Will We Ever Learn?

I forced myself to watch the grand jury report from Pennsylvania regarding abuse in the Catholic Church.  I was partially curious as to the findings but also spent many formative years in the Diocese of Scranton, which included a few familiar names to me in the report, most of which I had already known.  At times it was hard to listen, not simply as a priest but as a human being.  At times, listening to how the sacred became scandalized and in people’s lives nearly seemed impossible, a thinking that has often led to denial in the life of the Church.  Anything is possible when it comes to human beings.  I still recall the words of Cardinal Tobin at a conference I attended earlier this summer, “All of us sitting in this room are really only a phone call away from our lives being destroyed even if we had done nothing.”  If that’s not perspective on what we live with I’m not sure what is.

I suppose the other common question is, “Why?”  Sure, there’s the question as to why things happen and why was it allowed to continue.  There are certainly plenty of justifications given by leaders.  Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to answer those questions and even more unfortunately is that those who can answer them still often refuse to answer.  The question, and not only posed by others to myself but the very question that at times weighs on my own heart, is, “Why do you stay?  Why do you keep staying with an institution that has done what it has done, and worse yet, fails to take responsibility?”  All good questions, and quite frankly, not always answers, or at least good answers, especially when it feels as if you’re climbing aboard the Titanic as it finds itself already halfway submerged in frozen water.

I believe there’s always been a part of me that has desired to push for reform from the edge of the inside, as Pope Francis often refers.  It’s just a part of who I am as a person.  I can’t say anything has really surprised me, even Cardinal McCarrick, but instead saddens me more than anything and often angers me that protecting and clinging becomes more important than human life.  I believe when the deacon preached about it a few weeks ago I had commented that I’m not here to tell you how to live.  Quite frankly, I have a hard enough time keeping myself in order than telling others how to make choices and what to do with their lives.  All I can really do is help shed light on situations and then give others the freedom to make choices.  When you believe your “business” is to be the ethical or moral police of the world, well, as it was with the Pharisees, you’re going to fail and the harder you try to prevent it and cover-up, the harder the fall.

Someone had said to me that they don’t want this to happen to the Church, but that ship sailed long ago.  Honestly, the Church has brought it upon herself over the years.  It’s tried to live with the illusion of perfection, which, like it or not, will without a doubt lead to putting yourself above God, and like Adam and Eve, it will always lead to failure after failure until you learn to accept that an illusion is just that, an illusion.  It’s not real.  None of it is real.  You cannot be God or Christ nor put yourself in that position.  Just like the rest of our lives, failure can lead to despair or it can lead to change, transformation, just as our faith teaches.  The problem is we’ve become so disconnected from the heart that we believe policy and new rules and zero tolerance is going to solve all problems.  It won’t.  Sure, it has a place, but all of this, and maybe why I stay connected is, about transforming hearts and leading others to that freedom, just as Moses did, with great difficulty, with people Israel through the desert to the Promised Land.  If we just took time to put aside dogma, teaching, and all the other head stuff, and allow ourselves to be transformed from the inside out we are changed forever and so much of the rest falls into place.  Thank God that God is bigger than the Church.  Thank God.  Otherwise I’d have every reason to despair and toss it aside forever.  Thank God I have been forgiven over and over again for stupid decisions and choices that I have made in my life.  It’s the only way.  When you think you’re simply the agent of forgiveness and fail to remember you need it more than anyone, problems will arise.  And they have.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s deflating and hurtful because as a priest we’re all lumped together, just like every other aggregate.  When things first broke back in 2002 I was still a seminarian so it was different then.  I was still protected from it in some sense.  I lived with, albeit a false hope at the moment, that the Church finally learned its lesson.  It hasn’t entirely.  Sure, some, but there’s more to go.  That’s obvious now.  All of us who continue to remain, though, must hold others accountable.  That I believe now more than ever.  It’s going to take a new generation to begin to dismantle, and it needs a dismantling, of the “old boys club” thinking, which exists not only in the Church, but in politics and many other institutions.  It’s not that men should be banned and shunned.  Rather, men need to grow up and certainly men in the Church need to grow up and become more attuned to their own interior life.  It’s the only way.  Buckling down, turning back the clock, tightening grips may seem like the answer but long-term only makes matters worse.  You can only hold someone under water or in a noose so long before it becomes fatal.  We’d find ourselves where we often find ourselves, reactionary rather than proactive, bound rather than free, hiding rather than open, sick rather than healthy, for it is true, you’re only as sick as your worst secret.  We have all the proof we need on that one.

It isn’t to say anything is new in what has been reported out of Pennsylvania, but the very visceral reaction of people, media, and certainly on social media, shows just how little has been done to change hearts, transform, and reform a sick culture, and that goes for Church and culture at large.  It’s easy to say that it all happened before 2002 but that by no means indicates that the culture has changed for the better.  Like any family that thrives on secrecy, which may seem important at the moment, the longer you sit on it and build on that secrecy, the harder it is to contain it over time.  Eventually the truth is revealed and exposed in and through the light.  If anything, we should be thankful that it is being exposed, but again, as long as it leads to transformation.  The fear always is that we’ll wait it out, let it pass, and we can go on with “business as usual”.  Business.  Yes, that’s often how it feels.  Hopefully it can lead to a return to who we’re really supposed to be, agents of change and transformation, conversion of heart.  The rest means nothing if there’s no foundation to grow on. We become the house on the sand that collapses amid the storm.

I still hope, in God.  I still have faith, in Jesus Christ.  I still love, this journey of conversion and leading others to that place.  It’s why I stay connected, but as I said, more on the edge of the inside.  The more we allow ourselves to be immersed, creating a codependency as is so common, we lose sight of the bigger picture and what really matters and what’s really important.  It’s what allows me to hope, to have faith, and to deepen that love.  As I said at mass a few weeks ago, I hope to see the day when the Church stops living in denial.  Again, don’t get me wrong, many policies were put in place that was necessary, but a lot of what we say still are empty words because policy and doctrine doesn’t change hearts and heal people, God does, pushed often to the edge through our relationships.  Those of us on the front lines of the battle are often all too aware of that.  Hopefully, as the rungs of the ladder are climbed that basic truth isn’t forgotten, less the fall becomes all the more hurtful, painful, and dramatic.  Unfortunately, we’ve become all too familiar with that.  All we can do is live in and with hope that we learn and change and grow out of the ash heap.

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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.

Prepare to be Amazed

Isaiah 49: 1-6; Acts 13: 22-26; Luke 1: 57-66, 80

It’s good to take a break from the ordinary cycle of readings to celebrate the birth of John the Baptist.  Whether it’s his, Jesus’ or even in our own families, we know there’s something special about birth.  Babies, infants, kids, have a way of pulling us adults outside of ourselves and to free us, even if for a time, of our selfishness and self-centeredness.  They are utterly dependent upon us and totally defenseless.  They are a good reminder to us just how much we’re not in charge and, despite their size, how many bigger things there are that often get missed.  Yet, as a human family we still find ways to abuse, separate, take advantage of, and use children for our own gain because of who they are rather than being a message of hope, as it is with John the Baptist and Jesus, both of which are intertwined in this beginning of Luke’s Gospel.

Of course, though, on his birth we hear nothing from him, not even a whimper.  He is the one, though, that prepares the way as we hear in Advent, for literally the advent of something new.  There is a message of hope.  Quite possibly, though, he learns how to be the one that prepares the way through his parents who are a part of today’s Gospel, Elizabeth and Zechariah.  Like Abraham and Sarah in the Old Testament, they are advanced in years, beyond child-bearing, and literally defined by Luke as being barren.  There’s no chance of life.  Yet, in their own way as Luke tells us, they have prepared for this moment.  There was still a sense of receptivity that God can still do great things in their lives, so both Elizabeth and Mary stand as model in that sense.

It’s Zechariah, though that has his own way of preparing for this moment of hope.  His story mirrors that of Mary in some ways when the message is delivered that they are about to give birth.  Mary, as we know, responds with a great sense of openness, freedom, and yet a sense of wonder as to how something like this is possible.  Zechariah, on the other hand, still comes with a sense of wonder, but like a good man, his wonder has more to do with how he’s going to do this.  His wonder is much more rooted in fear.  He has yet to be pulled out of himself and remains somewhat closed to the gift being given and so is silenced for nine months.  That, quite possibly, was God’s real gift to Elizabeth.  However, like any baby, when that child enters the world and Zechariah looks at him for the first time, things begin to change.  The one who prepares with fear and is silenced, now comes with a sense of freedom in dismantling his own lineage in naming the child John.  John will not be bound by that same history and inaugurates the new day.  In the end, Elizabeth and Zechariah teach their own son how to prepare by how they prepared for that same message of God breaking into their lives.  All John can do as his life proceeds is to point the way.

With the birth of a child our hearts expand.  They give us a sense of hope and wonder.  They allow us to be free to receive and to give this unconditional love.  Of course, it’s Israel’s own struggle and the great prophets that come before John try to lead Israel to that same promise, reminding them too that there are bigger things than themselves.  Israel makes the same mistake we continue to make to this day by getting caught up in ourselves, getting stuck in our own selfishness and self-centeredness.  The largeness of one’s heart can pretty much be determined by how they respond to children.  The smaller our hearts, the more prone to using them for our own advantage.  We have certainly seen that in the history of the world and continue to do so and certainly in our own country.  It’s the message that is conveyed in the gospels over and over again, about children, women, the vulnerable, the poor, all of which, for Jesus and John, pulled people out of themselves and gave the freedom to be receptive to the working of God, to mystery, to the newness of life.  It’s how Isaiah can proclaim today that the message goes to the ends of the earth.  When the heart begins to expand and we move outside ourselves, the message becomes universal.  That’s the working of God in the life of Mary, Elizabeth and Zechariah, but also in our lives to this day.

Our tendency is to become small and closed off.  We have no need for anything new, for wonder, for mystery, but that cuts us off from the Creator and Giver of life.  We don’t just celebrate the birth of the Baptist, we celebrate what God continues to do in our lives, despite our fear, our trepidation, our loss of wonder.  John reminds us that we too need to prepare for what great works God wants to do in and through us.  Maybe we’re just Zechariah and we just need to be silenced or find silence for some time, creating space and wonder.  Maybe we find ourselves like Elizabeth, barren in our own way.  They remind us that miracles still happen but we must be prepared and certainly receptive to the life being given.  As we celebrate this day with solemnity on the birth of John the Baptist, we pray with the family of Abraham for a greater sense of openness in our own lives and that like these characters, we may be used in similar ways to give birth to something new, something in our lives that, all we can do, is point the way to the One who continues to do great things.

 

Love On Trial

Acts 4: 8-12; 1John 3: 1-2; John 10: 11-18

Many of you have probably seen the video of Pope Francis from the past week or so when the young boy gets up to ask him a question and can’t get it out because he’s just sobbing.  His father had died and believed to be an atheist and he was concerned about his well-being.  It’s a lot of pressure on the young boy, not only losing his father which is traumatic enough but also worried about whether God is taking care of him.  Pope Francis calls him up and hugs him and speaks to him, showing him just a great depth of love.  First, it’s a good reminder of how we as adults influence young people by our words and actions and what it is they absorb from us.  Also, ironically, though, it’s that depth of love that has often got Pope Francis in trouble with the religious zealots.  Any zealot, religious or political does not leave much space for such love.  They often just can’t receive it.  In the end it’s not simply Pope Francis or anyone else who shows such love that is put on trial, but rather Love itself.  It’s love working in and through him that is put on trial and in doing so exposes the zealots for who they really are.

It’s no different for the early community that we hear of in today’s first reading from Acts.  They literally are on trial for the healing of this cripple.  Like most healing stories, though, including in the gospel, it’s more than just the healing that perturbs the zealots.  It’s the fact that as John tells us in the second reading today, the claim their place as children of God.  They can no longer be touched by the political and religious authorities because something has changed dramatically in their life.  The ones healed finds themselves no longer bound or defined by the temporal authorities of their time and that causes unrest.  But like Francis, their approach in life is very different than those who have closed themselves off in fear.  To regain that status as children of God it doesn’t mean that they become kids, like that little boy who simply sees the world through a black and white lens, but rather are moved to a place where the Love who had created them is now the love working through them.  That very love casts out all fear and in doing so exposes it for its shallowness and narrowness in thinking and understanding.  Not in their wildest dreams can they begin to imagine a God they can’t control of sorts.  The zealots no longer stand as the mediator but Love itself.

There is that same connection in today’s Gospel because in some ways Love is on trial in the person of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd.  He too just found himself in this long interaction and conflict because of the healing of the blind man which comes just prior to today’s reading.  That man, too, has been reclaimed as a child of God as well and begins to live into this newfound freedom.  He’s no longer bound by any of the authorities, including his own family.  His healing not only exposes the fear of the zealots but also their blindness towards love and the person of Jesus Christ.  But Jesus isn’t done with them yet.  He then proceeds into this discourse of the Good Shepherd who then calls them out for being false prophets, hired workers who care more about themselves and their own narrow beliefs.  Like that young boy with Pope Francis, they have yet to move forward in life and continue to live in a very defined world which again leaves very little space for love.  When their narrow beliefs clash up against the human person they choose their belief and the law over the well-being of the person and unable to show them love.  This is the reason why they become such a threat to the zealots, including Jesus himself.

He pushes it though in today’s gospel.  He reminds them that there are still others beyond the gate who will hear his voice and he’s called to lead.  The one thing about insiders and even zealots is that they think they possess the truth.  It’s hard to love and to seek that truth when you think you already have it and possess it.  Love, on trial, again exposes their own fear for what it is, attached to the ruler of the world.  They are unable to love with such great depth until they allow themselves to fall into this mystery of our faith.  Right after the passage we hear today we are told that they begin to divide.  They want nothing to do with Jesus or Love.  They’d rather convict love than to open themselves up to change.  Jesus will lead the children through the narrow gate where there is a sense of seeking and wandering and a desire for love.  The insiders and zealots are left behind at their own doing, and yet, are blinded to that reality.

This is common language in much of our prayers this Easter Season.  We hear over and over again of being the children of God and it’s easy to reduce that to just another nice thought.  But for John it’s the stone rejected that becomes the cornerstone, to once again be moved to the place where we stand as children of God against a hostile world and a world that seeks knowledge, truth, and certainty while leaving very little room for Love.  All these years later we continue to put Love on trial and even convict love over our own narrow beliefs that hinder us from embracing the love that created us and tries to work through us.  It’s what makes the disciples untouchable.  They see as God sees, exposing the fear and hurt for what it really is and rather than rejecting the person, they do as the Good Shepherd has taught.  They love and with that the world is transformed not by them but through them and the love freely given!

Heart’s Unfolding Mystery

Exodus 20: 1-17; I Cor 1: 22-25; John 2: 13-25

The Cleansing of the Temple that we hear this weekend is not unique to John’s Gospel.  We hear it in all the gospels so there is some historical accuracy to the account, but the other evangelists place it near the end of the story upon Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  We’ll hear that on Palm Sunday from Mark’s Gospel.  John, though, changes it up and places it near the beginning as the gospel opens with the first of three celebrations of Passover.  It’s also rather crazily placed between the Miracle at Cana, the water into wine, just prior to it, and then follows with a rather intimate dialogue with Nicodemus just following this event and so it’s smack in between these stories.  After this great celebration and the sign at Cana it’s as if things get turned upside down.

It’s placement almost seems as if to throw people off.  As they begin to understand who this Jesus is in John’s Gospel, he seems to move which knocks everyone off kilter, almost appearing as if he’s creating these conflicts or certainly this tension where things seem to happen and change occurs.  You know, at first glance there really is nothing wrong with what’s going on at the feast of Passover at the Temple.  It was customary for people to sacrifice animals and so to be sold in that vicinity was common and so Jesus seems to overreact to it all when he shows up in Jerusalem for the feast.  As he makes this move it seems to begin to cast doubt and almost chaos into the lives and hearts of the people he encounters.  But maybe that’s his point all along.

Like any people, but in particular those he encounters today, we gradually become comfortable with what is and we begin to lose sight of the deeper realities that we’re being invited into.  It’s what creates this misunderstanding in this passage and beyond in John’s Gospel.  We become blind and deaf to things, where we can no longer see nor hear beyond the surface of our own hearts.  Gradually it becomes a market place, as the writers note, but in that gradual process of becoming they in turn lose sight of the bigger picture and the deeper reality.  Rather than becoming more like God and participating in that mystery, they become participants in this sham of a market place while their own gods are created.  Christ entering the scene turns it upside down, literally and figuratively, to make them aware of what they have become and invite them to become something more, this deeper lived reality that can only come through Christ.  He will enter into dialogue with them, push them, and be on the move.  Of course, in all he encounters it requires a willingness and an openness on the part of the one encountered to change, to deepen, to see and hear with the heart.

It’s the message Paul conveys over and over again but in particular to the community at Corinth that we hear today.  He reminds us that Jews demand signs and Gentiles wisdom but in the end what they really look for is proof in their own ways.  They want to cling to what they know and to be able to hold onto something rather than enter more deeply into this mystery of faith.  It is, as Paul reminds us, the paradox of the Cross.  It’s the lived reality, as with John, to not become comfortable, because just like the encounters with Christ in that Gospel, God has a way of throwing us off kilter and remind us who’s really in charge of this life and all we can do is enter more deeply into the mystery as it unfolds within and beyond us.

The Ten Commandments, as we know them, come from the passage from Exodus today.  However, what we hear this weekend is much more poetic than what we become accustomed to as kids growing up and the ten rules we’re expected to follow and somehow all is right with God.  But just like the people John introduces us to, we often, over time, lose sight of the deeper meaning and purpose for what we do and are brought back in order to enter into dialogue once again.  This is not to simply remind ourselves of the rules, like the ten commandments, but to enter into relationship with the unfolding mystery that lies within them, their deeper meaning, that the writer tries to convey.  How easily we become blinded by our own lives and our own agendas that we to get stuck which is just another way of casting shadow on sin.

As we continue this Lenten journey and now enter into the Gospel of John, we’re invited into the experience of the cleansing of the Temple and allow ourselves to get knocked off kilter.  We too become comfortable and blinded in our own lives where we can no longer see nor hear the deeper meaning and mystery.  It may lead us into conflicted hearts or even the experience of tension, but as the gospel reminds us, that’s exactly where God works best because it shows an openness on our part to change and to deepen.  We pray for that grace today, in our own misunderstandings as we hear in the gospel, our own comforts, our own blindness, may be torn from under us in order that we may fall freely into this unfolding mystery of the Christ.  It’s what we truly desire and it’s the fullness of life that God continues to promise.

#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.