If not all eyes are fixed on the Tokyo Olympics, at least several hundred million are at any given time. Other eyes are fixed on the growing number of COVID-19 infections increasing among the un-vaccinated in particular, the ghastly flash floods in Germany and Belgium, and the starving kids in Yemen and Ethiopia, hapless victims of the US-supported struggle against Middle Eastern insurgents. Watching the evening news can be hazardous to your mental health as such accounts are interspersed among ads for toothpaste, pain medication, pet food, and allergies. It is at least mind-numbing.
Two of today’s readings focus on feeding the hungry, and the middle one tells us how and why. We are taking leave from the
gospel of Mark for a while, turning to John’s account of the Feeding of the Multitude, prefaced by a snippet from the Book of Kings describing how the prophet Elisha managed to feed a hundred people with twenty barley loaves and what was probably roasted barley still “in the ear” – unshucked. It was an amazing feat, but only a prelude to an event on a hillside in Galilee 800 years later.
The gospel account, or accounts, of Jesus’ feeding of the multitude provided the point of attack for the rationalist German scholars of the late eighteenth century and their followers, whose rejection of anything miraculous required another explanation. It was difficult to deny that the event had occurred, because it is found in all four gospels—possibly twice-told in Mark and Matthew, all of which argues that it was deeply entrenched in early Christian memory – the three synoptic gospels, the so-called Q-document, and the Johannine tradition. The differences in detail from the number of loaves and fish to the number of those who were filled and the baskets of leftovers are themselves supportive of different lines of transmission.
The early hermeneuts of the Enlightenment did not deny that four or five thousand (or ten thousand, counting women and children, as Megan McKenna reminds us) had enough to eat. But for them the “miracle” was nothing supernatural (of course) but an adroit act of persuasion by which Jesus induced the vast crowd to share the chunks of barley bread and dried fish they had cleverly tucked into their tunics before setting off spontaneously in pursuit of the young preacher on a hillside somewhere near the town of Bethsaida.
Conversely, the evangelists insisted that in their fervent pursuit of the young preacher no one other than an enterprising young lad with a few loaves and fish had thought of bringing anything to eat. But the accounts also point out that everyone was short of cash anyway. And the crowd was understandably getting very hungry. But let that pass, as the Enlightenment scholars were quick to do. In the end, the only item in their account that they rejected was the miracle itself. It did not seem to occur to them that accepting the account of the event without the main point was literally pointless. Why accept any of it? And why, not to put too fine a point on that, too, did no one at the time, including Jesus’ opponents, insist that the multiplication (actually the division) of the loaves and fishes had a simple, psychological explanation? Why swallow the camel to avoid the gnat?
In the end, we are left with a good lesson in selective interpretation guided by prejudice. And the bottom line? Perhaps the Enlightenment critics were right about one thing – Jesus is still exhorting us to share the food we are hoarding with those who hunger and thirst not only for the gospel, but for real food and potable water. That miracle is only awaiting our compliance. Here the Letter to the Christians of Ephesus is perhaps especially meant for us today:
“There is one body and one Spirit,
just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,
one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all” [Eph 4:5-6].
Much of Europe and even North America has little on its collective mind (for a change) other than the World Cup finale, pitting underdog England against the formidable Italians. Football (or soccer as it is called in North America) is arguably the world’s favorite sport. One way or another, it provides relief today from the cares and concerns of these troubled times.
Today’s readings have little to do with sport except in regard to the matter of choice. Of call-and-response. And when the tumult of victory and the
heartbreak of defeat have faded, the message of scripture will remain. And should remain.
The first reading is from the Book of Amos, the first of the twelve “minor prophets,” so-called not because their message was slight or their impact negligible, but because their books are brief in comparison to the much longer works of Jeremiah, Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel.
Amos lived in the southern Kingdom of Judah in the eighth century before the common era. But his ministry took him from the fields of Judah to the northern Kingdom of Israel where the warning he delivered was dire. Focusing on what he saw as sins of injustice, Amos predicted coming disaster, realized thirty years later when the powerful Assyrian armies of Tiglath-Pileser III and Shalmaneser V invaded and conquered the northern Kingdom and deported a large section of the population. Israel would never recover.
The reading recounts an episode in the conflict between Amos and the religious and civil leaders in which we learn what little we know about him – that he had been a shepherd and a “tender of sycomores,” not the sycamore tree we are so familiar with but the “sycamore fig,” which produces an edible fruit. He is called from this simple agrarian life by God to preach repentance to the northern Kingdom. He even denies that he came from a line or school or family of prophets – he has been chosen by God for this perilous task and has chosen to fulfil his call as the bearer of what turns out to be very bad news when his call for repentance is ignored or, worse, resisted.
In the second reading, choice enters again, and provides the heart of the passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. He mentions choice three times, the fact of being chosen in Christ – even predestined – “before the world began,” by our hope in Jesus, and to hear and believe the words of the Gospel. God chooses, we respond.
Finally, in the gospel reading, Jesus sends his chosen disciples out on a mission mirroring that of Amos himself, “to preach the need of repentance.” It’s important to recall that when the original term “metanoia” is translated as “repentance,” it’s too easy to confuse what is called for with doing acts of “self-mortification,” as we used to say. Repentance means to change our way of thinking, to have a change of heart, to reform how we live. This is what Amos found so lacking in the northern Kingdom of Israel, a failure that pointed to the coming catastrophe.
It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to find the same message in Jesus’ preaching itself. Like Amos, he was deeply disturbed by injustice in particular — defrauding workers of their wages, denying widows and orphans the assistance they require, and treating one another with heartlessness and disdain. It is a strong message, but we can choose to do better, and that’s what the prophetic message is always about. For we can do better. Much, much better. By responding in faith to God’s call, we will.
Freedom is like the air we breathe – we hardly notice it until it is challenged, threatened, or polluted. And like the physical contaminants that foul the air, the enemies of freedom are often slow-moving, insidious, and persistent. When we become aware of them much of the damage is already done and must be undone, often at great cost.
For two and a half centuries, since its very foundation, the death knell of American democracy reverberated throughout the world. But it survived the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, the Russian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Third Reich, the Japanese Empire, the Soviet Union, four French Republics, and dozens of repressive, autocratic regimes that spring up periodically like weeds in the fields of global history. The greatest threat to the nation was its own Civil War, the catastrophic “War between the States” from 1861-65, but from which it emerged in greater solidarity and freer than it had been before.
That is not to claim that conflict, rifts, and chasms have not opened in the ethos and politics of the American Republic. It is still a work in progress. But it is plainly durable. “E pluribus unum” is not an empty phrase. There has been a lot of talk recently in the aftermath of the insurrection of January 6th, which lasted an afternoon, that democracy is fragile. History indicates otherwise. At least the American experiment has survived its premature death knell for these 245 years. But it remains true that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”
The greatest danger to the spirit of American democracy and the unity of the nation comes not from external animosity or economic competition, but from within, from inattention to the moral rot that is the inevitable price of the quest for power. Lord Acton was more than correct, he was prophetic when he wrote 134 years ago, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The pursuit of power for its own sake, like that of money, must end in disaster, at least moral disaster. This is as true of political power as any other.
St. Paul adds a telling note to such an appraisal, as we heard in the second reading appointed for this Sunday: “in weakness power reaches perfection… when I am powerless, it is then I am strong.”
Turning to the charter of American independence, it is worth meditating on the critical sentence that follows that phrase dear to the heart of every freedom-loving person, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Immediately there follows this caveat: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Political power exists to preserve and enhance the life of citizens, to protect liberty, and to promote happiness – -the common goods of all people. In the view of the Founders of American independence and democracy, anything short of this leads to suffering, tyranny, and misery.
If history has anything to say about all this, I suggest that it is the confident expectation that the American experiment in democracy, which now stands as the oldest federal government in the world, will endure and no matter how dim its radiance may wan at times, will survive as a light to peoples still struggling to be free.
Note: The earliest use of the exact phrase, “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” dates to an 1809 book called The Life of Major General James Jackson, by Thomas U.P. Charlton. James Jackson was a member of first Continental Congress and was in the US Senate in early 1790s.
CONVERSABLE ECONOMIST: Notes on “Eternal Vigilance is …
Accessed 5 Jul 2017
Until the 20th century, humankind was often in peril of the sea, even a small one like Lake Gennesaret in today’s gospel reading, where a sudden squall could swamp a fishing boat during stormy weather. Human fear of an angry sea is far more ancient than the Book of Job and Psalm 107, and it no wonder that sailors and fishermen and those who lived on sea coasts sought divine protection. There was little else they could do. For, as have just heard in God’s great response to Job,
“…who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?–
when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band,
and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors,
and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther,
and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?” [Job 38:8-11].
Small wonder the disciples were astonished when Jesus calmed the wind and waves.
But for the first time in the history of the planet, the sea is now in peril of humanity. I wonder if it will take an act of God to save the seas and their precious animal and plant life from industrial pollution, waste, and misuse. For all our good intentions, we have accomplished very little in that regard ourselves. And time is not on our side. On a massive scale, ecological change moves slowly in human terms but inexorably and as an interrelated whole. Irreversible environmental damage will be the price we, our children, and our grandchildren pay if this generation does not act to save the seas. For this time, it is up to us.
The earth has now reached mid-point in the yearly cycle – something western civilization calls the summer solstice (or the winter solstice in the southern hemisphere). The longest day of the year (or the shortest, depending on which side of the planet one lives on). It is a biannual reminder that we are citizens of a greater cosmos, sailors on Spaceship Earth, both beneficiaries and potential victims of an unimaginably vast universe. It is the only planet yet of the many thousands now within our view which can and does support life, intelligence, and civilization. But all that is poised on a knife-edge of improbability. Our little planetary boat is a fragile craft afloat on powerful and mysterious seas.
Our cosmic voyage is not a free ride. We bear responsibility for the Care of Creation, as People Francis insisted in his great 2015 letter to the human race, Laudato Sí. We are the gardeners of Paradise, whether we do it well or badly – “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” [Gen. 2:15]. Our care to tend the earth extends to the air and seas, and encompasses the animal and plant kingdoms as well. So far, we have increasingly made a mess of it. It is now well past time to support and encourage those intent on saving the planet, the greatest challenge ever to confront the human family. If we fail, then, well, God help us…
On this Father’s Day, we can no less than to dedicate ourselves to the work of protecting, enhancing and, when necessary, rebuilding our common home, as we learned so long ago. We are the caregivers of a great and glorious gift:
“God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good.
… And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky.’ So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good” [Genesis 1:9-10, 20-21].
[Summer may be acumin in, even on Tuesday according to meteorologists, but my fingers are stiff with the chill temperature of the day. So I am taking the easier way out and reposting a version of what you might now call my “annual Trinity Sunday homily.” Actually, I haven’t much more to say that I didn’t say already. So if you were around these parts in 2018, I’ll understand if you skip to the end…]
Trinity Sunday is a difficult feast to preach on – even the name seems abstract and theological, with little to do regarding the struggle and hardship, the quest for love and understanding, the inevitable loss and sorrow of daily life. It’s not too surprising if people wonder what difference it makes how many persons there are in God. (Some of my beginning students think that “person” means “people,” and wonder how there can be three people in one God. It’s hard enough to get three people into an elevator.)
As you might expect, belief in the Trinity has its place in the Christian story, as does the Feast itself that we are celebrating. But it was not until 1331 that Pope John XXII created a feast for the whole Church. He was the same pope who canonized St. Thomas Aquinas, if that helps any.
Devotion to the Blessed Trinity goes back much further, of course. In the third century, the Christians of Alexandria, in Egypt, prayed to the Trinity. But it took a long time for the Church to work out what “Trinity” meant, both for belief and for worship. The word doesn’t appear in the New Testament. It seems that it wasn’t invented until the beginning of the third century in the writings of Tertullian, who also began using the word “Person” in regard to God. He had a way of stirring up trouble. It took the church over a hundred years to work out a language that might make sense of it all.
In the end, around 300 years after that, the Trinitarian theology of the early church represented a great accomplishment — although it’s easy to get lost in all the strange terms. It’s hardly surprising that ordinary people as well as great scholars have done so ever since. (And no, Virginia, St. Patrick did not use a shamrock to explain the Trinity to the heathen Irish. That would have been very bad theology and if he was no great theologian, he was too well versed in scripture and theology to make such a fundamental error.)
“Trinity” is not even mentioned in the conclusion of Matthew’s Gospel with its threefold baptismal formula [Matt 28:19]. No
mention of three persons in one nature or anything of the kind. In the Gospel of John, it even seems that the Trinity is somehow denied — when Jesus says strange things such as: “The Father is Greater than I,” “The Father and I are One,” and “he who sees me sees the Father.” In today’s readings not even St. Paul’s references to Spirit of God, ‘Abba,’ or Christ contain a hint of what might be called Trinitarian doctrine. And yet it is all there, perhaps especially in the Gospel of John, which is actually the most Trinitarian of all.
Thomas Aquinas, who with St Augustine is the most Trinitarian of theologians, makes two especially important points worth considering: first, the Trinity is a mystery, something hidden from the foundation of the world and now made known only by divine revelation. That’s to say that we could never think ourselves to the Trinity, nor can we get to the bottom of it once we accept it as divine revelation — a real mystery is not like a detective novel. The more that is revealed, we find that even more is still hidden from us. We can never uncover all of it. The inner life of God is more than anyone can ever comprehend. As the great St. Augustine said, Those who think they truly understand God know nothing at all. Only those who know they do not know, begin to understand.
The second point St Thomas makes concerns Creation. In all creatures, he says, there is found a trace of the Trinity just because each and all together are the result of God’s wise and loving creation and providence — each exists in its own unique form by which it reflects its origin in its cause and principle. [Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 45, A. 7.] Each creature represents the Word of God as a work of art proceeding from the mind of the Divine artist, and it images the Holy Spirit, as Divine Love, reflecting the order that proceeds from the Divine Will. But human creatures especially reflect the Trinity because in us is found consciousness, intelligence, and love. We are spiritual persons just as God is a trinity of spiritual persons. That which makes us most human also makes us most like God.
Perhaps even more important for Thomas and, I would suggest, us, is what the Trinity of Persons in God is not like: quite a lot of things — in fact everything. It is not like a family, despite the words we use and some hearty but doomed efforts in the very early days of the Church to portray the inner life of God as Father, Mother, and Child – but there is no bigger or smaller, older or younger, orders and obedience, and no wet diapers or tantrums.
The first artistic portrayal of the Trinity is found on a Roman sarcophagus of the 4th century — three bearded gentlemen creating Eve from the body of Adam. But the Trinity is not a committee. There are no votes to be taken, or minutes, no resolutions to be passed, no apologies from absent members, and especially no bungled projects or shredded documents, much less beards. And no bird.
Ultimately, the impression I get of the Holy Trinity is that of a great dance of love in which everything is perfect action and perfect poise. No one stumbles, no one falls, no one steps on anyone’s toes. It’s not beside the point to note that when those early theologians looked for a term to describe the inner dynamism of the shared nature of the three Persons, they used the Greek word ‘perichoresis,’ which means “to dance around.” In any case, the Holy and Blessed Trinity is a model for us, a model of community in perfect accord, of individuality and perfect acceptance of otherness without division, a model of total understanding and love. And the Universe as a whole is nothing less than a great mirror of this perfection. Perhaps that is why everything in the universe – stars, planets, comets, galaxies, and the great cosmos itself all revolve…
But the dancing universe still does not give us the Trinity — in the end, it is Jesus who gives us the Trinity. The Trinity is in this sense a Christological doctrine — it shows us why we can say that God was present in Christ, that Jesus and the Father are one, but that the Father is greater than He, and that he who sees Jesus sees the Father.
For Jesus was, we believe and profess, fully God but not wholly God, the Incarnate Word of God, not the Incarnate Father, not the Incarnate Spirit of Love. Jesus is our way in truth to the Father in the Holy Spirit.
To believe Jesus, to believe IN Jesus, requires some way of speaking about God before and beyond our speech about Jesus. That is why, however foundational it proved to be, the Trinity is not the central doctrine of Christian revelation. It expresses what had to be the case for Jesus to be what he said, to do what he did, to give himself for us and, in our Eucharist, still to give himself to us completely as the very life of our life. It comes at the end, not the beginning of our pondering.
And so it is that celebrating communion with each other — with all others — is the most fitting way to acknowledge our belief in God as three in one and one in three, a perfect inter-communion of Persons, whose everlasting supper party is our goal and destiny. Let us pray that God will make sure we get there, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Tonight, after Vespers, the paschal candle will be snuffed out, bringing to a close the great Easter cycle of celebrations that began fifty days ago. It will be rekindled on special occasions, such as baptisms and burials, a reminder that the Spirit of God, while not visible has not departed.
The world has changed in these fifty days, not entirely for the better to be sure, but our faith tells us that no matter how we grieve the Spirit by our violence, rapacity, and carelessness, the tender, life-giving breath of God lives and plays among us in unseen ways, bringing life and hope to a world sorely in need of them. But that is now our mission as well.
The readings open with Luke’s account of the Coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples, gathered with Mary, Jesus’ mother, in the upper room. It is perhaps not surprising that Luke, whose account of the good news begins with an angelic annunciation to Mary when she was hardly more than a child, reaches a climax in her presence – the last we hear of her by name in the gospel tradition. She, who birthed the Messiah, is now present as the ‘ecclesia,’ the church, is born. It is more than fitting.
The gospel is taken from the Gospel of John, when Jesus, risen from the dead, manifests himself to gathered disciples. He breathes on them and endows them with the Holy Spirit, first of all to forgive and also to resist sin and evil. Breath, we know well by now, is the English word for ‘pneuma’ in Greek and ‘ruach’ in Hebrew, the words used to signify God’s creating and healing presence in the world, and, importantly, in us. These are also words for ‘wind,’ something Luke uses to great effect in his account of events on the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the fiftieth day after Passover. Anyone who has ever had the wind knocked out of them will grasp the connection.
God’s breath, whether gentle or mighty, brings Creation to life, animating and reviving. These great words come to signify life itself, as we sang in today’s response:
O Lord, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
These all look to you to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to their dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the earth. [Ps 104:24-30]
The earth. ‘Adamah’ the Hebrew has here, which also roots the name of the first human. ‘Adamah’ signifies a specific area of earth, the land, the ground, we would say, not the whole earth [‘erets’ – Gen. 2:7]. St. Paul will later use the imagery in his account of the meaning of the Incarnation [1 Cor 15:47]. In this time of environmental crisis, it is theme worth reflecting and acting on!
If the world is no better than it was fifty days ago, if the awful slide toward social violence and the excoriation of Nature itself has not lessened, that is not because of the Spirit’s absence, but our failure to hear that gentle voice, to feel the warming presence in our hearts, to act boldly and lovingly in this world. As the Spirit God once moved over the primordial chaos, bringing order and life to the world, so that Spirit will enliven and heal Creation now through us if we heed that presence within us and still within the living planet itself. And so we can and must still pray,
Come, Holy Ghost, Creator, come
from thy bright heav’nly throne;
come, take possession of our souls,
and make them all thine own.
Thou who art called the Paraclete,
best gift of God above,
the living spring, the living fire,
sweet unction and true love.
Today, as the Holy Land finds itself again embroiled in savage and indiscriminate slaughter, many Christians are celebrating the Ascension of Jesus. Formerly known as Ascension Thursday, it was moved to the following Sunday by the Conference of Bishops for pastoral reasons. It signals the culminating event of the Easter cycle next Sunday, the Feast of Pentecost. In some respects, it is a difficult subject for a homily because the scriptural accounts are definitely a scramble of variant texts. This may be appropriate for such an astounding claim, much like the various descriptions of the appearances of Jesus after the Resurrection. Mark’s gospel is the most elusive of all, as the brief reference appears in the “second ending” of his gospel, a text that seems to have been added and altered years after its composition. It is also tantalizing short.
That is a fundamentally a matter for scripture scholars to worry over. From very early times, Christians simply affirmed “We believe… that he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead.” These three events seem to have been linked from the very earliest times: the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Return of Jesus in glory. We live between the second and third of these events in the world to whom the good news of salvation was to be preached. That world often seems not to care and may resist, but that is reason enough for Mark to add his postscript about surviving potentially lethal obstacles. For the Spirit of Jesus will be with his followers, his preachers, confirming their message.
We are left, however, wondering like the disciples on that hillside outside Jerusalem, what does it all mean? Where did Jesus go? Somewhere up in the sky, beyond the clouds?
Centuries ago, perhaps even decades ago, the idea would not have seemed absurd. Heaven didn’t seem so far away. Thanks to the reach of today’s incredibly powerful telescopes and space probes, we now live in a much vaster universe, bounded not by clouds and even the daily routines of the sun and moon, but galaxies and mind-boggling galaxies of galaxies. For anyone alert to the challenge of finding heaven, it is more important than ever to understand clearly what Christians believe and what that belief means.
A good place to start is by paying attention to the exasperated question of the two otherworldly figures who appear rather suddenly in Luke’s account: “Why do you stand here looking up at the skies?” God dwells in Light, and that realm is not a place, it is everywhere.
The Ascension does not mean that Jesus went into orbit like some ancient astronaut. Luke says, simply, “a cloud hid him from their sight.” Rather, the Ascension affirms the cosmic sovereignty of Christ. It means that Jesus, raised from the dead and exalted by God, has fully entered into the fundamental reality of Creation itself. The author of the letter to the Ephesians makes the astounding claim that Jesus is now co-extensive with the universe itself. God, he says, “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” [Eph. 1:22-23].
This is the famous ‘pleroma’ (fullness, completeness) passage, which one translation has as “the fullness of him who fills the universe in all its parts.” However we interpret it, clearly the author portrays Christ as universal Lord, majestic in triumph over every cosmic force and principle, over the angels and every spiritual power. To celebrate the Ascension is to affirm that Jesus has become Lord of the Cosmos.
As I have said before on this great feast (and I haven’t found any reason to change my mind), the meaning of the Ascension is the completion of the paschal mystery, the return of Jesus to the heart of God, the triumph of innocence over the guilt of the world, the final victory of life over death, of grace over sin. It is the culminating moment of the passage of Christ to the Father, but also of salvation history itself. Yet the Ascension is also preparation and prelude, the necessary movement prior to the descent of the Spirit, the beginning of the transformation of the world’s history and its very structure, a spiritual transformation leading to universal jubilation.
Jesus has not gone away anywhere. He is present everywhere, hidden from our sight only by clouds of inattention. Like those bewildered disciples on the hillside, we tend to look in the wrong places or we simply look wrongly. When we see with the eyes of faith, or, as St. Paul had it, “having the eyes of our hearts enlightened,” we see him in a myriad of ways, as the poet insists,
I see his blood upon the rose
And in the stars the glory of his eyes,
His body gleams amid eternal snows,
His tears fall from the skies.
I see his face in every flower;
The thunder and the singing of the birds
Are but his voice-and carven by his power
Rocks are his written words.
All pathways by his feet are worn,
His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,
His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,
His cross is every tree.
Mother’s Day dawned here on a chilly, drizzly morning, but that didn’t matter to the thousands of mothers and their children who at last are able to see each other again, to hug, and kiss each other’s cheeks. For those of us who have lost our mothers, it is a time to remember and reflect, and to share of the joy of reunion as the pall of separation is gradually lifted from the lives of those under the threat of pandemic. Today, more than ever, we see, and touch, and feel the mighty power and tender touch of love, the strongest force in the universe.
Fittingly, the readings for this sixth Sunday of Easter are about acceptance, love, and union. This is especially true in the second and third readings, which
reflect on the great love that God has shown in the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. And Jesus charges us, as we heard, to love as God loves and whom God loves – fully, without stint or measure. And thus to save the world.
The opening story of the welcome of the Roman centurion Cornelius and his whole household into the community of faith shows us how God’s love joins together differing peoples into one great household of salvation. In Peter’s words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him … he is Lord of all.” [Acts 10:34-36]. Divine love includes all human beings regardless of race, national origin, gender, social class, or any other barrier that people set up that creates division. As we are commanded to do likewise.
Today’s second reading and the gospel are specifically about love — God’s love for us manifested in the love of Jesus so wonderfully portrayed in the long farewell discourse during his Last Supper with his friends.
Throughout scripture, God’s love is likened to that of a mother concerned for her children. One of the most endearing passages comes from the Book of Isaiah where the voice of God promises, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” [Isaiah 49:15]. Jesus also compared himself to a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings to protect them [Matthew 23:37].
In the fourteenth century, the anonymous mystic we call Julian of Norwich, who was, by the way, the first woman to write a book in English, wrote simply enough in her great work, Revelations of Divine Love, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother” [Chapter 59].
That should be a steadying idea, a wonderful source of hope for us on this Mothers’ Day, and throughout the world. At some point today, we should offer a prayer for the mothers in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine, and Myanmar who stand every day outside the prisons where sons and daughters, husbands, fathers, and even mothers themselves languish for months without contact with their loved ones or access to legal counsel, or even international agencies. And we should think of the mothers of our own soldiers who wait daily, praying that their children and husbands will be safe, that they will escape the physical and spiritual horrors of war. We should also bear in our hearts the love as well as the sorrow of the multitude of mothers in our own land who daily bury their children killed by gun violence.
And on this Mother’s Day, so long anticipated as this nation and much of the world begins its emergence from the long night of pandemic, we should not forget our original mother, Nature herself – “Mother Nature” to whom the whole world of living creatures owes for its existence. The description of Nature as our mother has a long history, one that was abruptly curtailed in Western Europe with the beginning of the Industrial Age, when Creation was increasingly denuded of its maternal attributes, exploited, ravaged, and rendered less and less hospitable to life. And her children continue to inflict grave harm on mothering Nature by the industrial poisoning of the land, seas and air, causing potentially irreversible global climate change, and the likely onset of the Sixth Great Extinction of living species on earth.
Humanity and all the other creatures on Earth are paying a terrible price for our callowness and rapacity. And the cost will only go up unless we act globally and swiftly. We can do better. Much, much better. And we must. Like our own mothers, Nature deserves and sometimes demands respect and protection. Humanity stands at a great crossroads in that respect — just as the many mothers of our own land and throughout the battle-torn and violent world require and deserve justice.
The message of Easter and the Easter season now drawing to a close remains simple but far, it seems, from the desperate grasp of far too many mothers: “Death shall have no dominion.” For all our mothers and for the Earth, we can and must give life, restoring those values that we associate with this sweetest of days – care, peace, hope, love, and beauty. Then we will all have a truly Happy Mother’s Day.
Today’s gospel reading is taken from Jesus’ long exhortation to his disciples at the Last Supper, one of the great Johannine parables or similes about his relationship to his followers. Jesus portrays himself as the central, supportive part of the vine that supports and nourishes the rest. Much has been made of his comparison, and much more will undoubtedly be said.
Familiarity has robbed us of the oddness of the comparison. Jesus seems to have been fond of depicting himself and his relationship to his followers in sometimes unusual ways — as a corral gate, an oil lamp, bread, water, or more conventionally to Jewish ears, a shepherd. But the grapevine had particular meaning in Judaism.
Beginning with the book of Genesis, Israel itself was compared to a grapevine. The prophets, Isaiah in particular, created a number of parables, some about the vineyard itself, some about the vine, some about the gardeners, but always about Israel and her relationship to God. Jesus continued that tradition with several parables, especially about the workers in the vineyard. But here, there is a difference. Now, Jesus himself is the vine, and we are his branches, drawing life and productivity from our union with him.
In the second reading, the writer tells us that we are to love one another as Jesus commanded us. Love holds us together, it makes us one, it is the life flowing through all the members of the community, it is in fact the Holy Spirit at work in each of us because we are part of the whole of us. It is the Holy Spirit of Love, the Spirit of Jesus himself, that makes our lives effective, that brings our good works to fruition. John says, finally, it is from the presence of the Spirit of Love that we know Jesus remains with us.
The shared love Jesus promises is nourished and perpetuated by communion with each other. It is surely no accident that this great discourse is taken from the account of the Last Supper in which Jesus says, simply, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [John 13:34-35] That commandment and the bond of our love, our unity is the Eucharist, the bread Jesus was about to give for the life of the world [John 6:51-58].
Once again we are hearing episcopal threats of withholding eucharistic communion from those holding problematic views in the political realm, something that especially arises when Catholics rise to political leadership roles. Such threats were made to so excommunicate President John Kennedy, his brother Ted, Geraldine Ferraro, John Kerry, Patrick Kennedy. and now Joe Biden, usually over the fraught issue of abortion.
Withholding the Eucharist to force Catholic politicians to submit to ecclesiastical pressure and in effect to violate their oaths of office and consciences is equivalent to spiritual terrorism, the prospect of which has so alarmed generations of Protestant and other Americans who fear untoward interference in American politics by “Rome.” Suspicion of what was regarded as inevitable ecclesiastical coercion played a large part in the defeat of Al Smith, the first Catholic candidate for presidential office in 1924. That hoary suspicion is not allayed by reiterations today of episcopal demands and threatened punishment by excommunication.
Opposition to abortion is not limited to Catholics of course. And while many Catholics are fundamentally opposed to abortion, as I am, it remains an extremely complex issue morally and politically. Shibboleths and loyalty oaths will not resolve the problems. Neither will weaponizing the Eucharist.
As with his image of the good shepherd, Jesus portrays himself as the true vine, the real vine, the source of everlasting life, Israel itself. Whatever threatens to disrupt our unity as members of his body, threatens our unity with him. If we create divisive issues about the rich and poor, those of different races, so-called illegal immigrants, or anyone else of whom we disapprove or differ from, we are to that extent no longer sharing the same life and love that is the sign of the presence of Christ’s Holy Spirit. That is a much deeper and more tragic “excommunication.” What makes us one with Jesus, makes us one with each other. When we forget that, we wither and fall away or get cut back.
And that takes us back to the first reading, which, at the end, describes what happened when the Spirit of Christ transformed Saul of Tarsus, the enemy of the Church, into Paul, the greatest missionary the church has ever seen. The church, Luke says, was then at peace, making steady progress in the fear of the Lord, and enjoyed the consolation of the Holy Spirit [Acts 9:31]. Here, surely, we hear advance echoes of the great feast of Pentecost which is coming soon.
On this Mother’s Day, let us pray that our community, our nation, and the wider world too, will continue to strive to overcome whatever divisions threaten that unity, and so become a living vineyard of true friends, animated by the loving Spirit of Jesus living within us and among us.
After the revisions of the liturgy following the Second Vatican Council, this fourth Sunday of Easter was called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because of the gospel reading in which Jesus draws out a parable about sheep and their shepherds. It is also known as Vocation Sunday, and had even other titles before things got organized, so to speak.
The gospel readings in all three years of the liturgical cycle focus on Jesus as the true shepherd of Israel, which is not the kind of theme we have been hearing up to today in the Sundays after Easter. The focus has shifted.
Only the gospel mentions sheep and shepherds, but the underlying message is really about recognition – seeing something or someone for what they truly are. The word Jesus uses is “know”: ‘I know my sheep and they know me.’ And because they know him, they follow him. We follow him.
For those of us who don’t know a lot about shepherding, there is a point here that may escape attention. The sheep follow the good shepherd. Otherwise, they must be driven from behind, often with a canny border collie nipping at their heels. Few shepherds simply walk in front of the sheep who confidently follow, more like ducklings after a mother duck. It gets down to trust, a trust based on confidence and in the case of ducks and chicks, imprinting. They are impressed with life-saving recognition shortly after birth – or hatching in their case. There is matter here for a interesting comparison with baptism, but not today.
Jesus describes our relationship to him, the true or “good” shepherd, in terms of how sheep recognize the true shepherd, particularly by his voice. Since domesticated sheep are not very independent and are generally pretty timid and easily panicked, voice recognition is much more important for their safety and survival than it is, say, for a computer. In fact, it isn’t important all for the computer to recognize my voice. It’s important to me. But sheep can get into a lot more trouble than computers do if they fail the test of voice recognition. And so can we.
The theme of recognition also appears in both the first and second readings as well as the responsory psalm. In Peter’s sermon from the Acts of the Apostles, which follows on last week’s reading, he declares, “if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a cripple, that is, by what means this man has been healed, be it known to you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead, by him this man is standing before you well.”
The word “known” here means the same as “recognized,” and the passage could have just as well been translated, “recognize that this man was healed in the name of Jesus.” The choice is between recognizing Jesus as living and active among us, the saving presence of God, or failing to. The little parable of how the rejected stone became the cornerstone is an image of the importance of being alert to God’s presence in Jesus and also in each other.
For Peter and in John’s first epistle, that lesson is applied to both Jesus, the true Shepherd, and also to his true followers. John writes, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not recognize us is that it did not recognize him” [1 Jn 3:1-2].
For us today the question is, do we really recognize each other as God’s daughters and sons, as sisters and brothers of Jesus, and in fact, members of Jesus’ own body? Because if we do, we will act accordingly. We will love one another with the same love with which God loved us. But if we despise and reject each other for whatever reason, we are also despising and rejecting both God and God’s love for us in Christ. Whatever our ethnic origin, our nationality, our gender, our social position, our political party – whatever tends to distinguish us from one another is ultimately of no consequence. We are to be one flock with one shepherd. As followers of the Good Shepherd, we are known by how we love one another.
In a word, true followers of Jesus are recognized by their recognition. It is all one: Jesus recognizes us as we recognize him, and as the Father recognizes Jesus and us in Jesus by our effective love for one another.