Saturday, September 10, 2011

Great sinners receive great mercy

"Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost." (1 Tim 1:15)

Paul’s first letter to Timothy stuns us. Although some question Paul’s authorship, others find a great similarity in this so called pastoral epistle and Paul’s earlier letters. They also suggest that Paul would have written his letters to Timothy in his old age, a speculation that, as I grow older, attracts me to read it carefully. 

Paul asserts that he is foremost among sinners.  Don’t we all feel that at times? And this sentiment might be overwhelmingly depressing, if it opened the letter, but just a few verses before writing this, Paul reminds Timothy, “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.”   It is gratitude for the mercy of God that compels Paul to write without fear about the errors in Ephesus where Timothy is ministering.  While Paul’s words are hard, they are not judgmental. Rather, he identifies with the errors he wants Timothy to correct and assures him that God’s grace will be sufficient for the task.

Mercy is a wonderful word, especially when we look at its Latin equivalent, misericordia. Misericordia means heart sorrow.  God’s heart is mercifully, full of sorrow for us, and full of a desire to understand and help us.  Made in God’s image we need to have “heart sorrow” for those who have hurt us, hurt our families, or our country. Only mercy, not vengeance, will convince them that there is a path to healing and hope for all those who turn to God with open spirits.

If we can acknowledge that, in fact, we are great sinners because we have, like Paul,  ignorantly failed to be  grateful for all the gifts of life and faith we have received,  then we will have no fear. God's mercy is waiting for us, yearning for us, anxious to heal us.

Friday, September 9, 2011

St Peter Claver, Slave of the Slaves

"We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips." St. Peter Claver

The feast of St. Peter Claver is one I always enjoy celebrating, first because Fr. Peter Claver Eich was my vocation director.  That Fr. Peter Claver was also a great athlete did not hurt his invitation to me to consider becoming a Capuchin.  But even more important, St Peter Claver attracted me because of his heroic life and the service he offered to slaves in what today is Cartegena, Columbia. Leaving his home in Spain, never to return, St Peter Claver's bold spirit captured my youthful imagination and spoke to me of possibilities that I did not want to consider.  After all, I fancied myself as an athlete, and in the words of an early basketball coach, would someday “make a difference at center court.”  Never mind that I was 5’ 9” and slow.  I understood basketball from the inside and dreamed of playing professionally.  

The story of St. Peter Claver’s life made me reconsider my priorities and forced me to think beyond sports to a world of religious heroism.  Here was a man who spent almost forty years on the docks of Cartagena waiting to care for slaves who had been so badly treated on their journey from Africa that one third of them died in transit.  As soon as the slaves landed, Peter would rush to them with medicine, food and (dare I say it) tobacco.  As he himself said, "We must speak to them with our hands before we try to speak to them with our lips."(1)

What a powerful sentiment!  That we must speak to people with our hands before we announce the gospel to them remains powerful advice.  Especially today, when the church is under such a cloud because of the sexual abuse of children by priests, we would do well to listen more and speak less. As the book of Lamentations reminds us, "It is good to hope in silence for the Lord's deliverance." (3:30) While we cannot fail to announce the truths of our faith tradition, especially about justice for all, we ought to do so with a soft voice and strong, loving hands.  Our actions for justice will convince more people about the gospel compunction we feel than all the words in the Bible.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Birth of Mary

"She was found with child through the holy Spirit." (Lk 1:18)

One of the most challenging and easily ignored aspects of salvation history is the sketchiness of Jesus' genealogy. Although very uncommon in Jewish record keeping, five women are mentioned, two of whom are prostitutes and one an adulteress.  This is no accident.  The gospels will consistently remind us that unless we think outside the box, we will miss the power of Christ's life and mission.

The gospel is about conversion and redemption.  All of us make mistakes, some of them egregious and overwhelming.  If we allow ourselves to get trapped in these mistakes than the possibility of forgiveness and transformation will seem impossible. The gospel is full of stories of forgiveness and new life. In fact,  Matthew mentions the word forgiveness 47 times. Even more important are the stories of faith and courage, the most dramatic of which is Mary's. 

Anxious and upset about the angel's message to her that she would become pregnant, she resists, and only after being reassured that her pregnancy is of the Holy Spirit does she consent to God's will for her.  But what impresses me even more is her willingness, after being reassured that God is with her, to visit her cousin Elizabeth who was also newly pregnant. No Jewish woman would venture to travel alone for fear she would be judged a prostitute, but Luke's Gospel suggests that Mary's confidence in God was such that traveling alone and being judged harshly meant nothing to her. 

Mary continues to astound us, even after the death of Jesus.  Despite the fact that the gospel's tell us that his disciples abandoned her son during his suffering and death, Mary continues to accompany them (Acts 1), and we can be sure, she will accompany us.  Mary has been given to us not only as the mother of Jesus, but our mother. The birth of Mary reminds us to depend on her not only as an icon of faith, but as a mother to whom we can always turn.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Dying in order to Live

Often enough, perhaps because it feels too negative, we fail to speak of Baptism as a death.  Committed to life in Christ, it is only natural for us to speak of the cleansing and refreshing waters of Baptism, but unless we are careful, we will miss an important and potentially transformative aspect of our faith.  Paul is clear about this. “You were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead.” (Col 2:12)  We can’t be raised until we die!

Baptism is about dying to ourselves. It is about plunging into the waters of faith each day and letting go of our hurts, resentments, fears and anger, but we can only do this if we remember that we have been saved in Christ, and have developed a security in the unconditional and total love of God for us.  

Parents often learn this lesson early in the life of their children.  An infant cannot survive without her mother and dad feeding her, clothing her, protecting her.  She is totally dependent on others for life.  When this dependence manifests itself in the middle of the night, it is often not easy for parents. So many young friends have told me of their exhaustion in the first months of their child’s life.  Getting up three or four times a night to feed, comfort and change a child is simple and natural but very difficult.  

And the dying continues when a child goes to school or leaves home for college or marries.  The control parents once had is gone.  Others influence their children in ways they cannot determine, and they must trust that God will be their children’s guide and that they will remember the values taught them.  

Practicing letting go is a powerful spiritual exercise made easier when we practice gratitude.  Thanking God for life, salvation, faith and the freedom to love on a daily basis lays the foundation for the letting go that all of us must face and endure.  When we begin and end each day with gratitude, it takes the sting out of the lack of control we have over life.

Don’t be afraid to die to yourself today.  God has promised us life forever.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

We all have vocations

“He called them to himself” Lk 6:13

The call of the Apostles is a simple, but important, moment in the gospel narrative.  Jesus, after praying all night, calls 12 of his disciples and names them apostles, a term that means “sent.”  From the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, therefore, there is a sense that the mission of Jesus is bigger than we might have first imagined.  Twelve apostles, all of whom except John were married, will be sent into the world to proclaim the glory of God in Jesus and build the Kingdom. While they might begin with the 12 tribes of Israel, Luke will soon make it clear that their mission is to the entire world, not just to the Jewish community.  Even after acknowledging the magnitude of this mission, there remains in me a nagging question.  What happened to their wives?  

I realize that my question is a modern one, and clearly not the first concern of the gospel writer, but it is important for us I think because marriage is so central of our self understanding as Catholic Christians. This past weekend I had the great privilege and pleasure to meet with a young couple preparing for marriage as well as witness the renewal of vows of a couple married fifty years.  Both couples touched me.     

The young couple’s love is so fresh, so active that I could not help but be delighted with their care for one another and their desire to prepare for marriage with integrity and joy.  As we talked about their marriage ceremony it was clear to me that they wanted their wedding both to witness to their particular love and prepare them for a life together. Their wedding ceremony was not simply a hoop through which they had to jump, but a symbol of what they hoped to become. As we chatted, it became clear to me that the like the apostles, this couple has a mission.

The older couple’s joy was different, and best understood through the lives of their children and grandchildren.  At mass, each of the grandchildren placed a stone or shell in a clear bowl indicating their uniqueness as people and their union as family.  Diverse in personality but one in family was clearly the theme of the day.  More important, as the party moved through the afternoon, the wealth of memories and commitment this marriage has produced were very impressive. It was clear to me from the peace that crept over the gathering of family and friends, that this couple had implanted powerful and lasting values in their children and grandchildren. Be yourself, the air seemed to say, but don’t forget that you are family, that you have a faith and that you have a mission: Proclaim the power of God through your love for one another. With St Paul this couple clearly taught their extended family: "So faith, hope, love remain, these three, but the greatest of these is love." 1 Cor. 13: 13