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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Non Violence

"When the king heard this news, he was struck with fear and very much shaken. Sick with grief because his designs had failed, he took to his bed. There he remained many days, overwhelmed with sorrow, for he knew he was going to die." I Mc 6: 8-10

The two books of Maccabees recount the success of the Jewish people in defending their land and people, but only if they worship the one God and live according to the law.  Violent and graphic, the books of Maccabees are not easy to read because they force us to think about and reflect on our own violence especially towards those we perceive as vulnerable.

Today's reading is about King Antiochus who recognizes the foolishness of the violent path his life has taken, but only after he has failed to conquer those he perceived as weak.  Realizing that his own life was near an end, and full of anxiety, he goes to bed knowing that sooner rather than later someone more violent than he will come to kill him.  In fact, however, his spirit has already died because he has no hope for transformation or reconciliation.

For Christians hope can never die because Christ is always waiting and anxious for us to return to a path of compassion and justice.  Though not all Christians feel called to an intentional life of non violence, it is a real option for some, and one to which many of our contemporaries have given their lives. One group with which I have been familiar for many years,  The Institute for Peace and Justice, is worth exploring. 

I would encourage families especially to look a the  Family Pledge of Non Violence as a conversation starter and possible commitment. If we can find a way as families to begin a life of non violence in our homes and communities, we can make a real difference in the world. Though difficult to live out, especially in a world and culture as competitive as ours, non violence can be a leaven in our families and neighborhoods.  When our friends and relatives know that we are working to let go of the need to always be right for the sake of being in peaceful relationships with one another, they might see themselves in a different light and begin to work towards letting go of those memories, attitudes and habits that separate them from their authentic selves. 

Today, as Thanksgiving nears, take a moment to pray for those who are separated from their families and friends because of unresolved conflicts.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Dedication of the Basilicas of Sts Peter and Paul

"Jesus entered the temple area and proceeded to drive out those who were selling things." Lk 19:45

For a millenium the basilica of St Peter's and St Paul outside the walls, although miles apart, were connected by a covered colonnade, a visual sign that Peter who represented the foundation of the church in Jerusalem and Paul who went as missioner to the nations, had roles that were intimately tied to one another.  Every community or institution that wants to have an impact in the world must have both a vision out of which it operates, and a commitment to spread its message, its good news, to everyone.

Another necessary aspect of this bilateral identity, which some call roots and branches, is its ability to address the major issues that its people confront everyday.  What for instance has the church to say to the people who are organizing Occupy Wall Street?  Thousands of people all around our country have been gathering to protest high unemployment, greed, corruption and the terrible and growing disparity between rich and poor people in our nation.

Whether you support the protests or not, it is impossible to ignore them.  They are loud, angry and persevering and they echo a telling Op Ed piece in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristoff almost a year ago  "From 1980 to 2005, more than four-fifths of the total increase in American incomes went to the richest 1 percent," Kristoff wrote, and "The richest 1 percent of Americans now take home almost 24 percent of income, up from almost 9 percent in 1976." (1) From the perspective of faith, it is not simply the skewed numbers that demand our attention, it is how this disparity in wealth affects the poorest among us who Jesus demanded we protect and help.

It seems to me that Jesus was responding to a similar situation in today's gospel when he drove people who were selling things out of the temple.  The Lord's upset was not simply an angry rant against the sellers, he was raging against those who sold things and provided a money exchange around the temple at terribly inflated rates, especially to pilgrims who arrived at the temple in Jerusalem for the first and often the only time in their lives.  

During the ugly budget debates in the Spring of 2011, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops offered some moral guidelines for us in this regard and warned us that just as the the poor pilgrims in the gospel were protected by an angry Jesus, we too must keep the needs of the poor before us when we make our budgets.  The bishops wrote,  “Many proposals under discussion fail the moral criteria of Catholic teaching to protect the poor and advance the common good,” and “Poor and vulnerable people didn’t cause our budget deficit. They should not bear the greatest burdens in overcoming them. Don’t make them pay for it.”(2) 

Today, talk with someone about your own temptation to greed and the Christian responsibility to keep the needs of the poor in front of us when we make our personal and national budgets.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

St Elizabeth of Hungary

"There she attended the most wretched and contemptible at her own table." (Office of Readings)

Married at fourteen, she had three children by the time she was twenty when her husband died tragically.  By twenty four she was dead herself.  If this sounds like a thousand other stories you have read about a girl from almost any inner city in the United States, it isn't. It is a synopsis of the life of St Elizabeth of Hungary, the patroness of the Secular Franciscan Order, who in less than a quarter of a century of living, fired the imaginations of her contemporaries with her love of the poor and her willingness to serve them with her own hands and food.  In fact, her witness was so powerful, she was canonized only four years after her death.

Elizabeth was born into and married royalty. She had access to money and power, but when her husband died on his way to fight the sixth crusade,  she decided to leave the palace and follow Conrad,  her Franciscan spiritual director, to Marburg where she continued her life of compassion for those most in need.  Conrad wrote that Elizabeth "built a hospice where she gathered together the weak and the feeble. There she attended the most wretched and contemptible at her own table."(1)

Heroines and heroes are always important.  They not only encourage us to stretch beyond what feels comfortable in our faith practices and to live simple lives, they also remind us that our lives as Christians are public lives and ought to be impact the lives and lifestyles of our communities and nations. 

People of faith, especially the married and families, are the ground upon which the church builds communities of compassion for the poor and justice for all. After all, it was the faith and courage of our parents and grandparents, so many of whom were immigrants, who came to this country and built, hospitals, schools, orphanages, soup kitches and shelters because they knew that faith demanded they respond to the struggles they saw all around them.  Though the structures might change, the demand of the gospel to feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty will never change. St. Elizabeth of Hungary, who is the patroness of Catholic Charities, remains an icon who challenges our generation not only to pray for justice in our churches, but to live the gospel in our streets.

Today, recall someone who has been a heroine of hero to you and pray to live like them.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Spend Your Gifts

"I tell you, to everyone who has, more will be given, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away." Lk 19:27

As we near the end of another liturgical year, the church offers us scriptural texts that help us reflect on the the year that is fast slipping away.  How have we used the gifts we received?  Have we spent them on behalf of the kingdom?  Are we richer for having given them away?

Luke's story of the nobleman who gives his servants 10 gold coins and challenges them to multiply his wealth while he is away, reminds us of Matthew's story of the talents but it is very different. Ten gold coins is a very modest gift.  Unlike a talent which would have been worth about $25,000, ten gold coins would have been the equivalent of about $200, and it should not have caused the servants overwhelming fear nor been difficult to invest in such way as to provide the nobleman with a healthy profit when he returned.

In other words, Jesus is suggesting that the gospel is easy to grow if we give it away generously. While some might fear that if we "spend" the gospel completely we will having nothing, everything about Jesus' life and death suggests that the more we give away the little we have, the more we will have for ourselves and everyone else who needs or wants it.  The multiplication of the loaves and fish is only one example of this. Fear should have no place in the life of Christ's disciples, but it often does.

For those of us raised during the Second World War and as children of parents who experienced the Great Depression, fear was a constant companion. Supplies of meat,  butter, sugar and gasoline were very limited and were used sparingly for fear there would be nothing for tomorrow.  Sometimes forgetting this, the children of friends often tease their parents for shopping at BJ's or Sam's Club and buying 50 rolls of paper towels when they only use one roll a week.  When these young people snicker at their parent's habits, they fail to acknowledge the fear their parents often carry, even after fifty years of relative prosperity.  Fear leads to hoarding and lack of trust in a system that failed to protect the poor.  Fear leads to shopping for bargains all the time even if the store with the best prices is 25 miles away and the cost of travel wipes out any saving they might realize from the bargain.

And it was fear that got in the way of the leaders of the Jewish people trusting Jesus and following him. Jesus' views and stance were too radical.  When Jesus suggested that he did not need a place to lay his head or a bank to protect his wealth, they thought he was insane, and their fear of his growing power got in the way of their hearing the gospel.  Unless we learn to trust God in all things, knowing that we are worth more than many sparrows, (Mt 10:31) our fear will allow us to cling to our possessions and justify our greed.  The good news of Jesus Christ is to be given away, and sharing the good news is the only way it can spread to all the nations.

Today ask yourself how you can give the gospel away, how you can be a disciple?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Redemption

"Jesus looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” Lk 19:5

Every time I read the story of Zacchaeus, I smile. Imagining Jesus' rueful look as he spots Zacchaeus in the tree, I wonder whether Jesus might have whispered: "I know you are fascinated by me, Zacchaeus, but you didn't have to climb a tree, especially at your age.  You could have killed yourself. Be at peace, brother.  I know you are a tax collector and have probably overcharged many, but now that you have demonstrated your willingness to seek a different path I will help you."

This kind of imaginative writing would have been called midrash at the time of Jesus.  It was a common practice for the rabbis to "fill in the untold story," in their commentaries on the Torah. Because so much of the scripture was written after the fact, the scribes and evangelists would have had to fill in the details of the stories about history long past and the life of Jesus. While today I smiled as I imagined a whispered conversation that Jesus might have had with Zacchaeus,  at other times I thought of myself  as a tax collector who, though intrigued by Jesus, didn't have the humility to climb a tree and risk embarrassment to "see" Jesus more clearly.  Imagining the untold stories inside the life of Jesus helps us draw closer to the Lord and enter more deeply into the great mystery of faith.

St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, encouraged his followers to use a kind of midrash by letting their imaginations help them enter the gospel narrative.  In the second week of the Spiritual exercises, he urges his brothers to walk along with Mary and Joseph as they prepare for the birth of Jesus by imagining,  “the labors of the journey to Bethlehem, the struggles of finding a shelter, the poverty, the thirst, the hunger, the cold, the insults that meet the arrival of God-with-us.”(1) How powerful this kind of prayer can be!  We smell the dankness of the stable, feel Mary's fear not having a proper place to go into labor, and touch Joseph's anxiety about his wife's safety and comfort. The story of God's love for us in Jesus comes alive in this way and our faith gets stirred up.

Using our imaginations at prayer will not only fill us with joy as we pray the gospel, it will sometimes lead us into difficult and uncomfortable questions.  Was Jesus trying to undermine the authority of the Jewish leaders by sharing a meal with a "unclean" tax collector like Zacchaeus?  Is he urging us to "speak truth to power," in our nation, parish and church? Learning to live peacefully with the questions that emerge naturally from our prayer is a necessary step in the spiritual life.  Jesus does not want us to be afraid and promises always to be with us on our journey.  He is the ground beneath our feet, our food along the way and the breath of God's love that keeps us alive, but he also demands that we become other centered and involved with those who have no voice, no home, no food. 

Today, try using your imagination to enter a gospel story more completely, and don't be afraid of where it takes you.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Ask for help

"What do you want me to do for you?"

That Jesus asks a blind man what he wants is amazing to me.  It seems so obvious that the man wants to see, but Jesus asks anyway.  When the man says that he wants to see, Jesus heals him but at the same time reminds him that something even more important has happened.  Because the blind man believed in Jesus' power to help him,  he is saved. 

The story, which first seems to be about a blind man recovering his sight, becomes a story about all of us.  When we place our trust in and hand over our lives to the Lord, we are saved.  The humility that allows us to let go of our fear and our pride and ask for help, makes it possible for the Lord to change our lives. Asking for help is difficult and can sometimes make us feel weak, but it is a necessary step in the spiritual life. 

A few years ago a young man asked me to help him with his anger. Because he often reacted to others or to perceived slights with an explosion of words, he knew he was isolating himself from his friends, coworkers and family.  It did not matter that almost before the words were out of his mouth he was sorry, by then it was often too late.  The people against whom he was reacting were upset and hurt, and there was little he could do to right the wrong.  His anger had become  his signature and many people avoided him when having a difficult discussion.

The young man knew he needed to change his reactive behavior. I suggested to him that he wear a rubber band around his wrist and touch it when he thought he was getting near his own anger. Then, if could use the rubber band to help him wait five seconds before saying anything, he would be able to interrupt his destructive behavior before it exploded in a torrent of words that hurt and frightened others. The young man wore the rubber band everywhere and slowly his practice began to pay dividends.  He would snap the rubber band against his wrist so that it stung a little when he felt agitated, and each time he did it he was reminded to go slowly, to wait five seconds before he said anything.  After a few months, he reactive anger was tamed.  While he still felt the anger,  he rarely expressed it in ways that hurt or frightened others.  Soon after that, his friends began to sense the change in his behavior and began to trust him again. When we ask for help, like the blind man or my young friend, everything can change and the path that seemed so dark can be full of light.

Today, ask the Lord for the help you need to change a destructive pattern in your life.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Using our talents

"To one he gave five talents; to another, two; to a third, one-- to each according to his ability." Mt 25:15

That everyone has a talent is probably self evident to most of us, and oftentimes we are very grateful for the talents of a friend who can tweak a computer, fix a faucet or sit with us when we are lost.  While the talent might not seem very important to them, when we are in need, the talents of generous friends are a precious gifts. 

What is not self evident, however, is that our talents, in a gospel context, are not for ourselves.  Each of us has been gifted by God for the sake of others.  We are part of a community, we are the body of Christ, and as a community of faith we can only be ourselves and function well when all the parts are playing their proper role.  We do not need a hand to be a foot, or an ear to be a mouth.  We need each part of the body to be itself for the good of the whole.

Yesterday, I had the great privilege of celebrating the 50th wedding anniversary of my sister and brother in law.  It was a glorious day in every way.  It was cool but sunny; almost everyone my sister and brother in law invited were able to be there, and the liturgy was beautiful, powerful and inviting.  My sister and brother in law are people of faith and vital members of their parish community.  Now that their days of raising children are over, they spend their considerable talents for the good of their parish and local church.  My brother in law and sister know that the talents they have been given are for the good of all. To hoard their talents would never occur to them.  Though neither of them came from families of means, they learned very early in their lives that life was only joyous when you shared whatever you were given with others. 

The gospel today reminds us that there is no reason to fear.  God is with us, will protect us and demands that we give away our talents no matter anxious we might be about having enough for ourselves.  Some reading the gospel today are people with multiple talents.  If, however, they use those talents only to satisfy their own needs for power or security, they condemn themselves.  While Jesus uses the person with one talent, who buries it for fear he will lose it, to challenge us to go beyond our fears, all of us, no matter how poor or wealthy, must guard against greed. Not only our property and our money, but our ideas, our creativity, our lives only make sense in a gospel setting when they are handed over for the good of all people and all nations.  It is in this way that we witness to the power of Christ living in us and continue to build the Kingdom of God.

Today, rejoice in your talent. Then give it away to whomever needs it.