Today, many Christians around the world will be anticipating the great Feast of the Ascension of Jesus on Thursday, the 40th day following Easter. Others will delay until the following Sunday, and Eastern Christians will celebrate it on June 2nd. Exactitude is not the point, obviously. What is shared is the belief that after the forty days during which Jesus appeared to his followers, he ascended into heaven where, following the ancient creeds, he is seated at the right hand of the Father and from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead, and, as we heard last Sunday, “make all things new.”
But we are not on our own. Jesus also promised his disciples, as we hear in the gospel reading, that in his name the Father would send the Paraklete (which means Advocate or Comforter), the Holy Spirit who will instruct us “in everything”… Pentecost is the name of the feast on which the Spirit erupted in the midst of gathered disciples – on the fiftieth day following the Resurrection and also the Feast of Weeks, celebrated in Judaism fifty days plus one after Passover. “Pentecost” is simply the Greek word for “fiftieth.”
All that remains to come. At the moment, we are effectively ending the Sundays of Easter with readings that begin by describing a critical moment in the life of the early Christian community and, in the climax of the Book of Revelation, which has been our daily reading during this joyful season, the ultimate triumph of God, the gift of a new heaven and earth.
The first reading for today details the resolution of a crisis first faced by Jesus’ early followers – whether to impose the full weight of Jewish law on the gentile converts of southwest Asia we heard about last week. In the Spirit of peace and reconciliation, the “Apostles and Elders,” and “the whole Jerusalem church” required only that the very minimum be imposed, that no burden be laid on the converts beyond that which was strictly necessary – a far cry from the more than 600 tenets of the Law.
Jesus himself made clear that his yoke was easy and his burden was light (Mat 11:30). Christian history sadly reveals that as time went on, more and more burdens were imposed, the yoke made increasingly heavy until the Spirit of Freedom periodically broke through the human tendency to constrict rather than liberate, even to weaponize the faith. Even today, one needs a degree in canon law to grapple with the thousands of accumulated rules, laws, and prescriptions, a welter of legislation that would astonish the early Christians and undoubtedly their Lord.
The gospel reading today is taken from Jesus’ “farewell discourse” at the Last Supper in the gospel of John. It is a charter of hope and love in which he promises not only God’s constant presence but the gift of the Paraklete, that Holy Spirit who is the very spirit of Jesus himself.
And then, Jesus endows his disciples with the gift of peace. His peace. He tells his them not to feel distressed or fearful. Challenges and disasters lay ahead, and we certainly seem plagued with them at present. We, too, need not only comfort but instruction and guidance, just as we still need “tidings of joy” once proclaimed on a dark hill near Bethlehem. Here, what we hear Jesus saying is, simply, do not fret: the reins of time and human history are ultimately in the hands of God.
The second reading comes very near the end of the Book of Revelation. It is not a horror story but a testament of hope, a promise of the ultimate victory of God in Christ, which is conveyed so well in the passage we have just read. Despite sin, oppression, and suffering, God triumphs in the end when every tear is wiped away and there is no more death or mourning. God makes all things new.
It is important to recall that the City of God, the New Jerusalem that descends from heaven, is not only beautiful. As I mentioned last Sunday, it is mind-bogglingly enormous, more than half the size of the moon! Roomy enough to fit everyone inside — everyone who ever lived, is living today, and will ever live.
And so, to repeat myself, our fears may be real but they are ultimately groundless. We have no reason to be afraid of the dark forces that threaten our peace. If the world turns from God, Jesus overcomes the world. And in the gift of the Spirit, sent from God as the earnest of Christ’s return, we have the pledge of an everlasting home. A very big one. The return of Christ to the Father that we will soon celebrate is the beginning of the end, a prelude to the coming of the Spirit of Christ that fills the whole world, the Lord and Giver of Life, making all things new. And in that Spirit we struggle build our human city, which one day will be taken up, healed, and transformed into the true and eternal City of God.
The events of past few days remind us, tearfully, that the world is in greater need than ever of salvation. Natural disasters seem to be proliferating. News of war and rumors of war are interspersed with accounts of domestic violence as shocking as they are now becoming more prevalent than ever. This year alone in the US, over 7,000 innocent people have been shot and killed in acts of unspeakable cruelty. Yesterday, the nation was horrified to see the 198th mass shooting. Last year there were 693 such mass shootings, and hundreds more suicides and homicides, 15,945 gun deaths in all, including 8,910 suicides. The US seems poised to equal or surpass that number this year.
By comparison, in Ukraine, since the beginning of the Russian invasion, the official UN civilian death toll is estimated to stand at 3,381, as well as 3,680 injured, although the actual figures are thought to be much higher. Most deaths and injuries are the result of aerial bombardment and artillery shelling, but many are the result of direct gunfire.
It has been said that guns do not kill people. No, people kill people with guns. And our nation especially and much of the world is, as they say, awash in guns, both legally purchased and illegally obtained. Over a billion of them. And the United States is outstanding in the proliferation of guns among the civilian population — 393,347,000, almost one per person, the highest percentage in the world.
It is not terribly surprising that in a period of tension and anxiety, anger and hatred explode in gunfire. But it is terrible. Someone is making a fortune manufacturing and selling such weapons in a country not at war. That the leaders of our nation seem unable to stem the tidal wave of the arms trade is itself a terrible indictment. Even a Supreme Court justice should be able to realize that the Second Amendment to the Constitution was never intended to entitle the citizens of this country to murder innocent fellow citizens – including children, women, the aged, and defenseless.
Such is the grim backdrop of the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2022. Yes, the world is in need of redemption. Still.
The first reading takes us back to the foundation of the Christian churches in southwest Asia. Of all those ancient cities and towns Luke carefully identifies, most are now mounds of ruins, including several of the seven cities whose churches are addressed in the Book of Revelation.
The second reading, from near the end of that wonderful and often hair-raising and usually misunderstood work, describes the future of the Church rather than its past — the new Jerusalem, the holy city that is God’s gift to all the world, not a human creation. It is described as impossibly larger than any structure ever designed by human beings, larger than any structure human beings will likely ever build.
We tend to miss that, because the dimensions are given in a different chapter. But when you work out the volume, as I have my students do, it describes a cube 1,500 miles on each side and 1,500 miles high – about 3,375,000,000 cubic miles –- approximately three-fifths the volume of the moon by our standards. It is the largest construction ever imagined by the human mind. But the simple point the author is making is that there is enough room for everyone. Everyone who ever lived, who is living now, and will ever live. Salvation is inclusive.
But that is another story. Here, the promise is what is important — God will dwell there with the people, always with them, beyond death and mourning, beyond all pain and suffering. All that will be gone. And here, the whole book of Revelation comes to a point in that simple phrase, “See, I am making all things new.”
It’s a steadying idea, a wonderful source of hope. We only have to look at the news in the papers or on television to see what a mess we human beings can make of things. If anything, we have a tendency to go backwards, to undo things or redo them rather than make them truly new. War is perhaps the best example of such regression. So much waste, such vast destruction, sorrow, pain, and loss. War, violence, killing, and ecological destruction is what we too often do. Peace, love, and renewal is what God does… and seems to expect us to do as well.
…“love one another. By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” [John 13:34-35].
The name of waiting is hope. Not passively, but preparing the way of the Lord as best we can in the midst of trials and tears. In the end, today’s liturgy says it all:
“Behold, the dwelling of God is with humanity. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new” [Rev 21:1-5].
Today the celebration of Mothers’ Day in the United States and elsewhere comes as a welcome respite after weeks of violent weather, deadly shootings in neighborhoods, schools, and shopping malls, as well as political upheaval and bitter controversy over the abortion issue. The war in Ukraine drags on mercilessly. That we live in turbulent times is an understatement. We need relief, more than races, no matter how exciting, can provide. We have the Word of God to steady us.
Today is also Commencement for Dominican University graduates. As I will be taking part in the celebration, it will be necessary to get an early start. So I am including here a reprise of my homily from 2019 which also fell on Mother’s Day.
Our readings today remind us of the spread of early Christianity in the decades following the Resurrection of Jesus. In the Acts of the
Apostles, St. Luke documents the spread of the faith throughout Asia Minor, what we now know as Turkey. We are more likely to recall cities like Corinth and Rome, but the original cradle of the Gentile churches was the central and western regions of Cilicia, Galatia, Lycia, and Phrygia, north and west of Antioch, where Paul and Barnabas and other Christian missionaries preached and won enough converts to establish small congregations. It was not an easy task. They met hardship and resistance, but the faith grew town by town, as they made their way west toward Rome, Spain, and Gaul. By the way, the little island in the Aegean Sea where John the Elder received his vision of the risen Christ and may have composed the Book of Revelation, was also in Asia Minor, not far off the southwest coast of the ancient city of Ephesus.
There is a subtext in these readings that is worth noting today, when prejudice, discrimination, and division, even genocide, are in the ascendant. It is highlighted in the opening verses from the reading from the Book of Revelation, where John writes,
“After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands…” [Rev 7:9].
This is the inclusion theme, appearing in what you might suspect would be the most unlikely place to find one in Christian scripture. But the phrase appears over and over again in Revelation, like a drumbeat: “every nation, all tribes and peoples and languages,” culminating in the great vision of the New Jerusalem coming from heaven, and the fulfillment of the earlier promise:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among human beings. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new’” [Revelation 21:1-5].
He then gives the dimensions of the City of God, which is so vast it could hold all the people who ever lived and are living now, and will probably live in time to come. The only condition is to live justly with compassion and honesty. It can be a struggle, as we have seen just this week, but the promise stands.
And that is the same subtext we find in the short passage from the Gospel of John: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one” [John 10:27-30].
The story of early Christianity, the struggles, sacrifices, disasters and small triumphs, are fascinating in themselves, but the lesson we can take from these accounts is much more significant than geography. It is not simply that Christianity began as a Jewish sect or rapidly grew into a West Asian religious movement, much less a European one, but that it was from the beginning universal in its embrace. All are equally welcome. All.
A Latin chant once used during the Lenten office begins “Media vita morte sumus…” It sums up much of what has transpired this week, especially in Ukraine:.
“In the midst of life we are in death. Of whom may we seek help but you, O Lord; who for our offenses are justly displeased? Yet, O God most holy, O holy and mighty, O holy and merciful Savior, give us not over unto bitter death.
Cast us not away in the time of age; forsake us not, O Lord, when our strength fails us.”
It is equally and even more true that in the midst of death, as Jesus and John the Elder proclaim, we are alive. For it is the hand of God that sustains us. So long as we remain true, despite everything, no one can ever snatch us away. May we also be sustained on our way by the love and faith of our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, all the way back to that little band of valiant women who went to the tomb that first bright morning of eternal promise.
This year the day on which we commemorate the resurrection of Jesus is marked by turmoil, war, and bloodshed, as if the forces of sin and hatred have gathered strength for a renewed onslaught against peace, joy, and happiness – the will of God for all children of the Earth. But our faith tells us that darkness will not prevail, that the present turbulence is momentary. That depends in large measure on how ready and willing we are to extend the Divine will to every human person, but also every living being on the planet and the very Earth itself. The time grows shorter, it seems, with every passing year, the goal more distant. We need Easter. We need Passover and we need Ramadan. We need peace on earth.
Here, this morning, we are confronted by Jesus’ closest followers, from Mary Magdalene to Peter, who simply couldn’t understand what had happened. But they came to believe, Paul last of all, like one born out of sequence as he says, because they encountered the Risen Christ. Or, rather, because Christ encountered them. Not because of the tomb, not because of the discarded shroud or face cloth. But because of Jesus himself, vibrantly alive and yet scarred by the wounds of his passion. Wounds of glory.
Luke does not mention the burial shroud or face cloth in his account of what the women found when they peered into the tomb. It is a detail recalled by John. For almost two thousand years, believers have treasured those two cloths believed to have held the body of Jesus in the tomb. Skeptics have tried in vain to show that these relics are fraudulent, but more and more examinations support their authenticity. I have often wondered why else anyone would have preserved winding cloths unless the body that had been wrapped in them was not only gone but in fact not dead? Blood-stained cloths from a corpse would be the very last things any good Jew would have even touched, let alone treasured.
But even if authentic the Shroud of Turin and the Sudarium of Oviedo cannot prove the Resurrection. Nor did the empty tomb prove that Jesus had been raised. The preservation of the tomb itself, the burial shroud, and the face cloth is a sign of insistent faith, a result based on meeting the Risen Lord himself. It is not the cause but the effect, a consequence of their faith.
The message of Easter is no different for us today than it was for Mary, Peter, and the other disciples. Like them, we, too, must learn to believe, especially because unlike them we do not see. That message is not simply about the triumph of Jesus over the bonds of death. It is about the resurrection of humankind, about the rebirth of hope, the end of the reign of sin and death, the beginning of eternal life. It is about our own death and resurrection. Paul, the earliest Christian writer of all, put it so simply: “For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. [And] When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory “ [Col 3:3-4].
Faith in the Resurrection of Jesus reveals itself in our new life, a life being renewed again and again, in fact being renewed forever. That is a life of love and justice, of peace-making, of forgiveness and reconciliation, of undying hope and sacrifice, a life devoted to truth and freedom. To live in that Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, is truly to rise beyond death. That is the gift we celebrate this morning.
Be Christ, then: that is the message of Easter. If people ask you where is he, now that he is risen, let them see him in your life. Transform the world. For Christ is truly risen.
Today, Christians around the world begin the holiest week of the year in which we recall the final days of Jesus’ life, his death, and his Resurrection. This year, it coincides with Ramadan and Passover. The eyes of three great Faiths are fixed on Jerusalem, where these things took place, a city also called Holy, but which is all-too frequently still a place of strife and bloodshed, as these three world religions square off because of deeply held differences regarding how we are to worship the one true God. We are also sadly aware of the violence in Ukraine and other parts of the world, where similar struggles are still murdering the Prince of Peace in the person of his brothers and sisters.
We are perhaps tempted to look away from all this, yet we do so at our peril. The world still languishes in need of healing and redemption. And we often feel the need keenly in our own hearts. If not, we aren’t paying attention.
Today’s procession and ceremonies recall Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, where the last scenes of his earthly life would be played out. It is found in all the gospels.
Details differ, as we might expect, for different communities remembered the events of Jesus’ life differently. Palm fronds and olive branches are not found in every account, nor cries of “Hosanna.” Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell us that after entering Jerusalem Jesus goes directly to the Temple, where he finds the market atmosphere abhorrent and drives the money-changers and animal-sellers away. John places that tumultuous scene much earlier. All agree, however, that Jesus came to the Temple where he preached daily, stirring the officials to resentment and eventually to murderous anger and intent. In the meantime, Jesus stayed out of the city at night, returning to Bethany, where according to John he had so recently raised his friend Lazarus from the tomb.
Thus begins the week in which the story of Jesus and our salvation reaches its culmination.
But unless we understand why Jesus chose to suffer and die to accomplish that mission, we are left wondering, like the people around the cross, why it had to come to that, why God let it happen. Why for that matter, any of us have to suffer, especially the innocent…
In the days to come we should remember that how Jesus suffered is less important than why he did. It is sufficient that it happened, that Jesus died in a painful, shameful way, rejected and despised by the leaders of his people, even abandoned by many of his disciples, because as we have heard, in that willing sacrifice he took away the sins of the world. He became the final paschal offering.
For that reason, as the Letter to the Philippians proclaims, God exalted him so highly that his holy name itself is the most revered in any language. But our celebration of the triumph of innocence, truth, and justice awaits the remembrance of the divine drama that precedes it, the story of the redemption of the world. The whole world.
During the coming week, as we follow Jesus in the terrible journey toward Golgotha and the glory of Easter morning, we are first called upon to take up the cross of suffering for him like Simon of Cyrene [Luke 23:26]. That is how we show ourselves worthy to be called “disciples” [Matt 10:38, 16:24].
Years past, today was known as Laetare Sunday, from the first Latin word of the entrance song, “Rejoice O Jerusalem and all you that love her!” [Isaiah 66:10-11]. It marks the half-way point in our Lentin pilgrimage, the counterpart of “Gaudete” Sunday in Advent, which means the same thing. In both seasons, in anticipation of the joy to come, the violet hues of penitence have been lightened to rose.
However there will be little cause for joy in much of the world, especially in Ukraine, where the people are suffering a merciless and terrible invasion by a neighboring country despite its long Christian heritage. But there is also cause for hope that one day, soon hopefully, an end to hostilities will give way to peace and reconciliation. That’s a tall order.
But it was a tall order in South Africa, Rwanda, and Northern Ireland, where Commissions of Truth and Reconciliation brought an end to deadly conflict and began the process of building peace. It is still a possibility that peace and reconciliation will bring an end to conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, Ethiopians and Eritreans, North and South Koreans, perhaps even Democrats and Republicans.
Closer to home, there is often the need for reconciliation between parents and children, sisters and brothers, and wives and husbands. Quarreling and enmity seem almost pandemic in human affairs. Even Jesus recognized this, not least in regard to the gospel itself:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household” [Matt 10:34-36].
But that is more rather than less cause to work for forgiveness and reconciliation. Surely some the saddest words in any language are “I will never forgive…”
Appropriately for readings this Sunday that focus on the theme of reconciliation, two tell us about feasts of joy. The reading from the Book of Joshua describes the first meal the Israelites’ enjoyed after they entered Canaan. They had come to the land God had promised Abraham and they had only glimpsed from a distance following their escape from Egypt and years of wandering in the desert. And it is their rather meager feast that links the first reading with the Gospel, a return celebrated by feasting after the fracture and healing of a family.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son has found many applications over the centuries. It was transformed into a great ballet by George Balanchine with an unforgettable score by Sergei Prokofiev, a mini-opera by Benjamin Britten, and even a not-so-great and largely forgotten epic film in which the phrase about “loose women” was elaborated into the main plot line. (Remember Lana Turner?)
Much has been made about the second part of the story, which is sometimes left out of the retelling or, alternatively, celebrated as the real heart of the parable. Whatever one thinks, the parable is about truth and reconciliation – the truth about oneself and the need for (and possibility of) reconciliation. The story has two examples, the forgiveness and reconciliation shown by the father, and the unresolved resistance of the elder brother. Sometimes achieving reconciliation in families is the toughest slog of all.
But Jesus is uncompromising about the need for both forgiveness and reconciliation. One of his most powerful teachings is not from the gospel of Luke, however, but from Matthew. The message is the same:
“…if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” [Matt 5:23-24].
Later in Luke’s gospel, we hear “Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” [Luke 17:3-4]. Even if there is no expression of regret and a change of heart, the willingness to forgive and be reconciled must run ahead or, like the father in the parable, patiently, longingly searching. Sometimes it succeeds. Sometimes it doesn’t.
In the second reading for today, St. Paul summarizes the command of Jesus in just a few words. But throughout his works Paul, who suffered so much from factions and disunity in the infant Church, continually urges reconciliation [Rom 5:11, 11:15; 2 Cor. 5: 18-20; Eph 2:16; Col. 1:20-21]. For him, it is a ministry, a “diakonia,” in itself. But, he insists, true reconciliation is not achieved by human effort alone, but by the grace of God. We need more than a little help here. And like forgiveness, we first receive reconciliation in order to share it with others [Rom 5:10, 1 Cor 7:11]. Moreover, as we hear today, it is through the ministry of reconciliation that we become “ambassadors” for Christ. Significantly, the Greek word Paul uses here [presbeuo] means “elder” or in the later, Christian sense, “priest.”
So even in the midst of war and violence, we have cause to rejoice today, if only because there is aways the possibility of achieving reconciliation and the necessity of advocating it. Nothing is impossible with the grace of God. Please pray for peace in Ukraine.
We so easily forget… At the very beginning of Lent, one of the less cheery blessings on Ash Wednesday tells us, “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Memento mori… What is important here is not the certainty of death, but that we should remember it, bear it in mind, perhaps especially when we are most likely to forget it. Or want to. And there is no worse or it seems unavoidable way for us to remember that fact than war. Earlier this month, war returned with vengeance.
Try as we may to forget it with sports, countless award programs on TV, natural disasters, rising gas prices and inflation, it returns daily in the news to remind of human frailty, mortality, and “man’s inhumanity to man,” something the people of Ukraine must live with continually, raising again the age-old plea, “Why do the innocent suffer?” We must not forget.
We should not be surprised that remembrance, remember, memory, memorial, recall, and similar summons “to bear in mind” run through scripture and the liturgies, especially during Lent, like a torrent of urgency. “Do not forget…” “Remember!”
The first reading in today’s liturgy reminds us of the beginning of the great saga of redemption, when one man’s curiosity leads to the most blazing revelation of all time—“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” Keep this forever in mind, we are told over and over down through the ages. From Genesis to the last book of the Hebrew Bible, Malachi, the injunction remains the same: “remember!” echoed hundreds of times [Gen 9:15-16, Mal 4:4].
Jesus himself instructs us to remember him in the sharing of the bread and wine which are his body and blood: “Do this in remembrance of me” [ Luke 22:19, 1 Cor 11:24-25]. Remembrance does not mean merely recalling some past event. It renders us present to those great mysteries that are really present here and now. We need only to pay attention.
Moses figures again in the second reading, as St. Paul reflects on the deeper mystery of the Hebrews’ flight from Egypt into the plains and mountains of Arabia. He sees it all as a prelude and prefigurement of the story of Jesus, including a dark cautionary note to his converts in Corinth about assuming more than we are entitled to from God’s favor. “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea… they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ” [1 Cor 10:1-2,4]. Remember who you are.
The gospel reading says little directly about memory, except for the plea of the gardener that if he is permitted to till and strengthen the fig tree, it can be saved and bear fruit, so that when the owner of the vineyard remembers his tree, he will not cut it down. It is a parable about God’s patience with us all, who are called upon to “turn away from sin and believe in the gospel.”
As we prepare to remember the great saving events of our redemption in the weeks to come, it is well to bear in mind not so much our inescapable frailty and mortality, but God’s mercy and forgiveness. As in the parable Jesus uses in today’s gospel reading, that mercy and forgiveness are always at hand. We need only ask. But to receive, we must be ready. As the Bard reminded us, “The readiness is all” [Hamlet, V,2].
Please pray for the people of Ukraine.
We begin our Lenten pilgrimage this year all-too conscious of the great suffering being inflicted on the Ukrainian people in an unprovoked and heartless war. It is their hour of testing, and ours, which makes today’s readings all the more pertinent. Why, we ask perennially, do the innocent have to suffer? It was the burning question that led to the gospel, the good news of salvation: why did Jesus himself have to suffer and die? Was there no other way to save the world?
The first reading places us at the beginning of the great pilgrimage of redemption, the Exodus of God’s people from Enslavement in Egypt, both the inauguration and prototype of salvation. Today as then, it involved suffering, and we like they are prone to flinch away – over and over. But today, scripture has us consider not the trials that met the Israelites on their long journey of redemption, or even the arrest, trial, suffering, and death of Jesus – culminating events that will illuminate the end of our quest. That lies ahead.
We are first directed to consider the goal of our journey: “you shall rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you” [Deut 26:11]. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul holds out the same promise: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach); because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” [Rom 10:8-9].
It is the gospel reading that bring these themes together in a surprising way. The account of the “temptation” of Jesus in the wilderness is found only in Matthew and Luke, but they are the evangelists who dug back into the early years of Jesus and provided us with all the reliable information we have about his conception, birth, infancy, and childhood. There is no reason to discount it, even though it is clearly a “worked” tradition, an encounter modeled on rabbinical debate, pitting scriptural verse against verse. And the devil knew his scripture.
The two accounts are the same, differing only in the order of the second and third “temptation.” Two early communities preserved these accounts, however they learned them, perhaps from Jesus himself, but Mark and John are silent. There is a likely reflection of the tradition in the Letter to the Hebrews, however, which dwells at some length on the “trials” to which the Redeemer was subject:
“…we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering… . For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” [Heb 2:9-10, 18].
The same word is used here for “temptation” that we find in Luke and Matthew – “peirazo.” The word means “trial,” — to “try,” “prove” or “test” something or someone. It does not mean the impulse to sin, like pilfering coins from the open change box in the hamburger stand or murdering our neighbor. Not surprisingly, it is the same term both Matthew and Luke use to end their versions of the Lord’s Prayer [Luke 11:4, Mat 6:13] – “do not put us to the test.” Small wonder that we begin our Lenten pilgrimage with a meditation on “temptation.”
Jesus had to work out the shape of his destiny, and this was the time of his testing. After his mysterious baptism at the Jordan, he ”retreats” into the wilderness to do just that. Avenues lay open to power, fame, wealth. Perhaps he already knew that the alternative was struggle, opposition, rejection, and eventually martyrdom. Armed with a deep understanding of scripture, he works out his “way” considering each of the more alluring ways ahead, dismissing them one by one.
For us, too, withdrawing to a point where we can begin to examine the way we have come and the possibilities still open to us is a necessary part of our spiritual journey. It is the reason for Lent, a period of clarification, correction, and resolve.
The tests posed to Jesus are pertinent to us today as they were in first century Judea. Social welfare programs often provide only for material needs, yet we must still feed the hungry just as Jesus fed the multitudes. The lure of wealth and power lies in the illusion that they are the only means by which we can put things right. Simplicity, poverty, and generosity are more powerful and more effective. Religious spectacle can be exhilarating, but easily lures us into mere admiration and complacency.
Ultimately, after all our considerations, we, like Jesus, must return to the waiting and turbulent world. That is the goal and purpose of the testing. We are called to go back into the marketplace, the streets, and our own homes as well as the political arena, strengthened against the power of the world, the flesh, and the devil to dull and deflect our spiritual sensibilities and will to action. We may even become the most blessed of warriors, “peacemakers.”
Biblical scholars have quibbled for centuries about the identities of the famed “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse “who figure so prominently early in the 6th chapter of the book of Revelation. Symbolizing the chastisement to be visited upon an unrepentant world, they are most often known as War, Famine, Pestilence and Death. “Conquest” often replaces Pestilence for some reason. Death alone is given what amounts to a name.
Given the events of this winter of our discontent, still in the midst of a deadly global pandemic, world hunger, street violence, and the possibility of a war more devastating than any conflict since the Second World War, Death and his henchmen seem to be particularly busy. But Civil Discord should at least have a jackass to ride with them, perhaps backwards for those who confuse freedom with refusing to be vaccinated during a lethal pandemic. People seem prone to fighting about anything these days while, let it be said, the greatest challenge facing the planet, global climate change, has been pushed to the back pages of awareness. If there has ever been a time for mutual cooperation and “care for creation,” it is now. Well past now.
In any case, Jesus’ teaching as found in today’s reading from the gospel of Luke seems strangely out of tune with the tenor of the times. The
quality of mercy in particular seems not so much strained as absent. Forgiveness, especially of someone’s enemy, is about the farthest thing from our minds.
And yet, there it is. Even in the ancient scriptures, which are filled with enough war, famine, pestilence and death to fill several apocalypses, we come across this remarkable account of mercy and forgiveness in a story about David and Saul, a fitting prelude to the teaching of Jesus.
King Saul, in a passion of jealousy and madness, has again been pursuing his loyal lieutenant David with murderous intent. As he had before [see 1 Sam 24:1-22], David could easily have killed Saul, now his mortal enemy, but spares him. Saul, deeply touched by David’s act of mercy, calls off the pursuit and returns to Jerusalem after swearing (again) that he would no longer pursue David.
There is much more to the story, of course, and it is worth a few minutes reading in the First Book of Samuel, where there is also an account of David sparing the life of the rich and powerful Nabal the Calebite [1 Sam 25]. But all that is prelude to the account of Jesus’ astonishing teaching. Or perhaps not so astonishing, given the example of David, but one as sorely needed today as it was in first century Palestine.
The world “enemy” appears more frequently in Luke’s gospel than anywhere else in the Christian scriptures. Matthew’s gospel is next, and both agree that Jesus taught us not only to show mercy and compassion to our neighbor, but even, indeed especially, to forgive our enemies, those who persecute us, so that we, too, may be forgiven. Today’s passage from Luke is the longest sustained version of this remarkable moral imperative in the New Testament. It was so important to the gospel tradition that it figures prominently in the different versions of the Lord’s Prayer we find in Matthew and Luke, and it also appears in Mark’s gospel [Mark 11:25]. It is often referred to as “the Law of Christ.” We say it every day, but has it ever really sunk in?
Forgiveness was on Jesus’ dying lips, according to Luke 23:34. Always the same word, always the same meaning. In both gospel accounts, Jesus clearly means that we should not seek revenge or retaliation for wrongs done to us or that we think have been done to us. That is the literal meaning of the Greek word found in all the gospels – “aphiemi,” which means to “send away, let go, disregard.” As with bank loans, it means no longer having to repay. (In English we still speak of “forgiving” loans or debts.) It is the antithesis of the vendetta and the one action that seems capable of stopping the cycle of violence.
But Jesus goes further. We are to be merciful, compassionate, for then we are most like God, he tells us. Several words in the Christian scriptures are used for “mercy” or “compassion.” They all get down to a generous attitude of mind and heart that spares those who suffer or are in want. “Misericordia” is the Latin word for it, made from the words for “pity” and “heart.” Our English word “mercy” derives from that, pointing to kindness, forgiveness, and benevolence.
I cannot help but think here of the outrage that ensued because the judge showed leniency this week in sentencing Kim Potter, the policewoman who mistakenly and regrettably shot and killed Daunte Wright in Minneapolis. It would be well to recall that “Merciful” is one of the oldest titles for God in Judaism, Christianity, and especially Islam, in which a favorite name for God is Al-Rahman, “The Merciful.” Mercy is what we want from God and, let me add quickly, what God wants from us.
“… earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice.” [The Merchant of Venice, iii. 1.]
Beginning in 1991, I taught courses in dreams, spirituality, and memory for graduates and undergraduates at Loyola University and Dominican University. After twenty years of research and teaching, you could reasonably say that I take dreams seriously. So when I had a dream this morning, shortly before arising, I took it seriously. No that it was sad, tragic, or threatening. It focused on a phone call from the director of Loyola Medical Schools’ Sexual Dysfunction Clinic, Dr. Domeena Renshaw – truly the most gifted psychiatrist I ever met.
Hearing her voice again was an unexpected delight. In my dream she was calling to find out if I could rejoin her team as a clinical therapist, which I had done for over two decades in the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. But Domeena retired in 2009 and the clinic was discontinued. (I hear that Domeena, now in her 90s, still attends grand rounds occasionally, which is not surprising.) Having worked under supervision those many years mainly helping clients strive to repair broken marriages and resolve marital problems, it got me thinking.
Today has been designated World Marriage Day, an achievement of Worldwide Marriage Encounter. It was approved as a day of commemoration by Pope John Paul II in 1993, ten tears after it had been proclaimed by 43 U.S. states and several foreign countries. The now permanent theme of WMD is taken from John 15:12 – “Love one another.”
Today’s readings are not about marriage, but there is a connection. It has to do with happiness, something we all wish for married
couples, sometimes noisily and with feasting and possibly a few family fistfights on the lawn after the banquet. People still take weddings seriously – sometimes perhaps too much so.
We commonly think of happiness as a state of perpetual bliss, a carefree celebration of the good things in life. We wish newlyweds a “happy life together,” and rightly so. But the happiness Jesus refers to in today’s reading from Luke, which continues our on-going readings from his gospel and, presently, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthian Christians, deserves a bit of mulling over, not least because, unlike Matthew, Luke follows up his “beatitudes” with some sobering “woes.”
At the time the New Testament teachings were being put down in writing, the Greek word used for “blessed,”makarios, which is what Jesus speaks of, did not simply mean “happy.” There were perfectly good words available for happiness or bliss, going all the way back to Aristotle. But even Aristotle knew that makarios means a gift of the gods, “grace,” not the result of a life lived well, free from care and hardship (eudaimonia).
Jesus follows up his promise of ultimate joy with a warning – “woe to you!” he says four times. Woe – ouai – is the counterpoint of “blessed,” in fact its opposite. “Woe” is not a bad translation of the Greek, which in Latin comes over as vae. But the Yiddish comes much closer – ‘oy vey!’ — an exclamation of distress or grief. It means “misery,” which is what awaits those who revel in their wealth, good fortune, and fame – to the detriment or neglect of their struggling neighbors.
The reading from Jeremiah comes into play here, and perhaps provided Jesus with a model for his four “woes.” “Cursed [arar] are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord” [Jer 17:5 RSV]. But Jeremiah also has his beatitude: “Blessed [barak] are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord” [Jer 17:7 RSV].
All this is not unrelated to World Marriage Day. Not by any means. All those years of working with couples to heal ailing marriages – and with amazing success, thanks to the pioneering work of Dr. Renshaw – clearly taught us all that marriage is not some road to perpetual bliss, of unfettered happiness and trouble-free enjoyment. It can be a very rocky road and even great marriages require stamina and the endurance only deep love can foster.
Does marriage succeed? Much of the time. Statistically, the ratio in the U.S. of successful and failed marriages is about 50-50. At present the divorce rate is 2.9 per 1,000. In 2017, approximately 787,251 divorces were granted in America, which means that around one and a half million people got divorced that year. But since 1990, there has been a downward trend in divorce statistics. The divorce rate in 2018 and 2019 was significantly lower than in 2008 and 2009. And despite a slight increase in 2011-12, the divorce rate has fallen overall throughout the last decade.
There was a sharp decrease in the number of weddings in 2020, but this year there will be an estimated 2.5 million weddings, the most the U.S. has seen since 1984. Statistics indicate that the prospects for an enduring marriage are better today than in the previous three decades.
True blessedness is not merely a gift. It also requires hard work and fidelity, a willingness to bear one another’s burdens, and honest and effective communication. Marriage Encounter has performed near-miracles in fostering successful marriages. And the pioneering efforts of compassionate, caring healers such as Dr. Renshaw have achieved astonishing results in helping couples grow in respect, love, and mutual endeavor. We have much to be thankful for today.