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Walking with Jesus

Jesus breaking bread

Dear Folks,
Today we look at the story of the road to Emmaus in Luke 24:13-35.
This is a wonderfully rich story, and it is worth taking some time with it.
Two of Jesus’ followers are walking along. One of the great images of the Christian life is a journey. We are not people who have arrived, but are called to be moving forward toward our goal, “the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:13-14).” They are talking about their experiences of the weekend. Jesus starts walking along with them, but they don’t recognize Him. This seems common in encounters with the resurrected Jesus, but it is also true for us. Jesus is always with us, but we don’t always recognize Him. He says, “What are you discussing as you walk along?” Jesus is very good at asking the right question. Their response is wonderfully ironic: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place there in these days?” This is great, because He is the only one who really does know. The Gospels often do fun things like that. Jesus doesn’t let on. He says, “What things?” He, of course doesn’t ask because He needs to know, but to get them to tell their story. We shall see a lot of this in Luke’s sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. Most Catholics have not had practice in telling their story. If you needed to tell your faith story, what would you say? Then Jesus unpacks the Scriptures for them, and explains what these events really mean. Notice that Jesus asked them to bring forward what they had, but it is He who teaches. This dynamic is familiar. In the accounts of the multiplying of loaves and fishes, Jesus asks the disciples to bring forward what they have, but it is He who feeds. We see this again in a resurrection encounter in John 21:10-13, also with bread and fish. For now, however, Jesus is opening the Scriptures for them. They knew the stories in the Scriptures, but it is only in the light of the risen Jesus that people can see the full significance of what they mean. I would also suggest that the events of our lives can only be fully understood in the light of the story of salvation. Jesus acted like He was going further, but they urged him to stay, showing hospitality. Hospitality is tough during this lockdown, but it is something for Christians to be pondering. “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels (Hebrews 13:2).” We see them entertaining not only angels but Jesus Himself. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, then I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me (Revelation 3:20).” We are not only called to be hospitable to Jesus by welcoming other people, but welcome Jesus directly with our prayer and attentiveness to Him, His teaching and His presence in our lives, and our willingness to examine and change our lives in His Light. Pope Benedict was fond of encouraging people to take the time to let Jesus be “our best friend.”
Breaking of the Bread “And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight (Luke 24:30-31).” The taking, blessing, breaking and giving was, in Jewish practice, how the meal was begun. I haven’t seen any commentary on this, but it seems to me that that action would be the proper function of the host, and Jesus was a guest. When something doesn’t quite fit I want to know why. I suggest this is a larger truth: when we invite Jesus in, He is in charge, He is the Host, and He is the one who feeds. Christians would associate Jesus’ actions with the celebration of the Eucharist, and of course when we gather for the Eucharist, we are not the hosts; Jesus is the host. This would remind us we recognize Jesus in the Eucharist. After He vanishes, they asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures for to us (Luke 24:32).” Once again, we don’t often recognize Jesus at work in our lives until we reflect back afterwards, and then it becomes clear.
Then they shared the story with others and got it confirmed, and they learned they were not alone. We remember the Visitation, in which Mary went to Elizabeth, and her experience was affirmed. This is one of the (many) reasons we need Christian community.
Jesus is still walking with us.
Blessings,
Fr. Jim

Charitable Discussion

venn diagram

Right now there’s some really important conversation going on, and I am distressed that it is not being done well in many corners. There are three concerns: the spread of the virus, the destruction of the economy, and the deterioration of civil liberties.  They are all huge, and how we navigate the current situation is going to be enormous for human well-being in the future.

We must work together and follow proper procedures to defeat this virus.  It is only with the cooperation and sacrifices of all of us that this can be dealt with.  We remember that our actions impact many other people we cannot see.

Poverty kills. We cannot keep food coming without an economy. We cannot keep our healthcare system going without an economy.  When people bring up the economy, some will accused them of prioritizing money over human lives and being willing to kill people for their greed.  Wait a minute here. Think of how we usually work. Can there be any doubt that if we made all cars so they couldn’t go faster than 25 miles per hour that would save lives? Think of how many terrible accidents would be avoided.  It would inconvenience us and slowly reduce productivity, but it would save lives. Why haven’t people made the same case?  Life does have some risk, and absolute security does not exist on this planet.  We can have the discussion of how we balance the risks and the harms of the decisions involved. We don’t have to rule the discussion off limits.

If we are going to destroy someone’s life’s work, hope and dreams, and reduce them to poverty, they are going to want to ask if the particular rules that do it are necessary for our safety, or if they were just put together arbitrarily. When people think that rules are made that are inconsistent to the point of being capricious, that concern needs to be addressed. When someone says, “You are just being inconvenienced” they are demonstrating a lack of awareness and sensitivity. Some people are being inconvenienced. Some people’s lives are being destroyed.

I’m not a historian, but as I understand it, totalitarian governments often start during a crisis, and, of course take extraordinary steps to deal with it (so far so good).  But then, there continue to be more and more authoritarian decisions that seem less and less necessary to deal with the crisis, but if you question them, you are immediately attacked for being unconcerned about the crisis and the well-being of the nation. It is the nature of human beings that people in power tend to think they should have more power. Our country was founded on limited government with checks and balances to keep this in check, and many countries that did not do this fell into totalitarianism. This was dramatized in George Orwell’s book Animal Farm. If it ever becomes out of bounds to challenge government practices, we are in dangerous territory.

That said, I cannot overemphasize the importance of being responsible when challenging. When people who are protesting details of the lockdown leave their cars and gather close together closely without masks, they are making their opponents’ case for them. When someone says, “If you are afraid you can stay inside, but don’t make everyone else do it.” They are not taking into account that they are affecting more than themselves and risking more than themselves.  They are risking other people they come into contact with. We think of the people who work in grocery stores who can’t control who they come into contact with. We think of the health care workers who have been working long hours and who have not been seeing their families for fear of infecting them.  These are unprecedented times, and strong action is called for, so it would be good to be careful about assuming the worst too easily about our elected officials.

How we deal with this time will have deep and lasting effects on our future. The conversations we have are essential to that.  If we want others to take our concerns seriously, it would help to take their concerns seriously. If we want them to give our motives the benefit of the doubt, it would help to give their motives the benefit of the doubt. May charity rule our hearts.

 

Believing Thomas

believing thomas

We all know the story of Believing Thomas. He didn’t believe until he saw the risen Jesus and touched His wounds.

“Jesus said to him, ‘Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed (John 20:29).’” For years I wondered “Why?” Why is that better?  In days when I was dealing with atheists and wrestling with questions about God’s existence I thought that it would be a lot easier if the risen Jesus would just appear to everyone like He had appeared to Thomas and let is examine His hands and His side. It is certainly not beyond His power.

We see a situation in which John does not see, but believes. He is a model for all of us. “He bent down and saw the burial cloths there, but did not go in. When Simon Peter arrived after him, he went into the tomb and saw the burial clothes there, and the cloth that had covered his head, not with the burial cloths but rolled up in a separate place. Then the other disciple also went in, the one who had arrived at the tomb first, and he saw and believed (John 20:5-8).” It was significant that the cloth for the head was not with the others but rolled up in a separate place, because that suggested this was not the work of grave robbers.  The first thought would be the body had been stolen, but what grave robbers would roll up the cloth and put it aside?  It didn’t add up.  That was enough to convince him, and he believed. This is not the first time the Gospel of John suggests people putting the clues together. “The next day, the crowd that remained across the sea saw that there had only been one boat there, and that Jesus had not gone along with his disciples in the boat, but only his disciples had left (John 6:22).  This made people suspect something was up.  We, of course know that Jesus didn’t need a boat, He just walked.

A very interesting book called The Love Dare by Stephen and Alex Kendrick with Lawrence Kimbrough deals with intentionally building love within a marriage.  It had a section that was eye-opening for me.  “A woman deeply longs for her husband to be thoughtful. It is a key to helping her feel loved. When she speaks, a wise man will listen like a detective to discover the unspoken needs and desires her words imply. If, however, she always has to put the pieces together for him, it steals the opportunity for him to demonstrate that he loves her.”  I had always thought that saying, “If you don’t understand I’m not going to explain it to you” was an exercise in gratuitous cruelty, but this makes sense.  God also calls us to be attentive and thoughtful, to put together the pieces, to “connect the dots,” to discover Him and His will for us. This is not, of course, because He needs us to make Him feel loved (He needs nothing from us), but it is a way we become more engaged and give ourselves more deeply, more completely to Him, which is what we need more than anything else.  Of course, unlike a human spouse, God knows our abilities completely and will never fault us for failing to figure out something that is beyond our ability.  If the risen Jesus were to appear to each one of us and do the “stick your finger in the nail marks” thing, we would not have to engage much of our brains.  We are only complete when we are totally His, and this involves more and more of ourselves responding to the call and seeking. We remember, when we are seeking Him, He has already found us.

In a deep friendship, trust develops, and things are believed without being proven, but with good reason.  There comes a point where we decide it is not absolute, but there is enough reason to believe.  One could always say, “I’m not convinced yet; I need to see more.”  If someone doesn’t want to trust you, there will never be enough to convince them. But imagine being able to take a meter and read the level of friendship someone has for us. That would be less work, wouldn’t it?  But perhaps that is exactly the work that we must do to build friendship.

It also means that we have the ability to decide that no one can be trusted and everyone is out for what they can get and will turn on you the minute it is to their advantage. Then, of course, we will avoid being disappointed, but we shut ourselves out of so much.  We don’t get very far without faith.

When people want proof that does not require them engaging, stressing, taking some risk, then there can never be true friendship.  “The Pharisees came forward and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. He sighed from the depth of his spirit and said, ‘Why does this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.’ Then he lift them, got into the boat again, and went off to the other shore (Mark 8:11-13).’”

Although faith is a gift, it is also a choice. “And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil (John 3:29).”

God calls us to give ourselves to Him deeply, fully, and freely.  This means more effort, but it is eternally worth it. So why did Jesus give this special moment to Thomas? God knows what each one of us needs, and knows it better than we do.  He will give us what we need, but not necessarily what we want.

 

 

Peter Reconciled

peterdoyoulove

Dear Folks,

As we continue to celebrate Easter, we look at the resurrection accounts in the Gospels. This Sunday we look at the Gospel of John, and Jesus appearing to His disciples. As we join the story (John 20:19-31), Peter and the beloved disciple (generally believed to be John) had seen the empty tomb, and the risen Jesus had a very nice chit chat with Mary Magdalen. The disciples are in a locked room, cowering in fear, but He appears to them and says, “Peace be with you.” Clearly, no lock-down can keep Jesus out now.  His greeting of peace is important for several reasons. Since they didn’t do such a hot job on Good Friday, they would naturally wonder if Jesus was going to be mad at them, and perhaps give them a serious smiting.  Jesus is here to bring peace. This seems very much like what He would do, but we need to consider something He had said earlier, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.  For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household (Matthew 10:34-36).”  So what are we to make of that?

I would suggest that real peace comes from facing division and healing it, rather than covering it over.  That sometimes means that an absence of visible conflict may just mean that there is a problem, but it is kept hidden and not acknowledged. In the Gospels, refusal to recognize one’s sinfulness is a very serious thing.  We remember at the end of the story of the man born blind: “Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely, we are not also blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, “We see,” so your sin remains.’ (John 9:40-41).” We also remember the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14). The Pharisee did lots of good stuff, but because of that, he didn’t see a need to change, or even acknowledge his sinfulness. The tax collector had probably committed a lot more sins, but recognized his sinfulness and was repenting an on the road to doing better.  He came out justified but the Pharisee did not.  It’s okay to be where we are, but it’s not okay to stay where we are.

Looking at John 21, we see Jesus and Peter having an important conversation. They have had breakfast, and are sitting by a charcoal fire.  This reminds us that on Good Friday, Peter was standing next to a charcoal fire to keep warm when he denied Jesus (John 18:18 and 18:25) We are taught that the sense of smell is the most powerful sense for evoking emotional memories, so imagine Peter, his mind right back there to his moment of failure.  Jesus asks three times, “Do you love me?” and counterpoint to Peter’s threefold denial.  We notice Jesus didn’t need to rub his face in it (“Gee, Peter, remember when you said you would lay down your life for me and I told you…”). Peter knows, and Jesus knows he knows.  Jesus is not looking to prolong the hurt, but to bring reconciliation.  He had to recognize where he was, but didn’t need to spend time wallowing in guilt. He would need that energy for doing the work that Jesus was giving him to do.  That was where his focus needed to be.  A surgeon must cut in order to do good, but tries to cut as little as possible and do the most amount of good.

Jesus brings the gift of peace.  We will not know its fullness until the end of our journey (1Peter 1:3-9), but we can get a taste of it when we encounter Jesus. We all are sinners, and we all suffer from others sins.  We can look from that pain and say, “Jesus, you can make me whole; you can bring me to peace.” We can live in hope for the complete peace of heaven, and strive for peace now. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:9).”

Blessings, joy and peace,

Fr. Jim

Something New on Earth

Resurrection

Dear Folks,

Today is Easter and the Lord has risen!  He has risen indeed!

Yes, we are still on lockdown, and we are still dealing with the pandemic, but that cannot stop Easter. We remember what when Jesus rose, the Romans still ruled in Israel, and they were just as nasty as they were before.  We remember the chief priests, the scribes and the Pharisees that Jesus had encountered in the Gospels were just as stubborn as they were before. When the disciples encountered the risen Jesus, he would forgive them for their failures on Good Friday, but they would still have to forgive themselves, and many of us find that the hard part.  They were still facing a very dangerous future, one that would call them to deal with many kinds of suffering and death.

But Jesus had risen.  Because they encountered the risen Jesus, nothing the world could throw at them could defeat them.  No pain or deprivation could kill their joy.

Jesus doesn’t really do much that’s new, but the power of being in His presence is what makes the difference.  He demonstrates that He is real, and explains that He had to suffer and die. He also sends them on mission.

Brant Pitre in his (excellent) book The Case for Jesus mentions there are three things we know about the resurrected Jesus: He has a body and is not a ghost, that He has the same body (still has wounds, but they seem not to hurt), and that it is a transformed body.  It is clear that He is not just like He was before, but has become something more. In 1Corinthians 15, St. Paul talks about the resurrection of the body, and compares the difference between the earthly and resurrected bodies as being like the difference between the seed and the full grown plant. In any case, He was not just resuscitated like Lazarus, but was (and is) more amazing than they could put into words. This experience was powerful enough to change everything.

It was only when Jesus appeared to them and explained why things happened as they did that they understood, at least somewhat.  He had, of course, explained a good deal before but they didn’t get it. I find that I’m often going through things that make no sense at the time, but later on I can see how God was at work, and how this served a greater purpose. Often things have been explained to me but I still did not understand until later.  The Risen Jesus helped them see the bigger picture.

They were not yet ready to go out to the world and transform it.  They still awaited the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Once again, even though Jesus had explained it, I figure they really didn’t have much of an idea what it would be like. Until then, they continued to hide, to keep to themselves, to gather carefully.

We are, of course, immensely frustrated with the current situation, with cancellation of liturgies extended through the end of April. Some people believe that is the wrong decision. Some people believe it is the right decision, but are still ready to tear their hair out.  Whatever happens, two things are absolutely true: First Jesus is risen.  Second, wherever we are at, whatever our circumstances, this is where we are called to serve God.  No power on earth can take either of those away.

We are a people of the resurrection. Let us rejoice and let us answer Jesus’ call.

Blessings,

Fr. Jim

Being Present

Being present to another

One of the key factors in any friendship, in any love relationship, is how we are present to each other. What is it like to have someone give you their full attention, to act like you are important to them, that they are focusing on you? We also know what it is like to have someone act like they are barely aware of you, that their minds are elsewhere, that they are just doing what they need to do to get on to something else. It makes a big difference. And let’s be honest, there might have been some times when we were dealing with someone that we didn’t want to deal with, and we let it show.  How did we act then? When we are with someone who is precious to us, how do we act.

Some moments are more crucial than others.  Sometimes we might be doing different things, but generally aware of the other person, and that is good. Two guys in the same boat fishing, not speaking, not looking at each other, letting their minds drift, but it’s okay. It’s good to be together, but don’t need to do much. If, on the other hand, someone important to you comes and says, “After what has just happened, I’ll never be the same.”  This is not a good time to say, “Go ahead, I can listen and watch TV at the same time.”  A couple can be sitting in the same room, one reading a book, one catching up on the news, but if they are doing that during their wedding, there is a problem. Sometimes people are chattering for the joy of it, and what they talk about is not that important.  Sometimes people are sharing their most precious secrets, thing close to their hearts, and it takes a lot of trust to do that.  Then it is most important to be especially attentive.  To do that poorly with harm the relationship, but to do it well can strengthen the relationship a great deal.

God is always reaching out to us, but very often we don’t respond well. “I was ready to respond to those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said: here I am! Here I am! To a nation that did not invoke my name. I have stretched out my hands all day to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own designs (Isaiah 65:1-2).”

“After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them; his face shone like the sun and his clothes became white as light. And behold, Moses and Elijah appeared to them, conversing with him. Then Peter said to Jesus in replay, ‘Lord it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud cast a shadow over them, then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.’ When the disciples heard this, they fell prostrate and were very much afraid. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Rise, and do not be afraid.’ And when the disciples raised their eyes, they saw no one else but Jesus alone (Matthew 17:1-8).” We get a rare moment in which the Father speaks from heaven, and His message is the importance of listening to Jesus.  Of course, these were Jesus’ disciples, and the inner circle of His disciples at that. They probably thought they were already listening, and that this message should be for others (fortunately, they had the sense not to argue).  I would suggest that we often do not listen as well as we think we do.  It is something we can grow in.

During the agony in the garden (Matthew 26:36-46), Jesus brings His closest friends, Peter, James and John, and asks them to keep watch and pray.  They fall asleep. Jesus didn’t need them to do anything except be present and attentive.  He was having a really difficult time, and needed some friends’ support.  I’m sure it hurt that they failed, and it will be remembered until the end of time how they failed.

At the Last Supper, and during the celebration of the Eucharist ever since, Jesus is sharing Himself most intimately, Who He really is, body, blood, soul, divinity. He draws us into His death and resurrection, His ultimate sacrifice of love. During this time in which people are separated from the Mass, we may want to reflect on how we tend to respond to God’s gift. It is almost a universal problem that our minds wander during Mass, but within the limits of our fallen human ability, how do we treat this holiest of moments? How might we grow in our response?

 

Holy Week

holyweek

Dear Folks,

We begin Holy Week. It is a different Holy Week from anything we have ever celebrated. This week brings all of our faith life into focus, so if there is any time to be connected to our faith, it is this week. Our current lockdown presents a challenge and an opportunity.  The challenge is that it is so hard to connect and so easy to disconnect.  Some are not even looking at calendars, just checking to see if they have milk and bread.  The opportunity is that we can approach it from a different angle than we ever have before, which will enable us to see it with new eyes and get a deeper insight and connection than we had before.
The diocese has given us directions for celebrating the liturgies of Holy Week. We are to celebrate with no more than 10 people gathered (that includes the priest), and only those who have ministries at that liturgy.  We will be attempting to livestream the celebrations for everyone who can watch.

The first thing to recognize is this is unfair. Unfortunately, there has been a lot that has been unfair about this from the beginning. I have been very much aware that I have been able to celebrate Mass and receive Holy Communion every day, while my parishioners have not been able to participate. That has been humbling, and it has given me a great sense of responsibility.  If I am doing this for the whole parish, I’d better be focused and pray hard.  Many have had to grieve for lost events and participation.

As things have been changing week by week, this has made communication a challenge. We are finding the internet more important than ever.  I think when this business is over, we shall be better at using it, and that will be a useful thing.  I think we will also have an increased sense of the importance of being physically present to other people, and how valuable it is to be together (the old-fashioned way). This also makes more serious those who do not have internet access and those who have limited access.  Our dependence on the internet during this time has left a number of people out.  We shall have to find a way to connect to those people as best as we can.

This has been an opportunity to reflect on what is truly important. We see we can do without a lot of things, but there are some that really matter. Many have been experiencing in a new way that the people whom we love and who love us are more precious than we often realize, and many are learning they have been taking them for granted. We have also been getting a better sense on how we are connected, and how we affect one another.

As people have been deprived of Eucharist, this has been a time to consider how precious it is, how amazing it is, how easy it has been to take it for granted. It would be a good time to renew and deepen our understanding of and love for the Eucharist. During this time, watching Presence and Lectio Eucharist on Formed will be very helpful.  As we are getting a reminder of the power of the presence of other people, we can reflect on the power of God being present to us and giving Himself to us in the Blessed Sacrament, as well as how we can be more present to Him and more fully give ourselves to Him. Jesus promises it brings an intimacy with Him beyond our understanding (He said, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him [John 6:56].”) None of us treat this as it deserves to be treated. That is not a criticism; it is a given with our fallen, limited understanding.  Is there anything more worthwhile than growing in this?

As we go through Holy Week, let us notice how this central part of our story pivots around the Last Supper.

Blessings,

Fr. Jim