Sunday, April 24, 2011

Happy Easter!

The Lord is Risen!

(I'll be back mid week.)

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

Today in the posts directly below this one I've posted 8 images of the crucifixion by some of the world's great artists -- and some unknowns.

May you know these days the helplessness and pain of the death of our Lord and the wonder of the resurrection. 


Lots of amazing details here: 
The thieves' attempts to make things easier by keeping their hands over their heads; 
the guards playing games;
 the two figures in the forefront (and other Romans elsewhere) not even paying attention. 
The one guard behind the women, looking up at Jesus, though with what thought is unclear.  



At Assisi

Pablo Picasso

One of the more unusual crucifixion images, though in its very craziness still with a certain power.  

Marc Chagall, White Crucifixion

Chagall, a Jew, imagines Jesus' crucifixion in light of the European anti-Semitism of the 1930s. 

Unnamed Artist

Note the face of the person on the right.  So real. 

He Qi

Georges Rouault

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Pilate's Wife

 Funny story: at Mass on Sunday I did my schpiel about noticing which character from the Passion spoke to you, and perhaps returning to that character this week.

After Mass the sacristan came up to me and said, As soon as I said that, Pilate's wife just leapt right out at her.  She wasn't sure why, but that's the character that grabbed her.

And then a few minutes later another lady from the parish came up to me and said exactly the same thing: as soon as I made that suggestion, Pilate's wife leapt out.  And a third lady, overhearing our conversation, agreed. Pilate's wife -- that's who spoke to her.

Pilate's wife is mentioned only in the Gospel of Matthew, and only here in the Passion.  Pilate has just asked the crowds who they want released, Jesus or Barabbas, and before they can answer we get this short passage:

                           While he was still seated on the bench,
                           his wife sent him a message:
                           'Have nothing to do with that righteous man.
                           I suffered much in a dream today because of him.'

 Pilate's wife never appears again, and the dream is never described.  Which hasn't stopped artists, filmmakers and writers down the ages from imagining. In fact, her character figures in such varied materials as some of the English mystery plays of the Middle Ages, Cecille B. DeMille's classic film The King of Kings, Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, a Charlotte Bronte short story and many works of art.

But why? What's the enduring appeal of this mysterious woman?

I wonder if it's the fact that she is the one character in the story that's just like us. She knows for a fact that the crucifixion of Jesus is a terrible thing.  Others might feel that way, but she's got more that that -- she's been told in a dream.

So maybe she appeals to some of us today because she's like a stand in for us, crying out as we want to cry out that this cannot happen.  That this is bad news. That, to quote a scene from Planes, Trains and Automobiles, "YOU'RE GOING THE WRONG WAY."

I don't know about you, year after year on some level I go into the reading of the Passion sort of hoping against hope that maybe this time it'll end differently.  They'll choose Barabbas. Peter will man up and break Jesus out of prison. They won't crucify him.  It's ridiculous, I know. (And come on, the ending is not the cross, right? It's resurrection and revelation and mission.)  But still -- to hear the one who loves us walked through this horrible sequence of events again and again and not be able to stop it.  Ugh.  So painful.

And yet maybe the invitation for us in the story of Pilate's wife is not to run away from all that pain, but to let it affect us. To stand there powerless to change the course of events, both in the life of Jesus and elsewhere and be forced to bear witness.

In so many ways, conversion begins with a broken heart.        

Monday, April 18, 2011

Matthew's Passion

Since it's Holy Week, and yesterday we read Matthew's Passion, I'm going to jump ahead of where we're at in Matthew this week to consider Matthew's take on the persecution and death of Jesus.

Yesterday I presided at my very first Palm Sunday.  I've been a priest 8 years, but somehow I've always missed the opportunity to preside on this occasion.  (Or I've blocked the fact that I have done it already, in which case, hopefully my parishioners did, too, as it was probably a mess. They say a good Jesuit liturgy is one in which no one gets hurt. I'd add, "or at least doesn't remember it later".)

What hit me, as I was participating in the proclamation of the Passion according to Matthew, is how many times Matthew stops the flow of the narrative to mention that this or that moment of the story is a fulfillment of a passage from the Old Testament.  Three times, mention is made that what's going on here is all about fulfilling the Scriptures, without referring to any specific texts. Five other times, specific texts are quoted or referenced, sometimes with an indication of where the quote is from, sometimes not. That's 8 times Scripture is overtly referenced; even acknowledging the passage's length, that's quite a bit.

And that's not all: six other times during Matthew's Passion, events play upon Old Testament citation and/or Jewish practice without indicating that this is being done.  The 30 pieces of silver refers back to Exod 21:32, in which the cost of a slave is placed at 30 pieces of silver.  The giving of wine mixed with gall or sour wine refers back to a psalm (Ps 69), as does the division of garments (Ps 22); the idea of the sun going down is a reference to Amos 8:9, and maybe to Exodus 10:22.  And the sudden physical resurrection of the dead plays upon the dry bones coming to life in Ezekiel 37. So that's 14 references to the Hebrew Scriptures in a couple chapters of Matthew.

Maybe that doesn't seem like a big deal. As we've talked about before, Matthew is very interested in presenting Jesus as not a departure of Judaism, but as in line with its teaching, indeed as its fulfillment.   But 14 in one section -- that's a ton. If we lived in the world of Shakespeare somebody would definitely be wondering whether our scribe doth not protest too much.

It points to a really important insight for us, one we've heard before but that is worth repeating: the death of Jesus was a huge scandal.  HUGE.  Gods do not get crucified.  Shoot, they don't lose!  They squash, they overcome, they succeed!

In the context of the times the fact that Jesus' life took such a different and shocking course posed a huge struggle for the early Church. They had to explain to all comers how on the one hand they could be calling Jesus Lord, Son of God, etc., and on the other explain how that fits with the fact that he had been prosecuted and brutally murdered by the state.  Because that is some messed up stuff we're selling there. That ain't right.

We live long beyond that socio-evangelical struggle, but the circumstances of the death of Jesus is an invitation for us to draw up short in puzzlement, too. The cross is so commonplace at this point, we've lost touch with its strangeness.  But it is strange and awful and not right!

I was reading Ricky Gervais' blog the other day; Gervais is an atheist, and he made the quip, "If there were a God, he'd have a lot to answer for." We might not put it exactly like that, but when the crucifixion regains its wildness, there's something to his comment.  What in God's name is this about? What happened here? And how am I supposed to feel about it? How am I not supposed to be shrieking in horror, or crying out to God with questions or grief?

If you've ever said an ordinary word over and over again, or have had to type it many times, you know how it can suddenly get very strange-looking and -sounding, like you've never encountered it before and you can't quite get it right any longer. "The"... what's with that "t" & "h" together? Where are the other vowels?

This week, you might make a little time to just stare at a crucifix -- could be the one in church, the one you've got on jewelry, whatever.  Stare at it until you actually begin to see it again, and you begin to feel a little of Matthew's discomfort. Pray for the grace to let the crucifix be that wild, gaping wound, that destabilizing painful question mark in our faith.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Palm Sunday

Sunday is Palm Sunday, one of two days in the liturgical year in which we hear read the entire Passion. (The other is of course Good Friday.)  It can be somewhat challenging going for a listener, depending on those doing the reading and also depending on the text being read.

I have a thought that might help you make the most of the moment.  Think of the reading like the stations of the Cross -- we move from location to location and at each place, there's a scene or two for us to behold.  And then the procession moves on.

But we don't necessarily have to.  The place where you find yourself affected strongly, that's the place you should stay.  That's the place God is trying to speak to you right now.  So, if you're there with Jesus in the garden, and his plea to the Lord affects you, stay with that.  Let his words be like a quiet mantra that you say to yourself as you breathe.  If what stands out is his path to the cross, and/or those that are there with him along the way, be with them. Let your imagination go and watch how he proceeds, watch how they react.  If it's at the cross itself that you are engaged, let yourself be in the crowd, or the thief by his side.  Wherever you want to be, that is where you should be.

When I was learning how to preach, our professor made this comment that has stayed with me: if you look into the congregation and you see people's minds wandering, it might not be because you're failing, but because you're succeeding. Your job is to help them make a connection with God.  And your homily should have plenty of such opportunities.  If they've taken one of the earlier off-ramps, so be it, job well done.

The same is true with the reading of the Passion.  You're not obligated to follow along the whole way or to be moved by every detail. You're there as ever to grow closer to God. So,  take the off-ramp that is presented to you, wherever it is, and let God show you what he wants to show you.  

May your Holy Week be blessed!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Friday Fun on Wednesday!

Usually I save offbeat or pop culture stuff for the weekend but I'm switching it up this week to let you know about something interesting.

Radmar Jao is a Jesuit of the California Province of the Society of Jesus who is going to get ordained a priest in a couple months.  And he's agreed to do a video diary once a week about the whole experience. Radmar's a great guy, very articulate and also thoughtful.  He posted his first piece this week, and I think it's wonderfully honest and revealing about his journey.

His video blog sits on this page at the US Jesuit Conference website. And I've posted his first entry below.

Also, I don't know if you saw this in the news today, but the New York Times ran a piece on the upcoming changes in our liturgical translations.  Not a lot of new information, but you might find it interesting.  (And if you're new to the blog, I did a bunch of pieces on the new translations over the summer.  They start around May 20th -- here's a couple of them.)

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Now You Try!

So, I don't know where you're reading this, but let's imagine you haven't left home for the day yet.  Maybe you're sipping your coffee and chewing on a piece of toast, scanning quickly through this and a hundred blogs to see whether any of us has something interesting to offer you in these few precious minutes before you head out into your day. On the other side of the door, there it is, the world, waiting for you, pulling at you to come along.

But how are you going to go out into that world of yours today? Do you sort of explode across the threshold, in a hurry and already plugged in, scanning through your texts or other websites, listening to music, reading a book as you move to the car or to the bus stop or to the subway? Or are you more the lingering wanderer, meandering your way out and maybe even having to go back a couple times for things you forgot? How do you enter into the world?

In chapter 10 of Matthew, Jesus extends his mission to build the kingdom to his disciples. He sends them out to do exactly the same things we've just seen Jesus himself do in chapters 8 & 9:  "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons." (Mt 10:8)

And here's the thing: if we see the Gospels as something more than a history textbook (and oh God we do), those disciples? They are us.  That is to say, that mission to do those things -- that's not an interesting anecdote about what happened 2000 years ago, something to muse over while sipping one's chai. That's a missioning meant for us.

I know, it sounds crazy. I can barely drink coffee without spilling it on my shirt, how am I going to raise the dead?  (And God, where are all these drinking references coming from? Am I thirsty?) But frankly, that's not our problem to worry about.  Our job is just to go and be where God needs us; once we get there, he'll wield the mojo and make it all better.

Before you leave each day this week, before you open that door, hear those words of Jesus sending you out: "Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons." I guarantee you, do that and at some point you're going to find yourself in that position of disciple in one of those situations, with someone in need. And instead of rushing by it because you're busy or not paying attention, you're going to see it, stop, be present. And you will be an instrument of God's grace.  You really will.

You heard it here first.

Go out to all the nations.  (And bring me back a latte.)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Pop Culture Friday!

So, I've scoured the internet looking for something fun for Friday.  And the best I could do is an old favorite of mine, a music video put up about a year ago about the future... Hope you like it.

Oh, and here's a funny little ad you might enjoy, too.  Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

What's the Story with the Wine Skins?

Neither do people put new wine into old skins.  Otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is poured out, and the skins are destroyed.  But people put new wine into new skins, and both are preserved. (Mt 9:17)
Every time this passage comes up at Mass, I completely miss whatever follows it (often including the homily).  I get so distracted trying to figure out the science behind this little comment. Perhaps you share this experience? I mean, what is it about new wine that's bad for an old wine skin? I mean, jeez! The best I could come up with is that maybe new wine is more acidic, and an old skin isn't strong enough to survive that.

So, reading this commentary by Dan Harrington, S.J. on Matthew, we've finally gotten our answer. Turns out, it's the fermentation process. Even after you crack it out of its cask and put in in your wine skin, new wine is still fermenting (that is, becoming alcohol) -- sort of like a hamburger is still cooking a little bit even after you turn the barbecue off.  And as it goes through that process, the wine continues to expand. (It might be more proper to say, fermenting wine produces carbon dioxide, which adds pressure to the wine skin.) A new skin can handle that expansion; an old skin will break under the added pressure.

So, the point is actually pretty similar to the little parable that precedes this one:
No one puts a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old garment.  For its patch tears away from the garment, and the tear becomes worse. (Mt 9:16)
The old ways don't work for the new.  You have to let it have its own space to breathe and grow.

For Matthew, this is a parable challenging the Jewish evaluations of Jesus' mission and lifestyle.  Don't go trying to make me like you, old time Pharisees; what we got going on here is something new.  And it  certainly poses the question to us (not too different from the one we talked about Monday), how am I holding other people back? How am I refusing to acknowledge the new in my midst?

It strikes me that it could also be a great parable for kids. Mom and Dad, listen, I appreciate your rules and all, but the world's changed, and I'm going to need a much later curfew. Oh, and an iPad.  And unlimited texting. And by the way, Jesus backs me up on this, so be cool.

But I won't tell them if you won't. It can be our little secret...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

A Fun Lenten Exercise

A question for us to carry around this week: who do I call "sinner"?

That is, in my mind, who do I judge to be "over the line" in some way? It could be people I read about on the news, the relative that I find appalling, some strange kid with "that disgusting lip ring", or my next door neighbor with the dog that won't stop yapping.

I swear this was my waitress at a restaurant recently. She said, Do you want fries to go with that? And all I could think to say was, Are those sterilized?

At the outset, no analysis, no self-judgment -- just put the question out there to the Lord, "God, who do I call sinner?" and then see over the course of the week who God helps you see.  

That term "sinner" pops up a lot in the New Testament (including at Matthew 9:11), generally as a term of judgment by the Pharisees towards certain Jews. Sinners in the New Testament are often grouped with tax collectors, who were often suspected (and perhaps guilty) of overcharging their fellow Jews. (Tax collectors would also bid for work from the Romans; the guy who said he could get the highest take from the people got the job -- so yeah, not the most popular profession. Imagine if the IRS hired agents based on who could do the harshest audits.)

So it sounds like the term "sinners" has the same basic meaning as we use today, that is, people who have acted in ways that are immoral -- thieves, prostitutes, guys who pick fights in bars.

But this is the Pharisees we're talking about, and they were preoccupied with a pretty precise observation of religious rules and expectations throughout every area of one's life. With them, you could become a sinner in about a thousand different ways, and a lot of them had absolutely nothing to do with what we would call moral or immoral action. If you were a peasant farmer living far from Jerusalem, for instance, you simply did not have the luxury of going to Temple as prescribed. You had to work that land or watch your family die.  Boom -- sinner.  Ka-blam.

Other groups, the same way.  "Sinner" involved not simply some external, objective moral code, but subjective, non-moral standards.  And Jesus had really no time for that.  Sinners were unclean; you had to be careful what sort of contact you had with them.  You certainly didn't go out to Starbucks together.  But Jesus was like, "Heck, Starbucks? Let's go to your place! I hear you do a vicious bread pudding!"

Or perhaps a delicious gazpacho!
Let's just admit it.  We're all like the Pharisees.  ("Hi, I'm Jim, and I'm a Pharisee." "Hi, Jim.") We all have people we marginalize on the basis of some subjective sense that they're bad or not right.  And our reasons can be very compelling, even hard for us to see as subjective.

But Jesus sees things differently.  Twice in Matthew he quotes Hosea: "I wish mercy and not sacrifice."  That is, I want forgiveness, not a billion rules of yours that people have to live up to for them to be allowed a place at your table.

So, this week, let Jesus help you see differently, too. Ask him to show you who you call sinner.  And then, ask him to help you let some of that go.

I didn't say it would be easy.  Hence the asking Jesus to help us part. 

(Actually, I did say it would be fun.  And I was lying.)

Friday, April 1, 2011

Friday Finds

So, to play us out this week, a few wonderful online finds.

First, this is a song created by splicing together different youtube clips -- a wild idea, but you know, it sort of works. If you like jazz, I think you'll really like this.  

And if you like this, the creator, an Israeli musician named Kutiman, has a bunch of others which can be found here. (TIME Magazine named the project one of the best new inventions of 2009.)

Second, have you been hearing all these online clouds? Basically, a cloud is an online place where files of one kind or another are stored and from which they are able to be accessed.  It's called a "cloud" I think to play on the idea that the material isn't actually anywhere physically; rather, it's all online.

Anyway, I found this link to a new John Legend song to be found in Sound Cloud.  If you don't know Legend, you should definitely check it out -- he's got a nice sound. AND, if you like it, you can download it for free.  Whadda deal!

And lastly, if you haven't already seen this, it's a much maligned new song and video with the appropriate title "Friday".  Probably some of the worst written lyrics you will ever hear in a song, but stick with it, and God will it make you laugh.