Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Richness Through Reciprocity

Today's Gospel for Daily Mass (Mark 4:1-20) is the Parable of the Sower and the Seed. The parable describes how a farmer spread seeds throughout his field and than what happened to the seeds. Some seeds failed to take root (the seeds that fell along the path), some seeds took root but didn't last long (the seeds that feel on rocky ground), other seeds took root but than were choked by thorns, and, finally, the last batch of seeds found fertile soil, struck deep root, and produced a harvest 30, 60, and 100 times what was sewn (truly an astronomical amount of yield for the people of Jesus' time). Jesus than goes on to describe to his disciples that the seed represents God's word, and the different soil represents different types of receptiveness to the word.

The typical approach to interpreting this parable and it's implications for Christian life is to either focus on the seed or the soil. While each of these approaches is perfectly valid and yields (no pun intended) food for thought, another approach is to consider the relationship between the seed and the soil. To begin with, the seed, as rich and potent as it is, can accomplish little or nothing without finding rich and fertile soil. Only then does it strike root, grow to maturity, and bear fruit. If we think about it for a moment, this is quite astounding given the fact that we are talking about God's word! Why can't God's word bear fruit regardless of the environment that it settles in? Well, to put it quite simply, it's because God's word doesn't work that way (and neither does God). The manner in which the word operates in our lives and our world is reflective of the divine life. The Word which has been spoken by God from all eternity is so rich and "thick" with existence that it is simultaneously God's very self and also constituted as an "other" within God. As an other within God, this Word, or, God's Son (Jesus) also reciprocates the self-same love extended to him by the Father. This rich, "reciprocal dance" of seamless giving and receiving of love is what we refer to as the Holy Spirit (also so rich and thickly expressed that it is likewise constituted a person).

What this means for human and Christian life is that when God speaks, the richness and potency of God's word is only half of the equation. In order for that word to take root and bring about a harvest of transformation in our lives and world 30, 60, or even 100 fold requires an equally rich reception of the word. It requires openness and vulnerability. St. Francis of Assisi perhaps said it best when he told his followers, "let us always make a home within ourselves for God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit." The richness of divine life that God has to offer is not something that is ever imposed or forced upon us. Not only is this reflective of the dynamics of divine life, but it is also the case with human life. In order for authentically human words expressive of truth, honesty, integrity, vulnerability, and love to take deep root within the human heart and to transform our lives, they must be welcomed, received, and, ultimately, returned. In both divine and human life, it would seem, richness comes through reciprocity. Pat, TOR

Monday, January 24, 2011

Christ's Priesthood: "Mediation Through Participation."

One of the unique features of the Letter to the Hebrews is the manner in which it refers to Jesus as "High Priest." In today's first reading for Daily Mass from Hebrews, the author speaks of Jesus having entered heaven "that he might now appear to God on our behalf." (Hebrews 9:24). The letter also refers to him as "mediator of a new covenant." (Hebrews 9:15). What are we to make of Jesus as "High Priest" and his role as intercessor and mediator?

To begin with, I think that it's helpful to approach the priestly images of Jesus in Hebrews in a figurative and symbolic sense and not literal. If we take the images of Hebrews literally, than the above images conjure up an idea of Jesus pleading our case before God like a defense attorney or sitting on a throne at God's right hand. Such images put God, Jesus, and even the Holy Spirit at some distance from our selves and our day-to-day affairs and may not be helpful to "tapping" the root reality of the Trinity inhibiting the depths of our lives, relationships, and world. There is also the danger that Christ's role as mediator is reduced to the lowest common denominator of making requests of him when we are in need.

The deeper reality being pointed to through the images of Jesus as High Priest and mediator in Hebrews is more along the lines of Jesus' Priesthood consisting of a "mediation through participation." This implies that Jesus' earthly and resurrected life is now deeply and inextricably woven into the fabric of what it means to be fully human (this "thread" running through our lives is the Holy Spirit). Therefore, following this line of thought to it's logical implications, Jesus "mediates" most powerfully for us when we likewise participate in the Paschal Mystery that he has passed on to us by giving our lives and very selves in love and service to others. The way that he "mediates" his new and Resurrected life for us is when we experience him walking behind, beside, and before us, sharing his companioning presence with us and empowering us to do the same for others. In this way, we likewise share in the ministry of Christ's priesthood and help "mediate" the promise that "all will be made new." Pat, TOR

Saturday, January 22, 2011

It is Precisely in Those "Places" of Darkness and the Shadow of Death That We Experience the Dawning Light of God's Saving Power

"Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali,
 the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan,
 Galilee of the Gentiles,
 the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light,
on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death 
light has arisen.
" (Matthew 4:15-16)

Why did Jesus spend the majority of his ministerial career in Galilee? Scripture scholars offer varying opinions. According to Barnes Notes on The New Testament, “It shows the great compassion of the Saviour, that he went to preach to such poor and despised sinners. Instead of seeking the rich and the learned, he chose to minister to the needy, the ignorant, and the condemned. His office is to enlighten the ignorant; his delight to guide the wandering, and to raise up those that are in the shadow of death. In doing this, Jesus set an example for all his followers." While this may be true to an extent, the problem with part of this interpretation is that it overlooks the fact that the needy and "sinners" in all the Gospels are the privileged recipients of Jesus' presence (i.e., they are given preference over the wise, the learned, the sleek and the strong); in other words, if this interpretation is taken to the extreme, it seems a bit condescending!

A more profound reason for why Jesus chose to sojourn with those who "dwell in darkness and the shadow of death" is because this is where Jesus knew he would encounter God and the Reign of God. We have to remember that, as fully human, Jesus didn't simply "bring" God or God's Reign to others; rather, he also encountered God and the Kingdom and than called others to attune themselves to this presence. The profundity and the implications of such a notion cannot be overstated! To begin with it suggests that God and the Kingdom of God, while "diffusely" present (meaning everywhere) is also present in concentrated form. What this means, of course, is that there are "places", both literally and figuratively, where God and God's Kingdom can often (but not always) be encountered and experienced to a greater degree than others. One symbol for where we are to likely to find God and God's Kingdom working it's way through creation? Galilee!

Galilee as a symbol refers to all those "places" in our lives and world that are shrouded in "darkness" and the "shadow of death." With regard to our lives and relationships, Galilee refers to those "places" where there is pain, brokenness, sorrow, fear, anxiety, terror, and, perhaps dysfunctional or addictive patterns of coping and behaving. Galilee is also symbolic of those physical places of our world that are suffering in one way or another. One such place that comes immediately to mind is Sudan. This country has been torn asunder from civil war and genocide and is full of tension as it awaits the results of a recent referendum that will likely result in the country being divided in two! However, the Kingdom is mysteriously and profoundly present in the undaunted hopes of the Sudanese people who continue to cling to it despite having so many reasons to give in to despair!

Very often we may find ourselves in full flight from such tense and uncomfortable spaces. Certainly our culture doesn't encourage us to "go there" and offers us many distractions to encourage us, whether advertently or inadvertently, not to got there! However, what if in not "going there" we are fleeing not only from ourselves but from God? What if in not "going there" we are missing out on the raw and deep beauty of life which defies logic by also including, and somehow transforming, the tragic? I learned this first hand, and continue learning it, by examining my own history of loss and tragedy. At the age of four I lost my mother. For most of my life I lived as if I were "hatched" and pretended that this idea would suffice. Well, needless to say, it didn't! Humans aren't hatched! After many subtle, and not so subtle, ways of trying to avoid my own "Galilee" of tragedy and loss, I have ever so slowly come to face it and have begun "going there." What have I encountered? A transforming power and love the likes of which I never imagined existed. What I am learning through my own experience, and through the experiences of persons such as those in Sudan, is that it is precisely in those "places" of darkness and the shadow of death that we experience the dawning light of God's saving power. Pat, TOR

Friday, January 21, 2011

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: Sharing Our Story, Breaking the Bread, Knowing Our Rising From the Dead

"We come to share our story, we come to break the bread, we come to know our rising from the dead." (Refrain from "Song of the Body of Christ", by David Haas)

This week the Church calls us to pray for Christian unity among the many different Christian denominations. Inherent in this is also a calling to acquire a particular focus and way of valuing the unity that we already share and to work toward resolving our differences with mutual respect. A number of Gospels from this week's liturgies are instructive with regard to the kind of attitude and heart that is needed in praying for and working toward Christian unity. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday's Gospels tell the same basic story of how the Pharisees and religious "professionals" of Jesus' day hounded his every step, calling into question his practices and those of his disciples. It seemed that Jesus overlooked certain traditions the religious leaders followed in responding to the needs of those around him (such as healing on the sabbath). Jesus, for his part, is incredulous, angry, and grieved in his heart at the stubborn refusal of the religious leaders to shift their focus from observing every jot and tittle of the law in order to respond to the invitation, call, and the demands of mercy and love that the law should be subservient to.

What's at issue in these Gospel stories is much more than a matter of focus. When we focus on something and place a great deal of emphasis on it, this really reveals what we value and hold dear. For the religious elite of Jesus' day, they valued their ability to strictly follow all the customs surrounding the law and the rewards, esteem, and prestige that followed. Jesus, on the other hand, valued persons and embraced the inexhaustible mystery of every one who crossed his path. He didn't judge by appearance nor dismiss someone because they were "untouchable", "unclean", or otherwise a "sinner." Rather, he was able to heal so profoundly in part because he saw and valued the depth dimension to everyone (the presence of God within them) and was able to draw this out so that God could become more fully a part of their lives.

To pray and strive for Christian unity requires a shift in focus and a reordering of our values. There is already so much that unites us (namely, Christ and the Holy Spirit) but this often gets lost through an obsessive focus on tradition. Rather than focus disproportionately on our respective traditions, we must, like Jesus, learn to value persons singularly and as members of Christ's Body (regardless of what denomination they adhere to). Ultimately, what serves as a basis for Christian unity is precisely what David Haas articulates in the above refrain from his song, "The Song of the Body of Christ": sharing our story, breaking the bread, and knowing our rising from the dead." Pat, TOR

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

What it Means to Say That Jesus "Learned Obedience From What He Suffered." (Hebrews 5:8)

There are some verses in scripture that are so loaded in their implications for human and Christian life that entire books could be written on them and still probably not exhaust their meaning! Such is the case with Hebrews 5:8. The verse states that, "Son though he was, Jesus learned obedience from what he suffered." There are two "problems" that this verse highlights: 1) that Jesus needed (or chose) to learn obedience, and 2) that the "instrument" of learning was suffering. More to the point, we could ask, "why did the Son of God need (or choose) to learn obedience?" and "how did suffering lead him to learn this lesson?"

The importance of addressing these questions or difficult problems "head-on" cannot be overstated: they deal with how we relate to God (Father, Son, and Spirit) and how we approach the gut-wrenching question of suffering as an inherent part of life. To begin with, why did Jesus need or chose to learn obedience? Many Christians may find this difficult to understand because they have been inadvertently taught that Jesus, by virtue of being God's Son, was somehow "perfect" and therefore knew exactly how his life would play out, even from a very early age. It's almost as if Jesus had a "spiritual GPS" or blueprint that charted every turn, twist, and decision he was supposed to make well in advance. However, if Jesus had foreknowledge of the events of his life, this would hardly make him human, and, furthermore, it would hardly make him perfect (in the biblical sense)! A more scriptural notion of perfection has little to do with knowledge and performance and much more to do with embracing life and God's call to be as fully human as possible. Embracing life and being as fully human as possible also means to be obedient. Obedience is not primarily about doing what one is asked (this is the "lowest common denominator" approach). From the perspective of scripture and Christian spirituality, obedience is about love and responding to God's will that we be as open and responsive to the invitation, call, or demands of love at any given moment.

To embrace life and the fullness of what it means to be human was something that Jesus had to "grow" into - it was not automatic. There are actually stories in the Gospel where Jesus shows tangible signs of human development and growth. Take, for example, the story of the Canaanite woman who pleaded with Jesus to heal her son (Matthew 15:21-28). He initially responds by saying that he didn't come to entertain the requests of Gentiles such as herself! However, she is undeterred and seemingly teaches Jesus a lesson by saying, in so many words, that the Gentiles are also under God's care! Embracing life and being fully human apparently means that we not only learn from life but that we learn from others! Jesus was not above or beyond this.

Finally, Jesus was not beyond learning obedience, or learning how to endure in love, from what he suffered. As a matter of fact, obedience to God's call to love is most radically and deeply affirmed and honed when we say "yes" to this calling especially in the face of suffering. Suffering affects us as no other experience. Unlike the suffering of animals or other creatures, humans suffer far more profoundly because suffering poses a threat to all that we hope for and strive to realize in our lives, in the lives of others, and even in our world. We suffer because we love; and, when we love deeply, we suffer all the more. Obedience is "honed" through suffering in the sense that when we refuse to allow our capacity to be human and our willingness to love to be crushed by the suffering of life, we not only love, but, like God, we become love itself. This is precisely how Jesus learned the obedience of love by what he suffered: through refusing to allow his spirit to be crushed by suffering and becoming completely one with the God who is Love. Pat, TOR

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Jesus the Christ: "Universal" and "Particular" Savior

"I will make you a light to the nations,
 that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth." (Isaiah 49:6). "Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” (John 1:34).

The above verses from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah and the Gospel of John serve as a basis for exploring one of the most urgent problems Christian theology and spirituality has faced in the last century: the notion that Jesus is both "universal savior" (the one who brings salvation "to the ends of the earth") and "particular savior" (the one who alone is "Son of God"). In so many words, the problem is framed in terms of, "how does one bear witness simultaneously to the fact that God wills to save all people yet does so precisely through a particular person?"

To begin with, let me give you an idea of how not to do this. When I was studying theology in San Antonio, Texas, I vividly remember visiting Assumption Seminary and seeing on one seminarian's door the words that went something to the effect of "My Idea of Ecumenism" with a poster of a crusader underneath! Now, if this young candidate for the priesthood thought that the best way to share the Catholic faith with other Christians (which is what Ecumenism is) was by wielding the sword of "I'm right and you're wrong", what do you think his approach would be with non-Christians? A truly disturbing thought if you ask me!

I put forward this example for consideration because it represents a very dangerous, self-rightous movement in Christian and Catholic circles known as fundamentalism. The fundamentalist approach often focuses on Jesus only as "particular" savior (meaning unless one is Christian, one cannot be saved). This ideological approach seeks to simply to "drive home" the point that Jesus is Lord - usually as forcefully as necessary. It should go without saying that this mode of Christian witness is no longer acceptable in an environment that is becoming increasingly plural and diverse in terms of religious belief. What Christians and Catholics must be able to do is to speak both to the fact that God wills the salvation of all people (meaning Jesus is "universal" savior) and has accomplished this through the concrete life of Jesus the Christ (meaning Jesus is also "particular" savior).

One approach to this problem is to focus on how the "particular" life of Jesus Christ, and the subsequent sending of the Holy Spirit after Christ's Resurrection, has fundamentally and radically altered the "rules" of existence. This "altering" of the "rules" of existence has now created an "environment of freedom" that is far more conducive to living a truly and authentically human existence (meaning, Christ-like). What this implies is that Christ's life and the Holy Spirit are akin to a very subtle, though very powerful, spiritual "leaven" that has worked it's way (and continues working it's way) from one corner of the earth to another, making the possibility of choosing to live a life of authenticity and integrity greater than ever. One concrete example of this would be the way that Christianity contributed immensely to the formation of the contemporary education and University system. Without a doubt this system has enabled and empowered many persons to acquire and live according to an awareness of what constitutes an authentically human (meaning Christ-like) life.

The above example doesn't mean that Christians should shy away from sharing their convictions with others about Jesus. However, the way of self-righteousness and smugness in one's faith is at an end. If the Christian witness is to do justice to the mystery of salvation in Christ, it must account for the fact that Jesus' salvation is offered to all, regardless of one's religion or creed. Pat, TOR

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Word of God: "Sharper Than Any Two-Edged Sword!"

"The word of God is living and effective,
 sharper than any two-edged sword, 
penetrating even between soul and spirit,
 joints and marrow, 
and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart." (Hebrews 4:12). These words from the Letter to the Hebrews speak of God's powerful and dynamic word, or self-communication. It may not be so odd to hear of God's word as "living" or "effective", but it may be a bit disconcerting to hear of how it is "sharper than any two-edged sword"!

I've pondered this "problem" of the "sharpness" or "cutting capacity" of God's word and have come to see the importance of this characteristic in "cutting to the chase" in order to bring truth into our lives and world. When I think of the sharpness of God's word, I think of a it as a "spiritual scalpel" of sorts. On the one hand, God's word can "cut to the heart" with a difficult or uncomfortable truth and bring a sometimes painful conviction. The prophets are a great example of persons who were inspired to speak God's words in such a way that they would "prick" people's conscience and hopefully mobilize them to act and change their lives. On the other hand, God's word as a spiritual scalpel can serve a healing function by lancing the wounds that we carry in our mind, heart, spirit, and soul, bringing about healing in our relationship with God and others. As an example of this, I think of the wounds that have been caused in the minds, hearts, spirits, and souls of persons when God is portrayed poorly and wholly inadequately as a detached judge who simply logs our faults, failings, and foibles. Such wounds can very often only be "lanced" and healed by the words of scripture (or the inspired words of a friend) that offer other images of God that depict him as friend, confidant, partner, comforter, consoler, counselor, rock, refuge, shield, etc. God's word as a "spiritual scalpel" is precisely what makes God's word "living" in the sense that it has the capacity to bring about tremendous transformation and healing. However, whether God's word actually does this largely depends on how well God's word is understood, mulled over, and digested and than used as a "spiritual scalpel" or instrument of healing and transformation not only by what we say, but through how we live our lives. Pat, TOR

Thursday, January 13, 2011

No-thing to Gain in Following Christ but Every-thing to Lose!

The Gospels of the last two days from daily Mass have Jesus going out of his way not to be "hemmed in" or misunderstood by the crowds that began following after him. Mark 1:34-38 tells the story of how Jesus healed a number of people and than, the following day, withdrew to "a deserted place" to pray. When Peter and the other disciples encounter him, they report that, "everybody is looking for him!" Jesus' interesting and even confounding response is, in so many words, "quick, let's get outta Dodge before they find me and go somewhere else to preach!" In today's Gospel from Mark (1:40-45), Jesus heals a leper and gives him strict instructions not to tell anybody. What do you think the leper does? He promptly goes out into the public square and immediately starts spreading the news! Jesus responds by ducking out of the public eye and confining himself more and more to deserted places! So, what gives? Is "Mark's version" of Jesus a bit anti-social or just painfully shy?

Scholars refer to Jesus' elusive ways as the "Messianic Secret" of Mark. This is a theme that weaves itself throughout the entire Gospel. Essentially it indicates that from Mark's vantage point of faith, Jesus went out of his way not to have his person or ministry misunderstood or taken advantage of. Many in Jesus' day were expecting a Messiah to intervene on the socio, political, and cultural scene, rescue Israel from it's foreign occupiers (the Romans), and re-establish the dominance of Israel over it's neighbors (just like in the golden era of King David). Had Jesus allowed himself to be "hemmed in" or had he acquiesced to the expectations of what a Messiah was "supposed to be" he would have become a mere "thing", "tool", or "means" to realizing the end of whatever group "co-opted" him.

At a deeper, interpersonal and spiritual level, Jesus refused to be "hemmed in" and reduced to a "thing" or a "pawn" because what he was offering people than (and what he offers now) is actually "no-thing" at all! Rather, Christ came to reveal a "Way" to depth of authentic communion with Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and a depth of interdependence and communion with others. What this actually implies, ironically enough, is that followers of Christ have "no-thing" to gain in following Christ and "every-thing" to lose! This statement, of course, is meant to be a bit jarring! What I mean by this, as indicated by my hyphenating the words "no-thing" and "every-thing" is that there are no material benefits to be derived from following the Lord and many material things that we may be needing to let go of or lose altogether! In not allowing himself to be turned into a thing, Jesus was proclaiming that there is really only one "thing" that is essential to life: a living relationship with God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and a corresponding depth of relationship to our brothers and sisters. St. Paul perhaps says it best when he exclaims, "Furthermore, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things." (Philippians 3:8). Pat, TOR

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Fullness of Life in Christ Through Freedom From The Fear of Death

We live in a culture that has a "schizophrenic" relationship to death and anything pertaining to death. On the one hand, much advertising focuses on the "cult" of youth and beauty and almost completely tunes out the slightest hint of illness, diminishment, imperfection, the dying process or death itself. On this end of the spectrum, our culture is in full-flight from the reality of death as a natural, necessary, and even "redemptive" part of life. On the other hand, many of our television programs and movies depict violence in more and more gratuitous and graphic fashion. At this end of the spectrum our culture reveals a morbid fascination with the physical phenomena of death and dying. What drives this "schizophrenia"? While there are likely a number of factors, perhaps one of the most pronounced is fear, and even "slavery" to the fear of death.

The Letter to the Hebrews indicates that we needn't succumb to such an imbalanced and wholly unhealthy, even irrational way of living with the reality of death. Hebrews states, "Since the children share in blood and Flesh, 
Jesus likewise shared in them,
 that through death he might destroy the one
 who has the power of death, that is, the Devil,
 and free those who through fear of death 
had been subject to slavery all their life." (Hebrews 2:14-15). How do we come to a physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy way of living with the reality of death? We do this precisely by facing death head on and viewing it not as a process that separates or destroys but, through faith in Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, paradoxically unites and brings newness of life. How can we have confidence that facing death and the dying process head on leads to new life? Our confidence comes from the fact that Jesus immersed himself in the "valley of death" throughout much of his ministry, freely carried one of the cruelest instruments of death ever devised by humans (the Cross), and passed through the portal of perhaps the worst death imaginable (abandonment on the Cross). What came of this entire process of Jesus' life? Those of the Christian persuasion proclaim, Resurrection! It would seem that one of the "lessons" we can derive from the process of Jesus' dying-unto-life is that there is absolutely no experience of dying or death that separates us from God's saving and transforming love.

Freedom from the fear of death and the "schizophrenic" slavery which causes us to run from it on the one hand and to be morbidly fascinated with it on the other is absolutely essential for living an authentically human life. This is the case because death isn't merely a physical event but is intimately, integrally, and inextricably woven into the fabric of life and life's deeper meaning. Our day-to-day life often gives us chances to face, and even embrace, many opportunities to learn the paradoxical logic of dying-unto-life. When we "live simply so that others can simply live", we die-unto-life; when we make sacrifices at personal cost so that our children can grow and flourish, we die-unto-life; when we face the injustices in our world and the unjust and untimely death of vulnerable creatures and humans and speak out against such travesties, we die-unto-life; when we deny the image of a false, culturally contrived self and strive to be authentically human, we die-unto-life. Finally, when we assent to the paradoxical logic of the "paschal mystery" that it is only in dying-unto-life that we truly begin to live, than, and only than, are we freed in Christ and Holy Spirit from the fear of death and slaves no more! Pat, TOR

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Jesus as the "Principle" of Eternal Life

In today's daily Mass reading from Hebrews, the author speaks of how God has "subjected" all things to Jesus. The interesting and obvious point for consideration is "what does subjection to Christ mean?" There are probably a number of avenues that could be taken in addressing this question. Perhaps the most frequently pursued avenue would be the "juridical" one. This implies that "all things", meaning, for the most part, historical events, cultures, human actions and human persons will be judged either favorably or unfavorably by Jesus. While this certainly is one valid way of talking about how all "things" have been subjected to Christ, their may be other avenues to pursue that are more essential and even foundational in nature. These considerations pertain to the way in which Christ's life is "normative" for truly authentic human existence. By "normative" I don't meant that everyone is living according to the way Christ lived (this obviously is NOT the case), but, rather, that the path to true human flourishing and the path to eternal life is paved by the way that Christ lived, suffered, sacrificed, and died. Another way that all things have been subjected to Christ that is of interest is the fact that all things are to be "summed up" in Christ (meaning, that they come to their fullness and are "gifted" with eternal existence, for more on this, see 1 Corinthians, 15:27-28).

With regard to Christ's life being "normative" for human flourishing this side of heaven, what are we talking about? What we are referring to here is "paschal mystery." First, "Paschal" refers to the precise manner in which Christ chose to live and love: where he spent most of his time, whom he companioned with and who he reached out to, his high degree of being simultaneously self-possessed (through his awareness of who he was and who God was) and "self-dispossessed" (through his constant outreach to others to understand them and serve their needs), and, finally, his resolute decision to love even to the point of suffering and sacrifice unto death. Second, this path is "paschal" because it is the "way" in which we will encounter Christ as person and principle and be "shepherded" to eternal life in and through the Holy Spirit. The "mysterious" aspect of the phrase "paschal mystery" is the counter-intuitive truth that fullness of flourishing and life ironically comes from the "death" that is involved in giving our lives in service to others. While there are many examples that can be cited of how people practically follow the path of "paschal mystery", the one that stands out most obviously for me is that of a loving parent. A parent who is lovingly attentive to the needs of his or her child necessarily makes many personal sacrifices so their child can grow and hopefully flourish. In living this way, whether knowingly or unknowingly, they encounter Christ in the process of parenting and in their child and embrace the "principle" of Christ in giving themselves fully to the project of parenting.

Finally, all things are subjected to Christ in terms of their destiny to be "summed up" in Christ. One way of imagining what this mysterious notion means is to visualize Christ as the "funneling" point of an hour glass. Now imagine each grain of sand in the upper half of the hour glass being all creatures and persons. To say that all things are subjected to Christ or are "summed up" in Christ means in a sense that all things and persons "pass through" him and find "final, eternal, and ultimate existence" in and through Christ. Therefore, Christ would not only be the "funneling point" but also the "bottom half" of the hour glass that "receives", "contains", or "holds" all things and all persons in eternity. The best part of being "received", "contained", and "held" in Christ is that through, with, and in Christ (and God) we are given the gift of our fullest selves and are empowered to give this gift freely, fully, and unhesitatingly for all eternity! In other words, eternal life in Christ and subjection to Christ means that the New Heavens and New Earth will be characterized to an indescribable degree by the unconditional gifting and receiving of every creature and human person from one to the other in a "dance" that will constantly deepen and that will be unending! By allowing ourselves to be subjected to Jesus as the "principle" of Eternal life, this is precisely what we are preparing ourselves for! Pat, TOR

Monday, January 10, 2011

God's Revelation as Self-Communication, Self-Participation, and Self-Donation

The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews is a dense theological treatise of themes pertaining to salvation, salvation history, and Jesus Christ's role in this process and history. As an introduction to these themes, the opening lines from Hebrew's (today's first reading for daily Mass) declares the following: "Brothers and sisters: In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways 
to our ancestors through the prophets; 
in these last days, he spoke to us through the Son, 
whom he made heir of all things 
and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, 
the very imprint of his being," (Heb. 1:1-3). Isn't it great that the author started out on a light note? These opening lines are essentially a dense "thesis statement" that the author will then "unpack" throughout the rest of the Letter. It may be very helpful to explore some "keys" to interpreting these opening lines and applying the insights to our daily lives of faith.

To begin with, the author states his conviction that God spoke through the prophets of the Old Testament in "partial and various ways." It's important to understand that God's "partial and various" mode of communicating doesn't imply that God "withholds" from us; rather, God always speaks words that are adapted to the human readiness to receive and understand. Furthermore, the words that God spoke through the prophets weren't just commands and admonitions, but, more importantly, they were words that communicated about God. In other words, God's word has always revealed something about God. Needless to say, God's self-communication is something that must of necessity be partial and "progressive." If God had tried to say all that there was to say about him through the prophets, it would have been the equivalent of trying to drink the Atlantic ocean through a straw!

Second, God's words about himself, or, God's "self-communication", are not spoken in detached fashion. What this means is that when God speaks, God also "participates" in the reality that he is speaking to. We see hints of this in Genesis when God creates. God not only speaks creation into being, but his Spirit hovers over the waters and he also participates at some level in the fashioning of all creatures. God's "self-communication" is, therefore, also "self-participation." Additionally, God's involvement, concern, and presence to the world weaves itself throughout the entire Old Testament. This hints at the fact that God's self-communication was always destined to reach it's fullness through the immersion of that word in our world in Jesus Christ. In other words, when God spoke creation into being, it was through Christ, in Christ, and for Christ (which means for "us" and all creation since Christ represents the fullness of authentic creaturely and human life!). In a very real way, in Jesus Christ, his life, death, Resurrection, and sending of his Spirit, God was "drained" of all he had to give and all he had to say! In the words of an astute four-year old who was asked why Jesus was referred to as the "Word", "because Jesus was all that God wanted to say to us!". Maybe this little one should have written the opening lines to Hebrews!

Jesus as the "imprint" of God's being fully reveals God as one who speaks through self-communication, self-participation, and self-donation. This "imprint" is also meant to be stamped on our way of communicating and being. If we are fashioned in God's image and likeness and made sons and daughters to God in Christ, this implies that our words should likewise reveal something about our selves, result in our participating more fully in the reality that surrounds us (and not just the reality we choose to focus on), and, finally, they should strive to reach the summit of being nothing less than a "draining" of our own lives as a gift for the life of the world. Pat, TOR

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Ministry of All Christians: Being "Christ Connectors"

"You yourselves can testify that I said that I am not the Christ,
 but that I was sent before him. 
The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; 
the best man, who stands and listens for him, 
rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. 
So this joy of mine has been made complete. 
He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:28-30)

These words of John the Baptist from today's Gospel for daily Mass were spoken to his disciples when they raised the question about Jesus performing baptisms across the Jordan from John. It would appear that they were concerned that Jesus was "stealing John's thunder"! John makes the comparison that Jesus is the bridegroom and he, the "best man." In order to help his disciples re-shift their focus from John's importance to Jesus', he states that it is to the bridegroom (Jesus) that the bride belongs (in the context of this story, the "bride" is the Israelite people). John's ministry, therefore, like the role of a best man at a wedding, is to help "connect" or bring bridegroom together with bride. John has done this through performing baptisms at the Jordan and linking this ritual action with the core message of, "repent, for the Kingdom is at hand." Because of his ministry, many are prepared to now be "connected" to Jesus in a life-giving, transformative way. John is now prepared, in a sense, to "get out of the way" of Jesus' ministry and declares this by stating, "he must increase, I must decrease" (in importance and relevance). John the Baptist's response to his disciples provides some insight into the ministry that all Christians are called to.

I recently had the opportunity to give a brief talk on priesthood to a group of persons discerning a possible call to this way of life. One of the ways that I described the priestly ministry is in terms of being a "Christ connector." At times in our Catholic tradition the ordained minister has been viewed as a "mediator" between the faithful and God or Christ. By "Christ connector" I very definitely don't mean that an ordained priest "mediates" between the faithful and God or the faithful and Christ. The only "mediators" between God and his people are Christ and the Holy Spirit. The role of priest, and, for that matter, the priestly role of all the faithful, is better described as "Christ connector." Like a best man at a wedding, a "Christ connector" helps bring someone into contact with Jesus, and, once this is accomplished, "gets out of the way" in a sense so that the relationship can take "center stage" and develop on it's own terms. This doesn't mean that the "Christ connector" doesn't continue to play a role, it simply means that, like John the Baptist, they "decrease" so that the presence of Christ in the other person can "increase." Pat, TOR

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Counting the Ways that God Loves Us

"Beloved, we love God because God first loved us." (1 John 4:19). Two days ago I wrote in a blog entry that acts of Gospel based love must flow from a "fundamental disposition" to love that one decides on prior to loving in deed. However, even prior to our decision to have an attitude or disposition based on love, the above mentioned words from the First Letter of John point to the fact that we are able to love only because we are first loved by God. It is the love of God that empowers a "fundamental disposition" to love and the action of love.

In order to acquire more and more a disposition to love and to actually love in deed, it would seem essential to "count the ways" that God loves us. Rather than count the ways that God loves us individually (which is more of a personal "exercise"), I would like to ponder the ways that God loves by focusing on how God chose to create and the way that God continues "creating" through the sustaining and transforming of human life and even life itself.

To begin with, God does not create the universe in detached fashion. To the contrary, the Judeo-Christian account of how God creates is that God "breathes" and "speaks" creation into being (see the first two chapters of Genesis and the beginning of John's Gospel). Therefore, "right out of the gate" God is intimately involved and invested in the unfolding of creation. Few things are more intimate to a person than one's breath and one's word! Secondly, Genesis makes it clear in speaking of the "six days of creation" that creation and all creatures unfold and blossom under the careful and guiding hand of God. For those of us who are scientifically minded, this doesn't imply that God literally fashioned all creatures, it simply means that creation unfolds in a relatively deliberate, ordered, and purposeful manner. In other words, the creative act is both a mixture of chance and destiny in the universal "striving" to realize higher levels of organization, order, beauty, and meaning. This "striving" is realized most fully in the creation of the human person, who is referred to in Genesis as being made in the image and likeness of God.

If there was any doubt as to creation's meaningfulness, this doubt is mitigated almost to null by the arriving of the human person on the "scene of creation." The human person, almost by definition, is the being who strives to realize higher levels of organization, order, beauty, and meaning (this is essentially the project of every culture). This isn't to say that humans don't also bring about the contrary; however, we are focusing on how "authentic" human personhood images God's loving will and plan that creation make progress toward the good and flourishing of all life. As if this weren't enough of an expression of God's love, as we know, "in the fullness of time" God becomes even more personally and intimately involved with creation by becoming a creature and a human person in Christ. By doing this, God's "destiny" and the destiny of creation and the human person become inextricably and irrevocably bound. In other words, there's no going back for God now! Not only this, but because of the way that God lived in Christ, God demonstrates a love that shows an undeniable preference for the poor, the weak, the lowly, the vulnerable, the forsaken, the lonely, the abandoned, the oppressed, and the marginalized. In this way God's love is revealed as absolutely unconditional and gratuitous! In other words, there's nothing we can do to "earn" God's love but much that we must "undo" to receive it!! ("Un-doing" pride, inordinate attachment to wealth, injustice, oppression, the plight of the poor, etc.)

God finally "loves to the max" by sending us the fullness of his love in the Spirit. In, through, and with the Spirit of God the Father and the Spirit of God the Son, we are being drawn into the very heart of divine life and becoming like God himself. In counting the ways that God loves we can summarize all of the above into three movements of God on behalf of creation: 1) Self-communication (Creation through the Word and subsequently revealing himself) 2) self-participation (the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ) and, finally, 3) self-donation (pouring out the whole of the love shared by God the Father and God the Son in the form of God the Spirit). Pat, TOR

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

God is Love: God As Both Person and "Process"

God is love; and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in him." (1 John 4:16). In the last half century, one of the more compelling and thought provoking metaphors to describe God that has come out of theology is the notion that God is "Holy Mystery." We often refer to God as a "person" or as a "communion of persons" and leave it at that. However, "person" is used in reference to God or the Trinity in an analogous sense - meaning, there is always more that can be said about God than can be exhausted by the concept of person. The notion of God as "love" or God as "Holy Mystery" speaks to the "more" that can be said of God.

The "more" that can be said of God also has to do with the fact that God is "pure Spirit" or, in the words of Thomas Aquinas, "Pure Act" or "Pure Being". What this implies is that God is "supra-personal" or "ultra-personal" and, is, in a manner of speaking, a "process" or "a Force to be reckoned with." This makes it possible, in the words from the first letter of John mentioned above, to "remain in God" and for God to "remain in us." It's difficult to imagine how God as a mere, "sovereign" person, could permit us to remain in him and he in us. God must be something more, therefore, than a person in an absolute sense.

The importance of allowing our imaginations to be broadened by the notion of God as Love, Holy Mystery, Process, or Pure Spirit/Pure Act/Pure Being, is that it opens us to begin experiencing God at greater depth in the day to day events of our lives and also to experiencing God present in the heart of the world, in the heart of the human person, and in the heart of authentic human relationship. By definition, God as Love, Holy Mystery, and Pure Spirit/Pure Act/Pure Being, while present, does not intrude or impose his presence. To detect God's humble and unassuming presence, and to invite fuller presence, means "attuning" or "retuning" our understanding of God in such a way as to allow God to flood our lives as an empowering "process" and "force" that desires what is best for us and who will lead us, our world, and our relationships to fullness of light, life, and love. Pat, TOR

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Love as a Decision of Fundamental Orientation

"Beloved, let us love one another," (1 John 4:7). The command to love God and one's neighbor as one's own self is at the very core of Jesus' teachings and his actions. It indicates that love involves a very particular decision regarding one's fundamental orientation to life and others. This must be the case because something can only be exhorted or commanded insofar as one can muster and mobilize the will to carry out the command. In a culture where love is reduced to a mere emotion or romanticized to the point of being devoid of real substance, it is valuable to examine from time to time how love also involves decision and fundamental orientation.

Love as a "fundamental orientation" means that a person chooses to look at the world in all of it's ambiguity, uncertainty, complexity, glory, and yes, it's capacity to harm, injure, and even kill, with a certain reverential regard and underlying belief that, perhaps even against the greatest of odds, goodness and beauty is somehow mysteriously woven through it all (or holds it all together). This fundamental orientation to believe in love is a decision that, while mindful of the empirical evidence that life offers, also chooses to view the empirical through the ultimate "court of appeals" of the spiritual. In other words, rather than taking the evidence at "face value" and stopping there (the empirical viewpoint), the person who makes a fundamental orientation to believe in love ponders the raw material of an event more deeply and either derives, or fashions, meaning and significance from the event. Viktor Frankl, a survivor of Auschwitz and famous therapist, constructed an entire school of therapy based largely on his experience of how the fundamental orientation to love enabled many to endure the horrors experienced there.

In his classic book, Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl writes, "The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in a positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way - an honorable way - in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment." What helped Viktor Frankl endure the "empirical evidence" of the horrors of Auschwitz was the thought, image, and contemplation of his beloved wife. It was this fundamental, and spiritual, orientation to love that essentially kept him alive and even helped him to find meaning in the midst of what many found to be utterly and horrifically meaningless. It would seem that with regard to fulfilling the command to love, before we can act out of love, it must be something that we have long since decided for. Pat, TOR

Monday, January 3, 2011

Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus: Believing in the Name of Jesus Means "Re-Naming" Jesus!

In today's first reading from daily Mass from the First Letter of John, the author states that one of God's commandments is to "believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ" (1 John 3:23). This implies much more than merely acknowledging that Jesus is the Son of God and Savior and is especially worth pondering on this Feast day of the Holy Name of Jesus.

Belief in the name of Jesus points not to what Jesus has done, but, more importantly, it reveals who Jesus is and who Jesus continues to be for us. The name "Jesus" means, "God saves." Throughout the history of Christianity, the Church has associated many titles with Jesus' name in an attempt to articulate more precisely how God saves through Christ: Wonder Counselor, Prince of Peace, Son of God, Son of Mary, Alpha, Omega, Light of the World, Word Made Flesh, Messiah, Savior, Good Shepherd, etc. Given this history and the litany of titles associated with Jesus and his name, it would appear that faith in the Holy Name of Jesus requires not only believing in the name of Jesus itself, nor even professing the name with our lips, but, more importantly, engaging in the process of actively "renaming" the way in which "God saves" in Jesus.

Yesterday I had an interesting and thought provoking conversation with a fellow passenger on a flight from Minneapolis to Orlando. Shortly after she found out that I was a priest, we began talking about our mutually held Christian faith. One thing that I shared with her is the conviction that if the Christian faith is to be a dynamic and relevant force in our world, we must be constantly seeking ways to express the saving mystery of God in a manner that people of the 21st century can relate to and appreciate. In other words, the task of Christians is, in a very real sense, to "rename" the experience of Jesus in ways that people who live in a world marked by much complexity, technology, tension, stress, and unparalleled suffering can readily relate to. In the last thirty or so years, and in the face of much oppression and suffering, the Church of Latin American renamed the experience of the saving mystery of Jesus as one of "liberation." To this day Jesus continues to be known in Latin American Church circles as "Liberator." This is one example of the "task" of what belief and faith in the name of Jesus entails for every Christian: the process of naming for ourselves and the world the way in which God continues to "save us" in and through the name of Jesus. Pat, TOR