Friday, April 18, 2014

Why Good Friday is Too Often Like a Bad Indiana Jones Movie

The Problem: The Math of It All
I don't know why this is, but the older I get, the less I find myself able to accept the way that the Church generally talks about the death of Jesus.  More specifically, this sense that "Jesus died for our sins".

It's not that I'm squeamish. It's the math of it all.  Jesus dies = We are saved.

By the calculus of the ancient world, that makes sense. Gods are appeased through violence. The stability of society is reinforced. Jesus takes the place in Jewish tradition of the lamb.

But in our world, that makes no sense at all. Murder does not save. Indeed, as the great philosopher Rene Girard has written about, the cross reveals the lie of that idea, because it shows the brutality at the heart of such a philosophy. It displays the victim.

As far as I can tell, the way that Christianity has avoided dealing with this is by saying we're talking God here -- God sacrificing his son, God being willing to be sacrificed for us. Human logic does not apply.

But what kind of a God is okay with human sacrifice? I suspect, not one would we would hope to meet when we die.

And the other thing is, this equation is EXACTLY human logic. As we just said, it's humans that for millennia have killed animals, adults, even children out of a sense that it would save them.

This should make us very suspicious.

And frankly I think many of us live aware that this is a problem, aware that this idea that Jesus died to save us from our sins or that God was cool with Christ being whacked doesn't really make sense. Not really. And yet it's not a deal breaker -- we never really believed in that Old Testament figure of wrath and violence anyway -- and we're not theologians, so we just let it sit there.

But it should be a deal breaker for us. We should not accept a concept of God like this, or let our children be taught to think that God is like this. Because we deserve better. Indeed, the story of our salvation in both Old and New Testaments is a story of God rescuing humanity from precisely such notions and societies. And even when necessary rescuing them from himself!

The Solution: A Faithful (not Wrathful) God 
So on a day like today, who do I see up there on the cross? Not the solution to a math equation. But a man, God become flesh, who came among us because he saw how much we were in need, how hungry and confused and sad we were, and wanted to be the light that would shine in our darkness, illuminate the Lord who loves us, and help us on our way.

And of course, OF COURSE, that was threatening to people. People in power, but also just the rank and file. It was as true then as it is now: If you really want to scare somebody, tell them that you love them. 

And so of course, eventually, some of them wanted him dead. And he could have run from that. Or just stopped being so damn challenging.

But that meant stepping away from the people, both the ones who knew they were hungry for hope and kindness and looked to him for help, and the ones who were just as hungry or even more and didn't know it, whose pain was pushed back behind their rage and condemnation.

And that's not who Jesus was. That's not who God is. So he kept on going, even though it looked like it would not end well.

And it did not end well. In fact, it ended in pretty much the most horrific way possible, not just killed, but publicly humiliated and left to die as mocking bystanders watched. It ended so badly Jesus even doubted whether he had been right about what he believed about God and himself all along.

The Nutshell
What saves us is not that Jesus died for us. It's that God is faithful to us. So faithful that he came down to earth to be with us; that he refused to run away from us when threatened (by some of us); and that when he died as a man, God raised him up.

It's a package deal, the crucifixion and resurrection. Together they express the same truth -- that God  does not give up on us. That he is faithful to us.

And we shouldn't let anyone tell us different.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Why Voldemort Would Totally Dig Palm Sunday

In preparing for Mass yesterday I found myself wondering, what's the deal with the palms? More specifically, why do we keep them? What's the significance of wrapping them around a crucifix or holy picture at home, or putting them in the family bible?  Why do we do that?

It feels like the sort of tradition that once upon a time had a real significance, but now is just something we do because we do.

So then I was thinking about the spectacle of Palm Sunday, which really is unique in the liturgical year.  Yes, on Good Friday (and later on Palm Sunday) we read the Passion, with different people getting parts, including the congregation.  But I think it's only at the beginning of Palm Sunday* that we literally reenact a Scriptural scene.*  We go outside, bless the palms, and then as a group we recreate this moment in which Jesus entered Jerusalem.

(* The Eucharistic prayer itself would seem to fit the bill, too. More than a retelling of the Last Supper it is a reenactment.  But the one difference is that the reenactment more or less centers on the presider. The congregation's role is more or less that of witness.)

That sense of recreating the scene turns the palm I think into a sort of souvenir.  It's like a Broadway playbill or Mickey Mouse ears -- something that says "I was there. I was at that moment." Or even better, "I participated. I was a part of that moment."

Talk about participating in a moment. Oy. 

Which is to say (and this is exactly the same way we think about the Eucharist, and the feast of Christmas as well), Jesus' entrance as king into Jerusalem is not just a historical artifact that we remember. It's something that's understood as also happening today.  I was there. I was a part of that.  And I have the palm to prove it.

But a souvenir always has some feeling or promise attached to it. I buy and keep Mickey Mouse ears because Disneyland was a magical place for me and my family. And I want not only to remember that but to continue to have a little taste of that in my ordinary life.

For the Harry Potter fans out there, we're talking Horcruxes. The objects that we hold on to from special experiences are invested by us with a bit of that experience. They retain a charge, if you will, that we can draw on by looking at them again later. Holding them. Remembering.

When it comes to the palm, I think of this in terms less of a feeling and more of a promise. What we witness on Palm Sunday is Jesus coming into our lives. And coming in as a king of peace. (One of the things I learned in researching Palm Sunday is that in the ancient world, a king intent on conquest would ride into town on a horse. But a king who rides in on a donkey comes in peace.)

It's him yet again establishing who he intends to be in our lives. The one who save us. The one who sets us free. The one who loves us enough to show up in the midst of all our sinfulness and pain.

And I think we keep the palm as a token of that. Jesus came into the world for me. Jesus is there for me, no matter what.

This Holy Week, we might consider where we find ourselves needing Jesus to enter into our lives right now. The areas where we're experiencing pain, confusion. Anxiety. Loss.

And look to the palm, and imagine Him riding into those places in our lives and our hearts, bringing gentleness and peace.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Annunciation: A Modern Retelling

Australian Catholics asked me to write a piece for them imagining what if the Annunciation happened today. You can find the link to the actual piece here. I've done my best to paste it below, too.

(Lingo note: 'The Chaser' is a TV program in Australia that specializes in pranks on politicians and others. And a "galah" is an incredibly loud and obnoxious parrot to be found all over the country.)


(SETTING Perth, Australia. A home in an outer suburb. Today. MARY, 17, is on the phone to a GIRLFRIEND.)

It is not weird.

(on speaker) It's weird.

It's not like we're getting married today.

Still weird.

You just don't like him.

He wants you to get married when your lives are just beginning. Of course I don't like him

Well, I think we're going to be very happy together.

Maybe for the first two minutes.

(The doorbell rings.)

I gotta go.

Just one word to think about.

Is it 'weird'?


(Mary hangs up and hurries to the front door. Opening it reveals AN ANGEL, tall, three sets of bright multicolored wings, stands at the door, barely fitting under the awning.)

Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee!

(His voice booms through the neighborhood. Mary stands there, dumbfounded.)
(more normal voice) You are Mary, right?

(The angel checks a map he has.)

It's very hard to pick out the right house in this neighbourhood.

Uh...yeah, I'm Mary. And you are...?

I'm an angel of the Lord, sent to tell you...

An angel.

Look at me. What else would I be?

(Mary stares at him, then looks past him outside.)

This is a bit for The Chaser, isn't it?

It's not.

I don't believe you.

Really, it's not. Although funny story about the Chaser boys, not long ago they got past St Peter at the Pearly Gates and shot a hilarious bit following Jesus around.


Whoops, sorry, putting the cart before the horse. Jesus is the son you're going to have.

(Mary stares at him, dumbfounded.)


Get off it.

Do I look like I'm having a laugh?

Have you seen yourself? You look like the world's biggest galah.


(His voice echoes through the neighbourhood. Trees shake.)

Look, I'm sort of squished out here. Could I come in and explain?

(Mary steps aside. His wings knock things left and right as he walks.)

Whoops. Sorry about that. Was that expensive? God will pay for it.

(Mary sits on a couch. Angel stands before her and cracks his neck.)

So much better. So here's the thing: Mary, God loves you.


Like, a lot.

Isn't that his job?

Yes, it is. He loves everyone. But you're his favourite.


Yes. And he's sent me here to tell you he loves you so much, you're going to conceive in your womb, and you will...

Wait... what?

I know, the language is a little stilted. But that's what he told me to say.

You know I'm engaged, right?

Oh we're talking to Joseph, too.

I bet that will go well. 'Hail, Joseph, full of whatever, your soon-to-be wife is going to be having God's baby.'

We're pretty sure he's going to punch the angel in the nose. But then he'll calm down. Slightly.

MARY (sarcasm):
Oh well then, I guess it's no worries.

ANGEL (misunderstanding):
Ah, good. So, here's how it's going to work: the Holy Spirit is going to come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.

That sounds absolutely terrifying.

Yeah. God really doesn't know how to put things sometimes.

I've never even had, you know, relations.

I know. It's a lot.

It is!

(Mary paces)

You could choose anybody. Choose Princess Kate! Or even Pippa!

They're not you.

Me? I'm a kid. I don't even know how to do my own laundry yet.

You're a kid getting married. Which tells me, you're already willing to take a big leap of faith. Think of this as just leaping a little bit more.

Just a little bit more? We're talking about the Son of God!

Okay, how about this: since he's the Son of God, maybe he'll grant you three wishes.

What, like a genie?


Does it work like that?

Actually, no. For most of his life he'll actually be pretty ordinary.

(Mary thinks deeply.)

Will he have a happy life?

Oh, he'll be very happy with you. You'll do fine.

No, I mean, if he's with us, will he have a good life?

(The angel thinks about this.)

Sometimes it won't look like it. But yes. In a strange way, he will have the happiest of lives.

(Mary considers this.)

Well then, okay. Let's do this.

(The angel cheers. Every item of glass in the house shatters.)

Just so you know, when I've had the baby, you are not to come visit.



Thursday, March 13, 2014

Pope Francis, One Year On: Untying the Knots

A year ago yesterday, I was telling people, after 2005, nothing could surprise me.

That should have been true.  I will never forget the election of Pope Benedict in 2005. Me and a bunch of others, huddled around a little TV, waiting, waiting, waiting for the reveal.... who would it be????..... 

....and then the former Cardinal Ratzinger came out, smiling. And the room went silent. And stayed silent.  It was like someone had died. 

Yeah. That was a surprise. 

And for as poorly as it is currently remembered, Benedict's time as pope had some great surprises, too.  He did not turn out to be the attack dog everyone feared. Nor did he continue "the Church is Me" philosophy of his predecessor. Some say Benedict was a shy man; I think he was intent on pulling back from the limelight so that the Church could return to its proper functioning. He and his team made some major faux pas, but even those were at times refreshing. The Pope was just a man, who could screw up just like us. 

But regardless, come Benedict's retirement announcement, it didn't matter who they chose, no one could top the surprise of his election.  


Lots will be written today about Pope Francis, and how much he has accomplished in just one year. (Can you believe that? It's been only one year! Imagine what he'll do with five!)

I don't want to repeat all that. I will say, his papacy has been an enormous boon to my faith in the Church. And also an enormous challenge.  Never have I felt I am falling as short as a priest as I do when I watch him. 

And I take that as a good thing. Everyone needs to be pushed. 

But rather than say much more that you already know about the man, I want to share a story with you about him that fits the season we're in. It's from the book Untying the Knots, a biography of Pope Francis that I highly recommend by Paul Vallely. In fact it's the title story. 

After Jorge Bergoglio finished as provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina, it was unclear what to do with him. His term had been extremely divisive for the province. (Vallely does a great job of laying out different ways of understanding that time, whether the problem was Bergoglio's own inflated sense of self and conservatism or the deep societal conflicts that he was trying to navigate.) And frankly, nobody wanted him around.  

So he went to Germany to look into getting a PhD in theology -- a pretty crazy notion, given the fact that he had already had so much responsibility and was almost certainly too old to really give himself to that kind of a program. 

While he was there, he discovered a painting in a church of Mary untying the knots of sin. It was nothing special, but it captivated him -- so much so, in fact, that when he returned to Argentina, he had the painting reproduced and hung in the cathedral, where it went from a sort of okay painting that no one paid much attention to, to a major object of devotion. 

Vallely says that while Bergoglio served as Archbishop in Buenos Aires, he was frequently seen sitting before that picture, seemingly praying that Mary could help untie the knots of his own struggles and failings. 

In so many cases, we long for answers or resolution or reconciliation. And they're not forthcoming. We try to push through, to force or fix or analyze. And still, the answers elude us. 

They are the knots we try to loosen, but find ourselves unable to undo.  

But Bergoglio found hope in another way. Rather than put all the responsibility on ourselves, we can give those knots over to God, or Jesus, or Mary, or whoever. They're big. We're small. Let them work to untie them.  

On this first anniversary of his election, I rejoice in a Pope wise enough to see his own neediness and humble enough to share that with the rest of us. A Pope whose first act was to ask the crowd to bless him. 

I imagine Mary trying to untie my many, confusing knots, and I am relieved to know someone is going to help me where I can't help myself. Someone is going to help me find my way. 

And as I sit before that image, I also take heart in the idea that far away, amidst all the pomp and drama of Rome, a tall, funny Argentinian man is doing the same thing.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Lent Week 1: Letting Your Heart Break

I think when you come to the spiritual field, if you have a heart, it is sure to be broken. And I think if it is not broken, it is useless. I have always felt that a heart which has never been broken is a useless heart.  I take the example of a taanpura, you know, that instrument for music. Some of the greatest musicians I know, I have known this personally, used to suspend a taanpura from the ceiling, about two feet from the ground, cut the thread so that it falls, and that beautiful thing, that tumdha, is broken. Then, whet it is repaired, that taanpura has the most beautiful tone and sound. Musical instruments have to broken into service like that. That is why we call it ‘breaking into’. Literally, the heart has to break.

                                           Parthasarathi Rajagopalachari 

Friday, March 7, 2014

Get Your Lent On(line): Resources

If you're looking for some online materials for Lent -- well, I can't offer you this nun (and given the look on her face that might be a good thing...), but here are some places doing interesting things.

Creighton University offers a whole bunch of different online Lenten experiences (including, I note, an ongoing group discussion of Mercy in the City, the book by Kerry Weber I mentioned yesterday). Their homepage can be a little overwhelming with the sheer number of different opportunities they offer. But if you poke around on some of the links, you'll find some very good articles, book groups and experiences.

Loyola Press also offers a bunch of online Lenten experiences, including a retreat (which has the somewhat terrifying name of an "Ignatian Prayer Adventure"), day by day reflections, and other resources.  It looks like a rich set of opportunities.

The Ignatian News Network has Sr. Rose Pacatte leading a Lenten film series, in which short films and clips from film and TV are used to talk about themes of the season. If you've never heard Sr. Rose, she's well worth a listen. A warm, funny, knowledgeable speaker who has spent her life talking about media and spirituality.

The Jesuits of the United States are together doing an online retreat from Lent through Easter called Moved to Greater Love.  Each day includes a whole bunch of materials to choose from -- a reading from Scripture, an image or video or song, a reading from Jesuit stuff, some questions for reflection. Some of it might be a little "inside baseball" if you're not a Jesuit, but you might also enjoy it.

Lastly, a great friend of mine from Australia has started a sort of online spiritual community called "Bamboo" that you might be interested in.  It's not specifically Lenten in its focus; it's more an opportunity for people interested in service and spirituality to share their experiences with one another. If you go to the site you can click on reflections and also sign up to become a member (which involves a weekly email update).  Bamboo is very much in its infancy, but it's a really interesting idea.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

A Resource for Lent: Mercy In the City

Over Christmas I had the chance to have coffee with Kerry Weber, who is the Managing Editor at America Magazine.  Kerry's a Columbia J-school grad who spent a year working as a special ed teacher on the Navajo Indian Reservation with the Mercy Volunteer Corps. And the photo above captures her perfectly -- joy and light.

Over coffee Kerry described how she had decided one Lent to try and live out the seven corporal works of mercy -- feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned and bury the dead. (It's a great idea, right? Why didn't we think of that!) And it was such a rich experience that she had written a short book about it, Mercy in the City.

So a couple weeks ago I picked up the book, and I discovered that Kerry is a great writer, with a wonderful sense of humor, an eye for detail. Here's a little gem from early on:
One cold winter night I bought a tunafish sandwich for dinner at CVS pharmacy. I was hungry and late for a meeting and was feeling sorry for myself for having to eat dinner at a place that also sells panty hose and cold medicine. 
I don't know if this is true the world over, but anyone who has lived in New York City has had exactly that experience!

But more than wit, what I love about the book is that Kerry grapples with the same questions that I know I do -- how do I find God in my life? And what does it mean to be a good person? So the quote above continues:
I passed a man curled up under blankets on the street. 'Got anything to eat?' he asked, clearly seeing that I did. I took out half of the sandwich and gave it to him. But as I walked away, doubts filled my head: Should I have given him the whole sandwich? Should I have bought another one just for him? Was he even hungry? It's not easy to determine the best ways to act with kindness and mercy.
For me, the criteria for a good spiritual book are these:
  • It must be short: God forgive me, but save us from the 7 Storey Mountains.
  • It must be inviting: Tell me a story. Make me think. Make me laugh. 
  • And it must be wise: Ask a good question. Speak from an honest, relatable place.  Share the truths that others have taught you. 
Mercy in the City is that kind of spiritual book. If you want a Lenten partner for your own journey (or just ideas for that journey), I really recommend it.