Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: April 2019

Second Sunday of Easter 2019: Divine Mercy Sunday

It maybe a trick of memory, but I recall that when much younger the week after Easter was a time of quiet joy – no school, lots of chocolate eggs and brightly colored real ones, time spent with friends and family. Such happy memories are a far cry from recent days, from the terrible bombing in Sri Lanka on Easter morning, the midweek discovery in northern Illinois that the body of a missing 5-year-old seemingly murdered by his parents had been discovered in a shallow grave, to the shooting at a synagogue in California during prayer services only yesterday, the day after the President spoke supportively before the National Rifle Association at their annual convention.

Perhaps coincidentally, the 57 “active shooter” incidents over the last two years mark the highest level of such events in this country since 2000, according to the FBI.  That was the year Pope John Paul II changed the title of this day from of Low Sunday to Divine Mercy Sunday to commemorate the mystical revelations of Saint Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun to whom he had a special devotion.  Clearly today’s world is in greater need than ever of God’s Mercy. And ours.

People from this area are familiar with Misericordia Home, a residential center run by the Sisters of Mercy for children and adults with developmental disabilities.  “Misericordia” is the Latin word for mercy, made from the words for “pity” and “heart.”  The English word “mercy” that derives from it points to kindness, forgiveness, and benevolence.  “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.  Not by chance, lots of hospitals are called “Mercy” for that reason. In the gospel accounts, when lepers and blind people and desperate mothers and soldiers and dying thieves encounter Jesus, what they beg for is mercy.

It was because of the compassion, care, love, and forgiveness of God shown in Jesus and realized so clearly in his death and resurrection that this Sunday was a very good choice to remind us

Acts 5:12-16
Rev 1:9-11, 12-13,17-19
John 20:19-31

of divine mercy – God’s and ours. But Easter is especially about faith – a special kind of faith, as we learn in today’s readings.   “Happy are they who have not seen yet believe,” Jesus says.  Faith, St.Paul wrote, comes through hearing — accepting the word of someone for something one hasn’t seen oneself.

In John’s Gospel there are four stories of Easter faith that involve coming to believe the hard way.  The first is the story of the Beloved Disciple, who came to believe because he saw the burial wrappings.  Second is Mary Magdalene, who believed that Jesus had risen when he called her by name.  Then, as we hear today, the ten disciples come to believe when Jesus appears to them and shows them his wounds.  And finally, in today’s Gospel, Thomas himself — the Twin, the double, the doubter.  They all saw, and they believed.

If Thomas is at first reprimanded for his lack of faith, his confession is the culmination of the Easter appearances of Jesus, the great proclamation towards which John’s whole gospel is aimed: “My Lord and my God!”

Surprisingly enough, Jesus’ blessing is not for the disciples or for Thomas.  Jesus turns away from his own time and addresses all those who come afterward.  He is speaking to us: “Happy are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  It is for us that the gospel is written, we are the audience who has heard the story and are now called to believe, to say with Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”

Jesus then extends three surprising gifts to those who believe. First, Jesus gives peace.  He imparts it, he does not just wish it — “Peace to you.”  Not “May peace be with you,” but Peace to you: my peace. Not as the world gives, but peace as I give it and no one can take away.

Secondly, he shows the disciples his wounds — they see and believe.  It’s a surprise, although we have grown so used to it we don’t realize that at first.  For this is the only reference in scripture to the nails with which Jesus was crucified and the wound made by the soldier’s spear [John 19:34].  And when they believe it is truly he, Jesus commands his disciples to continue his mission, the work he was given by the Father.

But there is more to come: the third gift, his own Spirit, which he breathes on them. With the Holy Spirit comes the power, the authority, the charge to forgive sins — which was the work that Jesus came to do.  Forgiveness is the sign of the Spirit of Jesus at work in the community. It is what God’s mercy – and ours – is all about. Where forgiveness is found, we can be sure the Spirit of Christ is present.  Where it is missing, that Spirit has fled.  St. Paul lays it out plainly in his letter to the Christians in the small Greek town of Colossae:

“Because you are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with heartfelt mercy, with kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another.  Forgive whatever grievances you have against one another.  Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you.  Above all these put on love which binds the rest together in perfect harmony” [Col. 3:12-15].

Thanks to John’s Gospel, St. Thomas the Doubtful Apostle is perhaps more than anyone else the patron saint of those called to faith today.  Like Thomas we are tempted by the lure of signs and wonders, and would like to withhold faith until we have seen, touched, weighed and tasted, and if at all possible put it on our credit card. But true and lasting Faith comes through hearing the word of God with a heart open to good news.  It may need to be a heart bruised and even crushed by the world’s cares and assaults, but it is a heart in which compassion, kindness, and forgiveness dwell and where the peace that only God can give has found its truest home.  It is the heart of mercy.

Easter 2019: From Joy and Sadness to Hope

The joy and peace of last night’s Easter Vigil was shattered this morning by the news that over 200 people were killed in bomb attacks in churches and hotels across Sri Lanka. The well-synchronized explosions were timed to occur during Easter morning mass.  Christians and other people of good will throughout the world join in prayer for the victims of this heartless atrocity on the most joyous of Christian festivals. What follows is my homily from the vigil…

Millions of people were deeply awed when Fr. Jean-Marc Fournier, the chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, rushed into Notre Dame Cathedral on Monday to rescue the Blessed Sacrament and the Crown of Thorns. Afterwards, questions were raised about the relic, which many people didn’t know was kept there or even existed. It was brought to Paris from Constantinople in the 13th century, but its history dates back centuries before that. Like the nails from the cross, also kept in the cathedral, the Shroud of Turin, and the face cloth from the tomb of Jesus, the Sudarium of Oviedo, which is preserved in Spain, no one really knows if they are historically authentic, but they have been carefully preserved for nearly two thousand years for a reason.

We were also reminded this week of the immensity of the universe as we now observe it through an ever-expanding assembly of ever-more powerful space telescopes, infra-red telescopes, radio telescopes, and old-fashioned terrestrial telescopes. For the first time, astronomers photographed a black hole, 55 million light years distant.

We live in a dauntingly vast universe. So big, it scares some of my cosmology students and many people conclude that this means that God cannot possibly exist. Our lives, the life of Jesus, and the life of the earth itself count for less than an inconsequential eyeblink in cosmic history.  Or so it might seem. These two events are not unrelated to our vigil tonight.

I am reminded of a wonderful book by the English priest and scholar J. B. Phillips, who translated the entire New Testament and parts of the Hebrew scriptures into modern English back in the 1950s because the young people in his care didn’t understand the language of the Authorized Version.  His later book is called Your God is Too Small.  It’s still worth reading because it touches the right nerve.  The universe is not too big.  Our imaginations are too small to fathom the vast and glorious wonders of Creation, much less God and the mystery of the Incarnation and Redemption. But it takes faith as well as courage not to squeeze all the wonder out because we can’t think big enough.

The resurrection also seemed like nonsense to the Apostles, and the women’s story still seems like nonsense to many people.  To be honest, it takes a lot of faith to believe that Jesus has risen from the dead.  It’s much easier to imagine his disciples sneaking the body away and launching the greatest fraud the world has even seen,

Gen 1:1,26-31a
Gen 22:1-18
Ex 14:15–15:1
Is 55:1-11
Rom 6:3-11
Luke 24:1-12

as was afterwards claimed. Or as was claimed a couple of hundred years later, that Jesus didn’t really die on the cross, but was revived and later shipped off with Mary Magdalene to France where they lived happily ever after.  Or that the body of Jesus was taken down and tossed into a ditch somewhere, a notion no one even thought of until late in the twentieth century and for which there isn’t the slightest hint of evidence. Somehow, those frightened women, cowering fishermen, and a failed tax collector don’t seem to have been very good at scheming and swindling – except one, and we won’t talk about him tonight.  He wasn’t there anyway.

But Peter ran to see.  We learn from the Gospel of John that the beloved disciple ran even faster, and possibly for different reasons.  And to tell the truth, it’s all a jumble – none of the gospels agree with each other in every detail, from the time of day to the number of women, and Luke notes that there were a number of them who are not named, or even how they found out that the tomb was empty.  I like that.  It reminds me of accounts of a traffic accident; everyone has a different viewpoint.  If everybody agreed in every detail, it would argue for collision collusion.

What the gospels agree about is what counts: the women didn’t expect the tomb to be open much less empty.  They were scared out of their wits and ran to get help.  They thought the body of Jesus had been stolen.  And when Peter and John and the others came, they found only the burial wrappings. What convinced all of them was an encounter with the living Jesus.

History pivots on the story of Jesus, whether anyone believes he rose from the dead or not.  But the story of Jesus ultimately focuses on the Resurrection.  St. Paul put it simply enough: if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.  …  If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all human beings most to be pitied” [1 Cor 15: 13-19].

Even if authentic, relics such as the Crown of Thorns, the Shroud of Turin, and the Sudarium do not prove the Resurrection today any more than they did before.  The empty tomb did not prove that Christ had risen, only that his body was gone.  The preservation of the tomb itself, the Crown of Thorns, and the other objects is a sign of enduring faith; not the cause of faith but its consequence, the result of a living encounter with the risen Jesus.

So the message of Easter is no different for us today than it was for Mary Magdelene, the other Mary, Joanna, Susanna, the other women, as Luke calls them, or Peter, John, and the other disciples.  We, too, must learn to believe, especially because we do not see, not at first anyway.  That message is not simply about the triumph of Jesus over the grim reality of death. It is about the resurrection of humankind, about the rebirth of hope, the end of the reign of sin and death, a universe made forever new.  It is also about our own death and resurrection.  Paul, the earliest Christian writer of all, put it so simply:  “Are you not aware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? […] If we have died with Christ, we believe that we  are also to live with him.” It is a message made even more urgent as America marks the 20th anniversary today of the Columbine shootings… and now the dreadful attacks in Sri Lanka.

Our new life in Christ is not some future thing, postponed till the Parousia.  It is now, it has already begun.  Faith in the Resurrection of Jesus reveals itself in life being renewed again and again, in fact being renewed forever.  That is the life of love and justice, of peace-making, (perhaps today especially) of forgiveness and reconciliation, of 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 night.  For Christ is truly risen.  Amen. Hallelujah!

Wednesday of Holy Week 2019: Spy Wednesday

Today’s first reading from Isaiah sets the tone of betrayal and persecution that occupies the gospel account relating the story of Judas, one of the most enigmatic and tragic characters in the entire Bible.  Traditionally, this was called Spy Wednesday, and sometimes Holy Wednesday, and in the Orthodox Church, Holy and Great Wednesday — not officially part of the great Lenten Feasts that culminate in the Easter celebrations, but still noteworthy. The Eastern Church has chosen to focus on the woman with the alabaster jar who anointed Jesus’ feet the day before the Last Supper, which seems like a good idea, too. That’s about love, repentance, and forgiveness.

We don’t know much about Judas.  He was the son of a man named Simon according to the Gospel of John [John 6:71, John 13:2, 26] — and John tells us more about Judas

Is 50:4-9a
Mt 26:14-25

than any other gospel.  Iscariot may mean that he came from a village with that name —Kerioth (Qerioth), which is mentioned in the Book of Joshua [Josh 15:25] and has been identified with a ruin called el-Kureitein, some 10 miles south of Hebron.

What we do know about Judas is based on his role first of all in the band of disciples around Jesus.  He was the treasurer, whether by accident or design.  John tells us that he was also a thief and a liar, possibly even a murderer (being, as it is surmised, one of the sicarii or cutthroats, which might also explain his surname).  In any case, John clearly puts to rest ancient if not recent efforts to rehabilitate Judas as a misguided patriot trying to force Jesus to take up the cause of Jewish emancipation as a military leader.  He says, simply, that Judas was a devil [John 6:70-71], and that when the hour came, “the devil put it into his heart to betray Jesus” [John 13:2].

In any case, Judas Iscarioth has achieved a kind of immortality as the betrayer, the friend who handed over his leader with a kiss, at least according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  John omits it, as if the very thought was too hateful.  In fact, he mentions only that Judas led those who came to arrest Jesus.  The real drama is between Jesus and the guards.

Only Matthew tells us that Judas hanged himself.  Luke thinks that he jumped or fell over a cliff, and that the bribe he had been paid to betray Jesus was used to buy the field where beggars and reprobates were buried.

It doesn’t matter a great deal what happened to Judas.  The point is the betrayal, and our concern is betrayal — selling out our Lord for whatever reason: money, power, control, perhaps just boredom.  It is, perhaps, all too easy.  Peter did it out of cowardice and found forgiveness, and that is ultimately our hope as well.  As for Judas, only God knows — but there have been those in the history of Christianity who have prayed for his soul, much as old desert monks prayed for the Egyptian soldiers who perished in the Red Sea.  Perhaps that is ultimately what it means to follow Jesus — to seek forgiveness and to forgive and pray for our enemies. It’s a good thought for the end of Lent, anyway.


Palm Sunday 2019: The Price of Fidelity

Today’s procession and readings bring us to the beginning of the week we call holy, for Christians the holiest one of the year.  We call it both Palm Sunday and Passion Sunday.  Actually, despite what we read in John’s Gospel, at that time palm trees apparently didn’t grow around Jerusalem, so unless pilgrims brought up

Is 50:4-7
Phil 2:6-11
Lk 22:14–23:56

bundles of palm branches from Jericho, the people were probably waving olive branches and other plant life.  Mark and Matthew just say “branches,” and Luke doesn’t mention it at all.  Nor does he report any “hosannas.”  Traditions differ. But it’s not what we wave or shout that’s important.  What is important is how we regard Jesus as he faces his Passion, the suffering he was to undergo because of his fidelity to his mission, soon understood as nothing less than the redemption of the world.

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…

We should remember this in the days to come, however: how Jesus suffered is less important than why he did. The gospels actually provide very little detail about the scourging or the crucifixion. John’s gospel alone mentions nails, and that only on the night after Jesus’ resurrection.  It is sufficient that it happened, that Jesus died in a painful, shameful way, rejected and despised by the leaders of his people.

The readings today tell us that he did so willingly, obediently, and redemptively, and for that reason, as the reading from the Letter to the Philippians proclaims,  God exalted him so highly that his name itself is the most revered word in any language.  Or should be.  How strange that Christians themselves have turned it into an expletive.

We might think about that as we hold the palm fronds that the florist provided for us.  Like the ashes we daub on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent, they are just small signs, symbols of something much deeper, much more far-reaching, but something we may not think much about.  As we listen to the story of the trial and execution of Jesus, we should remember this: Jesus died for our salvation, to make us safe, to make sure that our entry into the kingdom of God is secure.

If we leave just wallowing in guilt because we think that somehow our sins put Jesus on that cross, we will have missed the most important thing of all: by his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has set us free from sin, reconciling us by the blood of his cross to God and to one another, overcoming forever the power of sin.  Nothing anyone did to him could deflect him from that goal.  That is why now, today, this minute, Jesus is the savior of the world.  Our savior. Welcome him.

Fifth Sunday of Lent 2019: Mercy and Dignity

In a week that was filled with more than the usual quota of shaming and blaming, today’s gospel comes as a welcome relief.  Some things don’t change much, except that today the threatened stoning is usually more verbal than lethal and conveyed through social media.  But the end result is similar: the denigration of human dignity by a lopsided exercise of power, frequently and most likely political power. It was that even in Jesus’ day. The woman caught in adultery was a hapless pawn in a ruthless ploy that might have resulted in her death. In recent times, whole populations can be caught up in such awful maneuvers – whether for religious or ethnic reasons, like the Rohingya people of Myanmar, desperate asylum-seekers fleeing the violence and crime of Central American countries, or defenseless black congregations in the American south.  Scorning and defaming the innocent and helpless cries out to heaven for redress.  And it will come.

The death penalty for adultery is mentioned in Leviticus 20:10, where it is stipulated that both parties were liable to suffer death, although stoning, the usual

Is 43:16-21
Phil 3:8-14
John 8:1-11

method of execution, is not mentioned.  Whether it was carried out, even rarely, is unknown. What seems evident in this case is that the other party, the male, has been let off, perhaps by paying a penalty price, which seems to have been possible for those with the means.  That much hasn’t changed greatly, either.

Jesus knows full well that a trap has been set and easily evades it by exposing the hypocrisy of the leaders of the crowd, all of whom slink away. This is a story of mercy and forgiveness, of deliverance, but it might well be noted that Jesus refuses to add to the woman’s considerable shame.  Just the opposite, and something we could all benefit from imitating when tempted to blame the victims.

Deliverance is the theme of the other scriptural readings as well, one carefully chosen for this Fifth Sunday of Lent. Isaiah rhapsodizes over the generous mercy of God, who prepares a path in the wilderness for the people, an image of the Exodus, but something new — and redemptive.  But this is not because anyone has earned deliverance, it is because God is compassionate and especially merciful.

In his letter to the Christians at Philippi, Paul reminds them that righteousness comes through faith not observance of the law. His—and our – deliverance arises from conformity to the death of the innocent Christ so as to share in his resurrection, the underlying Lenten motif of all our readings.

Returning to the account of Jesus’ saving the woman in John’s gospel, his gentle postscript is worth recalling: “Go, and sin no more.” Prior to this cautionary advice, what he says is perhaps more important for us as Lent draws to its climax: “Neither do I condemn you.”