Monthly Archives: December 2012

The unexpected Christ


“Into this world, this demented inn,
in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all,
Christ has come uninvited.
But because he cannot be at home in it,
because He is out of place in it,
His place is with those others for whom there is no room.
His place is with those who do not belong,
who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak,
those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons,
who are tortured, bombed, and exterminated.
With those for whom there is no room,
Christ is present in the world.
He is mysteriously present in those
for whom there seems to be nothing but the world at its worst….
It is in these that He hides Himself,
for whom there is no room.”

                                                                                      Thomas Merton,
Raids on the Unspeakable

Moving toward Bethlehem


When we offer a glass of water
To a thirsty person, it is Christmas

When we clothe a naked person
With a gown of love, it is Christmas

When we wipe the tears
From weeping eyes, it is Christmas

When we line a hopeless heart
With love, it is Christmas.

On the Eve of Christmas
Hatred will vanish
On the Eve of Christmas
The earth will flourish
On the Eve of Christmas
War will be gone
On the Eve of Christmas
Love will be born.


When I kiss a friend
Without hypocrisy, it is Christmas
When the spirit of revenge
Dies in me, it is Christmas
When in my heart I no longer
Want to stay apart, it is Christmas
When I am buried
In the being of God, it is Christmas.

A translation of a Palestinian Christmas carol, source unknown


A Jewish prophet and prayer as subversion

Prayer is subversive.

You only have to read the canticle of Hannah in 1 Kings 2: 1-10 or the canticle of Mary in Luke 1: to hear how God wants to turn this world upside down.

The bow of the mighty is broken
but the weak are girded with strength
1 Kings 2: 4
He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their hearts
and raised up the lowly.
Luke 1: 52

All too long the poor have been victimized by systems and powers that seek to hoard the goods of this world and to keep the poor in line.  But God wants something different.

Forty years ago today, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel died. He was a Jewish theologian and philosopher who shared his learning with the world, not only within the Jewish community. He also shared his learning by living it in the streets as he marched with Martin Luther King, Jr., for racial justice, and marched with people of many faiths (and no faith) to seek an end to the war in Vietnam.

One of his quotes has touched me deeply for many years:

Prayer is meaningless unless it is subversive, unless it seeks to overthrow and to ruin the pyramids of callousness, hatred, opportunism, falsehoods. The liturgical movement must become a revolutionary movement seeking to overthrow the forces that continue to destroy the promise, the hope, the vision.

During this time of darkness and hope, let us pray prayers of subversion and live them, especially Psalm 72 which speaks of the good ruler:

May he defend the poor of the people,
and save the children of the needy,
and crush the oppressor.
For he shall save the needy when they cry,
the poor, and those who are helpless.
He will have pity on the weak and the needy,
and save the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their souls;
to him their blood is dear.
Psalm 72: 12-14

Would that nations and peoples lived the prophetic words of scripture! This year is a time to start.

Mary and the martyrs of Acteal, Chiapas

Acteal poster.jpgHe has cast down the mighty
from their thrones
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
The canticle of Mary
Luke 1: 52-53

Fifteen years ago today, indigenous men, women, and children were gathered in the chapel in the town of Acteal, in the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico, praying and fasting for peace and justice.

A group of paramilitaries, connected with the governing political party of Mexico, invaded the church and killed 45 people.

The people of Acteal were members of Las Abejas, the Bees, a faith-based indigenous movement that had been founded about five years earlier.

Las Abejas are pacifists and disavow the use of violence. Yet they supported the demands of the Zapatista uprising which sought justice for the indigenous in southern Mexico. The Zapatista uprising began on January 1, 1994, the day when NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect – thus protesting not only the practices of the Mexican government but also the demands for “free trade” which came from the US.

Las Abejas still exist and affirm their faith, their pacifism, and their militant call for justice for all, especially the indigenous.

They are just a few of the “wretched of the earth” who seek to put into practice today’s lectionary readings, not only Mary’s canticle, the Magnificat, cited above, but also  the song of Hannah who defiantly prayed:

The Lord makes poor and makes rich,
he humbles, he also exalts.
He raises the needy from the dust;
from the dung heap he lifts up the poor,
To seat them with nobles
and make a glorious throne their heritage.
1 Samuel 2: 8

Las Abejas, as well as Hannah and the Virgin Mary, challenge us, as persons and as nations:

This Advent, will we put ourselves on the side of the poor whom God exults or will we cling to our wealth and power?

Give us prophets like John the Baptist

John the Baptist, Chartres Cathedral

John the Baptist, Chartres Cathedral

These last few days of Advent the Gospels speak to us of the time immediately preceding the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Today the Gospel, Luke 1: 5-25,  is the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah.

John the Baptist played a central role in preparing the way for Jesus’ public ministry. He is also one of the central figures of Advent.

For many years during Advent I’ve been reading the prison meditations of the martyred German Jesuit, Alfred Delp, S.J. His meditation on John, written from a Nazi prison in 1944, is particularly apt. In part it reads:

…woe to any age in which the voice crying in the wilderness can no longer be heard because the noises of everyday life drown it out — or restrictions forbid it  — or it is lost in the hurry and turmoil of “progress” — or simply stifled by authority, misled by fear and cowardice….

…There should never be any lack of prophets like John the Baptist in the kaleidoscope of life at any period…They warn us of our chance, because they can already feel the ground heaving beneath their feet… They cry out to us, urging us to save ourselves by a change of heart before the coming of the catastrophes threatening to overwhelm us.

Oh God, surely enough people nowadays know what it means to clear away bomb dust and rubble of destruction, making the rough places smooth… Oh may the arresting voices of the wilderness ring out warning humankind in good time that ruin and destruction actually spread from within. May the Advent figure of St. John the Baptist, the incorruptible herald and teacher in God’s name, be no longer a stranger in our wilderness. Much depends on such symbolic figures in our lives. For how shall we hear if there are none to cry out, none whose voice can rise above the tumult of violence and destruction, [above] the false clamor that deafens us to reality?

Would that we had move people like John, aware of the violence and hunger and oppression in our world, willing to cry out, so that we might be “a people fit for the Lord.”

The passage cited is taken from Alfred Delp, SJ: Prison Writings (Orbis Books, 2004).


Joseph and the dreams of God

As we celebrate the Birth of Jesus, Joseph is often the hidden member of the Holy Family. Fr. James Martin, S.J., recently wrote about this recently in an article in Slate.


Only in the Gospel of Matthew do we learn anything significant about Joseph.

Like his Jewish counterpoint, Joseph, the son of Jacob, he is a dreamer. In fact, dreams change his lives.

In today’s Gospel, Matthew1: 18-25, he is told not to put Mary away but to take her as his wife. Then after the visit of the Magi another dream leads him to escape to Egypt; in another dream he is told when to return home.

God continually send him dreams to change his plans – and Joseph responds faithfully. He is open to God’s plans.

From his prison in Nazi Germany, Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J., wrote this of Joseph:

Joseph is the man on the outskirts, standing in the shadows, silently waiting, there when wanted and always ready to help. He is the man in whose life God is constantly intervening with warnings and visions. Without complaint he allows his own plans to be set aside. . . .

Willing, unquestioning service is the secret of his life. It is his message for us and his judgment of us. We have crabbed and confined God within the pitiable limits of our obstinacy, our complacency, our mania for ‘self expression.’ We have given God only the minimum of recognition.

May our hearts be opened this Advent season to the dreams that God sends us, opening our hearts and lives to God’s Reign, welcoming the Child and protecting Him and all other children of the world.


Reconciling parents and children – Elijah

Elijah, fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:6)

Elijah, fed by ravens (1 Kings 17:6)

Elijah is my favorite Jewish prophet.

Elijah had fire in his belly. He was not afraid to confront the king, his wife, and the court priests of Baal.

I have problems with his massacre of the priests of Baal but his encounter with God on Mount Horeb perhaps helped redeem him from his bloodthirsty killing. There he finds God not in fire, thunder, or earthquake, but in a light breath, a gentle breeze. (1 Kings 17: 11-13)

Perhaps that reminded him of how he had raised the son of the widow of Zarephath to life by what looks like a form of artificial respiration – using the power of breath.

But what struck me this morning was the phrase from Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 48: 10: Elijah was destined “to turn back the hearts of fathers to their sons.”

It is a tender image. Recalling the sometimes difficult relations of fathers and sons, Elijah and John the Baptist (Luke 1: 17) have been given this calling. The Septuagint uses the word ἐπιστρέφω, which means turning back, the Latin Vulgate uses the word conciliare – to unite, to conciliate.

Our call – like John the Baptist’s and Elijah’s – is to help bring about the reconciliation that God desires, the reconciliation that is made real in Jesus, God become human, to effect reconciliation not through killing, but by giving himself up, letting himself be killed.

In light of the killings yesterday, let’s remember that we are all called to the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5; 17-20), a ministry which Christ has accomplished but which we are called to make real amidst the pain and suffering of our world.

St. John of the Cross

Today we celebrate St. John of the Cross, the Spanish Carmelite mystic and doctor of the Church.

St. John suffered much in his efforts to reform the Carmelite order. He was imprisoned twice and treated extremely cruelly during his second imprisonment, from which he escaped. Yet during that imprisonment he wrote many of his beautiful poems that celebrate God’s love.

After he recovered, he went about in the work of reform, only to be the target of ill-will from other members of the reform movement.

His was not a life of outward joy and consolation – but a life lived in the light of the Cross.

But he was faithful. As he wrote in Spiritual Canticle:

Many desire the consoling joy
to which the Cross leads,
But few desire the Cross itself.

Reading these words this morning I recalled a Jesuit priest who led me during a short retreat at the Creighton retreat center in Iowa. I was on a high after a visit to Palestine and Israel. He pointedly asked me:

Are you seeking the God of consolation or the consolation of God?

And yet, when we seek the God of consolation we can deal with the pains and sufferings of life, we can bear the Cross.

I think for people like St. John of the Cross  it may come back to living life with a spirit of thanksgiving, gratitude, and gratuitousness.

In We Drink from Our Own Wells, Gustavo Gutiérrez writes

The experience of gratuitousness is the space of encounter wit the Lord. Unless we understand the meaning of gratuitousness, there will be no contemplative dimension in our lives. Contemplation is not a state of paralysis but of radical self-giving, as we saw in reading passages from John of the Cross. In the final analysis, to believe in God means to live our life as a gift from God and to look upon everything that happens in it as a manifestation of his gift. (p. 110)

That, perhaps is the secret of St. John of the Cross: encountering God’s love even in the midst of prison, living the Cross and being consoled and strengthened by the Cross of Christ who comes and seeks us.

The Virgin of Guadalupe: raising up the lowly

Who am I that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
Luke 1: 43

 These words of Elizabeth express wonder at the mystery of the Word made flesh in Mary who has come to visit her.

Today the Church in the Americas virgen of guadalupecelebrates the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mary who came – as La Morenita, the dark skinned-maiden – to Juan Diego. She identified herself as “the Mother of the true God through whom one lives.”

What was Juan Diego’s reaction?

My dear Lady, this I beg you, entrust your mission to one of the important persons who is well known, respected, and esteemed so that they may believe him. You know that I am a nobody, a nothing, a coward, a pile of old sticks.

How many of the poor and the indigenous of this world have been so put down that they fell this way? “I am a nobody.”

But it was to “a nobody” that Mary entrusted her mission. Mary came not as a Spaniard, but as a young indigenous woman, speaking in Nahuatl – not in Spanish.

She appeared first on December 9 on the Hill of Tepeyac and told Juan Diego to go to the bishop, requesting a church on the site of her appearance. The bishop was skeptical. But Juan Diego returned the next day, after the Virgin had sent him again. The bishop now asked for some sign that this was true.

Juan Diego stayed at home the next day to care for his sick uncle. The next day he went looking for a priest to visit his uncle and tried to avoid the Virgin.

But an early account notes that “she came out to meet him.”

The rest is history – Juan Diego picks roses in December and presents them to the bishop, only to discover that there was an image of La Morenita on his tilma, his cloak.

But what strikes me is the remark of an early account of the event by Antonio Valeriano:

“she came out to meet him.”

Mary, as evangelist, comes out to the poor, the indigenous, who consider themselves as nothing. She reveals to them their gift, their power to evangelize – a capacity I see continually here in Honduras. The poor are evangelizers of each other, of their neighbors, and of us foreigners.

In the canticle of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:  1-10) which is the inspiration for Mary’ canticle (Luke 1: 46-55), Hannah triumphantly sings:

The Lord lifts up the lowly from the dust
And raises the poor from the ash heap.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is again an indication of God taking the side of the poor, lifting them up, and giving them the mission to evangelize the world, especially those of us who are held bound by our money and power.

May our hearts be open to the poor, who bring us the Good News of a God who comes to save and liberate all of us.


Merton to Barth: May Christ remain a child in you.

I was in my junior year at the University of Scranton and had taken advantage of a special student subscription to the New York Times. December 11, 1968, I was astounded as I noted on opposite sides at the bottom of the front page two obituary notices – Thomas Merton and Karl Barth; both had died the previous day.

I had read a lot of Merton and considered his work an inspiration for my life – not only on contemplation but also on facing the challenges of racism and war in the late 1960s.

I had heard of Karl Barth but not read his work. (I must confess that I still haven’t read more than a few pages.)

But I remembered that in the beginning of Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton had written about Barth.

Karl Barth had a dream about Mozart.

Barth had always been piqued by the Catholicism of Mozart, and by Mozart’s rejection of Protestantism.…

Barth, in his dream, was appointed to examine Mozart in theology. He wanted to make the examination as favorable as possible, and in his questions he alluded pointedly to Mozart’s masses. But Mozart did not answer a word.

I was deeply moved by Barth’s account of this dream…. The dream concerns his salvation, and Barth perhaps is striving to admit that he will be saved more by the Mozart in himself than by his theology.

Each day, for years, Barth played Mozart every morning before going to work on his dogma: unconsciously seeking to awaken, perhaps, the hidden sophianic Mozart in himself, the central wisdom that comes in tune with the divine and cosmic music and is saved by love, yes, even by eros. While the other, theological self, seemingly more concerned with love, grasps at a more stern, more cerebral agape: a love that, after all, is not in our own heart but only in God and revealed only to our head.

Barth says, also significantly, that “it is a child, even a ‘divine’ child, who speaks in Mozart’s music to us.” …

Fear not, Karl Barth! Trust in the divine mercy. Though you have grown up to become a theologian, Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we might think! There is in us a Mozart who will
be our salvation.

There is all too great a temptation among intellectuals (and I have to admit that many would so label me) to try to grasp at our faith in terms of ideas and propositions.  We want the right word, the right phrases, the right arguments.

But Merton reminds us that God is also revealed in our heart. As Blaise Pascal wrote in Pensées, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”

How often are we people of faith tempted to reduce faith (and orthodoxy) to the right words. But “orthodoxy” might also be translated as “right glory/worship” and orthodoxy is related to “orthopraxis” – right practice. Wasn’t it James who said that “Faith without works is dead.”

But I fear that the divisions and the harsh words and accusations may continue in the Church I love and in the wider Christian community.

And so, in the midst of the struggles in the church, maybe what all sides should do is sit down and listen to some Mozart. I’d suggest Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Mozart’s Requiem.

And then let God awaken the child within us so that we may trust the mercy of God – and let ourselves rest in Christ’s lap.