Where We Belong (John 17:1-11)

Seventh Sunday of Easter

We all need to belong. We need to belong somewhere, and the sense of belonging that is ours when we do truly belong brings with it a corresponding sense of peace, of happiness, of security. The need to feel that we truly belong reflects the truth that we are relational beings. We are not created to be individuals in a vacuum; we did not evolve to exist on our own in atomistic self-sufficiency. Our need for belonging springs from an awareness in our depths that we are meant to be part of a larger whole.

So when Jesus tells his disciples that they (and his disciples today) “belong” to him, this is music to the world-buffeted soul; eternal warmth to the lonely, misunderstood, or rejected. Whether we feel we belong anywhere here in this world, we always, he tells us, belong to him. In this passage in John, Jesus is praying to the Father before his arrest. These lengthy monologues in John often serve to help reveal the nature of the relationship between Christ and the Father, two Persons of the triune God. In this prayer Jesus speaks about the “belonging” of the disciples to himself and to the Father: “I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word… I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them” (17:6, 26).

So the disciples then and now belonged first to the Father, their Creator, who has now given them into the care of the Son, who is the Logos of the Creator become human. Jesus speaks about his disciples belonging to him in many other passages in John as well — being joined to him, being one with him, and therefore being joined to the Father too, because he says to the Father that “everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine” (17:10). It means that we share in the eternal life of God; and it means that if we ask him he will work with us so that we can be transformed in our depths to become more like him; and it means that our true home is in him.

As Thomas Merton reflects, “To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name” (New Seeds of Contemplation).

Jesus continues in his prayer before his arrest: “Consecrate them in truth. Your word (logos) is truth… And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth” (17:17, 19). By his holiness, we are made holy, because we belong to him. By his consecration of himself, he consecrates us, and we are freed from our own darkness, because we belong to him. By his power over death, we are freed from its power over us, and we share in his eternal life, because we belong to him. He embraces us with his encompassing, radically generous acceptance. This is what it means to belong to him who is Love.

Creator and Redeemer God, help us always remember that you are our home; that our place of eternal belonging is in you; and that your love is imprinted on all your creations forever.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

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An Advocate to Be With You Always (John 14:15-21)

Sixth Sunday of Easter

In this reading, Jesus promises his disciples that after he has gone, they will not be alone: the Holy Spirit will come to dwell with them and in them, and not just with them but with disciples through the ages. But it will require some movement on the disciples’ part too — on our part — to know the Holy Spirit and work with him. Jesus tells them, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate (Paraklētos) to be with you always, the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot accept because it neither sees nor knows him. But you know him, because he remains with you, and will be in you.”

The word usually translated “Advocate,” “Counselor,” or “Helper” (Paraklētos) comes from the root verb parakaleo, which has a broad range of meaning: to urge, encourage, ask, console, comfort, and even summon or invite. Because of the multitude of ways that the Holy Spirit works with us — including all of the above — it seems very fitting that the word used to describe the Spirit would be so versatile.

The way that Jesus speaks about this makes it clear that the Holy Spirit, who like Christ is part of the Personhood of God, is not simply going to whir away in the background accomplishing things while not involving us in any way. Jesus tells his disciples, “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit whom the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that I told you” (John 14:26). Jesus connects the Holy Spirit with the active result of loving him: keeping his commandments. Through knowing and participating with the Spirit, we will be much better able to keep the more difficult commandments of Jesus, the ones that ask us to subordinate our automatic tendency toward self-focus and to love others with a willingness to sacrifice that self-focus.

When we act on Jesus’ teachings out of love for him, we are transformed. “Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him” (John 14:23). How does this happen, and what is the role of the Holy Spirit? Saint Paul writes that, among other things, the Holy Spirit helps us to pray, and thereby to come closer to the same God of whom the Spirit is a part, to know him and to feel him within our depths.

When we sit in quiet prayer, listening to whatever God might have to say to our hearts with his mercy and love, or reflecting on a Scripture passage, or holding other people before our mind’s eye in prayer for them, the Holy Spirit is stirring within us. In this stirring he is helping us to pray, and when we respond with our love and our prayer, he stirs and orients our being toward God all the more. Over time, if we cooperate in the unfolding of this process, a charitable spirit toward others overcomes more and more of our innate selfishness and we become configured to Christ. When this happens we can feel, like Paul, that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Perhaps we might feel peace, or a desire to pray still more. But inevitably and irresistibly, we will also experience the urge to be a more positive presence in the lives of others — even in seemingly small but actually big ways like practicing more active kindness and compassion, both for strangers and for people we know well, both for people we like and people we don’t. It is for the latter that we must rely even more on the stirring of the Holy Spirit within us. For Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you… For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?… But love your enemies and do good to them, and lend expecting nothing in return; then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:27-36).

We will know that we’re working with and being transformed by the Holy Spirit when we notice “the fruits of the Spirit” in our being, manifesting themselves in our actions. Paul describes these fruits as “charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, modesty, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). To the degree that we can willingly grow in these through our cooperation with the Holy Spirit, we become more like Christ. And this is what he wants for us, not only for the good of others whose lives will inevitably benefit from our becoming more like Christ, but for our own good. There is nothing better for our souls than to become as closely united to the Source of our very being, the Source of all love, as we possibly can. Only in that Source do we discover our truest selves, the people that our Creator sees in us and wants us to be.

Holy Spirit, Paraklētos, one of the three Persons of the united God, help us to pray, to know humility, to work with you to become more like Christ who is the Way, and thereby to radiate outward the love that we feel in God.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

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

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

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

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

Easter

From the moment we arrived in church this Easter, I was reminded that there is something about an Easter service which never fails to lift one’s spirit and fill one’s heart with joy. It is such an unabashedly positive conclusion to such a sober three days (for a few more thoughts on those three days, see my first post, The Triduum). I believe this is due to a combination of the message of Easter and the explosion of flowers that always adorns the altar. And, let’s be honest, it never hurts when Easter falls in bright, warm April as it did this year. Somehow those bracing March Easters don’t quite rise to the occasion, when the myriad altar flowers couldn’t be more incongruous against that stiff wind numbing your face.

But perhaps most of all, I think there is something that appeals to us on a bedrock level about that unabashedly positive — indeed ecstatic — ending. That ending to those three days of hushed gloom, in which we are meant to remember what is wrong in life and mostly in ourselves. What appeals to us on a bedrock level is not just the joyful, celebratory nature of Easter itself. It is the fact that that joyful celebration arrives not just any time, but after what are symbolically, representatively, the darkest days of the world.

It need not even matter whether one is Christian and therefore believes in a larger significance to what happened on those particular days in history. What matters is what those days are meant to represent. They represent the darkest hour, for an individual human being or for humanity on a broad scale. It cannot be incidental that the celebration of bursting light comes immediately after the days when things could not be darker, could not be worse. This speaks profoundly to us as humans. We want, and in many cases ultimately believe, that such will be true for our own lives and our own obstacles. Surely the progression from darkest to brightest that is the message of Easter resonates with us on this one of many levels.

While I love the exuberant, kinetic character of Easter, it is Christmas that holds for me a kind of joyfulness of spirit that is surpassed by no other time on the calendar. The joy of Christmas is in some ways a sweeter, more innocent-feeling, less wild kind of joy — but in no way lesser in impact. It is the charming, encumbered-by-nothing kind of joy that has to do with a little child bringing a message that at its basic level is just love and happiness, pure and simple. No strings, no ifs and maybes. Just love and happiness.

Yet even here, if we are reading Luke’s Gospel, we can detect a similarity to the post-Triduum arrival of Easter in that Joseph and Mary are in peril. They are away from home in a stable, with no human assistance, for a potentially life-threatening event. Luke would have had his own reasons for portraying those details in that particular way, as would have Matthew when he recorded a different peril in the threat of Herod to the child. But the charm, sweetness, and laughing joy of the Christmas event (and everything it can signify) will not be denied. There is nothing that exactly matches what I feel at the Christmas Eve service. The greens, the countless sparkling lights, the leaping candles, the red bows, the winter’s cold, the sense of a whole community in joyous anticipation. All of them together encapsulate for me that boundless and unrestricted Sublime. And that delight at a splendidly felicitous event, even in the awareness that peril exists in the world, is what Christmas shares with Easter.

But this was Easter. The flowers and the colors and the cathartic exuberance of the impossible fulfilled. Shine I knew it would, and shine it surely did.

© Elizabeth L. Keck 2010

The Triduum

This year, I didn’t even realize it was Holy Thursday until just after noon, while I was standing in the sacristy of our church doing some routine clean-up tasks. What a moment to have such a revelation.

I serve in the Altar Guild of our church, which means every 7 weeks or so it’s my turn to wash and iron the Communion linens and return them (and, if I’m unlucky according to the liturgical calendar, change the altar paraments). So I was standing there in the sacristy and I heard, coming through the hallway and the walls, the pastor’s voice leading as the congregants began to chant a certain part of the liturgy. Suddenly I thought: “My God, this is Holy Thursday and I didn’t even think of it till now.”

I used to be aware of every minute — every second — of Holy Week. Just a few years ago, forgetting any of the Triduum days was about as likely for me as suddenly being crowned Olympic champion in curling. Oh, of course I had known it was Holy Thursday somewhere in my brain, just as I had expected the Triduum the entire week and its culmination in Easter. But that morning, I had been preoccupied with preparing pizza chena: a traditional Italian Easter dish. At my grandmother’s recent passing, I determined that the tradition would not die, and that I would begin making it, for the first time this Easter. It is an arduous recipe and was occupying most of my finite brain. But I acknowledged that there was another reason one of the three holiest days in the Christian calendar did not actively occur to me until I heard the service listing in through the walls.

The truth was I hadn’t been going to church a lot over the last year. Actually, since the birth of our wonderful daughter 3 years ago, we had been going less and less. Finding that our lives, with which we were very happy and in which we would not change a thing, also made us….tired! Not unmanageably so; just enough not to have the motivation. But it wasn’t just a question of motivation. It was also a question of mental space. With so much going on in our lives that we have to track — not bad things necessarily, just a lot of things — we find the downtime together on weekends to be almost sacred. Especially for my husband, who works not only a full time job but also a difficult night class every semester. And maybe we were too lazy to manage getting a small child to (and through) church every week. We still count ourselves steadfastly Christian. Liberal Christians yes, Christians always interested in wisdom from other religions — but still stalwart ones. We hadn’t become any less spiritual about our religion. We just didn’t go to church as much anymore, even though we had and have no intention of giving church up for good. Had we joined the ranks of those who are religious yet for whatever reason don’t go to services very often? Possibly, for now. But not forever, I can’t help feeling.

So, I had gone to church on Palm Sunday, was actively anticipating Easter, and Holy Thursday still snuck up on me. Whatever that means, as I stood there in that sacristy listening to the beautiful strains of the liturgy, I felt both like an outsider for having “forgotten” and yet, in my deeply individualistic way, also a profound sense of belonging. Belonging to this faith that celebrates an unfathomably sacred Triduum each year: Maundy/Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday culminating in Easter. These three days are so sacred because we commemorate a Creator God who took our own form on Earth in the most mindblowing act of empathy and identification that anyone can imagine. Even without the Crucifixion, just the act of that God assuming human form — in some mystifying emptying of Godself — is the ultimate act both of identification with human beings and sanctification of human beings.

In thinking of this, I also thought those thoughts that many people of faith find uncomfortable and try to avoid. This uncomfortable avoidance is natural, and I often find myself doing it, though less so since reading Paul Tillich’s The Dynamics of Faith. Tillich, one of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, contended that questioning, confused, or even doubting thoughts are not signs of weak or no faith, but are in fact integral to the nature of faith itself, which is dynamic by nature and is “the state of ultimate concern.” As a Hebrew Bible scholar, I think automatically of Jacob wrestling with the angel of the Lord in Genesis. It was only after that all-night wrestling match that God’s messenger blessed Jacob and changed his name to Israel.

The unsettling thoughts, of course, revolved mostly around suffering. Jesus’ suffering. Why? To become fully human, including to experience suffering, in the ultimate demonstration of the Creator’s solidarity with the created? To act in keeping with the biblical tradition, which states that restitution for sin is accomplished through deliberately, voluntarily sacrificing something? So God decided to sacrifice Godself — once and for all — in human form, for humans? I thought of the old debate, dating to the beginning of Christianity: was Jesus fully God or was he like God? I feel that if the Christian story is true, Jesus would have to be truly God in human manifestation for the Crucifixion to make any sense at all — it would have to be God assuming that suffering on Godself, not simply a man handed over to torture. How could that, indeed, accomplish anything? Such a cosmic act requires a divine participant. God deciding to suffer alongside humans, and thus to redeem them in the most magisterial way possible, I can appreciate and be grateful for. But the question inevitably tied to it is the question every faith has probed in every time: why suffering in the first place? No answer, many theories. It is, in the truest sense, a Mystery. Just as the nature of the Universe itself is a Mystery.

All this I pondered as I stood there in that sacristy. Now, the pizza chena is finished and sitting in the fridge, and I am home with my daughter. Not long ago, I actively realized it is Good Friday. Tonight, I will take some time to think about the impenetrable mystery of a God who willingly became a human.

© Elizabeth L. Keck 2010