Saturday, April 7, 2012

Great Expectations & Their Realities

Holy Saturday

I've been subdued by the attempt to solemnly, somberly, and soberly (try saying that quickly three times) on the Great Mystery that is the passion and death of Jesus Christ. Thank you, my Lord and God, for opening wide all that you are. What more can be said; what gift, what honor, what blessing could possibly be greater?

Tonight I once again have the honor of proclaiming the great song of the Resurrection. It is something I do not take lightly and more than once I have nearly lost my composure in chanting God's praises. I have generally tried to keep a low profile during this day, in order to be best prepared for this roughly seven-minute tribute.

Having said this, I think I would have to cloister myself in order to be that ready. There's just too much quirkiness going on these last couple of days:

  • Realizing that this great feast is imminent, my son decided to hijack the television set to watch the rites on EWTN (Eternal Word Television Network), one of a few Catholic broadcasters. Watching the liturgies themselves is one thing. The programming inbetween is something else again. Between EWTN and the Catholic Channel on radio, I got the full range of services and paraliturgical programs several times. I had the privilege of listening to meditations on Theodor DuBois' Seven Last Words of Christ, a three-hour program. But I heard it out of sequence: the ending movements first, the beginning movements in the middle, and the middle movements at the end. I also watched - twice - David Barry's dramatization, The Passion According to Radix (link to which I posted on my Facebook page; son watched and my wife was subjected to watching it a third time). It is a very intense program, standing in contrast to the children's programming. The latter is apparently the work of some folks who might aspire to work for the Children's Television Workshop; but will never get there with butchered song lyrics like: God is present in the Tuh-BERN-uh-cuhl (actual pronunciation is TAB-er-naah-cuhl; correct spelling, tabernacle). Singing this song three times in a thirty minute program drives home a lesson, although I'm not sure the correct lesson is being caught. But how can you say no to this, considering what else is on the tube?
  • A friend of mine posted as his Facebook status this morning: "In case you were wondering, Jesus is still dead." This immediately brought to mind one of the very first "Weekend Update" sketches on Saturday Night Live. Now I'm pondering whether Chevy Chase's deadpan delivery or Garrett Morris' shouting it 'for the hearing impaired' is funnier.
  • Another friend of mine texted to Facebook, lamenting that McDonald's was closed this morning. What? The fast food icon closed? On a Saturday, perhaps one of the busier ones of the year? Then a few quips from friends, like: Why are you looking for the fresh among the processed? (Something my dear wife could preach on!) And I realized that in my friend's community, the McDonald's franchises are owned by a Jewish family. Today's the first day of Passover, and it's a day of rest for them - that explains the unusual closing.
  • Midday today is also traditionally a time when food that will be used in the preparation of Easter dinner is blessed. I am picturing ladies with baskets of bread, butter, and eggs (among other things) and children with modest baskets of candy showing up at church; while in the meantime, it is being decorated for all the festivity of the Great Sunday, the season of Easter that is about to begin.
  • Preparation for Easter dinner is well underway here. It will be a great feast, the likes of which I have not experienced for a long time, if ever. For this year we are indulging, if you will, in some of the Sicilian ethnic delights associated with feasting on Easter.
With all this anticipation, it is just too exciting to sit on the sidelines and ponder. Instead, it is time to get caught up in the excitement; to do something different, to reap fruits of what was sown on Ash Wednesday, to begin to sense how good it feels to be alive in Christ; to celebrate that in a way that can only take place here and now.

Many Easter blessings o all who read this! May your joy be complete in the knowledge of the risen Christ!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Do You Know What I Have Done For You?

Holy Thursday

The Word:

"So when he had washed their feet
and put his garments back on and reclined at table again,
he said to them, 'Do you realize what I have done for you?
You call me 'teacher' and 'master,' and rightly so, for indeed I am.
If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet,
you ought to wash one another's feet.
I have given you a model to follow,
so that as I have done for you, you should also do.'"

(John 13:12-15, NAB)

Another 'deviation', if you will, has taken place at the Passover Seder. Jesus washed the feet of the Apostles, an event found only in John's Gospel.

Theologians and scholars much more learned than I have indicated that this 'unplanned' ritual in the script of the Seder meal is a link to Baptism. It's not a great stretch since water is a key element and it's clearly used here. Once again, though, it would seem the participants are baffled by what is taking place. Peter (and I don't know why, but at the moment for some reason I want to call him "The Mouth That Roared") speaks for all of us when he declares (v.8), "You will never wash my feet!"

Unshod feet might possibly be the dirtiest appendages of the exterior human body. Even with footwear, the feet can endure problems with trapped fungi due to any number of things. So there's a natural reaction not to let anyone - not even a trained medical professional, nor God Himself - get even remotely close to our feet. Most of us would rather wear lace-less shoes than have to endure the embarrassment of having to ask someone else to tie them. I can't say this is worse than digging ditches or shoveling manure, but it sure seems to rank up there with those tasks.What's more, this directly invades that invisible shield we all seem to have; the instinctive mechanism to keep anything even slightly questionable no closer than arms' length.

To be sure, the record by John of this extra ritual act leaves the Apostles even more bewildered. Jesus' dialogue over the next four chapters of the Fourth Gospel might have left all of them as if they were deer staring at the headlights of an oncoming bus. To us, the action is multi-symbolic. It is a link to Baptism; a reminder that a leader must serve those s/he leads; and that, in order to grow spiritually and physically, we must lower our shields and step out of our personal comfort zones. Each change, even slight ones, bears with it the prospect of a mini-death. However, each change offers a great deal of possibility for the life that is to come.

I can't help but think that John's Gospel encourages us to detach ourselves from time and place for just a moment and see the travesty of how Jesus died amid the cacophony of the confused crowds - but also the glory of revelation of just who Jesus is. It's not something that is as easily caught while focused on our regimented lives.

Jesus, gentle and humble of heart, touch our hearts and make them like your own.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

'What you are going to do, do quickly'

Tuesday of Holy Week

The Word:
Reclining at table with his disciples, Jesus was deeply troubled and testified,
"Amen, amen, I say to you, one of you will betray me."
The disciples looked at one another, at a loss as to whom he meant.
One of his disciples, the one whom Jesus loved,
was reclining at Jesus' side.
So Simon Peter nodded to him to find out whom he meant.
He leaned back against Jesus' chest and said to him,
"Master, who is it?"
Jesus answered,
"It is the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it."
So he dipped the morsel and took it and handed it to Judas,
son of Simon the Iscariot.
After Judas took the morsel, Satan entered him.
So Jesus said to him, "What you are going to do, do quickly."
Now none of those reclining at table realized why he said this to him.
Some thought that since Judas kept the money bag, Jesus had told him,
"Buy what we need for the feast,"
or to give something to the poor.
So Judas took the morsel and left at once. And it was night.

When he had left, Jesus said,

"Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.
If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself,
and he will glorify him at once.
My children, I will be with you only a little while longer.
You will look for me, and as I told the Jews,
'Where I go you cannot come,' so now I say it to you."

Simon Peter said to him, "Master, where are you going?"

Jesus answered him,
"Where I am going, you cannot follow me now,
though you will follow later."
Peter said to him,
"Master, why can I not follow you now?
I will lay down my life for you."
Jesus answered, "Will you lay down your life for me?
Amen, amen, I say to you, the cock will not crow
before you deny me three times."

(John 13:21-33, 36-38 (NAB))

On the surface, this passage leaves the impression that its main statement is that Judas Iscariot had reached the last straw. For some time now Jesus' mission and ministry had him thinking: When does this turn into the coup against the occupying Romans? How do we get the support of the local regime? By now it's clear to Judas that Jesus doesn't 'get it', when in fact it's the other way around.

All of this is ambiguous to the other apostles. It's not without reason: Jesus has been dropping large hints that something will indeed happen while they're in Jerusalem for the Passover, something nobody understands.

Peter, as the heir apparent and the control-oriented person he is, wants to get to the bottom of this. He said before that it was not his intention to let anything of an ill nature befall Jesus, for which he was rebuked. Still, he knows there's a lot at stake here. Not willing to get in trouble for yet another poor choice of words, Peter motions John to ask the question. Who's the bad guy? Drama is building.

Before I continue I am reminded that, of the four canonical Gospels, John's is the last to be written, some 65 years after the events. With three already accepted accounts in hand, John is not writing with a strict focus on one community or group of potential converts. Historical accuracy is likewise not a top priority. Furthermore, as is evident when reading any of John's epistles or especially Revelation, the style is largely symbolic. John is putting a very unique perspective into what took place; a perspective that is inclusive of many symbolic acts, so many that one can get a bit lost for a time.

It is not enough, therefore, for Jesus to simply blurt out "Judas is the one." John places the reveal as part of the meal - the meal that will be remembered countless times as the Eucharist and the Mass. In vv.26-27, Judas accepts the morsel (possibly the bitter herbs dipped in salt water at the Passover Seder) - but at the same time, rejects the very Real Presence of Jesus before him. At that point, he succumbs to the temptation, and leaves in haste. It even appears that Jesus encourages the departure. What frame of mind is Jesus in? Nobody can really be sure. Even John's passing comment "and it was night" (v.30b) is symbolic. Not only was it in the evening hours, but the long 'dark night of the soul' had begun.

Peter, seeing though unclearly that something is still very much wrong, once again states his ideal intention that he will protect Jesus, wanting to follow him to wherever he is going. Jesus knows he is about to die, and the manner in which it plays out. Jesus tells Peter that he will follow (to his own death) at another time; but for now, he too is in the grasp of confusion, and that to save himself he will deny he knows his Master three times before the night passes.

Hail to you, our King, obedient to the Father; you were led to your crucifixion like a gentle lamb to the slaughter.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Which 'Son of the Father' Do I Release To You?

I first wrote this 'reflection', if you will, a little over four years ago. Literary wordplay, the license of the writer as s/he crafts the story to be told or the point to be made, is an interesting thing that all of us, professionally or not, deal with when we communicate our thoughts, ideas, and stories to others.

The Bible as we know it today is the work of God and hundreds, maybe thousands of collaborators - and while these may include those individuals who have books named for them, there are many more. Then there are the translators and copyists - the latter who worked countless hours in far from ideal conditions copying the text by hand, in the days before Johannes Gutenberg invented moveable type and made it possible for documents and books to be printed.

When reading, a mental picture is drawn to put the text into perspective. Sometimes it can take several readings of a particular text to get the panoramic view which catches more than first meet the eye.

Nobody else has quite caught the same picture I framed at the time, a year before I took an introspective view of things. I had a lot to learn then...I am still learning. Still, I wonder...


There has been speculation on the crucifixion of Jesus for about as many years as have passed since it took place. The further we are removed from it by time, the more we speculate on what really happened and how it could possibly have taken place.

The Gospels, being the only detailed written accounts to survive, were written anywhere from 30-60 years after the fact. There were no TV cameras, no instant information 'superhighway'. The real highways, built by the occupying Roman Empire, were only recently established.

Ministers, historians, other writers, and filmmakers have cast their own thoughts and expressions into this mix, in an all but vain attempt to solidify what the evangelists wrote, and to fill in a plethora of blanks that were left open, or questions left unanswered.

Catholicism teaches that Christ died for the sins of all humanity, so in fact it's as if we were really there at the time. The readings of the accounts of the Passion are the only time in formal Catholic ritual where the laity actively participate in the reading of the Gospel. Yeah, we're left with those wonderful lines that call for his extermination. But leaving the built-in guilt trip aside, there's a curiosity about the last days of Jesus' life that to me is insatiable. How did it really happen? How could someone come riding into town in glory, only to have everyone turn on him in a matter of days? Especially when you consider the lack of mass communication, let alone that Jesus never did any wrong?

Some have said it was Judas' lust for power, thinking that Jesus was a misguided figure that wasn't quite going in the expected direction politically. Others saw Jesus' challenges to the Pharisees, Saducees, and Jewish clergy as threats to a barely stable order. It was so precarious that the Roman governor Pilate tried vainly to wash his hands of the situation. Matthew's account mentions twice of the fear that rabid disciples might (and eventually did) steal the body of Jesus and proclaim that he was raised from the dead.

For the last few days, as this week approached, I was beginning to ponder this, as I have wont to do. But this year a new ponderance hit me, something I don't remember anyone ever dwelling upon. I can only think of one other strangely biblical paradox that has set the world as we know it on it's collective ear.

The first, which I stumbled over years ago and still discuss on occasion, have to do with how Judeo-Christianity and Islam both trace their roots back to Abraham, the first of the Old Testament patriarchs. God had promised to make great nations of both Ishmael, his son by the slave Hagar; and of Isaac, his son by his wife Sarah. Both factions fervently believe that they alone are God's "Chosen People" and lay claim to the covenant God made with Abraham, and to the "Promised Land." The territory in that part of the world has been fought over more than most other land on earth, and it seems to all trace back to this.

The latest quandary comes from reading the accounts of the Passion. At the occasion of the observance of the Jewish Passover, clemency was granted to one Jewish prisoner. When Jesus was arrested and brought before Pilate, a choice was put to the crowd. Should Jesus, a seemingly innocent man, be released - or an insurrectionist named Barabbas?

Don't see the connection yet? I didn't think so, it takes a little explaining.

I think you probably know that surnames (family names) are a more recent convention in the history of humanity; it didn't necessarily exist in the Middle East in biblical times. I arrive at that conclusion by reading the various genealogy lists in the Bible: C is the son of B, who is the son of A. But that's the English version; in Hebrew (or Aramaic, or possibly both) it's C-bar-B, and B-bar-A. So Jesus, by use of the terms and what we know of him, would be formally known as Yeshua Bar-jonah, (the son of Joseph) or something similar.

But Jesus didn't refer to himself in that way. In the Gospels we read him calling himself "Son of Man" or (particularly in John) "Son of the Father." In fact, in the English translation of the prayer "Gloria in excelsis Deo", used by most mainstream Christian churches, Jesus is referred to as "only Son of the Father." And when Jesus prays, he also uses the term "Abba" to refer to his heavenly father. I was taught this is a term of intimate endearment.

So when we take the Hebrew name "Barabbas" and break it down, we have in English "son of Father(s)".

That's where the conundrum starts. Were the crowds awaiting the outcome of Jesus' trial confused? Did they call for the release of the wrong "Son of the Father" errantly? Were their calls played upon by the Jewish priest-class who were translating to the Roman government? Could all of this have been stopped, and some other way found for Jesus to redeem humanity?


Indeed. The 'son of Abbas' or the 'Son of Abba'??? How many thought they were shouting for the release of Jesus, only to discover otherwise? How many times have we tripped over our well-intended choice of words? And when do we see that, in so many ways, that we are our own worse enemy?

God, forgive us...even after all this time and given all this enlightenment...we still don't understand that what we do - the attitudes we take, and the words we use to express them - are all among the things for which Jesus died.