Softening the Hard Heart (John 3:16-18)

Most Holy Trinity (Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

The Gospel for this Sunday — Holy Trinity Sunday, commemorating the Trinity a week after Pentecost’s great celebration of the Holy Spirit — contains a saying so well known that it’s easy to skim over it, and hard to plumb its depths with new eyes. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

Primarily this verse touches us with its emphasis on God’s radical love for the world and love for us, despite all the suffering the human species inflicts upon itself and on other species. That love means that God is not enthusiastic about condemning. God is enthusiastic about redeeming and forgiving, when the hard heart becomes consumed with remorse and looks to its Creator for forgiveness and love. But God’s respect for our autonomy is such that this is not forced upon us. It is a gift freely offered, and can be freely turned down. Our hearts can soften in the face of God’s love, causing us to follow in the divine way of compassionate kindness; or they can remain hard and intractable, continuing to cause pain to others. 

If “perish” in this passage stands as the opposite of “have eternal life,” then looking more closely at what Jesus means by “eternal life” will help us better understand its opposite. In another passage in John, Jesus asks the Father to give eternal life to all whom the Father has given him. He then says, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Jesus reassures his disciples that simply to know God in an intimate way — and as he told them elsewhere, just to know him is a direct way to know God — leads to eternal life. This is because it is impossible to know God in our depths person-to-Person and yet refuse to love him. And it is that love, which is the greatest transformative force in the world, that brings eternal life. 

It is that gentle yet most powerful-in-its-gentleness force of love that softens our hearts and causes us to see others and all of Creation in the way that God sees. This, in itself, changes our actions and our disposition and leads into the eternal life of which Jesus speaks. We do not need to perform superhuman spiritual acrobatics, he tells us, to inherit eternal life. We do not need to wear ourselves out trying to “earn” it somehow, or prove that we are worthy of it. We will never achieve that. But neither should we relinquish all responsibility to seek and find God, pat ourselves on the back, and say, “well, I’m all good just the way I am, no need to seek God to improve me!” Both such approaches are nonsense. 

When Jesus says, “Seek, and you shall find; knock, and the door will be opened to you,” he is not telling us to ask for the latest hot consumer item, a more luxurious car, or a bigger house. When he encourages us to “seek,” he means seek God, and seek him in earnest, and God will not hide himself but let you find him. When he says “knock,” he means knock on God’s door, and it will always be opened to you.  

Those who are a part of other faiths can truly seek and know God in their own way, for the spark of the Creator dwells deep within each of his creations. The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) made this, in fact, a part of doctrine when it wrote that those who are not familiar with Christ and his revelation of God “but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (Lumen Gentium 16). 

As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton reminds us: “It is the will to pray that is the essence of prayer, and the desire to find God, and to see him, and to love him, is the one thing that matters.”

Holy Trinity, triune God, help us always first and foremost to seek you, to knock on your door, to invite you to come and stay with us. By doing so let us open our hearts to be softened and changed by the transformative knowledge of you and your love. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

“Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:19-23)

Pentecost Sunday

The day of Pentecost, which Christians commemorate as the day the Holy Spirit came to abide permanently within the community of the new church after Jesus’ ascension, marks the fulfillment of his promise not to leave his disciples alone. Now the Holy Spirit, the Paraklētos, has arrived and is here to stay. The Spirit is the worker here on Earth — the “Spirit of truth,” the advocate, summoner, encourager, comforter, helper, counselor, and teacher. The Spirit dwells within us and around us and works to help us discover our true identity in God who is Love, and lead us to grow into that identity. 

The first two readings speak to us about the unifying character of the Holy Spirit. But the unity that the Spirit brings is not a whitewashing of our individual uniqueness; it does not subsume us into any amorphous sameness that takes no account of our unique experiences, personalities, and gifts. No, this is a unity in which each person’s individuality is not only acknowledged, but honored, celebrated, and put to good use.

The first reading, Acts 2:1-11, paints a picture of a large crowd of devout Jewish folk from many nations who had gathered in Jerusalem for the annual religious festival of Shavu‘ot (“Weeks”), which commemorates the revelation of God at Sinai, the covenant with Israel that happened there and the giving of the Ten Commandments. Greek-speaking Jews who hailed from outside Judea called it the Fiftieth (Pentēkostē) Day, so the word Pentecost made its way into the mostly Greek-speaking early Christian community. It was to be on this day that the Holy Spirit would be revealed in a spectacular way. 

Now the Holy Spirit, according to Acts, had just come to the disciples like “a strong driving wind.” The pilgrimage crowd began to hear the disciples proclaiming their message, but they were astounded because “each one heard them speaking in his own language… They asked, ‘Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.’”

In this first demonstration of the Holy Spirit, this unique Pentecost event that grew the fledgling church by great numbers, the Spirit proves to be a unifier. But the Spirit speaks to each person in a way that he or she can hear, within the context of his or her own language, nation, culture, and disposition. The Spirit is an equal opportunity teacher, who speaks to us where we are. And this is true as much today, every day, as it was that first Pentecost day. God’s Spirit does not change. 

The second reading, from 1 Corinthians 12, reveals the same idea: unity in diversity, oneness in all our individuality. I have something to give that can only come in its uniqueness from me, and you have something to give that can only come in its uniqueness from you. Paul says it best: 

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

In the Gospel reading for this Pentecost, Jesus speaks of peace and of sending forth. The scene from John’s Gospel is the first post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus to the apostles who were hidden in the upper room in Jerusalem. Although the Gospel for today takes us back in time nearly fifty days before Pentecost, it also reveals the coming of the Holy Spirit. 

Jesus appears in the flesh in the middle of the room, though the doors were locked, and says, “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’” 

With this gesture, Jesus gave to his fledgling church the commission to continue to carry out through the Holy Spirit what he saw as his greatest ministry: releasing each of us from the inner bondage of our own sin, when we respond to the awareness of it with a humble and repentant heart. When manifested in what Pope Francis calls the great sacrament of mercy — the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (Confession) — the priest as the minister of Christ gives these words of absolution to the penitent:

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

Absolution is the assurance of God’s forgiveness, granted to a contrite heart. As the minister of Christ’s mercy, a priest cannot withhold absolution (“retain” the sin) unless the person truly has no contrition and humility in the face of their wrong, and professedly has no intention to attempt to do better, or has no grasp of what the entire process is for. It’s hard to imagine a circumstance where a person would come to Reconciliation at all under such conditions!

But personal confession in the sacrament isn’t the only way the church mediates Christ’s forgiveness of sins. It happens in a general sense at the beginning of all Catholic masses and at the beginning of many Protestant worship services with the corporate declaration of sin, spoken by the whole congregation. The people acknowledge wrongdoing and ask for God’s forgiveness. This too is the work of the Spirit. 

Holy Spirit, this Pentecost day and always, help us to remember that the unity you seek to bring honors and relies on the individual gifts you have given to each one of us as participants in your works of love. Help us be open to what you offer to teach us. Help us be open to the ways you seek to soften our hearts, and help us always be humble enough to seek God’s forgiveness — the greatest gift of all. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

“May God Grant You Pardon and Peace”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen!

Copyright © 2014 Elizabeth Keck

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

 

“Whatever You Bind….”

The other day, I went to confession for the first time in about seventeen years. Confession is more formally known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation; it’s sometimes also called penance, even though that more accurately refers to the small gestures of restitution (such as prayers or good deeds) that the penitent makes after confession. This is done both in repentance and in gratitude for God’s mercy. In Catholic theology, even though God is believed to forgive a person as soon as he/she is sorry for whatever wrong was committed and seeks forgiveness, the act of confessing those sins to God’s minister, and hearing the words of absolution — which is the assurance of God’s forgiveness — is considered eminently useful for the penitent’s psychology. Confession can be done either face-to-face or with the anonymity of a confessional booth, and in either case, the priest is bound by the sacred seal of confession, which he cannot break under any circumstances. He may reveal neither the identity of the penitent (if he knows it) nor the sins confessed, nor may he ever use anything said in the confessional for any reason, because he is witness to internal matters of conscience. The seal of confession is respected by United States law.

For part of the seventeen years before my recent celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I didn’t see the point. Why bother with the potentially uncomfortable and likely unnecessary step of confessing one’s sins to a minister of the Church when those sins were forgiven by God anyway? Shouldn’t they just stay between me, my conscience, and God? What business were they of anybody else anyhow?

The first small chink in my armor here was benignly inflicted by a professor of Russian literature, from Eastern Europe, who I (very) slowly came to realize was one of the most intelligent people I’d ever encountered. He commented one day during a discussion of Chekhov that the idea of confession/penance and the Sacrament of Reconciliation was one of the most useful ideas the Catholics had ever had, and one of the least useful ideas the Protestants had ever had was to get rid of it. Naturally, my youthfully self-satisfied mind wanted to know why such an otherwise intelligent person would say such a thing. I expected him to answer with theology, but got basic human psychology instead. He said that on a basic human level, just feeling sorry for things you’d thought or done, and hoping that God heard you and forgave you when you said so, wasn’t enough. Humans need concrete, external feedback, or validation, or whatever you’d like to call it, because we are concrete beings. It is useful for us to heave heavy burdens off our consciences to another human being on a regular basis, to hear that God has forgiven those very burdens, and to do some small penance as a way of showing restitution, expressing humility and gratitude, and starting on a fresh path. And it is very useful indeed to have that other human being be an impartial and pastoral third party, who doesn’t even need to know your name unless you want him to know.

The theological basis for confession and Reconciliation comes in large part from Jesus’ statements to Simon Peter. The Gospel of Matthew 16:15-19 relays a scene in which Jesus talks with his disciples about the public confusion over his identity; Simon, the uneducated fisherman, is the first person to get it right, and he is given the new name Peter. Here I translate from the Greek. “He said to them, ‘But who do you [plural] say that I am?’ And Simon Peter answered and said to him: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered and said to him: ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven. And so I say to you that you are Peter [Petros: Greek for “Rock”], and upon this Rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not overcome it. I will give you [singular] the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven.’”

One wishes that this language of binding and loosing would be a bit less esoteric to the modern ear, but most theologians and scholars (and certainly the early and modern Church as well) think it refers to sins and forgiveness. Jesus gave to Peter, the Rock, an extraordinary power. This power was not intrinsic to Peter, but was given to him by Christ, and given by proxy to Christ’s church to carry on after Peter’s death (indeed, the binding and loosing language is used again in Matthew 18:18 in the plural form, to the disciples). From the practical standpoint of an everyday Catholic, what this means is that you can confess what is weighing you down, hear the consoling words of the prayer of absolution, and go your way feeling renewed and relieved. Absolution, which is the assurance of God’s forgiveness, cannot be denied unless it is painfully obvious that the penitent is not sorry at all — in which case, he/she would probably not be at confession in the first place.

At the conclusion of my run of seventeen or so years, I was interested to see how I would feel going into it. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I nearly cut and run while sitting in the parking lot. In the end, though, my sense of curiosity — and my desire for that concreteness that my very intelligent Chekhov professor had talked about — got the better of me. After celebrating the sacrament, I left the church wondering whether I would again feel that lightness and freedom of conscience soon, as the Catechism says usually happens. It didn’t take long.

Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Keck