Sunday, March 27, 2016

At the Movies

Just ask Fr. Scott about the time a few weeks ago when I said, "Let's see a movie!" and then drove us to the wrong theater at the wrong time (which goes to show how often I look at a movie schedule).  Or ask Fr. Stitt about the time he discovered I'd never seen Casablanca, and then forced invited me to watch it (which resulted in a good nap on the couch)...

   Easter Sunday of the Resurrection of the Lord   

Fr Scott and Fr. Stitt can both attest
that I’m one of the least qualified people around
to play movie critic.
It’s not that I don’t like movies;
it’s just that I don’t see very many of them.
(Living in a town without a theater
hasn’t exactly helped the cause.)

But there are two films
that I actually did see in recent months,
which—when considered side-by-side—
I believe have something significant to say to us at Easter.

The first movie is The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio
(a role which won him his first Academy Award).
It’s based on the true story of Hugh Glass,
a 19th century explorer and fur trader on the American frontier
who is violently mauled by a grizzly bear
and then left for dead by his hunting party—
after having seen one of the men kill his only son. 
(As you might have already guessed:
this isn’t exactly a “feel good” movie!) 
And as if Glass’s mutilated body, intense grief,
and experience of betrayal weren’t enough,
the film then depicts his fight to survive on his own
during a vicious winter in the northern wilds.
When he reemerges at the fort from which he’d originally set out,
it becomes clear that Glass was driven
by more than the sheer will to live;
his harrowing quest was one set on getting revenge.
While The Revanant is a tale of much brutality—
certainly not for the faint of heart!—
it’s a compelling story, quite beautifully filmed.

The second movie is the Biblical drama Risen.
It tells the tale of Clavius,
a Roman tribune whose soldiers are responsible
for overseeing the execution of Jesus on a cross.
It’s when Jesus’ tomb is found empty a few days later
that the story really takes off.
Clavius is charged by Pontius Pilate with the investigation—
including locating the missing body quickly—
in order to quell the rumors of resurrection
and an imminent uprising in Jerusalem.
Examining the evidence,
and interviewing Mary Magdalene and the Apostles,
only make the whole affair more mysterious.
Then Clavius finally finds Jesus—
not a dead body, but a man very much alive.
It’s not exactly great cinema
(I don’t expect anybody to get an Oscar for this one),
but as far as “Jesus movies” go,
Risen does a rather good job
of retelling the heart of the Gospel in convincing fashion.

Both movies are based on historical accounts—
by-and-large depicting events that actually took place.
Both tell the tales of men who came back from the dead—
with the scars as evidence to back up their claims.
But one—at the time of the original events—
was a sensation reported in all the papers;
the other was an account which the authorities attempted to suppress.

What other differences do we find between Hugh Glass and Jesus?

First, there’s a notable difference
in what happens among the people they encounter
when they return to the land of the living.
There’s quite a stir when Glass walks up to the gate of Fort Kiowa—
this man everyone had presumed was long dead.
His fellow troops and trappers are startled and curious.
How can this be?
But before long, it’s back to business as usual.
The life they’re all leading is harsh—and that life must go on.
Yet for those who see Jesus
three days and more after his crucifixion,
life is never the same again.
They go from asking, How can this be?
to asking, How must I be?
Apostles who had cowered fearful in hiding
are suddenly now willing to suffer and die.
Peter—who had only days before
quietly denied even knowing Jesus—
now publically proclaims his Lordship to anyone who’ll listen.
And as for the tribune Clavius—
there can be no more business as usual.
Even for this man hardened by so much violence,
meeting the risen Jesus changes absolutely everything.

The clear difference in the way people respond to these two men
stems from the considerable difference
between the realities they’ve undergone.
Although Hugh Glass’s grave was dug
and dirt was thrown over the top of him,
he never actually died.
Coming back from the brink of death in the face of impossible odds 
took amazing courage and strength.
But Glass’s story is of the triumph of one man’s will to live:
a man “saving” himself by means heroic, but perfectly natural.
He is a revenant—French for “one who has come back”—
but his is only a resuscitation;
he has recuperated; he’s been revived.
The story of the first Easter, however,
is not a tale of human triumph.
What happened to Jesus is a matter of resurrection—
a dead man cannot save himself, after all;
he must be raised by another.
2000 years later,
with all our amazing advances in medicine and technology,
we still can’t bring back someone
who has rightly been laid in the tomb.
This victory over death could only be divine.
Even with rather persuasive evidence—
it’d sure be strange to steal a body
but leave the burial cloths behind, wouldn’t it?—
what we have here is a reality beyond natural explanation,
one which demands faith.

The greatest difference, however,
between Glass’s recovery and Jesus’ resurrection
is seen in how these two men treat the ones
who wanted to see them dead.
Glass is bent on vengeance—
seeking strict justice for the death of his son,
even more than for the attempt on his own life.
But Jesus—he’s moved by nothing but tender mercy.
Clavius—that professional killer—
is received by the risen Jesus as if a long-treasured friend.

Two movies—
both based (with some embellishments) on real life events.
But we’re here in this church today
because the story one of them attempts to retell
continues to have real life effects today.
You and I are faced this Easter with an empty tomb
that raises some serious, potentially uncomfortable questions—
not only, How did it get that way?
but, What does it mean?  
What does it tell me about this Jesus? 
What does it tell me about myself?
Shouldn’t this change may life—and change it completely?
And if it hasn’t yet, What am I waiting for?

Even without seeing them,
everyone pretty much knows how both these movies end.
But how your story will end—that remains up to you!

As we renew our baptismal promises this Easter,
know that you’ve been so much more than revived;
by a life hidden with Christ in God, you’ve risen!
Live that new life!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

For His Body

   Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper   

Although Catholics by-and-large realize
that the Middle East is the birthplace of their faith—
the land where the Son of God was conceived and born,
worked and taught, was crucified and rose again—
most of us don’t give too much thought
to the Christian community that lives there today. 
I should say: what’s left of the Christian community there today. 
The Christians of Iraq, for example,
form one of the oldest continuous Christian communities
on the face of the earth. 
They trace their history directly to the preaching of the Apostles. 
Their liturgies are still celebrated in Aramaic—
the language Jesus himself spoke. 
But Iraqi Christians are nearly all gone from their ancestral homeland. 
Many have been killed—victims of one war right after another. 
Most of those left alive have been forced to flee. 
The ancient monastery of Mar Benham in Mosul
had been occupied since its construction
all the way back in the fourth century. 
But in 2014, ISIL troops took it over,
expelling all the monks with nothing but the clothes on their backs. 
Then, one year ago last Saturday, the same troops blew the place up.

Olga Yacob grew up a Christian in Kirkuk. 
At the time of the first Gulf War,
her parents arranged to fly her to safety in London. 
Instead, she fled to Baghdad.  
In that devastated city—
without clean water, electricity, or gas, and cut off from her family—
she dedicated her life to service. 
She first started a door-to-door youth movement—
of both Christians and Muslims—
that collected food and water, clothing and medical supplies,
to distribute to the needy. 
At the age of 29, Olga founded an order of nuns.

But of all the things Mother Olga did, I’m most moved by the accounts
of how she and her sisters cared for the bodies of the dead. 
In a war-torn country like Iraq, there are many corpses left unclaimed.
Mother Olga would carry the bodies
back to the convent in her own arms,
where they would be washed and prepared for burial
according to local custom. 
She looked to the Virgin Mary as her model,
“who—as she says—stood at the foot of the cross
when they took down the body of her only Son and laid him in her arms,
that precious body, beaten, pierced, and covered with blood.”

Mother Olga is particularly haunted
by the memories of the children and elderly who were killed. 
One Holy Week, without a priest, or Mass, or even a Bible,
she recalls gathering the children in the desert
to tell them about Jesus,
about his Last Supper and how he died to save them. 
A few of the children asked Mother Olga
if they’d have colored eggs for Easter Sunday. 
But some of them did not live to see the holy day. 
“We had to bury them wherever we were staying each night,” she said.

“In the midst of the darkness of violence, hatred,
bloodshed, and death…,” she recently wrote,
“faith in God became my anchor in the face of such a storm.” 
Reflecting on all the things she felt called to do,
she discovered that these “were not only a service to others
but also a much deeper encounter,
in which Jesus invited his followers
to see him in those whom they served.”

Jesus 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.”

It’s more than mere coincidence that on the very same night
that Jesus bequeathed to his Church the precious treasures
of the Most Holy Eucharist and his sacred priesthood
that he gave us as well a mandate of loving service and fraternal charity.  
As Christ supplies his disciples with the greatest of spiritual goods,
and ordains a spiritual order to see to its perpetuation
as the new Passover in his own Blood,
he also establishes a whole new pattern of life. 
The tender care with which the Lord provides for his Body, the Church,
and the awe-struck reverence with which we
are to adore and receive the Sacrament of his Body in Holy Communion,
must also be found in the care and reverence we show to one another. 

We may not all be called to wash the bodies of war’s forgotten dead,
but we are all called to wash one another’s feet:
to visit the lonely, feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger;
to speak on behalf of the forgotten,
forgive our enemies, and work for peace. 
It’s about so much more than doing a good deed for somebody else;
it’s a matter of encountering Christ himself on a deep level
in those we are privileged to serve.

Mother Olga—like so many other Iraqi Christians—
left her native soil in 2001, and settled in the Boston area. 
She cried the first time she heard Mass in English. 
“I’ll never learn this language,” she told the American priests. 
Ten years later, she founded another religious order,
this time here in the States: the Daughters of Mary of Nazareth,
whose ministry is focused on loving God and neighbor
through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. 
“I tell the Daughters,” she says,
“the Catholic Church gives us three symbols for Christ:
Christ in the crib, Christ on the cross, Christ broken in the Eucharist.
In each one, his arms are open wide to the world.” 
And so Mother Olga, and the women gathering around her,
likewise open their arms to a world
that needs to encounter Jesus now as much as ever.

"As I have done for you, you should also do."

Sunday, March 20, 2016

So Sweet

   Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord   C 

The Abenaki—
a native people of Quebec and New England—
have a wonderful legend about the origins of maple syrup. 

When the world was new—the story goes—
the Creator made life very easy for people:
game was abundant, the weather was always good,
and maple tress were filled with thick, sweet syrup—
all anyone had to do was snap off a twig
and collect the rich syrup that flowed out.

But it wasn’t long before trouble developed. 
People stopped fishing in the streams and hunting in the forest. 
They stopped working the fields and collecting berries. 
The village was abandoned and fires had grown cold. 
Where had they gone? 
They were out lying on their backs in a stand of maple trees
as syrup dripped directly into their mouths! 
The people had grown so fat and lazy they could barely move—
and were so content, they didn’t want to.

When this state of affairs 
was reported to the Great Spirit,
it was decided that changes must be made. 
The Creator had his servant 
take a large birch bark bucket,
draw water from the river, 
and pour it into the maple trees—
pouring more and more water
until the sap was no longer so thick or so sweet. 
The people began to get up and started asking,
“Where has our sweet drink gone?” 
Which is when they learned
that if they wanted their maple syrup again,
it would require hard work:
the sap would only flow sweet 
for a short time in the spring,
buckets would have to be made 
in which to collect it,
and much wood gathered to build fires 
to boil it for a long while. 
And so the people would be reminded
of the earlier error of their ways
and how to honor the gifts of the Creator. 

A slightly different take
on the “forbidden fruit” of Paradise, isn’t it? 
True confession:
I’d have been much more tempted
by maple syrup than an apple…

The maple sugaring season is one rich with traditions
and charged with memory for the people of the North Country. 
And I can’t help but wonder if,
in the great designs of God’s providence,
there are spiritual lessons intended for us
in the way it coincides with Lent, Holy Week, and Easter.

Making maple syrup is a slow, gradual process
that involves much labor,
whether you do it the old-fashioned way
or take advantage of modern technologies:
trees must be tapped, sap must be collected,
then it must be boiled with careful attention—
all after patently waiting for just the right conditions. 
But all this effort results
in a mysterious and beautiful transformation:
impurities are removed, flavor is condensed,
and a most delicious, natural sweetness emerges.

These coming days bring us together
around a tree even sweeter than the maple:
the sacred wood of the Cross. 
The transformation it brings is hard won;
no greater labor has ever been witnessed on the face of the earth—
the perfect work of one who is both God and man. 
The change it brings is one heated by flame:
the relentless, purifying fire of divine love. 
As the French Carmelite mystic
and soon-to-be-saint, Elizabeth of Trinity, remarked,
“There is no wood like that of the Cross
for lighting the fire of love in the soul.”  
And the point of all this labor and burning
is to bring out a natural sweetness:
to restore the life and likeness of God within you and me
that was ours before the fall.

Maple sugaring requires warm days and cold nights—
and those who are expert in the process
know well how to watch for the signs of the perfect conditions. 
Do we require signs that now is the time—
that the day of our salvation is upon us? 
Just look at Peter,
to whom the Lord turned and looked,
not with contempt but compassion,
and see the three-fold denier converted
into the first Pope of a Church whose mission is one of mercy. 
Just look at Pilate and Herod—
political figures not exactly known for their integrity—
and see how simply being near the crucified Messiah
turned these enemies into friends.  
Just look at the condemned criminal
who asks Jesus for a remembrance in his kingdom,
and witness one rightly sentenced to death
become the only saint canonized by Christ himself.

Maybe next year,
instead of importing palm branches from some tropical locale,
we ought to wave twigs from our native sugar maples
to welcome this most holy of weeks—
this week during which,
by a mysterious and beautiful transformation,
Christ restores to us the rich delights of Paradise.

All glory and praise to you, Father and Creator of all,
who has caused forgiveness and life to flow
with such abundant sweetness
from the tree of the Cross!

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Down in the Dirt

   Fifth Sunday of Lent   C 

I don't have a full fledged homily text to give you today; I was preaching "Children's Church," so there were some questions and props involved. But here's an outline of what we talked about...

We use many different things to write. Some—like pencil or chalk—can be easily erased. Some—like crayons, pens, or markers—are much more permanent.

There are a few times in the Bible when we find God writing. One is in the Old Testament. Moses is leading God’s people through the desert, and they stop so Moses can climb a mountain to talk with God. While on the mountain, God gives Moses the 10 Commandments for the people: ten rules for loving God and loving one another. God gives this law so his people can be happy—now and forever. And so God writes the 10 Commandments down. He writes them with his finger, and he writes them on stone. Something written in stone cannot be erased. God writes his law in stone so that his people won’t forget it, and so they’ll understand that they can’t change it.

We also find God writing in this Sunday’s gospel reading. An angry crowd is pointing at a woman to tell Jesus that she has sinned—that she has broken one of the Commandments. And what does Jesus do? He bends down to write with his finger, and he writes in the dirt. What does Jesus write? [Several people gave answers…but since the Bible doesn’t say, I tell them the only way they could know is if they’d been there!] We can’t be sure what he wrote, but many have guessed that Jesus was writing sins in the sand—not the sins of the woman, but the sins of all the people who were pointing at her. They had broken God’s Commandments, too. Something written on the ground is easily erased by the wind, or people walking over it, or wiping it out with your own hand. Jesus writes our sins in the sand so that people will know God forgets them, and they can be forgiven again and again.

A trouble grown-ups often have is getting this stuff backwards. There are times when we like to think that God’s law is written in sand—so that we can change it or make it disappear. We also sometimes act like God writes our sins in stone—afraid that he’ll never forget and will hold them against us always. Jesus makes it clear which way is right when he tells the woman that he doesn’t condemn her, but that she should go and live now by God’s law, not sinning anymore.

God’s law cannot be changed. He who made us and made the whole world is the only now who knows the real path to happiness, and so God has written his Commandments in stone. But our sins can be wiped away if only we ask—like something just written in the dirt.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Forgive Me

   Fourth Sunday of Lent   C 
A boy and his dad were at Mass
when the priest read the parable of the prodigal son.
As the clergyman preached on the passage,
vividly describing the scene where the father runs out
to meet his rebellious son, he asked,
“Now, throwing wide his arms, what did that man say?”
Which is when the boy leaned over to his dad
and whispered, “You’re grounded!”

Imagine what it was like for that runaway when he got home.
He’d long been rehearsing what he’d say to his father.
His many—shall we say—“indiscretions”
couldn’t have been a complete secret in the neighborhood.
If nothing else, people knew how
he’d scorned his father and his whole family
when requesting his inheritance early—
as if saying to his old man, “I kind of wish you were dead.”
Being accepted back as a servant
wasn’t just the best he could hope for;
it’s probably what he really wanted.
“Just let me in the back door 
and give me a place among the help.
This has already been humiliating enough for all of us,
so I’d prefer to keep out of the spotlight.”

But there will be no quiet reentry for this young man.
There’s the fresh robe, the shiny ring, the new pair of sandals.
And then there’s the big party—food, music, dancing.

From childhood,
we know that there ought to be a punishment that fits the crime.
It’s one of the ways we can make amends,
can set the record straight.
Restitution—even if only symbolic—
is a rightful part of the process of reconciliation.
Doing penance for sin opens us up
to receiving pardon and amending our life.

A parable is just that—a parable.
No one of them ever claims to tell the entire story.
And here’s a possible hole
in the parable of the prodigal son.
Yes, it provides us with an amazing window
onto the superabundant mercy of God.
If you thought the younger son was extravagant
in liberally wasting his fortune,
he will not be outdone by his dad
who lavishes gifts on the one he feared was lost forever.
As Jesus assures,
our Father in heaven responds likewise
whenever any of his wayward children repent.

But how is a sinner to react?
How are we supposed to take such a warm welcome
after wandering so far from home?

Many times, when hearing confessions,
I come across people who just can’t seem
to shake their shame and guilt.
Whether their falls and failures are recent or long past,
they keep on kicking themselves.
They’ve come to ask their Father’s forgiveness…
…but they haven’t yet been able to forgive themselves.

There can be many different reasons for this.

Sometimes we fail to forgive ourselves
because we want to hang on to our sins:
we rather enjoyed them,
and still enjoy reliving them in our minds.
This, of course, reveals a lack of real repentance.
You haven’t made a fresh start,
and so your sin remains.

Sometimes we don’t forgive ourselves
because we haven’t yet been forgiven
by other people we’ve hurt.
We’ve made honest attempts to right the wrong,
but they’ve refused to reconcile.
Prayer is the answer here—
to intercede for them
(Jesus, after all, told us to pray for our enemies)
and to pray that we don’t become bitter.
In some cases, it may be necessary to love them from a distance.

More often then not, though, when we can’t forgive ourselves,
the roots run much deeper.
Sin leaves painful wounds in our hearts.
It leaves us feeling unlovable—
feeling rather unworthy of God’s love.
Yet as the parable of the prodigal son
is meant to make abundantly clear:
the Father doesn’t love us because we’re good;
he loves us because we’re his.
To be unforgiving with myself reveals
that I don’t see myself as I truly am.
It means I’m believing a lie.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize that discouragement
is one of the enemy’s most powerful weapons.
If he can get me down,
then he wants to keep me there—
wallowing in the pig pen, unable to fully walk away from it.

Here’s what every sinner must always remember:
you are not your sins.
Your sins don’t define you.
Your true worth, after all, doesn’t rest in you;
it rests in God.
It’s rather transformative to consider how God looks upon you,
and to ask him for the grace
to see yourself in the very same light.
God loves you as you are—
even when he’s calling you to make some serious changes.
And so you need to love the person you see in the mirror.
And since forgiveness is an awfully big part of love,
you need to forgive yourself.

The Lord’s forgiveness, unfortunately, doesn’t always mean
that the pain caused by sin will be taken away.
But then again, forgiveness isn’t a feeling.
And forgiveness isn’t forgetting, either—
sure, for God it is, but generally, not for us.
Attempting to suppress our past—
as if it weren’t real, as if it didn’t happen—
is pretty unhealthy business.
But when painful memories of sin do return,
we don’t have to allow them to haunt us,
holding us captive all over again;
instead, we ought to rejoice,
knowing that it’s precisely in the face of these
that God freely chooses to show us nothing other
than the most tender mercy.

You’ve heard of being more Catholic than the Pope?
Well, to ask God for forgiveness without forgiving oneself
is to claim to have a higher standard for mercy than God does.
Even more tragically:
since the essence of forgiveness
is being relieved of the claim against you,
to insist on beating oneself up after God has absolved you
is actually to refuse his gift.
The parable of the prodigal son, then,
doesn’t only speak to us of God’s great mercy;
it gives us a lesson in how to accept it.
We need to enter into our Father’s joy.
God’s will for his children is not bondage, but liberation.
Christ lived, Christ died, and Christ rose again to set us free!

Don’t block the Lord’s forgiveness by failing to forgive yourself.
It’s his delight to heal you and lead you home!
When the Father offers you his loving pardon,
be sure to also accept his gifts of freedom and peace.