March 31, 2010

The Good Thief

Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom….
…Amen, I say to you: this very day, you will be with me in Paradise.

We are all thieves. This is what is revealed in Genesis about Adam and Eve. Seduced by an enchanting proposition, we coveted fruit that did not belong to us. We wanted knowledge of good and evil which we did not earn. What did we believe that knowledge would give us but power? And why did we want this power but that we were not grateful for being made in the image and likeness of God? Not satisfied to accept as sheer gift God's loving providence, we coveted divine powers out of lust to be in control. We thought we deserved to be gods though we had barely distinguished ourselves from thoughtless beasts. Like wild animals, we bit the hand that fed us. An echo of this resounds in every act of thievery; every act reminds us of what we made of ourselves before God.

The sense of security that we tried to steal for ourselves has led to our condemnation. The more we steal security, the more insecure we become. We have tried to rely on our skills to manipulate, deceive and overpower. But we have taken something we cannot repay. It is not that we have hurt God. In becoming thieves, we have destroyed ourselves, our capacity to trust God. Our covetousness has made us gluttons ever subject to insobriety. Rash judgment, contention and even strife overpower our hearts. In our pride, we have convinced ourselves that we cannot humble ourselves to beg. In our shame, we made ourselves too afraid to take responsibility. Who will pay the debt that alone can release us from our self-made prisons of fear, egoism and despair?

We need only look at the man crucified next to us. He too is a thief. He has no responsibility to bear our debt, yet He has stolen it from us. There he is drinking in all our malice, ingratitude, covetousness, petty quarreling, gluttony, insobriety, lust, anger, resentment, bitterness, fear and despair. Yet there is love in his eyes as his gaze fixes on us. We must not turn our eyes away from that face: beaten beyond recognition, covered with blood and spittle, and in dying agony. He has stolen the burden too great for us to bear, and if you fix your gaze on Him, He will steal your heart as well.

Once He has our hearts, how can we remain silent? How can we not trust? There are always malicious voices speaking words of condemnation. For them, such trust is ridiculous. In their chosen ignorance, they reject the one gift they need the most and He alone can give.  This gift cannot be stolen.  It must be recieved. But with mocking manipulation, they belittle the work He wroughts for us.  In the place of true freedom offered them as a gift, they bitterly demand a cheap parlor trick, “Come down off that Cross.” 

Since that day, this has ever been the monotonous condemnation of Hell in this world.  Why does God allow suffering?   Why does He not magically stop it?   Why does not God save Himself?  And so, even if it is only at the evening of our lives, we find ourselves his witnesses before this challenge. Gazing in the eyes of Christ, you know that this challenge cannot go unanswered.  As your own voice echoes, you find the freedom to take responsibility for yourself and for the first time you have the courage to accept the consequences for what you have done.  This courage comes from Christ who is bearing these consequences for you and with you - He will never abandon you.  You can trust Him because you see in his eyes, He trusts you even more.

Fellow thieves, let us together overcome the temptation to think our voices as a condemned criminals have no credibility. The only ones with any credibility at all are those who have looked into His eyes. Your voice, fellow thief, is credible to Him, and in the end; He is the only One who counts. Your prayer is a precious consolation for the One who bears so much rejection – and for this small recompense on your part, He is giving you eternal life even now.

March 29, 2010

The Passion: Where we learn to rest in the Heart of Christ

During Holy Week, we are invited to enter into the heart of the Lord by sharing His passion with Him.  This can only happen through prayer.  Only through prayer can we pick up on the subtle movements of his heart, movements that involve ourselves, those we love and the whole world.  When you enter into the Heart of the Lord of Hosts, he immediately baths you in His Blood, purifying us of sin and filling us with a loved filled hope which not even death can overcome.

On Thursday night, we will celebrate the Lord's Supper.  This is the sacred Banquet in which Christ made himself our spiritual food.  His Body and His Blood are given to save us and sustain us in our Christian way of life.  Like the martyrs before us, without the flesh and blood of Christ, we cannot go on.  Everyone who has believed in the power of Christ's Blood has experienced this saving and sustaining power.  They know His Blood is Life in a world of death.  They experience deep in their hearts that His Blood is not an escape from this world, the Blood of Jesus is the world's only salvation.  When believers drink from the Cup of the New Covenant, Christ's Eternal Life flows into them, and if they are open in faith, this divine outpouring will fill them to the point where they live no longer their own life, but His Life in them.   

Those who allow themselves to be completely immersed in the life of Christ think like Him, act like Him, and more than anything else, pray like Him.  They see the world through resurrected eyes - what others see as purposeless, they know as filled with invincible hope.  Such men and women become living signs of hope.  Such hope looks crazy to those who refuse it.  To be a sign of hope means always to appear as if you have lost your mind.  Those wise with the wisdom of this world call this delusional.   The great spiritual writers call this Holy Inebriation.

To conquer death, we must be recreated in Truth.  Recreation, the new creation, re-establishes us in the Truth we have primordially rejected.  Without the Truth, we die and our lives are simply a living death.  We must know the Truth, we must live the Truth.  We must feel and think the Truth: the Truth about ourselves, the Truth about God. 

To be inebriated with the Blood of Christ is to be completely overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of the Lord who teaches all truth.   The Holy Spirit comes through Christ's blood and into the deep hidden recesses of our memories, thoughts and feelings - making all things new, conforming all these inner powers to the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.   For this new creation to begin, we must follow Christ into the Garden and learn to say with Him, "Father, if it is your will, take this cup from me.  But not my will, your will be done."

Those who have the courage to learn to pray this prayer with and in the Heart of Jesus will discover the blessings of poverty, hunger, thirst, sorrow, purity of heart, peacemaking, and persecution - not only for righteousness sake, but also for the sake of Jesus Himself.  This happens today in alarming public ways.  It also happens in the more hidden places of our day to day work and family life.  St. Therese, the Little Flower, first tasted it after Christmas Midnight Mass.  Maximilian Kolbe filled himself with it in a starvation bunker. The point is when you are rejected, despised or betrayed because of your love of Jesus, Jesus has blessed you, permitted you to be identified with Him.  He has entrusted you with discipleship and is teaching you how to carry your Cross and follow Him.  The Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday has a whole new meaning for those following their crucified God.

This must be difficult to read - indeed it is solemn and the most serious reality of this life.  The truth about ourselves and about the Lord is hard to think about.  Oftentimes we feel the urge to skip over Christ's Passion, to leave him in the garden or on the Cross so that we can rush to the resurrection.  Indeed, the mystery of Holy Saturday and the wonder of Easter Morning we will share in later posts.    But for now, let us rest in the heart of Christ: the night before He died, His struggle with the Cross, His last loud cry.   It is in the Passion that Christ's heart is revealed and given to us.  It is in attending to what he suffered that we learn to rest in his heart.  It is in the Cross that we find union with God.  This is why what we are celebrating this week is not simply the calling to mind of tragic historic events.  Instead, we are reflecting on the very mystery of our new creation - how that mystery was revealed in history, and how that mystery carries us in the present moment.  Those who will wait with the Lord and keep vigil with Him will find themselves plunged into His life in a completely new way. 

Through the Blood the the Lord and the power of the Holy Spirit, Christians find freedom from every lack of love.  Where there is no love, they find a way to put love, and because of the power of God, they find love.   Where there is a struggle to forgive, they find the courage to surrender their bitterness to God, and discover compassion for even their enemies.  Where there is the sting of indignation, the Holy Spirit teaches them how to pray for their persecutors.  May the Lord fill you with these graces as you struggle to rest in his Heart.

March 22, 2010

Psalm 22 and the Prayer of Christ from the Cross

"My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"  Last Saturday, following a conference on the last seven words of Christ, a few retreatants asked about these words.  They wanted to know whether Jesus actually felt abandonned.  They had heard that the reason he recited the first words of Psalm 22 was not really to express his own personal feelings as much as to reassure his disciples that God would be victorious even in the face of the cross. 

To hold this, however, is to make a facade out of the whole passion of the Lord.  It is true that the words of Jesus are meant to reassure us.   Yet to hold that he did not actually feel what they suggest makes the cross far too abstact and intellectually acceptable.   For those who want to begin to pray like Jesus, we must realize that he never said anything he did not fully mean.  When he said these words, he was truly disclosing his own agony.  Only when we attend to the real anguish behind these words can we find the courage to pray when we too feel abandoned.  To understand the rest of this post, I recommend actually praying this psalm attending to the tension between the evil that is experienced and the faith which adheres to the truth.

Psalm 22 contains two movements of the heart that seem completely contrary to one another, an awareness of overwhelming wickedeness and of the faithfullness of God which seems impossible to sustain.   In the beginning of the psalm, a man ravished to death with holes torn in his hands and feet is complaining to God because God does not seem present or mindful of his plight.   He is not only abandoned by God but also surrounded by enemies who have frightened, overpowered and consumed him - dogs, bulls and lions.   His clothes have been stripped off and stolen, the object of a game.  He is completely vulnerable with no one to protect him.   This is what he experiences and this is what others see as his actual situation.   This experience is not the last word.   Though he feels completely forsaken, he chooses to praise the Lord and to believe in his goodness.  This second movement of heart seems completely discongruous with what has actually happened to him.   How is it possible to believe that God is mindful of "the affliction of the afflicted" when He seems so absent in the face of great suffering?

Those who do not believe that Jesus actually suffered this tension know very little about the mystery of the Cross or the power of the Christian faith.   It is the cross and only the all too dirty bloody mess of the cross that creates the spiritual space by which true friendship with God is established.   It is only because Jesus knows what the absence of God truly is that He is able to reveal the glory of the Father to those who also suffer this absence.  

What is most difficult about human suffering is not the physical or even psychological pain, but most of all the awareness that suffering renders life meaningless.  There are those moments when our hearts are completely gripped by the crushing discovery that there is no human or natural reason to hope, not only for oneself, but especially for all those one loves the most.  I cannot help but think that when Jesus began to pray Psalm 22, the anguish He felt included the knowledge that all those who would follow Him would have to undergo the same overwhelming sense he was drinking in at that moment:  like Him, as they struggled to cling to the Father, they would feel that their own prayers were rejected, that their own faith was without purpose.

Here is the reality.  The abyss of human misery, an abyss we will inevitably fall into as we approach the reality of our own death, involves a kind of rejection that the Lord suffers with us.   It is when we feel most abandoned by God in our efforts to love Him and those entrusted to us that we are most intimate with Him in this life.  Such suffering love is always redemptive, especially when it is rejected and despised.  The persecution of such faith opens up deep caverns in the human heart through which God's love can flow into the world, if we remain faithful in believing in him.  The reality is, loving faith in the Lord does not take away suffering or the experience of abandonment.   Instead, it transforms it, endows it with meaning beyong what is natural, even beyond this life. 

The cross is a place of hope, the place of encountering God, not only because Jesus indicated that this was the case, but because He suffered the absence of the Father for us and with us, opening up a purpose and meaning for each of us which only faithfilled love can know.  The cross is the place where the absence of God and faith in Him collide so that God's power might be revealed.   It is the divine power which discloses itself only in the midst of suffering that real hope can be invincibly based.   By this hope, the hope that flows from from the side of Christ, we find the courage to pick up our cross and follow the Lord.  Jesus knew, even in the face of his own experience, that God is mindful of the affliction of the afflicted.  By becoming completely one with him in his death, we, members of his Body, "proclaim His deliverance to a people yet unborn."

March 9, 2010

Faith of a Mustard Seed

Mr. and Mrs. Tinucci go to daily mass at the Shrine of St. Anne in Arvada, CO.  Their quiet and joyful witness helps make this parish a wonderful community.  They send me the most encouraging messages at least once a month and the messages are always accompanied with Chiara Lubich's little newsletter Word of Life.  The Tinucci's latest note reflects on Jesus' teaching of what just a little faith can do.  Here is what they wrote me for March,

"The comparison with the "mustard seed" is used to show that what Jesus requires of you is not faith of a particular size, but a genuine faith.  The faith that Jesus wants from his disciples is, in fact, that attitude of total trust which allows God himself to manifest his power.  At times, when faced with difficulties we cannot overcome, we may even be tempted not to turn to God.  It is then that Jesus urges us not to be discouraged but to turn to God with trust.  In one way or another he will answer us."

This reflection on Jesus' teaching about how much faith we need to move mountains has particular application to those mountains of sinful habits which constantly pull us back into our old way of life.   We become so discouraged with our ongoing struggle against those obstacles to true love in our lives.  We know we ought to love, but sometimes we find ourselves powerless to do so.  The love of God is more powerful than these seemingly insurmountably barriers.  Why should we have confidence that Jesus will move these mountains if we sincerely ask?  We have confidence in Him because He has even more confidence in us.  With just a little genuine faith in the Lord, "Nothing will be impossible for you" (Mt. 17:20).