Tuesday, March 30, 2010


I'm off to direct a preached retreat this weekend, and on to Los Angeles for some work next week. I'm going to try and post from L.A. if I can -- we'll see.

But for the rest of the Triduum, I thought I'd post a series of images I've found online of different moments in the Passion. They're posted one after another below. Perhaps they can be little windows into these most holy of days. Take them slow, if you can; click on the photo to make it bigger and try to really soak in the moment being captured. Let your eyes wander over the details.

Also, if anyone's interested in an audio/visual Stations of the Cross, I see that the Pray As You Go website has a pretty cool arrangement.

A blessed Triduum to everyone! Walk with Christ!

The Washing of the Feet

Judas' Betrayal

Jesus Before Pilate

Peter Denies Jesus

Simon Helps Jesus with the Cross


Click on the photo for a bigger view.

Mary at the Foot of the Cross

The Crucifixion

Joseph of Arimathea

Taking Him off the Cross

Mary Holds Her Son

Jesus Lies in the Tomb

Monday, March 29, 2010

Who is this Agnes?

Reader Beware: A little soapbox-y today.

Believe it or not, I never heard Latin sung at a Catholic Mass until I was in the Jesuits three years. 1994. I was 25. In the novitiate in St. Paul, all our liturgical prayer and music was in English. And growing up my parents' parish had a rich post-Vatican II liturgical music tradition. I can still remember the large choir leading the congregation in strong, evocative songs that invited people to sing.

I didn't pay much attention to any of this, being just a kid, but it certainly formed my sensibilities. So much so that when, while studying at Loyola Chicago, I heard for the first time the Agnus Dei, with its primitive rhythm and melody and Latin verses, it seemed like a prank. But it wasn't. In those three years, I'd hear that prayer sung again and again.

Over time I was just stunned that people would choose to sing such a flat and unattractive melody, a song so lacking in the spirit of the prayer, when there are such effusive and attractive English versions available.

And in part I felt as though there was some other agenda at work, that an assertion was being made as to what constituted "correct" liturgy. Latin having been the ancient language of the Church, it was only proper to include it in modern liturgies. It's a ridiculous argument, of course, and a selective one. Women were deacons in the ancient church, and yet the same people who embrace Latin do not generally seem interested in reinstating a women's diaconate, or many other of either the ancient or longstanding liturgical traditions of the Church.

Today I would not so readily cast aside all Latin hymns. Songs like the Ave Maria resonate deeply when sung well. Nor would I say that every time the Agnus Dei is sung in Latin, it's an act of liturgical aggression.

But I continue to challenge its use, not only because Latin is not, practically speaking, the language of the Church today (nor the language of any of its people), but because it remains such an unpleasant song. What are we doing at this point of the liturgy? We're asking Jesus to have mercy on us and to grant us peace. The words and tone of the music we sing here should reflect that desire, and they simply don't. As far as I can tell, we sing it simply because we used to sing it. And that's just not good enough.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Palm Sunday Musings

Why is it that we read the entire Passion on Palm Sunday? It's certainly not befitting the occasion, which is the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. And we're going to hear the entire thing once again on Good Friday. What gives?

The answer, as it has been explained to me, is this: most Catholics do not attend the Easter Triduum. They come on Easter Sunday, and that's about it. And therefore if you want them to hear the Passion -- and we do want that -- it makes sense to read it on the prior Sunday.

Not a very elegant explanation, I know. But it is quite practical.

Another explanation might be, we read it twice so close together so that it has a real chance of sinking in and affecting us. Which I like, in fact St. Ignatius always praised repetitio as the way in which we really learn. But at the same time, the Passion is such a long reading, if it's not done really, really well, it lends itself to some serious daydreaming.

And also, some seriously bad readings. The narrator at the service I attended today had every line overwrought with a sort of URGENT INTENSITY; the lady reading Herod and the thieves spat her statements out with an almost comic venom. It made the Passion feel like a piece of propaganda rather than a dramatic narrative that's meant to draw us into the death of God. (If you're reading this weekend, remember, less is more.)

Listening to the Passion, the one piece that stood out to me was the last little bit about Joseph of Arimathea taking care of Jesus' body. It's just fantasy on my part, I know, but I found myself thinking, what if the gospel writers inserted this Joseph to sort of fill the hole that we feel because Jesus' Joseph, his step-father, is not there? That absence has troubled me a lot in recent years. We speculate that Joseph had already died, and maybe that's the historical fact. But it doesn't really seem fair -- you wonder, if he did die before Jesus' ministry began, what did he make of the whole raising God's son life he had been asked to lead? Where are the signs and wonders for him?

And then in the Passion we have this strange coincidence of another man named Joseph who sort of fills that fatherly role, washing the body of his son and finding a place for him. It's probably wishful thinking, but that's what struck me.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

When the Sign of Peace Goes Ker-flu-ey

The posts you've been reading the last few days were originally printed by America Magazine about a year ago. Although it had been written far earlier, it's final date of publication ended up being not too long after the first reports of the bird flu. Not my best timing. One of the repeated comments I received was that this whole idea of the sign of peace seemed a little, well, dangerous in the world today, and did I really want to push it? And if so, did I want to be held responsible for the deaths of millions? (A good America letter always has a certain amount of hyperbole.)

It was an important point, though. Can we practice the sign of peace in the midst of health concerns? I'd say, of course we can. At its heart, the practice of the sign of peace is not physicality. It's not about whether or not we actually hold hands or embrace -- at least, not in the abstract; in some cultures, a certain amount of physical contact might be necessary to convey that sense of communion that we're talking about.

No, the point I've been writing about is intentionality. It's about whether we will take the time to actually step outside of our own little comfort zones and make a connection with one another. I have absolutely no doubt that we can have just as meaningful experience of the sign of peace if we simply take the time to look one another in the eye and exchange a greeting, or if we make eye contact and bow, or hold our palms together. The question is whether we're willing to take the time to let people in in this small way. It's only a couple seconds extra when you add it all up, but it makes a huge difference.

Having said all that, let me also note, I've been to a number of dioceses in recent months where they continue to abstain from the sign of peace (and from reception of the cup) on account of H1N1 anxieties. At some point, that has to be reconsidered. The H1N1 season has been over for months now, and there are as far as I can tell no health professionals, including the C.D.C., are calling for this sort of ongoing abstinence. (Lord above, in any day we probably shake hands with a dozen strangers through the doors that we open and close, and stand in close proximity at least as much.) In some quarters there is concern as well that this health-consciousness is becoming a cover for the general elimination of the cup, and as a means to "move the Mass along". As though we're manufacturing cars here, rather than exchanging and receiving blessings.

Clearly there are times when the practices need to be more stringent, but a certain discerning flexibility is also required, lest we end up inadvertently eliminating a significant opportunity for God's grace.

Breaking and Entering

The sign of peace is not a formality, an exchange of pleasantries or an introduction. It is another opportunity in the liturgy for God to break in and affect us. Some days, as I listen to the familiar prayers and their cadences, it is hard not to get distracted. If I am lucky, it is a good distraction, the offering up of worries, relationships and the like to God in prayer.

More often than not, though, my mind wanders through itineraries, problem solving and the latest episode of "Grey's Anatomy.” I can finish the Our Father without even realizing I have said it.

On those days, the sign of peace is my salvation. By forcing me to look up, see the people in front of me and exchange a greeting with them, I am freed, if only momentarily, from my inner hamster wheel, freed sometimes from my grudges, too. Living in a small community, you inevitably have to exchange the sign of peace with someone, in your darkest moments, you'd rather see hit by a truck (or at least repeatedly by a toddler with a Wiffle Ball bat). Oh God, I pray on those days, please let him turn the other way, please don't make me face him. It can be very hard. But much to my surprise, I have found offering and receiving the sign of peace from people who bug me or have hurt me (or whom I have hurt) can be tremendously liberating. What has drawn tight or hard inside can unexpectedly be loosened.

In the face of wars and economic crises and family problems, we are all longing for peace, for reconciliation, for freedom of one kind or another. If we take the sign of peace a little more gently and slowly, or perhaps if we experiment with relocating it, we might be able to experience that grace a little more deeply.

Tomorrow: H1N1!

Location, Location, Location

One view of the problem with the rite is that it might be in the wrong place in the liturgy. About to receive Communion, having been drawn through the eucharistic prayers into a holy space, some of us might be thinking, "Hey, I'm praying now. Talk to me later.”

Janice says: Peace be with you, too, but not now, OK?

Other liturgical positions for the sign of peace have a certain logic, too. The beginning of Mass, for instance, seems a natural place for a rite that draws us together as community. The transition between the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist also makes good theological sense: before we present our gifts, we reconcile with one another. It makes good human sense, too. Having just listened to readings and a homily, the congregation might need a chance to get up and get the blood moving again before proceeding into the eucharistic prayer. Finally, at the end of Mass it is hard to miss a strong gravitational pull to linger and share community. You find a lot more handshakes and embraces going on when people are leaving church than you find polite waves.

In some places, one finds a different solution. Instead of barreling directly into the rite after the previous acclamation, some presiders stop at that point and invite the community to take a moment to pray for peace. In Australia, where I lived last year, almost every parish I visited used this approach. The change in the congregation after just a few seconds of silence was notable. Having undertaken the liturgical equivalent of a deep breath, congregations (and their priests) entered into the sign of peace with a greater equanimity and presence to the moment. Yet, paradoxically, the total time spent on the rite had not increased.

Tomorrow: What's it All About, Alfie?

Not the Same As It Ever Was

[Sorry this is late today. I had it done but forgot to actually hit "Post"!]

A little history: In the early days of Christianity, the "kiss of peace” came at the end of petitions or significant rites and served as an acclamation, much like "Amen.” Tertullian called it the "seal of prayer.” As communities developed their own liturgical traditions, placement of the kiss varied. The Roman Rite placed it where we find it today. Other traditions placed the ritual in the middle, immediately after the petitions or after the presentation of the gifts. At the millennium, it had been relegated to clergy alone and by the 16th century is had vanished from the Latin litrugy altogether. Only with the 1970 General Instruction of the Roman Missal did the rite officially become a part of Catholic liturgical practice again.

Today liturgical theologians talk about the sign of peace as a moment that connects worshipers back to the desire for reconciliation they sought at the end of the Our Father: "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” it also anticipates the reception of Communion. In offering peace to one another -- not thanks, not "Howdy,” but peace, and not only to friends and family but also strangers and enemies-we express our desire for healing, for communion in our church and in our world and by the grace of God we experience that communion as a reality. At least, that's the theology.

Tomorrow: Where to Put It?

Give a Brother a Hand

First of all -- answers to last week's question. What are the other two places in the liturgy where the presider addresses Jesus directly?

Well, it turns out I was wrong, there are way more than two. Michelle and Anonymous, you rocked the house. The penitential rite is addressed to Jesus: "Lord (Jesus Christ), you heal the contrite... you came to call sinners... you plead for us at the right hand of the Father." So, too, the Agnus Dei -- "Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world." Those were the two I was thinking of.

But the three memorial acclamations in the middle of the eucharistic prayer are also addressed to Jesus: i.e. "Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life, Lord Jesus come in glory." And the Gloria, after a brief address to God, speaks in great detail to Jesus:
Lord Jesus Christ, only Son of the Father,
Lord God, Lamb of God,
you take away the sin of the world:
have mercy on us;
you are seated at the right hand of the Father:
receive our prayer.

For you alone are the Holy One,
you alone are the Lord,
you alone are the Most High,
Jesus Christ,
with the Holy Spirit,
in the glory of God the Father. Amen.

How did I forget that one? No idea. Anonymous and Michelle, I definitely owe you a casserole. Hope you like ziti!

Mmm. Ziti.

Thanks for setting me straight!

Second -- The Sign of Peace: An Introduction.

Not long ago I was at weekday Mass in a big church, not very full, all of us congregants spread out as far as we could be from one another. Even so, almost no one was more than a pew or two distant from anyone else. At the sign of peace, most people just gave "the wave.” You know the wave. The person turns in your direction, maybe smiles slightly and places his or her palm face out, somewhere between the gesture you find in an icon of Jesus and the Supremes singing "Stop in the Name of Love.” When used at a distance, and with a second of eye contact, it can be a pleasant form of acknowledgement, "Hello from across the room.” But when you're standing one pew apart, the vibe is often more like, "Please don't touch me.”

Is it me? Am I emitting black rays of negative energy?

A week later, at Sunday Mass elsewhere, I noticed the same thing: though the pews were crowded, many people would not extend a hand to one another, or they did so only to people directly in front of them. And the ritual lasted only about 10 seconds, before the organist was on to "Lamb of God…” and the priest was breaking the host. It is not like this everywhere. Still, when I encounter it I cannot help but wonder, What ever happened to the sign of peace?

Tomorrow: A little history of the sign of peace

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Body Language

Here's a liturgy tidbit that I never knew until I was actually in a class learning how to preside:

Think of the presider standing up there, saying any of the prayers to God the Father -- say, the eucharistic prayer. During that prayer, what are the position of his arms? They're uplifted and extended out to the side, right? (At least, most presiders are. Some guys instead put their hands up in front of their chest. I must admit, to me it always looks like they're being held up.) It sort of fits -- you're talking to the Big G, you want that broad, expansive, humbly petitioning sort of gesture.

And that's how it is most of the liturgy. HOWEVER -- at the beginning of the sign of peace, for only the second time in the liturgy, instead of addressing the Big G, the presider speaks to Jesus. Lord Jesus Christ, you said to your apostles... And since the "target audience" here has changed, the presider's gesture changes, too. Instead of that big, formal, upward gesture, the presider extends his arms directly in front of him. It's the gesture of openness and welcome we would make to one another before greeting, embracing (or accepting a casserole). Which fits, because Jesus always comes with a good hot dish.
Save room for seconds! It's divine!

No, it fits because although he's the Son of God, and we come to him in prayer, still, we address Jesus as our brother.

It's a very small detail. But to me it's always amazing to discover how different elements of every moment of the Mass are right there telling the story.

Pop Quiz: I said the sign of peace is the second time the presider addresses Jesus directly. There are three such moments in the liturgy. What are the other two?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

In Joyful Hope

When the community finishes the Our Father, the presider offers a short prayer which picks up right from where we left off:
Deliver us, Lord, from every evil,
and grant us peace in our day.
In your mercy keep us free from sin
and protect us from all anxiety
as we wait in joyful hope
for the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
It draws our prayer to its natural conclusion -- us waiting in joyful hope for Jesus, and the coming of the kingdom.

You might notice that some priests will say "protect us from all needless anxiety" instead of "all anxiety". That's not the sacramentary's form, but it never seemed like much of a difference to me, either, until a friend pointed out to me that adding "needless" makes it seem as though there's some anxiety that it would be just fine to have, a kind of grace. But unlike, say, remorse or guilt (or maybe even shame, depending on your take on it), anxiety is never a good thing. That is, it never takes you anywhere or yields something positive. It's a form of emotional and spiritual paralysis. So, no need to add "needless"; it all fits that category.

I'm always fascinated by the term "joyful hope", too. Two rich words, but not ones you often put side by side. Joy emerges from an experience of God's graciousness. It's the cup that runneth over with gratitude and generosity, having been cared for by God, a response to grace. Whereas hope is by definition a desire for something that has not yet occurred. How can one be joyful for that which is not yet present?

One could say, well, we've all had tastes of Jesus' love, of the kingdom, of God's graciousness, and that's what allows us to feel both joy and also hope. And there's a certain wisdom in that. But I think it's almost more interesting if we rather leave its meaning unresolved and instead let the term have simultaneously these two different momentums or directions. They're not contradictory -- it's not like an object that's being pulled equally forward and back at same time, and therefore never goes anywhere. It might be more like a spiralling arc -- joy taking us forward while hope keeps lifting us up in anticipation.

(Who knew that liturgy and pre-calculus would have so much in common!)

We conclude this section with a little prayer of acclamation of God's power. For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever. And we move on to the sign of peace...

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Last Thought on the Our Father

In his great little book on the Our Father The Lord and His Prayer, N.T. Wright makes the point that the Our Father is a way Jesus expresses, or "wears," his relationship with God the Father. It's a prayer that brings to life that intimate relationship.

And given that, he says, saying the Our Father we're sort of like a little brother/sister trying on an older sibling's clothes. It doesn't quite fit -- the sleeves are way too long, I can barely walk without tripping, we sin like crazy, we don't regularly have the same intimacy with God that Jesus does. But much like those clothes, "wear" that prayer awhile, and eventually you grow into it.

I'll let Wright speak for himself:
Our task is to grow up into the Our Father, to dare to impersonate our older brother, seeking daily bread and daily forgiveness as we do so: to wear his clohtes, to walk in his shoes, to feast at his table, to weep with him in the garden, to share his suffering, and to know his victory.

Kind of a neat way to think about what we're doing. We pray the Our Father, and in our prayer as in our lives we are allowing ourselves to become more and more like our "older brother," the people we're meant to be.

And Deliver us from Evil

It's all sort of right there in the words, isn't it. Deliver us from evil. Protect us from all the forces, physical, spiritual or otherwise, today, tomorrow or in the bigger sense of eternity, that mean to do us harm, that want to destroy us. Mean people, atomic bombs, the Devil -- it's all there.

"Us" is pretty broad, too -- it can mean all at the same time me, my worshipping community, all believers and everybody. And that's a good thing. It's not by accident that we say Our Father all together -- we're more than monads here, little individual self-contained units, we're part of a world. And in this moment, as throughout the Our Father, the things we're asking are for all of us. Joanna down the street, she might not be talking to God or even think that such a thing makes any sense at all, but she's just as important as you or me, and nobody wants to see anything bad happen to her, either. So deliver her from evil, God. And so on.

The point being, we're holding up the needs of the whole world here. It's like they say about Heaven -- it's not Heaven until everybody's there. No one's been delivered if some of us are still being tortured in Kabul. Not really.

So deliver us already!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

And Lead Us Not Into Temptation

I can't say I ever really thought about this line until this project. I said it, but I never really puzzled over it. And on the surface, it is most definitely puzzling. Why would God lead us into temptation? And to what end? To test our resolve, perhaps? It's not a completely unbelievable concept. Think of it like athletic practice -- repeated effort on ever-more difficult tasks allows us to grow more skilled and more confident.

And maybe it's not so much God actively tempting us as God temporarily withdrawing his care a bit so that we are forced to deal with desolation, that is, moments when we don't feel confident or resolved. It's the parent letting the child pedal away a few steps on their bike for the first time. Only by doing does the child ever learn how to balance.

Not a bad interpretation, no? The problem is, the petition here is a request to not be led into temptation. (Also, to say God does not keep us from temptation is different than saying God, lead us...) Either way, the argument is not insurmountable. The petition could mean, Lord, don't give me a burden that's more than I can't handle. Or even more colloquially, Lord, keep me from screwing up. I think that's generally what I think I'm saying.

But the Greek word being translated "temptation" here, peirasmos, actually can also mean "tribulation" or "testing". And that fits a lot of what we find Jesus saying in Matthew and Luke (where the Our Father is found). Think about how many times at Mass you hear one of those parables or exhortations from Jesus about being ready, lest you be caught short when the end times arrive. And in those passages Jesus often references the coming tribulations.

The interpretation that comes from this way of thinking is in some ways pretty similar to what I suspect we think naturally. To say keep us from tribulations is to say don't let me screw it up so bad that when You come acallin' on my deathbed or Jesus comes again I've placed myself too far out of your care. Keep me from a life built out of choices that result in the final tribulation which is Hell.

It certainly fits with our last petition, deliver us from evil. It's just that, instead of "evil" meaning bad things happening to me right now, we mean the finality of Evil.

"Lead me not into frickin' lasers."

I'll talk a bit more about that last line tomorrow. But in the big picture, here again we're talking about little increments, baby steps one line from the next. The first of the four petitions for our needs was that we have our daily bread -- that is, that the kingdom come. The second was that God would forgive us our sins, a forgiveness we desperately need that we might enter into his kingdom. The third, here, is a sort of heightening of that, a prayer that our sins would not become so insurmountable that we allow ourselves to be beyond saving.

We could argue over what exactly we mean by things like "damnation" or "final judgment". For me the most compelling vision has been that of C.S. Lewis in his short story The Great Divorce (which I highly recommend). The Great Divorce is the story of a group of dead people living in a sprawling, bleak twilight town (Purgatory/Hell), who take a bus to the beauteous hills and valleys of Heaven to "move on".

A Lewis-like Heaven (otherwise known to New Yorkers as Upstate/West of the Hudson).

The twist is, although all are welcome and encouraged to stay, most of them choose to go back to Hell instead, because they don't want to let go of old grudges or bad habits or be forgiven. They've gotten so used to being in control and being self-insulated, they really can't conceive of another way.

So, it's not that God condemns them/us so much as we paint ourselves into such a corner that we actually choose to reject God. It probably sound ridiculous, but I don't know... we certainly are pretty good at rejecting the forgiveness, the love, the friendship of others. Why not God?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Friday Poem

God Says Yes To Me

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said sure it is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don't paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I'm telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

--Kaylin Haught

Back to the Our Father on Monday. Have a good weekend.

Monday, March 8, 2010

...as We Forgive Those Who Trespass Against Us

I have this theory that most long-term interpersonal conflicts go on as long as they do not because one party keeps doing bad stuff, although that can sure happen, but because the wronged party is unable to forgive. And then they do some crazy stuff and make the other party feel wronged, and they think that's even worse than what they did, and hell if they're going to forgive it, in fact they're going to give that back and then some, and suddenly it's Hatfields and McCoys. Or Palestine and Israel.

Forgiving another can be a huge challenge. There's a kid I knew in grade school who used to pick on me. I still sometimes think about what I would do to him if I ran into him in a Duane Reade. (Let's just say, I would not invited back to that particular establishment.) It's totally crazy, and totally human. When you've been hurt bad, it's very hard to let go.

And sometimes of course we shouldn't let go too soon. You ask me, there's nothing worse than someone who hurts you and then immediately expects you to forgive them. It's like, even as they apologize, it's still really all about them. They've seen this glimpse of the ugly truth of themselves, and that makes them uncomfortable, and nobody likes that. So they turn it back on you. I've seen it, I've done it, it ain't pretty.

But at the same time, as long as there is no forgiveness, the other party is pretty much out of luck. Because sin really is like falling into your own pit-trap. You cannot get out on your own. You need to make amends of some kind, and you need to be forgiven.

Here's something that someone told me that helps me with all that. What if, in the cases where we just can't see our way to forgiving, we don't think of it as being something we have to do. Instead, we think of forgiveness as something God makes happen. Forgiveness in other words is not so much a choice by one party as a movement of God's grace that both we and the other party experience.

If that's the case, the pressure which can build up on both sides becomes less. We're not meant to try and force it to happen; rather, our job is to try and stay out of the way so God can do it. We participate in this grace of God's by going with the flow rather than by pursuing it all by ourselves.

And if the forgiveness is not happening, the question for us to ask is, Is there something I'm holding onto that's keeping God's grace from moving through? Am I somehow in the way? Maybe one of us is. (In which case, you'll probably know it because it'll feel a little bit like this:

It may even feel like this:

Sometimes we have to figure out how to get out of the way.

Sometimes, it just takes a lot of time.

The next few days are swampy for me, so I'm not sure how much I'll have posted. Check back and we'll see!

And Forgive us Our Trespasses...

Remember when we were talking lo, those many months ago, about what if an alien life form showed up at Mass, and we were imagining what impressions they might take away from Mass?

A little scary, I know, but take out the drool and you get the idea.

Well, what if, on that occasion, that alien had come and sat down next to you, all tentacle-y but well-intentioned, and asked you to summarize in one sentence what this whole Bible story was about.

It'd be ridiculous, I know. I mean, if the thing is smart enough to fly all the way here from God knows where, and he's got 6 or 8 arms (and/or heads), he probably can speed read the Bible, no? Or pop into his computer module and get the E.T. form of Cliff's Notes.

But say it asked anyway. What would you answer?

One possible response would certainly be today's phrase from the Our Father: "Forgive us Our Trespasses." Or recrafted as a statement, not a petition, "God forgives us." The story of salvation history is a story of us being saved not primarily from outside forces, though we see some of that, but from ourselves. The paradigm of God's relationship with humanity is the story of the Prodigal Son -- or, as the theologian N.T. Wright calls it, the story of "The Running Father" (that is, the Father who runs to embrace his wayward child).

What makes today's petition important is its acknowledgement that among the basic things we need is not only sustenance but forgiveness. Both individually and communally, we have blown it. We've made a mess of things, and we can't make it right on our own. That is the fundamental thing about sin -- it's like getting stuck in a tar pit or wandering off the path into the woods. Once you're in it, you can't get out on your own. You can try to make it right, yes, but fundamentally, you have to be forgiven. And so we ask forgiveness...

Someone pointed out in the photograph for yesterday, one little puppy gets left behind and isn't allowed to feed. The story of the Running Father is God's response to that. His forgiveness is for everyone, not just the strong, in fact not primarily the strong at all, but first and foremost the weak.

And speaking of things that are weak...

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread

The first half of the Our Father consisted of three kingdom petitions for God: may we worship you; may your kingdom come; may your will be done. The second half offers four petitions for ourselves: give us our bread; forgive us our trespasses; lead us not into evil; and deliver us from temptation.

All four have in common an acknowledgement of our limitations. We cannot do it alone -- and by "it" we don't mean complicated tasks like working full time and taking care of the kids, or even talking on the phone while we check our email. We're talking the basics here, starting with the ability to nourish ourselves. Think about that -- when was the last time you had to ask someone to feed you? It's as though we're infants again.

And that's the grace to be gotten, that vision of ourselves as fundamentally needy -- that is, not by accident of birth or circumstance but at our foundations. To be human is to be dependent. As vastly different as our circumstances are, at the base we are just like the Israelites in the desert, fed physically and spiritually by God's manna.

In some early versions of the Our Father, the daily bread line could also be translated "Give us bread for tomorrow". And that double meaning is important. As Christians what we're praying for is not only our sustenance today, but about that final fulfillment, the kingdom banquet that the life of Jesus promised and gave us glimpses of.

And not just the life of Jesus; every Mass we celebrate offers that glimpse again, in the form of the communion that we receive together. It's not a coincidence that we say this prayer together immediately after the eucharistic prayer of consecration and almost directly before communion itself.

And there are other glimpses in our lives, as well. Think of a nice meal you shared with family or friends, or an ordinary evening that was unexpectedly rich. It could be a wedding reception or a family occasion; it could just be you sitting by yourself over a dish of pasta and a nice red. But a time where the pieces fell into place and everything felt right. We never wanted to leave the table; we could have danced all night -- they're the moments that you want to take a thousand photographs (but none of them seem to capture what it was we were feeling).

Those are glimpses, too, of the "bread" we seek, the kingdom for which we hunger.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Thy Will Be Done on Earth as It is in Heaven

As we talked about regarding cadence, when you hear the Our Father, this sounds like two different lines. It's even punctuated with a comma between the two parts sometimes. But it's clearly one idea.

And that idea is again another form of what we've already talked about -- thy kingdom come. And come here: this isn't about us going to Heaven; it's about the transformation of our world.

What makes this version unique is its humility. This is the prayer in which we place our trust in God's will. We know we want the kingdom to come, but honestly, on a deeper level we don't even know what that means for us, let alone what it looks like. We might have a sense of what we want it to look like, but whether that's really what's best for us, let alone everyone, is a whole different story. There's an old saying-- when God wants to teach people a lesson, He just gives them what they want. How true it is...

For me, this is the line that resonates with the posture of many people during the Our Father -- hands open, willing to receive. Or if not having exactly that openness -- I'd like the kingdom, but I'd also like to eat 3 Big Macs a day and not gain weight -- at least having the desire for the desire.

It's a start.