Monthly Archives: January 2013

Stirring us to love by their witness

Let us keep firm in the hope we profess…
Let us be consider how we may spur one another to love and good works.
Do not stay away from the meetings of the community…
Hebrews 10: 23-25

This reading from today’s lectionary touched me this morning, especially the call to stir up love and good works.

That is what those who try to live the Gospel do for me and that is why I love to recall the witnesses of God’s love, especially those I have in a calendar of witnesses to love and justice which I put together.

Today there are four people whose witness spur me on.

Today is the feast of St. John Bosco, founder of the Salesians to work with poor young people, lived from 1815 to 1888. Don Bosco died on this day on Turin where he lived and served the poor, especially the youth. As he explained his ministry:

I have promised God that until my last breath I shall have lived for my poor young people.  I study for you, I work for you, I am ready to give my life for you. Take note that whatever I am, I have been entirely for you, day and night, morning and evening, at every moment.

Thomas Merton, Trappist monk, spiritual writer and witness to the God of peace and justice, was born on January 31, 1915, in France. In 1949, he wrote a letter to a class of children which included these thoughts:

I believe sometimes that God is sick of the rich people and the powerful and wise men of the world and that He is going to look elsewhere and find the underprivileged, those who are poor and have things very hard; even those who find it most difficult to avoid sin; and God is going to come down and walk among the poor people of the earth, among those who are unhappy and sinful and distressed and raise them up and make them the greatest saints and send them walking all over the universe with the steps of angels and the voices of prophets to bring his light back into the world again.

On January 31, 1980, in Guatemala City, Guatemalan forces invaded the Spanish Embassy which was being occupied by indigenous people demanding their rights. The subsequent fire killed about forty Quichés, including Vicente Menchú, the father of Rigoberta Menchú, who later received a Nobel Peace Prize. She reported these words of her father:

I am a Christian and the duty of a Christian is to fight all the injustices committed against our people. It is not right that our people give their blood, their pure lives, for the few who are in power….
Some people give their blood and some people give their strength. So while we can, we must give our strength. In this hour of need, we must look after our little lives very well so that they provide a source of strength for our people…. We want no more dead, we want no more martyrs, because we already have too many in our land, in our fields, through too many massacres. What we must do is protect our lives as much as we can and carry on our struggle…

Sometime during the evening of January 31 and February 1, 1998, Fr. Vjeko Curic was killed near Holy Family church in Kigali, Rwanda. He was a Franciscan priest from Croatian missionary who ministered to victims of the massacres during the 1994 civil war. He was called  “Father Courage” and “Oscar Shindler of Rwanda.”  He explained his mission in this way:

I have chosen to come to Rwanda to work for the Kingdom of God, living among these people: I want to share with them their joys, sufferings, and risks.

Gandhi: Living a civilized life

Sixty-five years ago in 1948, Mohandas Karamchad Gandhi, know as the Mahatma, the Great-Souled, was assassinated in India.

When he visited England, he was asked by a reporter,  “Mr. Gandhi, what do you think of Western civilization?”

Gandhi replied: “I think it would be a good idea!”

Graffiti on a NYC wall (scanned from a post card)

Graffiti on a NYC wall (scanned from a post card)

Faced with what many identify as the superior Western Civilization, Gandhi saw that this claim is baseless. The imperialism of the West, most often seen in economic and military terms, is really a question of spirituality.

At one point Gandhi identified what I would call the seven capital social sins:

Wealth without Work
Pleasure without Conscience
Science without Humanity
Knowledge without Character
Politics without Principle
Commerce without Morality
Worship without Sacrifice

If we use these “sins” as part of an individual and community examination of conscience I think we’d be on the road to living the civilization of love that Christ preached. As the late Pope John Paul II said, “Only a humanity in which there reigns the ‘civilization of love’ will be able to enjoy authentic and lasting peace.””

Again Gandhi offers us a challenge on how we can be better followers of Christ. Will we listen to his voice?

The inaugural address of Jesus of Nazareth

I must admit that I didn’t read President Obama’s inaugural address – partly because I am tired of the words of politicians, no matter what their ideology.

But today’s Gospel gives us what is for me the real inaugural address of followers of Christ: Luke 4: 14-21.

Jesus has returned to his hometown and takes a text from the prophet Isaiah to proclaim his mission. He tells the people, straight away, where they can find him

Bringing good news to the poor,
Proclaiming liberty to captives
and new sight for the blind,
Freeing the oppressed,
Announcing a year of jubilee.

But these are not mere words. They are, as Jesus said, “fulfilled in our hearing.” They have been made flesh in a God who has put Himself on the side of the poor and the marginalized, who promises the real liberty of bringing people out of misery, who calls for a year of Jubilee when unjust structures are brought down and equity rules. If you read the Gospels with an open heart you will see that the life and deeds of Jesus live out these passages from the prophets.

This inaugural speech and its being lived out in Jesus is, in part, a political program that should frighten US conservatives and liberals, because it calls for real conversion; it calls us to be a People of God, a Church, where the poor are at the center of our lives, where freedom is lived out in love, where there is no distinction between rich and poor, and where all have their part in building up the Body of Christ.

But it is a project that will bring pain and persecution – because it opposes structures of consumerism, greed, militarism, empire, and racism by living in a different way.

This is the challenge for all of us who claim to follow this Jesus.

It starts where we are, so that the scripture may be fulfilled.

Paradigms of conversion

Today the Church celebrates the conversion of St. Paul, the day when he was thrown from his high horse, according to popular belief and many artistic representations of the event.

Yet, if you examine the accounts of Paul’s conversion in the Acts of the Apostles, there is no horse. He is merely surrounded by light and falls to the ground.

This image of sudden conversion and being thrown off one’s high horse has affected many of our ideas of conversion. Many evangelicals, in fact, emphasize knowing the day and the hour when they were saved.

But conversion doesn’t always happen that way. There is not always that sudden moment when everything changes.

There are, I believe, for most of us key moments when the call of God is clearer and more forceful. But real conversion is a process, with many moments.

I think that conversion is never finished – until the final moment when God calls us to live in His presence.

Conversion is a turning, a moving away from our self-centeredness to the all-embracing love of God, an ongoing process of letting God’s love change us and open our hearts to all people, to all creation, and to the God who is “all in all.”

The Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan also talks about different types of conversion, all of which are passages from “self-preoccupation” to “self-transcendence.”

Religious conversion is from alienation to recognition of the Holy Mystery; theistic conversion is from impersonal mystery to the recognition of a personal God. Christian conversion moves from an incomplete community between God and humanity to the recognition that Jesus is the Christ. Ecclesial conversion moves us from individualized religion to incorporation into the People of God, the Church. Moral conversion is the passage from selfish indifference to values to a moral life. Intellectual conversion is from “undifferentiated consciousness” to the “holistic view of truth.”

I find these distinctions helpful – but incomplete. For in all this, conversion is letting God work in us; it’s not all up to us. It’s God’s work – which needs our consent.

And so not all of us will be struck down to the earth in a moment of conversion; most of us will struggle daily on the road of conversion.

But we need to remember that many have gone on this path before and there are many by our side. And most of all, God beckons us: “Come.”

Who is at the center?

Jesus said to the man with the paralyzed hand,
“Stand here in the center.”
Mark 3:3

Today’s reflection on the Gospel in Daily Gospel 2013 highlights the action of Jesus calling the man with the paralyzed hand into the center of the synagogue assembly.

How out of place? We put the deformed and the poor at the margins of society and our gatherings. Society looks down on them and wants to keep them at a distance.

We, in contrast to Jesus, put those with power, prestige, and wealth at the center – even of our church assemblies.

But Jesus puts the sick man at the center of the assembly.

As Fr. Paulson Veliyannoor writes in Daily Gospel 2013:

He wants the marginalized to be in the center, for his Kingdom shall be organized around such people – the weak, the sinful, and the powerless.
Around whom is your life organized? What kind of people are at the center of your life choices?


Note on translations: The Greek, Latin, and many Spanish and English translations translate Jesus’ admonition as I have used it from the Christian Community Bible. However, both the New American Bible and the New Revised Standard Version translate it as “Come up here before us” or “Come forward,” hiding, I believe, the actual sense of the Greek, ἔγειρε εἰς τὸ μέσον. which means “Rise up, come, get up, stand up in the middle, the center.” That’s why I often  the Greek and check several translations as part of my daily reading of the Gospel.

Agnes, the countercultural virgin

St. Agnes was martyred at the age of 12 or 13 for having refused to sacrifice to idols as well as for rejecting offers of marriage.

Having consecrated herself to Christ as a virgin at a young age, she was handed over to civil authorities. When she refused to sacrifice to the idols or to marry one of her suitors, she was placed first with the pagan Vestal Virgins and then in a brothel. It is said that when she was stripped naked, her hair grew to cover her.

In any case, the authorities tried unsuccessfully to burn her and finally killed her by the sword.

For some this is a story about sex and idolatry, but Robert Ellsberg in All Saints puts her life in a different context:

In the story of Agnes, however, the opposition is not between sex and virginity. The conflict is between a young woman’s power in Christ to determine her own identity versus a patriarchal culture’s claim to identify her in terms of her sexuality. According to the view of her “suitors” and the state, if she would not be one man’s wife, she might as well be every man’s whore. Failing these options, she might as well be dead.

Virginity is a way not only to consecrate her to Christ but a way to resist the powers of this world that reduce women to sexual objects to be conquered by men. The virgin is a woman who has obtained freedom to be who she is, made in the image and likeness of God.

Married women also partake of this freedom, as they live as true partners with their spouses, not defining themselves by their “man,” but living with their spouse as people united in love, respecting the dignity of each other. Faithful spouses resist the powers that identify people as merely genital or use sex as a form of power and conquest.

Ellsberg notes that in regard to St. Agnes,

“Virgin” in this case is another way to say Free Woman.

I would say that all women who recognize their dignity and live their lives in contrast to the sexualized culture of power and inequality can be Free Women.


Why call a guy like Matthew?

I would probably have had difficulties with Jesus’ call of Matthew in today’s Gospel (Mark 2: 13-17) – not for the same reasons that the Pharisees had, but because he was allied with the imperialistic oppressive Roman occupiers.

How could such a man, allied with the unjust oppressors, become a follower of Jesus, the Prince of Peace?

Part of the answer is found in today’s first reading from Hebrews 4:12-16. I was particularly struck by two verses:

“All creation is transparent to him.” (v. 13)

Nothing is hidden from God; he sees into the hidden recesses of our hearts and can see our weaknesses, our failings, our sins.


“we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” (v. 15)

Jesus shows us the face – and the heart – of a compassionate God, a God who has compassion (suffering with us) because he sympathizes (feels with us) in our weaknesses.

Even as we recognize our sins and weaknesses, we need not see them as insurmountable obstacles to God’s loving call to be his followers.

He sees all this, but loves us and wants us to be his companions, those who break bread with him at the table and follow him to spread the good news.


The power of stories

Today the Catholic Church celebrates St. Anthony – not the Franciscan St. Anthony of Padua, but the Egyptian desert father, often identified as the founder of monasticism, who lived from 250 to 356.

There are many fascinating aspects of St. Anthony’ life – including giving up his wealth in response to hearing the Gospel of the rich young man and his struggles with demons which is depicted graphically in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altar tableaux meant for a chapel of the Antonine monks who cared for those suffering with ergotism. Christ is covered with the same type of sores that the patients suffered. Paul Hindemith also responded to the inspiration of Grüenwald and St. Anthony with his Mathis der Maler.

But what struck me this morning, as I read Robert Ellsberg’s account of St. Anthony in All Saints, was the power of the account of his life written by St. Athanasius. This was a work that contributed to St. Augustine’s conversion. It was also a work that deeply influenced western monasticism.

What stories are we listening to? What stories are we telling? Whose lives do we recall?

Attending the funeral of my Aunt Mary Barrar last month I heard a great number of stories of her life, especially her last months in an assisted living setting. Her ability to connect with the staff, to show her interest in their lives, and even to influence at least one of them were marvelous signs of love and faith.

Similarly the wake of my father in 1999 was a time when I heard stories of his generosity even as a young man.

Let us then share stories and seek out the stories of others so that we can see the signs of God’s grace active in our world.

Recognizing who we are

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John the Baptist. Central to Luke’s account is the voice of God heard by Jesus “You are my beloved son.” (Luke 3: 22)

Sunday mornings I often read several commentaries on the readings, including El Anuncio de la Esperanza by Segundo Galilea and Arturo Paoli. In today’s reflection, they note that this phrase suggests that “the Father loves his Son Jesus above everything else and through Him loves humans and the world. God the Father loves each one of us in the measure that he sees us in His Son, in how we are incorporated into Jesus.”

This could be read in a way that excludes others, but I think the authors mean that we – as brothers and sisters of Jesus, God made flesh – can recognize our dignity and the love God has for us.

We are incorporated into the Body of Christ.

What dignity, what grace, what love.

What a gift – if we remember and recognize who we really are – children of God and sisters and brothers in Christ, God who loves us enough to become flesh.