The Way to the Father’s House (John 14:1-12)

Fifth Sunday of Easter

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” With this metaphor, Jesus begins to tell his disciples that he will be going ahead of them to the Father, and he will prepare a place there for each one of them. He will come back, he tells them, and take them to himself, “so that where I am you also may be.” He intended this as a very reassuring statement. Yes, he must go in a little while; but he will bring each of them there someday, so that they will never be separated from him again. They will be with him in the Father’s house eternally, because he has prepared their place. As his disciples, joined to him in baptism, they are joined to him forever. “Where I am, you also may be.”

To his disciples, however, this was not particularly reassuring. At least not until they could have some time to understand the meaning of who he really was. What did he mean, he was going to the Father’s house? That could mean only one thing: he was going to depart this world. And if he were going to do that, how could he become the great political ruler that they had been expecting — that they assumed the Messiah would be? Wasn’t he going to take hold of his kingdom and rule from Jerusalem, and finally kick out all these foreign empires and put them in their place? Wasn’t that how he was going to fulfill God’s covenant and bring salvation to Israel, and cause the Gentiles to know the God that Israel had known for so long? If not with a political kingdom like the one David had ruled, then how would he redeem the world?

It would not be until later that they would hear him say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” It would not be until they saw him resurrected that they would understand he had come to save them not from political powers, but from something much more important and dangerous. He had come to save them, and us, from the darkness that exists in each one of us as part of our human nature. The salvation he offers is to save us from ourselves, and the redemption he offers is to redeem us from ourselves, and in so doing show us the reality of Resurrection and bring us into the eternal light of God.

As Thomas Merton writes, “salvation” in Christianity “reflects God’s own infinite concern for man, God’s love and care for man’s inmost being, God’s love for all that is His own in man. It is not only human nature that is ‘saved’ by the divine mercy, but above all the human person. The object of salvation is that which is unique, irreplaceable, incommunicable — that which is myself alone. This true inner self must be drawn up like a jewel from the bottom of the sea… To be ‘saved’ is to return to one’s inviolate and eternal reality and to live in God” (New Seeds of Contemplation). This is one of the most exquisite explanations of the Christian concept of salvation that I have ever read.

But for now, for the disciples, there are only questions. In the midst of their confusion they then hear him say, “Where I am going you know the way.” Thomas asks what they all must have been thinking. “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” It would be like telling a friend that you’re going to lunch, and then telling them to meet you there without saying what the restaurant is. But Jesus lets Thomas know it’s a lot more straightforward than they thought. “I am the way,” he answers. The way to the Father’s house is Jesus himself, because “If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Now it is Philip’s turn to prove his confusion. “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” We can imagine the gentleness in Jesus’ voice as he looks at Philip and answers, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” There lies the heart of the truth that Jesus wants them to know. He is the mind, the self of God, God’s idea of Godself, now become embodied in a discrete human being, the Son of God. “In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1-3). The Logos of God had chosen the humble Mary as a human mother and become a corporeal Person for our sakes.

So there is no need, Jesus tells his disciples, to be mystified about who the Father is or how to find him. Who Jesus is, he tells his disciples, is who his Father is. They are of the same nature, one in being, Christ begotten from the Father, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” in the words of the Nicene Creed.

Redeemer, help us to seek and find you who are the Way, and by coming to know you, know the mind of our Creator. Lead us to your Father’s house, to the place you have prepared for each of us.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

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They Knew Him in the Breaking of the Bread (Luke 24:13-35)

Third Sunday of Easter

Luke 24:13-35 shows us two of Jesus’ disciples walking along the road to Emmaus, a village about seven miles from Jerusalem, on the very day of the Resurrection. We know that it was a little later on in the day, because these disciples had already heard the unbelievable story from the women who had gone to Jesus’ tomb only to find it empty and to witness an angel informing them of Jesus’ Resurrection. While this was taking place, the apostles were huddled together back in Jerusalem, having heard the same report but still dwelling in fear and uncertainty, until they would see Jesus.

These two disciples on the road to Emmaus kept talking over the strange events of the past few days, when the risen Jesus himself drew near to them on the road and began walking with them. However, “their eyes were held back from recognizing him.” The Greek root translated “recognize” here is epiginosko, which also means “to fully know, perceive, understand.” He was there with them, but they did not perceive him for who he was. One practical theory to explain this is that perhaps Jesus was wearing some kind of a traveler’s cowl that obscured his face, and this was enough to deter them; after all, the disciples had no reason to expect that he would be anywhere in the vicinity in the first place, and they did not even know what to make of the women’s report that he had been raised at all. Another theory is that they could not recognize him because spiritually they were held back somehow, in a kind of spiritual blindness.

Whatever the case, they do not recognize him. He asks them what they were discussing as they look so downcast. “One of them, named Cleopas, said to him in reply, ‘Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know of the things that have taken place in these days?'” It’s not hard to imagine the incredulity in Cleopas’ voice. Jesus claims that he doesn’t know anything about it and asks them to tell him. So they tell him about how the chief priests and rulers in Jerusalem had handed this man called Jesus over to be crucified, and how their hopes were shattered, for they had all thought he would be “the one to redeem Israel.” Yet it had all come to an ostensibly terrible end in crucifixion. “Some women from our group, however,” they went on, “have astounded us.” And they told him of the women’s report and how some of the men had gone to the tomb to see what the women were talking about; the men had found it empty but they had not yet seen Jesus.

Jesus says to them, while they are still unaware of his identity, “How slow of heart you are to believe all that the prophets spoke; was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” Still not knowing it is Jesus who is speaking to them, the two disciples continue walking with him as they listen to him interpret everything that refers to him in the Hebrew scriptures, beginning with Moses and then the prophets. Incredibly, they still have not figured out who he is. Now we come to the crux of the story. The hour has grown late and they have finally arrived at Emmaus, and “he gave the impression that he was going on farther. But they urged him, ‘Stay with us, for it is nearly evening and the day is almost over.’ So he went in to stay with them. And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him [again epiginosko, to perceive and fully understand]; and he vanished from their sight.”

It is in the breaking of the bread that he gives to them that they recognize him. At the Last Supper on Holy Thursday, one of his final actions before his arrest, he had broken the bread, given it to them, and told them it was his Body. He was giving himself for them, in a new covenant. This is who he was and is. And he had told them to repeat it when they would come together to remember him. In this action he was giving them the Eucharist, a sign of his mystical Presence, to be given out over and over again to those on Earth until the end of the age. A way for them, and us his followers today and in the future, to experience his Presence as often as we come to it in this concrete and communal experience, until we are with him more closely in heaven. This has been done over and over again, for over two thousand years and counting, every day now, across the world. And most wonderfully, just as in his multiplication of the loaves and fishes to feed the hungry crowd of thousands who had come to see him, he will give and give yet it will never be diminished. He will give himself and his Presence eternally, to everyone who seeks it and as often as they seek it, without diminishment — just as one candle can distribute its flame to an infinite number of other candles, without ever losing any of its own original light and heat and substance. And so when he broke the bread and gave it to the two disciples in Emmaus, that was when they finally fully understood who he was, and their eyes were opened.

What if they had not invited him to come in and stay with them? After all, when the three travelers arrived at Emmaus, the one who was Jesus — never one to force himself on anyone — looked as though he simply intended to leave them with what he had told them about the scriptures and continue on his way. But they, perhaps sensing something special about him, or perhaps simply acting out of neighborly charity as he had taught them all along, invited him to come and stay with them. That turned out to be the only opportunity they had to finally recognize him. What if they had blown it? What if they had thanked him for his interesting conversation and graciously waved him goodbye on his way? They never would have known what they had missed. They had to invite him in first, for he forces himself on no one. We have to invite him in and give him the space to give himself to us.

Luke concludes, “So they set out at once and returned to Jerusalem where they found gathered together the Eleven and those with them who were saying, ‘The Lord has truly been raised and has appeared to Simon!'” [Perhaps that is where he went when he vanished from their sight at the table]. “Then the two recounted what had taken place on the way and how he was made known to them in the breaking of bread.”

Redeemer, may I always take the opportunity to invite you to come and stay with me. May I always be open to receiving what you want to give me.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

Jesus’ Compassion for Thomas (John 20:19-31)

This reflection on the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Easter is the first of what I hope will be a series of reflections on the lectionary’s Gospel readings. My hope is to offer a reflection for each Sunday’s Gospel, but if this proves to be too ambitious time-wise, then I will simply offer what I can. Occasionally I will do a reflection on a reading that is not in the lectionary on a given week, but which I might have been thinking about at that time. These reflections are based on what arises through my own particular meditation on the reading (a practice the Church’s tradition calls lectio divina), combined with what I have learned academically with respect to the historical context. I hope others might find this useful in some way. And I welcome your reflections, too.

The Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday)

John 20:19-31 deals with the period of time immediately following the Resurrection. According to John, Jesus has just appeared, risen, to Mary Magdalene at the tomb site. There she had gone weeping after the Jewish Sabbath had ended, expecting to anoint his corpse in accordance with the Jewish burial customs. Instead, she was beyond shocked to see him approach her in the garden and speak to her by name: “Mariam.” Mary. He told her to go back and tell the apostles that he was risen, and instruct them to wait for him to come to them. This she did. However, most of them did not believe what she told them. They remained frozen, in a room with locked doors, for fear that they might be hunted down and executed as well. Their hopes and their expectations had been crushed by Jesus’ horrifying murder, instigated by Jerusalem’s corrupt and power-hungry religious leaders, and carried out by the Roman Empire’s well-oiled execution machine. Resurrection was not on their radar. Their own short-term survival was. Struggling through their grief, fear, and humiliation, was. But not Resurrection. As for Mary, they must have theorized, she was perhaps out of her mind with grief, seeing things. In any case, women were not even considered reliable witnesses to testify. Something this extraordinary would be hard to accept even coming from a man; from a woman, the truth of a thing so astonishing could hardly be hoped.

In the middle of all this, the Gospel tells us, “Jesus came and stood in their midst [despite the locked doors] and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ ” The Greek word written here for “peace” — eirēnē — reflects the Hebrew/Aramaic word that Jesus would actually have spoken: shalom. English cannot render in only one word the full meaning of shalom: it means not only peace, but wholeness, health, complete well-being. These are the first words they hear from him since before he died — since before they had either claimed that they didn’t know him in order to avoid arrest, or had simply run away in fear and horror during his Crucifixion. Many people have noted that these first words of the resurrected Jesus to the stunned apostles are simply a gift of forgiveness and reconciliation, a wiping clean of the slate of their less-than-stellar faithfulness and friendship on Good Friday. Their fear-induced abandonment of him on that day and the night of his arrest prior to it is purged away, wiped clean, put in the past as though it never occurred. He understands. He forgives them. He doesn’t hold it over their heads or throw any anger or hurt in their direction. What matters, he communicates to them, is what they are going to do from now on. “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” He will be with them on and off for around the next 40 days, to instruct them and be with them before he ascends to the eternal world.

But Thomas, for some reason, was the only one of the apostles who didn’t happen to be there when Jesus appeared in the room. By the time Thomas rejoined the rest, he had to listen to them fall all over themselves trying to tell him that the Lord had been there and they had all seen him. This was too much for Thomas. Now, surely, the rest of them had lost their minds just as Mary and the other women had. This was beyond the pale. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger into the nail marks and put my hand into his side [where the centurion had pierced it with a spear], I will not believe.” For this reason people have over time given him the unflattering moniker “Doubting Thomas,” which does not appear anywhere in the New Testament. But this, as our parish priest pointed out in a homily and as I have read elsewhere, is really a bit unfair. It’s even a little hypocritical, given how many of us nowadays struggle to believe anything that cannot be conclusively and scientifically replicated to prove its veracity. We cannot in any self-righteousness cocoon call him “Doubting Thomas.”

In any case, Jesus returns a week later, again despite the locked doors, and this time Thomas is there. Again Jesus’ first words are “Peace be with you,” as if he is replicating for Thomas what he had been unfortunate enough to miss. As he had for the others, Jesus understands Thomas and his actions. He has compassion for our limitations, and forgives them. He speaks to Thomas with gentleness. “Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.’ Thomas answered and said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.’ ”

May we all be comforted, in our many faults and limitations, by his compassionate tenderness.

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

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

 

Lessons from a Not-Too-Perfect Lenten Fast

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day when millions of people from the world’s major Christian traditions receive an ash cross on their foreheads. The ash cross symbolizes repentance and humble recognition of our weakness, faults, and ultimate dependence on God, even for our very existence. When I received my cross, the lay minister who marked it upon me spoke the formula: “Turn away from sin, and believe in the Gospel.” I appreciated that “turn away from sin” was chosen instead of “repent,” which in American society carries more than a twinge of unfortunate Puritan baggage. A disconcerting mental reel of Jonathan Edwards banging his Bible and screaming “Repent!” is not particularly edifying (or spiritually productive). “Turn away” — which is really just a less archaic equivalent of “repent” — is also an exact modern English translation of the biblical Hebrew verb shuv, which is the most common Old Testament way to refer to the action of repentance.

But there is more to Ash Wednesday than ashes. It’s also a day of fasting and abstinence for some Christian traditions. In Catholicism, fasting is defined as an able-bodied adult taking only one full meal, plus two smaller snack-like quantities in the rest of the day, “sufficient to maintain strength.” Beverages are not excluded. Abstinence is defined as abstaining from meat, and Ash Wednesday combines both abstinence and fasting. The purpose of this is multilayered: (1) Our fast is meant to be a sacrifice, our offering to God, on a day that especially acknowledges our faults and our gratitude for God’s love; (2) The practice of self-denial helps to teach us detachment from (over)consumption; (3) Fasting teaches discipline but also bring us closer to God, since prayer makes fasting more tolerable; (4) Voluntary fasting gives us a taste of the involuntary hunger that millions of our fellow humans suffer, and should lead to our almsgiving out of responsibility to them, as well as a heightened sense of gratitude within those of us who have enough.

I began the day determined to carry out the fast and abstinence without blemish. I decided to schedule my one full meal for dinner. Now, I was doing pretty well with the fasting until about 1pm, when my empty stomach told me in no uncertain terms that the small cup of Greek yogurt I’d had in the morning (my first snack) had just about given all it could. Not to be cowed, I decided to down two tall glasses of milk. That bought me about another couple of hours. By the time 2:45pm rolled around, just about all I could think about was how hungry I was. At that point, nothing could distract me from it. My second “snack” turned out to be a medium-sized bowl of Cheerios. OK, not so bad, I said to myself. I haven’t really blown it yet. Sure, maybe a bowl of Cheerios is a little on the high side, but hadn’t a small cup of yogurt been a little on the small side? They probably evened out, I reasoned. Plus, the bowl of Cheerios will definitely make it until dinner!

And it would have. The only problem was that I couldn’t eat dinner — my one full meal — at my normal time of roughly 6 or 6:30. This was because I was sitting beside an indoor pool at a local health club between 5:30 and 6:30 for my daughter’s weekly swimming lesson (as a child, she of course was not expected to undertake fasting and abstinence). By the time we got home, it was 6:55, and I was now so hungry that I would swear there were big metal claws raking against the walls of my stomach. Famished, I eagerly scanned my mind for what would make a really satisfying full meal and last until bedtime. I hit upon the answer in an instant. Of course! One of our favorite meals: penne alla pastora, a recipe that blends crumbled sautéed Italian sausage with pasta and a small amount of ricotta cheese. It would be perfect!

And it would have been. Except just as we began dinner, my little daughter piped up, “But Mommy! You’re not supposed to eat meat today.” And there you have it. Having become so hungry from the fasting (the hard part), I had utterly forgotten about the meat abstinence (the easy part). It had fled from my mind like a flock of pigeons from a running fox. And my husband, who at the time was sitting in a night-school math class dreaming of a Wendy’s burger (and abstaining from it), had not been there to remind me earlier.

After my mind’s ears stopped ringing with the silent sound of my internal primal scream, I said to myself that — lesson learned — I would simply eat the meal and shut down the metal claws that were still scraping at my stomach.

What meaning did I ultimately make from this pitiful affair? For a little while, I felt very disappointed indeed that I so badly botched what I’d decided would be a perfect fast and abstinence. But then I realized that in my blunder, I had actually hit upon the whole purpose of the thing — the whole point that Lent is supposed to bring into focus for us. Had my fast been perfect, I likely would have missed it. Yet as it happened, my not-too-perfect fast threw into sharp relief the meaning of Ash Wednesday itself. We are such limited beings; we inhabit (for now) such limited bodies; we have so many weaknesses; we are prone to make so many mistakes, even when we try valiantly not to make any; we so often fall short of what we could be; and sometimes that falling short is willful and deliberate and even flagrant, and other times it is accidental and even unconscious.

We are flawed; we are imperfect. Yet we have God’s love anyway, and God’s grace too, if we are open to receiving it and letting it make its effects within us, to working with it and letting it change for the better the kind of people we are. Does the fact that we have God’s love despite our imperfection and weakness mean that we should just give ourselves a free pass not to become better people? Give ourselves a shrug of the shoulders and a careless self-assurance that “I’m just fine the way I am”? Of course not. That would be doing both ourselves and God a disservice. If anything, recognizing the presence of God’s love and grace should make us want to forget ourselves, and forget self-interest and any self-satisfaction, and humbly grow toward the light as a flower grows toward the sun.

So I am glad my Ash Wednesday fast was not too perfect. I learned more that way. Including some experiential knowledge (rather than only intellectual knowledge) of how hard it is to be hungry. But at least I could raid my fridge afterward. There are millions who can’t, and we who are more fortunate are responsible to them. Jesus did say: “When you feed the hungry, you feed me.”

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

Loosening the Padlock on My Compassion

This year, Lent begins on February 13. During Lent, practicing Christians undertake certain disciplines to achieve spiritual purification and growth. Lent is the unavoidable annual reminder to Christians that Jesus didn’t teach us the easy, feel-good spirituality of self-fulfillment that we find all around us in pop culture. A Christian spirituality that assimilates itself to this ignores the primary commandment that Christ taught, which is that we practice unconditional love, compassion, and non-judgment. Even when it doesn’t suit us, and even when we feel we shouldn’t have to. 

Sure. Love and compassion and non-judgment are easy to say, and are frequently said; but what does it mean to practice them in a real way, in a way that doesn’t lead to all of us making hypocrites out of ourselves? This is the question we often want to steer clear of, because it requires us to step outside our self-focused worlds and our grievances and the things we feel we deserve. The hard reality is that Christ calls everyone who says they want to follow him to walk down a road that our natural instincts would prefer not to know about.  What does this road entail, that we want to avoid it so much? 

Well, it certainly doesn’t entail drawing careful demarcation lines around those who we feel deserve the love and compassion Christ is always talking about: people we already love because they are family, or people we already like because they are nice to us and give us the consideration we feel we’re entitled to. As Jesus says: “What credit is that to you? Even the sinners and tax collectors do the same.” The reality is that most of the time, we expect the divine call to love, compassion, and non-judgment to be meticulously carried out when it is we ourselves who would be on the receiving end of it. If we’re honest, we have to admit that we’re not nearly so generous when it comes to extending those things to other people — especially people who are outside our boundary of those we love and those we like. 

The next category — people who have actively wronged us or our loved ones — are even farther outside our guarded boundary. They, we righteously feel, will never be the objects of our compassion because they simply don’t deserve it. So what if Christ still expects that I release my compassion from the fenced-in area in which it dwells, and extend it not just to myself but also to them? Well, I’m not Christ. I’m not able. It’s too much to ask. I’m too angry. What they did was too unconscionable. They certainly don’t have compassion toward me, after all; they don’t give me a second thought, and if they did, it’s a nasty one. Anyone who asks me to do otherwise is naïve.

But this is, in fact, what Christ not only asks but requires of anyone who claims to follow him. His repeated instruction — not to mention his example — to “love your enemy” and not just your neighbor is an inconvenient truth at the center of all Christ said and did. Most of us give it lip service on a good day. We prefer to be on the receiving end of such a thing, not on the giving end. Even the suggestion that we have compassion (to say nothing of love!) for one who is our enemy feels like an offense to us. I believe the reason it is so difficult is that we have an inside view of our own minds, but not those of other people; so it’s far easier to see a whole person when we look at ourselves, but only a one or two dimensional person when we look at the other. 

Yet that other person is as three dimensional as I am, whether I actually see those dimensions or not. More important, I am forced to recognize the uncomfortable fact that the God who I know loves me, also loves them. And not just a little: every bit as much. Because God sees everything that went into making them who they became. Just as God sees everything that went into making me who I became. I have no privileged status because God feels their pain no less than God feels mine, and God loves them no less than God loves me. How, then, can I permit myself to hate what God loves? Before long, I can feel the heavy-duty padlock begin to loosen on that fence where my compassion and love dwell, and the one who is loosening it is God. And now I myself don’t feel so cramped up anymore. I feel freedom instead.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

 

The Luminous Mysteries

Until very recently, I was not aware of the meditative power that the rosary can hold. For many years I did not meditate on the rosary at all, and when a while ago I did return to praying it, for several months I didn’t even bother with meditating on the Mysteries that are assigned to it. Perhaps I felt that simply moving through the prayers with the right attention and frame of mind was all that I could manage at one time, until I got my rosary “legs” underneath me again. Whatever the reason, though, I eventually progressed to the point where I was at last ready to try the most enriching dimension of the rosary, the dimension that holds such fullness of potential for encountering God: reflecting on the Mysteries.

There are twenty Mysteries, which are divided into four groups of five. The four groups are the Joyful Mysteries, the Luminous Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries. Since the rosary is divided into five parts, or “decades,” which correspond to five Mysteries, the person meditates on only one of the groups. S/he is spared the task of choosing which group, since there is a customary order that goes by the days of the week. In any case, each of the twenty Mysteries focuses on an event in the life of Christ, with the exception of a few that come from the life of Mary. Yesterday, I found some time to pray the rosary while meditating on the Luminous Mysteries, which are these: 

  1. The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan (Mark 1:9-11)
  2. The Manifestation of Christ at the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12)
  3. The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ Call to Conversion (Mark 1:14-15)
  4. The Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8)
  5. The Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22-26)

This meditative form of Christian prayer involves focusing the mind on each of these events in turn (following the sections of the rosary) with imagination — visualization — as the lion’s share of the process. For this a person simply needs a humble openness to God, and an openness to wherever the visualization of these Mysteries might lead. Despite a bit of trepidation at first, owing to uncertainty over whether I would be “good at it” or not, I soon found myself with the feeling of drawing back further and further into my mind, into these scenes in the life of Christ. It did not take long for me to enter far enough into each of the scenes in my mind to feel as if I were present there, watching. Though still aware of my surroundings, I also felt considerably detached from them, as if I had mentally entered a different but safe and richly promising place.

I want to write about one thing that occurred to me during this meditative prayer, as I reflected on Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist, who famously expressed shock at the idea that he was being asked to baptize the one “whose sandals he was not fit to untie.” Nonetheless, John did baptize Jesus, after which we are told the Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove, and God gave a message from Heaven about His Son. As I envisioned this scene in my mind, I felt John’s astonishment as he looked up from the river in which he was baptizing the crowds, to see the very man who represented the Kingdom that John was proclaiming, walking toward him. I imagined John’s awareness that the scene was playing out ostensibly the reverse of how it should — the baptizer knew how outrageous it was that he was baptizing the one who had every right to baptize him.

And that particular point was what got my attention. As John unflinchingly admitted, he himself was only “the voice crying out in the wilderness,” someone who raised his hand to point at someone and something else beyond himself, knowing that the attention belonged elsewhere. But God, in the person of Christ, elected to subordinate Godself — not only in the Incarnation as a human being in the first place, but in the subordination to human hands, with the baptism in the Jordan as a striking example. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul quotes a hymn that praises God the Creator for “emptying Himself” by taking on human form in Christ and experiencing human weakness in an unpredictably radical demonstration of divine love. 

This, it turned out, was not going to be a God who would emerge loudly from the sky with dramatic clouds and blowing trumpets, or who would swoop down with a holy saber to eradicate enemies, or who would instantly make everything triumphantly perfect with a wave of His hand. This, instead, was going to be a God who would send Himself here to be born. Not to gloriously appear in the atmosphere with orchestral accompaniment, but to be born the old-fashioned, messy, “unclean” way. This was going to be a God who would submit Himself to hunger, thirst, pain, despair, suffering, and even the disgrace of execution. This was a God who would take the hand of Jairus’ young daughter who had died, incurring (in the belief of onlookers at least) the strong ritual uncleanness that came from touching a corpse. The holy and the divine were supposed to be strictly separated from any ritual uncleanness, and never the two should meet. But here was a God who didn’t seem to think so. This God, after all, was the one who said to St. Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”

All these things seemed encapsulated in the image of Christ submitting himself to be baptized. A profound respect the Creator must have for His creations, it seemed to me, in order to do these things. What if we looked at one another with the same respect? And even though this God’s power is made perfect in weakness, it is a formidable power that can assure the 14th-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, that at the end “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well…And I saw full surely that ere God made us He loved us; which love was never slacked, nor ever shall be…and in this love our life is everlasting. In our making we had beginning; but the love wherein He made us was in Him from without beginning: in which love we have our beginning. And all this shall we see in God, without end.” (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love)

© 2012 Elizabeth Keck