School of Love

The Cross is the school of love. –Maximilian Kolbe

Maximilian Kolbe, a man and saint, who suffered and died under the hands of the Nazi regime at Auschwitz, recognized the reality that the greatest conflict one faces lies within our very heart and soul. He, more than most of us, saw the impact of such conflict in the suffering of all under the reign of evil, played out on the grandest scale during the Second World War. He, though, also saw such suffering and the Cross of Christ as a school of love, teaching lessons that can only come through an encounter with love in its deepest form, where the human and divine will intersect and one chooses God, chooses love over the interest of man. For some, seemingly foolish and selfish, but a school and a love that contains all creation, not fought on a battlefield but our “innermost personal selves.”

When we arrive at the climactic scenes of John’s gospel and his version of the passion narratives, we see this battle played out in the school of trial, flowing water and blood, a spirit given over, and with no one more central to the drama than Pilate himself, a man deemed responsible and yet utterly conflicted. Pilate stands as archetype of a darkened power and the ability for power to seduce one into believing that all is held in his very hands, a world dominated by such power. What Pilate doesn’t anticipate, though, is an encounter with love in the Christ in this moment of trial, a school in which Pilate will fail out of in his time, unable to pass the test of love and to triumph the inner self.

Pilate suffers at the same hands as all of us, that with knowledge comes power. It’s not simply knowledge in the way we understand, but the power that comes with knowing and making that knowing into eternal truth. Pilate becomes blinded by such power and knowing, fearing its loss if he were to succumb to the power of love in that encounter. For Pilate, a quick fix to a problem, to rid himself of such problem, is all he can see. He knows of a growing crowd outside the praetorium, a crowd that has grown dissatisfied with truth and the unknown. The movement towards uncertainty rises a sense of anxiety among the people and Pilate for fear of the change that comes with the school of love. In the end, Pilate, in his own conflicted state, chooses fear over love, giving into a growing threat to his identity and power, not wanting to be seen as weak in the face of the people, both political and religious, who stand to swoop in and scoop up the very power that brings down a weak leader, a leader who chooses fear over love. Class failed and the intersection of the human and divine driven to Gabbatha and the ultimate undoing of human power and the revealing of the incomprehensible power of love.

The commemoration of the Lord’s passion and death pushes us to the point of choice in our own lives, choosing the ways of the world which find us confined by our own doing or choosing love, freeing us but at great price. When one encounters love, though, the illusions of power and self are all but destroyed, testified by an “eyewitness” that what first appears the greatest atrocity now stands as the only way to love. The school of love in which Kolbe speaks and witnesses to in his own life didn’t come by crawling cowardly away from the threat of death but rather courageously standing before the crossroads of life and death and choosing life through death, not for his own sake but for that of others. What appears with the eye as a self-serving sacrifice points the way to how we are to live our own lives. We may never encounter such circumstances as that of Kolbe, but the choice to choose love over fear and death is where we are invited every moment of our lives as we to stand between the cut rock of death and the unwavering outpouring of water and blood in new birth.

As the world turns in our own conflicted hearts, choosing fear and love continues to invite us to the intersection of the human and divine through the wood of the Cross. The world stands are our greatest classroom desperately in need of not more fear but a greater sense of love and the depths of love that come through our own suffering in daily choosing to follow love, listen to love, become love in the way we live our lives. It is not hate that stands in opposition to love but fear. It is our own fear of the unknown, something beyond comprehension, fear of the other who threatens my way of life, fear of not knowing, and the ever-increasing anxiety that is brought about by a world that remains repulsed and indifferent towards suffering.

“The Cross is the school of love.” It’s a school where we continue to gather as students to a deeper understanding of this unfolding mystery of suffering and death and the transformational power of love. The cross is not merely an event of centuries ago, seemingly won for us all, but rather the comprehensive exam of a life of faith that thrusts us into the center of the drama of our own lives, lives desiring the heart of the other, lives desiring love. Like Pilate, fear always stands in our way. We cling to what we know and limit this school’s lessons to what we know, to dogmatic certainties, rather than the unfolding and being unfolded ourselves of the layers of our own lives and fear that have kept us from love. An encounter with love changes everything, presumably even for someone like Pilate, even if unbeknownst to him. The school of this Cross and the love poured out shatters all that we have known, opening us to a new way of life, the pouring forth of water and blood and the growing intimacy of standing naked before love itself. The Cross stands as the school of love. What appears as fear, death, power, hatred, and threat can only be overturned by the unfathomable power of love. The school of love always stands ready not to reveal greater light but to cast light upon our own darkness and sin that hinders our own self, a self created for love and to be loved. In the drama of our own lives, the Cross stands ready as our own school, pointing us to the very love our hearts desire. The choice remains, love over fear.

 

Then Come, Follow Me

These words have been with me the past few days in this journey of faith and understanding. Whenever they appear in the Gospels, they are typically preceded by some form of surrender and “letting go” which often does not mean a hill of beans to the disciples until it means everything. The most obvious is always what they can see with their eyes, of giving up possessions, wealth, and all the rest that is demanded of them, but it isn’t until they encounter utter darkness that it begins to mean something all-together different. It changes not only how they see themselves but the very God that calls them. Maybe it’s why we so often avoid the biggest leaps in our lives, knowing that what is demanded of us may be the very life we have grown to embrace over our lifespan, that has given us some form of secure identity in which to cling.

Let’s be real. It’s never easy to give up anything. We can easily convince ourselves in some kind of rational fashion that we can’t live without certain things or people because of some form of attachment that has grown over our way of relating to them. We create for ourselves, a form of dependence, rather than the interdependence that is demanded of us through our way of relating to God and mystery. Once it moves to a point of clinging or dependence, we begin to lose sight of the gift that lies before us, within us, and even beyond us. We create for ourselves our own gods that bring us comfort, certainty, and some form of security that we as humans look for, especially when it feels as if everything else around us is falling away and the world that we had once known ceases to exist.

For the disciples, and I’d say for most of us, it’s our way of thinking, our way of seeing the world, and the very illusions, all of which are too small for us, that become our greatest obstacles and even leads to a deep loneliness with and within ourselves because we live our lives separate from our truest selves, the self in which God created us to be. In an act of rebellion and violence against our truest selves, we choose paths and make choices in life rather than allowing the path to be revealed to and within us which demands way too much trust, faith, and patience that we often just don’t have time for in our lives and in the fast-paced world in which we live. This rebellion, violence, and fighting often manifests itself in the world, but at its core, it’s a fight against ourselves, against the darkness which we avoid within ourselves but see quite clearly in the systems, structures, institutions, and world in which we live. It’s not until we begin to become aware of the fight against when we realize we’re often fighting the wrong battle. It’s not that anything of the world need not change; our systems have become dysfunctional and self-serving. It by no way means, though, that the change first must begin with me, with us.

This is where the rubber meets the road for the disciples and us, when we become aware of what needs to change in our lives, what it is we have been fighting within ourselves, and to learn to love in a more radical way, even the areas in which we most fight and cling. When the disciples finally face that utter darkness, the novelty of what it is they see with their eyes, in which they need to surrender, becomes practically inconsequential to the greater battle which lies within and before them. The layers of life which must be shed, often rooted in fear, becomes the stumbling stone of their lives and our lives if we are to live from that truest place. Rather than identifying with the lifestyle in which they want to fit and what will define them, they choose, in freedom, to step out into the darkness of a life unknown, identified with the deepest sense of mystery. Then come, follow me.

It would be great if the gospel ended for the disciples and us when it is mere possessions that they are asked to give up. It would also be great if it ended, as it appears with our eyes to end, as simply gazing at the Cross and awaiting a day of resurrection. Following me, though, if we follow through with the message, isn’t simply about Jesus doing something for us. It’s only a half-truth. The other half is the demand we avoid and seemingly fail to see out of fear of what is being asked. Unfortunately, it’s what creates the co-dependent systems we find ourselves all too often operating within. The other half demands something of us and yet it feels like everything in those very moments. God can surely lead us to the cross just as Jesus does his disciples. But following doesn’t end at a gaze. Rather, following demands a humiliation we’d rather not encounter, a humiliation that leads straight through the Cross, hanging naked and exposed just as it does for Jesus.

The Mystery that culminates in Holy Week and the continuous call to follow is not a play in which we stand as bystanders, looking on and giving praise for a job well done come the Resurrection. If it is, we’ve missed the point of being true to ourselves and to the very God that has created. This is the violence and rebellion we do against ourselves. The journey of Jesus is our journey as well, not only the truth and the life, but also the way. When we allow ourselves to enter into the drama and the utter darkness, the humiliation of coming out of a life, a thinking, an illusion once lived and clung to only then can the mystery we celebrate and live begin to make sense in a deeper way. Like the disciples, all else become inconsequential to the great surrender that is being asked and demanded in order to live the deeper truth of who we are, rather than settling for a gaze or the role of bystander or victim of a world thrust upon us. Instead, we learn to live from the inside out, and for that matter, upside down.

What precedes, then come, follow me, is consequential to the call of discipleship and the radical love in which God demands. What follows, though, is even more consequential. Giving up what we see with our eyes is often incomparable to what has been buried within our hearts, often avoided out of the very humiliation that now stands before us and the Cross. For the disciples, and us, to truly follow as Jesus demands, we must move beyond a gaze of the Cross to bearing it in our most challenging moments, knowing that He walks and carries it with us. It is the only path to the freedom our hearts desire and the only path to the radical love that the gospel demands for we are created in the very image to love and to be loved, finding our deepest value, worth, and truth, in love. Then, and only then, come, follow me.

The Promise Realized

Micah 5: 1-4; Hebrews 10: 5-10; Luke 1: 39-45

I’ve been reading this book, God is Young, which is basically an interview that Pope Francis had done with an Italian journalist as a preliminary conversation before the Synod held in October on young people. The basic premise surrounds the question, “How do we move forward?” It seems that we’re rather stuck, not only in the Church world, but certainly as a country and even city, where it seems that we just can’t seem to move beyond this point of separateness. The gist of what Francis tells the journalist is that we have to connect the two generations that often get tossed aside in our world; obviously young people as to whom the synod was dealing with as well as the elderly. The young tend to get disregarded as being naïve and the elderly we don’t have time for or don’t want to deal with the reality of aging. He says, the answer forward is in those two. The young people are the dreamers, the visionaries, the prophetic voices where as the elderly have the lived experience and the wisdom to temper the energy but combined a way forward evolves and unfolds. He pretty much says anyone in between the two have a tendency to become too attached to the systems, whether in terms or religion, politics, or economically, that they don’t want to change and can’t see the necessity and so they try to silence the two that have the necessary vision.

It is, on some level, what unfolds in this dramatic scene in today’s gospel from Luke in the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth. It is the reconciling of the past and future, in the one that is barren with the one who is full of life, the old and the new. Neither has any idea what the other has been through following the announcement of the birth of their children until they have this encounter with one another. In that very moment, two worlds collide with one another and a semblance of peace comes to their hearts, confirming that God has fulfilled the promise of long ago through their very lives. Here are two women at opposite ends of their lives and yet facing similar situations. Mary, in her teens, now faces with trepidation the shaming of a society, casting her aside for having this child under such circumstances and Elizabeth who has lived with the same reality in remaining childless her entire life and now beyond child-bearing age. In this moment, the Christ reconciles these two worlds and a vision unfolds, a vision that Luke has already began to spell out in the telling of these miraculous stories.

As the promise is fulfilled, Mary will go on and proclaim a vision for who this child is to be and a radical image of a God who has delivered the two of them. Mary’s Magnificat will turn the patriarchal God of the past on its head and a fresher and newer understanding of God who becomes incarnate as we will celebrate on Christmas. Luke already begins to point us in that very direction with these two women as the prophetic voices announcing this God of vision. The one would be seen as the prophetic voice, Zechariah, the head of the house, the man, is silenced in the announcement of their pregnancy and the voice of the women are raised in their consistent faith and trust in God, not separated from their lived experience of shame and being voiceless. Before the Christ is born, Luke already begins to point us to a new reality of God of giving voice to the ones who had been cast aside announcing the fulfillment of the promise made from the beginning of time.

You would think that Israel would have greater faith and trust in such a God, certainly symbolized through these two women, knowing their own heritage of a God who has seen the people through exile. Here two woman, one full of life and the other barren, learn to trust not only through their experience, but the experience of their ancestors of past that regardless of their own circumstances, God will see them through, even if not experienced first-hand. They obviously knew that Moses never did, and yet the dream, the promise, the prophetic voice continued to break through reconciling past with a present all in the name of Christ, God’s will.  Israel, to this day, stands as a microcosm of a separated world. The place of life and birth, as Micah proclaims, in Bethlehem, still remains separated from the barren city of Jerusalem by a wall. When we separate the two rather than reconciling we become what we are, a stuck people, clinging to dysfunction rather than trusting a new vision and hope for the human race, for the Church, our country and world.

As we gather for this Fourth Week or day of Advent, we gather mindful that these two women are more than just a story; they are each of us. God has planted within all of us a vision, a dream, a prophetic voice that can get out of control if not tempered by the voice of wisdom gently moving us along, teaching us to trust and let go. As much as it needs to happen in our Church and world in bringing together the ones without a voice, it’s a challenge to each of us individually as well. Their story remains are story as well. Israel, despite it’s own inability to get out of its own way, raises us these two radical women today while silencing the powerful ones of the world, leading us to a place of trust, that the promise given from the beginning of time continues to unfold and be fulfilled in our very lives. Sure we often prefer begin stuck in what we know, but Mary and Elizabeth remind us just how unsatisfying life is lived in that way. The more we keep ourselves open to the unknown, to mystery, to a God of great surprises, that same God will continue to give birth to us through the very same Spirit that has always stood as the great reconciler of dreams and wisdom. The promise given from the beginning is our promise, to have faith and trust and God will see us through. We may not know what it all looks like, but that’s why these two are about trust and the courage to say yes, not just once, but over the course of their lives, gradually opened to the birth of a new God, a new reality, rooted in Mystery.

Encountering Hope

John 18: 33-37

One of the themes of John’s Gospel, as I see it, is that anyone who comes in contact in a personal and intimate encounter with Jesus has hope of a changed heart.  It appears that there is always possibility, no matter who the person is or their position, something seems to happen in the encounter that surpasses the other gospels.  That includes the encounter we hear today with Pilate.  Unfortunately, because of the other three gospels Pilate has been type-cast and so it’s hard to look at him through a different lens.  He’s simply the enemy who gives into the conspiracies and fears of the religious leaders of the time.  The same is true in John’s Gospel; he’ll wash his hands clean.  But there’s something very different about the encounter with Jesus here today that is unlike the rest.

The tell-tale sign of all of this in John’s Gospel is what often follows the encounters, no matter with whom it takes place.  There’s chaos.  It seems like a rather odd sign that somehow God is at work but after the initial encounter, it appears that lives are turned inside out and upside down.  It appears that what they thought was right no longer is.  It appears that what was considered norm somehow seems to fall away and they all begin to see in a different way, as if a new created order begins to take shape out of the chaos.  This is the real point of John.  The gospel writer takes us back to the beginning of Genesis where God creates a new created order out of the chaos, whenever God speaks.  So, when Jesus speaks, and they listen to his voice, the chaos that ensues turns into a new created order.  It’s not a one-time deal.  There seems to be a need for consecutive encounters before anyone begins to trust that voice of truth but eventually leads to belief.

So today, the one who is seen to have unlimited power, or so he thinks, now has his chance on the stage when Jesus encounters Pilate and vice versa.  Pilate walks into this situation thinking he has the ultimate power and that Jesus is just going to be like the other religious authorities of the time, merely a push-over.  He thinks this is open-shut case until the actual encounter takes place and for the first time, Pilate begins to experience before him true unlimited power.  Like all the other characters in the gospel, his head starts to spin and chaos follows.  He doesn’t know what to make of this guy Jesus who turns the tables and puts him on trial instead, leaving Pilate looking for a way out.  The chaos that Pilate experiences within himself plays itself out with a constant change of scene.  He’s inside the praetorium now and then goes out to the crowd, and goes back and forth not sure who to trust or believe.  It’s as if he keeps returning to the crowd because they feed his power, rooted in fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, reminding him that Jesus threatens it all, fearing to appear weak.  Yet, he keeps returning for more in encounter Jesus.  There’s something appealing about Jesus in this encounter.  Does he trust the screaming voices of fear or trust the voice of God speaking within?

Of course, Pilate succumbs to the fear but we never know how the story really unfolds for him.  He thinks he can wipe his hands clean, but does he really?  He’ll eventually go onto ask his most infamous question, of “what is truth?”  It is often interpreted as Pilate’s finally giving in to the religious authorities but is it possible, for the first time, Pilate shows signs of question and doubt of his own limited power in the face of the unlimited power of God, standing before him.  Pilate gives into the destructive force of chaos but would it change in subsequent encounters with the Lord, if there were more time.  When both the political and religious authorities see themselves as having this unlimited power, fed by fear, anxiety, and uncertainty, they place themselves as the agents of salvation, trusting in worldly power rather than the eternal kingdom that Jesus promises.  Yet, because they can’t see and become blinded by their own power, they see that kingdom manifested in an earthly sense, marked by land boundaries, within their own kingdom, now under threat by this new “king”.  Once again, though, the blindness of power leads to a misunderstanding of Jesus and the kingdom that lies within.  If we look to religious and political leaders as somehow offering us salvation, we too need to check ourselves and our own fears.  It’s the way they preserve their own power, clinging to what was rather than arriving with a sense of openness.

As much as every character that encounters the Lord in the Gospel begins with a sense of hope and the possibility of something, the thought of change scares people back into their own way of thinking.  More often than not Jesus invites, over an over again, to see things differently, to gain a new perspective, even to being led to chaos, to questions and doubts.  That’s the point, though.  If we never question the earthly powers we cling to and all that we think gives us power, we simply become part of the crowd yelling at the top of our lungs to crucify!  We can no longer hear the quiet voice of God, the breaking in of the kingdom within our own hearts, leading us to greater fear, anxiety, and uncertainty.  Quite frankly, it leads us more deeply into chaos, not just in the world but in our own hearts, which is then played out on the world stage.

If there is any semblance of hope for us it’s that in a time when we find our world often spinning out of control, controlled by fear, and the thought of change, unmanageable, it’s that only God can bring a new created order out of such chaos.  If we allow ourselves to step out of the way and trust in the true God, in our own encounters, then change is possible and we don’t need to find ourselves stuck as a country and world.  The chaos and level of uncertainty says more about us as people and this ongoing idea that somehow, whether religious or political, leaders can pull us out of such chaos.  We’re more like Pilate than we’d ever care to admit.  It’s so easy to be allured by the fear and the noise of the crowd and world.  It is only, though, by creative means, that a new created order, through the ultimate power of God found deep within, can lead us out of the chaos, that quite frankly, we created and only God can transform.

Napping for Answers

I Kings 19: 4-8; John 6: 41-51

I think Elijah has the right idea.  Go find yourself a tree and take a nap.  You can’t beat it.  Unfortunately, even in his sleep he can’t seem to outrun life nor God, being nagged to eat for the journey.  I suppose it can seem rather extreme, praying for death and all.  He’s got a lot going on in his life that he isn’t able to make sense out of in the moment.  Maybe we wouldn’t go to that extent, but I bet we can all relate to him.  Most of us knows what it’s like to be pushed to wits end where we just can’t take anymore, where life seems overwhelming and we can’t possibly take anymore and so we do the same thing, we run away.  We all have our ways of running away.  Yet, like him, life, God, has a way of catching up with us even in those moments of escape.  The very fact that he ends up at a broom tree reminds us that God still has a hand.  It’s one of the few green trees in the desert because of its deep roots, pointing Elijah in the direction of life.  Elijah may not necessarily be having a crisis of faith but he’s certainly having a crisis of vocation, of meaning, of what his purpose is and this call of his in relation to God as prophet.  A nap under a tree seems inviting with all that going on.

Elijah finds himself under attack and on the run from the King and the King’s wife, Jezebel.  She wants him dead for him exposing all the false gods of their time.  Now it’s easy for us to say that we have no such gods in our lives but we’d be lying to ourselves.  They’re often associated with control, fear, boxing in, power as a means to make ourselves feel safe and secure.  They often make us comfortable because they’ve been faithful, but they’re not God.  So here’s Elijah bringing all of this to awareness and then finds himself, by the people who appear to have the most to lose, wanting him dead.  Any one of us would run at that point.  Here’s one of the unique things about Elijah’s story, though.  So many of the others we encounter in Scripture seem to be thrust back into what they’re running from, like Jonah, spit onto shore.  That’s not what happens to Elijah.  He isn’t told to go back and confront Jezebel.  Rather, this God specifically gives Elijah the freedom to wander and to get lost in order that he may be found.  He will wander for forty days and nights we hear today in order to be found.  It is the storied history of Israel of themselves wandering in the desert in order to be found, faithful God every step of the way.

We are probably most familiar with the wandering that will take Elijah to the place where he will finally encounter this mysterious God.  God doesn’t come in the earthquake or anything drastic, but rather in the quiet whisper in Elijah’s heart.  All the angst that he continues to encounter, ironically often in his moments of sleep as we hear today, Elijah finally begins to grow more deeply into the vocation in which God calls him and yet wouldn’t have unfolded for him if he didn’t first have that immediate confrontation with death, leading to him fleeing to the desert, and growing into that freedom given by God to become lost and to wander in order to be found.  We can all relate in those moments of our own lives.  We’ll either cling to what was or we’ll allow ourselves to learn to trust what we cannot hear and yet speaks in the gentleness of our own hearts.

The same crisis is unfolding with the followers of Jesus in today’s gospel from John.  We’re now halfway through the Bread of Life discourse and we now see signs of cracks happening in not just the Pharisees, who we have become accustomed to antagonizing Jesus, but his very followers.  Like Elijah they’re confronted with who this God is and what Jesus is revealing about that God and their inability to grasp it all.  Like Elijah in those waning moments, they don’t want to listen.  They don’t want to hear the truth and they don’t have the capability to listen to what he is saying about this God.  Like Jezebel, they have in their minds who God is and what that all means, neatly packaged, safe and secure, and now all of a sudden, things are changing and scales are falling from their eyes and hearts.  The very fact that they can’t even repeat what it was that Jesus says, changing the words, gives us proof that they don’t want to listen.  In some ways the story ends sadly as the weeks go on because they just can’t handle the truth.  Many will be led to a crisis of faith, vocation, meaning, however you want to describe it.  Like the God that Elijah encounters, though, they too will be given that same freedom to wander and to allow themselves to become lost in order to be found.  There will be that period of wandering in the desert themselves where they will learn to surrender all that they have clung to in order to experience God in a new way, a deeper way, and once again find meaning in their call as followers.

If there is one thing we can say for sure it’s that there are many that find themselves lost and wandering these days.  There are many seemingly wanting to flee life because they find themselves at wits end.  We quickly want to try to find answers and create new boxes to neatly package it all up for ourselves, but that’s not faith.  More often than not we’re led to crises ourselves, wandering and lost in order to be found.  It may be forty days and forty nights, but all along, as with Elijah, God’s hand is there leading us to the broom tree, to the quiet whisper, and ultimately to that place of peace with ourselves and what it is that gives us meaning, nourished through this great mystery we call faith.  It’s why we return to this table weekly to be fed and nourished for the journey is long and tiresome.  We pray, these days, for the grace to embrace the freedom that God gave to Elijah and the followers of Jesus to become lost and to wander.  None of us has all the answers, we can never really be sure, we can cling to our institutionalized gods all we want, but none of it will ever move us to that place of freedom to grow more deeply into our own call.  Becoming lost and finding ourselves wandering is sometimes the greatest gift that can be given to us because we learn what really matters.  It’s only then that we allow ourselves to be found by this God who has already been there every step of the way, leading us to freedom and to greater depths of love and mystery.

#MeTooLord

1 Sam 3: 3-10, 19; I Cor 6: 13-15, 17-20; John 1: 35-42

I would guess that most are aware that the Person of the Year on Time Magazine was not a person, but rather #MeToo.  It was the “Me Too” movement that had begun months ago and then showcased in that edition of women, and some men, who had been sexually assaulted from persons of authority, abuse of power, or however you want to describe one taking advantage of the other.  The first question often asked afterwards is why does it take so long for someone to step forward in such a situation.  My personal opinion, if you even have to ask the question you probably have not done a great deal of interior work otherwise you’d know the courage it takes to confront the truth of our lives and the stories that make us up and that we become identified with, and more often than not, the negative.  They tell us we’re not good enough.  There’s something wrong with us.  I’m not worthy enough.  Yet, it often takes another person whom we can trust, someone who can love us unconditionally in return, and can help us face the truth of our lives before we can take that step forward and begin to see ourselves as something more.  That’s why it takes so long for someone to come forward because it takes us all a great deal of time to come forward in our own lives and have an encounter with the real.

It is that type of encounter that will change the course of the lives of the disciples as we hear their call this morning in John’s gospel.  As much as it is the call, this week is really a continuation of last week, Epiphany, and the Magi’s own encounter with the real.  As you remember, they have the encounter with the Christ, with truth, with that unconditional love, and their lives are sent in a different direction.  There was no going back.  The same is true for all who have the courage to step out of their own social and cultural norms.  We see what happened to many of the women in the #MeToo movement.  No sooner they come out, especially when it involves politicians or famous people, shame is almost immediately cast upon them.  It is the reality of the disciples being called forth as well today.  It’s why the call of the disciples involves often two leavings.  They leave their families and they leave their work behind, the two places where our own image and identities are thrust upon us and it’s not until the encounter, like the Magi and the disciples, where we begin to see that there’s something more about us and for our lives.  The natural inclination, even for the disciples, will be to try to return to what they had known, only to find that it’s no longer enough and the desire for more will push them forward once again.

When we hear the first reading today from Samuel, we encounter two people who seem to still be trying to step forward in a courageous way and experience God differently.  Even Eli, this wisdom figure, doesn’t seem to understand this call and encounter that Samuel has received.  He too is going to have to let go of his own expectations and who he thought this God was before it begins to make sense.  Samuel, like the disciples, will be called forth with great courage to do what seems to be the impossible, to be that voice of truth, that presence of unconditional love, to speak honestly to Eli and where he has gone astray in his own life, leading to a deeper understanding of God and himself.  So often it’s through that person we trust, that can love us unconditionally, who can be present to us in our story who then lead us to the path of freedom and to become our fullest selves.

Although it may not sound like it, it’s also what Paul is trying to convey to the Corinthian community in today’s second reading.  They are a newly converted community but like most, as it seems to begin to wear off, they want to return to their former way of lives.  He not only speaks of the body, as in ourselves, but that too because some began to look for love and intimacy in the wrong places, seeking encounters not with the Lord but with prostitutes!  Paul challenges them as a community that they must become that encounter for all who have gone astray.  They weren’t to just leave them go off; rather, lead them back to the real, to an encounter once again of unconditional love, to the Lord who gives them life.  It often feels like you’re giving up so much when taking that step forward, over and over again, but in the end we gain everything.  When we have that encounter with the Lord, the direction of our lives are changed and we no longer settle for social norms, cultural norms, and our own past that often holds us back.

As we enter into these weeks of ordinary time, we’ll continue to see that manifestation of that unconditional love in healing stories and forgiveness.  We’ll see it in the encounters Jesus has with people on the way, who’s curiosity is peeked as it was with the disciples today.  Even John knew there was more.  They would leave behind family, political affiliation, religious affiliation as it was with John, to step into and out of something new.  It takes a great deal of courage to face our own past and to become aware of the identities that we cling to in our own lives, running back at times to what gives us comfort, even if it means living in the shame of our hurt as it was with the #metoo movement.  We know it when we have the encounter with the real, with the Christ because like so many who we hear of in Scripture, when it happens, life is changed forever.   They’re never satisfied with the norms anymore and are liberated from their own fear.  We pray for that grace in our own lives, to be cracked open by the invitation to encounter the Lord in a new way, to leave behind our old identities and now seek our identity in Christ.  We encounter that in that presence, in that unconditional love, and the acceptance of the Other, who calls us forth to a fuller way of life and to no longer settle in fear for anything less than more.

Intimately Beyond

Isaiah 60: 1-6; Matthew 2: 1-12

We come to the final Sunday of the Christmas season and it gets bookended with Matthew’s version of the birth of Christ with the visit of the Magi and the star guiding their way.  Of course, even here we lump them all together to create our very own Charlie Brown Christmas but certainly not the intention of either Matthew or Luke, each having their own reasons as to why the story is told.  I’ve said before that Matthew is very much about change and an interior change that is necessary to be a follower and so there’s very little need to historical evidence of these events but very much when it comes to our spiritual life.

It is the rising of the stars appearance that sets these Magi on this journey to Bethlehem.  Many over the years have tried to give historical evidence even of the star, whether it’s a comet or something, but again, not Matthew’s point.  If we want evidence, facts, or certainty we’ve come to the wrong place.  It was common belief that everyone was given a star by these astrologers upon their birth into this world.  Yet something had to be different about this one that would set the astrologers on such an arduous journey themselves.  It’s rising must have set off an unrest within them that would send them seeking and now stand as the archetypal images of seeking of the more.  Not the more the world tries to offer but the seeking of the Christ that forces us to our knees in homage.  So they set out in search of the rising star.  A star that stands as a guiding principle, a seat of wisdom, of sorts that lies deep within them and yet still unknown.

There is another word we use often in our language that has star at its root.  The word we use is disaster, dis-star, meaning separated from one’s internal guide.  We even speak of our lives or such as a disaster when we feel out of sorts or feeling lost and confused.  Which leads us to the first stop of the Magi, Jerusalem, where they encounter disaster first hand in Herod.  Herod considers himself the center of the world and yet is filled with fear and paranoia when he hears of this rising star coming to the world stage.  Not only Herod, but all of Jerusalem with him, Matthew tells us.  Now certainly they knew what Herod was capable of and would see first hand his destruction and just how much of a disaster he was.  This rising star, not only a threat to Herod’s perceived power but very much to the status quo.  Even though this peace was rooted in fear it’s what they knew and what they could cling to.  They were certain of at least that.

The Magi quickly learn that Jerusalem in not the place of the Christ.  It’s going to be an opportunity for these journeymen to let go of their own perceived idea of the power they sought was not going to come from worldly position.  The most obvious place was the palace in Jerusalem and yet all they find there in the midst of wealth and status was fear, jealousy, secrets, and a guy who was most consumed by himself and the power he acquired through position than in seeking.  Herod himself stands as an archetype of the non-seeker, believing that authority comes from him and external authority.  He thinks it’s enough to send the Magi further to do the work for him.  Yet, as a writer who calls for interior change, Matthew understands that the work is done by ourselves.  We must make the journey ourselves while passing through the doors of death in Jerusalem, just as Jesus does as well.  Matthew mirrors Jesus’ own journey by passing through Jerusalem in order to experience the fullness of life that is promised. 

This all leads to the second journey, the journey into Bethlehem.  Notice that it appears in the writing of the gospel that the star seems to dissipate over Jerusalem and reappears as they begin the second journey.  Now having been stripped of their own expectations, the Magi open themselves and create the space within themselves to encounter the divine.  When they find their true home, not in some palace, but in the poverty of Bethlehem, everything begins to make sense.  They recognize that what they have sought they had all along and simply cast a shadow upon Herod and the status quo.  It was simply revealed to them who Herod really was and the emptiness of his supposed power, holding people hostage in fear and settling for the status quo. 

Mary and Joseph, in Matthew’s gospel are not exempt from making a similar journey.  They too will follow and be led by the rising star into Egypt.  They, and all of Israel, are invited to face their own history.  Egypt stood for everything Herod was, despite being a religious leader.  Egypt was the place of slavery, war, and fear for Israel.  Matthew calls them collectively to take this journey that the Magi do to shed light and to cast a shadow on where it is that they need to change and where they still cling to fear.  Like the infant passing through, the Magi passing through Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph passing through Egypt, and ultimately Jesus passing through Jerusalem, there’s no way around.  The journey to a fuller and free life is through our own Jerusalem.

The journey Matthew calls us to and the encounter with the Christ is a difficult one and arduous at best.  It’s long and it takes us to places we’d often rather not go.  No one wants to admit that we at times clamor for power, fear and are anxious, content with the status quo, want proof and certainty, and yet, everything about this feast and season tells us just the opposite of who we have been created to be.  Like Herod, no one else can do it for us.  Heck, we’re even content with living a disastrous life and settling for it in our Church, city, nation, and world.  It’s what we know and can be sure of, but lacks meaning and purpose and certainly shows how separated we’ve become from our own center.  Our faith and what we celebrate in this season points to freedom and liberation, more often than not, from ourselves.  Letting go of our own expectations, being led to the belly of the beast, and yet pushed even further to encounter what is real.  And in a moment, in a simple encounter, everything makes sense.  The Magi could not go home by the same route just as we cannot when we have this encounter with the Christ.  In that encounter the Magi see, for the first time, the real presence, and finally understand that the Christ has been with them all along this journey, when the divine of within encounters the divine beyond.

As we enter into the fullness of this season and begin to tell the story of how this gift is manifested, we pray for the grace to make the journey.  No one can do it for you and no one can tell you how to get there.  Everyone knows their Jerusalem and their Egypt that they need to encounter.  Slowly, the eternal Christ within begins to reveal what is real and the deeper truth of our own lives.  It takes courage and great grace.  But like the Magi, in our own unsettledness, we’re pushed forward and through so that we to can live the fullness of life.  Matthew desired something more from and for his community after witnessing the horrors of the world.  Our desire is the same.  The Magi point the way into our own Bethlehem, into the vulnerability of a heart that throbs and overflows with union.  When we allow ourselves the opportunity to make the journey we become transformed, liberated from a past that holds us back and clouds our vision in order to be led to a deeper understanding of this mystery that lead us to simply do as the Magi, to fall on our knees in homage recognizing that it was never about us but the Christ that calls us forth to new life.