Saturday, March 30, 2013

An Easter Vigil Reflection: New Life Springs Forth

For Christians, we have entered into the chairos time of the Sacred Three Days (triduum) of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  Some around us will choose to celebrate Easter as simply a secular holiday, complete with colored eggs and a bunny.  Easter as a rite of Spring, a sign of new life in the natural order of things.

For others, though, including many Christians, the focus will be on the historical events surrounding the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth more than two thousand years ago.  Some Christian churches will re-enact the Last Supper as part of a Maundy Thursday service.  More specifically, Catholic Christians will celebrate the command of Christ to wash each others' feet.  Recent press coverage of the agitation caused in certain "conservative" circles over the actions of Pope Francis as he washed, dried and kissed the feet of young men and women, Christian and Muslem, show just how serious this ritual is taken, and how those who are upset by the pope's actions feel that he has somehow dishonored the actions of Christ.  Both approaches, the ignore-the-religious-implications-of Easter approach, and the "let's-do-what-Jesus-did" approach, in my opinion, miss the whole point.

For the secular approach, one often hears, "I'm not a Christian and it's just as silly to talk about a crucified man who lived and died 2000 years ago who somehow is supposed to have come back to life, as it is to believe in the Easter Bunny.  And at least the Bunny brings chocolate."  For the historicist approach, the triduum is little more than a Passion Play that we watch from our seats.  Various people have their favorite parts to perform in the drama, but when it's over, it's over until next year.  Godspell without the music.

May I suggest, on this Holy Saturday, that we all challenge ourselves to go deeper?  For those inclined to the secular, "rational" approach, may I suggest that Easter isn't about Jesus, or at least, not ONLY about him.  Easter is about finding those ways in our lives in which a loving God, whether one "admits" of God or not, finds new ways every day to give us life, joy and peace.  To the extent that we find those things in our lives, we know that they do not come from within ourselves, nor are they of our own making.  They are gifts from One who loves us even when we don't reciprocate that love. 

For those Christians inclined to the historical Jesus approach, might I suggest that there be a "so what?" moment of reflection.  Yes, we believe that Jesus the Christ did all of these things.

But so what?

How does Christ's self-emptying love, leading all the way to the Cross, find meaning in what I do today?  What difference does it make in my life and the lives of those around me?  If my focus is all on the historical, how do we engage the present and envision the future?  How does the kenotic become theotic? 

Tonight, at the great Easter Vigil, I too will have a part to perform, a ministry to exercise, as deacon.  In fact, one of the great joys and challenges for me will be the singing of the Exultet, the ancient hymn of praise which opens the Vigil.  Standing in the light of hundreds of candles, held in the darkened church by those who are recalling the candles received at their own baptism, I will do my best to proclaim the true meaning of Easter.  There is a section of the Exultet which often "causes me to tremble" as I chant it.  While we have a newer translation in place, I offer here the following words of comfort and challenge  Please read them slowly, reflectively, prayerfully:

The power of this holy night:
dispels all evil,
washes guilt away,
restores lost innocence,
brings mourners joy;
it casts out hatred,
brings us peace,
and humbles earthly pride.

Easter isn't about the Bunny and it isn't just about Jesus.  What we see around us in Spring: new life, now becomes a reality within ourselves as well.  Easter IS about new life, new chances, new beginnings for ALL people, rich or poor, women or men, gay or straight, black or white.  In Mark's Gospel, when Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River by John, we are told that "the heavens were opened".  The Greek word used there is "schizomenous", and given the Jewish cosmology of the time, we might easily translate that word as saying that the heavens "were shattered": that in Christ there is no longer anything to separate creation from the Creator.  God and creation are joined.  It becomes our mission to live that good news in the way we treat others.  As Pope Francis demonstrated so beautifully on Holy Thursday, that includes caring and loving ALL people, with no consideration of anything other than that they are sisters and brothers from the same God.

Happy Easter Sunday!  But the real test will be: How will you live Easter on MONDAY?

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Pope Francis: The Deacon's Pope UPDATED

Already I'm hearing from some deacons who are all upset that our new Pope, Francis, has only made one reference to "deacons' since becoming pope.  I've seen all kinds of speculation about the diaconate in Argentina and how the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio just didn't have the chance to get to know his deacons, and on and on.  OK, I get it: in the short time he's been pope, he hasn't mentioned us much.

Big deal.

Far more important, in my opinion, is the fact that this man IS a deacon in everything he is modeling and teaching us.  Even as Archbishop, he consciously made the decision to change his stole before washing feet: he reconfigured his stole into the diaconal mode.  That's a conscious decision, telling me that he wanted to be sure that his actions would be seen as diaconal in form and in substance.  THAT's a big deal.  UPDATED: The latest news from the Vatican offers the photo from today's ceremony at the juvenile detention center, and it appears that the Holy Father is continuing his tradition of rearranging his stole to be worn as a deacon.  I'm adding that photo below.

Not unlike previous popes, Francis speaks from his own experience and that, frankly, is generally priestly.  But is it such a stretch to take his absolutely wonderful Chrism Mass homily -- focused intentionally on the priesthood -- and adapt it to deacons?  I think not.  Here's the full text: for the most part, you could simply replace "priest" with deacon, and "dalmatic" for chasuble, and you have a perfect exhortation to deacons.

From his appreciation of carrying the people on our shoulders and in our hearts, to his emphasis on "unction, not function," there is a strong diaconal message for all people, and certainly a model for those of us humbly honored to be a part of the Order of Deacons.

Like his namesake Francis of Assisi, our Francis "gets" the diaconate, thinks like a deacon, and acts like a deacon -- whether he "names" us or not.

Welcome aboard, Holy Deacon Francis!

From the Management. . . .

Once again I apologize for not blogging as frequently as I would like.  On the other hand, the reasons are wonderful ones: my ministries on behalf of the diocese, the teaching I am doing, especially graduate students in pastoral ministry, and the ministries of our parish are all life-giving and time-consuming.  All of which is wonderful!

I have also been considering prayerfully whether to keep this blog running in any case.  Without re-hashing what is now ancient history, I was recently "uninvited" from a scheduled talk in an archdiocese on the East Coast over concerns related to my writing and research.  Unfortunately, that work was largely misinterpreted or (in at least one example) unread.  The decision, we are told, was also based on concerns raised in certain unspecified "blog postings."  Not knowing whether that was a reference to something I may have written here on this blog, or comments made by other bloggers, was never fully revealed.  Needless to say, I have been reticent to return to such a nebulous environment.

What has changed my mind has been the election of Pope Francis.  As I have written before, I was a seminarian during the papacies of John XXIII and Paul VI.  The world has changed drastically since those years, but I can safely say that I have not experienced the nearly universal outpouring of hopeful enthusiasm over the papacy which we are now experiencing since the days of John XXIII.  I do not write this from some naive expectation that "he will change church teaching," as some like to say.  Rather, it is in the way he is approaching his ministry as Bishop of Rome (his preferred style of self-reference).  He is clearly a man of the people, and the people are responding in kind.  People who might be complaining that all he has done thus far is more "style" than "substance" are missing their Marshall McLuhan, that "the medium is the message."  I also find an echo of John XXIII's insight during his opening address to the Second Vatican Council, that religious truth is one thing, timeles and unchangable, but the ways and means by which we communicate that truth is quite another.  Where Pope Benedict was brilliant at communicating religious truth through the theological enterprise, Pope Francis is demonstrating through his earthiness.

A parishioner recently complained to me that she was upset about all of the media "hype" surrounding Pope Benedict's retirement, the run-up to the conclave, and then the conclave itself.  She felt that all of this attention from the media trivialized the moment.  I can understand her concern, but at the same time, I felt completely the opposite: the world -- and not just the Catholic world -- was genuinely interested in what was going on and who might appear in the (black) shoes of the fisherman.  What I felt was the hunger of people who had often been disappointed by other people in the name of Church, but who still longed to be a part of all of the wonderful aspects of church that thrive despite our best efforts sometimes to sabotage.  Francis is emerging as the best example of a true pontifex  -- builder of bridges -- that we have seen in a long, long time.  I saw all of that media involvement as a marvelous example of evangelization at its best, an opportunity to be in dialogue with others about what matters most.

What Pope Francis will do in the future remains to be seen.  What he has already done has generated hope and enthusiasm for the papacy itself and the Church.  One person admitted to me recently that, as a gay man, he struggled with many aspects of the church's approach to homosexuals.  I reminded him that he shouldn't expect the new pope to make any substantive changes to the teaching itself.  He readily acknowledged that, but then said something quite remakarkable: "Oh, I understand that, Deacon.  But you know something?  There's just something in this new pope's approach that shows me that I am loved by God.  If the teaching doesn't change, I can live with that because I know now that God loves me and that this pope truly cares."

The medium AND the message.