Different from all other nights

There are several cues during the Evening Mass on Holy Thursday that tell you something is different tonight. Mass begins and ends with an empty tabernacle.  Flowers and the Gloria make appearances after absences during these days of Lent (with a few exceptions), but the joy doesn’t remain long. The organ is quiet. The bells are replaced with clackers. The Mass ends with the procession of the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose and ends silently, as we wait with Jesus in the Garden. The altars are stripped.  We wait.

Two thousand years ago, twelve men celebrating Passover with their leader would have noticed differences to a familiar liturgy as well.  Jesus spoke of the unleavened bread being His Body.  And he spoke to them of a new covenant.  Then, after singing the Hallel Psalms, instead of finishing the Passover meal, Jesus left and led them to the Garden to pray.  It was a memorial they celebrated for 30+ years of their lives, and suddenly Jesus was doing something different.

Understanding the Passover sacrifice and meal helps us to understand exactly what Jesus was doing that night.  (Which is why I recommend Brant Pitre’s book Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist to everyone I meet.)

Why is this night different from all other nights?  This is the famous question the son would ask his father during the Passover liturgy.  And the father would respond, “It is because of what the LORD did for me when he brought me out of the land of Egypt…”

Notice – it is what the Lord did for me.  Not for my fathers.  Not for our people a thousand years ago, two thousand years ago.  For ME.

For the Jewish people, this “memorial” (go back to Exodus 12 and see how often it is referred to as a memorial, remembrance) was not just a way to recall a past event.  The Hebrew understanding of remembering, memorial — zikaron — was not a passive remembering of a past event.  It was a participation in that event.  The past event was being made present for you, so that you too could share in the Passover, the redemption of the first born.

It was what the Lord did for you.

This was in the forefront of the minds of the Apostles that night.  This was on their minds as they heard Jesus’ words: Do this in memory of me.  Same word.  Zikaron.  Anamnesis.  Not “think back to this night years from now and think of me fondly.”

No.  Zikaron.  Make this present.  Participate in it.  So that it is not just the redemption of your fathers or your people two thousand years ago — but so that you can share in that redemption.

And then Jesus tells them something drastic — He is here to make a new covenant.

But hadn’t God told the Israelites that Passover was supposed to be a “perpetual institution?”

The call of the first born is not revoked.  It is fulfilled.

Do this in memory of me.

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Photo copyright Steven Golder

St. Thomas the Apostle

The Feast of St. Thomas the Apostle is a great celebration in India.  It is tradition that St. Thomas was the only Apostle to leave the Roman Empire to preach the Gospel, traveling to Syria and Persia and then to India, as far south as the southwest region of Kerala.   He was eventually martyred, fulfilling his declaration during Jesus’ public ministry, “Let us also go [with Jesus], that we may die with him.”

Despite Thomas’ courage and missionary spirit, he is best known as being “Doubting Thomas.”  Perhaps it’s a bit unfortunate that he is best remembered for his lack of belief in the Resurrection of Christ, since the other Apostles were also unbelieving until they saw Jesus in the flesh.  On Easter Sunday, Thomas was not with the Apostles in the Upper Room when Christ appeared to them. When he heard their testimony, he declared, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

The following Sunday, Christ appeared to them again, and this time Thomas was with them.  Jesus did not reprimand Thomas, but told him, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.”  Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!”  (John 20:24-28)

Thomas must have had a close relationship with Christ to be allowed such intimate contact with him.   Such a personal experience, a prying into one’s hand and side, must not be taken lightly.  Clearly, Thomas was Christ’s friend.  The Apostles had spent three years with Christ — spending time day in and day out, walking with him, confiding in him, working with him.  They had accompanied Him in his ministry.  They had learned from him.  They had left everything for him.

They were his friends.

We too are called to that intimacy with Christ.  He desires each of us to enter into that close relationship with him — and we call that relationship “prayer.” (CCC 2558)  We spend time with him.  We confide in him.  We work with him.  At times we use formal prayers.  Other times we just sit in his presence.  He reaches out to us in the sacraments and allows us to touch him —  “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.”  And as unworthy as we are, we marvel at his goodness to us and exclaim, “My Lord and My God!”

As we reflect on our struggle to preserve religious liberty, we must never forget the power of prayer.  It’s often difficult for us to remember that nothing is more effective or powerful than prayer.  We feel like we should be doing something — and often we should be!  But sitting in the silence of our room in conversation with God or waking up early to go to daily Mass before work — these are the most effective things we can do for anyone or for any petition.

Praying with others is an especially powerful experience.  Not only did Christ promise us he would be with the community in prayer — “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18:2o) — it can also increase our own faith to hear voices united in common prayer.

America’s hope is the recommitment of families to prayer.  When our families begin praying together again, the effects will be seen throughout this country.

Our families are busy, and we may think there is no time to speak with each other- much less to pray together.  But if we sacrifice and specifically set aside time to pray as a family, we will give our children a valuable lesson they will not quickly forget.

During the first Fortnight for Freedom, in 2012, I was on vacation with my family.  We decided to pray the Bishops’ prayer for religious liberty together at the end of the day.  My sister’s family already gathers for prayers at bedtime, so the prayer was added to the end of their nightly prayer routine.  Every night we would gather in the boys’ room (ages 7, 5, 3, and 1.5) and I would pass out the holy cards with the prayer on the back.  It was moving to pray “for our children and grandchildren”  in the presence of my seven nieces and nephews- to hear my father’s voice praying for the boy playing at his feet, to vocalize that petition while seeing their innocence and wondering what America would look like in their future.

On the last night, some circumstances arose and we decided my sister’s family would go ahead and pray their night prayers without the rest of us.  Unbeknownst to anyone else, before they started, my five-year old nephew left the room in search of me.  He finally found me and reported, “We need your cards!  Come hand out your cards!”

Did he know what we were praying for in that prayer, as he clutched the card in his hand and tried to follow the words?  Of course not. Did he know it was important?  Yes — because we had made an effort every night to gather together.

We prayed together that night.  And I think God heard Andrew’s prayers extra clearly.

Some days we may feel overwhelmed by the threats against religious liberty.  Other days we may feel complacent about them.  And other days we may feel like demanding proof that God is even alive.  But every day he is calling us to himself, asking us to come to him in prayer, and waiting for us to fall to our knees and declare, “My Lord and My God!”

Division and hatred

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Today’s Gospel is one of those passages that seems to contradict the picture of Jesus we might have painted in our minds.

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.

Wait a minute? What happened to the Prince of Peace?  The Jesus we hear from today doesn’t seem to fit the “be nice to everyone” Jesus we all know and love.

From now on a household of five will be divided,
three against two and two against three;
a father will be divided against his son
and a son against his father,
a mother against her daughter
and a daughter against her mother,
a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law

Hm. Makes you want to squirm, right?

Well, maybe that’s his intent.  Maybe he wanted to correct a misunderstanding. The passage is within a great section where Jesus is speaking about the urgency of living the Gospel.  If you know the Master’s will, you’d better do it, and do it now. No delaying, no waiting.  If you read the end of the twelfth chapter of Luke, you can almost hear Him getting worked up as he talks to his apostles, finally culminating in:

“I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!
I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am constrained until it is accomplished!
Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division;

So is he still the Prince of Peace?  Yes, but not perhaps the peace the way we want to define it.  I am reminded of the classic scene from The Princess Bride:

Often when we think of peace, we think of something more like appeasement. Don’t create waves, don’t hurt anyone, don’t judge anyone, just keep the peace.

But similar to the modern misunderstanding of mercy (which I wrote about here), I don’t believe this modern understanding jives with the biblical understanding.  Neville Chamberlain might have announced that he had secured “peace for our time,” but we all know that peace was a mere appearance that had no lasting impact.  It was comfortable for him, it was non-confrontational, but it wasn’t real.

To be Christian means to make waves. Why? Because to follow Christ means embracing a life that’s counter-cultural and has been since the very beginning. After all, the Prince of Peace and Lord of Love also told us:

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.

He wouldn’t win many points as a motivational speaker, would he? Wow.  “Hey, guys, if you listen to me, everyone’s going to hate you!”  Honestly, what a way to win followers. If he wasn’t the Son of God, who would follow this guy?

Christ’s message IS one of peace, love, mercy, goodness, but not necessarily by the world’s definition of those things.  This means that we have our work cut out for us.  It’s not enough to preach Jesus Christ, we also have to explain to our modern world what the Gospel means.  Some will accept it, even though truly understanding and obeying the Gospel is usually rather uncomfortable.  Others won’t accept it, because it’s too demanding, too counter-cultural, too odd.

But be consoled.  St. John apparently had difficulty, too.  No one wanted to listen to the truth of the Gospel then, either:

Little children, you are of God, and have overcome them; for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are of the world, therefore what they say is of the world, and the world listens to them.
We are of God. Whoever knows God listens to us, and he who is not of God does not listen to us.

The Gospel causes division. Why? Because it’s not as much this:

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As this:

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Downplaying Emmanuel

I was lector at Mass today, and sometimes that means I notice things in the readings that I might otherwise miss.  The first reading was from the book of Joshua and picks up when the Israelites are finally getting ready to enter the Promised Land. Joshua, in place of Moses, is leading them.  Just as God parted the Red Sea for His chosen people to flee Egypt, now He parts the Jordan River for them to enter the Promised Land.  Just because Moses is no longer with them does not mean God is no longer leading them, and He performs this miracle through Joshua to remind them of that.  They had surely heard the stories of their fathers and the Red Sea, and now the Lord was showing the same favor to them.

When Joshua is speaking to the people before the crossing, he prepares them for the miracle, saying, “This is how you will know that there is a living God in your midst, who at your approach will dispossess the Canaanites.” (Joshua 3:10)

A living God.

Not a God who is aloof and watches from afar.  Not a Deist conception of God, who made the world and now lets it run alone. Not a God who is detached from His People.  But a living God, One who is active and personal and ready to intervene even in the acts of nature.  One Who wants to show His People that they are His People to such an extent that He is willing to perform a crazy awesome miracle and stop water flowing downstream.

There is a growing trend in the Christian world today to believe that God is an “impersonal force.”  Studies have shown that only 60% of people who believe in God believe in a personal God with whom they can have a relationship.  Even more shocking, 29% of Catholics say the God they believe in is an “impersonal force.”

Is it no wonder, though, when you hear priests and “theologians” downplaying the crazy awesome miracles?  “Oh, the Red Sea was actually the Sea of Reeds and was really just a marshy lake and only a few inches deep.”  “Oh, when Jesus walked on water, they were actually really close to land and it was a sandbar.”  “Oh, the multiplication of the loaves and fishes was actually about everyone sharing what they had with their neighbor.”**

I have heard each one of these from the pulpit or from a biblical historian.  So it’s no wonder that we’ve lost our belief in a personal God, in a God who can and will act in my life because He loves me.

We’ve made Him impotent.

If He didn’t do it then, why would He do it now?  And so we go to Mass on Sunday and miss it all.  Maybe we don’t know what is happening —  we don’t realize that God is coming down on the altar to commune with us.  Maybe we’re too focused on ourselves or on the people around us to realize that God is inviting us to a personal relationship.

Or maybe we’ve downplayed it too long. Maybe we’ve talked about the Mass simply as a communal banquet where we come together as a community to forgive and share and love, and made too light of the miracle that happens before our very eyes.

Catholics, of all people, should have an understanding that God is here, God is close, and God loves them.  Because He shows us at every Mass.

“This is how you will know that there is a living God in your midst…”

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**Of course, any attempt to explain away a miracle usually just results in another miracle that needs to be explained. “Wow, so it’s a miracle then that Pharaoh and all those chariots and charioteers drowned in a few inches of swamp water.”  “Wow, so it’s a miracle that St. Peter managed to sink into that sandbar.” “Wow, it’s a miracle that they wanted to carry him off to make him king when all he really did was get them to share…”

Photograph from Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P.

When knowledge isn’t good enough

One of my favorite works by Pope Benedict is his “trilogy” about Jesus of Nazareth, and my favorite of the three works- at least this week- is the last, on the Infancy Narratives.  Before Christmas Midnight Mass, I reread the chapter on the magi, and I decided it was my favorite chapter. (This week.)

One part always strikes me.  In speaking about the Magi stopping in Jerusalem, receiving direction from the chief priests and scholars, he points out,

“The answer given by the chief priests and scribes to the wise men’s question has a throughly practical geographical content, which helps the Magi on their way. Yet it is not only a geographical, but also a theological interpretation of the place and event. That Herod would draw the obvious conclusion is understandable. Yet it is remarkable that his Scripture experts do not feel prompted to take any practical steps as a result. Does this, perhaps, furnish with the image of a theology that exhausts itself in academic disputes?”

The Wise Men had knowledge, which allowed them to know what the star meant, which allowed them to embark on their journey in the first place. Without their hunger and desire for knowledge, the star would have remained an astrological phenomenon to be witnessed, not a sign to be sought.

But knowledge wasn’t their end goal.  Encounter was.  It wasn’t enough to know the King had been born.  They had to meet Him.

Is it the same with us?  It’s a good examination of conscience for me, especially in my work as director of adult formation and as a Catholic speaker.  I want everyone to know the Truth. I want them to know the Catechism.  I want to share what the Church teaches.  I want them to dive into the Scriptures and be hungry to know more.

But is my goal to give them knowledge… or for that knowledge to ultimately lead to encounter?  If it all remains on the level of knowledge, it will soon cease to even matter to my audience.  Why do I need to know these random bits of facts and teachings? Why does it matter in my life?

It must go further – that knowledge must create in us a hunger to not just know more, but to pursue Him, to encounter Him … to worship Him.

“…and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.

And then we give Him everything. And He changes our life.

“Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

Knowledge… encounter… worship… surrender. That is the formula for an abundant life.

The chief priests and scholars of the Hebrew Scriptures had knowledge, but remained busy in their theological exercises and disputes.  The Magi’s knowledge spurred them to encounter Him. And that made all the difference.

Great Suffering, Great Love

The Sunday Gospels in Lent for Year A are particularly poignant and reflective; there’s a reason they may be read at the weekday Masses as well, particularly during Years B and C when they aren’t proclaimed on Sunday. The Samaritan woman at the well is one of my favorite of Jesus’ encounters, and I would love to develop a retreat just around that reading. The story of the man born blind last week gives rise to many questions and points to ponder, especially as these Lenten days approach the darkness and light of the Triduum.

The drama of today’s Gospel seems to rush us even faster towards the holy days, as we experience a glimpse of the hope Jesus has come to give us, as the darkness gives way to light, the despair of death is conquered by the faith of the resurrection.

As I drove to Mass this morning, I was thinking about an aspect of the Lazarus story I had never really thought about before: that Jesus allows Lazarus to suffer. I had always known that Jesus delayed going to his friends at Bethany so that He could show the glory of the Father and do something far greater than heal Lazarus: He could bring him back from the grave. But I don’t think I had really stopped to think about what this meant. It meant He stood by and allowed Lazarus, Mary, and Martha to suffer.

He had the power to alleviate their suffering, and He did nothing.

We don’t know what caused Lazarus’ death – perhaps it was something particularly painful. His sisters had to watch him die. They had to bury him. They had to face life without their loved one.

Jesus could have stopped it. He could have prevented the pain.

Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?

It is not because He did not love Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. They were his closest friends outside of the Apostles.

He chose to allow their suffering so that He could show His love is even greater than death.

Suffering is a great mystery. We know that it is evil, it is a result of sin. But we also know that God allows us to suffer so that we can participate in the mystery of the Cross.

Sometimes we see God allowing people to suffer in our daily life, but we look at the Gospels and only see the healings, the exorcisms, the resurrections. Jesus walked this earth and gave men back their sight, gave women back their sons, healed lepers, raised paralytics from their mats. Why does He stand by and allow my loved ones to suffer?

Lazarus was one of his dearest friends. He allowed him to suffer because he loved him. It’s a great mystery, but one we will face every day.

With the greatest suffering comes the greatest love.