Each year on Good Friday the Passion of Jesus Christ according to John is read aloud in our churches. John’s Gospel, as we know, was written later than the other Gospels, perhaps some 70 years after Jesus died, and those years gave John plenty of time to reflect upon Jesus’ death and highlight a number of aspects that are not as evident in the other Gospels. What are those special aspects?

The bulk of John’s account focuses on Jesus’ trial and the eventual judgment that He be put to death. But it is ingeniously written. John writes up the trial of Jesus in such a way that, while Jesus is the one being tried, everyone else is on trial except Jesus. Pilate is on trial, the Jewish authorities are on trial, Jesus’ apostles and disciples are on trial, the crowds watching are on trial, and we who are hearing the story. Jesus, alone, is not on trial, even as His trial is judging everyone else. Hence when Pilate asks Jesus: What is truth? Jesus’ silence puts Pilate on trial by throwing Pilate back on his own silence, the truth of himself. It’s the same for the rest of us.

We are one with the divine

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Easter Sunday (Year A) April 24 (Acts 10:34, 37-43; Psalm 118; Colossians 3:1-4; John 20:1-18)

What was Cornelius the centurion expecting to hear? Although a foreigner, a pagan and an officer in the hated Roman army, he was a thoughtful and just man, giving alms and offering prayers to the God of the people whom he was governing. That prayer was heard — in a vision, a dazzling figure stood before him and commanded him to ask that Peter come to his house. He has no idea who Peter is or what he is going to say. Peter simply relates the story about Jesus that is travelling through Judea: divine anointing with the Spirit, compassionate deeds of power, betrayal and death. But that is not all: God vindicated Jesus by raising Him from the dead, thereby affirming His teaching and deeds. He has transcended death and some of His followers are witnesses.

At this point Cornelius might say, “Fine — great story and a great man, but what does that have to do with me?” The answer is stark and simple. Jesus now stands astride history itself as the judge of the living and the dead but with the desire to grant forgiveness to those who believe in Him.

The unquiet frontiers

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Few books have garnered as much respect during the past five years as has Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. That respect is well-deserved. Given secularity’s convoluted history, there isn’t any one, normative study that traces out its evolution; but, if there was, Taylor’s analysis might apply for the distinction.

Few scholars bring so wide and deep a scholarship to the area of history and faith. Taylor confesses that he is a man of faith, but strives insofar as this is possible for anyone, believer or agnostic, to not let his own beliefs colour his research. Few, even those critical of the book, accuse him of that. He is generally objective, reporting what happened without either trumpeting or bemoaning it.

And what he traces out is the big story of how we moved historically from a culture and a consciousness within which it was virtually impossible not to believe in God to today, where belief in God is merely one option among others and often not the dominant one. Until the full-flowering of modernity we lived with what Taylor calls a “porous” rather than a “buffered” consciousness. A porous consciousness is more naturally mystical. A buffered consciousness is what Karl Rahner had in mind when he said we would soon reach a time when someone would either be a mystic or a non-believer.

The Roots of Forgiveness

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In one of James Carroll's early novels, he offers this poignant image: A young man is in the delivery room watching his wife give birth to their baby. The delivery is a difficult one and she is in danger of dying. As he stands watching, he is deeply conflicted: He loves his wife, is holding her hand, and is frantically praying that she not die. Yet the impending birth of their child and the danger of his wife's death conspire to make him acutely aware that, deep in his heart, he has not forgiven her for once being unfaithful to him. He has expressed his forgiveness to her but he realizes now, at this moment of extreme crisis, that in his heart he still has not been able to let go of the hurt and that he has not truly forgiven her.

As his wife hovers between life and death, he sees in her face a great tension, a struggle to give birth to someone even as she desperately struggles not to die. Her agony accentuates the deeper lines in her face and he sees there a dual struggle, to give birth and to not die.

Seeing this, he is able to forgive her in his heart. What moves him is not simple pity but an empathy born of special insight. His wife's struggle to give birth, while wrestling to stay alive, highlighted by the agony of her situation, is like a light shining on her whole life helping to explain everything, including her infidelity.

Jesus’ mission bears witness to God’s Kingdom

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Passion Sunday (Year A) April 17 (Isaiah 50:4-7; Psalm 22; Philippians 2:6-11; Matthew 26:14-27:66)

When people find meaning in their suffering they can endure almost anything. This was the insight of the great philosopher and psychologist Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning and how right he was.

The enigmatic suffering servant figure of Isaiah is a case in point for his suffering had the highest meaning. We do not know who he was or even if he was a particular individual but we do know that he suffered much abuse in the course of his ministry. This is not some sort of masochistic suffering for its own sake nor does it excuse injustice and cruelty. But one thing is clear: he is able to undergo such suffering and abuse because he knows that he is bearing the divine teaching within him and that he is fulfilling God’s mission. As long as he is continually renewed and instructed within he is able to remain focused with a laser-like intensity and purpose. Whatever is received from God is for the sake of others — our teacher continually gives hope and encouragement to the weary and discouraged. This is the model of the great men and women in history who have given their lives over to the advancement of humanity and have often paid a big price. There is so much today that is worth striving and suffering for — we need only listen to the voice of the spirit within us for guidance.

Loving our enemies

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Lorenzo Rosebaugh, an Oblate colleague shot to death in Guatemala two years ago, used to share at Oblate gatherings some advice that Daniel Berrigan once gave him. Lorenzo, contemplating an act of civil disobedience to protest the Vietnam war, was told by Berrigan: If you can't do this without becoming bitter, then don't do it! Do it only if you can do it with a mellow heart! Do it only if you can be sure you won't end up hating those who arrest you!

That's hard to do; but, in the end, it's the ultimate challenge, namely, to not hate those who oppose us, to not hate our enemies, to continue to have gracious and forgiving hearts in the face of misunderstanding, bitter opposition, jealousy, anger, hatred, positive mistreatment, and even the threat of death.

And to be a disciple of Jesus means that, at some point, we will be hated. We will make enemies. It happened to Jesus and he assured us that it will happen to us.

Toward Jerusalem

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Christ we set our face towards Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). We must enter into the twin questions of death and sin.

We’re surrounded by them all the time. Lent asks us to turn to them, not by way of giving up, nor to fight or overcome them, but simply to be with Christ who set His face towards both.  

Every day we face death, often unaware. This unawareness is a gift, because we mostly aren’t ready to face the vastness; God doesn’t ask us to stand always at the edge of the abyss. Rather, He showers us with life, in the flesh, and encourages us to grow strong in this. Still, we receive the gift of life amidst death.  

We gain life by living in the Spirit

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Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year A) April 10 (Ezekiel 37:12-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:8-11; John 11:1-45)

Death is our greatest fear. People have stood in the presence of death from the primal origins of humans up until the present. They are filled with both dread and wonder — what happens after death? Where does the individual go? Does he or she live again or continue to live in another place? Prehistoric people buried their dead reverently with flowers and grave goods and all human cultures since have surrounded death with memorials, rituals and awe.

The sting of death is even more painful when it is unjust and unfair — especially when visited upon whole communities of people. It can seem like the light of life is snuffed out forever. In the sixth century BC, Ezekiel dealt with these feelings that he shared with his fellow Israelites. Israel lay in ruins with her population either dead or in exile. The temple was destroyed and its worship silenced. Would Israel continue? Was this the end of the line? Ezekiel’s vision (vv.4-6) assures the Israelites of two important things. First of all, God is faithful and has not abandoned them — they are still His chosen people. Secondly, God is the author and giver of life. By human standards, Israel is finished, but by God’s standards, Israel’s life has barely begun. Just as the graphic and somewhat macabre image of bones coming to life signifies a return from destruction and death, so it will be for Israel. God will raise her from the ashes of destruction and defeat and breathe life into her.

A contemporary apologetics

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One of the reasons why we don't often find a good Christian apologetics today is because so many of our best theologians write at such a level of academia that their thoughts are not really accessible to the ordinary person in the pews. Apologists like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton are rare. We have great thinkers in theology today, but unfortunately many of them cannot be profitably read outside of academic settings.

With this as a background, I would like to recommend a very helpful book, Faith-Maps, just published by Michael Paul Gallagher, a Jesuit professor at the Gregorian University in Rome. Gallagher has a background in literature which keeps him sensitive to the kind of language which can speak to the popular mind and still remain the language of depth and soul. That's the gift he brings to this book.

What Gallagher does in Faith-Maps is take ten major Christian thinkers (John Henry Newman, Maurice Blondel, Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernard Lonergan, Flannery O'Connor, Dorothee Soelle, Charles Taylor, Pieranglo Sequeri, and Pope Benedict XVI) and write a brief chapter on each of them within which he explains, in lay terms, the kernel of their major insight. Moreover he does this with a certain apologetic intent, that is, to have each of them deliver a short, clear challenge to our generation, especially as pertains to our struggle with faith and with church. And in doing this, Gallagher proves himself a both a gifted and an unbiased teacher: He lays out the central concepts of these thinkers in a way that, for the most part at least, is accessible to the non-professional and in a way that doesn't fall into either liberal or conservative bias.

Open your eyes to the truth

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Fourth Sunday of Lent (Year A) April 3 (1 Samuel 16:1. 6-7, 10-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41)

What is a person worth? Most cultures teach us subtly and at times blatantly that appearance is everything. A person’s worth is measured by their beauty, the proportion and appearance of their bodies, the clothes they wear and the way their hair is styled, and that indefinable quality that seems to cling to celebrities, sports heroes and entertainers. Lookism even plays out in political campaigns with the advantage going to those with a better media image.

The Lord is with us, in good times and bad

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Third Sunday of Lent (Year A) March 27 (Exodus 17:3-7; Psalm 95; Romans 5:1-2, 5-8; John 4:5-42)

The experience at Massah and Meribah is a recurring theme in the history of the human race. The Israelites have just been rescued from slavery and led out of Egypt by means of powerful signs and wonders. God has humbled the superpower of that age and made mockery of a pharaoh with divine pretentions. They are free, and God has promised to lead them to a land where they can continue to live in freedom.

But now the adrenalin of the escape has abated and reality has set in. They are in a hostile desert — food and water are scarce — and they have no idea where they are or where they are going. With the onset of fear come the complaining, quarrelling and the testing of God that will characterize their entire journey through the wilderness.

People have notoriously short memories when it comes to the graces that God bestows on them. For that matter, this memory deficit also applies to the good that others do for us. Their cry echoes with those of so many throughout history even in our own day: Is the Lord among us? Does God even exist? The attitude of the Israelites at that point is shared by people everywhere: If I am a believer, why should I suffer? When the going gets tough, faith is the first victim. And the Israelites want to go back into Egypt, their place of slavery, because in their minds the life was easier and more predictable and secure. Forgotten is the pain and bitterness of slavery.

People usually want to go back into their own Egypt. Sometimes they imagine an earlier time in which society was more wholesome and nice and people were more civil and kind. They might remember a previous job, conveniently forgetting how badly they were treated by the boss. Or they might want to return to a romanticized period in the Church rather than face the challenges of the present. All of these reactions are long on fear and short on faith. Faith is not doctrine or creeds but an unwavering trust in the presence and the loving care of God. It does not cut and run at the first sign of adversity, confusion or suffering.

Paul recognizes that it is by means of this faith that we are placed in right relationship with God. With this faith comes reconciliation and peace but even more: the gift of the Spirit of God that is poured into our hearts. This Spirit enables us to be loving and faith-filled people regardless of what is going on around us. It is a sure sign that God is with us and that we share in God’s glory.

In this haunting and rather mysterious story of Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well we learn that God is still providing for our needs but now the focus is on more than day-to-day survival. Jesus has stepped beyond the ordinary in this encounter: He is in hostile Samaritan territory; He is talking to a woman alone. The conversation gets off to a shaky start with her brusque and sarcastic response to His request for water. Jesus does not help the conversation for He speaks in riddles, symbols and metaphors in His attempt to enlighten her. Just as God provided water for one kind of thirst in the desert, God now provides “living water” for a deeper sort of thirst. The Spirit will quench the thirst for God and transcendence and will never fail or give out.

But with this gift of the Spirit there is a challenge. When the woman asks for the legitimate place of divine worship she is told that from now on it is neither Jerusalem nor Mt. Gerizim. God is now to be worshipped in the human heart and soul through the presence of the Spirit. In a sense, the ground upon which we stand is holy for God is present. Worshipping in spirit and truth describes a personal and direct encounter with God. This personal gift of the Spirit must never be domesticated or given into the control of others for it is the gift of access to God that Jesus Himself gives us. Is the Lord with us or not? Look within!