The Good Shepherd – two perspectives

I have two homilies in me on this Sunday’s readings. I don’t know which one I’ll share, though I might end up sharing both, since I’ll probably be preaching in two different celebrations – in a Celebration of the Word in a remote village and at a Mass in one of the municipalities in the parish.

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The first perspective on  Jesus as the Good Shepherd that I want to share is of a shepherd who encourages and consoles us.

Jesus care for us, the sheep. He knows us – with all our faults and all our gifts. He wants the best for us. John in the second reading reminds us that “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed.”

Jesus seeks us out. Knowing us, as sometimes lost and wandering, he has come from the Father to seek us out. He finds us even in the brambles and carries us back to the flock. If he carries us on his shoulders, it’s quite likely that our bowels will be loosened in fright and we’ll crap down his back. But he loves us with all our crap – and wants to carry us back to the security of the flock.

Jesus also guards and protects us. When we are with Him, we may face dangers – but He is there at our side.

But he loves us so much that He willingly gives us life for us. Yes, it is dangerous and fearful. He did sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. But He knows that giving up oneself brings life.

Jesus, God-made-flesh, is the Good Shepherd who is for us.

But the second perspective is one that challenges us who serve the People of God, God’s flock.

Are we like the Good Shepherd?

Do we know our sheep, as Jesus knows His sheep? Do we have the smell of sheep from getting down into the mud with them?

Do we seek out the lost sheep, instead of being content with the faithful few? Do we go out into the brambles and offer the lost a way out, a way of hope? Or, do we want a comfortable church?

Are we willing to pick up the sheep and carry them home with tenderness? They’ll be dirty and smelling – and may crap on us.

Finally, are we willing to give our lives for them? This may mean martyrdom – which is a gift that God gives to a few. But then there is the dying that happens every day when people serve others in love, go the extra mile to comfort someone, forgive even their enemies?

Are we like the Good Shepherd or are we hired hands, who are content with our little rituals and minimal duties?

But, don’t worry. Even if we are mere hired hands, the Good Shepherd seeks us out and, with love, brings us back and offers us another chance to love.


The image is taken from the web page of Mount Saviour Monastery, a close up of the statue in their cemetery.

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Being a saint: Merton and Pope Francis

Reading Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et exsultate – Rejoice and be glad, I thought of an exchange between the poet Robert Lax and Thomas Merton, soon after Merton was baptized.

Jim Forest relates it thus, in Living with Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton, based on Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain:

Walking with Lax on Sixth Avenue one night in the spring of 1939, Lax turned toward Merton and asked, “What do you want to be, anyway?”
It was obvious to Merton that “Thomas Merton the well-known writer” and “Thomas Merton the assistant instructor of freshman English” were not good enough answers.
“I don’t know,” he finally said. “I guess what I want is to be a good Catholic.”
“What do you mean you want to be a good Catholic?”
Merton was silent. He hadn’t figured that out yet.
“What you should say,” Lax went on, “is that you want to be a saint.”
That struck Merton as downright weird.
“How do expect me to become a saint?”
“By wanting to.”
“I can’t be a saint,” Merton responded. To be a saint would require a magnitude of renunciation that was completely beyond him. But Lax pressed on.
“All that is necessary to be a saint is to want to be one. Don’t you believe God will make you what He created you to be, if you will consent to let Him do it? All you have to do is desire it.

In his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis is offering a call to holiness, to sanctity. “Don’t be afraid of holiness,” he writes (¶ 32) and adds (¶ 34), quoting Leon Bloy, ““the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.”

And so Pope Francis urges us, “Let the grace of your baptism bear fruit in a path of holiness, [sanctity].”

This call, from our baptism, is to live this holiness, this sanctity, in daily life – to be a saint in the ordinary.

To be holy does not require being a bishop, a priest or a religious. We are frequently tempted to think that holiness is only for those who can withdraw from ordinary affairs to spend much time in prayer. That is not the case. We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves. Are you called to the consecrated life? Be holy by living out your commitment with joy. Are you married? Be holy by loving and caring for your husband or wife, as Christ does for the Church. Do you work for a living? Be holy by laboring with integrity and skill in the service of your brothers and sisters. Are you a parent or grandparent? Be holy by patiently teaching the little ones how to follow Jesus. Are you in a position of authority? Be holy by working for the common good and renouncing personal gain. (¶14)

The letter of Pope Francis is direct and practical. It is well-worth the read, a good choice for Easter reading. But even more for Easter living.

Above all, be a saint.

To get started, take a look at the video.

Give Thomas a break

Preparing to preach today, I was struck by how narrow our vision is when we consider “doubting Thomas.” I said in my homily that we are too hard on him.

He wasn’t in the Upper Room (with its locked doors for fear of the authorities) when Jesus appeared. The apostles there were startled and terrified (as Luke 24:37 puts it).

Jesus shows them his wounds and they are filled with joy, at least in John’s Gospel (20:21). In Luke they are incredulous for joy and amazed (24:41) or, as the NRSV puts it, “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering.”

Eating with him, they seem to be convinced that it is really Jesus, risen, and not a phantasm.

When Thomas heard the news, I wondered if he thought the other apostles were suffering from an illusion, projecting their dreams to visualize a risen Jesus.

Perhaps Thomas was seeking a real encounter with Jesus and was suspicious of their stories. After all, these same disciples had been told of the risen Jesus by the women who had the courage to go to the tomb that Sunday morning. But they seem to have dismissed the women and doubted them. They were the doubting disciples – of course, the women had brought the message and, in a macho world, who listens to women?

But when Jesus comes to the disciples the next Sunday, he doesn’t chew him out. Rather, he invites Thomas to come and put his finger in the wounds. He invites intimate contact.

And how does Thomas respond? With one of the most profound affirmations of Jesus in the Gospels, “My Lord and my God.”

Thomas gets a bad rep – while the other disciples get excused for their doubts. But Thomas opened himself to intimacy, to touching the wounds of the Lord.

Do we long to touch the wounds of the Lord? Or do we want to keep Him at a distance?

The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas_by_Caravaggio


Caravaggio, Michelangelo Merisi da, 1573-1610. The Incredulity of Saint Thomas.[retrieved April 8, 2018] Original source: Wikipedia Commons.

 

 

Palm Sunday and the Peaceable Kingdom

On Palm Sunday, we celebrate a peaceful Messiah.

Jesus enters Jerusalem in triumph, on a donkey. He doesn’t enter on a war horse, but on a donkey, a beast of burden, a humble animal.

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But there is more to the Gospel story than meets the eye that reveals, at least in my mind, a vision of the Peaceable Kingdom.

Last year, in a workshop for catechists in a remote part of our parish, I began with a prayerful reading of the Palm Sunday Gospels. Using St. Ignatius’ method of reading the scriptures, I asked them to listen with their whole being, attentive to their senses as well as to their inner feelings. I read the story of the entry into Jerusalem three times, each time from a different Gospel, leaving time for silence after each reading.

After the last period of silence, I asked them to share with one or two people what they had experienced. Then I invited them to share with the group.

Two young men, campesinos, noted that they looked on in fear as Jesus mounted the young donkey “that no one had ever mounted.” They knew, from their work with animals, that you have to break in a donkey before you can sit on it. If no one has ever sat on a donkey, it is liable to try to throw you off.

They were afraid that the donkey would throw Jesus off.

And they were amazed that the donkey calmly carried Jesus into Jerusalem.

I was amazed. I had never heard a comment like that. I know of no biblical scholar who has paid attention to this detail that the people of the time of Jesus and the people who work the land would know.

Last year I shared this story with a group of the Dubuque Franciscan Sisters. They smiled and laughed in recognition. Many of them grew up on farms and realized the truth of this comment from the Honduran campesinos.

As I reflected on this, I realized that there was another dimension to this event.

Where would young donkeys, never mounted, calmly carry a person?

In the Garden of Eden of Genesis and in the Peaceable Kingdom of Isaiah 11: 1-9.

The wolf will dwell with the lamb…
The calf and the lion cub shall feed together,
and a little child will lead them…
They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord…

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Jesus, mounted on a peaceful donkey, enters the city of Jerusalem, the holy mountain. Jesus brings the Reign of Peace with His personal presence.

But we reject the peaceful Messiah, the harbinger of the Reign of Peace. We seek power and domination, with weapons of war and all sorts of violence.

But our God comes in peace, willing to sacrifice himself for peace. He does not kill but allows himself to be killed by those who have the power and the violence in their hands.

Will we follow Jesus, our Peace?

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The first photo is from the 2015 Palm Sunday procession in the parish of Dulce Nombre de María, Dulce Nombre de Copán, Honduras.

The second photo is of a postcard of a painting of Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom. Note the presence of William Penn making a treaty with the native peoples.

The third photo is from The Cloisters in New York City.

 

Contemplation

Contemplation, for me, is awakening to wonder.

It starts with letting myself be surprised, awed, astonished – at whatever. It may be a beautiful landscape or a smile from a friend.

I have the blessing of a valley I can see from my house and birds that come to my window.

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But last week I also had the blessing of seeing the smiles on the faces of a couple in their eighties who were married in their poor, dirt-floor home at the bedside of the ill husband.

If we open our eyes, our hearts, we can experience these as signs of God, of God’s joyful embrace of all creation – not only in the beautiful but even in the painful.

But it is not mere than emotion or aesthetic appreciation. Thomas Merton puts it well in New Seeds of Contemplation”:

Contemplation is the highest expression of [our] intellectual and spiritual life. It is that life itself, fully awake, fully active, fully aware that it is alive. It is spiritual wonder. It is spontaneous awe at the sacredness of life, of being. It is gratitude for life, for awareness and for being. It is a vivid realization of the fact that life and being in us proceed from an invisible, transcendent and infinitely abundant Source. Contemplation is, above all, awareness of the reality of that Source. [Italics mine.]

When we receive the gift of contemplation, we can experience what the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, in his poem “God’s Grandeur,” calls “the dearest freshness deep down things.”

Opening ourselves to beauty, to the interconnection of all that is, to the creator of all that is, make a space in our hearts, so that they can be contemplative, literally “temples with” God.

Contemplation is not only a way of prayer; it is a way of living, open to God in the little things of this world. It enables us to recover what William Blake wrote about:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.

Open the temple of your heart, so that God may dwell therein.


This is an article that Franciscan Common Venture asked me to write for their March newsletter. 

Bishop martyred in Nicaragua

On February 26, 1549, Bishop Antonio Valdivieso, OP, was killed in Leon, Nicaragua, by the governor’s son and his henchmen.

This Dominican friar had for many years been an advocate for the indigenous people of Nicaragua. Born in Spain, he went as a missionary to Nicaragua and, seeing the way the Spaniards treated the native peoples, he began to speak up. At one point, he returned to Spain to denounce the crimes against them. It is not clear that he was heard, but he was appointed bishop of Leon, Nicaragua.

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The door of the Real Audiencia de los Confines, Gracias, Lempira. Now the parish radio station.

Returning to Central America, he traveled to what is now Gracias, Lempira, Honduras, where the Spanish crown has established the Real Audiencia de los Confines, the high court of justice for the region. He was ordained bishop in Gracias by his fellow Dominican, Bartolomé de las Casas, and two other bishops. He and las Casas stayed there for some time trying to get the court to really defend the native peoples but finally left. Las Casas returned to his diocese in Chiapas, Mexico, where he continued to advocate for the native peoples until he felt forced out and continued his advocacy in Spain.

Bishop Antonio Validivieso went to Leon and finally arrived there despite the efforts of Spanish soldiers to prevent his entry into the city.

He continued his advocacy until his martyrdom. He is an example of a number of bishops in “New Spain” who spoke out for justice for the native peoples and suffered for it.

In the late twentieth century in Latin America there arose other bishops with the courage and the compassion to be in solidarity with the poor and with the native peoples – most notably, in Central America, Bishop Samuel Ruiz in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico, Monseñor Juan Gerardi in Guatemala, and Blessed Monseñor Oscar Romero of San Salvador.

We need more bishops like them.

 

Thunderstruck

This past Sunday I preached in a small town about 40 minutes away. I also preached at the 7:00 pm Mass in Dulce Nombre. I wasn’t going to share this except that as Padre German approached the altar to offer the gifts he whispered to me, “Hablaste del corazón” – “You spoke from the heart.” Here are some notes – in English – from my homilies.

I approach preaching today with trepidation. The first reading (Deuteronomy 18: 15-200 has a message for all of us who preach.

“…if a prophet presumes to speak in my name an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak, or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die.”

Am I preaching me? Or am I transparent – allowing the message of Jesus and the Reign of God to come through? Do the people hear God or just my words.

There are so many people who speak in the name of God but are held in the embrace of the powers of this world, the economy, political parties, racist ideologies. Their preaching serves not God, but an idol.

The Gospel (Mark 1: 21-28), on the other hand, recalls Jesus speaking, preaching, in the synagogue. The people are amazed. We don’t know what he said, but his very manner of preaching moved people.

There was a coherence between what he said and who he was. He, the Son of God made flesh, lived the Reign of God and made it present. Thomas Merton once wrote, “The saint preaches sermons by the way he walks and talks, the way he picks up things and holds them in his hand.”  I image that is what the people saw in Jesus – holiness made present in living form. He is truth and love made flesh. His words spring from his heart.

But then something happens in the synagogue. A man tormented by an unclean spirit begins to shout. The unclean spirit cannot take the truth and the love that is there present before him.

The words of Jesus threaten this spirit who cries out: “Have you come to destroy us?”

Jesus responds simply: “Be quiet. Get out of him!”

The words of Jesus are words that generate hope and heal wounds. They are words that give life. The spirit leaves, convulsing the man and making a racket. The convulsion within the man is brought out into the open and the man is healed.

But what strikes me about this reading is that the people are amazed at the preaching of Jesus and are “amazed” that unclean spirits obey him. The Spanish lectionary states that “todos quedaron estupefactos” – all were stupefied (or thunderstruck).

How often do we come into church, awaiting a boring sermon and not expecting anything new, anything that will shake us up.

But with Jesus, all is wonder.

Would that we lived with a sense of wonder, a sense of letting ourselves be surprised by the marvels around us – the marvel of Word and Eucharist in church, the marvels of love between spouses and among parents and children. But all too often our hearts, as well as our eyes and ears are closed to the marvels, the wonders around us – the wonders of creation, the wonders of people caring for the sick and elderly, the wonders of people working hard and with a spirit of joy.

And so I pray that God will open our eyes and ears, our minds and hearts so that we may let ourselves be thunderstruck by the marvels God shows us every moment of every day.


With gratitude for the commentaries of José Antonio Pagola:
http://iglesiadesopelana3b.blogspot.com/2017/11/j-pagola-ciclo-b-20172018.html