Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: April 2017

Third Sunday of Easter 2017

This week, much of America’s attention has been fixed on national and international events, as has become increasingly the case for the last few years.  A milestone has been reached, well or badly, for President Trump, while at the end of January the danger of nuclear war with North Korea moved the hands of the Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists still closer to midnight for the world.  The prospect of the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union has preoccupied that part of the world for almost a year.  Earthquakes, wildfires, floods, and landslides frighten and threaten people around the globe.

These concerns (barring nuclear war) and others like them will gradually be displaced by other events that captivate and enthrall us for a while.  But some things do not fade from memory.  Some things create an indelible impression on the mind not just of a few or even a million people, but of humanity itself. They sometimes start in very small encounters, little noticed and even incredible on first hearing.

The Resurrection of Jesus is not just one of those.  It is the pivotal event upon which history has turned for nearly two thousand years.  And yet belief in the Resurrection, and everything that flows from it over the course of history, itself depends on the memories of a very few people.  Unlike the funerals of popes and kings and presidents, only a handful of frightened mourners attended the burial of Jesus.  No one witnessed the Resurrection.  But beginning with Mary Magdalene and her companions, the good news of the Resurrection of Christ began its world-transforming history.

Acts 2:14, 22 28
1 Pt 1:17 21
Lk 24:13 35

Simon, or as Jesus nick-named him in Aramaic, Kephas, and we know as Petros — “the Rock,” stands very much at the heart of today’s readings.  The first reading is taken from Peter’s long Pentecost sermon found in the Acts of the Apostles.  It purports to be the first public preaching of the gospel.  The second reading is from a letter ascribed to Peter himself, and while Peter does not appear personally in the gospel reading, he is there in an important and mysterious way.  And it’s all about the Resurrection of Jesus and how we come to faith.

The gospel tells the story of two early disciples walking back to Emmaus, a now-vanished village some 6 or 7 miles from Jerusalem.  One of them, the fellow named Cleopas, was well-enough known to the early Christians to have his name attached to this rather embarrassing story. For like the Apostle Thomas, he and his companion could not bring themselves to believe the women’s report that Jesus had in fact risen from the dead.  Like Thomas, they won’t or can’t believe unless they see for themselves.

Of course, they do come to faith, after they recognize Jesus in the breaking of the bread, after which he is simply gone.  Beside themselves with joy, they rush back to Jerusalem and burst in on the still-trembling disciples and their companions with the news and the proclamation of their faith.  And this is where it gets interesting. “They were saying ‘The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!’

“Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he had been made known to them in the breaking of the bread.  While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” [Luke 24: 34-36]

“…he has appeared to Simon.”  Familiarity may have dulled our perception of how strange that little phrase is. For we know nothing from the gospels about an appearance of Jesus to Peter.  But we hear of it again, in fact the first time we learn of it is in St. Paul’s first letter to the little Christian community at Corinth in Greece:

“I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures,  and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures,  and that he appeared to Kephas, then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” [1 Cor 15:3-7]

We know nothing about Jesus’ appearances to James, either, or, and this is especially interesting, to those 500 people who were witnesses.  Not everything has come down to us.  But the mere mention of it is telling.  It tells of the faith of the early Christians, a faith founded on living encounter with the risen Christ.  But the words of Jesus in John’s gospel are even more important for that very reason:  “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” [John 20:29]

Without doubt, great crowds are impressive, especially in today’s world.  The recent gatherings in Istanbul, Caracas, Paris, and London are a far cry from the quiet encounter on the road to Emmaus.  The gospel reminds us that the importance of such huge assemblies is only a pale reflection of the impact of intimate, undramatic meetings that occupy our attention in this Easter season, in breaking open the scriptures and the breaking of the bread.  God breaks through to each of us in our own way and in our own time.  Or, rather, God’s time, when not our eyes, but our minds and hearts need only to be broken open by the willingness to believe in order for us to recognize the presence of Christ, a presence that will find us anywhere and everywhere.

Anti-Church or Anti-clerical? The View from here

Over the last two weeks, when not enthralled with the Punchestown races, Ireland has been entranced by the publicity firestorm raging around the proposed relocation of the National Maternity Hospital from Dublin City to a new facility to be built on the grounds of  St. Vincent’s Hospital, a large, up-to-date teaching hospital in South Dublin affiliated to University College Dublin. The burning issue is the transfer of ownership of the hospital to the Sisters of Charity who own the land.  Although approved almost unanimously by the Board of Governors, the transfer of ownership was immediately denounced by a number of political and media figures. Two members of the board resigned in protest this week.

Although the hospital would be administered by an independent corporation, barring interference by the sisters or the Church, the tarnished reputation of the Sisters of Charity, who operated the now-infamous Magdalene Laundries in the mid-20th century, seems sufficient warrant to many for the objections. More is obviously at stake, however, as the rhetorical bombast has often centered on the Catholic Church itself.

The public expressions of  outrage probably evince more a revulsion toward the past behavior of church figures than some deep-seated hatred of the Church itself, but sometimes it is difficult to separate the two.  The figure of Archbishop John Charles McQuaid casts a long shadow over 20th-century Ireland. Without doubt there was plenty of collusion between the DeValera government and the ecclesiastical establishment.  The stern hand of moral guardianship outlived De Valera and McQuaid, surviving until successive referenda decriminalized homosexuality, permitted divorce, and loosened some restrictions on abortion. But the intransigence of the hierarchy in the face of growing public support for more liberal and compassionate attitudes in law and life undoubtedly contributed to popular alienation from church authority.

Recent events added considerable fuel to the fire. The Mother and Baby Homes scandal, brought to light in recent months, involving hundreds of cases of infant deaths that were improperly reported and largely unexplained, figured prominently.  But there were other instances that over the last few years have cast a very dark shadow over past Church-State social schemes, among them the shocking revelations involving the Industrial Schools, the Magdalene Laundries, dozens of clerical sexual abuse cases, the badly-handled Bishop Casey affair (resurrected by his death last month), and a long history of institutional misogyny and entrenched sexism.

According to the 2016 census, three densely populated areas, Dublin City, Dun Laoghaire, and Galway City, reported that more than a third of the population regard themselves as non-Catholic.  Among counties, Tipperary had the lowest percentage at 12.9%. Civil marriage is on the increase, and the nationalization of church-run schools is well underway. Vocations have withered alarmingly. Many parishes no longer have residential clergy and some offer no services at all.

Most recently, an 18 months-long Citizens Assembly finished its deliberations regarding repealing or replacing the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution, introduced in 1983, which prohibits abortion. Prompted by highly publicized and deeply troubling issues arising over a decade ago, both on humanitarian grounds and because of pressure from the EU, 99 randomly selected citizens have been poring over thousands of pages of testimony, discussing and debating possible interventions by the Oireachtas, Ireland’s parliament.

Last week the members of the assembly voted overwhelmingly (87%) to recommend that the Eighth Amendment should not be retained in its current form. Only twelve members (13%) voted to retain the articles in full, close to the 16% reported of Ireland’s citizens in a national poll.

It will probably take generations for the Irish Church to recover its credibility and moral authority. It is hardly surprising that church affiliation and attendance have declined markedly over the past two decades, especially among the young, despite occasional periods of recovery between scandals. Nor is it surprising that there is plenty of evidence today of bias and in some cases political as well as journalistic antipathy against religion itself in all its forms.  It sells papers and creates celebrities. But it does not in itself solve deeply troubling moral dilemmas. That takes time and a commodity in increasingly short supply, good will.

Political Patience: The View from Here

Dear Mr. Pence (and those who sent you),

I realize that you do not have much time or perhaps inclination to read books, but you might find it instructive to note that the noted author G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” [What’s Wrong with the World (1900)]  Because something has not yet succeeded does not mean it has failed.  Patience remains a virtue.  Rashness and impetuosity (one might add “especially in foreign relations”) do not. In a similar vein, another noteworthy figure claimed, “In your patience possess ye your souls.” [Luke 21:19 (KJV)]  Or, in the more distant past, we hear “A man’s wisdom yields patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.” [Proverbs 19:11, (New International Version)]

There are plenty of examples of how patience rather than  bluster pays off in the long run.  It took Thomas Edison over 3,000 experiments to settle on a filament for use in his improved incandescent bulb, and even then it was imperfect. It took years of further, difficult research and experiment to produce the tungsten light bulb.

Examples of successful patience in the face of difficulty could be multiplied indefinitely. For impulsiveness, not so much.  The North Korean policy has not failed, it has not yet succeeded. But,  like the Christian ideal, it can. “A high hope for a low heaven: God grant us patience!” [Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act I, scene 1]

Easter 2017

In years gone by, it seemed to me that Easter was not just a day, but a season, one in which peace and joy seemed to predominate despite suffering and tragedies here and there we heard of but did not witness.  Today, Easter seems to have been shrunk to a few hours of merciful respite from violence and death and reports of them on every news channel.

Acts 10:34, 37-43
1 Cor 5:6b 8
Mt 28:1 10

Difference in perception aside, the world is the same kind of place it has always been for many of the world’s people — conflict, destruction, sorrow, and death — the usual stuff of news broadcasts.  But there is another perspective, another story that is both more ancient and more contemporary than all the others.  The good news is why we are gathered together today.  The story we have just heard seems to many today to be too good to be true, in fact.   The reign of sin and death has been broken, the world has been redeemed, faith has triumphed over skepticism, doubt, and despair.

The Resurrection we celebrate today reminds us of this: death is not the victor, not the dismal end of the adventure, not the worst possible scenario.  This story is about the triumph of life, the victory of God in Christ, who embraced the worst that hatred and evil could do to him and absorbed it in the love, peace, and joy that filled his life and which he left as his gift to us.

That would be my message to my friends in Cairo, Beirut, and Baghdad, as well as to the people weeping outside hospitals in the United States, England, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, Egypt, Afghanistan, Colombia and the vast reaches of Africa, where there are no hospitals: death is real, but not final. God does not “allow” bad things to happen to good people — or anyone else, for that matter.  They happen, like everything else does, often because someone made a terribly bad decision.  But God — and in the ultimate analysis, only God — can transform tragedy and suffering, just as God can transform us — if we let God do it.  It’s the same thing, really.

That is what we mean by faith, and why Easter is a feast of faith.  John’s gospel especially centers on faith in the risen Jesus as they key to understanding the meaning of his life and teaching, and more than that — to the release of the Holy Spirit into the world.  Faith is the miracle of miracles, a lesson that we will revisit soon in the story of Thomas the Doubter.

Faith is not just belief; it is also trust — probably more trust than belief.  Despite all the bickering and debates about religion in public places, I am always reassured, somehow, that every piece of currency, every coin of the United States, still proclaims that original act of public faith – -“In God we Trust.”

Faith often goes untroubled until tragedy or suffering strikes someone directly and personally.  Then faith as trust is revealed, a deeply personal commitment, an act of the will to rely on another, ultimately on the power of God to bring light from darkness, life out of death.  No one can trust for you; faith is a choice as well as a gift.

It is not always easy to trust in God, and I can assure you that it is most important to do so when it is hardest to do.  Jesus trusted God to the end of his life, even in the darkest moments of betrayal and abandonment.  He showed us the way.  Only to the extent that we follow him, do we deserve to be called Christian.  That way lies Resurrection and Life.

So, as the angel and Jesus himself said to the faithful women on that first Easter morning, do not be afraid.  For at least a few minutes, forget about the Easter bunny, forget about chocolate eggs and brunch, and all the other peripheral decorations of the season and remember this:  Christ has died. Christ is Risen.  The world has been reborn in hope.

Palm Sunday

For Christians throughout most of the world, this Palm Sunday broke with the shock of vicious terrorist attack on Orthodox Coptic Christians at churches in Tanta and Alexandria, where ceremonies were taking place commemorating Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. Forty nine deaths and hundreds of severe injuries were reported, many of them priests and choir members.  The leader of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, who had finished his sermon moments before, escaped injury at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, one of the earliest Christian communities in the world.

Mt 21:1-11
Is 50:4-7
Phil 2:6-11
Mt 26:14–27:66

Such attacks against Egypt’s Christians have increased since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in 2011.  There seems to be little the new regime can do to prevent them.  It’s nothing new to the Copts, Egypt’s largest religious minority, who have been under threat for over a thousand years, but every incident comes as a blow upon a wound.  But martyrdom has been part of the Christian story from the beginning.  Clearly, just as the date of this attack was carefully calculated, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem led directly to his death at Passover time.  We have an indelibly new reminder of that this year.

Every year, Catholics reenact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on this day and, as it is sometimes called, Passion Sunday because we always read one of the synoptic gospel accounts of the last 24 hours of Jesus’ earthly life.  This year, we are reading Matthew’s version, the longest of the three.  Many reenact Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem by a sung procession, carrying palm leaves or other small branches and leafy twigs.

Recently, I was trying to explain to some of my students, some of whom are Protestant, Muslim, or have no religious affiliation, what it means for Catholics to act out episodes from Jesus’ passion and death.  I described the very elaborate Good Friday “way of the Cross” done in the Pilsen neighborhood, and some of the even more graphic presentations enacted for hundreds of years in the old Spanish villages of northern New Mexico.

There is something sacramental about being in the story, something watching a film will never capture.  In our little Passion Plays, these very minor forms of what for centuries has been done at Oberammergau in Germany, for instance, we personally enter into the great drama.  We remind ourselves as we do that the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus are not just past historical events, but present realities.  We do not repeat the Passion, any more than we repeat the Last Supper when we attend the Eucharist.  There is only one Passion, one Death, one Resurrection.  We make ourselves present to them whenever we participate actively in these mysteries — whether in baptism, the Eucharist, and the other sacraments, or the solemn recital of the gospel account.

In these words, Jesus is speaking to us now.  God is with us, and we through faith, are present to God.
So as we begin the final week of Lent, this Holy Week, as we pray for those who have died on this day celebrating their faith in Jesus and meditate and play our own part in the story of our salvation.

Fifth Sunday of Lent

In the Church’s preparation for the Feast of Easter, the fifth Sunday of Lent is designated for the Third Scrutiny or examination of Candidates for baptism and full reception into the Church.  The readings for today must be approached from this perspective to understand how they illuminate the life of those who are turning their whole life over to the power of the Spirit of Christ. They tell about death, grace, and resurrection — the drama of salvation.

Ezekiel 37:12 14
Romans 8:8 11
John 11:1 45

To begin with, in the most famous and striking passage from Ezekiel, God promises the people of Jerusalem, “you will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves…. And I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live….”

The word that Ezekiel uses in this passage serves as a link with the opening passage of scripture, the first verse of Genesis:  ruach, the spirit of God brooding over the waters of Creation.  The word for “spirit” became synonymous with life itself, because it means “breath” not only in Hebrew, but also Greek and Latin.  In scripture, it is through God’s breath in the world that life appears and, importantly, reappears.  And in this passage from Ezekiel we find the powerful image of the spirit of God moving over the scattered bones of corpses strewn in the desert, recreating them, clothing them in flesh and fiber, and breathing new life into them.  Israel would be reborn by the spirit of God.  It is essentially a social, even a political prophecy.

But in the letter the Romans, St. Paul identifies the true source of life in a world deeply in love with death: just as God breathes vitality into ancient very mortal remains which prefigured the resurrection of Jesus, so too, God will raise us to new life by that same spirit:

“Though your body may be dead it is because of sin, but if Christ is in you then your spirit is life itself because you have been justified; and if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, then he who raised Jesus from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies through his Spirit living in you. “

John’s gospel moves in a different direction, but the teaching is the same.  The story of the death and raising of Lazarus is, in fact, the turning point in the Gospel of John.  The climax comes when Jesus cries in a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, here! Come out!’  Jesus’ breath, Jesus’ words move out into the stone tomb, over and into the dead and already rotting flesh of his friend, and life is rekindled.  The dead man comes out, his feet and hands bound with linen bands and a cloth round his face.  And Jesus says to them, ‘Unbind him, let him go.’

Unbind him and let him go.  The point of this story, in the original catechesis of the Church, our lesson for this Sunday in Lent, is found in these two commands of Jesus.

“Loosen” him is what Jesus says. Set him free.  It was the term used for breaking prisoners’ bonds.  The second word of Jesus is “Let him go.”  The word literally means ‘to send away,’ and was used for canceling debts, remitting penalties, and pardoning offenses. It is the word we translate as “forgive.”

Despite its prominence in Jesus’ teaching and Christian preaching, the word for “forgiveness” is found only here in the gospel of John — his way of pointing to it very loudly.  And so the question we bring to the story of Lazarus is, What does forgiveness have to do with being raised from the dead?  Is it only a metaphor for a new way of life?  The fulfillment in Jesus of the ancient promise to Ezekiel: deliverance from the power of sin and death?

Certainly that:  Jesus freely submitted to the power of death and thus robbed it of its “sting.”  Death is no longer the penalty of sin.  But to see death merely as life’s closing moment is not to be delivered from death.  Salvation is, rather, the ability to live in the freedom of Christ, no longer subject to the power of death in our world.  And that is what the story of Lazarus is about for us especially on the fifth Sunday of Lent as the catechumens ponder the meaning of Christian commitment.

First, it is obvious that to the extent that sin still rules human life, we still experience the reign of death in the power of the world to determine the meaning and value of our lives, particularly in the subjection of the innocent, the defenseless, and the poor to the powers of greed, social indifference, and oppression.

We see it in the violence and bloodshed in our cities and in the world at large.  We see it with terrible clarity in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and Mexico—terrorism, the blood feud, the vendetta, most of it a chain of action and reaction that spirals into a frenzy of killing until whole peoples are in danger of perishing.  We see it in gang wars, drug deals, and drive-by shootings in cities and towns across our nation and in the heartless shooting of school children.

We see it in our relationships with each other, in the grudges and recurrent battles over the dinner table or in the bedroom, on school grounds and in the patterns of hostility and discrimination that fuel most of misery in our lives.  This is what it means to be buried alive, entombed.

Last week, as Ireland mourned the death of Martin McGuinness, a former IRA militant who became a force for peace and reconciliation in the troubled North, the former prime minster of the United Kingdom, John Major, wished him in hell and pronounced him unforgivable for his past deeds.  Fortunately, McGuinness lived long enough to take the hand of Queen Elizabeth in the spirit of that peace and reconciliation he worked long and hard to achieve.
For Jesus the way out of all the hate, murder, and suffering that mar our world is surprisingly, heart-breakingly simple.  “Untie him and let him go” — which is to say forgive one another.  Although the cornerstone of Jesus’ teaching, forgiveness has become so familiar to us we have forgotten what it means.  It means to let go, to let up, to put it behind us, to lay off, to cancel all debts.  As Jesus taught it forgiveness alone can undo the chain of violence and revenge by cutting through it cleanly, stopping it here and now.  And that make us uncomfortable.  We prefer revenge.  We want to get even. We want our enemies to go to hell….

What makes us even more uncomfortable is the unusual characteristic of real forgiveness, that it takes someone else to do it.  Lazarus is alive, but still tied hand and foot.  He cannot untie himself but needs to be cut loose.  Like Lazarus, we are constrained by the consequences and effects of our own sinfulness, and need to be released, to be cut free.

What this all means is that forgiveness is a social transaction, never private self- absolution.  In all of scripture there is not a single mention of “forgiving oneself,” and for a good reason.  It is spiritually, psychologically, morally, and even legally impossible to do so.  And we can be forgiven, Jesus tells us, only to the extent that we forgive others.  The ability to be forgiven comes through being willing to forgive, as we are about to repeat for the millionth time in the Lord’s Prayer.

It starts with each one of us.  We need each other to be truly free.  And we will know the reality of the new life that courses through the world, renewing the very flesh on our dry and brittle bones, and restoring spirit to body, when forgiveness flows like a river from person to person, from group to group, nation to nation.  And that is resurrection and life.