Light and Re-creation

In the Gospel reading for today at Mass, we hear much about the metaphor of light:

“And this is the verdict,
that the light came into the world,
but people preferred darkness to light,
because their works were evil.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light
and does not come toward the light,
so that his works might not be exposed.
But whoever lives the truth comes to the light,
so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God” (Jn. 3:19-21)

The Gospel according to John compares Jesus to light and evil to darkness. This metaphor began in the very opening of John’s gospel when he named Jesus as the Word of God that creates (as when God creates the cosmos through speech in Genesis). God’s first creation is to create light, and then to separate light from darkness (Genesis 1:3-5). Here, the gospel extends this metaphor further to show us that creation is not yet finished.

God’s creation is still ongoing in Christ. God’s creative and re-creative work is not yet done. As we see in Acts, Jesus’s followers are still being persecuted after the Resurrection, and evil has not been completely wiped away. In our world, too, we witness material greed of some and consequent poverty for others,  war, racism, oppression, ecological disasters, religious persecution, and many other evils. Most commentators think that the Gospel according to John was written to an audience of persecuted Christians, who also suffered.

The passage suggests that Light is creative in at least three ways.

First, Light exposes. When we come closer to Christ, we are exposed and vulnerable. The author says this is why  people tend to avoid the light: we can be defensive and would prefer that others see us only in the best light. But when we are willing to feel more exposed and fully seen by the Lord, growth is possible. For example, when we go to the sacrament of reconciliation and confess our shortcomings, aloud and to another person, we are a more honest people. Being self-aware is humbling, and humble people are capable of being re-created into something new.

Second, Light is connected to truth. Light is illuminative and shows us new dimensions of what exists, remedying our tendency to see things in a partial or short-sighted way. Light helps us to see more. In the other, synoptic Gospels, we see Jesus heal blind men. Such healing is both a literal healing, and an image for healing as seeing.

Third, Light is attractive. John describes those who live in truth as coming to the light. Jesus is attractive and his goodness calls others to an authenticity of soul and action. Repeatedly, we see instances of people who leave behind their more superficial concerns to follow Jesus: Peter and James put down their nets; Zacchaeus promises to return money to the people; Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’s feet.

God creates not through force, but through attraction, illumination, and the exposing power of light. When we go toward the Light and surrender our sometimes vulnerable selves to God, that we will be humbled, healed, and strengthened to seek the good.

Generosity, trust, and Eternal Life

There are two readings at Mass today that might seem unconnected, but I think are connected nicely by their both being present at liturgy. In the first reading from Acts (4:32-37), the Christian community is described as sharing all their material goods in common so that no one went without; goods were distributed according to need. A man named Joseph sells some of his property and puts the proceeds at the feet of the apostles.

The Gospel reading continues with Nicodemus from yesterday and ends with the idea that all who believe in Christ will have eternal life: “so must the Son of Man be lifted up,
so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (Jn 3:15). Jesus connects Nicodemus’s rebirth to his own death on a cross, and resurrection.

The two readings initially seem different in that the one from Acts is concrete: it’s about what the Christian community does with its material goods to support others in need, and the conversion of a man whose willingness to let go of his property signifies his belonging to Christian community. The second reading is, like much of the Gospel according to John, abstract, connecting belief to salvation. Many people read this passage as central to the idea of justification by faith, i.e., that we don’t earn our salvation by what we do, but rather by belief in a God who rectifies any wrongs between us.

However, I also see connection between the two passages. Joseph sells his property as an act of generosity and trust in the Lord and in Christian community. He gives away his own property so that others who are in need may flourish. This requires an act of trust that when he is in need, others in that community will provide for him; his security no longer is in his own property to keep him safe and protected from economic misfortune, but in the community as a whole. This is a great act of faith and trust on his part (the word pistis is the same in Greek, both faith and trust). Jesus in his words to Nicodemus is not simply saying that belief grants us salvation; he is saying that the way to eternal life is through death, that death and sacrifice precede rebirth, life, and human flourishing.

Joseph’s giving up his property is one instance; he becomes a freer man by giving up his land and relying on the community and on the Lord. But there are other instances, too: any time we give up our own egocentric concerns and let them die, and let God transform that death into new life, we become freer people as well. Eternal life is not only something we know after our bodies die and in the Resurrection, but also something that we taste here and now on earth when we allow parts of our egos and selfish desires to die, so that something greater can be reborn within us. Nicodemus is also promised a new life even while he is still on earth. So are we.

Thomas, Wounds, and the Ripple Effect

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Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands,
and bring your hand and put it into my side,
and do not be unbelieving, but believe.”
Thomas answered and said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Jesus said to him, “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?
Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” (Jn 20: 27-29)

Whenever I think of this passage, I think of the Caravaggio painting that represents this moment. An aspect of the painting that I am especially drawn to is that Thomas’ own clothing mirrors the shape of Jesus’s wounded side. It suggests that as Thomas is looking at, and touching Jesus, he is also seeing some of his own wounded self in Jesus. Thomas and the other disciples have just gone through a traumatic experience in witnessing the arrest, torture, and death of Jesus. They also are wounded, not physically, but psychologically, as we can see from their being holed up in the upper room with a locked door.

When Jesus invites Thomas to touch, he invites him not only to see that Jesus really is resurrected and healed but also to see that healing is possible. Thomas sees that his Lord and his friend is healed. He also witnesses that wounds can be transformed. Like many human wounds, healing is more a matter of transformation than the elimination of all traces of history. The Resurrection is not about the obliteration of the past from memory, but rather about its transformation into something healed and even fruitful.

Several years ago, I was visiting a group of men with whom I lead study and spiritual sharing in prison. Among other comments that I had made is that Jesus’s hands look like our own hands: he carries the marks of having been wounded even into his own resurrected body so that we can remember and identify with both his woundedness and with his resurrection. We can see that he knew suffering and  we can see that the suffering was transformed, in that visibility of his wounds.

Near the end of the session, one of the men sitting next to me, who is a talented artist, showed me a picture of a hand touching a pool of water, that was rippling out from the touch. The hand had a healed wound in the center. He kindly told me that this was a picture of my hand, and that my visits and sharing had a “ripple” effect in helping them also to think about their own healing and transformation.

John’s story about the encounter between Jesus and the other disciples, especially Thomas, reminds us that we are participants in a kind of “ripple effect” whereby the suffering and Resurrection of Jesus leads to our own smaller “resurrections” even in this life, and when we bring that experience into our own ministries, whatever those are, and deal kindly and compassionately with others, we pass on the faith and hope that also encourage others’ resurrection experiences. While we ourselves are not the Healer, our presence and our allowing our whole selves—gifts, wounds, and all—to be part of ministry opens up a space for faith and for hope to flourish.

Preaching and Listening

There is something a little humorous to me in today’s Gospel reading. It begins with Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene, who tells others of the Resurrection, and they do not believe her. Then he appears to two disciples on the road, who tell others, and they don’t believe them either. Finally Jesus appears to these same disciples and:

“But later, as the Eleven were at table, he appeared to them
and rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart
because they had not believed those
who saw him after he had been raised.
He said to them, “Go into the whole world
and proclaim the Gospel to every creature.” (Mt 18:14-15)

What comes next for the Eleven? Probably the same experience as in the earlier instances: not to be believed. In a way, the joke is on them. It’s rather like the irony of St Paul being a person whose life was devoted to maintaining Jewish orthodoxy, protecting the faith of his childhood, and then after his conversion, being missioned to the Gentiles in particular. God has a sense of humor.

The passage continues the theme of this whole week: the response to knowing Christ is to pass it on to others. However, there is also the theme of whether we really believe others when we listen to their experiences of God. For example, in inter religious dialogue and among Christians alike, people can be defensive about their own beliefs. However,part of communication is preaching, but the other part is really listening. Jesus not only tells the disciples to preach, but also rebukes them for not listening to others’ experiences or putting any stock in them.

The reason is that no one’s experience of God is complete. Mary Magdalene probably say or understood something in her encounter with the risen Lord that the others did not see; and vice versa. Whom do we exclude in the Church, or even place outside of it, and write off as not having anything to say to us about God?

Matthew’s gospel reminds us that there is an invitation in sharing of our faith, and also being receptive to learning something new in the faith of others.

Breakfast on the beach with Jesus

In John’s account of Jesus’s revealing himself to the disciples at the Sea of Tiberias, I notice the interplay between the ordinary and the extraordinary. On the one hand, their realization that “It is the Lord” (Jn 21:7) is a moment when the extraordinary breaks into the everyday practices of fishing on the sea. Peter, ever passionate, jumps into the sea rather than go through all the steps to get the boat back to shore. The gospel author notes that he is “lightly clad” so I imagine him arriving on shore, sopping wet, clothes clinging, but overjoyed to see Jesus again. Peter’s jumping into the water is reminiscent of an earlier occasion in another gospel, in which he attempts to walk on water but falls due to his lack of faith and must be rescued by Jesus (Mt 14:29). This second time Peter is less concerned with proofs about faith; he is simply “all in.”

Jesus then cooks them breakfast, and they eat bread and fish together. That moment is among my favorite in all the Resurrection scenes because there is such a depth of love in Jesus’ simple act of cooking and eating with them. Jesus is being very nurturing toward them. I love the beach and imagine them sitting around a fire, Peter warming up to dry off, breaking bread and eating fish together before Peter and Jesus take a walk and reconcile (but that is in another reading).

Consider all the occasions on which we cook and eat as a way to be with one another.  My son is about to be confirmed tonight, and so I am hosting family for whom I cooked Italian food last night, and today there will be more shared meals. My family and my husband’s is not Catholic, as my son and I are. We have an Episcopalian married to a Baptist, two Disciples of Christ (one of whom grew up Methodist), a person who grew up Quaker, a former Lutheran, one Catholic, and several agnostics. As a friend of mine joked, it’s like an ecumenical council that should have happened a long time ago. But despite the differences in church, we all will eat together multiple times this weekend, and for me that will be Eucharistic, in the way that Jesus’s meal with the disciples on the beach is resonant with Eucharist.

Repetitions of Joy

Today’s Gospel reading is about Jesus’s appearance to the disciples as a group, when he appears to them and shows them his hands and feet and eats a piece of fish , in response to their question as to whether he is only a ghost (Luke 24:35-48). The reading parallels the reading in Acts, in which Peter and the other apostles are curing the ill, and those around them are incredulous (Acts 3:11-26).  Both express the surprise and wonder that the resurrection inspires, both the historical event of Jesus’s Resurrection and all the healings that follow later in time, even to our own lives today.

It is a wondrous thing when we are kind of blindsided by healing or moments that feel truly redemptive. Often we easily enough notice the way in which evils can befall us suddenly and unexpectedly, like the moment last year that a woman pulled out of a drive, and despite my slamming the brakes and honking my horn as I sat motionless in the middle of the road, she just kept coming and we collided. But joy can happen in just as unexpected a way, too. We can be blindsided by love and healing, too. Perhaps problem that had been plaguing us whether externally or internally is suddenly just “lifted,” unexpectedly. Ignatius calls this “consolation without cause” because it’s not something we have personally willed or acted to change, but a grace given from beyond any of our own power. It’s God’s power alone.

A detail that I had not noticed before in this reading is the author’s note that Jesus’s appearance is immediately after his appearance to two disciples on the way to Emmaeus. The disciples are not even finished talking about their the first appearance when Jesus shows up again: “While they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ ”   Here we see grace upon grace, the activity of a God who is so generous with giving joy that the disciples are not even done processing one experience of joy before another one breaks in again.

This sense of the repetitive, ongoing, unstoppable breaking in of God’s redemptive joy is communicated well also in the structure of Morning Prayer in the divine office for the Easter Octave. Every day the same hymns and antiphons are recited from the first Sunday in the cycle, because the entire octave is a celebration of the first day of Easter, the first day of Christ’s rising from the dead. The effect of praying this for me is that there is a sense in which time is “stretched out” and one gets a little taste of the “eternal now” in praying the same songs over many days. It’s a repetition of joyful praise. That’s the ongoing invitation for the Octave: to continue to give joyful praise.

50 Days of Easter

A couple of days ago, my parish priest encouraged us in his homily to celebrate Easter for more than just a few days; after all, along with the Easter Octave (in which that first day of Jesus’s being raised is celebrated over and over) we have the Easter Season, which is 50 days from now until Pentecost. Later that night, in a get together with a group of female friends for pizza and wine, I expressed the idea that we really ought to try to celebrate Easter longer, for a whole 50 days, the way that we take Lent so seriously. Everyone thought it was a great idea but wondered how could one actually do it? Somehow we have been trained to find it easier to do penance for 40 days than to celebrate for 50.

I try not to buy fresh flowers for the house over Lent and then splurge on a lot of flowers for Easter. (This is especially nice since a long Boston winter has left our ground outside still bare of any blooming flowers, and our trees still leafless.) My friends and I thought that being attentive the whole Easter season to being celebratory by actions like making nicer meals, keeping flowers around, going to daily Mass, and spending more purely “fun” time with friends and family  are all ways to keep Easter present, even as we head back to work since the holiday break has ended. One of my friends joked, as we all parted at the end of the night, that we will have to check in on each other to see if we have fallen off the “50 days of Easter” wagon.

Another way could be to consider how the consolations and internal gifts received in Easter can be passed on to others in our lives, through acts loving service and care–like the multiplication of light at the Easter service. The readings at Mass fit with this theme. Along with Gospel readings about the Resurrection, we hear readings from Acts, in which Peter and the other disciples go on to heal and to attend to the needs of the church. “Rejoice, o hearts that seek the Lord.”

He is Risen! Alleluia!

Happy Easter! The Lord is risen! Alleluia!

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Today is the day that we celebrate God’s victory of reconciliation over sin and division, of hope over despair, of life over death. We rejoice because we know that Jesus triumphs over our every human weakness, even suffering into death. He is risen!

There is another kind of “rising” in today’s Easter Sunday readings at Mass: the rising of yeast in bread. A reading from Paul’s letter from Corinthians says:

“Brothers and sisters:
Do you not know that a little yeast leavens all the dough?
Clear out the old yeast,
so that you may become a fresh batch of dough,
inasmuch as you are unleavened.
For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.
Therefore, let us celebrate the feast,
not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”

I love this reading because it points to both our total dependence on Christ and the interconnection of Christ in all things. On the one hand, we can do nothing without God. Without God, we are like unleavened bread, a reference back to the Jewish people who under Pharoah’s brutal reign had to flee into the desert, becoming refugees but refugees received into the arms and tutelage of a loving God. Christ alone can leaven us.

On the other hand, Christ lives and acts through us. The Resurrection is not just about Jesus being raised to new life, although of course it is that. The Resurrection is about God’s new life in us, because the Resurrection story continues into reconciliation with the disciples, the Ascension, and Pentecost, where every person is invited to participate in the mission of God. We are being given the new yeast of sincerity and truth.

These two virtues of sincerity and truth are central to Christ’s life in us. We need to be sincere: open and authentic with one another—the “bread” of the kingdom rises and multiplies when we are open with our hearts and hands. We need to be truthful. To me, being truthful means each of us being the kind of person we are, whether we are as passionate and sometimes impulsive as Peter (with whom I identify!), as serene and patient as Mary, an intellectual like Augustine, or as independently minded and sometimes ornery as Dorothy Day.  God asks us to be fully ourselves, and not like anyone else. When we are freed to be who we are in sincerity and truthfulness about our gifts (and corresponding weaknesses) then we can love and serve God and one another with open hearts.

He is Risen. Alleluia! May the Lord bless us abundantly.