Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Stormy Seas

The middle of chapter 8 of Matthew offers that great story of Jesus asleep in the boat during a great storm (Mt 8:18-27) Obviously it's a story about trust. Jesus' ability to sleep during the storm shows the depth of his trust in God, and challenges us to do the same in the midst of the storms of our lives.

But there's a lot more to it than that.  A good note in reading the Bible: any time you hear a story about seas, pay attention. "The sea" in scripture almost always represents the forces of chaos and disorder against which God is matched.  The Genesis 1 story of creation in fact, repeatedly describes the chaos out of which God creates everything as "the waters".

Now, an aside that is not an aside: In most ancient Near Eastern creation stories, creation occurs through a battle between two opposing gods or forces.

Marduk fights Tiamat in the ancient Babylonian story of creation. 

And the same is true in Genesis, it's just not much of a battle -- God is so much more powerful than the chaotic pre-creation seas, he doesn't even need to fight to vanquish it.  He just molds it to his will.

God creates the world. (Actual size of God much larger.)

And that complete control that God has over the seas shows him to be not only powerful, but more powerful than all the other gods of the  Near East.  Unlike them, he didn't even need to fight to create the universe!  (It's actually an amazingly bold claim, this tiny, tiny country in the world, proclaiming its God is way more powerful than all the mighty nations of the earth -- some of whom have invaded it!)

When seas are referred to later in scripture, they are almost always hearkening back to that creation claim, and showing yet again how entirely powerful God is.  So for instance in the Old Testament the parting of the Red Sea.  And here, the calming of the storm. But here, it's not God the Father doing the calming, it's Jesus.  Which is yet another way, and a very very bold way, of saying to Jews that Jesus is God.

I'm the king of the world! No, seriously!

An interesting further question about the seas...if they do represent the forces of chaos and evil in the universe, why doesn't God completely wipe them out right from the beginning? Why does he allow them to continue?

On the level of our human experience, that's a mystery, isn't it?  One of the speakers I heard at the Religious Ed Congress gave a talk called Where the Hell is God?, all about this issue. In the tough times that is so clearly our question.

On the level of the person who wrote Genesis 1, though, the answer is a little bit different (and maybe unsatisfying).  Genesis 1 is written during a time of terrible tragedy in Israel, Israel invaded, the people scattered in exile, all their beliefs seemingly dashed.  And so the writer keeps chaos around post-creation, because to do otherwise would be to ignore the pain of his (or her) people's current experience. We're living with the chaos, you scripture writer, you, so don't you dare tell us that it doesn't exist!

But by showing God as so entirely powerful over the chaos, the writer spits in the eye of the pain his people are enduring.  Come at us all you want, bad times, because in the end our God wins.

It's a funny thing to say, but the writer looks back to creation to encourage his or her present-day people to believe, this is not the way our story ends.

In the midst of our own world's tsunamis and other tragedies, that message of hope speaks even to us today. 

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Religion is Interruption

UCLA begins its third quarter today, so just a little Matthew nugget for you.  In Matthew 8:21-22 someone comes forward, wanting to follow Jesus but asking that he be allowed to first bury his father. And Jesus makes the seemingly callous remark, "Let the dead bury the dead."

It's one of those "WHAT THE...?" places in the New Testament, and that is precisely why it's there -- to shock, to disrupt, to make us stop bouncing along like being a Christian is rainbows and kittens and get us to pay attention again.  Our relationship with Jesus is like everything else in life -- the longer we look at something, paradoxically, the less of it we see.  Familiarity obscures rather than brings out the rough edges.

And Jesus doesn't want that for us.  He doesn't want us to coopt him and his message like we coopt everything else into our comfortable plans and assumptions.  So from time to time he makes extreme statements like this to wake us up again.  (Dissing his mom when she comes to visit -- same thing.)

So what we have here is not Jesus indicating he doesn't care about our families or about human loss. It's not really about that at all, in fact, but about that mission the man longs for, the mission that Jesus sends us all on to heal and to preach. That mission is of the utmost importance to Jesus. And he wants us to understand the same, to see that it's more important than bingo or buying dog food or even the latest episode of Grey's Anatomy (no!).  And he brings that out through some classic "WHAT THE...?" hyperbole.

And speaking of "WHAT THE...?"

Thursday, March 24, 2011

We Can Dance if We Want To

With liturgy as in life, most of us don't experiment enough.  Go to a thousand masses and at least 900 of them are going to be done exactly the same. Not that that's an inherently bad thing; indeed, as I've written here before, priests mess with the prayers at their peril. And it'll sure be interesting to see how the massive changes in translation of the Mass go over next Advent.

But liturgy, as well as being a well-worn road, is also like a coal mine. It's filled with pockets of grace, waiting to be tapped.  If we stop after we hit just one vein, we miss out on so many additional blessings.  As I learned twice the last few months with regard to the opening procession.

There's really only one way of coming down the aisle, right? I mean, maybe you come from the side, sort of the sneak-in/sneak-out approach.  But otherwise, you just wait until the music starts and get to walking. 

Turns out, that's not so.  Last week I was at the Religious Ed Congress in Orange County, a massive convention of Catholics from all over the world hearing talks on faith and spirituality.  Super, super cool.  And each evening there were liturgies in different styles -- Samoan/Pacific Islander, Celtic, Spanish, Vietnamese. 

The first night, I attended the "Black Culture" liturgy, presided over by Fr. J-Glenn Murray, S.J., a liturgist renowned for his respect for the mass and his challenging depth of insight.  I went mostly to hear what J-Glenn had to say; and he was good, as always. He talked about the angers that we hold on to as a sort of "leprosy of the soul", eating away at us from the inside.  Really good stuff. (Here's some J-Glenn videos I found online.)

But looking back, the most profound thing to happen to me at that Mass occurred during the opening procession. Rather than simply processing in, first the deacon holding aloft the book of the Gospels and then J-Glenn actually danced up the central aisle, their movement a steady sway to the rhythm combined with fantastic 360 degree spins akin to a child imagining he is a soaring plane.  It was those spins that got me, the relish of it, the sense of a joy so wonderful it has to be delighted in, expressed.  More than any words could, they drew me into the Mass as a moment of celebration.  

Late last fall, I witnessed something similar on the TV show "Glee", in which high school melodrama meets song and dance, with some really wonderful characters and journeys. On this particular episode, the mother of Finn and the father of Kurt (two of the kids in the glee club) got married. And in presenting the wedding, the creators of the show completely reimagined (at least for me) what a wedding procession could look like. 

The whole thing is wonderful, but what really grabbed me was the end -- the father dancing awkwardly down the aisle.  Whereas the rest was highly choreographed, that moment had the ring of truth -- what it would really look like if people did something like this.  And yet, rather than seem embarrassing, here again, what pops is the sense of celebration.  The dad's like the biblical David, completely unabashed as he dances with joy.

Maybe I just like to dance and don't get many opportunities to do it, but boy I think these guys are on to something... 

(And if you liked the Glee video, here's an actual wedding from a few years ago where the wedding party did dance in. Again, great stuff.)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Matthew 8: The Passion and Love

Chapter 8 and 9 function together as a "Hey, y'all, check out what our Lord can do" unit.  We have healings at the top of Chapter 8, followed by even more awesome acts of divine power, followed by more healings (including a resurrection!), after which the apostles are called and sent forth with similar powers.  So, in large part it's all about knocking our socks off with Jesus' amazing powers.  Just in case you thought he was just a good speaker and a pretty pair of sandals -- BAM!  The dead live. The blind see.  Think again.

Within these miracles are lots of neat little insights.  For instance, both in 8:15 where Jesus heals Peter's mother-in-law -- no, the miracle was not that a son-in-law prayed that his mother-in-law would get better! -- and then again when healing the dead girl in 9:25, Matthew uses variations on the Greek word "egerthe" to describe the women getting up, becoming well.  That word, translated sometimes as "arose" or "raised up", is the very same word used to describe Jesus' resurrection at the end of the Gospel!

That's a nice little piece of foreshadowing. It's also a way for Matthew to argue that this Kingdom of God entering into and transforming our reality through Jesus thing that Jesus preaches is not something reserved for the big finish of the Jesus-on-earth show, it's something going on right now.

So many captions present themselves, but all of them involve tufts of lamb wool found in the lion's teeth...

Or, flipping it around, the Passion is not just this horrible/amazing sequence of events and self-sacrifice that happens to Jesus at the end of his life in Jerusalem, it's something going on all along in his ministry. If you read Chapter 8, you might notice that halfway through, Matthew describes Jesus' healing deeds using this quote from Isaiah: "He has taken our sicknesses and borne the diseases." That verse comes from a section of Isaiah known as the suffering servant text; and that text, which describes a servant who remains faithful to God despite all consequences to himself, became a key for early Christians trying to understand who this Jesus was and what the crucifixion meant.

The weird thing here is, the healings here don't seem to have any sort of adverse affect on Jesus, right? He seems just fine. So why did Matthew use this quote?

One possibility: Matthew is tying Jesus' miracles to the Passion and saying, hey, that Passion you've heard about, it's not just about sacrifice and blood and death. Rather -- in fact, fundamentally -- it's about faithful love.   In other words, Jesus isn't primarily "guy who dies on the cross", but crazy cat who loves us top to bottom and front to back no matter whether we're well or sick or gone mad or bad or even that it's going to cost him.  The persecution, suffering, death are part of a much bigger dynamic of love.

The season of Lent is usually packaged around giving things up, feeling the pinch.  But read the Gospel, and you don't see Jesus fasting or hiding in some cave for years to pray.  He's out there loving people; and so maybe we should, too.

A couple months ago I wrote a little piece here about finding God through Facebook.  Someone in my province of the Jesuits saw that article and asked me to recraft it as this piece for Lent.  A lady named Pam Wright saw that article and wrote me to say that during Lent she does a good deed for someone every day -- makes a phone call, writes a note, cooks dinner for someone, bakes cookies.

If you're still looking for a Lenten observance that suits you, you might consider that...

Sunday, March 20, 2011


Early on in Chapter 8 of Matthew, we are told that Jesus entered Capernaum.  This village is mentioned repeatedly in the Gospels; a number of miracles take place there. But in Matthew, Capernaum also serves as Jesus' base camp. It's the town he goes to to begin his ministry after the temptation in the desert (4:13), and the place he repeatedly comes back to throughout his ministry. It's home, if you will.

So, what do we know about Jesus' home away from home?

First of all, I don't know about you, but I always pronounce Capernaum as "cuh-purr-numb".  Wrong! It's actually four syllables, pronounced "cuh-purr-knee-um".  And the name means "village of Nahum".  So Nahum, if you're reading and you've been wondering where you left your town, here it is.

Capernaum was a fishing village, located on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee, about 2 1/2 miles from the River Jordan.

Here's Capernaum on a map. 

Here it is in the distance, with the Sea of Galilee beyond it.

Capernaum was a busy, bustling place in one of the most prosperous and densely populated area of Palestine, with 1500 inhabitants living alongside an ancient roadway, the Via Maris (road of the Sea) that connected Damascus (Syria) and the Mediterranean, and also lay on the road between Tyre (Lebanon) and Egypt. As such it was a place for travelers to restock on fish and produce, and a place where tolls were collected -- when we read of tax collectors in the Bible, this is often what we're talking about.

At the same time the village was never occupied by Roman soldiers, even during the worst Jewish revolts, which suggests it was never considered of much significance, strategic or otherwise. The Roman general Josephus once stayed there after spraining an ankle; he called it "a fertile spring."

Here you can see it from the Sea, with more of Galilee behind it.

The Capernaum of Jesus' time had a main street from which spread residential districts on either side. Most homes were one story dwellings consisting of small, cobble-stone floored cells around a central courtyard where a circular furnace provided heat.  The roofs were made of light wooden beams and thatch mixed with mud, and could be gotten to by a stairwell from the central courtyard.  (When we read about the paralytic being lowered in to Jesus from the roof, this is what we're talking about.)

On the left is the 4th century AD synagogue, built on top of the remnants of the synagogue Jesus preached in. On the right are ruins of the town.  

According to Luke Capernaum was the home of Peter and Andrew, James and John. The evangelist Matthew includes also Matthew the tax collector.  Among the excavations on the site are a large home that early Christians graffitied and later covered with a Church.  This was considered to be the original house of St. Peter.

The town existed from the second century BC until somewhere around the 11th or 12th century AD.

Here's another view, with "the Mount" from the Sermon on the Mount identified as "Mt. of Beatitudes."

More on Matthew on Wednesday. And if you're looking for a little spiritual nugget, here's something I heard at the LA Religious Ed Congress this weekend: "Stop focusing on loving God, and give God a chance to love you."

See you Wednesday!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Religious Consolation

One size fits all. The shape or coloration
of the god or high heaven matters less
than that there is one, somehow, somewhere,  hearing
the hasty prayer and chalking up the mite
the widow brings to the temple. A child
alone with horrid verities cries out
for there to be a limit, a warm all
whose stones give back an answer, however faint.

Strange, the extravagance of it -- who needs
those eighteen-armed black Kalis, those musty saints
whose bones and bleeding wounds appall good taste,
those joss sticks, houris, gilded Buddhas, books
Moroni etched in tedious detail?
We do; we need more worlds. This one will fall.

John Updike

[I'll be back next week.]

Monday, March 7, 2011

Pedro Arrupe

So, I don't know how much you know about Jesuit history, but in 1965 we elected a man named Pedro Arrupe to be our Superior General.  He served for 18 years, until 1983, and in that time helped the world Society to reimagine itself for the modern world. Terms like "faith and justice", "a preferential option for the poor", "men and women for others" that are almost cliche at this point, they're so well known, emerged from Arrupe and the Society in this period.

Arrupe died 20 years ago this year.  As part of that memorial, I've put up a set of 17 videos clips I did with Fr. Vinny O'Keefe, S.J. about Pedro. Vinny was one of Pedro's general assistants his entire tenure as General.  Vinny was the only one, in fact, who started with Pedro and ended with him, and he saw an awful lot in that time.

I am going to get back to Matthew -- I promise! -- but I'm jammed up this week with final papers.  So in lieu of that, I just thought I'd let you know about these little videos, all of which can be found on this page.
They're a real treasure.  And if you didn't know Arrupe before, once you've looked at a couple you'll have another saint to pray for your needs and intentions.

Have a nice week! 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Of Gods and Men

I have two confessions to make.  First, I loathe -- LOATHE -- watching programs that involve priests.  Like, throw my shoe at the screen and wish that it went through the display and there were sparks and fire hate.

It's not because 95% of the priests you see on TV are tools, although keep a tally, it's true.  No, there are plenty of priests that are tools. In fact, take a survey, and for each one of us you'll almost definitely find people who have really good reasons why they think we're tools. For that matter, you'll probably find at least one other priest that thinks that whichever priest you're thinking of is a tool.  (Hey, we live together, we know from.)

No, the reason I loathe them is, they never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever ring true.  Ever.  Ever.  They're like the Platonic ideals of priests --except, you know, the opposite of ideal.  The good ones are good in all the wrong ways -- life without imperfections (i.e. borr-ing), complete with the light streaming in from an upper window onto their head (the modern equivalent of the halo). Or they're chumsy-whumsy in the way priests in the 1950s might have been, but almost no priest is today, because it just rings so FAKE.

And the bad priests -- well, that's the real kicker. Villains are fun to write. You can incorporate all sorts of specific, moustache-twirling details like pet cats they stroke or glass eyeballs or a penchant for Eastwood films, and we just lap that stuff up.  And good villains have really specific rationales for their way of thought.  They're not just "bad" -- they have goals, they have expectations and reasons, etc.

Now that's a villain.

But on television or in films, you rarely find any of that specificity when it comes to priests.  They're just generally lame -- they say the wrong thing, they make arguments that are utterly hollow, they don't seem to care. All of which happens in real life, but not the same way. In real life, we're detestable in much more particular ways.

So, TV episodes with priests, I head for the hills. Films, the same way, even (maybe especially) if the priest(s) are supposed to be good guys. 999 out of 1000 they're going to get it wrong, the guy's going to be treacly and milk toast and I'm going to have to be escorted out of the theater after I start throwing shoes and screaming about it.  (It really is a weird sort of thing to see "your people" so grossly misrepresented.)

Now, there are exceptions. Eastwood usually gets closest to getting it right.  If you haven't seen Gran Torino, you really need to.  An amazing religious film, period, but also with a pretty fair priest. He starts from a very weird position that I cannot imagine most priests ever being in, but little by little he really grows on you.  At the end, I still wouldn't want to live with him, but he was close to recognizable.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, tonight I went out to see Of Gods and Men, a new film about the true story of 8 French priests in Algeria in the 1990s during a very scary time in its history, who have to decide whether to stay with the people in the midst of this horrible time and almost certainly face their own deaths, or to flee.

I won't tell you how it plays out.  And the film's not for everyone; the director clearly wanted to get us into that slower, prayerful pace of monastic life, and so, especially early on, it takes its time.  If you're looking for a Michael Bay film, look elsewhere.  (Of course, if you're looking for a Michael Bay film, are you really reading this blog?)

But let me say this -- that group of men, none of whom are actually priests, I recognized. Most of those guys, I've lived with.  And the ones I haven't are out there somewhere in my order.  And most of them, over the course of the film, have nice little specific details given to them that make them both human and also individual.

Here's the trailer:

The film's only just opened in New York City and LA.  I'm sure it'll make the rounds of the art house cinemas all around the country. I hope you can see it. It really is such a strong story, with this great moral dilemma, and such wonderfully realized men.

Oh, and my confession -- I'm not going to write about Matthew today. :)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Charlie Sheen

So apparently this is my pop culture week, rather than a Scripture week.  I'll try to get us back to Matthew on Friday.

I generally detest the way the media deals with public figures having breakdowns.  I think they revel in it far too much, and show far too little concern for the actual human being behind the drama.

Someone on Vyou asked me what I thought about Charlie Sheen.  If you're interested, here's my two cents on the whole thing...


I made the poll this week about celebrities going crazy. Be sure to put in your two cents. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

...Or the Day after Tomorrow

(It's only a day away.)

In the meantime, a few more Oscar highlights:

Great editing job. (And when it's done, after the ad, click in the box to see the second best picture montage, and an even better editing job -- the words go so perfectly with the images, you'd think it had been written that way.) 

And the very funny opening.  (Best line: "I have news from the future -- Microphones get smaller.")