It’s really not so very complicated, is it?

7th Sunday of Easter (C)

Immediately before his arrest Jesus prayed to the Father on behalf of his disciples. He prayed for their mission, for their unity as a group, and for their unity through him and with the Father. The final part of this prayer is read on the Sunday before Pentecost. It is one of those mind-bending scriptural passages that tend to make peoples’ eyes glaze over. Some readers simply scan it, not absorbing a word, or they turn the page in search of something Jesus says that is easier to understand, something like “love one another.”

But this prayer from Jesus to his Father on his friends’ behalf is beautiful and enlightening and deserves to be read slowly. Jesus’ words challenge us to wade into our deepest spiritual waters in order to contemplate this union we share with God and with one another. Sitting with this reading can help us make sense of our Christian mission.

As part of my own study of the text, and to feed my logic (which is illogical) I attempted to diagram Jesus’ words. Pencil in hand, I began to draw circles.

In my mind this “you in me, and I in you, and they in us, and we are one, and I in them and you in me, and I know you and they know that you sent me, and your love for me is my love for them, and therefore, our love is in them,” (deep breath) takes the form of concentric circles that expand and recede and shift to accommodate the fullness of the described union in an endlessly twirling helix.

My first attempt was to place God at the center of the Jesus circle, which I put at the center of the disciple circle, in which both the Father and Son dwelt. Hmmm.

Dissatisfied, I drew another set of concentric circles with disciples in the center of the Jesus circle, who was in the center of the God circle. But no.

Then I drew two concentric circles, one with Jesus at God’s center, and then God at Jesus’ center which was just as confounding as my earlier attempts because each one resulted in a picture of a picture of a picture, and so on. This is known to visual artists as mise en abyme, which translated from French means “placing into infinity.” In painting and photography mise en abyme can continue only so far as the artist is able to depict it; eventually, the image becomes too small to be perceived. Although it is theologically intriguing, the mise en abyme was inadequate. Or, was it?

My final attempt involved two overlapping circles, one for the Father and one for Jesus, with the disciples in the intersection of the two. This sketch I tossed out immediately because the union of the father and son was more representative of a mutual giving between two persons whose “product,” for lack of a better word, is revealed in the giving, such as in a family. Hmmm. Not perfect, but not bad, either. I sketched it again.

These attempts to diagram a satisfactory translation of Jesus’ prayer were inadequate precisely because the relationship between the Father and Jesus and Jesus’ followers cannot be contained or reduced to a concept of fractal geometry or artistic theory. So, you see, I have not added any clarity to the discussion. I apologize.

However, inadequacy is not the same as fallacy. The mise en abyme, the overlapping circles and the endlessly twirling helix each hold a portion of the truth.

  • Jesus is and always has been in the picture of the picture of the picture of God. In today’s second reading from Revelations, which we have been reading throughout Easter, John tells of hearing a voice that self-identifies as “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” and as “I, Jesus,” the “root and offspring of David, the bright morning star.” Jesus’ death was a departure, a transition; he returned to the Father where he has dwelt since “before the foundation of the world.” [John 17:24c].
  • And of his friends, Jesus says “Father, they are your gift to me.” [John 17:24]. It is a mystery why seekers begin and continue to search for God, or, in the case of the poet Francis Thompson (1859–1907), who wrote about the divine pursuit in The Hound of Heaven, why they attempt to resist their spiritual stirrings. But Jesus’ words acknowledge that Peter and James and John, and all the other apostles, and every disciple and follower throughout Christian history, including you and me have found our way to him because of the Spirit’s urging, inspiration, and nudging; we have accepted the invitation to know God through Jesus.
  • The fullness of our union with God and Jesus and with one another is very much like an endlessly twirling helix. Christians understand that Jesus—the Word made flesh—made God known through his teachings and actions and love. Jesus remains, he dwells within the hearts of his followers, not so they can hoard Jesus for themselves but so they can share him. Jesus has made God known, and it is now the task of the disciples to do the same—this is the work of the evangelist—you and me.

mise en abyme

And here is the message about our mission. Unlike Jesus’ actual disciples, none of us can claim to have known the man, Jesus. We only know what has been passed on to us and what we have experienced with Jesus.

It is that experience—our interaction—that we share. We can spout off bible verses and tell people what the church and theologians say about Jesus, but without a heartfelt expression of one’s own experience, these things are dry, inconclusive, and unconvincing. Jesus expressed his loving relationship with God with his words and works and his love for God and his followers. Our job is no different.

Looking at my sketches now I began to notice something resembling a seed within a seed within a seed, and it occurs to me that this “seeding” is the work of God, the work of Jesus, and the work which we have been commissioned to fulfill. This is the union. We in them, them in us, Christ in all, Christ in God, God in all things.

We receive the gift of life-giving water which Jesus offers us and we accept our Christian mission: to make God known to future generations through our unity. “They will know we are Christians by our love.” This is the way of being that has the power to change the world.

In my mind, I imagine hearing Jesus speak to me, “I wish you could experience what I know about the Father. I want this for you, for you to know this. Because, if you knew God as I do, you would love one another as I have loved you. But the world does not know God, and this is why loving is so difficult. This is what you do know: you know that my works are of God, you know that I am of God. All that I say and do, these words and works are not my own, but God’s. It all comes from God. Listen, if you know me and you know these things about me, you know God. God’s love for me is my love for you. It is one and the same.”

It’s really not so very complicated, is it?

Today’s readings can be found here.

He’s One of Ours

4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (C)

When a hometown kid makes it big, he or she becomes a local hero. Former neighbors, teachers, and distant cousins share their stories, each staking their claim to the roots of the returning celebrity’s success, each hoping for a little special attention from the hero. It’s all very exciting. But then, unless that famous hometown kid gives props to the satisfaction of the townspeople, either by attending fundraisers and making free appearances, for example, the neighborhood love train comes to a screeching halt. Soon, miffed former babysitters and soccer coaches and friends of friends grumble and complain that their local hero thinks he or she is too good for them.

In some ways, the story of Jesus’ rejection in Nazareth is like the story of the hometown kid. Except Luke positions the story at the start of Jesus’ ministry, before he hit it big, so to speak, when word of him had just begun to spread throughout the region. [LK 4:4]. Now, even if you didn’t already know how the story of Jesus turns out, you could get a general idea right here. The narrative of Jesus’ interaction with the people in his hometown foreshadows his earthly mission; it summarizes his calling and ministry, hints at his passion, and invites readers to deepen their commitment to him.

Having just emerged from 40 days of temptation in the desert, a Spirit-filled, fired-up Jesus returned to Galilee where he began to teach in the synagogues.

So impressive was the quality of Jesus’ preaching that he was praised by all. [LK 4:14]. Naturally the residents of his hometown would have been eager for Jesus to teach in their synagogue, too, and, the people weren’t disappointed; Luke’s gospel says the townspeople “spoke highly of him and were amazed by his gracious words.” [LK 4:22]. Moreover, they were eager to claim him as one of their own.

Recall that in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ rejection was the result of the townsfolks’ familiarity with his humble roots, which prevented their belief. [MK 6:1-6]. Luke’s gospel differs on this point: Jesus’ self-identification as the anointed one was not the cause of his rejection. In fact, this news was exciting precisely because Jesus was the son of Joseph. In other words, Jesus was one of them.

Jesus was aware that his townsfolk would have expectations of him; they claimed him as one of their own, they expected him to serve them first. He called them out on it,“Surely you will quote me this proverb, ‘Physician, cure yourself,’ and say, ‘Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.’” [LK 4:23].

But who could blame them? Jesus was their local celebrity. He belonged to them, and here he was saying he was the anointed one of whom Isaiah’s prophecy spoke. This was huge. Imagine how, upon hearing his words, their hearts swelled with joy and pride. But just as quickly, joy and pride were replaced with fury, because Jesus’ deeper meaning was that the Jewish people were not the sole beneficiaries of Isaiah’s prophecy. Furthermore, Jesus was going elsewhere to fulfill it.

How would you have felt? After all, the Jewish people had longed for a Messiah, who would, among other things, inaugurate a time of unparalleled universal peace and liberate Israel. Yet, the passage from Isaiah that Jesus read in the synagogue made no distinction between Jews and non-Jews. So, perhaps as an invitation to open their hearts, Jesus recalled two stories. First, during the three-and-a-half-year famine the Prophet Elijah was sent to one non-Jewish widow in the land of Sidon, not to the widows of Israel, and second, at a later time when so many in Israel were afflicted with leprosy, the Prophet Elisha healed only Naaman, the Syrian.

Unfortunately, Jesus’ old neighbors weren’t having any of it and tried to push him off a cliff.

We can compare, to some extent, the experience of Jesus with that of the contemporary hometown hero. But Jesus was more than some talented local kid who could put his puny town on the map. Yes, Jesus was Joseph’s son, as members of the crowd correctly stated, but readers of Luke’s gospel have the benefit of Jesus’ seventy-seven generation genealogy which goes back in time from “Joseph, son of the son of Heli,” to “son of Adam, the son of God.” [LK 3:23-38].

Suddenly we see. Jesus’ hometown encompasses the whole of the world from the beginning of time.

We can also compare, somewhat more accurately, the crowd’s rejection of the extraordinary scope of salvation that Jesus offered, with the manner in which some Christians ignore the moral imperative to extend Christian hospitality, mercy, forgiveness, and love to all of the world’s people, including those who have been separated from the church, and those whose beliefs and lifestyles differ from their own.

The sad truth is that Jesus gets rejected every day. And as mentioned above, some of the people who reject him are Christians. Christians who exclude others and make excuses for their racial prejudices, Christians who interpret Jesus’ life and teachings for their social, political and economic advantage, and Christians who remorselessly exhibit innumerable un-Christ-like behaviors on a daily basis, yet continue to call themselves Christian.

As Disciples, we have to do better. Although the angry crowd tried to hurl Jesus off a cliff, he simply “passed through the midst of them and went away.” [LK 4:30]. How closely will we follow him?

Today’s readings can be found here. 

The Journey Begins with Prayer: The Baptism of the Lord

 The Baptism of the Lord (C)

It might seem like the most obvious thing in the world to say, but, Jesus spent a lot of time in prayer.

Throughout the Gospels Jesus is found praying with and for others, as well as seeking a quiet place to pray by himself.  He prayed before meals, before and after healings and other miracles, he prayed prayers of thanksgiving and prayed for the faith of his disciples. Jesus prayed when he had decisions to make, and taught his followers how to pray. Jesus prayed on the way to the cross, and moments before he died, Jesus breathed his final prayer.

The first prayer of Jesus’ public ministry occurred immediately after his baptism.

 “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove.

And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”  

—Luke 3:21-22

I wonder what Jesus was praying about, was it a prayer of thanksgiving? Discernment? Guidance?

Many people admit they don’t know how to pray on their own; they say they don’t know what to say; it feels awkward, or they aren’t sure if they are speaking to God the right way, or if they are being heard. I remember one friend who told me she doesn’t know when to “sign off” so she just sort of, ends it. Thanks! Love ya!

The variations of prayer are endless. Plus, other than the Lord’s Prayer given to us by Jesus himself, there is no one right way to pray. The best form of prayer is the one that draws us closer to God. Prayers can be contemplative or centering, a meditation or a chant, a favorite prayer said before bed or upon waking, spoken before meals, or with others during a liturgy or prayer group, to name only a few. The best prayer for me occurs when I share my hopes, fears, gratitude, or anguish with God while doing everyday tasks like cooking and gardening. Regardless of how we pray, if we open ourselves to it, we might sense a holy stillness that expresses God’s presence and love for us.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism beckons us to place ourselves in the crowd of the newly baptized and witness the moment Jesus’ earthly ministry began: with prayer. I wonder what Jesus felt when the sky opened, and the Holy Spirit filled him, and he heard God’s voice.

We can do more than wonder. Have you ever felt God’s presence in times of prayer? Perhaps you have experienced the stillness pulsing in your ears, keeping time with the chant of your heart, “beloved, beloved, beloved.” Maybe you felt the heaviness of the world dropping away, along with your words. Or a sense of well-being, unlike anything ever experienced that blankets you in lightness, and it is just you and God, and nothing else matters.

If we could remain in this state, we would. Because in that moment, which might last only a second or two, God’s delight is evident, and the Holy Spirit of God fills us, like it did Jesus. But, like Jesus, we can’t remain—we can always come back to prayer—but, for now, we must act.

Imagine hearing the words “You are my beloved (son, daughter); with you I am well pleased.” How would you respond?

Christians are baptized as infants, as children and adolescents, and as adults, as in the case of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA). Regardless of the age of the person receiving the sacrament baptism is a forward moving, future-oriented event. It’s not “done and over.” It’s not the first sacramental stamp on a passport to heaven. Baptism is a fiat, a yes, a birth. What comes next is life.

Do we remember to pray for the newly baptized after the day has passed? Prayers of gratitude, discernment and spiritual guidance for ourselves and others are needed, because, with baptism, we begin our lifelong journey as disciples.

With today’s feast of the Baptism of the Lord, we bid the Christmas season adieu. Tomorrow begins Ordinary time, a new cycle of discernment, faith formation, and spiritual growth. Let’s begin by reflecting upon Jesus’ baptism, and our baptism, and pray for guidance in the coming year, and let’s strive not only to deepen our understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus but to act upon it.

“Lord Jesus, we end our Christmas season by celebrating our rebirth in baptism. We enjoy what prophets and kings longed to see. Help us during this New Year to grow more conformed to you in our thoughts, desires, words and actions. Enable us through the Scriptures as well as through the sacraments of your food and forgiveness to grow to full maturity as your disciples.” 

—Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P.,
Prayer for the Sunday after the Epiphany,
The Baptism of the Lord

Today’s readings can be found here. .

New Growth from Old Wood

just shoot1st Sunday of Advent (C)

In a town I once called home there grew for 250 years a tree, an historic tree, the largest Pepperidge tree in the Northeastern United States, in fact. “Old Peppy,” as it was called, was, for reasons not appreciated by me (and many other residents) girdled and cut down earlier this year.

Have you witnessed a tender shoot pushing its way through the gnarled bark of a tree stump? Or have you seen a sapling emerge from the ground where a great tree once stood? What an unlikely but meaningful sign of resilience it would be to see new shoots emerging from the soil beneath the enormous canopy Old Peppy once provided.

Root systems left untreated after a tree is cut down continue their subterranean existence, secretly absorbing water and nutrients as they await the right conditions to send up vigorous new growth. Nature’s exuberance for life is not always received with enthusiasm. If shoots emerged from the former site of a tree that you intentionally cut down, this restorative miracle of nature might not give you the same thrill as it does me. Still, it is difficult not to be impressed when new life emerges from what was thought to be dead, particularly from something of great or profound significance.

The biblical reference to a shoot being raised from a lifeless stump follows the “book of consolation” contained in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah [Jer 30-31]. This passage [Jer 33:14-16], is read on the first Sunday of Advent, Year C, and represents the promise of a righteous and just leader who will restore and reunite the house of Judah and Israel.

Christians hear in this reading the promise of Jesus, the Messiah. The just shoot grows, and the world is changed forever. God keeps God’s promises. Oh, come, oh come, Emmanuel! With Christmas, we celebrate not only the birth of Jesus but the restoration and reunification of the world which God-with-us has set in motion. We know Jesus has come, and this is cause for endless celebration.

Like a dormant root system awaiting the right conditions for growth, the season of Advent is a time for patience. It is an opportunity to work on our own spirituality—to allow the tender shoot to grow unhindered, to work its way through the hardened, splintered and frequently lifeless stump that we allow ourselves to become. Cut down by relentless negativity and fear, and deprived of living water, the restorative breath of the Holy Spirit and the light of Christ’s face, we forget to love, we forget how to really love. With Advent eyes, we watch, and we wait. We make room; we open up the hardened places and invite Jesus in. We open the door of our hearts to a loved one, a friend, a stranger, to the poor, the wealthy, the humble, the arrogant, to the enemy. With intentionality—in Advent and at all times—we strive to “increase and abound in love for one another and for all” [1 Thes 3:12], for from love pours care, nourishment, light—all things that allow tender young shoots to grow and flourish.

Every year I vow, “This year I will attend to Advent properly.” I decide to begin each day with the chosen Scripture for the season and a reflection of a favorite Saint, mystic, or spiritual writer. I set out my Advent wreath with fresh candles and the intention of lighting it each night. I attempt to go about my daily activities with a contemplative spirit. I make this promise to myself so that when Christmas day arrives I will have prepared a dwelling place in my heart, ready to receive Jesus as if for the first time, and the meaning of Christmas will be made new.

I start out with these good intentions, just as many do, I suspect, but more often than not, my plans for a reflective and prayerful Advent get usurped by the shopping and baking and decorating for Christmas day. Not that these are necessarily bad things; Advent is a time of anticipation, and part of its joy is in the preparation that surrounds the celebration of Christmas.

This year, however, with the image of the tender shoot in mind, my vow becomes less structured and more organic. In addition to daily prayer. I will cultivate the growth of a tender shoot within myself by seeking and opening my heart to the emerging Christ child in whatever form he should take. This begins with love.

The new life that Advent promises is growing within us; it has the power to break through hardened and gnarled hearts. For within a fragile shoot there exists what, if nurtured and allowed to flourish, can grow mightier than the ancient stump from which it emerged.