Thursday, April 30, 2009

Flu, Finances, Foreclosures, Fanatics, Farenheit -- Franciscans?

We certainly are living in "interesting times", as the fabled ancient Chinese curse puts it. Just read today that a huge section of the Anarctic ice shelf is breaking off leaving the glaciers more exposed to the ocean, which can increase their melting speed. As of today almost 170 people have died in Mexico due to the so-called "swine flu." The economic stimulus seems sluggish and US auto makers are in a very bad way. And Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean and Taliban militants in Pakistan and Afghanistan are upping the violence, plus the sectarian inter-Muslim violence spree in Baghdad, Iraq has taken scores of lives.

Swine flu news from Excelsior newspaper from Mexico City yesterday, Wednesday, 29 April 2009.

What, exactly, is happening in our world? On the one hand, probably nothing new as the Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us. Still, it seems to be a "new" reminder that we live in a very real and fragile world fraught with insecurities. Bailouts, viruses, car bombs, unemployment, homelessness -- all these have become harsh realities for so many people. Plus the horrific street gang violence in many of our cities and the brutal and "efficient" massacres of police and others over narcotrafficking along the USA -- Mexico border.

Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean this past April 2009

Even Arlen Spectre's change from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party the other day seemed to herald doom and gloom from the jilted party!

Being Gospel men, "instruments of peace" as Franciscan friars, even as Christians, can seem terribly deluded and naive, don't you think?

And yet, historically, this seems to be the climate in which Christians shine. I'm not suggesting that financial crises, droughts and famines, wars and plagues are something good! Rather, what I am pointing out is that it would seem that these become "blessed opportunities" as the Epistle of St. James teaches. Not that God sends these things -- I certainly don't abide that line of thinking. What seems to be the case is that these situations provide the proverbial "rubber meeting the road" times. Exactly how Christian am I?

I remember back in high school, my best friend who is now deceased, an evangelical Christian, talked to me about his faith often and provoked my Catholic faith by quoting the great American Baptist Evangelist, Rev. Billy Graham (whether this quote originated with him, I don't know): "If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?"

Great quote, don't you think? So, how do we respond to situations rather than react? We can fall into panic and suspicion and even direct or indirect violence against others. Will we reach out to those in need -- those whose business have succumbed to the economic collapse, those whose houses are in foreclosure, those who are afflicted with swine flu, those who are victimized by violence -- especially the poor? Or will we try and protect ourselves in our "bunkers" of propriety and self-respect?

Currency of the USA "In God we Trust?"

This is a question that every Christian, I think, needs to ponder. Certainly it is one that we Franciscans must address! And address it we are -- Franciscan men and women, young and old, throughout the world. For instance, just this past year (2008), the Franciscan friars began a mission outreach among refugees in Darfur, that part of Sudan (eastern Africa) which has witnessed untold violence and repression. Franciscans -- men and women -- are advocating for deliberate and profound positive responses, often "green" responses, to the growing global warming concerns (e.g. Antarctic ice shelf melting).

Perhaps what we as Christians, and as Franciscans in particular, can offer is hope. It is certainly what we are proclaiming this Easter Season with our cry of "Christ is Risen! Indeed he is Risen!"

Maybe this really is our opportunity to shine. The candles we lit during the Easter Vigil, all lit from the Paschal Candle, the candles that the newly baptized held, the newly confirmed clung to -- isn't this all about hope? Not a "hope" that any political leader can elicit or proclaim. It is the singular hope of those who believe -- who have encountered -- Jesus is risen from the dead!

How about choosing hope, the kind that led St. Francis of Assisi way back 800 years ago or so to ask the Lord Jesus in prayer, "Lord, what do you want me to do?"

Monday, April 20, 2009

It's Easter -- again!

Christ is risen! Indeed he is risen!

Jersualem: interior of the Holy Sepulchre, the site which the ancient Christian Churches claim to be the location of both the Crucifixion of the Lord and the Tomb from which he resurrected. This is the ornately decorated Tomb.

Among the ancient Churches which have a place in the Holy Sepulchre -- Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Roman Catholic (Franciscans), Coptic Orthodox and Ethiopian Orthodox

This past Saturday, 18 April, the Eastern Orthodox Christians throughout the world celebrated the Great Fire and the Matins of the Resurrection. Sunday, 19 April, is their celebration of Easter Sunday, or Pascha, and this is Bright Week.

The Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theofil, entered into the Tomb (to the right) with some of his clergy on Saturday night and emerged with the Sacred Fire, announcing the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus! This fire is then quickly passed among the crowds of believer both inside and outside the basilica in Jerusalem and beyond, and may even be taken by plane to Greece! (how they do this with security, I don't know!)

The Franciscan friars who serve in the Holy Land (they were part of the Good Friday collection two weeks ago on 10 April) celebrate Easter according to the Gregorian calendar. The major difference between the two reckonings of Easter is this -- the Western, or Gregorian, calendar follows this principle -- Easter is the first Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox (i.e. 21 March). The Eastern Orthodox reckoning states that Easter must follow the Jewish Passover, and so is the first Sunday after Passover (Jesus having fulfilled the Old Covenant with Moses).

The Franciscan friars in the Holy Land abide by what is called the Status Quo, which is an agreement among the various Christian Churches to strictly follow guidelines in order to maintain peace -- among Christians! Sadly, and to the scandal of both Christian and non-Christian, there are times when the monks from the different Churches scuffle among themselves to "safeguard" territory. Personally speaking, I think it's rather crazy, but then again, I don't live there.

As Franciscans we strive to work toward Christian unity and mutual respect. What that will look like and how the Lord will realize this ancient prayer of the Church we have no idea. Nevertheless, the Lord Jesus himself prayed for this in the Gospel of John chapter 17, that all may be one. This prayer became an abiding motto for Bd. John XXIII when he called the Second Vatican Council way back in the early 1960s. And it continues to be our prayer as Church.

But, back to Easter. We join with our Eastern Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters in the joyful cry, "Christos aneste! Alithos aneste!" (Greek) "Al-Masiah Qam! Haqan Qam!" (Arabic) "Christos voskrese! Vojistinu voskrese!" (Slavonic) -- all of which are identical: Christ is risen! Indeed he is risen!"
Icon of the Myrrh-bearing women on the Day of Resurrection begin greeted by angel at the Tomb of the Lord

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Harrowing of Hell

This icon depicts what an early Christian homily for Holy Saturday describes in text-- Jesus Christ enters into the regions of the dead (Hades in Greek, technically not "hell" as a place of punishment). There the Lord Jesus, having been crucified and buried for all humanity enters into death, having tasted death for us all, and releases the captives held in the grip of death. Jesus has conquered and we can see him grasping our first parents, Adam and Eve, by their hands and lifting them from their tombs.

Byzantine icon of the Resurrecton of the Lord Jesus Christ

In the Roman Rite's Easter Vigil there is a solemn proclamation of the Lord's resurrection at the beginning of the Liturgy called the Exsultet. It uses biblical imagery from the Old Testament to describe the fulfillment of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt and the Passover in the life, passion, death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus on the Third Day. It also delcares that Christ is risen and victorious.

The same early Christian homily referred to above notes that Jesus brings into the regions of the dead the weapon of victory, his own life-giving Cross. While this particular icon does not show the Cross, it does colorfully demonstrate that Jesus stands upon the crossed tombstones of our first parents as he raises them and all the emblems of death are at his feet. Moreover, other figures from the Old Testament, Saints, are shown gathering around this scene of victory -- King David, John the Baptist, the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, the Prophets. All who from the very beginning of time have perished without conscious hope of resurrection are now participating in the Lord's resurrection!

And this is our hope, the hope of all who have lossed loved ones, who wonder aloud to God about the realities we face in this world of violence, of disease, of hunger, of terror; all who long for an end to suffering and death; all who are preparing for the embrace of what St. Francis of Assisi called "our Sister Death."

As we Christians of all the Rites of the Catholic Church, along with our Protestant brothers and sisters, prepare to celebrate the Lord's glorious resurrection (Eastern Orthodox Easter falls on next Sunday, 19 April 2009), let us remember that Jesus has conquered death; he is the victor over sin. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that is impossible for God! Sacred Scripture declares is, our liturgies celebrate it; the newly baptized profess it and we renew that profession this Easter.

Christ is risen! Indeed he is risen! We Franciscan friars join in extending to you our prayer that you and your lovedones have a very happy and even life-changing Easter.