You have heard that it was said

6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)

I’m tired of feeling angry. Aren’t you?

I’m not saying there aren’t plenty of good reasons to be angry and I’m not diminishing the constructive value of anger. Without a doubt, healthy expressions of anger hold a valid place in the human experience.

In fact, it is due to our outrage over injustices perpetuated by oppressive regimes against men, women and children, and greed-driven exploitation of the Earth that we work tirelessly to secure human rights and to conserve our planet’s resources for future generations.

As a Christian—like members of many faith traditions—I believe that humans carry the divine imprint: that we are each created in the image of God.

This belief is foundational to our faith: we bear the presence of God. I become so angry when I hear the words and witness the actions of professed Christians who seem to have a selective understanding of this belief. My anger and frustration has compelled me to add my Christian voice to the historical conversation surrounding basic human rights.

Constructively channeled anger is the driver behind our progression towards a more just society, but anger that does nothing but foment more anger is deadly and frankly, I’m pretty tired of it.

I’m talking about an unattended-bonfire-in-a-forest-of-dead-trees-on-a-windy-day kind of anger. I’m talking about anger that feeds off fear and seeks to destroy what it doesn’t understand. I’m talking about anger that is capable of causing figurative and literal death.

Anger is the core of Jesus’ saying against killing, which we hear on the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time (A). It is the first of six sayings about conduct, also known as the antitheses, included in Matthew’s gospel account of the Sermon on the Mount.

Each saying begins with Jesus introducing a known and accepted teaching of the law, “You have heard it said…” which he then follows with “But I say to you…” and an expanded command that requires greater attention.

 “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgement.”  [MT  5:21-22a]

Yes, Jesus says, don’t physically kill each other. That’s pretty basic. But he adds that the kind of anger that leads to killing, that destroys relationships and causes deadly harm is to be avoided and reconciliation between peoples must always been sought.

Anger is growing, and it is wrapping its vines around every imaginable topic. While the vicious words exchanged online between people residing thousands of miles apart may not culminate in an actual murder, verbal expressions of hate wield the power to kill a person’s spirit and to shift the social dynamic away from the good.

We see this playing out in print and on television; we hear it coming from the mouths of our elected leaders. Virtual verbal combat also takes place where we live when we entertain private thoughts that diminish the dignity of another, even if we keep those thoughts to ourselves. We’re all guilty of it, sorry to say.

The other day— a particularly challenging media-saturated day—I watched a conversation between two strangers unfold into a hate-filled screed. Soon dozens upon dozens of people joined in the brawl. This kind of verbal pummeling between strangers is becoming commonplace all across the globe.

Many spirits were injured, if not slain, that day, including my own.

I took a step back and observed how anger was slowly sapping my spirit. A dark and brooding cynic with clouded vision was devouring my optimistic anything-is-possible, happy-go-lucky, creative self.

The constant reminder that the world is a mess is a self-fulfilling prophecy that like the sound of a dripping faucet can either drive us to madness or to a solution. Look, just because there is a 24/7/365 anger-inducing all-you-can-eat buffet of badness spread before us doesn’t mean we must partake in it. I think we forget sometimes that we have choices. I am choosing to push away from the hate buffet. (At least I’m trying to.)

In today’s first reading from Sirach (aka The Wisdom of Ben Sira, or Ecclesiasticus) the great sage touches upon the concept of free will—the power of choice.

“If you choose you can keep the commandments, they will save you; if you trust in God, you too shall live; he has set before you fire and water to whichever you choose, stretch forth your hand.” [SIR 15:15]

Ben Sira’s lesson concerns the daily choices people face and what guidance, if any, they use to make them. Isn’t it true that each day we have multiple opportunities to choose life-giving words and actions over the alternative?

The author of the much abbreviated Psalm[1] which we sing today represents sojourners like you and me who are immersed in the world, its challenges and its joys, and who strive to choose the good and who turn with hope to the Lord for guidance, strength, stamina, wisdom, and spiritual knowledge.

Our choices reflect how we view the world and all of its occupants. We mirror the divine image in the ways we treat loved ones as well as with strangers. What we put in our bodies, and what we feed our brains, what we purchase, and the ways we steward the Earth: these are not easy choices, but we put our hope in what is good and just.

Consider the death of a seed and all the secret happenings that occur beneath the soil before the first tender shoot works its way into the light. The constant shock and awe of anger and our increasingly ugly and disingenuous attempts to protect and conserve our illusions seems to want to trample any tendril of hope trying to break through. We must not allow this any longer.

While many of Jesus’ teachings were framed in eschatological (end times) language, his concern was with the way his followers interacted with one another here on earth, that they love one another as he loved them. Matthew is very clear that Jesus expected his teachings to be observed: do what the teacher says.

Hope is not a wish. It is an expression of confidence. I want to return to that hopeful side, and hold tight to the expectation that with God’s grace the goodness of humanity will prevail, and that we will continue to harness our fiery opposition to injustice and use it creatively to seek understanding, and quite literally save lives.

This is the only way for me, at least.

______________________

Readings for the 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time, (A)

1st reading: SIR 15:15-20
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 119
2nd Reading: 1 COR 2:6-10
Gospel: MT 5:17-37

______________________________

[1] Psalm 119, with 176 verses, is the longest in the Book of Psalms. A poem of 22 stanzas, one for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, was sung or recited in worship with the goal of encouraging the faithful to walk blamelessly through life, to turn to the Lord for refuge, guidance and strength and to seek with praise and thanksgiving a greater understanding of God’s ways as found in the law, testimony, precepts, statutes, commandments, judgements, and promises.

In the Din of our Discontent there lies the Burning Bush

3rd Sunday of Lent (C)

I love Moses. I love reading the stories surrounding his birth and adoption, his privileged upbringing, his character and his development as a leader. I love his cautious response to his calling, his developing relationship with God and his honest and forthright expression of frustration both with his work and with the people he was called to lead.

I’m grateful that the Hebrew Scriptures do not sugarcoat or disguise the faults and limitations of God’s chosen leaders and people. What this tells us is that God works through sinful people, and that is excellent news for us. Moses, for example, exhibited real and understandable emotions and weaknesses, making him, for me, one of the most sensitive and sympathetic characters in the Bible. And he’s more like you and me than one would think.

The first reading for the third week of Lent tells the story of Moses’ calling and commissioning. [Ex 3:1-8, 13-15]. The text tells us that while Moses was tending his father-in-law’s flock, an angel of the Lord visited him in the form of a burning bush. (For those who are paying attention, any time an angel or fire appears in Scripture something really big is about to happen. Here we have both!) Naturally, Moses was curious and turned to investigate how a bush could burn and not be destroyed. But before Moses could get closer, God called his name, as if to say, “Moses, this is not about the bush! This entire place is holy!”

Today as we reflect on Moses’ calling consider the burning bushes in your life. Moses witnessed the misery of his kinsman; he saw the injustice of their bondage and infighting [Ex 2:11-15].  What are the needs that demand your attention, what compels you to service? Do you recognize the holy ground beneath your feet? Ask yourself these questions, frequently. Because like the bush that burned but was not destroyed, our callings persist.

Moses became the official spokesperson for God, the hero of the Exodus story, the deliverer of the Ten Commandments and the fearless wilderness wanderer guiding thousands of liberated people to “a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” [Ex 3:8b]

But Moses himself did not get to see the Promised Land. Frankly, being on a first-name basis with God has its rewards, but it’s not all chocolates and roses. At the time of his calling Moses was so frightened by the power of God’s presence he hid his face [Ex 3:6]. He had serious doubts about his leadership abilities [Ex 3:11-14]. And on multiple occasions Moses questioned God’s motivation for saddling him with such a burdensome people [Numbers 11 is a doozy]. And they were a miserable bunch: their appalling lack of gratitude, their murmuring and grumbling about the food and conditions, and pining for a misremembered past, their abject disaffection with the present, skepticism about the future, their fickleness and idolatry, their lack of faith, and utter disrespect for Moses, and their rejection of God.

Still, through it all, Moses’ confidence in God’s faithfulness to him never wavered; he turned to God for strength and guidance again and again; he forged on, and he got the job done.

From the perspective of the post-exilic Jews, these stories were painful reminders of why they lost everything and were exiled to Babylon: they had forgotten who they were. But this understanding cemented the identity of Israel as a people freed from slavery by the hand of God; this truth is the heart of the Jewish faith. Moses completed the mission God entrusted to him and left an “afterwards[1]” that continues to grow stronger. The history of the Jewish people attests to this truth. This is our story too.

Because we live in a world of grumblers, I am sympathetic both to Moses and the people he led through the wilderness. We are a sorry, ungrateful, and dissatisfied mob. It is becoming harder and harder to fend off feelings of despair. Every day we read reports that tell us how far off the path we have stumbled. We are heading in the wrong direction. We have lost our way in the wilderness. Even worse is the knowledge we are willingly being led off that cliff.

Have we also forgotten who we are?

But listen carefully. Through the din of our discontent we can make out the sound of hope. It is there. I know it is there. It is rising up. It is a burning bush, do you perceive it? Take off your shoes.

_________________________________

Art: Kristen Gilje, Burning Bush, hand painted silk, 9ft. x 55 in., 2005

[1] Evelyn Eaton Whitehead and James D. Whitehead, Christian Life Patterns: The Psychological Challenges and Religious Invitations of Adult Life, Crossroad, New York. 1979. 152. The phrase, “leaving an afterwards” describes the selfless quality of intentionally devoting one’s life to something which we will not live to see completed. This ability to see beyond one’s own pleasure to the consequences future generations will face is dearly lacking in today’s socio-political climate. What kind of “afterwards” are we leaving?

Fearless wonderment and awe at Christmastime and beyond

Christmas 

I had a dream about angels falling like snowflakes. Outside my window fluffy snowflakes twirled lazily, in no rush to hit the ground, in that lovely way snow sometimes does. As I gazed at the sight, individual flakes began to increase in size. I was mesmerized. First one, then another. Each took on a ghostly form, white and translucent. In my dream I saw wings, lots of wings, and light. I don’t remember if any of the angels touched the ground but I was compelled to move closer to the window and then to the door, which I opened. I reached out my hand and one came to me. I must have exclaimed something because my husband called from across the room, asking what I was doing. “Don’t you see them?” I said, “There are angels!” His brow rose in concern, but when I showed him my hands his expression changed. I could tell he saw what I saw. And, at that moment, an angel landed on his hand.

I have to confess that I don’t spend much time thinking about the existence of angels, but I know many people who do. There is an entire area of systematic theology devoted to the doctrine of angels, appropriately called Angelology. In Scripture, angels are spirit messengers, guardians, and divine agents, and of course throughout the Advent season, we have heard various scriptural accounts of angelic activity. The Christmas liturgies each include references to angels surrounding the birth of Jesus. Angels are active and present as mediators throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, and as messengers in the New Testament.

But my purpose in sharing my dream here, and on Christmas day no less, is not to open up a discussion of angels, or to affirm or dispute their presence or activity in the world, or to even interpret the meaning of my dream. Rather, I want to encourage a measured sense of fearless wonderment and awe for the things that give us hope, but which we can’t fully understand. Things like the countless ways God communicates in us, with us, and through us. And, like the birth, life, and mission of Jesus, the Word, whom the writer of Hebrews identifies as the “imprint of God’s very being” [Heb 1:1-6 ].

The reflections for the four Sundays of Advent found here on The Good Disciple blog began with the decision to nurture the tender shoot emerging from our hardened hearts, to open an interior space into which the Word of God could enter, to recognize our own belovedness, and finally to give our fiat to God’s movement in our lives and in the lives of others. With the passing of each week we have worked to prepare a dwelling place which is fresh, unobstructed, expectant, and ready to receive the infant Jesus.

It is my hope that as good disciples, we will continue to nurture this place in our hearts where the spirit of God dwells, inspires, comforts, and encourages us to do God’s will.

May we all experience the Wonderment and Awe of Christmas every day, and the Joy of knowing our God whose loving presence is revealed to us constantly, in countless ways, if we only will open our eyes and see it.

Merry Christmas!

The Advent of Christ

A reflection on the First week of Advent, by Fr. Joel Fortier.

Hope and expectation are the notes of Advent. The advent of Christ, the coming of Christ, is a great cause for expectant faith and joyful hope! We look forward to the fullness of Christ in us. The mystery of Christ has already begun, we are in the time between the “yet” and the “not yet”. Christ has already come, Emmanuel, God-with-us, is already here, present with us, within us, and among us. And yet the fullness of the Presence is still to be revealed! 

Every moment is pregnant with grace waiting to be embraced and brought to birth in us. Every moment is an opportunity to grow in grace…in love, in Christ, to live in Christ, even as Christ lives in us…in love. The mystery of “Christ in you” is yet to be fully revealed; your true self, hidden with Christ in God is coming, we wait patiently for it to be revealed. The vision presses on, has its own time, it will not delay, it will surely come. Come Lord Jesus, come! No longer I but Christ living in me! Reveal yourself to me, my true self, hidden with you in God. Let it be revealed! 

Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel! 

Christ is coming, is already with us, Emmanuel, God-with-us, the God who was, who is, and who is to come! Christ comes into our lives in the form of people who evoke love in us; who cause us to love. Christ is the invitation to love. 

Advent is pregnant with hope and longing for the promise of Christmas, the Incarnation of love in us. We cover up that hope and longing with all the intensity of Christmas planning, shopping, gifts, decorations, parties, etc. but what is driving us underneath all that is the hope of what Christmas promises. We do want and long for that, the realization of love in our lives, and so we go about all the frenetic energy of pre-Christmas, looking for love in all the wrong places, but still…searching for love. And that is a good thing! We just need to understand what we are really searching for. 

We need to go underneath all our activity, to that place of deep longing in our hearts, to our desire for love, our hope; to wait on the Word of promise planted in our hearts,  and listen to it, to that deep longing. It is the true spirit of Christmas coming. We need to wait patiently, actively listening to the Love Word of God as Mary did; pondering these things of the heart. Then it will come to birth. Advent is a time of gestation. 

It is good to learn the discipline of waiting, of active listening. It is an old saying that “patience is the mother of all virtue.” It is good to be open to the possibilities of love, in an otherwise jaded, pessimistic, and impatient world. Love keeps hope alive. Allow love to live in your heart today. Wait, watch, look, listen, open your heart and mind to love. Love is coming! Jesus is coming, Jesus is coming, oh yes I know!! 

Freedom is Coming, by Gospelchor Wildschonau, from the Album “Theres a Meeting Here Tonight” on Spotify.com

____________________________

Born in1942 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, anywhere and any way possible.”

God Speaks, Easter People

Easter

I am, you anxious one.

Don’t you sense me, ready to break
into being at your touch?
My murmurings surround you like shadowy wings,
Can’t you see me standing before you
cloaked in silence?
Hasn’t my longing ripened in you
from the beginning
as fruit ripens on a branch?

I am the dream you are dreaming.
When you want to awaken, I am waiting.
I grow strong in the beauty you behold.
And with the silence of stars I enfold
your cities made by time.

—God Speaks. Ranier Maria Rilke, From The Book of Hours I, 19

Not only His longing, but ours. We are faced with one choice: to be an Easter people and step into the light, or to roll the stone back to its place and extinguish hope.

I will choose the light. Happy Easter, people!