Fourth Sunday of Easter

This is why the Father loves me,
because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.
No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own.
I have power to lay it down, and power to take it up again.
This command I have received from my Father."

"More than 40 percent of seniors experience loneliness on a regular basis, according to a recent University of California, San Francisco study. This feeling of separation and disconnection with society, community and family impacts emotional and physical health, so much that we believe it should be addressed by physicians, nurses, and other clinicians as a treatable medical condition." (Washington Post, May 9, 2017)

have often heard seniors complain of loneliness; I have supposed it comes with old age. Given chronic illness, less mobility, hearing loss and death of the spouse, we should only expect loneliness during our later years. "Get used to it!" I thought.
But as I approach my senior years and live in a community of older Franciscan friars, I realize many people choose to be lonely, thinking they have preferred freedom. Millions  of men and women live apart from their families and cultivate no friends; they pass the time with televisions, computers and pets in pristine solitude, dying of loneliness. With no hobbies and few interests, they assure themselves that, as Americans, they enjoy more freedom than citizens of any nation on Earth. But that illusion of freedom comes with much suffering, including "cognitive decline, the potential progression of Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and obesity." (Washington Post, May 9, 2017)
This was not our Shepherd's plan for his flock. Sheep don't wander off alone, and if they do the shepherd brings them back. True, some are called to the eremetic life and the Church provides traditions and "rules" to help hermits maintain community with like-minded souls. But there is nothing innately sacred about a life removed from human fellowship, companionship and conversation.
When I was ordained 43 years ago, we often celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of a friar's simple vows, and of a priest's ordination. The friar would be about 43; the priest, 51. We didn't celebrate many golden anniversaries of fifty years. Parishes would make a big deal of a couple's fiftieth wedding anniversary, because it was unusual. People didn't live that long. We find ourselves in a new age when people can expect to work into their seventies and eighties, and be feted as centenarians.
But we have to make certain spiritual adjustments if we're to live so long. We'll see a lot more people coming and going through our life; some will die, others move away. We'll need "people skills" to meet, take an interest in, and care about new friends. We'll probably take up new interests as the technology of recreation changes. We'll have to recognize that many assumptions of a half-century ago no longer apply; and that's not necessarily a bad thing. (Some of those certainties were just plain wrong.) Retirement is not the last stage of life but a new way of life for those who choose to live. it comes with new relationships, duties, interests and activities.
Perhaps the most dangerous assumption is one we picked up in kindergarten, "When I grow up I'll get to do whatever I want!" The wording changed through the years: "When I graduate...; when I get married...; when I take a vacation...; when I retire...." But the attitude was the same: I should get to do what I want to do. We supposed that was "freedom." It assumed there would be no one to tell me differently; if there was someone else they'd agree with me. "Hell," as the atheist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said, "is other people."
When we contemplate freedom, the Catholic gazes upon the crucifix. There is the icon of a free man. His hands and feet are nailed but he is not held aloft by these torturous devices. Rather he is held by love; his love for the Father, his Father's love for him, and his love for us. Despite the unspeakable pain of crucifixion, he would not have it any other way.
The image of Christ as shepherd with a crook and staff is lovely but the truer image of Our Shepherd is the crucifix. He needs no wooden stick to persuade us to follow his path; we are drawn to him as iron to a magnet. "When I am lifted up," he said, "I will draw all to myself."
His freedom is magnetic.
Contemplating the cross we must find ourselves more eager to accept the focused, prayerful solitude that every human being needs, and the companionship that comes with our human nature. We may never attain the perfect balance between them but we can see it in Christ Crucified. Daily prayer invites us to share our faith with others; it leads us to friendship; it shows us the beauty of young people coming up and the elderly who still sparkle with life. It helps us to recognize the courage of others who bear great burdens, to offer whatever assistance might help, and to graciously to accept whatever help we need. That too is an act of mercy.
The Shepherd lays down his life for others in order to take it up again -- for others! Contemplating his cross, we do the same.

Saturday of the Third Week of Easter

Lectionary: 278

The Church throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria
was at peace. She was being built up and walked in the fear of the Lord, and with the consolation of the Holy Spirit she grew in numbers.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola taught his Jesuit disciples about the ebb and flow of the spiritual life. God gives us these cycles of consolation and desolation to train us in the life of the Holy Spirit. 
Most of us most of the time prefer the consolation but without some desolation we become indolent and lazy. 
He urged his people to remember the good times when they suffered any trials; and to remember the bad times when life seemed to ease up a bit. Whatever the situation it will change. Aware of these cycles we are less apt to waste the blessings of prosperity, friendship and good health; and less likely to overreact when we suffer disappointments, setbacks and failure. "This too shall pass!" we say of both pleasure and pain, satisfaction and frustration. 
As we read through the Acts of the Apostles during this Easter Season we approach the mid-mark and find the Church of Jerusalem enjoying a season of peace. They are roundly despised by the authorities but more and more people are accepting baptism and walking in the fear of the Lord. Of course we know it won't last. They had already suffered the persecution of Paul and his Pharisees. The Apostle James will be executed in the twelfth chapter and many Christians will flee Jerusalem. That catastrophe will be an enormous boon for the Church as the Gospel spreads throughout the Jewish world. 
I grew up in the 1950's as the western world regained its footing after World War II. By the mid-1960's the United States had entered a period of unprecedented prosperity, despite the enormous waste of the Vietnam War. Our parents generated a Baby Boom and built elementary schools, high schools and colleges to educate us, with parks to play in and Walt Disney to entertain us. There was no shortage of fuel, food or clothing. Life was good and we expected it to be good. 
As consumers of the good things we supposed prosperity was normal and the future would only get better. Hardships were a thing of the past, before mankind learned how to build and manage the infrastructures and economies of prosperity. Sacrifice was also unnecessary; there was plenty for everyone. Even minorities like African-, Native-, Hispanic- and Asian-Americans could expect equal opportunity some day
Religious persecution was also a thing of the past; the age of martyrdom was over, although Catholics in Louisville remembered it was not over very long. 
As the United States prepares to be great again I expect devastating trade wars and calls for universal sacrifice, which will be borne first by the minorities and, later, by the majority. Clearly the latter are not prepared to make sacrifice. Addicted to sugar, entertainment and pain medication, they can hardly bear ordinary disappointments. Their religion of spectator sports offer only reassurances of their righteousness and entitlement. Their culture of violence urges suicide as a cure for misery.
During this Easter Season, as Christians enjoy the consolation of the Resurrection, we do well to remember the desolation of difficulty, persecution and daily sacrifice. The cyclic laws of prosperity and recession have not been revoked. The age of persecution has never ended. We should cultivate the pleasures of going without, of abstinence, and daily prayer; and prepare our hearts for hardship. 

Friday of the Third Week of Easter

Lectionary: 277

Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes
and he regained his sight. 
He got up and was baptized,
and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength.

The story of Saint Paul's conversion has always been a paradigm for the Christian's experience of coming to the Lord. We hear  the story often when people speak of their discovery or rediscovery of faith. "The scales fell from my eyes!" they say as the Obvious finally broke into their narrow-minded thinking and freed them to see the way things are. They experience immediate relief and delight. 
But this story was not the standard model in his day. The Roman world was overrun with "mystery religions" who offered myths and legends that purported to make sense of life. We know little of these mystery religions because the secrets were conveyed by word of mouth from teacher to novice. But I suspect they were something like today's conspiracy theories. The "master" offered a compilation of facts, half-truths, popular conceptions and weird explanations and then persuaded the novice that this ingenious explanation was the key to wisdom. The novice -- who may have been young, gullible and already invested both socially and financially -- bought the package. He might have tried to recoup his losses, or justify his foolishness, by recruiting others into the intellectual Ponzi-scheme. 
Saint Paul was familiar with these hare-brained ideas and occasionally refers to them, but insisted the Christian revelation is not that kind of mystery. He had to use the word mystery, as we still do today. (And he had to redefine it as we do today.) But he insisted these strange notions were only myths of human origin and useless to the Christian. In fact, some Christians apparently twisted the gospel around their own ideas and attempted to make it another mystery religion. (And, inevitably, some people today accuse Saint Paul of misleading the Church from the true message of Jesus -- which they have (remarkably) rediscovered after twenty centuries of misunderstanding! Wow!) 
Saint Paul's experience told him that you needed no alien theory to receive the revelation. The truth of Jesus Christ was obvious to any inspired person familiar with the Jewish scriptures and traditions. The important difference, of course, was the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, a gift which could not be purchased or engineered but could be received by the willing. 
Encountering Christ for that particular Jew was like the scales falling from his eyes. It was there all along but he could not see it. 
The Funeral of our
Brother Bob Baxter
Even today the difference between a mystery religion/cult/conspiracy theory may be too subtle for many. Conspiracies are borne of fear and arrogance. They believe some evil intent manipulates the "levers" of power. "They" may be secret cabals of Jews, Muslims, Jesuits or east coast elites. 
The obvious, telling difference is found not in the doctrines but in the Spirit, as Paul told the Galatians: 
...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  (Galatians 5:22)
The Christian who knows the mystery is not afraid. She gives her testimony of God's mercy simply, honestly and courageously to anyone who will listen. If their hearts are open, scales fall from their eyes.  

Thursday of Third Week of Easter

"No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him,
and I will raise him on the last day.
It is written in the prophets:
They shall all be taught by God.
Everyone who listens to my Father and learns from him comes to me.

Calvinist theology emphasized the privilege given to Christian believers. Not everyone was chosen to hear or accept the Word of God. According to that teaching, some were doomed from the start. The Christian, knowing her exceptional status, should guard against losing it, although she couldn't really lose it -- "once saved, alway saved"
The dogma is known as "double election." The first election gathered God's blessed ones; the second is for the unchosen who, by default, were "selected"  for damnation. I can understand the reasoning of Calvinist doctrine but I don't buy it. I think it discounts the work of the Holy Spirit.
In today's gospel we hear that, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him." There are many who don't accept or understand the gospel because they have not yet recognized that the human being cannot, and need not, understand the mysterious Gospel.
On a human level, if I had to understand Einstein's theory of relativity before I could use it, I could not navigate a foreign city with GPS. I'd have to unfold the paper map and read it carefully. (But then I'd have to solve another unfathomable mystery, how to refold the dang thing.) More than a few people have explained "relativity" to me but I don't get it. All I know is, it works.
Speaking spiritually and from my own experience, I know something about celibacy. When I have been moved by love I was certain I was called to celibacy; when my heart was embittered by anger or disappointment, I was not so sure. I suppose married people feel the same way toward their spouses and children. Moved by love they open their hearts to those God has given them; embittered they can neither love nor be loved. 
Can I explain that to non-believers? Not really. When they do the numbers it doesn't add up. 
Jesus' teaching, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draw him..." concerns those who have the Holy Spirit moving within them. They're attracted to the Lord. They want to know more about his birth, life, death and resurrection.
Those who believe that all life should be rational, goal-directed and manageable, leave little room for the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit. Even if they welcome an artistic, creative impulse, it must bend back upon the self and serve their own ends.
The Holy Spirit and the Lord Jesus come from the Father and return to the Father even as they draw us into the love of one another and our Trinitarian God. We celebrate this mystery with our Eucharist, which we call "Holy Communion." Approaching the altar during the communion procession we are drawn to the Father.
Jesus' teaching means no one can rationally conclude there must be a supreme god and then presume to "know" that god. The initiative is always God's. If we have a desire to know God, it's God's Spirit who draws us to the Father through Jesus. In that case, we have been given the Wisdom to let ourselves be drawn into Love. We are saved by our willingness, not by willfulness.
The Calvinist doctrine overlooked the work of the Holy Spirit and the necessary "disposition" which that Spirit awakens in us. It relied upon a willful remaining in the Church. But no one is arbitrarily doomed by a "double election"; rather, some cling to their suspicions, resentments and bitterness and will not let themselves be drawn into the gracious mercy of God's presence.

Please pray that no crazies do anything terrifying on this April 19

Wednesday of the Third Week of Easter

Lectionary: 275

Everything that the Father gives me will come to me,
and I will not reject anyone who comes to me,
because I came down from heaven not to do my own will
but the will of the one who sent me.
And this is the will of the one who sent me,
that I should not lose anything of what he gave me,
but that I should raise it on the last day.

As I understand, it was the great philosopher Immanuel Kant who spelled out "duty" as the prime directive for good behavior. A wife, a husband, a son or daughter, an employee, employer, civil servant, soldier: whoever you might be you understand your duties and you carry them out. If you do so, you are a good person. Your duties may be determined by someone who has defined your position, as an employer defines the job description or a ruler describes the bureaucrat's responsibilities. Or, if you live in a more enlightened era, you may co-create that job description in dialogue with your open-minded superior.
These jobs are designed to fit the mission of the company, which word implies the companionship of others. "We work together, each one knowing her or his responsibility. Working together, our company is as efficient as a well-tuned machine."
Immanuel Kant lived in the age when clock makers and other clever individuals were developing sophisticated machines, some with hundreds of parts, all of them working with astonishing accuracy and efficiency.
These fascinating devices became a paradigm for existence itself. People supposed the atmosphere works like a weather machine, as do the waves and the tides and ocean currents. The solar system with all it's subsystems -- the moons around planets -- was also a machine. Perhaps the human body is a machine! Governments, businesses and armies can work like machines. Our homes, stores and factories are machines with plumbing, electrical and ventilation systems.
God fits into this marvelous mechanical universe because he built it all, like a fine tuned watch -- and then left it to run on itself without divine interference. In fact, it works better without divine interference! Being God he built it perfectly, why would he mess with perfection?
Eventually someone would wonder why God exists at all. Do we need a clock maker to explain the mechanics of this mute universe? Perhaps it just happened this way, because there was no other way it could happen.
Long before Kant and our fascination with machines, there was Jesus the obedient Son of God. He did his duty, one can argue. But what drove him to it? Was it the desire to be a good son? Was it the fear of being a bad son? How often do we perform our duties out of ambition or fear; which is to say, to win rewards or avoid punishment? That is, to serve ourselves.
The Savior I meet in the liturgy and scripture loved his God intensely and was driven -- empowered -- by his love. He wanted to give glory to the Father without thought of himself.
“I am troubled now. Yet what should I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’?But it was for this purpose that I came to this hour.
Father, glorify your name.”
Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again.”
Jesus has been called a company man but I understand him as a Son. He doesn't function as a cog in a machine; rather, he acts like One who loves and is loved.
His Church certainly does not function like a fine-tuned instrument! Its members, clergy and laity, may suffer disappointment and discouragement but we are not demoralized like a defeated army. In fact, the Holy Spirit impels us through adversity and we seem to find our bearings better when we're challenged. If we are a company it's more like companionship than corporation -- although the latter word also has etymological roots in the human body, the corpus.
We cannot function as cogs in a machine or pawns on a chessboard. We know whom we love and serve; he does not call us slaves but friends. Our company is that of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit; of Blessed Mary and all the saints and angels.
The Church today challenges a world with its mechanical paradigm that would use, abuse and discard human beings like the waste products of the industrial age. We treasure every human being, born and unborn, young and old, of every ability and innumerable needs as the very image of Our Beloved. We do so with the very obedience of Jesus.

Tuesday of the Third Week of Easter

So they said to Jesus,
"Sir, give us this bread always."
Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life;
whoever comes to me will never hunger,
and whoever believes in me will never thirst."

Today's gospel picks up immediately where yesterday's left off. The crowd had asked Jesus, "What can we do to accomplish the works of God? Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”
They seem at this point to be following Jesus. They ask about a sign to prove his authority as prophet and they make the connection with Moses and manna, the bread from heaven. He had just fed five thousand people in the wilderness with a few barley loaves and two fish. He is the promised, long-awaited prophet like Moses.
Jesus replies it was not Moses but "my Father" who gave them bread.
They respond reasonably, "Give us this bread always." The woman of Samaria had made a similar request at Jacob's cistern.
The last verse of today's gospel summarizes his promises, "Whoever comes to me will never hunger, and whoever believes in me will never thirst." And we have arrived back where we started, "Believe in the one he sent."
As I try to follow events in the news with a particular interest in religious ideas, opinions and expressions I watch for signs of the Holy Trinity. Does the author, purportedly Christian, know the kenosis of Jesus? Does this writer appreciate the humility of the God whom Jesus loves, worships and reveals? Jesus, as we learned in the fifth chapter of John, does nothing which he has not seen in the Father. 
The gospels describe Jesus as moving with extraordinary freedom. He eluded capture by enemies and admirers. Some crowds wanted to stone him, or hurl him off a cliff; soldiers came to arrest him and were awed and enervated by his authority. He sometimes avoided capture by moving to another territory, or he simply walked through their midst and went away. Who would not want such liberty? That ability to go where one pleases is fascinating and charming. Disciples and wannabe disciples hoped it might rub off on them.
The Samaritan woman, the crowd in Capernaum, and the sons of Zebedee did not know what they were asking when they made their requests. They wanted something of Jesus but they did not want what he could give them, a share in his life. They wanted ease, comfort and security; he offered a life of service to others.
Jesus' freedom is precisely his intense obedience to the Father. He does what he wants to do because he wants only what the Father wants. And the Father, since the time of Abraham, has humbly bent down to feed his people.
If we are to pull out of the vortex of suicide and drug addiction that began with abortion and sexual license it will begin with the return to sacrifice, service, generosity and a trust that goes the extra mile. Those who want to climb out of this fatal whirlpool by dint of power and privilege must destroy everyone else. Their hope is no hope for they offer no hope to others.
Saint Mark tells us Jesus gently chided James and John for their ambition, even as he encouraged them, "You will drink of the cup I drink." And then he taught them,
Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave of all.
For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
That is what I watch for in the Christian writer, that contempt for power and preference for service. 

Monday of the Third Week of Easter

So they said to him, “What can we do to accomplish the works of God?”
Jesus answered and said to them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in the one he sent.”

"Love, love, love," the Beatles sang, "All you need is love." It was an ironic song though some people didn't get the irony; they really thought all you need is love.
But Jesus makes a similar claim, "Believe in me! That's all you need." Time again, in the gospel of John, he makes that demand of friend and foe. They should accept his word like the royal official who begged Jesus to come and heal his son. Jesus said to him, “You may go; your son will live.” The man believed what Jesus said to him and left."
The Gospel ends with that same appeal from the Evangelist:
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of [his] disciples that are not written in this book. But these are written that you may [come to] believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.
Faith is a persistent invitation that often feels like a challenge; it commands us to focus our activities and our passivities on the Word of God. There are many things we can do in service of the Word, and many things we must let happen without our control or direction. And we ask for the wisdom to know the difference.
Discernment, that Jesuit discipline encouraged by Pope Francis, helps us to discover which is called for. Often we must wait for the right moment when the Spirit says, "Now!" Doing "the right thing" may be futile if it's done at the wrong time. And, very often, we don't even know what that action is, or that word, until the moment when the Spirit prompts.
Belief in the one he sent abides with the Lord. It accepts that invitation to "Come and see." We will live with God in the house of Jesus and Mary, and go with him to Cana, Samaria, Galilee and Jerusalem.
We do that by our practice of the sacraments, especially Eucharist and Reconciliation, by our daily prayers and continual study of our faith, and by remaining in the communion of church.
We follow him as the Hebrews followed the column of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night, neither rushing ahead ("Liberal") nor falling behind ("Conservative"). We move when he moves and stay where he stays. Faith sternly reminds us that whatever we might try to accomplish on our own, beyond obedience to God's spirit, must fail; and might make matters worse. But that which is done in the Lord must succeed; even if, like the crucifixion, it appears to fail utterly. 
In today's first reading we hear that Saint Stephen, "filled with grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people." His success seemed to end in catastrophe when he was stoned to death by an angry mob. But the savagery apparently disturbed a young man of Tarsus -- who "was consenting to his execution" -- so much that he was spiritually ready when the Lord spoke to him on the road to Damascus, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
The crowd asked Jesus, "What can we do to accomplish the works of God?" The answer begins not with a formula, protocol or technological gadget but with belief in Jesus.