion. Furthermore, the fact that Jesus is born in a shabby, run down manger, and that he spent most of his life of ministry on "the wrong side of the tracks" in Galilee definitively affirm that God reaches out to the poor and suffering. However, for those of us who's lives aren't threatened by poverty, there is another no less important implication of the above words of Zechariah and the way that God comes to us in Jesus. The event of Jesus' birth and the precise way that this birth and life unfolds as "God with us", means that God reaches out to us in all the corners and aspects of our lives - especially in those "dark" places covered over by the "shadow of death." To be "refined and purified" in order to be prepared to receive God and Christ anew in our lives this Christmas means allowing ourselves to perhaps slowly and patiently receive the God who saves "through" every aspect of the history of our lives rather than rescuing us "from" this history. In other words, it means that we resist the impulse to flee from the angst, pain, difficulty, insecurity, neediness, darkness and shadow of death that all of our lives are touched by. When we begin the process of doing this, our lives are "refined" like "precious silver" and we become bearers of the light, life, and love of Christ and are freed from fear in order to extend this to those in our world who still await an experience of the God who continues to come to us as "Emmanuel": God with us.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Luke 1:46-56: God's Saving Presence as a 'Definitive Preference' for The Poor and Dispossessed

Luke 1:46-56 (also known as the "Magnificat", or, Mary's song of praise on behalf of God's saving plan) lays out the "agenda" of what God intends to accomplish through the birth of Jesus Christ. Through God's promise to save and his Son, Jesus, Mary tells us: God "has mercy on those who fear him in every generation," God, "shows the strength of his arm" by, "scattering the proud in their conceit," God "casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly," and, finally, God "fills the hungry with good things, and the rich he sends away empty."

The "theological profile" of God's agenda as etched out by Luke through this song of Mary is that God's saving presence and plan manifests as a "definitive preference" for the poor and dispossessed. In other words, God's saving presence is anything but "scatter shot", applying "generically" and "universally" to all, irrespective of one's fundamental orientation to wealth and needy neighbor. Luke is unmistakably clear regarding to whom God's saving outreach directly aims, applies, and embraces: namely, those who are materially poor and those who are voluntarily dispossessed of entitlement, arrogance, and ill-gotten gain.

This undeniable and unapologetic depiction of a God who's saving presence manifests as a definitive preference for the poor and dispossessed should very definitely "rattle the cages" of those who feel that God's salvation is universal and unconditional in an "absolute" sense. God's salvation is indeed a gift, and in that sense is offered "without strings attached." However, from this side of eternity, to practically and efficaciously receive this gift and allow it to take hold of one's life means that it can only be received through a particular faith orientation which strives to be dispossessed of self concern to the degree necessary to become preoccupied for those who are needy. Mary's Magnificat, and the "pull no punches" theology of Luke underlying it, is a timely reminder of who really are the privileged subjects of Christmas hope: the poor and those who become one with them in solidarity. Pat, TOR

Monday, December 20, 2010

"Advent" Faith: Wading Into the Waters of the Mystery and Ambiguity of God's Plan for Our Lives and World

Today's readings from daily Mass (Isaiah 7:10-14 and Luke 1:26-38) provide us with a stark contrast in two faith approaches: the approach of Ahaz, King of Judah (from approximately 732-716 BCE), and the approach of Mary. King Ahaz's reign over Judah was characterized by an almost complete departure from observance of the covenant formed by God with Abraham and Moses. Ahaz introduced a number of pagan practices in the royal court and even sacrificed one of his sons! Instead of depending on God alone for protection, Ahaz engaged in political intrigue and formed an alliance with the Assyrian King Tigleth-Pilesar III. In today's reading from the prophet Isaiah, Ahaz is confronted by the prophet who, in all probability and in high irony, dares the King to ask for a sign from God. The prophet and God know full-well that Ahaz will not ask for a sign because, quite frankly, he has no need of one; he has already decided that he is going to put his faith in his own agenda and political maneuverings! What is so interesting, however, is how he responds to the prophet when prompted to ask for a sign: he states, "I will not ask! I will not tempt the Lord!" Ahaz puts on the air of piety and religiosity when, in all sincerity, he has long since abandoned faith in God's mysterious ways and exchanged this for faith in his own agenda!

Contrast this with the response of Mary when she receives the message of the angel that she is to give birth to a son and will name him Jesus. Note that Mary's response is not at all like the surfaced, superficial, pseudo-pietistic response of Ahaz! Rather, it is reserved, curious and perhaps a bit cautious, and, finally, completely opened to the mystery of God's plan for her life and the ambiguity of the mystery. Her response is reserved because the glad tidings that the Angel brings no doubt comes quite unexpectedly and is even a source of a bit of trepidation! After the Angel tells her of God's plan for her life, she moves into a space of curiosity and perhaps even a bit of caution: never before has such an announcement been made to a person and, furthermore, to become pregnant outside of marriage (especially in a state of betrothal) was grounds for being stoned! However, once the Angel explains that the power of the Holy Spirit will bring about the conception and that the progeny to be born will be God's own son, she than opens herself to accepting the mystery and, even, ambiguity of God's plan for her life. This is hinted at when she states, "May it be done unto me according to your word." In other words, Mary is saying "yes" to the mystery of God's plan and very definitely does not have an "infused knowledge" or precise awareness of exactly what this plan entails!

Mary's response to God's mysterious and ambiguous plan for her life illustrates what "Advent" faith is all about. While we may not receive a message from an angel, we can be assured that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are meant, like Mary, to "conceive" Christ anew this Christmas season and beyond for the sake of our lives and the life of our world. However, this requires that we surrender an over-adherence to our own agenda, a "pseudo-pietistic" or surfaced religiosity that may purposely or inadvertently limit the growth of God and Christ in our lives (such as the notion that only the ordained are called to be fully Christ-like), and be willing, ultimately, to wade into the deep and often-times impenetrably dark waters of the mystery and ambiguity of God's hope for our lives and world. Pat, TOR

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Faith Illustration: "The 'Christification' of Creation and the 'Elevation' of Time into Eternity."

The above faith illustration was inspired by the writings of the French, Jesuit-priest and Paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Teilhard de Chardin can be considered one of the first pioneers in the fruitful dialogue between science and faith. He was a paleontologist by trade and also had an astute understanding and grasp of geology and evolutionary biology. His tremendous love of these scientific fields and his love of faith and theology led him to bring the best of both worlds together in an impressive synthesis that attempted to explain the relationship between evolution, the development of faith, and the role of both in the "progressive" movement of the world toward what he referred to as the Omega Point (the summation of all creation in Christ and the full manifestation of God's Kingdom of love and justice - c.f., 1 Corinthians, 15:27-28). For Teilhard, the natural processes of the world and the "divine process" of God's interaction, communication, and participation with the natural and cultural worlds leads to one and the same terminal point: the New Creation. The faith of Teilhard was so astute, profound, and all-encompassing that he was able to see God's handiwork both in the realm of the natural, physical history of the earth and the cultural, spiritual history of the human community. The reason, rationale, and justification for co-relating the natural and "supernatural" realms is, very simply, that God is the creator of both! The implication of admitting this is that nature and human-nature must, at least to some degree, be "hard-wired" for communion and ultimate union with God.

This faith illustration is intended to summarize and "distillate" Teilhard's vision in a way that can empower Christians and the Christian tradition to engage science, especially evolutionary science, more readily and more fruitfully. In terms of making the Christian faith believable for people of the 21st century, it simply is no longer helpful to disregard or dismiss theories of science, such as the age of the Universe (13.7 billion years) or the evolutionary development of all species (including the human) that are supported by such a large body of "inter-locking" evidence from multiple scientific disciplines (physics, biology, geology, paleontology, etc...). We also need to remember that a "theory" is not a mere "hypothesis" or "best guess" about how nature operates. Even gravity remains a theory and not a fact! Science does not postulate or establish "facts" and can never be expected to do this (this is beyond the methods of science). Science, rather, puts forward hypothesis that are tested and retested and than, if the evidence fits the hypothesis, it gradually develops into a theory that approaches near certainty of fact the more and more it is reaffirmed (as in the case of gravity, the age of the Universe, the evolution of species, and even the theory of climate change - which has approached 90% certainty....about as close as you can get in science to a fact!) So, maybe we should give science a bit of a break, no?

Ok, on to the illustration! Let's refer to the bottom, straight line as the "horizon of time" after the birth, death, and Resurrection of Christ. It is a period characterized by the guidance of the Holy Spirit (or, the Trinity, because wherever the Spirit is, there is both the Son and Father, since the Spirit represents them's that for a mind-bend!!). Note that humanity and creation are now in the process of "passing through" the transformation of the Spirit (mid-point of the spectrum). As humanity and creation continually pass through this mid-point, they move toward the end-point, or Omega Point (Christ). To the degree that creation and humanity move in this manner, the "raw material" of our experiences of creation and time is progressively transformed and "elevated" into the substance of eternity. This is represented by the "bending of time" toward the point in which each "end" of the spectrum (creation/humanity and Christ) meets. When this happens, the full-flourishing of God's Kingdom, the New Heaven's and New Earth will come to term and time will be fully "consummated" and established in eternity. This illustration, of course, does not in any way purport to represent this process perfectly. For example, it doesn't adequately take into account the reality of sin and it's capacity to move us away from the Spirit. However, it is nevertheless an attempt to carry on the very important work of Teilard de Chardin and many other Christian theologians in the important task of engaging in a fruitful and ongoing dialogue with the discipline of science in order to articulate how this world is gradually being prepared for the next. Pat, TOR

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Space Between Promise and Fulfillment: Pilgrimage

Today's readings for daily Mass oscillate from promise (Genesis 49:2, 8-10) to fulfillment (Matthew 1:1-17). In the Genesis text, Jacob (or, Israel), the great Patriarch of the Twelve Tribes of Israel (named after his sons), issues one last blessing and oracle to each of his sons concerning their future before he dies. What is essentially going on here is the transmission of God's blessing and covenantal pact that began with Abraham in and through Jacob. His sons now receive their respective inheritance and so share in this original promise of God.

In the Gospel from Matthew, we are told of the genealogy of Jesus. Beginning with Abraham, Matthew takes us through three sets of 14 successive generations of Israelites leading, finally, to the birth of the Savior. Matthew's genealogy, written to a predominantly Jewish audience (according to scripture scholars), is meant to serve as a foundational argument for how God has brought about the fulfillment of his original promise to Abraham in the person of Jesus.

Hence, these two readings, in very short order, touch on the entire sweep of salvation history from "promise" to "fulfillment." In a sense, both could be considered "poles" of salvation history with a very long continuum in between. What might the continuum from one to the other be? One way of describing the "space between" promise and fulfillment is through the symbol of "pilgrimage."

To be on "pilgrimage" in the Christian sense of the term is to essentially be journeying from promise to fulfillment. This entails having a sense of God's faithful and abiding presence (God's promise) and also an awareness of moving toward a full reception and a full sharing of newness of life in and through the Resurrection of Christ. To be a "pilgrim" implies viewing and experiencing time not as circular and repetitive but as a linear and definitive "march" toward the consummation of all creation, all life, and all history in Christ and God through the transforming guidance of the Holy Spirit. Pilgrimage, however, does not mean merely journeying toward God, it is also a journeying with God. In the fullest sense, pilgrimage is an active and engaged search for an ever deeper experience of the God who restlessly abides over, with, and through creation, continually seeking to find the lost and transform and enliven those who have been found. Pat, TOR

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The "Living" God is a God Who Fires Within Us the Incessant and Insatiable Drive for Life

"Raise a glad cry, you barren one who did not bear,
 break forth in jubilant song, you who were not in labor,
 for more numerous are the children of the deserted wife 
than the children of her who has a husband, 
says the LORD. 
Enlarge the space for your tent,
 spread out your tent cloths unsparingly; 
lengthen your ropes and make firm your stakes.
 For you shall spread abroad to the right and to the left;
 your descendants shall dispossess the nations 
and shall people the desolate cities." (Isaiah 54:1-3)

The above verses from today's first reading from Mass paint a portrait of God as one who zealously promotes the expansion and enhancement of life to it's fullest. From time to time God is referred to in scripture and the Judeo-Christian tradition as a "Living God." This speaks to the potent dynamism that exists within God's Triune life and also attempts to capture the human experience of God as One who constantly, gently - but sometimes, forcefully - calls, allures, and spurs persons on to fuller life. This drive of God's comes from the fact that God exists as a seamless Tri-unity: meaning, three "persons" whose life interweaves and interpenetrates in a never-ending, "oscillating movement" of complete giving and receiving such that the life generated is at a constant state of full capacity. In other words, God's love is a love of peak, constant, and unsurpassable fullness.

When God fashions human persons in the divine image and likeness (Genesis 1:26), God brings into being a creature who likewise has a "fire" to strive for ever-greater modes of fullness of life. Juan Luis Segundo, a contemporary theologian, makes a comparison of this drive for life within the human person with the evolutionary and thermodynamic principle of negentropy ("negative entropy": very basically, the expenditure of energy required to create greater order or organization out of lesser. One example would be the conversion of food into energy to sustain life). Segundo holds that when humans are living as God intended, they are striving as much as possible to organize the "raw materials" of life and human experience into freer and more liberated (read: "fuller") states of existence. The opposite of this, according to Segundo, is "sin" or "evil" and is akin to the evolutionary and thermodynamic principle of "entropy" (the stabilization of energy into a constant, steady state) in that a person willfully follows the path of least resistance or established, routine, and habitual behaviors that don't lead to newness of life but only to a dead end.

The key to being inspired and "fired" by the love of the Living God and striving to live in as "negentropic" a spiritual state as possible is openness and responsiveness: to God, to others, and to ourselves. It's interesting to note that entropy describes the "throttling down" of energy that characterizes a closed system. In other words, when an entity is relatively or totally sealed off for one reason or another to it's environment, than the energy it possesses will naturally reach a state of equilibrium and this equilibrium will eventually yield to diminishment and death. To remain vital, open, alive, and to reach ever-fuller states of life requires that we remain open to giving and receiving life where ever it is to be found - especially where life is threatened or is in greatest need of being fostered. Pat, TOR

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

God's "Creative" Genius

"I am the LORD, there is no other; I form the light, and create the darkness, I make well-being and create woe; I, the LORD, do all these things. Let justice descend, O heavens, like dew from above, like gentle rain let the skies drop it down. Let the earth open and salvation bud forth; let justice also spring up! I, the LORD, have created this." (Isaiah, 45: 6-8).

Yesterday's blog reflection focused on how, if we hope to have an active and lively faith, it is vitally important to be open to the "new" ways in which God is acting in our world and revealing himself. This means having a "supple" or pliable mind, heart, and imagination that is open to the "language of love" that God chooses to use in order to communicate his presence among us. This language of God's can change quite dynamically, and even radically, in order to adapt itself to the way human beings understand existence from one generation to the next. Take, for example, the above passages from the prophet Isaiah (part of today's first reading from Mass). The "language" that God uses through the prophet communicates the faith conviction that God alone is the absolute, and even direct creator of everything (light and darkness) and the author of every circumstance (well-being and woe). This "language" was fitted to the Israelite's understanding of the world, and everything in it, as directly fashioned by the hand of God, much like a potter molds a piece of clay.

Much has changed in the contemporary understanding of the world and dynamics of the universe since Isaiah's day. Modern science has made discoveries that have introduced a totally "new language" for explaining the make up of the universe. Now, instead of pointing to God as the direct creator or cause of all that is, we speak of "atoms", "DNA", "evolution", "gravity", "the law of thermodynamics", etc., as the principles that have resulted in the tremendous diversity of life that we take for granted. Any responsible, believable, and mature Christian faith more and more has to take into account the above scientific theories (at least to some degree) and than allow such theories to inform how we understand God's "creative genius" as it continues to exercise a profound influence (though undetectable by even the most powerful microscope :)

For over the past thirty to forty years, a dialogue has been unfolding and deepening between science and the Christian Faith that has helped to produce a "new language of love" in which God is communicating his "ever ancient" presence in "ever new" and profound ways. Theologian-Scientists such as Arthur Peacocke are on the "cutting edge" of articulating the faith in a way that integrates the best of what science has to offer in understanding and appreciating the dynamics of the physical world. Through the dialogue between science and faith, we are coming to appreciate a God who's creative genius lies partly in "letting be" and partly in "alluring." What this means is that God creates in such a way that God allows what is created enough space to unfold and make determinations of it's own. However, God also "allures" (namely, the human creature) to richer and fuller modes of being and becoming through invitation, inspiration, and God's own participation in the unfolding of creation (in Jesus and the Holy Spirit). God's creative genius consists in the fact that God can simultaneously call life into being (think of the "Big Bang" or the opening chapter of Genesis where God says, "Let there be light") and allow it to unfold according to it's own potential, determination, and willfulness. What hasn't changed since Isaiah's time is the conviction that God is the "absolute" creator: meaning, that all things are destined to be summed up in Christ, that Christ will turn everything over to the Father, and that God will be "all in all." (1 Corinthians, 15:27-28). Pat, TOR

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"Changing Our Minds and Hearts" To Keep Up With A God "Ever Ancient, Ever New."

St. Augustine, one of the most revered Christian writers and an early Church Father, once remarked that God is "ever ancient, ever new." This speaks to an incredibly dynamic divine reality that, while completely "conserving" the past, unceasingly marches "progressively" into the future! While people of the Christian faith generally grasp the "ancient" aspect of God, on the whole it's probably safe to say that we "limp" rather sorely when it comes to not only grasping the newness of God, but being grasped by God's new, adventurous, progressive, and forward moving Spirit!

At one level, today's Gospel from Mass (Matthew 21:28-32) is essentially about Jesus trying to communicate to the religious leaders of his day about the "newness" of God. He tells them the parable of the two sons of a vineyard owner who were asked by their father to go into the vineyard to work. One says "yes" and than proceeds to do otherwise and the other says, "no" but eventually has a change of heart and does as his father requested. Jesus than puts the question to them, "which of the two did the father's will"? The religious leaders responded in the only way they could by admitting that it was the son who had the change of mind and heart and actually went to work in the vineyard. Once Jesus has them "cornered", he than tells them that "tax collectors and prostitutes" (read: "sinners" and "reprobate") are entering the Kingdom of God before them because they responded favorably to the preaching of John the Baptist while the religious elite refused to change their minds and hearts and believe his message.

Jesus "indicts" the religious leaders of his day on the charge that they have heard John's message, they have seen the conversion of the sinners who have responded to his message and repented, and yet they have steeled themselves against doing likewise. Why have they done this? It's very likely because they have placed such importance on their religiosity, cultural biases (against certain members of society), and social status that they are blinded to the new things that God is doing in the world.

The "trap" that the religious elite of Jesus' day fell into is an ever present one. Very simply, it's the temptation to reduce God and the way that God participates in reality to the "lowest common denominator" of a particular creed, Christian communion, religion, culture, social group, political party, or the status quo default of, "it's always been done this way." However, to have a dynamic faith that is vitally attuned to God's presence right-smack-dab in our midst calls for a continuous willingness to change our minds and hearts in order to keep up with a God who is ever ancient AND ever new. Pat, TOR

Monday, December 13, 2010

Faith Illustration: Two "Trajectories" of Human Being

[Note: this faith illustration is a further elaboration of an earlier blog entry. For more information, go to]

The above faith illustration depicts two "fundamental trajectories" of being human. To begin with, all persons are necessarily oriented "toward" something and some destiny. Biologically speaking, like every other creature, humans are destined to experience and undergo the process of death. However, human persons, by virtue of possessing self-reflective consciousness (the awareness of "me", "I", and "you"), must also make a determination of the destiny and legacy that one will realize in one's life. According to Christian faith and the life and teachings laid down by Christ, persons basically follow a trajectory toward a life giving death and hoped for Resurrection or move along a path toward absolute death and final separation.

Persons on a trajectory toward death and Resurrection are those who live for something of substance, and, above all, live for the sake of others (this path is represented by the upper part of the illustration). Such a life is formed by being connected and related to others in a way that one comes into an awareness of the meaningfulness of all life and determines to be the kind of person who puts their energy at the service of nurturing life as much as possible. Through this connection and commitment to life and, above all, to other persons, one is gradually transformed more and more into a living source of divine light, life, and love (depicted by the "integration" of the three circles into one circle of light).

The opposing trajectory a person can choose either deliberately or by default (in other words, there's no way around making a decision), is an existence that is essentially "without" a commitment to something of substance and a corresponding commitment to be at the service of life and others. If this path is followed to it's conclusion and a person doesn't change course, than it leads to the kind of death that results in complete separation from others. This trajectory is symbolized by the tri-colored circles "collapsing" into the one dark circle.

The calling of God in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit is for all persons, of course, to be a "being-for/with-others-toward-death/Resurrection" following the path that leads to the full sharing of divine light, life, and love for all eternity. Pat, TOR

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Third Sunday in Advent: What God Allows is also what God Experiences

The Advent Season is a time of preparing ourselves not only for the celebration of Christmas but, above all, for the re-birth of Christ in our lives and world. Today's Gospel story concerning John the Baptist's pointed question to Jesus (Matthew 11:2-11), "are you the one to come or should we look for someone else?" gives us the opportunity to reflect on one very important and fundamental aspect of what it means to be prepared for the Lord's coming: namely, what we presume about God's presence and power.

At the time that John puts this question to Jesus, he has been imprisoned by King Herod. The question that John poses to Jesus (through John's disiciples), is likely a very loaded one. In other words, it is fair to presume that since John is languishing in prison, he is asking not only, "who are you?" but, "what are you going to do about my imprisonment?" If Jesus is indeed God's chosen one, the Messiah, when is he going to set about righting wrongs? Isn't this what the Messiah is supposed to do, after all? However, we can presume another layer of probing to John's question that is even more basic, fundamental, and profound. It is a question that has been asked by every generation of humanity from the beginning until now: how can an "all good", "all powerful" God allow evil? At the root of John's question is this very guttural, heart-wrenching, and agonizing human query into how things at times can go so horrifically wrong with the world and with life when it is supposed to be girded by goodness. Are we hopelessly deluded in believing in an "all-Good-God" or, is there something we are missing in our presuppositions about who God is, and, more importantly, "how" God is in relation to us and to our world?

If we stop for a moment and really think about the near irresolvable question, "how can an 'all good', 'all powerful' God allow evil?" it is important to acknowledge that this question likely assumes that God is somehow distant, removed, and detached from the events that unfold in our life and our world. Certainly, an "all good" and "all powerful" God cannot be intimately present to events like World War II, Auschwitz, or the genocidal campaign that continues to unfold in Darfur! When we are beset by trying, difficult, tragic, or even horrific life events, we rightfully feel very much like John languishing in captivity, asking, "if you love me, why have you abandoned, forsaken, or forgotten me?" But, perhaps our presumptions about God's presence and power are in need of a little rewiring, just as it seems John the Baptist had some "rewiring" of his own to do. Perhaps God's goodness and power are such that God can be "all-vulnerable" and take into his experience even darkness, difficulty, distress, and despair as the only real way to transform our lives and world. Maybe what God "allows" is also what God is willing to also experience in, through, and with us.

When we sing the great Advent hymn, "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" we may want to be careful what we pray for! We believe that God indeed came as Emmanuel, which translates, "God with Us" in the person of Jesus. But Jesus came in a very particular way: he was born in a lowly stable, he spent his time in the backwater, forsaken and broken places of Galilee, he walked the difficult road to Jerusalem, he was ostracized and cursed by being hung from a tree, and, only after embracing the very worst that reality had to offer did he than transform it through Resurrection. Should we expect the Lord's coming now to be any different? Will God not continue to be "re-born" in all the shabby places of our lives and world? Will God, in Christ and now the Holy Spirit, not continue spending the majority of his time in the lowly, broken places of our lives and world? Will God not continue to be accursed in the lowly, afflicted, and poor and than transform their lives and lot through the power of Jesus' Resurrection beginning here and definitively in the life to come? The Lord will indeed come again, and does come to us, again, and again, and again, but are we "wired" to experience this "all vulnerable God?" Perhaps our presumptions regarding God's presence and power are in need of a bit of "rewiring" if we are to be prepared this Advent Season to experience him in the places and the persons we may very well least expect. Pat, TOR

Friday, December 10, 2010

God's Hymn for the Universe

Sometimes it may seem like the God who is portrayed in the Old Testament is radically different than the God of Jesus Christ. For instance, how can we reconcile the inspired words of the Prophet Isaiah from today's first reading from Mass, "If you would hearken to my commandments,
 your prosperity would be like a river" (Isaiah 48:18) with Jesus' teaching that we are called to deny ourselves and take up the cross? Some Christian communities in our culture, many with disturbingly large congregations, don't try to attempt any reconciliation whatever. They unashamedly follow a "Gospel of prosperity": the belief that God wants individual persons to prosper and that being a faithful Christian has it's material rewards and privileges in this life. Such a belief is radically out of step with the life, ministry, passion, suffering, crucifixion, and Resurrection of the Lord. Furthermore, it also grossly distorts the kind of prosperity that God actually promises in and through his covenant.

To begin with, when God makes his covenant with Israel he makes his pact with an entire people. Hence, when Isaiah tells his audience in so many words, follow the covenant and you will "live long and prosper" (to quote a famous, pointy-earred Star Trek sage) he is speaking to an entire nation! In other words, the prosperity that God promises is a prosperity intended for every single person, especially those who are the most vulnerable and needy. God never promises personal prosperity to the detriment of others! Furthermore, we know from our history lessons that the Ancient Israelite's were never able to fully realize the just distribution of God's blessings (many of the prophet's railed against the unjust oppression of the poor by the rich) and eventually went into exile. But the promise of prosperity still remains in effect: it's just that now, God has "struck" a different "note", "tune", or "chord" of what this promise means in Jesus.

In and through Jesus' life, ministry, death, and Resurrection, God is conducting the same hymn of promise to the universe, albeit in a slightly different key. If injustice, suffering, and oppression are the dominant reality for most people, than perhaps God has resolved in Jesus to take that reality into himself. However, God doesn't do this to exalt suffering and make it an absolute! Rather, God enters into this experience in order to begin radically overcoming it from deep within! This continues to be the case down to our present day. Consider, for example, all of those Christians and people of good will who have entered into some form of solidarity with the people of Southern Sudan as they seek to be liberated from the oppression of their genocidal government. If this situation is eventually overcome and transformed, it will be precisely through God's presence at work in the those who have entered into the depths and darkness of the distress and suffering that is there and who have resolved to do something about it. God's hymn for the universe is the same that it has always been and always will be: the liberation and prosperity of all people and a total sharing in God's bounty and beauty. Pat, TOR

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Prophet: Harbinger of Hope (reflection on the first reading from today's Mass: Isaiah, 41:13-20)

"I am the LORD, your God,
 who grasp your right hand;
 It is I who say to you, 'Fear not, 
I will help you.'" Isaiah 41:13. Much is made of how the Old Testament prophets were seemingly quite ornery and usually harbingers of the message of God's judgment against Israel, often due to a lack of following the covenantal prescriptions of the law and for oppressing the poor and vulnerable. However this is but "one side of the coin" of what prophetic ministry is all about.

Prophet's were very basically persons who were called by God to share to some degree in the vision of God's plan for all creation. The covenant laid out by God with the Israelites, and that continues to be handed down even to this day, isn't a "quid-pro-quo" arrangement or "rulebook" for how to curry divine favor. In other words, following the prescriptions of the covenant, Ten Commandments, or Jesus' teachings doesn't entail "checking the blocks" in our relationship with God so as to reap temporal rewards! (Though many in our country are under this impression; this "heresy" is called the "Gospel of prosperity") Rather, abiding by God's promises means sharing in God's vision for creation that the covenant points to as possibilities for a world in desperate need of healing and radical reorientation.

When one begins to share in God's life and the vision that God has for the world that surrounds us, one can't help but become a "harbinger" of concern for the world and hope for the world. In other words, seeing the world more and more as God does, in all of it's grandeur, pain, difficulty, glory, brokenness, and hopefulness cannot help but stir the impulse to respond by critiquing what doesn't mesh with the divine vision and pointing to what does coincide with God's plan. The crux of the matter really comes down to opting to be drawn into divine life, opting to share in the divine way of envisioning, and than opting to work toward making that vision a reality for our world.

One concrete and timely opportunity to share in God's divine life, vision, and action for the world presents itself in the crisis currently unfolding in Sudan. In 30 days the Southern part of this country will vote on a referendum to secede from the oppressive northern regime which has enacted a systematic campaign of genocide against the people of Darfur and the people of the South. President Al-Bashir of Sudan, who has been indicted by the United Nations for genocide, is making preparations to invade the South should they secede (his forces are beginning to mass at the border between north and south). It is estimated that over 200, 000 persons in the south could lose their lives if the north invades. This is a situation that cries out to heaven! This is a situation that only the most obtuse and hardened of heart cannot help but believe God is deeply concerned about and is calling us to respond to! Objections on the part of some of our citizenry regarding the US not being the world's "policeman" simply don't hold water when we are taking about genocide. Furthermore, an invasion by the north would completely shatter the humanitarian aid infrastructure that is largely financed by the US. For the Christian and person of good will, the simple fact of the matter is that this is a question of choosing to share in God's covenantal concern, vision, and action or choosing not to. Pat, TOR (For more information on what you can do to respond to the crisis in Sudan, please visit my Facebook page, "Patrick Foley". Today I begin a 30 day vigil of prayer and reflection on behalf of the people of Southern Sudan)

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Solemnity of The Immaculate Conception: Mary's Immaculate Conception is the Beginning of the Promise of Our Immaculate "Re-conception"

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Solemn Feast Day of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The "Immaculate Conception" refers to Mary's entire person being conceived without the effects of original sin. The belief in Mary's Immaculate Conception is one that has very ancient roots and was fairly widespread before being declared a dogma. It became an official doctrine of the Church on December 8th, 1854.

One of the "dangers" of the doctrine, if not properly understood and appreciated, is that it can very easily highlight the difference between Mary and ourselves in the "economy of salvation" (i.e., God's saving plan and it's manifestation in history). If this misunderstanding is taken to an extreme, it can even make Mary seem "extraterrestrial" and almost detached from what it means to be truly human and enmeshed in human affairs. To the contrary, an accurate understanding of the doctrine can make Mary more accessible to us and more relevant to our daily lives of faith.

To begin with, it's very important to start with an adequate understanding of what original sin entails. Some refer to "original sin" as a "stain", suggesting that it has to do with impurity of some kind. Were that it was this easy! If original sin was really a "stain", and if it really had to do with impurity, humans would have figured out a way of "cleaning it off" a long time ago! Referring to "original sin" as a "stain" is highly figurative and symbolic and should not drive Christians to think that the remedy for original sin is to simply remain "pure". Original sin is far more complex and deeply etched into human existence than being a mere "stain" that can be "dabbed out" with a touch of "Clorox Anti-Original Sin" stain treatment! Original sin really isn't about purity so much as it is about integrity. Original sin is a fundamental and basic inclination on the part of the human person to turn away from God and to say "no" in the face of God's call to communion. It is a way of asserting one's self over and against God and others. It is, in essence, reducing the whole of existence to own's little universe and agenda.

In being immaculately conceived in the womb of her Mother, Ann, Mary more or less received an "advance payment" on the grace of Christ and was preserved from the original sin of dis-integrity, or the "disintegration" of her capacity to fully assent to God's call for her life. This is alluded to in today's Gospel from Luke, when, after receiving the Angel's invitation to conceive Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary responds with the simple, straightforward response of, "I am the handmaid of the Lord, may it be done to me according to your word."

Mary's Immaculate Conception, as an "advance installment" of the grace of Christ, prefigures precisely the grace and call that is extended to us. By virtue of an ongoing commitment to saying "yes" to new life in Christ, we are undergoing a radical "Immaculate Re-Conception" of our lives in order to ultimately say, along with Mary, "we are servants of the Lord, may it be done unto us according to your word." Mary's Immaculate Conception is the beginning of the promise of our "Immaculate Re-Conception" in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit! Pat, TOR

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

"Paving a Highway" for the Hearing of the Good News

"A voice cries out:
 In the desert prepare the way of the LORD! 
Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! 
Every valley shall be filled in, 
every mountain and hill shall be made low;
 The rugged land shall be made a plain, 
the rough country, a broad valley.
 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together; 
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." (Isaiah, 40:3-5).

These words of the Prophet Isaiah (part of the first reading from today's Mass) indicate that the plan of God is for God's glory to be made manifest and accessible to all. The "making of a highway" in the wasteland, the "filling in of the valley", the "leveling" of every mountain, the rugged land being made plain, and the rough country being transformed into a broad valley, is highly imaginative and figurative language which is symbolic of God's activity (through human agency) to make God's glory an "up close and personal" reality to every person.

This vivid and powerful imagery of Isaiah's raises an important consideration regarding what Christian discipleship entails. By saying that the mandate of discipleship is namely to "preach the Good News", we may actually be putting the "cart before the horse!" Meaning, before the Good News can be heard, received, and embraced, every obstacle, whether personal, interpersonal, social, political, cultural, or even, ecclesial (i.e., Church), that is in the path of God's glory must be removed. The challenge that this poses for those who profess belief in Christ is to be actively engaged, to whatever degree we can, in all of the above areas of life, seeking to remove the obstacles to God's presence and "paving a highway" for the hearing of the Good News. Pat, TOR

Monday, December 6, 2010

Luke 5:17-20: Faith for Others and Faith in Others

"One day as Jesus was teaching, 
Pharisees and teachers of the law, 
who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and Jerusalem, 
were sitting there, 
and the power of the Lord was with him for healing. 
And some men brought on a stretcher a man who was paralyzed; 
they were trying to bring him in and set him in his presence. 
But not finding a way to bring him in because of the crowd,
 they went up on the roof 
and lowered him on the stretcher through the tiles 
into the middle in front of Jesus. 
When Jesus saw their faith, he said, 
“As for you, your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 5:17-20).

In our (sadly) very polarized culture, there are two very loud opposite camps concerning how the "American Dream" should be strived for and realized. On the right you have those who wave the saber of "personal responsibility". On the left you have those who brandish the sword of "communal responsibility." In between are those who believe that realizing one's goals, hopes, or dreams in life is never purely either or but an admixture of both (with a lot of luck to boot!)

While many Gospel healing stories focus on personal encounters between Jesus and those whom he healed, the above Gospel passage from today's Mass is radically different and may offer some insight into the seeming dilemma between personal versus communal responsibility when it comes to living one's life as fruitfully, and even faithfully, as possible. In today's story, Jesus responds to the paralytics plight not by acknowledging the man's personal faith, but, rather, he recognizes the faith of those who lowered the man through the roof and heals as a result of their collective faith!

The Christian tradition has always had a very strong belief in the power of "intercessory" prayer and concern for others. What this implies is that healing, strength, and the bolstering of one's personal faith is always intimately and integrally linked to the faith of others who keep us in their thoughts, heart, and prayers. Our faith is not a "personal" possession but is meant to be a "faith for others and a faith in others." The men who went to such great lengths to carry their friend and lower him before Jesus must have had both faith in Jesus' healing power and faith in their friend's desire to be healed - otherwise, why risk life and limb? The road to a fruitful and faithful life, as this Gospel story indicates, is one that can only be negotiated by taking responsibility both for one's self and for others simultaneously. For the Christian disciple, it can never be one in isolation from the other. Pat, TOR

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The "Unquenchable Fire" of Life

Matthew 3:1-12 (today's Gospel from Mass) depicts John the Baptist at his fiery best! The picture painted of John is of a rugged, "rough-and-tumble", "no-holds-barred", "tell-it-like-it-is" type persona. His life is animated and "fired" by the acute awareness that he is preparing the way for the servant of God (Jesus) who will bring an unparalleled experience of God's Kingdom and a corresponding call to enter it. At the end of John's "flash-pan" fiery sermon in the above Gospel, he says, "I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, 
but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. 
I am not worthy to carry his sandals. 
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 
His winnowing fan is in his hand.
 He will clear his threshing floor 
and gather his wheat into his barn, 
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The image John depicts for his hearers is the harvesting of wheat during harvest time. After the wheat was collected, it would be brought to a "threshing floor" that was designed to remove the grain from the husk and also to separate it from the tares (false grain). After the threshing process, the stalks and grain were thrown up into the air so that the wind could blow away the unwanted "chaff" and leave the valuable grain (a process called "winnowing." For more information, see, John, of course, was using this imagery as an analogy to describe the mission of God's servant: to separate "wheat from chaff" and gather the wheat (the persons or fruits worthy of the Kingdom) for God. What's interesting about the above Gospel is the image of an "unquenchable fire". This is the point we want to delve into more deeply as it holds the key to understanding the implications of this reading for our lives and world!

John uses fire in two places in the above Gospel, the fire that comes with the Spirit and the fire that burns the chaff. The purpose of the fire in the first sense is to "animate", the purpose in the second is to "separate." This doesn't mean, however, that the two references to fire are necessarily distinct. One interpretation I'd like to suggest is that the fire of the Spirit is both one that animates, bringing life or fuller life, and a fire that burns away the chaff in our lives and world that doesn't accord with God's plan or Kingdom. If we simply look at the stages of human life, we can readily see how, at the heart of authentic human existence, there is the "unquenchable fire" of life just waiting to be lit!

The first "third" of life, that of youthful vigor and vitality, is generally characterized by the "fire of vision." This fire pertains to the forming of ideals and ambitions that drive one to grow, learn, and strive to set and reach goals such as going to college, finding a good job, and having/supporting a family. The second third of life is ideally defined by the "fire of contrition." This fire is lit by the awareness that life is at the midway point and it is likely necessary to make some fundamental adaptations or even to correct course. By "contrition" I don't necessarily mean the word in the strict sense of "sorrow" or "regret", but, rather, the willingness to honestly assess one's life and to make the changes required in order to grow by engaging more fully in relationships and community. The final third of life is driven by the fire of "decision." Meaning, the ultimacy of determining one's legacy: what kind of legacy will one leave in the way of love and having passed on the "unquenchable fire" of life to the next generation?

Admittedly, the above description of the "unquenchable fire" (or fires) of life is certainly idealized and neatly categorized. Many persons may not live long enough to experience each of these fires in the fullest sense. Furthermore, the above "fires" can be experienced at any point in life. However, in general this is a fairly accurate description of the "fire" that is lit within us at varying points in our life. The main, overriding point is that life has it's own "fire" inherently built into it. The key is to allow one's self to experience the fire as much as possible and allow it to bring fullness, wholeness, and holiness. The temptation is to try and "quench" the fire. For example, many persons in our culture try to "snuff out" the fire of mid-life by trying to return to their youth (i.e., having an "extreme makeover", buying a shiny sports car, etc...) What such futile efforts actually produce is simply "chaff" that will ultimately be "burned away." By opening our lives to the illuminating, animating, and guiding fire of the Holy Spirit, we can successfully "pass through" the "unquenchable fire of life" and bear the fruit of a life destined for God's Kingdom, Pat, TOR

Friday, December 3, 2010

The One Gift That's Perfectly Appropriate to Re-gift!

"Should I or shouldn't I?" I debated to myself as I contemplated re-gifting a small, ceramic, chia-pet looking terra-cotta soldier statue. Without too much hesitation I came down on the side of "I should!" And I stuffed what was probably the world's most useless and awful gift into a box, filled it with packing peanuts, and sent it to a dearly beloved community member....who had RE-GIFTED me with this awful peace of pathetic pottery some years before by the way! Since this was a gag gift, I'm hoping the normal prohibition against re-gifting can be forgiven! (If not I simply added on a little more purgatory time!)

With the economy as sluggish as it is and the unemployment rate up around 9.8 %, "re-gifting" will probably be more the norm than the exception this Christmas season! Interestingly enough, Today's Gospel from Mass illustrates how "re-gifting" is at the very heart of what it means to believe in and follow Christ. Jesus tells his disciples as he sends them out to carry on his ministry, "without cost you have received, without cost you are to give." In essence, Jesus is telling his followers that they are to "re-gift" the depth of grace and communion with God that they have experienced in himself. The gift of God is so powerful and potent that it is meant to be free flowing: moving from one person to another without being held on to as a personal possession. The reason why it needn't be "held on to" is because 1) God intends that the gifts he gives be freely and fully shared so that there be enough for all (because ALL persons are God's beloved) and 2) God is an illimitable, fountain fullness of grace and gift - meaning, there's "always more where that came from!"

Last night I watched an NBC Dateline special on the actor George Clooney's mission to stop war from breaking out in Sudan. In January, the Southern part of the country will vote on a referendum to secede from the oppressive and genocidal Northern regime of President Al-Bashir (who has been indicted by the UN for genocide). With 80% of the oil reserves of Sudan in the South, the North obviously doesn't want this to happen and is already massing troops and tanks along the border. Clooney has gone to great lengths and will continue going to great lengths, putting himself in harms way to stop the potential slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent persons should war break out in January. When Ann Curry brought the Dateline interview to a close with Clooney, his final words were, "I've been lucky. I believe that luck is to be shared, especially with those who have none." This is precisely what re-gifting is all about! Pat, TOR

Isaiah 29:17-24: "A God of Passionate Justice."

Christian spirituality in recent years has had a tendency to focus almost exclusively on a portrait of God as an all-loving, beneficent, and compassionate deity. This has served as an important corrective to an earlier inclination on the part of our tradition to paint God as a judge who liberally doles out "fire and brimstone" upon those who sin. It is probably long overdue to allow the "pendulum" to swing back in the direction of how God reckons with evil and injustice. In a world filled with so much difficulty, pain, stress, strain, and grave injustice, an accurate and faithful image of God must take into account God's passion for justice and the divine response in the face of evil.

The books of the prophets in the Old Testament is one of the best places to collect the raw material needed to fashion an accurate portrayal of God's passion for justice and final reckoning. Many of the prophets stood directly in the "line of fire" and spoke truth to power in a way that reminded the powerful that God does not sit idly by and tolerate malicious acts, evil scheming, and the oppression of the vulnerable, poor, and lowly. Throughout the Old Testament God continually reminds the Israelites of the sacred obligation to take care of the "widow, the alien, and the orphan" in their midst. Without qualification or apologies, God expresses through the prophets a preferential regard and concern for those whose life hangs by a thread.

Today's first reading from Mass from the book of the prophet Isaiah bears powerful testimony to the prophetic witness to God's passion for justice: "The lowly will ever find joy in the LORD,
and the poor rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. 
For the tyrant will be no more
 and the arrogant will have gone;
 All who are alert to do evil will be cut off,
 those whose mere word condemns a man, 
who ensnare his defender at the gate,
 and leave the just man with an empty claim."

Make no mistake, the Judeo-Christian God who is an icon of compassionate concern is also a God of an equally strong passion for justice. However, the way in which God's passion for justice becomes tangible in our world is through those who carry on the ministry of the prophets: speaking truth to power on behalf of the lowly, poor, and vulnerable in our midst. Pat, TOR

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Entrance into God's Kingdom Not a Matter of Affiliation, Nor Mere Participation, But a Matter of Total Transformation

"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?' Then I will declare to them solemnly, 'I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.' "Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined." (Matthew, 7:21-27)

This teaching of Jesus in today's Gospel from the Mass lays out for us from Matthew's perspective the criteria for entering into God's Kingdom or Reign. To begin with, it's important to note that Matthew's gospel was written to a Jewish audience, some of whom may still have been wrestling with how to simultaneously hold their Jewish faith with their new found Christian faith. For faithful observers of the Jewish faith, this meant a robust sense of affiliation and participation. Affiliation refers to identity. Part of what made a Jew a good, observant follower of the Hebrew law and covenant was a strong sense of identity. Participation flows directly from this sense of identity and reinforces it: in addition to participating in weekly Sabbath observance and seasonal holy days, there were many religious customs that a good, faithful, law abiding Jewish person was encouraged to perform in order to fully participate in the Jewish faith.

Jesus, however, directly challenges these presuppositions by stating that affiliation and participation are simply not enough to enter into God's Kingdom that is already among us and still yet to come. By saying, "not every one who says to me, "Lord, Lord," will enter the Kingdom of heaven," Jesus says in so many words that identifying one's self as Jewish or Jewish-Christian (or Christian in our own day) does not suffice. Furthermore, it's not even enough to participate in the faith by ministering in Jesus name!

This of course begs the question, "well, than, how DOES one enter God's Kingdom?" This is alluded to by the parable of the person who built their house on rock versus the one who built it on sand. To build on rock one has to hew deeply and put forth a great deal of effort in order to lay a foundation that can weather the storms of life. To lay one on sand, of course, implies not digging very deeply nor expending much effort. What "laying one's foundation on rock" means in terms of entering God's Kingdom is that it requires a total transformation of one's unconsciously held presuppositions about life, human existence, and God and the core of one's attitudes, convictions, and values. Nothing less than a commitment to the process of wholesale transformation is ultimately implied if one is to become like Christ and fully enter the "New Creation" that is already growing in our midst. Pat, TOR

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Miraculous Healing and Nourishing that Comes from Within Ourselves and from Supportive Relationships of Faith, Hope, Love, and Trust

The "discerning" eye can detect and chart a very definite development in the way that God "reaches out" to humanity to bring healing and sustenance. In the Old Testament, God reaches down from "on high" in a very extrinsic way to show care, concern, and solicitude to the Ancient Israelite people. One example is when God "rains down" manna on the Israelites as they are on the move from Egypt to the Promised Land.

In Jesus, God's miraculous intervention on behalf of persons is "lower keyed" and more intrinsic; meaning, God's solicitude manifests in part through his power at work in Jesus and partly as a result of the faith response of the other. As a matter of fact, Mark 6:1-6 relates the story of how Jesus was unable to perform miracles in his hometown because of a fundamental lack of faith on the part of the towns folk. It would very much seem that the "rules" for God's outreach and the experience of God's power among people had undergone a very definite change once God took on flesh in Christ. Instead of power coming down "from on high," divine power now only manifests in the context of a relationship based on shared faith. Today's Gospel from Mass (Matthew 15:29-37) which relates the story of the miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes, provides another example of how God's power is at work not only in Jesus but in and through humans and human relationships. When Jesus seeks to address the needs of the hungry crowd, he doesn't call down manna from heaven, rather, he looks to others for the "raw materials" to produce an abundant miracle. It's important to note that once he multiplied the few fish and loaves that were given to him, he than gives them to the Apostles who in turn distribute them among the crowd. This miracle is not only a miracle of feeding but, perhaps more importantly, a miracle of sharing.

Do miraculous healings and feedings continue to take place in our lives and world? Is God still at work among us in as powerful a way as in the Old Testament or Jesus' time? The answer, I believe, is a resounding "yes"! By virtue of the fact that God and Jesus have freely shared their Holy Spirit with us, this means that "miraculous" healing and nourishing now come from within ourselves and from within supportive relationships of faith. The phenomena of "support groups" that have emerged over the course of the last half century bear powerful testimony to how God's power is at work. When people come together to share similar experiences of sorrow, struggle, brokenness and pain nothing short of a miracle happens: silence is broken, shoulders are shared in mutual support, and an abundance of resources miraculously emerge to bring about healing and wholeness. Make no mistake, God is still at work in our lives and our world: only now, God works from deep within our hearts and from deep within supportive relationships based on faith, hope, love, and trust. Pat, TOR