Sunday, April 16, 2017

Lenten Journeys

Catholic spiritual leaders often invite the faithful to go on a journey during lent. I did one this year from TMIY and it was very good. What strikes me now is that it is over. Why is that? The liturgical journey we are on is not over. We have 40 days of lent where we do penance and focus on our sin and our frailty. We need that. Sin runs deep in us and we need to take some serious time to deal with it. Yet that is not the whole story. Lent gives way to Easter. Easter is not just a party. It is a season of joy and victory. It is 50 days rather than 40. That is not just because we want to enjoy good things longer than we want to deprive ourselves of them. It is also because living the joy and victory is also a complex business. 

Now that we have, hopefully, had some success in controlling our passions and dealing with the sin in our life the question of how to best use that freedom from sin. Consider these words of Jesus from Luke 11:
24“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ 25When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. 26Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”
Jesus is explaining one danger of just focusing on fighting sin. When we win the battle against sin we can have a bit of a spiritual vacuum. If we don't fill that with virtue and positive activity then other vices or even the same vice can come back. The church gets this. That is why the journey does not end with Easter. It ends with Pentecost. Really it needs to continue into ordinary time because it is only when our ordinary life is changed that we know a permanent improvement has happened.

Yet almost all the lenten journey stuff you see ends when the 40 days is over. The 40 days is not followed up with a 50 days that prepares you to launch into something really big and exciting. It is like we are done. We don't see Easter as a victory that changes the game in our favor but rather as something that ends the game. We keep saying we are a resurrection people but don't really think deeply about what that means. It does not help that Pentecost occurs at the beginning of summer. Churches are more interested in taking a break at that point than challenging people to start something new.

Now a lot of lenten programs get this. Then know that just focusing on sin and penance is not complete. Yet rather than add an Easter portion to their journey the incorporate much of that into lent. The trouble is the two parts of the journey need to be separated. Often we find one part easier than the other and we do that part well and neglect the other. Two spiritual seasons for two different aspects of growth makes sense. Yet we don't do it. People are willing to put out effort for the lenten season but they don't want to do much for Easter. 

So what does Easter look like? Think of the disciples on the first Easter. Jesus dies. Jesus rises. There is immediate joy. Yet it is hard for them to figure out what is next. Jesus stays for a while and totally convinces them He is really alive. The He commissions them. Then He leaves. We go through the same sort of thing. We die during lent. If we did it right we rise again with new life. Yet what does it mean? 

First of all, it should strengthen our faith. When we embraced prayer, fasting and alms-giving we ended up not losing our life like common sense would indicate but gaining a richer life like Jesus promised. That is experiencing the truth of the gospel on a very personal and practical level. Often we end up breaking bad habits we once thought were unbreakable. Like the old song says, "You ask me how I know He lives, He lives within my heart." That kind of power acting inside our hearts should blow us away as much as seeing Jesus rise blew away the disciples.

Secondly, it should put us in touch with our spiritual gifts. When we rid ourselves of sin we don't lose our identity but we become who we are truly meant to be. We start to enter into the intimate communion with God we were created for. Think of the church in Acts 2 and the detachment they experienced from earthly goods and their hunger for the word of God and the sacraments. 

Anyway, this is getting long. My point is that lent is not the end of the journey. It is step one. Often it is the hardest step. Still when you get it right you want to keep going.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

God is Love

As Christians when we thing about the words God is Love we tend to think of them as a statement of theology. 1 John 4 boldly states that God is love. In the face of all the pain and evil we see in the world it is a pretty audacious claim. One that changes the way we approach life. Still I have been thinking of it a bit different. I have been thinking of God is Love as a statement of philosophy. That is that we cannot have a coherent notion of love unless we believe in God. Christians can talk about the mystery of love forever. When they ponder it they often talk about what happened on Good Friday and Easter as the best example of unfathomable love. 

Atheists are in a very different place. They believe in love. I mean they believe in the human experience. How could they not? Yet when they try and go deeper and explain exactly what it is, where do they go? They go to brain chemistry. They go to evolutionary biology. We have certain responses to certain stimuli because they created some survival advantage for us at some point in our evolution.  That is what we call love. We value love not because it is inherently valuable but because of the random events of our evolution. We enjoy love for the same reason a shark enjoys killing. We evolved that way. 

St John Paul II said man cannot make sense of himself unless he gives himself away in love. I think most realize this is true. Yet is it a feature or a defect? An atheist would be forced to say even that meaning is an illusion. It is just that the feelings evolution gave us with respect to love are strong but they are not any more meaningful because they are strong. A Christian would say it is meaningful because when you love you connect with God. This is because God is love. So love can be meaningful if there is a God to make it meaningful. If there is no God then it can't be despite the fact that it really, really feels meaningful. 

This is a place where the atheist has to make a choice. Either to believe, on faith, that love is meaningless despite his feelings or to stop being an atheist and say there must be something more than the material world. The other choice is to simply live the contradiction and not think about it too hard. The last choice is obviously the easiest. Yet if atheists pride themselves on anything it is their brutally honest rationality. Some have taken the second option. Jennifer Fulwiler is the name that pops to mind. 

So love implies God. To say God is love you would also have to say God implies love. Does it really? Certainly people have believed in God's that didn't always love. Yet if we that love is the highest human value and acknowledge that it is that way because God made it so. Then would we not be justified to conclude that God must be love? Fr Robert Spitzer actually takes it a step further and suggests that God must be the greatest possible lover. That the Christian God should be seen as possible and even probable because it paints God as the greatest lover in giving His son to die for our sins. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Mary at Cana

Just reflecting on John 2:1-12. The wedding feast in Cana:
1On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4“Woman,a why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.b7Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
8Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”They did so, 9and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
11What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
12After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days.
The first thing that strikes me is the opening lines. A wedding took place. Jesus's mother was there. Why is Mary mentioned first? You would expect John to start by saying Jesus was there and then follow with Mary and the disciples were also there. He does not. He tells the story like Mary is the main character with Jesus and the disciples playing supporting roles. Still he does not mention her name. She is referred to as Jesus' mother and, by Jesus, as "woman." So the emphasis is not on her in isolation. Her relation to Jesus and the fact that she is a woman are in focus.

Jean Vanier remarked about this passage that Jesus could have kicked off his ministry in a lot of ways. He could have gone to the temple. He could have focused on prayer or on scripture or a bunch of other things. Yet he starts by taking them to a party. A party where there a wedding being celebrated and wine being consumed. It is a joyful occasion. A celebration of love.

Yet the joy is not born out of a denial of sin. Where is the sin in the story? There are 6 20-30 gallon jars of water for ceremonial washing. What were they washing themselves from? Sin. Why so many large jars? This household seems to have frequently called to mind their sins and asked God to forgive them. It was they way they lived.

Still the theme of joy is here. Joy that is natural human joy. Yet human joy is finite. The wine runs out. Jesus provides an abundance of wine measured in the same jars that show their desire for holiness. Jesus provides a better sort of joy that becomes evident when the superficial joy runs out.

Yet Jesus does not just do this. He seems reluctant at first. Mary tells Him the problem. She does not ask him to do anything. His response seems strange. It actually parallels some of the things demons say to Jesus (Mt. 8:29; Mk 1:24 and 5:7; Luke 4:34 and 8:28). Sort of acknowledging an authority but suggesting that authority does not apply here. Like Jesus was saying I would normally do what you ask out of respect for you as my mother but not this. Mary accepts it but still does not give up. Really there is no other instance of Jesus seeming to say one thing and do another like this one. Like we are meant to see Jesus have his heart softened by his mother's intercession. Apart from her impact on Jesus we see her impact on the servants. She tells them to obey Jesus. Having Mary intercede is not an alternative to obeying Jesus. We have to do both.

Yet what about that word "woman?" Jesus refers to women that way a few times. It is not disrespectful. Yet nobody else in Greek literature refers to their mother that way. Jesus does so consistently. Why is that? As a protestant I was taught that meant Jesus thought of her as an ordinary woman and not as His mother. That would make Jesus less than human and in violation of the command to honour His mother. Maybe rather than making Mary less than His mother He is making her more than His mother. Maybe He is connecting her with all womanhood. Certainly that is where the early church fathers went. They connect this with Gen 3:15 and call Mary the New Eve.

Jesus is actually presented here as a bridegroom messiah. Some more liberal theologians have used this passage to suggest Jesus was married. The bride and groom are not mentioned here and the one time the bridegroom is addressed by the master of the banquet we are aware that he should be saying this about Jesus. Remember there is a lot of Old Testament talk about the Messiah as Israel's spiritual husband. John is drawing on this and Mary is standing in for the church which is the bride.