Joseph Epstein’s mean-spirited op-ed piece on whether Jill Biden can call herself “Doctor” ignited a small firestorm of protest among academics (among others). Epstein, known for his anti-feminist leanings, was for a time an adjunct lecturer in English at Northwestern University, and may just be suffering a bit from Ph.D. envy, as he lacks one.
It is true that Dr. Jill does not have a medical degree and has not delivered any babies. But I wonder if Epstein, especially as a whilom adjunct lecturer in English, would also agitate for renaming Christopher Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus”? And there’s the case of Roger Bacon, known for centuries as “Doctor Mirabilis.” A Franciscan friar, it is highly doubtful that he delivered any babies either. As for Dr. Phil, I’m not in a position to say other than that his degree is not in medicine. (I don’t recall Epstein inveighing against Dr. Phil’s use of the title, which is curious.)
Northwestern’s embarrassed English department has recently distanced itself from its one-time adjunct lecturer. Epstein may be expected to write an op-ed column for the Wall Street Journal on whether academic institutions should be called “universities” even if they have medical schools.
This is the darkest part of the year, at least in the northern hemisphere, but the darkness is not only because of the fewer daylight hours leading up to the winter solstice. We have been warned that disregarding the warnings of the medical community would lead to a catastrophic rise in morbidity and death from the Covid virus. That dark prediction has already begun to be fulfilled tragically and is expected only to worsen as Christmas approaches. Clearly, the voice crying in the wilderness is not only that of John the Baptist, but it is his prophetic warning to which the gospel reading directs our attention today.
Advent has traditionally been considered a time for joyful reflection, and to be sure there is reason to be joyful, even today in the midst of great personal and social distress. We hear that in the other readings as well, part of the sword of contradiction the coming of the Savior brought into the world.
John’s message, which would be taken up by Jesus himself, calls us to repentance and forgiveness, the keys that will unlock the gate of joy this
Christmas. But we easily misunderstand what the gospels mean by “repentance.” In the Greek translation used by the earliest Christian writers ‘metanoia’ does not mean donning sackcloth and ashes and going around beating our breasts figuratively or in fact. To repent means to change our way of thinking and therefore our behavior, to reverse a decision, to change direction. That shift is expressed first of all in forgiving. Here, God is the model we must emulate.
In today’s first reading, we encounter the passage from the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, so memorably set to music by Handel at the beginning of the Messiah: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her tribulation is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” [Isaiah 40: 2].
By all accounts, Jerusalem still needs some comfort, riven as it is by sectarianism and strife. Isaiah tells us that “her iniquity is pardoned.” The Hebrew word for “pardon” here is ‘ratsah,’ which means to be pleased with someone, especially because they have satisfied a debt. They have been reconciled, like our bank accounts. More than that: the debt has been totally forgiven. All that is past, wiped out, the slate cleaned, the debt paid. And here, it is God, who had earlier doubled the penalty for Israel’s rejection of the path of justice, who is pardoning and reconciling.
The financial metaphor involved in the preaching of forgiveness carried over into Christian times. Jesus uses it frequently. We echo it when we speak of our debts to God and each other. Bankers, lawyers, and mortgage companies still speak also of forgiveness when a loan is written off – except, it seems, for student loan debt, which is arguably the cruelest of all and constantly increasing.
Debt forgiveness may not be the happiest of similes, but it is still relevant. When we injure one another by our sinfulness, we enter into debt, both to those we have hurt, and to God, who takes on the hurt of the world. This became sadly evident again in the first week of Advent. School shootings, terrorist incidents, assaults on citizens by carjackers and other thugs, and the terrible toll of the coronavirus, now the leading cause of death in the United States, are still the daily bread of the news outlets and the source of grief and even bitterness to a growing number of our citizens.
And so in the midst of distress and sorrow the message of Scripture today is that turning back to God, finding our way again, requires a settling of debts. On God’s part, it is remarkably simple: forgiveness is there to be taken, abundantly, and completely. The only hitch is the condition that we be as willing to forgive each other, so that God’s forgiveness can take possession of us. Jesus is clear that our unwillingness to forgive each other limits the effectiveness of God’s forgiveness in our case. Right after the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel, we hear:
“…if you forgive people their transgressions, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their transgressions, neither will your Father forgive yours” [Mat 6:14-15].
Our next reading from the Second Letter of Peter seems to pass quickly over the theme of repentance and forgiveness in its enthusiasm for grand eschatological symbolism, but in fact, it lies at the heart of his message, too, where we read, “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach ‘metanoia” [2 Peter 3:9] – that new way of thinking. Moreover, we have no time to waste. The need for a change of mind and heart is urgent now.
The opening of the Gospel of Mark that provides our third reading does not mention Jesus. But it returns us forcefully to the theme of repentance and forgiveness that will occupy so much of his teaching by introducing the main character of the Advent readings. John the Baptizer came to prepare Christ’s way in the wilderness. It was John who first preached ‘metanoia,’ the change of mind and heart that leads to forgiveness of sins. After John’s imprisonment and execution, which must have shaken him to his core, Jesus began to preach the same message, the urgent need for a whole new way of thinking, feeling, and acting grounded in love and expressed in mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. Today for individuals and nations, that can be the greatest Christmas present of all. Present tribulation will end. The joy of redemption lasts forever.
Although not much heralded in the news media, the now-annual Christmas nativity scene was erected and blessed on Saturday morning in Chicago’s Daley Center Plaza. It is the only religious portrayal of the “reason for the season” in the area, but at least it is there. And today we observe the beginning of Advent, the period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. But with plastic and plaster nativity scenes now populating church gardens and suburban lawns, there’s not much left to anticipate. Santa Claus came to town early, too. Well, God knows we need a little cheer. Not by chance, Christmas decorations went on sale in big-box stores a week before Halloween.
It has been a dreadful year, for sure, despite welcome bright moments. The Covid-19 Crisis is, of course, on everyone’s mind, followed closely by the economic calamity that has followed and the most contentious presidential election in modern history. 2020 will linger in our lives and memories for months to come, if not years.
But I was particularly struck during the past week by stunning contrasts as the nation observed Thanksgiving Day. As the United States surpassed world records and even its own with Covid infections and deaths, tens of millions of citizens ignored pleas from the Centers for Disease Control and a multitude of government agencies to stay home then jammed airports and bus stations for trips home to celebrate feasts and frolic with family and friends. The medical community, already besieged with nearly intolerable efforts to save lives, has expressed grave concern that the inevitable surge in infection and death will cast a ghastly pall over the Christmas season and well into the new year.
But the most glaring contrast was the juxtaposition of scenes of millions of citizens lined up in cars and on foot to receive food packages to sustain their families during this desperate period of economic meltdown with images of food-laden tables and happy multitudes dining to capacity on turkey with all the trimmings. On the other hand, I was deeply impressed by the massive efforts by volunteer groups, many if not most, associated with food pantries and churches, to distribute care packages to the 26 million Americans unsure of where their next meal is coming from. One out of every six children in America now goes to bed at night hungry.
We have some work to do as we look forward to the coming of our Savior.
To begin with, we would do well to recall that Covid-19 is not the only threat to health, well-being, and economic stability. Next Tuesday, Dec. 1, has been designated as World AIDS Day, since 1988 an annual call to care and action ‘to call attention to the global HIV epidemic, to increase HIV awareness and knowledge, to speak out against HIV stigma, and to call for an increased response to move toward Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America.’ [On December 1st at 2:00 pm ET, join the Live with Leadership World AIDS Day Edition with federal and community speakers. Learn how submit questions in advance or during the conversation.]
HIV-AIDS is still a world-wide affliction threatening millions of people here and especially in poorer nations –worse than Covid-19, SARS, Zika, the Ebola virus, and the ‘flu.
Whether it’s AIDS or Covid-19, wildfires, earthquakes, drive-by shootings, terrorist attacks, or even bad weather (which we’ve had plenty of this year), we want protection and ultimately we want it from God. But we even hear Isaiah trying to lay the blame for such bad things on God…. “Why do you let us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” Please save us from ourselves…
But if we think for a bit, we begin to realize that the real question is not why God lets such awful things happen, but why and how we do. Something seems particularly wrong when senseless tragedies befall the innocent. Is it God’s fault that children are dying of hunger and disease in Yemen, Syria, and Bangladesh? Or that families are wiped out because of faulty gas pipes or improperly placed space heaters? Or terrorist attacks? Or the devastation of storms, wildfires, and earthquakes?
Isaiah seems to suggest that if God lets such things happen it is by way of saying that our thoughtless way of living brings such tragedies on ourselves and others, including the innocent. If God does not prevent it, that is not because God wants it that way. St. Paul simply tells us that God will strengthen us to the end, so that we can be blameless on the day of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He does not say that God will miraculously protect us from the consequences of our sins — or even the sins of others. God will strengthen us. That is what he promises.
That is why it is important to pay attention to the theme that links today’s readings – waiting on God. Waiting for God. “No ear has ever heard,” Isaiah says, “no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for you.” The word appears again in the second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Corinth, that wild Greek port town. “He says, “the witness I bore to Christ has been so confirmed among you that you lack no spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus.” The gospel passage from Mark does not mention waiting, but watching, although the connection here is important. What we do while we wait is watch. (When I looked up the word “wait,” I found that it comes from an Old German root, ‘wahta,’ which actually means “to watch.”) Watching means to look for someone, keeping vigilant, staying awake, which is one of Mark’s favorite ways of saying “waiting.”
All the gospels warn us that unless we watch, unless we stay awake, waiting for God, we will miss out. For the Christ comes like a thief in the night. Jesus is telling us to be mindful, to pay attention to the presence of God hidden in the events of our daily lives, whether minor exasperations or major crises and real tragedies, and then to act. That is how we will be prepared to meet our Lord.
Such waiting demands patience, stamina, and courage. We may tire of promoting justice, of making peace, of being merciful, of letting love guide our words and actions, but no matter how long the wait our task is clear. In Isaiah’s words, “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in all our ways!”
And that is why we wait. And watch.
Tomorrow’s observance of the Triumph of the Cross marks the half-way point to the great Paschal mysteries that ordinarily begin around the middle of March. It’s a moment to recall the dying words of Jesus, which are so much at the heart of his teaching: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34). For today’s readings focus on forgiving and being forgiven, sometimes called the Law of Christ. It’s not a comfortable message, especially when great harm has been done. And after the great harm of 9/11, commemorated again last Friday, and all the outrages against people and property since then, it might seem natural for people to want revenge, to seek retribution. But what have we gained from the slaughter that followed? (See Sir 27:30–28:9, Rom 14:7-9, and Mt 18:21-35.)
Since 2001, close to a million people have died in the wars we declared in our desire for vengeance, a majority of them most likely innocent civilians. In 2018, Brown University’s Costs of War Project released an estimate of the total death toll from the U.S. wars in three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. “The numbers, while conservatively estimated, are staggering. Brown’s researchers estimate that at least 480,000 people have been directly killed by violence over the course of these conflicts, more than 244,000 of them civilians. In addition to those killed by direct acts of violence, the number of indirect deaths — those resulting from disease, displacement, and the loss of critical infrastructure — is believed to be several times higher, running into the millions.” [https://theintercept.com/2018/11/19/civilian-casualties-us-war-on-terror/]
Over a thousand European civilians also died in retaliatory attacks and other terrorist acts in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Manchester, London, Madrid and Barcelona. The cost in national treasure has been enormous – more than $4.8 trillion for our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone.
More recently, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the death toll from the U.S.-supported war in Yemen, is now over 100,000, including more than 12,000 civilians, as well as estimates of more than 85,000 dead as a result of an ongoing famine due to the war. [https://acleddata.com/2020/03/25/acled-resources-war-in-yemen/]
Add to these four examples, the staggering loss of life in the United States from gun violence, including suicides and accident: “When all firearm injuries are considered, over 100,000 Americans are killed or injured each year as a result of firearms and nonfatal firearm injuries have increased from 22.1 to 26.7 per 100,000 population during the last decade.” [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5849457/]
We don’t seem to know how to stop the killing and the destruction. And yet we read today in Ben Sira, “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance…”
Yet forgiveness is a recurrent theme in Christian teaching. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” [See Deut. 32:35]. No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” [Rom 12: 19-20.] But do we really believe that? Are we likely to write it into our campaign speeches and foreign policy?
If we have come to think of forgiveness as something distinctively Christian, it is certainly at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. But today especially we find the same message in the Book of Sirach, expressed three hundred years earlier: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice, then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.” He makes the point three time over, and in each instance he links being forgiven with forgiving. If we are slow in healing from the terrible events of 2001, perhaps it is because we are still lacking in forgiveness.
For Paul the opposite of vengeance is active forgiveness, as it was for Jesus. For they were schooled in the Jewish Law, where it was written very early on, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” [Lev. 19:18].
One of the most enduring memories I have of the events of 9/11 is the image of hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people around the world, gathered that night and in the nights that followed, holding candles and praying for the victims who perished and the survivors. I distinctly remember a woman in France shouting “Today we are all Americans!” — a cry that was echoed over and over around the entire planet. That is, until the desire for vengeance overrode the possibility of healing and we let loose the dogs of war that continue to prowl to this day.
Like those of Ben Sira and St. Paul, Jesus’ message to us today and every day remains the same – we say it so frequently that it has probably ceased to have much meaning – forgive us our trespasses – our debts, our sins – as we forgive those who sin against us. The metaphor of debt-forgiveness, cancellation, that we find so prominent in Jesus’ parable, is not an accident, as we see in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). Forgiveness means writing off the debt, and is still used that way in banking. It is an apt metaphor and one perhaps never more appropriate.
Above all else, the cross of Christ is a sign not of punishment, but of love, a love that the power of hate, the lure of revenge, and the might of oppression can not stifle, “a love,” as the old hymn has it, “so amazing, so divine that it demands our soul, our life, our all….” [“When I survey the Wondrous Cross,” Isaac Watts, 1674-1748].
What began as a fairly normal year (in the strange world of Trump, Brexit, etc.) too quickly turned into an annus horribilis that would daunt even the queen. A confluence of unexpected catastrophes, from the Covid crisis and the economic downturn, to repression of peaceful protests, and worsening relations among the world great economies, was deepened this week by the explosion that wiped out much of the center of Beirut. That alone was heart-breaking, as I had been there several years ago and witnessed the promising results of a decades-long effort to restore the historic parts of the city following a decade of ruinous civil war.
We are left wondering, week by week, how did all this happen in such a relatively short time? The stormy waters seem about to overwhelm us.
When we turn to the readings for today’s liturgy, we are reminded of the perils that somehow inevitably befall us. But we are also reminded of the hope that sustains us. [1 Kings 19:9,11-13, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:22-23.]
The reading from the Book of Kings seems jarring at first glance, especially considering its backstory. The prophet Elijah, who is one of God’s truly wild men, has just scored a stunning defeat over the priests of Baal. He celebrated by taking them all 450 down to the river Jordan and cutting their throats. Jezebel the queen, who was as powerful as she was vicious, sends him word that he’s as good as dead himself and in fact will be by that time tomorrow. So Elijah flees and seeks refuge on Mt. Horeb, about 200 miles south. There, seeking some sign, he is about to turn in his prophet badge when God appears to him — not in the tempest or the earthquake but in a still small voice after the storm.
In this reading, we do not hear Elijah’s repeated complaint about the infidelity of the Israelites or God’s answer, including the promise that Elijah will not only find a successor both to himself and to Ahab, but that he will slaughter God’s enemies. Instead the reading focuses our attention on the manner in which God appears. Not in sound and fury, but after it — above it. It is one of the major theophanies of the Old Testament. God comes to us in very unexpected ways.
In the second reading, Paul’s impossible hypothesis reminds us of the unexpectedness of God’s presence in our lives. He would generously, heroically sacrifice his own salvation if it would help the Jews of his time to recognize God’s saving presence in Christ. Somehow, he knows that God has not abandoned the Jews, that God will never abandon them, even if he does not know how God will eventually accomplish their salvation.
But it is the recognition of God presence in unexpected places and unacceptable ways that leaps out at us in the Gospel, which continues where it left off last week with the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
Jesus sends the disciples ahead of him across the Sea of Galilee. When a gale comes up just before dawn, after a very rough night fighting the wind and the waves, they see the impossible — Jesus walking on the water, an account also found in the gospels of Mark and John. It was a memorable experience, one of the wonderful images that has come down to us in the form of a proverbial phrase.
In the story, it is first of all a terrifying experience, scarier than the storm itself. Peter, of course, throws himself overboard once he recognizes Jesus. But he first raises a doubt, a challenge that will almost sink him. “If it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.” I can do it! But is it really you, Lord?
Jesus simply says, “Come.”
So Peter does. But out on the waves, in the full force of the storm, he suddenly remembers something — and his confidence wavers. He founders and Jesus plucks him by the hand. “Why did you doubt?” Jesus chides him.
Matthew says that Peter doubted because when he felt the force of the wind. Jesus tells him, “because your faith was small and weak and you were afraid to admit it.”
Why do we doubt?
In her book, “Walking on Water,” the late Madelaine l’Engle tells us, “… think of Peter walking across the water to meet Jesus. As long as he didn’t remember that we human beings have forgotten how to walk on water, he was able to do it.”
But it takes faith. Like Elijah, Paul, and Peter, we have to remember how to recognize the presence and power of God in the most unlikely places and forms. Christ is very frequently — perhaps most of the time — not where we prefer, but where he has some business of his own to accomplish. On the other hand, that business is very likely to have something to do with our salvation — our deepest welfare, our ability to assist others, to contribute some measure of hope to the world.
And so we strive to hear the still, calming voice of Jesus over the fury of the storm. We listen for the three great commands of hope he speaks: “Have courage, it is I, do not fear.”
There are plenty of stormy gales in our lives, plenty of times we would like to turn in our badges.
As a new and frightening disease ravages the world, when our homes are destroyed by violence as in Beirut this week, when our families are killed, our country devastated by civil war, or when our friends and relatives are suddenly taken from us in mindless gang wars or random shootings. Or even in less violent forms, when we have to confront a family member or colleague at work about alcoholism. Or to live with the grief of a child’s leukemia or the guilt feelings that attend having to place an aged parent in a nursing home, or accepting the discouragement of a broken marriage, or the fact that you’re not getting promoted at work, or you’ve lost your job, or that you have to repeat the fifth grade, or that someone you love has died. The seas of life turn violent at times.
At such moments, it is difficult to hear the voice of God calling to us over the storm. But the voice is there. At one time or other, God calls each of us to walk on the water — to listen to that still, quiet voice in our heart, and in the world of creation, and in scripture and history — and to have courage. “It is I.” The strange and wonderful thing is that sometimes we find that we haven’t sunk at all, that the waves are growing solid under our feet. And sometimes we have to be plucked out of deep water by the hand of God.
Both Isaiah and the responsory psalm for the day eloquently remind us that the word of God, gone forth, does not return vacant, for it is creative of its nature, and true soil — like the human clay Jesus refers to later — responds to it abundantly and yields a fit harvest, in human terms of justice and mercy. St. Paul speaks of Creation as a whole groaning to reveal the destiny of the universe — the freedom and glory of God’s children. For the price of such creativity is high — the pain of birth. And loss, both of life and of creativity itself. As in the amplified commentary on Jesus’ simple parable, the fertile seed of God’s word, the way Creation is lavish with the gift of life, often goes to waste. Some of the Word does take root, but more seems to be scavenged, lost, or at best stunted and it soon withers. Jesus directs our attention, like Isaiah, not to the Word itself, but to us, the human soil and our readiness to receive the Word of Life and grow to bear a harvest of freedom and glory.
It is critical to ask how we’re doing The image of creation giving birth suggests that we look to the earth itself to see. Ecologists and naturalists have been warning us for decades now that human rapacity has destroyed much of the life-giving greenness of the earth. The “good soil” of creation has given way to concrete, asphalt, ravaged rain forests, spreading deserts, melting glaciers, and troubled seas. Where will the fertile seed of Creation be able to find haven and produce the bounty called Life? As eco-catastrophists rightly remind us, there is no planet B.
The other night, I caught a brief glimpse of the film, “Rio 2,” detailing the further adventures of a lovable blue parrot, in which he finds others of his species in the Amazonian rain forest. In fact, Spix’s Macaw is now extinct in the wild. Thousands of other species of birds, mammals, insects, and plants – many of them not even yet catalogued by naturalists — face the same dismal fate because of human encroachment on their habitat. As Wikipedia reminds us, Spix’s Macaw is the only known species of the genus Cyanopsitta (blue parrots). I couldn’t watch any more of film.
The sad news, the ‘badspel,’ is that our mechanistic, exploitative approach to Creation is killing off such great numbers of living species as to endanger the capacity of the planet to sustain life as we know it. The constant rise in global temperatures is more than a danger signal. It could be a planetary death knell.
Stern words, ones we should take to heart. Ours is, after all, the only planet in the universe known to have conceived and given birth to life. But bearing life is a surprisingly fragile and fallible enterprise. And so the groaning continues, and the glorious freedom of God’s children is forestalled.
But even if by conceiving greed and bringing forth injustice, we destroy ourselves and our civilization. Faith reminds us that Creation is God’s work and workshop. Humans are no more capable of ending life on earth by our own power than we are of engineering by ourselves the revelation of ultimate glory. But we are capable of what may be irreparable harm if we do not alter our way of living on a global scale.
I have said this before, but it bears repeating. Thirteen thousand millions of years ago, God spoke, and everything came to be. And the Word was with God, and nothing came to be except in the Word, and of the Word, and through the Word. All things are kept by the Word, and without the Word, nothing remains. For the Word was God. Is God. God’s word has never ceased going forth.
Some nine thousand millions of years later, earth appeared, the waters parted, and life began on this planet — perhaps only here. We simply don’t know and may never find out. Thousands of millions of years later, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Earth was reseeded with grace.
The Word of God…. seed sown in the cosmos itself, the human heart, the soil of nations and peoples. Some of it produces a bountiful harvest of justice and mercy, some little or nothing, choked by weeds of disregard, oppression, and destruction. The Word of God is no less creative for that. It is no less dynamic, no less alive. More: it gives life. And the Word not only endures, it is indelible.
Surely God could create other soil, other earth, other worlds where the Word could take better root and produce a harvest of glory ten thousand times a hundred fold. But here we are, for all we know, the only show in town, vainglorious dust, blighting the earth while straining to reach the stars. And if we do, will we not find, with Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus that “the blood of Christ streams through the universe”? For the Word remains impressed on each quark and galaxy. Even if our vision of the universe is fuzzy, like the first images received by the Hubble telescope, as the poet affirms, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out like shining from shook foil; / It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed.” [Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”]
Confirmed in that Spirit, we go on. Summoned by the Word, we endure. Intent on a future harvest of freedom and glory, we offer others the gift of life, the promise of justice and mercy. Subjected to suffer with all of creation the pangs of that great and prolonged birthing, we nevertheless rejoice at the approach of the Realm of God’ glory.
Most of the world is still coping, well or badly, with the “Covid Crisis,” now in its seventh month and far from over. But many otherwise healthy people are suffering from “Covid Crisis Fatigue” it seems – rushing, often foolishly, into a premature return to a lifestyle we in the more affluent nations at any rate have grown so fond of. Perhaps unconsciously so. In the expanding and largely southern realm of the planet, what Northerners used to call “The Third World,” the lack of worldly goods, an adequate income, sufficient food, potable water, education, and affordable or even accessible housing is now compounded by a pandemic over which they have no control or means to combat.
Such glaring and growing inequity provides a link between today’s readings [Zech 9:9-10, Rom 8:9,11-13, Mat 11:25-30], which otherwise seem unusually disparate. For those who care to look, what is at stake is how the global gulf between rich and poor has created the conditions for spiritual as well as material calamity and how to address that.
The first reading brings Palm Sunday to mind. In this passage from the Book of Zechariah, we are given an image of the Messiah of Peace, so different from the warlike leader so many of the Hebrews had hoped and waited for. And as a result many did not recognize him when he appeared among them. Jesus entered Jerusalem, not on a war-horse, but on a young mule, an animal associated with peace rather than battle. So much for militarism, a perennial planetary scourge that acquires greater and more lethal proportions with every passing decade.
And this is what Paul is reminding us in this passage from his letter to the Romans — the Spirit of Christ is the Lord of life and peace, not of war and death, the works of the flesh. By “flesh” here, he means what he elsewhere calls “the body of sin and death” — ‘sarx’ not the ordinary term for the body, ‘soma.’ In his anthropology, ‘sarx’ means the whole of human life under the dominion of sin. But to belong to Christ is to choose life and to choose it in abundance, not just for some, for a wealthy or powerful elite, and not at the cost of depriving other people of their lives or liberty. Life belongs to all. And, in the lingering glow of America’s Independence Day, we may rest assured so do liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
For those who find life burdensome, Christ offers refreshment and rest. To those who are weary and toil endlessly, he offers gentleness and help. Early in the last century, twenty years after the French people endowed the people of the United States with the Statue of Liberty, the following words by Emma Lazarus were chosen for the plaque placed on a wall inside the pedestal. They also sound very much like Jesus’ concluding words in today’s gospel:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
[“The New Colossus: Inscription for the Statue of Liberty,” New York Harbour (1883)
So much for anti-immigrant fervor and enforced economic disparity.
American citizens should not pass over the celebration of Independence Day as if it had nothing to do with our faith, or as if our faith had nothing to do with our independence. Those rich white men who spent that hot summer of 1776 sweating over the wording of the Declaration of Independence saw themselves as doing the work of God and they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to secure that belief in fact. Most of them lost their fortunes and some their lives in the pursuit of liberty, but their honor remains. Not untarnished, to be sure. Many owned slaves and despised Catholics, Quakers, and Jews. They tied political rights to property and wealth. They scoffed at the idea of women voting or holding pubic office. But they set in motion the democratic forces that, under God, would in time address these issues of inequality and injustice. We are still working at securing their belief that it was God who watched over and guided their efforts.
No one’s freedom can be made secure by the servitude of others, whether political, financial, or spiritual. We are either all free, or none of us is free. Thomas Jefferson understood that when in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he outlawed slavery. Had the other members of Congress been as wise and humane, and Jefferson more averse to compromise, the nation could have been spared a terrible civil war four score and seven years later. And we could do worse than to recall St. Paul’s advice on the matter: where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [2 Cor 3:17]
As for the lifestyle of conspicuous consumption and the craving for constant amusement in a consumerist society, it is enough to recall the words of Mahatma Gandhi and later the slogan of the Voluntary Simplicity Movement –“Live simply so that others may simply live.” In the end, turning to the words of Jesus, the burden he asks us to undertake of peace-making and securing justice is light, despite the sacrifices it may and usually does require. Becoming more gentle and humble of heart is no easy task. But perhaps we can learn something from the Covid Crisis after all.
Jesus’ remarks at the beginning of today’s gospel reading are not only harrowing, but don’t sound much like something Jesus would say during his lifetime. They appear to reflect a later era of rejection and persecution. The selection ends on a much more positive note – that of welcome and hospitality. But we may misunderstand what’s at stake here. [2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16; Rom 6:3-4,8-11; Matt 10:37-42]
The background of today’s theme is found in the ancient code of hospitality that prevailed in desert cultures not only of the Middle East but throughout the world. To share food and drink with someone in the desert was to establish an enduring bond of friendship. It still is, as I discovered several times in Iraq. A tragic echo of that profoundly humane culture exists in the account of the Last Supper, when Judas leaves the upper room to betray Jesus after he has eaten with him, even out of the same dish. Such intimate sharing indicated an even stronger bond of loyalty and its violation the deeper disloyalty.
Perhaps we can discover what hospitality is by considering its opposite: not merely coldness or even antagonism towards strangers in our midst, but the treachery, deceit, and violence directed against harmless and defenseless people whose only crime is being different and in need. The gospel of Jesus calls us to a different kind of life, an approach to others characterized by openness, trust, and friendliness.
Today’s first reading from the Second Book of Kings introduces the theme of hospitality. It contains the beginning of the story of the Shunammite woman, whose hospitality to the prophet Elisha is rewarded by the gift of a son, who is born to a couple who have no hope of having a child, like the parents of Isaac, Samuel, Samson, and John the Baptist. The mother and the little boy are also the focus of a later story, in which the boy falls ill and dies. Responding to his now-widowed mother’s frantic and persistent pleas, Elisha goes to him and restores the little boy to life. Such was his gratitude for what people today sometimes call “random acts of kindness.” [For the whole account, see 2 Kings 4:25-37.]
In the selection from the Letter to the Christians at Rome, St. Paul gives us a clear, simple reason for practicing such random acts of kindness. They are expected of us. And, if we are really living the life Christ has offered us, we can’t help performing them. For, Paul tells us, we are raised to a new life in Christ, which is to say baptized into his death so that we might live a new life: his new life. And Christ’s life is one of mercy, forgiveness, and continuous welcome.
That English word “welcome,” which we hear in today’s gospel, comes from the Old English word ‘wil,’ which means “pleasure,” and ‘cuma,’ which means “to arrive.” It refers to someone whose arrival gives us pleasure. To welcome someone means to receive them with joy.
Jesus goes much further than might be expected, when the Holy Land was overrun by soldiers of an occupying nation and whose people were in effect caught between collaboration and rebellion. His counsels are radical even to us today: walk the extra mile, give your coat as well as your shirt, in short, see the human being within the uniform and respond with love. Don’t strike back. And in today’s reading, “anyone who gives even a cup of cold water to one of these lowly ones because he is [called] a disciple will not lose their reward.”
Jesus, like Elisha, knew the meaning of hospitality. He was welcomed into peoples’ homes. He frequently stayed with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. But he also knew rejection: he was thrown out of his own home town, and almost killed by a resentful mob. On several occasions, he seems to have been treated inhospitably by Samaritans and, with a few exceptions, as in the story of Zacchaeus, was snubbed by the rich and famous. He was betrayed by his table companion.
As for the demanding note of those earlier statements told of Jesus about being “worthy” of him, when we peel away the dust of centuries of translations, the word he is said to have used is ‘hikanos,’which means “fit, or able.” To be fit disciples, we must be able to follow where Jesus led. Even to the cross.
God’s word to us today, then, is about receiving others in their need and with joy in our hearts. Hospitality takes many forms, not least today in the era of COVID-19, when in many places in the world hospitals are overcrowded with patients and where the toll has been reduced it is largely because of the heroic and self-sacrificing devotion of carers. I frequently remind my students that the words “hospitality” and “hospital” are closely related. Both come from the Latin word ‘hospes’, which means both “guest,” and “host,”‘ Whether they know it or not, those who care for the sick and dying are hosts to one another in the spirit of Christ. They shall not lose their reward.
While memories of the global disaster brought about by the new coronavirus at Easter time of this year will long be remembered, there are other, more uplifting reasons to look back on the second week of Easter. Pope John Paul II died on April 2nd, 2005, the eve of the Second Sunday of Easter, the world at his bedside. His funeral was held on April 8th, the end of that Week. He was beatified on May 1, 2011, the Second Sunday of Easter, and canonized (with Pope John XXIII) on April 27, 2014 – the Second Sunday of Easter. It may also be noted that as the world watched on television, Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2nd, 2011. All of us will no doubt have many reasons to recall the Second Week of Easter in time to come.
But long after the memory of the passing of bin Laden has faded, and hopefully the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020 will be at best an unhappy memory, the great throngs in Rome earlier this century will be remembered. Several million people gathered in Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, and over a million attended his beatification and the canonizations in 2014. Those immense, joyous gatherings are a far cry from the small, quiet encounter on the road to Emmaus that we recall on this Sunday. The gospel story reminds us that the great assembles we have witnessed are in every sense only a reflection of the intimate, undramatic meetings that should truly occupy our attention in this Easter season. How strange in a way that Jesus did not choose to appear to thousands of people after the Resurrection. According to St. Paul the largest number who saw him numbered about 500 [1 Cor 15:6].
It is still Easter day in the mind of the Church. We heard this same gospel on the Wednesday right after Easter. It tells the story of two early disciples walking back to a village called Emmaus after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. They seemed to have remained with the other disciples for the Sabbath. But like Thomas in the Gospel of John, they couldn’t believe the women’s wild story that Jesus was risen. They are deeply disappointed. Apparently one of these fellows, Cleopas, was well-enough known to the early community to have his name attached to this rather embarrassing story. It probably got a good laugh from his friends and family for a long, long time.
The two grief-stricken and slightly slow-witted disciples found their faith restored when they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, just as Thomas came to believe when he saw and touched Christ a week after the Resurrection. In the case of the two disciples, and of us as well, the same could be said: “Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe” [John 20:29].
There’s another interesting item in Luke’s story. At first, the disciples report that “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.” But when they return to the rest of the disciples, not only do they agree that Jesus has risen, for they have indeed seen him, but they also affirm that he appeared to Simon. Luke has no account of any appearance to Simon Peter in his description of the events following the Resurrection, nor do the other evangelists except when Jesus appears to the disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee many days later. But there is a confirmation of an apparition to Peter in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, probably the earliest of all accounts of the Resurrection, where he says “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and … he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve [1 Cor. 15: 4-5].”
Hard to believe, skeptics say. But Paul knew St. Peter, with whom he did not always get along well. He didn’t make that story up. But what does it take to believe something? Or to believe in someone or something?
Let me suggest that the disciples on the road to Emmaus encountered the Spirit of Christ before they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread — “were not our hearts burning within us as he talked to us on the road and he explained the Scriptures to us?”
Luke reminds us that the eyes of our minds and hearts need to be opened by faith in order for us to recognize the presence of Christ, a presence that will find us anywhere. For believing is an act of the heart as well as of the mind, perhaps in some ways even more so. There is a tradition that the Latin word “credo,” I believe,” comes from the Latin words ‘cor’ — “heart,” and ‘dare’ “to give.” To believe means to give our heart to something, or rather, to someone.
The appearance of Jesus to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus has something else to tell us, something worth thinking about in the afterglow of those Roman celebrations and the harsh glare of the coronavirus pandemic. Luke reminds us that it is in the small things, the unexpected and seemingly insignificant moments of life, that we truly encounter the presence of God – the sharing of scarce food, making and distributing face-masks, checking on elderly neighbors. We know it in the breaking of bread and in opening the pages of a book. God’s book. But God’s book is wide and vast. Ultimately it is the whole universe itself. To the eyes of faith, every cranny and quark is filled with the presence of God. In order to see, we need only look with the eyes of faith.
In years to come, the spring of this year is more likely to be remembered for the outbreak of the new coronavirus and COVID-19, the acronym for the disease symptoms associated with it, beginning last year, than even the ongoing political hullabaloo in this country pointing toward the elections of next autumn. In comparison, our observance of Lent may seem routine and in fact ordinary, but the message of this second Sunday is no less timely because it is timeless.
The central element in this triptych of scriptural passages is the account of the Transfiguration in Matthew’s gospel, one likely based on Mark’s and Luke’s accounts. (Mysteriously, there is no parallel passage in John’s gospel.) So important was this event in the view of later Christians that a special feast day was instituted to commemorate it, still one of the holiest celebrations in the eastern Orthodox Churches.
The framing narratives begin with God’s command to Abraham to leave Haran in what is now Turkey for a land of promise, the beginning
of the long pilgrimage of the Elect, the ‘Chosen,’ toward their spiritual destiny. For Christians the passage from the Second Letter to Timothy over two millennia later points to the fulfillment of that promise “manifested through the ‘epiphany,’ “the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” [2 Tim 1:10]. The prediction of the death and resurrection of Jesus knits the three readings together, a point made clearer in Luke’s account with the observation that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about his “exodus” which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem [Luke 9:31].
Typically, the disciples fail to comprehend the meaning of this prophetic moment, much as we are likely to do ourselves if distracted by current events, however pressing. And that’s why it is fitting on this second Sunday of Lent to be reminded of the significance of what happened there and what we are doing here.
As we ponder the events of the last three months, what strikes me about the gospel reading, is how exactly it affirms that the approaching suffering and death of Jesus robs death of its power and brings life and immortality into the clear light of glory. In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, which are echoed in today’s liturgy, Jesus had to enter his glory through suffering, the Passover or departure spoken of by Moses and Elijah: “For it was fitting that [God], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons and daughters to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering [Heb 2:10].”
The relevance for this Sunday in the “joyful season” of Lent is that by following Christ, taking up our own crosses daily, we are drawn ever more closely into his Passover, his departure into glory, even if, like him, we enter it fully only beyond the final curtain of life.
Each of the three gospel accounts relate that Peter proposed erecting three tents or “tabernacles,” a suggestion that might seem strange except for the fact that the Churches celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration in August, close to the Jewish Feast of Succoth or Tabernacles, the festival of the fruit harvest. The connection is important, because the principal offering at this feast was a basket of harvest fruits accompanied by the recitation of the great acts by which God delivered the Hebrews from captivity and their entry into Canaan, the land of Promise. The Book of Leviticus prescribes erecting huts or booths made of leafy branches as a reminder of the desert journey of the Hebrews [Lev. 23:39-43]. Many observant Jews still do this.
But even this Passover theme, and the fulfillment of promise that it commemorates, falls short of the truth revealed on that mountain. And here is where the clue is so important. If Jesus had to enter his glory through suffering, the “Exodus” or departure spoken of by Moses and Elijah, can we who profess to follow him expect a lesser, easier path?
According to today’s gospel, the tedium of trekking through a dark wasteland of testing and trial is broken by a shaft of light that leaps ahead from the Resurrection. For a brief moment, we see divine radiance shining through and around Jesus, standing between those other two wayfarers, Moses and Elijah, who were also holy mountain climbers, and there comes a voice…
Like Peter, James, and John, we hardly know what to make of all this. But there it is. Whatever happened on that mountain, the event itself was long and widely remembered. And as a reminder of human hope and a prelude of glory, this memory of Transfiguration comes at a moment both appropriate and opportune in Lent and in life, not least as we ponder how best to assist those who suffer wherever there is need for hope in the promise first made so long ago to a small tribe of pilgrims wandering in the deserts of the Middle East in search of a land of promise.