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. .

I want to see

30th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

Last Saturday, my husband and I attended the vigil mass at our new parish church. We were running late, but my initial worries about making an entrance during the procession (or worse while the mass was in progress) were relieved when I saw the celebrant, cross-bearer and ministers still standing in the narthex waiting to process in. We slid unnoticed into a pew.

At that moment we realized something was wrong.

A man called out loudly from the side aisle; his garbled words echoed against the marble.

All the assembled, standing for the start of the mass, turned in their pews to see what was happening and then turned quietly back, heads lowered. They remained standing, some looking at their hands, or nervously leafing through the bulletin, or exchanging glances with one another. Some, unable to ignore the commotion turned toward the small crowd of people surrounding and attending to the man.

I asked a woman in the pew behind us if she knew what was happening. She shrugged and said, “A man is shouting.” As a newcomer to this urban parish who is not used to this much pre-mass excitement, I wondered if the woman’s casual response meant this was a common occurrence in this faith community.

The man’s incoherent ramblings continued. I prayed for him and for the priest and pastoral staff who quietly spoke with him.

A few years ago we attended an early morning Easter Sunday mass in a Jesuit parish located in the Flatiron District of New York City. This glorious sacred space was packed with worshippers. Somehow my husband and I managed to squeeze into a front pew where I observed a woman wrapped in a blanket blissfully asleep on the floor in front of us. She awoke during the opening rite and participated from her place on the floor. I noticed she was wearing a pink sweater and had a bow in her hair for Easter. When the time came for the sign of peace, one, two, three, then a steady stream of people, including the presider, came to greet and shake the hand of this woman, who clearly was a known and loved member of their community.

Both of these examples remind me of this weekend’s gospel, the story of Bartimaeus, the blind man who sits by the road leading out of Jericho, begging Jesus to have mercy on him. [MK 10:46-52]. Bartimaeus’ loud and persistent attempts to gain Jesus’ attention disrupts the crowd so much so that “many rebuked him, telling him to be silent.” [Mark 10:48]. But notice, when Jesus asks Bartimaeus “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus begs not for food or money; he says, “I want to see.” [MK 10:51]

For the past seven weeks (the 24th through 30th Sundays in Ordinary Time), the Sunday Gospel readings have drawn us into Jesus’ teaching journey with his apostles and the larger group of disciples following him to Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus attempts to help his followers to see—to guide their comprehension of his identity—and to reveal the conditions of discipleship.

One of the many things I love about studying Mark’s gospel is noticing who “gets” Jesus. It is a testament to the subtle brilliance of the writer that he positions two miracles of restored sight at either end of Jesus’ teaching journey. In both cases, two blind non-followers receive the sight that the disciples have yet to gain. In the first, a nameless blind man is brought to Jesus by others for healing. Jesus restores the man’s sight, but not immediately; the man’s comprehension requires time and coaxing from Jesus. [MK 8:22-26]. The second case is different. Here the blind man has a name, Bartimaeus, and his faith and desire to know Jesus gives him particular insight into Jesus’ identity. Immediately upon receiving his sight Bartimaeus becomes a follower of Jesus. [MK 10:52].

I like to think, with my longing to understand who Jesus is and how I can be a good disciple, I am more like Bartimaeus than the unnamed man from Bethsaida, but that would be untrue. I’m like both of them: a little confused but enthusiastic; and I’m like the disciples on the journey: dense but promising. I think that is what Mark is trying to tell his readers. There is hope for us.

Turns out the man who disrupted the procession at my local parish last weekend was known to the community, just like the woman who had been sleeping on the floor of the Jesuit church was known to the members of her congregation. In both instances, I received new sight. The compassionate response of my pastor and fellow parishioners attending to the disturbed man’s comfort, much like the beautiful witness of an Easter people showering love on a woman our culture pretends not to see healed my blindness and allowed me to ‘get’ Jesus in a way I had not expected to.

How badly do we want to see? Persistence like that of Bartimaeus is the plow that clears the way between seeing who walks alongside us, or remaining in the dark. As for myself, I have moments of spiritual clarity and moments of blurred vision. But I know the Christian life is a journey of coming to see. There is hope for me.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

Were you listening?

29th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you. (…) Allow us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” [MK 10:35, 37]

Um…James and John, excuse me, but were you listening?

Jesus’ disciples were slow to learn. This is evident throughout the Gospels. There were probably many times when Jesus just shook his head in frustration. But the lesson of servant-leadership was as radical then as it is now; Jesus knew it was dangerous; he knew it meant suffering, entailed self-denial, relinquishment of power and any  expectation of reward. He also knew it was the only way.

The Gospel of Mark was written about 66-70 C.E. for a community of marginalized, mostly Gentile Christians living amid the Jewish revolt against Rome, a time when anything deemed to be anti-Roman was a valid cause for persecution. For many, the choice to remain Christian meant certain death, so the question of “is this really worth it?” was their reality. The Gospel writer’s aim was to shore up the community’s faith in Jesus’ identity and to help them make sense of their suffering in the context of Jesus’ call to discipleship.

We still need this reassurance, don’t we? I know I do, and Mark’s focus on discipleship—who “gets it” and who does not—is one of the reasons I love studying it.

For the past six weeks (the 24th through 29th Sundays in Ordinary Time), the Sunday Gospel readings have drawn us into the particular journey of the apostles and the larger group of disciples following Jesus as they neared Jerusalem. Jesus’ lessons along the way could be called a “way of the cross” because through them he reveals the conditions and rigors of discipleship. [MK 8:22-10:52]

This is why James and John’s question to Jesus is so appalling. When the two brothers approached Jesus he had just finished telling the twelve, for the third time, about his impending death. You have to wonder if James and John heard a word of what he said.

Perhaps they developed selective listening because they already heard Jesus predict his death twice before [MK 8:31-35, 9:30-32], and the more graphic details Jesus provided about being handed over, mocked, spit upon, and flogged before being killed didn’t register with them. [MK 10:33-34a]

Or maybe they zeroed in on Jesus’ words about rising on the third day, concluded they were in the clear and began to work out their own bright futures in the Kingdom. [MK 10:34b]

Perhaps they did not listen when Jesus redirected his comments about how hard it was to enter the Kingdom of God from the rich man to the disciples? [MK 10:24]

Surely they remembered the time when Jesus shot down the idea that any of the disciples should consider themselves the greatest. [MK 9:33-37]

Maybe James and John thought the other times Jesus spoke about the first being last and the last being first [MK 9:35. 10:31] he meant if for the others, since the two of them plus Peter seemed to be in Jesus’ inner circle. (Mark’s  gospel includes three important events with Jesus that the other apostles were not privy to: the raising of Jairus’ daughter [MK 5:21-43], Jesus’ Transfiguration [MK 9:2-13], and keeping watch while Jesus prayed in Gethsemane [MK 14:32-42].)

After Jesus predicted his death the third time James and John seemed to say, “Hey Jesus, phew! That sounds rough. So glad it’s going to work out, though. Just wondering…when you get to the heavenly banquet could you save those seats on either side of you? You know, just throw your cloak or something over them so everyone knows they are taken. Thanks dude!”

In their zeal for winning favoritism they eagerly assure Jesus they can drink the same cup and share the same baptism. Their affirmation, however, does not indicate they comprehend the depth of Jesus’ cup: that it is filled with suffering then salvation, and his baptism leads to death then resurrection.

James and John’s question speaks to the overall incomprehension of Jesus’ followers—contemporary Christians included—of the cost of discipleship. Mark’s Gospel continues, “When the ten heard this, they became indignant at James and John.” [MK 10:41]. We might initially think the ten were upset by James’ and John’s selfishness, but it is likely at least some of them shared the same self-interest and were ticked that James and John beat them to the punch. Ouch.

The community for whom Mark wrote his Gospel may also have included a few members who misunderstood the lesson of true greatness. Perhaps like James and John in today’s passage, they wanted to hitch their wagon to Jesus’ glory. Today’s church is no different. We want the glory but aren’t that thrilled about all the heavy lifting that goes with it. The thing is, to understand Mark’s gospel is to grasp that discipleship progresses to the cross.

Jesus’ teaching on service is clear. The privilege awarded to the disciple entails carrying that cross for others, and that leads to redemption. Jesus calls us to follow him, and fortunately for us he never throws up his hands and gives up on us, even those times when we drop our cross.

Mark’s Gospel tells us no disciple is perfect. Everyone, including the reader is in process.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

My Hungry Ghost

28th Sunday of Ordinary Time (B)

A guest post by Buddhaguysays.

I spend my life fighting my own selfishness, the urge to filter the world through the lens of “what’s in it for me?” As I have aged, raised a family, moved forward in a career, made friends, become part of various communities, this selfishness—my hungry ghost— has continued unabated and in fact has grown and expanded. It now has become tinged with worry and fear: “What if I don’t have enough to retire on, what if my way of life—my comfortable way of life—gets unhinged in some way through financial loss, illness or separation from family, or changes in my routine, or my community?” On, and on, and on the feedback loop goes.

I fight this urge to cling.  I strive to be “ego-less” to get outside myself and turn towards others. This I know is the right path, the path that my Catholic teaching exhorts as do the great wisdom teachings I have explored and tried to embrace in my lifetime.  But man, is it hard.  It is a battle I wage regularly and more often than not, I lose.

The reading from the Gospel of Mark contains the well-known passage: “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” [MK 10:25]. Jesus advises a rich man to sell all he has and give to the poor in order to attain treasure in heaven.  After the rich man leaves, despondent over this daunting requirement, Jesus tells his disciples that “there is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age…” [MK 10:29b].

In my simplistic reading of this gospel, it is the call for me to be “ego-less” to stand in relation to God, which of course means in relation to my neighbor (broadly defined as all of humanity and not just those in my family, town or country) within whom God dwells.  It is about turning off the filter that clings and hoards and says “what’s in it for me?” and turning on the filter that says “this life is not just about me, it is about God and all of God’s creation and living according to the gospel teachings.” This message is the hardest for those who have the most to lose.

I know the truth in this teaching. My selfish hungry ghost however is my constant companion. The battle continues.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

Remember Barsabbas?

two choices one path

7th Sunday of Easter (B)

No, I don’t mean Barabbas, the violent criminal who Pontius Pilate released from prison in exchange for Jesus. I mean Justus, a.k.a. Joseph, Barsabbas. He’s the guy who didn’t get chosen to fill the spot left open by Judas Iscariot, Jesus’ betrayer. The other unknown disciple, Matthias, got the job, according to the first chapter of The Acts of the Apostles [Acts 1:15-26]. For many readers, this account simply represents the early church getting its house in order before embarking on its evangelical mission. And it does seem to be the entire story; not only is this the first we hear of Matthias and Barsabbas, it is the last. Never again are either of them mentioned in the New Testament.

The girl detective in me has a few questions.

I am the kind of person who searches the background of snapshots for details that have nothing to do with the subject and everything to do with the experience of those who just happened to be standing nearby. Imagining the secret life of bystanders may be the stuff of fiction writers, but in the context of reading scripture, visualizing what the secondary characters in the story might be experiencing helps to further humanize the situation.

Many years ago as part of my theological studies I explored the various forms of prayer attributed to particular religious orders, Franciscan, Augustinian, Ignatian, for example. As a lifelong fan of the Jesuits, I was delighted to discover my preferred method followed the Ignatian way. This contemplative method invites the reader to insert him or herself into the story and attend to the feelings and images that arise. For example, I might imagine the colors and scents of goods being sold on the street, feelings of claustrophobia brought on by narrow and crowded alleyways, the sounds of mothers calling to their children, and the dust working its way between the soles of my feet and my sandals. The method also encourages the reader to dialog with the characters, not as a spectator, but as a participant who is known by the others.

Reading scripture this way is deeply personal and subjective. It is rich, I tell you, rich. Having said this, I am now obliged to make this public service announcement: context is everything. O Lord let not our imagination lead us away from what the text says. Readers must never “proof text,” manipulate, or misuse scripture in order to bolster a personal position.

The writers of sacred Scripture did not include superfluous details. Every chapter, verse, and detail is intentional and complete. That is not to say openings for deeper reflection do not exist. Nor does it suggest scripture is meant to be read literally. Exploring the layers beneath what has been written is fascinating work. Ascertaining the historical context, the literary form, the writer’s intended audience, and the situation being addressed helps readers relate to the text in a way that bridges it to contemporary life. In other words, what does this teaching mean for us today?

And now, back to Barsabbas and Matthias.

The purpose of the election was to restore the number of apostles to twelve by filling the space vacated by Judas. The explanation from Peter, the scriptural citation from the Psalms, and the detailed method are included by the writer (Luke) to show how the early church appointed leaders. The process of selection began with two nominees chosen from a pool of potential candidates. In order to qualify for the role, both Barsabbas and Matthias had to have been followers of Jesus from his baptism by John, through his ministry and then, to his death and resurrection. Following this nomination, the group engaged in communal prayer for Spiritual guidance and later, cast their votes to determine which of the two would share in the ministry of the twelve apostles.

“…and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was counted with the eleven apostles.” [Acts 1:26b]

Barsabbas was not chosen. The reason has no bearing on the storyline so it was not given. But I have to wonder, could his name have played a part? A bit too close to Barabbas, perhaps? So, I began researching Barsabbas. But the typically fruitful biblical commentaries, concordances, and dictionaries revealed little to nothing. So, I did what all modern day people do. I Googled his name. Google asked me, “Do you mean Barabbas?” Hmmm. This naming problem can’t be just a modern-day obstacle. I imagined the conversation between Peter, the others, and Barsabbas. It might have sounded something like this. “Say, look here Barsabbas, old chap, you really are a great guy but, we have to go with Matthias. It’s, well, it’s your name. Too close to Barabbas, too confusing. We just can’t do it.” Doubtful, but, possible. Still, if we are to accept that the appointment of Matthias was Spirit led, and that is what the text is telling us, we have to consider another option.

As one who accompanied Jesus and the other disciples, Barsabbas was almost certainly considered a good candidate because he exhibited certain leadership skills and possessed a solid understanding of Jesus’ teaching. While the text is silent on what came next for him, we can presume Barsabbas continued to live the life of a good disciple and worked to spread the gospel message in word and action. He did so as a member of the Christian community, just as we do. And, what about Matthias? Well, as mentioned above, he never reappears in the Scriptures either. This reveals yet another ecclesial reality: the majority of the work of pastoral leaders takes place in the background, quietly, and, for the most part, anonymously. Few disciples, ordained or lay, are recognized, named, or immortalized.

So, in addition to its original intent, this passage is a good reminder for each of us today to carry on, serve others and live out the Gospel in word and action with the utmost humility, just like the many other unknown Barsabbas’s and Matthias’s before us.

It’s not enough to bloom

5th Sunday of Easter (B)

Let’s talk about ripeness. And by ripeness I mean age, but I also mean fruitfulness. Surely we have heard people wax poetic about entering the autumn of one’s life, about earning one’s wrinkles, about aging with grace, about the privilege of reaching a ripe old age. You may even be one of them. When she was about 3 years old, my daughter used to say, “I can’t like that!” about many things that she did not want to accept. And while all of the above sentiments about aging are noble and true, I have to say, “I can’t like that!” no matter how I try. But as much as I would like to remain flower fresh all of my days I accept that it’s not enough to bloom. Aging is a lot like ripening. But before ripening can occur there must be fruit. And before fruit: a flower, and before the flower: a vine, a seed, and soil.

In John’s gospel, Jesus analogizes his relationship with the disciples to a vine and branches [John 15:1-8]  As branches, the disciples are nourished by the life-giving sap flowing through the vine. They grow and produce fruit. The fruit of the disciples is their action. They do the work of Christ. They cannot do this work on their own; they cannot leave the vine and survive. A branch that does not produce fruit indicates separation, disease, or the need for hard pruning.

Mystical metaphors such as the vine and the branches powerfully illustrate the mutual abiding between the Father and Jesus, and between Jesus and us. The image portrays Jesus as the conduit of divine direction between the vine grower (God) and the branches (us). Through these metaphors we grasp the reciprocal nature of Jesus’ consciousness and our responsibility to act upon it.

Earlier this month I spent a day tending to the flowering trees and shrubs in my garden. The long and harsh winter left many of them damaged with broken branches. I also noticed suckers and vertical shoots—non-producing growths that divert important nutrients from the healthy branches—emerging from the trunks. I know that carefully pruning away dead and useless growth encourages new growth and increases flowering. I am doing the same thing in my spiritual life: snipping away what does not bloom in order to open new spaces for regrowth.

Sour_cherriesBut it is not enough to bloom, is it? A tree heavy with blossoms may represent the peak of its beauty, but its showy fragrant flowers are designed to produce fruit. In the spiritual life the bloom is the time of conversion, that period of elation that comes with high inner consciousness and spiritual awareness. Neither the flowering tree or the spiritual high of conversion is sustainable; although they return, both must subside. The test of the bloom is the fruit that follows. If a bough of cherry blossoms is cut from the tree and brought inside one’s home, the space fills with fragrance but the blossoms will never produce cherries. If a person experiences a spiritual awakening while on a weekend retreat, yet Monday looks no different from the previous Friday, that person cannot produce fruit. But, let the cherry blossoms remain on the bough, let the petals fall, and let the fruit grow, ripen, and become food. Ripeness is the fulfillment of the bloom. The ability to nourish another is the revelation of its life’s work. This cannot happen unless it remains.

I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.” [John 15:5]

We are the branches of the true vine. Conversion and the call to discipleship can, and do, occur again and again if one remains on the vine. But branches don’t simply rest and admire their own glossy leaves and flowers, and neither can we. We are expected to bear fruit. And, we are expected to ripen. It is hard to watch the petals fall. It can be uncomfortable. I can’t like it and I wonder if I ever will, but I do understand.

The poet, Ranier Maria Rilke, describes this necessary discomfort in the following poem:

In the Drawing Room

They are all around us, these lordly men
in courtiers’ attire and ruffled shirts
like an evening sky that gradually
loses its light to the constellations; and these ladies,
delicate, fragile, enlarged by their dresses,
one hand poised on the neck-ribbon of their lapdog.
They are close to each of us, next to the reader,
beside us as we gaze at the objets d’art
they left behind, yet still possess.

Tactful, they leave us undisturbed
to live life as we grasp it
and as they could never comprehend it.
They wanted to bloom
and to bloom is to be beautiful.
But we want to ripen,
and for that we open ourselves to darkness and travail.

—Rainer Maria Rilke

From A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited by Anita Barrows and Joanna Macy.  1st edition. New York: HarperOne, 2009. p 106.

Today’s readings can be found here.