May 24, 2004
Luke 24: 46-53
A young couple gave birth to twin boys and they named one Peter and the other Paul. The parents could tell from the very start that these two boys were very different. Peter was a happy baby whereas Paul seemed dour and very seldom would smile. As the boys began to grow they polarized even more. Peter was the eternal optimist, always seeing good in every situation. Paul was negative and complaining. Nothing was able to make him happy. By the time the boys reached their 8th birthday their parents knew they had to do something to make Paul more positive and Peter less so. So they decided to use the boys’ birthday presents to accomplish this end. They told the boys that they would each receive a very special birthday present, and they set aside two rooms in their house. One room they filled with all the gifts, toys and clothing that they could afford. All of this was to be Paul’s birthday present. They were hopeful that at least something would make him happy. The other room was for Peter. In that room they brought in a huge pile of animal manure from the nursery. They were confident that even Peter could not find anything good in such a birthday gift.
When the time came for the boys’ celebration, they directed each boy into the appropriate room and closed the door. After about an hour they went into Paul’s room. “Honey how do you like your birthday presents?” “Not very much,” he said. “My bike is the wrong color. All these clothes are dorky, and my friends already have these video games.” The parents were discouraged. At least half of their experiment had failed. Paul was as negative as he always was. But there was still hope that Peter had become more balanced. As they approached the second room they could hear the squeals of Peter laughing in delight. They opened the door, and there he stood in the middle of the room covered with manure and gleefully digging into the pile. He looked up and said, “Mom and Dad thank you for this gift. I am sure with this much manure, there is a pony in here somewhere!”
It is our common experience that some people are optimists and others are pessimists. But the feast of the Ascension reminds us that if we are Christians, if we are followers of Christ, we are called to be optimists. What stands at the center of our faith is not warning and fear, not rules and commandments. What stands at the center of our faith is good news—the good news that Jesus who was crucified has been raised up and has entered into glory. Entering into that glory is what we celebrate today. It is what we mean when we talk about Jesus’ ascension. But the good news does not stop with Jesus. We believe that the same pattern that shaped Jesus’ life is now our own. We who follow Christ, who have been baptized into him, believe that our lives are now patterned on his. We believe that there is a movement in our life that is not downward toward death but upward towards life and glory. Our conviction that such a movement is our own is what supports Christian optimism.
Now not all optimism is Christian. Not all optimism is even healthy. There is a kind of optimism that is blind, that refuses to admit that there is evil in the world. Such an optimism is out of touch with reality, and it is not Christian. Christian optimism recognizes that there are many things wrong with our world, but it refuses to let that which is wrong negate that which is good. Christian optimism holds onto the hope that our lives and our world are in fact modeled after Christ’s, that we are indeed moving towards glory.
Is it easy to live this kind of optimism? Not at all. It is difficult when there are problems in our family; when we worry about our children or our parents; when there is misunderstanding and hurt. It is difficult for a Christian to believe that when we love and forgive, things will work out for the best. It is difficult when we experience sickness and loss to continue to trust that we can find the courage to continue and once again be happy. It is difficult when we live in a world where so many lives are controlled by violence and war and hatred and injustice to believe that women and men of goodwill can make a difference, that working together we can find a road to peace.
It is difficult to remain optimistic in the real world in which we live, but that optimism is at the center of the gospel. We who follow Christ are challenged to believe it. Yes there is much that is wrong about our world. But we who follow Christ believe that the world and our lives have been patterned on Jesus’ own life, which changes everything. We who celebrate this feast today believe that we know the pattern and the movement of our lives. We believe that that pattern is not downward but ascending.
The Bible Is More than a Text
May 20, 2007
Walter Brueggerman, one of the great scriptural minds of our time, admits that he learned the most important thing about the bible in the first year of his seminary training. There his professor told the class, “If you want to know what the bible means, you must read with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” This insight tells us that God speaks to us not simply through the words of the bible, but how those words interact with the newspaper, with the real events in our world and in our lives.
Sometimes we think that the truth of God is hidden in the words of the scriptures, and we have to find it, like finding a pearl in an oyster or our keys at the bottom of our purse. But the word of God is much more dynamic than that. It might be best seen as a sound, as a vibration, as an echo moving through the ages. We are able to hear that sound and catch that vibration because we can identify similar echoes in the lives that we live. This is what keeps the scriptures alive. It is what saves them from becoming a dead word, a historical fossil. The truth of the scriptures is always unfolding, fresh and alive, as it interconnects with the experiences of our lives.
Jesus uses this dynamic sense of the scriptures in today’s gospel. Luke tells us that Jesus opened the minds of the disciples so that they could understand the scriptures. Jesus says, “It is written that the Messiah is to suffer and be raised from the dead on the third day.” Now the problem with Jesus’ words is this: you can read the scriptures as long as you want, but you will not find anywhere in the Old Testament where it is written that the messiah had to suffer or be raised up on the third day. So why does the gospel text say that it is written there? Because the evangelists understood that you have to read the bible and the newspaper together. The meaning of the scriptures is discovered when it is read through contemporary events. For the early church those contemporary events were the death and resurrection of Jesus. Therefore, in light of Jesus’ suffering and passion, the gospel writers read the prophet Isaiah and understand that the suffering servant in the text is referring to the crucified Lord. In light of Jesus’ glorious resurrection, the early church was able to see that all the promises to Israel for a Savior were fulfilled in him.
The good news is that Jesus has given us the Spirit, so that we can understand the bible in this same way.
I think many Catholics feel inadequate when it comes to reading the bible. They do not know the names of all of Paul’s letters or the chapter and verse in which famous sayings of Jesus can be found. But we do not understand the bible only by understanding the text. We can also begin to understand the bible by understanding God’s actions in our life. We can read the chapter and verse of our own lives as God’s grace unfolds in our midst. When we come to recognize the wonder of a newly born daughter or son or grandchild, we understand some of the wonder that Mary felt by the manger in Bethlehem and why the scriptures say that she treasured all of those things in her heart. When we have to struggle with a family problem or a rejection by somebody we love, we understand the pain that Jesus felt during his passion and identify with his struggle to still believe that God would be faithful. When we win a battle with cancer or find new life in a relationship that we long ago thought was dead, we see the faithfulness of God that the women discovered at the tomb on Easter morning.
Now do not get me wrong. I think it is valuable and important to study the bible, to read a book, to take a class, to join a bible study group. But to understand the bible you need not begin in a classroom. You can begin by examining the texture of your own lives. So let’s begin. Let’s begin today. Let’s ask the Spirit of God to show us how God is acting in our lives, blessing us, protecting us, leading us. And once we can claim the action of God written in our lives, we will be able to catch the echoes of that same love and power in the words of the scriptures. The inspired text we read is a true gift from God. But it does not function alone. It resonates with the power of God’s Spirit sending vibrations of truth to connect with the lives we live. +
Praying Our Goodbyes
May 16, 2010
I think that I can speak for us all when I say that we want the good things in our life to last as long as possible. When we have been blessed, when we are with the people that we love, when we are happy with our family or our job, we do not want any of these good things to change. Such good things energize us, comfort us, and give us joy. Now having said that, it is also true to say that life does not allow us to hold onto the good things we have forever. Life changes and we must change with it. Therefore, a fundamental skill of living is learning how to say goodbye. It is a true blessing when we learn how to say good-bye well. Sr. Joyce Rupp has collected thoughts on this issue in her book PRAYING OUR GOODBYES. She defines a goodbye as an empty space within us, something that occurs in any situation where there is loss or incompleteness. We carry then an emptiness that cries out to be filled. Those empty places are created when we have to say goodbye to our parents, or our spouse, or our children, or our friends; when we have to say goodbye to familiar surroundings or secure homes; when we change a job; when we have to adjust to a new financial reality; when we say farewell to our healthy bodies; or we change our ideas, our values, or our self-image.
On this Feast of the Ascension, the disciples in today’s gospel had to face a major goodbye. They had to say goodbye to the physical presence of Jesus. As Jesus ascended to the Father he promised the Spirit who would be with them always. But he would no longer physically be present to them as he was in his ministry or in his glorious body after the resurrection. Life was changing and the disciples had to let go of what they once had. But even as Jesus leaves them, he also points out to the disciples a way in which they can say goodbye well. He points it out not only for their benefit but for ours. Jesus asks them to remember the things of the past, his death and resurrection, and the proclamation of the Good News. He says to them, “You will be witness to all these things.” Now at first it might seem strange or counter-intuitive to point to the past as a way of dealing with Jesus’ departure. After all, remembering the past is remembering the very things we no longer have. But by asking them to witness to the past Jesus is actually showing the disciples an effective way of saying goodbye well.
Jesus asks us to remember the people and the things of the past, not so that we can lament because we no longer have them, but to remember them so that we can see that they were God’s blessings. Such a recognition leads us then to the belief that the same God who blessed us in the past, will bless us again. When we can witness to God’s presence in a love of a person we once had, or in a relationship we once shared, or in our youth that we once possessed, or in any gift of familiarity that we once enjoyed, we remind ourselves that God’s love is real. When we witness to God’s blessings, even though those gifts are no longer ours, God is still ours. By claiming God’s presence we affirm our faith that God is prepared to lead us into the future and to lead us to goodness. Witnessing to God’s presence in our past is a way of saying goodbye to the gifts that are ending and at the same time preparing ourselves for the gifts that will be offered.
Life changes, but God remains the same. Life changes, and therefore every person must learn how to say goodbye. But Christians can say goodbye with the spirit of hope because we witness to the good gifts of the past believing that the same God who gave us those gifts still loves us. From the perspective of faith, the other side of every Goodbye is a new Hello.
Jesus Is Not Like Congress
May 12, 2013
I just checked the latest Gallup poll and the approval rating of Congress is not very high. Only 15 percent of Americans believe that Congress is doing a good job. Now, there are many ways to explain this dismal rating, but a part of it certainly comes from Congress’ ability to anger people. One of the ways it does this is by imposing new requirements on states, local governments, and individual Americans without providing the money by which those new requirements are to be implemented. Such a demand is called an unfunded mandate. It makes people angry because suddenly they have some new requirement and are not given the means by which to do it.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus makes it clear that he is not like the United States Congress. He begins by giving a huge mandate. He tells his disciples that they are to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. This is an immense expectation, especially for a small group of fishermen and tax collectors. He is commanding them to go out and change the world. But when Jesus commands something, he also provides the means by which that command will be accomplished. This is why he tells his disciples that they are to remain in the city until they are empowered from on high. If Jesus is going to command that his disciples be his witnesses, he is going to give them the Spirit to make them so. There are no unfunded mandates with Jesus.
This truth is important to remember as we try to follow the Christian life. As disciples of Jesus, we face some serious and difficult commands. Jesus commands us to speak out against injustice, even though it might make us unpopular. He commands us to lay down our life for our neighbor. He commands us to forgive our enemies.
When we hear these commands our first response is: “I can’t do that. I don’t have the courage, the generosity, or the goodness to follow that command.” It is then that we must remember that Jesus fully intends to fund all of his mandates. This is why we, like the disciples, must wait for the power of the Spirit that will allow us to accomplish what Jesus asks of us.
Waiting, then, is essential to discipleship. Many times, people come to talk to me, because they are struggling with the expectations of the gospel. They have been hurt deeply or rejected by someone. Their life has been turned upside-down, because someone has offended them. They come to me and they say: “Father, I know that Jesus commands me to forgive my enemy, but I can’t do it. When I think of this person, all I have is anger and a desire to get even.”
In those circumstances, I encourage people to wait, reminding them that the ability to forgive requires God’s help. If Jesus commands us to forgive our enemy, he must provide the means by which we are to do it. Forgiving an enemy runs contrary to our human inclinations, and so we are dependent on power from another source. We must wait for power from on high, in order to follow Jesus’ directive.
Waiting for that power is a part of the Christian life. But we need to wait in a particular way. This is important. Even when we know that we are not able to follow Jesus’ command, we must take that command in. We must accept what Jesus says, even when we know we can’t do it. We take in the command and we hold it in prayer, asking God to give us strength. We pray honestly: “Lord, I know you command me to forgive my enemy. I can’t do it. Lord, I know you command me to take up my cross. I don’t have the strength. Lord, I know you command me to speak out against injustice. I don’t have the courage.”
We accept the command, and then wait for the power to follow it. We take the command in, believing that God’s Spirit will come to us and allow us to do what is required. We accept the command without guilt. We take it in with patience, waiting for God to act.
Jesus does not give us impossible commands. But they may be impossible today. This is why we wait as the apostles waited. We wait for the gift of God’s Spirit, because when the Spirit comes, all things are possible. And on that day, when the Spirit empowers us, we will be able to do what Jesus commands us.
After the Ascension
May 8, 2016
I think all of us have in our minds a picture of the Ascension of Jesus. Christ is lifted up through the clouds to take a seat at the right hand of the Father. But what struck me today in our first reading from the Book of Acts is what happens after the Ascension. Two men appear to the disciples and say, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing looking up into the sky?” In other words, even though Jesus ascended through the sky, looking for Jesus in the sky is looking in the wrong place. This is the scriptural way of telling us that we are to look for the risen Christ not in the clouds but in the circumstances of our own lives.
But where in our lives should we look? Allow me to suggest three places: in joys, in needs, and in opportunities. Looking for Jesus in the joys of our lives is looking in the easiest place. When we watch or children or grandchildren play, when we embrace the person that we love, when we reflect upon the goodness and the faithfulness of our closest friends, the risen Jesus is there. But it is important for us to recognize his presence. The good things in our lives do not come to us because of luck or good fortune. They come from the love of God blessing us.
Jesus can also be found in the needs around us. When someone in our family needs our time, when someone at work needs our assistance, when someone at school needs us to listen, we should expect to find Jesus there. When we reach out to help, when we reach out to give, Jesus often uses that moment to give to us. We know from experience that we receive more than we give. The risen Christ will bless us when we try to help others.
Jesus can also be found in the opportunities of our lives, opportunities for hope, opportunities for healing. We can find ourselves devastated by the loss of someone through death, through divorce, or through misunderstanding. We simply cannot imagine our lives ever being normal again. It is then that we should look for Christ in opportunities of hope. The opportunity to have lunch with a friend, the opportunity of a call to service, or the opportunity for a trip with our family, can all be moments that Jesus uses to bring us back to fullness of life. We should look for those opportunities and take them.
We might find ourselves deeply hurt because of the insensitivity or selfishness of someone else. We simply cannot imagine ever forgiving that person, ever restoring that relationship. Then we should look for Christ in opportunities for healing. A note in the mail, a chance meeting in the supermarket might be just the moment that Christ uses to give our relationship a second chance, to restore the bond that was broken. We should watch for those opportunities and seize them.
On this feast of the Ascension, we should look for the risen Christ in our joys, in the needs around us, and in the opportunities for hope and healing. It does no good to stand looking up into the sky. Christ is to be found in the contours of our lives.