Monday, April 21, 2014

Hide in the Tomb, or Walk in the Sun?

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Newness often makes us fearful, including the newness which God brings us, the newness which God asks of us. We are like the Apostles in the Gospel: often we would prefer to hold on to our own security, to stand in front of a tomb, to think about someone who has died, someone who ultimately lives on only as a memory, like the great historical figures from the past. We are afraid of God's surprises. Dear brothers and sisters, we are afraid of God's surprises! He always surprises us! The Lord is like that.

Dear brothers and sisters, let us not be closed to the newness that God wants to bring into our lives! Are we often weary, disheartened and sad? Do we feel weighed down by our sins? Do we think that we won't be able to cope? Let us not close our hearts, let us not lose confidence, let us never give up: there are no situations which God cannot change, there is no sin which he cannot forgive if only we open ourselves to him.

Jesus no longer belongs to the past, but lives in the present and is projected towards the future; Jesus is the everlasting "today" of God. This is how the newness of God appears to the women, the disciples and all of us: as victory over sin, evil and death, over everything that crushes life and makes it seem less human. And this is a message meant for me and for you dear sister, for you dear brother. How often does Love have to tell us: Why do you look for the living among the dead? Our daily problems and worries can wrap us up in ourselves, in sadness and bitterness ... and that is where death is. That is not the place to look for the One who is alive!
-- From Pope Francis' homily at the 2013 Easter Vigil

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.