Come celebrate with us!

Feast of Christ the King (C)

Years ago, my husband and I received a printed invitation from a family we had recently met to “Come, celebrate Christ the King with us!” We barely knew this family and my initial reaction  was a sarcastic “Wow, I didn’t know Liza (not her real name) was such a church lady.”

To be honest, both my husband and I were a little nervous to accept the invitation which only included the date, time and address. We did not know what to expect: would this be a prayer service, a faith sharing group, would we know anyone, was there going to be spontaneous prayer and if so could leave early? We devised a plan to stay for an acceptable period of time and cut out if things got weird.

Turns out our concerns were unfounded. It was a big party with loads of food, crown shaped cakes and cookies, music, games and laughter. It felt like it was Christmas day. To be clear, the hosts made sure the reason for the party, the Solemnity of Christ the King, was front and center, but believe me when I tell you, it was a lot of fun.

We moved away before the following year’s fest, but I think about that family every year around this time and recall their sincerity, their hospitality, and how they seemed to take this feast so seriously, far more seriously than I ever had, at least.

But they were right to do so. The feast of Christ the King overturns all of our worldly ideas about “Kingship” and invites us to reject the dark and narrow focus dominating much of our social discourse. Instead we are urged to take the long view and “go rejoicing to the house of the Lord” [PS 122:1] and to receive, even in our brokenness, the divine inheritance which the whole of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection gained for all of creation.

Dear readers, take this to heart, for it is love; it is redemption; it is human-divine solidarity.  It is the foundation of our faith and it has not only sustained generations of believers through unspeakable trials, it has been the driver behind breathtaking examples of human compassion, forgiveness, justice, self-sacrifice, fairness, and freedom.

Furthermore, Sacred Scripture has an indisputably redemptive, life-giving, and transformative message for contemporary readers and our world. We would be foolish not to attune ourselves to it and respond as our religious forebears did, to God’s movement in our lives.

Carroll Stuhlmueler, C.P., says, “Every part of ourselves belongs to the Kingship of Christ, our politics, our theology, our humanity.”[1] Fortunately for us, each of the readings for this year’s feast of Christ the King provides particularly relevant wisdom in that exact order.

Beginning with the first reading, we hear about the appointment of David as the King of Israel [2 Sam 5:1-3]. “All the Tribes of Israel came to David.” They identified him as one of their own saying “here we are, your bone and your flesh” and recalled his recent leadership on behalf of the Israelites: “it was you who led the Israelites out and brought them back.” They, “All the Tribes of Israel” anointed him, unanimously.

The story of Israel—the whole of Hebrew Scripture contained in the Old Testament—is the story of human discernment and cooperation and trust in a God who promised to be faithful to them. This particular acuity to God’s faithfulness became the filter which revealed, and continues to reveal God’s direction in every aspect of life.

St. Paul’s profound understanding of Christ’s divinity and role in the redemption of humanity[2] is expressed in the second reading, which is taken from the letter to the Colossians. Notice the writer’s poetic use of the word fullness which he uses to describe “everything,” even that which is hidden in the folds of cosmic and earthly realms, visible and invisible, from time’s inception and into infinity, all of which is drawn together in the person of the beloved Son, who reconciles—a word that conjures images of balancing, smoothing, forgiving, returning, uniting—everything, the fullness of creation which was once separated with the Creator.

This is high Christology; it is mind-bending and almost too beautiful to contemplate. Our existence is infinitely greater than our mortal experience. Paul’s grasp of the immeasurable, universal message of Jesus’ life is light years ahead of the narrowly defined interpretation which many Christians want to accept.

The feast of Christ the King urges us to open our hearts and our minds and permit the whole of this theological truth to saturate us.

Finally, Luke’s gospel brings us back to earth and allows us to witness an intimate conversation between Jesus and one of the two condemned criminals who were crucified with him. [Luke 23:35-43]. The criminal, forever known as “the good thief,” recognized Jesus in a way no one else had.

His eyes were opened, and to my mind the words, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” recall the human connection heard in today’s first reading from 2 Samuel: “Here we are, your bone and your flesh.” Jesus’ response, even as he was dying inspired hope in what seemed a hopeless setting, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” [Luke 23:43].

As we can see, the feast of Christ the King is more than the annual last hurrah before the first week of Advent. True, the feast concludes the liturgical year that officially begins each January with Jesus’ baptism and which follows one of the three synoptic gospel[3] accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry throughout “Ordinary Time,” but it is more.

With the exception of Christmas and Easter, many Christians tend to limit their participation in the celebration of Feast days to attending the liturgy, but the expression of deep faith and theological understanding shown by our friends who invited us to their annual “Christ the King” party tells me we might be missing out on something greater. I witness that “something” every week in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhood where my husband and I, the sole Catholics for several blocks, now live

I find the religious observance of my neighbors to be extraordinarily moving. Not only the Sabbath rituals, but every feast day (and there are many!) is observed with great reverence and respect, not to mention the quality family time, meal-sharing, kindness, and authentic joy that surrounds these observances. On more than one occasion I have tried to imagine what the Christian response to the words “Go in peace to love and serve the world” might be if Christian men and women practiced their faith with the same passion our Orthodox Jewish neighbors do.

Perhaps, as Stuhlmueller suggests “in our own human way of life, with its tragedies and political moves, with its mistakes and successes”[4] we can discern the path that the Kingship of Christ points us towards, and in doing so lead us to live in ways that give everyone reason to “Come, celebrate Christ the King with Us!”

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[1] Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., Biblical Meditations for Ordinary Time-Weeks 23-34, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ 1984. p 401

[2] Vincent M. Smiles. “The Letter to the Colossians” in  New Collegeville Bible Commentary, New Testament, edited by Daniel Durkin. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press. 2009. 635-650, here 638.

[3] The three synoptic gospels are Matthew, Mark, and Luke

[4] Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., Biblical Meditations for Ordinary Time-Weeks 23-34, Paulist Press, New York/Mahwah, NJ 1984. p 401

What actually will make America great again?

sad-rain

I have to forgive these people? I have to pray for them?  After what they have done?  So many dark thoughts. Not Christian thoughts at all. Thoughts I normally would reject with all of my might.

Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and prayer are repeated throughout the gospels and are frequent themes on this blog. But I was in a dark place that day. Even my dog knew it. She turned away from me when I picked up her leash. Instead of an exuberant response to her favorite activity she stood still, her long tail pointed down as I snapped on her harness. The date was 11/9, the day after the presidential election, but in some ways it felt like 9/11 to me.

Like many Americans, I felt my home was now located in a strange, inhospitable land. Throughout the day I experienced some of the fear, shock, insecurity, and disorientation that haunted me and others for many months after the events on that terrible September morning 15 years ago.

About mid-day I decided to deactivate my Facebook page. Earlier I huddled with my friends online, while others gloated and thumped their virtual chests as if the presidential election was part of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The words “drain the swamp” and “how’s it feel to be a loser?” and an undisguised blood lust filled my news feed, because electoral victory was not enough.

Others offered snarky shoulder-shrugging comments about “change, finally” interspersed with suggestions that poor losers should get over themselves. There is nothing quite as menacing as a vindictive winner, and this, following the most hostile, hate-filled campaign on record threatens to be the kind of contest where every citizen will be the loser.

It is my firm belief that there is a life-giving aspect to every experience, no matter how dark, but hard as I tried I was too broken up to locate it. So, before disabling my Facebook account I reached out to my friends and asked them to share their wisdom on the subject.

The idea of forgiveness worked its way into my thoughts and later, umbrella in one hand, dog leash in the other I worked my way up the street and began my silent rant. Forgive? Forgive who? Doesn’t forgiveness first require someone asking for it? Does forgiveness even come into this conversation? And who should be forgiven? Forgive us Lord, for we know not what we do.

fall-sadnessI picked up the pace, walking faster and more fiercely than I ever had, slogging angrily through piles of leaves littering the sidewalk—unraked fiery gold and persimmon leaves, their wet fragrance rising towards me. I walked along streets shiny with rain and reflected red maples, my poor dog moving as fast as she could behind me. I was surrounded by the colors and scents of fall’s glory. Look up, look up. I saw it all and I didn’t care.

I was angry with God. I was angry with the church and the 51% of Catholics who from my point of view voted against the full teachings of Jesus Christ. I blamed the Bishops for their inconsistent teaching on Catholic social justice issues and their failure to demonstrate God’s mercy in this Jubilee year of Mercy. I blamed those who willfully ignore the words and example of pope Francis whose eyes are trained, as ours should be, on the Lord.

Pray for them.

I stormed past the grand home of a wealthy neighbor and whipped the bag of still warm dog poop at the political sign taunting me from their lawn. Maybe they will need to learn how to mow their own damn grass and clean their own damn house and take care of their own children after their help is deported.

Sigh. Oh Susan.

Oh God. 

Remember, I never claimed to be The Good Disciple. I only strive to be.

The heaviness in my chest slowed my gait, and the sky opened with my tears which stung as a reminder of their source—the perception that The United States’ slow but steady progress towards a more inclusive and just society had just been halted.

I didn’t want to pray for these people, but I did go back and retrieve the bag of dog poop from their lawn. And as I stood up to continue walking home in the receding daylight and porch lights began their timed announcement of the days end, I became aware of the silence. No cars, no planes, no dogs barking, just the patter of the rain, my dog’s nails tapping on the pavement, and my sniffing. I offered a prayer for healing and asked for forgiveness. We are all mourning our country in some way. Forgive us Father; we know not what we do.

What is life-giving about this experience and other similar situations throughout the world? Dear readers, it emerges from the fact that this cuts us so deeply. We mourn our broken union. But our progress towards a more inclusive and just society has not been halted, we just have to work harder at it. We need to insist on being community with one another, to console and listen and work to build bridges across our painful divides.

The life-giving element—what actually will make America great again— is our collective agreement to act on behalf of one another because we are human beings. We know what to do.

This is the wisdom of my friends who responded from both sides of the debate.

 “The America that we know and the rights of every community of Americans will remain sacrosanct. The darkness will lift – the weight of this enormous shock will lift and our faith will sustain us.”

“Activists will be born today.”

“But life-giving for me is the truth that God will use this experience to strengthen the resolve of those who stand for true social justice, across the board, from womb to tomb. Love always wins. Love always wins. Love always, always wins.”

“Love, reason, and compassion are the antidotes to the hatred of the campaign. We have to continue working for the common good.”

“People who normally would be passive will now be activists for justice. We need to be vigilant now more than ever.”

“Let’s reflect (St.) Paul’s words, “where abounds sin, over abounds grace” Rom 5:20… let’s be positive … and get involved, and claim “our” country back, with kindness, love, charity, mercy, all those Christian virtues that tell who we are!”

“Feeling despair does not help and does not change anything. Instead, continue to raise the important issues – whether that is through getting involved in politics or volunteering with an organization.”

What is your response?

God is Faithful

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Every Wednesday, without fail, a thought-provoking reflection on the coming Sunday’s readings arrives in my inbox from the faculty of Catholic Theological Union (CTU). In September I shared the wisdom of CTU president, Fr. Mark Francis, CSV on what it means to remain despite “the impossibility of faith.” It is my privilege once again to share another timely piece, written by Fr. Stephen Bevans, SVD for the 32nd Sunday of Ordinary Time whose words refresh and invigorate like the sweet and sonorous bell of mindfulness.  “What we know in faith is that God is the God of the living”.

By Fr. Stephen Bevans, SVD

Tucked into the middle of the second reading today is a phrase that might be the key to understanding what our readings today are pointing to: “the Lord is faithful.” This is the conviction that sustains the brothers in our rather grisly first reading from Second Maccabees. This is the conviction that prompts the psalmist to pray, “Keep me as the apple of your eye, hide me in the shelter of your wings.” This is the point that Jesus makes in the gospel. God “is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

Through the years there has been a lot of speculation about what life after death and our resurrected bodies might be like. The Greeks, who basically didn’t like human bodies, saw death as an escape from what weighed us down in life. The medieval theologians sometimes thought that the resurrected body would be a return to the bodies we had at about the age of thirty. Resurrection would mean eternal youth. Homilies at funerals often try to console the deceased’s loved ones with images of parents, friends, and relatives happily receiving him or her on the other side. Indeed, several accounts of people who have had near death experiences talk about that experience in this same way — a grand reunion with friends and loved ones. Contemporary theologians sometimes speak of resurrected life as a new consciousness and unfettered unity with all peoples and all things. In this way, God is all in all.

The truth is, though, that we don’t really know. Our speculations about life beyond death may be just as primitive as the scene proposed to Jesus by the skeptical Sadducees. What we know in faith, however, is that God is faithful.  What we know in faith is that God is the God of the living, not of the dead. What we know in faith is that when we pass beyond this life, we pass into the arms of a loving God.

This is the kind of faith that gives people like the young men in our First Reading the courage to endure death rather than compromise on their principles. This is the kind of faith that offers us “everlasting encouragement and good hope,” so that we can live our lives in joy and contentment. This is the kind of faith that gave Oscar Romero the faith that, if he would be killed, he would rise in the Salvadoran people. This is the kind of faith that allowed a dying John XXIII to say simply: “My bags are packed and I’m ready to go.” This is the kind of faith that, in the words of poet Julia Esquivel, sees persecution as being “threatened with resurrection.”

November is the month when Catholics remember and pray for their loved ones who have “fallen asleep in the hope of the resurrection,” and for all who have died in God’s mercy, as Eucharistic Prayer II expresses it. Parishes offer books where parishioners can write the names of those for whom the community will pray. Latino/as have the beautiful custom of constructing “altarcitos” with pictures and mementos of relatives and friends who have died — a custom that is being increasingly adopted by other cultures as well. On November 1, Filipinos clean the graves of relatives, leave food offerings on the graves and have them blessed. We might visit the cemetery and bring flowers as signs of love and respect. We do not know what happens after death, but we do believe that God is faithful. We do believe that God is not the God of the dead but of the living, and that all who have been born are alive to God.

Our readings today give us a chance to renew that faith. God is faithful.

Stephen Bevans, SVD
Professor Emeritus

Readings:
First Reading: 2 Maccabees 7:1-2, 9-14
Responsorial Psalm: 17:1, 5-6, 8, 15
Second Reading:  2 Thessalonians 2:16-35
Gospel: Luke 20:27-38

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© Copyright 2016 Catholic Theological Union. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with the author’s permission.

“Catholic Theological Union is a Roman Catholic graduate school of theology and ministry serving both vowed religious and lay women and men. The mission of Catholic Theological Union is to prepare effective leaders for the Church, ready to witness to Christ’s good news of justice, love, and peace.” —Catholic Theological Union Mission Statement

My relationship with Catholic Theological Union continues to be a source of intellectual, theological and spiritual inspiration, and for that I am grateful. To learn more about degree programs offered at CTU, visit www.ctu.edu.