What began as a fairly normal year (in the strange world of Trump, Brexit, etc.) too quickly turned into an annus horribilis that would daunt even the queen. A confluence of unexpected catastrophes, from the Covid crisis and the economic downturn, to repression of peaceful protests, and worsening relations among the world great economies, was deepened this week by the explosion that wiped out much of the center of Beirut. That alone was heart-breaking, as I had been there several years ago and witnessed the promising results of a decades-long effort to restore the historic parts of the city following a decade of ruinous civil war.
We are left wondering, week by week, how did all this happen in such a relatively short time? The stormy waters seem about to overwhelm us.
When we turn to the readings for today’s liturgy, we are reminded of the perils that somehow inevitably befall us. But we are also reminded of the hope that sustains us. [1 Kings 19:9,11-13, Romans 9:1-5, Matthew 14:22-23.]
The reading from the Book of Kings seems jarring at first glance, especially considering its backstory. The prophet Elijah, who is one of God’s truly wild men, has just scored a stunning defeat over the priests of Baal. He celebrated by taking them all 450 down to the river Jordan and cutting their throats. Jezebel the queen, who was as powerful as she was vicious, sends him word that he’s as good as dead himself and in fact will be by that time tomorrow. So Elijah flees and seeks refuge on Mt. Horeb, about 200 miles south. There, seeking some sign, he is about to turn in his prophet badge when God appears to him — not in the tempest or the earthquake but in a still small voice after the storm.
In this reading, we do not hear Elijah’s repeated complaint about the infidelity of the Israelites or God’s answer, including the promise that Elijah will not only find a successor both to himself and to Ahab, but that he will slaughter God’s enemies. Instead the reading focuses our attention on the manner in which God appears. Not in sound and fury, but after it — above it. It is one of the major theophanies of the Old Testament. God comes to us in very unexpected ways.
In the second reading, Paul’s impossible hypothesis reminds us of the unexpectedness of God’s presence in our lives. He would generously, heroically sacrifice his own salvation if it would help the Jews of his time to recognize God’s saving presence in Christ. Somehow, he knows that God has not abandoned the Jews, that God will never abandon them, even if he does not know how God will eventually accomplish their salvation.
But it is the recognition of God presence in unexpected places and unacceptable ways that leaps out at us in the Gospel, which continues where it left off last week with the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
Jesus sends the disciples ahead of him across the Sea of Galilee. When a gale comes up just before dawn, after a very rough night fighting the wind and the waves, they see the impossible — Jesus walking on the water, an account also found in the gospels of Mark and John. It was a memorable experience, one of the wonderful images that has come down to us in the form of a proverbial phrase.
In the story, it is first of all a terrifying experience, scarier than the storm itself. Peter, of course, throws himself overboard once he recognizes Jesus. But he first raises a doubt, a challenge that will almost sink him. “If it is you, tell me to come to you across the water.” I can do it! But is it really you, Lord?
Jesus simply says, “Come.”
So Peter does. But out on the waves, in the full force of the storm, he suddenly remembers something — and his confidence wavers. He founders and Jesus plucks him by the hand. “Why did you doubt?” Jesus chides him.
Matthew says that Peter doubted because when he felt the force of the wind. Jesus tells him, “because your faith was small and weak and you were afraid to admit it.”
Why do we doubt?
In her book, “Walking on Water,” the late Madelaine l’Engle tells us, “… think of Peter walking across the water to meet Jesus. As long as he didn’t remember that we human beings have forgotten how to walk on water, he was able to do it.”
But it takes faith. Like Elijah, Paul, and Peter, we have to remember how to recognize the presence and power of God in the most unlikely places and forms. Christ is very frequently — perhaps most of the time — not where we prefer, but where he has some business of his own to accomplish. On the other hand, that business is very likely to have something to do with our salvation — our deepest welfare, our ability to assist others, to contribute some measure of hope to the world.
And so we strive to hear the still, calming voice of Jesus over the fury of the storm. We listen for the three great commands of hope he speaks: “Have courage, it is I, do not fear.”
There are plenty of stormy gales in our lives, plenty of times we would like to turn in our badges.
As a new and frightening disease ravages the world, when our homes are destroyed by violence as in Beirut this week, when our families are killed, our country devastated by civil war, or when our friends and relatives are suddenly taken from us in mindless gang wars or random shootings. Or even in less violent forms, when we have to confront a family member or colleague at work about alcoholism. Or to live with the grief of a child’s leukemia or the guilt feelings that attend having to place an aged parent in a nursing home, or accepting the discouragement of a broken marriage, or the fact that you’re not getting promoted at work, or you’ve lost your job, or that you have to repeat the fifth grade, or that someone you love has died. The seas of life turn violent at times.
At such moments, it is difficult to hear the voice of God calling to us over the storm. But the voice is there. At one time or other, God calls each of us to walk on the water — to listen to that still, quiet voice in our heart, and in the world of creation, and in scripture and history — and to have courage. “It is I.” The strange and wonderful thing is that sometimes we find that we haven’t sunk at all, that the waves are growing solid under our feet. And sometimes we have to be plucked out of deep water by the hand of God.
Both Isaiah and the responsory psalm for the day eloquently remind us that the word of God, gone forth, does not return vacant, for it is creative of its nature, and true soil — like the human clay Jesus refers to later — responds to it abundantly and yields a fit harvest, in human terms of justice and mercy. St. Paul speaks of Creation as a whole groaning to reveal the destiny of the universe — the freedom and glory of God’s children. For the price of such creativity is high — the pain of birth. And loss, both of life and of creativity itself. As in the amplified commentary on Jesus’ simple parable, the fertile seed of God’s word, the way Creation is lavish with the gift of life, often goes to waste. Some of the Word does take root, but more seems to be scavenged, lost, or at best stunted and it soon withers. Jesus directs our attention, like Isaiah, not to the Word itself, but to us, the human soil and our readiness to receive the Word of Life and grow to bear a harvest of freedom and glory.
It is critical to ask how we’re doing The image of creation giving birth suggests that we look to the earth itself to see. Ecologists and naturalists have been warning us for decades now that human rapacity has destroyed much of the life-giving greenness of the earth. The “good soil” of creation has given way to concrete, asphalt, ravaged rain forests, spreading deserts, melting glaciers, and troubled seas. Where will the fertile seed of Creation be able to find haven and produce the bounty called Life? As eco-catastrophists rightly remind us, there is no planet B.
The other night, I caught a brief glimpse of the film, “Rio 2,” detailing the further adventures of a lovable blue parrot, in which he finds others of his species in the Amazonian rain forest. In fact, Spix’s Macaw is now extinct in the wild. Thousands of other species of birds, mammals, insects, and plants – many of them not even yet catalogued by naturalists — face the same dismal fate because of human encroachment on their habitat. As Wikipedia reminds us, Spix’s Macaw is the only known species of the genus Cyanopsitta (blue parrots). I couldn’t watch any more of film.
The sad news, the ‘badspel,’ is that our mechanistic, exploitative approach to Creation is killing off such great numbers of living species as to endanger the capacity of the planet to sustain life as we know it. The constant rise in global temperatures is more than a danger signal. It could be a planetary death knell.
Stern words, ones we should take to heart. Ours is, after all, the only planet in the universe known to have conceived and given birth to life. But bearing life is a surprisingly fragile and fallible enterprise. And so the groaning continues, and the glorious freedom of God’s children is forestalled.
But even if by conceiving greed and bringing forth injustice, we destroy ourselves and our civilization. Faith reminds us that Creation is God’s work and workshop. Humans are no more capable of ending life on earth by our own power than we are of engineering by ourselves the revelation of ultimate glory. But we are capable of what may be irreparable harm if we do not alter our way of living on a global scale.
I have said this before, but it bears repeating. Thirteen thousand millions of years ago, God spoke, and everything came to be. And the Word was with God, and nothing came to be except in the Word, and of the Word, and through the Word. All things are kept by the Word, and without the Word, nothing remains. For the Word was God. Is God. God’s word has never ceased going forth.
Some nine thousand millions of years later, earth appeared, the waters parted, and life began on this planet — perhaps only here. We simply don’t know and may never find out. Thousands of millions of years later, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Earth was reseeded with grace.
The Word of God…. seed sown in the cosmos itself, the human heart, the soil of nations and peoples. Some of it produces a bountiful harvest of justice and mercy, some little or nothing, choked by weeds of disregard, oppression, and destruction. The Word of God is no less creative for that. It is no less dynamic, no less alive. More: it gives life. And the Word not only endures, it is indelible.
Surely God could create other soil, other earth, other worlds where the Word could take better root and produce a harvest of glory ten thousand times a hundred fold. But here we are, for all we know, the only show in town, vainglorious dust, blighting the earth while straining to reach the stars. And if we do, will we not find, with Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus that “the blood of Christ streams through the universe”? For the Word remains impressed on each quark and galaxy. Even if our vision of the universe is fuzzy, like the first images received by the Hubble telescope, as the poet affirms, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out like shining from shook foil; / It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed.” [Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”]
Confirmed in that Spirit, we go on. Summoned by the Word, we endure. Intent on a future harvest of freedom and glory, we offer others the gift of life, the promise of justice and mercy. Subjected to suffer with all of creation the pangs of that great and prolonged birthing, we nevertheless rejoice at the approach of the Realm of God’ glory.
Most of the world is still coping, well or badly, with the “Covid Crisis,” now in its seventh month and far from over. But many otherwise healthy people are suffering from “Covid Crisis Fatigue” it seems – rushing, often foolishly, into a premature return to a lifestyle we in the more affluent nations at any rate have grown so fond of. Perhaps unconsciously so. In the expanding and largely southern realm of the planet, what Northerners used to call “The Third World,” the lack of worldly goods, an adequate income, sufficient food, potable water, education, and affordable or even accessible housing is now compounded by a pandemic over which they have no control or means to combat.
Such glaring and growing inequity provides a link between today’s readings [Zech 9:9-10, Rom 8:9,11-13, Mat 11:25-30], which otherwise seem unusually disparate. For those who care to look, what is at stake is how the global gulf between rich and poor has created the conditions for spiritual as well as material calamity and how to address that.
The first reading brings Palm Sunday to mind. In this passage from the Book of Zechariah, we are given an image of the Messiah of Peace, so different from the warlike leader so many of the Hebrews had hoped and waited for. And as a result many did not recognize him when he appeared among them. Jesus entered Jerusalem, not on a war-horse, but on a young mule, an animal associated with peace rather than battle. So much for militarism, a perennial planetary scourge that acquires greater and more lethal proportions with every passing decade.
And this is what Paul is reminding us in this passage from his letter to the Romans — the Spirit of Christ is the Lord of life and peace, not of war and death, the works of the flesh. By “flesh” here, he means what he elsewhere calls “the body of sin and death” — ‘sarx’ not the ordinary term for the body, ‘soma.’ In his anthropology, ‘sarx’ means the whole of human life under the dominion of sin. But to belong to Christ is to choose life and to choose it in abundance, not just for some, for a wealthy or powerful elite, and not at the cost of depriving other people of their lives or liberty. Life belongs to all. And, in the lingering glow of America’s Independence Day, we may rest assured so do liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
For those who find life burdensome, Christ offers refreshment and rest. To those who are weary and toil endlessly, he offers gentleness and help. Early in the last century, twenty years after the French people endowed the people of the United States with the Statue of Liberty, the following words by Emma Lazarus were chosen for the plaque placed on a wall inside the pedestal. They also sound very much like Jesus’ concluding words in today’s gospel:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
[“The New Colossus: Inscription for the Statue of Liberty,” New York Harbour (1883)
So much for anti-immigrant fervor and enforced economic disparity.
American citizens should not pass over the celebration of Independence Day as if it had nothing to do with our faith, or as if our faith had nothing to do with our independence. Those rich white men who spent that hot summer of 1776 sweating over the wording of the Declaration of Independence saw themselves as doing the work of God and they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to secure that belief in fact. Most of them lost their fortunes and some their lives in the pursuit of liberty, but their honor remains. Not untarnished, to be sure. Many owned slaves and despised Catholics, Quakers, and Jews. They tied political rights to property and wealth. They scoffed at the idea of women voting or holding pubic office. But they set in motion the democratic forces that, under God, would in time address these issues of inequality and injustice. We are still working at securing their belief that it was God who watched over and guided their efforts.
No one’s freedom can be made secure by the servitude of others, whether political, financial, or spiritual. We are either all free, or none of us is free. Thomas Jefferson understood that when in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he outlawed slavery. Had the other members of Congress been as wise and humane, and Jefferson more averse to compromise, the nation could have been spared a terrible civil war four score and seven years later. And we could do worse than to recall St. Paul’s advice on the matter: where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [2 Cor 3:17]
As for the lifestyle of conspicuous consumption and the craving for constant amusement in a consumerist society, it is enough to recall the words of Mahatma Gandhi and later the slogan of the Voluntary Simplicity Movement –“Live simply so that others may simply live.” In the end, turning to the words of Jesus, the burden he asks us to undertake of peace-making and securing justice is light, despite the sacrifices it may and usually does require. Becoming more gentle and humble of heart is no easy task. But perhaps we can learn something from the Covid Crisis after all.
Jesus’ remarks at the beginning of today’s gospel reading are not only harrowing, but don’t sound much like something Jesus would say during his lifetime. They appear to reflect a later era of rejection and persecution. The selection ends on a much more positive note – that of welcome and hospitality. But we may misunderstand what’s at stake here. [2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16; Rom 6:3-4,8-11; Matt 10:37-42]
The background of today’s theme is found in the ancient code of hospitality that prevailed in desert cultures not only of the Middle East but throughout the world. To share food and drink with someone in the desert was to establish an enduring bond of friendship. It still is, as I discovered several times in Iraq. A tragic echo of that profoundly humane culture exists in the account of the Last Supper, when Judas leaves the upper room to betray Jesus after he has eaten with him, even out of the same dish. Such intimate sharing indicated an even stronger bond of loyalty and its violation the deeper disloyalty.
Perhaps we can discover what hospitality is by considering its opposite: not merely coldness or even antagonism towards strangers in our midst, but the treachery, deceit, and violence directed against harmless and defenseless people whose only crime is being different and in need. The gospel of Jesus calls us to a different kind of life, an approach to others characterized by openness, trust, and friendliness.
Today’s first reading from the Second Book of Kings introduces the theme of hospitality. It contains the beginning of the story of the Shunammite woman, whose hospitality to the prophet Elisha is rewarded by the gift of a son, who is born to a couple who have no hope of having a child, like the parents of Isaac, Samuel, Samson, and John the Baptist. The mother and the little boy are also the focus of a later story, in which the boy falls ill and dies. Responding to his now-widowed mother’s frantic and persistent pleas, Elisha goes to him and restores the little boy to life. Such was his gratitude for what people today sometimes call “random acts of kindness.” [For the whole account, see 2 Kings 4:25-37.]
In the selection from the Letter to the Christians at Rome, St. Paul gives us a clear, simple reason for practicing such random acts of kindness. They are expected of us. And, if we are really living the life Christ has offered us, we can’t help performing them. For, Paul tells us, we are raised to a new life in Christ, which is to say baptized into his death so that we might live a new life: his new life. And Christ’s life is one of mercy, forgiveness, and continuous welcome.
That English word “welcome,” which we hear in today’s gospel, comes from the Old English word ‘wil,’ which means “pleasure,” and ‘cuma,’ which means “to arrive.” It refers to someone whose arrival gives us pleasure. To welcome someone means to receive them with joy.
Jesus goes much further than might be expected, when the Holy Land was overrun by soldiers of an occupying nation and whose people were in effect caught between collaboration and rebellion. His counsels are radical even to us today: walk the extra mile, give your coat as well as your shirt, in short, see the human being within the uniform and respond with love. Don’t strike back. And in today’s reading, “anyone who gives even a cup of cold water to one of these lowly ones because he is [called] a disciple will not lose their reward.”
Jesus, like Elisha, knew the meaning of hospitality. He was welcomed into peoples’ homes. He frequently stayed with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. But he also knew rejection: he was thrown out of his own home town, and almost killed by a resentful mob. On several occasions, he seems to have been treated inhospitably by Samaritans and, with a few exceptions, as in the story of Zacchaeus, was snubbed by the rich and famous. He was betrayed by his table companion.
As for the demanding note of those earlier statements told of Jesus about being “worthy” of him, when we peel away the dust of centuries of translations, the word he is said to have used is ‘hikanos,’which means “fit, or able.” To be fit disciples, we must be able to follow where Jesus led. Even to the cross.
God’s word to us today, then, is about receiving others in their need and with joy in our hearts. Hospitality takes many forms, not least today in the era of COVID-19, when in many places in the world hospitals are overcrowded with patients and where the toll has been reduced it is largely because of the heroic and self-sacrificing devotion of carers. I frequently remind my students that the words “hospitality” and “hospital” are closely related. Both come from the Latin word ‘hospes’, which means both “guest,” and “host,”‘ Whether they know it or not, those who care for the sick and dying are hosts to one another in the spirit of Christ. They shall not lose their reward.
While memories of the global disaster brought about by the new coronavirus at Easter time of this year will long be remembered, there are other, more uplifting reasons to look back on the second week of Easter. Pope John Paul II died on April 2nd, 2005, the eve of the Second Sunday of Easter, the world at his bedside. His funeral was held on April 8th, the end of that Week. He was beatified on May 1, 2011, the Second Sunday of Easter, and canonized (with Pope John XXIII) on April 27, 2014 – the Second Sunday of Easter. It may also be noted that as the world watched on television, Osama bin Laden was killed on May 2nd, 2011. All of us will no doubt have many reasons to recall the Second Week of Easter in time to come.
But long after the memory of the passing of bin Laden has faded, and hopefully the COVID-19 outbreak of 2020 will be at best an unhappy memory, the great throngs in Rome earlier this century will be remembered. Several million people gathered in Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II, and over a million attended his beatification and the canonizations in 2014. Those immense, joyous gatherings are a far cry from the small, quiet encounter on the road to Emmaus that we recall on this Sunday. The gospel story reminds us that the great assembles we have witnessed are in every sense only a reflection of the intimate, undramatic meetings that should truly occupy our attention in this Easter season. How strange in a way that Jesus did not choose to appear to thousands of people after the Resurrection. According to St. Paul the largest number who saw him numbered about 500 [1 Cor 15:6].
It is still Easter day in the mind of the Church. We heard this same gospel on the Wednesday right after Easter. It tells the story of two early disciples walking back to a village called Emmaus after the crucifixion and burial of Jesus. They seemed to have remained with the other disciples for the Sabbath. But like Thomas in the Gospel of John, they couldn’t believe the women’s wild story that Jesus was risen. They are deeply disappointed. Apparently one of these fellows, Cleopas, was well-enough known to the early community to have his name attached to this rather embarrassing story. It probably got a good laugh from his friends and family for a long, long time.
The two grief-stricken and slightly slow-witted disciples found their faith restored when they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread, just as Thomas came to believe when he saw and touched Christ a week after the Resurrection. In the case of the two disciples, and of us as well, the same could be said: “Blessed are those who have not seen yet believe” [John 20:29].
There’s another interesting item in Luke’s story. At first, the disciples report that “Some of those who were with us went to the tomb, and found it just as the women had said; but him they did not see.” But when they return to the rest of the disciples, not only do they agree that Jesus has risen, for they have indeed seen him, but they also affirm that he appeared to Simon. Luke has no account of any appearance to Simon Peter in his description of the events following the Resurrection, nor do the other evangelists except when Jesus appears to the disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee many days later. But there is a confirmation of an apparition to Peter in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, probably the earliest of all accounts of the Resurrection, where he says “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and … he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve [1 Cor. 15: 4-5].”
Hard to believe, skeptics say. But Paul knew St. Peter, with whom he did not always get along well. He didn’t make that story up. But what does it take to believe something? Or to believe in someone or something?
Let me suggest that the disciples on the road to Emmaus encountered the Spirit of Christ before they recognized Jesus in the breaking of the bread — “were not our hearts burning within us as he talked to us on the road and he explained the Scriptures to us?”
Luke reminds us that the eyes of our minds and hearts need to be opened by faith in order for us to recognize the presence of Christ, a presence that will find us anywhere. For believing is an act of the heart as well as of the mind, perhaps in some ways even more so. There is a tradition that the Latin word “credo,” I believe,” comes from the Latin words ‘cor’ — “heart,” and ‘dare’ “to give.” To believe means to give our heart to something, or rather, to someone.
The appearance of Jesus to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus has something else to tell us, something worth thinking about in the afterglow of those Roman celebrations and the harsh glare of the coronavirus pandemic. Luke reminds us that it is in the small things, the unexpected and seemingly insignificant moments of life, that we truly encounter the presence of God – the sharing of scarce food, making and distributing face-masks, checking on elderly neighbors. We know it in the breaking of bread and in opening the pages of a book. God’s book. But God’s book is wide and vast. Ultimately it is the whole universe itself. To the eyes of faith, every cranny and quark is filled with the presence of God. In order to see, we need only look with the eyes of faith.
In years to come, the spring of this year is more likely to be remembered for the outbreak of the new coronavirus and COVID-19, the acronym for the disease symptoms associated with it, beginning last year, than even the ongoing political hullabaloo in this country pointing toward the elections of next autumn. In comparison, our observance of Lent may seem routine and in fact ordinary, but the message of this second Sunday is no less timely because it is timeless.
The central element in this triptych of scriptural passages is the account of the Transfiguration in Matthew’s gospel, one likely based on Mark’s and Luke’s accounts. (Mysteriously, there is no parallel passage in John’s gospel.) So important was this event in the view of later Christians that a special feast day was instituted to commemorate it, still one of the holiest celebrations in the eastern Orthodox Churches.
The framing narratives begin with God’s command to Abraham to leave Haran in what is now Turkey for a land of promise, the beginning
of the long pilgrimage of the Elect, the ‘Chosen,’ toward their spiritual destiny. For Christians the passage from the Second Letter to Timothy over two millennia later points to the fulfillment of that promise “manifested through the ‘epiphany,’ “the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” [2 Tim 1:10]. The prediction of the death and resurrection of Jesus knits the three readings together, a point made clearer in Luke’s account with the observation that Moses and Elijah were talking with Jesus about his “exodus” which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem [Luke 9:31].
Typically, the disciples fail to comprehend the meaning of this prophetic moment, much as we are likely to do ourselves if distracted by current events, however pressing. And that’s why it is fitting on this second Sunday of Lent to be reminded of the significance of what happened there and what we are doing here.
As we ponder the events of the last three months, what strikes me about the gospel reading, is how exactly it affirms that the approaching suffering and death of Jesus robs death of its power and brings life and immortality into the clear light of glory. In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, which are echoed in today’s liturgy, Jesus had to enter his glory through suffering, the Passover or departure spoken of by Moses and Elijah: “For it was fitting that [God], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons and daughters to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering [Heb 2:10].”
The relevance for this Sunday in the “joyful season” of Lent is that by following Christ, taking up our own crosses daily, we are drawn ever more closely into his Passover, his departure into glory, even if, like him, we enter it fully only beyond the final curtain of life.
Each of the three gospel accounts relate that Peter proposed erecting three tents or “tabernacles,” a suggestion that might seem strange except for the fact that the Churches celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration in August, close to the Jewish Feast of Succoth or Tabernacles, the festival of the fruit harvest. The connection is important, because the principal offering at this feast was a basket of harvest fruits accompanied by the recitation of the great acts by which God delivered the Hebrews from captivity and their entry into Canaan, the land of Promise. The Book of Leviticus prescribes erecting huts or booths made of leafy branches as a reminder of the desert journey of the Hebrews [Lev. 23:39-43]. Many observant Jews still do this.
But even this Passover theme, and the fulfillment of promise that it commemorates, falls short of the truth revealed on that mountain. And here is where the clue is so important. If Jesus had to enter his glory through suffering, the “Exodus” or departure spoken of by Moses and Elijah, can we who profess to follow him expect a lesser, easier path?
According to today’s gospel, the tedium of trekking through a dark wasteland of testing and trial is broken by a shaft of light that leaps ahead from the Resurrection. For a brief moment, we see divine radiance shining through and around Jesus, standing between those other two wayfarers, Moses and Elijah, who were also holy mountain climbers, and there comes a voice…
Like Peter, James, and John, we hardly know what to make of all this. But there it is. Whatever happened on that mountain, the event itself was long and widely remembered. And as a reminder of human hope and a prelude of glory, this memory of Transfiguration comes at a moment both appropriate and opportune in Lent and in life, not least as we ponder how best to assist those who suffer wherever there is need for hope in the promise first made so long ago to a small tribe of pilgrims wandering in the deserts of the Middle East in search of a land of promise.
Tomorrow our nation will observe the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., born on January 15th in 1929. He died at the hands of an assassin in Memphis just over 39 years later. It seems safe to say that things have not been the same since, not exactly. I can’t help but wonder what King would think of the present situation, not least the Impeachment of Donald Trump. But somehow I think he might be even more focused on voter registration and the full restoration of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which his life, preaching, and witness were so instrumental in passing.
As we begin the period of the year still considered “ordinary time,” which may take a bit of stretching to accommodate in days to come, the figure who dominates our scripture readings is another social and spiritual reformer, the man known forever as
John the Baptist, the “forerunner.” St. Paul does not mention him in his letter to the Corinthians, but the call-out regarding the grace and peace of God casts light on the passage from Isaiah applied here to John, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth” [Isaiah 49:6].
Next week, the focus on Sundays will shift to the teachings of Jesus. But John mattered, especially to Jesus. And so we pause to consider him and those like him who prepare the way.
The first two readings remind us that God lifted up Israel and then the New Israel, the community of Jesus Christ throughout the world, to be a light to the nations. Sometimes that light seems to falter and even to fail, but it will not be extinguished. Whether we will add to its brightness and light up the world, as Dr. King did, or forget the gospel in our enthusiasm for amusements and entertainment is up to us. As King reminded us in his address to the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington on Feb. 6, 1968, “We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”
Like John the Baptist, Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the Light himself (see John 1:8), but gave witness to the light and so helped scatter the darkness of the times. Like John, he paid for his testimony with his life. Nor did John or King end the darkness, which, as it does, returned and pressed ever harder against the Light. In terms of King’s struggle, de facto segregation still prevails in great American cities; minority voter suppression and disenfranchisement persist in several states; disproportionate law enforcement, sentencing, and incarceration exist in much of the legal system; violence and fear darken the lives of citizens trapped by poverty and discrimination; and war itself, which King was addressing that day in 1968, less than a month before his martyrdom, continues to threaten and scar the world. But the struggle for justice and peace goes on. It does so because of the work and witness of prophets such as Martin Luther King, Jr., and those who continue to bear testimony to the Light that scatters the moral and political darkness of our era.
“I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.
I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation” [Psalm 40:8-10].
It would hardly be wide of the mark to point out that the “holiday season” is definitely upon us. It has been here for weeks in fact, at least in the big-box stores and the gorgeous decorations in Macy’s windows. It started this year weeks before Halloween, and what could be more seasonal than celebrating Veteran’s Day with a “Black Friday” sale on mattresses and giant flat-screen TVs?
Advent is nevertheless nearing – and oldsters can tell from the shift in the tone of the Sunday readings toward the anticipation of the End Times. It’s a also way of foreshadowing the end of one liturgical year and the beginning of another. And then comes Advent, which I am tempted to call “formerly a period of subdued but joyful anticipation of the Christmas season,” which actually begins on Christmas!
That Advent hardly exists any more other than as a fond memory of a time when school kids gave up sweets and donated their pennies to save pagan babies in faraway places with strange-sounding names. The colored lights and decorations are already up. The parades have begun. Dozens of Santas crowd street corners and shop fronts. “Advent calendars,” once a way of marking the weeks and days before Christmas by opening little doors to reveal Christmas themes and symbols, now reveal merchandise. Especially electronic gadgetry. Maybe a Tesla or a BMW. Perhaps Thanksgiving will provide a welcome break from the Christmas glee, if not (heaven knows) from shopping sprees, even on Thanksgiving Day itself. The commercial world remains very much with us. (Yes, on Christmas Day, too.)
Once upon a time, the Sundays after Thanksgiving that led up to and inaugurated Advent scared hell out of us kids (or so it was hoped), featuring accounts of what many still think of as the end of the world, with descriptions made frighteningly memorable by the eloquent Jesuits at our parish church. In these troubled times, of course, many people have also had the hell scared out of them by the prospect of the environmental cataclysm threatening to befall the world in a distressingly few years. Or the prospect of another war or the loss of their pensions. Or the political circuses in Washington, London, and elsewhere.
Perhaps we should be jittery, considering the mess humans have made of the world over the last fifty years or more. But that’s really not what Jesus is talking about in today’s
gospel, or that passage from the book of Malachi, which — not coincidentally — is the last book of the Old Testament. The message of both, and St. Paul, too, is not one of doom and gloom, but of hope. And at the risk of anticipating Advent again, hope is the great theme of that season, too.Both Paul and Jesus himself actually warned us against getting too worked up about rumors of the End Times. In today’s gospel reading, for instance, Jesus says, “Take heed that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified; for this must first take place, but the end will not be at once.” (Luke 21: 8-9.) That theme resounds throughout the gospels: do not be afraid!
None of this was simply talk about history, about space and time and the stock market or even the stones of the Temple. (The Wailing Wall is still standing, by the way, so don’t get panicky about Armageddon.) What Malachi, Paul, and Jesus were all saying is that this world, with all its governments, social systems, wealth, poverty, wars, misery, and suffering is not ultimate, not finally decisive. Money, power, and success are not what life is all about, despite what lurks behind those little doors on your Advent calendar.
The message we hear in today’s readings and will echo in the weeks to come is that we are not to place either our hopes or our fears in the powers and structures of this present world, which are not only fallible, but will inevitably fail us. Still, as St. Paul insists, we may not resign our commission as members of our communities and hang around waiting for the Parousia. Rather, we must attend to the very real needs of those around us and the living planet as a whole, more now than ever. Or we won’t be ready when the Son of Man does appear!
In fact, we are called to build a truly humane city, a commonwealth of love and justice, a world where peace, truth. and freedom can flourish. We are called to look to our neighbor in order to assist and protect, especially the poor, the oppressed, and defenseless, not least the political refugee. (Yes, Virginia, it’s in the bible – from beginning to end!) For all that, Jesus warns us, we should not count on being rewarded, honored, or even thanked. Expect, rather, to be misunderstood, opposed, and even persecuted.
Even so, we should lift up our hearts. For, as Malachi had it, “…for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall” [Malachi 4:2 in the RSV]. The former world is inevitably coming to an end, with all its injustice and suffering and destruction. It has been ending all along in fact, ever since Christ rose from the dead. A new world is coming, just as surely, but it will get here in God’s good time. In the meantime, we have some important work to do. The bumper sticker had it right: “Jesus is coming soon—look busy.”
This weekend marks a notable effort on the part of many world leaders and the world’s youth to halt the seemingly inexorable drift of the planet toward environmental catastrophe. On Friday an estimated four million young people and supportive adults took to the streets of the major capitals and other cities of the world to protest the slow pace or actual indifference toward addressing global climate change by government officials and agencies almost everywhere. On the same day in Monaco, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began its meeting to consider a special report on the ocean and the frozen areas of the planet, which are all under devastating assault by global warming.
Tomorrow, following the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York last Tuesday, a special Climate Change Summit will be convened, with over 100 countries represented and about 60 world leaders speaking. The United States will be represented but will not actively participate. In keeping with his disavowal of the epoch-making Paris Climate Accord of 2015, from which he intends to disengage the United States next year, the President will be singularly absent among many dozens of concerned heads of state from Canada to India.
Today’s gospel reading bears considerable relevance to these events. It concerns stewardship, a feature of several of Jesus’ stories and remarks. The
steward (oikonomos) was the person in charge of affairs, from a wedding feast to a vineyard to the business interests of an entrepreneur, as in today’s reading. It was a position of trust and responsibility, and in this case, the steward failed significantly in managing his property. He is dismissed, but first an accounting is required, and here he uses his position to win friends and influence creditors as he looks ahead to a difficult future. In this he may have been dishonest and self-serving, but he was at least “prudent.”
Stewardship entered the discussion of environmental crisis several decades ago as a relevant way of discussing humankind’s responsibility for managing the earth’s resources prudently, by not in effect squandering the wealth entrusted to us (Gen. 2:15 and elsewhere). But that is precisely what we have done, and an accounting is due. The heavy penalty will fall, perhaps not surprisingly, on the most vulnerable – the poor, the elderly, the infirm, and those caught through no fault of their own in the wake of natural disasters that are quite evidently increasing on a world-wide scale. If anything the rate of destruction will accelerate.
As Sir Crispin Tickell, President of Green College, Oxford University’s medical school, and former UK ambassador to Mexico, remarked in a lecture I attended in 1992, “The refugees of the future will be environmental refugees.” His prediction has already clearly come true as hundreds of thousands of refugees from Central America wander north after drought, crop failures, and plant diseases destroyed their livelihoods. Similarly in Africa and Asia, natural disasters and crop failures are driving millions of desperate people, the wretched of the Earth, to look for refuge in the more fertile and prosperous lands of the north.
The human world will not be alone in the calamity inexorably approaching. In less than 50 years, the US and Canada have lost more than 3 billion birds. Millions of animal and plant species will disappear within this century, as the planet’s life-giving biodiversity is swallowed up by drought, fire, and flood. Fish stocks will vanish, and even tens of thousands of species of insects necessary for pollination and other humble, life-supporting tasks will become extinct.
The world’s youth, increasingly alarmed by the prospect of a future of global climate catastrophe, will be watching and in many cases attending the conferences scheduled for the coming days. They are keenly aware that the present adult generation will not be around to experience the unparalleled and world-wide suffering predicted for the closing decades of the 21st century. They are just as keenly aware that the time for responsible action is at hand. They are prepared to do what their elders will not or cannot – not merely protest but responsibly undertake the stewardship entrusted to human race by its Creator.
“…wisdom is justified of all her children.” Luke 7:35, Mat 21:16, citing Psalm 8:2
This weekend, the eyes of the world may be fixed on the moon and the memory of its first human sojourners, but God’s message to us today is about hospitality. There’s a certain irony here as earthlings ponder the possibility of making some kind of home in that most inhospitable of environments in decades to come.
In lush, green Ireland, hospitality was of great importance to early Christians. In a series of ancient proverbs beginning with the word eochair (‘key’), it is claimed that the key to miracles is generosity. A short poem put it this way:
‘O King of Stars!
whether my house be dark or be bright
it will not be closed against anybody;
may Christ not close his house against me.’
Traveling through deserts over the years, whether in New Mexico, China, or Iraq, I discovered how immeasurably more important hospitality is in hot, barren, and unforgiving lands. In times past, to refuse hospitality to a desert traveler was equivalent to murder. And desert people still tend to treat travelers and refugees well.
At some time or other, I imagine we have all benefited from the hospitality of friends, family, and neighbors — or suffered because of its absence, as entire families are experiencing daily along the southern border of the United States. And this leads us to the opening story about Abraham and Sarah in this section of Genesis. It serves as the prelude to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah we will hear about next week, those ancient cities whose sin was the ultimate act of inhospitality.
The story takes place near what the Bible calls the Terebinth of Mamre — a site near Hebron which was the burial place of the patriarchs — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — and is often in the news for reasons that have very little to do with hospitality. Or perhaps everything to do with it. For Hebron lies in the hill country of Judea, about 20 miles south of Jerusalem and has long been a center of devotion for both Jews and especially Arab Muslims. Mamre itself was famous for its oak trees as well as its grove of terebinths — Turpentine Trees, if you’re curious. So it was a place where water and shelter were found, an oasis and therefore a good place to camp. And that is what Abraham and Sarah were doing when God came calling in the guise of three strangers.
How Abraham and Sarah tend to the apparent needs of these strangers bears directly on the future of the Hebrew people and the fulfillment of God’s promises. For Christians, too, it is no small thing to tend to extend hospitality and care to the needy, for as the Epistle to the Hebrews later says, alluding to this passage, “Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” [3:1-2]. There is more to it than that. The author goes on, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body.”
In that mysterious final phrase as well as in both the gospel and today’s second reading, St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Colossae, we learn far more than they seem to tell us about our lives today as followers of Jesus. In the end, it’s all about justice, as the Psalm response chosen for today reminds us: “Those who do justice will live in the presence of God.”
First, St. Paul tells us about the great mystery , “the glory beyond price” that God has revealed in Jesus — a point easy to miss because we are so used to hearing the words. Or they go by so fast in the heat that we might not have been paying attention. He calls it “the mystery of Christ in you, your hope of glory.” That presence of Christ, himself the presence of God among us in visible human form, forms the basis of a whole new ethic. It finds its echo in what Jesus says to his friend Martha of Bethany in this little parable about true hospitality.
Martha has been dashing around preparing a meal for Jesus and complaining that Mary is not helping. Martha is simply carrying out the most fundamental requirement of traditional hospitality, providing generously for her guest. And she is right to wonder if Mary has forgotten how important it is to provide food and drink and the other amenities, just as Abraham and Sarah and my hosts in Iraq, China, and Lebanon did. What Jesus tells her is that she is overlooking what Mary has not forgotten — the presence of the One in their midst.
This is not just a lesson about the relative importance of the active and contemplative lives, as the medieval writers liked to imagine, or how just a single dish rather than many is sufficient as scripture scholars say today. It is about recognizing Christ in our midst, especially in the form of the stranger seeking asylum, the poor, the hungry, those in prison. And here we have the real echo of what Jesus teaches in Matthew’s gospel: “‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ … ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’” [Matt. 25: 34-36, 40].
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus says, similarly, “Whoever receives a little child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me…” [Luke 9: 49]. In short, pay less attention to what you are providing and more to those who need your help and you will gaze on the very face of God. Just like Abraham and Sarah. And Mary. And the disciples on the road to Emmaus who invited that other Traveler in for a bite to eat.
We don’t recognize Christ in each other simply by meditating quietly on the meaning of scripture or attending
long sermons or witnessing elaborate liturgical extravaganzas in big
air-conditioned church auditoriums. What
Jesus says is that we find him in
attending to others, especially those the world tends to forget and overlook —
the powerless, the homeless, the outcast – the asylum-seekers. That’s
the great mystery of God’s love and presence, the foundation of all the
promises and their fulfillment. So may
we not fail to be generous to the poor,
the orphan, the widow, and the homeless refugee, for by such hospitality we may not only entertain
angels unawares, we will inherit
the Kingdom of God.