Probing Belief: Facing our Doubts

2nd Sunday of Easter (A, B, C)

I admire Thomas. I can relate to him. Thomas, also known as Didymus, the twin, was one of Jesus’ twelve apostles, but his designation as “the doubter” that has followed him throughout history is a trait that many of us share. At least, it is one that I share.

Most everything we know about Thomas comes from the gospel of John, He seems to be one of the more introverted apostles, he is a fact-gatherer and a deep thinker, and his coming to belief is an intentional process, one which he discovers happens best in community.

“Thomas, called Didymus, one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.

So the other disciples said to him, “We have seen the Lord.”

But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nailmarks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” [John 20:24-25]

Doesn’t it make sense Thomas would want to see Jesus with his own eyes? After all, (more…)

Listen, He’s talking to you

5th Sunday of Lent (A)

In a reflection on the Lazarus story, the late theologian, Carroll Stuhlmueller, CP, wrote, “Resurrection (…) is not so much a theological problem as it is a religious experience. It is not an extravagant miracle happening out there; it means the transforming presence of Jesus within us.”[1]

Stuhlmueller does not spend much time discussing the veracity of the Lazarus story in this reflection; he does not go to lengths to affirm Jesus’ power to return life to his dead friend, as told in John’s gospel. He simply states “Jesus did raise Lazarus back to life.”[2] The Lazarus story is less about the facts and more about coming to believe in Jesus and our role in helping others come to believe. It is here that we experience resurrection.

For many, it is comforting to (more…)

Fear has Big Eyes

4th Sunday of Lent (A)

Fear has big eyes. With just four words this Russian proverb depicts the wide-eyed countenance of intellectual, emotional and spiritual blindness. Fear garners our trust and our friendship and promises vigilance against threats; it conjures the outline of the thief, murderer, or secret agent lurking in every corner. Fear is a shallow breather, a loud talker; it fortifies walls, builds bunkers, spreads untruths like Round-up on a windy day. There’s a snake under every bed. Therefore, fear never rests. Fear suspects everyone of malevolent intentions. Fear, with its myopic goal of self-preservation, shuts out light, extinguishes hope. This kind of fear has no experience or knowledge of God.

When I created the Good Disciple blog, I designed it as a space to reflect upon the Sunday readings in the context of contemporary Christian discipleship. Now, if you take a trip in the way-back machine and read my reflections from 2015, you may notice (more…)

Knowing, even as we are known

3rd Sunday of Lent (A)

A guest post by Fr. Joel Fortier

The Woman at the Well. It’s about coming to see and know Jesus…seeing and knowing us…as we are, without any judgment or condemnation, with complete unconditional love and acceptance, tapping wellsprings of faith and love within us…tapping the Spirit of God within us that wells up as springs and fountains of living water within us. That’s what Jesus came to do, to tap the Spirit of God within us, that we might worship the living God in Spirit and Truth!

That’s what faith in Jesus does, it releases the Spirit with us, cleanses, transforms and liberates our lives from fear, guilt, and shame, or anything that would keep us from loving as God loves.

God gets water from our stoney hearts, takes away our hearts of stone and gives us a heart of flesh for love. (more…)

Take the Long View

2nd Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

Here we are again. Back to plain ole winter. Just over one week ago the Christmas season ended, and our families and friends, like the three kings, have departed for their distant lands. Like many of you, I reluctantly boxed up our decorations and my husband dragged our still-hanging-on-to-life Christmas tree out to the curb, both of us bemoaning the shortness of the season (but secretly happy to say good bye to the pine needles in our socks).

With our houses swept clean, it’s time to begin our progression through Ordinary Time, at least for the next eight Sundays, that is. Lent is right around the corner.

The Second Sunday of Ordinary Time always eases its way into a fresh and shiny new calendar year, but this year for many people agita, insecurity, and apprehension about the future have dulled that shiny newness.

At times like these the temptation is to circle the wagons, allow ourselves to complain for a while and hope for the best. Happily, most of us care too much about the future to consider sitting on our hands. I’m in that camp, or at least I strive to be. Despite my occasional “Chicken Little” tendencies, I fight hopelessness and stagnation by taking the long view and making plans.

Earlier this month I reflected on the need for restoration, specifically restorative practices. I was reminded of the work of the late Dr. Erik Erikson, the brilliant German-American psychologist of the past century, whose exploration of human psycho-social growth from infancy through death identified a motivation which he named Generativity.

Generativity resembles the concept of “paying it forward” popularized by the heartwarming movie, Pay it Forward [2000], which, through a series of events showed that the world is a much better place when we share, ad infinitum, our good fortune with others.

Still, paying it forward is just the tip of the iceberg. Generativity is more nuanced; its source is nothing less than primal and its energy emerges from an expectation of a future—a hope for humanity. It is the longest of the long views. Generativity explains why some adults will, for example, plant a fruit tree they may not live to harvest, but do so knowing future generations will be nourished by it. Our current situation and how we handle it is far greater than how it impacts us.

Taken another way, when “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation” is contemplated Theologically, i.e. “where is God in all this?” we have to see that the compelling impulse behind generativity is love. Love of God, and love of neighbor, and love for God’s creation.

The writers of Sacred Scripture could not help but take the long view. They gave witness to the fruit of generativity; they grasped its divine source, they drank from its fountain and endeavored to illuminate the way so future generations would see God’s goodness as they did, and believe what they knew to be the truth.

The Prophet Isaiah, relaying the words God spoke to him, identified Israel as the Servant of God [IS 49:3, 5-6]. Israel’s return to their homeland after 70 years of exile was the evidence of God’s faithfulness to them. Yet, Isaiah made it clear that their survival alone was not the end of the story. “It is too little,” the prophet proclaimed. The future of all involved entailed carrying the message of God’s liberating power to the ends of the earth. In other words, Israel’s stunning transformation would be like a light to the nations: the entire world would see God’s greatness and be converted.

St. Paul understood this too. It was not enough that he had a personal experience of the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. He was compelled to take what he knew on the road and share it with the greatest number of people for the rest of his life. Paul’s “generativity” is evidenced by the colossal growth of the Christian church in his day. Today’s second reading gives us a clue to Paul’s mission [1 COR 1:1-3]. At first blush it looks to be a typically wordy Pauline salutation, but attend carefully to Paul’s words. Far more than a “Dear friend, how are you, I am fine” Paul’s salutation discloses his grasp of the divine origins of his apostleship and the enduring nature not only of his role, but that of the Corinthian church, sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be holy, from now on, and for all to witness. Pay it forward.

Even John the Baptist understood it was too little to proclaim the nearness of the Kingdom of God. He knew it was not enough to preach a message of repentance and then baptize countless individuals for the forgiveness of sin. When he recognized Jesus, he knew there was more.

“John the Baptist saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” [JN 1:29]

I wonder if the Baptist’s words comparing Jesus to a sacrificial animal sent a ripple of shock through the crowd. And, as if to explain how he arrived at this astonishing conclusion John continued, piecing his experiences together until everything he had done up to that point made sense:

“I did not know him, but the reason why I came baptizing with water was that he might be made known to Israel.” John testified further, saying, “I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and remain upon him. I did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘On whomever you see the Spirit come down and remain, he is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” [JN 1:31-34].

I also wonder if John realized then that his role in preparing the way for Jesus was nearing its completion. Didn’t he later take a step back from his work, out of the first-century spotlight, saying, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”? [JN 3:30]

Be a light for the nations.

Who is expected to carry this light today? Look in the mirror. It is the Church—you and me—it is our prophetic role to be a light so that God’s goodness is visible to all, so that all may receive it and be transformed.

That’s generativity, that’s paying it forward. That’s how we keep moving forward, despite the darkness.

Happy New Year, light bearers.

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Readings for the Second Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A

First Reading IS 49:3, 5-6
Responsorial Psalm PS 40:2, 4, 7-8, 8-9, 10
Second Reading 1 COR 1:1-3
Gospel JN 1:29-34

The Breath of The One Who Gives Us Life

Pentecost Sunday (C)

(Adapted from a previous post: 2015)

“Breathe gently on her face.” This was the advice my sister gave me many years ago when I could not comfort my inconsolable newborn daughter.

I did what my sister suggested and was as startled by my baby’s response as she apparently was by my breath. Her crying stopped, and she inhaled, deeply. I might have imagined it, but I recall being rewarded with a squishy little newborn smile. Amazing. My breath calmed her.

Any new parent knows that some infants continue to cry even after every possible need has been taken care of. Babies cry. It’s what they do. Unless there is some kind of health problem, newborn crying may just be related to the developing central nervous system; some experts suggest that parents should, on occasion, allow an infant to “cry it out.”

I was convinced that my daughter’s distress was more about her adjustment to life outside my womb, so I carried her in a baby sling wrapped tightly against my chest. Now it seemed that my breath had the ability to calm her as much as the warmth my body and the sound of my heart did.

I later learned that this breathing technique is used in “water babies” swimming classes to teach infants how to take a deep breath and hold it. I’m sure there is a physiological reason for this response, but I believed my ability to calm my newborn daughter with my breath had less to do with science and everything to do with her recognition of me through it.

The breath and its cosmic cousin, wind, have a significant presence in the Bible, and for Christians, no day expresses the power of both more than the feast of Pentecost, the day on which Jesus’ Holy Spirit was poured out onto the disciples.

The Christian Liturgy for the feast of Pentecost includes two distinct accounts of this event: one is dramatic and fiery, and the other is quiet and instructive. In both instances, the disciples were in Jerusalem, together in one place, grieving their beloved friend, Jesus.

The first account comes from the Acts of the Apostles. It takes place after  Jesus’ ascension, seven weeks after the Passover on the festival of Shavuot, also known as the Feast of Weeks, which commemorates Yahweh’s giving of the Torah to Moses on Mount Sinai.

The second account comes from the Gospel of John. It describes the first appearance of the risen Jesus to the group of disciples “on the evening of the first day of the week” following his death. Recall that the grief-stricken, and confused disciples were hiding in fear for their lives after having witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion just days before [John 20:19-23].

In Acts, the appearance of the Holy Spirit is described metaphorically. For example, the disciples experience a noise like a driving wind that filled the house and, what appeared to the disciples to be tongues of fire parting and resting on every person. In John’s Gospel, there is no metaphor. Jesus simply appears. He stands in their midst and says, “Peace be with you,” and after showing them his wounds, Jesus breathes on them, saying “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

The symbols of noise, wind, fire and breath would not have escaped the attention of Jesus’ disciples, nor would they have gone over the heads of John’s or Luke’s astute readers. Fire is a Judaic symbol for the Torah, the written law given to Moses on Mount Sinai. Also, the Rabbinical interpretation of the Moses event describes Yahweh’s voice as looking like a “fiery substance” which then split into seventy languages.[1] Further, a noise like a driving wind recalls the great theophany which announced Yahweh’s appearance to Moses [Exodus 19:16-19]. These shared symbols served as links between the disciples’ Pentecost experience and the Moses event and pointed to the manifestation of God’s Holy Spirit in a new time and place.

Jesus’ appearance to the disciples in John’s gospel, although calm and reassuring, has the same powerful effect as the wind and flames in Acts. Jesus breathed on the disciples, and with his breath and accompanying words, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” Jesus renewed, reassured, and empowered his disciples to go out in the world, to do what he had done, and to be what he had been.

Recall the second creation story in Genesis where God blows the breath of life (Ruah) into the nostrils of the man:

Then the Lord God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. —Gen 2:7

For Jesus’ disciples, the communities for whom Luke and John wrote, and all Christians ever since, Jesus’ act of breathing mirrors the creation: He gives new life.

In both accounts, the disciples responded with joy and readiness. Acts describes the disciples’ realization of their ability to preach the Good News in a manner that transcends language barriers. They go out and “speak in different tongues, as the Spirit enabled them to proclaim” [Acts 2:4]. In John’s gospel, Jesus’ gift of the Spirit sends the disciples, now renewed and empowered, out in the world to fulfill the mission for which he chose them. With this, the church was born.

The memory of my inconsolable newborn daughter being calmed and reassured by my breath makes me wonder what it felt like for the disciples to have the risen Jesus breathe on them. I wonder what it would be like to have Jesus breathe on me today. I hope that I would recognize him. Do we recognize the breath of the one who gives us new life?

[1] Rabbi Moshe Weissman, author of “The Midrash Says”

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.