Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter Sunday
Solemnity of The Resurrection of the Lord
From Terminals to Transit Centers
Picture: cc abdallahh
Sisters and brothers, do any of you ever ride on our local  MTD buses? If you do, you probably know that the bus station is located downtown, on Chapala Street. And you may also be aware that this place is known by a special name. It’s called the Transit Center. Interesting name, don’t you think? I’ve been to other cities where such places are called bus terminals. But is there really any difference between a terminal and a transit center?
Where I come from, the difference is quite large. When I was growing up, it used to be that, if you fell asleep on a bus and didn’t wake up until it reached the end of its route, you would find yourself at a bus terminal. This was usually a lonely place out in the middle of nowhere. For the passengers, this was where their journey was suddenly terminated, where it reached an abrupt end. 
Then, as the country began to modernize, these terminals were renovated and renamed. Today people no longer have to stop abruptly at a terminal. Now they arrive at what is called an interchange – which is sort of like a transit center, only bigger. And from here, they can continue on the next stage of their journey by transferring to another bus. Often they can even board a subway train, because the train station is located within the same complex. The bus stations have undergone an important transformation. From terminals – where journeys end – they have been turned into transit centers – places that mark new beginnings. Now that’s quite a big difference, don’t you think?
It is a similar transformation that we are celebrating so joyously on this Easter day. As you have heard, today the action in our readings takes place at the tomb of the crucified Christ. This is the place where the disciples had left the bruised and battered body of their beloved Master. This is the place where they had laid to rest all their hopes and dreams for an earthly king. This is the secluded spot where their journey with Jesus had come to an abrupt and tragic end. The tomb was their terminal.
Yet, even though the tomb was a lonely and desolate place – full of painful memories – something prevented the disciples of Jesus, especially the women, from simply abandoning it altogether. Something drew them back to visit. And it is in this revisiting that an impossible transformation occurs. The place of darkness and death, the place of desolation and despair, is changed into a place of light and life, of consolation and hope. The tomb that once held the corpse of Christ is found to be empty. The stone that sealed the entrance has been removed. And not only are the burial cloths loosened – which once wrapped Jesus tightly in a grip of death – but, seen through the eyes of faith, they are now transformed into signs of a new and indestructible life. 
Where once the disciples were fearfully wrapped up in their own grief, gradually they are given the courage and the energy to do what we hear Peter doing in the first reading. They reach out to others, bearing witness to all that Jesus had done and taught. Most of all, they proclaim to everyone the wondrous story of the Lord’s dying and rising. This outward change in their behavior is the result of an inward transformation in their attitude and perception. They are gazing upon the world with new eyes. They are doing what we heard about in the second reading from the letter to the Colossians. They are learning to seek no longer what is on earth but what is above. Having died to their original expectations of an earthly Messiah, who would free them from the Romans, their lives are now hidden with Christ in God. And this radical  transformation begins when what at first looked like the end of their journey is changed into the beginning of an exciting new adventure. It begins at the empty tomb, where the terminal is transformed into a transit center.
This is the marvelous change that we are celebrating today. This is the reason for our joy. And we are joyful not only because of what happened to the disciples so long ago. We rejoice because this is also what continues to happen to us even today. On our own life’s journey, perhaps we too have felt as if we had reached a dead end. Perhaps we too have experienced disappointment and despair. Perhaps we too have known the feeling of falling into darkness, of being wrapped in the ghostly grip of death, of being sealed in a cold and clammy tomb.
And, like the disciples, whether it is in our own memories, in our conversations, or in our prayers, we too may have been drawn to revisit the places of our pain, to cry out to God in our anguish. Only to discover – as Mary does, so early on that first Easter morning – that the stone has been rolled away and that the tomb is now empty. There is no longer any reason for us to remain trapped within our loneliness and grief. Although we may still not be able see clearly the face of the Resurrected One, we can already glimpse the hopeful signs of his rising. Like the beloved disciples gazing upon those burial cloths, through the eyes of faith, we can already discern the hand that Christ stretches out to us, calling us to live a new life. We can hear his invitation to us to stop being obsessed with what is on earth, but to set our minds instead on what is above. In this new vision, we find the courage and the strength to continue on our journey, and even to reach out to others, proclaiming to them all that the Lord has done for us. Like the first disciples, we rush off to bear witness, so that others too may join us on the Way.
Sisters and brothers, as we continue to enter into the joy of this Easter season, how is the Risen Lord transforming the terminals of our lives into transit centers today?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Good Friday: Celebration of the Lord’s Passion
The Color of Our Thumbs
Picture: cc Phoney Nickle

Sisters and brothers, what color are your thumbs? This may sound like a strange question, but it’s also an important one. It’s important because the color of our thumbs can affect the spaces in which we live. I know someone, for example, who has green thumbs. Every time I visit this person’s home, it seems like the yard looks lovelier than ever. The grass is neatly trimmed. Different colored flowers are blooming beautifully. And fruit might even be seen hanging from branches.
In contrast, my thumbs are of a different color. Instead of green, they’re black. Although I don’t have a yard of my own, I have attempted, several times, to care for potted plants in my room. But never with much success. I either give them too little or too much water. Expose them to too little or too much light. Or I may get careless and allow the cat to sink its teeth into them. As a result, my room looks less like a lovely garden than a barren wilderness. All of which goes to show that the color of our thumbs affects the physical spaces in which we live. Green thumbs make for beautiful gardens. Black thumbs, barren wildernesses.
Something similar can be observed in spiritual spaces too. As we may recall, in the book of Genesis, when we first meet Adam and Eve, they are both living comfortably in a beautiful garden. But later, because of their disobedience of God’s command, they are driven out. Their living space is transformed. Where once they could eat from the trees in the garden, now they have to work for their food by the sweat of their faces (2:16, 3:19). Where once they were at ease in the company of each other and of God, now they feel shame. They learn to conceal their bodies with leaves, and their true feelings behind lies. Through the black thumbs of their selfishness and greed, Adam and Eve transform the space in which they live from a beautiful garden into a barren wilderness.
And what we celebrate today is precisely the reversal of this terrible transformation. This can be seen most clearly when we consider how John’s account of our Lord’s Passion – which we’ve just read – both begins and ends in a garden. It is in a garden that Jesus is arrested and taken to trial. It is also in a garden that his broken and lifeless body is laid to rest. And, in between these two gardens, Jesus allows himself to be driven cruelly through the wilderness of Pilate’s Praetorium and of Calvary’s Cross.
Except that, unlike Adam and Eve, Jesus’ suffering in the wilderness is not the result of his own sin. As the first reading tells us, it was our infirmities that he bore, our sufferings that he endured. And by allowing his body first to be broken on the wilderness of the Cross, and then buried in and raised from a garden, Jesus reverses the effects of Adam’s sin. As the second reading tells us, in Christ we have a high priest who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. As a result, we may now confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help. What we see in the Lord’s Passion, sisters and brothers, are the powerful effects of the Lord’s love and self-sacrifice. Like the effect of green thumbs, the power of Christ’s love transforms the barren wilderness back into a fertile garden. And it is this power that we will honor in a few short moments, when together we come forward to venerate the Cross.
But in addition to venerating the Cross, we also need to exercise its power in our world today. In recent times, we have witnessed how the black thumbs of corporate greed have turned the watery garden of the Gulf of Mexico into an oil-soaked wilderness. We have seen the terrible effects of clergy sexual abuse on our church. We continue to experience the toll taken by broken marriages on the development of children, not to mention the scourge of abortion on the the lives of the unborn.
Today, as always, our world continues to cry out for people who are willing to wield the power that Christ wielded when, with great love, he walked the Way of the Cross. Today, we need people who are willing to use the green thumbs of loving self-sacrifice to transform the barren wilderness of our world back into the beauty of God’s garden.
Sisters and brothers, how willing are we to wield this power? How ready are we to take up the Cross? What color are our thumbs today?

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion
Pacing Between Palms and Passion
Picture: cc Will Spaetzel

Sisters and brothers, which do you consider yourself? An optimist? Or a pessimist? You may have heard that well-known story about how an artist once painted a big black spot on a white canvas. She then showed the painting to some friends, and asked them to tell her what they saw. As might be expected, everyone said that they saw a black spot. To which the artist replied: But what about the white background? Don’t you see that?
As you know, this story is often told to remind people to look on the bright side of life. Don’t be a pessimist, forever obsessing over the dark spot. Be an optimist. Focus instead on the light. Sounds like good advice. Especially since too much pessimism can often lead to depression, and, in extreme cases, even to suicide. But still, haven’t we also met people who are too optimistic, people who focus so much on the bright side that they blind themselves to the darkness around them? We may think, for example, of families who refuse to accept the fact that one of their members may be having a problem with alcohol or drugs or gambling. As a result, the addict does not receive the help that is needed. Extreme optimism can be just as destructive as excessive pessimism.
But if neither optimism nor pessimism is the way to go, then what are we to do? As Christians, how are we to react when a dark spot casts a shadow over the brightness of our lives? The answer to this question can be found in our liturgy today. Here, we discover that there is a properly Christian response to tragedy, a response that consists in three steps.
The first step has to do with how we see. As you know, today we stand at the doorway of the holiest week of the year. Today, we prepare ourselves to accompany Jesus as he enters Jerusalem. Traditionally, we know this day by two names. The first name – Palm Sunday – draws our attention to how this week begins. It recalls to our minds that bright and joyful scene of the Lord’s glorious entry into the Holy City. We remember how the people welcomed him as a king. They greeted him by cutting branches from trees and enthusiastically throwing them on the road.
In contrast, the second name – Passion Sunday – reminds us of how this week will end. By the time we reach Thursday, the joyful acclamations will be replaced by angry insults. Instead of coats and branches strewn on the ground as signs of welcome, Jesus’ body will soon be stretched out on a cross in an extreme expression of rejection and scorn. By the end of this week, a big black spot will overshadow the white canvas of the Lord’s life.
While an optimist might focus only on the palms, and a pessimist only on the Passion, our liturgy today reminds us that the two are inseparable. For together they show us that ours is a king who rides on the back of a lowly donkey, and whose crown will be a cruel wreath of thorns. Indeed, our prayer books refer to this day as Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion. What we find here, sisters and brothers, is a particular way of looking at the world. This is not the pessimism that is blind to the light. Neither is it the optimism that ignores the darkness. Instead, what we have here might be called a Christian realism. This is a way of looking at the world that is willing to see both the palms and the Passion, to acknowledge both the darkness and the light. Through our prayers and our readings today, we are being taught to see realistically.
And by doing this, we will only be imitating the Lord. As we know from the many stories in the gospels, Jesus himself was not afraid to open his eyes to both the good and the bad, to both the light and the darkness. In his ministry, Jesus was able to recognize not only the remorse of the repentant sinner, but also the hypocrisy of the scribe and the Pharisee. But that is not all. Especially when we follow Jesus closely this week, we will see that the courage that allows him to see the world realistically leads him also to act compassionately. Such that he will be willing even to take the final step of laying down his life for us. As St. Paul tells us in the second reading, Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God... emptied himself taking the form of a slave... he humbled himself... being obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
What we see then, in the life of Christ, is that the first step of seeing realistically leads eventually to the final step of self-sacrificing love. But the distance between these two steps is very great. To move from one to the other, we need a third, a middle, step. Just as Jesus himself did. In our reading of the Passion today, we find the Lord taking this middle step in the garden of Gethsemane. Here, Jesus sees clearly the darkness that surrounds him. And he knows what his Father wishes. But it is not easy to take the final step. He struggles within himself. My soul is sorrowful, he tells his friends, even to death. The distance between the steps is too great even for the Lord. A middle step is required. Jesus falls to the ground and prays. Before his Heavenly Father, with heartbreaking honesty, Jesus lays bare his soul. If it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will. And out of this intimate and trusting conversation, Jesus finds strength to do what is required of him. The words spoken by the prophet Isaiah in the first reading may as well be spoken by the Lord of his relationship to his Father: Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear; and I... have not turned back... my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting...
Seeing realistically, praying honestly, and acting compassionately. These are the three steps that make up the Christian response to tragedy. These are the  same three steps that mark the road Jesus is taking this week, a road that stretches between the palms and the Passion.
Sisters and brothers, regardless of whether we tend to be optimistic or pessimistic, how ready are we to walk this road today?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

5th Sunday in Lent (A)
Unbinding The Undead
Sisters and brothers, do you like zombies? I know that there are people who like to watch movies about zombies. Just as there are those who like to play zombie video-games. As you know, there are different kinds of zombies. But the kind that you typically find in Hollywood movies have several unmistakable characteristics. For one thing, zombies are usually very ugly. This is because they’re actually already dead. So their flesh is rotting away. You can imagine what that looks like. Very ugly. And scary.
But that’s not all. although already dead, for some reason, zombies are still able to walk around. They’re not completely dead. But neither are they fully alive. Which is why they’re called the living dead, or the undead. Unlike normal human beings, the undead have only one reason for remaining in this world: To satisfy their desperate craving for human flesh. They’re always looking for something, or someone, to eat. Theirs is a totally self-centered, wholly flesh-driven, existence. 
Ugly, undead, and driven by an insatiable hunger for human flesh. Quite a miserable way to live, don’t you think? And what makes it even more pitiful is the fact that the undead cannot die. At least not in the way that a human being can. They’re forever condemned to a self-centered existence between death and life. Is there any hope for them? How, if ever, can zombies become truly human again?
As unbelievable as it may sound, sisters and brothers, this is the very question that our readings are inviting us to consider today. How, if ever, is it possible for zombies to become human again? But to appreciate this, we must first find the zombie in our readings. And we do this by considering something that all our readings have in common. In each of them, we find people being raised to life, who are already dead in some way.
In the gospel, Lazarus is dead in the literal sense of the word. Having died from an illness, he had been buried in a cave that was later sealed with a stone. Then, wonder of wonders, Jesus comes along, and calls Lazarus out from his tomb. Jesus unbinds Lazarus from the chains of death and returns him to the land of the living.
In the first reading, although physically alive, the people of Israel have suffered a political death. Their country has been conquered, and they’ve been sent into exile. Like Lazarus, they too have been buried. Not physically, but politically. Not in a cave, but in the faraway land of Babylon. Then, through the prophet Ezekiel, God comes along and calls them from their foreign grave. God promises to unbind the chains of their exile, and to return them to their homeland.
But what, we may wonder, do Lazarus and the Israelites have to do with us? Why should we bother about them? We are not dead. At least not yet. Neither physically nor politically. Not only are we still very much alive and kicking, we also live in a country that some consider to be the most powerful on this planet. Why bother about Lazarus and the Israelites?
The reason is that the physical and political death that we find in these readings point us to yet another form of death. In the second reading, Paul speaks to the Romans about those who suffer from spiritual death. Although such people may continue to walk around as though they were alive, they are not. Indeed, Paul writes about such people in a way that reminds us, quite strikingly, of Hollywood zombies. Those, says Paul, who are in the flesh cannot please God. Or, in other words, those who live zombie-like lives–lives driven only by their own self-centered and fleshly interests–are cut off from God. Although physically alive, they are spiritually dead.
And can we deny, sisters and brothers, that there is a zombie-like quality to this modern society in which we live? Our whole global economy is built upon the production and consumption of goods at ever faster and cheaper rates. And a crucial part of this process is the exploitation of human labor–cheap human labor. For example, I may not think about it much, but the new sneakers that I buy at the store may actually cost far more than just the price stated on the tag. It may also carry the blood and sweat and tears of people working under difficult conditions in some other corner of the world. Shouldn’t my own constant hunger for comfort and for consumer goods produced at the cost of the suffering of others remind me of a zombie’s ceaseless craving for human flesh? Could it be that our modern consumeristic existence is no different from–no less miserable than–that of a zombie’s? Isn’t this what Paul means by a life lived in the flesh?
And yet, according to Paul, we Christians should no longer be living like this. Through our baptism, we who were once zombies, have been brought back to life. We have been filled with the spirit of Christ, a spirit that gives us the power to do something that zombies cannot. When Jesus travels to Bethany in the gospel, he accomplishes two things at once. Not only does he raise his friend Lazarus from the dead, but he also makes the religious authorities so angry with him that they decide to kill him. By raising his friend from the dead, Jesus sets in motion a process that will eventually lead to his own death on a cross. And Jesus does both these things–the raising of Lazarus and the angering of the authorities–for the same reason. He does them out of love. At Bethany, Jesus does the very thing that zombies cannot. He shows the power of love by laying down his life for his friends. And it is this same power that we have received as followers of Christ.
This then, sisters and brothers, is the answer to our question. How, if ever, can zombies become human again? By living in the spirit of Christ. The same spirit that was given to us at our baptism. The same spirit for which we prayed in our opening prayer, when we asked our Father in heaven to change our selfishness into self-giving, and to help us to embrace the world, so that we may transform the darkness of its pain into the life and joy of Easter.
Sisters and brothers, what will it take to raise the zombie today?

Sunday, April 03, 2011

4th Sunday in Lent (A)
Learning To Be Light
Picture: cc kevincollins123
Sisters and brothers, some time ago, I paid for something in cash. But, before accepting my money, the lady at the counter first passed each of my bills under an ultraviolet lamp. Ignorant person that I am, I asked her why she did that. Patiently, she told me that she was just checking to make sure that the bills I was handing her were genuine. Apparently, currency issued by the US Treasury contains a strip that glows under ultraviolet light.
A lamp that helps you to separate the counterfeit from the real deal. Now that’s a useful thing to have, don’t you think, sisters and brothers? Especially today, when even the printers and scanners that can be found in the average home are often sophisticated enough to produce fake money. If you have an ultraviolet lamp, you don’t have to worry about being fooled by counterfeit notes. All you have to do is to shine the light on them and the truth will be revealed.
But it’s not just money that can be counterfeited. It’s not only in financial transactions that people need help to distinguish the real from the fake. In the spiritual life as well, we often need something like an ultraviolet lamp to help us to determine whether what we have before us is really of God or not. This is because not everyone who thinks s/he is doing good, not everyone who says s/he is working for God, is really doing so. For example, many of us have probably already heard the latest news about that evangelical pastor in Florida, who had threatened to burn the Holy Qur’an last September. He finally carried out his threat a couple of weeks ago. And, as a result, there was a riot in Afghanistan, in which several people were killed, including a few who were working for the United Nations. Which goes to show that, as with money, so too with people working for God. Instead of simply accepting them at face value, it’s important that we be careful to check to see if they’re really what they claim to be. It’s necessary for us to shine the light of the gospel upon them.
Indeed, our second reading today goes even further. Not only are the Christians of Ephesus told to shine a light on the people and situations around them, they are reminded that, as followers of Christ, they themselves are called to be that light. You were once darkness, they are told, but now you are light in the Lord. You are light in the Lord. And, as light, the Ephesians have the responsibility to help others to distinguish between the things that are truly of God and those that are not, to separate the genuine from the counterfeit. To do this they are urged to make an effort to live as children of the light, to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. But how does one do this? How does a person learn to live in the ways of the Lord, so as to become a light that can help to distinguish between good and evil?
To answer this question, it’s helpful for us to pay close attention to the other two of our readings for today. In particular, we need to carefully consider the experience of the prophet Samuel in the first reading, and that of the blind man in the gospel. Both these characters share several things in common. When we first meet them at the beginning of their respective stories, each one is visually impaired in a spiritual sense. More than being just physically blind, the man in the gospel is at first unable to recognize Jesus as the Christ. In fact, not only the blind man, but everyone else in the gospel is either incapable of, or reluctant to, accept Jesus as the Christ. We’re told that the man’s parents, for example, are afraid to do so, because they would be expelled from the synagogue if they do. The Pharisees, on the other hand, are blinded by their own prejudice. They allow their own narrow understanding of sabbath observance to keep them from accepting Jesus as the Christ.
Now, as we know, the word Christ means anointed one. And, in the first reading, Samuel is searching for an anointed one. He goes to Jesse’s house to anoint the person whom God has chosen to be the next king of Israel. As with the man who was born blind, Samuel too is initially unable to recognize the Christ. Like the Pharisees in the gospel, Samuel is blinded by his own prejudice, by his attention only to appearances. We may recall that, years ago, Samuel had anointed the previous king, Saul. And Saul was a big, strong and imposing man. It is no surprise then that when Samuel gets to Jesse’s house, he starts looking for someone who looks like Saul. But God has other ideas. Man sees the appearance, Samuel is told, but the Lord looks into the heart
And here’s where we see another similarity between Samuel and the blind man. Although, in the beginning, both of them are unable to recognize the Christ, by the end of their respective stories, each one has developed the ability to do so. Each one has learned what is pleasing to the Lord. After listening carefully to God’s instructions, Samuel lets go of his prejudices. Instead of the tall, strapping warrior he was looking for, he anoints David, a small shepherd boy, as king. In the gospel too, the blind man undergoes a gradual learning process. At first, when questioned by his neighbors, he refers to the Lord as the man called Jesus. Then, in answer to the Pharisees, he affirms that Jesus is a prophet. Finally, when he meets Jesus a second time, we’re told that not only does the man profess his belief in the Lord, he also worships him.
Perhaps more than anything else, it is this willingness to learn, this readiness to let go of their own prejudices, that enables both Samuel and the man born blind to make the journey from blindness into sight, from darkness into light.  In both the first reading and the gospel, this teachability on the part of both Samuel and the man born blind is expressed in terms of a willingness to be sent. In the first reading, Samuel goes to Jesse’s house only because he is sent by God. And, in the gospel, the blind man is sent by Jesus to wash in the Pool of Siloam. And we're told that the word Siloam means sent. And not just Samuel and the man born blind. Above all others, Jesus himself is the One whom God sends to be the Light of the World. As Jesus tells his disciples in the gospel, we have to do the works of the one who sent me.
Sisters and brothers, there are many counterfeits abroad in our world today, various voices that claim to be working for God, but are actually doing the opposite. As Christians – people who have been washed in the pool of Baptism – we are called to be the light that helps to distinguish the genuine from the fake. But to do this, we need first to learn to recognize the Lord. We need to allow ourselves to be sent.
Sisters and brothers, are your ultraviolet lamps switched on yet?