The Gate and The Shepherd (John 10:1-10)

Fourth Sunday of Easter

Many of us are familiar with Gospel passages where Jesus speaks of himself as a shepherd. We know the parable he tells of a shepherd who, noticing that one of his hundred sheep has wandered off and gotten lost (as sheep do), leaves the 99 grazing securely in their pasture and looks for the one who has wandered away. Jesus also refers to himself as the Good Shepherd whose sheep know his voice and follow him: “I know my sheep, and mine know me.” This imagery flows from the images of God as shepherd in the Old Testament. Psalm 23 offers perhaps the most famous example: “The Lord is my shepherd…” But in the Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Jesus is the Gate for the sheep.

What does it mean that he is the Gate? “Truly I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.” John goes on to add: “Although Jesus used this figure of speech, the Pharisees did not realize what he was trying to tell them. So Jesus said again, ‘Truly I say to you, I am the gate for the sheep….A thief comes only to steal and slaughter and destroy; I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.'” But in this cluster of metaphor where Jesus is the gate, he is also the shepherd. He says in verse 14, “I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know me — just as the Father knows me and I know the Father — and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

If we think of Jesus not as a physical gate that opens and closes, but as the shepherd who is himself the “gate” because it is he through whom the sheep come and go safely each day, he who leads them in and out, then it becomes somewhat easier to conceptualize him as both the gate and the shepherd. But I think there is another meaning at work here as well. Shepherds who are like Jesus — those who enter through him as the gate — are those who are faithful to his call to care for his people in his name. Jesus distinguishes between these true shepherds — such as Peter, to whom he said, “Feed my sheep,” and faithful priests and ministers today — and the thieves and robbers who pillage the sheepfold by breaking into it far away from the gate. These robbers try to steal the sheep and harm them, pretending or assuming that this sheepfold is theirs. But they are violating it; it is not theirs, because they did not enter through Christ.

We know who some of these thieves and robbers are in the text because John tells us that Jesus is directing this metaphor at the Pharisees. Among the Pharisees were many corrupt religious leaders of the time. It is remarkable that the only people toward whom Jesus ever expresses any anger in the Gospels are those who are self-satisfied, without mercy, and corrupt. Into this category fall many of the powerful and those with status, especially Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes, who are supposed to be religious leaders. Instead, many of them have been corrupted by their status and indulge themselves in self-righteousness, legalism to the exclusion of compassion, and lord their power instead of serving the people and showing them the love that comes from God. In every Gospel, Jesus indicts their self-satisfaction, accusing them of placing heavy burdens on others and then not lifting a finger to help them. He sees through their flattering exterior to their interior corruption, telling them that although they think they have no need of God’s mercy and forgiveness, they are in fact a brood of vipers who have placed themselves far away from God and far away from God’s mercy. By their own choice they have closed themselves off to God’s transformative love.

But the fact that they are sinners is not the problem, according to Jesus. He continually poured out compassion for people who, knowing their sins separated them from God and knowing their need for God’s mercy, came to him and always received the purifying mercy and forgiveness that they sought. The problem occurs when a person does not know of their sins because they will not allow themselves to acknowledge any sinfulness. They are too busy taking pride in themselves to recognize any sins that may be theirs. Not acknowledging their human need for God’s mercy and so never experiencing its tenderness, they cannot and do not show that mercy to others. The Pharisees constantly criticize Jesus for spending time with “sinners,” never recognizing that they should have been putting themselves in that group too, and joyfully doing so! If they had, they could have experienced the same restorative compassion that Jesus poured out to the “sinful” woman with the alabaster jar, and to the woman caught in adultery, and to the tax collectors, prostitutes, and all the others who represented sheep in need of their Shepherd.

If those who are to care for people in Jesus’ name will be true shepherds and not thieves and robbers who harm them, they must enter through the Gate who is Christ. That means they must truly know Christ, and be truly known by him. It means being unlike the Pharisees and more like the throngs of people who came to Christ broken in some way and placed themselves in his care, and received more than they ever thought they could. And then they pass all that beauty on to others because they received it from him. The shepherds must have his gentleness. Only then will the people perceive in their voices the voice of the Good Shepherd who loves them.

Redeemer, may I always be willing to come to you, hiding nothing because I know I do not need to hide anything. May I always remember to let you into my heart, so that I may be continually transformed by your gentleness.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

The Easter Triduum, When Time Stands Still

During our Good Friday liturgy this year, one of our priests commented that a parishioner once said to him, “In the Triduum, it’s as if time stands still.” This is true. The Three Days — Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday culminating in the Easter Resurrection — have been venerated by Christians for 2,000 years as the holiest time of the year. Appropriately, the feel of the liturgies during the Triduum is different from any other. The unity of these Three Days, and thus the “time standing still” character of them, is reinforced by the fact that in Catholicism, the liturgies are treated symbolically as one extended event from the opening of the Holy Thursday Mass to the close of the Easter Vigil Mass. Because of this, there is no formal dismissal at the conclusion of the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, which ends with Jesus waiting for his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane; there is not the usual beginning or any dismissal in the Good Friday Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion and Death; and there is certainly not the usual beginning of Mass at the opening of the Easter Vigil. At the conclusion of the Vigil, we finally have again the formal dismissal. Only with this does the Triduum end and time moves forward again. At the Easter Sunday Masses the next day, the Church returns to the normal format.

Each of the Triduum liturgies has its own unique character and purpose. At the Holy Thursday Mass of the Lord’s Supper, we celebrate Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist, the sign of his eternal presence with his people on this Earth; and we re-enact his washing of the disciples’ feet, the sign-act of his commandment for humble service of others. This is the refrain of the hymn that we sing during the washing of feet at our church: “I, your Lord and Master, now become your servant… I who made the moon and stars will kneel to wash your feet… This is my commandment, to love as I have loved you… Kneel to wash each other’s feet, as I have done for you.”

It’s almost impossible for a self-aware person to participate in the Holy Thursday liturgy without feeling a recognition of all the ways that we do not love as Jesus loves us, all the ways that we resist the idea of humble service or even humility in general, all the ways that we resist the idea of washing another’s feet even metaphorically. Our overly-developed sense of individualism and our self-centeredness so often get in the way. But Jesus knew that, and that is why he gave us this sign-act as an example for us to follow, and we remind ourselves of it at this time each year. If the incarnate God who has emptied himself out as a fellow human being can kneel to wash his followers’ feet — a servant’s job — why can’t we try a little harder to do so for one another?

The Good Friday liturgy, of course, is characterized most by its solemn nature. The altar is bare; the Tabernacle is empty; the suffering and death of Jesus are read aloud; we all come forward to kiss a wooden cross; there is no eucharistic consecration (Communion is taken from the many hosts that were consecrated the night before on Holy Thursday); and at the end of the liturgy, everyone leaves in solemn silence. We are mourning, and we are waiting now, for the Resurrection. Even amidst the mourning and the heaviness, we who are gathered have a joyful advantage the very first disciples did not yet have: we know already that there is a Resurrection.

This brings me to the Easter Vigil at the end of Holy Saturday, the day of waiting. Yet I really don’t have adequate words to describe the Vigil. As a kid and a young adult, I heard other people talk about how magnificent, how rich in ancient symbolism, and how moving it is. But, having always gone to Easter Sunday liturgies (which are wonderful too), I had never experienced the Vigil myself until two years ago, when my husband became Catholic and had his Confirmation at the Vigil, which is the worldwide custom for adults joining the Church. It was the first for both of us, and now even our 8-year-old daughter exclaims, “You know, the Easter Vigil really is addicting!”

You can feel the anticipation start to build when you first sit down in the dark church, holding your unlit candle and waiting. You know it has begun when the priest and the altar servers, standing in the center of the church, ignite a pillar of fire in an iron stand, light the Paschal Candle from it, and begin speaking of him who is the Alpha and Omega. From that fire the altar servers light their candles and share their flame with the first person in each pew, who lights their own candle and passes the flame until everyone in that pew — and eventually the entire church — is holding a lit candle. There are no other lights on in the church when now a solo cantor begins the Exsultet, a 10-minute-long a cappella chant recounting why we should rejoice in God’s eternal love for us on this holy night, when God revealed the ultimate impermanence of sin, suffering and death — and the ultimate promise of redemption and eternal life — with the Resurrection of his Son.

Through several Old Testament readings, beginning with Creation and going through the Exodus and finally the prophets, we arrive at the New Testament still brandishing our lit candles in an otherwise dark church. Then we know we’ve all arrived at something big when suddenly the lights are thrown on, the Gloria is sung to the accompaniment of everyone ringing bells, and (at our parish, at least) a liturgical dancer ushers in the reading of the Gospel. Now comes what is for many the most special stretch of the Vigil. This is the full reception into the Church of catechumens (unbaptized adults or older children, who will now be baptized) and candidates (adults or older children who don’t need to be baptized but are joining the Church from other Christian denominations; sometimes there are also “cradle Catholics” who simply never had their Confirmation).

This leads to a rather extraordinary time of the night. It’s during this part of the Vigil that everyone forms two lines and comes forward to the baptismal fountain. When we arrive, we reach into its running waters (one of the many benefits of electrical power!) and cross ourselves with the water in memory of our own baptism and its lifelong call to the continual journey of personal holiness. This, for me, is one of the most moving parts of the night. In our parish, we approach the fountain to the musical setting of “Come to the Water,” which everyone can join the cantor in singing. There is nothing quite like being one of literally hundreds of people all walking forward together to bless ourselves with the same water, bolstered with such powerful and inspiring music as we do it. Sitting in our pew after my husband, daughter, and I have returned from the fountain, just watching the dozens of adults and children continue to file past us, all heading for the same water, to remember the same baptism by which we all were baptized into Christ, is an experience that is impossible to encapsulate in words. It is one Christ, one God, one baptism, and in coming to the water of baptism we present ourselves to God, our ultimate Source. And we come to Christ, whose Resurrection we are there to honor and proclaim.

The spiritual journey of Lent and the Easter Triduum that concludes it are over for another year. But the season of Easter lasts a glorious fifty days, ending in Pentecost. Before we know it, we will be in Advent again, awaiting Jesus’ birth into the world at Christmas. Not too long after that, Lent will begin again. The rhythm will continue, a foretaste, we’re told, of the feast to come.

© 2015 Elizabeth Keck

A Community of the Imperfect

many candles

Yesterday I read this article from America Magazine, titled “A Communion of Saints and Sinners: Loving an Imperfect Church,” and I was touched by its insights. The writer, Leonard J. DeLorenzo, reflects on how the church can simultaneously hold so many sins and failures, and yet also be the life-giving source of healing, joy, sustenance, and communion that so many of its members know and feel it to be. Musing over this perhaps counterintuitive reality, DeLorenzo writes:

The church is human with all that is good about our humanity, but not without those parts of us that have been corrupted through pride, the lust for prestige, acts of violence and hidden malice. The church is also divine, for the love of God, which is God’s very being, touches us here to first heal the corruptions of our humanity and then elevate our humanity toward a relationship with God.

What Congar and others rediscovered at the [Vatican II] council was that the church does not exist as an idea or in the imagination, but is in fact a living, breathing, beautiful and wounded body, whose very life is generated from the grace of God, though it is not yet fully what it is called to be.

That is often what strikes me each week when I go with my husband and our daughter to Mass. Sitting in our pew after receiving Communion, I watch all the rest of the people approaching the Eucharist, lining up together, advancing slowly forward together to receive the same Body of Christ, each one together participating in a worldwide communion of 1.2 billion Catholics — and a broader communion with another billion non-Catholic Christians — found to varying degrees in every corner of the globe in thousands of different cultural settings. And I think to myself as I watch them that, in the words of St. Paul, each one of these is a member of Christ’s mystical Body; each one is precious; each one is equally important; each one is sinful in his or her own ways, and each penitent one is lovingly redeemed. We are a vast yet intimate community of one body having many parts, sharing in the wounded-and-risen Body of our common Lord. In the words of a favorite hymn of ours: “We are one body, one body in Christ, and we do not stand alone…”

We do not stand alone — even though our communion is imperfect and consists of very flawed people. It’s impossible to be fully in relationship with Christ without also being in relationship with the rest of his flock. While each member of the church has his or her own individual relationship with Christ, Christianity isn’t a religion for individualists preferring to remain apart from the community of Christ’s people (as Pope Francis has reminded us on many occasions). Christianity is in fact a deeply communal religion that calls its members not to a purely solitary spiritual journey of individualistic isolation, but rather to a spiritual life lived as a vital part of Christ’s earthly Body-in-community. This Body-in-community is the whole church.

The notion of real community often doesn’t rank very highly in our individualized Western culture, which can make it seem easy to think that the church as a community is irrelevant, or at least unimportant, to a person’s active living practice of his or her faith. But this would be a very incomplete understanding of what Christianity, as a relational religion, truly is. The church community, comprised of ordinary folk, certainly isn’t a perfect society in either its human leadership or its laypeople. It will always bear sins and failures within itself, some very grievous. It is us in all of our humanity: the beauty and the ugliness are both there. More importantly, the grace of Christ through the Holy Spirit is always there — in that communal body, in the sacraments, in togetherness — just as his grace also dwells in the individual prayerful heart. The grace is always there, always offered to us, the flood of light to warm our spirits, to comfort us and beckon us to walk toward it, to let it guide us on our way.

I began to experience an awareness of the church’s communal wholeness in a new way when I recently signed up to be a eucharistic minister (one of the people who offers either the eucharistic bread or wine to those coming for Communion). It happened that the very first person to whom I ever gave Communion was my husband, who himself chose to become Catholic two years ago, followed by our daughter, who had her First Communion almost one year ago. There I was, holding the chalice of wine, looking into their faces and hearing myself say to them, “the Blood of Christ,” as I gave them the cup. (Our daughter, who is 8, always gives me a big hug right after I give her Communion before she heads back to the pew, which makes it that much sweeter!). As each person after them approached me, I felt more and more a sense of humility; of how, despite my flaws, I am a part of this body of equals before God, and how awed I felt to be able to serve that body-of-many-parts in this very modest way. Each time that I’ve served as a eucharistic minister since then, I have experienced this sense of humility and awe. There’s something very special going on in that body, imperfect though we all are.

In a somewhat related way, all of this reminds me of what Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI have repeatedly said about what Christianity is: Christianity can’t be defined as primarily a system of ethics and morals, as though it were simply a kind of philosophical humanism. Christianity is primarily a relationship with a divine Person, from which these things then flow. It’s a relationship with a God who emptied Godself to become enfleshed as a human born of a woman, to become a Person both fully human and fully divine; this Person suffered torture, died, was buried, rose again on the third day, and ascended to Heaven in his luminous, resurrected physical body — as witnessed by many women and men who would later go to their deaths for refusing to say this did not happen. As St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians around the year 50 (and scholars say he was likely quoting an even earlier source), this divine Person demonstrated the divine love for Creation in the most self-emptying of ways, which in some mysterious way also brought about our own redemption and salvation.

DeLorenzo reflects on the church community as Christ’s ongoing earthly instrument in this:

And in what is the richest irony of all, God elects to work through and with ordinary, sinful human beings in this plan of salvation. For the plan is to save us together for each other, not separately for our lonesome selves. It is the communion of sinners that is the sign and instrument of this salvation.

This sinner thanks God for that!

 © 2015 Elizabeth Keck

The Rhythm of the Hours

Glenstal Book of Prayer

A popular, pared-down version of the Liturgy of the Hours, very good for busy laypeople. Saint Nicholas graces the cover.

Recently, my husband and I went on a weekend retreat to a Benedictine abbey a mere 23 minutes from our home. It was an undirected retreat, meaning that our time was ours to structure as we saw fit. We went on a lot of very peaceful and renewing walks, spent time in the chapels, had a nap or two, did some reading and talking, and enjoyed partaking of the meals that the monks kindly provided for us in the guest dining room. We enjoyed their friendly warmth and good humor, too. The Benedictine order sees hospitality to all comers as central to its mission, taking its cue from the fifth-century Rule of Saint Benedict, which states that “guests are never lacking in a monastery.” According to the Rule, the monks or nuns consider that they are hosting Christ when they host their guests.

But probably the most surprising thing that happened during our retreat was how endeared we both became to the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Divine Office or Breviary). Before that weekend, we had basically zero experience of the Hours, even though the Hours are a form of Christian prayer that is emphatically not reserved just to clergy or consecrated religious — though these folks have become most often associated with it. But laypeople are also encouraged to pray the Hours, in private and to whatever extent they are able in the circumstances of their days.

What are they? Well, the Hours are organized prayers that consist largely of psalms, juxtaposed with other prayers that have come down to us over the centuries from the early tradition of the Church. The Liturgy of the Hours is observed (under varying names) by the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Anglican, and sometimes Lutheran traditions. The full Liturgy contains 7 daily prayer times, each ranging in length but none exceeding 20 minutes or so; several of them are a good deal less. As a layperson, you can choose to do one or all of them. Each day has different psalms and prayers — variety is the spice of life, after all. Two of the daily prayer times are singled out as the most important of the day. These are the morning and evening prayers, also referred to as lauds and vespers, and are considered the “major” hours; they represent praise and thanksgiving. There are other, shorter prayer times for the mid-morning, noon, and mid-afternoon (terce, sext, and nones); these are known as the “minor” hours. Finally before bed, there is night prayer, called compline. Perhaps the Liturgy of the Hours, in concept, is similar to the well-known Muslim practice of prayer five times a day. Pope Francis has said that he “loves praying the breviary” each day.

So what did my husband and I find so special about these prayers that I am sitting here at the end of a busy day, gushing about them on the internet? I’ll try to explain. When we were staying at the abbey, a large old-fashioned bell would ring precisely ten minutes before each of the Hours that that community observed (they didn’t observe the minor hours of terce and nones, or at least not all together in the church; they may have done so individually on their own time). Hearing that bell and going to the sacred space of prayer time — literally and metaphorically — became such a steady, gentle rhythm in our short time there that it was the thing we missed the most when we left. We didn’t plan for that, either. When we arrived, we figured maybe we’d go to a couple of prayer times. But after the first one, we just kept on coming back like we couldn’t get enough. When we first arrived, one of the other visitors said to us, “There’s a rhythm to the life here. It really grows on you.” It didn’t take very long for us to understand what she meant. There is a refuge in the prayers, a gentle communion with the divine that keeps you wanting more.

And now, here in our home? After a few weeks without the Liturgy of the Hours, we picked up over the weekend a copy of The Glenstal Book of Prayer: A Benedictine Prayer Book. This wonderful little book out of Glenstal Abbey in Ireland became a bestseller, and is now the source for our simplified Liturgy of the Hours in our lives. My husband can do one or two of the Hours each day, usually vespers and/or compline; due to my more flexible schedule I can do more on most days if I choose. The point is that these prayers are not a requirement or some obligation: they are a great and marvelous opportunity to be entered into freely. As the Glenstal Book of Prayer says in its introduction:

Prayer is the movement of the Holy Spirit in the human heart through which God reaches out and embraces human beings. It is a duet of love in which the action of the Spirit inspires and sustains us in the darkness of faith. It is an inward call from Christ who dwells within the depths of the human soul, and who longs to be known and loved there. It is the exciting adventure of the search for God’s presence and the endless joy of rejoicing in it when it is found. It is the growing perception of the infinitely gracious, infinitely merciful Source, the Father who reveals the beauty of his face to the inner eye of the heart and the sweetness of his voice to the inner ear attuned to listen.

© 2014 Elizabeth Keck

A Response Boston Catholics Can Be Proud Of

Crowd inside Saint Paul Cathedral Boston

Catholics and their supporters gather in St. Paul’s Church in Cambridge. Photo by Boston Globe.

Crowds process from MIT chapel to St. Paul's Cathedral

Crowds walk in Eucharistic Procession from MIT chapel to St. Paul’s Church. Photo by Boston Globe.

Crowd in St. Paul's spilling out the door

Crowd in St. Paul’s spilling out the door. Photo by Boston Globe.

As many are aware from coverage in the local and national news, a satanic “black mass” was to be performed in Harvard University’s Memorial Hall on the night of May 12, 2014, sponsored by a student “cultural awareness club” from the Harvard Extension School. The black mass was to have been performed by members of The Satanic Temple of New York. As was extensively reported throughout the controversy leading up to the event, the main purpose of a so-called black mass is to parody and denigrate the Catholic Mass, which is the most sacred rite in Catholicism and beloved worship liturgy for 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide.

Although the satanists insist they are atheists and do not believe in an actual devil or in any supernatural being, the black mass itself is designed to “invert” and mock the Catholic Mass through the use of satirized similar language, parody vestments and, apparently, the desecration of a Eucharist (a consecrated host). As many people know, the belief that the consecrated Eucharist contains the Real Presence of Christ — the Body of Christ in reality, not in symbol — is a central pillar of Catholic faith. Therefore, even as The Satanic Temple eventually changed their plans about “obtaining” (stealing?) a consecrated Eucharist to use during the black mass and claimed they would use an unconsecrated host, the impending event remained a source of visceral offense for Catholics of many stripes.

But it was also clearly an offense for a great many people of goodwill who supported their Catholic brothers and sisters. Some pointed out that for an event that purported to be about “cultural awareness,” not much “awareness” was shown by the organizers. The black mass would have been no different from any similar performance denigrating a Jewish Shabbat, or a Muslim or Buddhist prayer service, or a Native American sacred ritual. People should renounce any such denigration as uncivil, disrespectful, and hurtful to our human community. At the last minute, following an enormous yet non-violent outcry which evidently included a petition with 60,000 signatures, the student club canceled the event about an hour before it was due to take place.

Nevertheless, my purpose in writing this post is not to recap what happened. My main point is to express my happiness with, and my admiration for, the community’s response to the black mass. The Archdiocese of Boston, led by Archbishop Séan O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap, did not make any call for angry protest marches or fist-pumping. Instead, the archdiocese arranged to have a Eucharistic procession starting at the MIT chapel and ending at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Harvard Square, where participants would take part in a quiet prayer service to honor Christ, the Eucharist, and to pray for those involved in the black mass. The Catholic Church, being full of human beings, will never be perfect, and it is often painfully not-perfect. But I have to say that Archbishop O’Malley and the Catholic community of Boston hit this one out of the park. The Catholic response was not to start fires, not to throw bottles or Molotov cocktails or even pies; the response was not to condemn any person (only the event itself); the response was not to shout angry slogans or incite riots or damage property. Not a single stone was thrown.

Instead, Catholics and other people of goodwill walked peacefully behind a monstrance containing the Eucharist; they walked from one place to another. When they arrived at their destination, they were over a thousand strong and could not all fit in the cathedral. It was standing room only. And it was quiet and peaceful. These people perfectly exemplified Christ’s call to non-violence and humble dignity, and in doing so they manifested the kingdom of God here in this place. They embodied Christ’s exhortation to turn the other cheek, which does not mean lying down as a doormat, but rather standing in peaceful, redirected resistance. It seems to me that last night’s procession and Eucharistic prayer service was a triumph of the Holy Spirit.

© 2014 Elizabeth Keck

 

Thoughts on Palm Sunday

This photo shows the palm fronds we received when we went to church for Palm Sunday this morning (the two braided ones didn’t come to us that way — they represent my husband’s creativity). When we arrived at Mass, I thought I came prepared for the emotional haul of the reading of Jesus’ suffering and death, from the Gospel of Matthew. But when the reader began and the Palm Sunday drummer commenced his soft, steady drumbeat in the background, it seemed to me that perhaps no one who takes these events seriously can ever be completely prepared for their emotional impact. They are too shocking, too terrible, for complacency.

Our palm fronds

Our palm fronds

As the cast of readers made their way through word after painful word of the narrative, a few things surfaced in my mind as I listened and read along. The first thing that surfaced was a rueful thought along the lines of: “Well isn’t this just like the human species? God sends a part of Godself to become God’s divine Son, to teach us what the kingdom of God is like, and to provide for us the perfect model of how to be holy and to realize that kingdom within and amongst ourselves, and what do we do? We murder him.” And is that any surprise? The human species is often violent, short-sighted, and susceptible to mob mentality. At any given time there is a war going on somewhere, and the 20th century was the most horrifically violent century in the history of our species (think two World Wars, scores of other wars, and multiple genocides, all carried out with unprecedented destruction due to new technology).

The next thought surfaced for me at the point in the narrative when Jesus goes outside to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane after the Last Supper, when he knew that his betrayer was about to arrive with the authorities and an angry mob to haul him away to torture and a gruesome death. As I listened to and read the account of Jesus in the Garden, I thought about how clear the Gospels are about the fact that Jesus had ample time to flee if he had chosen to do so. The Gospels describe an agonizing scene that drags on for hours on that night that we would come to venerate for the next 2,000 years (and counting) as Holy Thursday. Half the night goes by while Jesus prays in the Garden, and waits, and waits, and waits. The Gospels are clear: he knew what was coming, and he asked his disciples to wait and pray with him. He was anguished, yet he did not flee. In those days, all a successful escape would have entailed would be a quick dash out of the city and a few days of walking, and voilà — a new life in safety. But instead, he waited for them to come; and when a disciple tried to prevent the arrest by drawing his sword and cutting off the ear of one of the soldiers, Jesus himself stopped the disciple and told him to put away his sword.

No, this was a sacrificial death to which Jesus went without defending himself, a divine act born from divine sacrificial love. As he said of the broken bread at the Last Supper: “Take and eat; this is my body.” And as he said of the wine in the cup: “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the Covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28). As he hung dying on the cross, malicious observers mocked that he saved others but does not save himself. Saving himself was not part of the plan. Indeed, that’s what’s so astonishing, because neither the disciples nor anyone else were expecting a suffering and dying Messiah, and certainly not one who would die the most disgraceful and ghastly death of the Roman cross. If you want a prime example of “you can’t make this up,” this is it. Nobody wanted to make this one up.

The good news, of course, is that Jesus’ death wasn’t the end of the story. Nobody was expecting the Resurrection either, even though the Gospels have Jesus hinting at it while he was still alive, trying to prepare the disciples for it. But nobody understood it. It was not yet in anyone’s vocabulary. And when he died, the disciples were utterly destroyed emotionally. The Gospels paint the bleak picture of it: their hope was snuffed out. They believed it was over, as anyone would. They didn’t expect that Jesus would be resurrected. So on the third day, Easter Sunday, nobody was more surprised than the disciples when the man they thought dead and lost forever was no longer a dead body, but rather started appearing to them in a kind of transfigured but definite physical state. First in ones and twos (and first among these were the women who had come to the tomb), then to large and disparate groups of his followers. Reading the Gospels’ account of it, you can feel their amazement lifting off the page and coming right at you. And later when they would face rejection, and even arrest, torture, and execution unless they recanted this story, they would not recant. Many of them (the most famous being Peter and Paul) went straight to their early deaths proclaiming this Resurrection.

But Easter Sunday is still a week away. We are just now entering Holy Week, and this week holds much to reflect on before we get to the joy of Easter and the fifty days of the Easter season. Today after the reading of Jesus’ suffering and death, our priest said that Jesus wants our union with him more than he wants our sympathy. Just so. As the pastor wrote in the church bulletin for this week, Holy Week is the time when Jesus’ followers “celebrate these sacred and ancient liturgies of the church. Easter Sunday and the fifty days of Easter will have so much more meaning for us if we take the time to remember the love that Jesus poured out for us on the cross.”

© 2014 Elizabeth Keck

The Open Tabernacle

The Tabernacle at Our Church

The Tabernacle at Our Church

This photo is of the Tabernacle that is in our church. Every Catholic church has one of these, although they don’t all look the same. The Tabernacle is the place where the consecrated Eucharist, also called the Host, resides. The Hosts in the Tabernacle are those that were not received during the last Mass and have not yet been taken out for the next Mass. There is never a time (other than the Liturgy of the Eucharist during Mass) when the Tabernacle is empty. Because it is Catholic faith that the Presence of Christ inheres in the Eucharist in a real way, in every Catholic church there is a perpetual flame burning beside the Tabernacle, an ever-present witness that in this place dwells the Presence of the Lord. The word “Tabernacle” comes from the Old Testament: it was the structure in which God’s Presence was understood to dwell in a special way in ancient Israel. Each day — depending on the individual church, it could be all day or a certain time of the day — Catholic churches are open so that anyone can come in and pray or meditate in silence before the Tabernacle, in Christ’s Presence.

I mentioned that the only time the Tabernacle is empty is during the Mass’s Eucharistic Liturgy, when its doors are opened and the Body of Christ within is distributed to all present, along with the newly-consecrated Hosts. Last Sunday after receiving Communion, we returned to our pew as usual to kneel in interior prayer and close our eyes, to be in communion with Christ. When I opened my eyes, the final people were going up for Communion, and my gaze happened to land on the Tabernacle (we tend to sit close to it). Its doors were still open, since Communion was still being distributed, and as I looked at it I reflected on what those open doors mean.

Those open doors signify a God who revealed Godself to us through a self-limiting act: becoming incarnate as a human, to be carried and borne by a human mother, to experience human bodily needs and suffering. God did this in an act of supreme humility, of self-emptying (kenosis), of solidarity in suffering and in joy, and of service to us. As Pope Francis is fond of saying, Christianity is not primarily a system of ethics, although the ethical treatment of others, especially the most weak and vulnerable, obviously flows from what Jesus taught. Pope Francis frequently and rightly reminds us that Christianity is primarily a living relationship with a person — divine yet human — who suffered, died, and rose from the dead to teach us that death is not the end of life, only its changing. This person, Jesus, taught us to orient ourselves to “the kingdom of God,” which he alternately described as being “within you,” or “like a treasure buried in a field,” or “like a pearl of great price,” or “like seeds that a farmer scattered” that land on three different types of ground (rocky, thorny, and fertile), or “like a mustard seed,” the smallest of seeds, which grows into a full-bodied tree. Jesus came to show us what the kingdom of God is.

The picture that God reveals of Godself in Christ is a picture of self-denial, self-gift, service, infinite mercy, and infinite love. After all, God demonstrates what God is calling us to. The Tabernacle’s open doors last Sunday spoke to me about Jesus’ eternal self-gift through Communion, which he inaugurated when he distributed the bread and wine, pronounced them his Body and Blood “given for you,” and said to “do this in memory of me.” The Tabernacle’s open doors signal that even today, 2,000 years later, Christ is still distributing his Body in a mystical way that never ends, and in which we are invited to take part. Yet a final thing the open Tabernacle made me think of was the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, which the Gospels describe as Jesus’ feeding thousands of people from scarcity. The food, to the crowd’s astonishment, just kept on coming, and Jesus just kept on distributing it. The open Tabernacle reminds me of that event because that event (like the open Tabernacle) is connected to the endless distribution of Christ’s self in Communion. Like the day with the loaves and fishes, Christ keeps on giving food to us — but as the open Tabernacle will always remind us, the food that he gives now is Himself.

© 2014 Elizabeth Keck

“May God Grant You Pardon and Peace”

This year my daughter is preparing for her First Communion at our Catholic church. Before taking part in the Eucharist, though, she has just celebrated her first Reconciliation, or confession. Naturally, my husband, daughter, and I have spent a lot of time the last few months talking about this sacrament, so now feels like the perfect time to put forth a few reflections on what I think it all means.

In Catholic theology, each sacrament constitutes a genuine — not merely a symbolic — encounter with Christ through the Holy Spirit. As such, the sacraments are believed to impart real divine grace within the person who is participating (provided he or she is doing so with a “willing disposition,” which basically means free will and a heart open to receiving God’s grace). It isn’t magic or some kind of hocus-pocus. The theology is that if the person is internally disposed to cooperate with God’s grace — because God doesn’t force Godself upon us — then the grace received will take root and grow within that person. If that grace continues to be nourished with prayer and action, its positive effects on the person will become more and more clear to that person and the outside world.

So I’m beginning to put myself to sleep with all this theologizing. The real question is, does it work? As the saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating of it. Well, in my experience it does work. But I can also say without fear of exaggeration that after my daughter took part in Reconciliation, I noticed a genuine difference in her that lasted for about a week afterward. I’d like to call it a grace bump, if that doesn’t sound too silly. She’s a kind, good girl to begin with, but still I noticed a consistently better attitude from her, more patience, more cooperation. There was a positive effect.

So what about this sacrament in particular? It’s relatively easy to see how partaking in the Eucharist could bring one into encounter with Christ. But with Reconciliation, we don’t take the Body of Christ into ourselves. Instead, we meet in particular with Christ as Shepherd. My daughter’s religious education program emphasized for the kids how Jesus is always their shepherd, who is willing to walk about the entire pasture to find them and to make them safe with him. They also emphasized the story of the prodigal son. In this story, the human father who unconditionally welcomes back his contrite son stands for God the Creator who waits to welcome us back with open arms as soon as we turn to meet him.

But since God’s forgiveness of sins isn’t conditioned on the sacrament of confession (especially where common everyday sins are concerned), why do we go? To put it simply, we go because it feels good. Even my daughter, with only seven little years under her belt, understood and experienced that with her first participation. It feels good because we are unburdening the weight of our negative thoughts and actions; we are surrendering them to God through Christ and then hearing the priest’s advice and assurance of God’s forgiveness.

This is spiritually and psychologically cleansing. In fact, it’s downright liberating. It’s peace-inducing in a major way, because you know that you’ve just taken ownership of your shortcomings, with no denial or excuses. You’ve simply admitted it: yep, I could have done better for others, I could have thought better of others, and hearing of God’s forgiveness sure makes me feel good right now.

According to the New Testament, Jesus gave his apostles the ability to absolve sins — to pronounce them forgiven on Jesus’ behalf. He said that “the sins you release are released, and the sins you retain are retained.” I used to wonder why he specified this. Then I thought of a couple of answers a little while ago. I can’t claim they’re the answers, but to me at least, they make sense. So here’s the first one. Sometimes we can tell someone we’re sorry, but they might not want to forgive. That’s between them and God, but what Reconciliation does is release the contrite person from the sin he or she is genuinely sorry for — whether or not the other person is willing to release them. Christ has released them.

There are other occasions, too — times when it’s impractical to ask the other person for forgiveness. For example, maybe I wasn’t having my finest hour one day, and I indulged some uncharitable thoughts about someone. Maybe I even muttered some nasty things about them privately. Sure, I felt like they were making me irritated, but it isn’t as if they ran over my dog and then laughed about it. I probably could have entertained fewer nasty or judgmental thoughts if I’d really wanted to. In such a situation, it isn’t really practical to walk up to someone and announce, “Hi, I just wanted you to know that yesterday I was thinking that you’re a real jerk, but I’m sorry about that so please forgive me.” It’s safe to say that would fall into the category of making things worse rather than better. Best to save it for the Reconciliation Room, if you ask me.

To pronounce the Lord’s “release”, the priest, acting in his capacity as Christ’s minister, repeats the words of absolution that millions of people have heard, and will continue to hear, across the globe, day in and day out, in dozens of different languages:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Amen!

Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Keck

I Don’t Have to Like You to Love You (and You Don’t Have to Like Me to Love Me Either)

Yes, it’s a truism that we can love someone without liking them. Usually when we hear of this happening, it’s a case within families. Someone has a family member — spouse, sibling, parent, whoever — who’s put them through hell, and it’s hard to muster up a cozy affection for this person. Or it’s an old friend that’s just gotten a little hard to like lately. Yet you love these people anyway, because you just do. It’s a given. You want what’s best for them, even if they’re not your first pick when you think about going for that nice nature walk in the woods.

But there is a whole other dimension, too, in which this can happen. At our Catholic parish, we’re fortunate enough to have two grace-filled, down-to-earth, insightful priests. One of them gave his homily this Sunday on what it means to love in the way that Christ taught. He mentioned that St. Thomas Aquinas defined this kind of love as being rooted in the will, not just (or not so much) the emotions. Then he went on to clarify that this kind of love, simply put, wants what is best for the other person.

It seems to me that one obvious way to see this is to realize that loving another person in Christ-love doesn’t require believing that they’re a great person or even a good person, especially when it’s quite clear that they’re not. It doesn’t require “feeling” the same kind of affection we feel for our spouse when we’re in a happy marriage, or for a family member with whom we get along swimmingly. What Christ-love requires is that we recognize the other person as another child of God, whom God loves, and that we therefore want what is good for them. This is a liberating realization, and it’s one that can be applied to everyone — not just to the person we already know we love, but also to the colleague or co-worker or neighbor who makes life difficult.

And most significant of all from the perspective of Jesus’ teaching to “love your enemy”: we can apply this understanding of love even to people who commit the worst kinds of sins, without ever thinking that loving them in this way implies any kind of validation, justification, or understanding of what they’ve done. When St. Paul said, “Love the sinner, hate the sin,” this is what he meant. He didn’t mean that by loving the sinner, they’re your natural go-to person for dinner and a movie (and yes, I know they didn’t have movies in the first century A.D.). He meant that you don’t want evil to befall them; you don’t want vengeance; you don’t want them to suffer for the sake of it; you can feel compassion for them. You want what’s best for them despite their actions, because you know that this is the love of Christ and you cannot wish against it. What’s best for them doesn’t mean they should never have to face up to their sins, and just go blithely along through life getting whatever they want — in fact, that’s very far from what is best for them. What is best for them is whatever God thinks is best for them, and that’s not for us to know. But it is for us to want, and if we can, to pray for.

This concept of love isn’t limited to Christianity, of course. I think immediately of Buddhism with its central teaching on compassion for everyone and everything, including one’s own enemy. It has been scientifically proven that Buddhist monks meditating on compassion, while their brains are monitored with a PET scan, register the highest levels of happiness that we’ve been able to record. Not long ago, I read a book by the Dalai Lama in which he explicated many Buddhist teachings, including the teaching to cultivate universal compassion. Acknowledging that jumping immediately to universal compassion is an impossibly tall order, the Dalai Lama said it must be approached in small steps if one is to achieve it. These small steps include first imagining something or someone for whom it’s quite easy to have compassion: a young child, for example, or an injured bird. When imagining this category, it shouldn’t take long for a feeling of compassion to arise. We can then continue on gradually and over time, in small steps, to imagine other, less sympathetic entities: a person whom we find irritating, for example. Meditating on compassion for that person then opens us up even more to the next level, and so on and so forth, until eventually we find ourselves capable of having compassion (and therefore love) on a universal level. Compassion is the door to love.

You don’t have to like someone in order to love them in the way that Christ taught. Practicing love in this way might or might not change another person; but it will, without a doubt, change the one who loves. We too can be like those Buddhist monks who experience the highest levels of happiness on the planet.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

 

 

Shared Suffering

This is a post about suffering, and the suffering of God with his creatures. One of the most radical things about Christianity is its central belief that God didn’t choose to make the Messiah a glorious political leader, but to make him God’s own incarnated Logos — which in Greek signifies Word, Mind, Logic, Reason. Even more radical than this is the belief that in joining himself to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, God took upon himself all of the human condition. Not just love, laughter, and all the good stuff; he took suffering, pain, heartache, betrayal, abandonment, grief, and the weight of all the sin of humankind as expressed through the torture and gruesome murder of a Roman crucifixion. His purpose wasn’t the establishment of a political kingdom, but the once-and-for-all reconciliation of humanity to God through forgiveness of sins and infinite mercy…and the ultimate transcendence of death through the Resurrection. Indeed, the oracles of the Suffering Servant of the Lord in the Book of Isaiah predicted a Messiah who suffers by taking upon himself the sins and guilt of us all, making reparation for us.

We don’t have a comprehensive answer to suffering. But Christians believe that we do have a God who suffered for us, and suffers with us even now. That fact doesn’t solve the problem. But it does situate suffering inside a circle of meaning, which helps to provide us with some strength and the comfort of God’s solidarity with us. Anyone who suffers anything that Christ suffered — violence, grief, cruelty, humiliation, fear, sadness, and all the rest of it — can know that their suffering isn’t done alone, for God suffers with them in love and companionship. He shares our suffering — just as when we suffer, we share in the sufferings of Christ. And we know that even though Christ suffered, his suffering gave way to the Resurrection, which meant that suffering didn’t have the final word. That is God’s promise to us.

The Pietà, one of Michelangelo’s most famous sculptures, is a marble picture of suffering.

Michelangelo's Pietà

Michelangelo’s Pietà

Saint Mary the Blessed Mother cradles her recently scourged, abused, pierced, and murdered Son. We don’t know how much she knew about what was going to happen afterward; we don’t know if she had any sense of his upcoming victory in the Resurrection and Ascension to God. It seems unlikely, given the intense surprise and confusion of Jesus’ disciples over the Resurrection. But all we know is that her suffering at this moment must have been unimaginable. Parents suffer along with their children at even minor problems and injustices. Here Mary suffers the worst pain a parent can ever suffer: living through the death of their child. And, it can be argued, the worst kind of death: death that involved intense pain and abuse before it finally claimed the body that had been pushed to its limit. She, too, knows suffering. And she, too, wants us to know that suffering is not the end, just as it was not the end for her or for her Son. Here is an excerpt from the fourth and final oracle of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah, which Christians believe foretells Jesus:

“He was spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, knowing pain/ Like one from whom you turn your face, spurned, and we held him in no esteem./ Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured,/ We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted,/ But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquity,/ He bore the punishment that makes us whole, by his wounds we are healed./ We had all gone astray like sheep, all following our own way;/ But the Lord laid upon him the guilt of us all./…Because of his anguish he shall see the light; because of his knowledge he shall be content;/ My servant, the just one, shall justify the many, their iniquity he shall bear./ Therefore I will give him his portion among the many, and he shall divide the spoils with the mighty,/ Because he surrendered himself to death, was counted among the transgressors,/ Bore the sins of many, and interceded for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:3-6, 11-12)

It turned out, according to Christian faith, that this Servant who suffered for us and with us was none other than a Messiah who embodied both full God and full humanity in one Person. Suffering will exist as long as this world endures. But as long as it does, we can look to the Cross of the Suffering Servant and know that even though we don’t have all the answers, our suffering is shared. And then we can look at Jesus’ empty tomb and know that suffering doesn’t have the final word.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck