Reflections by Susan Roll

Reflection for the Sixth Sunday of Easter B, May 9, 2021

Acts 10: 25-26, 34-35, 44-48; Psalm 98; 1 John 4: 7-10; John 15: 9-17.

These past few weeks our Gospel readings from the account of John come from a section of text that seems to have been parachuted into John’s idiosyncratic account of the Last Supper. Jesus is depicted giving a lengthy speech to his disciples about the future -- their future -- as they unfold and live out their post-Resurrection faith when he is no longer among them. Scholars call these chapters 15-17 of John the “Farewell Discourses.”

Some years ago, I was working on a project with a New Testament scholar who was a woman religious. When we worked at her office in the convent I was regularly invited to share a coffee break or lunch in the community refectory. Almost as soon as we sat down we were swooped down upon by Sister John, a friendly, chatty elder nun. Sister John never ran out of things to tell us. She would finish her lunch, stand up, and then linger, leaning over her chair while she chatted on and on. And on. My friend and I went back to work with a wan smile, joking about Sister John’s Farewell Discourse.

These chapters of course date from three generations after the lifetime of the historical Jesus, and contain a good deal of somewhat off-putting you-versus-the-world dualism. But last week’s metaphor of the vine and the branches was one little gem tucked into the text, and this week we have another, related nugget: “It was not you who chose me, it was I who chose you, to go forth and bear fruit, fruit that will last.”

This can be a bit scary. And maybe it should be scary for anyone who thinks that they came to a commitment to Christian faith all on their own, as a result of a private decision-making process. It might be scary for those of us in some form of pastoral or practical ministry if we’re tempted to think of our work as, well, ours. Because in the end, probably no one in their right mind would darken the door of a church, especially one marked too often by pastoral insensitivity, repeated scandal and mismanagement. We’re there because something drew us, maybe something we don’t fully recognize or can’t quite identify. We’re there because of some sort of invitation. Ultimately we’re there because of God’s initiative, not our own. And when we’ve had enough of power maneuvers, or belittling of women or LGBTQ2 persons, or racism, or you name it, and want to run screaming out the door and never come back – well OK we might do that. But most likely there remains a spiritual hunger. And embedded in that hunger is the invitation. God’s initiative. God as a reality, a living Being with whom we are continually in relationship, one way or another, conscious or not.

Here is where the grapevine and the call come together. The life flowing through the vine into the branches, into the buds, forming them as heavy clusters of ripe grapes, sustains us through the dry seasons. The same life sustains us through the pruning. After all, we’re not the ones doing the pruning. We can’t even see our own little vine most of the time, never mind the whole of the vineyard. We wouldn’t go deep enough with the pruning – we’d back off, hesitating, afraid of cutting too deep and severing the lifeline.

The lifeline comes from God, just as the call comes from God. We didn’t make it up. We couldn’t. And we cannot entirely sever it either. That’s not in our power. Not even by (gasp) committing a mortal sin. Because the life that bears fruit flows from and in and through God. And God does not take orders.

Pat and Patty Crowley, a married couple from Chicago who were prominent in the 1960’s Christian Family Movement, were invited to serve on Pope Paul VI’s Papal Birth Control Commission. At one session, a highly-placed Vatican official was railing on and on about why the Church teaching against birth control could not be changed: “What about all those people through the ages that we have condemned to hell?” Patty Crowley responded sweetly, “But Monsignor, how can you be sure that God carried out all of your orders?”

© Susan K. Roll

Reflection for the Fifth Sunday of Easter B, May 2, 2021

Acts 9: 26-31;    Psalm 22;    1 John 3: 18-24;    John 15: 1-8.

“After awhile it really scares you how much they cut away,” a friend described watching the process of pruning grapevines at a winery next to Lake Erie.  The pruners chop and trim, removing first the deadwood, then more and more of the vine and finally some of the living branches as well.  He said they only leave a certain number of live buds, and the vine might take two or three years to come back fully from pruning.  When it does, of course, the grape harvest is abundant.

Not a job for me.  I feel like I should be apologizing to the shrubs whenever I approach them with the hedge clippers to nip off their bright new shoots.  But I rarely take on the blackberries.  Their vicious thorns exact merciless revenge.

Today ‘s Gospel reading always feels like it comes with a dark underlayer – a surface interpretation plus a deeper implied threat.  “Bearing abundant fruit” is a lovely image.  But the real threat is to certain unnamed you-know-who-you-are disciples who will be cut down, thrown away, burnt up, and all their own fault because in some way they are no longer in union with Christ.

On several levels this text is a sign of the times – its own times.  “Vineyard” was a symbol used repeatedly in the Hebrew Bible for Israel, and of course it is God who prunes.  New Testament scholars believe that chapters 15-17 were added to John at a later stage, and reflect a time of crisis characterized by the threat of persecution from without, and dissension within, the Johannine community.  The remark about pruning fruitless vines may have been aimed at members of the community who tried to hide their Christian faith under danger of persecution, rather like a face-off between a threat from Roman imperial forces and a corresponding threat from their own people.  No wonder it seems dark.

At the same time though we shouldn’t miss the rich and powerfully organic imagery of the life-force coursing through the veins of the central vine, into and through the branches, out to the nascent buds, soon turning the buds to heavy clusters of ripe grapes.  The imagery is at once one of God’s bounty in the fertile abundance of creation, and a Eucharistic image of the “fruit of the vine and work of human hands,” the wine that gives joy, the wine that speaks of the vibrant lifeblood connection between God and God’s people, effected in Jesus’ exhortation to his friends to “do this in memory of me.”

It’s no big stretch to compare the act of pruning with that of taking inventory of what is extraneous in our lives, what holds us back, or what we slog around carrying when it would be more life-giving and energy-producing to let it go.  For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, it suits the time of year – spring was traditionally accompanied by spring cleaning.  For those who may have lain fallow a bit too long with the enforced isolation of the pandemic, perhaps it’s a call to let go of the ghosts that may be inhabiting our minds – the old grudges, or resentments, or regrets, that come back to nudge us when we’re not as distracted as usual.  If we truly carry the life of the Divine within us, we deserve better than to muse morosely over the deadwood, when there are fresh new buds not far under the surface, ready to pop out and grow into new possibilities, new promises, and new life.

Early this spring, about the time the vineyards by Lake Erie were pruned, I walked out my driveway and noticed my boots were sticking to the pavement.  I looked up – at the stump ends of pruned branches we had lopped off the maple tree overhead last fall because they were close to taking down the power lines.

There it was, stuck to the bottom of my boot.  Sap.  The revenge of the maple tree.

    ©  Susan K. Roll

Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Easter B, April 25, 2021

Acts 4: 8-12; Psalm 118; 1 John 3: 1-2; John 10: 11-18.

The choice of Psalm 23 would have been obvious, glaringly obvious, for “Good Shepherd” Sunday, and the Revised Common Lectionary used by mainline Protestant denominations does just that. But the Roman Missal uses Psalm 118, echoing Peter in the first reading: the “Resurrection Psalm” also used at Easter. There’s an odd sort of genius in that choice. It might offer hope to discouraged, even downtrodden Christians in an offside way that scripture scholars and theologians never thought of.

Praying or singing “The Lord is my shepherd” can take us to lovely places – this is the comfort psalm par excellence for funerals. But it can also take us to darker places almost before we realize it. In the Hebrew Bible the “shepherd” metaphor is applied to kings, and this sense carries over when Jesus is depicted as a shepherd in the Gospels of Matthew and John. When the church couples “Good Shepherd” Sunday with Vocations Sunday it sets up an identification of clergy with shepherds … which makes the rest of us, uh, sheep? Yes, sheep. A different species. A less intelligent species, like domesticated animals that need managing and protection in order to survive. While this is not very affirming of the dignity of the sheep (and I’m not so sure that Pope Francis saying the clergy must “smell like the sheep” does either) the basic equality of all Christians in baptism suffers as well. A clerical caste that sees itself as privileged, with a prerogative to teach and govern others, can easily slide into a mentality of entitlement, as we know all too well.

Psalm 118 takes us somewhere entirely different:

It is better to take refuge in God than to put confidence in mortals.

It is better to take refuge in God than to trust in princes…

I thank you that you have answered me, and have become my salvation.

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.

This is God’s doing! It is marvellous in our eyes.

First, a helpful note on what is meant by “cornerstone.” This is not the sort of commemorative stone laid in the corner of a public building with the date it was built and maybe even containing a time capsule. A better translation is “capstone,” which could mean the top of an arch, or even better, a stone at the corner that holds the two adjacent walls together and prevents the walls from collapsing. What a breathtaking image at Eastertime. The risen Christ, the securing stone that holds the earth and the universe together – the cosmic Christ, the omega point Christ, the Christ that was and is and is to come. The cornerstone once rejected by the builders.

For anyone who has rebuilt their lives from tragedy, or misfortune, or abuse, this image empowers them to rejoice in the gift of God that turned their lives around. For anyone who has had to flee from war, or poverty, or danger, and managed to find refuge and safety for their families, this image applies. For anyone who beat the odds, who persevered in their dream, or who proved all the naysayers wrong, this one is for you. Yes of course you worked hard, but hard work alone is never a guarantee. New life, new hope, a new beginning, is one of the finest gifts of God.

As we look toward a time of emergence from the dark tunnel that is the pandemic, let’s shift the metaphor back, guardedly, to the idea of lost sheep. Who’s gotten lost during the time when we were all in isolation, connected only by phones or machines with flat screens? Who’s struggling with unseen loneliness, depression, fear of the future, or suicidal thoughts? Who do we know who needs food, or medical care, or a strong hand to pull them to their feet so they can walk and run? Who needs justice secured, human dignity affirmed, fear lessened? Who needs, like the sheep, reliable and appropriate boundaries? For whom shall we pray? And for whom shall we stand up in solidarity, to be Christ for them in their need?

After all, one does not become a cornerstone all by oneself.

© Susan K. Roll

Reflection for the Third Sunday of Easter  B, April 18, 2021

Acts 3: 13-15, 17-19;    Psalm 4;    1 John 2: 1-5;    Luke 24: 35-48.

It’s a quirky little detail, nestled in the middle of a narrative in the process of building up momentum toward a remarkable climax:  the revelation that this Jesus of Nazareth is alive to them.  Not only is he real, but the Hebrew Scriptures and the prophets all foretold the dreadful path to pain, humiliation and execution that he suffered.  The terror and tragedy of the past few days now begin to make some cloudy sort of sense to his friends.

“’Have you anything here to eat?’”  It sounds too casual to be real.  Here they are, barely comprehending what they’re seeing, talking to this, um, familiar figure – and he suddenly asks them for something to eat?

“And they gave him a piece of broiled fish” as in the NRSV translation in the Canadian Lectionary, or “baked fish” (in the U.S. Lectionary translation.)  “Baked” sounds more plausible.  Really, what would a first-century broiler look like?

“And he took it and ate in their presence.”  He ate the fish.  It went somewhere.  The piece of fish disappeared.  This was like the definitive proof that he was no phantom, no phantasm produced by collective hallucination.

This is typical of the Gospel of Luke which tells a total of ten meal stories.  The previous meal story, in Luke 24: 13-35, shows this mystery figure who had walked alongside two puzzled disciples on the road to Emmaus, explaining how Scripture had predicted just these events that had shattered their world and their hopes.  The disciples prevail on him to have supper and lodge with them, and while they were at supper, he took the bread … you know the rest.  “Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, and he vanished from their sight.”

Both of these stories read back the Eucharistic meal practice of the Lukan church.  These accounts of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances are constructed from a template that included a Liturgy of the Word, a Liturgy of the Eucharist (at this time still called, more simply, “the breaking of the bread,”) and over it all, the living presence of the risen Christ.  His presence was hard to recognize at first, and he disappeared shortly after recognition, but clearly our ancestors in faith in the first century knew for sure that the risen Christ was truly present in their assembly.

Roman Catholics forgot that powerful truth for many hundreds of years.  In the 1920’s a Benedictine monk named Odo Casel, of the German monastery of Maria Laach,* drew from his research on ancient Greek mystery cults to pose a striking and controversial thesis: that the real essence of the Eucharist, and any sacrament, consists in the living presence of the risen Christ, a presence that was not imaginary, not perceptible through the bodily senses, but nonetheless real.  It is not the priest but Christ who presides at every sacrament.  The sacraments are Christ’s life among the baptized people of God who constitute his Body on this earth.

Casel came in for much sharp criticism in the 1920’s and ‘30’s due to his use of “pagan” sources (…although in the 12th century Thomas Aquinas had done the same with Aristotle, and was made to answer twice to charges of heresy.)  By 1947 when Pope Pius XII issued Mediator Dei the official magisterium was willing to grant, grudgingly, the validity of this vibrant life-centred understanding of the sacraments.  Mediator Dei however insists that this profound and dynamic theology of the sacraments must be credited to, not “newer authors,” but to… Thomas Aquinas!  As they say, you can’t make this up.

And the ”mystery presence” of Christ as the source and the holy power embodied in every conferral of every sacrament, entered official church teaching with the documents of Vatican II.

Odo Casel did not live to see his thought vindicated.  He suddenly collapsed and died of a stroke shortly after intoning the Exultet at the Easter Vigil in 1948.

I used to tell my students, with a half-grin, that if you are a liturgist, and your time has come, you couldn’t stage your final exit any better than that.

    ©  Susan K. Roll

*The monastery of Maria Laach was a centre of liturgical research and experimentation in the first decades of the 20th century.  The first instance in modern times of the presiding priest turning around to face the people, and calling on the people to give the acolyte’s responses, took place here in 1920.

Reflection for the Second Sunday of Easter  B, April 11, 2021

Acts 4: 32-35;    Psalm 118;    1 John 5: 1-6;    John 20: 19- 31.

I think most of us have learned, or re-learned, a great deal about human touch in the past thirteen months since the coronavirus pandemic shut down life as we knew it.  We have learned that touch can be dangerous, spreading contagious sickness, leading to long-lasting suffering or even to an anguished death while gasping desperately for air.  On the other hand, we become more aware of how life-giving the act of touch – appropriate touch, a touch offered and accepted – can be for our mental health and our sense of belonging to a human family.  How often have you heard (or said!) “I just want to hug my grandchildren!”

But in the meantime—don’t touch.  Don’t embrace.  Don’t breathe, at least not on other people.  All of these stand in stark contrast to the profoundly bodily beauty and intimacy of our Gospel readings last week and this week, an intimacy that does not sicken, but heals.

In Easter Sunday’s Gospel Mary of Magdala reached out to touch the risen Jesus, her beloved teacher who suddenly, against all logic, appeared and approached her as a living person.  And he refused her touch.  Instead he sent her as a messenger, giving her a primary responsibility and a commission that in effect founded the church as the community gathered in the name of the risen Christ.

So what do we make of this week’s story of Jesus’ encounter with Thomas the Twin?  Why is this encounter different?  Why does he invite touch?  One simple reason could be that the Gospel of John was assembled and edited over a period of thirty years, from about 60-90 C.E. (A.D.) and a number of authors may have had a hand in it.

Each of these encounters is marked by the exquisite tenderness of Jesus in an intimate exchange with his closest friends, following the terrifying and traumatic events that led to his brutal execution.  Here he invites Thomas to extend his hand and penetrate the jagged wounds that had caused Jesus’ death.  We don’t know what Thomas did in response, but we know he experienced a powerful transformation, a conversion experience.  The text says that he exclaimed “My Lord and my God,” a way of expressing how the Johannine church understood the divinity of the risen Christ.

What the risen Christ’s two appearances to his disciples in the locked room have in common is his greeting:  “Peace be with you.”  This was not a perfunctory ritual greeting, not here.  After the past few days’ ongoing saga of betrayal, denial, fear, running away, and responding to the empty tomb by simply returning home -- these men could not escape a reckoning with their own cowardice.

But retribution is not what they got.  They got “peace.”  They got forgiveness.  They didn’t seek it and didn’t ask for it.  It was the first thing the risen Christ said to them, behind the locked door of that enclosed room.  He said it twice in the first meeting and again the second time.  Their painful past was embraced and released.

After he breathed on them the presence of the Spirit, the risen Christ gave them too a commission – to be agents of forgiveness and peace to others.

Every time we pray the prayer Jesus left us, we pray in a general way to be able to forgive others, aware that we ourselves have been forgiven.  Sometimes the call to forgive can feel like one is being guilted into letting some evil act pass, or letting some malevolent person get away consequence-free.  It can feel like there’s no justice.  It can seem like the victim is responsible, not the perpetrator.

If we think of forgiveness as healing instead, that may bring us closer to the deeper meaning.  Did anyone ever tell you that it’s OK to take your time on forgiveness?  Sometimes one’s own anger, or pain, or trauma, needs more time to heal.  Honour that process.  And try to keep moving on the journey toward healing and peace, in order to grow strong enough to channel healing and peace to others who need it.

At the place of intimate union between the risen Christ and the infinite God, Source of all Being, there is peace.  Be peace.  And be a source of peace.

    ©  Susan K. Roll

Reflection for Easter Sunday, April 4, 2021

Acts 10: 34a,37-43;    Psalm 118;    Colossians 3: 1-4  or  1 Corinthians 5: 6b-8;  John 20: 1- 18 (in Canada)   or John 20: 1-9 (in the U.S.)   or Mark 16: 1-8.

For Easter Sunday may I invite you on a return visit to the Noddfa Centre retreat house in the north of Wales?  Imagine you’re a guest at a grand old manor house ringed by farm outbuildings, perched part way up a steep rocky hill covered with daffodils growing wild.  Meadows hosting flocks of mother sheep and noisy lambs punctuate more sharp-peaked hills, and the wild sea looms in the distance.

Twenty-five women affiliated with “Women Word Spirit” have gathered together with three women religious who manage the centre, for a five-day Easter Triduum gathering on the theme “Death and Renewal of Creation.”  From Thursday through Monday the participants meet each day in small groups to plan original feminist liturgies around the day’s liturgical and theological themes, with a creative use of natural elements, artwork, colour, text, music, space and movement.

6:00 am, dawn on Easter morning, (…yawn…) we pull on warm clothing and drag ourselves to the main hallway.  There each of us is handed a small jar of spice that came straight from the kitchen pantry – ginger, sage, that sort of thing.  We are the women who rose early to go to the tomb where the body of Jesus had been laid.  And we set off, out the back garden and up the wooded hill to the… empty… tomb.  Shocking!  Where is he?  What just happened?  Where did they move him?  We mill around aimlessly in stunned confusion.

And as we milled, scattered in the chill morning air, one by one we became aware of something.  One of our number, a woman named Marlene who had come over from France, was moving more deliberately among us.  Wearing a black hoodie that made her a sort of spooky spectre, she quietly came up to each woman, and softly called her by name.  Marlene, whom we had first met only two days before, had memorized all our faces and names, and gently, invitingly, personally called us each by our name.  As Jesus did.  Unexpected, unannounced, catching each one of us by surprise and leaving everyone a bit breathless.

We converged at a clearing where a huge pile of wood was set on fire – the Easter fire.  We lit sparklers from the bonfire and danced around it joyfully, then processed down the hill to the fountain in the garden, singing and dancing round the fountain.  We blessed the water, then blessed each other with the water, splashed happily, sang more songs, and proceeded indoors to a grand brunch, later an even grander Easter dinner and an evening party.

By Monday morning many of the women named their experience of being called by name by the risen “Jesus” as especially powerful and meaningful, within a long weekend of eloquently prayerful and compelling liturgical celebrations.

“John’s resurrection story is not triumphant but instead leads us to look into the reality of death, where we unexpectedly but intimately encounter the risen Jesus,” in the words of commentator Jin Young Choi.  Simon Peter and the other disciple looked into the tomb but “did not yet understand” about his rising from the dead.  So what did they do?  They went home.  Probably slammed and locked the doors out of fear, which of course did not prevent the risen Christ from standing among them and speaking with them, his wounded body very close to them, as we see later in John 20.

Look beyond the Father-Son language, go a level deeper, and see the tenderness and depth of love that he had for Mary of Magdala.  His question “Why are you weeping?  Whom are you seeking?” invites her to speak his name.  But she can’t, not yet.  Not before he calls her, gently, by her own name.  “Mary.”  Just Mary.

“Only at this moment can she recognize her teacher and friend, Jesus,” writes Jin Young Choi.  Mary wants to touch him.  Instead he sends her off, sends her on mission to be the apostle to the apostles.  An apostle to the ages.  An apostle to us.

In the dank chill of early morning, a light shines.  A spark ignites a fire that blazes, up and up, water flows to bless the springtime earth with fertility and we dare to speak the hope of a life in harmony with all of creation, a life brought into being by love, sustained in justice, and welcomed into the folds of the earth at its bodily end.


    ©  Susan K. Roll

Reflection for “Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord” B,
March 28, 2021

Procession Gospel:  Mark 11: 1-10 or John 12: 12-16
Isaiah 50: 4-7;    Psalm 22;    Philippians 2: 6-11;    Mark 14:1-15:47 or 15:1-39

It can feel like too much to take in at once, even though these are all familiar stories, one scenario after another, in this Passion narrative.  If we see only a chain of events, we could miss the underlying meanings.  Let’s draw out one story, one thread in the textile, and let it reflect light on the rest.

Yes that story, the passage telling of a woman who walked into a dinner and anointed Jesus, a character with no name and no voice, known to us only by one action at one crucial time.  The woman of whom Jesus said, “Leave her alone.  Why do you make trouble for her?  She has done a beautiful thing for me. … Truly I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed to the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”  Except that it wasn’t, at least not with her name.  Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza took this as the title of her groundbreaking 1983 book In Memory of Her, with more than a glint of irony.

This woman seems not to have been a member of the household of Simon the Leper, nor a guest, however no one objects to her presence until she breaks the expensive bottle of imported perfume and pours it over Jesus.  Such an alabaster vessel would have been bottle-shaped, with a long narrow neck, and sealed such that it would need to be broken open.  Perfume derived from nard would have been imported from northern India.  She holds back not a drop of it.

A classic theological interpretation of her action calls it an act anticipating the imminent death and burial of Jesus highlighted in the words spoken by Jesus in the story itself.  Another interpretation names her anointing a Messianic act and contrasts her spiritual insight with the spiritual “blindness” of the scribes and Pharisees.  Sometimes the interpretation goes askew by claiming that Jesus affirmed that it was perfectly acceptable that a proportion of the people should live in unrelieved poverty, but a more credible take on these words would simply set this statement as a point of contrast with the immediate presence of Jesus among them and the unique generosity of the woman’s gift.

A few commentators tut-tut the erotic implications -- this strange woman shows up and in the sight of the guests caresses Jesus’ head with massage oil, so to speak, as if she were seducing him.  Others, more consistent with the call to Jesus’ followers to comfort and heal those who suffer, point to the woman’s act of comforting Jesus in advance of what she knows will be his painful death.

And then there’s the neat contrast with Judas Iscariot.  The woman sacrifices a significant amount of money for Jesus, and enters the house to honour him.  Judas sacrifices Jesus for the money, and leaves the house to betray him.

When contemporary postcolonial theologians sink their teeth into it, we see the larger political context.  This woman who counts for nothing in the militaristic Roman Empire or in patriarchal Jewish culture literally invades the space, ignores the bullying of those who criticize the largesse of her gift and dares to anoint Jesus as prophet and ruler.  In the words of theologian Seong Hee Kim, her “act of defiance against the Roman Emperor” links Jesus’ reign, not of this earth, with his death and burial, “because his kingship against imperialism is actualized through his death on the cross.”

    What she has done, her beautiful deed, will never be told.
Not in Tyre or Sidon, Paris, France, New York or Rome.

She will be misunderstood
her sacrifice called seduction
her prophecy rejected
her knowledge erased.

Unremarked, unremembered,
she will be found
in the negative space
wherever there is silence.*

In the silence she lives.  In the silence Jesus is left for dead.

    ©  Susan K. Roll

*Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, A Lot of the Way Trees Were Walking: Poems from the Gospel of Mark  (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2015), 69.

Reflection for the Fifth Sunday of Lent B, March 21, 2021

Jeremiah 31: 31-34;    Psalm 51;    Hebrews 5: 7-9;    John 12: 20-33.

Sitting here in front of the screen, I’m holding two kinds of seeds in my hand.

One is a dried pod of marigold seeds.  In the fall I re-pot and bring the plants indoors where, as each flower dies and leaves a full pod, I harvest and keep the seeds for next year.  You can never have too many cheery yellow flowers in your garden, especially ringed around the vegetables to discourage nibbling critters.

The other is a paper packet.  Six weeks ago we buried a 95-year-old neighbour lady I’ve known all my life.  Arlene died of Covid-19.  After the funeral her daughter handed me a tiny packet that reads, “Please plant these forget-me-not seeds in loving memory of our precious Mother, Grandmother and Friend Arlene…”

Nestled within our Gospel reading for this Sunday, rather like a half-hidden seed among mounds of moist ground, is the line, “Truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”  In context this analogy intensifies our awareness of the impending death of Jesus together with a promise of new life only made possible by passage through death.  We are on the approach to Holy Week, a time of horror relived each year by each new generation of Christians.  Here the Christmas joy of God become human in the Incarnation, in our fragile human flesh, comes to a terrifying dénouement.  And here, as the writers of the Gospel of John remind us in the next line, it’s not only about him.  It was about the danger of persecution faced by the first generations of Christians, the people these writers were addressing with words they placed in the mouth of Jesus.  It mirrors a risk all Christlike folks take in living out their faith courageously in all its consequences. 

But notice one thing.  The grain of wheat doesn’t actually die.  If it did, nothing would grow.  In the grain of planted wheat, life is changed, not ended, to quote the funeral rite.  Its life expands, extends upward, drinks in water and minerals, breathes fresh air and bathes in sunlight, unfolds new leaves, and then unfurls the new sheaves of wheat that expand its life ever outward, full of young grains of wheat that will land... in the soil.  And start again the cycle of life.

Embedded in this text is an exquisite analogy to the mystery of death and new life, situated in the fertility of this planet and the life-giving power of the cosmos.  Cosmic theology, right here, a quick blip on the screen of an otherwise foreboding scripture text.  Fear and hope, terror and joy, vital energy and deepening decline, mingled, intertwined, sometimes under our control, sometimes not.

In front of my picture window, next to a pot of happy marigolds, is a pink geranium.  A very, very tall geranium.  Two years ago I set the pretty plant in front of the window, and it grew… and grew…up and up, with no frame for support, over a meter high, finally wrapping its leaves around the curtain rod near the ceiling where it seems perfectly happy.  I never knew a geranium could do that.

I think they’re conspiring to tell me something.  And the forget-me-not’s are going to get in on the deal.

    ©  Susan K. Roll

Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Lent B, March 14, 2021

II Chronicles 36:14-16,19-23;   Psalm 137;   Ephesians 2: 4-10;   John 3: 14-21.*

Have you ever been a stranger in a strange land?

I don’t mean, returning to your cruise ship after a day’s guided sightseeing, or staying in a multi-starred hotel and devising your itinerary with the help of seasoned tourism professionals.  Or even joining in awkwardly to a conversation in a language you’ve only half mastered, or trying to negotiate unfamiliar customs so you don’t make a fool of yourself in foreign social situations.

There are many ways, sometimes grueling and shattering ways, to be a stranger in a strange land … or even in your own land … or even to yourself.

At first glance it doesn’t look like there’s much of a common thread to tie together any of the readings in the Roman Missal for this week, which is weird for a strongly thematic season like Lent.  I suspect an important key lies in the Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 137:

    By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
    On the aspens of that land we hung up our harps.
    For there our captors asked of us the lyrics of our songs,
    And our despoilers urged us to be joyous: “Sing for us the songs of Zion.”
    How could we sing a song of God in a foreign land?

(Can’t you just hear the grinding sarcasm in the captors’ voices?)

This Psalm gives us a way through the dense thicket of the long First Reading by showing that an underlying theme is exile.  Exile, and homecoming.

Exile is a state of unhealed fracture – a perpetual flat note, a sour chord.  Exile is a fragmented, disjointed, raw-edged existence.  Exile is not always temporary.

The Hebrew people were defeated and driven into exile in Babylon in the year 586 B.C.E.  Like countless other peoples forced from their familiar homelands, they struggled for generations with chronic alienation, and in this case their prophets were not much comfort:  “You want to know why God did this?  Because you were unfaithful to the covenant and went chasing after other peoples’ gods.”  In our First Reading today it was a conqueror from another foreign country, Cyrus of Persia, who freed the Hebrews from exile.  When they reflected on their own history they thoroughly enjoyed the irony that God had worked through a Gentile king to free the Jews to come home to Jerusalem.

One can be an exile already on the road.  Think of the waves of desperate migrants crowded into wobbly boats on the Mediterranean, or swarming northward from Central America.  Or one might be an exile in one’s own land:  think of new landed immigrants uprooted and confused inside a puzzling country.  Think of Indigenous peoples who can no longer recognize the land that belonged to their ancestors.  Think of the CBC series “Being Black in Canada.”

And then there are the ways of living in exile within yourself, a genuine danger in this time of prolonged isolation and confinement to stay safe from the coronavirus.  Think of domestic abuse survivors who relive the trauma and shame even when the abuser is not present.  Think of how old obsessions can expand to fill the space available in your brain when there’s no outside distraction.

But if our Hebrew ancestors in faith gave us stories of forced exile and wrenching laments, they also left us songs of hope.  Here’s Psalm 126:

    When from our exile God brings us home again, we’ll think we’re dreaming,
    When from our exile God brings us home again, we’ll think we’re dreaming.
    We shall be singing, laughing for happiness.
    The world will say, “Their God does wonders.”
    Yes you do wonders, God here among us, you, our gladness.
    Then lead us home, bring us to life again, even as rivers which, in the desert,
    When the first rain falls, start flowing again.   (1)

And even if “the journey is home,” we are never entirely alone on the journey.

    ©  Susan K. Roll

*If you use the Revised Common Lectionary your First Reading is Numbers 21: 4-9, which makes the reference in the Gospel to the snake-on-the-pole-in-the-desert make perfect sense.

(1) “Als God ons thuisbrengt uit onze ballingschap, dat zal een droom zijn…”  Huub Oosterhuis, transl. Redmond McGoldrick, 1974.

Reflection for the Third Sunday of Lent B, March 7, 2021

Exodus 20: 1-17;   Psalm 19;   1 Corinthians 1: 22-25;   John 2: 13-25.

An old friend and I were visiting her parents’ home, drinking coffee and chatting.  Seemingly out of nowhere her mother, a former schoolteacher and an irascible type at the best of times, demanded to know, “What are the Ten Commandments?  Tell me the Ten Commandments.”  I recited some of them from memory, my friend added a few more, but we came up just short of ten.  Her mother snorted, “What kind of theologians are you if you can’t say the Ten Commandments?”

I thought of this exchange later when team-teaching confessional practice with a colleague at the seminary.  He told the sems that if they noticed a penitent who appeared to be checklisting their sins into groups, that the person was in fact categorizing sins they had committed according to each of the Commandments, an old catechetical practice.  He added that the confessor should be alert to signs of rigidity or shame in that penitent.

Why during Lent are we hearing the Exodus version of the Commandments? (There’s a slightly different version of the Commandments in Deuteronomy and yes, the numbering differs even between Protestant and Catholic versions so it’s possible not to get exactly ten.)  You remember last week we mentioned that in Lent the Old Testament readings for Year B highlight the theme of the Covenant.  Each of these stories – Noah for whom the rainbow symbolized a promise by God, Abraham who was “tested” as to whether he would sacrifice his son, this week the commandments and next week the Babylonian exile as punishment for the people’s infidelity – is fleshing out the historical context for the establishment of a new covenant in the death and resurrection of Christ, in Christian belief.

While the notion of a God who sets demands and expectations may seem off-putting, the positive side is that this deity is a living God in a dynamic interactive relation with humans in community.  This God of Israel is no abstract concept, no idealized cosmic power.  People can even reason with God, bargain with God …well, they can try.

But as often happens, when we peer more deeply into the underlying assumptions, nothing is as simple as it seems.

Let’s pose a prickly question:  do the Ten Commandments apply to females?  Or only to males?

The injunction not to covet (the Hebrew implies “do not steal”) “your neighbour’s wife” is a dead giveaway.  Oddly enough, so is “do not commit adultery” because in that culture men’s adultery was largely tolerated.  For women the same behaviour could have deadly results.  On the other hand, honouring one’s father and mother does create a balance, in that even in a patriarchal society the criteria include not only gender but position and elder status.  But is the commandment addressed to women?

Drorah O’Donnell Setel in The Women’s Bible Commentary 1992 writes, “The commandments in Ex. 20: 1-17, considered to be at the very heart of both Jewish and Christian belief, state explicitly that it is a male community to whom they are addressed.  In Hebrew the pronoun “you” is in a masculine singular form.”

O’Donnell Setel points out that in the preceding chapter, “Nowhere is the secondary status of women and their exclusion from the central institution of Israelite society more apparent than in Ex. 19:15, where those who are preparing to enter the covenant with Yahweh are exhorted “do not go near a woman.”

Some readers may be thinking, “OK I’m done.  I am totally done with this religion.”  On the contrary, I find this kind of revelation exciting and encouraging, because once we have a better handle on the truth, we can begin to reform and reconstruct on a solid foundation to bring out the deeper underlying spirituality.  If the fault lines and cracks are appearing, so are the healing and justice-making possibilities:  “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Sadly my friend’s mother passed away several years ago.  We could have had great fun telling her all that.

    ©  Susan K. Roll

Reflection for the Second Sunday of Lent B February 28, 2021

Genesis 22: 1-2,9a,10-13,15-18; Psalm 116; Romans 8: 31b-34; Mark 9: 2-10.*

Oh my. Where to even begin?

Let’s take Genesis 22 and begin by saying, What kind of a God demands sacrifice?

And more to the point, just what kind of a God demands that a father commit pre-meditated murder on a child, his own child, thinking that he is obeying a divine command? What kind of a father lies to his child to induce him to come along willingly on a journey, far from home, then goes through the motions of building an altar to sacrifice an animal -- and then suddenly betrays the child?

Take a moment to imagine that you are young Isaac. What happens in that terrifying moment when you realize that the father you love and trust is about to slash you to death and burn your body on a rock? What do you feel when he takes the knife? When he lays hold of the trapped ram and kills it instead of you? How do you feel returning home with your father? Do you trust him, that night, the next week, the next year? Do you have nightmares the rest of your life?

Now take a moment to imagine you are Sarah, who saw her husband and son off when they went away together to perform a religious ritual. Is the horror of discovering what happened even fathomable? Do you ever trust this man again? Do you even have a choice?

Ironically, this story is a cornerstone of both Jewish and Christian discourse urging complete faith in God. The readings used on the Sundays of Lent in Year B bring out different aspects of the covenant, the “holy agreement” as a colleague of mine calls it, between God and God’s chosen people. A covenant built on trust.

As you probably know, Genesis 22 is also used as one of the readings at the Easter Vigil. In this case the paradigmatic story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac is used to prefigure God the Father accepting the sacrifice of his only Son on the cross. If you interpret the theology of the crucifixion as atonement to the Father for the sins of humanity by the sacrifice and death of his Son, the perfect victim, it makes a gruesome sort of sense.

There’s actually something better you can do at the Easter Vigil.

For many years the U.K. organization Women Word Spirit (originally founded as the Catholic Women’s Network) arranged a women’s retreat from Holy/Maundy Thursday until Easter Monday at a lovely spacious old house, Noddfa Centre, in the steep hills near the seacoast in northern Wales. (“Noddfa” means “refuge” in Welsh.) The participants did all the planning and carrying-out of liturgies and meditative activities, from scratch, using natural symbols and whatever text and music resources they had brought along, for each day of the Easter Triduum.

One year I took part in the group planning the Vigil. We stumbled hard against the use of Genesis 22 … until … we thought of substituting Genesis 18: 1-15. This is the delightful story of Abraham entertaining three strangers who, upon departing, reward his hospitality by announcing that by the time they return, his elderly and infertile wife Sarah will have given birth to a son.

So Sarah laughed to herself, saying “After I grow old and my husband has grown old, shall I have pleasure?” The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying “I did not laugh” for she was afraid. The Lord said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”

On Saturday evening for the Easter Vigil we were seated in a large oval in a dimly-lit meeting room. At the end of this reading, one participant suppressed a giggle, so did another, then a few more, until finally we were all guffawing out loud and could hardly stop. It was joyous, perfect and simply brilliant.

Maybe Sarah was present, laughing along.

© Susan K. Roll

*If you follow the Revised Common Lectionary your First Reading is Genesis 17: 1-7, 15-16, your Second Reading is Romans 4: 13-25 and, if you marked the Transfiguration on the Sunday before Lent, your Gospel will be Mark 8: 31-38.

Reflection for the First Sunday of Lent B February 21, 2021

Genesis 9: 8-15; Psalm 25; 1 Peter 3: 18-22; Mark 1: 12-15.*

Father Sleasman stood before his undergraduate religion class and pronounced, with great gravity and emphasis, “God. Is like. Niagara. Falls.”

You could almost hear the class thinking in unison, “Wait, what?”

Context is everything. This took place at Niagara University, and we were located only five kilometers north of the Falls. Our reading assignment had been from Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane, which introduces the concept of God as at once mysterium tremendum and mysterium fascinans.

Have you ever visited Niagara Falls? Did you spend time standing above the powerful incessant rush of the water, leaning over (well, not too far over) the rail and letting the thunderous currents fill you with the grandeur and brilliance of the God who created it? This God of frightening, potentially destructive power, this same God of refreshment, regrowth and renewal, rushes relentlessly onward in the torrent just below your feet. Mysterium tremendum, mysterium fascinans – a mystery at once terrifying and unspeakably beautiful.

Our readings for this First Sunday in Lent invite us to move beyond this past Wednesday’s grimy ashes and grumbling stomachs toward one of the most ambivalent symbols of our faith, the vector of our identity as Christians: Baptism, in water and in the Holy Spirit. Our First Reading, the story of Noah and the Ark, reflects both sides of the mystery: the Flood destroys almost everything, and yet, on the other side of the Flood comes the rebirth of the earth and God’s promise not only of moral renewal but the cessation of the threat of further destruction. The text from the First Letter of Peter makes clear to the young Christian community that their moral core, their souls, have been saved in water, as a comparison to the way Noah and his family were saved. Except now the washing-away of the old and the fresh greening of the new have been accomplished in Baptism, an “appeal to God for a clear conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…”

Unfortunately the Roman Missal misses the boat, so to speak, by beginning the Gospel of Mark at 1:12, not 1:9 where Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River and the continuity of the theme is perfectly clear. The passage we will hear in today’s liturgy begins with, “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert…” Matthew and Luke say more gently, “The Spirit led him…” but Mark forces the point. The same Spirit that had just appeared as a divine revelation, identifying this Jesus of Nazareth as the Son of God, forcibly drives him into a dangerous wasteland full of wild animals. It is as if he did not choose this. The Spirit that penetrated him in the Jordan now compels him into the desolation that will ground his ministry, not a desert of cactus flowers and contemplative prayer, but of struggle and conflict.

It won’t help us understand this conflict if we see it merely as Jesus vs. Satan, rather like a 1950’s Godzilla-versus-whomever film. We need to go deeper to harvest the spiritual meaning. Over a prolonged period of earthly time (“forty days” resonates with the story of Noah and the flood, but it could simply be shorthand for “a long time”) two cosmic powers engage in combat, far away from civilization and social order. The one-on-one struggle of the divine versus the demonic will thread its way through Mark’s Gospel when Jesus returns to inhabited lands and engages again with his friends and the local populations, healing the sick and hushing the demons who “know him.”

It would be logical to interpret the missing baptismal narrative and the emphasis on Jesus’ temptation in the desert in the Catholic Lectionary as a means of bringing forward a Lenten emphasis on individual Christians’ struggle to resist evil and sin in our lives. And heaven knows, we are coping with new categories of temptation unimagined even last year at this time. The temptation to pull one’s mask down off one’s nose to get more fresh air, for instance, or the temptation to join a discreet house party, or to hug a friend.

Where is Baptism in all this? Briefly, in the cosmic dimension where all creation is made new. Temptations do not merely lure the individual to morally corrupt actions, but distort and damage entire societies and cultures, to say nothing of the sustainability of the earth itself. Baptism is a sacrament of the earth itself, of the cosmos, of the renewal of all of creation. Baptism reminds us of the sacramentality of all God has made. And Baptism commissions us to take our personal responsibility, our rightful place, in the immensity of the cosmos.

© Susan K. Roll

*If you follow the Revised Common Lectionary your Gospel is Mark 9: 9-15 which includes the Baptism of Jesus.

Reflection for Ash Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51; II Corinthians 5:20-6:2; Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18

I think anyone could be forgiven for exclaiming “Lent! What Lent? We’ve been doing Lent every day since, well, last year’s Lent!”

In the face of the pandemic, the economic crisis, the crisis in education and the constant fear, we’ve already sacrificed a lot, simplified our lives a lot.

We’ve sat home. A lot.

We’ve worn masks, stayed away from restaurants and movies and friends, looked like shaggy dregs of humanity, avoided hugging our grandkids for heaven’s sake.

We may have hauled bags of food to donate to food banks for the newly destitute.

We may have haunted internet sites and phone lines to get on a waiting list for a vaccine so we don’t accidentally kill someone with the virus.

We may be thinking, “Don’t tell me I have to sacrifice even more! I just want this to be over with.”

On this Ash Wednesday, a call to repentance probably doesn’t look like much of an invitation. The simplicity and sobriety, the deprivation of Lent, is relative to the circumstances, and for most of us our circumstances this past year have been almost unimaginable.

And this is where we’re invited to go deeper. To go stronger.

What’s the purpose anyway of special Lenten devotions, or the Scripture readings every Sunday that lead us further and further into Jesus’ journey to the Cross, or our personal pious Lenten practices and prayer?

It’s a bit like a crash course, an intensive refresher course, in becoming who we are called to be anyway – followers of Christ. That involves an awareness of a constant call to conversion, to a new, healed and holy way of life, and to arrive at this holy place via repentance for our mistakes and failings.

Repentance is never “one and done.” It’s a continual call to turn round, to change our minds, to change our behaviour. Repentance forms the core of the Gospel message. The call to repentance is not a threat. It’s a lifeline.

So what does lived repentance look like? Some practical things we can do: listen attentively to someone. Apologize to someone. Make amends. Open a difficult conversation, with sensitivity, tact and kindness. Respond to unanswered correspondence (that’s one of my Lenten resolutions.) Try, just for one day at a time, not to think about an old grudge, or to dwell on an unhealed trauma.

Then, lift your sights to the wider horizon to see how the way we live our lives impacts our family and neighbours, then the broader community, the larger society, the scope of the world in which we live. Are there goods, money, and time that we are being invited to share with those most in need? What needs to change in government policy, in social attitudes, in the larger distribution of goods, and how can we actively participate in bringing about that change? What can we change in order to heal the earth?

Who needs to hear from us a word of believable hope? Of our solidarity in their struggle? Who needs their full human dignity affirmed? Who needs an outstretched hand to bring them out of the shadow of death, to life?

This season of sober reflection amounts to an invitation to pare down life to its essentials, to clear away the clutter, so we don’t lose sight of our Baptismal call as Christians, and don’t set our focus too short, our horizons too low.

For this reason we remind ourselves of Jesus’ invitation to “Come and follow me,” to “go where you don’t know and never be the same.”

This Ash Wednesday, let’s find the courage together to face this challenging invitation, and to say a resounding Yes.

Reflection for the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time B, February 14, 2021

Leviticus 13: 1-2, 44-46;   Psalm 32;   1 Corinthians 10: 31-11:1;   Mark 1: 40-45.*

Oh how we dreaded preaching on Leprosy Sunday…  By ”we” I’m thinking of some of us who preached regularly at the Sunday Eucharist.  Yes, in those long-ago days in the Diocese of Rochester, New York, theologically-qualified women and lay men in university chaplaincies/campus ministry and some parishes could and did preach.  That local tradition of lay preaching is continued on the website “God’s Word Many Voices.”

To the well-meaning preacher “leprosy” sounded like a dangerously contagious and common disease, and the social isolation imposed on its victims seemed to make a heartless sort of sense in first-century Palestine.

But it’s not what we might think – either leprosy or the logic of social isolation, a concept in public health that I daresay is much more familiar to us now than we could ever have imagined one year ago.

First off, the word translated here as “leprosy” does not refer precisely to Hansen’s disease, but to a general category of skin disorders and infections.  We know now that Hansen’s is not nearly as contagious as our ancestors thought – one would need to be in prolonged proximity to a victim to pick it up.  And because Hansen’s disease is bacterial it can be treated with antibiotics.

What’s less clear-cut to us is the deeper reason for isolating and banishing victims of skin disease – the concept of ritual purity.  The more powerful issue had to do with whether an individual’s pollution offended God and endangered the community.

For our ancestors in faith any of several physical conditions, from a skin infection, to blood or fluid loss, to childbirth, posed a threat to the people as a whole in approaching the Holy in worship and sacrifice.  Once eradicated the impurity had to be atoned for, in order to restore the victim to the life of the community.  The priest would certify legally that the condition no longer existed, and then the individual would be required to make the prescribed sacrifices.

While our early Christian ancestors patted themselves on the back that Christians were no longer subject to the requirements of the law of Moses, they held onto one aspect of ritual impurity that isolated a person from the church community – that of menstruation and childbirth.  Right up until the 1950’s the rite of the churching of women after childbirth was the means by which a new mother was officially permitted to re-enter the church building and take part in the liturgy.  Although women were told this was a blessing and thanksgiving rite, it used Psalm 24, “Who shall ascend the mountain of the Lord?  Who shall stand in his holy place?  Only those whose hands are clean, whose hearts are pure.”  After being sprinkled with holy water the woman was brought into the church building by holding onto the left side of the priest’s stole, rather like being led on a leash.  Then followed more sprinklings, blessings and prayers at the altar of the Blessed Mother.

Our concept of social distancing right now is entirely medical in nature – reduce the spread of Covid-19 by keeping physical distance, washing hands, wearing a mask, getting the vaccine as soon as you can, staying home when possible, and so forth.  We hear it every day.  We get used to doing it, for the most part.  This is a matter of social responsibility, to care for the lives of others, keeping in mind that nobody knows for sure who has it, and who may inadvertently be spreading it.

Social isolation in this time involves a challenge to simultaneously protect and connect.  Perhaps it’s time to think ahead to what reintegration into an enfleshed, organic, post-Zoom faith community will look like, and how we can continue to take responsibility to safeguard the community’s health.  How will we be able to recognize trauma, whether in others or in ourselves?  Can we detect the signs that someone is subject to domestic abuse, or slipping into depression, or falling behind in work or school?  How will we renegotiate new, healthy, life-giving boundaries?  And where do we see the glimmers of the living Spirit peeking through, calling us forward, and joining us together?

    ©  Susan K. Roll

*If you follow the Revised Common Lectionary your readings for this last Sunday in the Epiphany season are for the Transfiguration, and the Gospel is Mark 9: 2-9.

Reflection for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time B, February 7, 2021

Job 7: 1-4, 6-7;    Psalm 147;    1 Corinthians 9: 16-19, 22-23;    Mark 1: 29-39.

A few members of my Wednesday Lectionary study group were unusually pleased with what they saw in the story of Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law, the first of three healing stories in today’s Gospel reading.  One woman exclaimed that this story affirms women:  “See, Jesus heals her so she can act in her role as hostess in her own home and wait on him!  He gave her back the dignity of serving him!”  Another participant remarked that this story illustrates the fact that Simon Peter was clearly married, thus giving a poke in the eye to claims that celibacy is inherent to clerical status.

Reading and interpreting Scripture for oneself is not something Roman Catholics were traditionally invited to do, in fact up to the time of Vatican II it was positively discouraged.  What might happen if simple lay Catholics drew the wrong conclusions?  Better to have the priest explain a text authoritatively in order to avoid falling into error, n’est-ce pas?

And there were a few Catholic “flips” in the Scripture texts, for example, safeguarding the virginity of Mary with the explanation that the Gospel passages referring to Jesus’ “brothers” really meant his cousins in an extended family.

We have an interesting example here of the ambiguities underlying the situation and visibility of women in Scripture and Church, then and now.  On the one hand, we meet the first visible woman, in the earliest of the four canonical Gospels, a person whose body was the site of one of Jesus’ first healing miracles.  On the other hand we do not know her name.  She is identified relationally, as Simon’s mother-in-law  -- is her daughter, Simon’s wife, living?  What is her name?  In Mark’s Gospel the majority of women are identified by their relation to a male.

A number of feminist New Testament exegetes have grappled with the meaning of this small story segment, and several different assessments emerge.  One of them is actually similar to that of the group participant above:  Pheme Perkins argues that in this intensely patriarchal world it would be a matter of honour and responsibility for an elder woman to tend to the house’s dinner guests, and a cause of some shame if she cannot do so.  Other feminist scholars support one of two different trends.  One opinion emphasizes that ultimately her healing does not result in any form of liberation from domestic servitude, espressed in a comment by a study group member, “Healed!  Just in time for dinner!”

The second opinion points to the Greek word used for the activity she rises up to perform:  Diakonia.  But was it really diaconal service as Mark’s Christian community might understand it?  In fact diakonein was a word that stretched to cover a range of service, and split according to gender – men’s diakonia referred to service to the state or the common good and often carried distinctive prestige.  Women’s …. well, no surprise there, was domestic in nature and simply expected.

Diakonia is not the only Greek word Mark used in this story that would carry a particular Christian meaning and tremendous weight in Mark’s community.  The other word is egerein, to raise up, because later it would refer to the Resurrection, not only of Christ but of believers.  The letter of James uses the same word to speak of the elders anointing the sick, saying that the anointing “saves and raises up” the sick person.

Elaine Wainwright suggests that while the story context points to conventional domestic service, later interpretation on the part of the Christian community would set this story in line with their developing understanding of what it meant to “serve” the risen Christ.  This would shift the woman’s position from a passive recipient of a healing miracle, to an active agent of engaged participation in the gathering of the community in Christ’s name.

Maybe we’ve brought the process of hearing and unfolding the story to a place where it can give life and hope.

    ©  Susan K. Roll

For more feminist perspectives on this story, see Warren Carter, Mark, Wisdom Commentary series (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2019) pp. 27-32.

Reflection for the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time B, January 31, 2021

Deuteronomy 18: 15-20; Psalm 95; 1 Corinthians 7: 32-35; Mark 1: 21-28.

What does it mean to use, exert, or teach with “authority?”

And how does authority differ from power?

In the past year we’ve all reluctantly become experts on the limits of authority and how it overlaps with power – and how neither might coincide with trustworthy truth. If a government authority claims that there’s no threat to public health from a deadly contagious virus, or that it will simply disappear on its own, or even that a secure election was rigged – does that make it true? Does power make what is demonstrably untrue, true?

The story of Jesus’ actions in one eventful day in the town of Capernaum represents the Markan writer’s effort to establish Jesus of Nazareth as an authentic authority recognized by the people around him. First, he teaches in the synagogue “with authority,” and then heals a sick man by exorcising a demon. The people who witness the event cry out, “A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” Then they spread the word.

Mark isn’t interested here in the content of Jesus’ teaching as much as in this initial revelation of who Jesus really was – an authority, and one who could be trusted more than the local scribal authorities the people were used to. Scribes in urban areas were likely to be civil servants appointed by the regional Roman magistrates or the local Jewish government under Roman occupation. Mark shows Jesus, especially in this initial skirmish in a battle between the power of good and the power of evil, as exerting a transcendent power not conferred by human officials.

A trustworthy authority is not always so obvious. Sometimes it can be hard to know when you’re being lied to – especially when the lies are big and boisterous. For persons who grew up in troubled homes, lies may have been the way to make everyday life halfway tolerable. Lying to oneself could have created a place of emotional safety from shame and fear. But cushioning pain by escaping from it distorts the perceptions and realizations one needs to move toward healing. There’s a saying in twelve-step programs, “You can’t negotiate with reality.”

So in general, how can you tell a deceitful authority from a trustworthy one? There’s much to be said for the gut – as in, “go with your gut.” Listen to your deeper instincts, especially when they persist and won’t let you go. Sometimes your body will tell you when your mind is doing a different dance with your thoughts – the upset stomach, or the tension headache, or the long-term symptoms of stress. It can be reassuring to know that we were created with organic, built-in truth detectors, if we only listen to them. We carry within ourselves a sort of holy compass.

© Susan K. Roll

Reflection for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time B, January 24, 2021

Jonah 3: 1-5, 10;    Psalm 25;    1 Corinthians 7: 29-31;    Mark 1: 14-20.

Spaghetti is not a sacrament.  …no, not even spaghetti parmesan, a woefully overwhelmed pile of pasta and sauce smothered under a mammoth heap of bubbling melted cheese, the perfect pandemic comfort food.

But sometimes spaghetti can serve as a small-s sacrament when it mediates an invitation to “Come and see.”

One of my mentors, the professor of catechetics mentioned in the Reflection for the Epiphany, was volunteering in a parish in Washington D.C. while working on her doctoral dissertation on the catechumenate in the ancient church.  She asked the pastor what she could do.  He replied, “Make spaghetti.”

“Make spaghetti???”

“Yes, enough for about twenty people who will be coming to your apartment.  They include a few parish members and some people who have asked for information about joining the church, or about being baptized as adults.  First, we offer meal hospitality.  Then we can share something about our faith journeys.”

This was 1962.  The first document from Vatican Council II would not be voted on until December 1963.

But Christiane recognized that this was similar to the experiments carried out in the 1950’s in France and West Africa to invite people who were interested in the Christian faith to “Come and see.”  No obligation.  Just an invitation to share a meal and a dialogue.  Not an instruction on doctrine or pious practice, unless the guests raised specific questions.  Simply listening and sharing on a human level, the level of lived faith, of spiritual yearning, of welcome and listening.  And, as Christiane would go on to teach in courses and workshops all over the world, this is the approach embodied in the “pre-catechumenate” of the R.C.I.A., the Rite for the Christian Initiation of Adults, promulgated as an official order of the Roman Catholic church in 1988.

The phrase “Come and see” turned up in our Gospel reading for last week and the theme carries over this week as Jesus invites those who would become his first disciples to come with him.  This was no longer John the Baptist preaching the need for personal repentance culminating in the ritual act of immersion in the Jordan River to signify a purging of old evils and a commitment to a new way of life.  This is now Jesus of Nazareth preaching that a new age has come, a time of fulfillment of the promise of a Messiah, and a new imperative to repent and reform, to listen more closely and embrace a healed and holy way of life, to take up a personal share in a transformation of all creation.

And it’s all on an invitation basis.  Even the initial inquiry – “Where do you live?” in last week’s Gospel, or perhaps “Why do the people in your church do thus-and-such” today – is sprouting from an impulse on the part of the inquirer.  And the response is not a slam-shut answer, but an invitation to take a step further, and then another step.

An invitation respects the freedom of the invitee to make a choice – yes, no, let me think about it, let me check my schedule, let me get back to you...  In not forcing a particular response, the one doing the inviting becomes vulnerable.  The church folk who invited strangers to their home for spaghetti might have been rejected outright, or might have had their hospitality exploited for a free meal, or simply had their time and effort wasted.  They let go of control over the outcome.  They were the channels of the invitation, but ultimately it wasn’t their invitation.  It was God’s.

The living God, vulnerable to human rejection.  This goes a long way toward making sense, if sense is not expecting too much, of the cross.

    ©  Susan K. Roll

Reflection for the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time B, January 17, 2021

I Samuel 3: 3b-10,19;    Psalm 40;    1 Corinthians 6: 13-15,17-20;    John 1: 35-42.

“We don’t do absolute ordination,” the Lutheran pastor stated flatly from behind his desk.  In fact the policy of the Evangelical Lutheran churches in North America, the ELCIC and ELCA, is that a candidate for professional ministry in a particular synod (=diocese) is not ordained unless and until that person receives a call from a congregation.  What that means is not only that the candidate must have a concrete “job offer” in hand, but that a local faith community must affirm that they in fact call this person to serve that community in the ministry of word and sacrament.

“But the same is true of Catholic reform movements such as Roman Catholic Women Priests,” I rejoined.  “Both the diaconate and priestly ordination rites make provision for a person or persons representing a faith community to give witness to the candidate’s fitness and qualifications, and to affirm publically that their community is calling this person.  The community might be only a small living-room group, but still, it’s a call.  RCWP doesn’t do absolute ordinations either.”

Two reform movements, founded 500 years apart, met and kissed (so to speak.)
I like to think that Martin Luther was looking down on us with a wan smile.

The Sunday readings this week and next week dance around the theme of a “call” from God and what form that might take, without going on to examine the long-term evolution of a response to the call and its consequences.  The story of Samuel is actually rather charming as it moves Samuel and the aged Eli toward recognizing the “voice” of God.  It’s a story you could read to children.  The underlying purpose of this text was not to identify young Samuel as a prophet, but as a future leader of Israel commissioned directly by God in the Davidic line.

The idea of a “call” is presented on a literal level in both the first reading from the book of Samuel, and in the Gospel in which the Johannine writer depicts Jesus addressing directly these few individuals who saw him in passing.  The theme of “call” will come more to the fore in next week’s Gospel reading from Mark.

In these stories persons are addressed directly, sometimes called by name.  In the Gospel they respond by calling Jesus “Rabbi,” a form of address used in the gospel of John as a term of respect (it didn’t mean “teacher” in the lifetime of Jesus himself.)  In any case the “call” is personal but not subjective in nature – the call has an objective origin.  It doesn’t arise from an individual’s inclination or insight, but as a response to a summons, to an invitation.

Years ago a child growing up in a pious Catholic family might wonder whether he or she had a vocation, in the sense of a personal call from God to enter priesthood or religious life.  A promising young person might be approached, even urged, to consider a religious vocation.  Sometimes the person might be confused and wonder what to look for, thinking that they had to figure this out on their own.  A friend of mine at university once declared, “I used to wonder whether I had a vocation to religious life.  Now I’ve decided I have a vocation to marriage.  I just need to meet someone.”

When seminary professors and formation directors find themselves dealing with a seminarian who believes he has discerned a call to priesthood directly from God, it’s generally not a good thing.  Such students can be difficult to deal with in the priestly formation process (to say nothing of the classroom) because they tend to think that no one has anything to teach them, or that their mentors have no grounds to criticize them  After all, these guys are a gift of God to the church.  And there we have it -- a nascent form of clericalism.

So there are calls and there are calls.  No one is called to do something they can’t do.  And no one is alone in discerning a call, because ultimately it’s not about us.  The initiative comes from God, and develops in a living relationship.  A call is not a text message – it’s always dialogic in nature.  Whether it’s a call to meet a neighbour’s need, or to serve in a charitable organization or social justice project, or even a call to set apart more time in meditation and spiritual reading, not to mention a call that might turn your life around -- the call is never a standalone.  It is deeply, inextricably woven into a living, and life-giving, relationship with what is holy.

    ©  Susan K. Roll

Reflection for the Baptism of Christ, January 10, 2021

Isaiah 55: 1-11;    Isaiah 12: 2-6 excerpts;    1 John 5: 1-9;    Mark 1: 7-11.

Did you know that, if you were to visit Israel today, especially with a tour group that arranges visits to sites meaningful to Christians, you yourself could be baptized in the Jordan River?

Scholars believe that Jesus was baptized by his cousin John at a point on the river not far from the Dead Sea.  Today however, at a site upriver called Yardenit, a facility with reception area, gift shop, changing rooms and showers has been set up to welcome both visitors who wish to be baptized in the river and groups of Christians renewing their baptismal vows as an act of devotion.  You bring along your own clergy.  When I visited Israel in 2011 the leader of my tour group was a priest of the Anglican Church of Canada and a retired Chief of Chaplains for the Canadian Forces.  (This by the way is an excellent combination to have when you’re visiting a country with serious security concerns.)

At Yardenit you buy an admission ticket that includes a towel, soap and access to the showers afterward, because, unfortunately, the waters of the Jordan are less than pristine.  You wear a bathing suit.  Our group leader offered participants three options: just wait at the railing overlooking the steps, or go partway down the steps to the river and just dip into the water with a foot or hand, or go all the way in with your group leader, where each participant in turn is fully submerged in the Jordan.  While those of us who waded in all the way were still gasping and blubbering from water dripping everywhere and struggling to wade back to shore, another group not far away was shrieking with pure joy because they were baptized just as Jesus was.  It can be a powerful, memorable religious experience.  And you can bring home a customized DVD to remember your group’s experience at the Jordan.

No matter what happens in your life, no one and nothing can ever negate your baptism.  You can be thrown out (or walk out) of the Church, but nothing can nullify your baptism.  It’s forever.  And we are baptized only once -- that’s the reason why, if you are a baptized Christian who goes down into the Jordan River as a devotional act, it’s not a second baptism, but a renewal of one’s commitment to the first.

In his own time John was not the only “Baptist” on the circuit of preachers denouncing sin and calling for repentance.  In fact there were a number of such wandering preachers.  They were spiritual descendants of the great prophets who, several hundred years before, had called upon the entire Hebrew people to renounce the foreign gods and cults they had adopted while in exile, to remember the God who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt, and to change their ways as an entire people to worship the God of their ancestors.  The new generation of prophets such as John the Baptist did not direct their efforts to an entire people, but instead to individuals in their own concrete circumstances, such as soldiers and merchants.  As a sign of the individual’s conversion and new determination to turn away from their past and to begin anew, the prophet invited them to go down into the water.  By immersing themselves they showed their willingness to plunge into a radically new way of life, cleansing themselves symbolically of their wickedness, and emerging as new persons, strong and ready to embrace a way of life characterized by honesty and justice.

It is precisely in the dignity given by baptism that we can live in some way in union with Christ, and can reflect the love and compassion of Christ to others, as best we can.  As Paul says in his letter to the Romans, we have died and risen with Christ in Baptism, the source of our own hope of resurrection. This knowledge gives us a profound faith, great strength, and unshakeable conviction to do the work of making justice and challenging unjust structures -- because baptism is not just for us.  Baptism is nothing less than a lifelong call to live the Gospel message as an invitation and a call to others, and as a powerful witness in our world to the everlasting love of God.

    ©  Susan K. Roll

Reflection for the Feast of the Epiphany, January 3, 2021

Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72; Ephesians 3: 2-3a, 5-6; Matthew 2: 1-12.

The year was 1987. A world-renowned professor of catechetics had assembled a crack team of experts in scripture, religious education, liturgical theology and liturgical music to work on a comprehensive Lectionary for Masses with Children.

The work ran aground briefly, right on the readings for the Epiphany, specifically Matthew’s description of the profession of these visitors to the stable in Bethlehem. Consistent with the committee’s painstaking policy of simplifying Bible language for children while retaining accuracy, “Magi” did not sound quite right in today’s English. Kids wouldn’t know what that word meant. “Wise men” was not inclusive and not very specific. The draft text written by the scripture scholar read “astrologers,” and the professor protested, “Why change this? It is very simple! Les Mages! Les Mages!” (Her first language was French.) There was some counter-argument supporting “astrologers.”

And then I, the lowly editorial assistant, spoke up. I pointed out that the big news story from the United States was the shock and ridicule directed at President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan because of the disclosure that they routinely consulted astrologers to determine auspicious dates and times for important government meetings. A superstitious President! His credibility was at stake. And after all, the primary market for this project was in the U.S.

I hesitantly suggested “astronomers.”

More discussion ensued, and in the end we wrote “astronomers.”

Fast forward three years when, after much struggle with publishers, bishops and canon lawyers, the three-volume Book of Readings plus catechetical materials, leaders’ and parents’ guides, children’s leaflets and singable music, was finally published, distributed and sent around for critical review. Wouldn’t you know, one reviewer, out of all these voluminous texts, seized on this reading, saying that calling the Magi “astronomers” was, well, just silly. …sometimes you can’t win.

Seen in the long scope of church history, the objection to astrology wasn’t far off the mark – some of our ancestors in faith reacted much the same. New Testament experts today think the word “magi” could have meant a caste of wise persons possibly associated with astrology, Zoroastrianism, interpreting dreams or magic. They only became “kings” when this passage was coupled with Psalm 72: 10-11 and two texts from Isaiah, and their number only settled at “three” because of the three gifts, so one apiece.

But it was the “star” thing that upset some early Christians. It fed into the idea, prevalent among many then and some now, that the stars determine human fate. If this were true, humans would be simply puppets of unseen forces, reduced to helplessness. Only when the focus is shifted can we see the core story here as one of human recognition and response, not astral control. The Christ-child, the cosmic Christ, does not overwrite human responsibility, but calls humans to conversion, metanoia, to act decisively to repair the damage done to the world by injustice, to act with justice and love in all our affairs – to walk in light.

Still, Matthew’s story makes more sense read at the level of symbolism and analogy than as fact. Matthew changed a number of details from his source material in composing his story. His point was to assert that this newborn was a king in the line of David, not a brutal tyrant as was Herod.

Perhaps the real meaning of the star is not that it portends something, or even that it points the way to something. (Have you ever thought that if the visitors had been located east of Bethlehem, and the star had arisen in the East and they followed it, they would be going in exactly the wrong direction?) Perhaps the star is light itself. This echoes the exuberant theme of light that dances across the first reading from Isaiah: “Rise up in splendour Jerusalem! Your light has come … on you our God shines… Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance… Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow…” What a marvellous way to step across the threshold into a new year. And what a marvellous beacon of fresh hope.

© Susan K. Roll

Reflection for the Feast of the Nativity, Christmas, December 25, 2020

Readings for Christmas Eve at night: 
Isaiah 9: 1-6;    Psalm 96;    Titus 2: 11-14;    Luke 2: 1-14.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.
                                        Isaiah 9: 1
Democracy dies in darkness.
                            Motto of the Washington Post

When you scratch the surface of the lovely story of Christ’s birth, you come upon a markedly political layer.  And this deeper meaning layer not only tells us something about why Christmas began to be celebrated, but takes the story to a richer and more profoundly liberating level, both then, and now.

Christ was born into occupied Palestine.  The city of Bethlehem is still located in, well, occupied Palestine.  The Gospel writer Luke goes to great pains to make clear that Jesus was born in the ancestral line of King David, Israel’s own legendary king, as opposed to the Roman Emperor.  The Bethlehem-born Scripture scholar Niveen Sarras writes, “I understand the birth of Christ told in the books of Luke and Matthew as a religious and political response to Roman imperialism.”  She describes the brutality of Syrian legions against the local Jewish population, and adds further, “The Jews found themselves trapped by Roman injustice and imperialism.  The only way out was through God’s intervention, by ending the military occupation of Palestine and restoring David’s kingdom.  Our Lord was born under these difficult circumstances.”

Would it surprise you to learn that Christians did not begin to celebrate the birth of Christ until, apparently, the mid-fourth century?  Easter was celebrated annually as of the mid-second century, but the birth of Christ in the flesh was never part of our earliest ancestors’ church year.  Instead they marked the death date of their martyrs, because that was considered the martyrs’ “birthday into Heaven.”

And contrary to common belief, there is no evidence fourth-century Christians decided to co-opt a pre-existing non-Christian feast.  They would sooner die, and sometimes did.  Severe persecutions of Christians had persisted into the first decade of the fourth century, and again regionally in the 360’s.  Christians had always defined their own identity as diametrically opposed to “the pagans.”  After 313 when the Emperor legalized the Christian cult on the same level as other non-official cults, Christians were less likely to vilify the Roman Empire as “the enemy of the people.”  Church communities gradually made their peace with the now-declining Empire.  About Christmas, the most we can surmise is that by the year 361 when an early Nativity liturgy was celebrated in North Africa, a sort of inculturation was seeping into Christian worship practice.  This is what gave us presiders seated above the people swathed in vestments that make them look like Roman magistrates, incense, altars, candle-bearing acolytes in procession, and worship in Latin.

And yet, and yet … Christmas has struck deep roots in Christian faith, and calls forth profound and poignant memories and hopes in our hearts, year after year.  When people who grew up in the church leave the church as adults, Christmas is usually the last thing to go – more often, it never really goes.  Christmas supports and deepens human relationships and human love, drawing us into a longing to reaffirm that the love of other persons anchors us deeply in a love that pervades the universe and undergirds creation.  The shifting of light and darkness, as the northern hemisphere gives promise of emerging from short dim days and long nights, whispers hope for brighter days, in every sense of the word.

This year we’ve dealt constantly with far more darkness and fear than most of us are accustomed to.  We’ve lived every day with a growing dread of sickness and death, our own or of those we love.  Too often we have had to sort out reliable information from misleading claims, truth from, sadly, lies.  We’ve accepted severe limitations on our mobility and activity, undergone economic reversals in many cases, and made difficult decisions about how best to protect others and ourselves.

People who walk in darkness need the light to be renewed, every year, in every generous and loving encounter.  And here we are, at the turning of the winter solstice, at the celebration of a new birth, on the cusp of a new year.

With heartfelt wishes for a happy Christmas, an increase of the light, and an abundance of the spirit of peace and hope.

    ©  Susan K. Roll

Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent B, December 20, 2020

2 Samuel 7: 1-5,8b-12, 14a, 16; Psalm 24; Romans 16: 25-27; Luke 1: 26-38.

If you had to select a reading from this Fourth Sunday of Advent on the basis of its sheer, catch-your-breath beauty, I would nominate, not one of the passages in the Liturgy of the Word, but the little snippet from Isaiah 45:8 that appears in Living with Christ as the “Entrance Antiphon:”

Drop down dew from above, you heavens,

And let the clouds rain down the Just One;

Let the earth be opened and bring forth a Saviour.

When the controversial new English version of the Roman Missal was promulgated in 2011 professional pastoral liturgists heaped up plenty of ridicule on the use of “dewfall” in Eucharistic Prayer II: dew does not fall, it just forms on the ground. We’ll leave that aside for now.

At my German-speaking parish in Ottawa we celebrated the “Rorate” Mass on the third Saturday of Advent, at 7:00 am on what was invariably an icy cold, dark, dank pre-solstice Canadian winter morning. Candles in glass jars were affixed in rows along the front few pews, radiating a flickering visual warmth in the still-darkened church. The atmosphere was one of hushed anticipation, a feeling that something was hidden, in the sense of the phrase in our second reading from Romans, “the mystery kept secret for long ages.” Yet this was a full Eucharistic celebration complete with organ, cantor, four hymns and sung parts of the Mass. By 8 am a hesitant dawn light was weakly penetrating the stained-glass windows. The hardy band of us who had braved the cold and gloom on a Saturday morning trooped downstairs to a fully lit church hall, hot coffee and a generous potluck breakfast gregariously shared.

Not only is this a better way to wait, I would say, but points to a better thing to wait for.

In December in the northern hemisphere, nature and salvation history seem to merge in the waiting for the promises of God to be fulfilled. But who is this promised Saviour exactly? A glorious movie superhero thundering down from the skies on his white horse to make everything right, by force if necessary? Perhaps this is about a different kind of glory, and for that matter a different kind of justice-making.

Let refreshing and healing justice be formed like dew at the ground level, quite literally at the grassroots. The promised One comes to nourish the greening of the earth as gently as rain. And the earth opens up to bud forth peace and safety, ethical conduct, equitable laws, the restoration of what has been lost or robbed, and the dignity once stripped from the poor.

The Rorate Mass gives a glimpse, a sort of foretaste, of the sense of hush and wonder that children and adults alike find in the Midnight Mass (… or at whatever hour on Christmas Eve your local church celebrates it.) But this optional, low-key, early morning celebration reflects more vividly the hope expressed in the last verse of the Canticle of Zechariah in Luke 1: 78-79,

By the tender mercy of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

To guide our feet into the way of peace.

© Susan K. Roll

Reflection for the Third Sunday of Advent B, December 13, 2020

Isaiah 61: 1-2a, 10-11;    Luke 1: 46-50, 53-54;    1 Thessalonians 5:16-24;
  John 1: 6-8, 19-28

It was absolutely, deliriously glorious.  And that’s not something I’d normally say about an event held in a hotel ballroom.

It was the closing Eucharistic celebration at the 2015 conference of Women’s Ordination Worldwide, the third such international gathering (the second had taken place in Ottawa ten years earlier.)  I had been invited some months before to serve on the liturgy planning committee.  The planning process was already underway, and among the initial ideas in place for the Eucharist was to use Luke 1: 46-55, Mary’s Canticle, the Magnificat, as the Gospel reading.

But we weren’t sure what source to take it from, and the discussion swirled round and round on Skype.  And then I remembered the version we had sung a number of times at Christ the King Seminary when I was a professor there.  It was energetic and unabashedly radical in its powerful call to bring to birth a vision of radically transformative social justice.  I always smiled inwardly as we sang, wondering how much of its world-upending message was seeping subconsciously into the minds of seminarians who would sooner die than upset the prevailing social and ecclesial power structures.

It was Rory Cooney’s “Canticle of the Turning:”

From the halls of power to the fortress tower
not a stone will be left on stone,
Let the king beware for your justice tears every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more for the food they can never earn,
There are tables spread, every mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.

Though the nations rage from age to age we remember who holds us fast:
God’s mercy must deliver us from the conqueror’s crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard
is the promise which holds us bound,
‘Til the spear and rod can be crushed by God
who is turning the world around.*

The melody is the Irish “Star of the County Down,” and the driving rhythm never lets up, barely pausing for breath between verses.  And at that Eucharist in the Marriott hotel the musicians played for all they were worth, the assembly sang out wholeheartedly and the dancers, oh gee the dancers, twirled and swirled in the aisle with gauzy scarves aloft, on and on, until the energy could have lifted the hotel from its foundation.  We had to hope there was still a spirit of sheer joy and irreversible hope for change in the air when Pope Francis came to visit Philadelphia the following week.

This Canticle replaces the Psalm Response in this week’s readings, or at least parts of it do.  As we saw several weeks ago with the Proverbs 31 reading, the Scripture scholars who assembled the Lectionary took out all the best bits.  What’s left of the Magnificat as used here emphasizes the “nice” things God promises to do.  But the Isaiah 61 reading that precedes it reminds us of what each of us is called to do, in our own context, in our own circumstances:  to “bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, and release to prisoners,” – and to do it all in a spirit of joy.

In these times, amid the still-increasing darkness in the Northern hemisphere and the fear-mixed-with-hope for an end to the spread and the suffering of Covid-19, joy might seem like the last thing on our minds.  But Advent reminds us that hope tinged with joy, hope in anticipation of joy, is right before our eyes.

©  Susan K. Roll

*© 1990, GIA Publications Inc.

Reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent B, December 6, 2020

Isaiah 40: 1-5, 9-11;    Psalm 85;    2 Peter 3: 8-14;     Mark 1: 1-8

Mission – or better, being a person on a mission – takes different forms, some obvious, some more subtle.  Some in words, some in deeds.  The latter could be arguably more effective in the long run.

“Mission” is imprinted all over our readings for this Second Sunday in Advent.  The Isaiah reading exudes tenderness and compassion: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end …Go up onto a mountain… cry out at the top of your voice.”  The Gospel of Mark cites, mistakenly (it’s not from Isaiah but from Exodus and Malachi) “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you: he will prepare your way.”  Good news of liberation can come as a public service announcement from a messenger driven by that mission, a town crier exuberantly shouting out, a proclamation event shared by the people directly affected and giving them cause to rejoice together as a community.

In the past few months we’ve known two types of proclamation, up close: one, the good news that a new vaccine shows remarkable efficacy in trials and may be ready for distribution soon.  And then there are the far-too-good-to-be-true announcements, shouted by a raft of false prophets proclaiming good news that just begs to be believed – we’ll just close down for a few weeks in March and then everything will go back to normal, or the virus will disappear with warm weather, or disappear after the U.S. election, or that it’s all a hoax to begin with.  There are patients on their deathbeds who still swear Covid is a hoax.

Perhaps a message giving great good news does not always come as words from an individual’s mouth (or Twitter account.)  Sometimes it comes as deeds.

This past week, December 2nd marked forty years since four American women missioners in El Salvador – Sisters Maura Clarke MM, Ita Ford MM, Dorothy Kazel OSU and laywoman Jean Donovan – were ambushed, attacked and killed by government forces.  Archbishop Oscar Romero had been assassinated less than a year before, in March 1980.  The women were part of the Cleveland Mission to aid war refugees in the camps in El Salvador.

I identified with Jean Donovan.  We were the same age, 28.  I had also served as a lay missioner, albeit in the relative safety of rural South Texas.  We both worked with abandoned or neglected children, who touched our hearts.  The good news we struggled to give was one of hope – a message that these children were safe now, that they could rely on a stable home and good meals, that they were cared for, loved and encouraged to dream, to hope, to do their schoolwork and build a future.

When the film of Jean Donovan’s life and mission, “Roses in December,” came out, I showed it to my students at Ithaca College once a year, quietly mopping up a few tears at the end so they wouldn’t see (they weren’t fooled.)

The eulogy given by Maryknoll Sr. Melinda Roper echoes an Advent theme from the Song of Zachariah, the Benedictus, in Luke 1:  “God is calling each of us to a more radical discipleship – one which will not be understood by the powerful of our day.  We must be wise as serpents in naming and denouncing the evil which pervades our world.  We must be filled with compassion for those for whom suffering from lack of basic necessities has become a way of life.  We must be moved to action which will clearly identify us with the poor.  Above all, let us not be filled with fear.  Let us be filled with courage and hope, for ‘in the tender compassion of our God, the dawn shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’”

The end of the film shows a new cohort of Maryknoll missioners at their sending ceremony.  They’re moving forward in a line going up to communion, one by one, as the congregation sings, “Be not afraid.”

Reflection for the First Sunday of Advent B, November 29, 2020

Isaiah 63:66b-17, 19b, 64:2-7; Psalm 80; I Corinthians 1:3-9; Mark 13:33-37

O Saviour, rend the heavens wide,

Come down, come down with mighty stride,

Unlock the gates, the doors break down,

Un-bar the way to heaven’s crown.

O Morning Star, O radiant Sun,

When will our hearts behold your dawn?

O Sun arise; without your light,

We grope in gloom, and dark of night.

Sin’s dreadful doom upon us lies,

Grim death looms fierce before our eyes.

O come, lead us with mighty hand,

From exile to our promised land.*

Our first reading from Isaiah hits hard, a cry of agony across the earth pleading to God to overlook the sins of the people and to save them from the impending terror of doom and death. The hymn version in German hits even harder: a literal translation might be, “O Healer, rip the heavens apart, come running down, down from heaven…”

On this First Sunday of Advent, let me introduce you to the composer of that powerful hymn based on Isaiah 63. His name was Friedrich Spee von Langenfeld (1591-1635). He can be a companion for us in our troublous times and our search for hope amid intense fear and foreboding.

In 1998 I was honoured to be a house guest of two of the recognized grandmothers of the women’s ordination movement in the Roman Catholic Church, Ida Raming and the now-deceased Iris Müller. They lived then in Greven, a small town outside Münster in northern Germany. When Ida heard that I was travelling on to Trier, she exclaimed, “Oh but you must make a pilgrimage to the grave of Friedrich Spee! He is a hero of the women’s movement, and he’s buried in the Jesuit church in Trier.”

I knew the Jesuit church well – it’s right across the courtyard from the original site of the German Liturgy Institute. But I had never heard of Friedrich Spee and somehow hadn’t noticed the tomb under the floor in a side chapel on the right.

It turns out, the reason why this young Jesuit priest is considered a hero today is because he was the first cleric in his time to publically denounce the burning of women as witches. This was early seventeenth-century Germany where a terror of the devil and his supposed secret agents on earth, witches, was a powerful force in society. Friedrich Spee had been assigned to serve as confessor to many of the condemned women before they were burned at the stake. The more he heard, the more he was convinced that these women could not have been witches. They had been falsely accused. He spoke out. And he suffered persecution and great pressure from Church and society as a result.

But there’s another reason. In 1632 the young professor arrived in Trier after a twenty-year absence to take up a position teaching moral theology. He found a region severely affected by a contagious sickness, not the Plague as such but some quickly-spreading illness that caused death with no apparent reason. Not for the first time in his life Friedrich Spee felt a call to minister to the victims of a dreaded disease.

He became a volunteer nurse caring for mortally ill patients during a pandemic.

And he died of the sickness himself at the age of 44.

Friedrich Spee lived the hymn lyrics he had written, “We grope in gloom and dark of night … Grim death looms fierce before our eyes.” Yet, like Isaiah, he prayed with hope above all fear, “Oh come, lead us … from exile to our promised Land.”

May we all find ways to reflect and speak a powerful, vivifying hope to each other.

*English version of “O Heiland reiß die Himmel auf,” translated by Martin L Seltz, Lutheran Book of Worship © 1978.

Audio link to O Heiland reiß die Himmel auf

Audio link to Savior, tear open the heavens

Reflection for the Thirty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time A, November 22, 2020
The Feast of Christ the King
The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe

Ezekiel 34:  11-12, 15-17;     Psalm 23;     I Corinthians 15: 20-26, 28;   
Matthew 25: 31-46

Talk about overkill.

Yes all these titles can be applied to this Sunday, the last of the current liturgical year, and each one has some sort of reason that made sense, at some level of the church, in the 20th century.  But we can go a step further, a step better, for the 21st.

The 34th Sunday in Ordinary Time is simply where we are in the numbering in the Roman Missal.  No problem there.  If you start from Christmas, which always conveniently falls on the same date in the solar year, December 25th, but not on a set day of the week, you count back four Sundays for Advent.  Then the Sunday before that marks the end of the previous church year, whichever Sunday falls between November 20th and 26th.

Now we’re going to wade into the deep mud of how the Roman Church does politics.

I used to ask students in my Liturgy course, “When do you think the Feast of Christ the King began?”  They would guess fourth century, or twelfth century, or maybe the sixteenth.  I tell them, 1925.  And they just look puzzled.  I point out that the tragic and horrifying trajectory of European fascism did not begin with Hitler in 1933.  It began with Mussolini ten years earlier in Italy, the country geographically surrounding the Vatican, and out of which Vatican City was carved when Italy achieved unity in 1870.

As Mussolini preened and strutted on his balcony, chin jutted outward and arms folded in a show of macho defiance, all of Rome literally spread below his feet, the Vatican was only a short distance away.  And the Vatican deployed a weapon more effective than an encyclical, more powerful than a press release, designed to reach every believer in every pew: a new mandatory Feast that would fall on a Sunday, when every Christian (yes, not every Catholic but every Christian, according to the 1917 Code of Canon Law) was required to attend Mass under pain of mortal sin.

The new Feast of Christ the King was assigned to the last Sunday in -- October.  It was first celebrated on Sunday October 31, 1926.  (Then I ask my students, “What’s the significance of October 31st in the church year?” and only the Lutherans get it – it’s Reformation Sunday!)  Yes, the Roman Church placed Christ the King on top of Reformation Sunday, implicitly neutralizing it.

More pertinently, the concept of Christ as the ultimate King was meant to set up a direct counter-argument to the despotic grasp of a fascist dictator – that no human on earth can claim total universal power, only Christ.  This was not the first time in history that a claim of absolute spiritual power was set loose to contradict, to trump, as it were, an arrogant claim to personal political power.

But the title that sucks all the oxygen out of the room, the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe, first shows up in the 1969 revision of the Roman calendar.  And today in the Roman rite it’s paired with an array of equally oxygen-sucking presider’s prayers:  “For you anointed your Only Begotten Son …[so], making all things subject to his rule, he might present to the immensity of your majesty an eternal and universal kingdom…” (from the Preface.)

Let’s take out just the Universe part and run with it.  Setting aside the suffocating power and domination images, we can remind ourselves of the unimaginable immensity and infinity of the universe created by a loving God.  The Hubble telescope, now obsolete, detected traces of two trillion galaxies.  Galaxies.  The light we see on a starry night was emitted aeons ago and only reaches us now.  And it’s not just about science, but about a new spirituality and the theologians and spirituality writers who are helping to shape it.  Teilhard de Chardin.  Sr. Ilia Delio.  Diarmuid O’Murchu.  Countless small groups of spiritual seekers who find each other and encourage each other to penetrate with their understanding, as far as they can, the Cosmic Christ.

We may have come round in a circle here.  But the prospects for a healthy realistic spirituality are not confined to circular reasoning.  They point us toward the future.

Reflection for the Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time A, November 15, 2020

Proverbs 31: 10-13, 19-20, 30-31;     Psalm 128;     I Thessalonians 5: 1-6;    Matthew 25: 14-30

On the first day of class in my Grade Seven Home Economics class, the teacher went around and asked each girl in turn, “What does your father do?” and then, “What does your mother do?”  Almost all of us could say what our father’s job was, but very few had mothers who worked outside the home.  Most of us answered, “Housewife.”  And every time, Mrs. Betzold would gently correct each girl, “No, your mother is a homemaker.”  She used effective pedagogy.  Even our little twelve-year-old brains sensed that she was giving our mothers’ work more dignity, more credibility, than we thought.

Back then in 1964 “housewife” was a common job title, as it were, and despite major shifts in society it’s persisted.  Think of the TV shows “Real Housewives of…” wherever.  The losing candidate in the recent U.S. presidential election, during his campaign, pleaded with so-called suburban housewives, “Please like me.”

The choice of that passage in Proverbs 31 on the qualities and job description of a “worthy wife” was not the most obvious choice to pair with the Gospel story in Matthew about the three servants, one of whom hid his master’s money in the ground out of fear instead of investing it.  Proverbs is used in the Roman Missal, but in the Protestant Revised Common Lectionary it’s one of those shock and awe readings that mark November, the end of the church year: “the day of the Lord is near, a day of distress and anguish, ruin and devastation…”  What the RCL’s first reading has in common with this Sunday’s Gospel is the theme of the second coming of Christ as a time of ultimate reckoning.

So why did the Roman Catholic committee of Scripture scholars, working in secret, pick Proverbs?  What’s the common theme?  At a guess (and we really can only guess, since there are no explanations for the official selection of readings) the theme appears to be the fruits of hard work.  Women’s work.  Men’s work.

You wouldn’t be wrong if you get a queasy feeling that there’s more lurking under the surface of the Proverbs reading than a lovely paean to everyday hardworking homemakers.  We need to look at some of the verses that the Scripture scholars deliberately left out:

She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from far away.
She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength; and makes her arms strong.
She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple.
She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes.
Strength and dignity are her clothing; she laughs at the days to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
Her husband is known in the city gates; taking his seat among the elders of the land

Now we have a more definitive picture.  This description refers to a matron of the well-to-do class in ancient Israel.  She’s not only hardworking but artistically skilled and a shrewd businesswoman.  She’s a respected elder who teaches with wisdom.  Her own stature in the community helps secure that of her husband.

The recently deceased, eminent Scripture scholar Gerald S. Sloyan comments on this passage with almost revolutionary urgency:
“There are but two modern touches in this eulogy, deeply flawed as it is by its good intentions.  One is the reality of the hard labour of a wife and mother.  The other is the counsel in the first part of verse 31, ‘Give her a share in the fruit of her hands.’  This cannot come about contemporarily by ’letting her works praise her in the city gates’ (husband’s shirts always starched, children neat at school clutching their lunch money.)  It can only come about by the whole culture’s repudiating the picture of womanhood represented by vss. 10-31.”

I wish we could leave this reflection on a high note.  Sadly, in the current pandemic, the social and economic progress made by women in recent decades is in danger of being significantly reversed, as many mothers struggle to work from home, lose their jobs or even stop seeking employment, because the children’s school schedules are disrupted and their schoolwork must be supervised as they work remotely from home.

Reflection for the Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time A, November 8, 2020

Wisdom 6: 12-16;   Psalm 63;   I Thessalonians 4: 13-18;    Matthew 25: 1-13

Hovering over the downtown pedestrian shopping district of the city of Trier, Germany, is the clock tower in the Cathedral.  The oldest part of the Cathedral dates from the fourth century, the newer part from the thirteenth, Romanesque and Gothic in harmony, the clock face in the clean style of the mid-twentieth century.  And above the face of the clock, an inscription in Latin:

    Nescitis qua hora Dominus veniet.
    You do not know the hour of the Lord’s coming.

The clock and its stern warning look down upon hordes of tourists discharged from tour buses, on their way to see the Roman ruins and plunder the attractive shops.  They look down upon the weekly farmers’ market, and the raucous annual Christmas market that runs for a full month until December 21st.  They look down upon visitors and residents, of all ages and ways of life, from many lands of origin.

They looked down on me when I spent ten days in Trier in May 1990 to carry out a burst of initial research for my doctoral dissertation in the library of the German Liturgy Institute.  They look down on me with every return visit, on my way to go happily hunting and gathering liturgical oddities and helpful references, and to meet old friends from 1990 and new acquaintances with every visit to the Institute.  They looked down when I brought my mother and my cousin Betty to Trier at Easter 1999, as they patiently sat through a very long Easter Vigil in the Cathedral and were welcomed by my friends at the Institute and the St. Joseph guesthouse.  They looked down in 2011 as I and a producer for Deutsche Welle spent a day filming a guest segment for a TV travel show, a program broadcast in German and English to the world.  They looked down as I brought a group of Canadian students and Hildegard of Bingen followers on a study tour in 2016.  And when international travel is again possible, they will still be hovering over the Cathedral square, looking down, over Trier.

That dark, rather ominous warning, “You do not know the day nor the hour…” comes from the end of our Gospel reading for this weekend.  The story itself, of the five wise and five foolish young women on their way to a wedding, is the second of three “watchfulness” parables in Matthew, and it has so many logical holes in it that it can only serve as a story with a point.  But what exactly is the point?  Several Hebrew prophets had already used this bride/bridegroom metaphor to refer to God (the groom) and Israel (the bride.)  But Matthew’s community might have applied this story to their sense of confusion and certainly disappointment that the risen Christ had not yet returned in glory as he had promised.  Or the story might really constitute a warning, if not a threat, that at the final judgement the sheep would be separated from the goats (is it that simple?  And how can we know the criteria?), forever.  No court of appeal.

In November we’ll be hearing several weeks of readings on final judgement and the end of the world.  And on the first Sunday of Advent the same idea, but with a different intent:  now not the second coming, but the first, the Incarnation, lies at the apex of the buildup to which the readings lead us.  Nonetheless, we have quite some waiting, watching, and even fear, to get through before we arrive.

At this writing the results of the U.S. presidential election are not yet determined.  They may be final by the time you read this.  More waiting.  More foreboding.  Not in the past, but right now.  Somehow the cold, dark hush of November in the northern hemisphere fits all too well.  Our faith is challenged, our hope becomes an act of daring, and our love more necessary than ever.

Reflection for the Solemnity of All Saints A, November 1, 2020

Revelation 7: 2-4, 9-14;   Psalm 24;   I John 3: 1-3;    Matthew 5: 1-12a

“Now at this time of year, the veil grows thinner between this world and the next.”  I remember first hearing that many years ago from Diann Neu as she welcomed participants to an autumn ritual.  But I’ve heard it since.  The deepening darkness, bare branches and chill hush of the weather in the Northern Hemisphere create an atmosphere that suggests that in this season one might faintly perceive that life really had changed, not ended, when a human life passed away.  Combining our secular calendar with the church calendar produces a one/two flip from Halloween one day to All Saints Day the next, and All Souls the day after that.  The expression “the veil is thinner,” especially when uttered in a low breathless voice with widened eyes, might seem to point to a naturalistic explanation for Halloween, and even of ghosts.

A bit creepy.  Just a bit.

And yet somehow, remembering those who have passed from our sight just feels right at this time of year.  As a Church community, remembering those “friends of God and prophets” in Elizabeth Johnson’s book title, can serve to remind us of who we are, as we see aspects of ourselves reflected in who they are.

The Beatitudes in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount are more complex than they appear from a superficial reading, and actually point us in different directions than we expect when we apply these aphorisms to our own lives.  The text is poetic in nature and its literary genre resembles chant, a composition designed to be used in common prayer; this type of text first appeared in ancient Egypt.  There are echoes of Wisdom literature, in that God will save and protect from harm those who practice justice in their actions and holiness in the depths of their very being.

Every trait enumerated in turn represents a rich concept in Hebrew spirituality, far richer than a one-to-one translation into English can convey.  “The poor in spirit” are not losers or suckers, but the special recipients of God’s solicitous care.  Those who mourn their loss will receive from God comfort beyond any human sympathy.  To understand what is meant by “the meek” we need to look at Psalm 37:11, “the meek shall inherit the land, and delight in abundant prosperity”:  their character makes them slow to anger, gentle with others and overflowing with charity for those in need.  “The merciful” not only pardon others but love those who do not deserve it.  The “clean (or pure) of heart” practice ethical behaviour and faithfulness to God’s commands (there’s nothing implied about sexual behaviour).  “Peacemakers” do not merely resolve conflicts but radiate shalom, total well-bring.  The lengthy final beatitude does reflect the fact that Matthew’s community was facing persecution for their faith, but their suffering and fear recalls a belief in Hebrew tradition that the prophets called by God were themselves persecuted.

Every one of these is counter-intuitive.  In fact we’re grappling with a very subversive text, just as much in our own time as in theirs.  In this, yes, sinful world around us, the meek rarely inherit anything, honesty especially in politics is a rare commodity, and peacemakers are likely to be ridiculed.  And nobody wants to be persecuted.

Jesus is not making empty promises.  Jesus himself embodies the obvious paradoxes.  The core paradox, the very foundation of the Christian faith, is in his disciples’ powerful, compelling experience that he was alive again, not as a ghost but as a person whose life had changed, not ended.  Death and resurrection.

The veil grows thinner.  Our departed loved ones may not be as far away as we think.  And by the grace of God, the qualities and often heroic actions of our most honoured ancestors in faith may not be as unattainable as we assume.

Reflection for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time A, October 25, 2020

Exodus 22: 20-26; Psalm 18; I Thessalonians 1: 5c-10; Matthew 22: 34-30

If you grew up with popular music playing on the radio, or as recorded music or live performances, you heard a great deal from an early age about love. You heard about how passionate, delightful and tender love could be, and on the other side, how heartbreakingly painful and utterly devastating lost or rejected love might leave you. You could have heard even more about the despondent, depressive side of love if you grew up with country music. And don’t even mention opera.

Powerful emotions come into play on either side of the love equation, positive or negative, and either of these can batter a person like hurricane-force winds. As the character Mr. Spock mused on Star Trek, “Love…hmmm…humans claim a great deal for that particular emotion.”

New Testament Greek has several words that translate into English as “love,” but only one of them, eros, corresponds to emotional gale-force love. And that’s not what Jesus was referring to, whatever term he may have used in his native Aramaic. The two most common New Testament words for love are agape and philia. Basically these describe ethical relationships, ways of respecting others and behaving toward others, apart from one’s subjective feelings of the moment, because higher values are in play. One’s disposition needs to be appropriate, but emotions as such are not the driving force. Practicing love for others represents an ethical norm that at best becomes habitual. And we can’t always be sure we’re getting it right.

For instance, how does one love God? Scripture gives us abundant examples of God’s love for us, but few that really show us in a practical way how to love the infinitely transcendent and immanent God. Jesus is citing Deuteronomy 6:5 and his interlocutor, the Pharisee legal scholar, would of course have recognized it immediately: the fundamental command to love God with all one’s heart, soul and strength. Matthew shows Jesus substituting “mind” for strength. The conscious living relationship of an individual, as part of a people, with God, would make perfect sense in the Jewish context of the covenant relationship.

But Jesus goes on to cite Leviticus 19:18, “…you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.” The combination of these two commandments, the interlinking of the two dimensions of relationship in the gospel of Matthew is unprecedented, and sets up a new moral framework. The law itself is now dependent on love.

Healthy self-love can be a challenge. It’s easy to tell when someone has clearly gone overboard with egocentric self-love. But I suspect that in this time of disrupted daily routines and a pervasive atmosphere of fear hovering over us, self-love in the sense of self-acceptance -- an inner serenity and balance that enables one to make a gift of self -- might be more difficult. Fear can unbalance the ways we treat others and cloud our perception. Isolation and depression can bring to the surface all sorts of old traumas and unhealed wounds, the words and actions for which we still beat up on ourselves, the perfect retort we wished we had said in some long-forgotten argument, just all the old emotional scars that can be safely ignored in more optimistic times. When the buzz of normal life activity dies down, too often some dark night of the soul emerges.

All the more reason to try harder to be aware of others who may be bogging down under the pressure in these times, to be as gentle and patient with ourselves as we hope to be with others, and to forgive ourselves for what we’ve done badly, in order to find the graciousness to forgive others. Forgiving ourselves may be the healthiest way to move toward wise self-love, creating a reservoir of compassion to pour out generously to others.

Reflection for the Twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time A, October 18, 2020

Isaiah 45: 1, 4-6;    Psalm 96;    I Thessalonians 1: 1-5b;    Matthew 22: 15-21

In first-century Palestine, colonized by the powerful and brutal Roman Empire, the inhabitants were required to pay taxes to the Emperor.  You needed to secure special Roman currency to do it, not the shekels or talents we hear of when a local transaction is mentioned, but a denarius.  A Roman denarius.

This is the coin that Jesus called for when he was accosted by members of local Jewish subgroups that had already taken umbrage at his preaching, his ministry and his popularity.  In Matthew’s gospel this story is set in Jerusalem, shortly after Jesus’ entrance in procession on a donkey among a “very large crowd” (Mt 21: 1-11), and his angry overturning of the moneychangers’ tables in the Temple (Mt 21: 12-13.)  The moneychangers made their living by exchanging Roman currency for the Jewish coin needed to pay the Temple tax, since paying with a coin that bore the image of the Emperor would violate the commandment against idols -- “graven images.”  In any case, Jesus now had enemies, even more enemies than before, and right in the heart of the city of Jerusalem.

In Matthew’s account, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, accompanied by a small contingent of Herodians (a group Matthew could afford to alienate since they no longer posed a threat to his late first century church), thought they could entrap Jesus by posing an either/or question.  If Jesus had answered that it was right to pay taxes to the Emperor he would alienate the restive Jewish people chafing under oppressive colonial rule.  If he had said it was not right, the brutal might of the occupying government would come down on him and relieve the local Jewish authorities of the distasteful task of prosecuting this dangerous outlaw.  Either way it would be a win.

Jesus, of course, cleverly drove it down the middle. And they backed off.  For the moment.

In 1930’s Germany, Christians both Catholic and Protestant faced a similar dilemma that could (and for some, did) cost them their lives:  whether the churches should cooperate with Hitler’s Third Reich.  The Evangelical Lutheran church split over the question: one contingent called themselves “German Christians” and cooperated with the government’s demands to “aryanize” the church and to submit to Nazi government policies.  A dissenting group, the “Confessing Church,” issued the Barmen Declaration in 1934 calling for resistance against Nazi ideological pressure on Christian preaching, the suppression of church organizations and the independence of the church.

In 1937 Pope Pius XI issued a letter,  Mit brennender Sorge (“With burning concern”) to be read from the pulpit in Roman Catholic Churches, effectively calling for resistance to the encroachment of Nazi ideology and control.  This letter was addressed to the people, not to church authorities (the Vatican had signed a concordat with Germany early in Hitler’s regime), and without naming Hitler, called the people to refuse cooperation with Nazi racial theories and neo-pagan ideology that subordinated the churches to the State.  Catholics were urged to follow their conscience.

Many clergy and faithful paid with their lives.  Very early on, an entire barracks at Dachau concentration camp was reserved for politically dissenting clergy.  A number of conscientious objectors, like Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were executed.  A very few, like Archbishop Clemens August von Galen of Münster, squeaked through untouched to the end of the war.

Bonhoeffer coined a poignant and relevant expression:  “the cost of discipleship.” 

And here we are in October 2020.  Far-right wing movements are on the rise around the world, and authoritarian quasi-dictators preen and shout from balconies, channeling rage and fear among their constituents into turbulent social unrest.  Groups that bear the name Christian vociferously support radically, sometimes dangerously opposed political camps.

When Jesus said “Give to Caesar…” the Greek word apodote means to “give back, return.”  The image on the Roman coin is that of Caesar, but the image of God – the imago Dei – is imprinted on every human being.  What, and how much, are we called to give back?  And what are we called to give forward, in order to incarnate the image of God within this too-often damaged world?

Reflection for the Twenty-eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time A, October 11, 2020

Isaiah 25: 6-10a; Psalm 23; Philippians 4: 12-14, 19-20 or Philippians 4: 1-9; Matthew 22: 1-14

Peace. Inner peace. Deep peace. The peace that passes all understanding.

How elusive that can seem when each one of us is dealing with the new challenges in our lives posed by a worldwide pandemic with no end in sight, economic recession, and a pervasive history of racist violence coming to the surface. Families struggle to provide continuity in their children’s lives and education, and too often, simply to put food on the table. Working people fear for their livelihood, if they haven’t lost it already. And a cloud of fear and foreboding hovers over every personal encounter, every excursion outside the home. Will I get sick this time? Will I carry the virus to someone more vulnerable?

How we need to hear a message of hope now.

Real hope, in a trustworthy message. Hope offered by trustworthy messengers.

The Second Reading for this Sunday varies between the Roman Missal and the Revised Common Lectionary. Though both are taken from the fourth chapter of Philippians, the RM uses Phil 4: 12-14 and 19-20, which dovetails neatly with the banquet image presented in the Hebrew Bible and Gospel readings for today. The RCL uses the visionary and breathtaking message of hope in verses 1-9.

Paul is writing his letter to the Philippians from prison. It’s pretty amazing that he can concentrate at all under the circumstances, never mind caring deeply about a division within this community and lovingly trying to strengthen them. He first implores two women leaders of the community, Euodia and Syntyche, to reconcile their differences. He appeals to other co-workers to support them in this reconciliation, saying that all of their names appear in the “book of life” (a reference from the Hebrew Bible that also appears in Revelation.)

Then comes the part that leaps out at us from Paul’s difficult, life-threatening and fear-inducing circumstances at that moment:

Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say, Rejoice!

Let your gentleness be known to everyone. Our God is near.

Do not worry about anything,

But in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving,

Let your requests be made known to God.

And the peace of God, which passes all understanding,

Will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

It can be hard to imagine a “peace that passes all understanding.” We might perceive this peace in passing, perhaps in prayer, or unexpectedly in daily life.

I glimpsed a sense of peace greater than I had felt in months, this past Sunday afternoon. For the first time since mid-March I went for a drive that was not connected to a necessary errand or someone to visit. I drove an hour north to the shore of Lake Ontario at Olcott Beach, New York. The beach had been closed all summer but a scattering of families and individuals had come out, and a few of the shops and snack bars were open for an end-of-season weekend. I spent a long time overlooking the lapping waves of Lake Ontario, feeling the peace of the water’s gentle rhythm, and gazing into the misty distance (on a clear day you can see Toronto). I walked in the park above the shore where my mother and her extended family used to spend summer days when she was a child, renting a cottage, swimming, picnicking, riding the old carousel or the bumper cars. At a certain point it was hard to distinguish whether I was recalling my mother’s childhood memories of Olcott Beach, or my own.

On the drive home, I felt that a certain heaviness had subsided. The rhythm of the lapping waves had lulled me into a sense of inner peace.

We often speak easily of “making peace,” as Euodia and Syntyche probably did, as if it’s a task we can accomplish with good will and some work. Inner peace is something else. It’s a gift, not a task. But we can set up the preconditions. Hope. Trust. Not to forget faith.

Reflection for the Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time A, October 4, 2020

Isaiah 5: 1-7; Psalm 80; Philippians 4: 6-9; Matthew 21: 33-43

The story Jesus tells in our Gospel reading for today is just dripping with allegory. But there’s a surface allegory (what it looks like the story is saying, at first glance) and a deeper level.

Here is another case where a story or saying attributed to Jesus in one of the Gospels only makes sense when we remember that the Gospels were put in their final written form two, more likely three, generations after the lifetime of Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel writers used written and oral source material but shaped the story according to their perceptions of what their communities needed to remember from the life and teaching of Jesus -- and that had to do with the immediate challenges that the communities faced in their own time.

There are some elements in this parable that scholars believe do go back to an authentic story told by Jesus. Absentee landlords, for example, were common in Galilee at this time. A landowner might set up a business such as a vineyard, then return to his own country somewhere in the Roman Empire, depending on the local management to run the business and make it turn a profit, part of which accrued to the landowner and was paid to his representatives.

But the story takes a dark turn as the local tenants abuse, even kill (!) the landowner’s agents who come to collect. More shockingly, when he sends his son to deal with the tenants’ refusal to pay, the tenants calculate that they can keep the vineyard for themselves if they kill the heir.

The conventional interpretation of this story identifies God as the landowner, the tenants as the evil Temple leaders, the servants as the prophets who were rejected, and Jesus as the son (which would mean that Jesus is predicting his own death.) This would illustrate a certain interpretation of salvation history that took shape after, not before, the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Matthew was writing for communities consisting largely of Jews who had become Christians, as well as some Gentiles. The Jewish members had already been ejected from their synagogues for their allegiance to Christ as the Messiah. For this reason the Christian community was known in Greek as ekklesia, from “ek-kaleo,” those who have been called out – called out of the synagogue, that is. For their adherence to the Christian faith, they could never go “home” again.

We know that Jesus denounced corruption, collusion and financial exploitation in the strongest terms – think of his rage at the commerce carried out in the Temple precincts. Jesus regularly conflicted with the religious leadership of his time, as his later followers would conflict with their synagogues after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. In both cases, the new struggled to supplant the old. The Gospel contradicted business as usual. The people entered into a very new relationship with God that was incompatible with the old.

As Scripture scholar Sharon H. Ringe notes, the focus of this story “is rather on the futility of debates about, and maintenance programs for, the institutions of this age… This puzzling parable pulls us forward toward that unknown future.”

Perhaps these, then, are the leading questions for us today:

What in the Church should be maintained?

And, what should be let go of?

Reflection for the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time A,  Sept 27, 2020

Ezekiel 18: 25-28; Psalm 25; Philippians 2: 1-11; Matthew 21: 28-32

The famous Philippians hymn turns up as the centrepiece of the second reading for this week in both the Revised Common Lectionary and the Roman Catholic Missal. And it really is a carefully-composed hymn, because of its clear strophic structure and progression of ideas. Paul did not write it, though he seems to have added the phrase “death on a cross.” This means that, a generation before the earliest Gospel was completed, and possibly before Paul’s missionary journeys, Christians had gone beyond simply praying with the Psalms, and were writing original hymnody for worship. Interesting.

This one is not without its stumbling blocks however, even though it sweeps magnificently across space and time, from the pre-existent Christ to the glorified Saviour, with a wide perspective across the cosmos. For example, does identifying Christ as a “slave,” then praising him for his obedience, make slavery a laudable social norm? And for that matter, does this hymn advocate self-abnegation to the point of willingly submitting to death (and any form of abuse short of death?) Is this the ideal we are instructed to emulate?

As is often the case with Paul, context is (almost) everything. Both Lectionaries give us the entire preceding section beginning in chapter two verse one: “…make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.” (NRSV) Paul goes on to plead with the Philippians to reform their behaviour toward each other, renouncing selfish attitudes and caring more for the other than for oneself. Paul drops in the hymn text to set Christ before their eyes as a divine prototype for self-giving. Then he follows the hymn with gentle encouragement, reminding them that “God is at work within you.”

Another example of how Paul uses a pre-existent and presumably well-known text to mould the new Christians’ actions and attitudes is found in I Corinthians 11. In verses 17-22 he just rips into them, yelling about how they act at their meal gatherings: “Look at ya! This one scarfs the food so that one goes hungry, another one gets drunk, do it at home for godssake!” or words to that effect. Suddenly at verse 23 Paul shifts gears completely, as if he’s just taken a walk around the block to clear his head and stopped at Tim Horton’s for coffee. He calmly reminds them of what Jesus did at the Last Supper, blessing the bread and the wine, in remembrance of him and in the new covenant, so they could do the same from then on. Then Paul returns to his theme, with better composure, and points out to the Corinthian Christians that their selfish behaviour counts as sin in the eyes of God.

Conversion, metanoia, theologians and preachers like to remind us, is continual, not once and for all. Unlike many born-again Christians who claim that they found Jesus once and thereafter they’re all set for eternity, real life brings continual challenges, and we don’t always handle them well. A better practice is what in AA is called making “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves,” with the goal of repairing damage and healing wounds for which we’re responsible. And, with a deep breath and a prayer, we resolve to do better, and go on from there.

Reflection for the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time  A, September 20, 2020

Isaiah 55: 6-9    Psalm 145    Philippians 1: 20c-24, 27a;    Matthew 20: 1-16a

“Cherchez la Sagesse…”  “Seek Wisdom, while she may be found.  Call her, when she is near… For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says Wisdom.  As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my thoughts above your thoughts, and my ways above your ways.”

I was amazed when I ran across this alternate translation of Isaiah 55: 6-9 some thirty years ago – for two reasons.

First, this very simply-formulated idea echoes a seldom-recognized truth: our human reason does not help us figure God out, no matter how hard we work at it.  This is true enough when we use the traditional title “Lord” for God.  But the underlying truth shifts like a tectonic plate when the one speaking is Wisdom: 

“For my ways are not your ways, dit la Sagesse,
nor are my thoughts your thoughts.”

This is radically different from the top-down, almost threatening effect when “the Lord” proclaims his divine absolute transcendence.  The inscrutability of the Holy One is not a form of domination here, nor is it something to be feared, even when we struggle to make sense of some tragedy or misfortune in our lives or others’ lives.  (“Really!  What was God thinking?  Would a loving God do this??  Does a loving God even exist?!”)

We’re safer and more cherished than we may think, even in the midst of fear and pain.  Wisdom is a quality of insight, a perception that unfolds itself to us as we seek it.  Wisdom is not an achievement, but a gift.  Wisdom is something living.  Wisdom supports our footsteps when we wade into the deep.  Wisdom can be trusted.

The second reason I was amazed was because of where I discovered this passage:  by chance, in a tiny Eucharistic chapel above the massive church belonging to the women’s monastery of Maredret, sister monastery to the famous abbey of Maredsous, built in the 19th century in the Ardennes region of southern Belgium near the French border.  The book was in French.  And la Sagesse, “Wisdom” in French, is grammatically feminine.

Maredret, like its brother monastery Maredsous two kilometers away, was only founded in the 19th century.  The imposing grey stone edifices were commissioned  by a wealthy Ghent factory owner for his youngest daughter Agnes who, like a number of young people in post-revolution France, were caught up in the spirit of ultramontanism* and very much taken with the idea of reviving medieval monastic life.  Agnes and several of her friends made their novitiate at a French convent, then all returned to Belgium to a half-completed monastery.  The community established a girls’ school, ran a farm and a ceramics workshop, and welcomed visitors and pilgrims in the tradition of Benedictine hospitality until the late 20th century.

I often made a weekend retreat at Maredret when I lived in Belgium.  The community of moniales, women monks, in full habit, sang the complete Liturgy of the Hours in the Benedictine tradition and lived very simple lives.

So how did this jaw-droppingly radical version of Isaiah 55:6-9 end up in their upstairs Eucharistic meditation chapel?  Beats me.  But the healing and comforting image of God, the transcendent, as Wisdom, the immanent, never left me.

*Ultramontanism developed as a conservative reaction to the violent secularization of France in the Revolution, and as a romantic desire to adhere to a stable religious reference point outside the national borders and thus safe from government interference.  Its Latin roots mean, to look “over the mountains,” that is, beyond the Alps, southward – to Rome.

Reflection for the Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time A, September 13, 2020

Sirach 27:30-28:7; Psalm 103; Romans 14: 7-9; Matthew 18: 21-35

Jesus must have enjoyed answering Peter’s plaintive question “How many times must I forgive?” with an expansive rhetorical flourish calculated to knock him back on his heels: “”Not seven times but seventy-seven times” (other accounts read “Seventy times seven,” even better.) One can only imagine what Peter was thinking, and it probably was not charitable.

This brief exchange, and the long developed parable that Jesus spins out from it, clearly set the entire transaction on a cosmic scale. No longer merely a tit-for-tat morality lesson on how to behave toward each other, the parable represents a profound insight into the nature of God’s unending mercy and love. The money amounts are staggering by today’s standards: the “huge amount” cited equaled 10,000 talents, and one talent was worth 6,000 denarii. One denarius was a day labourer’s wage. It begs the question how a royal servant could end up owing such an unthinkable amount of money to the king. But the story is designed to create a massive shift in our thinking not only about the huge size of the servant’s debt contrasted with the paltry debt his colleague owed him, but with the astounding mercy of the king. With God cast as the king figure, the enormity of the forgiven debt illustrates the infinitely generous compassion of a God who feels from the depths of God’s very being, literally “womb-compassion.”

So far so good. How does this story work when applied to our everyday Christian lives?

It’s not a mistake that the text reads “brother:” “Lord, if my brother sins against me…” and “…unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.” The debt owed by the second servant to the first represents a very petty transaction between two men who were social equals. Forgiving the debt would have cost the first servant next to nothing. The Gospel parable appears addressed to men who were equals in the Jesus movement and (figuratively speaking) brothers in a shared mission.

One of the many concerns voiced by psychologists and counsellors during the onset of the pandemic and the need to shelter at home for an indeterminate period of time had to do with the danger of increased domestic abuse. One danger was that in families where a pattern of abuse already existed, prolonged proximity in a small shared space, coupled with frustration at the confinement and fear of the unpredictable course of the pandemic, would exacerbate the abuse. At the same time, physical and behavioural signs of abuse would not be observable by outsiders such as teachers, neighbours, or friends. In Canada a televised public service announcement illustrated a recommended hand gesture that an abused spouse could use during a smartphone call to signal a friend that she was in danger, without using words that could trigger an abuser who was within earshot.

Far too often survivors who belong to churches tell of seeking counselling from a priest or pastor who would try to shame the victim into returning to an abusive home, arguing that she must obey her wedding vows, or offer up her sufferings as did Jesus on the cross, or, of course, forgive the abuser in the face of continuing danger. Often in couples counselling an abuser will go all contrite, pleading with the spouse to forgive him and return home, while claiming he will never, ever, do it again. Soon he does it again.

The Christian injunction to forgive each other does not extend to accepting abuse or attack, or to allowing others to be abused or injured. No one is required to submit to evil. One-on-one abuse, whether rooted in misogyny, racism, or another form of structural hatred, draws strength from a larger ideological drive embedded within a society or a culture. One-on-one forgiveness does not begin to touch the deeper evil.

What may work better would be to cast “forgiveness” in terms of healing for the victim, a precondition of which must be safety and freedom from abuse. This lies entirely within the Christian faith when coupled with the call to evildoers to conversion, metanoia, a change of heart that transforms the whole person, inside and out. A call to conversion on the part of the abuser can be part of restorative justice circles aimed at healing for an individual, a family or a society.

Jesus healed. Jesus protected the weak. And Jesus never hesitated to call out evil. By the power of the Spirit may we do the same.

Reflection for the Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time, September 6, 2020

Ezekiel 33: 7-9;  Psalm 95;  Romans 13: 8-10;  Matthew 18: 15-20

The passage in today’s Gospel reading belongs to a specific literary genre or category known as a “household order.”  There are several examples to be found in later first-century Christian writings, including a few from texts outside the canonical Scriptures, such as the Didache (a text dating from the second half of the first century, probably from Syria, in chapters 7-15) and in Qumran (1QS 6.1) 

Matthew constructs a whole step-by-step process for governance in the early Church that goes well beyond his source material.  There’s only a quick jot of a reference in Luke 17:3.  This probably came from the now-lost early source known as Q, the “Sayings Source.”  The shorthand term Q comes from German Scripture scholars who simply called it die Quelle, “the Source,” Q for short.  Scholars have managed to reconstruct its probable content.

Clearly the early church was rife with disagreements, disputes and potentially community-splitting arguments.  After all, they were constructing an entirely new type of mission-driven community based on an unheard-of theological base: the death and resurrection of the purported Messiah of Israel, the Saviour of the world.  The extant literature of the second- and third-generation Christians reflects this, as they developed models of governance and interpersonal intervention, and try to root them in their understanding of the will of Christ.

Matthew’s process actually makes a good deal of sense: first try one-on-one dispute resolution, then call in another one or two community members to establish the facts more firmly, and if that doesn’t work, call in the larger community.  (There’s some parallel here with the intervention process advised for families and associates of alcoholics today.)  Exclusion of the recalcitrant member would be a last resort.  It’s a bit ironic that Matthew here has Jesus making a comparison with the exclusion of Gentiles and tax collectors, since during his own public ministry Jesus freely entered into dialogue with and even healed Gentiles.  As for tax collectors, Jesus not only acknowledged them and called them to repentance, he famously invited himself over for dinner, as with Zacchaeus (see the accusation in Mt 11:19.)  Matthew the disciple is identified as a tax collector in Mt 10:3.

Interestingly, what Matthew the evangelist gives us is not a top-down model of judicial rulers imposing an arbitrary sentence, but an early version of what we might call today a consensus-based process.  Whether used in small groups to reconcile individuals or factions, or by way of analogy in the restorative justice healing circles advocated and practiced by certain Indigenous communities, consensus tends toward restoring balance, healing and wholeness, the repair of breaches and the mending of a community.  And also, dare we say, tikkun olam in Hebrew, the repair and restoration of the earth?

Reflection for the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time A, August 30, 2020

Jeremiah 20: 7-9;  Psalm 63;  Romans 12: 1-2;  Matthew 16: 21-27

Some weeks ago the Second Reading came from 1 Peter and spoke of the community of believers as “living stones… a spiritual house, a holy priesthood.”

This week in the Second Reading, Paul encourages the Roman Christians to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship.”*
Why is the second metaphor so much more, um, off-putting, than the first?
What does it mean for a person to “offer” their own body as a “living sacrifice?”

Womanist theologian Delores S. Williams, in her book Sisters in the Wilderness, unwraps the concept of “surrogacy” as a crime (my word) against the bodies of Black women in history.  Her Biblical reference point is Hagar:  Hagar, the slave of African origin, whose mistress Sarah offers Hagar’s body to her husband Abraham to be used to bear him a son and heir.  Hagar not only suffered the rape and exploitation of her body, but she and her son Ishmael were eventually expelled from the household into the wilderness to die – yet, by the grace of God, both survived.  The parallel with the exploitation of the bodies of enslaved African-American women is obvious.  These women have no agency over their own bodies – they do not willingly sacrifice, they are sacrificed.  There is no virtue here, none whatsoever.  This cannot be the intended meaning.

Early Christians, both of Jewish and Gentile origin, would have perceived at Chapter 12:1 a sudden cultic shift in Paul’s writing.  He speaks not of dead animals in a ritual sacrifice, but of living humans, a “living sacrifice” in the sense that Christians must sacrifice their old selves, and reform their lives toward morally right and just conduct, always a sticking point with Paul.

Paul makes his point more explicitly in verse 2, and gives us more helpful material to work with:  ”Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds, that you may discern the will of God, what is good, and pleasing, and perfect.”  Ethical conduct flows from a transformed mind and heart.  The “will of God,” in this sense, is not to be confused with the forcibly imposed will of a slave master or a patriarchal dominator.  This is the will of wisdom, of clarity, a drive rooted in the depths of divine love, not compelling, but inviting.

Mary MacKillop (St. Mary of the Cross), Australia’s heroine-saint, wrote about the will of God with what seems at first glance to be oddly puzzling joy:  “To me the Will of God is a dear book which I am never tired of reading.  I cannot tell you what a beautiful thing the Will of God seems for me.”  Perhaps it makes more sense then to speak of doing the “will” of Wisdom -- to do the “will” of Love.

*If you use the Revised Common Lectionary your second reading for today is Jeremiah 15:15-21

Reflection for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time A, August 23, 2020

Isaiah 22: 19-23;  Psalm 138;  Romans 11: 33-36;  Matthew 16: 13-20

The professor of Ancient Church History stood before his class, stroking his beard, with a hint of a twinkle in his eye, and announced the title of today’s lecture:  “Was Saint Peter Ever In Rome?”  He then methodically presented data considered by scholars to be reliable concerning Peter and first-century Rome, where Paul did indeed travel, but Peter evidently did not.  Gradually over the two hours the seminarians’ faces began to show puzzlement, then a bit of alarm, as they began to realize where the professor was taking them.  By the time class was over some were genuinely upset:  “So if Peter never went to Rome, then Peter was never Bishop of Rome, then Peter was not really the first Pope, then Petrine primacy … O.M.G.!!”

Down through the years Roman Catholics were taught that Jesus, in Matthew 16:18-19, solemnly appointed Peter as the first Pope, granting him supreme juridical and spiritual power – “to bind and to loose”—over the entire Church.  This warrant of universal power and control was then tied into the putative position of Peter as the first Bishop of Rome, and interpreted as a right that could be passed down via patrilineal inheritance to all succeeding Bishops of Rome, rather like apostolic succession.

It should surprise no one to discover that this interpretation of the passage in Matthew was influenced by later historical developments – quite a bit later.

Skip ahead to the fifth century.  Already in 410 Alaric had led an invasion and sack of the mighty imperial city of Rome by tribes from the north, proving that the Empire was not impenetrable and that the Emperor could no longer prevent defeat and destruction.  Leo I, Pope St. Leo the Great, served as Bishop of Rome in the mid-fifth century and died in 461.  The year 476 marks the definitive Fall of Rome.

In the power vacuum left by an ineffectual Emperor and Senate, Leo was able to step in using his position as head of the Church, now the official religion of the Empire.  One story claims that Leo stood courageously at the gates of Rome and negotiated with the marauding forces to turn them away, thus heroically saving Rome (later wags would say, Leo only told them that Rome had no food either, so don’t bother.)  The Empire collapsed a short 15 years after the death of Leo.  Now, Leo had preached this interpretation of Matt 16:18 to support his claim to civil authority as well as ecclesial power.  One can imagine that this claim to divinely instituted saving power reassured a fearful populace conscious of their vulnerability. 

But there’s something more in these two verses that lies under the surface of the Greek, something that makes sense for us today.  In Aramaic the same word is used for “Peter” and “rock,” kêpā’, and the pun is obvious.  But New Testament scholar Mitzi J. Smith points out the difference in the grammatical gender in Greek:  “I say to you Peter (Petros) that on this rock (petra) I will build my church (ekklesia.)”  Petra, rock, is grammatically feminine and agrees with ekklesia, church.  So petra does not refer to Peter, but rather to the church, the assembly of baptized Christians.  The church, the people of God called and gathered from all sides (ekklesia, from ek-kaleo, “those who have been called out”) is the rock.  And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

The Gospels give us a number of stories implying that rocky old Peter was a highly unlikely candidate to serve as the human foundation of a worldwide faith community.  But in this story he got something right:  he managed to affirm that this Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Promised One, not a military conqueror but as, to use the formulation in the Nicene Creed, One in Being with God.  And that affirmation, and the life commitment it demands, does lay a solid foundation, a stable stone upon which faith communities and faith-filled individuals can build.

Reflection for the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time  A, August 16, 2020

Isaiah 56: 1, 6-7;  Psalm 67;  Romans 11: 13-15, 29-32;  Matthew 15: 21-28

It’s happened to me, more than once.  It’s a familiar tale told when women who work in all-male or male-dominant professions share our stories.  At a meeting a female colleague is recognized, and then presents a proposal, a suggestion, or an overlooked insight.  A brief uncomfortable silence follows, then someone changes the subject.  A few minutes later a male colleague repeats the same proposal or idea, and suddenly the guys start exclaiming excitedly, “Hey what a great suggestion he made!  Let’s do it!”  (I was rather proud of the time I spoke up loudly, addressing the minute-taker, “Let the record show that I made the initial proposal and G. seconded it.”
There was a stunned silence.  For a nanosecond.  Then the guys changed the subject.)

Our Gospel story today is a delight on several levels, especially considering its original background.  In the version of this story in Mark, the woman is a Syro-Phoenician.  Here she is identified as a Canaanite.  Remember that in last week’s walking-on-the-stormy-water story, Jesus had sent his disciples over into Canaanite territory.  The Canaanites were the original inhabitants living on the land that the Hebrews invaded and settled, claiming that control of this land had been promised to them by God.  So the person addressing Jesus to ask for healing for her daughter is not only stigmatized by being a woman – she is an Indigenous woman.   Indigenous Christians in Canada will say, “We are not the Hebrews.  We’re the Canaanites.”

This story also illustrates that Jesus’ own concept of who he was and what his mission entailed only developed with time, prayer and experience.  Initially the early Church was caught between evangelizing only “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” or going out to all peoples regardless.  This text reflects a similar process of gradual coming-to-awareness on the part of Jesus himself.

And Jesus was called to this monumental, life-shifting realization because he listened to an Indigenous woman when she presented a clever counter-argument.  He conceded her logic.  He did indeed grant her request and freed her daughter from a terrible malady.

What would happen if all the voices at the table were not only “heard into speech,” but actually listened to?  What if their testimony were granted a claim on truth?  What if their reasoning and insight, their joys and pain, arising from an unimaginably rich variety of experiences, were followed to its logical conclusions?  We might see a tectonic shift in our entire worldview, never mind our ecclesiology.  As well we should.

To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “the arc of salvation history is long, but it bends toward inclusion.”  (credit to commentator Michael L. Ruffin.)

Reflection for the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time A, August 9, 2020

I Kings 19: 9a, 11-13a;  Psalm 85;  Romans 9:  1-5;  Matthew 14: 22-33

Suddenly becoming aware of your vulnerability is scary … no, terrifying.

The story elements in today’s Gospel work together to build up a realistic drama of daredevil behavior followed almost immediately by a paralyzing scream for help.  Yes, to this day severe storms can come up quickly on the Sea of Galilee.  Yes the friends of Jesus were probably exhausted by three in the morning, likely to hallucinate ghosts … and to exercise really, really bad judgement.

A friend of mine who owns a pleasure boat put it this way:  When you’re still at port and contemplating the choppy waters, you think, “Is my boat strong enough?”  When you’re actually out in the storm your thought is, “Oh Jesus save me!”

But the drama of this story is wrapped around a parable of epiphany, a divine appearance, an unexpected hero turning up against all reason to stretch out a saving hand.  Jesus speaks up to reassure his friends with ancient familiar words, “It is I,” ego eimi in Greek, which would resonate immediately as the name revealed by God to Moses in the burning bush:  “I am who am.”  The closing line, “Truly you are the Son of God” puts emphasis on the point of this story as a revelation of the true identity of Jesus.

As is often the case, to make a seemingly fantastical Bible story make sense, we need to re-cast its shape by studying the story through the lens of the period in which it was written down, and the early Christians for whom it was written.  When we do that, the narrative takes second place to the structure of the story as a parable about the conditions faced by Matthew’s second- and third-generation Christians who were regularly forced to pay a high price for their new faith.  When Jesus required the disciples to get in the boat and go ahead to the opposite side, he was sending them into Gentile territory.  When their boat was “tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it” this represents the opposition and even persecution that many early Christians were forced to undergo.  When Jesus walks toward them on the sea, the story element here runs parallel with Canaanite myths and Hebrew Bible stories that show God as the master of the storm, coming with power on rainclouds and tempests.  When Peter begins to sink he calls instinctively for help to the figure of Jesus, who does indeed save him, as did the God of the Psalms.  The message for frightened Christians would have been on the necessity of faith, and reliance on the saving power of the now-risen Christ.

In our own time, vulnerability has become almost a way of life.  Whether it comes from the daily reminder that certain symptoms might indicate a potentially fatal disease, when we try to protect even more vulnerable family members, or even when we look at the larger horizon and see dangerously authoritarian rulers whom no one seems able to stop, we do not need to be reminded how fragile are the conditions of our lives, and the susceptibility of our bodies to disease.  

To say this is a challenge to our faith may be an understatement.  And yet with the limited tools available to us (Zoom.  Facetime.  Old-fashioned phone calls.  Food donations.)  we can support each other in faith and speak a reassuring friendly word or a message of hope.  While acknowledging that race, economic means and overall health play a role in the relative vulnerability of different persons, we can nonetheless work toward compassion and solidarity by reminding ourselves that we are, inevitably, all in this together. 

Reflection for the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time A, August 2, 2020

Isaiah 55: 1-3; Psalm 145; Romans 8: 35, 37-39; Matthew 14: 13-21

Okay. It’s sitting right there, glaring at us. We have to deal with it.

At the end of a classic feel-good story with a whiz-bang miracle of a resolution, we find this line: “Those who ate were about five thousand men, not counting women and children.”

This line is often ignored or dismissed lightly by Scripture scholars and teachers, as if –as if what? – women and children don’t eat much? As if they were not supposed to be there anyway? As if they, well, didn’t count ?

And it’s not as if the author of Matthew just made a slip of the quill, because the same idea turns up again in an almost identical feeding-in-the-desert story in Matthew 15:38: “Those who had eaten were four thousand men, besides women and children.”

Even today the custom persists in a number of world cultures that the men in the family are fed first, and can eat as much as they wish. Women and children only eat the leftovers afterward. If this were the underlying assumption it could explain the author’s emphasis on the huge quantity of leftovers in both stories, even after the women and children had eaten: twelve baskets full, in today’s Gospel account. The quantity of leftovers emphasizes the scope of the miracle.

If we, however grudgingly, grant this assumption, the interpretation by Benedict T. Viviano O.P. in The New Jerome Biblical Commentary gives us a perspective that moves it forward:

“Matthew’s addition is very important, because the total figure could well come to 20 or 30 thousand; and it happens again (15:38). Since the total Jewish population of Palestine at the time is estimated at half a million, Jesus is presented as feeding a tenth of the population. This gives to the two feeding stories a social character, which makes them different from healing stories. Besides nature miracles or moral miracles … we must see the social miracle.”

So the story represents a radical leveling-out of society, in which rich and poor alike can share in the feast. A positive and inspiring point, but it doesn’t address the gender oppression.

Many years ago Rosemary Radford Ruether proposed that what really happened was that, after one participant brought out and offered their packed lunch to share, so did another, and another, until finally everyone shared what they had brought, and all together there was far more food than needed to feed everyone. At the time this radical take on the story flew in the face of the conventional image of Jesus the divine wonder-worker magically multiplying the one little lunch into huge quantities of food and symbolically anticipating the Eucharist presided by a male priest acting in persona Christi.

More recently, Megan McKenna in her book Not Counting Women and Children: Neglected Stories in the Bible took Ruether’s commonsense interpretation a step farther: she argues that no woman, certainly no woman caring for a child, would go out into the wilderness without carrying a sufficient supply of food. But men might, as Jesus did in the temptation story when he went for forty days without food. Women and children would probably know better.

So with Jesus’ act of taking and blessing one person’s offering of food, this act of courageous sharing set off a chain reaction of bringing out bags and bundles of food and drink to pass around. If so, the point of the story is that it was precisely the ones who “didn’t count” – women and children—who made the miracle happen.

What happens to our concept of Eucharist when we locate the initiative in the hands of the poor and powerless?

And anyway, where did those twelve empty baskets come from?

Reflection for the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time A, July 26, 2020

I Kings 3: 5, 7-12;  Psalm  119;  Romans 8: 28-30;  Matthew 13: 44-52

Sometimes a good story, or a telling comparison, can work to convey an insight more vividly and colourfully than an explanation.  …and then, sometimes it doesn’t.  The Gospel writers didn’t cover up the fact that Jesus’ friends and supporters were sometimes slow to get a clue.  In whatever order, or on whatever occasion, Jesus may have told stories to make a point about God’s presence in the world and in human lives, the Gospel writers sometimes just piled the stories up, one after another.  When we read them in sequence it’s a bit like turning a gem or a crystal so that the light hits its facets from different angles, and a concept emerges that’s much richer than any one or two standalone stories.

The Gospel reading for today in the RC Lectionary presents three comparison stories, which in Matthew’s text follow the story of the weeds and the wheat used for last week’s Gospel .  But this week’s Gospel reading is more fully developed in the form used in the Revised Common Lectionary used by most mainstream Protestant denominations, in which two short little throwaways precede them: the mustard seed and the yeast.  Both of these quickie stories show how the living presence of God -- the reign or kingdom of heaven, in Matthew -- emerges and swells to massive size from tiny, unpromising beginnings.  A mustard seed (at least in the little vials of mustard seeds you can buy from souvenir shops in Israel) is a tiny grain.  And then there’s the yeast mixed into the flour to raise the bread.  Did you know that “three measures” of flour equals roughly 23 kilos or 50 lb?  This is not a job for your simple sourdough starter.  This yeast has to leaven a serious quantity of bread to feed a large household plus guests.

Matthew follows these stories with the parable of the weeds and wheat, and then three more stories.  The point of these later stories is not quantity, but quality.  One can imagine the disciples scratching their heads over the idea of getting so excited about finding a particular treasure, or a pearl, that the finder sacrifices every other possession for its sake.  Finding the treasure is one thing, letting it transform your life is another.  One commentator, Frederick Dale Bruner, writes, “The joy of the discovery of Jesus Christ ‘in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge’ (Colossians 2:3), has always moved men and women into large and life-changing decisions and acts of what may seem to others like renunciation.”

So what about the fish?  Think of this: the rejected portion of the catch undoubtedly consisted of fish without fins or scales, and shellfish, precisely the seafood that was prohibited under the law of kosher.  Jews couldn’t eat it anyway.  This story echoes the weeds and the wheat, not only in the element of selection but in the point of comparison about waiting for the time to be ripe: “Thus it will be at the end of the age.”  In this story only the angels are able to discern what to keep and what to let go, not humans, and only in the fullness of time.

“Do you understand all these things?”  “Yes,” they said.  Well, maybe.  Matthew’s community would be sorting out what these story texts (and several of them are unique to Matthew and have no precedents in other early Christian writings) meant for them in the lived reality of their late-first-century community.  Rereading these teachings through the lens of the resurrection of Christ would give them a level of depth inaccessible to the original disciples and followers of Jesus of Nazareth.  His death and resurrection took place at a certain historical point in time.  Sometimes, for us as for them, hindsight can be 20/20.

Reflection for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time A, July 19, 2020

Wisdom 12: 13, 16-19; Psalm 86; Romans 8: 26-27; Matthew 13: 24-43

Sometimes, when life seems to swirl around us in a confusing mess of options, possibilities and potential dangers, we want it simple. Either/or. A or not A. “Chocolate or vanilla?”

And sometimes life seems more manageable if we discover, or can create, an enemy. At least we’ve screened out all the distracting and disorienting shades of gray.

At first glance dualistic distinctions can look like handy tools for organizing, categorizing and making sense of confusion, and in scientific and mathematical fields they may work very well. But in the humanities dualisms can conceal hidden assumptions about value. A dualism presents itself as a clean, even split – black/white, left/right, male/female, the list goes on endlessly, and then ventures into more obviously value-laden terms: good/evil, nature/nurture, body/soul, us/them. In each case, if you probe a little, one of the two elements emerges as the more highly valued, better, more important or more desirable of the two. In other words, a dualistic split misrepresents itself – it’s never truly value-free.

A superficial reading of our Gospel for today can lead us tumbling down the path of rigid dichotomies, of identifying ourselves with the Good, and our purported enemies with the Bad. If this happens, we lose both the depth and the wisdom of the story that Jesus tells, as well as its energizing messages.

This parable of the weeds among the wheat is found only in Matthew, although it may be a reworking of the parable of the growing seed in Mark 4: 24-29. The way this story has been first expanded and then explained tells us a lot about the conditions within Matthew’s community of early Christians, and how they saw themselves in their own culture and society. “Harvesting” or “gathering” point to an allegorical interpretation of the story as the gathered community of believers, much as the list of interpretations in verses 36-43 present an application to different groups of those who hear the Word. Clearly this was the experience of the earliest Christian missionaries, “apostles” in the broadest sense, at the time this Gospel was written.

As an agrarian metaphor this story makes sense when you realize that the “weeds” that were sown among the wheat were probably darnel, which looks very much like young wheat when both are in the initial sprouting stage. Workers could easily root up good wheat, or for that matter leave the darnel in the ground, where it would eventually choke off the wheat and sicken any cattle, sheep or goats that might munch on it. This analogy would be very clear to Jesus’ hearers: leave both to grow until they can be recognized, or more specifically, be patient and allow enough time to distinguish among the various currents in the Christian community, and to discern what would serve and what could damage the community.

One pitfall here would be to say, we Christians will simply reject what is “worldly” and claim to be chosen of God – we’re the wheat, everyone and everything else is the darnel. That would result in a paralysis that stops us from living and doing the Word of God here and now. That’s not who we are. That’s not our call.

Ultimately for our ancestors the real polarity was about the radical demands of their new Christian faith and the fact that it set them in direct opposition to the all-powerful Roman Empire. In this sense Christ vs. Caesar, or Christ vs. Emperor, is another dualism, though in fact it’s not far from the mark. Early Christians had to be absolutely sure of their commitment to the faith because it could cost them their lives. This is partly why the catechumenate in Rome lasted several years. The imperial persecution of Christians persisted well into the fourth century.

There’s another message here that rings true today: the Christian community is never without a need for self-examination and housecleaning. The saying that the Church is semper reformanda, always in need of reform, is as true now as it was in the 16th century, or for that matter, the Vatican-II era. Yes we need to discern carefully, listen until the time is ripe, but then to decide and do the work of cleaning and reforming: “see, judge, act.” What needs to be done today so that the Church can speak with credibility and authenticity? What needs to change so that all the voices can be heard, all persons be fully respected as children of God, and a much-needed message of healing and hope be proclaimed?

A reflection for the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time A, July 12, 2020

Isaiah 55: 10-11; Psalm 65; Romans 8: 18-23; Matthew 13: 1-23.

“Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down, and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful … so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth.” (Is 55:10) I am writing this during an intense heat wave that has already broken daily records. Every evening I go outdoors carting jugs filled with water to try to keep the tomatoes in the garden, the potted flowers, the berry bushes and young shrubs alive, knowing that missing just one day of watering in 34-degree Celsius weather could doom a vulnerable plant.

The Scripture scholars who assembled the three-year Lectionary in the years following Vatican II plotted out each Sunday’s selections by following a semi-continuous reading of the Gospel (Matthew in Year A where we are now, Mark and some John in Year B and Luke in Year C) for the Sundays of Ordinary Time. Then they selected a passage from the Hebrew Bible as the First Reading that anticipates the central theme or idea of the Gospel Reading. In today’s Gospel Jesus constructs a fairly elaborate story about the fates of different seeds based on the soil on which they fell, then goes on to explain each aspect in symbolic terms representing those who hear the word of God. Clearly the early Church that preached Christ crucified and risen was finding a wide variation in how this radical message was received – some don’t fully understand and fall away, some welcome the message but only for a short time, and some hear the word but let other concerns take priority in their lives. Still others hear the word with openness, let it take root and grow, and bear fruit in carrying the message forth and living it to the full. In every case the Word can only thrive in a hospitable climate, with attention and nurture. At first reading it looks as if the emphasis is on the individual hearer and how well she or he carries out the responsibility of nurturing the word. In fact, we’re not the starting point. The Word represents God’s invitation to us. God takes the initiative. Ultimately the point is not first about what we do with the Word, rather what the Word does with us, and in us.

The Gospel parable of the sower is the main course, so to speak. The hors d’oeuvre was the passage from Isaiah 55, a snippet out of a breathtakingly powerful and elegant passage on the infinite transcendence of God, and how this God gives life and nourishment to the earth, and to us, as simply as the falling rain. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, a research reference for scholars and preachers, puts it in strikingly expressive terms: “The word comes gently from God, never intended to remain suspended like clouds in midair, but to soak the earth and to be drawn back toward God like plants and trees. God’s spirit is infused within human beings where it brings forth divine fruits.”

While the creation motif serves as a starting point, this could be a good Sunday to meditate on the unrelenting process of climate change and the potential devastation it poses to the earth and its fertility. Widespread drought over many regions of the earth. Wildfires in Australia, California and elsewhere. Melting glaciers and ice cap, rising water levels. All around us. How are we called to bring healing to the earth now, in the hope that some progress can be made to reverse the massive damage? How can we participate in “renewing the face of the earth?”

A reflection for the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 5, 2020

Zechariah 9: 9-10; Psalm 145; Romans 8: 9, 11-13; Matthew 11: 25-30.

Agricultural metaphors played well to the people to whom Jesus was speaking, and to some extent they do for us today, even if our experience with farm animals is limited to visiting a horse farm or a petting zoo. When two working animals are yoked side by side they need to be able to work together in good balance. That means that they need to be fairly evenly matched both for strength and for temperament, otherwise the stronger, or more headstrong, animal would pull the plough crooked. This may have been the reason for the micro-commandment that appears as part of a list in Deuteronomy 22:10, “You shall not plough with an ox and a donkey yoked together.” Ploughing is teamwork.

References to a “yoke” elsewhere in the Scriptures presume a heavy iron farm implement, as in Deuteronomy 28:48, “He will put an iron yoke on your back until he has destroyed you.” or Sirach 28:20, “For its yoke is a yoke of iron…” I can’t even imagine holding up under that kind of weight. Not a yoke of wood, which is heavy enough, but iron, across the back and neck of a living being. If these passages and the realities they reflect were in the back of their minds, how much more would those who heard Jesus’ message be struck by this powerful contrast: “for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus promises relief and refreshment. This text has come down through the centuries as a soft fragrant breeze in the heat, so to speak, of life losses, tragedies, pain, terror, simple discouragement, or a lack of hope. To this day we try to comfort mourners and sick persons with these words of Jesus.

The yoke used here as a metaphor does not, repeat not, refer to the Cross. (Parenthetically this illustrates why we need to be careful about picking up a Bible, reading it, and just assuming that the primary or only interpretation of a particular passage is what may come to mind for us today.) First-century rabbis are on record as describing accepting the yoke of the Torah, which brings comfort and rest, “…removing the yoke of worldly occupation.” Jesus here reassures his listeners that he is gentle and humble, not like teachers who may come across as demanding or harsh. He is speaking in line with the teaching of some rabbis of his time.

But there’s an even more remarkable contrast built into this passage. The writer or writers of the Gospel of Matthew are consciously depicting Jesus in the character of Wisdom personified, traditionally a female figure. In the Hebrew Scriptures Wisdom invites all who hear the call to share in her instruction as they would share in nourishing food and drink, even “to put your neck under her yoke” (Sirach 24: 26) Wisdom spreads a table and invites all to partake. Jesus invites, “Come to me all you who labour and are heavy burdened, and I will give you rest.”

Ultimately, we don’t carry this yoke on our own. A yoke is built for teamwork. That’s what Christian community is for.

A reflection for the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time -- June 28, 2020

Kings 4: 8-11, 14-16a; Psalm 89;  Romans 6: 3-4, 8-11;  Matthew 10: 37-42.

This past Wednesday, June 24, marked the birth of John the Baptist, a major ecclesial feast celebrated beginning in the late fourth or early fifth century, and an even more major feast, if that is possible, in the province of Québec today.  When making travel plans you would be well advised to avoid Québec City centre-ville on the evening of June 23rd, unless by chance you were looking for a rompin’, stompin’, screaming, beer-bottle-breaking street festival with hordes of euphoric people swarming the streets until dawn.  I speak from experience.

You’ve certainly noticed that the summer solstice on June 20th has passed, the longest day of the year (in the northern hemisphere of course) and from now on the hours of daylight will begin to diminish, just a few minutes per day.  The dating is no coincidence.  For our early ancestors in the Christian faith the birth of John the Baptist was celebrated precisely on the summer solstice, and the birth of Christ on the winter solstice.  Why the few days’ difference in calendar dates between then and now?  Because the ancient and medieval church was using the Julian calendar devised by Sosigenes for Julius Caesar in the first century before the common era.  Dates were reckoned by counting backwards within a month, so for example, the date of the birth of Christ on December 25th was called “the eighth of the Kalends of January,” that is, the eighth day before the first of January. So how did John the Baptist land on the 24th of June and not the 25th?  Because June, then as now, had only thirty days.  The eighth of the Kalends of July would have been the 24th of June.

Over the years the slight inaccuracies built into in the Julian calendar added up until the calendar no longer coincided with the cycles of the sun and stars.  The Gregorian calendar reform of 1582 re-booted the solar calendar and placed the solstices and equinoxes on the dates where they fall today.

But in the early church St. Augustine, for one, thought that he had God’s ultimate plan all figured out.  He preached, probably exuberantly, “See how perfectly God designed the universe so that our Lord Jesus Christ was born precisely as the hours of sunlight increase, and his precursor John just as the hours of daylight wane.  And we know God did this because of the passage in John 3:30, the words of John saying, ‘He must increase and I must decrease.’”  (Historical note:  we have no proof of a yearly feast of the Nativity of Christ on December 25th before the mid-fourth century, and even that early evidence is dicey.)

Nonetheless I find something intriguingly cosmic, almost mystical and perhaps prophetic, about linking these key Christian feasts to the phenomena of climate and sky on this one small planet.  The insights and courage of the prophets both ancient and modern comes to the fore in our readings, Jeremiah last week and Elishah this week.  For Christians John the Baptist is the prophet par excellence not only because he points directly to Jesus, but because of the core significance of Baptism.  In today’s Gospel Jesus is quoted as saying, “Whoever receives a prophet because [s]he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward.”  

Today we possess a wealth of scientific data on the genesis of the universe: just imagine trying to explain to our ancient ancestors that God created at least two trillion galaxies – not stars, galaxies—and that’s only the product of our limited knowledge now.  But sometimes we need the prophets among us to unfold the deeper connections, to trace the living presence of God among us, and to teach us to trust in the wisdom of God incarnate in space and time, yet infinitely beyond space and time.

A reflection for the Twelfth Sunday of the Year -- June 21, 2020

Jeremiah 20: 10-13; Psalm 69; Romans 5: 12-15; Matthew 10: 26-33

It can’t have been easy for Jeremiah, the boy-wonder among the Hebrew prophets. We first meet him in Chapter One arguing with God, with characteristic adolescent oppositional behaviour. He answers the beautiful passage “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,” with “Oh, but I do not know how to speak, since I am only a child.” Meaning, “No.” God doesn’t take it: “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy,’ for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you.”

From the second half of Chapter One through Chapter 19 Jeremiah indeed goes out on the mission to speak the word of God, forcibly proclaiming his, well, jeremiads. His violent polemics accusing the people of Israel of idolatry and betrayal of God use striking, often shocking imagery. He compares his listeners to animals in heat, thieves, adulterers and exploiters of the poor, just for starters. He pauses to dangle promises of peace and prosperity if Israel will only repent, then turns around and paints hideous pictures of the gruesome fate that awaits them if they do not..

By the time we reach Chapter 20, which includes our first reading for this weekend’s liturgies, Jeremiah is arguing with God again. He had just offended the chief officer and priest Pashhur, whom he names “Terror all around,” and ended up in stocks overnight. In a passage that departs from the usual dramatic unfolding of one threat after another, Jeremiah turns around and blames it all on God.

“O God, you have seduced me, and I let myself be seduced.

You have overpowered me and you have prevailed…

I have become a laughing stock all day long. Everyone mocks me….

All my close friends are watching for me to stumble.

‘Perhaps he will be trapped and we can prevail against him,

And take our revenge on him.’ …

O Lord of hosts, you test the righteous, you see the heart and the mind;

Let me witness your vengeance upon them,

For to you I have committed my cause.”

So Jeremiah implores God to destroy his enemies. Not the first time in history this prayer will be recorded, nor the last.

But embedded in this passage is Jeremiah’s awareness that he has been sent. It wasn’t his own idea, it never was. He is the instrument, the channel, of a powerful message not his own. “If I say that I will not mention [God,] or speak any more in his name, then within me there is something like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot.”

We find an echo of this sense that a message, a mission, is burning inside and must be pursued no matter what, in the Gospel reading for this weekend. “What I say to you in the darkness, speak in the light. What you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops.” Yet even so, it takes courage and willingness to risk, potentially, everything.

The message might be something a member of one’s family, or a friend, does not want to hear. It might be a long-held secret that slowly poisons the thinking and feeling of an individual, a family, or a social group. That’s on the micro level. On a macro level, in these days throngs of ordinary people, in cities all over the world, are “proclaiming from the housetops,” or more specifically on the street, a call to justice and an end to institutionalized racism. Now, as then, the message burns and the messengers will not rest, cannot rest, until governments hear, laws are enacted, and an entire society repents from hundreds of years of entrenched injustice. Our ancestors were called by their own prophets to do no less.

A reflection for “The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ,” June 14, 2020

Deuteronomy 8: 2-3, 14b-16a; Psalm 147; I Corinthians 10: 16-17; John 6: 51-58

Although Canada and many regions in the U.S. have rotated the feast of Corpus Christi to a Sunday, other parts of the Catholic world have kept it on its original Thursday date. This is the case in traditionally Catholic areas of Germany such as the ancient Celtic/Roman city of Trier, located near the Luxembourg border. Trier is the site of the German Liturgy Institute and its extensive library, and I have visited regularly beginning with my earliest doctoral research in 1990.

One year I happened to be in Trier on Corpus Christi Thursday. I didn’t know it was a civic holiday and that the entire city closed down until the afternoon. The purpose of closure was to clear the downtown streets and pedestrian shopping area for the populous Corpus Christi procession. It began with a festive Mass in the Cathedral, then the Eucharistic procession wended its way along city squares and colourful flowerbeds, from station to station, sometimes to hear a choir anthem, or a brass band, or a brief homily, followed by silence and a prayer. Then the procession went farther, stopping at the next station and the next, ending two hours later.

One aspect that stayed with me was the experience of slow, deliberate walking, moving in concert with a devout crowd, as prayer. This was not a trod-till-you-drop pilgrimage, but a measured, deliberate pace that created a sort of ground tone of communal internal peace, with interludes of music and visual ceremonial, dancing so to speak over the top.

In May 2016 I organized and directed a Study Tour on “The Spirituality of Medieval Women Mystics” in Belgium and Germany, focused on the Beguines and Hildegard of Bingen. And I jigged the schedule to be sure we would be staying in Trier on Corpus Christi Thursday that year so that the students and fellow voyagers on that tour could absorb something of the rich prayerfulness and sense of spiritual depth that comes from walking that Eucharistic pilgrimage today, as their spiritual ancestors had done for eight centuries.

There’s a saying, God has a wicked sense of humour. By the time the Study Tour reached Trier, I could not walk. Literally. Could. Not. Walk. I was having a painful flare-up of arthritis in the knees and had just limped my way through the first two weeks of the tour. In Trier my students were literally pushing me around, rattling precariously over the cobblestones in a rickety wheelchair we’d rented from a local hospital.

Corpus Christi was made a feast of the universal church in 1264, ostensibly on the basis of a 1246 vision attested by a woman mystic, Juliana of Liége. At the same time the question of how to imagine that bread and wine becomes the Body and Blood of Christ was being hotly debated in the new universities, and paved the way to speak of transubstantiation.* This was oddly similar to the coincidence of the 1854 proclamation of the Immaculate Conception as a doctrine of the Catholic faith, and the appearance of Mary to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes, who introduced herself with “I am the Immaculate Conception. Hmmmm.

Ultimately, the Eucharist is not static, but dynamic. Eucharist is a verb. Even the first-century Didache uses the word as a verb: “When you eucharistize, eucharistize thus:…” The new-old custom of a solemn Eucharistic procession through the city, past the McDonald’s and through the tenth-century market square, is Eucharist in motion, physically, spatially. After all, the purpose of food is to nourish a living being, so that organic processes continue and flourish. Sharing the Eucharist, in communities large or small, undergirds and gives impetus to the mission to live one’s Christian commitment actively, as an invitation to all. Even quiet contemplative prayer before the exposed Blessed Sacrament shores up one’s reserves of strength. And thus nourished, we go forth.

*Interesting fact: Transubstantiation only became a point of required doctrine in the Catholic Church in 1994 with the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Throughout the centuries since the high Middle Ages, no one dared presume to say that we know exactly how God does it. Even the Council of Trent merely stated that transubstantiation was the “most apt” way to describe how bread and wine could become the Body and Blood of Christ.

A reflection for the Most Holy Trinity, June 7, 2020

Exodus 34: 4b-6, 8-9; II Corinthians 13: 11-13; John 3: 16-18

“I can’t breathe.”

George Floyd, + 2020. Eric Garner, + 2014.

Suffocating is terrifying. Utterly terrifying. The body screams out for air, and none comes. If not only the neck is compressed, but the back and lungs as well, no breath of life can enter. Life departs the body, squeezed out violently. No one should die like that.

“I can’t breathe.”

A good friend of mine, a Church of England priest, told me of her experience keeping vigil with the family of one of her parishioners who was dying of Covid-19. She wrote, it’s a horrible death, a death by asphyxiation. The gasping goes on for hours, for days. No one should die like that.

Last week the church celebrated one of the great feasts of the liturgical year, the feast of Pentecost. In the Catholic tradition Pentecost is preceded by a Vigil and followed by an eight-day octave. The Gospel is introduced by a poetic sung Sequence, giving this feast a high dignity that Pentecost shares only with Easter. Pentecost celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit, and indeed, “re-spirare” in Latin refers to breath. In church circles we speak easily, rapturously, of the breath of the Spirit, the breath of God calling forth creation, heaving over the entire earth, “Lord send out your spirit and renew the face of the earth.” In John 20 Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit,” a Spirit that gave them power to manifest the living presence of God on the earth.

Late last Saturday night, on the Vigil of Pentecost, I sat in a trance watching the TV news, live local coverage of the aftermath of violence following a demonstration in downtown Buffalo. A van was fully engulfed in flames. Police were lining up to block an entrance to Niagara Square. Then the camera caught a perfect shot of an individual in black pants running up to Buffalo City Hall carrying a box that spouted flames, and tossing the box through a broken ground-floor window. A few minutes later flickering lights appeared in the window. City Hall was on fire.

Because the breath of life had been violently extinguished, not for the first time, of a person of colour at the hands of white officers trained and sworn to serve and protect. No one should die like that.

In the liturgical year we move easily from one Sunday to another, one high feast to the next, Pentecost last week to the Holy Trinity this week. One week we celebrate the breath of God as a living being, and the next week we celebrate the eternal dance of three living divine beings in a perpetual dynamism of shared, and sharing, life. “Three yet one” makes very little logical sense. Preachers turn themselves into theological pretzels trying to explain the Holy Trinity coherently. But one way to start is to begin with breath, the breath of the Spirit.

In Hebrew, it seems, there is no word for stationary air, only air that moves. “In the beginning, the earth was a formless void, and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” (Genesis 1:1.) The divine breath of life, the life that animates the three living persons of the Trinity. And all persons. “Take away their breath, and they return to the earth.” (Psalm 146:4.) No one should die like that.

Dr. M. Shawn Copeland, an African-American theologian, writes, “We need Jesus to breathe on us, to gift us with the Spirit, to Apostle us to action and service so that our brothers and sisters might breathe. Might live. Might flourish.”

As for me, my wake-up call came this morning with a quote: “Don’t use the reading you haven’t done as an excuse for the action you haven’t taken.” Guilty as charged.

A reflection for the Feast of Pentecost, May 31, 2020

Acts 2: 1-11; Psalm 104; I Corinthians 12: 3-7,12-13; John 20: 19-23

When I was teaching I used to have great fun with this passage from Acts 2. I’d read it loudly, with vigour and increasing energy, faster and faster, “We are Parthians, Medes and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Egypt and Libya near Cyrene! We are Jews and Jewish converts from Rome! We are Cretans and Arabs! We are Romulans, Klingons, Borg! Yet each of us hears them speaking in our own tongue!!!”

And I’d visually scan the class.

Some students would look up from their laptops with a vague “Wait, what?” look on their faces. With some it wouldn’t register. But often a few would break out in mile-wide grins, and I knew that I had found the Trekkers in that class. As the course went on, every once in awhile I’d play to them, dropping an obscure Trek reference into a lecture on some aspect of liturgy, delighted that for a few seconds I had them relaxed, smiling and totally on board.

The point of course was that the mission of the ecclesia gathered in the name of the risen Christ was to all peoples in the known world, not only to Jews and fallen-away Jews. The first century church had a hard time hammering out this point. Peter in Acts 10 describes how he had to overcome his revulsion at Gentiles, whom he saw in his dream as “unclean animals,” before he could answer the call to travel to the home of Cornelius the Roman centurion to preach the story of Christ. Paul, who would go anywhere, and Peter represented two opposite interpretations of the church’s mission – internal (as in, only to Jews) or external (to anybody, Jews included.) They finally reached a truce at the Council of Jerusalem in 50 A.D. in affirming the mission to preach the Gospel to all the peoples of the earth.

But the Star Trek reference isn’t all that far off base. Look at the stunningly cosmic imagery, the incomprehensibly broad and breathtaking scope of the Spirit portrayed in our liturgical texts for the major feast of Pentecost. The antiphon of the Responsorial Psalm is, “Lord, send out your spirit, and renew the face of the earth” (I can hear Lucien Deiss’ exuberant musical setting as I write this.) The Pentecost Sequence preceding the Gospel embraces both the cosmic dimension and the richly personal one: “Come, Holy Spirit, come! And from your celestial home shed a ray of light divine! Come [Protector] of the poor! Come, source of all our store… In our labour, rest most sweet, grateful coolness in the heat; solace in the midst of woe. O most blessed Light divine, shine within these hearts of yours, and our inmost being fill! …Bend the stubborn heart and will; Melt the frozen, warm the chill…” Our Gospel reading shows this cosmic Spirit emanating as a physical breath from the risen corporeal being of Christ, somehow present and perceptible among his friends. And the second reading concretizes the long-lasting effects of this Spirit in the visionary and prophetic statement, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of the one Spirit.”

Only in Hollywood would one think of evangelizing the Klingons, never mind the Borg. But human imagination today grows out of the fact that our understanding of the universe, though paltry, trains our technology on distant phenomena and stares into vast infinite reaches, far beyond the vision of our ancestors. The Hubble telescope detected traces of two trillion galaxies, and the Hubble is now obsolete. What is this Spirit that fills physical space utterly incomprehensible to our tiny human minds? and that, at the same time, fills and transforms human hearts down through the generations on this tiny, fragile planet? Our ancestors were awestruck. And even knowing so much more scientifically, so are we.

A reflection for the feast of the Ascension, Sunday May 24, 2020

Acts 1: 1-11; Ps 47; Ephesians 1: 17-23; Matthew 28: 16-20

The Passover Seder is celebrated by Jewish families and groups as a fully inclusive family meal and ritual, children included. The operative commandment is, “And you shall tell your children on that day…” of all the events leading to the liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt and their forty-year journey to the land they believed God had promised them. From the well-known Four Questions posed by the youngest child (“Why is this night different from all other nights? …”) to the telling of the story in such a way that the children can feel like they were really there, to energetic songs such as “Dayenu” and “I Know One,” the children’s imagination is stimulated and their enthusiasm engaged. They are both the primary rationale for this festive family ritual, and totally engaged participants.

The Seder ritual includes leaving one chair unoccupied and one extra glass of wine at the dining table -- for the prophet Elijah. Just in case he comes. At some point one adult might suddenly cock an ear and say “Hush, did you hear that? A knock at the door! Do you think it might be Elijah?” And the kids clamber over chairs and rush headlong to the door to see if Elijah’s there.

According to Jewish scriptural tradition, in II Kings 2:11, Elijah ascended. “As they [Elijah and Elisha] continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.” So, as the story goes, Elijah never died. That implied he could come back again. Maybe at the same time as the coming of the promised Messiah. Or as a surprise guest at the Seder.

The idea that the risen Christ ascended above the clouds and disappeared has precedents both in Judaeo-Christian tradition and in other cultures of the time. The tomb of the wealthy Julius family in third-century Rome shows a male hero in a chariot flying across the sky. If you knew Roman mythology you would say immediately that this represents Apollo. But if you were privy to the fact that the Julius family were closet Christians in a time when Christians were subject to persecution, you could study the figure more closely and see an equally plausible image of the risen Christ, merged with the figure of the sun in Psalm 19:4-6, rising in the East and driving his chariot across the sky. The image conformed to official Roman religion while hinting at their secret Christian faith.

The account in Acts of the ascension of Christ otherwise looks like a classic example of the Christian story cast in terms of oh-gosh miracles and in-credible witness accounts. If you believed that the earth was flat, with the underworld below the earth’s surface and heaven in the sky above, it might make sense to imagine that Christ is now physically located in the overhead spirit realm. This imagery persists in hymn and prayer language right up to the present.

If ever there was a passage in Scripture that looked like pure myth, this is it. Taking this story literally isn’t likely to produce more of a reaction than “oh yeah, right. Like that really happened.”

And this is where reading on a metaphorical level unfolds another level or levels of meaning. Luke modeled the ascension of Christ on the great chariot flyaway in the story of Elijah. The old covenant, and the new. Whatever the first disciples’ lived experience may have been, they had to grapple with the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was no longer with them – but a Christic presence certainly was. A definitive leave-taking on the part of this risen Christ they could see and touch was a prerequisite for the coming of the Holy Spirit, an entirely different sort of living presence. The generation of Gospel writers told the stories as they had been handed down in those first three generations, with all the bits mixed in – factual, questionable or clearly metaphorical – to tell the future generations, as Jewish parents do today, who they are, where they came from, and what this means for their future.


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