What are you all about?

The Feast of the Epiphany (C)

You won’t find the story of the Magi anywhere except in Matthew’s gospel. And what a colorful tale the gospel writer weaves.

The Magi, astrologers from distant lands, observed the rising of a new star, a sign of such significance it compels them to embark upon a journey to locate and pay homage to the new king whose birth the new star announced.

Thanks to imaginative stories and songs of Christian tradition (and the Fontanini figurines in our crèche), we envision three (although there is no account of the number of Magi) brocaded and crowned, educated and worldly noblemen, each perhaps from different parts of the Orient, traveling with their well-appointed, gift-laden camels, all following the same star, their paths merging on the way to their destination.

For the Magi, an event presaged by the appearance of a great star in the sky would be known by all, so upon their arrival in Jerusalem they ask, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at its rising and have come to do him homage.” [Mt 2:2]

The Magi were motivated by faith to understand the meaning of the new star. They possessed the wisdom both to forge on until they stood in the presence of the infant Jesus, and to heed the warning in their dreams to take a different route home.

Today many would call the Magi “new-agers.” Followers of organized religion generally look askance at those who come with their astrology, dreams, and visions. We want them to know that we have all that we need in the Scriptures, the teachings of the Magisterium, and Canon law. We don’t want any of their weird interpretive phooey. And yet, these “new agers” were the ones Matthew tells us saw the sign and believed.

They packed their camels, left their homes, and committed themselves to paying homage to the Greatness—regardless of personal risk. They did not have access to the words of the Prophets or organized religion to assure them they were on the right track. They didn’t know how long their journey would be, or where they were going. And yet, they found what they were looking for and stood in the presence of the manifestation of God in the person of the newborn infant, Jesus.

What are you looking for? In the gospel of John, Jesus posed this question to the two disciples of John the Baptist, who were following him. They responded, “Where are you staying?” which is better translated as “What are you all about?” [John 1:38].  Moments earlier John pointed Jesus out to his disciples, saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God,” meaning, the one who will take away the sins of the world. As seekers, the disciples of John the Baptist recognized in Jesus something so compelling, they immediately began to follow him.

Like the Magi they were drawn by the light.

Naturally, King Herod, who actually was the appointed King of the Jews, found the Magi’s question about the whereabouts of the new King of the Jews disturbing. In contrast to John the Baptist, whose deference to Jesus—like the star that pointed to the new King of the Jews—Herod sought to destroy anything that might diminish his power and influence. The King Herods of the world believe it is better to dismiss or destroy people and ideas that threaten their certitude of how the world works, and how God works. The wisdom that newcomers bring is often deemed to be dangerous because it leads people to contemplate the questions residing deep in their hearts, and to do so in a new way.

We are not very different from the Magi, though, are we? Spiritual seekers desire the same thing: an experience of God, a profound insight into the workings of God, and some level of comprehension as to how we fit into it all. What we discover along the way is our Epiphany.

The disciples who followed Jesus asked him “Where are you staying?” (“What are you all about?”). This is what we want to know. What is Jesus all about? What is God all about? What is the Holy Spirit of God all about? Why do we continue to seek and to seek and to seek? And for the Magi, what is the meaning of this star in the sky that so forcefully compels them to follow it? What is the meaning of this helpless infant born to poor parents in a stable, a child whose crib is a feeding trough? And what are we to do with this?

Consider the epiphanies that have occurred throughout your life that might have been squashed had you been closed to them.

Be opened. Come, one and all. Seek the truth. Turn away from fear and other obstructions. Don’t be an obstacle yourself. Be small. The first to recognize Jesus’ greatness were Gentiles—pagans—who traveled from the East where the light begins. In Luke’s gospel, the first to visit the newborn Jesus were shepherds, the lowest of the low. [Luke 2:15-20]. Seek not through the eyes of certitude, but through the eyes of one who observes, who listens, and who ponders—like Mary. When newcomers arrive with information that points to the truth, and which exposes love, don’t be so quick to dismiss them. Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” [Mk 9:40].

Happy Feast Day, all you Magi!

Today’s readings can be found here.

Leave behind the winding roads and rough ways

2nd Sunday of Advent (C)

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son Zechariah in the desert.”[Lk 3:1-3]

The gospel of Luke provides an historical context for the start of John the Baptist’s ministry. We are presented with seven names and five regions; some sound familiar, others not so much. But who cares? Why didn’t the writer save us the history lesson and just say “The word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.”?

Luke was a brilliant writer who wanted his readers to grasp the theological significance of the Word of God coming not to the powerhouse of governors in Roman occupied Palestine or the appointed tetrarchs and high priests in their temples, but to a poor and humble man, a seeker of truth who lived in the desert and survived on locusts and honey [MT 3:4]

What else has Luke told us about John the Baptist up to this place in the gospel? We know he was the only child of a priest named Zechariah and a woman named Elizabeth who was thought to be barren. We know that his conception was announced by an angel named Gabriel to his incredulous father as he offered incense in the sanctuary of the Lord. Luke also tells us that Gabriel informed Zechariah that his son (who Gabriel said would be named John) would be great, and among other things, “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” [Lk 1:16-17]. We know that Elizabeth felt the unborn infant, John, leap in her womb when Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, greeted her. And we know, as today’s reading tells us, that the word of God came to John in the desert, after which his mission to fulfill the heraldic prophecy of Isaiah began.

A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” [Lk 3:4-6; Is 40:3–4]

In the first reading for the second Sunday of Advent, the Prophet Baruch envisions the long-suffering, exiled Israelites returning in glory from the East and the West to a restored and splendorous Jerusalem, rejoicing because “they are remembered by God” [Bar 5:1-9]. In the verse which inspired John the Baptist’s mission the Prophet Isaiah prophesied that the way to God would be made smooth and straight, free of obstacles and barriers. John understood his mission clearly: he was to prepare the way of the Lord so that all people could follow in the light of God’s glory. For him, the first requirement was a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” [Lk 3:3]

Repentance. Who likes this word? Nobody, that’s who. But it is true that many of the rough and winding roads we traverse are of our own making, and it is true that we hurt others along the way. We do damage that separates us from God. Like John the Baptist, the task of every disciple is to prepare smooth and straight highways not just for one’s own spiritual journey, but for all people so it is accessible to anyone who wishes to come along.

We’re talking about forgiveness and reconciliation here.

The desert is a place of diminished distraction. It is a place we go to get away and clear our heads. In the desert our senses are enhanced; we are acutely aware of the vastness of space and our solitude. But for the hint of critters scuttling through the sand, the desert is silent. It can also be dangerous. A desert experience, whether it is literal or figurative, is similar to a spiritual retreat. Away from the metropolis, away from the hubbub we go inward to examine, renew and rebalance ourselves. Vulnerability is central to both desert experiences and retreats and this makes both risky; without distraction we come face to face with our hopes and fears, our dreams, our failures and our losses; and the clamor of our thoughts force us to acknowledge those things we need to repent.

Although they go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing, carrying their sheaves.[Psalm 126:6]

Leave behind the winding roads and rough ways, permit yourself the freedom to change directions, to repent and forgive, and leave open a space into which the Word of God can enter. Advent offers us such an experience. Let’s take advantage of it.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

Perceive the Imperceptible

11th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

Imagine a flower in a vase. Simple, right? You see the shape of the vase, a single or multiple stem, a few leaves, and of course, the flower’s color and variety. Now, erase that, and visualize just the space surrounding a flower in a vase. The exercise immediately becomes less concrete. Conjuring the invisible is not as easy. We generally think in terms of positives and tend to start with what is palpable. This is what we understand. But, seeing completely requires perceiving the imperceptible.

This concept was revealed to me as a young art student. I recall my instructor informing the class there were no lines in nature. She said what defines an object is the space that surrounds it. Our assignment was to draw the unknowable space. And, with that, the lens through which my 14-year-old eyes viewed the world changed forever. In the art world, this concept is called negative, or white space.

I once studied yoga with a deeply spiritual Catholic woman whose Shavasana (the final relaxation, and the best part for me) always included a guided meditation on the gaps between our inhalations and exhalations. She encouraged me to linger in the gaps, to pause for a few seconds between breaths and glimpse the pure and silent “God space” that existed there. It occurred to me that the gaps between my breaths shared the same unknowable space that surrounds all that is visible.

John O’Donohue, the late Celtic poet and author, calls the unknown space “the invisible,” saying it “is one of the huge regions in your life.” He says “when you become aware of the invisible as a live background, you notice how your own body is woven around your invisible soul, how the invisible lives behind the faces of those you love, and how it is always there between you. The invisible is one of the most powerful forms of the unknown.”[1] He goes on to say we tend to be uncomfortable with what we cannot know. It’s true. Don’t many of us try to control the invisible and unknowable gaps in our lives by filling them with pointless activities and noise, often interfering with Holy mystery in order to produce something palpable?

To explain “how it is” with the Kingdom of God, Jesus tells a parable about a seed growing itself (Mark 4:26-29). A man scatters seed on the ground and goes about his daily business. A few days later he sees that it has begun to grow, but does not understand how it happened (without his help). Theologian and author, John Shea, retells the story with a modern twist. In this tale, the man who sowed the seed, not wanting to miss a single moment of its germination, went out to the garden every day and uncovered the seeds to see how things were going. As a result, nothing grew.[2]

It’s so easy to fall into the same trap as the man who interfered with the seed, and it’s hard to permit the unknown, to dwell in the gaps, and to trust the invisible. Nicole Gausseron knows something of this subject. Nicole is the director and co-founder of Compagnons du Partage, a homeless shelter for men in Chartes, France, and the author of The Little Notebook: A Journal of a Contemporary Woman’s Encounters with Jesus, During a six-year period of intense work and prayer, Nicole experienced a deeply personal relationship with Jesus which she recorded in several journals. Many of the entries in her journals focus on the need to allow Jesus to work through her, to hand her worries over, and trust that the seeds of her work with the homeless were growing.

We might not always perceive it, but the world is flush with white space, sacred gaps, and the invisible activity of life. Divine activity occurs quietly, mysteriously. Even though we sometimes get in the way and uncover the seeds, or mess up relationships, or clutter our minds with deadlines, fears, and worries for the future—and leave little or no time for prayer and reflection—God’s work continues. It takes root almost imperceptibly, in the quiet, in the unknown spaces. Do you perceive it?

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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[1] O’Donohue, John. 2000. Eternal Echoes: Celtic Reflections on Our Yearning to Belong. Reprint edition. New York: Harper Perennial. Page 27-28

[2] STD, John Shea. 2005. The Spiritual Wisdom of Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers: Eating with the Bridegroom Year B. Year B edition. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical Press. Page 151

Photo: 1 Sunday Morning at the Backyard Photolab. ©2015 Robert Cowlishaw

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John O’Donohue (1956 –2008) was an Irish poet, author, priest, and philosopher. He is best known for his written works on Celtic Spirituality, among them the international bestseller, Anam Cara.

John (Jack) Shea is a theologian, storyteller, and prolific author who lectures nationally and internationally on storytelling in world religions, faith-based health care, contemporary spirituality, and the spirit at work movement.

Nicole Gausseron, the director and co-founder of Compagnons du Partage, a homeless shelter for men in Chartes, France, Her first journal was published under the title “The Little Notebook.” Three other journals were later translated and published.

If you see a door, open it

Front-Door-Open-to-Foyer A few weeks ago I had a dream that I was pregnant. In this dream I was not concerned about my pregnancy, even though I was obviously ready to deliver. The fact that I was pregnant did not bother me nor did it worry my husband, even though I’m 53 years old. We did not think it was weird or remarkable. This is because it was not a regular pregnancy. In my dream I understood exactly what it meant. Later that morning, in real life, when the dream returned to me in the fuzzy-funny-what-the-heck? way important dreams tend to do, I had to laugh at the obvious symbolism. You see, I’ve been contemplating my next steps for some time but have been afraid to act. With a pregnancy there is no time to dawdle, you had better be ready. So last week I submitted my resignation from my job. The dream was not the catalyst for my resignation, it was an affirmation that I knew something was growing inside of me that I could no longer ignore.

The dream about being pregnant occurred just days after I had another dream—one that I have had many times ever since I was a teenager, and one which I love—and that is the dream about discovering an entire house attached to my home. This secret house, accessible through a plain door, is furnished and fabulous, with a fully stocked kitchen, cute clothes in the closets, and most significant of all, a sunny art studio off the porch. In this dream, as I walk through the secret house, I marvel “how is it possible this was here and I did I not know?” My brain works that way, no room for nuance here. Suffice it to say both dreams point to something new, something untapped, and something that can’t be realized without change or a willingness to step out of the known and into the unknown.

Is there something great growing inside of you that you can no longer ignore? How many rooms are in your house that you have yet to discover? Divine clues come in many forms including our interests, our talents, and especially through our relationships with others.

So here it is. I want to devote myself to spiritual writing, theological study, and liturgical art consulting. I don’t want to make too big of a deal of my writing, I definitely have something to share, but for all I know it might not be all that interesting. (You’ll let me know won’t you?) Theology is my addiction (could be worse), and liturgical art is something I am both passionate about and qualified to do. At the very least, this decision is allowing me to exercise the creative side of myself that I have neglected for a long time. Most of all, I am responding to the urging of my maker to use the gifts I was given. And I am grateful.