Saturday, April 23, 2011

Poetry: Days of Creation

Had Nietzsche been around on the first Holy Saturday, he would have been right when he said, "God is dead."  That idea is what inspired this poem, though certainly not the way Nietzsche meant it.

Days of Creation

You fashioned all creation in the work of Seven Days.
You know where the foundation-stone of all creation lays.
Your love ignites the stars that pour their light into the sky.
Your love was poured out on the cross, and for us did You die.

You blew Your breath into the clay that by Your Word was made.
When You drew breath our words of hate were how You were repaid.
You made us clothes by Your own hand when all was sin and loss.
We took Your clothes and cruelly nailed Your hands onto the cross.

The Seventh Day You hallowed though You did not need to rest.
The hollowed earth received You when the spear had pierced Your breast.
Your angels hovered over us to guard us as we slept.
The guards we posted at Your tomb cared not when women wept.

You gave a firm foundation when in stone You set Your Law.
The stone was cracked and pushed aside, and weeping women saw
Into the tomb in which You took Your sanctifying rest.
They ran and found the others and all this to them confessed:

"The Master's tomb is empty, and the angel said He lives!
He spoke to us upon the road; to us this charge He gives:
To tell you He is Risen, and to never be afraid."
And two of the apostles went to see where You were laid.

And so it was, on the Sixth day, You re-created man,
And on the Seventh day You rested for a sacred span.
And though we may think that these days of all days are the worst,
The Sixth and Seventh Days do pass and give way to the First.

Rest up.  Tomorrow is a big day.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Reflection: "Father, into your hands..."

"Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."

Again, Christ calls out to His Father.  His final words from the cross mirror His first.

This last word of Jesus illuminates the touchstone of existence: the love between the Father and the Son.  Everything has been about this loving relationship, for it is out of this love that everything came into existence.  Every angel's song and infant's murmur, every whisper shared between husband and wife, every cry of delight; every sound of rejoicing owes its existence to the Word of God, and that Word is Love.

What is happening here?  Christ has already given over His entire earthly life to the Father's will; He has done everything in accordance with it.  What more is there to give?  His spirit.  His soul.  The immortal part of His being.  The love He shares with the Father motivates His final act: giving over the totality of Himself to the Father.

This is the ultimate example of love.  He is crushed, despised, tortured, and killed, and in the midst of His agony, He thinks not of Himself, but of us, and of His Father.  His focus is always turned outward.  He gives and gives, and when the world thinks He is spent, He gives one last time.  Of course the world does not recognize the gift, for the gift of the spirit is not of the world.

This is the love to which we are called: to be willing to give everything for others.  Every breath, every ache, every word; to give our lives to others.  This is the message of the cross, that love really does demand, "my life, my soul, my all."  To stop short of that is to fail to love.  Christ did not fail, and, in His victory, we are saved.

So, we must give everything over to Christ, who gives everything over to the Father.  Where does that leave us?  In the tomb, with Christ.  But not forever.  Just as Christ rose from the dead, so too will we be raised in Him.  In all of our giving to Christ, we must not forget that He is the gift given to us by the Father.  We give ourselves to God, and He gives Himself to us.  What does God really gain in this exchange?  Our love, for that is what He most wants.  What do we gain?  Forgiveness and new life, for that is what we most need.

We can step out of ourselves and into Christ at any moment.  We can be swept up in that new life at any time.  All it takes is the choice to give up control to God.  All it takes is the trust to commend our lives into His hands.  No longer will we be burdened by the tedious and deadly whims of our fallen nature.  God will give us a new nature, one subsumed in His own divine love.  If we give up what we call freedom to do His will, we will discover that, in doing His will, we become truly free.  He will completely satisfy us.  He will make us truly happy.

"Father, into your hands I commend my spirit."  For those words to be true should be the goal of every moment of our lives.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Reflection: "It is finished."

"It is finished."
Jesus' life is ending.  The women who had the courage to stay by the cross know it will be over soon.  His mother, who brought Him into the world, bears witness to His departure.  But Jesus is not just acknowledging that the end of His life has come.  He is announcing that His greatest work has been accomplished.

By His death, Jesus gives us forgiveness.  It is a basic precept of Christianity.  But it is the Resurrection that proves it, and the Resurrection is still days away.  So, given that it is returning from the dead that demonstrates what He has accomplished, in what sense is Jesus' work finished?

This statement parallels the first chapter of Genesis.  On the sixth day, God created humanity, and that was the completion of His work.  Then, He rested.  On Good Friday, the sixth day, Christ redeemed, or re-created, humanity.  Then, on Holy Saturday, He rested.

His whole ministry has led to this point.  He had been teaching the apostles, molding them into the men who would lead His Church, showing them by example how to love.  With His death, the foundation of the Church has been laid.  Now all that remains is to turn the work of building up the Church over to us.  Yes, He grants us the Spirit, and it is the Spirit that inaugurates the Church, but it is we Christians who have been commissioned.  The Holy Spirit works in us.

So, while Pentecost is the day the Church is born, Good Friday is the day the Church's development in the heart of Christ is finished.  We can imagine that the structure stands, silent, awaiting the mission.  The Church is ready to house all who draw near; we only wait for the Spirit to open the doors.

Another lesson to learn from this sixth word is that, no matter how severe it is, suffering does eventually end.  To paraphrase C. S. Lewis, Christ died and died and then death was over.  It was defeated, and new life began.  There is a certain point where we stretch, and bend, and crack, and then finally break, and then it is over.  Suffering ends.  If we unite ourselves to Christ, then the end is nothing to fear.

There are many endings in this life; each one leads to a new beginning.  Our hidden life in the womb ends, and our life as an infant begins.  Infancy becomes childhood, childhood grows into adolescence, and adolescence becomes adulthood.   Then adulthood matures into old age, and, finally, we die.  But then we enter into the new life Christ has prepared for us.  One could rightly say, "It is finished," at any of these junctures, but there would still be more left beyond the next beginning.  One word ends, the next begins.

Perhaps the most valuable wisdom we can gain from this word is the ability to recognize an ending for what it is, and then to further recognize that there is a new beginning beyond it.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Reflection: "I thirst."

"I thirst."

For what does He thirst?  Water?

When He met the Samaritan woman at the well, He asked her for a drink of water.  She was stunned by the request, for Jews and Samaritans were enemies.  For a Jew, let alone a Jewish man, to speak to a Samaritan, especially a Samaritan woman, was incredible.  It truly was an event people would not believe.

What brought them together?  Thirst, that most basic human need, stronger even than hunger.  They both came to the well for the same purpose, to satisfy a fundamental need.  But Jesus perceived that the woman had a need even more fundamental than thirst: love.  She had been in a succession of relationships that she thought would bring her love, but they did not.  Jesus promises to give her the Living Water so that she will never thirst again.  He tells her that He is the Messiah.  She is so overwhelmed by the encounter that she returns to her village and tells everyone about Him.  Why?  What affected her so very strongly?

His love.  He asked her for water, but in so doing He was really giving her His love.  That is the secret of Christianity: Christ asks us to give Him everything to satisfy His thirst, but He does not leave us empty.  Rather, He fills us with His love, giving us back what we offered Him a thousandfold.  He fills us to bursting with His love, to the point where the Living Water is like a fire in our bones, and we must share what we have been given with others.

On the cross He tells us that He is thirsting so that we will offer Him something.  Through the opening created by that offering He will pour out Himself.  Even if the opening is so tiny that only a drop of His love can slip through, it is enough.  The smallest part of His love contains the fullness of His passion.  Even a drop of it can transform us into springs of Living Water.

But He longs to give us so much more!  He wishes to inundate, to inebriate, to drown us in His love and then raise us to new life.  The more we offer to Him, the greater the opening we give Him, the more of Himself He can give to us.  The sooner we can be transformed into springs of Living Water the better, for the world is thirsting.

Yet, we can remain closed to Him.  We can stand at the cross and offer Him nothing.  And, though He longs to give us everything, we can refuse.  We can remain utterly dry.

Likewise, we can offer Him wine mixed with gall.  We can turn to Him insincerely, not because we truly desire Him, but because we want to please a friend or family member, keep up appearances, or just because everyone else seems to be doing it.  We will go through the motions of offering Him something, but, in reality, we will have given Him nothing.  Just as he rejected the wine mixed with gall, so to will He reject empty gestures and vain words.

But, if there is even one shred of sincerity in our offering, even one drop of water in our hands, He will accept it.  He will take what we give to Him, and His love will come upon us in a torrent.

And there is yet more.  He will ask us to tell Him what we thirst for, what we most need.  He invites us, even from the cross, to offer Him our desires.  He knows we thirst, too, and He longs to satisfy the longing within us.  Perhaps that is what most satisfies Him, to give us that which will most satisfy us.

He is thirsting, and so are we.  Shall we keep everything to ourselves, or shall we give Him to drink?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Reflection: "My God, My God..."

"My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?"

Did Christ lose His faith?  Did the Son of God call out in agony not simply because of physical pain, but also because He no longer believed in His Father?

Read superficially, this despairing cry seems embarrassing for Christians.  The Messiah appears to be admitting that He was not really the one, after all.  When He most needed His Father's divine intervention, it was not forthcoming.

Yet these words have never been a source of scandal to the Church.  Why?  There are several reasons, the foremost of which may be that they are the first line of Psalm 22.  When we read the whole text of Psalm 22, we see that Jesus is not expressing His disbelief in His Father; rather, He is expressing His profound trust in the Father.  Psalm 22 may begin with an expression of abandonment, but it ends with joy and triumph.

The 22nd psalm is a prophesy that details the suffering and triumph of the Messiah.  Like the Song of the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 52:13 through chapter 53), it details His torture at the hands of those who hate Him and His eventual victory.  Psalm 22 ends with a declaration that all nations will know and serve the Lord, and that all who have died will be raised again so that they can bow down to Him.  These thoughts dovetail well with Christ's teaching of the resurrection of the body and the mandate He gives to the apostles to "baptize all nations."

Yet, to deny that Jesus felt no separation from His Father is to deny His full humanity.  He was afraid in the Garden.  He did not want to die, but He chose to do His Father's will, albeit with a heavy heart.  Perhaps that is what makes Him so wonderful; even when He feels completely abandoned by His Father, He still does His Father's will.

There is a great comfort for us in that.  When we feel cut of from God and utterly alone, when we feel as if there is no one else in the world who stands beside us or has compassion for us, we can remember Jesus' example.  He did His Father's will when everything within Him and everyone around Him told Him to abandon His mission.  His love for His Father was deeper than those feelings.  That should tell us something about the nature of real love.

There will be times when we feel abandoned by God.  There will be times when we can detect no trace of His Presence anywhere.  Indeed, some of us will endure long periods of this feeling of being forsaken.  But we must not give up.  We must not abandon our mission.  Christ persevered to the point of death for our sake.  Can we not do the same, for His sake?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Reflection: "Woman, behold..."

"Woman, behold your son.  Behold your mother."

When Jesus told His mother to behold her son, He did not mean Himself.  Her devotion to her Son was constant, and she beheld every pain, every sorrow He endured without His calling attention to them.

No, what Christ does is ask His mother to turn aside from her complete devotion to Him, and to see that the man standing beside her, one of Christ's apostles, is now her son.  She is asked to give to him the same love she gives to her Child.  In one of my favorite movies this scene is depicted in a way that shows Mary too weakened by her grief to stand on her own feet.  She leans against the apostle to keep from falling.  I think of it differently.  I think it was the apostle who leaned against her for support as he beheld his Master's death.

That one apostle represents the whole Church.  Certainly, the Blessed Mother does not rely on the Church for support.  The opposite is true.  The entire edifice of the Church is propped up by Mary's love.  Her fiat made her the Mother of God and Mother of the Church.  God Himself incarnates in her womb; God gives Himself to her.  Likewise, the Church is given over to her.  She continues to be the shelter of the Body of Christ.

Christ commanded the apostle to behold his new mother.  That command is no less binding on Christians today.  Mary is the Mother of the Church because her Son has willed it so.  Mary is the example of faithfulness to God.  Mary draws people to herself not for her own glory, but so that she can lead them to her Son.  Where will she take us?  To Bethlehem, yes, and to Nazareth.  But also to Jerusalem, to Golgatha; to the foot of the cross.

And to the upper room.  We must not forget that Mary was with the apostles on the day of Pentecost.  When the Church was born in the Fire of the Holy Spirit, Mary was there.  When the mighty wind blew through that room, banishing fear and bolstering courage, Mary was there.  When Peter went out and told the people that Jesus had risen from the dead, Mary was there.  Mary was with the Church from the Church's very foundation, and she is with the Church now.

So why should we Christians not rely on her strength in our sorrow?  Just as she comforted the apostle at the foot of the cross, so too does she offer us comfort in our sadness.  She understands our pain as only a mother can.  She intercedes for us and teaches us to intercede for each other.  When we pray the Hail Mary, we both beg for her intercession and join in her prayer.  Consider the words of the prayer now, but speak them as if you stood with her before the cross.

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee;
Blessed art thou amongst women,
And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners,
Now and at the hour of our death, Amen.

The words take on a different feel when said in the shadow of the dying Christ.  They illuminate the face of His mother with a different light.

Christ offered His love to us on the cross.  Of course part of that offering is the gift of Mary's love.  The woman who loved Him so well as He grew will not fail to love us as we grow closer to Him.  The woman with the strength to comfort the apostle even as she witnessed her Son's Crucifixion will not fail to strengthen and comfort us in our trials.  The woman who said, "Yes," to God will not fail to help us say, "Yes," to the Son of God.

Mary beholds us, as her Son commanded her to do.  We must remember what He told us; we must remember to behold Our Mother.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Reflection: "Today, you will be with me..."

"Today, you will be with me in Paradise."

The good thief is assured that he will go to heaven.  Despite his sin, he will make it into Paradise.  All he has to do is die with Christ.

I often forget that part of the story.  The good thief had to die with Christ to gain everlasting life.  What a wonder, to die alongside God.  Only two men ever had the chance.  But only one was promised heaven, because only one repented.  What is the lesson?

It is not enough to simply suffer and die, even alongside Christ.  We must suffer and die with Christ, in union with Him, or our suffering is in vain.  We must unite our suffering with His, and to do that we must first repent.  We cannot unite ourselves to Christ if we do not repent.  You cannot take a man's hand if your own hands are curled into fists.  You cannot accept eternal life if you do not first let go of your sin.

We are going to suffer in this life.  It is unavoidable.  The question is, shall we suffer alongside Christ or with Christ?

To be alongside Christ is to recognize He is there and then to shut him out.  We do not like the demands He makes of us: purity, generosity, humility, constant prayer, seeking and granting forgiveness.  Or maybe we participate in certain rituals and acts of charity not because we love Him, but because we gain some benefit from doing so.  Or perhaps we know all about Him, but do not take the time to know Him.  There are many things that can put us in this position; each one a crystalline barrier that let's us see Christ but not touch Him.

To be with Christ is to repent, and thus shatter the barrier and embrace Him.  And be embraced by Him.  To live with Christ is to try to conform our wills to His Will in everything, including our finances, our sexuality, and our leisure.  To suffer with Christ is to have compassion for others, to make sacrifices for strangers, and to accept physical pain and weakness as an opportunity for spiritual renewal.  To die with Christ is to give Him everything we have, everything we are, and let Him use that gift as He chooses.

The bitter truth is that we are all thieves.  We have stolen pleasures that do not belong to us.  We have misused gifts that do belong to us.  We have lied to ourselves and each other about our condition.  But we know the truth.  We all sin.  We all suffer.  We all die.  We all are sentenced to Crucifixion.  And Christ is there, waiting for us on the cross, inviting us to join Him in Paradise.  Only one question remains.

Will we merely die alongside Christ, or will we die with Him?