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.

Friday, April 10, 2009

We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world!

These words echo throughout the Church today on Good Friday. For those accustomed to praying the Stations of the Cross this is how each Station begins.

From the movie, "The Passion of the Christ" by Mel Gibson -- the Fifth Station -- Simon of Cyrene is pressed into service to help Jesus carry his cross to Calvary.

We proclaim that Jesus dies on the cross on Golgatha for the salvation of the whole human race. It is "Good" Friday because of the great good that God accomplished through Jesus' obedience even unto death, death on a cross (cf. Phil. 2:5-11). It is not in spite of the cross but actually through the cross that we have salvation.

St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians chapter 1 that "for the Jewish people the cross is a scandal and for the Greeks (Gentiles) the cross is foolishness, but to those on the way of salvation -- Jew and Gentile alike -- Christ the power and wisdom of God!"

For St. Francis of Assisi, and for successive Franciscan friars, Sisters, nuns and lay people, the Cross of the Lord has always been an invitation to repentance and to joyful (yes, joyful) penance by seeking the Lord in all things and encountering him in every circumstance of life.

From the Crucifix of San Damiano when Francis was a young man, to the design of what would become the habit in the shape of the cross, to the sign of the Tau (T) at Lateran Council IV (1215) as a mark of renewal to the great episode on Monte LaVerna toward the end of his life when he received the sacred stigmata, the cross of the Lord Jesus always impressed upon St. Francis the great condescension of God toward humanity. Such great love of such a great God!

Undeserving sinners that we are, God has never given up on us nor has God turned his back on us. St. Paul reminds us of this in Romans chapter 5 where he writes, "While we were still in our sins Christ died for us."

As we contemplate the Lord Jesus' Passion, death and burial today -- whether Roman Rite, Byzantine Rite or another Eastern Rite of the Catholic Church -- let us consider this great love of God toward us today.

It transformed the lives of the Mother of God, the Apostles and disciples of the Lord, it transformed Francis' and Clare's lives and the lives of countless saints before us.

May this Good Friday be a powerful blessing for you and may your prayer today lead you ever closer to the Lord Jesus who gave his life for us that we might have life, and have it abundantly (Jn. 10:10).

That is our Christian vocation, after all. And this is the Franciscan vocation as well. We bless you, Lord Jesus for by your very cross you have redeemed the world. We believe this, Lord, we believe. Amen.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Lord, do you intend to wash my feet, too?

This question posed by St. Peter at the Last Supper according to the Gospel of John (chapter 13) really can be a focus for us, especially in the West.

Icon of Jesus washing the discples' feet at the Last Supper

Will we allow the Lord Jesus to wash our feet? According to Middle Eastern tradition it was the role of the slave or servant to undertake this seemingly distasteful task. Jesus the Master become Jesus the Servant. And then later on in the Last Supper discourse (chapter 14) he tells his disciples that he considers them to be his friends and no longer slaves.

We have become familiar with the symbolic use of feet in the Middle East, especially since the US military involvement in Iraq. Perhaps this takes on even a more profound meaning for us. Whether it was beating the fallen statue of Sadaam Hussein with the soles of shoes, or the angry Iraqi people insulting US soldiers by showing the bottoms of their feet or the reporter throwing both of his shoes at former President Bush in Baghdad, the Middle Eastern attitude toward displaying feet is understood as a negative act.

Jesus willingly takes on a distateful ritual reserved to the lowest members of the household in preparation for undergoing the ignominious "ritual" of Roman crucifixion. And he teaches his disciples to do the same!

Tonight at the Roman Rite Mass of the Lord's Supper the priest will wash the feet of members of the congregation. It seems that whenever folks are asked to have their feet washed in this solemn ceremony they are quite reluctant to do so. There is an unease, an embarrassment about this public display of humility and even affection.

Franciscan priest kissing a parishioner's foot after having washed it

And perhaps that is exactly where we need to be -- just a bit uncomfortable! Peter was aghast that his Lord and Master would literally stoop to this act. It was, quite frankly, shocking. And then to be instructed that this is how the disciples are to relate to one another -- washing one another's feet! Not just as a ritual act but as a symbol of loving one another as Jesus has himself loved us.

As Franciscan friars we see this as our life, our vocation. It is not only in imitation of the Lord Jesus. Even more so, it is allowing Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, to animate us to live, act and behave in his name. From the time of St. Francis of Assisi's remarkable humilty in caring for lepers and also for his brothers, the Franciscans have attempted to undertake this task in cheerful love, especially among the poor, the forgotten, the isolated and the marginalized.

The Mass of the Lord's Supper, which concludes with the solemn transfer of the Holy Eucharist to the Altar of Repose, leads us to prepare for the Lord's Passion. I would like to encourage any who read this blog to take the time, whether at your parish church or at home, and continue the Gospel of John from the conclusion of the this evening's Gospel (John 13:1-15), beginning with verse 16 and continuing slowly through the following chapters of the Gospel -- 14, 15, 16 and 17 -- often called the Last Supper Discourse (that is, teaching) of Jesus.

Powerful messages for us as we enter into this Sacred Triduum -- loving one another as Jesus loves us, the promise of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the encouragement for perseverence under trial and the famous prayer of Jesus for the unity of his disciples. And more, of course.

The Agony of the Lord Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemani

Jesus washing the discples' feet leads to his own feet being crucified on Good Friday. He does this for you and for me, indeed, for the whole world.

His washing eventually transforms his disciples. If you will, it is a kind of "baptism" in which they are changed by their Master. It leads us to have the attitude of Jesus (cf. Phil. 2:1-11). The same love and compassion, the same strength and grace, the same trust in his Abba, Father (see Rom. 8:14-17).

He wants to wash your feet. Today. Now. Will you let him?

Come, Lord, and wash my feet, too. Deliver me from sin and from my own selfishness. Change my heart that I may trust you with all things in every circumstance in my life. Bring salvation, Lord Jesus, as you wash my feet even now. Lead me through these holy days of the Triduum into the victory (yes, victory!) of your Cross and Resurrection. Lord, by your Cross and Resurrection you have set me free -- you have set us free -- you are the Savior of the world. Thank you. Amen.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Passover Seder and the Eucharist

The celebration of Passover by the Jewish community today has its roots in biblical tradition. However, it is not the same celebration as was conducted by Jews at the time of the Roman occupation and the beginnings of Christianity. It reflects more of a Medieval influence.

Nevertheless, the Haggadah (Hebrew -- story) is the same, namely, God delivered the Hebrew slaves from Egyptian bondage and formed them as his Chosen People in the Sinai Desert and gave them the Torah (Hebrew -- law) through the hands of Moses at Mount Sinai.

The celebration of the the Passover is conducted as a supper and there is a seder (Hebrew -- order) to the meal and all that occurs. It is a home liturgy. The basic contents of the celebration are the meal and the story. This is accompanied by the praying of Psalms, especially Psalms 118, 135 and 136 which render thanks to God for his enduring mercy and recount Israel's liberation from slavery.

The Haggadah text on the right (Hebrew letters for Haggadah), and because Hebrew is written from right to left, the book begins from the right end rather than the left.

The traditional principal foods at the time of Jesus would have been the Passover lamb as cental, the unleavened bread, or matzoh and grape wine. The lamb was likely made into a stew to accommodate as many people as possible for the feast.

The Passover lambs were slaughtered by the priests in the Temple in Jerusalem on the day before the feast began, according to custom, and had to be completed before nightfall. In Hebrew usage, the following day begins at sunset.

By the Middle Ages, perhaps before, the Jewish community ceased using lamb for the Passover meal because in the year AD 70, to quell the Jewish Revolt, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and razed the Temple. The current edifice, the Dome of the Rock -- or Noble Sanctuary -- the third holiest shrine in Islam, is situated on the grounds where the Jewish Temples were once located.

The Old City of Jerusalem as seen from the Mount of Olives with the Dome o f the Rock (or Noble Sanctuary) to the right, where the ancient Jewish Temples once stood. The Russian Orthodox Monastery of St. Mary Magdelene in in the foreground.

The Jewish Passover now uses a chicken in lieu of the lamb -- there is no Temple at which to sacrifice the lambs and there are no priests to conduct the ritual slaughters. It is a tribute of sacred -- and sad -- memory on behalf of the Jewish community to honor these events in such a manner. They maintain the ancient biblical mandate to keep the Passover, but historical realities have caused a reinterpretation by the rabbis as to how it is to be celebrated.

However, the shank bone of the lamb, in honor of the ancient past, is kept on the seder plate as a reminder of how the celebration was once done and is also a reminder of the hope for a renewed celebration of Pesach in the holy city of Jerusalem. Toward the end of the meal the participants cry out, Lashanah haba b'Yerushalayim! Next year in Jersualem!

Jesus, being Jewish and a rabbi, along with his Apostles, disciples and family would have been very famliar with the customs of his day, including the annual ritual slaughter of the Passover lambs in the Temple just prior to the celebration.

Compare the two separate traditions we have in the Gospels -- the Synoptic tradition (Mark, Matthew and Luke) have the Last Supper as their Passover meal while the Johannine tradition has Jesus die on the very day that the Passover lambs were being slaughtered, just before Passover actually begins.

The differences between the traditions are theological. They do not contradict the foundations of Jesus' Passion, death and resurrecton on the Third Day, nor do they deny the Holy Eucharist. John's tradition places this teaching within the Bread of Life discourse in chapter 6 while the Synoptists place it at the Last Supper on the night before Jesus' death.

Byzanitne icon of "The Mystical Supper" of Jesus with the Apostles on Holy Thursday

For us Christians the Eucharist is the New Passover, the universal Passover. What God instituted through Moses for Israel to commemorate annually the great events of the Exodus foreshadowed the deliverance God would accomplish for all humanity through Jesus Christ who was obedient to death, even death on a Cross (cf. Phil. 2:6-11).

The Mass or Divine Liturgy, then, is our seder meal; the Eucharist is our celebration -- not just annually but weekly on Sundays and even daily -- of the saving events that have brought about the gift of salvation for the whole human race. Our haggadah is the institution narrative we hear at every Celebration of the Eucharist when we believe that the simple bread and wine is transformed by the power of God's Spirit through our recounting of the event and words of the Lord Jesus into the very Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Savior.

Jesus himself is our Passover; he is the Paschal Lamb! He is our Pesach. Is this not what we hear in the Roman Rite before approaching the altar for Holy Communion? The priest, addressing the assembly, cries out, "This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world . . ." to which we respond, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed!"

We properly honor our "elder brothers (and sisters)" as Pope John Paul II was wont to call the Jewish community in their annual celebration of God's great saving event in the formation of the House of Israel -- the Exodus. That is part of our heritage as Christians. Let us remember our Jewish brothers and sisters, then, as we celebrate the seder and recount the haggadah of our salvation in Christ this Holy Week and especially the Sacred Triduum, the Great Passover of the Son of the God of Israel.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Remembering Pesach (Passover) this Holy Week

Pope John Paul II, who served as Bishop of Rome and Pope from October 1978 until April 2005

Pope John Paul II ushered in a new era of warm relationship with the Jewish community. From the Second Vatican Council's phenomenal delaration of respect for people of other religious faiths, especially for Jews in the hailed document, Nostra Aetate (Latin for "Our Age"), there has been a gradually growing trust between the Catholic Church and the wider Jewish community.

The late Holy Father referred to Jews as "our elder brothers (and I would add, sisters)". He even took the uprecedented step of publicly acknowledging the failure of Christians in the past to respect Jews and to apologize for the wrongdoing committed in innumerable atrocities through the centuries, especially in Europe, culminating in the Holocaust rendered by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s.

Jewish children at Auschwitz in Nazi-occumpied Poland during the Holocaust of the Jews during the 1940s

This year 2009 we Catholics and other Christians who follow the Gregorian Calendar who are celebrating Holy Week happily coincide with the Jewish Passover (Pesach).
Pesach is the root word for what becomes translated into Greek as "Pascha" and later into Latin as "Pasch". Thus, Jesus Christ as the Paschal Lamb is the Passover Lamb for us Christians. He is the fulfillment of the Law of Moses and the Prophets. He himself is the Paschal Mystery, that great event of salvation which we solemnly celebrate annually during the Sacred Triduum (three days) leading us to Easter -- the Passion, death and resurrection of the Lord.

Pesach means "passing over", as the Book of Exodus relates when the Angel of Death, the Tenth Plague, comes upon Egypt at God's command to slay the first-born of human and beast alike. And among the humans, anyone who does not have the lintels and doorposts marked with the blood of the lamb will lose their first-born, male or female, to the Angel of Death!

Observant (i.e. religious) Jews celebrate the annual commemoration of God delivering Israel from Egyptian slavery -- the Passover meal, the plagues, the flight out of Egypt, the deliverance at the Red Sea, the giving of the Torah, the manna and quail, the water from the rock in the desert, all leading to the entry at the end of forty years into the Promised Land.

Jesus and his Apostles celebrating the Last Supper meal, which the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) portray as the Passover

For us Christians, Jesus is the fulfillment and every Eucharist is our celebration of the Passover of the Lord Jesus from death into resurrection, and our participation in that Paschal Mystery by entering into the Word of God and finally partaking of the Holy Mysteries of the Lord Jesus' Body and Blood at Holy Communion.