God and the naked Indian

Three Franciscan sisters helped me on Friday and Saturday to do some formation for leaders of our youth groups and communities in the parish.

I had asked Sister Nancy to provide some different prayer experiences for the young people. One she led was an imaginative approach to our understanding of God. She began inviting us to visualize how God might be seen in a tree.

I almost immediately thought of a tree in my neighbor’s year, a tree that I can see clearly from my terrace. It is called “el indio desnudo,” “the naked Indian.’

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The bark often peels away and reveals several beautiful colors.

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Also, at various times during the year the leaves are touched with red or yellow tints.

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It is a beautiful tree – especially at some hours in the morning when the rising sun shines through the leaves and highlights the bark.

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But, reflecting afterword in a small group, I recognized that God, the naked Indian, is deeply engrained in my spirituality.

God comes among us as a poor man. He emptied himself and revealed himself in the simple. He is the God who became vulnerable. He becomes the naked Indian.

There is also a further sense that the glory of Jesus is revealed when the bark is stripped away, revealing the glory beneath.

A second part of the meditation was to consider what tree I am. I identified immediately with “el indio desnudo,” but a smaller tree than God. As I reflected later I recalled the call to become vulnerable, to let myself be stripped of pretensions and more.

This all brings me back to a passage in Paul’s letter to the Philippians (2:5-8) that shapes my life:

Have the same sentiment and wisdom as Jesus, the Messiah:
being in the form of God,
he did not regard equality with God a something to be clung to;
but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave;
being found in the likeness of humans,
he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death,
even death on a cross.

The self-emptying God has become a naked Indian with all that means, because in many parts of Central America the native people are despised and the term “Indio” is used to express disdain.

Jesus comes among us as the despised naked Indian – and call us to be like Him.

As I finished writing this reflection I recalled one of my favorite quotes from Thomas Merton from his essay, “A Letter to Pablo Antonio Cuadra Concerning Giants,” in  Emblems of a Season of Fury:

The tourist never meets anyone, never encounters anyone, never finds the brother in the stranger. This is his tragedy, . . .
So the tourist drinks tequila, and thinks it is no good, and waits for the fiesta he has been told to wait for. How should he realize that the Indian who walks down the street with half a house on his head and a hole in his pants, is Christ? All the tourist thinks is that it is odd for so many Indians to be called Jesus.

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The newness of the Babe

These are some notes, in English, that I used for my two homilies yesterday, the Solemnity of Mary, the Mother of God.

The New Year here comes in with firecrackers and lots of noise.

But in the church today we also celebrate something new.

Although the church year began 5 weeks ago, a week ago we celebrated something completely new – as in the second reading: God came down and became a human being.

The Church in her wisdom realizes that there are certain events you cannot celebrate in one day – so today is the eighth day, the octave.

We celebrate this newness
–  God become human, not remaining in the clouds, lounging in a hammock.

But we celebrate in a different manner.

His birth was greeted by angels appearing to shepherds
and he was born in a manger

There were no firecrackers, just the silence of the night.

But even more he came down as a poor baby in a manger.

The shepherds may have been expecting a splendid child, like the kings
– but the splendor they recognize is in the face of a baby.

It’s something that we can best understand if we follow the example of Mary.

She turned all these things over in her heart.

And so today we celebrate Mary the Mother of God,
the woman who said yes and thus was God’s choice for the incarnation of his son.

Jesus is God, but he is completely human – born as a babe,
but a baby who reveals God to us in a different manner
– not with the splendor and panoply of a rich king
but with a simple couple who find no room at the inn.

Here is God-with-us

Today is a feast of God’s tender love for us, of the newness of His love.
– He wants to be with us, in a family,
– He wants to show us his face – more, he wants the splendor of his face in a tiny babe.

Today is also the day of Prayer for World Peace, which we will actually celebrate in the diocese on Saturday. But this is the day, this is a time to begin anew:
– To seek peace.
– To be like the shepherds, willing to open their eyes to see God in a tiny babe,
– To seek the Light that has come into a world of darkness, a light that helps us see how to live together as children of God.

And so we seek the blessing that we find in the first reading, a blessing used by Saints Francis and Clare:

The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord shine his face on you and have mercy on you.
The Lord look upon you with kindness and give you peace.

And may we recognize the shining glory of God in the babe born in Bethlehem and in the faces of all the poor of world whom we gaze upon with kindness – as God gazes on us.

I am not

I am not…
John the Baptist
John 1: 20-21

Three times in today’s Gospel (John 1: 19-27), John the Baptist says, “I am not…”

Pop psychology is often very much concerned about having an adequate self-image and would probably be concerned about these words of denial of John.

However, I believe that acknowledging who I am not can be liberating, can let the power of God work within us and through us.

Being clear that we are not the messiah, the prophet, the savior is a first step to acknowledging who we really are.

I remember one day in the 1980s when I was working in campus ministry and was very concerned about the wars in Central America and other parts of the world. A student I worked with asked me, without any malice, “What country are you saving today?”

Though I might not have taken to heart his challenge, in the last few years his question has opened my heart to recognize that I am not the savior – of a country, of a person, of a parish.

This frees me to be who I am called to be. It relieves me of any personal or societal expectations.

It has opened me to see, today, that I am called to be one whom God uses to open the way of the Lord.

This is freedom – because the Lord is the One who acts and saves.

 

Not me.

 

And I am just the servant of the Lord.

Fear and the innocents of Aleppo

“Fear kills you,
and you kill them.”
St. Quodvultdeus 

Today is the feast of the Holy Innocents, remembering the children killed by Herod’s troops in Bethlehem. Some early writers talked of several hundred children, but it may have been only between six and twenty-five. But the death of every innocent – by war, by abortion, by terror – should cause us to grieve. But…

In a homily on the Creed, cited above, St. Quodvultdeus (whose name means “what God wills”) addresses King Herod, reminding him that the fear that moved him to kill the innocent is killing him from within.

Fear is at the root of Herod’s rage which moves him to kill the Innocents of Bethlehem, in his effort to kill Jesus, the newborn king. As Robert Ellsberg puts it so succinctly in All Saints,

It is the constant fear of every tyrant that somewhere, perhaps in an obscure village, perhaps at that very moment, there is a baby born who will one day signal the end of his power.

Fear kills something in us and moves us to kill, to consider the Other as enemy, as a threat to my power, to my existence.

That, too, is the point of one of Thomas Merton’s most pointed essays in New Seeds of Contemplation, “The Root of War Is Fear,” an essay which merits prayerful reading in these days.

At the root of all war is fear: not so much the fear men have of one another as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves. If they are not sure when someone else may turn around and kill them, they are still less sure when they may turn around and kill themselves. They cannot trust anything, because they have ceased to believe in God.

Fear consumes us. I see it consuming the people around me. I observe, from a distance, the fear that seems to be consuming people in the US.

And so war rages around us.

We fear for our lives and safety and so innocent children suffer, especially the innocents in Aleppo, Syria.

The foreign policies of Russia, Syria, the United States and many other countries are based in fear and so they rely on bombs, drones, and weapons of mass destruction (nuclear and otherwise) to seek security.

But we have let fear consume us. And so the children suffer.

There is an image by Judith Mehr going around the internet these days , entitled “Omran,angels are here,”which has at its center a child wounded in Aleppo, surrounded by three angels, who remind us of the three angels who visited Abraham.

Who will be the angels that comfort the children, the mothers, the victims of bombings?

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Touching the Word today

What we have touched
1 John 1: 1

How often we lament that we do not have direct personal contact with Jesus, that we cannot touch him, hear his voice, and sit down at the table and eat with him.

In today’s first reading from St. John’s first letter, John recalls that he has experienced the Lord. He heard him saw him, touched him with his hands. But he realizes that this was not for his personal satisfaction. His experiences of the Word of Life were given him to share with other, to announce to others.

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life—for the life was revealed; we have seen it and testify to it and announce to you eternal life… what we have seen and heard we now announce to you, so that you too may have community/communion (koinonia) with us… (1 John 1: 1-3)

Thanks to Saint John and the other evangelists and writers of the early church we have accounts of this Jesus who came to save us.

But still we might long to the chance to see Jesus, to serve him, to be with him.

This morning I came upon a column of Dorothy Day in The Catholic Worker, thanks to a Facebook post of a friend, Jim Forest, who has written an incredibly beautiful illustrated biography of her, All Is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day.

In Dorothy Day’s column, found here, we hear her call upon us to make room for Christ:

It is no use to say that we are born two thousand years too late to give room to Christ. Nor will those who live at the end of the world have been born too late. Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts.

But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that he speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers and children that he gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers and suburban housewives that he gives…

We can do now what those who knew Him in the days of His flesh did. I’m sure that the shepherds did not adore and then go away to leave Mary and her Child in the stable, but somehow found them room, even though what they had to offer might have been primitive enough. All that the friends of Christ did in His life-time for Him we can do.…

In Christ’s human life there were always a few who made up for the neglect of the crowd.

We can do it too, exactly as they did. We are not born too late. We do it by seeing Christ and serving Christ in friends and strangers, in everyone we come in contact with. While almost no one is unable to give some hospitality or help to others, those for whom it is really impossible are not debarred from giving room to Christ, because, to take the simplest of examples, in those they live with or work with is Christ disguised.….

For a total Christian the goad of duty is not needed–always prodding him to perform this or that good deed. It is not a duty to help Christ, it is a privilege….

If that is the way they gave hospitality to Christ it is certain that is the way it should still be given. Not for the sake of humanity. Not because it might be Christ who stays with us, comes to see us, takes up our time. Not because these people remind us of Christ, as those soldiers and airmen remind the parents of their son, but because they are Christ, asking us to find room for Him exactly as He did at the first Christmas.

May we see Jesus and respond with love.

Mary and Adam, grace and sin

Today is the feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary. By the grace of God, Mary was free from sin from the moment of conception in the womb of Saint Ann. So today we celebrate that original sin had no power over her.

In her commentary in Give Us This Day, Benedictine Sister Jeana Visel, writes:

In short, we are free, but we are supposed to be opposed to evil. The fact that we tend to give in to evil when we ought to choose good is the basic conflict driving the redemption story.

Mary was freed from this tendency to give in to evil.

But, today’s Gospel may confuse some of us, for it speaks of the annunciation of Mary when Jesus was conceived in her womb.

There is an amazing mural by Giotto of the Annunciation in the Dominican convent of San Marcos in Florence. I knew it was there, but walking up to the former dormitory on the second floor, I was astounded as I turned the corner and saw the image at the top of the stairs. Spell-bound, I remained there in awe. Giotto had captured the moment when God became flesh in Mary.

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Doing a little internet search this morning I came across a painting of Giotto of the Annunciation which is strikingly similar, but includes Adam and Eve expelled from the Garden of Eden.

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As I prayed, I recalled the difference between Adam and Eve in the first reading today and the Gospel of the Annunciation.

Adam and Eve hid themselves. Sin hides. When we sin, we separate ourselves from God and so we need the security of being hidden – in the bushes or in darkness.

But Mary is there in the open, almost as if she were waiting for the angel. “Behold the handmaid of the Lord.” Here I am, Lord. I am here to serve you.

But Adam and Eve try to explain away their sin by refusing to take responsibility. Adam blames Eve, who in turn blames the serpent.

Mary takes responsibility. “Be it done to me according to your word.” I am willing to take on this, even though I do not know all the implications.

This is what grace is. Grace frees us from darkness and opens us to the work of God in the light of day. Grace helps us respond in love to God’s call and frees us from blaming others.

Sin moves us into ourselves, but in a self-protective way that moves us to blame others. Grace opens ourselves to become instruments of God’s love, not blaming others but cooperating in God’s work of salvation.

So today we can reflect on the mystery of the immaculate conception of Mary, preserving her from sin. But it is also a time to reflect and thank God for the grace that moves us out of the darkness of sin, out of all attempts to close in on ourselves and opens us to the angels that call us to bring the saving power of the Incarnate God to a world in darkness.

 

Spare me from Saint Ambrose

Saint Ambrose is known as the bishop who charmed Saint Augustine by his preaching to such an extent that Augustine was baptized by Ambrose.

Augustine was a hard nut to crack. His mother tired herself out with years of prayers for him. But God used Ambrose to move Augustine to conversion.

Later Augustine was brought to a deeper conversion when he heard the voice of a child saying. “Tolle, lege” – “Take up and read.” Augustine picked up the letter of Saint Paul to the Romans and read verses of chapter 13

…not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh, to gratify the desires.

Ambrose himself had also, according to some stories, heard the voice of child that changed his life. As a public official in Milan he was trying to assuage rival factions who had been fighting over who would be the new bishop. The quarrel, between Arians and Catholics, had torn apart the city, to the point of rioting and bloodshed. As they gathered to choose the new bishop. Ambrose spoke to the crowd, arguing for calm. And then a voice, perhaps of a child, cried out, “Ambrose for bishop.” Ambrose made all sorts of excuses, including the fact that he was not even baptized. He fled, but he was found and persuaded to be baptized, confirmed, and ordained in the course of a week.

The voice of a child changed their lives.

But maybe we should let ourselves be changed by the voice of Ambrose who spoke strongly against the dangers of wealth and for the poor. In the midst of a consumer culture, his words are prophetic and difficult. Here are a few quote which might challenge us.

“You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich.”

“God our Lord willed that this land be the common possession of all and give its fruit to all. But greed distributed the right of possessions. Therefore, if you claim as your private property part of what was granted in common to all human beings and to all animals, it is only fair that you share some of this with the poor, so that you will not deny nourishment to those who are also partakers of your right.”

“It is not, therefore, that you [the rich] desire to possess something useful for yourself so much as it is that you want to exclude others. Your concern is more to despoil the poor than to increase your own wealth. You consider it to your detriment if a poor person has anything that is thought worthy of a rich person‘s possession. You believe that whatever belongs to anyone else is your loss. Why does harm done to nature give you pleasure? The world was created for all, but you few rich try to keep it for yourselves. For not merely landed property but the heavens themselves, the air, the sea are claimed for the use of a few wealthy persons. This air, which you include in your widespread possessions—how many people can it provide for!”

Spare us, Lord, from these hard sayings. We might have to change our lives – as did Ambrose and Augustine.