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…)

Of Bees and Gardeners

The most beautiful liturgy of the year is the Easter Vigil. It is lengthy, that is true. But how could it be otherwise? It spans the experience of God’s presence throughout human history, sweeping the worshiper from the conception of the created world through its redemption in the person of Jesus Christ. The experience of the Vigil helps us to make sense of this whole thing that we do as the body of Christ, our quest to understand the meaning of life, our purpose and our unbreakable connection to God.

It begins in darkness which is symbolically dispelled with the lighting of the new Paschal candle and the cantor’s recitation of the Exsultet, an extraordinary hymn announcing the meaning of Easter. With exquisite poetic imagery, the Exsultet (more…)

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.

Not as the world gives

6th Sunday of Easter (C)

Speaking to his disciples on the night before he died, Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.” Then he said, “Not as the world gives do I give it to you.” Which leads me to wonder, how does the world give peace?

A few examples come to mind. We contemplate putting down weapons, disarmament, or at least restricting the use of arms. Policy makers search for common ground; they come to the table looking for mutuality. Citizens of the world seek ways to better understand one another, to be more considerate, to share to planet’s resources, and to resolve issues that lead to intolerance and division. All noble steps towards a peaceable kingdom.

It’s complicated, though. The way in which the world gives peace is complicated by the fact that the Peace that Christ left with us, which motivates and inspires us, is opposed by so many.

Yesterday Fr. Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest, poet, and pacifist died. He was 94. Early on, Berrigan’s tireless work for peace took the form of protest and civil disobedience against the Vietnam war, most famously when, in 1968, he along with nine other activists seized and burned hundreds of military draft cards.

Considered by many at the time to be both a traitor and an anarchist, Berrigan tirelessly articulated, in word and deed, the unheeded message of nonviolence which he located in Scripture. His death came after nine decades of personal risk, multiple arrests, imprisonment, and ceaseless opposition to societal injustice, something he knew to be an offense against God.

Berrigan’s campaign for peace not only earned him the contempt of the US government, but it also antagonized many members of the Catholic Church hierarchy who rejected his tactics and attempted to squelch his influence on the young Catholics whom he taught in university.

As a poet, Berrigan frequently blended his pacifist and theological vision into striking commentaries on religious blindness. In the following poem published in 1964[1], Berrigan suggests that the Church’s attention, while sincere, is misdirected away from the essential work of Christ in the World.

We Are in Love, The Celibates Gravely Say

They hold up Christ for ascension
like twelve earnest athletes at a trampoline, but

If I go, I return, He says
skilled in gravity and the dynamics of flesh

Which decree His continuing declension
like dew or fiery napalm

Or the seeding of streams with trout eggs.
The twelve earnest orantes hold their hands

Safe as stone up to the absent One
which He presently strikes, forces and fills—

World, and world’s Body.

—Daniel Berrigan, SJ

Prophets like Daniel Berrigan and his brothers Phillip (1923 – 2002), and Jerry (1919 – 2015), walk amongst us, nudging us to awaken from our complacency. In the coming days, there will be accolades and honors and likely calls for beatification. Those of us who esteemed the work of the Berrigan brothers will read every word. But even as we hold them up and admire their vocation, we recognize that prophets are difficult to be around. Their means to peace make us uncomfortable. We dislike having the status quo challenged, and we don’t like messes.

Prophets disrupt our “peace,” which we have misunderstood to mean a lack of personal discomfort. Why can’t we just enjoy our Sunday afternoons and not be bothered? It’s just so tiresome to hear someone complain about injustice all the time.

Undoubtedly, we are responsible for some of the stain the church bears on behalf of its rejected prophets, but it is not a permanent mark.

Modern day prophets like Daniel Berrigan challenge us with every step to receive the Peace of Christ and give it to the world, not as the world gives it, but as Jesus did.

Today’s readings can be found here.

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[1] Daniel Berrigan, SJ, ed. John Dear. We are in Love, The Celibates Gravely Say, from And the Risen Bread: Selected Poems, 1957-1997. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1998) 58.

Love one another, as I have loved you

A guest post by Fr. Joel Fortier for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (C)

The Joy of Love…to see the face of God!

A singular joy in life is to love somebody who loves you back! That is God’s idea of Love. Love is its own reward, whether it is returned or not. But to find someone who loves you back is a special blessing and gift from God. Cherish them in that way and let them know that. 

Indeed, such an experience of having someone you love who loves you back is the whole notion and image of God, “relatio“…the Trinity. It is the image in which we are created. It is in that kind of experience, of loving someone who loves you back, that we come to know and discover who we truly are…who we were created and meant to be. It is ultimately to “know even as we are known!” (1 Cor 13:12) We call it the Beatific Vision.

It is to experience the joy of love: divine joy! It is the ecstasy that only the intimacy of “knowing even as you are known” can give. It is what lovers do, they breathe together, and so experience the very life, breath, and Spirit of God. They reveal themselves to each other in verbal and nonverbal ways. True intimacy is not possible without self-revelation.

To find somebody who knows you and loves you back as you are is really a gift and the joy of mutual love! It is what God wants of us, and for us. It is why we were created…what we created for: to know, love and serve God in and through Love.

It seems love is the only way to know and discover God…to know God as love, who is unequivocally “for” us. Creation is the first revelation of that great giftedness. Jesus as the Way, Truth, and Life, is “for us”. “If God is for us, who can be against us! He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also along with Him freely give us all things?” (Rom 8:31-32).

The incarnation and resurrection of Christ is the full revelation of God’s love…such is Christ Jesus whose life and Spirit we share, through whom all things both in heaven and on earth were made and are sustained, in whom we live, move, and have our being, this gift is ours, the incarnate risen gift of God’s love for us! (Col 1:15-17, John 1:3, Rom 11:36, Acts 17:28) What cause for joy! 

The gift of People who love us back mirrors for us our own goodness, giftedness, and lovableness. It is what Christ has done for us, and asks—commands—us to do for one another. We do need each other for that, so we can see the face of God in ourselves even as we see it in the other!

To love another person is to see the face of God.

—Victor Hugo, Les Misérables. 

That is the way God works. Because of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection, in which we share, the only face of God we will ever see is a human face. God looks out through our eyes, and smiles at us with our faces, and kisses us with our lips, speaks tenderly with our tongues and loves us with all our hearts. We need only to see as Jesus sees, to speak as Jesus speaks, and love as Jesus loves.

We bear a Presence… the Presence of Christ!

And so we look at each other through the eyes of Christ, we see and love each other as Christ sees and loves us! To be Christ in the world, that is our call and challenge! For that is indeed who we are, the Body of Christ! Christ has come, and is coming again…in us! The fullness of which we long to see and experience when Christ will be all in all! 

Thank God for the people who mirror for us our own goodness, who can see in us, sometimes what we cannot see in ourselves, who are Christ to us. They help us to see God and discover our true selves, our true identity and dignity, that we are Christ. Help us Lord to be good mirrors for each other. That we might see and recognize You in the gaze of the Other! That we might see your face! The face of Christ! 

The joy of love floods my soul!

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Born in 1942 to French Canadian parents, Fr. Joel Fortier, along with his three siblings grew up in an environment steeped in Catholic spirituality and practice. He entered the University of Illinois before seminary to study Psychology, Education, and Philosophy. In 1969, Joel was ordained with a Master of Divinity from St. Meinrad Seminary for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois with extensive work and training in inner city parishes, and peace and justice movements. Joel received his Doctor of Ministry from St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. He has worked with Marriage Encounter, Cursillo, and Charismatic movements integrating with parish pastoral ministry. He is the Founding Director of the Center for Family Ministry for the Diocese of Joliet. Fr. Joel was the Pastor and founder of The Lisieux Pastoral Center of St. Theresa Parish in Kankakee, IL, the Pastor of St Isidore Parish, Bloomingdale IL, and most recently the Pastor of St. Thomas the Apostle in Naperville, IL. Now retired from full-time parish ministry since 2013, Fr. Joel continues to live out his core statement: “To help make love happen, wherever and whenever possible.”

Why do some hear while others do not?

4th Sunday of Easter (C)

While preparing to write today’s reflection, I was struck for the seventh time this week (and the three-hundred-and sixty-fifth time in as many days) by the similarities between today’s church and the early church of the Acts of the Apostles. I am reminded of the theory of “God’s time”, which, for example, might say two-thousand and sixteen years is a nanosecond in God’s time.

Let’s try an experiment with today’s first reading from Acts 13. Enter the story with Paul and Barnabas as they go about their missionary activity. There they are, all fired up and filled with the Holy Spirit, speaking and urging and exciting the crowds with the story of Jesus. So compelling were they that the following week nearly everyone in the city came out to hear them preach. Naturally, not everyone was thrilled with Paul and Barnabas, their message about Jesus, or the throngs of people who came out to hear them, especially since they saw some of their neighbors in the crowd. They objected violently to the whole business and enlisted the help of their wealthy and powerful cohorts to force Paul and Barnabas out of the city. Undaunted, Paul and Barnabas seemed to shrug off the rejection and moved on to the next city to continue their mission.

Now, imagine that a Catholic man went to some small city near Rome and preached on a pivotal yet sparingly administered teaching of Jesus’. He excited and urged huge crowds of Catholics and people of goodwill into a deeper understanding of Jesus’ teaching. So popular and charismatic was this person that the city was filled with people from every corner of the world who hungered to hear his refreshing and restorative words. Almost immediately, some residents became alarmed and objected not only to what they were hearing but to the type of people who it attracted. These opponents contradicted the man, disrespected his wisdom and encouraged their friends from all over the world to do the same. Still, empowered by the Holy Spirit, the man spoke boldly and continued to guide his opponents to a deeper understanding, but their hostility continued to grow. Undaunted, Pope Francis returned his attention to applying Jesus’ mercy wherever he went.

Which leads to today’s very brief gospel from John 10:27-30. Why do some people hear and others do not? If Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me,” [John 10:14] that would mean that there are sheep who don’t know his voice and therefore do not follow him.

Returning to the story of our fledgling church from the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that in every flock there are some who hear and some who do not.

Organized religion has to take the blame, on occasion, for drowning out the sound of Jesus’ voice. Even if someone desires to hear, human and religious constructs have the capacity to thwart even the most sincere seeker from reaching the level of consciousness that allows him or her to hear Jesus’ voice.

On the other hand, organized religion can take the credit for the deposit of faith from Scripture and Tradition, and the copious writings of the great Theologians which have created a vast bank of spiritual experience to help attune us to the sound of Jesus’ voice.

What religion and theology provide is an opening through which we can learn about God through the wisdom, experience and insights of others. But it is only an opening; our ability to hear is not limited by it. The many names for Jesus (the Word, Savior, Lamb of God, Morning Star, Bread of Life, Good Shepherd, True Vine, and so on) provide an example of the various ways we can hear. If only we will listen.

I recently read that to ‘hear” Jesus’ voice—not only the universal truths of which he speaks, but Jesus’ voice—one must discern Jesus’ being, his BE-ing, grasp the nature of Jesus’ connection to God, and be able to name him, Son of God, for example.

This “hearing” is what defines the Christian profession of faith. To affirm Jesus as the I AM is to acknowledge that Jesus, the man, is one with God, not just an exceptionally enlightened Prophet with a profoundly rich prayer life and awesome leadership skills.

But there are many, many followers who love Jesus and want to emulate him, but who struggle with Jesus’ identity as the I AM. For many Christians, this is a cake walk. For others, it is difficult, mind-boggling, and perhaps will require a lifetime of following the Good Shepherd to grasp.

Can we avoid the gate and just climb over the fence to enter the fold?  Nope. But, would Jesus, who self-identified as the gate, stand in the way of a would-be follower? Does the gate close to one who lacks absolute certitude but desires to know Jesus? Does Jesus only know the sheep with perfect hearing?

Some would say yes, that this is what Jesus meant when he said “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.” [John 10:14]. But the gospels also tell us that Jesus preferred to hang out with the sinners, probably because they were the ones with the better hearing.

Jesus talked a lot about ears and what people should do with them, but only Mark’s gospel includes a story about Jesus restoring a person’s hearing. [Mark 7:31-37].  My sense is that there were many sheep following the Good Shepherd who hung on his every word but who would not have passed the above three-prong spiritual hearing test, at least until after Jesus’ resurrection.

Jesus also said, “I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. These also I must lead, and they will hear my voice, and there will be one flock, one shepherd.” [John 10:16].

To put this verse in context, by “other sheep” Jesus was likely referring to the Gentiles, but, returning to our experiment at the start of this reflection we can see that the Gentiles were the ones to whom Paul and Barnabas redirected their missionary action, and that the one flock Pope Francis envisions will be identified by their emulation of Jesus’ mercy.

As for my defense of Pope Francis (who has perfect hearing, by the way), I don’t judge the sincerity of Christians who object to new understandings or expanded interpretations of church teachings and what it means to their practice of the faith, but when that objection seems to be the result of a failure to hear the voice of Jesus and it devolves into disrespect for our Pope, condemnation of others, and division within the church, I feel as if we have gone back to the days of Jesus, or even a few hundred years before since the Prophets also received the same fate.

Perhaps in the next nanosecond of God’s time, we will be able to hear.

Today’s readings can be found here.